On the bridge of the Enterprise, the inertial dampeners have reached their limits and can no longer keep up with the swelling seas. It's one thing for the sensors to compensate for movement in a vacuum and at zero grav - quite another when the physical forces of a planet have the ship in their watery grip. Deanna is grateful for Bev Crusher's hypo spray without which she would doubtless be whimpering imprecations in a corner somewhere. Even so, she feels a debilitating nausea as the ship heaves and sags under her feet.
"Hail the Flyer again," she gasps, holding on to the arms of the Captain's chair and wondering for the thousandth time why starship technology ever discarded seat restraints. Was it hubris, or mere stupidity?
Jorak, unusually green even for a Vulcan but steady as ever, taps in the necessary commands. Harry Kim comes on line instantly.
"No sign of the Captain and Commander yet," he intones. "We can feel the storm down here, too, though. How much time do we have left?"
Deanna swallows hard. This is the question she has not wanted to think about, but knows she must answer. B'Elanna has confirmed that the ... things Q has turned her engines into are incapable of providing sufficient lift to get the ship out of the water; if there is to be any chance for the survival of the remaining crew, they will need to pile into the two remaining shuttles.
One of which is currently at the bottom of the ocean, hoping to bring in her husband and First Officer … friend.
She looks over at Jorak, whose eyes keep running over the figures the sensors give him, coolly watching them inch towards the unacceptable.
"Seventeen minutes," he says.
Seventeen minutes to what?
Deanna doesn't want to remember that, either, but she knows. It is an axiom of nature, as inalterable as the forces that give birth to and cause the death of stars, that in the battle between man-made things and water, water will always win. And Deanna knows very well that there will be no exception made for her, for them, today.
Hull breach. Seventeen minutes to hull breach.
She comes to a decision then and taps the comm switch.
"Troi to Engineering. B'Elanna, get your people out and into Flyer Two. Henley and Walker will meet you there. Go into orbit and hold."
She nods to the pilot, who clasps the conn briefly in silent farewell before rising; the ensign who'd taken over Ops in Harry's absence is already out the door, swaying and staggering, holding onto the walls as best he can. This leaves Deanna and Jorak on the bridge – the rule says there have to be two or she would have sent him away too, not that he would have gone.
Into the silence of the now nearly empty bridge, she tells Harry to surface after five minutes. Maybe the transporters will work again when the Flyer comes for them ... They better, because docking is no longer an option.
They've crested the bowl now, a lot faster than the diving manuals recommend, but Tom figures that gill-breathing will counteract the bends they could otherwise expect. He looks back down into the depths briefly, but can't make out anything beyond darkness.
A bubbling noise to his left draws his attention; the Captain must have seen something.
Sure enough, the darkening sea is pierced by thin beams of light, too sharp to be anything other than man-made. One of the Flyers. In the absence of communications, Deanna must have sent reinforcements to keep an eye on them.
Tom appreciates the sentiment, but … "How in hell are we supposed to get inside?" he asks, but Riker is already on his way to the shuttle.
Since Tom is the faster swimmer, he decides to take a small detour and pick up their communicators. They're half covered in sand now, thanks to the swirling current caused by the storm above, but he does find them relatively quickly. Lacking both a shirt and the time to pin the badge anywhere else, he palms one and sticks the other into the same pocket with Alarra's pearl.
Heading towards the Flyer, he taps his badge experimentally.
Not the most formal of greetings, but he's swimming pretty fast now and doesn't have a lot of breath to spare, not even for a why the hell are you down here, exactly?
"Tom?" The relief in his best friend's voice would be flattering at any other time. "You close?"
"Getting there. The Captain should be on top of you by now."
Riker has indeed reached the Flyer; for want of a better option, he knocks on the hull to confirm his presence to those inside. Tried and true, shave-and-a-haircut-ten-cents. They won't be able to hear him, of course – it'd be a pretty shitty shuttle if its walls were that thin – but the sensors pick up the vibrations as the unnatural thing they are; Ayala, who's been waiting for this, confirms the external presence almost immediately.
"Do we have transporters?" Harry asks, hoping against hope. Ayala shakes his head.
"Nope. But how can we let Q know that …"
"The communicators," Harry's eyes narrow and his jaw clenches with determination. "They're online again."
He's always been solution-oriented guy, and this one is pretty obvious: Dangle the bait. The shark's waiting.
