The Labors of Vash
The room was small and low ceilinged, with a dirt floor and walls of rough stone. Its only furnishings, a flat slab of stone that served as a bed.
A human female lay huddled, on the slab, facing the wall. Her sandy blonde hair was in need of a wash, as was her clothing. Her Khaki colored pants and tunic had seen a lot of abuse. She was bare foot.
There was a flash of light.
"I cannot tell you how disquieting I find this whole 'sleep' concept," a voice said. "Baffles me how you humans can find it enjoyable."
The woman gave a low groan and rolled over.
"When your bed is a rock," she explained, not bothering to open her eyes. "Enjoyable really doesn't enter into the equation. Good morning, Q."
"Good morning, Vash. I brought coffee."
"Bless you," Vash sat up, stretched, grimaced and blinked.
Vash, an expert on alien cultures and their relics, exiled from academia for indulging in some "creative, freelance artifact gathering", had decided that she needed to get away from it all. Being taken literally, she'd found herself on the other side of the galaxy.
Her traveling companion, Q, a member of a godlike alien race, had offered to show Vash the wonders of the universe and expand her 'tiny human horizons'. Greed and curiosity had gotten her to say yes. It was also what had helped to land her in a prison cell.
Both Q and Vash were considered to be amoral, devious and self-confident to the point of arrogance. Both would have argued against such characterizations, no matter how true they were.
Each applied these qualities to create different results. Q was using his powers in an attempt, so he said, (though honesty had never been one of his strongest character traits) to bring out the potential of primitive cultures and prepare them for interaction with the rest of the universe.
Vash used her knowledge to bring out the potential of her personal fortune and to prepare herself for a life of luxury and leisure.
Q's appearance was of a human male in his middle years. He was tall and slim; his brown hair had just a touch of curl to it. He was dressed in the garb of a Klingon judge, complete with chain mail robes and the metal, fist-sized metal sphere that served as a gavel. He was seated at a glass-topped cafe table, set for coffee and a continental breakfast. He placed the metal sphere and a particularly vicious-looking dagger on the table, poured himself some coffee, and made a "join me" gesture towards the other chair.
"Do I want to know what you've been up to?" Vash asked, glancing at Q's outfit before helping herself to coffee.
Q paused in mid-sip to smirk wickedly. His eyes took on that special glint that made Vash immediately regret asking.
"Forget I asked. Just reassure me my part of the galaxy will still be standing when I return home."
"Vash, you wound me," Q said, putting down his cup (white with '#1 Boss' written across it in maroon) " Any damage to your precious Federation will be the result of its own petty squabbles, not anything I may have done."
"Um-hmm," Vash replied. "Oh, this coffee is perfect! I feel almost human again."
"You say that like it's something to brag about," Q murmured. " I was thinking you might like to see the monoliths of Trestine. The solar flares can be a bit hazardous to mortal flesh but I'm sure I can..."
"Go?" Vash interrupted. "Q, in case you haven't noticed, I'm in prison. I was captured, trespassing in the Tr'bell's temple of history and they are currently trying to decide whether or not to put me to death over my attempted, though less than successful, theft of the Scroll of First Law. Any of that ring a bell?"
"Are you still obsessing over that?" Q asked, with a surprised frown. He put down his coffee cup and held out his hand, palm up. There was a flash of light and the Tr'bell Scroll of First Law appeared in his hand. Two one meter long crystal rods framed paper that was said to have been made from the flesh of S'tull, first king of ancient Tr'bell. The laws were written, so legend also said, using the blood of thirty-seven virgins.
"What are you doing?" Vash exclaimed. "Put that back! Right now, Q."
"No pleasing some beings," he sighed. Another flash and the scroll was gone. "I just thought, if you got your scroll we could be on our way. It is what you wanted."
"Yes, what 'I' wanted," Vash explained. " What 'I' have been spending the last four days in this stone closet over! I want to acquire the scroll. Me. As I've explained, once I've gotten out and grabbed the scroll, we can go."
"Yes, yes, but to really appreciate the monoliths, you need to be there during the high holy days and at the rate your 'brilliant' escape plan is progressing, the flares will have rendered the native population extinct. If you want, we can pop over, see the monoliths, then I'll put you back in this charming domicile, seconds after we left."
"I could return you seconds before we left," Q continued, his forehead creased with thought. "But that'd take a bit more effort and it's always socially awkward bumping into yourself. To be honest, you really aren't dressed for company..."
"Once I've gotten my hands on the scroll, we can leave," Vash sternly told him. "This is something I need to do. Now, let me enjoy my breakfast."
