Q de Gras (Prologue and Chapter 1: “Suspended on a Mission”)

 

Prologue
(Stardate 42940.4)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard ambled onto the Enterprise Bridge from his ready room, smiling contentedly. While the past few weeks had been tough for his crew and their families aboard the Enterprise, now Picard had the opportunity to give them all a much-needed respite from the intensity and danger of their surroundings. His thoughts had been dramatically different just hours before. Indeed, for days his thoughts had been laden with sorrow: How sad, he had thought hundreds of times; Twelve of my crew are dead! The problem wasn’t how to fill vacant spots. Replacements were no problem aboard a Federation starship. There were ample crew members—capable, skilled, experienced crew members who were well able to fill vacant posts. No, replacements weren’t the issue. The issue was that twelve people were dead! And that didn’t cover the whole of it. Two of those counted among the lost were as dear to Picard as family, and they were survived by their 14-year-old son who preferred, for the time being, to remain a resident of the Enterprise. But now Picard is empowered to help his crew put that all behind them. And even Picard himself, once he finished the official report on the lost—how they each had died, a task that still felt daunting to him—he, too, could put that entire mission behind him.

He had just received their new assignment from Starfleet. A new assignment means work, something to focus on; that’s good therapy. And they were in no hurry to get to that assignment; that means time: time for mourning, time for healing and time for remembering. He would be able to stretch out the travel time to their next mission like a calm, leisurely, ever-so-therapeutic stroll; there was no need to hurry at all, and that, he decided, was a very good thing. It was certainly the reason for his own present, more-than-welcome good mood.

On the Bridge, his people were in their places working steadily. Ensign Sonya Gomez sat at the engineering station with her back to him; Lieutenant Barnaby stood at tactical engaged in work. Acting ensign, Wesley Crusher sat at the conn station, and Lieutenant Commander Data, in his usual seat at Ops, calmly but clearly announced, “Captain on the Bridge.”

Picard caught the immediate attention of Commander Riker and Counsellor Troi at their respective stations. After spending a moment looking serenely over Data’s shoulder at his operations console and nodding approvingly when the second officer looked up and met Picard’s eyes, Picard meandered to his command chair between Riker and Troi, who exchanged amused glances, then, as the captain took his seat, stretched his tunic into place, and exhaled in a way that was almost a tranquil sigh, they almost began to chuckle. On Picard’s left, Troi sat relaxed with fingers laced together around her knee. On his right, Riker, smiling, raised an eyebrow: “You seem very happy today, Sir.”

Picard regarded his first officer for just a moment, keenly aware of the glance that had passed between him and Troi. “Oh, and why shouldn’t I be, Number One? I have a fine ship, an excellent crew …” He paused a moment knowing that he would have to share his news sooner or later, but privately preferred later. He secretly enjoyed taunting his first officer every now and again. “… a comfortable chair,” he continued, patting the arms of his captain’s seat then, with obvious satisfaction, he folded his hands in front of himself and looked at the viewscreen.

“It is good to see you experiencing some enjoyment again, Captain,” Counsellor Troi said. “It’s been a long time.” It wasn’t just ‘enjoyment’ that Picard was feeling, she knew; she didn’t need her Betazoid talents to clearly sense the captain’s playful attitude. She considered taking his bait if only to satisfy him but quickly thought better of it. She realized that she might have more fun herself if she were to watch Will work himself into a frenzy, so she sat back, pretending to bow out but kept eyes, ears and other sensors poised.

“Is there something that you’d like to share, Captain?” Riker prodded.

“There is indeed, Number One,” Picard said with a nod. “We have our next assignment.”

After a pause with no further information being offered, Riker said, “Really, sir?”

“Yes, and you’ll find the destination intriguing!” He lowered his voice just a bit, as though the rest of the Bridge officers shouldn’t know, even though it is they who would soon be moving the ship in the correct direction. “The destination is Alpha Onias II.”

“Alpha Onias?! Sir, that system is near the Romulan Neutral Zone.” Riker was genuinely confused by Captain Picard’s calm deportment, considering that missions near the Neutral Zone were usually cause for stress—just what the Enterprise crew didn’t need, but Captain Picard seemed genuinely tranquil. “Yes, so it is, Number One,” Picard observed.

Riker, puzzled and somewhat suspicious, turned his attention to the second officer: “Data, information on the Alpha Onias system.”

Lt. Cmdr. Data turned in his seat and addressed the captain and first officer: “Accessing,” he said, and his eyes moved quickly back and forth while he seemed to be reading the text on an unseen viewscreen right in front of him. After a brief time, “Sir,” he said, “that system is said to be uninhabited. Alpha Onias is a class M star, a ‘red giant.’ Seven planets, a large number of dwarf planets and three major asteroidal ring systems, but with very few moons: twelve in total. Alpha Onias IV through VII—the four outer planets—are gas giants, class I and J. Alpha Onias III is class M, but not at all what you would call ‘comfortable.’ Alpha Onias II is class K, inhabitable but also inhospitable, and Alpha Onias I is class H. As far as the Romulans go, Sir, Alpha Onias is close enough to smell them.” After an uncomfortable pause with no response, Data went on. “That was an attempt at humour, Sir. You see, odours cannot travel through the vacuum of space …”

“We got it, Data,” Riker interrupted. “Is there anything else on the star system?”

Data nodded to his captain, conceding that Riker had a valid point in being concerned. “It is less than ideal for either exploration or habitation, Captain;” he paused for a moment, suddenly puzzled.

Picard sat confidently listening and observing.

Data cocked his head to the side with the quizzical expression of a puppy who is hearing a high-pitched sound for the first time. “However,” he continued, “while the moon that orbits Alpha Onias II is class D, its own moon—a submoon—was recently reclassified from class L—vegetation but no animal life—to class M. Hmm, interesting! There is animal life after all, but the data indicates that it is not sentient. And this moon, itself, has its own class D moon just under a tenth of the size of the parent moon.” His eyebrows shot upward quickly. “Hmm. Intriguing,” he commented.

“How is it possible,” Riker demanded with distinct skepticism, “for such a small body to retain an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere?”

“The submoon is indisputably small, Sir,” Data said, “In fact, it is only just large enough to retain its spheroid shape: 1200 kilometres in diameter. However, the presence of a core that is either very dense or very large in relation to the total mass of the body itself can quickly account for such a phenomenon. It would necessitate any animal life to retain a smaller size in relation to the moon’s mass, but it seems likely that it would have the opposite effect on plant life, necessitating great mass.”

Riker considered all that Data’s data suggested. “Ok,” he said meditatively, almost, but not quite to himself, “A planet with a moon and a tiny, theoretically very dense submoon with its own, irregularly shaped moon.” Riker shook his head. “I admit that it’s interesting, Sir, but the only thing worth our time is the life on the submoon. But if Starfleet has already set up listening posts, why would the Enterprise even need to turn her head?” Picard said nothing, so Riker spoke again to Data: “How far is it?”

Once again, but this time only for an instant, Data made his “accessing” expression before he responded. “Alpha Onias is two days, sixteen hours and twenty-three minutes at warp seven.”

“No seconds, Mr. Data?” Riker inquired.

Data looked surprised. He frowned, and his eyebrows rose as he nodded, “Yes, Sir. That time frame includes seconds. However, if you wish me to quote to the tenth of a second …”

The captain took the reins at this point. “That won’t be necessary. Thank you, Mr. Data.” Then, turning his attention to the conn, “Mr. Crusher, lay in a course for Alpha Onias II and engage at … warp three.”

Acting ensign Crusher responded without turning: “Course laid in. Warp factor three, aye, sir.”

Riker could not have been more surprised. “Warp three, Captain!?”

Picard turned to regard his first officer with an expression of surprise. “Right you are, Number One!” Picard said with a congratulatory tone, then turned his attention back to the young acting ensign: “Correction, Mr. Crusher: warp two.”

“Answering ‘warp two.’ Aye, Sir.”

That’s going to take weeks, Captain,” Riker commented.

