Chapter 2

That night, the Captain had just retired to his quarters.  His diplomatic mission was proceeding smoothly, but he was tense and knew he would be unable to sleep.  There were ominous signs coming from the Cardassian border, and Starfleet Intelligence was reporting a gradual buildup and movement of ships.  The Angrians' petition might have to be put off until a later time.  Picard sighed and spoke to the replicator, "Tea, Earl Grey, hot."  But just as he was reaching for his tea, a by-now familiar burst of light announced the arrival of Q in the room.

Picard's mind flashed back to his nightmare, but he maintained a nonchalant demeanor.  No point in revealing his uneasiness to Q.  "Well, back so soon, Q.  I guess you can't get enough of us."

"Greetings and salutations, mon Capitaine," returned the entity, but his face looked drawn and worried, and he lacked his usual joie de vivre.  "Jean-Luc, I'm sorry, but you have to come with me now.  Directive from the Continuum.  I don't have any choice."  Before Picard could respond, they had vanished from Picard's quarters and had reappeared on the surface of an uninhabited planet a good many light years away.

"What's this all about, Q?  You know, I'm really getting tired of being snatched off my ship when I'm in the middle of a mission.  Couldn't you phone for an appointment for once?"

"My ship, my ship.  My, aren't we indispensable?  This is going to concern a whole lot more than your damned ship.  Anyway, believe me, Jean-Luc, this is not my idea.  In fact, I think it's a terrible idea.  I tried to talk them" (at this Q raised his eyebrows and gestured skyward) "out of it, but, as usual, no one listens to me.  Frankly I don't think you can handle it."

"Handle what?

"Look, let me try to talk sense to them one more time."  Q closed his eyes in silent communication with his superiors, sighed, and said, "No good.  They said if I won't do it, they'll send someone else who will.  And if you have to go through with it, then I want to be with you to keep you out of trouble.  You can of course turn down our offer, Jean-Luc," and with a menacingly serious tone, he added, "And if you want my advice, I strongly suggest you do just that."

"I'm losing patience, Q, what offer?"

"Well, if you insist.  I am here to formally offer you, Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the USS Enterprise, the powers of the Q.  But if you have an ounce of common sense, you won't accept."

Picard gasped, "The powers of the Q?  Why?  Wasn't your experiment with Riker sufficient?"

"Oh, you performed so far beyond expectations on our last little test, the Continuum decided to make things a little more challenging.  Riker has no imagination, and anyway I only gave him a portion of my abilities; they want to see what you would do--with full Q powers."

"Under what conditions?  Must I join the Continuum?"

"No conditions.  I just hand you the power and sit back to enjoy the show.  Or, if I have any sense, I get the hell out of here."

"Really, Q, your confidence in me is truly inspiring.  It's touching to know you think so highly of me," retorted Picard, then added with an even harder edge to his voice, "Why exactly do you think I can't handle it?"

"It's not exactly that I don't think you can handle it, Picard; it's that I think you're going to misuse it."

Picard laughed, and it wasn't a mirthful laugh either.  "Moi?" he queried, taking a page out of Q's book.  "That's a good one, Q.  You're a fine one to worry about someone else misusing power."

"I'm dead serious, Jean-Luc.  As serious as I've ever been.  I'll admit that I have often given into the temptation to misuse my powers.  I'm bored and restless, and when you're immortal and omnipotent, novel forms of entertainment are increasingly hard to come by.  I'm also phenomenally selfish, I'll confess."  (So what's new? thought Picard to himself.)  "I heard that, Picard, so watch it.  You're still the mere mortal here.  But since I was being so humble as to list my shortcomings, allow me to continue.  As I said, I'm bored and restless and selfish, I'm egotistical and stubborn and arrogant (and in that respect, you and I are more alike than you think, mon Capitaine), but the thing I am not is driven.  I have no ambition whatsoever; why should I?  I can have whatever I want whenever I want it.  The idea of combining your drive and your energy with the power of the Q is frankly utterly terrifying to me.  The Continuum are curious to see whether you would accept the offer at all and what you would do with the power once accepted.  All in the name of scientific research, your tax dollars at work.  But I think it'll be a disaster.  I can see you're not going to listen to me, either, Jean-Luc."

