STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION

SLIDING DOORS

By Celes Qiarh, Maquis

"The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine."

–Sir James Jeans

"Nature contains that which has no intention of taking us into its confidence."

–Loren Eiseley

"Survival is a form of resistance." –Gerda Lerner

Note: Admiral Arrhae in this story has no association with Arrhae ir-Mnaeha t'Khellian in the original series' Rihannsu.

Historical Note: The events in this story take place about eight Earth months after the episode "Deja Q". I'm aware that Wesley is not supposed to be 16 years old at this time, but hey, maybe it's some kind of alternate reality where he was trapped in stasis for three years. You figure it out. Nobody's perfect, okay?

For anyone who was ever a Trekkie: Live long and prosper.

For Ben, Jerry, and Bart for ice cream that can't be replicated.

For the Great Bird of the Galaxy.

For Falcon.

For Ani.

For Q.

And Keegan, of course you always have to ruin everything. (That's what little brothers are for, aren't they?) Thanks for listening to my stories, giving me feedback (even if it was mostly "why'd you have to put that in? That's stupid"), and your HILARIOUS impressions of Riker as a woodchuck and Lucille the fat Ferengi. (If you don't know, don't ask.) You should totally have your own show.

In memory of Ensign Sito Jaxa, who should have lived long and prospered, and Fran Miller, who did.

PROLOGUE

Picard blinked. "Mr. Worf?"

"Yes, sir. What happened?"

"I don't know. What happened?"

Worf exhaled impatiently. "I felt the ship jolt."

"That's all? A jolt?"

"I felt it also, sir," said Data helpfully. "Did you not?"

Picard adjusted his uniform. "It's a long story…"

Just then, there was a blinding flash of light in front of the captain's chair, and Q appeared on the bridge, wearing a Starfleet uniform that just happened to exceed Picard's in rank. "Mon capitaine…"

"Q!" Picard sprang up. "Thank God you're alive!"

Q looked bemused. "You never learn, do you? Read my lips. I…am…immortal." He had an annoyingly self-satisfied expression on his face. "You can't say I didn't warn you."

"Warn me!" Picard exploded in outrage. "You disappeared mid-sentence!"

Q looked genuinely nonplussed. "Did I?"

"Right after blaming me for the accidental and tragic death of a crewmember!"

"Oh, that's right!" said Q. "I totally forgot. Ah well, I had places to destroy and people to torture…Other than you, I mean…"

Picard looked livid. Worf fingered his phaser. "Shall I stun him, sir?"

"Don't bother," the captain sighed. "After all, he is immortal."

"Don't forget all-powerful," Q put in cheerfully. "See, Picard, I knew you had potential."

"Which is more than he could say for you," Riker said, walking out of the turbolift with Counselor Troi.

"Number One! It's good to see you!"

"But I just left," said Riker in his turn, looking bemused.

"Did you?" asked Picard distractedly, for he had just remembered something important. "Well, that's a fine duck on the roof…"

"'Duck on the roof?'" asked Data, looking puzzled. "Ah. Yes. A metaphor, first used on Earth in the early twenty-first century, meaning a problem, a predicament, a situation, a—"

"Look," Picard interrupted in desperation, "We need to find Wesley."

"Oh, him?" said Q. "He's on a Romulan ship. The Dhivael, commanded by—"

"You know where he is?" asked Picard, bordering on frantic. "Can you help us find him?"

"My dear Jean-Luc," said Q deliberately, stressing patience, "I can do anything. I could transport your ensign right to this very spot in the blink of a supernova."

"Would you?"

"You know he's desperate when he's asking Q for help," muttered Riker to Troi, who grimaced.

"Or," continued Q as if no one had spoken, "I could transport him to Alpha Centauri. It would be no trouble at all."

"Please," Picard begged. Worf was glaring fiercely at both Picard and Q, and Riker was staring at Picard as though he were a two-headed Romulan in Starfleet uniform. "Help us."

"Ah, but that would spoil the fun, wouldn't it, mon capitaine?" said Q gleefully, with a familiar gleam in his eye, and with a sinking feeling Picard thought, Here we go again…

PART ONE: YOURS QLY

CHAPTER ONE

Q sat in the holodeck-simulated chair and sighed loudly. The sigh was really just for dramatic effect, of course. There wasn't much he couldn't solve on his own. He was just being his usual obnoxious self.

The chair was in a large, expensive-looking living room generated to look like a typical Earth home setting. Humans fascinated Q. He wanted to find out as much about them as possible, and to do so, he had used the Enterprise's holodeck to put himself in their natural habitat.

Of course, the Enterprise itself was a human habitat. The primitive little spaceship in an unimaginably small (for humans) corner of their pathetic little dimension. Mortality annoyed Q. It was so limited, each life so unimportant. Pathetic.

Q obviously hadn't needed to come to this dimension just to use the holodeck. He had simply been bored, and the officers on the Enterprise were so easy to torment. Almost too easy. But it was fun to watch them struggle.

Q wasn't evil. He'd killed off a few civilizations in his time (which was infinite) but he always had a good reason, and it didn't really matter; they would die eventually anyway. He was doing them a favor, really, by speeding up the process. The really annoying thing about humans was their constant need to define everything, to establish firm borders between reality and fiction, space and time, matter and energy, living beings and objects, while they themselves continued to counter each and every one of their theories.

Q liked to play games. He liked to challenge humans, push their limits, see how far they could go before they cracked. Generally, it wasn't far. He'd tried to help them speed up their process of evolution, but they obviously didn't want his generous assistance. They were downright rude sometimes. Oh, they thought they were so clever, abolishing poverty and money and uniting everyone in their everyone's-so-happy-and-united-and-we-all-love-each-other stupid little Federation. But that was just the first step for them. Q had even recorded some of the Enterprise's so-called "adventures", their little treks through the stars, and sent them back through a time warp to try and make it happen sooner, so that humans watching in, say, the twentieth century might see the real possibility of space travel and all that. But they viewed it as "science fiction". If they'd never seen it, if it wasn't proven, for them, it was fiction. Humans just couldn't accept the fact that there were life forms higher than themselves. They thought they were better than everybody else. Of course, so did Q, but he was better than everybody else. That was the only thing that could be established as solid fact.

Q had had a lot of time to think about all this. Infinity, in fact, or at least since the evolution of the very first humans. At least those humans had accepted the fact that they were lower life forms. They had viewed him as a god, when he had shown himself to them, probably because he was a god, at least insomuch as a god was the highest life form humans could imagine. Q had liked those humans better. It seemed that the more humans evolved, the more egotistical they got.

In the old Earth standard year 2363AD, Q had discovered the Enterprise-D. What people! He almost admired them. How arrogant can you get? Especially their captain, the human Jean-Luc Picard of Earth. France, to be precise, and he'd never let you forget it. At their first meeting, Q had put the entire human race, with Picard as their representative, on trial for the simple (but valid) crime of being inferior. It wasn't a real trial. It was just for fun, just to see how they would respond. He'd known from the beginning, of course, what the eventual outcome would be. It had been a game, a test. In Q's mind there was no difference.

He had taken on his customary human form for his visit to the holodeck. Not that he cared what they thought of him, but he didn't make a bad-looking human, he thought as he sat in the easy chair with his feet up on the coffee table and stared unblinkingly into the mirror across the room. He ran his hand through his hair and arched both eyebrows, giving him the appearance of a rather demented Romulan. There was a cup of regular coffee, untouched, on the side table next to him, and an unopened science magazine from pre-atomic twenty-first-century Earth. Just for appearance, of course. Synchronize the feel of the setting.

The door to the holodeck appeared suddenly in the living room wall as it hissed open. Q didn't bother to look up at a startled Wesley Crusher. "Sorry…"

"Ah, the joy of children. Run along and get the captain, will you? I'm sure he won't mind being disturbed. Just tell him Q has scheduled an appointment with him. For right now."

"I…" Wesley disappeared and the door closed behind him.

Q rolled his eyes. The limitations of human communication. Humans were so easy to manipulate. The only Enterpriser with any sense, in Q's opinion, was Lieutenant Commander Data, who was an android, though admittedly created by humans. And even he could be incredibly annoying. Why in the name of the Continuum did he want to be human? Such a waste of power and intelligence.

He opened the magazine and scanned the table of contents. Antimatter again. It had taken them that long to establish its existence. Q shook his head sadly. Pathetic. They didn't even know where they'd come from, yet they kept trying to reach new places?

Captain Picard looked at Wesley as he stepped from the turbolift. "Ensign Crusher, you are not scheduled for duty."

"I'm sorry, sir, but there's a man called Q in the holodeck, and he's waiting for you to—"

Picard gagged. "What on Earth is he doing here?"

Lieutenant Commander Data, the android, intervened. "Actually, sir, we are not on Earth, so technically your statement was—"

"Shut up, Data," said First Officer William Riker, who was sitting in the chair next to Picard's, although Picard was now on his feet and paling. Data raised his eyebrows and turned back to his computer console.

Abruptly Picard strode toward the turbolift, turning once to say briskly "Yellow alert. Number One, you have the bridge," before stepping in and saying "Deck 11" as the turbolift doors closed behind him.

Riker took the captain's vacated seat, but looked troubled. "What is Q doing here?"

"Sir," said Wesley, "Who exactly is—"

"Ensign, you are not authorized to be here at this time. Dismissed." Wesley looked annoyed, but complied with Riker's command.

Adults. They always thought they knew everything better. They were so commanding, so overbearing, thought Wesley, refusing to even listen to the ideas of a 16-year-old, even when he turned out to be right. If he was wrong, they blamed him, and if he was right, which was usually, they took the credit. This Q person could boss the adults around all he wanted, thought Wesley. They deserved it.

"Good day, mon capitaine," said Q civilly, as Picard entered the holodeck looking steaming mad.

"What's so good about it?" asked Picard grumpily. "Q, what on Earth are you doing here?"

"Human single-mindedness again. Everything is on Earth. Why did you ever leave? It suited you so well." Picard swore loudly. "I'll excuse your French, you lucid pecan jar. But I expected better manners of you."

"You're one to talk about expectations," Picard muttered, and swore again.

"You can insult me, Jean-Luc. It won't help you."

Picard looked weary. "All right, Q, what do you want? Do it and get out."

"Oh, come now, don't be so cynical!" said Q.

Picard looked at him. "Cynical?"

"Well well well, look what the cat dragged out of the bag!"

"What's with the outfit?" Picard interrupted wearily. Q was dressed in a robe-like garment draped across one shoulder and reaching to his sandaled feet. A gold band encircled his head just below his hairline.

"Don't you recognize it? A Roman toga. Simple, but elegant, and suited to our needs."

"And those needs are…?"

"I see you are not to be distracted." Q bowed his head in mock defeat. "I surrender."

"That's the first time that's happened," observed Picard.

Q straightened and resumed his usual posture of superiority and disgust. "And the last." Maybe he was a tiny bit obnoxious, he thought, but he must have earned it by now. He'd been bored with his infiniteness since about a week after the beginning of time. "There is a rift in the universe, mon capitaine, a tear, so to speak, in the fabric of the time/space continuum. Even my dimension has been affected." Q said the word 'my' in a very self-important tone of voice. "And the problem is centered in your…"—he looked around himself—"…shipwreck. Don't you just love being the center of attention? I know I do."

"I know you do," muttered Picard. "Get off my starship."

"Au contraire, mon capitaine. I am giving you clues; I am being downright generous just by being here!" Q still had that annoying ever-present smirk. It seemed to be a built-in feature, thought Picard, perhaps to compensate for the noticeable lack of an off-switch.

"Right." Picard made a noise that, had he been any less dignified a person, would have been classified as a snort. "If you're generous, then I'm a Ferengi in disguise!"

"Really?" said Q admiringly. "Good disguise. Although now that you mention it, I can definitely see some resemblance. Especially around the ears…" Picard sighed, and Q looked at him. "I need not have come here, you know. I have more advanced technology than this holodeck in my bathroom."

