Q de Gras (Chapter 3: Getting to Know U)

Chapter 3:
Getting to Know U
(Stardate 42941.2)

1

Captain’s Personal Log: Stardate 42941.2:
I confess that I am deeply troubled by Jeremy McKee’s condition. My attention has been wandering all day, and my sleep last night was decidedly less than restful. I have great faith in the capabilities of my crew; they are, after all, among Starfleet’s finest, but that’s not been enough to assuage my deep-seated anxiety regarding this young man. What is adding to how vexing the entire situation is, is that I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is that is so troubling about Jeremy’s condition—it’s not just his condition; it’s something … that is currently more nebulous. I am frustrated that I can’t settle this tension more adequately.
At the same time, however, what I’ve discovered to be most pleasing is our guest, who has embraced the appellation “U.” I remember telling his compatriot how provocative is the prospect of being able to learn about the race called Q, but that I simply cannot trust the representative entity whom I have, unfortunately, come to know. But now, having met U, I find myself beginning to relax, and, once again, the prospect of learning about this race of super-beings has piqued my wonder.
The two situations together, however, are vying for my mind’s resources, so I’ve decided to spend some time in Ten-Forward to see if I can sort it all out.

As a member of a race of listeners, Guinan heard much more in Ten-Forward than most people would ever know, but her eyesight was no less acute than her hearing. She didn’t hear Picard enter the bar, for example, but she saw him enter and knew that she was needed. In her customary costume, in this case, a pleasant mauve in colour, with her very wide-brimmed matching headdress, she stepped out from behind the bar once Picard had found himself a seat away from the windows, apart from other customers, tucked in a corner alone.

Picard didn’t see her approach, even though she was sure to remain well within his field of vision. Still, he was surprised when Guinan asked, “Can I get you something, Captain?” He looked up to her with an expression that seemed to suggest that he didn’t even know her. “We have a nice Bajoran Springwine or jumja tea,” she suggested. “We also have a selection of Ferengi wines. I understand that the Grand Nagus himself enjoys a fine wine when he’s trying to plan vacations.”

Picard didn’t answer right away. In fact, he turned his eyes away for a moment as though he hadn’t heard her. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Do you have anything stronger?”

“Absolutely,” she affirmed as she sat at Picard’s table opposite him. “We have listening ears.” She folded her hands in front of her and simply waited.
Picard smiled with the understanding of a friend who has had the privilege of bending those listening ears many times before. He breathed in deeply and began speaking, but wasn’t making eye contact. Instead, he looked down toward the table where he and his very dear friend now sat. “Jeremy McKee has taken ill,” he finally said.

“I see,” Guinan coaxed, nodding.

“It’s the same illness that claimed his parents, and the crew is no further along in finding a cure than they were weeks ago. I have faith in my people, Guinan, but I don’t have the faith that we will be able to find a cure in time, and I am deeply troubled by that.”
“By your lack of faith or by your lack of a cure?”

Finally, Picard met Guinan’s eyes. “Yes,” he said.

“I see,” she responded, smiling with empathy and recognition, and, in the back of his mind, Picard marvelled at the lack of judgment in her voice. It was understanding that was nearly unparalleled in his experience. “Don’t you think Jeremy may already know something about this?” Guinan asked.
“No. Not specifically,” Picard answered. “He knows that something is wrong, but not precisely what.” He paused, looking only at his folded hands at rest on the table, “and it’s my privilege, and Counsellor Troi’s, to share this news with him later today.”

“Mm, that’s unpleasant.”

“Yes, it is,” Picard asserted, and his entire demeanour was suddenly transformed. “It’s damn unpleasant.” He shifted in his chair to look Guinan more squarely in the eye. “How the hell do you tell a 14-year-old boy whose parents just died, that he has the same illness that claimed their lives? How do you assure him that everything that can be done will be done when we don’t even know what needs to be done in the first place? How do you instill confidence in someone who so desperately needs it when you have no damned confidence yourself? How do you give away a share of what you don’t have, Guinan?!”
“How do you know that’s what Jeremy’s going to need?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said, ‘How do you know …?”

“Yes, I heard what you said. I don’t understand the question!”

