Odo tacitly carried my luggage as he walked alongside me. We turned the corner and stepped into the airlock. Without a word, Odo inched closer to me, no doubt trapped between his prideful independence and a need for comforting.
He insisted on accompanying me to the transport shuttle for my personal safety. I saw right through his ruse. He grieved deeply for the baby Changeling. Its tragic demise caught us all by surprise, but he took it the hardest.
Honestly...I understood Odo's pain. I've been in a similar position. It's the most helpless feeling in the universe.
Odo pleaded with the infant throughout its last moments. I'll never tell him that I saw the first and only tears of his lifetime. He wouldn't appreciate it.
With the sadness came a bittersweet hope. In dying, the infant restored Odo's shape shifting abilities, and I could see the visible changes in him. His back was straighter. He didn't breathe as often. His eyes shone clearer. He looked 'normal.'
I asked, "How does it feel to be yourself again?"
"I just...wish it hadn't happened the way it did." Odo answered, his tone apologetic. He didn't believe himself worthy of the honor bestowed upon him.
"I am sorry," I said. Odo closed his eyes. I watched him struggle with his cognitive dissonance, and I offered the first comforting words that came to mind. "If it helps...think of it as a gift. Something the Changeling wanted you to have."
Odo inclined his head in a slow nod. He forced himself to look at me.
"I think..." He hesitated, suddenly self-conscious. "...I finally understand how much I meant to you, and what you must have gone through when I left."
I smiled a little. "You had to find your own way in the world."
For a few moments I could only gaze at him. At the incomplete-yet-exotic face and the hair styled just like mine. At the bright blue eyes screaming for solace and the brown Bajoran uniform that exuded strength. I felt a lump form in my throat. Is this how fathers feel when they see their sons achieve manhood?
Odo truly reached beyond all my expectations. He found his people. He found answers. And he did it without me. He was right to leave, even though he left in a way that wounded us both.
He furrowed his brow. "I should have included you in my life."
Even after all these bitter years, I remembered why I still loved him like a son. This experience truly brought him back to me. Not like he was. Never like we were. But I wanted to be part of his life again. How often do we get second chances like this?
My heart turned over. I'm a sentimental man...what can I say?
"You still can." I said.
Odo snorted softly. He offered me his hand. I accepted his handshake and pulled him close. It was the only way I could let him know I still cared deeply about him without saying so out loud. He stiffened...and accepted, letting his head rest on my shoulder.
With that gesture, something between us healed.
I hadn't held him in my arms since he ran to me to escape a group of Klingon children. He wouldn't tell me why they caused him such fright. I clutched him to my chest until he melted and slid towards his bucket.
There were so many wounds on our souls. Odo felt like a prisoner because of me, and I did everything to avoid facing my own personal demons. We hurt each other. We've been such fools. Holding him close again meant everything to me. I missed it. I really did.
If I could go back in time and do it differently, I would.
My throat ached. I needed to find the will to make my arms let Odo go.
"Take care of yourself, Odo," I whispered.
Odo cleared his throat and pulled back, which caused me to release him. Emotional displays were not something he enjoyed lingering on, but the look he gave me suggested he didn't mind it too much this time. He gave me my travel bag and politely dismissed me.
I took up my luggage, nodded in thanks and walked past Major Kira Nerys on my way into the shuttle.
"Where is the love that lets the sunlight in to start again?
The love that sees no color lines?
Life begins with love.
So spread your wings and fly.
Guide your spirit safe and sheltered.
A thousand dreams that we can still believe."
--Celine Dion, "Where Is The Love?"
Morning sunlight streamed into my windows as I poured myself a mug of deka tea. Its welcoming aroma and tangy flavor never failed to chase my grogginess away. Especially after an all-night session in the laboratory. I hadn't slept more than four hours a night for the past week. The Dominion threat loomed larger every day.
I sipped my tea while filing a daily research report to Starfleet. Changelings were becoming quite a problem for the Federation. Starfleet considered me an expert on their physiology and sought my assistance in weeding out Changeling infiltrators. Easier spoken of than done. The Founders are far better at shape shifting than Odo. Oh, he's good at turning into inanimate objects and certain animals, but he can't perfectly mimic another person.
I had ideas for less invasive and more secret means of Changeling detection, but as expected there were roadblocks. 'Bureaucratic red tape' as humans called it. I sighed and stretched, hoping to hear good news soon. I should be careful what I wish for.
My console beeped. "Incoming encrypted message."
"Acknowledged," I said. "Display."
A picture of Odo's bucket came up onscreen. Ah-ha, an old Bajoran trick of getting information past enemy listening posts by hiding text in images. A message couldn't be unlocked without a password, and the image itself offered a clue. I downloaded the image to my PADD and typed Odo's name.
I tried odo'ital.
Oh, of course. What went in the bucket?
I typed the word. Nothing.
Dabo! I was in! The message scrolled across the PADD screen. I really wish I hadn't taken a sip of my tea just then.
It is at Odo's request that I send this to you off the record. He is expecting. Please return immediately. Do not inform Starfleet.
I didn't just spit my tea everywhere. I also dropped the mug on my foot. The pain shocked me into rational thought. Starfleet expected me back on Earth tomorrow, but I knew this serendipitous development meant Odo needed me more. I required an excuse, fast. A sneeze from someone walking by outside gave me the perfect idea. Turning to the console, I initiated a priority one communication with President Jaresh-Inyo.
The President's craggy face appeared on my screen. I faked a cough. "Sir, I'm afraid I can't travel to Earth at this time."
He narrowed his eyes at me. "Mora, we need you."
"I'm aware of that and I am truly sorry. I'm afraid I've come down with Rugalan fever." I coughed again, for effect. "You know how debilitating the headache is."
"Eugh, I can't have you infecting us with it at such a crucial time. Contact me again for transport when you're cleared for travel. I hope you realize how inconvenient this is, Mora."
"I'm well aware. I'm just as put out by this as you are." I said "I'll keep filing daily research reports."
Everything fell silent after the screen went dark. I sat back in my chair and looked down at the spilled tea. It created a deep purplish-brown stain on the pale tan tiles. Sunlight from the oval window across the room gave the puddle a white sheen. A small hologram of a sprightly blonde female in a flowing red gown floated nearby. Her bottomless green eyes wrenched my soul. She stood in that oval of sunshine when I asked for her hand in marriage. Later, she sat cross-legged on the same spot to tell me I was going to be a father.
I still remember the morning when I woke up and she did not. My beautiful Leruu died from a terrible fever before we felt the child move in her womb. I threw myself into my work to avoid the grief. My mourning wasn't even a year past when I was handed the jar labeled odo'ital.
Odo's hologram hovered next to Leruu's. He was beaming in delight after noticing the first spring flowers on a shrub in my garden. I took several pictures over the years. My work with him required it. But that was the only one showing a smile. It disappeared as soon as he spotted me holding the holo-imager. He hated the reminders of being studied instead of raised.
I picked up my tea mug. The throbbing in my foot gradually went away.
Speaking of Odo-- I could hardly wrap my brain around the news! I knew nothing of how his people reproduced. Being able to study his physiology during this wondrous biological event meant learning a great deal more about his species.
I took a holo-image of my bruised toes, encrypted it with the word 'purple' and added my reply.
I will be on the first transport to your location.
Though I hated the deception, I sent my colleague, Doctor Weld, a message stating I was returning to Deep Space Nine for treatment of my "fever." That way he could truthfully claim ignorance in the event Starfleet discovered my plans.
Less than an hour later I boarded the transport shuttle bound for Deep Space Nine.
Doctor Julian Bashir met me outside the station's Infirmary. I found him to be quite a handsome young man with observant eyes and steady hands.
"I came seeking treatment for Rugalan fever," I said with a wink. "Can you do anything for this headache?"
"Ah, let's get you inside for a full physical and go from there." Doctor Bashir led me straight into his office. I stared in awe at the information he brought up on his console.
"This is the scan from seven hours ago," he told me.
I let my eyes rove over the data. Normally, Odo's humanoid form was a tightly packed gel with an overall surface density of one-point-four. That number never changed unless he shape shifted. The scans I was looking at now showed the surface area of his upper torso reading at two-point-zero. Inside that space, it measured one-point-six. The rest of his biology appeared normal.
Doctor Bashir showed me the image scan. I gazed at Odo's rudimentary lungs-- nothing more than two hand-sized air sacs that let him speak and regulate his temperature for easier shape shifting. Inflating these air sacs consisted of dilating the available space in his chest cavity, which lowered his internal pressure. To release the air, he simply contracted it. This movement created the illusion that he breathed like a humanoid.
And between those 'lungs', sitting where most humanoids have a heart, was the spherical pocket containing a tiny puddle of moving liquid.
"Well I'll be!" I clapped a hand over my own chest. "What is your hypothesis for this?"
Doctor Bashir showed me his notes. "It's all here. Please excuse me. Morn is contacting me about his foot rash again. One moment."
I nodded, moving away from the communications console to study the PADD in my hand.
Odo's brain still contained dormant morphogenic components while he was trapped in one form. Doctor Bashir suspected the dying infant Changeling sensed them when Odo poured it into its hands. By integrating itself into Odo's body, it reactivated those components and unlocked Odo's morphogenic matrix. Doctor Bashir speculated that the "conception" happened during the time Odo's body transformed from a solid humanoid to a Changeling again. The infant needed to pull matter and DNA from somewhere to heal itself...and what better way to stabilize its own morphogenic matrix than to latch onto Odo's?
The infant's DNA pattern suffered intense degradation after its radiation exposure. To compensate, it used Odo's DNA to fill in the missing markers. The process confused Odo's body enough to wall the infant off without completely rejecting it, and the infant's influence resulted in the increased surface density to prevent its fragile gestational membrane from rupturing too soon.
I transferred the information to my personal PADD, taking care to triple-encrypt everything. Odo wanted this kept secret, and I didn't dare ponder the outcome if Starfleet got word of his condition. Fear comes from what people don't understand, and people seek to destroy what frightens them. I'll take this secret to my grave if I must.
"Yes, keep applying the cream until the bumps go down. I hope it helps. And might I suggest better fitting boots? Ah, you're welcome. Bashir out." Doctor Bashir finished speaking to his other patient.
"Were you able to take any chemical readings?" I asked.
"Yes, here." Doctor Bashir brought up those results.
Just what I expected, I thought.
The infant depended on Odo for morphogenic enzymes, which kept all Changelings' morphogenic matrixes stable. A lack of this is why it apparently died in the first place. It couldn't leave Odo until it had enough of the enzymes in its system to produce them on its own and survive independently. I relayed this information to Doctor Bashir and we both added it to our notes. By tacit accord we didn't sync our PADDS.
"This is rather fascinating," the young doctor remarked. "What do you think?"
"A mother is essentially a life support system for the offspring, and that's exactly what Odo's body is doing." I said. My heart fluttered in my chest. "I'm surprised to see the infant already so active."
"I think it's been active for the past several days, and it's only just now big enough to notice." Doctor Bashir glanced over at me. "Is there anything you want to add?"
"Not at the moment, but don't hesitate to send for me if anything new comes up. Is Odo in his office?"
"He's always in his office at this time of day."
I smiled. "Then I'll pay him a visit. He's expecting me."
"Right. I'll see you later."
Doctor Bashir moved to let me exit the Infirmary.
A woman emerged from Odo's office as I approached. I recognized her by her auburn hair and red uniform. Major Kira Nerys looked amused, giggling to herself and shaking her head. She was heading towards Quark's bar.
"Major," I said politely to her.
Kira offered me a quick nod. "Doctor Mora. You're back awfully quick."
"Yes, something came up. Would you excuse me?"
"Of course." She kept walking, and I heard her giggle again in the turbolift.
I entered the still open doors. Odo sat behind his desk, surrounded by security consoles. Several PADDS were arranged in three perfectly neat piles and aligned so their edges followed the angles of the console. Oh, he could keep everything on one PADD, but that isn't his way. He always was obsessive about keeping things in order, and that included data. Even in the earliest days, he had trouble concentrating on his education in a cluttered room. I kept his lessons on separate PADDS to make them less daunting to him, and I found it interesting that he carried the habit over to his job.
Odo stood up for a proper greeting the moment I crossed his doorway. I noticed his outward appearance revealed nothing about the joyous secret he carried inside his chest. Emotionally, on the other hand...he acted genuinely glad to see me. That warmed my heart.
"Oh, Odo!" I smiled at him. "I came as soon as I heard!"
His expression briefly mirrored mine. He shrugged, sounding amused. "Well, I figured you would be delighted to be a 'grandfather."
A joke out of Odo? Fantastic!
"It's quite a miracle, isn't it?" I laughed and folded my hands together in front of me. "So, when are you off duty?"
"I take my final patrol at zero-hundred."
Odo shot me one of his long-suffering looks. "Crime doesn't only happen during the daytime hours."
His temper still ran hot as ever. Not wanting to spoil the positive atmosphere of our meeting, I acquiesced and gestured to his desk. "Yes, judging by the pileup. Which pile is the solved pile?"
Odo looked proudly at me. He tilted his head towards the largest pile and examined a PADD from the smallest.
"Well then, I'll be in my guest quarters taking a nap," I said. This situation required me at my best, and I couldn't give that on no sleep. "I'll be up again by the time your shift is over."
"Mmhmm," he glanced up from his PADD. "I'll see you later."
I departed to let Odo work. The few belongings I brought with me were delivered to my guest quarters by a lovely Vulcan woman wearing a Starfleet uniform. Seeing it reminded me to control my enthusiasm about Odo's condition.
I stripped myself to the waist and practically collapsed onto the standard-issue bunk.
Odo exuded an aura of calm order as he patrolled the Promenade with his hands clasped behind his back. Nothing escaped his watchful eyes. He stopped a provocatively-dressed human female, reminded her of the station curfew and sent her scurrying. Then he walked straight towards me. I was standing outside the Infirmary.
"Doctor Mora," Odo regarded me politely. He glanced at the two deputies stationed nearby. "How is your 'fever' tonight?"
"The headache is impossible," I replied, rubbing the side of my head. "I hope Doctor Bashir has something to ease it."
Odo gestured to the door. "I'll accompany you, then."
With alibis for our presence there laid out, we slipped into the Infirmary. Odo reclined on the biobed. His jaw tightened and he closed his eyes. This wasn't easy or comfortable for him, not after the experiments I used to perform.
I patted his shoulder and gave him a serious look. "Tell us if anything is too much, and I will have it stopped."
He nodded once. "Get on with it."
"We will. Here comes Doctor Bashir."
"Is he ready?" Doctor Bashir asked.
"Mmhmm." I settled the sensor arch over the biobed and let him calibrate it. "May I borrow your tricorder?"
"Of course. Here."
I took the handheld sensor off the tricorder and scanned Odo while the biobed took more detailed readings of his density, body chemistry and even his temperature. Doctor Bashir ensured the sensors ignored the lack of heartbeat, respiratory gas exchange and blood pressure.
The pocket slowly appeared on the tricorder screen. A little blob in the bottom bubbled and shot fluid straight up like a mud geyser. Then it collapsed back into a liquid again, much to Doctor Bashir's amusement.
"Did..." He gestured to Odo and whispered, "...he ever do that?"
"Once, right after taking him out of the centrifuge." I answered. Then I faced Odo. "Odo?"
Odo opened his eyes to look up at me. "Yes, Doctor Mora?"
I turned the tricorder around. He squinted at it. "Is this a live scan?"
Odo's surly expression softened. "It looks like it's...practicing." Suddenly, he smiled, and I knew he fell in love with his offspring. "Just like I did when I learned to form tentacles."
I still remember the first tentacle slapping my hand away from a control panel. After that experience, Odo utilized them often to snatch tools out of my hands and knock objects off countertops. He became so violent I had to keep him in a containment field for my own safety. Those were the hardest days in the lab-- listening to the unknown sample slamming again and again into the energy barrier...
I shook off the memories.
"You sure loved to do that." I remarked, leaning forward to watch the tricorder screen. "Have you thought of a name for it?"
"I have," Odo said, briefly looking up at me. "I'm going to call it Kejal."
A perfect name. A beautiful name. One I wouldn't have thought up myself.
I patted Odo on the arm. "A wonderful choice. My goodness, I do feel like I'm about to be a grandfather."
Doctor Bashir looked up from the biobed screen and inquired about the name's meaning. I told him, "Kejal is our word for freedom, Doctor Bashir."
Onscreen, the tiny infant fell against the side of its protective pocket and dissolved into liquid. The tap was enough to make the membrane ripple.
Odo startled with a gasp. "Oh...did you see that?"
Doctor Bashir's grin mirrored mine. Odo's curious excitement proved contagious. The young doctor directed my attention to his latest findings on the pocket itself. He'd discovered why the images were so clear.
"The pocket is actually full of air, not liquid like I first thought." He pointed to the screen. "And it hasn't changed its size at all, but the baby Changeling's volume has increased by ten percent since yesterday." When I nodded, he turned to Odo and went on, "I suspect only two conditions will lead to it being born. One-- it outgrows the pocket and bursts free. Or two-- it can hold a shape long enough to work itself out of your body. Where it will emerge from is anyone's guess. Doctor Mora, what do you think?"
His speculations were sound, and I told him so. It explained why Odo's upper body changed density so drastically to protect the pocket. Scans indicated it was as soft as the plastic air bubbles used to pack delicate materials for land transport. But the birth itself...educated guesses were all we had.
I leaned on the biobed and peered at Odo. "I think, regardless of what triggers its birth, it will choose the path of least resistance. Unlike a solid species, that could be anywhere on your body."
Odo snorted at that.
