Chapter 14

A few days later, the Enterprise was exploring a distant and unmapped portion of the Alpha Quadrant, Starfleet having granted Picard permission to avail himself of Q's powers in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.  So far the mission was uneventful.  Various members of the science staff were making charts and analyzing data, but without anyone noticing, they slowed down more and more, focusing on their tasks, but at a very desultory pace.  The rest of the crew were feeling equally relaxed.  Beverly Crusher had lost interest in the experiment she was doing and had retired to her office, playing idly with a paperweight on her desk.  The children in school were all unusually quiet and well-behaved, but their teacher didn't seem to have the energy to lead them in any activities, so they all watched movies on the classroom computer screen instead.  Geordi suddenly found the maintenance he was supervising in Engineering to be too much trouble, and he gave his staff the day off.  Q himself wasn't paying attention to what was going on, as he was engaged in an involved discussion with Guinan, comparing some of the experiences over the past couple of centuries.  In fact, both Q and Guinan had uncharacteristically let their usual alertness lapse.  Picard was reading in his ready room, not terribly interested in the astronomical details his staff was collecting.  Now if there were interesting archeological sites to explore, that would have been another matter.

On the bridge, even Worf was unusually relaxed; his stiff warrior demeanor had become transformed into an almost meditative pose, as his attention drifted away from his console.  Only Data seemed unaffected by the mild languor affecting the rest of the crew.  Deanna seemed more listless than the rest; she repeatedly yawned and announced her intention to take a nap.  The lull did not last long, however.  Q suddenly sensed something.  He felt momentarily like his mind was being deeply probed, examined, studied, scanned in a manner unlike any previous telepathic contact he had ever had with his own species or others.  It was not a pleasant sensation.  As soon as he tried to reach out mentally to determine its source, he found himself thwarted.  His mind encountered only a blank wall.  It was at this moment that Guinan became aware of a presence as well, and she stared out of the Ten-Forward windows with alarm.  "What is it?" whispered Guinan.  "There's something out there, but I can't get a fix on it at all."

Q was temporarily paralyzed; he had a look of stricken fear Guinan had never seen before, and it terrified her.  When he had recovered his powers of speech, he could only murmur, "It really exists.  It's true.  And it's here.  It exists, and it's here."  Suddenly he turned to Guinan, and exclaimed, "And you thought the Borg were dangerous.  Come on!"

A moment later Q and Guinan had materialized on the bridge.  Q quickly assessed the passive state of the crew and murmured in the same awestruck tone he had used in Ten-Forward, "It's already happening."  Q forced himself to shake loose the clouds gathering in his mind, strode into Picard's ready room, and announced, "Captain, we're in more danger than you can possibly imagine.  No time to explain.  I'm going to get us out of here."

Picard slowly lifted his head from his book, paused as if wondering what to reply, then said casually, "Umm, whatever you say, Q, make it so."  Q was already back on the bridge.  As the increasingly drowsy and relaxed bridge crew watched the viewscreen in numb amazement, Q threw one of his trademark gridlike force fields around the object that was causing him such concern, then sent the Enterprise whipping across the sector to what he hoped would be a safe distance . . . for a while.  Fortunately, Q had gotten the Enterprise out of the range of whatever it was, and the ship's population slowly returned to their usual selves, feeling like they were struggling out from layers and layers of sleep.  When the bridge crew seemed sufficiently clear-headed, Q mentally proposed that Picard call a meeting, insisting that Guinan be present as well.

When they had all convened in the observation lounge, Q looked around the table, and asked, "Can you all pay attention now?  This is serious."

Worf seemed embarrassed about his lapse in alertness and sat up ramrod straight.  Except for Deanna, who was still rubbing her eyes, the others were pretty much back to normal.  Picard asked, "Q, can you fill us in?  Are we out of danger?"

