THE FORGOTTEN REALM: 24. "The Darkest Hour"
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Commandant Harkan is determined to get what he wants no matter the cost. Meanwhile forces are massing to find the Captain before it is too late."


TITLE: "THE DARKEST HOUR" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: No specific pairing. RATING: R for some torture sequences. STATUS: New. SEQUEL to "THICKER THAN BLOOD" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: WEBSITE:

SUMMARY: "Commandant Harkan is determined to get what he wants no matter the cost. Meanwhile forces are massing to find the Captain before it is too late." 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

* * * * *

The blank look was accusing. Silent condemnation that challenged him to back down. Withdraw the request, order, demand, whatever the *diyu* he wanted to call it. But the Commandant did not back down.

"They have the tracking device." Seeing no look of comprehension dawning he continued. "I was using it to track them, to follow the Captain. Now they have it. What if they find a way to do the same?"

A spark of interest glittered.

"For this reason we need him alive, *dong ma*? We can kill him any time."

Silence stretched across an unearthly abyss of understanding. At last a single solemn nod.

"You will stabilise his condition? I don't want him dying before we get what we want."

Another assessing look then a nod. He watched them leave and return minutes later with an assortment of medical equipment. He should have resumed his duties but he was curious as to what they would do to the Captain. As far as he could tell death was pretty imminent, yet when he had asserted the need to keep him alive a little longer the change in decision was accepted without addendum. Therefore whatever they had done to the Captain could be reversed or at least halted. Interesting.

They were followed by two more biotech engineers from the facility. All wore the same hollow look as if they had been cloned from identical sources only he knew they were not clones. Each had their own individual face with all the warmth and character sucked out of them. Automatons by design not nature. Efficient and deadly. They lifted the Captain off the floor and sat him in the chair. The newcomers carried a large metal silver case. With a snap they unclipped the locks and he found himself looking at some kind of advanced machine. Electronic in origin with a digital screen and a number of long thin wires connected to it that ended in sharp long needle points. He felt his heartbeat speed up a little and could not take his eyes off it.

He watched them lift the lids one by one and look into the Captain's eyes. Light shone into each eye to reflect back from the retinas, watching to see what reaction they would get from the iris. Another technician was checking his ears while yet another looked in his mouth. The Captain had bitten his tongue, hard. It explained why there was so much blood. The thin trickles from his eyes, ears and nose could not have accounted for all of it. Thin blue gloved hands proded and probed the insensate man until they had taken all the readings from him they needed for the preliminary stage. The first technician glanced back at the Commandant. "You should leave now."

He frowned slightly. "*Weishenme*?"

"The procedure is both painful and invasive. We do not wish you to be overly disturbed."

That intrigued him. Nothing would prise him away now except a direct attack on the cruiser. "I'm staying. Continue."

He watched them strap the Captain into the chair. Frowned at the procedure which seemed extreme considering the man was unconscious. Then the thin wire was unravelled from the case, the long sharp needle carefully positioned to the Captain's left temple. Commandant Harkan held his breath, eyes widening slightly as he watched the very thin needle being pushed deep into the side of his temple. It went in several inches, not a speck of blood dripping from the entry point, the needle forming too tight an intrusion. Then the procedure was repeated on the other side and Harkan wondered what they thought they would accomplish. He did not have to wait long. As soon as they were happy with the insertions, the first technician began to operate a number of dials. Figures flashed across the digital screen, a high pitched quiet hum began to fill the air and Harkan could feel his scalp tingling.

He watched the inert body begin to tremble. Muscles jumping and limbs twitching despite being strapped down. Steadily the electrical impulses were increased, both in intensity and duration until the body was rocking and shaking. A strangled cry bled out of the unbound mouth, the eyes flew open - wide and unfocused. Pain, fear, anguish. A myriad of emotions staring naked and exposed as the mind screamed and the man jerked in pain and terror while the current trickled through his brain, stopped and restarted the flagging heart. Not once but over and over and over again. It was like Niska killing him and jump starting him just to see his reaction. He began to bleed again from his nose, tears streaming down his face as they taped his eyelids open so they could watch his reaction to the drugs now being injected into his system.

