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This novelization was written out of appreciation for the episode it was based on, and the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. No infringement of any of Paramount's copyrights is intended.


The Alternate

Novelization by Tracy Hemenover
From the teleplay by Bill Dial; story by Jim Trombetta and Bill Dial


Prologue

A pail sat in a corner of a darkened room.

Inside it, something moved, like thick golden honey stirred by an invisible spoon. Abruptly, it bulged upward, narrowed, and arced high over the side of the pail and onto the floor. It collected there, and built itself up into a column. Two arms, two legs, a torso, and a head formed and solidified.

Odo gave himself a cursory glance in the mirror: proportions, correct; clothing, fine; face, good enough. Then he left the room.

It was early morning on this side of Bajor. At this hour, not many scientists had yet arrived for another day at the research center. Odo passed one, who murmured a hurried greeting as she sped somewhere with a report. And a slightly grizzled Cardassian who broke into a broad smile at the sight of him.

"Ah, Odo. They tell me you performed very well last night."

"Good morning, Glinn Yensa," Odo forced out of himself. Though it had been relatively easy learning to speak, he still couldn't seem to smooth out the gravelly growl that was the best he could do for a voice. It made him sound surly, even when he was trying to be polite.

Fortunately, Yensa was used to it, and had mellowed quite a bit over the years. "One of the guls was even overheard saying you should be entertaining the troops on one of the other colonies. Why should Bajor have you all to itself, eh?" He clapped Odo on the shoulder. "To think, I remember when you were just a glob of glop nobody could figure out. And now, look at you. You're getting to be famous, you know. Show me that neck trick people've been telling me about."

Odo backed off slightly, as much as civility allowed. "Perhaps later," he managed.

"Suit yourself. You looking for Mora?"

"Yes."

"Well, he's in exo, as usual. You tell him to remember the Cardassian labels this time."

Odo nodded. "I'll do that. Excuse me." He extricated himself from Yensa's presence and continued down the hallway.

As he had expected, when he entered the exobiology laboratory, he saw a familiar figure hunched over a sample, taking readings on a tricorder and humming to himself.

"Dr. Mora."

Mora looked up. "Oh. Good morning, Odo. Rest well?"

Odo nodded. He opened his mouth to speak.

"That was a good performance last night," Mora said cheerily. "The Cardassian High Command was very pleased. I told you that neck trick would go over well, didn't I?"

"Dr. Mora -- "

"The looks on those guls' faces...it was priceless. Oh, I know Dr. Vilna and Dr. Cha'nor were afraid we were pushing it a bit far, but I knew you could pull it off. Especially with them well-fed and happy from the dinner and the kanar."

"Dr. Mora, I've come to say goodbye."

"Since you're here, hand me that PADD, will you, and -- " Suddenly, Mora trailed off. "What?"

"I've come to say goodbye," Odo repeated.

Mora set down the tricorder, sighing. "Odo, you know our agreement. One day off to practice for the reception, then back to your studies. I really can't let you neglect them for a day trip."

"This is not a day trip," Odo said. "I'm leaving. I'm not coming back."

Mora stared at him. "Why?" he asked finally.

"It's...time I did, that's all," Odo muttered, eyes downcast in the self-effacing manner he despised in himself but couldn't seem to get rid of. He focused on a point somewhere on the floor. This was not how he had imagined the words coming out, but now that it had come to it, he found it hard to meet that penetrating gaze.

"I see." Mora's lips were tight. "Just like that."

"No. Not 'just like that'. I've been thinking about it for a long time, and I've decided...that there's more for me to learn outside than there is here."

"You've decided that, have you? What about our work?"

"It's your work, Dr. Mora, not mine," Odo said steadily. "I'm a subject, not a scientist."

Mora folded his arms. "And where are you more likely to learn the truth about what you are than here?"

Odo lifted his head and finally looked Mora in the eyes. "I've been here for twenty-six years, and I'm no closer to knowing where I came from now than I was when I was first found."

"So you're just going to leave and start looking? Odo, it's a huge galaxy out there! Most of it unexplored. If you think twenty-six years was a long time, try hunting throughout space for a specific race whom no one's ever heard of! And do you think the Cardassians will be willing to just let you go? You may be capable of amazing feats of shapeshifting, but you are not undetectable, and you are not indestructible!" Mora calmed himself with an obvious effort, then went on. "You are, however, intelligent enough to realize how ill-advised this decision is. Or you will, when you think it through."

"I have thought it through," Odo said evenly. "And, ill-advised or not, it is my decision."

"Just what brought this on, anyway? Was it last night?" When Odo didn't answer, Mora shook his head in perplexity. "I thought you enjoyed demonstrating your abilities."

Odo gave a brief, bitter laugh. "I know you did."

Mora looked at him keenly. "Why didn't you say anything before?"

"Why do you think?" For the first time, Odo raised his voice toward his mentor. "Maybe it was because I was indebted to you. Or maybe it was because you were too busy reminding me of that fact to let me get a word in edgewise!"

Mora caught his breath and released it again. His eyes turned cold. "Fine. Leave. Throw away all our work together. What does it matter?" He turned away to his samples.

"Dr. Mora -- " Getting no response, Odo sighed in frustration. "Dr. Mora, I have no wish to cause you distress. But I have to find a -- a purpose. I don't know what it is yet, but I know it is not to entertain Cardassians. And I can't be your laboratory specimen forever."

Mora paused in his work, his head lowered. After a moment, he asked quietly, "How will you live out there?"

Odo didn't understand the question at first. "You yourself noted that my species is probably the next best thing to noncorporeal life when it comes to being equipped for survival."

"I don't mean that. I mean social integration. Getting along with people. You know you still have trouble with that."

"I'll manage."

Mora sighed, and turned around. "Is there anything I can say that will make you reconsider this?"

"No," Odo said simply.

"Odo, don't you understand? It's safe here for you. Out there, you'll be a...a freak. They won't understand you. They'll be frightened of you. They'll destroy you, or else they'll find a way to exploit you. Can't you see that it's better for you to stay here?"

"I'll take that chance," Odo said.

"You're making a big mistake."

Odo snorted a little, stung. "Is it me you have no confidence in, or is it your teaching?"

Mora's voice turned hard. "Don't take that tone with me."

"I will take whatever tone I wish," Odo retorted. "And if it's a mistake, at least it is my mistake to make. But I don't believe it is a mistake. My mistake was in staying here so long!"

"So go, then!" Mora shouted. "Go, damn you! And when you come running back, don't say I didn't try to warn you!"

Odo stood rigid. "I have no intention of coming back. Goodbye, Dr. Mora." He turned on his heel, and without ceremony walked out of the laboratory.

True to his word, he did not go back.

Two years later, Odo investigated his first murder case, and became chief of security on Terok Nor, the Cardassians' space station above Bajor.

Four years after that, he stayed in that position when the occupation ended and Starfleet took over the station, naming it Deep Space Nine.

And a year after that, Odo saw Mora again.

(-|-)

No one who saw Odo striding purposefully down the Promenade toward Quark's that day would have guessed at the inner anticipation he felt. That was one advantage, he sometimes thought, of never having learned to form a completely realistic humanoid face.

If they could have guessed, they would have said that somebody was in trouble. They would have been right.

Odo slowed as he reached the window beside the entrance nearest the bar, and looked inside. Quark was there, a small plastic disc-shaped container in his hand. He was speaking dramatically to another Ferengi, who was listening with barely-concealed boredom. But he hadn't gone away yet -- which was all the encouragement Quark needed.

"I'm only a businessman," Quark was declaiming humbly. "It would take an orator with the skills of the late, great Plegg himself to sing the praises of the late, great Plegg. What Ferengi could resist the honor of owning a small piece of the man who took a computer chip and turned it into the modular holosuite industry? A small piece of the man who brought holographic entertainment to the most remote parts of the quadrant, creating profit centers from societies that could barely afford to feed their own people?"

Leave it to Quark, Odo thought, to try to make typical naked Ferengi greed sound like a noble enterprise.

No matter. The timing was so perfect, he couldn't have set it up any better himself. He stepped around the corner and entered the bar just as Quark was pausing for breath (and effect). "How much are you asking?" he inquired innocently.

Just for a moment, Quark scowled at the unwelcome arrival of his archenemy. "As I was about to tell my good friend here, a mere three strips of latinum. And I'll be taking a loss at that price," he added quickly, as he sensed that his quarry was losing even polite interest in the eulogy/sales pitch.

The other Ferengi slid off the bar stool, shaking his head, and walked away.

"Okay, for you, two strips," Quark called desperately after him. It was too late. Quark glared at Odo. "Thank you very much," he said sarcastically.

"Three strips," Odo observed. "That's a fair price for Plegg."

"I suppose you're interested." Quark patently didn't believe that for a second.

"Humanoid death rituals are an interest of mine," Odo told him casually. Actually, he found death rituals as puzzling and pointless as most other humanoid rituals, but just this once he felt the small lie was worth it.

"Death rituals?" Quark echoed, as if he wasn't sure he'd heard right.

Odo shrugged slightly. "Everybody needs a hobby."

Quark pursed his lips. "Mm-hm." From his attitude, he suspected Odo was setting him up for something, but he had no idea what. He busied himself about the bar, as if hoping that if he ignored Odo long enough, he would go away.

But Odo was relentless. "Some species burn their dead. Others pack them in blocks of ice. Some even surround themselves with the company of family corpses."