"Kim to away team," he says, enunciating each syllable very clearly for the benefit of the potential line squatter and hoping he's paying attention.
"I guess you must have found what Q sent you down there for? Unfortunately, we can't get you onboard where you can tell anyone about it. Transporters are still offline."
There's a moment of silence, and then Riker's voice comes on, speaking into the comm badge Tom has handed to him. The Captain gets it right away, but he decides he doesn't really have the time to be surreptitious.
"Quite correct, Lieutenant. So Q, if you're listening to this, and I hope you are, in the interest of speed, get us out of the fish costumes and into the Flyer so we can tell you what we learned and end this nonsense."
They don't have long to wait. Q's voice comes on, petulant as ever but with a bit of an edge.
"Are you asking what I think you are, mon capitain? That I fix your transporters for you? What am I, your handyman? Well, I certainly won't until you make an effort and come to the surface."
Interesting, if not unexpected. Riker can't resist twisting the barb a little.
"Won't, or can't, Q?"
But Harry picks this moment to pass on a piece of critical information to the command team, even if it means disrupting this barbed exchange and letting Q off the hook.
"Captain, whether we have transporters or not, we do need to surface in … well, kind of now, actually."
Riker has learned the art of negotiation from a master and knows that the best deals are made when your opponent wants the exact same thing you do - if for different reasons - and you can sell him mutual satisfaction for a good price. It probably won't work here, but it's sure worth trying.
"Fine. We'll go back up then, Q, if it helps you snap your fingers better. Do something about the weather though, will you."
Getting up quickly is, of course, a bit of a problem in its own right. With no obvious way for the command team to get into the Flyer, ascent speed will be limited to whatever push Tom and Will can get out of their flippered feet.
It's a good thing is, then, that most Starfleet officers are lateral thinkers, and that Tom has always liked to waterski.
"We'll hang on to the landing struts and hitch a ride up with you," he instructs Harry; Riker nods. They both pocket their comm badges - presumably they will need both hands for this – but not before Riker mutters a plea to some unknown deity that involves rather more blasphemy than incantation.
O'Reilly, as it turns out, understands the challenge of balancing the need for speed with the limits of human endurance. Still, the Flyer lifts off the sandy bottom none too smoothly, because there is now a considerable current, brought on by the roiling seas above. The shuttle bucks a few times and almost shakes them off twice; Will and Tom, one on each side, cling to the landing struts as best they can. At least letting go won't be the disaster it would be if they were airborne, but the speed of the ascent rather flattens their gills and makes it hard to breathe.
Things get hairy for a moment there when the Flyer comes up through that school of Very Toothy Things thye'd left behind on their way down. The sharks, or whatever they are, seem to have finished their phasered cousin and are cruising hopefully for more edibles to come their way in the churning waters. But Harry sees them coming on the sensor and fires off a few discouraging scatter shots; someone else will dine well in due course, and all Tom and Will have to do is avoid being brushed off the struts by floating corpses.
Fortunately, this isn't Monea and they were only a couple of klicks down, not at the center of a planet. About a hundred meters from the surface, Ayala breaks into a fleeting, blink-and-you-miss-it grin.
"Transporters online," he intones. "I have them."
Nobody thanks Q for the restoration, especially as it turns out he left out a critical part. When the unmistakable tingle of the transporter fills the small cabin, it is followed by the sound of sloshing water that is in turn quickly drowned out by choking and gasping noises.
"Oh, shit." Ayala flushes with embarrassment. "Sorry, sirs. I thought …."
His fingers dance across the panel and the tingle comes back, this time followed by two splashes in the aft cabin.
Both Tom and Will flap around in surprise – neither had apparently given much thought to what beaming aboard might entail for them if it wasn't accompanied by full DNA reconstruction. Tom suppresses a brief upswell of panic when he realizes he's in a glass box now, but when he takes his first breath and finds the gills still working, the tank seems to be clearly the lesser of two evils.
Harry orders O'Reilly to complete the ascent; at least with transporters back online, they won't have to dock with the Enterprise to evac the remaining crew. But no sooner has the Flyer broken surface that there's a *pop* in the aft cabin and Q appears. He peeks over the edge of Riker's tank with a smile, rubbing his hands with a glee that doesn't appear entirely sincere.
