Picard had a good idea of who was in the moving shuttle before asking, but best to make sure. "Shuttle occupant, identify yourself."
Q's face appeared on the viewscreen. "Don't try to talk me out of it, Jean-Luc."
A rush of irritation ran through Picard. They didn't have time for Q's histrionics. "Return to the ship immediately!"
"I just can't get used to following orders," Q said sarcastically.
Behind Picard, Worf announced, "The plasma cloud is moving toward the shuttlecraft."
Which was what Picard expected, unfortunately. It also didn't seem to come as any surprise to Q. "It's easier this way," Q said. "They won't bother you after I'm gone."
Next to Picard, Riker said, "Engineering, prepare to extend shields."
On the screen, Q sneered at them. "Please, don't fall back on your tired cliché of charging to the rescue just in the nick of time," he snapped. "I don't want to be rescued. My life as a human being has been a dismal failure. Perhaps my death will have a little dignity."
Abruptly Picard realized why, or one of the reasons why, Q annoyed him so very much. He didn't like children, and the entity had all the emotional maturity of an overgrown adolescent. "Nobody likes me and I don't like having to eat and sleep, so I'm going to kill myself to save you all and then you'll be sorry!" All right, to be fair, Q hadn't said those words, but it was plainly what he meant. Picard snapped, "Q, there is no dignity in this suicide!"
"Yes, I suppose you're right," Q said. "Death of a coward then, so be it. But as a human-- I would have died of boredom."
The transmission cut. It was unlikely Q would actually answer again, having had the last word. Picard really just did not have time for this. "This goes against my better judgment," he muttered. "Transporter room three, lock onto Shuttle One. Beam it back into its bay."
"Aye, Captain," the transporter chief said.
Riker looked at him askance. Mock-defensive, not quite willing to admit that he wasn't going to let Q kill himself, he said, "It's a perfectly good shuttlecraft."
A moment later the transporter room reported, "Transport complete, Captain."
"Mr. Worf. Have a Security team escort Q from the shuttle bay to my ready room. I think he and I need to have a talk."
"Would you prefer to have him held in the brig until you're ready to speak to him, sir?"
"Don't tempt me, Mr. Worf."
Picard was prepared.
He sat in his ready room, scanning the reports from engineering, waiting for Q. It didn't take long-- Worf was nothing if not efficient, and his security officers were as well.
Q pulled free of his security escort as the doorway opened, and stormed into the room. "What do you think you're doing, Picard?" he demanded.
"I think I had better be asking that question of you. What sort of juvenile stunt did you call that?"
"Juvenile? I was trying to save your pathetic little ship!"
"Oh, yes. How very noble and brave of you, Q. Selflessly sacrifice the life you can't stand, run away from your guilt and your fear, and neatly solve everyone's problems, including our problem of having you aboard at all. And then, I imagine, we were expected to feel sorry that you were dead? Perhaps hold a funeral service, in which we all expressed deep regret for having misjudged you?"
"I wasn't expecting a funeral service, no," Q shot back. "But a bit of acknowledgement of my sacrifice might have been nice, instead of treating me as if my decision to try to save your ship from the problem I caused is somehow yet another silly game on my part. Would you really rather I stuck it out to the bitter end, until the Calamarain blow up your ship to get to me and the people of Bre'el IV die screaming?"
"I would rather that you stop acting as if the universe revolves around you. Yes, the Calamarain are a problem. Yes, they are here because of you. That does not mean you are the only one capable of solving the problem, or that the only recourse left to us is your self-sacrifice. You seem to be incapable of imagining that anyone else could come up with a plan, despite the fact that you know we have experience solving far more difficult conundrums than this."
Q stared. "I don't believe you. What is this, 'Heads I'm right, tails Q's wrong?' When I act like it's your job to protect me, you tell me I'm selfish. When I decide to relieve you from having to protect me, so you can do this moon thing, that's selfish too?"
"No, it's not." Picard softened his tone. Q had, at least, tried, irritating as his attempt was. "It's self-centered, not selfish. If I thought you were making a rational decision, having weighed all the odds and considered our capabilities, that would be different. But you're suicidally depressed over the loss of your powers, which, frankly, is idiotic-- you are perfectly capable of learning to function as a human, if you allow it enough time. And since you're bored, and frightened, and miserable as you put it, the solution you jump to is quite naturally to run away from the challenges mortality holds, and try to martyr yourself. You admitted it yourself-- this is sheer cowardice."
He paused for a moment. Q actually seemed to be at a loss for words. He was breathing hard, staring rigidly at Picard, mouth slightly open as if he wanted to say something, but nothing was actually coming out.
"You need to work with us, Q. This isn't something you should be trying to solve yourself. For one thing, solving situations like this without your powers to draw on is not your area of expertise."
"I thought I had a perfectly good solution. And I still don't see what you think is wrong with it. Why does it matter why I want to kill myself? What do you care? You made it perfectly clear you don't really have any concern for me whatsoever, and I will not put up with human pity! Not when it's a-- a reflex, with no thought or even genuine emotion behind it. You're trying to save my life because that's what humans do. Simple, stupid instinct. I'm a superior being, Picard; I can't let you all die for nothing but your primitive instincts."
"Believe me, Q, my primitive instinct was not to save your life. It's human civilization, human ethics. I can't let a civilian on my ship sacrifice himself to save the rest of us."
"Look, just let me go, all right? I'm sorry I asked for your protection in the first place. I don't need it any more. You obviously have far more important things to do." His tone was bitter, sarcastic, but there was something wrong with his eyes. They were too wide, too bright for sarcasm.
"But you did. You asked us for help, because you knew our compassion would drive us to try to protect you. You admitted as much yourself. It's a two-edged sword, Q. Having given you our protection, we can't rescind it--"
"Then you're an idiot, and you're going to die!" Q leaned forward, over the desk, into Picard's face. "I wouldn't even care if you were all going to die and I'd live, but I'm going to end up dead anyway, so why would I want to drag you all along with me? What use would that be?" He turned away, perching himself on the desk. "You have to be practical, Picard. You have how many billions of people to save? If just one dies, you're doing remarkably well. Can't you do basic mathematics?"
"When sentient beings' lives are at stake, mathematics isn't the best tool for decision making. I will not sacrifice you as long as there may be another solution. Now, you have a choice. You claimed you could help us stop the moon from falling, that you have an intimate knowledge of physics, and yet when you were asked to help you were virtually useless. Either you have the ability to use that supposed superior intellect to try to help us solve this problem, or you don't. If you don't, you can remain confined to quarters while we figure out how to stop the Calamarain from killing you and saving Bre'el IV. If you do, I want to see some evidence of it."
"Have you any idea what LaForge asked me to do?" Q asked incredulously. "He had me reading him numbers. Off a screen. A job any monkey could do!"
"When he asked you for more useful insights, apparently you told him to change the gravitational constant of the universe." Picard glared at Q, sternly. "You must have known that wasn't possible for us. I doubt you ever intended to be genuinely helpful. Or perhaps you can't be."
"I was stressed, all right? I was in crippling pain, and all right, it was stupid, I should have remembered your capabilities. But that's no reason to have me doing tedious, mindless work. That's not -- I can't do that. That's like having a Vulcan do comedy. It doesn't make use of my strengths at all. Either you use me for what I'm good for or you just let me kill myself, because I won't stand here powerless while the rest of you try and fail to have your cake and eat it too."
"What are you good for, then, Q? Tell me."
"Coming up with ideas! I may not be an expert on your limitations, but I understand possibilities. If you can't change the gravitational constant of the universe, fine, but your little ship doesn't appear to be totally useless. I could think of some things you might be able to do and have LaForge and Data figure out whether or not your technology can do it."
Picard didn't smile, but inside he felt a small surge of triumph. He had successfully gotten Q refocused on actually trying to help rather than whining and then trying to martyr himself. "Very well then. I'll call a meeting in an hour. I'll have you escorted to quarters. Clean yourself up and come up with some ideas, if you think you can."
"Of course I can." He looked down at his shirt. "Clean myself up? Am I dirty? I know I've fallen on the floor a few times, but your floors seem sanitary."
Picard took a deep breath. He's totally ignorant, he reminded himself. He genuinely doesn't know how to be human. Q's hair was matted to his head with sweat, his jumpsuit had dark stains under the armpits, and he smelled sour, the sweat of fear having soaked into his clothes and gone stale on his skin. "Your smell is unpleasant," he said bluntly. "It happens to humans as a day progresses, or as they come under stress. You need to wash yourself, get odor suppressants out of the replicator and apply them, and change your clothes."
"Oh." For a moment Q looked as if he'd been slapped. Then he brightened. "Can I have a Starfleet uniform?"
"No. But the replicator has a menu to help you pick out clothing. I should think you'd jump at the chance; you've complained quite a bit about your outfit."
"I didn't pick it out," Q groused. "I would have been much more attractive wearing nothing than this... thing." He gestured at it. "Plus, it's pinching me."
"Well, then you'll be happy to change it, I would imagine."
"Good." He touched his combadge. "I'd like a security escort to take Q to quarters. Have the computer assign him a room."
Starfleet quarters, like the rest of their décor, were boring beyond belief. Q stripped off his clothes thankfully and threw them on the floor. Much better. He'd always enjoyed wearing attractive clothes, but given how horrifically uncomfortable these had felt in addition to their hideousness, he wondered if getting something more aesthetically pleasant to wear would be enough. What if all clothes felt this uncomfortable? If only they'd let him walk around without wearing any of this painfully restrictive stuff. Stupid, outdated human morality.
Now that Picard had pointed out that the bad smell he'd been catching whiffs of for some time was actually him, he felt even more miserable and humiliated about being human. He knew they had to bathe, but not that they'd reek like this if they didn't. On top of the bleakness he'd felt earlier when he'd realized what a lousy human he was and how little he was suited for surviving this existence, it almost made him want to find a way to do himself in right here. But Picard was giving him another chance to prove himself, an opportunity to actually be useful and maybe win himself the right to stay here. It would all probably end up being useless in the end and he'd die anyway, but the notion of dying after putting up a heroic struggle and being useful enough to Picard that the man would actually miss him once he was dead was much more attractive than the notion of just giving up. Especially to the Calamarain. Idiotic, hidebound creatures that actually thought what he'd done to them was bad enough to be worth death. The fact that such pathetically stupid creatures were actually out to kill him angered him, and while their success at harming him so far terrified him, he had too much invested in an image of himself as a brave rebel to be willing to give in to the fear if there was any alternative at all.
Think. He was a genius. While his comment about having an IQ of 2005 had been sheer hyperbole-- Q intellect couldn't be measured on a human scale, he wasn't a Q anymore anyway, and in human terms the scale didn't go that high-- he knew he had to be smarter than the humans, if for no other reason than that he had so many millions of years of knowledge. But Picard was right-- he hadn't proven any such thing. Not like they'd given him a chance. One stupid mistake and LaForge had written him off, even though his mistake had given the engineer an insight into a practical answer. But he had another chance now.