“We are in no hurry, Number One. A leisurely pace is just what the proverbial doctor ordered.”

Riker raised an eyebrow and schooled his demeanour. He was all business at this point. “Sir, what exactly is our assignment?”

The captain set his elbow on the armrest and leaned toward Riker. “It is a much deserved, high-priority, low-impact mission, Number One. A show of strength.”

Riker relaxed and smiled. He liked the sound of that. “Really, Sir?”

“Yes. You see, Data’s information on that submoon orbiting Alpha Onias II is out of date. The animal life form that they found is indeed sentient, but they live without technology, and that is apparently why they were missed initially. They are, in fact, intelligent, fully capable beings. Starfleet made contact several months ago. The inhabitants were willing to accept friendship, and they’ve made an accord with us: We may use part of their moon as an outpost under certain conditions. In return, we provide protection from the Romulans, who shall remain ignorant, for the time being, about the intelligence of this new species. So their sentience is classified for now.“ He paused, sensing a flare of burning anger for an instant. “Apparently,” he continued, “the inhabitants have monitored a number of Romulan incursions into our territory and especially into the Alpha Onias system, and they have apparently gone to great lengths to make themselves to be unwelcome guests. So our protection for them is top priority, but we also gain other incidental benefits.”

Troi, who was fascinated, chimed in: “Oh? What is it that the Federation considers ‘incidental’?”

“Cultural exchange, primarily. They are apparently a most unique species for their love of the arts.” The captain smiled, almost giddy—for him—“I’m quite excited to see what the Federation is gaining.”

Riker, the consummate soldier, nodded his head in comprehension. “I see. So our mission is to be there to show the Romulans that we have staked our claim.”
“Correct, Number One. When the Romulans swing by that area in their standard patrol route on their side of the Neutral Zone, Starfleet wants the Romulan long-range sensors to see that we are ready to defend the Alpha Onias system, and the Federation Flagship leading a small contingent of ships is the finest way to show our resolve. These periodic incursions must and will be made to cease.”

“So, what kind of beings are these, Captain?” Troi inquired. “Are they humanoid?”

“No, they’re not, Counsellor. They call themselves the Calliphlox. They’re … birds.”

“Birds?”

“Birds. Virtually the entire moon is a forest covered with flowering plants and enormous trees that the Calliphlox inhabit. I understand that they are about the size of a Terran hummingbird and are equally as lovely to see.”

Pleasantly surprised, Riker smiled. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a sentient avian before.”

Picard shook his head. “Nor I, Number One, but you may very soon have the opportunity to shake wings with one.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Sir,” Riker said. It might almost be like meeting the extinct Xindi Avians,” he asserted.

“Agreed, but, as we have a crew worn ragged by our last assignment, we are not going to rush this one. The Romulan patrols aren’t due for a month, and in that time, I want everyone aboard the Enterprise to be rested and recovered.” He turned to Troi. “I’ll leave that in your charge, Counsellor. Strong, positive morale is your priority.”

“I’m looking forward to that, Captain,” Troi responded.

“Indeed, Counsellor,” Picard assured, then, feeling re-energized, he decided that the present might be a good time to begin that final report for those lost crew members. Doing so would enable him to officially close each person’s file and thereby close the entire episode for the benefit of his own grief that still haunts him since some of those lost were not just crew members, but, in a way, distant family as well. He chose to get on the reports at once. “Well, good!” he said, preparing to stand, “I shall be in my ready room. You have the Conn, Number One.”

“Aye, Sir!” Riker said, raising his voice as Captain Picard marched out.

Riker sat back in his chair and let out a deep breath. “I’m going to make an effort to enjoy myself for the next few weeks,” he said to no one in particular but turned right away to Troi. “A mundane mission like this one is just what I need. How ‘bout you?”

Troi raised her eyebrows and took a few moments before she responded. “I think I’ll put my own respite off for a few days. If this mission is as mundane as it appears it will be, I can rest after we arrive at Alpha Onias II.” She took a deep breath, considering the needs of the many, and looked away from Riker, pondering her responsibilities in this matter. “In the meantime, we have a crew that is in more immediate need.” She paused again to consider just what she might do for everyone. “I think I’ll throw a party. Do you think we can open up a cargo bay to accommodate a huge crowd with lots of food and music and drink?”

“And chocolate?” Riker finished for her.

Troi smiled. “Hmm. Commander, in case you didn’t know, Chocolate is its own food group.”

“Oh, and it’s so much more,” Riker smiled warmly. “I’ll see what bays are available for use and let you know.”

As Troi thanked Riker, Data interrupted. The expression on his face was one of mild confusion or even concern. “Sir, we are receiving a communication from the star system just ahead.” His voice trailed off, and he didn’t look away from his console.

“Is there a problem, Mr. Data?” Riker inquired as he approached Data’s side.

Data wore a troubled expression with that same puppy-dog tilt of his head, still looking at his panel. “The signal is being carried on a most unusual wavelength, Sir.”

Riker set his foot on the console support beside Data and rested his elbow on his knee. “Explain.”

“It is as if the transmission were radio-directed light rather than a message.”

Riker stood straight and tapped his comm badge. “Captain Picard, we need you on the Bridge.” He leaned again toward Data: “Can you put the message on screen, Data?”

Data never looked up but responded promptly, “Attempting to reconcile the carrier wave to our screen’s frequencies now, Sir.”

At that moment, Captain Picard reemerged, having donned the air of authority that he had set aside earlier. Closing those files, he determined, would apparently have to wait. “Report!” he commanded.

Riker faced his captain: “We are picking up a transmission, Sir,” Riker said. “It’s coming in from that solar system in front of us on a frequency that’s giving Data’s some difficulties.”

“From one of the planets?” Picard asked.

Data tipped his head to the side. “It almost appears to be coming from all four of the inner planets, Sir, but as I resolve the difficulties, I am able to eliminate more and more areas as potential sources.”

Riker explained, “It’s been giving him some difficulty for a few minutes, Sir.”

Again, Data didn’t look up from his console but continued his work. “Not difficult at all, Sir, just time-consuming. Its origin is the fourth planet. Transmission on screen now.” Instantly the enormous screen in front of them transformed from a stunning starscape in motion to the image of an apparently human male in his late forties. He was dressed in the formal attire of an early nineteenth-century European aristocrat with a plush, light-grey jacket whose tall collar and cuffs were laden with gold embroidery of ornate patterns. The open neck of the coat brimmed with an opulent silken ascot of an olive-drab hue. His hair was slightly grizzled as it waved neatly toward the back of his head—forming a halo-like appearance. The elegant wingback chair he sat in appeared to be upholstered in velvet and complimented his style of clothing. He looked up at those on the Bridge intermittently, while glancing down at his own communications device, adjusting instruments. “Hello,” he said. “Are you there?”

Picard moved to the centre of the bridge. “Yes. We are receiving you.”

The stranger on the screen looked up at Picard with an expression of surprise, then sat straight in his chair. “Well, will miracles never cease!” he said.
Under his breath, Picard said, “I sincerely hope not,” then continued with his customary greeting: “I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise. And may I …”

The stranger interrupted. “Am I correct in assuming that you are all human?” still glancing back and forth between the people on the Enterprise and his own console.

Picard turned his body to quickly survey the rest of the Bridge crew then back. “Yes,” he assured the stranger. “The majority of the beings on board this ship are human, but there are a large number of other species as well,” he said, forcing a smile. “And may I …”

The stranger interrupted again: “And exactly how should I address you: as ‘Captain Picard,’ as just ‘Picard,’ or just ‘Captain?’”

Picard was genuinely stumped. Never had he been asked such a question or in such a manner. “Uh, ‘Captain’ will do nicely. Thank you. And how …”

“You’ll have to forgive me, Captain. I’m not very technology savvy; I’m much more of an arts-related be … person, and not much of a diplomat at all.”

“Might I inquire as to how we may be of service to you?”

