West: Ghost In The Machine

As Janeway watched, the Denobulan woman appeared in a flash of light, and looked around herself in some startlement. "Well, this is different," she said.

q-ling, wearing the form of a Denobulan child, appeared in front of the woman in another flash and began bouncing up and down. "Aunt Kathy says you might play with me if I ask nicely," she said. "Please? Please play with me?"

The Denobulan looked down at q-ling with bemusement. "Who is Aunt Kathy?" she asked gently.

"I am," Janeway admitted, remembering to will herself to be visible... which in her case, involved fading in, no flash. Many things one could take for granted in her own universe -- such as being visible if one was physically present -- didn't necessarily work that way under the weird physics of the Q Continuum, and she wasn't entirely sure that q-ling's pocket dimension even played by those rules.

"Ah. Are you a Starfleet officer? I've never seen that precise uniform but it looks very similar to the ones they wear in Starfleet, and you look human."

"Yes, I'm human, and I was a Starfleet officer." She glanced down at herself. Every time she wasn't specifically concentrating on her clothing, she ended up in her captain's uniform from Voyager. It was as if it was how she saw herself in her own mind, and she needed to focus on it to be anything different. Which made sense; her seven years on Voyager had burned themselves into her brain as if they were the most important years of her life, and everything before and after was somehow less an iconic representation of her life. "This is q-ling. She's a baby goddess. And I'm Kathryn Janeway." Her pips said she was a captain, and she still felt that way; her actual rank had been admiral, a mistake she still regretted but she hadn't been given much of a choice; and now, she was no longer in Starfleet due to being dead. Or... something. The Q were vague on what her form of existence actually was, now, but Janeway was quite certain that at least her original body had died.

"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance," the woman said. "I'm Seegan. And normally, I'm much older than this." She looked down at herself. "Am I dead? Is that why I'm meeting a baby goddess?"

"No, silly," q-ling said. "You're my new dolly. I don't want an old lady dolly, but you're a grandma and you have lots of grandkids, so you must know lots of games for kids. So I brought you here to play with me, and I made you young because old ladies have old bones and it hurts them to play sometimes. Also cause you were stuck in a bed and that doesn't sound like any fun."

Denobulans always looked slightly startled, with the ridges that made them look as if their eyebrows were raised, but this one raised her eyebrows even further. "I see. And are you also her dolly?" she asked Janeway.

"No, I'm her mother's apology gift to the father of q-ling's half-brother. Apparently." Janeway smiled wryly.

"Hmm. Well, q-ling, I appreciate the opportunity to meet you, but I really should return to my own family," Seegan said. "They'll miss me. You would miss your grandmother, wouldn't you?"

"I haven't got a grandmother," q-ling said. "My mommies are Q. They didn't have parents. I'm only the third Q to ever have any!"

"Well, you would miss your mothers if they were gone, wouldn't you?"

"I would just go find them," q-ling declared.

"She'll return you to your family," Janeway said. "I've made her promise to, and q-ling always keeps her promises, right? Because you're a good q."

"Good Qs keep their promises," q-ling agreed. "Even to mortals. And you never make a mortal into a dolly unless they say it's okay, because that's mean."

"She's giving you a choice. She picked you because you were bedridden and in pain; she thought you'd appreciate time with your youth and health restored, enough that you'd be willing to be her playmate," Janeway said. "I don't know if q-ling will, or is even permitted to, restore your health in your home dimension, but while you're here she'll keep you in your young, healthy body, and when she returns you it will be to the moment you left, so your family won't even notice you were gone."

"What's your interest in this, Kathryn Janeway?" Seegan asked, more curious than challenging.

Oh, so many answers to that. Janeway chose the one that would most incline Seegan to cooperate, she hoped. "The Q... aren't experienced with rearing children. They're an alien race with godlike power, and some degree of a moral code, but sometimes they have no common sense. After q-ling's mother brought me here -- I died, you see, and she brought me to their dimension because she thought it would make her ex-lover happy -- I saw that she and q-ling's other mother weren't paying enough attention to the girl, and as a result q-ling was kidnapping mortals and forcing them to 'play' with her. Her older brother did this sort of thing, with no one to intervene and make him stop unless he actually killed the mortals in question, and some of my kind ended up as his pets. As a mortal -- well, I suppose a former mortal, since I'm dead -- I didn't want to see q-ling abusing our kind; I wanted her to learn respect for mortals early. So I talked her into selecting playmates that she could offer something to in return for their companionship, and in asking permission."