He didn't have time to figure out this washing thing. He had to do research, prepare himself with an understanding of what Picard's little tugboat could do so he could come up with ideas that would blow Picard away. But apparently he had to take the time, or he'd smell bad, and that would be hideously humiliating. Why couldn't someone have told him how the equipment worked? Or, well, anything about it? Bathing had throughout human history generally involved filling a basin with water, but there was no such basin in his bathroom, only a stall. How the hell was he supposed to do this?
Okay. Simple chemistry. Human bad smells were caused by bacteria that lived on their skin. Therefore, kill the bacteria, and the smell would be gone. Isopropyl alcohol would kill virtually anything. He ordered some of that from the replicator and poured it on himself, whereupon he learned two things: firstly, that it smelled just as bad as his own bad smell, and secondly, that it hurt horribly when it touched certain parts of his skin, the parts that were red and sore and looked damaged. That was no good. He tried hydrogen peroxide instead. That didn't smell as bad, but it also hurt. Chlorine solution had a strong smell and burned his skin. Finally, he asked the computer for help identifying a scentless solvent which would remove bacteria from his skin without irritating it. Using that, water from the tap in the bathroom, and a square cloth of a kind he remembered humans using in their cleansing rituals, he wiped his entire body off piecemeal and then ordered odor suppressors from the replicator. They turned out to be translucent wafers that melted when pressed against the skin. He papered his entire body with them, including sticking half a dozen in his hair.
The skin of his face had turned prickly. Ugh, facial hair. He couldn't remember what modern human males did about that particular bane, and the concept of using a sharp razor anywhere near some of the most delicate skin he had horrified him. He'd have to ask Picard what men did about that nowadays. Later.
There was something wrong with his mouth, and something wrong with his stomach. The wrong thing with his mouth was identifiable as a feeling of dryness. Okay-- humans ingested water, he knew that. He got a glass of water out of the replicator and drank it. It was a relief to observe that his guess had been correct-- that felt good in his mouth and throat, and the unpleasant dryness went away.
The problem with his stomach seemed harder to solve. It hurt. It wasn't making noises or feeling empty anymore. Now it was making a burning feeling, like the chlorine solution had made on his skin but inside, and a tight feeling, as if muscles were spasming and clenching inside the same way they'd done in his back earlier. The idea of food had no appeal, and aside from food he had no idea how to fix a pain in his stomach. He also didn't have time. Picard wouldn't be impressed if he spent all his time before the meeting trying to fix pains in his body instead of researching a solution. And it was far from the only pain-- there were discolored places all over his skin, red burning places or dully aching dark bluish and yellowish places, and there were still four stinging holes in the back of his hand from Guinan's fork, and his feet ached and his eyes burned and his back was hurting again and he kept seeing little dark spots when he moved rapidly and every so often he would get dizzy and lightheaded. This was probably just what it meant to be human, he thought, and had to fight off a wave of despair. No. He wasn't going to give in, he wasn't going to be distracted by all the stupid needs of this lump of meat he occupied now.
He needed ideas.
No, he didn't. He had ideas. What he needed was to know if any of them were practical in human terms or not.
Q sat down at the computer terminal and began asking questions. He had forty-five minutes. He needed to make the best of them.
He didn't feel anywhere near ready when his door chimed. "It's Ensign Ngowa. I'm here to escort you to the main briefing room."
"Yeah, come in. I'm almost done," Q said distractedly. He wasn't. So much about petty human technologies he didn't know. He couldn't make a fool of himself like he had with the gravitational constant, not again. He needed to know what they could and couldn't do.
The security guard came in, then stopped dead and looked away at the wall. "Sir? You need to put some clothes on."
"Oh. Right. I forgot about that." Q sighed. "What a complete waste of my time. I could be continuing my research, and instead I have to take time out to wash, and drink water, and now I have to find something to wear! How do you humans ever get anything done?"
"I'll be outside waiting," the guard said, completely unhelpfully. "I don't think Captain Picard would appreciate it if you were late."
No, probably not. As if he didn't already have enough to worry about. He was at least familiar with human clothing, but not with what the replicator would make him. Not to mention the difficulty of putting it on. An outfit like his Napoleonic uniform or the judge's robes would be much too complex. He was in a rush, he didn't have time to go on an extensive search for something attractive. Why wouldn't the replicator give him a Starfleet uniform? It was the first thing he tried, and as Picard had warned him, it told him "That item is restricted." Wonderful. Okay, new plan.
Piece by piece he asked for bits of the uniform, since it had changed and was no longer a one-piece as it had been last time he was here-- the boots, the socks, the underwear, the pants. The replicator cooperated cheerfully until it came to the shirt. So only the shirt was actually restricted. Quickly Q went to the computer. "Show me all the red shirts the replicator can produce for humans, where the style, cut and shade of red are similar to the style, cut and color of a Starfleet uniform shirt."
The computer obliged, displaying the shirts on his screen. Ha. There was one very like a Starfleet uniform shirt, except that the shade was more of a magenta, the collar was a V-neck instead of raised, and the only black highlights were the edging of the collar and cuffs. That would work nicely. He put that on, and checked himself in the mirror. Euw. What was wrong with his hair? And how could he fix it? It was disheveled and flat. He stuck his head out his door. "Hey, what do I do about my hair?"
The ensign glared at him. "The Captain is waiting," he said, doing nothing to disguise his impatience.
"Yeah yeah yeah. Picard won't die if he twiddles his thumbs for a few minutes, and I'm not going anywhere with my hair this ugly. What do humans do to fix their hair?"
"Ever hear of a hairbrush?" Ngowa said through gritted teeth.
"Oh, yeah! That's right. Thanks." He stuck his head back into his room, demanded a hairbrush from the replicator, and proceeded to try to repair the damage to his hair. Ugh. It felt like there was some sort of sticky gunk in it-- belatedly he remembered the odor suppressors, and wondered if maybe he hadn't been supposed to put them in his hair. Picard hadn't warned him not to, but then, Picard had no hair. And it was tangled, and it hurt to brush it-- he kept yelping in pain as his attempt to get his hair back to some semblance of passability kept yanking on his scalp. And if he wanted to impress Picard with his intellect he probably couldn't leave the man waiting too long. Finally Q gave up and stalked out the door. "This is as good as it gets," he grumbled. "Take me to Picard. I'll just have to live down the humiliation of being seen with hair like this."
When Q walked through the door to the briefing room-- ten minutes late, which had begun to really irritate everyone except Data-- Deanna Troi gasped. She had forgotten, in the hours since she'd last seen Q, how loud his emotions were. Fear, anxiety, desperate need to prove himself, pride and insecurity tangled together, humiliation, an overriding need to hide all of this behind a façade of control and arrogance... and hunger. She didn't normally get physical sensations unless they were overwhelming. How could Q possibly be this hungry and not have done anything about it? He was certainly nothing remotely resembling a stoic.
"Do you need to get something to eat, Q?" she asked before the captain could give Q the tongue-lashing for being late that he wanted to and that would probably have no effect on Q whatsoever. She could feel Picard's annoyance spike and then reluctantly modulate into compassion-- he must be realizing why Deanna was asking, she thought.
Q waved a hand dismissively. "The thought repulses me." Humiliation, disgust, self-pity, impatience. "Let's get on with this."
"Yes, by all means, let's," Picard said. "Are you aware that you're ten minutes late, Q?"
Q made a face. "You know, these bodies do not come with instruction manuals. And I did think you'd want me to put in some time to familiarize myself with what you can and cannot do. Of course your limitations are so legion it might take the rest of my mortal lifespan to become fully aware of all of them, but I thought I'd be of more use if I had the vaguest idea what you can't do."
His voice, though slightly hoarse, was firm, strong and heavily sarcastic. It was all a lie. No one else in the room, Troi realized, had any idea how close Q was to breaking down completely, how ragged his edges were. When Picard had chastised him for being late, the emotions that had spiked through him had included genuine anguish, terror of abandonment, self-loathing... emotions she would never have expected Q to feel from a reprimand, especially one as mild as the one Picard had just delivered. Q was good at hiding his actual feelings, but he was human now, and humans had limits. And, on a purely selfish level, Troi didn't think she could stand to be sensing his incredibly loud emotions if he did in fact have a breakdown, given how little slack the others were likely to grant him and his hairtrigger sensitivity to humiliation.
She got up and went to the replicator. In her experience, people who were very hungry had far more chaotic, unreasonable emotional states than people who were well-fed, and food was popular at diplomatic conferences precisely because it calmed people down to be able to concentrate on their food rather than everyone else's opinion of them. Getting Q to eat when the very idea of it seemed to upset him badly would involve a good bit of manipulation, but she had a plan. "Troi conference platter 3, water pitcher, seven glasses," she murmured.
Behind her Picard was saying, "Well, that does show some industry. If it'll prevent you from suggesting we change the gravitational constant of the universe, I suppose I can forgive an extra ten minutes for research."
"Oh yeah, rub it in, Picard. I'm sure you were simply brilliant in your first day of being human."
"I was a newborn infant. You claim to have millions of years of experience. Rather a different situation, I would think."
Before this could escalate, Troi put the food, water and cups down in the middle of the table, and snagged a handful of carrots for herself, which she dunked in the cheese dip. She could feel the rest of the senior staff's curiosity-- they didn't usually have food at meetings on the Enterprise. "Sorry," she said with her mouth full. "Missed dinner." She swallowed. "I thought I might not be the only one." She looked at LaForge, not Q.
LaForge grinned slightly. "I did grab a sandwich, but I think I only ate half of it. It's been a long day. Thanks, Counselor." He leaned forward. "What've we got? Mm, salami and cream cheese rolls."
Q was staring at the food. She could feel interest warring with disgust, and the fear of humiliation overwhelming the rest of it. So she'd guessed right. He was under too much stress, too much fear, to have an appetite, and didn't have the experience to realize that the acid pain in his abdomen meant he needed to eat anyway. Deliberately she ignored him. Will was closed, too irritated with Q and the situation in general to be able to receive her. She looked at Picard instead, willing him to understand what she was up to, wishing just for a moment for full telepathy. "Captain, we have Brie dip."
Picard looked steadily at her for a moment, plainly trying to understand what she was doing, and then relaxed. "Thank you, Counselor," he said, leaning forward to pick up broccoli florets, ham and crackers. He dipped the broccoli in the cheese dip.
That was the last straw she'd needed. Q promptly imitated Picard precisely, except that he was considerably less decorous about actually eating his food-- as soon as he bit into one of the crackers he began stuffing the rest of the food into his mouth as fast as he could chew it. Troi had been counting on that reaction, though perhaps not on Q's lack of table manners-- once he actually tasted food, she'd guessed, his starved body would recognize how badly he needed it, and then his natural drive to avoid pain and experience pleasant sensations would take over. It was obvious that that was happening. He picked up one or two of every kind of food on the platter, his emotions shifting entirely to curiosity about and obsession with the food, and began eating them as if he were starving, which, she knew, he was. Now he should be able to calm himself down, she thought. Already the desperate, unpleasant edge of terror and despair was toning down.