Just then, they were once again interrupted by Wesley. "Sir, I'm sorry to bother you, but—"

"Shut up, Wesley," said Picard angrily. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of something?"

"Oh, but Jean-Luc, you haven't introduced me to your young…"

"Ensign. Ensign Crusher. Wes, this is Q." Picard looked disdainful.

Q put his arm around Picard, who immediately shrunk away, looking repulsed. "We're old buddies, Jean-Luc and I. Is there something I can do for you, Wes?"

"Wesley, don't touch anything he gives you. Q, let go of me!" Picard protested angrily; Q still had his arm deceptively companionably around the captain, but he was squeezing a little too hard.

Q raised one eyebrow. "I'm superior, you know," he said to Wesley, with the air of remarking on the weather, without letting go of Picard, whose face was turning red as the captain made a choking noise.

"Um…Q…do you think you could let go of the captain now? I think you're hurting him." Wesley looked innocently concerned.

Q looked at Picard as though he had just noticed his presence. "Oh! I'm sorry." He let go abruptly and Picard fell to the floor, coughing. Q didn't sound the least bit sorry.

"Ensign, if you would…leave us…for now," said Picard hoarsely, panting on the floor and glaring at Q with a look that, had it been a phaser beam, would have left a bruise even on the immortal's face. With one last look at the holodeck scene, Wesley strode down the corridor.

Q raised an eyebrow. "You just don't get it, Jean-Luc. You can't find it in your little brain to be the least bit creative or metaphorical. It's all work, Starfleet, military, engage, make it so. You're like a robot. Programmed to do one task at a time and think of nothing else."

"Maybe so," said Picard. "But at least I do that one task, and I don't get distracted, or assimilated, or killed, and I manage to preserve the lives of many races and of my crew members!"

"Oh yeah? What about Tasha Yar?" challenged Q.

Picard stared at him for a few moments. "Q—" he started, choking on his words. "I—"

Q looked vaguely less smirky than usual. "You know," he began.

And that was when Picard found his voice. "Q!" he shouted, in a voice that was considerably louder than necessary. "I've had enough! You may be able to put us on trial. You can use us as pawns in your cosmic chess games. But you can not take a loss and deliberately hurt us with it!" Picard seemed close to tears. Q seemed to realize the delicacy of the situation and vanished gracefully. "DO YOU HEAR ME, Q!" Picard shouted. "I WON'T TOLERATE IT!" He looked down at himself and realized that his fists were clenched, and that they were shaking. It took him a few minutes to calm down. "And then just disappear like that," he muttered. "Rather than face your guilt…well, places to destroy and people to torture, I suppose…" There was no disguising the bitterness in his voice.

Not that there was anyone to disguise it for. He was alone in the holodeck.

Chapter TWO

Counselor Deanna Troi sat in her chair on the bridge and listened. She was listening not for sounds but for emotions. Troi was half Betazoid. Full Betazoids, like her mother, were entirely telepathic, but Deanna's father had been human, and she, as a result, was an empath. She could distinguish to some extent the emotions of other humanoids, and was could communicate mentally only with full telepaths.

Picard sat in the captain's chair as usual, but now he seemed distracted and tense. He was jumpy and kept staring off into space, and often people had to repeat things several times before he acknowledged them.

Will Riker sat dutifully across from Deanna. His mind was entirely on his job, as it always was when he was on duty. Riker was a dedicated Starfleet officer, completely loyal to his captain and to the Federation, and didn't let his emotions get in the way of his work.

Data sat at the ops console on the main bridge. As usual Deanna sensed only a dull electricity radiating from his positronic brain. The android didn't have emotions. Geordi LaForge, the Enterprise's chief engineer, was at the other computer. Geordi was blind, and had to wear a VISOR over his eyes. The VISOR didn't completely restore his sight, but he could sense the energy patterns radiating from objects. He seemed relatively calm.

Data and Geordi were scanning the system they were in for possible life forms, but it seemed to be a dead world. The main viewscreen showed a few planets, but none of them looked able to support life. "Nothing within sensor range, sir," Geordi said. "I suggest we—"

"Sir," said Data suddenly.

"Wha—?" said LaForge, looking at the screen. "Uh-oh."

"What is it?" asked Picard impatiently, suddenly alert.

"There's a Romulan warship decloaking off the starboard bow," said Geordi grimly. "And somehow, I don't think they're here to celebrate Captain Picard Day."

The captain stared into space. Literally, in this case. The stars on the viewer were shooting by at a speed of warp 9.5—that is, the ship was at warp 9.5. The stars, as far as anyone on the Enterprise knew, were staying still.

"Sir?" said Geordi uncertainly. "Orders?"

Picard snapped to attention. "Oh yes. Yellow alert. Shields up, Mr. Worf," he said to his chief of security, who was standing behind him. Worf complied immediately.

"Shields are at 83, sir."

"Good. Maintain maximum warp. Hailing frequencies open."

"Sir? Communication would not be advisable at this time."

"Understood. Open a channel." Troi now sensed absolute determination and resolve from the captain, an almost Klingon-like fierceness that seemed to interrupt and overwrite any other emotions at least temporarily. He got to his feet and faced the viewer. "This is Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise. You are in Federation space and—"

Picard didn't get another word in before the Romulans fired. The impact of the blow rocked the Galaxy-class starship, knocking Picard and anyone else who happened to be standing up off his feet. "Red alert, Number One," he said grimly to Riker, and the alarm sounding through the ship increased in frequency. "Can we get more power to the shields, Lieutenant?"

"Not without dropping out of warp, sir," Worf answered. He seemed placid, but Troi could feel an underlayer of apprehension from the Klingon.

"Cancel. We want to get out of here as soon as possible. Contact Starfleet, Mr. Data. Tell them the Romulans are intruding and firing in Federation space. Maintain warp speed, but try to keep the shields up."

"Yes, sir." The officer fiddled with the control pad, and then got up and walked toward the turbolift as Ensign Crusher took his place.

Wesley watched the warbird recloak and shimmer out of visibility. It was now imperceptible not only to the naked eye, but also to the Enterprise's sensors. The Romulans, while they were not exactly friendly with the Federation, had no reason to fire out of nowhere like that. They usually maintained some level of politeness when dealing with Starfleet. They were not officially at war.

Another blow swayed the ship. "Shields are at 80 and holding, sir," said Worf tensely, eyeing the display readout. "Maintaining maximum warp."

"Good." Picard was rigid and businesslike. A mistake at a time like this could result in the loss of hundreds of lives on either side. "Get us to the neutral zone."

"Course set, sir," said Wesley. There was nothing they could do now but wait. The Romulan vessel had a maximum capacity of warp 8, according to the computer, so there was no way they could catch up. But they did have the advantage of the cloaking technology, and they could weaken the Enterprise's shields. Wesley didn't want to think about what would happen if the Enterprise ran out of power.

"Sir," said Troi suddenly to the captain, "I think you could use a break. You've been on duty for more than 8 hours."

"Thank you, Counselor, but this is a critical moment. I am depended on to be here."

"As you wish." Troi shrugged. "The advantage to being captain, sir, is that there are people to take your place when you need them to."

Picard was silent for a few seconds. "I know this is insane. We're in the middle of an attack." He paused. "Number One, you have the bridge." He got up and strode rapidly toward the turbolift. Troi smiled at him.

Riker took Picard's place in the captain's chair and stared at the viewer tensely, waiting for the warbird to decloak again. For several minutes nothing happened.

"Tea. Earl Grey. Hot," said Picard to the replicator in his quarters. Instantly a steaming mug shimmered into existence. The captain sighed and took a long sip. Troi was right; he did need some air. There was nothing he could do on the bridge that he hadn't already done. Riker would contact him if he were needed.

He paced. He had much to think about, even besides the Romulans' rash and apparently unreasonable attack. Why had Q suddenly appeared on the Enterprise? And why, before explaining anything, had he vanished even more abruptly? Then again, he was Q. And Q rarely gave up information without a fight. Or more accurately, a game.

Was this whole thing another game of Q's? In Picard's own previous words, were they now once again pawns on his cosmic chessboard? Or was this something entirely separate from Q's unexpected and unexplained visit?

On a sudden impulse, Picard walked out into the corridor. He turned left and made for the holodeck. Once there, he programmed in a new setting he'd been meaning to try out. Southern France, the most beautiful place in the galaxy. He curled up in the poppies and let his mind wander…

He was woken no more than 5 minutes later by the chiming of the door, announcing a visitor. Picard sat up groggily. "Come."

The door hissed open to reveal a startled Data. "Did I wake you, sir?"

"Never mind. What's going on?"

"Sir, Starfleet is not responding to communications attempts. I have tried several settings, but I have received no reply. It is as if there is no one at Starfleet to receive the signals."

"Are you sure the subspace communication systems are online?"

"Subspace radio is fully functional, sir."

"Suggestions?"

"The only logical explanations I can think of are that either their systems are offline, or that something is interfering with the signals, sir." Data sounded politely perplexed.

"I'll be right there." Picard stood up. "Computer, end program." He sighed wistfully as the meadow dissolved into so many meaningless yellow grid squares. But there was no time to dwell on false reality now when so much was going on in—so to speak—real reality.

Riker stood up. "Look." The Romulan ship was not decloaking, but there was some kind of visible energy field at the fore of the Enterprise. "What is it, Mr. LaForge?"

"Some kind of fluctuation…I'm not sure what's causing it. Presumably the warbird, but I'm not sure what it is. Could it be barrier of some kind?" Geordi scanned the readouts on the screen. "A force field? Or a malfunction with the warbird's shields?"

"Only one way to find out," Riker said. "Mr. Worf, fire at the energy field on my command."

"Standing by, sir."

"Engage." A beam of light shot out of the front of the Enterprise toward the strange phenomenon.

The effect was immediate. The beam bounced straight off it as if it were a solid wall and sailed back toward the Enterprise. "Shields still at 80, sir," said Worf tensely as their own phaser beam joggled the starship, bouncing its occupants slightly into the air before the gravity depressors could compensate.

"Can we get around it?" asked Riker.

"Uncertain," Geordi replied with a shrug. "It seems to have a very powerful force, but I'm not sure how far out it extends. I don't know how the Romulans or anyone could have created an energy field this strong."

"Sir," said Wesley, "I think—"

"Not now, Ensign, can't you see we're in the middle of a crisis? We'll figure out where it came from later. Right now we need to find a way to the neutral zone. Full stop, Mr. Worf. If we continue at this rate we'll just run into it." Riker tapped his communicator. "Riker to Captain Picard. We need you on the bridge."

His comm unit crackled almost immediately as the captain responded. "I'm in main engineering with Mr. Data right now, Number One. Can whatever it is wait a few minutes?"

"Not really, sir. We're kind of…stuck."

Picard's sigh came as a rush of static. "I'm on my way." He closed the channel.

"Data, do you mind—"

"Not at all, sir. I will continue to try to work on the radio."

"Good." Picard left and the door hissed shut behind him. He walked briskly down the corridor to the turbolift. "Main bridge," he said loudly once he was inside, and the turbolift complied, bringing him to the bridge in a matter of seconds.

"Captain." Riker stood up graciously and offered Picard his chair back. "I think you'd better take a look at this."

Typical, thought Wesley, glaring ahead at the energy fluctuation looming in front of the ship. Don't even look up at me. I might be able to save the universe from imminent destruction, but of course no one would ever know it because they wouldn't bother to listen if I tried to tell them. I'm just a kid, after all.

A sudden flash of anger from Wesley's direction caught Troi's attention, but she did not comment. It was not the time. Later, when they were both off duty, she would have a talk with him. It had been slightly unfair of Will to just dismiss him like that. He was an officer and had as much right as any other to be heard. And maybe he really did have an idea.

Data paced the corridor outside of the main engineering section of the starship. He had observed that humans often engaged in this behavior when they were restless, or wanted to think, and Data had a lot to think about (although being an android, this wasn't difficult). He paced methodically and precisely, each step measured automatically to the nearest millimeter.

