Q's implausible reverie was suddenly interrupted when an anguished cry of Q! broke in on his consciousness. "Just when it was getting good," he muttered to himself. Within seconds he was back on the ship, materializing in sick bay, whence Picard had summoned him. He was not in a good mood. "You called?" asked Q nonchalantly.
Picard looked terrified. He was standing next to one of the biobeds on which the mangled body of Beverly Crusher had been placed. Q himself felt slightly sickened at the sight of the bruises and swelling and blood. But he was in a particularly perverse mood and had no intention of making anything easy for anybody. "Please Q," pleaded Picard, "you know why I called you. I know you can help her. Please. I need your help."
Q looked unconcerned. "Why, Captain, death is one of the hazards of your mission. Would you have me suspend the laws of nature, those laws to which you humans are so utterly bound, and make an exception?"
"Damn it, Q, YES!"
"I honestly don't know what the Continuum would think of me bringing you mortals back from the dead right and left. It seems like that would be a major interference in your natural development."
"Q, she was trying to help the injured. She didn't deserve to die that way."
Q's voice grew increasingly menacing. "Of course she didn't. Life isn't fair. Neither is death. In fact, it's downright irrational. There's no plan; people die who deserve long lives, and those who deserve an early death live years beyond their time. You know this; she knew this."
Picard fairly roared, "I don't care about what's fair, and I don't care about what the Continuum thinks. BRING HER BACK!"
"Whatever you say, Captain." Q gave a dismissive flip of the hand. "She'll wake up in a minute or so. Any more miracles you'd like me to perform? It's a dirty job, but apparently somebody's got to do it." With that, he disappeared.
Picard ran to Beverly's side and was holding her hand as she opened her eyes. "It's all right, now, Beverly. You were hurt."
"Jean-Luc," she murmured, "I was sure I was dead. The ground was shaking, and something hit me in the head." Picard hesitated.
"What is it, Jean-Luc?"
"You were dead, I think; Q brought you back."
"I asked him to. I couldn't bear that you should die that way."
"Jean-Luc," she smiled and kissed Picard's hand. Beverly started to get up, but Picard and the medical staff tried to stop her. "I feel perfectly fine, like nothing happened. You'll have to thank Q for me; I wish I could practice medicine like that."
Once he was sure she was all right, Picard checked on the condition of the evacuated colonists, then ordered the ship to the nearest Starbase to drop them off. Later that night, in his quarters, after having changed into his pajamas, Picard sat on the edge of his bed, feeling troubled. With his trademark flash of light, Q appeared next to him. "I must compliment you on your taste in night clothes, mon Capitaine. Very fetching."
Picard murmured thank-you. His conscious mind had barely processed the remark, but within his subconscious, a small key turned a notch, and a sliver of light entered the room.
"Q, I don't know how to thank-you or where to begin. Beverly, of course, wanted to thank you too."
"Oh, please spare me that. Anyway, don't thank me yourself. It was nothing. Really. Just call on Q when you're not willing to make the effort to do something yourself."
"What are you talking about?"
"You could have done it yourself, Picard, only you're so bound by your limited way of seeing things, that it never entered your mind."
"I don't understand. I couldn't bring Beverly back to life."
"And this is the man that only a few weeks ago was about to smash an entire Cardassian fleet into sub-atomic particles if I hadn't stopped you."
"I had your power then," said Picard, utterly lost, "You took it back."
"So I said at the time; maybe I never gave it to you in the first place, or maybe I did and never took it back, or maybe it happened just as you think it did. I'm not going to tell you," Q smiled. "You have absolutely not the beginnings of an idea of what the mind can do. Much to my dismay, you and the doctor have a bond that transcends your physical and intellectual limitations. If you really put your mind to it, you could have brought her back, as long as you believed you could."
Picard murmured, "I'm not a doctor, Q."