"This is one of those noble human things, isn't it?" Q asked. "Have you any idea how dreary those can be? Now, Vash, I was human myself once, for a brief ghastly time. I can sympathize with the limitations you have to struggle to overcome, but if this is some kind of attempt to prove yourself to me, than there's no need. I long ago gave up on the idea of anyone being my equal. Most of the beings who thought they were my equal were just deluding themselves and it ended in tears." He leaned back in his chair and took a leisurely sip of coffee. "I didn't ask you to travel with me because I wanted an equal. Oh, on some vague level, we are kindred spirits, I suppose, but more than anything, I'm content to share the company of someone who sees the wonders of the universe with unjaded eyes. You get to be my age and you tend to look at the cosmos with a 'been there, done that, own the hologram' view. Your presence reminds me that life can be an adventure. So don't put yourself out with all this 'proving yourself' drivel, it's really not necessary."
Vash peered over the brim of her coffee mug at her traveling companion, an incredulous look in her eyes. The only thing vaster than the universe seemed to be Q's ego. She was constantly amazed it didn't just collapse under its own weight and become a black hole.
"This may come as a shock, Q, but this is one of those rare things in the universe that isn't all about you."
"Really? I've heard rumors that such things existed," Q said, giving her the smirk that let her know he was enjoying his own cleverness. " But I've never come across any physical proof of them."
" I am trying to prove myself, but not to you," Vash said, helping herself to some toast.
"If this is about Jean-Luc, I'm going to be deeply disappointed in you," Q chided.
Both Q and Vash had encountered Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Federation Star ship Enterprise. They had both found themselves intrigued with Jean-Luc, just in different ways. Vash found him to be an attractive man and they shared a passion for archeology, while Q saw a glimmer of potential in Picard that made him the least pathetic human Q had so far encountered. While Vash's interest in Jean-Luc was common knowledge, Q would rather stand too close to a supernova than admit he had anything but the occasional flash of tolerance for Picard.
"No, it's not about Jean-Luc, either. Despite what he'd like to think, my interests in archeology are first: monetary, then the adventure, and last, preserving and honoring history. What I need is to prove something to myself."
"Oh, even better," Q said, rolling his eyes. "That's even drearier sounding than 'noble gestures'. You're still resentful at having to play the damsel in my little Robin Hood scenario, aren't you? I've apologized for underestimating your talent for cunning manipulation..."
"You treated me like a damsel," Vash grumbled, remembering the visit to the Enterprise that had lead to her and Q's first meeting. "Jean-Luc treated me like a damsel and I started to wonder if maybe you weren't both right."
"Jean-Luc and I agreeing on something?" Q pondered, stroking his chin. "That goes against everything I've come to believe about the universe. One of us must be mistaken and since it couldn't be me..."
"I don't want to be a damsel," Vash interrupted. "I've spent a good portion of my life not having to be rescued by anybody. Jean-Luc decides he needs to protect me and then I end up traveling with an omnipotent chaperone. " She paused and took a sip of coffee. "The point is, I need to do this, I'm going to do this and once I have, you can show me the monoliths, understand?"
"Of course," Q said, putting down his cup.
"I mean it, Q."
Q sat up straighter and raised his right hand.
"I promise not to interfere unless directly asked, or if it looks as though you're on the verge of having your miniscule life span ended even sooner than usual. Fair enough?"
Vash looked at Q with a mix of distrust and thoughtfulness for several moments before nodding.
With a satisfied smirk Q returned the nod. A large old-fashioned pocket watch appeared in his hand and he peered at it thoughtfully.
"So, you should be asking any… second… now..."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. I haven't spent the last four days just sitting around moping, I'll have you know."
"Really?" Q said, skeptically. "Because to the untrained eye, that's exactly what it looks like you've been doing."
"It's supposed to look that way," Vash explained, dunking her toast in her coffee. " What are my chances of escaping if I stomp around, raging at the guards that no prison can hold me?"
"Why do you need to do either?" Q asked. "There aren't any guards near your cell..." He paused then gave Vash an admiring smile. " Oh, you are clever."
Vash gave a nod to acknowledge the truth in Q's statement.
"Several days of guarding a sullen, submissive alien and I wasn't worth the guards attention. There's also been some fighting between two of the local political factions, so the guards have their hands full with angry activists." Vash explained, with a self-satisfied smile to rival Q's. She stood up. " So, time to be on my way, thanks for the coffee."
"Least I could do," he said, and with a casual gesture table, chairs, breakfast and Q disappeared in a flash of light. He reappeared seconds later, dressed in khaki shorts, shirt, hiking boots and a pith helmet.
"I'll just run a few errands. Enjoy yourself."
