Data was in sickbay, half taken apart, Crusher and LaForge working frantically at putting him back together. Q felt awful. At first he'd thought the sick feeling he was experiencing was related to the attack on him, but the shot Crusher gave him - after perfunctorily scanning him, and then turning aside to work on Data immediately afterward as if Q's injuries were so trivial she couldn't spare him a word, and given that he was the one the attack was aimed at, that hardly seemed fair - had at least alleviated the pain in his head and in the places where he'd hit the floor. He was coming to the conclusion that what he was feeling had nothing to do with his human body.

He was alive, and mostly healthy, some bruises aside, but the Calamarain had been after him. Data hadn't even existed when he'd played his games with the Calamarain - Data had had nothing to do with it. But Data was dying, and he wasn't.

"If he were mortal, he'd be dead," Crusher was saying, which seemed to him to be an odd way to put it, because of course Data wasn't immortal. Unaging, but far from invulnerable. And that couldn't be right, anyway.

"Now let's not overstate the matter, Doctor," Q said. "I'm mortal, and I survived." Surely Data couldn't be that badly hurt. Q was much more fragile, made of soft, vulnerable meat and bones no stronger than wooden sticks. If Q had lived, surely Data couldn't be in any great danger.

Everyone glared at him as if he'd just made a major faux pas rather than pointing out something that should be both obvious and cheering. They wanted Data to live, right? Shouldn't Q pointing out that his own survival suggested that Data would be fine be something that made them feel better? Apparently not. "Q, you exceed your own standards for self-preoccupation. You have no concern for an officer who may have saved your life."

Both parts of Picard's last sentence were wrong. There was no 'may' about Data's having saved Q's life; he would be dead, right now, if not for Data. He knew that for a fact. And he wasn't unconcerned about Data, either, but he didn't point this out because there was no point to it. Picard would believe what he believed and Q couldn't change that. "He's strong," Q said. "He'll survive." He meant for it to sound like a statement. Instead it came out almost questioning, a hope rather than a belief, as if he still had the power to shape reality with declarative statements of thought and saying it could make it be true. Because if Data died...

Crusher chased everyone out of her sickbay. The guard walking behind Q had only been instructed to escort him, not to escort him anywhere in particular. So Q walked aimlessly, with nowhere to go, unwilling to ask the man following him where he could go because the guard was more robotic and cold than Data had ever been, addressing Q only to tell him in a flat tone when an area was restricted. Q didn't need to be painted a picture. The guard despised him, maybe for what he'd done to the ship in the past, but probably because he was healthy and Data was injured, maybe dying, and it shouldn't be this way.

It wasn't fair.

The universe wasn't fair. Fairness was a fiction humans came up with to believe they had some control over their lives. He knew that. And yet here he was, human, and fairness didn't seem fictional now. It seemed painfully real. Data had done nothing to deserve being hurt. Data had done a noble thing, a compassionate thing, and if he hadn't...

...If he hadn't, Q would be dead. He had heard the Calamarain discussing with themselves what to do with him, when they'd surrounded him and permeated his skin. His telepathy was gone with all the rest of his Q powers, but either he wasn't completely powerless or anyone who actually understood the Calamarain thought-language would have heard them, if they'd been in physical contact with them like he had been. He'd heard them talking, and what they'd been talking about was how best to kill him.

They'd considered and discarded simply draining his life from him, as they'd tried the first time. It didn't work as well on mortal bodies as it would have on his energy form, if the energy form of a Q hadn't completely outclassed any number of Calamarain in strength and power. They knew they didn't have much time before the shields would be modulated to block them, and they didn't think they could drain his flesh form quickly enough to ensure his death. So they'd been discussing other options. Some of them had wanted to pull him up where the mortals couldn't reach him to ground him, and electrocute him slowly, both because their form of energy couldn't instantly convert into voltage that would kill a human and because they liked the idea of him suffering pain before he died. Others had wanted to do it fast and certain by letting the artificial gravity do their work for them, drag him up to the top of the warp shaft and drop him 100 meters or so, where his fragile human bones and flesh would have shattered and turned to pulp on impact. Another group had wanted to fling him into the warp core, where he'd be instantly vaporized. And some were voting to carry him over to a wall, up high where his feeble mortal limbs could give him no leverage to escape, and slowly crush him to death by pushing him into it until he suffocated or his ribcage shattered or both, mostly because that would cause him even more pain than the electrocution would.