“Well.” There was a long pause while the stranger seemed to be pondering his own response. “For the time being, this is my only way, such as it is, of exploring the galaxy, at least, as much of it as I am able.” He paused for a minute, apparently satisfied that he had the controls before him set right where they needed to be. “I’m not … I don’t leave to explore, Captain. My method is to extend invitations. To welcome other people to my … to my home.”

Picard recognized that the stranger was trying very hard to not give a lot of information. Still, as a seasoned negotiator, rather than press the issue, he spoke in the noncommittal language of Diplomacy, knowing that it could be used to stave off encounters for which he was ill-prepared. “I see. We, too, are on a mission of exploration for the sake of encountering other species for the benefit of mutual exchange of culture and insight.”

The stranger nodded and smiled. “Excellent! I’m very pleased to hear that.” He paused … hesitated, perhaps searching for the proper course. “Would you … be willing to meet? You and I? To discuss how we might best benefit our … mutual … cultures?”

“A meeting would be most welcome,” Picard answered, nodding, “unfortunately, we are presently engaged. Perhaps when we have completed that.”

The stranger appeared disappointed. He paused for a long moment. “I see,” He finally said, and his entire bearing seemed to droop. He looked to his side, then down, then back to Picard. “Well, Captain, I am in no hurry … no hurry whatsoever. There is no need to rush things, is there? May I ask if you’ll be returning to this area?”

Picard maintained the same somewhat stilted smile. “I can tell you that we will make every effort to do so.” He looked again to Data’s console. “Will we be able to reach you using the same frequency you used to contact us?”

The stranger took a long moment to respond. In the silence, Picard found himself trying to discern details in the space behind the stranger. Aside from the elegant chair in which he sat, there was nothing but blackness, no discernible details of the background. “Yes,” he finally answered with a tone of resignation, “you certainly may, but I shall also be monitoring the skies, Captain. I sincerely look forward to making your acquaintance face-to-face.”

“As do I,” Picard responded, nodding.

The stranger pushed the conversation further with some discernible hesitation: “In the meantime, may I make one request of you, Captain?”
“You may,” the captain assured.

“Would you be so kind as to send me some of your culture’s finest art? Specifically, music and literature. Such treasures will give me a chance to … acquaint myself with your people and customs … prior to our meeting.” Again there was a tone of disappointment in his voice as his words trailed off.

The captain’s eyebrows shot up for an instant. “I’m only too happy to share our art with you.” He turned to Data. “Mr. Data, send him a representative mix of musical styles and some of the greater literary works. A mixture from all Federation cultures.”

Data began punching codes on his console as he said, “Aye, sir.”

Picard directed his attention once again to the stranger. “Keep your channel open as we transmit. What we send should be enough to keep you occupied for quite some time,” he announced.

“You have my thanks,” the stranger declared. “It will be a welcome diversion.”

“I can assure you,” Picard added, “it is our pleasure.” He paused only for a fraction of a moment. “Tell me: when we pass this way again and attempt to contact you, how shall we address you?”

A distinctly suspicious look fleeted across the stranger’s face as he folded his hands and looked down for a moment. Then, reaching forward on his own console, he leaned in and met Picard’s eyes with a certain intensity. “You may call me Q,” he said and closed the visual feed.

Picard continued to stare at the screen. Data turned his gaze to his captain, as did Riker and acting ensign Crusher. The Bridge fell entirely silent.

 

ACT I:
Q d’État

 

Chapter 1:

Suspended on a Mission

(Stardate: 42940.4)

1

Captain’s Log: Stardate 42940.4:
While en route to Alpha Onias II for our next assignment, the Enterprise received a transmission from an entity who informed us that his name is Q. As yet, we remain uncertain if the name indicates an association with the Q Continuum or if it’s simply a name of a similar sound.
There were no ill effects, and since we agreed to postpone any official greeting in person, the Enterprise continues on course for Alpha Onias II.
However, I sent a dispatch to my very dear friend, Admiral J. P. Hanson, who is commanding our mission at Alpha Onias II. I requested his advice and instructions regarding this meeting. In the meantime, I have convened a briefing of my staff—those who were on the bridge during the encounter. There is little doubt that I shall be in need of everyone’s perspective regarding this stranger who calls himself Q.

Less than an hour after the event with Q, the bridge crew assembled in the observation lounge. Among them were Cmdr. Riker, Lt. Cmdr Data, Counsellor Troi, Lt. Barnaby, Ensign Gomez and acting ensign, Wesley Crusher. Picard took his usual chair at the head of the meeting table beside the communications screen. His expression was genuine and inviting, calm and reassuring as he opened the briefing: “Now, before we begin, I need to know if anyone is unfamiliar with the being we have encountered in previous missions who also goes by the appellation Q. Let’s discuss this being first so that we can proceed with everyone fully informed as to our reason for concern.”

Lt. Barnaby, who sat at the far end of the table from his captain, began the discussion: “I have read some reports about this Q entity, Sir, but my knowledge is still sketchy at best.” Lt. Barnaby’s wavy blonde hair and naturally stern expression masked a person who was really quite amicable. He was a bold young man, unafraid of speaking his mind, even if it was to confess his own ignorance. It was a characteristic that Picard admired about him, as did Barnaby’s immediate superior, Lt. Worf.

“Thank you, Mr. Barnaby,” Picard said, then turned his eyes to the group. “Is there anyone who would be willing to bring Mr. Barnaby up to speed?” he asked.
Cmdr. Riker stepped up to the plate for this. “Q is a being with preterhuman—preternatural powers, and he’s one of many in a group of these demigods who call themselves collectively, the Q Continuum. They have extremely powerful minds and are able to control and manipulate matter to suit their whims. In our experience, they are not benevolent beings. In fact, quite the contrary.”

Ensign Gomez kept her brown eyes down as she began to speak, her curly dark hair waving as she shook her head. “I was brand new on board the Enterprise when Q zipped us seven thousand light-years away in barely five seconds. It was both amazing and terrifying. We lost eighteen members of the crew that day. Eighteen, all gone, just like that.”

“Let us not forget,” Troi interrupted, “that it was also Q who saved us from the very danger that he put us in when he also flung us seven thousand light-years back to where we belong.”

Picard looked to Troi frankly and prompted openly, “Your point, Counsellor?”

Troi was sitting with a relaxed posture: one elbow set on an armrest, and her hands folded in front of her as she leaned to one side. She breathed deeply and considered her words. “I simply want us to be aware that not everything Q does is necessarily nefarious. And if that’s the case, then we can’t assume, if this new being is associated with the Continuum, that his motives are necessarily bad. Even Guinan said that not all Q are alike, so we shouldn’t necessarily anticipate hostility, even if this other being is Q.”

Captain Picard responded, “Can I assume, then, that you sensed nothing from this being that would make him someone we want to avoid, like the Q we know?”

“Our first encounter with Q was on our way to our Farpoint mission almost two years ago. All I was able to sense was a vastly superior mind: powerful, intelligent and far different from anything I was familiar with. I wasn’t able to sense good or evil, just that next to him, I felt very frightened—very small. With this new being or person, I sense more on an emotional level. For instance, I can tell you that he was thrilled by the prospect of talking with you, Captain.”
“With me?!” Picard was genuinely surprised.

“Not you personally, but generally yes. As though it had been a great while since he’s spoken with anyone.”
“I see. What else?”

“He was distinctly disappointed and dubious of our assignment at Alpha Onias II. He believes that we won’t return—that our mission was an excuse for us to avoid him, and he’s deeply saddened by that. But I sensed nothing that would indicate that he’s dangerous. In fact, my instinct tells me something quite the opposite.” Troi’s voice trailed off. As she had said these words, another point—a potentially contradictory point occurred to her.
“But?” Picard coaxed.

She sighed. “But he wasn’t telling us everything, either.”

“Mmm, I sensed that as well, Counsellor,” Picard nodded. “There were gaps in his discourse, stops and restarts as if there were some things that he was trying very hard not to say.”

At this point, Data interjected. “Additionally, Captain, his taste in fashion is reminiscent of Q’s.”

“Explain.”