He vanished again. Vash shook her head then went to work. A crude shallow stone bowl, filled with an unappetizing, gray gruel sat besides the cell door. As annoying as Q could be, she was thankful for his visits, since it meant she hadn't had to eat any of the local prison cuisine.
Vash knelt down by the door and scooped up a handful of gruel. She rubbed it into the edge of the door, on the hinged side. She then rolled up the ragged sleeve of her tunic, revealing a band, of a dull metal, wrapped around her upper arm. The metal was half the thickness of her pinkie and wrapped around her arm three times. Vash unwound the circlet, and straightened it out until it was a strand half a meter long.
The door to her cell was roughly two and a half meters tall. A square opening with crystalline bars set in it, was placed three quarters of the way up the door. The Tr'bell were a tall race, so they placed the latches to their doors up near the top. Their hands were also wider than a human's, so Vash had no trouble slipping her hands through the bars and using the metal strand to manipulate the lock.
She had to stop several times as bored looking guards strolled by.
The Tr'bell were a tall, thin bipedal race, with long, oddly jointed limbs and lemon-colored skin, their heads narrow and elongated. They had nostril slits in place of noses; large, fishy eyes and mustache-like antennae, right above the corners of their upper lips. The guards were dressed in simple kilts of a gray material. Harnesses of the same material crisscrossed over their thin chests, acting as makeshift scabbards for their weapons. Two rods, made of the same crystal-like substance as the bars, were strapped across their backs.
One guard peered through the opening to check on Vash, who had quickly resumed her slumping-on-the-stone-bed pose. The second guard was satisfied to see that the cell door was closed and they moved on.
Vash quickly returned to the door, replenished the gruel coating on the door hinges and went back to work on the lock. Minutes later there was a satisfying click, and Vash eased the door open. The gruel smeared over the hinges ensured there would be less chance of an ominous creak giving her away. Rewinding the band around her upper arm, she stepped out into the high ceilinged stone corridor.
The sound of angry protests came from farther down the corridor, to the right, so Vash thought it would be wise to try the opposite direction. She consulted the rough map of the Tr'bell temple in her mind. The holding cells were beneath a smaller temple behind the main place of worship.
After her capture Vash had been taken through a series of subterranean passages that connected the two buildings. She planned to retrace her steps, get into the tunnels under the temple, then make her cautious way to the part of the temple where the relics were kept.
"Now, the tricky part," Vash muttered to herself. "This isn't like Luna City or Risa. Very doubtful, I'll be able to 'pass' for native, here."
She crept along the corridor, alert for anyone approaching, while she formulated the next step of her brilliant escape plan.
At the end of the corridor, Vash entered a four-way junction. Hearing footsteps she ducked into a dusty alcove to avoid another pair of guards. They paused just long enough for her to mentally catalogue all the mistakes she could have made during her escape. Had she closed the cell door all the way, or forgotten to scuff over any footprints she'd left on the dirt floor? The guards drifted off towards the other cells.
"I liked your other room better," A voice remarked, casually. "Nicer decor."
"Gaah! Q, do you mind?"
Q was now squeezed into the alcove with Vash.
"Sorry," Q said, nothing in his tone indicating that he meant it. " I just had a thought: you believe any direct intervention on my part, would take all the fun out of this little adventure. I was wondering, am I allowed to offer advice? A helpful word, here or there, that sort of thing?"
"Could I stop you if I wanted to?" Vash asked, through gritted teeth.
"Just thought I'd mention that the Tr'bells' god of choice is a trickster deity. They tend to see cunning and deviousness as admirable qualities. You, dear Vash, should be in your element, if you aren't already in line for Tr'bell sainthood."
"Look, why don't you..." Vash began.
"Love to stay and chat," Q smirked. "But I've got to pass judgment on the Yenaled Cluster."
A flash of light and he was gone. Vash blinked away the after images of Q's departure, and then peered out of the alcove, to see if the way was clear. She dashed down the corridor, away from the cells, and up a narrow flight of stone steps. She hadn't had much time to study the temple's floor plan, but did recall that her best route for keeping out of sight was the service tunnel running beneath the two temples. Chances are, she'd only have to worry about servants. As well as the fact that the tunnels would be a short cut to the chamber where the scroll of first law was kept.
The downside to this plan was that the service tunnels were narrower and had fewer hiding places and guide symbols, so finding her way around undetected was going to be harder.
