Only Human

Part III: Yamato

Starfleet officers live for challenge, Commander Derek Wilde repeated silently to himself, like a mantra. We love it. We thrive on it.

It wasn't working.

Captain Okita had smiled when he said it. "I think it would be good practice for you to have primary responsibility for the conference, Mr. Wilde," he'd said cheerfully. "Hone your diplomatic skills. Give you a wider range of command experience." What he meant was, "I don't want to be bothered babysitting these people, so I'm sticking you with it, Derek." Thank you so much, kindly mentor Okita.

It was, he was sure, a recipe for sure disaster. Take 40 of the most brilliant-- and most temperamental-- minds in the Federation. Bring them together on a single Galaxy-class starship for a scientific conference regarding a singularity sitting squatly just out of range to suck Yamato into itself. Oh, and add that the science officer for that Galaxy-class starship, Lieutenant Commander Shahrazad Dhawan, was herself one of the most brilliant and temperamental minds in the Federation, that she had very strong opinions on the nature of the singularity and resented the hell out of the decision to have a scientific conference. Further stipulate that because of the science officer's passionate and highly undiplomatic nature, most of the science department's liaison duties to the conference were being carried out by a naive young Vulcan, who would have been described as an airhead had she not been a phenomenal genius, since her innocence of other species' ways was as great as her intellect. All in all, Wilde was convinced that the conference was a disaster waiting to happen.

He was now attempting to convince himself that Yamato's science officer was not totally insane. "You pulled a knife on Dr. Morakh."

Dhawan nodded, completely unapologetic. "You ever been to a Klingon scientific conference, Commander? That's an accepted part of scientific debate."

"You are not a Klingon, Dhawan! You're a Starfleet officer!"

"Yes, but I was debating with a Klingon. You have to speak to people in a language they understand."

"So speak to him in Klingon. Don't pull a knife on him! My God, what if he'd attacked you and you'd killed him? Or he'd killed you?"

"I'm good enough not to get killed in a debate. And he'd never have achieved his current level of pre-eminence in the scientific world if he was careless enough to get killed by a human woman with a pocketknife."

"That thing was hardly a pocketknife, mister."

Lieutenant Sovaz, watching the debate with interest, piped up. "Actually, it was a ceremonial dagger of the Cianni, used for combats in their mating and political rituals. Commander Dhawan received it from the Cianni when she defeated--"

"Enough, Sovaz," Dhawan snapped. The young Vulcan woman quieted instantly.

"Do you understand the diplomatic ramifications of this? A Starfleet officer attacked a Klingon scientist with a ceremonial dagger?"

"I didn't attack him," Dhawan protested. "I pulled it out and told him I'd cut off his balls if he insulted my methodology one more time. And you should have heard his insults, Commander. I would have lost face if I hadn't threatened him."

"I don't care about your lost face! This is a Starfleet vessel, one of the premier vessels of the fleet. We have an example--"

Dhawan smiled innocently. "We also have an obligation to honor other people's cultures, don't we?"

Wilde controlled the urge to punch her. "We are hosting a multi-species conference of highly touchy and incompatible people. We have a Klingon and his retinue. We have a Tellarite. We have two Andorians and a Nausicaan. We have a Cardassian-- on a ship where the Counselor we're relying on to help mediate is Bajoran. We have a large number of very volatile human personalities. Scheduled to come aboard still, we have a Romulan woman, a former energy being who specialized in harassing people for several million years, and a woman from god only knows what species with god only knows what problems. The only way we're going to keep control of this madhouse is to follow Starfleet diplomatic guidelines. And that means that you are going to control your temper, is that understood, mister?"

"Understood, Commander," Dhawan said calmly. Meaning, most likely, "I'll say whatever you want and then do what I like, Commander."

Wilde felt he hadn't made his point, and opened his mouth to start again, when his communicator went off. "Wilde here."

"Sir, Ketaya is docking. Q will be coming aboard in a few minutes."

"My favorite," Wilde muttered. "Acknowledged." He turned toward the door. "Mr. Sovaz, meet me in the main transporter room in ten minutes."

"Aye, sir."

Lieutenant Sovaz often found humans hopelessly confusing.

This was hardly a surprise. Sovaz often found Vulcans hopelessly confusing as well. She had long ago accepted that she simply didn't live in the same universe as most people, whatever their species, and yet she still persisted in the belief that on some level, others must be fundamentally like her. She was puzzled by Commander Dhawan's unwillingness to meet the scientists as they came aboard-- Sovaz herself couldn't wait until they were all aboard. "We're going to meet some of the greatest minds in the Federation," Sovaz had said three days ago. "I would think that a human would be excited by the opportunity."

Dhawan had grinned. "Does that mean that you're excited, Sovaz?"

It was not very Vulcan to admit to a human that one was excited. "I confess I'm looking forward to this with great anticipation," Sovaz said instead.

"Well, I'm glad someone is," Dhawan had said, and had never explained to Sovaz why she didn't feel the excitement Sovaz would expect a human to feel. Or why no one else on the ship seemed to feel such excitement, either.

Earlier today, when Sovaz had been told that Q was expected to arrive today, she had, in fact, felt excitement. She had performed a calming exercise, but had to admit that it had not been entirely successful. Everyone else who was coming aboard was brilliant, a scientific luminary, someone Sovaz looked up to and respected. But all of them had acquired their knowledge from more or less the same places Sovaz had acquired hers. Q had millions of years of experience in practical physics, and had once known literally everything there was to know about the physical universe. Even now, if her understanding of his situation was correct, he knew more or less everything it was possible for a human being to comprehend. Q could answer any question Sovaz had-- all she had to do was think of the right questions to ask. It was quite a thrilling notion, and not entirely illogical that she should feel excitement at such a prospect. Curiosity was an accepted emotion, after all. If anyone had asked Sovaz if she were excited right now, she would have in all honesty had to answer "yes."

And yet...

She heard Tanai, the comm officer, say to Wilde, "Ketaya is docking," and it blotted out the pleasure she'd expected to feel at the prospect of meeting Q. The word ketaya was a reminder of a grief she had never entirely been able to overcome. Sovaz held her face as still as she could as she acknowledged Wilde's order. But she walked to the transporter room more slowly than usual, and fought for mastery of feelings she had never truly been able to deny.

To most Vulcans, a ketaya was a nuisance, flying in windows left open and stealing shiny objects, or digging through improperly covered refuse. On her Kahs-wan, Sovaz had seen a ketaya digging out the eyes of a dead sahar, a sleek predator of the mountains. They were much like Terran magpies or ravens, scavengers and tricksters, and unlike their Terran counterparts the ketayas were green, the exact shade of blood. None of this meant much to modern Vulcans. When Sovaz had been a child, though, the ketaya was a magic bird, harbinger of death and transformation in the ancient myths her older sister would tell her.

She remembered sitting on T'Laren's lap, transfixed by the visions a tale invoked in her. T'Laren would change her voice when she spoke different parts-- high and sweet for a ketaya, growling and gruff for a sehlat, cruel and bitter for a le'matya. Or she would tell stories of ancient gods, when creatures far beyond the ken of mortals walked the surface of Vulcan. Sovaz knew perfectly well that such stories were illogical-- sehlats did not really talk, and she was quite positive that even in the days before Surak gods did not walk around on Vulcan-- but she didn't care. The stories were fun, and if her older sister chose to tell them to her, who was she, a small child, to contradict her elders?

Sometimes there had been conflicts. She remembered once, when T'Laren had been telling her a story, her brother Soram entered the room and stared. Sovaz squirmed slightly, uncomfortable under her elder brother's gaze. She knew, though she was not sure how, that Soram disapproved.

"You should not fill the child's head with lies, T'Laren," he'd said. Actually, he'd said "my betrothed one," not "T'Laren", and after they actually got married he always called T'Laren "wife." Sovaz didn't know why. Mother and Father called each other by their proper names.

T'Laren had shaken her head. "Is that all you can see in the old stories, Soram? Lies?"

"They are obviously not true. Therefore they are lies. I don't see how that is a difficult conclusion to draw."

"Simply because they're not true doesn't make them lies. That's a very black and white argument." T'Laren had gently removed Sovaz from her lap. "Embedded in a fictional story can be powerful truths, that would sound insipid if simply stated flatly. Some truths require the resonance of symbolism. And children are well-equipped to interpret symbolism, better than they are to interpret plain facts."

"You speak of human children, betrothed. Not Vulcans."

"There is little difference at Sovaz's age."

"And you, of course, are an expert on the raising of Vulcan children."

T'Laren had raised her eyebrow. "You are not my father, betrothed. Nor are you hers. If you have a difficulty with my treatment of your little sister, take it up with your father. Should he choose to ask that I stop, I will obey." She had turned back to Sovaz as Soram left, stiff-shouldered. "Now where were we?"

Not all her stories were of Vulcan's past. Sometimes she told stories of Earth, which seemed as distant and impossible a place as the once-upon-a-time land where Vulcan's ancient myths took place. Sovaz had protested and called her a liar when T'Laren told her that water fell out of the sky on Earth, and that every ten or fifteen years it did the same thing on Vulcan. T'Laren had shown her holotapes to prove it. And sometimes, T'Laren had said, it grew very cold on Earth, and the water that fell from the sky froze to ice before it hit the ground. But it formed very tiny, powdery, white ice crystals that covered the ground like sand, and that human children would play in, bundled in warm clothing. Sovaz found this as likely as the notion of talking ketayas, but T'Laren assured her that it was true. And if that could be true, then anything could be. The universe was full of wonders. As Sovaz had grown older and T'Laren had advanced in Starfleet, T'Laren would come home on leave with more wondrous stories of places she had visited. Sovaz determined to follow her parents' and brother's footsteps into Starfleet, not for their sake, but for the stories T'Laren told her.

Two years ago, T'Laren had stolen a shuttle and thrown herself out into the skies over Vulcan, ending her stories forever.

Grief was appropriate, was proper, at a loss of such magnitude. But it was the Vulcan way to grieve and then to master the grief, to remember the life without pain. And Sovaz could not. After two years, she still grieved. There was a question left unanswered, and Sovaz, who would not acknowledge that any mystery must remain forever unsolved, was forced to face the fact that she would never learn why her older sister died. If it had been an accident, she could research the cause and comprehend it, someday; if it had been murder, she could have questioned the killer. But T'Laren's murderer was forever beyond questioning.

It made no sense. Why would anyone kill themselves? It went against the most fundamental drives of any sentient race! It was illogical in the extreme, and the explanations Sovaz had been given were no explanations at all. Words like "unwell" were used to describe T'Laren, before her death-- as if Sovaz, an ensign in Starfleet at the time, was too much of a child to understand the truth. After her death, occasionally the word "insane" was used. But that explained nothing. Had T'Laren been too mad to know what she was doing? Had she believed she could breathe in space, that she would fly among the stars without a ship? Or had she known what she was doing? And if she had, how could she have done it? How could she have abandoned those who cared for her?

Sovaz had questioned Soram, sure that T'Laren's bondmate had to have known what was going through her mind-- but Soram told her that he had kept his mind closed to T'Laren since her insanity first manifested. The final communication he had with her, her deathcry, was the first he'd had in months. And when Sovaz asked if he had sensed anything in that final cry as to her emotions-- did she feel triumph? release? despair? joy?-- he looked at her as if she had committed an obscenity and said that he would not speak of it.

Today she was to meet a person who knew the answers to all the questions Sovaz might have, except for that one-- why did T'Laren kill herself? And she would give up the answers to all the other questions, she would give up this opportunity she'd been given, if only she could learn the answer to that one...

But that was foolishness. Sovaz forced composure. She should concentrate on the opportunities she did have. And concentrate on doing her job, and making Q feel welcome here.

She entered the transporter room. Counselor Tris and Security Chief Washington were already there, Washington in a dress uniform and Tris in what Sovaz presumed was a Bajoran dress uniform. When Tris wore a uniform at all, it was a Bajoran military uniform; he wasn't Starfleet, exactly. Sovaz made sure she was composed, and took a deep breath.

Commander Wilde came in. "Q's party is ready to beam up, sir," the transporter chief told him.

"Right. Energize."

For a moment, as the shimmering forms took solidity on the transporter platform, Sovaz saw the man she had come to greet, a tall slender human. Then her attention was entirely caught by his companion. She stared at the Vulcan woman materializing, unable to believe her eyes. Could it possibly be true? Somehow, some way, could Soram have been wrong?

Then the two had fully materialized, and Sovaz was sure. Emotions surged in her, beyond all hope of control. "T'Laren!" she cried, and lunged forward, breaking ranks. "Sister! You're alive!"

T'Laren stepped back slightly and studied her with the same utter coldness Soram had given her when she had been overemotional. "Lieutenant Sovaz," she said in a coolly correct voice, obviously reading Sovaz's rank from her pips. "I was unaware that you had been posted to Yamato."

Sovaz stepped backward in bewilderment and growing mortification. Why was T'Laren being so cold? So... traditionalist? Was she ashamed of Sovaz for the emotions Sovaz had shown? She must be, yet why? It wasn't like T'Laren to reprove Sovaz for emotions-- maybe she was wrong and it wasn't really T'Laren? But no, it had to be-- how would she have known Sovaz's name?

Commander Wilde stepped forward, hastily filling the awkward moment with talk. "Welcome to the Yamato. I'm Commander Derek Wilde, first officer. I'm responsible for the conference."

Q watched the interchange between Sovaz and T'Laren with dawning interest. It seemed perhaps that this conference would be far more entertaining than he'd thought. He was slightly amused at Wilde's attempt to cover, and decided to make life difficult for the man. "So the captain doesn't think I'm worthy of his personal attention, is that it?"

"Not at all!" Wilde said stoutly. "Captain Okita will see you after you've had time to get settled in and comfortable. He believes people should be at ease before meeting with ship's captains. This is our security chief, Lieutenant Ken Washington--" a tall human with curly, chocolate-brown hair and big blue eyes, who looked far too young for his job and far too serious for his youth-- "Counselor Tris--" a male Bajoran in a non-Starfleet uniform with black hair and strangely feral dark eyes, who was glaring at T'Laren-- "and Lieutenant Sovaz, science liaison to the conference. And you must be Q, right?"

That was a space-filler question if Q ever heard one. He jerked his thumb at T'Laren. "No, she's Q. I'm A."

T'Laren said severely, in her I-Am-The-Ultimate-Vulcan voice, "I am Doctor T'Laren, Q's psychiatrist."

"Ah." Wilde nodded. "Pleased to meet you, Doctor." He turned back to Q. "Sovaz'll take you to your quarters, get you--"

"I would prefer another guide, Commander," T'Laren said in the same icy voice.

"Fine," the Bajoran snapped. "I'll do it." He grabbed T'Laren's arm and tugged her off the platform with a complete lack of diplomacy. Q smiled, intrigued. This was getting better and better.

In the corridor, Tris snapped, "What the hell are you trying to pull, T'Laren?"

"I am not trying to 'pull' anything."

"Don't give me that shit! I want an explanation-- if for nothing else, then what you did to Sovaz. That was just inexcusable."

"I have no desire to discuss it," T'Laren said, glancing back at Q.

"Fine. We'll talk later." Tris released T'Laren's arm and strode ahead.

"Hardly a very diplomatic young man, is he," Q murmured. "Though for a Bajoran, I suppose he's a radiant source of goodwill."

"Q. Be quiet."

"So what's this about your sister? I'm astonished, T'Laren. You told me you had no siblings. Was this perhaps an oversight?"

"I have no sister."

"Sovaz seemed to believe otherwise."

"Sovaz is mistaken. She is not my sister."

"And that solves everything, doesn't it?" Tris muttered, loudly enough to be audible to Q.

He palmed open a door. "These are your quarters. There's two bedrooms, with individual locks, and a living room and bathroom accessible from both. Here--" he handed Q a round badge of some sort-- "is your guest combadge. If you need anything, don't hesitate to call."

"Can I have a Starfleet uniform?" Q asked. "Red."

Tris seemed to think about it. "Mmmm-- no," he said decisively.

"Why not?"

"Stop it," T'Laren said sharply.

"Because you're not Starfleet," Tris said, "and if I can't have a Starfleet uniform, neither can you. Sorry, but them's the breaks." He stepped into the quarters. "If you want to freshen up, the bathroom's over there."

Q wondered if he should take the hint, and decided not to. This was far too amusing. "I'll keep it in mind," he said cheerily.

"I believe I would like to," T'Laren said, starting for the bathroom.

"Oh no you don't," Tris said, grabbing hold of her arm. "You and I need to talk."

He tugged her out of the room. Q started to follow, and Tris pressed the manual override button to close the door, in Q's face.

Well. This was hardly diplomatic treatment. Q smiled nastily. The doors were soundproof, but there was a little trick he had learned, that perhaps Tris didn't know about. He hit the internal manual button to open the door and immediately afterward hit the button to close. This had the unfortunate side effect-- if it was done right-- of jamming the door a crack open, just enough that sound could come through.

"First of all, you don't tell me you're alive," he heard Tris say angrily. "Did it ever occur to you that there are people who care if you're alive or not? Though after what you just did to Sovaz, I'm not sure why I should. And second of all, why the hell did you try to kill yourself in the first place? You know better than that! Why didn't you get help? And first of all, what you just did to Sovaz is inexcusable! What's gotten into you? That kid worships you. She cried when she heard you'd killed yourself! In the first place, I can't see how you could hurt anyone like that, let alone someone as innocent as Sovaz. Your own sister!"

"Sovaz is not my sister--"

"Don't give me that! You called her your sister for the past five years--"

"You don't understand," T'Laren said coldly. "Sovaz is Soram's sister. When Soram was my husband, Sovaz was my sister. Now that I am no longer married to Soram, I no longer consider Sovaz my relative."

"Oh. I see. All your relationships change completely because you're not married anymore. And I suppose I'm no longer your taran, right? After all, you're not married, so that doesn't apply."

The word didn't translate. Q decided to wait for a lull in the conversation before looking it up. Tris continued. "So you don't feel anything for her at all, that's what you're saying? You're just like, oh, well, I guess I don't know her anymore. And even that wouldn't excuse you! Unless you positively hated the kid, you have no excuse for hurting her like that."

"She's Vulcan. She'll cope."

"So if I'd casually told all your co-workers the things you told me in confidence, you'd have coped, because you're Vulcan. Right?"

"I was probably too unwell to cope at the time."

"Oh, but you're fine now. Obviously you've got back your license to practice. Or have you? Does your patient know about your little nervous breakdown? Who re-certified you anyway?"

"Starfleet Medical--"

"And how'd you explain to them how you miraculously survived? 'Oh, I threw myself out of my shuttle, but fortunately a passing inbound space freighter just happened to notice, and beamed me aboard.' Or let me guess. Vulcans can survive up to ten minutes in vacuum, right? Because you're so superior to all the rest of us poor species?"

"I told them my family had been mistaken in certifying me dead." Her voice held just the faintest trace of bitterness. Three weeks ago, Q would never have detected it-- but he heard it now, and he was willing to bet the Bajoran did too. "Soram was divorcing me, after all. He had already severed our link. He could easily have mistaken my death."

"So he divorced you. Well. I'm glad I found that out. That's more than anyone else seems to know. Is that why he said you were dead, then? Because a dead wife is easier to explain than a divorce? Can divorced Vulcans remarry?"

"Of course they-- Soram remarried? You know this?"

"Sovaz told me. And incidentally, she keeps referring to the woman as 'my brother's wife.' Not 'sister'." Tris paused. "Oh, come on, T'Laren. Don't tell me you still care about him. Not after what he did to you!"

"You know nothing about it. You never understood my relationship with Soram."

"No, and I don't think I ever will. I thought Vulcans were too logical to stay in abusive relationships."

Now she sounded angry. "Soram did not abuse me. What happened was my fault, and there was nothing he could have done to save me. He did try, you know. He was never the monster you thought he was."

"Sovaz told me he said he closed his mind to you, when you went off the deep end. I'm sure that did you a lot of good."

"Was he supposed to let me infect him? Few Vulcans can risk being bonded to one who is insane--"

"You keep using that word. You know better. What you had was a nervous breakdown. You did not go insane, T'Laren. Not by any definition I ever learned."

"What a Bajoran-- or a human-- would consider insanity, and what a Vulcan would, are two different things."

"Yes, obviously. Since I can't think of a reason for what you did to Sovaz short of that. Are you sure you're well enough to practice? We wouldn't want you harming an important Federation asset because you were insane when you treated him."

"I am in my right mind."

"Then what the hell did you just hurt Sovaz like that for?"

"Very well." T'Laren definitely sounded angry, the distinctive degree of coldness in her voice differentiated from the coldness of mere annoyance. "I did not wish to deal with Sovaz. I did not want to answer her questions, I did not want to be faced with the reminders she presented, and the quickest and most logical fashion of silencing her would be to hurt her feelings. And I no longer wish to discuss the subject."

Tris was silent a moment. "You have really turned into a bitch, haven't you," he said incredulously.

"Apparently so. Now let me pass."

"No. No, I don't buy it. I can't believe that you, of all people, could turn that heartless. Cold, maybe, if you decided to go ultra-Vulcan. That I can buy. But cruel-- no. You'd just have told Sovaz you didn't want to talk about it, twenty times until it got through her head, but you wouldn't have cut her down like that."

"Perhaps you don't know me as well as you think you do."

"Perhaps I don't. But I think I know you well enough to know you usually pull this kind of stunt when you're feeling guilty. I remember when you tried to pull this crap on me, remember?"

"I never did that to you."

"You did so. I remember it quite distinctly. I wasn't going to take it then, and I'm not falling for it now. So what're you feeling guilty about?"

"You aren't going to do this to me, Tris. I know the trick. I am not your patient, and I am not about to tell you anything. You can believe anything you like about the incident, but I do not wish to discuss it with you or anyone."

There was a silence for a moment. "Fine," Tris said finally. "We'll talk about this later."

Q hastily moved away from the door, into the foyer of his own bedroom, and pretended to be unpacking as T'Laren came in. He glanced over at her, gauging her mood. She seemed very Vulcan and very withdrawn, and paid no attention to his ostentatious removal of his clothes from his bag, instead making a beeline for the bathroom. He shrugged, and started unpacking in earnest. T'Laren had asked him before why he bothered to bring clothes, when the replicators aboard Yamato could make anything he wanted. Having attempted to get clothes out of a Galaxy-class starship's replicator menu before, though, Q didn't trust Yamato's replicators to keep him in the style to which he'd grown accustomed, so he'd gotten an entire wardrobe out of Ketaya's replicators and lugged it over here. This, unfortunately, required that he unpack the whole thing, to avoid having to live out of his suitcase for two weeks. Vanity was a very taxing business.

While he worked, he spoke quietly to the computer. "Computer. Give me the definition of the word taran. Print it on the terminal screen."

"What language?"

"Probably Bajoran. If not, Vulcan."

A definition appeared on the terminal. "TARAN, fem. taransi. Bajoran. The male lover of a woman who is already married. No close Standard equivalent. Standard equivalent of fem. form is mistress." There was more, but Q ignored it. He'd suspected it would be something like that.

The door to the bathroom opened finally, and T'Laren came out. She walked over to the replicator and ordered a cup of Vulcan tea. Q bided his time until she was sitting down, sipping her tea. He stepped out of the bedroom.

"T'Laren. Why didn't you tell me you had such an interesting past?"

"You're incredibly predictable, Q," she murmured without glancing up.

"I never dreamed this conference would be so entertaining," he continued, ignoring T'Laren's comment. "You didn't even tell me you were married. Let alone that you were cheating on him."

That got her attention. "What makes you think I was cheating on my husband?" she asked sharply.

"Oh, come now, T'Laren. I'm not stupid."

"Lack of stupidity hardly means you cannot jump to the wrong conclusion."

"What other conclusion am I expected to draw, my dear doctor? When a young Bajoran man says that he is no longer your taran, it does tend to imply that he was at one point. Or are you going to tell me there's some subtlety to the word's translation that I missed? Perhaps in this context it means 'third cousin on the father's side', or something?" This was fun. He hadn't had this much fun in... in... come to think of it, he hadn't had this much fun since he lost his powers. T'Laren's expression was quite delightfully exasperated.

"You were eavesdropping."

"I prefer to think of it as lending a sympathetic ear."

T'Laren stared at him for several seconds in complete exasperated frustration, obviously struggling to find the correct words. "My past is none of your business," she said finally.

"Oh, really? I think it is my business. I seem to recall a little speech about how you were incapable of acting on a sexual temptation? About what a stalwart Vulcan you are and how faithful and ethical and all that? I can't quite see how that squares away with cheating on your husband. Seems like a very un-Vulcan thing to me. Now, I admit I'm no expert on Vulcan culture, but..."

"Why do you care?" she asked coldly. "Does the idea that I might have had a private life before I met you disturb you?"

"Not at all! You're far more interesting this way. My respect for you has just gone up enormously."

"Then I don't think I want your respect." She turned back to her tea.

Q walked over to her armchair and leaned over the top of it. "Oh, come now, T'Laren, don't be a wet blanket. I'm a trickster, remember? People who spend their entire lives within the confines of the socially acceptable bore me to tears. I knew you were more interesting than the typical Vulcan before, but now you're positively intriguing. And then, of course, there's that business with your sister." He perched on the armrest of her chair, leaning his arm along the top of it, hovering next to her. "You can't keep me in suspense. Tell me about it."


"No? She says no? A flat rejection. I'm crushed, T'Laren, truly I am." He stood up. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I told you all the humiliating and sordid little stories you demanded of me."

"I am your psychologist. The relationship is not reciprocal."

"If you keep saying that, I'll start to think you don't love me."

She looked up at him. "You think this is extremely funny, don't you."

"Funny?... Oh, no, no, I wouldn't say 'funny'. Amusing, yes. Entertaining, certainly. But not exactly a knee-slapping, ripsnorting form of entertainment, no."

"You're an incredible hypocrite."

"A hypocrite? Moi?" That hurt a bit, actually, though he was damned if he'd show it. Q had spent most of his existence despising hypocrisy. "How am I a hypocrite?"

"Three days ago you were furious because you believed that humans laughed at your suffering. But you find other people's suffering extremely entertaining, don't you. You haven't truly changed at all; the only difference between you now and the omnipotent bully you used to be is that you're no longer omnipotent."

He smiled coldly. "Them's fightin' words, darlin'," he said. "In the mood for a three hour argument?"

T'Laren set down her tea on the table. "You have no other forms of entertainment available to you, do you? When you're not brutalizing others, or enjoying their pain, you're arguing with them. You can't be happy unless you're antagonizing someone somehow."

"Well." He picked up her tea and sipped at it, watching her reaction with amused eyes. "It's no secret that I like to argue."

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "It's also no secret that you are deliberately and grossly obnoxious."

Q set down the tea. "You get what you ask for."

T'Laren shook her head. "No. You returned kindness with thoughtlessness and cruelty. People may now treat you badly, but the cycle started with you."

"Did it now?"


"I wonder. You ever meet Dr. Taget, T'Laren?"


"He's a Tellarite. And a very typical one at that, obnoxious, argumentative, loud-mouthed--"

"You must have gotten along so well."

Q smiled thinly but didn't otherwise acknowledge the sortie. "I researched Dr. Taget a bit. At one point in his career, there had been death threats made. He'd managed to offend someone, I forget what it was, a Nausicaan or something like that. Something bigger than he was, hairier, and meaner. And because Dr. Taget was so well-respected, he was assigned a bodyguard while he was traveling on a Starfleet ship. This bodyguard was killed. Did Security turn on Dr. Taget? Brutalize him? Make him believe he would be killed? Did the captain of the ship he was on dismiss his complaints?"

"I take it the answer is 'no.'"

"You are so correct. The answer is a resounding 'no.' Actually, Dr. Taget, for all that he had nothing good to say about anyone else, had only glowing terms to speak of Starfleet security in. And this is not the only example I have." Q turned away. "Because I look human, and am expected to play by human rules, I have been systematically subjected to much greater indignities than any obvious alien. For that matter, I've been subjected to greater indignities than most humans. I've done a bit of research on the treatment of suicide attempts, for one thing, and nearly everything that should have been done after my second try wasn't. Whether Anderson was willing to admit it or not, her tactics smacked unpleasantly of trying to punish me for attempting to kill myself. Everything I've read indicates that that was exactly the wrong thing to do. If I had successfully done myself in this last time, it would have been the fault of Starbase 56's personnel as much as if not more than my own."

"You're trying to tell me that Starbase 56 drove you to suicide?"

Q was somewhat surprised by her skeptical tone-- wasn't that T'Laren's own theory? But then, she was probably playing devil's advocate. "Why did I change my mind so quickly after leaving the base?" he asked rhetorically. "Right at this moment, I feel so much better than I have since we defeated the Borg that I might almost be a different person. The only dramatic change in my life has been leaving Starbase 56. And considering that it was you who recommended the treatment, dear doctor, I would not argue against my point too vehemently if I were you."

"The climate on Starbase 56 was certainly an important factor. But I think you're trying to shift the blame off yourself onto them. You seem, in fact, to be trying to blame everything unpleasant that's happened since you lost your powers on either Starbase 56 personnel or humanity in general."

"Oh, I wouldn't say 'everything'. Most of what I've gone through has to do with rampant ingratitude and/or people who just won't let bygones be bygones, not necessarily humanity. Humanity, in fact, has been rather good about the bygones thing, although the gratitude part could use some work."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Gratitude? For what?"

"For my services, of course. And for the knowledge that enabled the Federation to defeat a practically invincible enemy--"

"We have only your word for it that they were practically invincible."

"Then don't take my word for it. Ask the Melgaani. Oh, wait-- you can't, the Borg destroyed them. All right, ask one of the few remaining El-Aurians. You can find one aboard the Enterprise-- in fact, you and she are pals. Of course, you can't expect her to tell you anything, because her people don't believe in giving out information to such lowly short-lived creatures as yourselves, even when they call such creatures friends-- but I digress. You could go to the planet Tarvisti Seven, to the ruins of the Dream Domes, and open your mind to the psionic emanations. It might destroy you, but you'd get a very up close and personal look at just how invincible the Borg used to be." Q flung himself into a chair. "Besides, while that's the most important thing I've done for the Federation, it's hardly the only thing. In fact, if Starfleet weren't such complete hypocrites about the Prime Directive, they should by all rights have refused my offer of knowledge. Maximum warp is now 9.8, up from 9.6. I've deliberately avoided giving them transwarp, but that still means that the fastest Federation ships are faster than anything the Romulans or Cardassians or Tholians have. Defensive shields have increased in power by 60%. Weapons systems aren't particularly more powerful, except when fighting species with advanced multiphasic shields like the Borg, but there they're something like 600% times as efficient. Why do you think the Cardassians suddenly decided to give up worlds like Bajor? They can't afford to keep a military presence on a world so rife with terrorists when they have to play scramble to catch up to Federation tech. Which is why the Federation has free access to the Bajoran wormhole, something that would not have happened had the Cardassians still been holding the area. The Federation is in a much better strategic position vis-à-vis everybody than they were three years ago. And we haven't even mentioned the theoretical value of all the information I've given you people."

"All of which was rendered as payment for protection. Protecting you has cost the Federation 14 lives. Obviously, they consider the price to be worth it. But expecting gratitude into the bargain is a little much even for you."

"And what is this 'even for you' nonsense? When did you suddenly become a member of the Chorus for the Litany of Q's Crimes Against the Universe?"

"I have always been aware of your flaws. It is important to make sure you know them and are working to overcome them, or all the social polish in the universe will not help you."

"That's a terribly naive attitude. Villains who smile are better-loved than the good-hearted but socially inept. If I had all the social polish in the universe, I could be a monstrosity and I'd still get people to like me."

"My conscience would be eased tremendously if I will be able to look back on my work with you and conclude that you did not end up a monstrosity."

"So be more precise, T'Laren. Are you saying that I am a monstrosity, or that you're afraid I'll become one?"

"What would you call someone who is entertained by the pain of others?"

Q smiled coolly. "A normal human being." He leaned forward. "Don't take that self-righteous attitude with me. You pretend you know something about human nature, so either you're deceiving yourself or you're an enormous hypocrite. Are you going to deny to me that human beings enjoy scandal? That the unveiling of others' mysterious pasts excites them? That they might find the notion that a person who had presented herself as above temptation turns out to be just as much mortal clay as they are, if not more so, intriguing? Any human would have the same reaction to this whole business with your sister and the Bajoran fellow. I'm just honest enough to admit it."

"And tactless enough?"

"Oh, they're the same thing. Can't have honesty and tact at the same time."

"But you typically display neither trait."

"I have been brutally honest with you, T'Laren. I've told you things I've told no other being alive. I've never once lied to you."

"Perhaps. But you have a reputation for being... somewhat cavalier with your concept of truth."

"There's no such thing as absolute truth. Only beings as ignorant as you mortals could even devise the concept. There are as many truths on any given topic as there are beings who know of that topic. Since I'm no longer near-omniscient, of course, I'm limited to my own version of a given truth, but I don't make the mistake of believing that truth is absolute."

"You might try to be a little more objective--"

"Objective? That's another mortal concept. How can you possibly be objective? The act of observation changes that which is observed. No one sits outside the universe and watches from on high, not even the Q. And besides, each individual brings so many biases to his perceptions that nothing of any significance can be perceived in any fashion remotely close to objectively. You Vulcans are positively ridiculous in your belief that you can overcome your biases and view the universe objectively. Through the filter of logic, and you claim that's objectivity! Logic's just another bias!"

"We are not discussing Vulcans, Q. We're discussing you."

It figured. Get into an interesting philosophical argument-- especially one where his experience gave him the high ground-- and she would try to drag the conversation back around to his shortcomings. Q refused to let his good mood be sullied by her obstinacy. "No no no, we're discussing Vulcans. In particular, a single individual Vulcan who claims to be objective, who believes she can transcend her own emotional biases when she wants to, and yet who gets on a moral high horse about something that everyone does and is perfectly normal just because she's uncomfortable with it. What are you complaining about, T'Laren? That I am an evil nasty person who delights in the pain of others, or that you are embarrassed to have so much of your sordid past revealed?"

"You know nothing of my past."

"Admittedly you haven't been exactly forthcoming on the topic. So I've had to take what little I can get."

"Q, I have a right to privacy. My life is not a soap opera for your amusement."

"But don't I have the right to know the person I'm dealing with?"

"If it were--"

The door chime interrupted. "Enter!" Q caroled gleefully, hoping a visitor might spice things up still more.

He was not disappointed. Sovaz stood in the doorway, hands clasped in front of her at her waist. "Q?"

"Come on in! Make yourself at home. My apartment is your apartment. What can I do for you, dear girl?"

Sovaz entered, but not very far. "I have my own apartment," she said politely. "I see no need to share yours, but thank you for the offer."

Q turned to T'Laren. "Did you ever think about teaching a course in human idioms at the Vulcan Science Academy or something?"

T'Laren had gone completely stone-faced again. "No."

"Well, someone should." He turned back to Sovaz. "It's an expression, Lieutenant. It means you should relax and make use of whatever I own for the sake of your personal comfort. And please don't tell me that Vulcans are incapable of being comfortable or something silly like that."

"I am quite comfortable," Sovaz said, "except of course for the fact that human-normal environments are always cold and damp, but I'm used to that. Is this expression a social amenity?"

"Did you ever meet an android named Data?"

"Once. When I was posted to the Feynman three years ago, we shared scientific data with the Enterprise, and I had an opportunity to speak to Commander Data. I asked him a great many questions, and he answered all of them. I was quite pleased; most people don't try to answer all my questions. Why do you ask?"

"Because you sound like him."

Sovaz thought about it. "I think perhaps it's a resemblance that's only obvious to humans. I can't detect it."

"Ah. So, what brings you here?" He was peripherally aware of T'Laren standing utterly still, as if she could negate her own presence by being unmoving. Sooner or later Q had to find out what was going on between these two.

"I have come to invite you to a reception tonight for conference guests at 1900 hours. You may, of course, bring members of your entourage." Her voice was formal and precise, and she carefully not-looked at T'Laren with a visible effort. Q grinned.

"Well. Let me ask my entourage." He turned to T'Laren. "Entourage, how does a reception at 1900 sound?"

"If you wish to attend, I will of course go with you."

"I love Vulcan precision. Not a hint about how you might feel about the concept. Ah well, if you have no feelings you can't get upset if I run roughshod over them, can you?" He turned back to Sovaz. "Sounds marvelous. Formal attire?"


"Wonderful. This gets better and better. And you'll be there?"

"I'm Yamato's science department's liaison to the conference. I must attend."

"Well, if you go into it with that attitude, you won't have any fun at all." Q walked over to where Sovaz stood near the door and leaned on the wall behind her, hovering over her. "I'll tell you what. If you'll promise not to be a complete stuffy Vulcan, I'll promise not to make everyone else at the reception's life a living hell. Sound good to you?"

"I am a Vulcan," Sovaz said, sounding confused, "so I can't oblige you on that part. In this context, what do the adjectives 'complete' and 'stuffy' mean?"

Q pointed at T'Laren. "See her?"

For the first time, Sovaz looked at T'Laren. "Yes."

"That is a complete stuffy Vulcan. Note the frigid posture, the stony face, the total lack of animation. Sad, really, since T'Laren's usually a much more interesting person, but apparently she decided that being interesting was hideously embarrassing. Now, would you rather be interesting, or would you rather look like that?"

"I'd rather be interesting," Sovaz said definitely. "If I promise not to be a complete stuffy Vulcan, will you answer all my questions?"

"All your questions? Frankly, that depends on how many you have and how much detail you need on them. I get paid for this, you know. But I'm sure I could see fit to toss a few freebies your way."

"Is a freebie a kind of frisbee?"

Q stared. "'Frisbee?'"

"A kind of toy that humans use to practice throwing skills, vector calculation and social cooperation. My sis-- T'Laren taught me how to use a frisbee once. It was very educational. But I had somewhat more abstract questions in mind, actually. I already understand the physics of frisbees fairly well."

"No. A freebie is a free gift. Gratis. Without charge." He turned to T'Laren with a huge grin. "Frisbees? My dear doctor. You have been corrupting this child, haven't you."

"No, she hasn't," Sovaz said, sounding slightly defensive. "Frisbees are very useful for helping children learn how to--"

"It was a facetious comment, Lieutenant. A joke, in other words. You aren't supposed to take it seriously." He sighed. "What do they teach them these days?"

Sovaz apparently figured out that that was a rhetorical question. "I need to deliver other invitations. But you will be there?"

"I wouldn't miss it."

She nodded, and left.

T'Laren expected and feared that the argument would continue after Sovaz left. Instead Q went into his bedroom and occupied himself with removing various articles of clothing that he'd just packed, trying them on, and staring at himself in the mirror as if his appearance were a painting he was thinking of revising heavily. She retreated to her own room, requested the computer to shut the door-- individual rooms in the suite apparently didn't shut their doors automatically-- and unpacked the few items she had bothered to bring aboard.

The door to the bedroom opened. Q stood there in a black jumpsuit with glittering gold piping and a short gold jacket. "What do you think?"

"What do I think of what?"

"Of the outfit, of course."

"I think it's a bit flamboyant, actually."

"Flamboyant? Flamboyant?" Q shook his head rapidly. "No no no. What a deprived young woman. Do you want to see flamboyant?" He departed and returned a moment later with a medieval Renaissance costume held up to him. "This is flamboyant."

She was certainly not going to contradict him. "Why do you have that... outfit... with you at all?" T'Laren asked, trying not to sound overwhelmed with incredulity.

"Well, in case I felt like wearing it, of course. Why do you think?" He put the costume down and glared at her. "Are you going to wear that?"

T'Laren was dressed in a formal gray shipsuit with darker gray quilted shoulders and some black edging. It had served perfectly well for coming aboard the Yamato, and she couldn't see why it wouldn't serve for the formal reception. "Yes."

Q rolled his eyes. "Fate spare me from the fashion-illiterate." He shook his head. "You can't wear that. Please tell me you're just trying to get back at me and you actually had no intention of wearing that."

"I really don't see what's wrong with it."

"It's boring! It's dull, it's stuffy, it's hideous, it turns your skin gray and it makes you look at least fifty years older. Would you wear something with a little color in it, at least, so I needn't die from mortification that I'm associated with you?"

"It is perfectly acceptable," T'Laren said, with just a touch more sharpness than she'd intended. "I hardly see the need to take fashion advice from a man who's been known to dress as a 22nd-century starship captain, a 16th-century fop-- and a 21st-century judge."

"Oh, you're going to blame me for the judge? Blame humanity; I didn't come up with the costume."

"But you dressed in it."

"To make a point."

"What sort of point did you intend to make by dressing as a Starfleet captain from two hundred years ago?"

"I was protesting that they wouldn't let me wear a Starfleet uniform. Besides, I freely admit those things were flamboyant and silly. They were always intended to be. But this-- this is just a disaster, T'Laren. It makes you look like-- like--" He paused, as if at a loss for words, and finally sputtered, "like a Vulcan!"

"I am a Vulcan."

"That's no excuse. Look." He strode into her room and walked over to the clothing replicator. "Menu."


"This one looks nice," he said, scrutinizing the menu. "And this isn't half bad. And the green in this one would go marvelously with your bloodshot eyes--"

"Q!" T'Laren walked over to him. "I have no intention of changing my outfit to please your outrageous sensibilities. Will you get away from my replicator, or will I be forced to bodily remove you?"

He wagged his finger at her. "Touchy, touchy, touchy. And here I thought I couldn't offend you."

"I was wrong."

"You certainly were. That shade of gray was never meant to be worn by a humanoid-- except perhaps a Cardassian, but then they hardly count as humanoid, do they." He turned back to the replicator. "A 401A, in my friend's size."

"It doesn't have my size. I haven't stepped into the measuring unit."

"Ah, but this, my dear, is a Galaxy-class starship. Not one of those little bathtub tugs you're accustomed to serving on." The replicator produced an outfit. Q removed it with a flourish and unrolled it in front of her. "Voila!"

Despite herself, T'Laren was forced to admit that the shipsuit Q was presenting her with was, in fact, better-looking. Her current attire was conservative and sedate; this was professional, sharp, attractive without the excessive flashiness she'd have expected from something Q would pick out. It was in gray and dark green, not much more colorful than what she wore, but she could tell that it would, in fact, flatter her coloring much better.

She studied Q for a moment, trying to decide whether this was a power game or a particularly obnoxious way of making a peace offering. "It's quite attractive," she finally said.

"So you agree with me! Go on, try it on. I'll go in the other room and cover my eyes."

"No." She took the shipsuit from him and hung it up in her closet. "I will wear what I'm wearing." She turned to face him. "I'm not your dress-up doll, Q."

"No, of course not. But I had thought we were friends."

After your performance today? I wouldn't wish to see the way you treat your enemies. "Perhaps we are," she offered evenly.

"Well, as a concerned friend, it would ill behoove me to let you go out like that. Friends don't let friends dress like Vulcan schoolmarms."

"Vulcan schoolmarms wear dark brown robes. And I don't think you intend a gesture of friendship, Q, not after your behavior today."

"What, because I argue with someone means I can't be their friend?"

"When you repeatedly bring up points that obviously cause another person pain, refusing to back off when you're asked, and make light of an evidently traumatic situation, it is hard to imagine why the other person would want to call you friend." She turned away quite deliberately and crossed the room, turning back only when she had placed the bed between them.

"Ah." Q's expression had gone very masklike. For a moment she regretted the harsh words-- but he had to learn. "In that case, I'll leave you to your no doubt vital activities, Doctor." He turned and pivoted back through the door into the suite, which swooshed shut behind him.

Either he was giving a remarkably good show of wounded pride, or she had actually hurt his feelings. Could it be that after all this time, he still didn't realize that being obnoxious was not a good way to reach out to people? That if he wished to be another person's friend, he should refrain from harassing them? Had this been Q's idea of a peace offering? If that was the case, she really had a lot further to go with him than she'd thought back on Ketaya-- unless he'd backslid. That could have happened, too.

The trouble was that she had no objectivity right now. She remembered telling Anderson that Q couldn't offend her unless she allowed it... but she hadn't thought she might be faced with Sovaz. Fate was capable of cruel jokes. Or perhaps Lhoviri had arranged this? Sovaz's presence could be explained by Lhoviri's sick sense of humor. Or by her own carelessness. She should have checked the crew listings. But then, who could have expected this? To have both Sovaz and Tris on the same ship, and then to have T'Laren come to that ship unaware-- that had to be someone's idea of a joke.

She had barely managed to maintain control. The moment she'd seen Sovaz, all her carefully constructed barriers against her own memories had begun to crash, and she remembered the last time she'd seen Sovaz--

--Her hands were dyed green, her clothing splotched with emerald. She stared stupidly at her hands, unable to understand where all the green had come from. The acrid smell of copper and salt tickled the back of her throat, and she trembled, an atavistic reaction to the scent of blood. Where had the blood come from?

Her eyes followed the green drops down to the floor, where they pooled. Her face reflected in the pool, her expression confused. Something had happened. What had happened?

Then she tracked down to Soram, lying still in the center of the pool, and time stopped.

The door opened. She looked up, a frightened animal, and saw Sovaz. A look of horror shattered the girl's calm features, to be replaced by a cold mask that denied all emotion, all innocence, all goodness in the universe. The innocence, the sense of wonder in the girl's eyes shriveled and died.

"You have killed my brother," Sovaz said, and it was the death knell for her childhood... and T'Laren had killed it...

She pressed her hands to her temples, trying to shut out the vision of Sovaz's shattered innocence. It hadn't happened. Sovaz didn't remember how her older sister had betrayed her, destroyed her, because it hadn't happened.

"All right!" The entity flung his arms in the air. "What do you need? Tell me what you need to want to live. I can do anything you want. What will it take, for you to agree to live?"

She hesitated. He asked for impossibilities. But he had already demonstrated that he could do impossibilities.

"My husband," she whispered. "I cannot live so long as he does not."

"You want me to bring him back? Like I did you?"

"I want him to have never died. I want to have never killed him."

He paused, seeming to think about it. "Okay," he said finally. "That's what you want? That's what you'll get. It'll never have happened."

...never have happened...

But it had. She remembered it if no one else could. She remembered how Sovaz had looked, and the awful feeling of desolation that had overwhelmed her when she saw the girl's expression, worse even than the horror of realizing what she'd done to Soram. And she couldn't stop remembering. How was she supposed to face Sovaz, knowing what she'd done to the girl?

How was she supposed to face Sovaz after the cruel way she'd rejected the girl today?

But I didn't want to hurt her. I just wanted her not to-- not to look at me so worshipfully, so happily, as if she were overjoyed to find me alive, when I don't deserve--

It hadn't happened.

"Lhoviri," she whispered. "I can't do this." She sat down heavily. "You're supposed to be omnipotent," she told the air quietly. "You could have fixed me better than this, surely."

Do you expect me to do everything for you? You have to stand on your own feet sometime, T'Laren.

She had no idea whether the reply came from Lhoviri or her own mind. But whoever had said it, they were right. This incident has destroyed my objectivity. I should be concentrating on helping Q, not wallowing in my own pain. That's what Lhoviri is paying for, anyway. That is why it didn't happen.

Physician, heal thyself. T'Laren stared at the outfit Q had given her, replaying the scene with Q in her mind and analyzing it. He had expressed interest, amusement, even glee at the situation with Tris, Sovaz and herself. He had mocked her for her relationship with Tris-- but he was right on one level. She had told Q she was not attracted to him, nor would she pursue him if she was, and that much was true. But she had also told him she was capable of resisting temptation, and that she had no desire to have sex with a man she couldn't meld with-- and that was demonstrably false. T'Laren remembered the humans she'd picked up in seedy bars on out-of-the-way starbases or planetary shore leave, desperately trying to convince herself that if she didn't meld with them she wasn't betraying Soram. She remembered Tris, and how close she had come to divorcing Soram for him. And while she was torturing herself, why didn't she go ahead and remember Melor? How many people had she betrayed by going to bed with him, and in how many different ways?

No. This was counterproductive. Q had hurt her because, on this topic, she felt a great deal of guilt and could easily be hurt. It was Q's nature to probe for weaknesses-- he could hardly be blamed for that at this stage of his development. If she had truly thought for a moment that she had made great strides with him, she was a fool. She knew better-- psychological treatment involved no miracle cures. Q trusted her and would probably not be a complete ass to her in the absence of other social stimuli, most of the time. Give him other people to interact with, however, and he would... be himself. And if that hurt her, that was her failing for allowing it.

So. Q had been amused by the fact that she'd turned out to be fallible. This was understandable. He had tried to charm Sovaz at T'Laren's expense. Given how T'Laren had behaved toward Sovaz, however, he wasn't even entirely wrong to do that. He had found the whole situation with her past coming back to haunt her entertaining-- but he was right; it was a natural human reaction and it was only because Q was completely tactless and allowed his amusement to show so blatantly that it had been so hurtful. Which meant... he was being an ass, but probably not maliciously so. And so the offer of the suit might not have been the opening move of a power game. It might have been a peace offering.

But this brought her back to the beginning, because she still couldn't tell which. So she considered consequences. If she rejected a peace offering, Q would be hurt-- and he had seemed to be hurt; surely it couldn't have entirely been her comment about friends that elicited that reaction-- unless it had been faked? But why would he fake being hurt? Q might ostentatiously play at being wounded, but he always made it obvious that it was play, a defense against the notion that she might actually hurt him. There was nothing for him to gain by a sincere pretense at pain. And Q would not be hurt if she rejected a power gambit. He would shrug, smile and try again. If he backed off, he'd do so in such a fashion to imply that he was conceding temporarily, or the game no longer amused him-- not that he'd gotten hurt.

T'Laren picked up the outfit. It was better-looking, and Q's obsession with clothing was quite genuine. He could mock or parody his own obsessions-- as witness the Renaissance outfit-- but they were no less real. Q might really have considered the question of her attire to be important, and have been trying, in his typical obnoxious fashion, to save her from what he perceived to be an embarrassment. It seemed likely that she had assumed it was a power gambit simply because she was annoyed at him, and because she considered clothing a trivial issue.

Ten minutes later she went to the door of Q's room and pushed the door chime.

The door swished open. "Fancy meeting you here," Q said, and then his eyes fell on the outfit. "Aha. I see you had a sudden attack of fashion sense."

"I decided I would take your word for it," she said. "One as obsessed with clothing as you can hardly help but have a better sense for such things."

He nodded approvingly. "It's quite attractive, if I do say so myself. You could still do something with your hair, but then I'm not about to push my luck."

"A wise decision." As T'Laren stepped further into the room, Q's own appearance registered on her. Her eyebrows went up. He had changed clothing again, this time choosing a suit in dark red and grey that was far less flamboyant than the previous black and gold. He had also done something to his hair-- made it less obvious how little of it there was, and gotten the gray in it to concentrate at the temples instead of being scattered throughout. The most startling change, however, was that he seemed to have gained back all the weight he'd lost over the past three years. Q had never been built bulkily, but when he'd been omnipotent his mass had been enough, combined with his height, to make him formidable-looking. Over the past three years, in the holos she'd seen of him, he'd grown more and more gaunt, and less and less impressive-looking, until finally he'd wound up in sickbay looking like a matchstick. He had always been able to lessen the gauntness with clothing somewhat; now, though, he seemed to have actually gotten rid of it. Only his hands betrayed him.

He noticed her stare. "Impressive, isn't it? It's taken me close to an hour just to get to this point, and I still haven't put makeup on yet." Q turned to the mirror, where he had ranged a large number of cosmetics. "You can watch if you want, it won't bother me."

"It is impressive. It must be uncomfortable, though."

"Oh, astonishingly. I can't sit down." He took what looked like a surgical scanner and ran it over his face, leaning against the mirror. "Beauty is pain." This was intoned with such solemnity that she knew he would have to turn around and grin at her. He did so, satisfying her faith in her ability to predict Q.

"Why do you do it, then?" she asked. "I would think you would consider physical appearance to be completely superficial."

"Absolutely. By definition, even. Couldn't agree more."

"So why--"

"Because, except for Vulcans-- and you people are extremely weird; I don't think you have any idea how much of an aberration Vulcans are-- nearly all species on this evolutionary level judge others by appearances. And humans are among the worst of the bunch." He turned to face her. "When I was on Starbase 56, it was in a sense my territory. People came there to see me. I was by definition the center of attention, the most important person there, whatever you want to call it, so it hardly mattered what I looked like, people were going to respect me and listen to me anyway-- at least to the extent that they ever did. Not to mention I was utterly miserable, and so it seemed appropriate that I look the part." Q turned back to the mirror, using several specialized tools to apply cosmetics to the top half of his face. He seemed to be flattening wrinkles and then recoloring the skin. "Now, though, I am no longer on my own territory. If I want to receive the sort of respect I've grown accustomed to, I need to use every tool at my disposal-- which includes making my physical appearance as impressive as possible."

T'Laren nodded slowly. "That's very interesting."

"I detect the drawing of a dissection scalpel. What's very interesting?"

"You recognize the necessity of using superficial appearance to manipulate others. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to you to develop the same sort of techniques to improve your social appearance."

"Oh, don't. Puh-lease." He glanced over at her. His face seemed not to fit together properly-- the top half was evenly colored and largely unlined, the forehead and eyes of a man in the prime of his life. The lower, unfinished half, however, was even more pale and drawn than usual in comparison, and the effect was that of a man with a very lifelike mask over one half of his face. Which half was the mask, though, was indeterminate, since he'd already brought his hair and body in line with the lies his upper face told. "Believe it or not, T'Laren, I am capable of being socially competent when I want to be. I have even on occasion been called charming. I realize this must be a shock to you."

"You can't sustain it. And you seem to have very little desire to do it as a general rule."

"You're right, but then I don't usually go around in such an elaborate costuming job that I can barely move, either."

"You do realize that you are not going to be the constant center of attention. The conference attendees all have more or less equal status. If you came here expecting they would hang on your every word, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed."

"Oh, I don't need to be the constant center of attention." He turned and grinned at her. "Merely semi-constant."

"Even that much might be too much to hope for."

"It's not, I assure you. I can easily ensure that people pay attention to me. I can even do it without being excessively annoying." His grin broadened. "Shocking, but true."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "You seem to be in an unusually good mood today."

"Oh, I am."

"Do you have any idea why?"

Q lost the smile. "Let's not dissect my mood until it's dead, shall we?"

"As you wish."

He stepped back from the mirror, examining himself. The makeup job seemed complete to T'Laren, but Q was apparently unsatisfied, leaning back in to do minor touch-ups that seemed not to produce any appreciable change. "How does it look?"

"Very thorough. One would never imagine you spent two weeks on life support a mere month ago."

"No, one wouldn't, would one?" He turned to her. "Is it necessary to say you're my psychologist? I realize you've already blown it in front of the crew, but then I don't really care what Commander Clean-Cut and his band of merry men think of me."

"There's no stigma attached to having a personal therapist, Q."

"So say personal therapist. Not psychologist. Not psychiatrist, either, which is actually what you said you were."

"Did I?" She thought back. He was right. "I'm sorry. I was-- distraught. It was an inaccurate description, since I'm not in fact a psychiatrist, and it was unnecessary even had it been true."

"For once I won't argue with you."

The door to the suite chimed. T'Laren started toward the door. "It's most likely Sovaz," Q pointed out. As she held back, he stepped ahead of her and went to the door. "Come in!"

It was, in fact, Sovaz. T'Laren noted that the girl's hair had gotten overlong again. Sovaz tried to keep her hair in a bowl cut, for the eminently logical reason that she didn't want to fuss with it, but she was constantly forgetting to get her hair cut. Her straight bangs were starting to flop into her eyes. She almost opened her mouth to say, "Sovakam, you need a haircut," out of habit, but her mind caught up with her in time.

"Will you need an escort to Ten-Forward?" Sovaz asked.

"Ten-Forward?" Q hesitated. "Right. This is a Galaxy-class starship, isn't it. You frightened me there for a moment."

"Why would you be frightened of the presence of Ten-Forward?"

"An old... acquaintance of mine runs the Ten-Forward lounge on the Enterprise. Someone who I would much prefer never to see again in my life. And certainly, if you want to escort me, by all means do. I've never had to find my way from VIP quarters to the Ten-Forward lounge on a Galaxy-class starship before." He turned to T'Laren. "Come along, entourage."

As they headed for Ten-Forward, Sovaz began talking. "The conference doesn't officially start until tomorrow at 1500 hours. Nearly everyone is here; the only exceptions are Professor Yalit and Dr. Pergiun. Have you ever met either of them?"

"Pergiun I've met. He's a pompous ass. Yalit I've never even heard of."

"There's widespread speculation as to her race. Since she hasn't been seen in person in sixty years, all anyone has to go on is records from her time at the Makropyrios. She bears some physical resemblance to Ferengi, but of course Ferengi females are forbidden by law from leaving the Ferengi homeworld, except to go to a colony world, of course, which in any case the Makropyrios is not. I believe they're also forbidden from learning to read, or any other form of higher education. I had a fascinating discussion with a Ferengi, in which he was trying to explain to me the reasons why his species organizes their gender roles in such fashion. I thought it was a highly illogical system, myself. He wanted information on Vulcan mating habits in exchange, in particular my personal experiences, and I had to tell him I had no personal experience in that particular area. I believe he thought I cheated him. This is considered a grave offense among the Ferengi. I find this hard to reconcile with the fact that they are well-known for cheating other species, but he assured me that this was not so."



"I really don't care about the Ferengi."

"Oh. If I am discussing a topic of little interest to you, feel free to tell me to be quiet. Everyone else does."

"I'll keep that in mind," Q said. They reached Ten-Forward, not a moment too soon in T'Laren's opinion. "Oh, and Lieutenant?"


Q shook his head gravely. "Do something with your hair."

As they entered Ten-Forward, Sovaz left them, running off to nursemaid another set of VIPs. T'Laren wondered whose brilliant idea it was to put the girl in charge of liaison duties-- it was not always a good idea to leave Sovaz in charge of fastening her own uniform properly, let alone playing diplomat to an entire conference full of undoubtedly pompous and arrogant people. For just a moment, T'Laren wished for her Starfleet rank back-- counselors from other ships in the fleet had a great deal more business asking a commanding officer why he was placing a subordinate in a completely inappropriate position than civilian psychologists had. But she pushed the thought away-- it was not her place to worry about Sovaz anymore. Obviously Sovaz had learned to take care of herself-- she had been promoted, hadn't she? She no longer needed an older sister to watch over her-- and if she did, she was in trouble, because she didn't have one anymore. T'Laren hadn't the time to worry about anyone but Q.

The object of her worries was standing a few feet in from the door, peering about through the multi-species gathering as if trying to decide who it would be most entertaining to inflict his presence on first. The decision was taken out of his hands, however, by a voice from the left. "I know you, don't I?"

T'Laren turned. For a second, she didn't recognize the man; she wasn't expecting to see anyone else she knew, and if she had been, she'd have expected to see someone from her past, before Q. She certainly didn't expect to see someone from Starbase 56. So it took a second or two to realize that she knew the lieutenant in a blue dress uniform, and another second to recognize him as Harry Roth.

"You could be right," Q said. "You look vaguely familiar. It's entirely possible that we've met."

"I'm sure of it," Roth said firmly. "I'd never forget a face like yours. I just can't place your name."

"It's such a difficult name to remember," Q murmured. He put on a show of thinking about it. "No, I can't remember your name either. I'm drawing a complete blank."

"Don't you hate when that happens?"

T'Laren watched with some bemusement. She had never seen the two of them interacting; she had only Roth's word for it that they had any better a relationship than Q'd had with anyone on Starbase 56, and Q himself had seemed to contradict Roth. This, however, seemed like the kind of banter one would see between actual friends. "Tremendously," Q said. "It ruins my entire week." He frowned. "Perhaps if I knew where you were last stationed, that might provide a clue."

"Hmm... I was last stationed on... that's right, it was Starbase 56."

"Well, now! I've spent the past three years on Starbase 56."

"So have I! What a coincidence! You think that's where we met?"

"It seems likely." Q pretended to think again. "I'm sure I could remember. It's just that your face is so nondescript. Perhaps another clue...?"

Behind T'Laren, Tris's voice murmured, "These two know each other, I take it?"

"Rather well, I think," she murmured back.

"Exactly how well is rather well?"

Remembering Tris, and the way his mind worked, it was obvious what he meant. "Not that well, I believe."

Roth snapped his fingers. "No, I remember you now! You're K, aren't you?"

"One down, twenty-five to go," Q said. "You're seeming a bit more familiar yourself-- is it... Harold Godfrey?"

Roth shuddered dramatically. "Not even in jest, Q," he said. T'Laren presumed Harold Godfrey was a private joke of some sort.

Q smiled broadly. "Oh, Harry!" He grabbed Roth's shoulder and hugged him in a parody of friendliness. "How've you been?"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. Q released Roth before the other man made any attempt to get free. "Can't complain," Roth said. "And you? You look much better."

"I'd better. Considering what I looked like the last time you saw me." Q jerked a thumb at T'Laren. "This creature's been making me exercise."

"Is that true?" Roth demanded, wide-eyed. "Have you actually forced this poor being to engage in strenuous physical activity?"

"Vulcans cannot lie," T'Laren said, deadpan. "I admit it."

"How shocking! How astounding! I salute you, dear lady-- you've done the impossible." Roth turned to Tris. "This is the most astonishing Vulcan I've met, did you know?"

"We've met before," Tris said calmly. "T'Laren's got a number of astonishing talents."

There was no way Roth, of all people, would miss that one. T'Laren resisted the temptation to glare at Tris, and kept her face impassive as Roth raised both eyebrows. "Is that so?"

"Are you having fun without me, Harry?" a woman asked. "It's against Starfleet regs."

The newcomer was an apparently human woman, a lieutenant commander in blue with dusky skin and long black hair. "Commander Dhawan, what a delight!" Roth said. "Q, T'Laren, this is Shahrazad Dhawan, chief science officer on this lovely ship. Commander, this is Q--"

"We've met," Dhawan said flatly. T'Laren gathered the distinct impression that if she'd realized Roth was talking to Q, she wouldn't have come over.

"Have we?" Q asked. "I can't say I remember... though, of course, I've met so many petty little science people."

Before Dhawan could react, Roth charged in. "And this is Dr. T'Laren, his psychologist. Dr. T'Laren is the most astonishing Vulcan, Commander. Not only does she tell jokes, but she actually managed to get Q to exercise." He glanced at Q slyly. "I'll be polite and keep from speculating on what sort of exercise program, exactly."

Q smiled cheerily. "Good for you. Because if you did, I'd have to say something vicious and scathing, and we'd all prefer to remain civilized at a gathering of the Federation's finest minds. Which reminds me, Harry, what are you doing here?"

Roth laughed. "Still with the same wit and charm as ever, I see," he said. "Believe it or not, I am in fact one of the Federation's finest minds."

With a tragically horrified expression, Q said, "I had no idea things had gotten so bad."

"Oh, ha," Roth said. "Truly, think about it." He spoke as if reciting to a concert hall. "Bright Jove, radiant as a thousand moons, pales next to the blaze of the sun."

"Oh, nicely said."

In a voice pitched for Vulcan ears only, Tris said, "Correct me if I'm wrong, but are those two flirting, or what?"

"Or what passes for it," T'Laren murmured back.

"After all, consider who I had for a teacher," Roth was saying.

"You have a point." Q turned to the other three. "I taught Harry everything he knows."

"It's true," Roth nodded. He glanced sideways at Q. "Now, if only he would let me teach him everything I know..."

"Can I break up this mutual admiration society here?" Dhawan asked, at exactly the wrong point-- T'Laren would have loved to see how Q would respond to such a blatantly flirtatious overture.

"I don't see why," Q said. "I'm having fun."

"You can stand here and trade double entendres with Harry all night for all I care. But the captain would like to meet you at some point."

"Oh, the mysterious Captain Okita finally deigns to grace me with his presence?"

"Now, Q, let's try not to be a complete ass, shall we?" Roth said. "Though admittedly you do it so well."

Q shrugged. "When one has a talent as well-developed as mine, it seems a shame to waste it."

"Use it on someone other than Commander Dhawan, then. She's been known to pull knives on Klingons."

"Really." Q turned to Dhawan. "Should I be frightened?"

Dhawan smiled ferally. "You're not a Klingon." She let a beat pass. "I wouldn't waste a knife on you."

"I think a good kick in the butt would do the job, myself," Tris said. "If you think it's necessary, Shara, I hereby volunteer."

"You think I can't fight my own battles, Tris?" Dhawan asked cheerfully.

"Hardly. I think Derek would have a fit if a human officer attacked one of the guests, though. Whereas I'm a crazy Bajoran, so I can get away with it. Besides, it's always best to pick on someone your own size."

T'Laren blinked. That had to be another Tris-ism. "Tris, what does size have to do with it? Commander Dhawan is much smaller than Q."

From Tris's expression, she realized she had just played straight woman for him again. "Exactly. It'd be a terribly unfair fight. Everyone knows a short vicious woman can kick a tall man's butt from here to Romulus, and if he tries to defend himself physically everyone jumps on him for hitting a small woman. Whereas I can kick Q's butt from here to Romulus, and no one would criticize him for trying to fight back." He beamed at Q. "See, this is Starfleet. It's very important for us to fight fair."

"Are you both truly complete psychopathic savages, or is this an act you're putting on for my benefit?" Q asked.

"In Tris's case it's an act," T'Laren said. "He may consider a beating to be highly therapeutic for you, but he won't actually administer one without a prescription. I would watch Commander Dhawan if I were you, however. She seems formidable."

"Thank you," Dhawan said. She turned to Q. "I don't want you on my ship."

"The very soul of diplomacy. I can see why they got a Vulcan child to do your job."

"I don't believe in beating around the bush. I don't want any of you on my ship. I'm perfectly capable of analyzing the singularity myself, and I don't need every physicist in the Federation second-guessing me. And I consider you personally to be highly overrated."


"Yes, really. If you're so brilliant, if you're bending over backwards to help out us mere mortals, why are we still limited to warp? Why haven't you given us the secret of teleportation, or something?"

"Because," Q said, as if talking to a very small child, "the way I know how to teleport is to travel to the Q Continuum, then back out to the mundane universe. And I really don't think that sending a pack of teleporting savages to go romping through my old hometown will endear me any to the folks sitting on my parole board. Not to mention that you'd consume the power of an entire sun every time you did it, and the stress of channeling such energy would derange your petty little minds. Does the name Gary Mitchell ring a bell?"

It didn't, actually. It didn't seem to enlighten Dhawan, either. "It was an example, Q. Surely a superior being like yourself can think of something we mere mortals are capable of."

"Certainly. But being capable of something and being ready to do it are two entirely different things. As I understand it, human children are capable of reproducing themselves when they're twelve. No one suggests it would be a good idea for them to do so, however. If I gave you a dramatic advance in theoretical understanding, enough to support something like, oh, say, a working transwarp drive, it would disrupt the balance of power in your little area of the galaxy. I trust the Federation more than the Romulans or Cardassians; I do not, however, trust them with dramatic increases of power. And I find it very interesting that you, a member of an organization whose Prime Directive is not to contaminate less advanced cultures with technology they're not ready for, should think less of a member of a more advanced culture for holding back what he knows."

"He's got you, Shara," Tris said. "Of course, I always thought the Prime Directive was arrogant and patronizing, myself."

"No problem," Roth said. "Q will cheerily admit to being arrogant and patronizing, I'm sure."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Harry, if this is how you treat people you like, I'd hate to see your behavior toward one you hated."

"I never said I liked Q, Doctor. I said I could tolerate him."

"You love me, Harry. Admit it. You were the secret admirer sending the boxes of chocolate to my room."

"Couldn't have been. Maybe that was Nian, trying to cheer you up. I send my secret admirees things like black silk briefs." Roth paused a second, as if thinking. "You suppose it could have been Amy?"

Q grimaced. "Oh, please."

A man in an antigrav-chair floated up behind Q. He was a stick figure, skin and bones, limply lolling in the chair; his head was connected to the chair by implants at his temples, which touched against two bars coming out from the chair. The contraption seemed to be all that was holding his head in place. "I see you're still winning friends and influencing people," his chair said in the same kind of slightly flat voice the subvocalizer Q had used during his hospitalization produced. It would have sounded normal at first if T'Laren hadn't known it to be coming from a chair.

Q turned. "Daedalus!" he exclaimed. "What a delight! Though I must admit it doesn't come as a surprise-- I saw your name on the guest list."

"I saw yours as well," the chair said for the man in it. "I don't know why I didn't cancel then."

"Because you knew this conference would be condemned to utter dullness without me, and you wished to provide me moral support in my ambition to liven it up."

"I suppose that must have been it." The man's head turned slightly, eyes focusing on Q. In contrast to the debilitated state of the rest of him, his eyes were shockingly bright. "You look terrible, you know that?"

"I'm wounded. I spent three hours in front of a mirror trying to control the damage and you see through me immediately."

"I always saw through you, Lucy. It's the curse of being the greatest mind humanity currently has."

"Who is this, Q?" T'Laren asked.

Dhawan and Roth looked at her as if she had confessed she really hadn't known that stars weren't painted on the sky. "The estimable Dr. Peter Markow, intrepid explorer into regions where no man has gone before and angels fear to tread," Q said. He pronounced the name Markov; T'Laren remembered the spelling from the conference guest list. "And Daedalus, this is my charming Vulcan companion, T'Ex."

"It must be a private joke," Tris said.

"Not private enough," T'Laren murmured.

"I'm pleased to meet you, T'Ex," Markow said. From the flatness in the artificial voice and the lack of expression in his slack face, it was impossible to tell if he knew that T'Ex wasn't her name. "I'd be more pleased if I knew who the hell you were, though. I can't imagine Lucy getting a woman into bed, so what are you, his bodyguard?"

"Among other things," T'Laren said.

"Dr. T'Laren is Q's psychiatrist," Dhawan said.

"Therapist, actually. I haven't got a psychiatric license." T'Laren concealed her annoyance at Dhawan. "Dr. Markow, why do you call Q 'Lucy'?"

"Aren't you halfway curious as to why he calls me Daedalus?"

"Yes, but I'm more curious about Lucy."

"Short for Lucifer," Markow explained. "And Q screwed it up. It should have been Icarus."

"It should have been. Then I could have called you Icky, and we would really have bewildered people."

Roth turned to T'Laren. "Dr. Markow's one of the greatest minds in Federation physics. When we were working against the Borg, he and Q worked together quite a bit, moreso than many of us. I'm afraid we all got a little strange when we were working against the Borg."

"I can imagine."

"Well, it was good to talk to you again, Dr. Markow," Dhawan said. "I've got to go keep Morakh and Milarca from killing each other."

"Oh, Morakh! My favorite bonebrain. I'd forgotten he was here," Q said. "Daedalus, do you mind terribly if I go over and bother him?"

"Of course I mind. I want to talk to you about this damned singularity, not watch you get smeared into pulp."

"No need to be afraid of Morakh. For all the Klingon bluster, he's really a big pussycat. A very big, very ugly pussycat."

"I'm not worried about Morakh. I'm worried about Dhawan."

Tris nodded. "He's right. You're probably beneath Morakh's notice. --In the sense of physical combat, of course."

"I personally think it's a side effect of time travel," Markow said.

The non sequitur threw T'Laren for a moment, but not Roth. "What makes you say that, Dr. Markow?" he asked.

"Stop with the Dr. Markows, Roth, you're going to make me feel old. I say that because if you look at the pattern formed by the fifth-dimensional interstitial matrices--"

"Oh, please, Daedalus. You're supposed to be a bright man, for a human."

Tris turned to T'Laren as the three physics experts descended into technobabble. "I suppose that's our cue to either leave or let our eyes politely glaze over and murmur like we know what they're talking about," he said.

"I really should stay and keep Q out of trouble."

"You're not doing too well so far."

"I can't exactly gag him."

"I don't know. I'd consider it if he were my patient."

"No, you wouldn't. You wouldn't actually kick him in the posterior either if he were your patient. Admit it, Tris."

"I suppose you're right-- which is why I'm glad he's not my patient." The two of them had started to walk away from the knot of arguing scientists. "I'm warning you, T'Laren, either he keeps himself under control or he is going to get a punch in the face, either from me or Shahrazad. It's our job-- not to mention Sovaz's-- to keep this madhouse under control. We've got all these volatile, obnoxious, arrogant assholes aboard, and adding Q to the mix was maybe not the most brilliant idea anyone had. I'm not going to interfere between you and your patient, but if he gets too disruptive, his ass is grass and I'm a terraformer. You understand?"

"You've gotten much better at the colorful Terran metaphors," T'Laren said.

"Yes, haven't I? It comes from being Bajoran. We already swear better than anyone else in the known universe."

"I had forgotten."

"Yeah." He snagged some hors d'oeuvres from a tray. "Want some?"

"I'll take a rice ball."

"Gone veggie again?" Tris shook his head. "I don't care what Starfleet says about tolerance for other races' customs, I know humanoids weren't intended to be vegetarians."

"Meat on Vulcan is bad for one; it's much richer in heavy metals than our plant life is."

"You're not on Vulcan."

T'Laren shrugged slightly. "You're not on Bajor. You still wear that earring."

"That's different."

"I don't see how."

He sighed. "Do you really want to have a stupid argument right now?"

T'Laren shook her head. "I've had enough of them lately."

Tris nodded. "I figured." He took a deep breath. "So. How've you been?"

She studied him intently. This was another ploy to get her to talk about it, she was sure. With Tris, it was best to be blunt. "Tris, I really don't want to talk about it, all right? The last few years have been... very bad. I just... would rather not speak of them. Not yet."

"All right."

"But I'll ask how you've been, if you're willing to tell me."

"Sure I'm willing... you've heard the big news, haven't you? You must have, unless you were in a monastery the past year or so."

"The big news?"

"The Occupation's over. The Cardassians packed up and went home. And a Starfleet officer found out that the Celestial Temple of the Prophets is really a stable wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant, so Bajor's actually of interest to someone. We've got a Provisional Government that may even last another three months before degenerating into chaos. You must have heard."

"Yes, of course. To be honest, Tris, I'd forgotten for a moment that Bajor was still occupied when I last spoke to you. It seems like... a much shorter time ago than it actually was." She grew pensive. "I was occupied with personal problems when I first heard about it, but once the significance sank in, I remember wondering if you would choose to go home."

"I thought about it." He shrugged. "I think I can do more good here."

He lied well to total strangers. To friends, though, his inclination was to be honest when possible, and as a result he was transparent to one who knew him well. "If you say so," T'Laren said evenly, indicating her disbelief by a slightly raised eyebrow.

Tris smiled wryly. "You still know how to see through my bullshit, I can tell." He looked away. "I'm... not sure how well I'd be received at home. They published my name as one of the 'Unsung Heroes of the Resistance' or some crap like that, but to most people I probably still look like a suck-up to the Cardassians." He shook his head. "Bajor's got too much history. I'm not interested in history. I don't like my history much-- I don't want to be the man I was on Bajor. And if I go back, that's what I'll be." He turned back to her. "Besides, while there's Bajorans in Starfleet, they all went through the Academy and got the edges polished off. Counselors can serve with Starfleet without being Starfleet officers themselves, so I can be out here and prove that Bajorans aren't all crazy terrorists. So in a sense, I do actually think I'm more use here."

"And you know aliens better than your own kind, now?" she asked softly.

"A little, yeah. I'm not as alienated-- ooh, bad pun, I didn't mean it-- as you are-- or were; you seem to be pretty comfortable in a Vulcan skin now. Except, of course, that real Vulcans don't get so upset with people who didn't do anything to them that they turn specifically and viciously cold to their loved ones."

"Real Vulcans do indeed," she said, refusing to rise to the bait. "Someone has been telling you tales about real Vulcans, I suspect."

"That would be Sovaz." His eyes wandered over to where she stood in a conversational knot, eagerly interrogating a Tellarite and a human about some arcane concept of physics. "She's a great kid, you know."

"You are not thinking what I suspect you're thinking."

"Of course not." His voice dripped disgust. "What do you think I am, a child molester? Give her ten years and maybe."

T'Laren shrugged. "I'm sorry if I've offended you, but Sovaz is twenty-seven. Most humanoids would consider her fair game."

"Sovaz is incredibly immature, even for a Vulcan. And I know about Vulcans being late bloomers." He looked at her. "It's because you're vegetarians," he said solemnly. "Look at you. You ate meat on Earth and you told me you got started when you were fifteen. Most Vulcans don't until their late twenties, isn't that what you told me? I personally think we should start a charity. Feed the starving Vulcans some protein. It'll do wonders for your sex lives."

