Ten years later...
I awoke at the scent of freshly brewed deka tea. Darkness blanketed my bedroom. I rolled onto my back with a yawn.
Today was a day of dread and rejoicing. The Dominion War ended eight years ago. It took this long for peace to establish itself. Cardassia is still recovering, as are many other worlds damaged by the Founders. However, wormhole travel was declared safe again, which meant keeping my promise to Odo.
I shuffled sleepily into my sitting room as the growing dawn spilled into the large window across the room. An oval of light illuminated the golden puddle on the floor by my favorite chair. I watched the living goo rise like a sapling from soil. Limbs sprouted off its central column. More details appeared-- long fingers, smooth skin and an earthy green Bajoran uniform. Finally, I made out the slicked back hairstyle and seemingly unfinished facial features. The figure looked almost exactly like Odo, and easily could have passed as him if it weren't for the brown eyes and auburn hair.
Not a morning went by without Kejal worshiping the sun's first rays. He never missed it-- not even when it rained.
"Good morning, father." He looked over his shoulder at me. "I made your tea."
His voice was light and pure-- he sounded nothing like his mother. Oh, he could imitate that gruff tone perfectly whenever he wanted, but he rarely did.
An achy lump swelled in my throat. I picked up my mug and drank the hot tanginess. "Thank you, Kejal."
"Father?" Kejal tilted his head at me.
"Don't mind me," I said. "I'm just a sentimental old man."
He crossed his arms and leaned back on his heels. His eyes sized me up.
"You don't have to hide it from me. I know this is a hard day for you."
I put my mug down and reached out. Kejal sat beside me on the chair that barely accommodated both of us and wrapped his arms around my shoulders.
"Was it all worth it?"
I smoothed his hair. It felt as real as mine, something Odo never quite managed. "Yes. Without a doubt, Kejal."
Kejal let his chin rest on top of my head. We watched our last sunrise together. Bajor came to life again under its golden brilliance. A new day. A new start.
"I better go tend the garden," said Kejal.
"I can take care of that."
He chuckled, "But I want to say goodbye to the garden before you move all the rocks around."
I laughed and let him go. Kejal loved gardening. More often than not he prayed to the Prophets while he doted over his carefully cultivated handiwork. Just then, I heard him singing prayers outside the window. His voice rose and fell like the chanting Vedeks of the Janalan Order.
A particular line he sang, roughly translated, "...and be my health and light, let me be within your sight..." brought back memories I wished to forget.
Years ago, Kejal fell ill with the morphogenic virus that nearly killed off the Founders. He was born infected, unknown to us all, and I learned it had been Starfleet's plan all along. They didn't want a biofilter-- they wanted an eradication. And they used my research!
Changelings are basically giant puddles of cytosol. Their DNA is purely mitochondrial, and their bodies protect it by walling it off into individual cells when they shape shift. As the cells form or dissolve, free-roaming ribosomes bond together to become the morphogenic enzymes that help organize a Changeling's biomolecular structure and guard its DNA until the shift or reversion completes. If a Changeling takes a form smaller than its mass, the enzymes activate its morphogenic matrix to shunt the excess mass into a self-created subspace pocket. And if a Changeling shape shifts into something larger than itself, it seems to pull mass out of the environment-- oxygen, in most cases. Without the morphogenic enzymes to keep its morphogenic matrix and biomolecular structure stable, a Changeling's DNA breaks down until it can no longer sustain life.
The virus did its damage via lysis. Each time a Changeling shape shifted, the viruses invaded its newly formed cells, forcing them to burst open and produce proteins that attached to the ribosomes, inhibiting their ability to bond into morphogenic enzymes. Over time the process caused significant impairments in a Changeling's ability to shape shift until, after one last transformation, the Changeling found itself unable to revert into a liquid state.
Changelings need to regenerate in their natural form-- it's the only time their DNA can repair itself, since some of it does suffer minor damage during the process of shape shifting. I found that out after studying Odo's bioscans during and after his pregnancy. Kejal's presence inhibited Odo's upper torso from shape shifting to prevent premature collapse of the air pocket and exposing him to a Link too soon. Each time Odo regenerated while pregnant, morphogenic enzymes flowed into the portion of his body that stayed solid and bathed his DNA strands to prevent breakdown. The enzymes also attached to Kejal's air pocket and filtered through in greater and greater quantities as Kejal grew. After the birth, Odo's body had a surplus of morphogenic enzymes as the pseudo-endorphins broke down, and it took him a year to fully reabsorb them. During the birth, Kejal also experienced the pseudo-endorphins and their breakdown, but the effects on him lasted far longer than they did for Odo. He was a very calm, cooperative and happy baby Changeling.
