Only Human

Part II: Ketaya

About an hour and a half after they were under way, Q came up from engineering, where he'd spent the entire time since he'd dropped off his bag in his room, onto the bridge. "This is incredible," he said. "Have you any idea what sort of drive you have?"

"One that goes very fast, I'm told," T'Laren said. She found it vaguely amusing that the first thing Q'd done was to examine the engines-- both her father and Soram had been engineers, and it struck her as a particularly male thing to do.

"'One that goes very fast.' Toys in the hands of children." He paced around the bridge. "Your ship has a transwarp engine, my dear. Have you any idea how fast that goes?"

"Lhoviri said it would do warp-equivalent 13. Federation starships can't go higher than 10."

"No one using warp can go higher than 10, T'Laren-- it's a physical impossibility. Do you know what he's done?"

It was somewhat hard to tell whether Q was agitated or excited. "Who? Lhoviri?"

"He's taken a Thetaran drive and jury-rigged it to work in an obsolete Federation luxury yacht, is what he's done. This is just unbelievable!"

"Why is it unbelievable?" T'Laren gave up on trying to keep her eyes on the console, and swiveled to follow Q with her eyes as he paced. "And what's a Thetaran drive?"

"The Thetarans were the dominant spacefaring race of a conglomerate much like your Federation, about... oh, two thousand years ago, I'd say. At least, that was their peak. They lived out in what you call the Beta Quadrant, deep in unexplored space, and they had a highly advanced technology in comparison to the Federation's, though in real terms they weren't actually any more advanced than, say Vulcans. Lhoviri's taken one of their drives and dropped it into this boat, rather like putting a modern antigrav unit into the body of a 20th-century antique automobile. He's jury-rigged the connections so it'll run off dilithium crystals-- have you tried to use the transwarp drive yet?"

"There didn't seem to be a need."

"Well, there's no way it'll sustain any power over time. Dilithium crystals simply can't handle transwarp stresses. If we try to use our superior speed for any length of time, bang, our crystals are gone." He made an explosion gesture. "The Thetarans used six-dimensional helical matrix crystals. Dilithium's only a fourth-dimensional transverse helix. There's no way our dilithium crystals can maintain the transwarp field without subspace resonances tearing them apart. Did I ever mention that Lhoviri's an idiot?"

"Does this mean we can't use the transwarp drive?"

"Without transwarp, dear doctor, this cattle boat can only do 9.6. Not bad, mind you, but not good enough. And yes, we can use transwarp, if we want to risk blowing our crystals-- and he's tied the crystals into the secondary power net, which means we could risk losing all power, drifting in space-- we have any spare dilithium on board?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"Get some." He sighed. "I can rig a circuit breaker so the crystals don't blow, at least. They'll shatter under the stress, but that's an improvement over an explosion. I just don't know why he had to do it like this. Why not set up a permanent negative inertial field around the engines and put an ordinary warp core in? It would have been so much simpler."

"Could you do that?" Whatever it was. T'Laren wondered if Q realized quite how far the technobabble was going over her head. What was a fourth-dimensional transverse helix, anyway?

Q laughed unpleasantly. "Not for the past three years," he said. "What I'm talking about is what we in the business technically refer to as throwing the laws of physics out the window."

"If Lhoviri did something that broke the laws of physics, wouldn't he have to expend power-- or at least concentration-- to maintain it?"

"No, no. I'm talking about setting up a mild singularity-- a permanent negative inertial field, decreasing our effective mass, which would conversely increase our potential speed. We'd still hit the warp 10 barrier, but if you can do 9.999, no one in this sector of space will be catching you anytime soon. Or he could have set up a transwarp conduit generation matrix, or-- You're not following any of this, are you?"

"I'm no engineer."

"All right. The take-home lesson, in very simple terms, is that Lhoviri's an idiot and his non-intervention policy could get us both killed, unless either I iron the bugs out of dilithium replication or we stock up somewhere." Q ran out of breath and sank down in a chair, looking suddenly exhausted, and rather surprised. "That was fast."

"Are you all right?"

He frowned, seeming to think about it. "No... I don't think so," he said. "Let's see... how quickly I get my breath back... and I'll tell you."

T'Laren got up and went over to him. "You've been pushing yourself too hard," she said severely. "You know you're not well yet. You should have been resting, not wandering all over our engine room for an hour and a half."

"I'm resting now." He lay his head back against the chair, closed his eyes, and took a few deep breaths. "I hate this."

"Your weakness, you mean."

"Yes." Q opened his eyes and glared at her. "And no snide comments about how it's all my fault. I'm well aware it's my fault, thank you."

"I'm not in the habit of making snide comments," T'Laren said. She decided to change the subject. "Now that you're here, perhaps we can discuss our itinerary. Where would you like to go?"

"I don't know. Where is there?"

"I had a few different places in mind." She called the choices up on the computer, more for his sake as she remembered them perfectly well. "The Federation Archeological Society is having its annual conference in three weeks. This year the conference is on Chatimore Prime in the Eyrie system. One of the main topics of discussion: did the Chatimari evolve from the Eyrians of Eyrie 2, 3 and 5, or did they evolve independently?"

"They evolved independently. Actually they were dumped there by the Preservers. But they're no relation to the Eyrians; they just look that way because of interbreeding."

T'Laren looked at him, trying to determine if he were serious or not. "I don't need to know the answer. I merely wanted to know if you wish to attend the conference."

"It'll probably be mind-numbingly dull. Who'll be there? Is Picard going to-- damn." Q fell silent for a moment. He stared into nothing with a look that might have been anger, or grief. "I keep forgetting."

He showed every sign of becoming lost in introspective pain. T'Laren handed him a datapad with the list of names on it. "Q. Here's a list of the attendees."

Q blinked and took the pad from her, shaking himself out of the incipient depression. "Right." He studied the pad. "Dull, dull, dull. I don't know any of these people. I suppose it might be entertaining to crash the conference and shoot down all their ridiculous theories, but there has to be more to life than that. What else is there?"

"There's the wormhole near Bajor, the one that opens up on the Gamma Quadrant."

"Hmm." Q considered that. "The Gamma Quadrant is an entertaining place, but only if you've got a year or more to spend there, even if your starship can go warp 13. And I'm not sure I want to spend that much time away from civilization."

"The Gamma Quadrant is uncivilized?"

"You know what I mean. It's dangerous for me to be that far away from anyone who would be sympathetic to me. The entire universe of people I once wronged seem to know who I am, but none of the entities I ever helped out apparently remember me."

"Did you ever help anyone out?"

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth is a suspicious Vulcan," Q said, pressing his hands to his chest in a melodramatic gesture. "You hurt me, T'Laren, you really do. Of course I helped people... not that most of them realized what I was doing at the time. In fact, a large number of the people who want me dead are people I helped. Not everyone has the perspective to understand what's good for them."

T'Laren had her own theories on that, but she let it pass. "The third possibility I'd thought of was the singularity in the Abister system. They're apparently holding an open physics conference regarding it aboard the Yamato-- luminaries from all over have been invited, not just members of the Federation."

"Refresh my memory. What is this singularity?"

"No one knows. The Yamato was stationed there, studying it, for six weeks, and couldn't figure out what's causing it, so Starfleet's decided to host a physics conference. Singularities aren't supposed to simply come into existence for no apparent reason, as I understand it, and it seems that this may pose a threat of some kind."

"Let me see the guest list."

She handed it to him. He scanned it with evident glee. "Daedalus!"

"Who?" There was no 'Daedalus' on the guest list.

"Dr. Peter Markow. I know him. And a Klingon-- ooh, the redoubtable Dr. Morakh. Now this I've got to see." He frowned at the final entry. "Who's this Professor Yalit?"

"It says she's an associate professor at the Makropyrios."

"I am well aware of what it says, T'Laren. I can indeed read most Federation scripts. I thought I knew everyone associated with the Makropyrios-- it's the most prestigious physics institute in the Federation, and a good number of its graduates and professorial staff have ended up on my doorstep." He scrutinized the datapad. "This says associate professor."

"Yes. I can read as well, Q."

"Associate means she doesn't work there, though she might have once and she almost certainly graduated the place. Let's see her bio." He called up the biographical notes. These were painfully brief-- Yalit had graduated the Makropyrios 56 years ago, with honors, worked there as a lecturer for ten years, and then left for parts unknown. A publication list was appended, but with no sourcepoint for her manuscripts. "I don't believe it. They don't even list her species here! What is she, a Romulan?"

"That would be listed. And Yalit isn't a Romulan name."

"I've never heard of this woman. Well." Q put down the datapad. "It seems we're going to the conference on the Yamato, then. What's our ETA?"

T'Laren did some quick calculations. "At warp 6, three weeks."

"Warp 6? This ship can do warp-equivalent 13 and you want to tootle along at 6?"

"You just told me that traveling at transwarp speeds can damage our power supply. Unless it's necessary, I'd prefer not to risk it. The conference doesn't actually begin for 18 days-- and you need the time to recuperate. If spending an hour and a half on your feet exhausts you, you would never make it through a two-week conference."

"I suppose you have a point." He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes again, smiling. "It's difficult to be annoying when one has to sit down and shut up every fifteen minutes or so."

"If I were you, I would find something to take pride in other than my prowess at being annoying."

"Like what?" Q opened his eyes. "My good looks? My charm? My usefulness to the universe? Let's face it, T'Laren, I'm a luxury. I'm sure the Federation would like to keep me around, but they don't need me. No one needs me. No one's needed me since the Borg were defeated. Which leaves me exactly two things that I'm good at: I'm very smart, and I'm very annoying." He shrugged. "One needs to make the most of one's assets."

"Making the most of one's deficits, however, is not generally a useful policy."

"There you go again, expecting me to be logical. Of course it's not a useful policy. Very little of what I've done for the past three years has been useful."

He was trying to provoke a pointless argument. "Why don't I walk you back to your room?" T'Laren asked. "I can show you around Ketaya on the way."

"Did you ever notice how often you change the subject when you're talking to me?" Q asked.

"Did you ever notice how often you continue to discuss a subject after you have nothing more to say?" T'Laren replied.

Q's eyebrows went up. "Oh, good. Very good," he said, nodding slowly. "Very well, T'Laren. Let's go exploring." He stood up and headed for the back of the bridge. "What's behind this door?"

"My quarters," T'Laren said, as the door swooshed open and he entered.

She followed close behind. Q was standing in the middle of her study/living room, looking around. "The privileges of command," he said. "This is certainly bigger than my quarters."

"The captain's quarters is the largest living suite on the ship," she said. "Then come the passenger suites, where you are, and then the crew suites, which are rather tiny, comparatively."

He wandered into her bedroom. T'Laren considered telling him that that was extremely rude, and decided against it. In his current mood, that was no doubt the effect he was aiming for. "How long have you been living here?" he asked.

"Four months."

"No decorations, no pictures of the folks back home... Not even an obscure Vulcan musical instrument to liven up the decor. Are all the rooms you've lived in this devoid of personality, or is it something new you're experimenting with?"

That hit a nerve. T'Laren remembered telling Anderson that Q could not offend her unless she chose to be offended, and concentrated on the disciplines. "They've all been this way," she said dryly. "It's a Vulcan meditative discipline."

"Really." He stepped out of the bedroom. "I think you're attempting humor."

"If I told you that I found your behavior immensely offensive and demanded that you stop, would that satisfy you?" T'Laren asked calmly. "Would you stop probing for weaknesses and behave like a rational human being? Or will you insist on playing these games for a few more hours?"

Q blinked at her. "Do you always do that?"

"What?"

"Ask questions based on a conversation's meta-structure. Normal people don't do that. I think you've been a psychologist too long."

"Occasionally it helps," she said.

"Do you find my behavior immensely offensive and want to demand that I stop?"

"Undoubtedly if I said 'yes', you would say 'good', and continue as you've been doing."

"I take it that means 'yes, but I'm not going to tell you so.'"

"You would take it incorrectly. I am aware that your intention is that I be offended. For the sake of teaching you to stop behaving offensively, I had considered explaining to you why your behavior is unacceptable. I think you know why your behavior is unacceptable, however, and right now perhaps it would be more valuable to teach you that you cannot offend me."

"Will you stop doing that!" Q exploded. "Every time I say something you answer as if you're writing a paper on the behavior of Q! Stop analyzing me!"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow in an almost-smiling gesture. "It seems I've found something that offends you first," she said.

"What, is this a contest?"

"That's your decision. Do you want this to be a contest?"

He took a deep breath. "No-I-do-not-want-this-to-be-a-contest," he snapped back at her on one exhalation, and ran out of air, gasping at the end. "All right. You win. You can do the metalevels thing as well as I can, you can treat me like an object for study well enough to really get on my nerves, I concede. You can beat me in a conversational battle anytime I'm depressed, exhausted and half-dead. I bow to my better. What do you want me to do?"

She doubted the games were over-- games were far too integral a part of the way Q dealt with people-- but the fact that she'd gotten him to admit they were there and agree to stop them was a good first step. "I would like for you to let me walk you back to your room, as you're tired and irritable and could use a rest. On the way I could show you around the ship, or we can wait for another time."

"Fine. Show me around the ship. Whatever."

T'Laren had heard more enthusiastic reactions in her time, but at least he was cooperating.

Ketaya's body was that of a Tamlin-class luxury yacht, a small ship designed for 2-6 crewmembers and with the ability to carry up to four passengers, more if they roomed together. Tamlin-class ships could be privately owned by wealthy people as their personal transportation, or could be used by a small crew for ferrying passengers on pleasure cruises. As a result, it was slightly schizoid, trying in different locations to be either cozy or luxurious. The observation deck definitely fell on the luxurious side. T'Laren guided Q back onto the bridge and out the door in the front, leading onto the balcony for the forward dining room/observation room. This room spanned three of Ketaya's four decks, occupying almost all of the forward bow, with a curved transparent plasteel surface forming the ceiling and three of the walls, exposing the stars. Right now they were in warp, so the computer-imaging function was in effect, turning the bizarre spacescape of subspace into a normal-looking sea of rapidly moving stars. "This is the main dining room and lounge," T'Laren said. "We're on the Deck 1 balcony." She gestured downward. Below, on Deck 2, were six tables, and the pit on Deck 3 contained a fountain, currently deactivated. "This room is primarily intended for guests aboard a space yacht; I doubt we'll be using it much."

"Oh, I agree." Q scowled at the starscape. "This is horrendously overdone."

She stepped back onto the bridge and walked around its perimeter. "This is our transport platform, and down this way, as you've already discovered, is engineering." T'Laren stepped on the turbo-platform down to engineering. After a moment, Q joined her.

They descended past engineering on Deck 2 down to Deck 3. "Sickbay's up on Deck 2, along with the crew's quarters, and on Deck 4, on either side of the airlocks, we keep maintenance equipment and supply closets." T'Laren stepped off the platform as it stopped on Deck 3, and Q followed. "This is the passenger level, so most of the facilities are here. Down that way3/4" she pointed toward the back of the ship-- "is the swimming pool, the sauna, and the gym. Right here is the kitchen."

"What's the point to having a kitchen aboard a starship?" Q asked. "Don't tell me you can cook."

T'Laren shrugged. "If you insist," she said. "You've already dumped your bags in your room, so I presume you know where it is. If you'd rather have any of the other rooms for some reason, they're all along this corridor."

"Who created this monstrosity?" Q stopped in the middle of the corridor. "I mean, yes, obviously Lhoviri created it, but was the internal design plan his idea? Or did you make this up?"

"It's a Tamlin-class yacht, with some slight modifications that I assume are to accommodate the drive. I suggested that he use this type of plan-- when I was young, my parents took me on a trip to Vulcan, and we traveled in a Tamlin-class ship. Why?"

"Because it looks like what would happen if you crossed a starfaring home with a pleasure liner, an unaesthetic combination at best. And who designed the decor, and what is their fetish for the color green?"

"I did. I like green. If you would prefer a different decor, by all means design one." She walked to the door of his room and touched the "open" panel, gesturing for him to go into his room.

Q went in and collapsed on his bed. "It is unbelievable how quickly I get tired," he murmured. "I can't even seem to sustain a conversation."

What he meant, T'Laren thought, was that he couldn't seem to sustain a pointless argument, though he was certainly trying his best. "If you want to take a nap, it'll be a few hours before we're having dinner."

"I can't take a nap. I can't sleep without a sedative." He rolled over and stared at her. "What do you mean by a few hours before dinner? Is there some set time during which the replicators produce food, and at no other time can we get a meal?"

"I would like you to eat with me, in the kitchen."

"Why?"

"Eating together is an important social connector for humans."

"It's meaningless to me and you're a Vulcan, so why bother?"

"You're missing the point," T'Laren said sharply. "I'm here to teach you how to make social connections with your own species, not Vulcans. What is meaningless to you is meaningful to others and costs you very little. So you are going to develop the habit of eating with other people."

"And if I refuse?"

"You will get very hungry."

Q sat up. "You'd lock me out of the replicator system?"

"I already have," T'Laren said. "You can't use a replicator without my supervision." At Q's look of outrage, she tilted her head slightly. "Consider, Q. Would I be sensible to let a known suicide risk use a replicator freely?"

Q's eyes narrowed. "Am I confined to my quarters without your supervision too?"

"No."

"But that would be sensible, too. Why would you let a known suicide risk walk around freely? I could find my way back to the airlocks and space myself. Or drown myself in the swimming pool."

"You could," T'Laren said, nodding. Actually he couldn't. There were safety interlocks on the airlocks so they couldn't be opened with a person inside, and the swimming pool would rapidly drain itself if its biosensors sensed a person in danger of drowning in it. But she saw no need to tell him that-- he would interpret it as a challenge and work to get around it, even if he didn't actually plan to kill himself. "I don't think you will, though."

"Then why aren't you letting me use the replicators?" He stood up and walked over to her. "This is some kind of power trip, isn't it. You're as bad as Anderson. You simply want to control my life." Q loomed over T'Laren. "Isn't that it?"

T'Laren craned her head up to look at him and made no move from her position. Her unshakable calm would make him look paranoid, automatically defusing his argument. It was a useful technique. "You have twice attempted to kill yourself on what appeared to be a momentary impulse. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems as if your first two suicide attempts were not planned in advance. At some moment, it suddenly struck you that your life was unbearable, and you took the first opportunity at hand to correct the situation. Am I right?"

"The third time was planned. I planned that for a month."

T'Laren nodded. "The third time was also far more serious. I think you gave a lot of thought to your decision, and tried to find some other solution. It was less that you wanted to die than that you thought death was the only alternative to your pain. I have presented you with another possible alternative, and I believe you want to try to make this work. You would rather be happy than dead, am I correct?"

Q stepped back from her with a snort of contempt. "Of course I'd rather be happy than dead. Anyone would. What kind of a stupid question is that?"

"And you are an intelligent man, and aware that if this solution is to work, it'll take some time to take effect. You will give me at least a month or two to prove that you can be happy before deciding that this is hopeless and the best solution is still death. Yes?"

"Thank you for putting words in my mouth."

"Am I right?"

Q glared. "Yes, yes. You're right, you're perfectly correct, you're practically omniscient, now get to the point!"

"I don't need to protect you from planned suicides, Q. For a while, at least, you won't plan your own death-- you'll give me some leeway to try to help you. What I need to protect you from is a sudden overwhelming surge of despair that drowns out your reason. I am afraid that if you had a close, convenient, painless method of suicide at hand-- as you would, if you had access to the replicators-- you might be possessed by a sudden desperate desire for oblivion and act on it. If it took a few minutes to arrange your own death, you would have time to reconsider and let your reason reassert itself." She walked over to him, took his hand, and guided him gently over to his bed. "And whether you want to admit it or not, you're glad I took the precaution. You know you cannot entirely trust yourself, and you're glad that someone is thinking of how to catch you if you falter."

He looked as if he would argue with her for a moment. Then he sat down on the bed, resigned and exhausted-looking. "I suppose you're right," he whispered, almost silently-- it might have been inaudible to a human. He looked up at her. "You win. Call me when you want to have dinner-- I'll be unpacking, or resting, or something."

"You should sleep. You look exhausted."

"I am exhausted, but that doesn't mean I'd be able to sleep. My mind isn't tired, just this feeble shell it's trapped in. I'll be all right if I simply rest for an hour or two."

"All right then." She suspected he'd fall asleep anyway, but it wasn't worth pressing the point. "I'll get you for dinner in a few hours."


To her surprise, he was not asleep when she came to get him. He was sitting on the floor with the replicator partially disassembled around him, scowling intently at it. "Excuse me," T'Laren said. "What are you doing?"

Q looked up at her and grinned embarrassedly. "Oh, hello, T'Laren."

"Am I to take it that you're doing something I would disapprove of?"

"I don't believe you ever said I couldn't try to bypass your security lock," he said, the picture of innocence.

T'Laren shook her head slightly. "How long will it take you to put that back together?"

"Two minutes if I give up on the bypass. This is cleverly done. Did Lhoviri set up this security system for you?"

"No. I put it in myself."

"I thought you said you weren't an engineer." He started to replace the pieces he'd removed.

"I'm not. But I used to--" She hesitated, thinking how to phrase this. "On my old ship, the chief engineer was a fellow Vulcan, and at one point he placed a software security lock on the replicator in my quarters. I had a friend bypass it for me. So he put in a hardware lock. In order to get access to my replicator, I studied replicator technology and asked another of the engineers to teach me how to disassemble the lock. In the process, I learned how to assemble one as well, as well as a good deal of other mostly useless information about replicators."

"Why did the chief engineer do that?"

She shrugged slightly. "Probably for the same reason I put the lock on your replicator. He... was aware that I was unwell, though he could not quite identify how. Are you finished?"

"More or less." He stood up. "I really need access to the replicators, T'Laren. You can make up some kind of list of dangerous items you don't want me to have-- you can download the list from Starbase 56 if you want to-- but I've got to have access to the replicators."

"I'll consider it," T'Laren said. "Come on."


She had thought about cooking a meal for them both, but it seemed like a great deal of effort to go to for someone who was not yet capable of appreciating the gesture, so they both ordered from the kitchen replicator. The kitchen was a small, cozy thing with a table big enough to seat six, two replicators, a full set of cooking equipment, and staples in a stasis cabinet. The supply of staples was low-- T'Laren kept meaning to replicate replacements, and never got around to it. She had three sayings in Vulcan hanging on scrolls in various locations in the kitchen, imitating her mother's habit of putting up homey mottoes without the incredible sappiness of the mottoes her mother had used.

"What's that say?" Q asked, pointing at one.

"Mmm." T'Laren studied it, trying to think how to render it. "It's a poem from a children's story-- a work by T'Neer, the Vulcan equivalent of Lewis Carroll."

"There is a Vulcan equivalent of Lewis Carroll?"

"Not quite, but close. Her work is considered either absurd or disturbing, and usually said to be unsuitable for children, despite which children read all of her books."

"What's it say, though?"

"I'm trying to translate... I'll have to render it in prose, I'm no poet. '"But don't you like my gift?" Lhoviri asked. "This is what you wanted, isn't it? Why, I distinctly recall you asking for this in particular. Don't tell me you don't want it now!" And no one did tell him that. Because there was no one there who could speak anymore.'"

"Oh." Q nodded, grinning. "Your benefactor must find that one vastly entertaining."

"I wouldn't know. He never mentioned it."

"What about that one?" He pointed at another.

"It's a witticism. I'm not sure it would translate well into English."

"Try."

"'Those who spend all their time examining their own logic really ought to have their logic examined.'" At Q's look, she explained, "It's funny in Vulcan."

"I'm sure," Q said blandly.

T'Laren bent over her meal, focused on eating. A minute passed in silence. Finally Q said, "What do people talk about at these things?"

"Generally one avoids talking about anything unpleasant. Aside from that, however, any topic is acceptable." She looked up. "For instance, we could discuss the fact that you are about 20% underweight, have no muscle tone to speak of, and desperately need to build up your strength, and yet you are eating nothing but a small bowl of linguine in butter sauce and a sugary chocolate drink."

Q shrugged. "I wasn't that hungry. Does the replicator know about the supplement I need? Li says I won't be able to digest properly on my own for a few months, I have to have a supplement in my food to help digest it."

"Yes. Do you realize you have no vegetables, no meat, no dairy products-- nothing but starch and sugar and a smattering of fats in the butter sauce? There's not a vitamin to be found in what you're eating."

"I'm sure there's one or two."

"Q, you're badly underweight. You were thin before you destroyed your entire intestinal tract and needed to be placed on life-support for two weeks, and you're close to skeletal now. Eat some meat. Vegetables. Something. That meal would not satisfy me, and my ideal weight is half yours."

Q sighed. "I told you, I'm not that hungry. Besides, I thought starch was supposed to be good for gaining weight."

"I thought so too, until I met a man who eats nothing but carbohydrates and looks like he's starving to death." T'Laren's eyes narrowed. "I think this is another of your subconscious self-destruct attempts. Tomorrow you're going on a diet and exercise regimen."

"You want me to exercise? In my condition?" Q stared at her as if she'd just told him to breathe water. "T'Laren, I can't stay on my feet for half an hour without getting winded and you think I should exercise?"

"How do you expect to get into better shape?"

"Let my body heal itself. It's good at that. That's what it's evolved for."

"You need to build up muscle and stamina. Your body can't heal itself if you don't give it raw materials to build with, and it'll heal faster if you use it." She shook her head. "That is not a young body, Q. It's by no means an old one, but it's physiologically at least in its 30's. It can't take this kind of abuse."

"It is so a young body. It was in perfect health three years ago. Well, except for a tendency toward a bad back, but aside from that it was in perfect health, and it's only three years old chronologically."

"That doesn't matter. Physiologically it was past its peak when you got it. Why did you choose to be in your 30's? Why not pick, say, 18?"

Q picked at his food. ""If they'd given me time to think, I certainly would have asked for it younger. And with no bad back. And no tendency to hair loss. And while I was at it, I'd have given it an ESP rating considerably higher than human average, built up its muscular structure and increased its senses to human maximum. If I'd had time, I might even have chosen a completely different body. I might have chosen to be female. Women get a lot more sympathy than men, I've noticed." He looked up. "But they didn't give me time.

"I'd taken this body originally for a completely different purpose. I wanted a form specifically designed to be intimidating and challenging on an intellectual and authoritarian level, and I was aiming it at Picard. I chose a male body, younger than Picard but old enough to have some authority, taller and stronger-looking than Picard, because human men instinctively respond to strange human males as potential threats, especially stronger, taller ones closer to their physical peak. This is a subconscious thing, mind you-- most men aren't aware they do it, but they do. They also learn equally subconscious techniques for defusing the threat that they themselves present to other men. Unfortunately, I never bothered to study those techniques when I was a Q, and now I'm stuck. While the body of a challenger is ideal when one intends a challenge, it is a very bad idea when one wants sympathy. As a human, I'd have done a lot better in a weaker-looking body-- as I said, perhaps a female one, perhaps an adolescent one, though adolescents don't get much sympathy either. Alternately, I'd have done better if this body actually was the specimen of physical perfection that it was when I was omnipotent. I didn't check for genetic booby traps back when it was irrelevant to me, and when I said I wanted to be human, they automatically put me in the human form I'd most often manifested in, without giving me time to fix it up."

"Where did you get this form?"

"Stole it. I picked this one up about a hundred years ago. There's a story behind it, but not one I much feel like telling. Suffice it to say that with minor modifications it's genetically identical to a man who died more or less a century ago."

"I thought your first contact with humanity was six years ago."

Q smiled thinly. "I have rather given that impression, haven't I."

"Time travel?"

"Or outright lies. Take your pick. I prefer to be mysterious and secretive, myself." He leaned forward, widening his eyes slightly. "And I don't appear to be alone. Every time you've told me anything about your own background, you've phrased it in as vague terms as possible. Believe me, as a master of vagueness myself, it's an impressive performance. But it does lead me to wonder what you're hiding."

T'Laren frowned. "Hiding? It's less that I'm hiding something than that my life is simply uninteresting."

"Oh, come now. A Vulcan raised in Texas, working as a psychologist, drummed out of Starfleet for mental illness, and you say your background is uninteresting? How can it be anything but interesting?"

Perhaps it was a good thing that he was showing an interest in other people's histories-- it usually did indicate that a person was becoming less self-centered. T'Laren did wish, however, that it wasn't her history in particular that he was interested in. "What do you want to know?"

"To begin with, why Texas? Were your parents diplomats or teachers of some sort? What were they doing on Earth, and more importantly, what were they doing in Texas?"

"They lived there," T'Laren said dryly. "My parents were humans."

Q stared at her for several seconds with a disbelieving expression before the light dawned. "Ah. Adoptive parents. I see."

"Yes. I was adopted by a human couple."

"Why?"

This story was harmless enough, and if she could keep him at the table a while longer, perhaps he would finish his food. T'Laren turned to the replicator, called up rolls and dessert pastries, and put them on the table, hoping that Q would take one to snack on. She then leaned back and began the story.

"My natural mother, T'Lal, was a Starfleet officer. At the appointed time, she took leave on Vulcan--"

"The appointed time?" Q interrupted, picking up a cheese pastry.

"The time of marriage. Most Vulcans are bonded to their mates in childhood, and at the appointed time, they come together on Vulcan. She went to Vulcan and married my biological father, but... something happened, and he died during their first week together."

Q interrupted again with his mouth full. "By hedging about and saying 'something happened', do you mean you don't want to tell me what happened or you don't know?"

"I don't know. My parents didn't know, because T'Lal never told them, and my Vulcan family wouldn't talk about it. It was undoubtedly something too shameful to discuss with a child or with outsiders. This sort of thing occasionally happens in Vulcan marriages; there are a number of possible causes. In any case, she returned to her ship, pregnant with me. At that time, it was Starfleet policy to allow children under five, if the Starfleet parent was custodial or if both parents were in Starfleet. Civilian adult spouses were permitted aboard only if they could perform some useful function, for instance scientists. T'Lal had a close platonic friendship with my father, the chief engineer, and with his wife, a civilian geologist. Starfleet required-- and still does-- that custodial Starfleet parents declare a guardian for their child in the event of their death. Since my natural mother's family was scattered throughout space, and she had no contact with the family of her mate, she asked my father to be my guardian, and he agreed.

"When I was four years old, T'Lal died on an away mission. The Dorsets took me in, and when I turned five my adoptive mother moved to Earth with me, back to the family's estate in Texas. When I was eight, my father was promoted to an administrative job on Earth, supervising the design of new starships. So they raised me together until I was sixteen, at which point my natural father's family tracked me down. They asked for custody of me, on the grounds that I could not possibly be fully exposed to my Vulcan heritage if raised on Earth by human parents, and my parents saw... the logic in that. So I went to Vulcan."

Q frowned. "Wait a minute. You were sixteen? I admit to knowing little about human childhoods, or Vulcan for that matter, but I would think the damage would have been done by that time." It was, T'Laren thought, but didn't say. Q continued, "Did you have any say in this? Did they just hand you over, just like that?"

"No. I..." Emotions rose to the surface, emotions she'd long thought she'd eliminated. "You cannot understand what it's like to grow up an alien. To be raised surrounded by people who on a very fundamental level are not like you. I loved my adoptive parents, and I had friends on Earth, and I was happy there. But... Vulcan was my homeworld. I had dreamed about it all my life. I wanted desperately to be a proper Vulcan, to learn the disciplines fully, to be like I imagined my dead mother to be. When my father's cousin Sepat came to claim me, I went with him quite willingly."

"You sound as if you think it was a bad idea."

T'Laren hesitated, studying her hands. "Perhaps it was."

Q leaned forward. "I asked Sekal about the Vulcan disciplines once. He told me that while humans can't learn the disciplines at all, even Vulcans need to start very young, or the attempt to control their emotions leads to instability and insanity." He met her eyes and held them. "Is that what happened to you?"

After a moment T'Laren dropped her gaze again. "I don't know." She looked up. "I wasn't completely undisciplined when I went to Vulcan. Since I was five, I'd been going to a Vulcan tutor every week. He lived in Dallas, about half an hour by maglev from my home, and he taught me the fundamentals. But... Vulcan discipline isn't something you can pick up in two-hour lessons once a week. It's something you have to live. It's reinforced by everyone around you. And in my case, it wasn't."

She picked up one of the rolls and bit into it, continuing as she ate. "My parents wanted to be very supportive. They paid for my lessons, they told me that if I wanted to be Vulcan they were happy with my choice, they got me books on Vulcan and even took me on a few vacations there. But on Vulcan, if a little girl spontaneously throws her arms around her father and hugs him, she is gently reproved for her emotionality. When I did it, my father smiled indulgently and hugged me back. Intellectually they understood that I should achieve emotional control, but... they were only human. When I was properly controlled, they perceived me as being cold to them, and it hurt them. And my friends were far worse. They didn't even make an attempt to make allowances for my being Vulcan-- if I wanted to play with them, I had to act like a human being. So I studied the disciplines, but I didn't use them to master my emotions. I couldn't. There was too much pressure on me to be emotional. Instead, I learned how to hide my emotions if I chose, and how to project different emotions than what I felt. I studied human behavior constantly, obsessively, and I learned to pretend and to lie, to wear a thousand different masks. That isn't Vulcan behavior."

"And trying to imitate real Vulcan behavior drove you nuts?"

"It wasn't that simple."

"T'Laren-- if it was that hard for you to be a Vulcan, why did you even bother? Why didn't you just quit trying?"

That approached territory she definitely did not want to discuss or talk about. "I was under... pressures that you cannot possibly understand. I had to be Vulcan. It was immensely important to me." She thought of how it had been, stretched so thin between Soram's demands that she be a proper Vulcan and her own desperate emotional needs. Her Vulcan act had always been flawed, because it was emotion that drove her to such an act, an emotion so violent and consuming that it had snapped her in the end. If not for Lhoviri, it would have destroyed her.

Actually, it had destroyed her. When Lhoviri had found her, she had been dead.

"T'Laren? Are you all right?"

She came back to the present. "Fine. Just... remembering." She shook her head. "I would really rather discuss something else, Q."

"I think... I can understand how you felt," he said. "Which would be a first, I admit. I don't normally understand anything anyone feels. But... I do know a little bit about what that's like."

"Do you?" she asked. "Did you grow up an alien? Do you know what it's like to finally be part of your own kind, and discover that they are more alien to you than the aliens you were raised among?"

"I didn't grow up an alien," he said. "I grew up as part of something that later decided I was inferior, unsuitable, and threw me out to live among aliens. The situation's not identical, I know. But I can sympathize." He smiled ironically. "In terms of the Q lifespan and our stages of development, I am approximately at the same stage you were when you went to Vulcan. You, at least, chose to go."

"You're sixteen? Approximately?"

Q shrugged. "There's no exact analogy. We measure development by maturity itself, not an artificial indicator like chronological age. And those at my stage of development are considered adults, in the sense that our children don't participate in the Continuum overmind and I do. Did. But as I understand it, the closest human equivalent to my stage of development would be the stage of adolescence, yes. The stage in which one makes the transition from child to mature adult, attempts to find one's place in one's society... and runs the greatest risk of self-destructing, one way or another. That's adolescence, right?"

"Yes."

"Then that's me." He looked down. "I should say, 'was me'. I don't know what I am in human terms, but what I am in Q society, right now, is a failure, an outcast, a lesser being. The great experiment that was me failed. Back to the drawing board."

"The great experiment? Were you-- in some sense designed differently than your fellows?"

"Oh, no, no, no. That's not what I meant." He leaned forward. "Every infant Q created is an experiment. We don't reproduce to replace ourselves-- only our adolescents can possibly die, and that only if the rest of the Q weeds them out. We produce new Q to provide different points of view, new perspectives, to add to the range that the Continuum covers. And if a particular perspective turns out to be not worth the trouble it causes, it gets weeded out in adolescence. Failed experiments, time and effort down the drain. Either a flawed design, or something in the errant entity's life experience, has caused it to become useless or dangerous to the Continuum. So we kill it, or reabsorb it..." He stared down at the table. "Or make it mortal and let it die of natural causes. I'm not the first this has happened to." His voice had a wavering edge to it, and a heavy dose of bitter pain.

"Have any of the others ever been taken back?" T'Laren asked gently.

Q looked up at her, eyes bright with unshed tears. "Not that I can remember," he said, his voice beginning to break.

Then he pushed away from the table and stood, shaking his head violently. "This is stupid. I'm obviously overtired. Can I have my sedative now?"

T'Laren shook her head. "You do look exhausted," she said. "But if you're that tired, you shouldn't need a sedative."

"It doesn't matter how tired I am, I can't sleep without a sedative. Could you just give me one, and save the argument for tomorrow?"

"I don't like you constantly taking sedatives. Your health is poor as it is. It sounds as if you've grown dangerously dependent on them." She stood up. "I think it would be best if we got you off them as soon as possible. I don't want you taking sedatives when you're this weak."

Q stared at her in disbelief. "You're not going to give me a sedative."

"Correct."

"But I need it." He sat down heavily and swallowed. "Do I have to beg?" he asked harshly.

"Explain to me why you need a sedative. What symptoms do you experience that prevent you from sleeping?"

"Well, to begin with, I'm in constant pain." His voice was sharp and challenging. "I told you already, I'm constantly plagued with aches and pains. My neck, my back, my head, my stomach, all hurt all the time. I can ignore them when I'm awake to a small extent, but they take over when I'm trying to sleep. If you won't let me have a sedative, can I have a painkiller?"

"I don't want you dependent on them, either." T'Laren walked around behind him and reached toward his shoulder. Q flinched.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, sounding frightened.

"Checking something." She took his shoulders in each hand and felt for tension with thumbs and fingers. His neck and back were rigid, his muscles like duranium cables. "Try to relax."

"But what are you doing?"

"A large part of your pain seems to be coming from tension. Q, I'm not going to hurt you or do anything you'd find unpleasant. Please relax."

He relaxed slightly. She could see it in the set of his shoulders, hear it in the soft release of held breath. But she could barely feel the relaxation at all-- his back muscles were still rigid. His spine was badly out of alignment, the muscles in his back having gradually tugged it into an unnatural configuration.

T'Laren released him and stepped back. "All right. I believe I know how to fix the problem."

"Really." His voice was flat and disbelieving.

"Come with me." She left the kitchen. Q stood up and followed.

"Are we going to sickbay? I don't need an adjustment. I just need a painkiller. Or a sedative. Either would do."

"We're not going to sickbay," she said, and palmed open his suite's door.

"Why are we going to my room?" he asked nervously, following her inside.

"Lie down."

"I-- no." He backed away from her toward the exit. "Tell me what you're going to do."

"I'm going to fix your back so you can sleep. Now lie down."

Q scrutinized her suspiciously. "This doesn't have anything to do with sex, does it?"

T'Laren blinked in surprise before she could control the reaction. Where had he gotten that from? "No. It has nothing to do with sex, I assure you. I'm just going to fix your back."

That seemed to lessen his nervousness, but not eliminate it entirely. He sat down on the bed, but made no move to lie down. "Do I have to take off my shirt?"

The answer, T'Laren suspected, had to be 'no' or he would balk again. "It isn't necessary. It would make things easier, but I can work with your shirt on. And no, you do not need to remove any other articles of clothing either, though I suspect you would be more comfortable with your shipboots off."

