Ship's log, stardate 500146.3, First Officer William T. Riker reporting.
Captain Picard is missing, abducted by the capricious entity known as Q. We can only pray that Q will return the captain unharmed, although time has taught us that Q is nothing if not unpredictable.
The captain's disappearance cannot have come at a worse time, as the Enterprise is under attack by the gaseous life-forms whom Q calls the Calamarain. Although Lieutenant Commander Data has succeeded in adapting our Universal Translator to the Calamarain's inhuman language, allowing us a degree of communication with them, we have thus far failed to win their trust. They have rendered our warp engines inactive and will not permit us to retreat, so we must persuade them otherwise. Speed is imperative, as our time is running out.
To complicate matters, we have a number of potentially disruptive guests aboard the ship. Chief among them are a mysterious woman and boy who claim to be Q's mate and child. Like Q himself, these individuals treat the ship and its crew as mere toys for their amusement. Furthermore, they appear unwilling or unable to inform us where Q has taken Captain Picard.
Equally uncooperative is Professor Lem Faal, a distinguished Betazoid physicist, whose ambitious attempt to breach the immense energy barrier surrounding our galaxy has been interrupted by the unexpected arrivals of both the Q family and the Calamarain. Dying of an incurable disease, and obsessed with completing his work in the time remaining to him, Faal has vigorously challenged my decision to abort the experiment in light of the unanticipated dangers we now face. While I sympathize with the man's plight, I cannot allow his single-minded determination to endanger the ship further.
Indeed, according to what we have gathered from the Calamarain, our first effort to dare the barrier was the very event that provoked the Calamarain's wrath, thus threatening us all with destruction....
The storm raged around them. From the bridge of the Enterprise-E, Commander William Riker could see the fury of the Calamarain on the forward viewscreen. The massive plasma cloud that comprised the foe, and that now enclosed the entire Sovereign-class starship, had grown increasingly turbulent over the last few hours. The sentient, ionized gases outside the ship churned and billowed upon the screen; it was like being trapped in the center of the galaxy's biggest thunderhead. Huge sonic explosions literally shook the floor beneath his feet, while brilliant arcs of electrical energy flashed throughout the roiling cloud, intersecting violently with their own diminished shields. The distinctive blue flare of Cerenkov radiation discharged whenever the shield repelled another bolt of lightning from the Calamarain, which was happening far too often for Riker's peace of mind.
With the captain absent, his present whereabouts unknown, Riker was in command, and fighting a losing battle against alien entities determined to destroy them. Not this time, he vowed silently, determined not to lose another Enterprise while Jean-Luc Picard was away. Once, in that cataclysmic crash into Veridian III, was enough for one lifetime. Never again, he thought, remembering the sick sensation he had felt when that grand old ship had slammed into its final port. Not on my watch.
Their present circumstances were precarious, though. Warp engines down, shields fading, and no sign yet that the Calamarain were willing to abandon their ferocious attack on the ship, despite his sincere offer to abandon the experiment and retreat from the galactic barrier -- on impulse if necessary. Diplomacy was proving as useless as their phasers, even though Riker remained convinced that this entire conflict was based solely on suspicion and misunderstanding. Nothing's more tragic than a senseless battle, he thought.
"Shields down to twenty percent," Lieutenant Baeta Leyoro reported. The Angosian security chief was getting a real baptism by fire on her first mission aboard the Enterprise. So far she had performed superlatively, even if Riker still occasionally expected to see Worf at the tactical station. "For a glorified blast of bad breath, they pack a hell of a punch."
Riker tapped his combadge to initiate a link to Geordi in Engineering. "Mr. La Forge," he barked, "we need to reinforce our shields, pronto."
Geordi La Forge's voice responded immediately. "We're doing what we can, Commander, but this tachyon barrage just keeps increasing in intensity." Riker could hear the frustration in the chief engineer's voice; Geordi had been working nonstop for hours. "It's eaten up most of our power to keep the ship intact this long. I've still got a few more tricks I can try, but we can't hold out indefinitely."