Data had been sitting forward in his chair, his arms resting on the table, and his fingers laced together. He retained this pose as he spoke. “His effete wingback chair, his extravagant, formal attire, even his hairstyle and ascot are representative of French aristocracy from the Napoleonic era, just as Q, on one occasion, presented himself in the uniform of a marshal of France replete with a Napoleonic-era campaign headquarters tent and ‘old-fashioned lemonade.’” As he said this last, he emphasized each word with a certain innocence, as though the captain would be impressed that he was familiar with the phrasing. “Since this new being was unfamiliar with us and our culture as demonstrated by his request of a sampling of our literature and music, and that he was not even certain of the species on board the Enterprise, it is safe to assume that the knowledge he obtained for his appearance came to him in a manner similar to how Q got it earlier: from your mind, Sir.”

At this point, the young acting ensign who had been so respectfully silent for this long discourse chose this opportunity to speak: “But that also brings us directly back to Counsellor Troi’s point earlier, Sir.”

“What do you mean, Wesley?” Picard invited.

“Well, so he got some information from your mind on how he should present himself, and maybe that means he is Q, but we still have no proof that he’s the imp that the Q is, Sir.”

“Mm, well said, Wesley,” Picard affirmed, and the young acting ensign smiled sheepishly, looking toward his folded hands. “Very interesting!” Picard exclaimed, looking around the room and nodding. “We have found ourselves with quite the puzzle, then, haven’t we?”

Cmdr. Riker, nodding in agreement with his captain, said, “Sir, I strongly recommend that, if relations with this new being continue, we proceed with great care. The fact that he is such a puzzle for us, in my opinion, Sir, renders him something of a threat, whether he is Q or not.”

Picard pondered his first officer’s ideas for a moment then nodded. “I concur, Number One. We’ll need to find out how Admiral Hanson wants us to proceed, but we shall certainly tread with care.”

As Picard spoke, Lt. Worf’s voice broke in: “Lt. Worf to Captain Picard.”

Captain Picard tapped his comm badge and spoke, “Go ahead, Mr. Worf.”

“Sir,” Worf continued, “Message coming in from Admiral Hanson for you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Worf. Direct it in here.” Then he said to everyone in the room, “Well, speak of the devil.” As Picard swung around in his chair, Admiral J. P. Hanson appeared on the monitor above him. “Admiral,” Picard greeted him, “have you read the report I sent?”

“I have. Is this channel secure?”

“One moment, Sir.” Picard tapped his comm badge again, “Picard to Worf. Go secure with Admiral Hanson.”

“Aye, Sir,” Worf responded, and after a pause, “You are secure, Captain.”

“Thank you, Mr. Worf,” Picard closed then turned his attention back to his friend. “We are secure, Admiral.”

Hanson nodded, “What’s your current status, Jean-Luc?”

“We are en route to you at Alpha Onias II, and, as we discussed earlier, we are moving at something of a celestial snail’s pace.”

“Mm-hmm. And this … being, have you been able to make a determination? Is he hostile? Is he Q? Is he human?”

“We were actually just discussing that very question, Admiral, and have not been able to reach a consensus, except, of course, to proceed with caution. But as far as his species? We have insufficient data.”

“And what about your Betazoid counsellor? Does she have any special insight into this person’s background?”

“As a matter of fact, we’ve discussed that as well, and, as it turns out, she has nothing empathic to offer, Admiral.”

“Hmm. Quite the conundrum,” the admiral conceded. “What does your gut tell you, Jean-Luc? If you were to return to him now, would you be willing to stay in orbit of his planet with him and then come for the assignment here at more of a cheetah’s pace later?”

“That’s an intriguing prospect, Admiral.”

“Well, here’s the issue: The basics of communicating with the Calliphlox were challenging enough when we established contact and reached a tentative agreement. It was months of struggle with the U. T. working around the clock to translate even a single idea in very simple language. Now, as discussion topics are becoming broader and we find ourselves requiring greater clarity and specificity, not to mention, more complex ideas, all the U. T. can tell us is that it is, ‘Unable to derive necessary referents to establish translation matrix,’ or some such nonsense. Damndest thing! So we’ve had to resort to the human element. The problem there is that the Calliphlox don’t talk, they hum. A different pitch or a different articulation is a different word. We have fifteen linguists from the four ships currently in orbit of Alpha Onias II working on the problem, but they’re all strictly language-oriented. It occurred to me that, in WWII, the U. S. used military musicians to help decipher Japanese coded messages since they’re already trained and experienced in listening to and understanding patterns of sound, and I believe the same tactic will work here, Jean-Luc. We need a linguist with a musical background. Then I remembered a concert by one of your officers who played piano and did a Victor Borge routine on …” Hanson turned away from his monitor. “What the devil did he call it? … some kind of language.” After a moment, Hanson smiled and snapped his fingers. ‘Inflationary Language!’ That’s it! Is he still on board the Enterprise?”

“Indeed he is, Admiral,” Captain Picard responded, nodding. “His name is Lt. Costello.”

“He actually just gave another recital a few weeks ago, Admiral,” Riker offered, “and he was able to demonstrate his linguistic prowess with a comedy routine about language and writing. It was brilliant: poignant and funny as hell.”

Admiral Hanson nodded. “He’s our man, then, Jean-Luc. Here’s what I want you to do: I’ll send this Lieutenant Costello of yours all the information we have on this Calliphlox song-language; I want him up to speed by the time you arrive here, and we’ll remain on the same schedule for your arrival. That gives him about four weeks of prep time. I want you to take the Enterprise back to this being you encountered. Orbit for a month or bring him along to Alpha Onias II. Either way won’t make a difference, but find out what you can about him because he is, by definition, part of Starfleet’s charter: to seek out new and different life forms.”

“Agreed, Admiral,” Picard smiled. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

The admiral glanced down at a padd lying on the desk in front of him. He regarded it for a long moment, apparently checking off items that he had wanted to discuss. Finally, he set the padd aside. “Now, for some less official business, Jean-Luc—and Will, you’re in on this, too.”

“Yes, Sir,” Riker said.

“These Calliphlox are remarkable beings!” Admiral Hanson continued. “You are going to be stunned when you see them for the first time, Jean-Luc. Their plumage is iridescent with some of the most marvellous colour combinations I’ve ever seen! When they tell stories, it’s always a group event. They gather like a choir and sing their tales with light and music. Mind you, none of us can yet fully grasp any more than the most basic sense of the stories, but the beauty of the event is plain enough even while helping to add meaning.” He paused and leaned forward toward his own monitor, and his image grew large for those on the Enterprise. “We separate our arts: the performing arts, the non-performing arts; literature, pictorial art, music.” He shook his head, ”for the Calliphlox, the three are one. They have no stories without paintings in plumage. They have no paintings without their musical stories, and they have no music without literature. It stuns a person as surely as a phaser does.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Picard announced.

“As am I, Admiral,” Riker agreed.

“I’ll be happy to make the introductions when you arrive,” the admiral offered. “I will expect you to report to me no later than stardate 42972.4. That’s 32 days, and the day before the Romulans make their scheduled patrol past that area. And that gives us a full day to meet the Calliphlox dignitaries and test and refine your translation matrix for them.”

“Very well, Admiral,” Picard said, then chose to breach protocol with his dear friend on the screen. He softened the tone of his voice just a degree or two: “Good to see you again, J. P.”

“You too, Jean-Luc. Hanson out.”

Once again, Picard spun his chair around to face his shipmates. “Well, before we adjourn, is there any more discussion?” He looked around the room, but all he saw was his crew glancing at one another to see if anyone had more to discuss. He nodded, “Then, let’s return to our posts and turn this ship around.” As he stood, he said, “Let’s find out who or what this mystery stranger really is.” The rest of the group began to rise as well.

“Don’t do it, Jean-Luc.”