Beverly and Will each took glasses of water and a few crackers, more to be polite to Troi than out of hunger. LaForge snagged a few more salami cream cheese rolls and then sat back. It was obvious to everyone at the table by now that if they didn't take the food they wanted Q would eat it. Will and Worf, neither of whom actually wanted the food for themselves, were the most offended by the behavior, but they all knew Troi well enough to interpret her satisfied smile as an indication that she'd been working toward what was happening, the whole time. Q, lacking anything remotely resembling empathy, even on a basic human level, didn't seem to realize that he'd been manipulated or that you weren't supposed to devour most of a communal platter; as soon as Troi had gotten the others to convince Q he could eat at all without seeming hopelessly weak, his natural selfishness had taken over.
He began talking while his mouth was still full of cheese. "Elementary physics indicates there's three factors that go into altering motion-- force, mass and time. We can't do much about the mass of the moon-- blasting it apart would be a fine solution if we were just trying to preserve the planet, but since that would have an unfortunate tendency to drop a meteor shower that would devastate life on Bre'el IV, that angle's out."
"Q, don't talk with your mouth full," Picard said. "It's difficult to hear you and it looks disgusting."
Q swallowed his food. "Oh, like I knew that?" he snapped, face red enough to indicate his embarrassment even to the non-empaths in the room. "And Troi did it, anyway!"
"And I shouldn't have," Troi replied calmly.
"No one expects you to have known this, Q. That's why I'm telling you now."
"Well, fine." He dropped the rest of the food in his hands back onto the platter, plainly not realizing that that too was a violation of Human etiquette, and began to pace around the conference table. "Now, there's a limit to what we can do to increase force. I will say there's a way you could draw in the Calamarain and use them to give yourselves a power boost, but I doubt you'll want to do it."
"Would that harm them?" Crusher asked.
Q smirked. "'Would that harm them.' I'm talking about using them for fuel. Of course it would harm them. In fact if we didn't annihilate them completely we'd have done it wrong."
"That's not acceptable, Q," Picard snapped. "I realize you have little regard for the lives of your enemies, but we will not murder any sentient beings if there is any alternative."
Q put up his hands in a placating gesture. "Fine, fine, mon capitaine. I didn't think you'd go for that, but I'd be remiss, as your scientific advisor, to gloss over any of the possibilities by trying to guess ahead of time which ones you'd find ethically... questionable."
"Do you have any ideas that aren't ethically questionable?" Riker asked sharply.
"I certainly hope so, because if you turn up your nose at all my ideas I'm just going to have to conclude that you don't really want to save the people on Bre'el IV." Will was obviously going to respond to that, but Q simply kept going, without letting anyone get a word in edgewise. "The other way we can increase force, of course, is to increase the number of levers. So if you can get some additional warp-capable ships in here to help out--"
Now Will had his opportunity to interrupt Q. "That's not helpful, Q," he said. "Bre'el IV hasn't got any ships anywhere near as powerful as the Enterprise, and they're using them to ferry their people to the other planets in the system. And we're the only Starfleet vessel within a week's travel time of Bre'el IV."
Q sneered. "I know that," he said condescendingly. "Did I say anything about a Starfleet vessel? No, I was imagining you could start by contacting the Ferengi. Mind you, they'll want to charge you an arm and a leg for their help, but with an entire planet in danger I'm sure you Feddie types will consider cost no object."
"Q, there are no Ferengi vessels close enough to Bre'el IV to arrive in time to help," Data said.
Q's eyes widened. Troi got an impression of surprise, and then triumphant glee. "Oh, dear. You mean to tell me you don't know about the Ferengi mining colony on the gas giant less than a day's travel from here? Let me guess. The Ferengi didn't tell you because for some reason it's not supposed to be there."
"Are you saying there's a Ferengi mining colony right in the middle of Federation space?" Picard asked. "If so, why haven't we noticed?"
"Maybe 'cause they're being really careful. Let's face it, Picard, if there's profit to be made the Ferengi make excellent smugglers. And since the planet's so close to the Kaeloid territory I imagine the Bre'elians try to avoid going out to survey it, especially since their planetary fleet's so eensy weensy. You call the star Satos and the mining colony's on Satos IX. I imagine you can use the fact that their colony is illicit to blackmail the Ferengi into charging a reasonable price instead of a year of the gross planetary product of Bre'el IV or something. But do be sure you offer to pay them something outrageously high, even with the blackmail, or they'll do a terrible job, and with lives at stake I'm sure you don't want that. The other thing you could do is ask the Kaeloids."
"The Kaeloids haven't allowed any contact with other worlds for 37 years," Will said weakly, dreading-- probably dreading what Q would say next.
"Yes, yes, but that was 37 years ago. They have a new administration now, and they've been debating opening up to very limited contact, mostly for trade purposes. Offer them a chance to open contact with a mission of mercy, which will save their close neighbors and put the mighty Federation in their debt, and they may go for it. Especially since that black hole isn't going away and it's on a trajectory that'll bring it into Kaeloid space before too long. They may need a return favor one of these days."
"Well." Captain Picard was feeling both pleasantly surprised and slightly smug, as if he'd achieved something he'd been trying to pull off. "We had no idea the Kaeloids would be responsive to a request for help. That is very useful. Mr. LaForge, would extra ships help?"
"They sure would. Like Q said, adding more levers would give us more force to push with." LaForge was very surprised, much more so than the Captain. Obviously the notion that Q could actually be useful was something of a shock to him. Troi hoped it'd be a pleasant shock once the initial edge of being angry at Q wore off.
"So glad to know you agree with me on the workings of elementary physics," Q said with a sneer.
"You said the vectors we should be increasing are force, mass and time. Did you have any ideas on what to do with time?" Picard asked, obviously impatient with Q's need to insult people.
"Time actually has me at a bit of a loss. With additional levers, given the success you've had so far, it's obvious we can push the moon back to its proper place in five days or so. The problem--"
"Wait a minute," LaForge interrupted. "Our calculations indicated we'd get the moon back to its proper place in ten hours of steady pushing! There's no way adding extra ships would extend the time."
Q looked at him as if he were an insect, his emotions shifting to genuine contempt. "I realize you can't change the gravitational constant of the universe, LaForge. But you know there is one, right? That gravity doesn't go away because you click your heels together three times and chant 'There's no place like orbit'?"
"Yeah, I know that," LaForge returned angrily. "And the whole point to this is to push against gravity to get the moon back into its proper orbit!"
"Whereupon that black hole will just drag it back into Bre'el IV. Or did you think that moving the moon would magically make the black hole that caused this go away? Oh, wait, I know. You were so obsessed with mocking me for my little mistake about your capabilities that you completely forgot that I had told you to examine the cause and not the symptom."
"You said there was probably a black hole, and you didn't say anything about it pulling the moon back out of orbit, and I ran the calculations. Based on the gravitational stresses we're currently seeing, once we push the moon back into orbit it should be fine."
"Yes, for about three hours. We're not talking about a black hole eating Bre'el, we're talking about one passing through several dozen light years from here. The gravitational effect isn't huge but it is there, it will destabilize Bre'el IV's satellite orbit again, and it'll keep doing it until it gets far enough away to stop, at which point it will go bother someone else. Don't you know math?"
"Q, based on our gravitometric scans there is no evidence of force continuing to apply to the Bre'el moon. Once restored to its proper orbital trajectory it should be able to maintain a stable orbit," Data said.
"Your gravitometric scans couldn't even tell you there is a black hole. You had no idea what's causing this."
"You have only conjecture--"
"Look. Here. You're an android, you're not supposed to be this stupid. I suppose the humanity's finally starting to rub off?" Q stalked over to the screen in front of Data and poked it in the far corner. "See here? Black hole thataway. Did you even bother to look?"
Data touched his combadge. "Commander Data to Astrometrics."
"Ensign Dukakis here, sir."
"Please run a detailed gravitometric scan of coordinates 00A2E-17B5-7820F."
Data looked up at Q. "I believe that such a scan should resolve this dispute."
"You should have done this hours ago," Q needled. "But then, I'm not surprised that humans-- or androids who aspire to be humans-- would lose sight of the big picture in the middle of the piddling details."
"Q, Data saved your life," Beverly snapped. "Insulting him is incredibly rude even for you."
"Oh, and I should fail to point out that he's being stupid because his poor wittle feewings would be hurt? Oh, wait, he hasn't got any. Maybe I should just keep my incredibly rude mouth shut and let billions of people on Bre'el IV die to protect Data's nonexistent feelings, is that it?"
"I am not offended at Q's behavior," Data said reasonably. "If I have made an oversight in my study of the problem, I would certainly welcome a correction. However, I do not see how it is possible for a being with a human brain to glance at a display, while distracted, and immediately deduce a gravitational effect so subtle that the scans we have thus far performed could not detect it."
"That's because you're being stupid," Q said.
Deanna closed her eyes, trying futilely to shut out the outraged emotions from everywhere in the conference room, and hoped desperately that the gravitometric scan would prove Q wrong. Empaths did not generally take pleasure in others' humiliation, but oh, she wanted to see his face, even if it meant having to put up with feeling what he felt.
Data's combadge beeped. "Transmitting the scans to you now, sir."
"Thank you." Data looked down at his screen. "Ah. Geordi, you will wish to see this."
"What-- Well, I'll be damned." LaForge looked at Q with just the tiniest trace of the apprehension they'd all felt around Q when he'd been omnipotent. "How did you do that?"
"It's not that hard when you're billions of years old," Q said smugly.
Tiredly Picard said, "I take it there is, in fact, a black hole."
"Yes, sir. A Hawking quantum black hole, right where Q said it would be. It's so small and so far away, we never noticed it, but he's right. It's creating a very small, but steady, variation in the gravitational pull that's going to knock the moon out of orbit every time we put it there, for... damn." He looked at Q again. This time his emotional state bordered on awe. "Five days. You figured all this out from looking at the screen while you were whining about your back?"
Q preened. "Yes. And if you'd actually shown me any consideration for my injured state instead of behaving as if I had hurt myself solely to inconvenience you, I might have had a chance to tell you so."
"I am impressed. The calculations required to derive such a conclusion from the information you were given are incredibly complex. I did not even think to perform such calculations myself. I am astonished that any human brain could perform such lengthy calculations so quickly."
"That, Data, is where the 'being smarter than you' comes in. I didn't do any calculations to see this at first-- you're quite right, you and your positronic brain can certainly calculate absolutely anything faster than this slow piece of meat I have in my cranium. But I've been working with gravitational forces on a very intimate level for, oh, longer than you can possibly imagine. I had the intuition and the experience to tell me exactly where to look... and it was in the math, if you knew which calculations to run. You could have brute-forced your way into it by running every conceivable calculation, but I think even with the speed of your brain you have better things to do... and neither you, nor anyone else here, knew where to look." His smugness was unbearably loud, but at least it was drowning out the terror and anxiety.
