BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - MYSTERY

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The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 16)
Sunday, September 21, 2008

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


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3226    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Two parts to go!!! I may finish this beast yet. But not without reader responses.

AMDOBELL, I revised the previous part as seemed appropriate. Hope it meets with your approval second time around.

Angellemarcs, thank you for all!!! I'm kinda bummed, actually, that there was too much quick-moving plot going on to explore Kaylee and Robert's past relationship a little deeper. It's one of those deep dark corners of the human heart tha nobody should get to know too well. But there was a notion recently about special features....And there'll be other fics to come! :D Just....need to....write them. *ahemhem*

Jane0904, hehe, thank you for catching the Dr. Horrible joke. I was wondering about that for a split. ;) The epilogue might be a little while in coming since I've a bit of work to do yet on the M/I grief. Gonna get it right this time. Dammit.

Katesfriend, sure it wasn't too much of a deus ex machina? ;) Hehe, thank you. I just wonder how heated the M/I conversation should be.

Keep on chuggin', we're almost to the end....

Part 15

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"QJ Seventy-eighty-seven callin' JS One-forty-two, over."

It was almost by reflex that the engineer on the Pecola yard switcher reached upward to grab his radio mike from the bulkhead behind him. "Rob!" he exclaimed. "Dispatcher's been tryin' to raise you for hours, man. We's wonderin' if you was ever gonna make it here."

"Well, I got's a little surprise package from Red Rock Junction." There was a perceptible smile in Robert's voice on the radio. "Okay to come in?"

"Yep, Beck's got you lined up for the east siding. Hey, what's this about you runnin' helper on NJ-oh-six? They got two QJs, they ain't over tonnage."

"Well, next time Benny tells a ghost story, we might oughta listen." Robert's cryptic response left the engineer struck without a word, himself and the fireman staring across the cab with speechless bafflement at each other. Surely Robert couldn't mean....

Presently the answer trundled into view around a sharp curve several hundred feet before the yard limit. The train was chugging leisurely along at ten miles per hour, then Robert smartly sounded the whistle to clear a grade crossing and eased the throttle, letting the train drift down the slight grade into the yard. As it snaked its way off the main line and into one of the lengthy yard tracks, the switcher crew's first clue to an oddity came in the form of the second engine, evidently dead in tow. The container cars trailing along behind were a design – not to mention a length – placed in service nearly four decades ago, yet they showed the signs of only a few years of service. Then the two engines rumbled past the yard switcher and the fireman stiffened, leaning halfway out of his window, certain at first that his eyes were cheated by the press of his work. Only when the engineer launched himself to the deck and over to the fireman's-side gangway did he conclude that the "Confederation" characters and the "3028" numeral on the cab of the second engine were no trick of his vision.

"Shui Ye su!" the fireman exclaimed, his voice choked with amazement. "Dill, it's the Banker!"

"Ohhh, you've gotta be kiddin'," the engineer breathed, shaking his head.

In the deucedly brief time that he'd known Kaylee, Robert had almost never known her not to be smiling. The smile had been absent for some time but it was taking hold again: he didn't miss her devious peek in his direction when they passed the yard switcher. He returned the smile at once before turning away and aiming it out the window at the switcher's crew.

"Ghosts of road jobs past!" he called out, gesturing over his shoulder at the following train. Still the switcher crew had no words, so dumbstruck were they by the very real sight of the train lumbering past, its condition so mint that they could almost smell the paint at this distance. Even the remains of the fourth car made a barely lasting impression in the shock of seeing the Lickey Banker returned from a mountainous grave.

"My God!" The engineer didn't even spare his fireman a glance as the train pondered by. "Ever think you'd lay eyes?"

"He dug this up out o' nowhere, I sure the hell ain't lettin' him borrow my scoop," the fireman said absently.

Feeling his temple, Robert noted with a trace of amused relief that this stop was squeezing far less sweat out of him than the previous one. The two shuttles were landed nose to nose on the opposite side of the yard, only one indistinct warm body visible near them. The warm body undulated away from the #2 shuttle as Robert increased brake and inched the throttle shut, and by the time he had brought the train to a smooth and easy stop, Corsetto was identifiable picking his way across the yard tracks to the engine.

Mal could be seen to smile – not sarcastically, not homicidally, but with honest-to-goodness satisfaction – for the first time since leaving Serenity to search for the train. He cast the smile upon Kaylee and then upon Robert, as the former shut off the oil flow and the latter pinned the throttle, neither one aware of the other breathing a heavy sigh of relief. To Mal's thinking, their efforts, perhaps not the most dangerous but by far the most significant, well deserved the praise he was about to give.

