By now he'd learned what the pangs in his stomach meant, so the first order of business was to get something to eat. There was a replicator in his quarters, and by now he'd had enough different foods that he could find himself something to eat without having to ask a human what to get. He ordered chocolate cake, salami and cream cheese rolls, and tried to get the things from the conference that had looked like micro-bushes but couldn't remember their names - something with rock in it? It didn't matter all that much, he supposed - the important thing was to eat something, quickly, so he could get cleaned off and get back to work.

Getting clean worked much, much better with an actual reference material to explain to him how everything worked. He didn't stink anymore or smell of odor suppressors, his hair looked half-decent, and best of all there was no longer disgusting hair sticking out of his face every which way making him look like a drunken hobo. Really, why couldn't humans have evolved to fully overcome the monkey heritage and get rid of all that stuff? Maybe he should have been a woman. Human women didn't have hairs sticking out of their face. He seemed to recall that they oozed blood on a regular basis as part of their reproductive cycle, which was even more disgusting than facial hair, but since he was going to die within a couple of days and the blood oozing thing happened monthly or so, it probably would have worked out better for him. They also had nicer looking clothes... although, now that Q had some experience actually putting real feet, that could get tired and feel pain, into real shoes, he was starting to think that perhaps the boots most women in Starfleet seemed to wear looked even less comfortable than the horrible things he had to wear. He would have liked to linger over his wardrobe and find something interesting to wear - if he wasn't allowed to wear a uniform there wasn't much point to wearing the same clothes every day - but he didn't have time, so he just replicated the exact same thing he had yesterday and headed back to Engineering.

"So how are we doing?" he asked as he walked in the door. "Any moons crash yet?"

"No, but they have begun to destabilize," Data said.

"Are you feeling better now?" LaForge asked. "Ready to actually get some work done without taking people's heads off?"

"Vastly," Q said. "And yes, or I wouldn't be here. It's actually quite terrifying how dependent you humans' mental state is on something as trivial as whether or not you've eaten or if your neck hurts."

"I guess when you think about it, it is a little frightening," LaForge said. "But it isn't really that hard once you get used to it. Just make sure you get enough food and sleep and don't fall asleep at your desk, and you'll be fine. It'll probably be only a couple of weeks until you get it together, and after that you should be ok."

Except for the part about being dead, I suppose. "So what's our situation?"

"Well, the Ferengi got here a couple of hours ago, and apparently the Kaeloids are on their way with a small fleet. Word is they might be able to evacuate as many as 20,000 people. The two Ferengi vessels aren't large enough to ferry any people, so we've got them in place to help us with keeping the moon in place; they haven't got the mass or the power of the Enterprise, but there's two of them, so we worked out where they need to sit for maximum leverage and that takes the strain off our engines." LaForge pulled something up on his console and looked at it. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Okay. Bre'el III reports success in manufacturing antimatter, and they already had mega-replicators, so they're hooking the mega-replicators up with the new antimatter supply and beaming matter in from the un-terraformed zones to make transport pods. They estimate they can produce transport pods enough for maybe a thousand people in an hour."

"That's not going to be enough. We don't have five hundred hours before those moons crash."

"No, that's true, and the Kaeloids may be able to ferry twenty thousand people across the system in half an hour, but it's probably going to take an hour or so to load and disembark people, so we're looking at being able to evacuate maybe an average of ten thousand people an hour with their help. And the problem there is that the space station at Bre'el VII can only support maybe a maximum of eighty thousand people, tops. So eight hours after the Kaeloids start ferrying people, we're back to being limited to the speed of the mega-replicators."

"More antimatter won't help?"

"More antimatter's made it possible to do at all, but no, adding more antimatter won't make the mega-replicators work faster, because they've only got so many mega-replicators. Bre'el IV's got more, and they're working on it as well, but probably about half their capacity's going to evacuate their own people out of the fault zones and tidal areas."

"That's stupid. They should just beam the people to the stable areas, not evacuate them off the planet. Save the transport pods for the Bre'el III folks."

"They're... not being entirely rational about it, Q. The Science Council is doing what it can, but people are panicking down there. I think they're doing pretty well for being able to think about Bre'el III's problems at all."

Q shook his head. "Obviously they haven't got an Eirhean. But that shouldn't surprise me. Awfully few worlds do."


"A scientist I knew on the planet Semora. They were pre-warp, actually pre-space flight entirely... hadn't even split the atom yet, though Eirhean was working on it. And then their telescopes observed an incoming asteroid that was going to annihilate the planet in five years. They all went crazy, for a while at least... except for Eirhean, who came very close to single-handedly inventing space flight and nuclear missiles all by herself so she could stop the asteroid."

"Very close?" Wesley Crusher drifted in to the group, apparently attracted by the story. "Did she manage to stop the asteroid, or not?"

"She would have succeeded, except that the people who actually went to implement her plan screwed things up, and only managed to blow up a small segment of the asteroid. And themselves. And when she tried to persuade the world's governments to try again, they'd all basically given up in despair and refused to field another mission, in the belief that it was obviously hopeless. Which it kind of was. They'd missed their window to divert the asteroid; even if they sent up more nukes, the best they'd be able to manage would be to break the asteroid up so only two-thirds of its mass would impact Semora, and not all in the same place. Maybe 70% of all life on their planet would die instead of 95%." Q shook his head again. "You'd think that any sensible mortal would recognize when they were beaten and just give up and die already, but I suppose the threat to her world drove her insane too, just in a more constructive way than it did most of them. Really, if she'd cared as much about her children as she said she did, she probably should have spent what by all rights ought to have been their last few years of life with them instead of practically abandoning them in a futile quest to research a way to save them, but she was positively obsessed with it. I don't think she'd ever encountered a problem she couldn't solve with her mind before. I tried to persuade her that her priorities were misguided, and she should spend her remaining time with her children... well, you've never heard such language from a scientist before. You'd have thought she was an uneducated dockworker, or a sailor on the crudest of grubby old scows."

"Did she stop the asteroid or not?" Crusher asked.

"You weren't listening, were you, Crusherling? No. Her best efforts were ruined by the failure of other people. Although she didn't actually give up until the day the asteroid was scheduled to hit the planet." He motioned at LaForge's console. "See, these people down there have advanced science, warp travel, an entire Federation of technologically advanced pals to help them out, and they're still panicking. Eirhean would have known what to do with resources like you guys."

"Did she die?" Crusher asked. He showed every sign of being emotionally involved with the story, despite the fact that it had happened over twenty thousand years ago in the Beta Quadrant and he had no chance of ever encountering any of the people involved. How ridiculous.

"Of course she died. She was mortal. This happened twenty thousand years ago, what do you expect?"

"I mean did she die when the asteroid hit?"

Gently LaForge said to Crusher, "Q just said 95% of the planet's life was wiped out. I think if she didn't die when the asteroid hit, she'd probably have died shortly afterward."

"And you just stood there and let it happen?" Crusher demanded of Q. "Even though you knew her? You had conversations with her, but you still let her die, even though you could have just snapped your fingers and saved her planet?"

"It's funny, that's exactly the argument she made."

"We have been in a similar situation ourselves," Data said. "The Prime Directive binds us in situations where a pre-warp culture is endangered, as well. Recall our situation on Drema IV?"

"Yeah, and I also remember that when Captain Picard heard that little girl calling you on her transmitter, he changed his mind and decided that we had to intervene to save the planet."

"That never works out well," Q muttered.

"It works out better than if you let them all die."

"No, it doesn't." Q glared down at the boy. "You decide to make an exception this time, you feel inexplicably moved by the plight of a bunch of pre-warp primitives helplessly facing an impending doom, you know all the reasons you shouldn't intervene but just this once, just this once you decide to break the rules, because someone on that planet is too interesting to let die. So you turn the asteroid into water before it hits the planet, and mist it into the atmosphere, and it rains for weeks but no one dies. And they call it a miracle, and the brilliant, dedicated scientist you respected even though you thought she was half-crazed with her obsessive need to save her planet and her kids... she loses her mind, declares you a god, and founds a religion dedicated to worshipping you, and fifty years later the primitives are killing each other over things they're pretending you said to them and announcing to all and sundry that you told them to do that."