Guinan smiled in that empathetic way again and looked away for a moment. Then she turned back to him: “He already knows, Captain.”
Picard was stunned. “He what?”

“He knows.”

“What do you mean? How do you know he knows?”

“I hear things.”

“What things, Guinan?”

“It’s not important.”

“What do you mean it’s not important? You’ve just thrown all of my planning out an airlock.”

“That’s good. Because you don’t need it.” She leaned forward to Picard just a little and lowered her voice as though someone might be able to listen in. It had the effect of causing Picard to give her his undivided attention. “Jeremy stayed onboard the Enterprise because he wanted to stay closer to his parents. Leaving, he felt, would divide him from them in a way that he wasn’t prepared to deal with yet. He’s a bright young man. Every bit as bright as young Wesley Crusher, so don’t be surprised that he can read your body language like a Betazoid. Jeremy will know what he needs, even if he can’t necessarily articulate it. Your job is to find out from him what he needs and then try to meet that need, but don’t try to meet a need that he doesn’t have.”

“I see.” Picard was silent for a moment. “You know, this young man is as much family to me as Wesley is. His grandfather was my supervisor when I was a brash young ensign onboard the Reliant. We have stayed friends since then, but I’m afraid that the death of his daughter, Jeremy’s mother, may have been a strain on that friendship. I am also afraid that …”

Guinan interrupted. “One problem at a time, Captain.”

Picard nodded. “Of course. You’re right,” he sighed deeply. “I have Dr. Pulaski working again to try to plan an attack against the illness, and I have Cmdr. La Forge, once again, working on how to communicate with it. One way or the other, something good should come of our efforts.”
“Precisely,” Guinan affirmed. “When do you talk with Jeremy?”

“This afternoon. Part of me wishes that I could do it now; another part wishes that I could put it off indefinitely. There is nothing in me that wants to wait ‘just a little while.’ But, he’s in school presently, and I don’t want to interrupt his education. Plus, it will give the Counsellor and me a chance to confer with Dr. Pulaski once more.”

Guinan nodded, one of her deep nods of understanding and perhaps a bit of prodding. “In the meantime?” She goaded.
“In the meantime …”

Picard was cut off by U entering Ten-Forward. He stood to get U’s attention and invite him over. And when U saw Picard, he waved in a friendly manner and marched toward the captain. “In the meantime,” Picard repeated, smiling now, “I want to introduce you to someone.”

“Captain! Hello again!” U said enthusiastically, and the two men shook hands.

“Hello, U,” Picard returned. “Please allow me to introduce you to my very dear friend, Guinan. Guinan? This is U.”

“‘U’ is your name?” Guinan asked as she shook U’s hand.

“That’s right,” U said, nodding. “It’s short for Ulysses, my nickname, of sorts, I guess.”

“I see,” Guinan nodded as Picard gestured, offering U a seat at their table.

“U is going to be our guest aboard the Enterprise for a while,” Picard offered.

“Really? How did this come about?”

“The captain was my knight in shining uniform, and I’m hoping that I can return that favour.”

“Oh?” Picard invited.

“Let me help, Captain. I may be defrocked, but I’m still capable. There must be something that someone with my IQ can do aboard a ship as grand as yours. Put me to work.”

“Hmm, I’ll have to think about that, U, but I’m sure that I can find something.”

“Thank you.”

“So, what is your IQ, U, that you’re so desperate to put your mind to work?” Guinan asked, genuinely curious about the visitor.

“I’ve been measured at around 2020, the same as my eyesight.” The three laughed together.

Guinan seemed somewhat stunned, not in doubt of his claim so much as suddenly suspicious of U, himself. “That’s quite impressive. There aren’t a lot of species with members who can make claims to IQs in that range.”

Picard volunteered, “U is a member of the Q Continuum …”

Guinan cut him off. “He what?! Jean-Luc, you can’t be serious,” she said, her anger still growing.

“I’m afraid I am, Guinan,” Picard said, taken aback.

“So a member of the Continuum comes aboard the Enterprise looking for work …to be a part of the crew. Jean-Luc, we’ve been through this scenario before! And not all that long ago!”

“I take it, Guinan, that you’ve encountered my people before,” U asked, maintaining a friendly tone.

“We’ve had dealings,” Guinan responded with an even but cold tone.