"So even with additional ships we won't be able to push Bre'el IV's moon back for five days?" Riker asked.
"No, you won't be able to go away and congratulate yourselves on a job well done for five days. You can get the moon back into orbit within ten hours, assuming the Calamarain doesn't attack again. Then, with extra ships from the Kaeloids and the Ferengi, you can keep it there for five days without overly straining your engines. Given the severity of the gravitational stresses, we can't take longer than three days to get that moon back into orbit or the planet will start crumbling. We'll have to worry about the effect of the black hole on the planet, as well; it's small, but with a moon yanking it in one direction and a black hole yanking it in the other we're going to expect to see severe tidal stresses all throughout the next five days. If they can evacuate their people to the station on Bre'el VII, so much the better."
"They're evacuating to Bre'el III. It's terraformed," Picard said. "The people can breathe there and it has the capacity. It's also much closer."
Q smacked his forehead with the back of his hand in a melodramatic gesture. "Oh, spare me the stupidity. Bre'el III is on this side of the sun. Bre'el VII is on the other side. Planets on this side of the sun are going to have the same problems with their planetary satellites. The only reason there aren't already three moons crashing into Bre'el III is that there are three of them, and so far they've kept some stability by tugging on each other. That is not going to last. I give it about a day before Bre'el III's moons start crashing into their planet."
"Q, there are half a billion people already evacuated to Bre'el III!"
"Then you really should have asked me this a lot sooner. We've wasted nearly a whole day, what with throwing me in the brig, letting me get attacked by the Calamarain twice, wasting my mind on trying to manually control the field output..."
"Q! This is not the time for recriminations. The station on Bre'el VII does not have the capacity for the population of Bre'el III!"
"Well, then, I guess how many of the Bre'elians will live will be partially dependent on how fast they can build space stations."
"That's just typical of you, Q," Will snapped. "Could you be any more dismissive about half a billion lives? Oh, wait, their species is always suffering and dying, is that it?"
Q pressed a fist to his chest as if struck, obviously posing. "I have been remiss," he gasped. "Oh, the agony of it! Of course I was supposed to weep tears for the people in the Bre'el system. Boo-hoo, boo-hoo. I think I'll stand here and cry for their tragic plight and not try to do anything about it, because it's so much more important to express my deep heartfelt sorrow for their impending doom than to try to save their lives."
"You're not fooling anyone. You don't give a damn about trying to save anyone's life but your own; you just want to impress everyone with how smart you are."
That wasn't entirely true. A large part of Q's motivation, of course, was exactly that, but Troi could tell from his emotional state at the accusation that for some reason Q genuinely did want to save those lives. Perhaps his own brush with death had taught him to be more considerate of mortal lives. "Will, that's not entirely true," she said. "Q actually does seem to care about helping those people."
She was totally unprepared for Q's reaction. A white-hot spike of hate and rage, directed at her, slammed into her. He whipped around to face her and shouted, "Stop doing that! You need to broadcast every little vagary of my emotional state to everyone? How would you like it if someone transported off your clothes in public?"
"You didn't seem overly concerned at being nude in public," Picard pointed out.
"Yeah, because this isn't me. This is just a body; all I care about is that it's not ugly." He tapped his head. "This is me. My thoughts and my emotional state are me. And if Troi's going to rape me I'd prefer she at least have some modicum of discretion about it!"
She hadn't thought Q would really be able to anger her. She saw through him too well, she was a trained professional, she understood how badly he was hurting. It didn't matter. Furiously Troi retorted, "I can't stop hearing your emotions, Q, you're screaming them at me!"
"So don't scream them to the rest of the population!"
"I was trying to help you!"
"Stripping people naked in public is an awfully strange way to help them!"
"Enough!" Picard banged his hand on the table, startling Troi. "We are here to help the people of the Bre'el system, not shout at each other. Counselor, please refrain from revealing Q's emotional state publicly. Number One, Q's motives are irrelevant as long as he is helpful. And Q, if you don't want everyone to know exactly how you feel, having a hysterical screaming fit in a conference is not the way to go about it! Sit down and take a drink of water."
"Because that will help you calm down, and I'd rather not have to ask Dr. Crusher to tranquilize you."
Q's eyes narrowed. "No tranquilizers," he said, and gulped down half a glass of water. "I'm hardly hysterical, Picard, but I think I do have a right to be angry. You people claim you're so much more ethical than I am, yet I never altered anyone's emotional state against their will, or revealed their personal secrets to everyone. I could have. I could have easily, but I knew it was wrong. Why are you oh-so-moral humans incapable of grasping that?"
"We're having a cultural disagreement," Picard said tiredly. "Our culture doesn't consider such things as highly unethical as apparently yours does. That doesn't make one of us wrong and the other right, although it does mean we will do our best to honor your belief system in respect to you, as long as you are attempting to honor ours. Now, can we get back to the issue at hand? If the black hole is going to crash Bre'el III's moons into it before we are able to finish protecting Bre'el IV, we will need to find a way both to evacuate half a billion people off Bre'el III and to help people evacuate off the fault lines and tidal regions of Bre'el IV."
"Yeah, okay, I've been thinking about that. It's going to be very difficult but if we don't run into one of your technology limitations, it's doable. Firstly, you do have energy-to-matter conversion technology, right? Isn't that how your replicators work?"
"That is the fundamental principle behind both replicators and transporters," Data agreed.
"Well, that's good, because we'd be completely screwed if you didn't. What they need to do is make about five or six matter-antimatter reactors, about the size and power of your warp core. I'd suggest doing it on Bre'el III, so if they screw it up they don't destroy their entire species. Hooking those together and linking your transporter and replicator technology somehow, they can output space stations. Or pieces of space stations to be assembled later. Use the transporters to get them out of the gravity well, being very careful not to disrupt the orbits of the moons since anything that makes the orbit so much as wobble will accelerate Bre'el III's untimely death, fill them with people, and then get them to Bre'el VII."
"Okay. That idea has a lot of problems," LaForge said. "We might be able to work around some of them but others, I just don't see how. The real big one is the reactors. Antimatter doesn't exactly grow on trees."
"Well, why not? You have replicators."
"Replicators can't make antimatter, Q."
"Why not? If you're converting from energy to matter it's just as easy to convert from energy to antimatter... though you'd better have your magnetic bubble in place, I suppose. Can you transport through a magnetic force field?"
"If we don't care about maintaining the structural integrity of what's going into it, yeah, but Q, we can't transport, replicate, or do diddly with antimatter other than carrying it around in magnetic bottles."
"There's no good reason for that. Your technology is obviously... well, I was going to say primitive, but since that goes without saying, obviously not working at the efficiency it could have."
"We analyze matter and store its patterns, and then we read those patterns out. We can't just make stuff up that we didn't have before."
"And this process is controlled by computer, right?"
"So reprogram the computer to output the quarks with oppositional spins and voila, antimatter. You don't have to change the basic pattern of the matter, just reverse it. Can't your computers do something simple like that?"
"It is a novel idea. I do not believe it has ever been tried," Data said. "But in principle, it may well work."
"Of course it'll work. Computers do what you tell them to do. If they're too stupid to do it, reprogram them. The basic concept behind converting energy to antimatter is identical to the conversion of energy to matter. You should be able to take the same basic template and flip it. I do it all the time. ...Did it all the time." Q's mood took a sudden lurch downward at his misphrase.
"So you're saying we could just transport some random rocks, translate them into digital instead of analog, reprogram the computer to output the quarks backwards... the transporter works at the atomic level, though... but we might be able to extrapolate the quarks and then output them backwards... Damn. We'd need an incredible amount of disk space, maybe ten or twenty times what we use for a transporter, but I think we could do it!" LaForge's unease was turning into excitement.
"Well, you don't want to do it. Work out the plans, but make the Bre'elians actually do it. If there are any missteps the explosion would be... notable. You want to do that on a planet, and preferably, a mostly unpopulated one."
"Okay, so how do we get enough space stations that 500 million people could fit in them across the entire solar system onto the other side of the sun?" It wasn't a challenge, but a genuine question. By now LaForge's emotional state had switched entirely from seeing Q as a complete nuisance to looking up to him as a guru.
"I don't know yet. Can you boost your transporter signals?"
"Not across that distance. It's an analog signal-- every time you boost it you lose some signal to noise. Not what you want when you're transporting people."
"Then the best bet might be an artificial wormhole. Which would be very tricky, going through space occupied by a sun and being tugged by a black hole, but might be something you could manage. Particularly with the power from those five or six reactors."
"You know how to make an artificial wormhole?"
"Of course. The only question is, do I know how to make an artificial wormhole with tools you have lying around the house?"
"Would we be able to maintain transport integrity through a wormhole?" Data asked.
"If you do it right. We'd test it with nonliving objects first, obviously. Original organic matter, preferably, not replicated-- they must have some on Bre'el III or maybe IV if they replicate all their food on III. A dead tree, or some dead animals. Then we do live volunteers. I can't guarantee that we'd be able to stabilize it using your technology, though, so when you ring up the Kaeloids, make sure they send some extra ships for transport duty, maybe an empty ore freighter or two."
"Will we be able to do any of these things if the Calamarain continue to attack?" Worf asked.
Q's mood shifted drastically, depression and fear dominating his emotional mixture. "That was what I was going to say about time, before we got sidetracked by LaForge being stupid. The problem is that the Calamarain aren't going to want to let us do any of this. I read up a bit on your shielding technology, and I don't think you can keep them out indefinitely. They're very intelligent. Well, actually they're short-sighted idiots, but as far as being able to solve problems that have nothing to do with their own political structure, they're very intelligent. They'll figure out how to get through your shielding sooner or later if they have to tear your ship apart to do it."
"You know them best," Picard said. "Is there any way we can negotiate with them?"
Q looked at the table and tapped his fingers on it , smiling nervously, embarrassment and fear coloring his emotions. "Well, um, you know, diplomacy isn't actually my... strong suit. If I knew how to negotiate with the Calamarain, we wouldn't be in this situation." He looked up and met Picard's eyes. "That being said, if we can solve the issue of enabling you to talk to them... I can't guarantee they'll talk to you, given what snobby little bigots they are about your form of life, but if anyone could get the Calamarain to negotiate I have faith it would be you and your people, Picard. So, do you have any distance telepaths? Not Vulcans or empaths?"
Troi hadn't actually expected her own specialty to be invoked outside of monitoring Q. Surprised, she said, "We don't, but are you saying the Calamarain communicate telepathically? Because if so, it's possible I might be able to open communications with them."
"I thought you were just an empath."
"Not exactly... It makes more sense to say I am a partial telepath. With another telepath, I can have a full telepathic communication; it's just that my power can't bridge the distance between minds for reading anything more precise than emotions."
"Well, of course with a full telepath you can have a telepathic conversation. That doesn't prove anything."