LaForge looked taken aback. "Is that what happened to that planet? The one you were just talking about?"

"Yes. They all lived, because I didn't stand there and watch them die, as Crusher there thinks I did. No, instead they survived to kill and torture each other and declare that they were carrying out my will. The person I thought was too interesting to allow her to die lost everything that made her worthy of my attention, and became nothing but another pathetic inferior creature trying to wheedle favors out of a god. And that is exactly why I should have let them all die instead. At least they've have had some dignity when they went, and at least it wouldn't have been something they did to each other to curry favor with an entity who really could have done without any of it." He stalked over to the console, glaring down at it as if the information on it meant anything to him, which it really didn't. "So. Now that we're done wasting time rehashing a pointless anecdote about the past, can we get back to work?"

"Q, if you did not wish to 'waste time rehashing a pointless anecdote about the past', why then did you bring the subject up, and proceed to tell the entire story?" Data asked, head cocked quizzically.

"Data, just drop it, okay?" LaForge said. "Q is right, we need to get to work. Here's the thing... there's no way we can get all the people evacuated off Bre'el III before their moons crash. The math just doesn't work. But destroying the moons is a really radical solution. There's no way to know what that'll do to the tides or the terraforming project, long-run. We don't even know for sure that their air scrubbers can handle that volume of dust. So what I need is any other alternative we can come up with. Could the Kaeloids do to Bre'el III's moons what we're doing for Bre'el IV? Is there any way we can set up a transport relay station to beam people between Bre'el III and Bre'el IV? Would the artificial wormhole idea work if instead of having to go across the solar system, it only had to transit between III and IV? Let's get some ideas. Captain Picard wants to see us at 1000 hours, so we've got about two and a half hours to come up with some solutions."

Half an hour later, sitting around the only conference table in Engineering, they weren't any closer to a better solution than before.

The Kaeloids' Fleet Engineer was willing to talk to LaForge about their capabilities in general, and it turned out that they didn't have the precise control over their warp bubble that the Enterprise did, so it wasn't possible for them to do what the Enterprise was doing. This was a shame, because that had been the most feasible of their ideas. The others had even more serious technical problems. In Q's opinion, based on the work he and Crusher had done yesterday, the artificial wormhole just wouldn't work. Space had warped so much around here in response to the black hole's transit that there was no way to make an artificial wormhole stable enough to support beaming sentient beings through, if either the start or the end point were in the Bre'el system and most especially if both points were. He actually considered their likelihood of getting a stable wormhole together better if they were going to connect Bre'el III to, say, Alpha Centauri, where space was much thicker, but that didn't appear to be politically feasible, and besides, he didn't really think they could pull that one off either. Without a wormhole, the distance between Bre'el III and IV was enough that transporting between the two worlds would involve at least three relay stations, and attenuation of signal was known to drop from 99.9999% accuracy in a single transport to 98% with one relay station, 95% with two, and 88% with three. Losing 12% of the signal was simply unacceptable when transporting sentient beings.

Of course, the limitations of the transporter seemed very, very odd to Q. "Look, your replicators store matter as digitized patterns, right? The same as the transporter? And you don't have to worry about the distance to Earth when you want to beam yourself out an ice cream sundae that was first manufactured there; you carry the pattern around with you. You could store five hundred thousand different items in your replicator stores, and it doesn't take up enough space to crowd out the people on the ship. So why can't you just store all the people in the transporter and then carry them over to Bre'el IV?"

"The transporter doesn't work that way, Q," LaForge said in that overly patient voice that was really beginning to grate on Q.

"Yes, I'm aware of that. It also doesn't make antimatter. Except when it does, apparently. So rather than telling me that it doesn't do something it seems as if it should be eminently capable of doing, how about telling me why, and maybe we can figure out a way around it?"

"Well, it's the precision required. Food items don't need 99.9999% accuracy... in fact that number's kind of misleading, because what actually happens with a transport is that statistically, 99.9999% of all transports recover 100% of the signal. Transporter accidents are one in a million, and it's because the beam is massively redundant; a transporter beam's holographic in that any individual ray of the beam contains the entire pattern, though obviously not at full resolution. And it can do that because it's a dynamic energy beam, so some of the data is actually stored as dynamism. If we tried to make it static, it would take something like ten times the disk space-"

"Didn't you say the same thing about the antimatter?"

"Yeah, but the difference is, one gram of antimatter has enough kilojoules to power an entire mega-replicator through making several hundred transport pods. So if it takes you a huge amount of disk space to store and extrapolate that one gram... hey, it's just one gram. It didn't take a lot of space in the first place. But a sentient being takes up a lot more space. See, we store food items at something like 95% accuracy... that would kill a living being, which is why you can't replicate gagh that Klingons will actually eat, because it comes out dead. We have different replicator protocols for storing, say, seeds, which are technically alive but are mostly nothing but DNA information, but even that wouldn't work on a living being. To get the pattern stored well enough that you don't risk killing the person... put it this way. All of the Enterprise's disk space could probably store about ten people, tops."

"So use the mega-replicators to make transport pods that, instead of being able to transport a thousand actual people, are 90% disk space. The Enterprise computers take up less than 1% of the total mass of the ship, I'm sure. Make the transport pod into almost entirely storage, so it can store more than 1,000 people... if you can build a transport pod that can store 10,000 people as patterns, you only need fifty of them to evacuate the entire planet, and you can keep them in storage until the moons crash and the dust settles and it's safe for them to return."

"I believe that transporter beams have actually been engineered to make it very difficult to do this," Data said.

Q frowned. "Why would you people have done that?"

"There's an ethical problem with what you're suggesting," LaForge said. "If we had the technology to store people the way we store things in the replicator... well, if you make ten chocolate sundaes, the chocolate sundaes aren't going to have to worry about which one of them is the original and who has the rights of the original being. Transporters work the way they do because the density of the information in the beam can almost support continued consciousness; in fact some people report that they are aware of being transported. So it's not actually like you're killing someone at one end by disintegrating them, and then recreating them at the other end; it's the same being, just converted to energy."

"Yes, I understand that concept. Believe me, the conversion of sentient beings from matter to energy and back again is an area I'm intimately familiar with."

"So if you just stored the pattern, and read it back out... where's the continuity of being? It's obviously not the same person anymore. In fact what's to stop you from reading the pattern and then never breaking the person down, so you can have the original and then a digital copy in the storage unit that you can make infinite copies of?"

"Why would that be a problem?"

LaForge sighed in exasperation. "Data?"

"All Federation law - in fact most advanced systems of law, possessed by sentient beings with warp technology - bases property and status rights and responsibilities on the individual. I could, in theory, be recreated by a replicator, as I am not made of organic matter and most of my substances are actually less complex than organic molecules. Should I create an identical copy of myself and then download a backup of my mind into the copy, so that he were to become mentally as well as physically another Data... that being would not be the second officer of the Enterprise. He would probably not even be considered a Starfleet officer, although it is likely that he would be granted a commission if he wished given that he would have the memories of attending the Academy and all of my experience. My possessions would not belong to him. Should he enter into a romantic relationship with a human and marry them, his spouse would not be my spouse. Should I successfully build an entirely new Soong-type android to be my offspring, he would not be that android's father. Legally, he would not be me. However, with a full complement of my memories, he would believe himself to be me, and this would create difficulties for him, as all of the rights and responsibilities I take for granted would also be things he would take for granted, but as they would not actually belong to him, that might cause him some distress. Also, it would be even more difficult to distinguish him from me than it is to distinguish my actual brother Lore from me. Should he commit a crime, would I be punished? The conundrums that the creation of an identical copy of a sentient being would cause are sufficiently problematic that I believe the decision was made, centuries ago, that the transporter beam should be engineered in such a way that it would be partially dependent on dynamism to store its information, and thus almost impossible to store and copy."