Doctor Bashir and I crunched numbers and came to a frightening conclusion-- without the excess morphogenic enzymes, the labor and delivery would have triggered the virus and resulted in the deaths of both Odo and Kejal within hours. The thought made me shudder.
Kejal showed signs of infection one month after taking humanoid form for the first time. We had no idea of its seriousness until Doctor Bashir contacted me about Odo.
Then I had to watch helplessly as Kejal, my son, grew worse and worse. The sickness rendered him unrecognizable. He spent many days cradled in my arms, his skin crumbling and his voice deliriously calling out to his mother. His cries became croaks, and his croaks were soon whispers. I brought my lab equipment into my home and sat by the oval window. I held Kejal close to my chest while I sought a remedy. He said he found comfort in hearing my heartbeat.
Doctor Bashir located the cure first, and wouldn't tell me how he obtained it when he sent me the instructions to produce it. He claimed I didn't want to know how he got a hold of the information. I refrained from asking questions. All I wanted was to make Kejal's pain stop. He was sicker than Odo, I later found out, and the cure nearly killed him.
Kejal wasn't the same for almost a year. But time heals many things-- including Changelings. He walked for the first time since his collapse on the same day the Dominion War ended. We knelt at my shrine together and gave thanks to the Prophets.
I expected to hear an all clear from Odo at the war's conclusion. Instead, Colonel Kira Nerys informed me of Odo's departure to the Great Link. I asked her whether or not she knew about Odo's feelings for her, and her teary smile said it all.
And finally, at sunrise yesterday, a Federation broadcast proclaimed safety for all. No more Dominion forces near the wormhole. Which led to me sitting in the morning gleam, watching Kejal say farewell to the garden he spent nine years nurturing. Each shrub, tree, flower and root had its own place, and woe to anyone who knocked a single rock out of alignment.
The knee-high deka sapling he planted seven years previous stood twice the height of my home. That tall, bushy tree with its drooping branches that almost kissed the ground provided my morning tea for countless days. Kejal loved the color of its narrow leaves so much he made his clothing match.
Sometimes, I suspect Kejal's gardening skills came from shape shifting every single object he tended. He had an understanding of nature that even I couldn't wholly comprehend-- and he tried to explain it to me.
"Trees are just...life. They're conduits for the love between sky and soil. I love being a tree...I hope the Great Link feels the same way."
I finished my tea and changed out of my bedclothes. As I moved to put my tea mug away, I noticed Kejal left extensive instructions for taking care of his garden. He included where to start when pulling weeds, which direction to pour the water and the specific prayer-songs he sang over each plant. There was even a map indicating where every rock belonged. So orderly, and so like him.
Laughing, I stepped outside and found two deka trees enjoying the sun. One swished its branches on its own. The other only responded to the wind. The real deka tree began its spring bloom early last week. Kejal always got excited about this. He brought a cluster of its first star-shaped blossoms inside and set them in a vase. The pearlescent petals glistened in the morning light.
I don't think the finality struck Kejal until regained his humanoid shape and touched his deka tree. A breeze rustled the leaves.
"I'll miss you too, old friend." He whispered, caressing the smooth bark with his fingertips. "Take care of father on my behalf, all right?" Then he turned to me. "It's time."
Together, we stopped by Leruu's grave. It had two names: Mora Leruu and Mora Olan. She was sure she carried a boy, so I memorialized our child with the given name she had chosen.
I glanced at Kejal, knelt down and ran my hand across the grass. Just like I used to smooth her hair.
"I did it, my dear," I whispered. "I raised a wonderful son just like you wanted. Now he's ready to move on. Are you proud, my love? Did I do well?"
Wind stirred the surrounding foliage. A leaf off a nearby tree blew against my face. A kiss from my beloved. I smiled, pressed my lips to the leaf and laid it on her grave.
Kejal sat beside me. "Wherever she is, she is smiling back at you right now."
"She has every reason to. Because of you, I granted her wish to see me father a child. Just not in the way either of us expected." I sighed. "Looking back now, I believe she had something to do with it. Heh-heh...she could sweet-talk Cardassians into giving us extra rations and medicine with incredible ease."
He gazed longingly at the memorial arch. "I wish I could have met her. She sounds like an amazing person."
"She was, and she would have adored you." I said, bumping my shoulder into his. "Ready?"