"I mean that because I understand how telepathic communication works, I can carry my end of a full telepathic conversation as long as someone else makes the bridge, even if that someone doesn't have any experience communicating with my form of life or has a very alien outlook."
"Interesting. You're saying mortal minds without full telepathic power can manage full telepathic conversation if they are experienced with it?"
"Yes. But I'd need the Calamarain to make initial contact."
"No, you don't. We'd just need a telepathic amplifier."
"Do you know how to make one?" Picard asked.
Q grimaced. "Oh,. yeah, sure, Picard. I just snap my fingers. Oh, wait, that doesn't work anymore. I guess the answer would be 'no' then."
"I've never heard of such a thing, and if there were telepathic amplifiers I'm positive Betazed would be using them," Troi said.
"No, you wouldn't. You're far too nice."
Troi blinked. It wasn't at all like Q to gratuitously compliment people. "Can you explain that?"
"The Vulcans had them, pre-Surak. Because the Vulcans, pre-Surak, were incredibly nasty, dangerous creatures. Not like Klingons--" he waved a dismissive had in Worf's direction-- "they were brutal, warlike, and highly intelligent. Picard, if you contact the Vulcan High Command and explain that you're going to have several billion people dead unless you can get the specifications for a telepathic amplifier, they might give it to you. They'll hem and haw and they might even pretend such specs don't exist, at which point I'd hope you'd call them bald-faced liars to their faces. You'll probably have to agree to classify the data out the wazoo, and it may help if you tell them the only people you'll give access to it would be a Betazoid and a superintelligent alien from a highly advanced culture."
"Q, if such a thing must be classified in that way... Are you saying that in your opinion the Federation as a whole cannot safely use such technology?"
Q snorted. "Are you kidding? You'd rip yourselves to shreds. After taking on and conquering the Klingons, Cardassians and Romulans. No, of course your species isn't ready for this kind of technology."
"Then we can't in good conscience request it from the Vulcans. Not if it's a technology that presents such ethical dangers--"
Q shook his head. "No, no, no. I said your species isn't ready for it, Jean-Luc, but I wouldn't have brought it up at all if I didn't think I could trust you with the technology. And your people. I don't know anyone better at resisting the temptation of power than you are, and far be it for your little trained minions to do anything you'd find ethically questionable. I mean, Riker over there turned down omnipotence because you told him to."
"I turned it down because I didn't want it."
"You turned it down because you wanted to stay human, because Picard would be mad at you if you gave up your humanity. I was there, Riker, don't tell me you didn't want it. You turned it down because of him." He jerked a thumb at Picard. "So no, I don't think there's an ethical problem here. We'll use the tech to try to make contact with the Calamarain and get them to quit attacking, and then you'll destroy it and not tell Starfleet you ever had it in the first place so they don't get tempted to lean on the Vulcans."
Picard was shocked. Troi knew why without needing detailed telepathy. The fact that Q had basically, offhandedly, told Picard that he was more ethically advanced than the Federation in general seemed terribly out of character, except that he'd said it with absolute sincerity-- not the fake hyperbolic sincerity Q employed sarcastically, but the genuine article. And it wasn't just in his emotional state; it sounded in his voice, in the almost casual way he gave the information, as if it was just another one of the facts he was disgorging. Picard raised his eyebrows. "I had no idea you thought so highly of us."
"Oh, come on, Picard. You turned down both omnipotence and then the help of an omnipotent being until I pushed you into having no choice. Why do you think I came here instead of handing myself over to some humans who didn't have personal grudges against me for... um, tormenting them a bit? I still don't think it's a good idea to be helpless in the hands of humans, even modern humans, as a general idea. Your species is just not as advanced as you think they are. Except that you never noticed, because you are that advanced."
"I'm finding it hard to believe that you genuinely think that I personally am some sort of exemplar of the best of humanity."
"Believe what you want, but I'm telling you I have absolute confidence that you and your crew wouldn't misuse telepathic amplification technology. Of course--" his voice became conspiratorial-- "this is hardly the most dangerous thing I know. I'm chock full of little tidbits of information like this. Do you trust that you can safely hand me over to some starbase, and that both Starfleet and my personal ethics will keep me from giving you people knowledge you aren't advanced enough to wield yet?"
She felt Picard wince inside, and could guess why. They were all loyal to Starfleet, and yet there did seem to be some number of admirals who were happy to throw Starfleet ethics out the window if it won the Federation a military or economic advantage. As for trusting to Q's ethics, it was laughable-- he was only now beginning to show any evidence that he had any. On the other hand, the logical conclusion to Q's argument was that he would have to remain aboard the Enterprise unless Picard was willing to trust him.
"We'll discuss that later. What can we offer the Calamarain to get them to leave you alone? You may have to be more specific about what exactly you did to them. 'Nothing bizarre, nothing grotesque' gives us little to go on."
"I'm not completely sure there's anything you can offer them. The thing is, they're quite short-sighted and prejudiced. They'll think of you as inferior life forms--"
"Like you do?" Will asked.
"No, Riker, I talk to you. They might not be willing to talk at all even if Troi can open communication with them. If they are willing to talk... well, they think of themselves as very driven by justice and fairness. Even though they're not, but that's beside the point. You might be able to point out to them the billions of mortals who will end up dead if they keep trying to kill me now, and maybe they'll take that seriously. Or maybe they won't-- like I said, they haven't got very much respect for your form of life."
"But what did you do? Can we convince them to perhaps put you on trial rather than outright killing you? Can we offer them some recompense?"
"How should I know? And no, they already put me on trial. In absentia, but they don't have the legal concept that that's a bad idea. At the time I thought it was hilarious and kept popping in to make fun of the proceedings, but... well, anyway, they've already had a trial. And if you absolutely have to know what I did, I revealed a truth they'd rather not have known about themselves which ended up destroying their political system, because they were too stupid to adapt to it and they, like many lesser species, are fond of blaming the messenger."
"That doesn't sound like a good reason to kill you," Picard said, frowning.
Q shrugged. "The Calamarain obviously disagree."
"Are you sure there's no more to the story than that? You implied earlier that you tormented them for amusement."
"I did torment them for amusement. You have no idea how hilarious it is when a species is forced to confront its own hypocrisy and stupidity, and while it's certainly entertaining and unpredictable when they pass the tests, it's even funnier when they don't, and their own idiocy causes them to suffer." He started tapping his fingers on the table again. "I'm not a one-trick pony, Picard, and regardless of what you think, my tormenting you wasn't random fun either. I do these things for a reason. Mostly, I admit, because watching people squirm when they realize they have to rethink everything they know is marvelously entertaining. But it was also my job. The Continuum didn't throw me out for tormenting people, it threw me out for tormenting people in ways it deemed... not very useful."
"You liked your job too much," Will said.
"They said I was excessive. I suppose it's essentially the same thing."
"Is there anything we can offer them to make reparations for what you did?"
"You know, I heard you the first time you asked that, and the answer isn't any different now. I don't know. I am not a negotiator. I never bothered to ask the Calamarain if there was anything I could do to make nice with them, let alone anything mortal humanoids could do."
"It's your life at stake, Q," Beverly said. "Saying you don't know and giving up is only going to hurt you."
"Yes, yes, I know what's at stake, Doctor. Believe me, quite aside from the whole dying thing, I have no desire to end up in your incompetent hands being glared at for having the temerity to get myself almost killed, again. But you can't expect me to be able to answer this question any more than I should expect you to be able to answer the question of how to travel to an alternate timeline and end up in exactly the spot you wanted to be in its spacetime. It's not my field. I have never conducted a negotiation in billions of years of existence and I have no idea what the Calamarain could possibly consider adequate recompense for my transgressions, aside from the obvious. Which I'd really rather we avoided offering them as long as possible."
"We aren't going to offer you up to them, Q," Picard said. "Humanity does not work that way."
"Yes, well, I sincerely hope that that remains an option, but I'm very good at math."
"Well, that's going to have to be our first priority. How quickly do you think you can put together the specifications for a working telepathic amplifier if we can get the Vulcans to provide what they have?"
Q shrugged again. "I have no way of knowing. But if it isn't a few hours then I suspect it would become a moot point, and as little fun as this whole living as a mortal thing has been thus far I imagine dying is considerably less fun, so... I'd try to get it done within a few hours. I'll need Troi, or whoever we're actually going to use the thing on."
"I think I would be most appropriate," Troi said, although privately she was cringing. The idea of working with telepathic amplification was both exciting and frightening; the idea of working in close quarters with Q was, well, almost as bad as a visit from her mother. What she really needed was a telepathic dampener, to shut him out. Except that that wouldn't shut him up, unfortunately.
"All right. I'll contact the Ferengi and the Kaeloids. Mr. LaForge, Mr. Data, keeping the moon moving has to be our first priority, but if you have the opportunity see what use you can make of Q's suggestions regarding creating antimatter reactors."
"We will need more dilithium crystals," Data said. "Perhaps you can negotiate with the Kaeloids or Ferengi to purchase some, sir."
Troi could tell how little Picard liked the idea of having to purchase dilithium from the Ferengi. "I'll do what I can. Number One, please contact the science council and tell them what Q told us about the instability of Bre'el III's moons. Have Astrometrics confirm it first, but I suspect it will turn out to be true. Tell them we are working on means to evacuate people across the solar system, but in the meantime they should stop all evacuations to Bre'el III, re-route any ships to Bre'el VII, and move as many of their own people out of the tidal and fault line regions to more stable ground on Bre'el IV itself."
"Don't these people have any more imagination than to name their planets 'fourth planet of our sun', 'third planet of our sun' and so forth?"
Picard sighed. "In their own language, I'm sure they do."
"So why does Betazed get to be Betazed and not Lannis III? Why don't you come from Sol III? For that matter why did the Vulcans let you give them a name rather than insisting on their own name?"
"Q, we do not have time for a digression into linguistics. The Calamarain could return to attack at any moment."
"I've had an idea, actually," LaForge said. "I think we might be able to hold them off a bit better if we can nest shielding. Counselor, Q, would you be able to work aboard a shuttle, or is the space too cramped?"
"Do they have replicators and full computer access?" Q asked.
"Yeah, they have both."
"Then no, I don't see a problem. Their décor is horrible, but then, the same can be said for your entire ship."
"I see," Data said. "You believe we can modulate the shields out of synchronization with each other, so that if the Calamarain were able to penetrate one they would be unable to remodulate to penetrate the second immediately, thus giving us time to block them. I believe that is an excellent idea, Geordi."
"Right, and if we put Q aboard the shuttle and then put up the shuttle's shields, it ought to buy us some time."
"Yes, that is what I said."
Q shrugged. "You know your technology. If you say you can nest your shields I'm all for it."
"Very well then. Mr. LaForge, see to that. Everyone else, let's get started. The night isn't getting any younger."
"It's night?" Q asked, puzzled. "Why aren't you people asleep?"
