This, Q thought, should be fun.
He looked around the room, admiring its functional simplicity. The long conference table, the high-backed padded chairs, the large monitor screen on the main wall, even the potted plant in the corner seemed to cry out that it was the model of Starfleet design efficiency. It lacked a little flair, but that was to be expected from human beings.
Human beings, he knew, seemed to have a problem enjoying themselves. Starfleet ones in particular.
Still, even with that particular piece of knowledge being shoved in his face on a regular basis, he couldn’t just abandon his attempts to bring out the best in them. He considered his history with them, his early dealings with them and how he’d judged them for being a lesser, irresponsible species. They had proven him wrong, of course; if anything, they’d proven themselves a bit too responsible, too uptight.
Since then he’d tried getting them to loosen up, but they didn’t seem to want anything to do with that or him. They seemed quite content to simply muddle about, flying about the universe in their little starships, righting wrongs and experiencing allegorical moments that were supposed to be deep and meaningful in some philosophical way. Where was the fun? he wondered. Where’s the entertainment?
Of course, he realised, technically he hadn’t judged them when he first met them. That was ridiculous. Like all the Q he could bend and fold time and space however he chose. The universe was like a piece of paper, and he could make whatever origami figures he wanted to out of it – just as long as he unfolded it again once he was done, and didn’t tear it. That was one of the joys of being a Q. They might not have been omnipresent and omnipotent, but they weren’t that far off, and for Q that was the next-best thing. Unfortunately it also became complicated, even confusing him at times.
Hopping through all of space and time was easy. Experiencing it from the Q perspective of everything being the present, that was hard. Technically he’d met Picard and his Enterprise crew and judged them, judging their right to explore the universe… but then he’d spent some time with Riker’s ancestor on Earth years before that, in the linear scheme of things. Which had come first? In fact, he’d interacted with humans on their world countless times before judging humanity, but didn’t that mean that by being in Earth’s past he had altered its destiny towards the stars in some way?
Maybe, Q thought, they owe a part of their future to me? Maybe my actions led them on that course to travel beyond the stars, like some cosmic butterfly effect?
It was like that whole anti-time thing, he considered. It had been a shocking lapse in judgement on the part of the Q Continuum, Q knew. His fellow Q peers had made a rash decision that the Earth should be destroyed – worse, wiped from all existence in history. That had been extreme and he’d had no choice but to intervene and help that tiny insect race called humans out.
Destroying the Earth just to wipe out one species? That was overkill.
Of course, since that had meant changing the course of events they were breaking their own rules, and so he had broken some rules too in temporarily rewriting Captain Picard’s past and unfolding his potential future, just so that he could set things right. If he hadn’t done that then the Earth would have been obliterated. But where did that fit in with Q’s present? Had he done it before judging humanity? Had it been before or after he’d caused the apple to drop on that fool Newton’s head? By judging humanity, a species he’d affected, wasn’t he actually judging his own effects on them?
Cause and effect was a problem for Q. His present was a mess because it was always the present for him. Maybe that was why he’d lightened up over the years. Or, he considered, maybe he started out light and had become harsher as time had gone on, but by appearing in earlier time periods it had seemed to be the other way around. He honestly couldn’t say.
Thankfully, he knew, he wasn’t alone in having problems. If there was one thing that he could rely on, it was for humanity to be even more muddled up than he was. The difference between comedy and tragedy, it was said, was that tragedy was when it happened to you, but comedy was when it happened to someone else.
That was why he was here. It was time for him to gain a little perspective, starting right now.
He clicked his fingers and there was a familiar flash of light and a slight hissing hum in the air. Instantly his first guest appeared.
“Q,” Will Riker said sourly as he saw the being that had brought him to this room.
“Hello Commander,” Q greeted him, and bowed graciously. He stood up straight and glanced down at his Starfleet admiral’s uniform. It had become his outfit of choice whenever he’d had to deal with anybody from that organisation. He had to admit to himself that he always looked distinguished in it. Still, bowing had caused it to bunch up around the waist and he looked at it with a little annoyance.
“Is this… the ready room?” Riker asked curiously, looking about.
Q shrugged. “It is, but not yours. It’s mine. I created this one myself.”
He tugged down on his admiral’s uniform, struggling to straighten it. “It’s no wonder Picard’s always doing this,” he complained. “Still, at least it’s better than those awful tunics some of your male crew members used to wear. Whose idea was that, anyway?”
