Chapter 33

"Pardon the intrusion," Dr. Bashir called out as he strode into Shea and the Captain's shared quarters and on into their bedroom. "It's nearly first light and I need to prep the Captain." He averted his gaze long enough for the two of them to separate themselves, then hit Picard with a series of hyposprays. "These should keep you from losing it, no matter what goes down."

"I hope you're not drugging me to the point that I won't be able to think straight," Picard told him.

"You should have full control of your faculties right up until the end. Even then, the numbing agents will kick in only in proportion to your adrenaline output. There is a slight risk that you may lose consciousness at some point, but I'm fairly sure you won't. I've been working on this combination for awhile now."

Picard rubbed the stinging sensation from his neck then noticed Bashir wasn't offering anything to Shea. "Can't you do anything to help her with this transition?"

Julian shrugged, "Nothing she'll let me do. I did offer."

"Don't worry," she said. "I'm sure I won't feel a thing. Do I have time for a quick shower?"

Julian nodded. "First light isn't for at least another fifteen minutes."

"I'll be super quick."

Although she enjoyed the sensation of the hot steaming water, she didn't linger. She knew she had at least another ten minutes left, but when she stepped out of the shower, she found herself enclosed in a box not much larger than herself. She pounded the mirrored wall with a fist. "It's not first light yet," she protested, but no one answered and nothing changed. Her time was up. She had been taken.

When the water in the shower stopped, Picard and Bashir waited for Shea to return. Instead, they heard silence, and in alarm, rushed into the other room to see it empty.

"Looks like we forgot to synchronize clocks," Bashir commented.

"And yet we're still here. Ship, how long till first light?"

"Ten minutes, forty-three seconds," Ship answered.

"They took her early… for safekeeping apparently," Picard concluded.

"Why? It's not like she had any way out."

"Perhaps they thought she might. Let's hope they're right," Picard said.

Shea stood in her small mirrored prison, waiting impatiently. She wished she had room to pace, or turn or better yet to run, but all she could do was stand and stare at the body she was soon to be deprived of. She wondered if this oncoming separation of her ancestral energy from her body would feel similar to what she experienced when she had been injured beyond the point of functioning. Probably not. In those times, she had always stayed with her body, aware of it and her identity even as she regenerated. This would be different. Her thoughts, her memories, her sense of self… they would all be gone in an instant. She doubted any physical pain would be involved. Pain was part of life. There would be none of that.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, her reflected image faded away as light came up from outside her tiny prison, revealing again the same courtroom from the day before. She saw Picard now sitting behind a large raised desk again, once more clothed in the black robe of a judge. For a moment she wondered if he could see her but then their eyes met and she knew that he could. She tried to reach out in her mind only to feel her own thoughts reflect back to her. The walls of this prison would not allow her to communicate with him, so she simply kissed her own palm and pressed it to the wall for him to see. D appeared on her left and Q materialized to her right. They both stared at her with an intensity she had never witnessed from them before. The only thing in her mind that came close was the unblinking gaze of snakes preparing to strike. She felt a rising panic and forced herself to look away from them and focus on Jean-Luc. She saw him now begin to speak, but no sound transmitted. She would have to guess what was going on. She took slow deep breaths, willing herself to be calm and centered, slowing time down the way he had taught her.

When Picard found himself seated once more in the role of a judge, he saw Shea trapped in what looked like a tall glass box in the center of the room. The crew once again sat in the audience on one side with the glowing figures of the Continuum on the other. When Shea palmed him a kiss, he closed his eyes for a moment to collect himself. He opened them again, and saw D on one side of Shea and Q on the other, their attention focused solely in her direction. He expected them to turn and face him, but they did not. Instead a large button appeared on the desk before him under the words: 'The Plaintiff's petition is hereby…" then the button began alternating between 'Denied' and 'Granted'. Clearly they expected him to press the button to make his ruling without further comment or delay. He frowned at the blinking display before him and at the two entities staring at their target. He was quite certain that pressing that button would be more like shooting off a starter's gun than making a legal decision. He had no intention of playing their game. He would rule on his own terms or not at all.

"Will the Plaintiff and the Defendant please approach the bench?" he requested. When neither moved nor responded, he tried again. "I have no intention of making my decision known until I have your full attention."

"So, do you want to hear his ruling, or don't you?" D asked.

"I'm not looking away, until you do," Q replied.

"Together then," D said and in unison, they turned and walked toward Picard. "You wanted our attention, Captain? Now, you have it."

"Thank you. You may recall that you both agreed to this arbitration. I would like those words read back to you." Picard then noticed that Data was not seated where he had been the day before. "Where is Mr. Data?"

