Harvest time settles on the colony once again. Gold-limned grasses stretch languidly in the breeze, elegant sentinels guarding a wealth of tubers ripe for the unearthing. In his various preoccupations, he has forgotten how richly the late afternoon sun bathes the landscape this time of year, steeping it in warm ocher tones like a form in amber. If not for the pungent aroma of the soil and the scorching heat bearing down on his back, he might dismiss the vision as a fanciful scene out of one of his novels.
How many generations has it been, wonders Odo. One, eleven, neither, both?
He stopped trying to remember their names an age ago, maybe longer. To him they are only the O’Briens, the Dax hosts, the Tannenbaums, the Sons of Mogh…nothing more and certainly nothing less. Trill spots and wry wisdom; forehead ridges and curt gallantry - each distinguishing feature fades a little more with each genetic iteration. He speculates on what will happen when both sets vanish completely, drowned in the cacophony of recombination, useful only for him to tell them apart.
This honeyed suffusion of light is quite entrancing, he reflects. Perhaps he will visit her today, after work in the fields is completed. Massaging his sweltering neck, he continues his task with renewed vim.
Clear crepuscular air greets him as he wends his way to that particular spot, wildflowers in hand as per usual. A yelg melon tree drops inkblots of shade onto him. Further shadows mottle the makeshift grave, a laconic send-off chiseled in his own script. Dust storms, hailstorms, blizzards, wildlife have left their mark on the monument, yet one can still glean meaning from it for the time being. Only he and the Dax symbiont remember her as anything other than an unwitting martyr…and here he was, beginning even to forget the way she wore her hair.
He finds himself speaking to her, to a weathered headstone, perhaps both, wishing beyond hope, craving discourse with anyone from that time, anyone who would remember what he cannot…anyone who ever treated him as if he belonged somewhere or somewhen.
For all he knows, she answers in her own way; the fact remains that a plan is born.
He returns to the colony, gait purposeful, head held high in determination. Nobody even thinks to lock their own doors here, let alone those of the school. He strides into the main classroom and enters a few token commands into the computer console. In time, the blessedly familiar face of a certain magnificent scoundrel swims into view. If he were a humanoid, the heft of his relief would result in tears. As is, he presses two lovingly shifted hands to the viewscreen, desperate to shatter that immutable barrier separating him from Quark’s simulacrum.
“Welcome,” it chirps. “Do you require assistance with any of the homework problems I assigned?”
“No, Quark, I just...wanted to talk to you,” he murmurs, his voice a low quaver.
“I am programmed to discuss and explain a wide variety of mathematical disciplines,” asserts the program, blithely unaware of any discordance resulting from its brightness.
The corners of his eyes crinkle, palpable tendrils of worldliness charting the face he has perfected over the years. “Any…creative accounting procedures?” he inquires sardonically. He feels uncomfortable standing like this; shooting out a lengthening arm, he drags a desk toward himself and stoops cautiously into the child-sized seat.
Quark’s image does not seem to take the proffered bait. “Please restate the question,” it requests, though not unkindly.
“Don’t be coy, Quark,” he chides. Even bent double in the diminutive chair, he remains slightly taller than Quark. Curious: perhaps in his excitement he unconsciously swelled to twice his height. Stranger things have happened. “You remember. You liked to keep a set of cooked books in the bar’s storage closet for me to peruse, all the while keeping the real set in a secure lockbox together with your disruptor. Don’t tell me you don’t remember that.”
“Please restate the question,” reiterates the program with identical inflection.
The desk proves to be almost as uncomfortable as standing was. He fidgets. “How about those shipping manifests you always tried to hide from me? That never seemed like particularly innocent behavior on your part.”
“Please restate the question.”
“You’re as forthcoming as ever,” he grumbles, though not without a certain fondness. Yet another of Quark’s poor attempts at inscrutability. What did he expect?
“I am programmed to discuss and explain a wide variety of mathematical disciplines,” reiterates the Quark image. It made for a rather poor icebreaker the first time, the shapeshifter reflects, and it makes a worse one now. After all that time not speaking to one another, this is all Quark can manage to say to him?
“All right,” he relents after a time, “surely a little arithmetic wouldn’t be beyond your reach. How long have you been in commission, Quark?” What an odd turn of phrase to use in reference to someone with no commission to speak of, Starfleet or otherwise. He wonders where he picked it up.
“One hundred and eighty-nine years, five months, eighteen days, seven hours, three minutes, fifty-four seconds.”
“Hmph. And in all this time I never thought of activating you.” Quark seems determined enough to act like a computer, so he might as well play along, he reasons.
“Outside of regularly scheduled class meetings, my program has been activated an average of four times per week.”
“I’ve missed you, Quark,” he rumbles, scooting closer to caress the viewscreen with tremorous fingertips. He wishes that someone would do something about this glass.
“Two hundred and sixty-eight of those times, my students required help with their homework,” the program prattles, taking no special notice of the wistful figure opposite the screen.
“I’ve missed the bad manners, the aggravation…the…”
“Ninety-three of those times, a Dax host performed diagnostics on me.”
“…petty theft, the…”
Quark’s image freezes for a moment. Having never been encoded with the ability to insert dramatic pauses between contradictory concepts, stalling its user interface would have to do. “The remainder of those times, you activated me yourself,” it posits.
“I don’t believe you. Surely I would have remembered doing so, what with your dazzling conversation,” he grumbles. He does not understand: why, after all they have been through together, does Quark insist on being so inscrutable? He had pictured a reunion that at least bordered on the cordial.
“My databanks do not lie.”
“Hmph. Says you.”
The door to the classroom eases open. A small girl with wiry red hair enters, clutching a padd to her chest.
“Welcome,” the program interjects neutrally.
Otherwise occupied with closing the door behind her, the girl had not noticed that the computer was on. She jumps to attention with a start. “Oh, hi, Quark,” she replies, acknowledging the shapeshifter in turn with the merest nod.
“I am at your disposal if you require assistance with any of the homework problems I assigned,” offers the Quark image.
An idea occurs to the interloper: steepling his fingers against the desk, he resolves to fact-check his friend and adversary. “Molly,” he asks, reasoning that she looks enough like an O’Brien, “have Quark and I met here to talk before?”
She eyes him suspiciously. “Um, you come here almost every day after school gets out. Why?”
He jolts, crestfallen, his buttressed fingers collapsing in on themselves. “It’s nothing. Carry on.” Wincing, he unfolds himself from the desk. “I’ll be watching you, Quark. Make sure he doesn’t get up to anything suspect, erm, little girl,” he reprimands, making a vague gesture to both Molly and the Quark program.
He ambles out of the school, troubled, finding it difficult to discern why. A pinprick blanket of stars drapes sumptuously over him. Tilting his head to gaze up at it, he performs a few idle calculations. Very good, he observes: only a few more months until harvest time.