The possibilities began to unfold rapidly through the Captain's mind.  Although Riker hadn't shown himself capable of handling it, Picard was curious about what it felt like; he couldn't imagine that his firm ethical grounding would simply vanish with the advent of unlimited power.  He replied to his companion, "It's an unparalleled opportunity.  Your utter lack of confidence in my ethics and in my self-control notwithstanding, there is so much I could learn.  It's very tempting, Q.  To think of all the good I could do, the lives I could save, even if I have the power for only a short while.  I have no intention of keeping it."

Q looked downcast, and murmured softly, "But you won't do good, and you won't be willing to give it back.  Much as I hope against hope that you would on both counts, I'm betting against you.  Oh, well, I'm not being a very good tempter, am I?  I'm trying my hardest to talk you out of it."

"For that reason alone, I intend to accept," snapped Picard.  "I'm really tired of you condescending to me, Q.  This time I intend to prove you wrong!"

"Well, mon Capitaine, if you screw up, as I expect you will, I intend to be the first to say, I told you so."

"No doubt," remarked Picard wryly.  "But you won't have the opportunity.  Now," he added in a hard voice, "I formally accept your kind offer."

"And I thought I was egotistical," muttered Q.  He looked skyward and declared, "I won't be responsible for the consequences," then, with a palpable reluctance and a deeply worried look, extended his arm in a grand gesture toward Picard.  "VOILA!"  Picard's eyes snapped open.  He felt himself expanding inwardly in all directions.  Doors opened in his mind and light flooded into newly created rooms.  Energy surged through every fiber of his body.  He felt as though he could smash and rebuild dozens of solar systems, and he thought that he understood the ultimate fabric of the universe.  He transcended dimensions; he could move anywhere he wanted in time and space.  Infinite choices and possibilities burst upon his consciousness.  He was convinced that he could fix whatever it was that was wrong in the galaxy, and he was equally convinced that it was his destiny to do so. I, Jean-Luc Picard, he thought to himself, am now a god, and he laughed and laughed and laughed, giddy with exhilaration and power.

Q leaned back against a tree, shaking his head.  I knew this was a bad idea.

I heard that, returned Picard in his mind.  You're lucky I have other plans, or I would be exceedingly tempted to give you a good thrashing.

"Just try it, mon dieu" retorted Q, with that last word laced with bitter sarcasm beyond any Picard had heard from Q before.  Q continued, "but if you do have other plans, I believe I will go watch from a safe distance.  You might be interested to know there's some activity near the Cardassian border that might require your godlike intervention."  With that he vanished, leaving Picard unsupervised, but not unwatched.

* * *

As soon as Q had taken Picard away from the Enterprise, Guinan shot awake with a start. Not again, she fumed to herself.  She knew immediately what had happened.  Her long, if hostile, acquaintance with Q provided her with an intuitive sense of his presence, and she had a fair ability to read what would be the equivalent of his conscious mind when she made the effort to do so.  It was neither an easy nor a pleasant experience, however; something like sensory overload would set in very rapidly, so she didn't avail herself of the opportunity to probe him except in an emergency.  And this was an emergency.  Although she knew what the answer would be, she demanded, "Computer, locate Captain Picard," and the computer replied evenly, "Captain Picard is not on board the ship."  She spoke quickly using using the comm link, "Commander Riker, this is Guinan.  Picard has been taken by Q."

"Riker here.  Are you sure?" came the reply.

"You're welcome to check for yourself," said Guinan drily, as she dressed.  The expected summons soon came, and she headed for the bridge.

The ship was on red alert, and Riker had summoned the command crew to the bridge.  He demanded, "Guinan, what can you tell us?"

