Tea for Q

A Star Trek: The Next Generation fanfic

by Mike Xeno

"I am Q," I said simply. I had decided in advance not to probe the possible futures, preferring to guess at what the reaction would be.

I was almost right – the words "Red Alert!" formed inside Picard's mind and the entire bridge crew (except, of course, for Data) tensed as if expecting the order at any moment. But then, his demeanor calmed, and his face seemed to relax, at least below the eyes. Apparently, Picard had the presence of mind to know that raising shields and going to battlestations was about as effective in this situation as putting on war paint.

The rest of the crew's reactions I absorbed as they played out. Worf's was the most obvious, his hand reaching halfway to the phaser on his belt (instinctive, but absurd in this case) and his already heavy brow dropping dangerously low over his eyes. Riker stepped minutely forward to stand beside his captain in a protective gesture – of course, a gesture was all it was. Troi's mind closed off at once; at least, she closed it insofar as deliberately seeking contact, for all their minds were open books to me. Data's reaction was wholly artificial, as was the rest of him; a slight tilt of the head and widening of the eyes which some subroutine deep in his neural net identified as "mild surprise".

Then, of course, there was Guinan. She wasn't on the bridge, but she knew I was there, and the hostility emanating from her was palpable. Q hadn't been kidding about this one; she really hated him.

As I am wont to do at such pivotal moments as this one, I reversed my subjective time slightly to replay the events leading up to the present, as it were.

"Come now, Q," I said (or rather, I communicated in the near-instantaneous method used by the Q when we converse with one another), "you may as well admit it, it's clear to any of us who have been paying the slightest bit of attention. You're fascinated with these humans. It's nothing to be ashamed of; I freely admit they intrigue me as well."

"Oh, puh-lease," Q drawled. "They're the flavor of the week, nothing more. If I weren't so terminally bored with the vast, inconceivable amounts of Nothing that's been the status quo for the Continuum lately, I wouldn't give them a moment's thought. Check that – I'd give them a moment's thought, and after a brief chuckle I'd go back to my knitting."

I shook my head. "Q, setting aside the fact that you tend to lie with every other word, I find that more than a little hard to swallow. First, there's the simple fact that you appeared to them at all! There was hardly a need for that, nor the ridiculous games you put them through, nor the forced encounter with the Borg that ultimately saved their necks –"

"I wouldn't even have bothered, except that the Borg are duller still. Who wants them running this galaxy in three hundred years? Someone had to do something."

"- furthermore, when you were sentenced to mortality not long ago, you actually chose that unbelievably limited form in which to die."

"It just slipped out!" Q protested. "Truly, I meant to say 'rabbit'."

"Why do you like them so much?"

"I DON'T LIKE THEM!" Q shouted, accidentally setting off a small nova which threatened to burn a struggling new civilization off their tiny, isolated world. I pointed it out to him, and with an exasperated huff he snapped the superheated ball of gases back into its originating star. The fact that he'd just started a new religion on that unfortunate world couldn't be helped. "Look, if you think they're so fascinating, why don't you go play with them for a while?"

"You know, I just might do that."

Q blanched. "Oh, no. I was joking, you really don't need to –"

"On the contrary, I think it an excellent idea," I said, forming myself into a human shape to try it out. Almost immediately I found myself intrigued by the startling simplicity and yet remarkably complete functionality of the hands; they were certainly among the more well-adapted sensing and examining organs of any physical species I'd ever encountered. "Yes… this is a fascinating notion."

"You can't be serious. Humans are a child-race. They're self-important, reckless, ignorant little bugs who should have been completely wiped out a hundred times by now if it weren't for one ludicrously improbable stroke of luck after another. Look at this – a couple of eons ago, a global-killer asteroid hit the upper atmosphere of their world at just the right angle to skip off into space. What are the odds?"

"It was on a direct collision course," I pointed out. "You pushed it."

He waved his hand dismissively. "I don't like it when my toys get broken, that's all."

"It's not just you and me, you know. You may not have noticed, but lately half the continuum has been talking about these humans. Just the other day I was reading in Q's column about how he's taken an interest in them. Did you see the one about Woodstock?"

"Q's crazy. You know, yesterday he tried to throw himself into a gamma ray burst just to see what would happen."

"Fine, forget about Q," I said resolutely. "These humans may be the flavor of the week, as you so eloquently put it, but that doesn't mean there isn't something about them worth studying. And I've got an idea for an approach that I think might work rather well."

"Whatever you do, stay away from the Middle East. About two and a half millennia ago, I had an affair with a little Jewish girl down there and they're STILL talking about it."

"Actually, you gave me the idea," I continued, ignoring his feeble joke. "We've always studied lower lifeforms by mimicking them, blending in and observing, setting up little tests for them, that sort of thing. Then, you hit upon the rather interesting notion of actually revealing yourself. Quite an inspiration, actually."

"Oh, by all means follow in my footsteps, if you want to seriously tick off the continuum."

"Your problem, Q, is that having come up with such a brilliant idea you went and ruined it. Instead of studying and learning about these humans, you started poking them with a stick. I've got a different approach."

Q rolled his eyes. "I'm burning with anticipation."

"It's simple, really. I'm going to level with them."


"You'll see," I said, and vanished.

"It'll all end in tears!" Q called after me, as I warped out of the Q Continuum and into the real universe.

I decided that my introduction to humanity would be most productive if I selected humans who at least would know what I was, so I chose Q's particular favorite humans: Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew. Unlike Q, I was less interested in how they might respond to a crisis than I was with how they interacted with each other under normal conditions, and I certainly didn't see the point of creating an artificial test for them to overcome.

I found the Enterprise cruising along at about warp six through an unremarkable stretch of the Sagittarius arm of the Galaxy. A preliminary glance reminded me that I would need to choose one of two genders, and I arbitrarily selected male. The body I had assembled in the Continuum proved short on detail, so I refined it and added such things as internal organs, hair, and a certain degree of functionality; it seemed to me that it would be more acceptable to them if I had a discernable pulse and appeared to be breathing. Finally, I gathered some stray matter and assembled a "starship" of my own, which was really just a simple metallic sphere inside of which I might travel in comfort.

Placing myself in a position where the Enterprise would eventually scan me, I tended to a few last-minute items. Humans vary only slightly among themselves in physical appearance, but I knew that they assigned importance to those differences if only as a means to distinguish one another. I chose a rich, dark brown tone for my skin, and though I preferred the lighter color of hair I noticed that the darker-skinned humans didn't tend to appear that way, so I went with the tight, black curls that seemed more natural to that variation. Clothing also seemed to be important to them, so I adorned myself in a simple black-and-white outfit that suggested the lines of their own uniforms without copying them precisely (Q's experience with humans told me that they tended to be annoyed at his wearing of their uniform). Finally, as the Enterprise drew nearer, I sent a subspace beam along the Dihydrogen-Alpha band, what they referred to as "hailing frequencies."

My human throat tightened; I was excited about this! I appreciated my body's natural reactions as a sign that I had designed it well.

"This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise," came the voice.

I took a deep breath, and observed the result with satisfaction as my heartbeat quieted slightly and my overall metabolism dropped to a more sustainable level. "Captain Picard," I said, guessing what his reaction would be, "I am Q."

Having brought myself up to the present, I noticed that an unusually long silence had followed my words. Clearly, the humans were caught by surprise, and a brief glimpse over their minds told me why. "Not the Q you've met in the past," I continued, correcting their initial assumptions, "though I do know him well. I am a separate entity of the Q Continuum."

"Indeed," Picard continued. My decision to study humanity was proving correct almost from the very start; it was fascinating to see the play of emotions and thoughts in his mind. Under the overall apprehension, I could sense a definite curiosity, no small amount of excitement, a certain degree of anger over past humiliations, a modicum of doubt, and – most intriguing – a touch of personal satisfaction. In a way, Picard seemed to view himself as something of an Ambassador to the Q, and it flattered him that we were paying attention to him in this manner! This was certainly not something I'd gleaned from Q's descriptions of the man. I decided that this was a likely way to relate to Picard and try to get into his good graces, which I needed to do if my plan was to succeed.

"Captain Picard, I get the idea that you're concerned about my motives. Rest assured that they are peaceful and benign. I am essentially on the same mission that you are, one of exploration and discovery. I'd very much like the opportunity to meet with you face-to-face. May I come aboard your vessel?"

His eyebrow raised; I could tell that Picard was intrigued, though suspicious. "Very well," he articulated. "We will receive you in twenty minutes. I assume you will come aboard by your own means?"

It was something of a test, I could tell; Picard had a notion to raise the shields just before I was to materialize, and I also noted that he failed to mention exactly where on board his ship he would be ready to meet me. "Twenty minutes, then, Captain," I agreed, and quickly disincorporated.

Picard wasted no time in gathering his senior officers for conference. Of course, I could sense their every move and hear every word, even though I hadn't actually arrived yet. Guinan was among them, and she knew I was there; I could have hidden from her if I chose, but only at the expense of fogging my own senses. For the moment, I allowed her to be aware of my presence.

"Opinions?" Picard said to the room.

"Not what we've come to expect from the Q," Riker said. "He acted… polite."

"How do we know that he's Q at all?" Dr. Crusher asked. "He certainly hasn't done anything to demonstrate Q-like abilities."

"That is not entirely so, Doctor," Data spoke. "His ship, which we scanned, was made from metallic hydrogen, which cannot naturally exist in the vacuum of space. Furthermore, its spherical shape was perfect to the limits of our sensors' ability to detect. It is unlikely that with our technology we could fashion such a flawless sphere of any inert material. The vessel had no discernable means of propulsion, communication, life-support, or any of the other necessary systems that a starship would seem to require; and yet it moved at warp speeds and clearly communicated with us."

I was somewhat impressed with Data's analysis. My "ship" had been assembled only to give the humans something physical to focus on; I hadn't intended it to be an object of study for them. I could see why Q described Data as the only one he had any real hope for.

Troi nodded her head. "Even if it wasn't Q, he had an exceptionally powerful mind. Whatever we are dealing with here, it is a lifeform far advanced from our own."

The table went silent for a moment as everyone churned over this information. Picard broke the silence by saying, "Guinan?"

Guinan turned to look at Picard, but at the same moment I could tell some part of her turned to look at me as well, as if confirming what she suspected. "He's Q," she said. "Not the same one, but Q."

"Do you sense anything that might give you a clue as to his motivations?" Picard asked.

Guinan studied me a moment longer, then shook her head. "No," she said, "but my instinct tells me that he's not malicious… not deliberately."

"If he were, we'd probably be fighting lions in the Coliseum by now," LaForge quipped. I smiled; it did seem like exactly the sort of thing Q would do.

"Well, I see no point in rescinding our invitation," Picard said, standing up and snapping his uniform top down with a tug of both hands. "We should probably be somewhat grateful that this Q has bothered to ask us if he may come aboard, rather than simply barging in. Let us make ready to receive our guest."

