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Story Notes: Contains characters and situations from "I, Q" by John de Lancie and Peter David. Explicit het, energy being femmeslash, and some female-on-male dubcon (maybe outright noncon) committed by the story antagonist. Also, graphic discussion of suicidal thoughts.

The Descent of the War Goddess

The Descent of the War Goddess

She was lying down in the barracks, pretending to sleep, when time stopped around her and her son materialized.

Q sat up. "What are you doing here?" she asked, irritated. Her son was in male form, and wouldn't be permitted in the barracks for the women warriors -- if he hadn't stopped time, he would be ruining her game, blowing her cover and making her break character. He hadn't had a lot of respect for her games since he stopped playing them with her.

"You heard about Dad, right?"

As if she could not have heard. She wasn't cut off from the Continuum -- she was in voluntary exile because she couldn't stand the rest of the Q, but she was still a member in good standing. What all the Continuum knew, she knew. And right now, all the Continuum knew that her ex, the father of her son, had been taken captive by the M Continuum. The M had assumed -- correctly, as it turned out -- that the Q Continuum would not be willing to risk a conflict with them so soon after their own civil war. So they had taken the Q she had once called hers captive, tried him for disrupting the balance of the multiverse and being such a destabilizing influence on his own Continuum that it threatened the other Powers, and sentenced him. The whole thing had happened so fast, no one had noticed him missing until the M had announced what they'd done as a fait accompli, and presumably they'd blocked him from calling home for help. He was currently imprisoned at the base of a dimensional well, cut off from the Q Continuum, with an M assigned as his jailer, ostensibly because the M loudly declared that they were more compassionate than the Q and would not sentence even a Q to solitary confinement.

Q knew that wasn't the real reason.

As a whole, the Q Continuum was not doing anything about this. Her ex had few friends. His political allies, the freedom faction, looked up to and respected him, but they didn't all, or even mostly, like him -- many thought of him as a pervert for his fascination with and relationships with mortals, and some blamed him and his leadership for friends who'd died in the war. The faction for order hated him, of course. They'd hated him for ideological reasons before the war, and now, he'd beaten them and wrested a portion of the control of the Continuum from them, for his faction. Those who hadn't taken sides in the war still blamed him for the fact that it had happened at all, for the friends who had fought and died on both sides. And honestly, he'd spent several billion years irritating the hell out of everyone in the Continuum. So it was no surprise that as a whole, the Q Continuum was not willing to risk conflict with the M over him.

The M had had a point, they said. Everything they accused her ex of was technically true. The M had given him a trial -- maybe not an entirely fair one, given that he hadn't been allowed to bring in representation from home, but they had made their memories of the trial available to Q auditors, and it had been fair enough by Q standards. While the Q did not generally think the punishment was justified, or that the M should have in principle the right to try and sentence a Q... no one wanted to push it, not now. The Q Continuum was still weakened by the civil war. Maybe in a few hundred thousand years they could afford to demand him back, but not now.

And Q might even have agreed with them, except that she knew that the M's ostensible reason for taking him wasn't their real reason at all.

"Yes, of course I heard," Q said. "Did you seriously think I hadn't, or have you just come to ask me about things everyone knows?"

"Well, I thought you might be a tiny bit upset or something. Maybe that you might be thinking about helping him. But, you know, what was I thinking? I know better than that. You're probably gonna throw a party because the M have kidnapped Dad."

"I'd considered it," Q said dryly, "but I couldn't fit it into my gaming schedule."

"Yeah, well, I don't even know why I bothered to come, but I just wanted to tell you that I'm going to the M Continuum to rescue Dad. Not like you care or anything."

"Don't be ridiculous. You can't possibly stand up to the M Continuum."

"They can't be that tough," her son said dismissively. "I mean, they haven't got our weapons, because they didn't have a war. And they've never had to deal with me. So I'm going."

"You will do no such thing."

"You're not the boss of me. If you wanted to be a mom, maybe you shouldn't have walked out on me and dad."

His father's pattern was strong in him, defiance, rebellion and sarcasm, bolstered by the fact that his father had been his primary influence since he'd been a small child. But she could see herself in him, now, his reckless courage, the confidence that he could walk into the mouth of hell and save someone he loved, without thought to the danger to himself. His father had always been more cautious of his personal safety... at least since he'd been very, very young. Possibly because he'd pissed off so many Powers in his life and gotten physically attacked. Her son had no such experience, having had his father running interference for him his whole life... but she wasn't sure it would matter. It was her own foolhardy courage and loyalty she saw in his determination to save his father, untempered by her billions of years of experience... untempered by failure and suicidal despair.

Her little boy had been so much like the best of his father once, the entity she'd fallen in love with so long ago. When he'd been small and undeveloped, he'd been so full of joy and wonder at the vastness of the universe, so much like her Q had been at the beginning. And then the universe had ended.

It hadn't actually ended, of course, but she didn't know why not. Her Q had tried to tell the Continuum the details, but no one except the three of them, her son, her mate and her, remembered it, and she didn't want to remember. She'd gone so far as to tell her mate and son that she couldn't remember, and that moreover she didn't believe them, the way the rest of the Continuum didn't believe, because it was better to believe that they were defective and had shared some sort of hallucination that she'd picked up ghosts of from her proximity to them than to believe that she had done... what she had done. But deep down she knew it wasn't true. When the universe had been ending, she hadn't fought, hadn't gone out snarling in the face of destruction like the Klingons she enjoyed so much. She had given up, and died.

