by Henrietta Wotton
“To become a thing is to know a thing” -- the Female Shapeshifter, Behind the Lines
Technician Liga Dulon made her way deliberately through the maze of corridors, check points, and sealed doors that led to the xenobiology lab. Like an automaton she fed her identity card into the various locks and access panels, keeping her eyes lowered and never glancing at the ubiquitous Cardassian guards. At the final airlock she returned her card to the holder that hung around her neck, submitted to the retinal scan, and entered.
Glinn Tebek was already inside. No matter how early Liga arrived to set up the day’s experiments for Dr. Mora, Tebek arrived earlier. She knew he was not motivated by devotion to duty, or suspicion that she might be a saboteur for the Resistance. He was there to keep up the subtle pressure that he assumed would eventually bring her to his bed.
She realized how lucky she was that he wouldn’t simply take her. All the research being done here at the Bajoran Center for Science was deemed essential to the interests of the Cardassian occupiers, and the scientists and technicians were under an order of protection from the Prefect himself. They lived in a dormitory attached to the compound, where they were provided with ample rations, clean clothing and linens. No Cardassian was allowed onto the residential floors unless sent there on Central Command business or invited by one of the residents. As he was well aware, Tebek would lose his comfortable laboratory observer assignment and find himself dodging resistance fighters in the hardscrabble hills of Dahkur province should he attempt to rape her. This did not stop him, however, from incessant attempts to charm and so seduce her.
“Miss Liga, you’ve almost outraced the sun this morning to begin your duties before it brings the new day,” he said. He deactivated the force field around the experimentation table, sparing her the effort of doing so.
“Yet I somehow never outrace you, Glinn Tebek,” she replied as she logged onto the computer and accessed the list of equipment Dr. Mora required for today’s work.
“Every second we can be alone together is precious to me. Since you persist in refusing to socialize with me after our work is done, I have no choice but to welcome you to this laboratory every morning.”
She opened the autoclave and started assembling the necessary beakers and probes. “Proving that you monitor my activities so obsessively is not the way to my heart, I assure you.”
He hopped up on the table and leaned toward her, both arms outstretched. “If you would only reveal to me what *is* the way to your heart, I would traverse it immediately.”
“I’m afraid the way is blocked by an impenetrable force field that repels any Cardassian who attempts to enter.”
“Alas!” Tebek said, striking an elaborate pose of dejection. “I suppose, like most Bajorans, you feel you’re too good for us ‘spoonheads.’ However, there’s something you ought to consider, my girl.”
Liga looked up from her work. His tone had changed from one of teasing banter. There was an unpleasant edge to his words. “What would that be, Glinn Tebek?” she asked warily.
“That a Cardassian may be the only safe lover for a collaborator.”
“I am not a collaborator!” Liga declared. “I didn’t volunteer for this job. I was pursuing my advanced studies in biochemistry at Rekantha University when someone from the Cardassian Science Ministry pulled me out of my laboratory and ordered me to come to this complex to serve as Dr. Mora’s assistant. It was no different than when a security patrol descends on one of our villages and rounds up people to work in the mines.”
He walked around to her side of the table, so that they were only a few centimeters apart. “Come now, you can’t really compare yourself to the conscripts in the mines. You’re well-fed and sheltered, the working conditions are pleasant. If I was a guard in the mines, and you a laborer, I wouldn’t have to find a way to your heart. I’d just have to wait my turn till the Cardassian you were currently servicing was finished with you. I think if we put the question to any of those wretched slaves, they’d agree with me that you are a collaborator.”
Liga flushed, stung by his words. Many of her fellow students from the university would no longer communicate with her because they thought the same thing. Then there were the people in her village. Once a month, accompanied by one of the female Cardassian lab technicians, she was allowed to return to her parents’ house on a three-day furlough. She was also permitted to take to them as much food as she could carry. Even though her parents always made a point of sharing this bounty with their neighbors, Liga could read reproach in every pinched face and pair of hollow eyes. Why couldn’t they realize that this ostentatious privilege granted to the families of skilled Bajoran workers was the typically perverse Cardassian way of impressing upon them how easily their loved ones could be targeted should the workers not cooperate with their “supervisors.”
