Chapter 9

With the confrontation with the Cardassians resolved and with the Enterprise's return to normal operations, Picard seemed more and more back to his usual self.  For all of his telepathic ability, Q, as a matter of course, screened out what didn't appear to pertain to him directly, so he hadn't paid any attention to the nature of the Enterprise's current mission.  He was feeling restless and confined, and it seemed prudent to him to check in with the Continuum occasionally, if only so they would leave him alone the rest of the time.  "I'll just be gone a few days," he informed Picard, "but if you need me, just give me a call."  Picard berated himself for the momentary pang of abandonment he felt, realizing he had allowed himself to become much too dependent on his omnipotent friend.  It was time to go back to being a starship captain.

Having reminded himself that he was perfectly capable of commanding a starship without Q's help, Picard sat alert but relaxed in the Captain's chair as the Enterprise entered Angria's solar system at quarter impulse.  Suddenly, inexplicably, the Enterprise stopped dead in space.  The lights dimmed briefly, until auxiliary power came on.  "Mr. Data!" exclaimed Picard, "What is going on?"

"I do not know why, Captain, but we have lost all power to the engines and weapons systems and sensors.  We have life support and auxiliary power only."

"Captain!" exclaimed La Forge over Picard's comm badge, "Matter/antimatter reactions have just stopped.  In fact everything down here has just stopped.  All controls are frozen as well.  It's just not possible."

"Apparently it is, Mr. La Forge."  Picard turned back to the ops position.  "Theorize, Mr. Data."

"There is no known reason why the entire ship should be frozen like this.  Sensors did not read any approaching ships or anything else for that matter.  For the time being, I do not have enough information to draw upon, and without sensors we're . . . "

"Blind as a bat," muttered Picard.  "Thank-you, Mr. Data."

"Captain!" declared Riker, unable to keep his thoughts to himself, "the most likely candidate in our experience who could do this to the ship is Q."

Picard slowly turned his head toward Riker, and fixed his first officer with a glare of pure ice.  He said slowly and deliberately in an almost inaudible voice, a voice that was chilling in its controlled fury, "I don't suppose you have the faintest beginnings of an idea of how furious I am, Number One.  I am beginning to wonder whether your obsessive resentment of Q is interfering with your ability to perform your duties.  Has it ever occurred to you that there might be beings out there with powers resembling Q's?  Or do you intend to persist in blaming him for everything, even with all indications to the contrary?"

Picard could have continued berating his first officer, since there didn't seem to be much else to do, when a type of transporter beam began to shimmer on the bridge.  From it emerged the most stunningly beautiful woman any of the bridge crew had ever seen.  She was tall with pale blue skin and impossibly long, flowing silver hair that glinted in the light.  Her eyes were of similar startling silver color, and she wore a jet black uniform that highlighted even more the colors of her skin and hair.  All the men on the bridge were temporarily transfixed, but Picard recovered himself the quickest, noting in the meanwhile that Deanna Troi was alternately darting furious looks at Worf and Riker.

"I am Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Federation Starship Enterprise.  Do you think you might do us the honor of introducing yourself and explaining why you have disabled my ship?"

The stranger looked Picard up and down, smiling to herself.  "You're a very good-looking man, Captain Picard.  Too bad we had to meet under such awkward circumstances."

"I don't believe we have met," remarked Picard pointedly.

"Introductions will have to wait.  I'm in a hurry."    At this point, Worf started to move toward the woman, but with a glance she froze him in his tracks.

Picard demanded, "What have you done to him?"

The intruder replied, "He's not harmed, Captain.  Just immobilized."  She then gestured toward the viewscreen which immediately revealed the interior of a very small vessel, about the size of a shuttlecraft.  Another woman was aboard, with the same pale blue skin, but hair of a darker, although still shimmering, hue.  She was also stunningly attractive, but not as dazzling as her counterpart on the bridge of the Enterprise.  The woman on the bridge coolly appraised the crew, then gestured to Picard, Riker, Troi, Data, and Worf in turn.  As she gestured to each individual, they were instantly transported off the Enterprise and reappeared on the small ship, hands and feet bound.  The woman headed for the turbolift,  eventually appropriating La Forge and Crusher in the same manner.  Having deprived the Enterprise of what she deemed to be her most essential personnel, she too returned to her own vessel, leaving the Enterprise suspended helplessly in space.  Picard had time to notice that there was another small ship hovering near the Enterprise, before an irresistable wave of unconsciousness swept over him and his crew.

