Starfleet, of course, could not provide any explanation of the mysterious transformation of the Cardassian prison camps, but they had no intention of returning the prisoners to their former captors. Regardless of regulations and peace treaties, such an act of inhumanity could not be conceived. Everyone felt helpless; there didn't seem to be any way to appease the warlike Cardassians who were just itching for a fight. Riker proposed to Admiral Rodriguez that he share his speculations about Q's involvement with the Cardassian commander; the only hope he could see was that Gul Torval would understand that both sides were the victims of an enemy much more powerful than both of them. Riker hailed the Cardassian lead vessel.
"Gul Torval, we have reason to believe that the events you described to us were not the work of Starfleet operatives, but were somehow instigated by Q. We don't know why. Are you aware of the existence of the Q Continuum?"
"We have, of course, monitored Starfleet reports about this individual's activities. But you cannot dodge responsibility for Starfleet actions by laying the blame elsewhere. We insist on holding Starfleet fully responsible for this interference in our internal affairs. Torval out."
All subsequent attempts to raise the Cardassian warship were in vain. The Cardassians were apparently determined to fight, and they had no interest in continuing a conversation. Still racking his mind for a peaceful solution, Riker reluctantly informed Admiral Rodriguez that a fight appeared imminent as the three hour deadline came up.
* * *
Picard had stationed himself, unseen, on the surface of a small uninhabited moon near the Cardassian border. He was so caught up in his blind fury that he did not note that Q was observing him from an asteroid not far away. Picard was monitoring the communications between the various ships, and he was fairly incensed that his brilliant tactic of releasing the prisoners was being falsely attributed to Q. Suddenly he leapt to his feet; he had "overheard" a Cardassian order that the warships were to anticipate the three hour deadline by several minutes and catch their enemies by surprise. The audacity of what they were sure was a Starfleet plan to interfere in their internal affairs left the Cardassian authorities feeling that they had no other choice but to fight. Anything less would reveal them as weak, unable to govern within their own territories. They had been humiliated enough in the past; the loss of Bajor still rankled, and the Maquis were a constant irritation. It was time to remind the Federation who they were dealing with.
By this point, Picard had lost any capacity for rational thought and reflection. He was intoxicated with power and still battling to control the surges of facts, ideas, and possibilities that were sweeping through his brain. Anger was the only steadying force he had; it gave him a single and simple purpose, a clear way to make use of his powers. Instantly he determined to eliminate the entire Cardassian fleet with a thought. Then he could proceed with his transformation of the Cardassian culture--these brutes would pose a threat no longer. As far as Picard was concerned they had tortured their last prisoner and attacked their last starship. He, Jean-Luc Picard, would see to that.
Q, of course, was reading Picard's mind with continued alarm. He had finally had enough--the Continuum be damned. He had a vague sense that the thousands of Cardassian casualties Picard was about to cause should have more significance for him than a purely theoretical one, but his principal concern was Picard. He knew that if the Captain actually executed his plan, it would utterly destroy him, and Q wasn't about to let that happen. The Continuum could do with him what they pleased. He launched a bolt of pure energy toward Picard, who wasn't expecting it, temporarily paralyzing him. Using the time Picard's incapacity bought him, Q proceeded systematically not only to disable the weapons systems of all the ships on both sides, but to damage them sufficiently that they would take days to repair. There, he thought, that should give them time to cool off. It was no small feat, even for Q, but he didn't have time to concentrate on mustering his energies anew; Picard had recovered, and able to focus coherently on only one thing at a time, he transferred all his overwhelming rage from the Cardassians onto Q. He could deal with the Cardassians later, but he had had more than enough of Q's interference.
Q heard a voice thunder inside his head, Q, YOU ARE GOING TO REGRET THIS. I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF YOU. Instantly Q felt himself slashed with sharp pulses of energy like tearing claws.
God damned humans! he thought as he recovered himself. I should have just let them be exterminated. Nimbly, he stepped into another dimension, manipulating the fabric of space and time so that he was able to come around behind Picard. Then with a sudden lunge, he yanked his adversary off balance and transported both of them to the distant planet where he had made the offer to Picard. He figured the assembled ships had enough to worry about without a cosmic clash of the titans taking place in front of them, and he did not want anybody there to become aware of Picard's presence.