She spent several minutes playing hide and seek with some of the natives before getting through the tunnels and into the temple. Vash ducked into a storeroom. The walls were lined with shelves, carved into the rock walls themselves. They held various stone dishes, scrolls, flasks made of the same crystal as the bars on her cell door, and numerous implements that would take too much time to figure out their use. Vash helped herself to a handful of gemstones from a large shallow bowl. In a stone chest, Vash found numerous thin wafers, individually wrapped in leaves. She recognized them, from her pre-arrest visit to the temples, as the Tr'bell version of communion wafers. She also remembered that they had a pleasant almond flavor and stuffed several into her pockets.
Chewing quietly, Vash crept out of the storage chamber, and froze. She heard footsteps approaching. Vash quickly squeezed behind a statue of the Tr'bell deity who watched over sick animals and lost children. Had Q been there, Vash was sure he would have seen some significance in that and made a smart remark.
Vash scrunched herself small as possible and mentally willed the shadows to be dark enough to hide her. Two Tr'bell sauntered by dressed in the knee-length mustard colored robes of temple acolytes. They chatted as they talked, sounding to Vash's ears like two seals trying to gargle.
Vash gently banged her head against the wall, as she realized that universal translators were unheard of in this part of the galaxy and without Q along to work his magic, she had no idea what they were saying. There was no such thing as a handy Tr'bell to English dictionary. She was the first human to ever encounter the Tr'bell.
While she waited for the Tr'bell to walk away, Vash chided herself on how lax she'd become since setting out with Q. One of the servants paused and placed a small coin in the stone bowl at the statue's feet, did the Tr'bell equivalent of genuflection and then moved on. Vash peeked out from between the statue's legs to see if the coast was clear.
"Perfect. On top of everything else, I've lost any chance of talking my way out if I'm caught."
Vash climbed out and jogged down the corridor.
With the language barrier and her status as a fugitive, Vash could hardly ask for directions to the main temple. She had to rely on intuition and guess work translations of the markings along the corridor wall. This resulted in some back tracking and several close calls before she spotted a doorway with the symbol for the temple above it. The chamber was round, about twelve meters across and contained only one item, a waist high stone podium with a wide crystal bowl perched on top of it. It was positioned to the right of the doorway. The bowl was filled with a thick, clear, mucusy-looking substance. It had a sharp, unpleasant odor.
Vash stepped into the room and sniffed the air. The chamber was thick with a potent, earthy smell. It reminded her of livestock or childhood trips to the zoo. That last thought set her nerves to jangling. Usually, any place of worship that contained animals, used them for only two things, sacrifices or...
"Guard dogs," Vash muttered, her eyes darting around.
It wasn't hard to deduce where the animal would be, there were only two doorways, the one she'd entered and a second one at the far end of the chamber. Vash stayed close to the wall and inched herself along it. Her fingers brushed against some marks. Vash knelt down, hoping for more direction markers. These were diagonal gouges that resembled the claw narks that a cat would leave- if the cat had paws big as her hands and claws like a Romulon honor blade.
A low humming noise drifted through the air, sounding at first like some piece of machinery embedded in the walls. The realization that the Tr'bell weren't a mechanical society caused a sinking feeling in the pit of Vash's stomach.
The tiger came padding into the room, a bored expression on its face. Technically, it wasn't a tiger, Earth was light years away, but it was close enough that Vash wasn't going to nitpick.
The top of its head was level with Vashs' shoulder. Its fur was light green, with darker green stripes running vertically down its sides. The tail was a tuft of fur. The head was very cat like, except for the eyes. There was a row of four of them, blood red and pupil-less.
The tiger ambled across the room, sniffing the air, its eyes blinking in an odd pattern. The two end ones first, then the inner two. It walked around in a tight circle, and then lay down right in front of the far doorway.
Vash couldn't honestly say it had done it to purposefully torment her, since it hadn't acknowledged her existence, but she wouldn't have been surprised. The cosmos seemed to have taken up making her life difficult as a hobby.
The tiger laid its chin upon its large paws, still sniffing the air thoughtfully.
Vash stayed flattened against the wall, trying to look like a harmless, yet attractive statue. She doubted the tiger was fooled. It gave a growly sigh, peered around the room and then seemed to go to sleep.
"Okay," Vash breathed, inching along the wall. "Not the most effective watch dog I've ever encountered, but I'm not going to complain."
Its ears twitched slightly, as Vash crept along, but otherwise appeared to be taking a nap. Vash's theory was the big cat was either sacred to the Tr'bell, so they wouldn't dare cross it, or had such a fearsome reputation that just the knowledge it was here kept them away. Either way, it was a lucky break for her.
