THE FORGOTTEN REALM: 21. "High Stakes"
Saturday, January 10, 2004

"With the Captain in Alliance hands and Inara and the others trying to make sense of the 'map' Sheriff Bowman slowly realises just what is going on."



SUMMARY: "With the Captain in Alliance hands and Inara and the others trying to make sense of the 'map' Sheriff Bowman slowly realises just what is going on." The usual disclaimers apply. The characters and 'Firefly' are the property and gift of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended.


A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Everybody was seething. Zoe kept her face blank but the anger and tension was coming off her in waves. Wash felt the sudden desire to beat something or someone to a messy pulp if only because of the way the Commandant was using the Captain to divide his crew and how that was in turn hurting Zoe. Yen Mah watched and listened with a glum expression on her pale moon face. Zoe said nothing until the communication link cut off and the feed went blank, giving them a welcome rest from that *wangba dan's* smug face. Kaylee was visibly upset, tears in her eyes. Simon had been standing to one side so that he would not be seen, now he stepped up beside Kaylee his face pale and anxious. "He's going to kill the Captain?" He said in a stunned voice. "What will that achieve?"

Zoe shook her head, her eyes still fastened on the now blank screen as if it held all the answers. "He won't kill him." The doctor was about to sigh with relief when he noticed her expression had actually got grimmer. It was Shepherd Book who asked the question they were all thinking but unwilling to put into words. "What will he do with him?"

"Use him to get what he wants."

"Told ya Cap ain't gonna say anythin'." Reiterated Jayne.

They were on the bridge as if being all together made their burden easier to bear. River poked her head around the back of her brother. "Bait and hook."

Yen Mah stared at her with big brown eyes. Wash frowned. "Bait and hook?"

She nodded as if the answer was obvious. "He's waiting."

"What for?" Asked Jayne.

"For us to follow the map."

The mercenary laughed. "We ain't goin' anywhere without the Cap."

She shook her head. "Yes, we are."

Simon looked concerned. "*Mei mei...*"

"Can't follow but they won't go away. Just pretend then follow us. Wait for the map to unfold."

Wash looked frustrated and perplexed. Inara had gone even paler than she was before. Wash looked from face to face then settled on Zoe. "What map, *bao bei*?"

Shepherd Book glanced at Inara but said nothing. The Companion took a slow steadying breath. "The necklace isn't jewellery it's a map. Just like River said."

"Yeah," Said Jayne, remembering. "Somethin' 'bout planets." He looked at Wash. "You said you recognised 'em."

"I said I recognised *one* of them. A planet called Ventura."

"Okay," Said Jayne, his thoughts solidifying into a rudimentary plan. "That's where we go."

Everybody stared at Jayne as if he were stark raving mad. His eyes widened. What was the matter with everybody? "If that's what the *ben dan* is waitin' for I say we give it to him."

Inara shook her head. All of sudden she looked older and wearier than they had ever remembered seeing her. "No. If we do that the Captain is as good as dead and so are we."

The mercenary was frowning hard now. "How d'ya figure?"

"The Commandant doesn't *know* River and Simon are here, he's guessing."

"Then why did he let us go?" Asked Simon.

"To see what we would do. He thinks as soon as he is out of sight we'll go rushing to wherever this map leads."

"Why in *diyu* would we do that?" Said Jayne.

"Because if River is with us she will be able to make sense of the map and plot our course. In fact," Inara paused. "River is the only one who *could* read that map."

Simon looked caught between horror and fascination. "So you're saying Commandant Harkan gave us the necklace to give the Captain in a gamble that River was hidden somewhere on board? The idea being that once we thought we were safe River would solve the puzzle and lead us to the destination on the map?"

Inara nodded. Shepherd Book raised his eyebrows. "That is some speculation, doctor."

"If the pieces fit you see the picture," Said River. "Only it isn't what's on the box."

Inara's eyes were rivetted to the girl's pale face. "What do you mean, River?"