* * *
On the bridge of the Enterprise, Riker was trying to cope with the magnitude of what La Forge had just informed him. Suddenly, inexplicably, every weapon system on the ship was inoperative. Geordi had never seen anything like it. The flow regulators and the plasma distribution manifolds of each phaser array were fused, the prefire chambers had collapsed in on themselves, the phaser emitter crystals had dematerialized altogether, the computer's targeting system was off-line, and the conduits by which to channel energy to the phasers were blocked as were the photon torpedo launcher tubes. Q was nothing if not thorough when he put his mind to it. "Commander," said La Forge in amazement, "this is going to take days if not weeks to repair."
Data suddenly interjected, "Sensors are reading that all the other ships in both fleets are similarly disabled. Not one of them has any weapons capacity remaining."
Soon thereafter, Gul Torval contacted Riker, and both sides agreed to withdraw, not having any other choice. "There will be repercussions!" threatened the Cardassian, but for the time being it was an empty threat, and both sides knew it. The repairs would be so extensive that the ships would have to use the facilities of a Starbase. Riker was unwilling to leave without having located the Captain, but he could not leave a defenseless vessel near the Cardassian border. As he was more and more convinced that Q was somehow involved, he resigned himself to waiting, knowing there was nothing he or anyone else on the Enterprise could do. Wearied and perplexed by recent events, he ordered the ship to the nearest Starbase for repairs.
* * *
Picard had thought he was furious before, but now he was even more so. All of his varied humiliations at Q's hands crowded into his memory. All of the insults and derision Q had launched at him blocked any recollection of the times Q had been on his side. All he could hear was Q taunting him for his "puny mind" and describing him as "such a limited creature"; like a broken record he could hear the mocking voice jeering over and over again, "You obtuse piece of flotsam!" Obtuse and puny no longer, Picard lashed out. He hurled Q against a massive rock with enough force to take the equivalent of Q's breath away. As Q remained pinned against the rock, shaken and dazed, Picard advanced toward him, launching ferocious darts of energy, each one exploding in Q with a searing pain. Fortunately for Picard, Q had learned to channel and restrain his powers, his prior history notwithstanding. He had enough force remaining in him to shred his attacker into sub-atomic particles, and he knew if he didn't get Picard under control, he might have to so anyway, but despite all the wrath that consumed him, he remembered that killing Picard was not his intention.
"OH I'M PUNY AM I? I'M OBTUSE AM I?" demanded Picard as he advanced.
Q returned, "Jean-Luc, you are surpassing all your previous attempts at pure deranged asininity. I simply had no idea what a primitive brute you really were under that civilized facade. The mind boggles." His arm whipped in a blur, and Picard found himself flat on his back several hundred feet away. He was so driven by rage at Q's mockery, that he recovered in an instant.
"Listen to me, Q," said Picard in a cold voice utterly devoid of humanity, a voice that chilled Q to the core, "I am going to destroy you." Q realized what he'd been denying up until now--Picard was insane. His Jean-Luc was so far buried under this new persona of pure wrath and vengefulness that he did not know if Picard would ever be himself again. It didn't matter; Q knew what he had to do. The problem was that his adversary was driven by a fury so absolute, a fury that increased his power exponentially, that Q honestly didn't know if he could find a way to stop him.
Trying to figure out how to defeat Picard without destroying him, Q nimbly evaded most of the bolts of energy Picard was hurling at him. Every blow that did land, however, drained him more. And Picard was learning; there was no point in trying to escape into other dimensions to try to regroup. Picard would simply follow him; he seemed virtually unstoppable. Suddenly Q found himself jerked up in the air then smashed so hard into the planet's surface that he left a crater. Without touching him Picard was then shaking him like a rag doll, pinning him against the ground, and sending lightning strikes into Q's battered form. Q had enough mental capacity left to notice that Picard was keeping a safe distance from him as he launched his assault. Q thought if he could get close enough he might be able to take the Captain by surprise. Q lay on the ground in a crumpled heap; Picard was too confident to try and read his adversary's mind, and he approached Q, ready to finish him off.