“‘Dealings?!’ My! That can’t be good!” U admitted, with a slight attempt at humour.

“You might say that,” Guinan conceded.

“You’re El-Aurian?” U inquired.

“That’s right,” Guinan responded, with a distinct tone of strength in her voice.

“I see.”

“Guinan,” Picard interrupted, “U is aboard my vessel under my invitation. I am convinced that he is not one to fear.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, it is. He is currently incarcerated by the Q and is seeking my help for a form of parole.”

“Incarcerated?” Guinan’s intensity dissipated a bit, “That means he has no powers right now.”

That’s right.”

“And you trust him?”

“I do.”

After a moment, Guinan’s posture relaxed. “Then, I will too.” She regarded U, “The captain is never quick to use the term ‘friend,’ and I trust his instinct, but if I hear of anything about you that makes me doubt that trust, U, I will make certain that Captain Picard knows of it immediately. I will not allow any danger to come to this ship. Am I clear?”

“As Andorian lake ice. I promise you, Guinan, I am no threat to this ship.”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

“U, perhaps you and I should head out. I have to stop in to visit a member of my crew on a very important assignment. You’re welcome to join me.”

“That’s a fine idea, Captain, but before we do, let me say, Guinan, I find your passion for defending your friends an admirable quality. You have won my respect.”

Guinan said nothing, but it was clear that U’s words had an impact on her. Then Picard gestured toward the exit, “U?”

“Lead on, Captain,” U said, and the two exited Ten-Forward together.

In the corridor, U and Picard walked silently for several moments before U said, “I can see why you like her, Captain.”

“Indeed?” Picard responded with genuine surprise. “That’s rather odd seeing that she nearly threw you in the brig.”

U chuckled lightly, “Yes,” he admitted, “but she was willing to stand in between you and me just in case I might be a danger, and she did that when she didn’t even know I was powerless. How can I not respect that?”

“You have a point,” Picard said, and the two fell silent again. When they came to a junction in the corridor, Picard held out an open palm to indicate a right turn, and as they continued, Picard spoke again: “You know, it’s not the first time that I have seen Guinan take a threatening stand against a member of the Q Continuum. It strongly suggests that there is even more to Guinan than meets the eye, and that’s not the first time I’ve said that.”

“Mmm,” U observed.

“She is a woman whom I respect a great deal, but I am continuously surprised the more I get to know her.”

“Interesting,” U remarked.

The pair walked on for a few more moments in silence before Picard finally tried to make his point more explicit: “She didn’t seem the least bit afraid of you,” he said finally.

“Captain, are you trying to ask me something?”

“Yes! I want to know what makes her so formidable that she would be willing to stand up to you, even before she knew of your incarceration.”

U smiled knowingly before he responded: “The El-Aurian have impressive defensive capabilities, Captain. Something akin to how you use your phasers rather than your shields, both are defensive, but one of them is more … active. The El-Aurian have the uncanny ability to use the power of the Q against them. One-on-one, a Q would have to be very desperate or very arrogant to threaten them. There’s no guarantee, but it could turn out very badly for the Q in question or the Q in ‘quandary’ or the entire Q ‘inquisition.’”

Picard smiled. “I see,” he said, and then, “Here we are!” He paused outside the door. “I think you’ll like this person. He is also prone to making language jokes.” He pushed the buzzer beside the door and waited for an invitation, which followed several seconds later.

2

Inside his surprisingly spacious office, Lt. Costello sat behind a keyboard with its customary black and white keys. He wore headphones. His eyes were closed as he repeatedly pressed a middle “C,” then moved his hand down the keyboard to “C1,” then all the way up to “C8” and then to C2 and C7 and so on. He did this again and again, not just with the C, but with every pitch on the keyboard, and he had been at it for hours, listening intently to the different octaves. He was entirely unaware of the buzzer at his door because of his headphones, regardless of the flashing light above the door—the one that Geordi had installed months before for just such an occasion. However, Costello’s eyes remained closed as he continued to move up and down the keyboard. He would likely have gone on like this for who knows how long were it not for the fan that doubled the buzzer’s and flashing light’s effectiveness. Geordi had installed this fan after it became clear that the door buzzer and the flashing light were still not entirely effective in getting Lt. Costello’s attention. It took a moment or two for the gust of air to reach him from across the office, but when it did, he immediately removed his headphones and noted the flashing light. “Enter!” he said, somewhat startled. The door slid open and, as his captain entered, Lt. Costello stood, retaining the same startled expression, perhaps with even a bit more intensity as a result of seeing who the man was who was entering. “Captain!” he said, “Please! Come in!”