"Early blooming is hardly an advantage on Vulcan; besides, I 'got started' because I was frightened, and you know me. Show me something I'm afraid of, and I'll dive headlong into it--"

"Like maybe dealing with your little sister?"

T'Laren shook her head. "Cruel, Tris."

"But true."

She changed the subject. "How long have you been counselor on the Yamato?"

"I got posted here as backup counselor, oh, maybe nine months ago. Then Counselor Seligman retired to teach the natives of Penu about learned optimism, about six months ago, so I ended up as main counselor on a Galaxy-class starship. Pretty impressive for a boy from Bajor, huh?"

"I'd thought you were going into psy-ops."

"Too much like what I did before. I wanted something completely different." He looked at her. "What about you?"

"You're astonishingly persistent, did you know?"

"It's one of my charms."

At that point a snatch of conversation caught her attention. "Excuse me." She headed back over to Q, quickly.

Q was facing Dr. Morakh, smirking slightly. Morakh's expression was unreadable, masked under an impassive Klingon scowl.

"Oh, you can admit it, we're all friends here," Q was saying. "For all your education and your posturing at being a rational being, you really would rather be ripping my head off than debating with me. Go ahead, confess. You Klingons are simply unfit for civilization."

"I doubt there are very many sentient beings you have ever met in your life who would not wish to rip your head off," Morakh retorted.

"That depends on how you define 'sentient'."

Morakh ignored that. "The distinction you are failing to make is that a civilized being would not rip your head off. Despite provocation. In fact, a civilized being, such as myself, would not want to."

"Oh really?" Q raised any eyebrow. "And here I thought you were supposed to enjoy that sort of thing. The joys of mayhem. Glorious battle and all that."

"If I attacked you, it would not be a battle," Morakh said. "It would simply be a slaughter."

"Same thing."

T'Laren interposed herself between the two. "I'm afraid I couldn't permit that," she said evenly.

Morakh scowled at her. "I had heard Vulcans were pacifists." He made it sound like a curse.

"We were forced to be," T'Laren said calmly. "We were far too good at war."

For several seconds they stared one another down. Then Morakh broke the stare, laughing. "I like you," he said. "You have courage. Be assured I won't attack your charge, T'Laren." He gazed at Q as if examining a herd animal. "It would be beneath my dignity to assault such a weakling."

"Or perhaps you're just afraid of Starfleet," Q said snidely.

Morakh looked at him again. "I have heard you tried to kill yourself," he said. "If you are too much of a coward to do the job properly, that is your problem. I will not be provoked into doing it for you."

He turned away. Q stared after him for several seconds, a look of astonishment on his face.

"Why did you provoke him like that?" T'Laren asked sharply.

Q shrugged. "To see what he'd do." He smiled. "Who'd have thought it? There actually is a brain under that craggy forehead. I'm impressed."

"I'm not," Markow said. "You're going to get yourself killed one of these days, Lucy."

"What can I say? Live dangerously, that's my motto."

"Get a new motto, then."

"I don't think he was in much danger, Peter," Roth said, giving the name the self-conscious edge of a man trying deliberately to use a first name. "I've dealt with Morakh before. He's really quite a calm fellow, for a Klingon."

A small albino woman with oversized golden eyes approached the small group. Her hair was short, a chin-length pageboy cut that curled under at the bottom, and she wore a tight blue satin bodysuit that left very little to the imagination. T'Laren saw Tris' eyes widen slightly in appreciation. She glanced back at Q, who nodded at the newcomer. "Dr. What's-your-name. A pleasure to see you again."

"I'm glad to see you made it to the conference, Q," the woman said. Her voice was soft but firm. "Rumor had you dead of acid poisoning."

"Well. The rumors of my death--"

"-- were greatly cliched," Markow said. "Try an original one."

"Dr. Markow, Dr. Roth, would it disturb you if I requested a few moments of Q's time? My researches have turned up an interesting question that I believe he's best equipped to answer, if he's willing."

"Of course not," Roth said. "We'd no intention of utterly monopolizing him."

"An interesting question regarding the singularity? Or some other aspect of physics?" Q asked.

"As regards history, actually. A hobby of mine."

Q rolled his eyes. "How typically Laon'l." He turned to T'Laren. "Her people are positively obsessive about their own history. I can't imagine why. A more tedious history would be difficult to come up with."

"There were intriguing spots," the woman said. She nodded at T'Laren. "I have heard you are an associate of Q's? Dr. T'Laren?"

The phrasing left it ambiguous as to whether the woman knew T'Laren was not a fellow physicist, but T'Laren didn't feel the need to explain her relationship with Q again. "Yes."

"I am Professor Miari Elejani Baíi of New Laon." The woman clasped her fists together between her breasts and then spread her palms out toward T'Laren in what was obviously a ritual greeting. "I must warn you that I am an empath."

In other words, she had noted the relaxed condition of T'Laren's mental shielding, and thought T'Laren should know that she could read T'Laren's emotions through it. "Thank you for warning me," T'Laren said, but didn't strengthen her shields-- she was perfectly comfortable at the moment. She recognized the species now. Laon'l were a very recent addition to the Federation, powerfully empathic relatives of the Scamarans, who had been Federation members for some time and had very slight empathic gifts. Laon'l mindhealers were supposed to match Betazoids for their skills in repairing damaged psyches. But Laon'l, unlike their Scamaran cousins, were supposed to be physically fragile and emotionally reclusive, preferring to stay on their own world. T'Laren had never met one.

Elejani Baíi turned back to Q, who picked up his drink and sipped at it serenely. "Since the Reunification, Laon'l scholars have been fascinated by the circumstances of our separation from the Scamarans," she said. "There has been a revitalization of interest in the question of Emaroth."

"No doubt your Scamaran cousins think you're wasting time."

"Scamarans are people of action. We Laon'l have undertaken only one major action in our history. Of course you are familiar with our history?"

"Fairly conversant," Q said.

"I'm not," Markow said.

T'Laren thought she detected slight irritation in Elejani Baíi's face. No doubt she really wanted to pose her question to Q, not to explain herself to Markow. But Markow was far too respected in the scientific community, even by people who thought his theories were ridiculous, for her to ignore him. "Then I shall tell the whole story, so that we all understand and can converse," Elejani Baíi said-- it sounded like a ritual phrase.

"How about you just ask me the question, and if Daedalus really wants to hear it, you can tell him the whole thing later," Q suggested.

"The question concerns Daishenéon Emaroth."

"Why does that not surprise me?"

"Who?" Markow asked. "Ignore Lucy, he's being an ass. I want to hear this."

Q sighed. "Oh, go on, Dr. Elejani," he said. "Heavens forfend that the great Peter Markow should misunderstand a single minute of a conversation not aimed at him."

"If it is acceptable," Elejani Baíi said. She turned to face Markow and Roth. "My people are a very old race, older far than humanity. We had a civilization on our homeworld of Old Laon for ten thousand years, with a technology based primarily on biogenetics and our empathic powers. But we had never left our world. We held no interest in space. In fact, in our mythos, the sky was what you might call Hell-- the source of metaphysic dangers to the soul, the home of demons and the land of the tormented dead. We feared that when we looked to the stars, the stars might suck out our souls. We were, in fact, the only race I've ever heard of who developed a high level of technology without so much as putting up a satellite."

"They were, in fact, the most boring people you've ever heard of," Q said. "No ambition, no drive to learn, no need to explore. They explored their own pathetic little world, covered it with their holistic and oh-so-terribly harmonious cities, and then sat and analyzed their own navels for ten thousand years."

"You speak as if you were there," Elejani Baíi said.

"I was."

"Good, then you will be able to answer my question." She turned back to the others. "Three thousand years ago, we were... confronted with a being who called herself Emaroth. She claimed to come from space, and so we dubbed her a demon-- a term that seemed more and more accurate as the years went by. Emaroth was a creature of immense power, and to us it seemed great malevolence. She informed us-- in terms not unlike those that Q just used-- that we had wasted our potential, squandered the promise of our sentience and the bounty of our world, and that therefore she was taking possession of our planet. Every year, she would extract a tithe of 1,000 of our best and brightest, and carry them off to Hell."

"And you believed this?" Markow asked. "That she was taking them to Hell?"

"Oh, yes," Elejani Baíi said calmly. "You must understand that we were not a superstitious people-- we rarely spoke of things like Hell and demons. But I have watched the records we made at the time, and it is hard to see how a thinking being could not believe. Emaroth could-- and did-- level buildings with a gesture, make people vanish and reappear, raise the dead or kill with a thought. We called her Daishenéon-- a term that's something of a pun; it can mean either Great Lady, Empress, or Great Demon. The word Emaroth itself was intrinsically meaningless but seemed to be related to our words for 'judge' and 'challenger'." She sipped at a drink Roth handed her. "Also it may help to understand that just as humanity has a predisposition toward patriarchy, we Laon'l have a predisposition toward matriarchy. Our sexes were equal under the law, but we were more likely to perceive a woman as an authority figure, just as you are more likely to see authority in a male." She cast a sidewise glance at Q, who had a studiedly bland expression.

"We did whatever we could to stop Emaroth. We shot at her, poisoned her, blew up our own buildings around her. She merely laughed-- she didn't even exact retribution for the attempts, which terrified us even more. Our best efforts were completely beneath her. Our most powerful psis united in an attempt to read her mind. Their brains were burnt out by the effort, and Emaroth implied that she hadn't even consciously assaulted them-- according to her, she was simply too advanced a form of life for the comprehension of our limited brains."

"Sounds like you'd get along with her," Markow said to Q.


"Some of us tried desperately to propitiate her, reinstituting the ancient custom of child sacrifice. Emaroth resurrected the children and opened the ground beneath the sacrificers, dropping them into the core of Old Laon, because she was annoyed by the attempt. She insisted that there was nothing we could do to stop her, that so long as we lived on Old Laon she would take her claim of 1,000 every year.

"And somehow that sparked an idea. Emaroth had told us that the stars we feared were suns like ours, that harbored worlds like ours. Space itself might be hellish, but if we could cross through it to a new world... it was our world and the people on it Emaroth had laid claim to. She made that very clear. Somehow, after ten thousand years of fearing the stars, we became desperate enough to try to flee to them.

"It took three generations of feverish work for us to develop a ship. The best we managed was impulse drive; our ships would be generation ships, but once we were free of our world we would be free of Emaroth, whether we had found a new world yet or no."

"Only three generations?" T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "I've never heard of a species that developed impulse drive that quickly without some outside help."

"You must understand the impetus. All the most intelligent of our kind were going into physics. People who might have gone into biochemistry or psychology were driven by the fear that Emaroth would take them as part of her tithe. Our leaders, who fancied themselves the best and brightest of Laon, feared the same, and so all our world's resources were being diverted toward escape." She sipped again at her drink. "Finally it came time. We persuaded all but six million of our people to leave in the generation ships; those six million were either too stubborn to go, or feared that Emaroth was tricking us into space where she could take us all, or suspected that Emaroth would never get around to them or their families with all the other people left behind to choose from. So we parted from our remaining people, and left our world for the 100-year-journey to New Laon.

"50 years away from Old Laon, we saw our sun go nova. Old Laon and all the people we left behind, all our history, all our ruins, were no more than elemental particles. And we believed Emaroth had done it out of malice or rage, that we'd escaped her grasp, and we cursed her name for 3,000 years. And after we reached our new world, we once more averted our eyes from the stars.

"Fifteen years ago, we were contacted by the Federation. We discovered that those taken in Emaroth's tithe had been transported to a harsh, deadly world, that they had fought and finally tamed-- the world they called Scamara. Our lost brethren had also developed space flight, built colonies, and joined the Federation. They had technology we had only dreamed of, and access to the bounties of a hundred worlds. They persuaded us that space was not inhabited by devils, and we consented to join the Federation, overjoyed by our reunion with them.

"And so the question of Emaroth has been reopened-- who she was, what her motives were, how she did the things she did. Most of my people still believe Emaroth to be malevolent-- that she chased us from our world out of petty malice. And yet recently we have used warp drive to intercept the light from Old Laon, from before the nova, and we've discovered that there was evidence of the impending nova hundreds of years before Emaroth's arrival. So I have wondered if perhaps Emaroth did not save our world; that, with full consciousness of the upcoming nova, she harried our people into developing the tools to save ourselves. If one takes the premise that Emaroth truly believed that we had squandered our potential, then her actions with the Scamarans make sense-- by being forced to live on a harsh and unforgiving world, the Scamarans were forced to become problem solvers and explorers, and ended up achieving space flight on their own, at a much higher level than we did."

"Which is why the Scamarans are so much more interesting than you," Q said.

"Exactly." Elejani Baíi turned to Q. "When I heard of you, and your race, I was struck by the similarities between your kind and Emaroth. A race of powerful beings that arbitrarily pronounce judgment on less advanced races, that perform malevolent acts that are in the long run beneficial-- such as your warning humanity about the dangers of the Borg..."

Q shrugged. "There are a lot of near-omnipotent races out there. She could have been a Douwd. Or a Metraskan. Or an Organian, though probably not."

"But that is what I have wanted for some time to ask you. You should know, one way or another. Was Emaroth one of your people? And if she was, was she acting out of sheer malevolence, as many of my kind believe, or was she trying to save us?"

"What do you think?" Q asked, in his best I'm-certainly-not-going-to-give-everything-away voice.

Elejani Baíi smiled. "I think that I am an empath," she said. "And I think that for all the control you have of your face, you have very little control over what an empath may sense of your emotions. And therefore I think that you have just answered both of my questions-- Daishenéon."

As Q's eyes widened, Elejani Baíi suddenly reached up and put her arms around his neck, pulling herself up. T'Laren tensed, prepared to grab Elejani Baíi if necessary, but the Laon'l woman merely kissed Q on the cheek and released him. "Few of my people would appreciate what you've done for us," she said. "But I understand. I give you the gratitude of all my people."

She turned away and walked off into the crowd before anyone could say anything. Finally, Markow said, "Well?"

"Well what?" Q asked, still staring after Elejani Baíi as if she'd just revealed that she was his long-lost mother.

"Well, was she right? Did you save her people?"

Q turned to Markow and smiled evilly. "She thinks so," he said. "And who am I to turn down a potential ally? Even perhaps a deluded one?"

Roth laughed. "You utter dog. You tricked her?"

Q shrugged, an innocent expression on his face. "What she wants to believe isn't any concern of mine, is it?"

T'Laren studied him, unconvinced. She had more experience reading Q's expressions than the others here, she suspected. And when Elejani Baíi had called him Daishenéon, he'd had the same expression he got when T'Laren surprised him by figuring out something he'd hidden from her. It struck her as curious, if it were true-- not the idea that it was true; she saw nothing inconsistent between Elejani Baíi's story and Q's personality. He had never given her any kind of detail on the things he'd done in his past life, and none of the incidents mentioned in his records were instances of him helping a race out-- but then, this story hardly described an unambiguous situation in that regard, either. What would the Scamarans do to Q if they decided that he was the being who had exiled them from their original home? Even if Q had done it to save them from their star going nova, they might demand retribution-- after all, someone with Q's powers could simply have prevented the star from going nova, or could have transported them to a kind world like their own, not a hellhole that killed thousands before they finally tamed it. It was entirely possible that some of the ones who'd come looking for Q had benefited from his actions in some roundabout way-- T'Laren had no trouble reconciling that with what she knew of him.

But why, if it were true, would he hide it from Roth and Markow? Everyone knew Q had committed atrocities. Why wasn't he eager to let people know that he had done good deeds as well? She thought she knew why he didn't go about protesting that he'd done wonderful things, but why, when someone had stood up and described a good deed he'd done, did he lie and imply he hadn't done it? Was he getting some emotional benefit out of being perceived as entirely villainous? If so, she'd have to work on that with him-- it would be very difficult to get him to make friends if he wanted everyone to think of him as the bad guy.

"Well, that was fun," Tris murmured. "This kind of thing happen often?"

"I'm not sure," T'Laren murmured back. "I've never seen it before, but I'm afraid that proves little."

At this point a middle-aged Japanese man with short-cropped, solid gray hair approached. From a glance at the pips on his dress uniform, T'Laren realized he had to be Captain Okita.

Q seemed to notice him at the same time. "Ah, the mysterious Captain Okita," he said. "I'm so glad you've finally come to say hello."

Okita smiled genially. T'Laren had a definite feeling that nothing whatsoever would appear to offend this man unless he chose to let it. He nodded at the three scientists. "Dr. Markow. Q. It's an honor to have individuals of your distinction aboard Yamato," he said, still smiling. "And Dr. Roth, I believe we met a few days ago? How are you enjoying your stay thus far?"

"Well, I can't say it's been boring," Roth said, grinning.

"I suppose a little honor must go a very long way," Q said to Markow.

"Don't be an ass, Lucy."

"Ah, the day-to-day running of a starship is a time-consuming business," Okita said. "One can't allow as much time for pleasure as one would hope." He turned to T'Laren. "Dr. T'Laren. So glad to see you well. Your young sister Sovaz is shaping up into a fine officer."

"She honors her family," T'Laren said. "But I'm afraid that family is no longer mine, Captain. Sovaz is no longer my sister."

"It's a shame to hear that. I'd be proud to have her as a sister, myself."

"Do they teach you that in command school at the Academy?" Q asked. "Or is it a little trick you've picked up along the way?"

Okita turned back to him, still smiling. "Teach what?"

"How to insult people while sounding as if you're complimenting them. It's a neat trick, wherever you learned it."

Markow rolled his eyes, and Roth pressed a hand to his forehead. Okita's smile broadened slightly. "I've been told you take pride in being difficult, Mr. Q," he said.

"A scurrilous rumor."

"I'm sure it is." He nodded at all five of them. "It's been pleasant talking to you, but duty calls, I'm afraid." He left.

"Well, that was a rather astonishing fellow," Roth said.

"He does that," Tris said. "It's his 'man of mystery' act. Ride into town, greet the diplomats warmly, then ride off into the sunset again."

"He doesn't sound very fun at parties," Q said.

"As if you ever get invited to parties," Markow said.

"I get invited to all the best ones."

"Define best."

"The ones I'm at, of course."

"Anyway," Tris said to T'Laren, ignoring the interplay between the physicists. "I'm kind of supposed to circulate. If you feel like talking, look me up after the reception."

"Of course."

T'Laren spent the rest of the reception watching Q. There were no more near-disasters as there had been with Morakh; he spent most of the time trading witticisms and technobabble with Roth and Markow, occasionally breaking stride to chat with someone else who showed up but making no attempt to circulate. The three of them seemed perfectly content to be a monobloc, indivisible by the conversational sorties of others.

It grew late. The reception started to fray, bleeding off people to their rooms for the night, and T'Laren could see that Q was tiring. When she suggested to him that he might wish to leave, however, he laughed her off. Finally Markow said, rather abruptly, "I'm going to bed. Goodbye."

"You can't leave now, Daedalus," Q protested. His tone was light and joking, but there was a faint desperate edge to it. "The night is still young!"

"The night is, but I'm not. Just because you can go 72 hours on a catnap doesn't mean we mere mortals can duplicate the feat. Good night."

As his chair floated off, Roth said somewhat apologetically, "Perhaps we should both get some rest. The conference starts at 1100 tomorrow, you know."

"Oh, I scoff at sleep. Try spending three weeks in Li's sickbay and you'd be sick of sleeping too."

"Agreed," Roth said, grinning. "But I'm beginning to think the caterers would like for us to get out of here..."

"Well, perhaps we should find a more congenial location. T'Laren! You know a bit about starships. Where would you suggest we go?"

"Why not to our rooms?" T'Laren suggested. She was tiring herself, and could see that Q was exhausting himself-- his voice was a little too manic, his movements suggestive of punchiness, his laughter a bit shrill.

Q blinked at her. "T'Laren. Are you seriously suggesting I take Roth to my room?" he asked. "Whatever would the neighbors think?"

"Probably the wrong thing... more's the pity," Harry said.

"I know, I know, one of the great tragedies of your life, right? I can't help it that I find your silly human sexual customs quite nauseating. It's nothing personal, you know."

"Well, you can't say something's nauseating if you haven't tried it, now can you?" Roth was definitely punchy, and maybe, T'Laren thought, a bit drunk-- synthehol rarely impaired one's motor coordination, but it was just as good as real alcohol at lowering inhibitions.

"I can. I know everything, remember?"

"You used to know everything. You forgot most of it."

"I can still say something's nauseating," Q said lightly. "Besides. As flattering as I find the attention, I assure you, Harry, if you knew what I looked like under this monkey suit at the moment you would be considerably less interested."

"Oh, but I saw you in the hospital," Roth said. "I doubt you could look worse than that."

"And you're still interested?"

T'Laren wondered just how serious this was getting. Roth sounded almost as if he meant what hg was saying-- if he was drunk, he probably did mean what he was saying-- but did Q know that? Or care? "Most certainly," Harry said/

"Well, there you have it. I couldn't possibly be seen in the company of a man with such terrible taste. Harry, I'm ashamed of you-- I thought you had some sense of aesthetics." Q snapped his fingers. "I have, as usual, a brilliant notion. We can go to your room, Harry, and we can take T'Laren along as a chaperone."

"We actually need a chaperone? Should I be encouraged?"

"I'm actually rather worn out," T'Laren said. "I would prefer to retire."

"But you still have a brilliant career ahead of you," Roth protested, grinning. T'Laren blinked.

"Forgive her, she's humor-impaired. It's a hereditary disease-- you get it from being born a Vulcan," Q said.

"I was just remarking that Lt. Roth must be more tired than I thought," T'Laren said. "Q, you need to get to bed. It's late."

"Oh, but I'm having fun."

"We could solve several problems at once if you took my suggestion," Roth said. "You could go to bed and have fun. Everyone would be satisfied."

"I'm horrified, Harry, exactly how many glasses of synthwine do you think I had?"

"Not enough, obviously," Roth said mournfully.

"Q, kindly make up your mind. You can stay here and flirt with Lieutenant Roth if you wish, but I am going to bed. Are you coming with me or not?"

"I think she just asked if you were going to bed with her," Roth said. "Should I be jealous?"

Q shook his head sadly. "To think how advanced the human race might be if they didn't devote 90% of their thinking processes to the sordid pursuit of sexual encounters. You know, Harry, if I weren't such a tolerant and forbearing individual I might have become quite disgusted by now."

"Well, either that or you're more human than you thought."

"Please don't insult me like that again."

"Good night, Q," T'Laren said.

"Good night, T'Laren! Sleep tight!" Q caroled. "So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night!"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow to herself as she headed for her quarters. Q was considerably less naive now than he had been during the incident with Amy Frasier-- she had to assume that he knew what he was doing.

She had barely gotten out of her clothes and makeup when he showed up back at the room, though. He had an origami bird, apparently made out of a napkin, in one hand, and was tossing it up and catching it again, whistling. T'Laren came out in her nightgown and bathrobe. "You seem cheerful."

"I hadn't noticed." Q plopped himself down in front of a console. "Computer, display gravitometric map of the singularity." His voice was hoarse and rasping, and even through his makeup he looked pale and drawn.

A bizarrely warped image flashed into existence over the console. "Q, you're exhausted. You should go to sleep."

"Nonsense. I'm enjoying myself far too much to sleep. Computer, rotate image by 90 degrees."

"You're really frightened of going to sleep, aren't you?" T'Laren pulled up a chair and sat down near him.

Q glared at her. "Frightened? Why would I be frightened of going to sleep? I simply don't want to, T'Laren, and please stop making mountains out of molehills, will you?"

"You're afraid of having nightmares. And perhaps you're afraid that when you wake up, you won't be in as good a mood."

He smiled wryly. "The odds of me being in anything that remotely resembles a good mood when I wake up tomorrow are practically infinitesimal. I admit it. Why should I spoil a wonderful night by sleeping through it?"

"Because you will feel terrible in the morning?"

"It hardly makes a difference if I go to bed now or in an hour or don't go to bed at all, I'll feel terrible in the morning. So it really doesn't make much of a difference at all, does it now?"

"I suppose not." She got up and went to the room's replicator. "Would you like a hot chocolate?"

"I'd like a cold chocolate. Heavy on the caffeine. In fact, make it a mocha."

T'Laren shrugged and ordered a hot chocolate and a cold mocha. He glanced up in surprise as she handed it to him. "You're actually giving me what I asked for?"

"I don't think you're going to be deliberately self-destructive again for some time, if ever. And if you want to abuse your health..." She shrugged. "You're in sufficiently good shape now to tolerate a few nights without sleep. You won't like the results when you wake up, but it's your decision-- I'm not going to make an issue out of it."

"Hello? Exactly where did you come from and what have you done with T'Laren?"

Despite herself, she smiled slightly at that. More tired than I thought! "We're in a different environment now, Q. Of course I'm going to change tactics." She sat down again and sipped at her chocolate. "You enjoyed seeing those people again, didn't you?"

"Which ones?" He turned away from the display and faced her, showing a certain amount of interest in the conversation. She suspected that he would rather talk to her than try to make his tired brain make sense of the display.

"Roth and Markow, in particular. Actually, from the way the three of you behaved, I would have assumed them to be your friends. I thought you said you hardly knew Roth."

"I don't, really. But he's amusing to trade conversational banter with."

"And amusing to flirt with as well?"

Q choked on his mocha. He put the glass down, an expression of mingled embarrassment, outrage, and amusement on his face. "I was not flirting with him!" The amusement took the upper hand for a moment, his face twitching into a slight smile. "He was flirting."

"And what were you doing, then?" T'Laren asked, amused herself.

"Responding, of course." The slight smile turned into a brief grin.

"That's generally referred to as flirting where I come from."

"Well, you're all barbarians in Texas."

T'Laren sipped at the drink again. "Seriously. Given what you've told me about your troubles with human sexuality, does that bother you?"

"What, that he flirts? Harry does that with everybody."

"I have a feeling that it's a little more serious when he does it with you. In fact, I wasn't at all sure he was joking, before."

Q shrugged. "He was a bit drunk, I think," he said. "Harry enjoys handing himself over to the synthehol and acting silly."

"But you don't."

"I prefer acting silly without external aids, myself. But then, of course, I have a much bigger ego than Harry."

"Do you think there was any kind of element of seriousness in there at all?"

"Oh, almost certainly. At least an element. Possibly an entire row of the periodic table."

"Does that bother you?"

Q picked up his mocha and looked into it for a moment. "You know, it used to," he said. "After the, mm, incident with dearest Amy, I became very nervous about humans finding me attractive in that sense-- in an aesthetic sense, of course, I had always intended to be attractive, but I think I began to be unnerved by the relentless human confusion of the aesthetic with the sexual. For a while, the idea that people would even contemplate me in a sexual sense was rather disturbing. And disgusting, as well. But--" he shrugged-- "then I became too involved in my work against the Borg to care, and shortly after we'd finished that I was too depressed to care, not to mention that people had come to despise me too much to want me whatever I looked like... and finally I ended up looking terrible as well. So... actually I find it a little flattering. I've been so terribly unattractive for so long that I admit it's pleasant, to have someone find me otherwise... Oh, yes, I know that Harry probably would be as disgusted as everyone else is if he didn't have such a fetish for intellectuals, but then I've always found appreciation of my intellect an enjoyable quality in someone else."

"I don't see why anyone would find you disgusting to look at, Q," T'Laren pointed out. "You spent several hours today on your appearance. It would be better if you were healthier and less thin, of course, but I don't see anything anyone could object to in your appearance tonight."

He shrugged. "No, maybe not tonight, but I'm not going to get quite this gussied up every night."

"Have you been aware of Roth's feelings before?"

"In a rather abstract sense, yes... He was never quite this blatant before, I'll grant. The closest he's come was the night after the Borg defeat... Starbase 56 more or less turned into a giant party. We'd suffered no casualties personally, you realize. And the Borg had been headed our way before the virus we developed finally took hold."

T'Laren frowned. "I was... indisposed at the time, but I'd heard that the Borg retreated from Wolf 359."

"They didn't retreat. They found another target. After they completed assimilating Langan and realized what humanity was up to, they realized that Starbase 56-- or more specifically, I-- was a much bigger threat to them than the armada at Wolf 359. That's really what kept the casualties down there. Oh, we improved shielding, and developed some rather unique methods for getting around their defenses, but that one ship had regenerated all the damage it had taken by the time it decided to 'retreat.' No, they were coming after me. And the rest of the scientists and tactical staff on the starbase." He stared off into the distance. "I really didn't think the virus would work before they got here-- we were quite far from Wolf 359, but Borg ships are fast when they want to be. Starfleet ships kept attacking, trying to slow them down-- the Borg brushed them off like, oh, not gnats, but maybe flies. Something that's a definite nuisance, and hard to hit, but a small insect nonetheless. I was quite convinced they'd get here before our virus stopped them." He grinned up at T'Laren. "I suggested to Anderson that she send me out to them. With a suicide capsule, of course, I had no intention of letting myself be assimilated. But Langan didn't know much about the total war effort-- he knew about me, everyone knew about me, and I thought the Borg would be satisfied to make sure I was dead, and would consider the rest of the base irrelevant if I wasn't on it. She told me I was being an idiot and there was no way Starfleet was going to sacrifice me after all I'd done. I told her she was being the idiot... but it felt rather nice nonetheless."

"Q, this may perhaps be a very stupid question, but who was Langan?"

"Where were you during the Borg War?"

Dead. "Indisposed, as I said."

"Ah. Stark raving nutty, you mean. Well... it became obvious to me very early on that there was no way I could make Starfleet into a technological match for the Borg without forever destroying the balance of power in this sector of the galaxy, which I suspected my own kind would not overly love me for. And which I suspected they wouldn't let me get away with doing in the first place. Besides, if Starfleet became a technological match for the Borg, the Borg would adapt to the technology they saw, and a century down the road, when the Federation didn't have me around to help anymore, they would come back stronger than ever. I realized we would have to exploit the natural weaknesses in the Borg... which are few and far between. So I came up with the notion of a computer virus, as it were. Something to completely destroy the operating system that links the Collective." Q shrugged. "I wasn't the one who implemented the idea, of course. I have made myself into a fair little programmer, but I'll never have, nor want, that sort of skill. Cyberneticists, scientists and engineers all over the Federation were involved in the project-- including Data and LaForge; I always found it amusing how LaForge would try to avoid talking directly to me whenever we ran conference calls. I was the one who gave them some insight into the theoretical underpinnings of the Collective, since it's something I've researched extensively... and in some ways I was responsible for the direct implementation." He looked down, as if ashamed somehow-- but why? Ashamed of what?

"How so?"

"You asked about Langan." Q looked directly at her. "It was obvious to me that if we were going to destroy the Borg with a computer virus, we needed a Borg to feed the virus into. As it happens, the Borg have a nasty habit of taking people from the cultures they plan to assimilate and making them into pseudo-Borg. Borg spokespersons, as it were; Borg with a remnant of personality, or rather a constructed personality, built on the ruins of what the person used to be. The Borg originally intended to use Jean-Luc for this purpose. My fault, in a sense-- he was familiar to them, they had encountered him and analyzed the records of his ship before. They knew him. So I warned him that the Borg were going to try to take him, and he was kept under intensive enough shielding during the critical period that the Borg went to Plan B. They grabbed a different starship captain. Robert Langan of the Exeter became Locutus of Borg." Q looked at the table. "I never told Starfleet that the Borg would simply go to Plan B, you know. Because someone had to be taken, to give us a link into the Borg. We wouldn't be able to infect a drone with the virus-- we needed someone who would be interfaced directly into the main stream of their processing, someone whose brain we understood, who we would be able to sustain as we fed the virus directly into his brain. We would only have sufficient familiarity with a member of a Federation race. And besides, what I knew of the Borg's plan was based on their making a Locutus. If they were thwarted entirely, they would switch to a backup plan, one that I didn't know-- and while I could imagine such a plan, I could imagine far too many to figure out which they'd use. So. Someone needed to be Locutus. Someone needed to have his sanity and individuality destroyed forever." He looked up at T'Laren seriously. "It was my gift to Jean-Luc... both that I made sure he was spared that, and that I made sure he never knew I knew that someone else would have to go in his place. If Picard knew only that Langan had been taken... well, those are the fortunes of war. But if he'd known that I'd known that someone would be taken, that someone would have to be... he would know that I arranged for someone else to go in his place. And I never wanted that."

"Because you didn't want him to know you were ruthless enough to sacrifice someone to the Borg? Or compassionate enough to spare him?"

"Neither. Picard knew just how ruthless I can be. And I could care less if he thought I was compassionate. I didn't want him to know because it would hurt him to know. He would torture himself for years about how it should have been him. Every time he heard Langan's name mentioned it would be a knife in his heart. Jean-Luc wasn't the sort of man who could calmly accept that another should die in his place."

"You cared about him a great deal, didn't you?"

Q shrugged again. "When I was still Q, he amused me. Intrigued me. Infuriated me. Did I care? I... don't know. I tried to avoid caring about mortals, if you must know. They always die. I know one Q who's had her heart broken on the average of once a century because she can't help loving mortals, and they always die on her... and you have to let them die, they turn warped if you keep resurrecting them. But when I became mortal myself... I think I did care about him. He went out of his way in a lot of ways for me. For some time I resented the fact that he wouldn't let me stay on the Enterprise, of course, but... you know, originally Starfleet was toying with the idea of putting me on trial for crimes against humanity? Attempted murder, committing acts of war against the Federation, etc. Picard talked them out of it. The very person I committed those 'crimes' against. If it weren't for him, I might have died in a penal colony two and a half years ago."

"Starfleet would never have sentenced you to death, Q."

"No, but I couldn't have lasted more than six months at the outside in one." He stared into nothing. "I thought it was safe... because I was mortal myself, you see? I, too, would die. Probably before him. So I allowed myself to feel... gratitude. A certain amount of... warmth. He would never have allowed friendship-- for obvious reasons, he was a lot less pleased with our past history than I was-- but we had occasionally achieved something of an understanding. And then he died." Q's gaze dropped to his hands, uncharacteristically still and folded in his lap. "Thus proving that it's never safe to care about mortals, I suppose."

This had probably been a bad idea to bring up. Q was more prone to depression when he was tired. T'Laren tried to bring the conversation around to something more cheerful. "You seem to have some feeling for Roth and Markow. Is that anything more than being entertained by their company?"

"With Harry, no... well, admittedly as I said I find his feelings toward me rather flattering, but I suppose being flattered is a form of entertainment... so no, I'd say not. Daedalus, on the other hand..." Q thought about it. "I have a lot of respect for him. He did not fall quite so far as me, no, but he didn't start as high, either... and for a human, he's fallen hard indeed. You know that he wasn't born that way, of course."

"I know nothing about Dr. Peter Markow, except that you seem to be friendly with him and he appears to be confined to a floatchair. And he is well-respected."

"Daedalus got that way by trying to interface with... oh, the name wouldn't mean anything to you, but a long-dead species created devices for speed-teaching. You press against them and they feed the secrets of the universe into your brain. Given the fact that these creatures were energy lifeforms and could tolerate the intense stresses of the feed, this worked well for them. It worked less well for Markow. He burned out most of his neural pathways doing it... after a few years in therapy, it turned out that oddly, his actual mind was unaffected. He could still think as clearly as ever. But there hasn't yet been a neural regeneration technique invented that can repair the damage he did to the nerves in his body."

"Did he retain any of the knowledge?"

"He says it comes to him in dreams... Occasionally I'll tell him something and he'll claim he knew it already. But I think he's trying to console himself for his loss by pretending he got something out of it." Q turned morose again. "If he can fool himself successfully, more power to him. It's an ability I wish I had."

"Would you call him a friend?"

"I don't call anyone a friend, T'Laren."

"You called me a friend. This afternoon."

"Then you're the only one." His mouth twitched slightly. "I like Daedalus, I have a certain understanding with him, and we don't get on one another's nerves to nearly the extent that either of us get on everyone else's. I'll miss him if he dies before I do. But my impression of 'friendship' was that one is supposed to be able to confide in the other. And I could never confide in him-- less so him than others; he's the one person I've met who I can't be self-pitying around because the magnitude of his loss is as close to mine as a mere human can get."

"Have you ever met anyone you thought you could confide in?"

"I'm talking to her."

"Besides me."

"No." No hesitation. "The one time I thought I had, I... well, let's say I haven't had very good experiences with confiding in people." He stared into space, glowering, storm clouds visible in the set of his face. "Are you sure I can't have a sedative?"

T'Laren did not quite sigh. "Q, this is just your body's reaction to exhaustion," she said. "You know by now that you get especially depressed when you let yourself get overtired. You're not going to solve the problem in the long run by running away from your troubles with sedatives."

"Fine. Then I'd better go to bed." He stood up. "This wasn't one of my more brilliant ideas. I thought if I could just stay up while I was still feeling good, it would stay that way... stupid of me, I suppose."

"It's perfectly understandable. No one wants to go to bed when they're having fun. Do you need any help?"

"Help?" He raised his eyebrows at her.

"You're exhausted, and that outfit took you an hour to put on. Do you need help with it?"

Q smiled sardonically. "I do believe you're as bad as Harry, dear counselor," he said. "No, no, I'm not such an invalid-- or such a child-- that I require help getting my jammies on. You don't need to tuck me in, either."

"How about a lullaby?"

Q grinned. "How about--" he began to sing, rocking an imaginary baby in his arms with elaborate, exaggerated facial gestures intended to indicate fatherly concern, or maybe epilepsy-- "Go to sleep/go to sleep/go straight to sleep/ and don't wake up/ and don't wake up/ until at least mid-morning..'?"

His singing voice was hardly the best to start with. It was made considerably less lovely by being cracked and hoarse with exhaustion and giddiness. T'Laren came awfully close to laughing out loud. "You are terribly silly."

"An effect achieved by long years of practice, I assure you." The smile faded. "In any case. Good night."

"Sleep well."

"Not likely," he said, and stepped into his bedroom. The door swooshed closed behind him.

In her own room, T'Laren attempted to meditate. Exhaustion made this impossible, fraying her concentration and dragging her down. Before she knew it she was asleep.

She was attempting to knit a pair of socks for her father. It was for a school project of some kind. Q came into the room. "T'Laren, I've got something to show you."

"Can it wait?" She held up the socks.

"He's got awfully smelly feet, T'Laren." By which she understood him to mean that her father had been dead for ten years, now. Smelly feet indeed.

"Where are we going?" she asked Q.

"Where do we ever go?"

They appeared on the plains of Vulcan, outside the Hall of Ancient Thought. T'Laren realized that the being she had thought Q was in fact Lhoviri, wearing Q's form. "Why?" she asked him, meaning why did he look like his brother.

"For dramatic effect, of course," Lhoviri said. "Watch."

Sovaz approached at the head of a procession. Her cousins and her cousins-in-law bore a coffin on their shoulders. Behind the coffin walked T'Laren's mother Helene, sniffling and dressed in black. T'Laren looked away from the coffin, certain she knew who was inside. "I don't want to see this," she said.

"Name me one thing I wanted to see and we'll be even." Now he was Q again.

The coffin was laid out on a stone slab. Sovaz held the Romulan knife, still green with Soram's blood, and stabbed the coffin with it in a Romulan death ritual. "I'm sorry!" T'Laren screamed, unable to bear Sovaz's stony face any more. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, forgive me!"

Sovaz looked up at her. "Who are you?" she asked.

"I'm your sister!"

"My sister is dead," Sovaz said coldly. She flipped open the coffin, and there was T'Laren, body bruised and mottled from her exposure to vacuum.

"But I didn't-- it was changed--" She looked to Lhoviri, who still looked like Q. "Do something!"

"Actions have consequences, my dear," he said. "Even all the power of the Q can't wash the blood away."

"You are the other one, the replica," Sovaz said. "MY sister is dead. And YOU have murdered my brother."

"You were supposed to save me!" she cried to Q. Whether her patient or her benefactor, the same name applied. They were both Q.

"Who's going to save you from yourself?" he replied...

She jerked awake with a gasp.

It had been months since she'd allowed herself to dream. She remembered the last time-- awakening, screaming, the darkness of the room around her become the darkness of her own tomb, and Lhoviri had been there, coaxing her back to sleep, but she would not... Lhoviri had warned her that if she tried to use the meditative disciplines to hold off dreaming entirely, it would be worse for her when her control finally broke. Brittle, she had assured him that she had no intention of breaking, ever again.

Psychologist, heal thyself. At least she hadn't screamed. If she'd woken Q, she would not have liked having to explain that she was the one with the nightmare this time. What a hypocrite you are! You say he's psychologically addicted to sedatives, that he uses them to escape his dreams rather than facing the trauma that causes them. All true, but what is your excuse, dear doctor? You should know better!

She was not sweating-- sweat was too precious a commodity on a desert to be released by fear. Vulcans only sweated when it was too hot even for them, or when they exerted themselves. But she was flushed green, and her heart pounded, and she was lightheaded from the adrenaline surge. After too long controlling themselves, Vulcans were known to get sick from sudden surges of emotion. T'Laren concentrated on the disciplines, ordering her rebellious body to compensate for the adrenaline reaction. After a moment, she stood up, throwing off her covers. She needed something else to concentrate on, something to burn out the rush of energy that made her lightheaded.

It was 0300 hours, the truly dead time in a starship's recreational centers. Everyone aboard was, as a general rule, either asleep or on duty at an hour like this, and the holodecks were generally free, unless someone had reserved one overnight. T'Laren checked, and found that none of them had been so reserved.

She slid the data solid into the slot by the door, and entered. "Computer. Activate training routine 9."

The program on the data solid sprang to life. Gravity dragged at her, a sudden downward yanking as her weight increased under Romulus gee, too close to Vulcan gee for her to detect the difference. But the atmosphere was different; as hot as Vulcan, but wetter, the air damp like Earth's and the oxygen thick. It was easy to hyperventilate in such an environment, with the gee subconsciously informing her body that she was on Vulcan now.

Four adult Romulan men came over the ridge ahead of her. They were not carrying phasers; the purpose of this simulation wasn't to test T'Laren's shooting abilities. She dropped into a fighting stance, legs positioned to maximize her balance, arms up and ready. At the same time, she let her face change, a savage smile spreading across it. Romulans and Vulcans could, under most circumstances, tell one another apart from the bone structure of their faces. But a Vulcan who behaved in an obviously Romulan fashion would confuse both races; there were far more genetic throwbacks, Romulans who looked like Vulcans, than there were Vulcans who would smile with savage passion. They would expect her to be one of them, to fight like a Romulan. Good.

Humans were arguably one of the physically weakest of the powerful races in known space; even the Ferengi, while weaker on average, were stronger than humans pound for pound-- it was just that humans were bigger than Ferengi. With typical ingenuity, humans had turned this racial weakness to an advantage, designing martial arts techniques that required very little physical strength, no more than a typical human had, and then teaching these techniques to Starfleet cadets. The reason Starfleet officers, overwhelmingly human, could hold their own in physical combat against far stronger races such as Klingons or Nausicaans or Romulans was the fact that those races, having strength, had never developed the techniques that did not require it. For a small, slight Vulcan female raised under Earth gee, physically weaker than other Vulcans and even than some humans, these techniques had proved vitally useful. For her training to go undercover, T'Laren had also adopted some of the Romulan shal kemat techniques-- the fighting style developed by Romulan women to hold their own against their own men, another martial arts technique that owed little to physical strength. She used that mostly now, with a bit of her Starfleet training thrown in, to disable the first man that came at her, turning the force of his rush against him to throw him some distance. The next man came at her with arms wide, in an attempt to bear-hug and grapple. She ducked under him, grabbed him and threw him as well.

The next two were warier, circling her slowly, as their friends picked themselves off the ground. In a real fight, T'Laren would know herself to be outmatched at this point, and either surrender or run for it. That was, however, not the purpose of this simulation.

It was difficult to keep all of them in focus. T'Laren knew that if she didn't do something, the two she had attacked would recover-- she had only thrown them; they would only be winded, not badly hurt-- and then she would have to deal with four at once again. She edged away from the battleground, showing every sign of preparing to break and run. The two still standing watched intently, the look of predators waiting for the prey to break and run. T'Laren obliged them.

One of the two charged her. At the last possible second T'Laren ducked down, reached up and grabbed the man as he lunged, throwing him over her head. This was the second time she'd used that technique-- a bad idea; the simulations had been programmed to learn from their companions' mistakes. She straightened up and spun, sensing danger, to find herself directly facing the fourth. He hit her, hard, sending her flying to the ground.

Though she knew what to do, she didn't do it in time, her compensatory techniques thrown off by the heavier gravity. T'Laren hit the ground wrong, unable to roll and get back to her feet in time to keep the Romulan from diving onto her and pinning her with his weight. He hit her, trying to subdue her long enough that he could grab her arms, which she was moving rapidly. As he went after one, another one came up and found the junction at his neck. Since he had been programmed to expect a Romulan woman, given T'Laren's behavior, he had not been programmed to expect a nerve pinch.

As she pushed him off her and stood, one of the others grabbed her from behind. Inexcusably clumsy of her, to allow that. She tried to flip him, but he was prepared for that-- he lifted her off the ground, so she had no leverage and all the advantage was contained in his height and superior strength. T'Laren went completely limp and unresisting as he began to squeeze her, so he would assume he had already taken the fight out of her. The moment he stopped squeezing, she twisted and kicked backward, hard, into his kneecap, breaking it. The Romulan screamed and dropped her.

The two remaining Romulans were right there as she sprang back to her feet, though. They doubleteamed her, punching her repeatedly so she couldn't use the motion against them and throw them. She managed to grab one and try to fling him, but he outmaneuvered her, yanking her off-balance. Then the fourth one chopped at the side of her neck-- the primitive precursor of the nerve pinch, the move as done by Romulans had neither the safety ratio nor the effectiveness of the millennia-refined Vulcan version, but it was sufficient. T'Laren sagged, stunned, and the simulation froze. She fell out of the one Romulan's grip and hit the dirt heavily, unable to persuade her body to work. The Vulcan version produced unconsciousness 98% of the time, rarely this sick, stunned numbness.

Well. A rather dismal showing over all. She had never been defeated this quickly-- when she'd first been introduced to this program, after training simulation 8 in which she'd fought one Klingon, it had taken the four stupid Romulans five minutes to subdue her. This had been one point six minutes. Once, she had been able to defeat all four Romulans in less than two minutes on a consistent basis... not that that had done any good; the one time she had needed her fighting skills behind the Neutral Zone, she had known, with logic and gut and every fiber of her being, that even with the element of surprise on her side she would never win. She would be hurt, and subdued, and then handed over to the elite Tal Shiar telepaths to be mindraped. Instead, she had chosen an entirely different kind of arena, used her body as a weapon in a totally different sense-- two totally different senses, in fact-- and forever destroyed her own innocence...

The downward slide had begun after that, the emotional turmoil, the needs Soram would not fulfill, the violence of her passions-- in hindsight she could see it had all begun after that one night. Perhaps she should have used martial arts on Melor after all. Perhaps in the end the damage would have been less.

Tears stung her eyes. Stunned as she was, she could not summon up the control of body and mind to prevent them. She lay there, unable to move, for several minutes, until pins and needles shot through her spine and sensation slowly returned. This hadn't helped much. All it had done was show her how much retraining she needed. Q would depend on her as a bodyguard, and she couldn't even disable four artificial Romulans. And if she were smart, now, she'd go to Sickbay and get the various bruises and scrapes she'd just picked up treated before Q saw them and asked what was wrong. She didn't want to go to Sickbay-- most doctors were human, and had a falsely jovial need to make small talk with a patient, to ask how she got hurt and warn her against doing it again. The artificial friendliness of humans was more than she thought she could take right now-- but it would be utterly moronic to waste a healing trance on this. Sighing, she struggled to her feet, summoned up her control, and left the holodeck, the program vanishing behind her.

The intercom bleeped at an hour that human beings were most certainly not evolved to be awoken at. Q came fully awake, heart pounding, convinced that this was the notification of impending Borg invasion, and then realized that these were not his quarters on Starbase 56. He puzzled over this for a few seconds as the intercom bleeped again. Slowly it dawned on him that the Borg had been defeated two years ago and that he was currently on Yamato for a conference. Right. That made sense.

"Q here."

"Are you all right, Q?" a perky young Vulcan asked. Q hated perky young people. Perky young Vulcans were the worst.

"I'm perfectly fine, Sovaz. Nothing that another six years of sleep wouldn't cure. Why did you feel the need to call and check up on me?"

"Are you aware that it's 1115 hours? The conference was supposed to have started 15 minutes ago."

So it was. Q checked the chronometer. It had to be malfunctioning. The last time he'd looked at it, it said 0640 hours, and that had only been a few minutes ago.

"I was planning on being fashionably late, actually," he said.

"I don't think there are any species aboard that really consider lateness to be fashionable," Sovaz said seriously. "But I will confess that I'm not an expert on what various beings consider fashionable or not."

"You're not? I never would have known."

"No, I'm not." Puzzlement, hesitation, then sudden comprehension. "Oh! You're being sarcastic. I see."

"A remarkable deduction. Here's one of those freebies for you, my dear. Bowl cuts are not considered fashionable by anybody. Especially when they've been growing out for half a year." Q sighed. "Is everybody else there?"

"Several members have begged off due to illness. Are you ill?"

"No, and neither are they. I'd suspect that somebody found the real stuff in amongst the synthehol. I, however, am making a personal statement by being late. You can tell them that."

"So when do you plan to arrive?"

"When I feel like it." He relented. "In an hour. Good-bye, Sovaz."

Now where the hell was T'Laren? And why hadn't she woken him up? Q hadn't planned to oversleep, but he had forgotten to tell the computer to wake him-- not normally a major oversight, since normally he had his own personal computer with the infallible time sense come in and wake him if he overslept. Where was she? He got up and padded out of the room, leaning on the bell to hers. No answer.

"Computer, locate T'Laren."

"Dr. T'Laren is in Holodeck 3."

"Well, that's just peachy." He touched his badge. "Q to T'Laren, where the hell are you?"

A few seconds lag time. "In Holodeck 3," she finally replied-- which, of course, he knew, having just asked the computer. Q made an exasperated noise.

"Let me rephrase that. What the hell are you doing in Holodeck 3?"

"Exercising and training." She sounded drained. "Why aren't you at the conference?"

"Because no one was around to wake me up," he told her in a tone of infinite patience.

"You didn't set the computer to wake you."

"No, I didn't. A small oversight. I didn't realize you'd be exercising at this ungodly hour--"

"Ungodly? It's 1120. You normally get up two hours before this. Of course, you don't normally wait until 0300 to go to bed."

"Nor do I normally spend four hours tossing and turning, drifting off and waking up with nightmares, and generally getting no sleep at all. Actually, come to think of it, that has been normal since I met you."

She sighed. "You can't have it both ways, Q," she said. "Either I coddle and protect you from yourself, which means you grant me control over you, or you take responsibility for your own behavior in exchange for the freedom to do as you wish. You've made it abundantly clear that you don't want to do what I tell you when I tell you something for your own good. Such as suggesting that you might want to go to bed at a reasonable hour."

"Well, if I had known that you had given up on trying to be my mommy, I would have realized I couldn't depend on you to wake me up. What if I had needed you?"

"You could have called me. As you apparently did, so I must assume that you know how to operate a combadge."

So she wanted to get snippy, eh? "You're obviously incapable of being reasonable at the moment," Q said loftily. "I have a conference to attend. Goodbye, T'Laren." Let her chew on that one.

It was actually an hour and a half before he considered himself presentable enough to appear at the conference. When he walked in, there appeared to be a heated debate in progress. Everyone stopped talking for a moment and looked over at him.

"Q. How nice of you to join us," Dhawan said with heavy sarcasm.

"I thought I'd give you some time to formulate your silly little theories and marshal your arguments before I came in and explained everything to you," Q said. "Please, don't stop arguing on my account. Go on with your debate. I'm sure it's quite entertaining."

"I can't imagine how you'd find it so," Dr. Anne Christian said coldly. "Nobody's getting killed."

Dr. Christian made Q extremely uncomfortable. He smiled to cover his discomfort. She was another name he'd seemed to have overlooked on the guest list. Perhaps he should check the roster again. "Anne, dear, you wound me. Do you think I have a one-track mind?"

"Q's character is dead. Can we stop assassinating it now and do something useful?" Markow asked. "Dhawan, I can't believe that a person who's gotten to be science officer on a Galaxy-class starship could overlook an effect of that magnitude..."

Q sat down in one of the many empty chairs toward the end of the table-- apparently a lot of people hadn't shown up, including Roth and Morakh. Too bad; Roth was fun to sit next to and whisper rude comments about others, and Morakh was generally fun to bait. He quickly picked up the gist of the argument and smiled to himself. They weren't even in the right ballpark-- like philosophers attempting to deduce the circumference of the flat Earth.

For the next half hour, Q listened to their silly arguments, not entirely able to repress a smirk, as he doodled idly on his datapad. The debate was between two different theories-- if anyone had anything entirely different, they weren't mentioning it. Markow's was, as it had been last night, that it was a side effect of time travel, which begged the question of whose time travel, obviously. Q had intended last night to get the evidence to refute that one, as he had a gut certainty it was wrong, but he hadn't yet figured out why it was wrong, other than his intuitive sense that the universe just didn't work like that. The other argument, proposed by a Romulan woman named Milarca, was that the singularity was a gateway to an alternate universe, and that was just rampant idiocy. For some reason, several people seemed to agree with her, and were arguing with Markow and a Vulcan named Toral, who was a proponent of Markow's theory. Most of the others were merely adding commentary to the debate.

Finally, in a poisonous voice, Shahrazad Dhawan finally gave Q his opening. "Well, why don't we ask the self-proclaimed expert?" she declaimed, getting up and walking over to Q. "I suppose this puzzle is so terribly obvious to you that you have nothing better to do than doodle on your padd."

She was trying to shame Q. Q smiled at her with genuine delight-- it was not often he met someone as terribly inept at attacking him as Dhawan. "Commander Dhawan, I'm surprised," he said. "That's the first thing you've said showing the slightest fragment of intellect all day."

"If you know what the singularity is, perhaps you might wish to end the suspense," Milarca said sharply.

"Oh, I couldn't do that-- I wouldn't want to deny you the pleasure of solving the problem yourselves. But if you're looking for hints, I think I could drop a few. For instance, Dr. Milarca, did it ever occur to you to look for emissions of nadion particles in coming up with your rather remarkable hypothesis?"

Milarca narrowed her eyes at him. "And exactly why would I want to do that?"

Q sighed. "I suppose I need to spell it out," he said. He stood up and paced, aware of the fact that every eye was on him-- and, despite his show of exasperation, he was delighted with the fact. "If you bothered to measure the intensity of nadion particles, you'd realize there are far too many of them for this singularity to possibly be connected to a parallel universe."

Now Milarca was staring at him. "How am I supposed to realize that?" she asked, her voice sharp with anger and bewilderment. "I'd never heard that nadion particles had any connection to alternate universes. To my knowledge, the only thing nadion particles have anything to do with is the local gravitometric patterns."

He had her now. Q smiled sweetly. "And did it never occur to you that maybe, just maybe, a singularity would cause a fairly sizable alteration in the local gravitometric patterns?"

"Of course!" she snapped. "And the particle concentration reflects that."

Dhawan said, "Look, we've all been over this. The nadion particle concentration is a little on the low side, but perfectly within acceptable tolerance levels for a singularity of this intensity--"

"Oh, acceptable tolerance. Defined by who, may I ask? Have you become the arbiters of what is acceptable for stellar phenomena?" Q walked over to Dhawan and leaned on the back of her seat until she stood up to face him.

"Defined by patterns detected by empirical research," Dhawan snapped.

"Ah. Defined by the limitations of what data you've actually gotten to collect, and what you've bothered to correlate. I see., That makes it so much clearer." He was really enjoying himself. He'd forgotten how much fun this could be.

"Lucy, spit it out," Markow said. "Obviously you think you're privy to some information we mere mortals don't share. How about you do your job instead of putting on a show and tell us what we're missing?"

"I am suitably chastised," Q said, and grinned. "Very well. Since none of you have seen fit to correlate patterns of nadion radiation with known incidences of alter-gateways, I suppose I will have to spell it out in words of two syllables or less." He was now standing at the head of the table, having totally usurped Dhawan's position there. He leaned forward, as if imparting a secret of great import to the gathering. "At the boundaries between what you call parallel universes, all gravitational forces are annihilated. This naturally doesn't affect the concentration of gravitons visibly, since there's so many of the things around a singularity that you can't detect the distinction with your feeble instruments. But you can detect the decrease in nadion particles caused by their annihilation at the boundary. Apparently it simply never occurred to you to look for such an effect, but I assure you, it is there. And that, Dr. Milarca, completely shoots your theory down, I'm afraid. The nadion concentrations are characteristic of a singularity that is not associated with a parallel universe boundary."

"And is there any proof of this, other than your word for it?" Milarca asked evenly.

"Oh, I'm so glad you asked that. Computer! Access the Federation Physics Institute's records for all studies of singularities, wormholes, and other major temporal/spatial disturbances. Display nadion particle emissions, graviton emissions, and conclusions as to the causes of each event."

"The requested operation will take three point five minutes to complete," the computer informed him.

"Peachy. Do it anyway."

"Why does that happen?" Sovaz asked.

Q spun. "Excuse me?"

"Why is gravity annihilated at the boundaries between universes?"

"Sovaz, he hasn't even proven that it is, and you're asking him why it is?" Dhawan asked,

"Q has considerably more expertise in these matters than we do," Sovaz said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "And I do not think that he would lie."

"Why not?" Dhawan asked sharply. "Considering his past history--"

"No," Anne Christian said. "Q isn't likely to lie about something this trivial. He'll reserve his lies for when he can cause maximum pain."

"Anne, you seem utterly fixated on this notion of me as a ruthless villain. I'm beginning to think you don't love me."

"I wonder if the Federation Council's pardon would protect you from a lawsuit for wrongful death?" Christian murmured.

Q ignored her. It was an empty threat, more or less-- even if she sued him for her son's death and won, he was valuable enough that the Federation would pay the damages for him. "Considering my past history, Commander Dhawan, I would be utterly foolish to lie to you. Let's not forget that I have no pet theories to endorse or sacred cows to hold inviolable. I know what the fundamental structure of the universe is-- and the Federation is paying me a great deal to explain it to limited creatures like you. I am hardly short-sighted enough to jeopardize my meal ticket, my dear. Give me some credit."

"Is artificial gravitation affected by the boundary crossing?" Sovaz asked. "For instance, if someone were to fly into a singularity that did lead to an alternate universe, would the artificial gravity fail during the passage?"

At this point the information Q had requested appeared on the holographic display in the middle of the table. "Yes and no," Q said to Sovaz, and then turned his attention to the display, jabbing his fingers into it and calling for the computer to recalculate various figures. In his best lecturing mode, he demonstrated that the concentration of nadion particles was invariably at least .3% lower near a singularity associated with another universe.

When he was done, Milarca nodded simply. "Very well. I will bow to the evidence. But I'm not yet convinced that Dr. Markow's theory is correct, either. Does this gravitational annihilation effect take place when time travel occurs as well?"

"No. There's a warping effect, which alters the frequency of the nadions, but your equipment isn't sensitive enough to detect that."

"Lucy, if you know what's causing the singularity, stop beating around the bush and tell us," Markow said.

Q made a face. "Unfortunately, I'm limited by your inferior equipment. I can't directly sense what's causing the anomaly; all I can tell you right now is what's not causing it. Of course, I've also only had a day to think about it. Give me a few days."

"No brilliant theories?"

"I'd hardly wish to prejudice you, Daedalus. No, I'll leave the brilliant theories to you for the moment."

A man named Blumenthal said, "But look, what if we're looking at this all the wrong way? It's just occurred to me--"

Having had his moment in the sun, Q yielded the stage with more grace than he'd thought he'd be able to manage, and let Blumenthal expound on his silly theory. He dropped an occasional scathing comment into the gathering, but ignored the proceedings for the most part, concentrating on collecting the information he needed to disprove Markow.

People trickled in over the next several hours, but none of them were Roth, or anyone Q might be interested in making fun of-- although one of the humans, a Madeline LeBeau, was sufficiently and undeservedly arrogant to the point where Q noted her for later knocking down. At 1700 the conference broke up, people going off to discuss theories in private groups, do more research, or relax and have fun. With some startlement, Q realized that he was extremely hungry-- he hadn't had anything since he got up this morning, and hadn't really noticed until now. Well. He had no intention of going off to Ten-Forward to be lonely, and since Markow hated eating with other people and Roth wasn't here, there was no chance he'd get some company. He decided to check back at the room and see what T'Laren was doing. Much as he hated to admit it, he'd gotten rather used to eating with other people-- well, with her, anyway-- aboard Ketaya.

As he left, Sovaz caught up with him. "Why are gravitational forces destroyed at the boundaries between universes?" she asked. Q marveled at her single-mindedness.

"Haven't you anything better to do?" he asked.

"No," Sovaz said seriously. "You demonstrated to the conference's satisfaction that the effect occurs, but any other physicist could have done that. You must have the ability to explain why that happens. Don't you?"

"That depends on how much detail you want," Q said. A truly evil idea was occurring to him. "Listen, Sovaz, I'm off to get something to eat. Want to go with me and ask your questions?"

"Certainly. They make a very tasty couscous at Ten-Forward--"

"No, no no. We're not going there. I'm off stage now, I have no desire to continue to be a public spectacle." He turned to her, barely able to restrain a mischievous grin. "I'm going to my quarters for something to eat. Still want to come along?"

"T'Laren will be there?"

"Almost undoubtedly."

Sovaz hesitated. "If I didn't go with you, would you still answer my questions?"

"When I get around to it, the next time you catch me with nothing better to do, in a few days or so... sure, why not."

For a Vulcan, Sovaz had lousy facial control-- or maybe Q had just gotten used to trying to read T'Laren. Her face changed, a scaled-down version of a human face falling. Then the mask slid into place. "If T'Laren is offended at my presence, that is her problem," Sovaz declared. "It's my job to learn all I can from the delegates."

Q allowed the grin to break out on his face, briefly. "Delightful." He began to walk back toward the VIP quarters, wondering why they hadn't chosen a conference room closer to said quarters. "The most basic explanation I can give you is that the gravitational constant is tied into the definition of the universe far more so than the electromagnetic forces. Space is defined by the interaction of gravitons and locons, and time is defined as the interaction of chronatons with the other two. At least, to the perception of mortals-- we won't get into what it looks like when you can invert locons at will. But in any case, the point is that those three particles are actually more like threads, that the fabric of the universe is woven of. When you hit the boundary of the universe, the substrate that the gravitons propagate in, the gravitons can no longer propagate. It's like trying to make a sound in vacuum. There's nothing there to carry the wave. Does that help any?"

"Does that also mean that time and space disappear outside the boundaries of the universe?"

"Clever child. Yes, of course they do. But they leave behind a residual charge which makes it more likely that when you re-enter another universe, you'll come out in a similar time and space-- assuming of course that the other universe operates by the same physical laws. Now if you managed to get lost between the boundaries of the universes, you could completely lose all temporal and spatial charge and end up literally anywhere in space and time when you finally get through the barriers."

"That's fascinating," Sovaz said, and appeared to mean it-- Q tended to use "fascinating" only in a sarcastic sense.

"To me it's rather dull, if you want to know the truth," Q said. "It was interesting a few hundred millennia ago when I was first learning to manipulate all that, but nowadays my interests have taken a decidedly mundane turn. For instance. My understanding is that T'Laren used to be married to your brother? What's going on with that?"

"As far as I know, nothing is going on," Sovaz said, a bit bewildered. "They are no longer bonded."

"Right, but how did it happen? My understanding was that Vulcans don't go about divorcing each other every day of the week."

"I don't understand what happened myself," Sovaz said, staring ahead at nothing. "Soram reported that T'Laren was dead. I don't see how her bondmate could be mistaken about such a thing, yet she is obviously not dead, so he must have been mistaken..."

"How did they get together in the first place?" If T'Laren wouldn't tell him anything about her background, he'd go behind her back and get it.

Sovaz considered. "They were bonded when I was very young, so I'm not entirely sure. But I believe what happened was that Soram requested a wife from the Marriage Registry--"

"The Marriage Registry? Let me guess-- a Vulcan dating service?" The idea of a Vulcan dating service had to be one of the stranger things he'd heard in the past three years...

"Not a dating service. If I understand it correctly, a dating service is where humans turn to be partnered with someone for companionship?"

"One could phrase it that way, I suppose."

"Vulcans do not casually seek companionship," Sovaz said seriously. "Most Vulcans are bonded to their future betrothed at the age of seven. But in some cases, the betrothed dies before the appointed time, and the person left unbonded must turn to the Marriage Registry to find another unbonded. In other cases-- for instance, my parents are progressives. They believed Soram and I should be free to make our own choices on adulthood. But Soram is a very strict traditionalist. As soon as he became old enough, he applied to the Marriage Registry for a wife. And as T'Laren had been raised on Earth, she too was unbonded, so the Registry partnered them, and our families thought the match would be a good idea. Soram was planning to go into Starfleet, where one needs to have dealings with humans, so having a wife experienced in human culture seemed logical. And T'Laren wished to learn Vulcan ways, so having a strict traditionalist husband seemed logical as well."

"But things didn't work out as logically as planned, I take it."

Sovaz made a semi-shrug. "They seemed to be working out adequately to me. But I confess I have no experience in matters of bonding. I have no explanation for what happened."

"What did happen? As far as you know?"

"I don't wish to violate T'Laren's privacy. If she meant for you to know, she likely would have told you."

So the kid had some backbone after all. Q was genuinely beginning to like this girl. "Oh, T'Laren told me a few gazillion things. For instance, that she went nuts and tried to kill herself. So if that's what you're edging around, don't worry about it-- I already know."

"She told you that?" Quickly Sovaz tried to regain her composure. "I... that is not the sort of thing most people tell anyone outside the family, or perhaps very close friends. I was under the impression that you were T'Laren's client."

"Client. Oh, that's a good word. I like that one. Sounds so much better than 'patient.'"

"But aren't you?"

"Why? Does it matter?"

"I wouldn't think... that she would share such personal information with a client."

"Whatever works, kiddo. I assure you that T'Laren had what she believed to be good reasons to tell me what she did. Now. Is it true? Is that what happened?"

"I don't know..."

At that point they reached Q's quarters. Q imagined a look of relief on Sovaz's face, and grinned to himself. Any relief she felt had to be premature. He palmed open the door and went in. "Yoo-hoo! T'Laren! I hope you look passable, because I've brought us a dinner guest!"

T'Laren stepped out of her bedroom and froze. Q could no longer restrain the grin. "She followed me home, Mom. Can I keep her?"

The effort of will it took T'Laren to unfreeze was practically visible. "I'm rather tired, actually," she said. "I think I would prefer to go lie down."

"I'm sure you would prefer it, but we can't always get what we want. Now are you going to be completely rude to my houseguest and set me a terrible example, or are you going to be a gracious little Vulcan?"

For several seconds she stared at him, her face icily masklike. "Very well," she said finally. "You are entitled to invite what houseguests you desire. I shall be a gracious hostess."

"You need not be concerned that I should shame you," Sovaz said; the cadences of her voice indicated that she was speaking Vulcan, and the translator was rendering it. "My business here is with Q. I am not concerned with you."

"Oh, come on, folks," Q said cheerily. "Let's all try to get along here, shall we?" He plopped himself down on the couch. "T'Laren! Why don't you get us something to eat?"

Much to his surprise, she turned toward the replicator, showing every sign of obeying. Belatedly he realized that he'd just given her an excuse to not confront Sovaz again.

"Does artificial gravity disappear when one crosses the boundaries between universes?" Sovaz asked.

"Depends on the method of generation. If you're using a graviton field, then sure-- gravitons are annihilated. But you're not likely to detect the effect, since it lasts less than a nanosecond in most crossings between universes. Since time is also annihilated, most boundary crossings are effectively instantaneous."

"But if one got lost between universes, as you were talking about before. What then? Would the inhabitants of the lost ship still feel the passage of time, even though time had been annihilated? Or would it feel to them as if no time had passed?"

"Hmm. You know, I've never seen a mortal get lost between the boundaries of the universes, so I really couldn't tell you. I know that a Q who gets lost perceives the passage of a form of subjective time, but then we have multiple temporal senses, and not all of them have anything to do with chronatons. I would suspect, mortal senses being as paltry as they are, that if mortals got lost outside time their mental functions would come to a screeching halt."

T'Laren returned with plates of some kind of vegetable stew, and set them down in front of Q and Sovaz, silently. Q picked through his for a moment, then looked up. "Not all of us are root-suckers, my dear. Could you possibly arrange something a little bit more to the tastes of an omnivore?"

"One would think that, in your desire to be a gracious host, you would avoid offending your vegetarian guest with the smell of meat," T'Laren said.

Q grinned. Wonderful, she was fighting back. He had started to worry. "Well, let me ask," he said. "Sovaz! Would it bother you if a severely underweight omnivorous being who can't process vegetable protein as efficiently as animal and who is in obvious and desperate need of something to help build back his muscles to something remotely resembling normal fulfilled his nutritional requirements in your presence?"

"It would be illogical to do otherwise," Sovaz said blandly. "I would not wish to be responsible for a human's lack of proper nutrition."

"There, you see? Some Vulcan guests don't get offended by perfectly logical requests. Now why don't you get me something with a modicum of protein?"

"Since I am hardly an expert on your desires, it might be best for you if you got it yourself," T'Laren retorted. Her voice was still cool and emotionless, but there was a faint edge to it-- it was a retort, all right.

Q sighed ostentatiously. "Very well. If I must." He got up carefully-- he didn't want Sovaz to see him hurt himself by trying to stretch his body out too rapidly or bending his back wrong-- and walked over to the replicator. "Anything to drink, Sovaz?"

"I'm rather fond of tomato juice," Sovaz offered.

"Fine. One beef stew, one Tipharean bubble-juice with grape, and one tomato juice." He glanced over at T'Laren, who had retreated to a chair across the room and was watching him intently, sipping a glass of mineral water. "Done with your food already, T'Laren? Or did you hide the rest of that repulsive stew under the potted plant?"

"Why would I wish to hide my stew under a potted plant?" T'Laren asked, doing a wonderful impression of Vulcan bewilderment at human non sequiturs.

Sovaz glanced at T'Laren and then at Q. "Why would she wish to hide her stew under a potted plant? Is this a human custom?"

"A very popular one," Q assured Sovaz. "Human children indulge in it all the time. When their mothers tell them to eat their food because of the starving children on Bajor, human children come up with some very ingenious methods of hiding the food. T'Laren, don't tell me you never hid your food under a napkin or fed it to the family dog! Come clean. You can tell us, we're all friends here."

"It would be illogical to waste food," T'Laren said.

"So? What's your point?"

"On that topic," Sovaz said, "since it would be illogical to waste food and you apparently find your vegetable stew unpleasant, would you mind if I finished it?"

"How much time have you been spending with Counselor Tris lately?" T'Laren asked Sovaz-- the first thing she'd said directly to the girl-- as Q sat down with his food and motioned for her to go ahead.

"Why do you ask?" Sovaz countered.

"It seems you have picked up some of his habits. Be cautious. Few humans are offended if you ask for their food, but other species can be."

"Why would they be?" Sovaz asked. "If they do not wish to finish their food, why should it offend them that someone else should do so for them?"

"Because-- and this is a very important point, Sovaz, so Pay Attention-- Aliens Are Not Logical," Q pronounced. "If it helps, put it to music and make a song of it. Aliens Are Not Logical. In fact, no one but Vulcans places any cultural emphasis on being logical. Aliens will get offended by the damnedest things. You want to hear a funny story?"

"Assuming you are capable of telling one, by all means go ahead," T'Laren said.

"Oh, this is a laugh a minute, I'm telling you. There's a race out in what you call the Gamma Quadrant, who call themselves the Sintisee. About fifty thousand years ago, a mutation changed the color of Sintisee hair, which was up to that point pretty uniformly blue. Now a race of Sintisee with purple hair emerged. You got that? Well, since the two groups first encountered one another about three thousand years ago, they've made all sorts of edicts on what it really means to have purple or blue hair. Mind you, biologically there's no difference between the two other than hair color, but at various times they have enslaved each other, conducted pogroms, exiled each other, or decided that the other was intellectually inferior. Learned treatises were written on why blueheads would never become engineers or scientists in a country dominated by purpleheads; in blueheaded countries, it was determined that purpleheads were naturally cruel and emotionally crippled and could never be allowed positions of power. Or vice versa, depending on the time and the place. I mean, it was just incredible."

"And there is no difference between the two other than hair color?"

"No biological difference. A lot of cultural differences from centuries of segregation. Anyway, one morning they all-- the entire planet-- woke up to find their hair a uniform bright green."

"How did that happen?" Sovaz asked.

Q rolled his eyes. "Take a wild guess, Sovaz."

Sovaz looked confused. "I don't have enough information to hypothesize--"

"He means he did it," T'Laren said.

"Oh." Sovaz nodded.

"So now their little prop had been kicked out from under them. There was no way to tell by looking at people whether they had been blueheads or purpleheads, since everyone had the same green hair color. And it was the same shade of green, too. Boring, but then science often is. So what do you think they did? Did they realize how silly the distinction had always been and live in peace and harmony forevermore?"

"That would have been the logical solution," Sovaz said, "so I must assume that that is not what they did, since this is a story about alien illogic, right?"

"Oh how right you are. No, they started trying to empirically figure out what color people's hair used to be. They used photo reference, they used speech patterns, they used aptitude tests-- aptitude tests! They took it into their heads that purpleheads were stupid or blueheads were intuitive and emotional, and tested people on that basis! Unbelievable! And then-- this is what kills me-- they passed a law saying that everyone had to dye their hair back to its original color!" He was laughing as he remembered. He also remembered that there had been revolutions and pogroms, witchhunts for mis-dyed folk and the institution of entirely new prejudices, but he suspected the Vulcans wouldn't find all that nearly as funny as he had at the time. "Is that or is that not the funniest thing you've heard?"

Sovaz blinked. "I find the whole story somewhat tragic, actually."

Q sighed. "You would. The problem with you Vulcans is you have no sense of humor."

"I'm sorry if I offended you," Sovaz said earnestly. "I'm sure a human would find your story very funny."

"It depends on how well the human knew Q," T'Laren said.

"Let's not start, ok?" All Q needed was for T'Laren to decide to go into a recitation of his crimes against the universe. Besides, he still thought it had been funny.

"Would it be possible for me to have more stew?"

Q scrutinized Sovaz. She was small and slender, just as she'd been ten minutes ago. "Three bowls of stew? You're going to get quite chunky, my girl. Better break out that holodeck exercise program."

"You may of course have more stew," T'Laren said. "Q is probably unaware that your metabolism is still in its adolescent phase."

"You mean she's still growing? Horrors! T'Laren, she's going to grow up to be as gawky as you!"

"I am not still growing," Sovaz explained. "Not in terms of height. However, I have not yet completed the transition to maturity."

"And yet you seem so worldly-wise."

For several seconds Sovaz looked puzzled. "Oh! That is a joke, isn't it? Most sentients do not consider me worldly-wise."

"Sure, Sovaz. Kill the joke, why don't you."

"It really was a mercy killing," T'Laren said.

"As defined by a Vulcan? Oh, I am cut to the quick. A Vulcan finds me unhumorous. What tragedy. What pain."

"Since you did not disprove Dr. Markow's theory, do you believe it is possible that the singularity represents the after-effects of time travel?" Sovaz asked.

Q stared for a second, trying to figure out if that was supposed to be a conversational save. He decided it wasn't, and glanced over at T'Laren, jerking a thumb toward Sovaz. "She get that from you?"


"She never lets up, does she?"

"I did come here to ask you questions about the singularity," Sovaz said, a tiny note of defensive reproof in her voice.

"Oh, of course. By all means. Ask away."

"I just did."

"Did you now?" He considered. "Hmm, I guess you did. What do I think of Markow's theory?"

"Yes. Do you believe it is possible?"

"Possible? Sure. Likely? Not bloody. The odds of that singularity turning out to be caused by time travel are about equivalent to the odds of T'Laren standing up on the coffee table here and singing 'It's Not Easy Being Green.' Possible, sure, but I wouldn't bet money on it."

"Can you explain why not?"

