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The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 11)
Monday, July 7, 2008

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.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3211    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Okay, gang, I get the picture about Kaylee already. :P You will notice, however, that I didn't include any internalisation by her on the subject? Let's see if this post sets your minds at ease some, along with responses. ;)

PhyreLight, and yet you just keep on with your little blue pen no matter how cruddy the post is. ;) For which, as always, I am ever grateful.

Angellemarcs, I thought it was high time for Kaylee to get out and have some fun with the gang that didn't involve firearms. Leastways, not at first. I'm still workin' that part through. ;)

AMDOBELL, I see that you've commented on pretty much every chapter so far....sorry to note that some things rubbed you the wrong way in the earlier chapters, but we are, I assure you, in agreement on the Kaylee thing. Just keep readin' and all will soon come clear.

Jane0904, hee hee - nice analogy about Kaylee! It's also part of the set-up for some events further on in the series that I've already worked out well in advance, so I shall try not to disappoint.

Katesfriend, THANK YOU!!!!! Now I'm goin' bibbledy all over again from CSTS!!!!! :DDDD So you think River and the detailing were well done in this part? Phew. I'm very, very gratified to hear it. ;)

yinyang, welcome back! And thanksamuch. Believe it or not, I find Wash rather tricksy to write (along with Simon and Inara which is why we haven't seen much of them thus far). Thanks for the note. Four out of five doctors agree that feedback is quintessential to the heart and soul (hint hint nudge nudge).

With that, we have a train to catch....oh, and keep an eye out for an in-joke in this first scene!

Part 10

前进

At first glance, the rock crusher looked like it would barely fit in the tunnel. Perhaps because of the darkness, the size of the huge barrel-like bale on its front end, or the limit to the illumination the shuttle's floodlights could afford, Zoe quietly debated whether this was one of Mal's less worthwhile ideas. She was still debating even after Wash lifted the rock crusher out of the quarry, set it down at the mouth of the tunnel and then landed the shuttle on the opposite side of the tracks, for even though the tunnel allowed the crusher a snug fit she still had her doubts about the tunnel's integrity. By the time Wash had the shuttle secured, Zoe was leaning languidly against the front of the crusher, arms folded, staring into a darkness that no eye could adjust to, time notwithstanding. The darkness could become all too permanent for the five of them if it turned out that the rest of the tunnel had been weakened – in fact there was no way of telling just how much of it was blocked until they broke into the mine. "It's even more unnerving than looking into outer space, somehow," Simon muttered from the side of the crusher.

"'Cause there's no stars to brighten things up. Not that either one's got need of more dead folk." Zoe's tone was flat but resolute and she pushed away from the bale of the crusher, marching around Simon's side of it to find Wash, Book and River grouped near the steps to its control cabin.

"No need to risk anyone's lives that we don't have to," she addressed the shuttle's crew. "It'll take two of us to run this thing, but I don't want anyone else gettin' squashed if the rest of the tunnel comes down. The other three go in through the escape passage. Should be enough time to secure those bodies on board the train before the engine gets here."

"Need me up there?" Wash asked, nodding toward the control cabin.

For a moment Zoe paused, carefully considering his inquiry. Certainly she'd prefer to have Wash operating the crusher – he was best qualified of the lot. But that would leave only one person – River – who knew how to get into the mine, and Zoe had her orders regarding the strange girl. She could at least trust Wash, though, and of the moment's resolutions that one seemed to be the best.

"If you can point me the way to the escape passage," she said. She missed the earnest look from River as her own look followed Wash's pointing finger across the tracks.

"Up the east side of the quarry," Wash directed. "Round the corner at the north end, then a hundred-odd feet and you'll see the steps to the passage. Just watch your step, ai ren. Until you get in the passage there's nothing between you and rock bottom."

"Okay," Zoe acknowledged. "Shepherd, you're with Wash. If you get in ahead of us, just do your thing and don't wait up for us."

"I know the unbeaten path," River spoke up earnestly, without even a microsecond's pause. "Taken it too many times before and ended up broken on the rocks. But there was not the guiding light that there is now, with no stars in the way to confound it."

