The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 12)
Monday, July 14, 2008

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.


Promised, didn't I? ;) This and the next couple of posts, FYI, are probably not ideal for the faint of heart. Hope to see you lot stick around anyway. You're a fine bunch. :D

Jane0904, you're always with the good (and appropriate) analogies, ain'tcha? But you got it - though I am by no means done packing the tension in! :D

darbymonster, welcome back! Adirondacks, hmm? You weren't too far from my little scrap o' nowhere. Hear any ghost-train legends whilst you were there? ;) I agree with you about Zoe, up to the point that it's her husband she's thinking of; I was sort of running off her reaction when Wash bought the farm.

Angellemarcs, don't think that's the last Star Wars/Star Trek/Firefly in-joke reference you'll see before we slip. ;)

MDRLTC, well, hel-loooo!!! Welcome to the fic and to the fanfic posse, and I'm glad to see ya delurk! :D And just for the words 'within character', I'm extremely grateful. Esp. since I feel a little uneasy about character accuracy in the last few/next few posts. :/

Katesfriend, as you read this chapter you will see that Mal shares your worry. The way I figured it, he trusted River on the initial venture because he was able to keep a constant eye on her, but since he's no longer in that position he's leery of letting her take point.

OK - I'm gonna go back to the Star Wars fanfic forums and find out when Lurker Appreciation Week is. Meanwhile, lurk or no lurk, enjoy this one. :D And, whilst we thank PhyreLight for the beta, let's also blame her for the tension in this one - a fair chunk of it was her idea. ;)

Part 11


"Forgive what You can and send me on my way," Book murmured over his breviary, concluding his prayers. "I will walk on, till You bid me rest."

"Amen," Simon said softly, looking up. The remains of the robbers and the train crew had been lain to a temporary state inside the guard van, wrapped in any worn sheets the shuttle crew could find. All was done that could be for the time being: now it fell upon Serenity's people, willing or otherwise, to bear them to their final rest.

"Let there be light," River's small voice pierced the gloom. Almost on instinct, Zoe sidestepped to the open door, poked her head out and looked ahead to the tunnel mouth to see a hard white glow silhouetting the escarpments within. The rails, completely and thickly coated with rust, reflected none of it, but as Zoe beckoned to the others and jumped to the floor of the mine she began to pick up the sounds of the engine's approach. The glow from the headlight on the rear of the tender grew brighter yet, as did the almost unnerving squeals and crunches of the ancient rails absorbing the immense weight.

Perhaps another minute brought on the easing puff of exhaust as Robert backed the engine through the last curve: presently the tender headlight itself came into view and he quickly dimmed it to avoid blinding Zoe and company. Kaylee, half-kneeling on her seat, leaned out of her window, her breath shallowed at the surreal illumination the light cast on the train. She had only ever heard ghostly campfire stories, supernatural tales of the Lickey Banker's last run and the legend that hung over it long after its exhaust smoke had faded into thin air. She shivered, seeing the features of the dead engine's front end further and further defined by the reduced glow from the tender headlight, coming to grips with the fact of this ghost's existence and the far more goose-pimpling fact that she was about to help resurrect it.

By the time Zoe's half of the crew reached the front end of the train, Mal was visible clinging to the side of the tender: eventually the crawling pace of the engine was enough for him to jump off, make haste toward the train and guide Robert in to the coupling. Defensively but gently, Simon tugged River to a safe distance until Mal gave the stop signal and the couplers joined with a heavy clank.

"Okay," Mal's voice was like a pealing bell, echoing throughout the mine. "Zoe, Wash, double-check the rest of the train, make sure the containers and everything else is secured. Rob, you do whatever you gotta to charge the air system so's we can check on those brakes afore we start down the hill."

"Right," Robert answered as Jayne dropped out of the cab. "That guard van's got an air dynamo on the bottom. Once I put air to the train it'll take about fifteen or twenty minutes to kick in, fire up the rear-end computer and give you a pressure reading. Then when I set the brakes, all's you gotta do is make sure they got plenty of lining left and they're nice 'n' tight on the wheels."

"Good," Mal nodded. "Kaylee, while he's doin' that, think you can tear yourself away long enough to make sure this other engine'll move nice 'n' smooth?"

"Just gotta oil and grease," Kaylee answered as she shut off the oil flow to the fire. "We got plenty o' that on board. Won't take me much longer than pumpin' up the air."

