Familiar Strangers

Part I

Captain's Log, Stardate 46524.1:

The Enterprise is currently en route to a diplomatic conference on Metraxia. These spacefaring people may be less technologically advanced than the Federation, but their unique resources have greatly piqued interest in a possible trade alliance. Also attending the conference will be representatives of the Klingon and Cardassian Empires and the Ferengi Alliance.


Personal Log, Captain Picard, Stardate 46524.1:

I find myself in an uncomfortable bind regarding the conference on Metraxia. It is vitally important that the Federation open trade relations with them; Metraxia is the only known source for vionen, a chemical extract of their vionara plant, and vionen is the only known cure for the Tellaris plague, the virulent mutagenic weapon developed forty years ago. Since Tellaris is easily transmitted and almost invariably fatal, and since all known humanoid races are susceptible to it, all major factions in this quadrant have been able to agree never to use it in warfare. Now that an antidote has been found, however, that agreement may become obsolete.

Any species which has a supply of vionen could use Tellaris against its opponents with impunity. Even if the Federation were willing to forgo the opportunity to trade for vionen, the fact that the Cardassians, Klingons and Ferengi are also involved makes it especially vital that the Federation not be left out of the agreement.

And yet...

All cultures have their own unique value. I believe that absolutely. But whatever is of value in Metraxan culture, I've yet to discover it. They are a totalitarian state, where women are treated with less respect than even in Ferengi culture, and dissidents of both sexes are usually tortured to death in public. Though Counselor Troi's input at a diplomatic conference would be invaluable, I have not considered it wise to assign her to the away team in light of Metraxan contempt of women; instead, I will be attending with Commander Riker and a complement of security headed by Lieutenant Worf.

In order to succeed at this conference, I must not allow the Metraxans to realize how much their culture disturbs me, but I admit that if it were at all possible to avoid dealing with them, I would gladly take the opportunity. Dealings with a culture that violates sentient rights as blatantly as the Metraxans do damages the Federation's moral position, I believe...and while I'm well aware that political necessities force immoral choices, I very much wish there were another way.

The conference was as bad as Picard had feared it would be.

There were three other species represented at the conference-- the Klingons, the Cardassians and the Ferengi. As usual, the Romulans hadn't deigned to show up, as if to announce that they already had an antidote to the plague, or at least to make everyone think they did. What was more likely was that they'd steal it from whoever got it, but at the moment, that wasn't Picard's problem. He'd let Starfleet Intelligence worry about that possibility.

The Metraxan president, Tonar Ga, was an obnoxious man, tall and grossly fat, who insisted on smoking something far more foul-smelling than, but analogous to, a cigar. With him were his aide, a nervous-looking man named Shenet Pal, and two representatives from the other two Metraxan states, Dommit Fen from a country called Leto and Jorn Kad from the nation of Tal'ka. Apparently Metraxia was not fully unified; these two nations remained semi-autonomous, though seemed willing enough to take direction from the Metraxan global state.

The Metraxans shared a variety of traits Picard found less than pleasant. They all seemed to believe that strength and toughness were important markers of masculinity, a vitally important component of their willingness to treat others as equals. There was a great deal of unnecessary discussion of military strength, conquests the four alien powers had made, and personal ability of the offworld representatives to win at unarmed combat. This might have been difficult enough at any time; the Metraxan culture, at least as expressed in its leadership, seemed to have no points of commonality with Picard. It was far harder now. A mere three months ago, Picard had been a prisoner of war, captive of the Cardassians, and had been tortured and nearly broken. It made it very difficult for him to deal with the Cardassian representatives, and since the Metraxans were encouraging all the representatives to engage in overt one-upmanship, he knew that the slightest sign of weakness on his part would be jumped on, not just by the Cardassians themselves, who knew about his ordeal and seemed to be watching him closely, but by the Ferengi and Klingon representatives as well.

It was utterly exhausting, and he desperately wished he had not had to be here. In fact, originally Starfleet was going to assign another negotiator and another ship-- Picard was one of their best diplomats, but they were compassionate enough to recognize that having him negotiate against Cardassians right now might not be the best of notions. Unfortunately, the first ship assigned to the task had been caught in a spatial anomaly and only extracted itself yesterday, after being classified lost for two months, and the second ship's negotiator had suffered an inexplicable transporter accident merging him with the ship's science officer, leaving the combined entity wholly unable to engage in negotiations while Starfleet attempted to figure out how to separate him into his component people. So it fell to Picard.

Drawing heavily on his first officer, who played overt macho games somewhat better than Picard himself did, Picard made it through the opening rounds of the conference without losing face or alienating his hosts. In fact, he was beginning to feel that he was showing off the Federation's advantages in such a powerful light that even the Metraxans could see them.

Then they brought out the women.

There were a dozen of them. Like all Metraxans, their skins ranged in color from greyish pale to solid white; one had dark hair, the rest had white or blonde. They were of varying builds-- some tall and thin, some short and cuddly-- and, in fact, only had two things in common aside from their species. They were all stunningly beautiful and scantily clad, and they all wore smiles that looked as if they'd been glued on with a protoplaser, no sincere emotion in their blank eyes at all.

Well, except for one. The one with the dark hair was staring directly at him. Her smile was as empty as the others, but her eyes were alive and riveted to him with some unfathomable emotion. Her mouth moved, and Picard almost thought he saw her lips form his name-- but that couldn’t be right. He tore his eyes away from her.

"Take a look at that. Gorgeous, aren't they?" Ga said expansively.

"Is it really appropriate to be bringing these women to our discussion, Mr. President?" Picard asked sharply.

"Oh, I don't know, I think they spice things up," the Ferengi negotiator, DaiMon Nalg, said, leering at them.

"Discussion's over for the night, Picard. It's time for the entertainment," Ga said. He gestured at one of the women. "C'mere, girl." Ga pulled the woman-- really, she wasn't much more than a girl; Picard would have been shocked to learn she was over 24-- onto his lap. "Nice, aren't they?"

"These are professional prostitutes?" the Klingon, Captain Korvas, asked.

"Naah. Traitors, actually. Aren't ya, babe?" He waved his cigar in front of the woman's face. "Tell the fellas what you did."

In a quivering monotone, the young woman said, "I conspired against the rightful government of Metraxia. I was part of a group that sought to overthrow the government by violence."

"You see? Terrorists, every last one of them. Or people who consort with terrorists, and give them aid, which is just as bad." He shoved the woman off his lap and stood up. "Now, you see, we believe in being firm with terrorists out here. I think you'll understand what I mean, Gul Tarket--" nodding to the Cardassian negotiator-- "and also you, Captain Korvas. We don't put up with that kind of crap here on Metraxia. Men who're convicted of terrorism are executed, publicly, as an example. But Metraxia's always had a soft spot for the womenfolk. We don't have the heart to go torturing and killing women. We do need some kind of deterrent for them, though; they're even more dangerous than the men. Stupid and easily led, sure, but let 'em bat those pretty eyelashes at a man and he might just do something stupid. Like let them in to plant bombs."

"So you employ them as whores," Gul Tarket said, his voice suave. "Very ingenious."

"Seems like a great idea to me," DaiMon Nalg said, eyes fixed on one of the women. "Why waste such... talent?"

It would be really, really bad for Starfleet's negotiating position if Picard started throwing up, or storming out of the room, which was actually more likely. He gritted his teeth and worked very, very hard on not voicing his outrage.

"A lot like whores," Ga said, "but there's an important difference you'll appreciate, my friend Nalg. You have to pay whores."

Nalg and his entire entourage giggled like schoolboys. "Oh, that is a distinction I appreciate, Mr. President, believe you me," Nalg said.

"I think I'm going to be sick," Riker whispered sotto voce.

"I may join you," Picard whispered back, aware that with the Ferengi delegates giggling hysterically they were unlikely to be able to hear the Federation men's comments, and none of the other delegates had better-than-human hearing.

Aloud Picard said, "I thank you for the offer, Mr. President, but it's not our custom to indulge in sexual entertainments while on business."

"No, no, I insist. Wet your wicks, enjoy yourselves, friends." He waved at the women, who started walking around the table, sashaying as if they were on display, which they were. Ga's little piggy eyes focused on Picard. "We like to say that the true mark of hospitality is the quality of the girls the host gives his guests."

Or in other words, they would be refusing his hospitality, and therefore insulting him, if Picard didn't take a woman. As Picard searched for a way to explain how very wrong this would be for him in Earth custom, the one who he'd thought had said his name reached him. She leaned down over him, running her hand over his chest in entirely too familiar a fashion. "You seemed to be interested in me," she murmured huskily. "Would you desire me to share your bed this evening? I aim to serve."

Picard caught her hand and removed it from his person. "That won't be necessary," he said firmly.

Rather than being discouraged, she leaned in, as if to lick his ear. He almost flinched away -- but she didn't touch him. Instead, she whispered, "Entre dans mon jeu, Picard, s'il vous plait."

Her accent was perfect. The words were French, in the familiar, for "Play along with me, Picard. Please."

Who was this woman?

President Ga laughed. "You want her, Picard. Admit it! There's no problem, she's yours for the night. Not a bad choice, either -- Yan'net's got quite a body. I've had her a few dozen times myself. She's pretty good." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "She can get a little uppity, though. You might have to slap her around a little if she starts getting above herself. Still, a good leader of men can keep a woman in line, no?"

So now if Picard refused, he was not only refusing Ga's hospitality, but making it look as if he was afraid of being able to keep control of the woman. And he was dying to know how she knew French. The fact that she knew his name was strange, but not impossible -- perhaps the women were coached on the names of the delegates ahead of time. But the fact that she both knew French and knew to use it with him...Even the most cosmopolitan of races rarely bothered to learn Earth's national languages, kept around more for tradition's sake than anything else. And many Frenchmen nowadays didn't know French -- Picard did, out of his father's obsession with tradition, but hadn't used it on a regular basis since he was 18, not even with his family. An experienced student of Earth, one who had actually bothered to learn French, might have figured out that the name "Jean-Luc Picard" was French, but such a student would also have to know that that didn't necessarily mean Picard spoke the language. The fact that she had known that he would understand it seemed to imply that she knew him personally -- and besides, when would a native of this backward planet have had a chance to study Earth in such detail?

"Very well," Picard conceded. "It's against our custom, but I'll take her to my quarters tonight, since you insist." Ga had already made it clear that it would be an insult to his hospitality if the delegations returned to their own ships for the night, rather than staying in the sumptuous suites Ga had provided for them. And Picard wasn't thrilled with that, either, but there wasn't much that could be done.

As the formalities of leave-taking for the night were said, and the delegates left for their suites, Riker murmured to Picard, "What was that all about?"

"I have reason to believe she's not what she seems, Number One. She asked me to play along with her -- in French. And she used my name." As Riker digested this, Picard continued. "I'm positive I've never met her before, but I'm intensely curious as to where she learned French and how she knew I speak it -- as well as what she wanted me to play along with her for. I'm not sure what I've stumbled into here, but I intend to investigate."


The suites for the Enterprise crew were in a private wing and adjoining, connected through a series of doors, but unless there was an emergency Picard had suggested they all use the hallway if they wanted to go to someone else's room. Picard's suite was the most lavish; it was also best protected, with Worf and two of his security people standing guard in front of it. After Worf did a security sweep to find and deactivate any bugs-- he found two, which was about what Picard had expected-- Picard instructed Worf to let the woman in once she arrived. He explained briefly what he'd already told Riker -- not that Worf would have questioned, but Picard felt the need to make it clear that he was not simply taking advantage of the local women -- and began to make preparations to retire for the night.

The door opened, and the woman -- what was her name? Yan'net, Ga had said -- came in. Like most Metraxans, she was extremely humanoid -- Metraxans were visually identical to human, except that their skin pigmentation ranged from gray to white, not brown to pink, giving all of them shockingly pale skin. Unlike most Metraxans, Yan'net's hair was dark like a human's, soft chocolate brown curls that fell to her waist, and her eyes were also unusually dark for a Metraxan, deep brown and intense. She was slim and tall, her head about level with his, with a soft, heart-shaped face and perfectly shaped legs, long in proportion to the rest of her body. What little clothing she wore seemed designed to accentuate her femininity as much as possible: a black, lacy, strapless push-up bra with a silk tie in-between her breasts, a pair of lacy black panties fastened by silk ribbons at the sides, and a black ribbon of some sort around her ankle to accentuate her legs. She came into the room with the slinky walk of a professional prostitute. "Hello, Jean-Luc. Thank you for choosing me; I promise you I can make this night memorable." Her voice was low and pleasant; it seemed firm on the surface, but there was the faint edge of a quaver in it.

"I'm more interested in knowing how you know my name, and why you speak French."

"Have you taken any precautions for your security?" she asked.

Since she had just walked past them, he had to assume she meant something else, and it was fairly obvious what that might be. "If you mean, have I had the listening devices deactivated, the answer is yes. You're safe to speak freely here."

The sexy pose disappeared, just like that. She seemed to fall in on herself, seeming to become smaller, in the space of a single exhalation. "First I have to ask you. You people are here for the vionara extract, aren't you?"

"That's right," Picard said cautiously. It was hardly classified information.

She drew in a deep, almost sobbing breath, and let it out. "Thank you," she whispered, looking up. "Thank you, thank you, are you going to let something go right with my life for once?" Belatedly Picard realized that she wasn't talking to him -- praying, perhaps. She looked back at him, her eyes suspiciously bright. "I know another source for the vionara, Picard. It must be galling your oh-so-moral soul to have to deal with the Metraxans. I know another place you can get it."

"You do?" Picard's eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"

"Here they call me Yan'net."

"And do they call you something else, elsewhere?"

She sighed. "I've had more names than you could possibly imagine...Yan'net will do."

"How did you know my name?"

Yan'net stared at the floor. "I...I'll tell you later, all right? I...can't tell you...now. Not now." She looked up. "Please, believe me. I do know of another source for the vionara plant. I can direct you to it -- if you get me out of here. Please."

Suddenly the firmness seemed like bravado, and Picard realized she was terrified. He felt slightly ashamed, for pressing her on the topic of his name when she'd obviously been so ill-used. "How much do you know about the Federation?" he asked.

"A great deal."

"Then you know that our Prime Directive forbids me to interfere in the internal affairs of a culture," he said, hating himself for having to. "If you could get aboard our ship, you could request asylum -- but I can't kidnap you from the prison your lawful government placed you in."

Yan'net shook her head. “Firstly, this isn't a lawful imprisonment-- I haven't been charged with any crime. And secondly, I’m not Metraxan, Picard. It doesn't apply to me."

She certainly looked Metraxan. "Are you human?"

"No. I'm not a member of any Federation race. But I'm not Metraxan, and I don't belong here."

"That...is a different case, then." The Prime Directive didn't apply to one culture's dealings with an unrelated culture. He would have had a completely clear case if she were a Federation citizen; since she wasn't, things were murkier, but he thought he could justify it. "If they haven't charged you with any crime, why are you here?"

"Isn't it obvious why I'm here? Or did you believe President Ga's spiel about how we're all terrorists? Anyone who disagrees with the regime, anyone who engages in the slightest act of dissidence, or anyone who's unlucky enough to be related to a dissident, ends up a political prisoner. If they're men, they die. If they're women, and they're ugly, they die. If they're women, and they're pretty, they end up wishing they'd died. I... can't go into the details of what I did, not now, maybe later, but I can tell you it wasn't violent, it didn't involve blowing anything up, and no one got killed. You probably wouldn't have approved of it, well, not all of it, but you wouldn't have considered me an evil mustache-twirling terrorist, either."

She seemed desperate to justify herself, to make him think she didn't deserve this punishment. It was irrelevant; she could have murdered millions and still not deserved this punishment. No one could possibly deserve being forced into prostitution and slavery. "How did a non-Metraxan come to be in such a situation, then? And if I may ask, what are you, then?"

"I'll tell you that later, too. And how I know about the vionara source. I just -- I know you can't promise anything, you have to work out with your crew how to do it without breaking any of your laws. I know you won't break your laws for me." There was a slight bitter edge to her voice as she said that. "But please, Picard, I -- if you only knew how I've been degraded, how I've been tortured and humiliated here, I can't bear it anymore..." She choked off, fighting for control, apparently on the edge of tears.

Picard felt suddenly, absurdly protective of this woman. She was obviously intelligent and incredibly strong-willed, to have survived whatever it was that had broken dissidents into mindless sex slaves with this much of an independent will intact. It was also obvious that she was near her breaking point. He wanted to gather her in his arms and comfort her, but feared she might misinterpret the gesture -- someone who had been forced to be a sex slave might find little comfort in a man's embrace, even one intended non-sexually. "I'm sorry," he said. "I promise I'll do everything I can to get you out of here. You're quite right -- a different source for vionen is an enticing thought. What kind of world is this other source? Is it inhabited?"

"It's inhabited by a colony of women from this world. I -- I helped them escape. They won't want to deal with men, but if you let Troi do all the talking you should be all right. I could help you. They'll remember me kindly."

So it wasn't merely him she knew. "Have we met before, you and I?" Picard asked. "I'm surprised you know Counselor Troi."

"I know a lot of things. We have met, but...you won't recognize me. I can't tell you yet, please. Just...assume I know your crew, and you, reasonably well. Please?"

"All right." His curiosity protested in frustration, but he knew it would be unwise to push her. "When will you be able to tell me?"

"After you do something for me."

"You mean get you out?" He shook his head. "I won't be able to manage that for several days, I'm--"

"Not that," she said impatiently. "I know that'll take time. I -- it's something else." She stared at the floor, taking another deep breath. Picard could see that she had started to tremble. As if gathering her courage, she looked up at him and said firmly, "You have to have sex with me."

Picard frowned. "Surely that isn't necessary--"

"Surely it is. They'll check me, tomorrow. If they don't find evidence that we've had sex, they'll torture me." Her hand went involuntarily to the side of her neck. Picard guessed she had some sort of implant for direct neural stimulation of the pain centers -- once a species developed neural torture, it rarely resorted to the cruder, more damaging methods of physical violence. So the fact that she appeared unscarred meant nothing. The torture would have left no physical damage, only marks on her soul.

"Torture you? Suppose I didn't want you?"

"Then that would be my fault. And they'd torture me."

"I see..." Picard had thought he would let Yan'net spend the night, so she could at last have a night to herself, unmolested. It was not that he was incapable -- alien cultures could place some very strange demands on visitors, he knew, and she was quite beautiful. But she was also quite terrified. He could clearly see that she didn't want this, and he knew he couldn't respond under those circumstances. Picard was not capable of committing rape. Even if the woman wanted him to do it because some third party would hurt her if he didn't, it would still feel as if he were raping her, and he simply would not be able to manage.

"I know you don't do this sort of thing," Yan'net said, her voice slightly ragged with desperation and fear. "It's not your style. I know that. But you can't imagine what I'll suffer if you don't...I know my body is beautiful, and I'm told I'm quite skilled..." She was trembling. "It won't be so bad, I can make it good for you, Picard..."

"No." He walked over to her.

"No?" Her face went paler. "Please, Picard... I appeal to your compassion. Please...I beg of you..."

"I didn't mean I wouldn't do it." Picard drew her into an embrace, gently. She was shaking violently now. Picard stroked her back, trying to soothe her, as he guided her over to the bed. It wouldn't have been his first choice, but there was no place else to sit together. He wondered if one day the Metraxans might be willing to benefit from the introduction of Federation couches. "I meant that you are not going to... to perform for me, to 'make it good for me,' as if you were some sort of trained animal.”

They sat down together on the bed, and even as she settled something...changed in Yan'net. Picard watched, puzzled, as her over-bright eyes suddenly went hard and flat even as a small, seductive smile curled her lips.

"I wasn't lying to you, Picard," she said, and her voice had a husky flavor he would have found sensual if it weren't for a certain flatness there as well. "I can make it very good." And then she leaned towards him with determination so different from her earlier show of fear that simple confusion kept him from leaning back before her lips were on his.

The skill in the kiss was exemplary, and proceeded through well-designed steps. Her mouth applied firm yet gentle pressure as she slid her soft, warm body against his. Like an automaton's, her right hand came up and stroked slowly over his head and then down to the back of his neck, pressing him deeper into the kiss. Her other hand went to his shoulder to trail a light touch down his arm. She opened her mouth invitingly and let the tip of her tongue touch his lips.

With a gentle firmness to match her own, Picard leaned away. "Please stop, Yan'net."

Her dark eyes flew open and he could feel the tension she had suppressed snap instantly back into her muscles as she stared at him in concern.

"What -- what's wrong?" she asked.

"You speak of bringing me pleasure, but it could never be pleasurable for me when you feel like this. Look at you, Yan'net. You're obviously very skilled at pretending to feel desire... but you've already shown me that you're convinced this will be unpleasant. Suddenly putting on a pose like this will do nothing to make me think otherwise."

Her eyes widened with fear. "I'm sorry. I wasn't-- I didn't intend to lie to you-- I--"

"It's quite all right," Picard said. "Please, don't be afraid. I'm not offended in the slightest. I understand that you've very likely been trained to behave that way." He took a deep breath. "But what you've asked of me is a very difficult thing for me. I don't think I can manage this if you're putting on an act for me. I must try to make it genuinely pleasurable for you as well, and I can't do that if you're hiding your true feelings behind a facade."

His direct approach succeeded in getting rid of her professional pose, if only for a moment, and her dark eyes flashed with what he suspected was a trace of her genuine self.

"You can't be serious." She wrenched her eyes away, but didn't try to escape his embrace. “Do you seriously think I could enjoy sex? After three years of being raped nearly every night?"

"Yes," he said quietly. "Humanoids are designed to enjoy sex. What you've endured has been a terrible aberration." A horrible thought occurred to him. Her face seemed strangely ageless, the lines of it placed there more by pain than years; but she could be young, he thought. Picard leaned back from her slightly so he could see her face more clearly, lifting his hands from her back and setting them on her shoulders, as she turned her head to face him. Gently he said, "You needn't answer this, if you consider the question too forward...but it will help me know how to proceed with you. Were you a virgin before your captivity here?"

She looked away again, staring into nothingness. "It depends on how you define your terms," she said. "I suppose...if pressed...I must admit...if by that question you mean, 'had I ever had sex with a humanoid male,' I would have to say no."

"You had previously had experience with women, then?"

"I didn't say that," she said sharply. "I'd...fine, then. I'd never had sex with a humanoid at all. Does that qualify as a virgin?"

"I suppose so," Picard said, wondering who or what she had had sex with -- but he wasn't about to pry. "If that's the case, then, you probably have little idea how it's supposed to feel. If both partners are willing, and wish to give one another pleasure, it is one of the most beautiful experiences in life."

"I...I can't see sex that way, Picard. If you're talking about...I just don't think it could ever be that way for me."

"Perhaps not." He began to stroke her hair, trying to relax her with gentle, nonthreatening contact. "But has anyone ever tried to make it pleasant, or even bearable, for you? Has anyone ever tried to be gentle or considerate with you? I don't imagine anyone has, have they?"

"No," she whispered, as if she didn't quite trust her voice. "No...I've been lucky if they just want to use me and be done, without...additional elaborate humiliations." She swallowed, and spoke with a firmer voice. "The moment I saw you, I had some hope I'd get through at least this one night with a minimum of pain. I really didn't want to end up with one of the other delegates." Yan'net shuddered slightly. "Klingons are mindless brutes that love pain, Ferengi are primitive, dirty-minded little trolls, even worse than men here, and Cardassians are bloody-minded butchers who get their jollies from the idea of torturing enemies of the state, even if it's not their state." There was a wealth of rage and dark bitterness in her voice. "Humans have their shortcomings, I'll be the first to admit, but if one has to end up helpless in someone's hands...well, the compassion of modern humans is known throughout the galaxy." She sounded almost as if she were being sarcastic. In her next words, however, the sarcasm was gone, as she looked up into his eyes. "And I know you, Jean-Luc. I know you would never wish to hurt a helpless person...but I don't see how you can avoid it, really. I've learned how to deal with it, how to get through it, but I can't imagine having sex without it hurting. If you're considerate, it probably won't hurt much, and if I don't, I'd be hurt a lot worse tomorrow, so...so I do want you to, but..."

"Why do they check?"

Yan'net sighed. "I've talked men out of having sex with me before. I told one man that I had a virulent disease, and I'd been given to him because President Ga -- who happened to be a political rival, and who's owned me since I came here -- wanted to dispose of him, and that if he didn't want another assassination attempt he should play along and pretend he'd had sex with me." She smiled slightly at that. "I spent the night telling him lies about President Ga instead. That was fun -- until I got caught." The smile vanished.

"I'm surprised you dared it," Picard said. "I doubt I'd have had the courage to try, in your place."

Yan'net shook her head. "Oh, that wasn't courage, Picard. That was stupidity. What you have to understand about me is that defiance is the whole reason I exist. It doesn't matter whether it's the smart thing to do, or whether the consequences when I get caught will be more than I can bear...I do it because I have to, because it's what I am." She looked up at him, some of the defiance she spoke of flaring in her eyes. "They'll never break me completely," she said passionately. "So long as they let me live, I'll defy them every time I think there's a chance I can get away with it."

Then she shifted her gaze to the floor. "But the times when I think I have a chance get fewer and fewer...they whittle me down, and whittle me down, and I wonder sometimes will I even know it when I'm broken? Has it happened already, and I didn't notice?...I used to be so proud, Picard, I could afford to defy anyone and anything...a law unto myself, and now I've fallen to this..."

"I'm sorry."

"It's hardly your fault."

"I'm sorry nonetheless. Whatever act of defiance brought you here, it was not deserving of this." He began to stroke her hair and back again, suddenly certain that she was young. Young, and from a background where this sort of situation would be unthinkable -- either a more civilized race, or a high-status caste. A young woman from a society where acts of defiance almost never brought painful consequences, who'd never learned the moderation that came with age or bitter experiences. He wondered how she'd ended up here, and once again how she knew him. "But I assure you. I can indeed be gentle enough that you won't be hurt. I cannot promise you pleasure, no -- I can do my best to bring it to you, though whether you're capable of accepting pleasure in sex or not is not under my control. But I can promise you that at the very least, it will not hurt you."

"You have no idea how much I want to believe you," she whispered. "But I'm...not a trusting person, Picard. And I'm most suspicious of what I want to believe." She looked up at him. "I trust you -- I believe that you believe it -- but..."

"Will you give me a chance, then?" he murmured. "Don't make up your mind ahead of time that it's going to hurt. Try to relax --relax -- really relax, don't just shove your tension down and pretend it isn't there. You say you trust me, then try to think about who I am. If anything hurts you, let me know immediately so I can help you. I can't read minds, and I want very much not to hurt you."

"I'll try to relax," Yan'net said. She smiled weakly. "At least no one's going to hurt me deliberately tonight."

"No one's going to hurt you at all." He released her. This really wasn't something he'd had formal training on. But he tried to think what he would want in her position, amused at his own hubris. What could he know of how she felt? At least his torture at the hands of the Cardassians hadn't included making him a sexual party favor.

"I'd like you to lie down on your stomach," he said finally, settling on the safest bet. "I'm going to give you a massage."

"Should I take off my clothes?"

"Only if you'd prefer," he said.

She considered. "They made me learn how to give massages. The men who ask for it usually take their clothes off -- though most of the time, it's because they want sex right after."

Picard worked hard to keep from cringing at her glib discussion of her own suffering. "It might be physically more comfortable for you if you were nude -- especially since what you're wearing looks rather constricting." Push-up bras, Picard had been informed by a lover years ago, were generally quite uncomfortable. "But psychologically it may be more comforting for you to keep them on."

"Thank you, Dr. Psyche." She considered another moment, then lay down on her stomach with a nervous laugh. "You know, before I came here I had no sense of body modesty at all. Isn't it funny, how being forced to strip on a regular basis makes one uncomfortable being naked?"

He didn't think it was funny at all. He thought it was tragic, but he wouldn't say so. "Let me know if anything I do hurts you," he said, as he pressed his fingers into her back, just under the neck and on either side of her spine. Again he had to keep from reacting. He knew under her calm posturing she was tense -- knew she had to be tense -- but she was a much better actress than he had guessed. Her muscles and tendons were stretched so tight and hard she seemed made of gnarled wood. Carefully, gently, he began to work at her, watching for any sign that he was hurting her.

She sighed. "Oh, this is incredible -- where did you learn to do this? Surely you were never trained as a masseur."

"It's a common practice at Starfleet Academy for friends and classmates to give one another backrubs. One can build up a great deal of tension under such a harsh curriculum."

"I imagine so...ohh. Oh, yes, right there. Oh." She turned her head to look toward him. "This is the first time in three years that anything's felt good, let alone someone touching me. Oh, this is simply unbelievable. If you ever leave Starfleet, you have a brilliant future as a masseur."

"I'm glad you enjoy it." He lifted his hands and moved them up to her neck, pressing strong single fingers into the flesh around her spine. She moaned as he reached the base of her skull. "Hurts?"

"No, I mean yes, that area hurts. I've had headaches and backaches for so long I barely notice them any more...oh, this is wonderful, you could do this to me all night."

"I'm afraid my fingers would get tired before then," he said, smiling. This had suddenly become quite enjoyable, giving her such obvious pleasure from something so simple, though he was sad to think of what her life was usually like judging by how surprised she seemed. "Does that feel any better?"

"Much...ohh...ohh yess..." He had started working his way down her back again, and was massaging her entire shoulder with a full hand each, pressing thumbs into the muscle on either side of her shoulderblades.

Yan'net moaned in complete abandon as Picard worked his way down her back again, paying special attention this time to the small and the area just above her tailbone. He'd been informed that the rooms were soundproof, and he'd had Worf sweep the room for bugs ahead of time; he was grateful for that now. If this was what she sounded like during a backrub, he'd hate for her to be overheard if he actually did manage to make sex good for her. It struck him as incredible that they would have trained her as a masseuse without ever actually letting her experience a massage herself -- hardly an efficient method of training, and he said so.

"No one ever said these people were efficient, Picard," she sighed. "They told us what the pressure points were and had us practice on paid volunteers. They did the same thing with sex."

"Paid volunteers?"

"Yes. It's pleasant work for them some of the time; but because the training methods leave so much to be desired, I think most of the practice volunteers don't get very much out of it." She tensed slightly, and her voice grew dark. "And then, of course, there's the risk that some trainee will decide that she's had enough, and turn homicidal."

"I take it that happened?"

"Oh, yes. Once. And once only." She shuddered, and he felt the tension in her attempt to return to its previous level.

"Don't think about it," he instructed her. "Don't think about anything but pleasurable things." Surely she had known pleasurable things in her life. He shifted his position on the bed so he could reach her feet.

"What are you--"

"I'm going to massage your feet and legs. Did you think your back was the only part of you that deserved it?" he teased slightly.

"Ah." She sounded resigned rather than pleased, and again he got the sensation of suppressed tension instead of the relaxation she had seemed a moment ago to be genuinely feeling. Picard released her foot.

"Yan'net. Is something wrong?" He leaned forward slightly, trying to see her face. "Would you rather I stopped?"

"I -- it's nothing. Keep on with what you were doing. Please."

"Not until you tell me what's wrong."

She rolled over and sat up and he noted that the way she moved had changed just slightly. She was no longer quite so controlled, and her voice had taken on a note of rusty sincerity. He wondered how long it had been since someone had actually wanted to know how she felt. "It's just-- it's just a reaction. I know you won’t hurt me, but... no one ever touches my back. Sometimes they stroke my legs, though. Or grab them. You touching me there just reminds me of... other, less pleasant occasions.”

“I’m sorry. Would you rather I stopped?”

The professional returned. The same seductive smile. The same husky tone. And beneath the facade, he could see her stiffen ever so slightly, the tiniest of imperfections in her performance. "So you just want to get down to it now, then?, then? Is that what you're asking?"

Picard sighed. "Yan'net, I don't wish to cause you any discomfort. What exactly do they check for? Perhaps there's a way we can fake it."

Yan'net seemed thrown at his reaction, and the sincerity hesitantly returned as she shook her head. "There isn't. They're sophisticated enough to look for DNA traces from skin flakes as well as the presence of semen. For you to penetrate me deeply enough to deposit enough skin flakes and semen -- even if you used your fingers, it would hurt. And they might figure it out anyway." She lay back down on her stomach. "Please, Picard. I -- I'm sure I'll enjoy what you were going to do, once you get started. I just -- I'm a bit nervous."