Doctor Bashir cleared his throat. "Doctor Mora, a word?"
"Of course." I set the tricorder down where Odo had a clear view and stepped away from the biobed.
Doctor Bashir glanced at Odo. "Aren't you even a little worried? What if this condition is dangerous to him?"
"I don't think it is." I said with confidence. "This may be how his people reproduce. An old or dying Changeling integrates into one already living and is essentially reborn. It's a shame we don't know exactly how many Changelings exist or how long they live. That information would tell us the frequency of their reproduction cycles."
Doctor Bashir inhaled through his nose. "Or...this may be a one-off incident brought on by unique circumstances. Which means it might be dangerous." He chewed his bottom lip and ducked his head. "What if this infant literally sucks the life out of Odo? What if it takes over his body instead of being born as a separate entity?"
The possibility existed, yet I didn't want to face it. Not unless the infant Changeling's behavior within Odo's body showed signs of hostility. But how could it? Like Odo, it didn't know anything-- it was cast out into the universe as a blank slate.
"I can't fathom that happening. It would be too chaotic, and Odo's species favors order." I leaned closer, dropping my voice to a whisper. "And I also believe Odo would inform us if something felt wrong. He knows his own body better than we do."
Doctor Bashir remained skeptical, and I didn't blame him.
He said, "I hope you're right."
"It knows it's alive," Odo spoke, interrupting my thoughts. "I can feel its awareness. It is...like I was...ah..." His eyes fluttered shut, "...I need to rest."
Alarmed, I moved to his side. "Odo?"
Odo's facial features glistened. He looked almost exactly like he had the very first time he took his full humanoid form. The biobed registered several changes in his morphogenic matrix and biochemistry. His chemical makeup tended to fluctuate throughout the day, but never this much.
Doctor Bashir touched my arm. "Doctor Mora, it's all right. This is what I've been telling you about. Watch his torso."
Odo's extremities turned mushy and liquefied. His head followed, leaving just his upper torso laying there like a smooth rock poking above a pond's surface. Onscreen, his primitive lungs remained intact, albeit dormant. They were transparent rose petals wrapping themselves around the air pocket.
Part of Odo nearly dribbled off the table. I turned on the containment field and ran another scan. During regeneration, the surface density of Odo's chest showed a fifty percent increase, and chemical readings indicated morphogenic enzymes flowing through the piece of his torso that didn't melt.
"Remarkable," I whispered. "Odo, you never cease to amaze me."
"Look at this. I don't know how, but the scanners are picking up theta waves," said Doctor Bashir. "He's sleeping."
"Or maybe it's the baby."
He raised both eyebrows. "Could be."
Silently, I added, Or it's both of them, and they're dreaming about each other.
"It's been a long day. Odo will be fine until morning." Doctor Bashir covered a yawn.
Seeing him yawn made me do the same. "We should both retire, then. Good night, doctor."
He walked me to the door and handed me a hypospray in sight of the night deputies standing guard. "You shouldn't be contagious by tomorrow morning, but I suspect it'll take two weeks for your body to combat the virus. This will help you sleep. Come back tomorrow and we'll see how you're doing."
"Thank you, Doctor Bashir." I accepted the hypo, dipped my head politely and nodded to the deputy as I headed for the turbolift.
A Yridian raced towards the closing doors. I held them open long enough to allow him aboard. He peered at me, the scars on his face wrinkling.
"Level two." I said. The Yridian scoffed at that, so I responded, "Is there a problem?"
"No," he grumbled. "Going to be a long ride for me. I'm heading down, not up."
"Oh. I apologize if I'm making you late."
"If you say so." The Yridian turned his back. "Tch. Diplomats."
His impoliteness irritated me. Typical Yridian-- rude and ungrateful. I not-quite-accidentally pushed him aside once the turbolift arrived at level two. He called me something too offensive to repeat as the doors closed. Such a charming fellow. I put the whole incident out of my mind and entered my guest quarters.
Nothing on my console. Good. Starfleet wasn't on my trail yet.
I replicated a saucer of larish pie and nibbled on it while I prepared for bed.
Larish pie-- one of my favorite sweet treats. I still remember Odo trying to eat it the first time he took humanoid form. Three bites in, I realized he wasn't swallowing it. I managed to teach him how. He ate the whole slice and commented on its crunchy texture. Then he stood up after finishing and every single bite he took began to drop onto the floor. In the interest of science, I let him try my deka tea. He inhaled it, choked and expelled it all over me when he collapsed into his gelatinous state. I wiped the mess off my face and we both agreed: No eating or drinking.
The memory always makes me smile. My laboratory wall still has purple stains from that incident...I don't have the heart to clean them off.
I set my saucer on the replicator pad for disposal and dimmed the lights in preparation to sleep.
"Odo to Doctor Mora. Respond."
I stirred awake at the familiar craggy voice on my combadge.
"Ah, my apologies. Did I wake you?"
I asked for the time. Oh-nine-twenty. I groaned. "Yes, but I'm due to get up. Space stations always make me sleep more than I should."
"Yes, the lack of daylight does that to some." Odo made a noise like clearing his throat. "I'd like you to come to my office whenever you're available. I have something I wish to discuss with you."
"Oh?" I kept the combadge online while I dressed, combed my rumpled hair and shaved the stubble off my chin. "Gladly, Odo. I'll see you shortly."
Odo grunted in acknowledgement and the combadge beeped to indicate he ended communication. I didn't take it personally. Social graces were not something he fully grasped.
I made my way to the Infirmary. Doctor Bashir was busily running tricorder scans on a very familiar woman.
"Doctor Mora," Major Kira smiled. "Don't mind me. I'm on my way out."
"Major," I acknowledge her politely.
"I think it's safe to declare you fit for full duty again." Doctor Bashir handed her a hypospray. "This should help with the lingering water retention. Only take it once every twelve hours."
"Thanks." She sighed a little. "I better go. I need to tell Odo something before he goes hiding in his office."
She is a sweet one, I mused.
"Don't let us keep you." I said with a smile.
"Doctors," she dipped her head towards us and exited the Infirmary. I saw her catch up to Odo on the Promenade. Their walking speed became a slow stroll. Odo clasped his hands behind his back and leaned in her direction as she spoke. Even from that distance, I saw how he looked at her-- and the little smile he flashed at her back once they went their separate ways. He could hide it from her, but not me. I know love when I see it.
"So, when did he leave the Infirmary this morning?"
"Oh-eight-hundred." Doctor Bashir answered.
"That's longer than his normal regeneration period." I noted.
"Yeah. I guess even Odo isn't immune to the more common symptoms of pregnancy. The mood swings are the craziest. I swear..." The young doctor folded his arms, "...he seemed almost chipper when he headed out, which means Quark is in for an interesting day."
We both had a chuckle at that while I caught up on the overnight scans.
"It looks like the baby has regeneration periods of its own." I pointed to the timestamps on the screen. "Every three hours, it becomes completely inactive."
"Odo's periods of tiredness match exactly with the baby's regeneration cycles. Ah, here, I took these for you." Doctor Bashir showed me its measurements.
Overnight, it grew to take up nearly half the pocket. I marveled at the sight. It couldn't increase its mass like that unless it spent much of its active phase practicing its abilities.
"At this growth rate, it'll probably be born within the next two weeks." And what an exciting day that would be! I couldn't wait!
"I'd say one, but I'm a betting man." Doctor Bashir tossed a hypospray in the air and caught it again.
"How will you prepare this place for the birth?"
He gestured to the biobed. "This area will do. I'll have a full array of scanners trained on him, At the slightest problem, I can intervene. Worse comes to worse, I'll use the transporter or suction the baby out via syringe."
I barely suppressed a shudder; I'd forgotten that human doctors tend to treat birth like a medical emergency rather than a natural biological function. No wonder human women can't relax during the labor process. Who can with doctors, scanners and medicine hovering around every corner?
"Oh, I'm sorry. Yes?"
"What will we do with the baby Changeling once it's born?"
A valid question. I shrugged in response. "That's up to Odo, and I'll respect any choice he makes. Speaking of-- he is expecting me in his office. I shouldn't keep him waiting. Do you need my assistance for anything right now?"
"No, go ahead. I have a three appointments and two surgeries today, so I'm going to be busy."
Reassured, I headed for the door. "Good luck, doctor."
Then I left him there and crossed the Promenade to reach Odo's office. I stood outside the door, watching him. He talked to his chest-- to the infant-- like he did before its apparent death in the lab. No doubt about it now...he felt connected to his offspring. And he looked so happy. I couldn't help smiling when he suddenly barked with laughter. I missed hearing that sound. There was a time when all it took was me laughing to make him join in.
And I chose that moment to walk in. "Odo, it's wonderful to see you so happy."
Odo quieted himself, his smile only returning upon seeing me. "How can I not be?" He gestured at his chest. "I've discovered something I thought I lost."
Chuckling, I crossed my arms and eyed him. "I'm sure you didn't ask me to meet you in your office to tell me that."
Odo's smile slowly faded into his usual serious expression. "No...but I've been thinking." He leaned back in his chair. "I...I'll just get to the point. Once this infant Changeling is born, I want you to take it back to Bajor and raise it."
I blinked. I almost asked him to repeat himself. He didn't know that Starfleet was still insistent about me helping them locate Changeling infiltrators. I decided to listen to his reasoning before considering my options.
Odo's hand settled on his chest. "We're about to go to war with the Dominion. I don't want the Founders getting their hands on this Changeling." He nodded once, almost to himself. "Once it is born, I will link with it. I will tell it what it needs to know to shape shift, and then I want you to take it. I...I trust that you can keep it safe until the war with the Dominion is over. I, uh..." Then he looked up at me, and in his clear blue eyes I could see the trust I thought I lost forever. "It's my way of saying thank you for your help."
By the Prophets, I had to sit down and take in his words. I wanted to laugh and cry. Taking the infant posed a considerable hazard for me, but Odo trusted me again. If I turned him down, I undermined the shaky bridge still being built between us.
Somehow, I knew I'd find a way to keep Odo's offspring safe. I'm sure he already weighed the risks of giving it to me. He had no one else to turn to. Especially now, when anyone and everyone might be an enemy in disguise.
Before word of Odo's pregnancy reached me, I'd been working on a biofilter that would quietly detect morphogenic enzymes. I could test the scanner on the baby without doing it any harm and verify whether or not it worked before putting the device in Starfleet's hands. At least, that became my hope. Better than mandatory blood tests and phaser sweeps.
The Founders were compromising us in secret. Turnabout seemed like fair play.
This is your chance to right what you did wrong with Odo, I told myself. You owe him this.
I reached across the desk and laid my hand on his shoulder. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," he said without hesitation. His answer clinched it.
"Then I would be honored, Odo." I heard my voice quiver with joy.
Odo let his hand rest on top of mine. His flesh felt almost indistinguishable from an ordinary humanoid's. The only difference was a lack of body hair.
"I am not off duty until zero-hundred, but if you want to have dinner sometime today...I don't mind sitting and watching you eat."
I chuckled at him, and I reminisced about the larish pie. Odo rolled his eyes at me.
"It was still an interesting experiment," I remarked.
Odo grumbled something under his breath. He didn't remember the incident as fondly as I did.
"Do you ever miss having a sense of smell and taste?"
"Not really." He shrugged, leaning back in his chair. "There were times where I found them almost overpowering. But I didn't mind them."
I wanted to tell him I was sorry for not being there. Then I decided against it. No sense digging up past skeletons and beating them into dust.
Odo sat up straighter. "It feels like champagne bubbles."
That got my attention. "You're feeling it move already?"
"Yes. It's the same sensation you feel when you take a drink and let it sizzle in your mouth. Champagne...heh...it's the only drink I miss." His eyelids fluttered. "Oh, it's moving. Here."
He led me around the table and pressed my hand against the center of his chest.
"There, did you feel that?"
Disappointed, I shook my head. Maybe it was still too little, or too far within his body to feel from the outside. Odo exhaled all the air in his 'lungs' and pressed my hand harder against him. I started to say I couldn't feel anything when the tiniest vibration tickled my palm. Two times in rapid succession.
"Ah! I felt that!"
Odo's eyes practically glowed. I saw all the hopes and fears he had for his offspring when he began, "Doctor Mora?"
I gently lifted my hand off his chest.
He cleared his throat and dropped his gaze towards his lap. "All I ask is you don't experiment on this Changeling. Teach it what I can't, but-- "
His worst fear, and his reason for choosing me. I put him at ease right away.
"Say no more. I understand...and I give you my word."
No zapping, no centrifuges, no protein decompilers and no cytoplasmic separators.
Odo nodded resolutely to himself. He adjusted his position in his office chair and picked up one of his PADDS. Then he set it down again. A fidgety Odo is an uncomfortable Odo. I took a polite step back to give him space. He groped rather obviously for something to fill in the awkward silence.
"So, about dinner..."
"Ah! How does eighteen-hundred at Quark's sound?"
He glanced at the digital chart on his security console and nodded once. I watched him type it in. "It's in the system now."
Was there anything he didn't organize? I laughed inwardly until my empty stomach protested its neglect.
"Hm, it's almost thirteen-hundred. I should eat lunch."
Odo's eyes widened. "Thirteen-hundred? Doctor Mora, you'll have to excuse me. I'm supposed to meet with Major Kira at thirteen-hundred."
I nearly asked him if this was a date, but I refrained. We were finally getting along without arguing-- why spoil it with silly jokes about having a lover? I resolved my humor to an amused look.
"Of course. I'll see you later, Odo."
Odo offered me a nod. He practically ran out of his office. I waited until he was fully inside Quark's bar before I let myself chuckle out loud. Love makes people do the funniest things.
I returned to the Infirmary under the guise of needing another checkup. Doctor Bashir was between appointments. He pursed his lips when he saw me, something I noticed he does when he's about to say something unpleasant.
"I think I know how to take a sample of the infant without harming the bubble. I can use a narrow transporter beam to take out just a milliliter, study it and return it afterward."
Well, that wasn't a statement I expected to stumble into. And after the promise I made to Odo, no less!
"He doesn't want any experiments done on the infant," I told him.
"How can we be sure if it's healthy?"
I squared my shoulders and challenged him. "How can we be sure that removing even a small amount won't injure it? Doctor Bashir, I appreciate what you want to do in the name of science, but I just told Odo I wasn't going to experiment on this Changeling the way I experimented on him. Subjecting him or the infant to invasive tests now will open up a lot of old wounds."
The young doctor didn't look pleased. I understood his frustration, but I also understood Odo's fears. And right now Odo's desires took precedence over everything else.
Doctor Bashir closed his tricorder. "What if something is wrong with it?"
"If there is, it may become apparent on scans soon enough. Its morphogenic matrix looks stable and it's active every couple hours like clockwork. Odo put my hand to his chest, and I felt the infant move just a few minutes ago."
I nodded. Then I became serious again. "Then we're in agreement on no invasive procedures?"
With a long-suffering sigh, he nodded. "All right. I still think we're letting something fantastic go."
I could only smile at his youthful impertinence. "No, 'fantastic' will be the birth. Odo may not show it, but he's excited ab-- "
My combadge beeped. The station computer said, "You have a priority one message from Starfleet."
"Acknowledged." I glanced at Doctor Bashir. "Excuse me. I'll take this in my guest quarters."
"Of course, doctor. I'm due for surgery in twenty minutes. Talk later?"
I left him there to tend his patients.
Unpleasant butterflies flitted about in my stomach. Did Starfleet somehow learn about Odo? No, they couldn't have. They figured out I was on Deep Space Nine. Nothing more.
I found myself sharing the turbolift with the same scarred Yridian from the other night.
"Going up again?"
"Let's go to your level first and spare you the wait." I countered.
Suddenly, he was standing in my personal space, nose to nose, the sneer on his face wrinkling his scars. His yellow eyes bore into mine. I've stared down Gul Dukat-- this fool didn't frighten me.
The Yridian growled, "I don't like mouthy Bajorans."
I fixed him in an unblinking glare of my own. I wasn't in the mood for a cranky alien when I had Starfleet hanging over my head. "Don't fuss with me, Yridian."
His knuckles cracked and his pupils dilated. All the body language of someone ready for a fight.
I moved the Yridian back by extending my hands and casually stepped past him. "Take the turbolift. I'll wait for it to come back."
A heavy hand grabbed my shoulder. My reaction happened without conscious thought-- I drove my elbow into his belly, spun around and rammed my palm into his face. He tumbled back into the turbolift. The doors closed, separating us.
I shook my wrist and crossed the Promenade. Three Yridians clustered together outside the Replimat. They saw my confrontation with their friend-- I assume-- but one scowl from me had them keeping their distance. I took the turbolift next to the Cardassian's clothing shop.
Ten minutes later, I sat down in my guest quarters and picked up the communication on my console. A human visage with graying hair appeared onscreen.
"Admiral Strickler, please accept my apologies for the delay. I was in the Infirmary getting a refill."
Admiral Strickler didn't look pleased at having to wait.
"I hope your recovery is quick," he said with no sympathy whatsoever. "How is your Changeling filter coming along?"
"I'm still working on simulations, sir." I took out my notes and blueprints. Oh, I was so relieved that this communication didn't involve anything else. "It won't work until I can attune the sensors to detect morphogenic enzymes, and so far it's failing that in the simulations. No matter how good a Changeling is at taking on a form, its morphogenic enzymes are detectable with the right sensor calibration. I can't have it built until I'm absolutely sure it works. Remember, sir, we want it to trip a silent alarm, not cause them to lose their shape."
"Isn't there a Changeling on Deep Space Nine? What's name? Dodo?"
