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From Me to Q
by Julia Houston
The Guardian sneezed, his back aching with the spasm, his eyes watering, his lips trembling with indignation at the imposition of such an intense, ordinary sensation. Was his position to offer him nothing more than the right to sit here and stare into the garden? For fifty years he had held the keys to the gate, the private horror of everyone in the city, the nightmare from which no child ever awoke, the demon to haunt each mortal soul. That he should sneeze at the summer's pollen and itch from the grit in the air...
The Guardian thought back to when he was Cola'in Aldreth, a merchant's son, a citizen, a young man with prospects over-matched only by ambition. The day the Guardian of his time had passed over the key while the entire world watched on their homescreens he had felt drunk with power. And the power had not been an illusion, not at first. Hundreds had offered themselves before the gate, women and men (though he found he did not care for the men) had pursued him relentlessly, offering their bodies, their hearts, whatever he wanted. With the frantic generosity of only the starkest terror, wealth had been laid at his feet and begged for notice. Even now, gray and gnarled, he could have anything, anyone he wanted.
But all he wanted right this minute was not to sneeze again, though his eyes and the pressure behind his nose were telling him that he would. And then he did, loudly, painfully, cussing and wheezing and shuffling over to his favorite seat. Once the gold-colored velvet upholstery had been fine and smooth and lush. Now it was finer and smoother, in some places, and the scattered tears did not touch his naked skin unpleasantly as he settled into the high-backed chair. Soon, the women from the city would come to feed him lunch, and then he would take a nap. For a moment, an evil smile played with his lips as he considered shedding his loose shorts. The women really seemed uncomfortable when he was nude.
But it was too much trouble to attempt while he fought off another sneeze.
Picard noted that the bridge now felt as familiar to him as any he'd had. His eyes went automatically to the sensors and panels from which he needed information, his fingers unerringly and automatically found the controls at his sides, the placement of the people around him felt correct and reassuring. Yes, the Enterprise-E had definitely become home.
Troi, of course, sensed his moment of contentment and caught his eyes for a gentle smile. It was the sort of involuntary sharing he had once disliked, but now it and she were so much a part of his command that he put no conscious effort at all into the warm smile he returned.
"We are still receiving no signal from Ha'tel, Captain," Data said from Ops.
"How long have we been in range?"
"Seven minutes, forty-seven seconds, sir."
"Too damned long," Picard muttered, his contentment replaced with sharp concentration and determination. He stood up, like he always did, and walked the three steps to the back of Data's chair.
"Is there any sort of response to our hail, Data?" Riker asked from behind Picard.
"No, sir. I cannot tell even if they are receiving our signal."
The captain sighed silently, an old commander's trick. More than anything, and long before he'd once been mistaken for a god, he hated dealing with observers. There was something...sneaky and underhanded in watching a pre-warp civilization without their knowledge. And surface observers in particular struck him as simply more trouble than they were worth.
"The Ha'tel won't have left anything behind if they've discovered the outpost," Riker, also standing, muttered in his ear.
"Agreed, Number One. Nor will Professor Gowrint have allowed the outpost to have been taken over intact. If they've been discovered, the best we can hope for is rubble with energy signatures and some sign of where they've taken the bodies." This was all complicated, of course, by the observation team's thorough Ha'tel disguise. Given the Ha'tel's level of technology, the blood chemistry and other vital signs of the team, including the falsified double-beating of the Ha'tel's two hearts, had been altered accordingly. The Human nature of the team would not show up on sensor scans. "Mr. Satek!" This last was clipped out at the pilot, an ensign who sat at the controls with smooth ease notable even in a Vulcan for someone barely out of their teens.
"Increase speed to warp nine."
Giving Riker the conn, Picard strode into the ready room and called up the files he'd already read on Ha'tel. The latest observation reports were two weeks old, and it had been the cessation of those reports which had sent the Enterprise to Ha'tel in the first place. But there was almost a year's worth of reports before that, and they told him quite a bit about this world, though nothing which explained the disappearance of the team.
Ha'tel was, he read again, sighing loudly this time, a fiercely cruel world, torn with the violence of Klingon but with none of the honor, dripping with the greed of Ferenginar but without any Rules to follow, and rotten with deception and corruption and xenophobia, and just about everything else...
Picard shook his head. There was no use getting lost in hyperbole. The Ha'tel had redeeming qualities...somewhere. That was one of the observation's team's main goals: finding something of value in these people.
And the goal was hardly an idle one. In another generation or two the Ha'tel were going to break through the warp barrier in their extremely aggressive exploration of space. They'd already traveled to the farthest planet in their system, and detonated a variety of devices upon it, for no apparent reason other than to see if these devices would work as horrifically as they were designed to. They had also sent out three "sleeper" ships, the first of which had already reached the nearest system. Upon its arrival, however, the Breen, in an action the Federation had only mildly protested, had blown it up to protect a colony of their own.
What did the Ha'tel want besides conquest? They didn't even seem to enjoy spoils or wallow in victory. The "peaceful" parts of their world suffered under religious oppression to their god, Ha't, a strange and merciless deity who controlled the helpfully-named Land of Ha't. Federation observers had yet to discover what this land offered to the people other than a chance to thin the population.
Every third day, Picard read, the Ha'tel send the best and brightest of their families to the Guardian of the Land of Ha't. These people stand before this Guardian and demand entrance through the gate for which the Guardian holds the key.
The rest of the ceremony was simple, the Guardian then pronounced the applicant unfit for entrance and killed them in a variety of ways: hanging, stabbing, disrupter fire, electrocution, lethal injection. There was no chance of appeal, no leniency, nothing but a quick execution and then, inexplicably, the arrival of the next applicant. It made no sense at all, except perhaps for one comment by Professor Gowrint that occasionally the "best and brightest" who offered themselves up for this treatment included criminals and other unwanted members of society. What compelled them to go so willingly to their own executions, however, was a mystery. Absolutely nothing else in their observed culture even hinted at self-sacrifice. It was as though this one custom irradiated the need for all devotion, all altruism elsewhere in the culture.
The captain shook his head, feeling the familiar tension at the base of his neck, and absently reached a hand around to rub at the strained muscles.
"Not enjoying your reading, mon Capitaine?"
The name was out of his mouth before his head had finished its quick snap up from the monitor, and his eyes went unerringly to the form sprawled out along his ready room's couch.
"How about that hug you're always promising me?" Q actually threw out his arms with a smile.
"What do you want?"
The question was more guarded than hostile: a positive sign, Q thought, and he smiled less mockingly as he lowered his arms to their sides. He watched as Picard's eyes glittered over the sight of his tidy Starfleet captain's uniform. The captain seemed determined never to grow comfortable with Q's choice of attire. How delightful.
"Aren't these a little drab?" the entity asked, indicating the gray swath at the top. "You all look ready to don widow's veils. Not that they wouldn't be an improvement..."
"Is there some point to this?"
"Stay away from Ha'tel."
Picard's eyes widened and then narrowed. "Is that an order from the Continuum?"
Q toyed with the many possible responses. "No. It's a suggestion, from me."
"Are you getting deaf in your old age? Or has your little brain disorder started to make you senile already?" Picard's lips tightened and Q exulted in a little private triumph. Picard had no reason to be worried about that lesion in his flawed gray matter, but the captain didn't know it, and wouldn't, as far as Q was concerned, for some time.
Picard studied the semi-omnipotent entity on his sofa, trying to see what he could in that expression, wondering hardly for the first time whether it were worth the effort. "Tell me, Q. Is there any real relationship between your real nature, your true being, and what I'm seeing now?"
"Curiosity? About moi?"
"I've told you before that we find your species fascinating."
"Yes? Yes to which?"
"Senility it is, I see."
With a smooth movement of legs and arms Q was off the couch and standing before Picard's desk, leaning forward to place his hands on the edge, as he had done before. "Yes, this body you see reflects aspects of my true nature."
"Oh, well, that's for me to know and you to find out, isn't it?"
"Q, we have an observation team which seems to have disappeared on Ha'tel. We cannot simply abandon them there."
"You should never have left them there in the first place. Horrid planet. Have you seen what those people like to wear?"
"Q, if you have nothing to offer me but recriminations well after the fact, I have no time for you."
"There's no need for you to be so rude, mon Capitaine, and in defense of the Ha'tel, no less. I'm surprised at you!"
"I am...not defending the Ha'tel."
"Sounded like it to me."
"Q..." Picard fought off the urge to bury his face in his hands. "Q, do you have any constructive purpose for being here?"
"You remembered my word for the day! I'm touched. Sure I can't get that hug?"
"I'm going to take that as a no. So, if you will excuse me," Picard stood up and began walking to the door, "I have business to attend to."
"So impatient, Picard?" Q murmured, stopping the captain in his tracks by stepping directly behind him and leaning towards his ear. It really was the best way to get the man's attention. "Don't you want to know why I don't think you should go to Ha'tel?"
"It's something other than their fashion sense, then?"
"They're running out of time, Picard, and that's making them desperate. The Land of Ha't will soon be swept clean, and then darkness will fall."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Picard demanded, twisting around to look at Q. But the entity was gone, and his own voice echoed ridiculously against the bulkheads.
"Number One," Picard snapped as he entered the bridge.
"Sir?" The first officer stood up to meet him.
"I've just had a visit from Q." He nodded as Riker's eyebrows rose. "It would seem he has some interest in the Ha'tel."
"Do you think he could be responsible for our disappearing observation team?"
"Perhaps," Picard said, frowning.
"Do you really think so?" Troi asked, standing up as well to join them in the center of the bridge.
"We can't rule anything out," the captain said slowly. "But it doesn't help to jump to conclusions either. It certainly wouldn't be Q's style to interfere with a Starfleet mission in such a manner. Mr. Data!"
"Find whatever you can on the Land of Ha't being 'swept clean,' and then darkness falling. I found nothing about it in Gowrint's report."
"There are several reports for me to check, sir," Data said smoothly as he rose from his station. As he so often did, the android managed to make this reassurance sound like nothing more than a simple statement of fact.
"Meanwhile, Counselor, I wonder if you could go over the logs of the observation team, specifically looking for anything that might suggest Q's involvement: strange occurrences, talk of a stranger making trouble, anything at all."
"Yes, Captain." Troi turned back to her console.
"In the meantime," he said to Riker, "I'm going to talk with Admiral Dayton. She's been in contact with the observation team several times. Perhaps she knows about this fall of 'darkness.'"
"Sir," Riker said very quietly indeed. "Have you considered..."
"That Q might just be trying to distract us for a laugh?" Picard met Riker's eyes ruefully. "I wouldn't be surprised at all. But then, this mission wasn't looking nearly interesting enough before. Now we have a challenge."
Responding to the captain's dry wit with a broad smile, and reminded once again of why he stayed here rather than assume his own command, Riker watched the captain turn on his heel and return to his ready room. As thoughts of Q rushed forward again, however, he scowled and stalked over to the ensign at conn, wishing the Vulcan would make a mistake so that he could correct it.
But Satik had little to do at present, and was doing it perfectly.
The death of the Guardian was not a catalyst for mourning, but the irritation it caused the Counsel of Rents was considerable.
"We don't have time for a full ceremony now," Lady G'nin pronounced, glaring across the counsel chamber at her opposite number.
"Considering that the Cleansing is so close, a full ceremony is all we may have time for!" Lord Heb'te snapped back.
"The question of succession is more important than the design of the ceremony!" Lord It'ain thundered, looking to the Chair.
"A point, It'ain," Counselchair Dolen'ai nodded, looking at the rest of them with some disdain. A movement caught his eye, and he turned fiercely to the woman who brought in a large bowl of fruits to set on a side table. A small bracelet on her right wrist told him she was a daughter of the First House, doubtlessly one of the hostages Im'pel had taken from the Hill during his last foray. He opened his mouth to sneer at her, the impulse crossing his mind to torture her for pleasure, when he noted the expression on her face. For several days later, he would wonder what it had been in her eyes, her smile, the softness of her face that had been so calming. The lords and ladies of the room followed his gaze as he found different words indeed from those he had intended falling from his lips.
"Whom do the people expect to be the next Guardian, daughter?"
Without betraying the start of fear any creature must feel when addressed by the Counselchair, the fruit woman turned to face him fully, and he was aware of warmth and depth in her dark brown eyes. "Whil'etet Gromaiol, if it please you, sir," her quiet, somewhat sensual voice responded.
"And if it doesn't please me?"
A strange smile, full of affection, came to her lips and lit her eyes. "Then the Second House will rise against the Counsel of Rents and you will slaughter each other in a pursuit of pointless dominance." She shrugged, a delicate and eloquent gesture, and Dolen'ai could sense those around him relax despite the bluntness of her words. "What matter is it who stands as Guardian at the Cleansing, as long as they are not blind?" she continued. "The Sacrifice will be plainly marked."
Laughter, agreement, and an awkward shuffling followed the woman's speech. Dolen'ai looked around at the nodding heads with satisfaction, convinced now that he had meant to use the woman hostage for this purpose all along. Even when his gaze returned to the bowl of fruit and found that she was no longer there, his pleasure did not lessen. There was a quick vote, a couple of idle threats, and the decision was reached.
"There's no sign of them, sir," Riker told Picard in his ready room as the captain looked over the latest data on his monitor.
The captain shook his head in agreement at Riker's tone.
"Moreover, there's no sign of their station, no sign of their work, no sign of any of their equipment, which may be a good omen."
"Indeed. It's unlikely the Ha'tel could remove Federation observational equipment without some pieces left behind. It's more likely the team took it out themselves. The question is, 'Why?'"
"And why not tell us what they were doing?"
"Good questions," a voice drawled from across the room. "Too bad you aren't capable of finding the answers."
"Either help us or get out of here, Q," Riker snarled, barely turning his head to look at the entity who had again taken up a pose on the couch.
"He's getting quite good at that, Picard. Do you think you could train him to play dead as well? I bet I could."
"Commander Riker's point is well taken, Q. Do you have anything to offer us other than insults?"
"I learned an interesting Klingon limerick the other day. Or I could just tell you what happened to your observation team."
The Starfleet officers gave Q their full attention now, and Q noted with some amusement that Riker had learned how to do an accurate impression of Picard's commanding frown. Unfortunately, his baby face couldn't really handle it.
"Q," Picard said. "If for some reason you're going to be helpful, then tell us what you can about our people."
"They're in hiding."
"The wrath of Ha'tel, of course."
"The god? We don't have time for this." Riker half-turned from him, but Picard put up a hand.
"Has someone come along, claiming to be Ha'tel?"
"Thinking of Ardra, mon Capitaine?" Q stood suddenly, and both men felt the entity's anger and disgust and...something else. For the first time since he'd refused to join the Continuum, Riker sensed sincerity from Q, and it shook him.
"I've warned you to stay away, Jean-Luc, and it's a friendly warning. These people aren't to be trifled with, and neither is their little god. Your people are being sheltered in the First House. Retrieve them and leave."
Picard stared at the flash of light which had been Q, then met his first officer's puzzled eyes.
"I don't get it," the commander confessed. "Q doesn't help us like this. And if he does want to help, why doesn't he just bring them up here himself?"
"Excellent question, Will. Think we're capable of finding the answers?"
"The First House is actually a family, or clan, but they do have a central location, a city, in the largest continent in the northwest hemisphere," Data told the assembled officers in the conference room. "The entire metropolis is structured as a stronghold, and no one but members of the First House are allowed to live there, though guests may visit for short periods. It is extremely unlikely that the observation team is there. However..." Data stood and walked to the map on the main viewscreen which depicted a large community placed as an off-shoot to the circular layout of the city.
"This area is reserved for visitors, guests, hostages, and servants of the families of the First House, a sort of suburb to the main city. If the observation team has maintained their cover as arms merchants, it is quite possible they may have found refuge living in the sector reserved for honored guests." Data indicated a section of the suburb.
"The problem will be finding out where they live without violating any local customs," Riker said.
"The Human appearance of the Ha'tel is helpful," Crusher put in. "As long as the away team avoids autopsies, we should pass for locals."
"Many of their customs also find similarities with Earth's, including nods and shakes of the head for yes and no," Data added.
