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The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 8)
Monday, June 9, 2008

The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 8. Mal is only a few steps away from locating the missing train and its deadly cargo. Meanwhile, Inara indirectly tries to help him find what he's looking for.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3204    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

First things first: Truth to say, folks, I got no grudge about the sparse feedback on Part 7. I know the site was being stupider than usual last week, so if you tried to comment/rate the last part and couldn't, I don't fault you. ;)

Angellemarcs....well, I'm glad you have a small place in your heart for trains - I had one up till about a year ago when they became the most colossal pain in the pi-gu. Thanks for reading and enjoying anyway!

Woonsocket, I had the incidental music from 'Bushwhacked' running through my head the whole time I was writing that part. Thanks for stopping in again.

Prologue. Blurbs. 'Nuff said. ;)

Part 7

前进

The last of dusk's glow had faded away by the time Mal and company returned to the quarry. In the near-stifling darkness, the far walls and the floor were far beyond the reach of the lanterns. Wash felt his pulse quicken as they cautiously approached the edge of the pit: the elevator's winch looked much larger in the darkness than it had in the dimming light, but his attention kept drifting back to the siding and the tunnel that swallowed it, a midnightly patch of dark within dark. His nerves began to slip as Mal led the way, almost on tiptoe, to the quarry's edge, senses probing constantly for any sign of a wayward miner returning for a forgotten tool.

"We goin' down?" Robert asked presently.

"Shhh!" Mal hissed, holding up the same silencing hand he'd raised earlier. A quick glance around and into the quarry reassured him that there was no one around to overhear. "Nothin' to see down there. Wouldn't make any kinda sense for a way in to be down that deep."

"So where do we look for a way in, then?" Wash wondered. "Better yet, what kind of way in are we looking for?"

"Way out," River cut in.

Wash and Robert both whirled on her with quizzical stares, but Mal was unfazed. "Means of egress," she continued, staring blankly into the quarry. "Safety measures required in any and all mining operations since the late nineteenth century. Permission to commence operations can't be granted until ventilation shafts are opened and escape passages are clearly accessible in event of a collapse."

"Oh....kay," Wash said uncertainly, slow to absorb River's monologue. "Any ideas there about where we're liable to find such a shaft?"

"Well, why don't we run it by the wife?" Mal hinted.

Wash pursed his lips as if to protest but was no sort of hesitant to draw radio from pocket. "Hello, Zoe," he called.

"Here, dear," Zoe responded. She had been occupying herself at Serenity's helm for the past couple of hours, cleaning the ship's guns while she awaited word from Mal's party.

"Could you plug in that map of the mountain range?" Wash requested. "See if you can zoom in on the mountain peak at the other end of the quarry siding. We're looking for a mine ventilation shaft, rat hole, any opening to the inside of the mountain."

"Hang on." The map was already in Zoe's hand and the mic was resting on the helm beside her. She inserted map to reader, tightened the image down as requested and bent over the screen, reaching again for the mic as she scrutinised the map for a trace of a hole, an overhang, any orifice whose dark outline would give it away.

"You know, Kaylee showed me this old bear cave once, out by her folks' homestead on Guonian." Robert's tone was distant, reflective. "One night a bunch of us chopped up an old dead tree, stoked it up inside the cave and told ghost stories till the sun came up. Mainly 'cause our conductor told a story about a phantom train and nobody wanted to sleep after that one."

He chuckled uncomfortably, but Mal remained stern and unamused, staring off into the blackness of the quarry. River, however, showed a somewhat brighter spark of interest. "Where did it go?" she inquired.

"It was just a story, kiddo," Robert said with an uneasy shrug. "Just like the one that old bum told us about – "

"The cave," River interrupted. "Reminiscent of the stories of Earth that was, excavating a subterranean conduit to China. Where did it take you?"

A long breath, a pointed look away to the quarry, and an absent scratch at the back of his head rendered Robert all too readable, as he expelled the breath in a heavy sigh. "Someplace I'd just as soon never gone to," he muttered darkly.

"Wash?" Zoe called, making an end of the exchange. "Can't find anything anywhere on the slopes. The granite quarry's pretty much the only break I can find anywhere in the terrain thereabouts." She took a second's pause and an oblique glance at Simon as he scampered frantically up the ladder from the storage bay in the bow, breathless, and seemingly on the verge of snatching the mic from her hand. Staring coolly at him, Zoe added, "Oh, and speaking of nowhere to be found - Simon's goin' out of his nian qing piao liang de mind lookin' for River."