"Not yet. If I could, I'd have shot him down in the conference. But..." He shrugged. "Working with time and space as many millions of years as I have, you get a feel for things. An intuition, if you will. Were I still in possession of all my powers, I could probably tell you exactly why the singularity is probably not caused by time travel-- but then, if I had my powers, all I'd have to do is scan the thing and I'd know just what did cause it. I just don't think the universe works that way. It feels wrong. And while my intuition is, I'm convinced, far more valuable than ten limited little mortals' experimental hypotheses, the rest of the conference doesn't see it that way. So I can't shoot down Markow's theory until I've figured out exactly why it's wrong."

"Do you have a theory of your own?"

"Dear child, of course I have a theory. I would be entirely remiss in my duties if I didn't have a theory."

"But you haven't proposed it. What is your theory?"

Q smiled broadly. "That would be telling."

"But it is your job to tell what your theory is."

"No, no, no. I assure you that that is not my job. My job is to shoot down everyone else's theory."

"That makes no sense."

"It makes perfect sense. You just don't realize it because of your basic misconception as to what this conference is about." Q stood up, placing his empty bowl on the coffee table, and paced. "I'm sure you think that the point to this conference is to discover the true nature of the singularity. Right?"

"Well... yes, of course."

"That is your first mistake. If the point was to discover the true nature of the singularity, they'd give me their fanciest equipment and hire me to stare at the readouts for oh, about three days. A week, tops. And then I would tell them, and they would know. No, that's not what the point here is. The point is to make all the top scientists in the Federation feel like they are doing something useful and contributing to the betterment of humanity-- and other sentiences in the Federation. It's Starfleet's solution to everything. Can't figure out which end is up? Form a committee. Somehow humans have gotten this notion into their heads that there is safety in numbers. If all the top scientists agree, it must be true. Never mind the glaring disproofs of that maxim-- you said you met Commander Data, right?"


"Everyone in the Federation's scientific community thought his creator was utterly wacko for believing he could build a sentient android. If it were true that majority opinion is always or even usually right, Data would likely not exist today. And yet he moves." He looked directly at Sovaz. "Did it ever occur to you to wonder why you, a junior officer, are the primary liaison between the conference and the ship? Why wasn't that job given to your superior, Commander Dhawan?"

Sovaz considered. "I had thought it to be intended as a learning experience. Also, Commander Dhawan is herself participating in the conference. This would interfere with her ability to effectively moderate it."

"I doubt it. No, I'll tell you the real reason, Sovaz. The real reason is that Dhawan is a raging egotist with a serious tact impairment." He grinned. "As a fellow sufferer of that particular affliction, I can sympathize. But the point is that she is incapable of managing this conference because she perceives it as a challenge to her competence, and she's right. If Starfleet really were concerned only with results, and truly didn't give a damn how they were obtained, this conference would be a genuine scientific endeavor rather than a three-ring circus. Morakh, for instance, does not deserve to be here. I've been accused of bigotry against Klingons, and I admit, I haven't a very high opinion of the species. But I don't think Morakh should be excluded because he's a Klingon; I think he should be excluded because he simply is not one of the Federation's top 40 physicists. There are probably Klingons brighter than he is, and the only Vulcan I've ever met who couldn't run rings around him mathematically is T'Laren over there."

"Who do you think should be included?" Sovaz asked, puzzled.

"About a fourth of the people that are actually here, tops. Roth, entertaining as he is, is not one of the Federation's best. Dhawan herself should be here; Markow should be here; I don't know about Elejani Baíi. Milarca should not. LeBeau should not. Pergiun should not."

"And you?"

"I'm out of all of their leagues," Q said, grinning darkly. "If they really wanted to solve the problem, they should have hired me to come out here and solve it for them, like I said. In terms of merit, I certainly should be here. In terms of what this conference is actually about, I probably should not."

"Q's cynicism must be taken with a grain of salt," T'Laren advised. "He may be very knowledgeable about physics, but he views all humanoid interaction through the filter of his own experience-- and his experience is with the worst of humanoid behavior. He has very little ability to give anyone the benefit of the doubt."

"Difficult when there is no doubt to be benefited from," Q said. "Vulcans are often unable to comprehend the pettiness and stupidities of other humanoid races. I have no difficulty seeing humanoids' virtues, on the rare occasions when they display them; but I'm far better aware than Sovaz is of how stupid most people are."

"I don't understand people," Sovaz confessed. "I understand Vulcans a bit better than I do most other kinds of people, but I don't really understand Vulcans either. I create a model in my head of what I believe a person will do, based on past experience, and then they do something completely contrary." She stood up, picking up her three empty bowls. "Physics is much easier."

"Of course," Q said. "The underlying laws that govern the behavior of the universe are actually very, very simple. Sentient beings make themselves unnecessarily complicated. I firmly believe that the only way one can understand a sentient being's behavior is by analogizing their mental processes to one's own-- which has never worked for me; my mental processes are completely different from anyone else's."

"That should serve as your model for arrogance, Sovaz," T'Laren said coolly. "In fact, Q's mental processes are entirely predictable using a model that assumes him to be human; he simply prefers to believe himself beyond anyone's ken."

"Entirely predictable, dear doctor? I hardly think so."

"Indeed. When you are not aware that I am predicting you, your behavior is entirely predictable. When you are aware, you typically become angry and do something random to demonstrate your unpredictability."

The idea of being predictable did, in fact, make him angry-- but now that she had thrown down the gauntlet, he could not give her the reaction she'd predicted. So he laughed. "Oh, T'Laren, you're delightful," he said. He turned to Sovaz and said conspiratorially, "She's mad at me for inviting you here."

"I cannot imagine why," Sovaz said. "I would very much like to know, though." She glanced at T'Laren, a sudden hard look on her face.

"Well, T'Laren? You seem so interested in enlightening the child, perhaps you'd like to explain your own unusual behavior?" This was perfect. He watched T'Laren with barely concealed glee.

T'Laren looked away, as if smoothing her mask in place. When she looked back at them, her face had the stillness of death, an unhealthy drained look-- not a mask rigidly holding emotion in check, but as if too much energy had been drained from it to show emotion. "Sovaz, I ask forgiveness," she said. "I cannot tell you why I chose suicide, nor why I behaved as I did earlier. The two are related, however. My weakness lingers, and I have not yet achieved full health."

"These things are understood," Sovaz said. It sounded like a formal Vulcan phrase. In fact the whole exchange sounded like Vulcan platitudes, dancing around the terms of the actual offense. Q was annoyed.

"You're just going to let her go with that?" he demanded of Sovaz. "After she humiliated you publicly the way she did?"

Sovaz tilted an eyebrow at him. "Vulcans do not feel humiliated at the actions of others," she said. "T'Laren cannot shame me."

"Right. Uh-huh. Sure."

"This has been an enlightening conversation, Q," Sovaz said. "I thank you." Her own Vulcan mask was firmly in place. Q could only stare at her, mentally spluttering with frustration, as she nodded at T'Laren and left.

"You people!" he burst out as she left. "You unutterably infuriating people!"

"Infuriating because we will not cooperate in your little games?" T'Laren asked.

"Infuriating because you won't stand up for what you feel, or admit to it, or apologize properly for hurting someone else, or demand a proper apology, or-- oh, you're just unbelievable! How did you manage to function for three thousand years as a society of emotional cripples?"

"I think your definition of emotional cripple differs somewhat from mine," T'Laren said.

"Yes, yours can include anyone except for you. I'm perfectly willing to admit that in my own way I am crippled-- though frankly I think I'm a lot better described as a social cripple; I have no problems expressing my emotions-- but you are not. In fact, it's your biggest problem, T'Laren. You're willing to go on and on about how I have all these problems, but what are you doing about your own?"

"It is not your place to worry about my problems!" T'Laren said sharply. Her tone of voice was not one he'd ever heard from her-- controlled anger, deliberately released-- a tactic Picard had used often, but not something Q expected from a Vulcan. Q raised an eyebrow in surprise. T'Laren's usual reaction when she got angry was to go cold and totally Vulcan. This was something new. "Our relationship has never been reciprocal, Q. You are not my therapist, you are not qualified to be my therapist, and I have not requested your help. So stay out of my affairs."

"I seem to have hit a nerve."

"You seem to have far more nerve than sense," T'Laren retorted. "Why are you trying to antagonize me? Are you so terrified of your own need for friendship that you must destroy the entire rapport we've created?"

"Make up your mind, T'Laren. One minute you're saying, 'No, we're not friends, I am your godlike psychologist and you must obey.' The next you're whining because I'm not being nice to you and I should play nice with my friends. Which is it?"

"I never claimed to be a godlike psychologist," she said, and half-smiled. "That honor belongs exclusively to your brother, I'm afraid."

"What, you trust Lhoviri and not me? What are you, insane?"

"I was, when he found me," she said calmly.

"T'Laren, how many times do I have to tell you this? You can't trust Lhoviri. Do I need to tattoo it on your forehead or something? He's me, six million years down the road. He's a malicious and untrustworthy bastard-- I know. He hides it better than I did, but he's older than I am, too."

"So you're saying that you are a malicious and untrustworthy bastard, but I should trust you anyway?"

"I don't have any powers. And yes. When I did, I was a malicious and untrustworthy bastard. I've learned a few things since, I think-- I hope-- and I'm still capable of being malicious and untrustworthy, but I'm also enormously grateful to you. Lhoviri isn't. He has no motivation to do anything nice for anyone."

"So you never did anything nice for anyone. Even your fellow Q."

"I didn't say that--"

"You just did."

"Look, you just don't know Lhoviri like I do!"

"Indeed. You knew him so well you expected that he would be one of your champions, until you discovered that he was responsible for your being thrown out of the Continuum."

Q drew in a sharp breath. "Cheap shot, T'Laren."

"I learned from the best," T'Laren said coolly.

Despite himself, Q smiled. "I seem to recall you had a talent for this the first time I met you," he said. "I didn't need to teach you much." He shook his head. "That's besides the point, though. You're right-- I thought I knew him, and he betrayed me. So obviously he's worse than I thought he was."

"That doesn't follow. He might have betrayed you because he didn't have the cavalier attitude toward mortal lives that you had, and that you expect him to share. Or, as I've mentioned before, he might have betrayed you because he believed this was your last best chance for redemption. Either way, he has no particularly good reason to hurt me. And whether you want to accept it or not, Q, Lhoviri is responsible for my being here today. I owe him more than I am likely to be able to repay. I do not trust him, and he understands that I do not, because if I allowed myself to begin thinking that Lhoviri is interested in my personal welfare I would probably end up worshipping him. But I have not have the experience of knowing him and caring about him for several millennia and then have him betray me, no. This doesn't speak volumes about your objectivity in the situation, however."

"Him saving your life doesn't speak volumes about yours, either."

"True. But Lhoviri is not the point, and we've become sidetracked. The point is that you are attempting to interfere in my life, to equalize the balance of power between us by trying to practice guerrilla psychotherapy on me. It's not your job."

"I never said it was my job," Q said. "My job is shooting down people's silly little theories. But you really are behaving like an idiot, you know."

"What business is it of yours if I choose to behave like an idiot?"

"Why shouldn't it be my business?"

She sighed. "I have explained why it is not your business. We're going around in circles again."

"Yes, circular arguments have always been the bane of our existence," he said lightly. It wasn't a terribly entertaining argument, either. T'Laren couldn't see how she was contradicting herself, and for once Q didn't feel like hashing it out with her. They weren't starting from the same reference point, he thought, and in order to get to the same reference point he was afraid he'd have to say too much. If T'Laren wasn't in a self-revelatory mood, he couldn't see why he should have to be the one to strip metaphorically nude. "Fine, I've got work to do anyway." He got up and headed for his room.

"You do realize that we haven't resolved anything?" T'Laren called after him.

"When do we ever?" he asked, and let the door to his room shut behind him.

T'Laren watched him go, somewhat disturbed. It wasn't at all like Q to simply stop arguing and retreat, circular argument or no. Perhaps he recognized for once that he was out of line... which wasn't like him either, but perhaps he was finally changing. If he'd thrown Sovaz up in her face just now just to be a jerk, he might well recognize what he was doing, and maybe even give in... but she'd gotten the distinct impression that that wasn't what it was, or not all it was anyway. Q seemed to genuinely believe he was helping-- and more than that, that he had the right to "help." It had to be a reciprocal power thing-- Q couldn't stand being in a less powerful position, and had to try to mirror her authority. Maybe he backed down because he recognized that was what he was doing, and that he had no moral high ground to argue from?

She wanted to discuss the case with Tris. It had been too long since she'd had a fellow therapist around to help spot her. Back when she practiced regularly, she would discuss cases in detail with fellow therapists on other ships or stations without using the patient's name, and since the others didn't know the patients personally they couldn't figure out who it was from the case description, either. It was unfortunate that Tris knew Q, since it raised the risk of violating patient-therapist confidentiality, but she couldn't think of anyone else she could talk to now, and she felt a serious lack of objectivity. She had to talk to someone; she'd just be careful how much she said.

The holodeck simulated the botanical lounge aboard Starbase 199, itself a simulation of the Hanging Gardens of Guayaquil. Tris pointed this out as they entered the room. "I think this has to be the ultimate in removal from reality. You realize, this is a simulation of a recreation of a copy?"

A simulation of a recreation of a place home to neither of their species, T'Laren thought-- it was hard for her to think of Earth as home, anymore. Nevertheless, Starbase 199's botanical lounge had been important to both of them. "You know why I chose it."

"Every so often I wonder if holodecks generate some kind of long-term psychoses," Tris said. "The idea of something that looks real, sounds real, smells real-- and it's completely fake. And there's something very slightly off about it, so you know it's not real, but it's too subtle to put your finger on why."

"I don't know what you mean. I can't tell the difference between a holodeck and reality unless there are artificial people in the simulation."

"And how do you tell the difference then?"

T'Laren shrugged. "I suppose it's my telepathy. I know when I'm in the presence of a sentient being, though I can't sense anything about them unless I'm touching them."

"But you can't tell that you're not really in the Gardens right now?"

"Well, I know it logically, because I know I came onto a holodeck. But if I were unconscious and I woke up here, I'm not sure if I'd realize I was on a holodeck."

"See, I'd know. Not right away, but I would know." Tris picked a flower off a vine and handed it to her. "Look at it. It looks alive, it smells alive, but it's not. It's not even dead. It's imaginary, a construct of smoke and mirrors."

"A difference that makes no difference is no difference, Tris."

"But this difference does make a difference." He sat down on the bench. "Maybe it's even more insidious if you really can't sense it. What's the point to going on shore leave when you can have a much more positive experience on the holodeck? Simulate the planet without the annoying bugs to the funny gravity or the weird smells or the risk that some nutcase alien custom will get you killed. Why go home when you can replicate home on the holodeck? Why do anything real?"

"Starfleet officers are screened for the potential for that particular psychosis," T'Laren said. "And holodecks were tested for years before they put them on starships."

"I know all that. I just wonder... oh well. I don't think you came here to talk about holodecks." He patted the bench next to him. "Why don't you sit down and stay a while."

T'Laren plucked another flower off the vine and twirled it in her fingers. "I need to be very careful in examining questions of reality and unreality," she said. "The point isn't a moot one for me anymore."

"Why not?"

No. She hadn't yet summoned the nerve to talk about that, though she wanted to, though she'd just tried to lead herself up to it. Tris would know nothing that could reassure her, and given his opinion of holodeck creations... mightn't he decide she wasn't real, a Q-created simulacrum of dead T'Laren? Bajorans took concepts like souls very seriously. "Actually," she said, "I'd like your input on my case. I'm not sure... I'm not sure I'm handling it professionally enough."

"Fine. Who's been your backup in this?"

For a silly moment, she thought he meant backup in the sense of substitute, and thought of Q's reaction to a substitute therapist. That wouldn't go over very well. A second later, she realized he must mean her therapist. People doing therapy were supposed to have fellow therapists they could talk to, to help them stay professional with their cases. She didn't quite think Lhoviri counted.

"I don't have backup."

"That's ridiculous. Are you kidding?" She shook her head. "Well, that's problem number one!"

"I didn't see a way around it at first. I had to get Q off Starbase 56. The counselor there had been completely intimidated by Q; he controlled almost every interaction they had. Everyone there despised him, and either avoided interacting or attacked first."

"I've heard they had reason," Tris said. "You know, they had a GIAC made up just for him?"

A GIAC-- Guidelines for Interacting with Alien Cultures-- was a memo members of Starfleet, and civilians in official Federation capacities such as scientists and diplomats-- were required to read before having dealings with the race in question. T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "He is the only representative of his race in known space, but that seems a little extreme."

"He's driven people off in tears, provoked violent attacks against him, and apparently gave one guy a complete nervous breakdown. They should never have assigned Medellin to him-- I've met her; she's an incredible wuss. Sometimes I wonder who she offended at Starfleet Command to draw that particular assignment."

"She volunteered. Possibly out of some sort of identification with Q's plight; it's hard not to have sympathy for him if you just hear the facts of what's happened to him, without meeting him personally. Nian Medellin struck me as the sort of woman who would nursemaid the universe if given half a chance."

"Which is not the sort of counselor a person given to whining self-pity ought to get. Q needed someone who could kick him in the butt."

"Whining self-pity?' T'Laren raised her eyebrow again. "An interesting description from someone who met Q only briefly, and that under circumstances in which he was not whining or self-pitying."

"All right. I'll grant you I'm going mostly from second-hand descriptions. Why don't you describe what you're seeing?"

"I'm not totally sure." She sat down. "From studying everything I could get hold of on him before I actually met him, I hypothesized that the only treatable cause of his depression is the fact that he has no social safety nets. He really has been exiled to a life he can't stand; he really does have a hard time with what he perceives as his disability, in being merely mortal; he has a number of excellent reasons to be depressed, and there's nothing I can do about any of those. But he's also a very socially dependent individual, though he would never admit it in those terms. He postures for his audience, he performs, he puts on entire theatrical productions to get people to pay attention to him, or to view him a certain way, or to connect with him, even negatively. If he really didn't care what people thought of him, he wouldn't behave that way. So I've focused my attention on getting him to understand how badly he needs social connections, and to try to form positive ones instead of trying for negative attention."

"Okay." Tris watched her with his best sounding-board expression.

"Initially he was self-destructive-- and irresponsible with his own welfare, even when he wasn't actively being self-destructive-- to the point where I thought he needed someone to..." She hesitated. "More or less play dictator. Tell him what he should eat, force him to exercise, force him to get a decent night's sleep, that sort of thing."

"Play mommy, you mean."

"If you like. In a lot of ways Q is very childish-- not entirely his fault; by the standards of his people, according to him, he literally is an adolescent, and by our standards he's had only three years experience with a human body-- but he's been treated as an adult since he first became human. Which meant that people expected him to behave in his own self-interest, and when he didn't, rather than teaching him appropriate behavior or making allowances for adolescent temper tantrums, they tried to exert complete control over him. This didn't work very well. Q's reaction to other people trying to control him is to get extremely stubborn."

"So you decided to treat this person who doesn't respond well to authority by playing dictator."

T'Laren winced slightly. "I made a few missteps at first, but also I tried to change the parameters of my dictatorship. Rather than acting as if Q was maliciously trying to hurt himself to get back at me, I tried to behave as if I knew he was doing this because he didn't know any better, and show him why the response was an inappropriate one."

"You treated him like a kid, basically."

"In some ways, yes. And now I think he's developed enough ability to listen to advice without automatically going stubborn on me that I'm treating him like an adult again, and in some ways he resents it. He complained today that I didn't wake him up in time for his conference."

"Did you tell him you'd given up the mommy business?"

"I told him the night before that I was changing tactics... but I think I didn't make it clear that I was no longer acting in loco parentis before I let him oversleep, no. That was a mistake. I taught him to rely on me instead of taking responsibility himself and then I didn't warn him he'd have to switch back."

"Does Q know he's graduated to being a grownup again? For that matter, did he know why you were babying him in the first place?"

"I tried to make it clear."

"Because that's dangerous, being someone's parent. Q might be an adolescent, but his mommy and daddy are not here. They threw him out of the nest to take care of himself. You're not going to help him solve his problems by taking care of him."

"Little chance of that. Q sees himself as fiercely independent. He resents any attempt to take care of him."

"That wouldn't stop him from shamelessly taking advantage of it if you're going to do it anyway. It just means he'll resent you when you do it and he'll resent you when you stop."

This sounded uncomfortably close to what was happening. "You could be right. He's been obnoxious to me since we came aboard Yamato."

"You mean that isn't normal?"

She shook her head. "I think you've been overly influenced by people's stories about him, Tris. He actually behaved quite well at the conference-- no worse than anyone else there. In fact, I would consider Lt. Dhawan to have been far ruder than Q, considering that she is supposed to be the science officer of the host vessel."

"Well, that's Shara for you," Tris said, shaking his head. "Why did you think we gave her job to Sovaz?"

"Why Sovaz?" T'Laren returned. "If you were looking for a person with social polish and diplomatic skills..."

"She doesn't do too badly," Tris said. "Besides, she makes everyone here feel good, the way she asks them questions constantly. Nothing to make a scientist feel like an expert than having a good-looking girl hanging on their every word; they don't know Sovaz pumps everyone for information. Or how immature she is."

"Perhaps. My point being, though, that Q is not being that bad-- except to me. I'd thought we'd achieved something of an understanding aboard Ketaya--"

"And that's probably exactly why he's doing it," Tris said, interrupting. "T'Laren, come on. You should know people do things like that. He probably feels like you've gotten too far under his skin, and now he needs to push you away, or something."

"That isn't the main thing," T'Laren said, shaking her head. It wasn't that simple. It couldn't be. "I could deal with mere obnoxiousness. But he seems to have taken it into his head that he needs to fix my life."

"It does kind of look like someone needs to."


"All right, all right. You have any idea why he might be doing something like that? I mean, from what I understand of him, fixing other people's lives is not exactly what he does."

"Yes. Nonetheless, he's doing it. At first I thought he was simply being maliciously amused; now I wonder if it's a power game of some sort. An attempt to compensate for my greater power as therapist by trying to play therapist to me."

"Well, why's he say he's doing it? That's probably a clue."

"He says he's doing it because friends don't let friends dress like Vulcan schoolmarms."

"Okay... is that what he's attacking you on? The way you dress?"

"The way I dress, the way I behave to Sovaz, my relationship with you..."

"What's he know about our relationship?"

"He overheard you calling yourself my taran."

Tris' eyes widened. "He knows the door trick?"

"Apparently." The words sank in. "What door trick, Tris?"

"The trick you use when you want to eavesdrop on somebody. I don't know whether to be pissed off or impressed. How much of our conversation did he hear?"

"As nearly as I could tell, the whole thing. He found it amusing."

"Yeah, I can see how he would," Tris said darkly. Then he shook it off. "All right. So you think maybe it's a power game. Sounds that way to me too, but is there anything else?"

"Well, there was something somewhat odd... Q doesn't simply quit arguments, most of the time. He allows them to become circular, he prolongs them, seemingly for the joy of arguing. But last night he... First he invited Sovaz to my quarters, then attempted to provoke her into attacking me. When I apologized to her and she accepted it, Q seemed to think that that wasn't enough-- that Sovaz should have extracted a pound of flesh for her troubles. After she left, we began to argue-- and then Q backed down, admitting the argument had become circular and claiming he had work to do. Normally he doesn't do that."

"Maybe he's learned circular arguments are boring?"

"I don't think he thinks they are. He revels in the stimulation of arguing; I've never before known him to back down unless he was either proven wrong or the topic moved onto an uncomfortable subject for him."

"Well, could that be what happened? What were you arguing about when he backed down?"

T'Laren summoned up her memory of the conversation and summarized it, excluding the tangent about Lhoviri. Tris' stare became more intent as she spoke. When she finished, he said, "I suggest you get out now."


"I mean it. I think you're getting way too emotionally involved. I mean, I wasn't there, but it sounds to me like if Q even thinks you're playing 'I-am-the-almighty-therapist' power games on him one minute and then whining because he should play nice with his friends-- unless it's total bullshit that he made up for effect, it means you're in too deep. First you tell me you've been playing mommy. Now he seems to think you're playing friend, and you shouldn't be playing anything."

"I'm not."

"You sure about that?" Tris stood and began to pace. "Listen, you were on a spaceship for two weeks with him."


"Three, then. That's worse. People in that kind of proximity either get forced together or pushed apart, and either way you wouldn't be able to help him. Look at yourself, T'Laren. You're upset because your patient is attacking your personal life. Why do you care? Is it because you feel he's backslid and you want to see him do better? But you know people do this kind of thing, try to put distance between them and their therapist when they think stuff's cut too close to home. Are you sure it isn't because it personally bugs you? That you've gotten in deep enough that you care what he thinks?"

"I have hardly heard it said that a good therapist is uncaring."

Tris let out an exasperated sigh. "You're not listening to me. Sure, you should care about what he thinks of you-- for his sake. Making fun of your clothes and the way you treat your sister-- which, by the way, I'm totally behind him on-- doesn't mean he's lost his trust in you or his respect for you. It does mean he doesn't think you're the Prophets, or Mommy, but you're not supposed to be, so that's just as well. And it also does mean that if you've started to get emotionally involved, you could get emotionally hurt. And if you even start to give me that crap about not having emotions, I will smack you."

"I wasn't planning on it." Her world took an odd lurch to the side. Had she gotten too emotionally involved? Could she do anything about it if she was? She knew herself to be somewhat obsessed with Q, but that what Lhoviri was paying for. Was that getting in her way? There was a difference between getting too emotionally involved to avoid getting hurt and too emotionally involved to do Q any good. What if the latter had happened? "I don't believe I'm too involved to help him," she said calmly, hoping it was true. "And I'm afraid there are no other considerations."

Tris stared at her. She had just said it was okay to break one of the cardinal rules of therapy, she knew-- Thou Shalt Not Get Involved. "Let's assume for the sake of argument that you're right, and you being too involved isn't going to get him hurt or ruin any attempt to do therapy, even though that's usually what happens when therapists get personally involved. Why is your happiness less important than his? Why are you going to take the risk of having an emotional leech attached to you?"

"Q's hardly an emotional leech. You don't know him."

"Maybe not, but he's a disaster waiting to happen. That, I do know." He stared at her as if a horrible thought had just occurred to him. "You're not in love with him, are you?"

T'Laren blinked, somewhat stunned at the irrelevancy of the question. "No." She shook her head slightly. "Where do these notions come from, Tris? Must you always bring sex into everything?"

"I didn't bring in sex. I brought in love. You of all people know there's a difference. And for that matter, even if I was just talking about sex, it's hardly that weird. You have a bad habit of falling for self-centered, arrogant assholes with emotional problems."

She let her face soften slightly. "Present company included, of course?..."

"Oh, of course. But all right. You're not in love with him. Good, I don't have to pretend I don't know you."

Her eyes narrowed. "Tris, are you jealous?"

"What?" The flat, disbelieving tone in his voice was the exact equivalent, for him, of her blinking before.

"You have spent a good portion of this conversation sniping at Q. You know him only by reputation, yet you seem to feel free to attack him. You have raised the possibility that I am in love with him. And I don't believe what passed between us was ever adequately resolved. So I ask, reasonably, are you jealous?"

"No, I'm not jealous," he snapped, and then some of the anger drained from his face. "You just got out of a relationship with one emotional cripple, T'Laren. If I thought you were getting into a relationship with another-- and if Q's as badly off as I've heard, he makes Soram look like Mr. Sensitivity-- I'd be really concerned for you. Not to mention disappointed. I'd like to think you're not the sort who gravitates to men who are really incredibly lousy for you."

She touched his arm, gently. "If I was, it would provide additional explanation for why I left you."

"I doubt it." He took the hand that was on his arm, covered it as he sat down with her. "Why did you leave, T'Laren? You never really explained."

"I said I wasn't willing to give up being Vulcan. I thought you understood."

"And loving a Bajoran somehow compromises your Vulcanness? Funny, you guys do it with humans all the time and no one kicks them out of the Vulcan Sibhood."

"It wasn't loving a Bajoran that threatened my Vulcan citizenship. It was loving him enough to contemplate leaving my husband for him."

Tris nodded, as if he should have known-- which, indeed, he should have. She had explained to him once that divorce was impossible. "So how come he could ditch you?"

"Because I was insane."

"Seems like a shit of a double standard," he said, his voice dark with anger against all those who had hurt her, his face very close to hers.

T'Laren was abruptly uncomfortably conscious of his proximity. Tris might try to kiss her, she thought, considering that she was free now, and that the chains of bonding were the only reason she had left him in the first place. But she had other chains now, obligations she needed to fulfill. She stood up, breaking the moment. "I'm sorry. I wish there had been another way, then."

"But what's done is done, huh?" He shrugged slightly. "Okay. If that's how you want it."

"It is less a question of what I want than what must be," she said softly. "I have obligations to fulfill before I can even consider fixing the wreck of my personal life."

"Obligations to Q?" He shook his head. "I always knew you could get fairly obsessive about what you think your duties are, but you know you're pushing it now, don't you?"

"I owe a debt, Tris. One I can never fully repay."

"To Q?"

"To the one that asked me to help Q. I cannot consider quitting until I am sure either that Q no longer needs me-- that he has developed enough of a safety net of friendships with others that they can carry him when things get bad-- or that I am doing more harm than good. I owe too much to do otherwise."

"Are you sure you'll know it when he doesn't need you anymore?" Tris asked. "Or especially when you're starting to do more harm than good?"

Before she could answer, his combadge bleeped. Tris rolled his eyes and touched it. "Tris here."

Wilde's voice over the intercom said, "Professor Yalit is transporting aboard at Transporter Room 3. You should be there."

"Right. How long?"

"About five minutes-- if you're not in dress uniform, don't worry about it. This is going to be... interesting, Tris."

"Interesting how?"

"Apparently she's a Ferengi."

T'Laren's eyebrows went up. "A female Ferengi physicist?"

"You're right. 'Interesting' sounds like an understatement. I'll be there." Tris toggled his combadge off and looked at T'Laren. "Now this I gotta see."

The second day of the conference had been even more entertaining than the first. Q had gotten a chance to utterly demolish three other theorists, including the incredibly idiotic Dr. Pergiun, whose presence at the conference assured Q that whatever criteria they'd used to invite the guests, value to Federation science was not it. One of the others he'd demolished was Elejani Baíi. He'd taken a special delight when he'd seen that opportunity; the Laon'l were almost religiously non-confrontational, and he had more or less expected her to metaphorically curl up in a ball and whimper. After the way she had publicly humiliated him at the reception, the thought of destroying her theories in a public arena took on a special savor. He hadn't gotten quite what he'd expected from her, though; she had debated with him for a bit, calmly, and then when it became blatantly obvious that he was right she'd graciously backed down and thanked him for his insights. That had been mildly annoying, but at least the unpredictability of it had been marginally amusing. But now he was getting restless.

Dhawan and Tamal, the Cardassian woman, had been in a shouting match for the past ten minutes, with one of the human scientists, a man named Sinclair, desperately trying to get them to calm down, and several other people, Q included, egging them on, when Sovaz' combadge bleeped at her. Sovaz answered it, making no attempt to conceal the conversation from the delegates. "Sovaz here."

"... obvious bankruptcy of Federation science..."

"Sovaz, Yalit is boarding. You should come on down."

"... at least we don't decide what theories the State will allow to be published in some sort of secret star chamber..."

"On my way," Sovaz said.

As she stood up, Dhawan broke off her tirade against Cardassian science and turned. "Sovaz, where are you going?"

"Professor Yalit is arriving," Sovaz announced.

Q had been watching Sovaz, having grown somewhat tired of Dhawan and Tamal rehashing their arguments. He raised an eyebrow at that. "You must invite us along, Sovaz. I confess to an overwhelming desire to meet our mystery alien."

"I doubt Commander Wilde would appreciate it if I--"

"Oh, come now. Surely he couldn't object to a delegation of Yalit's colleagues and fellow scholars coming to greet her?" Actually Q was less interested in meeting Yalit-- though he was curious as to what her race was, and how he'd managed to never hear of someone important enough in the field to warrant an invite her-- as he was in getting out of the room.

"Don't be an idiot, Lucy," Markow said. "Of course he could. He's Starfleet."

"I don't understand," Sovaz said.

"Just as well," Q replied, getting up. Dhawan glared at him.

"She just said you're not invited, mister."

"Perhaps I should stay here, then, and attack the political beliefs of the other guests? Oh, but I suppose Starfleet frowns less on that than on a delegation of scientists greeting a fellow."

"There's nothing against Starfleet policy in that," Roth said. "I'm quite sure of it. Let's all go!"

"A wonderful notion," Tamal said. "Perhaps we could demonstrate that one need not be a member of Starfleet to show hospitality." She shot a look at Dhawan.

"I'm going to be late," Sovaz said, trying to push her way past Q without actually invading his space, difficult because he kept shifting his body weight so she couldn't get past.

"Truly a tragedy. I hear they frown on that in Starfleet."

In the end some others took pity on Sovaz, and managed matters so that only Q and Roth ended up leaving with her. Sovaz looked mildly bewildered; Q wondered if he should feel guilty for pressuring someone so obviously clueless about humanoid interactions into something she didn't want to do, and decided that regardless of whether he should, he wasn't going to. Guilt was for lesser beings, and besides, this promised to be entertaining.

It was not Derek Wilde's day.

Truth be told, it hadn't been his week; but he had so far at least managed to greet all the incoming VIPs without mortally offending any of them. That might conceivably have changed.

Fifteen minutes ago he had been on the bridge when a report of an incoming ship came in. A Ferengi ship. Since there were no Ferengi delegates-- since the death of Dr. Reyga, there were no Ferengi physicists of any renown-- this was unexpected, but then, Ferengi would ferry people if the passengers paid them enough. Captain Okita had hailed them, and their DaiMon, a man named Dar, had replied, in that sort of smarmy, not-quite-insulting way that Ferengi had, that they were bringing the Lady Yalit to the conference.

That had been all right. When they had demanded to accompany her, Wilde had demanded to know why, whereupon Dar had informed him that the Lady Yalit was his mother.

At this point Wilde's jaw had dropped to the floor, and he'd said, "Yalit is a Ferengi?"

What he'd meant was that she was a Ferengi female, and he had been under the impression that females weren't allowed to read, let alone become great physicists of interplanetary renown. DaiMon Dar had not taken it quite that way. After about ten minutes of trying to apologize and explain that of course he didn't mean Ferengi couldn't be great scientists, everyone knew they could, hadn't Dr. Reyga invented the metaphasic shield? and so forth, he had heard an imperious voice from off screen telling Dar to shut up and make boarding arrangements. An imperious, aged and very definitely female voice.

God but he hoped she was waiving the "no clothes" rule. That was all he needed.

And now, as he waited in the transporter room, while Yalit and her family entourage were being fashionably late, Sovaz came in with Q and one of the Starfleet delegates. Of all people. Wilde groaned inwardly.

"Mr. Sovaz, what are the civilians doing here?"

Roth blinked. "Commander, with all due respect, exactly when did I become a civilian?"

"They wished to pay their respects to Dr. Yalit," Sovaz said, naively sincere.

Here's a few credits, Sovaz. Buy a clue. "Well, that's very admirable of them, but they really aren't supposed to be here."

"Why not?" Q asked.

"Because it's policy," Wilde answered in total desperation.

Q looked to Roth. "You're in Starfleet, Harry. You ever hear of a policy like that?"

"Never did," Roth said. "Sir, what chapter and subsection of the regulations is that policy?"

At that point Tris came in, with another civilian. The Vulcan who'd been so rude to Sovaz. Just what Wilde needed.

He was about to use the fact that Roth was Starfleet to order him to leave and take his civilian buddies with him, when the transporter chief spoke. "Yalit's party is ready for transport," she said.

Wilde sighed. He could order Roth to leave, but getting Q to go would be a major headache-- the man had a reputation for doing whatever you told him not to do. And after he'd offended the DaiMon, he really didn't want to keep Yalit's party waiting. "Energize," he said tiredly.

Four columns of sparking light appeared on the platform. As they formed with more precision, Wilde fought to keep from moaning. Three of them were fairly average-looking Ferengi, with the funny little hatlike things hanging from the backs of their heads, wearing loud clothes as Ferengi were wont to do. The fourth, in the middle, was wearing earrings dangling from small, droopy earlobes, and otherwise was completely naked.

"I think I am about to lose my lunch," Q said, quietly, but probably not quietly enough.

Wilde stepped forward, smiling. "Welcome to the Yamato, Professor Yalit--" The three male Ferengi glared at him.

"Our mother will not speak to strange men," one of the three, not the DaiMon, said sharply.

How the hell was she going to be at the conference if she didn't talk? And what were they going to do about the fact that Starfleet regulations clearly stated that all humanoids should wear clothing that concealed the genitalia while aboard a Starfleet vessel? Outdated, but there it was. Yalit looked at her son with a touch of incredulity, as if she couldn't believe he was bothering to make a big deal.

"All right," Wilde said, controlling his urge to scream at the Ferengi. "Lieutenant?"

Sovaz stepped forward. "Welcome to the Yamato, Professor Yalit," she said promptly. "I'm Lieutenant Sovaz, science department liaison to the conference. May I show you to your quarters?"

Yalit laughed. "Don't mind my sons. They're far too overprotective of their old mother." She turned to the errant son.! "Ril! How am I supposed to speak at the conference if I can't speak to men, eh?" With that she whacked him on the side of the head.

"I feel positively nauseous," Q murmured.

"This was your idea," Roth whispered. He wasn't being quiet enough, either.

"So who are you?" Yalit peered up at Wilde, who was now somewhat confused by the interplay between the Ferengi. "You the captain?"

"No, I'm Commander Derek Wilde, first officer."

"I don't rate the captain, hmm?"

"The captain didn't come to see any of us," Roth piped up. He stepped forward. "How do you do? I'm Dr. Harry Roth, one of your fellow inmates."

"Why is it that she gets to run around in the altogether, when I was forced to put on clothing aboard the Enterprise because of some silly Starfleet regulation?" Q asked. "Have they actually done something sensible and changed the regulations, or is this rampant discrimination against members of the Q Continuum in favor of Ferengi?"

T'Laren said warningly, "Q..."

"Fine," Tris said. "Take off your clothes if it would make you feel better."

"It certainly would be less nauseating to look at if I did," Q said.

"Is that true?" Yalit asked. "There's a Starfleet regulation that says I have to wear clothes?"

"Mother! You can't be thinking of degrading yourself like that-- denying your womanhood--"

"You don't have to wear clothes if you don't want to," Tris said. "It's a Prime Directive thing, isn't it?" He turned to Wilde, who nodded gratefully.

"Then why did I have to wear clothes?" Q asked.

"Because you don't come from a society where nudity's the norm," Tris said. "So no one was violating your cultural beliefs."

"Yes, but they made me wear a hideous color. That does violate my cultural beliefs."

"Q, be quiet," T'Laren said.

"Mother, these men are not paying you the respect you deserve--"

"Shut up, Ril." Yalit yanked on Wilde's tunic, hard. He turned back, startled. "Is it going to hamper my ability to attend the conference if I don't wear clothes?"

"Terribly," Q said. "Everybody will be too busy vomiting to listen to your undoubtedly silly theories."

Tris turned around. "Q, either shut up or get out," he said.

"Let him talk," Yalit said. She stepped off the transporter platform and over to Q, glaring up at him.

It was a bizarre confrontation. Yalit barely came up to Q's waist-- a tiny, wizened, troll-like woman with sagging skin covered with liver spots and narrow, piggy eyes, facing off against a tall, frighteningly thin, sardonic human man whose attire was the picture of sartorial elegance. Yalit seemed almost a monster, a Baba Yaga from ancient tales, not a sentient being at all. "What's your name?" she demanded.

Q looked down at her as if she were an offensive bit of debris he had found on his shoe. "I am Q," he said coldly.

"Why haven't I ever heard of you?"

"I travel in far more refined circles than you do, apparently," Q said.

"You've got a nasty tongue on you, young man. Better be careful. Someone might cut it out."

"'Young man?'" Q raised an eyebrow. "I suppose that in this current body I would have to admit to the man part, but young is hardly an appropriate term for me."

"Compared to me? You're a baby."

Q snorted. "I hardly think so. I was old when your people were first crawling out of the sludge-- girlie."

"You look it," Yalit said, nodding. Peremptorily she turned to her sons. "Get me a robe! Now!"

"Mother! You can't seriously be--"

The DaiMon glared at his brother. "The Lady Yalit gave you an order, Ril," he said sharply. "Get her a robe!"

"I'd suggest one with a hood, myself," Q said, "Preferably one that goes over the entire head."

Yalit turned back to him. "You think you're so wonderful, young man-- excuse me, old man? A woman would cut herself on those bones of yours."

Q shrugged. "I'm thin. But I can gain weight. You, my dear, are ugly-- and nothing can change that."

T'Laren grabbed Q. "I think that's quite enough," she said. "Come on." She started dragging him toward the door.

Yalit cackled. "Not only is he skinny and ill-mannered, but he takes orders from women!" Her sons laughed appreciatingly.

Q turned at the door and smiled. "Like your sons, you mean?"

And then, as the male Ferengi purpled and Yalit glared, he was gone.

"You'll have to forgive us," Wilde said, filled with dread. He had handled this all wrong. He had been practically paralyzed by the interplay between Q and the woman. "Q is one of the other delegates, not someone Starfleet has any control over. He behaves that way to everybody."

"Does his girlfriend drag him out of the room every time he does it?" Yalit asked, and then cackled again.

The Ferengi that hadn't spoken so far stepped off the transporter platform with a loud greenish plaid robe, far too big for Yalit, but she put it on. "When you're with aliens, follow their custom if you want their latinum," Yalit told her sons. "Rule of Acquisition number 203."

"I can show you to your quarters now," Sovaz suggested.

"The Lady Yalit will not be guided by a female underling!" Ril shouted.

Sovaz blinked. "Professor Yalit is female. How does it impugn her honor to be guided by a fellow female? I don't see the logic."

"That's because there isn't any," Yalit said. "One more word out of you, Ril, and I'll send you back to the ship. You're almost as ill-mannered as that fellow Gyu."

"Q, actually," Sovaz said.

"Whatever. Take me to my room, child. No one has any manners these days."

"What did you think you were doing?" T'Laren asked, barely managing to keep her anger out of her voice.

Q shrugged. "Merely greeting a fellow scholar."

"No. That is not what you were doing. It is undoubtedly not what you think you were doing, either."

"The keenly observant Vulcan telepath strikes again! Tell me, what other facts have you gleaned from your mind-reading expeditions, T'Laren? What else do you know that I don't about my own thoughts?"

"One hardly needs to be a telepath. One merely needs to look." She pulled him around the corner and released him when she saw people coming; despite her anger, she had no particular desire to humiliate Q further by dragging him past various members of the crew.

"Then why don't you tell me what I was doing, since you seem to know so much about it?" he asked cheerily, obviously enjoying the argument.

"Why was it necessary to humiliate Professor Yalit like that?"

"She was asking for it," Q said. "I mean, really, how much temptation do you expect me to be able to withstand?"

"Is this more of your bigotry?" T'Laren asked quietly. "For one so supposedly knowledgeable, you display an appalling close-mindedness on occasion."

Q removed his guest combadge and dropped it on the floor. He glanced down at it. "Hmm. It seems the laws of gravity are still working today!" He bent at the knees to pick it up and looked up at her with a mocking expression in his eyes. "One wouldn't want to be close-minded about such things."

"Considering that most of your insults revolved around the professor's supposed ugliness--"

"It's true. Humans will think she's ugly. So will Bajorans, Cardassians, Klingons, Betazoids, Andorians, and nearly anyone else one could mention, at least as far as races at this tinpot conference go."

"But how is that relevant? Professor Markow is hardly very attractive, for reasons far better under his control than Yalit's species is under hers. Yet you don't insult him."

"I don't need to insult him any more."

"Any more?"

"What, is there an echo in here?"

They arrived back at their quarters-- which was interesting, because T'Laren hadn't actually intended to come here. Q was officially still supposed to be at the conference. Right now, though, she was on the trail of something. "Did you ever need to insult him?"

Q rolled his eyes. "I suppose you think that I really did think your accent is the most hilarious thing I ever heard, too."

The non sequitur puzzled T'Laren. "What does my accent have to do with anything?"

With a disgusted snort, Q walked over to the replicator. "Children's alphabet blocks. In bright primary colors."

As T'Laren watched, bemused, Q turned around with an armful of alphabet blocks and set them down on the table. "This is a C. See the C? Pretty C." He set the C block down. "And this is an A. Can you say, A?"

"I hardly think you are in any position to accuse me of being infantile," T'Laren said.

"Oh, I wouldn't think of accusing you of being infantile, my dear. I'm accusing you of being stupid."

T'Laren controlled a sigh of exasperation. She had no desire to play Q's games. On the other hand, she would lose his respect if he thought her stupid, and while most of what he was saying sounded like the usual Q smoke and mirrors, the hardness that edged into his voice on the word "stupid" made her think that he was on the verge of meaning it seriously.

She quickly reran the conversation in her head. Alphabet blocks weren't just a symbol of childhood; he was telling her she needed things spelled out, and that he was contemptuous of her for it. So what was it that he was refusing to spell out? Obviously he believed he had told her everything she needed to know...

"You attack people when you meet them for the first time. Because you're testing them for something. What?"

"Very good," Q said, placing a T block down next to the C and A with a flourish. "Maybe next we can learn our multiplication tables."

"What are you testing them for?" T'Laren repeated.

"Or maybe not," Q said. He leaned forward. "The truly obnoxious thing about you is that you seem to need to have everything spelled out. And if I won't do it you insist on doing it for me. Really, you have no class whatsoever."

"Fortunately," T'Laren said dryly, "I come from a classless society."

Q's eyes widened. "I think you just tried to make a joke. Careful. You could strain yourself."

"I do need to have things spelled out for me," T'Laren said. "And when you won't do it, I do need to reflect what you just said back to you. That's part of a therapist's job. I cannot take it for granted that I know what you mean-- that breeds misunderstanding and anger."

"And what a tragedy that would be," Q said.

"Besides, if I tell you what I think you mean, and it is not what you mean, you will either get exasperated, or you will seize on my interpretation and confirm it to cover your own fears of being exposed."

"I can do that anytime. I hardly need your help."

"Considering that you seem to dislike directly lying to me, it would seem to be much easier for you to do it when I help. I can usually persuade you to tell the truth if I don't ask you leading questions."

"And how do you know I'm telling the truth?"

"I don't. I believe you are, since your statements have an internal consistency, but I do not take any of my beliefs for granted. Which is why, although I believe I know the answer, I will ask again: why do you test people when you first meet them? What are you testing them for?"

"To see if they're worth my time." Q picked up one of the blocks and began off-handedly tossing it up into the air and catching it again, not looking at her.

T'Laren nodded slowly. "Did you decide Morakh was worth your time, when he refused to be provoked by you?"

"No, I decided he was worth making fun of back on Starbase 56. See, there's two kinds of people who are worth my time. There are people who are actually interesting, and then there are people who are fun to make fun of. So far Morakh still falls in the second category; he's too stupid to be interesting any other way."

"You are going to get badly hurt one of these days. You were fortunate with Morakh, that he isn't as easily provoked as a typical Klingon. Someday you're going to push someone too far, and they're going to push back. Possibly with their fists."

Q shrugged. "I get beaten up all the time. If I was going to live in terror of being hurt, I would crawl under my bed and whimper until I died."

The remark was too offhanded, too studiedly casual. T'Laren pounced on it. "You believe you have no control over being hurt? That it's going to happen anyway, and so you may as well do as you like?"

He turned and stared at her. "I thought you just said you couldn't go about making things up that I supposedly think."

"For one who prides himself on his ability to deceive, your body language can be remarkably transparent at times," T'Laren said. "I'm right, aren't I? You don't think you have any control over being hurt, so you don't bother to exert what little control you actually do have." Something else fell into place. "That's why you don't fight back, why you think of yourself as powerless and weak, even though you would be a reasonably strong human if you took care of yourself. You're so powerless, compared to what you were before, that it seems to you that you have no power at all. And you don't want to learn self-defense techniques because you're so firmly convinced that you're powerless and the effort would be useless that you feel certain of failure, and you despise failing at anything. You would rather simply not try."

"I think this is one of your fairy tales again. We can chalk it up there along with 'I hate myself' and 'I tried to kill myself because I don't have any friends.'"

"You decided on Ketaya that you did not, in fact, want to kill yourself. Exactly what was different about your life between then and the last time you were on Starbase 56?"

"I no longer had to deal on a daily basis with crushing idiocy, Anderson jerking me around like a puppet and Medellin's moronic sappiness."

"So you wanted to kill yourself because Counselor Medellin is sappy and Commodore Anderson kept taking away your computer privileges. I see. Such terrible things could devastate anyone's existence."

Q glowered at her. "Vulcans aren't cut out for sarcasm."

"You only resort to bigotry when you know I'm right."

"You pull statements out of thin air when I score a point."

"Did you score a point? I hadn't noticed."

"Why is it that you weren't capable of speculating on why I test people, but you were perfectly capable of making up a tale about why I tried to kill myself out of whole cloth? This seems remarkably inconsistent of you, T'Laren. Make up your mind."

"Make up your mind. One moment you are deriding me for stupidity because I haven't played your guessing game. The moment I start playing and winning, you decide you would rather have had me keep my mouth shut. Are you that terrified of losing?"

"I wasn't aware that therapists were supposed to play games with their patients."

"When the patient will respond to nothing else, we're perfectly capable. And you seem incapable of relating to anyone outside the context of a game or a test." She stepped closer to him, getting in his space, staring intensely up at him. "Tell me, Q, doesn't that seem a little limited to you? To be incapable of saying what you truly mean, asking for what you really want, getting what you really need, because you're boxed in by the rules of a game that no one else is playing? You may take points off their score when they don't cooperate, but you can be sure that they're scoring you poorly for refusing to engage in the social interactions they expect. And there are far more of them than there are of you, and they have far more power than you do, and whether you like it or not, you depend on them for everything that makes your life marginally bearable. Didn't it ever occur to you that it's foolish to play a game if no one else will play with you?"

"You've turned quite vicious," Q said. "Don't like being on a ship with people who remember how you cracked up, do you?"

Abruptly T'Laren realized what she was doing. She had come perilously close to a personal attack, and when you attacked people they got far too defensive to listen to what you were saying. Not to mention that Q in particular could turn very vicious if pushed too far; and he had far too keen a sense for people's weaknesses to have entirely missed hers, especially when she'd been so obvious about them. She had made her point; it was time to back off and let it sink in. She composed herself serenely. "Think about it," she said, and turned away, walking to her bedroom.

T'Laren was seriously starting to annoy Q.

He sat at his terminal, looking up the minutes of the conference-- which he hadn't particularly felt like returning to after leaving it today, but he needed to know what silly theories other people had proposed, and more importantly what analyses they'd ordered run, so he knew what he had to work with-- and attempting, as usual, to figure out what exactly was causing the singularity. The idea that someone else might figure it out before he did drove him, as did the thought of the enjoyment he'd get from being the only one who knew the answer all the others were struggling to get. Right now he was having a hard time concentrating, though.

T'Laren was supposed to be on his side. She was not supposed to bodily drag him out of the room when she disapproved of his behavior. At the time he had still been "up" from the incident with Yalit, and had managed to ignore the indignity in favor of making it look like it hadn't bothered him. But now it angered him. She had been behaving badly to him ever since they got here-- forgetting to wake him up, forgetting to tell him she wasn't going to wake him up, making eyes at her Bajoran boyfriend instead of doing her job and staying with him. And being cruel to her little sister, who Q was quite certain did not deserve such treatment-- making fun of the girl was one thing, he would enjoy that himself, but betraying her, cutting her down in public like that... well, Q had no sympathy for older siblings who betrayed the younger ones that looked up to them. Sovaz' naiveté begged for practical jokes and witty but lighthearted insults, not coldness. And then acting like he had no right to support the girl, or to tell T'Laren what a putz she was being, because she was his Almighty Therapist. Who did she think she was?

From a distance, he heard the door chime, but he had no particular desire to get up and get it. It was probably Sovaz. Good. Let T'Laren face the girl, it would do her good.

Then there was a chime at his door, and T'Laren's voice over the intercom. "Q? Dr. Roth is here to see you."

Q blinked in surprise. He didn't actually expect Harry to show up at his room. Q had had a long-standing policy of not letting anyone come into his personal quarters, aside from Anderson, who he couldn't really stop; ever since Dr. n'Vala's head had been broken in for seeing an assassin in the process of killing Q, Q had maintained a distance between his off-duty life and what he thought of as being "on", being in public. Roth, like everyone but T'Laren, belonged to his public life. What was he doing here?

"Let him in," Q said, curious. And, if the truth be told, he wanted something else to do. His work was not providing sufficient distraction from his anger at T'Laren's incredible density and recent coldness.

The door opened. "Hard at work, I see," Roth said cheerily. "Such dedication."

"If I am forced to live with you people, my superior intellect obligates me to attempt to guide you from the ignorance and foolishness that is your natural lot in life," Q said, sighing deeply. "A tedious, tedious job, but someone must."

"How fortunate for us that that someone was you," Roth said. "A lesser man might have given up such a Herculean task, but not our Q! Gamely you struggle onward to bring light to the masses, overworked and underappreciated."


"Well, as a token of our appreciation for your noble efforts in our behalf, I've come to invite you to dinner."

Q blinked. This was startling. "Whatever for?"

"Because I thought you might enjoy it, why else? Or do you really prefer to stay in this stodgy little room?" Harry looked around it. "Your quarters back home had far more class."

"Quite possibly because I lived there. Hardly a point to redecorating when you'll be gone in a week or so. But you're quite right, Starfleet decor is abysmal."

"An oxymoron, even," Roth said, leaning forward. "Not that Ten-Forward is all that much of an improvement, but we could sit in the back and make fun of people if you liked."

Q considered the offer. He was not stupid; he knew perfectly well why Harry Roth was making overtures to him, and knew it had nothing to do with anything truly of him and everything to do with an irrational hormonal reaction to Q's arbitrarily chosen form. Back when they were working desperately to stop the Borg, when he was new to the station and humanity and when the incident with Amy Frasier was a recent raw wound, he had ignored Roth's overtures of friendship until the man had stopped making them. He wasn't entirely sure why Harry was making them again now, but he felt considerably more tolerant of them; it felt good to have someone interested in him, someone who thought he was attractive and wanted to be with him, even if it was for one of those disgusting and meaningless physical reasons. And Roth was an entertaining enough conversational partner, and having someone to trade witty banter with would get his mind off the events of the day and out of the downward spiral it was on. "Well, when you put it that way, how can I refuse?"

"Delightful!" Harry beamed at him. "So, shall we go?"

"Like this?" Q glanced down at himself. The clothing he'd worn to the conference today, like all his best outfits, had been restrictive and uncomfortable, designed as it was to make him look about 10% bulkier and considerably more muscular than his actual skeletal form. But he'd changed out of it when he came home, and while what he was wearing was flattering enough for entertaining room guests, and considerably more comfortable, it was insufficiently deceptive to be seen in public in. "No no no. I need to get dressed. Shoo." He flicked his fingers at Harry, gesturing at the door.

"Not necessary at all," Harry protested. "You're a vision of loveliness, believe me."

Q sighed. "I can't believe I've agreed to spend time in the company of a man with no taste whatsoever."

"We'll have to do something about this self-esteem problem, Q," Roth said cheerily. "It might actually fool people into thinking you don't think you're perfect."

"Of course I'm perfect. When I'm dressed. If We had intended you people to look attractive without clothes to help out, We wouldn't have removed your fur. Now get."

"Ah! So you're taking credit for it."

"Well, not me personally. I was invited to be on the committee, but I declined. I thought, with remarkable prescience, that you'd be more trouble than you're worth. Now will you get out and let me get dressed, or will I have to call in my muscle woman to remove you?" Q was having a great deal of fun. He really should have allowed this a long time ago.

"Is this going to be one of those three-hour ordeals?"

"The longer you stay and keep me from starting, the longer it gets."

Harry sighed ostentatiously. "Well, if you're going to be that way about it, I suppose I can wait." He left the room and stood for a moment in the doorway, looking back. "I shall be waiting patiently."

"Good for you, Harry," Q said. "Patience is definitely a virtue you should cultivate."

It actually took Q only half an hour to get ready-- mostly because his makeup was already on and needed only to be freshened a bit. He selected a black suit with royal blue accents fairly quickly, since he'd had it in reserve in his "wear soon" area, and the physical process of dressing always took the least amount of time. As he stepped out into the common room of the suite, Harry, seated on the couch, raised his eyebrows appreciatively. "Oh, definitely worth the wait."

Q smiled, accepting that as his due from his adoring public. T'Laren, sitting in the armchair across from Harry, looked up at him as Harry stood. "Do you wish me to accompany you?"

Deliberately and with malicious glee, Q pronounced, "No." The effect was somewhat lost when T'Laren merely nodded and went back to reading, as if the request had merely been pro forma and she hadn't wanted to go in the first place.

As he and Roth left and the suite door shut behind them, Harry asked, "Did you two have a fight?"

"A 'fight' would imply I was dealing with someone of sufficient intellect to present a challenge," Q said coldly, the cold directed more at the thought of T'Laren than at Harry. "I hardly think T'Laren qualifies."

"I don't know; she seems to have helped you a lot. You seem a lot happier."

Q did not want to discuss T'Laren, or what she had done for him. "That's merely a function of finally getting the respect and attention I deserve."

"What about the fact that you have more people in one place to annoy than ever before since the Borg?" Harry asked innocently. "Does that play a role?"

Q pretended to think about it. "Mmm... I'd say that it's a definite factor, yes."

This was fun. He couldn't remember ever being invited to dinner before, or actually to any social function that didn't by necessity include him, like the victory party when they defeated the Borg. And while he might once have been nervous at Harry's ulterior motives, he felt himself now to be completely safe-- his body was in no danger of betraying him here. It had no physical interest in Roth, leaving Q free to banter and enjoy the man's company without any fear that his body would try to make him do something else.

The Ten-Forward lounge aboard the Yamato was not nearly as dark and somber as the Ten-Forward lounge aboard the Enterprise-- though perhaps Q only remembered it that way because it was Guinan's territory. The carpet was a light, relaxing blue, the walls were beige, and he was quite positive that the lights were simply brighter. He and Harry took a table near the transparent wall, next to the stars.

"Look at that," Harry said, pointing toward a spot at the far left. There was a ring in which the stars appeared duller than they should be, circumscribing a circle in which there were no stars at all. "We don't normally get to see these sorts of things up close like this. Eerie-looking, isn't it?"

"Not particularly," Q said, shrugging. "It's just a singularity."

"Just a singularity?" Harry looked at him askance. "A spot where the natural laws of the universe break down, where light itself is swallowed whole, is not just anything."

"You forget who you're talking to," Q said. "There's nothing special about a singularity to me. I've seen thousands of them."

"You have no romance in your soul," Harry complained.

Q laughed sardonically. "You flatter me."

"Every chance I get." Harry grinned. "Seriously, I find it hard to imagine that an intelligent man with a taste for physics could be so completely unmoved by the wonders of the universe."

Q sighed. "Oh, how terribly parochial. 'The wonders of the universe', Harry? I used to create things like this. The only emotion a singularity might inspire in me is perhaps a bit of nostalgia for my misspent youth."

"Now you have me dying of curiosity. Why did you go about creating singularities? I can't help feeling that if I were an omnipotent being, I could think of some more interesting things to manufacture."

"Such as tall young men to bring you wine and cater to your every whim, I'm sure."

Harry laughed. "How little you think of me, Q. No, I think I'd come up with something a bit more useful... though the concept does have an appeal." He leaned forward, eyes wide. "Although, that being said, I've always been more enamored of maturity and intellect in my love objects."

Q chose to ignore that. "How would you define useful? Going about spreading peace and understanding to the multitudes? Saving lives, being worshipped, all that tedious nonsense?"

"I had no idea you found being worshipped to be tedious nonsense."

"It gets old about the thirtieth millennium or so."

"I suppose you're going to want me to stop handing out the leaflets for the Reformed Church of Q, then."

"The Reformed Church? I'm insulted, Harry. In the old days, my worshipers wouldn't think of reforming. Besides, who else would you get to go to your meetings?"

"I don't know, I thought Elejani Baíi might be amenable. Since you tricked her into thinking you rescued her planet and all."

"Wonderful. My worshipers include a deluded Laon'l and a degenerate with no aesthetic sense."

"A degenerate? I feel positively insulted."

"You said you had reformed. In my book, that makes you a degenerate."

"I'll de-form, then, just for you. What would you like me to deform into?"

"All you need is to promise you will never do it again, and I'll consider myself satisfied."

"Is that all? I thought I was going to have to make virgin sacrifices or something."

"No, you'll find me a very easygoing god. Besides, what would you expect me to do with a virgin?"

"You prefer more experienced partners, hmm?" Harry asked, innocent and wide-eyed.

Q snorted to hide his embarrassment. He'd walked right into that one. "I have no interest in your petty little human reproductive rituals."

"It's not done for reproduction, believe you me."

"That's because something went frightfully haywire in the design."

Harry tsked. "Now see? If you'd taken that spot on the committee they offered you, you could have made sure no such mishaps occurred. Don't you feel foolish now?"

Q and Harry spent an enjoyable hour or so talking about nothing of any importance whatsoever. It was a lot more pleasant than dinner conversations with T'Laren, who insisted on talking about things that actually mattered. Here, whenever it seemed like the conversation would start to become serious, one or the other of them steered it away. Really, Q thought, he should have taken this up a long time ago. He could almost forgive Harry his embarrassingly maudlin meanderings when Q had been in sickbay.

They were deep in an attempt to determine exact definitions for all the synonyms of "stupid" and choose paradigmatic examples from the other conference attendees of each type of stupidity when Dr. Madeline LeBeau approached their table. Her face was flushed, and she seemed just a trifle unsteady on her feet. "I would definitely say 'idiot'," Q said lazily, watching her approach and anticipating some entertainment. "Don't you think?"

"Oh, definitely. Not a moron, though."

"No, not a moron."

"I know why you're here," LeBeau said. Her voice was just a little too shrill, just a little too hard. She leaned on the table, supporting herself with both hands as she leaned forward into his face.

"And I know why you're here, from the smell of it," Q said, waving his hand in front of his face as if to fan her breath away. "Couldn't you at least get drunk on a decent vintage, LeBeau?"

"I'm not drunk," she said sharply. "And you don't fool me."

"Fool! That's it. That's even better than idiot," Q said brightly, turning to Harry. "Perfect."

She leaned forward a bit more, her elbow bumping Q's half-eaten dish of ice cream, but not spilling it. "You are here to sabotage the conference," she pronounced, as if she'd just caught him out as a Romulan spy.

"I certainly have nothing whatsoever better to do with my life than go about sabotaging some petty little scientific pow-wow," Q said with heavy sarcasm.

"But that's what you do, isn't it?" LeBeau snarled. "You go about insulting people, belittling their life work, all to make yourself seem important. You are not important, Monsieur Q, not at all."

"Obviously I'm important enough for you to feel the need to attack me. Tell me, Dr. LeBeau, are you normally in the habit of conducting vicious and unprovoked attacks on people more intelligent than you are, or is it simply the wine? I'd always thought the French were better able to handle their liquor than this."

"You think you're so marvelous. 'Vicious and unprovoked attacks on people more intelligent than you are,'" she mimicked in a sing-song, whiny voice. "You're overrated, Q. I don't know why everyone hasn't figured that out by now."

"Bribery?" Roth suggested.

"Obviously you're right, doctor. I suppose, given a choice between listening to a being who is several million years old and has spent all of that time performing experiments in physics, and listening to a drunkard, anyone would choose the drunkard."

"I'm not drunk!"

"You mean you act like this all the time? I'd be ashamed to admit it, were I you."

"Do you enjoy these cruel little games you play? Do they give you pleasure?" she asked tonelessly.

"I must admit that they provide a tiny bright spot of pleasure in the unbearable tedium of my life, yes," Q said cheerfully. "You'd be amazed, really, at how much enjoyment one can get out of a few carefully placed witty comments. Perhaps you should try it sometime... oh, but that was cruel of me, wasn't it? I didn't mean to remind you of your crippling disability."

"My crippling disability?" LeBeau asked, brow furrowing in anger.

This was wonderful. She knew she was being set up and she still walked into it. "Your complete and total lack of wit," Q said, eyes wide with false sympathy. "I suppose it's simply not a pastime you're equipped to understand."

"I heard about what you did to Dr. Christian," LeBeau hissed in a poisonous non sequitur.

This was unpleasant. "I did nothing to Dr. Christian," Q said in a bewildered tone, once again tormented by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without having done anything to warrant them. Actually he knew exactly what LeBeau was talking about.

"You killed her son!" LeBeau said, as if outraged that he would dissemble about it.

A bit of genuine outrage sparked in Q. "I did no such thing!"

"Oh no?"

"Let me disabuse you of this misapprehension," Q said coldly. "The Borg killed Dr. Christian's son. Her delusions to the contrary are not my problem."

"And you had nothing to do with it, I suppose."

Q shrugged. This was turning ugly. "Space is not a safe place, m'dear," he said coldly. "Dr. Christian's son had the misfortune to be on a ship commanded by an arrogant, short-sighted man with a Pollyanna-esque belief in the essential goodness of the universe. Without a lesson in harsh realities, sooner or later Picard would have lost his entire ship, as he lost his first command. And without a lesson in the uselessness of Federation diplomatic tactics against the Borg, your entire miserable species would have been picked off by them in a matter of weeks. It is unfortunate that Dr. Christian's son happened to be one of the very few who died for that lesson, but he and multitudes more would undoubtedly have died otherwise. One can forgive dearest Anne her failure to see this, since she is emotionally involved, but one must assume that you are simply too stupid to comprehend reality."

"And you can justify murdering 18 people to yourself that way?"

"Actually, I don't need to justify it at all." She had actually succeeded in getting Q angry. He stared down at her coldly, as if she were an insect he had found on his shoe. "How often do you really feel the need to justify stepping on ants?"

"So you think of us as ants," LeBeau said triumphantly, as if she'd been fishing for that all along.

The triumph in her voice made Q think he'd made a misstep, played into some trap she was setting. But he could see how to salvage himself easily enough. "Well, when I had my powers, yes. Now I think of you as..." He pondered ostentatiously. "...mmm... dogs. Somewhat annoying puppylike creatures, lolling your tongues, scratching for fleas... Some of you actually achieve an almost wolven cunning, but most of you are pretty much domesticated lap dogs." He smirked.

Her face flushed with outrage. "That's all you know how to do, isn't it? You're not here to help the conference. You're just here to attack it."

"You obviously have nothing better to do than walk up to people you barely know and start attacking them. I'd advise you acquire a hobby, Doctor. Obviously it can't be a very diverting hobby, as you lack the intellect necessary to pursue anything interesting... I'd suggest knitting. Needlepoint."

LeBeau clutched the edge of the table, red with fury. She took a deep breath. "You seem to think your ridiculous insults bother me."

Q shrugged. "I'd say it's a fairly good guess." He stood up and went to LeBeau solicitously. "Unless your face is such an unlovely shade of red from the wine alone. Perhaps you've just had a bit too much to drink." He put his hand on her shoulder in a mockery of friendliness. "Maybe someone should take you home," he said, his tone utter innocence.

She shook him off and faced him, furiously. "I have not had too much to drink," she spat. "And I don't believe I need anyone to 'take me home'."

"Pity," Q said coldly. "It would at least get you out of the way." He stepped back from her. "You're boring me, LeBeau. Why don't you run along and play?" An evil inspiration struck. He lifted a napkin off the table and tossed it. "Fetch!"

As LeBeau purpled, Harry was beginning to look nervous. He edged toward LeBeau. "I think he's right, Doctor. I think perhaps someone should take you home."

She laughed harshly. "Oh, but you'd agree with anything Q said. Tell me, Dr. Roth, do you think that if you spend enough time playing Q's arrogant little games with him, he'll actually agree to go to bed with you? I doubt he's very good."

"I'll take my chances," Harry said mildly.

"In fact," LeBeau said, drawing the words out, "I've heard that he's actually quite abysmal."

She was saying it to get to him. It was ridiculous for him to take the accusation seriously. She had probably made it up on the spur of the moment. The fact that she seemed very much like the sort to be one of Amy Frasier's cronies almost certainly had nothing to do with it. It was preposterous for him to assume that just because she said something like that meant that someone had been spreading rumors about him. Preposterous and stupid... and he couldn't help himself. If she was just making it up now, that was one thing. But if someone had been telling lies about him...

"Oh, really," Q said coldly. "And who would you have heard that from?"

She smirked snidely. Oh, she knew when she'd scored a point, all right. "I think we both know."

"No. No, I'm enormously curious as to who you could possibly have talked to. And why, exactly, they felt the need to make up elaborate sexual fantasies about me and lie to other people about them."

"Well, there can't have been that many," LeBeau said, still with the snide tone. "No one thinks you're very attractive. Except deluded creatures like him." She gestured at Roth.

"Maybe you should go home now," Roth said coldly.

"I don't think so," LeBeau snapped back.

Q dropped his voice and spoke to Roth conspiratorially, though certainly loudly enough for LeBeau to hear. "She's obviously mad with jealousy."

"That must be it," Roth agreed.

"Jealous? Of you? Don't make me laugh."

But Q had something now. He moved in with implacable coldness, intruding on LeBeau's space again, looking down at her. "Tell me, doctor, are you in the habit of fantasizing about the sex lives of total strangers? What is it about me that makes you feel the need to make up these egregious lies? Sour grapes, perhaps? You wish to convince yourself that I couldn't possibly be any good in bed, because you know you are far too shallow, stupid and primitive to attract me-- not to mention downright hideous?"

LeBeau's hand shot out, slamming across Q's cheek.

He saw it coming a split-second before it hit, and in that split-second the usual terror overwhelmed him, the familiar gut-wrenching sensation as he realized he had gone too far and was about to be beaten to a pulp for it. LeBeau's size and sex didn't factor into the equation-- most of the people that had beaten Q up in the past were smaller than he was, and more than a few were female. He wanted to cringe, to beg, to scream for help, to run away. But it was LeBeau's fault this time. He had defended himself from an unprovoked verbal assault. And why should he have to be the one to cringe in fear? Why should he have to humiliate himself by screaming for help? It wasn't fair!

The blow knocked his head to the side, sending pain through his entire face. But T'Laren had taught him self-defense techniques, things he could use to disable an attacker, and fury drove him to use them to lash out. In rage and humiliation, he grabbed the offending arm, twisting it out of the way where it couldn't strike him again.

LeBeau shrieked. It was a ghastly, horrible noise, the sort of sound security officers made when they were being murdered, and it startled Q into releasing the arm. Immediately LeBeau staggered back, holding her arm, which hung at an odd angle from her elbow. "You broke my arm!" she screamed.

He couldn't have. "I did not," Q said automatically, shocked. How could he have broken her arm? He'd felt something give when he twisted it away from him, yes, but he was weak, pathetically feeble. How could a human arm possibly be fragile enough for him to break?

And then Security was standing there, uncomfortably close, the way they stood when they were about to drag him off to his room for another of Anderson's house arrests, only he hadn't done anything wrong. He had only defended himself. She would have beaten him up. "What happened here?" one of the security officers asked.

"He assaulted me! He broke my arm!" LeBeau screamed, voice shrill with pain. "Oh, God, I need a doctor..."

She had to be faking it. He couldn't have broken her arm. "She hit me!" Q said, feeling a rising sensation of panic. No one would ever believe he hadn't instigated the conversation. It wasn't fair.

"So you broke her arm." The security guard's voice was cold.

"I didn't!"

"Then who did?"

A sob escaped LeBeau. Q glanced over at her. Several people had clustered around her, and most of them were glaring at him. Could she really be fooling all those people? "I didn't mean to," Q said helplessly. A hard anger overtook him. "She hit me first. I was defending myself."

"Against a human woman half your size."

They weren't going to understand. It was Amy Frasier all over again, the hideous double standard that let human women abuse human men however they wished and punished the men for defending themselves. Q folded his arms sullenly. "What's the point to me explaining? You've already judged me guilty."

One of them was looking at Harry. "Can you tell us what you saw?"

Harry looked at Q pleadingly. Q turned away from him. Roth was undoubtedly going to betray him too. Everyone took the human woman's side. That was definitely what he should have picked. A little bit of surgery would have taken care of the menstruation thing, and then he'd have had everyone fawning on him, jumping all over themselves to protect him no matter what he did. A little late to change his mind now, though.

"Dr. LeBeau was... um.. a little inebriated, I think. She came over and started making vicious accusations against Q. He defended himself verbally. The conversation got ugly, and she, uh, she slapped him, and he grabbed her arm. I don't think he was trying to break it."

"He did a damn good job if he wasn't even trying," the security guard said dryly. "Let's go." He tugged on Q's folded arm. From experience, Q knew that if he didn't go with them immediately, they would do something incredibly obnoxious and humiliating, like put manacles on him and drag him. He went, sullenly and with bad grace, but cooperatively, trying to hold onto at least a few shreds of his dignity.

If T'Laren hadn't taught him those damned self-defense techniques, this would never have happened. It was all her fault. He was going to kill her.

T'Laren was still reading when the door chimed. She was startled-- Q would have just entered, and she wasn't expecting anyone else. "Come in."

The door opened, and Harry Roth came in, looking upset. "T'Laren, something's happened. I think... I think you'd better come down to security."

She tensed. "What's happened?"

"I think it was an accident," Roth said, a slightly panicky edge to his voice. "I'm sure he didn't mean to do it, but you know how he is, he's not explaining himself to security and I'm sure they've got the wrong idea--"

T'Laren stood up. "Lt. Roth. What happened?"

"Q broke Dr. LeBeau's arm."

She had not expected that. "Explain on the way," T'Laren said, sweeping out of their quarters with Roth in her wake. "How did it occur?"

As Roth gave a somewhat disjointed explanation of events, T'Laren's mind raced, feverishly piecing together what must have happened. Q considered physical violence barbaric and beneath him, but like most people who eschewed violence, he had a dark streak of it running beneath the surface. She remembered when he had tried to strangle her for pretending to throw him out the airlock-- could that be related to what had happened? But no, from Roth's story nothing had happened that would inspire Q to such anger. LeBeau had hit him, but surely Q was used to being hit..., Q was used to being beaten up. People generally didn't slap Q, they punched him, and usually they did it more than once. And T'Laren had been training him to defend himself. Either he had tried to block LeBeau from hitting him again, and underestimated his own strength, which given that he seemed to be convinced of his physical powerlessness and that he was used to having a Vulcan sparring partner was entirely plausible, or he had deliberately tried to break her arm as a terrified and outraged reaction to the thought of being beaten again. Possibly some combination of both. The fact that LeBeau was half his size would not have entered into his mind, T'Laren felt sure-- this was the same man who had called Security because he felt sexually threatened by a petite human woman, after all.

They arrived at security. The security chief, Lt. Ken Washington, was actually there, filling out some sort of report. T'Laren did not mince words. "I've come to see Q."

Washington looked up. He looked far too young, a pretty boyish creature with soft wavy chocolate-brown hair, a round face not yet devoid of baby fat, and big blue eyes. Those same eyes were set in a calm, businesslike expression, though. "You're his psychiatrist, correct?"

T'Laren winced inwardly, remembering that she'd introduced herself as such when she and Q had first boarded, the first time she'd met Washington. "'Therapist' is a more precise term," she said. "I'm a xenopsychologist and former Starfleet counselor."

"You're also Sovaz' older sister."

"I've come to see Q," T'Laren repeated, unsure what her relationship with Sovaz had to do with anything, and annoyed that he'd brought it up.

Washington nodded. He stood up. "You can speak to him outside the cell, or if you prefer, you can go in. If you're inside, I can give you fifteen minutes with privacy modulation on. After that, I'd have to turn it off."

It took T'Laren a moment to remember what privacy modulation was-- the ability to make the forcefield to the cells in the brig soundproof, so a person could have privacy to discuss their case with an advocate. It was not a right, but a privilege, permitted in cases where it was unlikely that the safety of the ship or people on it would be affected. She was almost surprised that Washington had offered it though, having expected that she would need to fight for every concession. "I would prefer the privacy modulation, thank you."

Q looked curiously small in the cell, hunched over with one knee on the bunk, his arms wrapped around it and his chin resting on it. His expression was a hard mask, but T'Laren could read him well enough to see the loneliness and fear under his stony expression. He looked up as T'Laren approached the cell. "This is all your fault, you know."