"So, mon capitain, please, report!"
Now, unlike his XO, Will Riker doesn't swear very often, but when he does he usually makes it count. And right now he's not very happy. He sticks his head out of the water, and to hell with the fact that he can't breathe in while it's there.
"Fuck you, Q. You want to know what we found? Fix us the fuck up and put us back on our ship or you'll get nothing. Fucking nada, you hear?"
He follows this with a raunchy curse in Klingon, dips his head back underwater and takes a breath.
Tom is impressed enough to simply await developments; Q seems to be content to ignore him for the moment anyway, and in fact seems to be mumbling a questioning "Us?" Besides, Tom really doesn't know what he might say to the guy, and things might just get worse if he opened his mouth. He still blames himself a little for getting them into this predicament in the first place, although Riker has done his best to let him off the hook and it looks like Q would probably have done what he did anyway.
Q makes up his mind surprisingly quickly. Tom watches as Riker sits up, spitting and retching out the water he obviously just inhaled into normally functioning lungs, and tries to climb out of the tank – apparently not an easy feat, given slippery surfaces and high edges, not to mention trousers soaked in water. But Riker is only halfway through the attempt, when he disappears. There's no transporter tingle; Q must have taken him off the shuttle.
As a sudden silence descends on the Flyer, Tom realizes he is alone.
Deanna gasps with relief at the return of the away team, and if she doesn't run up to Will it's only because the latest wave to wash over the Enterprise's saucer section has caused the floor to tilt up by nearly forty degrees.
Still, as she hangs on to her chair, she notes the absence of Tom Paris. And, of course, the fact that the team must have abandoned the Flyer when they were transported over.
"Is Tom still on the Flyer?" Deanna adds one and one, arriving at two just as a new wave of nausea hits her.
But Q, who has arrived with the away team, is clearly not interested in the whereabouts of insignificant shuttles, nor does he seem inclined for now to restore the ship to its normal element. Being on a world that seems immune to his powers of manipulation – and having been called on that fact by Riker - has soured his mood considerably.
Q stands there in the middle and stares at Will, who is still wet and dressed only in his Starfleet pants and singlet, but blessedly gill-free and possessed of ordinary (albeit Size 13) feet.
"So, Captain, tell me – what did you manage to find?"
On the Flyer, alone in his tank, Tom takes rapid stock of his situation. And this is what he arrives at:
#1: Time's a-ticking. #2: Harry, Ayala and Riker were as concerned with his welfare as they were with the Captain's. #3: Q, on the other hand, despite having hand-picked him to help find the answer to a mystery he could not solve himself seems to have forgotten about his existence altogether. #4: This latest development might have something to do with the mystery they'd been sent to solve, and if so, he better find the answer quick (see #1).
The tank he's in – put there by Crusher, he assumes, given it's her job to think of such things - is narrow, and his arms are pretty much stuck to his sides. As he splays his fingers in frustration at his predicament, his hand brushes up against something in his pocket. Something big, and hard, and round.
A sudden light pops on inside his head. Actually, it's more like fireworks going off, and if this were a movie there'd be a swell of trumpets and violins to herald his epiphany.
He knows exactly what Q is looking for.
Tom takes one last deep underwater breath and sits up in his tank, climbs out with far less grace than urgency, and pads into the main cabin as quickly as his flippered feet permit. He takes the pearl out of his pocket, puts it on the ops console and enters the transport coordinates for the bridge, hoping that Q will be at the other end interested to hear what he has to say.
He materializes on the bridge pearl-less, wet and on his knees, already gasping for air his lungs cannot process. He flashes back again to that time on the floor of Voyager's mess hall, B'Elanna's concerned face swimming before him. The only difference, really, is the absence of the taste of Neelix' coffee in his mouth and the fact that the deck beneath him seems to come at him from several directions at once.
Everyone, including Q, spins around at the sudden sound.
Not having received an answer to his question from Riker, and watching Deanna's anguished empathic reaction to Tom's distress and Harry's attempts to get to his best friend across the heaving floor, Q gets a downright nasty glint in his eyes.
"Ah," he says, watching the convulsing First Officer with studied indifference. "Helmboy. Of course. I almost forgot about him. He seems to be in some sort of trouble, I see?"
This is actually a bit of an understatement: Tom, who hadn't quite thought through what might happen if Q didn't change him back immediately, is turning bluish and his movements are growing weaker.