Riker stared at him with annoyance. “I don’t have time for this, Q. What do you want?”
“Shame on you, Commander Riker,” Q said, wagging a finger at him. He tutted and then continued, “There’s always time to discuss fashion. Why, without it we’d all be naked. I don’t have any sense of shame personally, but having to look at you in the nude is something I’d prefer to do without. Even Q have their limits.”
“You’re always so direct,” Q replied with a mocking tone. “It’s no wonder you’ve catapulted your way up the ranks. Actually, I was feeling a little down and I thought that you could cheer me up. Please, take a seat.”
Cautiously, Riker took the seat in front of him and sat down in it. He moved hesitantly, as if expecting something terrible to happen.
“Don’t worry, Commander. Do you think I’d put some kind of cosmic whoopee cushion on your chair? Please. That’s beneath me,” Q said, and moved to sit down in the chair at the head of the table.
As Q sat, a wet, rasping, squeaking noise came from his direction. Riker looked at him with confusion. His host shrugged and reached between his legs, producing a pink whoopee cushion. He placed it on the conference table. “You see?” Q said with a slight smirk. “I said it was beneath me.”
“That’s not funny,” Riker said.
“I know,” Q admitted sadly. “I took it from Lieutenant Commander Data’s quarters. I see he’s still struggling to grasp the concept of humour.” He paused before adding, “Still, so are you, from the looks of it.”
Riker sighed and shook his head. “I think my sense of humour’s just fine. It’s you that I don’t find amusing.”
“You’re probably in the minority,” Q quipped. “Rumour has it that I brighten up a room.”
“Only by leaving it.”
“Ouch,” Q said, feigning hurt. “Thankfully, today the pressure isn’t on me to perform. In fact, I thought I’d let others provide the entertainment.”
“What others?” Riker asked suspiciously. “I’m guessing that I’m to be a part of it.”
“Yes,” Q said simply and grinned. “You absolutely are. Unfortunately, you’re not quite here yet.”
Riker stared at Q nervously. Instinctively he looked down at his own body, suddenly wondering if he was intact. He was, but couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that something bad was about to happen. “I’m not your clown, Q,” he said angrily.
“I know, I wish you were that amusing,” Q said smugly. “Anyway, it’s time to pull yourself together.”
With a quick flick of his wrist, Q clicked his fingers again. A brief flash of light appeared in the chair opposite Riker as the brief hissing buzz filled the room. As suddenly as it had appeared, the light vanished and the chair was occupied by a new guest. The newcomer looked confused, disorientated. His eyes darted about wildly for a moment before finally settling on Riker.
“What the -” Tom Riker said, as he looked at Will with wild eyes.
“Ta-dah!” Q cried out with a flourish, extending his arms wide like a magician doing a trick. “Appearing live and in person, all the way from his life-long booking at the exotic Lazon II prison camp in Cardassian space… Tom Riker!”
“Tom,” Riker gasped. “Are you alright?”
Tom glanced down at himself. His standard prison jumpsuit was dirty and torn, a stark contrast to the neatness of his counterpart seated opposite. His beard had grown fuller and he looked haggard and tired. His hair was unkempt and had gotten shaggy. In typical Riker fashion though, he sat back in his chair confidently and began to assess what was going on around him calmly.
“I’m not dreaming,” he said simply. “So what is this, some kind of a rescue?”
“Starfleet doesn’t operate that way,” Will Riker replied pointedly. “You know that.”
“I don’t know what Starfleet does these days,” Tom said equally sharply. “But I know how you operate, Will. You always play by the book.”
“You used to as well,” Will said. “But I’m not the problem here, and neither are you.” He gestured at Q, who had been watching their exchange with interest, and continued, “Tom Riker, this is Q. Q, you already know who this is since you invited him here.”
Tom studied the man seated at the end of the table. “Q? What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s my name,” Q answered. “It’s also the name of my… well, with your limited understanding you would probably catalogue us as a species. They are the Q, and I am Q.”
“Not very imaginative, are they?” Tom said sarcastically as he gave Will a grin.
Will shot him a stern look. “Q is part of a group of cosmic troublemakers. Unfortunately, they also have the power to do whatever they want. Like bringing us here for his amusement.”
“Not exactly a run-of-the-mill happening,” Tom Riker said.
Q smirked and said, “You know, that’s exactly the sort of thing that Will would have said if your situations were reversed. But then, you know that already.”
