A woman came up to me and
"I'd like to poison your mind
With wrong ideas that appeal to you
Though I am not unkind"...
- They Might Be Giants, "Whistling In The Dark"
Troi had wanted to talk to him about his experiences with the alien life form, but that was the last thing Picard wanted to do. He was tired, he was extraordinarily embarrassed at the way he'd behaved today, and all he wanted to do was get some sleep and put the whole thing from his mind.
He showered, used the toilet, and dressed in his sleeping robe, planning to get a cup of decaffeinated tea and read a bit before bed. As soon as he stepped out of the bathroom, though, he realized that such a peaceful nighttime ritual was highly unlikely to happen.
Q was sitting on his bed, reading a book. Actually, more like laying on his bed, her head propped up on his pillows. She was wearing the Starfleet captain uniform she'd adopted at the end of their last encounter, legs crossed and boots lying directly on his bed.
"Q," he grated out. Of all the times for the obnoxious entity to return, why now? He knew he'd need to be at his best to deal with her... and he simply wasn't. Not now, after the stress of today.
Perhaps she knew that.
She looked up, as if just noticing him. "Ah, you're done. I was beginning to think there was a black hole in there or something. You humans do take inordinately long to complete your little biological rituals."
"What are you doing on--" my bed, he thought, but changed it to a somewhat less leading question, remembering some of the specific ways she'd sought to rattle him last time-- "my ship?"
"Well, it's not for the décor," she said, looking around the room. "I've seen more exciting prison cells. In fact I think I've seen more exciting monasteries. On Vulcan."
"If you find my quarters so boring, perhaps you'd prefer to go visit one of those exciting Vulcan monasteries."
She swung her legs off the bed, sitting up, and smirked at him. "The décor may be atrociously dull here, but the local wildlife's much more entertaining."
Picard stalked over to the replicator. "Pajama pants, gray."
"Oh, don't get dressed on my account, Picard. I've seen you naked plenty of times, you know. You've nothing to be ashamed of." He wasn't facing her but he could hear the smirk growing.
He didn't turn around until he had the pants and had gotten them on. Normally he didn't wear pants with a sleeping robe, but Q seemed to find it entirely too amusing to torment him with sexual innuendo. "So you've been observing us, then?" he said, refusing to be baited.
"Of course. I told you you were most delightfully entertaining. Do you think I'd pass up such a source of amusement?"
"Have you truly nothing better to do than amuse yourself at the expense of lesser species? I would think such an advanced being as yourself would find us dull."
"Oh, some of you are incredibly dull. Even you have your dull moments, Picard. Watching you sipping tea and doing paperwork isn't exactly the most entertaining thing I can imagine doing, no. But then, no one ever said that research would be a constant round of fun-filled excitement."
"Research. On us?"
She rolled her eyes. "No, Picard, on your fish. Who else would I be doing research on?"
Picard's feet hurt, but as long as she was standing, he couldn't cede the height advantage to her that drastically. She was already slightly taller than he was, an effect he was sure she'd arranged deliberately when she'd chosen this form. "So you were responsible for my encounter with the energy life form?"
"Give me strength. No, Picard. I did not set you up to encounter the energy life form any more than I set you up to encounter the giant jellyfish at Farpoint." She sprawled into a chair by his bedside. "I prefer to be more like an anthropologist than a behavioral psychologist. I don't create the situations; after all, an intrepid starship captain like yourself makes it his business to run into difficult situations that prove his mettle all the time. I hardly need to make them up."
"Then why are you here? If you're watching what we do without influencing it, why do you need to be here in front of me?"
"I think you're positively adorable?" She blinked overly wide eyes at him in a parody of kittenish behavior.
"No, obviously that's not it, since you've just admitted to playing voyeur without my knowledge. What can you get from speaking to me?"
"Your own personal insights. For instance, perhaps you might be able to tell me why, exactly, you thought you were ready to move on to a new phase of being." Her voice had hardened. This, Picard thought, was the meat of it, then. She'd had her fun with the innuendo and games, and now the test began, whatever it was. "Existing as a state of pure energy is a necessary step before any species can truly achieve the pinnacle of evolution. But you reached for that state now, when you're hardly better than a slightly evolved monkey. Quite aside from the stupidity of it, the thing that astonishes me is the sheer arrogance involved. What made you think that you, a mere human, were possibly ready for such a transformation?"