"Odo," I corrected him, annoyed. "And he may not be available to test the device when it's ready. If he IS available, I'll see what I can do."
The admiral onscreen folded his hands on his desk. He gave me a serious, deadly look. "We already have a plan in place if your sensor doesn't work. The president wants results soon."
You insufferable... "Of course, Admiral."
"Then I should-- oh, wait one moment, Doctor Mora. What of the baby Changeling you said was found?"
My heart almost stopped. "You didn't get the report? It died due to radiation poisoning."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Admiral Strickler said, once more without a trace of real sympathy. "We could have learned a lot from it."
It was hard to keep my tone cordial when I replied, "Yes. How unfortunate for you."
"Indeed." Finally, he leaned back and sighed. "I'll let you go. Get some rest, doctor. I hope you recover soon from your Rugalan fever."
"Thank you, Admiral Strickler."
The screen went dark. I shut the console down, stripped and took a long sonic shower. Talking to Starfleet always left me feeling somehow filthy. I didn't like them keeping how much they truly knew about Changelings from me, and I couldn't stop the nagging suspicion that they wanted to harm Odo along with the Founders. They didn't care as long as the shape shifters went away.
Odo placed his trust in me. He didn't make the decision lightly, and he had so many reasons not to choose me, yet I'm the one he sought out. Even when he discovered his pregnancy, he wanted me contacted. Letting him down wasn't an option.
I owned farm property in the countryside. Far from prying eyes and suspicious ears. If all else failed, I could take Odo's offspring there and raise it peacefully without Starfleet trumpeting at my back.
Starfleet is a wonderful operation. It's just...sometimes I find their tactics for dealing with aliens a little underhanded.
Now I really can't blame Odo for his misanthropic outlook on the universe, I mused to myself.
I finished my shower, dressed again and asked the computer to alert me at sixteen-hundred. It told me it was sixteen-hundred-and-ten. Grrr, how annoying. That time-wasting communication made me late for my dinner appointment!
Odo chose a semi-secluded table on the second level of Quark's. I spotted him waving to me when I stepped off the turbolift and hurried to join him. He didn't comment on my tardiness.
I dropped myself into the seat across from him. He held a facsimile of springwine in his left hand. So he still used that trick-- I flashed a brief smile at the elaborate wineglass he produced. Much more detailed than the simple mugs he used to imitate.
"I want to try something from Earth, but I have no idea where to start." I looked at the menu, which had Earth foods I didn't recognize. "Did you taste any Earth cuisine before you regained your shape shifting abilities?"
Odo gave his 'wine' a swirl. "I recommend a dish called shrimp alfredo. Humans make fantastic pasta."
I made my order. Shrimp alfredo and ale for a drink. Across from me, Odo sat rigid as ever. Even here, in a nice restaurant, he would not relax. He had a lot of reasons to be tense. Especially when I informed him about Doctor Bashir wanting a sample of the baby.
"He what?" Odo nearly jumped off his seat.
I put my hands up. "Don't worry. I talked him out of it. I made you a promise and I intend to keep it."
Odo settled again, his back stiffer than a pole. That posture never wavered until he spent time trapped as a humanoid. I'm sure he didn't miss having a spinal column. Sometimes, I hated mine!
My order arrived in the hands of a Ferengi. A broad, steaming bowl of delicious smells and a tall glass of Bajoran ale. I tipped him graciously and eyed my food. Long, flat white noodles with little red-white spirals of shrimp and small round pieces of another fish. The 'alfredo' was the yellowish sauce covering everything.
The aromas made my mouth water. I took the first bite, and by the Prophets-- Odo had taste...when he could taste!
"Mm, this is absolutely delicious! Thank you."
Odo started to respond, but the bar's owner, Quark, shouted a pregnancy announcement. I paid it no mind. Odo looked ready to spit photon torpedoes. He didn't stop glaring at Quark until the expectant mother waved to the other bar patrons. The heightened emotions made him lose control of the 'wine' he held. It dissolved into goo and rejoined his uniform sleeve. He folded his hands. His eyes darted around.
"Odo, you're fidgeting."
"That was too close." He grumbled. "Quark is an idiot. Taking bets on a pregnancy...hmph!"
I tore into my food. It was a symphony for my taste buds. I hardly registered Odo speaking to me until he leaned forward.
"Mm-mm, this food is fantastic...ah...sorry." I set my fork down. "Odo, I think your situation is too unbelievable to be true."
"Kira believed me when I told her," he said, his voice practically caressing her name.
For perhaps the thousand and first time since Odo left my lab, I felt like a fool for thinking his emotions were only mimicry. True love isn't something a person simply copies by watching others. Either they feel it or they don't.
"Oh?" I sipped my ale. "You seem quite taken with her."
Odo huffed and peered around at everything but me. "It's nothing."
I smiled, "I saw how you were looking at her earlier."
"Enough!" Odo snapped, smacking the tabletop with his palms. He settled again, staring down at his own clasped fingers. "I...am too different to be anything more than her friend. I've been her friend for a long time, and I won't jeopardize that. Besides, she is quite happy with Shakaar."
"I can put in a good word for y--"
"No!" He practically choked on the word. Quieter, he went on, "No. that won't be necessary."
I knew I'd pushed too hard when I saw him grimace. Time to drop the matter and change the subject.
"All right, all right," I waved my napkin like a flag of surrender until his features smoothed back out. "I think I'll save the rest of this for later. Good choice, Odo. Thank you. What is this dish called again?"
"Shrimp alfredo." He sighed.
I patted my stomach and let Odo know I'd remember this delicious meal's name. Something like this should never be fed back into a replicator!
I glanced at our surroundings and decided to broach the question on my mind. "Have you been experiencing any unusual symptoms?"
Odo shrugged one shoulder. "Well...aside from being a little tired, no. Why do you ask?"
I finally got his eyes to meet mine again. "I'm just making sure your work isn't affected by your condition. You may need to request temporary leave if you're unable to perform your duties."
"Bah. I'm already affected. You saw what happened when I regenerated. It's the same way with shape shifting. I can change everything but my torso."
Odo morphed his arm into a huge claw, snatched a menu off an empty table and showed it to me. He returned the menu to its home and shifted his arm back to normal.
"I must be a sight when I regenerate."
"It's a fascinating sight, yes."
His gaze hardened. Hurt. "So glad I amuse you," he spat.
I reached across the table, saw his tense expression and decided against touching him. "I didn't mean it that way, Odo. It's interesting, seeing how your body is changing for the little one."
"Oh." Now he was downright embarrassed. He stared at the table. A frown wrinkled his normally smooth brow. His left hand closed into a fist. Gripping at something-- most likely a memory he wished to forget.
Odo made that same face when I showed him off in front of the Cardassians. A look of utter torment. I failed to take that into account back then. But not this time.
I laid my hand over his fist. It felt like stone under my palm. "Odo?"
He hung his head, refusing to look at my face. "I'm...fine. I was just remembering...things. Things that are long gone. I don't want the infant to go through what I did. I endured things I never told you about. I was too ashamed."
Something cold opened behind my heart. I barely got my voice out. "Such as?"
"The Klingon children...I told you they chased me." He shrugged. "I didn't tell you how they stomped on me when they found me in my liquid state. You thought I learned to shape shift into dirt after showing it to me in the lab, but I really learned how when I did it to hide from those Klingons."
I remembered that day-- the morning after I held Odo to my chest until he slipped into his regeneration cycle. He came inside in a surly mood, took one look at the dirt in the dish and dropped to the floor. When he fell, he became soil and splattered halfway across the lab. And he stayed that way for six hours. I finally had to sweep him into a corner to keep others from stepping on him.
Odo's gaze met mine at last. His mask-like features lost all expression. Blank, like a Vulcan.
"The night you took me to meet Gul Dukat for the first time, several young Cardassians ganged up on me. They spent fifteen minutes assaulting me. They asked me if I felt pain. I lied and said I did not. One of them pulled out a stolen d'k tahg and jammed it into my chest. The others laughed until I didn't drop dead. So he stabbed me again. And again...and again. I stood there and took it until I was in such pain that I couldn't hold my shape anymore. I didn't dare fight back because of the risk it placed on you." Odo's fist squeezed itself tighter, but due to a lack of muscles it didn't quiver. "That was the night I lost all faith in gods. I prayed and no one answered. However, I saw the power of justice when Gul Dukat reprimanded those Cardassians for their behavior. After all, he didn't want them damaging your experimental goo."
The coldness in my chest grew. It stung like the blade Odo endured. Some of the tests I ran involved injecting probes into his body once he took humanoid form. He complied and never complained, yet...a few of these experiments happened after the first audience with Gul Dukat. I took part in hurting him-- and I don't mean just the physical sense.
"Another incident involved a Cardassian science student cornering me the day you were ill. She asked me if I was a 'real man' or just looked like one. I asked her what she meant. She put her hands on me and felt around...it's funny how I feel more ashamed of it today than I did back then." Odo glanced at me and quickly added, "Don't worry, she didn't..." he gesticulated at himself, "...find what she was looking for, and I escaped her by reverting to my gelatinous state. But I still get uncomfortable when women approach me in that manner."
I took a large gulp from my glass of ale to prevent myself from erupting in anguish on the spot.
"Tell me everything, Odo...I want to know."
Nodding, Odo went on to tell me more. Stories I can't even repeat. I listened to them all without interruption or judgment. He went through so much in silence, yet his ability to endure took incredible strength.
But he suffered just the same. My ignorance let it continue. I should have known. I should have known!
Odo's knuckles remained hard as rocks under my palm. I gripped his hand tightly. Pain choked my voice when I said, "I failed you in those days, Odo, and for that I am deeply sorry."
He covered the hand I placed on his fist. The agony left his eyes like storm clouds moving off the sun. "I never blamed you for what other people's children did to me."
"Still, I am sorry. I should have known you were being mistreated." I finished my drink and resolutely set the glass down with a clank. My solemn promise came out as a declaration. "I give you my word that your little one won't go through that. I'll be more vigilant, and I'll teach it how to interact with its peers. Something I should have done with you in the beginning."
If Odo had eyebrows, they would have gone up into something less than his usual stern frown. "Really?"
Time took a breath. Odo blinked slowly, looked straight at me and offered me the most genuine grin I'd ever seen from him.
That smile healed us both.
"Dabo!" Someone shouted below. The world returned to normal. I moved my hand off Odo's and requested a reheat container for my uneaten food.
Something on the bulkhead behind me held Odo's attention. Wait, no, his mind was light years away. He still had that smile on his face, albeit more subdued.
He startled. "Yes?"
"Thinking about her again?" I hedged.
Odo's shields went up faster than a blink. It amazed me how quickly his smile became a scowl. He growled in warning. I'd pushed too far and it was time to back off.
"You made your point." I scooted myself away from the table.
Odo was already focused on the lower level like a hawk. I glimpsed an Andorian walking out of the Cardassian's clothing shop. A Yridian passed it-- and I remembered the incident in the turbolift. I started to tell Odo about the scuffle, but Odo's serious expression suggested a security matter that needed attending. The Yridian issue could wait.
I said, "Thank you for dinner. I'll let you get back to work."
"Yes, and I have work to do right now." Odo pointed with his thumb, "Shoplifter on my right. Excuse me, Doctor Mora."
Nodding, I made a dismissive gesture. Odo left the table in the time it took the food I scooped off my plate to land in the reheat container. I watched him stride right into the Andorian boy's path, plant his feet and exchange words. Eventually, Odo lead the boy back to the clothing shop. Then he took the child into his office.
"Slek!" Someone shouted below.
"Damn that brat," a voice muttered behind me. Chairs scraped and I noticed the Yridian I had trouble with joining three others near one of the free-standing station directories. They dispersed moments later. The scarred fellow, Slek, if I heard right, sat himself down at the bar. Quark brought him a glass of Yridian ale.
I'd seen enough. I gathered up my reheat box and headed to my guest quarters.
No more than an two hours later, as I was preparing to sleep, Odo contacted me.
"Doctor Mora, security footage shows you had an altercation near one of the turbolifts. Can you meet me in my office right now?"
So much for retiring early. "Of course. I'm on my way."
This time, I took more caution walking from my quarters to the turbolift. No Yridians, good. Reaching Odo's office occurred without incident. He gestured to the chair across from his desk.
"I'm sorry to bother you," Odo said.
"It isn't a problem."
He got right to the point and showed me a file on the scarred Yridian. Slek Ygroness.
"Is this the Yridian who tried to assault you?"
I nodded. "He didn't like me taking the turbolift up. He seemed quite impatient to head down."
Odo stood, clasped his hands behind his back and paced around his desk. It hit me then that I was participating in one of his cases. The realization intrigued and delighted me, but I maintained an expression of polite decorum.
He asked, "Did he indicate where he wanted to go? Level numbers, guest quarters numbers, anything at all?"
I recalled the two encounters. "No, I'm afraid not. The second time, I offered to step out so he wouldn't have to wait. He grabbed my shoulder as I moved by, and I felt threatened...so I knocked him down."
"Mmhmm." Odo leaned over his desk. Shadows crossed his face and nearly hid his eyes. I got a sense of just how intimidating he could be to someone who didn't know him. "Did he mention any locations or names?"
"No, but I heard Slek say 'damn that brat' after you walked away with the little Andorian boy." I shook my head and folded my hands in my lap. "I'm sorry I can't be more helpful."
His mouth quirked. "Don't be. I'm just covering all my bases. I'm pretty sure Slek is guilty, and you just made it clear he has associations with the boy."
"What is his crime, if I may ask?"
"I have reason to believe he's part of a fabric counterfeiting ring. Bajor had issues with it last month."
"Ah! I heard about that. The criminal keeps giving everyone the slip."
"Well, he won't give me the slip." He smirked. "No criminal walks away from Deep Space Nine unless they're in custody."
"Ah." I smiled. "You're good at this, Odo."
"I pride myself on my ability to get the job done." Odo said as he eased into his chair. He let his head rest against its backing. His skin had a faint sheen that looked like beads of sweat.
I frowned. You're definitely more than a little tired, Odo.
Abruptly, he gasped and muttered, "Oh, are you chiming in, little one?" He chuckled, patting his chest, "Don't worry, we'll solve this. Slek won't get away with this on my watch. No, he won't." Then he remembered my presence and decided he could continue talking to his unborn infant. "Yes, Yridians are a pain, aren't they?" He beckoned me over and placed my hand just off center of his chest. "Heh, heh, it's very active right now."
I felt something akin to an irregular heartbeat. Stronger than earlier.
"Oh, my! Perhaps it's all the excitement. What do you think it's doing in there?"
"Tap dancing...or Klingon ballet." Odo deadpanned. "It started right after I brought Slek in here and hasn't stopped since."
I laughed. "Does it react to outside stimuli often?"
"Sometimes. It seems to know my voice now." Odo got to his feet again. "I need to regenerate soon, but...would you like to-- erm-- see my quarters?"
I got the distinct impression that Odo didn't make this offer to just anyone. I also got the distinct impression that he wanted to show me how well he's been doing on his own. How could I turn him down?
Despite being a little worn out myself, I agreed. "I would like that."
We ended up taking the same turbolift where I knocked Slek down. Odo named the level he wanted and looked around.
"I got stuck in this turbolift with Lwaxana Troi, once." He mused. "She is...quite a woman."
"The Betazoid ambassador?" Oh, yes, I knew her. A very charming lady.
"Yes, her. She's in love with me, and makes no secrets about it."
I chortled, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'm not surprised. She went on and on about you when I bumped into her on Earth!"
"You must have made quite an impression on her."
"Hmph. Here we are." Odo broke away from me to exit the turbolift.
His quarters were nothing like I expected. I marveled at the array of arches, spirals and sculptures. It bore more resemblance to an art museum than a living space.
I reached out to the coiled silver wrapped like a festoon around an arch. "May I touch?"
"Go ahead." Odo said. "I use these to explore my shape shifting abilities in private. I've been everything in this room. I would demonstrate for you, but..."
"I understand." I said, hoping to dispel his discomfort. The cold metal sculpture was smooth under my fingers. I ran my hand along its curving surface and asked, "What does shape shifting feel like, Odo?"
It's a question I never asked him in all the years we worked together-- back then, it never seemed important. Now, when I stood on the verge of starting over, I wanted to know how to encourage the baby Changeling to try new forms once Odo released it into my care.
Odo came closer to me. He took my hand and slid it across the sculpture. "If I slip into this shape, it feels similar to sliding your hand over the metal like this. Then I'm just...aware of my form the way humanoids are aware of the clothing on their bodies. Once you're used to a garment, you cease to notice it and pay more attention to your surroundings. You just...are."
He let go of my wrist.
I folded my hands in front of me. "I'm trying to comprehend that, but I can't."
That won a chuckle from him. "Then that places us in an amusing position. I couldn't comprehend eating, drinking or why emotions make people collapse inward until the Link cast me out. Unless..." He tilted his head, "Give me your hand."
Intrigued, I offered it to him. His palm liquefied. A tingle raced up my arm, crossed over my shoulder, shot into my spine and spread throughout my body. I felt a multitude of sensations all at once.
Feeling my form melt.
Feeling my form take shape again.
...and back again to myself.
Odo's hand regained solid form. He let go. "Did it work?"
I had to catch my breath. "Oh...oh my..." The experience was so overwhelming that I started to laugh and cry at the same time. "Odo, you are an amazing life form!"
He cocked his head. "Doctor Mora?"
"I'm all right." I wiped my face. How painful was it for Odo to grow up without the Great Link? To find it and be cast out? If the Link felt anything like...like that, then I can't imagine the isolation he must feel now. And soon, the baby Changeling would face that same loneliness.
If I could just ease it...
