Q de Gras (Chapter 2: Back on Trek)

Chapter 2:
Back on Trek
(Stardate: 42940.6)

1

Immediately upon entering the lounge, Picard’s first words were spoken to Data on the quiet: “Mr. Data, how long will it take you to read the contents of that book?”

Data examined the book for a moment. “Considering the text’s size, its age and condition, the thickness of its pages and the size of the print, Sir, I speculate that it will take me approximately 7.5 minutes.”

“Please,” Picard said, nodding, “get started immediately.”

“Aye, Sir,” Data responded, then set the book on the table and began his task while everyone else took seats—everyone except Q, that is. Q stood regarding the various ship models that adorned the wall opposite the large transparent-aluminum windows. Then, when the crew were in their places, Picard, standing at his customary spot, said, “Q, would you care to have a seat?”

“I beg your pardon, Captain,” Q responded, clearly preoccupied, “but are these some sort of art?”

Picard regarded Q and the commemorative wall for a moment. He knew that Riker was still uneasy about Q, and while Picard himself was remaining vigilant with their guest, his alert status was more in the Yellow range, while Riker’s was still clearly pulsating with red. Getting Riker to interact with Q would enable Picard to determine more accurately which alert setting was the wiser of the two. The key to understanding if this ‘new Q’ posed any threat, he reasoned, might just be found through his first officer. He said to Riker, “Will, you’re our resident expert. Would you care to enlighten our guest?”

“I’d be delighted, Sir,” was Riker’s immediate response. He stood, and, as he walked to the wall, he began his practiced discourse. “They are art, but they aren’t just decorative. They are low-relief representations of the other ships of the line that were named Enterprise.”

“I see,” Q said, nodding. “Can I assume that the large one is this ship?”

“That’s right,” Riker said with commanding assurance.

“Then I can also assume that they are low-detail representations, judging by a comparison of this vessel with its model.”

“That would be a fair assessment, I suppose,” Riker said, preparing himself for a potential insult.

“Mm, and yet they’re quite elegant,” Q observed.

Riker appeared genuinely surprised and honoured as well. “Thank you,” he said.

“But, surely, it’s more than just memorabilia,” Q asserted. “What is the purpose of displaying them?” Q shook his head apologetically and quickly added, “You’ll have to excuse me, Commander, I’ve only been able to study your cultures’ literature and music. I have not yet had the opportunity to study the visual arts, so I’m still at something of a loss.”

“You’ve already read and heard all the material we sent you?!”

Feigning insult, Q responded, “I may be in prison, Commander, but I am still Q … well, sort of.”

“You have a point,” Riker conceded with a friendly smile. “But to answer your question, it’s a tradition aboard Federation vessels to pay homage in this manner to previous ships of the same name because it’s not really about the ships; it’s about remembering the people who worked and lived onboard them. Displaying the ships is a way to honour those people.”

“Oh, so then this is all of the ships to bear the name Enterprise?”

“Uh, no, actually, not by a long shot,” Riker said apologetically. “In the history of my planet, called Earth, there were a large number of vessels over time with the name Enterprise: seafaring ships, balloons and space vehicles and from at least three different countries: France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Unfortunately, representing all of them would simply clutter the wall, so these five,” Riker moved his hand over all of the Federation Enterprises, “are a direct line of predecessors of this ship.” He pointed to each in turn: “The original Enterprise here, the Enterprise-A, B, C and D up there.” He faced Q at this point and raised his index finger. “To represent all the others,” he said, “this Enterprise,” he pointed to the aircraft carrier model, “CVN-65, was selected largely because the vessel itself carried other vessels.

U looked at Riker with surprise, so Riker went on to explain in greater detail. “You see, our ship,” Riker continued in a lecture rhythm, clearly enjoying himself, “the Enterprise D, carries as many as fifteen small ships called shuttlecraft. This seafaring ship, called an aircraft carrier, carried as many as ninety sub-orbital attack ships called aircraft. So, as it is represented here, it still carries many ships, figuratively, because it represents all those many ships in two ways: First, as it was the only ship of her class, it represents all the earlier Enterprises. And, as it was in service during the era when our species—humanity—began venturing into space with our first satellites and early manned missions, it represents all the suborbital blimps, balloons and early spacecraft called Enterprise of its era and after that until they laid the keel for this one,” he concluded pointing to the model of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise.

Q was smiling at Riker the way a person smiles when watching a brilliant acrobat perform: fully engaged, fully entertained and fully amused. “So, you use your visual arts as a way to pay homage?”

“It’s one way we pay homage, yes, but they also do more than pay homage,” Riker offered. “Our visual arts inspire us in many different ways depending on the medium, the topic, or the story behind it,” he said.

Captain Picard joined the discussion at this point. “And as far as paying homage, Q, even our vessels themselves can be part of that. Earth’s first long-range space vessel was also called Enterprise.”