Q lay down on his back, making no move to take his boots off. T'Laren wondered why he was so incredibly nervous. Medellin and his file had both said that he was celibate by choice, and that he claimed this was because he considered sex disgusting and beneath him. He had never demonstrated any problem with the relief of pain, however, and there was nothing in his files to indicate a phobia of being touched. Perhaps he'd been reading too many books where a massage led to seduction-- though even then, this wasn't disgust. This was fear. It occurred to T'Laren to wonder if someone had molested him somehow in the past three years-- surely sexuality would not carry sufficient value to members of the Q Continuum that he should be terrified of the possibility.

"You have to turn over," T'Laren said. "I can't reach your back."

He did so. "Are you sure this has nothing to do with sex?" he asked, his voice somewhat muffled against the bed.

"Positive. Backrubs can be used as a form of foreplay or seduction, but by themselves they are completely platonic. I assure you, there is nothing sexual in this. Now relax."

She reached down and found the nexii of tension under the shoulderblades with her fingertips, digging in slowly. Q made a sharp noise, jerked and turned his head with an expression of outrage that quickly faded to puzzlement. "That felt good," he said, surprised.

"It's supposed to. Lie still and let me finish."

He lay his head back down on the bed, pillowing it on his arms. "I've gone to sickbay to have my back fixed in several extreme cases. The remedy usually was almost worse than the problem."

"This is a massage, not a chiropractic adjustment-- although I think you need that, too. Once I've relaxed the muscles, we'll adjust your spine. It only hurt you before because you were too tense." She probed the area around his shoulderblades with slender fingers, varying the pressure as she located the worst points. The tension in the muscles slowly started to ease under her fingers. Q sighed.

"Mm. I thought the only kind of massage that was supposed to feel good was the sexual kind. The other kind was supposed to be painful, or it wasn't a good massage."

"You're talking about rolfing. That's only one school of thought. Most people acknowledge that a therapeutic massage should feel good." She moved up from the shoulderblades to the collar and neck area.

"Ohh. This really feels quite astonishingly good. Where did you learn to do this?"

T'Laren herself relaxed slightly. She enjoyed making people feel good, and it was considerably more pleasant when they acknowledged that it was working, instead of challenging and resisting her. "Part of Vulcan training. In order to properly control our bodies, which is necessary for mastering our emotions, we need a thorough knowledge of our own neuroanatomy. As it happens, Vulcan spinal neuroanatomy is virtually identical to nearly every other humanoid race's. That's why the nerve pinch works; it is actually just a side effect of our training. Only Vulcans in Starfleet and in security positions are really good at it, since we're the only ones who practice it a lot. The same goes for backrubs; while any Vulcan would know the techniques in theory, few have practiced it. Vulcans use self-relaxation techniques instead. I, however, lived among humans, so I ended up practicing a great deal, first on my parents and then my classmates at the Academy."

"Well, you're very good. If you ever decide to quit the psychology business, you have a brilliant future as a chiropractor. Or a masseuse. I'll personally write you a letter of recommendation. Ohh. This is astonishing."

He sounded almost dazed, as if he couldn't believe he could possibly feel good. T'Laren wondered how much pain he'd actually been in, and if that could have anything to do with his depression. If he really had been suffering physically for some time, that could well be a component of his desire to escape his life. "I'm glad you find it pleasant," she said, and moved up to the bare skin on the back of his neck. Here she could feel the tension more powerfully than through his clothes, with the distant currents of his mind tantalizing the edge of her consciousness, a faint shadowy wash of pain receding to pleasure. With a small effort, she shielded her mind.

Q suddenly tensed, his head moving up. "You people are touch-telepaths, aren't you."

"We are, but I've shielded my mind against you," she said, wondering why he brought that up now. He couldn't have sensed the brief almost-contact; she had been passively receiving, making no active attempt to link, and Q's ESP rating was no better than human average. He would have had to have been reading her mind to know that she could have opened a link to his, and that was beyond his capabilities now. "Also, unshielded physical contact itself doesn't form a link; an active effort of concentration is needed to open a telepathic channel, preferably at one of the meld points. And if I tried to form a meld, you'd know it. My touching your skin alone doesn't permit me to read your mind, Q." She wasn't going to mention that the back of the neck was a meld point. What he didn't know wouldn't needlessly frighten him.

"Oh." He relaxed. Probably he hadn't noticed anything at all; he was just paranoid about having his mind read. T'Laren imagined she would be in his position, too. To be so immensely powerful on a telepathic scale that others' minds were an open book, and yet they could only sense you at all if you chose; and then to be suddenly stripped of that power, one's mind naked and psionically defenseless... that would be somewhat horrifying.

The brief moment of fear had caused a mild tensing-up all throughout his back again. She moved down from his neck-- he could probably use a temple massage, too, but things like that would have to wait until he was more secure with her telepathy-- and down his back again, finding the muscle clusters and rubbing them into submission. Probably he could use her ministrations on his buttocks and the backs of his legs as well, but that again would have to wait until he was more secure.

"I think I'll teach you some elementary biofeedback and relaxation techniques," she said. "There's no reason you should have to be in such pain."

"Could I learn that?" he asked.

"I don't see why not. Humans have developed relaxation and meditative techniques themselves, so I know there's no biological reason you can't do it. You'd never be able to achieve a Vulcan level of control, but I think you would feel much better about your life if you had any modicum of control over your own body, however small."

"I agree. Ohh. Yes. Right there." He moaned as she pressed her fingers into the small of his back, on either side of his spine. "This is unbelievable. Why don't Starfleet medics learn how to do this?"

"Most of them do, but it's something done for friends, not as a treatment. Starfleet personnel are all trained in some sort of personal relaxation technique, so they don't need this sort of thing as badly as you apparently do, and most of them have friends."

"Really. It never occurred to me that having friends provided any sort of physical benefit. I'd always thought the advantage was mostly emotional."

"Body and mind are linked. You should know that by now."

"Mine aren't."

That was such an outrageous thing to say that T'Laren had to assume he meant it as a joke, though he'd spoken in a perfectly serious tone of voice. She didn't reply directly. "Humans have a deep psychological need for physical contact with their fellows. It's one of the major differences between humans and Vulcans. Vulcans have a deep psychological need for telepathic contact with their fellows, but if that requirement is fulfilled we have no real need to touch each other. Humans, having no telepathy, need physical contact."

"And what if they don't get it?"

"They generally become very unhappy, which has a profound physical effect. Unhappiness can cause tension, stomachaches, headaches and muscle spasms. Over time, it can cause drastic weight loss, accelerate hair loss, and increase the apparent speed of aging."

"Oh, very funny," Q muttered. He turned his head to look up at her. "Are you trying to say that I'm unhappy because I lack physical contact with human beings?"

"Not at all. You are unhappy for multiple and complex reasons, primary among which is the fact that you have been deprived of most of your abilities and exiled to a life you are unsuited for. No one would deny that. But your lack of positive social contact is another of the reasons, exacerbating the problem, and the lack of physical contact is merely a small aspect of the lack of social contact. I doubt having friends could make you happy, but it could make your life bearable enough that you could continue to hold on in hope of reinstatement. And if your life were more bearable, you wouldn't be under so much stress, and so you wouldn't be in so much pain. Doesn't that make sense to you?"

He sighed. "I'd like to argue with you. I hate the idea that I could be so dependent on other people. Bad enough I need them to protect me, I have to have them like me too? But it's far too obvious that-- ohh-- you've just demonstrated that-- put it this way. I have obviously been missing out on something. And if any of this positive social contact nonsense could make me feel half as good as you are doing now, it's definitely something I want to look into. Ohhh. Why didn't anyone ever tell me this was possible?"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. Medellin had been trying to get the idea that he should try to make friends through his head for three years. Apparently all it would have taken was a skilled backrub. She would have to call Medellin and suggest the technique for future reference. "People told you several times it was possible for you to feel good. You ignored them or dismissed their suggestions as disgusting, unnecessary or impossible."

"You're right," he murmured. "I'm an idiot, T'Laren. But I'm so used to hurting now that if something comes along that sounds like it might be pleasant, I think there has to be a catch somewhere. Or I think about what it's going to end up costing me in the long run. Ohhh. I never thought-- I could get so used to pain-- that its relief would seem so exquisite. I really can't get over how good this feels. I'm trying to remember if I ever felt this kind of pleasure when I was omnipotent, and you know, I must have, but I can't remember a single incident. This is just unbelievable."

T'Laren frowned slightly. Backrubs were pleasant, but not that much so. She wondered if Q overreacted to pleasure to the same extent that he did to pain, or if it was because he had been desperately starved for humanoid contact. Or possibly both. He was reacting more like a virgin who had just discovered sex than a man receiving his first massage. On the other hand, if it could get him to freely admit that she was right and he was an idiot, perhaps she should not complain of his overreaction.

She had worked her way back up to his neck by this time, and now slowly started to rub his scalp, running her fingers through his hair as she gradually worked over to his temples. She wanted to see if he was ready to trust her yet. He had to know that the temples were some of the primary meld points; Vulcan mindmelds were featured often enough in fiction and holofilms that she didn't think anyone who read as voraciously as he did could avoid knowing it. But when she reached to rub his temples, cautiously, he didn't jerk or flinch or do anything except lie bonelessly under her hands. At least for now, he seemed to trust her not to invade his mind.

She lifted her hands away from his temples. "I'm going to straighten your spine now," she told him. "It won't hurt, but it will feel a little bit unusual. I don't want you to become afraid or tense up."

"If you wanted to break my neck right now, I'd let you," Q murmured. "Do what you will with me."

T'Laren pressed one hand against the small of his back, held his left shoulder with the other, and pulled. Q released his breath explosively, but made no attempt to resist as she pressed the heels of her palms against his spine, pushing the vertebra into place. She repeated this several times, moving up his back, then took his head in her hands and twisted it hard, straightening the spine in the back of the neck. Then she released him and stroked his back lightly, soothing any residual tension as she checked her work. "You need to increase muscle tone in your back, and to learn some relaxation exercises, for this to be permanent. But for the next day or two, I think your back won't give you any trouble."

"Mmm." He turned his head to face her, a lazy, happy smile on his face. "Thank you. That does feel much better."

T'Laren walked over to the replicator and ordered a cup of hot cocoa for him. "Here. Drink this."

Q sat up, leaning back against pillows that he'd propped against the wall behind his bed, and took the drink. "Not that I'm complaining, but why?"

"Warm drinks have a natural sedative effect. Especially warm drinks with high trypsin levels. This is essentially heated chocolate milk. Humans have used it as a natural sleep aid for centuries."

"What's the difference between a 'natural' sedative and a hypo with a sleep drug in it? It seems like you're somewhat inconsistent. If one kind of sedative is bad, why is another good?"

"Comparative levels and strength. Warm cocoa can't put you to sleep against your will. If you're already relaxed and prepared to go to sleep, however, it can help speed the process. A hypo with a sleep drug in it imposes sleep on you; a warm drink helps your body do the job itself. Besides, it'll help settle your stomach."

"All right." He sipped at the drink. "T'Laren-- thank you. Really. It's amazing how much better I feel now. I don't even have stomach pains, and you didn't do anything to my stomach."

"Everything's interrelated."

Q nodded. He seemed unusually open and suggestible, almost a normal human being in comparison to his usual reflexive stubbornness. "I suppose it must be. I-- thank you. I think maybe I will be able to go to sleep now."

"I'm glad." She turned and walked over to the door, which opened to release her. "Good night, Q."

"Aren't you going to tuck me in?" Q asked.

T'Laren turned back, startled. Q smiled winningly. He really could look boyishly charming if he tried. "After all, I'm onwy fwee."

"I thought you were sixteen."

"That, too."

"If you have your heart set on being tucked in," T'Laren said, one eyebrow raised, "I can arrange to oblige."

Q laughed. "No, no. You've babied me far too much already tonight. I'll get spoiled," he said. He put down the cocoa mug, his expression sobering. "I owe you, T'Laren."

"You don't owe me," T'Laren said. "This is my job. If you prefer, you can consider that Lhoviri has pre-paid your debt in full."

"Then I'd owe him, and I'd rather not." He shook his head. "Not that I can avoid it, since all of this is through his doing, but still. I'll find a way to pay you back personally. I promise."

"Try your best to cooperate with me in healing you, and that will be payment enough."

He nodded. "All right. Good night, T'Laren."

"Good night."


There were monitors in her room, hidden behind paneling, from where she could observe every room of the ship. They had not been part of the original equipment; she had suggested that they would be helpful to have in dealing with a suicide risk who was frequently attacked by various beings, and so Lhoviri had provided them. She was glad, now, that she'd set them up to be hidden unless she asked for them to be displayed; after the story Anderson had told about Q's hunger strike, T'Laren knew that she couldn't under any circumstances let Q know the monitors were there.

She checked the setup. She had programmed the computer to recognize human emotional states to some extent by monitoring the biosensor readings, listening to what people said-- such as "Help" or "Stop", indicating possible need or distress-- and comparing non-verbal vocalizations to a list of parameters to see if particular sounds might be cries of pain, or of fear, or expressions of happiness. The system was not perfect-- she had done extensive testing of similar monitor systems when she was still a ship's counselor, and found that the computer had a fairly high error rate, especially with people as theatrical in their ordinary behavior as Q was. But she wanted to invade his privacy as little as possible, and at the same time needed a system to alert her if he was in trouble or in pain. The computer was programmed to contact her through a stud in her ear, on a frequency inaudible to humans, if it determined that Q was in any sort of distress, and it would automatically display the monitors if she was in her rooms and he wasn't with her.

Everything was working. T'Laren thought of testing the system, and decided against it-- Q might be dressing for bed or something, and while she had no personal taboos against that sort of thing she didn't yet know what might disturb Q. There was conflicting evidence as to whether he had developed a sense of modesty or not. If Q ever did find out she'd been monitoring him, she wanted to be on unshakable moral high ground. So she shut the monitors down and prepared for her nightly meditation.

It was more difficult to achieve trance state than it had been since she'd relearned the disciplines. Insistent thoughts, observations she'd made in the course of the day, plans she had, all intruded and disturbed her concentration. She considered sleeping instead, but rejected the possibility almost out of hand. T'Laren had not experienced uncontrolled sleep since... had it been two years already? Two years since she and Soram had returned to Vulcan, and she had... well, of course she hadn't dreamed since then. Until she'd met Lhoviri, she'd been in no position to dream. And in the time since Lhoviri had come to her-- she thought it'd been about eight months, but time did strange things around Lhoviri-- she had been too busy fighting her way back to a precarious self-control to allow the luxury of dreams. Dreams were entirely too dangerous, their function to bring to the surface things that T'Laren had to repress. The thought intruded that that was a kind of cowardice, but she pushed that thought away too. Few Vulcans allowed uncontrolled dreaming. Meditation was the Vulcan way. She was Vulcan, therefore she would meditate, and there was nothing dishonorable or cowardly about it. So she concentrated on the disciplines, focusing down until all external disturbances vanished and there was nothing but utter peace.

When her internal clock wakened her, five hours later, she felt relaxed, refreshed and completely free of intrusive feelings. She lay on top of her bed, reflecting. It was times like this that made her believe she had, indeed, chosen the correct path in deciding to be Vulcan. She was at such peace that she could not understand why anyone would choose the path of emotions, if given a choice.

Q would still be asleep; most humans slept eight hours or more, and Q had been exhausted. T'Laren dressed and went out to the bridge, where she checked that everything was running smoothly-- of course, the computers would tell her if there was anything wrong, but she felt it illogical to rely on computers too much. Upon determining that there were no problems, she went out onto the observation deck and sat down on the balcony, gazing out at the stars. Soon enough Q would wake up, and she would be plunged back into the stresses of her work. Right now, though, she wished to maintain the peace of her meditation for as long as she could.

A tiny chime in her ear woke her out of her meditation. T'Laren stood up. According to the monitor system, Q was apparently in some distress. She didn't waste time detouring to her room to see what the problem was; instead, she jumped off the balcony and down into the pit, reaching Deck 3 as fast as Earth-normal gravity could carry her, and went directly to Q's quarters.

As she entered his suite, she heard a faint whimper from the bedroom, behind a closed door. There were a number of relatively harmless possibilities-- he could be asleep and having a bad dream, for instance-- but for someone who regularly came under attack by various species with unknown capabilities, there were also a number of genuinely threatening possibilities. T'Laren palmed open the door and went directly in.

The light was on. Q was lying in bed, in black and blue pajamas, curled up tightly and facing the door. He raised his head as she came in, with an expression of outrage and red, swollen eyes. Shiny tracks glittered on his cheeks. "I thought you Vulcans were big on privacy," he snarled. "Don't you knock?"

"I'm sorry," T'Laren said, and meant it-- she wouldn't have intruded if she'd thought she had a choice. But she made no move to leave. "I heard you cry out, and I thought you might be under attack of some sort. I would have asked your permission to enter otherwise."

He levered himself up on one elbow, outrage giving way to a horrified disbelief. "You heard that? Through two doors?"

"Vulcan hearing is much superior to human," she said. "A human would have heard nothing, I'm sure." She took a step forward. "Q, what's wrong?"

"I'm fine," he snapped, but his voice broke, undermining the statement. He sat up, yanking the blankets around him like a kind of cloak. "Fine," he repeated sharply, keeping his voice under slightly better control this time. "It was just a dream."

"It must have been very bad," T'Laren said softly, walking over to a chair by his bed.

Q laughed bitterly. "Oh, no. I'm used to the bad ones. I can handle them by now. It's the good dreams that are killing me." He looked down for a moment, then raised his gaze and glared at her. "It's all your fault. I told you I needed a sedative. I always have dreams unless I take a sedative."

"I don't understand," T'Laren said, sitting down in the chair. "How are the good dreams killing you, Q?"

Q's face twisted with sudden pain. He turned his head away from T'Laren with a sharp shaking gesture and made a sound halfway between an exasperated sigh and a cry of pain. For a moment he seemed to be struggling with his words, or perhaps with his voice. When he finally spoke, it was with the harsh tone of a person using anger to fight off pain. "Every so often I dream that I'm back in the Q Continuum," he said. "It varies, how. Sometimes I dream that my people have taken me back, I'm forgiven, all debts paid. Sometimes I never left at all. All this has been a cruel practical joke a few of my fellows have played on me, and at first I'm outraged, but then I laugh about it with them. Sometimes it turns out that I inflicted this on myself, for some obscure reason that makes perfect sense in the dream, but that my limited mortal mind can no longer comprehend when I wake up. Once, I dreamed that Lhoviri gave me my powers back directly after I tried to sacrifice myself to the Calamarain-- time off for good behavior, I suppose. Whatever, I'm back. I'm myself again." He looked back at her. The anger had faded from his tone, replaced by a desperate longing. "My brothers and sisters have taken me back. I'm immortal again, omnipotent again. All my worries and troubles are gone. My family cares about me. My life is wonderful."

The pain came back to his face as his voice started to crack. "And then I wake up, and it's not true. It's not true. And the disappointment is so incredible that I want to die."

"Q--"

She reached for him, but he threw her off. "Don't you understand? It's never going to get any better! They'll never take me back, and I can't bear living like this..." His voice broke completely. "I want to die, T'Laren, I can't stand this anymore. I can't!"

"I thought you were going to try to give this a chance," T'Laren said, still gentle. "I thought you wanted to try to hang on long enough to see if your life would become bearable--"

"It never will!" Q shouted. "I could hold on a year, maybe two, I don't know how many, if I knew they would take me back, but they won't! I'm never going to be part of them again, never..." His breath caught, and he doubled over, unbreathing, for several seconds. When the air finally came out, it was as an agonized sob. He drew his knees up and pressed his face against them. "I can't bear this anymore," he said again, choking it out between strangled sobs. "Please. Help me die..."

T'Laren moved to the bed and put her arm around him. "Q. Listen to me. There's no reason to believe they won't take you back--"

"There's no reason to believe they will, either!" he screamed, his voice raw with hysteria. "If they cared about me, they wouldn't let me suffer like this!"

"You were doing so well before. You were so calm when you went to bed. What happened? Was it just the dream?"

"I was stupid before," Q snarled, lifting his head to look at her. Now his entire face was puffy and tear-stained. "I actually believed you could help me. Stupid, gullible, pathetic fool! Damn Medellin, damn Li, why did they have to save me? Why couldn't they have let me die?"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. She was beginning to get seriously alarmed. Unless it was normal for Q to go from being upset over a dream to full-blown hysterical despair, there was something very wrong. "Q, we discussed this, remember? There's no reason to think your people won't take you back. It'll just take time. Don't you remember?"

"Oh, I remember. I remember you browbeat me into believing you because I wanted to believe it so much." He turned away from her and put his face against his knees again, muffling his sobs. "Thus proving I'm as pathetically gullible as any other mortal creature, and all my years of experience and wisdom don't mean a damn thing. Biology is destiny, and my destiny is to be worm food. And I'm never going to have anything good in my life again. That business about learning about humanity is crap-- the Q know everything they need to about humanity, they don't need any input from me. There's never been any reason for them to take me back. My people hate me. They want me dead and so do I."

T'Laren was somewhat at a loss. Under similar circumstances with any other patient, she would reassure them that their loved ones cared for them, or that they had great potential in their future. All of Q's potential was behind him in his own view, and he had no loved ones. The closest he came to friends were an android who had no emotions and would probably dislike Q if he did, and a scientist who might or might not have a crush on him and whose name Q barely remembered. Lhoviri had gotten through to her under similar circumstances by pointing out that she could still help people, and thus atone for her own guilt. Q didn't care about such things, though, and appeared to feel less guilty than self-pitying. The only thing she could think of to do at the moment was to put both arms around him and hold him as the spasms of grief racked his body. "Your people don't want you dead," she said softly. "They saved your life. Didn't you realize?"

He looked up at her again. "They did that?"

"Lhoviri made sure you didn't die of your injuries. I think he also sent Counselor Medellin a premonition that you were in trouble."

It seemed to be the wrong thing to say. Q's face twisted up with grief again. "No wonder I couldn't kill myself right!" he screamed. "They won't let me die, will they? They want me to stay alive, and suffer, and suffer..." Abruptly he stood up, tearing free of her, and screamed at the ceiling. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry about Azi, I'm sorry about the Kakkadim, I'm sorry about all of it! Please, stop torturing me like this... take me back or let me go, please, if I can't be with you I want to die..." He folded up and crumpled onto the floor, sobbing hysterically.

His loved ones. Of course. The problem wasn't that Q had no loved ones, it was that the ones he had had rejected him. Immediately T'Laren knew what she had to say. She knelt down on the floor next to him and put her arm around him again. "Q, listen to me. Please. I think there's something you don't understand."

"What?" he asked, a strangled snarl.

"You think your people hate you because they condemned you to this. That they saved your life solely to see you suffer. But don't you realize that they're above that? Why would they let Lhoviri torment you like this?"

"They let me torment Azi," he choked. "If they let me get away with that, they'll let anyone do anything to me."

Sometime later, when he was calm, she had to ask him who Azi was. "They did not let you get away with it. Is this letting you get away with it? Isn't that part of what they're punishing you for?"

A complete shot in the dark-- she had no idea if whatever he did to this Azi had anything to do with his punishment. But he stilled slightly under her arm and did not contradict her. "You have done things your people consider wrong, yes," she said. "But you told me before that they could have killed or reabsorbed you--" --and what did it mean to be reabsorbed, anyway?-- "-instead of making you mortal. What advantage does it give them to make you mortal, rather than killing you?"

"It gives them more time to watch me suffer."

"It gives you time to change. Mortality is a death sentence, yes. In Q terms, what's left of your human lifespan is probably only a fraction of an instant. But you live on our terms now, and on our terms you have many long years left. Time in which you can grow and change. Didn't you just say you don't believe they sent you here to learn about humanity?"

"Of course they didn't! They've had three or four of us do it already. They don't need me. They never needed me."

"They do need you," she said softly. "You're part of them. But they need you to change. To grow up. Have you ever heard of the concept 'tough love'?"

"What does some antiquated Earth notion have to do with anything?" he snapped through tears.

"It isn't antiquated. The idea is that if a child-- an adolescent-- is delinquent, or disobedient, and gentler methods of discipline have not worked, it's time for extreme measures. Because if the parent doesn't go to extremes, doesn't hurt the child terribly in order to make him change, the child won't. And he'll grow up to be a delinquent adult, useless to society. Sometimes really stubborn teenagers need to suffer tremendously before they can be salvaged as worthwhile citizens." She leaned down, trying to see his face. "Don't you see the analogy, Q?"

"No."

He was being stubborn-- T'Laren was sure he could see it. "Lhoviri doesn't want you to die, Q," she said. "He saved your life, twice. He hired me to help you-- and I assure you, I don't care how omnipotent he is, he went to a lot of trouble to get me into any kind of shape where I could help you. There are any number of psychologists who could play games with your head to build you back up so he could crush you, as you once accused. Lhoviri wouldn't have needed to trouble himself at all to acquire one. Instead, he put a lot of effort into helping me, so that I could help you. An entity that merely wanted to torment you would not have bothered."

"So what are you saying?" Q asked harshly.

"He wants to take you back. He does care about you. Perhaps he got you kicked out of the Continuum because he thought that was your only hope. Because if you kept going the way you'd been going, you would have reached the point where no change would be possible, and the Continuum would have been forced to kill you. By condemning you to mortality, he's given you one last opportunity to learn, and to mature at a faster rate than you could have otherwise. You're right that the Continuum probably doesn't need to learn what it means to be human, but you do. A large part of what they punished you for seems to be your complete disregard for the lives and rights of mortal beings. If you can learn how to function in a mortal society, they could trust you to be responsible with your powers again, and they could take you back."

"I can't believe that," he whispered.

"Why not?"

"Because I want it to be true, and I never get what I want."

"That's pure irrationality and you know it. I know how much it hurts to trust, Q, but you have to. Lhoviri is not about to let you kill yourself, no matter how much you want to. Your only alternative is to try to do what he sent you here to do, because otherwise you're going to be hopelessly miserable and have no way to escape your misery."

"I can't believe you," Q said desperately. "I can't..."

T'Laren had made her point. She said nothing more; simply held him as he wept hysterically. After a minute or two, she got him to ease from the tight, inward-drawn ball he'd curled into and cling to her instead. T'Laren stroked his hair and murmured soothing words, until finally the sobs faded out.

Eventually Q let go of her and turned away, embarrassed. "I-- didn't mean to do that," he said. "That was incredibly idiotic. I apologize."

"What was?"

"Having-- hysterics, like that." He shook his head. "Everything you said was perfectly rational and sensible, and I was reduced to saying 'did not's' and bawling like an infant. Maybe I am a three-year-old at that; I certainly acted like one."

T'Laren disengaged and stood up. "I can certainly understand why your loss of control shames you," she said. "But please keep in mind that I'm used to people doing irrational things that later embarrass them. I would, however, like to figure out why you lost control so quickly and completely. Do you think you can talk about it?"

"Let me wash my face and put some clothes on. I feel ridiculous."

"Very well." T'Laren went out into the living room of the suite and ordered cups of hot chocolate for both of them.

Q came out about ten minutes later, wearing a red jacket over a black jumpsuit that was belted at the waist, and boots with red piping. "More natural sedatives?" he asked. "Or is this part of your insidious plot to fatten me up?"

His tone was actually fairly light-hearted. T'Laren studied his face. It was a bit difficult to tell in this lighting-- Vulcan eyes were not well-adapted to dim yellow lights-- but it looked like he had made himself up to obliterate all traces that he'd been crying, and done so successfully. Since she had first met him lying in a hospital bed, she hadn't seen him wearing makeup before, but it looked skillfully applied-- which meant he wore it fairly often. Possibly for this reason? Men in Starfleet occasionally used basic foundation makeup to make their skin look better, but rarely took it farther than that. Q had gotten rid of the circles under his eyes, the puffiness and red eyes from crying, and had subtracted half a dozen years from his apparent age. That took more skill than most men had. In fact, in this lighting and with her Vulcan eyes, she could only tell he was wearing makeup from the fact that no one who had just been crying hysterically for the past half hour or so could possibly look that good without it.

"It's part of an insidious plot, of course," T'Laren said. "This one simple drink has more calories than you could possibly imagine."

"Than I could possibly imagine?" he asked skeptically.

"Well, your imagination tends toward the grandiose, it's true. Perhaps not." She handed him the cup. "Now. Why don't you sit down, and we'll talk about it?"

"Talk about what?" Q asked, sipping his drink. He wasn't being obviously coy; the question was asked in a sincere tone of voice. T'Laren thought it beyond the realm of possibility that it was a sincere question, but perhaps Q was trying to make her think so.

"Pretending that nothing happened isn't going to change the facts, Q," she said. "I would like to talk about the fact that you broke down seemingly because of no more than a bad dream, despite the fact that you put a high value on remaining in emotional control. Has this happened to you before?"

He frowned at his drink. "Occasionally," he said. "I am sorry-- I really don't know what happened to me. I was-- I was fine when I went to bed, more or less. Actually, after that backrub, I was in better condition than I've been for a long while. Then I had that dream, which woke me up, and I felt like crying. I had it somewhat under control until you came in; somehow then I fell apart. I'm not sure why."

"When has this happened before?"

"Oh... once when I was talking to Sekal. Several times when I wake up in the middle of the night, or when I'm trying to get to sleep. It happened to me almost every night when I thought Security wanted to kill me, but the only person I broke down around then was Lieutenant T'Meth. She's a Vulcan security officer, Sekal's wife--"

"I know. Sekal told me."

"All right. It happened my first night aboard the Enterprise and my first two or three nights aboard Starbase 56, so I'm really not too surprised it's happened now." Q drained his drink and began to study his now-empty mug. "For someone who's spent the past several thousand years as an avatar of change, I seem to handle instability in my mortal existence very badly."

"What exactly happens? Is the intensity of emotion you're experiencing greater than normal, or is it just that you are less able to control the expression of that emotion?"

"I... don't know." He shrugged, playing with the mug. "Maybe both. It happens a lot at night, like I said. Data once told me that human beings are predisposed to getting depressed in the wee hours. Maybe that's part of it. What time is it now?"

"0300 hours. And we're still synchronized to Starbase 56's time, so that's 0300 hours for your cycle as well as mine. That could be part of the explanation, I suppose..."

Q put down the mug. "You sound like you think you know what it is."

"I may know a factor. Or I may be drawing a false analogy. But that sort of sudden and total breakdown over a thing that seems objectively trivial... used to happen to me all the time. It is a symptom of faulty repression. When a person is incapable of actually controlling their emotions, as Vulcans do, but is trying to keep from showing those emotions most if not all of the time, it creates a terrible conflict. This happens to humans who repress their feelings quite a great deal. All it takes is a tiny crack, and the facade breaks completely."

"I know. Vulcans do that when you finally get them mad."

She decided that for the moment she didn't want to know how much Q knew about getting Vulcans mad, or where and when he learned it. "Does that seem to you as if it could be part of your problem?"

"It doesn't much sound like it," Q said. "I don't repress my feelings. You want the entire range of humanity's least pleasant emotions-- anger, fear, despair, pain-- I've got it all. I've never made any attempt to hide what I'm feeling."

"No, not in the usual sense," T'Laren admitted. "But in another sense, you do. There are emotions you dislike acknowledging. You rarely express guilt, or even admit to being wrong. You rarely express a desire for social contact, despite the fact that you obviously need it. In fact, you rarely display any of the social emotions at all. Most of what you show is a reaction to internal circumstances, or a pose adopted to get a reaction from someone else. Would you ever admit that you were lonely and wanted to be with someone?"

"Of course not," Q said. "I'm allergic to getting laughed at."

T'Laren nodded. "In trying to protect yourself from humiliation, you do hide certain emotions. You'd freely admit you were angry-- but not if you were angry at someone for hurting your feelings. Then you would hide your anger with a pose, or give it some rationalization. You admit to fear because you can't help yourself-- if you could keep from showing it, you would. I suspect, in fact, that you would hide as many of your real emotions as possible, and replace them with calculated poses designed to get planned reactions out of people. I suspect that that is what you did for the three years or so of your contact with humanity when you were still omnipotent, and that the only reason you don't still do it is that your situation has overwhelmed you."

Q shrugged. "That could be. I never thought about it in those terms, but... yes, I suppose I do do that. I feel safer when no one knows what I'm thinking."

Fortunately, he also seemed to enjoy talking about himself, or she would never get him to admit anything. She wondered if she should ask him why he would tell her such things if that were true, and decided against calling his attention to it. "And that's where the repression is coming in. The idea behind emotional expression is to express oneself, not to hide behind a manufactured facade. The more one represses oneself, the more pressure is placed on that facade. You do express yourself frequently-- under normal circumstances, that would be enough to keep the pressure you place on yourself bearable. But these are not normal circumstances for you and will never be as long as you are mortal. The fact that you are suffering constant painful emotions, and to one extent or another hiding most of them, is putting a great deal of pressure on your facade. Every so often it needs to crack."

"It seems as if you're making this unnecessarily complicated," he said, picking up the mug again and holding it in his lap as he looked at her. "There's a much simpler explanation, one that doesn't involve the invocation of all sorts of hypothetical repressed emotions."

"And that is?"

"I'm just depressed." He put down the mug again and leaned forward. "T'Laren, I really think you're making a big deal over nothing. I'm very unhappy. Humans cry when they're unhappy. I am human. You're a Vulcan, you can do logic-- that one's nice and simple, enough for even a Klingon to understand. The fact that I am not crying constantly involves the suppression of emotion, I assume, but one hardly needs to invoke that to explain why I crack."

Actually, he had a point. T'Laren wondered if she was projecting again. "It seemed rather... extreme. Rather sudden."

"It's always sudden. If I can feel it coming on, I can control it usually."

"Why is it important to you to be able to control it?"

Q looked at her as if he had never heard a stupider question in his life. "A Vulcan needs to ask me this?"

"I know where my own desire for emotional control stems from. I am asking about yours."

"Because it's bad enough that I spend all my time whining and complaining, that I'm a complete coward who'll throw dignity to the wind and grovel if threatened, that I spend my entire life worrying about how to avoid pain-- I don't want to be constantly bawling, too. Humans give me little enough respect as it is. And shouting angrily at people or eviscerating them with clever wit are much more acceptable methods of dealing with one's emotions, among humans, than crying is. And I don't know why we're still discussing this; this conversation has to be the most trivial pursuit I've engaged in in quite some time." He stood up. She could almost see his defenses rebuilding themselves, from embarrassment to forced equilibrium and now to anger. "I'm going back to bed. Are you going to continue to refuse me a sedative?"

"Yes."

"Then do me a favor. Don't come in my room unless I actually call for help. I'll come out and get breakfast when I wake up." He turned and walked to the door of the bedroom. "And for future reference, unless you're positive I'm dying, knock first."

"Very well." T'Laren stood, placing the cocoa mug into the disposal beneath the replicator. "I hope your sleep is undisturbed this time."

As she left, she realized, suddenly, why it had happened. Q's explanation, like most of his explanations, had not completely satisfied her-- he had given a reason, but not all the reasons. Now she thought she understood. His defensiveness and his antisocial behavior were all part of the same thing. Earlier tonight, she had gotten him to lower his defenses against her-- leaving him unable to protect himself from his own emotions. In the process of rebuilding his safeguards, Q had started to become defensive and accusatory, and then had withdrawn contact completely by ending the conversation.

He wasn't simply obnoxious because he didn't know any better. It was a defense. She'd known that already, but had not quite realized the obvious corollary-- the more she chipped away at it, the more vulnerable he would become. If he ever realized that, she would never be able to get him to trust her-- he would shut her out completely, perceiving her as a threat. And in a certain sense, she would be.

Perhaps this was going to be more difficult than she'd initially thought.


Q seriously considered going without breakfast long enough to take apart the replicator and bypass the security control T'Laren had put on it. His head hurt and his eyes were sore, and after his disgraceful behavior last night he would really rather not face a cheerful Vulcan, the way they all seemed to be in the morning. On the other hand, he also didn't feel like doing all the work necessary to bypass the control, and while he wasn't particularly hungry he did require coffee, as quickly as possible. So much for T'Laren's theory that he drank coffee to counteract the effects of his sedatives; he was exhausted, having woken several times in the night with unpleasant dreams. Tonight he was getting his sedative, and he didn't care what he had to do to get it.

After a sonic shower-- Ketaya was equipped with water plumbing, since most humans preferred the less efficient water showers, but Q wasn't most humans-- and other morning ablutions, including a reapplication of makeup to hide the effects of last night's crying jag, he felt marginally capable of facing a fellow sentient. He walked to the kitchen and strode over to the replicator, ignoring T'Laren. "Coffee."

"Decaffeinated," T'Laren piped up before the replicator could start materializing the cup.

He turned on her. As he'd expected, she seemed obscenely cool and wakeful. "What is the point to decaffeinated coffee? Do you think I drink coffee for the taste?"

"It's possible," she said. "Decaf doesn't taste any different, you know."

"I know. I just don't care. What gives you the right to dictate what I drink?"

"I am responsible for your health." She stood up. She was wearing a yellow pantsuit, a crime against fashion if there ever was one-- how could anyone raised on Earth have so little sense of aesthetics as to wear yellow over Vulcan skin? "Breakfast platter," she said to the second replicator, and withdrew a plate full of various foods.

Q raised eyebrows at it. "I always thought overeating was some kind of sin for Vulcans. Or at the very least illogical."

"This isn't mine," she said, and set it down at the table across from her place. "This is for you. I want you to finish all of it."

"You're not serious." Her steady gaze indicated that she was, in fact, perfectly serious. "I can't eat all that! I could maybe manage half that, on a good day. But I'm not anywhere near hungry enough--"

"Sit down and eat," T'Laren interrupted, with no more than her usual calm in her voice. "If you truly cannot finish, we'll simply dispose of the remainder. But I want you to eat as much of it as you can."

Q sat down, not entirely sure why he was bothering. The foods before him were all foods he'd liked, back when he still got any modicum of pleasure whatsoever out of eating. That itself made him less willing to eat. How much information was in his files, anyway? Had Medellin or someone been recording what he got out of the replicators and the frequency of individual foods? "I don't want any of this."

"That's unfortunate," T'Laren said, standing at his shoulder. "It is sad when one must do something one doesn't wish to do."

Or in other words, he still had to eat it. "Can't I get something else?"

"I've analyzed your nutritional requirements and created a program to devise meals that satisfy them. If you ask for something else, the replicator will produce it, but it will also generate complements for it to make a balanced meal, and you'll have to eat them. You might be better off just eating this."

With bad grace, Q took a forkful, wondering in some part of his mind why he wasn't fighting harder. Weakness, perhaps. He was putting up less resistance than he had to Anderson's constant demands, and T'Laren had put much less pressure on him than Anderson ever had. Maybe he was just too tired to fight anyone.

"I'm worried about this power trip of yours, T'Laren," he said. "Forcing me to eat what you want me to eat sounds to me like you're overcontrolling. I got enough of that from Anderson; I'm not putting up with it from you. And I want my sedatives back. I slept miserably last night."

"I can tell," T'Laren said.

Was that a pointed reference to his hysterics last night? Q flushed angrily, and snapped, "A good portion of which was your fault. If you hadn't barged in when you did, I'd have gotten back to sleep without-- oh." T'Laren's fingers pressed into his back just under the collarbone, probing for and loosening painful knots there. It was difficult to maintain his train of thought. "Without... I'd have gotten back to sleep normally and... whatever."