"But she didn't ask permission."

"I did so," q-ling said. "A minute ago."

"No, q-ling, you didn't," Janeway said. "Why don't you do that now?"

"I didn't?" q-ling thought about it. "I said please."

"Yes, but you just told Seegan she was your dolly before she agreed to play with you. You didn't wait for her to say yes. You have to wait."

"Oh," q-ling said, crestfallen.

"It's okay. Just ask Seegan if she'll play with you, now that she knows what you're offering."

"Please?" q-ling asked. "There aren't any other kids in the whole Continuum and my big brother pretends I don't even exist and the other Q who had parents says she's never ever babysitting again after she had to babysit my big brother and I'm sooo looooonely."

Seegan smiled reluctantly. "It is hard to resist a plea like that," she admitted. "What would you want to play?"


"I've made it clear to her that she can't play any games that would cause you harm, and if you win a game, she can't have a temper tantrum," Janeway said, "or you won't want to play with her anymore." There was no way she could take Seegan aside and explain to the woman how important socializing q-ling was, how the simple act of making a baby q obey rules made by a mortal was practically a revolution in the Q Continuum, because there was no way to talk to her without q-ling present. But Seegan had been an explorer, one of the first Denobulans to encounter humanity, when she was young, and q-ling had taken her from close to the end of her life, over a hundred years ago, when she'd been dying of a degenerative disease that took many elderly Denobulans, wasting away in a bed, unable to play with her own grandchildren anymore. It was unlikely q-ling would actually save Seegan's life, even in the way that her mother had saved Janeway's, but even a few extra days of health and life might make her last months much more bearable. Seegan was a first contact expert, as well as an experienced mother and grandmother with nine children, all grown by the time q-ling had taken her from, and thirty-seven grandchildren, one of whom had been a teacher of Janeway's in the Academy. If anyone would know how to handle an alien child who wanted to play, and help her learn some moral lessons about how to treat mortals in the process, Janeway hoped Seegan would.

"Well, I don't know what sort of games a q would like," Seegan said, "but I do know a lot of games that many children do like, and I could teach them to you, if you like. Just make sure that you do what you promised and return me home when we're done, so my family won't worry."

"I will, I will," q-ling said, bouncing again. "So you'll play with me and be my dolly?"

"I won't be your dolly," Seegan said, "because dolls are things, and I'm a person. But I'll be your friend. People can be friends with other people, but people can't be dolls for other people."

q-ling thought about that. "I don't know if Denobulans are people," she admitted.

"We are. Trust me."

"Okay, if you're people then you're right, you can be my friend." She looked over at Janeway. "Thank you, Aunt Kathy!"

"You're welcome."

"Here's your present," q-ling said, and waved her hand.

Janeway had been expecting this, but it was still something of a shock. Where before she had been in q-ling's pocket dimension, fully realized with all the decoration q-ling had felt like adding to it, she was now nowhere. No. She was aboard a Borg cube. Panic clawed at her, but she fought it down. It wasn't a real Borg cube. There were no Borg aboard it, and it was hazy and grey and felt unreal.

There was one, former, Borg in this place, and her eyes went wide with shock as she saw Janeway. "Captain?"

"Technically I was an admiral, Seven, but since I'm plainly no longer in Starfleet at all, how about just 'Kathryn'?"

"Kathryn." Seven composed herself rapidly. "I don't recall entering a regeneration cycle, and my internal diagnostics don't suggest that there is anything wrong with me, but this is plainly impossible. The Borg are gone forever, and you are dead."

"I am. Yes."

"Then I cannot be seeing you," Seven said, but it had much less firmness than one of Seven's usual declarations. There was almost a pleading note to it, as if she wanted Janeway to prove her wrong. "Unless... we were linked, through the Collective, at the moment of your death... perhaps some part of your psyche imprinted itself on mine?"

"There's a much simpler explanation, actually," Janeway said. "But I am appearing to you through your Collective link, yes. Which, I suppose, is why it looks like we're aboard a Borg ship."

"This is Unimatrix Zero One, not a ship," Seven said automatically. "Are you actually Kathryn Janeway?"

"To the best of my knowledge, yes."

"Tell me something only she would know."

"When you saved me... when you pushed your way through the Borg Collective, and reached out to me, when you gave me the opening I needed to let the virus in. The last thing I said to you was 'Thank you, Seven.'"