The two Rikers shot each other a look. Q caught it and sat back, scratching at his chin in thought.
“So let me get this straight,” Q said, “there was a transporter malfunction that split you into two. Of course, I’m addressing the real one of you here. You can argue between yourselves which one that is. One went into the transporter and two came out, both identical, both complete and both Will Riker. Unfortunately, one of you got to live in the lap of luxury while the other lived on a barren rock, cut off from civilisation. How am I doing so far?”
“That’s pretty much right,” Tom said.
“I’d hardly say that I lived in the lap of luxury,” Will countered. “I worked harder than anyone I know to get where I am today.”
“That was still luxury compared to what I went through,” Tom spat out furiously.
“So now there are two versions of the same person, existing in the same time but separated by years of individual experiences. Each of you is the real one, but you both feel that the universe is only big enough for the one of you. And people seem to think I’m the one with the ego problem,” Q said.
“We came to an agreement,” Will said simply.
“Yes, yes,” Q grinned. “And how’s that working out for the pair of you?”
Tom sighed. “Is there a point to all this? I’m not your clown, Q.”
“You know, that sounds so familiar,” Q said. “Why, it’s deja vu all over again. Actually I’d hoped that seeing how mixed up mankind can be would help me feel better about myself. But maybe you’re just not mixed up enough.”
“I’m warning you, Q,” Will said, tensing up.
“Warning me? Why Commander, what is it you think you could possibly do to me?” he replied icily. “Run home and tell Jean-Luc how much of a bad boy I’ve been? Try to strong-arm me into submission? Maybe you can call Tom here to join you in a tag team.”
Will Riker let out frustrated sigh as his anger simmered over. He knew how pointless his protestations were, but couldn’t help himself. Everything about Q rubbed him the wrong way. He glanced over at Tom and saw that his double’s reaction was unnervingly similar to his own.
“He’s right,” Tom said. “I may not have the experience dealing with you that Will has, but I don’t like being anybody’s puppet.”
“Oh, this is wonderful!” Q said, rubbing his hands with malevolent glee. “Riker, in stereo where available. You could learn a lesson from yourself though, I’m not to be taken lightly. Or maybe you think there’s strength in numbers?”
Suddenly Q clicked his fingers again, and the two seats next to the Rikers were suddenly occupied.
Sitting up straight in the seat next to Will was a clean-shaven version of Riker, dressed in casual clothing that looked expensive. Opposite him was another one who had a long goatee, and wore some kind of uniform that Will and Tom guessed represented his position as an engineering officer.
“What is this?” Tom asked.
The clean-shaven Riker stood up in an instant and pointed a finger at Q. “It’s you! I should have known. What have you done? Where am I?”
His own counterpart got to his feet instantly, fixed a hard stare on Q and snarled, “I’m warning you -”
Q leaned back in his chair, brushing the threat aside casually, and said innocently, “Me? How do I know? I’ve never seen either of you before in my life. I think,” he added, “that it could be another one of those transporter accidents, probably caused by an ion storm or some such thing. Those transporters are so temperamental.”
He gestured the newcomers to take a seat and grudgingly they sat down. They looked at each other with intense distrust, and then gazed with confusion at the two Rikers who were already seated.
“Cut the games, Q,” Will Riker said. “What is this?”
“I know it’s confusing,” Q said. “It’s a bit like looking into a mirror, isn’t it? Actually they’re from a parallel universe. Or, by their standards, you are. Their names are William and Thomas Riker. Funny how that works, isn’t it? I suppose they think it makes them more threatening, using their full names.”
Will looked at the clean-shaven man next to him. “William?” he asked.
“No, I’m Thomas,” the man said. “I’m an independent trader operating on the far rim of the sector.”
“Don’t listen to him,” his counterpart said furiously. “I’m Thomas! That traitor stole my identity when he sold out the Terran Empire, and he blamed it all on me. William Riker’s nothing but a con man.”
“That’s not true,” the clean-shaven man said defensively. He held his arms up as if surrendering. “That man stole my identity after a transporter malfunction on Nervala IV. We were there to subdue the outpost and gain a tactical advantage in the war, but -”
“This is all fascinating,” Q said, clearly not fascinated at all. “More transporter malfunctions. My, how do you humans cope? Maybe someone else can answer that question…”
Once again he clicked his fingers and several more Rikers appeared. One was old, tired and with grey hair, having a portly appearance and wearing a dress uniform that identified him as an admiral. Another was dressed in red robes and looked supremely confident. Another two appeared between them, one seemingly timid while the other was almost savage.