"Understandably so," he said. "All right. But please, tell me if you're uncomfortable. I'll warn you before I move to a different part of your body."

"What are you going to do?" she asked. She sounded nervous but genuinely curious at the same time.

"I am going to give you a full-body massage. I won't touch your genitals or your breasts at all, and if you'd prefer me not to go near your buttocks or your thighs, let me know. Otherwise I am going to massage every part of your body. Only when you are completely relaxed will we even think about any sexual possibilities."

"That...sounds promising."

Yes, he could definitely hear it that time: she found the idea at least somewhat attractive. "This is entirely for your pleasure," he reassured her as he lifted her foot again and began to rub the balls of it. "If anything I do makes you the slightest bit uncomfortable, let me know."

"I'll be sure to keep it in mind."

"Does this room have a replicator?"

"Not as such. The slot in the wall -- over there -- has a menu attached to it. You can order anything on the menu, and it will be transported to the slot, but they don't manufacture it right in the room the way a replicator does."

"Would massage oils be on the menu?"

"Oh yes. I'll get them for you." She pulled free of him, got up before he could stop her, and went to the stores slot. Picard watched her movements -- they were hurried and nervous, and yet this seemed an improvement on the strictly controlled motions from earlier. As she was feeling more comfortable -- he hoped -- she was behaving more naturally. He even thought he could see haste in her actions that wasn't just nervousness. It was terribly hard to read her, not when she threw off contradictory signals, shifting wildly between the pose of a seductress, the distance of calm and control, and the probable truth of overwhelming fear, but he thought perhaps she wanted him to continue.

Once Picard had the bottle of massage oil-- it smelled rather like coconut-- and Yan'net had stretched herself out with some alacrity, he placed a sparing amount of it on his hands and then began to rub it into her feet and the backs of her legs, using powerful fingers and the palms of his hands on the recalcitrant muscles. He untied the ribbon around her ankle and tossed it on the floor, rubbing

the area where it had been.

Yan'net sighed as he moved up her legs slowly. "You...can do my thighs and backside...if you want. I won't...won't mind...Oh. Oh, this is...this is..."

She had apparently run out of adjectives, he thought. Concentrating so fiercely on her, he noticed that there was something vaguely familiar about Yan'net's theatrical speech patterns-- perhaps he did, indeed, remember her dimly after all.

"This is marvelous, Picard," she finally said. "I can't believe how good that feels."

Of course she couldn't. She'd felt nothing pleasant at all in three years, certainly nothing aimed at her pleasure. Picard began to feel hopeful that he could make it good for her after all -- if she was so starved for pleasant sensation that she reacted like this to a massage, a skilled and considerate lover ought to be able to drive her wild. "Jean-Luc," he said, moving up to her hips. The panties were cut high enough that he could work the oil into her buttocks, or part of them at any rate, without removing the panties or moving his hands under them.


"You called me Jean-Luc before. I'd like you to do it again, if you don't mind."

"Oh... Jean-Luc...Yes. I'd almost forgotten, when I first saw you." She sighed

as he went back over her back with the massage oils. "I'm sorry... I've forgotten so much..."

He almost asked her to elaborate, but realized that she would undoubtedly just tense up and tell him that she couldn't answer now. Instead, he put the question of her identity out of his head and put all his effort into what he was doing. As she relaxed further it became easy to tell what she liked. With a lessening in the knots of tension in her body, her moans were not as loud or powerful, but her breathing changed audibly every time he found a spot she liked. That also boded well for later.

When he turned her over, her eyes glittered with surprise and confusion. "What..."

"I told you -- a full body massage. That includes the front of your body as well."

This time she made no sound of resignation, and the half-smile on her lips looked real. She tugged a pillow into place to support her head and watched him as he worked, her dark eyes boring into his body, tracking his every movement. He thought of suggesting to her that she close her eyes and relax... but no, she seemed to be

enjoying what she was doing. And Picard had to admit that the

intense scrutiny was very erotic.

He realized that in a very short time Yan'net was becoming not only a beautiful woman with a forced sexual need, but an actual object of his desire. He felt uncomfortable with that. His own discipline and self-image rebelled at the idea that he would really enjoy making love with Yan'net beyond simply being glad to help her. But he also knew that stomping on his own lust would not help the situation one bit. Circumstances were forcing him to embrace his own more primitive drives, and even as his mental discomfort increased, he could feel himself getting aroused.

Indeed, he had always found a partner's pleasure to be incredibly arousing; even though this contact was deliberately non-sexual, the prospect of sex in the offing made this an erotic scenario, and her loud and overt pleasure in the massage was thoroughly exciting. He was still fully clothed, which was just as well, he thought. The response of his body, clearly displayed, might be something of an impediment to Yan'net's relaxation at this time. He wanted her to feel actual desire before he was naked.

He worked his way slowly up her body, skipping over her groin and working around her breasts, but otherwise being quite thorough. By the time he reached her head, she had closed her eyes. He positioned himself behind her, taking the place of her pillow, and massaged her temples and the back of her head as she leaned back against him, making soft sounds of pleasure.

When he was done, he laid her head down gently. She had gone boneless, sprawled out on the bed in complete relaxation. He was amazed at the difference between this and her seductive posing. Slowly she opened her eyes.

"Is that better?" he asked.

Yan'net's eyes changed from a dreamy glaze to complete, intense focus on his face. "Jean-Luc," she whispered hoarsely. "I think...I think perhaps it wouldn't hurt, now."

"Perhaps not," he agreed, running a gentle hand along the side of her neck. "But I think it can be much more for you than simply not painful." She shivered slightly as he ran his finger over her ear. "Would it disturb you if I tried to make it pleasurable for you?"

"That's a really stupid question," Yan'net informed him bluntly. Picard smiled.

"Excellent." He ran a single finger over her face, stroking the sensitive places around her eyes, her cheeks, lightly brushing across her lips. Her eyes were fixed on his, burning into him, and Picard controlled a shiver of his own. Those eyes, the intensity of their scrutiny, were terribly stimulating. But he wanted to do this slowly, slowly, to draw foreplay out until they were both near-mindless with desire.

He moved down the line of her neck, sliding his body down to lie next to hers. Gently he pushed aside her hair and kissed her neck, moving down and around it until he had reached the hollow of her throat. When he raised his head, Yan'net was still watching him intently.

Picard leaned in to kiss her on the lips. She pressed back and opened her mouth invitingly before her tongue moved out to touch the tip of his own. Her hands had come up and were stroking his sides, and under his own hands he felt her force each muscle to relax.

He broke the kiss and sat up.

"Yan'net. What just happened?"

Now her eyes had gone wide. She looked for all the world like a child caught in a lie, and yet he could see hatred sparkling in those dark orbs, though it wasn't hatred for him. "Nothing. Nothing happened."

"Don't tell me nothing happened. Something I did bothered you.

You don't like to be kissed?"

She spoke reluctantly, overriding her training with obvious effort. "It was all right when it was just on my skin... but when you went inside my mouth, I..."

Picard sighed. "If it bothered you, I would much preferred having you say so."

"Don't be angry, Jean-Luc..."

Damn. He hadn't been angry, but he had almost forgotten how vulnerable she was. "I'm not angry, Yan'net. I'm concerned." He sighed again, feeling battered by his sorrow for her and his painful discomfort with the entire situation. "It would help me, though, to know why you responded to me when you didn't like what I was doing. I'm not a telepath-- I can't keep from hurting you if you don't let me know what you don't want."

She swallowed. "It was... reflex. They used to hit me or...or turn on the box, if I wouldn't kiss them. I learned...I had to learn just how they wanted me to do it. I suppose it's become automatic."

"Turn on the box?"

"I've got a neural implant." Yan'net touched the area of her neck that he'd just been kissing. "Under here somewhere, hooked into my spinal cord. When I’d disobey-- they have a box that controls the implant. They'd just turn it on."

And feed direct neural stimulus to the pain centers of the brain. Picard knew more than he wanted to about such things, and considered for a moment telling her so. But that wouldn't help her. "That's barbaric," he said instead, meaning it more deeply than he let show.

"You're telling me?"

Picard lay back down next to her. "Yan'net, I understand that you have these ingrained responses. If you can't control them, then I'll have to accept that. But I think you must still be able to respond genuinely to me, because you were doing so before. You don't know how horrible the thought of hurting you, even inadvertently, is to me."

"All right." She took a deep breath. "I'll try to warn you instead of just letting it happen."

Now she was tense again. Picard returned to massaging, working on her temples and the back of her neck until he felt her yielding, then went back to his slow, gentle stroking over her body. Occasional kisses on her neck or eyelids punctuated his gradual movements, until he had worked his way down to her breasts. He gave them no more than a light caress, suspecting she wasn't ready for anything more than that. Her intense dark eyes, her slightly ragged breathing, told him she was aroused, but for her to accept explicitly sexual caresses without fear to drive her back into her training, Picard thought, she needed to be actively desirous. And he judged that she wasn't quite there yet. Instead he stroked her sides and belly, kissing the hollow of her throat and moving down from there, caressing the line of her collarbone with his mouth. His hands teased her, stroking nearer and nearer to the groin without ever touching her there, then bypassing it entirely to run light fingers along her legs. By this time he had kissed his way down to the silk tie between her breasts, fastening her bra closed, and her breathing had grown distinctly ragged.

With his mouth, Picard undid the tie, and pushed the cups of the bra out of the way with his tongue. Yan'net moaned softly. He reached one hand up and stroked her arm, running a finger along the sensitive underside, as his other hand stroked its way up her thighs and his tongue drew circles around her nipple.

Her breast was beautiful, icy pale and perfectly shaped, with a tiny, hard pink nipple and curiously colorless aureoles. He explored its surface thoroughly with his tongue, finding all the different textures of her skin there. When he licked at the nipple itself, it was brief, teasing. Her body shifted under his, her back arching slightly, pressing the breast up into his caresses. Picard took that as an invitation and finally fastened his mouth on the nipple, suckling at it, probing it with his tongue. This time her moans were not soft at all; her hands clenched in the bedsheet and she shifted under him again, her body pressing into his. The scent of her was intoxicating, the sounds she made thrilling. His own need had grown, and he was finding his Starfleet uniform increasingly confining.

He released her breast, sitting up to pull off his shirt and boots. Mentally he debated with himself whether or not to remove the pants -- he didn't want to frighten her, but they were becoming uncomfortable. Picard compromised, removing the pants but leaving his undershorts in place for now. Yan'net watched as he undressed, her eyes exploring his naked torso.

He saw a slow smile spread across her face. "You see something that pleases you?" he asked, smiling himself.

"All these Metraxan men with their macho posturing, their notions of strength and dominance -- and you, a compassionate man from a peace-loving government, are so much closer to the ideal masculine humanoid body than any government official here."

"Really." It was to be expected, of course -- groundhogs of any race were rarely as fit as Starfleet officers -- but he found it terribly flattering that she'd bothered to tell him so. "I'm glad you approve."

She reached a hand tentatively up to stroke his chest. "You have pleasant skin," she finally said, letting her arm fall to her side. "It's pleasing to touch."

"You may touch it as much as you like, Yan'net. I certainly don't mind."

"I...I've been taught how to touch men, but I've never liked it very much." She reached out to him again as she said it, running her hand down his chest and along his stomach. "This is so different. I don't know why, but I suddenly want to touch you."

"It's instinct to want to reciprocate pleasure," Picard said, shivering a bit with her touches as he lay down beside her again. He leaned over her body, lying across it, enjoying the feel of her skin against his, and proceeded to explore her other breast as thoroughly as he had the first. She gasped as his mouth fastened on her nipple, suckling, and her hands moved over his back, tracing haphazard designs on the skin there.

In the meantime Picard had begun again his exploration of her legs with his hands. As he kissed her breasts, he renewed his acquaintance with her inner thighs, and finally, lightly, caressed her groin. She gasped again, her fingers tightening into his back, then releasing.

"What -- what was that?"

"What was what?" He lifted his head from her breast.

"That -- that feeling. When you touched me. Your hand -- your hand -- what did you do?"

"This?" He stroked her lightly again.

"Yes, yes! That -- feeling -- that incredible feeling. What's causing that? I've never felt that..."

Her panties were light and scanty enough that he could trace the entire anatomy of her groin area through them. "I'll do it slowly. Tell me when the feeling starts," he said, and ran his hand slowly up from between her buttocks to the pubic mound. As he'd expected, he'd reached her clitoris when she moaned.

"There! It's the whole thing, but it's most intense right there."

He stroked it again through her panties, making her moan again. "You've never been touched there before?" he asked, surprised.

"I try to think about that whole region of my body as little as possible," she said matter-of-factly. "There's a spot down there that really, really hurts when they dig their fingernails into it. Is it the same thing?"

How could she possibly not know what her own clitoris was? Unless she'd grown up in a terribly repressive society, the fact that she'd been a virgin didn't explain her ignorance -- Picard has always been led to believe that every woman had discovered her own clitoris by the time she was 17, at least. And Yan'net might be young, but she was assuredly older than that. "Yes, almost certainly. The most sensitive places on your body are both the most attuned to pleasure and the easiest to hurt. This--" he stroked it again -- "is your clitoris."

"Oh yes. Of course. It would have to be." She sighed. "That feels inexpressibly delightful."

Picard smiled to himself. "If you like that, then I have quite a treat for you." He returned to his explorations, kissing his way down her belly until he reached the line of her panties, then kissing her all across the panty line until he reached the silk tie at one of her hips. With his mouth he undid the tie, pushed the panty front out of the way and licked at the junction of thigh and pelvis. Someone kept her depilated -- her pubic hair was a short, soft, confined triangle directly above her genitals, with no spillover out of the panties. She seemed to have some idea of what he was about to do, or at least knew she wanted it -- her breathing was ragged, her scent had changed, and her legs seemed to spread themselves by instinct, without her conscious volition. Picard kissed his way over to the other tie, and repeated his ministrations. Then, when both ties were undone, he caught the bottom of the panties in his teeth and tugged them off her, as his hands stroked her belly and breasts.

At last his mouth reached the hot, taut flesh of her clitoris. Yan'net cried out as he licked and suckled at her. Her hands reached to his head, but couldn't seem to get a grip -- it was one of the things he liked about his lack of hair, women couldn't pull it when he went down on them anymore. As his left hand slid down her side, she caught it with her right, clenching it rhythmically as she moved her hips.

He explored her entire vaginal area with his mouth, tasting and scenting her. She was moist but not grossly drenched, her taste light and womanly, enticing without being overpowering. Gently he probed between her labia with his tongue, into the vagina. Her muscles felt relaxed and accepting, and his desire became suddenly overwhelming.

With one hand, Picard worked his briefs off, trying not to disrupt the rhythm of what he was doing. This was difficult and frustrating, but better that he be frustrated than Yan'net. He resumed suckling at her clitoris, flicking his tongue at the tip as she panted and clenched at his hand, almost tightly enough to hurt. At last he got the briefs all the way off him. Picard released Yan'net, extricated his hand, and knelt between her legs, positioning himself at the entrance to her body.

As he began to penetrate her, her eyes snapped open and her whole body tensed, her expression turning to one of fear.

Oh hell.

Picard withdrew-- he hadn't far to go, since he'd been going in slowly-- and sat back on his feet, trying to ignore the protests from his frustrated groin. “Yan’net? Are you all right?”

Her eyes now brightened with tears. "I'm sorry," she said, sounding miserably embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Jean-Luc. I can control it-- usually I can make them think I want it-- but you didn't want that, and I couldn't-- I'm sorry. Just don't worry about me. I'll get it under control."

"Of course I'll worry about you. I don't want you to pretend with me-- you did absolutely the right thing by letting me see how you really felt. You let me know we were going too quickly for you. That's very important for me to know."

"I'm sorry," she whispered miserably.

"It's not your fault! It's not your fault at all, it's mine. I took things too quickly." God, more than anything, even more urgently than the need to ease his painful erection, he wished he could just stop this. But she was pleading with him now all along her silently eloquent body. Smiling for her slightly, he lightly stroked the inside of her thigh. The intensity of her gaze returned as she tensed slightly, the good tension of desire once again.

"I won't penetrate you now," his deep voice assured her. "Would you like me to go back to what I was doing before?"

Yan'net licked her dry lips and murmured, "Well, yes, but perhaps you should just get inside me then do what you were doing?" Her eyes fell on his groin with a concern of her own. "That must be painful for you."

"Not nearly as painful as being taken unready would be for you. Don't worry about me, Yan'net. Tonight is for you." He shook his head. "Besides, when it finally comes time for that, I have no intention of 'getting it over with.' I want it to feel wonderful for the both of us."

She opened and closed her mouth without comment, except to move slightly with the continued caressed of his hands.

He stretched himself out and lay between her legs again, exploring belly and thighs with his tongue, teasing her a bit before he reached the center of her pleasure again. In short order, as she continued to move with his touches, she was moaning again. Picard decided to bring her to orgasm this way. After that, it would be easy to get her to remain aroused as he moved into her.

And there was something else he could try. As her moans grew in volume, he stroked her thighs with his hand, then explored her labia and the area between them with a single finger, gently. Slowly he circled around the entrance to her vagina, and slowly, carefully, penetrated her, making her gasp. Her body tensed and relaxed, tensed and relaxed, in a natural rhythmic pattern that spoke of true pleasure. With controlled, gradual motions Picard probed deeper, then withdrew, then pushed his finger into her again, repeating the sensation of penetration over and over to get her used to it. Yan'net began to gasp in total abandon, writhing, her hips pressing her pelvis upward, into his mouth and probing finger. As his finger explored her deeper and deeper, his mouth suckled ferociously, tonguing her clitoris hard, until finally she cried out and her body jerked violently, her entire groin pulsing with orgasmic waves. Picard thrust his finger into her hard as she came, a few brief plunges, and withdrew as the spasms shuddered to an end.

She stroked the top of his head. Picard sat up, leaving his arm out by the side of her so she could stroke it instead. "That seemed pleasant," he said.

"Pleasant?" Her eyes opened wide. "Your gift for understatement has grown over the years, Jean-Luc. That was...astonishing." A smile spread across her face, as if of its own volition. "Is it always supposed to be like that?"

"It's supposed to be even better," he told her, and watched her eyes grow intent with interest.

"That sounds distinctly promising." She reached out and ran a hand down the side of his hips. "Well. Shall we take care of you now?"

"Not until I'm quite done taking care of you," he murmured, leaning across her body to kiss her neck. "Feel up to a second round?"

"I could do that again?" she asked, astounded, and then shook her head. "Foolish of me. Of course I could. If men can, so can I, right?"

"Assuredly." He licked at her earlobe. She shivered.

"Are you going to try -- to--"

"Only if you're willing," he said.

"Is it--" She hesitated. "When you used your finger -- inside me -- that didn't hurt at all. It felt quite wonderful, actually. You know more than I do about humanoid sexuality -- is it the size of a male penis that hurts me? Or is it just that they're practically battering me with it? I'm trying to figure out if it would hurt if I did it with you..."

He kissed her lightly on the lips, without any attempt to go between them, partly to shut her up. "Don't think so much about it," he murmured. "Sex isn't something to be calculated in advance." He began kissing her neck, moving down.

"Ohhh....but I have to know, I...yess, right there...ohhh...I'm not going to be able to...mmm...to relax and enjoy it if I think it'll...oh, yes...hurt. Mmmm...."

By now he had kissed his way down to her breasts again, and his need had become positively painful. Her moans of pleasure were not helping him any in that regard; it was difficult to maintain control; he seemed to have had this erection forever. "If you are relaxed and enjoying yourself, it won't hurt," he said. "It's the fact that you are tense and unready that hurts you; that, and probably they are unnecessarily brutal. But women are capable of enjoying even rough, violent sex if they're sufficiently aroused." His hand caressed her groin, as if to emphasize his point; she groaned, and shifted her hips as he slipped a finger inside her. "Now I have no intention of being rough with you," he said hoarsely. "And I'm going to wait until you're sufficiently aroused again before entering you at all." He lay next to her on her right, on his side, partially supported by his elbow. With the supporting arm's hand, he cupped her breast and gently squeezed it; the other hand played with her groin, stroking the inside of her, then slipping out to caress her clitoris with her own moisture. She was very well lubricated by now; his fingers slid over the textures of her inner labia effortlessly. "If you don't enjoy it, I'll stop, but I'm positive you will enjoy it."

"Yes...yes, I...oh...oh, there, please..."

"Let me know when you think you're ready," he said, and knew he'd truly reached her when she didn't automatically tell him to proceed.

"Oh, I...ohhh...I don't know...if you get on top of me you won't be able to do that with your finger anymore, will you?" He had two fingers on her clitoris, and was rubbing in a gentle, liquid, circular motion.

"Well, then. I won't get on top of you." He felt uncomfortable with his own urgency, but he really could not wait any longer. He curled his body around Yan'net's, putting one arm under her neck and sliding his legs under hers, at a diagonal angle. His erection pressed against her legs; its first contact with her skin since the aborted attempt earlier sent electric thrills through it and up Picard's spine. His bottom leg, the left one, slid all the way under both her legs, lifting her up slightly. For a moment, he took his hand from her groin, stroked her right leg, and then lifted it over his right. Yan'net, evidently used to a variety of positions but not one designed to her actual needs, took a moment to get the idea, then snuggled her pelvis in closer to him.

Now Yan'net was lying on her back, and Picard on his side next to her, but with their legs intertwined and their lower bodies touching. His penis pressed against the silken entrance to her body, demanding to be let in. Picard adjusted his hips slightly, finding the entrance and slowly pushing in, as his free hand continued to rub her clitoris.

Yan'net moaned. "Are you all right?" Picard whispered hoarsely, praying that she was. He would stop if she needed him to, but damn it would be frustrating.

"I'm fine...better than fine...oh...oh, Jean-Luc, that feels so....unbelievable..."

This position was not the best one for him -- there wasn't enough contact between their bodies, and he couldn't get in deeply enough, but that was good. Right now, after so much frustration, his own pleasure was his enemy. He had to bring her to climax before he could allow it for himself. So he moved within her, slowly at first. Enter, push forward a bit, then retreat. Enter again, push further next time.

His own controlled, measured thrusts were driving him insane with pleasure and need; he wanted to push all the way in, to take her passionately, but Picard was nothing if not disciplined. And discipline brought pleasure. The longer he prolonged this, the more maddened with pleasure he became before he lost control, the sweeter the final release would be. He didn't regret this particular kind of discipline; he would do this for any of his lovers.

Yan'net reached down and grasped his right leg, the one pinned between hers, and pulled it closer to her body as she moved against him, taking him in more deeply. Picard gasped hoarsely. He was going to lose control. He was going to lose it, before she'd had her pleasure, like an ignorant schoolboy -- No! He concentrated on something else. Concentrate on the mechanics of what he was doing. On Ferengi. On very old, very ugly admirals. Anything but the unbearable pleasure he was feeling as Yan'net's body thrust against his, and her warmth encircled him, and her sweet small body lay against him and she moaned in abandon as his hand fondled her groin and his body thrust into hers...And then she was crying out, her back arched, thrusting against him wildly, and a warm wave washed over him as he knew he could allow himself release. He folded himself over her as much as his position allowed, holding her tightly, wrapping his arms around her small frame, and thrust hard, gasping, crying out as her vagina spasmed around him and triggered his own climax. Yan'net's arms had gone around him, pulling him tightly against her, embracing him completely. She surrounded and enveloped him and there was nothing but the sweet hot fire of release.

They both sank down onto the bed, Picard lying entangled with her. He withdrew himself just enough to be sure that he wasn't crushing her, and stroked her body lightly. Yan'net lay panting for a while, overwhelmed by what she'd just experienced. After a while, she glanced over at him, a wry smile on her face.

"My professor of humanities," she murmured softly. "You were right. Does it ever get annoying to be right so much of the time?"

"Not in this case," Picard replied, smiling almost smugly, and she laughed.

"No, I suppose not...I remember I used to be right all the time. I seem to recall it being fun, actually." She sighed but seemed to fight off her threatened melancholy. "Well. That was rather incredible."

"I found it rather enjoyable myself," Picard said, smiling. "Well. Would you like to get some sleep?"

"Not a chance, Picard," Yan'net said. She levered herself up on an elbow and tipped over on top of him, knocking him back against the bed, dark eyes intent on his. "Tomorrow and every day and night until you can get me out of here I go back to being a toy for whoever comes along. I'm not going to give up a man who makes sex that wonderful for me until morning comes or one of us keels over from exhaustion, whichever comes first."

Picard laughed. "An admirable intention," he said. "I felt that way myself, when I first discovered the pleasures of lovemaking. But I'm not as young as I was, Yan'net, and that was quite thoroughly satisfying. I doubt I have it in me for another round."

"Are you admitting you're old, Picard?" she taunted. "Can't keep up with the younger generation? I assure you, I'm older than you, and I feel fine."

"Older than me?" he asked skeptically. "Don't tell me -- you'll explain that later as well. Or is later now?"

"No, later is later," she said. "This is now."

She kissed him, deeply and aggressively, surprising him. He'd thought she didn't like that. Perhaps she liked it fine from a man she actually wanted, or perhaps it was better for her when she was the initiator. Or both. Whichever, he was hardly complaining; as aggressive as the kiss was, it had none of the trained performance quality of her earlier embrace. Her lips were sweet as well as skilled now, and the fervent way she pressed herself against him convinced him that perhaps he was not, after all, as old as he thought he was.

He slid his hands down her side, running them over her body and around to her back. She reached back and caught his wrists, lifting them off her and pinning them to the bed. Yan'net was hardly strong enough to pin Picard's hands against his will, but he let her do as she wished, wondering what she had planned. She kissed him again, still holding his wrists.

"This is for you," she murmured in his ear, licking at the lobe gently. "I don't want you to do anything but lie there and let me please you."

"Why?" he asked. "Yan'net, you don't have to--"

"I want to," she said, pressing a finger against his mouth to shush him. "Do you understand, Jean-Luc? I want to. I have been forced to learn how to give pleasure to men I truly despise, I've been used against my will a thousand times by creatures who are not worth a single hair follicle on my body -- this time I want to give pleasure. Do you see?"

He saw that it would give her a sense of power to be the one who chose this, and acquiesced, nodding. "Do as you wish," he murmured, somewhat unnerved by the situation -- Picard much preferred being the one in control -- but willing to go along if it made her feel better. And also because, truth be known, he found the concept rather exciting.

She propped herself up on her elbows. "Reach back, Jean-Luc," she said. "I want you to hold onto the bars of the headboard."

Picard raised his eyebrows at that, but did as she asked. "Now keep them there," she said firmly, and proceeded to bury her face in the side of his neck, sucking on him in delightfully aggressive kisses, while her hands stroked his hips and wandered around to the inside of his thighs. He gasped in pleasure, feeling his erection stir back to life without any hesitation whatsoever. Definitely not as old as I thought, he smiled to himself.

Yan'net paid no attention to his reawakened groin, however; instead, she began slowly kissing her way down his body, as he had done for her. Picard could not hold back a moan. Part of the reason he did that to women was that he liked it very much when done to himself. Yan'net seemed to instinctively know -- or perhaps she had merely followed his lead, doing to him what he had done to her -- that he enjoyed drawing out foreplay, having every part of his body throb with pleasure and hunger before allowing himself to quench the need. She teased him, tracing circles on the inside of his thigh, allowing a knuckle to lightly brush against his erect penis, then up across his lower abdomen and down to his other thigh. As the heat roared through his body, her cool torso lay along his side, her leg crossed over both of his at a level lower than his groin, so she had access to him without touching his erection. When her mouth reached his nipple and began sucking at it, it became a terrible effort to hold onto the headboard. He cried out helplessly, thrashing with pleasure, desperately needing to be inside her. "Now, please, now, Yan'net..."

She lifted her head, smiling triumphantly. "Don't beg, Picard," she told him. "It doesn't become you." Quite ruthlessly she fastened her mouth on the other nipple, tormenting him with a near-unbearable pleasure, as her fingers lightly caressed his balls. His hips jerked, thrusting into sterile air. He needed her, her skin, her warmth. For a moment he almost released the headboard and pulled her onto himself -- but no, he would maintain discipline, he would restrain himself against the ecstasy and let it continue to build. There was a certain freedom in this. The fact that he was not touching her, that he was restrained by her request, left him free to concentrate only on his own sensations. And while normally he would never allow himself to do that while making love, it was obviously what she wanted, and the fact that she was not touching his groin meant that even as the pleasure built and built he was in no danger of coming too quickly.

As she reached his stomach she shifted position, so she was lying on top of him, licking circles around his navel. Quite suddenly her skin was in contact with his penis, warm weight pressing it down against his groin and abdomen as her soft breasts pressed into his thighs. Picard moaned, thrusting. Yan'net grasped his hips and pushed down, holding him still.

He knew where she was going. The sensations he was actually feeling were incredible; the anticipation of what he would feel when she reached the endpoint of her descent was overpowering. Picard arched his back and clung to the headboard, squeezing the bars in a rhythmic pattern. Wonderful, terrible frustration built, and he could not entirely restrain a plea. "Yan'net, please..."

She gave a final lick to the soft abdomen just above his groin and lifted her head. "Oh, Jean-Luc, you disappoint me," she said hoarsely. "So controlled. So disciplined. I thought you hated to beg."

What game was she playing? "Yan'net!" he cried out. "Please, I need..."

Her face softened. "Anything for you, mon cher," she whispered -- and devoured him.

Picard screamed in ecstasy as the warm mouth enveloped him, sucking, and began licking him fiercely. She held down his hips so his thrusts wouldn't choke her, and drew him almost all the way into her mouth, moving her head back and forth as she took total possession of him. Her captors had trained her well. It was quite probably the best head he'd ever had. He fought to keep from coming. "Yan'net," he panted. "Yan'net, I don't -- ever -- want you to stop -- but if you don't -- I'm not going to be -- good for much else -- very much longer. If -- you want me -- inside you -- you'd better take me now..."

She didn't stop. He had to assume that meant she wanted to make him come this way. Once he realized that, a burden was lifted from him. He didn't need to worry about being ready for her again, only about the sensations she obviously wanted him to feel. A surging warmth enveloped him, radiating outward from his groin to his entire body, and he knew he was about to be released.

Yan'net pressed a finger against him, a spot between his scrotum and his anus, hard. Orgasm surged through him, making him writhe and cry out, and yet the burning release of ejaculation was absent. He had come, but he was still hard. No fluids had left his body.

Yan'net released him and sat up with a triumphant smile. Picard stared at her. "What did you do?" he asked. "I -- I felt as if I had come, but obviously I haven't."

"No, you have," she told him. "You just didn't ejaculate. It's an intriguing little trick, don't you think? The Tantric practitioners of your own India developed that, so it's hardly alien to your people -- though I must confess I learned the practical applications of it here." Her eyes turned sultry, and she leaned forward, lightly stroking his still-hard penis. "Want some more?"

Picard let go of the headboard abruptly and sat up, catching Yan'net in his arms. He kissed her neck fiercely, the way she'd kissed him, making her moan. "That was wonderful," he murmured in her ear. "But I think this time will be for both of us."

"No argument..." Her fingers traced his ear, her hand feverishly stroked along his side, as he buried his mouth in her breast and she moaned. No more long, languid foreplay -- he wanted her hard and now, and as best he could tell she wanted the same without reservations. His fingers explored her groin as she pulled the fingers of his other hand to her mouth and sucked on his middle finger, imitating what she'd done to his penis a few minutes ago. Overcome by sensation, he pulled her to him, trying to fit inside her as they both sat up. She pushed him back against the bed and lowered herself onto him, and he embraced her fiercely, pulling her down against him and kissing the top of her forehead. She was so wet, so hot inside, her muscles tightening around him, embracing and enveloping him. Pleasure ran like liquid fire from the junction of their bodies into his veins.