A quick twitch of Mal's fingers and the radio rested in them, noticeably sweat-moistened by the palm of Wash's hand. "She's with us," he explained, scowling at the girl. "She sneaked along. Tell the doc she's fine. What about a mine escape shaft? Any sign of one roundabouts the quarry, or the foot of the mountain?"

"No, sir," Zoe's tone was almost apologetic. "Far as the map reader's concerned, the whole mountain's sealed up solid. Can't really say the same for the doc's pie hole, though - "

"Captain!" Simon cut her off abruptly, leaning as close as he dared to the mic in Zoe's hand. "With all due respect, I wish you would bring River back to the ship at once! I can't have her out there in dangerous territory with – "

His uptight voice caught as Zoe suddenly let off the transmitter. She could just imagine the smile cracking on Mal's face, as indeed it was with the indifferent tiff of the receiver cutting Simon's tirade. "Love to oblige, Doctor, but time's a tad short," he answered. "Cool your jets, my eye's on - "

"We're gonna dig to Sihnon!" River broke in, grinning. "Remember, Simon? When we would excavate beneath the cannonball tree and pretend we were digging our way to Sihnon? We had to give up when we encountered bedrock. We took it for granite. But now we'll penetrate even deeper than the tree's branches did."

Simon was speechless, staring blank and uncomprehending at the mic, his mind revisiting for the hundredth time what could possibly have gone wrong with his sister, what could possibly make her right again. Zoe, on the other hand, was almost amused – but not as much by River's baffling rhetoric as by the hiss of feedback from the mic, indicating that Mal was too flummoxed to let up on the transmitter. She raised an eyebrow, smirking at Simon. "Sounds to me like she's got a pretty good bead on things, Doc," she said casually. "Might be better she stays with 'em."

Mal, meanwhile, had been glaring at River ever since she opened her mouth – but she was still grinning playfully, as if enjoying with her brother a joke so private that even he didn't get it. At length Mal became conscious of the soreness in his fingers and realised that he was still holding the transmit button on the radio. Without breaking his glare at River, he lifted the radio and instructed: "All right, Zoe, now that we've had our nightly news from the funny farm, y'all sit tight a while. If you don't hear from us by dawn, try and raise Ray and tell him the job ain't happening."

"He won't like that noise, sir," Zoe said, now passing from the apology sphere to the level of reproach, ignoring Simon as he went anxiously taut. "Can't claim to be thinking too fondly on it myself."

"Neither am I, Zoe, neither am I. We'll check back as soon as we can." Without another breath Mal clicked off the radio and returned it over to Wash, whose gaze had also barely wavered from River since her ramble. Robert's back was turned altogether and his arms were folded as he stared hard into the dark pit.

"C'mon, let's get this done," Mal said to no one in particular. Turning eastward, he shambled off along the edge of the quarry, with Wash, eager for some illumination literate and figurative, hastening along at his flank.

River's grin was long gone. She approached Robert, the glow from his lantern mysteriously shadowing her face from below. He hadn't budged since she asked him about the cave, and River knew he had barely even heard her outburst.

"I'm sorry," she said presently.

"Don't worry 'bout it. Let's go." Robert's words were short and snapped and he didn't look at her, not even as he broke his stony stance and marched around her, hitting a stride that brought him up behind Mal and Wash in no time. Oblivious to the darkness, River lingered a moment before turning to follow – herself ruminating on a different darkness that she knew far too well.

"Sure it isn't high time to take the River-child back to the boat?" Wash muttered aside to Mal as they cornered the east end of the quarry and started north.

"Positive," Mal answered. "Now especial. Permaybehaps one of these days she'll be able to tell us just how she knew where to look."

"Well, just because she's rattling on about interplanetary tunneling, doesn't give these man-eating mountains leave to devour us as well and not leave so much as an ulna."

"Nope," Mal asserted. "But it does give me leave to play a hunch that we find that escape passage underfoot any minute." He turned and strode backward for a few paces, just long enough to make sure Robert and River were still with them, and to shoot a quick glance into the quarry and see if he had missed anything. This was far and away one of the wildest hunches he had ever played, but if not for River he might not even have thought of it, let alone playing it. He had to remind himself that if the escape passage was still open, as any properly built escape passage surely must be, the quarry was the only starting point left to him. Still he could almost see himself in that Ventura Plaza casino right now, gambling to exorbitant stakes that his was the correct path.