“I wonder what your comrades from the Seventh Order Security Detachment think about you lounging around this laboratory making passes at me while they’re in the mountains taking 40% casualties from the Shakaar,” she shot back. Although Tebek annoyed her no end, he was the only Cardassian that she had never been afraid of. She’d been insulting him like this for two years, and there had never been any reprisals, thank the Prophets.
“Can I help it if I’m the only member of my detachment who can tell the difference between Bajoran research that advances the interests of the Cardassian state and Bajoran research that produces explosives for use by native terrorists?” he said nonchalantly. Liga considered that she had gotten away with insulting him thus far because he was very hard to insult.
She opened the supply cabinet and took out the various components she would need to assemble the device specified in Dr. Mora’s notes for today’s procedures. She laid them out in a row and directed Tebek’s attention to them. “All right, scientific genius, what kind of experiment is Dr. Mora planning to perform today?”
“It looks like he’s going to pour our odo’ital into a container equipped with a small external generator. Then he’ll create electric arcs between these two tungsten rods and measure our friend’s capacity for conductivity,” he answered, looking smug.
“The unknown specimen is not a ‘friend,’ but a non-sentient substance, and odo’ital is not the correct Cardassian translation of the term; but yes,” she admitted grudgingly “that’s what the experiment will be.”
“Can’t you at least admit to me how impressed you are by my deductive powers, Miss Liga?”
“More like I’m mystified. Isn’t the study of science and engineering restricted to females on Cardassia?”
“There’s no actual restriction, just a massive prejudice against letting men into the research universities. However, my astonishingly high marks on the astrophysics entrance exam made them change their tune,” Tebek said without the slightest trace of humility. “I did a secondary specialization in biochemistry while I was at Central Institute of Technology. After my postgraduate work, I would have had a shot at gaining a Ministry of Science post, despite my gender. But my father made me decline my doctoral fellowship. Then he volunteered me for military service on Bajor– to make a man of me, he said.”
“Doesn’t seem to have worked,” Liga teased.He laughed. “Believe me, I am relishing the irony. My dear girl, I hope the moral of my life story doesn’t escape you as it did my father.” When she looked at him without comprehension, he added, “I’ve had women tell me before that they won’t let me in, but I always convince them to change their minds.” He smiled his most ingratiating smile and blew her a kiss.
“Stop clowning and let me get on with my work,” she said. “Dr. Mora will be furious if I don’t have this test apparatus ready to go when he comes in.” Tebek withdrew to a chair in the corner of the lab, although his blue eyes remained fixed on her, watching every move. It made her uneasy. She feared that she had dangerously encouraged his attentions by speaking so freely with him. She also feared, deep in her heart, that one day the loneliness of her small cubicle with its locked door might lead her to submit to them.
Her skillful hands assembled the generator quickly. She locked it into place on the container lid, connected it to the tungsten rod that had been inserted through an opening in the center of the lid and secured it. Then she turned on the generator and observed with satisfaction that an arc of current sparked lightning-like between the two tungsten rods.
“Bravo, Miss Liga, you’ve successfully recreated technology that’s been in existence for half a millennium,” Tebek said from his place in the corner. “What good does Mora think he’s doing finding out if odo’ital conducts electricity. It’s not like such material is in short supply. Now, if he discovered that our friend could carry tetryon beams to magnify the firepower of a plasma cannon, then all this experimentation would be getting us somewhere.”
“Dr. Mora is proceeding methodically to map the properties of the specimen,” she returned stiffly. “It contains enzymes never encountered anywhere in this quadrant. Research is about expanding our knowledge, not just producing practical applications. If you were the scientist you claim to be, I wouldn’t have to explain that to you.”
Tebek ambled over, coming close to her again, and this time she pulled back a few steps. The blue eyes gave her a quizzical appraisal, but he didn’t press forward. “Do you really think that this place would stay open if it didn’t produce practical applications? If all Dr. Mora had ever done was pure research, you and he would both be standing on some factory assembly line turning out whatever technology we ordered you to. Gul Dukat is just indulging him with this odo’ital obsession of his because of his success in developing a method of increasing the heat tolerance of the ore-processing workers on Terok Nor.”