“This is Admiral Will Riker from a potential alternate future,” Q explained. “You may have guessed that the other is the Will Riker from an alternate universe where you accepted my offer to join the Q Continuum. Those two in the middle are both Will Rikers from a different timeline where the transporter accident split you in two, only instead of being identical one is weak but good, while the other is aggressive but evil.
“If they don’t merge together again in a transporter beam reversal soon, they’ll both die. Can you imagine that?” Q asked playfully. “Oh, if only they had a dog or something to test it out on first. Unfortunately, their android called Lore and that tiresome Crusher boy blasted them out of an airlock. It’s a mess out there, and alternate universes are always such a headache.”
As if on cue, the positive and negative Will Rikers began to claw at each other. “I’m Commander Riker! I’M COMMANDER RIKER!” the savage one yelled out wildly. Q-Riker gazed down at them and shook his head with bemused disbelief at what he was witnessing, while Admiral Riker tried to separate them.
“For God’s sake, man!” Admiral Riker shouted to the Riker next to him. “You’ve got to help me! They’re killing each other!”
Q-Riker tilted his head, grinned wickedly, and said, “I could, but then your species is always suffering and dying. No, I think this is something that they should sort out themselves.”
“I can’t believe I was ever that annoying,” Admiral Riker barked out. “You’re a disgrace! They’re your species too!”
Next to Tom Riker the parallel universe’s William (or Thomas) leapt out of his chair, pulled a curved dagger from his waistband and dived across the table at the man opposite him. They tumbled to the floor together, and light glinted off the Terran Empire emblem emblazoned upon its hilt as the engineer brought it down wildly.
Tom reacted instantly, trying to disarm the alternate version of himself, and soon became caught up in the melee. Throughout the room there was chaos, with fists flying and voices shouting accusations at each other.
Suddenly hundreds more Rikers in all manner of garb and appearance materialised in the room simultaneously, then thousands of them, pushing the boundaries of logic to the extreme. The room itself seemed to elongate in all directions to accommodate the newcomers. Every Riker clawed and fought with the others, and events spiralled out of control as it became a free-for-all. Bizarrely, a banner blinked into existence above them reading RikerFest 2372 as the battle of the Rikers became more fierce.
Will Riker watched the events unfold with a mixture of fascination and horror. He fought the urge to get involved, knowing that even if he did he wouldn’t know whose side to take. Q was the real problem here, he reminded himself, and patience always seemed the wisest option in dealing with him.
At the head of the table he heard Q tutting again and slowly turned to face him. Q looked a little disappointed by the turn of events, although Will couldn’t tell if it was genuine or not.
“You really are your own worst enemy,” Q commented, before he yelled out at the mass of Rikers playfully, “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”
“Why are you doing this, Q?” Will asked. “This makes no sense.”
Q fixed his gaze upon him and gave him a sly smile. “No, I suppose it doesn’t,” he replied. “Just be thankful I didn’t produce more of them. Some are so similar to you that you’d swear they really were you. Others come from realities that are the stuff of nightmares. Realities where the Borg have conquered the quadrant, or where the Dominion rule… and worse. Those Rikers you wouldn’t even recognise. They’re broken in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.
“An infinite number of Rikers… I doubt they could co-exist together, let alone write the works of Shakespeare. The odds of that happening are astronomical you know, although the figure is never an absolute zero. Anything is possible.”
Will gave him a hard stare. “And is that the lesson I’m supposed to learn from this farce? Something I’m supposed to thank you for?”
“What?” Q asked, legitimately surprised. “No! I told you, this little display was for my own benefit. Not everything is about you, you know – in fact, almost all of it is about me. But I’ve been confused lately about my own place in the history of the universe. It isn’t easy being a Q, you know.”
“You’ll never know. You turned that particular opportunity down, remember?” Q pointed at the alternate Q-Riker, who was tugging at Admiral Riker’s long white beard as they scuffled together. “He didn’t, and look how much trouble he’s having.
“Looking at one’s own place in history is so confusing, but compared to yours mine doesn’t look quite as bad. I mean, I’ve got all of eternity working against me, and near-omnipotence. You, you’ve got nothing more than a limited lifespan and some pitiful transporter malfunctions. Yet you’re more muddled up than I am. It’s no wonder you can’t even get your holodecks to work.”
