Do It Again: Farpoint, Revisited

"She's found a vulnerability in you, a vulnerability I've been looking for for years. If I'd known sooner, I would have appeared as a female." Q, "Q-Pid"

Captain's log, stardate 41153.3: Our destination is planet Cygnus IV, beyond which lies the great unexplored mass of the galaxy. My orders are to examine Farpoint, a starbase built there by the inhabitants of that world. Meanwhile, I am becoming better acquainted with my new command, this Galaxy Class U.S.S. Enterprise. I am still somewhat in awe of its size and complexity.

As for my crew, we are short in several key positions, most notably a first officer, but I am informed that a highly experienced man, one Commander William Riker, will be waiting to join our ship when we reach our Cygnus IV destination.

He considered adding additional information regarding the chief medical officer they were scheduled to pick up on Cygnus IV as well, but decided against it. He hadn't wanted Beverly to be posted here, but the sense that this would be an awkward and painful assignment for her apparently hadn't made much headway against the Starfleet brass. He wasn't going to reiterate what those who'd review his logs already knew.

Instead he finished up the log, and turned to his second officer. A fascinating being, that one. Lt. Commander Data looked slightly less human than other androids the Federation had encountered- his skin and eye tones were off, a golden color that would have advertised him to be at least a non-human if Picard hadn't already known what he was- but the thing that truly marked him was his strange, stiff posture, as if he were a doll without full human articulation. Picard had only had the opportunity to converse with him a few times previous to this moment, and had found him fascinating and exasperating at the same time, a brilliant and utterly naive being with a child's innocent enthusiasm for life and learning, and some of a child's more annoying traits as well. Picard didn't like children, but he thought he would like Data. Most of the time.

"You will agree, Data, that Starfleet's instructions are difficult?" he asked, wondering what the android's reaction would be.

Data looked slightly puzzled. "Difficult ... how so? Simply solve the mystery of Farpoint Station."

Picard smiled indulgently. Naivete indeed. "As simple as that."

Next to him, the ship's counselor, Deanna Troi, looked up at him. "Farpoint Station. Even the name sounds mysterious." Troi had a pronounced accent, presumably a Betazoid one, though Picard had met other Betazoids without a similar accent. Perhaps it was her father's accent; from her records, Picard knew that Troi's father had been a human, and as a result, she was only an empath, not a telepath like a full-blooded Betazoid would be. Her function was to primarily to oversee the mental health of the ship's crew- with a crew this size, such a function had to be specialized, not simply managed by the chief medical officer- but given her powers, Picard had already asked her to serve on his bridge crew as an advisor in diplomatic and other situations where her empathy would provide useful intelligence.

Picard smiled at Troi, then turned to Data. "The problem, Data, is that another life form built that base. How do I negotiate a friendly agreement for Starfleet to use it while at the same time snoop around finding how and why they built it?"

Data cocked his head sideways in a remarkably cat-like gesture. "Inquiry... the word snoop... ?"

"Data, how can you be programmed as a virtual encyclopedia of human information without knowing a simple word like snoop?" Picard asked.

"Possibility ... a kind of human behavior I was not designed to emulate?"

Well, that was one way to keep your androids from becoming dangerous- cut them off from knowledge of any behavior you didn't want them enacting. Picard wasn't so sure he liked such a strategy. His officers should be well-rounded- regardless of whether they were capable of a behavior, he wanted them to know the possibility existed. "It means 'to spy, to sneak' ..."

Data interrupted, a note of enthusiasm in his voice despite his supposed inability to feel emotion. "Ah! To seek covertly, to go stealthily, to slink, slither ..."

All right, that was more than enough. "Exactly, yes."

Oblivious, Data continued. " glide, creep, skulk, pussyfoot, gum-"

More than more than enough. "Yes!" Picard barked, interrupting Data, who wound down with a final "-shoe..." and then trailed off.

Suddenly Troi gasped, putting a hand to her head. "Captain... I'm sensing a ... a powerful mind..."

A claxon interrupted her. Picard's crew checked their consoles, looking for answers. "Something strange on the detector circuits," Lt. Torres at the conn reported.

A second alarm suddenly blared. On the main viewscreen, a strange shining, sparkling grid shape appeared, stretching across the whole of the galaxy ahead of them. If there was a top or bottom or any other boundary to the square mesh grid, Picard couldn't see it.

Data looked up from his position. "It registers as solid, Captain..."

"Or an incredibly powerful forcefield," Troi said, a note of near-panic in her voice. "But if we collide with either it could be very..."

Picard hardly needed his bridge advisor to advise him of that. It was hard to think straight with the proximity alert claxon going off. "Shut off that damned noise! Go to Yellow Alert."

The noise obligingly stopped. Now Picard could examine the readings for himself. Indeed, to the full extent their sensors could detect, there was no boundary to the grid forcefield at all. It was planar, but impossibly huge, as if it bisected the galaxy.

"Shields and deflectors, up, sir," Lt. Worf reported.

The mesh of the grid was large, but definitely smaller than the Enterprise. They couldn't go through with fancy piloting maneuvers. There was only one option remaining.

"Reverse power, full stop," he ordered.

"Controls to full stop, sir," Torres reported.

Picard could feel the engines reversing, could feel the faint pull of his body against the inertial dampeners. The force grid continued to grow on the viewscreen, but more and more slowly, until finally it ceased. "Now reading full stop, sir," Torres said.

Almost the moment he finished his sentence, a blinding light and a sound like a sudden rush of air filled the bridge. Picard turned, trying to find the source, and saw the light coalescing into a figure, solidifying- like a transporter, but brighter, louder and much quicker. It had been mere moments since the emanations had begun, and already they had ended, leaving someone standing on his bridge.

Someone that looked like a human woman.

She was tall, Picard's height or perhaps slightly taller, with brown hair pinned back, full lips, and large eyes, fixed at the moment on Picard with an unreadable expression. Picard had enough experience with historical holodeck programs and Renn Faires to recognize her style of dress- she was dressed as a European noblewoman of the 16th century, in a blue silk gown with pearls, lace and plenty of decolletage.

Perhaps this, then, was the source of the "powerful mind" Troi had sensed a moment ago.

"Thou art notified that thy kind have infiltrated the galaxy too far already," the woman declared. "Thou art directed to return to thine own solar system immediately."

Interesting. Picard wondered if the being knew what she had just said. Unless he was mistaken, the ancient English form of "thou" corresponded to the "tu" of his native French- a term meaning "you" in a familiar or condescending fashion, but only used in the singular. Either she didn't know what she was doing, or she was addressing him personally, not humanity or even his ship as a whole. "That's quite a directive. Would you mind identifying what you are?" he asked carefully.

"We call ourselves the 'Q'," she declared imperiously.

"Are you using the royal 'we', or do you refer to a larger group that you represent?"

She stared at him for a second, then laughed. "Well done, Captain. Thou'rt acquainted with thy own history. That will make things much easier." The entity paced across the floor of the bridge. "But I take no royal prerogative in this case. We are the 'Q', but thou mayst address my own person as that as well; it's all much the same thing."

