They sit side by side in the processing centre’s uncomfortable plastic chairs, Sisko having dragged Bashir away from district security before the doctor’s acerbic streak could provoke a confrontation.
The woman in the seat in front of Sisko is sobbing so hard her body shakes from it as her wife strokes her back and whispers calming words to her. In the row behind him, an interpreter is trying to communicate with a lanky teenager who reminds him achingly of Jake, but they’re speaking different varieties of a language Sisko doesn’t recognise, and they can barely understand each other. The man sitting beside him is humming to himself and using his pencil to draw spirals on his pant leg, his mind a million miles away.
He starts to read the form he has been given to fill out, his mind working to fabricate the answers to questions that are both uncomfortably personal and clinically impersonal. Questions about his health, employment history, education, sex, gender, partnership status, religion, ethnicity.
Next to him, Bashir is dithering over the last category. “Do you think I should check black, white and Asian?” he asks Sisko.
The guard who brought them in happens to be passing them as he says it. “I can’t make up my mind whether you’re too smart for your own good, or too dumb,” he tells Bashir loudly. “If you’re mixed, you need to check ‘other’.”
“Mixed?” Bashir repeats indignantly, “I’m not a bloody cocktail, you know.”
The woman sitting to Bashir’s right seems to find this hilarious. “Amen, brother,” she says approvingly once her laughter has begun to subside.
Bashir looks at Sisko as if to say, can you believe this?
Sisko sighs and shakes his head; I know, but let’s not get ourselves into any more trouble right now. To set an example he begins filling out his own form.
The ethnicity question at least is one he can answer with integrity. Sisko is an African American man. His race and culture are as important to him as being a father, or a Starfleet officer. His blackness is integral to his identity, an identity that manifests in his love of baseball and Creole food, the clothes he wears, the art that decorates his quarters on the station. It’s in his respect for Bajoran religion, in the kinship he feels with the Bajorans as a people who have recently won freedom from a colonial power. It’s in the fierce and pragmatic way he leads his crew. Even in a racially and culturally homogenous society like the Federation, Benjamin Sisko is unquestionably black.
Julian Bashir, by contrast, has always seemed to be the quintessential twenty-fourth-century postracial human… only here in 2024, there is no such thing.
Although another sidelong glance at the doctor suggests that might be news to him. While Sisko has been thinking, Bashir has half turned around in his seat and is now chattering animatedly with the teenager who’s interpreter was struggling to communicate with him a few moments ago in what sounds like the boy’s native tongue. The boy looks relieved and the interpreter is looking at Bashir like he’s some sort of divine being sent to save her.
“…no, he’s saying that he’s not a refugee,” Bashir explains to her. “He says his mother’s a scholarship student at… somewhere called ‘Berkley?'"
The boy nods enthusiastically.
The interpreter sighs, “That explains it then; the government rescinded all visas for nationals of another 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East last week, without exempting students this time. There were raids all over the city – frankly, I’m surprised they missed the kid. I’ll see if I can find out if his mother’s still being held in one of the detention centres, but I’m afraid she might have been deported already.”
As she gets to her feet, her put-upon demeanour fades to be replaced by a warm smile. “Thank you so much for your help,” she tells Bashir as she brushes a wrinkle out of her skirt. “There’s no one left in my department who speaks any of the North African variations of Arabic. I learned in Dubai when my family had business assets there - back before the crash of 2020 - and my supervisor thinks that makes me the most qualified person to deal with these people. You know if you’re, ah, looking for work maybe I could take your details and put in a word?”
There is unmistakable flirtation in the offer, and the interpreter is exactly the kind of woman Bashir would be falling over himself to spend more time with back on DS9, but he looks faintly repulsed.
“I’m really not interested,” he says tightly. “Thank you, though.”
He watches her walk away with a troubled expression.
“What’s the matter with you?” the woman sitting to Bashir’s right suddenly whacks him on the arm with her clipboard. “That lady just offered to hook you up with a job. Oh sure, she wouldn't have given you a second thought if you weren't so pretty and you didn't have that King of England accent going on, but if I could pass as well as you do I'd swallow my pride and work it!”
“Job applications come with background checks,” Sisko leans forward across the doctor to address the woman in a low, dangerous voice. “None of us is here because we want to be, and judging each other isn’t going to get any of us out. Leave him alone.” He grabs Bashir gently but firmly by the shoulder, turning the doctor back towards him.
“I’m sorry…” Bashir begins.
“You speak Arabic,” Sisko interrupts him, keeping his voice low.
