Constable Odo shoved his bound prisoner towards a waiting deputy. “Take that to holding, Ridia, and notify the magistrate.”
Deputy Ridia quickly seized the offender by his collar. “Y-yes, sir,” Ridia stammered. He dragged the prisoner away, giving Odo a wide berth as he passed.
If Odo could have seen the look on his own face, he might have understood his deputy’s fearful deference. The suspect Odo had just arrested was a special sort of scum, one Odo thought might actually merit a death sentence, and he couldn't keep the malice he felt from simmering to the surface of his normally placid features. This had been a trying case, and a difficult arrest, and the filth he'd just handed off to Ridia deserved whatever fate the Bajoran court threw at him.
As he watched the deputy haul their prisoner away from the airlock, Odo hands balled into fists. He squeezed them until his arms trembled with the strain. If the court had no ideas about how to punish Lephon Corixian for his heinous crimes, Odo certainly did.
The prisoner and Ridia moved out of sight. Odo sagged against a bulkhead and released his anger, letting it travel out through his entire form in a heated amber flash. It disrupted the template he was currently wearing, the one known to the residents of DS9 as Security Chief Odo. He reordered his shape loosely as his anger dissipated and tiredness took its place. There was a slight sheen on his skin, an indistinct blur about the edges of his features, but Odo didn’t bother to fix it. He’d worked for months on this case, and he was more than relieved it was done, and in the privacy of the now-vacant airlock, he let his body say openly what was in his heart.
For the last four years, right under the noses of law enforcement in four different sectors, Lephon Corixian had been trafficking the worst kind of goods. Lephon Corixian had been pedaling human flesh. He had been dealing in stolen people, had affect countless lives in the process, and no one had been able to stop him.
Until today, Odo thought. Today, I finally got him.
It was Quark who had given Odo the final piece of the puzzle he needed to set up this sting. Quark had lent Odo access to his broad network of nefarious characters, and Odo had put them to good use in hunting Corixian down. Even the Ferengi couldn't condone what Corixian had been up to, and Quark had actually been glad to help. He'd even waived the fees for his assistance. It annoyed Odo to no end that he owed Quark anything, but some things were worth the price. Things like seeing Corixian's face crumple as it was mashed by a Changeling fist.
“Odo?” a voice called. "Are you still in here?"
The familiar contralto pulled Odo back from his reverie. Colonel Kira was approaching the airlock. “I'm here,” Odo called. He righted his form before she rounded the corner. “Did you get the search warrant?”
Kira stepped over the rim of the airlock. “Here,” she said, handing him a data PADD. “We rounded up the rest of the crew. They're all accounted for, and in holding. We're clear to search the vessel.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Odo said. “Excellent work.”
Odo reviewed the warrant and found it sound, as expected. Kira was no slouch. She was also no coward, but Odo still worried that this particular search and seizure might be too much for her. Odo knew Corixian still had hostages aboard, but had no idea what condition they might be in. However, it had been previously agreed that he and Kira would be the first ones to search the vessel. There were to be no blurring of lines legally speaking with the Federation. This was a Bajoran matter only if they wanted it resolved swiftly, or so said the magistrate when Odo told her of his plans.
Odo spied at Kira over the PADD, her attention focused on the still-sealed door of Corixian's ship. She looked a little pale.
“Are you sure you still want to do this?” Odo asked. “I can call one of the deputies to accompany me instead.”
Kira heaved a sigh and planted her hands on her hips. “I don't have a choice,” she said. “The magistrate said because of the nature of the crime, she wanted us both to document it in case anyone tried to dispute anything at trial. My rank will make my testimony carry more weight, at least according to her.”
“If Quark's sources are to be believed, Corixian brought all the evidence right to our door. There shouldn't be anything to dispute.”
“I agree, but the magistrate insisted." Kira huffed. "Odo, let's stop talking about it and just get this over with.”
“Agreed, Colonel,” Odo replied. He turned to unseal the door of the ship.
Colonel Kira swiftly came to regret her eagerness. She had read the warrant and knew what it was they were looking for. The Colonel had braced herself for what she might see, had convinced herself it wouldn't bother her. Hadn't she lived through so many terrible things for so many years during the Occupation? How much worse could whatever was on this ship be?
She watched Odo attach the lock-breaker he’d brought to the door of the ship. The device blipped twice as the frequency was found and the door opened, rolling back with a hydraulic hiss. Kira took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and stepped boldly forward, absolutely determined that whatever was on the other side of that door wasn't going to get the best of her.