Q turns back to Riker, fakes a yawn and drawls, "What do you think? Should I help him?"
Now Will Riker would be the first to admit that he is a man of many vices, but since he is damned good at just about everything he's ever set his mind to, some of those vices have become so finely honed that they have morphed into unintended virtues. When it comes to gambling, he has perfected his poker skills on the holodeck against the likes of Stu Ungar and Chip Reese and live against a trained empath; in the process, he has learned how to turn a really shitty hand into a table-clearing bluff. He fixes Q with a clear and steady blue-eyed gaze.
"You might want to, if you want to get your story. He's a much better swimmer than me and got a lot further than I did. So yeah, it's really him you want to talk to. And he'll be needing his breath for that."
Q must know he's being had, or at least suspect it. He stares back at Riker, who has assumes a loose-kneed fighter's stance against the steady motion of the ship and who doesn't blink despite the gasping, choking sounds emanating from the floor behind the helm console.
After an interminable amount of time Q clenches his jaw and snaps his fingers, contemptuously, behind his back. Tom gives a deep shuddering breath, once, twice, three times and looks up at Q. He stays on the floor, sitting with his back to the conn since the deck hasn't stopped heaving, and getting up seems rather a waste of time.
"Well?" drawls Q. "You were saying, Commander?"
And so it comes down to Tom to make the gambit. Riker's play means he can't talk substance anymore, or else Q might just reverse Tom's DNA fix in a peeve. A quick headshake from the Captain make that perfectly clear.
Seeing that supercilious and arrogant smirk; having almost died a few seconds ago; feeling the tortured ship buck and groan under forces it was never designed to fight; knowing that his daughter is stuck in an escape pod without either of her parents millions of kilometers away - all things considered, Tom wants nothing more than to stick Q's head into that churning ocean in which his omnipotence has no sway, and hold it underwater for a millennium or whatever it takes to rid the universe of this quantum pest. But he knows that his chances of success are minuscule and so he contents himself with glaring his own form of withering contempt at Mr. Universe.
Of course, this is the moment Tom and the Captain have been working and nearly drowning for, and it would be so very easy to just tell Q, yeah, there's a whole ancient world down there. A world that you cannot fathom – sheltering a small, dying race of people who are gentle and kind and everything you're not. And maybe you should swallow your pathetic fear of venturing into reaches that you cannot control and just go down there yourself, you might learn something. Even if it's only your own limits.
If he said all that, then Q would do what he's promised and the Enterprise could lift off the roiling ocean and collect those escape pods and maybe Q would return them all home. And their best-case scenario would not be a re-run of having a crew stuck in some other alien Quadrant for years and years (if not forever, since they'd be without a ship).
But here's the thing.
If Tom does tell Q what he wants to hear, just what will Q do with the information that he has craved so badly, that he cannot find out for himself? He'll probably treat Alarra's people the way he does humans - as sentient toys to be hauled out and played with for his amusement the next time the continuum-schmerz strikes him. But even if Q decides to use his knowledge for good, maybe to drop by and fix up those crumbling coral homes or build the merfolk a totally new palace, the peace of that underwater haven will be forever shattered.
Because with Q, once is forever and things will never be the same after he has been and done.
Tom understands now how Janeway must have felt when she fired on the Caretaker's array, sacrificing the future of her crew and a bunch of outlaws to the wellbeing of a race of peaceful people. Hobson's choice, really. Except there were a lot more Ocampa than there are merpeople, a lot fewer people on Voyager than on the Enterprise, and the ship is dying, so the equities in this case favour the sellout.
Then again, there's Miral … But Miral is actually safe in an escape pod, with Baby Tommy and Libby. And this is Q, who introduced the Borg to humanity, and …
No. Just … no.
Tom looks over at Will and realizes with a mixture of surprise and awe that the Captain has undergone pretty much the same thought processes, and seems to have arrived at pretty much the same conclusion at pretty much the same speed. So whatever pearls of carefully calibrated bullshit Tom will be dispensing over the next few minutes, they won't be a red mark on his ledger alone.
Riker nods along as Tom speaks, anticipating each word that falls from his XO's mouth as if it were his own, approving them all.
"We saw a whole bunch of fish, in all sorts of shape and colours. Some of them tried to eat us, thank you very much."
