In which Sisko dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, and conscious only of his racial struggles as a butterfly.
Sisko is receiving some terrible news about the Cortez and her captain, Quentin Swofford, being lost. The war didn’t end just because Starfleet took back the station. Also, Joseph Sisko is around to visit with his descendants. They talk about how the war takes a dark and personal turn for Ben every time it seems to have been going well. Joseph tries to dispense some Old Man Wisdom, but Ben is both immune, and seeing anachronistic visions hanging around outside his office. Sisko goes out to find out who it was, but nobody else saw the man.
Ben is also trying to keep Kassidy from putting herself in harm’s way, when a baseball player wanders through. Sisko follows him through into the streets of 1950s harlem, where he’s hit by a taxi and wakes up in the Infirmary. Bashir notes that the brain patterns are similar to back when Sisko had those visions. Indeed, when Bashir hands him the padd, it becomes a science-fiction anthology, sold by a newsboy with a familiar voice and stature in an unfamiliar accent. Sisko, also known as “Benny,” is met by Miles O’Brien, who seems very forgetful, on the way to the office, and they head off.
Kira, Bashir, and Quark also work there, although without their alien characteristics. So does Odo, who apparently runs the magazine. Their magazine can’t get the names like Heinlein, Bradbury, or Sturgeon. They’re all second-raters like Herbert Rossoff (Quark) and apparently Benny Russell (Sisko). Roy Ritterhouse (Martok) is their artist, and story assignments are handed out based on his art. Benny is captured by the picture of a space station with tri-part symmetry. So before we get too caught up in the minutia, let’s puzzle things out for a moment.
Sisko’s brainwave patterns were similar to the last time the Prophets gave him a vision about an important event. Last time, it was to keep Bajor independent so that when the Dominion steamrolled through, they would be able to make a cease-fire. The Prophets are also well-known for using the faces of friends and loved ones to communicate, but usually in more of a montage than a fugue. So either this is really important and they’re spending extra effort, or it’s beings similar to the Prophets but with a better understanding of human history and, indeed, the concept of history itself. Note that I’m dismissing Russel being crazy because we see him here being introduced to the concept of Deep Space Nine after having been there for quite a while. Linear thinking, I know. Also, it’s hard to see, but on the papers strewn across the desk were some previous stories, all names of TOS episodes. So maybe the hint is that Russell will be taking up a Shared Universe.
Anyway, back to the plot. K.C Hunter (Kira) and Benny are told they can sleep late the day the guy comes to do their pictures for the magazine. Pabst (Odo), the editor, defends this decision by pointing out that they write pulp, not literature for ‘liberals and intellectuals,’ and don’t want to scare off their readers.
When Russell leaves for the night, two cops, played of course by Dukat and Weyoun, harass him with not-so-subtle implications that he stole his suit and shouldn’t be walking around in a (white) business district. Joseph Sisko is a streetcorner preacher, crying out about the Will of the Prophets, telling him by name to write the words that will ‘set them free.’ And when he gets home, this, and his copies of books by du Bois, Hughes, and Ellison inspire him to start typing about Benjamin Sisko, inspired to strive on beyond the limitations of his time.
Next morning he gets breakfast from Cassie (Kassidy) at his favorite diner. The one where she works and wants to buy in the next few years so they can get married. As she convinces him that this diner is their future, Willie (Worf) the famous baseball star drops by. Willie is making breakthroughs on an integrated baseball team, but is still redlined like crazy when it comes to where he can get property. Jimmy (Jake) is a small-time crook that Benny is trying to set straight. Truncated opportunities shape everyone’s lives, but Benny’s done with that, and has made a black man the hero of his story. Everyone at the office loves it, including Darlene (Jadzia) the new secretary. We get another flash of the future as K.C. compliments the Major, but Doug Pabst strolls in to squish everyone’s good mood. He can’t print it because Benny’s written a post-racial world where it’s actually noticeable.
Now, it’s worth noting that this whole fight is pretty much a dramatization of one that Samuel Delaney had with Campbell at Nova, just as all the senior staff are homages to famous writers. And in that sense, it’s one of the purest Star Trek episodes, and definitely the most TOS-y of all the DS9 episodes so far except Tribble-ations. Because Doug Pabst’s argument here is that we all wish for a better world, but his job isn’t to fight for it, and Benjamin Russell’s argument, hopefully obvious to us from our vantage point here but not yet put into words, is that you can’t wait for the right audience to appreciate something revolutionary that should be basic human decency. You have to create them.
After the rejection, Benny’s miserable with Cassie, when Worf intrudes again, this time in full Klingon armor before becoming Willie again. He also runs into Preacher Joe, who once again tells him to ‘write the words to lead us onto the Path of the Prophets.’ He passes out at his typewriter and is woken up by Cassie. He’s written another Ben Sisko story, even knowing it won’t be published. While he dances with Cassie, he starts flashing in and out of the Station.
Pabst is furious, but the other writers all want to help. Finally, it’s Albert (O’Brien) who comes up with the idea of making the stories a dream, held by someone who needs the hope for a better future. Incremental progress. With the new hope for publishing, Russel’s in a good enough mood to offer to help out Jimmy, but the kid’s too distracted. Benny goes out to celebrate on the town at The Rendezvous, and the streets are full of jazz. Preacher Joe shows up again to warn that this is just the beginning, and that the Path of the Prophets is full of pain and despair. Gunshots ring out, and Russell runs to find young Jimmy dead, with the two cops standing over him. In the heat of this emotion, Dukat and Weyoun start beating Benny Russel to death out in the open street, wull of witnesses.
Weeks later, after Russell has mostly recovered, he heads off to the office to see the story come in. He’s walking with a limp and a cane, but he’s walking. Everyone at the office is waiting for the story to come in, but Pabst has bad news. The whole run was pulped by the publisher, and Benjamin Russel has been let go as well. With this news, Benjamin Russel has a soliloquy and collapses, and has to be taken to a hospital. Preacher Joe is there in the ambulance to be cryptic at him one more time before reality reasserts itself and he wakes back up as Ben Sisko.
The question remains – What were the Prophets trying to tell Sisko, except… persevere. That said, Sisko still can’t shake the thought that his whole life is some sort of science-fiction dream.