Her son had been lost to her, swept into a vortex. Her mate, behind her, too far away to help her save their son. She'd dived into the vortex after the boy, and ended up searching for him through a surreal landscape populated by people who refused to believe that any of this was happening or people who slaughtered each other for no reason at all, and the whole time she'd felt Time spinning down around her, the fabric of the universe becoming thin and stretching, as if some entity was ripping all of creation to shreds. She didn't have any idea how to fight that; she'd been single-minded, consumed with the need to find her little boy.

And then she'd met M, who'd told her that it was her fault the universe was ending and that her son didn't exist. And the words had taken a horrible weight, far more than they warranted, as if M had somehow known what even the other Q did not know. Q had changed the universe to save her lover and create her son; a mortal had come back through time, bearing Q's own memories to her, of a nightmare future where the Continuum fractured and burned and everyone died. And the rule was that you could change anything you wished in the timeline of mortals, but you could not change the past of the Q Continuum, lest you create a paradox that destroyed you, the Continuum, or the universe. And here the universe was ending. The coincidence was unbearable, and the weight of the guilt and the fear she'd been hiding deep inside, sharing it with no one, ever since her son was born, broke her. She began to believe that her love was dead, that her son had never existed, that her attempt to save them all had snapped back on her and come back to the timeline she'd been trying to wipe out, and that the universe was ending around her because she'd made the attempt at all.

When she had died, it had come as a profound relief. The blackness had closed over her, and she'd wanted that, longed for it, so it would blot out the pain and grief and guilt she felt, so she would stop knowing that the destruction of everything was her fault.

Her mate and son had seen her die. The fact that everything had somehow reset back to normal, that no one who had died had stayed dead, didn't matter. She couldn't stand seeing the knowledge that she had broken in their eyes. And whatever experiences her son had had made him jaded and bitter, a bored billion-year-old entity already when he was less than ten thousand. He'd started acting out a lot more -- less cute juvenile hijinks, more genuinely delinquent behavior -- and posturing as if everything bored him already, just like the adult Q who'd spent billions of years becoming so bored. And when she'd tried to discipline him, to make him straighten up, to save him, her mate had interfered. And he had status in the Continuum as the leader of the faction who won the war, and she had lost her status by bringing mortals into the war and giving them guns. There was nothing she could do. Her son had grown worse and worse, more disobedient and disrespectful toward her and her mate and in fact the entire Continuum, and she hadn't been able to bear it. Eventually she had stormed out, telling her Q that he had ruined their son, and she was disowning them both.

Neither of them had ever forgiven her for that. Not that she was asking for their forgiveness, either.

"You'll obviously do what you want, but I had hoped a son of mine would be intelligent enough to know when he's massively outnumbered. You can't just go strolling up to the M Continuum and demand your father's return. You can't even use our weapons; they're tuned for the energies of the Q. They wouldn't work on the frequency of the M."

"I'll figure something out. And I thought I wasn't your son anymore, anyway."

"I suppose you believe your father when he uses outrageous hyperbole, too."

"Whatever." He leaned back against the wall, humanoid body language and the emotions projected onto his surface an elaborate posture of boredom. "I'm going now. Unless you're gonna come up with some really great reason why I shouldn't go, or something."

"You won't listen to any reasons I come up with, so why should I bother?"

"Exactly. See ya when I get back. Or not." He vanished.

She immediately called mentally to another Q, one who'd been something of a mentor to her and much more so to her ex, at least until he got her ex kicked out of the Continuum for a mortal day. Q. My son is on his way to the M Continuum to try to rescue his father.

Yeah? Was there something you wanted me to do about that?

//exasperation// Yes, obviously. I want you to stop him.

What, you couldn't stop him?

He never listens to me. There isn't even a point to trying. But he has no idea what he's getting into. He thinks he'll just stroll in there and free his father. I won't see him lost to the M as well.

I can see your point, but what makes you think I can do anything to stop him? The kid's as omnipotent as the rest of us.

You can recruit other Q to assist you. The Continuum hasn't yet declared you persona non grata. She hardened her tone. And you owe me, so you'd better do it.

I owe you? Since when?

Since you got the others to agree to kick Q out of the Continuum, and you put me in the position of having to vote on what I thought would be his destruction, and you didn't even tell me that you were planning on doing it only long enough to shock him into behaving himself. I thought we were condemning him to death. You put me in a position where I had to participate in that; don't think I've forgiven you for it.

You know as well as I do he had it coming.

Yes... that's why I had to vote with the rest of the group. I couldn't let my personal feelings for him change what needed to be done... but that's a horrible thing to make someone do. So you owe me.

Fine. He sighed (or sent the emotional state of grudging resignation, which was the Q equivalent of a sigh.) I'll stop the boy. Although it would have helped if you'd actually tried to do it yourself instead of telling him you don't care what he does. What are you planning?

Loose lips sink ships, Q. You'll know what I'm doing as soon as the M do, not before.

She broke the connection. Q could stab you in the back if he thought it was the best thing for you, or the Continuum, but he was reliable enough at keeping his promises; it was the things he never actually said he would do or not do that you had to watch out for. She trusted that he'd stop her son, but not that he'd keep her secrets.

