BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ADVENTURE

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The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 14)
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

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?


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3277    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Okay....Dude. I'm a full week and a half behind schedule, I know. Had a really bad time a couple of weeks ago before a very happy development in my personal life turned things around 180 degrees. But meanwhile I have to post this in like four different places today to get it back on track (no pun intended). FFF first!

AMDOBELL, thank you for a very encouraging note. I myself worried like *diyu* about too much tech-y stuff before I realised that it was going to come in very very useful in this post.

PhyreLight, don't worry, I got the joke. Sorta. Unless there was an ulterior meaning. ;)

Jane0904, thanks so much! I don't know if I'll be able to pace the rest of the story quite like that, but, well....I leave that up to you.

Katesfriend, indeed about Wash! He needs more leaf-on-the-wind, big-damn-heroical moments and I was happy to oblige him. Sorry for taking so long to update. Also sorry to say that I'm sort of the Cliffhanger King when a story approaches its climax, and this post is no exception. ;)

Angellemarcs, thank you, thank you, thank you. Wacky site provided a double dose of commentage....hehe! I was a little fretsome about that shuttle jump and whether it came off well. Thank you for putting those fears to rest.

By the by, I thought some of you might like a visual reference, and this is as good as it gets: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxFNdhMjHvc&NR=1 , Chinese steam trains in high-speed action. There's also a familiar name on screen at the beginning. ;)

Part 13

前进

Every muscle in the cab froze, every head snapped in Mal's direction and every eye bored into him. None had heard him spit Carabella's name over the bellow of the hard-working engine, but his harsh curse had made the name unnecessary. Kaylee's face was a mask of terror as she looked at the shuttle, parallel to the train and pacing, now a hostile craft with Kaylee's best friend held hostage in her own home.

"Have to say, Captain, I was hoping for a more cordial greeting," Carabella said with a degree of sardonicism. "But then Inara here doesn't give you the highest marks for your people skills."

"Inara, what gives?" Mal demanded. "Is it just me, or have your loyalties hung a sharp left?!"

On the shuttle, Inara took a deep breath, ever mindful of the submachine gun Carabella was holding against his chest. "I'm sorry, Mal," she replied stiffly. "Josiah can be highly persuasive in the right set of circumstances."

"As I'm sure you well know, she's also an excellent judge of character," Carabella went on, grinning satanically. "She sure wasn't kidding about your quick work. I wish I'd hired you sooner to find what my father was after at the time of his death. Have to say I'm mighty grateful to you for recovering it in one piece, Captain, not to mention glad I found you before your friend Corsetto did."

"Why don't you hitch a ride in that guard van and have yourself a happy little family reunion?" Mal growled.

"Nice of you to offer. But I can wait till you start down the pass. My men will be waiting to take charge at milepost seventy-seven, right before you hit the downgrade. I'll hop on board then, and we'll back off the main at the old feed mill outside of Pecola."

"Jian ta de gui," Mal snapped.

Kaylee looked worriedly over her shoulder for only a second's break from watching the water level. She had safely prevented the boiler from exploding – but for an imminent and far deadlier explosion there was no prevention at all. Mal whirled around, and if his finger had been a knife blade he would have severed Robert's jugular.

"Open her up, wide," he ordered. "I want every turn you can twist outta them drivers, ma shang!"

"You're gettin' it, boss," Robert answered. "Till we hit the top of the hill, this is – "

"Just do it!" Mal roared.

Shaking his head, Robert braced his feet against the backhead and grabbed the throttle in both hands, tugging it as far open as his strength would permit. "Kaylee, gimme ninety on the atomiser!" he shouted. "I don't give a good gorram about the oil, just don't lose her!"

"Sure'n I don't wanna!" Kaylee replied as she twisted the atomiser valve almost wide open. However, whether she was referring to the engine or Inara was anybody's guess but hers.

"All right, Josey, now you got a dilemma climbin' up your ass," Mal spat. "Wanna take a leap at what else is on this train?"