Quark rolled his eyes and sighed pointedly.

"But the Ferengi ritual of chopping up their loved ones and selling them..." Odo leaned forward, almost smiling. "I find that irresistible."

"I'm very busy here." Quark picked up a chair and moved off with it.

Odo followed. "What a fitting and distinguished way to honor the memory of great Ferengi entrepreneurs. I'm thinking of starting a collection. Putting up a display case in my office. There'll be a special space in there reserved just for you, Quark."

Quark put the chair down. "I'm sure."

Odo held out a hand, palm up. In it were three strips of latinum.

Quark's eyes nearly popped out of his head. He approached, as if to verify what he'd thought he'd seen. "You're serious?"

"Have you ever known me not to be?"

Judging by his expression, Quark wouldn't have been more surprised if Odo had announced that he was joining a Direidian comedy troupe. Still looking at him oddly, he went to an open case full of the discs, took one, and brought it over. He reached for the latinum, but Odo quickly closed his hand and drew it away.

"There is one thing I was curious about," he said.

"And what's that?" Quark demanded.

"How do I know it's Plegg?"

"It says so on the label."

"Isn't there some sort of letter of authenticity?"

"The Ferengi Seal of Dismemberment is right here! What more do you want?"

"I want Plegg," Odo said.

"You've got him!"

Odo delivered his coup de grace. "Not if he's still alive."

Quark stared at him. "Still alive?" he repeated, somewhat weakly.

Odo nodded slowly, observing with satisfaction the stricken look on Quark's face. "Still alive."

"Plegg?"

"After I tracked him down on Khosla Two and told him about your little scheme, he was quite amused." Odo pulled his most foreboding frown as he folded his arms. "I'm not." Actually, he was loving every minute of this, although he wasn't sure if Quark's chagrin was due to having been caught or to the realization that he'd been duped for a change. Odo didn't know which one he would prefer to be true. To top it off, he was rather proud of his control, as, surreptitiously, he let the "latinum" in his hand dissolve back into his substance.

"Odo! I'm a victim here! I bought those discs in good faith! I have five thousand pieces of Plegg in my storeroom!"

Odo held up a chiding finger. "Ah-ah-ah. Not Plegg."

Quark stared at him in what looked like genuine horror. "Then who?"

"Good question."

Quark drew himself up to his full, diminutive height. "I demand an investigation."

"You'll get one, I promise you." Odo let that hang there. Quark could take it however he chose.

"Odo!"

Odo looked up at the unexpected sound of a voice calling his name. A very familiar voice -- one he hadn't heard in years. Seven, to be exact.

There was a man standing across the barroom. He was Bajoran, middle-aged, with light brown hair swept straight back, much like Odo's own. Unlike most Bajorans, he wore no earring. He was smiling at Odo widely, expectantly.

"Dr. Mora!" Odo blurted.

"It's been too long." Mora came toward him, beaming delightedly. He stopped before Odo, looking him up and down with obvious pleasure. "You're looking well. Yes -- coming along nicely."

He held out a hand. After a moment, Odo shook it briefly, all too aware of Quark's curious gaze. "Why didn't you let me know that you were coming?" he asked, noticing to his disgust that he had immediately reverted to his old habit of ducking his head to avoid eye contact.

"It was a last-minute arrangement."

"The trip from Bajor takes five hours." Odo refrained from adding that the shuttles were equipped with subspace communication; Mora could have contacted him at any time.

Quark had been looking from Odo to Mora and back, clearly wondering who Mora was and why Odo's manner had altered so drastically. Suddenly he seemed to recall his hostly duties. "Can I get you something, Dr. -- Mora, was it?"

"Yes," Mora said pleasantly. "Some, ah, deka tea would be nice."

Quark left, with a final, speculative glance at Odo, and Mora stepped to Odo's side, examining him closely. "Haven't quite managed the ears yet, have you? Oh no -- but they're difficult," he added in a placating tone as Odo started to retort. "Is the suit a suit, or part of you? Oh, and what about the boots?" He actually peered down at Odo's feet, as if he were considering buying him.

Odo was spared from replying by Quark's return with the requested mug of tea. "Here we are. Nice and hot."

Mora accepted it. "Thank you."

Quark could no longer contain himself. "So...um, you two seem to be old friends."

"Dr. Mora is the scientist who was assigned to me after I was found," Odo explained curtly. He figured Quark would learn as much from the rumor mill anyway.

"I was personally responsible for his development during his formative years," Mora added.

Odo groaned inwardly. Now why did Mora have to say that? Sure enough, a smarmy grin spread over Quark's face. "So, this is a family reunion! I had a hunch. Well, Odo's dad is always welcome at Quark's."

"He is not my -- " "Well, actually -- " Odo and Mora both stopped as they realized their disclaimers were simultaneous.

Quark continued. "Oh, I know he wouldn't tell you himself, but Odo is doing a wonderful job here on this station, if I may say so."

"Is he?" Mora sounded pleased. Of course, he was totally misinterpreting Quark's praise of Odo. Odo, however, was not.

"Absolutely," Quark gushed, enjoying Odo's discomfort hugely. "As a matter of fact, when you came in, he was just beginning a fraud investigation."

"Quark!" Odo snapped. The last thing he needed, on top of everything else, was security business being broadcast all over the bar. "Excuse us." With that, he put a hand on Mora's arm and practically shoved him out of Quark's.

Quark followed as far as the exit. "Of course. The two of you have a lot of catching up to do." He raised his voice as Odo and Mora continued up the Promenade. "If there's anything I can help you with, Doctor, don't hesitate to call on me!"

"That was uncalled-for," Mora chided Odo as they walked.

"You don't know Quark."

"I know that he was trying to present you in as positive a light as possible, to someone he thought was important to you, and you responded by -- "

"Please," Odo growled.

Mora shook his head. "Still having trouble with social integration."

"I integrate as much as I want to."

"Define 'as much as I want to'."

Odo stopped walking and turned to face him. "'As much as I want to' means 'as much as I want to'." He enunciated each word distinctly, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

Mora fell silent.

Odo was a little sorry. After all, part of him was glad to see Mora. He owed the man much. But he was damned if he'd apologize. He turned away. "Quark is a thief, a con man. Nobody you want to know."

He led the way into the replimat, a popular spot for a quick meal and a chat, for those who found Quark's not to their liking. Odo rarely came there himself, since he didn't need to eat or drink. But it was a convenient place, out of the range of prying Ferengi ears, for him to let Mora say his piece and be on his way. He pulled out a chair for Mora, and one for himself, sat down, folded his arms, and waited.

Mora sat. He looked down at his hands, which were clasped before him. An awkward moment passed. "So," he said finally. "Tell me about this police thing you've gotten yourself involved with. Is it working out?"

"I enjoy my work as chief of security." Odo laid a slight but unmistakable emphasis on his title. Police thing, indeed.

"Chief of security. At a weigh station in space." Mora's tone, though still pleasant, gave Odo to understand that he felt such a prosaic occupation unworthy of him. Suddenly he leaned forward slightly. "Don't you miss it, Odo?"

"What?"

"Our work."

"Never," Odo said firmly.

Mora chuckled. "I don't believe it. I know you too well. You were unhappy in the lab; I can't blame you for that. But the work, Odo -- the work, the exploration of you, what you are, where you came from...that's never far from your mind, is it?"

At that moment, Odo would have liked to deny it. But it would have been dishonest. Mora did indeed know him too well. "That part of it," he admitted stiffly, "is true."

"Good." Mora smiled. "Because I came here counting on that."

(-|-)

Raising an adolescent son alone was definitely an adventure. Although it wasn't quite what Benjamin Sisko had had in mind when he had joined Starfleet. There were times when he thought that wrestling a Gorn with a hangover might have been easier.

Times such as...now.

"See you later, Dad." Jake walked quickly through their quarters toward the door. A sign that he wanted to get safely out before his doting sire thought of anything for him to do.

"Hey, hold on." Sisko looked up from the PADD on which he had been plowing through a particularly fiendishly complex piece of station business.

"I'm late."

"For what?"

"For Nog."

"Your homework?"

"It's done."

Some parental instinct told Sisko to probe the matter. "You studied that entire Klingon opera for the music test on Friday?"

"I'm gonna ace this test, Dad, I promise."

"This isn't about tests, Jake," Sisko said patiently. "This is about learning. You can't learn to appreciate Klingon opera by cramming for the exam the night before."

Jake went on the offensive. "Well, what am I ever gonna use Klingon opera for?"

"Well -- " Problem was, it was a darn good question. "First of all, you don't know what you want to be when you grow up. You may discover along the way that you want to be a musician. Or, you may find yourself among some Klingons...in a job...somewhere." Sisko winced inwardly at the awkward end to his lecture. He was trying not to be too obvious in his hope that Jake would join Starfleet.

Jake rolled his eyes. "Dad," he said in his Dad, you're a moron voice, "even if I did, they wouldn't be going around singing operas."

"It helps you understand their culture," Sisko pointed out. Nice save.

"Well, when was the last time you listened to Klingon opera?" Jake challenged.

"When I was your age," Sisko was forced to admit. Point to Jake.

"There. You see?"

"Yes," Sisko said calmly. "Do you?"

"Just because you suffered through all that doesn't mean I have to," Jake insisted, with unassailable teenage logic.

Sisko grinned. "Yes, it does," he countered. The good old Because I said so did come in handy sometimes. Just then the door chime sounded. "Come in."

