When your muse takes a turn for the bizarre, it's best to just roll with it. The little thing probably needed a break from all the angst I've been inflicting on it lately.
Muse and I owe our inspiration first and foremost to my precocious child, for the "boat" conceit; to Runawaymetaphor, for the beginning quote (another one of our writing challenges …!); and to a discussion on Trek BBS, on the theme When Star Trek Goes Bad. Saurian brandy, I dare say, has nothing on this cocktail.
I doubt Paramount would want a piece of this one (although who knows? They lay claim "Spock's Brain" after all), but they can't in good conscience disavow the characters or the ship. I do take full responsibility for the story, though, which is part of my post-Endgame cycle and takes place while Tom Paris serves on the Enterprise under Captain Will Riker. (This development makes sense if you have read at least the very last bit of "Choices", but it isn't necessary to do so. Chronologically is occurs a few weeks after "The Neutral Zone".)
By Alpha Flyer
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop.
Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors
"Tom, this is the worst idea you've ever had," Will Riker growls, but it doesn't come across very well through the bubbles. Talking underwater is hard at the best of times, and Will is still not used to the gills.
"What do you mean was a bad idea – coming down here, or pissing off Q?"
As qualification attempts go it may seem to be hair-splittingly pedantic, but Tom really needs to know. Because if Riker is just annoyed at him for smart-mouthing Q, that would be one thing; that's water under the bridge. Tom is prepared to say he's sorry – he is, actually - and then they could just get on with what they're doing.
But if the Captain has a substantive concern with swimming through the ruins of what must be a drowned civilization, past drifting clouds of jellyfish and the odd sharp-finned, toothy creature, well, that's a different story. Because then they'd have to talk about other options, and Tom really doesn't see any right now.
Not to mention that talking would take a while, because Will is really Not Good at this whole underwater thing. Tom assumes it's because there isn't much opportunity for diving in Alaska; the water there tends to be the kind you walk on most of the time, and the Captain is much better at indoor sports or stuff involving snow. As it turns out, though, Riker doesn't answer and Tom decides to file his little outburst under Generic Complaints Not Requiring Further Attention.
They really don't have time for a tactical conference anyway. The Enterprise wasn't designed to float, and even with the miracles B'Elanna, Harry and Jorak have doubtless been working on the external stabilizers and the shield calibrations, they both know she is doomed to capsize.
The solution to their ship's problem, if there is one, is here somewhere, in the deep. Hopefully, in the temple he can now see emerging from the semi-darkness. Snapping jaws be damned.
Just keep swimming, Tom tells himself.
He motions Will along, noting with some relief that the Captain is following his lead, in a manner best described as 'game', or 'plucky'. Tom's brain is thinking on about six tracks already and he suppresses the impulse to try and remember the French words Jules Verne might have used.
Riker has stopped grumbling, too, and the trail of bubbles behind him has thinned out. Tom gives a kick with his flippers and shoots ahead, hoping his somewhat more buoyant Captain can keep up as he heads into the sunken temple.
Earlier that morning, Alpha Shift
As he crosses the bridge of the USS Enterprise, Commander Tom Paris can't help but feeling a little bit – just a teensy weensy little bit – self-satisfied.
It's been - four, five? – five months now that he's been assigned to the Fleet's flagship as her new XO, and he's beginning to think that maybe he's not just faking it anymore. Or at the very least, that maybe they won't find him out this time around.
He's almost completed his first round of personnel evaluations; the crew nod respectfully and say 'sir' when he walks down the corridor, prison record be damned; his gut has fully recovered from the transporter gizmo he'd stuck in it a few weeks ago; and the ship's counselor approves of him because he's been dragging the Captain to an exercise room three times a week. To top it off, Miral is almost over her 'princess' phase and B'Elanna … well, let's just say, his wife's romantic streak was pretty vigorous the night before. Life on the Enterprise is pretty damn good.
Tom grins a cheerful 'Good morning' at Will Riker as he drops into the chair to the Captain's right. Another beautiful day in the Alpha Quadrant.
But all those happy feelings evaporate as quickly as the mists of San Francisco on a summer's morn when he hears a *pop*, like a cork coming out of something that should really have remained closed, followed by a voice he'd hoped never to hear again.
That whiny, bored drawl, so insufferably smug (although for what reason has always escaped Tom), the bastard child bred of arrogance and petulance.
