Chapter 7

A couple of mornings later, Q was lying on his bed reading.  He could, of course, absorb the contents of a book instantaneously, but he was trying to see what the experience of reading was like.  Even so, his speed was awesome, so Picard had provided him with a series of novels, philosophical works, books of poetry, and the like, insisting that if Q wanted to understand human nature, he should study human writings, artworks, and music.  His reading was interrupted by the door chime, however.  Q was in the habit of not wearing clothes when he was in his quarters, since he didn't see much point to them, but after he heard the chime, a lavish dressing gown materialized around him.  "Yes?" he responded lazily.

Picard entered the room, carrying two backpacks, which he put down by the door.  "Good morning, Q.  I've decided to take a day or two off and go down to Rydal to do some hiking--there's some beautiful scenery.  I want to be out in real air, with real trees, and real streams, and real ground under my feet.  Care to join me?"

"Hiking?" queried Q.  "I don't believe I've ever gone hiking.  If there's a place I want to get to, I normally just go there."

"Of course," noted Picard, "you would.  But if you want to understand humans, here's an opportunity.  For us, in many of our recreational pursuits as well as more serious ones, the experience, the process of getting somewhere or working toward a goal is as significant and as enjoyable, if not more so, than actually attaining it.  In hiking, the physical exertion and the sights one sees along the way make the ultimate destination all the more rewarding."

Q still looked puzzled.  "Well, I still don't really get the point, but I'll be glad to give it a try.  Of course, it's not going to be physical exertion for me, but maybe I can watch you get worn out and try to imagine what's enjoyable about it."

"I'll have you know my stamina is excellent," snapped Picard.

"Of course, Jean-Luc, of course," murmured Q soothingly.  "What's in those?" he gestured toward the backpacks.

"Supplies.  Food, water, thermal blankets, and the like."

"You don't actually expect me to carry one of those do you?  You must realize that I can just provide whatever you need whenever you need it.  I don't carry things."

Picard laughed.  "Yes, but I want you to have the full experience.  This is my expedition, Q.  If you're coming, we're going to do it my way."

"Yes, Captain," returned Q, snapping off a sharp salute.  "Your word is my command."

"Well, you might want to get dressed."

In a flash, Q was wearing khaki hiking shorts, an olive-green t-shirt, and hiking boots.  He spun slowly, asking in a demure voice, "Will I do?"

"You look lovely," declared Picard, tossing Q one of the backpacks.  "Let's go.  I have another adventure awaiting you."

"What's that?"

"The transporters are down because of the repairs.  We're taking a shuttlecraft."

"Am I taking my life in my hands?" queried Q.

"Oh ye of little faith," retorted Picard.  "I'm going to give you a ride even you will see fit to write home about.  And don't offer to teleport us to the surface . . . "

"I know, we're doing this your way.  I can't wait."

At that moment Beverly Crusher's voice came over Picard's comm badge.  "Captain, I understand you're taking a shuttlecraft down to the surface.  Counselor Troi and I were wondering if we could hitch a ride with you."

"Certainly.  Meet us in shuttlebay 3 in five minutes."

As the four entered the shuttlecraft, Crusher asked, "Can you drop us off at the university?  I have a meeting with Dr. Reynolds--he's doing some fascinating research with introns.  He's offered to show me his latest results in exchange for some tissue samples from the time the crew was infected with Barclay's Protomorphosis Syndrome.  And Deanna's having lunch with an old college friend who's a psychology professor there."

"Well, I'd wear your seat belts, ladies," remarked Q, "our Captain seems to have it in mind to show off."

"Yes," laughed Beverly, "Jean-Luc has always been proud of his piloting skills."

Picard looked at his passengers, rolled his eyes in exasperation, and got clearance for departure.  After the huge shuttlebay doors gaped open, the small craft shot out.  Q noted with amusement that Picard was, in fact, showing off, piloting the shuttlecraft manually.  They weaved at impressive speeds around the ships in the space dock, then zoomed down toward the planet surface, while Q asked idly, whether starship captains ever got speeding tickets.

