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The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 15)
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

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.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3137    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Must....finish....before....Dragon*Con.... (Must also rip down, rewrite and repost this part, on account of a needed change at the end.)

AMDOBELL, in the next story or three, I hope you'll find Ray a lot less of an idiot than you think. I should have made it clearer that Carabella pocketed those lawmen quite some time ago, but have done so in this part. Meanwhile, I guess it's nigh impossible for anyone to know what to expect from Mal anymore....

Jane0904, the way I figured it, Mal was trying to gather enough variables to finalise his grand scheme for victory before pitching it to everyone else. Lord knows we can't have it going south at a time like this. ;)

Angellemarcs, for a while there, I was hoping so, too! Thanks for dropping in again, and I'll try and catch up on Bullet later on today.

Katesfriend, I'm going as fast as I can! But this is where things start to get oh-God-oh-God-we're-all-gonna-die and Zoe's a lot less likely to miss something than I am. Now is Mal's planned adventure going to end well? Let's go find out.

And now - here goes nothin'!

Part 14

前进

The smoke, visible almost two miles distant, came at first as a confusion to the large, husky character overseeing the gang of hoods lying in wait at the rendezvous point. In the nearly five years he'd been enforcing Carabella's lawless rule on one planet or another, he had never seen an enforcee quite so readily give away their approach. It was not until the shuttle intervened between his eyes and the smoke plume that it began to make a shred of sense, but less sensible was Carabella's compunction to fly ahead of the train and meet them. His fingers twitched against his Nollmann Special semiautomatic rifle as the shuttle swooped low over the tracks, slowed and then settled to the ground, with Carabella beckoning to him animatedly even before the craft had straddled the rails.

The head hood immediately sprang forth, hastening to the opening door. "What's the deal, boss?" he asked, poking his head through the door as Carabella twisted toward it.

"Reynolds, that's what," Carabella snapped in reply. "The lot of you get your ten-credit-an-hour butts in here. He needs some things explained to him. Yesterday!"

前进

Six years into his life's work with the railroad, Robert couldn't remember one time when he had broken so much sweat bringing a train to a stop. He hadn't even sweated so profusely the first time he applied a train brake – what was now draining from his pores, he estimated, could probably generate enough steam for a mile's worth of level-grade running. Not an hour ago, the stress that a brake application had put on the tired old quarry siding had dampened his hair: now he could feel his clothes begin to soak as he initiated Mal's dangerous plan to stop the train and bring Carabella into close quarters. He had his fair share of misgivings and he could see the same in Kaylee, but Mal's mind was made up and unchangeable. Kaylee, however, seemed a good deal more optimistic about it than either Zoe or Jayne.

Robert pointedly left open the cylinder drain cocks to continue blowing out the water that had been sucked in through the throttle valve, and to be aware when the throttle was completely closed. Kaylee, meanwhile, had reduced the injector feed to bare minimum, but by Mal's order was still fueling the fire to maintain a smoke screen. The smoke, still thick and dark as a thunderhead, drifted above them, though not low enough to obscure the view ahead: they could see the shuttle on a return course by the time the train dropped below ten miles per hour. For a few moments it seemed to be flying straight at Kaylee until it lifted, angled out over the treetops on her side and made two leisurely, observant loops around the head end of the train.

Even with the smoke drifting to one side and laying the top of the train in bare, open view, there was no other movement to be seen – there wasn't, Inara noted anxiously, even a sign of Mal, Zoe or Jayne after her second loop. She covered up a deep swallow and landed the shuttle on the tracks a few hundred feet in front of the train, door facing it, her stare shifting to Carabella: his own gaze had scarcely shifted away from the leading engine since it came back into view.

Carefully and almost entirely by feel, Robert made one last application to bring the crawling, slackless train to a dead halt, seconds after the shuttle set down on the tracks in front of it.

"Let's just hope we can recover from this one," he said tersely to Kaylee as he shoved the brake handle into emergency. Instantly the brakes locked with a split-second, eardrum-rattling blast of compressed air, rendering the train immobile and completely open to thievery.