Kejal nodded and helped me up. To the grave, he said, "Goodbye, step-mother."
We traveled to the space port where a private shuttlecraft waited for us. I let the guard scan my flight permit. He waved us aboard. I went over the pre-launch protocols. All systems were ready for takeoff.
A woman hailed my communications console. "Clear to launch."
Kejal responded, "Acknowledged."
"Kejal, close your eyes."
"All right." He said, closing his eyes.
I took the shuttle into orbit. The blue-green sky appeared darker and darker until the atmosphere was just a memory at my back. Blackness filled the viewscreen.
This was Kejal's first voyage into space. Being a Changeling meant living a relatively sheltered life because of the Dominion threat. Kejal didn't mind that at all. Simple things made him happy. I taught him everything I know. We went to the Temple once a week, and he never failed to walk out with new, interesting questions for me. He had friends, many of whom he said goodbye to yesterday. Today, he got to behold something he dreamed about most of his life.
"You may open your eyes," I said, bringing the shuttle around.
Bajor floated like an aquamarine bauble in a black sea. Its five moons were all visible. The sun was on our left, making the oceans glisten.
Kejal covered his mouth and stared. Only the tears were missing.
"It's...so beautiful!" He gasped. "Father..."
"Happy birthday," I said.
"It's a human tradition. They celebrate the anniversary of their births. People give gifts to the person whose birthday is being acknowledged. I saw you born ten years ago today. This look at Bajor is my gift to you."
Kejal's grin could light a solar system. "Thank you."
I thought back to all the mornings I woke up sobbing. Then Kejal came along. He was born on the seventeenth anniversary of Leruu's death. That date used to fill my head with death and despair. Now, I can remember it with life and hope.
Kejal's birth healed my soul.
My hands flitted across the ship's controls. The journey to the wormhole took approximately five hours. We approached the familiar ringed structure of Deep Space Nine.
"We're being hailed," Kejal said
I replied, "Onscreen."
A handsome young Andorian in a brown security uniform appeared on the viewscreen. He gave us a stern look, yet his eyes twinkled with mischief.
"This is Malath, Chief of Security. Kejal, you're under arrest."
"You!" Kejal laughed and folded his arms, "For what charge?"
Malath's antennae twitched. "Waking me up this early to see you off."
"Your need for sleep isn't my problem," Kejal retorted playfully.
Finally, Malath cracked a smile that took years off his already youthful face. "Your need to go home is my problem. Don't you know it's impossible to find anybody decent at computerized dom-jot? I'm going to have trouble looking busy."
"You'll find someone else to clobber you at every game." Kejal laid his hands in his lap and sighed. "It just won't be me anymore, that's all."
"It won't be the same without the taunting." Malath shook his head. He smirked, twitching his antennae. "Have a safe trip, Kejal..."
"I will, but you better keep that station in order." Kejal replied, smirking right back.
Malath looked down his nose and tightened his mouth. For someone so easygoing, he appeared quite intimidating. "Oh, don't you worry, you clumsy little jelly doughnut. I run a tight station."
Kejal smiled with hints of sadness. "I can't wait to tell mother that a blueberry pie is running the station."
"Hah!" The Andorian snickered. "You win. Goodbye, my friend, and good luck."
Malath's image vanished, replaced with an expanse of stars. Kejal twiddled his thumbs and glanced at Deep Space Nine. From our vantage point it resembled a child's toy rotating in the blackness.
Kejal grimaced. "This is harder than I thought."
"Goodbyes are never easy. Not even the happy ones." I set the shuttle on a course for the wormhole. "But it is a good thing when they hurt. It means you care enough about the person to miss them."
"Mother never said goodbye to you before he left for the Great Link."
My lips twitched in a smile. "He's not the type for sentimental goodbyes, Kejal."
"I remember him saying goodbye to me." Kejal said softly.
"His relationship with me has always been on shaky ground. I don't begrudge him for it."
The truth is, Odo did say goodbye to me in his own way. I simply didn't realize it at the time. Two days after Kira informed me of his permanent departure, I received a coded subspace message.
I'm sending this to say thank you, and I hope Kejal's early years are happier than mine. My greatest regret is leaving your lab in anguish, and my greatest hope is the day Kejal strikes out on his own is a day of joy for you, not anger. Good luck, Doctor Mora.
I eased the shuttle around the pre-programmed flight course. It took us over the station once known as Terok Nor and lined us up to trigger the wormhole.
"Wasn't he found in this area?" Kejal asked.
"Right over there." I pointed to the swath of stellar gas floating far behind Deep Space Nine. "He was as tiny as you were."
