Prophet Margins

Prophet Margins

R. Eric Searle

As most days on the Promenade go, things were busy, but not busy enough to require louder conversation while having lunch. Garak had started to appreciate Gagh, a popular Klingon dish, not because he found the wriggling worms and grubs appetizing, but because he could slice through each worm and watch it wriggle in its death throes. Julian was less sadistic towards his Gagh. He had gotten over his initial revulsion of the dish by envisioning himself enjoying a pasta dish at a Parisian cafe.

“So I was reading Captain Sisko’s declassified report on his first encounter with the Wormhole aliens,” said Garak.

“Wait,” interrupted Julian. “You can’t have read Captain Sisko’s declassified report. It won’t be declassified for another 45 years!”

Garak arched his eyebrows and smiled at Julian, as he often did when the good doctor exhibited skepticism during the Cardassian tailor’s stories. Julian winced. “Oh Garak, you didn’t…”

“Who says I did? At whatever accusation you were about to level at me. Anyway, the part I found most interesting was that the Wormhole aliens…”

“Prophets,” interrupted Julian again. He normally minded his manners better, but Garak could be so infuriatingly smug, he deserved to have the wind taken from his sails every once in a while.

“…was that the Wormhole aliens couldn’t understand his use of time-related terms,” continued Garak. “Simple words, such as ‘tomorrow,’ ‘later,’ and ‘present.’ This leads me to believe that they have no concept of time, and this is why their so-called prophecies and visions are so difficult to understand. From their point of view, future, present and past events occur simultaneously.”

“That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” said Julian. “Virtually all religions misinterpret communications from their gods and the results can be fractious.”

“I don’t recall that being a problem with Cardassian gods,” said Garak. “But to a species as advanced as the so-called Prophets, such miscommunications must be as equally vexing to them. Why then did they endear themselves to the good captain and the world of Bajor? What’s in it for them, dealing with these primitive beings chattering at them from the trees?”

“Gods find fulfillment from the adulation and love of their worshipers,” replied Julian.

“Perhaps,” said Garark, as he studied the intestines of a worm he dissected. “Let me ask you something, doctor. You’ve examined new alien life forms, often from the moment of their inception. How did that make you feel?”

“Excited, of course,” said Julian. “Intrigued, and determined to unlock the mysteries of their origins.”

“Much like a god, when the words of a worshiper’s prayers find his ears for the first time perhaps?” said Garak. “The god then turns his attention to the nascent worshiper. He does some tricks to impress the neophyte, perhaps throws a bolt of lightning or sets a bush on fire. Much like when a scientist introduces stimuli to a culture of bacteria, to observe the creature’s reactions, am I right?”

“Are you saying I have a god complex?” Julian smiled slightly and batted his eyelashes, knowing he would probably regret baiting Garak.

“My point is that these Prophets are perhaps scientists themselves,” said Garak, ignoring Julian’s trap. “They’ve just discovered these creatures that think there’s a mysterious concept called ‘time’ governing their lives. The Prophets choose a few of these creatures and attempt to communicate with them, but find their efforts to be unsuccessful. Have you ever managed to say ‘hello’ to your bacteria, doctor?”

“Of course not,” said Julian. “The bacteria lack the means to understand human speech.”

“Therein lies the Prophets’ problem,” said Garak. “The Bajor bacteria lack the means to understand their gods, so they have to be trained to properly do so.”

“You marvel at the chance to refer to the Bajorans as ‘bacteria’ without appearing imperialist, don’t you?” remarked Julian as he took a sip of Raktajino.

“All right, how about I compare them to lab rats instead? In a strictly scientific context, of course,” said Garak. “As I understand it, medical students practice the basics of neural stimulation by training rats to navigate a maze. At first, the rat is confused, scared, and out of its element. It is perhaps reluctant to seek a way out of its predicament because the paths lead to dead ends or uncertain fate.

“Eventually, the scientist decides he has to intervene. He guides the rat by placing morsels of food on the correct path. When the rat finally navigates the maze successfully, the scientist records the results, rewards the rat with more cheese, then reintroduces the rat to the maze again to see if it remembers the correct way out. Eventually, the rat learns the entire route correctly. Thus, the scientist has effectively trained the rat, even though the two had no proper means to communicate with each other. Perhaps that’s why these Prophets bedevil their emissaries and veddics with cryptic clues and riddles, in an attempt to guide them through their own mazes.”