She smiled sweetly as if the answer was obvious and she was only humouring them because they were her friends. "The planets."

"What about them, *mei mei*?" Asked Simon.

"They're out of sequence."

Startled everyone stared at her. Her smile if anything grew. "It isn't a map."

"Now I'm confused." Muttered Jayne in a half-annoyed tone, frowning as if his head hurt.

Simon managed to move close enough to put his arms around River's narrow waist and gently drew her to him. "Why isn't it a map? You said it represented planets, you even named them."

She nodded, looking at him with such controlled patience as if he were a much loved but rather slow witted child who needed to have everything spelt out for him. "Yes, but the planets are out of order Simon."

"Why would anyone do that?" Said the Shepherd in a puzzled voice.

River's eyes glittered. Before the girl could speak Inara gave them the answer. Her voice sounding detached, sad and weary. It was the only answer there could be. "To hide the destination."

* * * * *

Sheriff Bowman tried not to stare at the *laoban's* men. He knew he was just along for the ride. Insurance. If he did or said anything to rouse their suspicions he and his men were as good as dead. Didn't matter that they were officers of the law. The stakes were way higher than that man's moral compass could reach.

* * * * *

His head was spinning. Arms stiff and aching he longed to stretch them, to rub his sore wrists and wrap his hands around Harkan's neck. But with his hands cuffed back to back behind him he could not allow himself any such luxury. He was in a brig. Not the usual miserable cell he had seen the inside of more times than he cared to count but the shiny impersonal potted hell reserved for enemies of the Alliance. He wondered how many times Independents' blood had been washed off the walls and floor. Harkan was really pissing him off, his little smug smile fixed to his face as he walked slowly around the Captain. It was really wearing the Captain's patience wafer thin and it had not been that shiny before.

"This is nothin' but a gorram waste of time, you know that don't you?"

The Commandant's thin smile widened a little bit more. He glanced at the two guards standing just inside the door. When he completed his little circuit he came to a stop in front of the Captain. He had him standing in the middle of the room. There was no table just a preformed bench along the side opposite the cell door. One complete side was a huge one way picture window. He imagined it was the Alliance equivalent of television. He wondered what they did for entertainment when they had no one to torture. "You cannot hide them from me, Sergeant."


The Commandant leaned in closer, eyes locked on the Captain's. "I *will* have River and Simon Tam, with or without your help."

"That so?"

Harkan nodded.

"Then what the *diyu* you want with me?"

The Commandant laughed lightly, obviously enjoying himself. "No wonder you independent scum lost the war." Mal fought to hide any reaction. Inside boiling with rage but outwardly calm. When he made no reply the Commandant gave him an amused look.

"How did you think you would hide them from me?"

Again he said nothing.

"I could have taken them instead of you."

The Captain was almost startled into reacting. Good gorram, what was he after? If he knew River and Simon were on the ship why did he just make a show of searching his boat then leave? It made no sense or did it? His confusion must have showed.

"Did you like my gift?"

His eyes narrowed. The necklace. Inara had called it a tracking device. River said it was a map. What in the nine hells was going on here? And why did he have to be the last one to know? "Don't usually accept gifts on a first date."

Harkan raised his eyebrows. "Where is it?"

He had no intention of telling the Commandant he had handed the pouch to Inara. "Not sure, probably in my bunk, why? You want it back?"

The Commandant shook his head and began to walk round him again.

"D'ya mind not doin' that?"


"You're makin' me gorram dizzy."

The Commandant stopped behind the Captain and leaned in close to his ear, his breath making Mal shudder with revulsion. "Being dizzy will soon be the least of your problems, Captain."

Captain? Why the sudden reinstatement? Or was it a slip? "Oh? Why's that?"

The Commandant put a hand on the cuffs and leaned down forcing the metal to dig into Mal's wrists. "You'll find out soon enough. I don't want to spoil the surprise."

He tried a different tack. "Look, there's no 'cause for us to fall out, Commandant. I saved your life, *jide*? Surely that has to count for somethin'?"