Although Picard had not told him about Q's visit, Data had not been able to figure out what was wrong with the radio systems. Data hated, as much as an emotionless android can hate anything, not being able to figure things out. Figuring was what he had been made for, and he just wanted to do his job.

"Sir, we have a…a communication coming in."

"Onscreen," said Picard, looking surprised. He looked even more surprised when Data's face appeared on the viewer.

"Starfleet, this is the Enterprise—"

Riker shut the channel. "It's our own communication," he said. "It's bouncing off that wall thing, whatever it is, and coming right back to us."

"So it would seem," Picard muttered, making a motion that would have been classified as stroking his beard, if he'd had a beard. "LaForge, run a full scan on whatever that thing is." He was about to call for a yellow alert when he realized the red alert alarm was still on. "Shut off that damn thing, would you, Mr. Worf?" Geordi got up and walked toward the turbolift. "And Commander, find Mr. Data while you're at it. Tell him he's needed on the bridge, and that we've found out what's wrong with the subspace radio."

"Yes, sir," said Geordi as the turbolift doors closed automatically behind him.

Data was still pacing meticulously when Geordi arrived. "Data," he said.

"Geordi," Data offered back in acknowledgement.

"They've found what's wrong with the radio. There's some kind of subspace energy field blocking the ship. They need you on the bridge."

Data looked puzzled. "And what are you doing?"

"I'm running a full scan on the fluctuation from engineering," said Geordi. "You'd better get down there though."

Data complied and began walking down the corridor toward the turbolift. "I will see if I can deduce something more about this fluctuation."

"You do that," Geordi called from the doorway just before the door hissed shut behind him.

"No further sign of the Romulan ship?"

"None, sir. If they're holding the wall there they must have an incredible power store to be staying cloaked."

"Unless," said Data slowly, "The Romulans didn't create the energy field."

"What are you suggesting, Commander?"

"Perhaps the field is a natural phenomenon, and the Romulans are—"

"Or perhaps," said Picard suddenly, looking strangely enlightened, "We are creating the field."

"What do you mean, sir?" asked Data, looking politely puzzled.

"Q said the Enterprise was—"

"Excuse me, sir," Data interjected politely. "Q?"

Chapter THREE

Data sat cross-legged on the bed in his quarters. "Down, Spot," he was saying patiently to the orange-and-white striped cat looking up at him. "Down is good. Stay down. The floor is down, Spot. The computer is up. Up is no, Spot. Please get down." The cat did not appear to be taking in a word of this monologue. She licked her forepaw daintily, then jumped back up onto Data's computer console and settled, purring. Data sighed. "I do not think you comprehend what I am attempting to tell you, Spot." Spot didn't open her eyes, but her purring got louder.

Data stared across the room at the rows of paintings he'd done over the past few years. There were portraits, landscapes, still lifes—and all of them were completely realistic, like looking at an old-style photograph. They were good, but they were not art. There was no emotion in the paintings, only cold, hard, real life.

Spot, meanwhile, had jumped off the computer pad and was rubbing against Data's legs. He sighed and picked her up to stroke her. She purred. Spot, at least, was content with what Data had to give.

Data was as clueless as the captain as to why Q had suddenly appeared and then disappeared. The force field was not the Q's traditional "chain-link fence" type. The only hypotheses Data had been able to come up with were that either Q had just wanted to annoy Picard—which was entirely possible, but didn't seem quite like Q's style—or that something had happened that had caused him to vanish, something to do with his powers and the Q Continuum. Had his powers been taken away again? Had he done something to offend the Continuum?

Q only knew…

In the ten-forward lounge, the bartender, Guinan, smiled at Wesley Crusher. "What's up?" she said, pouring him a glass of juice (he was too young for synthehol). "You're not looking too happy."

Wesley leaned on the table and traced the seam on the sleeve of his uniform absentmindedly with his forefinger. "Same old," he said, sighing.

"Well, your 'same old' must be pretty bad then," she prodded him.

"Yeah." He snorted. "I'm either the little kid who doesn't know anything or the supersmart child prodigy. Depending on what best suits the circumstances."

Guinan smiled encouragingly. "People can be pretty single-minded sometimes."

"Tell me about it," said Wesley. "And I do have an idea about what's wrong. That Q person—"

Guinan's eyes narrowed. "Not him again," she muttered.

"Yeah. Q. The force field. The Romulans. They must be connected. It's all got something to do with—" Just then Wesley froze. His glass fell onto the floor, spilling the liquid though the glass itself stayed intact.

"Are you all right?" asked Guinan, looking concerned. But a crewmember at a nearby table had seen what had happened.

"Chafin to sickbay, med emergency in ten-forward! We need someone here immediately!" Wesley had slouched forward onto the counter, immobile. People were nervously crowding around him.

"Last call," said Guinan, but nobody heard over the chaos. A few moments later Wesley's mother Beverly Crusher, the ship's main doctor, rushed in.

"What's wrong?" she said. "Who's been—" And then she saw her son. "No," she whispered, her hands to her mouth. The people crowded aside to make a path for her to the counter, still whispering excitedly. "What happened?" she asked Guinan, who shook her head.

"He just…slumped over all of a sudden."

"All right," said Beverly, running her hands nervously through her red hair but still businesslike. "He's got a steady pulse. Let's get him to sickbay. We can check him out there."

"No," groaned Riker. "Not now."

"What's wrong?" asked Troi, running over to where Will was conversing with Beverly Crusher.

"It's Wesley," said Beverly. She looked traumatized. Troi sensed deep waves of worry and fright from her, as well as frustration. "He's been hurt."

"Oh, Beverly," said Troi, putting an arm around the other woman. "Hurt how? What happened?"

"That's just it. Nobody knows. He was sitting in ten-forward one moment and the next he was out like a light. His pulse and heartbeat are regular, his brainwave patterns are normal—we can't find anything wrong with him, in fact. He just won't wake up. We've tried everything. It's like a coma, except he—" At this point she began sobbing. Deanna comforted her friend.

Then—"Will," she said, "Can I talk to you for a moment? Privately?" She could feel him writhing mentally under her empathic grip, but she didn't let go. He felt sorry. Guilty. About Wesley? "In my quarters," she said firmly, and he followed her meekly, casting a helpless glance back at Beverly.

"You're feeling guilty," she told him. "Is it about Wesley?"

Riker groaned. "Not much gets past you."

It never has, Imzadi.

"No." Riker spoke aloud. Then he sighed. "Yeah, it's about Wes—Ensign Crusher. I kind of—on the bridge—"

"Ignored him?" she suggested, her expression deadpan and accusing, but there was a tiny twinkle of laughter in the very corner of her left eye. Just a twinkle. Will Riker loved that twinkle. He loved the way Deanna could never be perfectly serious.

But sometimes he had to be. "Yeah," he said again. There didn't seem to be much else to say. "He had an idea, and I—he's just a kid," Riker said pleadingly, almost defensively.

"But regardless," said Deanna, "as an acting ensign, he has the right to speak his mind." Riker nodded, looking sheepish.

"He's a cute kid. Remember the time he was researching people's files from the twentieth century, just for fun, and he found that woman who looked exactly like you? Marina something?"

"She did not look exactly like me! She had straight hair and blue eyes and she was—"

"Ugly?" suggested Riker.

Deanna elbowed him playfully. "Now you can go and visit Wesley in sickbay—and interrogate Guinan about what he said before he passed out."

"Wes?" Riker stood over the sickbay bed. It seemed pointless, like talking to a dead person. Not that Wesley was going to die… "I just wanted to say—I'm sorry. For not listening. You're a great kid—ensign. You'll make an awesome captain someday. I know you will." Naturally, Wesley didn't answer. He didn't even stir. His breathing was regulated, even—like a machine, Riker realized. Like…

Data walked into the room, startling Riker out of his reverie. "It seems futile," the android pointed out, "To be speaking to him. He will not answer."

"I know, Data," said Riker, looking sadly down at the boy's pale face, frozen in an expression of innocent surprise. "I know."

"That's all he said?" Riker banged his fist on the counter in frustration. "Nothing else?"

Guinan looked at him with an irritating amount of patience. "He said, "It's got something to do with'…and then he froze. Nothing else, no, Commander. That's all."

Riker sighed. It was just so frustrating. Wesley had come so close to revealing his idea, and no matter what they thought, he was right an awful lot of the time. But the worst part was that Riker had no one but himself to blame for not knowing. "Dammit."

Guinan smiled indulgently and went back to pouring drinks. "Something for you?" she asked the first officer. He shook his head.

He left the bar and was about to go back to his quarters when he realized it was time for his shift. "Main bridge," he said, once he was in the turbolift.

Deanna was already there when he arrived. He settled himself uncomfortably in his usual chair beside the captain. Uncomfortably because he was distracted and fidgety, and he couldn't concentrate. Data and Geordi were at the computer, still fruitlessly scanning the force field and trying to figure out how to destroy or get around it. There still had been no sign of the Romulan battlecruiser, and they all figured it had departed and gone off to torment some other, less lucky Federation ship. Or were they less lucky?

The Enterprise was stuck. They had no way of contacting anyone or going anywhere, except straight into Romulan territory, which wouldn't be a smart idea. The crew and passengers were getting restless. When you came right down to it, the Enterprise was a small ship, and there was nowhere to go but deep space.

"So," he finally asked the captain, "What did you mean, before? You said something like 'We are creating the force field'?"

Picard had been lost in thought and started at being spoken to. "Oh! Yes. Just before he disappeared, Q said our ship—well, actually he said…" Picard looked distasteful, "…shipwreck—what a complete…—anyway—he said the Enterprise was creating some kind of…what was it?" Picard closed his eyes, trying to recall Q's words in the holodeck. "Some kind of tear in the time/space continuum, he said…" The captain trailed off.

"But what does that have to do with the force field? Or the Romulan ship, for that matter?" asked Riker.

Picard looked grim. "I don't know, Number One. That's what we have to find out. But meanwhile, or at least until another ship comes along, we're stuck here."

Picard, too, was worried about Ensign Crusher. He had already talked to Wesley's mother, offering his condolences, but there was only so much even the captain could do in these situations. Especially now.

He stared at the viewer unseeingly. The stars were now immobile. It seemed wrong, somehow. They should be moving, thought Picard, they should be shooting past the windows at warp speed as they entered the neutral zone…

He got up. "Number One…" He indicated the captain's chair and left without a word. Deanna Troi stared after him.

Lieutenant Worf was thoroughly frustrated. He was a fighter, a warrior. He could not just sit here and do nothing. More than anything, Worf hated—and feared—complete helplessness. He might as well have been bound and gagged. Even a battle simulation wouldn't quench his need to fight. He paced, angrily, rigidly, his teeth and fists clenched. Every so often he would take out his phaser and blast a hole in the wall or the table. It gave him no satisfaction. But it was something to do.

Guinan looked up and smiled at Picard as he walked in. "Not tea time, is it?"

"No," said Picard. "Something strong. Not synthehol."

"You're the captain," smiled Guinan, and poured something viridescent into a glass. "A double. Just for good measure." She slid the glass across the counter. Picard took a long sip and winced as the liquid burned his throat.

"Disgusting," he muttered.

"But it does the trick," said Guinan.

"It does," admitted Picard, and drained the glass. "Could you—"

But Guinan shook her head, anticipating his question. "No more. If you get drunk they'll blame me."

Picard glared at her. "I thought I was the captain."

"But I'm the bartender." She stared back at him. Picard shook his head and left.

He traipsed down to holodeck 3 and programmed in France again. "You may enter," said the computer's annoying simulated female voice. Picard did so, and blinked at the brightness of the sky, dimmed in his mind by the fact that none of it was real.

He sat down awkwardly in the poppy field. Again he felt his senses dimming, the sky becoming less bright, the perfume smell less distinct, the buzzing of the insects fading into a dull drone in the background. Perhaps a few-minute nap won't matter…

He woke this time to find Beverly Crusher, standing nervously in the open doorway. He sat up hurriedly. "What time is it?"