“That was a great breakthrough in endocrine science that has also saved countless lives among our people,” Liga exclaimed, completely sick of his mockery.
“Oh, yes, a great lifesaver,” he sneered. “Workers who used to die after six months on the job now last up to two years, and productivity has increased exponentially. But they still die. They just suffer longer. That’s the kind of benevolent savior of the Bajoran people your Dr. Mora is–“
“I’ve never pretended to be anything other than a scientist seeking to uncover the secrets the universe tries to hide from us,” said a voice that belonged to the subject of their discussion. Liga wasn’t sure how much of Tebek’s statement he had overheard. Dr. Mora was scowling at the young Cardassian, but their antipathy was deep seated and didn’t require much provocation to set it off.
“Liga, are we ready to begin our work?” Mora continued.
“Yes, sir. The apparatus is ready to receive the specimen.”
Both of them turned to Tebek. The Cardassians considered the mysterious gelatinous goo as a classified subject, and only Cardassian security was given the codes necessary to unlock its storage cabinet. Mora chafed at the restriction and had lobbied to have himself made an exception to it, but to no avail. For several months, he and Tebek had been waging a psychological struggle over whether the glinn would take the specimen out at the beginning of each experiment without Mora directly requesting him to do so. Liga wondered how long the staring match would last today.
Not long, it tuned out, since Tebek took the offensive. “I suppose you want me to bring out our friend odo’ital?” he said.
“That joke is getting very tiresome, Tebek,” Mora replied though clenched teeth.
“Perhaps less tiresome if I named him in the Bajoran manner, Odo Ital?”
“Just open the cabinet and hand Liga the specimen!”
“Ah, all you had to do was ask, Dr. Mora.” Tebek grinned triumphantly as he keyed in the access code to the cabinet and carefully brought the three-liter beaker down from its shelf. Tapping the side with his fingernail, he said, “So Odo Ital, are you ready for today’s fun and games?”
The amber fluid rippled, in apparent response. “See, someone in this lab listens to me,” Tebek joked, displaying the beaker to the others.
“The substance is very sensitive to stimuli of any sort, but it’s hardly capable of listening to anyone,” Mora scoffed, snatching the beaker from Tebek’s hands. “All right Liga, I’m activating the sterile field. Hold the apparatus steady while I pour it in.”
D’it’l sensed the motion of the container, the sudden brightness, the shape holding it, and the sounds it made. Yet it would be a mistake to say that D’it’l felt, saw or heard any of these things. It processed all stimuli the same way. Because its earliest awareness had dawned during the long years when it floated in the silent, black void of space, its sense of being bounded and contained was the strongest, and as other sensations and stimuli accosted it, D’it’l translated those into parallels to what it felt upon its surface. Just as being released from confinement gave a sense of diminished weight and pressure, so it perceived brightness, silence, and an unobstructed field of vision as “not-heavy” things. Darkness, loud noises, things and people crowding around it were “heavy” things, the equivalent to being sealed into an opaque box composed of a particularly weighty metal. Since being jolted out of its drifting repose, D’it’l had been placed in containers of all sorts, and the mere touch and pressure of them on its surface seemed to give it a complete comprehension of all their salient properties--mass, density, and strength as well as more obvious things (to humanoids) like smoothness and texture.
Transfers from container to container involved mobile creatures whom D’it’l concluded, after long observation, performed their movements to accomplish some purpose and who made noises in order to communicate with each other. Every sound ever made in its presence D’it’l could recall, and gradually it was developing a rudimentary comprehension of the words which passed among these beings who had moved it to their purposes for some time now. The first thing D’it’l had figured out was that they each had a word that meant who they were. There was Dok’M’rah, who controlled what happened to D’it’l and who seemed to control the other beings as well. L’Ga made few noises and light ones, although she did much of the transporting. Then there was t’Bek of the heaviest sounds, and the single being who ever aimed his sounds at D’it’l. Only by paying very close attention to t’Bek had D’it’l in fact deduced that “D’it’l” was the word that meant itself.