Carabella jumped at the sharp burst of air evacuating the brake line, half expecting the entire train to explode in a fireball of atomic proportions. Yet it remained intact and on the tracks, the smoke gushing from the stack prevailing as the only sign of combustion.

With a brief glance over his shoulder at his head henchman, Carabella jerked one thumb toward the train. "Go," he ordered. "You know what you've got to do."

"You got it." Sliding off the safety catch on his semiautomatic, the head hood stepped forward into the opening doorway: there he found the engine staring him in the face from twenty feet's distance, the glare from its headlamp apt to make mincemeat of his retinas even in broad daylight.

He motioned four of his followers to trackside on the fireman's side of the train: the remaining three he led to the engineer's side, holding his breath against the smoke drifting down and surrounding the engine. It affected the others as well, or so the occasional cough or discomforted grunt would indicate. All eight carefully made their way down each side, weapons ready, eyes probing for signs of movement – so far as they could without being smoked to tears. They were almost to the cab by the time they passed into clear air. There was still no sign of Mal, Zoe, or Jayne anywhere on either engine – the only signs of life were Robert and Kaylee in the cab of the head engine, raising their empty hands into clear view of the enemy.

"Hey, Rob?" Kaylee said nervously.

"Yeah?" Robert answered without looking at her.

"I had a real good time," Kaylee said with a forced smile. "Thanks for bringin' me on."

Robert half-smiled – he had no words: he was at a loss for anything but a soft chortle, a barely adequate display of what he'd once felt about her. He glanced across the cab, seeing her smile, forced but with the sort of beaming friendliness that none save Kaylee could force.

"Y'know, Kaylee, I...." he started, loading his best shot at expressing what was on his mind.

"Shut it!" The shot jammed at the harsh interruption from the lead gunman, amplified by the veritable arsenal of automatic weapons burdening the lot of them. Robert's tongue stilled and Kaylee eyed the hoods on her side, shivering with fear at the sight of the bestial looks on their faces.

"On your feet, nice and slow," the head gunman ordered. "Get on down here and keep the hands in sight, 'less you wanna part with 'em."

He sidled toward the gangway ladder as Robert and Kaylee slowly and stiffly arose from their seats and eased backward toward the middle of the cab. Kaylee gulped, listening to the indistinct whispers from the men on her side but quailed by their lewd snickering. Robert was careful to keep his expression frozen and his hands high, and the left one within easy reach of the knotted cord dangling from the whistle pull as he took one careful step backward.

There was nothing to warn, alert, or even make the thugs suspicious of a reprisal before Robert grabbed the cord and yanked it down with lightning speed.

With the rest of the engine still and quiet, the shriek of the whistle was so earsplitting that even Robert flinched. Kaylee hunched over, hands clapped upon her already ringing ears – but in their haste to do the same, several of the hoods dropped their weapons as they staggered away from the deafening scream.

"Kaylee, now!" Robert yelled as he let up on the whistle and dropped to the deck in front of his seat. Straightening up, Kaylee whirled around, hit the deck plates with a loud clank and reached for a large rod protruding from a gap between the deck and the backhead. She braced one foot on each surface and threw every ounce of her strength into one desperate upward yank on the rod.

The stooping thugs had barely recovered their guns when a gigantic burst of steam billowed from the bottom of the engine, filling their ears with its throaty thunder and their lungs with the 600-degree vapour. Intimidation rapidly switched sides and the octet of hoods, justifiably fearful of an exploding engine, stumbled away from it, a cowardly few undulating blindly back toward the shuttle.

Their course was anything but safe.

In the same moment Kaylee yanked open the blow-down valve, Robert, no longer fearful of any leaden retaliation, hastily checked to make sure the cylinder drain cocks were still open before shoving himself upright and going straight for the throttle. The locked brakes prevented any movement as he jerked it open and interrupted the gang's escape, the cylinder cocks emitting great jets of steam and scalding water only slightly smaller than what was roaring out of the blow-down.

