Data and Picard rode along in silence. Data no longer had his usual inclination to converse, and Picard was grimly lost in thought.
"Mr. Data," said Picard as they approached closer to their destination, "if you feel your mind being influenced in any way, or if I do anything to prevent you from firing, I want you to fire on the entity immediately when we get within range. If possible, I would like to find out what I can about it, first, but I don't want to take any chances."
As they approached, but long before they were within the shuttle's firing range, Picard began to began to feel an urgent compulsion to summons the Enterprise and to surrender the shuttle. The entity was impatient for more prey and was in no mood for delicacy and discretion. Instead it immediately assaulted Picard with its demands as soon as the shuttle was within its telepathic range. It felt to Picard as if he had received a sudden inspiration, an irrestistable brainstorm, and it was an idea that had to be acted on immediately. But he was prepared and instantly recognized what was happening. He remembered what Guinan had said and tried to forget the entity altogether. Instead, he struggled to regain control of his own subconscious mind, to impose discipline upon its wayward impulses. The pressure to surrender grew stronger, however; he was feeling more and more convinced that everything would just be all right if he surrendered the shuttle and ordered the Enterprise to this location. He noticed, to his relief, that Data seemed unaffected. Picard was glad to have Data as a backup, but he was so utterly furious at this violation of his mind that he was determined to take out this enemy himself.
"How . . . long . . . before . . . we . . . get . . . within . . . firing . . . range?" Picard managed, barely, to ask. He couldn't afford to take too much attention away from the wrestling match within his own mind.
"Six minutes, 47 seconds, sir."
Data turned to look at Picard. "Are you in need of assistance, sir?"
"No . . . not . . . yet." Picard then fell silent. He had work to do. He kept reminding himself what Q had told him one night in his quarters, and he repeated it to himself like a mantra, The mind is everything. The mind is everything. The mind is everything. The mantra temporarily succeeded. Picard blocked out all thoughts of the entity and of his fury at this mental rape. Instead he concentrated entirely on forcing down the impulses arising from his subconscious. As the seconds ticked agonizingly by, Picard was achieving a level of mental discipline he couldn't have imagined himself possessing. He believed with utter conviction that the mind was everything, and he could do whatever he wanted. As the pressure to surrender increased from within his inner mind, Picard increased the pressure his conscious mind was exerting in return. He imagined a set of wide doors, like those of the shuttlebay, slowly closing, cutting off the part of his mind that had turned against him. It wasn't easy, however. His subconscious mind had been taken over and fiercely resisted Picard's conscious effort to cut it off. Picard's eyes were squeezed shut, his jaws were locked together, his hands were ferociously gripping the arms of his seat, and every muscle in his back and shoulders was ridged and knotted from the stress. The struggle was intense, but Picard had mustered an awesome level of concentration. With a huge effort he pushed those mental doors shut, and his mind was his own again.
The entity paused. It had never encountered this kind of resistance; its victims had never before figured out in time that it was their own minds they had to resist, not an external threat. The entity was so skilled at disguising its telepathic control as an irresistable subconscious impulse, that it could not have imagined a victim with sufficient determination and discipline to resist. Never had its victims ever been so prepared before encountering it. Usually it overwhelmed its victims before they had any clue what was happening, but Q had recognized the threat in time to allow the Enterprise to escape. Victims such as Q might pose more of a challenge, but they could be controlled with pain if they did not immediately submit to the entity's telepathic influence.
"Dropping out of warp, now," reported Data. "We will be within firing range in thirty seconds."
But as soon as the shuttle dropped out of warp, it began rocking violently. "What the hell?" demanded Picard.
"The entity is emitting an invisible energy pulse," replied Data as his hands, with lightning speed, continuously adjusted the controls. "It apparently has telekinetic powers as well as telepathic ones."
"Wonderful, just wonderful," muttered Picard as the shuttle continued to shudder and lurch.
"I do not see what could be considered wonderful . . ."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Data. Just a figure of speech."
"We are now within firing range, Sir. I believe I can stabilize the shuttle long enough to permit accurate firing."
Picard was exhausted, and his head was throbbing. "I'd appreciate that. On screen, Mr. Data." The entity appeared, hovering before them.
"Phasers are locked on, sir," noted Data.