"Best not try to bluff me with those explosive placards," Carabella answered coolly. "Did I mention I have your lady-friend at the business end of a submachine gun up here? Don't be stupid, Captain Reynolds. All I want is my father's property and his remains."

"Ain't nothin' belonged to your old man on board here unless he wanted to get his pi gu blown off," Mal retorted. "Take a gander at the fourth car and try'n tell me he didn't. But don't go tellin' me you wanna take chances with the rest of 'em!"

"You'll be wanting to slow down," Carabella warned. "In fact, come to think of it, I think you'll have that train stopped with me on board in thirty seconds if you want Inara alive."

"Go ahead and shoot her!" Mal snarled. He ignored the horrified look from Kaylee, forced himself not to think about the similar look from Inara as he ranted on. "You do and I'll blow the entire train to the hot place and whatever shiny you're after along with it! Ain't odds you wanna play, Josey! You riddle her with holes all you want, but one way or another I'll blow this train right off the side of the mountain afore I stop it!"

"What are you gonna do, Reynolds, run it straight off the end of the line?" Carabella demanded.

"Seems like the thing to do," Mal fired back.

"Tell 'im to keep his lackeys outta the way, or we'll wreck the gorram train," Zoe called.

"And you keep your lackeys out of our way," Mal repeated into the radio, "or we'll wreck the gorram train."

"Let's wreck the gorram train anyway!" Jayne hollered from the back of the cab.

"Reynolds, you're out of your damn mind!" Carabella was shouting now and the desperation in his voice, plain as it was, quickened Mal's pulse. "You keep this up, and you'll never make it past Ni Ning Flats!"

"I'll send you a smoke signal when I give a fei xiang shu de pi gu," Mal retorted. With that, he switched off the radio, jammed it back in his pocket and stole a glance at the engine's speedometer, now quivering just below 55 miles per hour.

"Uh, boss?" Robert said tersely. "Best figure out what kind of signal to send him afore we hit the flats. 'Cause when we do, believe me, you'll give a fei xiang shu de pi gu."

前进

What the Pecola yard lacked in trackage, it made up for in length. The yard had six storage tracks – two of which were in a certain state of disrepair, having been out of service following a major derailment a few years prior – but there was more than a mile and a half between the ends of the main siding. Near an interchange track on the opposite side of the mainline a wastewater treatment plant was erected and operational, but to Wash, setting the shuttle down by some bushes near the track's north switch, its function was a mystery until he cracked the door.

Ray Corsetto was standing near a dilapidated brick building adjacent to the plant, his dress for danger apparent even to those who didn't know him well. Cargo pants, a flak jacket and a heavy-duty work shirt had replaced his usual businesslike wear, but he was by appearances unarmed. He was also unperturbed by the stench from the treatment plant although Wash couldn't fathom how he shrugged it off – no matter how long he'd been waiting for them. Wash had grown up on Orrville, but the reek of that planet's atmosphere barely made him tolerant of the treatment plant when he cracked the door to the shuttle. In no way did it surprise him that the others chose to stick with the shuttle, Simon even closing the door behind him.

"Guess it's true what Mal likes to say," Wash remarked, gesturing at the plant. "Smelliest drop points always are the best."

"Don't suppose he's ever mentioned a battlefield fulla bodies," Corsetto said, deadly serious. "He's on his way?"

"Yeah, but they ran into some early-morning trouble with the miners," Wash said, now matching his seriousness. "Last we saw of 'em, they were headed full throttle for the top of the pass. Nothin' since."

"Can you try and raise 'em?"

"I can." Facing about, Wash withdrew to the shuttle with Corsetto at his heels, not seeing Simon shield his nostrils from the outside air, not seeing River's concerned look. Book was still in the co-pilot's seat and staring contemplatively at the comm system.

"Has that other train come through yet?" he asked.

"Been and gone," Corsetto replied. "They just made their set-out and got gone when I got here."

"Good thing," Wash said. "Rob was a little worried on running into them."

"By the sound of things, the train dispatchers took up that slack," Book said, nodding at the comm system.