As Harkan watched the progression he suddenly wished he hadn't. He had asked them to stablise the Captain's condition not torture him further though he had shown no such restraint earlier when he had been the one tormenting the man. With an abrupt cry he turned his head and promptly threw up. For the first time in a long while he felt regret and a new emotion. One that it took him time to identify. He staggered from the room and took a moment to brace himself against a wall, to get his equilibrium back and pull himself together again. It was a shock to realise what that strange emotion was. The realisation pinching his conscience like a new pair of shoes. Compassion.

Once Harkan had left the room the first technician looked at one of the biotechs, the man gave a small nod and left the room. Checking to make sure Harkan did not linger in the observation room but he was gone. He returned to the room and nodded. The first technician stared into eyes prevented from blinking. Watched the dilation of the Captain's pupils. Cold, detached and clinical his actions were as precise as the dosages of the drugs being used. He knew the moment Captain Reynolds returned to full awareness. Time for the nightmares in his head to be dwarfed by Reality.

* * * * *

Their decision made the two crews worked together better than Wash would have expected. The fireworks were being saved for what they would find at their journey's end. River had gone silent, Simon hovering round her as if she were made of glass and could shatter at any moment. Only if he stayed close would there be someone to pick up all the pieces. The others worked with quiet efficiency. Worried but determined and totally focused on what they had to do. Occasionally one or other of them would glance River's way but she neither acknowledged them nor made any more creepy pronouncements. Wash was not sure if that was a good thing or not. He had kind of got used to the crazy. If she went all sane on them now he was not sure how he would cope.

Simon wanted to take River to the commons area but she wouldn't go and just stared into the Black refusing to be coerced. Wash flicked a look at Simon's taut face. "It's okay Simon, I don't mind."

Zoe backed him up. "River needs to be here."

The doctor stared at her. "How can you say that?"

"Because we are following the co-ordinates she gave Wash. River is the only one who knows where we're going."

"You hope." Said a strange voice.

They turned their heads and found themselves looking at Jubal Fox. The man was very tall but lean with it. He topped Jayne easily by a couple of inches and actually had to duck to enter the bridge. "What do you mean we hope?" Asked Zoe, her expression closed off and hard. Wash watched the man's face intently.

Jubal shrugged. "I think this whole plan is crazy."

Zoe's eyes narrowed. A warning sign that Jubal seemed oblivious to. "You went along with it." She pointed out.

"Only because we already have what we want."

Simon resisted the urge to punch the man until he was unconscious despite the fact that he would have to stand on a chair first to reach him. "You're humouring us." He said icily.

His reaction mildly amused Jubal Fox. "Just hope that your little genius knows what she's doing, *dong ma*?"

"Just who is it you work for again?"

Jubal and Simon stared at each other a moment. "Justice department."

Silence stretched strained and disbelieving between them until it was shattered by a heart rending cry. River screamed, her hands over her ears, body shaking. Tears filling in her widening eyes, face contorting in pain and horror. "Make it stop, make it stop, make it STOP!"

Simon immediately forgot Jubal Fox. Everybody and everything disappeared around him, there was only River. His dear sweet gifted sister. River. The only one he cared about in this nightmare 'verse he was forced to live in. No matter that he had chosen his road. In a blink of an eye he had her cradled in his arms, voice soothing, calm gentle words matching the arms that held her. She knew he was there but it hardly penetrated her pain, her sorrow, her sudden realisation. He felt her stiffen, her cries muffled into nothing as they trailed off and her body stilled. He looked into her face, concerned and anxious. "*Mei mei*?"

"They're torturing him, Simon."

"Sssh, it's alright, we're on our way."

She shook her head, the tears that had gathered in her eyes now falling in scattered drops down her too pale face. "No, you don't understand. They *know*."

Jubal took a step towards the siblings but Zoe blocked his way. He glared at her but said nothing, wanting rather not to miss a word she said. "Best you leave the bridge."

Jubal's eyes narrowed on Zoe. Her tone was deadly albeit quiet. Fortunately the others had been drawn by River's screaming and were now crowding around the door to see what was wrong. Zoe was relieved to see that Jayne was in the front, the look in her eyes silently telling him she needed him in there. He pushed passed Jubal, the Sheriff just a step behind him. Kaylee, Inara and Deputy Crowther exchanged anxious looks.

Zoe's stance hardened. "Now, I'll say it again in case you're feeling particularly slow. Best you leave the bridge. Simon will calm River."