"Unfortunately, their notion of hostages and their xenophobia are all too familiar as well," Picard muttered.
"Agreed, sir. But they do have one almost unique trait which we can use to our advantage."
Picard nodded. "Their...loyalty to Ha't. From what Admiral Dayton has told me, I get the impression that it's not even considered an act of faith to believe that she exists, and that she will soon be returning, but simply common sense."
"I've looked over everything I can about her," Troi reported. "Nowhere is there the sort of literature or ritual one associates with religious beliefs. There's no textual dogma, no art which depicts her or anything about her, no churches, no systems of tithes, nothing but the periodic sending of their people to die at the gate to the Land of Ha't."
"Any sign of Q's involvement?" Riker asked.
Troi sighed. "Perhaps this unusual relationship with Ha't is a sign of Q, but it shows none of his typical markers. There's nothing...amusing in it."
"You know," Picard said, taking his thumb and forefinger from his lower lip to point at her across the conference table, "I had a similar thought. This constant sacrifice is too grim for him. And yet somehow we know he is involved."
"Captain," Troi said as gently as possible, "we should consider the possibility that he may actually be trying to help."
"You can't be serious," Riker said.
"He has helped us in the past," Data lobbied. "The moon on Bre'el IV, our introduction to the Borg, the captain's possible death, the possible destruction of Humanity by the Continuum."
"Those little 'possibilities' don't fill me with confidence, Data."
"Agreed, Number One. But we must keep our minds and our options open. The thing which frankly gives me the most cause to do what he says is that it's what we want to do: get our people and get out of there."
"I suggest I keep the away team small to avoid detection, but I want people who can handle themselves in a fight."
Picard smiled. "I like to think I fall into that category." "Sir..." Riker began, shaking his head.
"Commander, think about it. If Q is involved then I need to be down there. It's unlikely he'll deal with anyone else."
Riker felt his hatred for the entity rise another notch. If the captain got hurt because of Q's interference...
What? the commander asked himself with derision. What did he think he could do to Q? For all the world it was like being picked on by the school bully, and Riker hated bullies. He'd made it a personal crusade to keep them in line when he was a child, coming home more than once with bruises and a cut lip and a feeling of enormous satisfaction.
"Sir," Data put in, looking at Riker and making the first officer wonder if he sensed his frustration and were actually trying make him feel better. Since using his emotion chip Data had taken on a great deal more complexity in his "interpersonal relations."
"I believe I can cosmetically alter my appearance sufficiently to blend in with the Ha'tel."
Riker nodded, hearing Data's unspoken promise to keep at Picard's side. "That makes me, you, Dr. Crusher, the captain, and Lieutenant Myler."
"I need to come too," Troi announced, looking ready to support her statement until Riker nodded and turned to the captain.
"That's as many as I want to risk."
Picard considered having Riker stay behind, but he really was the most qualified person onboard when it came to these sorts of missions. "We should leave as soon as we achieve orbit, which will be early morning, planetside." He caught their collective eye and smiled. "I'm sure I don't have to remind you all to be careful. I'm getting on in my years, and I don't want to have to break in a new command staff."
They all smiled back.
"That especially includes you, Mr. LaForge. You keep the ship out of harm and detection's way."
The engineer thought over some of his plans for increasing the invisibility of the Enterprise even in low orbits, and nodded. "They'll never know we were here, sir."
The man who had been Whil'etet Gromaiol looked in satisfaction at the three women sleeping in his bed. They all bore marks of his roughness, and the sheets were tangled and torn from their passion.
Whether that passion had been real or feigned did not matter to the Guardian. It had been for his pleasure, as were the luxuries of his house, the beauty of the garden, and the cowering obsequencies of those who came before him.
Striding in his long robes, the key glittering in the sunlight as it swung from the chain around his neck, the Guardian burst outside to view his very first applicant: a tall woman in her thirties, dressed in a simple brown tunic, black leggings and black boots, with long brown hair glinting red in the sun and deep brown eyes in a calmly pretty face which currently formed a smile...
The Guardian's steps almost faltered. She was looking at him with...was that affection?
"Have you come to offer yourself to Ha't?" he snarled, jerking himself forward to the end of the platform upon which the Guardian's lodgings rested.
"No," the woman said quietly.
He glared at her, and watched as the smile deepened and warmed. "After all, I don't have it, do I?"
His breath caught. In hundreds of years no one had known to say those words. He felt himself grow cold in the sunlight. Another Cleansing was coming, and he would be the Guardian to see it.
His sudden longing to be once again Whil'etel Gromaiol shamed him to his soul.
But the warm love of the woman's eyes offered him solace, and he devoured her gaze before moving his eyes over her firm yet softly curving shape. Would she be his? Surely so much and no less was due the Guardian.
Laughter, soft and mocking, broke from her as she shook her head, the red tints of her hair dancing like flames as he felt his fear return.
"I make my claim of offering," she announced, "to be fulfilled before the rise of the second moon."
The Guardian looked away so that she could not see his quick calculations. It was...a few days from now. He felt himself flushing. He had been Guardian for less than a day.
"Your claim is granted," he told her, holding up the key and looking out over the garden behind the gate. Were the flowers more numerous and more lovely now? If she returned with the mark of the sacrifice, then that gate would be opened and darkness would fall.
He suddenly could not wait to return to the women in his bed.
"Your name?" he demanded.
"Ca'ail," she said, her smile touching him once more with warmth. Then she turned and walked calmly down the path through the small hedge and around the corner out of sight. A moment later, another would-be sacrifice appeared on the path, looking back in consternation.
"Have you come to offer yourself?" the Guardian asked even before the man had taken position.
"No more offerings are to be considered," the Guardian pronounced, his voice flat to reveal nothing. "Sit here and tell everyone who comes. The Cleansing is upon us."
And the man who had been ready to die stared in terror as the Guardian whirled around and almost ran back into his house. When the next person walked down the path, the rejected applicant conveyed his message, and within the hour the news had appeared on every homescreen on Ha'tel.
Assailed by the noise and confusion of the rioting street, Picard almost didn't get out of the man's way fast enough to avoid a painful collision.
"We will perish in flames!" the man was shouting. "Darkness will fall! We will perish in flames!"
"Well, at least there will be the light from the flames."
The captain spun around to confront the entity standing by his side, dressed in an Ha'tel tunic, leggings and boots which almost exactly matched his own. He saw his officers, spread out along the avenue, avoid the violent chaos of the Ha'tel as they turned to watch them both.
"At your service, mon Capitaine. Better watch out for the lady here."
Picard spun back around and just managed to dodge the teenage girl as she tore past them, screaming of flames and darkness and being cleansed.
"What is it, Jean-Luc?"
"They almost seem to be...enjoying themselves."
"Oh, they are. No question about it." He met Picard's look with a smile. "You would too if you led their lives: no parties, no freedom, no Earl Grey."
"But what is this all about, Q? Why do they think that darkness will fall?"
"Because it will, Picard, make no mistake about it." Q jerked his head back suddenly, indicating a large gray house half-way down the street. "Your people are in there. Get them and get out of here."
"Q, if you want our observation team out of here, why don't you do it yourself?"
"And rob you of the chance to get out and stretch your legs?"
"Q, I need some answers..."
The captain stopped speaking as Q's eyes suddenly rolled back in his head. His hands came up and his arms flailed about as he screamed and ran away, "We will perish in dark flames! We will be bathed! The darkness of fall will come!"
Picard watched, mouth slightly open, as Q disappeared down a cross street. The captain then turned to look at Troi, who only shrugged back, eyes wide.
He made his way to Riker and told him what Q had said, and together the away team dodged their way to the house. Finding the front door wide open, they entered.
The peace of the dim front room made them all stop a moment to get their bearings. Some furniture had been overturned, and one broken window was letting in a slight breeze that lifted the light curtains, but otherwise the room seemed calm and even a little welcoming.
"I am reading five Humanoid lifeforms upstairs, Captain."
"Lead the way, Mr. Data."
They crept cautiously up the wide staircase and stopped outside the large door at the opening to the hall. With a look into the eyes of his officers, Picard knocked on the door.
"Leave us to our misery!" a man's voice called from the other side. "Darkness will fall!"
"Captain," Troi murmured. "The people behind that door are concerned and frightened, but not panicked."
"Professor Gowrint?" Picard called. "We're here to help you!"
A startled noise, and the door swung open to reveal the observation team dressed in Ha'tel attire, recognizable only because the away team had memorized their holo-images before the mission.
"Come inside, quickly!" Gowrint hissed, shepherding them inside with frantic waves.
The room was as dim as the front room had been, though much neater. Almost spartan, in fact. There were two doors which opened onto small bedrooms, five chairs, a table upon which was held a great deal of Federation equipment, all in its cases, and two windows -- glass intact -- which were closed but uncovered, looking down on the violence-torn street below. Distant screams made their way up and through the room. "Your whole team is here," Riker noted as Crusher took out her tricorder and began to scan them all.
"Yes, we're all safe, for the moment."
"Dr. Gowrint, I'm Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise," Picard said, looking the man over curiously. "We're prepared to beam you and your team out of here right --" "No, no! We can't leave!" Gowrint's team all shook their heads urgently.
Picard turned to Dr. Lowenthal, a woman he'd met years earlier at a conference on inter-species trade relations. On the way to Ha'tel, he had tried to remember his impressions of her: strong, sensible, with a quick grasp of the nuances. If she had been looking at him now with terror, he might have understood something of what was going on. Gowrint's team would hardly be the first to have gone native.
But her eyes were as frank and determined as he remembered from the conference, and she spoke with as sensible a tone:
"We have an opportunity for valuable study here, the observation of a lifeform unlike any the Federation has ever seen."
"Lifeform?" Riker asked.
"Yes," Gowrint explained. "Ha't. It will be coming soon."
At least he didn't say "she," Picard thought with a frown. "Have you found evidence of the existence of the Ha't?" Data asked.
"But you put no such evidence into your reports."
The scientists who made up the observation team all looked at each other in some discomfort.
"We're not proud of having been here a year and understanding things so poorly. This current rioting -- " He waved to the window. "Is only a few hours old, but violent behavior has been on the increase for some time. Before we realized the full extent of the danger, our primary station was in the midst of a military encounter and we barely made it out of there with some of our equipment intact. We lost the ability to communicate with Starfleet seventeen days ago."
"I know. That's why the Enterprise is here."
"Soon after, we also lost our secondary station, and would have been killed, in all likelihood, had we not found assistance from an associate of the First House whom we knew through our arms negotiations. Only when we had access to the palace did we find out that the Ha't is no pagan fantasy. In fact, this lifeform..." He paused to roll and shake his head in a purely Ha'tel gesture. "This lifeform is completely different from anything we've heard of. It seems to exist within and without this plane of reality, stretching through different parts of time, creating energy unlike anything we've even dreamed of. And yet, for all its complexity and power, it shows very little sign of sentient behavior. It seems to be..."
"What?" Picard snapped.
Gowrint bit his lip, and the away team could feel his fellow scientists silently urging him on to finish the thought.
"Evil," Gowrint said finally. "I know how that sounds, but it's truly the closest thing we've found to pure evil in the history of..." He drew a deep breath. "It devours without purpose. It does not breed or alter or provide anything but unhappiness and a need in the Ha'tel to destroy, to make others as miserable as they feel."
"We've seen it, Captain Picard," Lowenthal said.
"You've seen Ha't?"
"No, we've seen the effect of it on these people."
"We all realize how this must sound, Captain Picard," Gowrint said, moving away from the others to look down into the street. "But think about it. Think of the implications if we're right. If there's some sort of force here, something without intelligence, which can so destroy the very fabric of a community, and these people take that with them out into the cosmos once they discover warp technology..."
"You're talking about a direct violation of the Prime Directive."
"No, no," Gowrint said, moving away from the window and holding out his hands. "I only mean that we have got to study this, now, here, before it gets more powerful."
The captain frowned, trying to think while a dozen different concerns struggled for supremacy. Gowrint had a point. If there were any credibility to his concerns, it would be foolish not to get a better understanding of Ha't. But there was the safety of his people to consider. And there was the observation team's mission, and the fifteen years of effort which had already been invested. But there was also...
"We have been warned off this planet," he confessed to Gowrint, who stared at him. "Are you familiar with the Q?"
The stare became confused, but from the back of the room Dr. Sam Whitman spoke up.
"They're some sort of extremely powerful, long-lived and knowledgeable lifeform," he said. "And they have appeared on your ship several times."
"Only one of them, actually," Picard said, a part of his mind wondering at the intricacies of Starfleet gossip. That information was supposed to be confidential, but he would have been surprised if none of the five scientists had heard of Q. "And we've had some reason to believe the things he tells us."
"Did he say why we should leave?" Gowrint asked.
"Only that the Cleansing is coming and the fall of darkness is imminent."
"For such a knowledgeable species he wastes a lot of time on the obvious," Lowenthal commented. "We've known that for some time."
"What sort of cleansing and what sort of darkness?" Riker asked.
"It would be easier to show you than tell you," Gowrint said. "You've doubtlessly read our reports, but we were wrong to say that there's no artistic representation of Ha't. Ten days ago, after we were forced to destroy our station, Margaret found quite a revealing depiction of the Cleansing in the palace of the First House. Showing it to you would save us some time."
"We can go robed, but we can travel in no larger group than five," Lowenthal warned. "They've gotten used to seeing us in the main house. We've been promising First House Leader Ai'draith the use of weapons to protect his property, and negotiations have become quite embroiled."
Picard sighed, bothered by his own desire to do what Q had said. Leaving here was obviously so much more prudent.
"You have the beam-in coordinates?" he asked.
"Dr. Lowenthal will join Commander Riker, me, Mr. Data, and Counselor Troi. The rest of your are to beam up to the Enterprise." He held up a hand. "If what we see warrants the dangerous study you are proposing, then you can count on the full support of the Enterprise to finish your survey of this world and Ha't."
Gowrint seemed ready to argue, then firmed his mouth and nodded. A short time and a few transports later, and Picard, Riker, Troi, and Data were following Lowenthal down a long, cool corridor of what seemed to be a vast but strangely unadorned house. Picard supposed it was, actually, a palace, but there were no paintings on the walls, no gilt, no tapestries, nothing but a few velvet-upholstered chairs and dark wooden tables and cabinets. Occasionally there would be a window looking out into a garden of red flowers or cleared patch of grass. But that was it.
He turned slightly to make sure his people, looking like a row of Benedictian monks on their way to vespers in their large brown hooded robes, were following, then turned again to watch Lowenthal's shrouded figure lead them to a large door at the very end of the corridor.
"There are usually people around," her soft voice remarked. "But the general panic seems to have cleared the place out."
"Confirmed, sir," Data's voice came from behind him. "There are no other Humanoids present for several hundred feet.
Picard's regulation response was cut off as they moved through the doorway Lowenthal opened and were plunged into a world of color and movement.
The murals covered every inch of the walls, floor, and ceiling, and except for Data the away team almost lost their balance as they scanned the large room. The images were graphic and brilliantly toned, though obviously as old as the palace itself, and everywhere were faces and battles and fire and stars and gardens and beasts and...Picard closed his eyes a moment against it all, then slowly opened them to focus on the image to which Lowenthal had walked, pointing carefully.
"It begins here, as you can see," she said. Picard took her word for it. She was pointing to a garden, the same garden, he realized, that was depicted several times throughout the room. Each time, however, the amount of red from the flowers which grew there changed. In this first image, there were only a few flowers, and the buds were small and scattered. In fact, he only knew it was the same garden because of the ornate black gate which stood before it.
"The Land of Ha't?" Picard asked.
Lowenthal acknowledged the astute guess with a nod. "As it looked centuries ago, but understand, the garden has been there for much much longer than that. From what we've been able to tell, though we haven't been able to get as close to it as we'd like, the Land of Ha't hasn't undergone any significant geological change in perhaps a hundred million years."
The away team had all pushed back their hoods, so their wide eyes were easy to see.
"These red flowers only grow in the Land of Ha't, and they would seem to have remained genetically constant for a hundred million years themselves. The entire arrangement almost makes no evolutionary sense."