Riker interrupted, his enthusiasm getting the better of him. “The NX-01!” He said with a certain passionate reverence, “a magnificent ship in her day!”
“Indeed!” Picard agreed. “But that class of ship has long been out of service. The design alone makes it impractical today. It’s not represented here because it was in service prior to the establishment of the Federation. But another class of ship is designed to resemble the NX-01; it’s called Akira class. Its design pays homage to Captain Jonathan Archer’s original.”

Q raised his eyebrows and shook his head as he moved toward the table to take a seat. “It’s rare to encounter a species with such need to link itself with its own past. Thank you, Commander and Captain, for that wonderful introduction to your visual arts.”

“You’re very welcome, but that does bring up an interesting point that has piqued my interest,” Picard said.

“Yes?”

“When we first spoke, you asked for a sample of our music and literature. You specified these two art forms, and yet, here I see that you do have a keen interest in the visual arts.” Picard gestured so as to quell any insult, “I’m very glad that you have taken such an interest in our commemorative wall, but I’m curious to find out why you would exclude these from a survey.”

“It’s quite simple, actually,” Q said, “I have found that understanding the visual arts of most cultures often requires some knowledge of their literature and music. Even Cmdr. Riker mentioned that the visual arts might inspire the viewers, depending on their medium and the story behind them. Since I didn’t know how long I would have to digest them, I thought to just focus on the two genres that consume more time to grasp, so that I could focus on the visual arts when—or if—we were to meet.”

Riker interjected, “And yet you’ve already completed a survey of what would take us hundreds of hours of reading, listening and study.”

“But only once through, Commander,” Q protested with humour. “Besides, in the Continuum, I was a musician of note, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I love a good story.” He shrugged, “so music and literature just seemed the obvious choices.”

“I see,” Picard said.

Data had completed his assigned task and had sat, silently attentive during the rest of the conversation. He now spoke up: “I concur, Captain,” he turned to Q, “and may I say, Q, since you are also a musician, I would very much like to discuss various forms and styles with you, time and Captain Picard permitting, of course.”

“I would also welcome the opportunity, Mr. Data,” Q said, then, he took on the expression of one who was suddenly very perplexed. “Isn’t that interesting? Data, I mean no offence to you at all, but, as Q, I shouldn’t welcome any interaction with you. It would be considered beneath us to speak with—again, I do not mean to offend in any way—a mortal-made machine, but I do welcome it, and I appreciate the invitation quite sincerely. Isn’t that odd?”

“I am not capable of feeling offence, Q, but your bewilderment is not so unexpected. I have found it—and please do not be offended by my reaction—to be quite human.”

Q laughed openly and honestly. “No offence taken, Mr. Data, none at all.”

Even though Picard and Riker were not blind to the clear joviality of their guest, as they caught one another’s eyes, and they understood each other, too. There were too many contrasts between the behaviour of this Q and the Q they had come to know. That Q would certainly have taken offence by a comparison of him with any mortal, despite his interest in the human species. The two starship officers were in complete agreement, and, while they would both remain cognizant of any potential danger, they knew from this one glance that they could ease off their respective alert statuses. At one and the same moment, both of these experienced military leaders and consummate explorers made the internal announcement: “Secure from General Quarters.” As a result, Picard took this opportunity to come clean with Q.

“Q,” Picard said, “I want you to know that I have noticed your candour. It is clear to me that you are being honest and as open as any two people who have just met should be, and I appreciate that.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“It is in that spirit that I wish to confess to you, with apologies, that the Enterprise and her crew have encountered another entity from the Q Continuum.”
“Indeed!” Q said, genuinely surprised. “How do you know?”

“Well,” Picard hesitated, actually almost doubting himself, he was so surprised by Q’s question, “because he told us.”

“Really?!” Q exclaimed. “It’s not often that mortal species so captures the attention of the Continuum that they announce themselves! What did you do to alert them?”

“You mean,” Picard said, “that such a thing isn’t the norm?”

“Not at all,” Q announced. “There is a lot of interaction with mortals by the Continuum, but seldom does a Q make his true nature known. Usually, it’s incognito.”

“I was not aware of this,” Picard said, his attention thoroughly piqued.

“Of course not,” Q asserted. “Your own Niccoló Paganini was the … the ‘victim’—for want of a better term—of such an encounter.”

“Intriguing, Q,” Data interjected. “I have been studying the technique of violin playing for my performances in a Sherlock Holmes programme on our holodeck. The music of Paganini is some that I have played.”

“You play an instrument, too?”

“Mm-hmm,” Data said with an assuring expression.

“I do remember hearing stories,” Picard continued, “of Paganini making a bargain with a powerful entity when he was a boy.”

“Well, it wasn’t so much a bargain as it was a bet,” Q said.

Riker smirked, “The devil went down to Georgia?” he said with a chuckle.

“Genoa, actually,” Q corrected, apparently oblivious to Riker’s allusion, despite the fact that it was both musical and literary.

