Benny Russell’s hands were shaking slightly as he put on his shoes. He took a deep breath and deliberately focused his attention on the ray of sunlight slanting through the apartment window, on the motes of dust that floated just above the bare wood floor. It did no good to dwell on the rapid deterioration of his once-strong body over the past few years, since the doctors, convinced of his return to sanity by his willingness to destroy his subversive manuscript, had released him from the mental hospital. Perhaps the drugs were the cause of his tremors and twitching, or the electroshock treatments — he had no way of knowing which. Under the circumstances, he supposed that he probably ought to count himself lucky he hadn’t been lobotomized.
He had eventually found a job after his release, working as a night-shift janitor at an assembly plant, where his black skin and his awkward, palsied gait would be less likely to offend anyone. If the authorities ever decided to check up on him, they would surely be satisfied with his new acceptance of reality.
Even his typewriter was gone: stolen while he was in the hospital, according to Cassie, but her contradictory and implausible explanations of the supposed theft had made it obvious that she had disposed of the typewriter herself. For his own good, of course. He had made no attempt to confront her about it, not even mentioning the typewriter again. After all, she was probably right. When he began the night-shift job, avoiding Cassie became easier, and after a while he stopped seeing her entirely. No doubt she would have a much better life without him.
But his writing could not be so easily set aside. The story was still there, every word burned indelibly into his brain, crying out for release. No one would want to read it, he knew. No publisher would consider printing a story about a space station under the command of a Negro. It was even more preposterous to suggest that Captain Sisko came from a future in which the very concept of a “Negro,” of the division of humanity along racial lines, did not exist.
He could not get it out of his mind. One morning, he took the bus across town and volunteered to work part-time for a branch office of a charitable organization. The director, Mrs. Alcott, was a fair-haired and somewhat plump society matron who wore immaculately tailored suits. She seemed to spend most of her time on the telephone, talking earnestly to donors about ending hunger in America forever. She spent much less time at her typewriter and had no objection to allowing Benny Russell to use it for an hour or two each day.
Slowly, bit by bit, he reconstructed the manuscript that he had destroyed in the hospital. This time, he decided to try mailing it to Canadian publishers, in the hope that they would be more tolerant — that they would be capable of understanding his vision. Even so, he knew it was realistic to expect a long round of rejection slips. He could not have been more surprised when, almost at once, an editor called with an offer to buy the story.
He glanced at himself in the mirror before he left his apartment. The old suit hung loosely on his gaunt body, but at least he had managed to get his tie neatly knotted, a task that had become somewhat difficult of late. He would be meeting the editor, who often traveled to New York on business, at Mrs. Alcott’s office; she had graciously offered the use of a conference room. A favor, he suspected, that would not have been forthcoming if she had known the contents of his manuscript. He had told her only that it was science fiction.
The editor arrived precisely at the scheduled meeting time, eleven o’clock, just as the bells of the church next door were beginning to strike the hour.
“I’m Jonathan Archer.” Entering the room, the Canadian editor gave Russell a firm handshake before he sat down at the conference table and took some documents from his briefcase.
“After reading your manuscript, I’m very impressed with the caliber of your work,” Archer continued. “You have a crisp narrative style, an imaginative plot, and a professional’s attention to detail. I don’t expect much revision will be necessary. Of course, there will have to be a change to your description of Captain Sisko. Although our Canadian readers might not object to his being a Negro, we do have to consider the effect on our U.S. sales, after all. I’m sure you understand.”
Russell stared down at the gleaming surface of the table that he had so carefully polished the day before. It reflected his face perfectly, even to the small twitch at the corner of his left eye. His hands began to shake more violently. Not again, he thought. This can’t be happening again. It’s just not right.
He did not realize that he had spoken aloud until the editor began to answer.
“There’s a fine line between doing what I think is right,” Archer informed him, “and interfering with the affairs of others. I’m here to sell science fiction to the Americans, not tell them what to do.”
“But some of the people who buy your books and magazines are Negroes.”
“Selling them books is a lot different than suggesting they defy their culture,” Archer declared.
Russell’s voice was raw, anguished. “I should have the same rights as you do.”
“It’s not my place to decide what rights you should have. I’m sorry.”
A silence stretched between them. Archer took a pen from his briefcase and fidgeted with it for a moment before he spoke again.
“There’s a fellow who works for my company. Trip, he’s called. He lived in the American South for a few years when he was younger. Well-meaning, but naive and impulsive. He foolishly took it upon himself to teach a colored housemaid to read, even giving her books on geography and other sciences. Never considered what the consequences might be. As it turned out, she killed herself when she realized how much she would never be able to do. A very unfortunate incident, and not just for her. She’d been employed by a young couple who were planning to start a family, and they had to postpone their plans until they could find another suitable servant.”
Archer set the pen down in front of Russell with a clatter as he continued, “I’m sure Trip thought he was doing the right thing. I might agree, if he’d been in Toronto or Vancouver.”
The contract slid across the table, following the pen. Russell tried to focus on it, but the words kept blurring before his eyes. At least the story would be published, he thought, instead of moldering in a desk drawer. He brushed the back of his hand across his eyes, almost restoring his vision to clarity, and reached for the pen. At least the world would know most of the truth of Deep Space Nine. And his view of Captain Sisko would never change in his own mind.
His signature was an unrecognizable blur. Archer took the contract and produced a check from the briefcase. The small, accusing rectangle sat there on the perfectly polished wood. It took three tries before Russell was able to pick it up. By then, Archer had already left.
Russell turned the check over and endorsed it, his signature a bit more legible this time, before he crossed the hall and found Mrs. Alcott at her desk. She had just finished a telephone call and was sipping her coffee.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t think I’ll be able to work here any more. My health just isn’t what it used to be.” He dropped the check on her desk, right next to the coffee cup, and had already walked out the door before she discovered what it was.
A moment later, she came fluttering outside after him, thanking him for his generosity. His cane rang against the sidewalk in hard counterpoint to her words. This gift would do so much, she assured him, to help the starving children of America’s inner cities.
He tried not to think about how many of them would be better off dead.