Odo snaked an arm around her waist, halting her. “Wait, Nerys. I need to scan it first.”
“Oh, I...Of course.” She hung back and watched Odo run a tricorder slowly over the threshold.
Odo looked over the tricorder results and gave her a satisfied nod. “We're clear, but I'd appreciate it if you'd stay behind me. The tricorder might have missed something.”
Odo took palm light out of a near-by wall storage unit. He morphed a hook for it on his side and hung it there, keeping the tricorder in his hand. “Let's proceed,” he said.
The first thing that struck Kira when she stepped into the ship was the smell. It hit her like a punch, the corridor rank with odors of soured food, unwashed bodies, and burned warp plasma. She covered her mouth as she followed Odo into the ship, breathing shallowly against the miasma that threatened to spill her breakfast. There were other smells, too, faint but unpleasant scents that seemed familiar, triggering memories of her past she didn't want to think about in this dismal place.
Odo was a few steps ahead of her. He paused, noticing her lagging pace. “Colonel, are you alright?”
“I'm fine, it's just...It smells terrible in here, Odo. You should be glad you don't have a sense of smell.”
Kira closed her eyes and bowed her head down between her knees, willing the nausea to pass, and her fear with it. She needed to get it together. She wouldn't make a fool of herself, not here, not with Odo watching.
“You're not the only one having trouble, Colonel,” Odo replied. He turned to the wall of the corridor and reached out to touch it, tracing it carefully with the tips of his fingers. He closed his eyes and cocked his head to the side, as if listening for something. A long silence ensued. Kira wondered what he felt under his Changeling fingertips that had him so entranced, and tried to ask, when a motion from him told her to stay quiet.
Finally, Odo opened his eyes. “This is a terrible place,” he said. “Let's get this done, Colonel, and get off of this ship.”
“Fine by me,” Kira replied, and took a place two paces behind Odo.
As they traveled the halls, Kira took in the sorry state of the freighter. There wasn't a thing about the rusted hulk that said space-worthy. The bulkheads were buckled and in desperate need of shoring. Badly sealed wall joins oozed with slicks of pink mold, and leaking ventilation ducts dripped moisture on their shoulders as they passed. There was trash and dust and dirt in just about every corner Kira looked. If this crew didn't bother to keep the ship clean, who knew how the engines were kept. She wondered how the derelict thing had ever hit warp without flying apart.
Odo closed the tricorder. He reached for the wall, doing the same listen-touch as had before. “There is something interfering with the tricorder,” he said. “Radiation, maybe. I can’t get a clear signal, but we'll take the lift to the bottom level. I think that's where we'll find Corixian's cargo.”
“Right behind you, Constable,” Kira replied.
They came to the lift junction and stepped on. Kira hit the button that would take them to the cargo hold. The lift jumped to life with a lurch. Her stomach clenched as the aged equipment gave a loud, metal screech. Kira couldn't help but recall the last time a lift she was on had made a noise like that, and how it had almost killed her. This time, however, there was no sickening plunge, only a grinding, moaning hum as the machine descended into the bowels of the ship. Kira reminded herself to breathe, and loosened her death-grip on Odo’s shoulder.
At the bottom level of the ship, the lift doors opened. Kira's eyes tried to adjust to the gloom ahead. Odo held up his palm light, cutting a swath through the dim and illuminating yet another rusted, filthy corridor. The beam spooked something small, furry, and fast that scurried across the floor. Kira jumped back with a sound of disgust as it crossed her boot.
“Doesn't this junker have lights, Odo?”
“I'm sure it does, somewhere. I just didn't want to turn them on and disturb anyone-or anything-we might run into. Didn't you bring a palm light?”
Kira nearly smacked herself in the forehead. With all of the drama, she had forgotten she had a unit at her waist. She snatched it up and clicked it on, and stepped boldly off the lift.
Odo gave her a knowing look, and resumed the lead. His footfalls were silent in the eerie murk. Kira did her best to keep her own heels from ringing on the grated floor, but knew she had no hope of matching Odo’s stealth.
As they progressed, she noticed the stench was getting stronger. The temperature was also steadily rising the deeper they went. Odo stopped occasionally to touch another wall, following his instincts like a hound on a scent. Kira's sense of direction was strong, but Odo’s was infallible, and she quickly lost all track of where they were heading as she tried to keep up with him. Her head spun with turns and twists, and the increasing heat, Odo leading her endlessly on, taking them deeper and deeper into the maze of Corixian's freighter.