"I wanted you," she whispered, gasping. "Even before, I wanted you. I didn't know what it was I wanted but I know now. Even then--" She broke off with a cry of pleasure, and began gasping, riding him harder, grinding her body against his. One of Picard's hands was entirely occupied with embracing her; the other he turned at an awkward angle and slid it between their tightly-pressed bodies, reaching downward. Dear God but she was wonderful. His fingers reached the junction of their bodies and began to press against her clitoris, fondling, the grinding of her hips forcing his fingers against her and she screamed, her body bucking and jerking in his embrace as her muscles tightened around him in climax, tipping him over the edge. The liquid fire burst forth, racing through his veins and out his body. Every muscle strained as he pulled her against him so tightly his hand was crushed by her pelvic bone and thrust hard, deep, mindless with shattering pleasure and overwhelming release.

Spent, he fell back against the bed, exhausted, feeling her slight warm weight resting on his body. He was still mostly inside her, and the aftershocks of her orgasm were sending little thrills through him every time her internal muscles spasmed. For a few minutes the two of them just lay there, enjoying the afterglow.

Eventually, wordlessly, Yan'net slid off him, got up and disappeared into the bathroom. Picard smiled ironically. So much for romance. He had rather thought they would drift off to sleep in each other's arms, or something like that. He curled onto his side, evading the wet spot, and considered letting himself fall asleep. He had a busy day tomorrow, and that had been rather exhausting.

Yan'net came back out of the bathroom, went over to the slot in the wall, and ordered a set of sheets. This woke Picard up a bit. He raised his head on his hand. "Sheets? What for?"

"I'm going to change the bed," she said, her voice starting firm but growing more uncertain with each word. "You'll let me change the sheets...won't you?"

Picard sighed and put on a smile. "Of course, Yan'net. Change the sheets if you like." He pulled himself out of bed by force of will and headed for the bathroom. Since

he had to get up anyway...

When he returned, Yan'net had gotten the bottom sheet changed, but hadn't put on any of the blankets yet. "Do you need help with that?"

She looked at him, startled. "When have you made beds? I always got the impression beds in Starfleet made themselves."

"I've made my share of beds." He picked up a blanket and tossed it on. "Father was always something of a traditionalist."

"Explains that Old World charm of yours," she said, and he was surprised by the ease of her playful teasing.

He also found something amazing about her desire to change the sheets -- a self-centeredness he would never have expected from a person who had been so long in her situation. It spoke volumes about her trust in him, that she was willing to ask for something to improve her comfort. He was less surprised at his pleasure in being able to improve her comfort. He wished he could do more, but at least she seemed to have enjoyed herself, and would be safe from punishment for a time.

They finished the bed, and Picard got in, shivering slightly at the coolness of the sheets on his sweaty body. He had washed himself off a bit, but the contrast was still a little unpleasant. When Yan'net climbed in, he tentatively placed an arm behind her neck. "Would you rather I held you, or left you alone?" he asked gently.

Yan'net stared at the ceiling for several seconds. Finally she said, softly, "If you wanted to hold me, I wouldn't mind."

An annoyingly ambiguous statement -- she might mean she wanted him to hold her and didn't want to admit it openly. Or she might mean she didn't want him to, and she was being polite. He thought about it, and decided it was the former. She hadn't pulled away from his touch, and he had the definite feeling that Yan'net didn't like admitting to any more emotional needs than she had to. He was certain if he'd allowed her to she would have played no other role tonight than the professional prostitute, secretly feeling nothing but pain and humiliation.

Picard slid himself closer to her, and was pleased to feel her press against him spoon-fashion, holding his arm against her belly with both of hers curled around it.

It had been too long since he'd done this -- had a woman's warm body snuggled up next to him, relaxed and sleepy. He had been under more tension lately than he knew. The circumstances could have been a hell of a lot better, but he found he could not regret personally what had happened. He hoped she felt the same.

As he drifted toward sleep, he heard her voice -- "Jean-Luc?"

"Yes?" he murmured.

Hesitation, then, "Nothing."

He was too tired to try to pry it out of her. "Good night, Yan'net."

"Good night," she whispered back. "And -- thank you."

Shortly afterward he was asleep.


From a great distance, he grew aware of a woman's voice, weeping. Slowly the sound brought him to consciousness. He became aware that it was coming from next to him and remembered with a shock where he was.

Yan'net was lying face down, head pressed into the pillow. Her sobs were quiet, barely audible in fact, and Picard realized it had been more the trembling of her body that had awakened him than the actual noise. Gently, wordlessly, he reached out to stroke her back and offer comfort.

She jerked, her head whipping sideways to peer at him over the curve of the pillow. In the dim artificial moonlight streaming through the artificial window, the tears on her face looked like one or two tiny bright spots, reflecting the light, instead of the smeary tracks they probably were. "You're awake?" she asked in a low voice, with only the faintest hint in it that she'd been crying.

"Are you all right?"

"I woke you up, didn't I." Her eyes closed, and she turned away. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I try to be considerate, but it just doesn't seem possible for me...I'm incredibly selfish."

Picard raised his head, startled. "Selfish? I hardly think so. You have every right to cry."

"You need your sleep," she murmured.

"That's true, but you hardly intended to wake me. I'm a light sleeper. You can't help that." He stroked her back again, gently. "You're hardly a monster of selfishness, Yan'net."

She turned her head toward him again. "Can I hold you to that?"

The idea that a woman who had been enslaved and tortured believed herself to be monstrously selfish because she allowed herself to weep was deeply disturbing. Yan'net had not managed to hold onto all of her self-esteem, it would seem. "Why were you crying?" he asked.

She shrugged. "No reason. The usual reasons. I'm not used to being treated kindly." Yan'net put her face back in the pillow. "It's all right, Jean-Luc. Go to sleep."

He kept stroking her back. After a few moments she began to tremble again; and a few minutes after that, stopped, relaxing at last. When her breathing changed and indicated that she was asleep, Picard allowed himself to drift off again, downward toward disturbing dreams.


He was in a courtroom. Beautiful, vapid-eyed women dressed in rags howled at him, chanting, shrieking for his demise.

"SILENCE!" the judge shouted. Picard recognized the voice.

"Q." He turned to face the entity, who was wearing the judge's robes from their first encounter. "I thought the Calamarain had killed you."

"I won't even dignify that with a reply," Q sneered. "Do you plead guilty?"

"Guilty to what? I don't even know the charge," Picard protested. "You can't make me plead guilty if I don't know what I'm guilty of!"

"But you do. Don't tell me you don't," Q said. He leaned forward. "You're morally bankrupt, mon capitaine. Your posturing and declarations of high moral purpose fall apart the moment the Federation needs something. Isn't that true?"

"If we don't get the vionen, and the Cardassians do, they'll be free to use Tellaris mutagens against our people," Picard protested. "Sometimes the moral thing to do isn't the correct thing to do."

"Well, now. That rather ruins your pretense at moral superiority, doesn't it?" They were standing over the bed where Yan'net lay sleeping. "You claim to be so reluctant, claim to place such value on free will and free choice. But you enjoyed taking advantage of her, didn't you? A victim of an oppressive society. You should have held out a helping hand to her, should have rescued her from the muck of this existence. Instead you raped her."

"I did not! She begged me--"

Q grinned at him, dark eyes flashing cruelly. "She was asking for it, you mean?"

"That is not --" He stared at the woman in confusion. Had he taken advantage of a helpless victim? It was true that he had enjoyed making love to her -- was that wrong?

"Of course it's wrong. To take, to demand, to give nothing in return --"

"I gave her --"

"You gave her what? The pleasure of your company? Did it ever occur to you that maybe she faked it? She's not what she seems, but you know that." The world was whiting out. "The trouble with you, Picard, is that at heart you're just like them. You take. You're a user."

"I'm not!" Picard screamed, wondering why he couldn't muster a better retort than that. Surely he didn't use people. Surely he was not like -- not like --

We are the Borg. We will add your biological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.

They had taken him, against his will, against his desire, and changed him so he was of them, wanted to be of them, could no longer imagine another life -- Locutus was still a part buried in his soul, the part that took, with no thought to the desires of others, winning free--



Someone was shaking him. Picard opened his eyes, heart slamming. He looked up. "Yan'net...?"

"I didn't know you had nightmares, too," she said. "It seemed like a bad one."

"It was." Picard slipped his arm around her, needing comfort himself. Given morning, time to rebuild his defenses, he would never have confessed this, but it was late at night and he needed something to help dispel the nightmare. Yan'net was there, to talk to. And she was certain to be no stranger to nightmares herself. "Are you familiar with the Borg?"

"One might say that," she said darkly.

He drew in a deep breath. "A bit over two years ago, the Federation encountered the Borg. Though we were successful in repelling them, thousands of lives were lost. In part, this happened because the Borg kidnapped me, and... made me one of them."

Her face crumpled. "Oh..."

"They used me against people who trusted me, people I had sworn all my life to aid and protect." The cold encroached as he remembered. "I dreamed..." He wouldn't bother her with the unnecessary details of the dream, the association of what he'd done to her with what the Borg had done to him. It wasn't true, anyway. And while one couldn't be certain where Q was involved, the disjointed illogic in the conversation made him certain that it had, in fact, been only a dream. "I dreamed that I was becoming one of them again. Or that on some level, at heart, I always had been."

"No...you're not. You never were." She shook her head. "The Borg are the ultimate user. And you are more allergic to using than any being I've ever met..." For a moment it looked as if she would cry again. She buried her face in his chest and he felt his protectiveness of her return in a wave. "I never meant for things to get that far, I never meant for that to happen...I'm sorry, Jean-Luc, I'm so sorry..."

His instinctive reaction was to comfort her distress, reassure her with lying platitudes about it not having been so bad. But then the meaning of the words sunk in. He moved back from her slightly, lifting her by the shoulders. "You never meant? What does that mean?"

She blinked at him, as if she hadn't realized the implications of what she'd just said. "I -- I meant--" Abruptly she lay back down and turned her head toward the ceiling. "Does it really matter?"

"Of course it matters!" The question was the stupidest he'd heard in a while -- and he suspected she'd known that, that she was stalling for time. A thought occurred to him. "Yan'net. You told me that if I made love to you, you would tell me how you know me. I think now would be a good time."

She glanced sidelong at him. There was a curious expression on her face -- part embarrassment, part amusement, part anxiety. "You don't miss much, do you, Jean-Luc?" she murmured. "I shouldn't have said anything...You know, I'm far too good at dancing around my secrets for this.. I don't believe how much I've given away by accident... somehow I must really want you to know. Either that or I've fallen even further than I thought."

"Yan'net. Who are you?"

She opened her mouth as if to tell him, and then shut it, looking away. "I'd hoped you'd forget about asking," she said in a studiedly neutral voice. "It was...pleasant to pretend, for a little while, that someone actually cared about my suffering...a weakness, I suppose, but then, I'm allowed them. I'm only mortal, after all." A soft, self-mocking laugh stretched out the words. "But I suppose you deserve to know...and as talented a liar as I am, I still prefer some modicum of honesty with those whose opinion I respect at least slightly..."

He sat up and looked down at her. "Stop stalling," he snapped. "Who are you?".

"I'm surprised you haven't guessed by now...mon capitaine."

Picard stared, a cold feeling in his stomach. She knew French. She could simply mean "my captain"...but no. If she expected that to identify her, there was only one being she could be.

"Q," he whispered, feeling humiliated and violated. What game was the creature playing this time?

Abruptly she rolled over and sat up, looking away from him, her face profiled in the dimness. She folded her arms tightly over her breasts. "I suppose," she said, "if I were a noble, ethical being, I would have told you from the very being. Granted you the information you needed to make a free, informed choice about whether to help me or not, instead of this...this finely crafted web of deceptive truths." She punctuated her words with occasional gestures from one arm, never moving it too far from its folded position. "But...we all know I'm not a noble, ethical being. And I feared that your free, informed choice would be to say 'no.'" She glanced at him. "It's reflexive with you. You say no to me without even thinking about it. And the stakes were too high this time."

Picard frowned. Now that it had been pointed out, he could see her identity in her body language, in the way she gestured, in the cadences of her speech. Except for her dark eyes and hair, she bore no physical resemblance to Q, or at least not to the body Q had traditionally worn...but a resemblance was there. And yet...

When she had first revealed herself with those two words, he had expected a mocking smile, obnoxiously suave laughter, some discussion of what a pathetic creature he himself was or how soft he was. None of that had happened. She was still playing the game, implying that everything she had said had been true, that she had deceived only in what she didn't say -- for that matter, he had known she was not what she seemed. In fact, the dream version of Q had warned him so. Had his subconscious known?

Was it, in fact, a game? Could she be telling the truth?

"We had believed you dead," he said carefully, studying her.

She laughed bitterly. "You mean I'm not?" She turned toward Picard, eyes glittering. Had this been anyone else, Picard would have said the glitter was from unshed tears. "I died three years ago, when the Continuum threw me out," she said. "And I died again when I was brought here. And I have died every day of my existence on this miserable barbaric planet. I knew mortality entailed death, Picard, but I'd always been led to believe that mortals only die once."

"I'm quite serious," Picard said, still frowning. "We saw the shuttlecraft explode. How did you survive?"

"Divine intervention," she said. "Or retribution, as the case may be." She sighed. "Oh, it's a tale of woe and pain to set the whole house a-weeping, Picard. Are you sure you want to hear it? Once you get me started on a self-pity kick, I may not get off it for hours."

"I'll take my chances."

"I did warn you." She stood up, off the bed, and began to pace. "After I took the shuttlecraft out to meet the Calamarain, I received a...visitation from one of my fellow Q, with whom I had had a...strained...relationship of late. One might say there had been, mm, bad blood between us."

"A rival, of sorts?"

"In... a sense, yes. We had been friends once, but... well. Ancient history.” She shook her head. "So I was naturally rather anxious at his appearance. And as it turned out, I had every reason to be." Her hands clenched into fists, fingernails digging into palms, and her voice was taut, rigidly controlled. Picard recognized the woman who had walked into this room earlier tonight, controlling herself calmly to accept being raped. If this were a performance on top of a performance...it was getting beyond his ability to perceive where honesty ended and deception truly began.

"He informed me," she went on, "that, for my admittedly less than exemplary behavior, the Continuum had seen fit to... grant him leave with me."

"Grant him leave?"

"To do as he wished, provided that he personally cause me no harm. The Continuum would find it hard to ignore it if he attacked me directly; for one Q to attack another is one of the greatest crimes we have, and one of the least committed. But arranging matters so that someone else can hurt me...while that's not strictly approved of, it seems that for various reasons the Continuum were willing to look the other way this time." She sat down on the edge of the bed, tapping her fingers up and down on the bedspread and staring at the motion of her own fingers. "He had let the Calamarain know where I was -- did it ever strike you as strange that they found me so readily, despite the fact that I should have been indistinguishable from any other human?"

"I'd assumed that the Calamarain have access to some perceptions we don't that permitted them to recognize you -- that perhaps they used telepathy, for instance, or detected some energy emissions that we could not."

"I suppose, given your limited knowledge of the Calamarain, that those are reasonable hypotheses," she conceded grudgingly. "But they're wrong. The Calamarain should have been as little able to detect me in my new form as you -- and since, unlike the situation with you, I wasn't wearing the same shape as I'd worn when I dealt with the Calamarain, the only way they could have recognized me...is if someone told them what to look for." She looked at her feet. "I'd suspected something of the sort might be the case, aboard the Enterprise, but it was still a considerable shock to have it confirmed."

"I can imagine."

"Can you?" She glanced up at him. "Can you really? You can't imagine the degree of closeness within the Continuum, the almost incestuous degree to which we live in one another's heads. For one Q to betray another is...impossible under most circumstances, and therefore unthinkable. Even I -- I've seen the sorts of things that can happen -- I've experienced the concept of betrayal, Q against Q -- and it still seemed unthinkable. That the Continuum allows this -- We're supposed to be superior. We're not supposed to -- to stab one another when we're down like this..."

It was the first time Picard had heard Q say anything remotely critical of the Continuum, anything implying that its much-vaunted superiority might not be so vast after all. And oddly, it was that more than anything else that awakened the greatest sense of pity in him. Picard knew what it was like to have idols destroyed, to have the faith of a lifetime shattered. In his younger days, he had uncovered evidence of corrupt members of Starfleet, and been terribly disillusioned. It had taken time to realize that Starfleet, like any human creation, was flawed like its creators; the reason Starfleet was such a great and glorious endeavor was not because it was perfect, but because it strove so hard to be.

He had also helped religious friends through devastating crises of faith, in his young days -- the young were particularly susceptible to that sort of disillusionment. Picard remembered his earlier intuition that Yan'net was young; knowing her to be Q didn't contradict that. As ancient as Q might be in years, Picard had long suspected that the entity was young for a member of the Q species. And having been a creature of power and privilege for who knew how many years, and possessing all those additional perceptions and access to a vast body of knowledge, Q had probably rarely had to deal with disillusionment. When someone spent their life getting what they wanted, the resultant crash when the bubble burst was far harder. Q had not only lost her powers and her freedom, if Picard's intuition was correct. When she was betrayed by one of her own and her people allowed it, she had lost her faith as well. And for one who was used to having all the answers, that might even be the hardest burden to bear.

He stood up and walked around the bed, to where she sat. "It's always hard to have the faith of a lifetime shattered," he said.

She frowned at his choice of words and shook her head. "Oh, it isn't faith," she said. "Believe it or not, I'm well aware of the flaws in the Continuum. It's my -- was my job, to be aware."

The question, "then why did you always act as if you were perfect?" occurred to him, but it was unnecessary, out of place here, and besides, he could think of two good answers off the top of his head. "Nonetheless, it must have been very hard for you." He sat down next to her, wanting to reach out but uncertain how to proceed. When she had simply been an abused and desperate dissident, he had been able to hug her, to stroke her and comfort her, without any self-consciousness. But this was Q, dammit...

...who was, apparently, also an abused and desperate dissident.

The hell with it. He put his arm around her. If she didn't like it, the worst she would do would be to say something sarcastic and scathing. He had dealt with that before.

He felt her trembling slightly, but the expected scathing remark did not come. Apparently she was too emotionally wrung out to turn down a comforting touch, even if it meant a tacit admission that she needed one.

"In any case," she said. "He told me he was responsible for the Calamarain's appearance, which was upsetting enough. But he said then that, as I approached the end of my existence, he felt it wasn't enough. If I merely died at the hands of the Calamarain, so quickly after becoming mortal, I wouldn't suffer sufficiently for his tastes. He wanted to see me totally broken, humiliated, degraded to a fragment of my former self. He wanted to see me brought lower than I imagined possible. Actually, he was quite vitriolic about it."

Having been on the wrong end of Q powers himself, Picard could sympathize. The notion of a vitriolic Q awakened a cold fear in the pit of his stomach. The worst this Q had ever been was piqued, and that had been bad enough. "I was...not aware your people were capable of such...vitriol," he said, meaning that in a sane universe people with that kind of power should not be.

She smiled wryly, with a mocking edge. "Oh, we're capable of anything, Picard. It's in the definition of 'omnipotent,' I believe. But you needn't worry -- as a general rule, we are not so, and almost never to mortals. We reserve that kind of hatred for those who hurt us personally -- and few of us let ourselves be hurt by mortals."

"So how did you hurt your nemesis, then?"

Her eyes hardened. "In the first place, I didn't. I hurt a mutual acquaintance. And in the second place, it's none of your business, Picard."

That seemed such a "Q" thing to say, and Picard felt ready to object when he realized that in fairness it was really just curiosity which had prompted the unnecessary question. "I'm sorry."

She nodded almost absently, her eyes focused again on her inner visions. "So. I could easily believe that the Continuum would let him arrange my death, but to do this...to completely destroy my will, my pride...I could not believe they would allow this. And I thought he...well, he has a tendency to make outrageous threats that he really has no intention of necessarily carrying out." She smiled thinly. "Rather like some other Q I could mention." The smile disappeared. "I thought that he was there to humiliate me, yes, but if I pacified him by abasing myself sufficiently, perhaps he would leave me be -- rescue me from the Calamarain or at least let me die in peace. So I begged." Her voice grew harsh. "I went to my knees and pleaded for mercy, I groveled, abased myself in every way I knew how, then, and when I was done, he told me... he had considered my request for mercy. And the answer was 'no.'" She swallowed. "He transformed me into the shape you see before you, and brought me here. He then... informed President Ga... that I was powerless..." Her voice broke, and she stopped, breathing with the choked quality of a person desperately fighting sobs.

Despite a powerful desire not to think about it, Picard found himself imagining what must have happened then, all too easily. His stomach clenched in nauseated sympathy.

He remembered how helpless and terrified Q had been about the Enterprise, how he had been frightened of things perfectly normal for humans, unable to adjust to his lowered status, and completely incompetent at reaching out for the emotional connections that he had -- Picard could see now, in retrospect, though he hadn't seen it then -- so desperately needed. At the time Picard had vacillated between considering it divine justice and a deliberate attempt on Q's part to make Picard's life miserable. Now, he would still call the loss of the powers itself divine justice -- but taking an entity that terrified and helpless and subjecting her to the sort of treatment she'd undoubtedly received here went far beyond justice, into the realm of obscenity.

Frankly, Picard was surprised and more than a little impressed that Q had retained sanity and self-determination, much less the will for defiance -- the higher one was, the harder one fell, and Q had fallen harder and farther than any being Picard had ever known. There was apparently a great deal more to her than snide arrogance, as such conceit alone could never have saved her -- it would, in fact, have hurt.

"Shh," he murmured. "Don't think about it right now. Not now." She was sitting rigidly tense, head bowed, arms folded so tightly he was sure she must be hurting herself. Picard understood the pressure inside her too well, the need to release an unbearable emotion versus the need to appear in control, and wished he could hand her over to someone else-- Troi, perhaps -- someone she would be more willing to relax her guard in front of. He felt deep and genuine compassion for Q, and he felt no discomfort now in expressing it, but he suspected she would rather not have it from him, now that she'd confessed her identity.

He tried a question to distract her. "Why here? Why bring you here?"

"The punishment has to be fitting," she said. She looked up. "Simply dumping me as...oh, a Bajoran laborer in a Cardassian camp, or something... that might bring an outcry from the Continuum. That would not be fair, you see. I have a past history with these people, and while they haven't formally charged me with anything more specific than sedition, they are punishing me in accordance with the laws of their people. By the Continuum's standards, that's fair."

“So you are, in fact, a political prisoner."

"A very political prisoner."

"Yan'net, I think it will help me to know...in trying to get you out of here: what did you do?"

She surprised him with a sardonic look. "Trying to figure out if the punishment is warranted?"

"It is not," Picard said with sudden fierceness. She stared in surprise as he took her shoulders in his hands and gazed into her eyes. "I know what you're capable of. And I could believe that the loss of your powers was justified. Considering that I once stood in your post-apocalyptic courtroom and feared for the future of humanity, I could even imagine you having done something that I would consider worth a penalty of death. But nothing you or any other being in the universe could possibly do would warrant this sort of torture and dehumanization."

"Well, that's good to know," she murmured. She managed to make casual comments like that sound sardonic, belittling, but by now he recognized that as her defense. He found himself thinking of many other things Q had said to him in the past in quite a new light.

Picard released her shoulders but did not move away. "I need to know what you did because it'll help me in devising a strategy to get you out of here. That's all."

"I see," she said. "Well, I'm not ashamed of it." She lifted her head defiantly, as if he had contradicted her. "I've done things to be ashamed of, yes, I admit it, but this was not one of them. In fact, the only thing that I regret is that I didn't let it go on long enough. They learned nothing. I should have left them that way."

"Yes, but what did you do?" Picard asked, slightly impatient.

She stood up. "You must admit that this culture is quite disgusting, Picard," she said, pacing and gesturing freely. "Even you, with your oh-so-tolerant Prime Directive, are nauseated. But if it had merely been a bunch of disgusting primitives abusing one another, I could have ignored it. The Ferengi and the Cardassians are in their own ways as bad or worse, and I very rarely concern myself with them." She faced him. "Unfortunately, this species has potential. And that makes it infinitely worse."

"Indeed. How do you define potential?"

"There are a number of ways. They're very like you humans, actually -- the growth of their technology and the changes in their social system are occurring with great rapidity. Since about the 15th century, you humans have advanced more rapidly -- socially, technologically, mentally, even evolutionarily -- than most other species in this area of the galaxy. Look at the Klingons. Interstellar travel, and yet they cling desperately to a medieval mindset. Look at the Vulcans. Oh, they've progressed further than you, no doubt, but what have they done lately? Their culture is stagnant, stagnant, stagnant. We take an interest in species who show rapid progress -- and this, unfortunately, is one. Though you wouldn't know it from the thugs running the government."

Picard blinked. "Q. If you took an interest in us in the first place because of our 'rapid progress', why did you accuse us of being savages?"

"One can progress and still be savage, Picard. And besides. When you were in the Academy, you were on the debate team, weren't you?"

He hid how startled he was as best he could. "For a year. Yes."

"I seem to recall you making a very eloquent argument that the Prime Directive should be abolished, because the topic had been assigned in a debate. Did you believe it?"


"Did you win the case?"


"Didn't the whole thing seem rather like some sort of dramatization, put on to convince people that the Prime Directive was a good thing? Didn't you justify arguing for something you didn't believe in because you felt that if you had made a good case against, then when your opponent defeated you it would provide an even better case for?"

"How much do you know about my past?"

"Not that much." He got a distinct impression of evasiveness. "But that incident stayed with me -- it was of especial interest to me, because it was one of the few times in your life that showed me you had an understanding of what I had made my life work."

"So you didn't truly believe that humans are savages?"

"Why would I have handed myself over helpless to savages?"

"Because you had been convinced otherwise, I thought...but now you're implying you never believed us savages at all."

"I never believed a lot of the points I've argued in my life, Picard. I'm a professional devil's advocate." Some of the animation left her, and she slumped. "Or was, at least."

Picard knew this placed Q's actions, historically, in a completely different light -- unless she were bending the truth now in a desperate need for his sympathy. There was no way to know which, but he was surprised to discover that he wanted to believe her. Still, he needed his question answered. "Well and good, Q, but after you 'took an interest' in these people, what did you do?"

"Right." She leaned her arm along a wall some feet away and faced him. "I came to these people eight years ago, calling myself Yan'net and wearing the form you see before you...a little better dressed, though." She smiled. Considering that she was still nude, that wouldn't have been difficult -- although, that being said, her nudity was a better dress than many people's expensive clothes would be. Picard dragged his thoughts away from that with a fierce interior frown.

"To be precise," she went on, "I appeared to President Ga and about half a dozen other heads of various states, while they were at some sort of tedious conference. I informed them that I was disgusted with them and the things that they permitted in their nations, and announced that I was going to mete out punishment." An irrepressible grin stole across her face. "Then I turned them all into women and dumped them into state-run brothels in their own countries."

"You what?"

"You heard me." The grin grew broader. "They never dared actually place me on trial here. In order to prove I'd committed sedition, even in their kangaroo courts, they would have to explain exactly what I did -- and they most certainly would not want to admit what happened." Her expression darkened. "I've sure you disapprove, Picard. But I don't care. The only thing I'd have done differently would have been to let it go on longer."

Picard sighed and found to his horror that he was having to resist an actual bout of sniggering. "I can't say I do approve, but I must confess that if I'd had the sort of power you did, the temptation to do something like that would indeed have been overwhelming." He didn't bother to point out that he would have overcome the temptation -- Q probably knew that.

"You have this notion that you can somehow make a hard and fast rule -- Thou Shalt Not Interfere -- and apply it to everything," she said. "Power exists to be used. I consider it far more morally bankrupt to possess the power to aid the development of a promising species, and instead do nothing." She sighed. "Unfortunately, most of my compatriots agree with you."

"And is that part of the reason why you're here?"

For several seconds she was silent. "I don't -- ever -- want to talk about why I'm here," she whispered harshly. "It's in the past, even for a Q, and there's nothing to be done about it. Suffice it to say...the Continuum had their reasons. I...could have borne this more easily if they were doing it directly, if it was at their will alone that I suffered...but it shouldn't have been these people that were given the right to punish me." Picard knew his words had been a misstep; she was trembling violently again. "The people I transformed were in their rightful places within a month -- I've been here nearly three years--"

Her voice cracked, and she spun to face the wall, leaning on it with outstretched arms and bowed head, as she fought to control the oncoming tears. Picard stood up, uncertain what to do -- he suspected that a comforting touch at this point would push her over the edge, and yet she had spent a great deal of time on that edge since he'd learned her identity, and a great deal of energy in constantly pulling herself back from it. Perhaps she would be better off if she simply let herself go. Better than most, Picard empathized with her need to stay in control, but there were times when one had to be released, and times when it would be safe to, and he knew, even if she didn't, that now was one of those times.

He came up behind her and placed gentle arms on her shoulders. "Shh," he murmured.

As he'd suspected, that was all it took. "I can't even hate him!" she wailed, and broke into hysterical sobs. Picard gathered her in his arms, turning her to face him, and she buried her face in his chest and wailed. These were not pretty, soft sobs, like the ones before when he'd woken in the night next to her. She was crying loudly, uncontrollably, with sniffles and desperate gulps as she tried to stop herself. Every so often she would choke, doubling over unbreathing, the pressure strangling the air out of her, until an anguished sob would force its way out, sounding more like a scream by then.

"It's all right," he murmured, stroking her. "It's all right. Don't fight yourself so hard. You can cry if you need to."

She lifted her head, her face twisted by malice and pain, and fixed him with a poisonous tear-blurred glare. "I th-thought better of you, Picard," she choked out viciously.

"Thought better of me? How so?"

"When I t-turned to you for compassion on the En -- on the Enterprise, y-you said I'd brought noth-ing but p-pain and suf-fering to your crew. Why am -- am I n-now suddenly w-worthy of comfort? Does my sex m-matter that much? Does the s-sight of a heaving fe-female breast in-spire your masculine soul to p-pity in a way my m-male form could not?" She was tripping over her words, choking, forcing the vitriol out against the terrible pressure of her sobs. "Or is it b-baser even th-than that? D-did I earn your com-compassion by s-sleeping with you?"

"You do know me better than that," he said, face stern but still stroking her back soothingly. “There are a number of reasons why I feel more compassion for you now than then, and none of them have to do with your sex."

"Oh, r-really? Enlighten me, Pi-card."

He guided her to the bed, sitting her down on it, as he continued to stroke her. "In the first place, I simply didn't believe you last time, not until the very end. Part of me was convinced you were playing some sort of elaborate joke, and I refused to play along. In the second place -- and I realize this is hardly a very attractive reason, but I think it's more legitimate than the question of your sex...you must realize that it's hard to have sympathy for someone who has been reduced to one's own level. To my point of view, you were -- if you were in fact human, and not playing some game -- whining about hardships that to me were a natural part of life. You thought you were dying when you fell asleep, you sent for emergency care when your back cramped up, you had no consideration whatsoever for the many people facing death on Bre'el IV and instead were wrapped up entirely in what seemed to me like very petty concerns. Plus, you had no idea how to adjust to your human status. You begged for aid and guidance on the one hand, and then insulted people on the other. When you were trying to persuade us to save your life, you called our compassion a genetic weakness! So I was not overly inclined to feel sympathetic toward you."

"And I'm a pa-paragon of vir-tue now?"

"In comparison to the sneering sadist you seemed then, yes, you are. But that's only a small part of it." He looked away. "When you were reduced to human level, it was difficult for me to comprehend how hard that must have been for you. Intellectually I understood that you'd lost a tremendous amount, but emotionally it was hard for me to think of my own state -- being a normal human being -- as such a terrible hardship. That is a limitation on my part, I admit it. It's much easier for me to comprehend that this situation is hurting you, how much you've lost by being sent here. So it's easier for me to feel compassion for you."

"Pity, you mean," she snarled.

"Yes, pity. I'm sorry if you would rather not be pitied, but it's hard for me to see what other reaction I could possibly have. I don't belittle you, you know. The fact that you've kept your will and at least some of your pride intact is tremendously impressive. I wouldn't have thought you could, to be honest, Q. You had such a hard time adjusting to merely being human, I can't imagine how you adapted to being a slave. Considering your actions with the Calamarain, I would have thought you would have killed yourself by now."

She laughed bitterly, tears streaming down her face, though her sobbing had eased somewhat. "Not for lack of trying, mon capitaine," she said. "Don't credit me with any great drive toward survival."