With a quiet swish, the door slid open to admit Odo.

"Dad," Jake whined.

"I have the perfect solution," his father said. "Nog has the same test. Why don't you invite him over, and you can listen to the Klingon opera together?"

For answer, Jake rolled his eyes again and stalked off to be miserable.

Sisko gestured to Odo, who had stayed standing, waiting patiently for the domestic drama to end. "Please, Odo, sit down." As the shapeshifter did so, Sisko wondered what could be on his mind. Odo never paid social visits. Yet, if it had been an emergency, he would have called by commbadge.

Odo came right to the point. "Commander, I'd like to request the use of a runabout."

"Of course. For what?"

"Dr. Mora Pol from the Bajoran Institute of Science has asked me to help him secure one from the Federation."

"Why did he come to you?" It was a little outside Odo's usual jurisdiction.

"Dr. Mora is the scientist who was assigned to me in my first years here," Odo explained. "If he went to the Board of Ministers to request permission to approach you, it would take months, and he's very anxious to investigate something in the Gamma Quadrant. And -- may I say, Commander, so am I." His masklike face gave nothing away.

"You've got me curious, Constable," Sisko said. "Is it a secret?"

"No. But there isn't much to tell. One of the Bajoran science probes recently scanned a planet about six light years from the wormhole. It picked up some very unique -- and familiar -- DNA patterns." Odo paused, so slightly that Sisko thought he might have imagined it. "Patterns very much like my own, Commander. Dr. Mora thinks he may have discovered the origin of my people." This time, the hesitation was definite. "Of me."

Sisko studied him. He knew as much as anyone did about Odo's origins: nothing. Not even Odo knew, and Sisko was aware that, though he never talked about it, the lack of this most basic knowledge about himself -- something everybody else took for granted -- was a void that the shapeshifter longed to fill.

Now, though, there was a chance that Odo's quest was about to end at last. And who was he, Sisko, to deny him that?

(-|-)

Jadzia Dax rather liked Dr. Mora. He was highly respected in the Bajoran science community as an exobiologist -- one of her own specialties -- yet he was refreshingly free of the stuffiness that often characterized members of their mutual profession. He did show a tendency to dominate every conversation that took place in his presence, but his considerable charm and affability made up for his loquaciousness.

"It would seem to me that being a scientist yourself, Lieutenant," he was saying as the runabout Orinoco sped through the Gamma Quadrant, "you can appreciate the difficulty of our dilemma, and the elegance of the solution. When Odo was first found, nobody knew who, or indeed what, it was we were dealing with. A shapeless, viscous mass of fluid, a veritable organic broth...that was our Odo in the beginning."

Dax stole a glance at Odo, who sat behind Mora, listening stone-faced to that description of himself. "When did you realize you were dealing with a sentient life form?"

"He didn't," Odo said, before Mora could reply. "I had to teach him that myself."

Mora laughed heartily. "That's true. That's very true. Tell her," he encouraged.

Odo didn't crack a smile. "It was a dilemma for me. I'd never seen anything like these creatures, either."

"'Seen' isn't really an appropriate description," Mora put in. "He had no eyes, per se."

"I was just trying to describe it in simple terms," Odo retorted, with more than a touch of irritation at Mora's pedantry.

"He had never perceived anything like us before," Mora corrected him anyway. "Go on," he prompted after a moment.

Odo resumed. "I knew I had to find some way to communicate with them, so I transformed myself -- "

"It was remarkable," Mora interrupted again, oblivious to Odo rolling his eyes behind him. "Every morning I would come into the lab, and every morning Odo would be there, resting in his liquid form in a Krokan petri beaker. One morning I walked in and Odo was gone. The beaker was empty. But next to it was an identical beaker that had not been there before. A perfect replica in every way. It was," Mora smiled, "amazing."

Dax noticed to her amusement that Odo seemed to have found something riveting on the starboard viewscreen. He looked rather like an adult child being forced to listen to a parent recalling some embarrassing long-ago incident to a stranger.

"It hasn't been the same since you've gone, Odo." Mora sighed nostalgically. "Working with you has been the most rewarding part of my career." With his back to Odo, he didn't see the surprised glance his former charge shot him.

An interesting relationship, Dax mused, very privately. On the one hand, Odo seemed to resent Mora, and in a way she could see why: there was a certain possessiveness in the scientist's attitude that must have grated on the proud shapeshifter. Yet obviously Odo had been much more than a mere specimen to Mora; the scientist seemed genuinely fond of him. And Odo must have felt likewise: or else why would he have partially based his humanoid appearance on Mora's?

Her attention was claimed by a signal from the helm console. "We're approaching a planet. Prepare to enter standard orbit. Planet designated LS-Six."

Dr. Weld Ram, the fourth member of the expedition, spoke for the first time since they had exited the wormhole. "Initiating scans." He was another Bajoran scientist, Mora's younger colleague from the institute, and he was as quiet as Mora was talkative.

Dax read the new data as it came in. "There's a lot of seismic activity down there. Possibly volcanic in origin. Moving into synchronous orbit."

(-|-)

Odo had been trying all his life to picture what his home planet might look like.

This might very well not be it, his habitual pessimism cautioned him. And yet, how much of a coincidence could it be that DNA similar to his own had been found here?

A humanoid in the same situation might have experienced the phenomenon known as "butterflies in the stomach". Not having a stomach, Odo experienced no such thing. But he was unable to completely suppress a feeling of anticipation mingled with apprehension as the transporter beam energized. Would anything seem familiar?

When his vision cleared, the immediate answer was no.

He stood on a flat shoulder of a mountainside. The ground was dry, dotted with small plants. To one side was a spectacular view of a huge, misty green valley. All around were tumbled blocks of stones -- a ruined city or village, long since abandoned. Here and there the outline of a wall or doorway was discernible.

The others spread out and busily began taking readings. Odo, the only non-scientist in the party, wandered through the ruins, telling himself sternly not to be disappointed. What had he expected, after all, a brass band? If this planet was as full of seismic activity as Dax had indicated, surely, if his people had been here, they weren't stupid enough to stick around.

A pillar in the center of the ruins caught his eye. He walked toward it, feeling drawn to it somehow. It was half again his humanoid height, and tapered. At the top was a disc with a wedge missing; in the middle of the disc was a raised circle. Carved symbols ran up its sides.

Mora was nearby, watching him. "Do the letters mean anything to you?"

Odo laid a hand on the pillar, tracing the curves of one of the symbols. They did seem vaguely like letters, or pictograms. But try as he might, he could not recall ever having seen them before. He raised his eyes to the disc at the top of the pillar, and drew a blank there as well. "No," he said softly. "I don't think so."

Mora glanced up at the disc. "Judging by its position in the ruins, I think it's fair to say that this pillar represented something important to the people who lived here."

"Why don't we take it with us?" Dax suggested; she had joined them as Mora spoke. "Our computers at the station might be able to decipher the inscriptions."

"Mm-hm." Mora glanced around. "Where is Dr. Weld? Dr. Weld!"

"Over here," came the reply from some distance away.

Odo walked over to where Weld's voice had come from, and found the Bajoran crouched in a doorway, carefully placing something into a small petri dish. "I think I may have found what we're looking for," he said as Odo reached him.

Cautiously, Odo took the dish and peered into it, while Weld ran a scanner over it. There was a greenish-black substance inside that seemed to ripple restlessly in a circular motion.

Odo's first thought was, I might be related to that?

"Is it carbon-based?" Mora was looking over Odo's shoulder.

"No, silicate," Weld replied. "But vegetative. And very much alive."

"Odo junior, perhaps?"

Odo wished Mora would keep such fatuous remarks to himself, but said nothing. He watched as Weld placed a lid over the sample and took it back. The three of them headed back over toward the pillar, where Dax had set up the last of the pattern enhancers. She stood back and touched her commbadge. "Computer, begin transport."

The pillar sparkled and vanished.

A quake chose that moment to hit. They staggered, startled, fighting to keep their balance as the ground beneath their feet began to heave violently. Stones rolled off the tops of what was left of the walls, and thudded heavily to the ground, a few barely missing them.

"Come on!" Mora called. They began making their way, as best they could, out of the ruins.

Relatively calm, considering the circumstances, Dax said, "Computer, realign transporter. Lock onto our commbadges."

"Stand by," said the computer.

The quake seemed to go on forever. Mora, just ahead of Odo, stumbled and fell to his knees. Odo helped him up. "This way," he said over the rumble. Mora nodded breathlessly; Odo supported him as they went. Suddenly cracks opened in the ground, filling the air with white steam. One fissure spewed a geyserlike burst straight into Mora's face. Mora began to cough.

Within seconds, Dax and Weld were coughing as well, too overcome to do more than reel along, their lungs trying futilely to expel the vapor. It wasn't steam, Odo realized, but some sort of gas. He knew that he too was absorbing it; however, as far as he could tell, he was immune. A fact that did nothing to counteract the helplessness he felt as the others sank to the ground, losing consciousness.

"Ready for transport," the computer said at last.

Odo slapped his commbadge. "Computer, energize!"

The last thing he saw as the beam mercifully took him and the others away was a huge boulder toppling onto the spot where they had been.

(-|-)

When he received Odo's transmission, Sisko prepared himself for the worst.

It seemed that the away team had gotten what it had went for, but everybody in the expedition except Odo had been rendered unconscious by some type of gas. Odo had been able to get the others back to the runabout, but he couldn't do more for them than put oxygen masks on them and rush back to DS9 at top speed.