The voice was severe but calm and almost mocking. Some in the room sat back down while others stood straight, but everyone glanced about. Moments later, there was a flash of light at the far end of the table from the captain. “You’re heading into waters both deep and dark.” Then the light faded, and Q was reclining at table, feet propped up, hands folded, and a smug smile was perched upon his face. He sported a Starfleet uniform with four shiny undeserved pips on his collar.

“Q!” Picard called, “what is the meaning of this?!”

“Really, Jean-Luc?” Q continued with his usual condescending charm. “As quick on the draw as ever, I see.” He paused, regarding the captain as though waiting for his clues, few as they were, to sink in. When they didn’t, he clicked his teeth and groaned slightly. “I’m here, mon Capitaine, to help guide you away from making a most disastrous mistake.” “What mistake, Q?!” Picard demanded. “If it’s any attempt on our part to make you feel welcome aboard the Enterprise, you succeeded long ago.”

Q made no response but continued to regard the captain with his smile.

“It’s the stranger, isn’t it?” Picard probed.

“Yes,” Q answered.

“Is he Q?”

“Yes, he is.” Q stood up at this point and leaned in toward the captain. “But he’s unlike any Q you might be able to imagine in that puny mass of barely functional grey matter you call a mind.” His voice strained at this last, stifling the urge to laugh outright.

“Well, in that event, he sounds very much like someone I would like to get to know,” Picard returned.

“Oh, Jean-Luc,” Q warned, “you are entering a perilous path in this mysterious forest of space. I wouldn’t want to see you harmed.” His smile grew sinister.
“Is that a threat, Q?” Picard demanded without lowering his voice.

Q mocked a surprised, hurt expression: “Not at all! I’m simply trying to protect you from a being you do not want to have influence your life.”
Picard’s voice softened just a bit. “What are you able to tell us?”

Q raised a hand and opened his mouth just a bit, pretending that he had just been about to speak and thought better of it. He smiled again, coyly. “Well,” he said, “perhaps in a more private setting?” He snapped his fingers, and suddenly he, Picard and Riker vanished from the observation lounge. Those remaining knew that they needed to take no defensive action. Q was an imp, but when he wanted to talk, the others knew that he simply wanted to talk. Data tapped his comm badge, “Computer, locate Captain Picard and Commander Riker.”

The computer responded swiftly in its familiar female, non-emotional voice: “Captain Picard and Commander Riker are in Captain Picard’s ready room.”
Data tapped his comm badge a second time. “Data to the captain.”

In the ready room, Q reclined on the sofa, resting on one elbow with his legs crossed at the ankles, while Picard and Riker stood near the captain’s desk. Picard tapped his own badge in response to Data’s call. “Picard here, Mr. Data.”

“Sir,” Data said, “are you in need of any assistance.”

The captain didn’t respond right away but regarded Q who continued to smile and tipped his head as if to ask, “Well, Picard, are you in need of assistance?”
“All is well at present.”

“Understood, Sir,” Data responded. “Data out.”

Picard, his tone one of frustration and fatigue with the situation, gestured with an open hand toward Q. “Alright Q, get on with it.”

Q sat up on the couch with a bit of a jerky motion. “Tell me, Jean-Luc, why do you think this stranger you spoke with was so glad to be able to speak with you?” Q stood and walked to the captain as he continued to speak. “Is it possible that he would have been just as glad to speak with a Klingon? A Romulan? A Borg?” He walked around the captain and spoke into his ear. “Why do you think he was so disappointed when you wouldn’t meet with him right away? Hmm?”

Picard began to see Q’s logic, and his mind started to make guesses, each of which fell from his mouth. “He’s secluded.” Q smiled, and Picard continued guessing. “He’s isolated.” Q’s expression invited more guesses. Picard snapped his fingers and pointed. “He’s in prison!” Picard concluded.

“Oh very good! Jean-Luc. No dunce cap for you!” Q proclaimed as a cone-shaped hat appeared on Riker’s head. The instant he sensed the diadem, Riker reached up to remove it. “Oh, leave it! It suits you, Number Zero!” Q declared.

Riker ignored him. “How the hell do you lock up a Q?” he demanded.

Q stepped close to Riker. “For you, most things are impossible. For the Q, very little is impossible,” he said.

Picard protested, “Q, I find it hard to believe that it isn’t you that the Continuum locked up. What could any member of the Continuum have done that is worse than anything you do at any time, Q?”

“Oh, it is, Jean-Luc. It is much worse. What he did is bizarre! What he did is grotesque!” Q smiled coyly. “I’ll spare you the details.”

Picard looked off in the distance for a moment to consider Q’s words. After a time, he shook his head. “Mm-mm. No. It is not possible, even for a Q, to behave in a manner worse than you, nor is it possible that one Q is imprisoned without you being imprisoned alongside him.” Picard’s voice grew to almost a yelling volume. “I cannot accept what you’re telling us, Q.”

“Jean-Luc, Really! You mustn’t be so suspicious!”

“Mustn’t I?”

“After all, I’m not exactly on the good side of the Continuum since your little playmate over there chose to not accept the magnificent gift I offered him.”
Riker shook his head sharply in disbelief of what he just heard Q say. “So we should believe you because you’re a scoundrel … and not a very good one? Is that what you’re saying, Q?” Picard looked to Riker with a wry smile.

Q scoffed. “My! Aren’t WE the little barrel of sarcastic wit, Riker!? I’m simply pointing out that we in the Continuum do have standards; my superiors do have expectations, and there are consequences for those who don’t make the grade.” Q laughed directly in Riker’s face. “If you had accepted my offer, you probably would have experienced those consequences long before you had time to study the Q equivalent of toilet training.”

“Fine, Q. Then what would this imprisoned Q want with me?” Picard asked. “Why wouldn’t he prefer the contact of one of his own kind?”

Q folded his arms. “I suppose that he might. But I doubt that even I could find a Q who would want to have anything to do with him.” He leaned forward just a bit and brought his voice down to a whisper. “He’s quite the arrogant Q, you know.” Then he winked.

“Interesting! And what could a mortal like me do for a Q who is imprisoned for a crime that I know nothing about? Why would he reach out to anyone other than a Q? It’s not making any sense, Q!”

Q’s smugness dissipated swiftly. This was a point that he had wanted to avoid. “Oh, you are a persistent little primate, aren’t you?”

Picard said nothing. Riker said nothing. Both of them regarded Q with a smugness of their own, and Q, at this point, began to almost squirm. “Well, there are some legal subtleties that could make a person in your position somewhat helpful to a Q in his position.”

“How interesting!” Picard said with mock surprise.

“But it wouldn’t be prudent, on your part, Jean-Luc.”

“Is that so?”

“My superiors would be most displeased!” Q warned as his coy smile returned.

“With me or with you, Q?!”

Q said nothing. In fact, he looked away from Picard.

“That’s what I thought,” Picard said, nodding. “Deep down inside, Q, you’re a cowardly, puerile brat, and I have little concern of these consequences which seem to so disturb you.” Picard tapped his comm badge, “Picard to Ensign Crusher.”

Wesley’s voice came on the tiny speaker. “Crusher here, Sir.”

“Ensign, turn this ship around. Take us back to the stranger’s planet, warp five.”

“Warp five. Aye, Sir.”

Q was so angry at this point that he was nearly shaking. “You’re making a terrible mistake, Jean-Luc!” And he vanished in a twinkling of light. Picard and Riker looked at each other with satisfied grins.

2

Captain’s Log, supplemental:
Not surprisingly, against the less-than-trustworthy advice of the Q entity with whom we have grown so wearily accustomed, and with great satisfaction on my part, the Enterprise is headed back to the star system from which we were contacted by this second member of the Q Continuum. We are just now coming within communications range.

“Standard orbit,” Picard commanded.

“Aye, Sir,” Ensign Crusher returned. “Standard orbit.”

Picard sat forward in his seat and turned halfway around, “Mr. Worf, hailing frequencies.” Only it wasn’t Worf he was speaking to. It was Q, smiling down on Captain Picard from on high—in Worf’s uniform and sash, of course, replete with Worf’s brow ridges and hair. “Hailing frequencies not open, mon Capitaine.”
“Q!” Picard called, standing up. “What the devil are you doing?!”