When they awoke, they were no longer in the small ship, but in a small, windowless chamber.  They remained bound with a type of cord that tightened with every attempt to free oneself.  Neatly done, thought Picard to himself, but why?  As he noticed his crew waking up, he demanded drily, "Can anyone tell me why our sensors did not pick up those ships out there before they disabled the Enterprise?"

"I can only speculate that they have a type of shielding that conceals them from our sensors," replied Data.  "My best guess is that we are currently on the planet Gondal, the planet we were closest to when we were intercepted, which according to all reports was uninhabited.  Clearly the inhabitants have developed a technology that renders them impervious to traditional sensors."

"And transporters as well,  no doubt," remarked La Forge.  "They haven't bothered to remove our communicators, so they're obviously not worried about the Enterprise being able to make any kind of contact with us."

"These restraints are very effective," remarked Data.  "I would not recommend any attempts to break loose of them.  I believe that as they tighten they have the capacity to cut off human circulation."  Worf growled and glared, utterly furious at his helpless condition.

"Well, they've certainly thought of everything," noted Crusher.  "The Enterprise is frozen and has been emptied of her most essential crew."

"And do you persist in believing this is the work of Q, Number One?" asked Picard acidly.

Riker stared straight ahead of him and muttered, "I wouldn't put anything past him, Sir, with all due respect."

Picard was about to lash out a reply, when a disembodied voice remarked, "No you wouldn't, would you, Riker?"  In a flash Q appeared in the room.  "Well, my friends, you've certainly gotten yourselves in a fix, and one that won't be all that easy to get you out of.  I leave you alone for a couple of days, and look what happens."  He turned to Picard, "Why didn't you tell me you were headed toward Angria?  You have no idea what you've just gotten yourself into."

"You didn't ask.  It seems, in retrospect, I was mistaken, but I didn't see the need to fill you in on what appeared to be a routine mission.  But it's not as though I concealed it either.  What happened to all your vaunted mind-reading ability?"

"It's selective," replied Q casually.

"This conversation is fascinating, Q, but it's not being conducted under the most auspicious of circumstances.  Since you're here, do you think you might do something about that?"

"Well, Captain, it's not as easy as it looks.  I'm going to have to proceed with caution.  I suppose it won't hurt to get rid of those restraints however."  Within a moment, all of the captured crew members, with the exception of Data, were rubbing their wrists and ankles.

"How do we know that you aren't in cahoots with these people?" demanded Riker.

Q was composing a withering reply but at that moment, the silver-haired woman strode into the room.  She stopped short when she saw the entity.  "You!" she exclaimed.

"Moi," he replied nonchalantly.  Q walked over to the woman, leaned over and spoke directly in her ear, "It's so nice to see you again, sweetheart.  What has it been, a hundred years or so?  You're still as breathtaking as ever."

"Thank-you.  You're not so bad yourself, but you've got yourself some competition over there," she said nodding toward Picard.

"You haven't changed a bit, sweetheart.  However you won't find him as easy as your other conquests."  Q remained immediately next to the woman, and began twirling a lock of her hair idly around his finger.

She tensed slightly but continued to project a studied confidence.  "You're including yourself in that number, of course."

"Of course.  For a while at least, I was a willing victim."

Picard snapped suddenly, "This reunion is very touching, Q, but could someone do me the courtesy of explaining what the hell is going on?"

"Captain," said Q, "Allow me to present Augusta of Gondal, a former, shall we say, acquaintance of mine with formidable abilities.  Augusta, I presume you know the names of everyone here."  She nodded, while Q continued absently playing with her hair.  "I see you've achieved space travel since I saw you last.  That must be putting your goals well within reach."

"Yes it is, except for the intervention of outsiders, which we do not need."

"I can think of a time when you welcomed outside intervention, my dear."

"Yes, you would have been a useful ally, but you abandoned me and my cause.  It's not as though you were innocent of interfering with other species before."

"True enough, but as I explained to you at the time, Augusta, I was not willing to be used to further anyone else's political agenda.  I didn't mind being objectified . . ."

"Something you were also guilty of," interjected Augusta.

"I admit it.  Mutual objectification seemed as good a basis for a relationship as anything else.  I did not, however, consent to being used as a tool to further your ends.  And you seem to be doing quite well without me."  Picard and his crew, meanwhile, seemed hypnotized.  They watched and listened to the two powerful beings before them, but none of them was capable of moving or uttering a word.  Picard realized that Q was deliberately trying to keep them out of commission, but he had to keep his thoughts to himself.