"Still. You're alive nonetheless." He stroked her hair lightly. "There's also another reason I feel compassion for you now. When I told you that you had brought nothing but pain and suffering to my crew, I hadn't yet seen you die for them."

She looked up at him sharply, startled. Picard went on. "I thought you completely selfish. When you came to me and told me you felt ashamed, I thought you were being self-indulgent and self-pitying, looking for reassurance and comfort without having done anything to deserve them. It never occurred to me that you meant it seriously -- that you truly felt ashamed and unworthy -- until you took the shuttlecraft out to lure the Calamarain away from the ship. And that was when I realized I'd been wrong about you, when I started to view you in a completely different light. What I'd seen was not evil, it was thoughtlessness. The spoiled reaction of a person who's never been faced with adversity, never needed to grow up. And now that you realized that your actions could hurt others, now that you recognized your own responsibilities, you were capable of sacrificing everything to make amends, to undo the damage you'd done. I knew then that I didn't want you to die, that I'd seen a potential in you worth protecting, despite my personal dislike of you. I tried to have you beamed back into the ship, but the controls wouldn't respond."

"I know. He told me," she whispered.

"We thought the Calamarain had done it somehow -- it never occurred to us that your own people had betrayed you. But be that as it may. I haven't forgotten the things you've done, Q -- the humiliating things, the lives you threatened, the people who died in the first attack by the Borg -- but nor have I forgotten that the first time in your life you were called on to make a sacrifice, you did it. You expected to die, didn't you? It never occurred to you that someone would intervene."

"No. Not for a moment." She stared into space. "It would have been a lot more pleasant if I had..."

"Perhaps. But as long as you live, you can hope for something better. I will get you out of here, Q. Nothing I've learned changes that." He released her and stood up. "Tell me about these colonists of yours -- the ones with the alternate source of vionara."

"Not much to tell." She shrugged. "When I was here, I found one of the prisoners...intriguing. Here was a woman who had been trained all her life to believe that she was inferior, and that she should spend her life serving the state, who had not only managed to become a dissident, she was still stirring up trouble. A revolution was brewing in the women's prison, and she was behind it." Q smiled. "I have something of a taste for dissidence, myself. So I decided to test this revolutionary, see if her convictions really were all that powerful. I offered her one wish, to do with as she liked." She looked at the floor, cupping her chin in her hand. "To be honest, I expected her to say something like 'kill the bastards.' To be brutally honest, in fact," -- she looked straight at him -- "right now that's what I would likely say, as long as getting my powers back was not an option. But she didn't. And she didn't do the other thing I expected, which was to take her family and flee. Instead, she asked that all the women enslaved in the brothels -- including but by no means limited to herself -- be transported somewhere else, somewhere that they could make a new life, without men to interfere. She had these utopian notions that a society of women would be inherently peaceful and joyous. I knew better, of course, but it seemed an intriguing experiment -- and I was amazed at her selflessness and really her nerve in asking for something so broad.

"You know, most people, when you offer them the services of an omnipotent being, they think of something silly, like 'I wish I were rich' or 'I wish I were younger.' Even the ones who wish for something like world peace don't have any idea how to go about it. This woman had a fairly clear notion of her agenda, and...it amused me to see if she could fulfill it."

"So you saved her because it amused you to do so." Yes, Picard felt he was beginning to see through Q rather clearly now. He thought once again of the Borg. Yes, eighteen people dead...and humanity eventually saved.

"More or less. I never said I was a paragon of moral virtue. That's your job. But in any case, I transported all the female political prisoners -- most of whom were suffering because of the misdeeds of a husband or brother, not for any great acts of revolutionary courage of their own -- to a copy of Metraxia, which I set in orbit around a virtually identical star some hundred light-years away. The planet is identical, except that it has a natural cloaking field around it -- I didn't want anyone upsetting my little experiment until I was ready. I gave them no technology to speak of, since none of them had any technical training and I didn't want them depending on technology that they had no idea how to repair. But I modified their bodies so that they can reproduce parthenogenetically -- in a hundred years or so I planned to reintroduce men -- and left them to their own devices, eight years ago." She leaned forward. "The planet is an exact physical copy of Metraxia, with all plant and all animal life except for the Metraxans themselves brought over. Vionara exists there as surely as it does here, and while the people are technologically backward, they understand the concept of space flight and the Federation. They'd be willing to negotiate with female Starfleet members, once they knew I was there and vouching for you. But they'll be mistrustful of all men, of female aliens if I'm not there to vouch for you, and plus you'll never find their planet without my help. Your instruments can't penetrate my cloak without knowing exactly where to look; I, however, remember where I put it, so I can tell you exactly where to look."

"Q, it's hardly necessary to give me additional incentives to rescue you. I've already said I will get you out of here."

"I'd love to hear you explaining to your crew that you're going to jeopardize the negotiations to rescue some bimbo you slept with without the background rationale," she retorted. "Somehow I doubt that telling them I'm Q will inspire them to redouble their efforts in my behalf."

"No, I suppose you're right," Picard said, thinking about it for the first time himself with a sinking heart. What was he going to tell Riker? Picard vastly preferred to govern by consensus; he was capable of saying "Do it because I said so", but he didn't like to, at all.

"Of course I'm right." She got to her feet. "They never mentioned how disgusting one's face feels after a hysterical crying jag," she said, and headed for the bathroom. "I must look positively awful."

"I can't say I noticed anything untoward," Picard said, which was true, given the dim lighting in the room.

"How would you be able to tell?" she shot back from the bathroom. "Good God, it's worse than I thought."

Picard's eyebrows went up. "'Good God?'"

"An expression, Picard. Totally devoid of its original semantic content, I assure you." He heard running water. "I had no idea my skin could turn that color."

A disturbing thought struck him. "Surely you've cried before."

"Not under circumstances where I particularly cared about my appearance."

"Why do you care now? As I just said, I can't see anything wrong."

She came back out of the bathroom. He saw her silhouetted against the bathroom light for a second, before she shut it off. "A pointless exercise of vanity. I still have some left, sometimes."

He didn't think that was the whole truth -- and his mind cast back without conscious volition to something else she'd said, something he had definitely not thought about at the time but that sank in now. As she walked over to the bed, he hesitated, trying to think how to phrase this. She saw him hesitating and frowned. "You know you're going to have to get up tomorrow. Why don't you come to bed?"

Picard climbed into bed -- it was true he would have to get up in the morning, but his mind was still racing and he didn't feel terribly tired at the moment -- and settled in next to her. "Q?"

"A," she answered.

He turned to look at her. "You expected U?" she asked. "Or perhaps R, S, T?"

"Now I know you must be tired," Picard said, smiling. "You don't normally make foolish jokes about your own name."

"It hasn't been my name in over three years," she said, staring up at the ceiling. "Actually, strictly speaking, it usually isn't my name for gaps of a year or more -- only you call me that."

"Really. I thought it was the name of your species."

"It is -- as translated into English." She turned to look at him. "Did you seriously think we named ourselves after a letter of your alphabet? Or that beings who communicate through pure thought would have a phonetic name at all? 'Yan'net' expresses the untranslatable concept that is our name in Metraxan -- actually 'Yan' does, 'net' is a suffix that means 'agent of' or something like that. I've had uncountable names in as many languages."

She had managed to sidetrack him again. "Before," he said, ignoring her digression on names, "when we were...making love." The words struck him as an absurd construction under the circumstances -- how did one express love by having sex with someone who was bound by the threat of torture? Then he remembered what she'd said again, and wondered if it was more appropriate than he thought. "You said that you had wanted me before. That you hadn't known what you wanted, but you knew now."

He felt her stiffen next to him. "So?" she asked, elaborately casual.

"So. Was that true?"

"That's...just the sort of thing you say, at times like that," she said. "I hadn't remembered I said it, actually. I...doubt it meant anything, really."

Mm-hmm. "I see," he said noncommittally. Now was not the time to challenge her on that particular question.

"Go to sleep, Jean-Luc. I don't want to be responsible for the Federation failing in the negotiations because you fell asleep while Ga was droning on."

He laughed. "No, we wouldn't want that."

She curled up on her side, back to him. Cautiously, he moved closer

to her, turning onto his own side and curling around her spoon-fashion. His desire to comfort her despite her true identity was strong and not something he currently felt like analyzing. She gave no indication that she minded -- also no indication that she didn't mind -- but Picard would have expected the first far more than the second. From her, a lack of resistance meant an active acceptance.

"How will I get in contact with you again?"

"Ask for me," she mumbled. She was obviously tired. "I'm working the conference as long as it lasts. They'll accommodate any special requests from the delegates."

The casual, offhand way she spoke of herself as a commodity was deeply disturbing. Picard hurt for her, wondering how deep the damage went. He put his arm around her, as if he could somehow ward off her demons for the night. Already asleep or close to it, she didn't stir.

She was warm and soft and her presence comforting, but Picard spent at least another hour staring into the darkness, listening to her breathe, before sleep would finally come.

After Picard left for the conference in the morning, the guards came and escorted Yan'net back to the slaves' quarters. She walked more quickly than usual-- her body was sore today as usual, but the soreness didn't hurt as much, if that made any sense. A night of genuinely relaxing sleep had done her almost as much good as the rebirth of hope. She was eager to tell Elit the news; nothing was definite yet, but Elit would be thrilled.

The slave women's quarters consisted of a large room crammed with bunks. Bunks lined the walls, and rows of bunks stood in the space between as well, with perhaps a meter between rows. Each bunk held in its drawer the costumes and cosmetics each woman was assigned for her personal use, and any possessions she'd managed to acquire, though if the possessions were entertainments like books or vids they were usually pushed by peer pressure into sharing them around with the other slaves. In the back of the room was a door to another room, the communal latrine and shower. Every part of the room was under the eye of cameras and listening devices, but there were places the women could go for small amounts of privacy-- some individual bunks couldn't be seen by the cameras, and the women had gotten a length of cloth and hung it over one of the latrine stools in the bathroom to give women who absolutely needed a few moments of unobserved privacy to have it.

"Yan'net!" Eshto met her at the door. "Did you hear about Kaelan?"

"I haven't heard anything, I just got back. Didn't Kaelan have the Cardassian Gul?"

Eshto nodded, her face grave. "She's in medward. The prick hurt her, bad. No one knows why."

"Because he's a Cardassian, that's why," Yan'net growled. "Stupid sadistic primitives. A lot of Cardassians have fetishes for beating up members of what they consider lesser races. Will she live?"

"No one knows yet. And Fru wants to talk to you. She had the Klingon, and there's a problem but she won't say what."

"Do I look like a doctor?"

"No, you look like an offworld genius. You know these creatures. Fru doesn't want to talk to me or Elit or anyone until she's talked to you."

Yan'net sighed theatrically. "Fine, fine, where is she?" The truth was she'd have helped one of her fellow slaves no matter what-- the fierce independence and inability to get along with others that had characterized her first day as a mortal had been burned out of her within a week, here. On Metraxia, slaves learned to work well in groups or they didn't survive. She was also feeling intensely guilty. Picard would probably have made a wonderful lover for any of these people, but she'd been the one to recognize him, so she'd snapped him up for herself before anyone else working the conference could have a chance. Now Kaelan was hurt and Fru was... having Fru problems. She tried to imagine the quiet, cringing little woman with a Klingon, and couldn't. The creature could have broken every bone in her body! Why wasn't she in medward?

Eshto brought her over to Fru, who was huddled on her bunk, five up. Which did sort of imply that she wasn't gravely physically injured. Yan'net climbed the ladder, swung herself onto Fru's bunk, and crawled over to the smaller woman. "Problems?"

Fru was small, with big blue eyes, long white hair, improbably large breasts and a disproportionately voluptuous figure. Most Metraxan men found her unbearably sexy, with her soft little voice and her over-feminine body and her air of weakness. Yan'net suspected that Klingons would have a different opinion. She looked at Yan'net with wide, terrified eyes. "He wouldn't have me," she whispered. "He said I was too weak, that he'd dishonor himself if he hurt me. What am I going to do?"

Oh, fuck. "Of all the times to get an honorable Klingon," Yan'net muttered. She put on a reassuring smile. "Look, it's probably going to be all right. You don't have a reputation like I do. Just say he wanted a blow job-- in your case that ought to do it."

Tears welled in Fru's eyes. "But what if-- what if he tells them I wasn't pleasing?"

"Did you tell him about the box?"

"I didn't! You know we're not supposed to--"

"These are aliens, Fru. They don't know our customs. You should have told him. If he took enough pity on you that he wouldn't fuck you, he might have pitied you enough to lie for you."

"Oh, Yan'net!" A sob tore out of Fru's throat, and she threw herself at Yan'net, wrapping her arms around the other woman tightly, as more sobs broke loose. "What am I going to do? They're going to punish me and I tried, I really did, I told him I'd do anything he wanted, I tried..."

"Yeah, I know. I know you tried, Fru." She rubbed the younger woman's back, trying to comfort her, though privately she thought Fru was effectively fucked. "Look, maybe he won't say anything. If he just says he wants a different girl tonight, he might say he likes variety. He's not likely to want to admit to Ga that he couldn't get it up for you." Except, of course, that he was likely to tell Ga that he didn't want a cringing weakling of a girl, if that was the problem. And finding a woman among the slaves who wouldn't be a cringing weakling around a guy whose idea of foreplay involved biting, growling and throwing things would be... difficult. Yan'net herself might be able to pull it off-- as disgusting as she found Klingons, he wouldn't be worse than Ga-- but there was a limit to selflessness. She wasn't giving up Picard, not for any reason.

"You think so?" Fru whispered.

"Yeah," Yan'net lied. Fru was going to get the box, Yan'net had little doubt of that, but there was no reason to make her suffer the fear of the box for the hour or so before medward got off its ass and sent the doctor to check them. Torture was a lot easier to handle when you didn't have to anticipate it in advance. Besides, maybe the Klingon really would keep his mouth shut. "It's going to be okay, Fru-Fru. Don't worry." She released the woman. "I gotta go talk to Elit. You just keep calm, okay?"

"O-Okay," Fru whispered.

Yan'net climbed down and wound her way through the maze of bunks, until she found Elit's corner-- a spot on the floor between two bunks where neither the cameras nor the listening devices could pick up much of anything. Elit, middle-aged, elegantly blonde and beautiful in very much a Great Noble Lady and not a whore-slave kind of way, was making out the day's assignments on a notepad. Yan'net grinned to herself in relief. Working the conference meant no day shift work-- no one to fuck, no one to soap up in the baths or suck off, until Jean-Luc, tonight. And that... by all that lasted, she still hadn't managed to wrap her brain around how good that had felt, and how it could feel again. Not just the sex, though it shocked and amazed her that the same act she found so painful, annoying, boring and/or humiliating could feel so unbelievably good if done right, but the warmth, the comfort... there were hugs and sisterly hands on bodies, here, and more for the women who so chose, but Yan'net had always felt she didn't dare admit to needing so much around these. They didn't worship her, but they honored and respected her, and aside from the nightmare of her first few weeks of slavery she had had to return that by helping them, comforting them, but never asking anything for herself unless she was desperate for it. Elit was about the only person around here Yan'net could generally admit to weakness with, and that still didn't translate to backrubs and caresses and a warm body next to you at night who wouldn't hurt you, wouldn't use you as an object. It translated mostly to having someone to bitch to.

But there'd be no bitching today. Elit looked up at her. "You look like the ki'ere who's gotten into the limta."

The animals she was referring to would have best translated into Earth terms as a cat and a fish, or less literally the English expression "the cat who got the canary." Yan'net smiled broadly. "I can't help it," she said. "I was so lucky last night, Elit. It was him, just like the rumors said."

"And? Will he help?"

"Yes. He promised." She plopped down next to Elit, her smile becoming fierce. "I confirmed everything. His laws allow it, he needs what I have to offer, and he believed me. Which was actually kind of hard, since I sort of slipped and told him who I really was, and we, uh, didn't have the best relationship before."

"When you were a man."

"'When I was a god' would be a better description." Most of the women here didn't know Yan'net's true nature. They thought the rumors of her abilities, of the things she'd done the last time she came, had had to be terrible exaggerations, or she wouldn't be here with them now. They still respected her for what she'd done-- many of them had mothers, sisters, daughters or friends who were somewhere safe now, far from the reach of Metraxan men-- but they didn't worship her. Elit didn't worship her either, but Elit did know what she was-- the woman was sophisticated and educated enough, a feminist and chief in the Resistance who'd actually been educated off planet, that Yan'net had felt safe in telling her. "Or, perhaps, 'when I was a silly stupid twit' would also work. I wasn't very nice to him, back then. But he'll help me."

Elit smirked. "Were you nice to him last night, then?"

"Oh." Yan'net leaned her head back against the wall. "Oh, Elit, he was nice to me. You have no idea. Or maybe you do, you're old enough I presume you had a half-decent sex life before ending up here, but it was never like that for me. Never ever. Gods. How do you stand having it be like it is if you know it can be like that?"

"You play favorites. Find a few who can make it good for you, and those are the ones who'll keep coming back, because you make it clear to them that it's real. And you take a lot of drugs, of course."

Yan'net made a face. "Not me, thanks." Women traded on the black market for drugs, and the fastest way to earn currency on the black market was to fuck the guards, who weren't supposed to have the diplomatic women and therefore had a vastly overblown sense of their desirability. If you got caught it was torture and then being sent to one of the lower-class brothels, which for most of the women was torture-- most of them were scions of the upper or middle classes, and were disproportionately afraid of this, as if it was somehow far worse to be forced to fuck plebes and not get drugs for doing it than to be raped by important world leaders. Yan'net, however, considered them all equally bad, all equally disgusting and beneath her, and hardly cared if she was sent to a brothel-- it would get her away from Ga. Which was exactly why she was confident it wouldn't happen anyway-- she was Ga's "favorite", and she was sure that he would never let her go off the palace grounds, where he couldn't take out his frustrations on her at a moment's notice, any time the mood took him. On the other hand, she had a rep among the guards as an unattainable bitch-- her drug of choice was taunting the guards with her sexuality, knowing that if they raped her they'd lose their jobs, and knowing they knew it too. No drug could give her a high quite like petty revenge on Ga's peons could, and fucking them for drugs would pretty much ruin that. Elit, however, being the person who made the job assignments, could get as many drugs as she wanted without having to debase herself-- plenty of women were willing to give up their own drugs to bribe her for a good assignment.

"Well, you'll have no need if he takes you back to the Federation. He'll take you to our sisters?"

She nodded. "And they'll be sitting pretty, with a virtual monopoly on something the Federation needs. You'll see, they'll have the resources to hire an army and come back to liberate you in no time." If, of course, Talith had any interest in doing this. Talith had thought that an all-female society would be a pacifist Utopia, and even her dedication to her feminist Cause might not override her disgust with the notion of hiring mercenaries. Plus, she might not even be alive. For all Yan'net knew they were all dead; she hadn't checked on them in eight years and she knew revolutionary movements tended to feed on themselves. But there was no point saying so to Elit. Elit had gone far out of her way to help Yan'net adjust to slavery and survive three years of hell; the least Yan'net could do was offer her a little bit of hope.

"I'll have to get the word out to the Movement that you're free. That'll boost morale." She took Yan'net's hand and squeezed it. "I'm happy for you, friend. This is a wonderful opportunity for you and for us. But I worry about you. You're not in love with this Federation captain, are you?"

"Love?" Yan'net snorted. "If you'd known me before you'd laugh. I don't know the meaning of the word. The sex was damn good, though, and he promised to have me again tonight. I can't wait."

"You look it. You're glowing. I just worry. Men can be delicious to fuck sometimes, but don't ever trust one with your heart, all right? They're big clumsy oafs, and they'll break you."

"He's a Federation man. They think women are people. I'll be all right." She smiled softly, remembering last night. "Glowing, hmm?"

And then sudden terror took her. She jerked upright. "Oh dear gods. How obvious is it that I liked it?"

"Blatant. What's the problem? No one in medward will care. Liking it makes you a better whore, didn't you know?"

"You don't understand. Ga will be there. He always is, with the diplomats. And if he thinks I liked it..." She thought of the Cardassian, who'd put Kaelan in medward; of the Klingon, who'd either ignore a woman who cringed, or brutally fuck one who mustered the strength to fight back. No matter what Picard wanted, if Ga knew Yan'net had enjoyed him, he'd never let her go to him again. Ga enjoyed sharing Yan'net with men who'd hurt her; he got off on that. And he already expected Picard to have been too gentle; his opinion of the Federation was low. He didn't consider them "tough" enough, and if he thought Picard had let her enjoy herself, that'd cement it. He'd give her to the Cardassian or the Klingon, or take her himself tonight, removing her from the conference and flaunting his possession of her at Picard, who'd dared to give his degradation toy a night of pleasure.

Yan'net jumped to her feet. That would be what she deserved, for gloating about the pleasure she'd felt and her own imminent escape, when Kaelan was in Medward and Fru would get the box. The universe-- or her brother, same thing-- would never let her be happy. She had to do something, she had to find a way to stop what she saw coming. But how? Ga would interrogate her about Picard. She knew she was a good actress, but could she really pretend to be cringing and whining and terrified, as usual, when her whole world was upside down? When Picard was going to rescue her and the night with him had been amazing and the only reason she wasn't grinning like an idiot now was the terror that it wouldn't happen again?

"Yan'net! Breathe, girl! What's the problem?"

"Elit-- if anyone, anyone else asks, he beat me last night. All right? Please?"

Elit nodded. "All right... but they'll know different, at medward."

"No they won't." Yan'net's voice hardened. "Trust me."

She headed into the latrines, and ducked into the makeshift stall at the end. There were cameras all over the latrines, as much a way to humiliate the slave women as a way to keep an eye on them, but the blanket blocked the cameras and everyone knew the listening devices couldn't handle anything short of a loud conversation, in a room where water was always running. As long as two women never went into the stall together, the guards allowed it.

Yan'net took a deep breath, and then flung herself as hard as she could, sideways, at the wall.

Not enough. Again, harder.

She was still holding back. Yan'net thought of scaled grey hands on her flesh, hurting her as they'd hurt Kaelan, thought of being thrown to the floor and fucked so hard it ripped her inside, and whimpered in terror. She threw herself at the wall, again and again, until her head spun dizzily. And then, for good measure, she positioned herself over the latrine stool and then flung herself down at it with all the force she could muster, letting it catch and bruise hips and stomach.

When she left the stall she was walking unsteadily, dizzy. She glanced at herself in the long mirror running the length of the latrines. Good, the bruises were already starting to show a little. In half an hour, at medward, they'd be vivid.


The guards rounded them up on schedule. Anas was grinning. She'd been chosen by the leader of the Ferengi delegation. She whispered to Yan'net, "Mine gave me a bottle of perfume! And all he really wanted was the craziest thing-- he wanted me to rub his ears, while I wore my bathrobe. That got him off right there! He said he'd ask for me again tonight. What about yours?"

Yan'net was glad that at least someone beside herself had gotten some good fortune out of this conference. She made her voice dull. "Mine said he'd ask for me again tonight, too."

"Oh no--" She looked more carefully at Yan'net. "You're hurt!"

Fru jumped. "You didn't say anything, Yan'net! You should have said something when we talked!"

"What would have been the point?" Yan'net sighed theatrically. Perhaps her imaginary woes could take Fru's mind off what was coming.

In the medward, the doctor took Anas first. The doctor was all by herself a refutation of Talith's theories about how wonderful women were, Yan'net thought. Rather than having any solidarity with her fellow women, the doctor, a middle-aged, unattractive, skinny creature who looked as if life had burned her at both ends for too long, was consistently demeaning and vicious to the "whores" she obviously resented having to treat. Medicine was one of the few advanced professions women were allowed to practice, since men weren't allowed to look on the naked bodies of respectable, free women; men of course were allowed to look at sex slaves, but there were no male gynecologists or obstetricians, since no one went into the profession hoping to treat whores. Their doctor had probably been unable to get work with respectable women, possibly due to being incompetent or perhaps due to being a bitch, or maybe it was just that she was so nasty and demeaning to any woman who was more attractive than she was, which was probably about all of them given how much of her ugliness was due to her nasty personality and perpetual sneer.

When Anas was in the stirrups, the doctor yanked Anas' lower legs to force her groin closer to the edge of the table, shoved a probe in with no preparation, then opened her up with a speculum and poked her repeatedly inside with the sample taker. Anas, as well accustomed to this treatment as any of them were, simply breathed hard, probably fantasizing about her undemanding and generous lover and what gifts he might give her next time. The Ferengi probably wasn't entirely clear on the concept that he didn't have to give presents to this particular whore; on Ferenginar all women were effectively whores, contracted out for temporary marriages at the right price to their fathers, but they generally had just enough freedom of movement to pick which man they'd be sold to, and since they weren't allowed to have money their choice was generally based on who gave the most elaborate gifts. At least, so Yan'net remembered. She doubted it had changed in the 100 years since she'd checked up on them. A more disgusting species was hard to imagine, but it had worked out well for Anas.

Anas went off to be debriefed-- hopefully not in Debrief, which would have been overkill-- and it was Yan'net's turn. She wanted to smile mockingly at the bitchy doctor, who had probably never gotten laid in her life as well as Yan'net had had from Jean-Luc last night, but she was trying to pretend to have been abused. So she whimpered loudly while the doctor probed her. "Can't you whores ever shut up?" the doctor asked, shoving the probe in harder. "After all the men you've had up you here, I doubt very much this hurts nearly as much as you're pretending."

"It's sore," Yan'net complained.

"Not half as sore as you're going to be if you don't stop distracting me with all your whining."

She took her samples, which was actually excruciating, if brief, and Yan'net really did cry out with pain. Then she poked one of the bruises with a bony finger. "What's this?"

"What's it look like?" Yan'net snarled at her.

"It looks like someone took the time to smack that bad attitude out of you, and a good thing, too. You could do with more of that, girl." She poked the bruises with the sample taker, biting into the flesh, although it was probably unnecessary and her scanner could undoubtedly tell her there were bruises from being thrown into a wall repeatedly.

The doctor went to the comm, a headset she lifted off the wall. "This is Dr. Satash. Get me m'lord President. I've got a medical question about one of his whores." There was a few minutes of nothing, then "M'lord President, I'm terribly sorry to disturb you but I have a question about one of the diplomatic slaves? The one called Yan'net? Yes, sire, nothing serious, but she's bruised some. Did you want me to heal it, or would she be of more use with the marks?... Leave them? Yes, sire, I'll do exactly that. Thank you for your precious time, sire."

She hung up and sneered at Yan'net. "Well, slut, I guess you'll get to keep those pretty marks a while longer. The President thinks they'll make you more attractive."

That was unfortunate. All Yan'net had wanted from the bruises was for the doctor to see them and report on them; if they stayed on her Picard would see them, and he would probably think them ugly. Plus, it would hurt more than usual to have sex tonight after she'd battered herself so badly. On the other hand, that meant President Ga would see them when he debriefed her, and maybe that'd improve his respect for Picard, which would improve Picard's chances of getting her out of here.

She glared at the doctor without saying anything, and allowed herself to be led off to debriefing.

She spent the next half hour lying to Ga and his flunkies, telling them that Picard had told her nothing, that there'd been no pillow talk or offhanded mention of strategies... all he'd said to her at all were commands for what he wanted her to do, and compliments or reprimands when she did it right or wrong. Since Ga demanded to hear it, she made up, in detail, a pornographic depiction of exactly what Picard had done to her last night, including where the bruises had come from. None of it was true, but since she was drawing off things various Metraxan men, including Ga himself, had done to her in the past, she had no trouble making it convincing. Ga was staring at her, piggy eyes wide, obviously aroused, but it was entirely too poor etiquette for him to fuck a woman he'd temporarily gifted to another man, even if she was one of his favorites. He'd take it out on some other poor soul instead, she knew, and hated herself for how relieved she felt.

She was sent to a waiting area to sit with Anas while Fru was debriefed. Anas had a dozen questions for her about Ferengi, what they liked in bed besides the ear thing, what their culture was like, what were the odds that the Ferengi would like her enough to buy her. Yan'net wasn't very hopeful on that last part-- many Ferengi had a taste for alien women but that didn't mean they'd part with their hard-earned latinum-- but at least for Anas it was a possibility. She was an ordinary woman, not even an actual dissident herself but the sister of a man who'd been tortured to death as a dissident, very delicate and pretty but not the particular favorite of anyone in power. Ga might well be willing to sell her, or even gift her to the Ferengi, if the man made noises about wanting such a concession in exchange for favorable concessions on his part, and that, Yan'net did tell Anas. If the Ferengi thought he could get Anas for free, he might just do it, though not if it would ruin his deal.

And then they brought Fru out. She was shaking, bloodless. Anas came to her feet, her hands going to her mouth in an expression of horror.

"Guess what, ladies?" Ga asked expansively. "Your pal here wasn't good enough for our guest. Couldn't get him up, couldn't even get him to relax and enjoy himself 'cause she's such a pathetic little slut. Now, that is not what I wanna hear from my diplomatic corps. I give you girls to a man, it's 'cause I want him to relax, have some fun, feel kindly toward us. You know what I mean? And this little piece of trash--" he backhanded Fru, who didn't fall, because she was being held up by two smirking guards-- "--can't even do that much. Makes me look bad. I hate to look bad."

He removed the box from his belt with great ceremony. Yan'net's mouth went dry. She took a deep, ragged breath, knowing this would probably not do a damn bit of good for Fru and knowing it would do a lot of damage to her, but since Ga couldn't fuck her or ruin her for sex as long as the conference was on and one of his guests had her, there was a limit to how much he could do.

"You shouldn't punish her for your mistake, sire," she said. "Any fool should know Klingons only want to fuck strong women. If you gave him a warrior woman, a real terrorist or something, he'd have respected you. Now he thinks you're a weakling who only can control weak women."

Ga turned purple with rage. "Did I ask you, bitch? Did I fucking ask you?"

His hand slammed down on the button to the box. The frequency for Yan'net's implant was in the fast retrieve area of his box, she knew; he hadn't had to use more than one key on the pad to tune the box in. Yan'net screamed, falling forward to the floor. "Telling... the truth!" she gasped out between screams. "Klingons... never deal... you give... weak women!"

He kicked her. "Maybe I should give him you, Yan'net. You're the most uppity bitch I've got. That it? You got a jones for Klingon cock?"

"Offend... Picard? Brilliant... Mr. President!... oh gods no pleeeeeeeeeassssse---" She lost any ability to make coherent speech as he increased the intensity on the neural stimulator.

And then he released her. "You really do want Captain Korvas, don't you," he sneered as she gasped in the aftershock. That hadn't been as bad as it could have been-- getting the box as formal punishment usually lasted a lot longer, Ga must be in a hurry-- but it wasn't necessarily over yet. She kept her head down, bowed submissively, hoping desperately that would be all of it. "Probably figure he'd be the best of a bunch. After what Gul Tarket did to that little whore and after Picard spent the night smacking you around, you figure Korvas is right up your ally? That goddamn reverse psychology thing, you think if you say I'm stupid for giving you to Korvas I'll do it just to spite you, and play into your hands? Well, it's not gonna happen, little bitch. You can go on right back to Picard, if he wants you. I'll get some traitor bitch who blows things up to fuck Korvas if that's what he likes." He smacked Fru again. "And this little slut, I haven't forgotten you, bitch. But I'll let you off without the box if you can show me how a whore like you really pleases a man. Show me it was just an off night for you with Korvas and you really do know how to make a man enjoy you, and you won't get the box."

Fru nodded hysterically. "Yes, sire. I'll please you as much as you like. You won't regret giving me another chance, I swear, sire, you'll love every minute of it." The guards released her, and she dropped to her knees, bowing low before Ga. "Any way you like it, sire, I swear."

"Take these other two back to the slut quarters. This one, escort to my office. She can help me unwind before the conference starts." He leered at her. "You're working the conference a different angle now, little bitch. You can work my office."

"Yes, sire," Fru said, still bobbing her head up and down. "Thank you, sire."

Yan'net's heart sank as she was led from the room. She didn't know what Ga normally did with women he didn't hate quite as much as he hated her... but after Yan'net got herself tortured to spare Fru, Ga would take out his rage against Yan'net on the girl. Yan'net's act of defiance hadn't actually saved anyone anything-- Fru might very well have preferred a few minutes of box, in the end, then the humiliation Ga would put her through. Or maybe not. Yan'net found public humiliation far worse than a few minutes of pain, but Fru'd been a slave longer and a near-chattel by the laws of Metraxia when she'd been free. Maybe she was more afraid of the pain. Maybe Yan'net had actually managed to swing an easier punishment for her.