"Because we have lives to save," Picard said, unable to entirely hide his exasperation. "Counselor, take him down to the shuttle bay. I'll contact the Vulcans first and see if I can get you what you need to get started."
Oddly enough, Q was almost easier to deal with one on one. It wasn't as if his emotions were any less loud, but without an entire roomful of people for him to agitate, there was no feedback loop of negative emotion feeding on negative emotion, spiralling down.
"The thing you have to understand," he said, "is that the Calamarain are absolutely rigid. It's depressing, really, how often species biologically dependent on chaotic systems are completely obsessed with having overly orderly lives. They've got the freedom of all of space to range in, they have no shortage of food, they have almost no natural predators, so of course they had to create problems for themselves with rigid social stratification, obsessive behavior and an inordinate focus on the concept of justice, which, to them, means that anyone they don't like should die painfully-- not that humans find that concept alien either, but at least you people are more likely to admit that what you want is revenge."
"What do they want? What do they enjoy? There has to be something we can offer them, to form some basis for negotiation."
"They're fairly self-sufficient. I don't know. About the only thing I can think you might manage is to appeal to that sense of justice and fairness. Even with their arrogance they should be able to grasp that letting several billion people die because they want one miscreant's head on a stick -- so to speak-- can hardly be considered fair and righteous. Unless, of course, they really don't care at all about humanoid life. Which they might not."
They reached the shuttle bay. Q's mouth quirked in an almost-smile. "The shuttle bay. I'm getting that déjà vu feeling all over again."
Troi smiled. It was nice to see that he was capable of having a sense of humor that didn't rely on mocking or humiliating other people. "I hope what we're about to do will be a slightly more positive experience for you than trying to kill yourself."
"It wouldn't be very easy to get worse than that, I admit." He glanced back at her. "Not that being alive as a human is an overwhelmingly wonderful experience, you understand."
"No, but I'm sure such an ancient and intelligent entity as yourself will be able to adapt."
This time his look was sharper. "Are you mocking me, Counselor?"
"Not at all. I'm quite serious. I know it's been hard for you, but you've made a lot of progress in just one day. You were very helpful at that conference back there, you know. The Captain's quite pleased."
One thing about the intensity of Q's emotions-- he responded just as strongly to positive feelings as negative ones. All he said was, "Really," with a note in his voice that indicated that he might or might not believe her. What he felt, though, was a burst of brilliant happiness, almost joy. For some reason Q genuinely did seem want the Captain to think highly of him; he'd actually been serious when he'd said that Picard was the closest thing he had to a friend, and Troi was starting to think he'd been serious the last time he'd shown up when he'd wanted to join the crew, too. "I'm getting the hang of this working in groups thing, I think."
"I suppose it helps that 'consultant' is a role in a group that makes you the center of attention."
"Well, it's a good sight better than trying me out in the role of 'trained monkey.'"
They reached the shuttle LaForge had directed them to and climbed aboard. Since Q already had some experience working with force fields from his brief stint in Engineering, he took on the role of setting up the shielding. He worked the controls with sufficient adeptitude and confidence that Troi wondered if knowing how the technology worked was something he carried with him from being omniscient, and if so, why hadn't he carried any knowledge of how to be human? Surely an understanding of how being human worked would have been more relevant to an omniscient being studying humans than a knowledge of human technology would be, and she already knew he couldn't possibly remember everything he had known when he was a Q. It simply wouldn't have fit inside a human brain.
She asked him. "How is it you know how to set up shielding on a shuttlecraft? I can't imagine it would have been very important for an omnipotent being to know to operate our technology."
Q shrugged. "Once Data showed me the basics of how your controls worked, the rest was blatantly obvious to a person of my intellect. Your shields are primitive and pathetic, but once one understands the basic logic behind the design of your controls, it's not hard to figure out how to set them up." He swiveled in his chair. "Computer, pull up human, Vulcan and Betazoid scientific articles on telepathy and send them to this screen here."
"Requested operation will take 97 hours to complete. Specify detailed parameters."
"Damn. Why have you people never invented direct telepathic feeds from your data systems?... Because you're pathetic primitives, that's why. Computer, prioritize anything relating to differential strengths in telepathy, amplifying telepathy, blocking telepathy, or promoting telepathy in non-telepathic species or individuals."
"Why do you need to read our articles? Wouldn't telepathy be something you understand from your experience as a Q?"
"Sure, but I need to know how much you know. The Vulcans won't send us fully working specifications, you know. They'll give us something crippled. I'll need to know the language you people use to describe telepathic operations so I can talk to you, assuming you're of any use whatsoever, and so that I can figure out what the Vulcans left out and put it back in."
"Why would they be so fearful of giving us a telepathic amplifier? With so many lives at stake..."
"The lives at stake is why they'd give us anything at all. I don't think you can overestimate how frightened the Vulcans are of their own technology. Telepathic amplification is to them what genetic engineering is to humans, for much the same reasons. In fact they're so frightened of this stuff that they've actually gone through historical periods of pretending they don't have telepathy, which is rather equivalent to humans of the Victorian era pretending women didn't have orgasms."
"They thought women didn't have orgasms? You're joking."
"Look it up. It's your planet. Well, half your planet anyway."
"I was raised on Betazed, so no, it's my father's planet. But that's shocking. How could they have ever believed such a thing?"
"You'd be amazed what you can accomplish with a little bit of fear, a little bit of shame, the promotion of ignorance and a whole lot of self-righteousness."
"Do the Vulcans have cause to be so afraid?"
"In this case, no. The only thing you'd misuse telepathic amplification for is to invade more people's privacy and violate the sanctity of their minds for your own prurient interests, which is exactly what full Betazoids do anyway so it's not like that would be a big shock to anyone."
"I do not violate people's minds for my prurient interests, Q. It's my job."
"Great, so you're a professional rapist. That really makes me feel so much better."
Troi sighed. "You know, it really doesn't make it any easier to work with someone if you call them a rapist. Particularly when you know perfectly well that that is not what they are."
He turned to look at her. "I know no such thing. In the Continuum, that's exactly what we'd call someone who invaded another Q's mind against their will."
"I'm not invading your mind. You're broadcasting to me. If you insist on using a sexual analogy, then I'll say that I'm not a voyeur, you're the one who's running around naked in front of me. I actually couldn't invade your mind unless you were to form a telepathic link to me first. My empathic powers are completely passive; they're like hearing. I can listen carefully but I can't hear anything someone doesn't say."
"And how do people avoid 'saying' things to you, then?"
"Believe it or not that is a discipline that can be learned. Captain Picard is fairly good at blocking his emotions from me, and I've met other humans who know how to shield themselves as well. If you'd like, I could teach you how to shield yourself, once this is over. It won't be perfect and it won't stand up to a truly powerful telepath, such as my mother, but I can tell how much you resent having your emotions read, and it's not pleasant for me to deal with any more than it is for you. I'd really rather not hear you if I could avoid it."
He looked at her for a long moment. His face was unreadable, but she sensed disbelief warring with hope. "All right," he finally said. "When we're done with this whole moon thing, you teach me how to shield from you, and then you'll be spared having to deal with my absolute misery at having fallen to this pathetic state."
"That seems fair."
"Find out from Picard if he's made any progress with the Vulcans."
As it turned out, the Captain hadn't, and so she was left with nothing to do but sit in a room with Q, who had something to do and was doing it but was growing painfully impatient with not being able to get started on the actual project. He couldn't keep his mind on his work; he got up, paced, ranted about the idiocy of Vulcans, and generally fretted. It was late, and it had been a long day. Troi had a cup of raktajino and a slice of chocolate cake-- the one to stay awake, the other to keep her mood balanced enough so she didn't start shouting at Q. Q demanded the same, discovered he couldn't stand raktajino, tried the Earl Grey the captain was so fond of, whined that it burned his mouth, got a lukewarm one, drank it, and fifteen minutes later had to be talked through the process of using the bathroom for the first time. Apparently Q had eaten and drunk so little today that that aspect of biological functioning hadn't come up yet. His disgust translated into a nausea so profound it made Troi queasy, but they both managed to get through it without either of them losing their chocolate cakes and caffeinated drinks. Fortunately, while Q was obsessively washing his hands afterward for the fourth ongoing minute, Picard contacted them to send over the specs he had finally managed to cajole out of the Vulcans, and having something concrete to work with finally snapped Q out of his compulsive handwashing fit.
There wasn't much she could do except look over Q's shoulder as he worked. She knew enough about the science behind telepathy that she was able to follow what he was doing, more or less, although she never could have duplicated it. What he was constructing was not a telepathic amplifier per se; it was an artificial telepathy generator, a device that could allow any creature with any baseline level of psi to manifest active telepathic communication with anything that could receive it. She wouldn't be able to read minds any better than she already could, but she'd be able to open a link to a receptive being and communicate with them.
The first model they got out of the replicator, after Q fed in the specs, didn't work at all. It had no unpleasant side effects, it just didn't work. Q speculated that it was too Vulcan-specific still and started making modifications to the specs... and then the collision alert went off.
"Counselor, Q," LaForge's voice came over the comm, "we have incoming. The Calamarain have broken through external shielding. We're compensating now but you're going to have to watch your own shielding."
Q pushed out of the chair. "Take over."
"Why? I don't have a lot of experience with modulating shields, Q."
"Yes, but if they break through I won't be able to do anything about modulating the shields, and I'd rather not lose a minute or so to you trying to squeeze into my seat without getting electrocuted."
He had a point. She sat down and looked over the board. Though she was no expert, she had gone through the required courses at the Academy and had some idea of how to modulate a shield. Still, she'd prefer guidance from an expert. "Geordi, Q's given control of the shielding over to me in case the Calamarain do break through. I might need some details from you on what to do."
"That's fine if we need it. I'll let you know."
She turned in her seat. Q was leaning against a back wall, breathing hard, though not quite hyperventilating. His fear was a living thing, closing her own throat and making her hands tremble. She took a deep breath herself, concentrating on separation disciplines. Q was only human, no greater psi ability now than any human had. At least, so she assumed. She should be able to block him out enough to do what needed to be done. "We'll be all right, Q," she said, as casually as she could. "Geordi's working to get shields back up, and we're behind shields here. You should be fine."
"So you say." He closed his eyes, head leaning back against the bulkhead. "I doubt that sitting around waiting for gruesome death or torment is ever going to be one of my favorite pastimes, though."
"It's not really anyone's favorite pastime. But once you've lived through a number of life-threatening situations, you get used to it. Ensigns on their first mission out after graduating Starfleet Academy are usually every bit as frightened as you are, but they usually have a job to occupy their attention."
"Well, if I keep working and the Calamarain do get through and attack, they're likely to fry any data storage materials I'm touching. Aren't they using radiation? Doesn't that do long-term damage to humans? It'd be just like Crusher not to tell me I'll be dead in half a year anyway from the cell damage or something."
"I think that if you were facing long-term damage, Dr. Crusher would have told you. And I do understand-- "
The shuttle rocked hard. Troi spun around in her chair to face the board. "Geordi! Give me a modulation sequence? We're under attack!"