"Well, let's see how much longer they have to fret." Wash parked himself back in the pilot's seat, where with a few quick flips he switched channels and hit the transmitter. "Hello, Mal."

For some seconds there was no reply. Wash frowned at the receiver – the mountains had given them no trouble with radio contact earlier and had no apparent reason to start, not at this range. Again he clicked the transmitter and retried: "Mal, you there? Zoe! Anybody? God? Thin air?"

Still nothing – nothing but that mocking silence, perpetual but for the barely audible hiss of static. Wash helplessly spread one uncomprehending hand against its reign but there was no end to it. Corsetto, however, sighed darkly, all too aware of the explanation: they were being jammed.

"This ain't good," he muttered. "How long ago did you leave 'em?"

"Twenty minutes, give or take," Wash said. "Puts them a couple of hours out yet. Can you pull in some backup by then?"

"I tried," Corsetto growled. "But it looks like Carabella already pocketed a couple of the lawmen up here. We gotta think of something else."

"Won't help." River's tone matched the deep-running worry in her expression. Her head was twitching, and she had the strained voice of a fighter pilot under missile attack. "He's coming."

前进

"Okay, c'mon, baby, don't ground me now," Robert muttered under his breath, patting the big throttle.

The train had crested the grade less than ten minutes ago, but it was already approaching the first curve at the top of the pass: a sharp, heavily railed curve, a banked curve, a curve so severe that the track vanished out of sight behind the trees less than three hundred feet from the starting point. For this reason the curve was spiked with some of the hugest and heaviest rail the JN&W could afford, the better to keep such heavyweight hotshots as the Lickey Banker moving at track speed. After listening to River's weird yet truthful ramblings, Robert wasn't doubtful of the tonnage behind him but had neither the time nor the capability to calculate the weight on each and every axle. He clenched his teeth and held his breath until the engine had laid upon the thick, superelevated rails, where again the boiler interfered with his view of the track ahead and he shifted his focus to feeling through the seat beneath him for hints of a derailment.

The sharpness of the curve seemed to surprise even Inara. Zoe, eyeing the shuttle, could see as much when the shuttle abruptly pulled upward to avoid hitting the roof of the train, glided over it and straightened out on the opposite side, still matching the train's direction and speed. Zoe watched the performance, but something about it struck her as queer – something she couldn't quite finger, and who was to say if there would be time enough to figure it out.

Mal saw Zoe's quizzical expression, but didn't think of speaking to it: there was much more on his mind right now than surmounting the Carabella obstacle and finishing the job without letting Inara come to harm. He had been cogitating, ever since running the risk of a mine collapse due to smokestack velocity, on just how the engine worked and whether it could come up advantageous. The smoke problem had just gotten him thinking harder. He didn't know and only marginally cared how Robert would react to the notion forming in his mind, but just as he was about to cross the cab and pitch it, Kaylee sat back from the manifold and turned to face him.

"Cap?" Kaylee spoke just loudly enough to be audible over the injector. "You didn't mean it about him shootin' Inara, did ya?"

"Don't fret about it," Mal said, his voice like frosted glass. "He was frettin' worse than you when I told him I'd blow up the train. Ain't a chance he'll take. Asides, if he was gonna shoot her he'd of done it by now." He turned around and launched himself in one long step to the other side of the cab. "All right, kid, talk to me. Ni Ning Flats, what's waitin' on us?"

"Runoff from the mountains formed a mud plain over the years," Robert explained. "So after the fourth or fifth washout, they built a shoofly around the flats to divert traffic while they lay out a more stable track bed. Problem with a shoofly is, track speed's ten miles an hour, tops."

"Well, you sure picked a sweet roll of a moment to tell us about this!" Jayne snapped.

"Did you figure on bein' followed?" Robert shot back.

"All right, enough," Mal said loudly, glaring Jayne down. "Best we figure somethin' else out. How soon before we hit that shoofly?"

"An hour, maybe less." A shrug of the shoulders accompanied Robert's offhanded estimate.

"Wash should be down by now," Zoe volunteered. "If he and Ray can suss out what's goin' on afore we hit the downgrade...."