“That’s a very cynical view of the relationship between gods and their worshipers,” said Julian. “Surely the gods must find the adulation of their worshipers comforting on some level. Much like the way a parent feels joy when their newborn baby smiles at them.”

“Prove me wrong, then,” said Garak, placing his fork evenly beside his plate and bending forward. “Look closely at that plate of Gagh in front of you. See how the worms wriggle and flop in a futile effort to make sense of this strange environment in which they now find themselves. They no longer know the comfort of soil and sod. They find themselves helpless, writhing on a cold plate, not a speck of dirt in sight. They lie exposed and completely at the mercy of higher powers. They see their comrades disappearing several at a time, impaled upon your fork, lifted into the air and then crushed, mangled and swallowed, removed from existence, purely to satisfy your appetite for invertebrates.

“Now, let’s say that instead of eating them, you have a change of heart. You decide you want their love, their adulation and worship. How do you go about doing so?”

Julian thought for a moment, said “Hm,” and took out his medical satchel. He removed an instrument and punched a few buttons in its user interface. “Let me see…if I were to configure the neural stimulator differently, program its wavelength into the pattern of an Archimedian Helix—more commonly known as a spiral—and then set its amplitude just so…” He then picked up the dish cover that came with the Gagh and used it to conceal the plate from Garak’s eyes as he passed the neural stimulator over the worms.

Garak could see a slight glowing from under the lid and hear the trademark Federation sine wave sound. Federation applications always played that sound for some reason. The sound served no purpose, Garak thought. Why would you want your enemy to hear you scanning them?

Julian then lifted up the cover, and revealed that the Gagh worms had rearranged themselves end-to-end in the shape of a spiral. Julian pumped his fists in the air and proclaimed, “Behold the Great Bashir, the god of Gagh!”

“Very impressive, doctor,” said Garak as he lightly applauded. “Which one is your emissary?”

* * *

“Daboooooo!”

Quark hurriedly paced by the table where Julian and Garak were dining, muttering “Third time at Leeta’s table! I’m going to dock her pay the amount of the next Dabo jackpot if she doesn’t shape up!”

“So to continue our conversation from yesterday,” said Garak, “I’ve come up with a few more theories on the nature of our neighbors, the Wormhole aliens…”

“Oh dear,” said Julian as he wiped his mouth delicately. “Here we go again.”

“Forgive me doctor,” said Garak with a not-so-slight degree of contempt. “I would have thought an accomplished practitioner of medicine such as yourself would find the subject fascinating.”

“My apologies,” said Julian. “Please, carry on.”

“These are immensely powerful beings, capable of making entire Dominion fleets vanish into thin air, yet they do little to help the people who worship them, aside from some cryptic visions and vague prophecies. I don’t recall them assailing the Cardassians with storms of lightning or plagues of locusts during the occupation. What kind of gods are these to ignore the sufferings of their worshipers?”

“Perhaps they realize that to do so would inhibit the Bajorans from developing into a stronger species, capable of protecting themselves, and not having to rely on their gods,” said Julian. “The Prophets chose to give them free will rather than oppress them. You saw how the Bajorans reacted to Cardassian rule, despite the Cardassians’ claims that they were protecting them.”

“With all due respect doctor, you need to start thinking more like a god and less like a do-gooder Federation propagandist if you wish to participate in this discussion,” replied Garak tartly. “My theory is that the Wormhole aliens have no ability to act outside their so-called Celestial Temple.”

“How so?” said Julian. He realized Garak was being serious this time, and not trying to enmesh him with his usual web of lies. “As you said, they’re immensely powerful beings, capable of anything.”

“First let me lay a foundation of space-time conceptualization,” said Garak. “We mere mortals conceive of both space and time as infinite. Yet we ourselves are confined to tiny packets of time. We age and die as time changes. Space however, does not change. It may be infinite, but it retains virtually the same size and place throughout eternity.