Zoe hadn't the notion or the time to try and figure out what River spoke of. She rested her hand gently on River's shoulder and as gently told her: "No offense, little one. But I don't want you leadin' the way off the wrong edge of the pit."

She could see that River was disappointed – moreover, that she was coherent enough to be disappointed. It was not, however, enough of a moment to convince Zoe to abandon pragmatism and risk losing a crewmember or two. Looking from Simon to Book to Wash, she read the apprehension that had replaced her husband's usual happy-go-luckiness, and she stepped toward him, bestowing on him what they both knew could be their farewell kiss.

"See you inside, darlin'," she said softly.

"Race you to it," Wash said with a forced smile.

Zoe's own smile was genuine – in spite of his apprehension he still hadn't lost his perennial sense of humour. Affectionately she stroked the side of his neck and then backed away toward the shuttle: it was business time. "Let's move!" she commanded as she turned for the shuttle.

Book, standing nearest the steps, was first to ascend to the rock crusher's control cabin. Wash followed as Zoe, Simon and River repaired to the shuttle, emerging momentarily with two of the large tarps that would be used to seal off the damaged ends of the two gun cars. Meanwhile, Wash parked himself in the controller's seat of the crusher: lacing his fingers, he closed the main control breaker, looking over at Book, who was switching on the generator field and the head floodlights.

"Well, Shepherd, you ready to cheat death again?" Wash said with a jocular half-grin.

"Afraid I'm not the cheating type," Book smiled thinly. "It's more a matter of being prepared."

Chortling quietly, Wash didn't respond – though it was not for lack of repertoire. He rested his hand on the throttle lever for a long moment before he half-turned in his seat, looking over his shoulder to see Zoe leading Simon and River across the tracks and toward the quarry. Wash took a deep breath, wishing he could see Zoe for just one more minute, until all but the glow from her lantern was lost to his sight.

"Are you here?" Book asked, seeing Wash's fleeting look.

"Yeah, I just got a funny feeling," Wash muttered, nodding toward the back window of the cabin. "Like I'm not gonna see her again."

Book's smile returned, though this time mild and understanding. "We'll be all right, son. Let's just get to the cave-in for starters."

"Right." Sighing, Wash faced forward again and notched up the throttle, punching home the ignition switch. "Here we go!" he announced as the crusher's engine knocked heavily to life.

Hearing the throaty roar of the oil-electric engine firing up, Zoe eased her pace, turning and playing her light back toward the tunnel until it reflected off the crusher's dull yellow paint job. Though she would never speak of it to the Tams, she shared Wash's premonition, whether it came to pass now or years from now. The beam was too weak for her to discern Wash inside the control cabin for one last time. She didn't see the sympathetic look River gave her as the crusher lurched into motion and was wholly gulped by the tunnel, leaving the three of them to their own dark venture into the mine.

前进

Unbeknownst to Zoe and Wash, Mal shared the most glaring of their concerns. If the tunnel had caved in once, it could cave in again - and whatever Kaylee's desires, whatever new trade she was learning or wanted to learn, they would be of no further matter. Her efficiency in firing the engine was increasingly visible: Mal eyed her from the cab gangway, noting that with each passing mile she needed less guidance from Robert. Truthfully, she seemed to be getting just a bit too comfortable for Mal's peace of mind: she had raised the boiler pressure to 190 pounds in a half hour's climb up the pass. Perhaps it was just as well, since the next few hours would demand Robert's attention undivided from hauling the train without injury or death on either the engine crew or the shuttle crew. For as Mal looked up, watching the light haze of oil smoke spew nearly ten feet skyward from the stack, yet another misgiving was airborne with it: one of Robert's earliest warnings to Kaylee was to let the safety valve burst by absolutely no means while they were underground. Both of them could implicitly trust Kaylee's mechanical know-how to prevent that from happening, but still Mal felt that he'd had more than his fair share of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't days - which seemed to exponentiate after one of them broke over Serenity Valley. He was looking down the barrel of another one even if the job was a win.