Sisko met him on the runabout pad with Dr. Bashir and a team of medics, who took charge of the three comatose scientists and whisked them to the infirmary. There, they were placed on beds, the oxygen masks still covering their mouths and noses, with alpha wave inducers on their foreheads to keep them asleep.

Odo himself appeared rather dusty but unharmed. He consented to come along for examination only at Bashir's insistence.

"They're stable for now," Bashir said, watching the monitors as he scanned Mora. "Dax is in fair condition. But the Bajorans seem to have been more seriously affected. Perhaps they were exposed to more of the gas, or there may be something about Trill physiology. I'm not sure yet."

"And Odo?" Sisko asked, standing beside the shapeshifter, who was sitting in a chair.

"I'm fine," Odo stated.

Bashir came toward him and began scanning him regardless. "The paralyzing action occurred when the gas was taken into the respiratory system. Since Odo doesn't have a respiratory system as we know it, he apparently wasn't affected at all."

"O'Brien is offloading the cargo they brought back," Sisko said thoughtfully. "He has everything set up in the science lab. I understand there are some organic specimens from that planet. Maybe there's something there to help you figure this out."

"Good idea." Bashir went to examine Weld.

Odo had risen and walked to Mora's bedside, leaning over and peering into his face. "Will he be all right?" he asked.

Bashir paused, glancing at him. "The molecule appears to have quite an unstable structure. That might mean the effect is temporary."

Odo straightened, his gaze lingering on Mora, then walked out of the infirmary without another word.

Sisko saw Bashir's bemused look. He was a little taken aback himself. It wasn't every day that one saw Odo showing concern for anybody.

He considered. He had a fairly good working rapport with his unusual security chief; he respected Odo a great deal, and from what he could tell the feeling was mutual. But theirs was still very much an arms'-length relationship. The one time Odo had actually come to him with a personal problem, Sisko had been too amused at the image of the gruff, no-nonsense constable being pursued by an amorous female Betazoid to be of much help. Odo had obviously not found it funny at all, and had practically stormed out of the commander's office.

This time, though, Sisko thought he might just have an inkling of what Odo was going through. He wasn't at all certain how a show of sympathy would be received; Odo might very well take it as an intrusion. But he decided to make the offer anyway.

He found Odo standing just outside the infirmary, as if still making up his mind where to go from there. "I know how you feel, Constable," he said in a low voice.

Odo glanced at him warily. It occurred to Sisko that probably not many people had ever said those words to him before. "Feel? About what?" He began to walk.

Sisko walked beside him. "When my father became ill, I can remember how small and weak he looked, lying on the bed. He'd been so strong, so independent. It always seemed to me that there was nothing that he couldn't do. But in the end, I realized that there was nothing that he could do. And nothing I could do to help him."

It had been touch and go for a long time, but his father had eventually recovered. His health hadn't been the same since; however, Joseph Sisko was still alive to cook his marvelous meals, order his assistants around, and ebulliently greet his customers every day at his New Orleans restaurant. Ben Sisko was about to tell Odo this, by way of encouragement, but he didn't get the chance.

Odo stopped and turned to him, cool and polite, no discernible expression on his face whatsoever. "I appreciate your thoughts, Commander. But Dr. Mora is not my father."

Sisko could think of nothing to say to that. He stood there and watched as Odo turned and walked away down the Promenade.

(-|-)

Odo found his steps taking him to the lab. Perhaps he should have stayed in the infirmary, let Bashir give him a more thorough examination; he felt a vague sense of wrongness, of something foreign entwining itself around his internal structure. But he dismissed the thought. Obviously it was the gas from the planet, and there was no indication that it was causing him harm in any way. Even if it was, he doubted that Bashir or any humanoid doctor had the expertise to help.

He thought instead, irritably, about Sisko's misguided attempt to comfort him. He considered himself fairly well-versed in the whats and hows of humanoid nature. But the whys still often escaped him. Why, for instance, did they feel a need to talk about their own similar experiences whenever they thought someone else was in distress? One would think that that would only make two people miserable, instead of just one.

It wasn't that he disparaged the commander's effort, but in this case Sisko's concern was misplaced. He had made the same mistake everyone else did: thinking that because Odo had taken a humanoid form, he had humanoid emotions. Besides, his father -- if he had had one -- was some unknown shapeshifter in the Gamma Quadrant. Not a Bajoran scientist.

He entered the science lab. Chief O'Brien was there, sitting at the large round central console. On the console was a huge plastiglass dome. The engineer glanced up as Odo came into the room.

"The computer's having a hard time classifying your new life form," he said.

"Why?" Odo was glad that O'Brien wasn't trying to engage him in conversation about his feelings. Of all the humans on the station, he probably appreciated O'Brien the most: blunt-spoken, honest, and not one to waste time on idle chit-chat when there was work to do.

He peered inside the dome. There seemed to be a lot more of the funguslike life form than he remembered, ebbing and flowing in its prison.

"Whatever it is, it keeps changing. Somehow it goes through a metamorphosis every time it reproduces. And it reproduces like crazy. Look at this." O'Brien picked up a small dish; Odo recognized it as the petri dish Weld had originally placed the life form in. "It multiplied so much I had to change containers." He set the dish down and began punching in a sequence on the computer. "I'll put it in a level five security field overnight. I wish Dax were here to take a look at it. How's she doing?"

"Dr. Bashir thinks she'll be fine," Odo replied absently, his attention caught by the pillar, now standing beside a wall. It looked rather incongruous, ancient weathered stone surrounded by hi-tech sterility.

He walked over to it, staring at the mysterious symbols. They made no more sense to him now than they had before. What did they mean? Was he looking at a sample of the history of his people? Or did the pillar and its writing have nothing to do with him at all? If not, why did it tug at him so? Why was his memory so excellent at calling up details of a crime scene or a personal file, but virtually nonexistent when it came to his own life before his arrival on Bajor?

"Any idea what it is?" O'Brien asked, behind him.

Odo glanced back at him. He had almost forgotten the human was there.

"I'm hoping it's a key, Mr. O'Brien," he said softly. "A key to my past."

He turned and left the room.

(-|-)

The twitter of a comm unit penetrated the dark fog of sleep. "Kira to Sisko."

Sisko forced himself up onto one elbow, rubbing his eyes and doing his best to clear his brain and sound reasonably alert. If Major Kira was calling him at this hour, that spelled one thing: trouble. "Go ahead, Major."

"Sorry to bother you, Commander. But we need you here in the science lab."

"I'm on my way."

Reluctantly but resolutely, Sisko rolled out of bed.

(-|-)

The lab was a complete shambles. Equipment was smashed and strewn all over. It was a similar scene to the one that had greeted Sisko's eyes when he had first beheld the interior of DS9 as the Cardassians had left it.

Adding to the general chaos was a virtual army of science and security personnel, wandering about with tricorders and trying to piece together what had happened here. Odo had arrived at the same time as Sisko; O'Brien and Kira were already present.

Sisko found his eyes drawn to the domed plastiglass container atop the central console. He barely noticed that Odo and O'Brien were also staring at it.

There was a gaping hole in the top, as if something had burst through it.

Of the life form, there was no sign.

Sisko felt the calm for which he was legendary during crises descending on him. Underneath, his mind was racing. A life form of unknown properties, at large on his station... "Any signs of a break-in?" he asked.

"Not that we could find," Kira replied grimly. "The security seal on the lab was still in place when we got here."

O'Brien looked up from his tricorder. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to steal that thing anyway."

"You're suggesting the life form itself did this?"

"I don't know what did this, Commander. Unless a tornado passed this way without us hearing it." O'Brien gestured vaguely with the tricorder. "The room was locked, it's gone. That's all I know for now."

"Constable," Sisko said. Odo had drifted over to the pillar and was gazing at it; he turned his head inquiringly at being addressed. "Get a level three security scan underway on the entire station."

"Our scanners may have trouble finding this life form," O'Brien put in. "It has metamorphic qualities that were confusing the computer. You might want to run that sweep two or three times." Odo nodded to a couple of his deputies, who left the room.

"Let's go to yellow alert," Sisko ordered.

Kira started out the door, but was stopped by Odo. "Major, you could help me by reviewing the security camera records and the heat sensor readouts for the lab and the surrounding areas." She gave him a quick nod of acknowledgment and left.

"Commander," O'Brien called. He was standing under an air duct opening, holding his tricorder up to it. "I'm picking up slight trace elements near the ventilation intake duct. It looks as though our life form may have taken this way out."

Before Sisko could respond to that information, the doors to the lab parted again and Dax stepped inside, looking as fresh as ever. The Trill gazed around in mild astonishment at the damage to her lab.

"Dr. Bashir gave you permission to be up and about?" Sisko asked. He'd had the impression that that wouldn't happen for a while yet, even though Dax hadn't been affected as badly as the two Bajorans.

"Dr. Bashir," Dax said, with a faint hint of dryness, "wouldn't listen to me and hid my clothes so I wouldn't leave. I had to sneak out to my quarters in a hospital gown that wouldn't close in the back... What did this?"

Sisko decided he'd speak to her later about ignoring a medical officer's orders. Not that he expected it to do much good. Dax was never outright insubordinate, but there were times when she was a law unto herself -- a trait which seemed to have carried over from Curzon. Annoyingly, she was usually right.

"The working theory is, that life form you brought back is somehow responsible," he told her.