"But it is possible," Q said. "I know for a fact that your transporter beam has been known to accidentally create identical copies of people."

"I am not aware of any such cases," Data said. "I am aware of cases where the transporter beam has physically duplicated an individual, but without a full complement of mental traits of the original."

"No, trust me. I've seen it make exact, literally exact, copies of sentient beings." A sudden wild hope occurred to him, but he checked it for now. It didn't pertain to the problem in front of them, and he wanted a chance to do some research to see if their technology could even pull it off... but he might possibly have just figured out how he was going to survive this. "See, in the Continuum we don't have this problem. Two copies of the same individual are the same individual. There's no distinction."

"So... if there was another you running around you'd share everything you have with that person?" Crusher asked skeptically.

"Why not? Anything we have would belong equally to both of us. Not that the Q have possessions per se, but we do have territories, and since an identical copy of me is me, I'd know that I wouldn't do anything with the things in my territory that I would disapprove of, so why wouldn't I let myself use anything I claim as mine?"

LaForge shook his head. "That's... weirder than I want to get for this discussion. Just take it as a given that mortals don't like the idea of duplicates of themselves running around. So it's not feasible to turn people into patterns in a transporter buffer and carry them over to the planet. Although..." He frowned, lost in thought. "You know, if we're thinking about transporting people directly to Bre'el IV... why aren't we thinking about having the Kaeloids ferry people to Bre'el IV? Now that we've got the moon in a stable position, everywhere but the fault and tidal zones should be perfectly safe. The Kaeloids could get between Bre'el III and IV a lot faster than they could get across the entire system... we might be looking at being able to evacuate all five hundred thousand in twenty-five hours or so. I think that's actually within the time window we have before the moons crash."

"I believe you are right, Geordi. If the Science Council considers that an acceptable solution, and the Kaeloids are willing to perform such rapid ferry service, that seems as if it may be the best solution to the problem."

"All right." LaForge stood up. "I'll let Captain Picard know we've got some ideas, and we'll be meeting with him in two hours. We can get a little break for a while. Wes, how long are you scheduled for?"

"I rearranged my schedule, Commander. I was supposed to work on the bridge from 1200 to 2000 hours today, but I asked Commander Riker if I could be scheduled for 0600 - 1400 hours in Engineering instead, because it seemed yesterday like you might still need me down here."

"You were working until almost midnight last night, though. That's not a lot of sleep. You sure you're okay?"

"Sure thing, Commander. I'll just go to bed early tonight to catch myself up."

LaForge grinned indulgently. "Boy, sometimes I wish I was as young as you again. Must be nice to be able to get by without any sleep for a night or two and still feel fine." Q smirked, suspecting that Crusher's energy and wakefulness was best explained by some reason other than his youth. "Lieutenant Cho will be in charge while Data and I are at the meeting, but you're the one with the most knowledge of what's going on with the Bre'el operations, so you hold down the fort for me later, okay?"

"Sure thing," Crusher said, repeating himself, which Q found irritating. "I'll give her any information she needs."

"Q, you'll be at the meeting too. I won't need you before then, so you can go do whatever."

"Can I do more research? There's something I'd like to look into."

"Yeah, sure. Go ahead and use my office."

By the time of the meeting, Q was feeling actually hopeful for once. He'd known theoretically that it would be possible to do what he was hoping their technology could do, because he knew it could do it by accident. The research he'd done seemed to indicate that in fact it would be possible, and he could even see how to do it, vaguely, although to actually pull it off he'd need help from the people who worked with this kind of technology every day. It would not be the best possible solution to the problem facing him, but then, the best possible solution was that the Continuum reconsider their punishment and give him his powers back, and that wasn't about to happen. Since what he was thinking of was a solution that would leave him alive at the end, he was eager to embrace it, flaws and all.

So he was in fairly good spirits when they went to the meeting. If they could just get this immediate crisis out of the way and have a solid plan for dealing with the Bre'el III moons, he could probably get Data to help him make the modifications he wanted to make to the transporter. And then... and then he could actually live through this.

He was somewhat surprised at the strength of his own desire to live. When he'd decided to give himself up to the Calamarain the first time, in the shuttlecraft - was that really only yesterday morning? Time went by so slowly on a mortal timescale - he had been resigned, numb, and hating himself and his new life so much that death was almost appealing. He had been sick with fear, jumping at shadows, and certain everyone was laughing at his incompetence and his cowardice. The sheer magnitude of everything he'd have to learn and how distasteful it all was and the change in his status from ancient, all-powerful, vastly knowledgeable being to a helpless, useless, pathetic waste of space who knew nothing of value... it had overwhelmed him, and he hadn't been able to imagine ever overcoming any of it. And everyone had hated him, and it had hurt. Q was used to being hated - it was generally the reaction he was going for when he dealt with mortals. He wasn't used to it hurting. He'd always thought himself a law unto himself, wholly independent, needing no one; the loss of the Continuum and his emotional connection to his fellow Q was like the loss of water to a fish, something he had never fully realized was even there until it was gone. No one wanted him anymore, no one needed him, he belonged to no one and nothing, and he had discovered he couldn't bear that. It was entirely true that sooner or later the Calamarain would destroy the ship to get to him, but he hadn't allowed himself to articulate that fact to himself until Data had almost died for him, and he had realized how much he despised himself right now and how very alone and worthless he felt.

It had been easy, then, to give himself up to death. It would be fast, relatively speaking - oh, the Calamarain would make him suffer, he was sure, but objectively his death would probably be over in a few minutes, and then he wouldn't have to feel this loss and misery anymore. It had seemed like a perfect solution - save the Enterprise crew, who didn't deserve to be destroyed for actually giving him the sanctuary he'd asked for, and escape the pain of this existence, escape his own feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred. When Picard had had him rescued, he'd been genuinely enraged at the man for taking his death away from him. And then Picard had offered him a chance to prove himself, a chance to belong, to try again to fit in and be useful and actually make a place for himself here.

Q found it difficult to believe how much of a difference that made, as if his entire existence was predicated on connections to other people. It was entirely the opposite from how he'd thought of himself his whole life, but on consideration he supposed it made sense... the Q were a unity, a Continuum, never alone and never truly separated. As much as he'd wanted them to leave him alone, he'd never wanted them to leave him completely alone, not like this. Without them, without anyone, he'd wanted to die... but as soon as he felt he might be able to belong after all, as soon as people showed signs of valuing what he could do, he had begun to desperately want to live again. And then he'd had to agree to surrender himself to the Calamarain, because it turned out it was still the only way to save everyone else. The logic he'd finally allowed himself to see when he was in suicidal despair was still there, still inescapable, even now that he no longer wanted to die. His wants and desires could contribute to whether or not he lived in denial of the facts, but they could no longer change those facts... and if he wanted to belong to a group, he couldn't let himself deny a deadly threat to them, even if it would also let him refuse to acknowledge his own inevitable fate.

He'd been trying to convince himself into feeling suicidal again. He was still human, still fairly helpless, still at the mercy of all sorts of disgusting needs and urges, and still horribly ignorant of most of them. Pain still hurt and was still entirely too frequent. He still made humiliating mistakes and was mocked by the humans for them. He should have been able to convince himself that all these things were good reasons to want to die. But it wasn't working. As much as he didn't want to find it so, food tasted good. Solving problems, using his intellect to learn new things and then applying his experience to those things to accomplish tasks, was... fun. Actually working with others, when his ideas weren't ignored and weren't useless and they were able to take the concepts he introduced to them and build on them... that felt oddly good. For that matter, the feeling that he could actually help people, directly, in a way that he could get credit for, without running the risk that they'd start worshipping him for it... that was new, and surprisingly pleasant.

