"Wakey-wakey, Jimbo! Rise and shine! Time to get to that whole King Arthur thing!"
Where was he? What had happened?
He tried to remember. He'd been with... Spock, that was it. No, Antonia. No, no, that wasn't right, that hadn't really happened. The French guy, the future captain, what was his name? P... something. Picard. Right. He'd said it wasn't real. And then there'd been the fight with the El-Aurian madman, the one who was going to blow up a sun and kill 600,000 people. Yes, now he remembered.
"Hel-LO! Jimmy T! Time's a-wastin' here!"
And then the trestle had broken, and he
--and it hurt and he was here with a stranger, a man he'd learned to respect but still barely knew, not alone but he might as well be alone, no Spock, no Bones, no Gary or Sam or anyone and he was alone, so that meant he was dying--
"I'm dead," he said, and opened his eyes.
"Technically that's true, Jim-boy, but we're fixing that as we speak. Your kind are so easy to resurrect. Not like some other species I could mention, that live much longer but then die as eternally as they lived. Oh, not that I'm bitter, or anything."
The voice was a human man's, with a dark edge to it. Kirk turned his head to find the speaker. He was standing in a gray, featureless realm, lit but with no light source, as if the light was just everywhere and nowhere, and next to him... was a man in Revolutionary War costume, who looked as if he'd been wargaming way too seriously. Bandaged, bloody and bruised, his clothing ragged and dirty and much more realistic to the time period than most wargamers' fantasies of pristine Revolutionary War garb. For some reason he thought of Trelane, but Trelane's costumes and sets had no reality to them whatsoever. He could see the dirt on this man's face, smell the blood seeping through the bandage around his shoulder and the acrid tang of ancient gunpowder from the musket he was leaning on.
"What are you?" he asked.
"What am I? Not who am I? That's downright rude, Jimbo. I mean did you say 'what are you' the first time you met a Vulcan? Huh?"
"You just said I was dead but you were fixing it. You look human, but you look like a human who's been fighting a war that was over 500 years ago--"
"600. You're in the 24th century now. 80 years in the Nexus, remember?"
"All right. 600. So I think I'd better start with 'what' and move on to 'who' once we're clear on that."
"I'm a godlike entity who used to run around putting humans through tests to see if they were worthy."
"You know, that is actually the least surprising answer you could have come up with."
"I know. Why do you think I picked you?"
"For a test?"
"No. School's out, James. Your species proved themselves. You're adaptable, strong-willed, driven, and fast-evolving. Personally, I think you're as close to absolutely perfect as any life form on your level gets. Though if you're lucky enough to see Jean-Luc again, don't tell him I said so."
"Jean-Luc. You mean Jean-Luc Picard? The future Enterprise captain?"
"The present Enterprise captain, actually. You would be the past Enterprise captain. Remember?"
"Yes," he said, somewhat wistfully. "I know. You know him?"
"Know him? I dressed him up in tights."
"You tested him."
"And he passed. Which is the problem. And that's why I need your help."
"Is there an echo in here?"
"Why would a godlike entity need my help?"
"Trust me, I'm not God and I don't want your starship. I need you to go to sleep on Romulus for a few years until your old pal Spock comes by to wake you up. Assuming he doesn't choose wrong. But I think I know what he'll choose."
"What is Spock doing on Romulus?"
"Trying to peacefully overthrow the government and create a grass-roots movement for reunification with Vulcan, actually. And looking, I may add, much less decrepit than you, despite being 80 years older. I really can't have that. Here." He snapped his fingers. Something changed-- Kirk couldn't quite tell what until he looked down at himself. The weight he'd gained over the years, gone. The lines of age on his hands, gone. He reached to his hair. The curly perm he'd gotten years ago, gone, replaced with the wavy hair of his younger days, his glory days.
"Is this real?"
"'Is this real.' No, Jimbo, I resurrected you from the dead but of course I have to resort to telepathic parlor tricks to make you think you're 36 again. Yes, it's real. I'm going to need you to be available for feats of derring-do, most likely, and if you're going to fight gods, you'd better be in peak condition. The only one you beat after you got old was One True, and he was sad. I mean, he needed your starship. That's utterly pathetic."
"I'm not going to fight for your amusement. And I'm not going to fight in your war."
"Oh, but it's your war too, Jimmy." The man sat down on the nonexistent ground, seeming suddenly very weary. "Or at least it will be."
"Maybe you'd better explain."
"Obviously. The banter is amusing, but with your limited intellect we could be here all year before you guess what's going on, and I don't have a year." He sighed. "I belong to a race called the Q Continuum. We're nigh-omnipotent entities, who are immortal unless our own kind shoots us. I used to think we were far more advanced than humanity, but now... no. We're just more powerful. Not more advanced. If we were truly advanced we wouldn't be doing what we're doing."
"Which is what?"