"It is 0805 hours," the computer supplied helpfully. "Do you require the date?"

"No," said Picard, dazed. "Did I sleep that long?"

"Affirmative."

"Jean-Luc," said Beverly hesitantly.

He looked at her anxiously. "Is it Wes? Is he all right?"

She sighed, twisting her hair around one finger. "Still comatose. We've tried waking him again, but…" she trailed off; the rest of the sentence was implied.

"Am I needed on the bridge?"

"There's no change. Engineering's still trying to figure that thing out." Beverly sat down beside him in the grass and sniffed. "Jean-Luc, as long as we're here—"

Picard's communicator beeped. He cast an apologetic glance at her and tapped it lightly, just the way he had for 35 years, ever since he'd first begun training at Starfleet Academy. "Yes?"

"Bridge to captain. I think you might want to see this."

"On my way, Number One." He looked contritely at Beverly. "Well. Time and tide wait for no man; perhaps we can continue this later. Computer, end program." They left the holodeck without another word to each other.

Counselor Deanna Troi stood over Wesley Crusher, trying to sense something, anything, from him. He was obviously alive; there was no doubt about that. It was a question of emotion, or even just consciousness. But there was nothing. None of the boy's usual vibrant enthusiasm or frustrated determination; nothing but cold heartbeat and waves of sleep. "Beverly…" Troi made an apologetic gesture with her hands. "I'm sorry. I'll try again later."

"Thanks for trying." Beverly sighed. "I'm just so worried. Wes…my only son…I don't think I could stand it if he…"

"He'll be fine," said Deanna firmly. "I know he will."

Beverly sniffed. "How do you know?" There were dark circles under her eyes from worry and lack of sleep.

"I just know. Now you need to get some sleep. Have someone sedate you if you can't do it naturally. You can't go on like this. You need to rest. Would you like some hot chocolate?"

"It's all right. I'll make myself a cup of tea. Thanks, Deanna. Everyone's been so supportive."

"Everyone?" Troi sensed that Beverly was holding something back, that there was something she wasn't saying. She felt…angry?

But Beverly only said, "Yes. I'll be in my quarters."

Troi sighed. "All right. I'll see you later." She took a last glance at the sickbay bed where Wesley still lay motionless and left for the bridge.

On the way to her quarters, Beverly met Data. "Hello," he said. "I was just on my way to sickbay. Is Ensign Crusher doing any better?"

"No, Data, but thank you for asking."

"Then I think I will go to the bridge instead. There is no point in visiting him if he is not aware of my presence," said Data nonchalantly.

"Yes." Looking downcast, Beverly continued down the corridor. Data was right, of course. It was just a waste of time to visit Wes, like talking to a person who was asleep or… who was asleep. He couldn't hear anyway. It was pointless, vain, meaningless.

The Romulan ship had reappeared, decloaked suddenly and stealthily from apparently out of nowhere. Still the Romulans did not attempt to communicate with the Enterprise, nor did they fire again.

"Shall we open fire, sir?" asked Worf, who looked like he had his teeth clenched. "I have a phaser lock."

"Not yet, Lieutenant," said Picard, taking a seat and looking tensely at the main viewer. "If they shoot at us again, we'll retaliate."

The battlecruiser slowly orbited the Enterprise as the bridge crew looked on warily. If the Romulans fired, they would have no choice but to stand and fight. There was nowhere to flee to.

"Sir," said Data suddenly, "They are emitting some kind of pressure beam. Not a phaser—it looks like a transporter beam."

"Shields are at 78, sir," Worf reported stoically.

"What would the Romulans be transporting?" asked Riker suspiciously.

All of a sudden Troi let out a cry and leapt out of her chair. "I sense great alarm!" she cried.

Picard also stood. "From the Romulans?"

"No! From somewhere on the Enterprise!" She looked utterly terrified; this was obviously having a profound effect on her empathic mind.

"I'll go check it out, sir," Riker volunteered, glancing uneasily at Deanna.

"Yes, Number One," said Picard tersely. "Go."

"Sir, there is a communication coming through."

"Onscreen, Mr. Data."

There was barely visual, and the sound was ridden with static. What little they could see of the picture was faint and flickering, and only Data could guess at what they were looking at. "We have…Enterprise…for the safety of…" That was all. Then it was gone, the viewer showing only the pulsing anomaly and the unreachable stars beyond it.

"Riker to bridge," came the first officer's voice over the intercom.

Picard tapped his comm unit. "Picard here. Go on, Number One."

"I'm in sickbay." Riker sighed loudly and spoke in a flat monotone. "Ensign Crusher has disappeared. He was apparently beamed up by the transporter beam from the Romulan ship."

Picard was silent, shocked. Wesley! What could the Romulans possibly want with Wes?

"Sir?"

The captain inhaled sharply. "Thank you for informing me, Commander. Picard out." He got up and strode briskly toward the turbolift with only one thought in his mind.

Beverly.

Beverly Crusher was sleeping in her quarters, until she was rudely awakened. It was a natural sleep; she had finally managed to stop worrying long enough to give in to her exhaustion. For about ten minutes.

"Beverly!" Picard rushed into her room without preamble, shouting so loudly that she was dragged out of slumber almost immediately.

"What is it?" He stood there panting, having run all the way from the turbolift. "Is it Wesley?"

"Yes," said Picard heavily. "Beverly—he's gone."

"Gone? My god, Jean-Luc, what do you mean, gone?" She looked frantically at him, plucking at the seam of her uniform sleeve.

"Transported. By the Romulan ship. Gone."

"He's been KIDNAPPED?" Beverly shrieked indignantly. "He won't be able to get the proper medical attention—we've got to get him back, Jean-Luc—!" There was a wild, pleading look in her eyes that sliced right through Picard, the kind of look that only a mother whose cub has been threatened can have. A helpless look, at best. At worst, it could mean unpredictable danger.

Just then, his communicator beeped again. He tapped it rather harder than necessary and snapped "What?"

"Sir, the warbird has recloaked. We're not picking up any sign of it."

"Dammit," Picard muttered under his breath.

But the ensign's reply would never be known, because at that moment Beverly began shouting at Picard. "THIS IS MY SON WE'RE TALKING ABOUT HERE! WESLEY! YOU HAVE TO FIND HIM! FIND HIM, JEAN-LUC! FIND HIM, OR I WILL KILL YOU!" He sensed right then that she was serious. She picked up the nearest heavy object, a large book, and threw it forcefully at him.

"Beverly!" he protested in alarm.

"Just—get out!" she shouted furiously. "Now!" He complied, quickly. He didn't want to be present if she got her hands on a phaser.

"Sir?"

He sighed. "You heard all that?"

"Not if you say I didn't, sir."

"Good." Picard exhaled in relief. "You didn't hear any of it."

"Whatever you say, sir." The ensign closed the channel.

Picard walked slowly down the corridor, in no particular hurry to be anywhere. This was a very serious predicament. Not only was Wesley an officer on his starship, but he definitely owed it to Beverly to find her son. He had already lost her husband, and she didn't need that kind of pain. Not to mention he didn't need that kind of blame on his shoulders.

And Picard liked Wesley. He was a good kid.

"Sir?" It was Data this time.

"Picard," he replied wearily. "What is it now?"

"Sir, with your permission, we're going to fly straight into the anomaly."

"WHAT?"

"It's our only chance," said Geordi's voice. "There's nothing we else we can do here. We're slowly draining power just by keeping our shields up. And we can't lower them because of the Romulans."

Picard sighed heavily. "Impulse engines on standby," he said. "I'm on my way." He stepped into the turbolift.

The turbolift doors opened onto the bridge, and Picard didn't prolong his decision. "Engage."

Chapter FOUR

Commander Tal of the Romulan ship Dhivael looked at what they had just beamed on board. Or rather whom. It appeared to be a young human male, unconscious at the moment, but beginning to stir. "Have him brought to medical," he said to the ereinoperating the transporter controls, who left immediately, apparently scared to death of Tal.

The boy, meanwhile, seemed to be waking up. His eyes blinked open slowly. "Mom?" he asked groggily, then seemed to take in his surroundings. "Huh? Where am I?" A built-in translator automatically translated his words, so Tal could understand his Federation-standard speech perfectly.

Wesley opened his eyes to an unfamiliar setting. He was in a small cargo bay, sterile and impersonal, and what appeared to be a Romulan in military uniform stood about four yards away, looking back at him nervously. Wait. Nervously? Did Romulans get nervous?

"You are on the Dhivael," said the Romulan. "You have been transported for…for security purposes. We mean you no harm."

"Uh…okay." Immediately Wesley was furious with himself. He was a Starfleet officer! Couldn't he do any better than that? "Why?" he asked. All right, not much better, but he was getting information about his situation.

Tal was exceedingly nervous. The boy wore a uniform. He hadn't known what they would be bringing aboard, but he hadn't been expecting this. Not a living being; certainly not an officer, albeit a young one. "That will be explained shortly," he muttered, not at all sure that it would. Luckily, someone else arrived at that moment to take the boy to medical, and for the moment he was no longer Tal's responsibility.

Deanna Troi blinked in surprise. They were at the same coordinates they had been at a second ago, but in a second everything had changed.

The captain was still in his chair and she was still in hers, but that was about all that was familiar. Data, in a red uniform, was in the first officer's chair. Geordi was at the ops console, but he had a goatee. Riker and Worf were both completely absent from the bridge.

Troi had some experience with alternate realities, but she was still taken by feelings of surprise and helplessness. She sensed a puzzlement similar to her own from the mind of Picard. "What's going on?" she asked aloud, to no one in particular.

"False alarm," Geordi said. "It wasn't a Klingon ship after all. Just a little particle cloud."

"Er—Number One?" said Picard suddenly, with a wave of uncertainty that hit Troi with the force of a photon torpedo colliding with one of Betazed's moons.

"Yes, sir?" said Data, who apparently had noticed nothing.

"You have the bridge," said Picard with exceeding awkwardness. He took halting steps toward the turbolift.

Troi got up discreetly and followed the captain to the turbolift.

"Deck 12," Picard intoned, and the doors closed.

"What's going on?" Troi asked again, this time to Picard.

"I don't know," he said. "Something happened when we hit that force field. Something went very wrong."

"I think we're in some kind of alternate reality," whispered Troi, not sure why she was whispering.

The turbolift doors slid open. It was sickbay, but it looked understaffed and under-equipped. Beverly came running over to them. "Do you remember any of it?"

Picard glanced surreptitiously around. "Counselor Troi, you and I seem to be the only ones."

Beverly exhaled in a long rush of air. "Thank God!" Her eyes were teary. "We have to find Wesley!" She caught her breath. "But…Jean-Luc…Deanna…Come and look at this."

Picard and Troi followed her over to one of the beds in the row closest to them. Beverly seemed almost awestruck. "I think he's dying."

Picard's breath caught in his throat. The bed's occupant looked weak and pale. There was no fight left in his eyes. With no equipment or supplies, in his condition, Picard wouldn't give him two weeks to live.

It was Q.

Guinan found herself in a transformed ten-forward. Oh, there wasn't much visual difference. It was the feeling she got from the people. They were more hostile, guarded…as if they expected someone to attack them at any moment. There was hardly any conversation. People drank huge quantities of…was it synthehol? But they didn't talk. A "Good afternoon, Commander" or even "Can I buy you a drink" here and there, but no simple, friendly dialogue.

And also—it was a small thing, but Guinan noticed—the stars seemed less mystical, less twinkling, than usual…the galaxy seemed to have less depth to it somehow.

But she was there to serve drinks, and that's what she did.

"Jean-Luc…"

Picard looked taken aback. He looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack, or maybe a heart attack. "No…" he whispered, stumbling back from the bed. "No…not you…"

With a sigh, Q sunk back into the pillow, as if it were too much of an effort to hold his head up. "Picard…"

Picard's expression was one of utter helplessness. It was not an expression one was accustomed to seeing on his face. "He's sincere," Troi whispered to him. He shuddered, closed his eyes, and moaned.