There were still things to enjoy about life, pleasures to be had even in this reduced state. He wanted to live, to continue to experience what life had to offer, and the fact that he'd condemned himself to death was getting harder and harder to bear as his time came closer to running out. He was trying not to think about it, but it kept coming back at odd moments, the sudden realization that he would die in... two days, now, resurfacing and hitting him randomly, triggered by innocuous comments other people made, or sometimes by nothing at all. So if his plan could work... he clung to that hope. Of course it would work. These people, particularly the Engineering crew, could do absolutely anything that was technologically possible with their own equipment, once the idea had been put in their head, and this was definitely possible, since it had happened before. It wouldn't be the best solution but it was better than what he had now.

This time he showed up to the meeting on time, since he went with LaForge and Data.

First, LaForge presented the problem. The complex orbits of the Bre'el III satellites made it difficult to design a plan that would allow any ships to push them back into orbit as they were doing to Bre'el IV's moon, and even if they had a good plan, the Kaeloids' technology couldn't do it. Moving people in transport pods that were manufactured on the surface would take too long, because of the speed with which the mega-replicators on Bre'el III could churn out transport pods. Bre'el IV's mega-replicator output wasn't going to help very much because half of what they could produce was going to removing their own people from the most heavily affected zones, in tidal areas or on fault lines. There wasn't any way to shorten the distance between either Bre'el III and Bre'el VII, or Bre'el III and Bre'el IV, with an artificial wormhole, and transporter relay stations set up between Bre'el III and Bre'el IV would cause an unacceptable degradation of the signal.

"We've had three ideas that might work. The first, easiest solution would be to have the Kaeloids ferry Bre'elians directly from III to IV instead of sending them across the solar system to VII; at impulse that's less than a five minute trip. The Kaeloid fleet has confirmed it has the capacity to evacuate 20,000 people, an operation that would probably take about half an hour or so, with another half hour to disembark. If the Kaeloids can ferry twenty thousand people between III and IV every hour or so, that gets the entire population of five hundred thousand people in about 25 hours... and the Bre'el III satellites are expected to hit in about 35 hours.

"The second possibility, if that doesn't work out, is that we use the mega-replicators to create transport platforms - essentially, three transport pods, or more but in sets of three, which can transport a thousand people at a time. With enough antimatter that might be possible... or at least to transport them fast enough to get a thousand people moved within five minutes. Instead of trying to relay the transporter beam, we actually relay the transporter stations, rematerializing people on each pod and then transporting them to the next pod. If we can transport a thousand people at a time, it might take five to ten minutes to get them to Bre'el IV. We set up maybe nine pods to do this, at a cost of nine hours - or five hours if we can get Bre'el IV to contribute - so we can transport three thousand people at once, eighteen thousand an hour, and we still get them all off the planet within 27 hours or so. This one has a lot of technical problems, and Data and I haven't yet solved all the issues with transporter buffers it would create, and we wanted to bring it up with Dr. Crusher to see if there might be any medical issues, but we think it might be better than the final alternative." Q hadn't heard this one before. They must have come up with that while he was researching how to use the transporters to save his own life.

"The final alternative is, we deliberately crash the moons into the planet, so we can control where they come down. Q ran us twelve different simulations, and Data and I picked the best three with input from Worf. Basically, we leave Bre'el IV's moon be for a little while, maybe about five hours - with the Ferengi holding it in place it shouldn't budge in that time, now that it's in its normal orbit - and go over to Bre'el III, where we destroy as much of the three moons as we can in ways that put the pieces on trajectories either out of III's gravity well entirely, or crashing on the uninhabited far side of the planet. The terraforming on Bre'el III has already required heavy duty air scrubbers, so they may be able to avoid an impact winter from all the dust. We consider this the riskiest option; the slightest miscalculation in the force we apply could result in giant pieces of rock hitting the inhabited region."

Picard shook his head. "Well, unfortunately the first solution doesn't appear to be workable. I've already been in contact with the Kaeloids, and they are going to be significantly less helpful than we thought. They only want to take on one set of twenty thousand passengers; they never had any intention of being a ferry service."

"Why not?" Riker asked. "I'm sure every little bit helps, but only being able to rescue twenty thousand people with all those extra ships, when we've got five hundred thousand to save, is a serious problem. Is there a technological limitation of some kind?"

"They wouldn't explain."

"That's very bad," Crusher said. "Because medically I can't recommend the second option at all. Repeated transports would put a strain on the body; children, the elderly, and people who are ill might not survive the stress of repetitive, rapid transports, and it could immunocompromise the healthy ones so they would come down with illnesses they should ordinarily be immune to."

"Well, that's not good," LaForge said. "If we can't transport the people, and the Kaeloids won't ferry them for some unknown reason..."

"I know what it is," Q said, smacking himself in the head. "Idiots. They don't want to have to purify twice."

Everyone looked at him. "'Purify?' Explain," Picard said.

"Look, you've probably gathered by now, given that they refused to have contact with anyone for 37 years, that the Kaeloids are a bunch of reactionary xenophobes. They're becoming more secular now that they've gotten rid of the old ruling junta and put in a new government, but they're still not exactly comfortable with the notion that aliens are people. Normally, every time a Kaeloid lays eyes on an alien being, he has to undergo a purification ritual, so that alien ways can't contaminate his soul or something like that... and for every different being he sees, he needs a different ritual. So, right now, each Kaeloid ship... they sent twenty freighters, right? Each with the capacity for about a thousand people or so?"

"That is correct," Data said.

"So the crew of each Kaeloid ship has to undergo a thousand purification rituals. Which, you know, it's only about two minutes, so I guess they figured it was doable. Basically they're going to have to spend about a day doing rituals after this. But twenty-five thousand purification rituals would be just out of the question."

"That's awful," Troi said. "Both that they feel they have to undergo such a burden in order to be able to rescue even a small number of people, and that it makes all their aid... well, I won't say useless, because twenty thousand people is still helpful, but it does make them much less helpful than we were hoping for."

"Is there anything you know of that we can do to persuade them?" Picard said.

"He made it pretty clear at the last meeting that he doesn't know how to negotiate, Captain," Riker said. "I'm not sure what help he's going to be."

"O ye of little faith, Riker. I actually do have an excellent method of persuading them." He grinned broadly. "What you do is, you contact them and tell them that you have been given visions by Eshto'varras. The name is important - Eshto'varras. You say that Eshto'varras told you that the Bre'elians are under his protection, and are pure in his eyes. This would mean they wouldn't have to do any purification rituals... or if they've gotten a lot more orthodox since the last time I checked up on them, at least they can get by with a big group ritual that would cover twenty-five thousand aliens as easily as it would a thousand."

"Who is Eshto'varras?" Troi asked.

"Well, if you look at it from one perspective, it's their god. From another perspective, I am. It all kind of boils down to the same thing."

"You're the god of the Kaeloids?" Riker asked disbelievingly.

"I didn't say that. I don't do the god thing; getting worshipped by mortals is for losers who actually need the adulation of lesser beings to make them feel better." He looked at the ceiling. "And Q, if you're watching this because your Kaeloids are involved, yes, I absolutely mean you."

"Eshto'varras is another Q?" Picard asked.

"No, Eshto'varras is Q. Literally. Come on, did you actually think we named ourselves after the seventeenth letter of your alphabet? Q is a translation of a concept your language has no words for; not a great translation, I'll admit, but given the inadequacies of your language and even your thought processes, it was the best I could do. Eshto'varras is a translation into the Kaeloid language of the exact same concept. So if I were talking to the Kaeloids, I would also be Eshto'varras, as much so as their god. Except I wouldn't try that right now, being that my obvious lack of godliness would most likely get me executed for blasphemy."

"If you're not the same Eshto'varras that they worship, don't you think it's a bad idea to antagonize the Q who is, if you want us to use him to persuade the Kaeloids?" Crusher asked.

"Ah, he's not really watching. Truth is, he actually more or less gave up on the Kaeloids about four hundred years ago, which, mind you, is longer than I expected him to stick with them. Besides, he was never a big fan of the xenophobia, so he'd probably play along with me."

"How could the god of a planet be against xenophobia, if it's a part of their religion?" LaForge said. "That doesn't make any sense. If he didn't like the Kaeloids being xenophobes, why couldn't he just change it?"