"This game was going nowhere anyway," she muttered, erased the memory of her existence from the mortal women sleeping all around her in the barracks, and vanished. What she'd been waiting for was probably ready by now, finally.

The place she was headed was a part of the Continuum, but it was pinched off, sealed away behind powerful privacy walls from the rest of the Continuum. There was no way to communicate with its inhabitant from a distance, because his privacy walls blocked the flow of information in and out of the Continuum. She had to go directly to his door and call through the polarized quantum pinhole that existed at only one defined spot on the privacy walls. Q, do you have what I asked for yet?

Come on in. The door thinned, still impervious to flowing information but breachable by a sentient being who could put some force into her entry. She pushed her way through, to enter her friend's workroom.

This Q was an inventor. While Q herself was given credit (or, as it was generally perceived, demerit) for modifying the weapons from the civil war so that mortals could use them, this Q was, in an indirect way, actually the primary one responsible... or at least his cognate from a timeline that had been wiped out was. He didn't know this, of course, but Q did, and knowing his capabilities, she had talked him into doing research on the weapons shortly after the war had ended, "just in case." Like her, he had never been ideologically bound to the freedom faction; like her, he'd had a lover who was passionately involved. Unlike her, his lover had been the first Q to die in the war. He had never forgotten that.

"I believe I've finished the modifications," he said. "The main problem was that, lacking M energy, I couldn't test its ability to draw on the M Continuum, and besides, if it did that we'd be at a significant disadvantage if they got one. So I've had to redesign the whole thing, conceptually."

"That sounds painful."

"It's fortunate for you that I've been working on a redesign for a long time anyway. This is by necessity a contact weapon." He held it up. "Unlike the weapons we used in the war, this will not draw energy from a Continuum and direct it against the target; it actually draws the target's own energy and counters it, disrupting the target. It won't cause supernovae in the matter universe, it won't harm mortals, it can be used by mortals if needed and without causing them harm, and if it's tuned to M energy it can't be used against Q."

"What's the disadvantage?"

"Well, primarily that it might not work, since I don't have a source of M energy to tune it to. You may have to do that once you get there. I think it's properly attuned, but you have the most recent memory set of what M energy is like, so you'd probably have a better idea than I would."

"Primarily? There are other disadvantages, then."

"The obvious. It's a contact weapon. You won't get instant kill and you have to actually make contact with the enemy's essence, which leaves you vulnerable. Several strikes would probably be needed to kill an M, or a Q."

"That's acceptable for my purposes at the moment. If war broke out, do you think it's possible to redesign the ranged weapons for Q against M?"

"Only within our Continuum. The ranged weapons don't work at all in the matter universe -- which is just as well, we'd hardly want them falling into the hands of the Borg or someone -- and if we reconfigured the weapons to draw on the M Continuum, as I said, the M would have a huge advantage. So we'd be able to use the ranged weapons for defense of our Continuum if it came to that." He sighed. "Why are we even discussing this? The war with the M ended four billion years ago and we didn't use specialized weapons then."

"I just want our options open," Q said.

"You just want to rescue Q."

"And to prepare for war if they've done him irreparable harm."

"You think our Continuum would back you up if they did?"

"On the principle of the thing, certainly. They're complacent because they don't think the M will seriously hurt Q. And they might not. But the fact that they took him at all suggests to me that M in particular is behind this, and if she has influence within her Continuum... anything could happen."

Her inventor friend shook his head sadly (or rather, sent out a wave of resigned and sorrowful disbelief, which was the Q equivalent, as in their natural forms they didn't have heads.) "I can't believe we might actually end up going to war with the M again over your and Q's romantic misadventures."

"Face it, the reason we went to war the last time was equally stupid."

"I don't even remember what that was."

"Neither do I. I think the memories were erased from the Continuum memory file because we were all so embarrassed at how stupid it was. The last I heard, Q was claiming it was because they insulted our mothers, which, given that the vast majority of us don't have mothers, seems outrageously implausible, but then I don't believe for a moment he actually remembers it either."

"When I heard him tell the story, he was claiming that the M had said we smell funny. I think that's probably equally implausible."

Q laughed before she could stop herself. "He's ridiculous."

"But you're going to his rescue anyway."

"Someone has to."

The inventor shrugged. "Actually, someone doesn't. He could be left unrescued. But I don't approve of that course of action any more than you do. I never thought I'd say this about him, before the war, but... I consider him a good friend."

"Amazing, how many more friends he's got since he won the war," Q said. "And amazing as well, how little help it's been to him in getting the Continuum to go rescue him."

"We're not exactly a brave species," the inventor said. "We've never had to be."

"Speak for yourself," Q said, but her heart wasn't in it. She knew that on many occasions, she had demonstrated great courage. She also knew what only her ex and her son knew... that when she'd faced her greatest challenge, she'd given up and died. And her ex -- who everyone had seen cower in terror from the Calamarain, of all creatures -- had somehow faced and survived the challenge that had killed her, and that was the only reason she or anyone else had lived.

She took from him the knowledge of the weapon. "I'll fine-tune this when I get to the M Continuum, but it seems to me like it will probably work."

"You've got more expertise with the M than I do," he said. "Good luck."