"Try increasing the wave frequency by 5 percent!"
"Increase the wave frequency as much as you can," Q said. "The tighter the frequency the harder it will be for the Calamarain to simply slip through. If they have to batter down the shield, your pals in Engineering will have some time to get the ship's shields back up."
"Geordi, Q says I should increase to maximum because that will make it the hardest for the Calamarain to get through. Does that make sense?"
"No, it'll use up your power curve too quickly. Do what I said, but then continue to steadily increase if it looks like they're getting through."
"What are you powering this thing on, hamster wheels?" Q asked indignantly.
Troi ignored that. She watched the readouts nervously. It looked as if shields were holding, but she was no expert. "Geordi? When are we expecting main shielding to come up?"
"We're working on it. Should be another few minutes."
"Great," Q said. "Peachy." He began to pace in circles in the back of the shuttle. "Can you tell how absolutely thrilled I am with this?"
"Actually, yes, I can, and I wish you would try to calm down. You're not making matters any easier for me."
"Calm down? There are beings trying to kill me and the only thing standing between me and painful death is an incompetent Betazoid who apparently learned how to control shielding from Pakleds!"
"You could take over."
"If this goes on much longer I just might."
The shuttle had been shaking repeatedly as the Calamarain kept attacking the shields. Abruptly the shaking stopped. "Is that good or bad?" Q asked.
"Do we have shields, Geordi?"
"No," LaForge answered, not quite able to hide the irritation in his voice. "Counselor, the moment we have shields back up, I'll let you know."
She sensed an abrupt spike of terror, and swiveled around. The air vent in the back of the shuttle was glowing. "Tell him to hurry," Q said, voice trembling with his fear, "or there won't be much point."
Troi turned back to the board. The link to engineering had died-- the Calamarain seemed to be scrambling the coms. Frantically she tried to remodulate the shuttlecraft's shields. The Calamarain seemed to be matching anything she did. In the mirror of the dark viewscreen of the shuttle, she could see the glow ooze out of the air vent and then fly free, aiming directly at Q, who had backed up as far as he could go and was now in the corner. His fear was unbalancing her, making it hard for her to think. Desperately she tried what he'd suggested before, pushing the shielding frequency to maximum. It didn't work.
"Do something!" Q screamed.
She could see the glow envelop Q. He began slapping at it, running his hands over his body as if he were covered with insects. "No-- no, stop, get off get off me, stop--"
Nothing was working. She spun in the chair. Q was lifting off the ground, sliding up the bulkhead as if he'd been magnetized to it, kicking frantically. Every instinct told her to try to pull him free, but since doing that had almost killed Data, she knew it wasn't possible. "Q! I tried maximum frequency and they're matching it! Is there anything else I can try?"
Q didn't seem to be able to hear her. His eyes were fixed on the glow around his body, and his cries had stopped being words and had become choked, unintelligible groans. Troi ran over as close as she dared approach and shouted. "Q! The coms are down-- if you can't answer me I can't help you!"
He looked at her then. "Ngguh-- help-- puh-- please--"
His voice was strangled. They were probably impairing his breathing. It looked as if they were pushing him into the bulkhead behind him. "I will, but you need to tell me what I can do! I tried maximum frequency and they matched it. What else can I do?"
"Rap-- aagh-- nuh-- rapid-- aggh-- shifts!"
She turned back to the board, and cycled the frequency down to the lowest it could go, then the highest, then the lowest again, as fast as she could punch the buttons on the board. The glow faded, and she heard a thump and a cry as Q fell.
She ran over to him. "Q!"
"Keep… keep cycling… shields," he mumbled.
"You need help."
"I… need… no more attacks. Keep… cycling. I'll live. I think."
"All right." She went back to the board and kept running the shields through the rapid cycling until the coms came back up a minute later and she heard LaForge's voice.
"We've got shields back up, Counselor."
"Thank God. Let me know if anything more happens." She turned to Q, who had pulled himself to a sitting position and had drawn his knees up to his body, arms wrapped around them and head resting on his knees. He was rocking slightly, his body visibly trembling, and his emotional state was all aftershock, helplessness and exhaustion and a fear that had gone from acute to chronic. She went to him and bent down beside him. "Q? Do you need Dr. Crusher?"
"No," he whispered. "No, I… I've got to keep working or they'll do it again."
"If you need medical help you need to get it before you can get back to work."
"I didn't die the last two times this happened," Q snapped. He struggled to his feet, swayed, and almost fell. Troi offered him support, helping him over to the chair. "Ohhhh… I can't see right. Everything's too bright. My head…"
"You might have a migraine from the attack. I'll get Dr. Crusher."
"No! How many times do I have to tell you? I don't need her. I just… I just have to get over it. You humans deal with things like this all the time."
"We deal with it by getting medical help. Why don't you want me to call Dr. Crusher?"
"Because there's no time! I don't want that to happen again-- ever again. I've got to get this thing built so you can talk to them and call them off." He looked up at her, eyes wide. "They're going to attack me again. And again, and again, and you can't protect me forever. I don't-- I can't stand it, it hurts. If I have to put up with working while I feel like my eyeballs might explode and drip off my face, to make sure they don't come back…"
"All right. I have some medical training, as a counselor. I'll scan you and if there's any nonprescription medication I can get for you, I will. You can start working again."
She was actually impressed, although she wasn't going to say so. She could fairly easily sense that Q was completely terrorized, as well as in pain. But the fact that he was trying to channel his fear into something constructive, that he was trying to solve his problem instead of just whining about it and expecting other people to save him, was a great improvement from earlier today. Telling Q this, however, was probably a bad idea right now; his mood was extremely dark and his temper on a hairtrigger, and he'd probably take it as patronizing.
When she ran a scan on Q, the basic medical training she had as a counselor told her he was beyond her help. He needed Beverly, whether he wanted to admit it or not. She retreated to the bathroom as Q began working. "Troi to Crusher."
"Crusher here. What’s wrong, Deanna?"
"I think Q needs medical attention. We were just attacked by the Calamarain. He's complaining of a migraine headache, and when I scanned him I see definite signs of distended blood vessels in the brain; I think he might be at risk for an aneurysm or a stroke."
"All right, send him up."
"Actually I was hoping you'd come here. Q didn't want to take time from his work to go to Sickbay, and that's an attitude I want to encourage. You'd be very surprised, Beverly; he's been hurt, he's terrified, and yet he's actually managing to channel the fear into doing something useful instead of complaining about it."
"Maybe he's already had a stroke and it's caused a radical personality change."
Troi laughed. "You'd almost think. But no, I think this is genuine. He thinks that the work he's doing is the only thing that will stop him from being attacked again. Since he's essentially right, I don't want to try to talk him into going to Sickbay."
Beverly sighed. "All right. I suppose we don't want him to have a stroke."
"Hippocratic Oath, Beverly," Troi said teasingly.
"Yes, I know. Believe me. But I can't tell you how glad I'll be when he's off this ship and some other doctor's problem."
Q paid no attention as Troi returned, too busy sketching things on a PADD and muttering to himself. However, when Beverly showed up, he immediately looked at Troi accusingly. "I told you I didn't have time for Dr. Crusher's inept ministrations," he snarled.
"Do you have time to have a stroke? Because you could be headed that way," Beverly said acerbically.
He looked up at her, startled. "A stroke? Aren't you overstating the case just a little, Doctor? I wasn't in any danger of having a stroke the last time this happened."
"Actually, you were. I didn't mention it then because it was easily treatable and I didn't want you panicking and hogging attention while I was trying to treat Data."
"Oh, well, that's brilliant, Crusher. Do you withhold critical medical information from all your patients or am I just lucky?"
"Just lucky, I guess," she said dryly, and gave him a hypo to the neck. Q sagged slightly in his chair, the sudden relief of pain washing over his emotional output, calming him.
"Well, that is better. I suppose you're not wholly incompetent."
"I think you'd be dead by now if I were." She turned to Troi. "Any progress?"
"The last one we tried didn't work."
"I've got a new one now," Q announced. "You can try it."
"I was close to done with it when the Calamarain showed up and kept me from working. Here." He pulled the device out of the replicator. "Try it."
Troi placed the headband on her head-- and immediately screamed. White-hot pain stabbed through her head like shards of jagged light. She ripped the headband off and dropped it to the floor, fingers suddenly nerveless.
"Well, that looks like we're on the right track," Q said.
"On the right track? Q, that hurt."
"Yes, I guessed that from all the screaming." He picked up the headband. "But since the last one did nothing, this may be some improvement. Let's check to be sure it's actually affecting your telepathy in some way." He put it lightly on his own head, and his face screwed up slightly as if in concentration or perhaps mild pain. "I'm guessing, due to my lack of desire to shriek and throw this, that the headache it's giving me is considerably less than the one it was giving you." He took the headband off and handed it toward Beverly. "Dr. Crusher. You're undoubtedly an expert on headaches, being a working mom to a wunderkind and all. Perhaps you'd like to try it. Purely in the interests of science, of course."
"Why would I need to try it?" Beverly asked warily.
"Because I'm trying to figure out whether it caused dear Deanna such excruciating pain by affecting her telepathy, or if it does that to everyone. It's hurting my head, but I just apparently had a narrow escape from a migraine-induced stroke, and besides I have too little experience with pain to be able to say whether this is mild or severe. And as a former Q, for all I know I have some kind of holdover telepathic sensitivity anyway. So that doesn't prove much."
Beverly took the band and put it on. "I don't... no, there it is, I feel it. I'm getting a very mild headache, sort of like eyestrain. Is that what you felt, Deanna?"
"No, mine was more like shards of glass being stuck through my eyes."
"Very good. It's working. Just a little fine-tuning needed."
"Q, if that was working..."
"Oh, it's not supposed to hurt that much if it works properly, Deanna. Don't be such a wuss."
The notion of Q telling her not to be such a wuss was so staggering in its hypocrisy and inappropriateness that Troi could only stare at him, gaping. "I can see learning what pain feels like hasn't improved your compassion any," she finally managed to say.
"I really wouldn't be going around calling other people wusses if I were you, Q," Beverly said. "Pot? Kettle? Black?"
"Well, yes, kettle, I freely admit that I'm blacker than thou, but you're supposed to be used to it. And no, I'm not without compassion. I didn't say we would use the device in its current condition. I also, in case you didn't notice, tried it on myself after you started the hysterical screaming and writhing. So if I want to call you a wuss I will. Wuss."
"I guess it takes one to know one?" Beverly asked.
"Crusher, why don't you go away and let me work? I can't concentrate with your inane blathering."