Q gave LaForge a look. "Spoken like someone who's never actually tried being a god," he said. "Believe me. It is not as easy as you think it is. Mortals positively love to take everything their actual gods told them, and twist them around to gain personal power or shape their culture in a certain way. I mean, guys who show up and say 'love everyone' end up coming back a thousand years later and discovering that they're being used as an excuse for every war going on on the planet. The best you can do is generally play judo with the culture; you work with the taboos and the beliefs they already have and come up with ways to get them to do what you want by working with the framework they've already got. And it usually ends up going wrong in the end anyhow."

"Q, what would prevent anyone from claiming anything in the name of Eshto'varras? Why would they believe us?" Picard asked. "It's not as if you can perform a miracle to establish our bona fides, and given that, as you say, mortals are always trying to exploit the word of god, in every culture... won't they be suspicious?"

"That's why the name is important, Picard. Eshtoism - the religion, for lack of a better word for it - keeps the second half of the name of their god a deeply held secret. You basically need to be a priest to know it. And anyone who's actually empowered to negotiate with aliens is almost certainly a priest. So if you say Eshto'varras told you this stuff, they know for a fact that you have actually been talking to Eshto'varras, given that you're an alien and none of their priests have been offworld in 37 years and no alien has been on the Kaeloid homeworld in even longer, so there's no way you could have learned the name from a Kaeloid who knows it. And, technically, it's true - you have been talking to Eshto'varras, since the name applies to me as much as it does to the Q who actually is their god. I mean, if the secret name of God was Will, you could go ask Riker and then tell everyone that you were talking to Will, and it's not your fault that they think you mean God when in fact you mean your overly hairy second in command."

"Wait a minute," Riker said slowly. "How do you know all this? You don't know what it's like to feel hungry or to need sleep, but you know all the details of a cult your fellow Q founded more than four hundred years ago?"

"I don't know all the details. And yes. Let me ask you something, Riker. If one time, maybe a few months ago, you read a manual on, say, how to operate a 20th century automobile, but then you never actually had the chance to get behind the wheel of one and try it out. Now there's a pop quiz. What are you going to remember, the latest adventures Data had with his cat that he told you about or how exactly to shift from third to fourth gear on a car you've never driven?"

"All right, I see your point," Riker said.

"I used to get constant, uh, updates I guess you'd call it, on the Kaeloids because my brother doesn't know when to shut up about a subject that bores everybody. To be honest, that's how I knew about the Ferengi mining colony and the fact that the Kaeloids were considering re-opening trade. My brother may not be actively intervening as their god right now, but he pays a ridiculous amount of attention to them, and anything any Q has recently been paying a ridiculous amount of attention to, I probably remember a good bit of the generalities." He shrugged. "It's going to be kind of random, what I know and what I don't know, as far as alien species go anyway. I mean, if you had to evacuate Memory Alpha and all you could take with you were the chips you could stuff in your pocket, that happened to be lying around where people were actively using them for research, it would be kind of random what you salvaged, too."

"We are wasting time," Worf said. "If we are going to lie to the Kaeloids to persuade them to rescue more Bre'elians, it would be best done quickly."

"Mr. LaForge," Picard said. "Even if it is possible to evacuate all the people from Bre'el III... would it create a terrible impact on us to bring down the moons as you suggested in any case? The moons will crash, whether there are people on the planet or not, and it would be better for those people if they evacuated and then had a home to return to; they shouldn't have to live permanently on Bre'el IV because the crashing moons destroyed their home and sabotaged their terraforming, if there's a way we can avoid that."

"Uh, yeah. I think you're right, Captain. No, there's no impact to us in bringing down the moons; the plans we've got suggest we could do it in four or five hours with very little risk to the ship. The risk was all to the people on Bre'el III. If we got them off the planet first... well, any control applied to the moons' descent would be better than none."

"Under the circumstances, if we did it that way, we would have to contact the Calamarain and let them know that we aren't leaving the system," Troi said.

"Why would that be necessary?" Worf said. "I had thought Q negotiated some sort of arrangement with them."

"I did," Q said tightly, knowing exactly what Troi was getting at. If the Calamarain thought the Enterprise was trying to flee with Q, they would pursue, and attack. "But the conditions of the deal require that I stay in-system."

"And that brings me to the next topic I wanted to discuss, since we're all here," Picard said. "I understand your concern about the time, Mr. Worf, but since the Kaeloids have not yet taken on their first load of passengers, we do have a bit of time, and this is important." He looked around at everyone at the table. "Most of you are not aware of the nature of the deal Q made with the Calamarain yesterday. The truth is, when Counselor Troi attempted to negotiate with the Calamarain, their disdain for our entire form of life led them to attack her, personally, when she revealed that we have been deliberately protecting Q. In order to save her, Q was forced to negotiate with the Calamarain directly... and, as he warned us yesterday, the only thing they were willing to accept was his surrender. He persuaded them to give him three days, so that he would have time to help us deal with the Bre'el III situation... and in exchange he agreed to surrender himself to be executed by them at the end of the three days."

"More like two, now," Q said harshly. He really didn't want to be talking about this. "Do we need to be wasting time discussing this? What, you wanted to get everyone together to plan that funeral you claimed I wanted? Which, for the record? I don't."

Picard looked directly at him, sharply. "Q, when we discussed this yesterday I told you we would try to do anything we can to protect you, but that you need to cooperate with us, and tell us what you know of the Calamarain. So. Since any hope we might possibly have of saving your life depends on knowledge of the Calamarain that only you have, if you want to live I suggest you talk to us."

"It's a waste of time," Q mumbled. Before he could add that besides, he had already thought of something that might work, Picard cut him off.

"Regardless, you did agree to tell us everything you can remember about the Calamarain so that we can help you. I understand that you don't think we'll be able to come up with anything, but it would hardly be the first time we've surprised you."

He had a point. "Fine," Q sighed. "What do you need to know?"

"To start with," Riker said, "you've said they're very smart, they're very flighty and unpredictable, they're short-sighted idiots and they're absolutely rigid. Since those things all contradict each other, I'm starting to think you're making it all up. What are they really like?"

Q took a deep breath. "I am not 'making it all up', Riker. You ever hear about the blind men and the elephant? If you were a Q, I could just hand you an information blob containing everything about the Calamarain, including the elements that out of context sound contradictory, but you missed that chance, so you're just going to have to get the information the hard way. With words. And if they contradict themselves, well, very well, they contradict themselves. The Calamarain are large, they contain multitudes."

"Is that not a rephrasing of a quote from Walt Whitman?" Data asked.

"Very good. A gold star to the android... oh, wait, sorry, I can't give out stars anymore. You'll just have to settle for my congratulations."

"Q..." Picard said warningly.

"Fine! You want to know all about the Calamarain? I warn you, it's an awfully dull subject of study, but since you insist." He pushed out of his chair, feeling restless. It wasn't like when he'd had his powers, when the very energy of his existence coursed through his adopted human form and moving it was so effortless, the sensations of having a physicality moving through an atmosphere so compelling in comparison to his usual noncorporeal state, that he could rarely be bothered to sit still while in the human form. Now it was more as if he couldn't sit still - not quite as bad as yesterday, when his muscles had seemed to want to twitch and jerk without his input if he didn't use them up in pacing or gesturing, but it was rather uncomfortable when he tried to stay in a chair without moving. Tapping his fingers wasn't doing enough for him; he had to pace. "In terms of their scientific knowledge, of their ability to observe the universe and draw conclusions when objective, verifiable data is available, they're brilliant. I mean, individually they're kind of stupid - about low to average human, marginally smarter than a Pakled. But they're touch telepaths, and it's always on, so as long as they're in that cloud together they can link their minds and think through almost anything faster than, well, you. Except Data. Probably faster than him too, but that one I'm not 100% certain of. They were able to identify me because they detected the surge of Continuum energy around this ship when I arrived - which, to be fair, the others weren't making any attempt to block, but your sensors couldn't read it anyway. The Calamarain can travel at high warp, they can perform limited matter-energy conversions - not on the order of the Q, obviously, but if they felt like duplicating the capabilities of your replicators, they could - and if they decide they want to destroy you, they will. And now that they know that you were deliberately protecting me, as opposed to just putting up shields because you were too stupid to figure out that I was the focal point of the attack, they will try to destroy you if I don't surrender myself.