But without focus on the job he would surely stray from it. He didn't want to be anywhere near that casino, especially not knowing as he did who was in repose in the penthouse above.

前进

Not one to let impatience with a client get the better of her, Inara busied herself lighting the candelabra above the couch. Early liaisons with businessmen had taught her that the occasional delay was to be expected from them: it went without saying that Mal, ever fancying himself a respectable man of business, never failed to remind her of the delays. Carabella, it seemed, was no exception. He had made the appointment for 8:30 PM, which had come and gone and still there was no trace of him on the landing pad outside his penthouse. Inara had placed her teapot to warm over a small candle on the table, cups and smouldering incense set out beside it, and set about what little house cleaning was needed.

She had still had no contact with Mal since they spied each other in the casino earlier that day and had no notion that he had even come across a job. As Carabella showed her his abode and the facts and figures of the business he ran, she'd had no trouble determining that it was far from legitimate – although Carabella was deucedly not as high-profile amongst crime lords as Niska. Inara quietly reminded herself that her business was none of Mal's and by the same token her clients' business was none of hers – Carabella was not the first high-middle crime boss she had serviced, nor, probably, was he the last.

She listened with half an ear for a chirp from the comm system in the cockpit, almost hoping for a call from Mal before Carabella arrived. She lit the last candle without hearing a thing, but was almost unwilling to let herself believe that Mal had actually found a prospect – she ruminated sardonically that Carabella was just the kind of man Mal might come to for a job. And then it was time for Mal to pass from her mind for the next little while to come: a brief knock on the shuttle's door jarred her from her reverie, and she turned from the candelabra, recognising the low silhouette of the head in the window.

The radiance of her smile augmented the warmth of the shuttle's carpets and draperies as she opened the door. "Josiah," she greeted pleasantly.

"Sorry I'm late," Carabella said as Inara ushered him into the shuttle. "It's always something in my line of work."

"So I understand." Inara secured the door and proceeded to the couch, where she invited him to a seat. "I suppose the dust never settles, whatever the business we're in," she continued as she poured the tea.

"Especially when it's kicked up by a gang of hayseeds making trouble for some of my people," Carabella said derisively, accepting one of the teacups.

"Unfriendly rivalry?" Inara surmised.

"That's barely a patch on it. Have you ever heard of the Lickey Banker?"

"I can't say as I have."

"Doesn't surprise me. It's probably the most notorious cover-up in Roma's history. It was a train that disappeared about three decades ago, and it was carrying some freight that was very, very important to my father. He took humanitarianism to a whole new depth, and he owned a good-sized parcel of land north of here where he was looking to build a whole new town for the next group of settlers. He had the money, he had the materials, and he had the means to get them where they needed to go, but that means unfortunately vanished from under his nose and everybody else's."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Inara said sincerely. "I take it, then, the details of the train's disappearance were never learned."

"The railroad saw to it there weren't any. They covered it up instead, led the rest of the 'verse to think the train never existed – even tried to convince the crew's families and co-workers, along with my father. He had the biggest heart in the galaxy, but it did him in after that debacle. But I've taken the initiative to find out the truth. Doesn't please me to say it, but there are some in this world who have issues with that goal. Today wasn't the first attempt at stopping me from finding my own father's property."

"Railroad personnel?"

"If they are, they're new hires," Carabella sighed after a swallow of tea. "Goes without saying that the railroad's denying any involvement."

"Strange," Inara mused. "The railroad seems to be going to an awful lot of trouble to stop you from finding property that's rightfully yours."

"They don't give a fei-fei de pi yen about the property," Carabella scoffed. "What worries them is that I actually will find the train and ruin their perfect little cover-up. Which to me means they do have something to hide, but it's only a matter of time now. I have a group of miners working in a granite quarry on Yamenmiao Pass. It seems the most likely place for the train to have vanished, but even if it isn't there, I'm not going to give up the search. I have a family legacy to carry on."

"That's an admirable purpose." Inara smiled, studying him. The man was grimly determined, and now was his time to take an evening and relax from the press of his concerns – she could see them plainly in his weary eyes and the smile he was forcing. Perhaps her Companionship wasn't the only release she could offer him.

"I wonder, Josiah, if I might ask you for a leap of faith," she said presently.

"It'd be nothing new," Carabella said, his eyes narrowing as usual with his smile. "God knows I'm no stranger to them, the amount of money I'm spending on this search."