"Maintaining all that anger must be a difficult job," T'Laren said. "You've made yourself tense again. Is it really worth it?"

He really should not allow this. Q remembered how he'd behaved last night-- not the crying jag, but his almost obscene pliability and defenselessness under T'Laren's ministrations. She could have done anything to him, anything at all, and he wouldn't have been able to muster up resistance until it was too late. Obviously he was as vulnerable to pleasure as he was to pain, and he should avoid it for the same reason. He could too easily succumb to this and make as big a fool of himself as he had last night-- he must have looked so incredibly naive and idiotic, going on and on about a backrub as if it were the most pleasurable thing in existence. Far too dangerous. He had to tell her to stop.

In a few minutes.

"I'm not sure I understand you, Q," she said. "You increase your own pain, you know. You fight battles with the wrong people over trivial things, depleting your resources for the important battles. You project anger and disdain at the universe, almost constantly-- don't you realize that that weakens you? You devote so much of your strength to holding up your defenses that every so often your strength runs out and you crumble. If you were more discriminating about what you defended yourself against, you would lose your defenses completely less often."

She didn't understand. Which was good-- she shouldn't understand, she already understood far too much for Q's liking. For a moment, her words reawakened the anger, strengthening him against her. But it was impossible to retain anger or even annoyance at her as her fingers so expertly forced relaxation on him. Q could feel the anger seeping away, stolen away from him by slim fingers, leaving him defenseless.

He jerked away from her. "Don't do that," he said harshly.

"Do what?"

Q turned to face her. T'Laren looked genuinely puzzled. "Don't touch me. Not without asking permission first."

"I-- very well. Forgive me. It was an invasion of your privacy, and I should have known better." She sat down. "Why did you wait so long to tell me to stop, if I was making you uncomfortable?"

That was exactly the sort of question he never wanted to have to answer. What was he supposed to say, "Oh, I liked it too much to make myself ask you to stop?" That certainly lent credibility to his refusal. Humans took statements like that as an excuse to try to persuade one against one's better judgement. He imagined Vulcans-- normal Vulcans, at least-- would take his refusal at face value, and not press further. He had no idea what this one would do. "Drop the subject," he said.

It was one of the weakest attempts to avoid a topic he'd ever produced, and it didn't work. "I can't," she said. "It's important that I know. I cannot simply drop subjects that make you uncomfortable if I'm to help you."

Q sighed. "If you must know, it took me a few minutes to recover from the shock of being touched without permission at all. I'd thought you were more professional than that, T'Laren. You made me very anxious."

T'Laren's expression didn't change. From a Vulcan, he had to take that as a good sign. If he hadn't hurt her, she wouldn't have bothered to keep her face so controlled, and she would have shown some reaction. "You have not previously struck me as someone who freezes in unpleasant situations."

An old bitterness welled to the surface. "No, didn't you hear? I got someone killed by freezing up once. It made me infamous. Well, more infamous than I already was."

"I see," she said, nodding. "You found the situation so unpleasant that you froze. The fact that you relaxed completely and leaned into my touch was an unfortunate side effect of my advanced techniques of Vulcan mind control, which were also responsible for the happiness you experienced last night, the acute depressive attack you experienced later last night, and in fact were responsible for your suicide attempt in the first place."

All of this was said in the same calm, reasonable tone of voice. If Q hadn't listened to the words, he would never have recognized the statement as sarcasm. "Aren't you laying it on a bit thick?" he asked. "The Vulcan mind control line was enough, I think. The rest of it was a bit over the top."

"I am sorry I invaded your privacy without asking," T'Laren said. "I perceived that you were tense, and moved to correct the situation. It had not occurred to me that you have such a desperate need for your anger and tension-- and pain-- that you would be upset with me for easing them for you."

"Need?" Q frowned. "Why would I need pain? I've told you, I'm no masochist. I don't like pain. I also don't like being touched casually. That's all."

"Your files show no sign of such an aversion," T'Laren said.

That was the last straw. Q pushed out of his chair and stood with such force that the chair fell over. "What, do you have everything on record about me?" he demanded. "What I eat and when, who I eat with, what I talk about with them, what I say about them when their back is turned? Do you have monitors running when I go to the bathroom, too? Insights into the psyche obtained by stool inspection? Do you watch me at night and count my dreams from REM movements?"

"The hyperbole is unnecessary," she said, "and will not distract me from the point. We were discussing why you felt the need to reject something you obviously derived enjoyment from, not what is or is not in your files."

"Maybe that's what you're discussing. I'm more concerned about those files. This meal--" He lifted the plate. "All of these are foods I used to like before I stopped liking anything. Do you have that on record too? How much privacy do I have left?"

"Your favorite foods are not on any record I ever saw. Foods you are allergic to or dislike strongly are listed in your file, where known-- anything Medellin saw you have an extreme negative reaction to, meaning that the list probably covers only a fraction of the total. I selected common human breakfast foods, such as eggs and fruit, for your meals, and excluded what I know you don't like. If these happen to be foods you particularly like, it's by coincidence only. And I'd advise you to sit down and finish eating them."

Q put the plate down. "I'm not hungry," he muttered.

T'Laren studied him. "Very well. In that case, come with me." She stood up and walked toward the kitchen door.

"Why?" T'Laren had an annoying habit of making demands without explaining her reasons, and Q decided he was going to break her of it. He stood where he was.

T'Laren turned again to face him. "Since your appetite is low, now would be an ideal time to begin a physical training regimen. You have a great deal of tension and hostility that might be more profitably channeled into physical activity, and such activity would increase your appetite."

He wasn't hearing this. He couldn't be. Q looked down at his hands, the only part of his body he could see that he hadn't concealed under clothes designed to tell flattering lies. The fingers were bony skeleton appendages, more like a Mestavan than a human, and the knuckles stood out like a Klingon's forehead ridges. Underneath the gracefully lying fabric he'd hidden himself in, the rest of his body was just as bad-- he had taken pains not to look at himself naked in a mirror for months now, and his condition had gotten considerably worse since his failed suicide attempt. Incredulously he looked up at T'Laren. "You can't seriously want me to exercise in my condition."

"I believe we discussed this last night, Q. Did you believe I'd forgotten?"

Actually, Q himself had forgotten. Now that she'd reminded him, he did remember that she'd threatened to make him exercise. It was as unbelievable now as it had been then. "I thought maybe you'd have come to your senses."

"I don't plan to make you run a marathon," T'Laren said. "For now we'll start with simple stretching exercises. If you can walk, you can do that much."

He supposed that was probably correct, though the idea of doing any kind of exercise whatsoever made him feel immensely put-upon. Sulkily he followed T'Laren to the gym, wondering why he was bothering. "Look, I really don't think I'm up to this. Can't we wait a week or so, until I'm a little stronger?"

"How do you expect to get stronger when you don't eat?" T'Laren went over to the clothing replicator. "Exercise suits."

"All right!" Q threw up his hands. "I'll finish the damned breakfast. Will that make you happy? Are you satisfied?"

T'Laren handed him an exercise suit. "Change into this. You can use the change room over there if you would rather do so privately."

"I already said I'd finish breakfast. What more do you want?"

"You misunderstand," she said. She had gone completely Vulcan; he couldn't read her at all. "I am not Anderson, attempting to coerce you through threatened punishments. This is not a punishment, Q. You are going to exercise. It would be very nice if you would eat as well, but it will not change anything. Now change your clothes-- what you are wearing is too confining for exercise."

"You said it was just stretching."

"It is difficult to stretch when one's clothes will not stretch with you."

"And what if I refuse?" he asked belligerently, folding his arms and glaring at her. "What will you do to me if I walk back to my room right now?"

"Please don't," T'Laren said calmly. "I would not wish to resort to threats."

"Oh, so you are like Anderson. What threats are you not wishing to resort to? Take away my replicator privileges? Oh, wait, it's been done before. Why don't you cut off my computer access? That would be truly original."

"That would be unnecessary," T'Laren said, moving around him to stand in front of the door. She placed her exercise suit in a neat bundle on the floor. "There is only one exit from here, Q. You have three choices: you may stay here in the gymnasium and do nothing, you may attempt to force your way past me, or you may do as I have asked. If you attempt to force your way past me, you will fail. I am a Vulcan, Starfleet-trained, and in perfect health. You would then be left with the previous two choices, and undoubtedly some bruises. So I might suggest limiting your consideration to those two, keeping in mind that I am far more patient than you."

Q stared at her. "You're actually threatening me with physical violence."

"Not at all. I am threatening to turn any attempts of yours at physical violence back at you. I threaten no violence myself."

"Semantics," Q muttered. Had he really thought it would be any different? Wherever he went, people would try to dominate him, to control him, and as long as he had such a glaring weakness as his inability to tolerate boredom, they would succeed.

With extremely bad grace, he took the exercise suit from her and undressed, quite deliberately doing so in front of her. Normally he would have sought privacy to undress-- he had no sense of modesty in the usual sense, but he was ashamed of how thin he was right now, and usually tried to avoid letting anyone see him without clothes to hide the damage. Right now, though, he wanted to flaunt his weakness. Let her see how truly pathetic he looked, and she would realize that he couldn't possibly indulge in any physical exercise now. Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced over to see what her reaction was-- but she, too, was changing, paying no attention to him. Q quickly looked away. Experience had taught him that it was dangerous for him to look at nude attractive humanoids, and while he thought he was probably too ill for it to be a problem right now, there was no sense taking chances. He didn't need to risk humiliation and discomfort right now; he was already uncomfortable enough.

By the time he was done changing, T'Laren was dressed and waiting with arms folded, her stillness conveying the patience of stone. He faced her sullenly. "Now what?"

"Touch your toes without bending your knees."

This felt immensely stupid. Half-heartedly, Q attempted to touch his toes, came to the conclusion that if he couldn't bend his knees his toes might as well be in another solar system, and straightened up. "I can't."

"Try."

He made a few more half-hearted attempts, feeling self-conscious and idiotic. His body simply would not bend that way. It was painful to make the attempt. "Fine, I tried. Happy now?"

"You aren't trying."

"I am too!"

"We will do this until you do it properly. Again."

Q sat down on the floor, arms folded. "I can't do it."

T'Laren looked down at him for several seconds. Q stared back at her, challenging her to do something. Without breaking the stare, T'Laren said, "Q. It is necessary that you learn how to defend yourself physically. I am Starfleet trained, but I am only one person-- I may not always be able to save you. What would you do if your life depended on your ability to hold off some assassin a few moments until I could arrive?"

Q shrugged. "I suppose I'd die," he said blandly. "Which frankly, at the moment, doesn't strike me as an overly unpleasant prospect."

T'Laren continued to stare at him. Q, still unwilling to back down, stared back, studiedly expressionless. Finally T'Laren stepped away from the door, ceasing to block his path out. "Get up and come with me."

He stood up. "What now?"

"I have something to show you."

Q made an exasperated noise. "Like what? I'm getting very tired of these vague directives of yours, T'Laren."

"It would be meaningless if I told you what in advance," she said. "I believe it will be something of interest to you."

"I doubt it," Q muttered, but went with her. Curiosity had always been one of his greatest weaknesses.

They walked a short distance down the hall to the lift. "Deck 4," T'Laren said, and they descended.

"What's on Deck 4?"

"Airlocks, maintenance and supply."

"Oh, you've got a present for me, hidden in the supply closet. How nice. T'Laren, you shouldn't have." No response. Not even a "Shut up, Q." This was beginning to frighten him. It was fine to offend people, but not to the point where they stopped talking to him.

"Is it bigger than a breadbox?" Q persisted, as they stepped off the turbolift. "Or perhaps you're going to show me the skeletons in your closet. Are there dead bodies down here? Victims of some arcane Vulcan rite?" Still no response. Q was not used to being ignored, not when there was no one else to talk to, and it was making him desperate. What did he have to do to get a reaction out of her again?

T'Laren palmed the door to the main airlock, and it lifted. Now Q was getting extremely nervous. "T'Laren?" he asked, backing away. "Why are you opening the airlock?"

"I have some knowledge of death by vacuum," she said calmly. "It is a quick death and a merciful one. There are a few brief moments of pain, but the cold quickly robs one of consciousness. I imagine it is far less painful than drinking etching solution."

She was completely insane. Q's blood went cold with fear. "I imagine so," he said weakly, and then turned to bolt desperately for the lift.

He never even got close. The moment his back was turned, the moment he began to run, T'Laren's arm grabbed his and snagged him back. He stumbled, windmilling with his free arm, trying to pull free, but it was useless. T'Laren reeled him in to her and turned him toward the airlock, pushing. Q dug in his heels, not that that did much good with shipboots on an uncarpeted ship's corridor floor. "No-- don't-- please don't--"

"Why are you resisting? This is what you want," T'Laren said. She lifted him slightly, so he could no longer brace himself against the floor, and shoved, releasing him. Q staggered, falling forward into the airlock. As he caught himself against the far wall, he heard the hum of the door lowering behind him.

"No!" He turned and lunged at the airlock door, too late. It shut with a clang that sounded unpleasantly like a death knell. The top half of the door was transparasteel-- Q could see T'Laren outside the lock, standing by the release button with the same lack of expression she'd shown before. Terrified, he pounded on the transparasteel. "Let me out! Please! Please!"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "I do not understand what you are afraid of," she said. "Not five minutes ago, you expressed complete unconcern at the possibility of your own death. I no longer wished to torment you by forcing you to remain alive against your will."

He had known she was mentally unstable, and he had gone with her anyway. Stupid fool! There was no one here to save him-- he was trapped alone in an airlock with a mad Vulcan on the other side and no one else around for light-years. Q sank to his knees, terrified, hands and face pressed firmly against the transparasteel. "Please. Please, let me out. Don't kill me. Please."

"You do not, in fact, wish to die."

"No. No. I don't. Please, don't kill me, please..."

"But you do understand that this would be a far kinder death than you could expect from some assailant. That is clear to you, I hope."

She was going to kill him. It was obvious that she'd made up her mind. His life was moments away from ending, and he couldn't think of what to say, what to do to make her let him go. He had expected to be killed by some revenge-craving member of a highly advanced species unknown to humanity, not an insane citizen of the Federation to whom he'd done nothing personally. "Yes, yes, I know, I still don't want to die! T'Laren, please! Let me out!"

"It is your decision," she said. "Consider it carefully." Her hand hovered near the airlock release. "If you live, you will continue to be plagued by aches and pains, at risk for a worse death, lonely and crippled. Death will end your suffering, you understand. Simply tell me your decision, and I will carry it out for you."

It was hopeless. She wasn't listening to him. Q sagged, his head sinking below the level of the transparasteel, where he could no longer see his tormenter. He began to sob helplessly, despairingly. "T'Laren, don't kill me, please don't kill me, please..."

"Very well," her voice came, echoing in the airlock. A moment later the door he was leaning against moved upward.

Q crawled out of the airlock as soon as the opening was big enough for him to fit through, away from T'Laren, and sat up against the far wall of the corridor, hugging his knees as he tried to control his breathing. He still didn't feel safe. He didn't know what he'd said that had finally gotten through to her, and he didn't know what he'd said that had precipitated the attempt in the first place, and so he had no way of knowing that it would not happen again or that she wouldn't carry through her threat next time.

Footsteps approached. He glanced up, saw T'Laren coming over toward him, and flinched, curling inward more tightly. "Q," she said gently.

"Changed your mind?" he asked raggedly. "Going to finish me off anyway?"

"Q, I wasn't actually trying to kill you."

That statement was too outrageous for him to devise a suitable reply. He looked up and glared at her. "No?" he finally said, a wealth of disgust and disbelief in the one word.

"The airlocks have safety interlocks on them. They can't be opened to vacuum if there's a life form inside, not unless one bypasses the interlocks-- and I'm not an engineer. I'd have no idea how to go about bypassing the safety features. I couldn't have spaced you if I'd wanted to."

The words sank in slowly. She hadn't been trying to kill him. She had been trying to make it look as if she would, to humiliate and terrify him, to make a complete fool out of him. Terror began to transmute to rage. "How dare you?" Q asked, getting to his feet. Rage built up uncontrollably, hazing his vision. "How dare you!"

Fury overpowered him completely, and he lunged at T'Laren, pinning her back against the wall. Had he the power, he would have thrown her into the heart of a sun, dismembered her cell by quivering cell, cast her into a hellish pocket dimension to suffer eternities of agony. He couldn't do any of those things anymore, so he locked his fingers around her slim neck and squeezed with all the strength of his rage, lifting her off her feet and slamming her into the wall. "How dare you humiliate me like this! Who-- do you-- think-- you-- are?" he screamed, punctuating the question by repeatedly smashing her head back into the bulkhead.

Even the power of his rage, however, was not quite enough to match a Vulcan's strength. Perhaps it would have if his body had been stronger. As it was, though, T'Laren's fingers wrapped around his and pried him loose from her throat. She pushed him back and sank to the floor, gasping. Q staggered backward, the aftermath of the sudden adrenaline rush catching up with him. Weakness overwhelmed him, the counterpoint of the rush of strength a minute ago, and he too had to sit down on the floor.

He had never been so angry. Not in his entire mortal life had he felt such fury at someone that he had attacked them physically. In his entire existence, he could remember only one other time that his rage had so overpowered his reason, and that had been a cold, slow rage, burning for years. That had been with Azi... and Azi had betrayed the friendship of millennia, had been far more to him than T'Laren could ever be. But the way he felt now, the weak helpless fury, the betrayal... was as close an approximation to how he'd felt when Azi had attacked and nearly destroyed him as he thought he could get in mortal form. T'Laren should be afraid, he thought. T'Laren should be very afraid. No one hurt him like that without suffering for it.

"Impressive," T'Laren said hoarsely, struggling to her feet. "I'd been informed you have no natural instinct for physical violence. Somebody was mistaken, it seems."

"If I weren't so weak, I would kill you," Q said, getting up off the floor himself.

"If you weren't so weak, it would have been far harder for someone to threaten your life in such fashion. Q, my point here has not been to needlessly humiliate you."

The look he gave her could have fused hydrogen into helium. "No?" he asked, not loudly, but with white-hot rage behind it. "Clarify for me. What was your point here?"

"You essentially said you didn't care if someone killed you. I believed you were lying, if not to me then to yourself, and decided to prove my theory. Obviously you do not, in fact, wish to die."

"I do, in fact, wish to kill you."

"Irrelevant," she said sharply. "We aren't discussing your views on my continued existence, but on your own. My original point was that, if you do not learn to defend yourself, you are likely to be killed. You told me you didn't care. I believe we have just proven that that is untrue."

"Oh, no," Q snapped. He stepped closer to T'Laren, and she took a half-step backward. "If you only wanted to prove that I didn't want to die, you could have let me go the first time I asked you to. But no. You waited until I was completely broken, on my knees begging and sobbing, before you relented. That was unnecessary by anyone's standards. No, you got angry at me and decided to humiliate me. Admit it."

"I'm above that," T'Laren said frostily.

"Oh? Are you, now. How intriguing. The Vulcan whose emotional control is so incompetent that she got thrown out of Starfleet and ended up trying to kill herself is above getting angry. Really. What a fascinating notion."

T'Laren moved sideways, putting space between herself and Q. "I am not above getting angry," she said. "I am, however, above humiliating a patient because I am angry. I would advise you not to judge the entire universe by what you yourself would do."

He raised his eyebrows. "Obviously you're not above taking cheap shots," he said. "Really, T'Laren. References to my past history? You can do better than that, I'm sure."

"This isn't a contest."

"No, you're quite right. This isn't a contest. This is much more serious." Q imposed on her space again, backing her into the wall. "This is a question of trust, and I'm very much afraid you just lost mine."

"I explained that I had no intention of killing you. You may examine the safety interlock if you choose."

"Oh, I believe you. I know you didn't plan to kill me. What you planned-- and what you did-- was to play games with my head."

"As if you have never done such a thing yourself."

"Of course I have, that's not the point! I am not a psychologist! You abused the power I gave you--"

"I did no such thing!" T'Laren twisted away from him again and took a position half a meter away. "You are obstructionist, defeatist and a liar, both to yourself and to others. I perceived that you needed to be made aware of the vulnerability of your position--"

"No, no, and no!" Q could shout over anyone when he tried. He grabbed T'Laren's arm and loomed over her again, getting in her face. "I offended you, hurt your feelings or whatever you have that passes for them, and you decided to get even. Frightening me was probably intended to teach me a lesson, yes, I'm sure you had good and noble reasons when you first got the idea. But you dragged it out far too long for that to have been all it was. No, T'Laren, I know revenge when I see it."

She yanked her arm out of his grasp. "I acted as a healer, in the best interests of my patient. I do not care what delusions you choose to believe, but that is the truth."

Q laughed unpleasantly. "Oh, don't try to lie to me, T'Laren," he said. "I have uncounted millennia of experience with deception. I know a lie when I see one, too."

"It is obvious to me why you would choose to believe your own version of events," T'Laren said in a voice like liquid nitrogen. "What is less obvious is why you would find that version so offensive. You endeavored so forcefully, so skillfully, to offend me and to cause me to react against you that it would undoubtedly be very disappointing to you to believe that it did not work. You would far prefer to believe yourself successful. I understand this. I fail to understand, however, why you insist on the pretense that your feelings are hurt, that you are offended, by your belief that I took revenge against you. Why would you be so displeased at an effect you worked so hard to achieve?"

"Then you admit it was revenge."

"I admit that you believe it was, and that I am bewildered at your reaction to your own belief. The actual facts are as I have previously stated them."

Q stared at her. "You're worse than me," he finally said. "When I get caught out, I generally admit it. You refuse to acknowledge that I'm right."

"It is irrelevant whether or not you are right. What is relevant is that you are making a great show of being disturbed by your belief that I attacked you for revenge. I do not understand why."

"Because I trusted you!" Q shouted at her. "And you humiliated me! I thought you were going to kill me, T'Laren. Have you any idea how frightened I was?"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Why would you have so feared death?" she asked. "Death is what you thought you wanted, isn't it?"

"In my time, on my terms, at my hands, yes! Maybe! But I don't care what you say about how quick it is and whatnot, I don't want someone else throwing me out an airlock!" The effort of shouting was making him dizzy. He took a deep breath. "And that's beside the point, anyway. The point is that I trusted you and you humiliated me, for your own personal satisfaction, and I don't want to be trapped on a starship depending on someone who does that kind of thing."

"Indeed. Your solution, then?"

"Turn this ship around. I want to go back to Starbase 56."

She nodded and turned away, walking toward the lift. "Very well. If that is what you wish."

He had expected more of an argument about it. "You're just going to take me back?"

T'Laren stopped, but did not face him. "This excursion was intended to benefit you. If you intend to derive no benefit from it, there is no point. I will return you to your old life on Starbase 56." Now she turned to face him. Her face had gone through cold and expressionless out the other side. The wintry devil's mask she wore bore little resemblance to a humanoid face. It was like a legendary beast's, or a demon's, a rage that burned as cold as frozen oxygen. "And when you die, when you take your own life out of boredom and despair, you will be unmourned. Your people will have written you off as a failure, for refusing to grasp at your only chance; those who know you will consider themselves well rid of you; the Federation will regret the loss of a resource, but no more than that. I will grieve for my failure. No one else will think of you at all."

The words were a knife in his heart. Q smiled cruelly, hiding his pain. "I don't think you'll be grieving," he said softly. "I don't think you'll do anything at all. Lhoviri gave you his 'gifts' as payment for something it seems you're not going to do, now. And the Q don't tolerate failures. Lhoviri will almost certainly take his gifts back." He let the smile broaden, as he studied her face for any sign of pain or fear or anything at all. "Didn't you say he gave you your life and your sanity? If he's very merciful, he may let you keep one."

The utter lack of reaction told Q everything he needed to know. He stood there wearing a smiling mask, as an expressionless T'Laren turned from him and went back up the lift. He took the lift himself as soon as it came back down, still wearing the mask, and went into his room. Only then, safely unobserved, did the mask break. Q collapsed onto his bed, feeling despair encroaching again. T'Laren had been absolutely right. He would die unmourned, forgotten, his existence rendered irrelevant to everyone he had ever cared about. Alive, there was nothing left to him but hopelessness. Dead, there would be nothing left of him at all.

He stared at the ceiling, breathing deeply, trying to control himself. Anger and self-pity and encroaching despair roiled around inside, fighting for domination. It was in his best interests to make sure anger won-- despair led to tears or suicide attempts, while anger gave him strength. So he focused his attention on being angry at T'Laren.

This, he thought furiously, was why he hadn't wanted to trust her in the first place, why he hadn't wanted to believe she could help him or hope for anything at all. There was nothing more painful than shattered hope. And he knew he had begun to hope-- the depth of his terror when he'd thought T'Laren would kill him told him that. It wasn't as if he'd lied to her-- no, he didn't want to be killed by someone else, and no, he didn't want to die by going out an airlock. Two weeks ago, however, both alternatives would have been completely acceptable. She was right that death by vacuum was easier than death by drinking acid. He'd observed mortals dying in vacuum often enough to know that shock drove them unconscious very quickly, and the pain they suffered before that time was simply not in the same league as the pain of having etching solution devouring one's guts.

That was odd, actually. Two weeks ago, he had been willing to put himself through excruciating torment. The agony he'd suffered, while brief, had been more intense than any pain he'd been through yet, and it had been something he'd done to himself. He would have jumped at the chance to go out an airlock, then; would have been overjoyed to find a method of dying as sure as the acid and less painful, and he wouldn't have cared who did it to him. Part of the reason he'd provoked the Klingons, aside from the fact that it was fun to provoke Klingons, had been a secret, half-hearted hope that they'd bash his skull in for him. He had been entirely willing to be killed, as long as the method involved less pain and humiliation than he'd planned for himself.

Yet not half an hour ago, he had been broken, groveling, sobbing with terror because he'd thought he would be killed. That went far beyond not wanting to be murdered. He had genuinely not wanted to die.

Somewhere along the way, without his noticing it, he must have decided he wanted to live. He must have succumbed to hope, and begun to actually believe T'Laren would help him. And that brought him around in a circle to the utter cruelty of her betrayal. If she hadn't made him hope, it could not possibly hurt so much to see that hope destroyed. If she hadn't come into his life--

--he would still be on Starbase 56, where he was headed back to now. And nothing would be any different from what it was before.

"Damn you, Lhoviri," Q whispered. He'd seen the trap, had walked into it with his eyes wide open, and now he was caught. "Damn you."

In a month, or maybe less, things would get unbearable again, and he would find a way to kill himself. It would have to be even more sure than the acid was, something that could not fail barring a flagrant violation of the laws of physics, which Lhoviri would be loath to do. Probably it would end up being even more painful as well. And after he was dead, no one would mourn him. The Continuum would write him off as a failure. Someone who rejected his last chance for survival didn't deserve to live. Humanity hated him and would be glad to be rid of him. Everyone else in the universe hated him worse and would be even more glad.

He would not get another chance. If he rejected T'Laren, Lhoviri wouldn't send anyone else. This was it, his last opportunity. After what she had done he could not possibly trust her-- but if he didn't, at least to the extent of staying aboard Ketaya with her, he would have no hope at all.

But she couldn't possibly actually turn the ship around and return to the starbase, he thought. She knew what was at stake-- he had warned her. If she let him step off this ship and go back to the place where he'd die, without any argument, any attempt to stop him or persuade him, she would have failed. And Lhoviri was not forgiving. He disliked interfering with things. If he had saved T'Laren's life and T'Laren didn't hold up her end of the bargain, it would make perfect sense to Lhoviri to erase the effects of his own interference and eliminate T'Laren, let the death that should have claimed her get her two years late. T'Laren knew that; Q had warned her. She would have to come back in here to apologize, to beg him to give all this a second chance. Then he would magnanimously forgive her.

If that was the plan, one presumed they were traveling back to the starbase at some ungodly slow speed, warp three perhaps, to give her plenty of time to talk him out of it. "Computer," he said, "what's our ETA to Starbase 56?"

"ETA three hours," the computer said.

Three hours! Q jerked to a sitting position. That couldn't be right. "What speed are we traveling at?"

"Warp nine."

That made no sense. Why would they travel back to Starbase 56 three orders of magnitude as quickly as they'd left it, when T'Laren's survival depended on them not actually returning at all? Why would she take them so quickly? Did she want Lhoviri to kill her? Or maybe, like so many other mortals Q had known, she wouldn't quite understand the depth of the Continuum's ruthlessness until it was too late. Maybe, for all her protestations otherwise, she really did trust Lhoviri.

Trusting fool! Q knew better than anyone how trustworthy the Q were, or were not, especially Lhoviri, who in many respects was an older version of himself. He had to make her understand the danger she was in. Q got up and strode out of the room, heading for the lift to the bridge.


He strode out onto the bridge. "Why are we traveling at warp 9?" he demanded.

T'Laren didn't look up at him. "One would not wish to waste time," she said.

Q walked over to her seat and leaned over the back of it, speaking to the top of T'Laren's head. "You do realize that your life ends the moment we get back to the starbase. I told you, Lhoviri won't be forgiving."

"You told me that, yes."

"Well?" He glared down at her. "Aren't you going to try to talk me out of wanting to go back?"

"Why?"

"Because!" Exasperated, he circled her chair and faced her, since she was refusing to look up at him. "If we actually return to Starbase 56, you'll die! Don't you want to live?"

"In the first place, I have only your word for it that I will die. You may be mistaken, or lying. And secondly, I do not consider it a worthwhile idea to beg you to do something that would primarily benefit yourself. You have a hard enough time as it is comprehending that actions have consequences."

"The consequences of this particular action would be your death. Or at the very least you'll go insane again. It seems to me like you're the one who's ignoring the consequences of your actions."

T'Laren finally looked up at him. "I will not coddle you," she said. "You are well aware that your life will be desperately unhappy on Starbase 56, and that you will undoubtedly end up attempting suicide again. You may well succeed this next time; after refusing the help the Continuum sent you, I doubt they will be eager to help you again. Yet it is your desire to return to that. I cannot argue with such profound irrationality."

"You don't understand. Lhoviri will kill you." Q snapped his fingers. "Like that, out like a light. You're nothing to him. He'll just get rid of you to keep things tidy."

"You do not understand. That is irrelevant."

"Well... not to me." Q turned away. If she refused to beg him to stay with her, there were still ways to accomplish the objective and save face. "Right now, I'm still furious at you, I still think you humiliated me needlessly, and I still don't trust you. But you don't deserve to die for any of that." He turned back to her. "Turn the ship back, T'Laren, we'll go to the conference. I don't need your death on my head."

"It would be on Lhoviri's head, not yours."

"Still."

"Q, if you do not trust me there is no point to our continuing with an empty charade. We would accomplish nothing, I would still have failed, and Lhoviri presumably would still kill me. I would prefer to get it over with."

"All right!" he snapped. "I don't have a choice, do I? It doesn't matter how many times you betray me, I have to trust you because you're the only game in town. So turn the ship around. We're going to the conference." He turned back toward the lift. "I wouldn't want to miss a chance to harass so many scientists at the same time anyway."

Behind him, he heard her sigh. "That's not a very constructive reason to want to go someplace."

Q grinned. He had her. She was back now.

He wiped the grin off his face and turned back. "Probably not. But I'm not well-known for my constructive reasoning."

T'Laren studied him for a moment or two without speaking. "If you have decided to trust me, on whatever provisional basis, will you also trust that I have your best interests in mind when I require that you eat? And exercise? And learn some modicum of self-defense?"

Q thought about it. She was right. He knew that, even as his mind rebelled against the knowledge. It was simply that he couldn't stand being told what to do. "Give me back replicator access and some amount of veto power over what I eat, and you're on."

Her face, in the slow process of thawing, went stone again. "Bargains?"

"Whatever works," Q said. He leaned forward, propping himself on the railing. "T'Laren, if you're such a control freak that you can't allow me any power over my own life, then this won't work and we may as well go back. I will try my best to be reasonable-- I just don't like being told what to do. It makes me very, uh..."

"Stubborn?" The stone cracked with the arch of an eyebrow. "Unreasonable? Obnoxious?"

Q shrugged, grinning in mock abashment. Abruptly T'Laren's face relaxed, and he was once more dealing with a living sentient being, not a statue of one. "All right, Q. As long as you can be reasonable about it, I'll let you control what you eat. I downloaded the list of replicator restrictions from Starbase 56, so you can have access to the replicators immediately, under the same restrictions as you had before. But I'd still like you to eat with me, and we still have to go do those exercises."

He sighed, sitting down abruptly. "It's so hard, T'Laren. I'm tired, and I'm weak, and I feel like an idiot when I try to do anything with my body. I just won't stretch that way."

T'Laren stood up, walking over to him. "There are two solutions I can see. One is that we try water exercises instead. Your weakness and lack of flexibility won't matter as much in water, the pool won't let you drown, and you need to learn how to swim as well. The other is that you let me massage the tension out before we start the stretching, so that you'll be able to stretch with a minimum of pain."

Q put his chin on his hand and made a great show of thinking about it. "Hmm. Let's consider... a difficult question, this. On the one hand, I could get cold and wet, inhale large quantities of water through my nose, wear a bathing costume of some sort that shows off my skeletal limbs to maximum boniness, and make a fool of myself splashing about through a medium that this body is most certainly not evolved for. On the other hand, you could give me a massage. Let me ponder." He looked up at her with a perfectly deadpan expression. "Could I have a few hours to think about it?"

For a brief second, almost too quickly for him to notice it, T'Laren smiled. Then the expression was gone, but left in its wake a considerably friendlier face. "I take it you're leaning toward the massage?"

"I think I favor that alternative, yes."

She helped him to his feet. "Let's go to the gym," she said. "If bribery is what it takes to get you to exercise, I have no moral problems with bribing you."

"How wonderful. I have no moral problems with being bribed, so this will work out fine. Lead the way, dear doctor." They stepped onto the lift. "If I'm going to go through all the pain of being forced to exercise, after all, I should get something pleasant in exchange..."


To T'Laren's amazement, Q was actually capable of being somewhat reasonable. He complained all the way through the exercise session, but at least he did what he was told. And afterward, when she requested their lunches from the replicator, he ate his without complaint and even with some enthusiasm. He seemed to have completely forgotten about the incidents this morning, leading her to wonder just how long he held grudges. There was evidence that as an omnipotent being, he'd been capable of holding a grudge for centuries, but from what she had seen and heard from him and the people she'd interviewed, he seemed far quicker to forgive than anybody gave him credit for. She doubted she'd get a straight answer out of him if she asked-- but then, sometimes his obfuscations were revealing in themselves.

"How well do you hold grudges, Q?" she asked.

He looked up from the raisin bagel he'd been intent on. "What brought that on?"

"Curiosity," she said, with a slight tilt of the head. "I will undoubtedly ask questions out of nowhere fairly often, so perhaps you should get used to it. Feel free to do the same."

"All right," he said, straight-faced. "What's the exchange rate for latinum to Andorian sessis?"

"Relevant questions," T'Laren clarified, as Q grinned. "And I don't want my question to be dismissed. Do you generally hold grudges?"

"That's... complicated." He took another bite of the bagel and said with his mouth full, "What kind of grudges? Against who?"

"Anyone."

"Well, that narrows the field considerably, thanks." Q put the bagel down. "Do I have replicator access now?"

"Yes."

"Good." He turned to the replicator. "Another steak sandwich, this time without all the lettuce."

"Is this a terribly sensitive question for you, that you're ignoring me?"

"Not at all. I'm hungry. What is this fetish you Vulcans have for lettuce, anyway? If I have to eat a vegetable, can't it be something that doesn't taste like crispy water?"

"I find it interesting that you suddenly became hungry after I asked you a question."

Q sighed in exasperation. "I'm not avoiding the question, T'Laren. I'm eating my lunch. I'll answer your question in a second, all right?"

T'Laren sipped at her cassava juice, watching him. He took a bite of the sandwich, put it down hurriedly, opened it and applied various condiments, taking small bites after each application to check the flavor. "You realize," she said, "you could have gotten it out of the replicator in exactly the condition you wanted it in."

"I didn't know what condition I wanted it in. This is trial and error." Finally satisfied, he gestured at her with the sandwich-holding hand. "All right, your question. I have been known to forgive people transgressions that other Q would have obliterated them for. I have also been known to enact hideous and lengthy revenges for offenses other Q would have found trivial. Can you give me a context for your question? Grudges for what?"

"Since you became mortal, have you held grudges against people who have humiliated you?"

"Oh!" He nodded with dramatic comprehension. "You want to know if I'm holding a grudge against you."

She would have thought that would have been immediately obvious to him. Perhaps he was being deliberately dense. "In part, yes. But it is also a general question."

"Well, then no." He took another bite of the sandwich. "It is amazing how much hungrier I feel. I don't think I've had this much appetite in months."

"It's the physical activity," T'Laren said. "By no, you mean you don't hold grudges against people for humiliating you?"

"No, I mean I don't hold a grudge against you."

"That wasn't what I was asking."

Q sighed. "You're annoying, you know that?"

"I believe that's an excellent example of the pot calling the stainless steel serving fork black."

Q blinked at her. "That isn't how it goes."

"You aren't the only one permitted to paraphrase old Earth sayings. Why am I annoying?"

"I don't hold grudges against people I need," Q said. "For instance, while I've far from forgotten all of Commodore Anderson's attempts to blackmail and coerce me into doing her will, I've more or less forgiven her for them. Actually, in some respects I'm very quick to forgive. One can't spend all one's time standing on one's dignity when one's role in life is that of a provocateur. Occasionally the provoked will come up with some creative method of striking back, and one can hardly destroy them for doing exactly what one pushed them into doing."

"Weren't we discussing your mortal life?"

"I'm explaining why I tolerate minor insults to my dignity, in the context of my entire existence. You see..." He took a drink of grape juice. "For example. This one's in my records, so it's hardly anything you don't know. Five years ago or so-- well, more or less five years, I haven't been keeping close track-- I attempted to persuade Riker to join the Continuum, for... what seemed like good reasons at the time. It was in part a genuine attempt. It was also a game, a test, a challenge and a number of other things. Picard offered a bet with me that Riker would defeat the challenge I'd set him. I, of course, knew that no human could possibly resist the temptation of godlike power, so I cheerfully accepted."

"I take it things did not work out as planned."

"They did not. Riker refused-- how, I still don't know. Picard then indulged in a little bit of personal gloating over the fact that he'd won the bet, and therefore I had to leave. At that moment I was quite enraged with him. I mean, think about it. This little insect, making demands of me, a god! I might have destroyed him if... circumstances had been different."

He lifted his grape juice glass. "In the long run, however, I'm not that petty. I go around challenging mortals to beat the tests I set for them-- I really don't let it get to me when they succeed. In fact, the ones that succeed, that actually defeat my tests, fascinate me. It was the reason I came back to humanity after they beat my Farpoint test, and the reason I chose to warn Picard about the Borg, and the reason I kept studying the race. On the other hand, yes, I am capable of holding grudges. The worst thing I ever did in my entire existence was for revenge on someone." He drank.

"What was that?"

Q put down his glass hard and leaned forward. "T'Laren, you know my history. If I say that something is the worst thing I've ever done, something I was ashamed of even when I was still all-powerful, one can imagine roughly how bad it had to have been. Now what makes you think that I would for any reason whatsoever want to tell someone about it?"

