I suppose the title of this is obvious to anyone who's read the right books, isn't it?
Call this catharsis, if you must. I can't think of any better word for it.
A Time to Speak.
A shuffle, an impatient muttering sound, followed by silence and endless, white light.
'...Well. This is irritatingly inconvenient, now isn't it? Shame there's absolutely nothing I can do about it.'
'Oh, now that's a friendly face. What? Aren't you happy to see me?'
Another shuffle followed by a vague sensation of... discomfort? No. It is far more like uncertainty than discomfort. 'Giving me the cold shoulder, are we? You've been spending too much time with dear Jean Luc, that's your problem. His frightful manners are rubbing off on you.'
'Yeees. Brilliantly deduced, my professor of the humanities. You can see me too, you know, if you really try.'
He can hear air movement –a thin rushing sensation, similar to the sound of a deactivating holoprogram. There is breath where breath should not be. Or the illusion of it, at least. He comes to realise that he is stood in the middle of an endless nothingness, in one piece, body and mind. 'I do not...'
'—Understand? I wouldn't find that surprising, if anything ever did surprise me. It's not about understanding. The laws of physics –as you know them– hardly apply to the Continuum, do they? Just open your eyes and see me.'
His eyes are open (he thinks), but he can see nothing bar the whiteness. 'I cannot...'
A snort. 'Oh honestly, even Jean Luc managed better than this. Come now, Data, don't be so Android.'
'I am an Android.'
'Correction. You were an android. Past tense. Now you're...' A pause, followed by a chuckle. 'Well... listen to me rambling on and on. I have to admit, death is the one thing we Q don't honestly know a lot about –and you are not allowed to tell Jean Luc I said that, by the way. Heh. Not that you'd be able to now.'
Data takes a deep breath and attempts not to show his anxiety. 'Perhaps you could explain to me precisely how—'
There is the sensation of something clamping his jaw shut mid-sentence, along with a sharp 'Shhh!' Then the sensation fades as suddenly as it had appeared. 'Forget about such human intricacies. Your problem is that you require explanations for everything. One of the strengths of the Q is that we don't need such explanations. Never have, never will. You don't ask how you do something, you just do it.'
'But I am not Q.'
'No, that much is painfully obvious.' A familiar, irritating chuckle. Data realises that he has not experienced Q's presence in a very long time. Since before his emotion chip had been installed, in fact. He is not familiar with these sentiments. 'Now, are you going to open your eyes are not?'
'They are not already open?' Data is confused. He is aware of the whiteness all around him. He can look down and see his own pale fingers, clenching and unclenching at the command of his sub processors. The dull fabric of his uniform. All there. All whole. It is only Q who is invisible and intangible.
His eyes are open.
'Not properly, they aren't. Now stop wondering about the "how's" and "why's" and "wherefores" and just look at me already, Data.'
He still does not understand. 'Q, where are we?'
'Urgh! There, you see?!' The sound of hands slapping together. Still, Data can see nothing but whiteness. 'He's at it with the explanations again. Honestly, Data haven't you ever heard of the saying: live and let live?'
'I do not believe that saying was intended for use in this context.'
'Hm. Not in the way you mortals understand it. Works for me, though.'
There is a feeling associated with that word. Data is not entirely certain what that feeling is, but it burns deep down inside of him, intricately bound within the circuitry and matrixes of a mind and body that, in reality, he knows he should no longer possess. He remembers firing into the core of the Scimitar. He remembers the disintegration of bioplastic sheeting. He is mortal.
He should not be here.
And there is Q. Grinning at him.
'Oh, why the long face? You were expecting something more dramatic, perhaps?
He should not be here. 'You appear...'
'Breathtaking? Spectacular? Awe inspiring?'
'...Human.' Data finishes. And it is true. Q appears now as Data has always remembered Q appearing. The same impersonation of a Starfleet uniform. The same mocking smile. For some reason this surprises him. As if he had not expected to see Q in human form. After all, the Q could have appeared to him as anything.
'Really? Well that's your problem, not mine.' A sigh. 'Well I suppose this is better than nothing, eh, Professor of Humanities? Congratulations on getting this far, anyway, I suppose you deserve some credit for dying in such a spectacular fashion. By human standards.'