Vash got within an arms length of the exit. The tiger's rump practically filled the doorway. Vash picked up her leg to step over the tiger, when the beast moved. It made a sneezing noise and lifted its massive head. Vash froze, her foot still raised, as she willed her heart to beat less loudly. If she could hear it, pounding in her ears, than panicky logic dictated the tiger could hear it too.
Slowly, the tiger turned its head, till it was looking right at Vash. Its nostrils flared and a paw, slightly larger then her head came swinging towards her, faster than any animal that big had a right to move. Six claws extended from its paw and raked down her right side, slashing through her tunic, into the flesh of her arm and hip. Vash stumbled backwards in time to save her right leg. She hit the wall and tripped over her feet, managing to turn the fall into a shoulder roll that spared any more abuse to her body and moved her out of the tiger's reach. Vash crawled frantically to the doorway and crouched by the podium, wincing and breathing heavily.
The tiger sniffed the air and grumbled deep in its throat. It glanced around the room, raised two eyebrows, then gave a shake of its head and lay back down.
Vash huddled against the stone podium, her eyes squeezed tightly shut as she tried to cope with the pain in her arm and hip. A tear trickled down her dirty cheek.
"Well, that could have gone better," A voice, drawled.
"Q ... ju... just leave me... uh... alone." Vash grunted, not bothering to open her eyes.
"Yes, I can see you have him right where you want him," Q said, glancing over at the tiger. "So, ready to go see the monoliths?"
"No ... keep your... uh... voice down... need a minute... to formulate plan B and you making a lot of noise..."
"Noise? I'm hurt that you would describe my melodious tones that way." Q mused. "Still insisting on going through with this foolish quest of yours? Vash, I hate to be the kind of being that says 'I told you so', but... actually, now that I think about it, I am the kind of being..."
Vash opened her eyes, expecting to see a tiger, enraged by Q's incessant chatter, bearing down on her and Q. It lay in the same spot, by the far door, with only a puzzled crease in its forehead to show it was even aware of their existence.
"What...?" she muttered, ignoring Q and studying the alien beast. Between the flash of Q's arrival and his nonstop talking, the last thing she'd expected to see was it going back to sleep. What was she missing? Why wasn't Q's presence having more of an effect on it? Of the two of them, Q was most likely to provoke a violent reaction in any alien creature. She'd seen ample evidence of that on their travels. The pain in her side was incentive to figure it out soon, and the beginning of a theory was stumbling around in her head. Vash leaned closer to Q and sniffed his arm.
" What are you doing?" He asked.
"You don't have a smell," Vash whispered, looking at him with a triumphant smile on her dirty and bruised face. "No smell at all."
"Really?" Q asked, holding his wrist to his nose and taking several sniffs. "Never really thought of it before. Am I missing out on something?"
"It hunts by smell," Vash explained. "You don't have one..."
"I wish you would stop mentioning that. I'm feeling self-conscious."
"... And I'm covered in several inches of Tr'bellion dirt. It didn't get a real whiff of me till I was close to it. When it turned to look at me, it was only confirming what its nose had been telling it, that I wasn't a native."
"Hmm," Q muttered, continuing to sniff himself. There was a flash of light and he held his wrist to Vash's nose. "What do think? Does this say 'Q' to you?"
"You're not the lavender type. Is there a reason for this visit?"
" When I noticed that," Q said, nodding his head in the tiger's direction. " I thought I should see if this changed the rules."
"I'm not quitting..." Vash protested.
"Of course you aren't," Q sighed. " Just wondering if we should arrange some kind of a signal, in case the next attack renders you unable to speak. How much of your body should I let it devour before stepping in? How's this? Too musky?"
"If the tiger..."
"It's not a tiger." Q explained.
"Looks like a tiger."
"It also looks like G'losh." Q commented.
"What's a G'losh?" Vash asked.
Q nodded at the alien cat again, then went back to sniffing his wrist. "Hmm, nice, though, I can't see myself commanding much respect smelling like an Edam cheese..."
Vash realized her only shot at survival was to ignore Q and focus on the task at hand. Which shouldn't be too hard if Q stayed obsessed with odors and avoided phrases involving her body being devoured.
" He hunts by scent," she said, sitting back, to rest against the stone wall. "Only attacked me when I got close to the door. Must be something that tells it who's allowed to pass and who isn't... ow!"
Shifting to take some of the weight off her injured hip, Vash struck the back of her head against the bowl on the podium.
"Ow, damnit…wait a second...?" Vash said, reaching up for a fingerful of the gelatinous substance.
"Took you long enough," Q muttered, not looking up from his ongoing scent experiment. "Hmm, Andorian sandalwood…"
Vash held the goo to her nose and took a sniff, her brow creased with thought. She glanced from the bowl to the G'losh, and then back again.