Q sighed, "For a little while.  It may be able to block your sensors, but I think I can keep monitoring for it myself.  It's a long story, but since the fate of your galaxy depends on it, I think I'll start at the beginning.  Even though my fellow Q and I have the capacity to travel outside the galaxy, most of us have never taken that opportunity.  On the whole, we're a pretty lazy bunch.  But many thousands of years ago, before I became conscious, two members of the Continuum decided to go exploring in the Andromeda galaxy.  That was a time when we were more like you; we had more drive, more desire for knowledge.  Well, the two of them never returned.  Before the Continuum lost all contact with them, they managed to send a rather incoherent message which was only received by a few members of the Continuum who could receive thoughts from that distance.  The explorers warned of a being with telepathic powers that surpassed ours to a tremendous degree.  Since their message was so unclear, my fellow Q didn't know what to make of it.  It seemed too dangerous to investigate, but no one was ever really sure whether the explorers were telling the truth or simply projecting an elaborate story, so no one would expect them back.  They had been rebels, malcontents actually, and the Continuum couldn't decide whether to take their messages seriously.  It became more of a legend as centuries and millenia passed.  We didn't know whether this being really existed.  But what the explorers did convey was that its telepathic capacities were unimaginably powerful.  I could brainwash all of you with a thought; I could get you to do whatever I wanted you to do, to think whatever I wanted you to think, and to feel whatever I wanted you to feel.  Even Data would not be immune; as you've seen, I was able to make him laugh.  Fortunately for you, we in the Continuum have developed enough of an ethical sense not to go around imposing mind control on inferior species.  We may experiment on you, but we don't take over your minds.  Well, this being--I don't know what to call it--apparently has no such ethical restraints, and it, according to the reports of the explorers, can apparently exert mental control even over us."

"To what purpose?" asked Troi.

"Good question.  According to the reports received back from the explorers, what they sensed from the entity was an overwhelming boredom and hostility.  I believe it's just looking for stimulation.  The last that was heard of the explorers they were unaccountably trying to destroy each other, apparently having been brainwashed into doing so by the entity.  At the time, many in the Continuum didn't believe what they were receiving because it seemed too implausible that there was a being out there that could brainwash us.  The Q have a tendency to be a bit complacent.  But I sensed an overwhelmingly powerful mind out there, more powerful than my own, and believe me, that's not easy for me to admit.  I believe that our ship-wide lapse of alertness was the entity's way of getting control over the ship.  Once everyone had lost all volition, it could amuse itself with all of us at its leisure."

"Can it be stopped?" demanded Riker.

"Well, I'm certainly going to try to find out.  Give me a minute here."  Q closed his eyes, focusing mentally on the distant entity, his face a mask of concentration.  When he opened his eyes, he shook his head and exhaled in a prolonged sigh.  "It's blocking me somehow.  I can get only minimal information about it."

Guinan spoke up, "Maybe it noticed you in particular, when we first encountered it.  You're the most powerful of its intended victims."

"Yes, and I really appreciate how tactfully you phrased that, Woman!  But I think you're right.  I sensed it probing me in Ten-Forward, and then it was like a barrier came up.  Unfortunately it probably has a lot more information about my capacities than I do about its.  At least from here, I don't seem to be able to affect it in any way."

"What have you been able to find out?" asked Picard.

"So far, what I've been able to determine is that it exists within a kind of shell.  The shell encases a fluid medium, and the entity, which is non-corporeal, seems to permeate the fluid.  This is what it looks like."  At this Q caused a smooth, gray object, in form like a rounded oval, to materialize above the conference table.  "I can't tell you what it's composed of, since the substance is unknown in this galaxy, but it's structurally similar to neutronium."

"That's going to be a tough nut to crack," remarked La Forge.

"Yes," agreed Q, "and the entity can further assure its own safety by brainwashing whoever it encounters into surrendering."

"You say it exists in some kind of fluid?" asked La Forge.

"Yes," said Q.  "I'm just speculating here, but I imagine that it was originally some kind of underwater life-form that evolved into the non-corporeal being that it is now, and that whatever it is composed of requires a fluid medium to sustain it."

"Does it have a power source?" asked Riker.

"Yes, itself.  Or its mind actually.  I don't know if I can make a distinction; all it is is a mind."

"Can we communicate with it in any way?" asked Picard.

"Sure.  It can read minds as well as take them over, but Federation-style diplomacy is not going to work on this thing, Captain.  We can ask it politely if it will be so good as to return whence it came, but by the time you complete the request, your mind isn't going to be your own any more.  I can try to talk to it, but this being is so utterly alien to us that I can't see any basis for communication.  Before the explorers encountered this entity, they discovered entire populations murdered . . . by each other.  That could very well be the work of this creature."