D’it’l found it frustrating that it could not make these sounds, for D’it’l wished it could have a chance to direct the beings’ movements according to its own desires. D’it’l liked being out of the cabinet and letting light and sound impinge on it, and it liked those times when it was poured onto a container that was all bottom and no sides, allowing for expansion and movement of its own volition. However, there were other times when it didn’t like being out of the cabinet at all. These times Dok’M’rah’s movements had very unpleasant effects on D’it’l. D’it’l wished to stop Dok’M’rah from making it uncomfortable, and it had once stretched out part of its substance to pull Dok’M’rah away from a movement-place that seemed to be producing the discomfort. Yet, several times after that, Dok’M’rah had gone right ahead and made D’it’l uncomfortable again. He’d just moved out of reach. D’it’l concluded that the beings only comprehended words, and it frequently rippled in frustration when it couldn’t make the slightest sound, no matter how hard it tried.
This new container had a shape and composition identical to the one in which D’it’l rested, but had in addition something D’it’l had never come into contact with. Shapes of a different composition grew down from its top and up from its bottom. Each was no more than a quarter the height of the container, or a tenth of its width. D’it’l flowed eagerly around them, registering the properties of this heretofore unknown material.
Between the two vertical rods some force surged through D’it’l. The feeling was like the unpleasantness Dok’M’rah caused to make D’it’l move somewhere else or hold the shape of a container it had been removed from. But that unpleasantness always stopped when D’it’l moved as Dok’M’rah wished. Now it couldn’t move. It was confined, with no way to escape the discomfort.
ZZZZZZT ZZZZT ZZZZTThe force grew stronger and more frequent. For the first time in its existence, D’it’l felt not just discomfort but pain, terrible searing pain. STOP! STOP! STOP! it thought desperately. But the pain did not stop.
ZZZZZZT ZZZZT ZZZZT
ZZZZZZT ZZZZT ZZZZT
OUT!! OUT!! OUT !! D’it’l’s substance writhed and roiled from the shocks as it tried in vain to find some way out of the container. Then, as an even stronger current arced between the two tungsten rods, D’it’l in its agony somehow knew that one of those rods, propelled with sufficient force against the side of the container, could shatter it and provide an escape. Suddenly, without having made any conscious decision, or taken any conscious action, D’it’l *was* one of those rods. Fueled by astonishment and desperation, D’it’l concentrated all its mass against one side of the beaker and launched itself furiously against the other. Glass shattered as projectile D’it’l flew off the lab table into the air.
No sooner had it found relief from its pain, than it felt the disquieting sensation of having no surface touching it anywhere. Reverting quickly to gelatinous form, it tumbled awkwardly for a few seconds before hitting the floor with a decided THWAP. Yet that was not the only sound D’it’l made, because the pain had somehow given it a voice as well as a new shape. From the minute it crashed out of the beaker, it was emitting a constant wail. AWWWW AWWWW AWWWW.
Carefully charting the fluctuations in the specimen’s bio signs as the various strengths of current coursed through it, Liga blinked in confusion as the readings abruptly went haywire. Mass, density, molecular structure had all undergone impossible transformations. It was as if her scans were picking up the tungsten rods rather than the specimen. She ran a diagnostic, but it confirmed that the instruments were in good working order and the readings valid. She turned in disbelief to look at the container, just in time to see it shatter and hear the plaintive cry as one of the rods shot through the air and then impossibly turned into the gelatinous substance.
“Prophets forgive us, it’s screaming,” she said, horrified, to Dr. Mora and Tebek, who were both standing transfixed, their mouths hanging open.
“Nonsense, those sounds are caused by the vibrations in the substance which resulted from this current-induced transformation,” Mora replied. Yet he was pale and perspiring, and Liga guessed that this technical explanation had more to do with convincing himself that he was not a monster than any true scientific certainty.
“I don’t know, doctor, it sounded awfully like a scream to me,” Tebek said. “I’d have to agree with Miss Liga on that score.”
“I suppose I should defer to you Cardassians on such matters,” Mora retorted. “You are the experts when inflicting pain is involved.”