"I know, you're a starship captain. That has nothing to do with it. You humans have such utterly primitive medical techniques anyway--I wouldn't want to have to rely on them. They're irrelevant. Don't you get it? The mind is everything, Picard. This ship seems solid enough to you," Q thumped on the wall, "but it's as fragmentary and illusory as anything else. Watch." Q passed his hand through the wall and back. "That wall, this ship, those stars and planets out there give the illusion of solidity. They're solid because you believe them to be. I, however, perceive them at the quantum level, in a state of constant instability and flux. When I wish for an object to support me, like this bed, I think of it as solid, but when I want to pass through an object, I insert myself through it in quantum terms. You don't need your transporter to do that. It's all mind. I could blow up your ship with a thought; I only have to imagine the molecules breaking apart, the forces that hold them together being nullified. I don't need a phaser or photon torpedo for that. Matter is just a bunch of subatomic particles in flux, held together with quantum forces; my mind can exert even greater forces to either disrupt those connections or forge new ones. Want a replica of the Enterprise? I could create it in an instant, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between it and this ship, that crew and yourselves. Life and death are states of mind, and you remain subject to death as long as you believe it is something that happens to you, that you can't control. I honestly don't see how someone with as much potential as yourself can be so hopelessly dense, Picard. Haven't your experiences with different time lines taught you that this reality you're so grounded in is simply a function of your perceptions and the perceptions of those around you? It's an illusion. History is an illusion. I could alter history permanently with the merest tinkering of any point in what you see as the past, and the result wouldn't be any more or less real than what you think of as reality now. Remember your Shakespeare's Tempest; you made the speech, and he was right, you know. This is all an 'insubstantial pageant.' We're all living a dream; it's just that some of us have more conscious control over the dream we choose to live in than others."
The Captain's head was spinning. "You're right, Q. I'm hopelessly dense, my brain is in a muddle, and even as I understand your words, I have no idea how to make what you say real to me. I understand that you can use your mind to manipulate matter, energy, space, and time, but I've always assumed it is simply because your species somehow evolved that way."
"We did, but that's because we chose to. You could too. Your limitations are self-imposed, Jean-Luc. And if you expect me to solve every little problem you're faced with, you're never going to learn anything."
"I cannot dismiss Beverly's death as a 'little problem.' To me it was an insurmountable problem. I admit my limitations, and I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment to you, and I'm sorry I can't grasp what you're saying, but I needed your help. I asked for it. I don't expect you to be gracious about helping, but I appreciate it. Thank you. To me, it was a miracle."
Q softened, "Well, I wish you wouldn't thank me. It was no sweat, so don't go around treating me like a saint all of a sudden."
Picard grinned. "Q, don't worry. Sainthood is the very least of the qualities I would attribute to you."
"That's a relief, Jean-Luc."
"But I do have a question. If the mind is everything, then how come the Continuum was able to strip you of your powers? How come you couldn't surmount that little problem?"
Q smiled, shaking his head, "It figures that you would ask me that, Jean-Luc. I was hoping you'd let me off easy, let me make my big speech and get away with it. The best answer I can give you is that, powerful as I am, I haven't been able to convince myself that I'm stronger than the combined power of the Continuum. And that makes me vulnerable--they could destroy me if they saw fit. I'm sure there are other beings out there who could make a convincing show of being more powerful than I believe I am, as well."
Q continued, "I hate to return to a painful subject, but this incident with your lovely Doctor C raises a problem."
"What?" asked Picard.
"Oh, I'm not going to just give it to you, Johnny. That would be too easy. Think about what you just did back in Sick Bay."
Picard's brow furrowed. There was a long silence. "I asked you to bring Beverly back to life," he said slowly and hesitatingly. "In fact, I insisted on it. Your concern is that this might set a precedent."
"You're smart, my mortal friend. How much difference is there really between your having my powers and your telling me what to do with my powers? I know you wouldn't ask me to destroy an enemy of yours outright; I could simply make your ship invulnerable, which I imagine would give any attacker a profound motivation to negotiate. And in that situation I'm extending my protection equally to your whole crew. But what happens the next time one of them gets killed in the line of duty? And the time after that? Or a crew member or family member of a crew member develops a fatal illness? Believe me or not, Jean-Luc, I do use my powers judiciously. I may select a mortal here or there whose life I intend to guarantee, but when that mortal starts asking me to extend that protection to this individual or that individual, eventually the impact on what you think of as history is going to be pretty large. Where does it stop? I have a hard time refusing you anything you ask. Are you prepared to wield the power of life and death over your crew? Decide who lives and who dies? What if I had been around when Jack Crusher died, for instance?"
Picard winced. Whispering, he said, "I would have asked you to do the same thing. Of course I would. He was my best friend, regardless of what I felt for Beverly at the time."