Kejal whispered prayers in that direction. He did it again when the wormhole opened like a flower to let us through. I didn't miss him leaning forward, no doubt hoping to glimpse the Prophets. His childlike wonder never failed to warm my heart. And I admit it-- I also looked a little closer at the viewscreen until the shimmering blue swirls of the wormhole gave way to space once again.
The ship's computer switched star charts and recalibrated its position in the galaxy. I double checked the coordinates Kira gave me.
"It's hard to comprehend the vastness of space," said Kejal. "Bajor seems so small compared to this."
I typed in the coordinates to the Founders' planet and let the autopilot take over. The ship started forward at one quarter impulse. "We are mere subatomic particles in comparison to the universe. Moons orbit planets. Planets orbit stars. Some stars orbit each other. All stars orbit their galactic center. Galaxies move around in clusters. Galaxy clusters move around in vast supercluster filaments."
Kejal stared out the window. Taking it all in.
I nudged him with my elbow. "Didn't you say you wanted to be an asteroid just once?"
His eyes lit up. Five minutes later, there was a small asteroid orbiting the shuttlecraft. The shuttle's mass kept him tethered in place. He stayed outside for hours. I didn't call him back in until I prepared to take the shuttle into warp.
"It felt amazing!" Kejal couldn't stop chattering, "The stars are like trees, but too far away to feel, and the coldness of space itself swallows you up...and it's so quiet. Your own thoughts echo. It gets pretty lonely out there."
Kejal's enthusiasm sent bittersweet feelings through my heart. He reminded me so much of Odo in the earliest days, and my failure squashed it. I'm so grateful to the Prophets and to Odo for granting me this second chance. I did it right this time. I have no regrets.
An alarm sounded.
"Warning! External radiation levels exceed safe warping parameters."
The shuttle dropped out of warp. We were traveling within ten thousand kilometers of a new supernova. The newborn pulsar spun like a lighthouse, its deadly electromagnetic beam striking the shuttle's shields twenty six times per second. Intense heat buffeted us, setting off more alarms. The shuttle's shielding required swift adjustments to protect us from the onslaught of ionized particles. Kejal impressed me by managing the shields without my input, and we escaped the pulsar's beam within minutes.
"The radiation is still high. That shockwave is too close," he told me. "I'm going to keep calibrating. Computer, locate the source."
The viewscreen showed a luminous fast-moving gas cloud fanned into ripples by the interior pulsar. Sensors detected an abundance of hydrogen, helium and many other heavy elements. The building blocks for future worlds.
"Warning!" The computer cut in. "Shockwave impact in three minutes and twenty seconds."
"It's a type two!" Kejal's hands danced across the touchpad control panel. "I'm setting in a course to detour around that mess. Wow! That explosion can't be more than two hours old!"
I reported the supernova to Deep Space Nine. We became the first to discover it, so when asked to name it, I smiled. Future star charts will call this area Kejal's Nebula.
"How about that?" I winked at him. "Your first time in space and you get a supernova named after you."
Kejal laughed at that. The course he laid in took us out of the danger zone, where it was once again safe to put the ship into warp.
Several hours passed. I took over monitoring the computer while Kejal regenerated. He regained his humanoid shape mere seconds before the ship slowed to impulse and a tiny red dwarf appeared on the viewscreen. My eyelids stung. I managed to control myself until the shuttle fell into orbit around the tan, dim world. From the edge of my vision I noticed Kejal closing his eyes. He tilted his head as if standing under his deka tree on Bajor.
"Home," he whispered. "I sense it...I'm home."
The first real tear slipped down my cheek. I brushed it off. Another took its place.
"Father?" Kejal was at my side. "Oh...I know..." He clutched me to his chest the way I so often did for him. "I wish you could come with me."
I touched the back of his head and stood up to properly embrace him. "So do I."
He wiped my tears away. His face bore the same stricken look as mine. "Maybe we'll be able to visit," he said, trying to ease my suffering.
I managed a shaky smile. We both knew that was almost impossible.
The ship's computer emitted a tone. "Optimal altitude achieved."
My fingers gripped Kejal's shirt. He leaned down and let his forehead rest against mine. His hands cupped the sides of my head. I felt his fingers liquefy, and I experienced his ten years of love, joy and discovery. I sensed the peace he gained from the deka tree. I floated on the elation he found in gardening. I witnessed his love for me. And I saw how much he loved the mother he hadn't seen since his birth.