"But what if someone's pullin' up the tracks ahead?" Kaylee asked.

"She's right," Robert said in grim reply to the disconcerted looks from the other three. "We keep runnin' wide open like this, ain't no way we can stop in time if there's a gap in one o' these curves."

"Let's just hope Carabella ain't stupid enough to risk it," Mal said with a contemptuous nod toward the pacing shuttle.

He couldn't see either of its occupants, but its steady flight indicated to him that neither of its occupants were engaged in what his superior officers would have called "conduct unbecoming." Carabella, restlessly tapping the submachine gun in his arms, breathed a heavy sigh of frustration at the knowledge that he was indeed in a very bad position to be making threats. He couldn't kill Inara without bringing himself down with her, but no more could he force Mal to stop the train with the counter-threat of a moving ammunition dump at Mal's command. He tried to ignore the repeated sidelong glances from Inara, even though there was a tight limit on what he could say to sway her – she was a Companion and near impossible to fool. But could she be distracted?

"For your sake and his, I hope he doesn't think he's winning," he muttered.

"Josiah, what else is on that train?" Inara demanded. The question was point-blank, almost completely unrelated to Carabella's stream of thought. She lifted her eyes from the instrument panel long enough to stare penetratingly at him, long enough for her intensity to catch him by surprise. It was a moment before he gathered enough composure to answer.

"The placards are a lie," he insisted. "They always were. In all the years this train ran, it carried explosives about as often as Parliament keeps a promise."

"They obviously weren't lying about that fourth car," Inara pressed. "If you still don't believe them, then why haven't you shot me?"

"Because you've got more hours in the air than I do. Start counting your blessings that you do while you still have a minute."

"Don't you see? Platinum or no platinum, there is something dangerous on this train that your father wasn't expecting to find, and it cost him his life! If you keep trying to run Mal down, the family reunion he mentioned may not be the one you were expecting."

"Yeah, then why the hell would he want to destroy himself with us?" Carabella demanded.

"If you don't believe him, then you have no idea whether the train is carrying fertiliser or nitroglicerin. Mal was looking for the train without your knowledge, what if he knows exactly what he's pulling? You can't afford to try and stop him. But you can end this with no loss to yourself or anyone else, if you just let things take their course."

Baring his teeth – literally and figuratively – Carabella levelled the submachine gun. "He's bluffing, isn't he?"

"Do you really want to find out?"

"Well, if he considers you expendable, then why are you still sticking up for him?" Without waiting for the answer Inara didn't have, Carabella tapped her shoulder with the gun's muzzle. "If I were you, Inara, I'd zip those pretty lips and fly the shuttle. I will end this, just not as well as you'd like. Reynolds has no idea just how into it he's walking, and you'll be walking right alongside him if you try to warn him."

"Then I have to warn you that I have yet to start lying," Inara said, trying not to swallow audibly. "Malcolm Reynolds is like the weather. Unpredictable, stormy, and apt to go from sunshine to raging cyclone inside of a minute. Not that I applaud him for such conduct, but whatever your preparations, rest assured they'll be inadequate."

***

Bristling though such a counterwarning might be, to Mal the threat of inadequate preparation was unyielding. It was borne upon him as he took stock of the affair: shuttle crew gone, radio jammed, Inara held hostage, no way of knowing what Carabella had waiting for them up ahead. Kaylee had not said a word since her query about Inara, she was restlessly fingering the oil valve and injector feed and refusing to look in Mal's direction. He knew when she was showing him a cold shoulder and he knew it was incurred by his callous attitude toward Inara's safety. Unfortunately, he couldn't reveal his brilliant plan until he had it entirely figured out, which itself was quite contingent on Robert's handling of the train and knowledge of the railroad.

For Robert was pensively leaning on his windowsill, left hand idle on the throttle, by all appearances deep in thought about the obstacle course laid before him. The descent down the pass was not far: the brakes had behaved leaving the mine, but that incline was nowhere near as stiff as the cruel grade ahead. Though the train's weight wouldn't even be much of a daunt, outrunning the pursuing shuttle would give "interesting" a whole new definition when they drew near the shoofly.

