Chapter 18

With a flash of light, two male figures appeared on a ledge, near the top of a mountain on a remote planet in the far reaches of the galaxy.  One of them felt mind-boggling rush of cold for a moment, but that was immediately replaced by a cocoon of warmth as a large shimmering blanket materialized and wrapped itself around him.

"Welcome to my parlor, mon Capitaine.  Would you care to have a seat?"

The men sat down next to each other, knees drawn up.  "Mind if I share your blanket, Jean-Luc?  I don't need it, of course, and in fact, I could keep you warm without it, but I like the idea.  This is our last date for a while; I'd like to make the most of it."  Wordlessly, Picard extended the blanket, and Q drew next him so that their arms and knees were touching, the blanket around both their shoulders.  Thus settled, Picard began to take in the spectacular light show spiralling in front of him.

"The furnishings are a little primitive, I'm afraid, but I hope you like the view," remarked Q.

"I . . . I'm completely awestruck.  I've seen a great many things, but this just takes my breath away, Q.  I have a dim memory of this sight from when we joined minds, but there was so much else going on I didn't register it very well.  It is utterly beautiful, but that word seems so inadequate.  Thank you," Picard finished simply.

"The pleasure is all mine," replied the entity.  "I've been wanting to bring you here for years, and you must know, you're the only one who's ever been here besides me."

Picard looked wonderingly at Q's face.  "I'm grateful, and I'm touched."

The men lapsed into silence.  Picard had become so comfortable with his companion, that there was often no need to talk.  They simply sat absorbing each other's presence, like this, barely touching.  Picard gazed in awe at the procession of lights and colors, at the same time beginning to be overwhelmed with a flood of emotion for the being beside him.  Q basked in satisfaction, enjoying Picard's amazement.  After many minutes, Q spoke, "I have to confess, much as I brought you here for your pleasure, I had a selfish motive as well.  Seeing this," he gestured toward the sky, "with you, sharing you experiencing it for the first time, helps me recapture the wonder I felt the first time I saw it, centuries ago.  It's feeling that I've almost entirely lost, unfortunately.  That's one reason why joining minds with you was so extraordinary for me; seeing literally through your eyes enabled me to feel a kind of awe and reverence for what's out here that I'm no longer capable of.  It's as if, as your poet Byron put it, 'never more on me / The freshness of the heart can fall like dew.'"

"Byron," murmured Picard thoughtfully.  "That's who you look like; I've seen portraits of him."

"Gee, what an astonishing coincidence," muttered Q sarcastically.  "I love you, but you're such a hopeless dunderhead," he added in a tone that mingled both affection and exasperation.  "Did it ever occur to you that I might have selected the form in which I chose to appear to you mortals?"

"Well, it does make sense, I'll admit," returned Picard.  "At least in terms of the image he projected.  His misanthropy and defiance, his cynicism and disillusionment, his outlaw stance . . ."

"His sexual versatility," added Q with a wink, "but I have far better taste than he did.  He went for much younger men, boys really.  Waste of time as far as I'm concerned."

Anxious to change the subject, Picard turned his attention back to the view.  "You'll have to forgive my usual obtuseness, but how can you, Byronic world-weariness notwithstanding, take that for granted?"

"Oh Jean-Luc, will you ever get it?  I can create something like that if I want.  This is still special to me, because it is something I discovered, as if it was created just for me, but I still can't feel the awe and joy that I sense in you.  I can share in your feelings, and I'm infinitely grateful for that, but I'm not capable of feeling that way on my own."

"So, we lowly humans do have some advantages you don't, eh?"

"Hard to believe, but true.  Only you're so lunkheaded, you don't have the capacity to appreciate what you have.  You keep trying to be more like us, not realizing what you will eventually lose."

Both men smiled.  They had had this conversation many times before, and Q's impatience at human limitations and Jean-Luc's strenuous defense of his own species had long become a form of affectionate teasing for them, instead of the life-or-death confrontation it had been previously.