Or maybe not. Until she had a chance to talk to Fru again she'd have no way to know.

Back in the women's quarters, Anas was full of the story of Yan'net's bravery, probably to make herself feel better for having done not a damn thing as either woman was tortured or humiliated... not that there had been anything she could have done. Yan'net herself didn't feel like being lionized and told how wonderful what she'd done was. What she'd done was stupid and she'd done it less to protect Fru than out of rage at Ga's stupidity. So she told herself, because if she'd done it for Fru then she'd accomplished nothing at all, most likely. Fru was suffering, and she had suffered, and it more or less ruined the pleasant mood she'd been in all morning, and did no one any good at all.

She retreated to her bunk with a book-- the other women's respect for her translated into giving her as many books and vids to borrow as she wanted, with which she had tried desperately over the past three years to keep her mind from shriveling into a peanut. But she couldn't concentrate. Hope, for what Picard could do, warred with despair over her inability to do anything real to help Fru. Not that she cared so much about Fru, the girl was too damn annoying, and needy, and she should know better than to trust Yan'net for any help. Billions of people had trusted Yan'net for help, in the past, and gotten burned for it. She was a trickster and she was unpredictable and when she helped people they got hurt worse and that was the way it was, and Fru ought to know that by now. Not ask her for help, not cry in her arms. People shouldn't do that, because Yan'net was powerless and she couldn't help them anymore even if she wanted to.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She didn't want to look ugly for Picard tonight, but she couldn't stop as hard as she willed it. She didn't sob, but she couldn't stop the tears.

With aid from stimulants and a few cups of strong tea, Picard managed to make it through the conference that day. The Cardassians demanded a break to return to their ship and talk privately in mid-afternoon; everyone else used it as an excuse to go to their own ships.

As soon as the transporter had returned him to his ship, Picard began to confront the difficulty of the task he and Yan'net had before them. How could he get Yan'net off Metraxia without jeopardizing the conference?

The last was essential, because when he had considered it rationally in the light of the morning, he had realized that he could not afford to trust her. Q was an accomplished liar, at least in some ways, and certainly selfish -- or short-sighted and thoughtless, at least -- enough to jeopardize the lives of Federation citizens to get out of slavery. Picard could hardly blame her for that; as she'd said, she had never been a paragon of moral virtue, and Picard would expect the sort of moral strength to remain in unendurable servitude for others' sake from very few people, most of them Vulcan.

But he had to concentrate on the larger moral issue. Q could conceivably be lying, or could simply be wrong, or unable to figure out where she put the planet -- Picard very much doubted the Q used starmaps to figure out where they were in space. It was also possible that the planet was too far away to do anybody any good -- someone who was capable of suggesting that they solve a problem by changing the gravitational constant of the universe was also undoubtedly capable of having no idea of the limits of current warp technology. And even if the planet were easy to find and easy to reach, and did, in fact, have vionara, there was no guarantee that the people on that planet would be as willing to trade with the Federation as the Metraxans were.

Picard had by this point reached his quarters, where he quickly and thoroughly showered, groomed, and donned a new uniform. By the time he was sitting in his reading chair with a cup of Earl Grey, he'd managed to turn his attention to the other half of the issue.

He simply could not leave her here. The whole idea galled, and the idea of working with the Metraxans if there were a choice in the matter was one that frankly nauseated him. He had been able to put up with these people, whose culture was everything he'd been raised to believe was wrong and even downright evil, because he'd thought he had no choice. Q had offered a choice, and for that reason if none other, Picard was determined to get her out of here and take her up on it. He just had to make sure he burned no bridges in the process.

The solution, once it occurred to him with a second cup of tea, seemed blindingly simple. President Ga knew who and what Yan'net was. If she disappeared in front of him, in a bright flash of light, he wouldn't spend a great deal of time trying to find out who might have transported her away. He would assume she had got her powers back. In fact, he would probably be terrified, assuming that she might be out for a little revenge. Picard remembered how Ardra -- or whatever her real name had been -- had used modern technology to simulate Q-like effects so well it had taken serious detective work to expose her. Something like that could easily be adapted for his purposes.

The only difficulty was explaining to his crew why he'd need to do such a thing. The idea of telling Riker, or Worf, or Beverly, that he needed to rescue a dissident who was really Q had a great lack of appeal. All three would be intensely suspicious, and Beverly in particular...well, Picard found the notion of admitting to her that he'd slept with Q, and that he believed her story, to be especially troubling. He knew his officers would follow his orders, if he made them clear, but he found he didn't want to deal with the suspicions they'd direct at Yan'net. He was positive those suspicions wouldn't be any good for her, either.

And so later, at the meeting of his staff before they returned to the planet, he didn't tell them about Q, only about Yan'net. He explained that she was an abandoned member of a highly advanced race whose technologies had allowed them, in the past, to produce Ardra-like effects, that she might possess knowledge of the location of a source of vionara, and that he had thought that if they rescued her by resorting to the same sort of special effects her race had used, the Metraxans would never consider the possibility that she had been taken by the Federation.

All of this was, strictly speaking, true. He would never lie to his crew.

And none of them had a problem with his explanation, either, except for Worf, who naturally wanted to know if they could be certain they could trust her. Once Picard gave what assurances he could, including that if things went according to plan no one of Metraxia would know of their involvement, his crew was enthusiastic about the plan. No one at the conference table liked the Metraxans, and no one liked the restrictions the Prime Directive and politics placed on them, that they needed to turn a blind eye to the enslavement of sentient beings. So the notion of being able to justify legally rescuing one of Metraxia's victims was an exciting one.

In addition, the technical challenges of being able to pull off the subterfuge were appealing to LaForge and Data, the latter of whom found the notion "intriguing." On their own, in fact, they realized the need for a magician's distraction. Since their transporters were not instantaneous, and could not be no matter how they were modified, they would need to project some sort of audiovisual illusion to mask what was clearly a Federation transporter. Ardra's effects had been smooth, requiring no misdirecting lightshow, but Ardra had had access to a very fast transporter. With hardly any prompting from Picard, Data suggested that the light flash and accompanying sound Q's teleports had used would make a good cover, and LaForge concurred.

Crusher explained that she could provide a transponder that could be swallowed.

"It'll work its way out of the body in two to five days, but as long as we retrieve her in that time window, we should be fine," she said. "And the Metraxans shouldn't be able to detect it without a deep tissue scan. I don't believe they have the technology required."

"They don't," LaForge assured her, producing a padd with the latest intelligence they had on Metraxia. "The sort of transponder you're suggesting can be turned on easily by our signal, so I say we leave it off until we need it."

"Agreed," Picard said easily. "We'll home in on the signal just before we transport her."

"We'll need to warn her then," Crusher said, thinking. "The transponder can be easily modified to relay heat pulses. I assume she doesn't know Morse code, but we could arrange for a simple count-down."

"She'll want time to prepare an act," Troi said, "Say something condemning before she flashes out."

"We'll still need to get the transponder to her," Riker said.

"I'll see to that," Picard said, grateful beyond words when no one questioned how. He really did have an excellent crew.

Almost an hour later, the transponder tucked inside his uniform, Picard beamed down again with his team a few minutes before the conference was to resume. Swallowing his embarrassment, the captain took aside one of Ga's aides and discreetly asked if Yan'net would be available again tonight.

The aide sent him an unmistakable look of respect.

"There aren't many who can take her twice in two nights," the man sneered. "I'll see she's waiting for you as soon as the talks are done."

Plastering on a smile, Picard nodded as the aide moved off, then tried hard to concentrate on the conference.

Things were going about as well as he could hope. The problem was simply that Ga didn't want to name a price until he knew how far everyone there was willing to go. None of the other delegates were any more anxious to get into a bidding war than Picard was, and so the whole process was dragging itself wearily along.

They had at least started to get into the area of prime costs -- primarily materials and technology -- by the time the day was over. Feeling exhausted, Picard talked over what they knew so far with his team and then told him he'd see them in the morning. All of them referred to Yan'net and their plans with her only with their eyes.

When Picard turned for his quarters, Worf and his security guards behind him, the captain was joined quietly by the aide from that morning.

"Yan'net is waiting for you," the aide said, and again there was approval and respect in his eyes -- so much of it, in fact, that Picard felt puzzled. Surely it wasn't that important to anyone that a visiting delegate wanted Yan'net twice in a row?

He said nothing, however, until he got to his rooms and wished the aide "pleasant evening." Then he opened the door and went inside alone, looking around for Yan'net.

She waited until he had closed the sound-proofed door.

"Jean-Luc?" her voice came from out of the bathroom. "I'm washing up a bit. Is that all right?"

"Of course. Take all the time you need. He found himself heading for the bed. "I'm quite tired," he continued. "I'm going to rest before dinner, if you don't mind."

She didn't answer and soon he was lying on the bed with his shoes off and his eyes closed. He truly was exhausted, and soon he fell asleep.

Hours had passed before he was awake again, slightly disoriented. The room was dark and warm, and someone was pressed against him, soft arms around him, long hair splayed over his chest. Smiling groggily, he reached a hand around to lay it along her side.

And felt her wince.

"What's wrong?" he said, snapping awake.

"Nothing," she whispered.

He'd seen already that the lights were controlled by several panels around the room, and quickly he drew his hand over the panel by his headboard. Quickly, as the illumination rose, he turned to Yan'net, who lay there with resignation.

"What happened?" he demanded angrily, protectiveness churning in his gut as he looked over the bruises along her left side. It looked as though someone had thrown her into a wall.

"It's nothing, Jean-Luc," she said. "Don't worry about it."

"Don't worry about it? My God, what have they done to you?"

She shrugged. "This is nothing, believe you me."

There was nothing he could do about it, nothing he could do to whoever had done this to her, but he felt a rising tide of rage, a sudden desire far more appropriate to the "savage child-race" she had once accused humanity of being than to the civilized man he was, to find whoever had been responsible for harming her this way and beating them to a pulp. "This is not 'nothing', Yan'net. I'll have Dr. Crusher transport down here to tend these injuries-- that doesn't violate the Prime Directive or any laws of Metraxia to the best of my--"

"No!" She jerked upright in the bed. "No, Jean-Luc, that's totally unnecessary. It was just so that they'd let you have me again. It's nothing, I told you. It didn't even really hurt, not like the box or some of Ga's more unpleasant pastimes."

He frowned at her in confusion. "I don't understand. They beat you so that I could have you again? Why would they do a thing like that? Why would they care who took you tonight?"

"They didn't beat me. And they'd care if they thought I liked it." She folded her arms over her breasts, not the defiant sullen gesture he had seen from Q when he'd been human on the Enterprise, but almost a huddling, as if she was afraid of being chastised somehow. "Ga... likes to see me hurt. I knew he'd want to be there for the inspection. He was talking for days before the conference about how he'd heard the Federation were milquetoasts, that he expected to be able to walk all over you because you can't control your women and you don't like to fight. I... I think he let me go to you in the first place as a test. Because he didn't know I knew you, and he'd want to see... how you handled me."

"A test?" Picard found himself even more troubled by the thought that Ga was somehow measuring his performance with Yan'net. There had been no bugs in the room-- he could hardly have spoken so frankly with Yan'net last night if there had been-- but was Ga in the habit of questioning his slaves about the behavior of the men he'd given them to? He realized he was being naive-- of course Ga would question the women, of course he'd use anything he was able to learn about his negotiating partners or his rivals as a weapon. Why else insist that the negotiators take his slaves to bed? "What did he expect to learn?"

"Well." Yan'net smiled slightly. "I don't... normally behave the way I did with you, Picard. I have a bit of a reputation... I believe Ga described it as 'uppity?' You'd be amazed how many men actually respond to being treated like the pathetic insects that they are, so long as they get to get off." She looked at the wall. "And I... I enjoyed it, last night. Well, you know that. But this morning, when I was thinking of tonight... you, and the way you would make me feel, and even if we didn't do that just to know you wouldn't hurt me, that I wouldn't have to pretend to be thrilled to the core that some piece of protoplasmic waste would deign to fuck me... and that you were going to get me out of here..." She looked back at Picard. "I like to think I'm a very good actor. But I have my limits. I didn't know if I could stop hoping, if I could stop looking like I was hoping. Like I was happy. And if I was happy Ga would never let you have me again tonight."

"Even if I had insisted?"

"You don't understand. He owns me. Since...since Q brought me here, Ga's thought of me as his own personal toy. He hands me out to other men all the time, but because of what I did to him, he has a personal interest in seeing me suffer. If he'd thought I liked you, he probably would have used the box on me anyway, just so I'd stop hoping. And even if he didn't do that, he'd never have let me go to you again. So I... I had to make sure, that he'd think I'd suffer if you got me again."

This was finally starting to make a sickening sense to Picard. "Are you saying... you did this to yourself? So Ga would think I'd done it?"

"Jean-Luc, you're probably very intelligent for a member of your limited species, but sometimes you can be unbearably dense. Yes, that's exactly what I did." Her words were sharp, but her body language said something else. She was pulled into herself, huddling, shivering slightly. Picard placed his hand on her unbruised shoulder, repositioning himself to sit closer to her. She leaned into him slightly, the shivering abating.

"Oh, Yan'net... I am so sorry you felt you had to do this. The aide told me he would get you when I asked. There was no question of it."

"But he wouldn't have said that if he hadn't thought you'd hit me. I couldn't take the chance. If Ga-- if he'd thought for a minute, that I-- and you-- and that I could actually want you--" She began to shudder again. Picard opened his arms slightly, and she turned to enter them. Holding her firmly without, he hoped, making her feel trapped, he ran soothing touches down her back. She wasn't crying, but she was breathing raggedly, as if fighting off tears. "You're not angry with me, are you? Please don't be angry with me..."

"Of course I'm not angry. Not with you. I'm angry at them, for forcing you to this, but I understand why you did this. I'm just sorry you had to."

She pressed her face against his chest tightly, then leaned back, rubbing her eyes with the back of a pale hand. Oddly, only then did he fully realize she was naked. She seemed quite unselfconscious about it, and he remembered her comments about not having had body modesty before she was tortured.

"You must want something to eat," she said.

The idea of food galled him. "No, just more sleep. Are they likely to check you in the morning?”

She shook her head. “Not now. They know you had me once; since they think you smacked me around, they won’t care what you do to me tonight.”

That disturbed him terribly-- both her casual use of the expression "had", as if she were some sort of delicacy and not a person, and the fact that now the Metraxans thought he was the sort of man who beat women for pleasure. The fact that that made the Metraxans respect him more was even more disturbing, though it was the sort of effect he did have to try to pull off. "Then let's just go to bed and we'll just snore until morning. After that I have something for you."

"What?" Yan'net moved to sit next to him, her body pressed against his side. "Can't I just know now?"

He smiled and reached inside his uniform to retrieve the transponder. She frowned at it.

"What good will that do?"

Carefully, he outlined the entire plan, watching her listen closely. She didn't ask any questions, nor did he have to repeat anything, and he could easily see how much each word meant to her. When he was done, she gave him a synopsis to show she had it all straight, and then said, "If it will only stay in my body a couple of days, you're right. I shouldn't swallow it until morning."

She suddenly smiled a Q-like smile of pure delight. Picard couldn't help thinking it looked good on her, and smiled back.

"I'm just trying to figure out exactly what I want to say before I beam out of here," she told him, then laughed with a sort of tentative mischief that tore a little at his heart. "I should say something awful about you as well, to offset any suspicions."

Then she yawned.

"Sleep as well as you can, Yan'net," he said quietly. "I'll make sure I get you tomorrow night, and then the modifications to the transporters should be complete and we should be ready to get you out of here."

She nodded and lay back down, yawning again. "I'm surprised Data and LaForge need so long to fix things up."

"The transporter can have nothing remotely like a Starfleet energy signature, so they're basically having to build a new transporter from scratch."

She smiled and closed her eyes, all but nodding off in front of him. "Of course, mon capitaine. Your crew is excellent as always. Bravo for them and hear, hear."

Picard watched her a moment longer, then decided that, Q or not, she had earned herself the final word every once in a while. He took off a bit more of his uniform and got under the covers, telling himself quite firmly he was not the least aroused by being in bed with a beautiful naked woman.

Picard knew it was very late -- or more accurately very, very early, when he awoke to find Yan'net curled against and around him. Her pale body felt as warm and light as a child's security blanket, and he wondered with a very private smile how Q would react if he told her that he found her presence comforting. Before this unexpected twist in his mission, he'd been spending time in bed alone for some time now. It was, of course, inappropriate and ridiculous to feel this way, but he was a man and for the moment Yan'net was a beautiful woman sleeping in his arms.

She moved in her sleep, just slightly, a noise like a very quiet moan of discomfort escaping her, and he checked to make sure none of her bruises was being touched by his own body.

She'd been alone. So desperate to be given to him for the night that she'd thrown herself against the wall -- more than once, by the look of things. If he thought about that long enough, he'd lose more than a little of the objectivity he needed to see this all through.

Think of Q putting machine guns to Data, Tasha, and Deanna as he waited for Picard to say that he was guilty of Humanity's crimes. Think of him almost killing Tasha when she objected to his mock trial. Think of him trying to tempt Riker. Think of the Borg, dammit, and those eighteen lost lives. Those people, his crew, were now either dead or walking around as part of the Collective.

And Humanity had been saved. That "kick the their complacency" had been just what they needed.

"On the table," Yan'net said clearly, yet obviously in her sleep. Her arms were a bit tighter around him, and he wondered if she were having a nightmare. It seemed likely. Her breathing was just a bit shallow. He didn't want to wake her, but he doubted caressing her as she slept would be a good idea. She'd doubtlessly been mauled so often since coming here...so many unwanted hands and claws.

But then he remembered something she'd said about her back, about how "they" never touched her there, and, very slowly and softly, he moved his hands around until they could trail a long, gentle caress up and down, from the tops of her shoulders to her hips, and back again.

Almost instantly, she calmed, her breathing once again slow and deep. He kept touching her, soothing her, long after she'd obviously gone back into deep sleep, smiling at himself, again feeling comforted as well.


The morning came quickly after that, and he awoke feeling quite refreshed, considering.

And then he frowned, realizing he'd reached across an empty bed. Yan'net wasn't there.

"You're awake!"

He looked up to see her, and almost laughed. Yan'net was wearing her servile sex-kitten outfit, her breasts pushed up, her lovely body displayed and emphasized along each curve, but her hair was messed and her eyes still looked a little hazy from sleep. Instead of looking debauched, she somehow looked, despite her height, like a little girl playing dress-up in clothes too old and certainly too cynical for her. Her smile, though framed by the bruises on her face that twisted Picard's stomach slightly, was almost obscenely child-like.

"Good morning," he said levelly, forcing a friendly and non-threatening smile.

"I got you some breakfast."

He rose carefully from the bed, his empathy for her battered condition making him feel as though his own body should be sore. His uniform was wrinkled and a little hot, but he walked as though completely comfortable with the entire scenario to the side table she was somewhat nervously standing by. He smiled at her again and looked at the food: coffee, cream, croissants, butter, jam.

He frowned before he caught himself. "How did you know what I like?"

Yan'net looked simultaneously smug and worried. "Well, you know..."

Picard forced his polite smile again. "It's perfect. Lovely. I really am quite famished." He looked at the tray again. "Where's yours?"

Yan'net's sigh was a trifle annoyed. "I'm a slave, remember, Jean-Luc?"

Picard found a genuine smile on his lips. It really was amazing how much of "herself" she could still find after so long in this place.

"Well," he replied blandly, "as my slave, perhaps you would be good enough to tell the slot in the wall that I hate to eat alone."

Picard actually found himself enjoying the war of emotions over Yan'net's face. He could tell that part of her wanted to tell him to go to hell, and that another part was touched that he cared whether she ate or not.

"I don't like croissants," she said finally.

"Well, what would you like?"

A strange expression came to rest on her features, almost defiant. "A chocolate sundae."

Picard shrugged and poured himself some coffee, turning slightly to give her a little privacy as he responded, "Why don't you order extra fudge? Perhaps they'll think I want to lick it off you."

Yan'net moved off to the wall slot without comment, and he ate half a croissant standing up before he realized how hungry he was. He took the tray to the elaborate dining table and sat quietly, enjoying what would doubtlessly be the last of his calm moments before the true trials of the day began.

The Metraxans. How could they live like this? How could they exist in a society that enslaved others and then treated them this way?

And even more troubling, how could Starfleet deal with such people without becoming tainted by that staggering lack of a moral center? Could they truly deal with slave-traders and not be, on some level, condoning slave-trade?

No, they couldn't. If Yan'net really could find them another source for the vionara, he would petition Starfleet to cut off all but the most formal of diplomatic ties with the Metraxans.

Yan'net sat with him at the table, setting down a gently melting chocolate sundae in a long glass and then staring at it as though it might leap at her neck.

"Isn't it what you wanted?"

She looked at him. "Yes, but it's very...sweet. Somehow, I didn't think it would scrape the back of my throat like that." She looked at the dessert speculatively. "Perhaps it's not the real thing. Maybe it's some sort of sexual substitute."

Picard reached over with his coffee spoon and dug up a small portion. He was aware of her intense gaze upon him, and suddenly the attempt to be friendly and casual while reassuring her that she wasn't being punished in some strange new fashion became slightly sensual. He found himself savoring the sensations on his tongue: cold vanilla and hot chocolate, thinning cream and thickening fudge.

"You could lick it off me," Yan'net said, her voice deep and a little husky. "If you wanted to."

Picard stamped on his anger, smiled tightly and stood, brushing some crumbs off his uniform. He checked the chronometer on the wall and knew he had time for a very quick shower before he had to leave. He used the mundane thought to steady himself, then looked down at Yan'net gently. "There's no need for that, Yan'net...Q...whatever you want me to call you. I'm going to get you out of here. I don't need to be...entertained or given inducements."

Her eyes went to her sundae, and she didn't answer.

"I'm going to shower," he said. "Then I think it would be a good idea for you to swallow the transponder."

"All right, Picard."

He wanted to say more, to make the moment of camaraderie they'd almost been sharing come back, but then he shook himself and headed for the shower. He needed to turn her over to Troi as soon as he could. The counselor would be able to help her. He wasn't trained in any sort of therapy, only in command and diplomacy.

The shower was quick and thorough, and a wall laundry unit took care of his clothes as he bathed. When he emerged he saw Yan'net sitting at the foot of the bed, her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her fists. He walked to her and held out the transponder. She took it and held it tightly, then swallowed it without water, wincing a bit as it doubtlessly scraped her throat more roughly than the sugar from the sundae had.

"Just another day," he said. "And my people will get you out of here."

She shuddered and stared at the floor. "I can't think about it. If I think about it I'll go crazy." Abruptly, she lay back on the bed, her arms stretched out over her head. "I'm not going to think about anything. I'm just going to report in, let them give me the once-over and lock me up. It's a day like any other." Her brown eyes shifted and met his. "And I'll see you tonight."

"Rest if you can," he said, for something to say, then nodded, tugged his uniform down a bit, and left.


The aide from the day before was waiting for him at the end of the hall, though the man pretended he was simply heading along the same direction.

"Good morning," Picard said neutrally, trying to ignore the two pairs of ears attached to Worf's security detail. He really did not want to brag about his manly sexual exploits in front of his own crew.

"You found her acceptable?"

He curled his lip cruelly, imagining the aide being pummeled by Nausicaans. "Quite acceptable."

The aide laughed, then leaned towards him somewhat conspiratorially. "Ga would like to see you before the formal meetings, Picard, in private."

Picard nodded and smoothly accepted the aide's change of direction, walking with him down a narrow but well-lit corridor. He had no idea whether Ga wanted to talk about vionara trade or Yan'net, but either way he was equally curious.

They wound up in a large room designed to showcase power and status. It was also garish with a jarring color scheme. As his guards took their stations at the door, Picard found himself longing for the muted lighting and functional furniture of his own office. Ga's hardwood desk was big enough to hold a double-mattress, and completely empty of all but the body of a short, reclining, naked slave girl with white hair, big breasts and dead eyes. She wasn't touching Ga, merely lying there on display for him. Picard's stomach turned.

Ga himself was smoking his noisome "cigar" and swaggering a bit as he rose from behind the desk and walked towards him.

"I've been thinking about the Federation's offers for the vionara," he said, "and I've been thinking about a man who talks so peacefully and yet knows how to treat a woman -- a woman who's been a handful of trouble at times, as well -- and I've thought maybe you were a man I could do real business with."

Picard smiled and felt his face creak in protest. Long hours of smiling stretched before him with all the prospect of joy that could be found in the anonymous flesh of the slave girl who stared, unseeing, at the high white ceiling.

"Real business," he said in the tone he knew Ga wanted, "is why I'm here."

Ga laughed.

Their private meeting took up the first of the day's long hours. Picard was able to include Riker and finally his entire away team in the meeting, while the other delegates were each given a guided tour of the vionara fields and several industrial plants instead. Ga's prices were high, but he was also willing to allow the sort of inspections and military presence the Federation would need to ensure they were getting their money's worth. Ga pushed on every point, but stopped just short of unacceptable. He slapped the slave girl and threw her into the hall when she didn't respond instantly to his call for another "cigar," and Picard felt the deal beginning to close around his neck, squeezing him and the Federation in a noose that would hang them all where the universe could see.

After the private meeting, they separated, agreeing to meet with no mention of their preliminary contracts, and while he was alone for a moment with just his people, walking down a hallway to another courtyard and then another hallway which led to the main conference room, Picard let his disgust show with a few well-chosen words.

"I wish the Counselor were here," Worf growled in response. "I would like to know how many of the other delegates he has seen in this fashion."

"No offense, Worf," Riker said, "but I'm glad she's not here to see this place."

"I agree with both of you," Picard said. "But I think we can assume he's had at least some sort of 'special arrangement' with all of the guests by now. However, some of what he's offering is exclusive. He's been in enough interstellar contracts to know he can't get away with lying about that sort of thing. We may be in the best current position in the negotiations."

"Which means we will need to be careful not to betray our hand to the others." Worf suddenly made the Klingon version of a "face." "Bah! None of these people has any honor. That they could be handed something so precious as to force the Federation and the Empire to deal with them seems a trial to one's faith."

"A trial we need to win," Picard said grimly. "If we think dealing with these people is bad, wait until the Federation is without a source for vionara and the Tellaris Plague hits one of our colonies."

"The Ferengi would charge us the Earth and moon -- literally," Riker agreed, before they reached the final hallway and quieted.

Picard had hoped that the tensions between the delegates might make the main conference go by faster, but things seemed to go in an agony of slow motion. Everything seemed a little magnified, and he found himself starting at anything unexpected.

Only by mid-afternoon could he finally understand the true problem. The plan for getting Yan'net out of here relied on too many unknown factors. He had no idea what was happening to her now. What if she "cracked?" What if they examined her after all for signs of sexual abuse and, finding none, began to question her? She said they would "lock her up." Where? Would she hurt herself again somehow?

Picard knew the more disgusted with the Metraxans he became, the more he wanted Yan'net out of there both for her own safety and for the possibilities she represented for a different source for the vionara. Anything, even a planet of bitter women transported at the whim of Q, would be better than this place.

By the evening, Picard was ready to throttle someone. The Cardassians had sensed their position was getting weaker, and everyone else was growing ever more certain that some of their promises were dubiously assured. Ga was beginning to interrupt the Cardassian delegates when it was their turn to speak, and seemed more interested in exchanging a retinue of dirty jokes with the head Ferengi delegate than in providing actual figures.

Finally, when even Data's patience seemed to be wearing away, Ga called an end to the talks and stalked off with a slave girl on each arm. The delegates nodded curtly to each other, and everyone headed off to their rooms.

Yan'net wanted to jump out of her skin.

She had napped, earlier, and spent a good bit of time putting on makeup, but the past several hours had dragged by like an aeon, and unlike everyone else here she actually knew exactly how long an aeon took to drag by. She needed to see Picard. Needed to touch him, to feel his arms around her. To be reassured that yes, she was getting out of here tomorrow. That it was going to be over.

The slave quarters had emptied out right around lunch break, and then again at afternoon workday's end, when the men who worked for the government bureaucracy here in the palace called in for a quick fuck like they'd have called in for Tal'kai food. Yesterday the fact that she didn't have to answer the call, that she might well get out of here without ever being raped again, had delighted her, once she'd gotten over her pain at what had happened to Fru. Today the absence of the other women was a pain in itself. They distracted her from her racing thoughts, from her desperate need. She paced frantically up and down the rows, biting her fingernails to the quick.

The other women working the conference were here, of course, except for Fru, who hadn't been back to the slave quarters since Ga had taken her, and Kaelan, who was still in medward. Livte and Asatet had taken Fru and Kaelen's places with the Klingon and the Cardassian respectively, and had managed to survive. Anas was gloating over having gotten a gold necklace last night, which was valuable on Metraxia but Yan'net happened to know any half-decent replicator could whip one up in a matter of seconds; to the Ferengi it was probably, literally, nothing worth mentioning. The others-- Livte, Asatet, and the ones who were assigned to Metraxan members of the conference-- were too busy glaring at Anas to entertain Yan'net. She wanted to throw things. She wanted to batter her head into the wall again. She wanted to fuck Jean-Luc's brains out and her own as well.

Finally, after far too long, the signal rang to allow them out. The guards didn't bother to escort them this time-- they'd be checkpointed as they reached the cameras outside the delegates' quarters, and if they took too long about getting there their implants would activate automatically. Men, President Ga had said, liked to feel as if their whores were obedient enough to show up on time without being dragged there by prison guards. So they were free to go, their men even now headed toward their rooms.

Yan'net ran.

If anyone had asked her, she'd have told them she was afraid of what Picard would do to her if she was later than he liked. No one asked-- the sight of a sex slave running toward the visiting dignitaries' quarters was simply assumed to be something one of the men had demanded of her, since which of them would be that eager otherwise? She had to see him, had to touch him. Needed to hear his voice.

Up three floors, and then she was on the floor where Picard's quarters were, but in the wrong wing-- she was still in the area with the conference rooms. She was out of breath-- running wasn't exactly a pastime she was allowed to engage in frequently here, although the women were required to exercise to maintain their shape if they wanted to get enough food to eat-- so she slowed to a walk. Each of the visiting dignitaries was on a different floor of the diplomat's wing, which wasn't very far from the elevator from the slave quarters. Just another corner to turn, and a set of doors to go through, and then she'd be right there in the hallway with Microbrain and Bearded Billy. She grinned. Who would have ever thought she'd be so happy to see them?

She turned the corner, and hard hands grabbed her and pulled her into a conference room. Long training at not being allowed to fight back against anyone who wanted to do anything to her kept her from struggling for the only moment where it might have done any good. As soon as she was in the conference room, she managed to twist her head around to see her attacker.

Gul Tarket.

Oh no no no.

"Hello, there, Yan'net," he said in that silky horrible voice. "Off to see the Federation captain?"

"Please, please, sir, you're not allowed to have me," she gasped, trying to free herself from his grasp. His hands were running all over her body, playing with her hair, fondling her breasts. "I'm assigned. You have a woman assigned to you."

"Ah, yes, but I want you. So sharp, so fiery. Is it really true that the oh-so-noble and virtuous Captain Picard actually hit you?" She elbowed at him; he pulled her in closer, one arm around her middle and another slipping down into her panties, roughly groping her down there.

"You aren't supposed to have me, sir! Please, it's considered a terrible insult to a guest if his woman is taken by anyone else. If President Ga found out you'd insulted Captain Picard in such a way, he'd consider it a blow to his own honor-- please stop!"

"And if President Ga found out that I'd had you without Picard's permission, what would he do to you?" he asked, breathing in her ear. "I questioned Kaelan at length about the President's practices with the diplomatic whores. He'd torture you because I'd had you, wouldn't he?"