Someone had obviously sent the silent alert to security. The turbolift doors opened in Picard's peripheral view, and two security officers stepped forward, phasers at hand. Picard carefully didn't look at them, but despite having her back mostly turned toward the turbolift, the Q seemed to have no difficulty sensing threat. She spun around to glance at the turbolift. A mesh forcefield, similar in shape to the one the Enterprise had nearly run into, appeared over the doorway- the security officer in the lead bumped into it and fell back. Before either could do anything more, the door shut.

And then she turned back to Picard as if nothing had happened.

"I present myself to thee as one of thine own kind that thou mayst better understand me. Go back whence thou camst..."

Torres had been edging along the perimeter of the bridge while the Q was talking to Picard, phaser in his hand. As he raised it, Q interrupted herself, pivoting to face Torres.

"Avaunt!" she said, and pointed. There was a bright flash of light, and Torres vanished- dead, dematerialized, or transported elsewhere, Picard had no way of knowing. His phaser clattered to the ground.

"What have you done with Lt. Torres?" Picard demanded, getting to his feet.

The alien smirked. "'Tis not wise to threaten one of the Q. A harsh lesson, sadly, but the sooner learned, the better."

Or in other words, Torres was probably dead. Enraged, Picard stalked over to the phaser, knowing what he'd see. He lifted it, turning it to be safe, and displayed it to the alien. "He would not have injured you! Do you recognize this; the stun setting?"

Coolly, the Q retorted, "Knowing humans as thou dost, Captain, wouldst thou be captured helpless by them?" She stepped closer, directly in his face. "Now, go back or thou shalt most certainly die!"

"By what right do you pronounce such a sentence?" Picard demanded. "We have done nothing to harm you or your kind. We are on a peaceful mission of exploration-"

The Q rolled her eyes. "Oh, peaceful," she said sarcastically. "Verily, there's no species more peaceful than humanity." She shook her head. "Thy little centuries go by so fast, Captain. Perhaps this will remind thee more clearly of humanity's peaceful nature."

The flash of light came again, as quickly as it had when Torres had vanished, leaving the Q dressed in another uniform out of Earth's history. This time, she wore the costume of an American soldier- he thought perhaps a colonel in the Air Force- circa the late 20th and early 21st century, hair cut short. "Actually, the issue is homeland security," she said in clipped, brusque tones. "The evil ones are hiding among us. You need to return to your world and protect it from terrorists. They hate you because they're jealous of you, but you'll prevail, because God's on your side."

Picard blinked. What she said had so little to do with the reality of modern life, it was almost a non sequitur. "What? That nonsense is centuries behind us!"

"So you deny that humanity is still a dangerous, savage child-race?"

"Most certainly I deny it. I agree that we still were when..." he gestured at the Q's outfit- "... humans wore costumes like that four hundred years ago..."

"At which time," she said, "you slaughtered millions in silly arguments about how to divide the resources of your little world, while murdering each other in quarrels over tribal god-images. Since then can you really tell me there have been any indications that humans will ever change?..."

"Yes! Even when we wore costumes like that, we had already started to make rapid progress."

"Oh yeah?" she returned. "You wanna review your 'rapid progress'?"

Again the flash of light. When she reappeared, her hair was long, ratty and greasy, her face was unwashed, and her ragged filthy clothes didn't fit over a hugely pregnant belly. Her hands were shackled in front of her, and a bright red "CG" was painted, literally, over her breasts. With horror, Picard recognized what aspect of human history she was aping this time- the time period during the "New Earth" regime in Europe and Asia, in the 21st century after the post-atomic horror. The CG was a French acronym; it meant "genetic criminal". She held her shackled wrists out, as if in supplication, her eyes hugely wide- the expression would have been fearful, pleading, except that she had exaggerated it to the point where it was obviously mocking. "'Rapid progress' to the point where you decided to solve your population problems by arresting pregnant women with 'undesirable' genes- which could mean anything the powers in charge decided it meant- and forcibly aborting their children, sterilizing and sometimes executing the women. That's progress, all right."

Picard shook his head. "If you're as familiar with human history as you pretend, then you know that we have overcome the problems of our history. In fact, even during the time period your costume represents, we were contacted by the Vulcans and within a hundred years, had achieved an end to poverty and war on our own planet-"

"On your own planet!" the Q declared incredulously. "Of course you ended poverty and war on your own planet. You merely exported it!" In another flash of light she was dressed in a red 23rd-century Starfleet uniform, complete with miniskirt and high boots, with the rank insignia of a Commander, presumably a security chief or an engineer. A large, clunky phaser was in her hand, pointed directly at Worf. "It's a Klingon! Captain, permission to destroy it!"

Worf and Picard's own security officer, Lt. Tasha Yar, drew their own phasers instantly. "Stand down, Worf, Yar! That's an order!" Picard barked. The last thing he wanted was to see the Q decide to teach Worf and Yar the same "lesson" she'd taught Torres.

Yar stared at him. "Sir! As Security Chief I can't just stand here and let that creature threaten-"

"Yes, you can, Lt. Yar," Picard snapped. "This entity has proven her ability to dematerialize a person with a thought. If we're all still alive, I strongly doubt she seriously intends to use that phaser."

The Q grinned, tossing her weapon in the air and snapping her fingers. It vanished before it had a chance to finish its upward trajectory and begin falling. "Oh, very astute, mon capitaine. No, I'm not here to shoot Klingons-" she looked at Worf as if he were a bug- "tempting as the prospect may be... That was your job. You did indeed end poverty and war on your own planet, with the help of your allies, and immediately found more enemies to fight out there too. The same old story all over again."

Picard found that he could no longer control his anger at this being. If she knew so much about human history, how could she possibly have missed the fact that humanity hadn't started the war with the Klingons, had in fact done everything possible to avoid it. "No! The 'same old story' is the one we're meeting now! Self-righteous life forms who are eager not to learn but to prosecute, to judge anything they don't understand or can't tolerate-"

The Q interrupted before he could finish his speech. "What an interesting idea. Prosecute and judge?" She looked around the bridge. "And suppose it turns out we understand you humans only too well?"

Evenly, Picard retorted, "We've no fear of what the true facts about us will reveal."

Her eyes widened. "The facts about you? Splendid, splendid, mon capitaine! You are a veritable fountain of good ideas." She smiled broadly. "There are preparations to make, but when we next meet, Captain..." She threw him a salute. "...we'll proceed exactly as you suggest!"

And then there was another flash of light, and she was gone.

A moment passed, as if everyone was simply registering that the entity was really gone and not about to reappear in another costume. Then Worf spoke. "Sir... respectfully submit our only choice is to fight."

"Fight or try to escape," Lt. Yar added.

Fight? Fight something that could create a forcefield with no visible edges, materialize on the bridge despite having no visible ship anywhere within transporter range, instantaneously change costumes, disintegrate or otherwise dispose of a Starfleet officer with, apparently, a single glance... Picard shook his head slightly. Fighting was not a viable option. Running away might be, but he wasn't too sanguine about that, either. He turned to Troi. "Sense anything, Commander?"

Troi shook her head. "Its mind is much too powerful. Recommend we avoid contact!"

All right. Thus far the Q entity had shown no sign of being a telepath- oh, perhaps when she'd known that Torres was about to stun her, but that was more likely explained by her simply having visual perceptions humanity lacked, despite appearing to them in a human form. Perhaps she literally had eyes in the back of her head. She'd done nothing so far to prove that she could look inside the ship while not present in it, but Picard couldn't assume she or her people couldn't intercept transmissions- after all, the Romulans could do that, so something as powerful as the Q entity had to be assumed to have the ability as well.