"I know, Jean-Luc. But what would the impact have been? And I don't just mean for your relationship with Beverly. You're so damned noble you would ask for his life back in a second even now without any regard for yourself. But what about her? Would she be the same person she is now if she didn't have to rely on herself all these years? What about young Mr. Crusher and the incredible (for a human) evolutionary process he's going through? Maybe Jack Crusher's untimely demise was a necessary sacrifice to allow the three of you to develop the way you have, to make the contributions you have made and are going to make in your lifetimes. What if you had asked me to bring your Lieutenant Yar back in this timeline? Would she have gone back to the past in the alternate one you stumbled into? That kind of interference can have pretty hefty consequences. I have far more ability to foresee the future than you do. I can decide to preserve a life here or there because I can weigh the possible consequences. If I do protect your ship, I can make adjustments if necessary. You can't. I'm not trying to denigrate you, but you just can't. But when you make that kind of request of me, and I have to turn you down . . . "
"If you hadn't restored Beverly, I never would have forgiven you. Unfair and unjust as that would be, I would never forgive you."
"But if I hadn't demanded that you bring her back, I never would have forgiven myself. I do see the position I'm putting you in, and I do see that I'm taking on a power I'm not ready to wield, but honestly, the next situation that arises, I don't know what I'll do. This is not exactly an easy issue to resolve."
"No, and I don't have the answers for you. I just want you to think about the questions. As your species evolves, and some members of it evolve more quickly than others, you're going to have to wrestle with questions like that. I just want you know when you asked me I wasn't giving you a hard time gratuitously. But of more immediate concern to me, however, is you, Picard. You honestly don't have a clue what you're capable of. My telling you that the mind is everything and that reality is a function of perception is meaningless. You have to discover that for yourself. And to that end, allow me the indulgence of an experiment . . . "
"Q!!!" exclaimed Picard, but it was too late. His room went dark, utterly pitch black. It fell completely silent. None of the ambient sounds of the ship could be heard. As Picard's eyes began to adjust to the darkness, he determined that he was in at the bottom of a narrow and deep shaft, which had rungs leading up . . . to where? It was too dark for Picard to see more than a few feet above him. After gingerly feeling the slippery and smooth walls of the shaft, he paused. "All right, Q, what's the point of this?" There was no reply.
There didn't seem to be anything else to do but to start climbing. The rungs had to be there for a reason. Picard climbed . . . and climbed . . . and climbed . . . and climbed some more . . . and some more. He wasn't worried about falling at first as he was an expert climber, but as he climbed the shaft seemed to be lengthening out above him; after what seemed like hours of climbing he was nowhere near anything that resembled the top. Picard paused, trying to disregard the agony in his knees and shoulders. The rungs were extremely narrow, allowing only the toe of his boot to rest on them, which strained any number of muscles in his legs and feet. After breathing deeply for several moments he resumed. The climb was so numbing he almost forgot entirely about Q; his entire being was focused on reaching the top. How he had gotten there in the first place was an issue he was too tired to be concerned about.
After what felt like even more hours of climbing and pausing, climbing and pausing, climbing and pausing, Picard stopped. What the hell am I doing? he thought to himself. The muscles in his arms and legs were trembling from the exertion, his legs were beginning to feel like spaghetti, and he was drenched with sweat. Sweat had been pouring into his eyes for some time now, which stung intensely, but he was afraid to let go long enough to wipe them. Anyway it wouldn't have done any good; his sleeves were soaked.
Wait. How did I get here? Q, damn it! Something about an experiment. And here I am, the rat in the maze. I suppose if I ever do get to the top there'll be a nice Brie waiting for me. But that's not the point, is it? What was he saying? Something about the mind being everything . . . At this point, his attention was distracted by the sensation of both feet and calves cramping from holding this unnatural position for so long. Picard gingerly wiped one hand at a time on his pants, so they wouldn't slip on the rungs, then stretched out one leg at a time, flexing his foot to stretch out the cramped muscles. Not trusting his damp hands, he quickly resumed his spider-like crouch on the rungs and returned to his musings.
The mind is everything, he said. Reality is a function of perception. Good enough. So as long as I believe I'm in this godforsaken shaft, then I'm stuck. I have to believe I'm back in my quarters, on my bed. But how the hell do I do that? Picard closed his eyes, wincing slightly at the stinging sensation, then began to concentrate, trying to visualize his bedroom and himself in it. It wasn't easy. His trembling and aching muscles made it hard to concentrate, and Picard realized that every inch of his body was soaked except his throat, which was dry as sandpaper. He reminded himself, however, that he had won the Starfleet Academy marathon, the only freshman to have done so, no less. Aching muscles were a minor concern and could be dismissed by a disciplined mind. Picard concentrated harder on the image of his bedroom, trying to see himself in it, to make the shaft melt away, leaving only a small part of his attention on his cramped hands gripping the rungs.