"Odo, may I try a little experiment?"
Odo shifted warily, "Such as?"
"I'd like your hand again. I want to try something."
He hesitated, sighed and reached for me. I placed my hand on his, unbothered by feeling it become gelatinous on my palm.
"I'm thinking of a nebula I saw...can you sense it at all?"
Odo realized what I sought. He closed his eyes, concentrating. Finally, he shook his head, and his hand reformed as he pulled it away. "It only seems to work one way."
"I suppose so. Worth trying, though, don't you think?"
Odo nodded, still looking a little put out. His eyes widened and he touched his chest. He waved me off before I became alarmed.
"The infant just discovered a new shape. I think it's...a sphere." He leaned forward. Then he tilted himself back, as though stretching. A look of wonder came over his face. "Yes, I can feel it roll. It's a sphere. It remembers!" That smile again, rare and wonderful.
I recalled the many days we spent with the baby Changeling before its apparent death in the Deep Space Nine laboratory. Odo wanted to encourage it without invasive procedures. He refused my help at first because he didn't understand that I had no idea he was a life form until I uncovered irrefutable proof. I could not convince him that I wasn't going to throw the baby Changeling into a cytoplasmic separator or spin it around in a centrifuge. Knowing we were dealing with another sentient life form the second time around meant a different approach. Odo wouldn't have it, and his ungratefulness angered me. We fought over the issue until we learned Starfleet wanted to intervene. Then I think he gained a better understanding of the situation I faced during the Occupation. Our combined efforts got a better response than either one of us working alone. The baby Changeling even formed a face with eyes to look at us; it chose to mimic Odo and tilted its 'head' as if it wanted to know more about him.
I realized his methods did carry some weight. The infant merely needed the encouragement to discover and use its abilities.
And the conversation we had after the infant reached out to Odo...we admitted our faults to each other. He said he appreciated me, and I told him he might not have such an irascible disposition if I hadn't ignorantly put him through so many painful procedures.
Our healing began there. I still struggled with another wound. One that never healed, and Odo accidentally jabbed it.
"How long since Leruu passed away?" Odo asked.
Hearing her name sent pain across my heart. I turned away from the emptiness trying to open inside me.
"Day after tomorrow will be seventeen years." I answered softly.
"Ah...I'm sorry. I was thinking about visiting her grave on your behalf."
"My parents and I did before I heard about the sick baby Changeling. But thank you all the same." I deflected the conversation by changing the subject. "Anyhow...tomorrow's scans should prove interesting."
The reminder snapped Odo's walls back up. He straightened and rubbed a hand down his face. "Yes, which reminds me...it's getting late. I need to regenerate. I apologize for keeping you up like this."
"Don't...it's all right. I was on my way out anyhow." I walked with him towards the door. "Aren't you going to the Infirmary? I thought Doctor Bashir wanted to monitor you overnight."
"No. I told Doctor Bashir that I'm tired of that biobed. I'll contact him if anything feels out of sorts."
"I see. Take care of yourself, then." I felt a little disappointed. Doctor Bashir and I got our best chemical readings when Odo rested. I stepped out into the corridor and glanced back at him.
Odo was rubbing his chest again. "Good night, Doctor Mora..." He smirked just a little, "from both of us."
I chuckled. "Good night, Odo."
I waited until the door hissed shut and returned to my guest quarters.
Doctor Bashir's scans confirmed Odo's suspicions. All three of us were presented with a sphere no bigger than a marble. Odo imitated a cough, which disturbed his chest cavity, and the infant immediately lost its shape. Odo looked proud when it reformed a sphere not two minutes later.
"So, you're more aware of its movements now?" asked Doctor Bashir.
"Constantly," Odo said. "Sometimes it's rather distracting."
"And how about the fatigue?"
Odo grunted. "It's manageable."
"Then I declare you fit for duty." The young doctor made a sweeping gesture with his tricorder.
"Good." Odo slid off the biobed and rolled his shoulders. "I'll be in my office."
Kira met Odo outside the door. They exchanged words. He whispered something in her ear. She smiled, patting his chest before she walked off. Odo touched that very spot as though her hand blessed him.
"Oh yeah, he has it bad," said Doctor Bashir.
I glanced at him. When I looked back at the doors, Odo was already gone.
"Yup. Definitely has it bad. Poor guy." Doctor Bashir focused on his console.
"He doesn't want to spoil his friendship with her. It's a noble thing to sacrifice your own heart to hold someone else's." I replied.
"Loving someone you can't have is akin to torture." He glanced up. "Are you married, Doctor Mora?"
"Widowed," I answered. "It's a very painful issue, so if you don't mind..."
"Oh...I'm so sorry."
I dismissed it. "My heart had its time in the sun. I have more pity for people who live loveless lives."
Doctor Bashir awkwardly scratched his cheek. All this talk about romance seemed to bother him. He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "So what did Starfleet want with you?"
"Oh, them." I looked at the screen where Odo's latest scans were displayed. "They're hounding me about my Changeling biofilter."
The young doctor sat down at his console to check his schedule. "Really?"
I folded my hands and regarded him. "Yes. Since I'm the most knowledgeable about shape shifters, they wanted me to come up with a means to alert them of a Changeling in their midst. I prefer something noninvasive and silent-- alerting us to its presence without letting it know we know. A biofilter that can pick out Changeling morphogenic enzymes could, in theory, work. No matter how skilled a Changeling is, they have those enzymes and they can be detected. The scan is completely harmless. It's just a matter of building sensors with the right capabilities."
"And they're getting impatient?"
My expression said it all.
Doctor Bashir made a face. "I'm not surprised. I heard they were all over Odo when he visited Earth. He still doesn't like to talk about it."
I felt a stab of anger in my abdomen. Deciding to ignore it, I calmed myself and said, "Odo asked me to take the baby once he gives birth. It's a wonderful twist of fate because I can test my filter on it since it won't harm it. The infant won't even know it was scanned."
"And that will be the only test I do unless it falls ill or willingly lets me experiment."
I could tell Doctor Bashir was disappointed by the news. Can anyone blame him? He opened a small beaker of acid and added it to a container full of purple jelly-like fluid. The thicker liquid bubbled. Doctor Bashir shook the jar until the mixture turned pale pink. He poured the mix into a hypospray capsule and slapped a label on the bottom.
I looked away to prevent him from seeing the guilt on my face. The experiments I ran on Odo before I knew...
The worst one: I tested acid on a few drops of 'the unknown sample' to see what it broke down into. That's how I discovered the DNA and realized the slime was a life form. When I returned the portion I'd tested, Odo made horrible, horrible sounds. I mistook is screams of pain for a chemical reaction and put him in the centrifuge to separate the acid from his cytoplasm. The Cardassians read my report within the hour. They demanded I find out more about this liquid life form. Weeks were spent nursing the damage caused by the acid. Odo healed, and his morphogenic properties were discovered soon after.
I still have nightmares about that scream. Odo forgave me for it, but I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself. Sometimes, I even suspect Odo's shape shifting abilities are limited because of the acid and not a lack of skill. Hopefully, time will prove me wrong.
"I'm sorry-- yes?"
"You looked troubled for a moment. Is something wrong?"
I shook my head. "Just a lot on my mind." I indicated young doctor's schedule. "I see the Infirmary is going to be busy in the next hour."
He eyed his PADD. "Ah, yes. Ensign Williams will be in for a checkup and Morn is...well he's Morn and insists I check on his foot."
"Then I'll leave you to it unless something comes up." I headed for the door. "Contact me if you need me."
No answer-- the young doctor already buried himself in a PADD. I left him to his devices and slipped into Quark's bar. Quark didn't notice my entrance. He was in a heated discussion with a familiar scarred Yridian.
Odo, to my surprise, was perched on a chair at a nearby table. I joined him.
"Investigating?" I asked.
"Biding my time." Odo replied.
"Ah. You're a little shiny right now, Odo. How are you feeling?"
He sighed, closing his eyes. "Like I've been holding this shape for far too long."
"You're probably due any day now." I moved closer. "You should rest."
Odo waved me off. "Later."
"Oh, and Doctor Mora?"
Turning, I regarded Odo.
"I know tomorrow will be difficult for you." He fixed me in his steady gaze. "If there is anything I can do..."
I avoided looking him in the eyes. "I just have to push through it, Odo."
Then I left him at the table and took the end stool by the bar, keeping myself out of conversational distance from the Yridian. Slek shot me dirty looks anyway. I ignored them.
Quark came my way, his smile as sharp as a backstabber's knife. "Ah, Doctor Mora, always a pleasure. What can I get you?"
I needed something with a bite. "Alderbaran whiskey."
"Can you afford that?"
"I wouldn't order it if I didn't come prepared to pay."
The Ferengi smirked. "One moment."
"Hey!" Slek grabbed Quark's arm, "So, when?"
"I'll contact you. I can't say more because..." Quark jerked his head slightly towards me. "...he'll talk."
"Make it soon." Slek said. Then he loomed behind my back, stared at me in a failed attempt at intimidation and continued towards the exit.
Odo received the same stare. He tightened his mouth, rose to his full height and frowned down his nose at the Yridian. Slek snorted at that. I watched him push past Odo and slip onto the Promenade. Odo all but smirked as he exchanged glances with Quark. He left not long afterward.
"Sheesh, he's finally leaving. I swear he's crankier now than he's ever been." Quark poured the bright green whiskey into a square shot glass. He set it upon the bar in front of me. "So, you raised Odo?"
"In a way," I replied.
"Was he always like that?"
I shook my head. "You can blame me for most of his disposition."
Quark sniffed, leaning against the bar. "Well, thanks a lot. He makes my job almost impossible."
"Mm, that's too bad." I slammed the drink back in one gulp. It practically burned my chest hairs, and I felt it pucker every muscle on my face. "Ohhh. Whew! Another, please."
He filled me up without question. "But it's always fun watching when someone else gets caught."
"Like those Yridians." I snorted. "Odo once mentioned you keep a betting pool."
"Looking to join?"
I shook my head. "Just curious about the odds."
Quark laughed. "Ninety percent say three days. I'm going to say one, and I can't tell you why right now."
"You Ferengi...heh, heh." I downed the second shot and felt the back of my throat go numb. My hands became comfortably warm. The sounds in the bar seemed to echo in my ears. I waved off another refill and paid for my drinks.
"Heading out already?"
"Not quite. I think I'll try a few games."
Quark's left ear twitched. He wiped down the bar. "Just don't scuffle with any more Yridians. They're good business."
"Oh, I'm sure."
"Yup. Oh. Here comes Morn, and that's 'his' spot. You might want to move."
Amused, I pushed myself up and moved aside. The large, silent Lurian occupied the stool I just vacated.
"I hope your foot is doing better," I said to him.
Morn glanced at me with a quick nod. I left him alone and looked around the active bar. Dread filled me at the thought of what tomorrow represented, and I was making every attempt to avoid facing it.
I sat down at a tongo table and completely cleaned everyone out. Then I lost all over half those winnings playing dabo. I spent the gold pressed latinum I still had on Alderbaran whiskey.
What a mistake...
I stepped out of Quark's bar feeling far too relaxed. The blood vibrated in my veins. Sounds stayed comfortably far away. Keeping my eyes focused proved to be too much work, and why bother when my brain didn't seem too keen on filtering visual details? Everything existed outside the invisible bubble surrounding me. It took concentration just to walk in a straight line. So much in fact that I sideswiped someone crossing my path.
"Oh, Doctor Mora!"
I squinted at the red uniform. "Ahh, Major Kira. Please excuse me, I...oh...I've had a little too much to drink tonight. How careless of me, eh?"
"It happens to all of us." Kira slipped her arm around me when I stumbled. "Here, mind if I help you to your quarters? You're a little lost. You just passed two turbolifts."
Sure enough, I did. How embarrassing! Yet her kindness touched me. "Thank you. I'm so sorry for the trouble. I hope I'm not slurring my speech."
"It's not too bad." Kira answered.
"I don't drink like this all the time. Just...once a year..." I let her guide me into the turbolift and told her the level number. "My wife's death anniversary is coming up tomorrow, and I suppose I'm trying to avoid it. She was pregnant and the child died with her."
"Oh..." Kira tightened her arm around me. "Doctor Mora, I'm so sorry."
"I'm no scientist right now. Call me Pol."
"Pol," she said gently. "It doesn't get easier, does it?"
I shook my head. The filter between my brain and mouth broke down somewhere between the bar and the turbolift. "You remind me of my Leruu...a strong woman who knows what she wants."
Her kind smile warmed my heart. Now that I could see her up close, I realized she was quite attractive. Odo had great taste in women!
"Why thank you," she said. "I'm honored."
"She had the best laugh," I went on, "Like the birds on a spring morning. Her eyes crinkled up and sparkled like deka leaves after rain. She loved to laugh, too. You always knew she was in a room when you heard that laughter. And on our wedding day...ahhh...I felt like the luckiest man on Bajor."
"She must have been someone special."
"Very special, yes." I sighed. The turbolift made my head swim. "Life without her...I still can't fathom it."
Kira edged closer to me and rubbed my shoulder. "I know. The empty chair, the silence...and little reminders that they existed. You think of something you want to show them and it hurts when you realize you can't. Kind of makes you want to pull yourself apart and scream, doesn't it?"
I glanced at her. She looked back at me. I knew, instantly, that she suffered many losses in her life. Her warm brown eyes hid years of pain. She bore it bravely. Only the strongest people carry a heavy heart continue fighting for freedom.
There was a kinship between us. An understanding. A bridge.
The turbolift stopped on my level. My intoxication peaked when the doors opened. Fortunately, I didn't drink enough to blank my memory. Unfortunately, my equilibrium completely ceased functioning.
Kira helped me off the floor as if nothing happened. "Which room number?"
Once I told her, she let me lean on her until we reached my guest quarters.
"Do me a favor...please don't tell Odo about this. I don't want him to worry about me."
"Okay. He won't hear about it from me." Kira sat me down on the bunk and helped me slip off my shoes. She brought me a glass of water from the replicator. "Will you be all right by yourself?"
I sipped the water and nodded my head. Not a wise idea-- I swore my brain sloshed behind my eyeballs. "I'm so sorry to take up your time."
"No, don't be." Kira leaned down and patted my hand. "I know what you're going through. You cope one day at a time." Straightening, she said, "You should try to sleep. Doctor Bashir will give you something for the hangover tomorrow."
"You're too kind." I replied.
Kira squeezed my shoulder and dimmed the lights before she left. I laid back on the bunk without undressing. My sleep that night was restless.
Deep Space Nine's computer woke me with a series of beeps. I stirred in my bed, dreading what was always a painful day for me. Seventeen years, and I still feel the sudden emptiness of that morning when I rolled over and realized Leruu wasn't breathing. The only comfort I had was knowing she died in my arms while we slept, and our unborn baby knew nothing but peace.
"May the Prophets hold you close, my darlings," I whispered into the darkness. The same words I said that morning. "I love you."
Then I wept to get it out of my system. Afterward, I cleaned up, filed my daily report to Starfleet and prepared to go about my day as normal. The aftereffects of last night's imbibing left me in a fog. I hardly noticed Doctor Bashir telling me about Odo's late night scans. My mind couldn't focus on anything beyond the ringing in my skull. Drinking like a teenager, how foolish! Yet I did it year after year...and I woke up miserable anyway.
The young doctor gave me something in a hypospray, and in seconds I felt reasonably better. Just in time for Odo to walk in.
"Now you'll see what I was talking about," said Doctor Bashir.
I chattered to Odo while I set up the biobed-- this took his attention away from the medical atmosphere-- and the holosuite program came up.
"It sounds like a nice program."
"Mm, yes." Odo hardly noticed my mentioning it. He seemed quite distracted. I observed how he tensed up while Doctor Bashir held a sensor near his chest.
I eyed him. "You're turning green."
Odo scoffed, shooting me a dirty look. "Nice try, Pol."
Hearing my given name gave me pause. The last time he used it was the night he left my lab for good. Now, he said it with a hint of a smile. No malice intended. I relaxed again.
Doctor Bashir interrupted us by clearing his throat. "Gentlemen, here is the latest on Junior."
The screen came to life, and Odo's eyes gleamed. We watched the baby Changeling form into a mound. Then it was a tentacle. It finally settled on a sphere.
"Oh..." Odo leaned forward. "It's grown since last night."
"Has it?" Doctor Bashir added that to his notes. "Does it still have noticeable regeneration periods?"
"Every three hours for thirty minutes."
Onscreen, the infant Changeling became a tentacle and slithered around the edges of its protective bubble like a curious child exploring its environment.
"Look at that," I whispered. "That must tickle."
"Yes." Odo looked down at his chest. "Heh, I guess reading you those detective novels was a bad idea. Sorry, you can't stage an escape just yet."
At that, the infant Changeling liquefied. I knew it wasn't really a response to Odo's words, yet the timing of it made me chuckle. Odo looked dangerously close to laughter himself.
Doctor Bashir joined our mirth. "Don't be too sure of that. It's taking up almost ninety percent of the pocket in its liquid state. The surface density of your chest cavity has increased by three percent as well." He met Odo's gaze. "You're fit for duty today, but try to take it easy."
"Hmph!" Odo stood up. "I'm not dying here."
Someone regenerated on the wrong side of the room this morning, I thought to myself as I watched Odo leave the Infirmary.
"Worst mood swing yet," Doctor Bashir remarked. "But, judging by the infant's size, it'll have to come out soon. If it grows any larger it will breach the pocket."
"Perhaps that will be the way it happens." I watched the shifting images on the monitor. "The only question remaining is the amount of warning we'll have before the birth."
