Chapter 1

On a dark planet in an uninhabited and remote part of the galaxy, a figure sat on a ledge near the top of a mountain, watching a light show of swirling color unfolding in space.  Coruscating bands of purple and pink, blue and green, interspersed with flashes of silver, whirled and rippled in an eternal and breathtaking ballet of hues which intermingled and flowed apart in a perpetual series of waves and spirals.  This spot, and its view, was known to him alone, and it always brought him a measure of peace, temporarily soothing the restlessness and boredom that drove him from place to place in search of diversion.  At the same time, he felt an overpowering loneliness, a feeling that grew with every visit to his mountaintop refuge.  He longed to share this view with someone, and not just anyone, a particular someone, but he had no idea how to go about attaining that goal.  For a being who could get whatever he wanted with a snap of the finger or a wave of the hand (that is, when he was in human form and had fingers and hands), this state was frustrating, to say the least.

Q, for it was indeed Q, got up and paced restlessly on the ledge, his hands behind his back, then sat down again with a heavy sigh.  A second later, an ironic smile crossed his face; he was a creature of irony, and even as he indulged his feelings, he couldn't help mocking himself for them at the same time.  I've obviously been spending too much time with humans, he thought, I'm starting to get sentimental.  Q wasn't one to berate himself for long, however; he was accustomed to believe that whatever he happened to be thinking or feeling was the right thing to be thinking or feeling.  And moreover it was the only right thing to be thinking or feeling.  Still, this attachment to a mere human was troubling to him; what was it about Jean-Luc Picard that drew him?  He sighed again, for he knew the answer.  Q liked a challenge, and Picard had posed one since their first encounter.  The Captain had a commanding presence; he had imagination and ambition and drive and passion.  He had a good deal more depth than most humans, and a contained, focused, yet towering energy that Q found quite attractive.  That focus and drive seemed so appealing to Q because he lacked those qualities himself.  Picard had accomplished a great deal despite his myriad limitations, perhaps even because of them, whereas Q had never had to work for anything.  There was indeed something admirable about human aspiration and drive, and Picard had more of that inner vitality than any other human he had encountered.  He was also a very good-looking man, Q thought with a wry smile; he had been around humans long enough to absorb some of their aesthetic criteria.

But there was something else, too, an inexplicable bond or connection he felt that transcended the insurmountable differences between the two of them.  What did humans call it?  Chemistry?  Ever the narcissist, Q was convinced that he saw a great deal of himself in Picard, and he liked what he saw.  Picard's arrogance, his high opinion of himself, and his refusal to be intimidated by Q all tickled Q immensely; in so many ways Picard reacted just the way he would to a given situation.  Of course, Q had had to take great pains to teach Picard that; the man had to die and be revived before he would finally admit that the ways in which he resembled Q were an essential part of his character.  Whatever it was, Q felt more alive when he was with Picard than he could remember feeling in centuries.

He thought repeatedly about expressing some of his feelings toward his object of affection, but vulnerability was not his preferred mode.  On the occasions when he had had the opportunity, he had only been able to manage oblique hints, which Picard had either not processed or deliberately ignored.  Instead of simply saying what he felt, Q had been unable to resist the temptation to make a gratuitous display of his power to try to force Picard to acknowledge his dominion.  He couldn't simply tell Picard that he was maddeningly jealous of Vash, when the profit-minded archeologist had dropped in on the Enterprise; he had to force Picard into yet another one of his tests, a Robin Hood scenario designed to show Picard how love was bringing out the worst in him.  Q's resulting departure with Vash hadn't had the intended result either, but at least he had an entertaining companion for a while, one who helped him recapture something of a sense of wonder at the glories of the universe.  The particular view in front of him he hadn't shared with her, however.  She was a diversion, nothing more.

When Picard had died on the operating table, after he had been fired upon and his artificial heart had failed, Q couldn't resist playing authority figure and forcing Picard to bend to his will once again.  He had simply intended to tell Picard something of his feelings and restore him to life, but when the time came, it was as if he was compelled to put the Captain through yet another test, this one giving him the opportunity to relive a portion of his past he was ashamed of.  Although Picard had initially walked right into Q's trap, making the wrong decision, Q of course restored him to life anyway, after giving him the opportunity to rectify his errror.  For all the fondness he felt for Jean-Luc, he had enjoyed playing God and teaching Jean-Luc a lesson, a lesson which he admittedly was grateful for.