"From this point, no station aboard, repeat no station, for any reason will make use of transmitted signals or intercom." He moved over to the Ops/Conn stations. "We'll try to take them by surprise, and see what this Galaxy Class starship can do." Picard turned to face Worf. "Lieutenant, inform engine room to make ready for maximum acceleration."

"Aye, sir." Worf stood and hurried off. Picard turned to Data.

"Records search, Data. Results of detaching the Saucer Section at high warp speeds."

Data cocked his head again. "Inadvisable at any warp speed, sir."

"Search theoretical."

Data considered that. "It is possible. But absolutely no margin for error."

Picard nodded. He raised his voice to address the entire bridge crew. "Using print-out only, notify all decks to prepare for maximum acceleration. Now hear this! Maximum, you're entitled to know, means that we'll be pushing our engines well beyond safety limits. Our hope is to surprise whatever that is out there, try to outrun it." He looked around at all of them. "Our only other option is to tuck tail between our legs and return to Earth as they demand."

And that he refused to do. Not as long as there was any other option. Even though he wasn't at all convinced that outrunning the Q entity was a viable option at all.

Outside, Q watched the proceedings inside with glee. This was fun. Even more fun than it had been last time, since this time, she knew what to pay attention to. Last time Q'd had no idea these humans would end up being so entertaining; the test had really more or less just been something to do. Last time Q had been genuinely annoyed with the humans' obtuseness at times, and had actually gotten somewhat angry at the ridiculous notion Picard had that he could take a Q by surprise. Now, anticipation and the thrill of revisiting such a sheerly fun part of Q's own past held sway. Instead of being annoyed that Picard was such an idiot, she was thoroughly delighted that he was actually daring to defy a member of the Q Continuum. Even with the little Picard knew, he knew running probably wouldn't work, and yet there he was, bravely planning to do whatever he could to preserve his ship and his species.

Before making this appearance, Q had carefully considered whether or not to let this Farpoint encounter even happen. After all, the test was completely unnecessary. To be honest, it hadn't been all that necessary the first time, but at least then, it had been a valid test. It hadn't, of course, been about what Picard had thought it had been about- the purpose had never actually been to deny space to humanity (though if they'd failed really, really spectacularly, that had remained an option, certainly), but to see if humanity lived up to its own standards. It was a very common Q test. Take the values the species holds most dear, and claim that they don't live up to them, or claim they exhibit the opposite traits. Then test to see if it's true. Q had overseen thousands of such tests. At the time this had first happened, Q had planned to shove humanity's face in its own hypocrisy, pushing the human subjects into declaring that they were peaceful, were "advanced" by their own understanding of the concept, and then prove they weren't.

Such pastimes were beneath Q now. For 3,000 years, Q had been directing Q's talents in such regard toward a much more worthy goal- helping to shape the direction of the Q Continuum. The idea of trying to push lesser species into demonstrating their hypocrisy was, frankly, childish and beneath Q as Q was today. But the thing that had been really interesting about humans- aside from the fact that they had actually stood up to Q- was that they hadn't failed, hadn't proved themselves hypocrites. Humans really did live up to their hype. Mostly. With more experience with the species, Q now knew that there was plenty of room within humanity as a whole for all the negative traits they didn't like about themselves, that there were humans who really were "grievously savage." Picard just wasn't one of them. Q couldn't have chosen a better exemplar for the best of humanity if Q had actually worked at it.

Repeating the Farpoint encounter wasn't a necessary means of proving that. Q already knew it. And given the fact that Q already knew the outcome of the test, actually redoing the test would be pointless... if the goal were for Q to learn about Picard.

The goal, however, was the other way around.

If Q had appeared in some other circumstance, presented some other demeanor, created a different image for Picard... that'd be creating a completely different dynamic, something that might go wildly askew from the old pattern. Q couldn't step back into Q's old life with Picard and make it seamless, but on the other hand, Q had no desire to create a new relationship with Picard that had no resemblance to the old one. Tweak the old relationship, yes. Stack the deck, to make it easier to pursue what Q wanted out of it now. Make tiny minor changes, at least here in this first encounter. Generally not do anything that in retrospect Q thought was stupid. But not redo it completely. Picard deserved to know what he was dealing with. And if Q had presented her new form in anything resembling a benevolent guise, Picard would just sop over with warmth and compassion and the milk of human kindness and all that stuff that even now, Q could only take in very small doses. She was after something she was fairly sure she didn't know how to get from the other Picard, the original Picard, the one who wouldn't be able to mentally bridge the gap between Q-then and Q-now without Q explaining far, far more than Q wanted to... but if it didn't come in a form that could, maybe, have come from that Picard, it would end up being pointless.

All this might fail spectacularly. Fighting a war and raising a child had given Q a sense of limitations Q hadn't had when he'd stood on this bridge in a male form and declared that humanity needed to turn back. But, unlike going back to the original Picard, the original timeline, this had a good chance of working eventually... and Q was still Q- there was no point to doing anything if you knew it would succeed. The possibility of failure added spice.

Oh, this was going to be such fun!

Q followed the fleeing ship, ignoring a few photon torpedoes, and watched as the Enterprise split into two pieces, right on time, heading in separate directions: one half containing a Klingon and a whole lot of civilians, children and useless supernumeraries; the other half, racing desperately for their lives, containing Picard. The first time this had happened, it had been obvious to Q who to pursue- there was no interest, no challenge, in the saucer section. The real interest lay with the part that contained Picard. This time, Q couldn't resist tweaking the Klingon. She split herself into two entities, the ball of light manifestation that was chasing the main body of the Enterprise, and the new human form she'd adopted, teleporting onto the bridge of the saucer section right behind Worf. She tapped him on the shoulder before he had a chance to realize she was there.

Worf spun, growling. She saw his craggy face change a tiny bit, barely enough to read, and felt the emotions boiling off him- fear of failing Picard, for the innocents in his care, and bloodlust, tempered by the knowledge that he could not beat her. He could put up a warrior's brave battle and go on to his glorious afterlife. How tedious.

"Tag," she said, grinning. "You're it."

"What do you want?" Worf snarled.

"Just to let you know," she said. "If I spare your ship and the useless civilians aboard it, it's because I choose to be merciful- not because I don't know what tactic your captain is attempting." She shook her head. "Did he really think he could fool me?"

"Given your lack of understanding of human history, I can surmise why," Worf said, still growling. "Did you think humans started the war with my people? As a Klingon, I am insulted."

Q goggled for a moment. A clever rejoinder from Worf? Had she made a mistake in splitting this timeline? Was this a different Worf? Then she remembered him suggesting that she prove her mortality by dying, back during that horrible time she generally did her best to forget about, and realized that her dislike of Klingons might have blinded her to the fact that this one did have a brain on him, sometimes. For instance, right now he wasn't indulging in the luxury of pulling his phaser on her. "A Klingon who knows history!" she declared. "Given how you people have a talent for rewriting history to your own preferences, I'm amazed. But it doesn't matter."