"Well, when we examined the geological structure of the planet, we found that the Land of Ha't covers what once would have been the center of this planet's original land mass. As the continents have drifted apart, its location has remained stable, both in relation to the poles and in altitude. That shouldn't happen, of course, regardless, but it isn't outside the realm of possibility, particularly considering that the Ha't may be exerting some force on this area to help keep it stable."
Lowenthal began to move her hand along the wall, careful not to touch it, as she related the story it had to tell.
"For as long as these people have any sort of memory or record, this garden has been gated and protected by a Guardian. The current gate was made at least fifteen hundred years ago. That's not metal it's made of, but an extremely rare and diamond-hard black crystal. The Guardian is there to ensure that the Perfect Sacrifice -- represented each time with this sunburst -- will be found at the time of each Cleansing to protect the land from the fall of darkness. This Cleansing is not spiritual, or mystic, as we supposed, but an occurrence of energy that appears through a rupture in the fabric of space always right above the Land of Ha't." She pointed to another set of pictures. "Taking longer to appear each time and getting stronger with each appearance, this energy vortex reaches out through this rupture and destroys anything in its path until it finds a particular bio-neural signature, the Perfect Sacrifice. Now, since these Cleansings began, the Ha'tel have been able to produce this signature on demand. But, most unfortunately indeed, that ability seems recently to have been lost."
"Lost?" Picard echoed. "How?"
She pointed to a picture of a smaller sunburst. "This is where things get really strange. As long as there has been a civilization on this world, they have held a piece of equipment of which we have yet to find a single helpful description. There's no discussion of how they made it, or where they got it from, but this thing, the Mark of Ha't, protects the people from the Cleansing by somehow producing that bio-neural signature the vortex seeks."
"And so where is the Mark of Ha't now?"
Lowenthal looked at Riker with profound weariness. "That's just it. The people here won't talk about such things openly -- even saying Ha't's name aloud is supposed to bring incredibly bad luck -- so we've only just realized that these people believe that this 'Mark' is not a piece of equipment at all, but a person. That's what they're seeking, the people who go to the Guardian every third day and offer themselves up for judgment as a sacrifice. They think they might be the Mark of Ha't."
"But you're certain they're not?" Picard asked. "If it's a bio-neural signature, it might be passed genetically."
"We thought so too, at first. But then we learned from legends known to First House Leader Ai'draith that this signature must match that of the flowers which grow in the Land of Ha't. It could never be produced by a Humanoid, not without some sort of enhancement. It must be caused by some sort of artificial, and I'm thinking probably chemical, reaction. I think it may even be logical to assume that it's made out of those flowers in the Land of Ha't, though our analysis shows they're extremely poisonous. The Mark may well hold some recipe for a safely distilled elixir which alters the blood chemistry to induce some state which is somehow similar to that produced by one hundred million-year-old plantlife."
She stopped at the last pictures along the line she had traced from wall to floor to ceiling to wall. Here all the paints bled into a black swirl of nothingness.
"It has been now three hundred years since the last Cleansing, and according to tradition, that much time is supposed to pass before the final Cleansing..."
"When darkness will fall," Picard murmured, looking at the wall.
"And you see the greater danger, don't you, Captain? If the vortex is not itself destroyed, then it will doubtlessly appear again. And if this world and those flowers are gone, there will be no hope of knowing what sort of energy it requires to be stopped. If it continues to grow without a way to seal that rupture, it could begin to prey on the space of this entire region."
"Captain," Data said from across the room. "Dr. Lowenthal, have you noticed this before?"
Not moving from her position next to the depiction of the fall of darkness, Lowenthal peered at the section Data indicated. "It's one of the crowd scenes, from the Battle of the Fifth House, some four hundred years ago."
"That is fascinating, doctor. But have you noticed this particular member of the crowd?"
The away team and Dr. Lowenthal made their way to Data's section of the mural.
"My God," Lowenthal said. "That can't be right."
"What do you mean?" Picard asked, his eyes fixed on the figure in question.
"That's Ai'draith's advisor, the man who arranged for our sanctuary with the First House after the riots began and we had to leave our station. If it weren't for him we'd all be dead."
"Fascinating indeed," Picard said slowly. "That also happens to be Q."
"But this is no time to give up the search!" Q's imperious voice rang out.
"The search has been concluded. The Guardian says no more offerings are to be considered. The perfect sacrifice has been found."
"But there is no perfect sacrifice without the Mark of Ha't!"
"The Guardian has said --"
"The Guardian is a fool and the people have grown desperate!"
"Then indeed the fall of darkness will come."
There it was again, Picard was certain of it: a faint but clear note of calm resignation, almost relief in the Leader Ai'draith's voice. As Q grew more agitated, Ai'draith's voice increased its monotone.
"You seek for that which cannot be," Ai'draith said now, and from his position behind the open door, peering through the crack formed between the edge of door and doorway, Picard could see Q's shoulders slump in frustration. "Let me send a woman to you to ease your mind."
"Is that all you people think about?"
"Then I will send you a poet instead. You worry too much, Q'teh. The darkness will not wait for you."
Q made no answer, and Ai'draith left the room without speaking again. Alone, Q moved towards the open window and looked out over the palace garden, modeled, as all Ha'tel gardens were, on the Land of Ha't, though the red flowers were nothing like the originals in appearance or smell.
Picard had been waiting for his chance to confront Q, but now he found himself reluctant to move. With the others safely aboard the Enterprise -- except for Data, who had taken up a protective position down the hall -- Picard had followed Lowenthal's directions to the leader's chambers, hoping to find him in conference with Q, and he hadn't been disappointed. Why was he hesitating now?
Perhaps, he acknowledged, it was simply the rarity of this sight. Q's mockery was nowhere in evidence now, and this was a side to his old...acquaintance he had long suspected existed but had never seen. Q's hand's were clutched behind his back, his body tense with concern, his head bowed in thought. For all the world, he looked like any man might in troubled contemplation.
But there was nothing to be learned from standing here, and Picard pushed himself into the room.
But it was Q who spoke first, not turning from the window. "I thought I told you to leave."
"I don't recall agreeing to take orders from you," Picard remarked mildly.
"Come, come, mon Capitaine. You can come up with something sharper than that."
"I have no desire to argue with you today, Q."
"Your desires don't interest me particularly at present, Jean-Luc. Why don't you run along and play with your friends and leave this world to me?"
"The problems of this world may not stay confined to this world."
"Oh? Is that how you're justifying your interference? Pretty slippery reasoning, if you ask me."
"All right, I will ask you. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me there's no chance the energy vortex that comes out of the Land of Ha't can have any repercussion for the other worlds of this sector and I'll take my ship and be gone. Give me that simple reassurance, and I'll leave right now."
Q turned from the window to scowl at him. "You're still pig-headed, Picard."
"So you can't give me that reassurance. The danger here might spill over into, for example, that Breen colony in the next system."
"If you stay here the Breen will be the least of your worries."
"Q, I don't understand."
"Is that supposed to surprise me?"
"The only time I've seen you refrain from using your powers at the slightest whim has been when you've wanted me and my people to act instead. Is this some sort of test the Continuum has for the Ha'tel?"
"The Continuum has no interest in the Ha'tel."
The captain's frown grew deeper at the depressed note in Q's voice. "Damnit, Q! Help me understand what's going on here. If you really want something, why don't you get it or do it? If you want these people to be saved but can't do it for some reason, then help me to do it."
Q glared at him with contempt. "The last thing I want from you here is your help. You're far too weak to help anyone, even yourselves. I want you out of here. And if you don't leave I'll have you locked up!"
Picard blinked. "You'll what? No snapping of your fingers and turning me into a Klabnean eel?" Q whirled around on him and strode to the door.
"You're walking out of the room!" Picard shouted.
Q halted, half-turned back. "So what?"
"You never walk out of rooms! And you did it in the street, running away instead of flashing out in your usual idiom."
"I could have been seen."
"You're not going to be seen here. Come on, Q," Picard's voice dropped lower than usual. "Perform just one parlor trick. Or has the Continuum stripped you of your powers again?"
Q sneered. "Yes, good, Johnny. That would explain how I kept popping up on your ship."
"So it's here, then, this planet. Something here is keeping you from your omnipotent meddling." Picard blinked again, deeply. "Is Ha't a Q?"
An expression crossed Q's face then Picard only had a second to read, but it seemed...hurt. Then the sneer returned as the voice taunted him. "Human brains, Human minds. So little do you understand what you're shown. Why I have ever believed you capable of perceiving anything of value, Picard, I'll never know. Extinction for your species really was the best option. I should never have told the Continuum otherwise."
And with that, Q left the room, and Picard found he didn't have the strength to follow. Q's words had shaken him. Or perhaps he was merely too confused to form the next question their conversation demanded. He had so little information here that if Q didn't want to explain his evident lack of powers, or even his presence, Picard didn't know enough to figure it out from the usual scattering of crumbs Q felt like throwing him.
"Your friend seems troubled," a calm voice said from behind him, and Picard turned to face a lovely young woman in simple Ha'tel clothes.
Even as his mouth opened to answer, Picard frowned at his own line of thought. Of course she was wearing Ha'tel clothes. She was Ha'tel.
"He's not my friend."
Her expression changed at that, looking almost pensive, and Picard realized what had made him think at first that she wasn't of this world was the expression on her face. Her eyes were warm and full of soft regard. He found his temper cooling as she smiled at him. There was none of the wild callousness he associated with the Ha'tel, though he reminded himself that his interactions with them had been brief at best.
"You seemed to know each other well, Picard."
"How do you know my name?"
"I'm afraid I was eavesdropping shamelessly. It's a most unusual name, and a most enlightening conversation. Why do you think he should be able to save us?"
Picard thought fast, or tried to at any rate. It was somehow difficult to think at all while this woman regarded him so steadily, so...affectionately. The soothing touch of her eyes, was it a quality she had consciously developed to avoid the violence of her peers?
"But I've taken the advantage, haven't I?" she asked suddenly, holding up her right wrist so that he could see the thin golden bracelet there. "I am Ca'ail, daughter of the First House. I belong here, but I have a feeling you do not."
"I don't think..."
"It is all right. Q'teh seems to trust you, and any...associate of the advisor is welcome here. Can I get you something to eat?"
"Are you the poet Ai'draith was going to send in?"
Her smile broke out into a laugh, warm and full of gentle delight. He found himself responding to it with a smile. It was perhaps the most irresistible sound he had ever heard.
"Looks like I'm not the only one who tends to eavesdrop," she said at last. "Tell me, Picard --"
But her next words were lost in a scream, the peculiarly shrill scream of a terrified child, and before it had lasted a second Ca'ail had turned towards the open door and was running through it, Picard at her heels.
Together they followed the repeated screams to a room only a short way down the corridor. She threw herself against it and the solid wood swung open. Picard saw Data running to join them.
The scene inside the room turned Picard's stomach even as it dropped in anxious concern. A man with a knife was holding a small girl at least a foot from the floor, her dress shredded and falling off her tiny frame. His head turned towards the intruders even as Ca'ail launched herself at the man, knocking the knife aside as she chopped down at the hand which held the child.
The girl managed to struggle free, and Picard noted with one eye that Data rushed forward to collect her even as his other watched the man's hold on the knife not quite release. He swung around, coming back behind Ca'ail, and sliced down. Ca'ail whipped her body forward and twisted, ending up on top of him as he fell to the floor, his legs swept out from under him by one of hers.
Picard had finally reached her side, feeling ridiculously slow and clumsy. Ca'ail had obviously had a great deal of training in hand-to-hand, and as he wrenched the knife from the man's hand she drove her fist into the base of his neck and the man went limp.
Ca'ail sat up, painfully, and Picard saw the blood on her back. "He's not dead," she panted. "Though when he wakes up he'll wish he were."
The girl in Data's arms was sobbing loudly now, and Picard quickly tore off his robe to wrap her up. Data was soothing her with soft words and softer pats, and Ca'ail swayed suddenly, her face growing quite pale.
"I hate pain," she murmured apologetically, and moved stiffly off the unconscious man. "Never could get quite used to it."
The captain made a quick if somewhat nonregulation decision and keyed the combadge under his tunic. "Picard to Dr. Crusher."
"We've got a wounded woman down here, doctor."
"On my way."
"Is that a personal communicator?" Ca'ail asked, obviously trying to distract herself from the pain. "I've never seen one of those on my world before."
Crusher walked into the room holding a small wooden box and crossed quickly to the little girl in Data's arms. In moments, she was asleep.
"Are you from a different world?"
"You don't seem disturbed by the idea," Picard noted.
"Disturbed that someone would come here to help us? Why should that disturb me? After all, I will never be able to find the Mark without help."
Crusher, Data and Picard competed for a moment to look the most surprised, then the doctor remembered herself and took her disguised medkit with her to kneel down behind Ca'ail and examine the wound. The tricorder hummed.
"It's not deep, but that knife was dirty. I'm going to have to clean it deeply."
"Such a skilled physician," Ca'ail said quietly, though there was something in her voice that nudged Picard unpleasantly. He forgot about it, however, an instant later as Ca'ail shrugged gingerly out of her tunic. She wore a tight shirt underneath, cut low in front and back and so not damaged by the knife's cut, but her exposed arms and upper chest revealed dozens of faint, criss-crossed scars. Not disfiguring, but delicate, like the remains of a spider's web, they moved across the firm muscles under her pale skin. Her warm eyes had not kept her from violence at all. Picard wondered if indeed her unusual manner had drawn violence towards her.
Or had she sought it? he thought, remembering the way she had not hesitated to throw herself at the armed rapist. Was she some sort of guard, or constable?
Realizing he was staring, Picard looked in her face, and was surprised to see tears standing in her eyes. The knife wound evidently hurt quite a bit. Then Beverly used her hypo and Ca'ail relaxed, though she held herself still while the doctor cleaned and closed the wound.
"Do you want to keep the scar?" Crusher asked.
Crusher nodded, though Ca'ail couldn't see her.
"Don't suppose you could fix my tunic as well?"
Her deep brown eyes, now dry, wandered over to the unconscious man -- now pumped full of Crusher's sedatives -- and smiled. "He's got a lovely shirt on."
The others turned to examine it, noticing only then that the green-blue tunic was ornate for Ha'tel attire, having a slight show of piping along the collar and sleeves, and that it did not fit the man well at all.
After setting the little girl down, Data removed the tunic in one deft motion to reveal a far less rich and clean one underneath, then handed the garment to Ca'ail. With a deep and extremely affectionate smile that left the android blinking rapidly, she accepted it and ran a hand over the smooth fabric. It was a slow caress, and her gaze became dark with concentration as she gazed at it, seemingly committing each thread to memory. The moment lasted only the time of a few heartbeats, and yet Picard found himself riveted by the focus of her whole body on the act of studying the cloth. Then she was casually shrugging the tunic over her shoulders and pushing her arms through the sleeves.
She looked with equal aplomb at the sleeping girl. "I need to take her to the guards and report this crime," she told Picard, and he nodded back in relief. He had to get away from her and think things through.
"I appreciate your help and your calmness at our presence more than you can know. But you must realize that we will not be as acceptable to the rest of your people."
"As you wish, Picard," she told him, making it sound like a vow, then stood to wave her arms around before turning to Beverly with another one of her smiles.
"You did an excellent job on my back, Dr. Crusher. And I have a feeling this would always be the case. Thank you for sharing your fine skills with me."
"My pleasure," Beverly responded faintly.
Without another word Ca'ail scooped the little girl up from the floor and carried her out of the room. Once she was safely gone, Picard contacted the Enterprise, and the three officers were quickly returned to their ship.
"I've studied my scans thoroughly," Crusher told the assembled officers around the table. "She's thirty years old, has a variety of mended bones and healed wounds, and she's 100% Ha'tel. I also found nothing in her blood chemistry or bio-neural energy which suggests any correlation to Professor Gowrint's data on those flowers in the Land of Ha't."
"Yet you'll agree with me that she's hardly a typical Ha'tel."