"Understood," Riker acknowledged, scratching his beard as he hastily considered the problem. The thunder and lightning of the storm, as spectacular as they looked and sounded, were only the most visible manifestations of the Calamarain's untempered wrath. The real danger was the tachyon emissions that the cloud creatures were somehow able to generate and direct against the Enterprise. Ironically, it was precisely those faster-than-light particles that prevented the ship from achieving warp speed. "What about adjusting the field harmonics?" he asked Geordi, searching for some way to shore up their defenses. "That worked before."
"Yeah," Geordi agreed, "but the Calamarain seem to have learned how to compensate for that. At best it can only buy us a little more time."
"I'll take whatever I can get," Riker said grimly. Every moment the deflectors remained in place gave them one more chance to find a way out. "Go to it, Mr. La Forge. Riker out."
He sniffed the air, detecting the harsh odor of burned circuitry and melted plastic. A few systems had already been fried by the relentless force of the aliens' assault, although nothing the auxiliary backups hadn't been able to pick up. The Calamarain had drawn first blood nonetheless, while the starship crew's own phasers had done little more than anger the enraged cloud of plasma even further, much to the annoyance of Baeta Leyoro, who took the failure of their weapons personally.
This is all Q's fault, Riker thought. Captain Picard had shielded Q from the Calamarain several years ago, and apparently they had neither forgotten nor forgiven that decision. It was the Enterprise's past association with Q, he believed, that made the Calamarain so unwilling to trust Riker now when he promised to abort Professor Faal's wormhole experiment. Tarred by Q's bad reputation...talk about adding insult to (possibly mortal) injury!
For all we know, he mused, the Calamarain might have sound reasons for objecting to the experiment. If only they could be reasoned with somehow! He glanced over at Counselor Deanna Troi, seated to his left at her own command station. "What are you picking up from our stormy friends out there?" he asked her. The seriousness in his eyes belied the flippancy of his words. "Any chance they might be calming down?"
Troi closed her eyes as she reached out with her empathic senses to probe the emotions of the seething vapors that had enveloped the ship. Her slender hands gently massaged her temples as her breathing slowed. No matter how many times Riker had seen Deanna employ her special sensitivity, it never failed to impress him. He prayed that Deanna would sense some room for compromise with the Calamarain. All he needed was to carve one chink in the other species' paranoia and he was sure he could find a peaceful solution to this needless conflict.
Blast you, Q, he thought bitterly. He had no idea what Q had done God-knows-when to infuriate the Calamarain so, but he was positive it was something stupid, infantile, and typically Q-like. Why should he have treated them any differently than he's ever treated us?
Riker's gaze swung inexorably to the right, where an imperious-looking auburn-haired woman rested comfortably in his own accustomed seat, a wide-eyed toddler bouncing on her knee while she observed the ongoing battle against the Calamarain with an air of refined boredom. Mother and child wore matching, if entirely unearned, Starfleet uniforms, with the woman bearing enough pips upon her collar to outrank Riker if they possessed any legitimacy -- which they most definitely did not. The first officer shook his head quietly; he still found it hard to accept that this woman and her infant were actually Q's wife and son. Frankly, he had a rough time believing that any being, highly evolved or otherwise, would willingly enter into any sort of union with Q.
Then again, the female Q, if that's what she truly was, had enough regal attitude and ego to be one of Q's relations. A match made in the Continuum, he thought. She seemed content to treat the imminent annihilation of the ship and everyone aboard as no more important than a day at the zoo, which was probably just how she regarded the Enterprise. At least the little boy, whom she called q, appeared to be enjoying the show. He gaped wide-eyed at the screen, clapping his pudgy little hands at each spectacular display of pyrotechnics.
I'm glad somebody's having a good time, Riker thought ruefully. I suppose I should be thankful that I don't have to worry about the kid's safety. The two Qs were probably the only people aboard the Enterprise who weren't facing mortal danger. Who knows? he wondered. They may even be at the heart of the problem. Could the Calamarain tell that Q's family were on the ship? That couldn't possibly reflect well on the Enterprise.
"I'm sorry, Will," Troi said, reopening her eyes and lowering her hands to her lap. "All I can sense is anger and fear, just like before." She stared quizzically at the iridescent plasma surging across the viewer. "They're dreadfully afraid of us for some reason, and determined to stop us from interfering with the barrier."
The barrier, Riker thought...