The Klingon was slightly taller than her this time, an annoyance- a female body would have been freakish at the height of her old male body, so she had downsized a bit, taking care to remain taller than Picard, but she really would have liked to be able to look directly into the Klingon's eyes instead of up. On the other hand, levitating would only make her look insecure. "I'm not the Q for your species, Worf son of Mogh. Someone else has that thankless job, and that one is otherwise occupied." Babysitting, Q thought gleefully. Her former mate was the Q for Klingons, which, she admitted, was part of the reason for her antipathy to the species. "I'm here for humanity. You cannot escape me, you cannot shoot me, you cannot outthink me. All any of you can do... is succeed at the tasks I set for you. Or fail." She smiled maliciously. "So stop thinking about overloading your phaser in an attempt to destroy me. I can read your mind- not a very challenging task, given how little there is of it- and you simply can't take me by surprise, or harm me in any way. If you can get that through your bony skull, we'll get along marvelously."

"I do not wish to 'get along' with you," Worf said. "I wish you to leave this ship."

"Oh, I will. You bore me, and I have an appointment in Samarra with your captain. But I just want to make matters clear." She let her smile widen, grow more dangerous. "Picard's clever strategy in separating the saucer section won him nothing. I will have him, and if he fails, the humans aboard this ship are forfeit as well. So don't bother to run. The universe is my playground; there's nowhere for you to go."

Then she vanished, merging back with her other half.

As she'd conversed with Worf, she'd also chased after the main part of the Enterprise, holding herself back to just slightly greater than the speed they could manage, listening to the conversations within, the growing desperation in the crew's voices, with amusement. She'd considered slowing down, giving them more of a headstart, or alternately, simply grabbing them now- her feelings toward this ship and its crew were much warmer than they'd been the first time, and she really didn't want to be as merciless as she'd been last time. But after all, she knew they would not be hurt, even if they didn't, and a little fear never hurt anyone. So she waited, keeping up her leisurely warp 9.9 pace, until she heard those glorious words from Picard:

"Commander, signal the following in all languages and on all frequencies: we surrender."

Man, she never got tired of hearing that.

With the mental equivalent of a broad grin, she reached out for Picard, Troi, Yar and Data, and constructed the courtroom around them.

And as the brilliant light on the viewscreen rushed upon them, suddenly the world went white, and Picard found himself somewhere else.

There was a cacophony of voices shouting, chanting, jeering. He looked around. Troi, Yar and Data were standing next to him, but there was no sign of the rest of his crew, nor any indication what had happened to his ship. He was in an amphitheatre of some kind, the stands filled with people wearing rags and filthy, damaged clothing, their faces showing the ravages of disease, poverty and genetic mutation. They were the crowd making the incredible din in the room. After a moment to get his bearings, he realized where he was. This was a courtroom of Europe, during the post-atomic horror, under the rule of the totalitarian regime that had risen throughout Europe, Asia and much of Africa in the latter part of the 21st century. The same time period Q had drawn her pregnant prisoner costume from.

A loud bell rang, and an Asian man strode into the courtroom, holding what was obviously a primitive precursor to the PADD. He carried himself with an air of total authority. Picard's attention was drawn to him- he obviously had importance here.

The Asian man nodded at another man, who banged a gong loudly. The sound resounded throughout the amphitheatre-like courtroom.

"The prisoners will all stand!" the Asian man announced.

People in the stands were still talking, chattering and jeering. A soldier, heavyset, armored and heavily drugged as soldiers were during this time period, waved his automatic weapon at them, and they fell silent.

Picard motioned at his people not to stand up. Until he knew what was going on, he was not going to play along.

Data had been taking in their surroundings with an appearance of great curiosity. He turned to Picard. "Historically intriguing, Captain. Very, very accurate."

Picard nodded. "Mid-21st Century, the post-atomic horror..."

The Asian bailiff shouted at them. "All prisoners, stand and make respectful attention to honored Judge!"

"Careful, sir," Troi said quietly. "This is not an illusion or a dream."

It felt real, but also unreal, like a holodeck. The suddenness with which they'd found themselves here, the lack of any continuity with their previous places, made it feel like a dream. Had they been sent back in time? "But these courts belong in our past..." Picard murmured.

"I don't understand either," Troi said, "but this is real."

One of the soldiers leveled his weapon at Picard and his crew. "Get to your feet, criminals!"

It was the principle of the thing. Picard doubted Q would let her new toys be killed for not standing up before she'd even made an appearance.

The bell rang again. The judge's chair began to move forward from a recess in the back wall.

"At least we are acquainted with the judge, Captain," Data said.

Picard followed where Data was looking. Why was he not surprised to see that Q was now costumed as a 21st-century judge, and was seated in the chair moving toward them?

The soldier standing nearest them suddenly fired a burst from his automatic weapon at the feet of Picard and his crew. "Attention! On your feet, attention!"

Tasha sprang into action, grabbing the soldier's weapon away in a neat pivot and throwing the soldier crashing to the floor.

Q leaned forward from the Judge's bench. "You are out of order!" she shouted.

For a moment Picard thought she was talking to them. But no- it meant the soldier on the ground. Two other soldiers stepped in, weapons at the ready. The man on the floor took a quick sniff of his drug, and relaxed into a happy stupor, moments before the two soldiers fired their weapons into his fallen body, killing him. Spectators broke into applause as Picard watched in horror. Had Q shanghaied some innocent people into this- this scenario, this whatever-it-was- and callously murdered one? Or were these illusions, constructs, as with a holodeck?

Q spoke. "The prisoners will not be harmed..." She glanced at Picard. "...until they are found guilty." She gestured at the body. "Dispose of that."

Picard decided there was nothing he could do about the fate of the "actors" in Q's little play- he had no opportunity to ask Deanna if they were real or not, but judging from her earlier statement, apparently she was getting an empathic reading from them- that was the only way she could know this scenario was "real"- so either that was a real person or Q could create illusions that could fool Deanna. There was nothing he could do about it in any case, and he had problems enough. "Can we assume you mean this will be a fair trial?" Picard asked the Q.

She nodded. "Yes, absolutely equitable."

Picard handed the weapon to the bailiff as Q swung her bench around to the center front of the courtroom. She spoke to the bailiff. "Proceed."

The bailiff looked down at his portable viewscreen. "Before this gracious court now appear these prisoners to answer for the multiple and grievous savageries of the species, Humanity, from which they all descend." He focused his attention on the dock, and specifically, Picard. "How plead you, criminal?"

"If I may, Captain," Data said, and Picard nodded at him to go on. "Objection, your honor. In the year 2036, the new United Nations declared that no Earth citizen could be made to answer for the crimes of his race or forbears."

"Objection denied!" Q declared. A roar of cheers went up from the spectators, and the gong clanged.

Q leaned down to look directly at Data. "This is a court of the year 2079, by which time more 'rapid progress' had caused all 'United Earth' nonsense to be abolished."

Tasha lunged to her feet. Picard sensed that nothing good was about to happen. "Tasha, no-"

"I must," she said, her voice full of rage and passion, "because I grew up on a world that allowed things like this court! And it was people like these that saved me from it. This so-called court should get down on its knees to what Starfleet is, what it represents..."

The Q waved her hand at Tasha. It was as if the very air congealed around her, rushing around her, a bitterly chill wind. And Tasha... froze. Frost on her hair, her eyes closed tightly, her skin and clothing limned with ice. She toppled backward. Data caught her, lowering her gently to the floor.

Troi screamed. "You barbarian! This woman has done nothing wrong!"