"Shall I put security on alert, Captain?" Worf grunted.

Picard raised his eyebrow again. "Do you believe it will serve any practical purpose, Mr. Worf?" he asked.

Worf began to protest, then abruptly stopped. "No, sir," he acknowledged grimly.

"Very well then. Continue present course and speed; I'm quite certain our guest will be able to keep up. We will reconvene in ten minutes and await Q's arrival. Dismissed!"

At precisely twenty minutes past the moment at which I had received Captain Picard's invitation, I materialized in his briefing room. I didn't bother repressing the energy-flash of transport, preferring to present them with the familiar.

Picard rose from his seat, his face neutral. "Welcome aboard the Enterprise," he said almost tonelessly.

I looked around the room; the others were equally expressionless, with the exception of Worf, who glared at me as he would at a Romulan who had insulted his mother. "Am I indeed welcome?" I asked. "Forgive me, Captain, but for a species that claims to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, you certainly don't seem pleased to meet a representative of one of the more advanced ones."

"Our dealings with the Q in the past have not suggested that you would wish to be on friendly terms with humanity or the Federation," Picard said. "You must understand if I greet you with caution."

"Yes, it is understandable," I acknowledged. "However, I submit that for you to judge my people based upon your encounter with just one of us is representative of a behavior pattern that your species prefers to avoid. Of course, I have not studied humans for long, so I may be mistaken."

I sensed a wave of anger washing through most the group, and regretted my remarks. This approach was clearly counterproductive, and I could see that I needed to be a little more magnanimous. I noticed with interest that of those present, Troi and Crusher were the only ones who had accepted my comment with equanimity – a sexual difference in attitudes, perhaps? Or did it have more to do with the fact that they were both schooled in human psychology, and understood the truth of my words better than the others? These humans were already leading me into newfound areas of thought! It was imperative that I establish a positive connection.

"Let's start over, shall we?" I suggested, approaching Picard with my hand outstretched. "My name is Q… though in the interest of differentiating me from my predecessor, you may call me… hm, now what is a human name that begins with Q?"

"There are two hundred and thirty-seven reasonably common names which begin with the letter Q," Data said immediately. "Among the more popular are Quinn, Quaid, Quincy, Quinlan, Quon, Qaseem, Queran, Quennel, Quentin –"

"That will do, Mr. Data," Picard said.

"Yes sir."

"Quentin will be fine," I nodded, once again offering my hand. "Captain Picard, it is a pleasure to meet you."

Picard hesitated so briefly that only a Q might have noticed it, then took my hand firmly and shook it. "Mr. Quentin, again, Welcome Aboard," he said. "Please, do be seated. May I offer you refreshment?"

I smiled; of course Picard knew I had no need for "refreshment" of any kind, but it seemed that he intended on making up for his previous social gaffe by playing the Good Host. "Nothing for me, but feel free to indulge yourselves if you wish," I said, gesturing slightly to place a drink in front of each of them. My intention had been to show that there were no hard feelings, but the sense I got from them all immediately told me that I had blundered; rather than accepting the offer, they each seemed rather put out by it. I even got a strong impression from Worf that had he been anywhere except the Enterprise, his drink would be on the floor and his glass shattered against the wall.

Picard sat down, ignoring his drink. "Mr. Quentin, I assume you must have some purpose in contacting us as you have. May we know why you are here?"

I remembered telling Q how I intended to level with these humans, but now that I was here, I began to see why he felt my idea was a poor one. How could I possibly make them understand what I was truly after? Furthermore, how could I make them believe me? And what if they took offense? Was his way actually better? "Captain Picard," I said, "I understand that you must have certain reservations. After all, when an inferior species is confronted by a superior one –" I stopped again, feeling the fresh wave of anger around the table. "Captain, this is difficult for me," I admitted. "Surely when you have encountered alien races in the past, you have inadvertently insulted them or otherwise violated their social mores. I find myself in just such a situation. Consider for a moment what my primary source of information about humanity has been, and I think you'll see that I'm coming into this less prepared than I'd like to be."

That seemed to bring down the animosity level in the room, and I was grateful. Picard nodded understandingly. "Then, I take it that you are here to study humanity?"

"Exactly!" I said enthusiastically. "Captain, you may find this difficult to believe, but right now your people are quite the topic of conversation throughout the Continuum; perhaps not directly, but Q's recent encounters with you have shaken things up a bit for us."

"Are you here as a representative of the Continuum?" Riker asked.

"We don't really work that way," I said. "No one of us represents the others. We are complex beings, too individualistic for such concepts to apply."

More animosity. What was causing this reaction? Here I was, trying to give them what they claimed to seek – knowledge – and no matter what I said, it seemed to only provoke them to anger.

"How do you propose to conduct your studies?" Data asked. I was grateful for his presence; as the only one at the table whose thoughts were unclouded by emotions, he might be my means of getting through to Picard and his crew.

"It's simplicity itself, really," I said. "I wish merely to spend some time with you. I'd like to observe humanity – and the similar life forms with whom you associate – as you go about your regular business. I'd like to be able to ask questions and have them answered, and of course I'm perfectly willing to return the favor."

"For how long?" Picard asked.

"As long as it takes, I suppose," I said. "Does it matter? It is part of your mission to interact with other life forms, and I'd think you would see this as part of that mission."

"Indeed," Picard said, sitting back slightly and tugging on his uniform shirt. "And, as I have told Q on a previous occasion, the idea of learning about you is compelling. However, it has been made all-too clear to us that association with the Q can be rather… dangerous."

"I am not a danger to you or your ship, Captain," I said. "I have no intention of interfering with your mission or your lives. That would be entirely counterproductive to my purpose. I'm offering an exchange of knowledge, a chance for two life forms who find each other fascinating to interact and learn about one another. I don't see why you would refuse."

There! That was it. Suddenly an identical thought sprang into each of the eight minds around the table, and I instantly capitalized on it.

"After all," I said, "it's not like you could stop me if you wanted to."

The shift in emotion was palpable and swift, but not in the way I'd expected or hoped. What small headway I'd made in getting them to accept me was abruptly wiped out, buried under a rush of what I could only describe as impotent rage. Picard's eyes, which had shown interest and doubt only a moment before, went suddenly cold. Worf's upper lip trembled, as if he had suppressed an instinct to bear his teeth and growl. Even Data, who felt no emotion, quickly calculated his way to the logical conclusion that what I had said would undoubtedly anger his colleagues.

"You will find that is not entirely true," Picard said in a low, steady voice. "The powers of the Q are indeed beyond our abilities to fight directly; that much has been made abundantly clear to us during our previous encounters. However, if it is our cooperation you seek, you will find us quite capable of withholding it."

Hate. I could feel it permeating the room. I couldn't understand – I had spoken only the truth which they had all fully realized! Why did they respond so? Couldn't they see that the mere fact that I was dealing with them on a level was evidence enough that my intentions were benevolent? Did their prejudice against the Q run so deeply that they would ignore simple logic?

"We will consider your proposal," Picard said with a clear tone of dismissal. "When we are ready to speak again, we will send a standard hail. Thank you, Mr. Quentin."

"Captain Picard," I said with a nod, and with a flash of light returned to my natural, non-corporeal state.

I couldn't understand what had gone wrong. I had expected a certain degree of mistrust, but not the outright hatred that I had encountered at the end – and which, come to think of it, had been there at the beginning, a little further below the surface but nonetheless present. Why hadn't I noticed it? Why hadn't I been able to determine the proper course of action? I was Q, after all, a life form as far advanced from these humanoids as they were from the bacteria in their own gut. They should have been putty in my hands.

"It's been too long since you were physical, Q," said Q as he flipped into existence next to me. "Or should I call you Quentin now? You know, if you want my opinion, you really should have gone with 'Steve'. I always liked the name Steve."

"I'm not really in the mood for company," I grumbled.

"Take on physical form, and you take on physical limitations," Q patronized. "You're so used to the boundless energy and limitless power of the Continuum, you forget that the real universe isn't so easily manipulated. Don't worry, we're all going soft, there's no need to take it personally."

"Don't presume to lecture me, Q," I said with a glare. "And don't for one moment think that you can avoid responsibility this time. This is your fault."

"Oh, I knew this was coming," Q said, rolling his eyes. "Don't blame me just because you leaped into this without doing the slightest bit of preparatory research. Did you even bother to skim their history? Read their literature? Take more than the most superficial glance into their minds? No, I didn't think so."

"That's not the way I wanted to do this!" I replied angrily. "I wanted to meet them just as they meet other species; without foreknowledge, without preconceptions. I wanted the experience of First Contact."

"Well, you can't have it, because I already did. And before you think of blaming me again, let me point out that the rest of you could have done it at any time; nothing was stopping you. So you see, they already have their preconceived notions of the Q being a bunch of jerks, and when you go in and act all superior and high-handed, it's naturally going to piss them off."

"Why do you act superior and high-handed with them, then?" I asked.

"Because pissing them off is lots of fun."

I shook my head. "No, that can't be right. Humans abhor prejudice. So many of their race's problems have been caused by leaping to conclusions about that which they don't know."

"And you think they're over that? Human prejudice is alive and well, Quentin, and just because they say they're all enlightened and purehearted doesn't change the fact that humans are essentially self-aggrandizing small-minded hypocritical bigots. And the more you act like a Q, the more you'll remind them of that shortcoming plus a hundred others, and the more they'll hate you for it. Try to act like them, and they'll hate you for patronizing them. They despise us, and you can't change that by buying them a round of drinks."

I sat and stared at the Enterprise, which in the wake of my absence continued on its way, now travelling at warp eight; I surmised that Picard anticipated being delayed, and wanted to make up for any time I was about to cost him. Already, he assumed my presence to be inherently detrimental. For a moment, I wondered if there was really any point in continuing… then I shook my head with resolve. "No. You're wrong, Q. I can reach these people. I just need to alter my approach, that's all."

I transported out with a flash of light, but not soon enough to miss Q's taunting, "You'll be sorrrrrry!"

I reappeared in Data's quarters, facing the android's workstation. "Good afternoon, Mr. Data," I said calmly.

Data blinked once, the only indication of any sort of surprise. Deep in his positronic brain, I saw that he had actually calculated the odds of my sudden appearance in his quarters at 1.7 percent, and the blink was simply his automatic response to an event of low probability – momentarily shutting off visual input to redirect that part of his brain to the determination of a response. "Mr. Quentin," he said. "I do not believe that Captain Picard has hailed you. Am I to take it that you are here unannounced?"

"I am, yes. Mr. Data, my recent attempt at diplomacy seems to have gone rather badly. I felt it might be best to attempt reconnection with a being whose emotions will not overrule his judgment."

"I am not authorized to speak for the Captain, Mr. Quentin," Data said. "In any event, since your stated goal is to study Humanity, it would not seem productive to begin with me. I am not, after all, human."

"Good points," I conceded. "However, I think I can still gain some insight from you, if you'll allow me."