Augusta switched into telepathic communication, quickly gesturing toward Picard, You seem to have a rather proprietary attitude toward him.

Yes, and I'll thank you to keep your hands off.

I believe he's entitled to make up his own mind about such matters.  Does he know you're so, shall we say, attached to him?

No he doesn't, and he's not going to find out from you, understand?  At this Q tightened his grip on Augusta's hair.

She took in her breath sharply, but smiled ingratiatingly.  Don't worry.  I'm not suicidal enough to make an enemy of you . . . yet, the last word being spoken only to herself in an inner recess of her mind to which Q had no access.

I'm glad we understand that.  Q then spoke aloud, "Sweetheart, we have to talk.  I'm not going to let you harm these people."

"I'm not interested in harming them, unless it becomes necessary.  But I warn you not to thwart me.  I can have their ship destroyed in an instant."

"And I can destroy you and your entire installation here in an instant.  Anyway, destroying their ship will not serve your purpose.  If anything, it would make the Federation more likely to become actively involved in your affairs."

"Maybe.  Maybe not.  Perhaps when the Federation sees our destructive potential, they'll simply draw a quarantine around this entire solar system.  I have no quarrel with the Federation.  I simply want them out."

"So you can wipe out the Angrian government unmolested," remarked Q.

"That's our right after what they did to us!  We have no intention of remaining on this rock any longer than we have to.  I've never seen the planet of my parents' origin.  It is time for our return, and nothing is going to stop us."

Q put his arm around Augusta's waist and firmly propelled her a few steps away.  He murmured, "You know, when you get fired up about your cause like this, it makes you even more desirable."  With one hand around Augusta's waist, Q reached up with the other, combing back her silver hair with his fingers.  Then he leaned in and kissed her deliberately and lingeringly on the lips, noting with satisfaction that she still responded to him.  Suddenly, his hand flashed, and the crew vanished, materializing safely on the bridge of the Enterprise.  Before they had time to realize what had happened, the Enterprise was ricocheting across space, coming to a stop well outside of Angria's solar system.

* * *

Back on Gondal, Augusta gasped with fury, "You . . . asshole!"

"Well, sweetheart," replied Q casually, "I always try to live up to expectations."  He then turned serious.  "Those people are under my pledged protection.  Nothing happens to them or their ship, understand?  I will be glad to try to talk them into hearing your case, under controlled conditions, but you haven't exactly made the greatest first impression.  You can believe me that Picard will not take kindly to coercion or threats.  In fact, you've probably made it more likely that he'll take the Angrian government's side."

"In the long run, I don't care.  You don't realize how powerful we've become.  You can't protect every ship they send out here.  I am perfectly capable of making this region of space so unwelcome to Federation vessels, that they'll be glad to let us work out our internal affairs ourselves."  Q considered briefly and realized that she might well be right.

"Augusta," he said in a gentler tone than he had used with her previously.  "Don't you see what this cause of yours has done to you?  Even if you are in the right, look at you.  You're willing to sacrifice hundreds, even thousands of lives."

"Since when has humanoid life meant that much to you?"

Q smiled, "I've been taking lessons from a remarkable teacher."

"Well I haven't!" snapped Augusta.  "I have no desire to kill anyone, but I will do whatever is necessary.  Angria is my home, and I intend to claim it."

"Look," said Q softly, "I'll see what I can do.  But just remember, I can make your life and your cause extremely difficult.  And *I* will do whatever is necessary to protect those people."  He paused, then added, "I realize I was being unscrupulous, but I really did want to kiss you."

"I know," she smiled, "I wanted it too, but don't expect me to let you turn my head again.  I'm a fast learner."

Q bowed, kissed her hand with a grand gesture, then returned himself to the Enterprise.

* * *

As soon as the Enterprise had stopped its headlong dash through space, Picard heard a voice inside his head insisting, Do me a favor, Jean-Luc, and just stay where you are until I can get back and explain what's going on.  You're in deep now.

"Status?" demanded Picard.

"No injuries, all systems back on line," replied Worf, who had quickly resumed his customary position.

"Now what, Captain?" asked Riker.

"Now we wait.  It seems that we're in a situation where we could benefit from Q's knowledge and experience, and I have no intention of rushing back in there until I know what's going on."  Picard stopped talking and gestured with his head toward his ready room.  "Number One, I wish to see you privately.  Mr. Data, you have the bridge."