Carabella was already on his feet, leaning on the shuttle's control panel, staring with rapt shock at the 180-degree turning of the tables. He shared with his men the initial fear of the engine exploding – but some seconds later it was still largely intact, so far as he could see. What he could not see, behind the fading smoke and the huge ascending cloud of steam, was that its hellaceous fury gave off far, far less heat than the real counterstrike.

All at once, the water hatch on top of the tender flew open and Jayne hurled himself upward from his perch on one of the interior braces. His trousers were soaked from the thighs down, but he paid them no mind as he dropped Vera to one side and leaped out of the hatch. Resuming his feet, he grabbed the huge gun, took two belligerent strides forward and opened fire a second before dropping prone on top of the water tank. He couldn't see his targets, but he turned the heat against them nevertheless – his handiwork would have to go unadmired until Kaylee closed the blow-down.

At the same time, the thunder of the escaping steam rendered any activity on the other engine undetectable. Suddenly the top of the coal pile flew apart and Zoe surged upright, mare's leg in one hand and pistol in the other, jumping to the left side of the coal bunker. Simultaneously the water hatch behind her clattered wide open, and Mal, not quite as drenched as Jayne by the remaining water in the tender, yanked himself smartly up through it and over to one side. He dropped on top of the tender deck behind Zoe, pistol clutched in both hands, and prostrated on his side, both of them opening fire in unison into the steam cloud on the fireman's side.

Robert and Kaylee had both hunkered for cover next to their seats, out of all possible lines of fire, each watching the gangway on the other's side for a trace of a movement. There was cause for worry but it bore them none: the thugs couldn't venture anywhere near the engine without being scalded. Only when a few of their number could be seen to drop to the ground with a piercing holler of pain and a prominent bullet hole in the body did they even realise they were being fired upon.

Mal and Zoe, well armed with single-shot weapons, very nearly matched Jayne's rate of fire with Vera, receiving almost no return fire from the hoods they spied reeling away from the engine. Those possessed of less resolve had been overcome instead by the instinct for self-preservation, but the only open paths to clear air brought them straight into the line of fire. Within ten seconds of opening up, Jayne had picked off the head hood and wounded a second, catching him in the ankle and sending him sprawling at the side of the right-of-way – an easy finish.

It was, Mal judged, the opportune moment to make an end of the confrontation before any of his crew came to harm. Maintaining fire with the gun in his right hand, with his left he gripped the grab iron on top of the tender and then heaved himself over the side, ceasing fire just long enough to dangle briefly from the grab iron by both hands and then drop the remaining eight feet to the ground. His feet struck the mound of gravel ballast supporting the tracks and he dropped rolling to one side, but he dared not lose grip on his pistol by the time his roll ceased and he surged upright again.

"Zoe, pass me another one!" he shouted, beckoning. It took Zoe no more than two seconds to drop her pistol, yank a second one from her shoulder holster and toss it to Mal, who laid low long enough to reload and then cover Zoe as she mimicked his drop to the ground. Both on their feet, they dashed double-armed up the side of the dead engine toward the thick of the fray.

Listening to the indiscernible but pain-stricken hollers of the men on the ground outside, Robert shot a look to the water gauge just in time before a thick skein of steam drifted into the cab and obscured his view.

"Close it!" he shouted, gesticulating at the big blow-down rod. "Kaylee, close it!" Upright again, he shoved the throttle shut with all his might and pegged it as Kaylee hurriedly closed the blow-down valve in similar fashion. The bellow of evacuating steam ceased, giving control of all eardrums to the gunfire from Mal and company: as the steam cloud dissipated, they found that very few of their quarry were left to be targeted and eliminated.

But Carabella had seen enough. The cloud needed only lift a few feet to show him the sight of more than half of his men either down or wounded. His breath hissed sharply, disbelieving, through his teeth, he leaned even further over the control console but could not see Jayne lying on top of the tender, could not see Mal or Zoe gaining ground on the fireman's side of the engine, out of his view. He did not, however, need to see them to know that this was happening at their hands.