"Why would you have brought it up if you didn't?"

"As a relevant example. You don't need to know the details."

"I wouldn't judge you, Q. That's not my place."

"No, it's not your place, but yes, you would. No sentient could avoid it. I don't care how objective and logical you think you are, if you knew the whole sordid story you would judge me. Harshly."

"What was the general nature of it? Did you destroy a sentient species?"

"Nothing like that," Q snapped impatiently. "Actually, I have destroyed sentient species, but never without reason. This was..." He sighed. "You're not going to stop hounding me until I toss you a bone, are you?"

"I am curious," T'Laren admitted.

"Suffice it to say that someone I cared for very much hurt me very badly, both physically and emotionally-- which is a neat trick when you consider that I was invulnerable-- and in retaliation I did... something heinous even by my standards." He stared into nothing. "I became ashamed of it even when I had the power to correct my mistake... but not ashamed enough, it seems. Pride wouldn't let me. And now I have a much better idea of exactly what I did to her."

T'Laren had to admit to being desperately curious. What would a being who shrugged off genocide consider a heinous act? She risked a wild guess. "Was it Guinan?"

"No!" Q looked simultaneously astonished and disgusted. "What ever gave you that idea?"

"I spoke to Guinan, when I was on the Enterprise--"

"When were you on the Enterprise?"

"About-- three or four months ago. I'm not entirely sure-- time passed strangely when I was with Lhoviri on a frequent basis. I was interviewing people who remembered you, in preparation for taking you as my patient."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that some preparation went into it. What did Guinan say? I can't imagine she told you much; she's too addicted to her woman-of-mystery act."

"Very little. Only that you had had dealings with one another two centuries ago, and that she approved of my mission to humanize you."

"What? No vitriol about how the irresponsible Continuum lets its irresponsible children run amok in the universe? No choice comments about what a pathetic human being I am? Didn't she even wish you luck?"

"She did wish me luck, in fact." T'Laren leaned forward. "What happened between you?"

Q leaned back in his chair. "Oh, I had a little misunderstanding with Guinan. I understood that she was not a danger to me, not gratuitously cruel, and not a treacherous bitch. Obviously, I fell a bit short of omniscient there."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "That sounds rather one-sided."

"It is. It's my side. If you want Guinan's side, why don't you ask her? You being such pals with her and all."

"I received the distinct impression that what little she told me was all she planned to. What did you do to her?"

"Hardly anything at all. Not in comparison to what she did to me."

"Then what did she do to you?"

Q raised a hand and ticked off on his fingers. "She lied to me. Tricked me. Betrayed me. Lied to me. Defied me. Threatened my existence. Did I mention she lied?"

T'Laren had to work to maintain control. She should not be amused by this, she knew. "You sound like a man speaking of an ex-lover."

"Guinan was not my lover!" Q snapped. "I have better taste than that."

"But she could hardly have betrayed you had you not trusted her to some degree in the first place."

"Well, she wasn't my lover. That would have been bestiality. For a Q to actually fall in love with a mortal, even a long-lived one... it happens, I'll admit, but not to me, not in all the millions of years I lived. I would never have lowered myself that way."

"But the one we mentioned before-- the one you said you cared about--"

"Azi was a Q. She had been my best friend for... I don't want to talk about this." He stood up, tossing the remains of the steak sandwich next to the remains of the bagel. "Why do I let you do this to me?"

"What?"

"Don't play innocent, T'Laren! You know perfectly well what you're doing!"

"Yes, I know what I'm doing... but not how you perceive what I'm doing. I ask again, what?"

"I told you I didn't want to discuss it. Not Azi, not Guinan, not anything like that. Yet somehow I find myself telling you secrets that I would have sworn a tractor beam couldn't have gotten out of me. As a professional provocateur, I would dearly love to know how you're doing it. It amazes me that in ten thousand years of doing this sort of thing, there could be any tricks I'd missed."

T'Laren shook her head. "It's not a trick. I'm not manipulating you, Q. If you're telling me things, it's because you want to."

"But I don't want to!" he shouted. "You're... I don't know what you're doing, but you're making me tell you things."

She merely looked at him for several seconds. Q reddened, but held his ground. "It's true," he insisted.

"I'm trying to help you, and you know it," she said gently. "That's why you're telling me things. You know you have no hope if I can't help you, and you know that I can't help you if you don't answer my questions."

"I really don't see how me telling you about Azi is supposed to help you help me."

"It gives me some insight into you," T'Laren said. "Normally I prefer to learn about my patients' backgrounds in as much detail as possible. You are in many ways the most alien being I've ever treated. If you had anything analogous to a childhood, it's doubtful you could express it in terms I could understand without oversimplifying to the point of uselessness. You obviously have what you've analogized as family conflicts, but with you the family appears to include your entire species. So anything you can tell me, anything I can understand, gives me a point of reference to understanding you. I know now that the Q are capable of love--"

"Azi wasn't my lover, either. The Q don't have sex."

"I didn't say she was your lover. I said you loved her. You may have loved her as a sister, or a best friend, or a mother for all I know. And she did something to you that hurt you badly, and in response you did something so horrible to her that you feel Lhoviri would be justified in tormenting you in turn."

"I never said--"

"You did. Vulcans are good at logic, Q. I can put two and two together at least as well as you." She stood up. "Knowing this really does help. I know now that the sensations of guilt and betrayal had not been alien to you, the way that... for example, that physical pain had been. You had experienced such emotional hurts before losing your powers. And no, you're right-- I probably don't need to know the details. Which is undoubtedly why you didn't tell me them."

"Don't credit me with great insights," Q said tiredly. He walked away from her and perched himself on the counter. "I am quite positive I have no subconscious insight into what you require for your profession. I said whatever I did... presumably because for a brief psychotic moment I actually wanted you to know. You really don't know what I'm capable of, T'Laren." He looked down at the floor, kicking his legs listlessly against the cabinets under the counter like an overgrown child. "You really don't. You may have heard a few choice bits from Lhoviri, you've read my files, but... you really don't know me. And... it's odd, part of me actually wants you to know. I suppose on the somewhat perverse principle of a trickster's form of honesty. But I'm not that masochistic. I really hope you do never find out."

She walked over to him and stood next to where he sat, leaning very slightly against the counter. "Q... I won't pry into anything you really don't want to discuss. But it's part of my job to try to get you to admit to unpleasant truths about yourself."

"Oh, I've been doing plenty of that. I think sometimes that's all I've done, these past three years." He slid off the counter. "That was a bad idea."

"What was?"

"Sitting up there. My back is killing me. Massage or no massage, I am not made for exercise, stretching or otherwise."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "You just want a backrub."

Q turned to look at her, a grin of mock embarrassment spreading across his face. "You see right through me."

"Sit down where I can reach you." Q obeyed with alacrity. "I really am going to have to teach you self-relaxation exercises."

"And how to swim. And how to behave in company. And how not to have nightmares."

"Yes. All of that."

He sighed, leaning back into her touch. "You want to know what you can about my background? About what it was like, to be part of the Continuum? That is more or less what you were fishing for before, with all that about you needing to know whatnot, isn't it?"

He was actually volunteering information. T'Laren raised both eyebrows, startled. "I... would like to know anything you're willing to tell me, yes."

"This will probably help you understand, then." Q turned his head slightly to look up at her. "Refresh my memory. Vulcans are telepaths, but it's activated only by touch, right? Normally you're linked with only one other person at most?"

"Yes."

"But when you're linked-- it's a melding? Not just mind-reading, but mind-combining?"

"When a link is formed, it's through a meld. We don't have to meld. We can project through any solid matter, with sufficient concentration, and read emotions through touch, if we aren't shielded. But... yes, initiating a link requires a meld."

"Humans aren't telepaths," Q said, relaxing his head again so she could no longer see his face. "They lead very lonely existences, each locked inside his own skull. Most of them never know anything else. They confuse physical closeness, emotional closeness, with mental closeness. And because they are forced to be individuals by their biology, what they seek is unity. Submergence into a mob mind, emotional closeness with a partner, identification with something greater than themselves. Most humans spend their lives eagerly trying to subsume their individuality into some sort of collective."

"I wouldn't say most humans..."

"I speak historically as well as based on the present day. Humans are far from perfect now, but even I have to admit they've come light-millenia from what they were even six measly centuries ago. My point, however, is not to gratuitously insult humans. You see, the Q have the exact opposite problem."

T'Laren released him. "Is that better?"

"Not really, but I don't think it's going to get better. You may as well not bother."

She walked around him and sat down again where she could watch his expression. "The opposite problem in what sense?"

"From the time we actually enter the Continuum-- which most of us don't do until we're fairly well developed already-- we are constantly in contact with the others. Our minds aren't really our own. We are-- I don't know how to describe it. You could call us interconnected nodes in a network, each node capable of independent thought, but the network forming the primary unit of experience. Or you could think of us... as diffuse semi-solids in a liquid solution. At our cores we are mostly one thing, but out at the boundaries... we are mostly others. I really don't know how to describe it."

"Can you describe the effect? Without resorting to analogies?"

"I can try... We're individuals. But our individuality is not our default, the way it is with humanity. We are first and foremost members of the Continuum, the overmind, the unity of all the Q... and secondarily we're ourselves. We are part of something larger than ourselves, by definition. We can't escape it. And so what we seek is individuality. Separation from the others. Our... social connections, for lack of a better word, are conducted for different reasons than humans do. We don't need reassurance that we're loved, that we're part of a larger whole, that we're important to others. All that we can take as a given. Most of our communication with one another-- all right, I'm talking about the adolescents. I can't speak for the older ones. They're as far above me-- as far above what I was as I was above you. But I'm speaking about the younger ones, like me, the ones that still bother to interact with the matter-based universe at all. And we communicate with each other to separate ourselves, not to draw ourselves closer." He leaned forward. "Do you see what I'm saying?"

"I do. Yes."

"Of course, we can send communications on multiple levels at once. We can simultaneously affirm our individuality, our dominance over another, our respect and love for that other, and our need for separation from that other with one thought. All our communication with one another is multi-layered, and only the most superficial level translates into human speech. And in that mode we're usually antagonistic toward one another. We have to be. A Q who doesn't have an overweening ego and an unshakably stubborn personality will be absorbed by the Continuum, diffused among all of us until he no longer exists as a separate entity. That's the only thing we have to fear. We can't die-- well, not unless the Continuum throws us out-- but we can cease to exist as individuals, which is more or less the same thing."

"But you call them your family."

"They are my family. They were extensions of myself."

"Families are associated with closeness--"

"Forced closeness, T'Laren. Closeness that's taken for granted, until it becomes stultifying. You never had any siblings, did you?"

"No..."

"Sibling rivalry. Look it up sometime. It's the closest thing humans have to the relationship the younger Q have with one another." He sighed. "The trouble with analogies is that they oversimplify, of course. There's a lot I'm leaving out here, since I have no real words to express it. But I think you understand the basic idea."

T'Laren nodded slowly. "That's very helpful, actually. Thank you."

Q got up. "I think I need to rest for a while. I'm going to my room. You can call me for dinner whenever."


Q's strength slowly came back to him over the next several days, at least to the point where he wasn't getting winded by walking around. T'Laren, as promised, had continued to allow him some degree of control over his own activities, as long as he was reasonable about it. He was therefore trying to be reasonable. It was difficult-- he was well aware that he was being manipulated into behavior that suited T'Laren, and every instinct he had shrieked at him to refuse to be manipulated, whatever the cost to himself might be. But the cost would be far too high, in this case. He knew that, even if every so often he had to remind himself-- or, more usually, T'Laren had to remind him.

So he ate when she told him he had to-- which was getting easier; his appetite was improving, a good sign according to T'Laren-- and exercised when she told him to, despite the fact that any kind of physical activity embarrassed him and hurt like hell. He protested when he could. The damnable thing about Vulcans, though, was that they always had logical reasons why you had to do what they said.

For instance, when T'Laren demanded that Q let her teach him how to swim, he'd thought he had her. "What possible use could I have for learning to swim?" he'd asked, smugly sure there couldn't be any.

"It's valuable exercise. And it'll be less painful for you than calisthenics or other forms of physical activity."

"Less painful in your opinion. I'm not terribly fond of getting cold, or wet, or of breathing some medium other than an oxygen/nitrogen mixture."

"It may also be useful in a dangerous situation."

Now he had her. "I spend most of my time in space. And if I did go to the surface of a planet, rest assured I'd stay far away from the water. How could I possibly be in a situation where I would need to swim?"

"Suppose you were being chased by an assassin. You have no communicator and no vehicle--"

"Why am I on a planetary surface?"

"Say we were forced to make an emergency landing. I am nowhere around. Maybe I'm dead, maybe I'm injured. There's a Federation settlement on the other side of a river, and the assassin's slower than you are-- you could easily outrun it and reach the Federation colony if there weren't a river in your way. What are you going to do? Sit on the bank and whimper until the assassin catches up to you? Or try to swim the river?"

She was far too good at using logic against him. It just wasn't fair.

To make matters worse, she kept providing him with things that felt pleasant. After he complained about the swimming pool being cold, for instance, she had a small, shallow portion of it partitioned off and made into a hot bath. Li had prescribed hot baths for tension two and a half years ago, when Q had acquired his antique bathtub. Then Anderson had taken away the bathtub a year ago when he'd tried to kill himself in it. He hadn't been willing to admit quite how much he'd missed hot baths since. Now T'Laren could hold out the promise of a long warm soak if he cooperated with her and let her teach him swimming. It was classical carrot-and-stick training, and he should have been far too sophisticated for it to work. But it did, dammit. Even though he knew perfectly well what she was doing, he couldn't help responding to it.

Despite himself, he was actually beginning to trust her.

If he had thought that she was brainwashing him, or undermining his ability to take care of himself, he would have been able to resist. Q had spent millions of years fighting off attempts to undermine his identity or his self-will. That, he was sure he could resist. Short of euphoric drugs, no pleasure any mortal could give him could make him completely yield control of himself to someone else. But he had to admit that what she was doing was strengthening him. Though he ached from her exercise sessions, he did know that they were designed to help him protect himself, and that made the pain fractionally more bearable.

She was also training him in meditative techniques. To both of their surprise, Q took to meditation right away. It was less surprising in hindsight-- though a human with his personality would be utterly unsuited to meditative disciplines, the sort of intense inward concentration that humans used in meditation was analogous to a frequent state among the Q, and so in a certain respect it was something he was already an expert on doing. He just hadn't known he could apply his experience to his new state. And to a certain extent, of course, he could not. He could use a trance state to overcome boredom or mild discomfort, such as tense muscles; real pain, however, disrupted his concentration completely. T'Laren said it would be something he'd need to practice. "Your experience as an energy being doesn't apply when pain enters the picture. Don't be spoiled by how quickly you learned the techniques-- you'd never have managed it if you hadn't been learning something you already knew from your past life."

"So I might as well forget about learning to overcome pain."

"If you set your mind to it, you can probably eventually develop the ability to overcome most pain. Never all, but then, not even Vulcans can overcome all pain. It'll take you a long time, though."

"A long time" was meaningless to Q. He could look ahead a year, maybe two; beyond that, he truly didn't expect to live. Either he would be omnipotent again, in which case pain would be irrelevant, or he would be dead. His mind flinched away from exploring the possibilities of anything longer-range; a strange attitude, for a being who had once made plans in terms of millenia, but the idea of living eighty or ninety more years in this body frightened him almost as much as-- and sometimes more than-- the notion that he wouldn't. As far as he was concerned, then, if it would take what a Vulcan considered a long time, it was outside the realm of what he could hope for.

But even the little he could do was a vast improvement. When he started to feel paranoid again, to feel as if T'Laren was undermining his identity, he reminded himself of what she had given him. She had helped him to free himself from the tyranny of boredom; for that alone, he should fall at her feet and worship her. Someone who was trying to break him to her will wouldn't give him such a powerful tool of resistance.

Even still, he wouldn't be himself if he bent completely to another's will, and losing his identity had been his only real fear for far too long for him to put it aside now, even as a mortal with so many more relevant things to fear. There were still some areas where T'Laren was unyielding, such as the question of his sedatives. He had pleaded with her on several occasions, to no avail. It was T'Laren's opinion that he wouldn't have nightmares if he wasn't constantly trying to circumvent them with drugs.

"Explain then why I've had nightmares every night since I came aboard your starship," he challenged. They were sitting at dinner; in an hour or two, Q would probably go to bed, and he'd wanted to make one last try at getting his sedatives before he did. "Or why I had them every night that I didn't take sedatives back when I was stockpiling them."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Why were you stockpiling sedatives?"

"I thought that Anderson would use them as some more ammunition to hold over my head."

"Is there a particular reason why you thought so?"

Q sighed theatrically. T'Laren seemed constitutionally incapable of giving a straight answer. Everything he asked her was an excuse for her to ask him questions. "She used everything else as ammunition; why not that?"

"Yes, but you must have perceived the danger as greater than usual, or you wouldn't have bothered. If your medical records are correct, you were permitted to replicate one sedative dose per night, is that right?"

"More or less."

"So in order to stockpile sedatives, you would have had to go without. Faced with a choice between certainly going without at the moment and possibly going without in the future, you would ordinarily have chosen the second alternative. The only reason you might have chosen a certainty over a possibility is if you considered that possibility almost a certainty itself. You must have been very sure that Anderson would do such a thing."

Put that way, it did seem like an unlikely thing for him to have done-- planning ahead hadn't been Q's strong point since he became mortal. "I first started it after Li said I couldn't have painkillers anymore except in an emergency. I was afraid he'd cut my prescription. Then I tried to get Anderson to get Li to give me the painkillers back-- I told her I couldn't concentrate on my work if I was in pain. She said she wasn't going to override the chief medical officer's decision on a medical matter, and maybe I should learn to overcome minor discomforts. When I said I couldn't, she said I'd have to learn to overcome boredom, then. She was always trying to blackmail me into doing things."

"Into doing your job, was my understanding," T'Laren said.

"I made an agreement with Starfleet," Q snapped. "They would protect me, and I'd teach anyone they sent to me. Well, they fell down on their side of it a good number of times, too. Did Anderson tell you about the time that Security tried to kill me? Or about the six or seven times that various assassins got through the base's security and nearly finished me off? Did she by any chance mention the time that a telepath simply walked up to me and stabbed me in the gut, when there was an entire security escort around me-- after I'd warned her to use telepathic security to protect me? She claimed that she couldn't get hold of psis on short notice, that we would have to make do with a handful of Vulcans and a human 'sensitive'. Sensitive as a rock! He didn't do me any good."

T'Laren's eyes widened slightly. "No, she didn't tell me anything of the sort," she said. "What happened?"

"Well... you've seen mention of the Maierlen assassin in my records."

She nodded, sipping at fruit juice. "The one who tried to kill you with a swarm of insects."

Q had been asleep, deep under the influence of his nightly drug, when a sudden pain had started to rouse him. Since he'd been sedated, it took two or three more of the sharp, stinging pains before he could come fully awake. There was an unpleasant crawling sensation on his skin, vaguely similar to what he'd felt when the Calamarain was attacking him. He had commanded the lights on, and seen three or four Maierlen waspoids, thick-bodied stinging insects that looked like a cross between Earth cockroaches and Earth wasps, crawling on him. There were several more of the bugs crawling on the sheets, making their way to him, and one or two flying at him. Since a starbase was normally a sanitary, vermin-free place, he had immediately known something was terribly wrong. He'd looked up at the air vent-- and seen a swarm of the creatures boiling out, the air churning and black with them.

He had screamed for help the moment he saw the swarm; even still, by the time Security reached him he was more than half-dead, covered with stings and with insects crawling over every centimeter of his skin. Before that time, Q had had none of the normal human revulsion toward insects-- they were simply another form of life, no more repulsive than humans themselves. Since then, he had developed a powerful phobia of bugs and buglike things, as if the atavistic repulsion had been lurking in his human genes, waiting for circumstance to activate it.

"Right," he said, trying to dispel the memory. "Natives of the planet Maierle are powerful telepaths, who generally exist in symbiosis with some animal partner-- a familiar, to use terms from Earth mythos. Normally Maierlen familiars are mammalian, and single animals; however, Maierlen assassins frequently employ entire swarms of insectoid or aquatic lifeforms as their familiars. I knew it was a Maierlen that was after me the moment I saw the insects; I also knew that he had to have used his telepathy to get himself and his bugs aboard, as the automatic defenses would've caught him if he tried to beam aboard secretly. He had to have walked in the front door, and just made everyone think that he wasn't smuggling a crate full of poisonous insects aboard."

"And so you told Anderson...?"

"I told her there was a dangerous telepath at large who wanted me dead and who could convince anyone without telepathic defenses-- which covered 99% of the starbase's personnel, including me-- that he wasn't there. She seemed to think the threat was negligible after we killed his bugs. I begged her to call in telepaths-- send to Betazed or Vulcan, there'd be tons. Instead, she figured we'd make do with six or seven Vulcans and the 'sensitive', Agajanian." Q shook his head. "The assassin took out Agajanian-- apparently his 'sensitivity' wasn't quite up to snuff-- and made everyone think he was Agajanian. Even Sekal was fooled. T'Meth might not have been-- Sekal says she's a better telepath than he is-- but she and the other Vulcans were off combing the base for the guy. And in the middle of a security escort, the assassin walked up to me and cut me open, because no one could see him for what he was until he attacked me."

"I see."

The memory of the incident-- his helpless fury when Anderson refused to take his advice, thus dooming him; his terror in the split-second before the knife went in, as the Maierlen dropped his illusion and let Q see what was about to happen to him-- reawakened rage at Anderson. Q stood up and began to pace. "You see what I was up against, all the time. Anderson had promised Starfleet she'd protect me, and failed miserably. She wasn't imcompetent; she'd never have gotten to where she was if she was, so what does that leave me to believe? If Anderson wanted me dead, if she couldn't be bothered keeping up her end of things, why should I whore for her? Why should I waste my time, which I now have precious little of, trying to teach the morons Starfleet would send me, putting on a vaudeville show to catch their microscopic attention spans and get the simplest concepts across to them, when Anderson couldn't be bothered to keep me from getting eviscerated in public?"

T'Laren studied him for a few moments. "I see your point," she finally said. "In Anderson's defense, I think she did the best she could, for the most part; there may have been some reason she couldn't get more telepaths on short notice. She may have become entangled with some petty bureaucratic nonsense at Starfleet Command, and then presented their decision to you as her own out of loyalty to them. But certainly, with solely the information you've given me, it seems reasonable to believe that Anderson wasn't doing her job properly."

"So if she didn't do her job, why should I do mine? Only it didn't work that way, you see, because she had the power and I didn't. Anything I depended on, Anderson would take great glee in cutting me off from if I did the slightest thing she didn't like. I wanted to have my own supply of sedatives so if she did cut me off, I could laugh in her face without worrying about the nightmares I'd have. And then we were working against the Borg, and I wasn't sleeping, most nights. And the nights I did, I couldn't afford to take a sedative. So whenever I thought of it, I'd get the computer to give me a sedative and then I'd stockpile it. They had about a three-month life span; I had something like thirty of them that were still good the night I took them all." He was growing more and more angry, as he remembered the increasingly severe restrictions that he'd been living under for over two years. "And then they did cut me off. I had to go to sickbay every night to get the damn things; do you think I enjoyed that? Especially after Security attacked me and I wasn't allowed to go anywhere without an escort? And explain to me the logic of that-- Security tried to kill Q, so let's not let him go anywhere without Security. Oh, that certainly makes sense. I didn't take the sedatives when I thought Security was going to kill me, since I didn't want to be asleep if they came for me, and I had utterly horrific nightmares constantly throughout that period. It just never fails. I always have nightmares unless I take the sedatives."

T'Laren shook her head. "Q, it seems to me that every time you haven't taken the sedatives, you've been under some unusually severe emotional stress. Right now, you've left behind a place where you were reasonably secure and embarked into the unknown, certainly a stressful situation. The other occasions you describe-- fearing you would be blackmailed, fearing you would be killed, fearing the Borg... I know of few humans that wouldn't suffer nightmares under such circumstances. My point is that, if you learn to cope with the nightmares, rather than drugging yourself to avoid them, they will lessen in severity and eventually drop to a bearable level. Even human beings in conditions of chronic stress rarely suffer nightmares as consistently as you do; I think that's because you don't actually suffer nightmares as consistently as you claim."

Q turned on T'Laren, startled. "You think I'm lying to you?"

"No, no. You must realize that you dream every night, even under sedation. It's simply that when you are sedated, you sleep through the dreams, and don't remember them in the morning. You understand that, correct?"

"Uh-- yes, I suppose so..."

"In the first place, you have conditioned yourself to fear sleep. When you sleep without a sedative, you expect to have a nightmare, and so you have one. The fact that you are usually under stress when you go without sedatives intensifies the conditioning. In fact, you probably have nightmares rarely-- mostly only when you're not sedated. The dreams you normally have, the ones you don't remember, are ordinary dreams, without significant negative emotional content. If you stop taking the sedatives completely, your body will gradually become accustomed to the absence of sedative, and the conditioning will wear off."

It sounded unlikely at best to Q, but T'Laren was adamant. So he had stopped trying to persuade her, and was approaching the problem from a different direction. Ketaya's computer system was considerably less sophisticated than Starbase 56's. Actually, less sophisticated wasn't precisely accurate; many of its AI-style functions were far more sophisticated, since it was designed to be able to run the entire ship itself with only minimal humanoid input, if need be. But its security was laughable in comparison to the starbase's. Around the ninth day of their journey, Q managed to get the computer to recognize him as an authorized ship pilot, with all the same rights and privileges that T'Laren had. Using that status, he rewrote the restrictions list on his replicator so he could get anything he really wanted, including sedatives. He had written in a protection subroutine so that T'Laren would be notified if he got an overdose out of the replicators-- she had had a point, that he needed to be protected from himself to some degree-- but he figured he could take his nightly doses without her ever finding out.

It gave him a small sense of triumph, to have pulled one over on her like that. He had begun to genuinely like T'Laren-- no big surprise there; as long as he wasn't gratitutiously obnoxious to her, she was consistently good to him, without being sappy or overemotional like Medellin had been. She would match wits with him when he threw down a challenge, and seemed to understand the difference between verbal sparring for pleasure and serious combat, something few people had ever grasped before. Her intentions were to help him, and he'd come to realize that she was reasonably competent at her job-- unlike Medellin, who hadn't understood him at all, she could perhaps carry through her intentions. But Q was incapable of letting anyone else dominate him. As much as he'd begun to trust her, he needed to have something over her, and the fact that he now had as much access to her computer as she did would do nicely.

He also spent a great deal of time exploring the ship. There were crawlspaces and hatchways, ventilation systems and access corridors, running under the surface of the decks and behind the bulkheads. On Starbase 56, he had once grown sufficiently bored with the restricted area he was allowed to travel freely in that he had climbed into the accessways and explored them thoroughly. That knowledge had saved his life once. It stood to reason that it might again, so he wanted to be sure he knew Ketaya thoroughly. He was not particularly well-suited to crawlspaces at his size, but he considered it important to do it. T'Laren didn't know about his explorations, and while he doubted that she would forbid them, or that she could come up with a sufficiently logical reason for forbidding him that he would listen to her, he preferred not to tell her. Q needed secrets, and he was spending far too much time revealing his to T'Laren. He had to make new secrets, to replace the ones he'd lost.

Unfortunately, T'Laren had a habit of getting secrets out of him, one way or another.


Q was not normally in the habit of oversleeping, if only because he preferred to be fully dressed and alert by the time T'Laren showed up to wake him. It was the tenth day of their journey, long enough that they'd fallen into a somewhat regular pattern. When it was half an hour later than his usual time for coming to breakfast, and still there was no sign of him, T'Laren began to get worried. She touched her combadge. "Q?"

There was no answer. "Computer, Q's status."

"Q is asleep in his quarters."

T'Laren frowned slightly. The computer would have told her if it had detected anything unusual about that sleep. Perhaps he was simply overtired. On the other hand, there were a potentially infinite number of reasons why the computer might not be able to detect some sort of attack on him. She decided to check.

When he didn't respond to the door chime, she palmed the door open and went in. He didn't respond to a knock at his bedroom door, either. Now T'Laren was starting to become alarmed. She went into the bedroom and walked quickly to the bed.

There appeared to be nothing wrong with Q, except for the fact that he was asleep. He had told her he was a light sleeper, and indeed he had always responded directly to her calls before, even when the call had just woken him up. Yet here he was, asleep still after several calls, a door chime, a knock at the door and with an intruder in his room. If T'Laren had been an assassin that had managed to slip in, he wouldn't have had a chance.

It was something of a cliché that humans looked vulnerable when they slept, and there Q was no exception. The force of his personality minimized his physical frailty when he was awake; asleep, he looked terribly fragile, as if the slightest burden on him would snap his thin frame. It was also a cliché that sleeping humans looked peaceful, however, and that one Q did not live up to. He was curled up in a semi-fetal position, arms and legs positioned to protect as much of his body as possible. Even in sleep he seemed somehow tense, frightened, as if he knew how vulnerable he was. T'Laren raised an eyebrow. If Q was this tense when he slept, no wonder he had nightmares.

Of course, if he was this tense, he should be a phenomenally light sleeper, once more begging the question of why he was still asleep. She knelt by the side of the bed. "Q? Can you hear me?"

"Mmm."

That was an improvement. T'Laren took out her tricorder and ran it over him, wondering if illness could explain his lethargy.

The results were unmistakable, but she ran the scan twice more anyway, just to be sure. She was no medical doctor, but as a counselor she was thoroughly familiar with the effects of all sorts of drugs on the human body. Q wasn't waking up because he was heavily sedated. Genuinely annoyed, she reached out and shook him roughly. "Q!"

He blinked his eyes open groggily and scowled at her. "...wha...?"

"You are tremendously fortunate that I'm not an assassin," T'Laren said sharply. "I called you several times, and you didn't respond. I could have stumbled over every piece of furniture you own and still you wouldn't have awakened. How did you bypass your replicator restrictions?"

Q blinked at her several more times. He then rolled over on his stomach, pulling the blankets over his head. "Go 'way," he mumbled.

T'Laren yanked the blankets off him and off the bed. She then unceremoniously removed the pillow and dropped it on the floor. By now Q was glaring at her. "Wake up and answer me," she snapped.

"Coffee," he muttered. "Serious coffee."

"No coffee. How did you bypass the replicator restrictions?"

"Get me a coffee and I'll consider answering you."

"Answer me and I'll consider letting you have coffee."

Q sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes. "Replicator, coffee."

"Override, replicator."

"Computer, code byzantium. Vulcans should be seen and not heard. And make me a coffee."

The replicator produced a coffee. T'Laren retrieved it before Q could grab it. "What do you mean, 'code byzantium'? What have you done to my computers, Q?"

"Locked you out of them. Give me my coffee and I'll let you back in."

T'Laren fought to master a stab of genuine fear. Ketaya was completely dependent on its computers, and T'Laren was no computer expert. If Q had locked her out of the computer system, she was completely at his mercy. "Computer, give me current system status."

There was no answer. Q crossed his arms and smiled smugly. "Now are you going to let me have my coffee?"

The immediate reaction to an attempted power game, according to the teachings of Surak, should be to refuse to play. For a moment, T'Laren retreated within herself, quickly weighing her options. She had mishandled this-- her refusal to let Q have his coffee had been born of anger, not reason. Stupid of her. She could never let Q get her angry, because when she was angry she tended to behave autocratically, and any sort of coercion brought out Q's stubbornness in full flower. Doubly foolish, because it had never occurred to her that Q could get himself in a position of power over her. She should have asked Lhoviri for computers with Starfleet-level security on them, should have made sure there was no way Q could get the upper hand. She ran through her memories of Q's files, of the sort of behavior he'd indulged in when he had power. It was not encouraging.

Silently she placed the coffee on a shelf, neither holding onto it nor handing it to him. Demanding that he restore her computer access would only worsen the problem. She retreated deep into a Vulcan shell and waited to see what he would do.

Q got up and took the coffee, then sat back down again and sipped at it. "Really, T'Laren. How long did you think you could keep me helpless? This is hardly a starbase. Cracking Ketaya's security codes was child's play."

So far he had not threatened. She would therefore give him the benefit of the doubt, and behave as if nothing had changed. "How long did it take you?"

"About a week to get into the system. I finished getting around those silly restrictions last night. If you refused to let me have a sedative, I thought I had better take matters into my own hands."

"I have explained my reasons. This incident provides additional reason. You slept far too deeply. If an assassin had gotten in here, you would have had no opportunity to call for help."

Q shrugged. "I miscalculated the dosage. I forgot that I've been off them for over a week. It won't happen again."

"I would have thought that you of all people, with your fear of being dominated, would avoid a drug dependence as much as possible."

Q shook his head, sipping his coffee. "I'm not addicted, T'Laren. I am perfectly capable of getting to sleep without sedatives; I'm simply utterly miserable when I do so. If it's important enough-- as it was during the preparation for the Borg invasion, for instance-- I can voluntarily choose not to take them."

"Victims of drug addiction always say they can quit at any time."

"No, no. I didn't say I could quit at any time. I said I have quit, when it was important enough, for periods of over two months at a time. This is proven, recorded fact. I don't want sedatives because I'm addicted to them; I want them because I sleep terribly without them." He smiled again, nastily. "I think you're just upset because I got around your attempt to dominate me."

"I have never tried to dominate you."

"Perhaps that isn't what you call it. Perhaps you call it 'maintaining a proper patient-therapist relationship', or some such. But I assure you, T'Laren, I am an expert on hierarchical dominance patterns among mortals, and you have been trying to dominate me. All the while telling yourself it was for my own good, I'm sure. In fact, I'm positive that you believe everything you do is for my own good. But occasionally, you are wrong. And since you insist on trying to dominate me, you force me to measures like this to convince you that you're wrong."

"In order to prevent me from dominating you, you are forced to try to dominate me?"

Q ignored the sarcasm, his smile broadening. "And you don't like it, do you? You don't like having someone else in control of your life."

That was definitely a threat. T'Laren shook her head. "You are not in control of my life."

"No? You know what Ketaya's defenses are capable of, and you know that they're controlled entirely through the computers. There are quick-acting gaseous drugs that act on Vulcans only, you know. There's any number of things I could do to you."

"You could," T'Laren said calmly.

"And that doesn't make you afraid? You don't fear what I might do?"

He studied her face, openly looking for signs of weakness. T'Laren showed him none. "Your fate is inextricably bound to mine," she said. "As we have discussed on previous occasions. If you are short-sighted enough to hurt me, and thus destroy your only hope, I cannot stop you."

Q stared at her for a second or so, and then smiled wryly, shaking his head. "I should have known better," he said. "Computer! Be kind to your pointy-eared friends. Authorization Unlimited Ducks."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "What now?"

"I've restored your access." The wry smile returned. "I was always willing to be an equal partner with you, T'Laren. I just don't want you dominating me."

She tested it. "Computer, travel status."

"We are traveling warp six toward the Abister system. Rendezvous with the Yamato will take place nine days from now."

T'Laren nodded once, slowly, acknowledging her victory.

"You're very good at this, you know," Q said. He got up and walked over to the replicator. "Another coffee, this one with more sweetener than I can possibly stand."

"Clarify, please," the replicator said. "How much sweetener can you stand?"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "You've done more than rewrite the access list. You've altered some of the programming, too."

"Some," Q admitted. "I could stand about two lumps of sugar, I suppose. Make it two and a half."

"I would have thought you would have indeed known better by now," T'Laren said. "What did you hope to accomplish?"

"By rewriting the programming?"

T'Laren merely looked at him. Q made a "you-can't-blame-me-for-trying" shrug, smiling somewhat embarrassedly. "All right, then. Not much, to be honest. I wanted you to know what it was like, to be at someone else's mercy like that."

"What makes you think I didn't already know?"

Abruptly his expression turned serious. "And I wanted you to stop acting like I'm some sort of child, that I'm too ignorant to make decisions on my own welfare. Essentially I want you to stop trying to control me."

"I have not been trying to control you, Q. I've been trying to help you. And if your solution to being treated as a child is to engage in childish behavior, then you are a child, and deserve to be treated as one."

"You really believe that? That you haven't been trying to control me?" He sipped at the second coffee, his eyes hooded.

It wasn't true, strictly speaking. She had been trying to control him, to some extent, for good reasons. T'Laren considered whether or not he was rational enough at the moment to speak to sensibly.

"The difficulty is the word 'control'," she said. "You have a pronounced allergy to anyone attempting to impose their will on you. I understand this. But at the moment, Q, you are your own greatest enemy. You are astonishingly short-sighted, seeking instant gratification at the expense of long-range happiness. You are subconsciously self-destructive. I understand that it's difficult for you to let another person guide you-- all your life experience counsels against it-- but your self-guidance is obviously not working properly. Right now, you can trust me better than you can trust yourself."

"In other words, yes. You have been trying to control me. Admit it."

She did not quite sigh. "You're being irrational."

"I'm being very rational. You're jumping to conclusions." He put down the coffee cup and began to pace. "I feel like the boy who cried wolf. Yes, I've tried to kill myself, fairly recently. Yes, I've done a lot of things that, if one were observing the situation objectively, one could say were probably self-destructive or short-sighted. But I'm not being self-destructive now, and as for being short-sighted... it's a common failing of tightrope walkers. I need to focus all my attention on what's right under my feet; if I try to look forward too far, I'll lose my balance, and fall. T'Laren, I'm not going to be alive long enough to worry about the long run."

"You don't know that."

"It's almost a statistical certainty." He faced her. "In the past three years, my life has been threatened some twenty-odd times. That makes about once every six weeks or so. My body is physiologically in its 30's, and humans who die of old age do so nowadays around 120, so I can expect about 90 more years of this. If I faced death twenty times in three years, I will have done so six hundred times in 90 years. About a third of those times will involve grievous bodily harm, if the extrapolation holds up. Do you truly think anyone can survive two hundred beatings, stabbings, poisonings and stranglings?" Q shook his head. "I've been lucky so far, T'Laren. I'm not going to stay that lucky. I expect I'll last another two years or so, at most."

"The statistical extrapolation is not necessarily an accurate one; I would imagine that most of the beings with sufficient power to determine that you'd been made mortal, and to find you, would do so very quickly. If you live for ten more years, by that time perhaps everyone who remembers you and cares sufficiently to hunt you down would have tried already."

"At which point maybe they'll repeat. Already the Mirou have attacked twice."

"Even still, it is not necessarily valid to assume that events will continue for 90 years in the same fashion that they have done in the past three. And even if they do... all the more reason why you must learn to defend yourself, and not leave yourself a vulnerability like an addiction to sedatives."

"I'm not--" He caught himself before he started shouting, and took an ostentatious deep breath. "T'Laren, I just woke up. I am still parading around in my pajamas, I haven't had breakfast yet, and I look terrible. Why don't we continue this discussion in half an hour or so, after I've had a chance to turn myself into some semblance of a social being?"

T'Laren considered a second. Though the request sounded superficially like a stalling mechanism or a strategic retreat, she didn't think it was-- Q wasn't close enough to beaten to be stalling. She nodded. "That's reasonable."