Suddenly Picard found himself immobilized, as a gigantic length of chain whipped itself around him, pinning his arms to his sides and his legs together. He was momentarily stunned, but managed, with effort, to break free of his restraints. It was too late, however. Q was on top of him, knocking him off balance, jerking his arms behind his back and forcing him down on his knees. Q's grasp was unshakeable, no matter how much Picard struggled. He had used up a good deal of energy escaping from the chains Q had conjured up, and now every move he tried to make was deterred by the iron hands which grasped his wrists and neck. His mind practically boiled over with frustration. He heard a voice intone, "That's it, Picard. It's over. You will surrender the powers back to me NOW!" Picard made one more futile attempt to wrench himself out of Q's grasp, but Q had finally mustered all his stores of determination. He said in a gentler voice, "Jean-Luc, I know you're in there somewhere. This is all wrong, and you know it. Give up the powers. It will be a lot more painful to you if I have to take them from you by force." Wordlessly Picard slumped on the ground, somehow knowing how to release the powers which had so transformed him. He relaxed his mind, his hands opened slightly, and he was human once again.
Q didn't waste any time. Picard was a mess, his mind a fluctuating chaos of memories, thoughts, and surging emotions, and his identity was unstable, shattered into fragments by the sudden withdrawal of the all-powerful monster he had become. Q didn't know if much of the original Picard was left, but he sat down against a rock, gathered the unconscious Captain into his arms, and began probing through his brain, trying to rebuild the layers of Picard's consciousness, reassembling memories, sensations, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, trying to reconstruct some identity Picard would recognize as himself. "Come on, Jean-Luc," Q murmured, brushing his lips against Picard's forehead, "I didn't go through all that to lose you like this." For hours, he quietly sat, cradling his patient and using his telepathic powers to put Picard's shattered self back together, to restore him to some vestige of who he was before he accepted Q's offer. Finally satisfied with the results, Q arranged Picard's still unconscious body in a resting position on the ground, and withdrew several feet away to go about the business of recovering himself.
* * *
Picard's head was reeling in a particularly sickening way. As he slowly regained consciousness, he had tried to get up, but collapsed, nauseous, exhausted, and dizzy. All he wanted to do was crawl into a hole somewhere and rest . . . for a few weeks at least. He was too overcome even to speak, but it was obvious he was in no condition to be traipsing around the galaxy. Q was pitiless, however; while Picard had lay unconscious, his own anger at both Picard and at his superiors had been building back up almost beyond the point of self-control. His compassion was used up, and he knew exactly what he had to do. His face was grim and utterly determined, he looked taller and inhumanly rigid, and his eyes flashed with a preternatural light. He was controlled fury incarnate; Q's flippant demeanor was a dim memory. When he spoke, his voice echoed, "Now that you're awake, we have a little journey to make, Picard." He yanked the Captain up by the arm, and they disappeared off the planet's surface in a blinding flash.
An even more blinding flash announced their arrival at their destination. It was like nothing Picard had ever seen, and he was even more dizzied by the sight. He rested on a kind of platform overlooking what appeared to be a gigantic lake in space composed of white and silver light eternally flowing in swirls and ripples. All around the lake Picard could barely discern amorphous figures on similar platforms; it was as if their form kept changing, undulating with the rhythm of the swirling lake, and his attempt to get a fix on them so overwhelmed his senses that he lost consciousness, only to find himself instantly awakened and forced into a sitting position. His own muscles were incapable of supporting him; he knew it was Q that was holding him up. Even though every fiber of his being was tending toward unconsciousness, he intuited somehow that Q was also keeping him awake and aware of the proceedings, although Q did not appear to be paying him the least bit of attention.
Retaining his adopted human form, but somehow appearing much larger, Q addressed the beings grouped around the lake. Picard realized that this was the Q Continuum, or at least one form it took, and he could barely breathe the air Q was, as a matter of course, providing him. When Q spoke, his voice resonated across the lake, his hands were gripped tightly into fists, and his entire being emanated fury and power. Picard was terrified; he had never seen Q in such a towering rage and realized that his clenched fists indicated a mind-boggling amount of self-control.