Picard was immediately distracted by yet another wonder unfolding before him.  A meteor shower was spinning flashes of light across his field of vision.  He had never seen a meteor shower from that perspective before, and it was awe-inspiring.  When he could speak again, he said, "When I was a child, I used to watch shooting stars, as we called them.  I knew, of course, that it was a meteor shower, and I always hoped I would find a meteor fragment; it seemed if I did, I would hold the secrets of the universe in my hand.  I never found one though."

"Would you like one now?"  Q opened his hand, palm up, and a glowing object materialized upon it.  "Careful, it's hot."

"I know that, Q, I'm not a child, you know."  Picard's momentary irritation dissolved.  "It's beautiful."

The men watched it glow for a few minutes, then Q blew on the meteor fragment gently until it cooled, then handed it to his companion.  "For you, a souvenir."  He smiled.

Picard clutched his gift tightly in his hand.  "Well, I don't know if I'm holding the secrets of the universe, but I do know I'm holding something unimaginably precious to me. You once told me I was an impossible person to buy a gift for, but you seem to have figured out the right kind of gift."

Q smiled ruefully, remembering the circumstance of that earlier remark.  "I'm sorry, Jean-Luc, I couldn't resist the impulse to force you into those situations, like the Sherwood Forest game.  I guess I was just trying to get your attention, but I didn't have a clue, for all my omniscience, of how to go about it the right way."

Picard slipped the meteor fragment into his pocket.  Gesturing at the view before him, he explained, "This is utterly spectacular.  I'll be forever grateful for your showing it to me.  You can strike me with awe with demonstrations of your power.  But, ultimately, it's not your immense power that makes this experience so meaningful to me; it's the company.  I can't help being overwhelmed and intimidated by what you can do, but that's not how you've won my trust and affection, my friend.  It's the feeling that prompted you to bring me here that really moves me.  It's the way you've allowed yourself to be open and vulnerable with me, despite your omnipotence.  And I know how hard that was for you, and that made even more of an impression on me.  I'm still so awestruck and flattered and grateful that you wanted to join with me as we did."

"I guess in matters of the heart, I'm the obtuse one.  It certainly took me a long time to figure that out, and I'm still not entirely comfortable with it.  Vulnerability is not a state I'm used to.  Did you notice after we joined minds, both of us felt the need to put some distance between us for a few days?  Even after that I fall into my habit of thinking of vulnerability as something to exploit in you, not to allow in myself.  But I may be trying to get used to it in more ways than you think."

"What do you mean, Q?"

Q replied quietly, with complete seriousness and sincerity.  "I'm thinking of giving it all up, not immediately, of course, but eventually."

"What?  I don't understand."

"My omnipotence.  My immortality.  To become human and eventually . . . to die."    Q continued musing, "Maybe I'll do it when you retire--I'll buy myself a little French villa next door to you, plant a garden, and drop in for a glass of wine and some stimulating conversation in the evenings.  You won't be able to get rid of me.  Then again, on the other hand, I may be too much of a coward.  I am thinking about it, but I don't have any real conviction that I actually will."

Picard was both shocked and moved.  "Why are you thinking about it at all?  Do you understand what you're saying?"

"Of course, I understand.  That's why I haven't entirely made up my mind.  The idea terrifies me--I like to dominate, I like to be in control, completely without effort.  I'm used to wielding an immense amount of power, and I have to decide if I can live without that, if I can accept what to me would be a state of utter helplessness.  But I'm seriously considering it.  Look at this private light show of mine.  I know it's spectacular, but I can't feel it.  Aside from the fact that I could create it, I know it will still be here in thousands of years, as will I.  I have no reason to make any given visit to this place significant, because I know I can always come back.  So I take it for granted.

Do you have any idea what my existence was like before I encountered you?  I was lonely and bored almost beyond the point of my sanity.  Relationships with my own kind were no solution; they always end more or less bitterly.  There was no one I could stand for eternity.  So what did I spend my time doing?  Inflicting pain and suffering on beings less powerful than myself just to get a feeling that I was alive.  I tried inflicting pain on myself too--just to get some kind of sensation that really rocked me.  Nothing worked.  There was this great gaping void in me, a result of the fact that nothing meant anything to me because there was nothing I didn't take for granted.  You, Jean-Luc Picard, are the only thing in my existence that I have any real sense of urgency and significance and passion and intense feeling about, and that is because you're mortal.  I can't take you for granted because I know I will lose you, and that makes you unimaginably precious to me.   I could make you immortal, but I don't think that's what you want."