"And that's what bothers you, isn't it?" Picard asked, quietly but sharply. "You can't bear the thought that we mere humans, we lowly creatures, could possibly seek to better ourselves, to try to grow and become greater than we are." He walked over to the chair where she was sprawling as he spoke, until he was standing over her. "Do you fear that someday we humans may surpass you Q?"
"Oh please. As if. No, Picard, I'm merely looking out for the best interests of your primitive species. I'd hardly want such a source of entertainment to destroy itself trying to achieve a state that it's far from ready for."
"I strongly doubt you actually care about the welfare of humanity." He shook his head. "No, I'm right, aren't I? You fear what humanity might become, someday. If we continue to push the boundaries of what we are. If we continue to grow at the rate we're growing."
"There are other things in this universe that grow at a rapid pace, Picard. You generally call them 'cancers.'"
"So you see us as a cancer?"
"That's what you said. I merely pointed out the flaw in your analogy. You think of growth, of evolution, as a solely positive trait. It's not." She disappeared out of the chair. A moment later he felt body warmth at his back, breath on his neck. "What you don't want to admit," she said, "is that you were a fool. You weren't ready, and it almost destroyed you. We both know it. Admit it."
The proximity was making Picard profoundly uncomfortable. He moved away from her as soon as he could do so without it looking obviously like she was making him uncomfortable, since that was probably her goal. "Very well, I'll admit it. I was wrong to abandon my responsibilities so easily, and foolish to trust the entity so quickly. In retrospect, I didn't want to abandon my humanity, and I didn't think things out carefully ahead of time."
"Oh, well at least you can admit when you're a moron. That's refreshing."
"But I don't regret the principle behind my decision the way you seem to want me to. You haven't called me a fool for trusting the entity too easily, or for failing to think carefully about my decision to leave my humanity behind. You seem to think that what I did wrong was to try, at all, to exceed the boundaries of what I am. To try to become more. Isn't that what bothers you so terribly, Q? That we mere humans should attempt to be greater than we are? To try to grow, to improve, to change?"
"Is becoming an amorphous mass of energy that floats around the universe whining about how lonely it is really so much of an improvement?"
"As it happens, no. I don't disagree with you that in this case in particular, I made the wrong decision." In fact it had so much been the wrong decision that he found himself wondering if he'd been mind-controlled by the entity. This wasn't, however, something he wanted to bring up to Q, who he was sure would find some way to use it against him, or at least taunt him for the weakness of his mind. "But that doesn't invalidate humanity in general, or myself in particular, ever making that decision again in any other circumstance. Humans have successfully merged with alien life forms, or transformed into new states of being, before with positive results. Nancy Hedford, who became the wife of Zephram Cochrane after joining with an energy being that loved him. Will Decker, who became part of the machine V'ger. Larry Trainor, who joined with an energy being of great power and gained psionic abilities as a result."
She smirked at him. "Ever hear of Gary Mitchell?"
He frowned. "No."
"How about Peter Markow?"
"Yes. The great physicist."
"The great physicist who stuck his head into an alien device made for creatures far more advanced than he was and burned out every nerve in his body trying to become 'more' than he was. Is that a good example of humanity's quest to be 'greater' than it is? Or let's get back to Gary Mitchell. Since you've never heard of him, due to his captain and best friend outright lying in his logs about what happened to him to preserve the poor guy's reputation, after he gained godlike psionic powers, went insane, and tried to kill his captain and everyone aboard his ship before his equally godlike girlfriend helped to do him in. Sound like your idea of fun?"
"I suspect very strongly that it was whatever means that gave him those powers that damaged his mind, or some flaw in him, if his lover was transformed in the same way and yet retained enough of her humanity to try to stop him."
"Oh, but the great Jean-Luc Picard has no such character flaws." She vanished and appeared behind him again. "What would you say if I offered you my power? Do you think you could handle being what I am?"
This was a blatantly obvious trap. "No. Of course not." He moved away from her again and turned to face her directly. "I've seen you manipulate reality as if it were a holodeck program, be in two places at once, teleport people across dozens of light-years in an instant. I'd be a fool to think I could necessarily withstand the temptation your powers could present. And as I have thought on the events of this day, I've realized that I, myself, do not want to be other than human. Not at the moment. Quite possibly not ever."
"Aww." She mock-pouted. "You seem to be proving my point for me, Picard. You don't really want to change what you are. And you don't really think you could handle it if you did."
