Picard grabbed Kirk's arm and tugged "Jim - look!"
Kirk turned at the urgency in Picard's voice. Ashan was running towards them from the direction of the forest. He smiled at the two men in obvious relief. "Did you do it? Where is Lien?"
Picard got to his feet and met the boy with outstretched hand. Ashan took the proffered hand and pumped it vigorously as Picard said, "Living in his own little fantasy world, I imagine."
The three men regarded each other hopefully but it was left to Kirk to add the voice of reason. "What now? If we just walk out of here, will we damage the nexus further?"
Picard was about to answer, when suddenly there was a bright flash of light and all three men instinctively covered their eyes. The tall dark man that appeared before them seemed to be wearing an old style Starfleet uniform. He was also grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"Jean-Luc, I can hardly believe this, but it seems you have succeeded in protecting each other far better than I did."
Picard stepped forward and addressed himself to the smiling man. "You took your time getting here, Q!"
Q smiled sheepishly and clapped Picard on the shoulder. "Nice to see you too Jean-Luc. Congratulations on your final solution to the problem of Lien. How on Earth did you work out that he would be trapped in his own illusion of reality?"
Kirk answered that question. "Humans find it impossible to differentiate between reality and illusion when in the nexus. It sure suckered me for eighty years. So long as you don't have any reason to come out, you just don't question it. Lien was so weakened by our efforts, that he had no more resistance to the nexus effect than any poor human would, and so long as he thought he had beaten us...."
Picard finished the sentence. "...he would remain trapped in whatever illusion he created."
Q nodded. "But why all the theatrics with the transporter beam and the holographic doctor?"
Picard laughed delightedly, "If we had made our victory too easy, Lien would never have believed it was real. We deliberately made mistakes, because he expected us to make them."
Q joined in the laughter. "Well it worked splendidly - it seems Lien thinks he has been transported back to the continuum. And you are correct, he will remain there until we can think of a way to help him return to sanity."
Kirk eyed the Q wearing his old command gold shirt. "Spock said you couldn't enter the nexus without going mad too?"
"Ah yes, your friend Spock. What a remarkable being. He actually managed to convince me to risk the madness in order to retrieve you."
Kirk glanced at Picard and raised an eyebrow. "Jean-Luc, does he seem any more insane to you that usual?"
"Not especially, Jim. It is rather difficult to tell."
Q managed to look suitably offended for a moment. But his infectious smile was never missing for long. He laid a consoling hand on Picard's shoulder. "It appears that the damage to the nexus did not cause Lien's insanity. Had I made the attempt myself in the first place, none of this would have happened. I apologise for my fear and ignorance."
Kirk snorted rudely, "He apologises! Terrific! Can the nexus be repaired?"
Q, eyes gleaming with merriment, stepped around Picard and stood toe to toe with Kirk. "You, Sir, tore a great big hole in the fabric of fluid time when you left. Have you never heard of using the front door?"
Kirk scowled at the Q and raised an enquiring eyebrow.
"When a member of the Q leaves the nexus, they do so through the mental image of an open door. You and Picard left by kicking a hole in the wall so to speak. But... I can repair it. It will take a little time, but it is possible. Now I am sure you will all be eager to return to your own realities. Take with you my deepest thanks for the parts you have all played in this matter." He turned to Picard. "I will return you to Earth Jean-Luc. I'm sure your report will be most imaginative."
Kirk grabbed Picard's arm and the Captain turned to face him. "Can you leave me out of your report, Jean-Luc? I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do, but one thing I am sure of - I will not be a scientific oddity in this century."
Picard clasped his friend's shoulders and squeezed. "What report? I've been on shore leave, and if I wanted Starfleet to interrupt it, I would have left a forwarding address."
Kirk, startled, smiled gratefully at the other Captain. Picard let his hands drop and took a step backwards. "I expect to see you again soon, Jim. The Universe still has plenty of uses for men like us."
Kirk nodded and walked over to where Ashan was standing. When he turned back, Picard was gone. Q clapped his hands with delight and took hold of Ashans' arm. "You will be returned to your father's home. You'll forgive me if I don't accompany you? Spock and I are not exactly on speaking terms at the moment."
Before Ashan could respond, he too had disappeared leaving Kirk alone with Q. The tall man stepped forward and regarded Kirk almost sympathetically. "You want to stay here." It was not a question, merely an observation.
Kirk did not answer for a moment. He looked around himself, at the beautiful paradise of the Garden. He remembered the compelling vision of his cabin in the mountains and the sound of an eagle's cry high overhead. When he turned back to Q, his eyes were unusually bright.
"I don't know - there's nothing for me out there, not anymore. But somehow, staying here seems like giving up." Kirk clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing. "Picard understood. He was trying to tell me that I could still make a difference."
"He is a most remarkable man, Kirk. I learned long ago not to underestimate him. I think you and he are very much alike. Perhaps I would enjoy interfering in the life of another such human being. It could be... fun."
Kirk gaped at Q in astonishment. Before he could answer, Q smiled cryptically and said, "Some time on Vulcan will help you make a logical decision I think. If you decide to return to the nexus, I will come for you, but somehow - I don't think I'll be seeing you again for a while."
Kirk felt a sensation of movement and suddenly he was standing in Spock's garden. The sun had just set, leaving crimson and gold streaks across the blackness of space. Kirk turned and faced the trio of people regarding him from the back door. They all looked extremely relieved to see him.
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