"That's it," she said. "I thought this was its food dish, but it's a…uh... scent marker! Temple attendants probably dab some of this on as a kind of security badge, to let it know they're cleared to pass."
"Clever theory," Q said, looking up. " But I do believe I heard a 'probably' in there."
Vash had every intention of not doing anything rash. If she was wrong, there was more bodily harm in her future, not to mention an enormous 'I told you so' from Q, but he had to give her 'the smirk'.
Eskimos have catalogued a hundred different types of snow, Deltans had four hundred and twelve types of foreplay and Vash had catalogued forty different smirks of Q.
He'd just used number twenty six: patronizing with a raised eyebrow, giving the impression that not only did he seriously doubt her abilities, but was daring her to go ahead and prove him wrong. Vash had lost count of the number of times that number six had pushed her into doing something foolish and/or suicidal that she had regretted later, but the need to wipe that smirk off his face was too strong.
Vash scooped up a double handful of the clear slime and dumped it over her head. Q sat back and rested his chin on his hand. His expression was that of a patient adult dealing with a difficult child. Vash wiped the goo out of her eyes, stood up and began walking towards the G'losh. A trickle of the gel touched the corner of her mouth and on instinct she licked it, the taste instantly putting her mind at ease. Her second theory had been that the gel was actually food. The idea being that anyone who wished to cross the room had to be brave enough to walk up and give the beast a snack. Vash knew she'd never hear the end of it if she'd just coated her head with gravy, but that single drop had tasted every bit as nasty as it smelled.
Vash strolled up to the G'losh, figuring even with poor eyesight she didn't want to move too fast. She glanced over her shoulder at Q, who still sat wearing a neutral expression. He raised one eyebrow slightly, as their eyes met. Vash continued across the room. It would be just like Q to let her get eaten, just to prove a point. It would be just like Vash, thought Vash, to let herself get eaten, rather than admit she was wrong or needed help.
Vash walked up to the G'losh, and froze as it raised its large green head and sniffed the air. Vash and the alien creature's eyes met. It leaned forward, sniffed again, blinked several times and then a tongue, the size of her hand and rough as sand stone, licked her left knee.
The G'losh smacked tis lips, put his head back down on his chin and closed all four eyes.
"There's hope for you yet," Q said, appearing in the exit doorway.
Vash pushed past him, without comment. Q teleported away.
Reaching the end of the corridor, Vash went into the chamber and pushed the heavy stone door closed. The lock was at the top of the door, so she had to stand on tiptoes to reach it. The lock clicked into place and Vash leaned against the door, breathing a relieved sigh. She was startled by the sound of applause. Brushing the glop-smeared hair out of her eyes, she spotted Q. He was seated on one of those plastic cushioned chairs, common to holo theaters the galaxy over, dressed in a loud floral patterned shirt, shorts and sandals. He had a large tub of popcorn balanced on the arm of his chair. He smiled and toasted her with an oversized plastic mug topped with a bendy straw.
"Ah, human ingenuity," he said. "It never ceases to be entertaining!"
"It worked, didn't it?" Vash muttered, helping herself to Q's popcorn. Vash looked, around the room. It was wide with a high-domed stone ceiling. The part of the floor she and Q were on was bare, gray stone. The stone ran around the outer edge of the floor, making a thin border for what looked like a giant chessboard. Unlike earth boards, the rows on this one were made up of nine squares, alternating light green and tan. Each square was big enough that she and a friend could have stood in one. There was a doorway at the far side of the chamber.
"Stroll across the floor and the treasure is mine," Vash mused, thoughtfully. "Like it's ever that easy."
"Double bluff?" Q suggested, taking a noisy slurp from his mega-gulp mug.
"I seriously doubt that."
"Well," Vash said, in her best lecturer's tone. "One: you suggested it. That's reason enough to distrust it and two: if there's one thing that brings every species in the cosmos together it's these kind of logic traps. Every race thinks them up, believing they're the first to have the idea. It's a universal constant, right up there with coffee and the wheel."
Q nodded and munched some popcorn.
"Let's see," Vash said, looking over the chessboard. "It'll likely be based on a numerical formula... base six..."
"Base six?" Q asked, watching Vash with a glimmer of interest.
"Every species creates a numerical system from the same starting point," she turned towards Q and wiggled her fingers at him. "The Tr'bell have three fingers per hand, so base six."
She held out her hands, fingers spread, towards the chessboard. Vash then formed a 'V' with her fingers, leaving her thumbs sticking out, to simulate the three fingers of the Tr'bell, so her fingers then made a 'W' shape.