"Thank you for everything. I know it wasn't always easy." Kejal whispered. He reformed his hands and kissed my brow. "I love you."
"I love you, too." I pressed him a little closer to myself. My lips quivered and fresh tears began flowing. I spoke into his ear. "You made my life complete, Kejal. You really did. Thank you."
Kejal leaned back, lifting me almost a meter off the ground. I'd forgotten how strong he could be. The pain behind my sternum became a sugary-sweet tickle. I laughed despite the wet streaks on my cheeks.
"That's how I want to remember you," he said. "Laughing."
I sniffed and wiped my face. "And how do you want to be remembered?"
He glistened and turned into the deka tree. Long, leafy limbs bent to surround me while I leaned on its strong trunk. Then the tree became Kejal again. He released me, but I continued the embrace.
It was time. I needed to find the will to make my arms let Kejal go.
"You'll be all right," I whispered.
Right then, I wanted to say no. I never anticipated this moment being so difficult.
"I'll be fine." I lifted my hands off Kejal's shoulders and opened the cargo bay doors. "Run along, now...your mother is waiting."
The wind ruffled his hair. He looked me in the eyes. "Goodbye, father."
Everything knotted in my chest like a fist. I breathed in and forced the words out. "Goodbye, son."
Kejal smiled at me. Somehow, I smiled back. Then his form liquefied as he took a fearless running leap out the cargo bay doors. I heard the faint screech of a Tarkalean hawk echo through the clouds just before the doors closed again.
And I stood alone, staring at the wall in disbelief. He'd leapt into freedom without looking back.
Something made the shuttle shake. I felt it losing altitude. I raced to the controls seconds before it leveled out again. The viewscreen came on by itself. My heart nearly stopped. Deka trees were appearing over the whole of the planet. There had to be hundreds! Two formed beside the only visible landmass. Their branches intermingled and swayed, and I knew I just saw Odo and Kejal waving goodbye to me. That image stayed in my mind as I left the planet's atmosphere.
Suddenly, the shuttle felt overwhelmingly desolate. Kejal's laughter echoed in the walls and didn't fade until the red dwarf no longer registered on the ship's rear sensors.
I slept so I wouldn't weep. I was a lone dust particle looking for someplace to settle.
After landing on Bajor again, I walked into my silent, empty house.
The sun rose without Kejal welcoming its radiance. Its first rays fell on the series of holo-images I took during his birth. Putting them out seemed right after the war ended. I sat down in the oval of sunlight on the floor. There, I let myself sob. They were the tears of a selfish man who missed his child. I had to remove the sorrow to make room for the joy. Then the selfishness passed. I thanked the Prophets for giving me such a wonderful decade.
I poured out my whole heart when I fathered Kejal. I loved my boy-- I'll always love him. And how can I mourn his leaving when he was back within the womb he came from? Many times he talked about his life inside Odo's body, and he often said wars wouldn't exist if everyone knew that peace.
Right now, somewhere far away, Odo and Kejal are still embracing. Someday, Leruu, Olan and I will be reunited just like that.
I made myself a mug of deka tea and slipped outside to sit beneath Kejal's tree. Its shadow swallowed mine and its rubbery bark was smooth under my palm. Deka trees are the strongest plant on Bajor. Known to bend, but never break. In the wild they often form gnarled arches and spirals because of the wind. They must be carefully tended as saplings to grow up straight and tall.
For many years, Kejal guided this tree's growth. He cared for it until it stood on its own and became the garden's prized centerpiece. Its long, sinewy boughs creaked in the gentle breeze. Laughter and echoes danced through the leaves. Spots of sunlight flickered across my skin. Every branch swayed above my head, filling my mind with stories of the past. In the autumn, Kejal liked to climb among the branches and drop its bright orange seed pods on my head when I passed underneath. Deka seed pods are flat, lightweight and round. They don't hurt, but they make quite a crack when they bounce off someone's skull. Another prank I'll miss is finding seed pods in my shoes or floating in my morning tea. Each recollection made me chuckle.
I nurtured the hands that cultivated this magnificent tree. Everything I put into Kejal went towards it. I felt its lowest branch touch my arm like an old friend saying hello. Its leaves whispered around me, a sparkling green ocean stirring the sky. Above me, the heavens held the world in a perpetual embrace. Trees are the bridge between them.
Now it all made sense.
"Ah, Kejal...I understand!" I said to the wind.
Healing love radiated down my spine until I had no more room for sadness. Happy tears welled in my eyes. I sipped my tea, leaned my head back and smiled as Kejal's tree took care of me.