Q walked around the communications console to stand face-to-face with Picard. “Well, Jean-Luc, you force a confession from me,” he said with both hands placed mockingly over where his heart should be, then his voice turned dramatically snide: “I thought I’d give you one last warning, lest your puny, pathetic existence becomes even more puny and pathetic.”

“I’m touched,” Picard said dryly. “Now, will you please return my security officer safely to his post?!” he demanded.

Q sounded positively tired with the captain. “Oh, alright,” he agreed, and as fast as that, Worf stood beside his captain in his usual bridge attire, and Q took on his normal appearance. “Happy now?”

But Picard had no time to answer. Worf, having been so humiliated by his sudden removal from his duties, burned in fury toward Q. He growled in anger and was about to leap on the intruder when his captain stopped him: “Mr. Worf! make no move against him!”

“Down, Boy!” Q mocked, and Worf turned his head to the side, bowing slightly, making every effort to remain obedient to the command of his captain. In all the universe, only Picard’s voice could control Worf’s temper as well as his own self-imposed will could.

Embarrassed and still very angry, Worf asked, “Permission to return to my post, Sir.”

“Granted, Worf,” Picard responded, his voice filled with understanding and admiration for the lieutenant, and Worf returned to his post militantly.

“Mm,” Q observed, “very obedient, Jean-Luc. Does he bite?”

Riker broke in. “If we order him to,” and he smiled. Even the captain turned to Riker with a look of amused surprise.

“Enough of this, Q,” Picard said. “You’ve done what you came to do, now be gone.”

“Very well.” Q said, snapping his fingers, and he was gone, but in his absence, these words echoed: “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Jean-Luc.”

“Mr. Data,” Picard said, “are you able to recreate that frequency that this Q used to contact us?”

“Yes, Sir,” Data responded while punching in the correct codes, “you may proceed now, Captain.”

Picard moved to the centre of the bridge and turned to his chief of security, “Mr. Worf, I want a very limited view of the Bridge for this being so that he can only see Cmdr. Riker, Counsellor Troi and me.”

“Aye, Sir,” Worf responded while making adjustments on his panel. “Hailing frequencies open.”

Picard spoke to the star system via his own viewscreen. “This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise to the being known as Q. Please respond.”

There was a long silence aboard the Enterprise as they waited. After a few moments, Picard turned to Worf, who quickly glanced at his panel, then back, shook his head sharply and said, “No response, Sir.” Picard tried again. “I repeat: This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise trying to contact Q, the being we spoke with from these coordinates recently. Please respond.”

Again there was silence for a long moment, and again, Picard looked toward Worf: “Still no response, Captain,” he said. Captain Picard found himself wondering how he was going to proceed if there was no response at all, but that was just a fleeting question because, finally, the person named Q appeared on the viewscreen. He was still wearing the garb of an 18th-century French aristocrat with the prominent olive-green ascot, and the first words out of his mouth were, “You came back? And so soon?! I am very glad! What about your previous engagement?”

“It’s,” Picard began, “on hold for the moment, and we found ourselves more interested in meeting you, Q.”

“I am honoured,” the new Q said.

“I am glad to hear that. Are you still interested in meeting face-to-face to discuss our mutual cultures?”

Q hesitated for a moment. He breathed deeply and began to look somewhat doubtful, but he finally responded. “Absolutely, I am.”

“Very good,” Picard said, nodding. Where …”

Q raised his hand and cut Picard off. “Captain, I promise you I will answer every question you put to me, and I’ll be thorough in my responses, but there are two things that I need you to understand before we move another millimetre forward, since I feel that I’ve already been somewhat deceptive.” He paused, almost as if he were afraid of continuing.

“Yes?” Picard invited. “I’m listening.”

“First,” he said, rubbing his palms together nervously and looking to his side for a time, “is that I am a member of a race of beings—a dangerous, savage, child race—that, like my name, is also called ‘Q.’ Are you at all familiar with us, Captain?”

Picard glanced at Riker, whose eyebrows had already shot up from surprise. “I’ll have my second officer search our records for a race called Q,” Picard said, feigning ignorance, “and just who are they … these Q?”

“We are an unimaginative group of pseudo-omnipotent, self-aggrandizing, self-serving beings who control a large portion of our mutual universe, Captain.”
“I see. Well, that is a frightening prospect.”

“Not so much as what’s to follow, Captain.”

“And that is?”

“I am currently incarcerated by the Q,” he responded flatly.

Picard was stymied. “Please, hold one moment, Q.” Q made a gesture of acquiescence, and Picard, first indicating to Worf to cut the sound, turned to Troi. “Counsellor?”

“I’m not sensing any deception, Captain,” Troi offered. “He is making an honest gesture.”

“Captain,” Riker interrupted, standing and approaching Picard’s side, “so far everything that Q has told us about this person has been confirmed.”
Picard seemed surprised. “Are you going to trust Q on this, Number One?”

“Sir,” Riker sighed, “I don’t know who to trust, but it seems that we are tempting fate by pursuing this discussion.”

Picard held silence for a long moment, contemplating the advice of his first officer—a man he deeply admired and who was always eager to tempt a little fate. This cautionary advice from Riker gave Picard pause. In time, he turned again to the back of the bridge, “Mr. Worf,” and gave a new signal to open the audio again.

“Open, Sir,” came the swift reply.

“Please forgive my naivety, Q,” Picard began again, “but if you are incarcerated by a race of powerful beings, what is it that you want of us?”
“Captain, may I have permission to come aboard your vessel?”

“I beg your pardon: ”Picard interrupted, not a little alarmed. “Are you asking me to assist a jailbreak?

“No. Nothing like that. I promise you that I mean no harm to you, your vessel or anyone aboard. Still, there are certain legalities among the Q that will allow me to project a portion of my being elsewhere, even though the part of me that is Q—my Q abilities and powers—will remain here, held, as it were, as a sort of … collateral. Your instruments will read me as energy, but I will also, for your convenience, have both physical appearance and substance so that I may walk among you. My presence on your ship will allow me to explain myself to you in more detail, with greater clarity, and, if I may be so bold, in a friendlier manner.”

“Again, please forgive me, Q, but to what end do you wish me to permit you aboard? I’ll need to know what the advantages are to me, to my crew and to you. Unless you can answer that, I see no reason to acquiesce.”

“Compos mentis, Captain,” Q said, nodding. “Let me say first, then, that it is clearly I who stand to attain the better part of this deal. What I gain, Captain, is potential for freedom from this prison, luxurious though it may be. It is essentially an eternal one, unless I can win the favour of a being or group of beings who will act as an intercessor for me in the presence of a second member of the Continuum. With the command of an informed being who truly believes my incarceration to be wrong or that my time is fully served in the presence of a Q representative and witness, Justice is served, and I can be made a free Q.”
He paused and raised his index finger. “Let me show you something, Captain.” He turned slightly to his side, held his hands out in front of him, and, after a flash of light, an enormous book appeared in his grasp. It looked to be a leather-bound volume, very dark in colour and showing considerable wear—evidence that it was ancient in the extreme. It was nearly two-thirds of a metre in length, a little more than half of that in width, and the thickness of the ribbed spine was no less than twenty centimetres, compared with the hands that held it. “This book, “Q continued, “is the legal text that outlines all the nuances of the law regarding ‘Q Incarceration.’” He said this as he read and pointed to the title—in English—on the cover. “I was able to procure a copy in your language,” he said somewhat cryptically, “and it will explain in greater detail what I have just told you.” He turned slightly aside again, held the book up, and it vanished. “Since I trust that you have equipment onboard your vessel that can help you quickly assimilate the text, I’ll be able to make it available to you on your vessel so that you have proof of my words. But beyond that, Captain,” he folded his hands on the panel in front of him, “meeting you aboard your ship will simply be a more personal and friendly way to discuss this issue.”