Finally, Odo stopped. In front of them was a large double door, big enough to pilot a shuttle through. The smell was strongest here, a draft coming through a gap in the door's seal and carrying it straight to Kira's nostrils. She caught blood and sickness in that smell, and her stomach roiled again. The hum of an idled warp coil reached her, like the drone of a distant hornet’s nest. They had to be close to the engine room, which explained the heat. Kira wiped the sweat from her brow and tried to keep her nerves from showing as Odo examined the door for a way in.
“Ah, here it is,” Odo said. His light was highlighting an access panel to the right of the door. He walked over and examined it. “Standard Rigellian locking panel. Easy enough.”
Odo made a couple of dexterous taps to the keys to override the lock. The doors slid back smoothly and silently, the only well-cared-for thing on board, and Kira smiled over the grim irony of it. Then she saw what lay behind them, and the smile slid off her face. Her mouth dropped open in abject horror. Quark's sources had been right, but they hadn't told them everything.
At first, they both just stood there, gaping at what their feeble palm lights could reveal. The rotten heart of the vessel had been exposed, its terrible secret laid open, its soured core revealed. Kira swiveled her light around the room, and kept repeating the pattern, reviewing the same spots over and over, her hand on automatic as her brain tried to process the horrid tableau before her. It couldn't be possible what she was seeing. It was too cruel, too much. No one was this evil, not even the Cardassians.
Everywhere she looked, each place her light touched, were children, dozens and dozens of children, all races and ages, huddled together in the dark, shirking the beams from their palm lights like Bajoran night-fliers hiding from the sun. The room was originally a cargo hold, but had been turned into an animal pen, the little bodies packed so tightly they could scarcely move. Their faces were streaked with offal and they wore ragged remnants in various states of tatter, their torn, weary bodies in the same condition as their clothes. There were scratches and scrapes, badly bound breaks, nit-laden rat's nests of hair and shed skin hanging like dried husks from scaled limbs. Kira saw exposed ribs and poking elbows, gaunt cheeks and hollowed bellies. They were all so starved it was a wonder any of them were alive at all.
And they were silent these captives, so silent. It was unnatural to see so many bodies in one room and not hear a single sound. It itched Kira’s brain, giving her a sense of disconnection, as if she were watching a holo-vid with the sound muted. Kira gripped her palm light tighter and resisted the sudden urge to throw it, just to see if it was all real.
“Colonel,” Odo said. He touched her shoulder.
Kira flinched. She flung a fist out blindly, not caring who she hit. Odo caught her fist and brought it to his chest.
“Kira, I want you to walk away from here. Call the station. Have security send back-up, and notify Dr. Bashir. He'll need to set up a triage facility.”
Odo's words were a transmission Kira couldn't quite hear, a garbled message stuck on a loop. She snatched her hand back and turned away from him. She stared into the cargo hold, her logic trying to frame it all into something she could use, something she could relate to. She tried cataloging the many worlds represented in the forlorn faces and battered bodies, and found she recognized only half of the species, but their blank expressions, their dull eyes, those were all the same. Kira knew that expression, knew it meant the wearer had no hope, no spirit left inside. The vedeks in the labor camps had called it pagh-death. To see it on children, on so many tender faces, nearly rent her in two. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, tears spilling hotly down her cheeks.
“Odo, I-I don't understand this,” she stammered. “Oh, Prophets, what is this?”
“Nerys, just do as I told you!” He cupped her face in his hands. “I don't want you to see this. You need to go from here. Now!”
The warmth of Odo’s hands drew her back to herself. Kira finally pulled her eyes away from the cargo hold, staring hard through the dim at Odo. How he could be so concerned about orders at a time like this? Kira was about to say so when she caught a strange glimmer in the dark. She tilted her light so it grazed Odo's face, but he didn't flinch from it. He angled his face into the beam, and let her see.
The Changeling wore his pain openly—raw, ragged, weary—carving jagged lines of misery into his brow and around his thin-lipped mouth. Rivulets of amber fluid were flowing down his waxen face. They looked like droplets of sweat. Or tears. Kira’s gaze followed as one trailed slowly down his cheek and dripped off his chin, reabsorbing into his tunic. So Changelings do cry, she thought, and the realization broke the spell she was under like a slap.
She was a Colonel. She had a job to do, and Odo needed her to do it. “Alright,” she said. “I'll go…But I'll be back.”
Kira swung away from Odo and marched down the corridor. The fire returned to her step, and her voice rang off the hull like a bell.
“And I swear, Odo! I'll kill that beast myself for this!”