Q also wondered why, even when he was doing something for Jean-Luc's benefit, he couldn't help ridiculing and humiliating him while parading his own superiority.  Was it that he was ashamed of his own feelings for a member of such an inferior species?  Perhaps his continual derision toward Picard was a projection of his own confusion.  As it was, his extremely undeveloped interpersonal skills had only increased Picard's contempt for him.  It was only in their most recent encounters that the Captain had expressed gratitude for Q's assistance and just the barest beginning of comprehension of Q's fascination with him.

At this point, curiosity overwhelmed any doubts he may have had, and he began probing Picard's mind, wondering if the man was thinking about him at all.  He knew the Captain would not be at all happy about these invasions of his privacy, but he figured what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.  Q was never one to be stopped by ethical considerations, although there were lines even he wouldn't cross.  This, however, was not one of them.  So, mon Capitaine, he thought to himself, have you forgotten me completely?  Picard's conscious mind was absorbed with the details of the mission he was engaged in, some diplomatic trivia regarding a planet petitioning for entry into that pointless Federation.  Q probed further; for him, entering the mind of another was like a trip in virtual reality; he not only sensed emotions and verbally expressed thoughts, but detected repressed emotions and unconscious stored memories as well, receiving a stream of words, images, memories, and feelings.  He could, of course, absorb the entire contents of a human's mind all at once, but he enjoyed the journey of penetrating the layers of consciousness one at a time, while filtering out irrelevant or uninteresting information.  As if entering an inner room, Q investigated Picard's subconscious mind, with only the slightest pang of guilt.  The image of Beverly Crusher was prominent, much to his disgust.  He had no idea what Jean-Luc saw in her besides her looks.  Further still, however, much to his delight, he discovered himself as if looking in a mirror.  The emotions swirling around the image of Q in Picard's mind were of irresolution and perplexity, as if his thoughts of Q were a puzzle he could not solve, and had decided to put in the back of his mind.  Q detected gratitude, curiosity as to why Q had taken such an interest in him, and a wholly unconscious pinprick of affection.

The entity decided to conduct an experiment.  He could, of course, have simply brainwashed Picard into falling in love with him, abandoning his position, and devoting the rest of his lifetime to Q.  But Q knew that what was not what he wanted.  While he had developed enough of an ethical sense not to overwhelm the object of his affections entirely, he couldn't resist a little test, a test in which Picard would be totally unaware of his involvement.  He knew that if he and Picard ever did get closer, he would have to behave himself, or at least appear to be behaving himself, so he might as well enjoy being a cad while he could.

Extracting a memory from Picard's own mind, Q planted it in his subject's consciousness, then sat back to enjoy the show, completely oblivious to the galactic wonders unfolding in front of him on his mountaintop.

* * *

Q's attention being drawn to Picard, he did not notice that in the far reaches of the Alpha Quadrant, at a location unimaginably distant from where Q was now, something had penetrated the galactic barrier, something utterly alien.  It rested and waited, having come a very long way.  After all, this galaxy would offer plenty of opportunities.  Some kind of prey would come along in time.

* * *

Jean-Luc Picard was in his ready room, scanning historical and cultural information about the Angrians, the people petitioning for admittance into the Federation.  He wanted to know as much as possible, so as not to commit any diplomatic gaffes.  Although he was a skilled diplomat, the task in front of him was not commanding his full attention.  He was beginning to daydream, in fact.

Much to his surprise a visual memory popped into his conscious mind.  It was when Q had given him the opportunity to relive a portion of his past, and he had spent an enchanting night with his old friend Marta Batanides.  It was not Marta who popped into his mind, however; instead, the memory was of waking up the next morning, feeling a finger lightly stroking his ear, and rolling over to discover Q lying next to him and greeting him with an affectionate "Morning, Darling."  Picard had, instinctively, yanked the covers up to his chin.  What was nagging him about the memory, however, what puzzled him, was not his initial reaction to Q's presence, but rather, how quickly he had felt comfortable lying in bed and chatting with an entity he had come to think of as his most potent (and irritating) adversary.  He remembered, as well, confiding in Q the previous day about some of his amorous indiscretions, and hearing Q remark, "I had no idea you were such a cad.  I'm impressed."  There was something puzzling about the entity's tone of voice--it seemed almost . . . well . . . affectionate.