Picard smoothly landed the craft at the university's landing pad.  As the women walked toward the main campus, Beverly asked Deanna, "Have you noticed that whenever the Captain's around, Q is oblivious to everything else?  He never took his eyes off Jean-Luc the whole way."

"Yes," noted Deanna, "The other night I was talking to Q in Ten-Forward--he's helping me with refining my empathic abilities, and he's actually being very patient--but when the Captain came in, it was as if I ceased to exist.  Not very flattering, I have to confess."

At that moment, both women heard a voice speaking inside their heads.  Now, now, ladies, it isn't polite to gossip behind someone's back, particularly when that someone has the capacity to read minds even at interstellar distances.  You may congratulate yourselves on your powers of observation, but I would advise you to keep your insights to yourselves.  Trust me, you don't want to give me an excuse to demonstrate just how many of your secrets I could unearth.  Why I can tell you things about yourselves that you don't even know yet.  The subconscious mind is a wondrous place, and I just love to explore.

"Is that a promise or a threat, Q?" laughed Deanna.  "But, don't worry.  Beverly and I are professionals--we're used to keeping confidences."

I'm glad to hear it.

Q? queried Deanna mentally, I do think we should talk about this at some point.

That figures.  And if I am to confide in you about my predeliction for your Captain, are you going to reciprocate and explain to my satisfaction your unaccountable attraction to a certain Klingon?

Okay, okay, Q, I get your point.

"You were still talking to him, weren't you?" asked Beverly.

"Yes.  He's not so bad when you get to know him.  I'm firmly convinced that his bark is a lot worse than his bite, to coin a phrase."

"I'm not so sure about that."

As Deanna and Beverly went to their separate appointments, Picard was giving Q a shuttlecraft tour of Rydal IV.  The Captain was uncharacteristically exuberant, and he buzzed mountain peaks and skimmed oceans in an almost adolescent display of his prowess.  "You never cease to amaze me, Jean-Luc.  You and I are even more alike than I thought," remarked Q.

"I'm not trying to show off!" declared Picard hotly, "I'm simply releasing tension--the past several days have been rather stressful, if you can understand that."

"Of course you're not trying to show off," replied Q in his most insinuatingly soothing tone, "the Captain of the USS Enterprise would never do such a thing.  It wouldn't be very responsible of him, now would it?"  Continuing his train of thought to himself, he mused, I can think of better ways to release tension than flying this little bucket of bolts around, but if it makes Jean-Luc happy, I might as well enjoy the ride.

"Q, be quiet for a change, and look."  Picard gestured out the window to a chain of mountain lakes, shimmering with a startling purple hue.  "That's quite a color, isn't it?  The Rydals have always had a strong environmental consciousness, and as they developed new technologies, they simultaneously developed the means to prevent ecological damage.  So their lakes and streams have never had the types of pollution problems we used to have on Earth."

"It is beautiful," acknowledged Q.

Picard flew the small craft lower, following the chain of lakes until he approached a flat meadow in a mountain valley where he landed.  "All right, Q, it's time for you to enjoy the wonders of nature from our limited human perspective."

Q made a face, then slipped his arms through the straps of the backpack.  "Whatever you say, Captain."  As they struck off toward the trail Picard had selected, both lapsed into silence.  Their surroundings were so quiet, that speaking aloud seemed a violation, and, as if by unspoken agreement, they conversed silently, Q projecting into Picard's mind and reading his responses.

As they followed a trail alongside a stream, Q studied Picard, finally asking, Why did you ask me to go with you?

Why don't you tell me?

Are you inviting me to read your mind?

I figured you already were.

No, I'm only reading your responses.  I told you I would try to respect your privacy.  And I want to hear it in your own words.

I invited you because I wanted to be a good host, but I also wanted your company, and I wanted to reflect on recent events away from the ship.  I wanted to be out in nature and get some exercise in a real environment, but I also wanted to have you along to talk to so I could get to know you better.  And I thought it would be good for you to do something on my terms instead of the other way around.

Fair enough.