"Good work," he said, nodding to each. "Both of you. Damn good work."

"Thanks, Cap," Kaylee grinned, glancing obliquely toward the gangway as Corsetto hauled himself aboard.

"No sign of Niska anywhere?" Zoe asked.

"And no worries," Corsetto answered. "I unjammed your comm system and waved Artie Balloch back in Janus. Carabella ain't gained much ground with the lawmen back there, so they'll be standin' by when we get back. Best we do somethin' about this train afore the Feds get wind of it, though."

The lightbulb in Mal's head shined through the perceptible glint in his eye. "Then how's about we get Artie on the horn again and have him – "

"Berakis, get down here!"

It was a harsh, scratchy and very unhappy voice that jabbed its way into Mal's suggestion. Robert's frame sagged almost a foot, an exasperated sigh escaped his lungs and he shook his head, unable to lift it until Kaylee's worried tone gave it a boost.

"What is it?" she hazarded.

"Pritchard," Robert grumbled. "The ruttin' jackass what calls hisself a division super. His uncle was one o' them covered up the Banker when it disappeared. This ain't like to be a blast." Wearily he heaved himself off his seat and swung into the gangway, eyed sympathetically by the others as he dropped to the ground. The sympathy in Mal's look, however, was short-lived.

Pritchard's Napoleon complex was almost immediately apparent. He was short, rotund and balding, and the perpetual sneer etched on his jowly face deepened as Robert approached him. Robert had a hardened glower for a reply – whatever Pritchard was about to dish out he did not intend to take it lying down.

"Whaddyou want?" he demanded belligerently.

"I wanna know what in the hell you're tryin' to pull," Pritchard snarled. "I wanna know why you's tryin' to make everybody think the southbound train needs a helper, and I wanna know what you're coverin' for, and – " He paused, peering past Robert into the engine's gangway. "I wanna know why you got four unauthorised personnel and no qualified fireman on that ruttin' engine!"

"You wanna talk about cover-ups, do ya?" Robert snapped. "Don't look what I'm tryin' to pull, look what I am pullin'! Hate to spoil Uncle Bob's little piece of fei hua, but here's his greatest – "

"I don't give a ruttin' hump what you're pullin'. Or who. Whatever it is, tryin' to put one over on me and this railroad's probably the stupidest thing you done since you ran through that switch at Old Mill."

"Takes one to know one, fat-ass. You don't believe me, go hop in that guard van and – "

"Damn right I don't believe you! Let's have your keys and your books. Right now! We'll see if you get 'em back after the hearin'."

"What's the point of a hearing if there's but one jack-off won't let a one get a word in edgewise?" Neither man noticed that Mal had dropped to the ground until he broke between them, the best of his captain's scowls aimed right between Pritchard's narrowed eyes. "How's about you zip that snarly mouth and let the kid speak his piece."

"How's about you get off railroad property afore I pull the law down on you," Pritchard sneered.

"You wanna pull down the law in these parts? Go get him, he's in that shuttle yonder. Just 'cause Rob pulled down somethin' else o' yourn ain't gave you call to be a sorehead. He's brought in the train that time forgot, so don't get tetchy with him just for the hell of it."

"Don't know who you think you are, but tryin' to tell me how to run my railroad's even stupider'n his move," Pritchard spat. "Like it or not, he asked for it and now he's gonna get it."

"Don't know who you think he is," Mal responded coolly, jerking his head to one side. "But don't come cryin' if he disagrees."

Pritchard turned, his face twisting in a harsh grimace at the sight of Corsetto approaching from the front end of the engine. Mal could already judge by Corsetto's mordant expression that he had a history with this character, that he was not going to put up with Pritchard's unreasonability and had dropped to the ground from the fireman's side to take him by surprise from the rear.

"This what you call runnin' a railroad?" Corsetto grated. "Carryin' on the biggest cover-up in the 'verse for thirty-odd years?"

"That ain't the issue," Pritchard retorted. "The issue is this dumb kid makin' an unauthorised move with unauthorised personnel, puttin' hisself and two other trains at risk, fraudin' the entire division and goin' for a couple years' hunker in the doghouse! Them rules got writ for a reason!"