Q spoke: "I have had enough, and this is my ultimatum. I am demanding that the Continuum cease altogether from trying and testing this human. I will refuse to cooperate in any more experiments that put him and his fellows in danger, and furthermore, I will do everything in my power to prevent any of you from doing so. If you have any intention of interfering with him or other humans again, you will have to destroy me first and be thorough about it, because any atom of consciousness I have remaining will be directed toward thwarting you. I will not allow any further trials of humankind. They will continue to evolve as they have been. We cannot continue to interfere in their development. We do not have the right to continue to put them in danger of destroying themselves and others. They may try our patience, but we are going to have to tolerate their inadequacies for a long time to come. They even have a few valuable qualities we lack, and if anything, we should try to learn what we can from them, instead of forcing them to try conform to our preconceptions. This human is neither a toy for our amusement nor an insect for us to examine. He may not have our capacities, but he is conscious, he is aware, and he has suffered from our interference and manipulation. I will not allow that to happen again. Not only am I demanding that we cease to interfere with this human and his species, but I am also declaring my intention to extend my protection to him for the duration of his natural lifetime and to any vessel he may command." There was just the slightest twinge of the old Q sarcasm in his echoing voice, as he concluded, "I await your answer."
Q continued to stand, legs apart, arms folded, continuing at the same time to maintain Picard in a sitting position and to keep him conscious. It was absolutely silent; Picard knew that the debate was being carried on telepathically. Although he had no empathic abilities himself, he could sense a rising tension; the lake vibrated with the conflict. Q simply followed the discussion, his eyes flickering back and forth as he listened to the silent debate; he had nothing more to add. Picard could also sense that Q was continuing to muster a heroic self-control; he sensed that on the one hand the entity was trying to restrain himself from vaporizing the entire quadrant, and on the other hand, he was trying to battle down a mounting fear. Picard knew nothing about he workings of the Q Continuum, but from his knowledge of previous penalties they had imposed on Q, he guessed they were unlikely to be charmed with this challenge to their authority. His head began to throb ferociously along with the rest of his body; the combination of the suspense and the overwhelming magnitude of what he was observing were close to unbearable. Q remained pitiless, however; presumably he could have alleviated some of Picard's suffering, but he wasn't interested. He simply wanted the Captain awake and aware of what was going on, and he wanted him sitting up, so that the object of his ultimatum to the Continuum was not simply lying in a heap. In his exhaustion and suffering from sensory overload, Picard was about to begin to weep, when a voice inside his head resonated, Don't you dare, not here. Get a grip--think about how much worse I could make you feel.
Picard was distracted from his agony by a flash and the arrival of what appeared to be a human male with blond hair tumbling over his forehead. He knew of course, it was another Q, taking human form for his benefit. The newcomer spoke, "Well, well, well, that was quite a speech, Q. Did you rehearse it on the way over here? You could have scavenged what's left of your Captain's mind here and at least gotten a few Shakespearean passages to spice it up."
Without moving, Q slammed his colleague hard against the floor of the platform. "I'm not playing games now, Q. And I don't appreciate having the final deliberations closed off to me. I believe I'm still a full member here."
The second Q got up, brushed himself off, and snapped, "We locked you out because we knew how you would react to anyone who spoke against you. No one here wants to be the target of one of your grudges. As it is, you won--with concessions. We will no longer test human beings or put them on trial or interfere with their development, and we will not prevent you from extending your protection to whoever you want as long as you don't give them an undue capacity to destroy whomever they happen to be quarrelling with at the moment."
"I believe it was you who insisted on giving a human that capacity recently, not I. I said I would protect them; I won't actively interfere otherwise. What are your conditions?"