His back was to Inara and the mortal sneer on his face was invisible until he turned around and beamed it directly at her. He stood up straight, brandished his submachine gun and with a doom-fating clack snapped off the safety as he aimed it right between Inara's eyes.

Inara had not even the time to complete a horrified gasp before the gunshot.

The spatter of blood that marred the right side of her face came as less of a surprise to her than Carabella's yelp of pain as he dropped the submachine gun and his other hand flew to his shoulder, holed hugely by a bullet. He reeled, and only when Inara began to recover from the shock and terror of imminent death did it dawn on her that it was not her but Carabella who had been hit. He looked up, gasping through the pain, his eyes squinting in disbelief: half-turning, Inara followed his gaze to see a strange, weathered face smiling homicidally through the fading haze of gunsmoke.

"That's been waitin' all decade to happen, pal," Ray Corsetto smirked from behind a long-barrelled fifty-caliber six-shooter. Behind him, Wash, waiting to be sure that the enemy was under control, now hastened around him, naught but Inara in his sights.

"Inara!" he exclaimed, appraising her and the bloodstain on her face with a concerned eye. "You all right?"

"I'm fine," Inara breathed as Wash stooped to confiscate the submachine gun.

The act prompted Corsetto to move in and grab Carabella by the scruff of the neck, holstering the six-shooter inside a calf-length duster a slightly darker shade of brown than Mal's. "What's he done to you?" he demanded of Inara.

"Little more than empty threats," Inara answered. "Though he almost made good on one of them just now."

"Yeah, he's good at those. Ain't that right, punk?" Corsetto said, patting Carabella heavily on the injured shoulder.

"Not as empty as this little victory you think you've scored," Carabella snapped back through the stabbing pain. "Just be grateful you're not the real target. Yet."

"'Cause I'm gonna leave that part to you," Corsetto growled. Collaring his erstwhile nemesis, he yanked him out of the cockpit and toward the door as Wash and Inara traded a worried look.

The air was completely clear but for small wisps of steam emanating from their usual outlets on the engine. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne were all but heedless of the dead or wounded thugs at their feet, although Robert and Kaylee were more inclined to steer clear of them on the way to rendezvous. The sight of the second shuttle landed at trackside gratified Mal, though not so much as the sight of Corsetto shoving Carabella ahead of him, out of the first shuttle and up the tracks: but the sight of Inara, shaken yet alive, gave him a relief he wasn't sure he could describe even to himself. She had had to sacrifice a handkerchief to cleanse her face of Carabella's blood – Mal made a mental note to ply him for some reimbursement.

"Ray!" he greeted his old C.O. jovially. "Wash! Glad you fellas could come join in the fun."

"Fun ain't the word for it. Chinese New Year on New Breton didn't hold a torch to this." Corsetto grinned sarcastically, jerking Carabella to a halt several feet short of Mal and company.

"That a commentary on what you're lookin' to do with this one?" Mal said, nodding at the defeated mob boss.

"Might be if he hadn't pocketed some of the lawmen in Pecola a few months back," Corsetto said derisively.

"Fun, huh?" Carabella hissed. "Fun and games, that's all you two are after? Those cops I own are the least of your worries."

"You wanna talk worries, I'd wager there's plenty other lawmen in these parts know you by more'n just name." Mal's voice was quiet but as darkly threatening as his smile. "Looks like it's curtains for you, Josey. Lacey, gently waftin' curtains."

"Wrong again, Reynolds," Carabella sniped. "Cops or no cops, you're not gonna get far."

"Down the hill's far enough, cuz," Corsetto grated.

"Damn straight! You have any idea who's waiting to meet you at the bottom of the mountain?" Seeing the wary narrowing of Mal's eyes, Carabella gave the screw another turn. "An old buddy of yours. One Adelai Niska."