'You are not here to send me back.' It is not a question, but Data had vaguely hoped, anyway.
'Hm. No. Shame, really. You could've had an interesting future ahead of you if only you hadn't allowed yourself to do something so dreadfully human. Life and death, Data,' two distinctively not-human eyes gleam at him in the whiteness. 'They're funny states. Even the Q have found that when we try to mess with them, we tend to end up unravelling the whole tapestry of existence. So unfortunately no, no help for you here.'
'I do not desire your help, Q.' His words are tinged faintly with distrust –a very human trait, he realises, and feels almost pleased about the fact.
'No, but you don't really want to die either, do you, Data? Not even for that precious captain of yours. Not here. Not like this. It's all quite ridiculous really. The only properly functioning Soong Type android in existence, the culmination of humanity's most primitive dreams for procreation. And now he's dead, all for the want of a transporter.'
'I did what I had to do.' Data whispers. Is Q circling him, or is that merely an illusion brought on by the environment in which they find themselves?
'Remember who you're talking to, Data. Omnipotent, remember?'
There is another pause, infinitely longer than the first. Eternity could have passed in the thirteen seconds that it takes Data to formulate a response. 'I chose to die. It was my choice to make.' And Captain Picard will live.
'Of course he will. Along with all those other flesh and blood buddies of yours.' Q says in a patronizingly blunt voice. And then he pats Data's shoulder in the manner so human, that it would probably insult him to mention it. 'Walk with me, Professor of the Humanities. I don't have all day. And neither do you, for that matter. Even I can only delay these things for so long, you know.'
There seems little else that he can do.
And so, in spite of the fact that there appears to be nowhere in particular for him to go, Data walks.
'Tell me, Data, do you regret it?'
'Yes. Firing that phaser. Dying. Becoming nothing more than a collection of particles drifting in the depths of space.'
There is a pause measuring three point eight seven seconds. As he had mentioned to someone once before: for an android, this is almost an eternity. 'I believed that I had already made such a fact clear.'
'No, your exact words were "I did what I had to do".' Q's voice and expression is a perfect mimic of Data's own as he speaks. It's actually a little bit disturbing. 'But there was no "had to" about it, now, was there, Data? You could have stayed on board the ship and let your captain take the fall. Just like you could've taken the fall for me during that dreadful business involving my expulsion.'
'Is that what this is about, Q?'
'Oh, I already repaid you for that in full, android. Believe me this is no reward, merely a postponing of the inevitable. You're dead and you'd better get used to the fact.'
Dead. This is perhaps not what he had anticipated. Death would render a person without awareness sof their own form, wouldn't it? Yet he is here. A series of words spring into his mind as if they had been planted there: If you prick me, do I not leak?
Q grins again. 'Why don't you try it and find out?'
Data gazes down at his fingers. Illogical. He has nothing to prick them with, anyway. For now, he decides, he will trust his own perception. 'Q, if I am dead, then why are we here?'
'Call it curiosity,' Q says. 'Maybe I just wanted to see how the Professor conducts himself when faced with the ultimate test of Humanity.'
'Test of Humanity?'
'Yes. I mean, technically, this is exactly what you wished for, isn't it, Data? Humanity equals mortality. You've finally proven it to all of those boffins who've been trying to get a peek inside of your brain for years. Terrific waste, if you ask me. You would've been far more use to this dull galaxy in one piece. But when you Enterpriser's have something to prove, then frankly there's no stopping you.'
'But... Why are you doing this? I fail to comprehend...' it is not like Q to make grand gestures such as this. Not unless there is something for him to gain from it. Or at least, the Q that data remembers always worked that way.
'Time is flexible for the continuum Data,' Q says, with a seriousness Data has not heard from the being since that time in sickbay, with his vocal simulators down and Q's face pressed up close to his. 'Zero point six three seconds, right? Forever to an android. How long do you think it is for a Q?'
Data thinks about this question for a comparatively long time. '...A long time.'
'Mhmmmmm, and what do you think I was doing all that time, Data? Playing poker? Tormenting microscopic celestial beings? Creating Robin Hood fallacies for my own amusement? No no no, my artificial friend, I've been doing far more interesting things than that. Quite amusing, actually, these little journeys of self discovery. The strangest things can happen along the way.'