The Commandant leaned down a little harder before easing up and walking round to face the Captain. "Oh, it counts for more than you think."

"It does?"

"It means you're in *shen gos se*, Captain."


"But look on the bright side."

"There's a bright side?"

That disingenuous smile flickered on the Commandant's face again. Mal promised himself that if he lived through this he was going to remove it with a gorram knife. "You're still alive." He paused and allowed his smile to slowly slide over the whole of his face, eyes glinting with dark amusement. "For now."

"Why you playin' with me? Why not just end me if that's your intention?"

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? A chance to be a martyr to your crew."

Mal frowned. "Ain't no martyr."

"Nor will you be. You will die as and when it suits my purpose not before."

The Captain was all kinds of confused now. How did any of this suit the Commandant's purpose? Seeing the look on the Captain's face Harkan chuckled then glanced at his guards.

"I think this cell is too comodious for our good Captain." The men smirked.

Mal held his tongue. He did not like where this conversation seemed to be going. Harkan gave his men a nod and one left the cell. No one spoke until he returned a few minutes later. Mal stared at the figures that accompanied the soldier into the cell. A look of genuine fear flickering in his eyes as he took an involuntary step back. He was so stunned he was hardly aware of the handcuffs being removed. He looked at Harkan, the man now watching him like a gorram hawk. Feeding off his reaction. The Captain swallowed slowly, carefully, willing the speeding up of his heart to become calm once more. Memories that weren't his filtering through his mind and filling in the blank canvas that had kept him ignorant until now. How the gorram was that possible? Those memories then began to spark off his own repressed ones, releasing the floodgates in an almost inhuman tide of angst and grief.

One of the strangers almost smiled at him and he had the creepy feeling that they were responsible for returning his memories to him. But that was ludicrous wasn't it? How was that even possible? They were *his* memories. Yet impossible or not he was having flashbacks. Full and vivid technicolour detail complete with dialogue and the attendant emotions. Tears pricked his eyes, the horror of the war writing themselves anew upon the inside of his mind and tearing his heart into tiny little shreds of pain and sorrow. The air became trapped in his lungs as if it had solid lumps in it that would not pass through his diaphram nor clear his throat. Faces he had known. Friends, family, even lovers. All gone now. Ripped from him by war. He could hear the pounding of the enemy guns, the smoke making his eyes smart as tears streaked down his cheeks. His hands fisted at his sides, the nails biting into his palms so hard they drew blood. He remembered it all. Everything washing back to him and drawing the bile up into his throat so thick it almost choked him. An agony of the heart vying with him for control. He blinked and stared with dead eyes at Harkan. Saw the twitch of his lips curve in pleasure at his distress and felt his resolve hardening. He could do this. He had been tortured by experts and whatever else Harkan was he was nothing but a gorram amateur. The trouble was these people made Niska look like the warm-up guy.

* * * * *

The *laoban* was not even trying to hide his fury. His men moved silently and swiftly around him, not so much as twitching without his say so. The vessel was quick and well armed. His source was unequivocal and trustworthy enough that he did not need any confirmation of the facts. No way was he going to allow his prize to slip through his hands. Not when he had come so far. He was *this* close and nothing and no one would get in his way. Opening the drawer he took out his pearl handled sidearm, stroked his fingers tenderly along the handle, stock and barrel. Almost a lover's touch. Then he settled his gunbelt round his hips and sheathed the gun. His change of clothing completing the transformation.

When he turned to exit the room his men parted and flanked him. Iron shod boots echoed on the deck plates of his ship. He checked the time then made his way briskly to the bridge. The pilot was busy triangulating the co-ordinates. Fortunately his vessel was fast. He watched the pilot finish his calculations. By the time the man looked up to nod at him the new heading was already in the nav computer, the vessel responding smoothly as they sped towards their destination like a posse in hot pursuit.

* * * * *

"So what are we gonna do?" Asked Jayne.