It was important to remain calm. If he started shouting at her, he'd undermine his own argument. He would also have to try to hold back from clever twists of wordplay. Being reasonable was the key. T'Laren was a Vulcan-- she had to respond to reason.

She was waiting for him in the kitchen, calmly sitting in a chair with hands folded in her lap, watching him. Q ignored her for a minute or two as he got himself breakfast. It was undignified to argue while one was eating, and he wanted to be as calm and dignified as possible, so he rushed through the meal, aware of T'Laren's eyes on him.

"You don't have to eat so quickly," she said. "I'm willing to wait."

He scowled at her, annoyed that she would call attention to what he was doing. "Don't worry about it. I'm almost done."

When he'd finished, he was still mildly hungry, but his own patience wouldn't hold out. There was a debate to be gotten to, and that took priority. He straightened up, made his expression as calm as possible, and faced T'Laren.

"The point I wished to make, before we got sidetracked onto a discussion of my probable lifespan, is this. I am capable of being short-sighted and self-destructive, yes. But I'm also capable of being reasonable, and I have been trying, very hard, to be reasonable. I've let you direct me into all sorts of things that I didn't want to do, because you gave me a convincing logical argument why the benefits I'd get would outweigh what I'd have to put up with to get them. So far, you haven't given me a sufficiently convincing argument regarding the sedatives, and I am no longer willing to let you have the kind of power over me where you can just say something and I have to do it."

She studied him for several seconds. "Was an attempt to humiliate me a necessary component of your claim on this power?"

Q sighed. "I wasn't actually going to do anything to you."

"Your past record would have implied otherwise."

"You're saying you don't think I've changed? That I'd go out of my way to humiliate you just because I had the power to do it?"

"Your statements earlier, when you believed you had the upper hand, implied that you would."

"I was trying to scare you," he snapped, exasperated, and then forced himself to calm down. Reasonable. Be very reasonable. "T'Laren, I knew perfectly well I couldn't actually have done a damn thing to you. If I'd pushed you far enough, you could easily have overpowered me physically. We don't have any Vulcan-only knockout gases that could act before you could have strangled me. I wanted you to admit that you were afraid of what I might do-- I was trading on my reputation there a bit, I'll admit-- and then I would have given you your access back. You didn't make me see reason-- you called my bluff."

"Why was it important to you that I be afraid of you?"

He shrugged. "I didn't say I'd changed that much."

"Ah."

"But that's not the point." Q leaned forward. "Look, I'm sorry about that, all right? I wanted to frighten you to get you back for throwing me in the airlock two weeks ago. Not the loveliest of motives, I admit, but I swear I had no intention of actually hurting you. I mean, I wouldn't have actually hurt you even if I hadn't known you could have physically disabled me. I didn't even want to hurt you. I just..." He felt as if he was babbling, but she was staring at him. He had to say something to make her stop staring like that. "I'm just so tired of always being the one that has to be afraid."

"If you wish me to treat you as a reasonable being, it would be best if you would refrain from the petty little revenge ploys in the future."

He nodded. "All right. That's fair. I just... T'Laren, I want to be an equal partner in this. I've been living under conditions of increasing restriction for three years now. You got me out here by promising to give me control over my own life. If you weren't going to do that, I might as well be on Starbase 56. So..."

"So you took matters into your own hands."

"I have the abilities. I might as well use them. It took me a lot of work to achieve my current level of expertise with computers, and it's something I feel I have the right to be genuinely proud of. Technology was never a major interest of mine when I was still omniscient-- all I could really carry over was a knowledge of the physical laws technology is based on. What I've done, I've done the long, boring, human way, and I've done it successfully. So why shouldn't I use what I've learned?"

T'Laren's expression softened, very slightly. "Q. You don't need to be so defensive, really," she said, the first gentleness entering her voice since the conversation began. She unfolded from her aloofly watching pose and leaned across the table slightly, placing her hands on the surface. "I was not criticizing you for giving yourself access to the computers-- I can certainly understand why you did it. But you realize that it creates problems. You are not always capable of determining what is best for you."

"So explain to me. I told you, I can be reasonable. If you can give me a rational logical reason why I need to do something--"

"You still won't necessarily do it. I have been explaining to you repeatedly why you shouldn't take sedatives. Yet that was the first thing that you did."

"Because you don't know what you're talking about." He barely kept from snapping at her. "You keep insisting that I'm addicted to sedatives. I'm caught in a Catch-22 here-- my telling you that I'm not addicted is apparently being used as evidence that I am. If I ask you if you're addicted to sedatives, and you say no, that's hardly evidence that you are."

"What a person who is addicted to drugs says about the state of their addiction is irrelevant."

"But I'm not addicted!" This had to be one of the most frustrating arguments he'd had in some time. T'Laren was refusing to see reason. He took a deep breath, marshalling the next plan of attack. The story of the iolera was deeply embarrassing, not anything he'd have chosen to share with her if he felt he'd had a choice, but right now he judged it his only hope. "Let me tell you a little story, T'Laren, so you know I know what I'm talking about. All right?"

"By all means." T'Laren leaned back and folded her hands in her lap expectantly.

He stood up and began to pace around the room, trying to pick a place to start that would show him in the best possible light. "This was, I don't know, maybe a year and a half ago or so. It was after we defeated the Borg, and after they put me on medical restriction. And on this particular occasion, I really did not feel well. I was supposed to be talking to a group of scientists, and with the exception of an Andorian named Thelkas they were all potato heads. My head was killing me, I was in no mood to deal with these morons, and wonderful Dr. Li refused to let me have a painkiller. He said the problem was tension and I should exercise. Well, that's all very nice for the long run, but in the short run that would have made the problem worse, and I needed something for my headache right then."

"Perhaps you should have taken up the exercise some time previously. If you had thought ahead..."

"Right, right. But I didn't. As I've said before, it's difficult to think ahead when one has a hard time imagining surviving to the end of the week. So I was... um... not on my best behavior."

"I can imagine."

"And most of the laughingly so-called 'physicists' I was talking to... There's a difficulty with the fact that my reputation precedes me. I'm sure it never entered their tuber-like minds that I didn't feel well. When one goes to question the oracle, does it ever occur to one that the oracle could be having a bad day? They seemed to treat me as if I were some legendary hazard of space, that if they successfully braved the Scylla and Charybdis of Starbase 56 they could return to their homes with the booty of knowledge. It's an occupational hazard of being a valuable resource-- people treat me as if I'm nothing but a resource, as if I don't have any feelings of my own." He was getting more and more upset, remembering. "Anyway, when Thelkas-- who was considerably less of a vegetable brain than the others anyway-- showed me some personal consideration, I may have blown it a trifle out of proportion."

"In what way?"

She had to ask that. "Um... Well, he asked me if I was all right, that I didn't seem to feel well. And I... entertained him with a lengthy description of the foibles of humanity, Dr. Li in particular, the follies of Thelkas' fellow scientists, and the difficulty of holding a coherent conversation when there are high explosives going off behind one's eyes every so often. So he offered to see if he could do anything for me. I expected him to try to intercede with Anderson or something."

"I take it he did something else."

"Oh yes." Q's expression became grim as he remembered. He had trusted Thelkas, naive and desperate in his pain. "You've read about this in my files?"

"So far none of this story is ringing a bell. I don't recall a Thelkas mentioned in your file."

"All right, then. Thelkas came to me the next day, offering to give me an Andorian herbal painkiller that, according to him, was nontoxic and highly effective on humans. He claimed that he carried the stuff on him, that it was a traditional Andorian remedy for practically everything, and that he would have given it to me yesterday but he'd wanted to check his computer for its effects on humans first." Q leaned against the wall and put a hand to his head, half-covering his face. This was the embarrassing part. "You have to understand-- I wasn't thinking clearly, my head hurt terribly, and everyone else was treating me like a walking database. Thelkas was the only person who seemed to be paying any attention to my feelings. Sometimes... I can be very vulnerable to that."

"It was poisonous?"

"Depends on how you look at it. It was a highly effective painkiller. Ever hear of iolera root?"

Both T'Laren's eyebrows went up. "Yes."

Iolera root-- Q had found out later, after what had happened-- was in fact a traditional Andorian remedy for practically everything. On Andorians, it acted as a mild painkiller and muscle relaxant, producing a feeling of calm and well-being. On humans, it was something else entirely. "You probably know that you can't get iolera aboard a Starfleet vessel unless you're medical personnel. But Thelkas came on an Andorian vessel, a small science ship, and aboard an Andorian vessel you can get iolera about as easily as you can get synthehol in Starfleet. So he got the stuff on his ship and gave it to me... and, in an unparelleled fit of idiocy, I took it without checking its effects for myself."

T'Laren's eyes were wide. "What happened?"

"What you might expect." Q sat down. "Or maybe not-- actually, the story's a bit more complicated than what you might expect. As one can imagine, I became quite deliriously happy as soon as that stuff hit my system. Thelkas suggested that I go to his ship with him, where he would give me another dose, and I thought that sounded like a marvelous idea. He came very close to walking out with me under Security's noses-- Thelkas, like most of the scientists who came to see me, was a respected scholar and had been through a number of security checks. There was no connection between him and anyone who might want me dead. Also, we were checking for shapeshifters by then, after the incident with the Ceulan shapechanger back in my fifth month on the base or so. There was no reason for anyone to believe he presented a danger to me, so he wasn't watched as heavily as, say, the Klingons were."

"Oh." T'Laren nodded. "The incident is in your files; I recall it now. The record simply states that a scientist drugged and attempted to kidnap you; it didn't give his race or name. Or that the drug was iolera. I'd been thinking it was a sleep drug or a paralytic of some sort."

"No. It was considerably worse." He shivered slightly, remembering. "I had no will at all. I would have done anything Thelkas told me to-- after all, he was such a wonderful person who'd given me such happiness. Actually, not even that. I would have done anything anyone told me to. I was madly in love with the entire universe, and if someone had suggested that it might be fun for me to walk out an airlock, I would probably have cheerfully done so. Which was why I cooperated, when Security rescued me and took me to sickbay-- it didn't enter my mind that they were going to take the happiness away. I couldn't entertain any sort of frightening thought-- it was as if I was suddenly living in a universe where bad things didn't happen anymore. Not even that I was invulnerable again-- everyone was invulnerable, because nothing bad could happen."

The memories disturbed and frightened him, but he could no longer let them go. "And then they gave me the antidote... and I became a raving madman, screaming at them to let me go. All I wanted was to run back to Thelkas and get him to give me another dose. It was all I could think about-- for three days. I wanted to be enslaved again. I fought for it, I begged for it. They had to put me in a restraining field, because I kept trying to get free to go back to Thelkas, and they were afraid I'd hurt myself." He broke his inward focus and looked at T'Laren, leaning forward slightly. "Do you know what that's like? For someone like me, who's fought to preserve the integrity of his own will for millions of years, to be broken like that? I would have done anything for the privilege of being made a slave again. Can you imagine how it feels to know I'm that weak?"

"Did they ever learn why Thelkas did it?"

"Oh, that was easy. After they caught him, he tried to protest that he hadn't known the drug would have that effect on me, that he was trying to get me to his ship for treatment so no one would find out his mistake... but Thelkas wasn't a very good liar. They eventually got the real story out of him." He smiled bitterly. "It's almost funny, really. Thelkas was one of these people who worships knowledge. He'd been looking forward to getting to talk to me for months, and he was angry at the fact that I was being 'wasted'-- that unworthy people were allowed to take up my time, that I wasn't being handled properly. He wanted to hide me away where he and people he deemed intelligent enough to be worthy would have unlimited access to me, and he planned to use considerably stronger methods than the Federation used to make sure I did what I was told. Doses of iolera as rewards, direct neural stimulation of the pain centers as punishment... the man who I thought was the only one who treated me as a sentient being perceived me as a commodity far more than anyone else." Q shuddered, looking down. "I don't have much pain resistance, but I like to think I have a strong will for a human being... I always thought it would be difficult to really break me. I could be forced to talk out of fear easily enough, but to be broken to the point where I'd voluntarily aid my captors, where I'd seek their approval... I never thought that could be done. And then they told me what Thelkas had been planning to do to me, what I'd wanted so much to run back to. He could have broken me completely inside two weeks." He closed his eyes, his hands clenching almost unconsciously.

"And there was no indication in Thelkas' record that he was capable of such a thing? People willing to kidnap and enslave other sentient beings do not usually have normal psychological profiles."

Q laughed bitterly. "Oh, there was nothing wrong with Thelkas' morals. He wouldn't have dreamed of doing such a thing to a real human being. No, it was a matter of definition. Thelkas had some convoluted argument about why I didn't deserve the same rights as other sentients-- I think it was something based on reciprocity, that my species denied the rights of other sentients and therefore forfeited any rights of our own. He'd had no dealings with anyone who knew me when, I'd never done a thing to him personally-- he was simply arguing from philosophy." He shook his head. "In a way that made it even more horrible. I'd placed my trust in someone who considered me to have fewer inalienable rights than an animal."

"That must have been horrible," T'Laren said gently.

He nodded emphatically. "Why do you think I didn't want to tell you the story?" The embarrassment of his own stupidity overwhelmed him, and he had to fight the urge to shudder again. "It was bad enough to know I could be broken like that, but... much as I despise the fact, I've learned that my body does have an impact on my mind. It's horrifying, that a drug could rob me of my will that way, but it's a hazard of being mortal that I simply have to live with. I could have dealt with that alone. But... how could I have been idiotic enough to trust Thelkas? Someone has only to be nice to me for a few hours to have me eating out of their hand? What was wrong with me? I know better than that!"

T'Laren's voice was very quiet, and somehow sad. "Are you trying to tell me that you feel you cannot afford to trust me? That you fear I might turn out to be another Thelkas?"

Q blinked in surprise. It had never occurred to him that she might put that interpretation on things, though now that she'd said it he could see why she thought so. "No-- no. That isn't it at all. T'Laren, I assure you, I'd never have gone with you if I thought for a moment you might turn out to be like Thelkas. No, that isn't the point of this story at all."

"Then perhaps I'm missing something?"

"The point is that I know what it's like to be addicted, T'Laren. When I tell you that I'm not addicted to sedatives, it's with full knowledge of what addiction is. I was lucky that I couldn't get access to iolera root-- even after the first day or so was over, and I stopped behaving like such a lunatic, I would have done anything to get another dose. I require sedatives as medication for a chronic condition of insomnia, not as a fix I need. I can go without when I have to; I've done so for periods of up to two months, as I've said. Can't you see the difference between this and an addiction?"

For a few moments T'Laren was silent. Q studied her, trying to see what she was thinking, if she was showing any sign of relenting. Of course, now he was in a position where it didn't matter that much what T'Laren thought-- he could override any restrictions she put on him-- but he didn't want to do it that way. He wanted her to agree with him.

"I think you misunderstand," she finally said. "I am willing to concede your point that you may not be physically addicted to sedatives. You are, however, dependent on them. They're a chemical crutch that you don't need. Your problem is psychological, not even psychophysiological but purely a function of mind. And it is a bad idea to treat psychological problems chemically. We should be attacking the cause, not the symptom."

He stared at her in disbelief. "And how are we supposed to do that?" he asked harshly. "I have nightmares because I'm unhappy. Even if you're capable of helping me out of my depression, which I doubt, it's going to take an awfully long time. Am I supposed to go without sleep that whole time?" Q shook his head. "I'm sorry, T'Laren. I'd like your approval, but I don't need it anymore."

"I thought you were going to be reasonable."

"I've been reasonable! You're not being reasonable! Why should I be reasonable when you aren't?"

"Perhaps you should hear me out before assuming I'm going to be unreasonable?"

Q sighed in infuriated exasperation. "All right then! I'm listening, do you have anything reasonable to say?"

"'Unreasonable' is not a synonym for opinions you don't agree with, Q."

He stood up with such force that his chair fell over backwards. "I don't have to listen to this."

She nodded. "You don't. You don't ever have to listen to me. One wonders, however, what you're doing out here if you don't intend to listen to me."

"You never listen to me! Why should I listen to you?

"Because I am your psychologist, not vice versa. And I think even you should be able to understand why a psychologist would have a legitimate concern about your drug use."

"For the last time, I am not addicted to--"

"I'm not saying you're addicted!" T'Laren interrupted, her voice raised and sharp. "Will you hear me out, or will you go in your room and sulk?"

Q sat down on the table, arms folded. "I listen raptly."

"Let's approach this from a different angle," she said. "I have conceded your point that you are not addicted. You refuse to concede mine that you are still leaning on a crutch. So let me present another side of the argument." Her eyes bored into his. "This morning, had it been an assassin entering your room and not me, you would now be dead. You may argue that you miscalculated the dosage-- I accept that. However, I believe I have evidence in your files of an incident where you very nearly died-- and where a scientist recently assigned to Starbase 56 did die-- because you were sedated and didn't detect the entrance of an assassin. Perhaps you remember the incident with the Ceulan assassin?"

"It's 'see-lan', not 'soo-lan'," he said automatically, an instinctive stalling mechanism. "You Texans are barbaric." He remembered, of course. One didn't forget things like that.

"I had never heard it pronounced. And don't evade the question."

"I'm not evading it. I remember the incident."

It had been about the fifth month or so that he'd been on the starbase. They were just beginning the work against the Borg, and several top-notch scientists were being assigned to Starbase 56 for the duration of the invasion preparations. One of the scientists had been n'Vala, a Timoxi whose job it was to bridge the gap between Q's vast knowledge of physics and complete ignorance of Starfleet technology. Another had been Evan Wagner, a big, quiet xenopsychologist who was ostensibly there to learn what Q knew about the psychology of the Borg.

In fact, the person they all believed was Wagner had actually been a Ceulan-- a shapechanger with numerous unusual abilities, including the ability to detach parts of its body and continue to control them from some distance. Q had awakened groggily from drugged sleep to find Wagner leaning over him, pinning his hands back over his head, against the sides of the mattress. Before he could draw breath to scream, a third arm came out of Wagner's chest and clamped over Q's mouth. When Wagner backed away, detaching the three hands and leaving them behind to hold Q's wrists and mouth, Q had known he was faced with a Ceulan. He'd remembered far more than he wanted to about Ceulan ritual executions, and had struggled desperately, adrenaline chasing away the effects of the sedative. It had done him no good.

The shapechanger had been quite thorough. Using Q's own form and voice, it had the computer play music loudly from Q's personal library, to drown out any sounds Q could make through the gag. It had used two more hands to bind his legs, and then began a recitation of the so-called atrocities Q had committed against the Ceuli people. Ceuli had ritual executions designed for many life forms; for humanoid criminals, the ritual involved cutting through their breastbones, forcing open their ribcages, and removing their hearts. There wasn't even any way Q could plead his case or beg for mercy, let alone scream for help. He could do nothing but moan with terror as the Ceulan formed one appendage into a dense, sharp bone knife, sliced off his shirt, and began to cut through the flesh above his breastbone.

What saved him was n'Vala's lack of concern for human social mores. Timoxi tended to be sociable to the point of pushiness, and couldn't understand the human need for privacy. In theory, none of the scientists were supposed to disturb Q after his scheduled hours. N'Vala had always cheerfully ignored the prohibition, and came by whenever he felt like it, with Q perfectly free to boot him out whenever he felt like it. By throwing things at him, Q had managed to teach n'Vala what Picard had taught him a few months ago-- one did not disturb a sleeping human. But n'Vala must have assumed that Q couldn't be asleep tonight, not with the music playing so loudly, and with his usual insouciance he walked right into the suite.

This ended up being the last mistake he made. Though the shapechanger, impersonating Q, tried to keep him out of the bedroom, n'Vala, for reasons that would now always remain unknown but that Q suspected simply involved reciprocating the shapechanger's obnoxiousness, had pushed his way into the bedroom. There he saw the real Q about to be killed, and for that the shapechanger smashed in his skull. Timoxi, however, were notoriously hard-headed. N'Vala managed to live through the shapechanger's attacks long enough to get back into the hall, where the commotion of his death attracted security. Q heard them arriving, heard them shoot down the Ceulan with phasers on maximum stun.

He had thought security's arrival would mean the end of the ordeal. He hadn't realized that maximum stun only paralyzed the Ceulan, that it could still consciously direct the parts of its body holding him. The moment the stun hit, the fleshy vises that gripped Q's wrists and ankles began to tighten, snapping the bones, while the protoplasmic thing gagging him crawled down his throat and began to tear its way through his esophagus, reaching for his windpipe and crushing it from inside. The sensation was by far one of the most horrible he'd suffered. It wasn't fair. He hadn't even done anything all that bad to the Ceuli, certainly nothing deserving of this much pain and horror.

Through pain-blurred eyes, he saw Security clustered around his bed, at a loss for what to do. They couldn't shoot the thing in his throat-- maximum stun, at point-blank range against a human head, would kill the human in question. He knew that Ceuli were vulnerable to sonics, that they could save him if they only knew-- but they didn't seem to know, and he had no way of telling them. He was going to die from the ignorance of the protectors he'd chosen. The roaring in his ears drowned out their words. In despair, he had fallen to the darkness, expecting it to be death.

Later he'd awakened in sickbay-- someone had thought of the sonics after all, it seemed. But he hadn't felt safe. The fact that he had almost been killed so hideously in what should have been his private sanctum had left him terrified of sleeping. He had spent most of his nights in public places like the lounge, nursing a dozen cups of coffee until he finally fell over from exhaustion, and would usually get one or two hours of sleep in a chair with his head pillowed on a table before Security would come along and shoo him back to his room. It had been a week before he felt secure enough to take his sedatives again.

T'Laren said, "According to your files, you didn't hear the assassin enter because you were sedated. You're supposed to be a light sleeper. If you hadn't been drugged, you might well have woken up in time to call for help-- which would not only have spared you injury and a great deal of fear, but would have saved Dr. n'Vala's life as well. You were unbelievably lucky, Q. You may not be so fortunate another time."

Q shook his head, trying to think of an argument to use against that. In fact, for a little while after the attack he himself had feared sedatives. He had had to convince himself into taking them again, because sleep was a biological requirement of his existence and he couldn't sleep without them, especially not after that attack. "I doubt I'd have woken up in time anyway. It's not as if the Ceulan forced the door-- it probably came in through the vents. For all I know it could have been in my room already, impersonating a piece of furniture or something, lying in wait for me. The important consideration was that I was asleep, not that I was sedated."

"That's debatable. And whether or not it is true, it is all too easy to imagine a situation in which an assassin's intrusion would wake you, were you not sedated. My point stands regardless."

"So does mine!!What alternative can you give me? I don't like having to drug myself into insensibility to get to sleep, no, but what choice do I have?" He got off the table and stood up. "Since we started this trip I've slept miserably. I've woken up three or four times a night-- you know about some of that, because you keep calling to confirm if I'm all right. I feel tired all the time. Last night was the first time in over a week that I got a decent night's sleep, and you want me to give that up without offering me anything in exchange?"

"I'm offering increased safety, for one thing. And there are ways we can deal with the problem of the nightmares. Had you considered using the meditative techniques you've learned to help you, for instance?"

"I could use them for that?"

T'Laren nodded. "The problem isn't simply that you're under stress. You haven't yet developed proper adaptations for dealing with stress. It's very easy to take comfort in drugs, just as it's very easy to remain in a deep depressive state and make no effort to pull yourself out. Both are counterproductive. If we work on it together, we can help you to overcome the problem at the source, without simply putting bandages on the symptoms."

The idea of being free of the nightmares, without the thick grogginess of the sedatives, was powerfully seductive. She was doing it to him again, he realized-- carrot and stick training again, even when he had as powerful a buttress as his computer control. But then, yielding to carrot and stick training got him lots of carrots. "Is there some technique for doing it? So that I don't have to dream, or don't remember my dreams, or can control them, or something?"

"It's not as clear-cut as that," she said. "I can't teach you a five-minute breathing exercise that can keep you from dreaming. But for one thing, your dreams will become easier to deal with as your health improves-- poor physical condition can reflect itself in your mind. Exercise can help-- not only is exercise relaxing, but it will make you sleep more deeply. Meditation can do the same thing-- you can use meditation as a tool for self-hypnosis. You may find that using self-hypnotic techniques before you go to sleep, and telling yourself that you will not have nightmares, or that you will retain some conscious control over your dreams, may do most of the work for you. At the same time, we can approach the problem from the opposite direction. You're aware of the various theories regarding the purpose of dreams?"

"Which ones?"

"Dreams tend to provide insights into one's mental state. We might try examining your dreams and trying to analyze what they mean to you."

"Didn't dream interpretation go out with Freud?"

T'Laren shook her head. "Freud's interpretation of dreams went out with Freud. No one believes anymore that dreams are primarily concerned with sex, for instance--"

"That's a relief."

She ignored the interruption. "But the basic idea that dreams bear some relationship to the personality and current mental state of the dreamer... that's held up for several hundred years. Let me ask you something. What sort of dreams do you have? What form do they take? You've told me you have constant nightmares, but what kind of nightmares are they?"

Q sighed theatrically. "Name a nightmare, any nightmare. I'm sure I've had it."

"The kind where you're at an important meeting and you suddenly realize you have no clothes on?"

"Okay, maybe there's one I haven't had." He straightened up the chair he'd knocked over before and sat in it. "There's the kind I mentioned a week ago where I have my powers back. That's not a nightmare, strictly speaking, but it's in the same ballpark. Then there's the kind where I lose my powers."

"You relive the incident?"

"No, it happens differently every time. I think I have my powers and then I don't, or someone takes them away, or something. Or sometimes I have my powers, but they don't work. One time it turned out that I was a simulacrum created by the real me to find out how he'd behave if he lost his powers. He was very disappointed... There's something peculiarly horrifying about being afraid of oneself. Actually, that's a theme that turns up every so often, that the me in the dream-- the me that I am, my point of view-- is human, and I meet a me that's still a Q, and he tries to kill me. Or he does kill me. Or something else reasonably horrible happens. Sometimes I have that kind of dream from the other point of view as well, but that kind falls in the category of dreams where I have my powers back, not dreams where I lose them."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "That's very interesting. Why does the omnipotent side of you try to kill the mortal you?"

Q shrugged. "Different reasons. He's disappointed in me, or disgusted with me, or angry with me for destroying his life..." It occurred to him that he had just handed T'Laren wonderful ammunition for her theory that he hated himself. "In the ones where I'm the omnipotent one, I'm embarrassed by the human me. Here's this lowly, disgusting creature with bowel movements and bodily secretions, who thinks he's me. I mean, consider the arrogance of that."

"I think that's worthy of a great deal of further discussion, but let's not get sidetracked. Are there any other kinds?"

"Tons." He put a hand to his head and leaned on it, elbow against the table. "Let's see, there's the kind where something or other is chasing me. I have been chased all over the universe-- most often through Starbase 56, but Starbase 56 generally ends up turning into a planet, or an asteroid belt, or an nth-dimensional plane, or something. Frequently I end up in places where human beings can't survive, but that doesn't seem to matter in the dream. Then there's the kind that rewrite history. For instance-- I get versions of this one a lot-- dreams where I end up getting handed over to the Borg, and they're going to assimilate me... That one's very bad. Or dreams where the Enterprise didn't beam me back when I tried to throw myself to the Calamarain, or where various assassins who didn't actually get me do, or where security tries to lynch me like I thought they would do a year ago... You get the idea."

"I think I do, yes. Do you have any pleasant dreams?"

"The ones where I have my powers back are pleasant enough, while they last," he said with a bitter half-smile. "There are several kinds of dreams like that-- that are pleasant when I'm in them, but upsetting or disturbing after I wake up." For instance, the entire category of erotic dreams, though Q would have rather had all his teeth yanked from his head than mention them.

"Any genuinely pleasant ones? Or even nondescript dreams?"

He shrugged. "Occasionally I have dreams that aren't nightmares-- not particularly pleasant, but not really unpleasant either. But not very often-- and I don't remember that kind as well as the others."

"Hm. I think perhaps it would help you if, from now on, when you have particularly bad dreams, you tell me about them. We can go over them and try to help you deal with whatever fears they may represent. Obviously, this isn't mandatory. Anything you feel should remain private, keep private. But it might help as a catharsis to talk about some of the dreams after you have them."

Q wasn't very comfortable with the notion of giving someone that much insight into his mental processes. On the other hand, he had already determined that his only chance of survival was to trust T'Laren, and another part of him enjoyed telling her about himself. There did seem to be some kind of cathartic value in sharing his fears with her. And if it helped to overcome the nightmares, he would put up with the invasion of privacy, as long as he could control the degree of the invasion. "I... all right, if you really think that might help."

"And I think that you should relinquish control of your computer access."

"Excuse me?"

T'Laren steepled her hands on the table. "As matters stand now, you can override me any time you desire."

"I gave you back your access."

"You did. And I'm grateful. But you can take that access away any time I do something you don't like. Q, we've established fairly well that I get very poor results when I try to coerce you into something. It would be illogical for me to use that technique unless you force me to it. But if it does become necessary to force you to do something, because you are being shortsighted or unreasonable again, I need to have the power to do that. In a doctor-patient relationship, it must be the doctor who has the power. If you've studied hierarchies among mortals for as long as you say, you should know that."

"I told you, I'm being reasonable. As long as you treat me with some respect and don't act like you think you're my mother, I'm not going to be unreasonable."

"You can't guarantee that."

"Why not?" This was an upsetting development. "You don't trust me?"

"It's not a question of trust. I trust you to do what you are capable of... but I don't think you are invariably capable of being rational. You may suffer a spasm of depression or paranoia, you may feel unwell and take it into your head to be ornery about it... there are any number of potential reasons you might behave irrationally. You cannot entirely trust yourself, Q; how can you ask me to?"

"But I wouldn't do anything. I just want to be able to keep you from forcing me to do things."

"In the end, the only weapon I can hold over your head is the fact that you need me," she said. "And that applies as much if you have control of the computers as if you don't."

"Well, what do you want me to do? I'm better with computers than you are-- you can't take that away, it isn't possible. How am I supposed to relinquish my access?"

She hesitated. "I'm sure this must be possible-- couldn't you write some sort of security program and have it authorized to my voiceprint?"

Q stared at her for a second, then laughed. "You want me to create an override program for you."

T'Laren tilted her head slightly in a Vulcan shrug. "I have access to no other computer experts."

"Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? You really expect me to write a program that locks me out of the computers?"

"I would like you to, yes."

"And you would trust me to do this?"

"Q, I cannot do my job if you can threaten me. You perceive your ability to lock me out of the computers as defensive; to me, however, it's a threat, and it's impossible for me to guide someone who can do that. I'm not asking you to cut yourself off from the computers entirely; I just need the ability to override any of your commands if necessary. And I would not abuse such power or use it arbitrarily. I think you know me that well by now. So yes-- keeping all that in mind, I believe that if you agree to do this for me at all that I can trust you to do it properly. I believe you can understand the need for this."

"T'Laren, I told you. I want to be an equal partner in this. I don't want to go around dominating you-- I just want to be equal."

"You can't afford to be," she said gently. "Not yet. You're not well enough."

He wanted, very badly, to reject her request out of hand, to dismiss her fears as paranoid or as a misunderstanding of him. He wouldn't abuse his power. He'd promised. But... she was right, and he knew it. Doctor-patient relationships couldn't work if the two were on an equal footing, especially not psychiatric relationships. He knew that objectively, from his studies of thousands of species... he'd just been hoping it didn't apply to him.

He sighed. "All right then. Get me something to eat and I'll write you a program."


It took about an hour to write a security override for T'Laren. He sat at a terminal, using keyboard input rather than programming through voice commands because the deep code levels couldn't handle voice input well, munching on various snacks that T'Laren brought him. She spent the rest of her time looking over his shoulder, as if staring at the screen would enlighten her any better as to what he was doing. Q finally turned in exasperation. "Could you please not do that? I can't work with you watching me like that."

"Of course. Forgive me."

He was getting more and more depressed. Voluntarily giving up his own power to someone else was not in his nature, and it was upsetting him deeply that T'Laren had managed to talk him into this. To hell with logic-- logic was T'Laren's field, not his. He should never have started this, should never have offered-- but if he turned around intending to quit, there was T'Laren, expectantly waiting for him to finish. Trusting him.

On the other hand, he had never asked T'Laren to trust him-- not on this subject, at least. Caveat emptor, my Vulcan friend. As he worked, he wrote himself in a back door, so that in a genuine emergency he could always override T'Laren's override and get back into the system. He then finished setting up the program, cycled it and spun around in his chair. "It's all yours. Put in a password and tell it to run."

"Thank you." T'Laren bent over the keyboard as Q moved aside, ostentatiously not looking at her.

"Password accepted," the computer said. "Activating security screen."

That was it. Q felt a curious sense of deflation. He could now no longer create a program that affected system operations without T'Laren's authorization, not unless he used his back door and if he ever did that, its usefulness as a trump card was gone. Eventually, he thought, perhaps a few months from now, he'd tell T'Laren he had it and that he'd never used it, a graphic demonstration that he was more trustworthy than she'd thought. And then maybe she'd let him have equal authorization access anyway, after he'd proven he could refrain from abusing power. Maybe that would win brownie points with Lhoviri too-- part of the reason they'd thrown him out was the abuse of power.

T'Laren turned to him and smiled, a genuine brilliant smile. "Thank you, Q," she said, with feeling. "I know how difficult that was for you."

More difficult than she knew, apparently, since in the end he hadn't gone through with it. The smile made him feel vaguely guilty-- he had left himself a back door, after all. He hadn't actually done what she wanted. But he steeled himself against the guilt, reminding himself that T'Laren had been foolish to trust him so far, that he'd warned her, and that her decision to show him a smile had to be manipulation. T'Laren might have emotions, but she was as adept at hiding them as any Vulcan. If she smiled, it was because she consciously decided to. That made him feel a bit better.

"What, writing the program? That wasn't difficult," he said, pretending to misunderstand. "I'm no computer genius, T'Laren, but that was child's play."

She shook her head slightly. "The program itself was easy, I'm sure. Agreeing to create it was difficult for you, though-- especially since it would have been so easy for you to subvert the purpose somehow, to create a program that doesn't work or that you can override. I'm very glad that you resisted the temptation."

Which went to show how well she could read him, since he hadn't-- and then he realized that it did show how well she could read him. She knew. She had to know.

The realization must have shown on his face, but she said nothing about it. "Do you feel up to our daily workout?"

If she wasn't going to mention it, he was going to diligently pretend that nothing was wrong. "When do I ever feel up to a workout?"

"Do you feel less up to it than usual, then?"

"I suppose not," he grumbled. He stood up. "Perhaps some exercise will either wake me up or give me a legitimate excuse to take a nap."


By now, they had progressed from stretching exercises to simple-- very, very simple-- self-defense techniques. Q wasn't really in the mood for self-defense; since writing T'Laren's program, he had been gripped by a vague melancholy. Maybe it was just exhaustion. After the fifth clumsy mistake, T'Laren relented and took him to the pool room, where she let him soak in the hot portion as she swam laps. He lay back in the warmth, all but his head hidden under the opaquely bubbling water, and watched her. T'Laren wore a green bathing costume that streamlined her upper body, making hips and torso blend into one smooth line, while leaving strong slim arms and legs free to cut through the water with power and grace. She was really surprisingly aesthetic as she swam. Q had always thought the notion of humanoids swimming was about as silly as cetaceans walking about on land, but he had to admit she could make it look good.

Finally, T'Laren came out of the swimming section, shivering violently, and dumped herself into the bath, across from him. "You really should do some swimming," she said. "It would be good for you."

"She says, as she clenches her teeth to keep them from chattering. Have you considered increasing the pool temperature?"

"It's not that cold."

"Then why are your lips such an unlovely shade of-- whatever they are. Bluish-green or something. They're not normal, in any case. And you have goosebumps and you're shivering."

"Vulcans aren't well-adapted to cold, especially not cold water. The water is actually warm by human standards. And I don't keep it warmer because I don't want to lose my edge; I used to swim in water much colder than that back home." She sprawled out, ducking her hair back into the warm water.

"I don't care about your edge. I care about my near-complete lack of normal human insulation. I'm not going swimming in water that can make you shiver."

"We can warm it up for you if you like." T'Laren ducked her whole body under the water level for several seconds, turning into an indistinct tan and green blur. She came up, shook her head violently, and sighed. "I think it's more pleasant to go from a somewhat chilly swim into a warm bath, myself."

"Where did you find cold water to swim in in Texas?"

"I didn't. We used to go to a beach house in Oregon, every summer... I had no trouble with Texan heat, obviously, and my father had grown up there, but my mother was Scandinavian and preferred a cooler temperature." She leaned back and gazed up at the ceiling, her eyes slightly unfocused as she remembered. "The first time I went, I was seven, and I'd never seen an ocean before. I'd spent most of my life in space, the rest of it inland-- the most water I'd ever seen in one place was a smallish lake, and here was water that went on forever. I had a sort of horrified fascination with tides and the concept of the undertow-- Earth's ocean seemed to me some kind of hungry thing, that wanted to suck me in and drown me. And I've never had any patience with being afraid-- I learned to swim so I could show the ocean that I wasn't afraid of it, that I could go into its mouth and come back out safely."

Q looked at T'Laren askance. "Mortal children have very strange notions."

T'Laren glanced at him. "I suppose you were born omniscient."

"No... but I was born with considerably more sense than that."

"You never had a silly notion? A childish fear? A method of perceiving the universe that you later realized to be wrong?"

Q shook his head. "I did, but it wouldn't make any sense to describe it to you. My 'childhood' wasn't analogous to anything you would understand."

She nodded, and leaned back again. "After I'd been there a while, I felt... The ocean was a symbol of Earth, a banner of my alienness. Did you know, I can drink seawater? My mother was horrified to find me sitting by the beach one day, sipping seawater from cupped hands-- she'd studied medical texts on Vulcans and the care of Vulcan children, but nothing had ever bothered to mention that Vulcans can drink saline solution in Terran ocean concentrations. And when she told me that humans couldn't do that, that it would make them thirstier and eventually kill them, I felt it as a badge of my alien nature, a sign that I didn't belong. Oceans are alien to my kind-- I belonged on a hot, dry desert. I didn't belong here." She shook her head slightly. "And when I first set foot on Vulcan... I found it unbearably hot and dry, and the gravity dragged at me and made me exhausted. Biology, it seems, is not destiny."

"If the ocean made you feel alien, why do you enjoy swimming so much?"

"Perversity. It's in my nature, that if I do not belong somewhere I force my way in. I make the alien accept me, I make it my home. I did the same thing when I went undercover in the Romulan Empire-- I have been more human than humans, more Vulcan than Vulcans, more Romulan than the Romulans."

"I didn't know you went undercover in the Romulan Empire."

"You didn't study a detail of my file-- what you called up were the highlights. But yes, I was a Romulan for a year. It was... a fascinating experience. Not one I would ever want to repeat, but very revealing."

Abruptly she climbed out of the hot tub. "Get out of there, you're starting to look far too flushed. I don't want you getting heat stroke."

"No chance of that," Q said. He stretched his limbs out under the water. "Computer, reset hot tub temperature for 34 C." He looked up at T'Laren. "There. It's four degrees below my body temperature. You have to be happy with that."

"That's acceptable," she said. She pulled one of the foam pool chaises over to the side of the tub and lay down on it.

"Going undercover sounds like a far more interesting career than being a counselor. If you were more Romulan than the Romulans, why did you quit?"

