The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 6)
Monday, May 26, 2008

The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 6. Mal, Wash, and Robert take flight up Yamenmiao Pass to begin their search for the missing train, and meet someone they did not expect.


First things first - responses to the last post....

Angellemarcs, sorry I haven't responded to your last couple yet - been working my pi-gu off all weekend to make sure there's nothing to do today so I can go to a Browncoat BBQ. ;) Thanks very much for staying with this. I, too, like original characters - I find that they freshen things up a bit, take us (and the BDHs) places they don't usually go by themselves. Like mountain passes and Alliance academies, for instance. ;) Let's enjoy Wash while we got him - the last couple of fics in the series are post-BDM, and I'm a canon freak, so.... :/

2x2, hiya!!! Thanks a mil for dropping by. I'm hopeful folk will warm up to Rob soon. They always say to write what you know, and that's what I do. But what they don't say is that you know a lot more by experiencing something than just reading about it. Thank you VERY much for the great comment, there's plenty more where this came from.

Jane0904, hey, glad to see you along! :D Thanks a heap for the line!

mal4prez, been meaning to E-mail you back for a few days, but see my response to Angelle above. ;) This post will explain why there are no mag-lev trains on Roma. Are we in for a fun ride? You be the judge, but I sure as hell hope folks think so once we get goin'! Thanks for coming by again!

Katesfriend, thank you thank you thank you. Indeed, good action and adventure are one thing, but background has its place, too - then it becomes a good story and not just a pointless action flick. ;) Thanks for sticking around - things are about to get (I hope) exciting, intriguing, and oh-God-oh-God-we're-all-gonna-die. ;)

With perennial beta-thanks to PhyreLight, blurbs in prologue, cursor hovering over Chinese phrases, and no further ado, let the adventure begin!!!

Part 5


Mal had never seen a steam locomotive at work.

He had heard of them, to be sure. They were still referenced in cortex encyclopedias, and the museum pieces brought from Earth that was were still in sundry static displays around the system. Yet at the ripe old age of 600 years, static display was their only chance of survival. Some had actually seen action to the end - operated regularly in China until the late twenty-first century, when at last the time for exodus was come and their archaic yet effective power could no longer stave off Earth's exhaustion. Old Eric Berakis had talked of his father's work, the same path his son had chosen to follow: but it was not until now that Mal understood that path, felt an intent and curious fascination take hold of him as he watched one of the steel dragons storm Yamenmiao Pass. Lord only knew what it must be like up close but it was best to study what workings he could see, in the likely event that he'd need to know them.

Wash nimbly kept the shuttle clear of the grey plume of smoke bursting skyward from the engine's smokestack. Looking continually back and forth between his flight instruments and the landscape below him, he suddenly realised why the view was so familiar. He remembered the tavern he and Zoe had visited earlier in the day, remembered the photograph of the two hardy steam engines climbing the mountain pass: the engine below him now was identical, right down to the characters "Qian Jin" – Advance – stencilled on the sides of the cab. The one notable exception was that the smoke from its exhaust was considerably darker than what was visible in the photograph. Despite Robert's mutterings about the fireman's prodigal use of fuel, that fireman - of whom awareness seemed to be a marked weakness - was unwittingly creating all the smoke screen that was needed to conceal the shuttle from spying eyes on the ground. The train was moving nowhere near the blistering speed of the mag-lev trains Serenity's crew had robbed in the past: at least, Mal considered, what it lacked in speed it made up for in capacity.

"Thing of beauty, ain't it?" Robert snapped his reverie from the back of the cockpit.

"Long as it gets the job done," Mal said matter-of-factly.

"Xiang xin, boss, I've yet to haul a train that I couldn't haul with a QJ. 'Specially mine. Get her set up just right and there ain't a grade in the 'verse she can't tackle."

"Kinda calls back something one of my flight instructors used to say," Wash chimed in. "'Fly your ship, don't let your ship fly you.'"

"Yeah, never a truer word was spoke," Robert agreed.