Riker accepted Q’s information, but not quite sure what it was referring to. His mouth formed the word “oh,” but his eyes betrayed his confusion.

Picard understood the inadvertent joke that had just transpired and caught himself smiling. He knew the tale of the devil in Georgia, and he understood that Paganini had lived in Genoa, Italy. Still, the fact that both people’s ideas had been utterly missed by the other comprised a priceless moment for Picard.
Another person who enjoyed that bit of interaction was Deanna, but for an entirely different reason. She not only saw the conflict in Will’s expression, but could also sense his confusion empathically, and that confusion in Will tickled her. It was also she, however, who realized that the conversation, as entertaining as it was, was also beginning to lose its focus. She decided to get it back on track: “I’m curious Q, and I do hope that this is not an uncomfortable subject for you to discuss, but did you study all of Paganini’s music while you were incarcerated?”

The group fell silent, and Q looked down for a moment before responding. “No, I haven’t studied all of his music, Counsellor.”

Picard gave Troi a look that showed both approval and gratitude, then he turned to Q: “I understand that it is a difficult subject for you to discuss, Q, but it is something that I feel compelled to hear. You understand.”

“Of course I understand, Captain,” Q said with a tone of embarrassment and empathy. “It’s a funny thing: I’ve always been the proverbial ‘fine, upstanding citizen,’ and that’s become something of a curse for me. Had I always been a bit more of a … well, more of a Q, I suppose, I would be used to incarcerations and whatnot.” He looked directly at Picard, “I find this topic humiliating because I know that, not only did I do nothing deserving incarceration, but that I was doing the right thing. Can you understand that humiliation, Captain?”

Picard recalled his court-martial after the destruction of the Stargazer. He had done everything right on that ship. He knew it, and everybody in the courtroom knew it, despite the overly passionate efforts of the prosecuting attorney. The court-martial was a formality—standard procedure after the destruction of a vessel, nothing more. Yet being a captain of a starship and the defendant in such proceedings were cause for Picard to think over and over again, How the Mighty have Fallen. It was a self-incriminating mental mantra, and he had cringed every time his mind recited it, and yet it wouldn’t cease. Oh, yes, Picard understood the humiliation of such a situation. The idea that Q’s deportment so quickly and powerfully displayed his embarrassment helped Picard to not only feel compassion for the being but to believe him even before he began explaining. “Indeed I can, Q. No one here is judging you,” Picard said.

The moment that the words were out of his mouth, Riker looked to Picard to assess his meaning. They had just understood each other to have relaxed their respective defensive bearings, but not to dismiss danger altogether. He wondered now if he had misunderstood his captain’s earlier silent assurance. Did “not judging” mean “all at ease?” Riker wondered.

Picard saw the glance and rested a hand on Riker’s arm to assure him once again, silently affirming that Riker hadn’t misunderstood and that a lack of judging did not mean that Picard was not remaining vigilant. All of this happened in the amount of time it would take Q with his powers intact to zip from one end of the Enterprise to the other. Q carried on with the conversation.

“I know, Captain,” Q admitted, nodding. “Let me start by asking you, what is your assessment of the Q? How do you regard them, from what you knew before meeting me?” There was something of an embarrassed pause, then Q rephrased his question: “Would you say that we are powerful beings?”
Picard sat forward in his chair. “Absolutely,” he said.

“And in some ways, you would be correct. Absolutely,” Q concluded. “But my crime was in expressing the idea that the omnipotence that the Q award themselves with is not omnipotence at all. Powerful? Yes, but omnipotent?” He shook his head at the thought. “It’s absurd.”
“They imprisoned you for saying that, Q?” Deanna asked.

“Well, not so much for just saying it, Counsellor, but for believing it, for repeating it loudly, often, and for attempted proselytizing.” He shook his head from his disbelief of the actions of the others in the Continuum. “It’s the truth, though. I’m not going to lie about our impotence when I’m asked directly! That would be wrong!”

Troi pressed the issue a bit further, and Picard was grateful. The fact that her profession was getting people to open up was reason enough for him to accept her line of questioning. “So you believe that the Q are not so mighty as they believe themselves to be, and this belief has become a religion for you?”

“Not directly, Counsellor, no, but it is a conclusion I reached based on what you might call a religious experience.” He stopped again, looking embarrassed. “I know that the scientific prowess of a society such as yours makes religion seem a bit …” he paused, looking for the right word, “… archaic, I suppose. I’m not trying to preach, you understand. Even if I were, I find this specific idea pertinent even to a technologically advanced and scientifically capable culture.”
“Please continue, Q,” Picard encouraged, “we have great respect for other people’s personal beliefs.”

Q nodded. “Thank you.” After a pause to collect his thoughts, he went on. “When the Q create a different world or place for you, Captain, you may not know that it’s less real than this reality, but you can sense something different about it—something artificial, am I right?”