The shoofly, Robert reflected, was not a stretch he was keen to traverse with a track cart, let alone a 200-ton freight locomotive and twenty loaded cars. It was some weeks since he'd last travelled it, but he remembered the conditions well: the crossties were spaced a bit wider than they ought to be, barely buried in the ground with no supporting ballast. The rails themselves were secondhand - old track material pulled from branch lines and industrial sidings. Even at ten miles per hour the potential for a derailment worried him even more than on the quarry siding.

Inara, meanwhile, was less concerned with the train's direction of travel and more concerned with the terrain on either side of the line – Mal could see that much. She had not tried to steady the shuttle on either side of the train as it wound its way through the sharp curves and ever-changing grades, gathering speed on the down slopes and losing it just as quickly when the grade ascended again. The only constant in Inara's pilotage was altitude, to avoid hitting a potentially explosive car when the train thundered upgrade.

Robert was still running wide open and Kaylee's fingers were still twitching tensely against the oil valve. Pulling into the cab from watching the shuttle, Mal crossed to Kaylee's side and leaned close – she still refused to look at him. She would, he thought resolutely, just have to go along with him if she wanted anything to change.

"Kaylee, we gotta talk," he said in a barely audible tone.

"No, you gotta make sure Inara don't get dead." Kaylee inherently had a hard time matching Mal's callousness, but she was coming pretty close to it then.

"No, I gotta make sure none of us does," Mal said firmly. "But I gotta have your hand in it, Kaylee. Now what's like to happen, you turn up that oil flow again? Smoke screen?"

"Yeah, we'll smoke her up pretty good for a couple miles. But if I turn it up too high, it'll put the fire out. And I gotta turn up the water flow with it, or pressure'll come up so fast it won't take but a minute to pop the safety valve."

"And what if you do turn the water up?"

"Soon enough it'll get so high it'll go right through the throttle and outa the stack. Won't be no good for the engine, Cap. Too much water gets in the cylinders, we'll lose some speed, bust a main rod or worse, blow off a cylinder head." Kaylee paused and regarded him with a deep frown. "What're you askin' me for, though? Rob's forgot more about this engine than I'll ever know."

"Just hold for now, Kaylee. And be ready to do whatever he says afore he's through sayin' it. You got me?"

Suspicious of his intentions though Kaylee was, his hard stare left her with little room to maneuver. She nodded without a word, but the pat Mal gave her on the back wasn't very reassuring.

"Sir," Zoe spoke up as Mal crossed back to the engineer's side. "Strikes me that shuttle's actin' awful weird. Carabella knows we're not stoppin', why ain't he flyin' ahead to warn his boys?"

"Either he knows he's got the low ground, or he's got an ace in the hole we don't know about," Mal said, peeking briefly out of the gangway. "Just the same, we can't have him climbin' our tail if we're gonna get through this. Rob, how far?"

"Two and a half miles," Robert answered.

Mal stood still in the gangway, looking obliquely at him before leaning out for another quick glance at the shuttle as it lifted and side-slipped over the roof of the train back to the fireman's side. Inara was still keen to avoid the dominant treetops as the train hurtled through another rightward curve, wheel flanges screaming like chalkboard fingernails. Again Mal turned, leaned up beside Robert and struck up an exchange audible only to the two of them.

Jayne was at first inclined to lean in as well to eavesdrop, but a warning look from Zoe and he thought better of it, grudgingly bracing himself at the front of the tender. From behind Mal, neither of them could see or hear a word that was said. Kaylee was the only one with enough of a vantage point – and even though she couldn't hear a thing, she could see that Robert was growing increasingly agitated. A word alit from his mouth that looked a bit too much like "stall" to Kaylee: her heart sank as she concluded that Mal was essentially ordering Robert to run his beloved engine in a less than safe fashion. With fist clenched tightly around the throttle, Robert stared out the window for a long moment, looked back into the cab and regarded the water gauge on his side, his eyes flicking to Kaylee only in the briefest.