"Well, it seems that this is a species with a remarkable lack of self-control. They apparently need to be monitored. We will not interfere, but we want to be kept informed about their development. If any of them start wreaking havoc in the future, we will consider them to be your responsibility, so you'd better see to it that they acquire some restraint and some awareness as they evolve. If this," he gestured toward Picard, "is the most advanced specimen you could come up with, and he came as close as he did to destroying an entire culture, then they're sorely in need of some guidance. And guess what, Q? You're the expert on their little species--they're all yours. I have to admit, though, they are fairly interesting as inferior species go--I'll be looking forward to your reports. Farewell, Q. I hope you find your new charges sufficiently entertaining."
The second Q disappeared. Q was still seething. He felt a tremendous amount of relief, of course, that the Continuum had accepted his ultimatum instead of vaporizing him, but he was still furious with Picard for having put him in this position in the first place. He again yanked Picard's arm, snapping, "Let's go. I'm not through with you yet."
* * *
On board the Enterprise, which was now approaching Starbase 329, Riker turned the bridge over to Data and headed to Ten-Forward in search of Guinan. He found her behind the bar, looking distracted and troubled. "Can we talk privately?" he asked. Guinan nodded, beckoned to one of her assistants, then led Riker to her office. "What's going on, Guinan? Where's the Captain?"
She sighed, "He's with Q. That's all I can tell you."
"Do you think he's all right?"
"I certainly hope so, Commander."
* * *
In an absolute fury Q returned himself and Picard back to the planet. The strain of the past several hours was too much for him, and he completely lost control. He raged, "You're lucky I don't rip every organ out of your body one at a time over and over again for the next century! The last thing I needed was another humiliation before the Continuum!"
Picard was visibly sagging, despite Q mentally holding him up. Q yanked him up by the front of his uniform, so that his face was on a level with Q's and his toes were dragging on the ground. He would have been dismayed at his helplessness, but at this point, he was almost numb. Q gave Picard a shake, demanding, "Look at me! Do you have any idea, you witless, thick-headed, barbaric, presumptuous Neanderthal, how close I came to having to kill you? Do you have any idea what that would have done to me? DO YOU?" With every repetition of "Do you," Q gave Picard a violent shake. He then exclaimed, "If I don't make you suffer, I'm going to explode!"
Q was about to ignite every nerve of Picard's body, but miraculously, he stopped himself. His wrath needed an outlet, however. While he was still holding Picard up with one hand, his other arm flashed, and Picard beheld a massive firestorm begin to devour the landcape around him. Trees went up like torches, then crumbled, boulders exploded, and the ground scorched. Picard and Q were standing in the eye of a fiery hurricane; the flames didn't reach them, but were whirling around outside the immediate area where they stood. As the flames raged, lightning crackled across the sky, flashing through the enormous pall of black smoke. Picard hardly dared to look at Q, but noticed that the entity actually seemed to be relaxing, growing calmer. Then, as suddenly as the firestorm started, it stopped. The smoke cleared, the lightning dwindled away, and the landscape was restored to its original condition. Q turned to Picard and remarked casually, "You know, Jean-Luc, you're lucky I have more self-control than you give me credit for. I almost did that to you." With a groan of disgust, Q lightly tossed Picard about ten feet away, as easily as one would toss a rag doll into a toy box, then finally relaxed his hold on Picard's consciousness, mercifully allowing the Captain to pass out.
When he regained consciousness, Picard forced himself into a sitting position and put his head in his hands. He was utterly shocked at the amount of destruction he had been about to cause, and he was still reeling from the experience he had just had, although his memories of it were incoherent and confused. His body ached in every nerve, his head was throbbing, and his entire self-image was crumbling. Q, meanwhile, was trying to get a grip on himself. He had used a tremendous portion of his mental energies to subdue Picard and to confront the Continuum, and he hadn't been sure he was going to be able to do either without seriously harming the person who meant the most to him or being destroyed himself in the process. When he had recovered a little of his composure, he noticed Picard in an attitude of absolute despair. At this point, sympathy was not uppermost in Q's mind, although a good deal of his fury had abated after he had vented it with his display of pyrotechnics. Q had regained his self-control, but Picard's refusal to listen to him when he made the offer in the first place still ticked him off. And guerrilla psychotherapy had always been his preferred method of dealing with the vagaries of human behavior; empathetic and nonjudgmental listening were not part of Q's repertoire.