When she pushed her way out of his domain, she found a Q waiting for her, much to her surprise. "I'm going with you," the other Q said.

It was a Q who had been an older sister figure to her, and to her ex, and many of the last generation of Q created by the Continuum. Once, this Q had run around trying to keep the younger Q out of trouble... which had disproportionately involved her dealing with Q's ex. She probably thought she was obligated to help rescue him for that reason. "No, you're not."

"I'm not arguing with you. I'm going. You can take me with you or I can go independently."

In a timeline that hadn't happened, in memories only Q herself bore, this Q had died more horribly than Q had ever seen one of her own kind die. "I want you to stay here. If you go, you could get hurt."

"I'll take that risk."

Q was getting seriously exasperated with other Qs who thought they could handle the risk. "Look, you were in a mortal body for all but the end of the war. I think you ended up fighting in only one skirmish. You have no combat experience."

"You only fought in one skirmish."

"But it was the only one that counted, since it ended the war. Besides. I've fought 0, twice. I've fought The One." I fought for what seemed like aeons in a timeline that didn't happen, and I watched you all die, and I'm not letting it happen again. "And I do this for a hobby. You don't. When you walk among mortals you never fight beside them."

"That would be unfair, considering that I'm an omnipotent, immortal entity and they're not. I don't even see what you get out of playing those sorts of games."

"Of course you don't." Q scanned her older sister carefully. The other Q was terrified, completely out of her depth and she knew it. If Q could just find the right argument, her sister was ripe to be persuaded to stay home. "Let me ask you something. When mortals worship you, what do they call you?"

"I don't seek out worship," the other Q said, sounding slightly miffed.

"Yes, I know, but it happens. And there's all those mortals you've had romantic relations with, one every other century for I can't even count how many aeons, and many of them thought you were a goddess. So when you're worshipped as a goddess, what kind of goddess are you?"

"Sometimes, I'm a goddess of love, but I'm usually a fertility goddess. Which is ironic, I think, given that I've wanted a child for a few million years and haven't been able to have one." She smiled wryly. "Almost as ironic as the fact that you and Q, of all people, have been the only ones to have a child so far, and I who've wanted one so long don't have one yet."

"You could have one any time you wanted to."

"I don't want to do it alone. And I haven't found any other Q who want one, and besides... I've never created a new Q before. If I make a terrible mistake, someone is going to have to live with being created wrongly for all eternity. I'm... not sure I can face that responsibility."

Q knew the feeling. Every time she looked at her son, she felt like a horrible failure. "You can't do worse than we did."

"Oh, I've studied mortal parents and their children for millions of years. Trust me, it could be worse."

"And that's your study," Q said. "You're a goddess of love. Of reproduction. Of children. Parents and their offspring." She foregrounded her memories of her studies of mortals, of millions of years watching them kill each other in bloody combat, where her sister could see them. "I am a goddess of war. And that is why I'm going to the M Continuum to rescue Q, and you are staying here to help Q keep my son from haring off after me, and making sure there's someone in the Continuum to protect and defend him if neither of his parents come back."

"That... sounds as if it would be a better role for me," the other Q said, reluctantly. "But I don't want to abandon Q..."

"Q is not your baby brother anymore. He's a grown Q, he's been a fully adult Q for a few million years, and he would most appreciate it if you keep his son safe for him."

"That's true. That's true, he would," the other Q said. "All right, I'll stay." She reached out and embraced her younger sister, energies touching, enveloping each other... and just fractionally combining, the Q equivalent of a not-quite-chaste kiss or not-entirely-platonic hug. The Q had no concept of monogamy and their only incest taboos were direct intergenerational. "Come back safely, and bring him home with you," she said.

"I wouldn't be going if I didn't plan on it," Q said, and with a thought, she left her Continuum.

It was impossible to go directly from the Q Continuum to the M Continuum. Both parties had placed too many landmines in the metaphysical borderways, once upon a time. So Q had to go out to the matter universe first in order to find the way. While she was there, she quickly scanned her ex's favorite mortals.

There. The female human was untouched, but the male human and the android had the spoor of M all over them. M must have lured Q into a trap by threatening his pets. He would have immediately responded to the threat of a Power touching what was his -- ever since he'd been made human and they'd saved his life, he had been monitoring them to ensure other Powers didn't interfere with them -- and he'd probably have jumped in without looking first because he was impulsive, and then the M could have taken him captive. She picked up his trail and the trail of several M hovering in the ideaspace of his pets' starship, and followed it back, pursuing the trail until she reached the edges of the M Continuum.

At the edge, she called her challenge to the gatekeepers. "I am Q! I demand audience with the M! You've taken a Q, and I have come for him!" Nothing. She added, "I am the Q who brought mortals into my Continuum and gave them weapons to kill the Q. Do you think if I did that to my own kind, I'll be any kinder to you? Let me in, or I will unleash hordes of mortal warriors into your Continuum, with weapons that can kill you! I will rip down these gates with my bare hands, I'll steal your power and crack open your barriers like an egg, and I'll send a million mortals in to swarm over you and bring their contagion of death to every M in the M Continuum!"

"You don't need to be rude about it," the M who materialized in front of her said.

"Yes, I do," Q said. "You were ignoring me."

"You're a Q. It's fun to ignore you."