Zoe looked at River. "Do you know where this map is supposed to lead?"

River nodded.

"Where? Can you show us, tell us?"

"Won't do any good."

Inara's heart missed a beat. Sometimes River was just too damn creepifying for comfort. "Why?"

Her eyes had become distant moons. "It isn't there."

"What ain't there?" Said Jayne in exasperation.

"We have to go anyway, empty or full the piper must be paid."

Simon gave her a little hug, willing her to be more coherent. "River, can you tell us where to go?"

"Not tell, show."

Before he could ask her what she meant River sidled up to Wash and sat on the arm of his pilot's chair, her half-crazy smile making them all wonder if they were doing the right thing. Wash gave her a tentative smile. Despite all her problems he liked her. Felt sorry for the poor kid but also found her somewhat scary. "Okay River, *women qu nar?*"

He really should have learnt by now that questions like that were just inviting trouble. Without warning River took the controls, her hands flying over the instrument panel and punching in command codes. Wash yelped and tried to wrest control off her but a sudden lurch had them all hanging on as River swung the ship in a tight one-eighty then increased speed. Kaylee's mouth had dropped open in alarm, concerned for Serenity as well as themselves. Once the trajectory settled down again so did she. Enough so that as she turned her head to reassure Yen Mah a sudden sinking feeling made her want to kick herself for being so distracted. As she turned around she realised there was no sign of Yen Mah. Barely a second after that Wash's cry confirmed her very worst fears.

"What the...?"

"*Shenme shi, zhangfu*?"

"Some rutting *ben dan* is stealing the spare shuttle!"

Simon stared, wide eyed and incredulous. "*Shenme*?"

Kaylee felt miserable. "It's Yen Mah."

Everyone turned to stare at her.

"How do you know it's Yen Mah?" Asked the Shepherd quietly.

Jayne snorted softly, his tone annoyed but solid with realisation that Kaylee was right. "Huh, that's easy, Preacher. She's the on'y one missin'."

* * * * *

The crazy hammer of guns, the smoke, the acrid burning of human flesh, the screams of the injured and dying. Everything was overloading his senses. Eyes closed he could not block out the memories. Could not stop reliving them over and over and over again. He watched as friends and fellow soldiers were blown to bits before his gorram eyes. Saw the fragmentation of flesh and bone in slow motion as the air errupted around him and the spray of blood clouded the smoky air and filled his nostrils with the metallic tang of human blood.

Commandant Harkan watched from the other side of the huge plate glass viewing window. The one way mirror giving him an unrestricted view. Captain Malcolm Reynolds had been sat in a chair while the two officials sat the other side of a stainless steel table. Both table and chairs were bolted to the deck. This cell was purpose built unlike the one he had been first placed in. This one had all kinds of fixtures attached to the far wall with restraints and devices to hang a man in all kinds of inventive ways without killing him outright. The Marquis de Sade would have loved this place. Certainly, Harkan did.

The Captain was not restrained. The handcuffs had been removed and he made no attempt to stand up. In truth it was doubtful his legs would have held him what with the torment assailing his mind. His eyes were closed, breathing laboured with grief. Tears running unchecked down a face that seldom cried. His heart breaking while two impassive faces watched with detached interest. The rollercoaster did not stop. Every emotion wrung out of him. His pain amplified until it burned through every cell, imprinted the pain of memory in every atom of his being until his very soul was scorched with the after image. He wept. They watched. Waited. Heat burning slowly through him and not detected. Mind too numb to apprehend his danger. Blood vessels beginning to overheat then he gasped and his eyes flew open. A shaky hand rose to touch his face. Pulled back slick and greasy with blood.