You see, explained Picard, now feeling perfectly at ease with this silent form of communication, if you simply transport yourself to your destination, you miss a great deal along the way.  I'm sure you've experienced wonders of a magnitude I can't begin to imagine.  But really observing something small in detail can be wondrous too.  The English poet and artist, William Blake, described it as 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.'  I so rarely have the opportunity to clear my mind and have that type of experience.

I'm afraid I don't understand.

Look, said Picard, removing his backpack and casting himself down on the ground.  Q crouched down next to him.  The grass was studded with myriad tiny blue flowers with minuscule petals and leaves.  Just look at those flowers.  Don't compare them with other sights you've seen.  Just look at them.  Notice the details, how the petals flare out from the stem, how the leaves surround it.  There's such wonderful variety in this galaxy, it's a shame not to notice more of it.

Q did try, and for a moment he felt something of the sensation Picard described, but it didn't last more than an instant.  Having memorized the details of the flower he was observing, he, without trying to, created a perfect version of it in his brain, with more brilliant colors and more perfectly shaped petals.  The real thing paled by comparison.  He shook his head a little sadly and turned to Picard, I can share your feeling of awe to an extent, but I really can't feel anything like it on my own.  I can't be dazzled by anything in nature because I can create a more perfect version of it, instantly.  A flawless tiny flower with startlingly blue petals and shimmering, perfect, jewel-like leaves appeared in his hand.  As Picard watched, the petals opened up, as an impossible array of colors rippled around them, followed by what appeared to be infinitesimal stars glowing from the flower's petals.

That's amazing; I've never seen anything like it, conceded Picard, but there is a type of beauty in that which is not flawless, a kind of beauty in imperfection as well.

Well, that must be true, thought Q to himself. Jean-Luc is far from perfect, and yet I'm dazzled by him.  He then responded to his companion, I agree, but it takes a certain leap of imagination to really appreciate that kind of beauty.  For me, there is no distinction between the literal and the imagined; anything I can imagine I can simply materialize.  I can enjoy observing the pleasure you get from these sights, but I'm never going to have the same sensation on my own.

A pity, remarked Picard, I'm afraid I don't envy you your condition.  I find it hard to believe that it seemed at all appealing to me.  No offense.

None taken.  You adjusted to being a Q even more poorly than I adjusted to being human.  Fortunately in both cases, the transformations were temporary.  My condition does have certain advantages, however, noted Q as he leapt to his feet, then extended a hand to help Picard up.  For instance, I'll always have hair.

Picard laughed as he hoisted his backpack.  Ah, yes, yet another significant goal for humans' future evolution--'charting the unknown possibilities of existence' and preventing baldness.

I told you your species has a long way to go, remarked Q as they continued along the trail.  As they walked, Picard delighted in breathing actual air and in observing the sights around him, but Q only had eyes for his companion.  The scenery was a pleasant backdrop, nothing more.  Hearing a sound of rushing water in the distance, Picard struck off in its direction and was enchanted to find a waterfall cascading into a pool of that impossibly purple water.  Q was equally enchanted but for a different reason.  Observing that Picard had put down his backpack and was standing near the edge of the pool, gazing raptly at the waterfall, Q opined, It seems to me that a pool like this must be here for a reason.  And there's only one reason I can think of.

Before Picard could exclaim, "Q, don't you dare!" Q had, with a light but effective touch, pushed his companion into the water.  Picard's reflexes were faster than Q had anticipated, and he had enough time to grab his tormentor's arm and yank him into the water with him.  As he sputtered to the surface, Picard heard a mocking voice echo through his mind, If you're going to invite me on a hiking trip, then you should have anticipated trouble.

Is that so? returned Picard, further drenching his hiking partner with a mighty splash.  Away from the Enterprise and his command duties, and in reaction to the strain of the past several days, Picard was uncharacteristically giddy and uninhibited.  This would not have been the case had he been aware of the extent and nature of Q's interest in him, but as it was, he figured that Q knew him inside and out anyway, and he had nothing to lose.  After engaging in a vigorous splashing contest, the two began enjoying the water in their own characteristic fashions.  Picard swam laps back and forth, relishing the exercise and the sensation of plowing purposefully through the water.  Q, by contrast, floated lazily on his back, his arms behind his back, as if he were on a raft.  He was taking great pleasure in watching Picard's lean figure swim past, as the Captain's wet uniform highlighted his flowing muscles.  At one point, without stopping, Picard demanded, What are you smiling about, Q?