"Where's John Luke?"
Apparently, being omnipotent still doesn't come with the ability to pronounce French names. Will Riker, groaning loudly, shakes his head, buries his face in his hands and briefly squeezes his eyeballs shut with his right thumb and forefinger.
"Q…" he groans again, although it sounds more like a curse. Which it is, actually, all things considered.
"What the hell do you want?"
But Q, sporting his usual Captain's pips and command red under the grey, ignores the less than enthusiastic welcome from the man he once tried to recruit into the Continuum. If his oblivious smile is anything to go by, Riker might as well be throwing him a parade. Then his big, pale eyes fix on Tom Paris.
"But what is he doing here? Isn't that Kathy's Helmboy? Aren't you on the wrong ship? Not to mention the wrong side of the galaxy?"
Maybe omniscience also doesn't include regular briefings on Starfleet personnel movements? Q seems genuinely confused for a moment, but Tom suspects he is only putting it on. Sure enough, the being's eyes sparkle up and an impish grin dimples his face. He rubs his hands in glee in a gesture Tom suspects he must have picked up from a cheap 20th century Earth movie.
"Well, never mind, it is a happy coincidence to find both of you here."
Yeah, right, Tom thinks, coincidence my ass, but he manages to keep his mouth shut.
Q rubs his hands gleefully, ignoring Mike Ayala who is trying to attract his attention by pointing a phaser at him. Tom tries to wave Mike off – the big former Maquis has never gotten over his skepticism for Q's reported powers, never having seen them live – but it's too late. The fingers snap and the shiny Starfleet issue weapon turns into something bright orange with a blue trigger, obviously made cheaply in one of Earth's former commercial empires.
Mike reflexively pulls that blue trigger. A thin beam of water shoots out, barely a foot long (it still somehow manages to hit Riker in the left eye, halfway across the bridge) and leaves a puddle on the bridge. Tom briefly wonders how Mike will fill in the Tactical Equipment Loss Report; then he remembers that as the XO he'll have to sign off on it, and frowns.
Q sails above it all like it never happened. In his version of time, it probably didn't.
"You see, the Continuum was getting a little tedious, Junior is off making a new galaxy somewhere and the Missus and I haven't spoken since that unfortunate incident with the chewing gum. So I was thinking of giving you a little mystery to solve, and watch you flail around. Nothing arduous; you'll be done by teatime."
He flashes a very theatrical smile, complete with a couple of little stars that blink off his incisors.
"Let me get this right. You want our help with something?"
Tom doesn't know what he is more, pissed off or flabbergasted. Right now it's a tie, but Q's next comment pushes Tom's inner barometer deep into the ticked zone.
"Nothing quite so dramatic as help, my dear Helmboy. There is nothing you puny little humans could possibly do to help the Q. What I have in mind is something purely for entertainment. Mine, to be exact."
Tom has had enough with the supercilious preening. Sure, it ain't bragging if you can do whatever you say, but that doesn't mean that you should. He learned that lesson some time ago – telling people you're the best pilot they ever clapped eyes on may be true, but from Janeway all that got him was an eye roll. Her respect - that he had to earn.
"Ah. I see. We puny humans can't help the mighty Q? I distinctly remember pointing a gun at your boss' head while you were tied to a pole, presumably saving your life in the process. Define help."
Oh, ouch. Didn't he just do exactly what … Shit. Too late.
Q walks over to the bridge and stands before Tom, legs slightly apart and hands on his hips in a reasonable approximation of Kathryn Janeway, as he studies the XO carefully.
"Ah yes. You always were the mouthy one, weren't you, Helmboy. Kathy and Chuckles used to complain about you sometimes. And didn't that … heroic streak of yours get you into some deep water, on a number of occasions?"
A brief flash, and Q is Kathryn Janeway, with a look on her face that Tom never hoped to see again.
"Looks like it might have done so again. I'm disappointed in you, Lieutenant. Ensign. Commander. Whatever. Disappointed. And I hereby reduce you to the rank of Crewman."
A gleeful grin crosses Q's … Janeway's … Q's face, and he … she's practically crowing now. Tom refuses to look down to see if he still has his pips.
"No, much better! You're all going to be crew! And the ship – oooh, you're gonna love this …"
Q snaps his fingers.