(Well, of course it was affectionate, you incurable dimwit, thought Q as he observed the memories unfolding in Picard's mind and his responses to them, Do I have to spell everything out?)

Picard, meanwhile, was unaware that his daydream was being observed by the unimaginable telepathic powers of the very being he was daydreaming about.  He would have been incensed, but in his blissful state of ignorance, he merely ruminated on how odd it was that he could chat so casually with Q.  He realized later that Q had indeed engineered the whole incident for his, Picard's, benefit.  Q had saved his life and at the same time had helped him become reconciled to an incident in his past he had deeply regretted.  But in this particular memory, waking up to find Q beside him, it was perplexing that he could have felt so relaxed, almost intimate, with him.  Was he, God forbid, beginning to perceive Q as a friend, or had Q simply lulled him into an unguarded state of mind?  How could he assume that any feeling he had about Q was not planted by Q himself?  Q was certainly capable of making him think whatever he wanted, yet somehow the conversation he remembered, the circumstances, and his own feelings seemed somehow natural, not something planted in his brain from without.

(No, I'm not brainwashing you, Jean-Luc.  I  may have called that memory into your consciousness, but the rest came from you.  If you're starting to think of me as a friend, then that is entirely of your own volition!  Q smiled to himself; his experiment was going better than he thought.  He noted that Picard was about to be summoned back to the bridge, and, a little wistfully, disengaged his mind from the Captain's.)

Still unable to make sense of his reflections about Q, Picard was summoned to the bridge.  He too, although he wouldn't have been able to pinpoint the emotion, and would have denied it if it were pointed out for him, felt a kind of wistful regret at having his daydream interrupted.  Soon thereafter, Q also received a summons.  He wasn't happy--being summoned by the Continuum was a bad sign.  Q had a distinct feeling he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.

* * *

Standing on the surface of a planet with twin moons, Riker watched aghast as creatures in Napoleonic-era soldier uniforms attacked his friends.  He was filled with horror as he watched Worf's death-struggle, as one of the creatures repeatedly stabbed him with a bayonet.  Then, Wes  . . . God, no, not Wes! . . . ran over to Worf's body and was impaled through the back.  An echoing voice urged him, "Use your power!  Use the power of the Q!"  Riker couldn't take any more.  In a fury, he exclaimed, "Damn it!  DAMN IT TO HELL!" and his arm flashed as he intended to create a force field to protect his friends.

Nothing happened.


Worf and Wes lay still on the ground, and the inhuman soldiers advanced . . . and kept advancing.

A mocking, disembodied voice resounded through the landscape, "JUST KIDDING!"

Riker howled in frustration, waking himself up in the process.  I hate him!  God, how I hate him! he thought to himself.  He tried to calm himself by reminding himself that it hadn't happened that way; none of his crewmates' lives had been lost.  It didn't matter.  I still hate him.  I wish we'd never heard of the God damned Q Continuum.

* * *

Picard sat up straight in the Captain's chair, giving commands as the Enterprise fled from the Borg ship at maxium warp.  Photon torpedoes exploded harmlessly off the Borg ship, utterly ineffective.  The shields were failing, and the Borg were about to recapture his ship with their tractor beam.  And Q, damn him, was lying draped on the bridge railing, in a maddeningly relaxed pose, as if nothing of consequence was going on.  A few moments later, after Q had taken over Data's chair at Ops, Picard knew what he had to do.  He demanded, "Q end this!"

"Moi?  What makes you think I'm either inclined or capable to terminate this encounter?"

Very well then, thought Picard; he had to humiliate himself utterly.  He had to allow Q to triumph or lose the lives of his crew.  It was an easy decision, but he knew he had to make a convincing performance, to allow the sadistic entity to have the complete victory he desired.  "If we all die here, now, you will not be able to gloat," began Picard in a strained voice.  "You wanted to frighten us, we're frightened.  You wanted to show us that we were inadequate for the moment, I grant that.  You wanted me to say I need you, I NEED YOU!"

Q smiled . . . snapped his fingers  . . . and vanished.  Utterly.