"As will I, Doctor," Data put in. "And this atypicality should prove most helpful, particularly as she seems to know of the Mark of Ha't."
"But you said she doesn't know where it is," Riker objected.
"Considering that we know nothing beyond the name and possible function of this artifact, any information about the Mark would be useful."
"Agreed," Picard said. "And, not to sound too melodramatic, but there's something about this woman. Counselor, when we meet her again, see if there is anything you can detect about her. I don't know exactly what, but..."
Picard nodded, then related his conversation with Q and asked for reactions.
"It almost sounds as if there's something about the planet which is preventing the use of his powers," Riker said, rubbing down his beard with his left hand. "But what could stop a Q if it's not another Q?"
"Perhaps we have finally found the Q's natural enemy," Crusher suggested, "something they fear and fight."
"But if it can fight a Q, what's it doing bothering with the Ha'tel?" LaForge wanted to know.
"What do you think, Captain?" Troi asked. "Does it seem to you that Q is genuinely concerned about our safety?"
Picard rubbed his bottom lip between his forefinger and thumb a long moment. "Yes."
"Then perhaps we should consider either withdrawing as he says, or ignoring him all together. If he is without his powers, and doesn't know where the Mark of Ha't is, and doesn't want to tell us what he does know, there's no way we can force him to help us."
The captain nodded. "I tend to agree with you. Besides, I've never liked the idea of relying on Q for anything."
"Except a headache," Riker agreed.
"So let's concentrate our efforts on finding this Mark of Ha't ourselves. Professor Gowrint has assured us that there is no clue to its whereabouts in the literature, written or oral, that he has uncovered."
"I have reviewed his work, sir," said Data, "and I tend to agree, but, I was thinking..."
Everyone else in the room felt an upsurge of hope.
"The crystal compound of which the gates to the Land of Ha't are made is most rare and valuable, as well as being extremely durable. If I were to make a device which I hoped would stave off the encroachment of the Ha't for millennia, it would be my material of choice."
Picard allowed the smile to overtake his mouth completely before asking, "Have you already completed your sensor sweeps?"
"Yes, sir. According to Professor Gowrint's information, the making of artifacts from this crystal is a lost art, and those pieces which still exist have been carefully catalogued for barter. The only unaccounted sign of the crystal lies deep inside a mountain range on the smallest continent in the southwest hemisphere. It is the origin of the crystal, though it has been almost completely mined out."
"And those mines would make an ideal hiding place for the Mark," Riker finished.
"Indeed, sir. Almost too ideal. The crystal is diffusing the sensor scans considerably, making concentrations of it impossible to locate with any accuracy."
Picard acknowledged the limitation but nodded with approval. "Everyone get six hours sleep, then we leave for the mines. Commander Riker and I want you with us this time, Mr. LaForge."
"Aye, sir. I've finished my modifications to the shields. They shouldn't have a clue the ship is here."
"I have no doubt of it. Dismissed."
The captain waited until the others had left, then sat a moment longer, wondering if perhaps there would be one more discussion before he got his rest. But the room stayed empty and quiet.
His eyes shifted over to the glass case, repaired now, and to the golden replicas of the Enterprises before this one. Lily. He could use her counsel right about now, he thought. Would she warn him that he should leave this place, or encourage him to find the Mark of Ha't and help save this world?
He smiled to himself. Surely Lily would see there was no revenge or vanity here, nothing but the desire to do what he could to help this world, and stop this vortex from doing unimaginable damage.
But the smile was quickly replaced by a frown as he thought of the rioting on the planet's surface, the hysteria and hopelessness. What would it be like to live on a world and know no other? And then to believe that world was ending by the hand of a god who would not be appeased by anything but some unfathomable sacrifice? What had driven all those people to offer themselves to the Guardian all these years? Could it be something as simple as fear for their fellow man? If so, these Ha'tel weren't so hateful after all. Indeed, they had among their number Ca'ail, and she would be remarkable among the most remarkable of species.
And yet, there was something about her, something unsettling, a strange aftertaste to her presence that made him wonder why he felt so inclined to trust her. Never had he revealed himself so easily to someone from a pre-warp civilization before, but his hand had gone to his combadge as though she were an old friend from the academy.
An old friend? Had she really needed Q to tell her his name? Somehow -- that was it, somehow he felt that she knew him. It felt like the first time -- from his perspective -- that he'd met Guinan: the first meeting of an old friend.
With another of those sighs he released only when he was alone, Picard stood and walked quickly to his quarters. Time to take his own orders. A quick shower -- one of the advantages of having no hair -- and then into his pajamas and into bed.
"No milk and cookies?"
Keeping his eyes closed for a second, Picard shook his head. He really should have known.
"Ready to talk now, Q?"
"No, but I could probably withstand some Human jabbering."
Picard sat up in bed and faced Q, who was wearing his usual Starfleet captain's uniform. He'd had to deal with being seen by Q while in his pajamas before, and he found it easy to push the entire disparity of clothing completely out of his mind. Besides, he was aware that Q was trying to get the advantage back that he'd lost on the planet, and this only confirmed Picard's suspicion that Q had indeed, somehow, been without his powers there.
"You must realize we can't leave these people now, Q, not when their safety can affect so many others."
"I recognize that like all Starfleet captains you can't resist the opportunity to break the rules of your Prime Directive every chance you get. Playing god so often on this ship just makes you yearn to play it everywhere else."
"You are hardly one to be talking about playing god!"
"Still so certain I'm not, Johnny?"
"Positive. God doesn't lose his powers with a change of address."
"Even at his own command?"
"Explain that, Q."
"Only if I choose to, Picard, and right now all I've come here to do is issue another warning. If you don't take your little tin can and get out of here, then I disavow all responsibility for you and your crew."
"We don't need you to be responsible for us!"
Q pursed his lips as his dark eyes glittered across the bed. "Do you remember when I saved you from the Borg?"
"Yes, and I was grateful for that. I still am. But that was an experience you designed, a situation of your own making."
"So is this, Picard. Make no mistake."
"How? Did you anger this Ha't? Some sort of Q torment that makes it seek revenge on these people?"
"Now you're just guessing wildly. I spy with my little eye...a conspiracy of Q?"
"Then give me something more to go on, damnit! Q, if you can't help these people, then tell me how to do it! Extract whatever payment in petty torments you want from me, but tell me what you know or get the hell off my ship!"
"What makes you think you have anything I want? When I've helped you in the past, it's been for nothing but my own amusement." Suddenly the dark eyes of the entity raked Picard's form, and the captain felt himself grow uncomfortable with the intensity of it.
"And does it amuse you to help us now?" he asked steadily.
Q's stare turned suddenly into something like dislike. "Perhaps, Picard. Perhaps." He turned suddenly, looking out the window above the captain's bed, and again Picard was struck by that impression he'd had watching Q look out the window of the palace: a troubled man, unable to see his way through to a solution.
"Finding the Mark of Ha't isn't enough," he said abruptly, roughly. "You need to find someone willing to wear it."
"What are the criteria?"
"You think you could find this person? Among the Ha'tel? Walking up to the Guardian to be slaughtered is nothing compared to what the sacrifice goes through. They used to know how to prepare their people, but now..."
Picard used every year of Starfleet training he had to keep a sudden thought from showing on his face.
Oblivious, Q went on, "There's nothing here for you to do, Picard. Go home."
A quick flash, and Picard was alone in his bedroom with nothing but his thoughts.
But they were enough to keep him awake for quite some time.
"There's no sign of her, Captain," Data reported after a three-hour search of the palace of the First House and its grounds had turned up nothing but the signs of a riot dying from exhaustion. Getting drunk now seemed to be the main goal of those they had met, along with finding some debauched pastime for these final days.
"We found the guards she turned the girl and the man over to," Crusher said, LaForge nodding by her side, "but they have no idea where she would be now."
"We need to get to the caves," Picard said, frowning. He'd been so sure of her. What sort of mistake had he made? Was she perhaps suffering some sort of delayed reaction to his casual revelation of their identity?
"Professor Gowrint," he ordered. "You and Dr. Lowenthal will stay here in case she shows up. If so, bring her to us immediately. We'll be staying in close contact with the ship for as long as we can."
"Of course, Captain," Gowrint said. As willingly as he'd agreed to join the away team, he had actually been hoping to branch off from them. He had an idea how to help that he didn't yet feel like sharing with the captain. Starfleet military types could be so unyielding.
Another quick transport, and Picard stood with Riker, Data, Troi, Crusher, Myler -- a short, barrell-chested Bajoran -- and LaForge at the mouth of the only crystal mine that had not been completely tapped out centuries ago. They all wore the Ha'tel clothing and carried basic survival packs, and for an odd second Picard felt like he was on some sort of mounting climbing holiday. But the weather was overcast and humid, and the scenery afforded nothing but the gray shale of the mountainside and the abandoned mine entrance. The mountain dipped here, raising up again on all sides, a sort of shallow, and Picard found the total lack of life here oppressive.
"Took you long enough," a voice said from inside the mine.
Whirling and raising phasers, the away team waited in silence for the voice to speak again, but instead a figure in a green-blue tunic calmly emerged from the shadow of the opening and gazed at them with warm brown eyes.
"Ca'ail!" Picard said, holstering his weapon and moving forward. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I knew the Mark was somewhere inside this mountain, and I knew you'd be along soon enough, so I decided to wait." She smiled as the officers all came forward. "Aren't you going to introduce me?"
"How did you get here?" Picard demanded.
Raising her eyebrows at his tone, she shrugged. "In my shuttlecar. Just because we don't travel between the stars doesn't mean we can't get around in our own neighborhood."
"There are no traces of a shuttlecar anywhere on this mountain," Data informed her.
"Well, it's not on the mountain, it's in the mountain." She jerked a thumb back at the mine. "I parked it inside."
"Why?" Picard asked.
She shrugged. "It's going to rain."
Data walked in and then out of the mine entrance. "The walls of the mine shaft are interfering with our sensors scans. Her shuttlecar is indeed parked inside. It and her lifesigns were hidden from our sensors while she was inside."
"What's that?" Ca'ail asked, pointing.
"It is called a tricorder. It is an information gathering device."
"Sounds handy." She smiled, and those who hadn't seen it before dealt with the sight without too much visible reaction.
"This is William Riker," Picard said, feeling like a child who has suddenly remembered his manners, "Data and Dr. Crusher you've met. This is Thadius Myler, Geordi LaForge, and Deanna Troi."
"Now, Ca'ail, how did you know that the Mark is here?"
"Q'teh told me."
"What?" Picard both sensed and saw his officers start. "Why did he do that?"
She shrugged again. "Because he believes we can help each other. And because time is running out." She turned to the mine entrance and began to walk. "Speaking of which..."
The away team looked at the captain, who found himself smiling faintly as he motioned them on.
So Q had known all along who the sacrifice was supposed to be. For what had he put on that little show of ignorance in his quarters? Had she somehow been bred for this, designed or planned? Had Q arranged for her to do this? But if he had that sort of power here, why wasn’t he using it to find the Mark?
A sudden chill fell over them all as they left the sunlight for the dark mine. They paused at the entrance to grow used to the light level and snap on their wrist beacons, which drew Ca'ail's fascinated gaze. However, she produced a handlight of her own which she shone briefly on her shuttlecar. It was a small, sleek affair, obviously meant for one occupant. Something in its design suggested luxury, and Picard was reminded that she was a daughter of the First House, and that this evidently meant a life of privilege.
"Do you know which way we proceed?" Data asked her.
"No idea whatsoever," she responded, "except that we go forward. There's only one passageway here."
Riker took point with Ca'ail close behind him. Myler took the rear, his security training keeping him turning around every few feet, scanning for lifeforms that didn't register on Data or Troi's tricorders. After some time, they became somewhat spread out, and Picard was able to walk closely by Troi's side for a semi-private conference.
"Any impressions, Counselor?"
She sighed slightly, and pushed a lock of hair behind one ear. "Everything I've seen on her face I've also sensed from her, Captain. I feel her great desire to help, her concern for this world, and for us as well. She also seems to have a great love for life, and an affection for others which is almost..." Troi sighed again.
"I can't put my finger on it. There's something wrong about her, but I can't feel alarmed about it. It's just a sort of...overtone of...something isn't right but isn't sinister." Her sigh this time betrayed frustration.
"I think I know what you mean," Picard said, touching her briefly on the shoulder. "See if the feeling becomes clearer, but that's all I wanted to know for now."
Troi nodded in the near-darkness and they continued on for some time. When Riker keyed his combadge suddenly and spoke in a normal tone of voice, nearly everyone jumped.
"Riker to Enterprise."
No answer came, and the team shuffled to a halt as Riker tried again.
"Picard to Enterprise." Same result.
"Whatever is blocking our sensors is also blocking communications," Data noted as the team moved forward again.
"Is that the name of your spaceship?" Ca'ail asked, falling back to the captain's side.
"Strange name for a ship. All Ha'tel ships are named The Conquest or The Great Victory, or something like that. You must be a peaceful people indeed to name your ship the Enterprise."
Picard felt it again, and wished the light were better so that he could see Troi's face. Something in Ca'ail's wide-eyed naiveté was not quite correct.
"Did I say something wrong?" the woman asked, the voice naked with concern.
"No, no. We like to think of ourselves as a peaceful people, though exploration of space sometimes regrettably requires violence."
"Ca'ail," Crusher said softly, though loudly enough for everyone to hear. "I still don't understand why anyone would want to hide the Mark here or anywhere." She shook her head in the dark. "Surely they realized it was going to be needed?"
"We had no choice," Ca'ail said defensively. "Don't you people know about the Battle of the Fifth House?"
"No," Picard said quickly as they all thought of the mural and Q.
Ca'ail grunted. "There is so much...The Fifth House rose under Gad'sl -- but that's not important. Suffice to say he was under the impression that the garden was not a protection against the Cleansing, but a gateway which allowed the vortex to enter our world.
"Is that not the case?" Data asked.
Ca'ail fought off a shake of frustration. "Not at all. Without the flowers to keep the vortex in check, it would run riot all over our world constantly, as it used to before Ha't formed her garden in the Beginning. But Gad'sl refused to believe what he had been taught, and refused to do his duty as a leader of his house. He took the army of the Fifth House and laid siege to the garden. He was defeated, of course, as all the other houses defended the land, but he sent many of his spies to the Citadel, the ancient keep of the Mark, and they destroyed it. The Mark was taken then into hiding until it was used almost a hundred years later at the last Cleansing, and once again there was an attempt to destroy it by some remnants of Gad'sl's followers. It had to be hidden again, but I suppose...we have never gone so long without a Cleansing. Whoever hid it must have passed the knowledge onto others, but without sufficient safeguards."
"Could it have been hidden by those followers instead?" Troi asked.
Ca'ail thought that one over, obviously surprised. "If, as people say, the Mark is impossible to destroy, that might be the case." She sighed. "It was all so long ago."
"Sir," Data announced. "I believe I am reading the end of this passageway and the beginning of others. We may have to divide our forces."
"I don't like this blind stumbling," Picard muttered. "Can you get no fix on any crystal?"
"No, sir. The diffusion of our scans is growing worse as we travel further into this mine. Our tricorders will soon become unable to tell us that much."
"At least the structural integrity of the mine is impressive," LaForge noted. "This hard rock and no seismic activity...it really makes a terrific hiding place."
They stopped, shining their beacons around, as the passageway split off in two different directions before them. Between the two, markings were etched into the stone wall.
"Can you read these, Ca'ail?" Picard asked.
"Sure. It says 'Distance to next water three co'ls left, two co'ls right.'"
Picard nodded, feeling slightly foolish at the hope he'd had. "Ca'ail, Data, Counselor, with me on the left."
"Aye, sir," Riker said, meeting Data's eyes in the uneven light and conveying again that special order to watch over the captain. Data nodded slightly, and Picard, fully aware of the exchange, fought off the somewhat warm feeling it gave him and plunged into the passageway.
It was therefore more than a little frustrating for the android that soon after they entered the passageway it split again.
"Please understand that I greatly enjoy your company, Counselor," Data said somewhat apologetically a few minutes after they had separated from Ca'ail and the captain.