"If we get any at all." Doctor Bashir folded his arms and stared at his PADD. "Let's hope he contacts us if anything feels different."
"I'm sure he will." I rubbed the side of my head. It still ached. "Blasted whiskey, it has a kick."
"Oh? Which kind?"
"Eugh, I could never stomach that."
"It's an acquired taste." I replicated a glass of water and gulped it down. Re-hydrating made the headache retreat to a small knot in the back of my skull. "Don't worry, I'll be back to a hundred percent in a short while. That hypo really helped. I do think I'll rest for awhile longer. Contact me if anything changes."
I left the Infirmary in silence.
Hours went by with no word from Odo.
Starfleet Command tried to reach me twice about my reports. Both times, I asked Doctor Bashir to head them off; I wanted to be fully focused on the fast-approaching birth of Odo's offspring. The young doctor dealt with Starfleet by claiming undue stress risked causing me a relapse. Starfleet wasn't pleased, but to my relief they complied.
With that weight off my mind, I decided to visit the Bajoran temple on the Promenade. I should be ashamed of myself for waiting so long, but too many issues came up.
Being alone with my thoughts meant staring into the chasm Leruu's death opened in my heart for the first time in seventeen years. Every year, I fled from it by burying myself in lab work and alcoholic drinks. Today, I had nowhere to run.
Grief and memories wracked my body. Her skin was so cold, her lips sickly blue...a shell devoid of its pagh. She became ill after a seemingly minor scrape on her foot became infected and spread pathogens straight to her heart. That last night, I told her we would see the doctor in the morning.
Oh, Leruu, my darling...I failed you.
"Bashir to Doctor Mora."
I opened my eyes and peered at the altar. Candles flickered all around me like stars. Deep Space Nine's temple wasn't as grand as those on Bajor. It felt sacrilegious enough seeing a Bajoran temple amidst Cardassian construction, yet I couldn't complain. The citizens here did the best they could.
Sniffling, I collected myself enough to reply. "Yes?"
"Odo is here. His physiology is showing definite changes. This might be it."
Light shone onto the void within my heart. Was this an answer from the Prophets?
I tapped my combadge after I exited the temple. "I'm on my way."
Then, I ran. The Infirmary doors opened when I reached them. There stood Odo, tall and imposing as ever.
"Odo!" I gasped, "I came as soon as I heard. How are you?"
Odo crossed his arms. His lower jaw jutted forward, telling me more about his condition than he cared to admit. Those icy blue eyes of his glanced my way. He grunted through the corner of his mouth. "I'm fine."
He wasn't fine. I know that stance, that set of his jaw and that tone of voice. He was in pain, and doing a decent job at hiding it from everyone but myself.
"The baby Changeling is putting pressure on the inside of its pocket." Doctor Bashir said. He showed me his medical tricorder screen. I saw the baby Changeling' tentacles denting the protective bubble, which had descended a small distance from its position between Odo's rudimentary lungs. It seemed restless with so little room to shape shift.
Doctor Bashir continued, "The extra mass he built up in his torso is pressing against the pocket. My guess is this will continue until the baby is forced out of his body."
I peered intently at the image. Odo's scans showed significant changes since he visited the Infirmary earlier. For one, the hollowed space within his chest appeared ten percent smaller. The density beneath the surface of his torso increased towards the air pocket. This thickening built up near his upper back and squeezed off his rudimentary lungs as it spread through his chest.
Odo's posture stiffened. The extra mass receded again like the sea before a tsunami. I could tell this taxed him.
"It stops when I resist it," he said, sounding nonchalant. "It's no different than fighting to hold my shape after the Founders made me sick."
Doctor Bashir closed his tricorder. "But you may not be able to resist it indefinitely. Odo, you're in labor, and I have no idea what effect it will have on your body. I suggest you relax and let us monitor you."
Odo allowed himself a fleeting smile. His eyes met mine.
"This is so exciting," I whispered. I took a step towards him-- I wanted to feel the life move in his chest one more time before he gave birth.
His combadge beeped. He tapped it and listened to an automated message.
"Activity detected in cargo bay four."
Doctor Bashir and I exchanged looks. Horror filled his eyes.
"I'm afraid I can't relax just yet." Odo regarded us. "I'm overseeing a sting operation."
I stared at Odo in shock. Did he honestly want to leave the medical bay and risk having the baby in front of his deputies? What was he thinking?
"In your condition?" I reached out. "I don't think that's wise."
Odo's brow wrinkled.
"Odo." Now Doctor Bashir wanted to try, "Let your deputies handle th-- "
"No! People will suspect something if I don't show up to assist." Odo backed away from us. One step. Two steps. "I'll be heading to my quarters once this situation is neutralized. If you two don't mind, I prefer to give birth in the privacy of my own space." He lowered his eyes and spoke almost to himself, "I won't have this event become a spectacle."
The selfish part of me wanted to grab Odo's shoulders and shake sense into him. What good was he to his deputies if something went wrong? He could be shot by phaser fire, or worse. The idea of losing yet another mother and unborn baby was unthinkable.
I tried again to reason with him. "Odo, please...we need to monitor y-- "
He pinned me with a look that put Tarkalean hawks to shame. "With all due respect, Doctor Mora, it is my body. I'll be fine. I've been holding it off for six hours. I can hold it off a while longer. Excuse me."
I felt the breeze of him brushing by me. Desperate, I called to him. "Wait!"
"No! Argh!" Suddenly, Odo jerked like someone struck him in the chest. He doubled forward. His hands grasped the computer panel, and his face became feral. The white stubs he passed off as teeth flashed when he snarled, "If you lay a hand on me, I will personally throw you both into a holding cell!"
"I don't want to go. I don't like Cardassians!"
"Odo'ital, you have to. This is the Cardassian High Command. They won't believe my report unless I show them the results once a month. Do you want them to take you away from me?"
"Then you need to do this for me. Please. Imitating their neck scales will impress them."
"They'll laugh. Cardassians always laugh at me."
"Cardassians laugh at everything."
"They laugh more at me."
"Please...for me? Not for them, but for me?"
"No! I said I don't WANT to!"
"Odo'ital! You WILL obey!"
"Fine! Fine! Here, here it is! Are you happy? Listen...they're laughing at me...listen to them laugh. Listen to it. Are you happy now?"
"Yes, you did well. Thank you."
My vision blurred. Odo looked as stricken now as he did back then. He suffered for years because of my ignorance. And other children...until he told me I had no idea he was bullied for being different. Chased, mocked, humiliated and assaulted. All my fault for not giving him choices.
Odo became the closest thing I had to a son once I realized his sentience. His presence gave me excuses to stay busy during Leruu's death anniversary. He was-- he still is my life. I taught him how to take humanoid shape. I taught him how to walk and talk. I taught him how to read and write. We worked together to seek his origins and his home. I watched him learn. I loved him with my whole heart.
And then I put him on display for a bunch of Cardassians.
Now, he stood before me in the grips of creation. I knew Odo wouldn't be able to give birth without completing the task he started, just like terminally ill people linger until they settle their final affairs. Preparations for both are much the same-- the body making itself ready to release something. Neither can take place without complete surrender.
I grasped Doctor Bashir's shoulder. There were no Cardassians to impress. This time, Odo called the shots.
"Doctor..." I said, "let him go. He's right. I took too many of his choices away. Let's not take this one away too." I looked into Odo's eyes. "Odo? Go, but be careful."
Gratefulness. He looked at me with gratefulness. A rarity from him. Then he was gone.
"Are you crazy?" Doctor Bashir rounded on me. "We can't just let him go like that!"
"We can. We did. He won't bring that baby into the world until he accomplishes his goal." I said back.
"How can you be certain? Didn't you see the scans?"
I leveled my gaze with the human's. "Did you see the look in his eyes? Did you see the fire there? This is Odo we're talking about. Everything has to be in order. He won't deliver until he is ready, and he won't be ready until he makes the arrest."
"I hope you're right, Doctor Mora. I hope you're right."
"He'll be fine."
"I'm tapping into his combadge to monitor him anyway." Doctor Bashir refocused on his tricorder. "Just in case."
Time began to pass.
I paced. Doctor Bashir tapped his foot. People walked past the Infirmary doors.
We both watched the readouts from Odo's body on the monitor. Six times now, we witnessed the density in his chest increasing. Each consecutive occurrence happened with more pressure and speed. This buildup touched the pocket the fifth time. On the sixth, it physically moved it before Odo forced the wave back.
Except, I realized, he wasn't quite able to fully normalize himself. His internal density remained elevated. He had just enough space to 'breathe.' And even that was shrinking.
"That's it." Doctor Bashir said. "I'm calling him back here."
"You can try, doctor."
I heard the response I expected. Odo barked a curt answer. What I didn't expect was Odo shutting off his combadge. There went our live readouts. Now we had no way to monitor him. Young doctors and young scientists-- why are they so impatient?
"Perfect," Doctor Bashir muttered. "Now what?"
I sighed, offering a silent prayer. "We wait."
"What if we aren't contacted in time?"
"Have faith, Doctor Bashir."
Doctor Bashir's brow knit. He walked in circles, his eyes rarely leaving the monitor screen. No doubt expecting the feed to suddenly come back online.
I took out my PADD and played a game of dom-jot. In science, patience is a virtue even while under pressure.
Exactly one hour later, Doctor Bashir's combadge beeped.
"Kira to Bashir."
"Kira!" Doctor Bashir nearly leapt through the ceiling! "Where is Odo? Is he all right?"
Kira replied, "He's fine. I'm with him. We're heading to his quarters."
I shot Doctor Bashir a knowing smile. He grinned back at me.
"Doctor Mora and I are on our way."
I don't think either of us stopped running until we reached the turbolift. On the way, I grabbed an empty salad bowl off a table in the Replimat. It was that or race back for a petri dish, and somehow I doubted Odo would appreciate seeing the infant in anything from a laboratory.
I barely caught my breath by the time we reached Odo's personal quarters. Doctor Bashir rang the chime. The door opened, allowing us entry. The lights were low and the temperature cooler. I saw Odo sitting on the floor. His legs were stretched out in front of him. He sat propped up from behind by Kira. She massaged his shoulders and let him know we arrived.
"Keep your voices low." She said, nodding to me. "He is starting the relaxation process."
My ears picked up the ocean waves and birth percussion. He chose the Bajoran way...but I could tell he still struggled against the pain. Delaying the birth must have put his body through a great deal of stress. Typical Odo, always doing things the hardest way possible.
Doctor Bashir replicated birthing scarves for himself and me. I slipped mine over my head and noticed Odo shape shifted his boots away. He loved to be barefoot before he left the lab for good. Seeing him that way again brought back fond memories.
"Look! Feet! I have feet!"
"Ah! Odo'ital, that's wonderful...now, can you wiggle your toes?"
"Ha-ha! You're doing better every day."
"Are you happy with that?"
"Yes. Very much."
I knelt by Odo's side. His eyes met mine.
"You had us worried." I said.
"Yes...I apologize for that." He quirked his mouth in a half-smile. "I caught the criminal I was after."
"Only you would arrest somebody while in labor." I chuckled, "Do you feel ready for this?"
Odo shifted his legs. His 'breath' came in short spurts and his face twisted. "I don't-- have much-- c-choice now."
Behind him, Kira whispered something and rubbed his shoulders.
"You're right about that." Doctor Bashir already had his medical tricorder out. He scanned Odo thoroughly. "Your body made some progress while you were gallivanting around in the cargo bay." He studied the readouts. "The pocket is five centimeters lower than it was before. Here comes a...I suppose I can call it a contraction."
I watched the density increase happen on the tricorder screen. The pressure forced the air out of Odo's air sacs, and he had to work harder to inhale. Odo looked like a man taking his dying breaths. Wrinkles formed on his brow. He writhed, groaning, and I felt his pain in my soul. I had to look away.
Oh, Prophets, please make this easier for him.
Kira murmured to Odo again. I focused on them together. The way she held him and spoke quietly into his ear reminded me of how I used to hold my wife. The role reversal amused me, yet the beauty of their togetherness warmed my heart. Odo really has grown so much since his days as a jar of liquid.
Whatever Kira said, it worked. Odo let his head fall back onto her shoulder. He slowed his breathing efforts. His expression still showed distress. He never was good at relaxing.
Doctor Bashir ran another tricorder sweep. He raised his eyebrows at Odo's discomfort. "I have painkillers on-hand."
Odo refused them for the infant Changeling's sake. The question never came up again.
"The extra mass is taking up twenty percent of his torso now." Doctor Bashir told me. "It's a good thing he finished that sting operation when he did."
"I concur." I nodded my acknowledgement and took Odo's hand in mine. He didn't pull away. I rubbed the pressure points in his palm that normally made a Bajoran mother's uterus contract better. It seemed silly once I realized what I was doing. Then I decided it didn't matter, maybe it would help Odo just the same. He wasn't objecting.
His hand felt unusually mushy under my fingers. I asked Doctor Bashir to scan Odo head to toe, and my findings were confirmed. Some of the extra density in his torso came from what he normally allotted to his limbs.
"This is an interesting pattern." Doctor Bashir whispered. "The density isn't receding like before, but getting thicker in gradual increments."
I looked at the screen again. The baby-- Kejal-- appeared intent on maintaining a spherical shape inside its safe little pocket, which was being overtaken by the growing thickness in Odo's chest wall.
"He stopped resisting it," I said to the young doctor. "Be sure you take chemical readings. I suspect you'll find high concentrations of morphogenic enzymes in his biomolecular structure...his body produces them when he changes shape, and he reabsorbs them again once he's finished the shift. Taking on difficult forms or excessive shape shifting means more enzyme production. They keep his morphogenic matrix malleable. He can't maintain a shape without them."
"That's what supposedly killed the baby Changeling before, isn't it?"
"Yes. The radiation rendered it unable to continue producing morphogenic enzymes, so it used them all up and died as a result. Or would have, if not for...this." I massaged Odo's hand again. No response from him, and I didn't expect one. I continued, "I've never seen Odo's system fully saturated before."
Doctor Bashir adjusted his tricorder settings. The glint in his eyes told me I was right. He smiled. "His enzyme levels are up fifty percent."
Fifty percent already? I tried not to appear too surprised. There was a chance, a small one, that an excess of morphogenic enzymes were just as dangerous as a lack of them. Odo's biomolecular structure never went through constant, prolonged stress like this before.
We'll wait and see. Odo, I trust you'll speak up if something goes wrong.
I continued applying pressure to Odo's palm with my thumb. "Keep monitoring it, doctor."
Doctor Bashir mumbled an acknowledgement and transferred his latest findings to his PADD.
Odo offered me his other hand. I rubbed it for him. We alternated hands a few times. Then I massaged them both simultaneously. Kira maintained her constant kneading of his shoulders and back. We smiled at our teamwork. It seemed to help Odo retreat into himself. The only tension in him was a wrinkle in his forehead. In time, even that smoothed away.
Amazing. I've never seen Odo look so peaceful.
My focus went to the lovely Bajoran woman behind him. Kira Nerys-- I saw everything so clearly by glancing at her face. She loved Odo as much as Odo loved her, and like him she didn't want to risk their friendship by confessing. They were so blind to each other, yet the obvious was there in how she held him, offered comfort and guided his relaxation through every single tightening.
Odo's hands almost turned into putty in mine. My thumbs distorted his knuckles, yet he pressed his palms against my fingers whenever I stopped massaging.
"You'll be all right," I whispered to him, but I don't think he heard me.
I leaned over to check the tricorder. The space in Odo's chest cavity was half its usual size. Incredible pressure squeezed the tiny air pocket surrounding the baby. Odo's 'lungs' continued to steadily inflate and deflate. Somehow, he figured out how to lower just the 'floor' of his upper torso. His air sacs expanded downward in a motion identical to diaphragmatic respiration. He timed his breaths to the birth percussion playing in the background. Whenever the gong sounded, he inhaled.
The pressure increased again. Odo let it empty his 'lungs' without the struggle he put up earlier. Stillness overcame him. He appeared dead-- head back and mouth open. A minute went by. One minute stretched into three minutes, and three minutes stretched into five. Details in Odo's fingers started to disappear. Fingernails first. The folds on his knuckles went next.
Kira looked up at me, alarmed. Odo suddenly inhaled again at the six minute mark. He resumed his slow, deep breaths as though the pause never happened. I saw Kira close her eyes in relief.
"That's normal?" she mouthed.
I nodded reassuringly. "His body did a little readjusting. He may do that a few more times."
Doctor Bashir squinted at the readouts. "I'm not sure I like the look of this. The pocket is exerting resistance against the growing density. It's going to make the process stall pretty soon."
I shook my head. "No. See how it's slowly wrapping around the pocket? Breaking it now might harm the baby."
"I'm not sure I'll even know if a complication is arising. This is so far out of my league..."
"He'll tell us." I said. "What are his enzyme levels?"
"Seventy percent," Doctor Bashir looked at me. "And still rising. His temperature is rising too."
I saw Odo furrow his brow. That became the only sign of the happenings inside his body. Kira helped him sit up a few centimeters higher. Odo flopped like a rubber marionette in her arms and she had to support his back with her body. He offered no resistance to the change in position.
I could not believe my eyes. Odo was relaxed. She successfully got him to relax!
"That's it," she whispered in his ear. "One contraction at a time."
"He's having a big one," said the young doctor. "I can't see the pocket anymore."
I watched a ripple move through the jelly-like thickness surrounding Odo's 'lungs'. Odo moved his head. Did he just burp?
"The pocket ruptured," he whispered.
I gave his hand a squeeze. "It won't be long now."