“I’ve not really thought about that, Q,” Picard admitted, then after a moment to reflect, “but I suppose that you would be correct. On our initial encounter with Q, he recreated a court from Earth’s past. Cmdr. Data had to assure me that it wasn’t an illusion, meaning that it was possible for us to be harmed in those proceedings, and he did so because of the apparent counterfeit nature of our surroundings; it wasn’t an illusion, but it had that feel.” He turned to his first officer, “What about you, Will?”

Riker thought carefully before responding. “When Q invited me to become a Q, he took several members of the crew with me to a planet that we never have been able to locate again,” he began. “It wasn’t so much that we thought it artificial on its own, I suppose, but that it was so odd to our sensibilities that, yes, we pondered the idea that it might not be real. I suppose that it’s true.”

Q regarded Riker for a long moment, long enough that Riker and some others grew uncomfortable with the odd silence. Q finally spoke again: “You and I are going to have to talk about that episode. I am whole-heartedly intrigued.” He waved his hand in front of him, “but another time. You see, the Q have powers, Captain. We can manipulate matter. When I have my powers, with a wave of my hand, I can force my will upon matter to shape it to suit my whims, and, as a result of that violence against matter’s nature, my creations are less … stupendous … less than reality. It’s the same for every Q. Does that make sense?” He looked around the room. People seemed to be comfortable with Q’s point even though he was discussing things that were well out of the realm of human experience. Q continued: “In one rendition of your own Aladdin, the genie made the protagonist become like a prince, but even Aladdin knew that he wasn’t really a prince. The genie gave him great wealth, possessions, but no kingdom and no heritage, and Aladdin knew that it was a facade.”

“Are you saying that a member of the Continuum went to ancient Earth and presented himself as a genie to some poor, medieval, Middle Eastern teen, and we turned that event into a famous saga?” Riker broke in.

“No. I’m not saying that at all, Commander,” Q said calmly, and everyone seemed to sigh in relief. “Nor am I denying it,” Q added. He quickly continued: “This is what’s important: In one of my many private travels to distant regions of this universe, I encountered a being who is so powerful, so magnificent, so mighty, that I felt like nothing next to him. And yet there was a kindness—a benevolence to him. I knew that he could smash me instantly, but I was too thoroughly amazed and awed to be afraid.” Again Q paused. The others in the lounge could see Q’s sense of wonder and amazement as he contemplated what he had seen, what he had experienced and what he now believed to be the source of truth. “We work our ‘miracles,’ such as they are, with our powers, but this being doesn’t use what you and I call ‘powers;’ he has authority. He doesn’t manipulate matter, he commands it, and matter obeys.” Q waved a hand, confused by his own description. “Not that it could disobey by its own volition, but it’s an entirely different way of operating, and something no Q is capable of imitating.” Even Q, with his powerful mind, was having difficulty expressing an idea so advanced.

When he fell silent, it sounded to the group as though he had finished, and they looked at each other, confused. Captain Picard raised everyone’s objection: “I don’t understand, Q. How has this encounter led to your incarceration?”

Q smirked just a little. “Because of Q arrogance, Captain.” Picard merely shook his head in confusion, so Q proceeded. “Captain, the Q regard themselves as omnipotent, but, while we are powerful—and there’s no denying that we are powerful—‘omnipotence’ is still vastly beyond us. If you were to graph all the sentient beings in the universe from the Q to … to the Menk, based on how advanced we are, and including this being I encountered, you would need a graph light-years in length, and still all of us mere beings would occupy a fine red line at the bottom while this being who is so advanced … so powerful would be indicated by a broad stroke at the very top, and there would be nothing but empty space between. I don’t yet know much about this being on a personal level, Captain, but I am convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt—any hint of a doubt that the title ‘Demiurge’ applies to him, and him alone.”

Picard appeared stunned. He pushed back from the table, stood and walked over to the commemorative wall and paused in thought for a moment, absorbing what Q had just said. It was a lot for the human mind to deal with. After a long moment of silence, Picard slowly turned to Q, “So in your mind, you and I …”
“… are equals, Captain, yes. And we’re both powerful beings, you and I. My powers are pretty obvious when I’m not in limbo. Yours are more elusive but no less impressive. If you’ll pardon me for saying this, I mean no disrespect at all to you or yours, but one of the recurring pleasures for me is discovering the powers of other beings, including humans. We tend to think that evolution has made some of us more advanced and, therefore, superior, but the reality is that we’re just different and so, ultimately, not so very different after all.”

There was a flash of light accompanied by a chime. “Now, do you see why we locked him up?” Q—the first Q—asked. “We can’t let that detestable attitude be spread around the universe, now, can we?” It was not so much a question as a statement. Q appeared in his usual spot—at the head of the table opposite Picard—and he wore an up-to-date Starfleet uniform with his four customary unearned pips on the collar. His fingers were tented, and his expression was one of being lost in thought.