"I don't believe it," Dax said.

"Good. Find me a better theory."

Dax gave him a nod, and crossed over to the pillar, where Odo still stood. "Odo, Dr. Mora is awake and would like to speak with you."

Odo nodded to her, and left the room. Dax put a hand on the rough gray stone of the pillar, as if she could fathom its secrets by touch. Odo wasn't the only one who wondered what they were.

(-|-)

The infirmary was dimly lit when Odo entered. Mora still lay on his bed. The alpha wave inducer was still on his forehead, but the oxygen mask was gone. A good sign; it meant that Bashir had deemed it no longer necessary.

Mora's eyes were closed. Odo stepped as quietly as he could, in case Mora had gone back to sleep. He stopped at the bedside, and stood looking down at Mora's face, regretting his rude reaction when the scientist had arrived on the station. Mora could be irritating and overbearing at times; that hadn't changed. But he had always been kind to Odo as well, and Odo had a lot to be grateful to him for.

Long ago, Mora had been the first of the scientists at the research center to realize that the strange liquid life form they had found was in fact a sentient being. As he had studied Odo, in return he had made sure that the shapeshifter knew all he needed to know in order to live in his adopted society. He had given Odo protection while he was still vulnerable, still evolving his humanoid form, still adapting to humanoid ways.

And now he was here, ill, because he had tried to help Odo in his search for his origins.

As that thought passed through Odo's mind, he saw Mora's eyes open and focus on him. They were clear and intelligent, his gaze sharp as ever.

"I heard them say something happened in the lab." Mora's voice was hoarse. An aftereffect of the gas, most likely.

"The life form sample is gone," Odo told him.

"Gone?" Mora raised himself up onto his elbows with difficulty, coughing a little. He was obviously still weak.

"We're not sure how or why yet." Odo watched Mora with no small concern. Mora probably ought not to try to get up; weren't doctors always going on about patients needing rest? Perhaps Odo shouldn't have told him about the missing sample.

"I want to help," Mora wheezed.

"Everything is under control," Odo tried to reassure him.

Mora was still struggling to sit up. "I know more about shapeshifters than anyone in this sector -- "

"Anyone except me," Odo rejoined tartly, "and I'll be running the investigation." He took hold of Mora's shoulders and gently forced him to lie back down. Mora resisted, trying feebly to push Odo's arms away; but Odo could make himself quite strong when he chose to be, and in Mora's condition it was no contest. "Besides, we're not even sure it is a shapeshifting life form."

Mora finally subsided, though one hand remained on Odo's forearm. "Any...metamorphic characteristics?"

"It was changing faster than the computer could analyze it," Odo was forced to admit.

"Any indication of intelligence?"

Odo nearly snorted. "Not unless you consider wanton destruction of the lab an indication of intelligence."

"It might be." Mora gazed at him earnestly, and Odo wondered how many people Mora had argued the same issue with when Odo himself had been discovered. "It might be. Don't dismiss any possibility."

A soft beep made them both look over at the Bajoran nurse who was standing at Weld's bedside across the room, entering an update on his condition into a PADD. Weld was still wearing both the mask and the inducer.

"Dr. Weld hasn't regained consciousness." Mora sighed wearily. "I feel responsible..." His voice trailed off.

"I'm sure Dr. Bashir is doing everything possible."

When Mora didn't reply, Odo looked back down at him. Mora had fallen asleep, his hand still gripping Odo's arm. Hesitantly, Odo took the hand and laid it down on Mora's chest.

He stood, and looked down for a moment at his former mentor. Asleep, Mora looked more fragile somehow, as if he might shatter at a touch. For the first time, it occurred to Odo that Mora was mortal, and aging.

For some reason, Odo thought of Commander Sisko's story about his father.

(-|-)

Crawling on his hands and knees through what seemed like kilometers of ventilation ducts was not exactly Miles O'Brien's idea of a good time. His back ached. His knees hurt. He was sweating. But he continued gamely, albeit a little awkwardly due to the tricorder he held in one hand. He didn't know which he hoped more: that he would find the life form, or that he wouldn't.

He spoke into his commbadge. "The same trace elements are inside the duct. I'm following the trail. Moving toward corridor two-H."

"Nothing's showing up anywhere on the scanners, Chief," Sisko's voice said. He and Odo had the easy part of the job, sitting on their butts up in Security and tracking his progress.

"Yeah, figured as much," O'Brien muttered. Odo at least would have had an easier time doing this. He could have turned into a snake or something. But then he wouldn't have been able to hold the tricorder. Never mind. "Did the security cameras in the lab give you anything?"

"The security cameras stopped operating for forty-three seconds at zero three hundred hours, five minutes," Odo's voice replied. "Right when the alarm sounded."

"Stopped? You mean someone turned them off."

"More likely some kind of power interruption," Sisko said. "It might have affected the security field around the life form, too. We're trying to analyze it now."

"Did the heat sensors in the lab show any thermal deviation at the same time?" O'Brien came to a juncture. A relief: he could stand and walk a few steps. He lowered his feet to the floor and studied the tricorder to determine which duct to crawl into next.

"Almost a six-degree increase during the forty-three seconds," Sisko replied.

"But then back to normal after that?"

"Affirmative."

O'Brien grunted. He had picked up signs of the trace elements again. "We may be dealing with an entity that absorbs low-frequency RF energy. It might be feeding off our power." As he spoke, he climbed into another duct, resolutely ignoring his protesting knees.

Odo spoke. "But an energy drain should be showing up on our scans."

"Yeah, that's true, Constable. I don't get it. Maybe this thermal deviation was a result of -- " O'Brien broke off, halting mid-crawl. A faint noise had reached his ears: a sort of high-pitched rumble, like nothing he could identify.

"Chief?" from Sisko.

"Hold on. I hear something."

"We've got your position. Nothing else is showing up anywhere near you."

"Well, I definitely hear something ahead." O'Brien started to move on, then halted again. "Can you hear it on the comm line?"

"No."

"It almost sounds like..." O'Brien thought a moment, but nothing came to mind. "I can't describe it. I'm moving in closer." He resumed crawling. "If you run into my wife, don't mention I did this," he muttered.

He heard Sisko saying sharply to Odo, "Get some backup to the nearest corridor."

Odo's voice. "Security to core section, level four, corridor two-H."

"I'll come home tonight, she'll ask me how my day was, and I'll say, 'Fine, honey, how was yours?'" O'Brien came to another juncture and let himself down to the floor. He was talking partly out of nerves, and partly to reassure his listeners from moment to moment that he was all right. "Sometimes I don't think she really wants to know the truth. So I do us both a favor and -- "

He broke off again as the beep rate of his tricorder increased dramatically. It had happened as he passed a conduit pipe running through the juncture. He approached the pipe, and saw that it had a gaping hole in it.

"Ah. It's a structural breach." He held the tricorder up to it. Yes, he was definitely close now. Without thinking, he probed inside the hole with his hand.

Something fell out onto it.

He jumped back. "Aagh!"

"O'Brien, report!"

O'Brien shook his hand, looking ruefully at the goo slopping off it and out of the hole. It was golden brown, the consistency of oatmeal, and it was doing nothing more threatening than dribbling to the floor and collecting there in a small pool. O'Brien, you doofus, he thought. Didn't your mother ever tell you not to stick your bare hand into a place you can't see the inside of?

"I'm okay, I'm fine," he said hastily, in case Odo was about to send an army of deputies down the ducts to save him. He had no idea what he'd say to them. "I think I've found our missing life form." He decided not to tell them exactly how. Stooping, he scanned the glop.

"Except it isn't a life form any more," he added. "It's dead."

(-|-)

Station log, stardate 47391.7:

Engineering crews have been working for over fifteen hours, searching conduits. There have been no additional incidents, and no further evidence of the alien life form has been found.

"With this kind of cellular structure," Bashir said thoughtfully, looking at the display showing a computer analysis of the dead sample, "the life form would have needed a higher concentration of carbon dioxide than our atmosphere provides."

Beside him, Dax nodded in agreement. "It just couldn't survive out of its own environment."

"That had been my analysis."

"With that in mind," Dax said, "do you still think this life form was capable of destroying the lab?"

Bashir blew air through his lips. "That's not impossible. The environmental impact might have taken some time to set in."

Dax rose. "I'd really like to get Dr. Mora's opinion on all this."

"Well, he's much better. He should be up and around in the morning."

She stopped in the doorway and turned. "Feel like getting a raktajino before calling it a night?"

Bashir managed -- just -- to remain casual. "My replicator or yours?" he inquired with what he hoped was a charmingly roguish grin.

Dax lowered her eyes, with that slight smile that always made him think she was barely refraining from laughing in his face. "I was thinking more of the Promenade."

"I knew that." The dashing smile became a wry one, though not without an element of genuine humor. Jadzia one hundred and ninety-nine, Julian nil... "Well, thanks anyway. I've got a few things to wrap up around here."

"Sleep tight, Julian."

He watched her tall, willowy form as it swished elegantly out of the infirmary. "She enjoys it," he murmured aloud to himself. "She actually gets some kind of perverse pleasure out of it." Or possibly this is some kind of subtle, Dax-type revenge for my having hidden her clothes. "Well, one of these days I'm going to stop chasing her...and then we'll see."

He smiled, picturing that day. It just might take Jadzia Dax down a peg or two.

Then he heard something. A faint knocking noise. It seemed to be coming from the other room, where his patients were.