"My fault?" T'Laren repeated, raising an eyebrow, as Washington let her through the forcefield and engaged the privacy modulation. "Can you tell me exactly what happened?"

"Why bother? I'm sure that you, like everyone else, have already made up your mind."

"Have I ever made up my mind without even talking to you first? Be realistic, Q. We have fifteen minutes in which the guards can't overhear us-- let's use them wisely."

"Why? Are we going to plot my escape? Were you planning on charging in here with a phaser rifle and camouflage grays, perhaps?"

"I thought you might appreciate being able to tell me your version of events without it getting all over the starship. Or being left to Lt. Washington's discretion, for that matter."

"A guilty conscience at work, I see. You don't want to reveal to the entire ship your own ineptitude in causing this debacle. Let's not try to pretend you're doing this for my sake, T'Laren."

"Since, in fact, I am doing it for your sake, and I would consider my own role in what occurred to be minimal at best, I have no need to pretend anything." She sat down next to him. "Q, please tell me what happened. I can't help you if I don't know what happened."

"Talk to Harry. I'm sure he'll gleefully tell the entire story to anyone who asks," Q said bitterly.

"I need to hear your version of the story to help you."

"I don't need your help," Q snarled. "You have done quite enough damage as it is, dear doctor. My captivity here can be laid entirely at your doorstep, and I do not need you to dig me in any deeper."

There was no way to be conciliatory, no way to gently persuade him to listen to her when he was in a mood like this. "You have no choice," she told him coldly. "I am going to help you whether you like it or not. The only decision you have to make is how much time it takes. If I don't have your testimony, it may take me several days to come up with a sufficiently persuasive lie, and in the meantime you will be languishing in the brig, while Dr. LeBeau has full freedom of the starship. If you cooperate, I should be able to get you out much faster, and possibly see LeBeau reprimanded or punished for her complicity in this. Which would you rather?"

He stared at the floor sullenly. "What makes you think that if I tell you what happened, you'll be able to get me out any faster than if you just make it up? You'd probably come up with a better story than the truth, anyway."

"Possibly, but do you want your excuse to be solely in my hands, without any input from you? Normally you're much better at keeping control of your own image than that."

"Since you seem to be as incapable of coming up with a decent defense as you are incompetent at self-defense training, I suppose I have no choice," Q said petulantly.

His version of the story, when one filtered out the gratuitous insults and the self-pitying whining, was not substantially different from Harry Roth's, and confirmed both her theories. A bit of reading between the lines was necessary, but really, less than usual. Q had no idea how strong he was. He had acted both to prevent LeBeau from attacking him again and in anger that she had attacked him in the first place, had been convinced that she meant to do him serious harm, and had had no idea that he was capable of breaking her arm, let alone any intention of doing so. Reading a bit deeper between the lines, T'Laren suspected he felt terribly guilty about it, and was transposing his guilt onto her, blaming her for what he'd done so he didn't have to face his own guilt.

"All right." She stood up as Washington signaled her that he was turning off the privacy modulation. "Give me a few hours to try to get you out of here. If I can't get you out by then, I'll come back and let you know how I'm doing."

"And what am I supposed to do for a few hours?" Q asked harshly. "Just sit here and twiddle my thumbs?"

"Take a nap," T'Laren suggested.

"Have you any idea how hard and unpleasant these bunks are? The last time I was in one of these dungeons, on the Enterprise, I fell asleep, and I regretted it for hours." He considered. "Actually, it turned out they drugged me. I don't trust Security for a minute. Can't you get someone to watch them, to make sure they don't drug me?"

"You had a history on the Enterprise when you were there," T'Laren said patiently. "You have no history here. And you're now a Federation VIP. No one would dare drug you."

"Well, I'm not going to sleep," Q said sulkily. "And I'm going to be bored out of my mind."

"I'll see what I can do."

She turned toward the force field. "I'm ready, Lieutenant."

As she stepped through, she glanced back at Q. For just a moment, he had a desperately forlorn expression on his face, as if he wanted to beg her not to leave him. Then he hardened into the stony mask again. She looked away and turned to Washington. "Lieutenant, would it be possible for Q to have read-only terminal access? It would be preferable if he had the ability to do some work while he's here. I understand the security issues involved with terminal access, but surely he would be safe with read-only."

Washington gazed at her impassively. Finally he nodded, once, and returned to his desk, where he apparently punched a few buttons on his console. A wall panel in Q's cell slid up to reveal a terminal. Washington walked up to the cell as Q gave him a puzzled look, as if unable to understand why Security would grant him anything at all. "It uses standard voice commands, but it will only allow you visual access-- you can't record and you can't listen."

Q glanced at the terminal and back at Washington. "Well, this might make the crushing boredom of this cell lighten a sufficient fraction that I won't die of it."

"You're welcome," Washington said evenly.

"Who should I speak to about getting the charges dropped?" T'Laren asked him.

"Me. Let's go to my office." He touched his badge. "Wiggins, I need you on duty in the brig."

They waited the minute or two until security officer Wiggins showed up, then stepped into Washington's office to the side of the main security office. The door swooshed shut behind them. "I suppose," Washington said, "that you're going to tell me this was an accident."

"That would hardly be a sufficient excuse," T'Laren said. "No, Lieutenant. I think it would be more helpful if I explain the reason for the accident."

He sat down, and gestured her to a seat. "I'm listening."

"I don't know if you're aware of this," she began, "but Q has effectively spent the past three years of his life in a war zone. He has suffered multiple attempts on his life. He has been beaten savagely, sometimes by the very people who were supposed to be protecting, often by people whom he physically outsizes. Because he lost so much when he lost his powers, he has a deep-seated image of himself as powerless, to the point that he has never learned how to defend himself physically while he was on Starbase 56-- he never believed there would be any point. And it became a self-reinforcing cycle-- he didn't try to defend himself, so he was hurt worse, so he became more convinced of his own helplessness."

"Are you saying that he couldn't be bothered learning to defend himself?"

It was impossible to read Washington's tone-- still calm and even. "No," T'Laren said, "not at all. I'm saying he was doomed to failure. You must know, Lieutenant, that believing in oneself is the first step toward succeeding, at anything. No one can succeed at something if they are sure they'll fail. You know that."

He nodded. "It's something they teach at the Academy, yes."

"It's true. And this is why it was so very difficult to teach Q how to defend himself-- he believes he is powerless and weak."

"He must know he's bigger than everyone else," Washington said, still with the same mild tone.

"With respect, Lieutenant, you are taller than me. But if you can defeat me in hand-to-hand combat, it's because you're better trained. When I was twelve years old, I could defeat adult male humans twice my size in wrestling matches. Size has very little to do with it."

"Yes, but you're Vulcan."

"I am that. I'm also well-trained and very determined. I have defeated Romulans who were considerably bigger than me, and who had some training, because I have focused on that all my life. I pride myself on my abilities at self-defense. Q, however, has been frequently beaten by people who are physically smaller and quite possibly not as physically strong as he is, and this has simply reinforced his belief that he will always be the one who gets hurt.

"I recognized this as a serious problem, and have more or less coerced Q into training. I've tried to present lessons in such a fashion that if he actually tries, at all, he won't fail. Sooner or later, it was my hope, he would develop the self-confidence to believe in his own physical abilities, and in the meantime I've taught him a few things that he can use in an emergency. What happened today was that Q believed that Dr. LeBeau was about to beat him. Remember, he was not raised human-- he doesn't know what it means when a human woman slaps a man. The fact that she is smaller and weaker than he is was meaningless to him-- he's been hurt badly by people who are smaller and weaker than him, before. So he reacted to protect himself from being hit again, without any clear notion of the actual level of threat Dr. LeBeau represented. And being panicked, and convinced that she represented an immediate threat to his well-being and that he would be virtually powerless to stop her, he would subconsciously have struck with full force."

"A beaten dog finally biting back?" Washington asked.

"I would not have used that analogy, but it has some validity to it."

Washington leaned back in his chair. "To be honest with you, Dr. T'Laren, I had expected something like this," he said. "After this incident, I read through Q's files. He doesn't have a history of abusing women." His tone was rather dry. "He does have a history of verbal abuse, but in this case the witnesses all say that LeBeau started it. LeBeau also hit him, and I haven't got a great deal of respect for women who go about hitting men and then cry 'assault' when the men hit back. Violence against a stranger is always a bad idea, even if that stranger is ostensibly a member of one's own species. So my inclination would have been to let Q go some time ago."

"But?" T'Laren prompted.

"But Dr. LeBeau pressed formal charges. I can't release a man who's been charged with committing assault out on his own recognizance with nothing more than my own hunch that it'll work out. On the other hand, if I have a formal report from a psychologist that I can use to reassure my superiors that I didn't just let a dangerous criminal go wandering the ship..."

"Of course," T'Laren said, relieved. This had gone remarkably well. She was almost nervous, expecting another shoe to drop.

"Perhaps it would be better if he got some self-defense training here," Washington said. "No offense, Dr. T'Laren, but I doubt you've been given a great deal of training in how to train people. Since he's here anyway, he might be best off getting some lessons from us."

"Do you think so?" She considered. "It's certainly a good suggestion, but Q can be very, very stubborn. I'm not sure it will be possible to persuade him to accept training, though I can certainly try."

"What if it's made a condition of his sentence at the hearing?" Washington asked. "Even if Dr. LeBeau won't drop the charges, I can't see Q being given anything all that terrible as a sentence, but that might certainly be part of it."

"I'd rather avoid that if possible. Q... is very unresponsive to coercion. If he's ordered to take self-defense lessons, he'll be entirely too resentful and sullen to get anything out of them at all."

Washington grinned. "He sounds like my kid brother."

An hour later, Washington had his report and Q was free, with a warning that unless LeBeau dropped the charges he would have to attend a hearing in a few days.

Q walked back to his room with T'Laren, wrapped in a sullen silence. It was very late at night. He hadn't been able to sleep in the cell-- he well remembered how unpleasant it had been to sleep in the brig, the very first time he'd fallen asleep, and besides he was dressed too uncomfortably to be able to relax at all. There was another source of serious discomfort as well. The cell had had only the most minimal of privacy, a recessed alcove with a toilet in it, with a partial screen that would block only the most crucial portions of view, and that only if he sat down. The way his clothing was designed, he would need to disrobe almost entirely to use the facilities. It hadn't struck him as such a terrible design when he first put the clothes on, but then, he had expected to be out for no more than two hours, and certainly not stuck in a dungeon with some Starfleet eager beaver staring at him. So he had ignored certain bodily requirements in favor of maintaining his dignity, and he was paying for it now. The only thing that kept him from running for his room, and his bathroom, was the fact that running would make the sensation worse.

In addition, he was exhausted, and his back was screaming at him. Fortunately, T'Laren didn't seem to want to talk, which was a first. He wanted to snap at her, to verbally flay her for getting him into this, but he was too tired and too uncomfortable. He also wanted her to rub his back, so badly that he was almost contemplating actually asking.

Once they reached the room, he headed immediately for the bathroom, and stripped off his uncomfortable armor with a deep sigh of relief. After taking care of more pressing business, he proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes in the sonic shower, getting rid of the filth and sweat of hours stuck in costume. It was truly disgusting how human bodies generated all this filth. Skin flakes. Who had designed skin flakes? Random evolution seemed hardly malicious enough to produce such a diabolical result. If he had been in charge, he would have done a much better job.

The bathroom replicator was not programmed to produce any of the clothing patterns Q had put into the bedroom replicator. This was a source of serious annoyance to Q, who had gratefully forgotten how low the selection of acceptable clothing was on a Galaxy-class starship. After a great deal of effort, he finally managed to find a black satin bathrobe and a pair of royal blue pajamas that he considered acceptable, wrestled his hair, always unruly after a shower, into some semblance of order, and went out.

T'Laren had out a big plate of fruit and cheese, with small empty plates beside it. She seemed intent on devouring the fruit. He scowled at her. "You're eating at this hour?"

"Would you like some?" She held a small plate of peach slices out to him.

"How unutterably nauseating. Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"0243 hours and 57 seconds," T'Laren replied absently, pulling the plate back and munching on a peach slice. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"You can't seriously mean me to eat at this hour," Q said, sitting down. His back was screaming at him, pleading with him to break down and ask T'Laren for a backrub, and it was making him particularly irritable.

"I don't. You can eat if you like, or not." She put a pair of fresh bagels and a cheese danish on a plate and pushed it toward his side of the table. "If you do eat, I'd suggest bread products. You might have stomach pains if you ate fruit at this hour."

"I might have stomach pains if I have to watch you guzzling your food like that," Q retorted.

"Then don't watch." She wrapped a pineapple slice in a cheese slice and bit it in half. Q grimaced.

"What is your fetish for fruit, anyway?"

T'Laren looked up at him. "I'll let you in on a secret, if you promise to tell no one else," she said gravely.

"I'm not making any promises."

"Yes, but no one would believe you, so I imagine our secret is safe." She leaned forward. "Have you ever noticed how obsessed Terrans are with chocolate?"

Chocolate was one of the few foodstuffs Q could actually tolerate in large quantities; he had been known to eat three meals of chocolate ice cream a day. No doubt this was a not-so-subtle dig on T'Laren's part. "As if you were entirely immune."

"I like chocolate," T'Laren confessed. "But my real weakness is for fruit. If you are ever in a position where you're attempting to make a stubborn Vulcan eat, try succulents. Grapes, cherries, berries..." She popped a few into her mouth. "I am convinced that Earth was specifically created for the purpose of producing fruit."

The hyperbole amused Q, taking a bit of the edge off his irritation. "What would you know about it?" he asked lazily. "You weren't there."

"Merely forming a hypothesis. Why, were you?"

"I might have been."

"Then tell me, o font of wisdom, why was Earth created?"

"A cosmic accident," Q said. "It was Mars we had hopes for."

"How do you know that a power higher than the Q didn't induce you to create the Earth just for the sake of fruit?"

"There is no power higher than the Q."

"Well, of course you'd think that," T'Laren said. "If It had intended you to be able to handle the notion of beings higher than yourselves, It would hardly have created you with such enormous egos."

T'Laren was being unusually humorous tonight. Normally she wasn't any good for this sort of light witty repartee, though she was remarkably talented at the somewhat more vicious kind. "Cling to your delusions if it makes you feel better," Q said lightly. "I had no idea Vulcans subscribed to anything so illogical as religion."

"I have a god telling me that religion is illogical," T'Laren said somberly. "There is something askew in this picture."

"Only in your limited mortal opinion," Q responded, tentatively starting to enjoy himself. He leaned forward to take the danish, feeling the need for a prop, and possibly some sugar-- it had been a long time since his last coffee, and exhaustion was beginning to rag his edges.

As he leaned forward, a sharp shooting pain went up through his back, the muscles in his lower back spasming. His first, instinctive reaction was to try to hide it; humans had made it very clear to Q that he spent too much time whining about how much pain he was in, and he tried very hard to hide that, to avoid being laughed at. But then he realized that that was a foolish thing to do here; if T'Laren knew he was in pain, she would jump at the chance to help him. So he let the moan that he'd instinctively stifled out after all, and put his hand to the small of his back.

T'Laren immediately looked concerned. "Are you all right?"

"Of course, I whimper in agony all the time," Q retorted. The pleasure and relaxation he'd started to feel had vanished, leaving him extremely irritable.

"Would you like me to rub your back?"

He almost moaned at that, at the very thought. He'd been wanting her to offer for hours. But right now, he didn't feel like being in any lower-status position at all, and even so much as simply saying "yes" would put him there. "It's the least you could do, since you were responsible for the incarceration that led to this," he snapped.

T'Laren made no move toward him, merely gazed at him as if he were an intriguing species of tropical fish. He glared at her. It was on the tip of his tongue to snarl, "Well?" when she broke her silence. "You honestly don't know what you've just done, do you?"

"What are you talking about?"

"I'd thought about actually granting your point," T'Laren said, "or at the very least, ignoring your rudeness and giving you a backrub anyway. It gives me no pleasure to see you in pain, and I myself am hardly offended when you behave in an obnoxious manner. But other people will not make allowances for your bad moods, Q. I would be doing you no favors if I ignored your rudeness."

Q stared at her for a second. "Let me translate that for you, since you seem to have such a hard time expressing yourself," he said harshly. "'I promised I'd give you a backrub, Q, but you're annoying me, so I'm going to make it sound like I'm doing this for your own good instead of admitting I have emotions.' Isn't that right?"

"Actually, no," T'Laren said. "It's quite wrong. Let's analyze what you did wrong here." She leaned forward. "When I offered to give you something that you show every sign of wanting rather badly, you responded with a personal attack. This is not acceptable behavior; no one will grant what you wish after you've attacked them for offering, or if they do, they will do so in as unpleasant a fashion as they can manage."

"I hardly attacked you, T'Laren. I merely pointed out your culpability in my current miserable state."

"Let's look at that, briefly. You broke a woman's arm and ended up in the brig for it. This is ostensibly my fault for teaching you how to defend yourself. Yet I never taught you to break people's arms for slapping you. This would seem to be a failure of your own common sense. But be that as it may. Even if I were entirely at fault, it is not appropriate to attack me for having caused the problem when I have just offered to fix it."

"I suppose you'd rather I fell at your feet and worshipped you," Q retorted sarcastically.

"No, actually. I'd have preferred if you said 'Yes, thank you.' Or 'Thanks.' Or "That would be nice.' Or nothing at all. Nothing at all is not an ideal alternative, as people would find that offensive in the long term, but it's better than what you did say."

"Wonderful. I am enlightened. Now what?"

"Now you apologize."

"I will do no such thing. It is your fault my back is so bad right now. For that matter, the fact that I've been able to maintain an even vaguely bearable mood over the past several days is most assuredly despite your behavior, which has been reprehensible." Q stood up. "You have been ignoring your duties to me in such a consistent fashion that if it were me who had hired you, I would certainly give you your walking papers now. You have been erratic, overemotional, and vicious. I warn you, if this behavior persists, you will be dispensed with."

"I think it's very interesting that you consider a request that you apologize to be a threat you must react to with more threats," T'Laren said calmly. "Please observe that your back is not being rubbed."

As if he could possibly miss that. "I didn't ask you for any favors," Q snapped. "I don't need a backrub, and I don't need you. Both are luxuries, and I'm perfectly capable of doing without either one!"

He stormed off to his room before she could get the last word, unreasonably outraged. It was not at all fair. If she hadn't wanted to rub his back, fine, he hadn't asked, he didn't need it, but why had she offered in the first place? That was simply cruelty. Q dumped his robe on a chair-- normally he was very careful with his clothes, hanging them up back in his wardrobe, but this was just replicator junk-- and flung himself on the bed, lying flat. Some of the tension drained away, just enough to make the rest of it really painfully obvious.

It hurt so much. He had endured pain this bad in the past, dozens of times. Hundreds. Thousands. But he'd allowed himself to get used to getting massages. Obviously a very bad idea. Q sat up and half-heartedly tried the stretching exercises T'Laren had taught him to loosen up his back and neck; right now he'd try anything. But they were as useless as he expected them to be, and he lay back down, stifling a moan of pain. Wonderful. The creature in the other room had superhuman hearing, had been known to hear a faint, tiny whimper from him through two doors, and here he was, in agony, unable to get rid of her and completely unwilling to let her hear him suffering.

Q got up and walked over to the replicator. "Cyomil capsules," he told it.

"That item is under medical restriction."

Figured. He hadn't really expected that to work. "Prozium lozenges."

The weak painkiller appeared in the replicator. He snatched out the two lozenges and swallowed them without benefit of water. They would do him absolutely no good, of course; he needed stronger stuff, but if the replicator wouldn't even let him have Cyomil, there was little chance it would give him something really useful.

He went back to bed and laid down, trying to sleep and knowing exactly how futile it would be. There had been more nights than he could count that had been like this... but before, he'd always been able to go down to Sickbay and harass Li into giving him painkillers, or after they were restricted, sedatives. Now he actually toyed with the idea of going to Sickbay and getting whatever doctor they had here to give him something... but in the first place, he couldn't leave the room without T'Laren seeing him and realizing that he couldn't sleep, and in the second place, he was sure T'Laren had put some sort of restriction on his medical file. She might not have the power to prescribe anything without a physician's approval, but if she had power anywhere equivalent to Counselor Medellin's, she could restrict him from getting a prescription for psychoactives fulfilled.

In fact, she had total power over his life. Bitterness welled up in him, and a sense of rage at himself, for letting himself be seduced into giving her that power. When he had left the starbase in T'Laren's care, he had effectively signed his life over to her. How could he have been so blind? So stupid?

How could he have done anything differently, though?

He did moan then, quietly, pressing his head into the pillow so she wouldn't hear. He had signed his life away when he'd first handed himself over to Picard, naked and powerless. How could he have expected it would be any different? His knowledge and abilities didn't give him power, they gave him value, and value made him a commodity. And if he hadn't been a commodity, he would have been worthless, and would have died for it. But as a commodity, he was a possession, with no control over his own life. Picard, Anderson, now T'Laren... he was allowed to change owners of his own free will sometimes, as he'd done with T'Laren, but there was no question that he was still a slave.

Q shifted again, trying uselessly to make himself more comfortable. The pain was bad enough that he wanted to cry, was holding it off by sheer force of will. He couldn't do this. When he was awake and active, he didn't notice the pain. He should get up now and go tear T'Laren to shreds, but he was terrified that if he faced her, she would manipulate him somehow, wear down his resistance, and he would break down and apologize.

Would that be so bad? a treacherous part of his mind whispered. Maybe it was a small concession after all. Was his pride worth this pain?

Yes. His fingers dug into the pillow until the knuckles went white. His pride was all he had left. Anderson had broken him in the past, made him crawl, jerked him around like a puppet and made him dance for her, but T'Laren wasn't Anderson. She wouldn't put him under house arrest for not apologizing; she'd just refuse to give him a backrub. And he could endure that. He didn't need her help. Okay, he wanted it, wanted it very badly, but he didn't need it, and he wouldn't crawl to get it. This was a matter of principle, and he would not give in.

So. If he couldn't sleep, and he couldn't leave his room for fear of T'Laren seeing him, what else was there? He couldn't use the computer; even if he set it to keyboard commands only, even if he muted it, she'd hear his fingers on the keys. He could get a pair of headphones from the replicator and listen to music-- it wouldn't give too much away if she heard him do that. He could read. That was about it.

Oh, joy.

He turned in bed again, in exactly the wrong direction, and a stab of agony shot through his side and lower back. A whimper escaped him before he could stop it, followed by a sick sense of humiliation. She was listening and she'd heard him, he was sure of it. She knew he was suffering because he wouldn't give in to her, knew he was weak.

There was a buzz at the door. Of course. "Go away!" he shouted.

"I wanted to apologize," T'Laren's voice came through the door intercom.

Apologize? She should apologize, but it was totally out of character for her to do so, Q thought. T'Laren never admitted she was wrong. What kind of trick was this? "I don't care. Go away!"

There was a moment of silence, and then, "Please?"

That simple word brought him up short. Had T'Laren ever pleaded with him for anything? It seemed an utterly alien thing for her to be doing. "If you must," Q sighed, defeated by a single plaintive word.

The door opened. She took a step inside. "I'm sorry," she said simply. "I chose the wrong moment to make my point, and placed you in an untenable position. I should have known your pride would not allow you to respond, and I should not have pushed you that way."

Q wasn't entirely sure what she was apologizing for-- that wasn't how he would describe what she did. It sounded to him uncomfortably as if she were apologizing for not manipulating him properly. "Is that it?"


"You just waltz on in with your pathetic excuse for an apology, you don't even mention what you actually did to me, and you expect me to kiss and make up? How stupid do you think I am?"

"What specifically are you referring to when you say 'what I actually did to you'?"

He sat up. "Oh, don't play coy, T'Laren. You know what you did."

"Certainly. At least, I know what I think I did. What I don't know is what you perceive me to have done."

"Do you expect me to believe that?"

"Since you would rather I avoided reading your mind, I think you're going to have to."

Q's eyes narrowed. "You're supposed to be an intelligent woman. Try using your brain for once."

"All right." She sat down on the edge, uncomfortably close to him. Actually, it wouldn't have been uncomfortably close-- it was the normal distance she kept from him-- but he was in too much pain. Having her this close to him, so close to giving him what he needed, and being unable to ask or even hint at what he wanted, was torture. He wanted to edge away from her, but if he did that she might go away and then there would be no hope at all. "You must perceive me as being monstrously unfair. To you, I offered something and then refused it, in such a fashion that you couldn't even challenge me for my refusal, because if you did it would imply you wanted it and that would make you feel as if you were begging. Admitting in any sense that you actually want me to rub your back and feel betrayed that I wouldn't do it would humiliate you. So even if you were inclined to apologize, the fact that I was trying to persuade you to do so by offering you something you wanted if you apologized made it seem to you that if you apologized you were giving in to coercion. I put you in a position where you were forced either to give in on a matter of principle, or to torture yourself by refusing. That is what I'm apologizing for, Q. Does that help?"

Her insights terrified him sometimes. It was hard to believe that she could only read his mind if she was touching him. Right now, he found her words frightening and reassuring at the same time-- he didn't need to tell her what was wrong if she could figure it out and tell him. "You missed your calling," he told her, leaning back against the headboard and the pillows. "You should have gone into writing detective novels."

"I don't get any real enjoyment out of detective novels," T'Laren said. "I tend to ignore all the clues to the plot and focus on the meta-plot-- I try to figure out who did it based on the author's dramatic agenda. Sadly, it works a good three-fourths of the time." She shifted, turning toward him, pulling one leg onto the bed and folding it. "I don't enjoy seeing you in pain, Q. I'm a healer, and only secondarily a teacher-- I haven't the stomach to make you suffer for principle's sake, even if I think I'm right. If you would accept it, I'd like to try to do something about your back."

Q swallowed. This was what he wanted, what he'd hoped for when he let her into his room and let her sit near him, but the act of admitting that yes, he did want this paralyzed him. The humiliation of having to ask for help, even help that was offered to him on a silver platter, washed over him. It was almost on the tip of his tongue to respond the way he had earlier tonight, with something scathing that made it seem as if he was doing her a favor, but he remembered too well what had happened when he did that last time. "I certainly wouldn't you want to lose sleep worrying about me," he finally said, striving for a light tone and miserably sure he hadn't pulled it off.

"Lie down," T'Laren said, her tone patiently indulgent, humoring him. He obeyed with alacrity, the tension much worse in the seconds he was waiting for her touch. T'Laren got up and moved around him, to where he couldn't see her anymore unless he strained his neck. He felt her weight settle on the bed again, and held himself agonizingly taut with anticipation.

Slowly fingertips pressed into the area just under his neck, between shoulderblades and spine, and began to rub. Q moaned. It hadn't been this bad since the first time, that first night aboard Ketaya. He was going to make a complete fool of himself again, he knew it. But he couldn't bring himself to care overly much. The easing agony in his back as her hands worked slowly down his spine was all he could focus on, all he could care about, and while he had a sort of abstract fear of admitting his weakness and his need for this, it was a far distant concern.

"This is worse than usual, isn't it," T'Laren asked.

It was several seconds before he had breath or concentration to spare for an answer. "Yes, much," he gasped. "Ohh... do you know why? Is this... oh... is this normal?"

"You'd know better than I would," T'Laren said. "I don't think I've ever seen you this bad. But is this fairly normal for you?"

"I don't know... I have no concept anymore. Everything's changed."

"What do you mean?"

"A little lower... ohh... right there, yes. Everything's changed, is what I mean. You've corrupted me."

"In what way?"

"Tonight... I think it's normal... well, not normal, but it's usual for me to hurt this much. Happens all the time. But I used to be able to ignore it more. And it used to happen a lot more often. I think I remember hurting like this every night... but that can't be right. If that were true, I can assure you there'd have been a lot more than three suicide attempts."

"Were you taking a lot of painkillers?"

"Li wouldn't let me have enough painkillers. Ever. He kept saying I'd abuse them."

"In your medical file, it claims that at one point you were taking six tablets of Feranzal a day. Do you remember doing anything like that?"

"I'm hardly going senile already," Q retorted. "That was... ahh... that was when I'd been human for, I don't know, four or five months maybe. After that Li started cutting me off."

She shifted to her knuckles for the small of his back, digging in over a broad band of muscle. The relief was so intense he almost wanted to cry. "Are you aware that one Ferenzal tablet is the recommended dosage for an adult human male? That if you give most humans three tablets, you could cut off their fingers and they'd hardly notice?"

"Well, I didn't start out taking six."

"What did you take tonight?"

"What do you mean?"

"I heard you asking the replicator for something, but I couldn't make out what."

"Prozium lozenges. And they were totally useless. Exactly as I expected. Ahh... no, back where you were before. Right there. Yes."

"Prozium lozenges are the strongest things most humans without an acute medical condition need, Q. They're completely useless for you?"

"Totally. They worked for maybe a week. Haven't since. But any port in a storm... I had no idea you would be sensible enough to apologize."

"We have to do something about that," T'Laren said gently, digging her thumbs into the small of his back. "Q, it's not normal for a human to be in that much pain all the time. I think your reactions to pain might be finally starting to normalize-- when you first became human, you probably had so little tolerance for pain that you abused painkillers, to the point where they would never again have a normal level of effectiveness for you. You've probably never been able to completely wean yourself from them-- even when Li would cut you off, you were too often injured for you to be deprived of painkillers entirely. As a result, you were always suffering withdrawal pangs; Li didn't enforce his controls on you consistently enough to be of any benefit in stopping your addiction--"

"I am not addicted to painkillers!"

"Q, you are. There's no other explanation. You may not be suffering direct physical addiction now, but your body's been sensitized. In the same way that an alcoholic would become fully addicted again after just one drink, you keep getting off painkillers and then getting addicted to them again because some incredible fool prescribes them for you for back pain. Or you suffer some near-fatal injury and end up needing such a huge quantity of drug, given your high tolerance to painkillers, that you end up storing the excess in your body for months." She reached down to the back of his legs, just above the knees, and began kneading the muscles there gently. "Does this make you uncomfortable?"

He could not comprehend anything having to do with massage being uncomfortable. "No... why, are you fishing for compliments? You must know how good that feels."

"I meant... well, let me rephrase the whole thing. Your legs are a disaster area, Q. I'm not entirely done with your back, but I think any more work there without dealing with the leg muscles is going to produce diminishing returns. It would be best to do everything-- gluteal muscles, legs, feet-- but I know that you're not terribly comfortable with touching at all, and a lot of humans would perceive any contact with their buttocks and the backs of their thighs as a sexual touch. I don't intend anything sexual, but I don't want you to feel any sort of discomfort in that way at all."

She was right. If it meant she had to touch him near his groin, even if it was on the back of his body, he wasn't at all sure he would be comfortable with it. On the other hand, what she was doing felt wonderful, and the moment she made the suggestion he could feel the tension in the upper part of his legs, begging for something to soothe it. "I don't have to take off my clothes, do I?"

"As usual, though it would be more effective if you did, it isn't necessary."

He thought about it. But it was more or less a foregone conclusion. After all, if she did something he didn't like, he could always stop her. Q took a deep breath. "If you must," he said, meaning yes, please.

T'Laren shifted position on the bed. She moved back up to his lower back, to the line where back became buttocks, and dug her fingers in slowly. Q made a half-hearted attempt not to moan with relief, failed, and decided he didn't really care. He hadn't been consciously aware of the intensity of the pain in his lower back and leg muscles-- he'd known his lower back hurt, but he'd thought the biggest problem was the upper back and neck area. Now he realized that the pain had gone deep enough that somehow he had stopped noticing it-- how long had it been this way? He had been in a generally good mood over the past few days, he couldn't remember being in a lot of pain-- had all this happened while he was in the brig? He was going to absolutely kill LeBeau. How dared she cause something like this to happen to him? Who did she think she was?

"I don't understand what happened today," he confessed, talking into his pillow as she worked her way down.

"Which of the various things that happened today do you mean?"

For a moment he was irritated. What did she think he meant? Then she found a particularly unpleasant knot and started working it out gently, and he temporarily lost the ability to be genuinely irritated with her about anything. "LeBeau," he gasped. "How could she be so... fragile? If human bones break that easily, how could she have been stupid enough to hit me?... for that matter, why did they arrest me when she hit me first?... Is it a gender thing, or simply a 'Q must be the bad guy because he always is' thing?"

"Human bones aren't that fragile. I'd think you'd have more experience than I would with exactly how fragile humans are."

"That's what I don't understand... I'm hardly some hulking bruiser. I wasn't trying to hurt her... how could it be so easy that I could do it by accident?"

"Because you're a lot stronger than you think you are." She had worked her way past his buttocks now, and now was gently kneading the back and outer sides of his thighs. He was almost dizzy with relief, the sensations making him lose track of where exactly his body was. When he closed his eyes, he felt sudden lapses of proprioception, up temporarily becoming down and a sensation of weightlessness, dizzy bodilessness. The sensations always faded the moment he moved, and would fade by themselves if he didn't, but he found them intensely pleasurable, if a little frightening. As a human, sensations of dizziness and weightlessness were usually associated with falling, or being about to lose consciousness, or other not entirely pleasant circumstances, but he was more than a human and the brief inability to feel the boundaries of his physical body in space felt to him like brief moments of freedom from having a physical body at all. And then when he came back to himself, it was usually to the exquisite sensation of a protesting muscle being forced to relax itself. Q whimpered with pleasure as she started working on the back of his calves. "I don't think I've seen you this bad since our first night on Ketaya. You haven't been working out at all since we arrived at the conference, have you?"

"You haven't been dragging me off to the gym for torture sessions, no."

"This is the result," T'Laren said seriously. "Q, I'm sorry. I've been entirely too preoccupied with my personal concerns. I should have made sure you continued your exercise regimen."

"I was always pulling some muscle or other. I don't see how this could be-- ohh-- worse."

"But it is, isn't it? When you pulled a muscle from exertion, we'd massage it or soak it out right there. You never had to walk around for days with it." Abruptly she abandoned his legs entirely and moved up to his arms, which were stretched over his head, largely burrowed under his pillow. She grasped his upper arms before he could think to stop her, and began squeezing them gently, rubbing the muscles with her thumbs as she used her palms and lower fingers to apply rhythmic pressure. "You feel that?"

She couldn't mean the obvious answer-- of course he felt it, it was exquisite, he hadn't even realized his arm muscles were tense, but T'Laren wasn't in the habit of asking rhetorical questions and that was entirely too stupid a question to be anything but rhetorical if that was supposed to be the answer. So she meant something else. "What... exactly am I supposed to be feeling?" he gasped.

"You have a lot more muscle density in your upper arms than you did a few weeks ago."

"Surely... not strong enough to break a human arm. I'm not some musclebound cretin."

"Being physically strong doesn't preclude intelligence, Q. My people believe that one heightens the other. Besides, I think the reason you were able to break Dr. LeBeau's arm had very little to do with strength." She released his arms and went back to his calves, working her way down to his feet.

"My leverage wasn't that good."

She peeled off his right slipper, startling him. For a moment he wanted to protest-- being stripped of any of his clothing, even something as innocuous as a slipper, disturbed him. Then she started massaging the foot, using her thumb on the arch and fingertips on the top of the foot, working out yet more tensions he hadn't realized he had, and he decided he didn't want to protest after all. Instead, he rolled over, pulling his foot free of T'Laren for just long enough to turn himself face up, and then dumping it back in her lap with alacrity so she wouldn't think he was trying to stop her from doing this.

"When I taught you self-defense, I assumed that anyone who'd be trying to kill you, anyone you would need to defend yourself from, would be a trained killer. I wanted you to know how to disable someone quickly, before they had a chance to hurt you, so you'd have time to get away or call for help. To be honest, it never entered my mind that someone who wasn't a trained killer would attack you that way." He thought perhaps she was really saying, "it never entered my mind that you'd be stupid enough to retaliate like that against someone who only slapped you," and he felt a surge of anger and guilt, but it was impossible to hold onto in the face of the exquisite sensations in his foot. "You broke Dr. LeBeau's arm because that's what I taught you to do." She sounded saddened. Perhaps she did feel guilty for what she'd done to him, after all.

"I don't think so... that wasn't what I was trying to do. I just wanted to stop her from hitting me."

"What exactly did you do?"

"I grabbed her arm and pulled it out of the way. I didn't mean to break it. I can't imagine how I did that."

She let go of his foot. Before he could complain, she had pulled the other one onto her leg, and began the same procedure she'd performed on the first foot. Q closed his eyes against another wave of pleasurable dizziness. Perhaps he was going to fall asleep right here.

"Tomorrow we'll go to the holodeck, and you can show me exactly what you did. We can figure out a way you can defend yourself against people you think might want to beat you up without hurting them badly should you have misjudged the situation. Sometimes it's very difficult to estimate a dangerous situation like that. You might think you're in no danger at all, and then someone hauls off and hits you. Or you might think you're in immediate danger of losing your life, and it turns out the other person was all bluster. The best thing to do is have a few techniques in your repertoire for stopping people without hurting them. Then if you need to hurt them after all to stop them, you still have the freedom to do that."

"Everyone automatically assumes I'm the villain," he said sulkily. "Even if I knew some way to stop people with hurting them badly, they'd probably throw me in the brig for attempted assault."

"It's a number of factors causing that, unfortunately. Your reputation doesn't actively include a tendency toward physical violence, but people don't think of you as either friendly or harmless. And I doubt you'd want them to. But that means, with your physical size, the fact that you're male, and the fact that you don't go out of your way to make allies, that if you get into a physical altercation with someone much smaller than you, or female, or especially both, it's going to be assumed that you're to blame. People can't actually see you for what you are, Q. They try to fit you into preconceived boxes. And there's a box for human men who are so miserable with their lives that they beat up human women. It's easier for them to put you in that box than it is for them to empathize with you, especially when you try to hide your own feelings of guilt and horror."

"Guilt? What do I have to feel guilty about?"

"You didn't intend to hurt LeBeau, certainly not as badly as you did. You felt guilt for hurting her worse than you intended, and probably shame for stooping to physical violence at all. Didn't you?"

"You're the mindreader."

"No, I'm the mystery novel reader, remember?"

He smiled at that. "I thought you didn't find them enough of a challenge for you."

"Some are more challenging than others." She let go of his foot. "Turn over."


"So I can finish with your back."

He'd thought she was finished, but wasn't about to complain. "Why do we have to go to a holodeck?"

"Because I don't want you breaking my arm."

"Yes, but people have such tawdry little minds. If they think I'm in the habit of beating up women because I defended myself, what are they going to think if I go to a holodeck with you?"

"They'll think it's part of your therapy," T'Laren said dryly. "Q, I don't know where you got the notion that most people think the holodeck is for sex. Certainly, some people use it for that, but most of what it's used for is to recreate environments that people in space can't easily get to, or that wouldn't be particularly safe to create. Besides, not only does everyone know I'm your therapist, I'm a Vulcan. The notion that I might have sexual designs on you would be inconceivable to most people."

"But these people know you."

"Tris knows me, and he also knows I don't molest my patients."

"What about Sovaz?"

"Quite aside from the fact that Vulcans don't jump to unsupported conclusions about other people's sex lives, Sovaz is pre-pubescent. The notion that I would have sex with anyone other than her brother will simply never occur to her."

"Pre-pubescent?" Admittedly the girl was young, but how the hell had she gotten to be a lieutenant in Starfleet if she was that young?

"We don't mature quite the same way humans do-- we develop into physiological adults before we mature sexually. It has to do with the development of telepathy, and certain natural cycles. Sovaz will start thinking about choosing a mate in the next five years or so."

"Oh." Not like he cared anyway. Q certainly did not find children sexually attractive, no matter how charmingly naive. Not that he found anyone sexually attractive, but if he did, he would be interested in people with considerably more maturity. Physical attractiveness and intelligence were simply not sufficient requirements. A certain degree of life experience would be required, and the ability to understand Q's wit... and the ability to give really good backrubs. Definitely would be a requirement. And... why was he thinking about this? With a start, Q yanked his mind away from the dangerous paths it had begun to wander down. It must be because he was tired. He'd had a strenuous day.

"I should have picked Vulcan," he mumbled. "You people don't jump to stupid conclusions all the time."

"You wouldn't have done very well as a Vulcan. You don't have the training and you don't have family. Humans without family are fairly normal, given the mobility of the human population; Vulcans without family are lost."

There was something wistful in her voice. Even as tired as he was, preoccupied as he was with his own problems, he couldn't miss that. "Personal experience?"

"My human mother is still alive, although she probably thinks I'm dead. Most of my Vulcan father's family still live."

Clearly, that wasn't enough. He couldn't understand why she kept rejecting Sovaz, then. He knew, now, what it was like to be alone. Despite himself, he felt an odd protectiveness toward her, born of gratitude-- she was isolated, too, and yet she spent her time trying to save him, instead of trying to put together the wreckage of her own life. How very foolish of her. How illogical.

"It wasn't your fault," he murmured.


"That they threw me in the brig. You couldn't have known that was going to happen."

Her fingers reached up to his temples and rubbed them. He sagged deeper into the bed, convinced that all his bones were gone. "Thank you," she said gently.

"For what?" he asked, suddenly embarrassed. If she was going to get mushy on him because he'd tried to reassure her that it wasn't her fault...

But she didn't answer the question, or acknowledge it in any way. The pleasurable dark dizziness overwhelmed him again, and this time he recognized it as the onset of sleep. "It's very late," she said. "How do you feel?"

He tried to answer that he felt fine, but he was too tired to muster up the strength to talk and so it came out as an unintelligible mumble. He couldn't sleep with her in the room, was fighting to stay awake against the dark tide. He didn't dare sleep with someone else in the room, even someone he trusted, otherwise he might get used to it and then he wouldn't wake up when they came in anymore. He had to enforce complete isolation when he tried to sleep, as lonely as it made him sometimes.

"That seems to have been effective," she said, a slight edge of amusement to her voice. "Good night, Q."

He was asleep before she even left.

The alarm was obviously malfunctioning. There was no way it should be ringing this early. Q turned it off.

He pointed out to Anderson that that was a really stupid place to put a red alert signal. Anderson gazed down at her boots. "You have a point," she reflected.

T'Laren came into the room. "Aren't you going to answer that?" she asked.

"There's no need," Anderson reassured her. "Starfleet never has anything important to say."

T'Laren didn't seem reassured. Instead, she turned to Q with an expression of concern on her face. "Q? Are you going to get up?"

Abruptly, with a sense of dislocation, he realized he was in his quarters, in bed. Why was T'Laren bothering him? It was far too early for him to get up. "Why?" he asked.

"Because it's 0928, and the conference starts at 1000."

Q rolled over to look at the chronometer. It could not possibly be 0930 already. He had just barely gotten to sleep.

"Can't I take a day off?" he mumbled. "This is supposed to be my vacation."

"You can do whatever you like, but you might want to think about whether you would rather go in today or not. People have undoubtedly heard all sorts of wild rumors by now. Do you think you'd want to go in and do damage control?"

She was right; if he didn't go in, people would probably embellish what had happened to him last night. Roth was an inveterate gossip, and probably would not be able to resist the temptation to tell everyone about Q's misadventures last night. On the other hand, the very fact that he would have to face people who knew about last night made him want to curl up and stay asleep for the next several weeks, at least.

Suddenly a brilliant plan occurred to him. "No, I think I'm going to be working here today," he said, in as lofty a voice as he could manage, still bleared by sleep. "The conference has been entertaining enough, but I've been spending entirely too much time with intellectual inferiors, and they're dragging me down. I think I'll spend today here, getting some real work done."

"As you wish," T'Laren said. "I'll call and tell them you're working at home today." Sadly, she would probably not add the embellishments. But that was all right-- after he'd enacted his plan, no one would be concerned with the incident last night anymore.

Q nodded and closed his eyes. Hadn't it been something like 0400 before he'd finally gotten to sleep? Of course he couldn't be expected to go to the conference today.

"I'm going down to the holodeck to practice. If you need me, just call."

"Delightful," Q murmured. The warmth of the blankets around him was seductive, calling him to curl back into them and give up the strains of wakefulness.

Hazy, dreamlike excitement at the thought of his plan warred with sleep all morning. Finally, Q pulled himself out of bed in early afternoon, unable to stay in bed any longer, though he wanted to. He actually had something he wanted to do today. What a novel concept. He hadn't felt any sort of excitement, any sort of desire to get up in the morning to accomplish something, since... the Borg. A moment of depression and self-pity seized him at that-- his life had truly been that miserable for two whole years? But he pushed it aside. Time to work.

He pulled up the notes from the conference, showing all the tests that had already been run, and the silly hypotheses that went with them. Time travel? Alternate dimensions? Alien warp drives? What was this silliness? Didn't these people have a gram of common sense? He didn't know quite what the anomaly was, but nobody was in the correct ballpark.

When T'Laren showed up, toward late afternoon, he was pacing around the common room., occasionally directing commands to the computer, mostly talking to himself. T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Q?"

"...would have had the wrong... what's the word, damn... no, anyway, that's the wrong direction... what about the erdionic signature? Undoubtedly didn't check that... yes! Computer, display all analyses of erdionic waves from the singularity."

"No analysis of erdionic waves has been conducted."

"What utter morons... shouldn't be surprised, though..."

"Q?" T'Laren repeated.

"Hmm?" He turned and seemed to notice her for the first time. "What are you doing here?"

"I live here," T'Laren said dryly. "Have you eaten?"

"Why would I have eaten? It's far too early."

"It's 0622," T'Laren said patiently. "Have you eaten at all today?"

"It can't be that late. It was barely 0200 just a few minutes ago. Are you sure the chronometer isn't wrong?"

"You haven't, have you." She had never seen Q like this, totally focused on a problem. "Why don't you get something to eat?"

"I'm not hungry. Did you know those morons didn't run a single analysis on erdionic waves?"

"What's an erdionic wave?"

"Similar to a veritonic wave, but the amplitude is a lot higher and the flavor is a bit more greenish."

She was not going to ask him what that meant. "Did they run analyses on the veritonic waves?"

"Wouldn't help. Veritonic waves are strictly three-dimensional creations. Erdions have a propagation pattern in the fourth and fifth dimensional axes as well... well, actually, maybe you have a point. If we compared the frequency of veritonic waves to the erdionic... but we'd need an erdionic analysis for that... damn. Who do I go to get tests run around here?"

"Sovaz is the liaison to the ship's science department, so I would imagine you would talk to her."

"Good. Computer, locate Lt. Sovaz."

"Lieutenant Sovaz is in Conference Room 7."

"They're still at that?"

"Q, you should eat," T'Laren repeated patiently. "The tests can wait until after dinner."

"I told you I'm not hungry. Q to Sovaz."

"Sovaz here," his combadge chirped.

"Sovaz, I need a 12-hour scan run for erdionic waves."

"What are erdionic waves?"

Q looked shocked, and somewhat dismayed. "Tell me you're joking."

"Vulcans don't joke," Sovaz said. There was a voice in the background. "Oh, Dr. Markow is explaining them to me."

"And you're supposed to be the liaison to a conference of physicists?"

Murmuring in the background for half a minute. When Sovaz returned, her voice said, "Dr. Markow says that erdionic waves were discovered only four months ago."

"Discovered by Federation types, you mean. Yes, I know. I was there. I wouldn't call it 'discovered', exactly, not when I practically had to spoon-feed it to them."

"We don't have equipment that can detect erdionic waves, I don't think. I'll check with Commander Mariani."

"Oh, for-- You're supposed to be a state-of-the-art science vessel! How can you possibly not have this equipment?"

"We had our last refit six months ago," Sovaz said. "Is there equipment that can detect erdionic waves on Starbase 56? Possibly we can download the design specifications and replicate or build the detector here."

Q sighed heavily. "I'm not interested in your petty little technical problems. It is beyond unbelievable that no one thought to run this scan. I want it by tomorrow morning." He tapped his combadge off. "Can you believe this? They don't even have a detector. What am I even bothering for?"

"Q, starships can't go in for a refit every time someone comes out with a new discovery," T'Laren pointed out. "And if erdionic waves were only discovered four months ago, with your help, it seems only natural that you would be more familiar with them than anyone here."

"Why am I bothering to impart my knowledge to the Federation if four months later supposed physicists still don't know what I'm talking about?" He paced furiously.

"Members of Starfleet science are usually more generalists and less specialized than civilian scientists. Sovaz has an enormous quantity of information to try to keep current with. It is hardly her fault if one or two things slip through the cracks."

"And what are you defending her for? I thought you didn't like her."

"Why do you say that?"

"Well, if you treat people you like the way you treat Sovaz, I don't see why you don't have a reputation much like mine."

T'Laren decided to ignore that. She walked over to the replicator; Q wasn't going to eat if she didn't put the food in front of him. "One bowl of ri'keyh. One omelette, three eggs, with mushrooms, peppers, and steak bits. One fizzy chocolate and one grape juice."

"I said I'm not hungry."

"I suspect that if you start to eat, your appetite will return." She set the plates and glasses down on the table-- chocolate drink and omelette for Q, vegetable casserole and grape juice for her. "I don't dislike Sovaz, Q. I would simply rather not deal with her."

"Why not? What'd she do to you?"

"She did nothing to me." It was what I did to her. "Seeing her evokes painful memories that I would rather put behind me." She seated herself and began to eat.

With some degree of bad grace Q sat down as well. "I might as well," he muttered. "Since they're holding me up with their incompetence, I don't have much better to do."

"Tell me what you've found."

"Why bother? You wouldn't understand it."

"I won't understand the details, no, but I should be able to pick up enough to get a general sense."

"T'Laren, people need advanced degrees to be able to pick up enough of what I tell them to have some idea what I'm talking about. I don't do well on talking to laypeople."

Perhaps he had a point. But she didn't really want to know what he'd found; she wanted him to talk to her about his interests, to share his excitement in his incomprehensible discoveries with her, to tell her what actions he was taking. "Then tell me what you've been doing instead. In a general sense."

"I came up with a brilliant plan this morning," Q said, attacking his omelette as if it had just tried to bite him.

"Your plan to sleep in and announce that you were working at home?"

"My plan to not come back to the conference until I actually know the answer. If I can solve the anomaly, no one's going to care about the incident with LeBeau anymore. But I'm being hampered by a lack of data. You know, this is the third test I've had to have them run? What do these people think they're doing?"

"Part of the entire reason you were invited to the conference is so that you could help them to determine what sort of scans would be useful to run."

"Yes, well, obviously someone's got to."

"How far have you gotten?"

"I have a very good idea of what it's not. Actually, I do have a vague hypothesis about what it might be, but it's possible that's just wishful thinking. Until I get the erdionic wave scans back, I won't have enough evidence to even begin pursuing my vague hypothesis."

"What do you think it might be?"

Q's combadge cheeped at him. "Q here."

"Commander Mariani's altered the sensor array so it should be able to pick up erdionic waves," Sovaz's voice said. "We're beginning the scan now."


"What is this for? Do you have a theory? None of us have been able to figure out what erdionic waves should have to do with the anomaly."

Q grinned coldly. "No, I don't imagine you would."

"So what is your theory?"

"I'll leave you to ponder that overnight. Q out."

"That was rather cruel," T'Laren pointed out.

"T'Laren, you wound me. I'm merely raising levels of anticipation. Now they have something more interesting to gossip about." He pushed his chair back and got up. "Now, I do have to get back to work if I'll be ready for tomorrow. So why don't you run along and find something to do?"

Instead of running along and finding something to do, T'Laren watched Q, under pretense of reading. She sat curled up on the couch with the datapadd, watching him pace and talk to himself. He kept picking bits of abandoned omelette or mushroom off his plate and eating them every time he passed the table; T'Laren had the bright idea of replicating fruit, cheese, crackers and pastries and leaving most of the stuff on the table, while she returned to her post on the couch with a small sampling of it. Sure enough, Q would pick up bits of the appetizers and absently snack while he paced, too engrossed in his own thoughts to quite realize that he was eating. She had just figured out how to get Q to eat more. Now, if she could only find a way to trick him into exercising, things would be wonderful.

The results of the scan came in at 0700 hours. Q hadn't been up the whole time, of course; he kept getting up in the middle of the night and going to check, as the results of the scan would determine whether he went in to the conference tomorrow.

As he'd hoped, the concentration of erdionic waves radiating toward and from the anomaly was effectively doubled. He ran another analysis while he got dressed, and determined that half the radiation in the area was most likely a fifth-dimensional reflection of the other half. Which meant... Excitement bubbled over in him. Not only did he think he knew what it was, but he could even imagine a plan to investigate further. He didn't know why he'd never thought of this in the old days, why no one had, but perhaps it was a matter of perspective; only a creature reduced to the level of a barely evolved sentient could conceive of a plan so primitive, so low-tech.

Waiting for the conference to re-open at 1100 drove him nuts. Waiting the additional fifteen minutes to be fashionably late was out of the question. He strode into the conference room only five minutes after it had begun, before the meeting had even been called to order, and clapped his hands. "If you're all done blathering about your tedious little social lives, I have something important to show you."

Every head turned toward his. "As important as breaking defenseless women's arms?" LeBeau asked, unable to let him go without trying for her pound of flesh.

Q sneered at her. "Your tedious harping on my part of a distasteful incident that you yourself caused is irrelevant to the purpose of this conference. But let's put it to a vote. Would people rather hear LeBeau whine, or would you rather find out what the anomaly is?"

"You know?" Markow leaned forward, almost imperceptibly, but Q knew him well enough to know that that much motion cost him the effort that leaping up and shouting would cost an uninjured person.

"The analysis of erdionic waves was the key, wasn't it?" Sovaz asked, all but bouncing. "I've thought and I've thought, and I still cannot envision what erdionic waves could be telling you."

Yalit-- who was mercifully wearing a loincloth, at least-- grinned toothily. "You talk big, boy," she said. "Let's see if you can back it up."

"Boy?" Q glared at her. "Madame, we've discussed this, I believe. Your species was still so much primordial sludge when I was a child."

"I read your files," Yalit said, undiscouraged. "You're some kind of adolescent by your own standards, aren't you? Boy."

"Perhaps I am. Troll. But it's hardly relevant in your species' terms, now is it?"

"Shut up, Yalit," Dhawan said. "And Q, quit rising to the bait. She's got a point. Let's see if you're worth the nuisance you've caused."

"Computer! Crosstab analyses of all radiation scans performed on the singularity, compared against ambient for open space." This was a reasonably common sort of request, and the holographic display in the center of the room lit up with charts and graphs. "You will notice an emergent pattern, if you look carefully. Let's examine one comparison more closely. Computer! Compare veritonic to erdionic radiation, with the third axis being ambient."

The chart popped into existence, causing the other charts to become smaller and crowd down at the bottom of the display. The comparison was clear-- veritonic waves were slightly less than ambient, while erdionic radiation was nearly double both its own normal ambient levels and the adjusted current levels of veritonic radiation.

"I was wondering about that," someone said. "Why there's such a big discrepancy."

Q smiled broadly and turned to the speaker, a human man whose name entirely escaped him. "Any hypotheses?"

"Well, I looked for high-amplitude radiation effects-- as if the gravity gradient is not affecting higher-amplitude radiation at all-- but I didn't see anything."

"And you didn't investigate further?" Q purred maliciously.

The man flushed. "I didn't have time. The erdionic scan results just came back this morning."

"It couldn't be the gravity dragging in more low-freq, though," Roth said. "Because that wouldn't explain why the erdionic wave concentration is double ambient. Right?" He looked to Q eagerly, like a puppy expecting praise.

Q was a hard pet owner, though. "So, any brilliant hypotheses, Harry? We want explanations, not more questions."


Roth was rescued by Yalit, probably inadvertently. "What's the matter, don't you know?" Yalit asked nastily. "Why don't you just tell us instead of pretending this is a lecture hall?"

"What do you think it is, a marketing presentation?" Q snapped back. "I'm not here to spoonfeed you answers, troll. Yes, I could stand up here and tell you about all the Secrets of the Universe, and you would smile and nod politely, and take notes, and probably fail to understand a fraction of a percent of what I was saying. I would far rather make you actually think for yourselves, since I'm told you're evolutionarily equipped to do that, though I'm sure someone would make an exception in your case, and then you might at least have a remote chance of understanding it. Not that you, personally, have any chance at all, in my opinion."

"Can we keep the personal remarks out of this?" Dhawan snapped. "We're well aware you don't like Yalit, Q. No one likes you, either, but they at least behave civilly."

Q smiled mockingly at her. "Lt. Dhawan. If I did that, what would become of my reputation?" He turned back to Roth, having deliberately dragged his feet a bit with gratuitous insults to give Harry time to come up with something, the only mercy he would grant. "Well, Dr. Roth? Dazzle us."

"Something in the nature of the singularity is causing high-amplitude wave forms to be reflected," Harry said. "So erdionic waves and other sigma-level hi-freqs are turning up as double ambient."

"Oh, Harry." Q put on a disappointed face. "So very close... and yet so very, very far away."

"What about the netrimic radiation?" Milarca asked. "That's a sigma, but it's not doubled."

"What about the netrimic radiation? Answers, people, answers. Questions are easy."

"Computer," Morakh said, "maximize the lower graphs."

"Bonebrain!" Q exclaimed delightedly. "Have you caught onto something?"

"Tone it down, Lucy. You're being ridiculous," Markow said.

"Fine, Daedalus, you want to get up here and do it? I'm sure you know exactly what the anomaly is, now that I've shot down your silly theory about time travel."

"Where related wave forms are discrepant, such as veritonic or erdionic, it seems that there's a dimensional propagation issue," Morakh said. He called up graphs of several other groupings of related wave forms. "Erdionic waves have a fifth-dimensional propagation pattern. Veritonic waves, while related, propagate only in the third dimension. But veritonic waves are displaying normal ambient levels, and erdionic waves are doubled. Therefore the singularity must be radiating fifth-dimensional waveforms itself."

"Ohhh. For a moment there, I thought you were going to transcend your species' normal stupidity," Q said, mock-disappointed. "I guess not though."

"Look at the graph," Markow said. "Veritonic radiation is not equal to ambient levels. It's less. And the cutoff isn't fifth-dim propagators. Waveforms propagating in the fourth and sixth are showing the same patterns as erdionic waves."

"And?" Q prompted.

"So. The singularity is reflecting waveforms in the fourth, fifth and sixth dimensions, and absorbing waveforms that are tridimensional or less. Nothing we've scanned has any higher than a sixth-dimensional pattern, so there's no way to tell if the pattern holds at higher dimensional levels, but it looks as if the singularity is only absorbing lower-order radiation, and everything else is being reflected. That's obvious."

"Obvious. Sure. I knew that," Roth muttered.

"But why?" Sovaz asked. "What's causing such an unusual pattern?"

"An excellent question," Q said, beaming at her. He turned to Markow. "You ruined it, Daedalus. You should let someone else answer the questions once in a while."

"I wasn't in the mood for your theatrics. Get on with it."

Q nodded, and went over to the lightboard, drawing out an equation on it. He had figured out the equation for the first time last night, this being the first time he'd had need to. The numbers were so cold and impersonal, trying to pin down a transcendent concept. "Anyone here recognize this?"

Everyone stared. It was Markow who finally said, "No."

"It looks..." Elejani Baíi hesitated. "I thought for a moment it might be a descriptor of telepathic radiation, but it's not, is it?"

"This," Q said, "is a wave-form beyond the science you've achieved thus far. It's low-order, as these things go, but this wave-form propagates n-dimensionally. With enough power behind it, it's theoretically capable of propagating through an aleph-null order of dimensional levels. In fact, no one has that kind of power available, but I've seen these waveforms cross as many as two hundred dimensional orders."

"But what good is it?" Dhawan asked.

"Pardon?" Q stared at her. "Did you just ask me what good a physical aspect of the universe is? As if the entire universe was designed specifically for your benefit, Lt. Dhawan?" He turned to his audience with an overblown expression of disbelief. "And they call me arrogant!"

"No, I meant what relation does it have to what we're trying to accomplish here," Dhawan said. "It's very lovely, Q, but why are you bringing it up now? That's what I'm asking."

"Because, my dear, we can use this to test my theory."

"Oh, so it's a theory, not a fact?" Yalit asked nastily.

"What is your theory?" Morakh growled.

Q paced. "There are... areas... of the universe where space has been contorted into a little knot. Sort of a Klein bottle, actually. A kind of barrier exists around the edges of these places that is impervious to all but the lowest orders of radiation. Basically, kinetic energy can get through, and gravitic radiation, and nothing else. No electromagnetism, no subspace radiation... It absorbs lower-order radiation and reflects radiation in higher dimensionalities. If you try to use the fourth or fifth dimensions to circle around the barrier, to a time and/or universe where it didn't exist, you end up being... reflected. Not a pleasant experience, or so say those who have tried.

"The form of radiation I have described to you can go anywhere. Literally. By its very nature it modulates the locons and chronons it intersects. There is no barrier that is impervious to that wave-form on the board there, except the barriers of an Anomaly."

"What is the radiation called?" Sovaz asked.

"Well, it doesn't have a name, obviously. Not in your language. My people just call it by what it is, but then we have that option, being telepathic and all."

"I vote we call it a Q-uon!" Roth said brightly. He grinned up at Q. "After all, you discovered it and all."

Under normal circumstances, Q would have said that was the stupidest thing he had ever heard, given how often he had identified new particles and such to the Federation. Under these circumstances, however, given the nature of the waveform he had just described, it was entirely appropriate. "While I find your notion that you can name parts of the universe after your small little selves mildly offensive, in this case I accept. We'll call it a quuon."

"Because it's your name that's being proposed?" Milarca asked coolly.

"No, because it's my species that's being proposed. And given what this particular waveform is, I find that curiously apropos."

"What is this particular waveform?" Sovaz asked.

"That's not relevant to the discussion," Q said loftily. "What is relevant is this: because these... quuons... can go anywhere except through the Anomaly barrier, they are a certain way to determine if my theory is actually correct." He was actually positive his theory was correct, or he would never have mentioned it; scientists did have a distressing tendency not to want to take his word for it, though. "If we could generate a small burst of these with the specified parameters, and fire it at the singularity, we could then determine if it had been reflected or not. If it had, it would prove my hypothesis."

"Which is? You described an anomaly; that tells us just as much as saying it's a singularity. What is the nature of this anomaly? What causes it?" Milarca asked.

This was, of course, beyond the ability of the mortals in the room to guess at. Q launched into a lecture on the Anomalies, failing to mention that what he was telling them was actually itself only a theory, albeit a theory devised by a people with a far more advanced science than they could possibly imagine. The Continuum had never managed to explore the insides of the Anomalies. Being entities of energy, they could not get through the barrier, however they tried-- and while a few actually had gotten through the barrier, none had ever returned or reported. And no wonder. The waveform that Q had just permitted to be labeled with his name was the substrate of communication within the Continuum; since it was reflected by the Anomaly barrier, no one could get a message through. But Q had a plan, breathtakingly simple and abysmally low-tech, something his people had not been able to devise in a billion years. It would be an enormous coup for him if he managed, in his lowly form, to succeed at something that the rest of the Continuum had failed at; possibly they'd be grateful and impressed enough to take him back, and if not, it would at least be a slap in their faces, that he had done what they in their loftiness could not do.

He wrapped up his lecture. "So, effectively, the Anomaly appears to be--"

"This is total crap," the Tellarite interrupted.

"Excuse me?" Q was not accustomed to being interrupted in this fashion.

"This story you're telling is great, but it doesn't relate to the singularity we're seeing. There's no way to test if your Anomaly and our singularity are the same thing."

"I told you," Q said, frustrated beyond belief. "We observe the behavior of the quuonic radiation--"

"With what?" the Tellarite barked, laughing. "I did the math. To build a detector that would even be able to observe if any of these were in the area, let alone what the concentration is and where they're coming from, would require the power of, oh, about six stars going supernova at once. To generate a pulse of these things would require several dozen stars. And that's assuming you can channel 100% of the star's energy; with our current technological levels, we could channel maybe ten percent. Got several hundred spare stars lying around?"

"Dr. Gan's right, " Sovaz reported. "I've reconfirmed his analysis. The power requirements to detect a quuon, let alone generate it, are far beyond our current technological capability."

Q blinked. For the first second, he merely thought, Well, that makes sense. Surely these primitives wouldn't have the capacity to generate a wave form that could communicate with the Continuum. What had he been thinking? And then utter humiliation washed over him as he realized he'd done it again. Despite all he'd studied of these people's pathetic excuse for science, he still made embarrassing missteps like this every so often, believing they could do something that they quite obviously could not. "Well. I suppose I should have guessed that. You people have such primitive technology."

"So all this is useless?" Dhawan asked angrily. "We don't even have a way to test your theory?"

"I didn't say that," Q said sharply. "There's another way to test it... I was planning on using this method to do some exploratory research once we'd confirmed my theory, but we could use it to confirm the theory in the first place, I suppose."

"Which is?" Markow asked. "Most of us don't have all eternity."

Q sighed. "So terribly impatient. That's always been your downfall, Markow." He began to pace again. "The nature of the Anomaly is that it's impervious to all forms of energy but kinetic. And gravitic, but that doesn't count right now. What we need to do is configure a probe such that it turns off all electronic systems just before it reaches the barrier, and coasts through; then turns itself back on again, based on some sort of timer that uses a kinetic energy system--"

"There's no such thing," someone objected. "How can you have a timer that uses solely kinetic energy?"

"Clockwork," Malo Ren, the Bajoran scientist said. That shut everyone up for a moment.

"Exactly. Clockwork. It should turn itself back on again, re-initialize, take readings, save them in a hard form-- one that doesn't require the presence of any form of energy to retain the information-- turn around, coast back out, turning itself off again for the barrier crossing, and then turning back on and warping back through the radiation front around the anomaly to return here."

"Could people be sent?" Sovaz asked excitedly.

Q shrugged. "I don't know. Some of us tried picking up mortal ships and sending them coasting through the Anomaly barriers, but none of them ever returned either."

"My God." Anne Christian's eyes went wide. "You're all monsters."

Belatedly Q realized that perhaps that hadn't been the smartest thing to tell them. "I never saw the point myself. The Anomaly was simply not interesting enough to warrant that much effort, and I said so. But you know some people."

"The Q are energy beings, aren't they?" Elejani Baíi asked. "Have your people never managed to cross the Anomaly either?"

"I don't see why it's any of your business," Q snapped. He didn't much like talking about the Continuum, and mentioning something that would make them look bad, something they had actually failed at, was not something he much wanted to do.

"Well, that would be something, wouldn't it?" Roth said. "If we lowly mortals managed to pull off something that the Q Continuum couldn't manage..."

"I would be very surprised," Q retorted.

"So you don't think this will work?" someone asked.

Q shrugged. "Implementation isn't my department."

"Well. It's worth investigating," Dhawan said. "We'll contact the Engineering Department."

After the conference ended for the day, Q did not even reach the door before he was mobbed by people wanting to know more about his Anomaly. He was dangerously close to shouting at all of them to go away and leave him alone when Harry Roth swooped in and rescued him. "Q! Sorry to interrupt, folks, but we have dinner plans."

We do? He managed not to say it, perceiving that Harry was rescuing him. "So sorry, but a higher duty calls," he said mockingly to the mob, and pushed his way through them. "Lovely. Where did you make reservations?"

Roth grinned. "This is a starship, Q," he said. "Not a lot of variety in places to eat." He led Q over to where a small party of folks, including Elejani Baíi and Sovaz, were waiting. Q's heart sank.

"Harry, you didn't tell me this was a group invitation."

"We've made a collective decision to take you out to dinner. You have been assimilated. Resistance is futile; dinner is inevitable."

"There hardly seems a point, given the paucity of restaurants on a starship."

"I could always cook," Elejani Baíi suggested, amused.

Q shuddered. "No thank you. You people are sufficiently stagnant that I suspect your cuisine hasn't changed in 3,000 years, and I have no desire to experience it again."

Sovaz looked puzzled. "I thought that you did not eat when you were still omnipotent."

"Didn't anyone ever tell you that Vulcans should be seen and not heard?"

Sovaz' puzzled look deepened into bewilderment. "No..."

"So where shall we go?" Roth asked. "Ten-Forward, Ten-Forward or Ten-Forward?"

"There are other places to dine on the Yamato," Sovaz pointed out. "Most other locations are cafeteria-style, however."

Q had a brilliantly cruel idea. He was not happy with being dragged into a business dinner with a group of five people, two of whose names he'd forgotten; eating in public was a humiliating experience for him, a reminder of how far he'd fallen, that he was mortal clay and needed to eat just like the rest of these. But there was a way to pass on the pain. "Harry, you forgot to invite someone," he pointed out. He located Markow, who was sensibly waiting until the crowds of people knotting up and chatting by the door cleared, and strode over to him. "Daedalus! I'm being suborned for dinner purposes; any interest in coming along?"

"We would be delighted to have you," Sovaz said earnestly, probably completely unaware of how humiliating Markow found the process of eating in public.

"Is this business or idle gossip?" Markow asked.

"Do I look like the sort that would indulge in idle gossip?" Q asked lazily. It was not often he could get Markow's goat; it would infuriate the man to miss a discussion like this, but Q was sure he would be unwilling to accept a dinner invitation.

Markow studied him with his usual inscrutable, damaged expression, unable to make his face convey the subtlety of whatever he was feeling, which was annoying. It was hard for Q to perceive when he was really getting to Markow, because the man's voder produced a fair degree of monotone and his face could convey only extremely crude, broad expressions. "In that case, I accept," Markow said, surprising Q.

"Really! How delightful." He wanted to ask why Markow had changed his mind, but it would be bad form to admit that he had remembered how uncomfortable Markow was eating in public.

Q spent the next three hours holding court, picking at food while grandiloquently holding forth on the nature of the universe. This was actually a lot of fun. The six people here with him all respected and liked him to some degree or another-- the two he hadn't known, a Vulcan named Stamor and a human named Eva Velasquez, turned out to be people who had never met him in person but had been on the list to see him, and who had both been reasonably impressed by his work here. It was almost like the work against the Borg, when Roth and some of the other scientists had started dragging him off to lunch every day so that he wouldn't pass out from forgetting to eat. He might have feared that they would be slavishly worshipful-- he hated that-- but Markow saved him from that, treating him with just enough disrespect that the others didn't grovel. Millennia of experience had made Q sufficiently sick of being worshipped that even now, after having been hated and despised and treated as an object for three years, he couldn't quite get into that.

He didn't get much to eat, though; he'd been too busy talking to actually stop and eat anything. This wouldn't have been a problem in the old days, but Q had found himself with a lot more desire for food since leaving Starbase 56... perhaps part of it was that he was now allowed to have knives, and cut his own food, without the suicide restrictions he'd been operating under for two years. Eating was a lot more pleasurable when it didn't remind him of the minor little freedoms that had been stripped away from him. How could he have ever lived that way? Why hadn't he protested more loudly, why hadn't he struggled harder? The emptiness of the past two years was unbelievable when he contrasted it with how he felt now-- he had merely changed location, nothing more dramatic than that, and yet the way people treated him in comparison was nothing short of marvelous.

Rather drained, he made his way back to his quarters. T'Laren stepped out of her bedroom into the main room as soon as he came in. "I suppose you're too tired to demonstrate the incident with Dr. LeBeau to me," she said.

"However did you guess?" Q slumped in the nearest chair. He really had to get these restrictive clothes off. And get something to eat. But he was so tired...

"We should do it tomorrow. The hearing has been set for tomorrow at 1500 hours; I took the message for you."

"What, are you my secretary now?"

"I doubt you'd want that; I lose files on a fairly frequent basis."

Q grinned at that image. "I take it LeBeau would not be persuaded to drop the charges."

"You take it correctly. Q, I wanted to talk to you about this." T'Laren walked over in front of him. "Strategy is going to be very important tomorrow. We should discuss how to handle the hearings."

"I was right and she was wrong. What's to discuss?" He really didn't feel like dealing with this right now.

"Don't be foolish. This is too important." She sat down on the couch, turned toward him. "Why don't you get changed and relax a bit, and we'll discuss what we need to do tomorrow?"

He glared at T'Laren, more than a bit resentful that she was making him do this now... but he was uncomfortable. "If you insist," he said with a long-suffering sigh.

After he'd changed clothes and washed up, he felt a bit more capable of handling whatever inanity T'Laren was planning to spout. He grabbed a danish from the replicator and devoured it so that he wouldn't have to admit in front of her that he was actually hungry, and left the room when he was done, wandering out into the common room and setting himself down on the couch, where he proceeded to lounge across the entire length of it. The danish hadn't helped much; he was still hungry.

"How did your dinner expedition go?" T'Laren asked him.

"Entertainingly," Q said, sitting up. This gave him an excuse. "I didn't get to eat much, though; people kept asking me questions."

"But you enjoyed yourself?"

"As I said, it was entertaining. And I don't get much of that nowadays." He walked to the replicator. "Shrimp omelette on toast, and fizzy chocolate." Feeling some obscure need to justify himself, to point out that he wasn't simply being a pig, he added, "I can't exactly eat and lecture at the same time. It looks exceedingly stupid."

"You don't need to explain yourself, Q," T'Laren said. "You have every right to eat what you want, whenever you want."

He turned back to her, holding the plate with the omelette and the drink. "Unless I'm not eating enough for your tastes."

"Exactly," T'Laren said solemnly.

Q arranged himself in a lounging position on the couch again. "Or unless I'm eating meat in front of Sovaz?" he asked pointedly.

"I was wrong," she said simply, setting a plate of crackers, cheese and fruit bits on the table near the couch and then sitting on the chair diagonal from him. "I was discomfited by Sovaz' presence, and reacted poorly."

"Discomfited. I love that word. I suppose that's Vulcan for 'angry'?"

"Very well, I was angry." She shrugged. "Nothing comes without price. The price I have paid for my greater empathy with the needs of humans is a less effective emotional discipline than most Vulcans; occasionally I will get angry, to my shame. I was wrong to behave that way." She picked up one of the crackers. "However, we are not here to discuss my personal failings. We need to develop a strategy for the meeting tomorrow."

"I don't see why this is an issue," Q said. "I'll tell the truth, they'll see it was an accident, and the subject will be dropped. This is hardly Starbase 56." On Starbase 56, Q had been blamed for everything-- not that he'd ever had to go through a hearing of any sort, but if anyone got hurt in the attacks on the base, if anyone's feelings were injured when Q treated them with the contempt they deserved, if anyone felt slighted because Q had tromped all over their foolish little theories, Q had been blamed for it. That wouldn't happen here. On Yamato, people respected him and looked up to him and took him out to dinner. He hadn't had this kind of respect since working against the Borg, and it warmed his soul. Sure, there were some morons, like Dhawan and Yalit and Morakh and LeBeau herself, that didn't appreciate his superiority, but he had supporters, almost even friends. He wouldn't be railroaded and punished as Anderson would have done, not here. There was nothing for him to worry about. The business with him being put in the brig had just been a slight misunderstanding.

"No, it's not," T'Laren agreed. "But that is not necessarily to your advantage." She folded cheese and fruit into a little pyramid with a cracker. How disgusting. "On Starbase 56, you were a resource, not a person. You could be punished, and frequently were, for failing to meet your obligations as a resource. But it is very doubtful you would have been subject to the responsibilities of a person. If you had broken someone's arm there, I suspect Anderson would have covered it up, or talked the person out of pressing charges, because you were too valuable to lose time in rehab or doing community service. Here, though, you are merely another respected scientific luminary. They will not give you any sort of special treatment, for better or worse, because of your status. And given your track record of winning people to your cause... I would say this warrants a serious planning session."

Q's eyes narrowed. "I can take care of myself, T'Laren."

"Indeed. You did remarkably well with Dr. LeBeau."

"Sarcasm does not become you."

T'Laren leaned forward. "If you go in there and behave as you usually do, if you pretend you feel no guilt or remorse for what you did, place all the blame on Dr. LeBeau, call your judges morons, and act as if an accusation is tantamount to a judgment, they will throw the book at you. You may face time in the brig, or time on a rehab colony; you may be forced to perform some community service that you'd undoubtedly find demeaning, on some colony world where there's a shortage of manpower; and even if you're merely fined, there would be a black mark on your record that would for the next several years influence those you most need, people in security and law enforcement, to think the worst of you. You cannot afford to have any of those things happen."

Despite himself, her words evoked a chill in him. "It would never come to that," Q protested.