"I do understand, Data, and I'm not terribly happy leaving him alone with her, either."
"Counselor, if you sense something which makes you worry about --"
"No, no. In fact, I understand why the captain has decided to trust her. I sense so many things from her, Data, all of them good, it's just...there's something beyond my experience there as well. She's everything that she appears to be, but she's more too." Troi actually growled in frustration. "I can't put my finger on it."
"Perhaps it will help if you do not try to think about it so much," Data suggested, shining his beacon on a tricky bit of rock under Troi's feet. "I have often observed that people achieve great results of memory and realization by concentrating on things unrelated to what they wish to know."
Troi tried not to let her amusement show too much. It was sensible advice, after all. "And do you find that technique helpful yourself, Data?"
"No, I do not. And it is just as well."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that barring a direct order from a superior officer, I do not think I could make myself stop thinking about Ca'ail right now. I know that I do not perceive her with the same expertise you bring to bear, but...I believe I know what you are talking about. As admirable as I find her, there is something not quite correct about our new friend."
The right-hand passageway also split off not far from the main, and so it was the Riker/Crusher team who found the first sign of the city.
"What do you make of it?" he asked her as they knelt over the small collection of stones.
"I'm reading minute traces of Ha'tel DNA, but it's hundreds of years old.
They attempted for some time to learn more from the stones, but they covered nothing, led to nothing, seemed to designate nothing, and with time pressing, the team moved on.
"I haven't been with the ship long, sir."
"Well, for one thing, you're calling me 'sir' too much."
"Aye, s -- Okay."
Geordi laughed. "What's on your mind, Myler?"
"Is the captain always so...calm about recruiting the local help?"
"Not really. But she's something unusual, don't you think?"
They walked along several hundred feet.
"And then there's Q," Geordi sighed.
"S -- uh, what about him?"
Thinking primarily that it was a good way to pass the time, the commander began with the encounter of Q at Farpoint, trying his best to do justice to Q's ridiculous wardrobe and officiousness, then went on to the temptation of Riker and then meeting the Borg. It actually made for entertaining storytelling, he thought, and Myler was certainly hanging on every word.
"We're completely cut off from the others, aren't we?" Ca'ail asked.
"For the moment."
"Then, if I may ask, how are we ever going to find each other again?"
"We established before the mission that if separated we would regroup at our point of separation in forty-eight hours."
"Oh." She chuckled. "Preplanning takes a lot of the mystery out of things."
They traveled on in comfortable silence for some time before Picard became aware that Ca'ail had stopped some several yards back. Concerned, he returned to find her bent over a small pile of stones set up against the wall of the passageway.
"These were placed here," she said absently as he squatted beside her.
"The next time you find something, tell me before you stop to investigate," Picard told her gently.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Jean-Luc."
The captain started at the name, then remembered that Q had called him that when she was eavesdropping. He let it go with a shrug. In truth, from her he didn't mind it, just as long as she didn't start calling him "Johnny."
"I'm picking up traces of Ha’tel DNA fragments, but they're hundreds of years old."
"That's some scanner, your tricorder." But her voice was faint, and he watched as she carefully picked up one of the stones and shone her handlight on it. As she had done with the cloth of the tunic, her whole body joined in the action of looking at this stone, her dark eyes locked on the object as she turned it slightly in her hands, and her breath catching before she whispered, "Beautiful. It's so beautiful."
Picard refrained from saying that it looked like a jagged black rock to him and waited for the moment to pass on its own, which it did, before she set the stone back exactly as it had been.
"Do you suppose the miners put it here?" she asked.
"I think the mine was abandoned as an Enterprise long before these stones were placed in this pile, but it may have been explorers, marking the tunnel to make sure they could find a way out."
"Yes, that could be it!" Ca'ail seemed excited by the idea. "What a practical idea! So perfect."
For a strained moment she held herself so still Picard thought she was going to cry, but then she straightened up with a snap inside one of her knees and slight, embarrassed grunt. "I'm getting old," she muttered, and laughed.
"I meant to ask you, if you don't mind..." Picard began to walk down the passage again.
"Your scars and other injuries. Do you make a habit of rushing men with knives?"
"I've led a varied life, Captain, and it hasn't always been peaceful."
"Not an informative response."
"Do you want a catalog of my injuries?" The voice was laughing at him gently now, and again he wondered why he didn't mind.
"No. I just thought perhaps you had spent time working as a guard or police officer."
"Me? Well, I suppose you might call some of the things I've done by that name. What I'm doing now might be called that, in fact."
"What? You're policing this passage?"
"No, I'm being a guard right now. I'm guarding you."
Picard tried to stare at her in the dark without tripping on his feet. "Are you?"
"You bet. Don't worry, Picard. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
"And then we were supposed to wait in Sherwood forest until he got back with Vash, but none of us wanted to do that."
Geordi sighed. "Myler?"
"You aren't...making this up, are you?"
"Myler!" Geordi chuckled, then tensed. "Myler?"
Calling the name several times, LaForge retraced his steps and searched every inch of the passageway. Only his ability to see in the dark revealed finally the false stone bottom through which Myler had fallen, and in a minute he had managed to push it open without falling through himself.
"Myler!" he called down.
"Geordi?" a hesitant voice returned.
The engineer breathed deeply through his sigh of relief. "Are you all right?"
"The landing was a little rough, but..."
"Oh, man. Oh, sir. You won't believe what I can see."
"Here's another pile of stones," Troi told her companion, kneeling down to stare closely at them. The tricorder revealed the DNA traces again, but nothing else. "It's just like the other two."
"I am afraid I can as yet detect no pattern to their placement." Data's head titled sharply to one side. "Do you hear that?"
"I believe it is the sound of water."
"You hear water dripping on stone?"
"No, more than that." He stood and held out a hand to help her up as well. She took it and rose to shine her light on his chest and see the far-away expression in his eyes. "I believe we should investigate."
"I'll be happy to investigate anything that isn't another pile of stones," she said with a smile.
Data nodded solemnly and turned towards the direction of the sounds he heard...which was, of course, further down the passageway. At one point, however, he stopped, and faced the wall on the left. Feeling the stones carefully while Troi shone both their lights on it, they found the slight depression which eventually gave way to a stone door that swung out and into another passageway.
Data went through first, both of them with their phasers drawn, and soon they were standing on a platform as a cool breeze rushed over and around them. The vista before them wasn't clear at first, but they were able to perceive that a large underground lake stretched out before them.
"Counselor," Data urged in hushed tones. "Turn off your light."
She quickly complied as Data doused his own beacon, and when her eyes adjusted she realized it was no longer completely dark. Far across the lake a pattern of glimmering lights revealed a jagged pattern that her brain abruptly recognized as a skyline.
She gasped, and the underground city twinkled back.
"Counselor," Data told her with excitement. "I believe I have discovered a boat."
"All right, I'll be the one to say it: we should take a break."
"I was just about to suggest it, Doctor."
"Hmm. It's like traveling with a polite Worf."
"Do you miss the big guy?" Riker asked as he sat with his legs stretched in front of him and reached into his pack for a ration bar.
Beverly was already chewing on her dinner. A full day of travel had turned up nothing but eighteen little piles of stones. Her feet hurt and she took her shoes off, only then noting that it was going to be cold if they didn't find some good rocks to heat.
"Yes, quite a bit, actually, but DS9 is definitely the place for him. He's going to marry that Dax woman, you know."
"He told me that as well, but I think he may have a few surprises in store with a Trill for a lover."
"I know I did," Beverly said, and Riker wasn't sure how to respond. She might be able to joke about it, but that didn't mean...
"Oh, it's all right," she said with exasperation. "Odan has become a pleasant memory, one I wouldn't trade for the world, but definitely a part of my past."
Riker nodded and took off his own shoes while his companion ran a tricorder over several large stones, selecting some of them to put into a pile. He helped her, and soon they had made their section of the passage quite comfortable. For awhile, they talked about the mission, about Q, about Ca'ail, unknowingly echoing Data and Troi's sentiments, then curled up to share body heat in the comfort of long friendship and to chase some much-needed rest.
Look at her staring into the stones. The entire universe has become nothing but what she sees before her. But at least these are something she's never seen before: stones heated from my phaser. But the rock, the cloth of her tunic...what is she seeing when she looks at things that way? She's forgotten to breathe, her whole being, everything she is focused on one point as though...she's looking up now. She's smiling and it's hard for me not to stare. Is she going to say they're beautiful?
"Incredible," Ca'ail said. "Heat distorts everything."
Picard raised an eyebrow at her, and her smile deepened, tears again brightening her eyes.
"It means so much to be here with you," she said, her voice low and forceful. "Thank you for this, Jean-Luc." The tension was too much for him, especially since that unpleasant...something was back in her. But was it unpleasant? Perhaps it was simply unexpected. Something out of place was ringing the faintest of bells, and it created a sort of mental itch he needed to ease.
"Well, I haven't managed to show you much excitement yet," he said with a smile. "Only some piles of pebbles."
She met his lightness with a rueful disappointment and her head sank back to stare at the stones.
Now or never, Picard.
"What makes you believe that you're the Perfect Sacrifice?"
She smiled without looking up. "I assure you I do not see myself as the perfect anything."
"But you do intend to use the Mark of Ha'tel?"
She shrugged now. "I will do whatever is necessary to protect my people from the vortex."
"But do you know what Ha't wants?"
That produced an unexpected expression. The frown seemed reasonable, but she was also looking at him now as though he'd broken out in a stream of gibberish. "Everyone knows what Ha't wants."
Picard frowned back now. "What?"
"Oh, Picard, have I done so poorly by you that you still understand so little?" She seemed once again on the verge of tears. "Ha't lives in the garden to hold the vortex back from us. Only when her flowers are not plentiful enough, when their energy is not enough to feed the vortex does it break free of its cage and look for more food. Ha't would...would have done anything to rid our world of that creature. Anything."
Her final word was half a sob, and as much as he wanted to stare at her Picard turned his face away to allow her some privacy as she shoved the choked cries back down.
Well, this was a different account indeed from what Dr. Lowenthal had said. Or was it really? The basics were the same; there was just an added twist: two lifeforms instead of one, the vortex and Ha't.
Into the silence of his thoughts she spoke, and her voice was again steady and full of affection.
"You must feel that the Ha'tel haven't a friend in the universe, apart from yourself. My people do little to recommend themselves, I'm afraid, and Ha't must seem to you a poor protector."
"Is that why your people so willingly go to die before the Guardian? Are they trying to help Ha't?"
"Of course. Only through the Perfect Sacrifice can the vortex be calmed."
"But you do intend to be that yourself?"
"I intend only to do my duty, Picard. I believe it is something we have in common, something, in our own ways, we have always had in common."
Picard refused to be sidetracked by a compliment. "How does Ha't live in the garden? What sort of power does she have? What does she owe your world?"
"So many questions."
The tears in her eyes were gone, but the dark brown orbs still sparkled at him in the glow of the heated stones. "I wish I had all the answers you want, Picard. But I have discovered that answers rarely lead to understanding. Perhaps that is the true function of faith."
"Are you asking me to have faith in you?"
"I'm asking you to let us both go to sleep. I'm very tired. What with all the excitement and traveling here in my shuttlecar, I didn't get much rest."
Picard frowned at the sudden memory of Q in his quarters and knew it would be pointless to badger Ca'ail into answering him. They really were both too tired for it. She was splitting her face into an impressive yawn and looking for a smooth part of the stone floor on which to lie down.
Thinking of both the cold and her back which must still be tender from the regenerated skin, Picard moved around her to lie along the ground, his intentions obvious. She met his eyes for a pleased and uncomplicated smile, then leaned back against him as she lay down as well. His arms went round her and he felt her shiver a bit in the cold. Then she settled quietly and breathed regularly, and it was surprisingly soon -- aided by his own sleeplessness the night before -- that he fell asleep.
Ca'ail sensed it, and allowed her eyes to open. Carefully, she was drinking in every sensation of the captain's body next to hers. His shins were against her calves, his knees lightly touching the back of her thighs, his chest against her back, his right arm draped over her body slightly above the dip at her waist.
His breath was tickling the back of her neck, moving the wisps of her long hair. She could sense the strangely artificial quality of his heartbeat and frowned over it. Would she be able to tell when he dreamed? Would he perhaps dream of her? She smiled at her own foolishness, safe in the semi-dark glow of the stones, and that tear which had been threatening to fall for so long finally escaped her left eye and slid the short way down to the arm she had curled under her head. She kept her breaths steady and undisruptive, a companion for each one of Picard's breaths. Her smile grew a bit in strength. Perhaps just for this one moment she could pretend she was perfect.
She dozed. She couldn't help it. She really was so tired. But much later, when Picard moved in his sleep, she woke up to experience the tangle of it, and when he muttered just slightly, she let the sleepy voice, always so deep and rich that she sometimes fought to keep her eyes from closing at the sound of it, linger inside her mind for several long minutes.
But eventually she did sleep, deeply, and when Picard made a motion to separate them she jumped from unconscious to alert, her eyes snapping open and her heart pounding with the knowledge that this unique experience was over, and that her time here was drawing close to an end.
She turned while his arms were still around her, and in the faint light of the still-glowing stones he could see her expression.
The look confused him. It was not desire, or pleading, or the affection he had almost grown used to seeing in her eyes. It seemed almost to be...love, or perhaps simply need. He tried to understand it, steeling himself against the urge to flinch when she brought up a hand to trail the lightest of touches along the line of his chin, then up along his cheek. He wanted to ask her what she wanted, but he was afraid she would tell him, and so instead, as a sort of compromise, and because he wanted to, he lowered his head and kissed her. He did not press hard, offering the lightest of touches to her lips, meant to be reassuring, a promise of, perhaps, the faith she had seemed to seek the night before.
But then she moved, pressing up as her arms slid around him to hold him close, wrapping her legs around his, opening the kiss to explore him, drowning him in the intimacy of it, pressing him closer and closer as though she were starving for him, and a soft whimper of need escaped her, urging him to respond. It was a strange sort of urging -- not the suggestive movements which targeted erogenous zones or teased him with over-light caresses, but simply a pressing closer: incredibly intimate instead of arousing. And so he did respond, running his hands over her sides firmly and moving with her until he felt her slight withdrawal. Then he raised his head to look into her frankly crying eyes.
"Thank you," she whispered roughly. "Thank you for that, Jean-Luc. It's been so long since anyone has...been so kind to me."
He opened his mouth to speak, but she placed a delicate finger over his mouth and closed her eyes to turn from him. He had no choice but to let her go, and as she stood and straightened her tunic, her little bracelet glowed in the light of the stones.
"The lights are created by the natural phosphorescence of the crystals, Counselor. They seem to have faded from the absence of maintenance.
"But it seems so alive, I can't believe it's been so long abandoned. I thought, since I could feel no one's presence, that the inhabitants had left because of the recent trouble. To think that no one's been here for hundreds of years...it's incredible."
"Agreed, particularly as I can see no reason for the city to have stopped providing the inhabitants with everything they needed. They had water, and the light from the crystals was evidently sufficient for the growing of plants."
"They certainly had enough space." Troi looked around at the massive buildings, still needing to remind herself that the night sky above them was actually the high ceiling of the cave. It seemed to her that the entire mountain must be hollow.
And the beauty of it! She was fighting the urge to gasp everytime she turned her head or refocused her eyes. Though it was currently dim as an early evening, she could see well enough, and what she saw! Tall buildings on each side, glittering in the mutli-colored lights of crystals placed in intricate patterns; long walkways bordered by gold and silver and something that gleamed like ivory, and everywhere glowing and shimmering crystals; sprawling gardens over-grown from their bed and tiers with the passage of time, lush with red flowers and tangled with vines. There was life here: insects and reptiles that glowed along with the crystals. They had seen several running fountains, though also a few had run dry. The care and intelligence which had gone into the making of this fairy-like metropolis made it all the more incredible and tragic that no one lived here to benefit from it anymore.
And then she felt it, a shared sense of wonder from a dearly familiar mind. Will was close by now, and as stunned by the beauty around them as she.