"I know a man who might be all the more worth it," Inara smiled. "He commands the ship I'm travelling with, which has fallen on a difficult time. He's hoping to reach a former commanding officer of his who lives here, but I have my doubts he's...." She paused, seeing the sudden flash of acrimony in Carabella's eye. "....had much luck finding the man, much less work with him," she finished, her voice low and guarded.

The change in her demeanour did not escape Carabella. "I'm sorry, Inara," he said. "This is both good news and bad news. Mind if I ask who he's looking for?"

"The man's first name is Raymond," Inara said. "That's all Captain Reynolds would say of him. Getting further information from him is like extracting the sugar from a freshly baked cake."

Carabella nodded slowly, no longer caring how he came across to Inara, emotionally or even physically. His tone grew increasingly hostile as he continued: "If you – and your captain – want my advice, that guy's not even worth the search. Raymond Corsetto is notorious for leaving his people hanging. That's how he survived the war while so many who served under him ended up dead. This Captain Reynolds is liable just to join them in the ground if he takes a job from Corsetto. You're certain he hasn't gotten a hold of him yet?"

"Not certain, no," Inara said cautiously. Carabella's outburst had quailed her and stirred in her a genuine concern for Mal's well-being. "But he did indicate that Mr. Corsetto would be difficult to reach. On the other hand, Captain Reynolds may be just the man for your job."

"How well do you know him?" Carabella said, his hostility giving way to curiosity.

"It happens that I don't," Inara confessed. "At least, not in the more intimate sense of the term. There are very few who do, no matter how long he's been part of their lives. However, I think if there's one word to sum him up - and finding that word of itself is almost impossible - he's....determined."

"How does 'tenacious' sound?" Carabella offered.

"Equally appropriate. May I ask what sparks your concern about him?"

Shifting to a more relaxed pose, Carabella cleared his throat. "Well, far be it from me to imply that he can't be trusted. But to be truthsome, there's no word in English, Chinese or any other language you've studied to describe how vital this job is to me and to the world. The operation on Yamenmiao Pass has yet to produce any results, and I'm beginning to think I need a man on the job who has a better sense of what he's doing."

"Thankfully, in the year that I've travelled with the captain, I've never known him to leave a client in the lurch. In all honesty, though, I think there's no cause for worry. He will do the right thing for you and your people. He's a Browncoat to the core - those people don't let their fellows down."

"You must know him better than you think," Carabella said with a thin smile.

"It may simply be that we each have a business to run, even if our practises don't always jive," Inara's own smile was wry.

"Well, at least they don't seem to have damaged your sense of humour too bad." Chuckling, Carabella drained his teacup and then inched closer to Inara on the couch. "Pray tell, Inara. If I were to contract with Captain Reynolds, could he be counted on to finish the job in a reasonable time span?"

"Even if he encounters troubles similar to yours, there are few men alive who can think on their feet much faster. Would you like me to contact him?"

"I'd appreciate that a great deal. In fact, I'd like to meet him. I have a friend who I think would like to meet him as well, if he'd care to join us downstairs tomorrow."

Inara was almost taken aback by Carabella's sudden, convivial attitude, but as her surprise subsided her smile returned, gratified and sultry. She found herself unable to wait for Mal's reaction when she revealed to him that she had might have found him just the job he was after – would it further incline him, she speculated, to be a little more respectful of her and her occupation? Even as she'd been making the pitch to Carabella, she knew she wasn't being entirely truthful: she had been tempted to mention how difficult Mal could make things, or his plans' unfortunate habit of going awry. Yet something told her that for the sake of helping Mal, she had to instill hope for the best – in Carabella as well as herself.

She moved closer yet to Carabella, lifted her arm and rested it behind him on the back of the couch, bringing them into a contact as intimate as only a professional Companion could incur. "The pleasure would be entirely mine," she said warmly.

前进

It was nearing ten o'clock by Mal's estimation when he and Wash rounded the northeast corner of the quarry. They had passed along several other vestiges of the quarry's operations, which had clearly ceased many long years ago: a dilapidated crew shack here, a corroding fuel reservoir there, a high platform accessible by a steel ladder, that must have once supported the control stand for the cranes. Mal slowed his pace, looking carefully over the north wall below him before rounding the corner: his pace slowed further yet when his lantern discerned a narrow, unguarded path cut into the wall, about twenty feet below ground level. It was too level and well-defined to be a mere escarpment – but Mal's conviction came with the sight of the worn, steel-grated steps that ascended from the path to the ground level.