"You xiu." Mal took no longer than a second to watch her and Robert go about the last-minute business of securing the engine before he turned away, flashing his light up the side of the train, seeing Zoe and Wash engaged in inspecting the first car but not seeing River drift past him and Jayne toward the head end.

"Okay," he muttered. "Jayne, let's you and me head for the ass end. Once the brakes are pumped we'll see to it they're all workin' right."

"And supposin' they ain't all workin' right?" Jayne growled, slinging Vera over his shoulder as he and Mal passed alongside the dead engine.

"Well, then we're taking that roller coaster ride you've always wanted." Wash could as ever be counted on to pull a smart remark from the bare fringes of earshot, with only the most oblique of glances at Jayne.

Glowering, Jayne leaned toward Mal. "Remind me again why I jumped on this crazy train?" he muttered through the corner of his mouth.

"Wait'll you see the size o' those guns," Mal said. "You'll wonder what you were bellyachin' about. You check the left side, I'll walk the right."

Meanwhile, Robert – also unaware of River dallying around the front end – shoved a large cotter pin into the throttle bale to prevent the throttle from cracking itself. Then he opened his seat box and dropped down to the deck plates, withdrawing a spare pot of valve oil from the box. "Remember where this all goes?" he said with a half-grin, handing it to Kaylee.

"Runnin' gear?" Kaylee said.

"Walschaert?" he reminded her.

"On my way," Kaylee grinned, backing toward the gangway.

"Shiny," Robert said, his own grin widening. "You're doin' great, Kay."

"Yep, that's me, always with the damnedest," Kaylee nodded. "Wouldn't get on with Serenity near as good as I do elseways."

Robert's grin faded noticeably, and to Kaylee it suddenly seemed that for some reason he was putting force behind it. She couldn't lay claim to any measure of certainty, but she couldn't help thinking of how she'd felt on occasions when Simon made his priorities clear - and hinted that Kaylee was not near the top, nowhere near where she'd like to be. Kaylee shook herself, this wasn't about Simon. It did, however, concern an earlier, undeniable love-hate relationship she'd been part of.

"You love that ship to pieces, don'tcha?" Robert said mutedly.

"Just like you love this engine." Perhaps, Kaylee thought eagerly, shedding light on their mechanical affections would bridge the rift that threatened to reopen between them. "Rob, I barely even know what hard feelings smell like. You ain't got any, do ya?"

"Nah," Robert's shrug was dismissive, much to Kaylee's relief.

"Okay." She smiled, leaning against her seat. "I mean, when we first touched down here, I was a mite nervy about steppin' off the ship, thinkin' I might run into you sooner or later. Thought it might be you got plenty worse memories of us than I ever wanna have. But you was just all happy to see me when you stumbled on the ship, and…." Her smile hadn't faded and she shrugged. "Well, it warmed me up good. I still feel kinda bad we couldn't make things work, but it's a lot better knowin' we're by it."

"Well, like it's said about steamers, takes five minutes to find a problem and five days to fix it, but on an oil-electric it takes five days to find a problem and five minutes to fix it. Most anything can get patched up after enough time." Robert crossed to her side of the cab and reached under her seat box, pulling out a grease gun with a flexible hose. "Sometimes even then, it all depends on whether you got the right pair of hands to do the fixin'. But even when he don't, man's just gotta live and let live." He smiled thinly and handed the grease gun to Kaylee, whose eyes had brightened noticeably in the absence of animosity from either side. Reassured of his feeling, she turned and dropped down the ladder from the gangway: meanwhile Robert pulled on a pair of gloves, waiting until she was out of sight, headed for the other engine. "He ain't gotta live all by his lonesome, though," he muttered to himself, heading for the ladder on the engineer's side.

Wash and Zoe, carefully inspecting the fastenings on each container, were still working their way down the engineer's side of the train: Mal and Jayne had paused briefly ahead of them to double-check the heavy tarp covering the back end of the third car. Mal leaned between cars, taking a vested interest in the security of the cord holding the tarp in place. Jayne, himself and Kaylee now the only crewmembers who had not before laid eyes on the train, stood at a brief distance, looking repeatedly from one end to the other as if trying to spot an unseen blemish in the paint job.

"So far, so good," Mal said to Zoe, with an approving nod at the wrapping job.

"Train's in fair shape, but that tunnel's still got me edged," Zoe said. "God forbid it comes down on top of us whilst we're still in it."