Indignation makes good distraction.
Riker nods vigorously and chimes in, "Yeah, big things with teeth. Lots of smaller fish. Jellyfish, too. So if you like fish, we found a lot. Amazing how similar they are to species you find on Earth."
Tom almost smiles; Riker is pretty good at this lying thing. Of course, he kind of knew that already, after the whopper the Captain pulled on the Romulan commander in the Neutral Zone, and the regularity with which he fleeces his staff on poker night.
"And of course, we saw lots of corals," Tom picks up the ball. "I went down into this bowl and it was full of corals, grown into reefs that looked like a city."
"A city?" Q is intrigued, and a pink tongue darts out and whets his lips.
"Corals that looked like a city," Tom elaborates (sort of), looking Q straight in the eyes. "I wish I could tell you more, Q, since you're holding our ship hostage and all. Fact is, corals build up over the years and can look like walls, or a ring fortress. Can't tell you the number of times people on Earth thought they'd found the lost city of Atlantis, and they had was some particularly well-shaped coral reef."
The truth, and nothing but the truth. If not, perhaps, the whole truth.
It is quite clear Q has been hoping for more.
"No sentient life? Machinery?"
Who would have thought that an adolescence filled with parental cross-examination and filial obfuscation could prove to be such useful training ground for evasiveness? Tom fields this one with practiced ease, almost like a professional politician.
"Machinery? No. And define sentient. There were a lot of fish down there. Some of them looked like they were capable of planning pretty effective dinner campaigns." He might have had to say more, but a convenient swell knocks him down and into the helm console.
Q snorts his indignation at the ineffectiveness of his involuntary research assistants.
"That's it? You spent two hours down there, and all you found was fish and corals?"
Almost as if to punctuate his ire, the Enterprise heaves upwards – she would be vertical if not for the fact that her star drive is, for the moment, still acting as an enormous keel rather than as the ballast that will eventually cause her to go down.
"I stepped on a really nasty starfish," Tom embellishes his tale from the floor. He's beginning to feel a little green inside, and his shoulder hurts from where he just slammed it into the conn.
"It took a while to pull out the barbs, so I could keep on swimming."
Not to mention breathing. His voice acquires a genuine edge when he remembers just how close to dying he's been, several times actually, as a result of Q's stupid games.
"Here, look at the bloody holes in my feet."
Riker shoots him an approving glance, and weighs in.
"I think we've done what you asked us to do. You sent us down there based on a continuum 'rumour' that somebody left something important behind down there, and that you'd like us to find it and tell you about it. You never said what would happen if we didn't."
Harry, who's been watching all of this while hanging on to one of the consoles and worrying about what's happening to the Flyer he had been put in charge of, is losing patience and chimes in, "Now can we have our engines back so we can get out of here? Please?"
Jorak nods crisply, and adds, "The Captain and Commander have completed their part of the so-called bargain. It is time to end this charade."
Q, needless to say, does not dignify any of these comments with a response, and he clearly doesn't like having his own vagueness thrown back in his face. He stands there weighing the information he has just been given, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
He looks over at Deanna Troi, the professional empath who can detect a lie at ten thousand metres. But Deanna is not an idiot; she knows that her face can be an open book and quickly decides that now is a good time to give up her battle with nausea. Q's scrutiny yields nothing but the very real contortions of violent retching.
He's not satisfied though, and makes no move to snap those destiny fingers of his. The ship heaves and drops again, listing slightly to port now.
But before anyone can say or do anything else, there is something like a thunderclap on the bridge. Tom has just enough time to think, "now what?" when a miraculous calm descends on the bridge and the floor under his knees starts to hum.
"Warp core and impulse engines are back online." His pilot instincts – the ones that permit him to determine the ship's speed through the soles of his boots - have never failed him in this.
Tom catapults himself off the floor and into the seat of the conn before O'Reilly can make so much as a move, and starts to hammer commands into the console. With a groan that sounds almost human, the big ship slowly pulls herself out of the heaving sea, almost fighting against her liberation with her own weight. Water starts running slowly off the hull and she bucks and rolls a few more time before she is up in the air and he has only the storm to contend with.
"Harry, shields, now – ice prevention!" Tom snaps over his shoulder. He takes the ship for a glide through the atmosphere to dry her off before they enter the cold of space, and for the moment couldn't care less about whatever is happening behind him.