"If you would be so kind as to allow me to do the honors, Mr. Data," said Picard and fired. The beam washed right over the entity's shell. While the shuttle rocked again from a massive energy pulse, Data's hands were a blur over the controls, his eyes flickering at an unnatural and inhuman rate. A moment later Picard felt his head explode with a searing, blinding, excruciating pain. This was too much, really. His mind flashed back, as it often did in moments of absolute physical exhaustion or pain, to the Starfleet Academy marathon he had won as a freshman. Was it around 32, 33 kilometers when he felt as though he had hit the wall? His lungs were exploding, and his legs somehow were attached to invisible lead weights. It certainly would not have been humiliating to lose. No freshman had ever won. But Picard had made up his mind. He managed to break through his pain and exhaustion, and with a burst of determination, he passed the upper-classmen in front of him on the final hill and sailed into the finish line. He tried to convince himself that the torture the entity was inflicting on him was no different than that he had experienced in the marathon. At the same time, he was utterly furious at being assaulted in this brutal and unconscionable fashion.
"NO DAMN IT!" exclaimed Picard, "MY MIND IS MY OWN!" He slammed his mental doors on the pain much more quickly than he had been able to block the entity's earlier demands. The technique was wonderfully effective; he only wished he had figured it out before his encounter with a Cardassian inquisitor, but he realized he probably could not have done so without having had that previous experience to motivate him and give him focus. Also, his extensive contact with Q's mind had increased his mental capabilities as well. Once he became aware of the link with Q in his mind, Picard had become more adept at understanding and recognizing the interactions between different parts of his mind and controlling them.
"Sir," said Data tonelessly. "The entity's shell is thinner at the rounded part of the oval. The phasers may be more effective there."
"Much obliged, Mr. Data." Picard directed Data to pilot the shuttlecraft to a point directly over the entity, and Data's hands flew over the controls as he continuously adjusted the thrusters to stabilize the shuttle. Picard felt a wave of pain battering his mental doors, but he refused to succumb to it, noting with relief that Data remained unaffected. Picard was a study in unrelenting, concentrated fury, and he punched the controls with more than usual force to fire the phasers. The thin beam shot out from the shuttle's phaser emitters. At first it had no effect, washing over the smooth shell as it had before. Picard's eyes narrowed, his face a mask of concentration, as if he was trying to lend power to the phasers with his mind. He envisioned the pencil-thin beam drilling through the shell, forcing open a jagged crack, and then an explosion as the entity's fluid medium boiled out into space. Later, looking back, he would be shocked at his own cruelty, but he wanted to witness this being's suffering. With a kind of grim, sadistic glee, Picard watched events unfold just as he had imagined. As the fluid began boiling out of the cracked shell, the entire shell exploded. Picard cautiously relaxed the mental control he had been exerting on his subconscious mind, and he felt an overwhelming sensation of terror and surprise which was just as quickly extinguished as the entity expired, its sustaining fluid medium dispersed into the vacuum of space.
"Commendable firing, sir," remarked the android in the same numb tone.
"Thank you, Mr. Data," said Picard as he slumped back in his chair. He felt utterly drained, but he couldn't relax yet. "We have another job to do. Is there any way we can recalibrate our sensors to look for Q?"
"He does not give off life signs," replied Data. "I take it that you still do not sense any contact with him."
"No," said Picard, shaking his head wearily. "Nothing."
"I am plotting a search pattern now, but our sensors will not have an effect. Can you recall precisely when you began to feel the entity's influence? That will provide more precise parameters for my search."
"It was a few minutes before I asked you how far we were until we reached firing range."
"Search pattern programmed, sir."
The shuttle began following the course Data had programmed. Picard had recovered his alertness; one mission having been accomplished, he allowed the search for Q to assume the full urgency he felt. He strained his eyes gazing out of the shuttle's windows, but he couldn't see anything that would indicate to him Q's location. Now I wish he'd kept wearing a Starfleet uniform, thought Picard to himself, then at least he'd have a communicator. The idea of assigning a communicator to a visiting omnipotent being seemed absurd on the surface; Picard was sure Q had never imagined that he would be needing Picard to come to his rescue.
After a little more than two hours Data announced, "Sensors are detecting a large object, most likely an asteroid, ahead."
"On screen, Mr. Data."