"Best guess, " Vash muttered. "The points of the W each point to a green square, when you hold them like this. So, it's probably one set is safe squares, while the others are traps. Going to need..."
Vash patted the pockets of her tunic, then glanced over at Q.
"I don't suppose you have any coins or small rocks I could borrow?"
" For you, Vash, anything" he said, and teleported away, appearing at her side, dressed like an old time bank clerk, complete with eye shade, waistcoat and the stub of a pencil tucked behind one ear. His cupped hands held a multitude of coins from across the universe.
"Let's see..." Vash muttered, picking through the pile. "Flavian Bobble Beads... too light...Trellite Grots, good... is that a fingernail?"
"You'd be amazed what passes for currency in some corners of the universe." Q said.
Vash took a heavy, square coin and tossed it onto the nearest green square, then stepped back, flinching slightly.
"Where's the earth shattering ka-boom?" Q asked, mockingly. "You do know the Tr'bell are a pre-industrial civilization, don't you?"
"I once spent three weeks in a med-center after misjudging a 'pre-industrial civilization'. Better safe than sorry." she explained, tossing a coin onto a brown square.
A panel opened in the ceiling, and a stone block, slightly bigger than Vash's head, dropped onto the square. Vash gave Q a 'told you so' smirk, while he frowned and rubbed his head in sympathy.
Vash tossed a couple more coins. The green squares all proved safe, while the tan squares contained various devices dedicated to the death and/ or crippling of any intruders to the temple.
Stepping only on the green, Vash skipped to the middle row of the chessboard. Q teleported to the other side of the room. Back in his touristy ensemble, he leaned in the doorway, arms crossed and a smile on his lips. Vash stood in the forth row; roughly halfway across, when she spotted Q. She paused, her foot hovering above the next green square. She pulled her foot back, glanced at Q, then back at the floor.
"Well?" Q asked. "I'm starting to think you're moving slow on purpose. If you don't have any interest in the monoliths, I just wish you'd..."
"What am I missing here...?" Vash muttered, looking around the room, warily.
"What now?" Q asked.
"I've missed something," Vash replied. "You're smiling."
"Maybe I'm simply finding joy in your accomplishment? I have a naturally cheerful disposition."
"No, this is your 'I know something you don't know' smirk," Vash explained, studying the floor. "Number twelve."
"I am omnipotent, Vash," Q said. " I wear this expression when I converse with 99% of the population of the universe."
"Q, I'm in line for Tr'bell sainthood. I know devious when I see it." Vash held out her hands, in the familiar 'W' pattern and studied the remaining squares. She then steepled her finger tips and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"It's a Tronzi variation," Vash muttered, digging in her pocket and coming out with three coins. "At the halfway point the pattern switches and the safe squares become the trap squares and vice versa."
Q's studied silence and intentionally neutral expression told Vash she was on the right track. She tossed a coin onto one of the brown squares.
Nothing happened. After it continued to not happen for several moments, she tossed a coin onto the green square. She was momentarily startled by what sounded like the buzzing of an insect, but everything looked the same. Forehead wrinkled in thought, Vash tossed her last coin onto another brown square.
"Maybe...?" Q suggested.
"Don't you have anyone else to torment?" Vash asked, not looking up from the squares. The noise suggested she'd set off a trap, but far as she could see, nothing had occurred. Maybe the mechanism for the trap had suffered some breakdown.
"Nothing ventured..." she muttered, and stepped onto the tan square. When nothing appeared out of the walls, floor or ceiling to kill or maim her, Vash let out a relieved breath and continued her walk, keeping to the tan squares.
"The variation works on the idea that if you switch the squares you'll catch the thief, either entering or when she tries to leave," Vash said, stepping onto the next brown square. "It's clever, yet simple."
"Vash, I'm aware who Tronzi was," Q said, grumpily. "Who do you think gave him the idea, in the first place?"
"Name dropper," Vash said, then flinched back, clutching at her forehead. She felt a sudden sharp pain, and a long gash opened up, right above her eyes. Blood trickled into her right eye. Vash stumbled backwards, a hand clapped to her cut.
Q frowned, and snapped his fingers. All of reality froze. He teleported over to Vash's side. She was frozen in mid-fall, a grimace of pain marring her attractive features. Q glanced up at the near invisible strand of diamond hard thread strung across the chamber. If Vash had been a Tr'bell or even as tall as one, she'd have been decapitated. Q peered down at, and then through, the square Vash was about to step on and glanced at the poison dart launcher contained beneath it.
"Vash, Vash, Vash," Q muttered, shaking his head. "What am I going to do with you? I find moral dilemmas truly tiresome, especially when I have to be the one stuck in them."