Mal instantly recognised the hereditary 'amen, brother' attitude in the younger man. "Good that you came with," he remarked. "Whatever we dig up out here, by the time this is over you'll be glad you did."

"Well, like you said, too many nights and not enough days, alongsides my old man. Only seems right I return the favour."

"Knowin' full well we've lifted from trains before. How do you know yours wasn't one of 'em?"

"I can tell you never seen it before," Robert answered with a knowing smile. "Ain't many folk get our way of life ere they see it up close like this – not even the Feds. Sorta why they don't bother us even when they want to."

"So how come the Feds don't just try all the harder to drag you down?" Wash asked, smoothly sliding the shuttle over a drifting cloud of smoke.

"'Cause even if they gave a good gorram about the outer planets – which we all know they don't – they'd rather screw around with their newfangled dyna-plumbing than dirty their little white gloves on our work. Take steam power, for one thing. Most everyone knows we railroad the old-fashioned way 'cause a mag-lev train can't corner the mountains around here, but there's also a reason we don't do oil-electrics. Them guys know dead for sure what they gotta do to handle that engine just right. Anyone who doesn't, like some Fed who comes along and starts screwin' around, someone's gonna be cleaning his feathers off'n the mountainside when the boiler blows up. My brother, he just started an overland transport business way the hell up in the north country – which don't go over land at all. He runs his transports 'cross a frozen bay up there for an oil rig, and any Fed feels like drowning and freezin' to death at the same time is welcome to come up and bug 'im."

"Don't imagine that's how the ganglord of the week manages to stay at large," Mal surmised.

"Well, the world is grown so bad that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch," Wash waxed poetical. "Much less try and shine the light of civilisation."

"If you want to call it that," Mal mumbled derisively. "If you ain't got the Alliance breathin' down your neck every time you reap what you sown."

"That's why I'm a railroad man, Cap," Robert half-smiled. "Never yet met a purple-belly knows jack about a steam engine. They don't get even a tenth of what we do around here, even if it is simpler than that overdone junk of theirs. Makes 'em all the more apt to just leave us alone."

"Well, any world good as yours at brushin' off their dirt, makes a man mighty proud he fought for it," Mal said softly as he watched the beastly machine assault the grade, enraptured yet unseeing.

For at that moment he was thinking neither of trains nor the things they carried, neither of this train's motive power nor its significance to the populace. He wondered fleetingly how aware Robert was of his fortune to be in such a position, an occupation as confounding to the Alliance as Simon's daring search and rescue. Like the way of life on Roma, Mal's mind was adrift in the past. He thought about the last pecks of honest business he'd done before the war: of the last crop he'd hauled in, the last head of cattle he'd marketed, the last load of wheat he'd shipped: and at the same time, the last of any of these that had been transacted without Alliance paws sticking in to relieve him of a percentage he was not willing to part with. Basic training was a short time in coming thereafter. As long as it had lasted, as many people as he'd met - Zoe, Tracey, Monty, Ray Corsetto, Tom Graydon, Eric Berakis, even old man Orbrin - none of those faces ever came close to replacing his mother's in his distant memory: his mother's and every other childhood face drifting before his eyes. The faces of Shadow, his home.


That was all it was, now. A dim shadow of the world it had once been, long since razed by government brutality. Like Earth that was, still intact, yet a burned, boiled, sundered husk of a planet once thriving and eager to support its population. How quickly, how hard had the Reynolds ranch been hit and incinerated? The answer had never come. In all self-avowed honesty, what Mal had seen of Roma keenly reminded him of home: and in its familiarity, he would give anything to know what had kept it just beyond the reach of Alliance bombers while Shadow was devastated. If Lady Luck couldn't make up her mind about Serenity, she had certainly wrapped a comforting arm around the inhabitants and the settlers they embraced.

Embraced? Mal suddenly thought to himself. Or refuged? Sheltered from the Alliance's paw? Just how much have these people done to make those yu kuai de ru chong chen feng wu think twice about beating a man when he's down? Maybe indifference ain't the only reason the Alliance don't have much of a toehold in these parts.