Guinan spoke up.  "I got a really bad feeling from that thing when Q and I first sensed it.  Captain, if we don't destroy it, it's going to destroy us, and it won't be pretty."

"So what do you propose?" snapped Picard.  "This is a life-form from outside the galaxy.  We can't simply go in and destroy it without trying to make contact."

"No, and it's a moot point anyway, Captain," interjected Q.  "Because by the time you got close enough to fire your phasers, you would have all surrendered the ship anyway.  Listen, this is the last thing I ever thought I'd admit in front of all of you, but I'm scared.  Do you hear what I'm saying?  I'm scared of this thing."

If the gravity of the situation hadn't sunk in before, it had now.  Everyone around the conference table fell silent.  Q turned to Picard and spoke mentally, I need to talk to you alone, now.  Picard nodded.  "Conference adjourned for now."

Data spoke up.  "Q, if you could provide us with the composition of the entity's shell, Geordi and I can begin work on modifying our weapons systems.  Then they will ready if we come up with a plan to circumvent the entity's telepathic powers."

"Sure, it can't hurt."  Q picked up a padd, glanced at it briefly, then handed it to Data.  "Everything I know about it is on here.  Good luck."

As the staff dispersed, Q and Picard headed for the Captain's ready room.  "I know what you're going to tell me," said Picard as the doors slid shut.  "You're planning on going out there and trying to handle this yourself . . . "

"Precisely.  If I get close enough to overcome whatever it's blocking me with, I may have a shred of a chance of either communicating with or overcoming this thing.  You don't.  It's too dangerous for you and the crew.  But if I don't have all of you to worry about, I can at least concentrate on trying to defeat it, or reason with it, or something."  Q stepped up to Picard and took his hands.  "And I want you to stay here, where you're safe for the time being. . ."

Picard interrupted, "Q, I can't let you do this."

"Yes you can," said Q softly, pressing the Captain's hands harder.  "You can't stop me, and you know that my existence is not worth the sacrifice of every life on this ship, even if there was anything you could do.  I'll tell you what.  If you come up with a feasible plan, feel free to join me.  Otherwise, I want you to stay safe, understand?"

Picard whispered, "Q . . . I . . . ," and his voice trailed off.

Q smiled, leaned forward suddenly and kissed Picard hard on the lips, then said, "Je t'aime, mon Capitaine," and vanished with a grin and a wink.  Picard sighed and raised his eyebrows but couldn't help smiling to himself.

He then straightened his shoulders, adjusted his uniform, and strode out to the bridge, demanding, "Mr. Data, how long is it going to take us to get back to where we encountered the entity?"

"We are two days' away from our previous coordinates, assuming maximum warp."

"Two days!" exclaimed Picard, "Damn him!"  He then regained his composure, saying, "Plot a course back to our previous coordinates.  In the meantime we need to come up with a plan."  Picard sat back in the Captain's chair, lost in thought.  He had an intuition that Q was going to be needing his help, but he had no idea how to provide it without risking his entire crew.

* * *

For all of his good intentions, Q did not have a plan.  He had never faced anything so exponentially more powerful than himself, and his principal motivation was keeping Picard and the Enterprise's crew safe.  Q was a creature of impulse, and despite all of knowledge and experience, he was hardly a master strategist.  His experience had been with dominating less-powerful species; being in the position of the underdog was almost entirely new to him, except for the humiliating helplessness he had felt during his temporary demotion to human status.  Even though Augusta had temporarily put him out of commission, he knew all along (as did she) that he would eventually gain the the upper hand and without too much difficulty.  But now he was really out of his league.  If he'd had more sense and less pride, he could have summoned the collective power of the Continuum, but it simply didn't occur to him.  He viewed himself as an utterly self-sufficient being, and the idea of running home for help because there was an incredibly mean bully on the schoolyard wouldn't have entered his mind.  As far as he was concerned, he was on his own.