"But that's their technological and scientific skill. When it comes to things that are, shall we say, less objectively verifiable? The big questions - who are we, how did we get here, what is our place in the universe, how do we relate to other species, how should we treat each other... They're terrible at those. Because, you see, they are all into peace and harmony and we should all agree with each other and if you don't agree you are a big meanie and we will yell at you or ostracize you until you admit we're right. They make themselves an echo chamber - they have no negative feedback mechanism where some Calamarain check the excesses of others. Instead the extremists drag the beliefs of everyone in the cloud over toward their extreme opinion. New ideas are either crushed, or if they become popular, consume the entire group. So they're faddish, blowing from one extreme to another, passionate and dogmatic about whatever they believe today but tomorrow it might be something else and they'll all simply pretend they don't even remember what it was they used to believe."

"Can we use that to our advantage?" Picard asked. "If they are capable of taking new ideas and responding to them so well that they forget they believed anything else, perhaps we can persuade them that they don't want to kill you."

"Well, that'd be great, but there's two problems with it. Firstly, you people are all made of meat, and as I think the Counselor gathered the other day, they're even more contemptuous of meat-beings right now than they were when I last dealt with them. So they're not going to listen to your opinions, which means they're not going to consider your ideas. And they hate me. If I couldn't get them to change their beliefs when I was omnipotent, I'm not going to have much luck right now."

"What did you actually do to them?" Troi asked.

"You people keep asking me that question."

"Because you haven't answered it yet," Picard said. "Neither 'nothing bizarre, nothing grotesque' nor your tale of destroying their political system with a truth they weren't ready to hear actually tells us what you did."

Q sighed theatrically. "Fine. Not that I think it will actually help you, but since you're so desperate to know, I suppose I can oblige you." He leaned forward, hands on the table supporting his weight. "The Calamarain, you see, believe that they are the pinnacle of existence. All other species are examined from the perspective of how much they are like Calamarain, and found lacking when they are different. That in itself is hardly unusual - you humans are infamous for it." He met Picard's eyes, then straightened up and started to pace again. "But the Calamarain take it to an extreme. They don't want to acknowledge that any other race has a talent, skill or ability that they lack or that improves on their own. You humans at least borrow freely from the good ideas of other species, and pay lip service to them being your equals - that's how you manage to ally yourselves with so many other races. Not the Calamarain! They're the unchallenged lords of the universe, the pinnacle of evolution. Oh, except they didn't evolve. They came into existence just like this, and have never needed to grow or improve because for all of time they have been perfect." He snorted. "Even the Continuum evolved. The Calamarain are idiots. And I find idiocy of such nature... irresistible." He grinned.

"Sounds like you didn't like the fact that they thought they were superior to the Q," Riker said. "Or do you not count as a race, to the Calamarain?"

"Oh, no, you're quite right, they thought they were better than me. But, I mean, Vulcans think they're better than the Q and that doesn't give me the overwhelming urge to... provide another perspective. No, it's that the Calamarain are so arrogant in their stupidity. So I decided to give them a little demonstration of some facts of life - that they're not perfect, that they're not superior to everyone, and that they haven't always been what they are."

"So this is where the torment comes in," Riker said.

"Well, if you count it as torment. I would have thought they'd take it as a learning experience, but there you go."

"Again. What did you do?" Picard asked.

Q sighed. "I'm getting to it, Picard. Really, you're so impatient. One would think you're the one with only two days to live."

"If you would like to extend that time, giving us the information we've asked for quickly is your best option."

"All right, then. I fail to see what good any of this will do you, but since you want to know so badly. I took some of them, separately, back to different times in the history of the Calamarain's civilization and evolution, to see where they had come from. I transformed others - made them into energy beings, or different gas beings, or liquid beings or solid beings. Even made some of them humanoid. I took some to see the possible futures of the Calamarain, including ones where they were destroyed by something they completely underestimated. And I split hundreds of them apart from the others, so they would learn that their much-vaunted superiority only exists in numbers... that by themselves, each individual Calamarain is virtually helpless." He shrugged. "I was trying to give them some perspective on the universe, and their place in it."

"I take it that didn't work," Riker said.

"No, it really didn't. It's the groupthink thing. Individually I convinced most of the ones I singled out for my, uh, field trips, but once they all got back together in their cloud they just convinced each other that all I'd done was to subject them to terrifying illusions in order to, I don't know, just be evil, or something. Except that some of them wouldn't buy it, and those ones actually refused to be swayed by the groupthink, because there were enough of them to reinforce it. Those guys could have crystallized into a loyal opposition, a feedback mechanism for the group mind, but noooo... after a lot of arguing and angsting and trying to pressure the others into being good little Calamarain and going along with the rest of the group, they finally threw the dissenters out. And they blame me for this. They believe that I destroyed the unity of the Calamarain and threw them into chaos, did them permanent damage because now everyone has to live with the knowledge of having cast out fellow Calamarain, and the idea that the very fact that I could do this disproves their belief that the Calamarain can do anything that anyone in the universe has the ability to do? They've been sticking their fingers in their metaphorical ears singing 'La la la, I can't hear you' every time that comes up."

For a moment everyone was quiet. Then Crusher said, in her "humor the idiot" voice, "Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just possibly, if they were going to react in such a violent way to you picking them up and flinging them around the universe randomly to teach them 'lessons', that maybe they weren't ready to learn?"

Q glared at Crusher. "Look, Crusher, the fact that I did this and it didn't work is going to kill me. I don't need you rubbing it in."

"Would the Calamarain who were exiled be able to help you?" Troi asked. "Perhaps if they could negotiate on your behalf..."

"That would be very helpful if I had the faintest idea where in the universe they are," Q snapped. "Besides, I don't even know if they're still alive. They weren't doing so well the last I saw them."

"If we could find them, would they help you?"

"If I suddenly turned into a frog, Troi, would that help me? Because that's about as likely. And I don't know if they would anyway. Just because they believed what I had to teach them doesn't mean they like me for showing it to them; after all, they got exiled from their homes for it. I don't recall them actually putting me on trial like this batch did, but for all I know they want me dead just as badly."

"You mentioned yesterday that the Calamarain are telepathic with humans as well?" Picard asked.

"Yes, but only by touch. If you wanted to contact them, you'd have to use the telepathic amplifier we built to send a request; the amplifier should be able to reach them across the Bre'el system. But they can't read you unless they're touching you, and even then probably only surface thoughts." He shook his head. "But you know what, none of this is necessary, because I've already figured out a way to survive this. All I need is some of Data's time after the immediate crisis is over to help me reconfigure the transporter."

"You have?" Picard sounded surprised. "Why didn't you mention this earlier?"

"Because I got the distinct impression that you people would consider it excessively bizarre. And because it's hardly a perfect solution. It still requires me to die, but it games reality so that I can live as well."

"That makes no sense," LaForge said. "How can you die and live... oh, wait. Oh, no, I know where you're going with this one." He shook his head, sounding disappointed and troubled.

Q decided to ignore LaForge's reaction. "You see, I know for a fact that your transporter can duplicate people perfectly. Admittedly, thus far it's only done it by accident, but anything that your technology can do by accident, I have confidence that you guys can figure out how to do intentionally."

They were looking at him as if he'd grown three heads. Picard said slowly, as if horrified, "Q, you aren't seriously suggesting... creating a sentient duplicate of yourself, to die in your place?"

Q blinked. "That makes no sense, Picard. If he's a duplicate of me, then he's not dying in my place, it's his place too. For that matter I'm dying in his place. We're the same."

"This came up at the meeting before, in engineering," LaForge said. "Q thinks a duplicate of himself would be the same person. I mean, literally, like you could put one on trial for the crimes the other committed."