"As you pointed out before, sir, it is quite irrelevant whether I would allow you or not. As Q, it will be a simple matter for you to compel my cooperation."

"That's not what I want!" I insisted. "All I want is to be able to live among you for a time and observe. Is that asking so much? Why am I met with anger and resentment at every turn? Data," I continued, sitting down opposite him, "you're an android among humans. In many ways you are their superior – physical strength, endurance, intellect. And yet they accept you as one of their own. You are constantly aware of your own status as an artificial life form, but they hardly think about it. How do you do it?"

"As you must be aware, Mr. Quentin, I do not consider myself to be superior to humans. Certainly I have been designed with abilities that exceed the human norm, but I have my shortcomings as well. I am incapable of feeling emotion, for instance –"

"That's not exactly a shortcoming," I pointed out.

"But it is. Humans and other sentient life forms have evolved emotions over time precisely because their emotions give them an advantage over pure logic. I have endeavored to replicate emotional reactions such as laughter, tears, expressions of rage, sexuality, happiness, and many other manifestations of feelings. I have also exposed myself to music and other art forms which are said to evoke an emotional reaction. However, I do not truly 'feel' the emotions, and so I do not reap their full benefit."

"So, these humans accept you because you meet them on a level! Don't you see, that's exactly what I am trying to do! Unfortunately, unlike you, I AM superior to them in every way. I know they don't like that, but it happens to be the truth."

"In terms of their powers and abilities, the Q are certainly superior to nearly all life forms we have yet encountered," Data agreed. "However, I submit that since you find yourself in a dilemma which perplexes you and yet which humans have been able to resolve time and time again, you cannot be said to be superior in every way."

For a moment after Data's words, I experienced a most startling sensation – I didn't know what to say! Q was right about the limitations of taking on physical form; I certainly wouldn't have been caught off-guard like this had I been in the pure-energy state more natural to the Q. And it gave me an interesting idea.

"Tell me, Mr. Data," I said, "you were once offered the opportunity to become human, through the power of the Q. And yet you turned it down. Why is that?"

"My quest to become more human is one that I fully recognize will never be completed," Data replied. "It is the journey that is of value, not the destination. If I were to be instantly transformed into a human being, I would be physically human in all respects, but I would have lost the benefit of the process. A useful analogy would be to consider a computer that is programmed to play a great work of classical music as opposed to an actual orchestra comprised of living beings who have learned to play the music over time, through repetitive rehearsal. On the surface, it would seem that the computer's flawless execution of the music would logically be superior to the version played by musicians, but in reality, there is a quality to the music produced by an orchestra that the computer cannot duplicate. For some things, it would seem there is no substitute for slow, painstaking effort."

I stood up. "Thank you, Mr. Data. This has been most enlightening."

In a flash of light, I vanished from Data's quarters and appeared in Counselor Troi's office. Her reaction, as I might have predicted had I taken the trouble to do so, was rather less composed than Data's.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, the cup of tea she'd just obtained from the replicator jumping from her hand and spilling onto the floor.

"Forgive me," I said, and with a slight gesture mended the broken cup, restored the tea, and replaced it in her hand. "I suppose I should have announced my presence in advance?"

"That… that would have been more appropriate," Troi said, placing the cup on a nearby table. "Mr. Quentin, it is considered unmannerly among humans to simply appear in front of them without warning."

"I apologize," I said sincerely. "Please understand, it really is impossible to sneak up on a Q. We're used to others of our kind being aware of when we're about to turn up."

Troi composed herself, a cool professionalism smoothing the emotional reactions of her mind. "I accept your apology," she said. "May I ask the purpose of this visit?"

I sat down on her sofa, as if I were one of her patients – and, in a way, I was. "Counselor, I've just had a most stimulating conversation with Mr. Data," I said. "From that, I've had something of an idea insofar as how I can ingratiate myself to Captain Picard and the rest of you. But seeing as how my last attempt at diplomacy was something of a disaster, I thought it might be prudent to consult an expert on human emotions. Do you have an opening in your schedule?"

Troi raised an eyebrow. "Surely, Mr. Quentin, you could arrange such an opening."

I sighed. "This is exactly my problem. How am I to make any headway if you all keep assuming I'm just going to alter the universe to meet my needs? I want to get to know you people as you are! Manipulating your environment is precisely what I want to avoid."

Troi sat down. "Well, Mr. Quentin, as you say, you're off to a fairly rocky start. Humans tend to resent those who make up their own rules to suit themselves and ignore basic social graces. I would say that you made a very favorable impression by asking permission to come aboard in the first place, but the lesson already seems to have been lost on you. Captain Picard did indicate that he would contact you when we are ready –"

"Which could take days!" I pointed out.

Troi nodded. "And yet, you made no objection at the time, and are now flaunting the terms of that trust by appearing to Data and myself without first having been invited. To put it as bluntly as possible, Mr. Quentin… you're being most impolite."

"This business of manners and polite behavior," I said, "this is of importance to humans? It seems so artificial a thing."

"But it is of great importance, especially in an enclosed group such as a starship. It is a means by which we show mutual respect for one another." Troi shifted in her chair; I sensed that she was "dropping her guard" in a way, as the conversation presented her with a familiar counselor/patient relationship. It seemed rather presumptuous on her part to assume the dominant role, but I was getting the information I needed so I said nothing.

"And why is that important, respect?" I asked.

Why doesn't it surprise me that the Q haven't figured that one out? I heard her say in her thoughts. Outwardly, though, the only sign was an almost imperceptible beginning of a smirk. "One of the most basic human drives is a desire to feel worthwhile, even important. When others treat us dismissively, our response is one of hostility – sometimes an even greater hostility than if one is physically attacked."

"But, you have a hierarchy here. Commander Riker is more important than you are, for instance." I was momentarily surprised to see yet another primal reaction at the mention of Riker's name; apparently, Counselor Troi harbored a great deal of affection and desire for the man. I filed that fact away for future reference. "When Captain Picard gives an order, he certainly doesn't say 'Please'."

"Most human societies have a structure of some kind, and it's especially necessary on a starship where our very survival will sometimes depend on how efficiently we can work together. It is true that the Captain holds a position of leadership over the rest of us, but he understands that in order to be an effective leader he must show respect for all those under his command. Polite behavior is more than the use of certain words. It's an attitude, a combination of many things. It is certainly possible to give a direct order with respect for the one receiving it, but to do so as effectively as Captain Picard requires years of experience. More importantly, however, is the fact that the Captain acknowledges that those who serve with him all have their own worth and their own abilities. I assume that you observed the meeting held after our initial encounter?"


"By holding that meeting, the Captain showed respect for our opinions, and regard for the expertise that each of us could bring to the table. We knew that he was listening to all of us and considering our words to be worth something."

"How did you know this? Of course, you knew it through your empathic sense, but how do the others know it?"

"There are many subtle signs which humans sense on a number of different levels," the counselor said. "Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice all show us what another person's state of mind is."

"Interesting," I said. "And is this learned behavior, or instinctive?"

"A mixture of both. Some learn it better than others. In my position, for instance, it is very important for me to be able to tell such things about a person."

"I can see that I have much to learn."

"Not as much as you might think, Mr. Quentin," Troi said. "During our conversation here, I have observed behavior from you that shows a listening attitude and a respect for my opinions. It would seem that the Q do have these instincts, but that they have atrophied over time; perhaps as you have evolved out of the need for such things amongst yourselves."

Once again, I found myself surprised. "Really? That is a fascinating concept… there is more to learn from you humans than I ever considered! Counselor, I must be able to stay among you for a while, and learn more of your ways. It never occurred to me that to do so was also to learn more about my own!"

She smiled. "Mr. Quentin, you have hit upon one of the most important reasons why human choose to explore. It is as much to discover ourselves as it is to discover others."

"If Captain Picard truly respects your opinion," I said, "then perhaps I will be able to convince him to let me stay after all! Counselor, you must inform him at once that you are in favor of my proposal."

The smile vanished from her face. "Mr. Quentin, I'm glad we had this chance to talk, but I'm not necessarily supportive of your staying on board the Enterprise."

Again, I was surprised. "But look at what we have achieved in such a short time! I've found new insight into how I need to approach humans, while you've been able to satisfy your need for importance by educating a being who is far advanced from yourself. We both know that you're looking forward to another opportunity to speak with me, should the Captain allow it!"

Troi sat up straighter in her chair. "One thing you still must learn, Mr. Quentin, is that it is precisely this kind of arrogance that prevents you from finding common ground with beings such as ourselves. I won't deny that I am interested in speaking with you again, but I am not entirely convinced that it is in the best interests of this ship or its crew."

"Isn't that for your Captain to decide?" I asked. I immediately wished I hadn't, as it evoked fresh hostility from the counselor.

"Yes, that sort of thing does provoke a hostile reaction," she said – in response to my thoughts, I realized. Quickly I closed my mind, wondering at how I had failed to notice it was open, but then she surprised me yet again. "I didn't read your thoughts, Mr. Quentin. Consider this a practical demonstration of how humans may interpret subtle gestures, body language, or expression."

"I am not human –" I began.

"You have assumed human form, presumably down to the molecular level. I don't have the slightest idea how the Q do such things, but I imagine that this body in front of me is something like a puppet, controlled by a vast intellect which does not literally reside within it. Since you have made this body precisely like a real human, however, it has the same reflexive reactions as one. As a counselor, it's part of my job to pick up on such things consciously, but others will usually do so without actual awareness. They will, however, react adversely to what they perceive as arrogance and a superior attitude. This is basic human psychology, Mr. Quentin, which was well covered in classes I took in grade school." She smirked slightly, the way she might at a frustrated child trying to assemble a simple puzzle. "For a representative of an allegedly superior race, you seem surprisingly ignorant and helpless to me… I might even say pathetic."

Never had I been so chastised by such an inferior life-form! I felt a rush of blood to my face, my eyes narrowed of their own accord, and my breathing rate momentarily quickened. As soon as I noticed these reactions, I stopped them, but it was too late.

Troi said nothing, but in her mind I saw exactly what she had done.

"You did that on purpose," I said. "Counselor, I've heard the human expression 'playing with fire', but this takes it to a new level. Deliberately taunting a Q into a reaction of anger and hostility? I see that whatever primal instincts you have, self-preservation isn't one of them."

"You wished to participate in the human experience," she said. Her voice remained even although I could see that she had indeed been somewhat frightened. "I hope that you now have some understanding of how you have provoked negative and hostile reactions, and how you might avoid doing so in the future."

I raised an eyebrow, noticing it only after the fact. She was right – my human body was responding automatically. "Counselor, thank you for your time," I said as graciously as I could. "If I wish to speak with you again, I will make an appointment rather than simply showing up. Allow me to offer a token of appreciation."

I gestured briefly at the table beside her, and a Betazoid tiger rose appeared in a crystal vase. She blinked with surprise, then nodded and smiled slightly. "Thank you, Mr. Quentin. That was very thoughtful of you."