Q approached the entity warily.  It had remained where it was before, although Q noted that it had managed to eliminate the forcefield he had thrown around it.  It seemed confident that its intended prey would return and simply waited.  Q materialized on a convenient asteroid.  He began probing the entity's mind as unobtrusively as he could and was relieved that he was able to get a little more information.  What he didn't figure out, however, was why.  The entity was unbelievably powerful within the limits of its telepathic range.  It had never yet met a victim it couldn't brainwash.  It was not physically invulnerable, however, despite the density of its shell.  While Q was at a distance, it had surrounded itself with psychic energy barriers that Q's mind couldn't penetrate beyond the most superficial level.  Now that Q was within its range, it didn't bother with such defenses; any adversary close enough to brainwash posed no threat.  Not even Q.  As Q probed the entity's mind, at least the parts of it he could access, what he discovered terrified him; not only was it an incredibly powerful mind, but it was an incredibly powerful one-track mind.  The entity's mental energy was almost entirely focused on finding victims to amuse itself with.  Once it had tired of its most recent victims and watched them kill each other off in a variety of horrendous ways, it would move on, hunting for more.  Right now the mind was alerted; here was a victim that would be slightly more challenging than most.  Q was horrified; for a moment he felt as though he were looking at himself in a mirror that both distorted and enlarged.  Q did not kill for amusement, but he realized that this creature's motivations for what it did were very little different from his own.  The boredom, self-centeredness, and frustrated restlessness that he sensed seemed terribly familiar, and the thought sickened him.

Constructive as this flash of self-knowledge was, it did not serve him well now.  He needed to concentrate on the problem at hand.  Suddenly, from the inmost recesses of his mind, Q sensed a powerful impulse to fetch the Enterprise back to this location.  The impulse was inexplicable, but it felt like an irresistable compulsion.  Q's mind was multi-layered and infinitely complex; while he sensed the impulse to retrieve the Enterprise, the equivalent of his conscious mind was thinking that this didn't make any sense at all.  After a few moments of internal debate, he realized what was happening.  Furious at being tampered with, Q tried to launch a bolt of energy to destroy the creature.  His action was halted almost as soon as he had conceived it; he had never felt such a sensation before, but it was as if the portion of his mind that could manipulate matter and space and time was paralyzed.  Q had hardly time to process his sensation, when his mind was overcome by a blinding, pulsating light and waves and waves of pain, the likes of which he had never imagined.  The entity was taking advantage of Q's assumed human form, and Q felt as though every nerve ending was on fire.  But the pain inside his mind was even more intense, searing through every layer of his consciousness.  The torture lasted about a minute, then stopped.  Q immediately intuited that this was a punishment for his attempted attack.  Although he was both shaken and weakened, he mustered his energy and pulled himself together. Well, back to the drawing board, he managed to think to himself.

His conscious mind managed to form the query, I don't suppose there's any chance of you deciding to just bypass this galaxy and leave its inhabitants alone, is there?  The reply was instantaneous; long peals of mocking laughter emanated from the alien entity's mind.  No, I didn't think so, but I thought I'd ask.  So much for diplomacy, concluded Q.  The impulse to bring back the Enterprise had returned stronger than ever.  Q tried every telepathic block he could think of, every possible way he had previously devised to keep his fellow Qs from intruding on his privacy, but it was to no avail.  He felt more and more strongly that if he didn't retrieve the ship that he would lose his sanity.  Still he tried to resist, furious at his helplessness.  He was frozen, immobile, and the only thing he knew with any certainty was that he would be released only to fetch back the Enterprise.  A portion of Q's mind still remained to him, and he was determined not to give in.  He channeled all the mental energy he had remain into erecting blocks, but he felt more and more of his mind being encroached upon, and he was too rattled to concentrate.  He couldn't understand how his mind had been invaded so completely.  At the same time, the blinding light and the pain returned, increasing exponentially as Q continued to resist.  He felt dizzy and nauseous, as daggers of pain stabbed deep into every layer of his consciousness.  The alien being was losing its patience.  Q's immensely powerful mind was no match for his enemy; he felt his mental shields slipping.  Soon he was conscious of only two things:  the sensation of impossible, unendurable pain and the conviction that if he retrieved the Enterprise, the pain would stop.  He could no longer remember why he was trying so hard to resist.