U entered behind Picard. Costello regarded U for just a moment, but kept his attention on his captain, as he should. “Lt. Costello,” Picard began introducing, “may I present a guest aboard the Enterprise. This is U.”

“U?” Costello repeated as much to clarify the name as to greet the person.

“That’s right,” U affirmed. The two shook hands, and Picard continued, “And, U, this is Lt. Costello, who is a most brilliant pianist. Why, just weeks ago, U, the lieutenant played a rendition of the Prokofiev Third Concerto that was most impressive to both hear and see.”

U looked both surprised and pleased. “Prokofiev?!” he said. “That’s no small feat.”

“You’re too kind, Captain,” Costello said.

“And you’re too modest, Lieutenant,” Picard returned with a bit of a point in his tone. “You’re as fine a pianist as I’ve ever heard.”

“Thank you, Sir,” the lieutenant said.

“Now, to business,” Picard declared. As he spoke, Picard made himself aware of the details regarding Lt. Costello. His two pips were decidedly crooked compared with the line of the collar, and his hair, thin though it was, was too long for regulation, and it was ruffled. Still, the lieutenant worked mostly alone, and his work was always exemplary. Under those circumstances, Picard was well able to overlook these relatively minor infractions. “Report,” Picard said. “I know you haven’t had a great deal of time to work through all the information on the Calliphlox, but I want to make sure that you have everything you need, and if you’ve run across any difficulties as of yet.”

As they spoke, U took a minute to examine the contents of the office he stood in. The walls were decorated with a plethora of musical instruments from a variety of eras and cultures spanning the Federation. Prominently displayed over a harpsichord was a black serpent horn and a variety of other wind instruments from medieval Earth, including a bladder horn and a set of bagpipes. He had a number of viols and da gambas displayed—an entire set of strings for the standard orchestra, including—U noted especially—a lovely double bass, not terribly dissimilar to instruments he had played for the Continuum. He also had a Vulcan Psaltery, and lutes from Vulcan, Risa and Bajor. Beside his harpsichord was a large Trill keyboard, a set of Vulcan bells, a Bajoran flute, and a variety of other tiny, hand-held instruments. All-in-all, U—somewhat surprisingly—found himself entirely impressed and found in himself an eagerness to play some of them. In fact, that eagerness created a small pang in his chest, something he had not experienced before, but he assumed it was some sort of symptom of being so far from the Q part of his being, and he wasn’t too far off in that assessment. He pondered the sensation for a moment, trying to determine what it was, but it was something from outside his experience. What he was experiencing for the first time in his lengthy life was envy, but by the time he would be able to identify it, he will have forgotten that he’d had this encounter with it. He concluded that, as interesting as it was, it wasn’t causing any damage, and he elected to dismiss it. Besides, he also realized that he had been distracted from the conversation and brought himself back to the situation at hand, just as Costello was explaining to his captain his progress so far.

Picard and Costello stood over Costello’s computer console together. “You see, Captain? The Calliphlox have an understanding of music that is not too foreign from ours.”

“In what ways is it similar?” Picard asked.

“Well, they have a similar emphasis on octaves and other intervals such as the whole step. You can hear them lighting on pitches that relate well to our own major scales.” Costello paused and let out a breath. “The problem is that this isn’t enough to establish a translation matrix yet. Not by light-years.”

“Why isn’t it enough?” Picard demanded.

“Well, Sir,” Costello hesitated, “one problem is that while the Calliphlox hum for their language, the hum is made with the wings; it’s not vocal. So while they speak, they also seem to dance because different words are different pitches, which require different wingspeeds. In order to stay in place while they speak, they have to adjust their bodies. As a result, they seem to be constantly performing ballet as they speak. It’s remarkable to see on a screen; I can’t imagine how it would appear in person! It makes you wonder what a recitation of their poetry would look like.”