"I don't even understand how it's possible for the transporter to duplicate someone that precisely," Crusher said. "I've heard of cases where the transporter has accidentally created two copies of a person with different mental states, but I've never heard of a case where the copy is exact."

Q smiled broadly. Now that he was in this limited state, he took even more pleasure from the moments when he knew something none of them did. "Of course you haven't heard of it; his crewmates abandoned him when they got one copy, thinking the transport complete. Poor fellow's been stranded there for, what, nearly five years now?" He turned toward Riker. "Guy name of Lieutenant William Riker, of the Potemkin. I think you might know him."

Riker stared. "What?" he finally managed.

"You've got a twin, Billy boy," Q said. "I forget the name of the planet, but I'm pretty sure you could figure it out. It was that one with the research outpost and you can only get to it every eight years because of the distortion field or something?"

"How do you know this?"

"Oh, come on, I offered you the power of the Q. You think I did that because I fell for your baby blue eyes? You had a control. If you'd accepted, I would have told you about your twin - or you'd have figured it out for yourself, because of course you'd have been as nigh-omniscient as the rest of us - and you'd have rescued him and dropped him off on the Enterprise to live out your life for you, so I'd have been able to compare a human Riker with a Q who used to be a human Riker, and determine which aspects of your personality and nature are unique to you and which pertain to your humanity."

"So... that's all it was? It wasn't because you thought I was... special, or especially corruptible, or... it was just because I had a transporter duplicate? How did that even happen?"

"The redundancy in the beam," Q said cheerfully, enjoying the wide-eyed stares from the senior staff. "The transporter chief was afraid he wasn't going to get you with the distortion field, so he tried a second containment beam. The containment beam, you probably know, is what carries the pattern and forces the energy that used to be your matter to stay in a certain shape instead of, well, exploding with the force of several hundred petajoules. The second beam was shaped like you, but they recovered all of your matter with the first beam, so the second beam just grabbed energy from the distortion field and random matter from the planetary surface, and made a copy of you out of it." He looked over at Data. "Admittedly we don't have a distortion field, but we should theoretically be able to rig the transporter to initialize two containment beams for the same being, and then put the second one in a sufficiently dense collection of matter - maybe water, since I'll have to be able to get out of it without having bodily organs melded contiguously with some surface that isn't my body - that the second beam can get enough matter to make another me. And then one of me goes to the Calamarain and the other stays here."

"You really are talking about sending someone off to die in your place," Picard said quietly. "I was hoping that wasn't what you meant."

"That's not what I meant, so why do you keep saying it is? Look, there'd be two me's, both equally me. One of me dies, one of me lives. I become Schroedinger's Q, alive and dead at the same time. Nobody sends anybody to die."

"But you're manufacturing a copy of yourself, for the sole purpose of his dying that you can live!" Picard's tone was not exactly shouting, but it was sharp. "How is it that you can't see the immorality of that?"

"What's immoral? I'm the copy! Or rather, from here, where I make the decision, there is no copy. Both will be me; I experience both futures. It's like splitting a timeline, except nothing happens to time so everyone is aware it's happening."

"And what happens if you do this, and neither of you want to be the one who dies so that the other can live?" Troi asked.

"That's not going to happen. The alternative here isn't that I live, after all. The best I'm going to manage is living and dying at the same time; it's not that I'm creating a copy to die, it's that I'm creating a copy to live. If you have to look at it that way. Myself, I don't see it as creating a copy at all, per se; the original me won't exist anymore, after all."

"One of you will be composed of the same matter that was converted in the containment beam, and the other will not," Data pointed out. "That would define which one is the original, legally."

"Data, I'm not made of the same matter I was any of the times I came to your ship; I materialize myself out of nothing all the time. ...Well, I did, anyway. I'm not really attached to my matter. For that matter, none of the humanoids here are made of the same matter they were made of ten years ago, and nobody cares." Why couldn't they understand this? Surely they could recognize that if they disagreed with him about metaphysics, he, the billion-year-old entity who used to be able to play with the fabric of time and space, was more likely to be in the right? Or if they couldn't accept that, couldn't they just accept that he believed what he believed, and that from his perspective this wasn't what they were thinking it was at all? "Look, if I was talking about snapping my fingers and making a thinking simulacrum of myself to go die, I could see your point. That'd be kind of iffy, if the copy was sentient. But I'm still talking about sacrificing myself. There's no 'real me' if we make two identical copies; they're both me."

"And the one who goes to die will be perfectly comfortable with being sacrificed so the other one can live?" Picard asked sarcastically.

"Well, I'm not perfectly comfortable with dying under any circumstance; frankly, I'm just not thrilled with this pain thing. I suppose if the Calamarain were just going to put me to sleep, I wouldn't have any problem with it, but no, I admit it, I don't like the thought of enduring pain. But what you're not getting is that if I don't do something like this, I'll die anyway. So if I have the choice between dying completely, and dying but knowing that there's an identical me who's still alive, I'm going to take the option that leaves me alive at the end of it, even if I have to die to get there." He scrunched his hands in his hair in frustration. "I hate your language! It's bad enough to teach you concepts you haven't grasped yet that you at least have words for; I can't even use the pronouns your language provides to talk about this properly!"

"Does this happen in the Continuum a lot?" Riker asked, still looking stunned. "People just... copy themselves? Or each other?"

"Themselves. It'd be a serious breach of etiquette to copy someone else. But yeah. You have something boring you need to do, and something more fun you're in the middle of, you just split yourself, and later on when you merge back together you can get the memories of having done both things."

"Mortals can't merge themselves back together," Troi said. "That would make a great deal of difference, I think."

Q shrugged, lifting and opening his hands in a dismissive gesture. "Not that much, I'm sure."

Data said, "It is against Federation law to create a copy of a living sentient being. It is also against Federation law to create a copy of a sentient being for purposes of being a decoy - to suffer a penalty in the place of the creator, for instance. The second is quite a serious charge. If you did do this, Q, the iteration of you that survived could be prosecuted for the murder of the iteration that died."

Q stared at him. "You cannot be serious, Data."

"I can recite the full text of the relevant statutes to you if you would like."

"No. No, that's not necessary." For the first time it dawned on him that they really might not let him do this - that they might throw away his best chance at survival for the sake of their stupid miscomprehension of the continuity of identity. "What... what if we explicitly make one as the original and the second as a copy through time delay, and the original is the one who goes to die? How could that be illegal?"

"It would be illegal because creating a copy of yourself in the first place is creating a copy of a sentient being."

"But the me who did that would die! So the copy couldn't be held responsible for having created himself, could he? I mean, how does that make any sense?"

"Q, even if they couldn't prosecute the surviving version of you, they could prosecute Data for helping you," LaForge said.

"Oh." That settled that. He wouldn't expose Data to danger for his own survival; it had hurt too much to see Data half-taken apart in sickbay, unable to speak, and to know he had been the cause. "But what if I did it all on my own? I might be able to figure out how to rig your transporter just on my own, without help. I mean, it can't be that hard; your technology runs on physics, and I understand physics..."

"No, Q," Picard said, almost gently. "You have no way of knowing how the experience of being human would change your perception of your alternate self, but the fact that you wouldn't be able to share thoughts and memories with the other you, the fact that to all of your senses he would seem a completely different being... that might have a far greater impact than you are considering. What if you make the decision, and afterward, the one who's chosen to die finds that he has second thoughts? You cannot put yourself in a situation where you must compete for your own survival with a copy of yourself. It is immoral to do that to a human, because of human limitations in the perception of self. It is immoral to do it to yourself, because you would be inflicting the problem on two men who don't exist yet, the two human beings that you would become. I understand that your culture does not consider this immoral, but your culture has different constraints - the fact that the Q can split into two and merge back together makes what you're suggesting now a completely different situation than what a Q would face. And regardless of whether you agree with the immorality or not, the fact is that it is illegal, precisely because of the immorality we perceive in it. No one aboard the Enterprise will help you to do such a thing, nor will you be allowed to use the ship's transporters."