Before them hung a ball of rock, approximately three miles in diameter. "Take us there," demanded Picard. Data piloted the shuttle into orbit around the asteroid. "There!" exclaimed Picard. Lying on the surface of the asteroid, face down and motionless, was Q. Data expertly landed the shuttle near Q's immobile form, while Picard pulled out the EVA garments that would be necessary on the airless, gravity-less asteroid. He and Data rapidly suited up, then exited the shuttle's hatch. Picard rolled Q's body over. There was no response. He called, "Q? Q? It's Jean-Luc." Still no response. Picard turned to Data, "Let's get him out of here." Data hoisted Q's limp form effortlessly, and they returned to shuttle. Picard was in a hurry, only bothering to yank off his helmet before lifting the shuttle off. Data examined Q with a tricorder, but could get no readings. That, in itself, was not unusual. Q's utter motionlessness was, however. After Data had removed the EVA suit, he took over the controls so Picard could remove his as well, and they rode in silence back to the Enterprise.
(Buried under layers of darkness and silence, the small portion of consciousness remaining to Q was totally unaware of his rescue. He remained blind, deaf, and paralyzed, and he could not register the sensation of being lifted up and placed on board the shuttlecraft. He remained in his tiny private universe, waiting for some light or sound to penetrate through to him.)
After the shuttle had returned to the ship and Q had been taken to sick bay, Picard demanded, "Beverly, is there anything you can do?"
She was scanning her patient and shook her head slowly. "Jean-Luc, he's in human form, but I can't get any readings from him. I can't even begin to scan his neural activity; we have no instruments that can even begin to read what's going on in his brain. I don't think he's dead, whatever that means for his species, because I don't see how he could maintain a corporeal form if he were. I don't know if he even can be killed. All I can surmise is that he's suffered some sort of shock to his system and has shut himself down in some fashion."
Picard was frustrated, and his anxiety was readily apparent. Beverly found herself torn between an objective concern for a patient and a mounting jealousy. She was realizing much more concretely than she ever had before how much Q meant to Picard. Battling down her jealous impulses, she said gently, "I'm sorry, Jean-Luc. There's nothing that I can do. Believe me, I would if I could."
Picard smiled grimly, raised Beverly's hand to his lips, and said, "Beverly, I'm sorry. I certainly didn't anticipate this. I know I care for you deeply, in fact, I love you, and I don't understand exactly what I feel for him, but I have to take care of him right now. Somehow, in a way I don't entirely understand, he's become a part of me, an essential part. There's some kind of bond between us, and if nothing else, he's a friend who has more than earned any assistance I can render." He paused, then murmured, "I didn't realize until he was cut off from me just how terrified I am of losing him."
"I know," said the doctor softly, "I know." They stood holding hands for a moment, and Beverly kissed Picard's forehead. "Go take care of your patient Jean-Luc. You can probably do more for him than I can."
Picard then ordered, "I want him taken to my quarters."
After the orderlies had carried Q's motionless body to Picard's quarters and deposited it on the bed, Picard sat down next to him, took one of Q's hands in his own and with his other hand gently stroked the entity's still forehead and hair. Picard closed his eyes trying to penetrate Q's mind; he could feel his own mind reaching out, but it was met by a wall of silence. Damn it, Q! Can't you tell me what I'm supposed to do? I don't know how to handle this! Picard then got the idea of trying to summon another Q, who would presumably know what to do. The Captain had not acquired telepathic powers that he could employ with anyone but Q, but he had begun to project in his silent conversations with Q; he was not simply passively receiving messages Q sent or responding in his own mind for Q to read. Although he was aware that he was beginning to be able to communicate with Q more actively, he didn't understand how the process worked and assumed that if he had attained any telepathic ability, it was simply by virtue of the ever-strengthening link between the two men. Picard had developed a continuous awareness of Q's presence within his mind; regardless of where the entity was, he still felt a connection between them. But not now. Q, although lying in front of him, was no longer inside his head; the connection was still severed, and Picard continued to feel an aching void, a palpable absence in that portion of his mind alotted to Q.
He felt increasingly shaken, I don't know how to do this. But I have to try. Picard forced himself to be calm and concentrate. Summoning Q's colleague certainly couldn't be any harder than resisting the being he had recently defeated. He disengaged his hand from Q's, put his head in his hands and focused as clearly as he could on his visual memory of Q's colleague who had delivered the Continuum's response to Q's ultimatum. As he concentrated, Picard became aware that his mental image of the second Q was growing sharper and sharper. He poured all of his concentration into the message, Q NEEDS YOUR HELP. For several minutes, Picard sat absolutely still, eyes closed, head in hands, repeating the message, mantra-like, to the visual image of the second Q in his head. His concentration was suddenly broken by a burst of light. He looked up with relief as a male figure materialized in the room.