“You may very well have the opportunity to see and hear their poetry, Mr. Costello, and it will likely be you who will make it possible for members of the federation to understand it.” Picard paused for a moment considering what he had heard, and then he nodded with an approving appearance once he had all the information assimilated. “Is there any more?”

“Actually, there is, Captain. I’ve noted another problem in their method of communication. Now, it’s really far too early to tell how much of a roadblock this will be. Still, while the Calliphlox light on intervals similar to those in our musical concept, they also seem to slide around, which will make it difficult to determine diction.” He paused and held up a finger to emphasize his point. “Let me play you some recorded Calliphlox monologue, Sir.” Costello walked over to a computer console and slid a finger across a lighted feature, and from speakers around the room came the recorded hum of Calliphlox talk. It began on a pitch that sounded and seemed to function much like an anacrusis of Western music on Earth—a pitch that was about a sixth below what sounded to be the downbeat of a long, lyrical phrase.

Picard was no slouch when it came to appreciating music; he understood a great deal of the principles behind it thanks to his childhood study of piano and his ardent love for the classics. He listened carefully to Costello’s recording and was able to pick up the sliding that was Costello’s concern. When the recording ended, Picard nodded again and said to Costello, “Yes, I see what you mean.”

U had also been listening, and he interrupted. “No, it’s not so much sliding as you might think.” He had been looking to the floor so as to concentrate on the recording, but then he looked Costello in the eye. “May I please hear it again?”

Costello glanced toward his captain for approval, and Picard nodded. Costello slid his finger a second time across the lighted feature on his console, and the recording began playing again. The three men, seemingly hypnotized, moved together toward the centre of the room where the sound from all the speakers could be heard with equal emphasis. They each looked meditatively to the floor, Picard with one arm folded across his chest and the index finger of his other hand crossing his lips. Costello closed his eyes and rubbed the temples of his head. U clasped his hands behind his back as he listened. Soon he began to smile confidently. Even while the other two men continued to listen intently, U was certain of what he had heard and was even better able to hear it now that he knew what to listen for. He waited patiently and respectfully for the recording to finish, and when it did, the other two men looked to U with the expectant expressions of those who had clearly not heard what U had. “You don’t hear it?” U asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Picard responded.

“I can understand why it might sound like sliding,” U went on. “Perhaps my race is made with more acute hearing abilities, but the discourse of the Calliphlox is distinctly incremental; they are not sliding. Their pauses are exceptionally brief and include pitches that are quarter tones, eighth tones and some even slightly smaller intervals. Even so, there are distinct pauses that would likely be made on the pitches that convey meaning to the other Calliphlox, Lt. Costello.”

The Lieutenant’s eyes widened with enthused surprise. “We’d have to play the recording back very slow to confirm what you’re saying, and then find an instrument that can help us find the pitches for these tiny intervals, but, if you’re right, U, you may have just found the first step in deciphering their language.” He turned to his captain. “Sir, this may be just what we need to move forward. Would it be alright with you if U worked with me on this assignment? He appears to have helpful talents.”

Picard turned his attention to U. “Well, U, you were looking for something to do. It looks like we may have just found a job to which your abilities seem especially well suited, if you’re interested.”

“I am, indeed, Captain.”

“Very good, then,” Picard concluded. “Lieutenant, this is some excellent work for only a single day. You’re to be congratulated.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Very good,” Picard announced. “I’ll leave you both to it. Keep me informed of your progress.” Picard said and began to depart.

“Will do, Sir,” Lt. Costello responded as his captain entered the corridor outside the office and made his way toward Engineering. He was feeling more than pleased with what he had just seen, especially considering that his visit had been entirely unannounced for the Lieutenant. Normally Picard wouldn’t want to hear about the problems that a subordinate had encountered in a task; he wanted to hear about results. Still, in this case, even the problems were indicative of progress since the Lieutenant had had so very little time to work, and the task had come as something of a surprise, as well. Picard was in high spirits. It was a good time for him to visit Geordi; hopefully, there would be progress made there as well.