"No, hey, do what you gotta do with him," Corsetto said, waving his hand carelessly. "Hell, it ain't like he blew your happy little cover-up outa the water on my coin." He glanced obliquely at Robert, noting the boy's nervous look, but his own air remained cool and collected, a classic poker face if Mal had ever seen one. "'Course, you take him outa service and who's gonna move my cement? I ain't took a loss on it since he ran that job last summer. Hate for a construction schedule to go to hell 'cause of some old hoghead likes to take too many coffee breaks."

The stunned gap that formed between Pritchard's lips was as revealing as it was sudden. His unjust repertoire failed him, opening enough of a pause for Mal to give the screw another twist.

"Y'know, Ray, it's possible there ain't cause for that particular worry elsewheres," he said, smiling faintly.

"That's the truth of it," Corsetto said with a similar look. "Steve Gametzis on the Old Town Southern was second highest bidder for the cement job. You don't mind me, Mal, I could send him a wave right now and see if he's hurtin' for traffic."

"Guess that's up to Mr. Pritchard here," Mal said.

They were the smiles of two old war buddies who had been through too much to be caught up and intimidated in anyone's rush to judgment. Now the smiles vanished even faster than they appeared as the two men turned and glowered at Pritchard, whose perpetual sneer had faded from assertion to defeat: they had him inescapably cornered. The high-priority cement trains were amongst the hottest business on the entire railroad, and his own superiors had addressed Corsetto's repeated approval for its timely delivery. It would be the end of him if he slapped Robert with the three months' suspension he had planned and Corsetto retaliated by taking such important business to a rival company. But to his thinking, a violation was a violation and called for a mandatory upbraiding.

"Five days," he snarled, jabbing his finger into Robert's face. "Five days instead of the ninety I was gonna give you, thanks to these two. Now gimme – "

"Oh, no, you don't," Corsetto snapped, renewing the surprise. "Now hear this, you qiang heng hun dan. He done good by both me and the rest of the 'verse, and I pray to God you never find out why. You let him do his job in peace, and you start with a quiet place to tuck this train outta the way so's I don't invite the whole world over for a look-see. I find out you put any kinda kibosh on him and I'm gonna send Gametzis that wave. Dong ma?"

Pritchard stared at him, wordless and seething. He had eighteen years on the job, four of them as a manager: control was proudly his and only his, but with control of this situation stripped from him he was at an utter loss. His expression was reminiscent of a fifth-grader deprived of sourcebox privileges for a month as he retreated, backed away and just avoided tripping over a rail behind him in his fury. The murderous glare he levelled at the untouchable Robert Berakis was a poor attempt at a silent warning. Wordless he remained as he turned away and stalked off toward the yard office at the east side of the tracks.

"Done right nice," Mal said approvingly.

"Same to you," Corsetto replied. "That bum's all about the blame game. 'Bout time he got took down a peg or three."

"Well, I damn sure appreciate it," Robert said in muted tones.

"Kaylee'll tell you any time, I'll rot in ruttin' hell afore I'll leave one o' mine stranded," Mal asserted. "You gonna need her much for long?"

"Prob'ly not. I can run with the switcher crew out to a storehouse siding at the edge of town, make sure they don't get too curious about what we're really haulin'. Been a while since the storehouse closed, so there's no better place hereabouts to hide the guns till you can get 'em someplace safer."

"Well, first things first," Corsetto said quietly. "My thinkin' is the guns can wait till we get those bodies where they oughta be."

"That's a good sound." Robert nodded appreciatively, grateful to see that for all the urgency Corsetto had placed on recovering the guns, he still made a priority of honouring the dead.

Corsetto clapped him on the shoulder, smiling genially. "Well, you done a hell of a job, kid. That sumbitch gets on your case 'bout anything, you know where to raise me, don'tcha?"

"Yessir, and much obliged." Robert straightened to almost military attention as he and Corsetto shook hands.

"Okay then," Mal nodded. "Ray, methinks it's about time we get settlin'."

"So why don't we go crack that first car?" Corsetto grinned.

"No compellin' reason." Mal patted him on the arm, very nearly champing at the bit for a peek at the first car's valuable contents. Robert, however, was too relieved to give it another thought as they left him to his work and strode purposefully away toward the stainless-steel boxcar back of the engines.

When they cracked the door, Mal half expected – almost hoped, in fact – to find the interior piled high with plastic-composite, platinum-loaded boxes. The boxes were present, all right, but disappointingly they were stacked only halfway up from the floor of the car. Mal frowned in his recognition that they were noticeably larger than the cashboxes he was used to seeing – longer and somewhat flatter. He was just about to write them off as older-model cashboxes unseen since before the war, but then he saw that his own quizzical look wasn't the only one: Corsetto had taken a pace back and was scrutinising the weight markings on the side of the car. Something was amiss, Mal deduced, something that threatened to preclude payment.