"It... is you. But how...?"

"I'm dead. As you know. The part you don't know is that when I died, the Q took me... to live in the Continuum. Or to exist in the Continuum, at least. They haven't let me send a message home; they say that because I'm dead, I can't have any further impact on my home dimension." Janeway shook her head. "But you know how well I do with boundaries imposed by others."

"So... you have found a way to escape? To come back to our dimension?" Seven's voice definitely had a pleading note to it.

"No." Janeway shook her head again, this time a negative rather than a wry commentary on her own personality traits. "I found a way to send a message. There's a new baby q, the daughter of Junior's mother and a different Q we hadn't met, and she's taken a liking to me. Even she wasn't willing to make me back into matter, to give me back a body... but you have a data connection in your mind that can handle receiving enough data that q-ling was able to make me into a data stream and send me to you via the Borg frequencies that no one is using anymore."

"How long will you be here?"

"Until q-ling decides she needs to bring me back, I suppose. I haven't any idea. I talked her into sending me as repayment for finding her a mortal playmate -- I'm trying to train her to be more respectful of mortals than her brother was, so she needs to socialize with mortals, but it's not very easy to find people who are willing to play with a god-baby."

"I can see the difficulty," Seven said. "But if she would return you to us, I would gladly play with her. If the Q are as psychologically similar to mortals as they appear, she cannot be much more challenging to entertain than Naomi was."

"Oh, you'd be surprised. Q children are very easily bored. But I'll let her know you offered." Janeway grinned. "If nothing else, the Q are very fond of finding and exploiting loopholes, and no one has told q-ling not to bring you to the Continuum to visit me."

Seven reached out, tentatively, and took Janeway's hand. "You feel... real."

"I am real," Janeway said, and heard her own voice roughening with emotion. "I'm just not made of matter anymore." She pulled Seven in close and hugged the younger woman tightly. Normally Seven wouldn't tolerate a physical imposition of such nature -- Borg didn't touch each other except when it was necessary. This time, she hugged back.

"Kathryn... I'm so sorry I wasn't able to act on your warning faster... that I wasn't strong enough to pull you free..." Seven whispered, and it sounded as if her voice was breaking. "I wanted to save you."

"You did, Seven. You did." She stroked Seven's back, feeling more than hearing the single sob that shook the ex-Borg. Seven had never wept; her cortical node and her nanites had ensured that she really couldn't. The nanites would regulate her breathing and block tear formation almost immediately. But here in Seven's mind, her mental self-image responded to what she felt without nearly as much interference from the nanites as they would make in her actual body. "You set me free in the only way that matters. I'm not the Borg Queen anymore, and even if I had stayed dead, that would have been more than enough for me."

"I'll find a way," Seven said, hoarsely. "Now that I know you're in the Continuum, I'll find a way to bring you home. Voyager entered the Continuum before, during the Q civil war; I have examined the logs of all the encounters Voyager had before I came aboard. I am sure I can--"

"No. No, Seven. You can't. And I don't want you to."

"You don't... I do not understand. You said that you wished to find a way back to us..."

"I do. But I have to do it. The Q like me, Seven. Or at least, some of them do. If I figure out a creative loophole in their rules to find a way to return to life... some of them will be angry, but the ones who support me will probably just be amused, and they'll make sure I don't suffer any serious negative consequences for it. But if you do it... you don't have any friends in the Continuum. Aside from me, and I'm not a Q. I have no influence with them. If you do it, you might make them angry, and I don't want that to happen."

"Ah. Yes, I hadn't considered that," Seven said. "But... you are seeking a way to come back?"

"If I can. But Seven... don't worry about me, all right? I'm happy. Well, moderately happy. I miss all of you terribly, but... the worst part of it is that there's so much I'm learning, so much I'm able to discover now, with access to the Continuum's database of knowledge, and I would so much love to be able to share it with all of you. Particularly with you, Seven... and with Harry and B'Elanna. There are things... ideas... I can't even describe them. I can barely grasp them for myself. The Q already know all of it, so they can't share my joy in the discovery. I wish I could share it with you." She smiled wryly. "But at least I'm still learning and discovering. I have to be honest, my new existence is actually a lot more pleasant than being an admiral stuck behind a desk was."

"I understand," Seven said. "I... cannot stand in the way of a quest for perfect knowledge and understanding. If you should choose not to return..."