The doctor blinks. Evidently, that’s not what he was expecting Sisko to say.
“I speak English, French, Vulcan, Modern Bajoran and Hejazi and Juba Arabic," he replies after a moment's hesitation, "and I think I'm almost fluent in Kardasi, although Garak would probably beg to differ. Standard Arabic is my mother tongue.”
“No it isn’t,” Sisko tells him, squeezing his shoulder in a gesture that he hopes will convey the compassion that underlies the urgency of what he has to say. “Not here, not now. And you need to use a false name.”
“What... why?” Bashir asks. “Sir, Jadzia could be out there somewhere looking for us. Putting our names on record here might help her track us down.”
“Look around you, Doctor,” Sisko explains, “look at the people they’re keeping shut away in here. Black people, brown people… Latino, Polynesian, Native American. People with disabilities, or who are physically or mentally ill. Single parents, war veterans, migrants, the young, the elderly.They're not here because they don't want to contribute or because they've had a run of bad luck; they're here because they live in a society that has been systemically discriminating against them for decades."
"Because they don't check the right boxes," Bashir says, tapping his clipboard in annoyance.
"No," Sisko agrees, "they don't. Doctor... Julian, I realise this is uncomfortable but you’re a person of color with a foreign accent and no documentation in the United States of America in the last year of the Trump administration. This isn’t a good place to have an Arabic last name.”
The Doctor gives him that reproachful, wounded look of his, the one reserved for when the universe doesn’t meet his exacting moral standards. Sisko once heard one of his ensigns describe being on the receiving end of that look as ‘worse than getting yelled at by the Commander’.
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Sisko continues, “but between 2017 and 2025 this country had some of the most aggressive anti-immigration policies in Earth history. Over a million Muslims and African and Arab nationals were detained and deported; refugees and others without papers were sent to off-shore detention centres, where they were kept in inhumane conditions and deprived of their most basic rights and dignity. We don’t know how long we’ll be stuck in this time period, and although the sanctuary district might not offer all of the comforts we’re used to, believe me, you’re better off here than you would be in an offshore prison.”
Bashir scrubs his palms over his face. He looks drained. “I hate this era of history,” he says quietly. “I just… I find the regressiveness of it really upsetting.”
“‘Progress will come in fits and starts,’” Sisko finds himself quoting “‘It's not always a straight line…”
“… it's not always a smooth path.” Bashir finishes for him. “Obama’s 2012 victory speech.”
Sisko raises an eyebrow, “I thought you said twenty-first-century history wasn't your strong suit.”
“I wrote a paper about Obama for Interstellar Ethnology with Professor Hinauri. She used to say that before we could understand the characteristics of alien civilisations we had to understand our own cultural backgrounds.”
“And so you wrote about Obama?” Sisko asks, curious.
“I don’t have a singular cultural heritage,” Bashir explains, “and I’m conscious that for much of our history, multiracial people were considered ‘exotic’ at best and a source of shame at worst. Many Earth cultures even had laws against people of different races having children together. People who looked like me repressed their racial identities and ‘passed’ as white to escape discrimination and stigma. It isn’t that I’m not proud of my Englishness… I spent more years of my childhood in England than anywhere else and I love it there… but in this era, my ancestors were also Arabs, Indians, Nubians, Pakistanis… probably others that I don’t even know about. I wrote about Obama because I like to look at the universe optimistically…” He stops here for a moment and laughs at himself. The sound of it is self-deprecating verging on cynical. “… and because the idea that all of the struggles humanity went through in the twentieth century lead to an explicitly multiracial man becoming one of the most inspirational leaders in Earth history gave me hope.”
“Explicitly multiracial and explicitly African American,” Sisko responds. It isn’t a correction, a contradiction or an attempt at one-upmanship. It’s a different perspective on a shared history, an expression of solidarity.
“Why don’t we ever talk about this?” Julian wonders.
Sisko meets the doctor’s eyes. They’ve worked together for over two years now and this is by far the most intimate conversation they’ve ever had, but even so there is an understanding between them here that ‘we’ means more than just, ‘I, Doctor Julian Bashir’ and ‘you, Commander Benjamin Sisko.’
It means ‘we’, humanity in the twenty-fourth century.
“I don’t know,” Sisko admits, “Perhaps we should.”
Julian gets up to collect a fresh form. This time when he fills it out, he deliberately checks several of the ethnicity boxes and gives himself a nine-syllable Greek surname that Sisko wouldn’t venture to try and pronounce. As his commanding officer, Sisko probably ought to call him out on the petty rebellion of it.
He lets it slide.