He paused once again as a transition to another idea. “What you stand to gain, potentially, is a powerful ally: me. I will be, literally, eternally grateful; I shall be able to stand at your side at a moment’s notice. Further, Captain, under the Q system of jurisprudence, you are able to make this executive decision without threat of repercussion from any member of the Q because I was the one who called out to you. You, your crew, your very people are protected from reprisal as a result of any action you take on my behalf, if you were to do so. And if you decide to not assist me, I promise you, here and now, that I will never take action against you or your people based on what transpires now or in connection with your decision. Does this information satisfy your requirements, Captain?”

“It does,” Picard responded with an authoritative nod. “Will you give me one hour to discuss this with my staff?”

“You will find me to be a patient Q, Captain. One hour is more than reasonable. I look forward to speaking with you again in sixty minutes.”

“As do I. Picard out.” Picard’s expression remained serious and unwavering. He turned to his bridge crew as he walked toward the observation lounge and commanded, “Conference.” Everyone who was to be involved knew who he or she was, and each obediently stood and filed off the Bridge behind the captain, who assumed his spot at the head of the table. Cmdr. Riker and Lt. Cmdr Data sat to his right. On his left sat Counsellor Troi and Lt. Worf. Once everyone was seated, Picard opened. “I expect this conference to be brief, but I require opinions.” He turned to his first officer to begin. “Number One.”

Riker blew out a breath. “Aside from what I’ve said already, Sir, there’s not a lot to add. I still recommend caution. Everything that …” Riker paused, wanting to find the words to make himself completely clear. “Everything that the first Q warned us about has been confirmed, and we still don’t really know anything about this being. If we move forward, I would strongly recommend that we have Mr. Data read that book of Q’s in its entirety so that he can guide us further. Other than that, I would like to hear what Deanna has to say.”

With that, the captain turned his attention to Troi. “Counsellor?” he asked.

“I still sense no guile, Captain. And even if I didn’t have my empathic abilities, I think I’d still have a sense that we can trust this person.”
“Thank you, Counsellor. Worf?”

“Sir, I will defer to Counsellor Troi’s advice, but if this being cannot keep from insulting me the way … the other Q does,” he paused to consider to himself just what he would do, “I will go on vacation.” Everyone smiled and nodded in understanding.

“Thank you, Worf. Cmdr. Data?”

“Sir, while I fully agree with Cmdr. Riker about having me assimilate the contents of Q’s legal text because I do believe that there will be wisdom gained through it, I must also point out that the Q we have gotten to know—the ‘first Q’—has never felt the need to ask our permission to board our vessel. This Q, not only was respectful enough to ask but assured you that he would answer your questions thoroughly. He even apologetically admitted to being deceitful. Further, given the situation he is in, it is not surprising that he would use deceit to open discussions. In this light, I find moving forward cautiously the only genuinely justifiable option, given our mission parameters.”

“Mm-hmm, I agree, Mr. Data. Is there anything anyone needs to add?”

No one said a thing.

Picard sighed and sat in quiet thought for a long moment. “How much time has elapsed, Mr. Data?

“Fifteen minutes and twenty seconds—” he paused for a brief countdown— “Now, Sir.”

“Very well. Then, in forty-five minutes, we shall welcome a guest aboard the Enterprise, and in that time, I shall be in my ready room enjoying a cup of tea. You have the conn, Number One.”

“Aye, Sir.”

3

In his ready room, Captain Picard retreated toward his replicator. “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot,” he commanded. Seconds later, he pulled a clear mug of dark tea replete with saucer from the nook and began to sip. He hadn’t noticed his nemesis, Q, standing in the doorway, and he nearly walked into him. “Q!” he growled, then, almost in a mutter, “Not again.”

“Aren’t you going to offer me some tea, Jean-Luc?”

“You claim to be omnipotent. What do you need me for?” Picard said as he walked toward his desk.

“‘Claim to be omnipotent.’ Someone’s had a very bad influence on you already.” Q leaned over the desk toward the captain, who had just about taken his seat. “Just who have you been playing with on the schoolyard?”

“What do you want, Q?” Picard said, sitting.

“Truthfully, Jean-Luc, you’ve piqued my curiosity.” Q also sat sideways on the edge of Picard’s desk.

“Really?”

“Yes, Really,” Q said, imitating the Captain. “You have no idea the things that the Q can do to harm you and your simian shipmates, and yet you continue to do exactly what I repeatedly warn you to not do. Why is that?” Q asked, folding his arms.

“It’s my understanding that you are legally unable to do anything,” Picard was not looking up to speak to Q at all but focused his attention on his tea.
“True, but you didn’t really know that. You were told it, and you chose to believe it.” His voice became mildly sinister, “For all you know, that book might just be a prop for a perverse play for your benefit, and he’s just stringing you along. I find that fascinating.”

“How flattering.”

“You should be honoured.”

“Fine. I’m honoured. Be gone.”

“And as far as retaliation goes, well, the course you’ve chosen is punishment enough, but enough about that, Jean-Luc. Let me tell you what really surprises me about you.”

“Will you leave me in peace if I let you?”

“Perhaps, but if you don’t hear me out, I’ll plague you with my presence for … well, for as long as I want.”

Picard said nothing for a moment. He set his tea carefully on his desk, reclined in his chair, tugged his tunic down and folded his hands across his lap. Finally, he looked up at Q. “What surprises you, Q?”

“All comfy, now, are we?” Q asked mockingly. “You are the sole authority on board this vessel. When there’s a decision to be made, thousands of people look to you, not to Riker or Data, while we both know that Data is far more likely to be intelligent about it.”

Picard interrupted, “Q, please spare me your puerile observations and get on with it.”

“As you wish,” Q said and briefly regarded Livingston swimming mindlessly about his tank, “With your authority, you have no need of conferring with subordinates to make a decision. You are like a Q to them. Aren’t you? You have the power to make decisions regardless of their feeble ideas or useless opinions. No Q would debase himself by conferring with underlings. Why do you?”

Picard took a moment to look over to Livingston himself before massaging his own temple briefly. “Q, how you are capable of manipulating time, space and matter with such precision and yet can be lost on something so fundamental is a point that puzzles me about you as much as my behaviour puzzles you. I, however, am not nearly as curious about you, so I am not going to ask. So, on to your query. I’ll answer in three parts: One: My crew may be beneath me in authority, but that’s where the disparity ends. They are my equals, Q, in no way inferior to me. Two: I make no claims to omnipotence or omniscience. I need the input of my crew—their collective wisdom—to ensure that I am capable of making the best decisions. Three: I am not the sole authority in the Federation. There are people in authority over me, Q, and there are people in authority over them and so on.”

“Then, where does the authority end? Surely there must be someone in absolute authority, otherwise, you simple simians would all run amok?”
“Ultimately, the person in the greatest authority is also ruled by those with the least authority because their well being is his responsibility.”
Q scoffed. “Well, you realize, of course, that such a wasteful system would never work in the real cosmos.”

Picard stood and leaned on his desk opposite Q: “No, Q, I’m not convinced of that. Not for a minute. You claim to be omnipotent, and yet you have superiors, so what is it that puts them in a position of authority over you? And if they’re over you in authority, then it follows that there are those in authority over them, and so on. It can end only in one of two ways: Either your system is much like ours, and it is ultimately we—the ‘simple simians’ … the ‘primitive primates’—who have authority over you, or it will end with one being in ultimate authority over all the Q. Now, you tell me, Q, which is it?!”

Q’s face grew stern. He stood, dropped his hands to his sides and faced Picard. He said nothing, but in a moment, he raised one hand again, snapped his fingers, and he was gone.

Picard sat himself down, and, in the quiet of his otherwise empty ready room, he enjoyed his tea.

4

The hour had nearly passed, and no one needed to call Captain Picard to the bridge. He stepped out of his ready room before anyone could be called upon to page him. “Time, Mr. Worf,” he commanded.

Worf glanced at this console and quickly barked. “Fifty-seven minutes, thirty seconds from our last communication … now, Sir.”