"How did you do that Captain? I wasn't aware you were telepathic."
"Neither was I. But fear focuses the mind very effectively. Can you do anything about him?"
The newcomer turned his attention to Q. "What happened?"
Picard filled him in on recent events.
"Captain, I knew your species had some extraordinary potential, but you've certainly surpassed our expectations. Congratulations."
"Well, I don't feel like celebrating at the moment," said Picard anxiously, "Normally, I can sense him . . . inside my mind, but there's nothing there. Can anything be done?"
The newcomer went over to the bed, took both of Q's hands in his, and began probing deeply into Q's mind. After several moments, he spoke, "It's as I suspected. It's rare when we face a force more powerful than ourselves or a shock we can't handle. When it happens, however, we essentially expend every iota of mental energy we have in self-defense. I suspect he shut himself down to prevent the alien entity from gaining power over him. Basically, he's been completely drained. He's not capable for now of lifting a finger, he probably can't see or hear anything, and he doesn't have it in him to sustain his telepathic link with you. He's still in there, in a kind of stasis, and his mental energies have to regenerate. It's a slow process I'm afraid. All you can do for him is keep him still and quiet and keep trying to reestablish that connection with him. You're the one he's closest to, right?" Picard nodded, and the entity continued, "It's as if he's locked away under layers and layers of unconsciousness, something like what you would call a coma, except that there's nothing physically wrong. We don't sleep, and it's not a state we have much experience with, since it happens so rarely, and every Q who does experience it has to find his own way out. I would help him, of course, if I could, but you can do much more for him than I can. His mind will be attuned to recognizing you before anyone else. You just have to keep trying to reach out to him, or rather into him, and if you can establish a connection, you may be able to give him the boost of energy he needs to start his own regenerative process. If that happens his own mental energies, abilities, and powers will slowly start to be restored. Then, the difficult part will be to prevent him from exerting himself too much before he's ready and wearing himself out again. If he exerts himself too much, he could make things worse." The entity smiled wryly, "I imagine he would be a hell of a patient."
Picard felt fear building throughout this exposition, noting worriedly, "It's not as though I have any experience using telepathy. Summoning you was a first for me."
The second Q smiled again, remarking, "Well, Captain, you've shown a remarkable capacity for being a fast learner. Time to put that to work. Listen, Q has never been a really happy camper among the Continuum. I suspect if anything could give him a reason to live, you're it. He needs you to give him a motivation to recover and to guide him back out."
Picard swallowed hard, saying, "I certainly wish you were showing a little more conviction that he is going to recover.
"I'm sorry, Captain. I wish I could, but in cases like this, we just don't know. It's a wonder that you were able to summon me at all, and it's even more of a wonder you survived your encounter with that creature, so it's very likely you have it in you to get through to him." The entity got up suddenly and began to pace, adding, "It's his damn desire for privacy. He's locked us all out ever since he came here; I could have helped him earlier if I'd known what was happening. But I think you're the only one who can help him now, Captain, and it's going to take a lot of effort and concentration. Good luck. Oh, by the way, would you like me to return you to Federation space?"
"Consider it done. I'll check back in a couple of days."
After the other Q had left, and the Enterprise went spinning back to a more familiar and hospitable portion of the quadrant, Picard summoned Riker, Troi, and Crusher through the comm link. When they entered his quarters, he announced, "I am going to have to devote my time to trying to get Q out of this state he's in. I am willingly relinquishing command for an indefinite period. Sometimes there are circumstances which take precededence over one's duties, and this is one of them. If anyone can revive him, apparently it's me, and I have no idea how long it will take. I'm sorry, Beverly, I really do understand how hard this is for you." Riker was surprised; Picard was not one to give up command for personal considerations, however serious, and Riker had not even begun to understand the depth of his Captain's feelings for Q. Troi, however, was not surprised; it had been clear to her for a while that Picard was gravitating more and more toward his omnipotent companion. She was relieved to see that Beverly also understood, even if she was both jealous and upset. As they left the room, Deanna asked Beverly if she wanted to talk, and the two women walked off together, leaving Riker on his own to try to grasp what he was just beginning to figure out. That Picard had become friends with Q was apparent to anyone, but Riker would not have imagined the intense emotional attachment Picard was exhibiting.