He stood and walked quietly into the ward. No one was there except Mora and Weld, and they were both asleep. Everything was as he had left it. And the silence was now so profound it seemed almost solid.

He decided he was imagining things, and turned away.

Something wrapped itself around his throat.

Bashir tried to yell, and choked instead. He struggled wildly. Suddenly his assailant thrust him away; he crashed into a supply cart and fell to the floor. And then he looked up.

He could not make out a precise shape. It seemed to shift somehow even as he watched. It was huge and dark, rearing up over him as if to strike again. It was making a peculiar sound, half roar, half scream.

Bashir felt instinctively, frantically, around on the floor. That was silly, he thought; how likely was it that he would find anything there that would save him? But even as he thought that, his fingers closed around a familiar shape. His brain immediately identified it as a laser scalpel.

Not stopping to question his luck, he quickly twisted it around to the highest setting and sliced the narrow beam across the creature's nearest protrusion.

It screeched, and disappeared with a sickening slurp up into the ceiling vent.

The noise woke Mora, who stared after it, wondering if he was dreaming.

Bashir slapped his commbadge, panting, his heart pounding from reaction. "Emergency! Emergency! Intruder...alert!"

(-|-)

The infirmary was nowhere near as trashed as the lab had been, but it was just as teeming with people searching for clues. The chaos was such that Weld had been moved to the other room for fear of disturbing him.

Mora was now awake and could not be kept any longer from joining the investigation. This time, at least, there were witnesses, even though he himself had not seen much that was useful. He stood beside and a little behind Odo as the security chief questioned Dr. Bashir, while Chief O'Brien and Lt. Dax checked out the ceiling vent.

Mora was thinking back to when he had finally learned where Odo was and what he was doing. He had been nonplused, to say the least. A security chief? An extraordinary creature like Odo, chasing criminals and filing arrest reports, when he could have been using his abilities to explore the galaxy?

But perhaps he had let his own hopes prejudice him. Security, after all, was hardly an ignoble profession. And he supposed it too was well-suited to someone with Odo's unique gifts -- of which shapeshifting was the least, to judge by his skilled interrogation.

Of course, no doubt it helped to have a cooperative and coherent subject. Bashir was remarkably calm, considering that just a little while ago he had been fighting for his life. Unfortunately, it seemed he had been too busy at the time to notice much detail.

"It happened so quickly," he was saying as Commander Sisko walked over to join them. "I'm sorry I can't tell you any more about it. It was behind me, and then it was gone. But it was big. Very big."

The next question came not from Odo but from Sisko. "How badly did you injure it?"

Bashir sighed. "I don't know. I don't even know if I injured it at all. I just hit it once with the laser scalpel in the arm, or the leg, or the tentacle, or whatever it was, and then it went up the wall, and it was gone."

"It appears as though our life form has survived and grown into something interesting," Mora remarked. He had heard about the dead life form O'Brien had found, but this second attack raised yet more questions. What was this creature? Why did it go on these rampages and then disappear? And what was its connection to the life form sample from LS6?

Odo, it seemed, wasn't ready to give up on Bashir just yet. "Did you notice anything when you entered the room, Doctor? Anything out of place, anything unusual?"

Bashir thought for a moment, then shook his head.

"Was it unusually warm, perhaps?" Odo persisted.

"Now that you've come to mention it, it was a bit warm in here."

Odo nodded thoughtfully. "Another thermal distortion. Did you try the lights, Doctor?"

"No. I didn't want to disturb the patients."

Odo turned to Sisko. "Commander, I suggest we check the RF energy flow to the infirmary. We might find a power interruption, as we did in the lab."

Sisko nodded, just as Dax came up to them. "No blood, or any fluid traces," she reported. "But I'm picking up a very slight trace of something we didn't see last time. An organic residue."

"Enough to test?" Sisko asked.

"We'll see." With that, Dax left the room.

Sisko touched his commbadge. "Sisko to Ops."

"Go ahead," said Kira's voice.

"Restrict all nonessential personnel to their quarters. And go to red alert, Major."

"Understood."

"Keep in touch with Dax. She may give us a way to track this thing."

"Until we can," Odo put in, "I suggest we close down the Promenade."

"I'll give the order, Constable." Sisko went out.

Mora turned to Odo, eyebrows raised. "'Constable'?" He was surprised to hear the old, rather quaint term applied to his former charge.

"It's a nickname that I barely tolerate," Odo said shortly.

Mora had to smile at Odo's you'd-better-not-laugh tone. "It's an expression of affection," he corrected gently, "which you find difficult to accept."

The rebuttal seemed to momentarily flummox Odo. But then, the shapeshifter had never seemed to feel easy discussing himself or speculating on how others saw him. Finally, he snorted, shaking his head, and left the infirmary.

Mora followed, and caught up to him outside. "You know, that was a remarkable display back there," he offered, walking quickly to keep up with Odo's long-legged stride.

"Display?"

"Yes. You were very careful, attentive -- "

Odo interrupted. "I was just doing my job."

He was right, Mora realized. Any halfway decent security chief would have handled it exactly as Odo had. All the same, he felt a driving need to let Odo know how it felt to see him at work for the first time...yet for some reason he couldn't seem to articulate it, to bridge the gap.

"I've begun to think that the scientific method and the police method have a lot in common," he ventured.

"I never thought of it that way. Perhaps they do," Odo conceded. He walked on.

"In science, we look for the obvious." Mora chided himself mentally even as he spoke. Odo knew perfectly well what the scientific method was; he'd only spent over a quarter of a century surrounded by scientists. But he couldn't stop himself. "We track in a straight line. If something looks too good to be true, it usually isn't true. If there appears to be more to something than meets the eye, there usually is more. We take it step by step."

"That applies to criminal investigation as well."

Mora couldn't tell if that was sincere agreement, or if Odo was just humoring him. "You do it very well," he said warmly. "I'm very proud of you, Odo. Do you know that?"

Odo grunted, but said nothing. (Mora, looking ahead, didn't see the long look Odo gave him.)

When they reached the science lab, Mora was impressed by the speed with which it had been cleaned up and repaired. He had heard how badly it had been damaged. Dax was there, at work as if absolutely nothing had happened.

"Anything?" Odo asked her, with his customary brusqueness.

Dax evidently was used to it. She replied, with a little sigh, "The computer's having trouble breaking down the DNA chains."

"What about this pillar?" Mora asked, gazing at it where it stood, behind her. "Did the computer have any success at decoding the encryptions?"

She glanced back at him and shook her head. "No luck there, either. All things considered," she added wryly, "the computer's having a bad week. We have such a limited database for the Gamma Quadrant." The last sentence was directed back toward Odo, with a slight trace of apology.

Odo didn't acknowledge it. "I have to close down the Promenade. Call me when you have something." He turned to go, then stopped in apparent confusion, looking at the pillar. "Wasn't that pillar over here before?" He indicated a spot across the room.

"It was in my way," Dax said. "I had it moved."

Odo nodded, satisfied, and left.

Ever since he had arrived on the station, Mora had sensed something different about Odo, and now he identified what it was. The shapeshifter's basic personality was the same, but somehow the awkwardness Mora remembered was gone. Odo had learned to hold his head up. Not only that, but he had found his niche in humanoid society, and built a life for himself. And he had done it without any help whatsoever from Mora.

The emotions that that realization provoked were decidedly mixed. He had meant what he had said -- he was proud of Odo. Very proud. But at the same time he couldn't help feeling a little wistful too. There had been a time when Odo had needed him -- when he would have done almost anything to please Mora. Those days were gone. And Odo had made it abundantly clear that Mora's presence made him uncomfortable.

He turned away from that thought, and forced himself to concentrate on the matter at hand. He had insisted on helping, after all. "Have you compared this new organic string to the life form we brought back from the planet?" he asked, looking over Dax's shoulder.

"Only enough to be sure that they're not the same."

Of course. She would hardly have had time to do more. "Might be interesting to see if there are any commonalities at all."

Dax rose. "Let me do a cross-tabulation analysis. It should only take a few minutes."

Mora watched her as she began setting it up. He suddenly felt an overwhelming need to talk to somebody. "Do you know Odo well, Lieutenant?" he found himself asking.

She shrugged a little. "Not as well as I'd like to. He keeps to himself a lot."

"I'm not surprised." Mora smiled. Despite his best efforts, Odo had always been reserved, to the point at times of being antisocial. He had often wondered if that was a genetic trait of Odo's species, or if it was Odo's own special little charming characteristic. "I never realized 'til I actually saw him -- " he laughed, feeling self-conscious, " -- how much I miss him. We...didn't part on very good terms."

"So I've heard," Dax murmured.

"He wanted to leave, when we still had so much work left to do. But I see him now, and I wonder if he wasn't right to go after all. He's -- come so far."

"He's an invaluable man around here," she agreed.

"I never thought he could do it." Mora had almost forgotten he was speaking aloud. "Integrate successfully. If you could have seen him before...he was so ill-prepared to be on his own. I was sure he'd come back. I told him when he left he'd come back. And all these years I was so certain that eventually one day he'd show up back at the lab... Now -- I guess I'd better get used to the idea he's not going to."

Dax gave him a faint, understanding smile, as a signal sounded. "Ah. Here we are."

Mora joined her in studying the two small screens that showed revolving diagrams of the two samples' cellular structures. He pointed at the one on the left. "Which one's this?"

"That's the new one from the infirmary. And this is the life form from the planet. But remember, it went through several metamorphoses."