"It may not be a choice," Janeway said. "I want to find a way to come back, but I can't guarantee that I'll find a way. And... I can't guarantee that I'll remain human enough to want to. If I could come home today, I would... but if it takes me a hundred years I don't know if I'll still want it. I don't know if I'll still be human."

"Will they make you a Q?"

"Maybe. They've implied that that choice might be offered to me at some point. I don't want it, but... I don't want to live forever as their pet, either, some sort of novelty item for their amusement. If those end up being the only choices I have, I will probably end up becoming a Q someday. Which is one of the reasons I really would rather find a way home." She grinned.

"It's curious," Seven said. "When I was flung into space at the destruction of the Borg ship, and believed that my own termination was imminent, I wondered if there might be some sort of afterlife where I might meet you again. But if I had died then, then I would not, in fact, have ever met you again, because you haven't transitioned to some sort of afterlife... the Q chose to take you into the Continuum, and it isn't likely that they would do the same for me."

"That's true. I still haven't seen any evidence that there's an afterlife for mortals, in general. What's become of me... is obviously rather unusual."

"If you were to return home, and become mortal again, you would die someday... again, with finality."

"I've actually died many, many times, Seven." A sense of bittersweet melancholy came over her as she remembered. "Q gave me the memories of myself from multiple alternate timelines that we ended up going back in time to erase." Technically, according to Q, they hadn't been erased, but she wasn't going to get into that. "I'm not afraid of death anymore. That's not going to factor into my decision." She put her hands on Seven's shoulders. "But I want you to live for yourselves. All of you. I don't want any of you to try to find a way to bring me back, or to lose the thread of your own lives in mourning for me. I don't want anyone to wait for me. Move on; find the happiness you can in your lives. Live for the day. If I can come back, I will, but don't wait for me."

Seven hesitated. "...You intend me to give that message to Chakotay, don't you?"

"Everyone from Voyager, and my mother and sister as well, but yes, especially Chakotay."

"You are aware that he and I are no longer involved."

"Yes. I'm also aware that he and I... would have been, if things had gone differently. If... well, if I hadn't died. And I want to make sure that he doesn't do what I tried to do with Mark... that just because he knows that I'm not truly dead and I might be able to come back, I don't want him to put his life on hold to wait for me to do that. I don't want any of you to do that, for any reason."

"I will contact him, and the rest of the former Voyager crew, and your family, and give them the message."

There was suddenly a voice in Janeway's head -- the voice of q-ling's mother, Q's former mate, the being Janeway referred to as Lady Q. You have five seconds.

"Seven, I'm being called back." She grabbed Seven and hugged her again, fiercely. "Remember, I love you. I love all of you. Live."

"Kathryn--" Seven's voice turned into a naked plea. "Don't gonot so soon--"

"No choice. Tell them," Janeway said, and then the world she was in faded out, and her sense of Seven's body next to her turned to mist, and the last thing she saw was Seven reaching out for her with more emotion in her face than Janeway had ever seen from her in the real world.

And then she was in a huge hallway decorated with the weapons of numerous warrior species, Klingon bat'leth and Vulcan lirpas and Human katanas and all manner of others, on the walls, and a furious-looking Lady Q dressed as a Klingon warrior standing in front of her.

"You subverted my child," Lady Q snarled at her. "I did you the immense favor of extending your existence after it would have ceased, bringing you to the Continuum, and you repay me by talking my baby into disobeying me?"

Janeway refused to be intimidated. "I warned you I would try to find a way to go back. And technically, q-ling didn't break your rules. You told her she couldn't make me into matter. She made me into a data stream."

Lady Q rolled her eyes. "Oh, I can see why Q likes you so much," she snorted. "You two are made for each other. You were such an unimaginative martinet when you were alive, you died because you couldn't grasp the concept that perhaps you should have listened to my warnings, so where did this sudden love of loopholes come from?"

"Refusing to listen to your warnings doesn't make me an unimaginative martinet, it makes me a person who insists on living and learning for myself, not in obeying the vague pronouncements of a god. I'm grateful that you saved my life, and I'm grateful for the efforts you've gone through to help me fit in here, and I suppose I'm even grateful you tried to warn me, although you knew when you went that I wasn't going to listen to you, so I don't see why you bother complaining that in fact I did exactly what you knew I would. But I'm not any different now than I was then. I spent either seven or seventeen years trying to get home; I died, more than once, because I was so desperate to get myself and my people home that I took risks I never should have. And I'm going to keep doing that. So if you have a problem with that, I suppose you're just going to have to destroy me."