Having cleared necessary business out of the way, Picard turned his attention to his patient. He settled himself on the bed, pulling his motionless companion partly onto his lap. With one hand he held one of Q's hands, and with the other he gently ran his fingers over the entity's forehead and through his hair. Looking at Q's still face, Picard could have wept. Q seemed impossibly beautiful to him in repose and impossibly remote at the same time. Picard took a deep breath, attempting to compose himself. Then he focused his attention and began to concentrate as he never had before, trying to reach through the layers of unconscious to where Q's essence remained dormant.
Picard continued in that position for over two hours. He was concentrating so hard that he did not notice the door chime. The voice coming from his comm badge did get his attention though. "Captain, it's Guinan. Will you let me in?"
"Of course. Come." Guinan walked through the living area to the bedroom. Picard glanced up. "I'm sorry, Guinan. I didn't hear the door."
She glanced at Q. "Any luck?" Picard shook his head. Guinan walked over to the bed, then sat down on the edge. She lifted one of Q's hands, stroking it gently, then pressed her lips together in frustration. "It's like there's nothing there." Picard nodded, looking distraught and anxious, his concentration completely broken.
"Listen, Captain," said Guinan. "This may take days, weeks. You need some rest. You're not going to be able to get through to him if you're exhausted. When's the last time you ate anything?" Picard shrugged. "I want you to get yourself something to eat and lie down for a while. I'll stay with him. I've talked to Data, who's back to normal by the way, and we're going to spell you, so you can get some rest. We will, of course, wake you if anything happens."
Picard put his head in his hands. "I can't believe I forgot about Data. That's awful."
Guinan smiled. "Picard, do you think you're being just a little hard on yourself? You just defeated one of the most powerful threats you've ever encountered, you're exhausted, and one of your closest friends is lying on your bed in a coma. I think you're entitled to an occasional memory lapse."
Picard shook his head. "No, I'm not. Not after what he did. All right, Guinan, I appreciate the help. I'll go get some food and a nap, but I want to talk to Data first." Picard walked wearily into the living room of his quarters, tapping his badge and requesting, "Mr. Data, please report to Captain's quarters." Data arrived in a few minutes, and Picard stood up to greet him.
"Mr. Data, I want to tell you how glad I am to hear you've been fully restored."
"Geordi had no problem following the procedure I had laid out. I cannot exactly say it feels better to be myself again, but I would prefer to be more human than less so."
"I want to thank you, Data. I believe that one factor that contributed to my being able to resist the entity was knowing I had you as a backup. Knowing I could rely on you greatly improved my confidence that I could withstand its powers. You're a courageous and unselfish person, Mr. Data, and I hope I never ever have to ask you to dehumanize yourself like that again."
"Thank you, Captain. How is Q?"
"The same as when we brought him in, I'm afraid. Guinan is in there now."
"I do not require sleep, Captain, and I would like to help in any way I can. When I am off-duty I can sit with him and allow you to get some rest."
"I appreciate it, Data. I'll take you up on it."
After Data left, Picard got himself some toast and tea from the replicator. He didn't think he could stomach more than that; his insides were knotted and churning. He lay down on the sofa, but felt unable to relax, and felt even worse when he realized that he had been relying on Q recently to take care of his occasional insomnia. He got up, went back toward the bedroom door, and announced almost petulantly, "I can't sleep anyway."
Guinan spoke through the comm link next to the bed. "Dr. Crusher, I have a restless and cranky starship Captain here who needs some sleep. Do you think you might be able to help me?"
"On my way," laughed Beverly.
Picard gave Guinan a withering look, then staggered, simultaneously wired and exhausted, back out to the couch. When Beverly entered, he snapped, "I don't need any drugs. I can take care of . . ."
"Shut up, Jean-Luc. Doctor's orders. You're completely exhausted and wound up tighter than a spring."
He knew he was defeated.
"Yes, Doctor," he murmured, bending his neck forward obediently to receive
the hypospray. Within a few moments he was sound asleep, and Beverly
spent a few minutes commiserating with Guinan about the obstinacy of certain
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