"I would like you to complete one last mission for me…my friend…" Q seemed to be straining just to speak.

"M…mission?" whispered Picard. "Wh…what miss…mission?" Troi lowered her gaze.

"It is…of vital importance…go to my quarters…you will find…a map…"

Picard massaged his temples. This was Q talking, for God's sake! This had to be a dream…

In a strange and random turn of events, Q raised his hand weakly in a Vulcan gesture. "Live long and prosper." Then he slumped and his eyes closed. His breathing was rasping and hoarse. He was weak, too weak to live. "No," muttered Picard. "It's a dream. A nightmare…"

"Captain," Troi said gently, at the same time that Beverly said "Jean-Luc".

The two looked at each other. "You go first," said Troi.

"Jean-Luc, strange as it seems, this is real. Somewhere, somewhen, somehow, this is happening. Q is dying. He trusts you, Jean-Luc. You have to help him!"

Picard shook his head. Women!

"She is right," said Troi gently. "It's strange for me too. Q is obviously…not himself…in this reality. It's your responsibility…you have been placed here…"

"You know what?" said Picard. "I think I need a stiff drink. I'll be in ten-forward." And he left, leaving the two women staring after him and Q in a deep and painful slumber.

Commander William Riker fired his phaser again. Damned Klingons! Why did he have to fight them? He had signed up for Starfleet to command, not to die in battle. Riker's phaser was almost dead. At the setting it took to take out a Klingon, he would guess he had another twelve shots.

This shot, however, had not been taken in vain. It hit Riker's nameless nemesis full in the chest. He groaned and stumbled. "Worf!" yelled his companion, running to him.

"What?" shouted Riker.

"No," grunted Worf. "Better to die honorably…in battle…" His eyes closed.

A growl rose in the other Klingon's throat, and he turned on the still shocked Riker. Uh-oh, thought Riker, coming out of his reverie and scrambling up and behind a rock. "Coward!" grunted the Klingon. That was the problem with Klingons. So damned vengeful. Wouldn't stop until they killed you…

"Is it just me or is something really weird going on?"

"It's not just you," Picard sighed. "It's another alternate reality."

"How many alternate realities are there?" asked Guinan impatiently, pouring him a drink.

Picard shrugged. "Infinity?"

Guinan's eyes narrowed. "Does this have anything to do with…?"

"Q, yes," said Picard, taking a long swig of whatever it was she had poured him. Then he sucked in his breath. "Phew. That is a stiff drink. What is it?"

"You probably don't want to know," muttered Guinan distractedly. Her head was cocked to one side, as if she were listening for something no one else could hear. Finally she shook her head. "No. I can't feel him."

"Q?"

"Yeah. He's not here."

Picard looked uncomfortable. "Guinan…"

"What?"

"Q...is here. He's…not…he's dying, Guinan. He's in sickbay, and he's dying. God…"

"Dying?" She put her hand to her heart. "Let me get this straight. Q…the Q…is DYING?"

"It's crazy. Crazy," muttered Picard. "Oh God, what have I done to deserve this?"

"Good," said Guinan.

Picard looked up. "Wha—Guinan, he's suffering! He's in extreme pain!"

"He deserves it," she said firmly. "What goes around comes around."

"Look, I know you two aren't the best of friends…But this isn't exactly the best time to be bringing up age-old grudges…"

"Wait! Where am I? Why am I here? I am a Starfleet officer and I demand answers!" Wesley protested as he was 'forced' down a hallway. "This is not dignified…this is not even legal! Let me go!"

"You will be returned to your ship as soon as possible," said the Romulan. "And good riddance," he muttered under his breath. So much for getting information…

"Why isn't it possible now? You could just beam me back…ow!"

"As soon as possible," the Romulan repeated, and he would say nothing else.

"Does this have anything to do with…that other timeline?" asked Picard. "You know…Sela?"

Guinan cocked her head again. "No," she said finally. "It feels…different. I don't know. Tasha's not here… There are similarities, certainly. Something about a war…but…I don't know why this time, you remember. You know that it's wrong."

"Me neither. What kind of a war?"

"I don't know. It's just a feeling."

Picard turned to a passing crewmember. "What is the status of the war?"

The lieutenant looked rather scared at being spoken to by the captain directly, and puzzled by the question. "The war with the Klingons, sir?"

Picard and Guinan exchanged significant glances. "Er…yes."

"Well, the Enterprise hasn't been in a battle in over a month… The war is mostly being fought hand-to-hand, but about a month ago we encountered a few Klingon warbirds. Almost half the crew has been randomly drafted. Sir," he added quickly.

"Thank you," said Picard, turning back toward the bar. The officer looked extremely relieved and scuttled quickly out of the lounge without ordering anything.

"Troi to Picard." Troi sounded uncharacteristically annoyed.

"Picard."

"Are you drunk yet? Meet us on Deck 4. Q's quarters."

Picard sounded panicked. "No! Not his quarters."

Troi replied ungraciously and impatiently. "Well, come to sickbay then! The map, remember?"

Picard felt fuzzy. "Map?"

She sighed, aggravated. "Do they even have synthehol in this timeline? Q's map? The one he said was 'of vital importance'?"

"Oh yes. That."

"Yes. That. Now get up here!"

Picard was accustomed to giving orders, not taking them. Nevertheless, he submitted meekly. "I'll be right down."

"Good. Troi out." She smacked her communicator so hard it made a rattling noise. "What is with him?"

"He did say a 'stiff drink'," Beverly sighed. "I guess he meant it. I wonder what Q does want, though?"

"I don't know. He was sincere, though. I could sense emotion from him, and he was completely desperate. He's still Q, but…human. He's very weak, you know. He could die in another 48 hours, worst case scenario."

"You do think we're the only ones who…remember?" said Beverly anxiously.

"Out of everyone we've met so far, yes. Everyone else is feeling completely normal and at home, if not happy. They seem less…dedicated, though. They're frightened of something."

At that moment, Picard stepped out of the turbolift, determinedly not looking at the corner where Q lay sleeping. "Er…"

"Let's go," said Beverly immediately, taking his arm and leading him back into the turbolift. Troi followed, a faint smile at the corner of her lips.

"Guinan says this isn't the same timeline," said Picard.

"Which same timeline?" asked Troi pointedly.

"Oh…the one with Sela. I don't think Tasha's here. We're at war with the Klingons."

"The Klingons?" asked Beverly. "Is that why Worf's not here either?"

"I would imagine."

"And…Will?" whispered Troi.

Picard sighed. "I don't know, Deanna. I don't know."

600 light years away, on the dark side of a blue moon, Will Riker felt a knife rammed between his shoulder blades. The Klingon twisted it viciously, tearing Riker's spinal cord and piercing his heart. Riker groaned with pain and his assassin gave a loud, animal cry of triumph. He put his hand to the front of his uniform and it came away sticky with blood, his life draining quickly away, his death imminent, and his last words before he slumped forward were "Damned Klingons…"

Chapter FIVE

In the valley, all was silent. Peace had cloaked death, and silence, in turn, had cloaked peace. Fire flickered and snow fell, or was it the other way around? The Alpha moon glowed full and red between the hills; the smaller Beta moon was barely visible between the indistinguishable stars and snowflakes in the unending dome of dark sky. There was not a ripple nor a reflection in the smoky surface of the lake. A defeated peace resounded over the valley where sound did not. No more battle cries; no more death screams. Nothing but fire and snow, shadow and sky.

10 million kilometers above the surface of the lake, a few beyond the blue Beta moon, someone waited. They knew what they had to do. Nothing could stand in the way of their mission. Not even death, because death, to them, was entirely irrelevant.

Why? thought Tal. He didn't know what he'd been expecting to beam aboard, but it was not a human child. He wasn't a babysitter! He didn't know the first thing about children!

That was the thing about being in command. You could do basically whatever you wanted, within reason—but you would be held responsible. Responsibility. That was the problem. He was responsible for a human life! How had it ever come to this?

He felt the lines in his forehead deepening with each passing day, his hair becoming less sleek and less black. The fact was that Tal was getting old. He didn't have time for this.

And yet it was necessary, for the safety of the Empire and the Tal Shiar…

It was necessary, in fact, for the safety of the entire galaxy…

"MOM!" hollered Wesley Crusher. So much for acting like a Starfleet officer. "HELP!" No one would come. The ship was full of Romulans. Certainly none of them cared what happened to him. But what about the Enterprise? Were they even bothering to look for him?

Was Wesley expendable?

What would his mother think? She would make them try to find him…but did she have that much power over the ship's decisions? Was he, a mere acting ensign, really worth the trouble for Starfleet?

Here he was, uncomfortable in a chair that had not been designed for his species. He'd wanted to go where no one had gone before, and no one, as far as he knew, had ever been in this situation. There was no one else here…

…except the enemy.

"The enemy is approaching at warp 8." Commander Data was in command of the bridge of the Enterprise. He stared at the viewscreen intently. A Klingon warbird was approaching. It was about ¼ of the size of the Enterprise, but its cloaking device made it potentially deadly.

"Shields at 42, sir," reported Ensign Bella Ensign, a young human security officer who didn't deserve all the jokes directed at her due to her name. She was a dedicated, hardworking officer and she took her job very seriously.

"Mr. LaForge," said Data calmly. "Please magnify the viewer by 20." Geordi jabbed a key and the Klingon ship seemed to jump forward. "Drop to impulse… Divert warp power to shields…" The stars deblurred as the Enterprise slowed. "Phasers ready," said Data.

"Phasers ready, sir. Shields at 42 and holding."

"Wait for them to fire. Then we will retaliate."

"Understood." The Klingon vessel, not bothering to cloak, circled ever closer like a real live bird of prey.

"All right," said Deanna Troi in a very businesslike manner, "We've got to find a map."

"But what kind of a map?" asked Beverly. "A starmap? A map of a planet? It could be a subway map for all we know. And we don't even know if it's on a computer or not, and if so if it's voice-activated, or what the password is, and—"

"Beverly," said Picard hastily. "We have to start somewhere. We can't just randomly assume that we'll never find it, because then we never will. Paradox. We'll have infinitely more of a chance of finding the map if we look for it than if we don't."

"Exactly," said Troi, as if she had been the one to think of the whole thing, which she very likely had. "The first thing we have to do is find his quarters."

"Guest quarters?" asked Picard.

"I think so."

"Then it's this way." They followed the captain down a corridor and soon found Q's quarters. Picard manually punched in his own code, and the door slid open with a hiss.

They were generic guest quarters, large, beige, and comfortable. There was a sitting area near the center of the room, and an unmade bed to the side. Troi walked over to the bed. On it sat a piece of paper, probably the only one on the ship. The computer did everything these days. A hand-drawn map of the Sagittarius arm, vigilantly penned in ink, covered one side of the sheet. Troi picked it up carefully. "See?" she said, rather smugly. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

Just then a blow rocked the ship. Picard recognized it immediately as a phaser beam. "Captain, please report to the bridge," said Data over his communicator.

"On my way," he said immediately. "I'll try to meet you here at 1400 hours," he said over his shoulder to the two women, who were poring over the map. The door hissed shut behind him.

"This planet, marked in red," said Beverly slowly. "What is it?"

The cube-ship moved silently through space, bearing several thousand new passengers. Colonists on Kia'Ru IV, the planet with two moons, had been overpowered and taken onto the cube. They couldn't fight back. They couldn't resist. It would be futile.

Q dreamed about That Day, the day he had been turned from a Q into a human. He had never meant any harm. After the Enterprise had defeated the Calamarain, he'd figured the Continuum would take pity on him after a few weeks, as humans measured time, and turn him back.

Pity? He should have known better than anyone that the Q didn't know the meaning of the word.