"Turn the oil up to fifteen, Kay," he said, voice dark with defeat. "Crank the injector with it."

"What?" Kaylee's shock was genuine. "Rob, the rate we're goin' she'll be workin' water in less'n five minutes!"

"Relax, Kaylee," Mal told her. "Better's the chance Carabella won't get wise to us if we got some smoke screen. But to pull this off before we run afoul o' his lot, we're gonna need it in less than five."

"Go on," Robert said soberly, nodding. "Fifteen'll smoke, but it won't put the fire out."

Kaylee pursed her lips in a second's frustration as she looked at the water gauge on her side – it was more than three-quarters full already. Not only would this be a needless waste of fuel and water, but it would be all the harder for her to control the pressure, not knowing how many more curves and grades lay ahead before they descended the pass. What could Mal possibly have up his thick brown sleeve to make an end of a compounding crisis?

Shaking her head, Kaylee did as she was told. She carefully increased the oil flow to fifteen pounds, resisting the urge to reach for the blower as the smokestack almost immediately began to spew a plume of dark, oily smoke. The injector feed she increased by two full turns, hopefully enough to keep the pressure down but apt to raise the water to a damaging level in an optimistic three minutes.

"This is not good, boss," Robert warned through tight lips.

"Better'n it would be if Carabella takes the hill," Mal muttered. Through with arguments, he turned away and looked through the aperture in the cab roof at the opaque cloud of smoke rushing by overhead.

Carabella didn't recognise the language in which Inara muttered her curse, but he saw why a second before her sharp banking maneuver that jerked the shuttle quickly upward and away from the train, forcing him to grab the seat arm with his free hand. The smoke was of much lesser concern than the film of unburned oil and sooty water that suddenly spattered the shuttle's windshield - the film wasn't quite thick enough to obstruct the view of the terrain ahead of them, but nevertheless it conspired with the smoke to obscure any aerial view of movement aboard the train. Carabella half-rose from his seat, catching his breath at the suddenness of his impaired view: despite that impairment he could see that the train was slowing already.

"What the hell now?" he demanded, reaching for the radio transmitter. "Reynolds, if this is that smoke signal you were talking about, you'd better have something for me to look forward to!"

The comm speaker remained tauntingly silent. The shuttle's airspeed had not changed but it was starting to edge ahead of the slowing train.

"Damn you, Reynolds, answer me!" Carabella shouted.

"It's possible he can't!" Inara broke in. "Who's to say there isn't a problem with the engine?"

"Who's to say your pal isn't up to something?" Carabella snapped. "Fly ahead. We'll pick up my men and be ready for whatever he is up to when we get back here. He thinks he's turning the tables, he's dead wrong and I do mean dead."

Continue to Part 15....

COMMENTS

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 10:20 AM

AMDOBELL


Brilliant! So pleased to see another chapter and I love how you are keeping the tension ramped up. You would think Kaylee had learnt to trust her Captain by now but I can so see her acting just like this at the notion that something might happen to Inara and thinking Mal is doing nothing to rectify that. Very frustrating that Corsetto left it so late before arranging back up that he couldn't get any because Carabella had beaten him to it. What an idiot that man is. Look forward to the next part. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, August 7, 2008 2:16 AM

JANE0904


Great chapter. I admit to a bit of curiousness as to why Mal hasn't just explained his plan to everyone, instead of talking to Kaylee and Robert seperately ... methinks not all of them are going to like the fulll overview! And great guns with the tension - I feel like I'd whistling down the track with them!

Thursday, August 7, 2008 12:45 PM

ANGELLEMARCS


Such a great chapter. Hope Mal's plan works.

Friday, August 8, 2008 4:36 PM

KATESFRIEND


Another thrilling adventure and some very clever plot devices to ensure your cliffhanger is properly hung. Loving the adventure and Kaylee's snarky attitude. I'd love to know what Mal's plan is too. Write faster! Zoe never misses a thing and River is appropriately creepy. You captured the flavor well of Mal being the planner of these adventures.


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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.

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.