"No, you're right.  After all, it was you who reminded me, and I quote, 'how important each moment must be.'  Without that sense of urgency, I could no longer be the person I am."

"Precisely.  I'm alive and engaged when I'm with you in a way that I'm not in any other aspect of my existence.  No matter what I do outside of my feelings for you, whether good or ill, I get bored with it.  My power is a crutch to me; I didn't earn it, I didn't do anything to merit it.  It's just what I've depended on to keep my ego inflated, to convice myself of my own superiority.  Whatever power you have, you worked for and proved yourself.  But I'm just like one of those bloated 19th century European aristocrats from your history.  I'm a parasite; I didn't live off the work of others, I lived vicariously off the emotions of others.  When I inflicted pain on mortal beings, forcing them to confront their own mortality, I got a temporary artificial thrill, witnessing the spectacle of a feeling I would never have myself.  At the same time I was trying to convince myself of my own superiority by demonstrating just how much power I could wield, trying to bolster my sense of myself by victimizing those less powerful.  Guinan understood; she tried to explain to me once why I was doing what I did, and, naturally, I didn't listen.  I lost my temper and went on a rampage.  She was barely able to stop me, and I resented her ever since; you can understand why she didn't exactly greet me with glee upon our reunion.  I'm terrified of giving it all up, really terrified, but perhaps I have to become mortal and vulnerable and limited so that what I do have acquires genuine meaning.  I want to understand what it means to see a world in a grain of sand, to have to stretch my imagination to do so, instead of simply having eternity effortlessly at my grasp.  I used to berate you because you weren't turning yourself into a mirror of me, because you weren't making these quantum leaps to my exalted level.  For so long I was frustrated that you were not becoming more like me, when I finally realized that, whether I keep my powers or give them up, I needed to become more like you."

Picard's eyes were filled with tears.  He was overwhelmed with emotion, and could only murmur, "Q, I hope you understand what you mean to me, and how much what you've said means to me.  But I feel that I know you well enough know to presume to offer advice, and I worry that you would be sacrificing too much of what constitutes yourself."

"That may be.  I certainly haven't decided one way or another."

"There are so many benefits you could confer with those powers.  I understand the temptation to go way too far, but even in a limited fashion, you could be a real force for good as you have for us."

"You're right, of course, but helping out you mortals has never appealed to me very much.  I honestly don't find most mortals interesting enough for me to expend even the minimal effort to make their lives better.  Your whole species would have been eliminated by now if I hadn't taken a personal interest in you, Picard.  I just can't see myself spreading goodness and light through the galaxy."

"You've got a point there," responded Picard drily.  "How will you decide?"

"I don't know.  It's a tossup, right now.  I'm certainly not giving any powers up while you're still roaming around the galaxy sticking your nose where it shouldn't be and getting yourself in trouble.  You may be able to get along without me most of the time, but the time will come when you're gonna need me.  Remember, I have a mandate to keep an eye on you.  But maybe someday, if you ever do settle down, I'll consider it.  Being around you keeps reminding me how much I'm missing.  Omnipotence isn't everything it's cracked up to be."

Picard laughed.  "That's the last thing I would have expected to hear from you, but I certainly shouldn't expect an omnipotent and immortal entity to be any more consistent than the rest of us."

"'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,' or as another one of your writers from Earth, one of my personal favorites, put it, 'Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)'"

"That you most certainly do, my friend," said Picard laughing, but his tone quickly turned more serious.  "And getting to know those multitudes is a privilege for which I'm utterly grateful.  Aggravating as you are, I will miss you.

"And I you.  But for now, you'd better get your requests in while you can, Jean-Luc.  Is there anything you want before I go?  Name it.  You've given me life, and I owe you."

"Well Q, I do have a request," said Picard.

"I aim to please, mon Capitaine."

"Kiss me, Q."

"Why, Jean-Luc--I thought you'd never ask."

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