"Guess that's up to our happy young couple up there," Mal said with a hint of derision, nodding forward toward the engines.

"Kaylee make out all right with that thing?" Zoe asked.

"Yeah. Truth to say, she did a little too good. Them two better not be gettin' any funny ideas 'bout each other."

"Aw, hell, like she'd ever tear herself off'n that fu qiang de doctor for an hour's time," Jayne scoffed. "Now which car's got the coin in it?"

"Not a one, far as you're concerned," Mal said acidly. "C'mon, let's do this thing."

Having chocked the engine's drive wheels, Robert made short work of the distance to the other engine's cab to "boxcar" its air system – centuries-old railroad parlance for bypassing the brakes so they could be operated from another engine. Kaylee was still on the other side, topping off the mechanical lubricators for the running gear: spaceship or steam locomotive, she was planted in her element, simply making sure the workings ran smoothly. She had to be the only person alive who actually grinned all through the filth-ridden job of greasing the axles – grinned so widely, in fact, that even the smudges forming on her face seemed to take on a lighter hue. Serenity, Robert speculated as he cut the dead engine's brakes out, must give 'happy ship' an entirely new and pleasant meaning, as only Kaylee could bring to any ship or person. If only people, he confessed to himself, could be less fickle than ships.

The temperature in the mine eventually seemed to reach a comfort level Mal hadn't expected - doubtful as he was that a collective rise in body heat and the heat from a single engine's boiler could go that far toward alleviating the chill. Kaylee and Robert had finished oiling and greasing both engines by the time Mal and Jayne, after ascertaining air pressure at the rear of the train, finished eyeballing the brake application on each car and returned to the head end. Wash, Zoe, and Book had made short work of the rest of the train, seeing to the security of each load and every hatch: Wash remained in the guard van to mind the release of the brakes while Zoe and Book adjourned to the cab of the other engine. There they came upon Simon listening with an uneasy ear to River, who was muttering incomprehensibly about piston travel, crossheads, eccentric rods, and God knew what else. All hands breathed easier - literally and figuratively - when Mal and Jayne boarded the lead engine to find all brakes applied and the air pressure holding steady. Needless to say, the remainder of the adventure now hinged on Kaylee's ability to keep a proper head of steam and Robert's wise use of it to keep from losing control.

The time was nigh for the shuttle crew to exit stage right and leave the engine crew to bring their bag home.

With a flourish Robert gripped the train brake handle, shoved it leftward and listened with a practised ear to the hiss of air through the brake valve. "Okay, Wash," he radioed to the opposite end. "Should have ninety pounds back there in a second."

"I got eighty-eight now, and it's not showing a leak anywhere," Wash replied from the guard van, where he was eyeing the display on the rear-end computer. "How does that grab you?"

"Close enough for anti-government work." Robert nodded with satisfaction and handed the radio back to Mal. "That's full release, boss. We're good to go."

"Good. Wash, stay back there for now and make sure we don't separate," Mal radioed, leaning out of the gangway. "Zoe, you set?" he hollered back to the other engine.

Zoe leaned out the engineer's window, waving an affirmative. "All set back here, sir," she replied.

"Very well." Mal returned radio to coat pocket and turned back Robert's way. "All right, kid, you ready to roll?" he inquired.

"Just about," Robert answered tersely. He was bent slightly over in his seat, one hand resting still on the throttle.

"Best not be losin' your nerve on me now," Mal said mildly.

"Already did, September seventh, twenty-five-oh-nine," Robert muttered, his allusion to his father's death sobering Mal. "I just need a second, okay?"

"A second?" Jayne repeated, grimacing. "You're so worried about derailin', how many seconds you think it's gonna take for the mob guy of the week to find his way in here?"

Only two people aboard the train were possessed of the menacing glare needed to force Jayne's retreat. Mal's visage smouldered with that glare as he turned away from the engineer's seat and into Jayne's craggy face. "Jayne," his tone was quietly threatening, "puttin' the train on the ground is the least of his worries right now. If he slips the drive wheels before we get out of here, the smokestack's gonna make like a big-ass machine gun and bring the whole mountain down around our ears. So my comprehension is, give him his second and live to see another payoff. Dong le ma?"

"You just better hope Carabella ain't got friends in Skyplexive places," Jayne grumbled.