"I said I couldn't handle becoming what you are. Not that I couldn't handle becoming something other than what I am. And you are missing my point. I've already conceded that I chose badly today. But I will continue to defend the rationale behind that choice, even if today, in this situation, it was the wrong one. Humanity has every right, and in fact I might argue a duty, to try to expand its horizons. To try to grow, to become more than what we are. It's why we are out here-- to explore strange new worlds, to boldly go where we have never been before. To learn, to change, and occasionally, to make stupid mistakes. Including ones that may destroy us. We aren't out here to be safe, we're out here to become all we can be. On occasion, the quest kills us. That's an unfortunate result of being mortal."
Q threw herself backward on his bed, stretching like a cat. "Sounds awful. Glad I don't have to deal with it."
"No, I don't imagine you do. I don't imagine you change very much either, do you? How long has it been since the Q have grown? Changed? Become anything new?"
She laughed, sitting up. "You're so transparent. This isn't about the Q Continuum, Picard, no matter how many times you try to shift the conversation around to our supposed failings. This is about you. Humanity. And it's a very pretty speech, don't get me wrong, but I don't buy it. Your evolutionary duty is to survive and reproduce. That's all. You have no grand destiny, mon capitaine. You're bags of smelly water ruled by tiny twisty acids. The fact that you think you have a greater destiny than that is sheer arrogance."
"You're wrong, Q," he said softly. "And your very existence proves that you're wrong. I doubt very much that creatures such as you are sprang into existence, fully sentient and empowered, the moment the universe came into existence. You evolved. Quite possibly from 'bags of smelly water ruled by tiny twisty acids'. I don't know what we will become; I don't know if we will become like you, or surpass you. To be frank, I would hope we don't become like you. You're entirely too enamored of interfering with beings you see as less than yourself."
"Ouch. But then, you're all too happy to let beings you see as less than yourselves ride blithely over cliffs without bothering to point out the drop."
"We believe in letting other beings make their own mistakes. If we are to do something stupid, something that destroys us, still, we do not need a powerful being--"
"An omnipotent being, to be exact."
"That's rather a tall claim."
"But an accurate one. Although if you ask me if I can make a rock so heavy I can't lift it, I will turn you into a bacillus."
Against his will Picard almost smiled. Apparently the entity had a sense of humor that wasn't entirely reliant on mocking other people's supposed inferiorities. He forced the smile down. "Fine, then. We don't need an omnipotent being stepping in to save us. You are not our God; I've always been taught that He helps those who help themselves, and that is exactly what we are trying to do. We don't need your help. Or advice on how to refrain from being stupid by refraining from trying anything new, refraining from trying to learn more about the universe or our own capabilities."
"Don't you?" Her voice had gone very cold, very distant. "What happens if you give a human child megadoses of human growth hormone, Picard?"
"I'm hardly a doctor."
"Take a wild guess. What if you wanted a child to grow up quickly? So you forced its development with hormone injections?"
"I suppose there would be all kinds of negative side effects."
"What you'd get would be a misshapen, doomed giant, plagued with all sorts of ailments, possibly dangerous to other creatures, certainly a danger to itself."
"And you think humanity is in danger of becoming that?"
"You're quite right, Picard." She vanished again and reappeared standing against the wall, leaning, arms folded and expression foreboding. "I don't really care all that much what happens to your species. I'm hardly a benevolent god, stepping in to protect your little lives. But we of the Continuum maintain the balance. And if we see something out of balance, something spinning out of control, we will act to contain it, for its own sake and the sake of everything around it."
"Can you seriously think that humanity is a danger to other species? I thought we proved to you last time, we are not a savage race!"
"Not now, you're not. Although you didn't change the fundamentals of who you are, you know. You changed your culture, you solved many of the technological issues that stood in your way. And good for you. Most species don't get that far. Look at the Klingons, for example." She moved off from the wall, pacing. Picard noticed that she couldn't seem to remain in one position for more than a minute or two, as if she contained so much restless energy she simply couldn't stop moving. "But be that as it may. You have a quality of growth, Picard. Humanity does, indeed, seem to be evolving and changing faster than the other species around you. After all, you were one of the last into space of all the Federation species... and yet your Federation is headquartered on Earth, your Starfleet's vessels are primarily manned by humans, and you handle almost all the diplomacy in the quadrant. When three hundred years ago, barely an eyeblink to some of the cultures out here, you were... well. I think I reminded you quite well enough last time we met what you were."
"I think I hardly needed the reminder. I have always been a student of Earth's history as well as the history of other worlds; I haven't forgotten the atrocities of the 21st century, and I hadn't when you 'reminded' me of them."