"Oh, mon Capitaine," he said in a deceptively alluring voice, "or should I perhaps call you my fallen God? Whatever it is, I TOLD YOU SO! I know you better than you know yourself, with your high ethics and moral principles. Aside from the fact that you nearly demolished an entire Cardassian fleet, you were about to rearrange the entire Cardassian culture according to your own ideals. So much for your holy Prime Directive. If anything just proved to us that we need to keep a close eye on you, you just did it. Congratulations--you've earned yourself the exalted position of being a species permanently in need of our supervision."
Q slowed his tirade long enough to notice that Picard was weeping. "Please Q," he said in the most trembling voice Q had ever heard him use, "please. I know I deserve the lecture; you were 100% right, and I was completely, totally, utterly wrong. But I can't stand being berated right now. I don't even recognize myself. I don't understand how I could have gone so wrong."
"You're a human, Jean-Luc Picard. You are not a god. You are not capable of handling the powers of a god. You've always wanted to rearrange the galaxy in your own image; there's a good reason you haven't gained the capability to do so. If your species is going to evolve, it's going to be through gradual development; I've finally learned that even if the rest of my colleagues haven't. Trying to push you along faster than you're ready for is a mistake, but you, if anyone, ought to have known how tempting power was going to be to you. Or if you didn't know, you ought to have listened to me. You know, it's pretty damned frustrating to know everything, and no one listens to me. You ought to have learned to trust me by now; haven't I shown you that I have your best interests at heart, even if they contradict the wishes of the Continuum? Didn't I help you ensure the survival of your entire miserable species? And this is how you repay me? You just had to go follow the whims of your massive ego, which so far overreaches your capabilities and your capacity for self-control that it boggles the mind. And you thought you would do better than Riker did--that's a joke. He wouldn't have come close to conceiving the type of damage you were about to cause. Your species is admirable in its ambition and drive, I'll admit, and you in particular have an energy and will that we in the Continuum lack. But that's a good thing because that kind of energy combined with unlimited power is a recipe for trouble. I knew you would not be able to restrain your worst impulses and your narrow way of seeing things.
"To us, the conflict between the Federation and the Cardassians is just another minor skirmish in the history of the galaxy, two more groups of humanoids who are too foolish to perceive the ways in which they are alike and have interests in common. You, for all your ethical principles, still perceive things in black and white terms; the Cardassians were the enemy, and all of a sudden you had the power to do something about it. You may have been nearly omnipotent, but I didn't notice any great leaps of insight on your part. While your pitiful species does have a few virtues, the sudden acquisition of unlimited power would be too much for any human to take; even Ghandi would have probably exterminated the British. You're still too much the slaves of your worst impulses; fortunately your extremely limited abilities prevent you from doing too much damage, even though you nearly destroyed your own planet through wars and environmental devastation. You may have become slightly more enlightened in the past century or two, but you have a GOD DAMNED LONG WAY TO GO, and the only thing that really keeps you and other humanoid species from destroying the galaxy is that you keep each other in check. You were a lot more sensible when we first met, and you were defending what your species had accomplished up to now; I thought you were giving yourselves far too much credit, but at least you weren't overreaching. Save lives! Benefit humanity! Spread peace and goodness throughout the universe, my derriere! The thing that really gets me, the thing that utterly infuriates me, is that you accepted a challenge you knew you weren't ready for out of a petty, perverse, childish desire to prove me wrong. If I were you, Jean-Luc Picard, I WOULDN'T TRY THAT AGAIN."
Picard continued to weep, but he heard and absorbed every word. "Q, I'm thoroughly and completely humiliated, I'm horrified at what I almost did, and I'm infinitely grateful for your intervention. You're absolutely right in your analysis of my motives, for which I'm deeply ashamed, and I deserve every word of your tongue-lashing and more, but," and here the sobs escalated, "what I really need is your compassion now, not your anger. There are no words to express my sorrow for what I've done, but I am sorry for not listening to you. But, please, I need your help to get through this; I don't know how to do it on my own!"