It was true, of course. And it'd be a lot worse than what Ga had done to her yesterday-- half a minute with the box was almost nothing; if she violated Ga's honor by letting a man other than the one he'd given her to have her, it'd be as bad as if she had refused a man she had been given to. Half an hour with the box, or more. Which meant that if she couldn't break free of Tarket, and he raped her, she wouldn't dare tell anyone. Even Picard, for fear his outrage would make him slip. Or for fear that he wouldn't want to touch her anymore. She threw herself forward, kicking back, an elbow to his groin, and almost broke free. But he didn't react to the elbow in the groin the way she'd expected. Too late, she remembered that Cardassian genitals were protected behind natural body armor. "Please, please let me go," she begged. "I won't tell anyone you tried to have me. But if you do, Picard might find out, and then President Ga would. You wouldn't risk being thrown off the planet, losing everything you've worked for, for one woman, would you?"

He spun her around and shoved her against the wall of the conference room, pinning her by the arms. "But you're Picard's woman," he said. "Tell me, how did he fuck you? Did he have you on the floor? On the bed? Or up against the wall, like this? Or did he not have you at all? Was he even man enough to take you once?"

"There are monitors in the conference rooms!" she cried. She tried to free herself, but hadn't anywhere near the Cardassian's strength. He held her in place without difficulty.

"Oh, no, there aren't. I've already had the monitors in here disabled, sweet." He used his teeth to undo the tie between her breasts, pulling away her bra, and began biting and sucking at them once they were exposed.

Yan'net moaned and sagged back against the wall in defeat. She was going to be raped. She ought to be used to this, ought to be totally inured to it in fact. It had only happened, what, nearly every day for three years now? But she'd thought she was done with this. She'd thought she would be free, and never be raped again. She'd just learned what it meant to enjoy sex. And there was the fact that this man had hurt Kaelan so badly she might never fully recover. It was so unfair for this to happen now, just as she was almost to Jean-Luc, just as she was almost free.

"Oh, you're sweet," he murmured into her breasts. "Soft as a Bajoran. Picard must have loved you. Too soft himself for anything but a soft woman." He lifted his head, and lowered his face into hers, close enough to kiss. "Did he fuck that mouth, sweet? Did you suck him off?"

"Let me go, please," she pleaded.

His hands dug cruelly into her arms, so hard she thought he might break them. She screamed, but before the sound could more than barely begin to leave her throat, he covered her lips with his, thrusting his tongue into her mouth, scraping her lips with his teeth brutally. The pain in her arms eased off. "Tell me, whore, and I won't hurt you," he whispered harshly. "Scream again, and I'll bite your tongue out."

"Yes," she said, almost a sob. "Yes, I sucked him off. I'll do it for you too, but please, let me do it quickly. If I'm not to his room quickly he'll get upset, and if he has anyone search for me you're going to get caught." And if she wasn't at his room quickly, the implant would turn on automatically.

"What about your cunt, bitch? Did he fuck you here?" His arms dropped, releasing hers, but she was still pinned by the weight of his body. He untied her panties, forced her legs apart with a knee, and slid two hard fingers into her.

"Yes, yes. He loved every minute, said I was the best he'd ever had. I'll give it to you, just please, quickly..."

"Oh, I'll fuck you quick, sweet. You needn't worry there. You're so beautiful, it makes me nearly ready to come just thinking about fucking you. Did Picard have your ass?" The fingers he'd put in her before withdrew and entered her there, shoving painfully despite the lubricant from her vagina.

Yan'net gasped in pain. "No, no, he said I wasn't clean. Please, let me show you what I did for him--"

He grabbed her and threw her onto the conference table, face first. "No, I want what you didn't give him, sweet. I want to fuck Picard's woman where he's never fucked her."

Terrified, Yan'net tried to scoot forward on the table, to get her legs up onto it so she could swing them the other way, climb down and run. His hand landed hard on her back, shoving her down on the table. She'd thought what he'd want, judging from his obvious obsession with having the same woman Picard had had, was to have her the same way, and it was too late to lie now. "Sir, please! I'm not clean and I'm not prepared! Please don't! They'll know!"

"I think not, sweet. I've got a condom and a regenerator. Unless you tell them, no one will know."

A regenerator? What kind of sick bastard carried a regenerator with him when he wasn't a doctor? Had he used the regenerator on poor Kaelan, and still left her with injuries like that? Yan'net sobbed, terrified. His hands were grabbing her buttocks, spreading and digging into them. She kicked backward. He dragged her toward him, pulling her hips off the table, ignoring her kicking completely. One hand released her-- she could feel it fumbling at his crotch, which he had mostly pressed into her buttocks-- and then she was impaled. Fearing that he was telling the truth about biting out her tongue, she didn't scream. It was hardly the first time she'd been taken in the ass, but usually she'd managed to prepare ahead of time with lubricant and stretchers. She'd known Picard wouldn't ask that of her, so she hadn't prepared. The pain was horrible-- it'd been months since the last time she'd had anal sex with no preparation. She'd forgotten exactly how bad it could be. Unable to help herself, Yan'net cried brokenly from the pain and the terror. She could have endured this if she hadn't been so close to being free. If she hadn't had hope.

Desperately she tried to think of something else. This time, she actually had something pleasant to think about. She tried to block out the Cardassian raping her, tried to imagine Jean-Luc's mouth on hers, his hands on her breasts. Jean-Luc's smooth skin under her hands, his soft caresses. Gentle mouth between her legs. She relaxed despite herself, escaping into the memory. Jean-Luc could make this all go away. It wouldn't hurt anymore. He'd kiss her and make love to her and she'd blot out this bastard and all the other bastards. Her sobs quieted, the pain lessened. She wasn't there anymore, there wasn't a Cardassian brutalizing her body. She was in Jean-Luc's bed and she was sucking on him as he moaned and he was so beautiful and his skin so warm, so soft, so not the dead white of a typical Metraxan but rich and pink.

And then Tarket stopped, pulling out of her. "Delightful," he pronounced. "Simply delightful. I hope Picard appreciates what he's getting. I even thought you were beginning to enjoy yourself, at the end."

In fact she'd begun to feel a tingle of arousal, helping to drive out the pain, but it had had nothing to do with the Cardassian or the rape. She thought about telling him that yes, she'd started to enjoy herself because she'd started to fantasize about being with Picard, who was much better in bed, but thought better of it. She wasn't safe yet. So she only twisted her head around and glared at the Cardassian. "Are you done? Can I go to my assigned man?"

"Just a moment." He pushed something into her which hummed, and then burned. She recognized the sensation of a portable regenerator, and didn't scream. "There you go," he said, ruffling her hair as he pulled the regenerator back out. "No evidence of our little tryst. I'd get my clothes on quickly if I were you; Picard left the conference at the same time I did, so he's undoubtedly frantic with worry."

As he left, Yan'net scrambled to get her clothes back on-- fortunately there wasn't much of them. She took a quick glance at herself in the mirror-- all the conference rooms had mirrors, positioned so that the head of the table could see himself, and presumably be spared any faux pas like having food on his face-- checking to make sure that the makeup she'd put on to hide the bruises from yesterday wasn't obviously ruined. It wasn't. Sex slave makeup could stand up to a few brutal rapes. She forced that thought out of her head, concentrating on her appearance instead-- her hair was a wreck, nothing she could do about it, she hadn't brought a hairbrush, but she could adjust her clothes so there was no sign she'd been attacked-- and then ran out of the room, bolting toward Picard's quarters with desperate speed. The physical damage the rape had done was regenerated-- she could run as if it hadn't happened-- but the terror and humiliation still burned through her, driving her. She couldn't tell Jean-Luc this had happened, but she needed him to hold her, desperately.

Just outside his door, Picard paused and looked for Worf, who had gone on ahead to use the privacy of his rooms to contact the ship. The Klingon lieutenant met his eyes and shook his head just slightly, and Picard felt his tension winch tighter.

Trying to look just as he had on the two previous evenings, Picard walked through the doors to his rooms and closed them behind him.

Yan'net wasn't there.

Ice clenched around him, making him cold and light-headed. She wasn't there. Was she delayed, somehow? All the things he'd feared for her, all day, came flooding back. What if they'd found out about the plan and imprisoned her?

He sat on his bed, reviewing his notes from the conference, or pretending to. He didn't dare ask what had happened to her-- what if she was only running late for some reason, and if he pointed out her lateness to anyone official, she might be tortured for it? But he couldn't concentrate on the notes. He kept reading the same lines over and over again. Finally, frustrated, he got up and built a fire in the room's fireplace, just to give himself something to do.

As he sat in front of the fire, staring into the flames in the hope that the mindlessness of it could give him some peace, the door chimed. "Enter," he called, turning quickly.

It was her.

He breathed out in relief as he saw her, her chest heaving and her face flushed as if she'd been running. Her expression managed to be both blank and questioning at the same time.

He moved quickly towards her and spoke in low tones. "It's all arranged. We'll be getting you out in the morning, before they try to lock you up again."

Yan'net burst into tears.

Picard froze in mid-stride, then rushed awkwardly forward. He took her in his arms, realized she was shaking, and walked her carefully to the bed, where he sat her down and wrapped her in the bulky comforter, and took both it and her into his arms. Her loud sobs were muffled against his shoulder, and she shuddered with the force of holding back the hysteria he knew she must have been fighting all day.

A long, long time he held her, not trying to urge her into silence, not trying to hurry her, just keeping her close, smoothing a light touch sometimes through her hair.

"It's been so hard," she finally managed to say, her voice painfully rough. "All day, knowing...having hope. It's been so hard. Things I thought I had gotten used to, things I thought..."

"What happened?" he asked, steeling himself.

"Nothing important," she said, not looking at him. "The Cardassian delegate, Gul what's-his-name, grabbed me on the way here and wouldn't let me go until he'd felt me up. I tried to explain that you'd reserved me, and he called you names and said you probably hadn't touched me anyway. If he had had me, and Ga had found out, he'd have used it as an excuse to torture me."

If something like that could break her down so far, when she had to be so used to far worse than mere sexual harassment, then she truly had to be under enormous stress. Picard tried to speak and ended up burying his face in her neck, holding her tightly. She seemed confused by this at first, then simply held him back.

"We'll sleep," he said finally. "Perhaps some dinner first, then you can sleep and then we'll get you out of here. Counselor Troi and Dr. Crusher will be able to help you."

He was going to say more then, tell her about the conference and ask her more about the planet she had made when she was Q, but then he felt her lips lightly brush the sensitive area behind his ear, and he pulled back gently.

"I've told you, Yan'net. That isn't necessary. Good God, don't you want to be left alone?"

She looked at him, and he noticed that she'd done something to hide her bruises. Her hair was tousled, mussed as if she'd just woken recently, but it was clean and smelled faintly of vanilla and shone softly in the firelight. She really was incredibly beautiful. And staring at him as though she'd like to have him for dinner and dessert.

While he watched, mouth growing dry, she pushed the comforter down, and pulled her bra off with a single practiced motion. He saw again her pale breasts and the smooth, soft skin which covered her stomach. When she made to push the cover off her lap, he gently took her hands in his and tried to smile.

"Yan'net, I don't understand. I don't need you to perform for me. I'm going to get you out of here. Don't my promises mean anything to you?"

"No, I don't want to be left alone," she said, voice low and openly urgent. "I keep thinking of what it was like to be with you. I want to touch you all over and watch that thing you do with your face when you feel good. I keep thinking about you, on the bed, with me over you, the way you let me make you --"

She broke off as Picard stood and moved away. He began to think he understood this. Yan'net needed to assert some power here, and, having only sexual weapons at her disposal, was making use of them. He didn't feel like being her target, however, even if his body were responding to her on its own. He thought then of the moment she had described, when he'd been submitting himself to her will, begging her to take him in her mouth, and knew he was growing angry.

What "thing" did he do with his face, anyway?

"Yan'net," he said with quiet force, "I need some dinner and I'm sure you do as well. If you don't want to wear your usual attire, can't I order you something from the slot? I'll make it masculine, if you like, and they'll think it's for me." For the first time it occurred to him that he would have wanted sleepwear if she hadn't been with him. He stood before the simple processor now and studied the menu. Soon, he had a nourishing meal for two and two sets of comfortable pajamas of dark green silk. Yan'net said nothing as he handed the pants and top to her, and he returned on his own to the table to eat.

After a moment, she slid into the opposite chair, her slim body somewhat lost in the voluminous clothes, and ate some of her own dinner. Picard tried to relax and turn the silence into something comfortable, but Yan'net's tightly controlled little bites of the pasta-like food prevented it.

"Do you have any ideas on what system of government we might expect on this planet of yours?" he asked eventually. "Do you think the women will have made something similar to what they know here, or did they strike you as desirous of creating something altogether new?"

"So now that you know who I really am, or really was, you can't bring yourself to touch me anymore?"

Picard sighed and set down his utensil. "Yan'net, please understand. You don't have to act this way --"

"You mean I'm not allowed to act this way."

"If you're looking for physical comfort, I can hold you all night while you sleep, if you like. Did you think I wouldn't?"

For a bare second, a calculating look appeared in her intent brown eyes, then she smiled softly. "You're right. I feel a need for physical comfort. If you can stand touching me, though...how about a backrub?"

Picard smiled in relief. "Yes, of course. Let me take a shower, and then I'll give you a pleasant --"

"No. I mean I want to give you a backrub. You look like you could use one."

The captain hesitated, caught between caution and feeling overly paranoid. He remembered what she had said two nights ago, about wanting to use her skills on him, and he thought it much better that she practice her massage than...other things. Yes, he could submit to that and give her power without feeling too uncomfortable about it. And afterwards, he would have a perfect excuse to go to sleep. He smiled.

"Sounds lovely."

She smiled back, then helped him clear the table, which would have been pleasant enough, except that she did even that simple act in a servile rather than domestic fashion, rushing her movements as though afraid of his finding fault with her efficiency. He ran out of ideas on what to say to comfort or reassure her, and simply walked into the bathroom with his sleepwear in his hands.

It wasn't long before he'd returned, wearing only the silk pants to save himself the awkwardness of removing the top. Yan'net had tidied the bed and dimmed the lights, and now lay on the bed comfortably, the silk spilling out around her to enhance her curves quite artfully. Her could almost feel the heat from her intense gaze as it moved over his chest, but when she looked next into her eyes, she seemed quite relaxed.

"It's very thoughtful of you to do this," he said, frowning inwardly at his stilted phrasing. But, in truth, he was getting a little nervous. "I'm looking forward to a peaceful night's sleep."

"I imagine you're exhausted after dealing with Ga all day," she murmured.

"Not as exhausted as I imagine you must be after the sort of days you usually have."

She shrugged and moved back, inviting him to lay down beside her on the bed. "It doesn't matter anymore. My brave captain is going to rescue me in fine Human style."

He stretched out on his stomach, frowning outwardly now, uncertain why she was teasing him about something so important. But perhaps that was simply part of Q's style which was emerging as she grew more relaxed around him. He remembered with a twinge of returning anger Q standing on his bridge and tossing off the comment, "Oh, your kind is always suffering and dying." He'd thought that Yan'net's tenure here would have tempered that sort of behavior but...

"Ohhhh," he breathed, unable to restrain the noise as Yan'net's hands smoothed over his back and seemed immediately to find the worst knot in the muscles under his right shoulder blade. She kneaded the spot expertly, then moved out to find each sore, stiff, tight point and soothe the pressure efficiently away. He moaned very softly a few more times, reveling now in the steady drain of tension.

His moans grew louder when she moved up to his neck and shoulders. She dug almost painfully deep, and he felt his whole body tense and then release, seeming to melt just slightly into the mattress.

In a smooth motion that barely moved the bed, Yan'net straddled him, resting her light weight over his hips, and began to bear down on the most stubborn muscles and tendons. It all felt inexpressibly good, and Jean-Luc felt himself beginning to drift. He hoped absently that she would accept his falling asleep during the backrub as a compliment to her skills, but primarily he was drowning in the pleasure her hands were bringing him.

A light touch now along the back of his neck and then over his head, soothing stubborn tension hiding there, and then more touches, gentle, seeking, over his arms, and then down to his lower back. Picard was almost completely asleep when he felt her lifting up his side, and he rolled over compliantly onto his back.

The tops of his shoulders and the sides of his neck were rubbed from this new angle, and he grunted softly, contentedly. Her hands deftly slid over his chest, and then her fingertips twirled around his nipples before pinching them firmly. A very tiny shock went through him, his relaxed body carrying the sensation out to his fingers and toes. Abruptly he realized that she was still straddling him, and her hips were moving just slightly, sliding the warm silk between her legs over his quickly responsive groin.

He forced open his eyes, struggling against the weight of the relaxation her hands had wrought over him, and was staring directly at her perfect, icily pale breasts. Her nipples were hard, and even as he tried to tear his eyes away and think of some sort of protest, she was grinding herself down over his semi-erection and moaning, her fingers twisting his nipples and her head thrown back.

His hands came up from the bed, grasped her around her small waist, and then simply slid up without conscious orders from his brain to cup her breasts. So soft, so warm, like liquid ivory in his hands, their perfect weight, their incredibly sweet-looking nubs...

She bent down and he was easily able to capture her left nipple in his mouth, sucking and nibbling so gently...

"Yes, please," she gasped. "Jean-Luc...yes!"

He tried to remind himself why he didn't want to do this, but that was all gone now as her hands continued to glide over him, stopping constantly to pinch and caress every spot that made his body jerk and his blood simmer. She moved now until she was kissing him, deeply, hard and aggressive, growling in the back of her throat. He kissed her back with equal passion and reached a hand down to caress her hip through the silk. She shuddered and pressed herself against his now extremely hard cock, and suddenly he couldn't stand that there were barriers between them, however luxuriant. He rolled them over and stripped off his loose pants with one hand, nibbling carefully along her neck, listening for her reactions, and zeroing in on one spot at near the collarbone which made her arch and hiss in pleasure. Her own hands fumbled against him as she slid off her own pants, and he was almost bothered enough by the idea that she didn't usually have that much on when men were on top of her to regain his senses.

But then her legs had wrapped around him, and she was using the leverage to stroke his erection with her soft folds, and he groaned and shuddered and fought the urge to grab her and thrust inside. The tension of the day had become transformed into an overwhelming desire for release, and he remembered all too clearly her sweetness around him. This was going so fast and neither of them truly seemed to be in control. Instead, it seemed suddenly that they were competing to give to the other the most pleasure as quickly as they could, and he was biting along her shoulder and using one hand to caress her left breast as he slid his other hand smoothly into her light public hair and then deeper into the wet heat of her.

"That's right," she panted, her breath cooling the skin of his neck where her kisses had been a moment before. "Yes. You inside me. Please. That's what I want. That's all I want."

"Yan'net," he moaned. "Oh, God."

She spread her legs and pulled on his hips, and even while his fingers found her clitoris, hers found his penis and guided him inside her. He pushed in as gently as he could, then shouted in surprise as she rose her hips off the bed to drive him in harder. Instantly, he found a rhythm, and as he thrust her cries grew in volume and intensity. His own cries joined hers, and they were moving against each other now furiously.

Her back arched like a bow pulled back and then she screamed his name as she came, squeezing herself around him and urging out his own release. He resisted with everything he had, thrusting inside her sweet warmth again and again until she came a second time, her nails digging into his back as she screaming wordlessly, and he came now, tumbling into it blindly and held aloft a split-second before the fire engulfed him, contracted inside him, and then exploded, taking him completely.

He didn't pass out, but he fell asleep very quickly after that. Foggily, he thought that Yan’net might want to change the sheets again, then he was out.

Hours later, he heard something and woke up. He thought Yan'net was talking in her sleep again, and half-thought to comfort her, when he realized she was awake and speaking, she must have thought, to him as he slept.

"So I know I don't deserve it, but please trust me, Jean-Luc. I'll do my best for you, even if that doesn't mean very much any more."

He waited, keeping his breathing even and slow, but she did nothing more than press herself against him and eventually fall into a fitful sleep.

He couldn't be too surprised that he did, in fact, want to trust Yan'net. He couldn't even blame her for her physical seduction of him last night. He had, after all, been tortured himself at Cardassian hands, and knew what it was like to crave any act of kindness, to be allowed any sort of solace or comfort.

When they got her to the Enterprise she wouldn’t cling to him so much, and, he admitted, when he didn't actually have to sleep in the same bed with her, he could resist her better. For his sake as well as hers, it was a good thing they would be getting her out of here in the morning.


The early morning light filtered into the room. The gray light touched the sleepers pitilessly, picking out the rumpled bed coverings, and the abandoned forms of the two lovers.

The light woke Picard. He, too, saw the tawdry appearance of the room. What had he done? The naked body lying next to his answered that question. His resolution not to further compromise his principles failed him, and more importantly, also failed Yan'net. His attraction to her did not excuse his behavior. Last night had not been about protecting Yan'net from the Metraxans, but rather about pity for her situation. And, more telling, about his sexual needs. That disgusted Picard. He would resist such impulses after he and his crew rescued Yan'net. Then, in a more normal situation, Yan'net could be properly cared for by the people trained to do so. Deanna suited Yan'net more at this particular stage. He knew he represented the gender who had most harmed Yan'net; a female would be more appropriate.

His hand caressed Yan'net's silky flesh. She startled under his hand. "Hmm..." The gentle sound was not reflected in the tenseness of her body. She reached back and stroked his body with a practiced hand. The hand found his most sensitive region, and began softly feeling him with her fingertips.

The sensation struck Picard as highly inappropriate and highly arousing as well. A moan escaped, as his body complimented her performance. "Please, Yan'net, stop, you don't have to do that."

Her hand tightened, almost involuntarily. Picard moaned again. He did not want this, he did not want this. Forcibly, he brought his mind back to the current situation. He took her wrist in his hand.

She froze.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Picard said. "I just don't want you to do that."

"Let go of my wrist, please..."

He released her. "You will be free. You don't need to placate me, or anyone else. In a few hours, this will be over. You will be safe. Don't you believe that?"

She rolled over, looking shyly at him. "I want to. I keep trying. But the only thing I can really believe in is the constancy of pain."

"I understand."

"That was nicely put, but I think you're lying. I wouldn't wish this experience on anyone." A smile touched her lips. "Except perhaps the people who did this to me," she said with a trace of Q's old mischievousness.

"Revenge solves nothing."

"As I am the living example, I won't argue."

Picard arose from the bed. Despite Yan'net's imminent rescue, this morning needed to be played perfectly. When they left this room, he couldn't concern himself with Yan'net any longer. His task would become that of persuading the Metraxans that, despite the disappearance of the woman assigned to him, the Federation still held concerns about the Metraxan supply of vionara. And, more importantly, that the Federation representative was not involved in that disappearance. That, he thought, he could manage fairly easily-- he could imagine the outrage he'd have really felt if someone had accused him of doing something Q was responsible for, without difficulty, and didn't expect to have problems channeling that.

He felt Yan'net looking at him, and ignored it. They both needed to dress for the morning.

She moved when he set their breakfast on the table. "Do you have to be so normal? It's annoying."

"What did you expect?" Picard said calmly. "I have a meeting to attend this morning. Refreshments beforehand are important, otherwise low blood sugar might cause me to miss a crucial piece of data. Not all that goes on in negotiations involves written agreements. Most of a negotiation revolves around nonverbal cues. You should eat, too. It may be a long morning for you. I don't think it would be appropriate for you to faint while giving your departure speech."

"There is that." Yan'net disappeared into the bathroom, and returned in a few moments, looking refreshed. She sat at the table and began eating as though the conversation of a few moments ago had never occurred.

Picard studied her as she ate, wondering again how it was that Q turned into this vulnerable, yet curiously strong woman. He would never have expected either courage or subservience from Q, but he'd seen both in Yan'net; the courage appealed to him, even as her servitude appalled him. Quickly, he dropped the thought. After this morning, Yan'net would be a free person and he would give her the distance she needed to recover from this horrific experience.

They sat at the table for a long time after the meal had been consumed. It seemed that neither wished to stand up and end the moment. Their silence lingered around them, touching their eyes, as their eyes carefully avoided the other.

The time forced Picard to leave. He dressed himself, then waited for Yan'net. She again wore the demeaning costume that the Metraxans made their sex slaves wear. Her eyes, now on him, pleaded, even as she held her body aloof.

He found himself reassuring her. "It'll only be for a short while. Some time in the next few hours, you will be safely aboard the Enterprise. Only a little longer to pretend, then you'll be safe."

"I know," she said, her tone soft, almost inaudible. "But it still seems a dream, and I'm afraid that it won't happen. That you'll go through that door, and then I'll never see you again. And this will have only been a nightmare, and the worst kind of nightmare at that. You'll have appeared to show me when I most long for, and then it will be denied. And there'll be no rescue, none at all."

Despite his best intentions not to touch her again, Picard gathered her into his arms. She nestled there, her shoulders shaking with unshed tears. "Shh, I promise you we'll do our best. The Metraxans will never suspect a thing."

"But what if the Continuum continues their support of my punishment? You wouldn't be able to do anything then."

"We can't listen to 'what-ifs'. What we can do is our best. Look to the positive, not the negative. You've had enough of the negative."

She looked up at him, her eyes luminous with the tears. "Damn your speeches, mon capitaine. This is not the time for hope."

"Au contraire," Picard said, stroking an errant lock of hair that had fallen out of place. "This is precisely the time for hope."

He resisted the urge to kiss her.

They left the suite together. At the usual place, they met the pair of guards who would escort Yan'net back to be examined and placed wherever it was that sex slaves went during the day.

Picard shuddered inwardly, but reminded himself that she would soon never have to suffer those torments again. He schooled his expression to impassivity, but could not help a slight curve in his lips. Only a short time, and she would fear no more. He was certain of that.


She was to be free.

Well, as free as she could get in a limited mortal body, but she'd take what she could get. There had been a time when simply being mortal was enough of a horror that the only way out he'd seen was death, but that had been a long time ago. Now she had to live, if only to find a way to avenge herself on the Metraxans. Destroying their economy by engineering for the Federation to drop them as trading partners would do for starters. But even the prospect of getting vengeance on Ga by giving Picard an alternate source for the vionara extract paled in comparison to simply the notion of being free. No more beatings, no more box. No more men, except perhaps for Jean-Luc, if she could make him want her, and what by all that was eternal had she been doing for the past three years if not learning to make men want her?

All morning she'd seesawed between despair and elation. With Jean-Luc, it had seemed impossible that it would work. Something horrible would happen. And all he'd done was promise her, reassure her with the same promises as before in fact, and somehow that had thrown the switch in her head and now she could barely keep herself from skipping and laughing. He had promised her, and Jean-Luc Picard kept his promises. She would be free.

Her mind raced as she walked between the guards. Calm, calm. She'd learned so well to mask misery, to seem wholly unconcerned with the torments she suffered every night. The guards had learned the hard way not to taunt her. She never dared actively disobey them, since they did have leave to beat her for being disobedient or "uppity," but she could, and did, flaunt her sexuality at them and subtly taunt them with what they could not have. This, she had found, enraged them, and yet if they beat her too much they risked damaging her and losing their jobs, and if they raped her they would lose their jobs. Ga didn't tolerate mere guardsmen availing themselves of his perks. Other slave women might fear such a thing because of the loss of status it would bring-- they would generally be thrown out of the diplomatic corps, sent to the state-run brothels to serve ordinary men instead of government officials-- but Yan'net didn't care.

If they tried to make her life difficult she could redouble it on them, sneering and taunting their masculinity with her body, making them feel like insects unworthy of her, and when some of them lost control and raped her to "teach her her place", they lost their jobs as well. It was a tiny power, nothing at all in comparison to what she'd once held, a power that could hardly be exercised without risking herself, but it was something and she'd used it many times in the past to mask the pain of what Ga or her latest "client" had done the previous night. Now she had the opposite problem. She had to hide the fact that she was half-delirious with excitement, and if she didn't taunt them, they might see through her facade, might realize how happy she was. But if she did, she ran the risk of being thrown down on the floor here and raped, and she couldn't bear the thought of that again. Not after yesterday. Not so close to freedom. Not after Jean-Luc. So she had to be calm. She had to stare at the floor, let her eyes unfocus and be dull, let herself stumble occasionally as if with exhaustion or pain. Even though she wanted to dance, she wanted to scream, to run through the halls shouting in delight. After today, she'd be free.

Did you hear that? Did you? Have you decided I've had enough, or were you overruled? There's nothing you can do about it now without intervening, and you were only allowed to do that once, to bring me here. They won't let you do anything more to me, you know that. Did you allow this to happen, or were you blindsided? She had to keep the smile off her face. I hope you weren't paying attention. I hope this caught you by surprise, I truly do. Because this could only be better if it thwarts what you wanted for me. I hope you hate me every bit as much as you always did and you're seething with fury because you didn't see this coming and now the Continuum won't let you stop it.

At the door to the cell block, they were met by another guard. "You got Yan'net there?"

"The bitch in person." One of her guards shoved her slightly, making her stumble. "Back to lockup. Why? You got orders?"

"Yeah." The new guard grinned broadly. "From Mr. President himself. Take her down to Debrief."

Oh, for the love of everything. Yan'net rolled her eyes. "I've reported everything Picard told me, sir," she said, using deferential language but with a tone that was anything but. "I'm afraid I can't help it if he's not very talkative in bed. Some men do have better things to do in bed than talk, although I can see why Mr. President might not realize that."

"That so?" The guard's grin grew wider, and Yan'net had the sudden horrible sinking sensation that he was laughing at her. What was this about? Was Ga unsatisfied with how little information she'd made up to give him about Picard, and using it as an excuse to punish her? Not that Ga needed to be all that creative in finding excuses, but if he intended to use the resources of Debrief rather than simply taking her to bed and beating her black and blue, this was going to be bad.

There was no point in pleading with this guard, or the two men escorting her-- they wouldn't have the power to change her situation in any way. She'd save it for when she got to Debrief. If Ga just wanted more information about Picard, she'd just make more things up, and make it look like she'd been more afraid of what Picard would do to her if she told than what Ga would do to her. That would impress him and make Picard's job negotiating with him much easier. She'd have to endure some pain to pull it off believably, but things couldn't possibly get too bad-- the Enterprise was going to beam her out today.

Hmm. Did transporters work through phaser bombardment shielding? They must, mustn't they? Debrief was down in the protected area, deep in the sub-sub-basement of the presidential palace, where the president would flee if there was ever a coup, but as far as she knew, the phaser shielding was made of ultra-dense metal and not a force field. So the transporter would work down there, wouldn't it?

She didn't know. She had no idea what Federation technology was capable of. It was superior to Metraxan, though, and that would have to be enough. That or answering the questions quickly and getting out of Debrief before the Enterprise was ready to pull her out.

They reached Debrief-- the third guard following them, for some unknown reason. She kept her head down, kept her breathing even. No need to be scared. The Enterprise would get her out of here before anything too bad could happen. When she caught a glimpse of the third guard behind her in her peripheral vision, he was leering at her. That was bad. But Jean-Luc was going to get her out of here. They simply couldn't do anything all that bad to her in a short amount of time. She'd endure, whatever it was.

Then they reached their destination, one of the interrogation cells. Yan'net saw the table, and stopped breathing.

If she'd seen it in her immortal, omnipotent form, she would have considered it nothing, hardly a sophisticated implement of torture. It was simply a padded table, about a meter in height, whose legs extended up another two meters from that, connected at that height by crossbars for stability. There were shackles and chains connected to various places on the table, including the upper corners at the table's foot. It would have meant nothing, except that she'd been chained up on that table before.

When she'd first come here, when Ga had learned she was powerless, he'd had her locked in one of the guest suites and then raped her, taking this body's physical virginity and making her think she would die from the pain of it. She'd been mortal only the day on the Enterprise by then-- she had very little understanding of pain at all, let alone severe pain. But when she hadn't died, rage at this mistreatment had gotten the upper hand in her, and so when Ga tried to force her to perform oral sex, she bit him, and ran. Unfortunately the door to the suite had been locked. There'd been nowhere to go, nowhere to escape to, and when Ga had recovered he'd methodically beaten her senseless while she screamed and tried to flee.

She'd lost consciousness, and awoken strapped to this table, probably in Debrief although she'd never known exactly where, with a ring gag in her mouth preventing her from biting again or making sarcastic comments. And for a period that had seemed like aeons, and even objectively had to have been at least a day, maybe more, Ga had let what seemed to be every man who worked in the building have her, in every orifice that could accommodate them. She hadn't understood hunger, or exhaustion, or the things a mortal mind could do when faced with overwhelming pain. She hadn't known why she was growing weaker and weaker, why she kept losing consciousness and then awakening again to fresh agonies, why it hurt like she was being ripped apart and yet she didn't die.