“Q!” the new Q said with pleased surprise in his voice, eagerly standing up to greet his kinsman.

“Hmm, hello,” was the first Q’s response. He looked over the gray jumpsuit and olive-drab pullover and scowled. “What is that you’re wearing?”
The new Q raised his arms to examine his attire. “What, this? This is what Starfleet guests wear.”

“They gave it to you to wear?”

“Oh, my! No! I donned it before popping aboard!” The new Q said.

The first Q scoffed, “Hideous! I wouldn’t be caught mortal in something like that! It’s dreadful! And those are certainly not your colours.”
“Well, it’s more comfortable than the formal attire I had been wearing.”

The first Q rolled his eyes with a gaping mouth. “We gave you quality, but you cannot see!” He looked the new Q directly in the eyes with the expression an irked parent might wear. “You’re a Q! Dress appropriately!”

The new Q smiled wryly. “You’re right, Q. Next time you see me, I’ll be wearing a Starfleet admiral’s uniform.”

“The hell you will, Q!” Captain Picard broke in, and the new Q found himself embarrassed by his own behaviour.

The first Q glared at Picard with great disdain. “Don’t worry, Jean-Luc,” he said with snide assurance, “Q is pretty much stuck in those clothes now. While he’s aboard your sluggish starship, he has no powers of the Q. He’s as weak and feather-brained as all of you.”

“Yes, Q and the rest of us were just discussing something like that, Q.” Picard found himself confused by his own statement and reviewed it to make sure he had said it correctly.

The first Q scoffed another time. “This again! What is it with you mortals who seem to get so terribly confused over something as simple as two beings with the same name? If you can’t handle that, how will you ever deal with the real issues in the cosmos, Jean-Luc?”

The new Q shook his head in frustration of the first Q. “Q, when are you ever going to tire of such irrelevant lines of questioning. The problem is easy enough to fix.” He turned to Picard, standing with a certain deference regarding him. “Captain, to avoid confusion between the two present members of the Continuum, I suggest that I temporarily change my name.”

“Great idea!” the first Q sneered. “You’re something of a disgrace to the name, anyway!”

Ignoring him, Picard said to the new Q, “Did you have something in mind?”

The second Q sat down again and reclined a bit in his chair with his hands folded before him. “Y’know, I’m quite fond of that Earth hero from your ancient stories, the travelling man, Ulysses. Perhaps I’ll change my name to Ulysses. And for short, you can call me U.”

Troi smiled somewhat maternally. Riker smiled somewhat eagerly. Picard nodded, “It seems to suit you, U.”

“You U, you,” Riker quipped. And everyone laughed, except, of course, Q, who simply rolled his eyes again. “Oh, yes, laugh all of you, but you simply have no clue of the dangers that this being who sits among you is leading us all into.”

Picard argued, “What are you talking about, Q? I see no potential for danger.”

“I just said that, didn’t I?” No one, not even Picard, was certain if Q was making a sneering joke or if he was deadly serious, but it was clear that there were no other options to describe Q’s tone, and everyone fell utterly quiet and attentive of what Q had to say. “It’s a big universe, Jean-Luc. Have you never considered the possibility that there are other groups of beings out there who have powers comparable to the Q? There are, you know. We are not alone.”

Picard looked swiftly to U in search of confirmation. “He’s right, Captain. There are several other groups besides the Q. There are, for example, the Organians.”

“Exactly,” Q conceded, but let’s not forget the Megans, the Thasians, the Metrons, the Douwd, the Sargonians …”
U broke him off. “The Sargonians are extinct,” he objected.

“Oh, you’re right!” Q admitted, his words oozing sarcasm like viscous pus. “And why is that, U? Hmm? Or are you afraid to tell your little friends?”
U looked him square in the eye, “Absolutely not.”

“Well, then?” Q invited, sitting on the edge of the table.

U turned to Picard and spoke confidently, “Millennia ago, the Sargonians divided into two factions of power and will. It finally came into question, which of the two was more powerful.”

“There was a war?” Picard interjected, and Q took over the point: “The two factions eradicated each other, all over the simple question of who had the bigger stick.” He walked to Picard with his arms folded and a look of warning, almost terror on his face. It was clear to Picard that Q found this no small threat at all. In fact, Q was deeply fearful. “Can you imagine what might happen if one of those other races got wind of a Q telling them,” he used a mockingly naive sounding voice, “‘You’re not so powerful as you think you are. Nyaa nyaa ny nyaa nyaa.’? Think about it, Jean-Luc: beings with powers like the Q at war all over the universe because of some religious fanatic’s fundamentalist ideology.”

“I had assumed,” Picard began, somewhat stunned by the direction of the discussion, “that beings so advanced would all be pacifists.”

“Well,” Q returned, “Of course you’re right … to a degree. But let’s be honest, Jean-Luc, gods will not be mocked. And those who feel mocked will do what they can to show that they don’t deserve to be mocked.”