She lunged at the gatekeeper, pinned and encircled him with her power before he could react. "When was the last time you saw violence, M? I'm guessing it was longer ago than for me."

"You're a barbarian," the M gasped. "Let me go, or you'll never be allowed into the Continuum!"

"Let me into your Continuum and I'll let you go," she purred in his ear.

"All right, all right, but there are rules! Listen, let me go and I'll open the gate, but there's a protocol!"

She let him go. "What is your protocol?"

His fear was visible, radiating on his surface. "You cannot have an active connection to the Q Continuum when you enter the M Continuum. We need to block you."

She shook her head. "No."

"Then you can't come in."

"Fine, then you can just hand over Q and I'll go."

"I can't do that, that's not the protocol."

Q concentrated, drawing her power within her and clothing herself in matter, becoming a closed system who could disconnect from the Q Continuum temporarily as she took the form of a Klingon warrior woman, her favorite mortal shape. "Very well. I will disconnect."

"That's better," the M said, relieved. "Go on in."

She found herself in a vestibule area, a portion of the M Continuum sealed off, presumably to keep her from going any deeper. All around her she could feel the power of the M, so very similar to the power of the Q, and yet alien. When she and M had made love, she had delighted in that difference, in the exotic taste of energies both like and unlike Q. Now, she reached out, touching that energy and drawing it to herself.

Five M faced her. "What is your business here, Q?"

"You know my business. You've taken a Q. I want him back."

"We tried him and found him guilty. He is in prison."

"Then I want to inspect his accommodations."

She felt them commune with each other. If they had been Q, she could have eavesdropped on the conversation, but they were M, and she didn't share a Continuum with them. "M agrees to allow you to see Q," one of them finally said. "But you carry a weapon. You need to give it up."

"I already gave up my connection to my Continuum. Do you really think I could use a weapon without my own powers?"


"Very well." She let the weapon dissipate. They could confirm that the energies had dispersed entirely, not being held in reserve.

"We will escort you there," they said.

Their prison was not something civilized like a comet or a planet, something the Q would use. They had actually drilled a well through layers of reality, down, down into the low-energy state of the outer dimensions of the universe. The descent seemed to compact her essence, make her denser, more solid, trapping her within the skin of the form she'd taken. There were checkpoints, stages between one layer of reality and the next, and at each checkpoint she felt as if she'd lost something, some additional power or ability. They'd already taken her connection to the Continuum and her weapon before she'd even gotten here; now, bit by bit, she lost her ability to speak telepathically, her ability to draw and channel any form of energy, her ability even to sense the M energy all around her. She was certain her escorts weren't so limited. No wonder her ex hadn't been able to break free; down in this hole he must be, in essence, mortal and powerless.

Despite herself, her heart hurt for him. She gamed without powers all the time -- oh, she had them in reserve to call if she really needed, but she tried her hardest not to use them, because that was cheating -- whereas the only time he'd been without his powers was when he'd been thrown out of the Continuum for a day and nearly abandoned to die. Q hadn't been able to face him when he'd first come back from that; she'd felt too guilty that she, too, had cast a vote for his exile, but what choice had she had? The fact that she'd loved him hadn't changed the rules he broke or the fact that he'd broken them. But the experience had terrified him, nearly broken him, even killed the rebelliousness in him for a time. If the M had done that to him now... she thought of how frightened he must be, and increased her pace, despite the discomfort she felt at her own losses.

At the final gate, her escorts backed away, except for one. "M has one more requirement before you enter her presence. You must give up your chosen form and take the one she assigns you."

"Oh, for the love of everything, that is an unbelievably stupid..." She sighed. M was, of course, doing it just to humiliate her. "Fine." It probably wasn't fine. M might choose to turn her into a slime mold or something, and without her powers there would be very little she could do in response. But she thought she knew M better than that. And while she might not be able to rescue her ex after M was through transforming her, she certainly wouldn't be able to rescue him if she turned back now.

She stepped through the last gate, which had taken the form of a matter-based arch because down here at the bottom of the well, they might as well be in the matter universe. Even the M's access to their energies might be impaired. As she went through it, she felt the matter cloaking her disperse and re-coalesce. When she stepped out of the gate, she was wearing a baseline humanoid form -- a form identical to the bipedal sentients from the planet Earth – and nothing else. The human form she was now trapped in was naked.

So was the Q she had come to save. But M was not.

The matter of this prison was in the form of a cave, but not one that would ever have existed on a planet shaped by natural forces. The roof of the cave was thirty meters high, the cave itself roughly circular and about ten meters in diameter. The walls were largely smooth obsidian, with ragged veins of silver, gold and various exotic crystals running through them, and an occasional spot of rough granite. The floor was smooth, water-polished feldspar. Stalactites of igneous rock hung from the ceiling in shapes remarkably similar to limestone stalactites, which simply wouldn't happen under most planetary conditions, and occasional stalagmites of the same substance poked up through the floor.

Up to that degree, the substances being used to make the cave were at least substances that naturally occurred in caves. But all the light in the room came from brilliant liquid streams, a viscous, nearly gelatinous substance radiating with the spectrum, though not the full lumens, of a yellow sun, flowing down the walls of the caves in narrow trickles. The radiance coming from so many trickling lines on the walls made the room into a checkerboard of shadow and light. It was infuriating that without access to her powers, Q couldn't tell whether M was employing a natural substance or was just showing off.