Beverly looked at Troi with a frankly disbelieving look on her face and an emotional makeup part disbelief, part being appalled. Troi shrugged, smiling sympathetically. It wasn't as if she could do anything about the basic fact that Q was an ass. Although she'd noticed him being much more dismissive of and nasty to Beverly than to Troi herself, and she couldn't figure that out. He'd put her on trial in their first encounter and then she hadn't been here for the time he tempted Will with omnipotence, and he'd ignored her last time, and this time he'd accused her of mentally raping him. From all she knew, he had had no dealings with Beverly at all the first time, ignored her the time he came for Will, and she hadn't been here at all during the Borg thing the last time. He really had had very few dealings with her at all, so why was he so much more irritated with her and so much more ready to turn the full force of his vicious tongue on her than he was with Troi? It didn't entirely make sense. True, Troi had just saved his life, but then, Beverly had done that three times today.
Beverly left. Q continued to work, and recruited her to try two more versions of the device-- one which didn't cause pain per se, but made her perceptions so sensitive that she almost collapsed from suddenly sensing everyone on the ship, and one which, apparently, inverted her powers so that she started broadcasting her emotions at Q, who found the experience disconcerting-- before they got one that appeared to work. She successfully managed to send a test message to Q. The Calamarain had tried to break the Enterprise's exterior shielding in this time period, but hadn't succeeded. It was 0130 hours, three and a half hours after they'd begun work, and Troi was exhausted, despite the third cup of raktajino this evening. The caffeine was making her jittery, and Q's nervousness wasn't helping.
"If you think we're ready, we should do this."
"What if you can't actually use it to communicate with the Calamarain? We'd be letting them in-- we won't have a chance to kick them back out again if it turns out negotiations fall apart."
"I think we have to take that risk, Q. We know we can't hold them off indefinitely."
"But they might not even listen to you. They're generally contemptuous of your form of life. Even if you can talk to them--"
"Q, we've been through this. If they won't listen, we'll have Geordi listening in on the coms, and he'll be able to re-tune the shields to force them back out. But we have to at least try negotiating with them-- right? Didn't you say that?"
"It's perfectly natural to be afraid. But if this isn't going to work we need to know that as quickly as possible."
He sagged in his chair, leaning forward on the console and propping his forehead up with his hand, elbow on the console. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. Just... do it. Go ahead. Tell LaForge."
She commed LaForge. "We're ready. I'm going to leave this comlink open, so you can reset the shields if things go wrong."
"Good thinking, Counselor. Ready when you are."
The ship shook, once, and then the glow reappeared on the surface of the darkened viewscreen. Q pushed back from the console, backing up. With the device on her head,Troi spoke out loud to help her focus the outward communication. "Wait!"
//::impatience::/why wait?/trick the chaos-bringer is trying to trick us/a trap!::fear/anger:://
"No! This isn't a trick-- I want to talk to you. I want to understand why you're doing this."
//no need to talk/no need to understand/the chaos-bringer is there! destroy it!/::disbelief::/what is this thing? why is it talking to us?/wants to understand/understand what? what can it understand?//
"I want to understand why you want to kill the Chaos Bringer. Can you explain what he's done?"
//::hate::it destroys/brings chaos/disrupts the PROPER ORDER OF THINGS!/not just, not fair, not right!/it must die it must die/::anger/vengeance:://
"He can certainly be disruptive, but why does he deserve to die just for disrupting the proper order of things? Surely such intelligent beings as yourself can restore order--"
//doesn't understand it doesn't understand/can't understand! it's a thing/why are we even wasting our time?//
Her head pounded. The chorus of voices in her head shouted their need for vengeance, their disdain for her. "Listen to me! The being you call the Chaos-Bringer is trying to save a planet with several billion people on it! Surely justice would demand that you allow him to make that attempt--"
//billions of meat things? who CARES?/::IMPATIENCE::/Justice demands we destroy the chaos-bringer!/right there, vulnerable, trapped in meat/afraid oh yes taste its fear/it must be DESTROYED!/now now NOW//
"Please wait! Isn't there any recompense we can arrange? Anything that can be done to repay you for what he's done?"
//it must die/death! death will wash away the disorder/restructure/free us from the chaos it has brought!/the legacy haunts us still//
"I understand your desire for justice and your need to balance the scales, but there are billions of lives at stake. If we need to divert our resources to protecting him from you so he can work on stopping Bre'el IV's moon from falling, then we won't--"
//you things are PROTECTING it?/::rage::/we have told you what it's done! we have told you what we require!//
"No, you haven't told me what he's done, except in the most general sense, and we can't surrender someone to be killed just because he's accused of fomenting chaos!"
//::RAGE::/you protect it/::FURY::/you will share its fate!/kill/kill/kill them all/kill the meat creatures//
"You don't need to kill anyone! We can come to some sort of understanding if you'd just talk--"
And then the glow was on her. It felt like a thousand tiny insects made of sparks, as if fireflies actually gave off fire and were crawling all over her skin. She yelped, startled.
"Good going, Troi! Give me that--" She felt Q grab the band off her head. Troi stumbled, lurching. She caught herself up against the chair, realized the glow was no longer touching her or burning her, and turned.
Q had put on the headband and was completely encircled in the glow, his eyes closed, his face drawn in an expression of intense concentration. Although the glow surrounded him, it wasn't actually touching him. She could no longer "hear" the conversation without the amplifier on her head; all she could get was Q's emotional state, and the faintest resonant echo of communication, like hearing a conversation through a thick bulkhead. She got that he was communicating faster than she had been-- perhaps as a former entity of pure thought, he was adept enough at communicating without words that even with the handicap of a human brain he didn't actually need to voice his side of the conversation and could "speak" at the speed of thought.
At first she sensed nothing but desperation and resolve. She went to the shielding, hands hovering over the controls, prepared to begin the rapid shifts in shielding if they tried to attack. Q's desperation grew more acute, shading into panic, his emotional state becoming more and more frantic. The Calamarain still circled him without closing in, so she didn't try resetting the shields. She couldn't imagine how he could be negotiating with them when they wouldn't even talk to her-- what would they say to him, besides chanting at him that he needed to die? But they hadn't attacked yet. He must be getting somewhere. At least he must be holding them off. But the panic grew, resonating in the small room until it took all her control not to scream in terror and run. Her hand on the shielding controls trembled; her heart pounded until her vision swam. Despair overwhelmed her, and though she knew it wasn't her own emotion she couldn't blot it out.
And then everything stopped.
For just a moment, she couldn't feel anything at all from Q. It was as if the panic had shut off, like he'd thrown some sort of mental switch. But it wasn't any kind of mental shield-- in the quiet that followed, she began to be able to "hear" other emotions. Exhaustion-- emotional exhaustion, not physical. Resignation. Grief and fear, muted by the exhaustion and resignation. And something else, something almost-- tender? protective? Possessive-protective. Something was his and he would defend it.
The Calamarain drained away, the glow drawing back into the walls. Q swayed on his feet. Troi went to him, catching him and helping him to a chair again. He took the headband off and dropped his hands to the console. They were shaking, and he studied them with interest, some sort of numbness and dissociation spreading through his emotional state so that the fact that his hands were trembling seemed to actually surprise him somehow. Or maybe everything surprised him. Maybe being alive surprised him.
"What happened?" Troi asked him. "What did you say?"
"Give me a minute," he said, his voice hoarse.
She went and got him a drink of water. Sipping at it seemed to calm him somewhat, as she'd hoped it would do. She got a mug of hot chocolate for herself and sipped that, running through her distinction disciplines, letting the outside emotions drain out of her. It helped that Q was almost numb. She couldn't tell if that was a good thing or not. Dissociation after a traumatic event was over was not uncommon, but she sensed no feeling of relief from Q, only weary resignation and resolve. Whatever this was, it wasn't over.
She waited for him to speak. He finished the glass of water, and pushed the empty glass around on the console idly for about half a minute before finally looking up at Troi. There was a smile on his face, an almost perfect lie. A human might never have caught him out, but there was nothing she could sense in his emotional state consistent with that beaming smile.
"Well! Despite your utter incompetence at negotiating, I seem to have saved the day. The Calamarain won't be bothering you again. You're free to go about your petty little rescue mission."
"We are? What about you?"
"It's not my rescue mission. I'm simply graciously helping you out because otherwise Picard would have left me in the brig."
"So what did you promise them?"
"Nothing anyone's going to have any difficulty doing without, I assure you. I managed to convince them that it would, after all, be the height of unfairness to let several billion innocent mortals die because of their quest for justice, and that killing me would make it quite impossible for you to save those people given how stupid you all are."
His emotions had absolutely nothing to do with his insulting words. She sensed another wave of that protective/possessive tenderness from him, and grief, and acceptance/resignation, numbing the grief down. "They didn't seem to me to have any interest in preserving those lives."
"That's because they look at you as roughly equivalent to an insect. Despite my reduced state, I am at least a being they can respect. Despise, perhaps, but respect. When I realized they were attacking you, I figured that I was going to need to step in and try to close the deal before you got the whole ship destroyed with your incompetence."
"If they wouldn't listen to me because I'm an insect, then it was hardly my incompetence, Q. It was their bigotry."
He waved a hand airily. "Details."
And he had successfully sidetracked her with an insult. "What exactly did you offer them, Q?"
"Yes, you said that, but what?"
"Troi, I assure you. The Calamarain will do nothing to harm you, or this ship, or any of its crew, or any other ship in the area, or the people in the Bre'el system. It's all taken care of. Now if you don't mind I'd like to get back to engineering."
"I do mind. I want to know what you offered them. I'm going to have to report the result of the negotiations to the captain, and I need to know exactly what it was."
Q made a face. "It's embarrassing. I don't want to talk about it." Grief, self-pity. Protectiveness. Resignation. Numbness.
"But I need to know. Unless you'd rather I put on the headset and tried to talk to the Calamarain again."
Alarm. "No, no, that's hardly necessary. I'll have to perform some sort of stupid, humiliating propitiating ritual in three days. For which I absolutely demand complete privacy, by the way, it's bad enough I have to humiliate myself to protect Picard's little tugboat without you people witnessing my humiliation." Fear. Self-pity. Resignation, leading to the numbness again.
He was lying. His emotional state was completely inconsistent with what he was telling her. She studied him, eyes narrowed, wondering if she should call him on it.
But if she did, he'd probably make up some other, somewhat more plausible story. There was only one person on this ship he might possibly tell the truth to, only one person he had any emotional vulnerability to. Only Captain Picard had any hope of getting the truth out of Q if Q was determined to lie. And really, the façade he was putting up was quite amazing. The waves of grief and despair that kept randomly surfacing and hitting him would have most people fighting off tears. Q had molded his face into a perfect semblance of sarcastic, flippant invulnerability. Without her empathic powers she'd never have known he was lying.
"All right," she said. "Go on to Engineering, and I'll report to the captain."
Although it was very late, she was sure Picard would still be awake. She commed him as Q left. "We're done, Captain. The negotiations are completed; apparently the Calamarain will leave us alone for at least three days."
"Very good, Counselor. What happens in three days?"
"That's a good question, sir. I'd like to talk to you about that."
"All right. I'm in my ready room. Come on up."
"On my way."