"Having a civil war. Chaos vs. Order. Or, well, that's going to prejudice you so let me rephrase. Change and growth vs. stagnation and stasis. We want to see movement, change, transformation. Evolution. They want everything to continue exactly the way it is until the end of time. Remember I told you what we had decided about humans' nifty qualities? Guess which side likes you and which side doesn't."
"You said we're adaptable and fast-evolving. So... I take it your side approves of us and the other side doesn't."
"Bingo. And don't be fooled by my little metaphor here." He gestured at his outfit. "We don't have a George Washington and we haven't got the French to ride to the rescue. We're losing, Kirk. And when they've killed us all, they're going to quarantine humanity."
"What do you mean by quarantine?"
"I mean quarantine. Move all of you back to your home solar system and put a barrier around it to keep you in and everyone else out."
"They can't do that! There's a trillion human beings in the galaxy!"
"Several trillion, actually."
"That's even worse. They can't all fit in the solar system."
"You'd be amazed how many humans can fit into something if you squeeze them."
"That would destroy us."
"Now you're getting the point."
"All right. All right, then. If those are the stakes, tell me what you need me to do."
"I need you to go to sleep for a few years and then pull a King Arthur. Wake up and ride to the aid of your people in their darkest hour blah blah blah."
Kirk shook his head. "I don't see the point to that. I want to do something now."
"Like what? I can't give you my powers and you can't use my gun without them. You can't help me fight my war. I wish you could. I might have some reasonable chance of living through the next half hour then. But only Q can use the weapons that kill other Q. What's going to happen to me, and my cause, and then to humanity, is inevitable."
"So what do you want me to do?"
"I have no idea, but you'll think of something. You're very good at that."
"You expect me to come up with a way to beat gods. When you, a god yourself, can't figure out how to do it."
"Well, let's be fair, Jimbo, I have never encountered impossible odds before in my billions of years of existence. Whereas beating impossible odds has been your stock in trade for 60 years. And you'll have Spock. He'll be a bit more weatherbeaten than you are now, but he'll be there."
"Send me to him."
"Not now. The enemy doesn't know you're alive, and if I blow the node, they'll never find out, as long as you're in stasis when they look for all humans. I need you to be asleep, practically dead again for all intents and purposes, after I lose, when they come for your kind. Then, Spock will wake you some time after that, and then the two of you can figure something out. I don't know. My last plan really didn't go so well so I really hope this one does better."
Abruptly Kirk realized something. For all his sarcasm and posturing, the battered appearance this entity presented to him was real. Maybe he wasn't actually a human fighting the Revolutionary War, but he really was a desperate being fighting against a stronger, better supplied enemy, fighting for freedom... and, this time around, apparently losing. He was scared. And, for all his power, virtually helpless.
Kirk had been tested by any number of godlike beings. He had never actually had one desperately relying on him to save the day before. It was, frankly, terrifying.
But Kirk had never been one to run from a challenge. "I'll do whatever I can. What prevents these beings from realizing I'm a free human once Spock wakes me up?"
"You're dead. To their knowledge. The... I don't quite know how to say this so you'll understand... the information of what I've done, of your existence, is contained in a specific node of the power we all rely on, and when I'm done here I'm planning to blow up that node. All information pertaining to you will be lost. When they scan for humans they won't find any. And these, you know, these are the people who want the universe to always be exactly the same and have no surprises in it. They'll never bother to scan for humans again, having done it once, because they won't be able to imagine how they missed one."
Kirk could see many holes in that plan. What if the being didn't manage to blow up the node as he planned? What if his enemy was more thorough than he was planning for? "You're trusting a lot to luck, you know."
The entity smiled bitterly. "I know. I just... My luck is terrible lately. But yours has always been good, well, aside from that falling and dying thing a few years ago." He laughed. "Here's the funny part. You ran around for 60 years telling various gods you weren't gonna worship them. So here I am, a god, more or less praying to you. Isn't that hilarious?"
"I think it'd be funnier if there weren't so much at stake."
"I know. I know." He stood up. "Well. Te morituri salutamus and all that. You've got a bed under a hill to go to and I've got an appointment in Samarra to keep. Do something for me?"
"If you see Jean-Luc-- or if you see Kathy. Kathryn Janeway. Another 24th century starship captain. If you see either of them... tell them I'm sorry?" His voice broke, cracking on the last word, as if he were close to weeping.
Kirk nodded, trying to project a confidence he didn't feel, because pretending that you had it was the only thing that inspired other people to actually have it and if they actually had it, they had a chance. "I will. But try to tell them yourself. Who should I say gave me the message?"
"They call me Q. In those days it was all the same thing, we were all just Q. Now... oh, hell. That's what they know me as."
"All right, Q. If I see them before you do I'll give them the message."
Sardonic smile. "I won't see them again. But thanks for the thought, anyway."
He gestured, and the world went black.
Next: life in hiding.