"Wouldn't it? Q, your less than stellar handling of humans once led you to be beaten near to death for having the temerity to need protection, and forced into a hunger strike to protest your own total dehumanization after you'd been driven to suicide. It may be a very comforting fantasy to believe everything's changed now and that could never happen again... but it isn't true. If you mishandle these people, you will suffer for it all out of proportion to the offense. Your human life shows that pattern over and over again."

The notion she believed that he, of all people, would prefer to live in a comforting fantasy infuriated him. "I keep my fantasy life well away from my assessment of reality, thank you very much. And the fact is that I am not in as much danger as I was on the starbase. Here they respect me."

"That won't prevent them from sentencing you to a rehab colony if they think you're uncontrollably violent," T'Laren retorted. "Starfleet tries very, very hard not to play favorites. You have a lot more status than Dr. LeBeau. Therefore in the interests of fairness they will be biased toward her in an attempt to avoid bias. If you then antagonize them, your fate would be sealed."

She was starting to scare him. Q knew well how that opposite-bias conundrum worked; he'd often used it himself, being deliberately harsh with the people he thought most promising, back when he'd had his powers. He could easily see this working against him now. "Very well. Since you're such an expert on humans, what do you suggest?" he sneered, trying to hide his growing apprehension and belief in her words.

"I've noticed something interesting but puzzling about you. When you are in a situation where you're accused of something, your reaction seems to be fury that you weren't trusted-- you come across as if you're saying, 'Why should I bother to defend myself when you've already judged me guilty?' Yet when someone suggests that you might have performed a positive act, you try to minimize it-- as when Elejani Baíi revealed that you'd saved her planet, and you tried to make Markow and Roth believe that you'd tricked her into thinking so."

"What makes you think I actually did do it? The Q are closely mentally linked; I have a lot of vivid emotional memories of things that other people did."

"None as vivid as your own memory, Q. You're too egotistical for that," she said dryly. "No, I'm quite sure Elejani Baíi was right-- it seems entirely in character for you to rescue a species under the guise of tormenting them. But why didn't you want to admit so to Roth and Markow?"

Q sighed, caught out. He heard the utter conviction in T'Laren's voice; no amount of lying, however sincere, would convince her otherwise. "Do you know how tedious it is to be thought benevolent?" he asked. "People are constantly worshipping you, supplicating you for this thing or that thing, make my crops grow, make my husband love me again, it's enough to make you ill. And then if you don't do it, they're disillusioned, and they whine. I much prefer to set up no illusions ahead of time; if you don't think I'm benevolent, you're not going to waste my time begging me for favors. And then if I do choose to do someone a favor, they're properly grateful, instead of taking it for granted."

"I can understand that," T'Laren said. "It seems a sensible strategy for a god. But what ever does it have to do with your human life?"

"Habit?" Q shrugged.

"Your habits are deadly, Q. They apply to an existence so different from the one you have now that they are actively dangerous to you. Were I you, I'd set about cultivating new ones."

"Well, what was I supposed to do, say yes? Then it would have looked as if I'm even more egotistical than I am. I don't want people to think I'm the sort of person who goes about spreading peace and love throughout the galaxy."

"I could hardly see how they could be mistaken on that point."

"Ha ha ha," Q said sourly. "Keep it up, you'll develop a sense of humor yet."

"Right now the issue is not your desire to make your friends believe you a heartless villain. We'll deal with that some other time. The important issue is that you must appear innocent to the court tomorrow. It is not enough merely to be innocent-- you must appear it as well. And that means that you cannot behave as if the very accusation wounds you; you cannot be sarcastic, flippant or cruel. Any time you think of something astonishingly witty and cutting to say, make yourself remember your time in the brig the other night, and hold your tongue. You cannot pretend that you don't feel guilt--"

"I don't."

"That's arguable. But for the sake of argument, in that case you must pretend that you do feel guilt. This has all been a horrible accident, and you feel remorse for it--"

"But I don't."

"What kind of trickster god are you supposed to be?" T'Laren asked, visibly exasperated. "Even I, a Vulcan, am apparently better at lying than you are."

Q laughed, having successfully managed to get her goat. "Oh, that's precious, T'Laren. Remind me you said that the next time I'm depressed." He leaned forward, taking one of the crackers so he could wave it for emphasis. "I'm perfectly aware I'll need to put on an act, but I want it to be on my terms. And I want it to be clear that the accident was LeBeau's fault. She started it; she paid the consequences."

"If you demonstrate remorse for what you've done, that is exactly what everyone will think," T'Laren pointed out. "LeBeau will be a cruel witch raking an innocent man over the coals over a simple accident that she herself precipitated. You may, when you're called on to describe the incident, tell how she came over and began harassing you, completely unprovoked. You may describe how she hit you. But describe these things without vindictiveness in your tone, and the judge will be impressed by how big-hearted you seem in comparison to LeBeau's pettiness."

"How often have you had to manipulate courtrooms?"

"School boards, actually," T'Laren said. "I was in this very same situation when I was twelve."

"You broke a drunk woman's arm?" Q asked incredulously.

"No, I broke a teenage boy's. He was tormenting some younger students, and I politely asked him to stop. When he wouldn't, I interposed myself. He started pushing me-- he was careful not to hit me; in some places the human taboo against males striking females is particularly strong, and Texas is one of those places, but he might have injured me by shoving, since my greater physical strength doesn't provide me much protection against that-- I'm not as massive as a human of equivalent strength, and never have been. So I used a self-defense move to flip him, but applied a bit too much downward force, and snapped his arm. They nearly threw me out of the school for it-- a number of bigots had been trying to get me forbidden to go to school with human children in any case, and this provided ammunition. Even though it was clearly an accident, the claim was that a Vulcan child's greater strength makes her a threat to other students."

"So what did you do," Q asked, intrigued despite himself.

"At the hearing, I went into 'respectful obedient Vulcan child mode'-- I was polite, I was logical but not cold, I demonstrated remorse, but I used the cold dry facts to make my case for me, without any apparent attempt at emotional manipulation. People don't expect to be manipulated by a Vulcan anyway. So when I explained that he had been tormenting smaller children and I had stepped in to protect them, I won points for being the noble protector of those smaller than me. And when I explained how he had pushed me repeatedly, I painted him as a complete bully. Then my act of self-defense, for which I was so evidently remorseful, seemed fully justified. I was not penalized, but I did take it on myself to send my attacker flowers." She smiled slightly.

"With poisonous aphids inside or something?" Q asked, waiting for the punchline.

"No, no. Nothing like that was necessary. I was demonstrating my grace and class in a society that prized both, that I would send flowers to the boy I'd injured. People gossiped about how the little Vulcan girl had such charming manners-- forgetting, I suppose, that the little Vulcan girl had far better hearing than their own children, since I overheard them with some frequency. There was nothing whatsoever he could do to retaliate, because I had stolen all the pity he thought he was owed in painting him as a bully who deserved what he got. And I let the facts do it for me."

Q raised his eyebrows, impressed despite himself. "Quite the little manipulator, weren't you?"

"I have developed a talent for being what people need me to be," T'Laren said. "In my profession, I use that talent to aid others, being what they need me to be to help them heal. But in my childhood, I freely confess I used it to get what I wanted. It wasn't entirely manipulation-- I couldn't have pulled a stunt like that if I hadn't been in the right. But if you try to be morally impeccable, and you try to give people what they need from you, it is very hard for them to betray you. The armor of the righteous really is quite sturdy."

"But chafing, I must imagine."

"It depends. I personally do not do things that I find chafing. If I were in a society whose moral strictures were far tighter than my own, perhaps I would, in order to fit in. But the level of moral behavior I feel comfortable with is an acceptable one for my society."

"So your society is perfectly blasé about you cheating on your husband?"

For a moment, he almost saw raw anger in her eyes. Then the mask slid down, hooding it, and he regretted his words. He'd gotten her good, no doubt about it, but it had been pleasant to have her being so open with him, sharing her trade secrets. Not likely to continue now. "What my husband and I chose to do in our marital life was not society's business," T'Laren said coolly. "Soram did not disapprove of my sexual escapades to any greater extent than he disapproved of my inability to control my emotions, my interest in humans, my illogical child-sitting practices, or my willingness to use my telepathy in the pursuit of my duty, rather than exclusively with family and friends. You've absorbed far more human social values than you know if you truly think my dalliances with other men were the real way in which I betrayed my husband."

"I have not," Q retorted. "I don't care what you did. On the planet Prakta Velo, sex is completely casual, performed in public between any individuals who strike one another's fancy. But they won't eat together, or in public, and eating is shrouded in taboo and ritual as your species shrouds sex. If I wanted to get a Prakta Veloshian's goat, I might accuse him of eating meat or eating in front of children. It doesn't mean I care what or where he eats."

"Is it that important to you to try to hurt my feelings and anger me?" she asked. "I've been trying to figure out whether you do this as a defense mechanism, or if it's actually a way you show affection, or if in fact you simply harass everyone, regardless of their relationship to you and your opinion of them, for the pleasure of it."

"Oh, I do it for pleasure. Definitely."

"Perhaps you should pursue safer pleasures. For example, eating fugu or spacewalking without a tether."

"You must stop trying to be funny. It's just entirely too pathetic to watch."

"There is also the issue of gender and size," T'Laren continued, ignoring him. "It's unfortunate that you look and sound so human... The fact that you are male, and much bigger than Dr. LeBeau, would be of little significance if you were understood to be alien. Humans have a curious double standard; they will tolerate nearly any behavior from aliens, but reject certain behaviors in their own kind most strongly."

"Tell me all about it."

T'Laren appeared to be lost in thought. She focused on him slowly, as if an idea was dawning on her. "A costume..."

Q perked up. "What about a costume?"

"You dress like a human-- a well-dressed human, to be sure, but as if you do belong to human culture. If you could wear something that subtly reinforces your alien nature, that culturally you are not human and should not be treated as one... something that doesn't look like human fashion."

"Any specific fashion tradition in mind?"

"Definitely not. You don't want to look as if you're imitating an established species, Q; you should dress as if whatever you're wearing is the native costume of your people... yes, yes, your people have no native costume, I'm well aware of that."

He hadn't been going to say it-- far too obvious for him. But now that she'd mentioned it... "I could simply not show up and claim I'm dressed noncorporeally."

"You can't do old Earth traditions either," T'Laren said, continuing to ignore him. "They'd be perceived as mockery, as a costume. What you wear has to look like clothes... Do you think you can do it?"

"Of course I can do it," Q said loftily, as if embarrassed to be in the presence of someone so stupid that she might doubt it. "There's nothing I can't do with clothing if I so decide."

"Excellent. I think we should go to the holodeck tomorrow morning, so you can try on costumes before we choose one to replicate."

Q stared. "I thought the pattern needed to be in the computer."

"Holodecks can alter patterns based on voice commands-- and occasionally keyboard input; some people do it that way-- and then you can download the pattern to a replicator. How did you think people made costumes?"

"In my experience people don't make costumes. They walk around in the same stuffy Starfleet outfits all day."

"That's right; you don't use the holodeck. People will dress up for that."

"You're telling me that I could all along have used a holodeck to get the patterns I wanted? That I didn't have to program them into the replicators by hand?"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "If you did that, you have far more patience than I ever imagined. I did wonder why you felt the need to bring over all your clothes when you left Starbase 56, and why you brought half of them to Yamato."

"Well." Q studied the tray of crackers intently, mortified. "I suppose the technology does have its uses."

"What you're going to have to do is appear completely innocent of the human taboo on hitting women. You transcend gender; you don't even notice it. And given how often you've been attacked by people smaller than you, the size differential means nothing. You can't mention it, though, or take great umbrage at being maltreated because you're a man; that part will have to come from me. Will you do that?"

Q was not paying attention, lost in planning his costume. "Q?" T'Laren repeated.

"What? Oh, yes. Listen, you said not flamboyant, right? But do you think red would be too flamboyant? I'm quite fond of red."

"Would you like to go to the holodeck and pick out your costume now?" T'Laren asked patiently.

He was tired, but there was no way he could sleep before he did this. "That sounds delightful." Q glanced down at himself. "But I can hardly go out in public dressed like this; I'm going to have to get dressed first."

"You're only going to the holodeck; must you put on an entire costume to do so?"

"Of course." Q stood up and headed for his room. "Actually, why don't I check to see if I have anything suitable already?"

"I'll come with you."

They sorted through all of Q's clothing, with T'Laren commenting on what she considered to be completely unsuitable for the purposes, too flamboyant, or otherwise flawed. Q protested at her complaints, of course, but secretly agreed with her on most of it; T'Laren's taste might be entirely too subdued for his taste, but she could tell fashions apart. Eventually they'd selected six outfits that might be suitable, though Q had to try them all on to see. He kicked T'Laren out of the room.

"How exactly are we supposed to discuss strategy if you spend the next several hours getting dressed?" she asked dryly. "Do you expect me to sit by the com unit and talk through it?"

"What, would you rather stay in my room and stare at me while I'm getting dressed?" he retorted.

"Don't do the entire costume," she said with something very close to a sigh. "Just put on the clothes, Q; none of the elaborate makeup until we've decided whether it's appropriate, all right?"

Graciously he made that concession.

Foe the next two hours he tried on various items of clothing, and occasionally makeup jobs, while a bemused T'Laren provided moral support and fashion advice. None of the outfits were suitable, though T'Laren thought a few of them would do. There was no help for it but to go to the holodeck, wearing one of the outfits he had rejected-- they were fine outfits, just not suitable for what he wanted.

Three hours after that, he had something both he and T'Laren agreed was suitable, though he had wondered if T'Laren was still paying attention; she was sitting on the floor, legs drawn up against her chest, answering his questions with monosyllables. But then, the great T'Laren would hardly admit to something as human as exhaustion, now would she?, Q thought gleefully, not tired at all. He'd caught his second wind, and would have gone on all night if he hadn't found something absolutely perfect.

It was vaguely like reptilian leather, a single-piece suit like a jumpsuit, but with interior support in all the right places. Soft and supple, black in its basic color but composed of beautiful iridescent scales, with a low-cut V-neck in front and a half-head high flaring ribbed collar in back, and real gold edging the collar and cuffs-- he had to wear a black turtleneck underneath it, of course, he couldn't very well expose his chest, or more precisely the padding he had to wear on his chest, but he thought that produced an interesting contrast. The interior of the high ribbed collar was also black, and velvety like the material of the turtleneck, swallowing light. He thought he looked rather regal when he leaned his head back against it. The boots and gloves he chose were made of the same material, but with even tinier scales and with a base color of gold rather than black. They were narrow, pointed and flaring, making his long, slender fingers even longer and his feet appear to be longer, narrower and more delicate than they were. With subtle alterations to the padding he usually wore to make him a bit closer to his natural weight, slender instead of painfully skinny, and a careful makeup job in green and gold, together with a single gold stud... Q studied his costume with delight. It was not something he might have chosen to wear under ordinary circumstances, as it made him appear slimmer than he usually liked-- if he had to err on one side or the other, Q would prefer to be thin, but his preference was to look intimidating if he could, and that called for a bit more weight. But it was definitely not something your typical human would wear. Humans didn't wear leather, and human men didn't wear gold and green makeup. Not that Q's makeup job was particularly effeminate-- it just didn't look like something a human would wear.

T'Laren demonstrated how one downloaded holographic patterns into the replicator-- totally unnecessary, given that Q did know his way around computer systems, but then he supposed the poor dear just wanted to prove she wasn't helpless around a computer. And then she insisted that he get some sleep. Quite ridiculous of her; at this hour, all Q needed were a few stimulants to keep going through tomorrow, whereas if he tried to sleep now, he would be mindless with exhaustion tomorrow. Since she wouldn't let him have the stimulants, though, he had little choice.

T'Laren had not been this exhausted in what seemed like years, and probably was. She had had to sleep rather than meditating last night, since Q had kept her up so late, but felt as if she had done neither-- her body was sluggish, almost as if she'd been drugged, and her head pounded. Not a good sign. She was not getting enough rest, or perhaps her body, tantalized by true dreaming, was starting to rebel against the regimen of meditation she had placed herself on. Even Vulcans needed to dream sometime, she had once told Soram. It was still true, but she was desperately hoping that "sometime" was not anytime soon.

She worked out a bit, stretching, trying to wake herself up. There was still planning to do for Q's hearing, which was in the middle of the afternoon. Which meant she would have to discuss it with him.

Q was hardly amenable to waking up, let alone getting ready for his hearing. There was no way he could go to the conference today, either, but at least people would put that down to him having to prepare, not oversleeping. T'Laren was fairly certain no one else was as cavalier about showing up as Q was. Admittedly, he had no scientific reputation to be threatened, but it was rude nonetheless.

Since he stubbornly refused to get up, T'Laren brought a coffee cup to his bedside and then proceeded to strip the bed. Q glared at her, but got the hint and sat up before she pulled the last sheet off him, gulping the coffee... she had learned back on Ketaya that he preferred coffee cool enough to gulp when he was really tired, and would only get a hot cup after he already had some caffeine in his system. Caffeine was another thing she'd have to wean him off-- six cups of double-strength coffee in a day were a bad idea-- but one thing at a time.

She spent the rest of the day coaching him, trying to prepare him for the hearing by running practice question and answer sessions. At first Q seemed incapable of taking her seriously, and treated the whole thing like an elaborate game. As time went on, though, he got into it, until by the time of the actual hearing T'Laren felt reasonably confident he would not throw his future away for a witty remark. Or at least, as confident as one could ever be, with Q.

The hearing was a relatively informal thing, with Captain Okita presiding. Dr. LeBeau had shown up in her crispest professional attire, a mistake in T'Laren's opinion-- she should have portrayed herself as a weak innocent, not a competent, professional adult.

Q seemed to have taken T'Laren's coaching to heart-- he was sitting straight up, not lounging back in the chair as he usually did, and his expression was solemn. Either he was going to be fine, or he was going to do something spectacularly disastrous. It was hard to tell at this point which.

LeBeau's version of the story went first. She confessed to having had "a bit too much", and so when she went over to talk to Q, she granted that perhaps he might have misinterpreted her intent. "But he was vicious. He insulted me terribly in the course of our discussion, and finally said things no lady should have to hear. I was a little bit inebriated, as I said, and not in the best control of myself, so I slapped him. And that was wrong, I know it. I shouldn't have let my temper get away from me like that. But he broke my arm!" Her voice rose. "This man claims violence is barbaric and beneath him-- how does he explain a violent overreaction like that? I wouldn't have expected that from a Klingon, and here is a member of a supposedly advanced species assaulting people half his size."

Then they asked for Q's statement. Q stood up, seeming uncharacteristically subdued. "I'd like to say first of all that I deeply regret the injury to Dr. LeBeau," he said quietly. "I was trying to defend myself, but I never intended to injure her."

"Defend yourself from what, exactly?" Okita prompted.

This was the opening Q needed, and T'Laren saw him become more animated. "I was eating dinner with Dr. Roth, having a quiet discussion, when Dr. LeBeau came over and accosted me. She was more than a little inebriated, and though we offered to take her home several times, she refused. She insulted me in thoroughly vicious and unprovoked fashion-- I hadn't even talked to her that night, yet she felt the need to attack my competence, call me a murderer, and make wholly unsupported allegations about my sex life." He shrugged, with a bit of a self-deprecating smile. "I've never been one to slink away from a good verbal battle-- I rather enjoy them at times, in fact. So I defended myself, quite wittily I might add. But I never expected her to escalate to physical violence." He looked directly at Okita with his best sincere expression, focused and totally devoid of humor. "My people have a long tradition of verbal combat, longer probably than your species has existed. But we believe firmly that the response to words should be more words. We would never think of attacking someone for their speech-- on the few occasions, once in a hundred millennia, when one Q has physically attacked another, it's always been due to observable, harmful actions, never for words." He looked down again. "I suppose you could call me a slow learner, then, shortsighted, what have you... I've been physically assaulted for words a dozen times, some of them by humans... once I was even almost killed by the humans who were supposed to be protecting me. But the barbarism of physical violence still comes as a surprise to me. Certainly I don't expect it from a scientist, someone who is honored and respected for having higher faculties of mind than the normal run of your species."

"What exactly took place, Q?"

"Well, after our verbal combat had continued for some minutes, Dr. LeBeau made one of her wildly inaccurate suppositions about my sexual habits, as I mentioned. I retorted that her inordinate interest in my sex life was unwarranted, as I personally did not find her attractive in the slightest. For some reason, this pushed her over the line of rationality, and she hit me in the face, preparing to beat me up, I suppose." Q shuddered dramatically. "I've been beaten up before, as I said-- humans, Rigellians, Markasoids, and once a pair of Bajoran women nearly killed me in a bar on Starbase 56, for some sort of slight to their religion." T'Laren had specifically coached him to mention that incident in particular, since Bajoran women were no stronger or larger than human women, and it would reinforce the notion that Q had seriously feared LeBeau hurting him. "Dr. T'Laren's been training me in self-defense-- and I had no desire to be beaten up again. So I grabbed Dr. LeBeau's arm and pulled it away, so she couldn't hit me again-- and by accident, I broke her arm while doing so. And for inflicting that injury, I am sorry, but I won't apologize for defending myself from an unprovoked physical assault."

"Unprovoked physical assault?" LeBeau asked. "I slapped you!"


"But I'm half your size! I couldn't have hurt you if I wanted to!"

"Let's have some order here," Okita said mildly, but with a steely core to his voice. "Q, did you take into account your 'assailant's' physical size and strength in comparison to your own?"

"Why would I?" Q asked. "On paper, I suppose I'm physically stronger than most of the people who've assaulted me in the past." He glanced at LeBeau. "Physical strength has very little to do with it. Your people seem to think that it's acceptable to attack someone physically for a non-physical provocation that is entirely equivalent to the provocation that preceded it. What I said to LeBeau was no worse than what she said to me, but somehow she thought she had the right to hit me in the head for it. My head is arguably one of the more valuable items in the Federation, certainly the most valuable thing I own-- even the slightest damage to my brain could compromise my ability to do my job, and if I can't do that the Federation would have no reason to continue to protect me from my old enemies. An attempt to damage me there is nothing short of an attempt to kill me. And yet Dr. LeBeau believes that it was not only acceptable for her to hit me in the head, possibly causing concussive brain damage, but that she could hit me in the face-- the most vulnerable and pain-sensitive portion of my head, causing me maximum pain and possibly facial scarring or blinding-- not only was this perfectly normal and acceptable for her to do, but that I was entirely outside the pale to defend myself from this assault."

T'Laren was proud of him. He hadn't whined or been self-pitying, and yet he had made it perfectly clear in a short period of time that he had had excellent reasons to fear LeBeau's attack, while painting himself as a morally superior alien who would never attack someone unprovoked and casting aspersions on any human who wrote off LeBeau's slapping him as minor. Phrasing the slap as "hitting him in the head" had been Q's own idea, and T'Laren had agreed to it-- once you got him going on the topic, Q could be quite inventive with verbal manipulation of any kind.

"Concussive brain damage? Facial scarring? You're making mountains out of molehills," LeBeau accused. "There's no way the slap I gave you would have damaged you."

"And how was I supposed to know that?" Q retorted. "For that matter, given that every other time someone has hit me they proceeded to inflict grievous bodily harm, how was I supposed to know that that single blow was all you intended?"

"Order, please," Okita said, and everyone shut up, even Q.

T'Laren decided that Q had set the stage properly. "I'd like to speak on my client's behalf, if I may."

"Go ahead."

T'Laren stood. "Human beings, after approximately 8-12 years of development, acquire an exquisite sense of their own bodies, of the problems and possibilities these bodies present. An adult human has learned roughly how hard he can be hit before damage occurs, and what force he needs to apply to defend himself. We take it for granted that this is true of all adults, that it comes with maturity. It does not. It comes with experience. And Q has had only three years of experience with the human form.

"In that time, Q has never experienced a slap. He has been beaten, frequently and brutally, occasionally to the point of near-death. His life has been threatened on numerous occasions. And until recently, he has never had the vaguest idea of how to stop this from happening.

"I began training Q in self-defense. I taught him to disable an attacker quickly and efficiently, since my assumption, based on Q's experience and the logic of his situation, was that in the great majority of cases, Q's assailants would intend to kill him or cause extreme harm." She glanced at LeBeau. "I fear I did not consider the basic irrationality of humans; as Q primarily works with Starfleet and scientists, people who I'd assumed would be able to control their irrational impulses, I did not train him to deal with an attacker who was compulsively acting out a ritual, as Dr. LeBeau was."

"Explain 'compulsively acting out a ritual.'"

"By that, I meant, in essence, a subconscious compulsion to enact a ritual which states, in essence, that Dr. LeBeau is a subordinate minor in need of protection from predatory males, in this case Q. This ritual originates from a time when all women were considered to be subordinate and lacking in adult competence, and were thought to need protection. When a man violated a woman's honor, by impugning her sexual value, it was acceptable for her to slap him, and he was expected not to retaliate because it would be beneath him to attack a mere female."

Dr. LeBeau had turned bright red. "That isn't what I meant by it at all! I--"

"You are not on trial, Dr. LeBeau," T'Laren assured her. "Q is. I merely explained the origins of the custom you enacted to illustrate my point, namely that I did not expect the people Q works with to engage in such illogical behavior. That is my failing."

Her demeanor was calm, cool, the perfect Vulcan. She showed no outward signs of the glee she felt at tearing LeBeau to shreds under the guise of being "logical". Any woman who would slap a man for calling her ugly when she'd just called him lousy in bed was, in T'Laren's mind, a primitive throwback and deserved what she got. There were definite advantages to being Vulcan sometimes. Now if Q would only keep his mouth shut and not try to pick up where T'Laren left off...

A miracle occurred, and he did keep his mouth shut. He looked at T'Laren with an expression that might have been astonishment, admiration or both, so apparently he had perceived what she had just done.

Okita's verdict, handed down after minimal deliberation, was simple. Q was not guilty of assault; it was an accident caused by an act of self-defense. Dr. LeBeau was required to take a class on sensitivity to other cultural mores in dealing with aliens, and Q was required to take a class on non-violent self-defense, both classes to be taken within the next six months. Slaps on the wrist all around, but Q didn't see it that way.

"I have to take a class?" He had at least managed to keep his mouth shut until they left, so it was only T'Laren he was complaining to, as they walked down the hall back to their quarters. "Trying to do self-defense is what got me into this mess."

"What got you into this mess was doing it poorly," T'Laren pointed out. "If you'd known what you were doing, you could have stopped her without hurting her."

"I doubt it."

"I think we should resume your lessons. Knowing a little bit about something is more dangerous than either complete ignorance or thorough knowledge."

"And how long will it take to acquire this mythical 'thorough knowledge'?" Q asked bitterly. "Three weeks under your oh-so-tender tutelage, and this was the result. How many weeks will it take before it's actually of use to me?"

"What happened the other night seems to indicate that it's of use to you right now," T'Laren pointed out. "What went wrong was not with your technique, which was quite effective at disabling your attacker. You misjudged the threat that Dr. LeBeau represented. If she really had been the threat you thought she was, you would have defended yourself effectively." She looked at him. "You know, now that I think about it, you need scenario training even more than self-defense training. I don't know why I didn't think of this before."

"Scenario training?"

"A form of training to understand social situations in an alien culture. I think we both know there is something wrong with the way I've been behaving toward you, and I think I've just realized what. I have simultaneously taken on a role as your teacher and your therapist. And you require both, desperately--"

"Thank you so much. I'm far from desperate, T'Laren."

She shrugged slightly. The statement would stand on its own; she didn't need to argue the point with him. "The trouble is that the two roles are incompatible. As your teacher, I should point out to you when you are doing something wrong, and take an active role in showing you what you need to do. As your therapist, though, my role should be mostly passive, not attempting to direct your behavior, except in the sense that I should try to help you see why your current behavior isn't getting you what you want. For instance, the night LeBeau attacked you, when I tried to demonstrate to you that you should not insult people when you're asking them for a favor... as your teacher, that was appropriate. But as your therapist, that was out of line. You should be able to believe you can say anything to me, and I won't retaliate."

"So you admit you were retaliating, then?" Q asked, a gleam in his eyes. T'Laren shook her head.

"No, but you believed I was. In that sense, your perception was more important than the reality. So what I'm thinking we should do, rather than have me try to correct your behavior as it occurs, is for us to take you through scenario training. You and I will go to one of the holodecks, and we'll run simulations of some standard social situations. I'll be there to explain when things go wrong and how to correct them. In a safe environment like the holodeck, where your mistakes will have no real social consequences, you may be able to learn without the kind of pressures that are on you in daily life."

"What is this fetish you have for holodecks? You won't be happy until you drag me into one, will you?"

"Why do you have such problems with them?" T'Laren countered.

"I don't see the point to trying to live in a fantasy world. What's the point to interacting with people that don't exist? All they can do is what you programmed them to do."

"Well, if you're using the holodeck for fantasy purposes, I always found it most interesting to interact with actual people. But then, I can tell whether a person in a holodeck is real or not. In this case, though, the whole idea is to learn how to interact with people that do exist." She glanced over at him. He was probably being sullen because he thought she was telling him what to do. "It's actually a required course for non-humans at Starfleet Academy. I've taken it before. If you fear you might do something embarrassing, you have to realize I have seen a classful of young Vulcans who had never been off their homeworld take the scenarios. There's nothing you could do as bad as what they did."

"You said you took the class? Not taught it?"

"I was a cadet at the time; they'd hardly be having me teach a class." This was begging the question; she'd tutored it after she had sailed through all the scenarios on the first or second try.

Q looked at her. "But you were raised by humans. Why ever would they force you to take such an absurdly unnecessary class?"

T'Laren hoped Q could not see the tips of her ears turning green with embarrassment. "I.. didn't try to get out of it. My math scores were too low that semester... I needed the grade."

A look of astonished amusement began to break over Q's face. "You mean, you deliberately allowed yourself to be assigned to a class that you knew would be ridiculously easy for you?"

"I suppose... yes, you could say that."

"You cheated!" Q crowed delightedly.

"I did not cheat," T'Laren retorted, still embarrassed. A bit of the funny side began to show itself to her, and she allowed herself the sort of utterly deadpan expression she used when she was being humorous. "It would hardly have been ethical of me to try to get out of a Starfleet requirement that my fellows were bound to, simply because of my background."

"You cheated," Q repeated, still delighted. "My dear T'Laren. I'm beginning to think there's some hope for you."

"Well, it wasn't quite as much as that. They tracked us based on species and likelihood of interacting with humans. My family come from the Shi'Kahr region, the most cosmopolitan area of Vulcan, and my mother was a Starfleet officer, so they had me in the most challenging section." She turned to him. "They curve the grades, you see, based on the grades of the others in the class. So they did try to put everyone in a class based on estimated skill level."

"But they somehow overlooked the fact that you had spent your formative years on Earth."

"I'd put my natural parents' names down on my application to Starfleet, and the next of kin I listed were all Vulcan. They did have the information on my entrance essay, but not on the abbreviated version of my records, so I suppose the professors didn't know."

"Did they find out?"

"Of course not. They were a bit stunned by my command of Terran idioms, but took a point or two off for inappropriate idioms when I used terms native to my home... we used some very colorful local expressions in Texas, and I actually had no idea that no one outside the area knew what they meant."

"This just gets better and better."

"Well, it was only fair," T'Laren said defensively. "I was tracked in with other Vulcans in my math and hard science courses, too. Vulcan superiority at math and physics isn't inborn-- it's something that comes as part of the disciplines. And well, you know how skilled I am at them..."

"Oh, of course," Q said solemnly. "Certainly, it was only fair." A grin broke out. "So did your classmates lynch you before or after the final exam?"

"My classmates were Vulcans," T'Laren retorted, "and Vulcans appreciate excellence. They did not 'lynch' me at all." She considered. "Though considering what I did to the curve, they probably would have refused to speak to me for the rest of the schoolyear if they'd known I'd grown up on Earth."

Q laughed. "Such potential, at such a tender age. We may make a trickster out of you yet."

"It was never my ambition to be a trickster," T'Laren pointed out.

"Then why did you name your ship Ketaya?"

"A ketaya isn't merely a trickster; it's also a symbol for death and rebirth. And besides, the ship would eventually be a place for you as well."

"Ah." Q nodded. "So. What other intriguing little bits of your past haven't you told me?"

"Most of them," T'Laren said blandly. Was this going to be another one of his attempts to manipulate her into telling him things she didn't want to talk about? She got enough of that from Tris. "So what do you think? Does the scenario training sound like a good idea?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Certainly. We can go practice self-defense instead. You are losing what ground you gained."

Q gave her a dirty look. "This is blackmail, you know."

He felt exceedingly stupid.

The holodeck scenario was a bar; he recognized it by the dimness and the fact that an inordinate number of patrons were sitting on stools in front of a counter instead of at the more civilized tables. Q had been feeling mostly good from his victory over LeBeau, though the notion that he had to take a class still rankled; and T'Laren's admission that she'd cheated at the Academy to improve her grade point average had delighted him. But now he was feeling tense again. This was a bar, and Q did not do well in bars.

T'Laren had assured him that the holodeck had safety interlocks. The patrons would not really beat him up. Nonetheless, he was nervous.

A woman approached him in an outrageously scanty costume, annoying Q considerably. His health had improved over the past few weeks, and in the past few days he had noted the return of one of the more unpleasant side effects of good health. The woman was aesthetically pleasing enough, although she wore too much makeup and her face had a bit of a frowzy look to it that the makeup was trying to conceal. She was, in addition to being even less real than the simulacrum-sentients he used to invent to populate his scenarios, not the sort of person who would have intrigued him in real life-- this was the kind of woman that hormonally overloaded men like Riker, for instance, spent time with. Once upon a time Q had found the antics of such women, and the men they hoodwinked, greatly amusing. Now he resented them furiously, since his body seemed to be unaware that he, as a superior being, should not be affected by a gratuitous display of flesh.

"Hello, stranger," the woman said in a sultry voice. "Buy a lady a drink?"

"If I saw a lady to buy a drink for, I might contemplate it," Q retorted.

The woman hmmphed and flounced off. "Freeze program," T'Laren said.

Q turned to her. "What was that for?"

"Congratulations," T'Laren said dryly. "You've just made a new record. I didn't think it was possible to fail the scenario in the first line of dialogue."

"What are you talking about?"

"I told you that the object of the scenario is to get information about the location of Jason Jones. You need the prostitute's help for that. The Vulcan students all turned down the prostitute, too, but they were far less rude about it. You've just ensured that she will be unwilling to help you later in the scenario."

"How do you know?" Q challenged. "Maybe I can find another way around it. Or bribe her. She must be fairly venal if she sells her body for money."

"Very well. Why don't we try?"

An hour, several mortally insulted holograms, and a great deal of frustration later, Q came to the conclusion that T'Laren had been right the first time. You couldn't solve the scenario without the prostitute's help, and she was entirely unwilling to help him. Any of the characters who might have been persuaded to help him out in her place had also been offended by something he said, or did. "This is an incredibly stupid scenario. People are not nearly this quick to take offense."

"People who know you have undoubtedly developed thicker skins to compensate," T'Laren replied. "People who want something from you will try to make allowances. These people--"

"These characters, T'Laren. They're not self-aware."

"These characters, then, don't know you. You aren't the great Q, oracle of Starbase 56, to them; you're just some random human off the latest ship."

He stared at her. "You can't be serious. You mean people are actually treating me better than they otherwise would?"

"Q, if it weren't for your value to the Federation, you would probably have died a long time ago. And not from an old enemy, either, but from a new one. Either that, or you would be stuck in a despicable dead-end job because you'd have offended the people who held your future in their hands."

That couldn't be true. People treated him terribly back on Starbase 56... "But people aren't offended by me here. And they haven't met me before."

"Your reputation precedes you. And you are valuable to the Federation. People of value are expected to be more arrogant than people who are not."

Q scowled. He was not going to be beaten by a stupid computer program. "Computer, restart program."

The bar reappeared, and the prostitute sauntered up to him. "Hello, stranger. Buy a lady a drink?"

"Not tonight, thanks. I have a headache."

Apparently she accepted that absurd reply as inoffensive, smiling at him. "Well, if you change your mind, come on over to the bar and ask for Cilla. All right, honey?" She didn't wait for an answer to that, which was good, as Q was deeply offended at being called "honey", even by a computer program. He glared at T'Laren, who was wearing the sort of perfectly deadpan expression that meant she was probably snickering hysterically inside.

An hour and a half later, Q had managed to get further through the scenario before reaching a dead end, but hadn't managed to complete it. "This is unbelievably stupid. How can these people be so obstinate? How can anyone solve this?"

"People do," T'Laren said. "Though it took one young man of my acquaintance seventeen tries. The trouble is that you are assuming these people must help you, that they are obligated to. They are not. You're asking them for favors and offering nothing in return--"

"I tried bribery."

"Rather clumsily, though. Simply saying, 'Will you tell me if I give you money?' is embarrassingly blunt to most people, who would prefer to believe that they are doing you a favor and you're doing one in return, not that this is a crass commercial transaction. These are humans, remember. Not Ferengi."

"I didn't know humans still were prostitutes anymore."

"In certain areas of Earth, yes. When they choose to be."

The notion that he could be beaten by a test someone else set for him, a test a bunch of Vulcans with no experience at all of human beings, let alone the millennia he spent studying them, were able to pass, galled him. Q's eyes narrowed. "Reset program."

He tried three times more, getting closer each time, but more and more frustrated. Finally, in total frustration, he decided to go ahead and buy the prostitute a drink. Maybe he'd be able to get information from her if he plied her with synthehol first.

As he sat down with her at the bar, he leaned forward. "Tell me what you know about Jason Jones," he said. He was beginning to hate that name. Why couldn't they have named the plot macguffin something interesting, like Isaiah Takamura or something?

"What do you want to know about him for, sugar?" the woman crooned. "I'm right here."

She put her hand on his leg.

Q knew a moment of instant and total panic. She was going to do something to him. Like Amy Frasier had, and his body would betray him, would cooperate with her in usurping his will. People rarely touched him-- before T'Laren, no one ever had, except to administer a hypo or drag him off to house arrest-- and no one but Amy Frasier had ever touched him there. It should have been innocuous-- it was on the side of his leg, not the inner surface, halfway between the knee and the groin. But his body didn't seem to think it was innocuous, and neither did he. A jolt of something went through him, like an electric shock where she touched him, and for a terrified moment he simply couldn't move at all. Then he jerked backward with such force that he fell off the chair.

"Computer, cushion!" T'Laren shouted.

He fell into some thick, soft surface. The prostitute character was leaning over him with a false expression of concern. "What's wrong, honey? You all right?"

"Don't touch me!" Q gasped hoarsely, the panic consuming him. One touch. One touch was all it had been, and now his body was burning, aching in a way he found more humiliating than almost any other discomfort. She might touch him again, and his body might take over his will, as it had with Amy when he hadn't been able to push her away, had barely been able to choke out a refusal. And this time his body might not let him refuse.

"Computer, end program!" T'Laren said.

And suddenly he was sitting on the floor, not a soft cushion at all, shaking almost uncontrollably. "What happened?" T'Laren asked, running over to him-- she had been standing in the back of the room, watching without interfering, until this.

It would sound so stupid, such a juvenile, ridiculous fear, that Q didn't want to tell her. But he did. Talking to T'Laren was a habit, and he wanted... something, he wasn't sure what. Maybe reassurance, or validation, or a logical explanation of his fears, so he could have something to justify them to himself with. "She... touched me," he managed to say, suffering from dire humiliation, still trembling, barely able to say it.

"On the leg, you mean?"

Q nodded.

"I'm so sorry." T'Laren knelt next to him. "I had no idea it was this bad for you; I should never have given you this scenario."

"No, you shouldn't have," Q agreed, glad she was giving him a target to blame besides himself. This was ridiculous. He was still shaking, and over what? He had been beaten near to death, had suffered assassination attempts too horrid to remember, and here he was, shaking because a hologram had touched him on the leg. What had he been afraid of? She was a hologram, as much under his power as all mortals had once been, almost as much as the simulacra he himself had created had been. He could have just deleted her if he didn't like what she was doing, as he might have disintegrated a simulacrum or banished a mortal to oblivion.

But he had been afraid because... he had wanted it. Every fiber of his treacherous body had yearned toward that simple touch, had wanted the hologram to keep going, had wanted to beg for more. All it took was such a little thing, and he was reduced to the needs of his body, his higher faculties and the disgust he felt falling by the wayside. She was a nonsentient thing, for the sake of all, and he had wanted her to touch him, to... to do things that had absolutely nothing to do with the higher faculties of intellect or even of emotion, except the most base brute need.

"I want to go home," he said, and cringed at how plaintive his voice sounded.

"Of course. We'll go back right now." She offered her hand to help him up, but Q didn't take it. He hadn't sunk that low. And besides, he feared what might happen if she touched him now, in the state he was in. He certainly didn't want to think of T'Laren that way. There would be no escape; he couldn't avoid her.

Back in the room, T'Laren asked him, "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No," Q said flatly. Talking about it was the last thing he wanted to do. Of course, it was going to take a miracle to make T'Laren see that; she never left him alone on things like this. "I'm going to bed."

"All right," she said. "But remember. If you do decide you want to talk about it, you can always talk to me."

Q looked at her, startled. She almost looked sincere. Where was the cajoling, the wheedling information out of him?

He wasn't going to question it. Before she could change her mind and start trying to worm it out of him, he ducked into the room. He was only overtired, that was all. It had been a strenuous day, and even though it was relatively early for him, he wasn't fully recovered. That was all it was. Surely he wouldn't have responded like that to a hologram if he hadn't been exhausted.

He awakened that night from the midst of an intense dream, heart pounding, his body sheened with sweat... and certain other, uncomfortable, physical symptoms.

Q cursed, and sat up angrily. The memory of the dream lingered, affecting him far more than he liked, disturbing him deeply. It wasn't enough that he had to have horrible dreams, but that he had to dream about that?

This was the worst kind. Q had become inured to nightmares long ago. He would wake up, heart pounding, call for lights and reassure himself that it had only been a dream-- change pajamas if they were too sweaty, take a shower if required, listen to music or work or do something to get his mind off the dream. They weren't real, and when he managed to assure himself of that, he could recover from the fear they engendered. He'd had to learn to-- even with the sedatives he took, Q woke with nightmares more often than not.

The Continuum dreams were worse, but usually only when they occurred just before he had to get up. Incidents like what happened the first night aboard Ketaya were rare; most of the time, if Q woke up from a Continuum dream, he tried his best to get back to sleep and recapture it. When he was awake, he found it somewhat shameful that he would so blatantly try to cling to a comforting fantasy instead of waking up and facing reality; Q enjoyed fantasy as much as the next person, or had when he'd had his powers, at least, but only truly pathetic weaklings fled from the lives they were leading into flights of fantasy. When he did it, though, he was usually too close to sleep to be able to control himself.

No, by far the worst ones were the erotic dreams. With the nightmares, the physical effects he suffered were the aftereffects of fear, and easily dealt with. The effects that erotic dreams engendered in him could only be dealt with by engaging in an utterly repulsive activity that Q had absolutely no wish to perform, and that nauseated him and made him feel pathetic and debased when need drove him to. And this particular one... Q might have expected that he'd have dreamed about the hologram, or something. It made sense that his mind would do that to him, to take such a senseless image and brutalize him with it. But that wasn't what happened.

Sometimes the dreams were absurd enough that he could keep from taking them too seriously. He hadn't actually believed the one about Medellin when he was in it, and the only lingering aftereffects that one had left him with was disgust. Sometimes they latched onto imaginary people, or people who meant less than nothing to him-- the hologram, for instance, or the woman who served snacks one day at one of his conferences on Starbase 56. Those left him with a good portion of self-disgust for the utter meaninglessness of the desire, but at least they didn't present him with any actual possibilities. Some of the dreams were frighteningly intense, but dealt with people beyond his reach-- like Picard, for instance, who would never have wanted to do such a thing with Q, even if Q had wanted to, or Data, who probably understood the mechanics even less well than Q did, or Keth'wyn, Tandoris' defiant sister from the time Q had been Tajitan, Keth'wyn who had defied him and intrigued him and who was over a thousand years dead.

Dreaming about T'Laren, though... that was horrible. She was right there, separated from him by a thin wall. He knew he didn't talk in his sleep, because he'd been paranoid enough to record himself a few nights, but he did make sounds-- whimpers of fear, moans of... other emotions. It was an obscenity beyond belief that he could have been dreaming that, about her, when she might even have heard him moaning, she was so close. And that wasn't the worst of it either. Q huddled , wrapping his arms around himself, trying to drive out the memory, but it was impossible.

He had dreamed that she'd raped him. There was no other word for it. And he'd liked it. She had pinned him down and forced him, doing things to him that he should have protested, should have fought off. In the dream, he had known this was wrong, had known he shouldn't want this. But he hadn't resisted. And-- and when he felt himself waking up, he had tried to cling to sleep, to perpetuate the obscenity that was happening to him.

How could he have done that? How could he have wanted it? Was there some dark part of his psyche that wanted to be raped, the way male human morons had claimed human women felt for centuries before finally getting a clue about two hundred years ago? And why had his subconscious chosen T'Laren to do it? He knew the real life T'Laren would never do such a thing; he wouldn't go near her if he thought she would. He also knew that the real T'Laren thought he was physically repulsive and was turned off by his personality, though she was willing to accept him as a friend. Even if her ethics didn't get in the way, she couldn't want him. And that was exactly what he wanted; if he ever did engage in such base animal behaviors, it would be with someone who thought highly of him, not someone who had seen him broken and crying and suicidal. Besides, he was angered that his body's unnecessary hormonal reactions might interfere with his ability to appreciate T'Laren aesthetically; he didn't want to get those sort of feelings every time he looked at her if he was going to be spending a lot of time in her company. So why had his mind presented him with such images, and why had his mind concocted a fantasy in which T'Laren forced him? If the dream had had overtones of horror and fear, he might have borrowed a page from T'Laren's own dream interpretation book and decided it was representing his fear of her telepathic powers, or something. But there hadn't been anything like that-- just guilt, sick excitement, and pleasure.

Angrily he got up and got dressed. Sleep was a lost cause right now, unless he was willing to do something truly disgusting, which he wasn't. He stalked out of the room-- thank whatever fates there were that T'Laren was not in the common room-- and out into the hall, where the slightly dimmed lights and scarcity of people proclaimed how late it was. He didn't care. He'd blow off the conference again tomorrow if he had to, but he wasn't going back to the emptiness of his room, not now. It would be courting disaster.

At this hour, he only passed one or two people in the halls. And that was good-- the last thing he wanted was to deal with people. At the same time, though, the emptiness disturbed him. It was too quiet, too lonely, too much like his bedroom. If he'd wanted to stay someplace quiet and unpopulated, he would have stayed there.

He found himself at the doors to Ten-Forward, as if he'd been pulled there by some unconscious tropism. It was not where he wanted to be, he was sure, but when he thought about it he realized there was nowhere he wanted to be right now, nowhere in his reach, anyway. So he stepped inside.

On Starbase 56, there'd been a big difference between a lounge and a bar. There were places for the base inhabitants, provided by Starfleet, low-key places like this, and then there were privately owned places for the transients, places that were grungy and served real alcohol. Q had found the bar the more entertaining of the two locales until the Bajoran women beat him up in it; after that, he stuck to the lounges. Ten-Forward, like Guinan's Ten-Forward, was definitely a lounge.

There had been many, many nights when insomnia and vague needs Q couldn't explain had driven him to the lounge, to sit nursing a cup of coffee, or several, for hours and stare out the large portholes at the stars. Here there were no portholes, but one entire wall was transparent. Q sat down by it with a coffee, staring sullenly into the darkness beyond the transparasteel.

Human beings had a deep and abiding need for symbols to represent that which they could not see. Q had found that tendency quaintly amusing once, and been totally unprepared for the strength of the need when he himself became human. The ineffable nature of the home he'd left behind was barely comprehensible to him anymore, its "location" a silly question when posed by a human mind, even one that had once lived there. He needed a symbol to represent his home, and his mind had latched onto space, the stars, the inhospitable region in which he now traveled. In morose moods like this, he would stare out at the tiny spots of light and see his home in them-- magical, beautiful, forevermore out of his reach. Once he could have reached out his hand and grasped those stars, just as easily as he moved through dimensional planes between the Continuum and this matter-based universe. All gone now.

He buried himself in the scent of the coffee, fighting off tears. The loneliness, the sense of loss was overwhelming him. And he couldn't turn to T'Laren, couldn't look at her right now, couldn't even think of her without his mind turning to that horrid dream, and his body reacting to the memory. But without her to turn to, he was no better off than he'd been on Starbase 56.

Once, very long ago, when he'd been young and stupid, Q had experimented with cutting himself off from the Continuum. They were annoying him, demanding that he do this and that and the other thing that he didn't really want to do. And so he had--only for a moment-- severed the link.

What he'd felt then-- aside from the terror-- related to no one human sensation directly. The terror, of course, was very much like human terror, or at least he remembered it that way. But the reason he felt terror, the sensations he'd experienced, didn't translate exactly. It was like cold, and hunger, and the weakness he got if he got angry or overexcited when he had gone without food too long. It was like loneliness, but like a loneliness that could literally kill, a loneliness as dangerous and powerful as starvation and hypothermia.

He had tried to connect back, to re-establish the link, but he didn't know how. Without the power from the Continuum filling him, warming him, he was lost, disoriented and cold, unable to perceive how to reach back to them. Panicked, he had thrown all the power he had left into a desperate cry for help. A few nanoseconds later, one of his older siblings had swooped down on him and drawn him back into the Continuum, enfolding him, bathing him with warmth and light and telling him how many different kinds of idiot he was. It was one of the last transitional events of his childhood-- the brief instant of terror and pain had burned a lesson into him, jolted him a step further into maturity whether he liked it or not.

Q felt like that now. He was cold on the outside, burning up on the inside, his skin chilled and desperately hungry, starving for something. The loneliness he felt was something he was more inured to than he'd been ten thousand years ago, but no less terrible. And no one was going to swoop down on him, gather him up and comfort him now. He wanted-- he wasn't sure what he wanted, since sex was disgusting and sordid and the cold hungry loneliness he felt would not be sated by touching himself, as mere sexual arousal would be. Sexual arousal was a part of it, a different kind of hungry ache, a heat at his core and between his legs to contrast against the cold hunger for warmth he felt everywhere else-- but it wasn't all there was. And that was confusing-- he didn't know whether to fight it or not, didn't know what he was fighting. If someone offered him what he wanted, would he even know that that was it?

But it hardly mattered what he wanted, after all. Since he wasn't going to get it, now was he?

"Do you mind if I join you?" a voice behind him asked.

Q didn't turn to look at the interloper. "Yes."

He heard a chair being pulled back, felt someone sitting down at the table, and turned his head angrily. "Do you have a hearing problem?"

"Most likely," Elejani Baíi said.

"I don't want to talk to you."

"I may not be your ideal choice, but I'm better than no one."

"Hardly. Now go away."

"You prefer staring out the window into space and contemplating suicide?"

"Yes. Go away."

"I would go away if that was what you really wanted," Elejani Baíi said. "But since you're only saying that so you don't have to admit that what you want is to talk to someone, I think you would really prefer it if I stayed."

Q stared at her, outraged. Humiliation swept over him as he remembered that Elejani Baíi was an empath. "Get out of my head," he told her icily.

"I'm not in your head. You're shouting, and I can't help it that I'm not deaf."

"Don't you have mental shields or something?"

"Yes, of course. They work wonderfully to stop other empaths from sensing my emotions. But they're not very good at keeping other people's voices out." She shrugged. "I tried not to listen, but your mental voice is very loud."

"Why would that be? I have no psionic abilities."

"Psionic abilities only give you the ability to consciously modulate what you're broadcasting. The rest of it is force of personality." She smiled.

Well. Reluctantly he admitted that that made sense-- in the Continuum, force of personality and loudness of mental "voice" were closely related. And he undoubtedly had a more powerful personality than most of these bland little creatures. "I'm tremendously sorry if my depression inconveniences you, then," he said in his most sarcastic voice.

"I owe you far too much to feel that you are inconveniencing me," she said simply.

"Is this more of that 'I saved your silly little planet' nonsense?" Q asked harshly. "That wasn't me. I let you think so because it amused me, but it isn't amusing anymore."

"Who was it then?"

He didn't think she believed him. Had he slipped that far? Certainly he could still tell a convincing lie, couldn't he? "My people are closely interrelated mentally, far more than you can imagine. It was a Q-- it just wasn't me. Of course, your empathy is a sufficiently primitive sense that you'd be unable to detect the distinction there."

"Do you remember your first meeting with Captain Picard?"

"What does Picard have to do with this?"

Elejani Baíi smiled. "The emotional resonance you present when you think of your first meeting with Picard is very similar to what you presented when I described the deeds of Emaroth. Either you were Emaroth, then, or you identify with the being who was so closely that you may as well be her. One way or the other, then, I owe you."

"I didn't do it for you," Q retorted nastily. "I did it because I was bored and you people were boring, and boring creatures should not be allowed to exist. I decided I was going to make you look up from your shallow, complacent little lives and start being of interest to someone whether you liked it or not. I had no grand benevolent motives, and I am not interested in being worshipped."

"Oh, I know," Elejani Baíi assured him. "I worshipped you when I was a child, but I don't see you as a god right now... or a demon or anything of the sort. I'm well aware that you're a person who happened to belong to a far more advanced species, but still a person. But regardless of whether you had grand benevolent motives or not, you were very important to my life-- I don't even mean the fact that you saved my people from a supernova and that therefore I wouldn't exist without you; that's important, of course, but not my greatest consideration."

Q was somewhat bewildered. "I don't recall having done anything else of great note in your planet's history."

"My people are extremely boring," Elejani Baíi said. "You are completely correct. When I was a child, there was no outlet for the dreamers, for people who wished to explore and question. They told us space was your domain, and if we encroached on it you would carry us off to hell. I felt sure that hell would be better than my life then, so I researched you, and the events of three thousand years ago, and I felt sure you weren't the monster they claimed you were. Space was full of suns just like our own. When we fled Old Laon, we encountered other species in our travels, who lived on worlds that orbited those suns, worlds like the one we came to. What then was hellish about space? And you, when I read between the lines of the records, had placed a premium on individual thought and then carried the thinkers off with you. I couldn't believe that thought was evil or dangerous. So I decided you were more like an angel, come to guide us to the next step of our evolution, and that you'd taken those who passed your tests to a far more interesting place. I used to pray to you to come take me." She smiled.

In some ways, Elejani Baíi was clearly demonstrating how much she was like other mortals, how little clue she'd had as to what had really gone on. In other respects, she seemed frighteningly close to the truth. In all his human existence, Q had never met anyone who'd thought of him as a benevolent god, and it made him obscurely fearful. "You must have been terribly disappointed when I didn't," he drawled coolly.

"But you did-- indirectly. The Scamarans came back to us, and brought the Federation and the stars. At the time I thought you'd planned that."

"Nothing of the sort," he protested, about to come up with something scathing. She interrupted.

"I know that now," she said patiently. "I thought you were a god then, that you were watching us still. I know better now. But it was still your doing, don't you see? If I had grown up on Old Laon, before your coming, what would I have had even to dream about, or to wish for? You kept me alive in a world so numbingly empty it would have crushed my soul. It was not your plan to do so, perhaps, and certainly it was not for my benefit in particular, but that makes my gratitude to you no less."

"This is terribly sweet, but what makes you think I want to hear your life story?" Q asked sarcastically.

"Too late, I'm done," Elejani Baíi said brightly. "And it isn't that I thought you wanted to hear my life story, it's that I wanted you to know that of all the people in the galaxy who seem to hate you for what you were, one person at least feels gratitude to you." She leaned forward slightly, placing her hands flat on the table, very slightly over the midline into his half. "You have someone to turn to should you... need anything."

"You don't have anything I need," Q retorted.

"Perhaps not. I merely make the offer." She looked directly into his eyes. "It may well be that if you think about it, you will find there are things you need, or even that would merely make you more comfortable, that I can help you with. And it would make me very happy to do so."

Was he imagining things? As keyed up as he was from the dream, he could easily be mistaken, could be reading her wrong-- she couldn't mean what he thought she meant. Could she?

"I'm not interested in charity," he said harshly.

"Neither am I. But I'm an empath. And a Laon'l," Elejani Baíi said in an amused tone of voice. "Perhaps you don't remember quite how dull our lives are. I've discovered, since leaving my homeworld, that there's a host of things that humans and most other species can experience, but that I can only feel if someone else experiences them, someone I am... close to. Naturally, I would like to show my gratitude toward someone I owe so much... but it would not be mere gratitude. I cannot help but feel what those I'm close to feel... when I do favors for people, I get out exactly as much as I put in. Do you see what I'm saying?"

He was very much afraid that he did. Q's mouth was dry, his heart pounding. Harry Roth flirted with him, but Q didn't take that seriously-- it was a game to Harry, at least when he wasn't drunk, and it was certainly no more than a game to Q. This was different. If he were reading Elejani Baíi correctly, this was the first real verbal proposition he had ever received, and it terrified him. His eyes were glued to the petite form of the woman before him, the fluffy, short white hair and soft features, the huge golden eyes and delicate, exposed shoulders, mouth curved in an understated but almost certainly inviting smile. Was she mocking him? He couldn't tell. He couldn't trust himself, and she knew everything he was feeling, could drag it out and humiliate him with it at any moment.

"I'm afraid not," he said, trying to be cold, although it was hard to do it right when his mouth was so dry. He pushed back his chair. "Perhaps if I had the vaguest idea what you were talking about, your offer might intrigue me, but I confess I'm too bored with this conversation to puzzle it out."

She slid out of her chair and stood. "Perhaps it will come to you at a later date," she suggested. "If so, my offer will still be open. If you need anything... anything at all... I would be delighted to help you."

It was a common enough cliché, but the way she said it, it sounded as if she meant it. But she couldn't possibly. And even if she did, he couldn't risk it. Q stood there and gazed at her with a forbidding stony mask on his face, dismally aware that she knew about the conflict under that mask perfectly well, and feeling like he had when he was a child and hadn't mastered shielding himself and his older siblings were constantly invading his head and making rude comments about what they found there. Elejani Baíi made no rude comments, though. She simply bowed slightly to him and left.

As soon as she was gone, Q sat back down and put his head in his hands, trying not to moan. She had meant it, he was sure of it. His body was screaming at him that he was seven different kinds of fool for letting her go, that he should call her back, go to her room-- she'd just told him she wanted to. And so many people had tortured him and tried to kill him for who he used to be-- would it be so terribly wrong to accept gratitude from the one person in the universe who felt it for him?

Yes. It would be wrong, and even if it wasn't wrong, it would be abysmally stupid. Elejani Baíi didn't know him, knew nothing about him except that once he had harried and herded and helped her people. She knew him as Daishenéon Emaroth in an alien body, the goddess/demon she had believed in as a child-- not Q, the human. His humanity, his fallibility would disgust her, if she expected a god. People didn't react well when they learned their idols were mere clay. There was no way he could ever show his vulnerability to someone who looked up to him, someone who thought highly of him, who had never seen him broken and crying and suicidal. The disappointment would be too great for her, and she would turn it against him, and destroy him for not being a god.

No, he'd done the right thing in telling her to leave. So why did he regret it so much?

He saw no choice but to return to his room-- there was nothing for him out here, and he didn't want to be subjected to an endless parade of people asking him what was wrong. It was unlikely he'd be able to sleep, but maybe if he read, or listened to music, or something, he could drag his mind away from its current painful obsessions.

As the door slid open, he heard heavy breathing. Horrified, he stepped inside. A scantily clad T'Laren, body sheened with sweat, was in the common room, exercising.

She was doing this on purpose. She had to be. The timing was far too diabolical otherwise. "What do you think you're doing?" he snapped.

"Exercising. Why?"

"I would appreciate it if you would refrain from such a disgusting display in my presence," he told her, his voice as cold and vicious as he could make it.

"I wasn't in your presence when I started," she replied mildly.

"You were in my room, were you not? What compels you to strip away all vestiges of civilization and sentience and comport yourself like an animal, grunting and sweating as if you had no higher brain functions at all? What do you think you are, a Klingon?"

"Did you know that you actually sound hysterical?" T'Laren asked. "I don't think I've ever heard you sounding this shrill."

"I am not shrill!!" Q forced his voice back down to its normal register. "What do you expect? I come back to my room after a bout with insomnia, only to be confronted with this hideous display. Did you truly think I wanted to see you in such repulsive condition?"

"I truly didn't care what you thought one way or the other, as I assumed you were in your room asleep."

"Then did it ever occur to you that these animalistic behaviors of yours might actually wake me up?"

"Since I've done this nearly every night since we came to Yamato, and you haven't complained yet, the evidence suggested not."

"Well, put an end to it. Now." He couldn't look at her. Her body was all power and grace, long and exquisitely honed, the sort of beauty that came from a perfect marriage of form and function. He had never considered the notion that physical power might have any aesthetic component to it. Or that his body would respond so strongly to that aesthetic component, betraying him cruelly.

"You realize that you're being totally unreasonable, of course."

"I'm being unreasonable? You're the one parading around half-naked in my room!"

T'Laren picked up a robe from where she'd apparently tossed it on the couch and shrugged it on. "Does this protect your delicate sensibilities?" she asked dryly.

She hadn't shut the robe properly. The top of the square-cut halter showed clearly, and the lines under the halter that demarcated the swell of her breasts. The bottom of the robe parted to display the bottom of her shorts and entirely too much leg. Q swallowed and turned away. "Barbarian. I don't know why I expect civilized behavior out of you."

He stomped off to his room, entirely too late. The image of T'Laren in her halter and shorts was burnt into his brain, along with a horrid recurring image looping as if he were a poorly programmed computer, of the halter and shorts spontaneously disintegrating, and what lay beneath-- no. No, that was utterly disgusting. Q flung himself on the bed, trying to shut down his mind. He wouldn't think about that. He wouldn't. Even if T'Laren did go about wearing ridiculously skimpy clothes, he had no right to undress her in his head, and besides which, he didn't want to. It was wrong, and disgusting, and beneath his dignity...

...and he couldn't stop.

Q bit back a moan, realizing he'd been defeated, when he found himself pressing against the bed in a disgustingly familiar pattern. There was no way he was going to get to sleep. Too many things had conspired against him to make him need, to awaken this body's instincts in ways he much preferred to remain dormant. There was nothing left he could do.

Since he was the primary occupant of the suite, he had a door directly into the suite's bathroom. The fact that it opened as he approached indicated there was no one else inside; once he entered, the computer would automatically lock both sides, and require a voice command from him or his departure to unlock the doors again. T'Laren couldn't walk in on him here, and she couldn't hear him either. Not after he turned on the sonic shower, anyway.

Back on Starbase 56, Security had had a habit of barging into Q's bedroom. Sometimes they did it to annoy or frighten him, but most often it was because of a legitimate false alarm (or for that matter a legitimate real alarm)-- the computer, programmed to respond to Q's cries for help, had sometimes sent distress signals to Security when he was in the middle of a nightmare, or when he'd just stubbed his toe. He had never truly felt he had privacy there. However, even Security wouldn't barge into the bathroom without trying to contact him and ask if he was all right. Which was just as well, as the bathroom was also the only sanitary place for disposing of bodily wastes, and that was exactly what he perceived himself to be doing. Nothing but a form of urination that was entirely optional and avoidable, or should have been, anyway.

He leaned against the shower wall, feeling the sound waves bathe him and strip away the sweat and filth that covered his body. There was no way T'Laren would hear anything-- the sonic frequency Q had set the shower to was one that was quite audible to Vulcans. He'd checked. So even if she could hear through the bathroom door, all she'd be able to hear was the shower. He was safe.

Even so, he fought to keep from moaning as his hand moved of its own volition, soothing swollen flesh. This shouldn't feel good. It was a human weakness that it did, just as it was a human weakness that eating and sleeping felt good, his body trying to break him to the level of the mere human it was through pleasure/pain conditioning. Q was not Pavlov's dog, though, and refused the conditioning. This didn't feel good, he didn't want to be doing this, and he most especially didn't wish it was T'Laren doing it instead...

...but his body would not brook such defiance. It invaded his mind with images, surfacing out of the dark haze of pleasure and guilt swirling through his mind... images of T'Laren. He saw her naked, saw her kissing him, stroking his back and his chest, touching him in the way he was doing to himself now. Q couldn't get rid of the images, couldn't even properly fight them. And even though what he was doing should satisfy him, had always gotten rid of the need in the past, tonight there was an entirely different component to the longing. It wasn't enough that he wanted this. No, he wanted someone specific to be doing it, someone who he had shouted at less than ten minutes ago and who was merely on the other side of a door from him, and he couldn't have her any more than he could have anyone. But he had never wanted a specific person this badly before, certainly never someone so close within reach. The sensations coursing through him were like a refined torture, because they couldn't give him what he really wanted, couldn't truly satisfy him.

With a half-sob, Q gave into the fantasy, letting his human brain construct whatever scenarios it wished in whatever degree of vividness it chose without even trying to fight it anymore. Tears ran from tightly closed eyes as his free hand roamed his body, feeding the fantasy with touches and caresses that he imagined came from her. He imagined her pressing into him, hot, dry skin against his cooler, sweat-soaked flesh, warming him; imagined her lips pressing against his, like the way some giddy and probably drunk young woman had kissed him after they'd defeated the Borg and he'd never seen her again or learned her name or cared. T'Laren's hand was between his legs, stroking him, and her other hand was playing with his nipple, and he moaned as the need broke and release swept over him, entirely in the grip of the impossible fantasy.

And then reality sank back in, all the crueler for his brief attempt to deny it. T'Laren was not here. He was standing naked in the shower, having just debauched himself nauseatingly, and worse, allowed himself to fantasize about debauching someone else. What a pathetic, miserable, disgusting little lump of flesh he was. What had ever possessed him to think he still retained any of the higher qualities he'd had as a Q? He was far, far worse than the humans. At least they betrayed no higher aspirations when they fulfilled their biological imperatives. It was, after all, the job of a mortal to reproduce itself. One couldn't blame them for that. But one could blame him for engaging in such a useless and disgusting activity. He couldn't reproduce himself if he wanted to. He couldn't form intimate connections with other mortals, either, the other thing they used sex for. All he could do was make a pitiful fool of himself pretending he'd formed a connection with someone, when that someone demonstrably had no such interest in him.

A sob forced its way out of his throat. Q fell to his knees in the shower, eyes closed, reaching out to steady himself against the wall as more sobs welled up in him. He was so lonely. It had been three years since he'd known the companionship of his own kind, and even if he wanted to reach out to his fellow mortals, he didn't know how, or what good it would do him. He was entirely too pathetic to have friends. He was unattractive and unappealing, and he knew it, and yet he indulged in disgusting fantasies about mortals wanting him. How ridiculous could you get? If anyone knew how low he'd sunk, they would laugh their heads off.

And look at him now. This was a new low of pitifulness, crying in the shower because he wanted to have sex with someone and they could never possibly want him. Black despair rolled over Q in a dark wave, drowning him. No matter what he did, what he tried to do or not to do, he just kept sinking lower and lower. Why couldn't he accept the unavoidable? Why couldn't he perceive his human life as the time-marking it was, and concentrate on getting through it and getting the Continuum to give him his powers back, instead of making a fool of himself wanting things he couldn't possibly have and hated himself for wanting in the first place? He wrapped his arms around his knees and sobbed, rocking back and forth in an unconscious attempt to soothe himself, but his pain would not be soothed. He was a miserable pathetic little person and he hated himself.

Was this what you wanted to show me? Was this the big lesson I was supposed to learn? That, if you strip away my connection to the Continuum and my powers and my immortality, I'm even more pathetic and disgusting than a human being? You wanted to show me how unfit I always really was to be a Q, was that it?

Well, it worked. I've learned my lesson. Congratulations. You've convinced me. I'm scum and I always was. Are you happy now? You wanted me to admit it, didn't you?

A renewed wave of sobbing hit him, as he followed the despair out to its logical conclusion. Which means... you'll never take me back, will you? If I was always unworthy, you couldn't possibly pollute the species by letting me come back. You're going to leave me here to rot, to suffer in boredom and loneliness and the knowledge you've given me of my own unworthiness, and I'm never ever going to be one of you again...

Why can't you just kill me then! Or at least let me do it myself... oh, Q, why did you ever let me be born at all?

This sort of serious overreaction was not like Q. Or rather, it was not like Q when he wasn't suffering from something that he wouldn't readily admit to. T'Laren puzzled over his behavior as she got dressed, her exercise session shot to hell.

Q had sounded almost panicked. His voice had been shrill and hysterical as he insulted her for daring to exercise in his presence. T'Laren didn't believe for a moment that he was as disgusted as he'd claimed; if he hadn't stalked off and taken a shower before she could respond, she would have pointed out to him that he hadn't shown any sign of such disgust when he'd walked in on her exercising in Vulcan gravity on Ketaya, or when they exercised together for that matter. She fully intended to point this out to him when he got out of the shower; apparently she had made a mistake when she'd let him simply go to bed without talking about whatever had bothered him on the holodeck. Whatever it was, it could well be related to whatever pain he'd suffered that had driven him out of his bed and out of his room in the middle of the night, and subsequently led him to scream at her for exercising.

She walked back out into the common room, listening for the shower. It was an annoying grinding noise at the low range of her hearing, with less unpleasant overtones in the higher ranges. All a human could hear were the higher ranges, which made sonic showers popular among humans. On Vulcan, the sonic freshers were much quieter, or operated in a much lower sound range, depending on how you wanted to look at it. But even here, the sonic showers could be set to be practically inaudible to Vulcans; T'Laren always used water when she could get it, water symbolizing luxury to a girl who'd grown up in dry Texas and then on Vulcan, but she knew that the showers could be set to levels she was comfortable with. Was Q deliberately being rude, or did he simply not know she could hear it?

When the sound stopped, she'd wait a decorous ten minutes or so for him to get dressed and go back to his bedroom, and then she'd confront him. In the meantime, she should figure out a line of attack. In what way might the holodeck incident have triggered this outburst?

Well, the holodeck incident had shown that Q had a far deeper fear of sex than she'd thought previously. When he'd explained what Amy Frasier did to him, T'Laren might not have placed quite enough weight on the incident. She'd known that he'd thought of it as being molested, even though it was clear to T'Laren that he had, at best, sent confused signals, and at worst led Frasier on. The fact that she could see clearly that it hadn't been an attempted rape, and that she'd explained her perceptions to Q, might have led her to undervalue his perception that it was. Nothing could explain his overreaction to being touched by the prostitute hologram but a fear of being sexually molested.

And then he'd panicked when he'd seen her dressed for exercise... T'Laren put her hand to her head and allowed herself a sigh. He hadn't gotten it into his head that she meant to molest him, had he? She'd told Q she wasn't attracted to him, with the blunt honesty he seemed to respond best to, and at the time she'd thought he believed her. Had she done anything to give him cause for concern since?

She didn't think she had. In fact, she and Q hadn't gotten along awfully well since they'd come about Yamato, and that was her fault, her distraction. She'd let him get to her with his nasty digs about Sovaz and his insinuations about Tris-- and dammit, if he was afraid of her sexuality why did he keep bringing up her relationship with Tris and her betrayal of Soram? She knew Q targeted any weaknesses he found, but it seemed a curious weakness to harp on if he was afraid she would molest him. Or had this fear come up just recently? Did he think she had set him up to be molested by putting him in that scenario?

That sounded painfully likely. T'Laren leaned up against the bathroom door, closing her eyes in anger at herself. She should have checked more carefully. She should have remembered what the prostitute did if you bought her a drink-- she'd tutored enough Vulcan students of both sexes through it, she'd seen the prostitute's antics often enough. The fact that it had been twenty years ago was no excuse. She shouldn't have exposed Q to a holodeck scenario she didn't fully understand.

...was that crying she heard in there?

She turned her head, laying one ear directly against the door, after brushing a few errant curls out of the way. The sound of the shower grew louder, of course. She focused on the filtering discipline, concentrating on blocking the annoying shower noise and magnifying the other sounds in the room.

That sounded very much like Q was crying. Sobbing hysterically, in fact, or she'd never have heard it over the shower. Aspects of the All, what had she done? Horrified, her mind raced ahead to the next logical conclusion-- if Q thought she had set him up to be molested, if he feared she would attack him sexually, he must be terrified. He must be utterly certain that there was no one in the universe he could trust, that the one person he thought he could depend on would betray him.

If she tried to call him now, he would perceive it as another betrayal, another intrusion. She'd been eavesdropping on him, invading his privacy. He might well have gone and hidden in the shower as the one place in the room he could reasonably expect her not to overhear him. As much as it tore at her to do nothing, knowing he was in there sobbing because he thought she'd betrayed him, there was nothing she could safely do until he got out of the shower and composed himself a bit. He wouldn't be able to take an apology when he was this raw; if she let him get his facade back up, she had a much better chance of being believed.

She waited a decorous amount of time before ringing the chime for his room. "What is it?" his voice came, snappishly she thought.

"It's me," she said hesitantly, waiting for an answer to guide her as to what she should say next. When none came, she tried what had worked last time. "I came to apologize."

The door slid open as she was speaking. "Apologize for what?" Q asked. He was dressed for bed, but it was clearly still armor-- ornate silk pajamas in the style of Terran Chinese traditional dress, with a high-necked collar and many, many buttons, and a heavy velour robe wrapped around him.

T'Laren blinked. "Apologize for what" was not the reaction she'd expected. "It seems odd that you should ask that question, when half an hour ago you were screaming at me."

"Oh, for that. You commit so many transgressions, I can't keep track of them all."

"Not only for that," she said. "Q, I am terribly sorry about what happened earlier, on the holodeck. I never meant to put you in that situation, and I am deeply sorry if I caused you any kind of discomfort, then or later-- it was certainly not my intention."

All the blood drained from his face. "You were spying on me," he breathed, as if it were the most horrifying thing he could imagine.

He had cried in front of her before. Why was he reacting this way to the notion that she'd overheard him? "I-- I did hear you crying, yes, but--"

"You voyeuristic, filthy sow, don't try to play games with me!" he shouted, face white with fury. "Tell me, is all this vastly amusing to you? You enjoy tormenting me this way and then gloating over how far I've fallen? Or are you merely trying to collect evidence on exactly how human I am?"

"Q, I've heard you crying before. Why does it disturb you so much--"

"I told you not to play games!" he snarled. "You know quite well what I'm talking about, you disgusting pig. This is all part of some kind of plan, isn't it? Did you put Elejani Baíi up to it?"

"Up to what? Q, I came here to apologize for having accidentally put you in a situation that you found uncomfortable. After your reaction to me when you came in tonight, I deduced that you'd become afraid I'd molest you, and then I heard you crying in the shower. I assumed you were crying because you were afraid I'd betrayed you, and I came to assure you this is not true. What does Elejani Baíi have to do with anything? Or are we talking at complete cross-purposes here?"

Q went even paler. "You... didn't hear anything else. Just me crying?"

"I barely heard that much. I wasn't trying to eavesdrop on you, Q, but you were crying loudly enough that I could hear it over the shower."

He walked back to the bed and sank down on it as if everything holding him up was suddenly gone. "You didn't know. You-- oh, no..." Q put his head in his hands.

"What don't I know?" T'Laren asked, following him deeper into the room.

"Well, if you still don't know, I'm certainly not going to tell you," Q snapped, looking up at her for a second. His face was flaming red, which gave T'Laren a clue as to what was really going on here.

"Q..." T'Laren hesitated. He was so easily embarrassed on this subject. "I think we need to discuss what happened today."

"I think we don't," Q retorted, still with head in hands.

She sat down in a chair across from him, folding her arms over her breasts and composing herself to present as asexual a mien as possible. "Some weeks ago, you raised a question-- a fear, really-- that I might molest you. I explained to you why I would not do that, and you seemed to believe me. Do you still believe me?"

"Of course," Q snapped. He looked up again. "You think I'm repulsive-looking. I'd hardly have forgotten that."

"I never said that."

Q rolled his eyes. "Of course you didn't. What you said, if I recall correctly, was that 'my appearance is not ideal' or some such circumlocution. Which, when translated from therapist-spare-the-patient's-feelings gobbledygook, means, 'Q, you're repulsive-looking.'"

"That is not what it means. I don't think you're repulsive-looking."

"So you admit you lied?"