Now more than ever Mal was convinced that the world's stance against the Alliance was still worth fighting for. Their traditional approach to daily life must not be limited to steam locomotion or frontiering the land, opening the world to settlers. If only they hadn't vanished decades past, the missing guns just might have turned the tide of many a decisive battle. This forefatherly way of life, of work, of fighting – it was almost anachronistic, but not obsolete. Was that why the Alliance was inclined to leave Roma alone? Or was there an even deeper reason than what Robert had described?

Before Mal lay a choice he'd made many times already: a choice that came to him as easy as the cut of a protein mold or the boiling of the water inside that storming locomotive. The choice of doing the job or doing what was right. He'd made note of it before: there was no choice, not to his thinking. He would do what was right by these people and damned if he would let the Alliance - or Carabella - get in the way.

It was then that Mal's train of thought was sidetracked yet again - this time by the high-pitched resonance of the train's whistle, a long, stentorian, echoing chime that could be heard for undoubted miles as it ricocheted from hillside to hillside.

"That's it," Robert said, patting the back of Wash's seat. "Spur's comin' up."

"In we go," Wash acknowledged. He eased the shuttle's momentum and lowered it to treetop level, his deft pilot's eye flicking constantly between the instrument panel and the tree crowns, searching out a clear landing point. "They always do that?"

"Always. Kind of a salute to the guys who disappeared with the Lickey Banker. Smokey Joe Oberson was the engineer – my granddaddy fired for him early on and he was first to sound his whistle after the train got lost."

With little incident beyond a few branch-borne scratches in the paint and some tree limbs singed by its afterburners, the shuttle made landfall amidst a small clump of saplings a few hundred feet from the tracks. The last few cars of the train were clattering noisily past, yet the reverberation of the engine's exhaust could still be heard and felt far ahead, masking the loud exhalation of the shuttle's landing cycle. Mal stood, all reveries past and all thoughts now focused on the mountain and whatever lay within: heaving his weathered coat onto his back, he double-checked the presence of his pistol and pivoted toward the cockpit door.

"All right, let's do this," he decreed. As he exited the cockpit, though, all the determination, preparation and focus he could muster could not have readied him for the waiting surprise.

"The mountain's coming to him," the small voice leapt at him from nowhere.

Mal swore later that his coat tails jumped by themselves even as he did, startled out of his wits.

"Zhe shi zai gui shen me?!" he yelped. The aggravated flame in his eye threatened to melt River's eyebrows right off her innocent little face as she stuck it out from behind the beam in the rear of the shuttle. She met his dismay with nothing discernible from confusion, as if he was supposed to know all along that she'd been hiding here. She was wearing one of Kaylee's brown jumpsuits and her usual combat boots, and she had not yet budged from her corner by the time Wash and Robert appeared from the cockpit.

"What the hell is she doing here?" Robert was himself incredulous.

"The 'verse wonders," Mal replied. His glare had not wavered from River as she stepped into the open.

"He went to the mountain, but it threw him off," River said. "It didn't know him, not who he truly was. Buried its bounty beneath stones of steel and misleading trails of paper. Now he's waiting for the mountain to come to him. Doesn't want to go to it alone."

"Yeah, whatever," Mal said, stepping forward to take her by the arm. "Let's get a move on."

"You really think we ought to bring her along?" Wash said warily.

"Ain't got a whole deal o' time to haul her back to the boat," Mal said. "Or, for that matter, put up with Her Royal Craziness. C'mon, scoot." The discussion was terminated as he none too gently led River outside.

The sun had dipped below the mountaintops across the tracks by the time Mal and company were feet-dry outside the shuttle. Mal found himself making a conscious effort not to think about Inara's preoccupation with Carabella at this hour as they started into the woods, himself and Robert armed with battery-powered lanterns sure to see use within the next couple of hours. River showed no signs of wandering off, but Mal took it upon himself to keep an eye on her - an unexpected part of the job that demanded his personal attention. Simon would be impossible enough to reason with if they returned her to Serenity in one piece.