Riker grudgingly cracked a grin. “So now that you’re feeling… better… about yourself, I imagine you’ll send us all back to our own times and places? Without any memory of this?”
“You know me so well,” Q said. “What can I say? It’s like fishing, you throw back what you don’t want to keep. I wouldn’t want to keep any of you, you’re all a mess.”
“I’ll try not to take it personally.”
“Won’t you? That’s a pity,” Q taunted. “Well, say goodbye to them all then. I don’t suppose you’ll miss any of them. Well, maybe one…”
With another click of his fingers they disappeared one by one, flashes of light filling the room. Finally the split-Rikers, Admiral Riker, Q-Riker and then the parallel universe pair who were still brawling with Tom disappeared too. Suddenly by himself on the floor, Tom looked around with surprise. He got to his feet and brushed himself off. He glared at Q accusingly.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Q said playfully. “At least you got to stretch your legs, outside of that awful cell you’re locked up in. And this little family reunion must have been nice, even if neither of you wants to admit it.”
“I can do without the great Will Riker in my life,” Tom said sourly.
Q cocked his head quizzically. “Is that so? I’m sorry, but I thought that you really were Will Riker, even if you chose to change your name. That man opposite you, so prim and proper in his Starfleet uniform, he’s you. And the same goes for him. In you he’ll always see himself. Maybe you can take comfort in that at some point.”
“I don’t -” Tom Riker began.
With a quick gesture, Q clicked his fingers and Tom Riker disappeared. “He’s so ungrateful,” he said dismissively.
Will Riker chuckled slightly and said, “I just thought of something.”
“Really? That’s quite an achievement.”
“It just occurred to me that -”
In the blink of an eye Will Riker disappeared too, leaving Q alone.
“As if I care what he thinks,” Q said. He smiled to himself, feeling infinitely better. His own existence in comparison to the complicated lives of human beings seemed so much easier. There were no issues with him being split apart, or having to deal with ion storms and transporter problems. He’d spent time as a human being, briefly, and had found that even something as mundane as ordering food was more trouble than it was worth.
“I suppose you think you’re clever,” a familiar voice said.
He spun around, scanning the room. He didn’t see anyone else with him and felt instantly defensive. “Who said that?” he asked curiously.
“You know who I am, you fool,” the voice said.
Q recognised the voice, of course. He’d heard it countless times before. It was his.
“Q?” Q asked.
There was a quick burst of light and the accompanying buzzing hiss noise. Another Q appeared at the other end of the table, and Q recognised the features as his own. The clothes though, those were very different from anything he’d ever worn. This new him was dressed completely in black, and his leather trenchcoat flapped about dramatically. Sharp dresser, Q thought, although I don’t think too much of the beard.
“Hello, Q,” the new Q said. “I’m the Q from the alternate reality with the parallel Terrans. I’ve had dealings with William and Thomas Riker myself, but how dare you just take them from my reality and bring them to yours? Do you see me tinkering around with your universe? I don’t think so.”
“I’m sorry, Q,” Q apologised. “I was just having one of those days. You know how it is,”
“Don’t even get me started,” Parallel Q said, and nodded with sympathetic understanding. “I’m from a universe where Worf is the Klingon Regent.”
“Micro-brain?” Q asked, appalled. “What a ghastly thought.”
“It is,” Parallel Q agreed with a sigh. “Anyway, I just wanted to warn you not to do this again. I hate being cross with myself.”
“I won’t, you have my word.”
“Well that’s reassuring. Just stay out of trouble,” Parallel Q warned him. “You stick to your universe and I’ll stick to mine.” With that he took a slight bow and disappeared back to his own universe instantly.
I’ll do that, Q thought to himself as he deconstructed the ready room into nothingness, The whoopee cushion that had been on the table drifted about in limbo, for a moment simultaneously existing and not existing in a state of quantum uncertainty. He looked at it and grinned. It was silly, but to him it made sense.
For the second time that day, Q decided that things could be a whole lot worse for him, and that things could be far more confusing… or far less confusing. There was no absolute zero in his existence, and that was something that he needed to appreciate more – that the confusion of his own existence was perfectly balanced for himself, and that it made sense in its own way. He thought about it for a moment and wondered why he’d been concerned about it at all.
Still, he considered, sometimes it helped to get a fresh perspective.