He had been twitching with the electrical shocks they inflicted simply by touching him, trying to scream, to beg them to stop, but nothing had come out but incoherent grunts and cries. In his mind he was screaming, and he knew the Calamarain could hear him, but those few that weren't completely ignoring his mental pleas were laughing at them in sadistic delight. And without being able to control his muscles there was no way he could communicate with the people who might actually feel sufficient sympathy to try to help him. He was paralyzed, and he couldn't even make his mouth work well enough to call for help, and he was going to die. He had known it, had known his existence was over and he had no hope.

And then Data had grabbed him. The energies of the Calamarain had discharged through Data, making the android twitch and writhe. If Q had been able to speak coherently he would have begged Data not to let go, but it hadn't mattered that he couldn't beg, because Data did what Q was silently pleading for anyway, and held on. In that moment, Data had been his lifeline, his savior, the only thing between him and horrible death. His protector. It was absurd that a Q should need a protector, but he wasn't a Q anymore, and he did.

And then the Calamarain were gone, and he'd fallen to the floor, hard, wind knocked out of him. Everyone had surrounded Data, rushing to his aid and all but ignoring Q, even though Q had been the target of the attack. At first Q had been indignant, until it sank in, gradually, that somehow, Data was actually seriously hurt. That it wasn't just that everyone liked Data and no one liked him; it was because the attack had done far, far more damage to Data than to him.

It wasn't fair. Data had saved his life. He shouldn't be dying or critically injured for it.

Intellectually Q knew that was stupid. Altruism and compassion were weaknesses precisely because they led people to do things like save other people's lives at their own expense. Data had done something stupid, had charged in to rescue Q without considering the impact the Calamarain's energies might have on his positronic net, and now he was hurt and maybe dying because that was how the universe rewarded stupidity, and that should be all there was to it. Q should be feeling pleased that the android had been stupid enough to take that risk on his behalf, not... not guilty. He shouldn't have felt like it should have been him just because he had actually been the target and Data's act had been one of compassion. He shouldn't feel like the universe had any sense of balance, any karma, any inherent justice that was disrupted here. He knew better. The universe was built on positive feedback loops and endless spirals up and down, where power gravitated to power and the weak were punished for weakness. He shouldn't feel like what had happened here was wrong.

But he did.

The Q did not owe debts. Doing a favor for another Q was a way of getting power over that Q. The idea of acting out of pure altruism was, well not alien to the Q exactly, but pure altruism was what you offered to inferior beings, and then only if you wanted them to worship you, and you never risked your life for them. Or for anyone else. The worship of lesser beings couldn't be enjoyed if you lost your immortal life to gain it, and you couldn't collect the debt another Q would owe you if what you did for them cost you your life. There was very little that could kill a Q, of course, but it was very unlikely that anyone would brave the few dangers that did exist simply to help another Q.

But Data had risked his life for Q. And might have lost it.

Q owed him, now, more than he could possibly ever repay, because he wasn't an engineer, he couldn't fix Data, and if Data lived through this he was so much stronger and faster and more durable than Q that Q would never be able to pay him back in kind, and if he died then obviously Q couldn't repay him. And he couldn't exactly worship Data, and an emotionless android would have no use for worship anyway. And Q thought that beings who wanted worship were losers, so he would think less of Data if Data had wanted such a thing.

The weight of his gratitude, and his guilt, were crushing him. The Q didn't leave debts unpaid. The universe was a monstrously unfair machine and they all knew it, but they also knew that a society of sentient beings could only function if debts between entities were honored. A Q who didn't repay favors would be ostracized, and would end up losing his powers... which meant Q should feel fine about welching on a debt, because he had just lost his powers and what did it matter anymore if he obeyed the ethics of the Q? But he couldn't get rid of beliefs he'd held for billions of years just because they no longer applied so well now. Tormenting mortals was a mildly socially irresponsible pastime, but failing to repay a debt would make him a terrible, worthless person.

And it wasn't as if Q had rejected the debt and Data had forced it on him anyway. Yes, he hadn't been able to say the words, to actually vocalize to Data how badly he wanted Data to save him... but he'd thought it, and among the Q it was the thought that counted.