"I didn't quit. My mission was over, so I came home. Besides... I'm far too social a being to bear undercover work very well. I missed my friends, and the Federation, and the freedom to be myself. I was a very lonely Romulan." She lay back again, closing her eyes. "I only did it in the first place because the number of Vulcans who can effectively impersonate Romulans is very few. Most Federation spies in the Romulan Empire are human, or Betazoid, or some other near-human race, despite the fact that such spies can be given away by a paper cut, because they can act and most Vulcans can't. I was offered a career in Intelligence if I wanted it. But the same factors that gave me the ability to impersonate a Romulan made me far more miserable doing so than a typical Vulcan would have been."

Q frowned, studying her for a few seconds. "If you're such a social being and whatnot... how can you stand being locked up on a space yacht with only me for company?"

T'Laren's eyes snapped open and she sat up quickly, swinging her legs off the chaise and onto the floor so she could face him. "Q, I didn't say I was dissatisfied with our current arrangement."

"No, you didn't. But you said you're a social being and you missed your friends. Don't you still miss them? I'm..." He considered how best to phrase this-- he didn't want to sound whiny or self-pitying. "I'm undoubtedly not the most charming of companions. Don't you-- doesn't that create problems for you?"

"It doesn't, and it wouldn't matter it did," she said. "I have a job to do, and that's the most important consideration. But it was very considerate of you to ask. Thank you."

He was not very accustomed to praise-- it seemed as if he'd spent most of the last three years being criticized and condemned, and so he had few defenses against kind words. A warm flush of slightly embarrassed pleasure spread through him. He hadn't even been trying to make her think he was being considerate-- it was simply a question that had seemed important for him to ask. Q smiled almost without volition. "Was it really?"

"Yes. It was."

Q gazed out at the pool, still smiling. "Hmm. Maybe I'm not completely hopeless after all." He glanced over to T'Laren to gauge her reaction. "Don't you think?"

"I never thought you were completely hopeless."

"Would you have taken the case if you thought I was?"

"I had to take the case," she said. "I owed Lhoviri. But I suspect he wouldn't have asked me if you were completely hopeless." She got up and padded over to the swimming pool. "Are you sure you don't want a swim?"

"Positive."

"What if I warm up the pool?"

"Maybe later," he said to get her off his back. T'Laren seemed to think that every minute he didn't spend exercising or eating was a waste.

He had to admit some appreciation for her methods, now. He had gained back most of the weight that the suicide attempt had lost him, so that he now merely looked thin again and no longer like a study aid for medical students. Q had a sneaking suspicion that T'Laren had been dosing him with an appetite enhancer, as he was hungrier lately, and taking more pleasure in food, than he'd been in nearly a year. He hadn't yet mentioned it, because he didn't want to look stupid if he was wrong-- and besides, he really didn't mind all that much. He had been able to tolerate his own horrible appearance only because of some perverse notion that his looks should reflect his mental state-- in some ways, it would have been unbearable to look good when he was so miserable inside. Now that he was starting to feel a bit better, it seemed entirely appropriate that he should start looking better too.

T'Laren returned, cold once again, and climbed into the pool with him. "I really think you ought to do some swimming," she said. "We cut your training session short so you wouldn't get hurt, but you still need your daily exercise."

If this went on, he was going to end up being forced to swim, and he still despised swimming. "I have a question I've been meaning to ask you, actually," he said, conjuring up an offering to appease her.

"Go ahead."

"I was thinking about what we discussed before, about dreams. And I was thinking about a particular dream I had a few weeks ago that's been bothering me for some time." If anything could get T'Laren off the topic of exercise, he figured, a dream would do it. And while he was pretty sure he could guess what this one had meant, he was actually interested in seeing what T'Laren made of it.

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "If I didn't know better, I would guess that you were trying to avoid swimming."

"Would I do a thing like that?"

"Most certainly you would."

Q grinned and leaned back. "Maybe just a little," he said. "But it really has been bothering me. I thought of it before when we were discussing dreams, but I got sidetracked."

"Very well," T'Laren said with the good-natured resignation of someone defeated at her own game. "Tell me about it."

"I don't know if you remember-- or if you ever knew. This happened the night before I met you, the first night I was conscious after I tried to kill myself. And you remember, I'm sure, how Li went out of his way to torment me by refusing me access to the computers, or the ability to talk, or anything at all to occupy my time."

"I remember that," she said, nodding. "Though I think phrasing it as 'Li went out of his way to torment you' is perhaps a slight exaggeration."

"Oh, no. I exaggerate not at all," Q said. He sat up and leaned forward slightly. "Shortly after Li refused me computer access, I tried to ask a nurse for it back. In response, she put my hand in a restraint so I couldn't reach the call button, and left me that way. She claimed she was going to come back in an hour and let my hand free again, but I'm positive several must have passed before it occurred to anyone that I might have a genuine emergency and it would be nice if I could call for help, wouldn't it? Now if that isn't maliciously tormenting a sick man, I'd like to know what is."

"Putting itching powder in a sick man's bed would qualify as malicious torment a bit better, I think," T'Laren said. "As would refusing him medical care, adjusting the temperature of his bedroom to be uncomfortable, dumping cold water on him--"

"I get the idea. You're a laugh riot, T'Laren. Remind me not to get sick around you. My point is that I was miserably bored. I was trying not to go to sleep, because I was afraid I'd have nightmares... but I was also exhausted, and ill, and bored out of my mind, so one can imagine how successful I was. And I had a very vivid nightmare... actually, I'm not sure whether to classify it as a nightmare or not. It was definitely nightmarish in plot, but the emotional content it evoked was completely inappropriate. In any case, it was very vivid-- I might even have thought it actually happened, except that if it had, I wouldn't be here."

"Go on."

"I dreamed that I woke up-- you know how you can have those dreams where everything starts out being exactly as it is in reality? I was in sickbay, my hand was still in the restraint, and it was dim in the room, so I couldn't see very clearly. And there was a person standing next to my bed. It was a large humanoid, probably male, although it could have been a big woman like Anderson-- I couldn't really tell, he was in shadow. Since I couldn't talk, I couldn't ask him to come closer where I could see him properly. I had just started to wonder if he was there to turn on my speaker or something when he put a pillow over my head.

"At first I was terrified. I tried to struggle, but I was in the same physical position in the dream as I was in real life, and you remember what that was. I had one hand free, but I was too weak to lift it as far as my head, and reaching the call button with it was out of the question. Then I remembered that I wanted to die, that this person was giving me something I'd tried and failed to obtain for myself, and I relaxed.

"After that it was very... pleasant." Q frowned, remembering. "I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness, that I was finally getting to die. I even felt gratitude. I would have thanked my murderer if I could talk. It seemed as if he had come as a benefactor, that he had come to put me out of my misery as a mercy. I realized at one point that I wasn't breathing anymore, but it didn't feel at all unpleasant-- I've suffocated in reality before, and it's quite horrible. This was nothing like that. I felt no urge to breathe at all. I was overwhelmed with a sort of euphoric dizziness-- it felt as if I were spinning out of my body, like a butterfly trapped in a cocoon, squirming its way free. Or as if I were being tugged out of a whirlpool that had been dragging me down, or flying free of a planetary gravity well. And I felt an enormous sense of gratitude that I was being allowed such a pleasant death. My own attempt had been truly horrific. This was... wonderful."

He shook his head, trying to dispel the vague and disturbing yearning he felt toward the memory. "Then I woke up, which startled me quite a bit. I'd been utterly convinced it was actually happening. My head hurt terribly, my hand was still in the restraint, and I was still terribly bored. And I felt an awful sense of disappointment that it had been a dream. I peered into the darkness for some time-- you have to understand, I was barely awake, and I wasn't thinking very straight-- hoping it would turn out to be true after all, that there was a mercy killer lurking in the shadows. Which, of course, there wasn't."

Q looked up at T'Laren, intending to gauge her reaction. It was far more than he had expected. She seemed to have gone very still, retreating into one of her Vulcan silences. "T'Laren?"

"Did you by any chance tell security about this?" she asked.

"About a dream? Don't be ridiculous." He stared at her. "T'Laren, what's wrong?"

"That... was not a dream, Q."

Not a dream? He blinked. "How could it have actually happened? T'Laren, I died in it. Unless our current adventures are a dream themselves, and these are really the last few nanoseconds of my existence, it had to have been a dream."

"You didn't die. You lost consciousness. For that matter, even if you had had a clear near-death experience, life support might have brought you back."

"How do you know it was a dream? Were you the killer?"

She ignored that. "Do you have any reason, aside from your difficulty in explaining your survival, to believe that it was a dream?"

"It happened when I was asleep."

"It happened when you were half-asleep. And predisposed to believe that anything happening to you might have been a dream."

"All right then, if it wasn't a dream why aren't I dead?"

T'Laren folded her hands in front of her. She looked as if she were cold, despite the warmth of the bath. "You were on respiratory life-support. Your trachea and lungs were too badly damaged to risk letting them handle the entire burden of your respiration; most of your oxygen was being supplied directly into your bloodstream. Cutting off the supply to your lungs would only produce mild anoxia; and such anoxia can produce a euphoric high, much like what you describe."

"Oh." Q considered that. "That would mean... hmm. I wonder who it was."

"You seem remarkably unconcerned."

"I'm not on Starbase 56 any more; whoever he was, I'll probably never see him again. Probably some security guard who saw me helpless and couldn't resist the temptation any longer. The trail would be quite cold by now."

"I think we should call Starbase 56. Perhaps they have security camera images still on file."

"If you want to. I really don't care all that much. Whoever he was, whatever his motives, I was quite happy with his actions at the time."

"You were also quite happy with Thelkas's actions."

"You have a point." Q shrugged. "Okay, go ahead. Call Starbase 56 if you want." He leaned back. "Euphoric high from anoxia, hmm? If I ever get around to trying it again, I'll have to remember that one."

"Don't say that." Under the veneer of Vulcan control, T'Laren seemed truly agitated.

"T'Laren." Q moved forward, walking on his knees the short distance across the bathtub. He put his hands on her shoulders. "What are you getting so upset about? It was a joke. As for the other thing... it didn't happen, all right? What, were you afraid I'd die before you could pay off your debt to Lhoviri?"

"Jokes are commonly defined as statements which are funny," she said, but there was a hollowness in the retort. "And I am very concerned for you. You are enough at risk for suicide without deciding you have a taste for self-strangulation."

"It was a joke, T'Laren. Perhaps not a funny one, but a joke nonetheless. Do you seriously think I would find some entertainment value in strangling myself?"

"Yes."

"Why? Who would be sick enough to enjoy something like that?"

"Many human beings would. Have you never heard of autoerotic fatalities?"

Q released T'Laren and backed away, sitting back down in the water. "Do I really want to hear this?"

"Mild anoxia is pleasurable for many humans. Throughout history, many so-called suicides have been accidents, as people who discovered the pleasures of being breathless miscalculated, and lost their breath for all time. I thought you were an expert on the dark side of humanity, Q."

"I must have missed that one." Q stared at T'Laren. "That is utterly disgusting. Do you think for a second I would kill myself-- or even risk my life-- for sexual reasons? Oh, that is repulsive. I'm ashamed of you."

"Ashamed of me? You are the one who found pleasure in being suffocated."

"It wasn't erotic pleasure, I assure you."

"Would you know erotic pleasure from any other kind?"

That was definitely not a question Q wanted to answer. A truthful answer would be hideously embarrassing and a false one would lose him the argument. "It was a sensation of peace, T'Laren. The euphoria of freedom. It wasn't the first time, either. I felt similarly the second time I tried to kill myself, and that had nothing to do with strangulation at all. Or are you going to tell me that another human sexual perversion involves slitting one's own wrists for thrills?"

"No. Not to my knowledge." She climbed out of the bath and knelt by the side. "I find this very disturbing, Q. Will you tell me about this? I have never heard of people finding pleasure in cutting their wrists. Perhaps it will make sense in context."

"The context might take quite some time to explain."

"Then I think you should get out of the bathtub. Shall we go to the kitchen to discuss this?"

That struck him as a very good idea. As soon as T'Laren had mentioned sex, he had started to feel very uncomfortable being around her with both of them in a near-nude state. If he was going to tell her about the circumstances of his second suicide attempt, he wanted to be wearing his armor again.

 

 

In the end, they ended up on Deck 2, the observation lounge-- the kitchen was too small to pace in, and Q couldn't sit down. A nervous energy coursed through him, forcing him to pace circles around the table where T'Laren sat. She had gotten herself better composed now, sitting in expectant quietude. It occurred to Q that what he had seen a few minutes ago had to have been a genuine lapse in control-- normally he could tell when T'Laren was feeling emotion because her surface became totally emotionless. He had never before seen her badly shaken enough that she actually showed a bit of it. What had frightened her so badly? Surely it wasn't that strange that a man who'd recently attempted suicide might find relief in his own murder. He didn't feel that way anymore-- was she afraid he was going to go back to his room and strangle himself or something?

"I asked you once why you tried to kill yourself the first two times, and you tossed the question back at me. You and I have discussed a bit of the reason for your first attempt-- that it was very much a spur of the moment thing, that it was born from a sudden surge of despair late at night-- I feel I understand your motives, at least a bit. But I've always meant to ask you about the second attempt again, because it doesn't seem to fit. It seems very much like a gesture, and yet I don't think you intended it as such." She stopped following him with her eyes. "Q, please stop pacing in circles. It makes it difficult to talk to you."

He stopped, standing in T'Laren's line of sight. "So you're asking me why I did it."

"Do you actually know?"

"Of course I know, I've always known. I tried to kill myself because I was afraid of being killed."

"On the surface of it that makes little sense. Can you explain?"

"I intend to." He resumed pacing, this time keeping inside T'Laren's line of sight. "Undoubtedly in the course of all your interviews you've heard many versions of this story. It all began with the death of Lieutenant Commander Masaru Ohmura. You've heard about this, no doubt?"

"Other people's versions of the story, yes."

"Ah, but other people aren't me. And I really do believe I know a good bit more about what happened than anyone else does. So let me begin from the top, all right? With me? Good."

Q faced her. "You've undoubtedly heard that Ohmura was a good man, the salt of the earth, a marvelous checkers player and a wonderful security chief, all that nonsense. And I'm not going to contradict any of it. Ohmura was actually rather good to me, all things considered, and saved me from some truly crushing humiliations in my early months on the base. But he made a fatal mistake in letting the antiques dealer aboard-- a mistake he couldn't have known he was making, a mistake that wasn't his fault, but a mistake nonetheless. It killed him, and very nearly killed me."

He started to pace again. "The man's name was Tom Lindon, and he claimed to be an antiques dealer. Since at the time I was staving off the crushing boredom of my existence by the pointless acquisition of material goods, and since Starbase 56 had a fairly large budget devoted to keeping me, if not happy, at least functional, his motive for coming here was utterly transparent-- the lure of money. It was so obvious, any other motive might have seemed unthinkable. And in fact, for Ohmura and anyone else who listened to Lindon's little statement of purpose, any other motive was unthinkable. Ohmura let Lindon aboard with a cargo of twentieth-century guns, one of which was loaded."

"Anderson said it was loaded later."

"Anderson wasn't there. I was. Ohmura started to examine each weapon; then Lindon said something like, 'They're all unloaded-- surely everyone can see that', and that, it seems, was enough for our doughty security chief. Now, Ohmura was a good security chief. He made mistakes-- thinking the Ceulan shapechanger was Dr. Wagner, for one, but who knew how to calibrate the sensors to detect a shapechanger? And a mistake like simply taking someone's word for it that weapons were unloaded was not in his repertoire. But I was there, and that was what he did." Q picked up a salt shaker to fidget with, peering intently at it. He glanced back at T'Laren. "And do you know what? It didn't strike me as strange at all at the time. It seemed quite self-evident that the weapons were, in fact, unloaded. And I don't make mistakes like that, either. Not after two years of paranoia and several million of watching the evil that men do."

"Are you implying some outside force was involved?"

"I'll get to it. Patience, my dear doctor, is a virtue. Didn't they teach you that in Texas?" He put down the salt shaker and sat down on the table, putting a napkin ring around his finger and twirling it around. "In any case. Some time later, Commander Ohmura, Commodore Anderson, a whole gaggle of spear-carriers, and I were all in one of the conference lounges, examining Lindon's wares. Lindon had gone across the room to get a new toy for me, or so he claimed. He then pulled out a pistol and announced-- and I remember his exact words quite clearly-- 'Q, I'm going to kill you.'"

Q slid off the table and put the napkin rings down. It was an effort to remain nonchalant, an effort to keep calm, remembering the horrible injustice that had been done him. "Undoubtedly you've heard the next part. I froze up, in either an unparalleled act of cowardice or a malicious attempt to get Ohmura killed, depending on who you talk to. And on cue, Ohmura died to save me, an act generally considered to be phenomenally wasteful on his part and a cruel joke played by the Universe on the denizens of Starbase 56. Right?"

"The story I heard was a bit less biased than that, but the facts were fairly similar," T'Laren said.

"Well, here's an interesting fact for you. I don't freeze when I'm frightened. I don't necessarily do something constructive, mind you. I shriek, or run away, or curl up on the ground with my arms over my head and grovel. But I have never, in my entire mortal existence, frozen out of fear. Never. Which, being the remarkable psychologist and armchair sleuth that you are, should lead you to the conclusion that I froze for some other reason. And we'll get to that. But there's another point I want to make.

"Consider. An antiques dealer, a trader, who'd never done anything more morally strenuous than undercut a competitor or purchase possibly stolen goods, throws his career and his freedom away and gets sent to a rehab colony because he decided to kill a complete stranger on another complete stranger's say-so. Now let us factor in that his client was a woman of the Physm, a species of surpassing ugliness by human standards. Even given that humans are famous for screwing anything, it would take a human perverse to the point of mental illness to find a Physm attractive-- they have faces like weeping sores. Let us further consider that this woman, who has just engineered the death of a popular officer, needs only to tell a sob story to the denizens of Starbase 56, and everyone is firmly convinced that all the blame belongs on me, for victimizing her twenty years ago. And never mind the fact that the Federation determined that I couldn't be held responsible now for what I did as a Q, and never mind the fact that all of them were well aware that I did not exactly spread peace and love throughout the universe. I mean, what did they think all those beings wanted to kill me for? Did they think I owed them money? What?"

"It was explained to me that no one had been directly confronted with the knowledge of your crimes, except those you committed against humanity."

"Whoever told you that is a liar, or else has a memory like a sieve. The Mirou announced what they wanted me for, quite clearly. A few others accused me in front of witnesses. Admittedly, the crime Melex accused me of was considerably worse by standards of human morality than what I did to the Mirou or any of the others that accused me. So let's give our Starfleet friends the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they really were shocked and horrified at my actions. And we can factor out the ugliness because Starfleet members are so tolerant and xenophilic and wonderful. But why would a man with no particular history of violence throw his future away to kill a man he didn't even know on the request of a hideous alien whom he had no reason to trust?"

"I'm not sure I see your point."

"I haven't made my point yet. There's one vital fact you need to know to make sense of this picture, a fact I myself had forgotten until a week or so after the attack. And that is: the Physm use psionic devices. You may know something of these kinds of things, since the ancient Vulcans also developed psionic devices-- amplifiers that could enable non-psis to do what psis can do." He put a hand on her table, standing over her. "Now do you see the pattern?"

"You believe some sort of... mind control was involved?"

Q nodded. "Melex probably had some sort of subtle persuader-- not mind control, per se, but something to influence people into agreeing with her. To increase their sympathy for her. Lindon, however, had obviously been given a direct mind control device, something that operated on spoken cues. When he said, 'The guns are unloaded,' it became so self-evident that they were in fact unloaded that an experienced security guard didn't think to check. And when he said that he was going to kill me... well, you see the progression."

T'Laren nodded slowly. "I do indeed."

"It was as if I'd heard it straight from God. He was going to kill me. It was utterly obvious and completely unavoidable. Have you ever experienced the sense of... convergence? That a certain event is destined, inevitable?"

"No, I don't believe so."

"I have, frequently. I think humans experience this in hindsight mostly. Because the Q can see so many more of the variables involved, we can see something inevitable ahead of time-- without actually looking into the future, which is a complicated and annoying process and I very rarely did it. We almost never see convergence with ourselves-- we don't generally have enough objectivity. This time, though, I experienced a sense of convergence as a human, regarding myself. It seemed that it was my destiny to be killed this way, that my entire mortal existence and possibly my entire existence as a Q had been leading up to it. I heard Anderson shout at me to get down, but... there didn't seem to be any point. It was inevitable, after all. And I wasn't afraid, not at all. I was about to fulfill my destiny."

His expression darkened, an inward focusing. "And then Ohmura threw himself in the way, and there was a gunshot... and I was lying on the floor with Ohmura on top of me, both of us covered with his blood. And the spell broke. I realized how close I had come to being the one whose brains were decorating the rug, and it terrified me. I couldn't understand what had happened-- why I hadn't resisted, why I had been so stupid as to simply stand there. When Anderson screamed at me that I'd disobeyed a direct order and as a result a good man was dead, I couldn't defend myself-- I remembered that I'd done it, but I could no longer comprehend why." He shook his head. "I didn't want to see Ohmura dead. I owed a lot to him. And... I've seen mortals die before, hordes of them, but never in my arms, when I was mortal too, when the fatal blow had been aimed at me. I think I was in shock. My stupidity had gotten someone I respected killed, and I knew it. My memory isn't what it used to be; I didn't make the connection with the Physm's psi devices until a week or so after Melex's confession, far too late for it to do me any good."

"When was Melex captured?"

"Later that day. She was oh, so contrite. She'd been in a little ship just out of range of our sensors, waiting for Lindon to come back with the metaphorical equivalent of my head on a platter. Apparently it had never occurred to her that something could go wrong and an innocent man could die. The Physm are very intelligent, but they have no common sense whatsoever."

"Did you do what she accused you of?"

"Yes." He refused to justify his actions-- he was tired of explaining everything he'd done out of the moral context he'd done it in. "But I'm not entirely sure that would have been enough, if not for some sort of persuader device. I could see people deciding that I'd done something really rotten and they despised me for it-- but they did more than despise me. They blamed me personally for Ohmura's death, and they turned on me.

"A few days after the attack, I decided I wanted to get away from everyone, and so I went for a walk. I was doing this frequently around that time-- I knew perfectly well that everyone hated me then, and I wanted to put some distance between them and me. But I was responding to a vague, rather amorphous threat, and so I did exactly the wrong thing-- by putting distance between me and most people, I ensured that anyone who really wanted my blood could have perfect privacy to draw it in. And since my path was fairly regular-- there just weren't that many places on the base that I was authorized to go that wouldn't involve walking through population centers-- it was easy for someone to ambush me. I came around a corner and there were two men with masks on, and at that moment I knew I was almost certainly going to die."

"Why?"

"Well, the masks, for one thing. Human beings are not one of the deadliest species in the galaxy; they're moderate, average, a boring little species for the most part. They're far less passionate, or dangerous, than the Klingons, or the ancient Vulcans-- which is of course why your people had to go so hyper-rational and humans didn't, that biologically you're far more irrational than humans. But there are times when they rival the most dangerous races in their class for sheer scariness. When humans aggregate into a mob, they are among the most frightening of entities on their evolutionary level in this quadrant of the galaxy. And when they put on masks, especially civilized, highly moral humans, it's an indication that they plan to do something absolutely heinous, something they would be ashamed of if they were not hiding their faces. So when you meet two masked male humans in a dark hallway far from centers of population, and they grab you, shove you up against the wall, and rip off your combadge, you know it's time to be terrified out of your mind. You know that they've waited in ambush for you, that they're planning to do something hideously awful to you, and that they're not going to let you call for help."

"Did you try to fight back?"

"I couldn't! I made a few feeble attempts to resist, yes, but these two were experienced with violence. They wouldn't give me a moment to think, to defend myself-- they just kept hitting me. I discovered some time ago that begging helps get one out of that sort of situation-- under normal circumstances, someone who's beating you just wants acknowledgment that they've defeated you, and if you beg for mercy it serves the purpose. I tried begging this time, and they told me to shut up and then kicked me in the head... I was positive I was going to die. I don't think I have ever before or since been so afraid. All the other times I've been attacked, I've known that humans were around somewhere, willing to rescue me-- even at times when I wasn't sure they knew how to rescue me, as with the Ceulan, I knew they would at least try. But this time... it was my protectors themselves who were attacking me, and what kind of a chance did I have against that? It was obvious that they had planned this so that Security wouldn't interfere-- in fact, I was sure they were Security, from the way they moved and the fact that they said they were doing this for Ohmura. So if Security wanted me dead, there was no chance whatsoever that someone would rescue me- my only hope was if they decided to be merciful, and after they kicked me in the head for begging them to stop there didn't seem to be much chance of that."

He shook his head. "Something else about humans, they're remarkably inefficient killers. Not when they decide to be rational, of course. When humans set their minds to cold-blooded murder, they're awfully good at it. But when they become a mob, when they sink to the level of instinctive violence, they aren't efficient about it at all. Which you would think would be a good thing, but it's not. A human trying to beat you to death will take twice as long and inflict twice as much damage on you as a Klingon would, with the result that you hurt four times as much. I've suffered injuries that were far more painful or damaging in and of themselves-- actually, when I drank the acid I inflicted such an injury on myself. But when one factors together quantity, quality and duration of pain, I'd have to say that that beating was the most agonizing experience I've ever suffered through, exacerbated considerably by the fact that I never completely lost consciousness. Mostly they left my head alone and concentrated on the rest of my body, which can generate just as much pain as being hit in the head if not more, but is less likely to kill you and also less likely to knock you out. I wouldn't say I was lucid through most of it, but I was definitely aware."

Q began to pace again. "When they left me, I couldn't quite believe it. I knew they knew I was alive--" he had still been whimpering, so they must have known-- "and I was still sure they wanted to kill me, which left the idea that they were toying with me. I could see my combadge, about a meter away from where I lay. It might as well have been a light-year. I lay there on the floor, paralyzed with indecision and terror-- if I stayed where I was, without medical attention, I'd die. But if I tried to reach my combadge, I was sure they'd step out of the shadows and kick it out of my hand as soon as I was about to grasp it, and then finish what they'd started. Or that I'd call for help, and whoever I called would be in on it-- or even not in on it, simply a part of the mob mentality-- and would kill me or hand me back over to my tormentors."

"What did you do?"

"Well, in the end, I went for the combadge. And that was a seriously unpleasant experience. It must have taken me a half hour or more to crawl that meter-- I think objectively it probably took a half hour, but it felt like a geological epoch. And when I finally managed to call sickbay, and Li showed up, I kept begging him not to kill me, and he kept telling me that he was Li, the doctor. I knew he was a doctor. But he was human, and I was frightened of all humans right then. When they put me under sedation, I tried to resist it, because I really didn't expect they'd let me wake up.

"After I did wake up, I told Anderson I was sure it was Security, and she had a fit. She refused to even entertain the possibility. That was when I knew she was part of it too, that I couldn't trust her any more than I could trust any human, which, right then, was only as far as I needed to."

"Sekal said you believed there was some sort of conspiracy against you?"

"Sekal said that?" Q frowned. "He didn't understand, then. I never thought it was a conspiracy-- if there had been an organized conspiracy to kill me aboard Starbase 56, I would be dead. No, what I thought I was dealing with was a mob. Not an organized, rational, conscious decision to kill me-- simply a general consensus separately held by each individual on the base that I was responsible for Ohmura's death and thus deserved to die. Though, come to think of it, if T'Meth thought I thought it was a conspiracy it would explain a lot."

"You asked her to protect you, I know."

"Yes. I figured that a Vulcan would be able to resist the pressure of the mob mentality-- T'Meth might not like me very much, but she would do her duty. And I was convinced that the rest of Security was going to kill me sooner or later. The two men who attacked me were still at large, at first; even after they were caught and court-martialed, it was obvious that public sympathies were on their side. Now, not only had I gotten Ohmura killed but I'd provoked two officers into ruining their careers. At first, I had T'Meth watching over me, and while I didn't feel safe, exactly, I felt considerably safer than I would without her. After the court-martial, though, T'Meth said I was being paranoid, and no one else in Security would break their Starfleet oaths that way. T'Meth couldn't see that Security had become a mob-- she wasn't their target, and they were her friends, and she was too rational to fully understand how irrational human beings can get. If she thought I thought it was a conspiracy, I can see her point-- that would be being paranoid. But no, I expected a lynching party.

"I doubt you can imagine what it felt like, to spend every moment in mortal terror. I was convinced Security was going to get me-- it was just a matter of time. I stopped taking sedatives-- I was afraid to sleep, I kept thinking they would come for me at night and I wanted to be awake for it, though what I thought I could do if I was awake I don't know. I couldn't eat, I lost weight. I was sick with fear-- my head and stomach hurt constantly, I couldn't keep food down when I managed to eat it at all, and I lived in a constant haze of exhaustion, punctuated by spikes of pure terror. I tried to tell Anderson what was going on-- how they would stare at me, telling me with their entire body language that they were going to kill me soon-- but how do you explain a thing like that? She couldn't see that they were conveying murderous intent-- she probably had too much murderous intent of her own to see it. Anderson wanted me dead too, she was just too disciplined to do it herself. Medellin couldn't see it, T'Meth, Sekal, no one could see it but me, either because they didn't want to or they weren't familiar enough with murderous humans. I was afraid of everyone, but I didn't dare be alone, because they could come for me when I was alone. But crowds didn't offer any safety, either-- crowds could become lynching mobs. Except when I was working, and sometimes even then, I was constantly wondering if this was the last moment, if it was about to happen now. My work suffered-- well, you can imagine. I felt like anything I said, anything I did, could be the spark that ignited the firestorm.

"And even if they didn't kill me, even if T'Meth was right, I depended on these people for my life! They didn't actually need to touch me. All they needed to do was wait a few weeks until the next aliens with grudges showed up, come a little bit late to my rescue, and I'd be dead. 'I'm sorry, Commodore, there's been a terrible accident. Q's combadge was apparently malfunctioning-- we didn't even realize he was in trouble until the Miblians had finished eating him. But hey, he was an asshole, so no big loss, right?' With that factored into the equation, I effectively had no chance at all of surviving more than a few more weeks.

"I was waiting for security to come escort me to a meeting in a few hours, in a state of terror as usual, when I realized that fact-- when I fully understood that I had no chance of survival-- and it made me understand what my options really were. I could continue the way I was, waiting to be murdered in some hideous fashion, spending my last few days of existence in a state of constant terror. Or I could take my death into my own hands, and make sure that my passing was as pleasant as possible. After I put it to myself that way, it became obvious that my best alternative was suicide.

"Once I had made the decision, I felt an enormous sense of relief. I had to work quickly, so they wouldn't interrupt me and take my death away from me, but aside from that urgency I felt no pressure at all anymore. They used to let me have a topical anesthetic spray back then-- it wasn't poisonous and it wasn't ingestible, so they couldn't figure out how I could kill myself with it. I sprayed my wrists until they were quite numb, and ran a bath as hot as I could stand it. Then I lay back in the tub and relaxed, and when I felt I was ready I took a ceramic mug-- there wasn't any breakable glass in my room, for the same reason there were no sharp edges, but I did have ceramics-- smashed it, and cut my wrists with the edge, as deeply as I could before it started to hurt.

"Bleeding to death's not a bad way to go, as long as the injury that's killing you isn't causing you much pain-- the loss of blood itself makes you dizzy and cold, but if you're not resisting it and you have some source of warmth other than your own body heat it's actually very nice. And the relief-- it was incredible. After all that time of being terrified, to be finally free of fear... words fail me at how wonderful it was. It wasn't actually that I was glad to be dying so much as that I was overjoyed to be free of the fear that I'd be killed. In some ways, it wasn't as nice as the incident with the pillow-- I didn't feel euphoria, and I certainly didn't feel gratitude. But the release of tension was almost an ecstasy. I was so tired, and it felt so good to finally be able to yield to it." He smiled ironically. "I suppose you could say I'd have died to get a good night's sleep."

"But you didn't die."

"No. I found out later I did it all wrong. I didn't cut deeply enough or over enough area to bleed to death before they found me. Apparently you're supposed to cut along the wrist, not across it, and you're supposed to cut deeper than that. Of course, I didn't have any really sharp edges, and I was trying to avoid pain as much as possible-- after I got below the level where the anesthetic had taken effect, I couldn't keep cutting. And I didn't allow enough time-- security came for me in an hour or so, and apparently I was still alive then." An old bitterness welled up. "Li kept insisting that I'd done it to get attention, that I'd done it too poorly if I'd genuinely wanted to die. Anderson thought it was some kind of grandiose melodramatic gesture, taken straight out of fiction. I don't suppose it ever occurred to either of them that I got it out of fiction, that human methods of ending their own pathetic existences had never interested me enough when I had my powers that I remembered any practical ways of doing it. I didn't have access to drugs or sharp edges or large bodies of water-- what did they expect I was going to do? Hold my breath? In fiction, people cut their wrists in bathtubs. I thought there might be some reason why it would be more pleasant to do it that way-- perhaps the hot water numbs the pain somewhat, or maybe it's the relaxing qualities, or maybe you get waterlogged and that somehow makes it easier-- I didn't know. And I don't know why they expected me to know. I didn't do it to get attention-- why would I want attention from people I thought wanted me dead? I wanted to get away from them, not to get sympathy."

"Did you tell them so?"

"They wouldn't have listened," Q muttered angrily. "They'd already made up their minds. I could live with Li being stupid and wrong-headed-- at least he didn't try to confine me to bed without computer access like he did this time. But Anderson decided to punish me for trying to escape. She took away most of everything I owned and then tried to take my privacy away too. Anyway, I did tell them. I had no intention of trying it again, not right then-- for one thing, Medellin reminded me of why I was bothering to stay alive at all, and for another, things got easier after that. It was security that saved my life, after all. It felt like the crisis had passed."

T'Laren nodded slowly. "Now I understand. I had been wondering for some time-- as I said, that attempt had always seemed like some sort of gesture to me. But it was a test, wasn't it?"

"A test?"

"You believed that security was out to kill you. If that were so, you would be better off dead at your own hands-- but you didn't truly wish to die. So you attempted suicide in such a fashion that security would almost certainly find you before your death. If they saved you, it would prove that you'd been wrong, they weren't out to kill you, and therefore you could afford to live. If they didn't... then you were right, and you would rather be dead." She nodded again. "Logical, actually-- surprisingly so. Were you consciously aware of what you were doing?"

"I... don't think so." Q tried to remember if he'd ever reasoned along the lines she described. "I'm not entirely sure that that is what I did, T'Laren. I mean, I would like to believe it was-- it's always gratifying to think I had a good reason for doing something that everyone thought was stupid-- and the testing aspect certainly sounds like me. If anyone would put his life on the line to test someone else, it would be me. But I don't actually remember thinking things out the way you describe. I just wanted an end to the fear. I didn't really understand that I wouldn't die quickly enough to avoid being rescued."

"But you didn't actually want to die. You wanted to be able to relax, and you were willing to die for it if you had to, but you didn't genuinely want death."

"That's true, yes."

"I imagine your subconscious mind is as capable of setting up a test as your conscious, considering how long you've been testing people. I believe you that you didn't reason things out, but you had been mortal for two years by that time-- two years in which you suffered a tremendous amount of damage. Even if you weren't consciously aware of how much damage it would take to kill you, or how quickly you'd die of a given injury, I suspect your subconscious mind has a much better idea than you think it does. I think on some level you did know you wouldn't die quickly, and you were counting on that." She frowned. "Which then leaves the question, when did you become genuinely suicidal?"

"I could have told you that I wasn't really suicidal when I cut my wrists. Not in the sense I was this last time. But when it changed... I really have no idea. I think it went back and forth for several months, and finally settled down on 'die' about two weeks before I actually did it."

"Why the time lag, then?"

"Mustering up the nerve." He grinned sardonically. "And trying to find some method that was just as sure as drinking acid and a lot less painful. I really didn't want to go through that much pain; I just couldn't find any other options."

"You described a feeling of tremendous relief when you tried to kill yourself the second time. Did you also experience any relief this last time?"

Q considered that. "Not really. I was in too much pain. I was relieved when I realized I was losing consciousness, but before that... I just kept thinking over and over, 'This will pass soon. It'll be over soon.'"

"Did you regret it, then? After you'd already taken the acid, and the pain began, did you have second thoughts?"

"Not about killing myself, no. I do recall thinking that there had to have been an easier way than this... but I wasn't actually thinking anything very coherent right then, if you want to know the truth."

"Yes. I can imagine." T'Laren stood up. "This sounds strange to say about one whom I am treating for a suicide attempt, especially one as extreme as yours, but I've come to the conclusion that you actually have a much stronger will to live than anyone, yourself included, gives you credit for." She turned. "You've told both Medellin and myself, at length, exactly what reasons you have to feel suicidal, and I must admit they're potent ones. I can imagine few sentient beings who, when faced with being'crippled, maimed and exiled' to live among aliens they are socially incompatible with, condemned to a fraction of their natural lifespan and to suffer pain far greater than they'd ever known, would not contemplate suicide as a viable option. In the past three years, you've made three attempts... and yet, when one analyzes those attempts closely, you did not become genuinely and deeply suicidal until shortly before this past time. The first time was a sudden overwhelming depression, probably brought on in part by backlash from the battle with the Borg; the second time was an attempt to escape what you believed would be a far worse death in the very near future... It took you three years of what you describe as utter misery before you became entirely convinced you wanted to die, and less than three weeks after the attempt the thought of being killed terrified you."

"Oh. Well, the thought of dying always terrified me, when I wasn't actively seeking it out."

"You sound as if you're ashamed of that."

"Should I be proud of being a sniveling coward? Be realistic, T'Laren."

"Define 'sniveling coward'."

"Me. Someone who's constantly terrified, who whines and begs because he's afraid he's going to die."

"Most people are afraid to die, Q. It's perfectly normal to be frightened of death, especially for someone who's had so little time to come to terms with it. I think you're comparing yourself to Starfleet personnel-- who are disciplined and trained to deal with the possibility of their own deaths, and who have voluntarily placed themselves on the line. You didn't volunteer to be endangered. And with all that, you know, you have occasionally transcended your fears-- it was not the act of a coward to try to give yourself up to the Calamarain, back when you first became human, you know."

"Oh, I know that... but that was different." He sat down, weary of pacing; his legs were beginning to ache. "The first time the Calamarain attacked me was the first time I'd been truly faced with the possibility of my own death. I'd come close, once or twice in the past-- someone once threatened to neutralize me in such a fashion that I might as well have been dead, and then there was the time Azi tried to tear me apart... but no, this was really the first time I'd been faced with death. At first I didn't quite understand that I was in mortal danger. It felt like... like pins and needles all throughout my body, with occasional electric shocks, or like insects crawling all over me-- I kept thinking I could brush it off, get it off me, but of course it was energy. It wouldn't go until the Enterprise adjusted its shields. And then... I felt violently dizzy, and I couldn't stay on my feet. I fell on the floor, drowning in waves of dizziness and nausea, and I realized for the first time that I might actually be dying. And it... that thought, the fear, was more painful than the attack itself. When Crusher showed up, I kept asking her if I was dying, begging her not to let me die. I'm sure she thought I was an idiot." He considered. "I take that back. I know she thought I was an idiot. There's never been any love lost between Dr. Crusher and me.