Picard's words were like the jaws of a trap, closing on him and crushing the breath from his lungs. In horror, Q realized he was dangerously close to tears again - this tight feeling in his chest, his difficulty breathing, was just like he'd felt in Picard's office when Troi had exposed him and then Picard had insulted him, calling him childish for saving Picard's precious ship. No. He was not going to cry again. Not here, not in front of all of them. But he had had hope, for a few short hours. He'd seen a lifeline hanging from the bridge, and just as he'd reached for it Picard had snatched it away, leaving him to drown in the icy whirlpool of his own impending death.

"Fine. Fine." His hands were shaking. "Your primitive misunderstanding of metaphysics would be laughable if it weren't going to kill me. But fine. The only possible solution we could come up with to save my life, and you don't want to do it because you have some convoluted reason why it violates Federation morality, but fine. I'm human now. I have to obey your laws, after all." He laughed, a short, sharp sound, and cut it off before it turned into a sob. "So I'll do that. I'll obey your human laws, your human morality. And I'll die as a human." He spun on his heel and headed for the door.

"Q-" Picard said.

"I'm done here. Entertain yourselves contemplating the futility of avoiding the inevitable, if you wish, but I know better. I'm not going to make the mistake of hoping-" His voice almost broke. He couldn't keep talking, or they'd hear how weak he was, how close to breaking down, so he cut the sentence off and stalked out of the room without another word.

After he was gone, there was silence for a moment. Then LaForge said, "Remind me again why we're trying to save his life?"

No one laughed, but Troi felt several of the others feeling a sense of amused recognition. Despite herself, she felt that this was not really fair.

She really didn't want to be feeling sorry for Q. After the way he had treated her yesterday, she wanted to be furious with him. But even yesterday, after Captain Picard had called her back to his ready room once Q was back in engineering and explained the situation, she'd felt reluctant sympathy for him. It was the curse of being an empath, particularly one with extensive training and experience as a counselor; she couldn't avoid seeing the other point of view in a conflict. And it did seem like it would be fairly horrifying to agree to sacrifice your life to save others, only to be told you had a 'childish martyrdom complex' by one of the people you were trying to save. Q's overreaction had been part exhaustion, stress and the despair weighing on him from the deal he'd made with the Calamarain, part betrayal and shock at Picard's reaction to his sacrifice, and part a genuine horror of having his emotions revealed publicly. She hadn't been able to quite forgive him, but she had begun to understand where he'd been coming from.

Now she was even more inclined to feel sympathy for him, having been right here to sense what he'd been feeling during the meeting. She'd sensed the confidence and hope he'd started with when he started to describe his plan disintegrate into disbelief, and then horror, and then utter despair and grief as he'd fully comprehended that he wouldn't be allowed to carry out his plan. "That's not entirely fair, Geordi," she said. "I think Q's reaction is understandable. From his perspective, he's being forbidden to carry out the only plan he can imagine to save his own life, for reasons he finds incomprehensible." She leaned forward, looking directly at LaForge. "Imagine if you were sick, and became stranded on a planet with a religious objection to medicine. You'd know that with medical attention you would probably be fine, and without it you'll surely die... but the people you're among not only have no doctors, they won't let you summon one from offworld because they believe medicine is morally wrong. That's the same sort of situation Q feels he's in."

"Our objection to duplicating sentient beings is hardly religious, Counselor," Picard pointed out.

"Of course, sir, but it is metaphysical. And Q's understanding of metaphysics is apparently different from ours, and since his civilization is older and more technologically advanced, he believes he's right, and we're superstitious primitives. Most of us wouldn't be happy to die to conform to the superstitious beliefs of a pre-warp civilization, and we've all agreed to do it if necessary when we joined Starfleet and vowed to uphold the Prime Directive. As nearly as we can tell, Q doesn't have any Prime Directive or similar concept constraining him; he never agreed to die for what we believe, when it contradicts his beliefs."

"Regardless of his beliefs about our metaphysics, we couldn't simply go along with his plan," Picard said, a slight sharp edge to his voice.

"Oh, no, I agree, sir. I'm not saying that we did anything wrong in refusing Q permission to try to duplicate himself. I believe that you were right - he hasn't thought through how different the experience of having a duplicate would be if he can't remain in telepathic contact with the duplicate or re-merge with him later. But I only wanted to point out that Q's behavior was actually understandable."

"Sorry, Counselor," LaForge said. He sighed. "I guess it does make sense, but I've been dealing with his temper tantrums for two days now. It gets old."

"I'm sure it does, Mr. LaForge," Picard said. "But I'd like you to keep something in mind." He steepled his fingers together on the table. "We all know how irritating Q is. He's not our friend. He's not our crewmate. In fact, until recently, he treated us as if we were his playthings. He is not kind, or polite, or friendly; when he's at his best, he's still insulting, and when he's at his worst he's positively vicious. None of us like him.

"And Q knows this. And he doesn't come from a culture that puts any value on self-sacrifice or altruism; he's quite possibly never been in a position where he could sacrifice anything of value to himself, until now. He has no experience dealing with the fear of death. He has no tolerance for pain or even minor discomfort. He has, historically, been incredibly selfish, and even now he is very self-centered and egotistical.

"Yet, despite all that, Q agreed to sacrifice himself to the Calamarain to save our lives. Moreover, he agreed to do so in a way he finds humiliating and distasteful in order to buy himself a few extra days to help us; when I talked to him, he didn't seem to have asked for the extra time so much for himself as for us, and the people in the Bre'el system. While all of us went into Starfleet with the understanding that it might someday require us to give our lives, Q came to us for sanctuary and protection. He was completely unprepared for the concept of self-sacrifice when he came here, and yet still he consented to hand himself over to an enemy to be executed for crimes that, as you all heard, he still doesn't think were of any significant harm to the victims, to protect us. Despite the fact that he knows we don't even like him."

"I... guess I didn't think of it that way," LaForge said.

"Of course not. Q is an atrocious nuisance. We all resent that he came to us and disrupted our rescue operations, I'm sure. But if he hadn't, we might not have figured out how to stop the Bre'el IV moon from falling, and we certainly would not have realized the danger to Bre'el III until it was entirely too late to do anything. As annoying as he is, Q may have contributed to saving thousands of lives, possibly even millions. And with that alone, Q has repaid our efforts thus far to protect him. But when you consider that he plans to sacrifice himself to protect us, despite the fact that self-sacrifice must be an utterly alien concept to him... I think Q has earned our best efforts to save him."

"Sorry, sir," LaForge said, abashed.

"Now. I don't think we're going to get any more information out of Q. Let's regroup later in the day, after we've dealt with the things we need to for the current crisis, and see if any of us can come up with any ideas for how we can save Q from the Calamarain, that don't involve sacrificing a transporter duplicate of him at any rate." A very slight smile appeared on Picard's face as he said the last.

There was a general chorus of "Aye, sirs". Troi hung back slightly as most of the others left. So did Will, but he had a different agenda.

"Captain. Once we're done with this entire thing... as soon as we have the opportunity, I'd like permission to go investigate and see if I can find this... duplicate of myself Q was talking about."

"Granted, Number One. At the earliest opportunity, we'll look into that." Picard nodded, then turned to Troi. "Counselor?"

"I was just wondering... since you actually seem to understand him better than most of us. Should I go after Q? Try to talk to him?"

Picard shook his head. "No, Counselor. Not right away. Let him have some time. If you'd like to talk to him later in the afternoon, he should have himself better under control, but he'll only be humiliated if you find him when he's still this upset, and he'll take it out on you. You won't get anywhere with him unless you give him some time to regain some equilibrium."

She nodded. That was what she'd thought, although her sympathies as a counselor made it hard for her to simply let someone run off in such obvious pain without doing anything about it. "I'll see about talking to him later, then." Troi smiled ironically. "Perhaps I'll apologize. I'm sure that will startle him."

Picard smiled. "Most likely, yes."

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