As the doors to the Captain's ready room slid shut, Picard turned and gazed witheringly at his first officer.  After a long pause, he queried, "Number One, do you have anything you wish to say to me?"

Riker sighed.  "I'm truly sorry, Captain.  I see now that Q is apparently on our side, but it bothers me that I don't understand why.  He humiliated me, and I'm having a hard time getting over that."

Picard said in a steely voice, "You humiliated yourself, Number One, just as I have time and time again.  I don't know why it is that whenever Q offers a choice or presents us with a decision to make, we invariably make the wrong one, but it's time you comprehended that he has no intention of harming us.  I don't believe he ever did.  I will grant you that he seems to enjoy mocking and toying with us, but he is operating for our benefit.  He's humiliated me a good deal more than he did you, and I've managed to get over it.  It's time you did because you're letting your resentment of him cloud your thinking when we need you be clear-headed.  Understood?"

"Yes, sir.  I will work on it.  It's just that whenever he appears, I can literally feel my blood pressure going up."

Picard laughed.  "Well, I don't blame you for that."  Then his voice turned serious, "But I do not want to hear another word spoken against him on the bridge or in conference or anywhere else.  If you have evidence that Q is doing something that could interfere with the running and safety of this ship, then I would appreciate you voicing it to me in private.  Otherwise, if you haven't anything nice to say, keep a lid on it!"

"Yes, sir."

Picard nodded, and he and Riker returned to the bridge.  A few minutes later, Q reappeared.  He stood on the bridge, opened his arms wide, and exhaled.  "Home sweet home!  So, Captain, would you like a briefing on the situation in Angria and Gondal?"

"That would appear to be advisable."  Picard turned to Riker, "Conference, five minutes."  Picard then inclined his head in the direction of his ready room.  Q raised his eyebrows questioningly, and Picard nodded.  They disappeared off the bridge in a flash.

"So, Q," remarked Picard once they were in private, "you seem to have friends scattered all over the galaxy.  I had no idea you were so popular."

"It's my irresistable charm, Captain.  But be advised, she has her eye on you.  I'd watch your back . . . and your front for that matter," grinned Q, glancing briefly downward from Picard's face.  "She's a powerful telepath, and if she sees fit to make a serious attempt at seducing you, you'll be hard pressed to resist.  In fact, I don't know of anyone who has.  And don't tell me you're not flattered by her interest in you, Jean-Luc.  The chorus of masculine desire I was hearing down there was awe-inspiring, and your voice wasn't the least of it."

"I will admit for the sake of argument, that she is the most stunning woman I have ever seen.  But that doesn't mean I am going to act on a glandular impulse."

Q shrugged.  "I don't even have glands, and I did, but I forgot that the great Jean-Luc Picard never gives in to his baser desires.  He always defers to his own superior judgment, no matter how tempting an offer."

Picard turned pale, and he looked away from Q.  When he turned back, his voice had chilled by several degrees, "Well, it's a good thing I have you around to remind me of my shortcomings, isn't it?  I never have to worry about thinking too highly of myself with you here."

Q smiled derisively and bowed, "Just a little service I provide, mon Capitaine.  It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it."

Picard turned and headed out of his ready room with a heavy sigh, followed by Q.  The rest of the senior staff were assembling in the observation lounge when they walked in.  "So, Q," asked Picard, "what can you tell us?  And what's your part in in all this?"  His voice was brisk and businesslike, and Troi noticed that the usual harmony between Q and the Captain had frosted over.  This didn't entirely surprise her, however.  She imagined Q was not the easiest being to get along with on a regular basis.

"My part in all this, Captain, is negligible.  A little over a century ago, I encountered Gondal while I was exploring that part of the galaxy and was surprised to discover a colony of people living underground.  When I met Augusta, I was more than a little impressed.  She's rather dazzling."

"We noticed," remarked Riker drily.

"Well, on top of that, she has a rather forceful personality.  She's very motivated, and I found that attractive . . . for a while.  As you may have surmised from my conversation with her, she wanted me to ally myself with her cause, and I refused.  I felt like I was being used, and it didn't agree with me."

"You, of course, prefer to be on the other end," commented Picard.

"Have it your way, Captain.  As to her cause, which is why we're all gathered here now.  Many hundreds of years ago, on Angria, the sovereign died rather suddenly, leaving his son and daughter in a dispute over leadership.  The son was rather autocratic and had the aristocracy on his side, while the daughter had many followers among the disenfranchised classes.  She and her followers had been practicing an ancient art long since forgotten on Angria--I believe they excavated some ancient texts--and they were beginning to develop the rudiments of telepathy and telekinetic powers, but on a very limited scale.  The son did have the armed forces on his side, and, concerned about the potential of his sister's new powers, he had her and her followers captured and basically dumped on Gondal with only minimal provisions.