* * *

On board the Enterprise, Picard was trying to calm himself enough to think clearly.  He sat in the Captain's chair, gazing at the viewscreen, frenetically coming up with absurd plans and instantly dismissing them.  His one consolation was that he still felt the comfortable sensation of his link with Q in his mind.  Suddenly he sat up.  Within that portion of his mind allotted to the connection with Q, there was a wavering, an indefinable shift in the sensation that had become so familiar.  What?  What is it? he demanded to himself.  The wavering sensation continued; Picard felt as though his link with Q was slipping away from him.  He mentally called out Q?  Q??  Q!!!  For an instant the link ceased to waver.  Within his mind Picard heard an anguished but defiant howl, NO!!!!! then a whisper, Jean-Luc? then . . . nothing.  Nothing at all.  The link was snapped, and Picard felt utterly alone.

* * *

Picard's voice calling Q had come just in time.  It was enough to remind what shred of his identity had not been taken over why he should resist.  Q was overpowered, however, and he had only one defense mechanism remaining.  Mustering all of his determination and taking strength from his summons from Picard, Q mentally exclaimed NO!!!!! and broke his mind away from the alien entity.  As blackness overcame him and he collapsed, from the very core of his being emerged a whisper, Jean-Luc? then darkness and silence were his universe.  An impenetrable darkness, an impenetrable silence enveloped him; he couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't move.  The darkness and silence suffused every layer of his mind except for a pinprick of consciousness, an atom of light in the darkness.  That atom of consciousness barely remembered who or what he was; the overwhelming sensation was darkness and silence.

* * *

Picard collapsed back in his chair, pale and stricken.  Riker and Deanna were immediately bending over him.  "Captain?" asked Deanna.  Picard weakly raised one hand to motion them to back off a bit.  He had to take a moment to process the realization that burst upon him with a stark clarity, the realization of how utterly essential Q was to him.  He had gotten so used to the sensation of Q's presence in his mind that he had begun to take it for granted.  With the connection snapped, he felt cut off from a part of his own self.  As if penetrating through a thick haze, Deanna's voice began to register on his consciousness, "Captain, can you hear me?  Are you all right?"

He opened his eyes and murmured, "It's Q.  Something happened."  At this moment the turbolift doors slid open, and Beverly Crusher rushed onto the bridge.  Picard hadn't heard Riker summoning her when he first collapsed.  Pull yourself together, he thought to himself, Q needs you, and the ship needs you.  PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!  Or as Q would have it, GET A GRIP!

Picard sat up in his chair, his hands firmly grasping the arm rests.  "I'm all right, Beverly.  I just had a bit of a shock."  The others looked at him questioningly.  "Ever since Q has been on board, he has maintained a kind of telepathic link with my mind.  I can't exactly describe the sensation, but over time I've gotten more and more conscious of it.  For instance, I always just seem to know where he is.  Well, something happened to him out there, and . . ." his voice faltered a moment and Crusher put her hand on his shoulder, "I don't sense him now.  Something's seriously wrong."  Crusher still looked concerned.  "There's nothing wrong with me physically, Doctor," said Picard with a weak smile, reaching up to grasp her hand for a moment.  He sat up straighter, went through the quick ritual of straightening his shoulders and uniform, then stood up, saying in a firm voice, "Mr. Data, continue on course.  Number One, you have the bridge.  I need to think."  Then he strode toward his ready room.

"Are you sure he's all right?" Riker asked Deanna.

"Yes, he was utterly terrified for a moment there, but now he's just determined."

* * *

Buried under layers and layers of impenetrable darkness and silence, a small core of Q's mind was trying to make sense of his situation.  He couldn't move or hear or see, but he could think to himself, albeit incoherently.  He knew there was something he was trying to grasp onto, to remember, some reason he didn't want to just let the darkness wash over him completely.  There was some reason to keep holding it at bay.  It was a name, that was it.  A name, a name.  Somebody's name.  Very important.  Q!  That's it!  Q!  No, idiot, that's my name.  There's somebody else, somebody who can help me out of here.  The realization finally came to him, Jean-Luc!  Need Jean-Luc.  Oh, damn it!  I was supposed to be helping him.  This much thinking was wearing him out, and Q's essence, his very innermost mind, fell silent.  Hours, maybe days later, he had recovered a complete memory of the events leading up to his blacking out, but he remained deaf, blind, and paralyzed.  He figured the entity had given him up for dead, which was just as well.  Occasionally, just to prove to himself that he wasn't dead, that inner core of consciousness would try to emerge, to push the layers of darkness and silence away.  But every effort made the darkness and silence close in even more.  Finally, he gave up and decided to wait.  He knew what he was waiting for, and that was enough.  He was waiting for Jean-Luc.