The bridge seems suddenly a bit wobbly; Harry's immediate adjustment to the inertial dampeners has absolutely no effect. Tom, who recognizes the feeling instantly, widens his stance and swallows hard.
No. He didn't …
"Screen to visual," he commands O'Reilly at the helm, afraid of what they might see. The pilot taps in the necessary command, and the screen fills with … blue.
A lot of blue. Different kinds of blue. There is sky blue, interspersed with a few fluffy white clouds, and then there is the more ominous sea blue. It too is interspersed with white, but those are the caps on the waves that fill the view screen right up to the horizon, where some darker clouds are piling up.
The USS Enterprise, Starfleet's flagship, she of the storied name in both maritime and celestial navigation, is currently bobbing up and down on some unknown ocean like a … well, like a ship.
Judging by the waves he can see, Tom figures that the saucer section is more or less above the surface, while the vast majority of the star drive section is underwater. It's a toss-up whether the observation windows in Ten Forward would be showing indifferent seabirds swirling in the sky, or surprised marine creatures staring in.
O'Reilly, the pilot, is at a bit of a loss as to what to do with the helm of a ship that is bobbing rather than cruising at warp speed, and then B'Elanna calls up from engineering, wondering why the hell is her warp core looking like a glorified propeller, and who or what the hell is Evinrude?
Q gives a self-satisfied snicker at that, scrunching up his shoulders as he mutters, "Oooh, that was a nice touch, wasn't it?" to himself and anyone who will listen.
At the science console, Ensign Banerjee frets to her neighbour on environmental, in a whispered tone, about whether the ship is watertight. Harry, who is standing at Ops, trying to make sense of his readings, dutifully points out that since air doesn't leak out of the ship when it's in space, things are unlikely to leak in when it's not. He refrains from mentioning the possible effect of icebergs or rocks on the hull.
Which is just as well, since Beverly Crusher picks that moment to announce over the comm that sudden outbreaks of nausea are being reported from all over the ship; Troi whispers something to Will about the crew being 'uneasy'.
By now Tom is beginning to have serious thoughts about buoyancy, and he sees the same concern in the Captain's eyes. The Delta Flyer can double as a submarine in a pinch, but a Galaxy Class ship wasn't really designed to float… .
Riker gives Q/Janeway a dirty look and sweeps past him, walks over to Harry and Jorak and asks them – quietly, so as not to alarm the rapidly greening Banerjee any further - to run a diagnostic on the Enterprise's ratio of weight and density over the water it is displacing.
"Oh, don't bother."
Much to Tom's relief, Q has tired of his Janeway imitation and turned back into his usual effete self. He gives a contemptuous wave of his hand.
"It won't sink if you get the job done in the next two hours or so. That Archimedes fellow was quite clever, for a human."
Tom and the Captain react at almost the same time.
"The ship's a she, not an it," Tom's snarls contemptuously, his nautical ire raised.
Riker has been around Q a few times more often, usually in pretty taxing and unfunny circumstances, and zeroes in on a different word.
A little belatedly - and chastened by the Captain's attention to the more relevant things - Tom seizes on another little tidbit from Q's speech.
"Yes, there's a storm coming," Q replies breezily.
"I thought I would liven up your stunted little lives for a bit – that mystery I mentioned. But since Helmboy here is so convinced that you're species is actually helpful, I've decided to make it more interesting."
The Storm. Oh great. Now Tom really feels like an idiot.
"Keep your big mouth shut," his Dad always said when he got in trouble in school. "Half your problems would be solved if you controlled your urge to tell the world just how smart you are, Thomas. Show, don't tell."
Will it make his Father happy to hear that he finally learned that particular lesson? Today? But what it is with oceans, that they seem to be the favoured place for him to have an intellectual growth spurt?
Jorak, who has so far been spared any previous personal encounters with members of the continuum but has certainly heard about them, raises both Vulcan eyebrows.
"I do not suppose it would sway you to know that we are on an urgent mission for Starfleet."
Riker stares at his security officer in surprise. Vulcans can lie? Travelling to Bolus IV to pick up the newly elected Federation vice-president might be an honour and a chore, but it isn't an urgent mission as he would define it. Then the conditional Jorak has used strikes him, and his surprise turns into admiration: Sophistry under pressure.