Picard smiled and nodded, “So, it all comes down to a matter of hurt pride, does it?”

“Don’t be naive. Mind you, at our stage of growth, we don’t store up for ourselves a great wealth of ever more powerful weaponry as you humans did in your sordid past. There is no Q equivalent of your antique nuclear warfare, for example. The best we have would resemble your nineteenth-century artillery when you examine the comparative damage they cause: hardly impressive to us for explosions, but you still don’t want to be around when they go off. They can make a nasty boo-boo. Might even leave a scar—in the very fabric of space.”

Picard looked to his guest, “Is this all true, U?” he asked.

“Not entirely,’ U admitted, and Q turned to him in angry surprise.

“What do you mean?” Q insisted.

“What I mean,” U carried on, “is that it is not for lack of effort that the Q don’t have better weaponry. Isn’t that right, Q?”

Looking absurdly perplexed and childishly innocent, Q turned to Picard, “Really, Jean-Luc, I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

U persisted, “The fact is, Captain, that we are simply incapable of producing mightier weaponry. Our military might has capped out, hasn’t it Q? Tell them,” U pushed. “There are no weapons more advanced for us because we can’t advance any more than we have despite centuries of effort. Isn’t that right, Q? Or are you afraid to tell them?”

“Yes, it’s true …” Q admitted to Picard. “… for the Q, but we don’t know if it’s true of the other omnipotent beings.” He turned to U, “and that’s just another reason for us to keep a lid on your facial spillway.”

U turned to Picard to admit, “He has a point, Captain.”

As he spoke, Picard started toward his chair again. “Limited omnipotence. An interesting notion,” he admitted. “If it weren’t such a frightfully dangerous one, I’d think of it as merely some sort of literary idea.” He sat and tugged his tunic. “So, we have been brought into a potentially volatile situation, by you, U, making it highly probable that the Enterprise, if not the entire Federation, might end up as collateral damage in some puerile quest for the greater firepower. I’m not overly appreciative, to be perfectly honest.”

Q’s expression was suddenly one of such smugness that only a Q could pull off, and U began to show signs of near panic, even for Q. “Captain,” he said, “I do not want to do anything to endanger you or your crew. Q is right. If I just keep my mouth shut about our comparative weakness, there is no danger. I promise that I will make no mention of limited omnipotence among the Q or any other species while I’m with you. In fact, the only thing that brought it up was Q’s presence. Now, I need you, Captain, but if you want me to, I’ll ask Q to take me back to my cell right here and now, but I’m asking you to please trust me. If I make no mention of this potential for conflict, it can’t be overheard. I will not speak of it; you have my word.”

Q stepped forward mockingly on Picard’s side of this discussion. “Yes, Jean-Luc, give the word, and I’ll return him to his pen. I’ll be happy to do it for you, too. What a pleasure! After all, he never made the same bargain for the Q.”

“Enough, Q!” Picard commanded, and even Q fell silent. When Picard spoke again, his tone was decidedly calmer. “U, you’ve been with us for only a very short time …”

Q broke in: “Right you are, mon Capitaine. Why endanger your crew for someone you just met? I shall away with him, Jean-Luc.” He wrapped his arm tightly around Picard. “What are buddies for, after all?”

Picard broke the hold of Q and turned to face him directly, even as he continued to speak to U: “As I was saying, U, you’ve been with us only briefly, but already your behaviour has demonstrated your reliability.” He turned to U and breathed in deeply before continuing to speak, “I will grant you one opportunity to remain with us. Should I hear of this topic again, we shall certainly return you. Is that clear?”

“Crystal clear, Captain,” U asserted.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to spare you the risk of a slip-up, Jean-Luc? It could be dangerous,” Q said.

Picard ignored Q’s question. “And Q, I don’t want you provoking him. He’s our guest.”

Q looked genuinely surprised. “Just what makes you think you can give me orders?”

“That’s an excellent question, Q.” He didn’t turn away from Q as he spoke: “Mr. Data?”

Data again looked away from everyone in the room as his eyes moved swiftly back and forth. Finally, with a look of surprise of his own, he said, “Q, I am afraid that Captain Picard’s authority is without question in this matter. The law book provided by U tells us clearly that the being who serves as the accused’s host can impose his command on you in such a case as this.”

It was Picard’s turn to don a smug smile, and so he did as he stepped toward Q. “It appears that it is, indeed, the underlings who exercise their authority over you, Q. Authority has come full circle once again.”

“Outmanoeuvred by a mortal-made machine,” Q said. He raised a hand, snapped his fingers, and he was gone. Picard turned then to speak to U. “It appears, U, that you’re going to be our guest for a while.”

“Thank you, Captain. I shall do everything I can to conduct myself in a manner worthy of your kind gesture.”

“Yes, I’m sure you will,” Picard smiled. “You are free to move about the ship except, of course, for those places that are restricted. They are marked as such, but please avail yourself of the many challenges and comforts the Enterprise contains. I’ll have Mr. Data escort you to some quarters.”