"Counselor." Data's soft voice struck her like a blow from her musings. "I am detecting four lifesigns: Humanoid. I believe it is part of the away team."
Smiling somewhat guiltily for not having told Data that she knew the others were close, Troi followed Data through several walkways -- the one real difference to this underground city was the absence of actual roads -- until they came upon a sort of mall of empty stalls and hollow warehouses.
"Data!" Riker's voice carried across the open space. "Deanna."
"Can you believe this place, Will?" she answered readily, enjoying the sensation of his unspoken agreement before his words seconded it. "It's marvelous. I can almost understand why they fought over it, considering how dreary the rest of this planet can...no offense, Ca'ail."
"None taken," the woman said with her calm warmth, and Troi felt something different in the captain's attitude towards her -- an increase in wary concern -- just as she finally got the four of them in sight. They seemed little changed from the day before, if a bit dirty and rumpled from their travels. The captain had halted at the end of the mall, and was looking out over the lake Data and Troi had rowed across in their boat. Beverly was standing next to him, Will on his other side. Ca'ail had moved slightly apart, and was staring intently back at the city. Some sort of intent glittered in her eyes, but when she faced the counselor nothing showed or could be sensed but friendly welcome and muted excitement.
"Where are LaForge and Myler?" she asked.
"We have not found them as yet," Data said from Deanna's side.
"I believe we will soon though," the Betazoid said with assurance. She couldn't sense Myler, but for some time she'd been aware of Geordi feeling the same awe and excitement as the rest of them. "But what did you mean about fighting over this place?"
"Ca'ail was telling us. Evidently this city was once the last stand for some Ha't cult."
"They felt that the rock would be enough to protect them from the Cleansings," Ca'ail explained. "And they survived several of them." She smiled faintly, but Troi could feel the sadness the story caused in her. "But then, so did many people, as the sacrifices were provided in time. Then, centuries ago, there was a Cleansing more violent than the others, and this whole continent was laid waste. Naturally, the people have believed this whole area cursed since then, and no one comes here. That the city would still be here, or that it was located in this mountain to begin with, is not generally known, I'm afraid, or I would have spoken sooner." She looked around them again and murmured. "It really is the perfect hiding place."
"As Data said before," Picard announced, "a little too perfect. Even now that we've found it, we have no idea in which of these buildings we'll find the Mark of Ha't, if it isn't buried somewhere or perhaps lying at the bottom of that lake."
"You're favoring your idea that it was hidden by one of Gad'sl's people," Ca'ail noted. "But if it were hidden by one of the faithful, then they would want us to be able to find it."
"So where would you hide it, Ca'ail?" Riker asked, though they had all thought the question. "If it were you?"
Ca'ail looked almost embarrassed. "When Picard and I first found the doorway to the city, I looked for a building that resembled the Citadel, but I suppose that would be too obvious."
"What did the Citadel look like?" Picard asked.
"A tall spire with a courtyard."
"Considering the limitations of an underground metropolis," Data said, "perhaps placement would be more important than shape."
Ca'ail blinked at him. "You're really remarkably clever," she said, then frowned in thought. "The Citadel was in the center of the Second House. What's at the center of this place?"
After some triangulation with their tricorders, the away team found the modest building, almost cottage-sized, at the center of the city. Dubiously, they entered through the open front door, but then were instantly convinced they had found what they were looking for.
Treasure of every type was carelessly scattered throughout the single room. There was nothing of furniture, not even a table, but there were several open chests, their contents sparkling in the almost dust-free air even after the pass of centuries: jewelry and goblets and swords and shields and platters and loose precious stones and gold and silver and crystal and constantly the pronouncement of incredible wealth.
Walking a short ways into the room, they all began to examine the objects in the light from the crystal-strewn ceiling. Ca'ail began to laugh at each new priceless thing she found, picking up a short sword and twirling it around in an overtly expert fashion before tucking it into the belt of her tunic. She next held up a long necklace of bright jewels, but discarded it for a thick gold bracelet which she slid it up her left arm well past the elbow. She saw the others looking at her and shrugged, pulling the sleeve of her tunic down over the trinket.
"Are you suggesting someone's going to mind?" she asked with wide eyes and a trace of embarrassed scorn.
"There are several artifacts here made out of the black crystal," Data said. "But I am not certain which of them could be the Mark of Ha't."
"Do you know anything about what it looks like?" Picard asked Ca'ail.
She shrugged. "It appears on the Great Mural as a sunburst."
"Perhaps the Mark also has one on it," Crusher suggested.
"It seems sensible to gather all the pieces we can find for examination," Picard said, feeling quite at home with this archeological expedition. Quickly, the officers and Ca'ail complied, and they ended up with seven pieces in all. None of them bore a sunburst, but they were all marked with symbols similar to those on the mine walls.
"I could read these if the light were better," Ca'ail said, holding them up one by one. Her arm was beginning to hurt quite fiercely now. "The dark crystal and the light in here are making everything blur."
"We'll take them all back to the ship," Picard decided, and they were packing them away when Troi gasped suddenly.
"What is it?" Riker asked, holding onto her shoulder as she put a hand to her heart.
"Geordi!" She wrenched away from Riker and ran to the door. The others followed, running with her as she darted down walkways to the edge of the city opposite the lake. There they found a waist-high border of stones which she hurtled before plunging into near-total darkness.
"Deanna!" Riker called as they snapped on their beacons and followed. Several hundred feet of twisting passages later, all of them except Data breathing heavily now, they pulled up short as Troi stood gasping before a section of wall she probed frantically with her fingers.
"Allow me, Counselor," Data said as he shouldered her aside and threw delicacy to the wind by pushing at the section with all his considerable strength. Something gave with a CRACK, and the wall opened to an incredible sight.
Big Ben, Picard thought. He had gone to see the landmark as a child with his parents and Robert and been unexpectedly amazed at the enormous cogs that worked the inside of the clock. Here he felt that exact sensation, and the pieces of moving machinery before him were indeed like cogs: deeply grooved and forcing their neighbors to move in a creaking outrage of power.
"Myler!" LaForge's voice could be heard even above the protesting machinery.
They ran towards the noise and found the chief engineer behind the main assembly of cogs, pulling on a long lever and looking up at a small wooden carriage some hundred feet above them attached to the main spindle of the assemblage.
An elevator, Picard thought.
From the carriage dangled Myler. The floor had evidently rotted away and fallen out with his weight.
Data rushed to his friend's side and helped LaForge work the controls to the lift. With his strength he was able to pull the lever to its opposite position, and, with an even greater scream from the ancient machinery, the carriage stopped its ascent and, slowly, began to return to the floor.
As the danger lessened, the away team began to take in more details, noting first that it was quite bright here. There were crystals, but there were also several reflective panels creating an infusion of indirect light from another source.
"It goes to the surface?" Picard asked LaForge, his eyes never leaving the carriage.
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid this is my fault. I accidentally started it up while Myler was inside."
The carriage reached the bottom and the cogs stopped their protesting groans. The silence was momentarily dizzying, but Crusher was instantly at Myler's shaky side, looking him over and pronouncing him fit.
"Myler, I'm so sorry..."
"Don't worry about it, sir. I'm fine."
Data turned from inspecting the carriage with his tricorder. "Only the floor is wooden, sir. The frame is metal and would, I believe, easily take the weight of four of us at a time."
"You want to take this to the surface, Data?" Riker asked.
"No, he's right, sir. That's why Myler and I were looking it over. I know it makes the devil's own noise, but it's structurally quite sound...all but the floor, that is."
It was arranged in short order, with Riker, Ca'ail, Myler and Crusher going up in the first trip, each standing carefully on the metal grid that had supported the rotten wood. Riker found the trip rather dull, unable to see anything but the stone walls of the shaft and unable to hear anything but the rumbling squeaks and snaps of the gears. Minutes passed, and the light increased. Riker turned to shoot an encouraging look at the others, and notice that Ca'ail had turned pale.
"Are you all right?" he shouted.
"Hate heights!" she yelled back, keeping her face averted from Dr. Crusher and closing her eyes.
Riker tried to project sympathy as the lift continued to climb, then saw that the walls of the shaft where getting closer and closer. Another full minute passed, and the noise of gears was muffled by the small gap between the carriage and the walls, and then the walls slid down -- no, Riker told himself, the carriage slid up -- and they were inside a wide-mouthed cave. Exiting the lift right before it started sinking back down its shaft, they saw that the floor of the cave had peeled back with their arrival, and now closed up again as the lift disappeared. It was a strange sight, the technology of the moving floor seeming at great odds with the primitive quality of the lift. But Riker reminded himself that the "primitive" carriage had somehow remained operative for hundred of years. For a society that was about to discover warp technology, the Ha'tel were an amazing blend of hi-tech and stone knives.
With that thought, he looked at Ca'ail, who had turned from them to stare out the cave. He followed her gaze and saw the gray shale and barren rock of the mountainside. Getting out his tricorder, he found that they were not far at all from the mine entrance.
"It's dark," Ca'ail murmured, and Riker frowned at her before he realized she was looking at the sky. The time was mid-afternoon, but the sky was indeed dimmer than it should be.
"It's just a thundercloud," he said, looking again at his tricorder. "It's going to rain."
Ca'ail didn't answer and some ten minutes later the floor peeled back again to reveal the lift and its four occupants. Riker looked at his captain and found his eyes instantly darting to Ca'ail, whose back faced them as she continued to gaze at the darkening sky.
When the eight members of the team emerged from the cave, they looked dirty, rumpled, and somewhat unsteady as they got used to the prospect of sky and the lack of walls. The figure watching them did not bother to suppress his snort.
Picard saw him and hardly broke his stride, leading them down to where Q stood with his arms folded across his chest.
"What are you doing here, Q?"
The question wasn't hostile at all this time, the entity noted with a distant satisfaction. "You don't even look surprised to see me, mon ami."
"I assumed you might show up, since you've doubtlessly known exactly where the Mark is all this time."
"I should know. I hid it three hundred years ago."
But Picard didn't gratify the entity with surprise at that either. "So you've come here to tell us we're unnecessary."
"No, actually, though you are. I've come to rescue you."
"Hmmm." Q motioned to the spot on his chest where his combadge would have been if he weren't in Ha'tel attire. Picard shot him a look, then reached inside his tunic to press the communicator.
"Picard to Enterprise."
No answer was returned. Picard tried again while Riker attempted to make contact as well.
LaForge, meanwhile, had gotten out his tricorder. "It's the atmosphere," he reported, keeping the edge out of his voice. "Some sort of electromagnetic disturbance. That's more than a thundercloud over the sun, sir."
"Did you think the fall of darkness was a summer shower?" Q sneered.
"The vortex," Picard said. "Is it getting ready to appear?"
"Of course it is, Picard. Did you find the Mark? I must say I'm almost surprised myself you realized it was here."
"Surprised?" Picard looked at Ca'ail, who had turned towards them, and saw that she was ashen and about ready to collapse.
Crusher noticed the same thing at the same time and went towards the woman just as she backed away from them and sat on a low rock, wrapping her arms about her knees and burying her head in them as she emitted a low moan. It had been a long while since she had felt this bad.
"My God," Crusher said as she scanned with her tricorder. "What's happening to you?"
With a diving rush, Q was at Ca'ail's side. He grabbed her arms with fury and quickly discovered the thick bracelet over her left elbow. He yanked back the sleeve of her tunic. She didn't look up at him, groaning again faintly, and he shot to his feet.
"You idiot, Picard! What do you think you're doing?"
"The bracelet," Picard said, his voice heavy with irony and defeat. "I should have known." Then he looked at Q with a fury that matched the entity's. "If you had simply told me what it looked like and where it could be found, I could have prevented her from taking it!"
"Well, we've got to get it off her," Crusher told them both, tugging at the bracelet with some strength before accepting that it had bonded to her skin. "It's going to kill her."
"It's preparing her for death, Doctor," Q said with oozing menace. "But it won't be kind enough to kill her."
He knelt by her again and she looked up this time, her face regaining some color as she turned to Dr. Crusher.
"Better now," she said faintly, and smiled.
Then she turned with a ceremonial deliberateness to look fully at Q, and the words he'd been about to scald her with seemed to die on his lips. Looking deep into his brown eyes, she smiled with a depth to match, and again that expression of affection softened her face.
"Who are you?" he asked finally, and the others controlled their surprise that he should need to ask.
She almost laughed as she responded. "The Perfect Sacrifice, of course...but I am also Ca'ail, daughter of the First House."
"Well, I hope you appreciate that your presumption in putting that little trinket on will result in the destruction of your world."
Ca'ail's expression went from affection to an open display of love. "Will it, Q'teh?"
Q reacted with an insultingly incredulous expression that quickly turned into disgust. He stood again, slowly, and looked at Picard. "This is what I get for dealing with an ape-like stuffed shirt like you, Picard. Your incredible stupidity has caused this. Remember that when you get to watch these people enjoy the destruction your incomprehensible idiocy has brought them!"
With a furious spin on his heel, Q stalked off. The others, except for Ca'ail, who had put her head down into her arms again, looked at their captain. With one hand, he motioned them to wait, turned, and followed Q down the path.
He found the entity not far from them, standing in the middle of the path in that same pose he'd used when looking out the palace window: hands clasped behind his back, head bowed, body stiff and shoulders drawn tight. At the noise of Picard's approach, Q reacted by drawing himself even tighter, but he did not, as Picard had thought he might, continue to walk away.
"Q," he said as reasonably as he could, uncertain how Q would respond to gentleness. "I have done nothing since I got here but try to help, and if I've behaved stupidly, surely you can see that it's due in great part to your refusal to tell me what is going on!" Picard took a breath, having gotten much louder then he'd meant to. But Q turned before he could continue.
"You told me once you weren't my father confessor."
Picard felt his eyes widen at the expression on Q's face. It was just like that shamed frown Q had worn in his ready room when he'd confessed to his selfishness and inability to be a worthwhile Human. Picard hadn't wanted to believe in Q's story of mortality, hadn't wanted to feel any sympathy for a being who so enjoyed watching the torment of others. But that was before Q had saved his life and helped him with the Continuum's test. What might have happened if he had truly tried to help Q back then?
"I'll be whatever you need me to be to help these people, Q. Did you do this to them somehow? You said this was a situation you had arranged. Explain it to me. Please, tell me what exactly is going on." Q looked ready to sneer. "You obviously can't fix this, Q. Are you so certain you don't need our help? our real help?"
To Picard's amazement, Q suddenly let out a sigh that shook his entire body and wandered over to a nearby boulder to sit down. The...Humanity of the gesture was startling.
"I can't figure out where to begin," Q said with faint sarcasm.
"You might start with your evident lack of powers."
"No, no. That's not the beginning." Q rubbed his face with his hands, and it occurred to Picard that he looked tired.
"Well, there's the Beginning," he said finally, "but I entered the picture slightly before that: well over one hundred million years ago, actually." Picard nodded and sat down himself on another large rock, and Q went on with a slight smile. "There was little life then in this sector, and I was...bored. I hadn't realized then exactly how dangerous a state of mind that is for a Q. I found this unimportant lump of rock orbiting this insignificant star and sat, not far from here, actually, and contemplated its volcanic mess, and noted an interesting group of amino acids, not unlike that which was similarly forming on your own unimportant lump of rock.
"And then I experimented. Nothing serious, just a little resequencing, a little tampering. I even arranged a little pecking order for them to see if I could make my creations competitive, and so I left them as they were, quite proud of my ingenuity, and I didn't return for quite some time." Q seemed to run out of words and stared at the ground.
"And then one hundred million years ago you returned," Picard prodded.
"Trying to be clever? Too late by half, mon Capitaine. But you are right. I returned and I found that one of the two lifeforms had become what you call the vortex, living half here and half there, and sometimes stretching a bit too far into this world in search of the nourishment my meddling made it need."
Q's almost-calm expression folded quickly once more into disgust. "Of course not, you ignorant school boy. The Ha'tel evolved as naturally as any Humanoid species in the universe. You really think I would have bothered making an experiment out of them?"
"Your insults aren't disguising that you care a great deal what happens to these people, Q."
