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Escape from the Dream Box, Prelude

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Simon woke up to his door rattling in its frame. On the other side, the captain was doing something that could, perhaps, if one was feeling generous, be called knocking.

"Yes, what, what is it?" To his sleep-blurred vision, Mal looked worried. And angry. Simon straightened out of his slump against the door. "Is someone hurt?"

"No, but there's decent odds someone's gonna be," Mal said grimly.

"I don't follow."

"You been giving out our private comm signal, doc? The one that's meant to be... you know, private?"

Simon blinked at him, still too tired to put more effort into an actual expression. "The one so private I don't actually know it, you mean? That one?"

"Should I take that for a "no, captain, I would never do that, captain"?"

"If you like," Simon said absently. He glanced back inside, wondering if there was any chance of him getting back to sleep for long enough to make it worthwhile. The bed did look terribly inviting - as beds always do when you're at a certain level of exhaustion - but it was an invitation Simon could decline, if it was close enough to ship's morning.

"Then why," Mal wondered, "is there a message from a Federation doctor on that line for you?"

At the word Federation, Simon's blood ran cold. The bed no longer looked inviting - it looked like a trap. The whole ship was a trap. If they knew he was here, if they knew River was here, then - okay Simon, calm down, just start packing. When the others are awake, you can ask their advice for another ship to stow away on, or a planet with no extradition treaty, but they're asleep now, so now you -

"Whoa there," Mal said, his tone somewhere between alarmed and concerned. "What's all this now?"

"We'll have to leave the ship," Simon said, stuffing clothes into a bag. "If the Federation knows we're here - "

"Doc, I don't think you have a complete understanding of the situation." Simon stopped emptying drawers long enough to blink up at Mal. "The Fed doc's not asking you to turn yourself in. He's asking for help."

A dozen different questions ran through Simon's head at that moment, but only one of them made its way out of his mouth.

"Help with what?"

"This message is for Dr. Simon Tam, formerly of Deep Space Nine, currently aboard the smuggling ship Serenity, if my information is correct." Julian Bashir, looking scruffy and dusty and wearier than Simon had ever seen him, waited a moment before giving the screen a small smile. "Hello, Simon. This message probably comes as a surprise to you, but don't be alarmed. I got a message from Starfleet Command when you left Deep Space Nine, but I received one from Colonel Kira as well, and I can read between the lines. Your sister has my sympathies."

He cleared his throat. "Actually, I know a few people who might be able to help her, but - well, more details about that later. In person, I hope. You see, I joined the Cardassian relief effort for more than one reason. Obviously, I wanted to help - whatever they've done to other cultures, their home planet is a shambles. No one should be forced to live like that." He looked down at his threadbare Cardassian medical uniform. "Like this, but worse. At least I have temporary housing. Anyway. My secondary reason for coming was to find someone, an old friend. I'd heard from him once since the end of the war - a single, lengthy message some months back. When weeks passed without further communication and even my best sources couldn't find him, I got... worried."

Julian rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable. "Turns out I was right to be. He's not safe here, on Cardassia. They've been - " He shivered. "You don't need to know the details. I can get him out, but I need transportation out of the system, as far from Cardassia as possible. Obviously the Federation wasn't an option, but I remembered that you had run off. A smuggler I know owed me a favor, found out which ship you'd left on. The way I see it, if Serenity can avoid the Federation, it can avoid the Cardassian... whatever they're going to call themselves now."

He frowned. "What else... ah. I can pay, if that's a concern to your captain. I understand he's Bajoran, so if he has... reservations... about assisting a Cardassian, I understand." An awkward silence, followed by an awkward cough. "You can send your response to this comm signal. Use the attached encryption code to keep any prying eyes from intercepting your message. Bashir out."

Zoe glanced between Simon and the Vedek. The whole crew had been woken up to watch the message from Simon's Fed friend, but she expected theirs were the only opinions she couldn't predict. For all that the crew was illogical, they were consistent, and she'd had more than ample time to become accustomed to their quirks.

"'S he for real?" Kaylee slurred, blinking blearily at the blank screen.

Simon frowned, shaking his head. "I don't know, he was a few years ahead of me at the Academy, I didn't know him too well. There was a scandal a few years back - apparently he's genetically modified."

"He don't seem crazy like your sis," Jayne said doubtfully.

"Not everyone presents the same way," Simon said automatically, the impulse to educate a remnant of his medical training utterly wasted on Jayne. He was still frowning, but it had a confused edge to it. "But Federation law says that genetically modified people can't work in fields like medicine, let alone for Starfleet. How...?"

River chose this moment to lean backwards from her ceiling hidey-hole, her hair falling in Simon's face. "Make an exception," she said in a tone of voice that sounded very unlike her own. "He's too valuable an asset to lose now. Let him think his father taking the blame is enough. We'll collect the debt from him later."

Those that understood wore sympathetic expressions for a moment.

"In that case..." Simon sighed. "Dr. Bashir always seemed like a nice person to me. A good person. I think if he's trying to help someone get off Cardassia, it's for good reason."

"And how sure are we that the someone he's trying to help deserves it?" Mal wondered, a dark look on his face. "Lot of Cardassians did bad things during the war, and before it. Could be he's finally getting what's coming to him." Vedek Book sighed. "Vedek," Mal said without looking at him, "I know you preach pacifism and forgiveness and such, but there were things done to our people by theirs that even I, in my kind and ever-loving heart, just can't find it in me to forgive. And unless we have some way of knowing if this friend of Simon's friend is one of them or not, then Simon's friend is right. I have some powerful reservations about bringing him aboard."

"Actually," Book said after a brief pause, "I was going to agree with you."

"...beg pardon?"

"As it happens, this friend of Simon's friend is a little famous - well, infamous is a better word - if you travel in the right circles. He was the only Cardassian left on Terok Nor after the end of the Occupation. A man so despised by his employers that he was left there, in exile, in the one place he was sure to be universally loathed." Book's face was cold and hard as stone. "Elim Garak. I was sure he'd died in the war. If the Cardassian government has finally decided to punish him properly, then good for them. It's long overdue."

"Vedek Book!" Kaylee gasped.

"What kinda circles you been traveling in, Vedek?" Jayne asked, fiddling with one of his holsters. "'Cause the way I heard it, the only Cardassian left on that space station was a spy, left there for spyin' purposes."

Book smiled thinly. "I get around."

"I'm sure you do," Mal said, trying to bring the conversation back around to where he wanted it to be. "But bottom line is, are we doing this or not?"

"Funny, I didn't think your ship was a democracy," Inara said lightly.

"And it's not." Mal averted his eyes. "But there've been times when my judgment was a bit... let's call it biased, against doing the right thing, because of personal reasons. Most of you argued against my decision at those times, and I came around to doing the right thing in the end. So's to make things run smoothly here, I thought this time I'd hear what y'all have to think before I make my decision."

"Well, I think - "

"Not you, Jayne."

River shook her hair free of Simon's face and flipped so she was right-side up, combat boots thudding loud against the grate underfoot. She stared Mal in the face for a long, quiet moment, and said, "He's bad. But helping him's good."

And much as some of them would like, they couldn't find anything to say against that.