"Criminals keep silence!" the bailiff shouted.

"You've got a lot to learn about humans if you think you can torture us or frighten us into silence," Picard said coldly. He turned to Data. "Will she live?"

"Uncertain. We lack any sort of facilities here to thaw her out."

"You are charged, criminals," the Q said, her voice riding over the chatter of the spectators. "How plead you?"

Picard merely stared up at Q. The bailiff shouted, "You will answer the charges, criminal!"

"Or what? Or this? Or death? or worse?" Picard raised his voice. "You promised 'the prisoners will not be harmed.' We plead nothing so long as you break your own rules."

The spectators grumbled loudly. "I suggest you center your attention on this trial, Captain," the Q said. "It may be your only hope."

"And I suggest you now may be having second thoughts about this trial! You're considering that if you conduct a fair trial, which was your promise, you may lose."

The Q laughed. "Lose?"

"Yes, even though you're judge, and prosecutor..."

"And jury," she said.

Picard didn't have much choice but to accept that. This was historically accurate. He nodded. "Accepted... so long as you keep to your agreement." He motioned with his head at Tasha. "And assaulting a prisoner is hardly a fair trial."

The Q seemed to consider that. Then she looked down at Tasha, and waved her hand. "This is a merciful court." There was a flash of light, and suddenly Tasha was warm again, unfrozen and dazed.

The spectators were not happy. Several stood up on their benches, and most were shouting. Q's bench raised up, and she stood up in her seat for a moment. "SILENCE!"

Immediately, the spectators subsided back into their seats, cowed. The Q's bench lowered again, allowing her to face Picard.

"Continuing these proceedings, I must caution you that legal trickery is not permitted. This is a court of fact!"

Picard chimed in on the last three words, knowing the words as well as the Q did. "We humans know our past, even when we're ashamed of it. I recognize this court system as the one which agreed with that line from Shakespeare - 'Kill all the lawyers'."

The Q nodded. "Which was done."

"Leading to the rule: 'Guilty until proven innocent'."

"Of course. Bringing the innocent to trial would be unfair." She leaned in. "You will now answer to the charge of being a grievously savage race!"

"'Grievously savage' could mean anything. I will answer only specific charges."

She sneered. "Are you certain you want a full disclosure of human ugliness? So be it, fool!" She turned to the bailiff. "Present the charges."

The bailiff referred to his portable viewscreen, then stepped forward and handed it to Picard. "Criminal, you will read the charges to the court."

Picard took it, and read through the first several pages. The Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts, the Eugenics Wars, the Holocaust, slavery, the French Revolution, the Bell riots, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Osama bin Laden, Israeli occupation of Palestine, Palestinian violence against Israel, the conflicts in Northern Ireland, workhouses, pogroms, the Crusades... He looked up.

"I see no charges against us, your honor."

The Q slammed her fist against the bench top. "Criminal, you are out of order!"

Soldiers moved in, unslinging automatic weapons and placing the barrels of two against Troi's and Data's heads.

"Soldiers..." the Q waved at the guns. "... you will press those triggers if this criminal answers with any word other than 'guilty'..."

Picard heard the guns click. "Criminal, how plead you?" Q asked.

This was infuriating. But, unfortunately, historically accurate. Picard considered. He had no desire to plead guilty; that would end up playing directly into the Q's hands. But he couldn't take the risk that she was bluffing about being willing to shoot Counselor Troi and Data.

All right. "Guilty..." The soldiers stepped back. "...provisionally."

The soldiers looked startled by Picard's addition. They began bringing their guns in close again, looking for guidance to "Q", who looked as if she could decide either way. She considered a moment.

"The Court will hear the provision."

"We question whether this court is abiding by its own trial instructions. Have I your permission to have Commander Data repeat the record?"

"There will be no legal trickery."

"These will be your own words, your Honor." He turned to Data. "Exactly what followed her Honor's statement that the prisoners would not be harmed?"

Data seemed to take a moment to access his memory. "Yes, sir." Facing the Q, he said, "The Captain has asked the question-" -here Data mimicked Picard exactly, as if playing a recording- "Can we assume you mean this will be a fair trial?" Back to his own voice. "And in reply, the judge stated, 'Yes, absolutely equitable.'" It was rather bizarre to hear a woman's voice coming out of Data's mouth.

The Q threw up her hands. "Irrelevant testimony, entirely irrelevant...!"

"All right!" Picard shouted. "We agree there is evidence to support the court's contention that humans have been savage!" He stepped in close to the Q, staring her directly in the face. "Therefore I say "test us!" Test whether this is presently true of humans."

"Test you?" She smiled broadly. "So. And you petition the Court to accept you and your comrades as proof of what humanity has become?"

Picard had the sudden uncomfortable feeling that he was walking into a trap. The Q seemed entirely too delighted at this prospect. Nevertheless, he soldiered on. It was, after all, the only way out. "There must be many ways we can be tested. We have a long mission ahead of us..."

"Another brilliant suggestion, mon capitaine!" she said gleefully. "But your test hardly requires a 'long mission'." She laughed. "Your immediate destination offers sufficient challenge for our needs. Yes, this Farpoint station will be an adequate test."

Picard felt suddenly cold. What exactly did await them at Farpoint Station?

The bailiff stood, raising his voice. "Stand respectfully. All present, respectfully stand!"

This time, Picard cooperated with the rituals of the court, and his crew followed suit. The spectators in the stands did likewise.

The Q's bench moved back. "This trial is adjourned to allow the criminals to be tested."

The bailiff rang his bell. "This honorable court is adjourned!"

Q smiled and looked down at Picard. "Let's see how well you deal with what lies ahead for you, Captain," she said, a note of amusement in her voice.

And then the world dissolved, and they were standing on the bridge again.

Farpoint Station a test! After sending Picard and his minions back to their ship and dissolving her scenario, Q winced, remembering what she'd said the first time this had happened. "More challenge than you could possibly imagine," indeed. What had she been thinking? Had she truly thought humans were that stupid?

Well, it was true that at the time, mostly Q had only been angry at humanity. They were responsible for the deaths of two fellow Q who'd been seduced into trying to join the species, another fellow Q had decided to tuck her immortality away to be human for a while, and even the fact that one of their starship captains had utterly humiliated one of Q's more annoying junior siblings hadn't been enough to make up for it. But still. Picking an android and a half-Betazoid as exemplars of humanity? She'd decided to pick the same group for this outing, but had at least thrown in a line about them all descending from humanity this time. And she'd changed some of her lines to reflect what she knew now- Farpoint would barely be a challenge for Picard and his merry men. Closer to a cakewalk; they'd even have solved it the first time, and maybe faster, without Q goading them. There were, in fact, no timelines where Picard didn't solve Farpoint, if he got there at all. Q had checked.

Now for all that boring stuff. Riker and Crusher coming aboard- ugh. Maybe they could have an accident. No, no, she'd be good. It wasn't Riker's fault that Q had actually been fooled into thinking he had potential once, and as for Crusher, well, in most timelines where she and Picard entered any kind of long-term relationship it ended badly, so she wasn't the threat Q had once seen her as.

Q sat back to watch events with only part of her attention, waiting for the parts that actually interested her.

William Riker had gotten the distinct impression that something was odd about Farpoint Station.