Mora shook his head. "That's not the same entity. The nucleotide sequences are entirely different." He traced them with a finger.

"Some metachromic similarities."

"Yes, on a most basic level. At best, they could be distant cousins." As he spoke, the left diagram was replaced by a helix.

Mora felt his spine stiffen.

"The computer's broken down the DNA chain on the new sample," Dax noted with satisfaction. "I can run an analysis, see if it matches up with any other life form in the computer."

"How long will that take?" Mora hoped he had managed to keep his sudden tension out of his voice.

She shrugged again. "Two, three hours, maybe."

"Let me know."

If she noticed a forced look to his smile, she did not comment. Mora got up and left, trying not to run.

He knew what had visited the lab and the infirmary.

(-|-)

The Promenade was mostly clear. Odo had delegated the rest of the task to his deputies while he returned to his office to await word from Dax. He felt unaccountably tired; a feeling that had been with him all through yesterday, and was more so today. He thought of taking a quick break to rest in his pail, but decided against it.

On the way here, he had spoken with Bashir: at least there was one piece of good news. When he saw the doors slide apart to admit Mora, he relayed it without preamble. "Dr. Weld has regained consciousness. It looks like he'll be fine."

"That's a relief." Mora smiled, but briefly. He looked down at the floor, his lips pressed together and his hands clasped before him.

Odo studied him. "You don't seem relieved," he said.

Mora glanced up at him. "You can tell that? Just by observing me -- the tone of my voice, my eyes, my body movement?"

"Yes," Odo said simply, wondering what the point of this was.

"You are truly a remarkable life form, Odo," Mora said -- and his eyes were sad, despite his admiring words. "But there's so much about you we still don't understand."

Odo looked hard at him. "What are you getting at, Doctor?"

"The computer has broken down the DNA chains from the organic sample we found in the infirmary. Dax is running an analysis of it now. She'll identify it in a couple of hours. But I already know what it is. I've seen it before."

Mora paused, and looked Odo straight in the eyes.

"The organic sample...it's from you, Odo."

No. It's impossible. Odo sat down, numb. He barely heard Mora's voice as it continued steadily. "The destruction in the lab occurred at zero three hundred hours, five minutes. The attack in the infirmary occurred at nineteen thirty-five -- roughly sixteen hours apart." Mora stopped pacing and leaned over Odo's desk. "Is your rejuvenation period still sixteen hours?"

"I -- was in my pail during both attacks," Odo heard himself saying.

"But were you? I don't think so. I think, Odo, that you have been placed in the ironic position of having to track down yourself."

Odo found it hard to speak. "H -- how could this be?" He wanted more than anything to deny it, to tell Mora he was wrong, lying. But Mora had never lied to him. And of all people, he would know Odo's DNA when he saw it. Odo's own sense of logic told him ruthlessly that it was the only scenario that made sense. It explained so much: the tiredness he had been feeling, coinciding with the mysterious appearances and disappearances of the "creature".

Yet while his intellect reluctantly accepted it, his emotions still fought against the idea. He abhorred violence, had seen its consequences time and again. He didn't even carry a phaser, not even as part of his job. That he himself could become something so brutal, so unthinkingly savage, was something too horrifying to contemplate.

"Has anything like this ever occurred before?" Mora was asking.

"Of course not!"

"Are you certain?"

"Yes, I'm certain! There would have been -- incidents!"

Mora was relentless. "Any unsolved crimes on the books?"

"There are always unsolved crimes."

"Then the possibility exists."

"It doesn't!" Odo lurched up from his chair, as if to emphasize his denial. "I do not commit criminal acts! It is not in my nature!"

"Isn't it?" Mora persisted quietly.

Odo struggled against a nearly overwhelming sense of unreality. This could not be happening. He had to think. He could not simply accept that, unknown even to himself, he had been roaming the station, a vicious monster, for two nights now. Two nights...

"The gas!" he exclaimed. "Maybe it was the gas on the planet -- it affected all of you, it must have done something to me!" As he spoke, he knew with passionate conviction that it was the truth. Hadn't he felt something back on the planet when the gas spewed, and for a good while afterwards; a sensation of being somehow permeated, tainted?

"It's a possibility," Mora nodded.

"That has to be it!" Odo clung to that hope. It meant that this was the result of an external influence beyond his control. This evil was not his.

"It's certainly worthy of an investigation."

Odo started out from behind his desk, his mind made up. He had to know. If there was any chance that this -- contamination -- could be removed from his body before he caused any more harm... "Dr. Bashir may be able -- "

"Dr. Bashir will not understand any of this!" Mora stepped into his path. "Except that you have turned into some kind of uncontrolled thing that tried to kill him! Really, Odo! What do you think they'll do with you?"

Odo stared at him wildly. "Do?" he echoed.

"They won't know what to do with you! They'll put you in a high-security prison, or quarantine you on a deserted asteroid in the Gamma Quadrant -- Odo, they'll put you in a zoo!"

The word had been an invocation of horror for Odo -- in the same way that some humanoids feared fire and others feared being buried alive -- ever since he had come to fully understand how profoundly alien he was. He actually gasped, and drew back from Mora as if he had been struck physically.

"I -- don't believe you... You don't know them."

"What other humanoid have you ever been able to trust except me?"

Odo turned on him, half-snarling. "What makes you think I trust you?"

Mora stared at him for a long, long moment. He said, his voice soft with anger, "I resent that. I really do. After all the time I invested in you -- after the education I gave you, the attention I gave you... You would not be here today if it weren't for my guidance! I gave you more than anyone else in my life. You were my life! ...And then you walked away. And now, you don't trust me. Fine. Put yourself in their hands. You always had to learn your lesson the hard way, didn't you?"

Odo was cringing, like a child being tormented by a bully. He could feel his skin beginning to grow moist, as if he were overdue to return to his liquid state. But this felt -- different. Something was happening to him. He fought it.

He was losing.

He lifted his damp face to glare defiantly at Mora. "I...am not going back to the Center...with you..."

"Why?" Mora's tone had changed, become pleading, persuasive. "We'll work through this together. We'll solve it together. Just like we used to."

"NO!!!"

Odo slammed his hands down onto his desk. Electricity danced around them; the panels went dark. He did not notice. His fingers grew, fused together. His hands became blobs. His face melted and ran like a candle. His entire body was changing, warping. This was not like any other transformation he had undergone before. This was pure agony. And he was absolutely powerless to control or stop it.

All his efforts to keep his identity, his sanity, his shape failed.

He no longer existed. In his place, there was only a huge, unrecognizable form, molded by fury and fear, completely ungoverned by reason. It roared/screamed, reaching out for the object of its hatred.

Mora backed out of the office, staring in awe at the thing that had been Odo. Then he ran. He did not feel fear so much as shame.

He had made a terrible mistake.

(-|-)

In Ops, an alarm sounded. O'Brien looked up from his console. "I have a power failure in Security, Commander."

Sisko immediately tapped his commbadge. "Sisko to Odo." There was no reply. "Sisko to Odo." Silence.

Kira evidently had the same thought as Sisko: Odo might be under attack at that very moment. "All deputies, report to the security office. Possible intruder."

"I'm tracking it," O'Brien reported. "We have a power drain in the life support conduit above the security office. If it's feeding off our power, we may be able to slow it down by shutting off the primary flow into the entire core section."

"Do it," Sisko ordered. Then, as the lights dimmed and the background hum was silenced, he muttered, "Where the hell did it come from?"

"Security to Ops." The voice was that of one of Odo's senior deputies.

"Go ahead," Kira said.

"There's no one down here, Major."

Kira's expression grew severe. "And there's no sign of Odo?"

"No, sir."

"I can help you with that, Major," said a new voice. Kira turned in surprise, as did Sisko and O'Brien. Dr. Mora Pol was stepping off the turbolift.

"The creature you're after," he said, "is Odo."

They stared at him in shocked disbelief.

"There must have been some kind of metamorphic reaction to the volcanic gas that we encountered on the planet," Mora continued, walking up to Kira and stopping.

Odo -- the one person they would never have suspected. Why, Sisko wondered angrily, had they assumed he was unaffected, simply because he hadn't been rendered unconscious like the others? "Is there a way to communicate with him?" he asked.

"I don't know." Mora sighed. "It's not Odo, really. It's separate and independent from the Odo we know. And yet, at the very least, it's aware of me."

"How can you know that?" Kira demanded.

"The incident in the science lab -- I believe that was an attempt to rescue the life form I placed in containment. The second encounter occurred in the infirmary, where I was asleep. The third happened just a couple of minutes ago, when we got into a heated discussion -- in Security." Mora paused, lowering his eyes. He plainly blamed himself, for some reason.

Sisko was tempted to ask what he could possibly have said to Odo that had set the normally stoic shapeshifter off. But that was none of his business. The important thing was what to do about the result.

"I believe that even the constable himself would arrive at the same conclusions, given the evidence," Mora went on. "On some instinctual level, the creature is familiar with me."

Sisko leaned forward. "He might even conclude," he said carefully, "it has hostile intentions toward you."

"It had occurred to me," Mora admitted.

"The power shutdown is complete," O'Brien called. Sisko crossed Ops to join him. "Odo -- or whatever it is in there -- has stopped moving for the moment."

"Chief," Sisko said, "based on your knowledge of its behavior, if we can lure him out, is there any way we can set up a forcefield to hold him?"