"I managed to get myself under control before I had to face Picard again... mostly. I was trying very hard not to think about the future, narrowing my focus on getting through the next few minutes. Because if I thought about the fact that I could now die, that chances were not poor that I would die, very shortly, it would overwhelm me. But after it attacked me the second time, and Data was injured in saving me... I couldn't stop thinking about it. The fact of my own mortality had imprinted itself, and I couldn't get it out of my head. I'd come awfully close to dying... and the Enterprise couldn't save me and the planet they were trying to rescue at the same time, which effectively meant everyone was going to be killed... That would be stupid. Sacrificing everyone else so that I could live a few years might have been a viable option, but sacrificing everyone so that I could live another half day wasn't. I realized that I'd miscalculated, and that because of it I'd put myself in a situation where I couldn't survive. And if I had to die anyway, I might as well do so without taking a large number of irrelevant mortals with me." He shook his head. "Plus, while I didn't want to die, I most certainly wasn't thrilled with the notion of being alive right then. I was sure I would never adjust to being mortal and that I was setting myself up for a life of misery and agony by remaining alive. If I'd felt better about my life, I might never have been able to do it."

"That doesn't change the fact that it was not the act of a coward."

"No, maybe not. But..." He made an exasperated sigh. "How do you mortals do it? If I think about the fact that-- barring my reinstatement, which I really don't think will happen-- I'm inevitably going to die, it overwhelms me. It makes my current state of existence seem pointless. How do you handle knowing that you're going to die?"

"Most humans don't. They deny it, or they don't think about it."

"I suppose Vulcans are perfectly well adjusted to the concept of death."

"Most adult Vulcans have come to terms with their own mortality, yes." She sat down. "For one thing, the discipline of logic requires self-knowledge, and facing facts. Ideally, Vulcans are not supposed to deny truths to themselves. In practice, of course, many do. But all Vulcan adults have faced the Kahs-wan-- a rite of passage that can be fatal-- in childhood, and were thus forced to face their own mortality very young. And besides, Vulcans cheat."

"By blocking their emotions?"

"No, I mean we cheat at death. A dying Vulcan can-- and will, if he or she has the opportunity to do so-- transfer his or her consciousness, memories-- soul, if you will-- into another receptacle, either another sentient being or a recording media we developed for the purpose ten thousand years ago. This is called the katra. Normally, aged Vulcans who sense that it is time to die transfer their katra into a specially trained healer, who then goes to the Hall of and transfers the katra to a recording receptacle. Telepaths can commune with such receptacles. Thus, over three-quarters of all dying Vulcans do not entirely die." She looked away, staring into space. "I think sometimes that makes it harder for Vulcans to accept the notion of violent, sudden death. It is as if a devout Christian were to die in a fashion that he believed would destroy his immortal soul-- it negates the concept of the afterlife. Sometimes I think the Vulcans that enter Starfleet, where the odds are overwhelmingly high that their katras will be lost if they die, are the bravest of all the species."

"Such modesty."

"I'm not speaking of myself. I came to terms with my own mortality long before I ever heard of a katra, or had any idea that some Vulcans can cheat death." She looked back at him. "My mother died when I was four, before I had any notion what death was. My Aunt Helene and Uncle Mike took me in and told me they would have to be my mom and dad now, because my mother had died, but I didn't understand. I asked when she was coming back, where she had gone. They told me she'd gone to Heaven, a wonderful place, and she wasn't coming back. But I loved my mother deeply, and despite the fact that Vulcans don't talk about such things, I knew she loved me. I knew if she had gone to a wonderful place she would come back to get me and bring me there to join her. So I continued to ask when she was coming back until I finally sensed that it disturbed the adults, and stopped. But I still was secretly convinced that she would. When we went to Earth, I was very apprehensive-- Earth was a much bigger place than the starship, I knew, and I wondered if my mother would be able to find me there.

"In the first year or so on Earth, we lived in New York, not Texas. There are a vast quantity of squirrels in New York, and I found them fascinating. Animals had always been rare and exotic things for me, the sight of them a special treat, and the fact that I had small animals in my back yard thrilled me. I used to try to entice them to my hand by bringing them nuts-- and cheese; somehow I'd gotten it into my head that squirrels liked cheese. I think I was mixing them up with mice." Her expression came close to a wry smile.

"One day I found a squirrel that wasn't moving. It was curled up on its side, its lips drawn back and its teeth protruding. I thought it looked sick. Perhaps it was sleeping, I thought, and I poked it to wake it up, but it wouldn't wake. So I carried it to my 'mom'-- I called Helene Dorset 'mom', but to me it didn't mean mother, because I still knew my own mother would come back for me-- and asked her what was wrong with it. She told me it was dead. Its soul had gone to squirrel heaven, but its body would never move again.

"That was when I realized what had happened to my mother. I could see her in my imagination, as lifeless and unmoving as this squirrel, all the essence of her gone away forever. She was never coming back. That was what death was.

"And even though I knew that Vulcans weren't supposed to, I cried hysterically as I finally understood that I would never see her again."

"How old were you?" Q asked.

"Five. In Earth years. Vulcan children grow up a bit more slowly than human children in many respects, so in human terms I was probably the equivalent of a four-year-old." She folded her hands in her lap. "I went about for months after that asking questions about death. When I realized that someday I, too, would be dead like my mother, I found the concept overwhelming and morbidly fascinating. My poor foster parents must have thought I was seriously disturbed. That was around the time we moved to Texas. I started seeing my Vulcan tutor then, and he helped me come to terms with the notion of death. He told me nothing about katras. By the time I learned that, as a Vulcan, I could escape the death of my mind when my body died, I was already quite comfortable with the notion of my own mortality. I assumed that I would die away from other Vulcans, and as inflicting a katra on a non-telepath can damage the host's sanity, I had decided that I would not do the transference unless there was a Vulcan to transfer to. So the preservation of the katra didn't apply to me, and I ignored it as a consideration. But it amazes me still that Vulcans who grow up with that security can find the courage to enter Starfleet, and risk their lives far away from other Vulcans."

"I can imagine. It amazes me, too. Especially since I have some personal experience with what it's like to face death after growing up immune." Q grew pensive. "I became somewhat morbidly obsessed myself when I first turned mortal, though I like to think I was a bit better controlled about it than you describe yourself at five. I still am, actually-- I think about death constantly. That I could stop being, that there could be an end and then there would be no more me-- it's difficult to grasp that. I have a much better idea than most mortals what death entails, and I still can't quite grasp it. It's so... big. And I'm used to dealing with big concepts... but this one floors me."

"Why do you have a better idea what death entails?"

"Well, I used to know exactly what mortal death entailed, and how various species varied in their forms of death, where the dead go and what they do-- I was practically omniscient, after all. Concepts as vast as death were easy for me to comprehend, once. But I can't quite remember... I know there is a form of existence for most life forms after death. That there is something analogous to what humans call a soul, and that it survives the destruction of the body. But the manner of that existence is nothing a human mind can comprehend. That which we think of as ourselves, our personalities, our memories, our identities-- that doesn't survive, most of the time. And I don't remember what does. I can't grasp it any more." An old frustration welled up. "It's like a dream that you forgot. Occasionally there's a flash of something, reminding you, and for just a moment you hold the memory in your mind... but you can't attach it to words, and it's gone. It's terribly ironic, really-- I understood death back when I had no need to, when it had nothing to do with me, and now that it's a vitally important topic to me I don't remember what death is."

"At least you know there is some form of afterlife. That's more than most mortals do."

"But it doesn't help. If my personality doesn't survive, then is that me? I can't answer that anymore. As far as I know, death could still be the obliteration of everything I am. And that is an almost incomprehensible concept. How could I stop existing? I can remember the beginning of the universe-- how can the universe go on without me?"

"You were around when the universe began?"

"No. And actually, I don't remember the beginning of the universe-- that was something I knew through the Continuum, so I've lost it now. But I remember that I used to remember." He shook his head. "At least you mortals can point to a time when you hadn't existed yet, and analogize a time when you no longer exist from that. I don't even really know how old I am. I can't remember my own creation anymore, though I remember that I used to. I think I can safely say that I wasn't around when most of the solar systems around us formed, but I can't remember for sure. I cannot positively identify a time before I existed, so how can I comprehend a time when I will no longer be?"

"I don't know." T'Laren clasped her hands on the table. "But few mortals can. We can intellectually comprehend ceasing to exist, but we can't truly understand it."

"And then there's method." Q got up and began to pace again. "Death might not bother me so much if it weren't for the fact that dying is so unpleasant. I think about dying even more than I think about death. See, dying I can comprehend. I have a lot of experience with dying. It's actually being dead that I can't handle. But the fact that I understand dying and have experience with it doesn't mean I like the idea of doing it, and someday I'm going to have to. I waste my time making up lists of what qualities I most want my death to have-- as if I'm going to be given any choice in the matter."

"You might," T'Laren said. "Often one can have some control over the manner of one's death. It depends on the circumstances." She steepled her hands and rested her chin on them. "What sort of qualities do you mean?"

"Well." This was a decidedly morbid conversation, and Q found himself wondering exactly how they'd gotten onto this topic. It did give him a certain kind of perverse satisfaction to be discussing it-- as he'd told T'Laren, death was something he thought about an inordinate amount, but he rarely got a chance to talk to anyone seriously about it. "My ideal death would be completely painless and fairly short, but not instantaneous. I would like to know what's happening, to have a chance to observe-- it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after all." He smiled sardonically. "A chance to say my goodbyes, assuming there's anyone there to say them to-- and I would prefer not to be alone when I die-- to make my peace with my existence, that sort of thing. Ideally, somewhere between fifteen minutes and a few hours-- longer than that and I'd get bored.

"If there's pain involved, of any sort, then I'd like it to be quick. Obviously, the more pain there is, the shorter I'd like it to last. Dying of a stab wound, for instance, I think I could stand about fifteen minutes of. If I'd lasted fifteen minutes after I drank the acid, I wouldn't have been sane after Li rescued me-- something like that has to be very short.

"And if it has to be painful and long, I would like it to be meaningful." He stopped and stared out at the stars through the transparent wall. "If I had died when I offered myself up to the Calamarain, it wouldn't have been pleasant, but at least it would have accomplished a purpose. I'm not eager to become a martyr, and I'm far too selfish to try to be a hero, but I think it would be nice to know that I wasn't dying in vain. That someone else would live or thrive, someone better suited to the life they're living than I am to this."

"Those are fairly understandable preferences," T'Laren said.

"But it's not going to happen that way." Q circled around the table and sat down again, arms folded in against himself. "I can't fool myself, as much as I might want to. I'm going to die horribly, all dignity gone, screaming and probably begging, for no better reason than someone's fixation on vengeance. If I'm very lucky, they'll finish me off quickly, but I probably won't be."

"You can't know that."

"You're right. I don't know how I'm going to die. But when I extrapolate from all the times I've almost died in the past three years, it becomes obvious that the overwhelming statistical trend is toward really unpleasant deaths. About the only way to give myself good odds at a reasonably acceptable method of shuffling off this mortal coil is to shuffle it off myself." Maybe it had been a bad idea to discuss this. He felt the despair encroaching on him again. "It just seems so hopeless. Even when I don't want to die, it's so obvious that a suicide death is probably the best I can hope for. It makes an early check-out seem very attractive sometimes."

"You can't spend your life dwelling on the inevitability of death, Q."

"I told you I was a coward."

T'Laren frowned. "You have a habit of putting the most negative connotations possible on any given circumstance."

"If I've learned one thing in my millions of years, it's that pessimists are rarely disappointed."

"They are also rarely happy."

"I'd rather be unhappy and wise than a gleeful fool."

"Pessimism is hardly wisdom. If you spend your entire life dwelling on the horror of your own death, you will not evade it-- as you've said, your death is probably out of your control. You will merely make yourself miserable."

"How am I supposed to turn it off? I'm not a Vulcan, I can't just stop thinking about things that bother me."

"You can. If thoughts that disturb you intrude, think about something else. And take matters into your own control as much as you can. If you learn self-defense, for instance, you may be able to save yourself from being killed-- or at the least force your attacker to finish you quickly. You probably can't make peace with most of the beings that want you dead, but you can increase the odds that you'll be defended successfully by learning not to antagonize your protectors. You were very clever in turning to Starfleet for protection, but even members of Starfleet can be pushed too far-- as you've learned. If you'd been able to manage social relations properly, Security would not have attacked you for Ohmura's death, you wouldn't have suffered for two weeks in fear, you would not have been compelled to attempt your own life, and you would not have been punished for the attempt if you had. All of that because you handle people badly. Learn better techniques for dealing with your allies, and you will be-- and feel-- much safer."

As usual, her argument made perfect logical sense. As usual, Q didn't believe her, though he couldn't put his finger on exactly why not. It seemed impossible that he would ever be able to make himself likable. "I doubt it."

"You doubt everything, Q. It's your nature." T'Laren stood up. "You must, at least, concede that learning self-defense would increase your probable life-span, and decrease the probability of death by torture?"

It was hard to argue with that one. "If I can learn, then yes, I suppose it would."

"You can learn," she told him confidently. "If you truly wish to learn, you will."

He sighed. "Sometimes... I don't know why. This sounds utterly foolish, especially given how I've been whining about how afraid I am for the past few hours... but sometimes it seems like it's easier to be afraid than to hope anything could get better, or work to fix anything."

"I'm sure it is easier. Less effort. What you need to decide for yourself, Q, is what your priorities are. Do you truly want to get well? Do you want to stop being afraid? And do you want those things badly enough to work for them?"

If someone killed him in the next few months, and he thought there was any chance T'Laren's training could have saved him if he'd paid attention, Q would feel very stupid. "I think so," he said. "At least, right now." He stood up. "I skipped most of my lessons today. Any chance you might be willing to finish them?"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow and stood herself. She seemed unable or unwilling to keep her surprise off her face-- Q smiled sardonically at her expression-- but all she said was "Certainly."


That night, despite attempts to meditate, he awakened four times with bad dreams. The fourth time, he woke up drenched with sweat, the blankets thrown off his upper body and hopelessly tangled around his legs.

"This," Q said to no one in particular, "is positively ridiculous."

He kicked free of the blankets furiously, the fear of the dream transmuting to anger. So much for T'Laren's insistence that all he needed to do was relax. He'd been perfectly relaxed before he went to sleep-- actually, he'd been exhausted. He'd tried her method, had done the meditative exercises she suggested, and it hadn't worked. Without bothering to do anything about his rumpled appearance, he stormed out of the bedroom and headed for Deck 1, where T'Laren's quarters were. It was 0500; by all rights, she should be asleep by now. Well, good. He'd wake her up. If he couldn't sleep, why should she?

T'Laren's quarters were unlocked. They were also empty. The hard mattress she slept on-- or at least he presumed she slept on it-- was made up as a militarily precise bunk, with no sign that someone had ever slept there, or even leaned on it. "Computer, where's T'Laren?"

"T'Laren is in the gymnasium."

In the gymnasium at 0500. Why am I not surprised? He headed back down to Deck 3, his fury cooling slightly with time. The ridiculousness of his actions, storming around Ketaya in his pajamas because he had a bad dream, started to reach him. Resolutely he forced himself to concentrate on anger, to ignore the growing sense of embarrassment and focus on finding T'Laren.

As he stepped into the gymnasium, he staggered and nearly fell. It was like walking off a staircase without realizing there was a final step to descend. A sudden weight settled over his entire body, making it hard to breathe, and an intense heat brought beads of sweat to his face in the first few seconds-- beads that evaporated quickly in the dry air. It wasn't hard to deduce that T'Laren had set the interior to a Vulcan environment, heavy gravity, heat and all. Didn't she know it was a bad idea to have differential gravities aboard a ship in warp? He leaned a hand against the wall to regain his balance, breathing deeply, and stepped forward from the antechamber into the gym proper.

T'Laren was working out on a complex jungle gym of parallel bars, wearing a blue-grey gym suit that wasn't much larger than the swimsuit she'd worn before. Her skin was flushed a dark green, under a sheen of sweat. As Q watched, she wrapped her legs around one of the bars, swung around it, and tried to do a handstand onto the bars below. Her wrist twisted as her weight came on it, and she fell with a startled yelp, crashing on her hands and knees to the mats below.

Q clapped slowly and sarcastically. "Bra-vo!"

T'Laren got up from the mat slowly, turning to face him. "I didn't hear you come in."

"No, you seemed rather occupied with finding new and exciting ways to maim yourself."

"Are you here for a reason? It's very early." She stood up, wiping sweat off her face.

"I thought I'd take in a sauna," he said, glancing around. "Why exactly are you exercising in Vulcan gravity at five in the morning?"

"Why exactly are you asking?" T'Laren went over to the replicator. "A tall glass of water. And a wet cloth." She was limping slightly, favoring her left knee.

"I do believe I asked first."

She drank most of the glass of water in one draught. "I always exercise around this time. Normally you're asleep at this time. Another glass of water, please."

"Where's the logic in being polite to a replicator?"

"What are you doing here?"

Q leaned back against the wall. The gravity was very tiring. "I just woke up for the fourth time tonight with another nightmare, and I want to know what you plan to do about it."

"Ah." T'Laren set her second glass of water down and wiped off her face with the wet cloth, both times using the wrist that hadn't betrayed her. "We could discuss it, if you'd like."

"T'Laren, I'm tired. I don't want to discuss it, I want to get back to sleep."

"Did you try meditation?"

He gave her a disgusted look. "No, I thought I'd try banging my head on the wall instead."

"What kind of nightmare was it?"

"It doesn't matter what kind of nightmare it was! You told me that if I was properly relaxed I wouldn't have nightmares. Well, I did the relaxation exercises before I went to bed and it didn't do me any good at all. I even tried them again after the first nightmare. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that you, dear doctor, are a quack. Why don't you give me a sedative? We know that works."

"I could also use a nerve pinch on you," T'Laren said coolly. "That would work, too."

 

"You're not taking me seriously!" Q snapped.

T'Laren pressed a hand to her head. "Forgive me. I'm angry and frustrated at the moment-- it has nothing to do with you, although your behavior is not improving matters."

"My behavior isn't improving matters. I see. You're the one who's supposed to be helping me, and I'm the one who's suffering, but you don't feel good. Oh. Poor baby."

"You are the only one permitted to be angry?" T'Laren asked. "You're the only one permitted to have any sort of feelings?"

"You're a Vulcan! And anyway, you're my doctor. You're supposed to be able to put personal problems aside."

"Ideally, yes. Here's some news for you, though: this isn't an ideal universe."

Q scowled. "I know that. Don't try to tell me about the shortcomings of the universe, T'Laren."

"Then you know that it isn't always possible to live up to ideals." T'Laren leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. "Give me a moment."

She took a deep breath. Q watched, fascinated despite himself. Her tension had not been all that obvious, not to a person used to reading human beings, but the change as it drained out of her was dramatic. When she opened her eyes, she seemed entirely composed, her face and voice free of the edge of impatience that had been there before. "There."

"I've never seen a Vulcan do that before."

"Aside from me, you probably never will again. Most have mastery internalized far better than I do-- it would take something of truly stunning proportions to make them show emotion, or the struggle for control."

"Vulcans don't usually admit that they even have emotions."

"I know. It's a matter of shame. I've always felt that there's no point to it myself; denying my feelings exist will not help me to master them. Vulcan discipline doesn't work by pretending emotions aren't there and hoping they go away, though many humans seem to think that's how we do it."

"What were you exercising in a Vulcan gravity for, anyway?"

"You're the physics expert, Q. What do you think?"

"I think having a differential gravity field inside our warp field is asking for trouble, actually."

"Oh." T'Laren frowned slightly. "Why?"

"It's unstable. If you've got multiple gravitational fields inside a single warp envelope, it unbalances the warp field, puts a strain on the engines and drains the dilithium crystals. Admittedly, dilithium can be recharged, but if we ever do plan to use the transwarp engines we'll want crystals at maximum capacity, so they don't blow out on us."

"We used higher-than-Earth-gee fields for gymnasium programs aboard some of the starships I was on, and no one ever said it was dangerous."

"Starships have more sheer power to play with. Our engines are designed for speed, not luxury. Also more space-- the proportionate size of the differential gravity field makes a big difference. And I still don't know what you'd want such a program for."

"I was born aboard a starship under Earth gee, and raised on Earth. Earth's gravity is considerably lighter than Vulcan's." She requested a medical tricorder from the replicator and ran it over her wrist. "You think of me as strong, because I'm a Vulcan and I'm stronger than you. In point of fact, though, at your size you would be stronger than me if you were in reasonable shape."

"Really." Q's eyebrows went up.

"I've always been weaker than other Vulcans. For most of my life, I struggled to compensate, with exercise regimens like the one you just saw. Since I am genetically Vulcan, and Earth's gravity isn't that much lower, I can come very close to a normal Vulcan level of strength for a woman my size if I train hard enough. But toward the end... I let things slide, and I'm paying for it now." She put the tricorder down. "It's twisted, not sprained. I'll have to do something about it later, and the knee too. Right now, though... let me take a shower, and I'll try to deal with your problem. I should only be a few minutes."

"I'll wait outside."

After the heat in the gymnasium (and why did she have it set to a complete Vulcan environment if all she wanted was the heavier gravity, anyway?), the coolness of the ship's corridors was a soothing balm. Q leaned against the wall, growing more and more conscious of his rumpled appearance. What had possessed him to come out here in pajamas? What was wrong with him? His hair was a wreck, he had been drenched with sweat before he'd gone in the gymnasium and he probably reeked by now-- really, he must look a disaster. He thought of going back to his room to get changed before she got out-- T'Laren probably didn't care what he looked like, but he did.

She came out then, wearing a dull beige shipsuit, her hair still slightly damp. Personally, Q couldn't see why anyone would dump water all over themselves when they could be cleaned with intangible, efficient sound waves instead, but he was willing to admit that was a personal bias. "I've been considering," she said as they walked toward his room. "I still think the problem is tension-- especially since yesterday morning. You look as if you're tense and frightened when you sleep, even under sedation-- I imagine you must be extremely tense when you don't take sedatives. You say you've tried meditation, and that didn't work. We tried massage, and that didn't work very well. I still disapprove of sedatives-- I could give you a muscle relaxant, but over the long run that has the same problem as the sedatives."

"None of this helps, you know." Q palmed open the door to his room.

"All of it helps. Knowing what does not work is certainly useful in tracking down what does." T'Laren stepped inside and sat down in the chair, folding her hands in her lap, as Q sat down on the bed and leaned back against his pillows. "We haven't yet tried combining techniques. Perhaps you're too tense to place yourself in a deep enough trance to do youself good. I could massage the tension out while you make the attempt..."

"I'm certainly not going to turn down a gratuitous backrub, but I don't really think that will work. For one thing, I doubt I could concentrate enough to try meditating with you rubbing my back."

"You might be surprised. Actually, anything that relaxes the body increases suggestibility, and that improves the odds for self-hypnosis-- which is, essentially, what I've been trying to teach you to do."

"I'm not too happy with the idea of being suggestible, quite frankly."

"I know. Some time ago I considered the idea of using hypnosis with you, but I think you're far too resistant for it to work. You refuse to yield your will to someone else. However, keep in mind that it's your subconscious mind that's affected by increased suggestibility. We have been trying to find a way to make your subconscious-- which seems to be as stubborn as the rest of you-- take orders from your conscious mind. I'm sure the idea of you yourself giving suggestions to your subconscious doesn't disturb you."

"Of course not. That's not what bothers me..." But he couldn't quite articulate what bothered him, other than the usual problem-- he simply didn't want to take the risk of letting another person manipulate him, and in these circumstances that was a foolish fear to have. Right now he would use any method at all. He shook his head. "I'm too tired to have this argument. I suppose it would be foolish of me not to try it."

"Yes."

By now he had become somewhat more accustomed to backrubs-- he enjoyed them still, but no longer overreacted the way he had the first time. Which was just as well, as if he'd kept overreacting like that he would have had to refuse them entirely. He lay down on the bed, on his stomach with his head turned sideways on the pillow and his arms under the pillow, supporting his head. For a moment, he was uncomfortably aware of the fact that he was in a pair of light, rumpled pajamas, with his feet bare, and that he was in his bedroom with T'Laren. The fact that she was fully dressed helped ease the self-consciousness some, though, and when she began on his back it felt too good to particularly care about what he was wearing or how vulnerable he was.

It was, however, far too distracting for him to put himself in a trance. In an environment of boredom, it was very easy for Q to put himself into a trance-- when he was too physically weary to do anything and didn't want to sleep, he could use meditation as a method of simply shutting his brain off for a while. Using it for something constructive, however, like trying to persuade himself to not have nightmares, was much more difficult. He simply couldn't do it here. For one thing, with T'Laren pressing down on his back he couldn't breathe deeply or regularly. "This isn't going to work," he said, rolling over.

"What's wrong?"

"It's too distracting. And I can't breathe properly."

"Mm." T'Laren nodded. "All right. Roll over again and I'll finish with your back. Then there's something else we could try."

"What?"

"An adaptation of this. If you lay on your back, I can still reach most of your head and neck. As long as your back is relaxed already, that might be enough."

That sounded rather attractive, he had to admit. "Fine."

After she had finished with his back, she had him move down on the bed, far enough for her to kneel at the head of the bed just above his head, and lie down on his back with his head supported on a pillow, leaving a space free that she could reach his neck. His exhaustion was catching up with him. "I want you to take deep breaths," T'Laren said. "Try to relax. Since ideally you should go directly to sleep when we finish here, would you like me to turn off the lights?"

The idea of being in a completely dark room with T'Laren bothered him more than he was willing to admit. Besides, he didn't sleep in complete darkness anyway. "Computer, sleep lights."

The room dimmed, the regular lights going off and the three blue panels at the base of the room's walls lighting up, filling the room with a dim, diffuse illumination. "I didn't know there were moon lights on Ketaya," T'Laren said.

"Is that what they're called? Moon lights?"

"Either that or nightlights."

"I hate the term nightlight. Children who're frightened of the dark use nightlights. I just prefer to be able to see if something wakes me up."

"Reasonable, given your circumstances." She reached under his neck and pressed fingertips into the muscles there. "Close your eyes."

Q did so, sighing. It was a good bit easier to breathe deeply, now that he wasn't being pressed down into the bed. It was strange, how his neck and head could be so tense, and yet he didn't even notice he was in pain until something happened to take the pain away. He hated being that used to pain that it dropped into the background-- though maybe it was preferable to the way it had been in the early days, when he couldn't stop noticing pain, and a twinge he would now consider negligible would have him all but crippled.

As T'Laren's fingertips moved up to his temples, massaging the barely-noticed headache away, he could hear her murmuring almost inaudibly, soothingly, telling him to relax. Sleep was a warm, dark tide, lapping at him and washing away the strains of the day. He was tired enough that the sensation of falling asleep was in itself extremely pleasurable, something it very rarely was-- normally he fought sleep, resisting the onslaught of unconsciousness with all his strength, but he had no strength right now and it felt wonderful to yield for once.

His breathing changed, becoming more regular. Quite unconsciously he smiled as the dark tide took him and washed everything away but peace.


T'Laren waited with her fingers pressed gently to his temples, sensing and guiding the ebb of consciousness, until she knew that he was deeply and peacefully asleep. Though it was difficult to imagine a mind more resistant to suggestion than his, she thought that perhaps he had been receptive enough to her telepathic suggestion to act on it. If this worked, he would sleep deeply and with no emotionally charged dreams. She drew back her hands and cautiously removed herself from the bed, prepared to soothe Q back to sleep if he showed any signs of being woken by her movements. He showed none.

For a few moments she stood by the bed, looking down at him in the dim bluish light. With the tension gone from his sleeping form, his lips turned in an unconscious smile, he actually looked healthier than he had this morning, when he'd slept so tensely. He was still thin and fragile-looking, still vulnerable, but it was a far more innocent vulnerability than the knowing fear she'd seen in him this morning, and it inspired a kind of tender protectiveness-- even in her, with her extensive knowledge of what exactly he was. If he ever managed to look this way when awake, he'd have a much easier time of it getting people to be sympathetic to him.

She left the room, heading for sickbay. It had, perhaps, been a bad idea to give Q a massage after twisting her wrist. Her priorities were strange ones, she thought. Few doctors were ever quite so obsessed with their patients as she was-- and she had to admit that an objective observer would probably call it obsession. For three or four months, ever since Lhoviri and she had decided she was sane enough to work again, she had spent most of her waking hours thinking about and preparing for her treatment of Q. She had interviewed people who knew him, studied his records extensively, done everything she could to increase her understanding of him. T'Laren had never been that focused on one patient before in her life, nor had she ever known a doctor who was-- except in cases of countertransference, where the psychologist fell in love with her patient.

Small danger of that here, she thought dryly. As far as he'd come in the past two weeks, Q was still far from lovable. She was obsessed with him because he was the symbol of her debt to Lhoviri, the service she must discharge for the profound gift of having reality rewritten to correct her mistakes. That was all.

That being said, however, she had to admit that that in itself could be a problem. Until Q was reasonably well-adjusted to being human, until she had completed the task Lhoviri had given her, T'Laren could not entirely forgive herself for the things she had done, the things Lhoviri had saved her from doing. There was nothing she could do about that-- emotional mastery only went so far, and besides, Lhoviri had altered reality in order to pay for a psychologist who would obsess herself with his younger brother. That was part of the deal. But it meant she would have to watch herself carefully-- despite what she'd told Q today, the lack of other people around was a problem, though not for the reason he thought. It was not that Q was not the most charming of companions-- he wasn't, but that wasn't the point. If the only social connections T'Laren could make were with the patient that she was obsessed with anyway, she became dangerously vulnerable to countertransference. Probably his unlovability and obnoxiousness were all that had saved her thus far. As she shaped Q into a closer approximation of a socially viable and likable human, she ran the risk of becoming Pygmalion, and falling for her creation. She would have to be constantly on guard for that.

It would be better once they were on Yamato, she thought. Once there were other people around to diffuse her focus.


She let Q sleep this time-- it was probably the first night in years that he'd gotten a decent night's sleep without the aid of sedatives. As a result, it was close to 0930 hours before he finally came onto the bridge, fully dressed and with defenses firmly in place. "I want to talk to you," he said abruptly.

T'Laren stood. "Did you sleep well?"

"Marvelously. I haven't slept this well without sedatives since the night we defeated the Borg. I didn't even wake up groggy. And that is what I want to talk to you about." He strode over and perched himself on the railing nearest her. "What did you do to me?"

Her heart sank at his phrasing. She had used telepathic suggestion on him because it was the most effective way to get him to sleep, it was a lot less dangerous than sedatives and she didn't think there was any way he would figure it out. Q had an irrationally powerful phobia of telepathy-- if she had suggested that she use her telepathy to help him sleep, they would have been in an argument for another three hours, since Q was especially incapable of listening to reason when he was tired. If somehow he had figured it out, though, they were going to have the three-hour argument now.

She could lie to him, she thought. For a Vulcan, she was remarkably good at lying-- in fact, for a human she was remarkably good at lying, though she hated to do it. But if somehow he saw through the lie, he might never trust her again. There would be an argument if she admitted the truth, and he would probably claim he couldn't trust her anymore, but that, at least, she could salvage. If she outright lied to him, and he found out, she might never recover.

"I gave you a massage," she said calmly. "And I gave you a telepathic suggestion to help you sleep."

Q stared at her, hard. "I'm surprised you're willing to admit it."

"Why shouldn't I admit it? You wanted desperately to sleep."

"And you took advantage of that to get access to my mind, didn't you."

"That has to be one of the most outrageously paranoid things I've ever heard you say. I did not 'get access' to your mind, Q. I admit I used my telepathy to suggest that you sleep. If you hadn't been exhausted and very much desirous of sleep, however, the suggestion would have had no effect whatsoever. I can't make you do anything against your will, and while I can read your mind, I would have had to meld with you to do so. The most I can sense without forming a mindmeld is general emotional state."

"My, aren't we defensive."

"Of course I'm defensive. You just accused me of one of the greatest crimes a Vulcan can commit. I believe I have the right to be defensive."

Q shook his head. "To be quite honest, I believe you. But that doesn't change the fact that you invaded my mind without my permission--"

"You gave me permission, Q. You were desperate for anything that would help you get to sleep."

"And is a telepathic suggestion that great an improvement over a sedative? That's what I wanted."

"You told me you awoke without grogginess. Sedatives depress your system even after you wake. Besides, as I've pointed out, sedatives are addictive. With a telepathic suggestion, your brain can't distinguish between the suggestion and its own impulses. Your brain develops the habit of falling asleep on what it believes to be its own--"

"Then why did I imagine I heard your voice?"

"You heard my voice?"

"When I came down here, actually, I thought you'd hypnotized me or something. I distinctly remember you murmuring at me over and over to relax, to go to sleep. Did you do that?"

"Not aloud."

"Then how do you explain how I heard it?"

"I don't know." That troubled her somewhat. Q was not a psi-sensitive; he shouldn't have been able to distinguish her suggestions from his own mental processes. "That doesn't normally happen. It could be that you have so much experience with psi, or something analogous to it. I've heard of non-psis, such as humans, learning to develop shields through close contact with telepaths. The fact that you used to be a psi within a psionic society--"

"The Q Continuum is a bit more than a psionic society, T'Laren."

"Yes, but the analogy holds."

"All of this is off the point," Q said. "You claimed I gave you permission. I gave you no such thing. You didn't warn me you were going to touch my mind, and you didn't ask my permission. What you told me, in fact, was that you intended for me to put myself to sleep, which for obvious reasons I have a lot fewer problems with than having you do it."

T'Laren allowed herself to sigh. "What was I supposed to do, Q? You wanted to go to sleep right then. You didn't want to discuss your nightmares, or meditate, or do anything constructive. You wanted to be asleep right then. The only thing I could think of to do was a telepathic suggestion."

"Then why didn't you ask me?"

"Because you'd have felt compelled to argue against it for three hours."

To her surprise, Q grinned. "Probably. But I'd have lost in the end. I always lose arguments like that."

"You weren't in any mood for a three-hour argument, and frankly, neither was I."

"Au contraire, chère docteur. I'm always in the mood for a three-hour argument."

Belatedly she realized that Q was actually not that angry. He seemed to be arguing mostly for the sake of argument. "Q, does any of this really bother you or are you just being difficult?"

"Why, T'Laren, you wound me. Haven't I progressed beyond being difficult for the sake of being difficult?"

"No."

Q blinked in apparent surprise. "Oh. Well, I thought I had."

"You were obviously mistaken."

"I'm not just-- All right. You want me to be serious? I'll be deadly serious." His voice lost all joking tone. "I don't like having you touch my mind, T'Laren. Ever. You did it for my benefit; fine, I believe you. But you didn't ask my permission and you didn't warn me. I think I have the right to feel just a little bit betrayed over that. Especially since you knew I don't like you being inside my head."

"I can understand why you wouldn't want your mind read, Q. I can even understand why you wouldn't want me giving you suggestions all the time. And I can understand why you feel that I should have warned you. But try to look at it from my perspective. You are irrational on the subject of telepathy, and also irrational on the subject of sleep, and predisposed to be at your most stubborn and unreasonable when you're tired. I could have told you what I planned, we would have argued in circles for hours, and in the end either I would have won the argument, or you would have slept badly and demanded sedatives again today. I've told you before, you cannot entirely be trusted to know what your own best interests are."

"And so you treat me like a child? Lie to me, to make me do what you want? 'This won't hurt a bit, Q.' Is that it?"

"When you behave irrationally as a child, I have no choice--"

"T'Laren," he interrupted, "I trust you about as much as it's possible for me to trust another sentient being, I suspect. But that trust does not extend to letting you make free with my mind. What is irrational about not wanting a telepath in my head? You say this was for my benefit. What if I'm depressed, and you feel it's for my benefit that you artificially alter my mood? What if I'm grieving over what I've lost again, and you think it would help me if you conditioned me not to think of my loss at all? I could have been a non-sentient animal, you know. I could have led a happy, stupid animal life, in blissful ignorance of what I used to be. That isn't what I chose. And no one else has the right to choose that for me."

T'Laren stared at him. "Q, I would never do such a thing-- you're entirely right. No one has the right to choose that for you. I would never dream of trying. That would be-- tantamount to putting you on drugs, or sending you to a rehab colony. To deprive a person of their free will by telepathically altering their mind is one of the worst things any Vulcan can imagine doing. You know that Vulcans die if sent to rehab colonies? We can't bear having our minds forcibly altered any more than you can. I-- no."

 

"You've never used your telepathy that way. Never altered a person's mind against their will."

Against her will, T'Laren remembered Melor. "Once," she said softly. "To save my life. And I have never stopped regretting it."

"Really. What happened?"

T'Laren shook her head. "It was when I was undercover in the Romulan Empire. I was forced to remove a man's memories of discovering that I was Vulcan." She had no intention of telling Q precisely how she'd accomplished that, or why Melor had believed her enough to make himself vulnerable. Not only was it a story that shamed her, it was an aspect of her character that Q of all people should never find out.

"All right." Q nodded. "That sounds like a legitimate reason to do such a thing. I just--" He took a deep breath. "I know I can be irrational on this topic. There's nothing I can do about that. It isn't even the idea of having my mind read-- I'm sure my own people read my mind frequently. I'm primarily afraid of having my mind influenced."

"Why?" Immediately T'Laren realized that was poor phrasing. "I don't mean why-- I can easily understand why you fear having your mind influenced. I would, too. But why is it such a priority in your mind? You seem to fear this worse than... many more immediate fears. You've told me that the thing you most had to fear as a Q was having your mind influenced by the other Q. But you're human now. You're a solitary being, not part of an overmind. Having your mind influenced is not going to happen very often; I would think it would be a low-priority fear."

"Let me tell you a little story, T'Laren. Maybe this will help you understand." He got up and began to pace about, illustrating his story with hand gestures. "You're familiar with Earth mythology, fairy tales and whatnot? Good. Let's say you're the prince of a small kingdom. This is in some indeterminate once-upon-a-time era. And when you were born, an old gypsy woman made a prophecy that you could only be killed by a bear.

"Bears used to be a protected species, but no longer! Your father the king declares open season on bears. Bear hunters make fortunes selling bearskin rugs, bear meat, bear coats, all that. So by the time you grow to adulthood, bears are pretty rare. Now, you live with the fear that you might run into one one day, but it seems pretty remote. You've never actually seen a bear. And you have utter confidence that nothing else can kill you.

"You become a renowned warrior, unstoppable in battle. You take risks no one else would dare, but then, you've no reason to be afraid-- after all, your opponents aren't bears. And you do good works. You save babies from burning buildings, swim out to sea to save drowning men, all that. You're known far and wide for your bravery. Of course, it isn't bravery-- you know that anything that isn't a bear presents you about as much threat as a cream puff. Less. People have choked on cream puffs.

"Then one day you make a startling discovery. That old gypsy woman was a complete charlatan! She had as much psychic ability as a lima bean. See, her husband was a bear hunter. She's filthy rich now from dead bears, and she's run to another kingdom, and you hear that she confessed that she made the prophecy up. Actually, anything can kill you.