"So. We both agree. You're growing, awfully fast. Your cultural evolution is unbelievably rapid and has been for the past 800 years or so. You're rapidly gaining influence, expanding the borders of that influence even as you increase your control over territory. And you may be perfectly benevolent in your intentions, but the fact remains: you are changing and improving yourselves, by your own lights at least, faster than almost any other species in the quadrant. Which makes you of interest to us."
"Is this why you declared we had exceeded our boundaries? Not because we are or are not a savage child-race, but because our influence is expanding too quickly and you don't trust us with it?"
"Knowing the history of humanity, would you trust so easily?"
"But we are not a danger to the quadrant. We seek peaceful relations with our neighbors. In fact we go far, far out of our way to try to maintain peace. We have strict rules about interfering with other cultures. How can you possibly say we are a danger? I would think you are more of a danger, arbitrarily declaring who is 'growing' too fast based on some metric you've made up out of whole cloth!"
"I didn't say we had decided you are growing too fast. I said that that is why we are observing you. To find out if you are. And now you tell me that you see it as your species' duty to grow as fast as possible. To push the boundaries that evolution has set for you, to seek to change who and what you are if you think that will give you more insight. To increase your knowledge, your control, your power, as quickly as you can."
"Yes. That is who we are." He looked at her intently.
"Do you understand what I'm saying to you?"
"You're saying that you fear us, because you recognize that I've told you the truth about my kind. We do seek to grow as quickly as we can. Not to exert control over others, not to dominate other species as you seem to try to, but simply for the sake of being more than we are. And because you cannot view such growth outside the paradigm of your own species' need to dominate those you are superior to, you fear that we will use our own betterment to control others, and change the balance of power in the quadrant."
She laughed. "You're so very good at trying to turn this around to point out my supposed failings. Believe it or not the Q Continuum is quite capable of grasping the notion that beings which achieve great power might not use it to try to control all the species around them. And humanity's not doing terribly so far. But we will be watching you. And little stunts like the one you pulled today aren't helping your cause any."
"We will not change what we are or what we do for your benefit, Q. If we are to be damned by you, we will be damned for what we are, and nothing else. But we do not intend to use our increases in power, technological understanding, territorial control or scientific knowledge to harm others. We freely share what we learn with the other Federation races, and anything we consider purely scientific, that we don't think other species will use to try to harm us or others, we share with anyone who is close enough to our level of advancement to ask for it. We only seek to better ourselves, not to master others. We are not you."
"You don't know what we are, and it's laughable that you keep posturing as if you do."
"Whatever the Q Continuum is, it sent you as an emissary. That's all I know, but frankly it's fairly damning."
"You are delightful," she pronounced cheerfully, jumping up onto his nighttable to sit, with all of his things vanishing off the table to reappear on the bed so she'd have a place to sit. "You almost debate like a Q. I am impressed."
"If you're so impressed at the fact that I think little of you and your posturing, I have to say that gives me an even worse picture of you and your kind."
"Just so we're clear on this, you know I could blast you into your component ions any time I wanted to? You're not under any illusions in that regard?"
"None whatsoever. I have seen your capabilities, and your cruelty."
"My cruelty? Why, how very mean of you, Picard. Compared to, say, the Nagilum, I'm sweetness and light incarnate. Oh, wait, you haven't met the Nagilum yet, have you?"
"No, and if it makes you look like sweetness and light I'm not eager to."
"Ah, but you're not out here to be safe, remember?"
"I remember. And I will meet whatever challenges are waiting for me, out here. All of us will. Including you. If you don't like the way I talk to you, obviously you can blast me into my component ions any time you want to, but since you haven't yet I'm guessing you'd rather have me alive to torment."
"Who said I didn't like the way you talk to me? I'm a god, remember? I find it tremendously refreshing to talk to someone who doesn't get on their knees and grovel to me. It's new, and when you're older than solar systems new is very entertaining."
"Well, you can be sure that I will not grovel, whatever you do."
She slid off the nighttable and came close again, getting in his space, looking down at him. "I'm tempted to take that as a challenge. But no. You're arrogant, Picard. You think you're my equal, even though you're clearly nowhere even close to it. And I don't know yet whether that's a promise, or a threat."
"I don't see why you need to see it as either."
"That's because you are a small and limited mind, for all your talk of expanding your boundaries. But that's quite all right. I know you're a small and limited mind, even if you don't, and I forgive you for it." She narrowed her eyes. "The question is, whether or not I should forgive you for not knowing it."