Tebek stepped closer. “I suppose you’ve forgotten those early Bajoran trials of the heat-endurance regimen, before you got the hormone balances right,” he bristled. “Quite a lot of screaming going on then, according to the records.”
Liga turned away from their never-ending attempts to put the other at a disadvantage. The specimen lay on the floor in the corner of the lab, quivering like a kevaberry aspic and still giving off a series of mournful bleats. She approached it and knelt down. “It’s all right, odo’ital. We won’t do that to you ever again,” she soothed.
At the sound of her voice, Tebek and Mora broke off their wrangling. Seeing where she was, both spoke simultaneous words of warning.
“Liga, get away from it. It’s outside the sterile field,” said Mora.
“Don’t touch it! You’ll be contaminated, Dulon,” said Tebek.
But they were too late. She had already scooped it up and was cradling it in her hands.
The touch of the L’Ga creature sent a shock through D’it’l almost as profound as that caused by the tungsten arc. None of the creatures had ever touched D’it’l surface-on-surface, so it had never known what it was to perceive the essence of another sentient. It moved itself between her fingers as it absorbed what the creature was. The flood of data almost overpowered it. L’Ga was infinitely more complex than any container or surface D’it’l had ever experienced. Most unexpected and fascinating was the way the creature had differentiated systems for processing stimuli. Unlike D’it’l, who registered all stimuli through its surface, one L’Ga system specialized in the visual, one the aural, one the tactile. There were even systems for sensations D’it’l couldn’t perceive. Could it mimic these systems, D’it’l wondered, as it had the molecular structure of the rod? Once again, merely thinking of the transformation enabled it.
How limited had been its sight and hearing! The creatures weren’t just solid blocks of matter with different outlines. They had variegated surfaces, as did everything else that had suddenly sprung into sharp focus. D’it’l now heard their words differently as well. They were distinct, less muffled, even though, for some reason, they were all talking at once. And D’it’l had had the names all wrong. “Liga,” “Tebek,”and “Doctor Mora”were what they called each other. What they called D’it’l it now heard properly, too–“Odo Ital.”
Reveling in all these new sensations, Odo Ital shuddered at a sudden very, very loud sound and intense flashing lights, along with a crackle and shimmer in front of Liga that reminded it unpleasantly of the painful electric charge. Then there was another unwelcome repetition of previous events, as Liga jerked her hands apart, and Odo Ital was once more falling toward the floor.
The creatures, it realized, could be at once high and low through the shapes they had. Odo Ital followed suit, extending its substance downward to form legs and feet that stopped its fall, upwards and outwards into rough approximations of torso, arms and head. The hands it mimicked more expertly, due to direct contact with their shape. Only then it noticed that all sounds had vanished, and creature movements also. Liga, Tebek and Doctor Mora stood stock still, all attention focused on Odo Ital. “If only I had a voice,” it thought. And then, “But I do.” Odo Ital reflected a moment on which weight to give that voice. Mora’s, he concluded. Everyone listened to him, so they might listen to Odo Ital if he could imitate him. He made a mouth and said, slowly and deliberately, “I am Odo Ital. Do not hurt me any more.”
Startled by the alarms, Liga threw the specimen down and tried to run, but the forcefield stopped her. Dr. Mora had of course activated the biohazard containment system. “This laboratory will be sealed in five minutes” intoned the computer. “All uncontaminated personnel evacuate immediately.” Tebek stared at her helplessly as Mora pulled at his arm. “We have to go. You can’t do anything for her,” he said.
Instead of leaving, however, both men froze. “Prophets! Look at that,” Mora whispered. Swiveling her head to follow his gaze, Liga saw that the specimen had formed into a simulacrum of a humanoid shape. Whatever astonishment this sight produced faded to insignificance when the creature proceeded to speak to them.
Tebek had the look of a child at its first Gratitude Festival. “Mora, I do believe that our friend Odo Ital is sentient,” he chortled. “And you have a lot of explaining to do.”
“It may be sentient, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. You have to leave with me now,” Mora urged, as the computer said, “This laboratory will be sealed in four minutes.”
“Please!” Liga threw herself against the force field. “You have to take me with you. After what we’ve done to Odo Ital, who knows what it will do to me.” As of yet it was only regarding each of them carefully, no doubt awaiting an answer to its request. “Tebek, you’ve got the override code. Please!”