“When we look at the stars in the sky, we see them not as they exist now, but as they existed years ago,” continued Garak. “Individually, we cannot reach some of these stars in our lifetime, despite advances in warp drive and the rare occurrence of stable wormholes. We can only observe them in their past states. Perhaps the Wormhole aliens face a similar dilemma when interacting with time, except time does not deteriorate them. Space does. Moving through space slowly destroys them as time does to us.”

“It would explain why they rarely leave the confines of the Wormhole,” said Julian.

“Exactly,” said Garak. “These are timeless beings, not knowing the ravages and deterioration of age. To them, all events occur simultaneously, yet are beyond their reach. To deal with an event they know can be harmful to their worshipers, they would have to physically move through space, and such action could destroy them. Thus they have to resort to communicating with their supplicants by releasing these vision-bequeathing Orbs.”

“I think I’m beginning to see your point,” said Julian. “Why, if you don’t mind my asking, are you so interested in the Prophets all of the sudden? Are you thinking of converting?”

“No, my reasons have nothing to do with spiritual matters,” said Garak. “You see, one of the few benefits to languishing in exile to this vole-infested hellhole is that on occasion, I get to meet some of the most powerful beings in the universe. The first time I met a changeling, aside from Odo, was when I encountered one in the guise of a Romulan Tal Shiar. The first time he laid eyes me, he said I was an accomplished liar.”

“He may have meant that as a compliment,” said Julian, smiling slightly.

“Perhaps,” said Garak. “But when I meet any Prophets for the first time, I don’t want them to reach the same conclusion.”

* * *

“Ramufta and Vulcan Mocha, extra cream,” said Julian, standing in front of the Federation lounge food replicator. “An interesting combination,” said Garak from behind him. “Do the two vile tastes perhaps cancel each other out?”

“They’re perfect for midday stimulation,” replied Julian. “Ramufta is an excellent source of protein and vitamins, and Vulcan Mocha invigorates neural activity. Gives me my second wind.”

Both men found a table and sat opposite one another. “Since your mental acuity gets so aroused with this particular menu,” said Garak, “let’s continue our discussion on the Prophets.”

Julian took a sip of his mocha. He said “Remember the good old days when you tantalized me with tales of interrogation and torture?”

“I’ve accessed Bajor’s public archives,” said Garak, ignoring Julian’s barb. “I’ve watched several of their worship services. Each service had a similar structure. The veddic would ring a few chimes, light some candles, then drone on about the will of the Prophets, making vague references to prophecy and scripture. The congregation would then meditate and sit quietly for at least another hour. I found the whole experience excrutiatingly dull.” A Bajoran security guard sitting behind Garak turned and looked at him sharply.

Julian leaned forward and spoke in a hushed tone of voice, hoping Garak would take the hint and do the same. “The Bajorans obviously feel this method works for them. What did you expect?”

“More hellfire and brimstone, for one thing,” said Garak at the same volume he used before. “The veddic made no attempt to frighten them with promises of eternal torment and everlasting punishment in the afterlife if they stuck to their sinful ways. What’s the point of using religion to control the masses if they aren’t going to give them a good scare?”

“You’d have to ask Major Kira about that,” replied Julian diplomatically. He was not a religious man himself, but he knew better than to criticize anyone’s choice of spiritual fulfillment.

“I would expect to find the good Major to be considerably less cordial than the gentleman who’s currently staring daggers at my back,” said Garak. The security guard bristled, then turned his attention back to his lunch. He decided he would have to pass by Garak’s boutique more often and find a few more safety violations.

“I was hoping the sermons would address the Prophets’ numerous vagaries,” continued Garak, “but the veddics would only assure the congregation that the Prophets had plans for them all. Perhaps that’s true, but I suspect the Prophets have a flaw in their Divine Plan, which would never occur to them.” Julian felt as if he were back in a Starfleet Academy lecture hall again, as Garak spoke as if he were orating behind a dais.