Q, however, doesn't even dignify Jorak's intervention with a response. And he sounds almost – almost – nonchalant when he says, "There's a rumour in the Continuum that somebody left something important behind, someplace on this planet. I'd like you to find it, and tell me what it is."
That's a lot of "somes" in one sentence, and Riker punts a challenge over to Q to be a wee bit more specific.
"Down there," Q gestures vaguely to the floor. "I'm sure you'll know it when you see it."
Tom isn't so easily placated, or distracted. He doesn't buy the I'm bored routine for one minute.
"And if it's such an interesting rumour, and you're so bored, why don't you go look for it – whatever it is – yourself?"
Q silently studies his fingernails for a bit, leaving Tom to wonder very briefly what kind of cosmic dirt he might be examining there, before it hits him. And despite having decided he'd just learned a lesson on when to keep quiet, he just can't help himself. This isn't bragging, anyway, it's pertinent analysis. Or so he tells himself.
"You can't handle water, is that it? Whatever it is, it's underwater, and for some reason your … your omnipotence doesn't work underwater? Oh, that's priceless."
Riker swallows a guffaw as the ridiculousness of his XO's proposition – and the possibility of its truth – strikes him. And being himself, and really not all that different from Tom Paris, he doesn't hesitate to strike another blow into the same groove, to see if he can cut deeper.
"So that's why you spend your days floating around the universe, looking at planets from up top? Why your so-called continuum is so dry it's practically got tumbleweeds rolling down the road? Because you're afraid to get wet?"
The swallowed guffaw turns into a cackle of mirth. Riker cackling is a sight many of his bridge officers haven't seen before, and Banerjee's stomach finally loses containment.
Q is clearly not impressed or pleased, and for the first time since either man has known him, his armour of superciliousness seems to have a little chink in it. A chink that manifests as a flash of anger in eyes of palest crystal.
He snaps his fingers again.
Suddenly, both Captain and First Officer find themselves outside, standing on top of the Enterprise's saucer section which is being lapped by the waves of that unknown ocean. But what makes it worse is the fact that they can't breathe – and the problem doesn't appear to be coming from a lack of atmosphere; there are flocks of quite ordinary-looking seabirds wheeling in the clouds above them. Something is keeping them aloft, and whatever it is, it should be breathable.
Standing there, gasping for air but feeling nothing useful filling his lungs, Riker hurls an accusing glare in Q's direction. Q just shrugs, with an indifference bordering on malevolence. Whoever may have thought of him as comic relief, or as a diversion from the tedium of a deep space mission, has obviously never seen him like this - when he essentially tosses his toys, his sentient toys, into a situation they have not asked for and that could result in their relatively immediate death.
Tom, who knows more than most people about the possible impact of sudden metamorphosis on the respiratory system, has a quick look at Riker. His eyes widen and he rasps out something barely comprehensible.
It sounds to Riker, for all the world, like "Gills!"
Tom shoves his surprised Captain off the Enterprise's saucer and into the ocean, following after him in a dive that might have scored higher if he hadn't been in such a hurry. Once in the water, he grabs Riker and pushes his head under the waves – not an easy feat, given their relative size and the Captain's natural reluctance.
But with their heads underwater, instinct – all of forty-five seconds exposure's worth, but pretty powerful stuff – kicks in, and both men quickly figure out how to filter water through their newly acquired breathing apparatus in sufficient quantity to keep their brain functions alive. Tom manages to kick off his Starfleet issue boots, which are getting too tight for the webbing he can feel sprouting between his toes, and motions to Riker to do the same.
After they have recovered their equilibrium a little (Riker is still sputtering and glaring at Tom a little, like it's the XO's fault they've turned into something vaguely fishy) they both break surface to see if Q has anything else to say, useful or otherwise.
They're both careful not to try and breathe outside of the water this time.
"There, I've saved you the trouble of redesigning Helmboy's little toy shuttle," Q snarks at Riker, all of his erstwhile affability (such as it ever was) gone, "by redesigning you."
He waves his hand dismissively.
"Don't ever say I don't do anything for you, even after you've both been so deliberately rude. Come back when you've found what I'm looking for, and I may turn your ship back into something your new helmboy can handle."
He vanishes with a little poof, one that for once seems more displacement of air than deliberate special effect. Tom allows himself to sink back underwater before uttering the one word he's really been wanting to say for some time.