* * *

After a couple of hours, Picard walked out of his ready room.  The signs of his earlier terror and weakness had evaporated.  He was icily determined.  "Conference, five minutes," he ordered, then went to the observation lounge to await his senior officers.  When they had all gathered, he spoke.

"Mr. Data, I want the Enterprise to stop and hold position 6 billion kilometers away from the last known location of the entity.  Mr. La Forge, I want you to modify a Type 6 shuttlecraft with as much phaser power as you can give me.  I want a narrow beam preprogrammed to have maximum effect on a neutronium-like substance.  In fact, I want as much of the firing sequence and targeting as possible to be programmed into the shuttle's computers."

"Yes, sir.  You've got it."

"Captain," said Riker warily, you're not planning on going out there . . . "

"Yes, I am, Number One.  And you are going to stay at the coordinates I've specified and keep this crew safe.  Those are your orders."

"Captain . . ."

"Don't 'Captain' me, Number One.  And if you try to follow me, if you order this ship any closer to that entity, against my orders, I will personally court-martial your tail into a desk job so fast you won't know what hit you.  And if you sense any change in the behavior of the crew, or if Guinan has any sense of that creature returning, I want you to get this ship to safety.  Understood?"

"Yes, sir, but, with all due respect, what makes you think you're going to be able to withstand the entity's telepathic powers?  It overwhelmed Q."

Picard's eyes and voice were equally steely.  "I'll tell you, Number One.  I've had my mind raped too many times, first by the Borg, and second by Gul Madred."  He spoke slowly and deliberately, emphasizing each word:  "I'm not going to let that happen again."  He continued, more calmly, "Q may be omnipotent, but he hasn't had my experiences.  He's never faced anything more powerful than himself.  I have, and this time my mind is going to remain my own.  I don't know how I know that, but I do."

"Captain, are you planning on going alone?" asked Troi, alarmed.

"No, I'm not."  He turned to Data, his voice suddenly gentler.  "Mr. Data, what I'm about to ask of you is repugnant to me, and this is by no means an order.  You may refuse this assignment."

"What is it, Captain?" asked the android.

Picard paused and sighed.  "I would like Geordi to disable as much of your more 'human' programming as possible, to block the pathways in your positronic brain that you have developed over the past several years.  Essentially, I'm asking you to allow yourself to be programmed to be as machine-like as possible . . . I'm sorry, Mr. Data, it pains me to ask this of you, and I mean you no disrespect . . . but I believe this may render you less vulnerable to the entity's telepathic abilities.  If I do succumb to it, you will have irrevocable orders programmed into you to destroy it, no matter what I may try to order you to do under its influence. In fact, I would like to have you programmed to disable me if necessary if I try to stop you."

"Understood, Captain.  I accept the mission."

"Data," said Picard, "You might want to take some time to think about this.  I'm very uncomfortable about asking you to allow yourself to be dehumanized like this."

The rest of the table was silent, almost holding their breaths.  Data looked right at Picard, "Captain, my duty is to protect the lives of my crewmates.  I will fulfill that duty even if the means are distasteful.  It should not be difficult for me to determine which parts of my programming need to be disabled and to map out for Geordi what he will need to do to restore them.  And, Captain, you have to realize that I consider Q to be my friend.  He needs help, and I am more than willing to provide it."

Picard was moved.  He blinked a few times and pressed his lips together.  "Mr. Data," he said quietly, "you're one of the finest persons I know."  He looked around the table, then said sharply, "Adjourned."

* * *

How much time had passed?  Q had no way of knowing.  He knew that he was beginning to feel excruciatingly bored, but he was afraid to press against the edges of the darkness and silence; he didn't want to make things worse.  He was also beginning to feel unbearably lonely, a sense of desolation that was compounded by his utter helplessness.  The being who had the capacity to rearrange the spatial and temporal structure of the universe could not open his eyes or lift a finger.  The remnant of mental energy he had remaining could only keep the darkness and silence from pressing even closer, but he was utterly incapable of directing any mental energy outside of the one inner recess of his mind that was conscious.