"Don't worry, I won't tell Commander Riker," I said, and was satisfied to see her eyes widen with surprise. "One of the perks of being Q, Counselor Troi: we always get the last word."

With a flash of light, I vanished from her quarters.

I reappeared on the holodeck. This time I suppressed the flash of re-integration, not wanting to startle my next subject as I had Counselor Troi. In this case, such a thing would definitely preclude any chance of my getting any further information.

The concept of the holodeck had rather fascinated me ever since Q had described it. In a way, these humans had invented a method by which they could pretend to be Q-like beings themselves, creating and controlling a universe of their own and assuming godlike powers over all it contained. The difference, of course, was that the Q dealt with reality rather than shaped forcefields and light-models.

The environment in which I found myself felt hot and humid, a jungle climate overgrown with vines and other vegetation. Ruined buildings stood here and there, half-consumed by the biomass, and the uneven and slippery ground made walking difficult. Of course, that was no issue for me, but just for the sake of maintaining the illusion I transformed my smooth-soled footwear into something more appropriate.

From off to my left, I heard an animalistic growl, followed a loud and guttural grunt, and a rapid triple-clash of metal on metal. I looked easily through the illusory stone wall and beheld the Klingon Worf engaged in personal combat with a holo-construction of some monstrous humanoid form with an oversized green skull. The thing bore down upon Worf with a jagged axe, which was easily and even gracefully deflected to one side, leaving the creature open to attack. I saw that it would be simple enough for Worf to follow through on the movement he'd started and deliver a devastating punch to the side of the skull-creature's head, but instead he arrested his own movement and held the axe pinned to the ground, essentially creating a contest of pure strength.

For a long moment, they struggled. I could see the muscles standing out like cables on Worf's neck, his teeth clenching like a vise, the whites of his eyes cracking with fine red lines. The creature's anatomy showed no such signs, but its arms trembled with its own efforts.

Then Worf roared, actually roared like a wild beast, and brought his foot up higher than human joints would have allowed and back down on the creature's arm, which tore from the shoulder in a mess of spurting black blood and stretching sinew. The thing let out an answering roar that was quickly silenced as Worf took its jawbone in one hand and pulled it hard into a collision with his own massive forehead, cracking the green skull in two and spilling further grotesque ooze onto the forest floor.

A Klingon howl of triumph is one of the louder sounds made by any humanoid life form. I had to make quick adjustments to my human body to avoid hearing damage, to say nothing of suppressing the natural gag reflex.

The creature's much-abused body collapsed and vanished.

For a moment, I considered stepping out and revealing myself, but something made me reconsider. My original intention had been to confront Worf as something of a worst-case scenario test; if I could win over the Klingon, even to a small degree, then I could rest assured that the rest of the Enterprise crew would fall into line. However, I found myself questioning that initial impulse, and I wondered why that would be. Certainly I felt no sense of fear; as intimidating as Worf's exercise might be to true humans, he presented no more threat to me than would an angry housefly. Indeed, the raw animalistic fury that had taken over his system was rather thrilling, in a small and momentarily diverting way. Had this encounter taken place a day ago, I knew that I would have no qualms whatsoever about approaching Worf. Even an hour ago, I might have risen to the occasion.

My recent conversations with Data and Troi, however, gave me pause to think. Surely, this was not a ritual that Worf intended anyone to witness. His displays were primal and unbound by the discipline he had displayed in the meeting, where his every instinct had called for him to leap upon me and throttle me, and yet he had kept such iron control that even his heartbeat had remained steady. He seemed a wholly different creature now, primitive and violent. The idea of such total release intrigued me; for the Q, an exercise such as the one that Worf had just undergone could have devastating consequences for entire galaxies. I wondered briefly what it must feel like to let go so completely of all self-control.

Then, as if he had turned a switch, Worf at once regained his composure. "Computer," he said in a clear voice, "disengage program."

The jungle vanished, replaced by a grid of bright yellow lines. I found myself caught by surprise, suddenly without cover. My human body responded with panic, and I vanished in a cloud of light.

I reappeared, but for a brief moment I wasn't sure where I was. The disconcerting sensation vanished almost immediately as I felt an obvious presence behind me.

"Very impressive, Ms. Guinan," I said as I turned around to find her standing before me, her hands raised in a protective gesture. "I don't think I've ever been so successfully diverted by one who is not of the Q. Of course, you did rather catch me off-guard."

"These are decent beings aboard this ship," Guinan said without preamble. "They don't deserve to have their lives disrupted by you. What are you really up to, Q?"

"Quentin, please."

"What are you up to, Q?" she repeated in the same tone.

It had not been my intention to converse with Guinan at this point, as I had surmised that she would be impossible to win over. And of course, I could choose to leave at any time – Guinan's redirection of my transport had only worked due to my own distracted state of mind at the time. Still, there would be no avoiding this conversation if I intended to carry out my plan, and this time was as good as any.

I sat down at a table by the windows which looked out into the leading edge of the ship's warp field, and gestured for Guinan to take the opposite seat. She remained where she was, silent and unmoving, her hands still raised before her. I noted that she had set up barriers around her mind and body which, although far from impenetrable, would prevent me from reading her thoughts or warping space around her without her becoming aware of it. I even sensed in her a limited ability to resist my powers.

"Ms. Guinan," I said, "I am not a malevolent being. I simply seek knowledge. I would think that you of all people would appreciate that. Are you not similarly engaged, with the same intentions? I find it hard to believe that you're working here as a bartender because the economy on Risa is in a slump."

"I don't interfere with these people," Guinan said. "I'm here to listen, and only to what they want to tell me. And I am here by invitation, which you certainly are not. Do not compare yourself to me, Q."

"What would you have me do, then?"

"Leave, and never return."

"I don't see as that's your decision to make," I pointed out.

"No," said a new voice. "That decision would be mine."

Guinan dropped her hands, and at once I became aware of Captain Picard emerging from behind the bar, accompanied by Data and Counselor Troi. I looked back at Guinan, who suddenly seemed exhausted.

It has been said by one of our philosophers that "Surprise" is a rare and special gift to a Q. In this moment, I was indeed surprised. Hijacking my transport when I wasn't really aiming for any particular point was one thing; blocking my ability to sense three humanoid life forms in close proximity was power on a level that I never suspected she had. Even though it had clearly taken a great deal of effort, the fact that she was able to do it at all was nothing short of amazing. "Ms. Guinan," I said, "it seems I've underestimated you rather severely."

"Mr. Quentin," said Picard in a hard voice, "I was under the impression that your intention was to deal with us openly and honestly. Now, I find that you are making contact with my people behind my back. This is not acceptable."

I felt the double emotions of anger and shame rise within me, and crushed them down instantly – too quickly for Troi to have caught any sense of them, I was sure. "Captain Picard," I said, "let us dispense with distractions and get to the heart of the matter. Do you, or do you not, wish to deal with me in any way? Is there nothing you want from me aside from my absence?"

Picard's face was a mask, but of course I could see the emotions running through him as clearly as if they were projected on his forehead. "If we are to engage in dialogue, Mr. Quentin, I must insist upon certain protocols. First and foremost is that you are aboard this ship only with my permission and at my invitation. I am well aware that you are fully capable of doing whatever you wish, but I assume you are sincere in your expressed desire to learn about us. If you wish to do so with our non-compulsory cooperation, you will have to meet our terms."

"The arrangement must go both ways, Captain," I said. "I have terms of my own that I would have met, assuming that you wish to learn about me in the same way. That is your stated objective, is it not? The brass plaque on your bridge, imploring you to 'seek out new life forms and new civilizations'? Are those just words, or do you intend to live by them? When it comes right down to it, do you Boldly Go… or do you timidly retreat?"

"I would be fascinated at the possibility of learning about the Q," Picard acknowledged. "But not at any cost."

"Captain, Captain," I said, chuckling. "Have I really done anything so terrible? Have I put you on trial for the crimes of humanity, or flung your ship into Borg space, or turned you into Robin Hood and his Merry Men? Oh, wait – skip that last one, it hasn't happened yet." (I could see in Picard's mind that he assumed I was making a feeble joke, and I let him go ahead and think that – it was easier than explaining.) "All I've done is interrupted a few of your crew during the course of their evening. You were less upset about the Ydrian Star-Wanderer that impregnated Troi last month than you are about me making a few late-night visits around your ship. Don't you think it's possible that you're taking this whole thing just a little too hard?"

Picard clasped his hands behind his back and began to walk slowly around me. "I grant you, Mr. Quentin, that my reactions may be colored in part by our past experience with the Q. However, do not forget that you set this standard for yourself. You agreed to meet with us on a level, and I have expected that you would hold to that promise. Did I expect too much? Do the Q have honor, Mr. Quentin?"

"Are you setting a challenge for me to rise to, Captain Picard?" I asked with a smirk.

"I am merely ascertaining the content of your character, Mr. Quentin. How you respond to that is entirely up to you. As you have said already, we don't have much choice in the matter. If you wish to observe us, or live among us, or torment us, we aren't really capable of anything more than token resistance against one so powerful as a Q. Be that as it may, I would prefer to believe that as a being of intelligence and perception, you are capable of compassion, decency, and temperance."

I crossed my arms and regarded Picard carefully. "You're appealing to my sense of altruism, then?" I asked.

"Let us say… I'm gambling that you have one," he replied smoothly.

After a moment's consideration, I bowed my head slightly to Picard. "Captain, I offer my apologies for having intruded upon your ship and crew," I said. "Tomorrow morning, when you are ready, I would like a moment of your time so that we may discuss the matter further. I invite you to come aboard my ship, which I promise you will find comfortable."

"Thank you, Mr. Quentin," Picard replied. His face continued to show little emotion, but I sensed that he was impressed with himself regarding how he'd handled the situation – and, I had to admit he was right to feel that way.

"Tomorrow, then," I said. "I'll know when you're ready. Counselor, Mr. Data… Ms. Guinan… I bid you all good evening."

In the next blink of an eye, I had vanished.

"He has a certain undeniable style, doesn't he?" Q asked me as I sat back with him on a conveniently located rogue comet passing close to the Enterprise.

"Picard? Oh, undoubtedly," I replied. "I believe I am beginning to understand the qualities which make him an effective leader of his fellow humanoids. I have to admit, he's earned my own respect."

"He played you like his little tin flute," Q sneered.

I had to glance slightly into the future to recognize the reference, but once I did, I didn't agree with it. "Objectively speaking, you have to admit the man had a point, Q. I made a deal with them, and broke it within a few minutes because I didn't want to wait a few hours."

"Who gives a rat's ass? You're Q, you do what you want! What else is the point of being at the top of the Universal pecking order?"

I regarded Q with a raised eyebrow. "You think you're making a joke, but the problem is, you're not. Ever since the beginning of the New Era, we Q have become far too used to being above and beyond everything. I happen to think we might still have a few things to learn, even from beings we would consider beneath us. You have to agree with me on some level, or you never would have bothered these humans in the first place."