He'd figured he would die within months. He was desolate, friendless, alone, and without his powers he had no idea what to do. But Picard had helped him, saved him. He had spent hours with Q, meticulously teaching him every little mannerism and skill necessary to live as a human.

And now, as a human, Q was dying.

Yet even without his powers, he could sense a disruption in the three-dimensional time/space continuum that humans were forced to live in. Perhaps it was an acquired ability, but whatever the reason, Q knew that something was wrong.

Picard was thrown abruptly against the wall of the turbolift as the ship took another blow. "Bridge, maximum speed, voice override!" he yelled, and the lift began to move.

The doors opened onto the bridge almost instantaneously. "They're firing again!" shouted the security officer, and Picard braced himself against the frame of the wall. "Shields at 40, sir!"

Data had stood up to reunite the captain with his chair. The android didn't seem to be at all affected by the fire from the warbird. While the rest of the ship and crew rocked and shook around him, he stood perfectly still in the center of the bridge. Finally he sat in the first officer's chair, and Picard staggered over to the center seat. "Who?" he gasped.

"The Klingons," said Geordi heavily. "Two months of nothing…and now this."

"Phaser lock," announced the ensign at the security console above him.

"Fire," Picard ordered almost boredly.

"Direct hit…damage to their forward shields." On the viewscreen, the warbird suddenly recloaked, phasing into blackness.

"Great," muttered Geordi.

"Take us out, maximum warp," ordered Picard.

"Um…sir…we have a problem." Geordi pointed to the readout on the ops screen.

"Onscreen." Several green ships appeared on the main viewer. A Klingon battlefleet. "How many are there?" asked Picard hoarsely, looking slightly viridescent.

"Fourteen decloaked, sir. All with full shields and warp capability."

"Red alert," Picard said grimly. "Find a way out of here, Mr. LaForge. We don't have a chance against them."

"Yes, sir."

Picard stared grimly out at the Klingon battlefleet. "Hail them."

The face of a Klingon female appeared on the viewscreen. Without giving him a chance for preamble, she spoke. "Federation ship! You have no choice but to surrender to us! You are surrounded by our battlecruisers. If you choose to fight us, we will destroy you."

Picard gave the cutoff motion. "Mr. LaForge!"

"I'm working on it, sir," said Geordi anxiously. "We don't know if they have cloaked reinforcements. I have to find a gap in the—" He broke off. "There."

"You have a way out?"

"I think so, sir. If we just…"

"But won't they follow us?"

"Yeah, that's a problem," Geordi muttered, looking frustrated.

Data intervened. "Sir, I believe I may have a solution to this particular problem."

"I'm listening."

"If they do not know where we are going, they cannot follow us. I suggest we block all signals from our ship by using reflective polar magnetism, utilizing the deflector dish and the main phasers—in effect, we would be cloaking our signals and, thereby, our course and intended destination."

"Excellent. Make it so. Divert all available power to warp engines. Hold shields at 40."

"Holding," responded the security officer.

"Warp engines on standby," Geordi reported.

"Engage." The Enterprise shot toward the gap between ships at full speed, the stars flying out behind them like white-hot firy-bright flags.

Wesley was hungry, aching and exhausted. What did they want from him? Were they going to give him any answers? More importantly, were they going to give him any food?

Where was the Enterprise? What was going on in the outside galaxy? Where was he? Was he still in Federation space? Where was his mother? Did she miss him? Was she looking for him? Was the Enterprise? Was Picard?

Why didn't they hurry up?

The Romulans had taken Wesley's home from him. Now all he had left was a Starfleet uniform and a whole battlefleet of unanswered questions.

Unfortunately, a battlefleet isn't much good without phaser banks.

"Computer, display map of Sagittarius arm."

"Working." An image of many labeled stars appeared on a viewer across the room.

"Zoom in on lower Psi sector."

Beverly stared at the readout. "So where's this planet on Q's map?"

"And why would he draw a map?" asked Troi. "Why not just tell us the name of the planet?"

"Good question," Beverly muttered. "Computer, what star system is this?"

"Alpha Darcia," the computer responded.

"That's a few light years from Vulcan," Beverly muttered distractedly. "But regardless, the planet on Q's map doesn't seem to exist."

"Unless," said Troi suddenly, then trailed off for a moment.

"Unless what?" snapped Beverly impatiently.

"Unless it's not a planet."

Tal pointed to the boy. "He is suffering! We must tell him what is going on!"

Subcommander Vaebn persisted. "If we tell him, he could betray us. He could—"

"Excuse me, officer. The act of betrayal is one of disloyalty, of abuse of trust. And since you do not trust him in the first place—"

"Sir, telling him could unravel not only the fabric of the Empire, but of the entire universe!"

"And not telling him could do just as much harm!" Romulans did not get angry, at least not the way humans thought of the emotion. They just got…frustrated. "If he feels threatened by us, he is all the more likely to, as you so vaguely put it, betray us! It he believes that we trust him, perhaps he will return the favor!"

Vaebn stared at him for so long that Tal began to feel nervous. Tal's first officer had a way of looking at you without blinking, without even seeming to move. Then suddenly he would raise an eyebrow or scratch his head, and you would jump, startled, giving him an unspoken advantage. And what were they doing here, arguing like Vulcans about the greater good of the universe?

"He is a human," Vaebn finally snarled. "A human child. He is of no more importance to the Empire than a grain of sand in the Vulcan desert."

"We cannot let him die."

"Do as you like," said Vaebn. "As long as he is not on the Enterprise, it does not matter to me or the Tal Shiar whether he lives or dies. But the Daise'Enarrain will hear about this." And with that, he stood and stalked, Borg-like, out of the room.

Tal stared at the human boy in the next room. He was sitting, downtrodden, in the chair that was the room's only furniture. It was a one-way window, so he couldn't see the Romulan watching him.

Tal stood up. He went to the door and opened it, and the human looked up, apparently surprised and cautiously interested. He was not such a child, after all. He was nearing manhood. "What's your name?" asked Tal, formal, gruff but awkward.

After a pause the boy shrugged. "W—Ensign Crusher," he stated, evidently deciding he trusted the Romulan only enough to give his formal Starfleet name.

"I am Commander Tal of Romulus." They stared at each other for a few more seconds. "Food will be provided for you. And quarters." He could imagine Vaebn's sarcastic snort and steely glare if he had heard, but Tal didn't care. Ensign Crusher may not be a guest, but neither was he a prisoner.

In the chair, Wesley smiled for the first time in several long hours. He certainly wasn't living the perfect life, but for the moment, he would settle for surviving comfortably if he had to. "So how about answering a couple questions?"

Chapter Six

"I'll have ten chocolate sundaes. I'm in a really bad mood." –Q, Deja Q

"Maximum warp!" shouted Picard.

And just as soon as they'd appeared, the Klingon ships were gone. Or rather, the Enterprise was gone. "Slow to warp factor 5. Data, take the bridge." He stood up. It was almost 1400 hours, the time when he had promised to meet Beverly and Troi. "If they catch up with us…"

"I'll alert you, sir," said Data, sitting stiffly in the seat Picard had just abandoned.

"Mr. LaForge, go to engineering. See if there's any way we can get more power to either the shields or the warp core."

"Yes, sir," said Geordi, standing up.

In Q's quarters, Picard activated the replicator. "Tea, Earl Grey, hot," he said for the third time that day, although only the first time in this universe, as far as he knew. Deanna was already sitting on the bed with what looked like the largest chocolate sundae the captain had ever seen.

"Don't get any on the map," Beverly cautioned her. "Oh, hello, Jean-Luc."

"Hello, captain," Troi said, graciously moving her sundae to the bedside table so that Picard would have room to sit down.

"Thank you," he said, looking rather overwhelmed; whether by the sundae, the map, or the Klingon ships it was not evident, but he sat awkwardly at the head of the bed and shrugged in the direction of the map. "Any progress?"

"We found something," said Beverly hesitantly.

"We're just not sure what." Troi pointed to the red dot. "We don't think it's a planet, but what else would Q mark like this?"

"Someplace he wants us to go," Picard mused, thinking out loud.

"Alpha Darcia," Beverly added.

"Computer, list any class-M planets in Alpha Darcia system, and any known sentient life-forms there."

"Working. D'a'orenJ, class-M, no sentient life forms known. Auria, no life forms."

"That's all?" asked Picard listlessly. "List any significant spatial anomalies in Alpha Darcia system."

"Sector 366, small asteroid formation. Sector 364.4, unknown object. Sector—"

"Stop," said Picard. "What's this 'unknown object'?"

"Unknown," responded the computer irritatingly.

"That was inevitable," Troi remarked, licking hot fudge sauce off her spoon.

Picard sighed and took a large slurp of tea. Politely, of course. "Please display visual readout, sector 364.4."

A matrix of grid squares spread itself out on the screen. The zoom factor took effect, sliding forward to focus on a single intersection of yellow lines. Stars beamed all around the screen, and in the center was…

…something. Something unlike anything Picard had ever seen. "What…" he breathed, and trailed off. Beverly gazed at the readout in equal trepidation.

Troi's spoon clattered to the floor, sending a trail of whipped cream across the peach-colored carpet. She gasped and put her hands to her mouth. "The Borg," she whispered.

"What?" Picard would have been more surprised than he already was, if that had been possible. "What do you mean?"

"That is the remains of a Borg ship."

"Computer, rotate visual," he snapped. The focus slid around to reveal a third intersecting yellow line—the third dimension. (That was as many dimensions as the computer could handle.) The object was certainly nothing like a Borg cube or sphere—it was rubble; almost as if it had clumped together to form some kind of artificial planet or something. "How do you know?" he asked Troi. "Can you sense something?"

"It's just a feeling," she said, picking up her spoon and wiping it off on the pillowcase. "For a moment, I thought…"

"What do we do now?" It was Beverly, and Picard, looking at her, realized for the first time that she looked awful.

"You need to get some sleep," he said, horrified at himself. "That's an order."

"But what are we going to do?" echoed Troi.

"About the supposed Borg ship?"

"It's not just supposed," she said, aggravated. "That object is the remains of a Borg cube, and there were life forms on board."

"All right," said Picard. "Let's assume you're right. What is it doing there?"

"I don't know," she repeated. "All I know is, I'm right, and if I'm getting such a clear feeling, it must be significant somehow to our mission."

Picard sighed. "We need to talk to Q."

Yolan bme'Kia'Ru was forced into a seat. He was reminded forcefully of an electric chair. But he was not going to die.

The Machine Men who had overpowered his people swarmed around, like buchin or ants. He saw one of his people, pale and masked, and he called out to him, "Lulo! Brother!" but the man did not answer, did not even seem to see Yolan.

Had each of these people, these horrible Machine Men, once been someone's brother? Had they all been forced from their homes onto an alien ship, collected?

He knew it would be futile to run, or to reason. These creatures knew no logic, no mercy. And Yolan knew that he would soon be one of them.

Q groaned and rolled over. "Water…" he managed to croak out. A nurse hurried over with an (unsanitized) glass of warmish water from a tank in the corner—they hadn't had working replicators on the Enterprise for at least 2 months now. But that was the least of Q's concerns. What were his concerns again? He couldn't quite remember…

Sleep…

"I'm afraid he's in no condition to see visitors," he heard a voice saying, and managed to raise his head far enough to see, out of focus, the nurse talking to two people.

"No," he rasped. No use. He knocked his glass to the floor with a crash. The nurse hurried over.

"Mr. Q? Are you all right?"

"Picard…stay," he choked out.

"All right. Fifteen minutes. Don't overexert yourself."

Q sank back onto the mattress with relief. Everything would be all right. Picard would take care of everything. The one human he really, truly trusted: and the one human who really trusted him. Who cared about him. Who knew him.

"It's all right, Q," came the soft voice of Deanna Troi. "You don't have to do anything. Just listen, all right?"

He nodded, and an overwhelming relief and trust, a feeling of complete safety, stuck him as Picard entered his field of vision. "Q," he said, "We found your map."

"Yes," said Q softly. "The map."

"But we don't know what it means."