"Overnight, you turn into a sniveling coward. You spent your life fearing nothing but bears. Now you fear everything, because you never learned how to handle fear. Now you know that fire can kill you, and drowning can kill you, and warriors-- oh, yes, they can certainly kill you. You're terrified of the entire world.

"But-- even now-- especially of bears."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Did you make that up, or is that a myth somewhere?"

"I made it up. Although it could very well be a myth I learned somewhere, and I just don't remember it."

"It's a good analogy," she said. "I suspect it oversimplifies a bit--"

"All analogies do that."

"--but it does help to explain how you feel. However. What if for some reason you needed to rely on a bear to save your life?"

Q considered. "I'm phobic, not stupid," he said. "If you needed to mindmeld with me to save my life-- I'd agree. I wouldn't like it, but I'd agree."

"I'm glad to hear that," she said. "You may find this reassuring, Q. Or perhaps not-- but knowing you, I suspect you will. Do you understand what a mindmeld entails?"

"It's telepathy. More than that. It's a merging of minds, isn't it?"

"Yes. It's also a learned skill-- while all Vulcans are born with the ability, and all can form simple links with other willing Vulcans, it takes a great deal of skill and training to meld with an alien, or an unwilling or frightened subject. This is primarily because the mindmeld involves merging minds, becoming the other. A Vulcan needs an unshakable sense of self, a willingness to accept the unknown, or a great deal of training, to prevent her mind being submerged in her meld partner's, her own personality subsumed. I've trained in that for over 30 years-- I'm a very good telepath, with a great deal of experience at melding with aliens. And I wouldn't risk melding with you unless it was an emergency, because I suspect your personality would overwhelm mine."

"Really."

"Yes. You've trained in overwhelming others' minds for the past few million years. I suspect your force of personality is such that others would be easily absorbed into you, or destroyed by you as a defense."

"But you're a psi. I'm not."

"That only says who can initiate a meld, not who has the more powerful personality. You may be as vulnerable to having your mind read by distance telepaths as any human-- but I think any Vulcan who tried to meld with you would be risking their sanity."

"You're right. I do find that reassuring."

"And that's the basic nature of the problem, isn't it? You fear intimacy, and feel reassured by the fact that you would probably take over any mind that joined with yours. In the society you grew up in, that was a survival skill. Intimacy meant danger, in a society where it was the default. But now that you've been deprived of it, you do need it, as much as humans need independence. In fact, having taken it for granted all your life, you may in some ways need it more. And yet you haven't been able to adjust your behavior to compensate yet. You're now a member of a species whose social defaults are the opposite of what you spent millions of years learning-- and so you resist mental intimacy, you resist all but the most superficial of emotional connections, because you have not yet realized that emotional closeness is no longer dangerous to you. You're still afraid of bears."

"Yes, I know. What's your point?"

"Do you understand that it's a problem?"

"Of course I understand that it's a problem. Haven't we spent the last three weeks hashing out how it's a problem?"

"You didn't understand that it was a problem when we began this trip," T'Laren said. "You agreed to come with me because you couldn't think of anything else that might help, not because you truly understood what needed to be fixed."

Q frowned slightly, evidently thinking about it. "Maybe so."

"That's an achievement, at least." She leaned forward. "And something else you should realize. I can't make you do anything against your will. I cannot telepathically compel you to fall asleep if you don't really want to. If I tried, I would have to form a meld, and I've just explained why I wouldn't dare do that outside of emergencies. I'm not a bear, Q. You have no reason to fear me."

He sighed. "Ask my permission first, at least."

"Would you have granted it?" T'Laren asked. "Would you grant it now, if the same situation arose?"

"If I was desperate, yes."

"It takes desperation for you to realize what you need, doesn't it."

"I wouldn't have come with you in the first place if I wasn't desperate."

And so he would only admit to a need if he were desperate? And then only if offered a solution? Q had, in the past, occasionally tried to find constructive solutions to his problems by reaching out to others for information or aid-- such as asking Sekal about the Vulcan disciplines-- but for the most part he tried to solve everything himself, or else assumed it couldn't be solved and resigned himself to it. She wasn't sure he had come far enough to admit needs even to her unless she dragged the admission out of him. Which meant she would have to be diligent about dragging admissions out of him, and that brought her in roundabout fashion to a topic she'd been meaning to discuss with him for weeks, and which he'd diligently avoided.

"There is something I've been meaning to talk about with you for some time."

"About why I came with you? Or desperation?"

"Neither, actually." How to broach this. T'Laren studied him, trying to decide the best approach, and finally decided to be reasonably blunt. "I've studied Counselor Medellin's reports on your discussions of sexuality, but I've not discussed the subject with you myself."

"For which I was grateful."

"It's far too important a topic to ignore, Q."

"I was quite happy ignoring it, actually." He turned away from her, heading for the lift. "I haven't had breakfast yet anyway. I have no intention of getting into another marathon discussion before I get some food."

"I'll come with you."

"I also don't particularly feel like having a marathon discussion while eating."

"I'm sure you don't feel like having this discussion at all, but it's necessary."

"Why?"

She stepped onto the lift with him, and they descended to the kitchen level. There should be a lounge, T'Laren thought-- not the huge and ostentatious observation lounge, but something small and cozy, bigger than the kitchen-- a neutral ground of sorts. They spent all their time having discussions in the kitchen because there really weren't many other places on the ship to talk. "Sexuality is an important part of the human psyche, and for you to reject it as completely as you do is unhealthy. I need to understand why you choose to reject it--"

"Because it's repulsive." The lift reached Deck 3, and they both stepped off. "You said you read Medellin's reports. You must know what I told her."

"I do-- but there are a good number of things you told Counselor Medellin that you later contradicted when talking to me."

"Like what? Name one."

"I'm not going to be sidetracked, Q. Why do you consider sex so repulsive?"

"Because it is. You humanoids use your genitalia for excretory functions. Have you any idea how utterly grotesque that is?" He shuddered dramatically. "I'm going to eat now. I would appreciate it if we could stop talking about this, so I might have some chance of keeping my breakfast down."

She waited until he'd ordered his breakfast-- eggs, bacon, and, in typical Q perversity, a chocolate sundae. "That's the sort of objection a pre-pubescent child might bring up," she said as he ate. "When I was in third grade, we had our first sex education class. My friend Stewart was of the opinion that this was the most incredibly disgusting thing he'd ever heard of, for more or less the same reason you just gave. After his hormones activated, Stewart spent most of his waking hours--" --and probably most of his sleeping ones as well, T'Laren thought-- "plotting how to commit the same act that had repulsed him six years ago."

"So you're saying I'm an eight-year-old child."

"Not at all. I'm saying that if a reason sufficient only for an eight-year-old child is sufficient for you, there's something seriously wrong with you. You are an adult human male, and while your health is poor now, you were in perfect condition three years ago. Your physical drives should be enough to overcome a repulsion of that nature; if not, it would imply that your body is somehow defective. I find it hard to imagine that the Q Continuum would have given you a defective body, especially one deficient in such an important aspect of human existence, given that they seemed to want you to become as human as possible. Is there some factor I'm not aware of?"

"It's..." Q reddened, and looked down off the edge of the table at his boots. "...not a defective body."

T'Laren had rather suspected not. "So you are capable of physical desire."

"My body is, yes." He looked up. "But that's irrelevant," he said sharply. "What my body may want has no bearing on what I want. And I consider sex repulsive."

"That may be true. But your body is exquisitely evolved to override any sort of mental opposition to sex, especially one as fundamentally baseless as disgust. I strongly suspect you must have better reasons for your inhibitions than simply thinking sex is dirty."

"I am really not comfortable discussing this," Q said. He pushed his plate away. "Why are you so interested, anyway? Do I detect a bit of prurient curiosity in your obsession with my sex life?"

"When uncomfortable, attack?" T'Laren sat down. "I know you're not comfortable with this, Q. You weren't very comfortable talking about most of the things we've discussed."

"This is different."

"Why is it different?"

"Why do you care?" he snapped. "I really have to wonder about this, T'Laren. You have this obsession with physical fitness-- which, coincidentally, usually seems to require you to wear significantly fewer clothes than usual. You've persuaded me to allow you to touch me. Now you insist that I must have sexual desires. This is a very disturbing pattern."

T'Laren wondered if she should respond to the allegation-- it was typical behavior for him to make something up to get outraged over, but he sounded genuinely upset. "If you thought about it, I think you'd realize how paranoid you sound."

 

"That's right, T'Laren. Belittle me, make me sound like a fool, but by no means respond. If you answered the question, you might have to lie, and we all know how much you hate to lie."

That settled it. "If you're seriously worried, and not simply trying to escape an uncomfortable topic by attacking me, I will answer the question. Why does this disturb you? Are you afraid I might molest you? Or use my position to take advantage of you? Or do you simply fear that my motives aren't pure?"

"Any of it."

"Well, we can take care of the first two possibilities easily enough. In the first place, I am your therapist, and a highly ethical one at that." When I'm not seducing Romulans, or betraying my husband, or worse. The thought came unbidden, unwanted- she forced it away before it could show on her face and undermine her argument. "It would be morally wrong for me to abuse your trust in such fashion. And as a Vulcan, I am very good at resisting temptation. If-- for the sake of argument-- I found myself tempted to do such a thing, I could easily refrain from doing so."

"Your control's not that good."

"My control is iron, for a human. If I were as controlled as a normal Vulcan, I would be incapable of feeling tempted. Being what I am, I admit that under certain circumstances I have found myself attracted to men I should not become involved with, but I am Vulcan enough to resist temptation." Sometimes. "And to answer your third point, and make the previous question moot-- Q, why exactly do you think I might be attracted to you? You yourself have pointed out that your personality is not particularly lovable. Your health is poor, your appearance is not the best-- and you would make a very unpleasant meld partner. My sexuality is inextricably tied to my telepathy-- I am better off with my own imagination than with a man I can't meld with." It would have been nice if I'd felt that way four years ago, wouldn't it. I might not need to be here now.

Q blinked. "That's... rather blunt."

"Would you prefer I spared your feelings and left you fearful of my motives?"

"Not as a general rule."

"Then we're back to the original question. Do you have any other reasons for your fear of sex?"

"I wouldn't call it fear, T'Laren."

"We already determined that it cannot solely be disgust--"

"Can't it?" he snapped. "You tell me sex is a basic human drive. I agree. It's also responsible for more idiocy, and more humiliations, than probably any other basic human drive. And it's not a biological requirement for the individual-- merely the species. I'm a hostage to this body, T'Laren. I have to feed it when it's hungry, rest it when it's tired, alter my behavior because it doesn't feel well-- and I'm not strong enough to resist it. I don't want to die-- not most of the time, anyway-- so I can't afford to put my foot down about any of its demands that it actually requires. It does not, however, need sex. I can in perfect safety hold out on that one."

"Why do you want to hold out?"

"Because I'm sick of being a hostage! I hate having a mortal body-- its constant demands, the way it can affect my mind when it's improperly cared for or just being ornery. I can refuse to give it sexual gratification. And it makes me feel... like I still have some modicum of control over my own life that I can resist my body's demands, even over a small thing like that."

"Yes, but why sex? Why not resist your body's desire to eat chocolate, and have vegetables instead? Why not resist your body's reluctance to exercise?"

"I do. Every day."

"You never did before I convinced you to. It must have been obvious to you that your body would last longer with regular exercise, and you were told several times that it would make you feel better in the long run. But you didn't try to resist your body's reluctance on that one. Why sex?"

"Maybe I just don't have a very high libido."

"Any libido at all would make it a strange choice. Your life is very unpleasant-- at least, so you've told me at length. Why have you gone to such lengths to resist a source of potential pleasure?"

"What are you saying, T'Laren, that I should run out and sleep with a total stranger at the first opportunity?"

"No. Of course not." She marshaled her argument carefully. "At this stage in your social development, it's entirely appropriate that you don't have sex. You have no friends, and few skills at making connections with people. Sexuality is only a small part of sociality, and you've mastered very little of that thus far. But you are at least willing to admit that you should work toward making social connections with others. You are trying to improve that aspect of your life. What concerns me about your sexuality is that you deny it. You won't try to change something about yourself unless you're desperate, and if you refuse to admit that sex is something you need, you will never admit that you're desperate. You'll channel the need into something else. Q, you were there for the Inquisition, the Puritan witch-hunts, the Victorian age-- you know, probably better than I do, what happens when humans repress their sexuality."

"You're talking about entire societies of humans, whose cultures repressed them. My culture isn't repressing me-- I don't have a culture. I choose to repress myself."

"Yes, but I still don't understand why. If it were a mere exercise in control--"

"A mere exercise in control?" He stood up, shoving his chair backward. "T'Laren, how can you possibly be so dense?" He faced her. "You said it yourself. I'm unattractive both socially and physically. If by some miracle someone did want me, what could I possibly give them? I'm terrible at cooperative social endeavors, and sex certainly qualifies. I'm selfish, and socially inept, and not terribly dextrous. And do you know what humans do to those who accept sexual gratification without being able to reciprocate? I would be a laughingstock. In exchange for a few fleeting moments of purely physical enjoyment, I would make myself unnecessarily vulnerable-- physically as well as emotionally; it would be just my luck that the first person who actually wanted me would turn out to be an assassin-- and then, assuming that my partner was not an assassin, they would probably talk about me behind my back in less than glowing terms about what an inept lover I turned out to be. I need this?" He shook his head. "No, I can't imagine anything being pleasurable enough to be worth that." He paced around the table. "The drives may be hardwired in, but they're sadly misplaced here. I couldn't participate in perpetuating this miserable little species even if I were mad enough to want to. And I'm not fond of being at the mercy of a completely useless biological drive, when the consequences of giving in to it involve so much potential for humiliation and misery."

T'Laren frowned slightly. "What did you mean about perpetuating the species?"

"I mean I'm sterile. Completely. Which, all things considered, is just as well."

"Your choice?"

Q shook his head. "I didn't think about it one way or another. I didn't design the body that way, if that's what you're asking. I found out at my first detailed physical, so I assume the Continuum was responsible-- especially since the method they chose is pretty abnormal. My cells simply do not undergo meiosis, for reasons that baffle Federation medical technology. I can't produce sperm cells. And, as I've said, it's probably just as well."

"You sound as if you're trying to convince yourself of that."

"Convince myself that I don't want to have to worry about making sure I have contraceptive shots on a regular basis, even though I have no intention of needing them, just on the off chance that I might--? I hardly need to convince myself of that."

"I would think... progeny are the mortal route to immortality, after all. I thought it might have occurred to you that that might be the only kind of immortality you could have now."

Q snorted. "That's not immortality. Mortals convince themselves that it is because otherwise they have to face the fact that they are completely ephemeral, and few mortals can face that. If the so-called 'immortality' of reproduction comes from creating something that will outlast you... I've created entire species, T'Laren. I hardly need to create one measly human. And if it comes from genetics, creating something that is fundamentally like you... my genetics have nothing whatsoever to do with who I am. If I were capable of fathering a human child, and foolish enough to do so, it wouldn't be mine-- it would be the child of the man whose body I copied. Besides, I can't stand the young of my own species-- I certainly can't tolerate children of this one. And, leaving aside the fact that I would be a horrible father anyway, what kind of legacy would it be to give a child of any species, to have for a parent someone that practically everyone in the galaxy wants dead?"

"You still sound as if you're trying to convince yourself."

"I'm not--" He put a hand to his head. "I am. All right. Not about the children-- I don't want children, the whole idea's ridiculous-- but they didn't tell me. They made this decision about my life, they altered the body I chose for myself, without even warning me they were going to do it, let alone consulting me. And that's stupid of me. I would have made the same decision myself-- and they knew that. They're omniscient. Why bother to ask me when they already know my answer? Simpler just to do it. I know that."

"But you still resent them for making the decision for you."

"It's stupid of me. I know that."

"Human emotions are under no constraints to be logical. Q, you have every right to resent your fellows. Whether or not the punishment was justified, they did exile you to a harsh and painful existence. You wouldn't be a normal human if you didn't resent them. And on top of that, they alter the body you chose for yourself, making major decisions about your life for you. It would have been common courtesy to consult with you. It wasn't necessary, but it wouldn't have been an effort for them, either, would it have?"

"No," he said quietly. "It wouldn't have."

"As for your earlier statements... do you truly believe that there's no potential for anything but humiliation in sexuality?"

Q sat down, folding his hands on the table and staring at them. "I've... occasionally tried to figure that out. Cost/benefit analysis and all that." He looked up, half-smiling. "The answer ends up being very annoying."

"What is the answer?"

"If I were to... indulge such base physical desires, it would... have to be with someone I could trust completely. Presumably, then, someone who actually cares about me to some extent, who wouldn't want to humiliate me and would be willing to... overlook, or accept, my probable ineptitude. It would... it would have to be for something more... what's the word, powerful? Meaningful, that's it. Something more meaningful than the mere gratification of lust."

"And why does that annoy you?"

"Because it makes me sound like a romantic." Q rolled his eyes. "'It would have to be an act of love,'" he crooned in an overblown parody of romanticism. "Please. Don't make me gag."

"I think everyone who knows you is well aware that you're not a romantic, Q," T'Laren said dryly. "Given that you wish to avoid humiliation-- and potential assassins-- your preference is actually quite understandable in practical terms."

"Well, that's good to hear."

"But this still doesn't seem to completely explain your behavior." T'Laren leaned forward slightly. "You've explained why you find it practical to make yourself find sex disgusting. When I first offered to rub your back, though, and you thought I might be trying to seduce you, you seemed positively terrified of the possibility."

"I wasn't terrified, T'Laren."

"You seemed to be. Or at least, far more nervous and uncomfortable than a person who merely has no interest in sex would be. If sex only disgusted you, I would have thought you would have accepted a backrub, and then if you felt it was somehow becoming sexual, informing me that you had no interest-- probably in your typical inimitable fashion." He smiled at that. "But you seemed very close to panic. I remember at the time I wondered if perhaps you had been molested somehow, as it seemed--" She broke off as she saw his expression change. "Q? Did someone molest you?"

"It wasn't anything," he said, sharply and far too quickly.

"What happened?" She leaned further forward, placing a hand on the table, near him. "Q, please tell me what happened?"

"I just told you nothing happened!" he snapped, but his face was flushed. "And I don't want to talk about it."

T'Laren pulled back slightly. "You don't want to talk about the fact that nothing happened?" she asked with just a tiny twinge of dryness.

"I'm tired of telling you about everything. Can't I keep a few things to myself?"

"You certainly can if you really want to. But if you've been sexually molested somehow-- don't you see how that would have to change my approach? You gave me a good, rational reason for avoiding sex, but if that's not your real reason-- if your real reason is that you were abused-- then we still have to work on the problem."

"I wasn't abused!" Q snapped. "Not exactly. And I don't want to talk about it."

"Are you sure?"

"Look, T'Laren, it's not that important. You seem to have some kind of overblown sordid story in your head. It wasn't what you're probably thinking."

"Then what was it?"

"I don't want to talk about it! It's embarrassing."

Sometimes T'Laren wondered if Q ever meant it when he said he didn't want to discuss something. He seemed to spend a lot of time dropping vague hints and then trying to refuse to talk about what they meant. "Of course it's embarrassing," T'Laren said gently. "But you were willing to tell me about other incidents that embarrassed you, weren't you?"

"Humans think this one's funny. You might as well be a human for all intents and purposes. You'll laugh."

"I assure you, I won't laugh."

"Oh, of course you won't show it, T'Laren. You'll keep your Vulcan mask in place. You might even pretend concern. Inside your Vulcan skull, though, you'll be having hysterics. I know it."

"Q, I don't see how I could consider someone being sexually molested to be funny--"

"Because it isn't what you think! And I want to know the answer to that one, too. Somehow humans-- well, Ohmura, anyway-- thought this was a laugh riot. I don't see how." He sounded hurt and angry.

"Perhaps I might understand why. If you told me what happened, I could explain why humans would find it funny."

"And what if you think it's funny, too?"

"I won't think it's funny. I don't think things that cause people pain or distress are funny. And if you truly didn't want to tell me, Q, why would you have tried to evade the topic so ineptly? You're better at misdirection than that."

His face twisted into a bitterly wry half-smile. "Touché," he murmured.

Q's hand closed around his drink glass. He twisted it, swirling the drink inside around, and stared down into it. "I've told you everything else, more or less. I suppose I should tell you this one, too. If for no other reason than that I suspect you've got a completely wrong notion of what happened." He looked up at her. "This was in the early days. I'd been on the station two, three months. We hadn't really gotten going on the work against the Borg yet, and I hadn't yet worked out who everyone was and what their positions were. I knew ranks, because they were obvious, but I was vague on names and functions.

"I'd managed to throw out my back yet again-- I suspect it was actually less dysfunctional than my back generally is today, but I was also much less used to pain in those days, so it felt quite horrible. I could still walk, so I was on my way to Sickbay to get it fixed-- not an event I was looking forward to; Li had no conception of how to be gentle with things like that. And on my way, I ran into a young woman, a lieutenant in blues. I dimly recalled having seen her around the sickbay labs, so I assumed she was medical.

"She asked me what was wrong, and I told her. So she offered to fix my back for me. As I recalled her having been one of the few people on the base who treated me with anything resembling kindness, I saw no reason not to let her, as she assured me what she had in mind would be... considerably less unpleasant than Li's torture devices." Q glanced down in apparent embarrassment on the last part. As if he were ashamed of his own embarrassment, he quickly looked up again. "You have to understand, I was much more naive then. I was spending so much time in just trying to adjust to what had happened to me, I didn't notice a lot of the more subtle nuances of human interaction. It didn't enter my mind that it might be a bad idea to go back to my room with her."

T'Laren had a sneaking suspicion she knew where this was going. "I understand."

"I should have realized, you know." He looked pensive. "Of course, I had nothing to compare it to. But when she started on my back... it was completely different from the way you did it. It was a lot more... um, a lot less... what's the word I'm looking for? Less... not impersonal..."

"Clinical?"

"Yes, exactly. Much less clinical. More... um. In any case, I had nothing to compare it to, as I said, so I didn't realize this wasn't entirely aimed at fixing my back until... well, eventually it became quite obvious. I may have been naive, but never that naive."

T'Laren could just imagine. "Was the woman Lieutenant Amy Frasier, by any chance?"

Q looked stricken. "Did she tell you--?"

"No-- but when I interviewed you she seemed to be unusually vitriolic about you. Then Lieutenant Roth explained why, in his belief, Frasier particularly hated you--"

"He told you? He knows what happened?" Q was quite agitated. "Good God-- if Roth knew, it must have gotten all over the station--"

"Roth didn't know what happened, exactly. He deduced that you probably rejected Frasier sexually, from the fact that her interest in you seemed to turn very quickly into hatred, but he knew none of the details."

"Oh." Q calmed down. "That's different."

"What did you do, when she made it obvious that she was trying to seduce you?" And how did she make it obvious, exactly? T'Laren had to admit to an overwhelming curiosity about the extent of Q's self-proclaimed naivete. How much, exactly, had it taken for him to catch on? He was badly embarrassed enough by talking about this at all, though; T'Laren was sure that if she asked him, not only wouldn't she get an answer but he'd balk at telling the rest of the story.

"Well, I-- I confess, I was mostly very confused. I wasn't sure why she was doing this. Why me? I knew even then that my personality was... not exactly the most endearing. So... I asked her that. Why me?" He began playing with his napkin, watching his own fidgeting hands instead of looking at T'Laren. "I think... had I gotten a different answer... I might have gone along with her at that point. I would have... I'd even have accepted mere physical attraction. After all, I was good-looking then. And I'm capable of vanity. Actually, I think I have more right to be vain about my appearance than most humans. I chose this form, after all. If someone likes the way I look, that's a positive reflection on my taste as well as my appearance. In fact, I'm almost sure I would have accepted that. At... that particular point... there probably weren't that many reasons... I wouldn't have accepted."

"I take it she picked one."

"She said-- well, she made it clear that she was interested in me solely because she'd never had a several-million-year-old former god before. And that was quite unacceptable. Quite aside from the fact that I find it insulting and offensive to be, to be merely a novelty item-- part of her collection of unusual aliens she's bedded-- that wasn't the worst. I could just picture her telling her co-workers, 'And you'll never guess what I did over the weekend. I did a former god!' 'Really? Was he any good?' 'No, actually he was terrible. One of the worst I've had.' It didn't strike me that Amy Frasier would be the type to... forgive any clumsiness on my part. I could just imagine what she'd say about me afterward. Probably to the entire starbase. So I said no."

"Abrasively, I take it."

"Um... no. I couldn't seem to... I didn't have a lot of breath for talking, if you really must know. But I did say no. And she wouldn't take no for an answer. She kept right on with what she was doing."

And then he tore her apart, most likely. "What did you do then?"

"I called Security."

T'Laren blinked, the closest she would allow herself to letting her jaw drop. No, she hadn't known where this was going, apparently. "You... didn't."

"I did," Q said indignantly. "I said no, after all. And she wouldn't stop. So I called Security and told them I wanted to press charges of attempted rape."

A call for Security couldn't be countermanded. And Security was never very far from Q's quarters... T'Laren had a sudden mental image of the hapless lieutenant trying desperately to clothe herself before Security showed, probably failing, Q's righteous indignation, probably in a state of undress himself... oh, she could see why Ohmura would have thought it was funny. She herself thought it more tragic than anything else. How could anyone have so little common sense? No wonder Frasier hated him. Had anyone done that to T'Laren, he would have found out the truth behind the rumors of the Vulcan death grip. "What... was Security's reaction?"

"I told you, Ohmura thought it was funny. T'Meth probably didn't, but she was looking at me like this was the most trivial complaint she'd ever heard, and I was a worm for wasting her time. I don't know why! I told Frasier to stop, she wouldn't stop. If our sexes had been reversed, there wouldn't have been any question that it was attempted rape. No one would have thought it was funny."

"Q..." How to put this. "Were you... physically aroused at that point?" And did you make any attempt to hide it from Security?

"I don't see what that has to do with anything. I said no."

"Were you?"

"What my body may or may not want is irrelevant. I didn't want this!"

"Most men do not draw such a sharp distinction between themselves and their bodies."

"I'm not most men."

I know. "Ohmura wouldn't take the charges, then?"

"He told me-- after he stopped trying to keep from laughing-- I had no idea he thought an attempted rape was so hysterically amusing-- he told me that the charges wouldn't stick, that there was no chance the case would even go to court, and that if I pressed charges I would be the laughingstock of the base. He assured me that neither he nor T'Meth would mention the incident to anyone else if I would drop the charges. And... I couldn't understand why they were being so unjust, but I do know that humans are capable of gross acts of injustice. After seeing his reaction, I believed him that I'd get no human court to treat me fairly. That everyone would find it horrendously entertaining. So... I agreed."

"Probably the most sensible thing you did that evening."

"You're laughing at me!"

"I assure you, I'm not laughing," T'Laren said, deadly serious. "Q, that was not an attempted rape."

"No? What would you call it?"

"A seduction that went seriously wrong." T'Laren found herself feeling sorry for Lieutenant Frasier. Her motives may have been shallow, but she'd hardly deserved this.

"T'Laren, I told her to stop. She refused."

"Did she even hear you?"

"Of course she heard me! She said something to the effect of, 'you don't really want me to stop.' You know, 'your lips say no, no, no, but your heart says yes, yes, yes' kind of thing. I felt like I was in a bad gothic romance."

"Q, Amy Frasier is half your size! If you felt threatened by her, why didn't you push her away?"

"I panicked, all right?"

She could see that. After all, Q had a history of screaming for help rather than defending himself physically. He could conceivably have been too panicked to realize he could just remove the problem from his person. "Anyway," he added, "I couldn't seem to... to make myself move."

"I thought you didn't freeze when you panic."

"I don't. It wasn't... I wasn't frozen." He stared at the floor in a misery of embarrassment. Abruptly T'Laren understood. She tried to find a tactful way to phrase her understanding.

"You felt yourself at war with your own body? You found it physically pleasurable, but feared the consequences too much to let it go on?"

"Yes. Exactly."

"And so you said no. And she ignored you."

"Yes! It was my understanding that that constitutes rape, or at least attempted rape. What was so incredibly humorous about the situation?"

How to phrase this. "You're not a disembodied mind, Q. When you told Frasier no, your body language may have betrayed you. You may have said it in a fashion that implied that you didn't really mean it."

"What's that supposed to mean? No means no."

"Not always. Humans are more complex than that." She sighed. "Several things were working against you. For one thing, you're male. Since males can't hide physical arousal, and in most cases physical arousal implies desire, it's difficult for some humans to take a man's refusal seriously. There would have to be some reason why he would not want to fulfill his body's obvious desires."

"Perhaps most human men take their orders from an insignificant piece of flesh between their legs. I, however, would prefer to make decisions with something more capable of high-order logic."

"As you said, you're not most men. Plus, the dichotomy between body and mind isn't as simple as you think, Q. What confuses you is the fact that you didn't used to have a body. Now that you have one, though, you are your body. You're not a ball of energy trapped inside a fleshy shell. You are your body. What it wants, you cannot help but want. The conflict was not between your body and your mind, but between the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid humiliation. In you, in this circumstance, the desire to avoid humiliation was stronger. In most men, it goes the other way around. And Lieutenant Frasier's experience was with other men, not you. She didn't know you. Also, you were physically stronger than her. With her Starfleet training, she could conceivably have overpowered you-- but she wasn't trying to. She would have assumed that if you really didn't want her there, you would push her away, or move away from her."

"But I said no."

"No doesn't always mean 'no, stop this right now and go away.' It can mean 'no, I need a bit more persuasion before I'll go through with this.' Obviously Frasier interpreted it as the second. I suspect her comment about you not really meaning it was intended as something of a flirtatious joke. If you had really meant it, in her mind, you would have repeated yourself more firmly, with some move to physically distance yourself from her. Rape involves coercion. What Frasier was trying was seduction, not coercion."

"I consider attempts to make my body overpower my personal judgment a form of coercion. How is attempting to control my behavior with pleasure different from trying to control my behavior with pain?"

"That's like saying that a person who offers you something pleasant to eat is trying to coerce you into eating. A drug such as iolera, that completely overwhelms your judgment-- yes, that's coercion. But offering a person pleasure in order to get them to do what you want is considered seduction by definition. Most people-- you included-- have stronger defenses against pleasure than against pain. The idea behind seduction is to make the other person want to do what you want them to do, whereas coercion by pain is intended to make them fear the consequences of noncompliance. It's a completely different act." His face was closed and hostile; if she was going to get through to him at all, she would have to show some sympathy. "Mind you, you could have pressed charges against Frasier; Ohmura wasn't telling you the whole truth. You couldn't have made charges of rape hold up in court, but you could have charged her with violating the Starfleet guidelines on relations with aliens."

"Starfleet has guidelines on that?"

"Starfleet has guidelines on all forms of contact with non-humans, including sexual. The guidelines state that one should never assume that a person not of one's own culture-- especially aliens, but including members of one's own species if they are of a different culture-- shares one's own sexual mores and customs. While sexual relations with aliens aren't forbidden-- Starfleet would have a near-impossible time enforcing that-- people engaged in sexual relations with aliens are supposed to proceed with caution, and to make their intentions unmistakably clear. Frasier was obviously in violation of the guidelines, and you could have charged her with causing you emotional harm through such violation."

His eyes narrowed. "And would that have worked?"

T'Laren shook her head. "Difficult to say. I can tell you that you would have found the trial humiliating, however. You would be forced to explain in court, in detail, exactly what she did to you and why it disturbed you. And Ohmura was right-- you would have become a laughingstock."

"Why?" he snapped. "This sexual double standard humans hold to--"

"Not because you're male. If the same thing had happened, and you'd been female, with the same personality you have now, you'd still have been laughed at. You're arrogant, Q. We both know this. And you behave as if you know more than everyone else. You are, in reality, naive about many aspects of human culture-- but you're also incredibly knowledgeable, and you also pretend to be more knowledgeable than you actually are. The humor would be in the fact that an arrogant know-it-all would turn out to be so tremendously ignorant about such an important aspect of human existence. Humans consider other people's embarrassing sexual misadventures to be funny anyway-- Ohmura was probably laughing at Frasier as much as he was laughing at you. But if you had friends, if you didn't behave as if you thought yourself superior to everyone else, there would be sympathy in their amusement, as there was for Frasier. You, however-- as long as you behave the way you do, humans will find your humiliations to be funny."

"Do you think it was funny?"

"I told you, I don't find things like that funny. I feel sorry for Frasier; she should have been more sensitive, she should have followed the guidelines, she would have completely deserved for you to tear her apart verbally... but she didn't deserve that much humiliation. I also feel sorry for you. You could not entirely help your own ignorance." She shook her head slightly. "So that's why you were afraid when I first offered you a backrub?"

He didn't answer, staring at the floor. "Q?"

He looked up. "It's true, isn't it. They've been laughing all along."

T'Laren could not quite follow the leap. "Who have?"

"Everyone." Q lifted his empty coffee cup and twirled it around his finger by the handle. "My humiliations have been a source of vast amusement, haven't they. Anderson, Medellin, Li... or we can go back even further, to Picard, Riker, Crusher and LaForge... all immensely amused by me. Watch a being known for godlike omniscience stumble around in ignorance and terror, making a complete idiot of himself!" Abruptly he flung the coffee cup at the floor. It bounced across the floor with a clatter, unharmed. "I would have died for this miserable species! I risked my own existence, the displeasure of my people, to save them from the Borg-- how dare they be amused by my pain!"

"Q, you're overreacting. No one thinks it's funny that beings are trying to kill you, or that you're miserably unhappy. No one thought your suicide attempts were funny. If you had, through ignorance, actually ended up getting raped, no one would have thought that funny. What amuses humans about your situation is your fear of things that seem perfectly natural and pleasant, or at least not unpleasant, to them. You behave as if you're still all-knowing, and so when you're ignorant of something that seems obvious to humans, that's what seems funny. Not the fact that you're suffering."

"How do you know? You're not human. You can pretend, you can mimic humans reasonably well, but can you really get inside their heads? Can you know for certain what humans think and feel?"

"As certainly as anyone can know what any other being thinks and feels. I've mindmelded with humans, I was raised by them, and with them. There are undoubtedly humans who would find your suffering humorous, or worse. Those are sick people. Most of the humans you will encounter will not be amused."

He continued to stare at the floor. She could see an unfocused rage roiling within him, and knew he was going to find some excuse to hang it on, something irrational he could explode against. It looked very much as if they were about to get into a pointless argument. Well, Counselor, counsel. You're the psychologist-- defuse the situation. "I'm sorry if I upset you," she said gently. "Can you tell me why you're so angry?"

Q looked up and glared at her. "You sympathized with her. You'd have taken her side if you'd been there. You as much as admitted that she was wrong, she was violating Starfleet guidelines, she had no business behaving that way toward me, and you still feel sorry for her!"

"You brought your own mortality down on yourself, and I can still feel sorry for you," T'Laren said. "Just because a person has some complicity in an unpleasant event that happens to them doesn't make sympathy for them an invalid response. You're quite right, Q. She was wrong. But she didn't intend to hurt you, and you didn't really make your own position clear enough before bringing out the heavy guns. If you are going to accuse someone of attempted rape, you should at least make sure that you made your unwillingness adequately clear to them. I don't think you did."

"Fine. The next time someone tries that, I'll punch her in the face. Would that be better?"

"Ordering her to leave your room immediately would work a bit better, I think. As would sitting or standing up and pushing her away. And then there's the entire universe of tactful rejections, which I suspect I or someone will have to teach you at some point. If all else fails, lie and say you can't because your people have forbidden it. Or, if the person doesn't know your circumstances, claim religious reasons. Anyone in Starfleet would back off at that point."

"It doesn't matter," Q muttered. "It's not going to happen again anyway."

"Do you mean that it won't happen because you're less naive, and won't let matters progress that far? Or do you mean it won't happen because no one will make the offer again?"

"Either."

"I wouldn't count on the second one if I were you. When your health improves, people will start finding you at least physically attractive again-- and since one of our purposes here is to make you more socially attractive, even people who know you reasonably well might consider you worth pursuing. I think you're reasonably correct on the first, though-- but I still think having a few tactful rejections in your repertoire couldn't hurt."

"Whatever you say." He stood up abruptly. "When are we reaching the conference?"

"In five days."

"I'm bored. Let's speed things up."

"Do you think you're well enough?"

"I'm not going to get any better by being bored out of my skull, now am I?"

"You'll get better by eating right and exercising."

"Which I've been doing. I can handle the conference, T'Laren. And we can safely speed up to warp 8 without straining the crystals."

T'Laren considered. She suspected strongly that Q was saying this because he was tired of her persuading him to talk about things he would have preferred to keep secret. It was possible that that technique was reaching the point of diminishing returns, though, and it was time to see him interacting with other people, see how far he had indeed come. "I'll notify the Yamato of the change in plans."

"Fine. I'll be in my quarters."


He was not, however, in his quarters when she came to tell him of Yamato's confirmation. She found him on Deck 4, doing something incomprehensible to the airlocks with a toolkit. "Q?"

Q looked up at her almost cheerfully. "And the verdict is?"

"We'll be rendezvousing with Yamato in three days instead of five. What are you doing?"

"Fixing the airlock."

"I didn't know it was broken."

Q returned to what he was doing. "It wasn't, exactly. I'm really not fond of that damned security interlock."

A chill went down T'Laren's spine. "Were you planning on spacing any living beings?" she asked coolly.

"You never know," Q said absently.

She knelt next to him and put her hand on his shoulder, tugging him to face her gently. He turned. "What is it, T'Laren? I'm busy."

"I can see that. I want to know why."

"Because. The idea that we can't use the airlocks to space something that might be trying to kill me bothers me just a little bit. Like many 'safety' features, I consider this one to be particularly unsafe. So I'm disabling it."

"If you disable the safety interlock, it would be far easier for you to space yourself, should you decide to kill yourself," T'Laren said softly.

Q put down his tools. "I know that. Why do you think I waited until now to do it?"

T'Laren nodded slowly. She thought she knew what he meant, but she wanted confirmation. "Can you explain that?"

"I've decided not to kill myself." He picked up the tools again. "I mean, I decided I wasn't going to kill myself right away when I came on this trip. But I thought about it-- I've been thinking about it, for the past few days-- and I've come to the conclusion that I don't want to kill myself. That, except with a few bouts with nightmares, I haven't really wanted to since I came aboard Ketaya. I feel much better about my life-- I'm far from happy, but I think I can stick this out for a few more years." Q turned back to his work. "So I've decided that I'm off suicide watch, and I can afford to have something like a live airlock within reach again. I've felt insecure about not being able to use this airlock for some time."

"But you felt that you couldn't trust yourself? And now you can?"

"Now I can," he agreed.

She believed him. His very casualness about the decision made her certain he was sincere. Deliberately T'Laren allowed the smile she felt to show on her face. "I'm very glad."

Q glanced at her quickly, and turned back to his work with a small grin spreading across his face. "And I'm glad you're glad. Now can we adjourn the meeting of the mutual admiration society and let me get back to my work?"

"Don't tire yourself out. We still have to do your self-defense lessons."

"Yes, yes. Go away, T'Laren."

She turned away, toward the lift. "I'll see you at lunch."


Three days later they docked with Yamato.


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