"I did it because I was bored," Q said with an exaggerated yawn.

"Right. And because you were bored, you went looking for something to do. Something that might turn out other than how you would expect. In other words, you were looking to learn something."

"I did learn something. I learned that humans are desperately dull. And now you want to take something that I did as a lark, for a few years, and turn it into a colossal waste of time!"

"What else do the Q have but time?" I asked.

"Oh, puh-lease. If you're going to start quoting Q, I'm leaving right now."

"You won't be missed," I said peevishly.

Q simply smirked at me. "Yes, I will," he said, and winked out of sight.

The next morning (insofar as the Enterprise measured time), I waited for Picard, in my "vessel" which I had reformed a few hundred kilometers off Picard's port bow. I'd spent most of the time between when Q had (thankfully) vanished until the present moment setting up a meeting space where Picard and I would converse, and I felt rather pleased with the results.

"Picard to Mr. Quentin," came a voice over a local subspace waveband.

Amusingly enough, Picard had chosen to contact me by tapping his communicator and speaking into it, the same as he might have spoken to an away team or some such thing. Of course, it hadn't been the slightest bit necessary; he could have just thought that he was ready and I would have brought him over. His methods seemed almost an enforcement of the familiar, to him. He had sent me a subtle message that he wanted this meeting conducted in terms of what he considered "normal."

Well… I hoped he wouldn't be too disappointed.

Reaching out to one side, extradimensionally, I poked open a portal to the micro-wormhole I'd constructed over the course of the previous hour, took Picard by the shoulder, and slid us both through. The journey to the world I had chosen took less than a picosecond, during which time I had merely to hold Picard's component molecules together to keep them from flying apart at the speed of light, and then we were there.

"Thank you for accepting my invitation, Captain," I said, holding out my hand. "Welcome aboard my vessel… so to speak."

Picard had been somewhat startled at the speed of my response to his call, I realized, and having arrived he had immediately clamped down on his natural reaction to look around at where he had ended up. But there wouldn't have been much for him to see – not yet, in any event. I gathered that he sensed he had come a long way, but I knew he would be in for something of a shock when he discovered exactly how long. "I am glad for the opportunity to continue our dialogue," Picard replied, shaking my hand firmly. He was sincere, I could tell. We seemed to be off to a good start.

"It's been a while since I had to assume the role of a host," I said as I gestured Picard to a table and chairs I had set up by a darkened window. "I've prepared a cup of Earl Grey tea for you… looking forward to trying it myself."

Picard raised an eyebrow. "Surely, you are aware of what tea tastes like?" he asked. Inwardly, he flinched at his own remark, sensing that it had not been a very professional thing to say; I, on the other hand, appreciated it as a sign that Picard was relaxing around me, at least to some extent.

"Oh, I could determine the taste by doing a few simple chemical equations, but our mutual friend Mr. Data suggested that some things simply need to be experienced," I said. "The humanoid body I have constructed for myself has taste buds and smell receptors, just as any human does, and they will react similarly to flavors and aromas. I've decided not to peek ahead at the answers, so to speak, but simply to enjoy the tea."

Picard sat down, and took a sip from his cup. "Perfect," he declared.

"Naturally," I replied, and took a sip myself. The subtlety of the blended flavors caused an interesting sensation on my tongue – nothing startling or overwhelming, to be sure, but there was a definite aesthetic to the drink. "Very good," I said. "I'll have to give the Earl my compliments someday." I sensed Picard's mood drop instantly, and hastened to add, "That was meant as a humorous remark, Captain. Rest assured I have no intention of meddling in your history."

"Forgive me," Picard implored. "So, Mr. Quentin… if you don't mind going straight to the matter at hand, perhaps you could explain your intentions to me regarding my ship and crew. To begin with, how long had you planned on staying with us?"

"I hadn't decided," I admitted. "It rather depends on how interesting I find my study of humanity to be." I paused a moment, then added, "And, of course, upon your own decision of how long to offer me hospitality."

Picard sipped at his tea again, and sat back slightly. "Mr. Quentin, I find myself in a somewhat difficult position, as I'm sure you're aware. On the one hand, it is the primary mission of Starfleet to explore and learn about new life forms, and it is no exaggeration that the Q are among the more intriguing forms of life we have ever encountered… perhaps even the most so. However, I also have a responsibility toward my ship, my crew, and indeed to all of humanity. You are, of course, familiar with our non-interference directive?"

"Surely, you don't mean to insinuate that humanity poses some threat to the Q?" I asked. "Captain, I am trying not to display arrogance, but you must realize that such an idea is preposterous."

"Perhaps not as much as you might think," Picard said, "but in any event, that was not my concern. The purpose of the Prime Directive is to protect the cultures we encounter from contamination by our own. Such contamination tends to be more dangerous when those we encounter are, by most measurements, far below our own in matters of technology and awareness of the nature of the universe."

"You're concerned about the possibility of humanity being contaminated by the Q," I said.

"I am. It is not an unfounded concern, I think you will agree."

"Picard, it's not like humans will be able to attain Q-like powers simply by spending time with me," I said. "It would be rather like… a caveman learning how to construct a warp engine after having had a few drinks in Ten-Forward. The Q are eons advanced from humanity in almost every way. I don't mean to sound insulting; this is simply a fact."

"There are other forms of contamination besides technological," Picard said. "For instance, suppose the Enterprise were attacked by some alien threat while you were on board. Would you then come to our aid? If so, then how might that affect my crew's ability to rely upon their own skills and abilities in the next such encounter – and if not, then what might they come to think of having a guest aboard our ship who was fully capable of preventing death and destruction with only the most infinitesimal effort, and yet chose not to do so?"

"An interesting conundrum," I agreed. "What does your own code of ethics tell you? Pretend for a moment that you are not bound by the Prime Directive, but are simply a human being making a judgment call. What would you have me do?"

Picard thought silently for a moment. "On many occasions, I have faced this same dilemma," he said. "The Prime Directive is an attempt to simplify what is truly a very complex matter; an all-purpose solution to a problem which is unique in every manifestation. Even with this principle of non-interference in place, in the end, it always comes down to making the very difficult choice of which path to follow. And I ask you, Mr. Quentin, if you have in any way prepared yourself to make these choices."

"It seems to me," I said, "that what you're looking for is perhaps some form of assurance that I will follow the same sort of non-interference directive that you apply to other races. You want me to make it clear that I will stay out of your way."

"That may be the wisest course of action," Picard agreed.

"I'm willing to give it a try," I smiled. "That's all I can promise, is it not?"

"Excellent," Picard said, sipping his tea once more and smiling in return. Then, oddly, he paused and lowered the cup.

"Captain?" I prompted.

Picard was silent for a moment, his momentary good humor seemingly gone. "Mr. Quentin," he said, "it is a tendency for humans to anthropomorphize; to see our own characteristics in other beings, or even non-living objects."

"It has survival value," I pointed out. "Most successful species do the same."

"I am well aware of it," Picard said, "and as such I find myself wondering why I have allowed myself to fall into the illusion that I am speaking with you on a level. You are Q, after all. Surely, you must have realized in advance that we would come to exactly the conclusion we just have, up to and including the words we are exchanging at this moment, and what will follow."

I shook my head. "Captain, this is one of many things that humans do not understand about the Q. I take it that you have heard the logical argument that it is impossible to be both omniscient and omnipotent?"

Picard nodded. "Yes, of course."

"Please, indulge me for a moment. Describe it to me as you understand it."

"If a being is omniscient," Picard said, "then it must logically know all of what is yet to come, including its own decisions. However, if it knows this in advance, that precludes any possibility of the being changing its own mind, thereby rendering it essentially powerless. If the being can change its mind, it follows that it cannot have known the future, and is therefore not omniscient."

"Exactly," I said. "Captain, I can make myself aware of the future to a certain extent, but NO being, not even the Q, can be truly all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful. We have perceptive powers that humans lack, but they are not infinite. A being from a species that is blind might consider you to have extraordinary power in the way you can sense different waves of electromagnetic radiation, but that hardly makes you all-seeing. You only seem so by comparison."

"Surely, though," Picard said, "you are capable of knowing how our meeting here will conclude."

"But I don't know," I insisted. "I don't know because I don't know what my own reactions will be from moment to moment. I also do not know what yours will be, not on this occasion. You see, Captain, the power of the Q is limited, just as all things are. Humans see it as unlimited only because they don't understand it. For instance, we can use our ability to sense and manipulate the passage of time to consider all possible outcomes of a given situation, making us seem omniscient. We can 'read the minds' of other beings, but only if they work considerably slower than our own; otherwise, there is insufficient time to see what is going on beneath the surface. Do you understand?"

Picard shook his head. "Be that as it may, you must be able to –" and once again, he stopped short. "Mr. Quentin, how long have we been sitting in this room together?"

"As you measure time, Captain… approximately eleven nanoseconds."

Even though it was an answer he had all-but expected to hear, the truth of the matter seemed to leave Picard shaken. "You have been… speeding up my perception of time," he said. "In order for us to meet more as equals, you have allowed me to proceed through time at the same rate as the Q."

"About half the rate," I said. "I'm not trying to maintain an advantage… it's simply beyond my power to accelerate your mind any further."

"Why have you done this?" Picard asked.

"Because I wanted to see if I could," I replied. "No, don't misunderstand – I wasn't experimenting on you. I was experimenting on myself. I wanted to see if I could relate to you as an equal, just for a moment, and resist the temptation to use my power to my own advantage. I couldn't slow down my own thought processes any more than you can; our power over our own minds is one of the more stringent limits faced by the Q. The only thing I could do was to speed up your mind, making it all-but impossible for me to perceive what you might say or do next. Captain, I wanted only to meet you on a level as close to equal as I possibly could. I do hope you understand."

Picard's eyes dropped downward as a memory surfaced in his mind. "When you brought me here, I felt a… a motion, as if we were traveling very quickly," he said. "Presumably, this is a sensation which I have missed on previous occasions when I have been transported by the Q, because my perceptions were too slow?"


Picard closed his eyes, recalling the thoroughly alien sensation, to him, of bodily transporting through the cosmos at well beyond the fastest speed of which his vessel was capable. "We travelled a great distance… we are nowhere near the Enterprise. Mr. Quentin, where is this place?"

In response, I removed the opacity from the large, curving window and allowed the light from outside to spill into the room where we sat. Picard's eyes widened at the sight of the full galactic spiral, covering nearly half the sky, swirling in space before him. "Astounding," he whispered, unable to contain his wonder.

"We are on the surface of an airless planet," I explained, "located some thirty thousand light years outside the galactic plane. It so happens that this world lies precisely on the Z-axis of the core. You are an explorer of the Galaxy, Captain Picard… I thought you might appreciate an outside view of what you've been exploring all this time."