"Breach confirmed." Doctor Bashir took another tricorder reading. His frown dissipated. He nodded, showing me the screen. The baby Changeling now moved freely in a new hollow within Odo's chest cavity. It looked like a paramecium swimming in circles. The space surrounding it continued to shrink.
"There it is. Little Kejal," I said, grasping Doctor Bashir's arm. "It's so alive, doctor...it's so tiny and so alive."
"Doctor Mora? Are you all right?"
"Doctor Bashir, I've never felt better."
A growing ache filled my throat. My bottom lip quivered. Odo didn't know what a gift he bestowed on me. He was turning a day representing misery and darkness into joy and light. I wanted to hold him in my arms and never let him go. Instead, I kissed his hand. He chose Kira's arms, not mine, and I did not begrudge his decision. Just being there, watching him create life, was enough for me.
"Breathe, Odo," Kira whispered, still kneading his shoulders. "Stay relaxed."
"It...it's moving." Odo took a breath. "It's linked with me...I am telling it...not to be...fearful. Nerys, it isn't afraid."
"Good," she said, her hands now working on his upper arms. "You're doing fine. Take it slow. There's no hurry."
Doctor Bashir changed the settings on his tricorder. "Odo, do you know where it's going to emerge?"
"Don't worry about that." I showed him the bowl. "I brought a container."
"Shhh!" Kira hissed, shooting us both a glare.
Odo gasped twice and groaned. Vocalizations usually signaled a shift in the labor pattern-- for Bajoran women. I wasn't sure what it meant for him. He didn't look distressed.
"The density increase is accelerating," Doctor Bashir said to me, keeping his voice low. His lips twisted to the side. "I can't imagine this will take much longer."
"And the infant?"
He let me see the screen again. The baby Changeling remained active, although it no longer had the space to flit back and forth. Its edges blurred. I found it impossible to distinguish its life signs from Odo's.
"Enzyme levels?" I asked.
"Ninety percent and still climbing. His extremities are still heating up. Doctor Mora?"
"He's all right," I replied, pointing to the tricorder. "See? His limbs are getting warm, but his torso is staying cool."
Kira let her cheek rest against Odo's ear. She kept whispering too softly for anyone else to hear. He shifted his weight. She focused on massaging his sides.
The tricorder flashed red. Odo's morphogenic matrix was completely saturated by morphogenic enzymes. I held the bowl ready in case he liquefied. Odo remained solid, bringing me to the event horizon of how much I knew about his physiology. He licked his lips and rolled his head side to side on Kira's shoulder. No pain registered in his expression.
Doctor Bashir looked around the room. His eyes returned to the tricorder in his hand. He adjusted it twice and balked at the data.
"What?" I grasped Odo's hand again. Like holding a hot water bottle-- barely solid on the surface and completely liquid inside.
"Look at this." The young doctor showed me the chemical readouts of his latest scans. It was the most remarkable reading I've ever seen! Odo's morphogenic enzymes were being produced in such vast quantities that they bonded into a molecular structure akin to endorphins. Doctor Bashir told me as much.
I covered my mouth to keep myself quiet. This explained a great deal! Odo's serene expression, the total relaxation and the diminishing pain. He was ready to climb the walls when I first entered his quarters. Now, he almost appeared asleep. And the elevated temperature? His body's means of keeping its own surface solid! The utter simplicity nearly made me weep.
You are so remarkable, Odo. So remarkable!
"Keep scanning," I told Doctor Bashir.
"Will you two please whisper?" Kira hissed at us, her hands now on Odo's shoulders. "If he can make something similar to endorphins, then he'll stop if you don't quiet down."
My face heated and I ducked my head. She was right. "My apologies, Major."
Her sharp expression melted into a soft smile.
I looked guiltily at Doctor Bashir. He couldn't decide between focusing on Odo or his tricorder.
Odo opened his eyes. They were glazed. He made a small noise before his voice came out.
"Easy." Kira prevented him from undoing his own relaxation. "What is it?"
"Odo?" I leaned forward.
Odo stared off into space. "So close..."
I watched his eyes darken as his pupils dilated. His lips remained parted. It wouldn't surprise me if he was hallucinating something beautiful, and I didn't dare interrupt it by speaking to him.
I nudged Doctor Bashir. He smiled at me.
"I told you," I whispered, "He's fine."
Tricorder readings showed the infant Changeling just centimeters beneath Odo's chest wall. His body was creating a passageway. Pressure behind the baby kept it in a tube shape and slowly forced it forward. The surface density in Odo's chest plunged over the area of highest morphogenic enzyme concentration. His upper torso began to glisten and ripple.
My heart pounded. Kira hardly batted an eyelash at the change. Doctor Bashir nodded, looking pleased.
Odo grunted a few times. He let his head fall forward, inhaled and laid it back on Kira's shoulder again.
"It's right under the surface," Doctor Bashir said to Odo. "Odo, you're doing fantastically. Are you uh..." He checked the tricorder again, "...pushing?"
Somehow, Odo managed to glare. "No, my body is doing it on its own."
Kira soothed him by rubbing his sides. "That's it. Relax. Breathe."
Yes, Odo, stay out of your own way, I thought. If he started over-thinking now, he'd spoil everything.
"Mmh..." Odo settled against her again. He had this placid little smile on his face, and I saw Kira offering one right back.
I couldn't help myself-- I took out my holo-imager and snapped an image of them. I'm glad I did. Not a moment later, Odo spoke up.
"It's moving again." He blinked slowly, slurring his speech as if drunk. "It feels...I-I feel so good. Nerys, what is happening?"
Kira smoothed his hair with a pass of her hand. "You found your center. You're ready." She gave his upper arms a squeeze and began the midwife's part of the welcoming ritual. "Awake, child..."
And Odo spoke the mother's words, "...w-we await you with love..."
"...and welcome you into the world." I said the father's incantation.
I felt a hot lump in my throat. Odo's torso liquefied completely, maintaining only a vague semblance of form. His toes fanned out and his hands closed into fists. He grimaced, but I knew he wasn't suffering.
"Let it happen, Odo. Don't think." Kira whispered to him, her fingers stroking his brow. "Relax and let it happen."
Odo rested his head on Kira's shoulder again. His gaze met hers in a look of complete and utter love. His breathing accelerated, and his shoulders hunched. Kejal became visible for the first time while Odo stared deeply into Kira's eyes.
I took another holo-image. Odo was completely open. He tried to say something to Kira, but his voice wouldn't work. His toes started to curl and his fingers gripped at the floor beneath him. The only sound in the room became his ragged panting. Moments later, even that fell silent.
Doctor Bashir slid closer to me. He could scarcely hold the tricorder.
"It's about to happen, doctor," I covered the device with my fingers. "Witness with your eyes, not your machinery."
Kira touched my arm to get my attention. She understood.
Odo's eyelids fluttered. A look of utter peace fell across his features. Then, suddenly, he threw his head back, his lips opening in a soundless cry. Kejal emerged a millimeter at a time, its gelatinous body rippling. Kira whispered something in Odo's ear. Odo smiled so blissfully while Kejal was only halfway out. I had my holo-imager ready...and I now have that moment captured for all eternity: Odo grinning in the middle of giving birth, and Kira watching him in awe.
I didn't notice I forgot the bowl until Kejal fully separated from its mother. The baby Changeling piled into Odo's lap like gel squeezed out of a tube.
My vision blurred. I clasped both hands over my mouth. Odo...he brought Kejal into the world in one push, and he did it without pain!
For several seconds, Odo remained poised, gasping, overcome by the incredible miracle he created. His torso gradually returned to normal. He blinked twice, looking quite dazed.
Kejal hadn't moved since it separated from its mother. It, too, probably needed time to process its experience.
Kira gave Odo a slight shake. "Odo? Are you all right?"
Odo mouthed the affirmative with a nod. His fingers relaxed and his toes uncurled. He wiggled them as he peered at the pile of goo in his lap.
Kejal lifted part of itself towards Odo. The wondrous expression on Odo's face burned itself into my memory. He cupped his hands around the infant and lifted it off his lap. Kira leaned closer, her brown eyes glittering. She squeezed Odo's shoulders when the baby morphed its raised tentacle into a primitive copy of its mother's face.
Blinking, Odo lifted Kejal to eye level. Mother and child met, yet not for the first time...
"Hello," he whispered. Then he smiled, forgetting about everyone else in the room.
Kejal looked Odo straight in the eyes and smiled back. It tried to speak, but couldn't make a sound. Then it looked up at Kira. The infant briefly morphed her features as well. Moments later, it liquefied in Odo's hands.
And what used to be a day of misery for me changed forever. I leaned back, letting my joyful tears wash the desolation off my soul.
"Oh, Odo!" Kira cried, her voice trembling. "Congratulations!"
I patted Odo's arm. He looked dazedly at me, his eyes not quite focusing.
"That was the most fascinating thing I've ever seen in all my years as a scientist." I said to him.
Nodding, apparently at a loss for words, Odo gently placed Kejal in the bowl I brought with me.
Kejal wasn't inert like Odo had been when we first met. It bubbled and spread out like an amoeba to explore its new environment. I heard it making quiet noises. Chirps and whines. I remember Odo doing something similar before he took form. Changeling baby talk, perhaps?
Odo met my eyes. Mine were still watering. He gave me the briefest twitch of a smile before lowering his head for a moment's rest. I shed another happy tear for us both.
Not even Doctor Bashir was immune to the emotions of the moment. He blinked the excess moisture out of his eyes and took a careful tricorder reading. "It's healthy, if I compare its readings to Odo on a normal day." He smiled. "I think I agree with you, Doctor Mora. That was remarkable. How do you feel, Odo?"
Still shaken, Odo replied, "I'm-- fine. I'm fine."
I cradled the bowl, watching Kejal ripple. It filled the entire bottom of the container. By sight alone, I suspected it was about two hundred and fifty milliliters. A glance at Doctor Bashir's tricorder confirmed my visual assessment. Odo was exactly that size when he came into my care.
This truly is a new start.
I let Doctor Bashir take the bowl and run a few more health scans. In the meantime, I peered at Odo and Kira. They were on their feet now, standing close together and whispering quietly to each other.
"Nerys," Odo said, "Thank you...I-- "
"You're welcome, you did great." And I watched her take his hands. The gesture, or perhaps her smile, made him stop breathing for a split second. She said, "I should be thanking you for sharing this with me. Birth is a vulnerable time for anyone."
"I..." Odo looked down at his feet. He stammered, "I had a baby."
His feelings were so obvious. Couldn't she see it?
Kira giggled and squeezed his hands. "You sure did! It's a shame you want to keep it a secret."
He sighed. "I know. I have to until the war with the Dominion is over."
I saw her glance my way. "Doctor Mora will take good care of it. But, Odo...letting that baby go will be hard. It will hurt. Even though you're doing this to protect it."
Odo nodded. He made a noise like clearing his throat. Yes...finally...he was going to tell her!
Kejal made a groaning noise. Tentacles stretched towards Odo. I saw Doctor Bashir in the corner of my eye. Before I could move to stop him, he handed Kejal's bowl to Odo. Completely oblivious to the moment he interrupted!
"Odo, I think someone is looking for you."
"Oh." Odo accepted Kejal and his walls snapped back up like starship shields. A check on the tricorder showed his pseudo-endorphin levels were falling, which meant a return of his inhibitions.
I reached for the PADD I tucked into Doctor Bashir's medical bag and began typing out everything I witnessed for my personal notes.
"Life always prevails," I said to myself.
Weeks ago, this baby Changeling was dying, and today its rebirth proved us all wrong. Life finds a way.
"It's healthy as can be," Doctor Bashir confirmed my thoughts. "No instabilities." Then, to Kira, "And how is your postpartum period?"
She touched her abdomen and answered, "It's better than I thought."
A tiny tentacle startled her. Odo began to apologize. She waved him off and wiggled the finger that held Kejal's fascination. "I really think it'll choose to be a boy."
Some of Odo's old curiosity surfaced. He cocked his head. "What makes you say that?"
"It has a strong grip like Kirayoshi." She gave a contented sigh. "I should go. Everybody is going to wonder where I've been. Will you be all right?"
Odo looked between Doctor Bashir and I. Until then, I don't think he realized we were still there. I saw the sad realization on his face. Tomorrow, I would be leaving with Kejal while he stayed behind, empty-handed. He clearly was not all right.
"Yes, I'll be fine." He said.
"Good luck, Odo." She freed herself from the tentacles grasping her fingers, touched his arm and quietly left.
Odo watched her go. To the bowl, he muttered, "Someday, Kejal, you will understand what you just witnessed."
I let myself lean on him. His limbs didn't feel mushy anymore.
There was still a chance to get him to talk. I had to keep my question as impersonal as possible and hope he felt like elaborating.
"How are you feeling?"
"I feel just fine. No pain...no ill effects." Odo shrugged, his focus staying on Kejal. The baby Changeling's tentacles gripped his thumb and partly liquefied. Odo's thumb melted too. Glistening ripples passed between the points of contact.
A wayward tentacle touched my hand. It felt like warm, sticky putty, yet no residue remained when it slid across my palm. The tentacle turned fluid. My hand tingled, and I experienced a comfort unlike any I've ever known. It lasted until the writhing appendage re-congealed. Kejal had to be wondering why it couldn't link with me. And I realized I just felt the peace one only feels in the womb.
That must be what Odo misses the most.
Odo forgot himself for a moment or two as he watched Kejal interact with me. He started to smile until Doctor Bashir cleared his throat. His annoyed sigh said it all.
"Tell him to get his scans over with. I know he wants to."
Odo never changes. I laughed, beckoning Doctor Bashir over. Odo set Kejal's bowl down and lights from the tricorder sent flickering colors across his chest.
"It looked like it hurt when Kejal emerged," said the young doctor.
Turning, Odo regarded him coolly. "Actually..."
"Your eyes were rolling back-- "
"Doctor," Odo snapped.
Doctor Bashir peeled himself off his tricorder. He raised a brow. "Huh?"
"Ugh," Odo rolled his eyes, "Never mind."
Doctor Bashir finished taking his readings. An amused smile flitted over his lips. "Ah...anyway...your body absorbed the pocket. It looks like the density in your torso is still high, but I imagine it'll return to normal the next time you regenerate."
"Good. Is that all?"
Doctor Bashir's glanced at me. Then back at Odo. He asked, "Are you sure you want him to take Kejal? I'm sure we can set up a facility to raise it here."
Oh, Julian, you fool...why did you ask him that?
The young doctor meant well. I fully believe his intentions were to prevent the separation, however his poor choice of words opened the door into a supernova. I don't think he noticed Odo adding two inches to his height, but he certainly couldn't miss the fire in his eyes.
"Kejal will not be a lab rat living in a facility. Doctor Mora and I agreed-- Kejal is to be raised in a home, not experimented on in a laboratory." He growled. "It is going to be cared for, nurtured and allowed to grow up in a safe environment. Far away from proton decompilers, cytoplasmic separators, centrifuges and vacuum chambers."
Odo stepped forward during his tirade. Doctor Bashir paled and backed away. He looked at me. I held my hands up-- I did not want to be pulled into this. He put himself on the spot by setting Odo off!
Fortunately, Odo caught himself and stood down. He never liked people seeing his emotional outbursts. "I-I... thank you, doctor. You can go if you like. I'll contact you if anything goes wrong."
Doctor Bashir sagged in relief. He closed his tricorder and put it away. "Take care of yourself, Odo." He picked up his medical bag. "Doctor Mora?"
"I'll be right there." I said, giving the young doctor room to exit.
Odo visibly relaxed once Doctor Bashir left. He peered at the bowl. At what he once was before I came along...and probably recalling all the ways I hurt and helped him.
"Well, that was quite an experience." I said. "Kejal already has a head start thanks to you."
Odo avoided meeting my eyes. His hand went to his chest, which must have seemed so empty to him now. "Kejal won't begin the way I did-- alone, unaware of myself and my abilities."
I couldn't deny that. Kejal bubbled audibly in the bowl. No wonder I heard Odo laughing the other day. I've missed hearing his laughter...
"And how did it feel?"
"When you gave birth. How did it feel?"
My inquiry made him uncomfortable. I knew he wasn't in pain when Kejal left his body, and he knew that I knew.
Odo blinked, looking everywhere but at me until he found an answer. His face shone, a man screaming for faith in something higher than himself, yet unable to leap the barriers of his disbelief.
"Transformative," he said at last, "and I am the only one aware of it."
He reminded me of a pond after someone threw a pebble into the water. It looks no different on the surface once the ripples die away, but the landscape underneath is changed forever.
Shaking my head with a smile, I said, "It's a shame you aren't religious...experiences like that are special. Maybe it was the Prophets reaching out to you."
Kejal bubbled at us.
Odo smiled halfway. "Perhaps...but it could just as easily have been the pseudo-endorphins Doctor Bashir said I was producing." He shrugged his shoulders. "Major Kira is the reason the pain stopped. She helped me relax. She...can make anything negative become positive."
Major Kira again. I didn't miss how his eyes sparkled as he said her name. He really has come so far-- from a lost, confused being to someone hopelessly in love.
In all honesty, at the beginning, I didn't think he was capable of such deep emotions. Once, I believed his displays were him parroting what he saw and heard. I didn't realize my error until he understood the Cardassians ridiculed him. Before his realization, he greatly enjoyed showing off his shape shifting abilities. Then he started resenting it. And I was ignorant to it until he made it impossible not to see. The rage in his eyes on the night he left...he knew leaving would make me suffer.
The past is the past, and I learned from it. Kejal won't face its mother's misery.
My mind returned to the present. To the sight of Odo staring longingly at the doorway Kira went through.
"Are you ever going to say anything to her?"