Data stood in response.

“I am in your debt, Captain,” U said. Then he and Data exited the observation lounge together.

2

Captain’s Log: Supplemental:
The Enterprise is en route to Alpha Onias II, and I am content that our current friendship with the Q entity, now known to us as “U,” will prove to be benign if not beneficial. Despite my optimism, however, I am also not a little dismayed by a request from my Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Pulaski, to meet with her at my earliest convenience. The tone of her voice has given me reason to feel distinctly apprehensive. The last time I heard that tone from her was a prelude to the loss of twelve members of my crew.

Picard’s heart sank when he entered sickbay and saw Dr. Pulaski standing over a bio-bed with the 14-year-old Jeremy McKee lying on it. Jeremy’s parents were among the twelve casualties of the Enterprise’s recent mission. They died in the line of duty, yes, but there was nothing about their deaths that helped to palliate them. They hadn’t died defending their posts; they hadn’t been shot heroically; they hadn’t been martyred. Not that these circumstances would make their deaths better or easier to bear; it would just give the rest of the crew something to point to and say, “at least there was this.” There wasn’t “this” for young Jeremy’s parents, nothing at all. They died of disease, an infection from an insect bite. It seemed such a trivial thing, but this was a sentient sickness, they had discovered finally; there just was … there is no communicating with it—no way they had found to persuade the illness to leave its host’s body once it had occupied. And every attempt on Dr. Pulaski’s part to fight the illness proved hopelessly fruitless against the infection but deleterious to the victim. Now, seeing the offspring of two fine officers in sickbay filled Picard with dread. Not just because of the boy’s parents, but because of his grandfather as well. Jeremy’s grandfather had been Picard’s immediate supervisor on Picard’s first deep-space assignment as a young ensign, and the two younger men had become good friends all that lifetime ago. Picard hoped the cause for Jeremy’s visit in sickbay was something different: some foolish match of parrises squares, or jumping too high in the holodeck, or, hell, just some damned flu bug. Anything but the illness that had claimed the lives of his parents.
He approached the bio-bed feigning confidence and composure, but inwardly, he was shaking. “Dr. Pulaski,” he said.

Dr. Pulaski turned to him instantly. “Captain Picard!” Her eyes, hidden from Jeremy’s view, displayed her urgency. “What a pleasant surprise!”
“Yes!” Picard played along. “I was just in the area and thought I’d pop in.”

“How nice! I’m just about finished up here. How about a nice cup of Earl Gray in my office?”

“An excellent idea, Doctor,” Picard nodded with an awkward smile.

“Good!” She turned back to Jeremy. “I don’t see any reason for you to stick around here all bored. The hypo I gave you will help you to feel better, so, as long as you take it easy, you should be fine. Besides, you probably have a whole bunch of homework to finish.”

“Sure,” Jeremy said flatly, his deep-brown eyes betraying a mild sense of insult. He was a handsome young man with blond hair, smartly combed. His clothing, made to resemble a Federation uniform, had enough deviation to prevent confusion. He was intelligent, both Picard and Pulaski knew, and the one thought that the two of them shared without knowing it was, “We’re not fooling anyone.” Sadly, they were both correct; they just didn’t know how right they were. They reasoned that Jeremy knew his condition was serious, but how could they have possibly surmised that Jeremy already understood that he had contracted his parents’ illness from their last mission?

“Well,” Dr. Pulaski said with her same, reassuring smile, “on your way then, but you’re to report to me twice a day for your hypo until we can get you all fixed up.”

Jeremy regarded her, deadpan, for a long moment, his eyes meeting hers. Then, without a word, he leapt from the bio-bed and marched out of sickbay. Dr. Pulaski still said nothing to Picard. There were members of her staff in the area, and she didn’t want to betray to them her own sense of medical angst. “Captain?” she invited pleasantly and led the way to her office. Once there, she gave in to her emotions and became suddenly angry. She walked directly to her desk and slammed both hands down. “Oh, God!”

Picard approached her both timidly and compassionately. “Doctor, is it …”

Dr. Pulaski cut him off by nodding. “Yes, Captain, it is. It’s the same illness.” She turned to sit on her desk and vaguely waved a hand in the air. “I don’t know how I missed it before, but it’s got him, and if it remains consistent, it won’t let go.”

“What can you do?”

“I don’t know,” Pulaski sighed.

“Dammit, Doctor, that’s not good enough!” Picard commanded.

“I know,” Pulaski said, nearly crying. She wiped a tear from her eye, folded her hand and looked to one side in thought, and Picard gave her that moment to collect her ideas. She breathed in deeply, “The hypo I’m giving him will help his body to fight the infection; it’s the same treatment I gave to the last of the others, and it did well for a time in each.” She looked away from Picard and to her desk. “I continued with my research for a few days after the last victim … succumbed, and Jeremy is just showing the earliest symptoms, so there is time. I can pick up where I left off easily enough; all the research is still fresh in my mind.” She met Picard’s eyes, “But you must understand, Captain, all I have at this point is more ways to fight the illness, and I don’t know how to do any more than that yet without also harming Jeremy’s body. I need time and resources.”