You don't want to know, Jean-Luc, believe me.

No doubt, came Picard's reply.

When they finally emerged from the water, Q instantly dried their drenched clothes, figuring it was the least he could do.  Picard's unexpected baptism had somehow altered his state of mind to the point where he felt completely relaxed with Q, as if he had found a long-lost brother and had finally gotten over the awkwardness caused by their separation.  As they continued up the trail, they walked almost touching.  While Q's usual violations of his personal space normally put Picard on edge, he was so transformed by the release of tension his swim had caused, that it seemed perfectly natural to be in such close physical proximity to his companion.  Blissfully unaware of Q's romantic impulses toward him, Picard allowed a wave of affection and gratitude for Q to wash through him, with a sensation of comfortable intimacy.

When they reached the spot where Picard purposed to spend the night, the sunset was about to begin, and the pair sat close together, hands clasped over their knees, elbows touching.  Watching the sunset, they felt no need to talk, but simply to absorb each other's presence in harmonious silence.  As it grew dark, Q lay on his back watching the stars emerge, while Picard ate his dinner.  Q had taken one look at the rations Picard had provided and disdainfully refused them.  Since he didn't need to eat or drink, he only did so if he was being offered a particular treat that would provoke an intense sensation.  This time, however, he merely glanced at Picard's meal and muttered, "How can you eat that stuff?"

As the night air grew colder, Picard's shoulders began to stiffen from carrying the backpack all day.  He was so comfortable with Q's presence that it seemed perfectly natural to him when the entity sat down behind him and began massaging his neck.  Normally, Picard felt a sufficient degree of wariness and alertness around Q that the merest touch would have made him jump; this evening, however, he had completely lost his usual hyper-awareness of the extent of Q's power.  As Q erased the soreness from his neck and shoulders, Picard's eyes began to close.  Q reached into the backpack and pulled out a sleeping pad and thermal blanket.  Picard was suddenly so sleepy he rolled over onto the sleeping pad and didn't register Q gently covering him with the blanket.  Q, of course, did not need to sleep.  He spent the night sitting up next to his sleeping companion, one hand draped lightly on Picard's arm, in an uncharacteristically blissful state.  His usual restlessness and nervous energy had evaporated, and he could have sat there happily for days, watching his favorite sleep, his eyes lingering on the angular beauty of Picard's face.

The next morning, Picard woke up to the aroma of hot Earl Grey tea.  As he rubbed his eyes and sat up, Q handed him a mug, smiling, and greeting him with "Morning, Captain.  Did you sleep well?"

Picard nodded.  "Thank-you for the tea."

"Thank-you, Jean-Luc."

"For what?"

"For inviting me.  I can't really explain what I'm feeling, but it's something I can't remember feeling for an unimaginably long time."

"I'm glad you accepted the invitation," replied Picard.  He was somewhat puzzled by Q's enigmatic remarks, but he realized there was no way he was going to get anything out of Q that the entity did not choose to reveal.

After packing their belongings, they headed downhill on a different trail, sometimes conversing silently, more often not.  They were comfortable enough together that they had no need to sustain a conversation.  The way down was more direct than the path they had taken up, and they reached the shuttlecraft by early afternoon and headed back toward the Enterprise.

Back in his quarters, Picard unpacked his backpack, when a tiny glittering object fell out.  It was the flower Q had created, and as Picard picked it up, it went through the same array of transformations that Picard had previously witnessed, then the tiny stars blinked out, and the flower returned to its original blue color.  Picard smiled, both surprised and touched at the gift Q had surreptitiously given him, and placed the flower in a safe place.

* * *

While Q and Picard were on their expedition, an alien entity loitered in the far reaches of the Alpha Quadrant, its energy close to restored after its long journey.  Soon it would begin moving again, taking its time, seeking out prey.  It had been a long time since it had had its boredom alleviated.

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