Q's disgust obviously turned inward. "My caring or lack of it is irrelevant. I made sure of that in the Beginning.
"You see, Picard, I was still proud of myself. The two lifeforms I had made here were unique in the entire universe. I wanted to bring my fellow members of the Continuum here to show off my handiwork." He noted Picard's involuntary movement. "What?"
"Your second lifeform. It's the Ha't, isn't it?"
"Give the schoolboy an A," Q said with grudging approval. "By creating the garden and making sure it would remain unchanged on this world, I thought I was protecting what I then saw would be a viable ecosystem, and in order to enjoy my creation, and protect it from any further meddling on anyone's part, I made sure that any of my people who came here would be unable to exercise the power of the Q. I believed that I had created a perfect balance that would last for however long the lifeforms continued."
"But it didn't last."
"Even the omnipotent can't think of everything. I didn't realize this world would give rise to a sentient race that would one day pollute the atmosphere, produce artificial substances and in general muck up a perfectly lovely environment. I came here to do what I could after the first 'Cleansing,' but I was limited by own powers to the level of a Ha'tel, and I still am. While I'm here I can do nothing but what an ordinary mortal could do, except die."
Picard made sure not to react to the bitterness of Q's tone.
"It took me thirty-six Cleansings to figure out a way to stop them. They were gentler things then, you must understand. They burned out on their own. But they kept getting stronger. At the time I was quite proud of my solution. After the Mark alters the blood chemistry of the selected Ha'tel, which I admit is quite painful, they simply walk into the garden and the vortex takes them, a simple, mindless death. The vortex takes the mind of the sacrifice and feeds on its energy until its balance is regained. With a mortal mind, it takes only a few seconds. Almost a painless death. Or at least, it used to be before the vortex' need for energy made the transformations more and more...extreme." Q shot Picard a look. "Not going to say anything, Johnny?"
Picard shrugged. "Are you still proud of your solution, Q?"
"It was the only way to keep this world and, yes, the space of this entire sector from being destroyed. But...the civilization of the Ha'tel, you see what they're like. They've had this Cleansing hanging over them their entire history, sucking even the small joys Humanoids can comprehend from them. They're a bitter and hostile and horrid people, and I made them that way, Jean-Luc. This world you see is the creation of my idle foolishness, a moment of vanity compounded by a desire to impress my colleagues."
"Are they impressed?"
Q's expression was unreadable. "Of course they are."
"What makes this Cleansing different from the others?"
"Simple power, Picard. A single sacrifice is no longer sufficient. I thought I might be able to modify the Mark so that it could alter more than one person. But now that your little friend has put it on, it's too late. It can't be taken off her until she's dead, and if we try to kill her before the sacrifice, the Mark won't work at all anymore."
"Q, are you so certain she hasn't got something more going on?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"There's something about her, Q, something I can't --"
"Oh." Q waved a dismissive hand. "She's probably the brain child of some cult or other. Many of them have evolved on this world, worshipping the vortex, worshipping Ha't."
"But you said Ha't is real."
"As a life-force, Johnny, not as some goddess who'll swoop in to save them all. Ha't exists enough in this world to produce that bio-neural energy signature the vortex feeds on. The flowers feed Ha't, and the Mark makes the sacrifice mimic Ha't. There's nothing there to worship."
Picard thought hard. "But if you can't help these people, Q, why have you tried so hard to get rid of us? I could have kept the Mark from Ca'ail."
"You weren't supposed to find it at all! You were supposed to be distracted with Data's nonsense about the black crystal."
"How do you know about that?"
"I was on the Enterprise, remember?"
"But if you don't have any powers..."
"Only while I'm down here! I have...a shuttle. I keep it parked on one of the moons and fly down. On your tin can my powers were intact."
"What if we got Ca'ail to the Enterprise?"
Q smiled unpleasantly. "And how were you thinking of doing that, Picard? The atmosphere won't tolerate a shuttle anymore, or a transporter, or a comsignal. This planet is going to be destroyed quite soon now, and you and your away team will have front-row seats."
"I don't know.
Picard kept his face calm. "You'll survive?"
"Oh, yes, and when the planet is gone I'll even be able to leave, though I still won't be able to stop the vortex or Ha't. Without the garden to keep them civilized they'll probably struggle with each other constantly." Again Q rubbed his face. "Was it so impossible for you to do as I asked and leave this place, Picard? The Humanities project is one of the most promising things I've done...for such a low-rated species. I didn't want you anywhere near here.
"I'm...sorry, Q," Picard said, surprising himself with the level of his own sincerity. "But if you had only told me this sooner...I suppose I still would have stayed."
Q looked at him in surprise. Then his lips quirked, and Picard's did as well, and then they shared a short, uncomfortable, genuine laugh.
"Q, one thing about us Humans, we tend to be somewhat tenacious."
"Thank you. So I'm going to ask you, despite the seemingly pointless nature of the exercise, a few questions."
"Well, if nothing else it will allow me to see your 2005-level IQ in action." Q acknowledged that with a wry nod. "Now, have you fully considered how much things have changed with our arrival? You have seven Humans here, and our equipment. Could any of that be used?"
"Hmm. Our combadges. Dr. Crusher's medical knowledge. Our tricorders --"
"Tricorders?" Q frowned at him. "How many tricorders?"
"Seven..." Picard frown at the memory. "Mimic...you said the Perfect Sacrifice mimics the energy signature. Could the tricorders be used to enhance that mimicry?"
Q gave him a slow smile, mockery in place but without any sting. "Not bad, Jean-Luc. It probably won't work, but not bad."
"But it has a chance?"
Q's show of a casual shrug was undercut by the quick way he stood and began walking back towards the others. "We'll need the exact reading of the energy, and that means a trip to the garden."
I feel so sick. And the pain is back. It won't ever really go away again, ever. Why does that make me feel strong, knowing that? I've lost so much, and yet I gain by the loss. The universe truly is infinite. Can't they see it? Look at this small cut on my finger. Where did I get it? What does it mean?
No time for this now. Perhaps I won't ever have time for it again. The finality of existence. Riker is getting nervous.
But here they come, and they've figured out about the tricorders. Look at him. Look at him. So different now. Everything is so different. I can't believe I'm here, finally here.
And this morning I kissed him. What did you think of it, Picard? I thought it was quite nice, myself.
Ah, yes, the Great Tricorder Plan, everyone trying not to look too hard at me, uncomfortable with the fact that they're discussing making the most out of my death. Data and Crusher make their analyses, and now we're getting our instructions to get into the shuttle.
Ugh. I feel so sick.
No time for this now. Perhaps I won't ever have time for it again. The finality of existence. Riker is getting nervous.
But here they come, and they've figured out about the tricorders. Look at him. Look at him. So different now. Everything is so different. I can't believe I'm here, finally here. And this morning I kissed him. What did you think of it, Picard? I thought it was quite nice, myself.
Ah, yes, the Great Tricorder Plan, everyone trying not to look too hard at me, uncomfortable with the fact that they're discussing making the most out of my death. Data and Crusher make their analyses, and now we're getting our instructions to get into the shuttle.
Ugh. I feel so sick.
Q's shuttle looked just like Picard had thought it would: sleek and efficient and somehow slightly mocking of Federation aesthetics. It was big enough for all of them, though there was only one chair, for Q, as he took the controls. The rest of them found places on the smooth floor. Crusher watched over Ca'ail, who had rolled over on her side, her arms crossed up over her shoulders, as she slept. The others were all busy modifying the tricorders.
It was hard not to steal glances at Q, working like a mortal on the altitude and thrust. The entity evidently preferred not to use any automatic controls, and Picard thought he could understand why a usually omnipotent lifeform wouldn't volunteer to trust his life -- or at least his comfort -- to a machine, even one he had whipped up himself.
Between such thoughts and working on the tricorder, the captain found that the trip to the Land of Ha't, though covering the distance of almost half-way around the world, was over before he had been expecting it. The only real sign that time had passed came towards the end of the trip when Ca'ail abruptly sat up and blinked at them.
"Well," she said brightly. "I feel better."
"You look better," Picard said with an involuntary smile.
"She is better," Crusher said, closing the tricorder with a snap. "Your blood chemistry has been completely altered to a state I've never seen before, but it has stabilized."
"I won't actually emit the bio-neural energy required yet. It responds to the approach of Ha't."
"It kicks in when you enter the garden, you mean," Q said from the controls. Not turning his head, he continued, "And now I think it's time for the party crasher to do a little explaining."
The smile had returned full-force as she looked with affection at the back of Q's head. "What would you like explained, Q'teh?"
"You could start by explaining how you knew where the Mark was and what it looked like," Picard put in.
"That would be telling."
Even Q turned to stare at her at that. She shrugged. "I needed to make up elaborations before to gain your cooperation, but I don't now, do I? Suffice to say I did know, and I'm more aware than any of you regarding the consequences of my actions."
"That's not good enough," Picard told her.
"Too bad. Besides, in a minute I'm going to be the least of your worries."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Riker demanded, just as Q made a startled exclamation in a language no one recognized, including the universal translators. The words sounded pretty bad, though, regardless.
"Is this your doing, Picard?" the entity grated out.
Picard stood and walked up to look out the forward portal over Q's shoulder. Immediately, he was struck by two thoughts. The first was that the garden was being attacked, and the second was that if he leaned forward just a bit, he could whisper in Q's ear for a change.
"What do they think they are doing?" he demanded.
While Data and Riker came to look as well, Q circled the area over the Guardian's house -- staying clear of the space above the actual garden -- and a violent mob composed of perhaps a thousand Ha'tel -- men and women, attackers and victims, in no particular assemblage, with no battle strategy. Many people lay on the ground, injured, dying, dead, but most were pushing towards the center of the mob. Picard tried to make sense of it.
"Is it some attack and defense of the garden?" Riker asked, trying to see while keeping his distance from Q.
"It seems unlikely that after all this time the people would turn on what they feel to be their only protection from the vortex," Data observed.
"Ca'ail," Riker asked, "could this be the work of Gad'sl followers?"
"No," Picard said flatly. "It isn't." And he pointed at two figures in brown robes standing just outside the gate, protected from the mob by several rows of Ha'tel. The brown robes were doubtlessly not unique, but, somehow, he was completely certain he knew who they were.
Civilians, Picard thought, and not for the first time in his life the word was a curse.
"Hmmm," said Q. "Think they can all run?"
And with no further warning, he set the shuttle down a mere three feet from the garden gate with an ungentle THUMP.
"Q!" Picard shouted, but the entity was up from the controls and walking towards the hatch as it opened into the muttering silence of a stunned crowd.
What Q planned to do without his powers, however, was not to be known. As soon as the hatch was wide enough, Ca'ail, who had been sitting right next to it, slipped outside even as she was stripping off her tunic. When Picard and his officers managed to see her again, she was standing in front of the crowd with the Mark of Ha't showing and, more importantly, the skin of her arms and upper chest bare.
The Mark had done its work. Ca'ail shone. Like a sunburst, her body radiated a dazzling golden light. The silence intensified as all the rioters forgot their struggle and turned to look at her. No one quite dropped to their knees, but the expressions on their faces spoke just as loudly as that action would have done.
Picard tore his eyes from the scene to look back at the shuttle and assure himself that everyone had managed to avoid being crushed by its sudden landing. He wondered if Q had even bothered to check that there were no prone bodies lying this close to the gate.
And in looking around Picard met the eyes of two people the captain almost wished had not managed to escape being crushed by the shuttle. He opened his mouth to speak, but once again Ca'ail thwarted him.
"We have very little time before the Cleansing." Her voice was steady and projected well enough to ring clearly over the transfixed crowd. "The vortex will appear here, as it always does. Has it been so long since the last time that you do not realize this area will be Cleansed first?"
Her simple words worked quickly, and the Ha'tel began to back away as soon as they realized their implications. Soon there was a general panic, and the ground was cleared of all those who could walk. Crusher was out immediately looking over the wounded with Troi and Myler's help. Riker and LaForge and Data took the seven tricorders over to the gate behind the shuttle to read the energy signature in privacy, while Q watched both Ca'ail, who stood there quietly watching the doctor work, and Picard, who walked slowly over to Professor Gowrint and Dr. Lowenthal.
"Before I decide to throw you in the brig the second we get back to the Enterprise," he told them, "I would appreciate knowing what you thought you were doing."
Both scientists were staring at Ca'ail, who had turned to look at them with some amusement. Finally, Gowrint managed to explain, "I thought it most likely that the Mark made use of the flowers in the Land of Ha't."
"So you said."
"We tried to get the Guardian to let us in and collect specimens, but he refused. We came here with the intent...to climb the fence, but somehow we couldn't." Q grunted. "And so we were trying to get the people who had assembled here to help us, and then...things got out of hand."
"Merde," Q grumbled, stealing Picard's attention from the scientists before he could tell them what he thought of their stupidity. Turning to follow the entity's gaze, he saw a large shuttlecar approaching, flanked by two smaller cars. "It's Ai'draith, and he'll be wanting me to advise him."
"Captain," LaForge said as he and the others emerged from behind the shuttle. "We've got the signature, and it looks like the tricorders will be able to amplify it."
Picard read his expression. "What is it?"
"It's just that this should hold the vortex in check for some time, but, from what I can see, in order to eradicate the disruption permanently, if the energy readings we're picking up are any indication of the sort of power we're dealing with here, we would need a source for the energy that's at least a thousand times greater than what the entire garden is currently producing."
"It will be," Ca'ail said absently, watching the shuttlecars land.
Picard met Q's eyes with a question, and the entity frowned.
"No Ha'tel could produce that level of energy, Mark or no Mark."
She smiled, and the warmth from it matched the bright glow of her skin. "Then it's lucky for everyone here that I'm not really Ha'tel, isn't it?" She turned then and walked towards the shuttle that was disgorging Ai'draith and his aides. Q followed.
"Continue working on the tricorders," Picard quickly ordered LaForge and the others. "Data, see that our...civilians here do absolutely nothing." Then he caught up with Q as the scientists' eyes went to the suddenly very serious-looking android.
"You sure know how to pick 'em, Jean-Luc."
"I assure you, Q, she picked me."
Ai'draith and his entourage had all stopped in their tracks at the first sight of Ca'ail. She said nothing, however, merely standing there with her hands on her hips as her body radiated the power the Mark had given it. Picard and Q walked up to flank her, and with great confusion Ai'draith's eyes slid over to his advisor.
"Q'teh, what is happening?"
Q walked smoothly forward and announced, "There's nothing for you to do here. The Perfect Sacrifice has been prepared."
"But the fall of darkness...this is the Cleansing which will bring the end of things."
"Indeed," Ca'ail said, and the amusement in the word brought back that little itch in Picard's mind. "But the darkness you speak of is not to be feared, and the end to which you refer is the end of the vortex, and the end of Ha't."
Q turned his head to stare at her, and Picard began to believe he had figured some of this out.
"The Ha'tel can no longer live with these warring...little gods," Ca'ail said dryly. "And Ha't and the vortex have had their time at the top of the food chain. There will be no more garden, no more Cleansings, no more sacrifices, no more Guardian...and this last, I assure you, will be a very good thing indeed."
Ai'draith's eyes went to the Guardian's house a hundred yards from them, and only then did he seem to realize the man was not in attendance at this most important of occasions.
"You people are going to have to start from scratch," Ca'ail said unpleasantly. "No more blaming everything on getting your people killed every now and then by an entity you don't understand. No more telling yourselves it's all right to be barbarians because the world is mean to you. The vortex and Ha't have been battling in your backyard, and that's been unfair. And now you may think that all your problems will be solved. But you will find that the world becomes a harsh place indeed when all your excuses are taken away."
"Q'teh," Ai'draith said in confusion. "What does she mean?"
"Nothing to worry about right now," Q said, moving closer to the Leader of the First House. "The more immediate issue is that you really should return home."
But Ai'draith was distraught over the absence of the Guardian and didn't want to leave. As Q pressed his point in his smoothest demeanor, Ca'ail began to move back from the scene, and eventually turned and walked towards the Guardian's dwelling.