"Which way's the quarry siding?" he asked.

Glancing about the surrounding hills to get his bearings, Robert twirled one finger aimlessly in the air before pointing it in a northerly direction. "That way," he answered.

"All right, c'mon." Mal set foot forward first, his eyes narrowed in the direction indicated, and bulled his way off through the underbrush.

"Hi-ho, Silver," Robert said in resigned tones, setting one foot forward.

"Hi-ho-who?" Wash frowned.

"The Lone Ranger," River supplied. "Another man who took life's path alone because he couldn't see any other path to take. Only the darkest one." Penetratingly she stared at Robert for a poor second before turning and drifting away to follow Mal.

The underbrush varied in density, and by the time the other three had caught up with Mal he had reached the tree line and spied the quarry siding. He held up a hand, bidding a halt: the sounds of echoing voices, heavy machinery and breaking rock could be heard, welling up from the massive, open pit on the other side of the track. The miners were still at work searching for the Lickey Banker – although the fading light would oblige them to call it a day, and soon. Their conveyance was easily noticed, a large, heavy-duty winch whose mountings were driven directly into the living rock at the edge of the pit. It was old but well-maintained, a vestige of the quarry's original operations, left to stand watch over the pit until it was recalled to duty. Its thick dual cables hung out of sight, no doubt ending at a cargo elevator used by the miners to transport themselves and their equipment in and out of the quarry.

Mal paused, examining his options. Wait till they cleared out, or venture to the edge of the quarry and spy on them? Dim light was better than no light at all for getting the lay of the land. With a brief glance around to make sure he and his company were the only ones present, he beckoned. "Let's go," he muttered.

The quarry siding itself had evidently seen no use for a very long time indeed. The rails were pure rust, and their crossties were broken, split and rotting. Robert lingered between the rails for a few moments after the others had passed on, biting his lip pensively, and hoping to God he and his engine wouldn't have to occupy this track – it was a derailment waiting to happen. As the thought crossed his mind, however, he straightened: taking only a peripheral notice of the three Serenity crewmembers approaching the edge of the pit, he started to pace eastward along the track, searching for telltales.

Mal, meanwhile, lowered himself quietly to his hands and knees several feet from the unprotected edge of the pit and crept forward. The quarry was vast, stratified, stretching for several hundred square feet and well over a thousand feet deep. As he inched forward, he could see the entire north wall and part of the floor – that section of the quarry was deserted. He inched ahead further yet, his ears sorting out several loud voices in the midst of the rumbling machinery and crumbling rock. As he leaned cautiously over the edge, the machinery came into view, working animatedly: a very large excavator, scooping stone by the ton from an enormous pile resting against the south wall, and dumping it on a new pile towards the middle of the quarry. Flanking the excavator, two rotating rock crushers feverishly worked at breaking down the chunks of stone too large for the bigger machine to handle. Several men now were also visible, looking for all the world like tiny worker ants milling about moving the smaller, finer rocks by hand tool, in the hopes of striking metal beneath.

Carefully imitating Mal's motions, Wash crawled up next to him on all fours. River had no such appetites – she remained standing a short distance behind them, less occupied with the quarry activity than with Robert and the track he was investigating.

"They sure ain't botherin' to move any of that rock outta here," Mal observed. The excavator had just reached for a heap of rock freshly broken by one of the crushers, scooped it up and dumped it in the ever-growing pile behind it.

"There's a lot of it, though," Wash said. "Can't be much left before they find the train."

"If it's here." Mal looked up and behind him, alarmed for the briefest moment that Robert was nowhere nearby – until he saw the young man shambling toward them from trackside, dropping to all fours and scuttling up beside Wash.

"Whatcha got?" Mal asked.

"Nothin'," Robert said with a resigned shrug. "I'll lay you three to one the train didn't take a spill in the quarry. There's no sign of a derailment anywhere."