Jayne turned his big body ready to back up Zoe. Though a couple of inches shorter than Jubal he was much stockier and all of it was muscle and bone. A hand on Jubal's shoulder made him turn. He found himself looking into Sheriff Bowman's eyes. "Come on Jubal, let's go rustle up some coffee. This is gonna take some time and fallin' out with folks ain't my idea of havin' things go smooth, *dong ma*?"

He hated to back down but there was little he could do and Jubal could no longer hear the girl's ramblings. Damn Reynolds and his psychotic crew. Unable to hide his reluctance he gave the Sheriff a nod and followed him out, picking up Micky Grey who was waiting for them out on the catwalk. The look Jubal gave him seemed to accuse Mickey of not backing him up when he needed him but nothing was actually said. The Sheriff steered both men to the commons area and found Shepherd Book already in the kitchen area making a pot of tea. "Must'a read my mind, Preacher."

Back on the bridge the rest of Serenity's crew were crowded around River. Simon was coaxing her to breathe slower, to catch her breath so she could tell them what was wrong. She looked so upset and distressed that Kaylee found herself biting back tears. "They *know*, Simon." She whispered in a pain ravaged voice.

It tore at his heart to see her like this. "Know what, *mei mei*?"

"That we're connected."

"Of course they know, River, we're brother and sister."

She shook her head. "No." Her look softened at his misunderstanding, looking at Simon with such love in her eyes that everybody else held their breath. "Not us."

"Then who, *mei mei*? Who are you talking about?"

She cradled Simon's face in her hand. They were both kneeling on the deck facing each other. "The Captain."

He felt shock go through him. "*Shenme*?"

Her smile was so gentle, her eyes willing him to understand something that he could never reach out and touch. It was part of what they had done to her and now were doing to *him*. "You found me broken."

Tears gathered in his throat and clutched at his heart. Simon was close to panic, only his concern for his sister enabled him to hold it all together. "Sssh, it's alright River. I'm here, we'll fix this."

"I taste his nightmares, his pain. An ocean of sorrow in such a small sea. Clouds of unreasoning blind his vision when the path should be clear but it never is. Too many storms on the horizon, Simon. Always turbulance at sea."


She hushed him by continuing. "I hear everyone." Her look slowly settled on them all then came back to rest on Simon. Memories and feelings multiplying in a mind moving faster than the speed of light. There and back again only the journey weighed her down. So heavy. So tragic. Almost over now. At least they would be together at the end. "They won't kill him yet," She said simply as if doing no more than giving a weather forecast. "But they read me through his tears and I can feel it, Simon. Getting closer and closer like the measure of his heartbeats..." Her voice was quickening with the words, her distress mounting as if each word was painting a picture in colours so vivid they drew blood. "They use his strength against him and he can't break free." A sob caught her throat, Simon tried to stop her talking, to calm her and reassure her with his murmured words and gentle hands but she was getting more upset not less. "We have to hurry!"

Wash looked pained. "We're going as fast as we can, River."

Zoe's hand on Wash's shoulder was a comfort but he could not help feeling like some awful doom was about to unfold in front of him and he was powerless to stop it.

* * * * *

The *loaban* moved quickly. His vessel was the fastest yacht in the fleet. Several other such vessels followed in his wake, speed being more essential to him right now than gunpower though he had that too with his men crowded on the first two vessels. Their little convoy numbered twenty four vessels in all. The yachts were only lightly armed, would be useless in a firefight but he did not expect any trouble in the Black. If they hit any resistance it would be on land. But first he wanted what was his then he would move his possessions to a safer locale, exchange the yachts for fighting ships and annhiliate those that stood in his way for once and for all. He had grown lax. Sloppy. No one, but no one, would interfere in his business ever again.

* * * * *

Yen Mah reached the colony without mishap. Her limbs trembling with fear and anticipation. She knew the timing was critical. Had seen it but could not see the outcome. Knew where she would be but not the path she had to follow. The square was deserted when she got there. The cool arches of the outer buildings a tempting haven from a too bright and too harsh sun. She moved through the square and suddenly her feet knew every pebble, every stone, every blade of grass that blessed her feet. Quickening her steps she half stumbled and half ran through the many planted gardens long over run with weeds, over bare earth and crumbling rock, up the broken path that crowned the little colony. The forgotten outpost was not however deserted. Nor fallen into disrepair as the crumbling colonades in the square behind her and the abandoned gardens suggested. It was illusion only. One more painted face to show a world uncaring of the simple beauty that would otherwise be lost in the souls of the innocent.