Picard tuned out Q's conversation and watched his people working on the tricorders and the wounded. Beverly had the dozen or so injured Ha'tel collected, and some of Ai'draith's people had gone to join her. He saw the doctor talking insistently, and knew that soon she would have arranged for them to take the wounded in one of the smaller shuttlecars to be treated.
Satisfied, the captain walked with determination to the Guardian's house. The structure was placed on a platform, he saw, skirting around the little path and climbing up to the porch to walk through the open front door.
Inside, he smelled faintly the rotting of food and the sweaty, stale aroma of sex. The furniture had been tossed around, and there were dozens of luxurious items and bits of treasure thrown everywhere. He found Ca'ail opening the windows and helped her. When he turned from the last one, she was smiling at him, and he saw that though her body glowed considerably less out of the sunlight, a key now glittered brightly on a chain around her neck.
"He just left it here," she smiled. "I knew he would, of course, but somehow it still seemed funny to see it on the floor."
"Are you going to tell me what's going on now?"
"There's very little time left for stories, Jean-Luc."
"Well, perhaps I can help speed things up."
"Think you've figured me out? Well, I suppose I should give you three guesses." She righted and then threw herself down into a new high-backed, gold velvet chair and gestured to its partner. Picard set it on its feet and moved into it as she talked. "But your choices have already been narrowed so much, I'll only give you one."
Ca'ail laughed mockingly. "Oh no. No. And I expected so much better from you...mon Capitaine."
Picard stared, feeling the breath leave his body and refuse to come back in. Q had called him that, hadn't he, in the conversation she had overheard? And yet, that something about her that had been bothering him moved to the forefront of her expression: that mocking glitter, the little half-smile, the slightly raised eyebrows, and the just-a-shade-insulting over-all attitude of her body. Suddenly, she seemed to be enjoying herself at his expense.
"Q." He pronounced it like a death sentence. "Was this just a joke all along? One of your little tricks?"
But then that familiar Q expression blended with the depth and warmth of Ca'ail's smile. "No tricks, Johnny. No lies. No jokes. And soon, very soon now, no more me."
She laughed, and the sound was as complex as her expression. "Although, he will still be here. You're not getting rid of him that easily." She laughed again, and there was genuine delight in it now to add to everything else.
"Q." Picard leaned forward and rubbed his face with his hands. "I don't understand."
"Don't call me 'Q,' Picard. It only confuses you, and no one has called me that in a very long time. Call me Ca'ail. It's my name."
"Come, come. I know I've insulted you often enough, but surely even you have realized I think you're rather clever for a Human. I told you I haven't been called 'Q' in a long time. Now, what does that have to mean?"
Picard took a breath. "You're from the future?"
"So you are what Q will become?"
"I am the entity you know as Q, Picard. Don't kid yourself. But yes, I am what he became over the course of so much time I can't remember how much time it was."
Picard frowned at her. "Another paradox?"
"No, a simple reality. I am, to all intents and purposes, physically Ha'tel. The Humanoid brain is so limited. I had to let go so many of my memories. I made little summaries of them and kept them like keepsakes, and, of course, I've managed to keep a great deal of it intact despite the enormity of the challenge. But how can I tell you any longer of eternity, my old friend? I have seen the dawn of existence and the extinction of all life, including the collapse of the Continuum, the evolution and loss of all species, and finally the loss of all light. I have stood with those few others who had the patience and the strength to last, and together we saw the arrival of oblivion. I know that when the time came, they joined...hands, and faced it together."
"But not you?
"No, I had unfinished business." Her smile turned suddenly into the one he had seen on Q's face when he spoke of being ashamed. "The first time I lived through this scene, we got the vortex under control, you and I and your...little trained minions. But I didn't care for the outcome, it was just a little too messy."
"You came back through eternity, and now you're going to sacrifice yourself for a little mess?"
"Regrets, as I once showed you, Picard, can be a dangerous thing."
"You also showed me the danger of tampering with one's past."
"Oh, but I've put a bit more thought into this one than you did. It took me millennia upon millennia to lose my powers. I shed them: this parlor trick and that one, and I thought very hard about what I was doing."
"But you must have kept some of your powers."
She smiled with simple affection again. "And how do you know that?"
"Because Q doesn't recognize you."
"Very good, mon Capitaine. Actually, I've kept three powers. We'll see if you can guess the other two."
"But Q...you told me when you were Q that you had no powers here."
"Allow an entity to learn a thing or two over the course of eternity, Jean-Luc. My last three tricks are small enough to survive."
"I take it the second one deals with that energy signature. Our fiddling with the tricorders was just to keep us busy, I suppose?"
"Oh, no, no. I've been counting on them. Remember, I've been here before. Your little boxes will be most useful in a few minutes."
Picard thought it over, seeing everything that had happened in the past few days in a completely different light. Of course Ca'ail had known where to find the Mark. In a way, in fact, she had been telling the truth: Q had told her where it was, because she was Q. Indeed, nothing she had said that he could recall had been a lie, not really.
And then he thought of specific things, and different types of lies.
"Q...Ca'ail, please, tell me. Why are you doing this?
"I told you, Jean-Luc."
"You told me another of your nothings that cover up more than they reveal. What happened in the original timeline?"
"And if I did tell you, would you to tell me it's not worth it? You tried to talk me out of suicide once before, and it didn't work."
"Were you sacrificing yourself then as well?"
"Maybe...but I'm not really doing such a noble thing now either, Picard. I was going to...die, I might as well call it, anyway. This way I get to go out with style, with meaning, with...glamour." She made a very Q-like gesture with her right arm and a crack of thunder shook the room.
Picard started and she smiled. Then he realized the room had grown so dark the light from her body was casting shadows.
"Is it time?" he asked, standing up.
"Almost." The word came out faintly and he watched again as her eyes fixed on a small sight: a white porcelain cup on the floor. She stood and retrieved it, holding it close to her eyes and she poured her whole body into studying it. She brought up a finger and ran it along the smooth edge, then turned to him with an awed smile.
"What is it?" Picard whispered.
"White porcelain," she said with a little frown, then breathed: "Amazing."
She looked directly at him and he felt his breath catch. "It's all so amazing," she whispered.
Then she set down the cup and straightened with a nod, and they faced each other in the dim room. He could feel the heat from her now as well, and he wondered if he touched her whether she would burn his hand.
"Did you keep warning me away from this planet so that I wouldn't get hurt?" he asked.
"You'd better ask Q that question," she chuckled. "He's the one who'll live with the consequences."
"You told me that your physical form represents aspects of your true nature."
"You remembered that. I'm touched." The intonation was perfect.
"Does it still?"
"In a sense, Jean-Luc. But then, so does your form, doesn't it?"
"Most definitely. After all, I look like I'm an obtuse mortal."
At the wry gentleness of his tone her eyes shimmered. "I believe my words were 'obtuse piece of flotsam.'" Her voice dropped to a familiar whisper. "But I was just feeling poetic." She stepped abruptly to the door.
"Save it for him, Jean-Luc."
"I don't want to say it to him."
"But he and I are the same."
"That's like telling me to enjoy the company of a two-year-old because he'll turn interesting in his nineties."
Ca'ail laughed, eyes twinkling now. "Very astute analogy, mon Capitaine. You're really not flotsam at all."
And she left, stepping out of the dark room into the dwindling light of the world. The sky was heavy and the electrical charge was making the hair on Picard's skin stand up. All the shuttles were gone from the area, and his people were gathered at the gate, holding their gear and looking from the Guardian's house to Q, who stood alone at the end of the path, and back again. Ca'ail walked down the steps of the platform and turned back to look at Picard.
"The house is on this platform for a reason, Jean-Luc. Have your people get in there with you."
Picard opened and closed his mouth, then signaled Riker. They came quickly as another round of thunder made the ground shake. The wind had picked up as well.
Ca'ail stood with Q as the team passed them, Riker stopping to hand her the bag with the tricorders.
"They've all been activated," he told her. Just hold on to them and they should amplify whatever energy you give out."
"Thank you, Riker."
"You're the one we're all supposed to be thanking," he said, meaning it deeply, then shot a look at Q and walked up the path and entered the house.
"Shut the door, Jean-Luc!" she yelled up at the man in the doorway, and, with one final look at her and one at the male form which stood at her side, he did. Instantly the energy shields built into the platform raised up and surrounded the building, sealing them all inside.
Alone with Q, Ca'ail turned and smiled, then began walking to the garden.
He walked with her until they were almost to the black crystal gate, then stepped firmly into her path. She smiled as he sneered.
"You know, it's a shame I'm without my powers, or I'd whip you a up a nice little halo so you'd look more like a saint." His eyes grew dark with dislike. "But I'm not fooled. You know this will never work. You've hastened the destruction of your world and you've fooled Picard into thinking you're quite the hero, come to slay the dragon with a charming smile. But -- and this is quite an insult from me, believe me -- I think you're the greatest dragon I've ever met."
"Dragon?" she said with delight, gesturing to the bracelet on her arm. "How perfect! Sometimes I really do get things right. Sleeping on dragon's gold, thinking dragon thoughts, how could I help but become a dragon?"
Q blinked in astonishment. It was a completely gratuitous references to one of the first Human books he had ever read -- the title had caught his eye -- and he knew that none of the away team had read it. A pity, rather. It had some good lines.
"Yes," she said. "It does."
"You're a Q! This won't work with a Q at all!"
She smiled, then sighed deeply. "Ask yourself, if you will, what would have happened if I hadn't shown up?"
"We'd have gotten a proper Ha'tel to do this."
She shook her head patiently. "You think?" She looked at the shielded house behind them. "Just grab some poor soul and shove the Mark up their arm?"
Q's eyes began to widen.
"Just stand there and watch some horrified person go to their death? Deny responsibility for interfering?"
"I...I wouldn't let..."
"Oh, but you're not thinking this through. You're not thinking of the speech he would make. Yes, yet another one of those glorious speeches of his, the kind that make us laugh and yet always get us to do what he wants."
Q's astonishment had actually made him go pale. "You couldn't be..." He looked her up and down. "I wouldn't have let..."
"Oh yes, you did. You stood here, we stood here, planning the whole time to retrieve him when it was over, and we watched him walk into this garden and get taken by the winds." She smiled without mercy. "Do you remember when he was made into Locutus? when he was tortured by the Cardassians? when his family was destroyed in that fire?" She shrugged. "Nothing. Nothing compared to what happened here. And then, only at the end did we realize that what protected the vortex and Ha't from our meddling made Picard beyond our reach."
Q swallowed, and she moved a little closer, the heat from her body -- almost blinding right now in the dark -- reached across to touch him.
"And for eternity I have lived with that."
"Yes, I come from that far away, my dear. And how very far it is." She smiled now, openly displaying the benediction she'd only hinted at before. "Oh, I know what you fear, what I feared...Quinn, the Q who killed himself from boredom. How I used to worry that one day I would feel that. But Quinn's problem wasn't too great a conscience, it was impatience. He couldn't wait to see what would become of Q, and oh..." Her brown eyes filled with tears. "Oh, the days that you will see."
Q realized that he was shaking. "But are you really what I'm going to become?"
Her smile quirked at his horrified tone. "No. As Humans would say, we walk different paths now. I have changed the universe for you. I expect you to make something different from it. I don't know what it will be, but I do know what it won't have." She looked up. "It's time. Will you wait here, while I go in?"
"But, my powers...you won't be able to --"
"I gave them up," she said quietly as she pulled the chain off her neck and inserted the key into the lock of the gate.
"Q can't...not on my own."
"It just took a little time and effort."
"I told him who I am, but I didn't tell him why I really came back. You can tell him or not, as you choose." She opened the gate and stepped inside. Instantly, her skin grew brighter. Had Q been a real mortal, he would have been blinded indeed.
"He's letting me do this?"
"No, he's letting me do this. He'd never trust you to do it." She closed the gate between them. Q stared at her, waiting to be told what to do, hoping -- and feeling silly for it -- that she would smile at him again.
She did, though there was a trace of fierceness in it now.
"Take care of him."
"I was planning on it."
"So was I." She pointed at him. "You do better." The fierceness melted away. "Don't worry," she said. "It will be all right."
And he smiled back at her, though he was still shaking, as she turned and walked into the center of the garden, glowing brighter and brighter until she blurred even to his eyes.
Ca'ail stood in the center of the garden and felt the vortex approaching. Ha't was here too, and she could feel their weariness. The creatures recognized her and sped towards her, the energy gathering. It felt almost like chaos, but she had planned this for millennia, for longer than millennia, and had calculated it all out to the last electron. Quickly, she reached into the bag and slightly recalibrated the tricorders. They were crude little things, but they would do.
There, the vortex had reached her now, and the wind began to whip at her. She withstood it a moment, then something gave, a piece of her body, some skin and flesh, and the pain was incredible, unbearable, and with it went something from her mind, a memory.
She saw herself standing on a ship in some ocean, all green and blue and filled with intelligent lifeforms that hated her. But she couldn't remember why.
Then was at some sort of party for an old man. He laughed and reminded her of something.
The pain was getting worse now, but it was limited to mortal terms, unlike the energy that was pouring from her. Her second power, preserved now...how had she done it?
Her third power. That memory would go next, and all the ones that went with it, standing on another ship in a silly outfit and barking orders to a captain who held her in contempt. Then talk of some playwright, and a pile of glowing stones, and...something else...
No, it was gone now, all gone, and she was young again, and the universe was new and fresh and terrifying. Her fellow Q were laughing at her, and there was some talk of...something.
She was frightened and everything hurt. But then there was so little of her left that even the pain was going away, and she wanted to cry, but somehow she felt very pleased with herself, and that satisfaction was the last thing to be borne away on the faintest traces of the final breeze.
"Captain," Data warned one second before the shields around the Guardian's house were gone. They exited the house quickly. Even through the shields they had heard the roar of the wind and felt the trembling of the ground. But it hadn't prepared them for what they saw outside.
Nothing. No grass, no gate, no flowers, no hedge, no path. The entire area out to the horizon was level and barren, like the gray mountainside half a world away.
There was, in fact, only one spot of color: a tall man in a Starfleet captain's uniform. He watched them walk out on the platform and sneered at them. Then, with a snap of his fingers, he was gone.
"Enterprise to Captain Picard."
"Sir, we couldn't make contact through the storm."
"Understood, Mr. Tylego. Nine to beam up.
Picard sipped Earl Grey in his ready room and waited.
They were about to leave orbit of Ha'tel. The observation team had almost convinced Starfleet to be allowed to return to the surface, but Picard had privately pointed out Gowrint's stupidity with the flowers, and the entire team was going to be replaced.
The Ha'tel were celebrating their new-found autonomy with confusion and savage barbarism. Picard remembered Ca'ail's warning clearly, and passed it on to Starfleet Command in his reports.
He'd had some problems with those reports, considering that he'd had to explain what Q had and hadn't really become. He had a feeling he would be getting several inquiries from headquarters about what the hell he was talking about, and -- he thought with a wince -- probably a visit from Temporal Investigations.
"Tea too hot, Jean-Luc?"
"Q," he said with a wry smile, looking over to the sofa and the sprawled, uniform-wearing entity who now resided there.
"You seem pleased to see me! Am I finally to get that hug?"
"That running gag is wearing thin, Q."
"Still grumpy? I should have thought my dying for the cause would have softened you towards me a little."
"You didn't die, she did, and with more grace and nobility than I think you could manage in two eternities."
"My my my. Aren't we living in denial?" Q leered at him, wondering idly what would make the captain the most uncomfortable. One day, he would have to tell Picard about a strange power that Ca'ail had demonstrated at the moment of her death, a power that had given him something very interesting indeed. There seemed to be some memories that older version of himself just couldn't let die.
He could tell Johnny about it now, of course, but no...like the news about his flawed gray matter, it was a present Q would save for another day.
"And so," Picard asked, setting down his cup on the desk. "Did she tell you anything interesting out there? Anything that might help you to improve yourself?"
Oh, he was asking for it. But no...Q smiled.
"In fact, she did, Jean-Luc. She told me about the virtue of patience."
Patience was a virtue, Picard thought, staring at the empty sofa where Q had been.
So why had hearing Q say that made him more unsettled than ever?
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