Picard seemed transfixed with awe, and as I observed the magnificent scene beyond the window, I found that I began to see it in a strangely different way, as if it were as new to me as to him. I even felt a chill run along my spine, and relished in the sensation. How extraordinary it was to share in such an experience, to see the universe anew through another's eyes! Somehow, I had to convince Picard to allow me to join him and his crew.

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years," he whispered softly, "how men would believe and adore…"

"…And preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of God," I concluded. "Ralph Waldo Emerson, I believe." I paused for a moment, and then forged ahead. "Picard, there is grandeur in the universe that may humble even the Q, though some of us are loath to admit it. We have come to think of ourselves as so powerful, so omnipotent, that we lose sight of the fact that we are still nothing when compared to the Cosmos itself. What is the power of the Q compared to the fire of a trillion suns? And this is but one of countless galaxies, in one of countless universes. Captain, the Q may be far advanced from humanity, but in truth, we are far more alike than unlike. We both look up at the stars, and we find them nothing less than awesome."

With what seemed like a wrenching effort, Picard tore his gaze from the window and turned so that his back faced the dazzling sight beyond. "Mr. Quentin," he said, his voice steady but slightly hoarse, "I should like to return to my vessel, if you please."

"Certainly, Captain," I said, closing the window once more. It took all my self-control not to look into Picard's mind; I knew he felt disturbed and even more overwhelmed than he had claimed to be, but I had already learned enough about humans to know that my "help" with the situation was not wanted. "You will be returned to your ship less than a microsecond after you left; even Mr. Data will not perceive that we were gone at all."

"Thank you, Mr. Quentin," Picard replied. He still seemed dazed. For a moment I almost succumbed to the temptation to offer him some of my own mental strength, but I resisted; whatever he was going through, I knew that if I interfered it would mean the end of any chance I had to reach him on a level.

With a nearly effortless mental gesture, I returned Picard to the Enterprise.

"For every gain there is a loss, though the reverse is not true. And so the question arises of how we can consider Evolution exclusively as a method to greater advancement and complexity. As time proceeds forward, the evolution of life results in what we would consider to be higher forms; but all evolution truly implies is change, whether that change be in a direction we might consider forward or backward. The idea that something may 'de-evolve' is no more valid than to say that it may 'unchange'. To de-evolve is to evolve. Therefore, as the Q evolve – and we are not above and beyond the forces of Evolution! – we can expect to lose as well as gain. What qualities have we lost, and should we wish to have them back?"

Q had been getting a lot of flack in the continuum over the new directions his philosophy was heading, but I found it rather intriguing – particularly in the light of what I was learning from these humans. I wondered if perhaps he had also drawn inspiration from them. And while I found some of his new ideas frankly disturbing (for instance, his morbid fascination with death and mortality), I could see his point when it came to the losses the Q had suffered over time, in spite of all we had gained. The particular loss I now lamented was the quality of patience.

It's difficult, after all, to accept the idea of being kept waiting when one can perceive each passing instant as a universe in and of itself.

Of course, his real essay on the nature of evolution was far more detailed and intricate, but I made the effort to translate it into human terms; partly to try and gain a little more insight into the way they thought, but mostly to simply pass the time. Translating the multi-dimensional and enormously complex "language" of the Q into the linear and simple language of the humans is, in truth, an essentially impossible task; something like taking a photograph of a distant galaxy and expecting that to express the billion-body problem of its internal gravitational interactions.

I reflected on how, having seized control of our own evolution, it might have benefited the Q if we could have counted the tendency toward boredom as one of our losses.

Enough was enough. I flitted back into the physical universe and had a look in Picard's ready-room window. I didn't want to cause another scene, so I kept my presence hidden from their sensors and from the minds of the telepaths, including Guinan. Doing so came at the expense of limiting my own senses somewhat, to the point that I could not easily read Picard's thoughts, but it was better than nothing. In any event, I wanted to see if I could put a little of what I'd learned with Troi to the test, and find some measure of understanding based only on what the humans could see in each other.

What I saw on Picard's face as he stared out the window at Warp Space was something he probably took great effort to hide from those under his command. It was, so far as I could tell, the look of indecision.

I had to suppress my initial excited reaction, lest I reveal myself. My methods were working! Picard was no longer entirely opposed to the idea of a working relationship with me; he had definitely commenced to consider the matter seriously.

A new presence caught my attention beyond his door, on the bridge. Riker stood there, his hand above the chime, and his face was similarly darkened by indecision. However, standing as he did in full view of those under his command, he hadn't the luxury of indulging it for more than a few seconds. He touched the chime.

"Come!" Picard said, instantly re-forming his face to hide his doubts.

Riker entered the room. "Captain, might I have a moment of your time?" he asked.

Picard raised an eyebrow; even I caught that the tone in Riker's voice was not that of a subordinate to a superior officer, but that of a concerned friend. Indeed, though his words were submissive and polite, his tone bordered on the paternal.

"By all means, Number One," Picard said, gesturing Riker to have a seat opposite the desk. I caught Picard's mild surprise, and his subtle assumption of authority.

Riker seemed to catch it as well, and he resisted it. "Captain… I'd like to ask something of you which I never have before. For just a moment, I'd like to speak with you not as your first officer, but as one friend to another. I know I'm being presumptuous, but if you'll indulge me for a moment, you will understand why."

Picard blinked once, his only change of expression. Then he stood and walked to the replicator. "Tea, Earl Gray, hot. Two cups." The drinks appeared in a shimmer of transporter energy, and he brought one back to Riker, sitting on the sofa with the other. "Well then, William," he said, the barest hint of a smile tugging at his cheeks, "what is it that concerns you so?"

"Q," Riker said.

"Unsurprising," Picard replied. "I am also very much concerned with him. The prospect of studying alien cultures is, in fact, my primary concern."

"This isn't just any other alien culture," Riker insisted. "This is the Q. He can call himself Quentin or whatever else he likes, but he is Q. Captain – Jean Luc – we both know that we're fundamentally incapable of preventing him from doing whatever he wants to do. But to actually invite him to accompany us as if he's just another diplomat or ambassador… if you're even considering it, then you can't have realized the danger he represents."

"One of my favorite authors once observed that one should not hide from danger," Picard said evenly. "Rather, one learns to handle it safely."

"There is no safe way to handle the Q! There's no way to 'handle' them at all!"

"I admit that it's a daunting prospect –"

"Try terrifying!" Riker stood up, his hand knocking his otherwise untouched teacup over Picard's desk. He didn't seem to notice. He paced once across the floor, looking as agitated as the man probably ever allowed himself to get, then turned around and looked Picard in the eyes. "Do you remember what Q did to me?" he asked in a voice much quieter than his manner would have matched.

"Q has done a great many things to all of us," Picard said. His tone was measured, but I could see the real concern in his eyes over his first officer's unprecedented behavior.

"I'm not talking about flinging the Enterprise halfway across the galaxy to face the Borg, or the way he put us all on trial for the crimes of humanity. I'm talking about what he did to me."

"He gave you their power," Picard acknowledged.

"Enough to know that it was just a small hint of the real power the Q enjoy," Riker replied. "Enough to gain just a little insight into what that kind of power can do. Enough to know that we're not ready to face it, any more than this ship would be prepared to fly through a supernova."

"Whether we're ready to face them or not, the Q exist," Picard said. "Hiding our heads in the sand and refusing to see them doesn't make them go away."

"You can't imagine what it's like," Riker said in a whisper.


Riker started slightly, and I realized he hadn't intended to say the last part out loud. "Q gave me that power in order to tempt me," Riker said. "It was the ultimate temptation, really. Imagine the genie who grants you three wishes. Anything you want, anything you can conceive of… it's yours. Tell me that any human being who's ever existed wouldn't crave that kind of power. Even the most altruistic person would want it, to help others if not himself. Now, imagine that you ARE the genie, and you get as many wishes as you want. That gives some idea of what the Q offered me, and it's still nothing compared to what they can do for themselves. The genie can grant any wish you name, but the Q can grant the wishes you didn't even know you had – the ones you don't even dare to acknowledge. This isn't an abstraction, or some kind of mental exercise. This is REAL."

"I'm afraid I don't see –"

"I want it back," Riker said.

Picard fell silent, stopping mid-word with his mouth hanging open.

"Ever since I gave it up," Riker said. "I've never had one full day's peace. For just a moment, I had the power of the greatest of humanity's gods. I turned it down, because I knew I would lose myself in it. But I can't forget what it felt like, and not a day, not a single hour has gone by since that I haven't wondered about the life I lost. I have to live with that. No one else ever should."

Picard stayed quiet for some time before he spoke again. "Mr. Quentin is not offering us power," he said.

"He's not Quentin, he's Q. Giving him a human name makes him seem less dangerous, and that danger is not something we can afford to lose sight of."

"He's offering only an exchange of knowledge," Picard continued. "That's why we're out here, William. I sympathize with you, I truly do, but a certain degree of risk is inherent in any exploration. We have to be willing to take that risk, or we stagnate in fear."

"I saw the look on your face after your recent discussion with Q," Riker said. "What did he show you?"

"He showed me the galaxy," Picard replied smoothly, though it clearly took him an effort to do so. "All of it at once, from above the galactic plane. I won't deny that it was an inspiring sight, but my emotional state remains intact."

"That's only the tiniest glimpse of what may be in store," Riker said. "Think of that moment when you were struck by what you were seeing, the sheer awe and majesty of it all. Now imagine that moment going on, and on, and on, overwhelming and overpowering… until you get dumped back into the real world of limitations and hard knocks. By comparison to what you've been through, you're blind, deaf, and lobotomized. Would you wish that on all of humanity? That's what we're facing if we invite the Q to have their way with us. There is no other way for them. There's no such thing as a diplomatic relationship with the Q. They hold all the cards and they have all the power. The best we can offer may be token resistance, but we'd better damn well offer it. Don't let him tempt you, Jean Luc. Don't cooperate with him. If you decide to let him on board, it may be the last decision you ever make of your own free will."

Picard contemplated silently, for a moment, then stood up. "Will, I'm relieving you of duty for the next twenty-four hours."

"Captain, I'm fully capable –"

"This is not a decision I'm making as your Captain. I'm making it as your friend. Believe me when I say that I will seriously consider your words and they will weigh heavily on my decision, but the decision is still mine to make. Given the circumstances, you will need to decide whether you can remain on the Enterprise should I offer an invitation to the Q. I know that your sense of duty would require you to stay and carry out the mission at any personal cost to yourself… but in this case, I will not demand it of you. I'm relieving you of duty so that you can consider your options without distraction."

Riker composed himself quickly, his eyes calmed, and his body straightened to a more formal posture. "I stand relieved," he said.

"Very good. I shall see you back on the bridge tomorrow at this time. And… thank you for your concern."

Riker turned to leave, but paused at the door. "You realize, sir, that Q has heard every word of this conversation, and any other we might choose to have. He'll take every advantage he can to convince you of his sincerity, and we'll never know his true motives until it's too late."

"You are dismissed, Number One," Picard said.

Riker walked out without another word. The door swished shut behind him.