Riker, Jorak and Ayala do care though, as does Deanna who has managed to suppress her retching almost as quickly as she summoned it. Ayala and Jorak have their phasers out, but the fact that the intruder seems to have restored the ship to its ordinary function suggests that their use might be ill-advised.
A figure, humanoid in outline but glowing with an inner light so bright that it renders its outline in a blurred halo, stands between Q and Riker.
"What are you doing here?" Q demands to know. The annoyance that had been simmering under the surface has finally cracked through.
"Making sure that your ill-placed curiosity does not kill innocent bystanders, Q."
The two beings take each other's measure. Q seems a little on the defensive, and covers it up with his usual mixture of bravado and peevishness.
"Curiosity? Curious about what? You and your silly little pet projects? Don't flatter yourself. We were having a bit of fun here."
"Speak for yourself," Tom mutters under his breath as he rises to relinquish the helm to O'Reilly. The newcomer's voice – if it can be described as such – reverberates inside the officers' heads, almost as if it were hardwired right into their synapses. The alien turns to Riker.
"The escape pods are safe, and you will find it unnecessary to evacuate further members of your crew. I have undone the actions of this Q," she says, the slight undercurrent of contempt unmistakable.
She. There is something female about the alien, at least Tom thinks so. Although it is pretty hard to assign gender to what looks like an energy source, not to mention someone … something that apparently outranks Q in the unwritten hierarchy of the universe. The latter hasn't said anything, just clenched the jaw whose appearance he has borrowed from the very race he likes to torment.
"You would be well-advised to leave now, Q," she adds mildly. "You have had your differences with the Continuum for a very long time, and you do not wish to have me bring this latest transgression to their attention. You will no doubt recall the last time you fell into disfavor. Your powers may not be so easily restored a second time."
It's Riker's turn to snort, and Tom makes a mental note to pour the Captain a stiff drink soon; there's a story there, of that he has no doubt. The barely veiled threat seems to work, too.
Q drops all pretenses and mutters something about having made a promise to Q – his girlfriend, Tom assumes – and not wishing to return empty-handed. Apparently he has done something that cannot be undone, and been told to atone for it by bringing back with information about the mysteries of this planet, which his people cannot penetrate.
"What you bargained is not my problem," the being replies. "Nor is it the problem of these humans. You cannot give what is not in your gift."
Tom has been following this exchange with undisguised curiosity, wondering what kind of sticky situation Q has found himself in. And suddenly he has his second epiphany in rapid succession; this time he has no problem at all giving Q the whole truth.
"Peanut butter," he says.
Everyone on the bridge stares at him in varying degrees of mystification; even the energy alien flickers a little at the apparent non sequitur. Tom hastens to elaborate.
"When you first turned up here you mentioned your … your girlfriend not speaking to you because of some chewing gum incident, right, Q? So, if this whole thing was about getting back into her good graces because she's pissed off at you over that, there are easier ways than wrecking our ship and turning me and the Captain into sushi. If Q junior or the Missus got gum in their hair while you were playing human family again …"
Tom notes with satisfaction that Q is paying very close attention, despite his air of studied indifference.
"... the best way to get it out is with peanut butter. Old Earth remedy. Crude, but effective, as a friend of mine would say."
Q is pretty dumbfounded, which has to be a first, but refuses to admit to anything. He snarks something unintelligible at the alien presence about this not being the end of things, and that one of these days he'll figure out what they're hiding and how, and vanishes.
Quite possibly to procure peanut butter.
"That was … kind of anti-climactic," Harry observes to no one in particular. Well, maybe to Tom, who nods his agreement.
But it isn't really the end, not yet. There is that other alien on the bridge, the one who fixed the ship and caused Q to scatter, although for all they know she has an ulterior motive of her own. Riker hasn't forgotten about her at all, even as he quickly checks in on Engineering. B'Elanna and the small remainder of her team have returned to their stations, and are confirming that the engines will allow them to rendezvous with the escape pods. That done, the Captain addresses the intruder.
"Pardon me," he says, "and you are …?"
The alien turns towards the Captain and gives a little twitch that could have been a bow, or some other form of polite greeting.
"My people are called the Preservers," she says simply, as if that explains everything. Maybe it does.
Tom, having relinquished the helm to its rightful occupant, heads for the centre at the bridge to stand beside Riker.