"And you're so damn confident that I won't do just that."

"I think you'd be dealing with a temper tantrum from your daughter over it for the next five hundred years, and any effort you've made to try to make peace with your ex or your son would be wiped out, so yes, I'm pretty damn confident that you won't do just that."

Lady Q sighed. "You're an idiot. Starfleet didn't listen to her when she told them you were in danger; why would they listen to her when she reports that you appeared to her through her Borg link, in a hallucination, and told her you were alive and well and living in the Q Continuum?"

"I don't need Starfleet to believe her. My crew will trust Seven. They're the ones I care about... them, and my mother and Phoebe, and since Phoebe and my mother never believed I was really dead when I was in the Alpha Quadrant, I think they'll believe Seven because it will give them comfort to believe her. My family aren't very cynical people."

"Yes, they do seem rather credulous." Lady Q turned away from her, looking out at the great hall she'd created. "There are reasons you can't just go doing these things, Janeway. There's a role for you to play, and you can't play it by going back to your old life and pretending to be an ordinary human once more. We've let you have knowledge no mortal at your technological and cultural level could be trusted with, and what do you do but whine that you can't share it with the people that would be destroyed by it if they had it?"

"So far the only role I seem to be playing is babysitter. I like q-ling, but I strongly doubt that caring for a baby Q was the great destiny you told me I had."

"There's no need to be so impatient. You have all the time in the world, Janeway. Literally."

"Well, if you told me why it's so important that I don't return to my own kind, I might actually be inclined to listen to you."

"As if you've ever listened to any of my warnings before."

"As if you've ever given me a warning where you've actually explained what the problem with my plans really is, instead of some vague pronouncement of doom. If you had actually said, 'The Borg ship is still alive, and it's just waiting for a mortal to step on it so it can assimilate them and return the Borg to life, and if you go there you'll be turned into the Borg Queen and attempt to annihilate Earth'... I might actually have listened to you."

"I can't spoon-feed you everything, Janeway."

"And there are too many Q who actively liked and supported the Borg for you to make an overt move of assistance to humanity against the Borg, I understand that. But who's stopping you from telling me why I can't go home or what the Q intend me for?"

"You're dead, Janeway," Lady Q said. "If you can't see the problem with going home when you're dead, you obviously haven't fought enough zombies."

Janeway blinked. "Fought... zombies?"

Lady Q brightened up. "That's right. You actually have never fought zombies, have you?" She smiled. It looked unpleasantly like one of Q's more malicious grins.

"I've fought a lot of different beings, including the Borg, and they're often described as zombies, but..."

"I mean the living dead. Walking, shambling corpses that feed on the brains of the living. You've never fought any of those."

"No, I suppose I haven't," Janeway said cautiously. Lady Q was, typically, much more haughty and much less playful than her ex, but millions of years together had seemed to make the two of them rub off on each other probably more than was healthy, and Lady Q was sounding uncomfortably like Q right now.

"Well, then I have a marvelous idea for a family outing," Lady Q said. "Because Junior needs to stop refusing to acknowledge his baby sister, and Q needs to stop pretending that he's mortally offended by what I said to him a few thousand years ago, and q-ling has never had a chance to fight zombies. And, apparently, neither have you. So you're invited."

"You're taking your baby to fight zombies?"

"Childhood should be full of fun and educational experiences," Lady Q said. "This is not the sort of invitation you get to decline, Janeway, so stop thinking about how you can get out of this. I need you along or Junior will refuse to go. And you need a reminder of what life is like when the dead walk among the living."

"I'm not a zombie."

"No. You're a revenant. You have no matter; you exist only as thought, as ideas... not much different than if you didn't exist except in memory. You cannot go back." She smiled thinly. "Zombies, Janeway. It's a date."

And then Janeway found herself back in the place she called her home, the point in the Continuum that looked like her quarters aboard Voyager, except with randomly shifting additions. She sat down on her coach wearily. Dealing with q-ling was stressful enough, but q-ling's mother was another story entirely... worse even than dealing with Q.

But she'd done it. She'd seen Seven; she'd gotten the message through. Her crew would know, now, that she lived. And zombies or no zombies, if Lady Q couldn't give her a better explanation for why she shouldn't try to go home than that the dead shouldn't return to life... then she was still going to try to find a way. Somehow.