"Mr. Quentin," Picard said to empty air, "I believe it's your turn."

I stepped through the window and materialized in Picard's ready room. "He's not entirely mistaken," I said. "There certainly is a degree of risk in playing host to a Q. I won't deny that."

"Tell me," Picard said, "If you were in my position, what would you do?"

"I'm not honestly sure I could see it from your position," I said. "That's one of the things I'd like to learn how to do. I can certainly pretend to be in your place, even construct a reality in which I AM in your place, but to actually derive any useful conclusions from that would require me to have knowledge that would make the entire exercise unnecessary in the first place."

"Then, the Q do have their limits."

"As I keep trying to tell you, Picard. We may seem omnipotent to you, but it's only by comparison." I thought of the philosophical arguments from Q that I'd read earlier, and added, "We've even lost some of the power we once had. To advance as far as we have, one must make corresponding sacrifices."

"Mr. Riker raised an interesting point," Picard said. "You're clearly fully capable of observing us without our knowledge. Why, then, do you insist upon interaction? It would seem to me that if you wished to learn about humanity, the most logical approach would be to begin with observation alone."

"I take it that you're familiar with the Uncertainty Principle?" I asked.

"Of course. It states that the act of measuring something, such as an elementary particle, will inevitably affect it – thus rendering it impossible to obtain a wholly accurate measurement of a particle in every property."

"And, if this were entirely true, many systems on this ship would be impossible; your transporters, for instance. They are designed to compensate for this. How is this done?"

Picard knew that I knew perfectly well how it was done, but he was smart enough to realize I was making a point – though not quite quick enough to arrive at it just yet, so he answered me. "It is possible to split any given particle into separate dimensional states, such that the properties of that particle may be measured independently of each other. These measurements are then combined to result in a wholly accurate model of the original particle."

"But you don't do that with every particle that goes through the beam, do you?"

"No, that would require computational power many orders of magnitude above the theoretical limits known to our science. Instead, we use that data to determine exactly how a given particle is affected by our measurements, and extrapolate that to compensate for our measurements on all similar particles."

I saw the light beginning to dawn on him, and decided to help him the rest of the way. "Exactly. You are able to make the necessary interactive measurements and, knowing their effects, you end up with sufficient data to break down a human being into its component quanta and reassemble them elsewhere; something you could simply never do through passive observation alone. Similarly, my interactions with you have a profound effect on exactly that which I am trying to observe – but as time goes on, I can learn to allow for and compensate for those effects."

"We are not talking about spinning particles anymore, however," Picard said. "These 'effects' which you so calmly speak of may be detrimental in the extreme to my ship, my crew, or even all of humanity. I'm sure Riker can attest to that much."

"He also got it wrong when he implied that all the Q are essentially alike," I said. "We are as diverse as any conscious and sentient species. I am not the same Q with whom you've dealt in the past. My methods are not his. I would like to think that I've demonstrated that by now."

"Indeed. But whatever methods you employ, they may be equally destructive in the long run."

"And what would you have me do, Captain?" I asked. I felt a very human frustration coming over me, but I didn't care to suppress it. "When you make first contact with a newly discovered species, you do so knowing that you're going to affect them in some way, do you not? And you have no way of knowing whether they will be better or worse off for having met you. Your historical relations with the Klingons, for instance, indicates that both races would probably have been fundamentally better off if you'd never made contact at all. Or, maybe you wouldn't be, but try making that argument to any human who's lost loved ones fighting them in war. Of course, if I were speaking to the Klingons, I'd probably ask how they'd feel about their families and children who weren't killed in battle, but that's beside the point.

"Yes, my presence on your ship will affect you. And some of those effects may be very negative ones, but I can at least promise you that no one will be killed or maimed on my account. Can you make the same promise when you study other life forms, Captain?"

"No," said Picard smoothly, and I realized he had anticipated the question – or at least, that he had already given it some thought. "However, there is one promise which Starfleet does make upon any First Contact mission, and the keeping of that promise is strongly enforced. If we are asked to make no further contact with a world, we will respect that, and make no further contact. Mr. Quentin, if I were to ask you to leave and never impose yourself on humanity ever again, would you honor that request? And can you speak for your fellow Q in that regard?"

"No Q would presume to make such a promise for another," I said. "We have our rules, our codes of conduct – you may find that difficult to believe, but imagine for a moment what the galaxy would be like if all the Q simply ran amuck doing whatever suited them, and I think you'll see that we do indeed practice restraint. However, for me to simply decide that no Q should ever interact with humanity again… It is not the way our society functions. It would be considered an act of grotesque arrogance on my part."

"As I recall, the Q with whom we are more familiar once made such a promise."

"Quod erat demonstrandum, Picard."

For the first time since I had met him, Picard smiled genuinely, almost chuckled; my comment had caught him off-guard. He recomposed himself quickly, but in that moment I felt something remarkable – I had made a genuine connection with the man, on level ground. For the first time, if only for a brief second, he had thought of me not as a Q, but as a person – even as an equal. And even more astoundingly, I realized that I had done something similar; I had, for that same brief second, thought of him as a fellow Q. It was extraordinary!

"Picard," I said, sitting down on the chair in front of his desk, "I can't promise anything when it comes to the Continuum. Perhaps the best way to think of our society would be to compare it to galactic society as a whole. The Federation may make a promise to a world that they won't interfere, but that promise is not binding on the Klingons. If Romulus and Cardassia go to war, Starfleet would stay out of it, even though they could probably shorten the war and alleviate much suffering and death by entering onto a given side. Even within the Federation itself, worlds are essentially autonomous. The Vulcan High Council doesn't get to decide economic policy on Earth. Andor and Tellar have trade agreements which the Edoans don't have a say in.

"But that doesn't mean that each world or culture can do ANYTHING they want. If the Bajorans produced a superweapon which could detonate stars and they began firing it off into the suns of inhabited systems, I would expect that the many worlds of the Federation, and probably many others as well, would join together and put a stop to it.

"The society of the Q works similarly. In a way, we can each do essentially whatever we want to. If I decided that I wanted to seed some new life-forms on a planet and direct their evolution into a sentient species, then no one in the Continuum would stop me. If I chose to create a stable wormhole between Earth and Q'onos, just to see how that would affect your two societies, I would again be left to my own devices – and don't worry, I have no intention of doing it. But, if I decided to set off a massive chain-reaction of supernovae at the heart of an inhabited Galaxy, my fellow Q would put a stop to it. Our society doesn't exactly have a law against that kind of behavior, but… well, it just goes so far against what's in the best interests for everyone, we simply wouldn't allow it."

Picard had been listening intently to my little speech, and waited a moment before speaking himself. "And what of someone like Q?" he said, and I knew he meant the one who had first made contact with his ship.

"Q is… well, he's considered rather rebellious," I said. "Frankly, I don't understand him very well myself. We've had to enforce a little restraint on him in the past, as you know."

"I've often wondered how it is that he was permitted to interfere with humanity again, after he had made his promise not to. I was under the impression at the time that the Q Continuum intended to take him to task on the matter."

"We did! Picard, I'm afraid you've been under a mistaken assumption. The Continuum never had any intention of enforcing his promise to you. The content of his promise wasn't really that important to us, nor did we particularly care that he never intended to keep it. No, what concerned us was the fact that he was presumptuous enough to say anything on behalf of the whole continuum. For him to do so would be like… say, one of your crew deciding it was his prerogative to reprogram all the holodecks so that they would simulate only late 20th-century discotheques. It was…" I searched a moment for the right word.

"Rude?" Picard suggested.

"Precisely," I agreed. "He was rude to the rest of the Continuum, and we… slapped him on the wrist. We took away his powers – that's not easy, by the way – and we made him mortal. We probably wouldn't have actually let him die, but…" I stopped suddenly, and looked sideways at Picard.

"Yes?" he questioned.

"Picard," I said, allowing my voice to harden just slightly, "there is only so much insight I'm willing to offer you into the Q Continuum without a promise of something in return. If you want to learn about us, our society, how we function and remain stable, then I'm willing to educate you. But that knowledge comes at a price."

"You cannot expect me to make a decision without –"

I cut him off. "You cannot expect me to remain patient much longer, Captain. I really don't need to wait for you to make up your mind, you know. I chose you and your vessel because I imagined your familiarity with the Q would be an asset to me, but in the end you need me a lot more than I need you. There are over ten billion human beings in this Galaxy, many of whom would eagerly jump at what I have to offer. Factor this into your decision making: I will get what I want, no matter what you do about it. You want me to leave you alone and never return? You have twenty-four hours before I do precisely that. Good day to you, Captain."

I flashed out and left him alone with whatever thoughts he had. For the moment, I didn't care enough to read them.

I spent the next few hours sitting about as far away from Picard and his ship as I could get while still keeping tabs on precisely where they were, so I could return easily when necessary. Twelve billion years in the past, on the edge of a very young universe, I bathed in the light of a proto-quasar and did my best to calm down.

The thing that made me the most upset was that Picard had been playing me like his tin flute, and I fell for it. He had gotten me talking with the idea in mind of allowing my ego to keep the conversation going, essentially encouraging me to talk about myself while he listened and soaked up information like a sponge. It wasn't that I'd revealed anything that I wouldn't want him to know about, but I didn't like that he felt like he could get the upper hand with me in any given situation.

I liked even less the fact that he had, for a moment, succeeded in doing exactly that.

Of course, I certainly could go find someone else. There was nothing holding me to Picard or the Enterprise; I could pick any human being at random and odds were he'd be a lot easier to persuade than Picard had proven to be. So, why didn't I?

"Because then he wins," Q said.

"I thought you were going away," I said.

"Oh, do I keep my promises now? Someone forgot to inform me on that one." Q stretched out next to me and let the hard radiation from the quasar burn through him. "You want to know what 'grotesque arrogance' really is? It's that feeling you get when you think you're so much better than anyone else, you can be in total control over every situation without even trying."

"The human phrase 'bugger off' comes irresistibly to mind at this moment."

"You want to level with these humans? You're incapable of it," Q said with a sneer. "Face it, Quentin - you'll never really be able to act as though you don't have all the power, and that's why they'll zing you again and again by showing you that you actually don't. Oh sure, you could -poof- their little starship into a whiff of elementary particles with a single thought, but that really just makes it worse when they one-up you in a game of verbal volleyball, doesn't it?"

I said nothing. I didn't see the point.

"And now you've gone and given Picard an ultimatum, reminding him that you DO have the power in the situation… except that you just handed it all right back to him. You've left your fate in his puny little hands. If he tells you to leave, you certainly don't have to actually do it, but you're never really going to get what you want from him. But, if by some miracle he says you can stay, then you're there only so long as he suffers your presence, and as soon as he decides you've overstayed your welcome… you're right back at square one, begging him to give you a chance."

"I don't beg," I growled.