Oh, they'd known there might be an issue of some kind. The Bandi had never shown any ability to construct a station of the size, complexity and technological advancement of Farpoint. Starfleet was concerned that they may have gotten help from aliens- perhaps this was some sort of strange Romulan plot, or a trick by the Ferengi. But there was something more unusual than that going on here. Riker had just had a discussion with the leader of these people, Groppler Zorn, in which he'd been offered a bowl of Earth fruit, noticed there wasn't any apple in there with it, observed that... and no sooner had he mentioned the lack of apples than he'd seen a second bowl, containing apples, which he could have sworn hadn't been there before. And then he had gone with the new doctor, Beverly Crusher, and her son Wesley, to a bazaar, where the exact shade of green the Crushers were looking for just happened to be instantly available as soon as they mentioned what they wanted.

He wasn't quite sure what it meant. But it was odd.

Up ahead he heard some men talking about the lateness of the Enterprise. It was odd that the ship should be late; it didn't fit Captain Picard's reputation. Riker wondered if something had happened to it. He stepped into the clearing. "You wouldn't be talking about the Enterprise, would you, Ensign Markham?"

"Sir, yes, sir," both Markham and his companion, Lieutenant Geordi LaForge, said, standing to attention.

And then another voice said, "The Enterprise? Are you men part of the crew, too?"

Riker turned, and saw a man he didn't recognize, a dark-skinned man in a lieutenant's red. He thought he knew all the crewmembers that were here at Farpoint Station awaiting pickup. "I'm Commander William Riker, yes, and these are Ensign Sawyer Markham and Lieutenant Geordi LaForge. And you are-?"

"Lieutenant Jaideep Torres, sir. I was on the Enterprise... and then I found myself here."

"Found yourself here?" LaForge asked. "But the Enterprise hasn't arrived yet, has it?"

"Not as far as I know. I'm worried." He took a deep breath. "We had a run-in with an entity that called itself the Q. Or herself. Not sure what to call it. She looked like a human woman, in some sort of Renn Faire costume, but she appeared on the bridge out of nowhere, and she was making threats- saying we had to return to our own solar system."

"Did she had a ship? A weapon? Or was she just announcing this out of nowhere?" Riker said.

"Not quite out of nowhere, sir. We'd almost slammed into some sort of grid-like force field, and she appeared when we came to full stop. I think she was responsible for it. She also made a similar forcefield on the bridge, when Security came, blocking them into the turbolift. I pulled my phaser to try to stun her while she was distracted talking to the captain- and then she pointed her finger at me, and, uh, I ended up here. Instantly. You know how you get a little dizzy in a transporter, and you know it's happening to you, you see the world fade out and fade back in?"

"Yeah," Markham said.

"Uh-huh," LaForge said.

"Well, this wasn't like that. It was instant. One moment I was on the bridge, and the next moment, I was on the sidewalk in the Old City. Without my phaser. It took me a while of wandering around to figure out that this was Cygnus IV and Farpoint Station."

"And you don't know what this- what did you call it? A Q?"

"That's right, sir. She said we could call her the Q. I don't know whether that's her species, or her title, or what. She kind of implied it meant her people and then she said we could call her that too, it made no difference."

"Right. So you don't know what she's done with the Enterprise, or if they're still on course, or stuck behind her forcefield."

At this point a Bandi woman approached. "Commander Riker?"

"Yes?" Riker asked.

"The Enterprise has been picked up on our monitors, sir. I should tell you, sir, it is only the Stardrive Section."

Riker blinked. "What about the Saucer Module?"

"We've received no explanation, sir. But the captain signals that you're to beam up immediately."

LaForge said to Markham, "Our new captain doesn't waste time."

"A good rule for all of us to follow, gentlemen," Riker said. He touched his combadge. "Enterprise, this is Commander Riker on Farpoint. Standing by to beam up."

Q watched Picard brief Riker, the saucer section rejoin the bridge, Worf tell Picard about his encounter with her- he added no speculation, like the dullard he was, although he had to have guessed by now that her people had had a role in the great Klingon shame of a hundred years previous- Data ferrying an ancient admiral around, Picard and Crusher have a tense little moment of near-hostility, blah blah blah. Now she remembered why she'd been so irritated the first time around, watching them enact all of this little warm fuzzy "let's all get to know each other and have bonding moments on our great new starship!" nonsense instead of actually taking the task she'd assigned them seriously. When it got to the point where Picard was sending friendly goodbyes to his good pal the captain of the Hood, she manifested herself on the viewscreen in judge's robes, as she had before.

"You're wasting time, Captain. Or did you think I was gone?"

This was the point where Worf, as big an idiot as usual, dove out of the conn position and pulled his phaser on the viewscreen, interposing himself between the screen and Picard. As if that would make a bit of difference.

Picard, plainly recognizing idiocy when he saw it, barked, "Lieutenant! Do you intend to blast a hole through the viewer?"

"Sorry, sir." Worf put away the phaser.

"Didn't I tell you there's nothing you can do to stop me, Klingon?" Q smiled mockingly, and snapped her fingers. Worf's phaser vanished from his holster. "Don't interrupt your betters. Now, Picard. Perhaps you would like to explain why you are wasting so much of your oh-so-short, precious time in goodbyes, and hellos, and all sorts of human bonding rituals?"

"If the purpose of this is to test humans, your honor, you must let us proceed in our own way."

"You are dilatory. You have twenty-four hours. Any further delay and you risk summary judgement against you, captain."

She made her image vanish off the viewscreen. That should get them moving. It had the last time.

This was a good part, next. Invisibly, she watched the conversation that had cemented her interest in Picard and his merry men, the last time.

Riker said, "What do we do, sir? With them monitoring every move, every word..."

"S.O.P., Number One," Picard said.

"Standard Operating Procedures?"

Picard nodded. "We do exactly what we'd do if this 'Q' never existed. If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are."

And that summed up the major reason she enjoyed Picard so much. So many beings spent all their time trying to propitiate omnipotent beings, cringing from them in fear or falling at their feet in worship. Someone who actually had the strength of will to ignore the fact that a god was watching them was something new. Not new to her anymore, of course, not after finding Picard the first time, but it was still refreshing and pleasant.

And now for the test itself. How utterly banal. There was Picard, Riker and Troi having a conversation with Groppler Zorn, the ass. Q had picked Farpoint Station as the testing ground in the first place, in part, because Q had felt mildly sorry for the energy jellyfish. The Q generally didn't intervene to help out beings that really ought to be powerful enough to take care of themselves, but back in those days, Q's boredom had led him into acts of disguised mercy as often as acts of malevolence. Since he'd generally taken credit for the malevolence and not for the mercy, the nice things he'd done for people hadn't won him any friends, not that he'd cared back then. Now, Q was generally too engaged with the child and the Continuum to bother to do anything for anyone, help or harm, unless it involved fixing the child's messes. But Groppler Zorn was still an ass.

Then there was Troi, moaning and groaning. And going into the tunnels, and moaning and groaning some more. "Pain... such pain..." Yeah, that's me you're sensing, from having to listen to you carry on like that. And the jellyfish's mate, on the attack. And more moaning and groaning, this time from Zorn, as the jellyfish attacked his city. And there was Picard, moaning and groaning over the Prime Directive. Hmm, should he save the Bandi from the attacking jellyfish, or leave them to their well-deserved fate? When Picard ordered phasers to lock on to the jellyfish ship, Q manifested herself in her judge's robes, sneering. It wasn't just an act, repeating the behavior of last time; after the idiocy she'd witnessed again, she really felt like sneering.