"We didn't see the need for his presence," Q replied. "Besides, I find him annoying."

"Because he is beyond your influence," Picard said. "I insist he be present. I cannot proceed without my court reporter."

"Oh, very well," Q said irritably and Data materialized in the seat he had occupied previously.

"My apologies for being late to the proceedings," Data said taking in the current situation. He focused on Shea in her glass cell. "I trust that I can still be of service."

"You can," Picard said. "I would like you to read back the agreement D and Q entered into in regard to this arbitration."

"Yes, sir. Your words were as follows: 'I have been selected to act as arbitrator in the matter of Q versus D. My judgment shall be binding on all parties. If there is any objection to that, let it be known now.'"

"And were any objections raised?"

"They were not," Data confirmed.

Picard addressed D and Q, "Did you or did you not both agree to respect the ruling of this court?"

D smiled that unnerving shark-like smile of his that Picard recognized from long ago. "Try as you might, Captain, you will not be successful in boxing me into a corner. I promised to hear your ruling and take your words into consideration out of respect for Shea's trust in you. That is the most you can expect of me."

"Now you know what kind of creature you are dealing with, Captain," Q said. "A slippery one that cannot be trusted. He will say one thing, while meaning another, mislead you and toy with you. You can't believe a word he says."

"Are you certain you're not describing yourself, Q?"

"Jean-Luc, I thought we were friends. I'm hurt. Truly," Q said, pressing a hand to his chest as if wounded.

"Hmmm… I'm sure," Picard replied skeptically.

D glared at them both and brought a fist down on the desk. "I grow weary of this pointless banter between you two. Say what you wish to say, Captain, and make your ruling."

"Very well. It's become clear to me that neither of you have any concern for the welfare of other life forms except as to how their existence directly affects your own. You may have given Shea her life, D, but that does not mean you have the right to take it back. It's hers to live as she sees fit. I cannot condone your asking ask her to pay the ultimate price for your ambitions. Each of you in your own way is equally manipulative and self-promoting. No matter which of you would come out on top, the result would be an unrestrained entity guided solely by self-interest. I am aware that rampant destruction may result if war breaks out between you. I pray you show some restraint and if not, I pray that it results in your mutual annihilation. Therefore, in the hope that the balance of power will be preserved and a pitched battle avoided, Plaintiff's petition is hereby…denied."

"Denied," D echoed, smiling into Q's angry face.

"We'll see about that," Q replied, and then all hell broke loose.

Reality seemed to fold in on itself to be replaced by overwhelming sensory input of sight and sound that made little if any sense to the human minds trying to perceive what was happening around them. Picard thought he saw Shea ripple in and out of existence, surrounded by music, light and forms that twisted and stretched his mind beyond all reason, as D and Q shot unnaturally in her direction, only to be blocked by seemingly countless duplicates of the Tommy Knockers, screaming in high pitched decibels that threatened to blow out his eardrums, and in the middle of it all was Data and the unmistakable sound of a full-powered phaser blast, that abruptly ended everything.

Picard stood in his quarters on Ship again, catching his breath and trying to comprehend what he had just witnessed. Dr. Bashir was there too, on his knees. They looked at each other in confusion.

"I have no idea what the hell just happened," Dr. Bashir said.

"Nor do I," Picard agreed and helped him to his feet. "But I think Data does." He tapped his comm badge. "Data, report."

"I am on the bridge, Captain. Ship is now in normal space in orbit around Nimbus III along with the Enterprise. I have activated our cloaking device. All personnel are present and accounted for with one notable exception. Shea is no longer with us. We are being hailed by the Enterprise."

"On my way," Picard said. He reached out in his mind for Shea and felt no surprise that he received nothing in return. He knew she was gone. It did surprise him that he felt no pain, only an all pervading numbness. Dr. Bashir's chemical cocktail seemed to be doing its job. If this was to be anything close to what he'd experienced before when his connection to her had abruptly ended, when these drugs wore off, he would collapse. But at least for now, he wasn't crippled. He headed for the bridge and Bashir followed him.

"On screen," he ordered upon entering the bridge. Riker's image promptly came into view.

"Everyone there all right?" Picard asked.

"It would seem so. How about you?"

"She's gone, as expected. The rest of us have been returned."

"I'm sorry. If there's anything we can do…"

"How about turning a blind eye for the next few minutes? Give us a headstart."

"Afraid I can't accommodate you. I have my orders. And just as soon as we get our warp core engines online, we're coming after you." Riker winked at him.

Picard nodded. "Good luck then." He signaled Data to cut off communications. "Get us the hell of here, Data."

"Yes, sir. Getting the hell out," Data replied. and initiated warp drive.