“Because of their timeless nature,” said Garak, “all events occur to them simultaneously, even though they happen thousands of years apart by our reckoning. For example, the Prophet may see a major earthquake rocking one of Bajor’s continents, and look for someone to warn. All of us so-called linear beings probably look alike to them, so they pick one at random, such as a lonely batos herder tending to his flock. They inundate his feeble mind with images of earthquakes and terrible disasters, and he thinks he’s going mad. He then reconciles that the Prophets have spoken to him, and warns his fellows of the impending doom. In actuality however, the earthquake won’t be around for thousands of years. Or, it has already happened, while Bajor was lumbering through its formative period. And, because their level of speech and writing was still developing in the primitive stages, their description of the vision is vague and ambiguous to us reading their prophecies in the present day.”

“Very intriguing theory,” said Julian. “But it’s based on unproven assumptions that the Prophets thrive in a timeless environment. Their temporal state may not be as cut-and-dry as you think. In addition, their visions can be multilayered, designed to guide the recipient towards the accomplishments of many goals, not just to avoid impending disaster. Captain Sisko has certainly found that out first hand.”

Garak bent forward slightly, clasped his hands in front of his doublet and steepled his fingers, and smiled slyly at Julian. “I suppose the only way to find out is to ask the Prophets directly.”

Julian leaned back and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I’m sure you don’t mean through prayer.”

* * *

Dr. Bashir checked the data console in the Rio Grande dashboard. All systems had finished running their diagnostic checks, and the fuel and power indicators showed they were fully charged. Dr. Zapata had told him she was running late, but to go ahead and get the runabout ready for departure. Despite the far distance from Starfleet Headquarters to Deep Space Nine, she assured him she wouldn’t need any rest and would be ready to go once her transport arrived.

He heard footsteps behind him. He turned, ready to greet Dr. Zapata with his boyish smile, but the excitement sapped from his face when he saw Garak instead, taking the seat next to him. “Hello, doctor,” said Garak amiably. “Are we ready to depart?”

“Garak!” shouted Julian. “What are you doing here?”

“Coming with you, of course,” said Garak nonchalantly, as he handed Julian a mug. “Vulcan Mocha, extra cream. Logical choice, don’t you think?”

Julian lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. “Garak, you have to leave! I’m going on a field test in the Wormhole with Dr. Zapata! She’ll be here any minute!”

Garak pulled a hand console out of his shoulder bag. He punched a few buttons, and a dark-skinned human woman with black hair tied back in a bun appeared. “Hello, Julian. I’m running late,” she said. “Our transport ran into some turbulence in the Upper Megallanic Cloud and the pilot took a different route. He tells me we’ll be about 30 minutes late. Please have your runabout ready when I arrive. I don’t want to delay this any further. Thank you, Julian.”

“What in the name of…” sputtered Julian.

“It’s called Project Doppleganger,” said Garak. “It stores everything the subject has written in reports, journals, articles, and so on, and accesses all their spoken words stored as voice messages. It then forms a core personality based on those samples, which can be further tweaked when appropriate. For example, I can program this holographic image’s mood to pleading…”

The image of Dr. Zapata spoke. This time, instead of appearing professional, the image had a worried expression on her face and beckoned with her hands. “Please Julian, this experiment is the culmination of years of research! If the Wormhole is self-sustaining, it could be the environment we need to regenerate cancer cells, mend nerve injuries, relieve paralysis. The possibilities are endless!”

“Anger,” said Garak as he swiped his finger across the hand console screen. Dr. Zapata’s brow now furrowed and she showed her teeth. “No, we will not delay this excursion any further! I’ve risked too much and worked too hard to call this off because of a flight delay!”

“Enough,” barked Julian. The image of Dr. Zapata disappeared.

“The Obsidian Order used it to great effect to flush out hidden operatives,” said Garak. “Loved ones, begging for their spouses, children, what have you, to come out of hiding, enticing the fugitives to risk just one little transmission that we could detect and trace back to their bolt-holes…”

“I should have you arrested for trespassing and fraud,” hissed Julian. He brought his right hand up, flattened and ready to tap his communicator.

“You could at that,” said Garak. “Just as I could let slip during interrogation that you asked me to falsify this excursion. I most probably won’t be believed, but Odo does investigate these matters thoroughly, and he is most proficient at grilling suspects. He was trained by Cardassian Intelligence, after all. I suspect you’d rather not bother the good Constable, especially when he’s in a bad mood.”