Her ex was in his own preferred mortal form, so presumably M hadn't forced him into a form he didn't like as she'd done with Q, but she'd found other ways to humiliate him. He was naked, arms shackled apart and above his head by chains attached to two different stalactites, legs chained to two separate stalagmites. M was half-sitting, half-reclining in a stone chair piled with ornate pillows, wearing a standard humanoid form herself -- her favorite, the short, pale, slender woman with close-cropped red hair -- in a green silken robe edged with gold-colored filigree. She was sipping from a tall glass of a liquid in layers from red at bottom to gold at the top, with ice. There was a cool breeze blowing over her, making her short hair and the edges of her gown flutter slightly. Elsewhere in the room, such as where Q was and where presumably her ex was, the air was still and stiflingly warm. Sweat was breaking out on Q's forehead already, and she could see her ex was drenched with it.

What a disgusting way to eliminate excess heat. And why were they all in baseline humanoid forms anyway?

"So glad you've come to visit us, Q," M said. "I'm surprised, actually. Q here didn't think you'd come."

"What Q doesn't know would take several thousand years to describe," Q said sharply. "Why, exactly, did you think it was a good idea to kidnap him anyway?"

"Q has been a massively disruptive influence on the universe. You know this."

"He's always been. That doesn't mean the M have the right to try and imprison him."

"Well, the Q haven't been able to control him, so someone's got to."

"And your ideas of control are so masterful, darling," her ex said, his breathing slightly labored. "I haven't forgotten you gagging me with a metal clamp. Have a few secret kinks you can't get the M to indulge in with you?"

"I never gagged you with a metal clamp. Although it's tempting."

"Oh, you don't remember it either. No one remembers it. I'm finding that difficult to believe."

Q froze. Her ex had mentioned running into M, in the surreal experience they'd had when the universe was ending. He hadn't mentioned her gagging him with a metal clamp, but that had to be what he was talking about, because there was no other experience he talked about that no one else remembered. She'd tried her best, herself, to pretend that it hadn't happened, to go along with the rest of the Q -- who as nearly as she could tell, genuinely didn't remember any of it happening -- and convince herself that none of it had been real. She didn't want any of it to have been real.

"I do have to wonder," she said, trying to cut off any further discussion of that horrible event. "Why do you have him chained up and naked in a form sexually compatible with the one you're wearing?"

"Perhaps I thought I'd try out a different Q. What do you think, sweetheart?" M asked Q's ex, letting her voice turn into a parody of sultriness. "Have you been enjoying yourself so far?"

M didn't touch him physically, but he moaned, shuddering. A spike of hot jealousy stabbed into Q. She forced it down. "I thought so. You've been pining for me ever since I left, haven't you?"

"You flatter yourself," M said. "It's just that being here to watch a prisoner for eternity so he doesn't lose his mind in isolation is incredibly boring. Anything that can pass the time is an improvement." As she spoke, she was obviously using her powers to do something to Q's ex; the male humanoid body he wore was displaying signs of arousal, and he writhed and whimpered in his bonds.

Q was furious, but didn't know who to be angrier at. It was entirely possible that if her ex had gotten bored enough, he might have consented to let M touch him, in which case she was angry at him, and angry at herself for being angry at him because she had left him and she wouldn't have had the right to be jealous anyway if she hadn't. The Q weren't monogamous. The fact that she wanted to be, and wanted him to be, was a character flaw. Everyone said so. But it didn't change the fact that when she saw him giving or receiving pleasure with someone that wasn't her, it infuriated her, even if the person he was with had once been her lover.

And the truth was, it was likely that he hadn't consented or had only consented under duress, in which case it was entirely M she wanted to be furious with. She didn't perceive what M was doing as criminal or heinous, even if her ex had not consented -- many mortals would consider forcing pleasure on someone against their will to be rape, but the Q had very few taboos about pleasure and considered inflicting it on one another to be an irritating power game but no more serious than mortals considered tickling children to be. M's actions were not in the range of what Q considered evil or even seriously immoral, but she did recognize that what M was doing was a power game probably intended to humiliate Q's ex and definitely intended to make Q herself angry.

"If it's so boring why did you elect yourself to do it? You never had to take Q captive in the first place, and you didn't have to volunteer to be his jailer." She was trying to remain calm, but she was trapped in flesh, without access to her powers or many of the tools she'd have used to hide her feelings, and it was unpleasantly hot and stifling in here. Despite herself, her hands were clenched at her sides into fists, fingernails digging into her palms.

"I know him better than any other M," M said.

"And that's why you're so interested in feeling him up, I presume?"

Q's ex laughed, although it came out as more of a gasp given what M was evidently doing to him. "Oh, very good, M. Get her where it hurts. You notice, she comes down here and she doesn't ask for my release, she doesn't demand an explanation as to why you even think you have the right to take a Q prisoner, she doesn't even pay attention to the fact that you've taken her powers... all she cares about is you molesting me. If you're trying to piss her off, I think you're succeeding admirably."

"Is that a request for me to continue?" M asked.

"I don't really see the point to requesting anything of you," he said, panting. "Since the whole reason you're doing this is that I'd rather you didn't, and if I actually wanted you to touch me, you wouldn't go anywhere near me. But if you're actually taking requests, I'd like a glass of water."