"I didn't lie. You misinterpreted me. I said, firstly, that you were my patient, and I don't take advantage of my patients. Then I said, 'Your health is poor, your appearance is not the best, and you would make an unattractive meld partner,' due to your fear of telepathy. That last is still true, as is the part about you being my patient. But when I said 'your appearance is not the best', I meant 'you look positively skeletal from illness.' Since then you've regained a good deal of weight and your appearance is much improved. And I never thought you were repulsive, merely that you were unhealthy."

"But you still don't think I'm attractive."

"I think you are quite attractive. I simply am not attracted to you."

"That makes no sense."

She sighed. "Q, among most humanoids it is possible to perceive aesthetic attractiveness without actually feeling sexual desire. For instance, if I were to look at-- oh, take Elejani Baíi for an example, since you brought her up. I can tell that she is quite beautiful, but because she is a woman, I feel no desire for her."

"Why not?" Q asked, sounding utterly bewildered.

"Because I'm heterosexual. So I don't feel desire for women."

"You actually don't feel it? At all?" A thought seemed to occur to him then. "Oh, you mean that mentally you have no desire for them. But your body feels something."

"No, Q," she explained patiently. His lack of comprehension answered the question of his own sexual orientation fairly definitively, she thought. "My body doesn't feel anything. I'm not attracted to women."

"Is this a Vulcan thing?"

In a way, this was hilarious. Q, who claimed to feel no sexual desire at all, apparently made no distinction between aesthetic appreciation and sexual desire. And this was the man who claimed to have a small libido. Uh-huh. "Do you understand the term 'heterosexual'?"

"Certainly I do. I'm hardly stupid, T'Laren. It refers to a person who, for cultural or personal reasons, chooses to engage in sexual activities with members of the opposite sex only. Or, in the case of multi-sexed species, engages only with those partners that make reproduction possible."

"Where did you get that definition from?"

He shrugged. "You pick things up when you're omniscient."

"Obviously you continue to maintain your interpretive bias even when omniscient, however. Heterosexuality has nothing to do with choice. One can behave in a heterosexual fashion without being heterosexual. For instance, for cultural reasons, all female Vulcan citizens who are members of our species behave in either a heterosexual or an asexual fashion. That has nothing to do with their natural inclinations, or what they would desire were they free to choose. I happen to be heterosexual, and I was before I had any sexual experience whatsoever. I simply do not feel desire for women."

"Well, why not? They don't look that different from men."

"It's not a concept that's possible to explain, Q. Take my word for it."

"You also want me to take your word for it that you think I'm attractive but you don't. I still don't understand that. I think that's so much psychobabble on your part, T'Laren." He smiled smugly.

She tried another tack. "It's... as if a male patient were like a brother to me... why are you laughing?"

"You're not going to get anywhere with that analogy either," he predicted. "T'Laren, if the Q had sex, which we don't, but if you could analogize such an undignified and disgusting process to the far more sublime things we do for pleasure with one another... who would we engage in such acts with, if not our brothers and sisters? Since, as nearly as I can translate the human concept of sibling, it applies to the relationships of all the Q within the Continuum. So telling me I'm like a brother to you is not going to make your case."

"So you're saying that you feel sexual desire for anyone who you find aesthetically attractive."

"I didn't say that," he said hastily.

"Then what did you say? Since you don't seem to comprehend how the two sensations can be separate--"

"Only to you mortals, since you perceive your bodily sensations as integral parts of your psyche. I don't."

"So what you're saying is that when your mind experiences aesthetic pleasure at looking at someone, your body responds sexually."

He looked embarrassed. "I can't very well control what my body does."

That was a "yes". "What if you find the individual's personality unpleasant?"

"What would that have to do with it?"

"Well... most of us do not want to have sex with people who we don't find pleasant."

"Whatever gave you the idea I wanted to have sex with anyone? Sex is disgusting."

Wonderful. His rationalizations to himself that his body was the source of all the sexual feelings he didn't want to deal with, and that they had nothing to do with the real him at all, had left him incapable of modulating physical desire with emotional concerns. "What about children?" she asked, not entirely sure she wanted an answer to this one.

"What about them?"

"If a child was aesthetically attractive, would you-- or rather, your body-- respond to them sexually?"

"I've never seen an aesthetically attractive child. There's nothing that particularly appeals to me about runny noses and grubby faces."

That hardly described all children, but she wasn't going to press him on it. "What about nonhumanoids? Or inanimate objects? You have a large collection of art; I must assume you perceive aesthetic beauty in other than the humanoid form."

"Of course I do. In fact, I consider the humanoid form in general to be fairly hideous, though some individuals rise above their status as hairless monkeys to achieve some measure of beauty."

"Well, do you feel sexual desire for attractive art objects?"

Q recoiled. "You are the most disgusting individual it has ever been my misfortune to encounter."

"I'll take that to mean 'no'," T'Laren said dryly. "My experience of people who are aesthetically attractive but I do not find desirable is similar to that."

Q looked at her sidelong. "You think I'm a work of art?"

"Yes, Q. You're a lovely work of art and I wish only to pose you in my living room, in one of those equally artistic outfits you're so fond of wearing."

"T'Laren. Please try to remember. I am the witty one. You are a Vulcan. I'm growing tired of reminding you."

She ignored that. "So. Now that we have established to everyone's satisfaction that no, you do not repel me, and no, I am not going to molest you, I think we should discuss what happened tonight, instead of sidetracking onto a discussion of heterosexuality, art and wit."

Q laughed. "Too late for that, I'm afraid."

"Well, then, perhaps we can get back on track."

Q did not appear to be paying attention. He was staring into space distractedly. "Q? Can you tell me about what happened in the holodeck?"

"What if I weren't your patient?" he asked suddenly.


"Precisely. Your stories are very pretty, T'Laren, but I want some independent corroboration. What if I weren't your patient?"

He was tense, and pretending not to be, his body sculpted into a studied pose of relaxation, but betrayed by his curled hands and pale knuckles. He was obviously trying to pretend that he wanted the answer to catch her in a lie, but since he had to know that she wasn't stupid enough to slip if she were lying, his motives were transparently something else. "Are you attracted to me, Q?" she asked calmly.

He maintained his perfect insouciant pose, apparently unaware of the slow red flush betraying him. "Not at all. I'm merely wondering how thoroughly to trust your answer. And you haven't answered the question."

She should have expected that. Q would never answer such a painfully revealing question without getting assurances from her first-- he would never put himself into such a vulnerable position. This was not territory T'Laren wanted to be dealing with-- she wanted Q to be able to talk to her about anything, without being entangled in questions about her feelings toward him or his toward her. It would be better if he still perceived her as essentially asexual. But she knew better than that, too-- Q was physically much healthier than he'd been, and emotionally as vulnerable to transference as any patient. In fact, given his lack of friends and support structure, he might be more vulnerable than most people, despite his formidable defenses. They had to talk about this, to bring it out into the light so it wouldn't run like a subterranean undercurrent beneath all their interactions. "If we had met under completely different circumstances, and you didn't go out of your way to antagonize me immediately, then yes, I might well have found you attractive. You can be quite charming when you want to be, and I tend to prefer highly intelligent men. Does that set your mind at ease?"

He shrugged. "You could just be saying that. Damage control and all that."

"Sooner or later you're going to have to make a decision as to whether you trust me not to lie to you. I'm not going to be very effective in helping you if you think everything I say might be a lie."


"On the other hand, I have a suspicion that you have lied to me. Or at the very least, attempted to mislead. Why were you panicking over my attire earlier?"

"Panicking is hardly the word I would use."

"You're well-known for playing games with semantics. For instance, you're perfectly capable of answering a question about your own feelings 'no' when anyone else would have said 'yes' because of the artificial distinction you make between your bodily sensations and your personal will."

"What does that have to do with anything?" he asked belligerently.

His defenses were far less coherent, and yet more desperate, than she'd ever seen them. Q didn't usually say things quite that obtuse, even at his worse, and she could see his carefully constructed facade of control starting to fracture, and the raw panic underneath. "You know perfectly well," she said. "Q, listen to me. If you are physically attracted to me-- which, aside from your fearing that I might molest you, is the only reason I can think of for your reaction to my exercise session--"

"You're making mountains out of molehills. I merely thought your appearance debased and animalistic."

"Which, I suppose, would explain your strenuous objections the last several times you saw me exercising?" she asked dryly. "The most significant difference between my exercise session tonight, and the one you walked in on in your pajamas back on Ketaya a few days before we got here, is that you are physically much healthier, have put on more weight, and seem generally less depressed-- all factors that would act to restore your libido to more normal levels. Earlier, I drew the wrong conclusion, because another difference is that today I brought you into a holodeck session in which someone touched you and you reacted very badly. My first guess was that you felt that the holodeck character had molested you, that it was my fault, and that you feared I'd do the same. But that isn't it, is it, Q?"

"You're the psychologist. You figure it out."

"Well, then. My best hypothesis is that you are attracted to me physically, and that you are afraid of and disturbed by your own feelings."

Q leaned forward, trying a different tactic. "Are you sure you're not projecting your own fantasies onto me, dear doctor?" he said coolly. "You just admitted that you find me attractive, after all. Wouldn't it be far more gratifying to your ego to believe your disgusting fancies were reciprocated?"

"I must be right, then. You're never so vicious, or quite so willing to contradict the facts we both know, as when I'm on the right track." She was annoyed with him-- she had spent a good deal of time explaining to him that she was not attracted to him, but might have been if he hadn't been her patient, and as usual he was discarding the facts in favor of making his point. But snapping back at him wouldn't gain anything-- Q wouldn't be doing this if he weren't terrified. "Q, you needn't fight me so hard. If you are physically attracted to me-- or your body is, at any right-- that's an entirely natural and normal occurrence. People become attracted to their therapists all the time. It's called 'transference.' In fact, it often manifests as the patients believing they are in love with the therapists."

"How repulsive. I certainly don't suffer from that delusion."

"Of course not. But I would find it surprising if you hadn't started to find me attractive. I spend a great deal of time with you, I act as your confidant and your closest advisor, and now that you're feeling better I suspect that you're likely experiencing many more sexual feelings than you did when you were suicidal and half-dead. Your body would probably latch onto anyone close to you who was not ill-formed at this point."

"But you're above all that, of course," he said bitterly.

"I'm trained to have defenses against this sort of thing. You aren't."

"And your defenses are, of course, so finely honed and so exquisitely Vulcan in their perfection."

"No, you misunderstand. My defenses are as much because I'm a psychologist as because I'm a Vulcan. Therapy invokes powerful emotions, Q. The therapist steps into a role that normally only family, friends and lovers occupy in a patient's life. It's easy for a patient to convince himself that a therapist is a best friend or a potential lover... and unfortunately, the therapist can sometimes be just as easily convinced of the same thing. That's called 'countertransference', and it's almost as common as transference. The reason there are strict ethical prohibitions against a therapist becoming sexually involved with a client isn't just that it's easy for an unscrupulous therapist to pressure a vulnerable client into having sex, but because it's painfully easy for therapist and patient to become mutually convinced they are in love. But that 'love', while it is real in the sense that it's a genuine and powerful emotion, is artificially evoked by the situation. The therapist should ideally be working to make the patient no longer dependent on the therapist, and a therapist suffering from countertransference hasn't as great a motive-- people don't want their loved ones to be independent of them."

"Why not? It would be enormously dull if they weren't."

"Perhaps for a Q. Human emotion thrives on interdependency, however. Patients may lose their motivation to get well, when getting well would involve the loss of the therapist's care, which they interpret as love. So for the protection of both parties, therapists must learn to recognize and master feelings of countertransference within themselves. And my Vulcan training makes me much better at it than many therapists. So you're not in any danger."

"I wouldn't be anyway," he said harshly. "None of this nonsense applies to me. The idea of being dependent on anyone, even a putative 'loved one', makes me nauseous. In fact, the notion of love makes me nauseous. I certainly am not in love with you, and even if I were, I would be uninterested in being dependent on you. We're just friends, and I am perfectly happy with that."

She wondered if she should point out to him that they weren't even really that-- he was assigning her the value of "friend" because of the role she played in his life, not realizing that that was as artificial as assigning her the value of "lover" would be-- but there really was no kind way to tell someone that they weren't even friends, and after Q had stopped fighting her on the question of whether he was attracted to her or not, a tacit admission that he was, she couldn't cut him down that way. "Few patients are as fiercely independent or as strong-willed as you are, Q. I'm glad you're comfortable with our relationship as it stands, but I do want to make sure we both understand what that relationship is, and what it entails."

Q leaned back. "This should be entertaining."

"As you've seen, my style of therapy includes physical contact, if I feel the patient needs it and can handle it. You seem to need some level of physical contact-- backrubs, for instance. As long as you're comfortable with that, I don't see any problem with continuing to do that. But if you ever do feel uncomfortable being touched by me, in any way, I want you to tell me immediately, and I'll stop. I will try to avoid making you uncomfortable by exercising in front of you, if I can, and in return I want you to feel free to talk to me, as you have been, without worrying about whether I might think less of you. I become completely ineffective as a therapist if you decide you need to impress me, or to censor yourself when talking to me, because of the desires your body experiences. Will you do that?"

He shrugged elaborately. "I suppose I can manage that."

"I'm glad. So will you tell me about what happened in the holodeck today?"

"Nothing to tell. You were there."

"I was, yes. But my interpretation of events may well be different than yours."

Q sighed. "I don't see the point."

"You were very upset, Q. If that had happened in a real life situation, you would have been terribly humiliated by your own reaction. I'd think you'd want to seek to avoid that, in the future."

"It seems fairly simple to me. Avoid bars, and don't buy drinks for prostitutes."

"That will not prevent people from making a physical pass at you." T'Laren leaned forward. "Q, the entire reason for the scenario training is to acquaint you with human reactions. It would be natural for a human who finds you attractive to put her hand on your leg, and if it was a woman, it probably wouldn't occur to her that that might upset you."

"More of the human double standard?"

"Human males are somewhat more statistically likely to desire sex with random female strangers than vice versa. And the sort of woman who would be overly bold like that also might not care if she offended you, or assume that she is sufficiently attractive that her intentions will appeal to you."

"And they call me arrogant."

"You are arrogant. Just not about sex. Which might well make you more intriguing to some than the sort of person who is convinced he knows everything there is to know and that sexual partners should be swooning at his feet."

"You sound like you're speaking from experience."

"I've known a certain share of sexually arrogant men, yes. The sort of man who believes he can seduce a married Vulcan woman with his good looks and charm generally has a weak notion of his own sexual limitations."

"People like, oh, Tris for example."

He was so transparent, T'Laren almost smiled. "No, Tris is not an example."

"Well? You did say men who try to seduce married Vulcan women..."

"Tris didn't try," T'Laren said solemnly. "He succeeded. I'd say that demonstrates a fine understanding of his limitations."

Q scowled slightly. "How enormously talented of him."

"At the moment, I would rather talk about you than Tris. Why did you react that way when the prostitute touched you?"

He sighed defeatedly. "You just don't give up, do you."


Q stared into nothing, face flushed. "My-- I... you were right, when you said... about my body... being healthier now. I-- I'd started to think... I'd be free of this. That was the only good thing about being depressed. My body hadn't... had... reactions... in a few months..." It seems to be growing progressively more difficult for him to speak.

"But it's coming back," she suggested.

"Yes." Q was clearly mortified.

"Did your body--" She was careful not to say 'you', knowing he needed the distancing mechanism of pretending it was his body only-- "experience a reaction to the hologram woman?"

"I can't control what it does!" Q shouted suddenly. "I don't want to feel these things, but I can't-- I can't make it stop..."

"No one can," T'Laren said gently. "At least, no humans, and 99% of all humanoids. Most Vulcans are an exception, I think, but certainly humans have no control over when they feel desire and who it's for."

"So I suppose you're totally immune," he said bitterly.

"I said most Vulcans. Aside from the fact that I require telepathic contact, my libido is almost indistinguishable from a human's. My ability to lack desire for a patient is one many human doctors practice successfully. But I have had serious problems... with inappropriate sexual urges, in the past."

"Inappropriate? Like what, fetishes for socks?"

"Vulcans are entirely monogamous, and we do not mate outside of... well, you may have heard of a Vulcan mating cycle. I believe most Vulcans do not have sex outside the cycle. When my marriage and sanity started falling apart, I began to find it impossible to remain celibate for seven years at a time."

"Seven years?" Q choked. "What is the point? Either you don't have sex at all or you do. Why would you do it and then not do it for seven years?"

"It's not something I want to discuss."

"I've talked about plenty of things I didn't want to discuss."

"And you're sidetracking from them. I could easily understand you experiencing a physical reaction to the hologram. Why did it panic you so badly, though? You fell out of your chair and screamed at her not to touch you, as if she'd just tried to rape you in public. That seems like an overreaction."

"It does, does it?"

"After incidents like the one with LeBeau, you cannot afford to overreact so badly. What happened?"

Q hesitated for several seconds. "I thought... I thought she might... try to..."

He stopped there, without elaborating. T'Laren filled in the blanks. "She was a hologram, Q. They don't do anything you don't want them to, and you can turn them off if you wish. She couldn't have done anything you didn't want."

"That's the problem," Q muttered.

"You were afraid you might want to?"

"No!" he snapped automatically, and then reconsidered. "Sometimes... if my body wants something too much... I can't control it. Like, like falling asleep. Or screaming if it hurts. Even if I want not to do it, I can't stop myself. Like that."

T'Laren nodded, finally beginning to believe she understood. "You fear your body subverting your will."

Q nodded quickly, almost eagerly. "Like that, yes."

"But by reacting to that fear as you did, you open yourself to potential humiliation. I don't think I need to tell you that if it had been real humans you'd done that in front of, instead of holograms, you would have suffered deep humiliation."

"Like I didn't?" Q muttered.

"Not to the extent you would have with anyone other than me in the room."

"So what am I supposed to do about it?" he asked harshly. "Put a 'Do Not Touch Me' sign on my chest?"

"I think we should continue the scenario training. This sort of situation is one you can learn to handle gracefully, as with most human endeavors."

"If I get molested on a regular basis, I'll learn to smile through it, is that it?"

"I hope you never have to learn how far from genuine molestation what happened to you today was," T'Laren said softly.

"Oh, I know. You don't need to tell me. It was nothing at all," Q said, sarcastic and bitter. "Nothing I suffer ever is."

"Your suffering is not nothing, Q. It is undeniable that these things cause you pain, and if most normal humans had to function under the level of physical and psychological pain you experience regularly, they would turn to addictive psychoactives or religion or destructive behavior to escape. But many of the things that cause you to suffer cause at most mild discomfort in humans. Part of what I see as my goal is to teach you what kinds of suffering you can fix by changing your behavior, and what kinds you must simply learn to deal with. Nothing you do will prevent people from touching you, not unless you take up residence on Vulcan. You must learn to handle it."

Q sighed tiredly. "As pleasant as the prospect may seem at the moment, I really would rather not condemn myself to the utter dullness of the planet Vulcan, so I suppose it behooves me to do as you suggest."

She nodded, acknowledging his capitulation. For a minute, then, they sat in silence. Finally Q stood up. "It's exceedingly late, and I for one need sleep, though I suppose you don't. You can go back to your little exercise session."

This might be a good sign-- Q rarely ended a conversation just so he could sleep. Perhaps he was finally taking more responsibility for his health. T'Laren stood as well. "That's a good idea. Good night, Q."

Q had had just barely four hours of sleep when his communicator chimed.

The fact that he slept lightly in no way meant that he woke up quickly; he was easily roused out of sleep, but full mental capacity usually required massive infusions of coffee. Q answered the comm in fine morning humor. "What?" he snarled, or would have snarled if his voice wasn't bleared with sleep.

"Come over," Markow's synthesized voice said. "I have something important to show you."

Q rolled over and looked at the chronometer. "It's 0800 hours, Daedalus! Don't you ever sleep?"

"Not at 0800 hours. If you don't come over you're going to regret it. I think what I've found is more important than your beauty sleep."

Q sighed in an exceedingly put-upon fashion. "I'll be right there."

Seeing Markow hardly required full formal dress, and Q wanted to get this over with so he could get some sleep before the conference. So he dressed with uncharacteristic speed and stalked out.

It was a comfort to him that Markow did not look bright and rested. He wasn't even in his wheelchair, in fact-- he was lying in bed, in a dressing gown, looking up at various holographic displays on the ceiling. "Prop me up against the pillows and I can move the display down." His voice was coming from a speaker by the bed, but the subvocalizer was in a band around his forehead, not at his throat as it had been for Q when he had needed one. The device would catch the neural signals Markow's brain sent out to the destroyed nervous wiring of his body, and translate that into speech.

"Do I look like your assistant?" Q asked sharply, moving to do it anyway. It was hardly the first time Markow had made such a demand-- they'd all kept ludicrous hours while working against the Borg, and despite the hordes of eagerly worshipful scientists who'd have done anything Peter Markow asked with gratitude, Markow had tended to direct his requests to Q, mostly to annoy him, Q thought. The first few times he'd done it, he'd been terrified of hurting Markow-- the human was so fragile that Q had felt like a huge clumsy ox, handling him, as well as mildly disgusted at having to touch him-- but now he could be casual about it.

"Probably not. He looks about twenty years younger than you, and not nearly as haggard."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, Daedalus. What was so vitally important that you had to drag me out of bed?" He gently lifted the ravaged, light body and moved it back, propping Markow against the pillows. "And where's your assistant, anyway?"

"Still asleep. It's good for your humility to have to do work with your hands every so often."

"What humility?"

"That's my point. Take a look at the readouts. Computer, move readouts perpendicular."

The readouts moved to inhabit the space in front of Q and Markow. Q perused them for a minute and a half. Nothing was clicking. "I don't see--"

"Computer, magnify grid alpha, fifteen, three."

A part of the display grew large. Q focused on it... and went cold. "When did these readings come in?" he asked harshly.

"This morning. I called you as soon as I had them."

"There's got to be a mistake. Eighth-dimensional waveforms should be reflected by the Anomaly. They should not be able to pass through, even with a refraction index that high."

"There probably is a mistake, Lucy, but it's probably yours. I ordered the scans in triplicate to be sure."

"The engineering department told me they couldn't broadcast eighth-dimensional waveforms."

"I called in some favors from my postdocs and got them to convince the engineers." He turned his head toward Q jerkily, more motion than Q had ever seen him perform; it set the rest of his body trembling uncontrollably. Q sat down on the bed so Markow could look straight at him.

"Do you need me to get your assistant?"

"I'll live," Markow said. "I'm sorry, Lucy."

Q stiffened. "Sorry for what?"

"It was an elegant theory. I'm sorry to prove you wrong."

"Science is about proving people wrong, Daedalus, or hadn't you noticed?" Q responded, still stiff, his mind reeling. He was wrong. He couldn't be wrong. "What made you think to look here?"

"There's a flaw in your equation," Markow answered. "Or rather, a place where it doesn't have to do what you say it has to do. I plugged in a few other variables, altered a constant-- computer, display Markow notes, today's date, page 7-- and got different behavior."

"And if you took the square root of c instead of the square, you could get e=mc squared to say that you can go faster than light in normal space," Q snapped. "That doesn't make it true."

"It turns out it is, though. Look." Markow's notes were displayed, with the damning altered equation that couldn't exist, that Markow had pulled out of thin air and that reflected nothing Q knew about the universe, that couldn't possibly be valid... except that it described the data far better than his own equation. Q felt much as he had when Guinan had kneed him in the crotch, except that this time it was his mind, not his body, that was reeling, crippled, unable to breathe.

"I suppose congratulations are in order," Q said coldly. "You've just invalidated the results of millions of years of research."

"You're not used to being wrong, are you?"

Q had never been wrong. Not about physics. He couldn't be wrong. Even now, his mind was insisting that there must be a mistake, some catch, this couldn't be, that given all he knew of the universe it just wasn't possible.

And yet there it was. Glaring at him.

"Obviously you're a talented fellow, Daedalus. Why don't you follow up on this like a good little researcher? I want to get some decent sleep before the conference starts."

He stalked out, hearing Markow repeat in his synthetic, monotone voice, "I'm sorry."

That was even worse, the capper to a perfectly awful situation. Markow pitied him. Markow, who thought pity was the most utterly degrading emotion in existence, felt sorry for him. How much lower could he fall?

In an absolute panic, he stumbled back to his quarters and went to T'Laren's room, leaning on the comm button for several seconds. It took him a second to realize that she had said "Come in," a second in which the door was already swooshing open.

T'Laren was sitting up on her bed, wearing a decorous white nightgown-- Q wouldn't have been awfully surprised if it was flannel. It didn't look as if she'd actually slept in the bed, barely as if she'd slept at all-- her curls were unmussed, the bed neat and only slightly indented in the center.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"What's wrong? My life is over, that's what's wrong." He gestured wildly, emphasizing his point, as he paced in a panic, terror driving him around the tiny room in circles. "No one is ever going to listen to me again. I'll be a laughingstock."


"Why? Why?" It was on the tip of his tongue to savage her for her obtuseness when he remembered that she didn't know. As much as it seemed like a lifetime ago that he'd gotten the call from Markow, it really had only been a few minutes. "Peter Markow has ruined my life," Q pronounced dramatically. He sank down into a chair and tiredly pressed his hand to his forehead. "And it's not even his fault. He's only doing what he's supposed to. I wouldn't have expected any less." He looked up. "But he pities me! He used to tell me that pitying someone was an announcement that you think they're desperately pathetic and beyond hope. He certainly doesn't pity other people he proves wrong. Only me."

"He proved you wrong?" T'Laren asked.

"I can't be wrong. I'm a Q! I may not remember everything from the old days, but I certainly don't remember things wrong." For a moment, the horrid thought struck him that perhaps he wouldn't know it if he did... but no. He couldn't believe that. "If I know something, I can't be wrong about it... but he's got data that says I am. He's gone and changed my equations, did you know that? Now they make no sense whatsoever." He buried his head back in his hands, overwhelmed by despair. "I'm ruined."

T'Laren stood up and came over to his chair, her hand on the back of the chair, almost touching him. "Tell me what happened," she said gently. Part of him desperately wished she would touch him, wanted someone to hold him and comfort him. The ascendant part, however, lashed out in rage. He wasn't crying, wasn't broken, and he certainly didn't need hugs and kisses at the moment. And that T'Laren would make an overture now was unbearable, proof that she, too, thought him pitiful and unworthy.

He jerked away from her proximity and up, out of the chair, pacing again. "Markow's found data that disproves my theory. Which up until twenty minutes ago I'd have said was a fact, not a theory, but it seems I'm wrong." He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"Could it simply be that you were mistaken about the application of your theory? That what you believed to be true is true, but simply doesn't apply to this situation?"

Q gave her a look. "Of course what I believe to be true, is. That's not the point. The point is, this singularity behaves exactly like one of our Anomalies, except that eighth-dimensional waveforms and probably higher can penetrate it, and nothing in all my experience tells me why such a thing should be or even how it can be. It's impossible, is what it is, but there it is." He paced frantically. "I'm ruined. Totally ruined."

"Why are you ruined?"

"Don't be stupid!" Q whirled on her, almost grateful for the stupid question, as it gave him an excuse to tear her apart and thus take out some of his frustrations. "Do you think the Federation is going to devote an entire starbase to the care and defense of just another fallible mortal? My only value is that I know the secrets of the universe, otherwise they'd be delighted to abandon me in the gutter somewhere. There are people who would be positively thrilled if that happened. And then I'd be able to count my life in weeks. Once it gets out that I was wrong, I'm literally a dead man."

"I think you're wrong. Starfleet won't abandon you for such a small thing. Just because you were wrong once doesn't seriously diminish your value."

"You don't know what you're talking about!" Q howled. "My value is that I know everything! If I don't know everything, I have no value!" He was frighteningly close to tears. Q took a deep breath, forcing them down, but the rage and panic were still with him. "I have to leave. Today. I can't go back and face them. Maybe we can use the ship, stay one step ahead of my enemies if I keep moving..." Until such time as one of them intercepted him, he thought bitterly, and couldn't control his trembling. His life was over.

"Q. You're overreacting. I know Starfleet, and the Federation, and I know they will not rescind your protection for one incorrect theory."

"Why not?' Q demanded. She was just trying to make him feel better, to soothe him with comforting lies, and he hated that. "Any mortal can give them theories. Markow can give them theories, and they don't have to dedicate an entire starbase to protecting him."

"If Markow had as many enemies as you do, they probably would dedicate an entire starbase to protecting him. Q, let's be ruthlessly practical. Have you any idea of the sheer monetary worth of the advances you have made?"

"Monetary worth?" Q looked at her disdainfully. "The Federation doesn't use money."

"That's a fairly common misconception."

"No, I know people have credits and all, but internally, the Federation doesn't use money. Credits are for dealing with outside societies." Her expression troubled him. Had he gotten this one wrong too? "Isn't that right?"

T'Laren sighed. "No. You've never needed to use credits, because you were living on a starbase. Anderson could access your personal accounts to buy you the things you requested--"

"Personal accounts?"

"I take it they never told you that you have a personal account. With a sizable sum of money in it."

"No, I..." Q shook his head. He would not be distracted. Money was useless and wouldn't save him if the Federation threw him out. "It doesn't matter anyway. The point is that you can't put a monetary value on what I do."

"Actually, it is possible, and it has been done. I don't have the exact figures, Q, but I'm fairly sure that the scientific advances you are responsible for pay several times what your upkeep is worth. Your value is far greater than 'never being wrong.' You yourself pointed out the political advantages to the Federation in having you-- that the scientific advances you're responsible for resulted in better warp drives, better weaponry, better shielding than we had previously, giving us more negotiating room with other races. Do you think that Starfleet Command would consider for a moment giving up the source of more such advances for one mistake?"

"I..." He wanted to believe her, desperately wanted to believe that his life had not just ended. But he was so afraid of deluding himself, so afraid that he'd believe because he wanted to. "You don't know Starfleet the way I do. You know the pretty side, the side all its members want to believe in so badly. They were your friends, after all. You were never placed under house arrest for trying to assert your basic rights as a sentient being, or had most of your possessions taken away for the crime of trying to kill yourself. Starfleet hates me. They'd jump at the chance to be rid of me."

"Don't be ridiculous," T'Laren said mildly. "They did all those things to you because you were valuable, and they wanted to make sure you continued to produce. Given a choice between letting you go entirely, where not only your personal enemies, but Federation enemies like the Romulans or Cardassians could get hold of you, for the sake of one mistake, or keeping you under protection even though they may need to run more analyses to validate what you tell them than they're accustomed to, no one at Starfleet Command would be stupid enough to choose the first."

"Don't you mean 'illogical'?" he snapped back at her. "What a typical Vulcan reaction, assuming humans can't possibly be stupid."

"You forget, I grew up among humans. I know just how stupid they can be. But Q, Starfleet Command doesn't know you personally, not like Anderson. And they will make their decision based on your value, since they've never met you personally."

He conceded that point and latched onto the next one, his fear entirely untouched by his acceptance of what T'Laren was telling him. "Well, the scientists here do know me personally." Q paced in circles. "I can't go to the conference. I can't face them. I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because!" How could she be so dense? "They expect me to know everything, even if Starfleet doesn't. How can I face them, with a mistake like that hanging over my head?"

"Q, being wrong is part of science. If they truly expect you to be an infallible oracle, they're setting both themselves and you up for a fall-- it's for the best that they learn otherwise."

"You don't understand. I've stood up in front of those people setting myself up as an authority, ridiculing them for their stupid little theories when they haven't thought things out properly. Now I'm supposed to stand up in front of them and tell them I'm wrong? How can I do that?" He heard what he was saying and cringed. Now T'Laren was going to give him a lecture about not ridiculing people.

She surprised him. "The same way they do it. They can keep coming back to the meetings despite the fact that you ridicule them. You certainly can do anything they can do."

Can I? Q thought bleakly. "It's different. They aren't authority figures to me."

"But they're authority figures to their peers, and having you tear them apart in public is bound to be very humiliating for them. But they can take it."

"All right! So I'm a coward, a worthless person, I can dish it out but I can't take it. T'Laren, I can't face them, I don't care what you say, I can't..."

"I see." T'Laren nodded. "It's only to be expected, with your inexperience in these matters. After all, everyone in the Continuum was always entirely loving and supportive every time you made a mistake, isn't that right? You have no experience facing ridicule at all."

"Where did you get that cockeyed notion from?" Q asked, staring at her disbelievingly. "I never told you the Continuum tolerated mistakes. Quite the opposite. If a child screws up, we consider it our sworn duty to make fun of them until they wish they were dead."

"Really." Her voice was completely matter-of-fact, but Q realized suddenly that he had just fallen directly into her trap. He scowled, reddening. If he hadn't been so distraught, he would have recognized the sarcasm in that statement a mile away; it was a further humiliation that he'd actually fallen for it.

"But that's different! That's the Continuum. We all know our older siblings have our best interests at heart, even if we find it hard to believe when we're young and stupid. It's a learning experience." At her studiedly bland expression, his ire rose. He exploded, "This is not a learning experience, T'Laren! These people aren't my older siblings, and I don't need to put up with them humiliating me!"

"What would you rather? To be humiliated behind your back and be powerless to stop it, as everyone mocks you for not having the courage to face your accusers? Or to be there and to be graceful about it, to show them that they cannot drag you down no matter what they say?" She walked over to him. "Q. Most of them probably will not make fun of you. They understand that science is a risky business for the ego, sometimes. Remember that most of them grew up in a culture where it's considered proper to show compassion for those who have faltered... of all the cultures I've ever encountered, yours is the only one that makes an ideal out of humiliating people to teach them life lessons. Some few may take the opportunity to insult you, but why would you care what they think? If you accept your mistake graciously, they will look like petty little fools for attacking you."

"T'Laren, everyone in academia is a petty little fool. That won't stop them."

"Then you'll succeed in making them look bad. I wouldn't think that would bother you," she said dryly.

"They won't look bad! Everyone does it!"

"They will indeed look bad. Q," she placed a hand on his arm, "I understand that you're afraid of being embarrassed. But you must understand that this is common in academia. No one but you is likely to make a big deal about it. However, if you do not go, you will draw people's attention by your absence, and then your enemies may realize that this issue is important to you. You are far safer in going than not."

"How could you possibly understand how I feel? You're probably used to failing at things. You've never been in a position where you couldn't imagine being wrong, and then you were."

She sighed. "I don't suppose the fact that I almost failed out of the Academy my first semester counts."

"You almost failed out of the Academy?" Get her talking about herself and then she wouldn't make him go. Besides, Q liked to hear stories about T'Laren's sordid past... it made her more real to him, less the untouchable paragon of virtue she liked to pretend to be.

T'Laren moved away from him and sat down. "When I was in school, as a child, it was very easy for me to do well," she said. "Vulcan discipline lends itself to eidetic memory. I don't have that, but what I do remember, I remember forever. And Vulcan discipline lends itself also to thinking out what one learns, working out the logical implications, making connections to the other facts you know. So I consistently got A's, without working very hard at it.

"When I went to the Academy, for the first time I was competing against other Vulcans, who were far better at the disciplines than I was. And in those areas where I excelled in comparison to the typical Vulcan, many other students were superior to me. I ended up failing almost every exam I took for four weeks, and barely passed the semester."

She looked at him significantly. "But it didn't happen again. Once I'd learned that the amount of effort I was accustomed to putting into my schoolwork wasn't enough, I simply changed my behavior, and put in more effort. It was terribly humiliating for me to fail exams, especially as there was... someone... better at the disciplines than I was, who was watching over my shoulder and whose expectations it was very important to me to live up to. But I learned from it, and didn't do it again."

"Have you ever considered embroidering moral homilies?" Q asked. "Or perhaps writing improving texts for children?"

"Simply because the statement sounds like a moral of the story doesn't make it less true," T'Laren said. "Q, you can do this. And it will almost certainly be worse for you if you don't."

He couldn't think of an objection to that, aside from the fact that he still didn't want to. "I... suppose," he said grudgingly.

"Come on. Eat some breakfast, take a shower, put on one of your more attractive outfits, and I'm sure you'll feel better."

Hours later at the conference, having taken a shower and put on one of his more attractive outfits, Q did not feel much better at all.

It was far too early, for one thing. Markow had woken him far earlier than he was accustomed, but even after his talk with T'Laren, going back to sleep had been out of the question, even if he'd had time. For that matter, eating was out of the question, and though Q felt nauseous at the thought of food, he also felt a certain hollowness and a headache from not having eaten. He was punchy, wired from the things he'd been through this morning, exhausted but far too tense to consider sleeping.

That tension had impelled him to actually show up at the conference on time. If he had to go, and T'Laren had insisted that he did, he couldn't handle the suspense of waiting. That, of course, had been on the theory that Markow would show on time. He was ten minutes late, and Q was wound like a clock spring, feeling like he might explode out of his skin at any second.

They were reading the minutes of yesterday's meeting, an interminable process. Why it was necessary when one could read the minutes oneself on the computer, Q had no idea. He tapped his fingers on the desk restlessly, certain he was going to go out of his mind.

Markow rolled in at a leisurely pace fifteen minutes late, followed by his entirely too bright-and-cheerful-looking assistant. Q almost jumped out of his seat and shouted "Where have you been?" or something. It was all he could do to hold himself still and wait, as Markow waited for reasons incomprehensible to Q for the minutes to be done.

Sovaz looked up from her reading of yesterday's proceedings. "Does anyone have any new findings to present?"

"I do," Markow announced.

Q realized he was sitting on the edge of his seat, and forced himself to sit back and pretend to be relaxed. It was, he discovered, every bit as challenging a task as pretending to be relaxed when he was waiting for enemy aliens to break through Starbase 56's defenses and kill him. In some ways it was worse. He had had a reasonable expectation, during the attacks, that Starfleet would probably succeed in protecting him. Here, not only was he not certain he would not be shredded to bits after Markow's presentation, he was in fact positive he would be.

"I twisted some arms in the engineering department and got them to run an analysis of eighth-dimensional waveforms," Markow was saying, as the image of various graphs that he and Q had looked at this morning came up on the holodisplay. "As you can see, there appears to be a contradiction to our working theories. I ran it past Q, and we agreed that the Anomaly is displaying... hem... anomalous behavior." Markow needed to telegraph the joke with pauses and an artificial "hem", since he couldn't change the tone of his voice enough to express it that way. The artificiality of the pun grated like fingernails against Q's brain. "It's clear to us that for reasons we haven't yet determined, the anomaly is not behaving completely within the parameters Q set out in the meeting a few days ago."

Who was this "we" Markow kept mentioning, Q wondered? And then, with sick horror, he realized he was the other half of that "we". Markow was trying to soften the blow by implying that Q had been involved in Markow's research beyond their tense meeting this morning, by giving some of his rightful credit-- the lifeblood of researchers-- to Q, when it was entirely undeserved. Out of pity, Q thought, and felt suddenly, acutely nauseous. How much humiliation was he expected to take in one day?

"Why would that be?" someone asked.

"We don't know yet. It appears that the value of the constant b is considerably lower than Q suggested. Computer, enlarge grid 4." One of the graphs increased in size.

Q sat there in a welter of agonized humiliation as the discussion continued around him. Finally someone, in an exceedingly misguided attempt to draw him out, asked, "Have you any theories as to why this is, Q?"

"How would I know?" Q snapped. "It's not behaving like anything in my experience."

"How is that possible?" Milarca asked. "I thought your experience encompassed the entire physical nature of the universe."

"It does."

"Then how can this be outside your experience?"

"When you find out, I'd be delighted if you'd tell me."

"Are you saying that this Anomaly reflects something from outside this universe?" Malo Ren, the Bajoran physicist, asked.

"Let me guess. The Prophets appeared to you in a vision and gave you your degree in physics, right?" Q asked with as much sarcasm as he could muster.

Malo flushed. "Well, if you don't know what it is, what business do you have ridiculing people for proposing theories?" he asked hotly.

"Because your theories are stupid. Now, pay attention this time. When the boundary of an entirely separate universe touches ours, gravity is annihilated. Can you say 'gravity'? It's just three syllables. Maybe if you sound it out slowly--"

"Q, this is totally unnecessary," Dhawan snapped. "Since you don't know what it is, why don't you yield the floor to someone who might give us a direction to look in?"

"Fine. Look in however many wrong directions you want to. Just don't come crying to me when all your theories turn out to be hogwash," Q declared, and folded his arms.

"Oh, no. Poor baby's going to sulk," Yalit declared toothily, with great glee.

Markow made an artificial throat clearing noise. "What Q was trying to explain, in his usual tactful fashion, is that, since gravitation is annihilated at the boundaries of an intrusion of one universe to another, this can't be the gateway to another universe, as the gravitation isn't behaving appropriately."

"How do we know that's true?" LeBeau asked belligerently. "We have only Q's word for it that gravitation really is annihilated at the boundaries between universes, and he's just been proven a less reliable source than we thought."

Someone Q didn't know said, "The gravitational theory explains the observed phenomena, though. When you do a tabulation of known dimensional crossings, the nadion concentrations really do drop."

"According to his figures," LeBeau said. "Has anyone done an independent analysis?"

This was exactly what he'd feared, exactly what he'd expected. Q retreated into himself and tried to pretend he was somewhere else while maintaining an unchanging contemptuous scowl on his face.

"Computer," Sovaz said. "Tabulate the nadion concentrations associated with all spatiotemporal anomalies in the databanks. Link to the Vulcan Academy of Science, the Daystrom Institute, the Makropyrios, and the Meldat School, retrieve all data regarding spatiotemporal anomalies, and include that in tabulation. Address Memory Alpha to determine if Starfleet Archives hold any information on such anomalies that Yamato does not possess, and include any such information in the tabulation. Divide tabulation into four columns-- anomalies known to be related to other universes, anomalies known to be related to other causes, unknown anomalies and total-- and index each."

"Requested operation will take three hours to complete."

"Begin." Sovaz raised her head and addressed the group. "I strongly doubt that information collected from all the Federation's major repositories of astrophysical data will differ much from the data already held aboard Yamato, which Q used in the tabulation he demonstrated to us several days ago. However, if it will stop this unproductive speculation about Q's reliability, I am perfectly willing to address every single database accessible to Yamato, if necessary."

LeBeau looked away. "That's hardly necessary. What you're doing should be an adequate check, Lieutenant."

"Of course," Yalit said, "just because one independent validation bears out doesn't mean everything Q says is written in latinum. After all, we've seen him carelessly overlook a full spectrum of testing for one phenomenon, and turn out to be wrong since he was so convinced he was right. Sloppy work, if you ask me--"

"--which nobody did," Harry Roth muttered.

Yalit ignored him. "Maybe everything Q's ever submitted to the Federation should undergo a second review. Just to be sure. If his knowledge is capable of having such holes in it--"

"And exactly who are you to talk about what I do and do not know?" Q asked coldly. He turned toward her, almost grateful for the attack, for an opportunity to shred somebody into paste. "It's interesting, Yalit, that you're usually the first one to complain about my knowledge, and yet you've imparted none of your own to the conference. You haven't presented a theory or even contributed considerably to any that have been proposed. Do you want to know why?"

"Do I care why?" she snapped back.

Q smiled maliciously. "Perhaps you don't, but someone should," he said. "I've reviewed your work, Professor Yalit, all of it, and the conclusion is inescapable. You, madam, are a fraud."

He had the satisfaction of seeing her turn purple. "What do you mean by that?"

"Who cares what he means by that?" Dhawan asked. "He's trying to get your goat, Professor. I wouldn't fall for it if I were you."

"No, I want to hear how he could possibly back up an outrageous allegation like that. Well, boy?"

"Oh, in your younger days I don't dispute you were a credible scientist. Nothing particularly spectacular, but certainly you showed promise. But then you went home... I can't imagine why; perhaps the notion of being imprisoned in your own home, nude, and subject to the whims of the men who all but own you sends a masochistic thrill up your little spine... regardless of why you did it, you went home, and you have produced since then... what? Computer, display list of papers of Professor Yalit since 2309."

The computer obliged. "Take a good look at that," Q invited the gathering maliciously. "Compare that listing to anything you yourselves have done, and ask yourself, 'Why has someone with fewer papers to her name than my grad students been invited to a conference that I was told was for the elite among physicists?'"

"You don't have any of my inventions up there!" Yalit shouted. "That only reflects a small fraction of what I've done."

"Ah yes. Your inventions." Q's smile grew broader. "Well, you're quite the little inventor, Yalit, no one argues that. But I hardly think it's fair that someone who's spent her life channeling whatever talent she may have into the pursuit of profit, through inventions she's marketed through her sons-- and charged typical Ferengi flesh-gouging prices for them, I might add-- and contributed almost nothing to the free exchange of ideas amongst sentient races in the galaxy, should be considered an equal with people who have spent most of their lives and careers freely sharing information for the betterment of all. You have to ask yourself-- what is Yalit doing here? Is this a sop to the Ferengi government, or some such?"

"That is distinctly unlikely," one of the Vulcans said. "Since Ferengi women are forbidden by law to leave Ferenginar or its colonies, it is doubtful that the Ferengi government is aware of Yalit's presence here."

"Oh, they know about me," Yalit said sharply. "None of them will dare lift a finger. I know things about Grand Nagus Zek that'll keep the auditors far away from me." She turned to Q. "You make it sound as if making a profit is a bad thing," she said accusingly.

"Dear lady, it is," Q said smugly. "This is not Ferenginar, you know. The ideals of Federation science state that knowledge should be shared, and that science progresses most quickly when it is. Isn't it a Cardassian ideal to share scientific knowledge so long as that sharing does not conflict with the State?" he asked Tamal suddenly, turning toward her. She nodded. Oh, this was wonderful. "And don't many Bajoran sects now believe that the Prophets granted the Bajorans with the intelligence to understand the universe around them, and that scientific pursuits are a form of worship to be freely shared?" he asked Malo.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Yalit asked belligerently.

"Is there any point to this?" Dhawan asked. "Some of us--"

Q interrupted Dhawan, ignoring her completely. "What that has to do with is your right to be here, to say anything at this conference, to be taken seriously as a scientist by your peers," Q said, spinning back to Yalit. "You are nothing but a businesswoman, a greedy, grasping creature who uses her skills of intellect for personal profit and not scientific knowledge at all. So what are you doing here? What right have you to be here?"

"I was invited! What right have you to be here? Don't say you've never made a profit off your knowledge-- you managed to buy an entire starbase by selling your skills to the Federation, so who are you to talk to me about rights?"

Q raised an eyebrow. "My dear woman, I do think you're getting overemotional. At your age, shouldn't you be careful of your heart?"

"You know I'm right! You know you have no right to insult me for trying to make a profit off my work!"

"Well, I suppose it would be excessively rude of me to insult you for selling your body at the Makropyrios for spare change," Q drawled. "But--"

"That's enough!" Dhawan shouted. "Q, Yalit, shut up!"

"Certainly," Q said pleasantly, and sat back in his chair, enjoying the reactions he was getting, the expressions the scientists were mostly trying to hide. In his early days as a human, he had learned that one thing almost all academics in the Federation held anathema was the notion of working in business, where the need to keep trade secrets prevented the free exchange of ideas. Brilliant scientists like Noonian Soong were routinely labeled as nutcases if they kept their work to themselves-- a vicious cycle, since it made those scientists paranoid and even more unwilling to share their work, but then, Q never said it was a logical practice. For Yalit, trying to make a profit off her work was probably second nature-- she was a Ferengi, even if she was a woman. But for Federation academics, someone who did all her work for the business sector and shared very little of it through peer review was not an academic, and though they wouldn't openly admit to the prejudice, they definitely considered such people lesser than they themselves.

He had just destroyed Yalit's reputation. The casual revelation that she'd been a prostitute-- something the Ferengi saw nothing wrong with as long as you were good at it, but that would strike these academics with some degree of revulsion-- was merely icing on the cake; the damage was done. And it felt good.

"If you're done with the histrionics on a subject no one cares about, Lucy, can we get back to the topic at hand?" Markow asked dryly.

Q even felt better about Markow. Perhaps his own reputation had been damaged by what Markow had done, but that was nothing to the damage he could do to other people's if they dared question him, as he'd just done to Yalit. "Go right ahead," he replied, waving his hand expansively.

This whole trip was in some ways proving to be a burden on T'Laren.

The issue of Tris and Sovaz' presence was one thing, of course, but that wasn't the truly burdensome thing. And Q himself was not the problem-- she expected him to be difficult. But when he wasn't with her, which was a good portion of the time, she was bored.

Oh, she could read, or exercise-- she had begun taking a Security training class in bodyguarding, since she was still certain that Q would do better if it were just him and her, without the added complication of a hired bodyguard or any other additional personnel, and that was something to do. But it didn't take up a majority of her time without Q. T'Laren was a fairly social being, and being in a place where her only friends were her patient, her ex-lover and possibly her former sister-in-law was taking its toll. When she had been in Starfleet, there had always been friends to converse with, patients to see, paperwork to do. Being alone on a starship, with nothing to do but work with Q and nothing to do at all when he was doing his own work, was leaving her far too much time to think about other things, like how utterly she'd ruined her life since the last time she'd been on a starship.

She refused to think about that. So T'Laren spent a fair degree of time meditating and a fair degree of time wandering aimlessly through the areas of the ship that civilians had authorized access to. This naturally meant she spent a good deal of time in Ten-Forward, chatting with total strangers and soaking up the starship ambiance. She had missed Starfleet more than she'd realized, and being here and not belonging was painful.

Today when she wandered into Ten-Forward, right about the time for late lunches, she felt a subliminal sense of discomfort immediately. Slowly, pretending there was nothing wrong, she scanned the room, her eyes roving over all the patrons... and finally alighted on the source of the problem. Sovaz and four other Vulcans were sitting near the window, discussing physics animatedly. T'Laren turned and started to walk back out, without acknowledging them.

One of them called, a voice pitched to carry over the crowd's noise only if one had Vulcan ears. "Dr. T'Laren! Join us?"

At this point it would be terribly ungracious to refuse. Not quite sighing, T'Laren walked over to the table. "You wished to speak to me, Doctor?" she asked neutrally.

"As we are all possessed of doctorates here, perhaps we should exchange names. I'm T'Para. This is Stamor, and Soltan, and Toral, and of course you are acquainted with Sovaz," the woman said. "You are welcome to join us, if you wish." Her tone of voice was one that humans would have found blandly unrevealing, but that T'Laren recognized as friendliness. "It can be difficult to be isolated from one's own people for a significant length of time."

"Your offer is gracious," T'Laren said. "But I've learned from talking to Q that my ability to follow a discussion of physics is very limited."

"We're discussing Federation politics, however, so I'm sure you would have as much to contribute as any of us," the woman persisted.

The others at the table were literally unreadable-- even T'Laren couldn't tell if they were made uncomfortable by the physicist's forwardness, or if they genuinely wanted T'Laren to join them. They were probably curious, she thought, forcing down anger-- a Vulcan clinical xenopsychologist was as rare to Vulcans as to anyone else, and they probably wondered how badly her discipline would have to be impaired in order to want to be in her profession, let alone succeed at it. "Regretfully I must decline," T'Laren said. "I've lived in a certain amount of isolation for the past several months, and have very little knowledge of current Federation politics."

"Indeed?" Soltan raised an eyebrow. "We are undoubtedly ill-informed compared to many, so this isolation may not be a difficulty. Have you been working with Q all this time?"

The question was, for a Vulcan, slightly rude-- but forgivable in an ivory tower academic, whose social skills were not his area of specialty. Sovaz was hardly the only socially inept Vulcan scientist, though she was a rather extreme example. "I have been concerned with my own recovery for considerable time," T'Laren replied evenly. "Undoubtedly Sovaz has told you I suffered from mental unrest for some time. I have been engaged in study and meditation to restore my equilibrium." That would shut them up. No Vulcan would pry into the details of another Vulcan's mental illness, or a retreat to recover mental health. And it was not a lie. There was no better way to describe the months she'd spent with Lhoviri.

"Your pardon. No offense was intended."

"I would certainly not take any. Has the conference taken a recess for lunch? I would wonder where Q is."

"We called a recess," Sovaz said. "Nothing productive was getting done-- Q and Dr. Yalit were calling each other names, and various other people were taking sides. It was really incredibly disruptive."

T'Laren's heart sank. "What sort of names?"

"In essence, he called her a Ferengi," T'Para said dryly. "Are the details necessary?"

"This is exactly the sort of thing I'm working with him to stop. A bit more detail would be of use."

"He claimed that she had no business at the conference, because she had spent most of her research on profit-making instead of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge," T'Para said. "He then added that she had supported herself through prostitution while at the Makropyrios, an assertion whose factual basis is suspect at best."

"Actually, that's entirely in keeping with what we know of Ferengi society," Sovaz said. "I spoke to a Ferengi at length once, and he implied that among his people, the exchange of female sexual services for money is the norm."

"Yes, it's highly unlikely Yalit would consider that demeaning, so long as she was highly paid," Soltan said.

"Where is he now?" T'Laren asked.

"In theory, he and Dr. Markow were going to have a discussion over lunch," Toral said. "In practice, since he was still arguing with Yalit when we left, it's difficult to tell where he might be at the moment."

"I'll locate him," T'Laren replied. "My thanks for your assistance."

In fact, she didn't locate Q at the conference, as she'd planned. He had, apparently, finally taken off for lunch break. Not that she could have done much, aside from attempt to break up any ongoing arguments-- it wasn't as if she could take Q aside and chew him out in public. She would have to wait until after the conference for that.

Q showed up around 2000 hours, seeming obscenely cheerful-- probably because he had gotten to tear someone apart today, T'Laren thought, annoyed. How did he expect to ever make positive connections with people when he spent all his time in groundless personal attacks? "What happened between you and Dr. Yalit today?" she asked.

Q looked startled. "What, have you got a network of spies?"

"The Vulcan contingent of the conference apparently decided that there were far more productive things that could be done with their time than to listen to you and Yalit argue, and went to lunch. I met them in Ten Forward, and they told me how you were spending your time."

Q shrugged. "I was engaged in a power struggle." He smiled ferally. "I won."

"A power struggle? Exactly what sort of power are we talking about?"

"The power to be taken seriously by our fellows, what else?" Q flopped down on one of the chairs. "She impugned the accuracy of my work in general, so I pointed out that she really had no business being here, given that she'd spent all her energies on profit-making and little on science."

"And that she was a prostitute at the Makropyrios?" T'Laren asked dryly.

"Oh, that was beautiful. I couldn't have invented something more perfectly designed to play to the parochial prejudices of ivory tower academics. They might have forgiven her for spending all her time on her family business and her inventions-- one expects that of Ferengi-- but they'll never forgive her for whoring."

"Why not? Isn't that also expected of Ferengi?"

"Of female Ferengi. Who are considered to be fairly mindless. I don't know about the humans you say still engage in the profession-- I'm sure they aren't doing it to put themselves through the Makropyrios-- but nearly every developed race in this quadrant perceives an inverse relationship between the willingness of a being to sell their nether regions and the value of their minds. Prostitution is just not something a scientist does. Maybe a businesswoman could be forgiven, but not a scientist, who's not supposed to be a slave to the profit motive in the first place." He grinned more widely. "Then, after Markow managed to get the meeting back on track, she accused me of being obsessed with sex because I was too ugly to get a woman. I hadn't said a thing to provoke her in twenty minutes-- it looked like she was so insecure she had to restart a childish argument just because she hadn't had the last word, and I'm so much better looking than a Ferengi that she essentially shot herself in the foot. I mean, even Klingons prefer humans to Ferengi-- they think we're milquetoasts, but Ferengi are pond scum, or something. It was wonderful. She totally destroyed herself."

"Wonderful?" T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "One might wonder about your priorities."

"My priorities are protecting myself, T'Laren." He looked at her, hard. "You don't get it, do you? She was trying to undercut my authority. I told you this morning-- without my authority, I'm dead."

"And I told you the Federation will hardly throw you out for one failure."

"No, I agree. They won't. But if my reputation is damaged amongst the top Federation physicists-- some of these people advise the ones who pay for my upkeep, you know, and if they decide that all of my work needs to be audited for accuracy-- do you have any idea how much effort that would take? And how badly it would damage the Federation's confidence in me? My work is the one area where my reputation is unassailable-- I may be considered a social cripple, a coward, and a weakling, obnoxious, arrogant and self-centered, but I'm also as close to omniscient as a human gets. If people's confidence in that is shaken, I don't have much else." His expression had grown darker as he spoke, almost accusatory, as if any opposing opinion from T'Laren was a declaration that he should lose what little power he had. "I'll do what it takes to protect that, and enjoy myself doing it. I'm sure warrior races get a big thrill out of beating on each other to protect their positions-- well, I evolved for verbal combat, and I'm remarkably talented at it, if I do say so myself. Now, not only will Yalit likely keep her mouth shut, but LeBeau and Christian and Morakh and all the other people who like to make cheap shots at me will likely think twice before taking me on."

"Or they'll attack you physically. Q, don't you realize that nobody else but you thinks that verbal combat is the ultimate form of self-protection? Since you defeated them so thoroughly there, they'll find some other arena to assail you on. Perhaps Yalit can't physically attack you, but what would you do if she accused you of attacking her?"

"Explain that she's a liar, of course."

"She's an old woman, and very small. And she's also quite wealthy, and must have considerable connections on her homeworld. Despite your opinion of Ferengi, they are perfectly capable of deviousness. And money and deviousness is a dangerous combination."

Q waved a hand dismissively. "Yalit won't dare come after me. She knows what I can do, now."

"What can you do, aside from damage her reputation?"

"Well, that's enough, for a scientist."

"But as you yourself pointed out, Yalit is as much a businesswoman as a scientist. And at her age, she may feel that her reputation is well enough established to be unassailable... or that you may be able to damage her reputation beyond repair, and that she must strike to prevent you from doing that. A woman who's succeeded in becoming a physicist, despite not being legally permitted to wear clothes, handle money or learn to read, is by definition a formidable individual. You have never encountered the kind of obstacles Yalit must have, and you have no way of knowing how those obstacles must have shaped her."

"What can she do, hire assassins to try to kill me?" He grinned sardonically. "Like that hasn't been tried before. I doubt anything Yalit could throw at me would be any more successful than attacks planned by far more advanced races."

"I wasn't actually expecting anything so melodramatic... but it could come to that."

"I'm not awfully concerned with it."

"You should be," T'Laren said sharply. "You're concerned with protecting yourself, but the only arena you can see is that of verbal interaction and status struggles. Q, among many humanoid races, bright, witty clever children still end up being beaten up by the far less intelligent classroom bully. When you demonstrate to people that they can't beat you on your terms, they'll shift to another playing field, one where you're far weaker. It makes far more sense to avoid making enemies in the first place."

"And so I should turn the other cheek, is that it? That's essentially the best way to get smacked around, you know. I don't believe in turning a blind eye when people are attacking me--"

"I'm not arguing that you should. I'm saying that you should avoid needlessly antagonizing people. You made Yalit into an enemy by attacking her when she first came aboard. It's hardly unreasonable that she would seek to humiliate you in return. Of the others you mention, Dr. Christian-- she's the one whose son was on the Enterprise when you sent it against the Borg, isn't she?"


"I think she's the only of your enemies at this conference that you could not have avoided making. None of the others are put off by things you did as a Q-- they're all concerned with things you did relatively recently, to them personally. You made them into enemies. And now you may justify protecting yourself all you wish, but you cannot overlook the fact that you caused them to attack you in the first place-- and if you retaliate every time they do, it is likely to spiral downwards and eventually develop into an enmity intense enough to be dangerous. You've already learned what can happen, with LeBeau. Do you particularly want to be slapped in the face again?"

"If she tries, I'll press charges."

"What if Yalit slapped you? No one would take that seriously enough to let you press charges, given her size."

"Oh, I could probably nail her on some obscure Ferengi law that says that if a woman hits a man her male relatives have to pay him a hefty fine, or something."

"That's not the point." She looked at him carefully. "Is any of this getting through?"

Q shrugged. "I won't go out of my way to make enemies, but I'm not here to win friends. I'm here to entertain myself. It's hardly my fault that people like Yalit insist on being so entertaining."

"I begin to think you're a lost cause," T'Laren murmured. "Do what you like-- I can't stop you. But there will be consequences, and those consequences may be more than you can handle."

"I deal with people trying to kill me on a regular basis. I'd say there isn't much I can't handle." He yawned ostentatiously. "Now, considering that I got about three hours of sleep last night due to your interference, and I've had a very strenuous day, I am going to crash. I'm sure we can continue this silly argument at some other point."

"A wise idea," T'Laren said. He'd proven his ability to go ridiculous hours without sleep during the Borg threat, but she was sure he shouldn't overtax himself when he was recovering from being at death's door less than two months ago.

T'Laren stayed out in the main room, reading, even though she could just as easily have gone to her own bedroom. One of the things she tried to do when she had enough rooms to make it workable was to reserve her bedroom for sleep and meditation as exclusively as possible.

It was close to two hours later when the door chimed. Startled, T'Laren went to the door. Who would be coming here at 2200 hours?

One of the Vulcans from the conference-- Stamor, the extremely quiet man she'd met today-- was standing there. "I regret to say Q has retired for the night," T'Laren said.

"He is not the only one here I wished to talk to," Stamor said. "May I come in?"

"Why did you wish to speak to me?"

"It concerns Sovaz."

Reluctantly she stepped back to let him in. "What is your concern with Sovaz?"

"You are her older sister, isn't that correct?"

The irritation at having to deal with a fellow Vulcan at all came out in her voice just a bit more than she wished. "I was married to Sovaz's elder brother by blood. However, we are divorced." The term in Vulcan actually meant "severed", with all the accompanying connotations of a broken social contract and the remains of family ties, like bleeding severed limbs. There would be no need to explain to a fellow Vulcan the discomfort of the situation.

"I see-- but you are nevertheless the closest she has to a female relative, here." He took a calming breath-- not an overt one like a human would, but T'Laren could tell. "I am interested in the possibility of bonding with her."

T'Laren's knee-jerk reaction was that Sovaz was far too young for that. But she was 27-- old enough to make a choice based on logic, too young still for hormones to cloud any bit of her decision. Most Vulcans were bonded by their parents, at the age of seven, for reasons suiting the parents' purposes. Since Vulcan's greater involvement with the Federation and the outside races, many Vulcans had rebelled against the notion of entering the most important lifetime contract they would ever make at the age of seven and the bidding of parents, without any of their own interests factored into the decision. However, it was still considered wisest to bond before the hormonal changes that brought increased interest in sex, bonding and reproduction-- Vulcans could indeed feel physical desire, and a young person just beginning to experience that transformation would not be experienced enough with such desires to filter them out as well as other, more familiar desires could be. And for obvious reasons, a man could not wait very long after the changes began before he needed to be bonded. So it was a popular custom for unbonded Vulcans to bond at Sovaz's age, when they were mature enough mentally to make a logical decision based on their own interests and not their parents', and would not yet have to make the effort of factoring sexual desire out of their decision-making process. This was the ideal age for Sovaz to bond, and by tradition, the person seeking the liaison had to discuss it with a female relative of the person they sought before they could pursue the hand.

"I see." T'Laren took a calming breath of her own. "Well, it is a propitious age. Might I ask how old you are?"

"I am 34, so you see that my concern is urgent," Stamor said. "I have put off my time with the new drugs and meditation, but I sense that their effectiveness is drawing to an end."

That seemed a little odd, for a man to baldly admit that to a woman he had just met, and an unbonded woman at that. Even Sovaz and Soram's parents hadn't been that liberal. But then, T'Laren had never played the role of the ba'shel, the female advisor to a suitor, before, so perhaps it was common in that position.

"Why Sovaz? She is not fully ripened yet. For a man in your position, wouldn't it be better to take a wife who had ripened already?" A woman who had fully undergone Vulcan puberty, and was sexually mature before her husband's first pon farr, was far more likely to be able to share the pon farr with him-- which was considered a mixed blessing at best, as sharing pon farr spared the woman the pain her husband's brutal need would otherwise cause, at the cost of making her share that maddening need and irrationality. A woman who hadn't fully ripened-- whose physical body was sexually mature but whose brain was not yet producing the hormones that governed the fertility cycle-- might not be able to share a pon farr with her husband, and this was not considered desirable, as it was supposed to be entirely up to the woman what she chose to do. Of course, a woman would factor that into account before choosing to bond with a man if she thought he would enter pon farr before she ripened.

"Your position has merit, but I... I have searched long for a woman who would be my intellectual equal. It is difficult to find an unbonded woman in the sciences who shows such promise already. Sovaz is not as knowledgeable as one who had studied only the sciences and never entered Starfleet, but her breadth of knowledge allows her to show a talent for synthesis that would be very valuable."

T'Laren nodded. "Her family is highly intelligent. Her brother Soram is a well-respected engineer in Starfleet whose designs have been incorporated into several of Starfleet's newest engines; her mother T'Rafi is a philosopher, and her father Sodar is a professor of political science at the Vulcan Academy of Science."

Stamor nodded eagerly. "So genetically it would be a good match. I myself come from a lowlier pedigree, but I believe my personal record as a scientist speaks for itself. In addition, Sovaz is a Starfleet officer, and I believe Vulcan's future will come from its interaction with the Federation. A Starfleet officer for a mother would prepare my children for a universe where interaction with other cultures will become more and more important. And in terms of personality, our interests are similar and I believe we would be compatible."

He did not add that he was sexually attracted to Sovaz, but if he was as old as he said he was, and not a hybrid, that had to be taking increasing importance in his life. Hybrids with most species, including humans, entered pon farr late, despite the fact that humans themselves matured sexually far earlier than Vulcans did. An ordinary male Vulcan, however, entered his first pon farr around age 28-30. To put it off to 34 with drugs and meditation meant one would be suffering from the effects of an active, heightened libido signaling that one had ripened for years before that libido settled down into the seven-year cycle of pon farr. It would be almost as bad as a human adolescence.

T'Laren nodded. "Your reasons seem logical. I will consult with Sovaz as to whether she desires a suit, and we can make arrangements from there."

Despite feeling better about what had happened today, Q was still plagued by nightmares. In his dreams, the other scientists turned on him, declaring that Yalit and LeBeau were right, and nothing he said could be trusted... and he couldn't convince them otherwise. Picard was there, saying, "I knew we shouldn't give him a chance. We were entirely too kind." Anderson was nodding, saying, "If we're not getting sufficient return on our investment, I guess we'll have to boot him out." And then he was, of all places, in a classroom, drawn from images from his study of Earth history and his exploration of Jean-Luc Picard's mind as well as the conference here and places he had been before he'd ever heard of Earth.

An old mentor stood in front of him, looking like Commodore Anderson and dressed like a 19th-century Terran schoolmarm, complete with ruler. Since Q's human brain could no longer quite process the nonhuman senses the Q used to identify each other, his dreams tended to turn all his former people into mortals he knew now, but he always knew in the dream who they were supposed to be. "What have I told you about linear thinking?" She rapped his hands with the ruler.

"It's not my fault!" Q protested. "You people made me a mortal! How can I help it?"

"You're still supposed to be better than that. Think! How can something exist if it can't exist in nature?"

And then he woke up, heart pounding, both from the fear the dream had evoked and the sudden revelation it had granted him.

How can something exist if it can't exist in nature?

Answer: Someone had created it artificially.

He stumbled to the bathroom and splashed water on his face. "Computer, open connection to Lt. Sovaz."

There was a delay of a few seconds. "Sovaz here," the girl's voice came, sounding a little less perky than usual.

"Sovaz, this is Q. Listen, if I wanted to get time-series astronomical data on the anomaly, dating back, oh, say a few hundred years or so, what observatories would I need to contact?"

"The only data you'd be able to get would be what's available in the real-time spectrum," Sovaz said, sounding puzzled. "If you need that data I can get it for you, but it will be limited."

"That's fine. If what I suspect is true, visible light and its relations will be all I need."

"What do you suspect?" A bit of the perkiness was back.

"I suspect the anomaly hasn't been around as long as it thinks it has. What's our range?"

"Federation space covers 310.3 light years, and we have reciprocal scientific agreements with the Klingons and several non-aligned races, which extends our range by an additional 93 light-years. From here, we can get about 250 light years' worth of data, more if there happen to be exploration ships out beyond the border of Federation space. In addition, there is a scientific outpost in the Gamma Quadrant, but I'm not sure their telescopes can perceive the anomaly at all."

"Let's get the 250 years, then, and we'll only try the Gamma Quadrant if we absolutely must."

"I'll meet you at your quarters, if that's agreeable to you. There may be other queries you need me for."

Q grinned. Just this once, he'd let the girl play the role of teenage sidekick.

T'Laren was out in the main room reading, which surprised Q, given the hour. Though actually it wasn't that late, only 0120 hours; he'd gone to bed earlier than he usually did. Even better-- Sovaz' presence always discomfited T'Laren, and after her totally unwarranted attack on him earlier, Q would enjoy seeing that. He went to the door just as it rang, and pressed the button to open it.

That got T'Laren's attention. She looked up. "Sovaz? Why are you here so late?"

"Was I expected to arrive earlier?" Sovaz asked, in her best confused voice. "I came as quickly as possible."

"No, I was wondering why you are intruding on Q at this hour."

"Because I invited her, T'Laren dearest," Q said, patiently, as if speaking to an idiot child. "How's my data doing?"

"I've sent queries to ten observatories and starships in the line of sight, one approximately every 25 light-years, with an alpha priority. The closest data should be coming in within five minutes; the rest will take a bit longer depending on how many subspace relay stations the query needs to go through and how far apart those relay stations are."

All sciences had been revolutionized by faster-than-light travel, for every species that discovered it, as warp drive or its equivalent permitted alien races to speak to and learn from one another, but physics and astronomy had gained an even larger boon. Faster-than-light communications and travel allowed one to get astronomical data over time periods by allowing one to outrun the light coming from a star one hundred, two hundred years ago, and observe it as if one were looking through a time machine. Of course, the only data that was available that way was realspace data-- subspace data couldn't be outrun with a warp drive-- but the ancients, limited to their own planets and to realspace data, had developed all sorts of wonderful techniques for learning things about the universe based on only the electromagnetic radiation that reached their planet.

"Sovaz, I must speak with you briefly," T'Laren said.

"I have a small amount of time," Sovaz replied.

"Have you considered bonding yet?"

"No, why?"

"I have been approached as ba'shel by a man who seeks to bond with you. Are you amenable to such a thing?"

Q tapped his foot ostentatiously. Did they need to discuss their silly reproductive rituals right now?

Sovaz cocked her head slightly, then made a slight shrug-- the Vulcan equivalent of one of Q's dismissive waves. "Talk to my parents. If they concur that it's a good match, I'll pursue it. Right now I haven't time to concern myself with such things."

"Haven't time? Sovaz, the decision to bond, and who to bond with, is the most important decision you'll make in your life. You owe it a bit more than 'Let my parents make the decision for me, I haven't time.'"

"Why? That is exactly how most people do it. You wouldn't expect me to concern myself with the question if I had been bonded in childhood, so why do you expect me to concern myself with it simply because I was not?"

"Because the whole point to not bonding you in childhood was to let you make that decision as an adult."

"T'Laren, we do have some work to get done here," Q pointed out, "so if you'd just go away and leave Sovaz alone like a good little Vulcan..."

"Talk to my parents. If they agree the match would be good, I will consider the decision for myself. I don't see why I should concern myself with a match they don't approve of, though, so I don't need to concern myself until they've screened him." She turned back to Q. "What other data will we need?"

Just for a moment, he was tempted to needle her, or T'Laren, or both, about the conversation they'd just had-- mortal preoccupation with reproduction really was very amusing-- but he was on fire with his idea and he really didn't feel like wasting the time. "Let's assemble everything we've already got and take a look at it."

T'Laren looked at the two of them. "Q, are you aware of what time it is?"

"I can read a clock just as well as you, T'Laren. Inspiration waits for no man. Now go away and stop bothering me."

She turned and went to her room without a word. "Well. That worked rather well," Q murmured to no one in particular, surprised she was being so docile about it.

By morning, after five cups of quadruple-strength coffee, Q had it. He had enough data to prove that the anomaly was artificially created, and had a few plans for assembling the data he'd need to prove out his gut feeling about why it had been created. Sovaz, unlike T'Laren after the all-night session assembling clothing for his trial, seemed untouched by her lack of sleep-- the advantages of youth and proper Vulcan discipline, he assumed. Or possibly she found listening to Q talk out loud about his theories and helping him gather the data he needed inherently more stimulating than T'Laren had found clothes-hunting.

He chased her off two hours before the conference began so he could get dressed. Functioning on three hours of sleep and five cups of coffee was not unheard-of for Q, but he was weaker nowadays and showed it more. He needed plenty of time to put on makeup so nothing of the dark circles under his eyes would show. And he thought one of his more elaborate outfits was called for, which would require extra dressing time.

This time he waited the requisite fifteen minutes or so to show up fashionably late, and swept in dramatically while Sovaz was still reading the minutes from yesterday. "Oh, do leave off on that tedious nonsense, Sovaz," he interrupted.

She looked up at him. "It's standard procedure to read the minutes before opening the floor."

"Does anybody here really need to hear all the tedious little things we went over yesterday?"

Yalit said, "Why, are you afraid the record will show what a childish coward you are?"

"How interesting. A Ferengi calling someone a coward. Any minute now I expect Dr. Morakh to call me too violent, or something."

"Q, shut up," Dhawan said tiredly. "Nobody wants a repeat of your behavior yesterday."

"Good, then I don't see why Sovaz should waste all our time repeating it. After a day to think about Dr. Markow's results, I do believe I have a theory that accounts for all the observed data." He smiled insouciantly, and leaned forward, resting his hands on the table as he stood, hovering over Dhawan and Sovaz. "Of course, if you, Commander, feel absolutely certain that we cannot proceed without a detailed rehash of yesterday's business, why of course I'll bow to your wisdom."

Soltan said, "I've never understood why it is necessary to waste time by listing what transpired yesterday. We're all intelligent beings; surely we can remember yesterday reasonably well."

"Not all of us are Vulcans," one of the humans said sourly.

"Read the damn minutes or don't," Markow said. "We're wasting more time discussing it."

Sovaz picked up where she'd left off, exactly as if there had been no interruption. Q sank regally into a chair, waiting for his moment. The one failing the child had, he decided, was that she was entirely too Starfleet-- tied to her rules and regulations. Otherwise, she was almost as interesting as T'Laren.

As soon as Sovaz was done, she turned to Q. "I believe Q has a new hypothesis to present to us," she said.

"You're entirely too gracious, my dear." Q stood up. "In fact, Sovaz was of invaluable assistance in gathering the data for this. As her tedious adherence to Robert's Rules of Order should have reminded all of us, yesterday Dr. Markow proved that the anomaly we're studying contradicts the laws of physics."

"He proved no such thing," LeBeau said. "He proved your theory was wrong."

"It's the exact same thing, my dear. If someone who had only studied Standard for a year told you-- presumably a native Standard speaker-- that he had discovered that 'cat' really meant a ferret, I'm sure you'd feel, with some justification, that your beliefs and knowledge were still correct. And if he managed to prove that cat meant ferret, you'd be certain there was a catch. Well, I've found the catch."

"Which is?" Markow asked.

"Consider this. The singularity shares almost all of the characteristics of what we in the Continuum describe as an Anomaly, yet it isn't one. No natural process has ever been observed, in all of the several-billion-year history of the Continuum, that could conceivably create such a singularity. This seems to imply to me that we are not dealing with a natural process at all. Computer! Display time series photographs-- time point 100 and time point 200."

The computer obediently displayed the images-- the area of the anomaly as photographed by high-powered telescopic scanners 100 and 200 light-years away, respectively. Q had the computer highlight the actual coordinates of the anomaly. In one picture, the one from 200 light-years away, there was a blue-white star, brightly shining, in the highlighted area. In the other picture, there was nothing. Graphs underneath displayed the refraction of various spectra surrounding the area of the anomaly; it was clear that a singularity was present in the picture where there was no star, and absent where there was.

"So the singularity didn't exist two hundred years ago?" someone said.

"Your ability to state the obvious is astonishing," Q said cheerily. "Which is very interesting. If you think about it, the fact that the anomaly reflects fourth, fifth and sixth-dimensional radiation should imply that it exists in all temporal dimensions Federation science can identify. Or, to put it more simply, the singularity has always existed and will always exist. But clearly, it has not. Now, if you were in charge of security and you wanted to keep out time travelers, how would you do it?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" LeBeau asked.

"Could someone intelligent please answer the question?" Q said.

"You couldn't keep out a time traveler," Sovaz said. "Because if you created a barrier, they could always go back in time to before the barrier was created."

"Right. Now suppose you have the ability to project a barrier back in time, what happens?"