Julian sighed and lowered his right hand. “What do you want, Garak?”

“Why, to assist you in your mission, of course,” said Garak. “It would be a shame to abandon such a worthwhile endeavor because of a mere scheduling mishap. Besides, I don’t see where you’ll be testing Cardassian tissue.” Garak was looking at Julian’s manifest pad, which Julian just now noticed was missing. “A slight oversight, I’m sure,” continued Garak. “One of which I will be more than happy to rectify.” He handed Julian’s pad back to him, along with a tissue sample in a vial.

“And if we just happen to encounter any Prophets along the way?” said Julian. “Is there something you want to ask them?”

“Oh, I’m not going to ask them anything,” replied Garak. “I want to tell them they’re doing it wrong.”

* * *

The Rio Grande slowly drifted through the roiling miasma of the Wormhole’s plasmoid space. Julian had configured the automatic pilot to veer away from objects approaching its hull. He was currently in the rear compartment, equipping more probes with cell samples. The few he sent out so far had showed no change in state, but he didn’t want to call off the project until all samples had been used.

Garak stayed up front staring at the viewscreen. Tendrils of cosmic dust in the distance warped and bent like fractal patterns. There were no stars that he could see, just columns and fields of space matter undulating and writhing. He could be witnessing the formation of universes, he thought, or it could be the changing nature of Wormhole space, as he theorized. Of the Prophets however, there were no signs.

He was patient. During one of his past interrogations, he stared at his prisoner unblinking for hours until the man confessed. He willed the Prophets to display some kind of weakness, some kind of flaw that he could pounce upon and exploit. Suddenly, the lights went out and he found himself in total darkness.

He turned and saw someone in a black robe, face concealed under an overlapping hood. The apparition glowed with a blue hue. It then raised its arms and spoke in a deep, echoing voice. “Garaaaaak,” it intoned. “The owls are not what they seeeeeeem.

Another apparition in a black robe appeared, raised its arms, and said in an echoing voice, “There is a man in a smiling baaaaag!” A third one appeared and said, “Without chemicals, he points. He points, Garaaaaak!

Garak stood up and walked past the apparitions to the aft compartment. He turned on the lights and saw Julian huddled in the corner, speaking into the Project Doppleganger console. “Very amusing, doctor,” said Garak. “Did you think I wouldn’t recognize the Ominous Hooded Inquisitor avatar? It is a factory default, after all.”

Juliaan looked back at Garak, his eyes widened. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” he said into the console mike. Garak simply walked up to Julian, gently removed the console from his hands, and shut it off. The apparitions disappeared.

“This is infuriating,” muttered Garak. “We’ve been here for hours. Why won’t the Prophets speak to us?”

“Perhaps we don’t figure into their Divine Plan,” said Julian. “They’ve already chosen Captain Sisko as their emissary, so they must have filled their quota.”

“Oh please,” said Garak. “Quark and the Grand Nagus contacted them, and those two Ferenghi gnomes have no more divine significance than the slug colas they drink.” He turned to walk back to the runabout forequarters, when he heard Julian say “The batos herder wishes a vision” in an otherwordly voice. Garak looked down at the Project Doppleganger console he was carrying. Julian certainly wasn’t using it. He slowly turned back around. “Doctor?” he said meekly.

Instead of seeing the aft compartment, Garak found himself in a Cardassian city block. The streets were covered in wrecked masonry and debris. He could smell burnt oil and charred flesh. Warning sirens screamed as searchlights from above scanned the street. Dark indistinct figures ran and darted from the lights. He could hear explosions and firearms in the distance, and then saw the dead body of his former housekeeper Mila laying at his feet. He thought he heard Kira’s voice beckoning him to follow her. He turned and saw the front of the runabout before him.

Garak gasped and braced himself on a chair. He had broken out in a cold sweat and his heart pounded like it would burst through his chest. He felt Julian’s hand on his shoulder. “Garak,” said the doctor. “What happened? You went pale and started breathing rapidly.”

Garak took deep breaths and blinked his eyes several times. Had he seen the future? Why was Cardassia in ruins? Why was he there with Kira?

“It would seem,” he said between breaths, “that the Prophets have a rather warped sense of humor.”

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