Try as Mal might to believe in his mechanic and her friend, he couldn't forget where belief had gotten him in the past and he couldn't deny that between those two and the abundant hazards ahead of them, the job was altogether becoming just a bit too nerve-wracking.

Kaylee seemed to be almost obsessively eyeing the vertical glass suspended in a metal case, attached to the boiler backhead at either end by one-inch pipes. A quick peek at the identical glass on Robert's side and Mal could see the water bobbing up and down inside it, hovering around the three-quarter-full mark. He declined to ask about its function – Kaylee's constant observance of the glass was enough to tell him it was vital and he had better not distract her from what she was doing if he wanted them to live.

Even so, the other thing he couldn't help noticing was the lack of small talk between the pair and he had a feeling it had nothing to do with the deafening racket of the engine at work. The first few miles out from the yard limit, Robert had closely and carefully guided Kaylee's handling of the oil pressure and the water level. Once she had the hang of it – which, as Robert noted, hadn't taken her very long at all – they had stopped speaking almost altogether, with the exception of Robert's alerts to a curve or a change in grade ahead. Mal would have thought that a bit of casual chatter would help to relieve the mounting tension in the cab, and moreover, that Kaylee would be all for it, knowing her usual cheeriness. Nevertheless her eyes scarcely wavered from the water glass or the steam gauge, and her right hand didn't budge from the oil valves. Robert, for his part, was sitting so rock-still in his seat that a less cognisant observer might think he was a component of the engine, fastened permanently to the throttle, the seat and the windowsill beneath his elbow.

Mal could not know of Kaylee's deep-running worry over getting into a shootout with the enemy, this soon after her petrifying experience with Niska's goons. Nor could he know how hard Robert was trying to forget about what lay behind him and Kaylee, long enough to zero in on what lay ahead of them all.

***

Despite the repeated need to move single file around the rock piles and escarpments that jutted from the floor of the escape passage, it didn't take Zoe long to notice that River insisted on walking next to her wherever there was room. The girl was expressionless but determined and she didn't speak a word. With each glance back toward Simon to be sure he was still with them, Zoe also noted that his gaze left his sister not once, as if he expected her to reach overhead without warning and pull the ceiling down with her bare hands. River wasn't stupid, but no matter how crazy she seemed, Zoe felt safe in maintaining that she wasn't that crazy.

Presently, Zoe's light reached an abrupt end at the rock-pile that lay below the opening to the mine. She eased her pace – just enough for River to edge ahead, stopping shortly before the rock-pile and turning to face her.

"We're here," River announced.

"This ain't another dead end?" Zoe sought.

"No." To a less focused soul, River's earnest look would have been almost heartbreaking. "I've beaten this path before. I want to help. Zoe, please trust me."

Unawares, Zoe was returning the sympathetic look River had given her earlier. She wished fleetingly not only that she could believe in the girl, but that she hadn't been essentially ordered by Mal not to believe in her. Zoe glanced obliquely over her shoulder at Simon, looked past River and pointed her light at the aperture above the rock-pile, nodding quietly as she hiked the rolled-up tarp slung on her back.

"All right, c'mon." She edged past River, whose plaintiveness gave way to a faint smile as Zoe slung her light over her arm and started upward to the aperture.

It's been years now since I knew what it was like to be a real person, River thought, watching Zoe's climb. So much time I spent surrounded by monsters digging their blue claws into me. Tried to make me one of them, unfeeling, depraved, indifferent to everything that moves and breathes and lives. I wasn't a person to them. I was a thing, a lab animal, an article of government property, and now I'm living proof of their immorality. You can't possibly know how desperately I want to be again the person I once was, knowing as I do that I never will.

I don't want to be alone anymore. Whatever happens on this venture, to me or any one of us, I don't want to die alone, without my mind, without Serenity....

I don't want to die without him.

With assistance from above and below, River was standing beside Zoe on the floor of the mine by the time her silent soliloquy was done. Both of them returned promptly to the aperture to lend a needed hand to Simon, whose own climb to the mine was replete with slips, stumbles and grunts of pain and effort. He was, in fact, just about to fall back to the floor of the escape passage when his left hand came within Zoe's reach, affording enough of a tug for River to grab his other hand and for both of them to haul backward. A few more slipping, tripping feet and Simon was with them on the mine floor, standing at the edge of the pool of light filled by Zoe's lantern.