"I've heard of them," he whispers to the Captain. "An ancient race that supposedly wanders around the galaxy, collecting species that are on the brink of extinction, and gives them a safe environment. Kirk ran across one of their worlds and we may have too, in the Delta Quadrant."
The being turns to Tom, her soft shimmer suggesting that she might be pleased by the recognition.
"That is a little simplistic, but not wrong," she says. "The world you have just left is under our protection."
"The pearls," he asks, and is rewarded with a vibration in his mind that is a very clear yes. "They're like a cloaking device."
The other officers – with the exception of O'Reilly, who is busy flying the ship to collect the escape pods - look confused, and Tom explains.
"The ocean floor," he says, "was covered with these giant clam shells full of pearls. The Q can't see past them, correct?"
The alien holds out a hand; cradled in her insubstantial palm is a very substantial pearl, just like the one Alarra had given Tom.
"More than that," she says, and again the sense of a benign smile is overwhelming. "They have none of their powers near these pearls. Including the power of memory. He would not remember your existence while you were close to one."
"You were right all along, Captain, it was the pearls," Tom muses. "That's what Q wanted - to learn about the pearls, and perhaps figure out how to turn them off so he could … play with these people."
The alien nods, and Riker – refusing to seize the opportunity to feel a bit smug - picks up the thread.
"And I guess the pearl in your pocket was why Q forgot about you on the Flyer. He didn't hear you over the comm either, Tom. He only reacted when I started talking. Like you were erased from existence, even though we could hear you perfectly well."
He turns back to the alien. "I assume you surrounded the whole city with those things, to protect Alarra's people from detection by the Q? I assume we set off an alarm bell in your universe when I tried to pick one out of the shell?"
The alien nods simply, and seems to smile again.
Harry is still confused. It doesn't help that he has absolutely no idea who Alarra's people might be, although he gets that Tom and Will held back something major in their report to Q. He'll squeeze Tom for the details soon enough. In the meantime, there are some general questions that he feels he should ask.
"But if you need to protect whoever is down there against the Q, why not against us? Or people like us? Why could the Captain and Commander see them?"
"You are no threat," she says. "Not anymore. You have learned this, and surprisingly fast. The Q are … destructive. They cannot help this; the need to impose their will on the universe, to shape and change it at their whim, it is in their nature. But some things must not be made to change."
Q introduced humanity to the Borg.
Tom ventures a guess.
"Alarra's people must be a very old race? We have legends about them on Earth."
The alien nods. "Yes, they are very old. There are creatures of the sea, the earth, the wind and the fire; it depends on their stage of evolution."
She pauses for a moment, and Deanna interjects softly. "You are fire."
"Yes, we are. Your own people are just now beginning to change from earth to wind; you are still bound to the planets, but already you move beyond, if only in earth-made ships like this." She gestures around the bridge.
"The oldest creatures are of the sea. Their time is nearly at an end. You have seen the city Alarra's people live in … Their halls were once shining and beautiful. Only one city now remains, on the world where Q brought you. It is decaying, and its people are becoming children again. It cannot be helped."
There is affection in her tone, regret and a lingering, profound sadness.
"I do not see the logic in allowing this world to decay," Jorak interjects. "If your race calls itself the Preservers, and you have powers that go beyond even those of the Q, then why not preserve all races equally?"
Tom answers the question, almost as if to himself. "Because they preserve everything, including the willingness of a people to make mistakes, to fail to evolve, and to lose interest in their own future."
He addresses the alien now. "The Q insist on messing with everything they touch. What you preserve is the ability … the right to make choices, isn't that right?"
The alien seems to get even brighter.
"That is correct, Tom Paris," she hums. "And if a species is ready to die of old age, then they have the right to do so in peace and dignity. The people you would call the merfolk chose this path long ago."
It's Deanna's turn; she has had to deal with Q more than the others this day, and so it's quite natural that she should be the one to ask this question.
"I always thought the Q to be the most powerful beings in the universe. At least that's what they'll have us believe. And yet … you seem to be able to defeat them almost at will. What does that make you?"
The alien vibrates a little – a chuckle?
"It makes us older, and wiser," she replies. "The Q still do not understand what is important; they are blind to the importance - and the truth - of life and death."