Q's anger dissipated immediately at this confession. He sat down next to Picard and put his arm around the Captain's shoulders and let him cry uninterruptedly for several minutes. Finally, he said in a much gentler tone, "Jean-Luc, Jean-Luc, you're going to get through this. You're the strongest human I know. You made a huge mistake, but there's been no permanent damage done fortunately," he smiled wryly, "so consider it a learning experience."
Picard had calmed down somewhat, but what Q said brought him up short: "You said 'fortunately.' Was it possible that you might not have been able to stop me?"
"Oh yes, it was, Captain. When you have two powerful minds in combat with each other, usually the one with the most drive and motivation behind it wins, the one who sees victory more clearly. It's not a matter of physical ability, but rather mental energy. You were pretty damned determined, and I'm really not used to exerting myself that much; we don't have too much mortal combat going on in the Continuum. I mean, I probably could have simply destroyed you, literally ripped you apart to the molecular level, but you would have been extremely difficult to reassemble, and I kind of like having you around. So given the fact that I was trying to ensure your survival, I had to be a little circumspect in trying to restrain you. But these were the possible outcomes if I hadn't succeeded when I did: either you would have destroyed me or I you. I couldn't let you go on the way you were."
Picard looked even more pale and stunned than before. "How reassuring. I was trying to kill you, wasn't I? And you were just trying to help me. Q, I don't know what to say."
"How about 'thank-you for preventing me from destroying the galaxy and not killing me in the process, Q'? That should do nicely."
"Thank you, Q. I don't see how I can ever repay you, but you have both my gratitude and my repentence."
"Well, look, Jean-Luc, I have one more thing to say. You really terrified me in a way that I have never been terrified. It's not a feeling that agrees with me. And, if you ever frighten me like that again, or if you ever disregard my advice when it's for your own good, I'll have to . . . I'll just have to . . . spank you until you come to your senses. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not."
Q's half-joking threat had the desired effect, and Picard was beginning to recover his equanimity. "Well, Q, I will make a point of not affording you that opportunity." (Too bad, thought Q to himself.) "And thank-you, I do feel better," continued Picard, "although I don't think Counselor Troi would approve of your methods." He sighed, "I have never been made quite so aware of how fallible I am. It's going to be a difficult adjustment for me, but it looks like I'm going to have to defer to your judgment for a while."
"Precisely," replied the entity. He suddenly leaned forward, placing his lips immediately next to Picard's ear, declaring in his most threatening manner, "And by the way, you'd better get used to having me around, because I'm going to be keeping a very close eye on you. Apparently keeping you out of trouble is a full-time job."
"And would you like quarters prepared on board the Enterprise?" snapped Picard, trying to cover for the unease Q inevitably provoked in him with his insistent intrustions into Picard's personal space. Having such a powerful being at such close range was tremendously unsettling, but Picard hated to let his discomfort show.
"As a matter of fact, yes. Actually, Jean-Luc," replied Q with his most insinuating tone, "I'd prefer to share yours, but I'll gladly accept the most spartan of available spaces. I can always redecorate."
Picard looked at Q. "You really mean it? You're planning on staying on the Enterprise?"
"Well, I don't expect to be there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I'm sure I'll take plenty of side-trips, use my frequent flier miles. But, yes, I am inviting myself on board your ship as a sort of semi-permanent observer, with the intent of facilitating comprehension and communication between my people and yours--there, that should sound good in a Starfleet report. It is part of your mission after all. I will give you my personal guarantee that I will not do anything to harm you or your crew, nor will I deliberately expose you to any danger. And the Continuum, while they promised not to interfere with you any more, made it very clear to me that I'm responsible for your pesky little species now. I'm supposed to supervise you rigorously, or some damn thing."
"Why do you really want to do this?"
"I've told you many times before, Jean-Luc: even if you are a human, you're my closest friend in the galaxy. Almost losing you made me see even more clearly how important you are to me." Q's tone grew instantly harder, "And, as I said, you need someone to keep an eye on you."
"Q, I'm touched," said Picard drily, " but I'll have to think about this."
"It's not as though you
have much choice," responded Q airily, "I'm omnipotent, remember?
And you, thank God, aren't any longer. Shall we go visit my
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