Now she knew. Now she'd endured starvation, the neurostimulator, Ga's games, the pain of her own suicide attempts. Now she was so inured to rape that she'd put up with it simply to take out her rage on someone else. It didn't, however, change the fact that that table frightened her more than about anything else she could have seen in this room.

She bolted. She couldn't help it-- the fear had her completely, and she might have resigned herself to it, might have dully accepted the punishment coming to her if it hadn't been for Jean-Luc making her hope, making her think she'd never have to service another man and now this. No. The guards hadn't expected it-- most of the slaves were dully resigned, or would cry, or plead for mercy. Running wasn't something they usually did.

This, of course, was because running didn't do any good. The pain from the box seared through Yan'net's neck, blotting the world. Her fear was so terrible she kept going, stumbling, for a few steps anyway before the pain had everything and her muscles locked, toppling her to the floor. She screamed and thrashed, digging fingernails into her neck, and was only distantly aware of the men lifting her, positioning her, shackling her legs apart to the high bars around the table and her arms back over her head. Then the pain stopped. Through tear-blurred eyes she could see a man in the uniform of an interrogator, standing over her, holding the box.

"Oh yeah. I see what you tagged along for, Kunian," one of her guards said.

The interrogator smiled. "Ropar. Go get a few of your friends. Mr. President says he'd like somewhere between six to ten men to soften her up some before the questioning starts, and from what I hear, there should be no shortage of men who want at Yan'net."

"Fuck, yeah, sir. I'll go get a few of the men. They'll think the Cunt Fairy's come down to grant them wishes," the man said with a grin in his voice.

"Please," Yan'net said, trying desperately not to sob. "Please, what have I done? I haven't done anything, I told the President everything I was able to learn about Picard. I wasn't holding out, please, I've done nothing..."

The interrogator slapped her face, and took a ring gag off a small cart. "If you can't be bothered to tell the truth, bitch, perhaps I shouldn't let you speak in your defense at all."

They knew. Oh Continuum above, they knew. But she knew this trick, and she wasn't falling for it. Mortals, when confronted with an interrogator who claimed to know they were lying, would often babble everything they might have done in an attempt to justify it, to escape or lighten punishment, sometimes even in the twisted belief that because authority disapproved of them for doing it, it was morally wrong and they should confess for the sake of their peace of mind. And that way, the interrogators often came away with much more information than if they'd asked leading questions. Yan'net had never faced interrogation before-- torture and degradation aplenty, but never for the purpose of gathering information, just to break her to obedience or to punish her or because they felt like it-- but she had observed the darkness in mortals' souls for millions of years. She understood interrogations.

And she understood that what they were threatening her with was in some ways better for her cause than if they'd swung right into the questioning. If they were going to waste an hour or three "softening her up", like they had the first time for so many hours, that was time they wouldn't actually be questioning her. The ring gag indicated that. She wouldn't have an opportunity to inadvertently betray Jean-Luc's plans. And Jean-Luc would get her out of here before the real questioning started, perhaps even before they were done with their fun. And she could endure.

The first time she'd faced this torture, she hadn't fully grasped the idea of being able to feel pain, let alone what they were doing to her. But, to borrow from Jean-Luc's mythology, she was no longer a naive angel, freshly fallen and new to the worldly world; now she was a succubus hardened in the pits of Hell, and nothing they'd do to her would be different from what Ga did on at least a weekly basis, except in degree. There'd be some beating, some of the box, a lot of rape. Nothing new. Nothing she couldn't endure.

She told herself this, but it didn't stop her from clenching her teeth when the interrogator tried to put the gag in, or keeping her teeth clenched through her screaming when he turned on the box. When he released the box, she pleaded. Being denied the ability to speak, even if there was nothing she wanted to say, was a torment in itself. "Please, sir," she said through clenched teeth. "I won't bite anymore. I've learned my lesson. You don't need the gag, I can make it better for them if you don't gag me, please..."

"No one trusts you, Yan'net. Now, open your mouth and take it, or get five minutes of box."

No choice. She opened her mouth, and he hooked the gag in, forcing her mouth to remain open. Oh by all that lasted, she hated this. Quite aside from the fact that she'd be able to do nothing to control the degree of penetration and keep from gagging with her mouth held open like this, and even setting aside that it deprived her of words, the only weapon she had, it made her drool like a hydroencephalic idiot. She didn't want Jean-Luc to see her like that if he beamed her out of here. On the other hand it would keep her from breaking down and confessing things. Maybe it was safer this way.

The guard who'd originally given her guards the orders walked up to the foot of the table, pulling her hips slightly off the edge and undoing her panties. Endure. She knew, with a sick sense of fear, that she'd pay now for all the times she'd taunted the guards. Now that Ga had given them permission to have her, in order to punish her, they'd only be too eager to rape her as brutally as they could manage.

But it was nothing Ga himself hadn't done to her, nothing his cronies who'd suffered her little trick hadn't done to her. Nothing a hundred other men hadn't done, except perhaps in degree. She gasped as the guard rammed into her, but didn't cry out. Endure. She would endure, and Jean-Luc would save her, and all this would be over. In just a while. Just a little while. Endure.

As Picard walked down the hallway toward the conference chambers, flanked by security guards, Worf caught up with him. "Captain. A word with you in private."

"Certainly." They took one of the empty conference rooms and set Worf's tricorder to project white noise, to block any bugs in the room. "What's wrong, Mr. Worf?"

"We found this in your room, attached to the headboard." He presented Picard with a very small, spiderlike object. "It was only discovered after it had already sent a burst transmission."

"What? We swept that room for recording devices, didn't we?"

"Yes, sir. The room was swept and visually inspected before you returned to the conference. However, this device was found attached to a piece of humanoid hair. When we analyzed it, we found it to be Metraxan. The color was brown." He didn't need to say anything more. Brown hair on a Metraxan was very unusual, as unusual as albinism in humans. Picard had only seen one Metraxan with brown hair, and she had spent the night with him.

"But Yan'net would have had nothing to gain by smuggling a bug into the room..." A horrific thought was beginning to form. "Do we know who manufactured this?"

"It is Cardassian in design, sir." Worf scowled. "I believe the woman has sold us out. She must have been in the pay of the Cardassians all along."

Picard shook his head. "No, Lieutenant. I know who Yan'net was before she came here; she would have no motivation to aid the Cardassians. But I also know she was sexually harassed and very nearly assaulted by the Cardassian Gul yesterday. It isn't difficult to imagine a Cardassian staging such a confrontation with a slave so as to plant a bug on her." He took a deep breath. "Do we know what information the device sent?"

"I will ask Commander Data to analyze it. It is unlikely, however, that any of the data would remain. This device was clearly intended to be used one time only."

"Would it have sent only what it was recording at the time of the transmission burst, or...?"

"I doubt it, Captain. Most likely it recorded several hours and then sent them all." His scowl deepened. "I should have scanned the woman as she entered your suite. I should have expected treachery like this from the Cardassians."

"What's done is done, Mr. Worf," Picard said, though privately he wished he was the sort of captain who could rip people to shreds for simple mistakes. But no. Worf would punish himself for his failure to catch the Cardassians' plan far more than any captain could. He touched his combadge. "Picard to Mr. LaForge."

"LaForge here, captain."

"Where are we on the reconfiguration of the transporters?"

"Should be another two to three hours."

"Well, don't take the transporters offline. We may need to abandon secrecy and openly transport Yan'net to the Enterprise."

"Understood. Do you want me to activate her transponder yet?"

"No. Our plan may have been uncovered by the Cardassians, who may have given it away to President Ga. I want to know for certain that those two facts are true before taking an irrevocable step. But be prepared to activate the transponder and transport her the moment I give the word."

"Will do, captain."


But he knew, the moment he walked into the conference room, that his hope was in vain.

The Cardassian representative, Gul Tarket, was already there, smirking broadly, standing next to Ga, whose piggish face was flushed red. Metraxans showed anger as easily as the palest of humans, and Ga was plainly angry. Without knowing what he knew, however, Picard wasn't going to call him on it-- he would behave just as if there was nothing wrong, until such time as Ga gave him an opening.

Which he did, immediately.

"Picard," Ga snarled. "I want to know what the fuck you thought you were playing at with Yan'net last night."

"What are you talking about?" Picard asked. How much do you know?

"Don't fucking play games with me. Gul Tarket, here, reports that you were plotting to steal my slave. Doesn't your Federation have laws against interfering in other people's business?"

Picard shrugged. "She's quite a little dish, that one. Can you blame me for trying?" He sat down, nonchalantly. Play macho. Don't admit to having done anything wrong. "I'd pay good money for her. What are you charging?"

Ga's eyes narrowed even smaller. "She's not for sale."

"Too bad. You're a lucky man, Mr. President." He looked over at the Klingon and Ferengi delegates. "Well. Shall we get down to business?"

"The nerve of you, Picard!" the Cardassian exploded. He strode over to Picard's chair; before he could actually approach as closely as he intended, Worf interposed himself.

"You will not touch the person of the Captain!" Worf snarled.

The Cardassian scowled. "Don't make me take you down a peg, Klingon." He looked directly at Picard. "I provided President Ga with the recording. You were not simply talking about kidnapping the President's rightful property, a dissident lawfully imprisoned by her own government. You were plotting with the prisoner to enact some scheme on the Metraxans. Admit it, Picard! You've violated your own precious Prime Directive half a dozen ways, and you have the gall to sit here and pretend you weren't scheming against your host?"

"Lawfully imprisoned? That's very interesting," Picard said. "President Ga, do you think you could actually produce the trial records showing the judgment against Yan'net that made her your slave? If she was never tried, by your own laws she's a free citizen, not property, and may choose to go where she wills."

"OUT!" Ga roared. Picard realized he'd made a misstep-- he had hoped to use the information Q had given him to browbeat Ga into giving her up, by threatening to reveal what Q had actually done to Ga in front of the other delegates. But Ga appeared to be so sensitive about it, there might not even be a chance to threaten. "Get the fuck off my planet, Picard, and take your entire team with you! Metraxia isn't signing a damn thing with you-- you want the fucking vionara, you'd better be ready to buy it off one of these gentlemen's governments."

He heard a slight intake of breath from Riker. Oh, Will knew how he'd botched this, all right. Now the only hope was for Geordi's transporter modifications. He thanked whatever gods there might be that he and Yan'net hadn't discussed the plans for her escape last night; all the Metraxans could know was that he'd plotted to free Yan'net, not what his plan actually was.

"If you insist, Mr. President," Picard said, his voice tight and cold. "It's regrettable that you can't put a minor dispute over a woman behind you, and must endanger your planet by making an enemy of the Federation, but if that is your choice I will not argue you with you." He toggled his communicator. "Enterprise. Beam us up."

Before the transporter took him, he heard Ga say to the delegates, "Take some complimentary women, relax for a while. Gul Tarket and I have a private meeting, and then we'll come back without the Feddies."

She was somewhere else.

It wasn't that hard. For someone with millions of years of experience in dividing her mind, literally being in two places at once, it wasn't that difficult to go away. What was happening to her body was painful, but she'd endured it so many times it hardly registered anymore. Instead she was reliving her memories of Picard. Remembering being powerful, and standing on his bridge demanding that he go back to his pathetic little planet, and Picard actually defying a power greater than he could imagine, actually declaring that the Q perception of humanity was wrong. And the delight, and the fascination. Remembering a shuttlecraft, and Picard holding out, insisting that he could keep this up as long as it took, which was of course absolutely ridiculous and irritating and yet the fact that he'd try was enthralling, fascinating, unexpected. Remembering Picard's gentleness, three nights ago, and his mouth on her body and his hands stroking her back and holding her as she wept and threw all the bitter fury she could muster at him. He was going to get her out of here. He'd promised, and he wouldn't renege on his promises, she knew that. This would stop. Sooner or later it would stop.

And then her attention was brought back to the now, to the stink of the hairy groin pressed into her face and how hard it was to breathe with the man's penis down her throat and the pain ramming into her female parts, by Ga's voice. "You fellas keep on with what you're doing. The rest of you, hope you've had a turn already, because we're gonna be questioning her as soon as you're done."

She couldn't move her head, couldn't see Ga with the guard raping her mouth in the way. So it was going to begin. Well, she wouldn't tell him anything. If he didn't already know what Jean-Luc had promised her, he wasn't going to find out from her.

The guard between her legs finished. "Clean her up," she heard Ga say, and winced, knowing what was coming. Ga didn't like another man's seconds, or fourths or fifths or tenths, even when he was the one who'd ordered her gang-rape. Some Debrief attendant washed her brutally, filled her insides with some kind of solution that burned and itched against the terrible soreness inside and then drained it out of her. Involuntarily she cried out with pain during the process, her voice muffled by the organ in her mouth but still audible, and it seemed to excite the guard, who thrust harder, faster and finally finished. About time, she thought, trying to cover up the growing fear with sarcastic comments to herself.

When the man moved aside, she could see Ga, standing at the foot of the table, next to the Cardassian representative. That scared her. What was the Cardassian representative doing here? Ga often shared her with high-ranking Metraxans, particularly the ones who'd been there that day that she'd taunted them all and turned them into women, but seeing him standing next to a Cardassian, after negotiations had gone well for Jean-Luc yesterday... had they gone well? Would he have told her if they hadn't gone well?

"Well, Yan'net." Ga sounded almost cheerful, which was very bad. Very very bad. She tried to control her breathing, which was difficult with the gag still in. "It seems like you've been up to your old tricks. Subverting foreign representatives, plotting to escape... I'm not very happy." He motioned to a guard. "Take the gag out of her mouth. I want to see what she's got to say for herself."

As soon as the gag was removed, Ga walked over to stand right by her head, looking down. "I tell you what. You tell me what you offered that Feddie to try to break you out of here, and I won't give you any box. Otherwise we're gonna be here for as long as it takes for you to tell me everything."

Yan'net shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir," she said, knowing perfectly well that he wouldn't believe her, that she'd get the box for this. But her only hope was to stall for time, to avoid implicating Jean-Luc. Why hadn't he come for her yet? "I didn't tell him anything... I don't know what you mean. I wasn't trying to have him break me free."

"Sometimes you're a really stupid bitch, you know that?" Ga said, and turned on the box.

She managed not to scream. Sometimes she could pull that off.

When Ga turned off the box, he waited for her to come back to herself, for her half-sobbing breathing to even out, and then said, "Gul Tarket here bugged you, Yan'net. We heard everything you told your Federation captain. He's not coming to rescue you, you know. I kicked him off the planet."

She stared at him numbly, horrified and yet not entirely surprised. What was that ancient Earth saying about pride going before a fall? She'd been right early this morning, when she hadn't been able to believe it was going to happen, that the Continuum would let it. And then she'd made a mistake, she'd believed, and gloated her belief, and her tormentor-god, her former brother and rival, must have heard her. He'd probably had this planned all along, and had been laughing at her, at her pathetic belief that she would ever be free.

He still might come, the tiny voice of desperate hope said. He needs you, more than ever now that Ga won't negotiate. He might come. And that meant she still couldn't tell Ga anything. If he knew about the planet, he'd do anything he could to stop Jean-Luc from saving her, knowing it would be the end of Federation dependence on Metraxia.

She shifted tactics. If she was going to be tortured anyway, if there was no way out of it, there was no point to groveling or begging for mercy, no point to lying except to throw Ga off. "Then you know everything," she said, summoning up as much defiance as she could, "and there's nothing I can tell you."

This time the box lasted much longer, and she did scream, twisting and struggling in her bonds as if escape could do her any good even if it were possible.

"He said something about a planet," Ga snarled at her. "A planet, with women. Is that where you put the fucking women you stole? What does he want from you?"

"I promised to tell him all about how bad you were in bed," Yan'net gasped.

This time after however many eternities he had the box on, he released her just long enough to think it was over, and then did it again. She was crying when he finally released her in actuality... but nowhere near breaking. She'd been tortured so many times with the box that, horrible as it was, it just couldn't frighten her as much as the thought of breaking Jean-Luc's trust did. Not after things had gone so wrong and the Borg had gotten him. Not when he was her only hope of freedom, and she'd actually come to believe freedom was possible. If Jean-Luc wasn't going to be able to come save her, then she wanted to die, and she wanted to die with the secret of the planet intact, to give Jean-Luc as much opportunity as possible to try to find it himself. Not that she thought he could, but if she told Ga about it he'd be looking for it, he and his piggish Cardassian allies, and she wouldn't let him find them. She'd promised Talith they would be safe. The obligations of a god to her worshippers were a serious thing to her people, one of the reasons she had always tried so hard to avoid being worshipped, but Talith's people couldn't help it, she'd freed them from bondage on a whim and so of course they worshipped her, as she'd worship anyone who freed her now. She had committed a benevolent act, and was paying the price.

No, she would not break. She was too used to this, too experienced with pain. It hurt so badly she would wish at that moment she could die to make it stop, but her hate for Ga, and her feelings toward Jean-Luc, gave her the strength to resist.

Several minutes into the interrogation, Ga, obviously aroused by her pain, raped her and then offered her to his Cardassian guest. In a way that was almost a reprieve. Rape was easier to deal with than the box, or else they'd never have been able to break her to her duties as a whore. Ga frightened her, for the same reason the table she was on had terrified her-- he'd been the first to violate her, and then had had her on at least a weekly basis afterward, always devising new and more terrible ways to hurt or humiliate her. With other men she could pretend to enjoy it, was in fact very good at putting on a show for them, but she'd never been able to put on a show for Ga-- he was too frightening and hateful, her true feelings too raw, and besides he'd never expected it of her. He wanted her to scream, and cry, and beg, and he frightened her enough that he usually got what he wanted. But he didn't get it this time. He was brutal, and she hurt terribly, but after ten minutes of torture with the box this was nothing.

And then the Cardassian took his turn. "Did Picard do it to you like this?" he asked, sneering as he raped her. "Did he fuck you hard, like this? You like it like this?"

She snarled, "Jean-Luc Picard's bigger than you, sexier than you, and twenty times the man any of you will ever be."

The Gul dug his fingers into her buttocks, bruising her and slamming into her harder. "Yes? So manly, is he? I wonder what you'd say to know Cardassians had him, just like this?" He pulled out of her vagina and abruptly drove himself into her anus, making her cry out in pain. "Your precious Picard was our prisoner. He begged and wept like a woman, and Cardassian soldiers used him for their whore, just like this." She felt like she was being repeatedly punched inside. Gul Tarket laughed at Yan'net's whimpering. "Is that the manly man who's going to rescue you?"

So that was why Gul Tarket had been so obsessed with fucking Picard's woman-- he was probably enraged that Picard had managed to escape the Cardassians, or something. The Gul had miscalculated, Yan'net thought, tears of pain mingling with those of hot rage. He didn't understand her relationship to Picard, didn't understand her fierce possessiveness toward him. Picard had been hers, and now she know that not only the Borg but the Cardassians had tormented him while he was powerless. This only fueled her desire to shield him, to protect him from whatever the Metraxans could do to him, even at the cost of her own life. And it made her all the more convinced Picard would save her. If he had personal experience of torture and interrogation, he would never abandon someone else to it, anyone else. He would come for her, and she would tell this Cardassian bastard nothing, nothing at all.

When Tarket was done with her, he took his time drying off and pulling his pants back up, then turned to Ga. "My friend, if you don't mind some advice, I think you might be going about this the wrong way. I'd gotten the idea from what you'd told me that this was simply some weak, cringing little creature, but I've changed my assessment. I believe this woman is very likely actually a committed dissident, who is convinced for some reason that she needs to protect Picard-- probably not love or sexual desire, whores don't feel such things. More likely she knows that she is valuable to Picard. Something about that planet he was asking her about? And she knows that if she tells us the information, she becomes less valuable to Picard. She might be concerned with betraying the location of the planet, too."

"So, what're you suggesting?" Ga asked. "I could've told you Yan'net is an uppity bitch. Tried my best to knock it out of her, and I think I did a fucking good job considering what I had to work with, but yeah, she's still got it in her. Still thinks she's better than everyone."

"Well, then we aren't going about this quite the right way. Such an uppity slave must be very, very used to neurostimulation, and the service she performs regularly must have numbed her to the fear of rape entirely. Not that she wasn't pleasurable--" he leered grotesquely at Yan'net, then turned his attention back to Ga-- "but I don't think our satisfaction had the intended effect on her."

"So get to the point, Tarket. What do you suggest?"

"Well, the advantage of neurostimulation can also be a disadvantage. It is exquisitely painful, but too much of it starts to numb the brain's ability to feel pain. And it doesn't cause any other damage. An expensive whore like this one, I imagine you've taken great pains not to let her suffer any serious amount of physical damage. A few whippings for pleasure, some beatings for her defiant nature, but nothing severe. Nothing bloody or maiming, since that would damage her value. And I imagine that right now, our need for her information outweighs her value."

Yan'net's eyes widened. She hadn't thought they could come up with an idea that would frighten her. She was, indeed, inured to rape, terribly used to pain, and resigned to death. The idea of being mutilated, though, of losing even more than this fragile body she'd been condemned to... I won't break. I won't.

"For instance," Tarket said, walking around behind Yan'net's head so she had to crane back to look up at him, "her hands." He caught one restrained hand in his two, running leathery fingers over her palm and fingertips as she struggled to pull her hand free of him. "Obviously, a whore should have lovely, strong hands. It would be such a shame to have to break these beautiful fingers. But--" He pulled her pinky back until it could go no farther-- "if we've already made the decision that she's outlived her usefulness, then it doesn't really matter, does it?"

Ga stared down at Yan'net, breathing hard. She stared back, begging him with her eyes not to let this happen. He found her personally valuable. Who would he have to torment on a regular basis if he killed her? If they broke her fingers how would she be able to get him off when he demanded hands and tongue both?

He shook his head once, sharply. "Yeah, you're right," he said. "Do it."

And Tarket pulled her fragile finger back all the way, snapping it. She screamed.

"Now," Tarket said pleasantly, "you can start telling the President and me all about that planet you were discussing with Picard. Or, I can do another finger. You do have nine more of them."

The pain wasn't worse than the neurostimulator. Just different, just a style of pain she wasn't used to. Just pain that didn't stop when they stopped the torture, but it wasn't worse, she could live with it, Federation medical technology could heal it and if Jean-Luc didn't come in time she would be dead and it wouldn't matter that her hands didn't work. She could deal with this. She could.

"Your mother was a traitor," Yan'net gasped at him.

"That's very unfortunate, my dear. I do wish you had cooperated." He took the next finger, ran his own fingers all over it, fondling it, took it into his mouth and sucked on it obscenely-- and then bit down, so hard the bone splintered into fragments. She howled.

"Eight more, my sweet."

No. She wouldn't tell them anything. She wouldn't.

Either Jean-Luc would come, or she would die. And either would free her. She just had to hold out until one or the other happened.

Picard strode off the transport pad. "Are we ready to transport Yan'net yet?"

"The modifications will still take another couple of hours, Captain."

"Then we're changing the plan. They will probably suspect we're the ones who've taken her in any case, but it no longer matters. Activate her transponder and retrieve her, Mr. LaForge."

LaForge's hands flew over the transporter board. "We've got a problem. I'm not getting a signal from the transponder."

"Damn," he whispered tightly. "See if you can determine what the problem is; I saw her swallow it."

"We need to talk about this, Captain," Riker said. "Is there any chance we can salvage the negotiations?"

"To be frank, Number One, I don't think so. Even given the brutal nature of his culture, President Ga strikes me as an unreasonable man." He wondered if the reason he felt that the negotiations were so thoroughly blown was that he honestly didn't want to negotiate with the Metraxans. "We will, of course, attempt to re-open communications and see if we can repair the situation, but..."

"But you don't see much chance of that happening."

"No, I'm afraid not."

"I've found our problem," LaForge said. "There's a layer of physical shielding below the palace complex, probably to protect from spaceborne phaser attack or bombing. Sensors can penetrate it, with difficulty, but it's going to be impossible to get a signal through it and get a response returned, let alone perform a transport."

"Is there anything that can be done to amplify the signal?"

"There might be. If we can beam down a handful of amplifier buoys to the surface, they might be able to pick up the signal from underground and strengthen it enough to get back here. The trouble is, we've got no way of concealing them. We can beam them down to places where there are no life signs right now, and hope they're not seen until we get the signal, but if someone does find them it's going to tip our hand-- our amplifier buoys look distinctly like Federation technology."

"At this point I'm not sure how much it matters if we tip our hand. She's already in custody; we need to try to extract her as soon as possible. Go ahead and beam down the buoys."

LaForge nodded. His hands danced over the board, summoning the buoys from their storage bins and transporting them down to the planet. "Buoys away, captain."

"Is that helping matters?"

"We won't know right away. The signal is going to be very, very weak even with the amplifiers in place; I'll need to run overlapping scans for several minutes before we can be sure whether we're getting the signal at all or not."

"All right. Continue to run scans, Mr. LaForge, and let me know what you find; I'll be on the bridge."

Riker and Worf followed him to the turbolift. "What the hell happened down there, sir?" Riker asked.

"I made a mistake, Number One," Picard said tightly. "I knew that Yan'net was never formally charged with a crime, because the offense she committed was so personally humiliating to President Ga that he never allowed her to go to trial. I thought that by revealing that I knew what that offense was, I could pressure him to release her to us. Instead it seems to have prompted him to throw us off the planet."

"I saw that part," Riker said. "Am I to take it that the Cardassians bugged you somehow and found out about the plans?"

Worf growled. "Yes," he said angrily. "They sent a device in on Yan'net, probably in her hair, after we had already scanned the room. I did not think to scan her."

"Well." Riker took a deep breath. "What are we authorized to do, to keep the Metraxans from locking us out of the supply of vionara?"

"We will try to re-open negotiations," Picard said, "but as I said, I'm not hopeful. Our best chance, I fear, is to recover Yan'net and find out from her where the alternate location is." If she really knows. If she can really find it. The failure of the negotiations made him sick at heart-- he hadn't wanted to negotiate with the Metraxans, but he hadn't wanted to break negotiations until he knew for sure Q would be reliable. Because, of course, trusting that Q would be reliable was not something he wanted the lives of trillions of Federation citizens resting on.

Hailing President Ga did not work. The minor functionary who answered the hail reported that Ga was very busy, in a private conference, and that the message would be passed on, but Minor Functionary couldn't say when that would be. Picard hadn't expected much else. Unless he was willing to go to a much more warlike footing, he couldn't push it further than that.

Several minutes later, LaForge reported problems. "The amplifier buoys aren't able to pick up anything worth mentioning from the underground area. The phaser shielding's too thick; we can't pick up the transponder."

"Can you detect life signs of any sort?" Picard asked.

"Oh, yeah, we can get the life signs all right. But they're all Metraxan. We can't tell Yan'net apart from anyone else; we can't even confirm that she's under that shielding, because we're getting no transponder signal."

"Perhaps the problem is primarily that Yan'net's transponder cannot be activated, given the weakness of the signal we can deliver," Data said. "Our amplifier buoys, and indeed our communications array, are much more sophisticated than the transponder. If we could simply deliver the activation signal below the level of the shielding, that might be sufficient to activate the transponder and allow us to detect Yan'net."

"Yeah. But the thing is, Data, firstly we can't guarantee we'd be able to get enough of a lock on her to actually transport her, and secondly, how're we going to get an activation signal to go off under the phaser shielding?"

"Mr. Data. How difficult would it be to tap into the presidential palace's internal communications systems, and send a broadcast signal over their own internal systems?"

Data considered. "Captain, it is unlikely that they have an internal communication system that works on broadcast technology, given their simplistic technological levels. It is most likely that they have wall-mounted intercoms or phones which receive signal through wiring, rather than attempting to broadcast a signal through the phaser shielding. So I do not believe that would be a viable plan."

Picard nodded. He really didn't like where this was going. If Ga refused to speak to him, and they couldn't get the technology to work unobtrusively and save the day, then there were three choices. He could wait, and continue to try to negotiate with Ga. He could immediately move onto a more hostile footing, and make demands. Or he could launch covert operations, which, if discovered, could lead to war.

Although the Metraxans weren't technologically capable of taking on the Federation, they would have allies. The Cardassians, humiliated by recent defeats, were always spoiling for a fight, and Picard had no doubt that Gul Tarket wouldn't mind using Picard's fall from diplomatic grace to start a war with the Federation. The Ferengi would come in on the side of the winners. The Klingons, torn between their obligations to the Federation and to Picard himself as Arbiter of Succession, and their desire to preserve their people should the Tellaris Plague ever be used as a weapon, would stay out of it. And the Cardassians were quite capable of bringing the plague into play. After his experiences at the hands of the Cardassians, Picard put nothing whatsoever past them.

But if he waited, and pursued diplomatic channels instead... he remembered Yan'net saying "Ga owns me," remembered her speaking of the president's sadistic pleasure in keeping her captive. She had personally humiliated him. He would never be willing to let her go, and was quite capable of torturing her to punish her for an escape attempt. Picard had no doubt that Yan'net would be tortured, if she wasn't being already. And he couldn't remember how much they'd discussed of the plan, couldn't remember if they had talked in detail about the world Yan'net had created when she'd had the powers of the Q. But if they had said anything, and he was fairly sure they'd said something about it before Yan'net had insisted on seducing him, it would be enough.

Ga would pursue the information-- he knew what Yan'net was, he knew her capabilities, and he could probably guess that Yan'net had offered Picard something of great value to help her escape. And if he knew anything about the president-- someone like Ga was probably enraged that his carefully humiliated and tormented dissidents had escaped due to Q's actions, and were living peaceful lives free of him. He would torture Yan'net for the information. And she'd break. Picard remembered the fear in her voice when she talked about the box. Q wasn't the kind of person Picard expected to hold out under torture anyway, and after three years of being broken to the life of a slave, he couldn't see where she'd have the mental resources to resist. And if Ga gave that information to his new Cardassian allies, hundreds of innocent women who'd been miraculously freed would be dragged back into the torment of slavery or killed, and the hope of finding an alternate source for vionen would be gone.

Picard had no choice. He had to use whatever covert ops he could to retrieve Yan'net. It was a personal obligation-- he'd promised her-- but it was far more than that. Hundreds of lives on her manufactured world. Trillions of lives in the Federation, susceptible to Tellaris.

"Mr. Worf, I'd like you to put together a team of security personnel with experience in infiltration. Have them report to Sickbay to be disguised as Metraxans. Mr. Data, you'll go with them."

"Sir. I cannot easily or quickly be disguised as a Metraxan," Worf pointed out.

"That's true, Mr. Worf. I hadn't intended for you to go to the planet yourself; Mr. Data will command the mission, but it'll be your people he's going with. Mr. Data, your objective will be to try to get below the level of the phaser shielding and activate Yan'net's transponder."

"I understand. Am I the best choice for such a mission, sir? I find it difficult to impersonate biological humanoids, and I believe you must consider secrecy vital to the success of this endeavor."

"With a Metraxan disguise, you'll do well enough, Data. You're right that it's imperative to avoid exposure. But I also want a seasoned commander down there, and someone who has experience with the technology and can troubleshoot it if necessary. And while it's a matter of public record that the Enterprise has an android officer on board, neither the delegates nor the Metraxans have ever met you."

"Ah." Data tilted his head slightly, then nodded. "Thank you for your confidence in me, Captain."

"Worf, Data, you're dismissed. See what you can do."

"Captain, I think you're overlooking an obvious strategy," Troi said.

"You have a plan, Counselor?"

"Women are enslaved down there. So it's not very likely that anyone pays a great deal of attention to them. Slaves in most cultures are always coming and going, and it's assumed there's a good reason. The phaser shielding area is likely to be held secure, and it might not be possible for men without the proper identification to get through the checkpoints. But they're less likely to have their security checking for slaves attempting to get into a secure area. I should go down there and try to infiltrate the area as well."

"I don't think so," Riker said. "We don't know nearly enough about how they track their slaves, and the fact that these women were political dissidents makes me think they do watch them pretty closely. You'd be going down with no backup, and once you got below the phaser shielding, if you got into trouble we couldn't transport you out."