"Well, this here's a puzzle." Mal was first to break the discomforting silence.

"Ain't it just. Cashbox weighs what, about thirty pounds?" Corsetto said.

"Or near enough. What's the load limit on this?"

"Hundred and twenty tons. Unless some mad scientist's been mixin' platinum with lead, ain't no way we got eight thousand cashboxes on board here."

Stepping back, Mal counted the cases visible in the doorway by column and by row. "Five thousand cases at most," he estimated. "This car even got a full load?"

"The meter sure looks to think so," Corsetto said, motioning at the analog load meter protruding from the bottom of the car beside its front wheel assembly. "Mal, I hate to break the news to you, but I don't think the cover-up's over with. This ain't no load o' shiny."

"What do you figure it is, then?"

"Beats hell outa me. Gonna have to break one of these cases when we get to the storehouse and find out what it really is. After I ask the kid why this car's got a bogus manifest."

"Coulda been an under-the-table reroute. Folk've tried to sneak unlisted goods on board under my nose before."

"But why would they fudge the manifest to read platinum and take a chance with bums like Carabella? And what would his old man do if he had copped a peek?"

Slowly both men turned, looking into the open door of the car, eyeing the cases – wishing fleetingly that they had the wherewithal to break one and get the answer to that incendiary question. Mal felt his lungs empty, his mind so taken with wonderment that inhalation was reduced to an afterthought.

"Whatever this is, might be it's even more precious than coin," he murmured. "Sure'n the guns coulda changed things in the war. Who's to say they were all?"

It was a question whose flames would lick at both men's brains long after Serenity's departure.

When they returned to the head end, they first came upon Kaylee oiling the running gear on the fireman's side: above her, Robert was crouched on the running board on the side of the engine, tinkering with the air compressor. Zoe was standing off near the shuttles, briefing Wash – and gladdening Mal that he had missed the kissing scene – but the rest of the crew was out of sight and out of mind, no doubt as eager for flight as an adolescent eagle. The sight of Mal and Corsetto walking around the front of the engine alerted both Zoe and Robert that it was almost time for Serenity's crew to exit stage left: as the former turned, starting back across the yard tracks to the train, the latter straightened up, making all safe haste to the front end of the engine and then the ground. Both converged on the gathering just in time to hear a remark from Corsetto to the effect of a fuel truck bound for Serenity.

"Wish I could've done you a few better, Mal," Corsetto added dolefully.

"Well, wasn't none of us expectin' that."

"Expectin' what?" Zoe hazarded.

"First car's a mystery all its own," Mal explained. "Somethin' a damn sight heavier and less mundane than coin's weighin' it down. Could just be a misfile, could be whoever sent the train on its merry had somethin' else to hide besides the guns."

"Yeah, but how d'ya know?" Robert said, almost helplessly tossing up his hands. "The Banker don't even exist no more, far as everyone's concerned – where's a body ever like to find the real piece o' paper on that car?"

"Could be we'll know when we get a peek in one of those cases, long as we don't blow our ass off doin' it," Corsetto mused. Turning to Mal, he went on: "All right, look. Six hundred do you, along with the full tank?"

"It'll get us flyin' again," Mal nodded.

"Gotta replace that attitude thruster first, Cap," Kaylee reminded him. "Or we ain't gonna fly far afore we do one of these." She thrust her hand downward, fingers aimed at the ground in simulation of a nose dive.

"Done," Corsetto said before Mal could even ask.

For a moment Mal was taken aback. He had fully expected that he would have to deduct the cost of the elusive part from whatever the fair payment was – and to his assessment it was a fair payment indeed, considering what his people had gone through to conclude the adventure. By that reckoning, Mal was by no means inclined to argue if Corsetto felt that the train was worth the part along with six hundred platinum and topped-off fuel tanks. Without breaking his stare he nodded, with a second's awareness of the slight smiles from Zoe and Kaylee.

"Done it is," he said. "Kaylee, what say we see to those fixin's?"

"I'd say we're way past due, Cap'n." Kaylee's smile had only to brighten.

"Same here. Rob, thanks a mil. Been good workin' with you." Mal's expression was quite sincere as he vigourously pumped Robert's hand.

"Likewise, boss." Robert, for his part, was still radiating gratitude for defending him in front of Pritchard – if ever Serenity was in the world again, he would jump at the chance to work for Mal instead, even if in no way it concerned a train.