O'Brien considered. "We could reverse polarity on the energy fields. That might work, but it's only a guess."

That was all Sisko needed to hear. "Set it up on the Promenade. I want a lot of room to operate. Major, station security teams along the perimeter."

"How are we going to get him to come out of the conduits?" Kira asked practically.

"Maybe we could use some RF energy bursts to attract him," O'Brien suggested.

Mora spoke, his voice grim. "There's only one way you're going to attract that creature into your trap," he said. "It's me it's after."

(-|-)

When Sisko arrived on the Promenade with Mora, he was glad to see that no one not to be involved in the capture was present. Odo himself had cleared the area of civilians earlier. The security teams were still finding positions. Everything seemed to be falling into place. He touched his commbadge. "Mr. O'Brien?"

"The plan seems to be working, Commander. He's following my trail of energy crumbs directly toward you."

"On my signal, open the conduit and let him in."

"Aye, sir."

Sisko turned to Mora, aware that Kira had joined them. "We're not sure which vent he'll come through. Hopefully it'll be the first one available to him, over there." He indicated a ceiling vent about halfway between the security office and Quark's. "If not, there are seventeen others he might choose. We're not stationing officers near any of them; we don't want to scare him away."

Mora nodded. "I understand."

"Just get him to the forcefield. We'll do the rest." Sisko laid a hand on Mora's shoulder. He felt a certain empathy for the man, as well as respect for his bravery. Then he walked off a few paces with Kira.

In a low voice, he said, "Pass the word that phasers are to be set on maximum stun. The moment Dr. Mora appears to be in jeopardy, I'll fire. Their orders are to follow my lead. If maximum stun doesn't bring him down immediately, we set phasers to kill."

"Commander -- " Kira began, and stopped herself.

"I know, Major. Those are my orders."

She nodded, her mouth tight, and went to relay them. This was hard on her too, he realized. Of all DS9's senior officers, Kira was the one closest to Odo. He didn't exactly relish the prospect himself. If worst did come to worst, it would be a tragic end to what Odo would no doubt have considered a most undignified situation. But Odo would also have understood the fact that they could not allow a berserk shapeshifter to run loose on the station.

The last of the security teams were in place. With the team nearest the vent was Bashir, whose role, if all went well, would be as crucial as Mora's. All they needed now was the "creature".

"Mr. O'Brien," Sisko said to his commbadge. "We're ready."

"Releasing the conduit seal."

"Dr. Mora, did you hear that?"

Mora nodded, attempting a smile. "Ready and waiting."

Sisko withdrew. It was now or never.

Mora stood alone on the seemingly empty Promenade, studiously ignoring the eyes peering from around corners and atop the walkways. His back was toward the vent, and so rigid with apprehension that it was starting to ache. He could not escape the feeling that he was somehow committing a betrayal.

Stop that, he told himself sternly. It's the only way to help him. The only way.

"What are you waiting for?" he muttered aloud. "I'm here. And I'm not going anywhere."

As if in answer, he heard a sound behind him.

Mora whirled. It was pouring out from the vent, onto the floor, flowing and shifting into towering, nightmarish shapes. It was graceful and yet horrible to watch.

Nothing of Odo's intelligence seemed to remain in the creature. There was no strategy, no guile in its actions; it merely reacted to his presence without hesitation, rearing up and lunging at him, only to recoil from the forcefield that slammed into place between them, so close to Mora that it knocked him off his feet.

Mora slowly rose, shielding his eyes against the fizzing glow of energy crackling through the creature's body. He felt sick.

The creature banged repeatedly against the invisible barrier, screeching in pain and impotent rage. The sound was like that of fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

Mora watched it sadly. "I've done it to you again, haven't I, Odo?" he said softly to the creature. "Making you a prisoner...dear God, what have I done?"

He'd thought he knew it all, hadn't he? Hadn't he made Odo his pet project for years of his life? Hadn't he come to feel affection, even love, for the strange, elusive being who had come under his care?

Mora had never had his own family. It would have taken too much time from his work, and besides, he had had no desire to bring up children who would only become slaves of the Cardassians, as he was (a rather privileged slave, but a slave nonetheless). So, when the new life form he had found proved to be sentient, he had unconsciously made it his surrogate child. After all, a sentient being had a right and a need to be taught, did it not?

Yet, by continuing his studying and experiments with Odo, he had been able to convince himself that he was still objective, still a scientist. And a scientist never allows himself to consider the point of view of his subject.

Then, seven years ago, Odo had left the laboratory. It came as a shock to Mora to realize how deeply the shapeshifter's departure had affected him. In a way, he still had yet to get over the anger and hurt he had felt. He hadn't seen it coming. No, he'd merely assumed that Odo had decided to become difficult. Some kind of shapeshifter adolescent phase. He hadn't had a clue what the real problem was, and Odo wouldn't, or perhaps couldn't, tell him.

Mora had finally learned Odo's whereabouts a year ago, not long after the Cardassians' withdrawal. He had thought many times of renewing contact. But something -- pride? -- had always held him back.

Finally a science probe had returned from the Gamma Quadrant with records of a planet where DNA similar to Odo's had been found. Then Mora had fairly leapt at the opportunity, popping back into Odo's life and dragging him off, as if to wave the discovery of the planet in his face and proclaim, See? You should have stayed with me.

True, he hadn't known about the gas, or the effect it would have on Odo, not to mention the danger it posed for the other members of the expedition, including himself. But that too was his fault: he should have waited for more information.

And then, when he had realized what the "creature" was, he had actually used this misfortune of Odo's to practice what was nothing less than pure emotional blackmail. Why? Did he really miss the power he had once had over Odo that much? Why had it taken the sheer horror in Odo's eyes at the thought of returning to the lab to make him understand?

Was it any wonder that the fury that had triggered the "creature"'s emergence was directed squarely at him?

The Odo-monster continued to beat against the forcefield. It seemed likely to batter itself to death in a mindless frenzy to get to Mora. Even now it was growing visibly weaker.

"Mr. O'Brien, drop the forcefield," Sisko ordered.

With a final sparkle, the forcefield was gone. The creature raised itself up once more -- and abruptly shrank.

Odo stood there, humanoid again.

He did not seem to know where he was. He was moist with exhaustion. He made a choking sound, apparently unable to speak. Then, his limbs stiff and shaking, he sank to his knees and toppled to the floor. Mora caught him and held his head; Bashir was there instantly as well, running his scanner over the barely conscious shapeshifter.

Mora looked down at Odo, tears streaming unashamedly down his face.

"We have...a lot to talk about," he whispered.

(-|-)

Ironic, Odo thought, that the bed he now lay on in the infirmary was the same one where Mora had recuperated from a different effect of the same cause.

He was subdued, having undergone the indignity of being centrifuged repeatedly before he was finally allowed to resume humanoid form. To top it off, Bashir had insisted that he lay down on the bed while yet more tests were completed. Somehow, though, after what he had subjected the station and its personnel to (unknowingly or not), Odo didn't feel in much of a position to protest.

He remembered nothing of the time he had spent as...that. Perhaps that was some small mercy. The thought of himself as a rampaging beast, driven by raw instinct and emotion alone, was ignominious enough.

He had always been aware of the double edges of his nature, of the potential he carried to be an agent of destruction and deceit. He knew others had their dark sides -- he was faced with that fact every day of his life. The thought that he too could fall to such depths was abhorrent to him in the extreme. Yet he had vandalized the lab. He had stolen the life form, causing its death. He had nearly killed an innocent person in an attempt to kill another. He must live with that.

He would have liked to believe that the gas was solely responsible...but the fact was that he would never know that. All he could do was make sure it never happened again. And that meant he must never return to LS6 -- home planet or not.

Bashir stood with Mora at the end of the bed. Odo had rather dreaded having to face the rest of the station crew, particularly Bashir. But, looking into the human's eyes, he saw no fear or disgust there. Only professional interest, with a touch of -- sympathy? Was it possible he understood? Was it possible they all did?

"I'm not going to try and explain what happened to you, Odo," Bashir said, looking up from the monitor. "Because I haven't got the vaguest idea. I can tell you that, with Dr. Mora's help, we've managed to remove all traces of the gas from your cellular structure. I prescribe rest -- because it's hard for a doctor to go wrong with that one. Otherwise, there's not much else I can do for you."

"Thank you, Doctor," Odo said quietly. Bashir actually smiled at him, and left him alone with Mora.

Odo had not been looking forward to this moment. What could he possibly say to Mora? What apology could hope to adequately express his shame? How could he ever look Mora in the eyes again?

Mora approached the bedside. "I'm going home," he said.

"Dr. Mora -- " Odo began, hesitantly. "I want to be sure...you understand. I had no idea."

Mora smiled sadly. "You had to speak in a voice loud enough for me to hear."

"I'm -- sorry."

"I'm sorry it was necessary."

Odo realized, with growing wonder, that Mora bore his own burden of regret for what had happened.

Mora paused, biting his lip, then continued, his eyes cast downward. "I would like...in some small way...to be part of your life again. Your life here, on the station. From time to time, we could talk. About things that matter to you. To us."

He didn't raise his eyes, and Odo perceived that he fully expected his offer to be rejected.

Mora was not his father. But he was the closest thing Odo was likely to ever have. Perhaps now he could be a friend as well.

"I'd like that," Odo said simply.

Slowly Mora reached out, patted his hand. Odo's other hand caught and covered Mora's, and stayed there.

(-|-)

THE END


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