"If you had met Yan'net, and there had been anything distinctive about her empathic signature that you could detect, I would consider the risk worth it," Picard said. "But Commander Riker is right. I would be reluctant to send an empath into a place where so many people are suffering at the best of times, Counselor, and certainly not under circumstances where you'd be compelled to impersonate a slave and we couldn't guarantee a rescue." He wondered if he'd have made the same decision before his torture at the hands of the Cardassians. He'd always known he or his people could be killed, and he wouldn't hesitate to send them into a danger to their lives. But now he knew that there were things more frightening than death, knew it at a visceral level he'd never understood it at before. He felt the same way about the Borg, but the Borg weren't an average threat-- they'd encountered them only once since his assimilation. Torture, humiliation, dehumanization... he was very reluctant to send one of his officers into a situation where they would face such a fate if they failed, or perhaps even if they succeeded.

All they could do now was wait for Data, and try to reopen negotiations with Ga.


Attempts to hail Ga didn't work any better than they had the first time. For the next three hours Picard could do nothing but wait for the news from Data's team. LaForge worked on the transporters, trying to both boost the signal and increase transport speed as they had planned in the beginning. The time stretched by, and because they couldn't risk blowing Data's team's cover, Picard couldn't get an update from them. He hated this. He was used to it-- this was far from the first mission where he'd had nothing to do but wait for the people he'd sent to do a job to do it-- but he never stopped hating it.

Data finally called to report that he had successfully managed to send the activation signal, and had received a return response from Yan'net's transponder. Picard's relief was short-lived, however.

"I'm sorry, Captain," LaForge reported after twenty frustrating minutes. "I just can't get a transporter lock. I can get Yan'net's transponder signal, but even with the amplifier buoys, the physical shielding is simply too thick to get a reliable transporter lock."

Things were going from bad to so much worse that Picard wondered if Yan'net's prediction that the Continuum might enforce her continued punishment was actually an accurate assessment of the situation. Unfortunately things had already gone too far to back out now. If he knew for certain that the Continuum was working against him, that they would not allow Yan'net's rescue under any circumstances, then he'd know that all was lost, and the Federation would have to brace for the possibility of having to purchase the vionara extract from the Ferengi at exorbitant prices, or make steep concessions in the treaty negotiations with the Cardassians. But he didn't know. He didn't know, and he had no way to know, and so he had to keep struggling onward as if this were ordinary bad luck, because it might well be. The shielding on the presidential palace's underground areas seemed to be designed to withstand a phaser bombardment, so of course it made sense that it would be impossible to transport through it.

"Mr. Data. Do we know what, exactly, is in that shielded area? Are the prisoners' cells kept down there, or a medical ward, or administrative offices?"

"From what we were able to determine," Data said, "the slaves' quarters are on the first underground level, but they are not beneath the level of the shielding. The shielded area appears to begin underneath the second underground level. The facilities contained under the shielding appear to consist of the guards' quarters, an interrogation area referred to as Debrief, a medical facility, and I believe there are indeed some administrative offices present as well. In addition I would suspect that there are alternate quarters for the presidential staff in the event of an attack."

Picard was afraid of that. "So if Yan'net is below the level of the shielding, she's not in her quarters. Most likely they're interrogating her."

"That would be consistent with the location of the transponder signal," Data agreed.

He had expected that to be true, but having the information confirmed was unpleasant. "All right. I'd like to see the command staff in my ready room in five minutes. We're going to have to proceed very carefully."


He was not looking forward to making this explanation, but it had to be done. If he wanted advice from his people, he needed to give them accurate information.

When everyone was gathered together around the briefing table, he began, reluctantly. "I have taken a dangerous gamble, and I'm very much afraid I might have failed. Once I've fully explained the situation, I hope for any suggestions you might be able to give.

"Yan'net is, indeed, a member of an alien race, who was exiled to Metraxia by her own people for crimes she would not specify, and who was punished by the Metraxans for having freed thousands of their slaves and humiliated several of their leaders, including President Ga. And I believe that she is telling the truth when she says that there is another planet with vionara, a planet populated by the freed female slaves. However... I have not been honest with you. We have actually encountered Yan'net before, under a different name and in a different form. Her people have the ability to take any shape they wish; the form she wears now is the one she wore when she previously visited Metraxia. To us, she originally appeared as a man."

"All right," Riker said. "I'm assuming you don't really think it matters that much what gender she was, so... we were familiar with her, or him, previously? How familiar? Who was she? Or he?"

Picard shifted uncomfortably in his seat, tugging down his shirt. "I... I'm afraid this is what I didn't want to mention, as long as it seemed we could successfully accomplish this rescue, but now..." He took a deep breath. "Yan'net is-- was-- Q."

The all stared at him for several seconds. Then Riker said, tightly, "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Granted, Number One," Picard said tiredly. "Though I suspect I know what you wish to say."

"With all due respect, sir, is Q mindcontrolling you? I do not expect the kind of rank stupidity in trusting Q, of all people, with something that's this vital to the security of the Federation, from you." Riker sat rigidly, his tone level, if raised louder than normal, but Picard could see in the tension of his face and body that he was holding an explosion of fury in check. "I know the form he-- she's-- chosen is attractive, but you're not the kind of man to think with his gonads, generally. Unless you have a good explanation for why the hell you thought this was a good idea, I am this close to asking Dr. Crusher to relieve you of command on the grounds that some sort of coercive mind control is most likely disrupting your judgment."

"That's fair, Will. But I do believe I have good reasons." He steepled his hands on the desk. "Firstly, if it puts your mind at ease, I am absolutely convinced that Q does not have her powers. She told me that she had been saved from the Calamarain by one of her own people, who held a vindictive desire to see her suffer more, and that entity sent her to this planet. I don't think it's at all consistent with Q's personality as we've seen it to playact at being humiliated, frightened, or helpless-- I thought it was within the realm of possibility when Q in his male form first came to Enterprise, having lost his powers, but by the time the Calamarain destroyed his shuttlecraft I was convinced this wasn't a game. And I'm still convinced. Yan'net-- Q-- has had ample opportunity to humiliate and mock me, if this were all part of some test or some sort of sick joke. Instead, her story has remained absolutely consistent, and her behavior consistent with her story."

"Okay, but can you really trust that?" LaForge asked. "I mean, I thought Q's clueless act was pretty convincing too. But Q's supposed to be omnipotent. Couldn't he pull off a really, really good act if he wanted to?"

"Perhaps. But none of Q's performances have actually been all that good, as nearly as I can tell. And I think Q would not have more or less admitted to me her identity if her goal truly was some sort of test-- not until she came to the end of it. Actually, she slipped-- she said something accidentally that gave me the first real clue as to who she truly was, and when I confronted her she admitted it, and told me how she came to be on Metraxia. I can't help but think that if Q was really playacting, she would have been more clever than to slip like that. Either she's a consummate actor, in which case one would expect the act to be perfect, or she has limits, in which case I'm convinced she's not acting."

"Let's assume that's true," Riker said. "Q really is mortal, in Metraxan form, and trapped on the planet. Why exactly are we supposed to believe her when she tells a story about how she can save us all if we rescue her?"

"That was my gamble, Number One. It's possible Yan'net is telling the truth. Q certainly had the power needed to do something like create an exact replica of Metraxia and transport all the female prisoners on the planet at that time to it. That being said, of course it's possible she's lying to convince us to rescue her. My original plan, as you know, was to rescue her in such a way as to mislead President Ga into thinking we had nothing to do with it, and I confess my motivations had as much or more to do with preferring to deal with anyone other than the Metraxan government. I find it very difficult to accept having to have dealings with these people, and turn a blind eye to the atrocities they commit. For the sake of what was at stake, I was resigned to having to negotiate with them... but if Q genuinely could provide an alternative..."

"Only now, we're in the position of being shut out from negotiating with the Metraxans entirely," Riker said. "So if she's not telling the truth, we're completely hosed."

"Why did things go so badly at the conference?" Crusher asked. "I got the impression things were going well, yesterday. Other races who try to pull off stunts even worse than what we were trying with Yan'net can frequently salvage negotiations with people like the Metraxans, so why is Ga being so adamant?"

"Because Q turned him into a woman and put him in one of his own brothels for a month," Picard said. "And he knows, now, that I know this. Yan'net was never charged with a crime, actually; while what she did could be charged, with sedition or something, and given the Metraxan judicial system the prosecution would probably win the case, Ga doesn't want to have to admit in public what Yan'net did to him."

"And he might be especially angry and afraid if he thinks there's any significant chance she could escape him," Troi said. "Perhaps he fears that if she escapes his grasp, she might get her powers back and come back for revenge. Or, simply, that he would no longer be able to punish her for the trauma he suffered."

"If Yan'net was never charged with a crime, what justification are the Metraxans using for holding her?" Data asked.

"None, Data. She's in their power, she can't prove she's not Metraxan since biologically she is, and essentially, I gathered, they can do whatever they like."

"But she's requested asylum," Crusher said. "If they have no legal justification under their own laws for holding her, does the Prime Directive actually prevent us from granting her asylum?"

"It wouldn't, if she could board the ship. That was the justification I planned to use. The Prime Directive allows us no leeway in this matter-- we cannot simply take a citizen of another planet by force, regardless of how much they wish it. If we could transport Yan'net, we would not need to use force to take her, and once she was here, we could grant her asylum. But the only circumstance under which we're permitted to use force is if a Federation citizen, or a Starfleet officer, civilian crew member or diplomatic guest of the Federation who is not a citizen, is held unlawfully by a foreign power. We don't even have the expanded rights that being in a state of hostility against Metraxia would give us. We simply do not have the right to take Yan'net away from Metraxia by force, since she is not a Federation citizen."

"If she is Q, then that is an inaccurate statement, Captain," Data said. "She is, in fact, a Federation citizen."

Picard blinked. "Explain."

"Federation citizenship is granted to all individuals whose genetic makeup belongs to that of a Federation member species, unless the political entity they are citizens of has specifically waived that right, or if the individual personally waives the right. Since the Q Continuum has never so waived that right, upon becoming human Q was automatically granted Federation citizenship, and Q never personally waived that right either. Federation citizenship, once granted, cannot be revoked unless the citizen in question specifically gives up Federation citizenship. Neither changing bodies nor becoming genetically altered into a different form of life causes the revocation of Federation citizenship, per precedent. I can cite the specific legal cases if you require."

"No, that's quite all right, Mr. Data. So you're saying that because Q was human for a day, she is now a Federation citizen even though she is also a Metraxan citizen?"

"Let me investigate something." Data's fingers flew over his PADD. "As I suspected. Yan'net is not in fact a Metraxan citizen, by Metraxia's definition."

"But she's biologically Metraxan," Riker pointed out.

"Metraxan citizenship is specifically granted only to those with one or more grandparents who are full-blooded biological Metraxans. As the law is worded, being a full-blooded biological Metraxan with no Metraxan grandparents would prevent one from being considered a Metraxan citizen, technically. This is a circumstance that would normally be unable to occur, since obviously to be biologically Metraxan one must generally be descended from biological Metraxans. However, if, for example, a virus capable of mutating the DNA of a human into that of a Metraxan infected and altered a human into a biological Metraxan, that person would not be automatically granted Metraxan citizenship. It is possible such a person could petition for citizenship, but it would not be granted automatically."

"So," Picard said slowly, "Yan'net is a Federation citizen, and not a Metraxan citizen?" Federation law generally stated that the laws of one's homeworld superseded the laws of the Federation; it would be very, very difficult to justify using force to remove a person from their homeworld, even if they were a Federation citizen.

"Technically, yes, that is the case."

"Thank you, Mr. Data, you've solved my problem." Picard stood up, the rage and fear he'd been feeling over Yan'net's uncertain fate crystallizing into an icy resolve.

He was now allowed to use force against Metraxia to retrieve Yan'net.

Picard was not coming.

She had tried to believe, to hold on in the face of the torture. He would come for her, or she'd die, and either way she would be free. The pain would stop.

She had believed she could hold out. She'd suffered so much since being sent here. But as horrible as the neurostimulator was, when it shut off, it was gone. The pain didn't linger. And there had been beatings and whippings and far too many rapes, and those pains lingered. But they weren't in the same league as having all her fingers broken and then the fingernails pulled out, or being burned with a disruptor beam on its lowest setting, cooking the flesh of her bound thigh, or Tarket pulling at her nipples with pliers until they actually ripped off her body.

Picard would never come. How could he? Ga had kicked him off the planet. And his people would never let him save her, never let him believe her. The moment he told them she was Q, they'd jump for joy to hear she was being tortured to death. If they even knew. Ga wouldn't have told Picard. He didn't know. He wasn't coming. He'd have to negotiate with Ga for his precious vionara; he'd never believe her, not with the stakes this high. He didn't know Ga and Tarket were killing her, and Tarket wouldn't stop smiling, a broad, savage grin splitting his scaly face as he hurt her, again and again, and Picard didn't know, and he wasn't coming.

And they weren't letting her die. The pain was unbearable, and everything they did added, nothing ever taken away. So it built and built and she knew, anytime they did something, the pain would last until she was dead, added to all the other pains. She should be dead by now; she longed for it, prayed openly to the Continuum for it, but the Continuum wanted to see her suffer and Tarket was skilled enough not to let her die.

She told them about the planet. She told them about Talith, the revolutionary feminist who had dreamed of a world without men, a world free of the oppression even the free women of Metraxia suffered under, and how she'd given Talith everything she dreamed of because it had amused her to see if Talith could actually create the world she hoped for. She told them how the women here had tried to help her, had warned her of particularly brutal clients and taken them for her or bargained with their clients for gifts of books and vids that they'd given to her, because she was an icon to them, Yan'net who had saved so many of their sisters and mothers and daughters and friends, who even in defeat and captivity was somehow managing to continuing to defy her captors. They would probably be punished now, punished or killed, they'd helped her and she'd betrayed them but she couldn't stop. She told them all about her relationship with Picard, how he'd despised her for what she'd done as her true self, before falling from grace. She told them about his compassion, how he'd held her and stroked her and taught her that sex could in fact be enjoyable, though if it hadn't been him and she hadn't wanted him from the beginning it never would have been. She told them about the plan, how Picard was going to save her and then she would give him the location of the planet.

They wanted to know where the planet was. She told them she didn't know.

Tarket peeled away strips of skin on her belly and the thigh he hadn't burned. She begged, and cried, and made things up, but it didn't change the fact that she didn't know. She had told Picard she knew where the planet was because he'd never have agreed to rescue her otherwise. The Q Continuum didn't use the same landmarks or even perception of the universe that mortals did; she knew how a Q could find the planet, but not how a mortal could. She didn't even know what direction it was in.

The only thing she managed to hold back, through all the pain and horror and despair, was that she might be able to find it with a starchart. Because she couldn't do that now, no matter how much she wanted to; it hurt so much, and there was no way she could concentrate, and it might take hours or days or weeks and they would never give her that much time. There was no point in telling them that, because then they'd make her try, and hurt her worse when it didn't work, and there was no way it could work. Better to make them think she was useless. Then they'd let her die.

"Open a channel to President Ga's office," Picard told the ops officer on duty.

The Minor Functionary appeared on the viewscreen. "I'm sorry, Captain Picard," the man said smarmily, "but President Ga is still unavailable."

"I believe he will make himself available," Picard said tightly. "I have just learned that a woman in his captivity is, in point of fact, a Federation citizen, and is otherwise stateless, not legally a Metraxan citizen or under his jurisdiction at all. The Federation considers the kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment of our civilian citizens to be an act of war. President Ga will speak to me, and arrange for her immediate release onto my starship, or the Federation will declare war on Metraxia."

The Minor Functionary goggled. "You-- you can't be serious!"

"If the President refuses to see me, and I were you, I would seriously consider ordering an evacuation of the vionara fields. If the Federation is forced to make war on Metraxia, I would prefer to reduce the civilian casualties."

"I-- I'll get him." The Minor Functionary cut the connection.

"Sir?" Data asked. "Is this a bluff, or are you in fact prepared to make war on Metraxia?"

Picard took a deep breath. "I don't think Ga will permit things to go that far, Mister Data."

"So it is a bluff. But what will you do if Ga does not behave as expected?"

"If Yan'net is legally a Federation citizen, then holding her prisoner and committing torture and rape on her person is an act of war. I believe the Klingons would support us in a strike against the vionara fields; if Metraxia's vionara supply is destroyed, they will no longer have anything to offer the Cardassians, and it's therefore unlikely that it will result in renewed hostilities with Cardassia. With the Tellaris plague out of the picture, none of the powers represented here today are likely to risk war with the Federation. Metraxia will, most likely, find itself without allies, and in that circumstance President Ga will either sue for peace or quickly fall from power, to be replaced by someone who will sue for peace. They are one planet. They can't stand against the Federation as a whole."

"I really doubt Starfleet Command will appreciate us going to war over Q," Riker said.

"It's not over Q. It's over the cure to the Tellaris Plague, and the principle that states that the Federation will protect the interests of its citizens." Picard looked over at Riker. "I don't want a war any more than you do, Number One. And yes, I find it galling that even without her powers, Q is somehow managing to put us in a situation like this. But consider the principles involved. A Federation citizen has been charged with no crime, but imprisoned, tortured, raped repeatedly and forced into sexual slavery. Do you think the people of the Federation would appreciate hearing that Starfleet has done nothing about such a situation?"

"She's only a Federation citizen on a technicality. And she's committed a number of crimes against Federation citizens. Including endangering this ship so that 18 people died, and very possibly causing the Borg invasion in the first place."

"And if Q is indeed responsible for the Borg invasion, she should stand trial for that in a Federation court, and prove her guilt or innocence there. That doesn't mean she should be held without trial on Metraxia, for a completely separate crime, that she has not even been charged with."

"No, no, I guess not. I just want to make sure we all know what's at stake, Captain."

"Oh, I know, Number One. I know."

"Incoming transmission from the planet, sir," Worf growled.

"On screen."

It was Ga. He was sweating. "What the hell are you talking about, Picard? We don't have any Federation citizens here."

"On the contrary." Picard stared into Ga's eyes, feeling his face settle into a hard, icy expression. "You are aware, I presume, that the alien you know as Yan'net is not a Metraxan by birth, nor does she have Metraxan grandparents. By your laws, this means that she is not a citizen of the political entity of Metraxia. What you may not know, however, is that before she was sent to your world, she was a guest aboard my ship, where she was granted Federation citizenship. She is a Federation citizen, and as such, you are obligated to release her into my custody immediately."

"She is no fucking such thing!" Ga snarled. "She's Metraxan now, goddammit. Besides, I know damn well that when she was aboard your ship, she was a man, and you threw her, or him or whatever, in the brig yourself. I don't believe she's a fucking Federation citizen for a minute. She's Metraxan. That makes her mine, by the terms of your goddamn wussy-ass Prime Directive. Now get out of my face!"

"Mr. Worf. Target the vionara fields closest to the capital. Fire on lowest setting."

"Firing now, sir."

"What?" Ga's fishbelly-white skin flushed a reddish shade, and his eyes literally bulged. "You can't fucking do that!"

"I just did." He strode closer to the camera eye, letting his face fill Ga's viewscreen. "Federation citizenship is not revoked in the event of a sex change, or even a species change. And I now have you on record, admitting that Yan'net is the same entity who appeared on my bridge as a human called Q, who received Federation citizenship through virtue of being biologically human at the time."

"You Feddies need to abide by the local laws! That's one of your rules! Even if she is a Federation citizen, she's still my prisoner!"

"By what law, Mr. President? What have you charged her with? When was she tried? Can you prove she was tried in accordance with your own laws?"

Ga's face bulged some more. He looked as if he might have a heart attack. "I am the fucking president of Metraxia. I am the goddamn law! If I say someone is a criminal, they are!"

"Not according to your own laws, Mr. President," Data said. "Statute 13 of the Unified Metraxan Legal Code states that accused dissidents must be permitted a trial, in closed court but with the records of the trial results publicly accessible, before they can be punished as convicted dissidents. Yan'net should have been held in a pre-trial facility, for a period no greater than 1 Metraxan solar year, before coming to trial. The fact that she is housed with convicted dissidents, and is punished as a convict, although she has never been tried and convicted for her crimes, is against Metraxan law. Therefore you would not have legal grounds to hold her even if she were a Metraxan. Since she lacks Metraxan grandparents, she is not in fact a Metraxan at all under your law, and thus you have even less legal justification for holding her."

"Mr. Worf. Lock onto the fields again, but set phasers this time to their highest setting. By now the fields should be evacuated after our warning shot."

"Aye, sir. Incoming transmission from the Cardassian Gul, on the planetary surface."

"Patch him in."

The screen split. Tarket sneered at Picard. "Captain Picard, I had never heard you were such a warmonger."

"I am not a warmonger," Picard said calmly, much more calmly than he felt. Tarket really didn't look that much like Gul Madred. Really, he didn't. "But I will not permit a Federation citizen to be held illegally, tortured, and forced into slavery."

"Oh, you won't permit it," Tarket said. "I could have a Cardassian fleet here far, far faster than you could bring in any Federation ships, Picard. What would you say if I told you that I'll cut you to pieces if you commit another act of war on Metraxia?"

"I would say that for your sake, I would hope those Cardassian ships would be fast indeed, since your vessel is not the equal of mine."

"Ah, but the Metraxan fleet would be coming in on my side as well. Would you care to test that in combat, Captain?"

"Would you, Gul?" He studied the man carefully. "Our first target will be the vionara fields of Metraxia. Metraxia has very little else to offer you. Your Central Command has already sued for peace with the Federation; I've been told by other Cardassian Guls that Cardassia no longer finds the conflict with the Federation sustainable, given the loss of infrastructure your empire suffers. Will your Central Command truly back you if you bring Cardassia into a war with the Federation for the sake of allies who will, by that time, have nothing to offer you?"

"We can grow the vionara back!" Ga shouted. "You can destroy our fields all you want, Picard, but we have seeds!"

"Oh, really. A year to grow your next crop is a long time, Mr. President. By the time you have a new crop to pay your allies with, are you certain Metraxia will even exist as a power under your control?"

And that was the crux of it. Picard watched Ga's face change, watched him realize what a devastating political blow it would be to him personally to lose this year's crop of vionara and the opportunity to sell it to the highest bidder. As Picard had suspected, the fact that there were other world leaders on Metraxia, other men who'd attended the conference at Ga's right hand, meant that Ga was the head of a coalition government, not an absolute power in himself. And there were probably plenty of jackals snapping at his heels, should he stumble.

"All I want," he said in a more reasonable tone, "is one woman. I know she humiliated you, President Ga. But you have held her captive for three years. Surely any humiliation she inflicted on you has more than been repaid. How would your fellow world leaders react if they knew you had plunged Metraxia into a war with a galactic superpower, and lost the vionara crop, over the possession of one woman?"

Abruptly Ga began to laugh in an ugly voice. "You don't fool me, Picard," he said. "I know why you want that one woman, and it isn't for her bedroom technique. You think she can give you a source of vionara from the traitor bitches she took off our planet."

"Even if that's the case, is maintaining your monopoly on vionara worth risking the loss of it entirely, and going to war with the Federation?"

Ga laughed again. "But I'm not gonna lose it. You see, Picard, the bitch is worthless. She doesn't know where the fucking planet is; she just told you she did so you'd rescue her. And you fell for it, even though you know what a treacherous, lying bitch she is." He laughed harder. "You want her, Picard? You can fucking have her. Don't know what use she's gonna be to you anymore, though. She can't give you vionara, she sold out your entire goddamn Federation to get off my planet, and she isn't even gonna be a good lay anymore after what we did to find out how useless she is."

Picard went ice cold. This was the worst possible case. Q had been lying, then. The planet existed, it might even be within 100 light years as she'd claimed, but she didn't know where it was, and if it was cloaked as she'd said, there was no way she or anyone else could find it. Everything was lost.

"Do you think the only thing that matters to me is the usefulness of a person, Ga?" Picard asked bitterly, rage at Q mingling with fear for her and rage at Ga. He didn't know what Ga had meant by saying she would no longer be good in bed after what Ga had done, but the possibilities filled him with icy fear even through his anger at Yan'net for lying to him. "Perhaps you're right, and Yan'net doesn't have the ability to find the planet she spoke of. Perhaps she lied. That doesn't mean she deserves the kind of treatment she's suffered at your hands. No living being deserves such treatment. And if I can take only one triumph away from this event, at least I will know I saved one person from the degradation and mistreatment you have been dealing. Your regime is corrupt, your notion of appropriate punishment for transgressions and indeed even your concept of what constitutes a transgression is barbaric, and I would honestly rather see the entire Federation die of plague than taint our souls by making deals with you, and thus condoning your savage behavior."

"Oh, it'll come to that, Picard," Tarket said. "Trust me."

"Will it? Will even Cardassia seek a victory built on genocide? Some of your people must have a moral center, Tarket, just as some of the Metraxans do. I have absolute faith that, as horrible as a government may be, there is no such thing as a sentient species without the capability for moral action, the capacity for change and growth. I do not believe that totalitarian states that destroy dissidents, conduct sham trials and torture their own citizens will ever be more than a temporary black mark on the overall growth and progress of a species, any species. And I have faith that someday, both the Cardassians and the Metraxans will have grown beyond the barbarism both of you practice now." He glanced at Worf. "End the transmission to Gul Tarket." As Tarket's face disappeared from the screen, he turned back to Ga. "Now. Bring Yan'net out of the shielded area you're holding her in so we can transport her to our ship within the next five minutes, or we will begin targeting your vionara fields with phasers on full strength."

Ga's piggy eyes narrowed. "You can have her, and then you get the hell out of our solar system. We find you here five minutes after you've transported Yan'net, and we'll consider that an act of war."

"Agreed." Picard motioned to Worf to cut the transmission. "Transporter room, prepare to lock onto Yan'net's transponder and beam her directly to sickbay."

"Acknowledged, Captain," Chief O'Brien said over the comm. Presumably LaForge had left him in charge of the project after they no longer needed or were able to use the enhancements LaForge had added.

"Report once she's been beamed aboard. Picard to Engineering. Mr. LaForge, are we prepared to go to warp on short notice?"

"Yes, sir. No problems there."

"Excellent. Mr. Data, the moment the acknowledgement comes from Chief O'Brien that Yan'net is aboard, take us out of here, maximum warp."

"Yes, sir."

"Picard to Crusher. We'll be transporting Yan'net in five minutes. From what Ga said, she has very likely been injured seriously; we'll be transporting her directly to sickbay."

"Do we know what sort of injuries?"

"No, except that they may be permanent by Metraxan medical standards."

"All right-- our medical technology is considerably more advanced than Metraxan, so that may not mean permanent damage by our standards. Send her when you've got her."

Picard turned to Riker. "Number One, you have the bridge."

"Going to Sickbay?"

"We need to know if Yan'net was lying to me or to Ga about her ability to find the planet," he said, knowing it was an excuse and that Riker knew it. He did want to know who she'd lied to, but he thought he knew. It was too easy to imagine how she could not know where she'd put it, when after all Q had been unclear on the mutability of the gravitational constant of the universe when he'd been here. It was much harder to imagine that she'd managed to lie to Ga under torture. He had suspected all along that she had misled him-- it was entirely consistent with who and what she was, and as angry as he was, in a way he couldn't even blame her. It was his fault. He'd known of the chance that she could be lying, and had gambled anyway, hoping to free her and get the vionara from the Metraxans. Instead, he'd failed at his mission, and possibly condemned the citizens of the Federation to die of plague, or be forced to pay ruinous prices for survival, if the Cardassians did get the vionara from Ga.

And yet. He'd been telling the truth to Ga. He'd failed, but the fact that he could free one person from Ga's clutches was a triumph in itself. Even if she'd tricked him into it. The fact that Ga had punished her for freeing his captives and making him suffer what they had suffered was wrong. Ga had deserved his fate, and the dissidents had deserved their freedom. For once in her immortal existence, Q had done the right thing-- well, perhaps not to torment Ga, but Picard couldn't really feel any sense of outrage or wrongness over that-- and to be punished for what she'd done right seemed horrible. It went against all logic, against all of the cold calculus of strategy and risk, and yet he was glad they'd been able to free her. Even with all it had cost.

No. He just wanted to see her, to know she was all right. To reassure her that she was safe, to see if she was well enough for him to tell her how angry he was at how she'd deceived him. He just had to be there.


By the time he reached Sickbay, Yan'net was already there. He could see Beverly and a handful of other doctors and nurses crowded around a bed, working. Picard approached to a respectful distance, not intruding on their work.

"...no... want Picard! No sedative... I have to... have to tell him..."

"You're badly injured," Beverly was saying. "You can tell him anything you want after you recover, but we need to sedate you now."

"NO! Want... Picard! Need... tell him..."

"Tell me what?" Picard asked, approaching closer.

Beverly looked up. "Jean-Luc. Please tell her she can tell you whatever she likes after she wakes up. She needs surgery, now, and I can't begin until she's sedated."

Two of the nurses moved aside so Picard could reach the bed. He managed not to show a reaction, though horror overwhelmed him as he saw Yan'net, lying on the diagnostic bed. She was naked, covered with blood, marks of horrific torture all over her body. One eye was swollen shut and encrusted with blood, so much blood it trailed down her temple and into her hair, as if the eye or something close to it had been cut or crushed. Her breasts and much of the rest of what he could see of her body through the blood had been mutilated. Two of the fingers on the hand he could see were bloody stumps and the rest were plainly broken, as was the hand and the arm itself. He felt sick, but would not show it. "Yan'net, it's all right. You don't have to tell me anything. Rest now."

"No... no, I have to... betrayed everything else, but I didn't... I didn't lie to you..."

He hadn't expected that. Picard stared down at Yan'net, a sudden surge of hope racing through him. "You didn't lie to me? About what?"

"Planet... I don't know. Coordinates. Can find them. With... starcharts... I can find... know what the surrounding... stars were like... I told Ga didn't know, lied to you. I knew... I'd need time. Knew... he wouldn't. Give. Me time. No point to telling him, starcharts, told him I lied to you. He wanted... believe. Tarket... didn't. Kept hurting me, but I kept saying... made things up, they knew it, then kept going back to lied to you. But... I didn't. Always knew... starcharts. I can find it... for you, Jean-Luc. I can. I can."

Picard breathed deeply. He'd been so sure Yan'net would have more likely lied to him under the pressure of wanting to escape than to Ga under torture. But what she said was so plausible. If she had told Ga she'd lied to Picard, of course he'd have believed that. He knew Q, too, and how unreliable her word had been when she'd been omnipotent. And people under torture didn't tell the truth so much as they said whatever got them out of pain the quickest. If she had told Ga she needed extensive time with starcharts, he would have seen that as a stalling tactic, but if she told him she had lied to Picard, he would have believed he'd get one over on Picard even if Picard managed to take her.

"All right," he told her. "I believe you. When you are recovered, I'll have you given a station in Astrometrics and assign the resources of the department to helping you find the planet of the dissident women."

She smiled weakly. "I knew... I knew you'd get me out... mon..."

She didn't finish the sentence, since Beverly injected her with a hypo, and she slumped in the bed, the tension of pain and her struggle to speak to him going out of her.

"Will she live?" Picard asked softly.

"Yes. I'm going to do my best to see that none of this is permanent, but even if some scarring remains, she'll live. It'll be several days before she'll be well enough to be hunting for star systems, though, Captain."

"Of course. Thank you, Beverly."

"I'd be more concerned with psychological damage. Quite aside from the effects of having been enslaved for three years, this kind of torture leaves serious mental scars. Can you let Counselor Troi know she's going to be needed down here when Yan'net wakes up?"

Picard noticed that she called her patient Yan'net, not Q. Maybe it was easier for her to deal with her patient as a tortured dissident alien than as the former godling who'd engineered the fatal injury of her son for no better reason than to force Riker to accept his gift of omnipotence and save the boy. "I will."

As he left Sickbay, he felt enormous relief. It was possible that Yan'net was still lying, that she'd desperately insisted she could find the planet because she'd been afraid she'd be sent back to Metraxia, and it was also possible that she was simply mistaken about her own memory and ability to locate it. But at the very least, there was hope again. They hadn't confirmed that they'd lost everything they'd come for, yet. They were back in the game.

(End Part I)