"You okay?" Zoe asked, clasping his shoulder.

"I'm a doctor, not a mountaineer," Simon puffed. "And I can't say as I'm interested in a new career path." Heavy though his breath was, he almost immediately caught it as Zoe swung the lantern forward and cast its beam upon a bone-chilling view indeed.

Simon couldn't suppress a shiver as Zoe illuminated the Lickey Banker, silent, inert and loaded to the bulwarks with death. The all-covering blanket of dust, the dull reflection of the lantern beam against the engine's faded red drive wheels as they starkly contrasted against the great black boiler, lent the look of a sculpture to the train, and an unsettling look it was. The burned and decomposed bodies scattered about the floor of the mine didn't faze Simon, but the forbidding sight of the train before him gave him more of a chill than the mine's dark air.

"My God," Simon muttered, cinching his coat around him. "I used to enjoy spooky stories about ghost trains when I was little. Never imagined I'd see one for real."

"Won't be a ghost anymore once people know what happened," River said in a voice barely above a whisper. "Once they know the true story. Once he understands...."

"She's got a point, however spine-tingling," Zoe said to Simon. "Let's get started with those containers." She moved forward, careful not to step in an unseen pile of bones as she headed for the train.

The unspoken dread of tripping over one of the corpses, however, came nowhere close to the very real dread of the dull rumble emanating from the tunnel. Zoe's first thought was that Wash and Book had almost broken through – but her second thought, augmented by the hair-raising crack and echo of rocks breaking apart, was that the entire mine was on the verge of collapse. This abhorrence was the first thing to cross Simon's mind and he whirled around in a panic, grabbing River's arm and pulling her with him toward the deathly still engine. Zoe spared only a quick look toward the still-blocked tunnel mouth a few hundred feet ahead of the train, flashing her light rapidly about the walls and the ceiling of the mine – but the beam didn't reach far enough to detect a progressing cave-in. Zoe opted for discretion and joined Simon and River in the mad dash toward the only available cover.

River was chattering unintelligibly as Simon almost bodily shoved her up the gangway ladder. He scampered up beind her, hunkered with her against the backhead – the most protected part of the cab he could find – and held tightly onto her, his eyes wide with terror at the unholy noise of breaking rocks, but never fully perceiving that none of them found their way to the roof of the cab. Zoe herself never got quite that far, tarrying on the gangway ladder for only a second, just long enough to look toward the tunnel again as the blocked entrance burst open and the rock crusher's floodlights deluged the entire mine with their glare. Instinctively Zoe flung one arm over her eyes, jumped backward off the ladder to a clean landing on the floor of the mine, and turned away from the blinding light as the rock crusher lurched to one side and cleared the tracks.

For a few seconds Zoe stood with her back to the crusher, waiting for her eyes to readjust, looking up into the gangway and seeing that Simon had yet to budge – or, for that matter, let River budge – from their crouch in front of the engine's firebox door. Taking a heavy breath, she turned around just far enough to see that the floodlights had been switched off: meanwhile her ears advised her of the very welcome shutdown of the rock crusher's engine. She aimed her lantern at the crusher just in time to see Wash hitting the floor and heading toward her at an easy lope. Book was not far behind, pulling his cloak close around him, toting an extra light from the cabin.

"You sure took your time gettin' here, husband," Zoe bantered.

"So what do I win?" Wash grinned. "Second honeymoon on Pelorum, maybe?" He greeted Zoe with outstretched arms, basking in the grin she returned to him as they gathered each other into a kiss as long as it was grateful. Neither of them could, or needed to, speak their relief at seeing the other alive and in one piece on the other side of the wall. The moment was just relaxed enough for Simon to uncover River and let her descend from the cab before him.