He blinked uncomprehending. His nose was bleeding. His head hurting like it was in some kind of gorram vice. Then he focused on the two men facing him across the table. Not a flicker of emotion between them. His mind felt numb, a dull thundering of blood throbbing in his ears as he stared almost without thinking at the shiny surface of the table between them. Slowly, as if his thoughts had to wade through treacle, he fixated on the hands resting palm down on the table top. Wondering what was odd about them. He blinked again. No more tears left. The tears evaporating on overwarm cheeks leaving a rime of salt dusting his traumatised face. Heart beating unevenly as he tried to calm and slow it down. To force some grasp of what the *diyu* was happening to him. He stared as his eyes started to glaze over and fragments of words, conversations and memories blended together in his mind like the onset of madness.

*She understands but she doesn't comprehend*

He tried to blink again. His eyes so sore. So blurry he thought he was crying but he wasn't. Why were his tears turning crimson? That was when he noticed the haze of light blue adorning the table top. His focus all shot to pieces now, the blue bleeding into the chrome surface. The haze of red licking the periphery of his consciousness like flames.

*Two by two, hands of blue...*

As he stumbled through fragmenting thoughts bits clung together in a semblance of momentary coherence and for a dizzying minute it all made sense. Had his mouth and tongue still worked he would have rattled off a string of curses but right now sitting upright was a chore that he was losing. Gorrammit it could not end like this! Yet he did not know why. Could not fathom why he even cared.

*You gave up everything for me. You found me broken*

Broken. That was him now. Why were the words in a woman's voice and what did they mean? Why was the darkness rushing up to meet him in a wave of volcanic heat that was all kinds of agony and confusing? If this was dying he must already be in hell. He just hoped his friends had got away. Were safe. Somehow it was the only thought he could cling to that did not slip through his mind on a river of blood. The only thing in his *gos se* 'verse that was worth a damn.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wangba dan* = bastard *mei mei* = little sister *bao bei* = precious/treasure *ben dan* = bastard (lit. bad egg) *diyu* = hell *laoban* = boss *shei* = who *shenme* = what *shenme shi* = what is it? *jide* = remember *shen gos se* = deep crap *women qu nar* = where are we going? *zhangfu* = husband *gos se* = crap


Saturday, January 10, 2004 8:16 PM


Great, River sounded perfect

Harkan makes a great bad guy

Monday, January 12, 2004 3:48 AM


Every time I see there's a new chapter of this story, I get excited. Then I wait till everyone is out of the house, so I can savour it like one of Kaylee's strawberries.

But OUCH! This one's got me all manner of tetchy and creepified. You're not going to kill Mal are you? (Think I asked that at the end of the first chapter!)

Loved the final paragraph. Especially the last sentence. So very Mal.


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His head still ached from the rutting probe but after the men had satisfied themselves that his story was true a thousand questions peppered the air like machine gun fire.

The vessel was shiny, sleek and black with nowhere near the bulk of an Alliance ship. Something about the way it moved through the Black was more than a little creepifying.

Personally she didn't care if Serenity was towed off to a junk yard and stripped into spare parts. She had promised the ship to Jer and his crew as a bonus but it looked like scavengers had beaten them to it.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: 2. "Counting Chickens"
The fact that her eyes were hard and sharp with intelligence kind of chilled him. Smart women always made him uneasy, it just weren't natural.

What in the nine hells were they so afraid of? Then he remembered Tracy. The body mailed to them by their old war buddy and all the trouble that had brought down on them.

If it was too gorram wet to hunt for rabbits what in the nine hells was his son really hunting? And was it something on four legs or two?

The man was in a terrible condition, his pulse weak, and for some reason he was soaking wet which did nothing to staunch the blood soaking through his clothing and seeping from the poorly tended wound where he had been shot.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 9. "All The King's Men"
The man sighed like the weight of the of the 'Verse was on his shoulders but unlike anyone else he looked like he could carry the weight.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 8. "All The King's Horses"
Without warning something came through the opening and rolled with a metallic clang across the ground before exploding.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 7. "Friend or Foe"
Then he found himself falling, the whole world silent as in slow motion the hordes of *diyu* came to swallow him up and everything disintegrated in fire, blood and pain.