"Augusta is the daughter of that sister.  The unwilling colonists managed to eke out a living on Gondal.  They, miraculously enough, got enough to grow on that barren rock to live on, and they continued to hone and enhance their telepathic and telekinetic powers.  Over time, they were able to develop very sophisticated technology, and they have achieved their final goal, spaceflight.  At the same time they've become almost as powerful as the Q, but with a major difference.  Their telekinetic abilities are limited to what they can see with their own eyes.  The reason they've never stopped a starship in its tracks before is that they didn't have enough technology to get into space themselves.  But anything they can see directly, if only through the viewports of those tiny ships of theirs, they can immobilize . . . or destroy.  They can't shapeshift, they can't teleport themselves over long distances, and they can't create out of nothing the way I can, but they can do just about whatever they like to anything or anyone they can see.  In a confined space, and assuming there was a reason I didn't just want to escape, Augusta could offer me a serious challenge, and she's a very determined individual.  Captain, if you do decide to talk to her, I wouldn't do it on this ship."

"Noted.  I take it, then, that she and her followers intend to use their newfound technology and their powers to return to Angria and claim what they see is their place."

"Very good, Captain.  And the reason the Angrians have come out of their long isolation and made overtures to the Federation is that they want the benefit of the most advanced technology they can get.  If they can wipe out Augusta's ships and other technology, Augusta can't get to Angria, and her powers don't do her any good.  I don't suppose the Angrians told you about this particular motivation of theirs."

"No, they haven't.  And that alone would make me inclined seriously to reconsider their petition for admission.  But I do not wish to capitulate to terrorists either.  The Angrians are guilty of being dishonest with us, but I don't think we should just leave them vulnerable to being slaughtered.  Q, do you think there's any way your friend Augusta would be amenable to Federation mediation of her people's dispute with Angria?"

"Knowing Augusta, it seems unlikely, unless there was some way to force her into realizing that her interests would be better served by talking rather than violence.  How you're going to do that, Captain, I don't know.  And it's not just her.  Her followers are quite determined, and they're very set on returning to Angria and gaining power there.  I can't say I blame them.  The current government consists of a group of self-interested cowards, who, to use a singularly appropriate old Earth expression, want to bomb Augusta and her people back to the Stone Age."

"Dealing with these political disputes would be a whole lot easier if there were a clear sense of who's right and who's wrong," remarked La Forge.  "If it were up to me personally, I wouldn't want to help either of these people.  I'm glad I went into engineering instead of diplomacy."

"Yes, your problems down in Engineering seem appealingly clear-cut at the moment," sighed Picard.  "I need to talk to the Sovereign of Angria and let him know I've received more information than he's been giving us.  But in the meanwhile, we're hampered by the fact that if we return to Angria's solar system, Q's friend Augusta can apparently do whatever she wants to the Enterprise or any other ship."

"Of course, I can counter whatever she does, but not much else productive would get done in the meanwhile," offered Q.  "Ultimately my real advantage over her is that I can get you out of there in a hurry.  As long as we're within her visual range, I'm afraid I'm pretty close to meeting my match, much as I hate to admit it."  Q then spoke mentally to Picard, If you persist in calling her my 'friend' in that manner, I'm going to deposit you naked in her bedroom and let her have her way with you, so watch it Picard!  Just because I was involved with her a century ago doesn't make me responsible for her current behavior.  I'm on yourdamn side here.

I'm sorry, Q, you're right.  Sometimes you bring out the worst in me.

It's a talent I have, apparently.

At that moment, while Q was distracted by his mental conversation with Picard, a transporter beam shimmered into existence around him, and Q disappeared.  Within seconds the Enterprise was rocked violently by a weapons discharge.  Picard was the first back on the bridge, yelling, "Shields up!  Red alert!" then "What the hell is doing that?"

"I believe it is that ship," remarked Data, gesturing to the viewscreen.  Before them hung a small vessel, about the size of a Daedalus class starship, bristling with armaments.

"Should we return fire, sir?" asked Riker.

"No, Number One.  They hit us with minimal firepower, aware that our shields were down.  I believe it was merely a warning shot.  And I would just as soon not give them an excuse to disable our weapons systems for the moment."

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