Colonel Kira wasn't the only resident of the station that wanted Lephon Corixian dead by the time the day was over. The list grew longer and longer as the nature of Corixian's crime and the horrid condition of the children became known. Dr. Bashir and his staff had immediately hashed together a make-shift hospital in one of the station's cargo bays. It was where Odo found the doctor several hours later.
Dr. Bashir was sitting on the floor, his back against a wall. Dirty scrubs and a thick layer of dark stubble had left him looking far more haggard than his thirty-six years had a right to.
“Doctor,” Odo greeted. He handed down a mug of Tarkalian tea, and folded his body gracefully to join him on the floor. “You said you had the information I asked for?”
Dr. Bashir wrapped his hands gratefully around the mug and sipped his tea with relish. He rolled his head back against the bulkhead and closed his eyes. “Final count, one hundred and twenty three,” he said, exhaustion roughening his cultured voice. “None of them in good health. All of them malnourished and presenting injuries consistent with physical abuse. Some are worse than others, but none were spared. Many are infested with parasites and have other ailments consistent with long confinement. Three have the Andorian flu. Two cases of unhealed fractures require regeneration therapy, and one had severe brain trauma. I've transported the worst off to Bajor.” Bashir ran a golden-skinned hand through his curling hair, the resulting muss making him look even more tired. “And all of them Odo, every single one, is breaking my heart.”
“Yes, Doctor,” Odo replied. “Be glad you didn't see the freighter.”
“I've seen enough, Odo. The state of these patients tells me enough. I've seen some terrible things during the course of my work, Odo, but this...This is beyond anything I've ever encountered. I hope you plan on keeping that...swine…and his crew in prison for the rest of their unnatural lives.”
“That's the idea,” Odo replied. “I'll need your full medical report for the Bajoran authorities. When do you think you could have it ready?”
“Perfect, Doctor, I—” Odo's comm badge chirped, and he cut off to answer it. “Odo, here.”
“Boss, we have a problem.”
“Yes, Ridia, what is it?”
“We've found one more child on the freighter. She's been hiding in the ventilation. When we tried to get her out, she went further in, and now we've lost her.”
Odo barely hid his irritation as he stated the obvious. “Transport her out, then!”
“We tried, boss. The duct runs over the engine room. The warp core is in sorry shape, and the radiation is keeping us from getting a lock. The vent access is too small for us to pass through. We were hoping, boss, that you would come back over here and…well...”
“Shift into something and go in after her?” Odo heaved a sigh. “I'm on my way, Ridia. Odo out.” He rose. “Doctor, if you'll excuse me.”
“Of course, Constable,” Bashir replied. He gave Odo a weak smile and raised his cup. “Thanks for this, by the way. And good luck.”
Back on the freighter, Odo looked up at the ventilation duct in question, situated over six meters from the ground, its access point a small three-by-four rectangle by the ceiling of the cargo hold. Its slatted cover was hanging by a tenuous single fastener. Odo couldn't help but wonder at the ingenuity and fearlessness of the child who had crawled up the bulkheads, using a cargo net to aid the climb, and crept along an abutment to get to it, effectively eluding the invading forces of DS9.
Odo looked at the deputies bunched uselessly behind him. “I'll be back,” he said, and morphed smoothly into one of his favored forms, a Tarkalian hawk. He pushed off from the ground with powerful wings and flew up. He landed lightly on the edge of the air vent. His talons made click-click sounds against the metal as he bird-hopped into the open rectangle.
Inside, the metal walls of the ducts were covered with years of dust, disturbed only by the recent passage of the girl. Odo's feathered head darted back and forth as he took in the prints and swipes made by little knees and little hands that lead farther in, made visible by the yellow service light along the top of the ducts. Another form would be in order to navigate the narrow passages and follow the trail, so Odo morphed from the hawk into one more suited to the task.
Odo soundlessly followed the spore of his quarry on four long, agile legs. He wondered why he didn't use this form more often. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed the lithe, lean stealth of the cat. It was perfect for covert ops.
Odo padded silently along the ventilation duct until it came to a cross. The dust trail ended with it. The intersecting air currents had wiped the area clean. He paused, considering. Should he take the right, or the left?
Odo decided to let his borrowed feline senses do the work. A quiver in the whiskers on one side of his head suggested the air was moving differently from that direction, so he followed his instincts, and went to the right.
Not much further down the duct he found the girl. She was curled into a tight ball, sound asleep, the thumb of a none-to-clean hand thrust in her mouth. Leave it to a child, Odo thought, to sleep so soundly in circumstances like this.
Odo moved delicately forward, again pleased with the silent grace of this form. His investigator's eye took in the details of the slumbering girl. She appeared to be four to five, wearing a now-filthy pink dress. She had long, dark hair and sweeping lashes that brushed too-thin cheeks. Pale, almost white skin, no visible nose or forehead ridges. Humanoid, but nothing he could place immediately. He padded even closer and crouched down, close to her face now, and listened to her soft breathing. There were dark, bruised circles beneath her eyes. Obviously, the girl hadn't been sleeping. It struck Odo that maybe curled up in an air duct was the first time in a while she’d felt safe enough to do so. The thought made Odo loath to wake her, but she couldn't stay here. Engineering had warned him the radiation in the area was close to toxic and that she had been in the vent too long already. Resigned, he set about his task of getting the girl to safety.
Odo nudged the sleeping girl with a fur-lined cheek, purring and rubbing along her head as naturally as any family pet would have done. He got the intended result. The girl stirred and opened her eyes. She blinked slowly at him in the dim.
Odo had to give the child credit. She didn't flinch or start as expected, and he recognized the same bravery that had gotten her all the way up here in the first place in her surprised but steady gaze. Odo gave her cheek one more cautious rub and darted back, sitting on his rump.