* * *

While Geordi worked on the shuttlecraft, Picard went to talk to Guinan.  "Is there anything you can tell me that might help?" he asked.

"I know as much about this creature as you do, Captain.  There is something, though . . ."


"When it first began taking over our minds, we were all completely unaware that anything was happening.  The lapse in alertness and lethargy I was feeling didn't seem unnatural at all.  Quite the opposite.  See, if Q were brainwash you, say, into falling in love with him, you might readily act precisely as he wanted you to.  You would give up your position or do anything he saw fit.  But it wouldn't feel right; enough of your subconscious mind would remain yours, and there would always be a part of you that would try to resist, just as you did when you were almost assimilated by the Borg.  Jean-Luc Picard was still in there.  This creature's methods seem much more refined, however, and that is why I find it so terrifying.  The entity does not appear to take over minds from without, but rather, it seems to be able to disguise its influence as something arising from within your own subconscious mind.  It's not an external threat you have to resist, but an internal one."

"I understand, I think.  Thank-you, Guinan.  I think it will help me."

"My pleasure, Captain.  And Captain?"


"I'm terribly worried about Q.  I actually miss the rascal."

"I know.  I'm going to find him, you can count on it.  Whether we can help him or not remains to be seen, but I'm going to find out what happened to him."

* * *

La Forge had completed the modifications to the shuttlecraft and, reluctantly, was beginning to make the necessary alterations to Data's programming.  Picard forced himself to be present, but he felt sickened that he had asked this of one of his officers, a person, damn it, that he considered a friend.  Beverly sensed Picard's discomfort and walked over to stand next to him, as Geordi neatly peeled back portions of Data's scalp to reveal the circuitry underneath.  Picard winced slightly.  "I'm sorry, Mr. Data, but I never get used to that."

The Doctor took Picard's hand, and he held it tight in return, as Data calmly replied, "Your reaction does not offend me, Captain.  You would not wish to witness the Doctor performing brain surgery on a human either.  I do not share human squeamishness, but it does not bother me."  Picard nodded.

As Geordi deftly executed the modifications that Data had mapped out for him, the android began to look less human, more robotic.  Data had taught himself to imitate a variety of human behaviors, such as blinking, in order to fit in better among the crew, and his features had developed more mobility and his voice more expression over the years he had served on board the Enterprise.  Now his face grew more rigid and his voice more monotonous.  He sat completely still, not making any unnecessary motions.  Merde! thought Picard to himself, If a machine like Data can develop sentience and human values, why are there so many thoroughly evil forces out there?  This entity makes Q, even at our first encounter, a boy scout by comparison.   We can explore all we want, increase our technological abilities all we want, even develop our ethical capacities and our tolerance for differences all we want, but there will always be threats out there that will force us to come down to their level, to meet violence with violence.  All our progress and sophistication has not given us an ability to reach an understanding with them.  We simply have to answer their savagery with savagery of our own.

"What are you musing about?" asked Beverly, still holding Picard's hand.

"Oh, the nature of evil, cheerful subjects like that.  Here's this life-form, from outside the galaxy no less, and I have to go out there and try to destroy it so it doesn't destroy us.  I have to try to blow it to pieces so it doesn't take over our minds and get us to tear each other to pieces.  It's times like these that make me rather discouraged about the nature of progress."

"There's a lot of good out there too, even in unexpected places.  Look at Q.  After all the suffering he caused for centuries, he opposed his own species to give humankind a chance.  He changed.  And he changed by virtue of his contact with you, Jean-Luc.  If all we were doing out here was defending ourselves against violent threats, then I would feel discouraged.  But we, you in particular, have done a lot of good."

Picard thought with a sudden pang, But I almost committed an act as evil as any I've ever witnessed.  God help me, but Q is right--we do have a long way to go.  I only hope I have the opportunity to concede that point to him.  He nodded at Beverly and smiled wanly.

Then Riker's voice came over his comm badge, "Riker to Captain Picard.  We have reached the coordinates you specified."