Data does not quite know what to say to this. 'You have been on a voyage of self discovery?'
'Well actually, it was more of a rebellion than a voyage, though it is very funny that you should say "voyage" actually since...' Q pauses, tongue in cheek in the midst of a memory that data doubts her is going to share. 'Well never mind. Voyage or Rebellion, tomato or tomahto, what does it matter?'
'I still do not comprehend—'
'Like I said before: You're not supposed to comprehend it, Data,' Q says, firmly. 'You're supposed to appreciate the extra few seconds,' there is the sound of hands rubbing together. 'So, would you like to see your ship?'
Data blinks. 'The Enterprise?'
'Because...' Data hesitates forever, struggling to wrap his mind around this issue. 'I am dead.'
'But you're here, aren't you? Prick you and you'll leak and all that nonsense.'
Data struggles for a second with trying to come up with a decent theory. 'I doubt that... it is permitted.'
'And where did you get that astounding logic from, android? I'm a Q. I can do whatever I want.' Q shrugs. One click of his fingers and there is the Enterprise. It hangs far below them in the depths of space, withdrawing slowly from the wreckage of the Scimitar and shifting into warp speed. They follow. Or at least, they do not lose track of it, even as it shifts from one warp speed to the next, faster and faster across the depths of space. They fly above its body like the bird of his father's dreams.
They seem to slip through the spaces between seconds, shifting into the corridors of the Enterprise itself. A Klingon mutters warningly to the cat rubbing itself about his ankles. A nervous first officer is going over and over regulations in an attempt to pick out loopholes. Engineering is its usual hive of activity and repairs.
And Geordi is there, disenchantedly reconfiguring circuits he hasn't repaired in far too long. Data wishes to speak with him so badly he can taste it, but it is not an option. He is not really there, after all.
In quarters, he sees the captain. He sees B4, pressing buttons on a PADD without understanding its purpose.
'Not exactly the brains of the family, is he, Data?' a voice says from besides him.
Data feels a vague and inexplicable surge of protectiveness rise up within him. 'He is my brother.'
'Hm. He'd have to be. Silicon really is thicker than water, just ask Q Junior.'
Data does not know who "Q Junior" is, and he is too wrapped up in this brief moment within the Enterprise to particularly care. He watches B4 from shadows that do not exist in real-space. Observes him pressing the same buttons over and over with vague interest, simply to see the lights that they create.
And the captain is there. Alive. Talking about Data, though B4 only vaguely hears him, and only barely comprehends.
'Definitely the brains of the family,' Q says dryly. 'You can only hope he'll learn, I suppose.'
Data knows that he will never understand why Q is doing this. That he will never know what it is that transpired in the time between their last meeting, and their being here together, aboard the Enterprise. He finds that he has to ask: 'Q, have you undergone a transformation of character?'
'Oh no, professor, I'm the same as I've always been,' Q says, and his voice is as blank and uninflected as Data imagines his own voice once sounded. In the way B4's sometimes sounds today. 'Care to say goodbye, then?'
'Come now, Data, you're far too dead to be experiencing a feedback loop. Isn't it a human custom to bid adieu to those he leaves behind? I've entertained your primitive notions this far, why not a little further?'
'And what happens then?' Data asks quietly.
'Ah yes! Then! And then...' Q trails off, smiling and shrugging, all too human gestures from a distinctively inhuman being. 'Well, how should I know, Data? I've never been dead before.'
That is all the explanation Q will offer, and even the android's incredible processing speed does not give him nearly enough time to respond to it. The corridors of the Enterprise are once again replaced with whiteness, but only for a brief moment. Then there is the sensation of form and structure forming around him. Strange. He had felt perfectly aware of his own form while he was within the whiteness Q had created. Only now that he is being removed from that whiteness does he realise how insubstantial that body had actually been. 'Just an illusion. Like this all is, perhaps? Just a game of Q's for his own amusement?'
'Maybe, but do you really want to risk it? Think very carefully android. This is the last thing you'll ever get to say to him, after all. Don't you want it to be meaningful?'