"You've been begging ever since you first started this whole debacle," Q countered. "You practically crawled on your hands and knees up to the Enterprise, and did they thank you for it? Did they offer you anything close to the respect you deserve? Hardly. They emasculated you. They made you crawl around even more than you were doing on your own, and they accused you of displaying every kind of ill behavior that their own species wallows in even at their best. They've lectured you like an ignorant child because you've been acting like one, and now you're threatening to take your ball away and go home. Are you going to tell your mommy on them, while you're at it?"

"Shut up."

"Make me."

"In case you'd forgotten, I stood up for you when you needed it," I said, turning to face him directly. "Q was ready to let you die, and a lot of others were willing to go along with him. I was the one who pointed out that you were acting selflessly. I was the one who insisted that you had learned a little humility. I saved your life, Q!"

"And do you really think I'd be wasting my time with you now if it had been someone else?" Q responded. "I'm trying to help you, you idiot, and if you stop and think you'll realize that every misstep you've made could have been avoided if you'd just listened to me for one lousy minute. I tried to warn you that they would despise you, no matter what you did. I tried to tell you that this 'level-with-them' approach had about as much chance of working as a tribble in Klingon brothel. And do you want to know why it'll never work? Because it's pure hypocrisy and they know it. They know that you can do whatever the hell you want and they can't stop you. They talk about putting up token resistance, but the fact of the matter is, they don't even have that option. You have the power to prevent them from even thinking about resisting you, and it's not even that difficult for you. My approach may have been arrogant, heavy-handed, and rude, but at least it was honest. And they'll always have more respect for an honest ass than they will for a polite hypocrite. I've been trying to tell you that from moment one. Have I gotten it through your neutronium-plated skull yet, or are you planning to go back for more punishment?"

I stared blankly into the heart of the quasar. "They'll never come around, will they?" I asked, more to the Universe as a whole than to Q.

"Not as long as you hold all the power," Q said. "Not as long as everything you offer them is a concession, and every little victory they have is one where you let them win. And that's all you can ever offer them, because you are Q. You're a god, and gods don't get to be chums with the mortals."

I thought for a long time – or no time at all, it was the same either way. And I came to a decision.

"Q," I said, "I need to ask you a favor."

Picard entered his quarters from the corridor, and found me standing there. He looked at me and frowned, then looked to my immediate left, and frowned even more. I had expected both reactions. I was standing in the middle of his cabin and wearing one of their uniforms to boot; and as for the person standing next to me –

"Jean-Luc! Jolly good to see you again, really absolutely corking," Q said, grinning like a child in a candy store.

"Give it a rest, Q," I said. "Captain, I know that the twenty-four hours I gave you have not yet elapsed, but I've decided to impose upon you one last time. I have a new proposition for you."

"What is he doing here?" Picard asked, indicating me with a nod of his head.

"Come now, Jean-Luc. I've been here the whole time. Once Q here told me what he was planning, you don't really think I'd miss a grand fiasco like that, do you?" He produced a red-and-white striped paper bag from nowhere in particular and offered it to Picard. "Popcorn?"

"He's here to help me," I said.

"You really were doing better without him."

"No, I wasn't," I insisted. "Captain, let's not go through the motions just for the sake of doing it. You're not going to give me permission to stay on your vessel. You know it and I know it. It's too dangerous for your ship and your crew, and they are your first responsibility."

Picard sat down in a low chair, looking at me with a slightly renewed sign of curiosity. "Agreed," he said.

"I have one last offer to make you," I said, sitting down as well. "Take it or leave it. If you decline, I will leave, and never return. I can't make that promise for the rest of the Continuum, but I can make it for myself. And for what it's worth, I do intend to keep it."

Picard's eyes betrayed a brief moment of thought, but that was all. "And what is it that you propose?" he asked.

I held out my hand, and within it, there appeared a key and a lock made of weathered brass. "Interesting choice," I said to Q.

He shrugged. "The form chose itself."

"And this is?" Picard asked.

"This lock holds the power of the Q," I said. "Specifically, it holds the power of one particular Q – me. Turn the key, and it essentially amputates that power from this physical body in which I have housed my consciousness, leaving me a mortal, corporeal being, like yourself. It will also implant a set of false memories which I've already prepared. To put it succinctly, I will become human."

Picard sat up slightly straighter, looking both startled and wary. "You would surrender your power completely?" he asked.

"Not quite completely," I said. "There are two caveats."

"And they are?"

"The lock will open after five years, at which point my powers are restored to me. That will be the length of my life as a human." I placed the lock on the table by Picard's chair.

Picard stared at it for a moment, then looked up at me. "Am I to understand," he said slowly, "that you are entrusting this to me?"

"All you have to do is turn the key to the left," I said. "At that moment, I become Ensign Steve Quentin, recently assigned to the Enterprise. You'll find all my records in the ship's computer. The log will be altered to show that I've just arrived on board via shuttlecraft. I've assigned myself to the Sciences department."

Picard glanced at Q. "And what is your role in this?" he asked.

"Mmph – I made the lock," he said around a mouthful of popcorn. "I'm sure our friend Steve here told you that the Q are limited in our power over our own minds. He needed me to shackle him, so to speak."

"This is not the sort of thing which the rest of the Continuum would condone," I said. "I needed someone who wouldn't be bothered by that. Besides, Q owed me one."

"I must admit, I never imagined you'd want me to repay you with a mortal curse," he said. "Well, I've done my part. Go ahead and have fun, you crazy kids." Q vanished in a sparkle of light.

Picard put his hand out to the lock, but looked afraid to touch it. "What happens if you are killed while in human form?" he asked.

"I'll die," I said. "That's the part that the Continuum would be less than happy about. I must admit, I'm not too thrilled about it either, but this was an all-or-nothing deal. Anything less than the full experience would be… less than the full experience. But therein lies the second caveat. Frankly, the prospect of rendering myself completely vulnerable to death is one I'm not quite prepared to face. So, if I should find myself irradiated by Delta waves, or assimilated by the Borg, or facing any of a thousand different unpleasant and unavoidable lethal scenarios… well, I've left myself an escape route."

Picard looked at me again. "I'll remember who and what you are," he said.

"Correct," I replied. "You're the keeper of the key, Picard. You alone will know that Ensign Steve Quentin is Q. And you can choose to unlock my power at any time. The lock will appear in your hand through a mere effort of will on your part. Turn the key to the right, and I become Q once more."

After a moment's pause, Picard said, "Why?"

"You know, it took me a while to figure that out myself," I said. Then, I gestured at the window. "Come over here… I want to show you something."

Picard stood up and joined me. I looked out at the startrails streaking past the ship, and he looked at me, as if he couldn't quite understand what he saw.

"We're standing inches away from death," I said. "Or, at least, you are. This is what you humans do; you hurl yourselves out into the void, facing unknown dangers and possibilities, risking your lives not just by what you do but by being here in the first place. And because you do this, you find untold rewards.

"The Q face no such risks, Picard. We are immortal, great and powerful. We've stopped seeking reward because we know we won't find any rewards greater than those which we can make for ourselves. We are stagnating. We are dying. We've gained the power of gods, but we have lost the will of men. We have nothing left to live for, Picard.

"For just one moment, in my entire existence, I want to live. I want to live with the exhilaration of facing the unknown future, the thrill of risk and adventure, and even the fear of death. Because if I don't do those things, I may as well be dead."

Picard looked out the window with me for a long moment. I stayed out of his mind completely; the responsibility I was asking him to take on had to be his choice alone. I felt my human heart quicken with the thrill of fear and anticipation, and I let it go on its own. I wanted this, but I feared it all the same; not just the consequences which might befall me as a human, but those which I would face if Picard said no.

He raised the lock in his hand, and took the key with the other. "You are sure?" he asked.

I took a deep breath. "I am," I said.

Captain Picard offered me his hand. "Welcome aboard the Enterprise, Ensign Quentin."

"Thank you, Captain," I replied. A strange expression crossed his face, and he seemed to be looking for something that existed just behind my own eyes. "Sir? Is there something wrong?"

"No, not at all, Ensign," he said, regaining his composure. "Please report to Commander Data at 0800 tomorrow morning for duty assignment. Dismissed."

I nodded my head, and turned to leave.

"I'm sorry, Ensign – one more thing, if I may."

"Yes, sir?" I asked.

The Captain looked me up and down, and I felt slightly unnerved. It was as if he didn't really expect to see someone where I was standing, like my very presence gave him a moment's pause. "I… would like to give you a piece of personal advice, if I may," he said.

"Of course, sir," I replied.

"It is simply this: Life is no more or less than what you make of it. I would implore you to live your life to the very fullest during your time aboard the Enterprise. As we explore space, we explore ourselves. I shall look forward to learning what rewards you may find."

I blinked, a bit confused. For some reason, an unbidden image came into my mind – a vision of Picard and myself, standing by a window and looking out into space, seeing not merely a scattering of stars but the great spiral arms of an entire galaxy… and I felt a sense of wonder which I had never truly felt before. "Thank you, Captain," I said, and it somehow felt like I was thanking him for a great deal more than his words.

The Captain smiled at me. "Mr. Quentin… it is my sincere hope and belief that you will enjoy the tea."



This story came out of a thought I had once which simply refused to go away – namely, if I were a member of the Q Continuum, how would I have approached the Enterprise and its captain? And if I went into the situation showing as much respect and sincerity as I could, would it even be possible to make a connection, or are two species as different as human and Q doomed to never see eye-to-eye?

It always struck me as somewhat odd that Picard and the rest of the Enterprise crew, despite the fact that their most important mission was to seek out new life and new civilizations, would treat the Q as they do. Certainly, the John de Lancie Q was a pest and an annoyance, but there was only one occasion when I ever saw Picard even attempt to speak with him as one representative of an advanced and intelligent culture to another. This was in "Q Who", where the following exchange takes place:

PICARD: Ready and willing. Able to serve. What would you do? Would you start as an ordinary crewman? What task is too menial for an entity?

Q: Sir, do you mock me?

PICARD: Not at all. That's the last thing I would do. You, by definition, are part of our charter. Our mission is to go forth to seek out new and different life forms, and you certainly qualify as one of the most unique I've ever encountered. To learn about you is, frankly, provocative. But you're next of kin to chaos… Simply speaking, we don't trust you.

And just like that, Picard slams the door on any chance of relations between Human and Q. It's an odd choice on his part, especially since the Enterprise has had to deal with objectively superior beings before, yet only with the Q does Picard decide that contact is simply not desirable.

I wondered what it would take to get Picard, and the rest of the Enterprise, to accept the presence of a Q among them. I came up with the idea of the most polite, diplomatic Q I could imagine, one who had the same curiosity and desire to learn and explore as did Picard himself, one who honestly tried to meet with humanity on a level. And I wanted to write it from HIS point of view, to really explore the frustration of a nearly omnipotent being who has trouble with a task that would seem so simple on the face of it. From there, the story practically wrote itself.

The title occurred to me only at the very end. It's kind of a stupid title, but it seemed so fitting that I kept it.

Anyway, thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it!