"The time traveler goes forward?"

"No, forward and backward. I misphrased myself."

"How could you do that?" Milarca asked. "If you existed in a timeline where the barrier didn't always exist, then by projecting it back in time, you're changing the timeline. You would never have set out to create a barrier if one was already there."

"I knew a Romulan would get it," Q beamed. "Any other problems?"

Not to be outdone by a Romulan, Morakh growled, "If you created the barrier around yourself, you would have to have been born within it, otherwise you'd prevent yourself from ever having gotten in. And if you created it around something you wished to protect, you would prevent yourself from ever being able to get at that item."

"Very good! Obviously there's some brain tissue in amongst all that bone." Q paced. "However, there is a way to bypass the paradox. We here at this point in time cannot project a form of energy, no matter how many dimensionalities it encompasses, that actually does not have any element of itself in this temporal dimension. So if your objective is to keep out time traveling energy-- for instance, imagine that some people you don't like created a temporal transporter, and are going about beaming themselves into the past-- you can create a barrier which has sufficient resonances in the temporal dimensions that it would keep out energies which have any part of their waveform tied to this time. If a time traveler goes back in time, everything they do has resonances in the fifth and sixth dimensions which are tied to their original time period. Milarca should know all about that." He grinned.

Milarca smiled tightly. "My mother was a defector, remember? I don't know any more about Romulan physics than you do."

"The Romulans have a more advanced understanding of time than we do?" Dhawan said.

"The Romulans use quantum singularities in their warp cores. You figure it out." He called up several equations on the holodisplay. "I don't expect you to be able to follow these intuitively, but I think if you study them, you'll see how they apply to the time travel situations your Federation has experienced... at least the ones your government hasn't classified. This should demonstrate why it is that the actions of a time traveler have resonance in their origin time, and these should show how it could be that one could deflect temporal energies while being tied to linear time oneself."

"You expect us to just take your word for it again?" Yalit snapped.

"No, my dear little troll, I expect you to do your homework. I just said if you study these, you'll find that I'm right. Of course, I can imagine why you'd be adverse to some extra study-- probably too challenging for your ossified brain, and if there's no profit in it why exert yourself, right?"

"Q..." Dhawan said warningly.

"Commander..." Q returned, mocking her tone of voice. Then he returned to seriousness. "Now, I think this equation should accurately describe the behavior of the singularity we're seeing. As you can see, a force field generated with these parameters would absorb lower-order energies, and deflect energies up to about sixth-dimensional waveforms. At higher levels of dimensionality, the only thing it would block is psionic energy."

"How can you tell it would block psionic energy?" Tamal said, bewildered. "I didn't know the Federation had an equation for psionic energy."

"We don't," T'Para said.

"Don't be silly. This is the general equation for psionic energy," Q said, scrawling it quickly on his padd and interfacing it with the display so they could all see. "I'm sure the Laon'l have played about with that, haven't you?" He turned to Elejani Baíi.

"We have some familiarity with psionic energy, yes," she responded.

"Now, as you can see, psionic energy is the only form of energy-- well, all right, the only form of energy you know of, but just take it from me, it's the only form of energy period-- that's infinitely scalar. If you had sufficient power behind a psionic transmission, it could encompass an aleph-null order of dimensionalities."

"That's what you said about quuonic radiation," Markow said.

"Did I indeed?" Q grinned. "What does that mean to you, Daedalus?"

"Just show us the transformation, Lucy. Stop grandstanding."

Quickly Q demonstrated that quuonic radiation was merely an extraordinarily high-powered form of psionic radiation. "So what I said holds true. Quuonic radiation doesn't scale down-- at some arbitrary level you could start calling it mere psi. Likewise, at a certain level you could call psi omnipotence. By the structure of this barrier, I believe that no matter how much power you put into your psionic energy, it would be reflected; however, other forms of energy can get through depending on their strength and dimensionality. Kinetic energy should be able to pass through at any strength, and of course kinetic energy has a limited dimensionality to begin with; eighth-dim waveforms can get through if they are not psionic in nature." He looked out over the conference with his most dramatic expression. "Someone built this barrier to keep out powerful time-traveling psis."

"You can't possibly say that," Malo objected. "You don't have anywhere near enough evidence to project the motives of the builders of such a thing. If it is in fact artificial."

"Oh, it's artificial, all right. But no, you're right, I can't say that for sure. However, it does seem like the most logical reason to build such a barrier."

Gan, the Tellarite, looked up at him. "You're screwing up your power requirements again, Q. Look at this." He displayed an equation which showed how much power it would require to cover an area the size of the anomaly with a force field constructed by Q's equation. "That's the full power output of an entire sun. No one but your people have that kind of power."

"Au contraire. There are species with the ability to harness such power technologically. Why, I could probably do it if I felt like it and I wasn't sure you lowly creatures would abuse it."

"How would you do it?" Sovaz asked, interestedly.

"About the same way I think they did. Computer, display time points 173.037612 through 173.037623."

"That display is continuous," the computer informed him.

"Even better. Begin it, frozen."

An image of the blue-white star shining in a speckled starfield, set out by the highlighting around it, appeared. "We were enormously lucky in that a science vessel-- Sovaz, what was it called again?"

"The Alethea," Sovaz supplied.

"Right, the Alethea happened to be in the vicinity to take these after I narrowed the change down between time points 160 and 180-- that's 160 and 180 years ago, by the way. Just a little jaunt at warp nine got these wonderful folks into position to capture the actual change, as it occurred. Watch this. Computer, resume display, sped by factor of fifteen."

The image blossomed into life, the stars not moving at all, the computers having compensated for the fact that Alethea had been moving when this was taken. Only the time indicator at the bottom moved.

Suddenly the star in question exploded. The image and the indicators at the bottom both clearly showed this to be a mere nova, without anywhere near the energy output to be a supernova. "Wait a minute!" someone protested. "A star that size should have gone super!"

"Keep watching," Q suggested.

The nova spread some distance, then attenuated into nothingness. A tiny, brilliant burst of light sparked into existence where it had been, and shone as brightly as the star had.

"A stellar core?..." someone murmured.

"Look at the readouts," Dhawan said tightly. "That thing's a pinpoint quasar!"

"Very good, Commander," Q said, a little of his usual insouciant cheer gone from his voice. The events transpiring on the display had the power to subdue even him.

The quasar grew a bit larger-- and then vanished, as did the remains of the nova. It took several seconds more for everyone to realize they had just witnessed the birth of the anomaly.

"All that," Q announced, "happened in under ten hours."

"You're joking," Roth said weakly.

"My God," Markow murmured.

"No joke. Impressive, isn't it? I have to tell you, people who can pull off a stunt like this impress even me, and I am not easily impressed. Display off."

"What happened?" Elejani Baíi asked. "Can you explain what we just saw?"

"I think so. And this, Dr. Gan, is the answer to your riddle about the power supply." He paced. "I can't remember if you people are familiar with the quasar source or not."

"The quasar what?" someone asked.

"That answers that."

"There's a theory that quasars radiate from an extradimensional source-- a universe full of energy," Markow said. "Since there are no quasars in the Alpha Quadrant, it's been a little difficult to test."

"Yes, well this is something else you're going to have to take on faith. The theory is correct. The quasar source is actually a universe with negative entropy, which as you might guess means it is full to bursting with energy. It's quite plentiful-- we used it ourselves for a few million years on our way to forming the Continuum. If you could punch a hole between this universe and the quasar source, you'd create a quasar-- a nearly eternal radiating body, putting out the kind of power you'd see ranging from a supernova to an entire galaxy, depending on the size of the quasar. Since the universe is expanding, rips in the fabric of space-time, like quasars, tend to grow, so quasars become more sizable over time, just like black holes. A species that can create and tap a quasar will have more power than they know what to do with. But it takes enormous energy to rip such a hole. In fact, it takes the power of pretty much an entire sun. Sometimes a supernova will spontaneously create a quasar, and then, if the supernova does not also create a black hole which will devour the quasar's energies, you have a brand spanking new quasar, generally out in the middle of nowhere where space is thinner. Space is relatively thick here, which is why you see few wormholes and fewer quasars. In order to artificially create a quasar, you'd have to harness the power of a supernova.

"Someone pointed out that a star the size of that blue-white should have supernovaed. And it did. But so much of the energies of it were taken up and channeled into the Quasar Construction Kit that what we saw barely looked like a run-of-the-mill nova, even. They took most of the energy of the supernova-- which they themselves probably caused; there's no indicator in our time series previous to the nova that that star was ready to die-- and punched a hole through space-time to the quasar source. Just a tiny hole, to create a tiny quasar. Then they used the quasar's own energies to enlarge the hole just a little bit, and as soon as it was big enough, they channeled it into creating their force field. And that's how they built the anomaly."

"Who could do such a thing?" Elejani Baíi murmured. "They would be almost gods."

"Well, yes. We could have, clearly, but we wouldn't have bothered. If we'd wanted a quasar, any of us could have summoned enough energy to punch a hole into the quasar source ourselves. This was done by a lesser race than the Q. On the other hand, it's far beyond most humanoids I've encountered. The Preservers couldn't have done it. The Iconians probably couldn't have, though they might have if they'd really worked on the problem. Possibly the Alphans or the Keiraines--"

"The Alphans?"

"I forget what their real name was. They were recently discovered-- the species that seeded this galaxy with humanoid life." In fact, Picard had been instrumental in the discovery-- one of the last things he'd done before he died, Q thought with a sudden wave of bitter grief. He forced it down. "A few others. For the most part, though, I'd put this in the purview of energy beings, who as a whole tend to be more advanced than you lowly matter-based creatures." He grinned.

"Why would someone do such a thing?" Dhawan asked.

"Well, I told you my theory. I think they did it to keep out enormously powerful psis. I suspect they had some energy beings for enemies, which lends further credence to my idea that they were energy beings themselves. If the barrier is constructed as I think it is, it is totally and completely impervious to energy which contains a mind, which would make it an excellent defense against people who can beam themselves about the universe."

"Would it keep out the Q?"

"Yes, but I assure you, we never tormented any races powerful enough to build something like this. We believe in being on more-or-less friendly terms with our closest evolutionary neighbors."

"What would happen if a telepathic humanoid passed through the barrier? Would they die?" Sovaz asked.

"Well, in the first place, I'm not one hundred percent certain a humanoid could get through the barrier. The barrier is impervious to electrochemical energy, remember. So while you could pass through if you were in a shuttle coasting through-- on momentum, not impulse, as any engine power at all will be lost the moment you hit the barrier, and at any serious speed that will leave you a pancake, given that momentum is not suppressed-- all the electrical activity in your brain and body would cease the moment you passed through. Would it start up spontaneously once you reached the other side? That's an excellent question."

"We could test it," Malo said. "Use clockwork to rig the ship to turn on its computers and engines after it's coasted through the barrier, and hardcode the computer's instructions so it doesn't lose them when the barrier negates energy. Give it a command to turn around and come back through the barrier. And send an animal through. If it comes back alive, send a person."

"The trouble is that we're dealing with a singularity," Dhawan said. "I don't care how anomalous it is, if something has to turn off its warp drive-- and its inertial dampeners-- once it's past the event horizon, it's going to go crunch. For all intents and purposes that thing is a black hole."

"It only looks that way," Q said. "Because it absorbs gravitic radition, it behaves on the outside like a black hole. Past the event horizon, however, the fact that these effects are being caused by an artificial force barrier is going to make a significant difference. We should be able to angle a probe in such that it's in the plane of the gravity waves, and therefore isn't torn apart by tidal stresses. And the temporal effects of a black hole should be largely absent in this artificial creation, judging from the fact that it reflects temporal energies instead of absorbing them."

"Does that mean a person could do it?" Sovaz asked.

"If a person can get through at all, I suspect a telepathic person wouldn't have much trouble," Q said. "They might need to make the passage drugged to avoid pain, but they'd live through it, assuming a humanoid would live through it at all."

"Why don't we test it on you?" Yalit asked. "After all, if we test it on an animal we won't have any proof the process doesn't cause brain damage, or something."

"I think they should drum you out of the Ferengi Chamber of Commerce. Are you aware you just advocated risking one of the most valuable assets the Federation has for the sake of an experiment? Dear Yalit, perhaps we'll make a researcher out of you yet."

Yalit scowled. "You are not one of the most valuable assets the Federation has."

"Well, I suppose if you put my worth up against the gross planetary product of Earth, say, then no. You might want to look it up, though-- I think I'm worth a few small moons." He smiled cheerfully at her. "Which, I think, means that by your customs, you're supposed to be groveling to me. So go get me a coffee and keep your mouth shut, girlie."

Yalit's scowl deepened, but she kept her mouth shut, even though she made no move to get him the coffee. Which was fine with him, as he wouldn't have drunk a beverage she'd breathed on, anyway.

"Is there a way we can test the theory that the barrier blocks telepathic energies?" Dhawan asked.

"Yes," Q said. "Rig up a sufficiently powerful psionic amplifier and have a telepath project toward the barrier using it. They should experience the sensation of their mind being reflected back at them." At the looks he was getting, he sighed deeply. "Don't tell me. You people have never developed psionic amplification."

Elejani Baíi offered hesitantly, "We have occasionally used some such devices, but nothing of the order you're speaking of..."

"Actually," T'Para said slowly, "such devices existed in antiquity on Vulcan. Whatever information we might have held about them once might still be retained by the Kolinahru and the mind-healers. But I do not know if they would share such information."

"Hmm." Q touched his commbadge. "Q to T'Laren."

"T'Laren here."

"What do you know about psionic amplifiers?"

"I've used them before. On Bresel VII. My-- Our chief engineer and I were assigned to figure out how the devices worked, and it turned out they were psionic amplifiers. Why do you ask?"

Q smiled broadly. "Collect together all the information you can get about them, however obscure. You might also want Elejani Baíi's help in referencing Laon'l psionic amplifiers."

"Q, what is this about?"

"Advancing the cause of science," he said. "You up for it?"

"You know this is damned irregular," Dhawan said. "Dr. T'Laren's your therapist, not a specialist in this sort of thing."

"It sounds interesting," T'Laren said neutrally. "I'll see what I can do." She closed the link.

"T'Laren was also a Starfleet counselor for umpteen years," Q said. "I'm sure Sovaz knows all about her record. It's hardly like I'm asking some schmoe off the street to help us."

"T'Laren was a first contact expert, and often worked with my brother, who as Chief Engineer was responsible for the study of alien devices," Sovaz said.

"Why did a counselor work with the chief engineer?" Tamal asked, puzzled. "I thought your counselors were strictly psychologists."

"T'Laren and my brother were husband and wife. It's customary for Vulcan couples to work together on any projects that can admit both their talents," Sovaz said. "Apparently the study of alien devices fell under the purview of xenopsychology as well as engineering."

"Well," Dhawan said. "We've got our hypotheses, we've got plans to test them, so let's get moving."

T'Laren was actually quite intrigued by Q's offer. She had been quite bored, and this would be something to do that sounded reasonably challenging, and suited to her talents.

In the days of Surak, psi had been much more unevenly distributed on Vulcan. Some Vulcans had been enormously powerful psis, possessing broadcast telepathy, and sometimes even telekinesis. Other Vulcans had possessed barely any psi at all, their families having been too poor to attract a valuable psi to interbreed with them. Even in those days, most Vulcan marriages had been arranged, based on genetic value and familial wealth and other things representing increased power for the family to receive them, rather than personality traits of the intended. There had also been a technology of psi in those days, devices like psionic amplifiers, dampeners, and the like.

When Lhoviri had brought T'Laren back in time to study under Surak himself, she had been largely too troubled and despairing to notice much of the culture at first. As time went by and she regained her emotional equilibrium, however, she had paid more attention. Since she hadn't been able to bring anything but knowledge out of the past with her, she had studied as much as she could get hold of on the now-lost arts, the devices Vulcan had rejected as interfering with the true purpose of psi, which was, according to Surakian doctrine, to aid the mind in centering itself and advancing in spiritual development, not to fight wars with. It was rather amazing that all the ancient species which possessed psi had at some point rejected psionic amplifiers. She asked Q if there was a reason for that.

"If a culture believed in initiating its young by putting them to death, how long do you think it would last?" Q asked, grinning at her.

"Do you mean that psionic amplifiers destroy a culture?"

"Hand an antimatter weapon to every joe on the street and see how long your culture lasts," Q said.

"But why? Cultures with far more advanced psionic abilities-- yours, for example-- survived. What's the difference between a psionic amplifier and having that level of psi oneself?"

"What's the difference between advanced training in the martial arts, and owning a phaser?"

"You're congenitally incapable of giving me a straight answer, aren't you?"

"If you're too stupid to work it out for yourself from my analogies, you really don't deserve to know."

Overall she preferred asking him about himself. At least then he would give her a straight answer sometimes. But she thought she knew what he meant. "You mean that to develop a certain level of mastery over psi without an amplifier, you need sufficient training and discipline that you won't misuse the powers?"

"Oh, you'll misuse them, all right. Every culture goes through a stage of misusing its powers. But generally what happens is that in a culture where the individuals learn to tap their own personal power, the individuals who do so successfully feel themselves removed from the concerns of those that can't. They have no real desire to use their psi to conquer the world or make sex slaves out of the populace or whatever other nonsense people who have artificial psi might do, because they think of themselves as more advanced. I mean, who wants to conquer a planet full of apes? Or whatever? They consider their equals to be the others who have advanced to their level, and while they might toy with the lesser beings, they'd do so on an occasional sporadic basis, like children tying cans to a dog's tail rather than conquerors enslaving a weaker population. And since most of the paths to higher development involve a kind of spirituality where the things of the physical are rejected anyway, many don't even abuse their powers in that way. Whereas if you simply give some people psi, without them having to train it and advance spiritually for it, they end up going about tormenting people with it. In fact, you Vulcans seem to have done something much like that. When you bred for power, and had Vulcans with incredibly advanced gifts that they didn't have to work particularly hard for, you had psi wars. When you decided as a culture that you wanted everyone to have an about equal level of psi, you also got rid of the artificial amplifiers, and stopped abusing your psi. Mostly."

"Did anyone ever advance any significant degree with psionic amplifiers without destroying themselves?"

His eyes widened. "An interesting question." Q smiled, almost a death's head rictus. "One. A few billion years ago. They created devices which allowed the operator total control over reality."

"What happened to them? Did they destroy themselves?"

"Oh, no... well, in a manner of speaking, perhaps. Getting into a war with people who don't require devices to do the very same thing is probably suicidally stupid, after all." He looked at the ceiling, and whistled an insouciant tune.

"You destroyed them."

"Whatever gave you that idea?" Q asked, still looking at the ceiling, his entire manner confirming what she'd just said. Then he grew serious and looked back at her. "When you advance to a certain degree, the idea of war seems utterly stupid. And therefore, truly advanced beings don't have wars. We'd only fight if we were threatened, and since everyone at our level is equally advanced and equally unlikely to start a fight, we don't ever engage in the sort of internecine tribal conflicts you mortals so love. But if one develops devices that mimic the abilities of highly advanced species, to the point where one can actually threaten those species without oneself having advanced beyond being warlike... well, let's say the combination is sufficiently unlovely that if we ever saw a species developing that level of technology again, we'd annihilate them before they had the brilliant idea of threatening us. And if we didn't, the Organians would. Or the Douwds. Or the Vash'ta. There's few enough of us that were around at the dawn of time that we all remember the lessons of the past quite well."

"In that case, is it truly wise to revive the technology of psionic amplification?" T'Laren frowned. "It seems as if that is definitely something that the Continuum might consider unwarranted intervention, at least."

"I'm not particularly worried about the Continuum. I plan to construct a psionic amplification device that works only for projecting telepathic perception, with baffles in it to prevent any more active use. I think the Federation is advanced enough to be entrusted with something that allows nothing more than the extension of telepathy, and in a fairly limited way."

"But what if someone gets hold of the technology and adapts it for other purposes? Baffles can be removed."

"They can be, but they won't be. I have no plans to let anyone else have access to the full design."

"What about the people who have to build it?"

"Piecemeal only. I discussed this with Commander Mariani. She seemed a little miffed that I didn't trust her precious engineers, but once I pointed out that the people who'd most like to get their grubby little paws on such a thing are telepaths, she was quite cooperative. Starfleet apparently has protocols for such things." He sighed, as if immensely put-upon. "Now, of course, I have to design the damned thing."

Over the next several days, T'Laren discovered that working with Q was a good way to develop empathy for everyone who wanted him dead. He was demanding, snide, condescending, and overbearing. T'Laren decided that this was an excellent learning experience, an opportunity to see Q as others saw him and therefore be able to help him deal with people more easily. She repeated this to herself as a calming mantra at least once an hour.

His behavior with the engineers was slightly better, but since they didn't know Q as well, they didn't take it nearly as well as T'Laren had. T'Laren was forced to run interference to prevent him from mortally offending them, and wasn't sure how successful she'd been. But within a few days, the psionic amplifier took shape.

"How are we supposed to test something only you have the design specifications for?" Dhawan asked.

She and Yalit were the only of Q's "enemies" who continued to snipe at him; as T'Laren had had some opportunity to observe the various scientists, she'd concluded that Dhawan did this because she sniped at everyone. LeBeau and Morakh seemed to be genuinely impressed by Q's ability. Perhaps seeing him reinvent an ancient technology in three days from nothing more than the information T'Laren was able to dig up for him drove it home what he could do as all his posturing about his knowledge of the anomaly could not. Anne Christian had mostly stopped sniping at Q fairly early on in the conference; her apparent conviction that he was an incarnation of amorality, if not evil, didn't seem to require her to attack him constantly. And while Q and Yalit still sparred, it was clear that Q's star was in the ascendant, and no one really paid any attention to Yalit at all.

"Easily, my dear Commander," Q purred at her. He smiled cheerily. "The purpose of this device is to increase the effective range of a telepath. Any telepath. Therefore, why don't we have a telepath test it?"

Elejani Baíi balked at being called a "telepath" when her name was suggested. "I'm merely empathic. I don't project so much as receive, and I think it would be very painful for me to be able to receive from a much larger field than normal."

T'Para didn't say so in so many words, but it was obvious she believed that anyone who asked a Vulcan to do such a thing was a terrible pervert. "Vulcan telepathy is a deeply private thing," she said. "We share the contact of minds only with close friends and family. To use our telepathy in any other way is... not what our telepathy was intended for."

Her words angered T'Laren, not at T'Para herself but at the attitude behind them. Soram had been like that-- believed any Vulcan who used her telepathy for anything other than bonding and rare communion with friends was a freak. Even if they were right, T'Laren was tired of being called a freak, tired of being told that her superior telepathic ability and her willingness to use it in the course of her Starfleet duties made her a bad Vulcan, somehow. "I am willing to test it," she said. "Sovaz can corroborate the extent of my abilities before amplification. I am rated 27."

Dhawan frowned. "Is this a Vulcan rating scale?"

Sovaz nodded. "Most Vulcans fall between 10 and 20. Healers, who are the most powerful of Vulcan telepaths, all have ratings over 30. A 27 means that, if T'Laren were to completely lower her own mental shielding and quiet her own mind, she would pick up slight emotional impressions from all the unshielded members of this gathering, to a range of about one meter around her. It also indicates how powerful her mental shielding can potentially be, how many milliseconds it would take her to form a mind meld with a nontelepath, and other such things, but I think the distance range is what we're interested in."

"All right." Dhawan nodded. "So to effectively test this, T'Laren's going to have to pick up emotional impressions from someone farther away?"

Q shrugged. "I'm not one hundred percent positive how Vulcan telepathy works. It's possible that this amplifier will give T'Laren the ability to read minds without touching the people in question at all." He glanced at T'Laren, sudden nervousness in his expression.

"I give my word that I will not read anyone's mind unless they have volunteered to allow me to do so for the purposes of the experiment," T'Laren said, having a suspicion why he was nervous. She had reassured him that she couldn't read his mind without establishing a link, and he had apparently just given her the power to get around that limitation.

Several people volunteered, and stationed themselves at various points throughout and outside the room, outside her meter range. T'Laren examined the device-- it was a headset, attached to a large unwieldy boxlike thing. She sat in the chair provided and lowered the headset over her head.

For a moment she sensed no differences. She was still as she ever was. Then she realized that she was expecting the device to make her like a Betazoid, or some other distance telepath. She was still Vulcan, and her telepathy still required a total lowering of her own shields and a quieting of her mind to accomplish. It was a little difficult to achieve the necessary trance in this crowded room full of talking people, but T'Laren had formed mind-melds in the middle of space battles before, with explosions sparking all around her and the inertial dampeners fading in and out. This was certainly not worse than that. She focused all of her mind on the sensations of the mind alone, shutting out the body's senses.

She felt the cold burning like the beginning of a link, before the body became irrelevant, but without the feeling of something hot and blazing on the other side of her fingertips, the other side of the walls around her mind. There were no walls. Instead, as she distanced herself from her body, she could sense nets of fire, other minds like blazing torches ranged around her in cool darkness. One of the nets blazed with far more ferocity than the others, and seemed somehow familiar. She drifted toward it before realizing who it was, and forcing herself to turn away before she touched him-- if Q was somehow able to feel her touch his mind, even briefly, he would be enraged, and rightly so. She had to seek out the minds that had volunteered.

Oh, but this was easy. The furthest volunteer was nowhere near the edge of her range. She forced herself back to herself, briefly. "Send someone further away."

"Further away? How many meters?"

"All of them," T'Laren said, and returned to the land of torches in the distance. The furthest volunteer was a human named Lorne. She touched his mind lightly, enough to sense his confusion-- what had the Vulcan woman meant when she said "all of them"? This experiment was dangerous, maybe they should stop it, but he wanted to know, he wanted to know about the anomaly out there and Q said this was their best chance...

"Your keyword is 'swordfish', Dr. Lorne," she said. "I don't need to go any deeper, do I?"

"Depth isn't what we're looking for," Q said. His voice was eager. "Can you project all the way to the barrier, T'Laren?"

"Don't ask her to try to project herself across twenty light-minutes until we know she can project herself to the edge of the ship," Dhawan said acerbically.

T'Laren knew that was logical, but it was an effort to restrain herself. Why, she could touch all the minds in this room and not tire. She could read Q's mind-- she was sure he'd never notice. It was to help him. She wouldn't do anything that wasn't for his good.

"Ensign Paoli, at the far end of the left nacelle, has volunteered, T'Laren. Can you find him and read his keyword?"

Paoli. So many minds, so many small fires blazing in the darkness. She scanned them very lightly as she passed, just their identities, to see if Paoli was in their self-definition. And there he was, with his keyword. "Neapolitan," she said. "That's the ice cream that's strawberry and chocolate and vanilla, all mixed together. Mother used to say naplotan, that's how I thought you spelled it until I was twelve and saw her write it on a box, it was a gift for the Vulcan couple next door, because they wanted to experience Earth cuisine, but they didn't like the flavor--"

"T'Laren!" Someone was shaking her. "T'Laren, that's too deep! Pull back!"

She opened her eyes, to see T'Para. "You disapprove of me," T'Laren said. "But I can do what you cannot."

T'Laren turned away from her body, away from T'Para trying to break the trance, and reached out toward emptiness. So much emptiness, so empty. The blazing fires were behind her. Q wanted her to reach out this way, and she would do it because she could hear his thoughts, so loud in his unshielded proximity to her, telling her to go out, to find the barrier--

--something, the sense of a mind touching hers, a mind strangely familiar--


"My mother," T'Laren said, unaware of the beatific smile spreading across her face. "It's my mother..."

"It is not your mother," Q said. "T'Para, is she trying to read the barrier?"

"I can't believe she'd be able to," T'Para said. "The barrier is too far away."

"That is what the amplifier is for. Is she all right?" She sensed his nervousness, concern for her tingeing his overwhelming need to know what the barrier was.

"I would need to meld with her to determine that," T'Para said.

"I don't," Elejani Baíi's voice said. "Bring her back. Turn the machine off, Q."

And then the sense of her mother's presence suddenly cut off. "Nooo!" T'Laren screamed, thrown back into the confines of her own mind. T'Para and Stamor were holding her down as she struggled, trying to get out of the chair to turn the device back on. "Bring her back! It's my mother, Q, she's alive, I sensed her--"

"You sensed no such thing," Q said brutally. "How old were you when your mother died?"

She looked up at him, confused. Her mother wasn't dead, she had just sensed her. Mom and Father had lied to her, telling her Mother was dead when it wasn't true, because she knew the dead could come back, hadn't she come back at Lhoviri's will? Hadn't she come back from somewhere? "I sensed her," she repeated. And then, hesitantly, "I sensed her through the barrier... it's a barrier to the world of the dead. Dead souls. I sensed my mother."

"It is not, and you did not," Q told her. "What's wrong with her? Why is she behaving like this?" There was panic in his voice.

"It is your device, Q," Soltan said. "Surely if anyone knew, you would."

"I take it you didn't expect this?" Dhawan said dryly.

"No, I... I'd never have let her use it if I'd known she'd react like this. But I've never seen anyone react this way to psionic amplification before."

"Could it be true?" Sovaz asked. "Is it possible that T'Laren was indeed amplified enough to contact... I don't know, perhaps the scattered remnants of her mother's katra?"

"That's ridiculous. If a katra is lost, it is lost," Soltan said brusquely.

"I believe she's still in trance," T'Para said, and then someone was hitting her, slapping her face. The sudden pain, the sensation of impact, drove aside the cold burning. Slowly T'Laren felt herself filling her own body again, coming back to reality.

T'Para reached to hit her again, and she caught the hand. "I am... recovered. I..." She looked around the gathering. She was sitting on the floor, and everyone was staring at her, over three dozen scientists and she had just broken down in front of all of them, begging for her mother.

"Are you all right?" Q asked.

"It would seem so."

He sighed. "You simply must be difficult, mustn't you? A perfectly straightforward experiment, and you have to wig out. I suppose your life isn't complete unless you're making mine more difficult."

She recognized that he was trying to lighten the tension, insulting her to cover his anxiety at whatever had just happened. So she forced down the annoyance she felt and responded in kind. "That is my job, or so you've been telling me for months."

"Can you describe your subjective sensations while using the amplifier?" Sovaz asked eagerly.

"I sensed my mother," T'Laren said, unwilling at the moment to delve more deeply into what she'd felt, the sense of power and invulnerability, the arrogance. She remembered what she'd thought about invading Q's mind, and cringed inwardly.

"That shouldn't have happened," Q said, sounding frustrated. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen."

"What was it, if not my mother?" T'Laren asked.

"How would I know? You weren't supposed to perceive your mother."

"We need someone else to test it," Stamor suggested. "I would volunteer."

T'Laren looked at him, genuinely horrified for a moment. "You cannot."

"Why not?"

The puzzlement in his voice sounded genuine. Ivory tower academic, T'Laren thought with a touch of anger. Was she supposed to put his private life on display in front of all these people? The reason he couldn't do it was that if he was close to his time, and unbonded, he might reach to invade a nearby woman's mind-- probably Sovaz, as she was his choice-- and force a link. It was ordinarily very difficult for one Vulcan to force a link on another, though that didn't stop a man lost in the throes of pon farr from trying-- but with the link it would be child's play. If T'Laren could have been seriously tempted to read Q's mind, Stamor would never be able to resist bonding with Sovaz. She switched to Old High Vulcan so at least only the Vulcans here would understand her. "Thee art unbonded."

He blinked at her. "What?"

"You don't speak the High Speech?"

"Only one or two formal words. I have not had occasion in my life to learn."

T'Laren thought all Vulcans knew at least the basic grammar and the words for bonding in Old High Vulcan, and judging from the slight puzzlement she saw in the others, she knew they were bemused by his ignorance as well. But then, Stamor was a physicist. "We must speak in private," she told him, and pulled him aside.

Once they were a sufficient distance from the gathering, she explained to him in the barest of whispers why he could not risk it. He argued with her, a little more loudly than he should have, as if it truly didn't shame him for others to know he was close to his time. Perhaps he, too, was raised by humans. Or wolves, maybe. T'Laren pulled her trump card. "As ba'shel to Sovaz, I say your plan is too dangerous to my kinswoman. I shall not allow it. And as a psychologist, and the closest thing to an expert on psionic amplification next to Q that we have, and the only person here who's used the device, I am eminently qualified to do so."

Stamor was furious with her. He controlled it well enough that a human couldn't have read him, but T'Laren saw the rage in his eyes, and knew any of the other Vulcans would see it as well.

But then, what did she care? If he shamed himself by showing his emotions so openly, what was that to her? She walked back to the gathering to find T'Para and Dhawan attempting to talk Sovaz out of using the device.

"I am the logical alternative," Sovaz was arguing. "My telepathic rating is not the equivalent of my sister's, but T'Laren is less disciplined than I am, and more inclined to flights of fancy. In addition, my mother yet lives, and I am familiar with the touch of her mind, as T'Laren, who lost her mother in early childhood, could not be."

For a moment T'Laren felt a sickening humiliation. So Sovaz turned on her too, calling her undisciplined and given to fancy? And then logic reasserted itself. Sovaz was merely speaking the truth, and it probably did not even occur to her that she was embarrassing T'Laren.

"Sovaz, you don't have the experience with using telepathy that your sister clearly does," T'Para said. T'Laren interpreted this as "Sovaz, you aren't a pervert like your sister," though she had to admit T'Para was doing a good job of keeping all traces of the revulsion she must feel out of her demeanor, even sounding sympathetic.

"Someone must if we're to learn anything at all about this," Sovaz said. "T'Laren's experience proves nothing if it is not replicated."

"You could get hurt," Dhawan pointed out. "T'Laren had some kind of bad reaction; we don't know what might happen to you."

"I'm a Starfleet officer," Sovaz said, as if she expected this to end the argument. And, clearly, she was right. No one raised any objections as she seated herself in the chair.

"Sovaz!" T'Laren called before she pulled the helmet down. "You must swear not to touch any minds that have not willingly opened to you."

"Of course," Sovaz said, as if this went without saying.

T'Laren shook her head. "You must swear it. Say the words." The Vulcan psyche had a much harder time with breaking an explicit promise than an implicit one, and she knew Sovaz would need the protection of an oath to keep her out of unauthorized heads.

"Is this really necessary?" Dhawan asked. "She's not a child, T'Laren."

"I am not speaking as her former sister-in-law, but as one who has used the device," T'Laren said frostily.

"My oath as a Starfleet officer and my word as a Vulcan that I will invade no unwilling minds," Sovaz said. "There, that should do it." She pulled the helmet down over her head.

"What are you sensing?" Q asked.

Sovaz' eyes took on an unfocused quality. "Fascinating... I understand why T'Laren made me swear that oath. I have such power... the temptation to use it, to learn everything everyone knows, is incredible."

"Don't lose it," Dhawan warned. "You're here for a reason."

"I haven't forgotten," Sovaz said. "I'm reaching toward the barrier now... Oh."

And a slow smile spread across her face, eerie to see on an adult Vulcan. That was how she herself must have looked, T'Laren thought. "Sovaz, do you sense T'Rafi?"

"No, not at all. But I am definitely sensing a presence."

"Characterize the presence," Markow demanded.

"I sense overwhelming curiosity," Sovaz said. "And... hospitality... no, that's not quite it. The presence... is eager to learn about us... to befriend us. The hand of friendship extended... and a sense... controlled excitement. It's pleased to be in contact with us... excited about the possibilities..." Sovaz' voice betrayed her own excitement, too lost in her explorations to maintain proper control.

"That's it," Q said. "Sovaz, characterize your own feelings toward the presence."

"Feelings?" She blinked at him. "I'm a Vulcan."

"Oh don't give me that."

"Give you what?"

"Never mind. You must be projecting something at the presence. What are you sending?"

"I am communicating... friendship. We mean no harm. We seek amicable relations and mutual exploration--"

"Are you feeling curious?"

"To the extent that curiosity can be described as an emotion, I suppose you could say I am feeling that--"

"How about excitement?"

"Q, your experiences with T'Laren may have led you to a misconception about Vulcans, but we don't get excited."

"Never mind that. I have enough anyway." He grinned broadly. "I don't know why you people can't recognize yourselves, and I haven't a clue why T'Laren would think her own self was her mother, but that's what you're doing. Your psionic energies are reflecting off the barrier, and you're reading yourselves."

"Myself?" Sovaz frowned slightly. "This doesn't seem like myself..."

"It doesn't?" Q asked, seeming slightly deflated.

"Q." T'Laren had something now, knowing him. "Do the Q ever have occasions to mentally contact themselves? Across time, for instance, or something?"

"Not across time, but of course we do. An individual Q can split himself up into multiple entities if he wants; any Q who does that, and doesn't have the ability to recognize his own self down to the deepest levels of his psyche, will never reintegrate himself again. Our defenses against integrating with other Qs are too strong."

"So you would recognize yourself, if you had your powers and tried to read the barrier."

"Yes, of course."

"Mortal telepaths can't segment our minds like that, Q. A humanoid who divides his mind loses the ability to reintegrate it at will; the divided selves feel like other people, and to reintegrate feels like death to all of them."

"You can't?"

"So none of us have any experience with contacting our own minds. However, Sovaz seems to have described her own subjective sensations quite well in describing the presence. As for me... there's a theory that all mammalian infants experience some confusion of the mother with the self, and this is well-documented in the case of Vulcan infants. The developing telepathic centers receive the mother's thoughts, such that Vulcans actually carry racial memories, passed through the maternal line. The only time in my-- or any Vulcan's-- life when I might have experienced something akin to contacting myself is when I was an infant, reading my mother's mind. And because my mother died when I was very young, I never had an opportunity to meld with her as a whole, developed personality myself... so if I contact myself, it triggers those buried memories, and I subconsciously analogize it to the only similar experience I've had, touching my mother. However, Sovaz has melded with her mother since becoming a developed personality, so she could not associate this sensation with her infant memories of her mother, as she has learned since that her mother is not her self. So she cannot jump to the conclusions my subconscious did, and instead perceives the actual personality characteristics she herself is projecting as if they come from another entity."

"Of course this is all speculation," Dhawan said. "You didn't come up with this theory until Q had already revealed what we were supposed to be seeing."

T'Laren nodded. "True. Unfortunately, Q is no expert on mortal psychology, so I suppose it was inevitable. However, a possibility occurs to me." She turned to Q. "You would recognize your own mind if you encountered it, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, but I wouldn't encounter it."

"What if you used the device?"

He stared at her. "I'm not a telepath."

"No, you're not. But humans aren't psi-nulls, either. All humans have a slight amount of psionic ability, and you are a normal human in that respect. If the device allows me to become as powerful as I did, it might enable you to behave as an active telepath."

She didn't quite understand Q's expression. He was looking at her with something akin to fear. "There's no way I could reach the barrier, even if it did make me telepathic."

"We don't know that. Q, I don't think reaching the barrier was actually a stretch for me."

He shook his head rapidly-- definitely frightened. "It would be bad science. I know what the theory is supposed to be-- it's my theory, after all. No one would believe it. It wouldn't prove anything."

"It might be interesting in its own right," Markow said. "If you gave an ordinary human the ability to access telepathic powers, I'd imagine there would be some sort of learning curve that might be a problem. But you have some experience using telepathy, so one presumes you'd know what you were doing. It might be interesting to see what the device does for humans."

"It might also be interesting to give you the ability to walk-- for five minutes-- and then take it away from you again," Q snapped at Markow, and finally T'Laren understood why he was so upset.

Dhawan stared at him. "You know, I knew you were unbelievably rude, but I don't think I realized quite how bad you are until just now," she said. "That was totally uncalled for."

"Actually, it wasn't," Markow said. "He's right. I should have known better."

Q was getting more and more agitated. "This whole thing was a mistake," he said. He turned off the machine, pulled down a panel, and reached inside.

"What are you doing?" Sovaz asked.

"Disabling the machine," he said. He straightened up. "This device is entirely too dangerous to be left in the hands of lowly creatures like yourselves. I've just pulled out a handful of leads, and I'm the only one who knows how to reconnect them. Someone else could theoretically do it, I imagine, but they run a serious risk of getting it wrong and making the machine melt down while they;re using it, which would produce some rather crispy brains, I would imagine."

"I agree," T'Para said. "The temptation to use this would be too dangerous."

"So none of this proves anything?" Dhawan asked.

"It looks to me like it indicates we're on the right track," Malo said. "I checked an hour ago with Commander Mariani, and the engineers are almost done configuring the clockwork probe." T'Laren remembered from discussions she'd overheard that it was Malo's idea to use clockwork in the first place. Somehow it didn't strike her as at all odd that the first scientist to think of such a distinctly low-tech solution would be a Bajoran.

"When will it be ready to use?" Q asked.

"Two days, she said."

Q nodded, and looked at Dhawan. "When that probe goes through, that's when you'll have your incontrovertible answers, my dear."

After the conference broke up and everyone returned to their quarters or did whatever they usually did whenever they weren't at the conference, T'Laren noticed Q being unusually subdued. "I'm sorry about putting you on the spot like that," she said. "I should have realized you wouldn't want to use the device yourself."

"Oh, I wanted to," he said. "When you told me there was some possibility it might at least let me have my telepathy back, if nothing else... it certainly wasn't that I didn't want to."

"Then why didn't you?"

"For the same reason I don't want to take euphorics." He stared at the carpet. "I could be so easily addicted to a crutch like that. And the moment I was, someone would use that to enslave me. They've tried to enslave me, or at least control me, with everything I enjoy. What would they do if I was actually addicted to something?"

She didn't point out that in her opinion he had already been dependent on sedatives and painkillers. There was a distinction between the medical dependency he suffered from, the fact that he had conditioned himself to require sedatives before sleeping and run up such a high tolerance to painkillers that he needed megadoses, and a powerful psychological dependency, like a device that could make him a telepath. "Based on what you know of humans and of psionic amplification, do you think it would have worked?"

"Not to get me anywhere near the barrier, no. But to make me a telepath? Yes, I think it could have." He looked at her. "Do you know what it's like to be deaf to your native language?" There was almost a pleading note to his voice.

"No, I can't say I do. Is that what it feels like to you?"

"Speech is incredibly clumsy." He gestured. "Even your body language-- well, humans' body language, you people don't have a body language-- doesn't carry enough of the overtones. We speak on so many levels of speech at once, with your mortal speech translating as only the most superficial upper layer. To be limited only to that-- it's like you're used to hearing symphonies, and now all the music you get is someone singing a cappella. Off-key."

"And yet you're afraid of telepathy."

"I'm afraid of other people's telepathy. If I were a telepath, I wouldn't be frightened." He looked at her hard. "Did you read my mind today?"

"No. I found it enormously, almost overwhelmingly tempting," she admitted, "but I managed to restrain myself. Did you know that would happen?"

"I hadn't a clue." He sagged. "I knew about psionic amplification. I knew what it could do. And I still built the damned thing. I'm going to toss it in the warp core-- it's way too dangerous."

"You couldn't have known."

"I could have. I should have; in a way, I even did. I've seen what happens to mortals when you grant them superior powers. If you Vulcans didn't make a religion of self-control, we'd probably all be bowing down and worshipping you and Sovaz now."

"Is there any danger that someone might be able to repair the device, and use it?"

"Dhawan had Washington put a handful of goons on guard around the thing, and like I said, if you don't know how to reconnect the leads you have something like a 96% chance of frying the machine or yourself or both. So I'd say not." He slumped back in the chair, closing his eyes, one arm thrown over his forehead. "Still, tomorrow I think I'm going to dispose of it. It'll be safe for tonight, but the longer the temptation exists..." He opened his eyes and sat up slightly, looking at her. "T'Laren, I don't even know if I can resist the temptation of that thing indefinitely."

"Do you want me to accompany you when you go to destroy it?"

"Can I trust you?"

She considered. "If the device really had had the ability to contact the dead, and I truly was able to make contact with my natural mother... then no. Since that's not the case, however, I feel no desire to use the device again. That kind of power simply doesn't interest me-- certainly it was thrilling and tempting while I had it, but now... I search my mind for an emotional reaction to the idea of using it again, and find only uneasiness. So I suspect I'm as safe as is possible."

He nodded. "All right, then. You can back me up..." He sounded very, very weary.

"You've had a strenuous day. Why don't you get some rest?"

Q got up without arguing with her. He'd argued this particular point less and less often, of late. "Good idea," he said tiredly. "I'll see you whenever."

She remained in the common room, reading, for another half hour before the doorbell chimed.

Stamor stood at the door, looking as agitated as a Vulcan ever got. "I must speak with you."

T'Laren stepped back to let him in. "About what?"

He was carrying a device of some kind, which was humming. T'Laren glanced down at it. "What is that?"

"It's something for Q. I need to show it to him."

"He's asleep at the moment."

"I thought that might be the case." Stamor set the device down on a table. "He isn't the only person I've come here to see."

"I have discussed the issue with Sovaz. She wishes you to speak with her parents before she makes a decision."

"I see. You have my thanks."

He came uncomfortably close to her as he spoke. Surprised, T'Laren backed away slightly, but more by unconscious instinct than any real fear. She didn't move to defend herself until Stamor suddenly lunged at her, and by then it was too late.

A hand came down on her shoulder. T'Laren twisted wildly, trying to pull away before his hand closed on the nerves, but didn't get far. His fingers missed the correct point and hit her millimeters off instead. She slumped, numb, stunned but not unconscious.

Stamor flung her down, and then apparently seemed to think twice about it. He bent, his hands reaching for her temples in the pattern of a meld. Terror seared through her-- he was going to attempt to mindrape her! And yet, along with the terror was a fierce fury and exhilaration. Her body was useless, stunned by the nerve pinch, but her mind, though clouded, was still her own. And she was a powerful telepath, experienced with melds under hostile conditions. He was moving the battle from the arena where he'd already defeated her to the one where she still had a chance of success.

Cold fire pressed against her temples, a burning that made the world recede, as she felt an alien presence touch her mind. T'Laren didn't wait for him to invade. She launched her mind forward, pushing past the barriers he was already lowering in preparation for invading her, invading his mind.

"Adral tr'Sahlassiu, do you understand that if you take this mission it will be decades before you can return to the Romulan Empire?"

"I do, Commander," the young Tal Shiar said. "I'm honored."

Telepath, throwback, his appearance more Vulcan than Romulan, at last Adral had found some way to serve his Empire as a true Romulan and make use of the traits that had made him a misfit. The Tal Shiar recruited any throwbacks or half-bloods with Vulcan parents that they could find, and gave them a chance to serve the Empire with their telepathic gifts. And Adral was a brilliant physicist as well, something the Tal Shiar had encouraged, since it gave him a perfect cover. Make him into a Vulcan scientist, child of far-flung colonists to explain his occasional ineptitude with Vulcan traditions. He could get close to the best and brightest of the Federation, and in a moment of privacy, rape their minds and drain all they knew. Then wipe their memories of the assault... or, if his superiors deemed that the intended victim was entirely too dangerous to the Federation to live, kill them. Three cerebral hemorrhages had occurred to scientists known to Stamor the Vulcan, but two were aged and therefore no suspicion was cast.

T'Laren recoiled in horror from the truths she absorbed from the spy's mind. The Tal Shiar telepaths were a nightmare of hers. Stories were told of secret Romulan breeding projects to create more telepaths by raping captive Vulcans and raising their offspring to be loyal Romulans. While she'd been on Romulus, that had been her fear-- not for her life, which any spy could lose if caught, but that she would be mindraped, and drugged with the potions that caused pleasurable lust in Romulans and maddening need in Vulcans, and then raped and forced to bear children who would be willing slaves of the Romulan Empire. When she'd first touched his mind and sensed what he was, that was what she'd feared-- why else would a Vulcanoid male assault a woman and force a mindmeld on her? But then the rest of it had come to her, and she'd realized she'd misread the danger entirely.

She was not Stamor/Adral tr'Sahlassiu's target. Q was.

*You are his psychologist. I need to know how to break him-- his knowledge is far too great for me to absorb in one session. I need to make him pliable, rewrite his desires so he wishes me to meld with him and take what I need. If anyone knows where his vulnerabilities are, it would be you.*

And that was why he had come to her, courting Sovaz. To give him an excuse to come in to her while Q was asleep. The existence of the telepathic amplifier had forced his hand; he hadn't intended to come at her today, but he feared that she would persuade Q to repair the device, and that she'd see his intentions in his mind. He had had to strike before that.

I'll give you no such information, T'Laren snarled back at him, battering at the Romulan's mind, trying to force him back.

*If you don't give me the information I need, then he's too dangerous for me to let live for a second session. I'll have to kill him.* He showed her graphic images of the last three he'd killed, the look of agony on their faces when they died, the pain of their brains exploding.

Q would rather die than be your slave, I'm sure.

It should have been easy for her. The meld had already taken place; they were each inside each other's minds, vulnerable to one another. But she had trained to meld with aliens while holding her own psyche intact to facilitate communication-- not to engage in telepathic combat. tr'Sahlassiu, on the other hand, was adept at breaking the minds of others. Even Vulcans.

He forced his way through her defenses, looking for her memories of Q, and she couldn't stop him. She couldn't stop him.

T'Laren withdrew from the mental violation, pulling her ego back from the meld, and focused instead on her body. It was almost impossible for a Vulcan to make herself move during a meld, unless it was in the context of sex when instinct took over, but T'Laren had done it before in her Starfleet career. With all the force she possessed, she commanded her body to shove tr'Sahlassiu and get to her feet.

She was sluggish, weak, but he was entirely lost in the world of the mind. He sensed nothing until her hands shoved him back, breaking the contact between them, and with it, the link. T'Laren struggled to her feet. "Q! Get help!" she screamed.

With the link broken, tr'Sahlassiu had full control of his own body, however, since he hadn't been nerve-pinched before. With no finesse, he hit her, slamming her head back against the wall. Already dazed, T'Laren had no opportunity to protect herself. She struck the wall, and then everything went dark.

In his room, Q was wakened by T'Laren's shout. "Q! Get help!"

Get help for what? he thought groggily. And then he heard the thwack of a fist against skin and bone, and the solid thud of a skull hitting something much harder than it was, and nothing more from T'Laren. Terror awakened him fully. There was an assassin out there, trying to get in to kill him, and T'Laren might very well already be dead.

"Computer! Lock door!" Q shouted.

"Unable to comply. Requested circuits inaccessible."

"What?" Q grabbed his combadge. "Q to Security, help!"

Still no reply. A terrified moan choked in Q's throat. The assassin had cut him off somehow. What a fool he'd been to leave Starbase 56! The security of this place was hardly geared around protecting him the way Starbase 56's was. He threw the covers aside and ran to his terminal. Once, on the starbase, assassins had brought down the computer's ability to process voice commands, but it still had been possible to use the keyboard. He had managed to summon help while a security guard held the assassins off in the other room. Perhaps that would work here.

Q used the keyboard to invoke the command processor, and quickly typed in code to transmit a message to the intercom of the security offices. Before he was finished, however, the door slid open, and one of the Vulcan scientists-- Stamor, the one who'd had a tantrum because T'Laren wouldn't let him test the amplifier-- stood there.

The terminal was entirely too close to the door. Q abandoned it, his code half-typed, knowing there was no way he could send a message in time, and backed away. "Let me guess," he said shakily. "You want me to put your name on the paper when it's published."

Stamor said something in a language Q didn't know. This time, he heard the faint click of the door locking. "If you don't resist me, I won't hurt you," Stamor said, coming forward.

"Oh, right. You'll just kill me painlessly. No thank you." He backed around the bed, eyes flickering over the room, looking for something he could use as a weapon. Maybe he could slip past the Vulcan, who probably wasn't a Vulcan after all, and run. Or something. He had to do something. He had just decided life was worth living, it was so unfair, why did he have to face an assassin now? Why couldn't one have come two months ago, when he'd wanted to die?

"I'm not here to kill you. I only want what's in your mind."

"The psionic amplifier."

"That, and other things. I'll have no need to kill you if you cooperate with me."

The offer was not tempting. Q was far more afraid of having his mind invaded than he was of dying. And the thought occurred to him that whoever this person was, if he wasn't an assassin then he probably didn't come from a highly technologically advanced species; he was probably Federation-level or less. And if he was telling the truth, then he wanted Q's knowledge, which made it all the more imperative that he not get it. Q had a responsibility not to let himself be used to destabilize the petty mortal politics of the quadrant, even if he'd owed no loyalty to the Federation at all.

"Somehow that is not the most reassuring thing I've ever heard," Q said, using bravado to keep himself from screaming in terror or begging for mercy. He could see only one possible way out. Stamor was following him around the bed, and would have backed him into a corner in moments. Right now, though, Stamor was not in Q's most direct path to the door-- he was coming around the bed, and if Q went across the bed, he might be able to reach the other side before Stamor could get to him. And maybe the door wasn't really locked. Maybe he'd just imagined that noise.

Q leapt onto the bed, took a step forward, and started to leap off the other side. Stamor grabbed at his leg, tripping him, so Q ended up flying off the bed and toward the floor head first. Some of T'Laren's training took over, and he managed to twist his body so that he hit the floor with his hands and chest instead of his head. He got to his feet as fast as he possibly could, long experience with trying to get up and run while being beaten up serving him in good stead, but Stamor was in front of him now and pushed him back. Impossibly strong hands grasped Q's wrists, pinning him, shoving him back so the bed caught him in the backs of the legs.

"HELP! Help me, please! Someone, anyone, help!"

"They can't hear you," Stamor said. "There's a forcefield around this room that disrupts communications. There's no one to hear you but T'Laren, and she's beyond hearing anyone."

T'Laren was dead. Oh no, no. And then Stamor bent him backwards, pushing him against the bed. Q screamed at the strain on his back as he was bent in a direction his stiff muscles emphatically did not want to go. "Please stop, please, my back, please it hurts it hurts--"

And then he had fallen back onto the bed, his back shrieking, with Stamor lying on top of him in an entirely too intimate position, one hand reaching for Q's temples as the other kept his wrists cruelly pinned against the bed. Q struggled, screaming, frantic with terror, but even though his wrists were actually too wide for Stamor to hold in one hand, the Vulcanoid's strength was enough to keep one pinned on top of the other, crushing them, and without his hands, Q had no leverage to push Stamor away from him, though he was physically bigger than the other man.

The fingertips against his temples felt like fire-- a cold fire, that spread through his body and numbed it unpleasantly. He felt the sense of a presence touching his psyche, where only other Q had ever touched him before. GET OUT!!

To his shock and amazement, the presence cut off behind a barrier. Q remembered T'Laren and Markow speculating that a human who had once wielded telepathic power would have some idea what he was doing-- they hadn't said, "perhaps enough to shield himself," but now Q thought of it. He had millenia of experience trying to keep his fellow Q out of his head. Maybe he could protect himself against this mental rapist, after all. If he could only hang on long enough for help to arrive-- surely they would notice an alien forcefield on their ship-- Picard's crew would have--

--And what if it took them too long?

I won't think about that, I won't...

*You should,* a distant voice came from outside his shield. *They'll never sense it in time. It hides itself from their sensors. Give in to me, and I won't kill you.*

That's still not a very tempting offer, Q retorted, strengthening his shields. They were like certain muscles, whose tightness couldn't be accurately judged unless they were closing around a solid object. He imagined them as a barrier, firming them against the invasion from outside.

Stamor battered at Q's shields, using no finesse at all, nothing but raw telepathic power, and horrified, Q felt his defenses starting to crumble. They'd never been designed to keep out people with more raw power than he had, after all. Terrified, he channelled all his terror at the shields, all his formidable willpower at a single, overriding imperative. Keep out of my head!

But he couldn't withstand the sheer power Stamor had to turn against him. His shields weakened, weakened, and finally crumbled entirely, and he felt the triumphant invasion of his mind as if it really were akin to a rape. NO! He tried to push the invader back out, but all his strength had gone to his shields, and now that they were broken he had no way to keep the other out of his head.

You fight well, for a non-telepath. But you have to realize, I'm much more powerful than you are. Why not just relax and give in? You're only hurting yourself by resisting.

This far into his own mind was past the level of surface speech, the level where Q would use flip defiance to protect himself. His response was a wave of raw emotion and thoughtform. disgusting filthy mortal creature how dare you invade MY mind! MINE! get out, get out, GET OUT!

You're mortal yourself. Helpless to resist me. You don't have the power to protect yourself, you're now even lowlier than I am, you deserve this for losing your powers. The litany repeated softly into the depths of Q's mind, trying to break him, trying to make him believe it. The worst of it was that part of him did.

Grimly Q continued to resist, this time by the elaborate feints and misdirections he'd use against the Continuum, or against his older siblings when he was young and hadn't the raw power they had. He tangled his assailant in false leads. He took the battle to his attacker, reaching into the other's mind-- apparently his own lack of active telepathy meant nothing now that the other's telepathy had forced a link-- and going for the jugular, evoking the worst memories in the young man's memory. A Tal Shiar officer had many memories that haunted his nightmares. Q found them and flung them at the Romulan's ego, using them as a shield as he hid his own memories in a maze of false trails.

None of it did him any good. The Romulan's sheer power bulldozed through most of Q's traps. It took a long time, or what felt like a long time-- Q had spent millennia doing this, after all, and was better skilled at defending himself than any of the Romulan's other victims had been. He picked up that thought from his assailant's mind, and the brief flash of pride and hope it gave him bolstered him for a moment. But eventually he was exhausted, panting, run to ground in the mazes of his own mind, and the relentless stalker was on top of him, probing him. Seeking out his memories, invading the most private sanctuary he had, and he couldn't resist anymore. He had fought as long and as hard as he could, and now he had no strength left.

Quickly the invader moved from Q's personal memories to his knowledge, began reading through it, while Q's battered ego huddled in a tiny corner of his mind, keeping as much of himself away from the attacker as possible. Intellectually he knew that his personal memories were less valuable, that the real danger lay in letting the Romulan have access to his knowledge, but emotionally it felt like a small mercy, that the parts of him important to him were no longer being violated. He had some dim sense that the man intended to kill him when he was done, leakage from the Romulan's own psyche. Defeated, he curled his psyche into as tight and small a knot as he could manage, and waited, despairing, for the end.

And then there was what seemed to him like a bright light flaring across his consciousness. Just for a nanosecond, he felt a sense of Presence, as familiar to him as his own mind. And then he was once more conscious of his physical body, blearily, as he stared up at a blurry ceiling and heard someone screaming.

There was a flare of phaser light, and voices. Weakly Q turned his head toward the door. Lt. Washington, three security guards, and a very short male humanoid in medical blues who looked rather like a potato with legs were coming through what remained of his door. Someone was still screaming. He looked down-- a painful thing to do; his back screamed in protest that he would dare move-- and saw the Romulan on the floor, holding his head and shrieking. Green trickled out of the man's nose and ears and from his lip.

The short man pointed a scanner at Q. "He looks mostly unhurt," he reported, and knelt next to the Romulan, whom the security team were all holding phasers on. "But this one's dying. Cerebral hemorrhage."

"Can you save him?"

"I can ease his pain-- he's in agony. But there's nothing I can do to keep him alive."

And then the Romulan shuddered, let out a final exhalation, and went silent.

"Are you all right, Q? Can you get up?" Washington asked.

He tried to sit up, and fell back in pain-- not just from his back, but an unexpected agony in his head, like the worst migraine he'd ever had. "Lie still," the short man said, and pressed a hypo against Q's neck. "That should take enough of the pain off that you can get to Sickbay."

Q tried to sit up again. This time the pain in his back was less, and felt removed, as if he were wrapped in blankets against it. "They saved me," he whispered, stunned and grateful. There were already tears in his eyes from terror and pain; new ones welled now, but these were of reverential and disbelieving gratitude.

"Who saved you, Q?" Washington asked.

"My people... they saved me..."

He was certain of it. They'd caused the Romulan's death because the man was about to kill Q. They'd saved his life. They really did care about him after all. It was too much for him, after the horror of the assault and the pain he was still feeling in his head, a throbbing migraine headache, and he began to cry softly. The Q loved him. They had saved his life. They wanted him to live and earn his way back to them after all.

"We need to get you to sickbay," the doctor said. "Do you think you can walk?"

He nodded, still crying. But when he tried to stand, the world spun around him, and he sat down again, dizzily. "I need help," he said, and then thought of T'Laren, who always helped him at times like this. And then remembered that the telepath had said T'Laren was dead.

"T'Laren! Where is she? Is she--"

"She's alive and recovering in the other room, but she's taken a nasty bump to the head. She needs to go to sickbay too."

"Oh..." Q wasn't quite sure he believed that. Maybe they were saying that to make him feel better because he'd had a shock. "I want to see her."

"Help him into the other room," Washington told one of his security guards.

The man wrapped Q's arm over his shoulder and stood, supporting Q as he tried to stand himself. The world still spun dizzily, but with support he could manage it without falling back down again. It was not the first time Q had needed help walking, and he was reasonably practiced at letting the other take a good portion of his weight while he navigated his way painstakingly into the other room.

T'Laren was leaning against the wall, seated on the floor, eyes closed. There was a massive greenish-black bruise running along the side of her cheek and temple, with some of it extending onto her forehead. "T'Laren?" Q said fearfully. She looked unconscious, perhaps even dead.

Her eyes opened, flooding him with relief. "Q! Are you all right?" she asked hoarsely.

"Fine. Never better." He made his way over to her and let the security guard let him down on the floor next to her. "That's quite an unsightly bruise you've got there."

Her hand reached up and touched it lightly. "I hadn't noticed," she said. "It's probably worse than it looks. I have a mild concussion and my sense of balance is impaired, which is why I'm sitting on the floor. What happened? I heard someone screaming..."

Q felt himself smiling, almost without volition, his eyes stinging with happy tears again. "He's dead," he said. "T'Laren, they saved me."


"No! The Continuum. They saved me, T'Laren. He was going to kill me, and they blasted his brain into so much cerebral jelly. They really do..." he cut off. It was acceptable to say to T'Laren, "They really do care about me," but it was entirely too much to reveal in front of a security guard.

She put her hand on his arm, gently. "I thought he would kill you," she said softly.

He interpreted that as not wanting to use emotional phrases like "and I was frightened for you" or "I'm glad he didn't" in front of the security guard herself-- she might be a Vulcan pervert, but she didn't want to let the entire starship see how weird she was, he thought. He held the hand on his arm, warmed by the gesture and feeling as if he might start crying again, which was unacceptable. It was idiotic of him to be crying anyway. He hadn't been hurt-- well, not badly anyway, though his back and head still ached and he still felt too dizzy to walk under his own power. Not nearly as badly as he could have been hurt. And the man who'd violated his mind was dead, and he'd had a sign in the form of that death that his own people still cared for him and were watching out for him. Why should he be crying?

The doctor came into the room then, followed by Washington and the other guards. "How do you feel, either of you?" he asked.

"As well as can be expected," T'Laren said. "I believe I have a concussion, but I don't think it's serious."

"You do, and I'll have to be the judge of that. Q, what about you?"

"Perfectly happy. Except I have a headache. Can I have some more painkillers?"

The doctor ran the scanner over him again. "Oh my. This is not good at all." He tapped his combadge. "Three to transport to sickbay, immediately."

Before Q could ask what the problem was, he felt the disorientation of a transporter beam sweep over him and deposit him in Sickbay, still seated on the floor. A nurse helped him to his feet and got him onto a bed, lying down. Now he was starting to get a little bit frightened. "What's wrong with me?" he demanded.

"Amalyzine," the doctor said. Someone handed him a hypo, so Q presumed that that was not an answer to his question. The doctor pressed it to his neck-- and the headache disappeared within seconds.

"You were very close to suffering a cerebral hemorrhage yourself," the doctor told him. "The migraine headache you were suffering from after your attack was the result of leakage from your assailant's mind building up a potential aneurysm in the blood vessels of your brain when he died; essentially, whatever killed him came very, very close to killing you too. If he hadn't broken the connection between your minds when he did, you would have died-- and if we hadn't caught it in time, you might have suffered a stroke later tonight anyway."

At first, Q's only emotional reaction to the words was a feeling that once again, he'd had a close call. Then the meaning sank home, the meaning that the doctor couldn't know, and it was like a wash of liquid nitrogen in his veins, far too cold and painful to be mere ice. Whatever had killed the Romulan had almost killed him... he might have died tonight without treatment...

They hadn't cared. They had acted to kill the Romulan, not to save Q but to prevent his knowledge from being spread to lesser races without his control. What sort of fool was he, to believe they had killed the man to protect him? They hadn't tried to stop the Romulan's actions by killing Q, no, but they hadn't cared if that was the result. He might have died if the Romulan hadn't broken contact right then, might have died anyway, and they simply hadn't cared.

The revelation, on top of the emotional trauma he'd suffered tonight, and after he'd believed so strongly that the Romulan's death meant the Continuum still loved him, was too much. He closed his eyes and curled up tightly on the bed, ignoring the pain in his back, wanting very much to be dead.

"Q?" T'Laren said. He opened his eyes, looking over at where she was seated on the other bed. "Q, are you all right?"

He didn't want to talk to her. He wanted nothing to do with anyone. "I'm tired," he said dully. Saying he was fine would just mean more poking and prodding from her.

"All right," she said, nodding and turning her attention back to the doctor working on her. That infuriated him. He had wanted her not to pry, but now that she wasn't, he felt as if she was paying no attention, that she didn't care about his pain. Fine. Let her not care. He had never really needed her anyway. He closed his eyes again and pressed his face into the pillow, stifling a sob. He couldn't cry in public, in front of doctors. He didn't need that kind of humiliation.

"Q, does your back still hurt?" someone asked him.

He opened his eyes to see a female nurse, or maybe a very junior doctor-- in Starfleet, where medical personnel often spent their internship as nurses and then graduated to being full doctors when they were promoted to lieutenants, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference. "Does it matter?" he said, his voice still dull.

"Of course it matters," she said. "Here. Lie on your stomach."

He still didn't see much of a point-- he hurt, and he should hurt, because life as a human was pain and he'd just been informed that his particular life was meaningless to the only people that mattered. But he did it, since he didn't feel like arguing, and since it didn't matter anyway. Having his back fixed would also hurt, probably more than the injury did. T'Laren was the only person who'd ever bothered to fix his back without hurting him.

The woman took some sort of instrument-- he saw it in his peripheral vision, and tensed despite himself, expecting pain-- and held it to his back. He heard a humming, and to his vast surprise, felt a pleasurable vibration deep within the muscles, felt them loosening, without any pain at all. "What are you doing?"

"It's a sonic massager," the nurse said cheerfully. "That doesn't hurt, does it?"

He thought about lying and saying it did, but there didn't seem to be much point to it. She probably wouldn't stop if it did hurt, and anyway, despite his depression it did feel good, and he didn't think he'd have had the energy to try to make her stop even if it had hurt. "No."

"That's good. You seem to have strained the muscles in your lower back pretty badly. This will relax them, and then we'll use a deep protoplaser to help them heal faster. But they have to be relaxed first, or the protoplaser will cause them to heal up tighter than they should be, and you'd have trouble relaxing them afterward."

The explanation made him feel a tiny bit better. Li had never bothered to explain anything to him. Medical procedures had simply been performed on him, some of them painful, without any acknowledgement from Li that Q had either the intellect to understand what was going on or the right to make decisions about whether or not he wanted a particular procedure done. This was understandable when Q was dying from the latest assassination attempt, but not when he was aware and conscious and not in immediate danger of death. The fact that this nurse bothered to explain what she would do made him feel a little bit more valued. Which was good, because clearly the important people didn't value him at all, so he had to take whatever little scraps he could get.

T'Laren hadn't fully realized the extent to which she was disturbed by what had happened until Tris came down to sickbay to see her. Until that point, she was focused on Q and what he must be going through-- this was his worst nightmare come to life, after all. She had little time to think about what she herself had endured until the doctor was close to finished with her, and Tris came in. "T'Laren, are you all right? How do you feel?"

She examined her own feelings for the first time since the incident, and realized that what she felt was an overwhelming sense of frustration, rage and helplessness. It was worse than what she would have felt if she had been the assassin's only target. T'Laren had once been physically raped, one of the few people she knew who had been, due to her own carelessness on a non-aligned planet, on shore leave. The experience had left her angry and shaken and had inspired her to focus intently on unarmed combat techniques at the level a Security or Command officer needed to know rather than the level an aspiring Counselor was usually trained in. But it hadn't been like this, because she'd been the only person hurt by the experience. She hadn't gotten someone else hurt as well.

Once, she had counseled a lieutenant in security whose wife had endured the same thing, because she had had little combat training and he'd been defeated by the thugs that attacked them. He had handled the incident far worse than his wife; while she had put it past her as one of the dangers one faced when one left Earth and secure Federation worlds, he had been in agony because he was supposed to protect his wife, and he hadn't been able to. He had had the security training, he had been taught how to fight and bodyguard, and yet he had been beaten to near-senselessness and held down as his attackers took turns hurting the person he most wanted to protect. He had not been one of T'Laren's successes; despite all she tried to do for him, he eventually divorced his wife so she would never be hurt by his failures again and dropped out of Starfleet. At the time, T'Laren had had only an intellectual understanding of his pain, and had thought his reaction was extreme. Now she understood.

"Physically, I'm as well as can be expected."

"Which means you must be in agony."

It was a joke. She recognized that, but she was in no mood for humor. "No, the pain was moderate and responded easily to the mental disciplines. That much I can do. It is more..." She hesitated.

He sat down next to her, putting an arm around her waist. Such a little thing, the physical contact that in humans and Bajorans substituted for what Vulcans could get with the mind-bond, that had to serve as her substitute as well, she who was bonded to no one. "I couldn't stop him," she said softly. "All my training, all my skill, was essentially useless. I've been trained to fight, to defend myself against Romulans in particular, and I've always considered myself a better-than-fair telepath... and it was all nothing."

"You can't blame yourself, T'Laren. You've had some training, but attacking people and forcing himself into their minds was apparently this man's career. It's not reasonable to expect that you could have stopped him. And you did slow him down-- that's important. You might have saved Q's life by making tr'Sahlassiu fight you harder than he would have ordinarily had to."

It was the way that one comforted Vulcans-- one argued from logic. Unfortunately T'Laren had thought of all that herself already. "I understand all that. And if I had anywhere near the grasp of proper discipline that I should, the fact that there was, in all logic, no way I could have stopped him should prevent me from feeling as if I'd failed. But I find I cannot make myself stop feeling that way." She looked down. "As usual, I'm a spectacular failure as a Vulcan, whether or not I succeed at my career."

"So you're blaming yourself for failing to fight off an assassin that's much more experienced than you are, and you're blaming yourself for blaming yourself. That takes talent, T'Laren. Think you can get any more self-loathing out of the situation if you work hard at it?"

"You don't understand. I'm not alone, and I'm not the only one who will be hurt if I falter. I've taken on a responsibility to Q-- if I fail, he's the one who will pay the price."

"So if you're on a planet with him and the sun spontaneously goes nova, that's your fault? T'Laren, you're no more a god than he is now. You have an obligation to protect him to the best of your ability, but that ability simply doesn't include the ability to fight off trained Romulan telepathic assassins. Recognize when you're out of your league, and accept it."

"And if your people had recognized that the Cardassians were out of their league and accepted it, wouldn't you all still be their slaves?"

"Someone being out of your league doesn't mean you don't fight them. It just means you shouldn't blame yourself if you lose."

What he was saying was true, but T'Laren's feelings of failure didn't seem to want to respond to logic. Which, actually, was the best description of it. Surely she was capable of resisting this, and yet she seemed to be choosing to wallow in her pain.

As the nurse continued to work on him, Q heard T'Laren's voice, and Tris. What is he doing here? Q turned his head, to the point where it hurt his neck, to try to see what was happening.

T'Laren was still sitting on the bed. Tris was sitting right next to her, one arm around her, as she was speaking in a low voice. And Q felt an overwhelming sense of loss and fury.

She had turned to him for comfort. She had taken Q's statement that he was tired at face value, without probing any deeper, something she would have done at any other time, and she had turned to Tris for comfort instead of asking Q. After all the times that she had comforted him, he wanted to be the one to help her. Wasn't that what friends were for?

But they weren't friends. She had said so herself, again and again. She was merely his psychotherapist. If she gave him comfort, it was because it was her job, not because she cared about him, not because they were friends. And the proof of that sat in front of him, telling her it was perfectly normal to feel as she did, to stop beating herself up for not being able to hold to Vulcan standards when she hadn't been raised as Vulcans were, reassuring her. Tris was T'Laren's friend, the person she turned to when she needed someone. She would never ask a selfish emotional cripple to give her anything. She would never need anything from him.

No one, in fact, needed anything from him. Not even the Continuum, who couldn't care less if they accidentally killed him.

Q stared at T'Laren and Tris for several moments in a white-hot jealous rage. If he'd had the power to strike them dead with a thought, he would have.

This wasn't helping. As logical as Tris' words were, T'Laren couldn't make herself believe them. She looked up, over at Q, and stiffened slightly, startled. The expression on his face was one of betrayal and rage, as if he agreed with her that she had failed him.

Tris apparently noticed T'Laren's reaction and followed her eyes. As soon as Tris looked at him, Q turned away and pressed his face into his pillow.

He had to look away as soon as they noticed him, unwilling to let T'Laren or especially Tris see how much he was hurting. Q buried his face in his pillow as the nurse continued to work on his back, and concentrated very hard on not crying.

"T'Laren," Tris said quietly, too quietly for any but a Vulcan to hear, "you're having serious boundary problems here. You have got to talk to Q about this, or else stop seeing him as a client."

What was he talking about? T'Laren glanced at Tris. "He's angry with me for getting him hurt. I don't see how that is a boundary problem."

"You really don't see it, do you?"

"What do you see?"

"He's jealous, T'Laren. That look on his face was jealousy, pure and simple. And if he reacts like that to an old friend trying to comfort you, what is he going to do if you really do decide to pursue a relationship with someone?"

She shook her head, not in negation but in some amount of disbelief. "I've discussed this with Q. He's well aware that I am not going to become sexually involved with him, and while I believe he finds me physically attractive, he denies feeling any emotional connection to me beyond friendship. He knows this."

"He's also probably not being very rational right now. You don't normally make this mistake, T'Laren, but I think you're attributing more rationality to him than humans possess. You're either going to have to work with him on this a lot more... or it might be that he'll never be able to think rationally about this kind of thing. If he's in love with you and claiming he's not, he might not be able to deal with it in anything resembling a rational fashion. It might be that the only thing you can do is pull out."

"Why are you so eager to see me give up Q as a client?"

"Because I think he's dangerous to you. I think you're a lot closer to losing your objectivity than you think you are, if you haven't lost it entirely. And if you did end up falling in love with him... you have a bad habit of letting the men you love walk all over you, and the fact that Q is a lot more emotionally needy than Soram was will just ensure that you excuse everything he does on the grounds that he's not well. And he'll never get well, because you'll let him get away with being an inconsiderate asshole, and before you know it you'll be trapped in another abusive relationship. You deserve better than that, T'Laren."

"It isn't going to happen. Soram... I do not call what Soram did 'abuse'. He merely expected and needed me to be a normal Vulcan wife, and I was not. I cannot be vulnerable to a non-Vulcan in quite that way-- I let Soram 'walk on me', in your words, because I was trying to be a proper Vulcan and he knew how I should do it. I was following his guidance."

"You were miserable."

"That was hardly his fault. Most Vulcans live the way Soram asked me to, and are not at all miserable."

"So you've figured out how to blame yourself for the fact that your husband was cold, cruel and incapable of giving you what you needed."

"Who else is there to blame? If I hadn't tried so hard to walk the line between, hadn't tried to take what was valuable from both Earth and Vulcan instead of giving myself wholeheartedly to one or the other, I would have been a proper Vulcan and in no need of the things Soram could not give... or a human, for all my Vulcan blood, and I never would have married him in the first place. It was my choice to try to pick and choose, and Soram was the one who paid for it."

"He didn't seem to be that terribly broken up about it."

He was dead. I murdered him. The blood ran down my hands like emerald water, essence of life, flowing free... "You cannot understand."

"Because I'm not a Vulcan?"

"Because I haven't told you everything. And I won't, I can't, so don't ask. But I cannot give up Q as a patient because I fear some amorphous harm to me. Only if there is a threat to him can I stop, and I don't believe there is one yet." She looked at him. "Tris, in all other aspects of my life I find it hard to trust my own judgment, but I have looked long and hard and I think I am still unimpaired when it comes to my clients. You'll simply have to trust me."

"It's difficult when you don't trust yourself."

"I know."

The doctors recommended that both T'Laren and Q remain overnight for observation. Q could hardly make himself care enough to protest. He wanted only to sleep, to achieve oblivion and forget his misery.