As he marched through the corridors, Picard found himself thinking about U. There was still a residue of distrust regarding him, mostly because he didn’t know U all that well yet, but also because of Q, whom Picard had come to know better than he would have elected to had he had that choice nearly two years earlier. But a lesson from Picard’s own academy days kept pressing forward in his mind regarding a transporter accident on the original Enterprise under the command of James T. Kirk some eighty years before. Picard had found the incident interesting enough, but it wasn’t so much the incident as it was an observation of Kirk’s first officer, Cmdr. Spock, that had really caught Picard’s attention.

In the accident, Kirk and three of his officers from the prime universe had been transported to a parallel universe, while their counterparts from that universe had been simultaneously transported to the prime. Kirk prime found the behaviour in the alternate universe to be barbaric and brutal, but he was able to imitate that behaviour, at least enough to get by for the time that they needed. His first officer in the prime universe, however, had quickly identified the “imposters” from the alternate universe. Spock later observed that it had been easier for Kirk and party, as civilized people from the prime universe, to impersonate barbarians than it was for the barbarians of the alternate universe to imitate civilized men.

While the memory of studying this incident rolled around Picard’s mind, he decided that Q, or a being like him, would never be able to behave in a manner similar to what he had observed in U, not for any significant length of time, anyway. Kindness, respect, care … these are attributes that lie far out of Q’s grasp. If U were truly like Q, there was little doubt for Picard that he would have given himself away by now. Still, Picard decided, he would continue, for now, to wait and watch.

The moment Picard reached that conclusion, another line by Mr. Spock flashed through his brain: “Logical. Flawlessly logical.” The thought almost startled him, and he stopped in his tracks right in the middle of the corridor. So suddenly did he stop walking, in fact, that a young ensign, who had been walking behind him on her way to her post, nearly walked into her captain’s back. She caught herself just in the nick of time, gave an expression of mild annoyance, then, realizing who it was whom she was just about to tell off, she blushed and walked swiftly around him: “Excuse me, Sir,” she said meekly.

Picard only barely noticed her and absentmindedly stepped to the side. He pondered this congratulatory thought that had imposed itself on his mind and debated its accuracy and sincerity. He stood a moment, reviewing his argument once again, ultimately deciding that the praise was indeed appropriate. Then, in a surprisingly Data-esque fashion, he nodded slightly to one side. “Hmm,” he said to no one and continued to Engineering.

Geordi and many of his crew were hard at work when Picard entered Engineering, so much so, in fact, that they didn’t notice him. Picard took a moment to ponder with pleasure that they were taking the work regarding Jeremy McKee so seriously. The ship was running smoothly; updates and upgrades had already been completed; all the damage, minor though it was, had been repaired, so there was not much else for his engineering staff to do while the Enterprise headed out for her next assignment, and here they all were, hard at work. Bravo, Geordi, Picard thought. Not only did it make for encouraging news for Picard’s later meeting with the young man, but he also doesn’t need to embarrass his chief engineer like he had done the day before. Picard smiled a bit at the memory but dismissed it quickly as he saw the unmistakable signs of frustration and discouragement. They weren’t overwhelming the group of capable crewmen, and yet, small signs of stress were visible.

It was understandable. Geordi and many of those on his crew had worked tirelessly only weeks ago when this illness made its way aboard the Enterprise, and they were stymied. That’s when twelve crewmen lost their lives, and now there’s another with the same condition. It was clearly a burden for them. Unfortunately, it was a duty that must continue. There must be a way to defeat this infection! “Geordi,” Picard said.
Geordi turned suddenly. “Captain?!” he said with not a little surprise in his voice.

Picard raised a hand, palm downward, to reassure the engineer, and Geordi relaxed substantially as a result. “Geordi,” Picard repeated, “I realize that you have had very little time, but in only a few hours, I’m going to be visiting Mr. Jeremy McKee with Counsellor Troi, and I’m going to need every piece of information available.”

Geordi nodded to his captain, a man he deeply respected, but it wasn’t just respect. In one very real sense, Geordi held Captain Picard highly because he is the captain and because he’s a man with a great deal of experience and wisdom. But aside from that, if reality were just a little different, Geordi knew that he and Picard would be very good friends, as in some ways, they already were. Still, despite the age gap, Geordi knew that Picard held Geordi equally high, and that made for a very productive working relationship, especially in situations like this. Geordi quickly summed up in his mind all that was important right at the moment. “Captain, I understand the importance of this work, but my crew have been at this for hours already after the many days we spent when there were twelve people infected. Back then, we explored every idea we could come up with. Most of the trouble we’re having is just inventing new ideas. Even stupid ideas are hard to come by. All we have to work with is what we had before. There’s no new information, and, to be honest, Captain, we could use some fresh minds and data.”