"First let's make sure we earn our keep," Zoe said. "Let's you and me seal off those gun cars. Doc, Shepherd, you two take care of the bodies. River...." She paused a moment, seeing River's hopeful look and weighing the girl's plea with Mal's orders: heretofore there was no harm in either Simon or Book keeping an eye on her, unless Book had a mind to release his hair. "You go on with them," she instructed.

River smiled a silent thank-you at her as Simon dropped his rolled-up tarp on the floor and herded her away toward the end of the train, following Book's light. Zoe shined her own along the side of the train yet stood still, aware of Wash's questioning look, but waiting until the other three were out of earshot before looking at him.

"We're on short time," she said in a low voice. "Don't much wanna bet our lives or theirs on that tunnel holdin' up, 'specially after all the racket it took to open it."

"It's dicey, all right," Wash said, looking back toward the tunnel mouth. "Mal and the rest should be here in a half hour or less. Should hold till then. Unless the tunnel caves again right at the wrong time...."

"Let's get this done before it does." Zoe took one purposeful step forward, but not before nudging the other tarp Wash's way. As she headed down the left side of the train – with the silhouettes of Book and the Tams now barely visible ahead – Wash lingered a moment, looking back toward the tunnel, thinking about the brief backtrack he and Book had had to make to clear away a section of ceiling that had come down behind them. He wouldn't be surprised at the sight of a grey hair or three next time he caught his reflection somewhere. Sighing, he stooped to pick up the other tarp and then made haste to catch up with Zoe.

***

"How long till dawn?" Robert called over his shoulder to Mal.

"Couple of hours, maybe," Mal answered. "We almost there?"

"'Bout a mile from that restricted zone behind JP-twenty-three. Then maybe another twenty minutes or so to the quarry siding. Kaylee, you follow?"

"Yup," Kaylee acknowledged, reducing the atomiser slightly and looking at the steam gauge. "Two hundred and ten. How d'ya like them strawberries?"

"Came up a little faster than I'd like, but you did a lot better'n Jojo back there," Robert said, half-grinning. "First time he fired up an engine, he pumped up a hundred and twenty pounds in a half hour and busted somethin' like eight staybolts. You did real good." His raised thumb drew a blinding grin from Kaylee, but even with that grin she looked away from the water gauge for no more than a split second.

Mal leaned out of the gangway behind Robert's seat, squinted through the wind along the side of the cab and boiler and through the stabbing beam of white light emanating from the engine's headlamp. It was the only light around for miles, unsoftened yet by any trace of sunrise beyond the mountains. He caught its reflection off a mile marker seconds before the engine roared past it, one mile closer to the mine, one mile closer to another job done. If only the shuttle crew had made it through the tunnel, if River hadn't gotten them lost or even killed, if the Lickey Banker itself even consented to being pulled from the mine with ease, and another, entire vast world of if.

Continue to Part 12....

Promise this time, even if you're lurking - so there's never been a better time to de-lurk and review! ;)

COMMENTS

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 6:01 AM

JANE0904


Still got that tension going at two hundred pounds to the square inch, haven't you? Oddly enough, though, my favourite bit was also the most chilling, with Wash contemplating - almost off-handedly - that he and Book had had to backtrack a little to clear a rockfall behind them ...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008 5:25 AM

ANGELLEMARCS


Always good. Liked the flow here with the touching scene with Book and Wash.

"Yeah, I just got a funny feeling," Wash muttered, nodding toward the back window of the cabin. "Like I'm not gonna see her again."

Great line.

Friday, July 11, 2008 6:16 PM

KATESFRIEND


I feel like I'm in a slowly building pressure cooker of tension as the time is getting closer to dawn and nothing wrong has happened yet. Why doesn't Mal trust River - I thought he did a great job of trusting her before - or just not trusting her past her usefulness as a psychic? Poor Simon out of his element, and your Wash and Book remind me how much I miss their characters. Looking forward to more.

Monday, July 14, 2008 12:04 PM

AMDOBELL


Gorramit this is nail bitingly exciting, full of tension and the worry that at any moment something might go catastrophically wrong. Love the way you are creating this story, everyong on edge but working towards the common goal. Just hope that roof holds up. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me


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