"Would there be after thirty years?" Wash queried.

"Only way the train coulda spilled this far is if a rail broke somewheres, but those rails all got rolled in twenty-four fifty-seven. None of 'em's broke and none of 'em's replaced. The train ain't here, boss."

"Not down there, anyway," Mal said, motioning into the quarry. He propped himself on one elbow as he lay half-prostrate on his side, looking over his shoulder again to be sure River was still in view. There was no cause for worry – she hadn't budged since the last time he'd seen her: she was statuesque but for her shallow breathing, standing rigidly next to the track and staring with nary a blink toward the mountainside.

"Here they come," she said with the merest tremble in her voice, augmented by a slight twitch of the head.

Continue to Part 7....

....and leave some love on your way! ;)


Monday, May 26, 2008 5:05 AM


Well, no shortage of suspense and tension here. Loved your explanation of the Feds hands off policy to the planet, and loved your examination of Mal's feelings for Shadow. Loved the Lone Ranger analogy - very appropriate!

Nice job of setting up the chapter to come. Glad you brought River in - what use is a great mysterious secret without River to remystify it?

Monday, May 26, 2008 5:36 AM


I love this chapter!

Monday, May 26, 2008 9:31 AM


The thing that's really cool about this story is that you found a way to fit your knowledge (and, may I presume, love?) of trains into the Firefly universe, as naturally as if Joss himself planned it that way. It doesn't feel like you sat there and thought, "I like trains, and I like Firefly . Hey, let's put them together!" It's very nice.

Monday, May 26, 2008 9:33 AM


Great piece of art here, though most have said what I wanted to. :)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:31 AM


Very good description: I really feel like I'm there on the side, watching the men dig in the quarry. And Mal's thoughts on his home ... very poignant. Now, just who's coming?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 11:02 AM


OK, and now the train thing is making sense. Not only because you obviously know lots about it but because of the whole basic-technologies argument. Mal's thoughts about his home world are quite similar to what I've imagined - doing things the simple low tech way is a kind of freedom from the Alliance.

Fun of River to tag along and sense that someone's coming along. Friend or foe? *cue dramatic music!*

BTW, I didn't find myself stumbling on excess words in any of this. It still has a lovely flow, but in this chapter I see the scenary and action more than I see the words, which is exactly how I like my prose. Very enjoyable chapter!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 5:08 AM


Enjoying this very much but oh, how creepifying was River's last comment? Cue ominous drum roll... Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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Solar Winds and Silver Skies
"You're going to shoot a Mountie? They'll hunt you to the ends of the 'verse!"

Where They Don't Follow (Prologue)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 2, Prologue. Roughly six months after 'The Guns of Yamenmiao', Inara says her final farewells before Serenity returns to Roma on a new job. This time, Mal's treasure quest must run the gamut of a not-quite-right scientist, a nameless, ruthless privateer, and a deeper penetration of the Alliance than Mal has ever attempted before.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Epilogue)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Epilogue. Kaylee and Serenity are once again flying. Mal and Inara are once again at odds.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 16)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 16. The crew reaches the end of the line, only to find out that the confrontations - and the mystery of the ghost train - are by no means finished.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 15)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 15. The stakes are no less than Inara's life when Mal commences the last fiery showdown.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 14)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 14. Mal has a trainload of destruction behind him and a passel of violent criminals ahead, holding Inara hostage. With no backup, how can he emerge victorious without destroying himself and his crew?

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 13)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 13. Mal's cover is altogether blown, and he must figure out how to keep the mission from going south - but he has only one dangerous way to get the word out.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 12)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 12. Tensions mount on the Yamenmiao expedition, coming to a head when Mal enters exactly the dire strait he feared the worst.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 11)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 11. The crew finds that their venture to recover the train is not without its unspoken fear of grievous injuries or death - but River finds herself concerned by something altogether different.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 10)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 10. The train has been found, the plan has been made, and Mal and the crew are all set to head out and put it into action - before an unexpected hitch forces them to act far faster than hoped.