None of the crew were left unfazed. Kaylee and Inara both caught their fear-stricken breath: Mal's eyes again widened, now ablaze with hatred, hatred of the name and the very thought of the man who possessed it. Joining Mal's, the similar look from Corsetto threatened to ignite Carabella's head like a match.

"Don't listen to him, sir," Zoe said calmly.

"I'm all ears already," Mal's voice was like an approaching thunderhead. "If that zheng dui de gou shi is waitin' down there, I'll stuff him in the firebox with Josey here. Find out who he really is."

"Sir, we been in the world only a day," Zoe pressed. "Even if Niska found out the instant we hit the dirt, it'd still take him another two and a half to get here. And if he is feet-dry already, now we know it – " here she nodded at Carabella – "thanks to his newest double-crossing friend here. We can be ready for him."

The paralysing shock and consternation of Niska's approach suddenly changed hands. Carabella stared goggle-eyed at Zoe, yet unseeing, blinded by the dawn upon him of his own blunder. Even if he could be saved from certain imprisonment, if Niska found out that he had let slip the elderly psychopath's advance –

"Let the punk go," Corsetto said. "That Chinese New Year'll be a deck swab compared to the fun Niska's gonna have with him."

"No!" Suddenly earnest, Carabella looked up, face horrified and pleading. "No, listen. I can deal, if either or both of you wants a share of that coin. Just – just for God's sake don't leave me to him!"

"You'd of done the same," Jayne rumbled, cradling Vera. "So why do we oughta spare you?"

"'Cause I'd only ever wish that kinda treatment on Niska his own self." Eyes still burning with hate, Mal's face was bare inches from Carabella's.

"I'm with you there, Mal." Wash's tone was flat, his expression impassive.

"So what's it gonna be, cuz?" Again Corsetto jabbed Carabella in the wounded shoulder. "Jericho Belt, or Niska's place? It's one or the other, but I doubt your cop buddies are like to spring you either way."

"Man just oughta count his blessings we don't throw a suit on him and toss him out at the edge of Reaver space." Without breaking his gaze, Mal quietly continued: "Jayne, you and Inara go with Ray and this bastard, and keep on your toes. Wash, take the preacher and the young 'uns and meet us up ahead. I want everyone together till we're ready to fly, just in case. Zoe, you and I stay with the train till we get it to the yard. Move out."

Mal looked briefly around him, to watch the rest of the crew break apart and disseminate to their duties: Robert and Kaylee were amongst the first to move, powerfully eager to get back on the train and convey it far, far away from this place. Zoe followed them as Jayne moved past Mal, roughly grabbing Carabella by the other arm, joining Corsetto in manhandling him back to the first shuttle. Wash had already shambled off to the second, leaving Mal and Inara, standing between the rails, staring unblinkingly at each other.

Inara would do her piece to keep everyone together until they were out of the world, out of danger: there was no sign in her expression that she would defer. There was only a steady, frowning gaze made of ice, making it unmistakable that she was not amused by his cold-hearted goad on Carabella to shoot her. If she was expecting an apologetic look from Mal, however, all he had in reply was a guileless and slightly less blistering stare than the one he'd been firing at Carabella, whose menace she had inadvertently brought down on him. Whether they liked it or not, there would be words between them later, and most likely hell to pay.

Continue to Part 16....

COMMENTS

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 6:22 PM

ANGELLEMARCS


Well, this is just getting better and better. I like the relationship you have going on with Kaylee and Robert. I could see her being fascinated with trains. Nice touches all around!!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 12:55 AM

JANE0904


Excellent action! And the nod to Dr Horrible did not go unnoticed. You know, as terrible as this sounds, I really hope we're a fly on the wall when Mal and Inara get their respective grievances out into the open!

Saturday, August 23, 2008 3:33 PM

KATESFRIEND


I agree with Jane, that's bound to be some talk those two have. Loved the power shift between hoods and good guys.

Monday, September 22, 2008 11:45 AM

AMDOBELL


Absolutely excellent job! Well done, Ali D L~)
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.