"It means…what it means…a mission…"

"Yes, Q, what is the mission? What do you want us to do? Does it have something to do with the Borg?"

"The Borg…"

They were losing him, he was too weak and tired, he didn't remember. "Captain…" said Troi hesitantly. It was costing all her effort to keep control; Q's emotions were nearly overpowering.

"The Borg…"

"What is it?" said Picard urgently. "Try to remember, Q. Just try." Troi glanced at him; he was hard-set, teeth and fists clenched, a sense of tremendous urgency coursing through him. She could nearly sense his very thoughts; they were so powerful. It has to work…He has to know…

"A Borg cube…sector…6…"

"664.4?"

"Yes…"

"What about it? What is it, Q? What do we have to do?"

But the former immortal had already sunk back into the pillows, an uneasy sleep filling his consciousness.

"Q!" choked Picard, nearly in tears at his frustration and helplessness.

Deanna laid a hand gently on his arm. "We'll try again later, Jean-Luc. He needs to rest." Picard's teeth were still clenched tight enough to give a Ferengi a toothache just looking at him. He was nearly shaking. "Come on." Troi led him to the turbolift, speaking softly, calmly.

"No," Picard muttered distractedly, "No! We have to know…he has to know…"

"Captain!" He came out of his reverie to find Troi glaring at him. "You have a ship to run, Jean-Luc Picard! Stop acting like a…"

"I'm sorry," he murmured, wiping sweat from his forehead with his uniform sleeve. "It's just…we were so close…all this and I'm still tying myself in knots for the bastard—"

"Data to Captain Picard."

Troi glanced at him. He took a deep breath and nodded. "Picard here. Have the warbirds…?"

"No, sir. But we are picking up a Borg ship off the port bow."

"The Borg? You're sure?" Picard and Troi exchanged uneasy glances.

Data sounded puzzled. "Yes, sir. It is most certainly the Borg, unless our sensors are malfunctioning."

"I…I'm on my way, Mr. Data. Yellow alert. Stand by for further instructions."

"Acknowledged."

"Picard out." He tapped his combadge. "Now what do you think that's all about?"

But Troi suddenly looked horrified and shrank against the wall of the turbolift. "I can feel them," she whispered.

"The Borg?"

"Yes. Usually I can block them out, but…it's never been this bad…"

"Sickbay?"

"No…I'm fine…they can't do anything for me…" She was breathing hard, nearly doubled over.

"What is it like?" he whispered.

"It's horrible. They have no sense of individuality whatsoever, only…purpose. They're drones, all of them."

The doors opened onto the bridge, and Picard glanced at Troi once more before walking out. After a few tense seconds, she followed. They took their respective seats. "Onscreen," Picard ordered, all business now.

The unmistakable shape of a Borg cube appeared on the main viewer, slightly to the left, and Picard shuddered. All of those things, those Borg, had once been people

He looked over at Deanna. She seemed to have gotten herself under control, though she was still breathing heavily. "It's okay," she whispered.

"Shields up," the captain commanded.

"Shields at 38." It was a different officer at tactical now, a Vulcan, though Picard didn't recognize her either. "Shall I lock on phasers, sir?"

"Stand by, Ensign." He paused. "What's your name?"

Disappointment almost showed through her mask of emotional neutrality. "T'Rea, sir. Ensign T'Rea. You debriefed me just last week."

"My apologies," Picard said, slightly red-faced, although he didn't generally get what most people would call 'embarrassed'. He really must pay more attention to what he was doing, he scolded himself. He was on his own here, fundamentally.

In sickbay, Nurse Hollander scanned the patient with the one remaining tricorder—most had been 'drafted' along with many of the officers on the ship for the Klingon war. "He's not dead," she said.

"But he's dying."

"He's been 'dying' for weeks now. Who knows how long he still has, with only the attention and supplies that we have available."

"He's in a coma."

Hollander scanned him again. "His vital signs are very regulated…you may be right."

"Do you think he'll come out of it?"

"There's no way to know. The best we can do is keep him on IV. Old-fashioned and inadequate, but it should suffice for a few weeks. Hopefully we'll be able to reach a starbase by then. They've all got fully stocked med supplies, not to mention replicators, holodecks…" Her voice was bitter. The holodecks on the Enterprise had been put off-limits to preserve power. And on the Federation's flagship. "After Wesley Crusher died, last month…"

"I know. Poor Beverly. She didn't deserve that." A sigh. "I'll hook him up then."

"Good. And keep a close eye on him. Q and the captain were—are—very close."

"Tea, Earl Grey, hot."

"Are you sure you're not having too much caffeine?" asked Troi anxiously, as the replicator in his ready room dispensed his now all-too-common order.

Picard looked at her. "Don't you think I've earned it?" He sighed and sat down heavily on the couch next to her. "I can't handle this, I really can't. If it were anyone other than Q…"

"I know. It is frustrating for me too."

He snorted. "Frustrating, yes. Maddening. I've been awake for over 15 hours, and what have I accomplished?"

"What have you accomplished?" repeated Troi with polite incredulity. "You've escaped from a Romulan ship. You've escaped from an entire battlefleet of Klingon ships. You've—"

"Lost Wesley Crusher to the Romulans, and I'm still totally clueless as to what Q wants. And there's a Borg cube 200 kilometers off the hull."

"He is not lost. And we managed to get quite far on what little information we have. Considering the circumstances, you've acted very responsibly as a commanding officer, and as a friend."

For the first time in several hours a smile tinted Picard's face. "You really think so?"

"Yes, I do. You've had to deal with a lot of stress lately, and you have dealt with it, remarkably."

"You've dealt with stress too."

A shadow of worry darkened Troi's expression. "I have. I think Will was drafted for the war. He's off on some forsaken planet fighting Klingons in direct combat. Klingons."

"Half the ship's been drafted, along with most of the supplies and some of the power," said Picard. "You can't assume the worst, Deanna."

"I know." She smiled a little. "I thought I was the counselor."

"So did I."

Subcommander Vaebn strode down the hall, looking neither left nor right. When he accidentally bumped into a young erein, he didn't apologize. Why bother? What was the inferior officer going to do about it?

He was angry. His commanding officer's decision to treat the human as a guest—it was intolerable. Romulans were not compassionate. A life here and there to preserve the Empire, to protect one's honor or position—it was acceptable. Vaebn was seriously considering mutiny. Eject the human into deep space and be done with it. As long as he wasn't on the Enterprise. Once the Federation's flagship fell into the alternate reality, the young officer could not be on board. It would disrupt the very fabric of the universe. Vaebn had no doubt that a mutiny against Tal would succeed. The second-in-command was very influential on the Dhivael, perhaps even more so than Tal. He had…connections, ways of making people do what he wanted.

Vaebn was not happy. He practically had smoke coming out of his pointy ears. Some people, he thought, had better watch out.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Jim "Tarhead" Winter sipped his synthesized coffee and stared out the window at the stars. Tarhead had earned his nickname back in his academy days, for a wide variety of reasons: first, he got drunk a lot; second, there were all the fistfights he'd almost gotten kicked out for; and third, because the word was his skull was impenetrable, which was (apparently) why he never learned anything. Really, it was a miracle he'd made it through command training. As it was, he'd gotten posted out here by himself on this godforsaken observatory with nothing but a half-ass replicator and 9 months to kill.

He had communications, but he didn't have anyone to contact, besides his monthly report to Starfleet. Nothing to do. They didn't even have anything to drink. That is, the replicator would only make synthehol. He'd resigned himself to synthehol and black coffee, but it wasn't the same. God, he had to get to Risa. It got really lonely out here, doing holo-crosswords and watching the comets go by.

The least they could have done was to give him a holodeck. Honestly. He probably wouldn't have left it except to use the head and the replicator. The only traffic there'd been around here was a Bajoran border-patrol vessel that had somehow gotten off-course, two weeks ago. Tarhead almost welcomed an attack. Something to look at, at least. And he would get to use the phasers. He had always wanted to do that. He could just picture his mother's expression if he told her that. She had been a lieutenant on the USS Coolangatta, killed 3 years ago in conflict with the Romulans. A very by-the-book person, his mother. Stick to the rules, obey your superiors, hide under the bed and you'll be just fine.

There had been another guy at the academy with him. What was his name again. He'd been on the Halifax or the Europa, some Boulevard-class ship. He'd minored in historical methods of combat, or something, and he'd read Tarhead some junk about the American military in the 1900's. Sometimes Tarhead thought he'd been born in the wrong century. He wanted the weight of a rifle on his shoulder, the sound of helicopters, the exhilaration of not knowing whether you'd be alive in a day. Of course, there would still be that exhilaration if he had managed to get a post on a starship. He had the rank, he had the uniform, but that was it. Ensign Tarhead. After all these years. He hadn't stood on a battle bridge since he'd graduated. The only place he was "boldly going" was hell with a hangover.

Tarhead realized he'd been staring at the same star for over ten minutes. Not that it mattered. He wondered if it was anywhere near Earth. He didn't know the first thing about stellar cartography. As far as he was concerned, he'd majored in smuggled Cardassian liquor and minored in trying to get out of there as soon as possible. He had no idea how he'd found himself at his graduation ceremony. Starfleet Academy had been his mother's idea. Once upon a time, Tarhead had known calculus.

He could leave Starfleet, but where would he go? He didn't have ten credits to his name. Any job he really wanted to do would require either a starship or passage on one. And he sure as hell wasn't going to get stuck rolling barrels of grain onto conveyor belts, or anything like that.

He had a hand phaser. Maximum setting and he'd be vaporized, gone forever. What was the point of living? What was the point of dying? He wanted to do something, dammit. He was finished staring at the galaxy and swallowing that liquid cardboard the replicator called coffee. It was boring.

Maybe it was fate; maybe it was willpower. Or maybe it was just a coincidence, like those that happen every day, like the one that enabled Zefram Cochrane to take his ship out at exactly the right time to meet the Vulcans, like the one that caused the Earth to be exactly the right temperature for a small pool of goo to somehow create living cells. Or maybe there are no real coincidences. It certainly didn't seem like a coincidence that at exactly that moment, Tarhead Winter looked out the window and saw a starship.

Admiral Arrhae paced the bridge of the Romulan warbird Shiarrael. Her fleet was currently on assignment near the border, just past the neutral zone. Arrhae had just received communication from Subcommander Vaebn of the Dhivael, another ship in her fleet. Although he was only second-in-command, she trusted his opinion, and he had informed her that his commanding officer, Tal, could in fact be mentally unstable and unfit for command. It puzzled her. She had known Tal for several years now, and she had never thought of him as a potential mental case. He was a model officer, almost as much so as Vaebn, and yesterday she would have said they were both overdue for promotions. Vaebn's claims about Tal's behavior seemed impossible, but Vaebn wouldn't lie. Tal just didn't seem like the type to bully other officers, like Vaebn was saying, or give irrational orders without explanation. Arrhae had asked for visual documentation, and to speak with Commander Tal, and Vaebn had said he transmit a copy of the relevant sections of the Dhivael's logs to the Shiarrael as soon as he had the time.

But a lot of things lately didn't make sense. The anonymous orders about the Enterprise, for example. Arrhae's fleet had had very few dealings with the Federation, ever. And now they were supposed to lock onto the given coordinates and transport over whatever appeared. Tal had volunteered his ship for the job, but Arrhae hadn't had a chance to talk to him yet since then. They were both very busy, but this was a crucial matter. She had to speak with him.

Picard emerged onto the bridge feeling much more confident. "Stand by," he told no one in particular, and everyone complied. "Mr. Data," he said, "what is the status of the Borg vessel?"

"They are about 2000 kilometers off the hull. They have full weapons capability, shields and tractor beams. Sensors show 3,459 life forms on board."

The Borg cube was huge. It loomed before the Enterprise like a Klingon before a poodle. Was it following them, or were they simply in its path. "Sir," said Data, "recommend we either fire or take evasive action."