Odo stiffened, grumbling low in his throat. Then he sighed. "I don't know, Doctor Mora."
Deep down, I hoped he would. I patted his shoulder and smiled at him. "Someday, then. Good night, Odo."
He nodded to me. I left him alone to bond with his newborn.
Sleep eluded me most of the night. I spent the sleepless hours going over the tricorder readings Doctor Bashir generously sent to me. We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I felt grateful to the human doctor for his attention to detail throughout the birth. I took great care to encrypt every piece of data. I didn't know Starfleet's plans in regards to the Founders, but I had a feeling I wouldn't like them.
Twice, I tried to lay down and rest. I only managed two hours before I gave up. My excitement proved too great.
I pulled out my old notes on Odo. Back from when I didn't understand him like I do now. In the beginning, he formed himself into a one hundred and eighty-three centimeter tall humanoid with the mind of a child. He took humanoid form to better understand the world around him. I thought I satiated that by giving him an education. We worked together to seek his origins. He asked me about emotions, and I was a fool. Oh, my own ignorance pains me...
I believed him to be a life form that only mimicked. Then I learned he was so much more. But for too long, I missed it. I missed the obvious.
"Why did water come from that man's eyes?"
"He was crying."
"Sadness. Sometimes it makes people cry."
"Can people get sad without crying?"
"Yes, they can, and they carry the deepest sadness."
"Why do people feel sad?"
And then, years later...
"I didn't like that party. Cardassians are idiots!"
"I know, Odo, but we've been over this matter. I have to show them your progress."
"When do I get a choice in this? Am I not a sentient being capable of making my own decisions?"
"Of course you are! But-- "
"'But' nothing. I am not your science fair freak. I am not a scapegoat for ridicule. Most of all, I am not a laboratory animal to be studied, poked and paraded around like a trophy. Starting now, I am taking charge of my life. I'm leaving."
"You can't be serious. Odo, you're so young!"
"I have never been more serious. I trusted you to protect me, and you let them humiliate me month after month."
"The parties are awful-- I admit that. But they are necessary. And if you think Cardassian parties are painful, then you have another thing coming. It's a dangerous universe out there. People won't understand you. People will fear you. I'm the only person you can trust!"
"Hmph. I don't need to trust anyone. Especially not YOU."
"I resent that...I really do."
"I did not bring you up to speak to me this way!"
"Oh, now you claim you 'brought me up?' I don't feel 'brought up' at all. Fathers don't experiment on their children, do they? I am not your son. I'm your specimen. Why listen to the specimen? It doesn't have feelings, it just mimics them. I heard you say that to Gul Dukat. Well, that's fine with me. I'm finished pretending for you or anyone. I'm hurt, and I won't put up with it a microsecond longer."
"We can work through th-- "
"They still call me Odo'ital. It is all I've ever been to you, isn't it?"
"You know full well that isn't true."
"Hah! This is useless. You're dying to test my emotional capacity, aren't you? Every new development sends you running for your scanners. You can't tell by looking? The way normal people see others?"
"Of course I can tell!"
"Liar. Tch, this is going nowhere. I'll see myself out."
"Odo, if you walk out that door..."
"What? You'll what? That's right. You can't stop me."
"Why are you doing this? Why are-- "
"Do my feelings matter to you?"
"I...oh, damn it, Odo, yes. Don't go. Think about what you're doing."
"I did, and I'm leaving. We're no closer to discovering my origins than we were when you first poured me into a petri dish! I'm better off alone."
"It's a big universe out there. Where are you going to start?"
"I'll figure it out. I'm sure I'll make more progress out there than I do here. How can we move forward when I have to drop everything and provide Cardassian entertainment?"
"You'll be lost without me."
"No. YOU are the one who will be lost without ME. And don't you ever forget it. Let's see how YOU find your way without your sideshow bucket of slime."
"Enough. I'm going now."
"You never answered my pleas, so why should I answer yours?"
"Grr...fine! Go ahead! Leave! You always had to do things the hard way! When you come oozing back to me, I'll remind you that I told you this would happen! Go on! Get out!"
"I won't be back. Mark my words, Pol."
I still remember that night like yesterday. Odo walked out into one of the worst storms to strike the continent. I can't say for certain how long he stood in the rain-- I honestly thought he would change his mind and come back into the lab. But he left, and his departure reopened the wounds of losing my wife and unborn child.
Looking back now, I think Odo did us both a service by leaving. He made a life for himself, one I never imagined him having. I loved him. I still love him, and I failed to show it when he needed it the most. I won't make that mistake with Kejal. Prophets strike me down if I fail again!
My combadge beeped. "The time is now oh-four-twenty. Your shuttle departs in forty minutes."
Sleep was definitely out of the question. I needed to be on the transport to Bajor by oh-five-hundred, but I wanted to stop by the temple one more time first.
Getting ready took only moments. I entered the temple, said a quick prayer and lit candles for my late wife and child. Then I ventured towards the docking ring.
"...I still think it'll choose to be a boy," Kira's voice filtered into the corridor.
"You sound so sure of that." Odo said in reply.
She asked, "How long until we find out if I'm right?"
"Ah...I don't know. I suppose we'll have to wait and see."
I could see Odo from my location at the end of the hallway. He chose a cremation urn to carry Kejal. Oh, the irony-- new life in a container for death. He cradled it so gently to his chest, the small silver oblong brilliant against his brown uniform.
Odo paced, gently rocking the urn in his arms like any infant. Kira walked with him. Her eyes were so kind, so understanding of his pain.
I couldn't delay any longer, so I approached as though just arriving. Odo noticed me and I didn't miss him pulling the urn closer to himself. Remarkable...he had true maternal instincts towards Kejal. I hated to take that baby. Even though he asked me to, I wished I could spare him the separation.
"Good morning, Doctor Mora." Odo said, sounding casual while looking anything but.
I smiled at his brave front. "Good morning, Odo." Then I regarded Kira, "Good morning, Major Kira."
"Doctor," she replied, dipping her head.
I respectfully returned the gesture. Each time I moved, Odo gave the slightest recoil. I can't blame him...I really can't.
"How did things go last night, Odo?"
Odo shrugged his shoulders at me. "We linked. Kejal can take on basic shapes, but needs practice holding them. Same as me at first. It's quite curious about the world and wants to try everything at once."
"I'll make sure it learns as much as possible." I winked. "But this time, no zapping."
"No zapping." Odo said, more to himself than me. His eyes focused on the tiny silver urn.
Kira eased into his personal space, and he didn't move away. Did she realize he let almost no one stand that near to him? That she had a privilege offered to very few besides herself? She rubbed his back while he pulled the urn closer and closed his eyes. His fingers curled against it.
"I love you," I heard him whisper to the urn. He looked over at Kira, his eyes large and pleading. Then he refocused on his precious cargo, stroking it with a shaking hand. "Someday, I will see you again. I promise, Kejal." His lips pulled in a grimace. "I promise."
The computer sounded off. "Shuttle three-one-two for Bajor now departing."
Odo's breath hitched. The only difference between his weeping and a humanoid's was the lack of sobbing and tears. Kira may have missed this little subtlety, but I did not.
My own eyes stung as I reached towards him. "It's time, Odo."
Somehow, Odo found the strength to stand up straight and let me take the urn out of his hands. Typical Odo-- a pillar in quicksand who flounders and falls, but never crumbles.
"Kejal enjoys being swirled in a bowl," he began, clearing his throat. "It likes to be poured into different shaped containers, too." He took another shaky breath. "Make sure you talk to it often so it gets to know your voice." Finally, he met my eyes. "And when the war is over, let it go if it wants to look for me."
Anything to make this easier for him...anything. I nodded and gave his arm a comforting squeeze. "I promise. I will do all of that." I promise not to make the same mistakes again...
"All right." Odo pulled his emotions back. Where did he find that power? Was it Kira, who stood loyally by his side in total understanding? Was it the hope of a future without experiments and suffering?
We stepped into the transport together. Odo was curt, as usual, and didn't stay once we were inside. At the door, he turned.
"Oh, and Doctor Mora?"
I looked over my shoulder. "Yes?"
Odo's eyes moved to the urn I carried. He shocked the life out of me with five simple words.
"Teach it about the Prophets."
Kira and I exchanged smiles. Odo wasn't religious himself, but he wanted his child to have everything he never did. How could I deny him that?
I nodded, leveling my eyes with Odo's. I wanted him to see my silent oath to grant his wish.
"Goodbye," Odo replied.
The transport doors slid shut. I glimpsed Odo's face in the airlock window. I saw everything but tears, and again I shed a few on his behalf.
I seated myself in the back of the transport ship. My only luggage was the travel jacket I wore, the reheat container, a few PADDS and the urn.
My stomach protested its neglect. I opened the reheat container and ate the last of the shrimp alfredo. It tasted fantastic, yet brought so little comfort. I set it aside after I finished and took the urn in my arms once again.
"Bless you," said another Bajoran traveler when he saw the urn. If only he knew.
I heard shuffling noises near the replicator station. An Andorian family slipped into the seats in front of me. Two parents and a young boy. I think the female was pregnant, but I dared not ask. Women are sensitive about such matters.
The child twisted in his seat. His antennae twitched when he saw me.
"Ohh, are you a shape shifter?"
"W-what?" Not the kind of question I expected! I laughed. "No, what makes you think that?"
He pointed to me. "You have hair like Security Chief Odo."
I ran a hand over my hair and smiled at the boy. "No...but I knew Odo when he was little. He copied my hairstyle."
"That's neat! What else can he t-- "
"Zhry'malath, don't bother the nice man," said the child's mother. She turned to me, her blue face gentle. "I'm sorry if he's troubling you."
I held up a hand. "He isn't, ma'am."
Then I sighed, watching the family whisper amongst themselves. The father reached across the boy's seat to slip his arm around the mother. He embraced his family as close in the physical realm as he did in his heart. Through the window beside them, I saw the rings and spires of Deep Space Nine retreating against the stars.
Deep Space Nine, a place of miracles, new beginnings and hope.
I closed my eyes to rest for just a moment, and before I knew it someone gently shook me awake.
"Sir?" The Andorian man said, "We've landed."
My goodness, that was more than a nap! I thanked him while I gathered up my belongings. The boy took the urn off my seat and handed it to me.
"Is someone special in there?" he asked.
I knelt to his level and nodded. "Yes. Someone very special."
"People are usually sad when somebody dies." The boy tilted his head.
I straightened, amused by his curiosity. "I was, once. Until a miracle happened."
My answer perplexed him. He raised both eyebrows and his antennae pointed two different directions. Then his mother took his hand. He still had wonder written all over his face when his parents ushered him off the ship. I didn't disembark myself until I made certain I was alone.
A transport vehicle waited outside to take me to my residence. Within the hour I walked into my home to a priority one message from Starfleet. I set my belongings down and accepted it.
"Doctor Mora," Admiral Strickler appeared. He seemed haggard from the lack of sleep.
"Admiral." I kept my tone cordial. "I'm sorry if I kept you waiting. I've almost fully recovered and I'll be able to get back to work on the-- "
"I'm pleased to hear of your recovery. However, after extensive discussion about your reports, I regret to inform you that Starfleet decided to go a different direction. They feel the sensors you proposed will be too expensive to produce and calibrate. It wouldn't be practical."
Why didn't I feel surprised? I only spent months in a sleep deprived haze, pouring out every ounce of Changeling information I had for their sake. No, I didn't feel surprised. Not a bit.
"Oh?" I hedged. "And what direction is that?"
"I can't disclose that information, Doctor Mora. I'm sorry." The Admiral kept his voice neutral.
I crossed my arms without disguising my annoyance. "How unfortunate. I do apologize for the inconvenient timing of my illness. I was told it happened due to overworking myself on your project."
Admiral Strickler pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "We've all been working too hard. I'm sorry this didn't pan out. Good luck, Doctor Mora. Thank you for your assistance."
"Mmhmm, good day." I ended the communication without a formal farewell. So...Starfleet chose another path? Fine with me. Let them miss out.
I reached for the urn. There were two panels on each side that, when depressed simultaneously, let me pull the urn apart in two pieces. Kejal burst free from its container and oozed into the oval of sunlight cast by my sitting room window. It spread itself out across the faint tea stain still present on the tiles.
"We're on my home planet, which is Bajor," I said, sitting down on the floor. "Your mother entrusted you to my care. No doubt he already explained it by linking with you, however he asked me to talk to you. I never talked to him at this stage in his life...and I should have. I made many mistakes back then, but this time everything will be different." I swirled my finger around in the goo puddle. "I don't know how much you comprehend right now, little one...but I'll make every effort to grant your mother's wishes."
No reaction to my voice or my touch. Kejal couldn't speak yet, obviously, but I was curious. Then I remembered how I convinced Odo to prove his sentience beyond all doubts.
I drew my hand back. "Kejal...if you understand what I'm saying, shape shift into a cube."
Fifteen minutes passed. Enough time for the sun's light to move off Kejal. Nothing happened-- perhaps it needed a reminder.
"Here, I'll help." I reached down and pushed the puddle into a vaguely square shape. "This is a square. A cube is a three dimensional representation of that. Take your time, Kejal...take your time."
Then I let the infant rest while I put my travel supplies away. The moment my back was turned, I heard a familiar wet swishing sound. I looked over my shoulder and smiled at the tiny cube sitting once again in the sunlight.
Ten years later...
I awoke at the scent of freshly brewed deka tea. Darkness blanketed my bedroom. I rolled onto my back with a yawn.
Today was a day of dread and rejoicing. The Dominion War ended eight years ago. It took this long for peace to establish itself. Cardassia is still recovering, as are many other worlds damaged by the Founders. However, wormhole travel was declared safe again, which meant keeping my promise to Odo.
I shuffled sleepily into my sitting room as the growing dawn spilled into the large window across the room. An oval of light illuminated the golden puddle on the floor by my favorite chair. I watched the living goo rise like a sapling from soil. Limbs sprouted off its central column. More details appeared-- long fingers, smooth skin and an earthy green Bajoran uniform. Finally, I made out the slicked back hairstyle and seemingly unfinished facial features. The figure looked almost exactly like Odo, and easily could have passed as him if it weren't for the brown eyes and auburn hair.
Not a morning went by without Kejal worshiping the sun's first rays. He never missed it-- not even when it rained.
"Good morning, father." He looked over his shoulder at me. "I made your tea."
His voice was light and pure-- he sounded nothing like his mother. Oh, he could imitate that gruff tone perfectly whenever he wanted, but he rarely did.
An achy lump swelled in my throat. I picked up my mug and drank the hot tanginess. "Thank you, Kejal."
"Father?" Kejal tilted his head at me.
"Don't mind me," I said. "I'm just a sentimental old man."
He crossed his arms and leaned back on his heels. His eyes sized me up.
"You don't have to hide it from me. I know this is a hard day for you."
I put my mug down and reached out. Kejal sat beside me on the chair that barely accommodated both of us and wrapped his arms around my shoulders.
"Was it all worth it?"
I smoothed his hair. It felt as real as mine, something Odo never quite managed. "Yes. Without a doubt, Kejal."
Kejal let his chin rest on top of my head. We watched our last sunrise together. Bajor came to life again under its golden brilliance. A new day. A new start.
"I better go tend the garden," said Kejal.
"I can take care of that."
He chuckled, "But I want to say goodbye to the garden before you move all the rocks around."
I laughed and let him go. Kejal loved gardening. More often than not he prayed to the Prophets while he doted over his carefully cultivated handiwork. Just then, I heard him singing prayers outside the window. His voice rose and fell like the chanting Vedeks of the Janalan Order.
A particular line he sang, roughly translated, "...and be my health and light, let me be within your sight..." brought back memories I wished to forget.
Years ago, Kejal fell ill with the morphogenic virus that nearly killed off the Founders. He was born infected, unknown to us all, and I learned it had been Starfleet's plan all along. They didn't want a biofilter-- they wanted an eradication. And they used my research!
Changelings are basically giant puddles of cytosol. Their DNA is purely mitochondrial, and their bodies protect it by walling it off into individual cells when they shape shift. As the cells form or dissolve, free-roaming ribosomes bond together to become the morphogenic enzymes that help organize a Changeling's biomolecular structure and guard its DNA until the shift or reversion completes. If a Changeling takes a form smaller than its mass, the enzymes activate its morphogenic matrix to shunt the excess mass into a self-created subspace pocket. And if a Changeling shape shifts into something larger than itself, it seems to pull mass out of the environment-- oxygen, in most cases. Without the morphogenic enzymes to keep its morphogenic matrix and biomolecular structure stable, a Changeling's DNA breaks down until it can no longer sustain life.
The virus did its damage via lysis. Each time a Changeling shape shifted, the viruses invaded its newly formed cells, forcing them to burst open and produce proteins that attached to the ribosomes, inhibiting their ability to bond into morphogenic enzymes. Over time the process caused significant impairments in a Changeling's ability to shape shift until, after one last transformation, the Changeling found itself unable to revert into a liquid state.
Changelings need to regenerate in their natural form-- it's the only time their DNA can repair itself, since some of it does suffer minor damage during the process of shape shifting. I found that out after studying Odo's bioscans during and after his pregnancy. Kejal's presence inhibited Odo's upper torso from shape shifting to prevent premature collapse of the air pocket and exposing him to a Link too soon. Each time Odo regenerated while pregnant, morphogenic enzymes flowed into the portion of his body that stayed solid and bathed his DNA strands to prevent breakdown. The enzymes also attached to Kejal's air pocket and filtered through in greater and greater quantities as Kejal grew. After the birth, Odo's body had a surplus of morphogenic enzymes as the pseudo-endorphins broke down, and it took him a year to fully reabsorb them. During the birth, Kejal also experienced the pseudo-endorphins and their breakdown, but the effects on him lasted far longer than they did for Odo. He was a very calm, cooperative and happy baby Changeling.