"Typical, so typical," she said. "Savage lifeforms never follow even their own rules."

Picard was so cute when he was angry. "Get off my bridge!"

She stepped toward him. "Interesting, that order about phasers."

Yar said, "Still standing by on phasers, Captain."

"Please, don't let me interfere. Use your weapons," Q said.

"With no idea of who's on that vessel, my order was a routine safety precaution," Picard said defensively, and still angrily.

Q laughed. "Really? No idea of what it represents? The meaning of that vessel is as plain as..." she tapped Picard's nose. "... the noses on your ugly little primate faces." The look on Picard's face was priceless. She snickered. "And if you were truly civilized, Captain, wouldn't you be doing something about the casualties happening down there?"

Picard touched his combadge. "Captain to CMO, are you reading any of this?"

Crusher's voice came over the link. "Medical teams already preparing to beam down, Captain."

"Compliments on that, Doctor!" Picard turned back to Q. "Any questions? Starfleet people are trained to render aid and assistance whenever..."

"But not trained in clear thinking," Q interrupted.

"Let's consider your thoughts," Picard said. "You call us 'savages' and yet you knew those people down there would be killed. It is your conduct which is uncivilized."

She shrugged cheerfully. "I'm not the one on trial, Captain. You are."

"Sir, they're firing on the planet again!" Worf interjected.

"Go to Maneuvering jets! Position us between that vessel and the planet. Forcefields full on," Picard ordered.

"Aye, sir, thruster power to..." Worf looked up, suddenly realizing something was wrong as his control panel went dead. "We have no ship control, sir. It's gone!"

And then Riker reported that Zorn had been transported away, which he blamed on Q, of course. "Question, sir, could it be this 'Q'?"

Q laughed. "None of you knows who transported him? You're running out of time, Captain."

Troi said, "Captain... Suddenly I'm sensing something else. It's satisfaction, enormous satisfaction."

"From the same source as before?" Picard asked.

"No, that was on the planet. This is much closer."

Why, Q wondered, hadn't he considered it cheating to let a half-Betazoid practically solve the puzzle for them, the last time? The thought occurred to her now that no wonder Farpoint had been such a cakewalk for Picard; he'd had access to an empath. Not that she was going to do anything about it now, but really, for it to be a good test for humanity she should have dispensed with the half-Betazoid, and possibly the android. The Klingon hadn't helped any, but transporting him elsewhere would have just been fun.

Aloud, she said, "Excellent, Counselor!" She nodded at Picard. "Men are such idiots, aren't they?"

The intercom spoke. "Captain from Transporter Room. First officer and Mister Data now beaming aboard."

"Excellent also!" She turned to Picard. "Perhaps with more of these little minds helping..."

Picard spun to face her, interrupting. "That is enough, damn it!"

Coolly Q said, "Have you forgotten that we have an agreement?"

"An agreement which you are at this moment breaking by taking over our vessel, and interfering with my decisions! Either leave or finish us."

She smiled, as if considering it, then said, "Temper, temper, mon capitaine. I am merely trying to assist a pitiful species. But perhaps I will leave if Mister Riker provides me with some amusement."

Picard said, "Do nothing that she asks!"

"But I ask so little. And it is so necessary if you are to solve all this." She pointed at the jellyfish ship in the viewscreen. "Beam over there with your... what is it called... your 'away team'?"

"I'll risk none of my crew on that unknown," Picard snapped.

She frowned. "You should already know what you'll find there. But perhaps it was too adult a puzzle for you."

Riker said, "With all respect, Captain, I want to beam over there."

Q grinned. "Very good! You are not nearly so stuffy as your captain."

"Have you understood any part of what he's trying to tell you? Humanity is no longer a savage race!" Riker said, obviously feeling the need to demonstrate his loyalty to Picard after having just undercut him in front of Q.

"But you must still prove that," she said, and demanifested herself.

Picard was used to being in tense situations, but knowing that the Q could show up at any moment and interfere, knowing also that they were close to their deadline, and knowing that she had wanted Riker to take an away team over to the ship, meaning it was probably a trap, had his nerves on edge. He listened as the away team's reports came over the comm. They found Zorn, being tortured somehow, and Troi reported that he knew why he was being tortured, what the alien vessel wanted. And then the away team reported- something. Nothing was clear except that they were in danger. The last they heard was Data saying, "Enterprise, we need help..." and then nothing.

And then the ship began to- change. Blurring around the edges. Growing softer, somehow.

"Transporter chief, yank them back!" Picard shouted at the comm. "Now! Riker, acknowledge!"

And then the Q materialized again. This time she was wearing a Captain's red uniform.

"Your time is up, Captain."

Desperately Picard ignored her. "Transporter Chief, do you have their coordinates? Transporter chief!"

Q stepped up to the command chair, perching on its arm, next to where Picard sat. "He can't hear you, Captain."

Picard looked at her. "I've people in trouble over there, Q...!"

Bridge personnel were getting to their feet, angrily, their postures threatening. All wrong. Picard knew there wasn't any way to threaten the Q. "Everyone, at ease! That's an order!" His only hope, he suspected, was to conciliate her, buying more time. "Q, my people are in trouble. Let me help them; I'll do whatever you say..."

She leaned back against the back of his chair, still sitting on the arm. "Really?" Suddenly she vanished, and was behind his chair, leaning down into his ear. "Would you cause your entire species to return to your solar system and remain there?"

Stiffly he said, "I don't have the power to do that, Q. I myself could return, but..."

"But that's not what I want," she interrupted. "Pity." She perched on the back of the chair, letting her hands drape down over his chest, stroke down to his seated hips. "You'll have to... think of something else to bargain with, mon capitaine."

Picard went rigid at her touch. This had to be another elaborate game, a pose. A being with as little real resemblance to humanity as the Q must have couldn't possibly be demanding what it seemed like. She was trying to make him uncomfortable. Unfortunately it was succeeding. "I wouldn't presume to know what a being of such power and unfathomable nature could want with me. If you want something from me, Q, you'll have to be more specific."

She laughed, and sat up, releasing him. At the same moment, a strange sound was heard, like a transporter effect, and the away team- Riker, Data, Troi, and Yar- appeared with Groppler Zorn in the middle of the bridge.

"So, just to be clear," Q said. "Anything I ask?"

Picard hesitated, and finally nodding, wondering what he'd just agreed to. "It seems I did make that bargain."

"The agreement isn't valid, sir," Troi said. "It wasn't Q that saved us."

Q pointed at the viewscreen. "Save yourselves! It may attack you now."

Picard looked at the viewscreen. The alien ship looked... organic, somehow.

"It was that which sent us back, Captain," Riker said.

"Yes sir," Troi said. "It is not merely a vessel. Somehow it's alive..."

Q interrupted. "She lies! Destroy it while you have a chance." She turned to Yar. "Make phasers and photon torpedoes ready...!"

"No!" Picard snapped. "Do nothing she demands!"

"But that thing was killing my people, Captain..." Zorn said.

"True, but why? Was there a reason?" Picard looked hard at Zorn.

Obviously Q couldn't bear not being the center of attention. "It is an unknown, Captain! Isn't that enough?"