Suddenly he heard a mocking voice in his head, You're getting closer, Picard. I thought you'd never figure it out though. Apparently, they'll let anybody command a starship, these days. This is your reality now. It's out of my hands. But you haven't really convinced yourself you're in your quarters and not in this shaft. Until you do, you're stuck.
I'm trying, damn it! snapped Picard mentally.
A for effort, D for execution, so far, returned the mocking voice. You certainly don't act like you believe you're in your quarters.
The realization broke suddenly on Picard's mind. He knew he had to believe he was in his room enough to let go of the rungs. But if he didn't believe it, he knew with utter certainty he'd be dead meat at the bottom of the shaft. Dead and mangled meat for that matter. He began to repeat to himself, over and over, "I'm in my bedroom, I'm in my bedroom," then he had to laugh aloud at the the absurdity of the situation. He felt like Dorothy, saying "There's no place like home." Interesting how certain children's stories stood the test of time. He supposed that made Q the Wizard, and the concept amused him even more. "I'm in my bedroom," he repeated to himself, still laughing, and finally let go of the the rungs . . .
And opened his eyes . . .
And found himself back in his very own room, sitting on his very own bed, still drenched in sweat and sore all over. Q was standing in front of him, arms folded, eyes twinkling with amusement. "Congratulations, Mr. Picard. You've passed the class," then in a harder tone, "just barely."
Picard laughed. "Q, your teaching style is worthy of several professors I had at the academy. I believe we used a colloquial term to describe them. I believe that term had seven letters and started with 'a.'"
"But you learned something, didn't you? Only if you weren't so dim, you would have figured it out long before you worked yourself into such a sweat. Ugh." Q waved his hand up and down in front of Picard, who was instantly clean and dry, his muscles pain-free.
"I have one question, Q."
"Would you have let me fall?"
Q smiled and nodded, "Uh huh. Yup." His eyes locked on Picard's. "I would have put you back together of course. It would have interesting, all those little shattered bone fragments. You wouldn't have enjoyed either the fall or the impact, however. But it would have been educational. No pain, no gain, and all that."
"You really do remind me of some of my professors," remarked Picard.
"Yes, well, I may be that seven-letter epithet you're too delicate to call me, but this wasn't just a game. The mind is everything, and someday you'll be in a situation where that knowledge will serve you well as long as you don't let your human limitations impede you."
Picard nodded. "I get the point, Q."
"Well, it certainly took you a while! Next time, I'm giving you a time limit."
Q disappeared in a flash. In another flash, something appeared in Picard's hands. It was a large round of French Brie. "What an asshole," muttered Picard to himself, but he was smiling.
* * *
The young cadet strode through the halls of the astrophysics building at Starfleet Academy, on his way to pick up the results of his final exam in his advanced astrophysics class. The class had been much more interesting than he had anticipated, and the instructor had had an impressive array of fascinating facts and details about the universe at his fingertips. The professor had also been very convivial, joining the cadet and his friends for drinks after class and relating tales of his travels around the galaxy. Several of the women had clearly had crushes on him, and the cadet himself had to admit the professor was one of the most interesting people he had ever met.
When the cadet knocked on his professor's door, the man swung his chair around, smiled, and looked the young cadet up and down. "Ah, I suppose you want to know how you did on the exam."
"How do you think you did?"
"With all due respect, sir," said his pupil in a not particularly respectful voice, "I hate it when professors do that."
"Why do you think we do it? Answer my question, young man."
"I think I, to use an old earth expression, kicked ass, sir."
"That would be an accurate assessment. In fact, this is the highest score on an exam I've ever given. You'll go far, Cadet." The professor handed the exam back to his student, asking, "I'm really quite impressed. Buy you a drink?"
"Thanks, Professor. I never turn down the offer of a drink."
The professor turned off his computer, and the two men headed toward the nearest watering hole. Over drinks, he queried his pupil about his future plans. As they walked back through a deserted part of the campus grounds, the professor said suddenly, "Now that you're no longer in my class, I have a confession to make."
The cadet's eyes opened quite a bit wider.
The professor continued, "I've always taken a particular interest in you, young man. And not an entirely professional one."
The cadet was somewhat disconcerted, but he was brash enough not to let it show. "I see what you're getting at, Professor, but my interests don't lie in that direction."
"Yes, I know. You have quite a reputation as a ladies' man. But you also have a reputation as someone who will try just about anything. Why limit yourself?" asked the professor, tipping his head slightly to one side and smiling with raised eyebrows.