"We're getting warm," he muttered.

"That's more than I can say for my spinal cord right now," Wash commented as they rounded the corner.

Mal hadn't lifted his eyes from the path. He paced slower yet, walking along the north side of the quarry, until he had passed a short distance beyond the corner. Just as he was turning to investigate the path further, he froze, staring past Wash, at the field of light from Robert's lantern and River's total absence from it.

Wash and Robert also spun around: the former fearing the worst, that River might have taken a very ugly fall and neglected to scream, an omission he wasn't sure he would put past her. All three men breathed easier when the two lanterns pinpointed River – she had not yet rounded the corner behind them but was lying prone on the ground, both hands and one ear pressed into it and both wide eyes aimed at it.

"Never scoring, always grieving," she murmured, barely audible. "Always echoing, never leaving."

These days River was ranging ever wider between coherent and psychotic, and it was increasingly troubling to new people and Mal could see it in Robert's eyes. Beneath skewed brows they veered sharply to his left, regarding River peripherally: then minding the edge of the pit, he made a beeline toward Mal.

"Not to be critical or nothin', but..." he mumbled. "Did you really have to bring her along knowin' full well she'd be actin' like a gorram freak child?"

"Reckon I did," Mal answered. "Point of interest? We're the ones carryin' the lanterns but she's the one lit up just about the whole trail. Take a look." He turned and aimed his lantern back into the pit, sweeping his beam along the path: it played briefly along the strata, then vanished into the gaping black maw of a passageway, bored into the rock and half hidden by an outcropping above it. By all appearances, the passageway ran directly beneath River's repose.

"That's our way in?" Robert asked mutedly.

"The escape passage," Mal said. "That's why Zoe couldn't find one on the map. It opens right into the quarry. It shouldn't oughta be blocked if it was done right."

"Okay, great." Wash's jitters had yet to subside altogether. "I vote we mosey on back, grab ourselves some backup and be ready to deal with certain howling apparitions when we get in there."

"You've been listenin' to too many of Jayne's gaslight ghost stories," Mal said dryly. "Jayne's scarier'n some of the stories he tells, and that ain't sayin' much."

"Yeah, but this is crazy!" Wash protested, tossing up his hands. "If it hasn't collapsed yet, who's to say it won't while we're in there!"

"You've got a better idea, now's the time," Mal said curtly. Without another word he pivoted forth and headed for the worn steps to the path.

Continue to Part 9....

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COMMENTS

Monday, June 9, 2008 5:39 AM

ANGELLEMARCS


What a great story you are spinning. Great action filled with likeable characters. I love stories featuring Wash. I miss him so and you pull him off perfectly. Can't wait until next MOndays post.

Monday, June 9, 2008 7:09 AM

JANE0904


Good stuff. There's a lot of tension building here, and your character voices are very good. I particularly like the fact that River is not 'normal' and that's scaring most of the crew.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 4:18 AM

MAL4PREZ


I agree with the others - I'm enjoying River in this one. I definitely get the feel that she's in her own world, perceiving and communicating things in her own quirky way. And the dialog is snappy and fun. Wash in particular has some good stuff. I'm also entertained by Inara's doings - kind of wondering how this job she's gotten for Mal is going to play out!

On the critical side: I found the shifts between the planet and the ship during the comm chat disconcerting. On TV, these things work because there's a visible change. Here, I felt like I was lagging a bit behind the action as I figured out - oh, we're on the ship now. And we're back on the planet. OK, on the ship. Etc... I guess it's a matter of taste - I just don't like abrupt changes like this, not in written fiction. Maybe it's just me. :)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 8:20 AM

YINYANG


Yay for more of Inara and Simon!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 11:37 AM

KATESFRIEND


We had to give up when we encountered bedrock. We took it for granite.

Cute line from River. You have her sounding very much like the real crazy person she is and doing a great job. Nice way to stir the pot with Inara thinking she is doing Mal a favor. Love snarky Wash and overprotective Simon vs. Zoe was great stuff! Looking forward to more.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 12:43 PM

AMDOBELL


Really enjoying this but all manner of worried about Inara mentioning Mal to her client. So much for sticking to each other's business. I hope she doesn't try to contact Mal while he is on the mountain and Carabella is still with her. Things are like to blow up in her face much faster than she could imagine I suspect. Good to have River with Mal, her insight is like to come in very handy. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me


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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.

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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.

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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.