Picard was getting really, really infuriated with her. "If you had earned that uniform you're wearing, you'd know that the unknown is what brings us out here!"

"Probably a wasted effort, considering human intelligence."

"Let's test that," Picard said sharply, "beginning with the tunnels you have under Farpoint, Groppler."

"Identical to the ones on that space vessel lifeform, over there," Riker said. "Why was it punishing you, Groppler?"

"In return for pain you'd given to another creature?" Picard asked.

"We did nothing wrong! It was injured, we helped it..."

Picard cut off the man's self-serving defensiveness. "Thank you, that was the missing element." He turned to Yar. "Lt. Yar, rig main phaser banks to deliver an energy beam."

Yar sounded as if she didn't quite understand the point, but she complied. "Aye, sir."

"You're right, Captain," Riker said. "It has to be conceivable that somewhere in the galaxy there could exist creatures able to convert energy into matter..."

Picard nodded. "And into specific patterns of matter. Just as our transporters do." In fact, given the utter reality of the scenario Q had built, he wondered if she was such a creature as well. Was there a connection between the Q and the alien being at Farpoint?

"On the viewer, Captain!" Yar said.

Picard looked. The creature had transformed fully from a ship to something obviously living, a glowing, soft shape reminiscent of sea life. As tentacles extended out from the creature, the resemblance became even more astonishingly similar to an Earth jellyfish, only the size of the Enterprise or greater and softly glowing with brilliant luminescence.

He turned to Groppler Zorn. "Groppler, you captured something like that, didn't you?"

The creature began to lower itself toward the planet. Zorn panicked. "Warn my people, please! Leave Farpoint Station immediately!"

"He lies, Captain," Q said. "Shouldn't you let his people die?"

Picard ignored her. "Transmit the message. 'Leave Farpoint immediately'," he said to the Ops officer.

"Then it was a pair of creatures I was sensing," Troi said. "One down there in grief and pain, the other up here, filled with anger..."

Data nodded. "And firing not on the new space station, but on the old Bandi city."

Picard turned to Q. "Attacking those who captured its..." He looked to Troi for confirmation. "...its mate?"

"Energy beam ready, sir," Yar said.

"Lock it in on Farpoint Station."

"Very interesting, Captain," Q said, sounding amused. "Perhaps your species isn't quite a total loss."

Again Picard ignored her. "Let it have whatever it can absorb. Energize!"

Yar fired the phasers. Below, the creature absorbed the energy until finally Yar reported, "Now getting feedback on the beam, sir."

"Discontinue it," Picard said. To Zorn he said, "Groppler Zorn, there'll soon be no Farpoint Station if I'm right about this."

"Please believe me, we meant not to harm the creature, but to use it," Zorn pleaded.

Troi smiled at the viewscreen in utter delight. "Sir, it's wonderful. A feeling of great joy. And gratitude."

Below, Farpoint Station glowed, shimmered, and changed, turning into another jellyfish-like entity. It lifted off the ground and headed up into orbit, finally making contact with its mate. They touched, tendrils of energy like tentacles intertwining, and then together they moved upwards out of the viewscreen's field of view.

"Great joy and gratitude... from both of them," Troi murmured.

And now. Now that the mystery of Farpoint had been solved, and the entity imprisoned had been saved. Now for the author of this little "test". Picard turned on Q. "Why?" he asked her tonelessly. "Do you use other lifeforms for amusement?"

She smiled. "If so, I should remember you. You've been most delightfully entertaining."

"Leave us! We've passed your little test."

"Temper, temper, mon capitaine."

Rage built up at the insouciant entity. "Get off my ship!"

The Q laughed. "Oh, Picard. Do you truly think you can give me orders?" She advanced on him. He held his ground, staring up into her eyes.

"If you harm us now, when we have passed the test you set for us, you will prove yourself to be the grievously savage one."

"Harm you? Never. I simply find it terribly amusing that you think you can give me orders, as if you have any power to compel me."

"But I do have your word."

"That I would judge you on the basis of your actions today, rather than the history of your species. And I have, and by that standard you have passed, quite amusingly too. And I will keep my word. But you still can't tell me what to do, Picard."

"Are you so childish that you would refuse to leave us be, simply because you take exception to the fact that I have told you to?"

"Oh, no, Picard. I will leave you, since I don't expect you to do anything else terribly entertaining for a few months and I have other concerns to occupy my time. I merely wished for you to understand. When I leave, it will be because it is my choice, not because you demand it. And I do promise that I will return another day."

Wonderful. "So, do you choose to leave now, or do you choose to wait while we perform more of our goodbyes and hellos and human bonding rituals?"

She made a face. "A fate worse than death, I'm sure. If you're going to be that dull, I'll take my leave of you now."

And she vanished in a flash of light.

A moment passed, as they all made certain that she wasn't about to reappear in another costume. Finally Riker said, "I trust this isn't the usual way our missions will go, sir."

Picard screwed up his face in mock consideration of this, then said, "Oh no, Number One, I'm sure they'll be much more interesting."

More interesting? I'm insulted! The invisible entity laughed, watching Picard. Oh, of course you're right. This was, really, one of your more tedious missions... if you hadn't had me to liven it up for you, you might all have expired of boredom. And your life is going to get much, much more interesting.

Just give me time, Picard.

Moments after Picard had retreated to his Ready Room to begin writing his report on the incident they had just had, the door chimed. "Come," Picard said.

Troi entered. "Captain... I wanted to share something I'd sensed with you. About Q."

"Go on."

"At the end... when she left..." Troi shook her head. "I'm not sure how to describe this, Captain, but for most of our adventure, I haven't been able to sense the Q's emotions at all. I've been sensing... presence. Like a kind of, almost, pressure against my mind. Or, to use a different analogy, white noise."

"I see."

"At the very end, though, I got a very clear emotional sense from her... a very complex emotion, but it came through with absolute clarity, the moment before she disappeared."

"So you think perhaps the feeling you got that she was too advanced for your powers might not be accurate? That instead she was projecting some sort of mask?"

"Perhaps, or perhaps the emotional flash I got at the end was a deliberate projection. But what I sensed..." She hesitated. "When I've played or attended card games, or chess games, other games of skill, I've sensed such an emotion. It was... excitement, and anticipation. There was no sense that she had lost. Rather, that this was... an opening gambit, perhaps? And a sense of... triumph. As if... whatever she'd intended to get out of this encounter... she'd won it, and set up for the next stage of the game."

Picard frowned. "That is a complex emotion. Are you sure?"

"I'm positive, Captain. It was a complex feeling, and difficult to describe, but I think I've described it accurately."

Picard looked down at his tea, then back up at Troi. "And you don't know whether she deliberately allowed you to sense this feeling, or simply let a shield of some kind slip in her... excitement."

"That's right. We have no way of knowing."

He shook his head. "If this was some sort of opening gambit..." Q had, essentially, vowed to return. Would they always be looking over their shoulders for the obnoxious being? "I wonder what game she's playing. And I wonder if we have fallen into a trap."

"That's why I thought you should know, sir," Troi said.

"Well, thank you for bringing me this information. I should get back to my report. I'll incorporate what you've told me."

Troi nodded, and left.

Picard spent the next ten minutes staring out the viewport into space, holding his teacup without drinking it, wondering.

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