He paced around Vash's frozen form, a thoughtful frown on his face.
"Now, it's obvious to any intelligent being, that you are about to suffer a particularly painful demise. I can allow that to happen, resurrect you and then deliver an enormous and well deserved 'I told you so'. On the other hand, I'm in a position to prevent all that pain and suffering, only to spend the rest of our travels hearing you resentfully explain to me how you could have gotten out of this all on your own. Either option leads to you developing a growing dissatisfaction with traveling through the cosmos with me. Humans are an odd, unreasonable species."
He looked into Vash's face, then resumed pacing.
"I know at some point, you'll decide to go your own way... but, when that occurs, I would... in some tiny, insignificant way... I suppose, miss you."
Q threw up his hands and looked accusingly at Vash.
"See what comes of associating with lower species? You start finding them mildly interesting and then end up forming... inconsequential emotional ties to them. Become concerned with their... feelings."
Q stopped, his arms crossed. Various emotions flitted across his face.
"Fine. Squander your tiny life span on stunts like this! Make your own 'destiny'."
He snapped his fingers. When reality restarted, Q was dressed as a medic, prepped for major surgery. Vash stumbled backwards, her right foot about to step onto a trap square, one hand pressed to her cut, trying to staunch the bleeding. Her free hand flailed about in a desperate attempt for a handhold to stop her fall. At the last moment, Vash pulled her hand into her sleeve, and then, with a layer of rough cloth between her flesh and the deadly strand, she grabbed hold of it. She then pulled herself back onto the safe square and stood, gulping in air and wincing with pain. The strand had cut through the cloth of her sleeve, but Vash had righted herself before receiving more then several small cuts on her hand.
She rubbed the blood out of her eyes and peered over at Q, who quickly changed from his surgeon's attire to the uniform of a Star fleet captain.
"What?" she muttered, looking questioningly at Q.
"What?" he asked in reply.
"You're using a smirk I don't recognize."
"Probably because I use it so rarely when dealing with the lower species," Q replied. "My 'pleasantly surprised' smirk."
"Uh... okay," Vash shrugged. She then, cautiously skipped across the squares to join Q by the doorway. She tore several strips of cloth off one of her tunic sleeves. One strip she wrapped around her cut hand, the other around the cut on her forehead.
He made a 'after you' gesture and they strolled through.
Stone steps lead them deeper beneath the temple. Torchlight glinted off veins of crystal set in the stone walls. The corridor ended in a set of massive double doors. The lock, a fist sized knob of rock was easily opened. Vash manipulated the pebble tumblers within and pushed the doors open.
The relic storage chamber's walls were lined with panels of crystal. This caused the light to sparkle brightly off the walls.
Vash blinked in the flickering light as she cautiously stepped inside. The room was piled high with various relics and treasures from across the length and breadth of Tr'bell history. Flat pieces of stone, carved with images, piles of crystal ornament, scrolls, statues and thick, dusty books.
In the center of the room was a stone statue of a humanoid being. Its back to Vash and Q, but they could see that its arms were held out and resting in them was...
"The Scroll of First Law!" Vash breathed, hobbling around, to the front of the statue. "That's got to... be... what the...? Oh, I don't believe this!"
The First Scroll rested in the statue's outstretched arms. It was carved from a block of the same rough stone that made up the rest of the temple. It was a humanoid form, with very familiar features, smirking a very familiar smirk.
"You!" Vash exclaimed. "You're the Tr'Bell's god? You... you... damnit!"
"You really didn't see it coming, did you?" Q drawled, cheerfully. " I thought my hints were fairly obvious."
"I must have been distracted by the whole threat of death and/or imprisonment!" Vash snapped, bitterly. "Hints? There weren't any hints?"
"The Tr'bell worship cunning and deviousness?" Q prompted, smugly. "That I refer to them in a tone that implies a lesser level of contempt than I use for most other species ... any of this ring a bell?"
"I can't ... you...!" Vash ranted for several moments, then stood, quietly glaring at Q, while she racked her brain for the most devastating insult she could hurl at her infuriating traveling companion. "Jean Luc was right about you!"
"I take it, that outburst means we've reached the end of this little exercise?" Q asked.
"Why do I bother?" Vash grumbled, stomping over to Q. "Let's just go and..." She quickly turned, grabbed the scroll out of the statue's hands. "... see the monoliths."
"Monoliths?" Q mused. "I can hardly take you to see the monoliths looking like that. Maybe the Semaj wastelands...?"
Vash's response echoed through the tunnels and many of the acolytes and guards mistook them for the cries of evil spirits.