"Not much, I'm afraid.  I believe Picard is in some danger, but there's really no way to locate him for the time being.  I don't think Q intends him any harm, if that's a consolation.  All I can tell you is that as events start happening, you would do well to respond to them in as restrained and cautious a way as possible, or you could make matters a lot worse."  Guinan knew a good deal more than she was letting on; she always did.  But she didn't see the point in revealing information that might later be prejudicial to Picard, and she knew that Riker and his crew would not take kindly to being informed that their Captain was in a tremendously dangerous situation that they absolutely could not do one thing about.  She knew that the best thing would be for the Enterprise to respond to upcoming events as passively as possible, but she didn't see how she could deliver that advice in any form in which it would be accepted.

Riker demanded, "What do you mean?  What events?"

Guinan sighed, "I'm just the bartender, Commander.  This isn't my place.  What I do know is that the more actively you respond to what's coming the more irreparable the long-term consequences may be.  Whatever situations arise, try to stall as long as you can before you come out shooting.  That's all I can say."  At this, she turned around and headed for the turbolift, her robes swirling around her, leaving Riker shaking his head in frustration.

When Riker contacted Starfleet to inform them of Picard's disappearance, he was told that the Enterprise was not going to be able to engage in a search for the Captain because the situation at the Cardassian border was too unstable.  Admiral Rodriguez said that there would be a general fleetwide alert about Picard's absence should any information about him be reported, but he couldn't spare the Enterprise in a situation of this nature.  There had already been a skirmish between a Federation starship and a Cardassian warship, although both had withdrawn, severely damaged but without serious casualties.  "I'm sorry Commander Riker," concluded Rodriguez, "if I were in your position, I would want to make finding the Captain my first priority as well.  But we need you at the border."

"Understood," replied Riker.  After ordering the course change and informing the Angrians that the Enterprise had to respond to an emergency situation, Riker called a meeting in the observation lounge.  After recapping recent events, he added, "I know we all want to look for the Captain, but if it's true he was kidnapped by Q, he could be anywhere in the galaxy, or outside of it for that matter.  I don't see that we have any choice but to obey Starfleet's orders.  Guinan did say she didn't think Q meant the Captain any harm, but, as usual, she didn't elaborate.  What she said that was more puzzling was that she thought we should react as cautiously as possible to upcoming events, by which I assume she was referring to this buildup at the Cardassian border."

Data interjected, "Her exact words, I believe, were 'What I do know is that the more actively you respond to what's coming the more irreparable the long-term consequences may be.  Whatever situations arise, try to stall as long as you can before you come out shooting.'"

"Commander," snapped Worf, "that doesn't sound advisable to me.  If the Cardassians start shooting . . . "

"Then we will, of course, respond," replied Riker.  "But keep in mind that the Captain has always taken Guinan's advice into account when she has offered it.  I don't know what she knows or how she knows it, but I believe we should keep what she said in mind.  We should try everything possible to avoid a violent confrontation."

Worf muttered to himself, but remained otherwise silent.  Data added, "It is possible from what Guinan said that the Captain's disappearance is somehow linked to the situation at the Cardassian border.  He may be in Cardassian territory.  I agree that we should react with caution."

La Forge and Troi nodded in agreement.  Crusher was visibly upset and fought to keep her voice in control.  "I understand that we have to follow orders, but I wish we could do something for Jean-Luc."

Data turned to the doctor, "Doctor, I will investigate the Captain's disappearance as thoroughly as I can while we're on course to the Cardassian border."

"Of course, Data, thank you."  Crusher managed a weak smile.

Suddenly, with a burst of light, Q appeared in the room.  Placing his hands on the conference table, he leaned forward with an uncharacteristic urgency.

"Q!" demanded Riker, "What have you done with the Captain?"

"Look, if I had more time, I'd complain about the fact that whenever anything goes wrong around here, you always blame me, but I don't have time for that.  You'll just have to trust me, whether you like it or not.  I cannot do anything about Picard for the moment; it's out of my hands.  When I am able to do something, believe me, I will."

"What the hell are you talking about, Q?" asked Riker, furious.