“A cat?” she piped. She came fully awake, rolling onto her stomach to peer at him. “How did you get here, kitty?” she asked, and silked a hand down his back. Odo had to resist the urge to roll over and bat at her hand. He decided he would take a further risk and answer her question.
“Why the same way you did, of course.”
The girl's violet eyes widened at this strange phenomenon, but she recovered quickly. She accepted a talking cat with the minimal skepticism of the very young.
“Why are you all the way up here, kitty?”
“I've come to get you out of here. You must follow me.”
“I can't. There's people down there, people I don't know.”
“You don't have to be afraid. They're good people. They're here to take you away from this place.”
“But Kitty, I can't let them see me. I’m not allowed to be seen. What if they're like the others? The ones that hit?”
Odo's feline form responded to the idea of anyone hitting this child through a sudden spike of fur, a flattening of ears, and a rumble from his throat. The child mistook his intent and scrunched away from him, wriggling further down the air shaft.
“Wait, I'm sorry!" he said, stretching out a paw. “I'm mad at the ones who hit, not you. I won't hurt you.”
She stopped moving and looked at him levelly. “You mean it?”
“Child, I would never hurt you,” he replied, purring for good measure. “I won't let anyone else hurt you, either.”
The girl weighed Odo’s words carefully for a moment. Then she reached up to scratch his tawny head. “I believe you.”
Odo purred again and rubbed her hand with the side of his face. “The people below are my friends, and we can trust them. We have to leave this place, and soon. It's bad for you. It will make you sick.”
“Oh,” the girl replied. “I guess that's why my tummy hurts so much.”
The radiation was affecting her. Odo had to get her out of here. “We need to go. Please, come with me,” he urged, and nudged her cheek.
“Okay, Kitty, okay” she said, giggling. “I’ll go with you.”
Odo lead the girl back out of the ducts with minimal fuss, going back the way he came. When they arrived at the vent access, he looked down from the heights on the deputies below. He was trying to decide the best way to introduce his true nature to the girl without frightening her. She also surveyed the crowd, sitting calmly next to him and dangling her legs over the side, heedless of the six-meter drop. She showed no fear of her precarious perch. Odo guessed this girl would appreciate honesty more than not, something Odo himself had always appreciated.
“Child, I have something to tell you,” he began. He curled his long tail around his feet. “I'm not really a cat. I'm a Changeling, and this form is borrowed. I'm going to have to change into something else to get us down safely.”
The girl heaved a disappointed sigh. “I kinda thought a talking cat was too good to be real. But I really like you, even if you aren't real.” She swept an arm around him, hugging him closer to her side. Odo tolerated it as he pondered their predicament.
The girl scrunched her brow and asked, “Does it hurt, Kitty?”
“Does what hurt?”
“Changing. Does it hurt you?”
“No, not at all."
“That's good. So what are you changing to?”
Odo absently licked a paw. “I'm not sure,” he mused.
“It was easy getting up here, but going down does look hard...I heard that monkeys were the best climbers. Maybe if you were a monkey you could get us down.”
Of course, Odo thought. Why didn't I think of that? “Then a monkey it is,” he said, and nosed her arm. “But it will have to be a big monkey. I don't want you to be scared when you see it.”
“I won't,” she replied.
“Alright, then. Here I go.”
Without further pretense, Odo went liquid, shedding the form of the cat as he oozed down the side of the wall. He formed a leathery black hand and gripped the ledge of the vent, allowing the rest of his mass to dangle freely as he finished his morph into a majestic silver-backed gorilla. He hadn't changed into an animal this big in years, and he reveled in the power of it as he swung high above the ground, enjoying the bunch and flex of the thick muscle of his new arm.
When he was sure of the form and his comfort in controlling it, he reached his free arm up for the girl. “Climb out. I’ll carry you down,” he said, and waited for the inevitable objections.
To his amazement, the child shimmied out of the vent and into his arms without a thought, none of the fear or distrust he expected in her motions. In fact, it seemed quite the opposite. She beamed with delight as she clung to his thick-haired hide and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“I like this, Kitty.”
“Me, too,” Odo replied. “Hang on tight, now.”
Their descent was managed easily. Odo's simian form made short work of climb down the cargo net, the girl holding tight just as she was bid. When they were safely on the ground, Odo set her down, and transformed back into the chief of security. His deputies moved immediately forward. The resulting shriek from the girl reverberated through Odo like a sonic ping. He quickly scooped her up, holding back the deputies with one hand.
“Wait,” he commanded. “I'll carry her.”
She buried her head in his neck, sniffling, taking doubtful peeks at the uniformed guard. Odo patted her back soothingly, if a bit awkwardly. “It's alright,” he said. “These are my men, and they won't hurt you. They want to take you somewhere safe.”
“I don't like them, Kitty.”
“Odo,” he repeated. “It's my name.”
“Oh-Dough... That's a funny name.”
“Yes, it is. Someday, I'll tell you how I got it. Do you have a name?”
She drew her brow, thinking. “I had one once, when I was with Mommy, but no one ever used it. I can't remember it anymore.”
Odo's form rippled slightly as he thought over her words, what they meant, and who they reminded him of. “Well, then,” he said, trying to keep his tone cheerful. “You’ll have to a pick a new name for yourself.”
“That sounds good…” The girl’s violet gaze met his, her eyes wet with unshed tears, and she touched Odo’s face. “I don’t wanna go with those people, Odo. Can I stay with you? Please?”
Looking down at the tender, hopeful face of this lost child, Odo quickly became lost himself. “Yes,” he found himself saying, before logic and reason could silence the answer from his heart. “You can stay with me.”
“Promise?” she asked.
“I promise,” he replied.
Oh, Odo, what are you doing, he thought as he carried the girl away. Nerys is going to kill you...