"I don't accept the proposition that you are inherently superior to me in any moral sense just because you have far more power and experience."
"Yes, that does seem to be the problem. You don't let little things like godlike power get in the way of your worldview."
"I thought you were so enamored of new things. But you truly do want things to be just as they have always been throughout your immortal life, don't you? You say you find it refreshing that I don't grovel, and yet in reality you can't bear that I won't acknowledge you as my superior."
"Well, it doesn't speak much for your intelligence."
"I don't deny you have far, far greater power than I do. I don't deny you obviously have a greater understanding of the universe. But from how you have behaved so far, you are either an amoral scientist conducting destructive experiments on sentient life forms or you're a spoiled, jaded adolescent looking for excitement without caring who you hurt to get it. I cannot see either position as morally superior to myself."
"So you think that if you had power like mine, you wouldn't misuse it as you think I do."
"I don't know what I would do. And I'm not arrogant enough to want to find out. I'm quite certain omnipotence, at least, is a step humanity isn't ready for."
"Well, at least you know that much," she sneered.
He was desperately tempted to do what she was obviously trying to goad him into doing, to take the offer she hadn't quite made yet and prove that yes, he was morally superior, yes, humans could handle it. He also knew that that was probably exactly what she was aiming for, and incredibly stupid. Humans weren't ready to become gods. He wasn't ready. He had failed rather badly at becoming a being of pure energy today, and the truth was all he wanted right now was warm, comforting, familiar human life as a starship captain on this glorious ship. He would not let Q trick him into destroying himself and proving her point. "Yes. I know that much."
"Goody for you, then." She seemed slightly disappointed. Of course she was; she'd been trying to trick him and he hadn't fallen for it.
"Q, we humans understand that we do have limits. And that growing past them too far, too fast could be incredibly dangerous, to ourselves and to others. The points you've raised are not new to us. But what I did today was not something I thought would make me a danger to others. It did nearly destroy me, and in retrospect it wasn't even what I really wanted. But I would not have gone from that state to being capable of destabilizing the balance of power in the quadrant. You don't actually need to fear humanity. We understand how to control ourselves."
"Time will tell, Picard," she said, and vanished before he could answer.
This time she didn't reappear.
Picard logged the encounter before he forgot any of the details of the conversation, although he suspected that he wouldn't; the heightened tension and anxiety and sheer anger he felt around the entity had served to burn the exchange into his brain. He then went to bed as he'd originally planned; there was no point in contacting Riker this late at night when it was obvious Q had gotten what she wanted and gone, or Yar at all considering how little good security had done against the Q last time. He would talk to them both tomorrow, after a good night's sleep.
But instead of being able to sleep he spent the entire night looking at the ceiling, thinking about the discussion, and worrying.
That hadn't gone so well. Q watched Picard not-sleep with the mental equivalent of a frown. The point to the exercise hadn't been to terrify him; in fact all of what she'd said would have been absolutely accurate if he'd said it the first time he'd met Picard, but now it was irrelevant. Humanity had already been judged and found reasonably trustworthy. What she'd been trying to do had been the exact opposite of what he'd managed to do without aiming for it the first time he'd had a second encounter with Picard; then, he'd managed to demonstrate to Picard that humans could never, ever, ever handle becoming Q. Which was one of the main reasons for creating another timeline. That Picard would never be convinced otherwise. This Picard... maybe, but she'd almost blown it, overplaying her hand. She'd wanted him to angrily refute that humanity was as inferior as she said, which he had, and that humanity couldn't possibly handle Q powers, which, unfortunately, he hadn't... and in this timeline there'd be no Amanda Rogers to provide any kind of demonstration otherwise. Dammit.
Oh well. Cross that bridge when she came to it; Picard was nowhere near ready. She had to get off this testing humanity thing, though; Picard was genuinely frightened now. Time to do something outrageously benevolent while maintaining plausible deniability. And if it provided a graphic demonstration of her omnipotence, well, it was about time Picard got one of those, since he'd been doubting her earlier.
Hmm. Okay. That was definitely a promising idea. It would actually be a genuine test, this time, something she needed to know now once her 75 years or so were up that he hadn't needed to know the first time, and it would keep someone who'd been provably interesting and defiant around, most likely anyway. As long as the test turned out right.
Q skipped ahead several months. So much of the things Picard dealt with right now really were tedious beyond belief. There was no need to sit through them before implementing her next plan.