He leaned heavily against the bulkhead, unable to escape the feeling that he should have said no somehow, that he should have somehow prevented Data from risking himself, even though logically he'd had no more way to do that than he'd had to save himself. But it wasn't fair. Data was unaging, unlike this mortal sack of protoplasm Q was now bound to; he could potentially live thousands of years, and he might have just thrown it away so Q could eke out probably less than a century more. And Data had friends who would mourn him, and Data had a place where he belonged, and Data had a life he fit into, a life he understood that gave him satisfaction. Q had lost all of those things, and he was miserable, and he hated being human, and he was starting to hate himself. In the moment when the Calamarain had been about to kill him, he would have done anything to live, but now that the crisis was over, Q realized that he really didn't want to live all that badly. Not like this. Not if it meant owing debts to people who died or got hurt for him, and he'd never be able to repay them, and the fact that the person who was hurt or dying had a happier and more satisfying life, with a greater potential lifespan and a lot more people who'd suffer for his death, only made the imbalance worse. Data had risked something that was worth a great deal, his own life, for Q's life, and Q's life... wasn't worth very much. Not right now.

And then he drew a sharp breath, as he realized something he should have understood all along.

The Enterprise couldn't save both the Bre'el IV moon and him. Every time they tried to push the moon, they'd have to drop shields. Sooner or later, the Calamarain would get frustrated at these tiny meat creatures' insistence on standing between them and their revenge, and they'd destroy the ship instead of targeting Q personally. They'd been right there at the warp core. An electrical discharge into the computers controlling the core, or better yet and quicker, a magnetic flux against the force field holding the Enterprise's antimatter supply. And all these people would be dead, because they'd agreed to give Q shelter, and the fact that he'd be dead too would make their sacrifice monstrously pointless.

If they sacrificed Bre'el IV, if they put up shields and ran, they'd survive. But what was it Picard had said? Millions of lives, down there on the planet, threatened by this falling moon? How would Q ever even begin to pay back that debt? His entire mortal existence wouldn't be long enough, and it wouldn't matter anyway because you couldn't repay the dead. Doing good works for people who weren't dead didn't actually discharge your debt to other people who were.

If he hadn't felt so worthless, and helpless, and lonely, maybe he wouldn't have seen it. He was good at denying reality and rationalizing things when it was convenient for him. Maybe he'd have convinced himself that there was another solution... or just managed to not see the problem, like he'd managed to not see it up until now. But his whole world was empty. He didn't belong to anyone. No one wanted him. No one cared if he lived or died. The Q had thrown him out, the Enterprise tolerated him only grudgingly, and the Calamarain wanted him dead. Only Data had shown him kindness and acceptance, only Data had protected him... and Data was lying in sickbay for it.

It fit. He turned his idea this way and that, absorbing it. The fear, the grief - what Picard would have probably called self-pity, but what were you supposed to feel when you knew you had to die? - they were more bearable than the blackness of his mood and the horrible voice in his head chanting at him that it should have been him. He hated living like this. He was already overwhelmed with fear and grief over the loss of his powers and the uncertainty of his future, and the guilt over what had happened to Data was breaking him. He didn't want to die... but he didn't want to live like this, either. And he owed Data an impossible debt, and without his powers this was the only way to pay it back.

With his security escort, he headed toward the bridge to talk to Picard. He didn't want this. He hated this existence, but even still, he didn't want to die. Maybe Picard would say or do something that helped him see a way out, some alternative to doing what he thought, now, he would inevitably have to do.

But if there wasn't any other way... then he knew what he had to do. There wasn't any way to pay Data back except to save his life - or to save the lives of his friends and the ship he'd been loyal to, if he died of his injuries. And the fact was, Q's continued existence aboard this ship was a threat to Data and everyone aboard. The only way to save Data, the only way to pay him back, was to remove himself from the sanctuary of the ship.

The Calamarain would kill him. He had no doubt of that. They could travel at high warp; the Enterprise's shuttles couldn't outrun them, and fleeing to the planet would just bring angry plasma beings down into the atmosphere of innocent beings who were already terrorized enough by the impending fall of their moon. There was nowhere Q could go, once he'd left the ship, no way to outrun the Calamarain and nowhere he could flee to. If he left the ship, if he freed them of the burden of protecting him, it meant his death.

But that would be better than how he felt now, standing by as Data suffered on his behalf and feeling as if there was nothing he could ever do to repay the debt.

Funny. The humans thought of gratitude as a positive emotion. Something benevolent. They had no idea that gratitude could hurt so much that someone would choose death to escape the burden.