Picard nodded. He was trying to be accepting of his Chief Engineer’s report, but it certainly wasn’t going to make his visit with Jeremy any easier. He smiled, but his frustration still shone through. “I see,” he said, then he quickly looked around engineering. “Is Commander Data not here?”

With a slight look of puzzlement, Geordi also turned and scanned Engineering. “No, Sir. He’s on the bridge recalibrating the sensors.”

Picard tapped his communicator: “Picard to Commander Data.”

“Data here, Sir.”

“Data, I want you to report to Engineering on the double and work with Mr. La Forge to find a way to communicate with this damned infection.”

“On my way, Sir.”

Picard addressed Geordi again. “Geordi, I want you to pull anyone you can from anywhere you need to for this work. There are no critical systems that need repair for the next few weeks. There is no need for anything to be a higher priority than curing young Jeremy McKee.”

“Aye, Sir,” Geordi affirmed, then looked hesitant.

“Is there something else, Lieutenant?”

Geordi blew out a breath. “Well, yes Sir, there is. Permission to speak freely?”

“Yes, of course,” Picard said with a friendly tone.

Geordi folded his arms and leaned against the computer terminal. “I was just wondering if you had considered asking our guest for his assistance regarding Jeremy, Sir.”

“U?! He currently possesses no power of the Q.”

“Yes, Sir, I know, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have friends in high places.”

“Q, you mean.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Actually, I hadn’t thought of that. I’m still not sure exactly how far to trust him. And even if I did, I know that I don’t trust Q or what the long-term consequences would be of accepting his aid.”

Geordi faced his captain, gesturing emphatically: “Sir, I understand your feelings on that matter. I share them, but we’re talking about a boy’s life here. It might be worth the risk.”

Picard folded his arms and reclined against the island console. “Yes, you’re right.” He paused again. “But I’d like to be much more sure of the situation before I say anything. Jeremy still has time before his condition becomes critical.” He thought for a long moment while one of Geordi’s men handed him a padd with a long series of even longer numbers. Geordi regarded the padd for a time, then nodded and handed it back to his crewman. “That looks good, Gavers. Give it another go, and we’ll see what happens in a minute or so.” Gavers nodded in response and retreated deeper into Engineering. That’s when Picard spoke up again. “Stay on it, for now, Geordi. When the time feels right, I’ll talk to U, but that time is not now.”

Just then, Data entered and stepped up to both Geordi and Picard. “Commander Data reporting as ordered.”

Picard stood again. “You’re just in time, Data. For this one, we need even you to have your thinking cap on.”

“Aye, Sir,” Data said with an expression of surprise, and Picard turned to depart. Data then turned to Geordi, “Geordi, … ‘Thinking cap?’”

“Don’t worry about it, Data. The Captain just wants you to use that wonderful positronic brain to its fullest, is all.”

Data thought for a moment. “But Geordi, I could never do anything less.”

“He knows that, Data.” Momentarily satisfied, Data responded, “Ah.” But then his expression turned once again to query. “But if he knows that, why would he tell me to do it?”

“He just wants you to understand how important this assignment is, Data.” And with that, Data’s questions were satisfactorily answered. He immediately joined in with the other crew members.

3

As soon as Picard rounded the corner in the corridor, he heard a familiar voice addressed him: “Mon Capitaine!” and there was Q in his customary captain’s costume reclining against the bulkhead with his arms folded in his equally customary fashion.

“Q!” Picard said as much surprised as annoyed. “What the devil are you up to now?”

Q and Picard started walking together. “I was just passing through this section of the cosmos,” Q said with a lackadaisical tone, “and thought I’d drop in to see if you need anything.”

“Like what?” Picard demanded.