Almost despite himself, he felt better in the morning. He didn't quite want to-- he had excellent reasons for being miserable, and he felt that by feeling better, he was somehow betraying himself. But he couldn't help it-- the morning did give distance. He had survived, as usual. The Continuum couldn't care less if he lived or died, but so what else was new? And T'Laren didn't want to confide in him-- well, when had she ever wanted to, and why would he want to anyway? Let someone else hold her hand. That wasn't his job.

The attack was a major topic of conversation at the conference. This irritated and flattered Q at the same time. He didn't want the prying questions, the expressions of sympathy, the constant buzz of reminder about the brutal attack-- and yet, it had been a long time since an attempt on his life had raised such a large and sympathetic stir. The scientists weren't jaded like the residents of Starbase 56 had become-- to them, this was a horrifying and singular event, the attempted assassination of one of their own, and there was an outpouring of support for Q and outrage that such a thing could happen here. In vain Washington and Wilde tried to explain how Stamor's credentials had been impeccable, how there had been no reasonable way to catch Romulan infiltrators with such a good cover short of subjecting all Vulcans to forced telepathic probes, which wouldn't go over very well with the Vulcans, and making everyone who wasn't a Vulcan undergo a detailed medical examination. Since the medical exams, at least, were a precaution Starbase 56 took, Q made life difficult for Washington and Wilde, pointing out in his best insolent drawl that if they were going to invite him to their silly little conference, the least they could do was keep him from getting killed during it with some elementary security precautions. For once, most of the scientists agreed with his position. Wilde squirmed quite entertainingly, almost enough to make the attack worth it.

Because Q was so used to these sort of attacks, he was able to fake a nonchalance he really didn't feel about the whole thing, making him look far braver than he actually was. It was truly gratifying to have his public persona appear to be a brave and strongwilled man who didn't blink at near-death experiences, rather than the whining coward everyone had thought him on Starbase 56. In his own mind, Q knew he was really the whining coward, but his stock in trade was making people believe he was something he wasn't, and it was quite wonderful how well it worked this time.

The other thing that got him a certain amount of kudos was his methodical destruction of his telepathy amplifier. In the end, he didn't ask T'Laren to lend him moral support; the desire to use the thing was entirely overwhelmed by the fear that someone would use it against him, as tr'Sahlassiu nearly had. He simply marched in there and started taking the thing apart. While few people openly praised him for this, Q was fairly sensitive to the image he was projecting, and well aware that to Federation minds, the idea of someone destroying a valuable technology to keep it out of the hands of someone who might misuse it was heroic. All in all, the boost to his image and the ego support he got more or less wiped out the feelings of despondency from yesterday. He just shoved aside and refused to think of his despair at the Continuum's disregard for his well-being, as he'd had to do most of his human life in order to keep functioning, and as for T'Laren, well who needed her to get all soppy with him anyway? She was hired help, and it wasn't his job to be nice to her-- rather it was hers to bolster him, and that was the way it should be, and that was the end of the matter.

T'Laren tried to draw him out, to talk to him about it, that night, but he had no desire to talk to her. He'd rendered himself quite vulnerable enough as it was. So he was flippant and cruel, and eventually she got the idea and stopped pestering him.

The next day, after modifications were complete, the probe was launched. The entire symposium ground to a halt; no one could really motivate themselves to do anything other than wait eagerly for the results, Q included. After so long waiting, it was almost an anticlimax when the probe returned-- almost, but not quite.

Everything Q had speculated was true. The probe had identified a quasar on the other side of the barrier, a quasar whose energy output seemed to be channelled almost entirely into a series of devices orbiting the quasar. There was also a planet, which, judging from the lights visible on its nightside, the hardware orbiting it, and the sensor logs showing a great deal of replicator-and-transporter type matter/energy conversions going on on its surface, was obviously the home to a technologically advanced civilization. Further, the sensor logs showed that the people were humanoid, and that they had warp-capable ships-- pointless things to own, if it were impossible for humanoids to cross the barrier, but since they owned them and they were humanoid, it was excellent evidence that it *was* possible for humanoids to safely cross.

Excitement erupted throughout the ship. Suddenly, what had been a dry scientific conference, of interest only to those with the background in physics to follow it, had become a first contact situation. Speculation ran rampant as to who was going to get to go.

Q insisted that, since the whole thing had been his idea in the first place, he should be allowed to accompany the contact party. Wilde shot him down. "This might be a dangerous situation. We don't know if the people on the other side of the barrier are friendly or hostile."

"I've been making contact with new alien species since before your people crawled out of the mud," Q retorted.

"Yes, and we all know how many friends you made in the process," Wilde said shortly. "Besides, aside from the fact that you're not trained, you don't know what you're doing and you're likely to offend the locals and get the party killed, you're entirely too valuable to the Federation to risk on a mission like this, Q."

"You're letting people like Sovaz and Roth go."

"Both Sovaz and Roth are Starfleet officers, and Sovaz is in fact a science officer of this vessel."

"Elejani Baíi isn't a Starfleet officer."

Wilde sighed. "No, she's not. She's an empath, though, and she's been on first contact teams as a civilian specialist before."

"So you're saying she's not as valuable as me? That the Federation is more concerned with its pursuit of material gain than the safety of its civilians? After all, if it's dangerous for me, certainly it's dangerous for her as well."

"She's a lot less likely to alienate the locals than you are. And she's more likely to be useful."

"More likely to be useful? I might know these people."

"Wasn't it you who said that the barrier was probably put up to keep out people like the Q?" Wilde wasn't quite smirking, but Q was sure he wanted to. "Your knowing these people is probably not the good thing you'd think."

So it was decided. Sovaz, Roth, Elejani Baíi, Wilde himself, Washington and a few security guards, and a few first contact specialists and anthropologists from the science department would all get to go, and Q would have to be stuck here, even though they would never have discovered this new alien race without his help. It was very depressing. He sulked ostentatiously and took it out on people like Yalit, who really deserved to be abused every chance he got anyway.

This was the last straw.

Yalit had gotten very, very tired of Q. Tired of his posturing, tired of his denigrating her, tired of the fact that everyone hung on the man's every word as if it were solid latinum. And the fact that he had just achieved such triumph, that he had successfully predicted the nature of the Anomaly, that was only salt on the wound.

She had spent her life humbling men who underestimated her. She'd seduced her sons away from their fathers, twisting them around her finger as a beloved protection against a society which called her less than a man. She'd schemed and plotted and brought men down with their own pleasures, offering forbidden enjoyments and then extorting money and power out of the men who'd tasted the forbidden fruit. She was very likely the most powerful Ferengi woman in existence, and she did not take this sort of treatment from human males who thought they were gods.

"Barak!" she commanded her grandson. "Do you have that report I asked you for yet?"

"Yes, grandmother," he said eagerly, handing her the data crystal. "It's all there."

Yalit popped it into the viewer and pored over it. Damned if the human wasn't telling the truth. He was worth a small moon to the Federation. A smile grew across her face uncontrollably.

I wonder how much he'd be worth on the open market?...

The first contact team returned three days later.

The conference had essentially been derailed. People were spending the days talking about their pet theories about everything, since Q had more or less revealed the secret of the singularity. Q took great pleasure in sitting back and making fun of the various theories, but it wasn't as much fun as it had been to actually discover something on his own and then hold court as he imparted the knowledge to his faithful acolytes. There had also been a pleasure in the act of discovery, something he hadn't known for millennia. Most of the things he'd discovered as a human hadn't been at all pleasurable to learn about.

He was easily as psyched as everyone else when the contact team came back. Rumors flew even before they could make their debriefing, rumors about a highly advanced race on the other side of the barrier. By the time the actual debriefing was held, Q was intensely curious about the species, and why they would have built the barrier in the first place.

"They call themselves the Mihara," Sovaz explained, having been chosen as the person to give the contact team's report to the conference and any other interested civilians. "In their language, it means something like 'those who follow the holy one.' Apparently, approximately 300 years ago, a member of a highly advanced alien race came among them and began to teach them things, mostly concepts of advanced physics and philosophy." She displayed a picture of the aliens without following this up, making Q want to throttle her. "There are actually three separate alien races among the Mihara. The primary race, in terms of percentage of population, is the Nator." The image was of a humanoid, resembling a cross between a Metraxan and a Betazoid-- a man with white skin, not the pinkish color humans often called white but true white, and huge dark bottomless eyes. "Nator are telepaths, and require the presence of other Nator to survive." With a shock Q realized where he'd seen those people before. They were proto-Borg-- the beings the Borg had been before the Borg had turned to technology and a uni-mind. How the hell had they gotten here? The Borg originally hailed from the Delta Quadrant-- a long way away.

"Second are the Sarrin." The image shown was of a very tall, slender not-quite-humanoid-- the general pattern was humaniform, but the neck was elongated and entirely too thin, the skin was deep gold, the eyes were long and thin and solid black, and the joints did not look articulated. They weren't articulated-- Q knew of the Sarrin, and knew their entire bodies were cartilaginous. He broke into a sweat, suddenly very anxious as he remembered where he knew the Sarrin from. "They are also telepaths. While there aren't many Sarrin, they seem to form most of the original population of Mihara, and the language all the Mihara speak is based on theirs. Sarrin are low-gravity dwellers, as you can see; their population is most dense on the second planet in orbit around the quasar, a small planet where the gravity is .43 gees. On the main Mihara homeworld, the third planet, gravitation is .79 gees, and the Sarrin can move about there with about the same difficulty that humans experience on worlds with a gee of 2 to 2.5. Some Sarrin wear exoskeleton prosthetics to help them move about."

"Are you all right?" T'Laren asked Q.

"I recognize them, that's all. I didn't think I'd see one of them again."

"What are they? Are they dangerous to you?"

"The Sarrin? No, they're not dangerous to anyone. They evolved from herbivores with no natural enemies; they haven't the foggiest idea how to use violence. I thought they'd quarantined themselves on their homeworld to prevent more violent species from finding them." He was very much afraid he might know why this group of Sarrin would have left.

"The third race are the Yvo." An image of a lovely, androgynous but apparently male being who looked exactly like a human, with hair down to his ankles, appeared. "The Yvo are humanoid hermaphrodites; most of the time they look more male than female, but when pregnant, they develop pronounced female secondary sexual characteristics. Children are furred; once fully mature, adults have hair only on the tops of their heads, where it is considered a secondary sexual characteristic and a determinant of sexual attractiveness. Some caution should be taken in dealing with the Yvo, for humans and other races who are very similar in appearance to humans; the Yvo will judge obvious aliens by different criteria, but for any aliens who resemble Yvo, they apply their own cultural rules regarding physical appearance. As a result, bald humanoids are considered powerless, sexually unattractive and fit only to be followers, while humanoids with facial hair are considered childlike. The Yvo instinct to protect pregnant Yvo also makes it difficult for humanoid women, who mostly appear to be pregnant to the Yvo, to perform any task that involves physical danger anywhere near an Yvo. The Nator do not appear to have difficulties in dealing with the Yvo, but Nator coloration is strikingly distinct from standard humanoid coloration, and therefore the Yvo may not consider them to look enough like Yvo to evoke their cultural standards."

"Right. So we all shave our faces, bind our breasts, and make sure we're wearing big wigs when we talk to them," Q muttered. "How long is she going to dwell on this?"

"Q, she's giving a briefing about aliens and dealing with them. It seems like she's saying that the Yvo are harder to deal with than the other two races."

"Yes, yes, I got all that. Why doesn't she just--" He silenced himself as he realized what Sovaz had moved on to.

"--credited their scientific and philosophical advances to an ancient being, presumed to originally come from some far older race, who came originally to the Sarrin in the form of one of their own people. This individual is the spiritual leader, and in some senses a secular power as well, of all the Mihara. She is referred to as the High Magister Azi Martikale. Apparently she came to the Sarrin homeworld 300 years ago..."

300 years ago. 300 years ago and he could still remember it as if it had only happened a few weeks ago. The world spun around Q. He wouldn't have recognized the name Martikale without the context, though now he recalled it as the name of her mortal lover. But he knew the name Azi. It was the name she had gone by to the man she'd thrown immortality away for. He could more easily remember that, the last name she'd taken, than he could remember most of his own names.

Azi was alive.

He got up suddenly, the world still swaying around him, icewater and lava alternating in his veins. He was going to be sick. He had to get out of here. Q staggered toward the door, ignoring T'Laren's concern and the eyes of all on him. Azi was alive, alive, and she was there, he could even have spoken to her if he'd gone with the team, he could send her a message if he chose, run so far and so fast away, forbidden to think of her, and now she was right there within reach and he was definitely going to throw up. He managed to make it to the nearest rest room, and spent the next several minutes vomiting up everything he'd eaten in the past twelve hours.

Q leaned his head against the wall, trembling, as the toilet's automatic purge cycle ran and disposed of everything he'd just dumped into it. He had feared this, the moment he'd seen the picture of the Sarrin. Azi was a Sarrin, now. Had been one for 300 years, just as he'd been human for three. He remembered her, remembered the graceful body she had worn, remembered how her head had snapped back and forth on its stalklike neck in the Sarrin expression of hysterical distress as she knelt on the ground, her robes covered in mud, pleading with him... no. No no no. He wouldn't remember that. And he wouldn't remember the pain he had felt when Azi had betrayed him, when she'd attacked him savagely and... no. No, he wouldn't remember any of it. Q got up shakily and went to the sink, intending to rinse his mouth out with water as he put the memories out of his head, as he'd done so many times before.

But this time they wouldn't go. He clutched at the sink, overwhelmed by a wave of memory and overpowering grief. He couldn't breathe. Tears blurred his vision, a sob was caught in his throat, choking him, and all he could see was Azi, Azi as she'd been when they'd both been in the Continuum, his best friend, closer to him than ever two humans could get to one another, so entwined around his life and he hers that he sometimes felt she was his reason for existing, that he was created to take care of her, and he heard her voice screaming again as her head rocked back and forth and heard his own pitiless replies, and the dam broke. Q wailed. He dropped to his knees, huddled into a fetal position on the bathroom floor and sobbed hysterically, brokenly, unable to make the memories go away the way he had when he'd still been in the Continuum, the way they'd gone away for 300 years.

The rest room door opened, and T'Laren entered. She crossed the room quickly, without saying anything to him, and knelt beside him, wrapping her arms around him. Q clung to her, more by the instincts buried in his human body than any conscious realization that she was offering comfort. He pressed his face into her shirt, his sobs muffled by her breasts. She rocked him slightly, stroking his hair and murmuring that it was all right, even though it wasn't, even though it could never be.

As the sobs subsided, he realized where he was. A wave of embarrassment overtook him. "Are you aware that this is the men's room?" he asked T'Laren, in a pale imitation of his best sardonic voice.

"Let's get you back to the room," she said. "I know a route where we shouldn't run into anyone."

He got to his feet and splashed water on his face. "Did you make excuses for me at the briefing?"

"I said you weren't feeling well. Obvious enough."

"Not good enough. They're all going to be talking about me."

"They have plenty of other things to talk about."

She guided him around the corner and through a side corridor. They passed an occasional crew member, but no one Q knew, before they reached the room.

"Do you want to talk about it?" T'Laren asked him.

"Why would I want to talk about it?"

"It's clear that whatever happened between you and this Azi Martikale, it's extremely upsetting to you. You are probably going to hear her name come up in conversation again, Q. It's unavoidable. If you break down like this every time you hear her name--"

"I am not going to break down every time I hear her name!" he shouted. "I don't want to talk about it, T'Laren. The case is closed!"

She shook her head. "Q, you just staggered out of a briefing and broke down in hysterics in the bathroom. That is not normal behavior for you. I have never seen you affected so strongly or so violently by anything, and based on the strength of this reaction, I honestly do not think you can control yourself on this topic. You are going to have to discuss it at some point."

"No I don't."

"I don't mean to push. But it seems to me that of late, you've been unwilling to discuss anything with me. You have been flip and dismissive any time I attempt to bring up the telepathic assault we both recently suffered, you have ignored my advice on dealing with others, in fact we haven't had a serious discussion about you and your feelings since we began work on the telepathic amplifier, with the exception of a brief discussion of the impact of such an amplifier's existence on you. My only value as your therapist exists in proportion with your willingness to talk to me. If you are not willing to talk--"

"--then you'd have to get a real job, wouldn't you?"

"I consider this to be a real job."

"Yes, that's exactly it. It's really your job." He began to pace. "Stalwart T'Laren, the calm and rational Vulcan, can force herself to spend time dealing with the problems of someone she probably couldn't really care less about, because it's her job. And we all know how big Vulcans and Starfleet officers are on doing their duty."

"You feel that I don't care about you personally?"

"Well, how am I supposed to avoid it? Every time I turn around you're saying 'Oh no, Q, we're not friends. I'm just your therapist.' It's hardly calculated to reassure me of your undying love."

"I am your therapist, Q. That doesn't mean I don't care about you personally. It simply means that 'friends' is not a good description of our relationship."

"Because people choose to be friends. You're stuck with me because of some debt you owe to Lhoviri."

"That is not the major reason--"

"But it is a reason. You just admitted it."

"The main reason we are not friends is that friends implies a level of reciprocity which our relationship doesn't have. I am here to help you, not the other way around."


"Does that bother you?"

"What do you mean, does it bother me? Of course it doesn't bother me. Why should it bother me that here I am, pouring my heart out to someone who doesn't really have any personal reason to listen to it aside from some obligation to my brother, when you can't be bothered to share the tiniest bit of your own feelings with me?"

"I'm here for you to talk to about your feelings and problems. You aren't here for mine."

"You say that like it's written in stone. As if our roles were cast by the gods the moment we were created, and never shall they deviate from what is written. I can tell you from personal experience, T'Laren, the gods are not into that. They could care less if people deviated from their roles."

"Q, this has nothing to do with gods or a belief that things cannot change. All I am saying is that I was hired as your therapist. This by necessity means I have to maintain a certain amount of emotional distance. You can't talk to me about your problems if I am one of your problems. I am supposed to be a sounding board, a mirror of sorts, allowing you to see yourself more clearly. The more you perceive me as another person in your environment, the less you'd be able to see yourself through me. And I realize I may have let things go too far in that direction. The very fact that you think I should be telling you about my problems indicates I've let the boundaries stray."

He shook his head. "You think it would do me any good at all to know someone who isn't a person to me, just something that echoes my own words back at me?"

"The analogy isn't exact. I don't echo your words back at you, I give you guidance and advice so that you can see the things that are hidden from you in your current perspective-- the way others see you, or some aspects of your own feelings."

Q waved his hands. "I don't care about the analogy. That isn't my point. Years and years ago, someone suggested I go see someone who was supposed to do exactly what you're saying you're supposed to do. So fine, I didn't see her as a person. I saw her as a self-righteous prig. It didn't work at all well."

"Just because a previous therapy attempt didn't work is no reason to dismiss the entire concept."

"It isn't therapy I need!" he exploded.

"Then what is it you need?"

But that was too much. That was admitting to her what it was he desperately longed for, what he knew now he'd never get from her. "It's too late for you not to be one of my problems, T'Laren. So fine. You're fired."


"You heard me. I just fired you. You're not my therapist anymore."

"You can't do that."

"I most certainly can."

"I mean-- of course you can, that was poorly worded. But you would be foolish to. You need me, Q. Or you need someone like me, who can view you objectively and help you to understand yourself. Otherwise you're going to end up in the situation you were in on Starbase 56."

"What I need is not someone who tolerates me because it's their job!" He spun on her. "Maybe I needed that once. When you got me off Starbase 56, I was so convinced misery was an integral part of being human that I had no way to see what it was I needed. I'd never needed anything like it before, and I'd have laughed hysterically at any Q who did, and I was so far from having it that I couldn't even imagine what it would be like. But I know what it is I need, now, and someone who has to 'maintain emotional distance' is not it."

"So what is it you need?"

"You're fired, remember? I don't have to tell you."

"Is it love?"

He laughed harshly. "Don't be a moron, T'Laren. Can you see me getting all mushily romantic over anyone? Or pining away because there's no luuuv in my life? And if I needed it, I'd be, in a word, screwed, since there's no chance I could ever get anyone to love me. No, my needs are much simpler. And almost-- almost-- attainable." He stared darkly at the wall.

"You want a friend."

"This isn't Twenty Questions. I fired you. Go away."

She walked over to him. "I thought Markow was your friend."

He snorted. "Oh, Markow. I think we may have discussed something that wasn't physics and wasn't word games for our personal amusement once." Q turned to look at her. "Is it so much to ask that there be someone in the universe who gives a damn whether I live or die?"

"Of course not. But you already have that. Markow, Roth and Elejani Baíi all appear to care about you personally. I care, regardless of whether or not you 'fire' me."

"Markow can't admit to himself that he doesn't have any real friends either. He'd shove my death to the back of his brain where he keeps stuff like how much he wants to walk again and how much he hates the fact that he never will because of his own stupid mistake. Frankly, he's even better at it than I am, and I'm talented enough at self-deception that I managed not to think about Azi for 300 years." His voice cracked. Angrily he said, "I need something to drink," and stomped over to the replicator.

"If your throat hurts from dehydration, I'd suggest fruit juice."

"Yeah yeah. One of those orange passionfruit juice concoctions," he ordered, and then changed his mind. "With a shot of synthevodka."

"Is that wise?"

"It's synthehol. What's it going to do, get me drunk? I'll just think poof, I'm not drunk. Maybe I'll snap my fingers," he said sarcastically.

"Just because Markow cannot admit to you that he cares for you is not a reason to believe he doesn't."

"Oh, I think he does. That's not the point. Markow can't admit to any human weakness, like grieving for a dead friend or his own lost abilities. Rather like a certain starship captain I used to know." He pulled his mind off that particular track. "Roth just wants my body for some reason I can't fathom, and Elejani Baíi thinks I'm a god. None of these people give a damn about me." He took a deep swig of his drink. "And you only care about me because it's your job. You'd do the same for anyone. And I don't want that. So you're fired." He took another. "So now you don't have to pretend that you care anymore. Go get on with your life. Make googly eyes at Tris. I don't care."

"You're distraught. I don't think this is a good time to make a decision like this."

"I think now is the perfect time. I'm tired of you. I'm tired of you prying and interfering in my life."

"It sounds to me like the real reason you're upset is that you feel that I don't care about you as a person. That simply isn't true. I became involved in your life in the first place because I was hired as your therapist, yes. But while I'm capable of working with someone I dislike or am indifferent toward, I could not have done the sort of intensive work we did for three weeks on Ketaya if I'd had no personal caring for you whatsoever. I am concerned for you as a person. I care about your welfare. I want to see you as happy as it's possible for you to be, not simply because it is my job to do so, but because it's something I personally want to see."

"But you aren't interested in letting me have any impact on your life."

"What sort of impact did you want? You've said this isn't about wanting love. You've also said you don't want to be sexually involved with anyone, including me, so I assume that isn't it. What did you actually want?"

"Does it matter?"

"Of course it matters."

He stared at the wall for several moments, trying to decide if he did actually want to admit to this, and, if he did, to muster up the courage for it. Finally he drank the rest of his drink in two gulps and set it down. "You don't need me for anything."

"I see."

"Like when we were attacked by the Romulan." It was easier to get the words out now that he'd started. "You went on this whole thing with Tris about how you felt like you'd failed me. Did it ever occur to you to ask me if you'd failed me?"

She blinked at him. "The answer would have been yes," she said. "Why should I have asked?"

"The answer would not have been yes! You didn't even ask! How do you know what the answer would have been?"

"Because I did fail. Regardless of whether I could have been reasonably expected to succeed or not, the fact remains that I failed to protect you." Her voice had a slight brittle edge to it. "I did not need you to tell me what I already knew. And if you had not answered the question 'yes', it would only be because you didn't understand the situation." T'Laren looked up at him. "Is that what you want? You've several times implied that you wish to give me advice, that you want to know personal details about my life. Have you cast yourself in your mind as some sort of potential confidante, and it upsets you that I don't turn to you for such?"

"Why would that upset me?" he asked savagely. "Who would want to be entangled in your idiotic little personal problems anyway? I don't need you or anyone to be bothering me with their petty little emotional problems. I'd be an idiot to want something like that."

"So that's it," she said. "You are upset because no one turns to you as a confidante. Despite the fact that anyone who did so would be taking their heart into their hands, since you would most likely be flippant, or cruel, or make any other number of inappropriate reactions--"

"How do you know? No one ever has. So how do you know how I'd react?"

"The way you reacted when you saw how upset I was at Sovaz' presence, and Tris' questions, when we first came aboard Yamato. You gloated that you'd found a weakness in me."

"I did not."

"Does it matter? That was my perception. If I had turned to you after the assault we both endured, and I'd told you how miserable I felt for failing you, I felt it very likely that you'd respond with something like 'And well you should.' I did not need to hear that right then. I needed someone supportive to talk to, someone who hadn't just been torn apart by the experience himself and who didn't have a history of making fun of people when they are in pain."

"You think that's all I am, don't you? All I know how to do is make fun of people. I have no higher emotions, no capacity for sympathy whatsoever."

"I would certainly say you're one of the least empathic people I know."

"Then why would you care about me? You're saying I'm a selfish monster. Why would that be the sort of person you'd care about, for any reason other than you're being hired to do it?"

"I'm not saying you're a selfish monster--"

"Yes you are. And I don't want to discuss this anymore. Get out."

"Q, this is not a constructive way of--"

"I don't want to hear it! No more psychobabble, no more therapist-speak, no more of you pretending you care so very much about me when you don't. You couldn't. No one could. You said it yourself-- I make fun of people in pain, I have no empathy for other people's problems, everything is me, me, me. So get out."

"These are also my quarters," she pointed out.

"Oh, of course. Easily rectified." He stalked into her bedroom. Foolish of her to leave it unlocked, Vulcan tradition or no. Once there, he started scooping up her things-- she really had brought very little, since she relied on replicators, and carried it to the door of the suite. He dumped it in the hall and went back for a second load.

"I will do my own packing," she said sharply. "You've made your wishes clear."

"Good. I'm so glad that for once I have."

"I suggest you take a nap; you're still clearly overwrought. We'll discuss this tomorrow."

"We'll do no such thing. I fired you, remember?"

Her voice was hard. "You did not hire me, therefore you do not have the right to fire me. And I refuse to stand by and allow you to self-destruct over an issue like this."

"Throwing you out is self-destruction? It feels more like self-preservation to me."

"Preservation from what? Have I hurt your feelings so, by not running to you with my problems? If so, that itself is a problem we need to work on. Or you need to work on, with somebody."

"If I hire myself another therapist will you consider yourself fired? Or will you just keep stalking me?"

"I'll consider myself fired now. At the moment I am not speaking as a therapist." She stood in front of him, her face composed into the cold mask that meant she was angry. Good. She should be angry. "You claim you don't need therapy. You say you do not want to be with someone who is not a close personal friend. So what will you do, become a hermit? You have no close personal friends. Why is it so deeply offensive to you that I should not turn to you for emotional support that you must take my belongings and throw them in the corridor?"

"Because!" How could she be so dense? "No one else pretends to care about me! No one--" He felt a sob well up, and forced it down. "It doesn't matter. Just get out."

"It matters," she said implacably. "Why now? Why has this suddenly boiled over in you?"

"You want to know about Azi. To help me," he sneered. "But you won't tell me a single, solitary fact about yourself. You faked your own death, or else you nearly died and didn't tell your family you'd lived-- why? Why were you so vicious to Sovaz? What do you owe Lhoviri? You haven't told me any of this."

"It's not your business. I've told no one any of this."

"But you expect me to rip out my heart and hand it to you on a platter! You want me to tell you about Azi? You want to know all the gory details, want to know how much of a monster I really am? Well, you're not going to get it by telling me 'oh, this is therapeutic, Q.' I went to someone else who wanted me to tell her the details because it would be therapeutic and I was supposed to get it off my chest, and the very little I told her convinced her that I was a monster and she had to hurt me, humiliate me in front of my people, betray me, lie to me--"


"Yes! Guinan the perfect, Guinan the sweet, Guinan the ancient and wise. I went to her for help and she spat on me. So you can see why I'd be reluctant to tell anyone else who thinks it might be therapeutic. And the more I think about it, the more I think I don't want therapy anyway. I don't want someone to listen to my problems because they're paid to do it. I want someone to care, and if no one cares, which no one does, then I don't want to tell anyone anything. You could tear me to shreds with what you already know, and what do I know about you?"

"I wouldn't tear you to shreds. I thought you trusted me better than that."

"I trusted the entire Q Continuum for millions of years, and look how that turned out."

T'Laren nodded slowly. "And that's why you feel you can't confide in me? You have nothing to hold over my head, to blackmail me with if I hurt you, and you cannot trust that I won't hurt you?"

"Everyone else who knows me really well has betrayed me," he said blackly. "Why not you?"

"All right," she said suddenly.

"'All right'? What's all right? What are you talking about?"

"I... cannot bear that you would not trust me, that you would throw me entirely out of your life, let me in neither as therapist nor as friend, because you don't have sufficient blackmail material. If, after knowing the truth, you choose to throw me out because of what you'd then know, that is only what I would deserve. If you wish to know the worst thing I have ever done, the greatest horror I know myself to be capable of... I will tell you." She sat down on the couch.

He followed her, but did not sit. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I wish to remain a part of your life. If this is your price, I will pay it."

"You think you can buy my trust?"

"Isn't that exactly what you said you wanted me to do?"

Q shook his head, and sat down next to her. "T'Laren... you don't have to tell me anything. I'm quite sure I'll say or do something that makes matters worse, when you're done. Keep your secrets."

She raised an eyebrow. "Then I am unfired?"

"No, you're still fired. I told you I don't need a therapist." He took a deep breath. "If... you want to stick around, though, I won't stop you. Just as long as you understand the rules have changed. I'm not your patient. You don't have the authority to tell me what to do, what to eat, when to sleep, what drugs not to take, any of that. Give me advice, and maybe I'll take it. But we're equals. Do you understand?"

"I believe the word you are looking for is 'friends'," she said.

He smiled sardonically. "I've used that word way too many times tonight. People are going to think I've gone soft."

She nodded, and looked away, toward the far wall.

"It was two years ago," she said softly.

It was difficult to say this, difficult to begin. But if the alternative was letting Q throw her out, decide he didn't trust her any longer, and most likely get himself killed, she had to do something.

"I said you didn't need to--"

"I know," T'Laren said. It didn't matter if he said she didn't need to tell him. It was clear to her that she did, that he was entirely too frightened and mistrustful, and she couldn't quite understand why. He'd been willing to tell her almost anything, in the past. Why the sudden panic?

Perhaps it had something to do with what he'd said about Guinan. If she truly had hurt him when he'd gone to her for help on this issue in the past, then this issue coming up again might have reminded him of the dangers of trust. Or, perhaps, it was a cumulative effect. Or something triggered by the incident with the Romulan. In any case, she didn't think this would simply go away. She had to deal with it, and it seemed that the only way left to her was to tell him what she had thought she would never tell anyone.

"It was two years ago," she repeated. "Maybe a little more, when it began. It was after I'd come back from my mission to the Romulan Empire." T'Laren stared into nothing, remembering. "That mission...changed me. In many ways. And when I returned, I felt that my life as a Vulcan might be empty; that perhaps there should be more to my life than duty and discipline."

"Very astute of you."

She shook her head. "Not necessarily. What I had realized... was that I was missing a significant portion of possible experience by choosing to be Vulcan, but even more particularly, by being married to my husband. Soram... was a traditionalist." She looked at Q. "Vulcans are bonded to their mates in childhood, by tradition. Some Vulcans feel the tradition is outdated, and that an adult can make a better, more logical choice of mate by choosing from a pool of fellow adults than a parent can make by comparing two children, who have not yet shown how much of their potential they will realize. Soram's parents believed this."

"That's why Sovaz is unbonded."

"She told you this?"

"More or less. She said you and Soram got each others' names out of the Vulcan equivalent of a dating service."

"I am sure Sovaz did not say that."

"Well. Maybe 'dating service' is my own interpretation," Q said, grinning.

"I would think so. The Marriage Registry exists to help Vulcans who are unbonded as adults to find compatible mates. Since I had been raised on Earth, by humans, I had never had an opportunity to be bonded. So when I went to Vulcan to live with my father's cousin, it was suggested that I add my name to the Registry so that at some future date I could find a bondmate. And Soram seemed ideal. Both of us wished to go into Starfleet; he was a traditionalist who knew the disciplines well, and could help me to understand what it meant to be Vulcan, or so I thought, and I could help him in the interacting with humans that is required of any Vulcan entering Starfleet."

"This sounds rather like a recipe for disaster."

"Does it? I still think it sounds perfectly reasonable... it merely did not work out so well."

"I'm finding it hard to imagine you in a decent relationship with a traditionalist Vulcan."

"At the time, I thought I could achieve full Vulcan discipline if only it was reinforced strongly enough." She looked away. "For the most part, we had little difficulties. Soram attempted to correct my non-Vulcan behaviors, and I accepted it. On some issues, I would not be moved, and there he eventually accepted that. It wasn't until after I returned from the Romulan Empire that I realized what was wrong."

"What was wrong?"

This was the difficult part. How was she supposed to tell Q, of all people, what had happened after that? "I... realized... certain things were missing from my life. Things that I had never known, and realized now that I had experienced them that I needed them."

"For example? You're being rather excessively vague, don't you think?"

"For example... what do you know of Vulcan biology?"

"Not much... Vulcans bored me silly when I was omnipotent, if you must know. I know you can't be entirely dissimilar to other humanoids, since Vulcan/human crosses exist."

"Our... sexuality is very different from human. Vulcans... every seven Earth years, approximately, which translates to two of our own, a Vulcan male will endure... a mating cycle. That is... he becomes incapable of thinking about much else. And if he does not, during this time, mate with someone and establish a telepathic bond with them, he will die."

"That's the most ludicrous piece of evolutionary nonsense I've ever heard. Did someone experiment with you people in your racial infancy, or are you just incredibly unlucky?"

"The need to mate or die appears linked to the genes that control telepathy. So evolutionarily, telepathy must have conveyed enough of an advantage that the trait did not die out."

"I definitely don't remember this. The idea of Vulcan men running around desperate for sex strikes me as the kind of thing I would have thought amusing enough to remember."

"It might be amusing to outsiders. It is hardly amusing to live through it. A man suffering from the mating cycle is, for all intents and purposes, insane. Imagine what it would be to have one's control over one's own actions stripped away by an overpowering biological need."

Q seemed to consider that. "I suppose it would be less amusing from that perspective, yes. What about the women?"

"Females don't enter pon farr unless they are bonded; our bodies can produce the correct neurotransmitters but we lack the internal cycle men do. As a result of all this, all Vulcan males must be bonded, and Vulcans generally do not choose to mate outside of the cycle."

"Ah." He nodded. "You told me that."

"While in the Romulan Empire, I was... forced is a bad term... I found it expedient to allow myself to be seduced, to preserve my cover. My identity was as one of Melor's subordinates, and I felt that, if I turned him down, he might grow angry at me and see my flaws more clearly, including flaws in my disguise. If I allowed him to court and finally win me, he would remain blinded by lust."

"What a manipulative little schemer you are. I love it."

"That, I do not particularly regret; I have regrets about what happened later, but that isn't germane to this. I... I had had sexual experiences as a child on Terra. Humans rarely remain virginal much past sixteen; I experimented with a close friend when I was fifteen, but Vulcans aren't actually sexually mature at that age, even though we look like human adolescents. What pleasure I derived from it was mostly from my unfocused telepathy picking up on my friend's pleasure. And I had enjoyed Soram's times, when they came, but it had never occurred to me that sex outside the times was possible or would be enjoyable. Melor taught me otherwise. And it wasn't merely sex. Romulans are allowed to express their feelings far more so than Vulcans, and in truth, are allowed to feel more. Melor, whom I betrayed in the end, was kinder and more loving to me than Soram ever could be. When I returned from Romulus, I realized that in coming back to my true life, I was giving up the freedom I'd had as a Romulan, the freedom I'd had as a child-- to use discipline when it suited me to do so, and to feel when I wished to feel. And it seemed a remarkably empty way to live my life, to lose those freedoms."

"It would be. I can't imagine why you'd want to."

"But all my identity was tied up with being a Vulcan. For a while, I considered leaving Soram-- I was in love with Tris, and he with me, and he could give me what Soram could not. But the only way to obtain a divorce is to call challenge at the time of mating, which would kill Soram or else kill my champion, or to prove that Soram was abusive, a criminal or insane. He was none of these things. I could only leave him by leaving my Vulcan identity behind."

"You couldn't just pack up and leave?"

"Our bond needed to be formally broken, and that could happen only if I became Kolinahru or went into exile. Otherwise, if the bond was not broken, Soram would die at his next time and take me with him. And I was not willing to go into exile; I still wished to be Vulcan, yet I found myself chafing more and more at the requirements of being Vulcan. I wanted to create a kind of Vulcanness that walked between worlds, a synthesis of Vulcan and Romulan that chose the best of both." She stared at the floor darkly. "Instead I was consumed. Over the course of a year, perhaps, I became less and less able to control my emotions. They flared at inappropriate times. I laughed during briefings, cried during departures for away missions, flew into rages when minor things went wrong. I managed to control myself when I was counseling, but at other times I could not. My... sex drive... was equally out of control; I picked up strange men in bars on every shore leave planet I went to--"

"And your husband didn't know about this?"

"He knew. Of course he knew, he was bonded to me. But he could not give me sexual release, and they could. As long as I did not bond with them, he allowed it, and I loved him desperately for making such concessions for me. I flew back and forth between extremes of emotion, and through it I clung to Soram, considering him my anchor of sanity.

"I was discharged from Starfleet, and sent home to Vulcan, to Soram's family's home. They recognized-- Starfleet recognized-- that Vulcans heal better from mental illness when treated by fellow Vulcans, in the privacy of the ancestral home. A mindhealer was sent to me, and tried to assist me, but I was madly out of control by then and could neither summon the discipline to follow the mindhealer's instructions nor the desire to. I was waiting for Soram's next time of mating; I was sure it would bring us closer together, would bridge the gap between us in our minds. Soram had taken to shutting me out, which I understood; no one wants to share his mind with a madwoman. But I longed for that connection, and I knew, when his time came, he would need to open his mind to me.

"He came home at the proper time, and we shared his time together. And then, a week afterward, when I had begun to believe I had some hope of pulling my mind back together, he--"

Her voice caught, and she couldn't go on. "What did he do?" Q asked, his voice serious, not quite sympathetic but certainly not the flippancy or pushiness she'd have expected from him.

"He... I cannot speak of this, Q. I cannot."

"Isn't it you who always said to me that things need to be brought out into the open before you can deal with them?"

"I've dealt with it! I had Lhoviri change it so it didn't happen, and still the memory haunts me..."

"Fixing it isn't the same as dealing with it, T'Laren."

She looked at him, startled. "Are you suddenly trained as a counselor?"

Q smiled sardonically. "I've occasionally been called on to give advice to poor primitive beings. It's not my preferred role, but it's one I've done."

"So you are trying to act as what? My guardian angel? My spirit guide?"

"Something like that," he agreed. "So what happened?"

She swallowed, and took a deep breath, trying to focus the disciplines. They had never worked particularly well against this memory, though. "He told me... he was leaving me. Because I was insane. He had sought a divorce, and was enacting it now, since his pon farr was done with and so divorcing me would not require him to find another mate for seven years..."


"I... suppose it is. I have a hard time seeing the logic... I saw that I had sacrificed for him, that I had given up one I loved for him, that I had tried so hard to fit myself into the mold of proper Vulcanhood and it was all for him. I realized much, much later that most of my striving to be a proper Vulcan had never come from within me; it was how I expressed my love for him, my desire to be more like him. At the time, though, I felt... betrayed..."

Betrayed me, betrayed me, I gave you love and you throw it away, I shelter you once again from the storms within that would kill you, and you throw me aside rather than so shelter me, betrayer, betrayer, you've taken everything from me and I won't let you leave, you will not leave me, never leave me, never ever leave me again...

"Of course you did. Who wouldn't? That seems particularly heartless, to leave you right after you'd saved his life."

"Yes..." She swallowed. "So I-- I was mad with rage, you understand, I was humiliated and betrayed, and it all raged out of my control-- I remember thinking I would not let him leave, I would make sure he could not leave--"

"You killed him," Q said.

"H-- how did you know?"

Q shook his head. "It's a very old story, T'Laren," he said softly. "I don't mean to belittle you, but you're hardly the first woman to kill the man who was abandoning her."

"But I am Vulcan!"

"And Vulcans are biologically one of the most violent, vicious species in existence. If you and the Romulans didn't have such strict societal controls to prevent you from killing yourselves, you would outdo the Klingons for bloody-mindedness. Your disciplines were cracking anyway, you'd been through an emotional upheaval-- at least I assume those mating seasons of yours cause emotional upheaval, I imagine going insane on a regular basis should do that--"

"Yes. It is very much an emotional experience."

"And then he throws you over for being nuts. When it was partially his fault you were having problems. I'd have killed him."

"You are neither a Vulcan nor a pacifist."

"True. And actually, I probably wouldn't have. Q don't... under normal circumstances... ever try to kill one another." His voice dropped darkly, as if some inner pain haunted him. "But Vulcans are not nearly as mentally stable as the Q."

"Mentally stable? I wouldn't have considered that one of the standout features of your race."

"Based on a sample size of what, two? When one's lost everything that meant anything to him? I can see a clear scientific basis for your conclusions." He stretched out an arm along the top of the couch, so her head ended up resting lightly on it. "Tell me what happened."

"I..." She shook her head. "I remember... seeing blood everywhere. And not quite realizing what had happened, where the blood was coming from, until I looked down and saw Soram, and the ceremonial blade I'd brought back from the Romulan Empire in my hands, covered in his blood. And then... then Sovaz came into the room... and she said 'You have killed my brother,' and it was as if I had destroyed everything in her that was innocent and pure... I ran then. I couldn't bear the shame. They captured me, and brought me to healers, who tried to help me find a constructive way to deal with my own guilt and pain... I could not. They were not equipped to handle Starfleet officers who'd been trained for espionage. I escaped, and stole a shuttlecraft. I think I was completely mad then, because all I could think was that the sands of Vulcan would reject me, my ancestral mother would cast me out and I belonged nowhere, nowhere at all but the cold dark of space. And I flung myself into space, and died."

"Died?" Q asked, startled, and then recognition lit his eyes. "Lhoviri."

"Yes. When I awakened, Lhoviri told me that inasmuch as I now existed in linear time at all, I had been dead for over a year. He had brought me back to perform a task for him. And I... I could not bear the thought of living, I could not live when Soram was dead at my hands. I tried to kill myself, again and again. There were times when I succeeded, and he brought me back. Finally he asked me what I would need to keep me from killing myself... and he said he could do anything... so I said I never wanted Soram to have died. I didn't want Lhoviri to bring him back, as he did me; I was not sure I was real, that I was anything other than a soulless construct of Lhoviri's mind. I would not have that for Soram. So I asked that he never be killed, that I never have killed him. And he did it. No one remembers Soram's death any more but me."

Q stared at her. "I am amazed."


"Do you have any idea how much effort it takes to retroactively alter the universe? Even a small change, less than two years old, is incredibly taxing to arrange. Not to mention the effort involved in raising the dead. You actually have to tap into the dimension where the dead go, find them, and if they're not there anymore scan backward through time until you do find them--"

"Do you think he really did it?"

"You look rather not dead to me."

"That isn't what I mean. Is it possible I'm merely a simulacrum he created?"

Q considered. "Possible, but unlikely. Truly self-aware simulacra with a totally independent existence are very hard to do." He frowned. "Frankly, it's a lot more likely that he didn't really revise the universe."

"Why do you think he didn't do it?"

"It's a lot more likely that he implanted the memory of killing Soram in your mind to make you more loyal to him."

T'Laren shook her head. "No."

"It makes more sense. Do you know how many kinds of permission he'd have had to get to retroactively alter the universe that way? The entire Continuum would have to agree to it, and given how cavalier they've been about whether or not I live or die, I just don't think that's likely."

"Lhoviri did not do that to me. I killed Soram. I know this."

"Yes, but how do you know? Lhoviri could just as easily have implanted false memories in your mind; it's easy enough to do, and no one would be able to tell, except another Q of course."

T'Laren sighed. "Q, this seems like the sort of point that belongs in a philosophical argument. I cannot know that Lhoviri did or did not do this; however, the only reality we can perceive is that which our memories supply. I know what happened. If my knowledge is untrue... there is nothing I can do about that."

He sighed. "I just don't want you being blindly loyal to Lhoviri, when he might well have suckered you into this."

"I am hardly blind in my loyalty. But based on what I know, I owe him a great debt. And it is within the power of the Continuum to do as I believe Lhoviri has done, isn't it?"

"Oh, sure, but it's a lot of work and the higher-ups don't tend to like it. You have to get permission from the entire Continuum, as I said."

"Then I have no reason not to believe it happened that way."

"I suppose you'll cling to your beliefs regardless of the evidence; you mortals get like that when religion's at stake. My only point is, I don't want you thinking you're irrevocably bound to me just because Lhoviri fixed the universe for you, because he might not have."

"It doesn't matter. Memory makes up what we are, Q. If someone had implanted a memory in me of something I know I could not do, of something completely out of character, I would know it and recognize that there was something wrong. Even if I had no way to distinguish that memory from my other memories, still I would know that I could not have done this thing. But... it was a part of me. If Lhoviri implanted the memory, it was still a thing I could have done. As difficult as it is to bear, as much as I wish it was not a part of my character... I know, now, that I am capable of murdering the one I most love."

"That must be a very difficult thing to know," Q said quietly. "Especially for someone who prides herself on her pacifism and emotional control. But what you have to understand, T'Laren, is that all mortals have these dark little secrets. Give almost any mortal the right circumstances, and they'll strike down their best friends, or betray, or commit rape, or any number of morally reprehensible acts. I... almost think that might apply to any sentient being, mortal or no. If you were in control of yourself, you wouldn't have done it. But the loss of your inhibitions against emotional expression reduced you to your biology, and your biology insists that you kill anything that might be a threat. Someone you love abandoning you is a threat."

"And this is supposed to excuse me? Other Vulcans suffer from loss of emotional control, sometimes. They do not murder their bondmate."

"No," Q said. "Nothing excuses you. But you have to recognize what the reasons were. If you go about thinking, 'Oh, I'm such an evil person and that's why I did this,' it doesn't prevent you from doing it again, or overcompensating in areas where you shouldn't." He shrugged. "Accept what you're capable of, understand why you're capable of it, and keep yourself from falling into the situation again. And stop blaming yourself. You've fixed the problem. Soram isn't dead anymore."

This was a very different side of Q than T'Laren had seen previously. He still wasn't dripping with emotional support and sympathy, but he was, for Q, being very sympathetic-- and his advice actually made sense. It was easy to forget, in the midst of his whining and his posturing and his cluelessness about the human condition, that he was really an incredibly ancient entity with thousands of lifetimes' worth of accumulated experience in studying mortals. "Under most circumstances, killers don't have the opportunity to 'fix the problem'."

"I know," Q said in a suddenly bleak voice. "Oh, I know." He turned to her. "Well. My turn now, I suppose? Quid pro quo?"

"If you wish to tell me. I did not actually tell you this so that you'd be obligated to share your secrets; I told you my secret so you would trust me." She looked at her hands. "An odd way of doing so, I must admit. I half expected you to call me a barbaric primitive and throw me out."

"You are a barbaric primitive. I'd hardly blame you for that." Q grinned. His expression then darkened. "T'Laren, I've seen the worst the universe has to offer. I've seen horrors that would curdle your soul, depths of evil beyond your imagining. One woman murdering a husband who's leaving her is fairly tame, by my standards." He gazed off into space. "And it is important that you've fixed the problem. You see, it's idiotic to blame yourself for causing a problem when you've also solved the problem. For millennia, I believed that actions had no consequences, and I was blameless, because anything I did that I decided was a problem, I could solve with the flick of a wrist. Snap! Problem solved."

"But this-- becoming human-- you could not solve that way."

"True. I can't. But it... isn't my first experience, with a problem I couldn't solve." He took a deep breath. " We did have a deal, regardless of whether you were planning on following through on it or not. You want to know about Azi? I'll tell you."

Q leaned back against the couch. "See, we Q have a-- a problem, of sorts. Most of us don't think of it as a problem, I myself usually thought of it as a plus, but there you go. I may have mentioned this before, that we have a problem with... close emotional intimacy, between two Q."

"You did," T'Laren said. "You said that if two Q are emotionally too intimate they can become entangled in one another, and merge into one being."

"Yes. And the two Q who did that are gone. Dead, if you will." He played with a button on his elaborate topcoat. "Something else you have to know about me-- well, you probably figured this out already. The Continuum tend to have distinct generations. We don't need to create many new Q, since almost none of us ever die, but we do it to prevent the Continuum from becoming completely stagnant. And one could argue that perhaps it hasn't worked, but that's beside the point. Anyway, we do this in cohorts, of a sort; agemates, ranging within a few million years of one another, form one cohort, and then the next set comes along, and so on. And among my agemates, my generation if you wish, I'm one of the youngest Q. But Azi was younger."

He sighed. "She should have died in infancy. Any Q with a strong need for intimacy usually does. Another child will consume them. For an immortal, omnipotent species we have fairly high child mortality; we have to. We have to let patterns that cannot exist as adult Q weed themselves out. No adult Q would ever interfere in a small child's self-destruction. But I was a small child myself, and... I liked Azi. I didn't want to subsume her into myself; from the beginning I never wanted anyone else to influence me, even by becoming a new part of me, under my control. She was a lot more interesting if she stayed outside me. So... I protected her. And I... you know, I was one of the babies, older children taking care of me or making fun of me or both at the same time... there weren't a lot of beings I could play the role of protector to. I liked it.

"We were friends for... longer than you can possibly imagine. And for a long time, I thought Azi had adjusted. Maybe she'd picked up just enough of my pattern when we were still young and malleable that she could defend herself, keep herself separate from other Q. But as we got older, I realized she still had that need for connection, for... I guess you could call it love. She tried to reach out to me, her oldest friend, for it... and I gave her what I could, but it just isn't safe for a Q to get too close. I had to hold her off, and I had to keep her from reaching out to anyone else, because anyone else would just subsume her. By that point in my life, I'd have subsumed her if she wasn't someone I valued so much as an individual pattern. We Q... don't tolerate weakness within our ranks well. It's sort of our evolutionary duty to the species to subsume other Q if they let us."

"It does not sound like such a pleasant life."

"Oh, it's wonderful. Don't get me wrong. Through the Continuum, all of us have a deeper emotional connection to one another than any two humans can ever achieve. It's only on the topmost, superficial layers that we have to push each other away or get more or less eaten. It's a balance, and it works beautifully... except when it doesn't. When someone lets personal sentiment interfere, and protects a fellow Q who's weak... you don't want to know what a weak omnipotent being is capable of doing."

"How can an omnipotent being be weak?"

"Oh, I don't mean weak as in less powerful. I mean weak as in flawed. Azi was not a functional Q, or shouldn't have been. But I protected her, and cared for her, and they let me. And everyone thought she was perfectly functional, well within the range of diversity that we actively seek without falling into the range that can't survive in the Continuum. She had a fierce ego, something most of the children that don't make it to adolescence don't have, something that every Q needs." He shrugged. "We thought she was okay."

"But she wasn't."

"She decided, at some point, to fall madly in love with a mortal. Which is, you have to understand, considered something of a vice. Rather like... hmm, I can't think of a human equivalent. It's not morally wrong, it's not as if we think someone's going to be hurt, except for the poor hapless Q idiotic enough to get involved with one, but it's... beneath us. And stupid. Like... like falling in love with a holoprogram might be for humans."

"I see."

"But Azi was hardly the first. One of my older siblings fell in love with a new mortal on the average of every other hundred years, then moped about with a broken heart for a hundred years until she found a new mortal to fall in love with. And it was safe, in a way. I mean, if Azi tried to share herself totally with her lover she'd fry his puny brain, and if she shared herself to the extent that she could it still would be no danger to her whatsoever, so I felt reasonably secure about it. I mean, we were friends, but I didn't own her. I watched over her interactions with other Q, to be sure she was safe and they weren't going to take advantage of her, but it was never like we spent every minute together."

"What you are trying to say is that you were not jealous?"

"Well, I wasn't. All right, maybe a little, but not seriously. He was a mortal from a very long-lived species-- he could last a thousand years or so, which was actually a real amount of time to me. Most mortals I wouldn't have cared at all. I made fun of her, of course, but the Q always do that; she mocked me back, and I didn't see any real problem.

"Then she said she wanted to make him a Q."

T'Laren nodded. "Yes, I remember from your files you have the ability to do that."

"Well, he couldn't be a Q. The notion was absurd. He was a Sarrin-- one of those tall, bendy people Sovaz mentioned. They're pacifistic, gentle, telepathic, they communicate with one another in harmony-- I don't care how advanced Azi thought he was, he couldn't survive being a Q. She'd subsume him, in seconds, with the force of her need and the fact that he wouldn't have the vaguest idea how to protect himself. Or they'd subsume each other. And if he did survive, it would be at the expense of all the lovely traits she thought he had, and he would be incredibly lonely, doomed to immortality with people he could never share himself fully with. And I thought that the fact that Azi would propose this at all indicated that she was dangerously obsessed, that she couldn't think straight where this mortal was concerned. So I shot down her proposal in front of the Continuum, and proposed myself that she be forbidden to see him. And we agreed.

"She decided to disobey, and I... I knew it. When you know someone for a few million years, you know what they'll do... or you think you do. And if she disobeyed the Continuum would execute her. So I went to talk her out of it."

He stopped for several seconds. "Did you?" T'Laren asked softly.

"She tore me apart, T'Laren." He looked at her. "Literally. Normally one Q can't harm another Q-- we don't have the leverage, we'd hurt ourselves too badly. She couldn't have killed me without killing herself. But she was trying to. I never saw it coming-- I was trying to talk to her, and then she was ripping me to shreds." He shook his head. "Q against Q violence is almost unheard of. It happens at most every million years. I guess I was just amazingly lucky, that this million years it was me."

"That... is horrible. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I did far, far worse when I retaliated," he said darkly.

"What did you do?"

"I'm getting to it... They exiled her. Stripped her of her powers, made her a Sarrin and dumped her with her boyfriend. Me, they threw into a little pocket universe to get better. I was barely sentient at first, T'Laren. It's... as if I'd suffered a stroke, or something. I couldn't get my powers to work right, I couldn't think straight, all I knew was that I used to be powerful and with lots of other Qs, and then someone had betrayed me, and now I was weak and alone. It was dark to all my senses, and I could hear the Continuum but I couldn't participate or understand, and I couldn't leave."

"Why did they do that? That seems very cruel."

"No... actually it was the best thing they could have done. They were removing me from the influence of other Q while I was in a weakened and malleable state, so others couldn't change me in ways I wouldn't want to be changed. I had to heal on my own-- they couldn't fix it, or risk changing me, and they knew I wouldn't want that. So they locked me away. I could leave the moment I relearned how to teleport, of course, but until then I was trapped there.

"I learned again how to view the outside world... and I found Azi. And she was happy. Or it looked that way, anyway. I'd been trapped in there for ten years already, and it looked to me like Azi was thriving. She'd found her soulmate... and it wasn't me."

"I... understand."

"See, she'd tried to kill me. She'd committed the worst crime any Q of our generation had, that any Q could contemplate-- and now she was thriving and happy. And I was alone, powerless, trapped in darkness, with nothing to do but brood about the injustice of it all for the next thirty years. I... I grew to hate Azi, passionately. I couldn't believe she could be getting on with her life, that she could have achieved everything she'd ever wanted, the intimacy of minds she'd sought for millions of years, when I was suffering like this..." He stared at the floor, and his voice dropped. "So I decided to make her pay.

"And when I got my ability to teleport and my other powers back, the first thing I did was to go to her. I told her how I'd suffered in darkness for the past forty years, while she lived happily with her new husband. And I couldn't touch her-- it was forbidden, for the same reason none of the Q who don't like me can just show up now and kill me. But I could touch her husband."

He looked up at T'Laren, his eyes haunted. "I tore him apart, T'Laren. I shredded him, bit by bit, while Azi watched. I remember her screaming, pleading with me to kill her instead. And I laughed. It delighted me how much pain she was in, how much she was suffering watching him die, because of what she'd done to me."

Q leaned back again, no longer facing her. "The Continuum thought I was excessive. They didn't make me undo what I'd done-- none of them resurrected the man, they let it stand that I'd killed him-- but they feared that it wouldn't be enough for me, that I'd torment Azi again and again. So they forbade me to think about her."

"How can they forbid you to think something?"

"Believe me, it works if you're a Q. It was necessary, I suppose... Q thoughts have a nasty way of becoming reality. But it... I didn't think about it, but on some level I knew, and it haunted me... it's why I went to Guinan, and we know how that turned out..." He looked back at her. "And when they wanted to strip me of my powers, and exile me... I defended myself on every count but that one. For what I did to Azi, I deserved to lose my powers." He shook his head. "And now I know far better than I did then what it was that I did."

"What do you mean?"

"She wasn't happy, T'Laren. She couldn't have been. She'd lost immortality, omnipotence and her family. All she had left was her lover... so she clung to him as a reason for being. She made their love into something that could justify what she'd lost... and I took that away from her. I destroyed her reason for existing, T'Laren. I must have put her in the same position that I was in at Starbase 56." He looked at the floor. "I thought she was dead, when I thought about it... the last time I'd peeked, she was headed into Borg space, and I know she wouldn't have forgotten where that was. At some point she met up with Guinan, because when I met Guinan the second time, when the Borg were heading her way, she said she'd met Azi. But... I figured she was dead.

"And now I know she isn't. And I have to live with that. Because I don't have the power to resurrect her lover anymore."

"And this... is the worst thing you've ever done?"

"I deliberately set out to destroy a fellow Q emotionally, in as horrible a fashion as I could." Q looked at her. "Yes. That's the worst thing I have ever done. Oh, I've harmed alien races, I've put people through tests they weren't ready for, I gloated when the Borg destroyed Guinan's homeworld, but all those things were crimes against lesser species. When I was a Q, I truly didn't consider them equivalent to us, any more than you'd really get all broken up about hurting a bunch of dogs. Sure, it's not nice, it probably means you're a mean person... but it's not evil. What I did was evil."

T'Laren shook her head. "What you did was terrible, but... I think I can understand it. You were not truly in your right mind then, either. And while you cannot 'fix' the problem, as you put it... you have paid."

"Have I?" he asked bleakly. "Can anyone pay for something like that?"

"Can anyone pay for murdering their love?" she replied. "We do what we can, as you said. We go on with our lives, with the knowledge of the worst we can do, and that we have done it, and can never fully atone." She took his hand. "I am no better than you in that regard. I can't offer you absolution any more than you can offer it to me. And I can't offer you forgiveness, because it is not my place to forgive. But I can offer acceptance, and understanding. Because my crime is very much similar."

He smiled crookedly. "If Lhoviri really did fix the universe for you, maybe that's why he chose you. Because you think you understand."


They sat in silence for a few minutes. Q broke it finally. "So what happens next?"

"Am I still fired?"

"You are very definitely fired."

"You still need someone to offer you advice, on how to deal with humans and other mortals."

"I could use a bodyguard too. I don't want to go back to Starbase 56 just yet."

T'Laren nodded. "Where did you want to go?"

"I don't know. Anywhere that isn't Starbase 56." He grinned suddenly. "Perhaps I'll go to one of those vacation planets Medellin was always trying to get me to go to."

"And I?"

"Well, of course you'll come along. It's your ship, after all." Q turned to her. "Besides, like you said, I could use some advice. Just don't go thinking you can threaten to throw me out an airlock if I don't exercise any more."

"Of course not. I'll merely point out how much more attractive you looked when you were exercising regularly, and your own vanity will carry you the rest of the way."

"And then I'll point out how boring you look in whatever boring outfit you're wearing."

"What if I'm not wearing a boring outfit?"

"Unless I picked it out for you, it will be."

T'Laren nodded. "I believe this could be an equitable partnership."

"You sure you don't want to stick around?" Harry asked. "I mean, even you were impressed with the Mihara's technology. This whole first contact thing could be a lot of fun."

"Fun for you, perhaps," Q said, and ostentatiously yawned. "Once you've seen one highly advanced and spiritual society, you've seen them all. Personally, I always liked the more primitive races better. Little species like humanity have a certain raw energy to them which the older, more jaded species lack."

"Including your own?" Markow asked.

"Oh, I'd be the first to admit the Continuum could get a bit tedious at times. Paradise usually does, you know." Q sighed, and then brightened. "No, no, I'll leave the first contact to you folks. I've done my job; it's time for me to ride off into the sunset. My doctor's prescribed a month of vacation time for me, and who am I to contradict her?" He hadn't actually told any of them he'd fired T'Laren. The whole issue was entirely too personal.

"Off to Risa?" Harry said, grinning. "Don't suppose I could come along?"

"Risa is a sink of base animal lust and debauchery, Harry, of course I'm not going there. What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking you might be a lot happier with some base animal lust and debauchery in your life, myself. Tell you what; ask T'Laren if she thinks it would be good for you. I'd cheerily help a friend with his medicine, you know."

"I know," Q said woefully. "You've told me so, ad nauseam."

"Ah well. Can't blame a fellow for trying."

"I most certainly can. I can place blame whenever and whereever I want."

"Where are you going?" Elejani Baíi asked.

"Kyreer. I've never heard of the place myself, but apparently it's well-traveled by tourists, requires little in the way of paperwork so I should be able to go incognito fairly well, and has some fascinating archaeological sites. Not to mention an absolutely lovely shipyard, according to the brochures I've read. If I'm going to go tooling through the galaxy with my Vulcan sidekick, I'd like to upgrade Ketaya's defenses."

"After all the nasty things you've said about the engineering department, I can't believe you actually want to get your hands dirty with technological upgrades," Harry said.

"That's only because you didn't hear all the nasty things I said about the physics department to the engineers."

"I'm surprised," Markow said. "I didn't know you had enough tact to say things about people behind their back instead of to their faces."

"Amazing the things you can pick up in three years, isn't it?" Q agreed.

"When will you be coming back to Starbase 56?" Harry asked.

When hell freezes over. "I haven't thought that far ahead," Q said lightly. The idea of never returning to the starbase scared him-- he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life-- but the idea of going back and living in that hell again scared him far more.

"The Joint Laoni Sciences Council would be delighted to have you," Elejani Baíi said. "If you should wish not to return to the Federation. It could well be said that we all owe you our lives, Scamaran and Laon'l both."

"Yes, well, I'd rather it didn't be said. There are a lot of people who are out there trying to kill me, and given that Emaroth is still considered a demon by most Laon'l and Scamarans... frankly I'd rather the subject never came up, okay?"

Elejani Baíi nodded slowly. "Yes... I suppose I hadn't considered that. I won't tell anyone."

"So when are you leaving?" Harry asked.

"Tomorrow night. And no going-away parties, please. Though tasteful gifts are always appreciated."

"I've seen your quarters," Markow said. "I'm surprised you know what 'tasteful' means."

"What it does not mean is 'spartanly barren', though I realize there's a conspiracy afoot in your culture to make you think so. But then, Federation human culture seems to believe one-piece jumpsuits are actually attractive, so quite honestly I wouldn't put much stock in your cultural definition of taste."

"Are you sure we can't throw you a party?" Harry asked. "You have such a huge fan club."

"No, no. That's quite all right. They'll just have to bear up under the disappointment."

"Well, be sure to say goodbye to us before you leave," Elejani Baíi said.

Q looked at her. "I thought that's what I was doing."

This had to be done, and done before tomorrow night, or T'Laren might never have another chance.

She pressed the buzzer for Sovaz's quarters. The door slid open.

"T'Laren? Is there something I can do for you?" Sovaz asked politely.

"I have come..." T'Laren took a deep breath. "I have come to say good-bye."

"Saying goodbye is not particularly logical," Sovaz pointed out. "I am not a human, that you would need to do such a thing."

"No. But you are my sister, and I have wronged you."

Sovaz considered this. "You said you were no longer my sister."

"That is part of how I have wronged you."

"It was perfectly logical. You are no longer married to my brother. Therefore you are not my sister. It was not wrong to say that."

"Sovaz, let us stop trying to prove to one another how terribly logical we are, shall we?" T'Laren took a step into the room. "I was there for much of your childhood; I was an influence on your life. I behaved as an older sister to you in the same way the Dorsets behaved as parents to me. Even when I repudiated my Terran citizenship to claim my Vulcan heritage, and gave up my foster parents' name, I still continued to consider them parents. The same applies to you. It was Soram who repudiated me, not you. But I have had great difficulty in dealing with fellow Vulcans since that repudiation, and in particular you reminded me of what I had lost, and what my own actions had brought me to. You reminded me of the worst possibilities that lie within myself, and I turned you away for that reason. It was not logical, but it was what I did."

"Why did Soram divorce you?" Sovaz asked.

"I was insane."

"That doesn't seem a sufficient excuse to me. Surely you could have been healed."

"Perhaps our marriage was never meant to be. I have heard that he remarried..."

"He did. A year after we believed you had died... Why didn't you tell us you were alive?"

A year. The minimum decorous period after a mate's death before one could remarry, unless the pressure of one's Time was bearing down on one. And even then, the trauma of a wife's death usually threw a man off his cycle, giving him an additional two or three years before the Time of Mating returned. Soram had wasted no time at all. "I... could not. I owed an obligation to the person who had saved my life, and I could allow nothing to interfere with that." She shook her head. "But that isn't the whole reason. I will be honest-- you deserve that. The truth is I didn't want to. As I said... I couldn't deal with fellow Vulcans right then, or anyone who would remind me of my shame. My control was in total disarray and my emotions were largely ruling me. I didn't wish to be seen by anyone I knew in such a condition."

Sovaz frowned slightly, as if trying to understand. "It seems to me that this was not your fault. You began behaving strangely after you returned from that top-secret mission. I think Soram should have understood that something that happened on that mission clearly caused your difficulties, and he should have stayed with you. The fact that he didn't shames him, not you."

She still wasn't willing to tell Sovaz the whole story... she remembered the shattered look on Sovaz' face when the girl had seen what T'Laren had done, and couldn't bear to let Sovaz realize she was capable of such a thing. "I was the one who faltered. I... believe I am essentially recovered, now, but I am not willing to see Soram yet. There is... in some areas my logic remains impaired, and that is one. However, I don't wish to lose you, and I fear with the way I have treated you I may have done just that."

"My logic remains unimpaired," Sovaz said. "I accept your apology, and I am grateful that you don't wish to lose me, for I've never wished to lose you. I..." She deliberately composed herself. "I will ask you someday why you did it. I have wondered that for two years. But I don't think you can tell me right now."

"I cannot. You're right. Perhaps... someday."

"I thought you'd already left."

"Growing senile already?" Q mocked. "I don't depart this ship of fools until tomorrow night, remember?"

"Wishful thinking," Markow said.

It felt wrong, somehow, to leave without more acknowledgement to Markow than he could have done in public, at the goodbye lunch the few people he could call close to friends had thrown for him. Perhaps they all deserved more than that, but quite frankly Q didn't want to be alone with Harry, as the man was likely to get maudlin, and might well say or do something that required more tact than Q was willing to muster. And Elejani Baii made him uncomfortable. But Q didn't quite know how to say what he wanted to say, and perhaps it went without saying anyway, but without telepathy who could know for sure?

"I see right through you, Daedalus," Q said. "You want me gone so you can dazzle the conference with your feeble human excuse for a brilliant mind, without being overshadowed by the real thing."

"I want you gone so I can talk to the other one without having to admit I know you," Markow said. "New worlds to explore and all that."

"The other one?"

"The other Q." A silence fell for a moment. "That is why you ran out on the first contact briefing, isn't it? High Magister Martikale's a Q, and you knew her."

Q struggled with a lie, and realized his face had already shown too much to pull it off anyway. "You are entirely too damned perceptive for your own or anyone else's good," he said bitterly. "Tell me, where was that keen grasp on the nature of things when you decided to burn out your nervous system with an alien hat?"

"The same place your brilliance was when you did whatever you did that got you thrown out of the Continuum," Markow said. "Don't do it, Lucy. I can match you blow for blow if I need to."

"Could you really?" Q said in a dangerous tone. "I've got millennia of experience at this, and I've always been willing to call the kettle black. Are you warning me off because you don't want to go head to head with me, Daedalus?"

"I have better things to do then get into pointless mind-shredding competitions with my friends. You're upset over Martikale, aren't you? Did you not want me to talk to her, or did you just not want the subject brought up?"

"Talk to her all you want," Q said bitterly. "All she'll do is present you with meaningless meandering treatises on the nature of mortal emotion, in particular love-- which I'd be willing to bet is not something particularly high on your priority list."

Markow said nothing for several seconds. Finally he said, "It's not impossible, you know."

"What isn't?"

"That someone could love a cripple." His face was unreadable as always, but his eyes burned, and Q was not at all sure he was talking about himself. "Even the galaxy's biggest asshole might be able to find someone. Who knows?"

Now Q was sure Markow was talking about him, or at least both of them. "One would need to be looking, I would think."

"That isn't how it works. Things like that sneak up on you."

"Why are we having this conversation?"

"Because I'm tired of you being an asshole." Markow closed his eyes. "Being a cripple isn't an excuse, Lucy. Much as we might like it to be. You should talk to her. You're in the same boat, it looks like to me."

"You misunderstand the situation so badly, if I weren't used to wrapping my mind around truly cosmic concepts I might not be able to grasp the magnitude of your misunderstanding." Q looked away. "You've heard... I got thrown out for crimes I committed?"

"I figured something like that."

"Azi is one of those crimes," he said softly, then looked at Markow again. "And I'm not going to say anything else about it, so you can stop trying to pump me."

"You can't run away forever."

"Fortunately, humans don't live forever. I can certainly run away for the length of a human lifespan."

"Seems like cowardice to me."

"Fortunately, everyone in the universe knows I'm a terrible coward, so I needn't fear for my reputation."

Markow sighed. "You'll do what you want," he said. "What did you come here for?"

Q took a deep breath. "I'll... miss you, Daedalus."

"You're not coming back?"

"I... don't know. I can't stand the thought of going back to Starbase 56..."

"So go someplace else. Plenty of fish in the sea."

"I don't know," Q repeated. "And... since it's become even more obvious to me how fragile mere mortals are now that I am one... I don't know if I'll see you again."

"The really damnable thing about this condition of mine," Markow said, "is that you can't imply anything. You have to come out and say anything you want to imply. I hate having to say certain things, when I should be able to make them understood some other way."

"But you can't. You're limited by the medium, too."

"Right." Markow considered silently. "Don't get your fool self killed, Lucy."

The idea that he himself could find it more possible to baldly admit to emotion than Markow could struck Q as suddenly, absurdly funny. He laughed. "Daedalus, you're even worse than I am."

"You're not going to fall off the face of the universe again?" Tris asked.

"I'll try to avoid it."

"Not good enough. I want letters. Lots of letters."

"Did you ever send me a letter?"

"I sent one or two. And they were very long ones. With lots of detail."

"And you pacing around the room instead of looking at the camera. I remember your voice fading out on occasion, and many instructive views of your back."

"So I don't like to sit still. Maybe I'll actually send a written one. In writing. With those squiggly lines on it that most sentient races used for several thousand years before cameras."

"In handwriting?" T'Laren was skeptical. "Is your handwriting legible?"

"It's very legible. Standard's my second language, remember; I learned how to write out of a textbook. Now my Bajoran handwriting is miserable, but you can't read Bajoran, so I won't send you letters in it."

"I will send decorously recorded letters in which I sit still, speak clearly and actually look at the camera."

"Good. And I want updates on this situation with Q."

She felt a little guilty about that. She hadn't told him how the situation with Q had changed. It didn't seem quite fair not to tell Tris, but she was sure she was going to hear it about what a terrible idea this was, and she really didn't need to. "I don't know of anyone else I'd be willing to talk to about it," she said.

He gave her a look. "Very nice answer," he said. "It manages to sound flattering and avoid promising anything all at the same time."

"I'm glad you approve."

"Oh, well. You'll tell me what you want to tell me, I'm sure." He stepped forward. "Barbaric non-Vulcan leavetaking custom?"


"Hugs," he said, and hugged her. "Be careful."

"I will try."

"Will you be coming back?" Sovaz asked earnestly. "I still have a great number of questions to ask you."

"Funny, that's what Daedalus said. I'm beginning to think you people only love me for my mind."

Sovaz blinked. "I don't love you. Love is an extreme example of an emotion, and quite anathema to Vulcans."

Q laughed. "Do take a course in Terran idioms, dear girl. As for coming back, who knows? Perhaps someday you and I will open up a detective agency-- Mysteries of the Cosmos, Solved! If you wondered what happened to your missing mass, if you think your stellar bodies are fooling around on the side, or if you just want to know who changed the gravitational constant of the universe, call on Q and Sovaz. We could even hire T'Laren as our receptionist."

Sovaz simply stared at him. "Oh! Was all of that a joke?"

Ostentatiously Q pressed a hand to his forehead. "Why, oh why do I even try?" he asked melodramatically.

"Does your humorous statement mean that you are coming back, or that you are not? Or does it make a statement of probabilities at all? I confess I really didn't understand it."

"That much is obvious." Q looked down at her fondly. She really did remind him of Data. "I don't know where I'm going," he said, with uncharacteristic seriousness. "Not in the long run. But I will try to come back."

"That is all I can ask," Sovaz said.

By the next evening, goodbyes had all been said, and the entire ship knew Q was leaving, though he had been careful to avoid actually telling anyone why. People seemed to think it was a mere whim of his, which suited him-- he liked to be thought of as capricious, and this way, no one would suspect his fear of becoming known to the Mihara and their spiritual leader. Except for Markow, of course, but then Markow had always seen through him.

Since Ketaya was extremely small in comparison to Yamato-- about twice the size of a runabout, which itself wasn't much bigger than a shuttle-- it was docked inside Yamato's shuttle bays. Q and T'Laren said their final farewells and walked up into their ship, taking their places at the controls.

"Computer," Q said cheerily. "Set a course for somewhere else."

The computer didn't respond at all, not even to tell him the question didn't make sense. Q frowned. "I think we're having computer troubles."

"I think your troubles are larger than that, human," a voice said behind them.

T'Laren spun around in her seat the moment the voice started speaking-- to face five Ferengi with phasers trained on them. They were Yalit's brood-- she recognized their DaiMon, Dar, as the one who had spoken.

Q stared at them. "What is the meaning of this?" he blustered.

The DaiMon grinned broadly. "You told my mother, the Lady Yalit, that you were worth a great deal of money to the Federation. We're going to find out if it's true or not. Bej! Take the controls from the Vulcan female and pilot us out of here on the routing they submitted to Yamato's computers."

No. She couldn't let this happen. While they were talking, T'Laren was surreptitiously reaching behind herself for the toggle to turn on exterior speakers. She had almost reached it when Bej shot her.

"T'Laren!" she heard Q scream, as if from a great distance away. The floor moved up toward her in slow motion, and she was helpless to stop it, helpless to stop any of this.

"We've only stunned her, human. If you don't wish to see anything worse happen to her, you had better cooperate. You are valuable; she is not."

She felt Q kneeling by her side, taking her hand. "All right. As long as you don't hurt her, I'll cooperate." He was doing an admirable job of hiding how frightened he must be, she thought. A flicker of rage at them and pride in him surged through her, that they had stunned her so she could not be there for him, that he had to be strong all alone in the face of these pathetic monsters, and that he was doing so well at it, far better than she'd have expected. "But if you hurt her, you'd best pray to whatever gods you believe in for mercy."

"Why?" giggled one of the Ferengi. "Are you going to strike us down?"

"Shut up, Antek. Let him make all the threats he wants, as long as he cooperates."

T'Laren felt the thrum of the engines coming to life, felt the ship glide out of its berth in Yamato's belly and move out. She wanted to tell Q to dive for the controls, send a message to Yamato that they were being kidnapped, not to worry about her-- since he was valuable, they wouldn't dare hurt him, might not even risk stunning him, and that would give him precious seconds to act. But he wasn't trained for this, and apparently was thinking only about her safety, remaining quiet and unmoving at her side as the Ferengi hijacked their ship.

She was going to have to teach him how to handle a situation like this.

If they both got out of here alive.

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