Her hands and knees caught the rough rocks as she scrambled up, half falling, half crawling in her haste. Her heart crying out because her mouth was too dry. Tears not falling because the ducts were all cried out. The dust in the air was gritty and stung her eyes but she did not care. Her heart pounding she prayed, every step one nearer her goal. Every step another nail in his coffin. It was an uneven race. When she reached the top she could believe she stood upon the roof of heaven. Clouds at her feet hid the rough broken descent back down to *diyu*. She paused to catch her breath and listened stunned to the faint trill of a bird on the wing. Her head lifted back and her round moon face angled towards the blue far above her until with eyes squinting she beheld the speck that soared with all the freedom that had been denied to her and those like her almost from her birth.

*Jiu niu yi mao* the bird seemed to sing. Her mind soared with it, the proverb was *the loss of one hair from nine oxen*. It was the descripton of a person, an achievement, a discovery that at first seems insignificant and non-consequential on the surface but may actually prove of great importance. She knew it as intimately as she knew the content of her own heart. She turned almost as if in a dream. Knowing what she would see before the shadowy shape coalesced before her into welcome arms and a smile filled with tears of joy.


A smile that creased her face with every kind of happiness greeted him. The old man fairly stumbled to reach her, not because of his age but because of the emotion that drove him. "*Ye ye*," Yen Mah sighed with deep content. "I missed you so much." Then they were hugging, crying, hanging on to each other for dear life. It was hard to at last pull back from his beloved embrace. His eyes were calm, gentle and accepting. All the love in the 'verse he held for her.

"*Ye ye* there isn't much time. We have to save the children." He nodded. The original Companions who had once held this outpost were gone but their descendants had remained to care for those brought here by war and great sorrow. Those bereft of any help from the living. The outcast. The deseased. The crippled and the maimed. Those so traumatised that a normal life was a gift beyond their ability to comprehend still less aspire to. The broken ones found the pieces that would heal them here. A leper colony it had once been a monastry. A place of retreat and learning. But the monks were long gone, the library dismantled and taken away. Now those that knew of it knew it only as the Forgotten Realm. A place not even the Devil would willingly walk.

Yet here was hope also for here they hid the dispossessed. Those the high and mighty of the 'verse would consign to padded cells or an early death. Unwilling to waste medicines and expensive facilities on those that lived upon the margins of life. Those deemed beneath their contempt. By simple lack of care they decided who would live and who would die. On their bright and shiny planets there was no place for the stricken. Yet here every soul was precious. Every child loved and cared for. A community of souls as committed to each other as any family. She knew no one would look for these damaged souls and thus it had become a sanctuary. Out of sight, out of mind. It was the one safe place she could think of. Yet even here they were wary, hid their presence and invited no curious eyes to seek further. Those that accidentally landed on Augusta always left that bit quicker than they came. And they never returned.

"Where are they, *sunzi*?"

Yen Mah bit back tears. "I could not bring them with me, *ye ye*. Too many and I only have a shuttle. But I have a plan."

A tentative smile rose from the creases on his face. How she loved that face! Those kindly eyes and gentle hands. The healer in him knew something in her was broken but he spoke not of it. Loved her too dearly to add one whit to her sorrow. So young. So brave. So *meili*. She looked better than she had last time he had seen her. "You have found a champion, little one?"

She bit her lip. Had found him and lost him. How could he know? "My shuttle will only carry a few."

He frowned with worry. "Then how will you save them?"

"I won't but I know others who will."

He gazed at her for a long time before speaking again. "If time is so important, *sunzi*," He said carefully, not wishing to hurt her. "You should not have come. This delay is not good for your plan, little one."

She nodded. Knew he was right but something was pulling her with even more intensity on her heart that her love for him. "I have to see her, *ye ye*."

Tears formed in his eyes, a lake of building sorrow that he would have spared her with his very life. He nodded and turned, leading the way down one side of the mountain to the opening of the hidden caves. Dark but not empty, the hot fetid air spoke of bodies crowded together. Joined in their sickness and together pushing back the walls of dispair. She heard soft laughter, so incongruous amid the pale pitiful faces glimpsed in the dimness like faded lamps and turned to face the newcomer with tiny whispers of hope. It broke her heart but spurred her on. At last they came to part of the tunnel that was wider, all the chidren huddled in groups. They had been playing games, smiling from their deseased faces and giving what comfort and friendship they could with their limited abilities. Yen Mah dropped to her feet, her *ye ye* but a step behind her. A comforting presence in a vision from hell.