His sarcasm cut through the haze of jealous rage that had been blurring Q's perspective. Of course, he was right. M was doing this to make her angry, and there were more important things she should be focusing on. "You're an idiot, Q. The first thing I asked was why M kidnapped you."

"Yes. Maybe it would be better if you were seen and not heard," M said, and tapped his mouth. His eyes went wide, and he tried to wrench his head away, but there was no outracing M's power; a strip of adhesive materialized over his mouth, effectively silencing him. He protested, but with the gag on Q couldn't tell if he was pleading, demanding, or just cursing at M.

"Let's not play these games, M," Q said. "You took Q for a reason, and it had nothing to do with something as general and vague as him causing disruption to the universe... which he's been doing the whole time you've known him, and in fact the whole time I've known him, and that's never been adequate justification for an M to kidnap and imprison a Q before. So what's your real reason?"

M left off tormenting Q's ex... not that she had her powers to tell, but from the way he suddenly sagged in his bonds, the way his breathing changed from panting to something as deep as a sigh of relief, it looked like M was no longer stimulating him. "Q started a war within your Continuum. You, one of the oldest and greatest of the Powers, reduced to warring with one another like infantile mortals. And we are your counterparts, the reality that you reflect. What affects you has the potential to affect us as well."

"If you were the reality we reflected, how could we affect you? Reflections go the other way around," Q said. "Are you finally admitting that you descend from us rather than the other way around? Because if you're not, I don't see how you could possibly be so afraid that what we do would have an effect on you that it justifies kidnapping a Q."

There was a large, rectangular stone slab behind M's seat, with a depression in it holding water that seemed to be coming up from an underwater spring, judging from the ripples on the surface. The breeze that fluttered over M and bypassed the two Q in the room blew over the basin before reaching M, carrying cool moisture. Q walked over to the basin without asking permission or even acknowledging with her body language that M might stop her, dunked her head in it, and came up shaking her hair out. That was much better. "Besides, it takes two to tango. Q didn't start the war; a Q who died minutes after the war started fired the first shot, at Q, and it killed a different Q, and then everything went to hell. You could as reasonably accuse Q, or Q, or Q... or Amanda, for that matter... of having started the war."

M shrugged, although her casual posture was belied by the widening of her eyes and slightly rapider breathing as her eyes fixed on Q's body. She might have been tormenting Q's ex with pleasure to humiliate him and anger Q, but Q's guess had been correct... M still wanted her, and being stuck down here in a physical shape was having an effect on her despite her powers. "Would any of them have started a war, if Q hadn't been agitating?"

"Would Q have been agitating, if one of our number hadn't killed himself?"

"Yes, well, the apathy and general dysfunctional nature of the Q is well known to the M, but that doesn't justify having a war. The rest of the universe's Powers are concerned. And since they see us as similar to you, the fact that they're looking at you with grave concern has turned their attention on us as well... attention we neither want nor deserve."

"No. I don't believe it," Q said decisively, shaking her head and shoulders vigorously... and watching M's eyes drop to her torso before jerking back up to her face. M probably didn't spend a lot of time in mortal shape, and if she'd taken a humanoid form... the humanoids were positively obsessed with sex, and being in their form generally afflicted Q minds with their obsession. M had had prurient reasons for stripping both her captive and her visitor, Q was sure of it now. And if M wasn't used to the power of humanoid sex drives, that was a weapon Q had to use against her. "Our war was an internal affair, and no more serious than the cold war between the Prophets and the Pagh-wraiths, or the Lightbringers of Earth and Selvor, or any other internal conflict within a Power's ranks."

"Are you joking? Those conflicts didn't destroy stars in the matter dimension."

"They most certainly did. They just didn't do so by accident." She cupped some water from the basin and dumped it over her chest, enjoying both the coolness on her sweaty, overheated skin and the way both M and her ex suddenly riveted their attention on her. "I think there's another reason," she said, taking a step closer to M. "I think you engineered this whole thing so I would come."

"As I said, you flatter yourself," M said. "This isn't about what you did to me, or what he did to me." She jerked her head back at Q's ex to indicate who she was talking about, as if there was another "he" she could possibly be referring to. "But you're right. It's not about the war, per se. It's about what you did to end it."

"Brought mortals into the Continuum with weapons?" She had rather expected that if the M were going to charge any Q with anything, they'd have gone after her for that reason. It had horrified even the Q on the side she'd been supporting, let alone the enemy.

"No. Had a child."

Q blinked. She hadn't expected that. "You imprisoned Q because we had a child?"

"The balance of the universe has always depended on there being more M than Q, and on the fact that both our Continuums have always been careful in the creation of new ones," M said. "You and Q created a child at random."

"It wasn't random. We chose his traits from amongst the traits both of us had to offer."

"And you're so pleased with how he turned out?"

Q scowled. No, she wasn't pleased at all. "What does that have to do with anything?"

M stood up. Her gown fluttered open in the breeze she was still standing in, revealing that she wasn't actually wearing anything under it. "The most chaotic element in your Continuum has replicated himself directly. You stopped bringing new Q into existence a billion years ago, and within the past six billion you created less than a hundred. Now, you have two new Q within the space of decades, both created not from the will of your entire Continuum, but the way mortal humanoids do it, with two parents contributing only their own traits. It's a recipe for extremes, for defective Q and Q who exhibit the worst traits of your Continuum, and believe me, the rest of you are bad enough."