Tom suddenly remembers Quinn, the Q who came aboard Voyager to die; their Q helped him in that pursuit, against the wishes of the Continuum. Perhaps he and his lady are still exploring the concept of death? It would explain his interest in the rumored lost world beneath the sea ... Still, Tom is quite content with his and the Captain's decision to keep Alarra's – and the Preservers' – secret from a race that has so far singularly failed to impress him.
Speaking of secrets …
"I guess we better not mention this in the logs?" Riker asks the alien, but his remarks are addressed to the bridge officers. "Wouldn't want Q to start taking an interest in our records."
"Yes," the alien sings in their minds. "You and your companion may hold your experiences in memory and you may speak to them to your friends; they are linked to the pearls. Q cannot touch even such stories - not until they are remote enough to have slipped into rumour and legend."
Ayala, who has been listening to everything with his customary silence, whispers to Harry, "Explains why the guys is so keen on finding those damn pearls. Major chip off his omniscience."
The alien turns to Tom, and holds out her hand with the shimmering pearl.
"Take it, it was a gift bestowed on you by a friend. And its presence will further bind what you have learned to you and to this ship, and help this knowledge withstand Q's gaze."
She gives a second pearl to Riker.
"This is the one that almost cost you your hand, Captain, but it came willingly in the end. Keep it as a memento of your visit to this world, and of the time you shared with a people that has little time left. And now I must go."
Tom swallows a little; there are a number of things he'd still like to ask but it's obvious that question period is over. A sudden fading of the light, a last shudder of his mind as the alien presence takes her leave from them, and she is gone.
It's been a far longer day than any of them had expected when they got up in the morning, with a lot more mileage and stress on the poor ship than she really needs. B'Elanna has been fussing over her engines to the point where Tom is afraid she might pitch up a sleeping bag beside the warp core, just to make sure it wasn't too traumatized by its sudden descent into antiquity.
Then there was the mop-up. What was left of the rather storm-battered, half-drowned Flyer One is now the shuttle bay, awaiting a serious maintenance call. The escape pods needed to be reconnected with their launch pads, to ensure quick deployment the next time. At least that last part can be seen as a useful drill, Tom figures. The ship had been emptied of its families, civilians and non-essential personnel in under ten minutes, which has to be some kind of record. And it's probably the only part of today's events that can reasonably make it into the official logs.
On top of that, Tom had a pretty narrow escape when Harry, with a discreet "psst", reminded him that he'd actually been half naked throughout those final exchanges on the bridge. Ever the reliable friend, Harry had brought over a freshly replicated tank top to conceal what Tom has managed to keep under wraps for seven long years on Voyager.
"Ayala and the other bridge officers will keep their mouth shut, if they even noticed," Harry had said. "But you wouldn't want the rest of the crew to …" His voice had trailed off then, and Tom had clapped him on the shoulder in gratitude. There'll be a bottle of fine, un-replicated wine on Harry and Libby's doorstep later tonight.
So yeah, it's been a long day, but it's over now and Tom is heading to his quarters with almost a spring in his step. He can't wait to see Miral, to hold her and to listen to her excited account of her escape pod adventure over a slice of pepperoni pizza or three.
His hand caresses the smooth, round object in his pocket. Eventually he'll ask Crewman Elliott in procurement, who makes jewelry in her spare time, to set it for him and turn it into a pendant, but for now he'll just give it to Miral as it is. He takes it out and looks at it as he walks; the shimmering, glowing pearl catches the dull corridor lights and transforms them into pure, ethereal, aching beauty, right there in his hand.
His mother's voice is loud in his ears: "Don't give something this small to a child under three, Tommy!"
But fortunately Miral is a quarter Klingon, and Tom reasons that this puts her well past the small objects may be harmful if swallowed threshold. Besides, his daughter has considerable common sense, and the last thing she'd do with anything she likes, is to 'make it gone' by sticking it in her mouth.
B'Elanna will probably kill him, though, since the story he plans to tell Miral when he gives her the pearl is liable to extend his daughter's princess phase by at least a few weeks.
It's a gift from the little mermaid, he will say, and a smile crosses his face as the truth of the statement settles in his mind. A gift drawn from deep water, so she can live out her days in peace, and we may hold her in memory.
And if giving the pearl to Miral means that Q won't be able to get a bead on his daughter for as long as she has it, well then, that's a bonus.