"Noted, Mr. Data," Picard said brusquely. "My orders stand as given. Repeat, stand by."

"Sir," said Ensign T'Rea at tactical. "If I may make an observation?"

"Go ahead."

"We have limited shields, especially against the Borg. I—"

"Officer, the Borg have taken no action against us. Would anyone else like to lodge a protest?"

Silence.

"Then carry out my orders." Since he hadn't given any orders, except to stand by, nobody did anything, except continue to stare out the main viewer with their hands poised above their respective keypads, or, in Data's and Troi's cases, to sit tensely in their chairs beside the captain.

The cube seemed to be holding position, but if one had Data's superhuman vision, one would have seen that it was moving cautiously, bearing two one zero mark seven, which the android helpfully pointed out to the captain. "Thank you," Picard said stiffly.

"Orders, sir?"

Picard made a decision. "Follow them."

"Follow them? That would not be a logical course of action, sir!"

"I have heard your opinion, ensign!" said Picard angrily. "Do as you are told!"

"Aye, sir," said T'Rea, taken slightly aback, and obligingly did so.

It couldn't exactly be called a starship. It was more of a star-cube, and it was huge. Tarhead put it to at least half a kilometer squared in size. Finally, something interesting was happening! Maybe he should start going to church. The thought gave him a good laugh, for the first time in months.

"Observatory log, supplemental. Cube-shaped vessel sighted at 1220 hours. Attempting hail." He did too. He sent out a friendly—or at least peaceful—signal at all frequencies, and waited for a reply.

He kept waiting.

Q's body may have been paralyzed, but his mind was not. Inside, weak though he may have been, he was alive and kicking. He felt as though he were imprisoned in his body. Helplessness was not a feeling Q was accustomed to, as a Q. It was so degrading, being human.

He had to tell Picard about the Borg. In his mind, he'd known what he'd wanted to say, but his mouth, his treacherous human body, hadn't been able to form the words. The map, the dead Borg cube, the Borg who were still alive—as far as Borg could be called alive—

As a Q, he had known about the Borg, perhaps even been mildly interested in them, but they had been of no concern or importance. And now—they were a matter of life and death.

Guinan poured something cyan into a clear glass and stirred carefully. Although the replicator was capable, in theory, of making any blend, she preferred to mix her own drinks. They seemed more authentic and personal that way. She knew how to make drinks from some 400 worlds, as well as an enormous variety of dishes, although she didn't get a chance to do much cooking on the Enterprise. Right now she was making a Klingon drink called ju'LeH for a very particular (and peculiar) Bajoran customer. Personally, Guinan didn't particularly care for ju'LeH. It was definitely an acquired taste, and she had never quite managed to acquire it.

Two female officers entered and sat down nervously at the bar. Guinan didn't recognize them; they must be fairly new, or at least they had never been to ten-forward before. They seemed to be deeply engaged in conversation, and didn't notice the bartender lingering behind the counter, overhearing every word. (Guinan would never eavesdrop. She just overheard things. Completely by accident, of course.)

The women both wore ensign's uniforms, but Guinan didn't like to assign too much importance to rank. People tended to have stereotypes toward their inferiors—take Wesley, for instance. One was human; the other Vulcan. Guinan carefully mixed the right amount of vinegar into the ju'LeH.

"Yes, I had noticed that," the Vulcan was saying to her friend. "Just this morning, he asked me my name. And it was only Tuesday that he and Commander Data debriefed me."

"Funny, he doesn't seem like the forgetful type."

"I know. It's just not logical. Well, he certainly won't forget your name. Ensign Ensign."

"How do you do that? You never have any expression on your face; I can never tell what you're really thinking. It's disconcerting."

"I'm sorry, Vulcans are taught arie'mnu practically from birth. I do not mean to offend you."

"S'okay. I do think the captain is acting strangely, though. He actually said to follow the Borg?"

"Those were the orders he gave. As far as I know we're still on the same course; my shift ended three hours ago. He's very lucky he didn't get drafted to fight the Klingons."

"So are we. I think he pulled a few strings to ensure he stayed on the Enterprise, to tell you the truth. He's not the most popular among the Starfleet admirals."

"This is not what I envisioned when I joined Starfleet. My people are pacifists—and so was the Federation, until some five months ago."

"I know."

"Excuse me," said Guinan politely. "Can I get you anything?"

The human—Ensign Ensign—looked startled. "Oh! Sorry. Yeah, I'll have—a Gregorian licorice ale." She looked questioningly at her friend, who shook her head politely.

Guinan continued to look at the officers, smiling. "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. Were you saying the Captain was acting strangely?"

They exchanged glances, Ensign's worried, the Vulcan's stoic. "We didn't mean to imply…" Ensign said finally, then trailed off.

"It's all right," said Guinan pleasantly. She leaned in closer, confiding in the two young officers. "I happen to have a key bit of information about the captain that could explain his behavior." Ensign looked questioningly at her. "Are you sure you don't want anything?" she asked the Vulcan amiably.

"Quite sure."

"T'Rea, maybe we should—" Guinan didn't hear the rest of Ensign's sentence, because she was already halfway across the room, bringing the Bajoran his ju'LeH, but when she got back to the bar she found Ensign's half-finished Gregorian and the doors just closing.

"I don't think I made a very good impression on those two," she remarked to Data, who had just taken T'Rea's vacated seat.

Commander Tal had done his fair share of what the Federation would consider criminal acts. The Romulans simply considered it a way of life. You did what you had to do to get things done. He'd thrown a few soldiers out the airlock in his time; bribed some diplomats. He always did what was best for himself and for the empire. That was the Romulan way.

He didn't know why he felt drawn to help Ensign Crusher. There was just something about the boy. An intelligent gleam in his eyes even as he sat apparently defeated in a holding cell, a spark of brightness. He had potential; Tal was sure of it. If he could be put to work on their side, as a spy, perhaps…

But no, he was obviously the loyal type. He would most likely die rather than betray his people. Typical Starfleet. Yet Tal felt obliged to help him, somehow, when he had never really helped anyone before except himself.

And now Vaebn, his own first officer, was accusing him of…well, treason, if you could call it that. Or insanity, which was just as bad. Either way, if he were found guilty he would be relieved of command and exiled or executed—what was the difference these days? Well, it figured. Vaebn had always been a slippery little krenath. Even his family had always been the types to sneak slyly around the law. The Romulans didn't judge a man by his family as the Klingons did, but genetics definitely had something to do with it. Tal could remember Vaebn's father. A detestable and cowardly man, unworthy of military title.

He supposed Admiral Arrhae would be contacting him soon. He was expecting it, in fact. She was efficient, a model officer, and would certainly want to investigate the claims of an officer such as Vaebn.

Tal would never admit to fear or nervousness, of course. He would face Vaebn's claims; he would face Arrhae, and he would prove himself innocent or die trying.

"Dammit!" Tarhead banged his fist on the table. He had been attempting to hail the ship for over ten minutes. "This is Ensign Winter of the Federation outpost Sigma Theta Seven-Four-One-Five. Please respond!"

And finally, after another long pause, they did.

Picard was on his way to ten-forward for a nice, relaxing drink. He was exhausted. He had thought of asking Beverly to join him, but he thought she really needed her sleep.

On the way, however, he literally bumped into two young ensigns who seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. They were coming around the corner as if running from a fire. "Is something wrong?" he asked them.

They exchanged uneasy glances with one another. "No, sir," said one of them finally. It was the Vulcan officer who had been at the tactical station.

"Ensign T'Rea," he said to her, grateful that he had remembered her name and saved himself from further embarrassment. "Ensign…?" He looked inquiringly at the other.

"Ensign, sir," she said, going completely red.

"Yes, I know your rank. I asked for your name."

"The name is Ensign, sir. I am Ensign Bella Ensign."

"Oh. I see." Picard hesitated. "Would you like to join me for a drink in ten-forward?"

"Actually, we just came—"

T'Rea elbowed her friend in a most un-Vulcan-like gesture. "We'd love to." She shot Ensign a warning glance, and Ensign shrugged.

Guinan looked up as the three of them came in. "Back so soon?" she inquired, smiling.

Picard looked at her. "Well, it has been several hours—"

"Never mind. What can I get you?"

"Oh…just a cup of tea, I think." Desperate times called for desperate measures.

Ensign looked embarrassed and shook her head. "I'm all set, thanks."

T'Rea, if she was embarrassed, did a very good job of hiding it. "Nothing for me."

Guinan smiled. "I assume you two are familiar with the idea of alternate universes?"

Picard looked up, shocked. "Guinan!" he said in a warning whisper.

T'Rea raised her eyebrows. "Yes, as a matter of fact. Why?"

"Oh, nothing." The barkeeper left for the replicator to get Picard his tea.

But T'Rea had already started to put two and two together. She was looking from Guinan to Picard. "Sir…excuse my asking…are you from an alternate universe?"

He stared at her, not knowing what to say. What was taking his tea so long?

"You are, aren't you?" said Ensign slowly. "That would explain a lot. Sir," she added hastily, looking mortified at herself.

Picard raised his hand in a half-gesture, as if to say, don't bother. "Yes," he said slowly, "I am."

Ensign looked…amazed. "Wow, sir! I mean…what is it like there? Then?"

Picard sighed. "It's…the same. Except for Q. And the Klingons. And the Romulans."

Ensign looked puzzled. "Sir? The Romulans surrendered to the Klingon Empire two months ago."

"Oh, did they?" Picard muttered distractedly. "That's good to know…"

"You are not at war in your reality?" asked T'Rea.

"Oh no, not at all. On the contrary. However, I understand many of the crew in this reality are now at war with the Klingons. It's a shame."

"With all due respect, sir, it's not that simple," said Ensign. "You don't know what it's been like, these past few months. You'll be walking down a corridor and you'll just see people crying. Everyone—your commanding officers, people you never expect to just give up like that. And that's what's really wrong here. Seeing people like that, people who should be setting an example, hiding their emotions—it confuses people, makes them hesitate. And it shouldn't. Everyone should have the right to cry. It's just not done."

Picard was silent for a moment. "You are wise beyond your years, ensign. Remind me to consider you for a command position."

Ensign flushed. "Thank you, sir. But to tell the truth, getting promoted is no one's top priority right now."

"Of course. Excuse me." He paused. "This does take some getting used to."

"I realize that, sir. Thank you for understanding. Many captains wouldn't bother. I appreciate your sympathy."

"It would be logical," came Ensign T'Rea's voice, "To set a course for the alleged Borg object and try to locate it."

"It would. However, the Enterprise does have other duties."

"I'm aware of that, sir. I was merely making a suggestion. No offense meant."

"None taken," said Picard.

Guinan brought his tea, and he glared at her. "What are you playing at?" he hissed.

"I was just making polite conversation," she said innocently.

"The hell you were," muttered Picard, taking a long drink. He turned to Ensign and T'Rea. "I'd better get going. Thank you for your time and confidence." He raised his hand to them both. "Peace, and long life."

"And to you, sir," responded T'Rea solemnly.

And when Picard left the bar, unbeknownst to any of them, someone else followed.

T'Rea muttered, "We will need it."

CHAPTER EIGHT

Commander Data was sitting in the bar when three people came in. He didn't mean to eavesdrop on their conversation. In fact, he wasn't even consciously listening to it. But his positronic net picked up every word, and stored it until he would have time to analyze it. Data had never forgotten anything in his life. It could be quite annoying at times. Data's wish to be human had inspired him to be better than he was, but likewise, at times, it had impeded his normal behavior. Lately, he hadn't had much time for trying to be what he was not. Every spare minute of Data's time was needed for battle strategies, or, more importantly, strategies that could be implemented to end the war. Right now, he was carrying a data padd with maps of the borders and possible fleet maneuvers. Being an android, he didn't need rest or relaxation, and Starfleet was fully counting on that fact. He hadn't done anything other than Starfleet work for five months, three days, four hours, sixteen minutes, six seconds…

H

The Romulan equivalent of an ensign or sublieutenant, according to captain

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