She saw a glimmer of uncertainty cross his face, but then his features set into the cold mask of Cardassian authority. “Contaminated personnel must remain in isolation until cleared by the biohazard containment squad,” he said. “In addition, this surprising development must be reported to senior Cardassian science supervisor Arteeka at once.” Without a backward glance, he turned on his heel and made for the door. Mora was already far ahead of him.
“Damn that spoonhead. I guess I should have slept with him after all,” she thought bitterly. It surprised her that it was only from the Cardassian that she hoped for rescue. She had never doubted that Doctor Mora would consider her expendable.
Yes, expendable. He heart began to pound. She edged warily into the far corner of the lab. Odo Ital didn’t follow, but remained standing where it had formed. She caught her breath. It didn’t seem particularly violent. Yet, even if the alien – for that must be what it was – didn’t harm her, the future was bleak. They’d have her in quarantine for months, perhaps even permanently. Once the Cardassian scientists got involved, they’d run every test they could think of, and they wouldn’t worry about her suffering ill effects. She wouldn’t put it past them to kill and dissect her. Well, at least her parents wouldn’t have to live anymore with the disgrace of having given birth to a collaborator. A sob shook her. It wasn’t fair. To be a Bajoran under the Occupation meant either being a collaborator, a victim, or a terrorist. Oh, to have lived in the times her grandmother remembered, when there were no Cardassians and many life paths to choose.
The computer counted off its final seconds of warning, and heavy duranium panels clanged down and covered all entrances to the lab. She stole a glance at Odo Ital. It had sat down in the chair of Dr. Mora’s comm console, and its undulating amber surface was now clothed in a replica of the seat’s upholstery. Despite her despair, she laughed. It looked back at her quizzically, and she saw that it had succeeded in forming eyes that could pass for the real thing. They were deep set and blue. They were, in fact, Tebek’s eyes. “What a clever creature you are,” she thought, “to duplicate the eyes of the person here who is always watching.”
Liga walked slowly over to the comm console, taking care not to startle. Looking into the blue eyes she said, “I’m sorry we hurt you, Odo Ital.”
The eyes showed surprise, and a trace of delight. Of course. When they hadn’t answered him in all the confusion, he had concluded they hadn’t understood him.
“You did not know that you hurt me, correct?” Odo Ital asked, forming each syllable with precision.
“I wouldn’t let myself consider it possible,” she replied. “I should have. Tebek always knew, I think, but he didn’t care. Cardassians don’t worry about hurting people.”
The fabric covering rippled back into amber gelatin, although the eyes remained. He seemed agitated. “They will hurt me again? Though I asked them not to?”
She wanted to soothe his fears. Indeed, it was all she could do not to repeat her initial mistake by cradling him. But she reconsidered. In the long run, it would only be cruel. She couldn’t guarantee he’d never be hurt again. He might as well be prepared. “I hope not, but I can’t make sure it won’t happen, to either of us.”
The amber rippled again, and the features dissolved before reappearing in slightly different proportions. “That is not right,” Odo Ital said.
He was full of surprises, this being who had literally sprung to life out of her two hands only moments ago. Where did he get a sense of morality while locked up in a specimen cabinet? “No, it’s not, but you’ll learn soon enough that you’ll never get any justice during the Occupation.”
“Jus-tice? That is not a word I have stored in my memory. No one in this lab has ever spoken it, correct?”
“I doubt that we have,” Liga reflected. “What would be the point?”
“What is this justice, then?”
“Justice happens when no one is ever hurt unless they have done something wrong. People who don’t harm others–like you, Odo Ital–those people get only rewards and never punishments in a just world.”
The alien folded both arms across his chest in an attitude of determination. “One day, Liga, I will find some justice,” he said.
He’ll learn soon enough, she repeated to herself. Then something about the look in his eyes shook her habitual cynicism. She had the absurd impression that if anyone could find justice on occupied Bajor, Odo Ital might be the one to do it.
DISCLAIMER: Paramount Pictures owns these characters and situations, except for the ones I made up.
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