"Acknowledged," replied Picard, "Full stop."

"I'm done, Captain," said Geordi.  "Try to get him back in one piece; it'll be a lot easier to restore him to his old self."

"Have you programmed the necessary orders regarding destroying the entity?  That is, to override anything I might say or do once we're in the shuttle."

"I've taken care of it, Captain.  Data will execute his orders; he doesn't have much decision-making capacity left to question them."

Picard sighed heavily.  "Thank you, Mr. La Forge.  I appreciate your cooperation with such a distasteful task.  I hope you will be able to reverse it as soon as possible.  Mr. Data, meet me in the main shuttlebay in ten minutes."

"Yes, Captain," replied Data in an unnatural, almost robotic tone.

Picard cringed slightly when Data and La Forge walked out of Sick Bay.  Data's movements were stiff and angular.  He had the capacity to mimic human movements, but he did not have any motivation to do so.  Picard turned to Beverly, smiling.  "Well, Doctor, I have a mission to fulfill.  I'd best get started on it."  He took both her hands and pressed them lightly.

Beverly was about to turn away, then she whispered, trying to keep the fear out of her voice, "Jean-Luc, tell me you're going to come back safely."

"I'm going to do whatever it takes, OK?"  They embraced, Beverly blinking tears out of her eyes; then Picard marched out of Sick Bay.  He paused briefly at his quarters, stopping to take out the flower Q had given him from their hiking expedition.  He watched it for a moment, turning it over in his hand, allowing himself a brief pang of terror for Q, which he then shoved back into the back of his mind, as he replaced the flower in its drawer.  The loss of the connection between them continued to wrench him even if he wasn't showing it.  There was the continuous sense of low-level panic in the back of his mind, the kind one feels after experiencing a tremendous loss, the fear that one cannot continue to function without whatever or whoever it was.  It was a feeling that could have quickly overwhelmed him, but Picard was nothing if not disciplined.  Allowing himself to experience a certain degree of fear was good; the tension would keep him at a high pitch of alertness.  But otherwise this particular panic had to be mostly repressed, and replaced by grim resolution.  It was time to turn from his fears for Q to his mission.  Until the entity was eliminated, Q's safety had to be a secondary concern.

This was a principal difference between Q and Picard's tactics and goals.  Q hadn't been thinking about his own safety or that of the rest of the galaxy, for that matter; he had simply impulsively concluded it was his job to protect Picard and his crew.  His fear of what the entity could do to his protegé and his usual emotional volatility did not leave him in the optimum condition to face such an overwhelming telepathic threat.  Picard, however, had a good deal of experience in controlling his emotions and in putting personal considerations in the back of his mind, so he could concentrate on the task at hand.  He had never entirely forgiven himself for not having had the strength to resist the Borg, and the recollection of his experience under Cardassian torture never flashed on his mind without a searing wave of nausea and shame passing through him.  Here was a chance for redemption, and he intended to make the most of it.  He was almost grateful, in a slightly perverse way, to have to act without Q's assistance, although he would certainly have wished for different circumstances as the cause of Q's absence.

When he got to the main shuttlebay, La Forge, Riker, and Guinan were waiting.  Geordi entered the shuttlecraft and went over the controls for the modified weapons with Picard.  "You won't be able to sustain fire for very long, Captain; the shuttle just doesn't have enough power.  I've preprogrammed a very narrow, focused beam.  If you can just crack that thing's shell, it should lose fluid rather quickly, and if we're lucky, that should do the trick.  I also used the information Q gave us to recalibrate the sensors.  You should be able to detect the entity's shell."

"Thank you, Mr. La Forge."

"Good luck, Captain."

Geordi paused to say good luck to Data, who merely looked puzzled and remarked, "If you wish me to calculate the statistical probability for success of this mission . . ."

"No, I don't," said Picard hastily.  "Let's get going."  Guinan went up to him and quickly pressed his hand, and Riker also wished him luck.  "I imagine I'll need it," remarked Picard drily as he and Data entered the shuttlecraft.

As the others left the shuttlebay, Riker turned to Guinan.  "Guinan, if you sense anything of that entity approaching, I want you to let me know immediately, so I can get us out of here."

"Will do, Commander.  At least now I know what I'm looking for."

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