"I'm serious, Riker, so you're just going to have to listen to me and hope that something penetrates your thick skull.  And listen carefully, because things are going to get pretty intense around here.  Guinan's right, much as I hate to admit it.  Do whatever you can to avoid shooting at the Cardassians and try to get the other ships in the fleet to do the same.  Your Captain's in big trouble, and it's going to get a lot worse unless you can get Federation forces to delay fighting as long as you possibly can.  That's the only thing you can do for him.  You have a lot of lives you're responsible for, right now, Commander, so I suggest you make them a higher priority than your instinct to fight.  I realize that will be impossible for some of your crew," here Q glanced pointedly at Worf, "but it's all riding on you, William T. Riker.  Try to rise to the occasion for a change."  In another flash, Q was gone.

Everyone in the room was shaken by Q's apparent urgency.  "Will, I think he means what he's saying," noted Troi, "I don't see any indication that he was trying to trick or mislead us."

"I agree," said Data, "remember what the Captain told us about his last experience with Q.  Even though the Continuum was putting him through a test, Q was clearly trying to assist the Captain."

"Maybe," muttered Riker, "but I still don't trust him.  Do any of us really understand what the Captain's last encounter with Q was all about?  With Q there's no way to know if it really happened, or if he planted the whole thing in the Captain's brain, or if he had some ulterior motive of his own that he didn't mention to the Captain.  Because his advice coincides with Guinan's, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt this time, but let's keep our eyes open.  There's no telling what Q's after."

"I would just like to get my hands on him," growled Worf.

"That would not be advisable, Mr. Worf," remarked Data calmly, "given what we know of Q's powers."

"Mr. Worf," said Riker, "I want a battle readiness report by 1400 hours.  Mr. La Forge, see what you can do to boost shield capacity--if we're going to try to avoid a fight, we need to augment our defenses.  Mr. Data, I need simultaneous communications links with all the ships in the fleet.  And Doctor, . . . "

"We will be prepared for casualties, Commander," replied Crusher.  At this the crew dispersed to their various tasks.

* * *

Picard spent a short while on the planet Q had brought him to, flexing his new muscles.  He picked up a rock, dazzled to realize that if he chose he could see it at the quantum level, all of the sub-atomic particles in continuous motion.  He imagined the forces holding the particles together weakening, the particles coming apart.  Suddenly, the rock dissolved in his hands.  Fascinating, he thought to himself.  He found that teleportation was effortless, as was his ability to "see" what was going on at any given point in the galaxy he focused on.  He did not, however, focus upon a distant and uninhabited portion of the Alpha Quadrant, where a visitor from outside the galaxy was waiting and regenerating its energies.  Why would he?  Picard amused himself briefly by floating in space and temporarily diverting the paths of asteroids.  He leapt from planet to planet, star system to star system as if puddle-jumping.  From afar he could monitor what was going on on board the Enterprise.  These abilities came naturally and effortlessly; at the same time he found he almost had to force himself to concentrate on simple displays of his abilities such as these to keep himself from being overwhelmed by the flood of information that poured into his brain.  He had been given the full complement of Q powers, but he did not have the experience to process this sudden influx of knowledge so as to filter out what he didn't need and absorb what he did.

It took him some time to realize that the roaring noise in his head was the echo of hundreds of voices; he was simultaneously reading the minds of every person he had ever encountered in his lifetime without even intending to.  With some effort he was able to shut down and focus his new telepathic abilities, but he still couldn't handle all the knowledge, both scientific and metaphysical, at his grasp.  The multidimensionality of the universe, the multitude of time lines and alternate histories, the essence of matter at its most quantum level, the fact that he personally could visit any point in the universe at any point in time, an overwhelming realization of the reality of uncertainty and randomness, numerous space-time fluctuations and paradoxes--all these and other types of knowledge beyond description flooded into his mind all at once.  He knew there was something in there he needed to concentrate on, and his brain was relieved to focus on a simple, single situation--the Cardassians were threatening an incursion over the border, and Federation starships and lives were in danger.  He felt that he could use his powers in some way to end the standoff without casualties, but he also wanted to convince both sides to hammer out a real peace treaty, one that wouldn't collapse under the slightest perceived violation.  The problem was that he had no idea how to go about it.  There was so much activity in his brain that he couldn't see his way to a solution.