Q wavered mockingly as they walked: “Oh, I don’t know. Directions to your new assignment, maybe. Instant remodelling of your bathroom, perhaps?” There was no response from Picard. “I know!” Q announced as he stopped walking. “How about I provide you with the cure for some vile, fatal illness that you may or may not have aboard your sickly little ship?!”

Picard stopped immediately in his tracks. “What do you mean?” he asked without turning to Q.

Q’s coy smile never faltered as he sauntered up to Picard’s side: “I’ll give you one guess,” he said.

“Jeremy McKee?” Picard whispered.

“Very good, Jean-Luc. You go to the head of the class.”

Picard turned cautiously: “Are you saying you can cure him?”

Q smiled devilishly. “That is precisely what I’m saying. The question is,” he leaned in and whispered, “will I cure him?”

“And the answer is …?” Picard pressed.

“‘It depends,’ is the answer, Jean-Luc,” Q responded matter-of-factly.

Picard nodded with a sardonic smile. “You dare to stand there with your claims to superior power and try to taunt me with some puerile game while a boy’s life is at stake, Q? A person’s life is not a carrot for you to dangle in front of me to get me to go wherever you lead. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m busy.”

“Oh, Jean-Luc,” Q groaned, “Please give me credit for giving you more credit than being some sort of stupid pack animal. This isn’t a game; it isn’t a hustle. It’s a deal; simple as that.”

“A deal.”

“Mm-hmm,” Q said, cleverly feigning both innocence and honesty.

“Then, dammit Q, what is it you want?!”

Suddenly Q found that he had issues with his fingernails, and he abruptly began looking at them intently as he spoke: “Nothing that will directly impact your future. Nothing that will cause you or your ship any harm. Nothing that will really cost you anything at all.”

“Get on with it, Q!”

“All you have to do is agree not to grant your Q-continuum guest the parole he wants from you. That’s all.”
“Sacrifice the freedom of one for the life of the other? Is that it, Q?”

“Yes, of course, but let’s face it, Jean-Luc, U is not a member of your crew—not a member of your … family. Is he?”
“They are both aboard my ship. They are both under my protection, my responsibility. Equally.”

“And yet, you did lose 12 members of your crew to this nasty infection. Are you really willing to risk the life of one more? For shame, Jean-Luc.”
“I have my crew working on this situation, Q …”

“Mmm, yes, I noticed. Really, Jean-Luc, do you truly believe that they can come up with the cure in time? After all, they failed you before.”
“This may come as a shock to you, Q, but I have faith in my crew. I’ve seen them successfully overcome obstacles that seemed entirely insurmountable.”

“Yes, indeed. Like your recent encounter with the Borg. Oh, wait a minute … That wasn’t your crew. Was it?”

Picard said nothing.

“Hmm, let me think. It seems that there was someone else involved, right? Why! It was … it was I who saved you! Wasn’t it? In fact, you actually begged me to help you, as I recall.”

“Yes, perhaps. But that wasn’t the case when you put us on trial for the crimes of all humanity. We beat you. And when you tried to get Riker to join your Club Continuum, Q, once again, we beat you. That’s two out of three. Not at all unimpressive for primitive primates, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, these speeches you make, Jean-Luc!” Q was applauding. “Wonderful! Inspiring!” He stopped his applause and leaned in toward Picard. “Now, listen up, you preening posturing pipsqueak. When you get your back against a wall with this illness … WHEN you decide that there is no other choice but to come crawling to Q once again, feel free to call out to me. Or, when you finally realize that U is playing you just like you used to play that childhood piano of yours—albeit, with far greater skill than you ever showed—I’ll be in and out, around and about for you to pester. Hesitate not, Jean-Luc.”

And with that, Q vanished. Picard took a moment to absorb what Q had said, to ponder how reliable it all might have been. But he had said something that Picard knew immediately he would be able to take to the bank: Q is in no imminent need to see Picard make a choice, and that suggested first, that Q knew that Jeremy still had some time to play with, and second, that U’s character may yet have had some revelations to come forward. Clearly, Q was also gambling on U’s choices showing some negativity, and that meant that Picard could also take some time before deciding if U was as trustworthy as he seemed. He filed this information away. For now, he had to concentrate on meeting with Dr. Pulaski, and then with Troi and young, Mr. McKee. Picard nodded sharply to himself, then continued on his way.

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