Picard’s voice softened again. “I understand, Doctor. We are not on any pressing mission at this point, so feel free to use all the resources available and the time that you need.” He took another step toward Dr. Pulaski. “Doctor, I need to know: was Jeremy complaining of something that brought him to sickbay?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said and drew a deep breath. “I just wanted to be sure that everyone from the planet was clear. It turns out that Cmdr. Solak, whom I had thought was unaffected while still infected, is not infected at all. All the others who were on the planet are also clear, but everyone who caught this illness, Captain, has died. It’s just Jeremy.” She smiled sheepishly at Picard. “I was fortunate to catch it early.”

“That’s excellent, Doctor. Get what you need and use what you need, but Jeremy is to be your top priority.”

“I understand, Captain. I’ll get right on it.”

“Very good. In the meantime, I’ll apprise Geordi of the situation and have him restart his own research. One of you will reach an answer.” He turned to leave, but the doctor stopped him.

“Captain, I must apologize for my emotional display.”

Picard smiled reassuringly. “Not at all, Doctor. Displays of compassion are welcome aboard the Enterprise.” He departed with an authoritative stride.
Dr. Pulaski sat behind her desk and pulled up the files on this illness from her computer, then she called her staff into her office to apprise them of the situation and the task at hand.

3

In Engineering, Geordi stepped out of his office just in time to catch his staff “standing around” and “shooting the breeze,” both of which are uncalled for on a starship, especially in engineering during his watch. The sensors in his VISOR caught the pale blue hue of boredom and relaxation in the auras of his people, making his own blood turn white-hot with anger. He stopped abruptly in his tracks. While most missed his entrance and continued to chat in an insouciant manner, the rest of them saw him and popped quickly to attention, immediately finding something to do in a vain attempt to give them the appearance that they had been working the entire time. Geordi, of course, wasn’t the least bit fooled. He may be new in this post, but that just gave him more insight into the inherent laziness of his crew rather than the usual naivete most people exhibit with their first commands. He clapped his hands twice. “Alright, people, let’s get to work.” He continued his entrance into their space. “Just because we have less pressure right now doesn’t mean there’s no work to be done.” He pointed to one of them, “Barnhart,” he said with an authoritative tone, “I want that level-one diagnostic on the warp subsystems completed within the hour! Nicholls,” he said to another with the same tone, “you were supposed to be checking on the corrections to that intermix ratio like we discussed. The rest of you? There’s plenty to be done. Let’s get to it!” He saw the pale blue auras turn immediately yellow with stress, then he noticed his captain appear around the corner from the corridor. The authoritative red was not just in his uniform, but in his aura as well. “Captain!” Geordi said, not without a distinct tone of embarrassed surprise, wondering just how much of his staff’s loitering the captain had caught.

For his own part, Picard was more aware of Geordi’s ability to stay on top of issues than the fact that his staff fell away from them. “Yes, Geordi is acquitting himself well,” Picard thought just as he called, “Geordi, I need you on a task of highest priority.”

“Aye, sir. What can I do for you?” Geordi asked.

“Do you recall the illness that we encountered on our last mission?”

“The one that claimed twelve of our crew? Yes, Sir. I sure do.”

“I need you to pick up where you left off on trying to communicate with it.”

Geordi’s entire body seemed to slump under a sudden tremendous weight. “Oh, Captain, it’s not back?”

“I’m afraid so. It’s infected young Jeremy McKee.”

Geordi said nothing for a minute. It was both an act of holding back an emotional outburst and an effort to recall where he was in his research. “Well, Sir,” he said when he had composed himself a bit, “communication is not really the problem.”

“Oh?” Picard said with surprise in his voice.

“Yes, Sir. We found a way to communicate with one maybe two of the infecting protozoa, but not with the entire infection. It’s like trying to convince an entire village to evacuate by speaking with only one or two random folks on the outskirts of town. And, like any human you might encounter, one of them is not willing to go against the leadership of the whole.”

“What do you propose?” Picard asked.

“Well, I’m not certain yet how we’ll accomplish it, but we need to be able to communicate with the entire group, the entire community of the infection. If we can’t do that, then all we’re able to do is attack them, and you remember how well that worked for us before.”

“Hmm, yes, I do.” Picard nodded. “Get started, Commander. Have Data assist you.”

“Aye, Sir. We’ll get right on it.”

“And Geordi, this young man is almost family to me. I need you to be extremely diligent in fighting this. Please.”

“Aye, Sir. I’ll give it everything I’ve got.”

Picard nodded with gratitude. “Make it so.”

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