"All right, people, saddle up," Mal said with a brief nod to Zoe and Kaylee. "High time we get back in the air." Zoe, predictably, was first to follow him in stepping smartly across the tracks back to the shuttles: Corsetto was not long to join them alongside, but Kaylee tarried, waiting until the three old soldiers were out of earshot before she looked at Robert, reading in him a pensiveness she'd not known from their last parting.

"Guess this is it again, huh?" Robert said with a shrug.

"Cap'n's gotta have a king-size itch to get back in the air by now," Kaylee nodded. "Soon's we top off and replace that thruster, we're outta here."

"Okay." Robert sighed: the inevitability of going separate ways again was a burden on his soul that even Kaylee could feel.

"I'm sorry," she said finally with an apologetic smile.

"'Bout what?"

"That we couldn't make things work. I know how hard you was tryin'. I just wish things'd been different, you know?"

"Do I ever," Robert sighed. "Different worlds, I guess. In more'n one sense. Can't wish for either one of us to be."

"Well, I'm mighty glad we're right again. Y'know, there's a real special girl somewheres in the black lookin' for you, and I already know showin' her a high old time's gonna be a cinch. Just....here's hopeful your eyes'll be open when she finds you."

Kaylee couldn't help smiling at Robert's slight chortle, edged with both gratitude and skepticism. "I'll believe it when I see her," he asserted, sharpening the skeptical edge. Then with a wistful smile, he rested his hand ever so gently on her shoulder. "Thanks, Kay. Thanks for everything. Take care of yourself, willya?"

"You do the same." Kaylee smiled a smile that made the nearby firebox seem ice-cold. As Robert faced her she spread her arms wide: then each gathered the other into their arms, ardent and firm, and it seemed to Kaylee that while they hugged Serenity could have glided all the way back to Earth that was.

Eventually she pulled away, stared up at him and smiled, patted the side of his neck and then let her hand drift to his, giving it one last squeeze as she backed from him. The good times together had been many, now on his homeworld as well as hers: he would miss her far worse than he had the last time they'd parted company. Yet as surely as Kaylee knew the workings of her beloved Firefly, she knew it would convey them back to this world ere much time had flown. She was still smiling as she turned, picked her way across the tracks and headed to the #2 shuttle, shining the smile at River, who was standing outside the door to the shuttle as Kaylee ducked inside.

For some seconds River remained beside the shuttle and Robert beside the engine, each eyeing the other, but only one aware of the other's thoughts. The ruminations of both still revolved around the previous evening, from the mountainside to the mine to Serenity and then the train. River's look was an empathetic one, but Robert's face was blank, and he didn't even notice the mess forming on his sleeve as he absently rested it on a grease point.

You're a puzzlement, girl. No way you'd know how much you creeped me out last night. Or would you? You don't make no kinda sense, except when you do. What is it about you, or are you even keen to speak to it? Don't know if I even want to see you again, but if I do, that's gonna be a powerful interesting day. Wonder if that's even like to happen, if one of us'll ever cross the other's T again some time?

But she just smiled and turned away.

And as the two shuttles lifted, banked into a course around the mountains and took off for Janus City with Wash in the lead, no one – not even River, not even one of the young men tasked with moving the Lickey Banker to safe haven – had even the ghost of an inkling that they had not seen the last of the guns of Yamenmiao.

Continue to the Epilogue....

COMMENTS

Monday, September 22, 2008 6:05 AM

JANE0904


Concluding but not ... I'd love to see the look on the general populace's faces when the Lickey Banker appears. And I can't wait to see what happens next!

Monday, September 22, 2008 12:10 PM

AMDOBELL


Fabulous! I really love what you did with this part and how sweet Kaylee was to Robert, and that young man missing the Captain and crew of Serenity even before they went off on their merry. I am all curious though as to what is in those crates if not coin. Look forward to your conclusion. Great work, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, September 22, 2008 2:15 PM

PHYRELIGHT


Consider me STILL on the edge of my seat! (It's like I'm watching SW:TESB for the buhjillionth time. ;))

Monday, September 22, 2008 5:16 PM

KATESFRIEND


You've left a lot of unanswered questions so you'd better get back to writing. Loved Mal defending Robert as one of his own.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 12:42 AM

ANGELLEMARCS


I love the ending with Kaylee and Robert. Who knew you could write sweet? LOL!! I also liked the silent exchange with him and River. Very cool!! Well, ready for conclusion, kind of. I wish it would continue, but all good things must come to an end.


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