"Well, it's certainly something that it had never occurred to me to try," said the cadet uncomfortably.
"Why, are you scared?" taunted the professor.
"I'm not scared of anything," retorted the cadet.
"Well then, prove it," said the professor, with another slight sideways nod of his head. "I would hate to think my best student would be intimidated by a new experience. My place is just over there. Care to join me?"
The professor had taken precisely the correct approach to pique his student's curiosity and to stir his natural arrogance as well. After a few moments of hesitation, the cadet nodded with an assumed casualness, "Sure, why not?"
Jean-Luc Picard shot awake with a start. Q, God damn it, get in here! he demanded.
At first he heard a disembodied mocking laughter, then Q materialized at the foot of the bed, laughing so hard that tears were streaming from his eyes. He could barely speak, but managed to observe, "Well, well, well, the subconscious is a wondrous thing. Where's Sigmund Freud when you need him? But I'm really disappointed. You woke up right before the best part."
"Q!" snapped Picard, "Is this your idea of a joke? I don't appreciate these nocturnal invasions. They're completely unethical. I'm furious that you would do such a thing!"
"Moi? You wound me, Jean-Luc, with your unwarranted accusations. I didn't plant that dream in your head."
"What are you saying, Q?"
"Oh, you are so dense when you first wake up, Picard. What I'm saying is that your subconscious mind conjured up that scenario all by its perverse little self. I was merely a spectator. I have to say, it gave me an idea though."
"You leave my past alone!" raged Picard.
"I will admit," continued Q, "that on prior occasions I have been known to plant dreams in your mind and watch the results, but I always made a point of erasing your memory of them before you woke up. And I'm truly ashamed to confess that I never came up with anything nearly that creative. I'm in awe. I never realized your imagination was so sordid . . . Johnny." Q dissolved in gales of laughter again.
"I don't believe you."
Q sat up suddenly. "Well, you'd better start, mon Capitaine, because I may be unscrupulous in many respects, but I don't lie to you. Never have, never will. But I have to say, while I'm deeply hurt by your distrust, I'm infinitely grateful for the ammunition you've handed me. I'm going to hold this one over you for years!"
Picard dropped his head into his hands, muttering "Merde, merde, merde."
Q moved over so he was sitting immediately next to Picard. As he traced one finger up and down his victim's spine, he murmured into Picard's ear, "You look like you could use a drink, young man."
Picard jumped. "Q! Please! I don't need this!"
"I'm sorry, Jean-Luc . . . well, no I'm not . . . I'm enjoying this immensely, and it was an impulse I just couldn't resist."
"How unusual for you," retorted Picard, drily, having recovered some of his composure. "Normally you're such a paragon of self-control."
"Well, as in all my endeavors, my intentions are thoroughly dishonorable. But in this case, you have only yourself to blame."
Picard sighed. "You really mean it. You didn't plant that dream in my mind."
"Picard," exclaimed Q, "every time you attain a new abyss of obtuseness, you manage to outdo yourself. For the last time, let me explain. I did not provide you with that dream. I have to give credit where credit is due. It was all your own doing. I have to say, it was quite entertaining. You know, whenever you happen to be thinking about me, or in this case, dreaming about me, I am instantly alerted. I can't help it; I had to watch. For that particular invasion of your privacy, I apologize, although I make no promises as to my future behavior."
"I don't know what to say," confessed Picard helplessly.
"Would you like me to give you my interpretation?"
"I'm guessing you're going to give it to me whether I want you to or not."
Picard sat back and folded his arms. "I'm listening, Q."
"I think the reason you dreamed about an encounter between me and your younger self is that 'Johnny' would be far more inclined to experiment than you would, Captain. I've aroused your curiosity if nothing else. But I'm not interested in simply serving as a means to satisfy your curiosity. That's not what I'm after."
"What are you after?"
"To tell you the truth, I don't exactly know, but this isn't a game to me, Jean-Luc. You mean more to me than any other being I have ever encountered, and I've been around for a long time."
Picard was moved by Q's apparent honesty and suddenly serious demeanor, but he remained cautious. "I see. But why me? I still don't get it."
"Maybe I just love a man in a uniform."
Picard sighed and raised his eyebrows. "Q, if there exists another being in this galaxy more infuriating than you, please warn me, so I can steer clear of it. Why do I put up with you?"
"Because, Picard, the possibilities I offer you are endless. Good-night, Johnny. Sweet dreams."
"God forbid. Good-night,
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