Q smiled thinly. "And the M don't know how to do the same thing. And anything the Q do, the M want to be able to do better."

"At the very least, as well, or it'll destabilize the balance between our two Continuums," M snapped. "And you may not care about maintaining the balance, but we do. The M are very concerned with maintaining the harmony of the universe."

"Which is why you have kept producing new M long after we stopped. M, you yourself are only as old as our youngest sister, who was the baby of the Continuum for a billion years until the new generation started being created. Your Continuum has no reason whatsoever to be concerned with our reproductive abilities and no excuse to feel threatened by our children; you've been making new children all along. Close to a third of all the M in existence are younger than all but the new generation of Q."

"But we've created them the old way, the traditional way, a carefully designed project of the entire Continuum. We wouldn't be concerned if you'd made new Q in the same fashion... but you started this frankly radical new trend of Q being made by only two Q, on the basis of your own whims. And when you killed the first two Q who tried it, we thought your Continuum recognized the danger and would be reasonable about it. But no, now you've legitimized the technique. You created a new Q, just the two of you, and declared him the future of your Continuum. We can't allow such a danger to go unchecked."

"So you kidnapped Q to what, get the secret of creating children out of him? Our entire Continuum knows how to do it now; you could have taken anyone. It didn't have to be him."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the chains that bound her ex loosening, the stone of the stalactite it was fastened to beginning to give way. So he wasn't completely powerless, after all. Which meant she wasn't either. She kept talking, trying to distract M so she wouldn't notice what Q had just noticed. "Are you absolutely sure there was no element of jealousy or revenge in your decision to take this Q? And did you ever possibly consider coming to us and asking?"

"I have every reason to want revenge," M snapped. "And every reason to want revenge on you." She turned, stepped over her stone dais, and walked around Q's ex's bound form. "But I knew he would know how you Q have learned to make children. And I thought he was the one who invented the technique." Her hands went around him, one stroking his chest, one running along his thigh. His eyes went wide, and he made a high-pitched noise like a muffled scream, cut off by losing his breath. M sighed, and licked her lips, as his whole body went rigid, his male genitals jumping to attention, his muscles plainly straining so hard at his bonds that he was probably going to hurt something.

Q thought M was inflicting pleasure, not pain, especially when his eyes rolled back and his head sagged even as the rest of his body remained taut, but it was hard to be sure. "What are you doing to him?" she demanded.

"Just taking a little taste," M said. "Q's getting just a trifle too energetic for my purposes. You don't mind, do you, Q? I know how pain is your weakness... I could be hurting you to keep you under control, instead of this. Isn't this much better?"

She was draining him, taking his energy. Both Q and M were designed to enjoy sharing energy with others of their Continuum even more than taking it; one of the most intense pleasures they could feel was the sensation of another drawing on their energies, depleting them. And Q knew from personal experience that the Q and the M could share with each other in the same way that they shared with others of their own kind. But it normally worked by fully mutual taking and giving, the parties exchanging energies between them. What M was doing was non-reciprocal, and therefore exploitative. Her comment about pain being Q's former lover's weakness implied that she had threatened or coerced or tortured him into dropping his shields enough that she could do this. And he was shaking his head even as he moaned and writhed.

M harassing him physically, stimulating the flesh he wore, was just M being annoying as shit. M penetrating his Q essence while he was helpless to stop her, and draining the energy he'd been using to try, however uselessly, to escape, was an act both the Q and the M would perceive as rape. And the fact that he'd had that energy, that he'd been trying to use it to escape, and that it existed for M to drain meant that he wasn't actually completely powerless, and therefore, neither was Q.

Jealousy had always made her see red. But what swept over her now wasn't jealousy, but protective rage, and it was cold and sharp and focusing. "And this is your idea of revenge? Tie him up naked, stimulate him against his will, and then invade him to feed on his energy? You've been observing too many mortal vampire fantasies."

"This isn't my idea of revenge at all," M said. "My idea of revenge would have been to drop him in a hole and pave it over. If I truly wanted to hurt him, I'd have left him alone down here. We all know he'd have been screaming for mercy, begging for someone to come torture him so at least he wouldn't be alone, within less than an average solar cycle on a life-bearing world." Her voice was harsh. "I could have broken him so he wouldn't resist, but I didn't. So he tries to escape, and I feed on him to stop him, and he gets to retain his will to resist at least, even if I won't permit him to actualize his desire." She released him. This time, his gasps for air sounded suspiciously almost like sobs.

"So if this isn't revenge, what is it? I fail to see how any of this accomplishes the goal you claim to want to achieve. What does torturing Q have to do with creating children?"

"The M consigned him here because he claimed that he had invented the technique of reproduction, independently... that when your Continuum killed the two Q who first developed the technique, you wiped out the knowledge as well. Therefore, we thought, depriving your Continuum of a disruptive influence who is capable of coming up with such inventions would keep you from inventing the next idea to disrupt the balance of our Continuums on a massive scale." She walked around Q's ex, who hung limply from his bonds now as if he were exhausted and only semi-conscious, and toward Q, her thin smile predatory. "But I learned very quickly that he wasn't the one who invented the technique at all. That was you."

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