A Companion had been sitting with the little ones, her ravaged face broke out into a smile of welcome. Recognising the visitor but having nothing to give her but a faded smile and a kind word. Yen Mah spared her a nod but her eyes were rivetted to the seven year old girl only sitting upright because her friends were crammed round her like bookends. "*Xiao mei*, it is I. Yen Mah."

The girl turned eyes milk white with blindness towards the beloved voice, a little cry of pleasure stole across lips half eaten away by desease. A stunted limb reach out but there was no hand to hold. Yen Mah took the limb gently in her hand then closed in to kiss her sister's cheek. Her eyes blinded by tears. Her arms wrapping gently around the young girl and rocking her in the cradle of her weeping heart.

* * * * *

Pain, sorrow, grief and loss. Images flashing in his mind, tears running down his face. Eyes blinded by too much light, sore and reddened, unable to close. Blurry faces peered at him through his agony. Questions sang like bright searing flames in his mind. Did they speak? Or was this another level of the madness that now assailed him? Something prodded his mind and he cried out. Throat hoarse from screaming.

"Where is she?"


Another bright piercing lance of pain assailed his senses. A cry of pain bled out of him, chest heaving against the restraints. Heart thundering like some mad thing let loose. They reined it in with their instruments, lowered the beat of his heart, calmed him enough so he could speak. "Where is she?"

"*Wo bu dong*."

More pain, less focused now. Dancing on agony. Death was a doorway that wore a welcome smile. Living was a curse that crucified his every breath. "Where is River Tam?"

Before he could grit out a denial, something warm and soothing and as blessed as cool rain on a hot July night misted in his mind and conjoined his memory with images of her smiling face. Head tilted so that her knowing eyes could shine on him. A promise of happier times to come. He choked on the vision, heart hurting worse than what they were doing to him. He wanted to protect her. Needed to keep her safe. Just a child. One in his care. His crew. His responsibility. They realised he was not listening, flooded him with more sharp agony but now he could bear it. Impossible but true. He clung to her image as she clung to his pain. A pact formed between them that only death would sever.

His tormentors exchanged puzzled looks. The chief technician looked at the digital screen one more time for confirmation. The instruments did not lie. He looked up. His voice flat and emotionless. Not a flicker of care in those dark empty eyes. "We are losing him."

"Yet his heartbeat is strong."

There was almost curiosity in the voice that answered back. More questions followed. Questions without answers. The Captain felt a sense of disassociation. It blessed him and removed him from his agony. A bright whirl of images of light, a light that was gentle and caring. A light that loved him. A song that hushed his soul and engraced him far far from the pain and torment of his captors. In his mind he smiled for her, was sorry when she wept. *We're coming, Captain*. He wanted to shake his head but it was fastened in place. Wanted to warn her. *No, no, *hen weixian*.

Her gentle smile lit up his aching heart. Caressed the unfallen tears and calmed him. She would have closed his eyes for him if she could but unable to do that small thing she eased him with images that would block out the agony and remove him from all pain. *We are coming and nothing in the 'verse will stop us until you are safe. *Dong ma*? She felt a gentle shift in his perspective, almost like a soft grumble in his mind. *How did I get such a *wangu* crew?* Then her love swept over him, the hand of friendship holding him tightly yet gently in her unyielding grasp. The light flared yellow around him and he knew no more.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *dong ma* = understand *weishenme* = why *mei mei* = little sister *shenme* = what *laoban* = boss *jiu niu yi mao* = loss of one hair from nine oxen *sunzi* = grandchild *ye ye* = grandfather *meili* = beautiful/pretty *xiao mei* = baby sister *shei* = who *wo bu dong* = I don't know *hen weixian* = too dangerous *wangu* stubborn


Monday, January 19, 2004 6:38 AM


As always, Ali, I am in awe of your ability to weave so many threads in and out of each other and keep track of them.

I love the way you are taking "Firefly" beyond what we have seen and out into somewhere new, whilst still keeping the characters true.

Keep writing. Keep flyin'.


You must log in to post comments.



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.