The brief skirmish between the Federation starship and the Cardassian warship had spurred both sides into a high alert status, and each was sending several ships to the border area for what would be, at the minimum, a standoff.  Picard realized he had some time before both sides would be able to assemble their fleets and decided to investigate the most infamous prison camp on Cardassia Prime.  That was his first mistake.  His initial impulse was to find a way to force both sides to talk, but when he saw the condition of the starving and tortured prisoners, the memory of his own victimization by a Cardassian inquisitor rose up before his eyes as if he was watching a play.  He could see his former self helpless and violated, undergoing an assault of physical and psychological agony.  But now he did not feel helpless.  Instead he felt an overwhelming fury, a surge of absolute power concentrated in a single, good cause--eradicating the galaxy of this tyranny.  The anger that arose in him at the memory of his own torture and his seeing the suffering of the prisoners had the welcome effect, for him, of blocking out all the other information, knowledge, and sensations that were surging around his unprepared brain.  This anger was something clear and simple that he could focus on; he felt with absolute certainty that it was his destiny to rid the galaxy of this scourge.

As he still had some time before the ships would arrive at the border, he systematically released the prisoners, dispersing them to various Starbases where they could get medical and psychological care.  As he emptied the cells, he filled them with guards, officials, and inquisitors.  Remaining unseen, he used his new telepathic abilities to plant messages in the minds of his captives, instructing them that the militarism and imperialistic tendencies of their culture were morally wrong, as was the abuse and torture of prisoners.  He also implanted ideas that he hoped would be the seeds of a more peaceful society.  For the recipients of Picard's experiments in brainwashing, the effect was somewhat like an instantaneous and unexpected religious conversion.  Imprisoned in the cells of their former victims, the jailkeepers felt an inexplicable and sudden overwhelming sense of guilt for their crimes, followed by what felt like a sudden realization that all of the values they had pledged themselves to were wrong.  After an hour or so of contemplation the new prisoners were released to spread the gospel they had just received.  Picard, had, in effect, tossed the Prime Directive out the window; in his omnipotent and omniscient state, it seemed like a foolish inconvenience, a product of narrow minds unable to sustain a grand and transformative vision.  To all intents and purposes, Picard was no longer himself.  The sudden influx of absolute power had driven him over the edge; he was so beset with his newfound energies that he had to release them in some fashion.  There was no way that his usual ethical sense or his rational faculties could impose order and restraint; Picard was essentially being assaulted by irresistable impulses, and his prior experiences were not sufficient to give him enough of a context for how to handle his omnipotence.  Picard had the powers of a god, along with very human drives, desires, angers, and fears.  It was not a good combination.

He emptied out the second-largest prison camp in the same fashion, making a point of using his newfound talent at mind control to coerce some of the higher officials into releasing any other prisoners being held throughout Cardassian territory.  That task, as he saw it, was merely bureaucratic, and he didn't want to waste his valuable time.  Then he turned his attention to the border area where the Enterprise and other Federation and Cardassian vessels were converging.

* * *

While their Captain was blithely transforming the Cardassian culture, the Enterprise was arriving at its designated position.  The Federation was, of course, anxious to avoid a war, and Riker's orders were compatible with Guinan's advice . . . for the time being.  Riker hailed the commander of the lead Cardassian vessel, Gul Torval.  "This is Commander William T. Riker, acting Captain of the Starship Enterprise.  We would like an explanation of the buildup of warships in your border region, but we, of course, wish to avoid a confrontation that could lead to an escalation of hostilities.  I hope you can assist me in resolving this matter peacefully."

The reply, in the usual Cardassian style, was blunt.  "It is you who must provide us with an explanation, Commander.  One of your starships fired upon one of our vessels, and we will not tolerate violations of our territory."