Doctor Bashir and I crunched numbers and came to a frightening conclusion-- without the excess morphogenic enzymes, the labor and delivery would have triggered the virus and resulted in the deaths of both Odo and Kejal within hours. The thought made me shudder.
Kejal showed signs of infection one month after taking humanoid form for the first time. We had no idea of its seriousness until Doctor Bashir contacted me about Odo.
Then I had to watch helplessly as Kejal, my son, grew worse and worse. The sickness rendered him unrecognizable. He spent many days cradled in my arms, his skin crumbling and his voice deliriously calling out to his mother. His cries became croaks, and his croaks were soon whispers. I brought my lab equipment into my home and sat by the oval window. I held Kejal close to my chest while I sought a remedy. He said he found comfort in hearing my heartbeat.
Doctor Bashir located the cure first, and wouldn't tell me how he obtained it when he sent me the instructions to produce it. He claimed I didn't want to know how he got a hold of the information. I refrained from asking questions. All I wanted was to make Kejal's pain stop. He was sicker than Odo, I later found out, and the cure nearly killed him.
Kejal wasn't the same for almost a year. But time heals many things-- including Changelings. He walked for the first time since his collapse on the same day the Dominion War ended. We knelt at my shrine together and gave thanks to the Prophets.
I expected to hear an all clear from Odo at the war's conclusion. Instead, Colonel Kira Nerys informed me of Odo's departure to the Great Link. I asked her whether or not she knew about Odo's feelings for her, and her teary smile said it all.
And finally, at sunrise yesterday, a Federation broadcast proclaimed safety for all. No more Dominion forces near the wormhole. Which led to me sitting in the morning gleam, watching Kejal say farewell to the garden he spent nine years nurturing. Each shrub, tree, flower and root had its own place, and woe to anyone who knocked a single rock out of alignment.
The knee-high deka sapling he planted seven years previous stood twice the height of my home. That tall, bushy tree with its drooping branches that almost kissed the ground provided my morning tea for countless days. Kejal loved the color of its narrow leaves so much he made his clothing match.
Sometimes, I suspect Kejal's gardening skills came from shape shifting every single object he tended. He had an understanding of nature that even I couldn't wholly comprehend-- and he tried to explain it to me.
"Trees are just...life. They conduits for the love between sky and soil. I love being a tree...I hope the Great Link feels the same way."
I finished my tea and changed out of my bedclothes. As I moved to put my tea mug away, I noticed Kejal left extensive instructions for taking care of his garden. He included where to start when pulling weeds, which direction to pour the water and the specific prayer-songs he sang over each plant. There was even a map indicating where every rock belonged. So orderly, and so like him.
Laughing, I stepped outside and found two deka trees enjoying the sun. One swished its branches on its own. The other only responded to the wind. The real deka tree began its spring bloom early last week. Kejal always got excited about this. He brought a cluster of its first star-shaped blossoms inside and set them in a vase. The pearlescent petals glistened in the morning light.
I don't think the finality struck Kejal until regained his humanoid shape and touched his deka tree. A breeze rustled the leaves.
"I'll miss you too, old friend." He whispered, caressing the smooth bark with his fingertips. "Take care of father on my behalf, all right?" Then he turned to me. "It's time."
Together, we stopped by Leruu's grave. It had two names: Mora Leruu and Mora Olan. She was sure she carried a boy, so I memorialized our child with the given name she had chosen.
I glanced at Kejal, knelt down and ran my hand across the grass. Just like I used to smooth her hair.
"I did it, my dear," I whispered. "I raised a wonderful son just like you wanted. Now he's ready to move on. Are you proud, my love? Did I do well?"
Wind stirred the surrounding foliage. A leaf off a nearby tree blew against my face. A kiss from my beloved. I smiled, pressed my lips to the leaf and laid it on her grave.
Kejal sat beside me. "Wherever she is, she is smiling back at you right now."
"She has every reason to. Because of you, I granted her wish to see me father a child. Just not in the way either of us expected." I sighed. "Looking back now, I believe she had something to do with it. Heh-heh...she could sweet-talk Cardassians into giving us extra rations and medicine with incredible ease."
He gazed longingly at the memorial arch. "I wish I could have met her. She sounds like an amazing person."
"She was, and she would have adored you." I said, bumping my shoulder into his. "Ready?"
Kejal nodded and helped me up. To the grave, he said, "Goodbye, step-mother."
We traveled to the space port where a private shuttlecraft waited for us. I let the guard scan my flight permit. He waved us aboard. I went over the pre-launch protocols. All systems were ready for takeoff.
A woman hailed my communications console. "Clear to launch."
Kejal responded, "Acknowledged."
"Kejal, close your eyes."
"All right." He said, closing his eyes.
I took the shuttle into orbit. The blue-green sky appeared darker and darker until the atmosphere was just a memory at my back. Blackness filled the viewscreen.
This was Kejal's first voyage into space. Being a Changeling meant living a relatively sheltered life because of the Dominion threat. Kejal didn't mind that at all. Simple things made him happy. I taught him everything I know. We went to the Temple once a week, and he never failed to walk out with new, interesting questions for me. He had friends, many of whom he said goodbye to yesterday. Today, he got to behold something he dreamed about most of his life.
"You may open your eyes," I said, bringing the shuttle around.
Bajor floated like an aquamarine bauble in a black sea. Its five moons were all visible. The sun was on our left, making the oceans glisten.
Kejal covered his mouth and stared. Only the tears were missing.
"It's...so beautiful!" He gasped. "Father..."
"Happy birthday," I said.
"It's a human tradition. They celebrate the anniversary of their births. People give gifts to the person whose birthday is being acknowledged. I saw you born ten years ago today. This look at Bajor is my gift to you."
Kejal's grin could light a solar system. "Thank you."
I thought back to all the mornings I woke up sobbing. Then Kejal came along. He was born on the seventeenth anniversary of Leruu's death. That date used to fill my head with death and despair. Now, I can remember it with life and hope.
Kejal's birth healed my soul.
My hands flitted across the ship's controls. The journey to the wormhole took approximately five hours. We approached the familiar ringed structure of Deep Space Nine.
"We're being hailed," Kejal said
I replied, "Onscreen."
A handsome young Andorian in a brown security uniform appeared on the viewscreen. He gave us a stern look, yet his eyes twinkled with mischief.
"This is Malath, Chief of Security. Kejal, you're under arrest."
"You!" Kejal laughed and folded his arms, "For what charge?"
Malath's antennae twitched. "Waking me up this early to see you off."
"Your need for sleep isn't my problem," Kejal retorted playfully.
Finally, Malath cracked a smile that took years off his already youthful face. "Your need to go home is my problem. Don't you know it's impossible to find anybody decent at computerized dom-jot? I'm going to have trouble looking busy."
"You'll find someone else to clobber you at every game." Kejal laid his hands in his lap and sighed. "It just won't be me anymore, that's all."
"It won't be the same without the taunting." Malath shook his head. He smirked, twitching his antennae. "Have a safe trip, Kejal..."
"I will, but you better keep that station in order." Kejal replied, smirking right back.
Malath looked down his nose and tightened his mouth. For someone so easygoing, he appeared quite intimidating. "Oh, don't you worry, you clumsy little jelly doughnut. I run a tight station."
Kejal smiled with hints of sadness. "I can't wait to tell mother that a blueberry pie is running the station."
"Hah!" The Andorian snickered. "You win. Goodbye, my friend, and good luck."
Malath's image vanished, replaced with an expanse of stars. Kejal twiddled his thumbs and glanced at Deep Space Nine. From our vantage point it resembled a child's toy rotating in the blackness.
Kejal grimaced. "This is harder than I thought."
"Goodbyes are never easy. Not even the happy ones." I set the shuttle on a course for the wormhole. "But it is a good thing when they hurt. It means you care enough about the person to miss them."
"Mother never said goodbye to you before he left for the Great Link."
My lips twitched in a smile. "He's not the type for sentimental goodbyes, Kejal."
"I remember him saying goodbye to me." Kejal said softly.
"His relationship with me has always been on shaky ground. I don't begrudge him for it."
The truth is, Odo did say goodbye to me in his own way. I simply didn't realize it at the time. Two days after Kira informed me of his permanent departure, I received a coded subspace message.
I'm sending this to say thank you, and I hope Kejal's early years are happier than mine. My greatest regret is leaving your lab in anguish, and my greatest hope is the day Kejal strikes out on his own is a day of joy for you, not anger. Good luck, Doctor Mora.
I eased the shuttle around the pre-programmed flight course. It took us over the station once known as Terok Nor and lined us up to trigger the wormhole.
"Wasn't he found in this area?" Kejal asked.
"Right over there." I pointed to the swath of stellar gas floating far behind Deep Space Nine. "He was as tiny as you were."
Kejal whispered prayers in that direction. He did it again when the wormhole opened like a flower to let us through. I didn't miss him leaning forward, no doubt hoping to glimpse the Prophets. His childlike wonder never failed to warm my heart. And I admit it-- I also looked a little closer at the viewscreen until the shimmering blue swirls of the wormhole gave way to space once again.
The ship's computer switched star charts and recalibrated its position in the galaxy. I double checked the coordinates Kira gave me.
"It's hard to comprehend the vastness of space," said Kejal. "Bajor seems so small compared to this."
I typed in the coordinates to the Founders' planet and let the autopilot take over. The ship started forward at one quarter impulse. "We are mere subatomic particles in comparison to the universe. Moons orbit planets. Planets orbit stars. Some stars orbit each other. All stars orbit their galactic center. Galaxies move around in clusters. Galaxy clusters move around in vast supercluster filaments."
Kejal stared out the window. Taking it all in.
I nudged him with my elbow. "Didn't you say you wanted to be an asteroid just once?"
His eyes lit up. Five minutes later, there was a small asteroid orbiting the shuttlecraft. The shuttle's mass kept him tethered in place. He stayed outside for hours. I didn't call him back in until I prepared to take the shuttle into warp.
"It felt amazing!" Kejal couldn't stop chattering, "The stars are like trees, but too far away to feel, and the coldness of space itself swallows you up...and it's so quiet. Your own thoughts echo. It gets pretty lonely out there."
Kejal's enthusiasm sent bittersweet feelings through my heart. He reminded me so much of Odo in the earliest days, and my failure squashed it. I'm so grateful to the Prophets and to Odo for granting me this second chance. I did it right this time. I have no regrets.
An alarm sounded.
"Warning! External radiation levels exceed safe warping parameters."
The shuttle dropped out of warp. We were traveling within ten thousand kilometers of a new supernova. The newborn pulsar spun like a lighthouse, its deadly electromagnetic beam striking the shuttle's shields twenty six times per second. Intense heat buffeted us, setting off more alarms. The shuttle's shielding required swift adjustments to protect us from the onslaught of ionized particles. Kejal impressed me by managing the shields without my input, and we escaped the pulsar's beam within minutes.
"The radiation is still high. That shockwave is too close," he told me. "I'm going to keep calibrating. Computer, locate the source."
The viewscreen showed a luminous fast-moving gas cloud fanned into ripples by the interior pulsar. Sensors detected an abundance of hydrogen, helium and many other heavy elements. The building blocks for future worlds.
"Warning!" The computer cut in. "Shockwave impact in three minutes and twenty seconds."
"It's a type two!" Kejal's hands danced across the touchpad control panel. "I'm setting in a course to detour around that mess. Wow! That explosion can't be more than two hours old!"
I reported the supernova to Deep Space Nine. We became the first to discover it, so when asked to name it, I smiled. Future star charts will call this area Kejal's Nebula.
"How about that?" I winked at him. "Your first time in space and you get a supernova named after you."
Kejal laughed at that. The course he laid in took us out of the danger zone, where it was once again safe to put the ship into warp.
Several hours passed. I took over monitoring the computer while Kejal regenerated. He regained his humanoid shape mere seconds before the ship slowed to impulse and a tiny red dwarf appeared on the viewscreen. My eyelids stung. I managed to control myself until the shuttle fell into orbit around the tan, dim world. From the edge of my vision I noticed Kejal closing his eyes. He tilted his head as if standing under his deka tree on Bajor.
"Home," he whispered. "I sense it...I'm home."
The first real tear slipped down my cheek. I brushed it off. Another took its place.
"Father?" Kejal was at my side. "Oh...I know..." He clutched me to his chest the way I so often did for him. "I wish you could come with me."
I touched the back of his head and stood up to properly embrace him. "So do I."
He wiped my tears away. His face bore the same stricken look as mine. "Maybe we'll be able to visit," he said, trying to ease my suffering.
I managed a shaky smile. We both knew that was almost impossible.
The ship's computer emitted a tone. "Optimal altitude achieved."
My fingers gripped Kejal's shirt. He leaned down and let his forehead rest against mine. His hands cupped the sides of my head. I felt his fingers liquefy, and I experienced his ten years of love, joy and discovery. I sensed the peace he gained from the deka tree. I floated on the elation he found in gardening. I witnessed his love for me. And I saw how much he loved the mother he hadn't seen since his birth.
"Thank you for everything. I know it wasn't always easy." Kejal whispered. He reformed his hands and kissed my brow. "I love you."
"I love you, too." I pressed him a little closer to myself. My lips quivered and fresh tears began flowing. I spoke into his ear. "You made my life complete, Kejal. You really did. Thank you."
Kejal leaned back, lifting me almost a meter off the ground. I'd forgotten how strong he could be. The pain behind my sternum became a sugary-sweet tickle. I laughed despite the wet streaks on my cheeks.
"That's how I want to remember you," he said. "Laughing."
I sniffed and wiped my face. "And how do you want to be remembered?"
He glistened and turned into the deka tree. Long, leafy limbs bent to surround me while I leaned on its strong trunk. Then the tree became Kejal again. He released me, but I continued the embrace.
It was time. I needed to find the will to make my arms let Kejal go.
"You'll be all right," I whispered.
Right then, I wanted to say no. I never anticipated this moment being so difficult.
"I'll be fine." I lifted my hands off Kejal's shoulders and opened the cargo bay doors. "Run along, now...your mother is waiting."
The wind ruffled his hair. He looked me in the eyes. "Goodbye, father."
Everything knotted in my chest like a fist. I breathed in and forced the words out. "Goodbye, son."
Kejal smiled at me. Somehow, I smiled back. Then his form liquefied as he took a fearless running leap out the cargo bay doors. I heard the faint screech of a Tarkalean hawk echo through the clouds just before the doors closed again.
And I stood alone, staring at the wall in disbelief. He'd leapt into freedom without looking back.
Something made the shuttle shake. I felt it losing altitude. I raced to the controls seconds before it leveled out again. The viewscreen came on by itself. My heart nearly stopped. Deka trees were appearing over the whole of the planet. There had to be hundreds! Two formed beside the only visible landmass. Their branches intermingled and swayed, and I knew I just saw Odo and Kejal waving goodbye to me. That image stayed in my mind as I left the planet's atmosphere.
Suddenly, the shuttle felt overwhelmingly desolate. Kejal's laughter echoed in the walls and didn't fade until the red dwarf no longer registered on the ship's rear sensors.
I slept so I wouldn't weep. I was a lone dust particle looking for someplace to settle.
After landing on Bajor again, I walked into my silent, empty house.
The sun rose without Kejal welcoming its radiance. Its first rays fell on the series of holo-images I took during his birth. Putting them out seemed right after the war ended. I sat down in the oval of sunlight on the floor. There, I let myself sob. They were the tears of a selfish man who missed his child. I had to remove the sorrow to make room for the joy. Then the selfishness passed. I thanked the Prophets for giving me such a wonderful decade.
I poured out my whole heart when I fathered Kejal. I loved my boy-- I'll always love him. And how can I mourn his leaving when he was back within the womb he came from? Many times he talked about his life inside Odo's body, and he often said wars wouldn't exist if everyone knew that peace.
Right now, somewhere far away, Odo and Kejal are still embracing. Someday, Leruu, Olan and I will be reunited just like that.
I made myself a mug of deka tea and slipped outside to sit beneath Kejal's tree. Its shadow swallowed mine and its rubbery bark was smooth under my palm. Deka trees are the strongest plant on Bajor. Known to bend, but never break. In the wild they often form gnarled arches and spirals because of the wind. They must be carefully tended as saplings to grow up straight and tall.
For many years, Kejal guided this tree's growth. He cared for it until it stood on its own and became the garden's prized centerpiece. Its long, sinewy boughs creaked in the gentle breeze. Laughter and echoes danced through the leaves. Spots of sunlight flickered across my skin. Every branch swayed above my head, filling my mind with stories of the past. In the autumn, Kejal liked to climb among the branches and drop its bright orange seed pods on my head when I passed underneath. Deka seed pods are flat, lightweight and round. They don't hurt, but they make quite a crack when they bounce off someone's skull. Another prank I'll miss is finding seed pods in my shoes or floating in my morning tea. Each recollection made me chuckle.
I nurtured the hands that cultivated this magnificent tree. Everything I put into Kejal went towards it. I felt its lowest branch touch my arm like an old friend saying hello. Its leaves whispered around me, a sparkling green ocean stirring the sky. Above me, the heavens held the world in a perpetual embrace. Trees are the bridge between them.
Now it all made sense.
"Ah, Kejal...I understand!" I said to the wind.
Healing love radiated down my spine until I had no more room for sadness. Happy tears welled in my eyes. I sipped my tea, leaned my head back and smiled as Kejal's tree took care of me.