Picard kept moving toward the centre of the bridge as he spoke. “Close enough for me. Hail our friendly Q, Mr. Worf.”

“Aye, Sir,” Worf responded promptly, as he returned his gaze to his panel. Then, “Sir, Q is hailing us.”

Picard turned to his bridge crew with a surprised expression. “Well, it looks like I’m not alone in my anticipation. On screen, Mr. Worf.”

Once again, the stunning spacescape dissolved to reveal the face of Q smiling sheepishly and still dressed as a Neoclassical French Nobleman. “Please forgive my impatience, Captain.”

“Not at all. As a matter of fact, I was just messaging you when we received your hail.”

“Well, apparently, both our chronometers are slow.”

“Indeed. Then, on behalf of the crew of the Federation Starship Enterprise, I would like to extend to you an invitation to visit our ship and crew for as long as your cohorts will allow.”

“You have my thanks, Captain.”

“Will you require our transporter to bring you aboard?”

“No, thank you, Captain,” Q said from just beside Picard, the viewscreen now showing nothing but Q’s wing-back chair rocking back and forth, “on your invitation, I am permitted to move about quite freely.” Q no longer wore his formal French coat. Instead, he had donned a standard, grey Federation guest jumpsuit with ribbed shoulders and a low, square neckline revealing an olive-green pullover that replaced the ascot of the same colour from his 18th-century formal attire that he had been wearing. In his arms was his mammoth legal text. When he saw Picard’s startled expression, Q’s demeanour shrivelled dramatically. “Oh, I beg your pardon, Captain. Should I have waited for you?”

“That would have been customary, yes.”

“I apologize. My enthusiasm got the better of me, I’m afraid.”

“Well, there’s no harm done,” Picard said, forcing something of a smile, then he gave a gesture of pause to Q. “Q, if you’ll permit me, my people have standing orders.”

Mildly confused, Q raised his eyebrows. “Hmm?” Then, looking about him, he understood Picard’s hint. “Oh, I understand. Of course, you need to scan. By all means, Captain.”

Upon a gesture from his captain, Data stood, pulled a tricorder from his side, flipped it open and began scanning Q. The tricorder made its familiar high-pitched warble for a few moments. Finally, Data frowned in satisfaction and reported, “He reads as nothing more than energy, Sir. In essence, he is not here.”
“I disagree, Data,” Counsellor Troi interrupted as she walked toward the group with a welcoming smile. “Not only do I see him, but I can hear his voice and sense his emotional presence.”

Data seemed almost sheepish. “I was not doubting him nor attempting to malign him in any way, Counsellor. I was merely relaying the information from my tricorder.”

“I seem to have sparked something of a debate, Captain,” Q observed.

“So it would seem,” Picard agreed. “One among my crew says you’re not here. Another says that you are.” Picard glanced at Q’s text. “I know just how to settle it,” he said. “If you would be willing to hand your book over to Mr. Data.”

Q complied, handing the book to Data, and Data quickly put his tricorder away and accepted it.

Picard continued, “I suppose that the deciding factor will be the shaking of hands,” and he set his hand forward toward Q, who regarded Picard’s hand for but a moment, then smiled and accepted the greeting.

“You seem present enough to me, Q. Welcome aboard,” Picard said, and the vigour of the bridge grew warm and inviting.

“Thank you, Captain. You have a most magnificent ship. I am honoured to stand aboard her.”

“Thank you! Allow me to introduce my staff,” Picard said, and, as protocol dictates, he went according to rank and proximity, beginning with Riker. “This is my first officer, Cmdr. Will Riker,” and the two smiled in greeting and shook hands, but Picard could tell that Riker was not entirely at ease just yet.
Then Picard gestured toward Data: “You already met my second officer, Lt. Cmdr. Data …”

Data shifted the massive book to his left side and greeted Q properly, but as Q looked Data square in the eyes, he asked, “You’re not human, are you?”
“No, Sir,” Data responded matter-of-factly. “I am an android.”

“An android?!” Q asked, almost stunned. He turned to Picard, “As a member of the crew, Captain?”

“Indeed,” Picard responded with solid assurance. “Data is a most valuable part of my crew.”

“Very interesting,” Q admitted. “Mr. Data, I would very much like to spend some time talking with you if it is permitted.”

Data’s voice didn’t waver, “I would welcome an opportunity myself, Q.”

“And,” Picard continued, “you have also met Counsellor Deanna Troi, over here.”

“A pleasure, Counsellor.”

“For me as well, Q.”

“And behind you,” Captain Picard continued, “is my chief of security, Lt. Cmdr. Worf.”

When Q saw Worf, and, for the first time, actually had a moment to realize that he was Klingon, his reaction was one of the surprise one exhibits when suddenly running into an idol by chance on a street. “You’re a Klingon!” he said, “aren’t you?!”

Worf’s posture deflated much like a punctured tire for the anticipation of the many barbs to follow. “I am,” he responded, deadpan.

“Please excuse me, Captain,” Q said, “I must meet this man face-to-face.” And he marched to the rear of the bridge, extending his arm in an enthusiastic greeting. “I am a great admirer of your people, Mr. … Worf? Is it?”

“Yes,” Worf responded, sounding pleasantly surprised. He accepted Q’s handshake, “Thank you!”

“I’ve never met a Klingon, but have always wanted to,” Q said with great enthusiasm. “Some of my friends in the Continuum have told me much about your race. Your people tread the line between battle and ballet with all the grace and skill of a Degebian mountain goat!”

Worf’s posture straightened again. “I am honoured,” he said.

“Oh, the honour is mine,” Q returned, then he suddenly realized that his actions might have appeared rude to his host. He turned to Picard apologetically, “I beg your pardon, Captain. There are times when my enthusiasm takes over.” Then he turned again to Worf. “I must attend to your Captain for now and answer the many questions that he has for me, Mr. Worf, but I do hope that in the time I am here, you and I might spend some discussing hand-to-hand combat Klingon style.”

Worf seemed even more surprised. “I would be delighted!” he said.

“As would I. Tell me, do you have one of those curved Klingon swords … a … um, what are they called again?”

“A bat’leth,” Worf reminded him. “Of course.”

“How exciting! Would you teach me how to use it? That is, if your captain doesn’t mind.”

“If Captain Picard approves, I would be honoured to instruct you.”

“Excellent,” Q said, then turned his attention back to Captain Picard.” And now, Captain, those questions you have.”

“Indeed, Q, but one question stands out right now as more important.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, I need to know how far you can travel away from your … home.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, we have a choice: We can either remain in this area for a little more than three weeks by our chronometers and then depart in haste, or we can begin travelling to our next mission with you on board. You would be welcome to join us, if you’re both willing and able.”

“A fascinating prospect, Captain. It’s been so very long since I’ve been able to venture away from my prison paradise, and yet, I really don’t know if I am able. It never occurred to me to ask my superiors such a question. I don’t know how to respond.”

“As I see it, Q, the choice is entirely yours,” Picard affirmed.

Q turned to regard the viewscreen that once again showed the gentle flow of stars as the ship moved slowly among them. In his eyes was the longing expression of wonder and appreciation. “I don’t know how far the Continuum will allow me to travel, but if I were to be suddenly whisked away from you, at least you’ll understand why and where I am. Yes, I would very much like to join you on your quest, Captain.” He turned again to face Picard, “Please, I would like to share in this with you.”

“By all means, Q,” Picard assured, smiling. He then turned to Wesley. “Mr. Crusher, take us back on our course for Alpha Onias II, warp factor two.”
Smiling, the young ensign entered the correct course in his console and said, “Warp factor two, aye, Sir.”

Picard looked about the bridge for a moment. “Cmdr., Counsellor, Mr. Data and Q, will you please join me for a conference in the observation lounge?
“Aye, Sir,” Riker responded for them all as Picard led Q off the Bridge.

“Engage, Mr. Crusher,” Picard said, then added, “Mr. Worf, the bridge is yours.”

“Aye, Sir,” both Ensign Crusher and Lt. Worf said together, and the others filed off the bridge into the lounge.

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