Slowly, inexorably, her shields down, her weapons useless, the Enterprise was being drawn into the maw of the Borg  vessel, to be dismantled, her technology plundered, her crew assimilated or killed.  He had led his entire ship and crew to destruction, in some god-forsaken part of the galaxy, because he had been too arrogant to accept Q's offer of guidance.  And Q was pitiless.  It was over . . .

Picard sat up, looked around his bedroom, temporarily disoriented, then realized he had been having a nightmare.  Perhaps his knowledge of the disastrous events that came later, the Borg invasion, his own near-assimilation, and the later alliance of some of the Borg with Lore, had caused his mind to rewrite the script of that first encounter.  But it could have happened that way, he thought, deeply shaken.

* * *

Geordi La Forge was in Engineering, reluctantly trying to protect Q, who was in a shuttlecraft, being pursued by the Calamarain.  As far as he was concerned, the Calamarain could do whatever they wanted with that arrogant, self-absorbed jerk, who had come swaggering into Engineering like he owned the place and hadn't shown the least bit of concern that Data had been severely injured while saving his useless life.  He had better things to do than trying to save Q . . . like making a second attempt to restore the orbit of the Bre'el IV moon and saving millions of lives.  La Forge could not remember feeling so callous before, but when all of his controls froze, and he could neither extend the shields around Q's stolen shuttlecraft nor get a lock with the tractor beam, he wasn't exactly sorry.

Unable to operate the frozen controls, La Forge headed up to the bridge to see if he could help there.  The Calamarain had vanished along with the shuttle.  They had apparently seen the last of Q.  Then, much to his disgust, Q suddenly appeared, complete with a mariachi band, to celebrate his restored omnipotence.  Just as quickly he disappeared again.  Suddenly Worf exclaimed, "Captain, the moon!"  All heads turned toward the viewscreen, as the Bre'el moon plunged into the planet's surface.  Although he was almost in shock, La Forge could have sworn that he heard a disembodied voice exclaim "Oops!"

What the hell? thought Geordi to himself as he woke up.  Q saved those people.  Why did I dream it like that?

* * *

Reluctantly dressed as Will Scarlett, Worf was battling his way through a group of guards in a medieval castle, trying to protect the Captain.  Picard, dressed as Robin Hood, was fencing with Sir Guy of Gisborne, all of them trapped in a ridiculous scenario staged by Q.  Ridiculous as it was, Worf knew it was also real, and lives were at stake.  He plunged toward the stairs to help Picard, only to watch in horror as Sir Guy's sword stabbed deep into his vitals.  With a roar, Worf leapt upon Sir Guy from behind, strangling him in an instant, but it was too late.  The Captain's fallen body lay sprawled on the stairs, the sword protruding out of his abdomen . . .

Worf found himself being shaken awake by Alexander.  "Father," exclaimed the child, "I heard you yell.  Are you all right?"

"It was just a dream," responded Worf gruffly, embarrassed at his reaction.

* * *

Beverly Crusher was doing everything she knew to save Jean-Luc's life.  He had been carried into sick bay by Worf, having been fired upon, and his artificial heart was failing.  The inaprovaline and cortical stimulators had no effect.  Although she maintained an outward calm, Beverly's heart was racing, and she was terrified.  Despite all of her efforts, Jean-Luc's life ebbed out of him, and he died on the operating table.

Waking up with a start, her heart pounding, Crusher gasped.  Maybe the dream meant something was really wrong with Jean-Luc.  When the actual events transpired, he had recovered, convinced that Q had restored him, but Beverly was never entirely sure how he had survived.  Afraid to wake him, but even more afraid not to, she summoned him through the comm link.  "Crusher to Picard, are you all right?"

Picard's voice sounded rather dazed and disoriented, "Yes, Beverly, I'm fine.  What is it?"

"I'm sorry.  I had a nightmare, and I just had to check on you.  I'm sorry to wake you."

"You didn't wake me, actually.  I had a bad dream as well.  But it's all right.  Try to go back to sleep."

Eventually Riker, La Forge, Worf, Picard, and Crusher fell back asleep.  Although they didn't compare notes on their dreams, they all awoke the next morning with a sense of forboding that Q would soon be making another appearance and that, despite the fact that their dreams contradicted the actual events, he was definitely not to be trusted.  For each of them it seemed that the dream  versions of their experiences were just as plausible and there was no reason to believe that Q wouldn't, one day, use his powers against them in a genuinely destructive fashion.

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