Data wants that very much, but even as sensation slips away from his body, the only thing that comes into his mind is music. Familiar, warm and underplayed with a trace of jazz.
Data opens his –B4's– mouth, and he sings.
It lasts for a matter of seconds (and for once, they feel like seconds –limited and almost instantaneous. Not nearly enough time at all), and for those few, brief instances, he is there, on board the Enterprise, with the Captain smiling at him with eyes full of regret, completing the verse that he –that B4– just can't quite wrap his limited processors around.
'Never saw the sun...'
'Shining so bright.'
'Shining so bright. Never saw things going so right.'
It is a trait that Data had been unable to fully understand until the installation of his emotion chip. And even now he has difficulty getting his head around the concept. Yet in this moment, he understands it perfectly. He understands that things are far from going right, and that there is no sun here in the depths of space. He understands what has been lost.
He understands that they shall miss him. Always.
'Silly android,' Q says. There might well be the faintest hint of partiality in his condescendence. Or perhaps, Data is imagining it. 'All that fuss over emotions and feelings, and learning what it really meant to be human, and what you needed to know was right there, thwacking you on your nose all the time, wasn't it? Well I hope you're satisfied with the completion of this simplistic dream of yours, because the dream is over now. It's time to go.'
The event is over as quickly as it had begun, and Data can feel the matter of his brother's body being pulled away from him. Then there is only whiteness again. Whiteness and silence. Maybe for forever.
Data is struck by the knowledge that he has no idea what is going to happen next. If anything at all. Perhaps his continued existence now is nothing more than an illusion of the Q... And yet his friends, his family, had been right there with him. Just for a minute.
He misses them. That much will always be true. It is just as Tam Elbrun had told him all those years ago on board the Tin Man –to care for someone, and to be cared for, is perhaps the greatest gift that anyone can bestow on another. That is something he has known since long before emotions came into the equation.
'Time to go,' Q says again, more impatiently this time.
Data does not speak for several minutes. He remembers the sensation of being within the Enterprise so clearly. Remembers speaking through his brother's body. Remembers the look on Captain Picard's face.
And as he stands there, amidst the endless nothingness of light, he remembers more. Games of cards –almost always lost, in spite of his seemingly unbeatable Poker face. Geordi handing him an old fashioned pipe and smiling, or poking around inside of his head the way moist others were never permitted. Laughter over disgusting tasting substances in Ten Forward. Debating his correct pronunciation of his name with Doctor Pulaski. Deanna, leaning against his shoulder in a peaceful silence. A daughter's final, disjointed words trailing into nothingness... A father. A brother.
'Oh, wonderful, now he's getting maudlin.'
His tears, Data realises after a long moment of wondering why his face is wet. He wants to speak, tries to, but the words get caught inside his throat, as if there is some kind of fault in his vocal processors.
'Like you love them?' Q finishes the sentence which Data can't quite muster. The words cut through the silence, and seem to imprint themselves onto eternity itself.
'Hm.' Q says. And all sarcasm and humour has vanished from his voice. 'That's mortals for you, Data. They tend to leave an indentation which is quite impossible to shake off. I suppose that's how they deal with their meagre existences. By making every moment count.'
Data looks up. The tears have stopped following, but the feelings associated with them have remained, going far beyond any processor. Data finds himself smiling at the being known as Q, with a kind of faint understanding that, up until this moment, neither of them had acknowledged before. 'As did I.'
'And now it's over.'
'Yes. I am ready.'
'I should hope so too, it's not as if you have any choice in the matter.' Q smirked, and the moment of understanding between them faded as quickly as it had appeared. 'Now, I had better let you get on with it, hadn't I? Drop me a line, will you? That is, if by some strange twist of fate you continue to exist in any way after this.'
'I will.' Data says. And it feels like a promise.
Somewhere on the edge of the Neutral Zone, preparing for further meetings with Romulan ambassadors, Captain William Riker of the USS Titan stops what he is doing, purses his lips and begins to whistle.
He would probably be a little bewildered, had he known that several thousand light years across space in the control centre of the Enterprise E's engineering deck, Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge is whistling the exact same tune.
For everything there is a season,
And a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate,
A time for war, and a time for peace.