"With all due respect," noted Riker, "I believe it was the other way around.  But as both ships survived without casualties, I hope we can find a way to put this incident behind us."

"I'm sure we can find a way to do that, Commander!" snarled the Cardassian officer, "But it may not be in the manner you envision.  Your Federation has a lot more than a minor border skirmish to answer for.  Since when is Starfleet in the habit of sending undercover operatives to foment rebellion in enemy prison camps?  You may not approve of our methods, but I don't believe our peace treaty has any provisions for one side covertly freeing prisoners on the other side and fostering insurrections among prison officials.  What do you have to say about that, Commander Riker?"

Riker was absolutely stunned as was the rest of the bridge crew.  "This is the first I've heard of this, Gul Torval.  Are you sure your information is correct?"

"YES!" came the reply.  "Our two largest prison camps have been emptied of prisoners, and the guards are in open revolt."

"Gul Torval, I would like to request of you some time to investigate these allegations.  If I have the opportunity to consult with Starfleet Command perhaps I can provide some sort of explanation.  Have you captured any of the individuals responsible?"

"No.  They have vanished like the prisoners.  I will grant you three hours to investigate and to consult with your superiors.  When that time is up, I expect an explanation, some offer of reparations, and a concrete resolution.  This is an extremely serious matter.  If we cannot resolve it, the peace treaty between Cardassia and the Federation will be considered to be nullified.  Do you understand, Commander?"

"Perfectly.  Riker out."

The rest of the bridge crew all gasped, having been holding their breaths in shock and dismay.  Riker turned to Troi, whose eyes were wide with astonishment.  "He's not lying, Will."

Data turned around and announced, "Commander, we are receiving reports of former prisoners of the Cardassians mysteriously appearing in the hospitals of four different Starbases.  There was no sign of any form of transporter beam; they simply materialized."

Riker rubbed his forehead.  "Please someone tell me this is a nightmare, and I'm going to wake up.  Can the Captain have anything to do with this?"

"I do not believe so, sir."

"How about the Maquis?"

"I do not believe they could have the resources.  What is being described is so extraordinary it can only be the work of an extremely powerful intelligence."

"Q!" said Riker, Troi, and Worf simultaneously.

Troi asked, "But why would Q start releasing the Cardassians' prisoners?  It doesn't make any sense."

Riker interjected, "What Gul Torval said about the guards rebelling--it's conceivable that Q would be capable of some kind of mind control.  Could he be trying to foment a war between us and the Cardassians?"

"I wouldn't put it past him," growled Worf.

"If you recall, gentlemen," commented Data, "Q urged us, most vehemently, to act with restraint."

"Maybe he just wanted to make us easier targets," said Worf.

"No," mused Data, "I do not think even Q is capable of that degree of callousness.  And if he wanted to start a war, he could do so in a far simpler fashion."

"Well, the point is that we need to avoid one!" exclaimed Riker.  "If anybody has any ideas, now would be a good time to communicate them."

Silence fell over the bridge.  Data finally  volunteered to find out as much as he could about the situation in the prison camps, and Riker retired to Picard's ready room to consult with Starfleet Command and the commanders of the other starships in the armada.

* * *

Q, meanwhile, was frantic.  He was observing everything Picard was doing, but he had been absolutely forbidden by his superiors to interfere until they saw fit.  He kept pressing his point, but his eloquence was unavailing.  The Continuum was determined to see the results of its experiment.  Q then became engaged in an internal battle.  He knew that stopping Picard was the only right thing to do, but he was extremely leery of provoking the wrath of the Continuum.  Even though he was no longer officially on parole, he knew that they would use just about any excuse to drum him out . . . or worse.  They had barely tolerated the assistance he had rendered Picard in the last test they came up with; he had only just managed to convince them that it would be unfair to expect a human to unravel a temporal paradox completely unassisted.  He was on shaky ground, and he knew it, and at this point, Q had not mustered enough moral courage to defy the Continuum.  He could foresee the possible consequences to himself all too vividly.  He could only hope they would allow him to stop Picard before the consequences of his behavior were irreparable.

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