Presently, Robert, heaving a deep sigh, sucked his breath in again and clutched the throttle in a near death grip. "All right, Kay, gimme five on the oil and thirty-five on the atomiser," he instructed quietly. "When we get in the tunnel I'm gonna ease the cut-off so she don't exhaust too hard." Kaylee nodded wordlessly and adjusted the two valves, watching him with a spark of concern as he shoved the reverse lever fully forward: easing the throttle open a crack, he held his breath, awaiting the burst of steam from the cylinder drain cocks.

The palpable tension in the cab spiked when he released the locomotive brake. The gush of compressed air was simultaneous with the billowing white jets gushing to either side from the cylinders: the only smile was Kaylee's, and it was guarded even then, as she minded the increasing boiler pressure. Wheelslip was Robert's problem – the safety valve was Kaylee's, if she let the pressure climb too high. The engine budged ever so slightly, but Robert dared not increase power. He clenched his teeth, willing his steel giant forward, feeling its adhesion to the rails purely by the seat of his pants. Through it he felt no slack action between couplers, but the ten great drive wheels turned slowly and steadily, chances dwindling that they might slip before tunnel's end.

"I....think....I....can," River murmured, staring at the stone-cold firebox door of the other engine. "I....think....I....can....I....think....I....can...."

Barely heard though she was, her murmur was in perfect sync with the slow beat of the lead engine's exhaust, and lost in the creaking, squeaking rumble of wheels achieving motion.

"I'm on the move back here," Wash's voice filtered from the radio speaker.

The second-and-a-half's report prompted Robert to expel the breath he'd been holding for at least five minutes. He notched out the throttle slightly and stole a glance at the steam gauge, nodding his approval to Kaylee as he observed the black needle quivering at 225 pounds. Mal was still bracing himself, waiting for some word from Wash that the rear end of the train had somehow separated from the head end. No such word came, however, and Mal breathed easier, watching Robert notch back the reverse lever. Despite the crunching, grinding and hair-raising racket it perpetuated, the rust covering the rails ironically worked to advantage, affording the engine more than enough traction to alleviate the wheelslip threat.

At length, the fringes of the headlight's glow against the walls began to shrink as the train approached the tunnel. Talk was almost impossible over the constant screech of wheel flanges against rail, but to Mal, all it meant was that the wheels were still on. Yet he couldn't figure out where his apprehension was coming from: Robert could be seen to relax further and further, the closer they came to the tunnel, the further they lumbered out of the mine and back towards open air. With record delicacy in his touch he orchestrated throttle and valve stroke, preventing the engine from exhausting too hard, while Kaylee, looking much the same as she did when re-wiring Serenity's autopilot, ever so slightly reduced the oil flow. The glow from the headlight narrowed drastically, the train entered the tunnel and the encircling walls, brightly lit and heavily shadowed by the glare, looked strangely sturdier than they had when Wash and Book crunched their way through. Wash hadn't raised an alarm from the rear end and Zoe had yet to report any trouble on the other engine.

Suddenly it dawned on Mal that things were going altogether too smoothly. Not that he had any call to complain, but it just didn't seem right. He shivered imperceptibly as he began to wonder how much of a downturn would occur before they started down the mountain.

Within seconds of the dawning, the answer was upon him – literally. Mal felt his neck hairs collectively stiffen at the sound of a small object falling on the roof of the cab: unless there was a foreign object inside the engine's firebox that had been sucked out by the exhaust draft, there wasn't much else that could be falling from above. Then his ears flexed at another clunk from above and there was no longer a need to ask what it was, nor to warn Robert, who judging by his bitten lip and upward glance had heard the impact as well. With the train laying into a leftward curve, the great boiler blocked his view of the track and he concentrated on not letting the speedometer budge from eight miles per hour – but the hard white glow from the headlight revealed the silhouette of yet another small chunk of rock falling from the ceiling. Again Robert caught his breath, cut back the valve stroke and prayed silently that the exhaust would ease enough not to bring down the entire ceiling.

"I don't suppose the captain came up with a backup plan in case the tunnel does destabilise," Simon said uneasily.

"Well, if you look out the window and it's raining rocks....don't get out," Zoe said wryly. She spared him an impassive look, wishing she had a more optimistic answer but aware of the depressing reality that even if the cab roofs could protect them from a collapse, there was more than likely no escape from it. Unless Wash was far enough back to be a failsafe....

Robert was fair certain that Mal, Jayne and Kaylee could all hear his teeth grinding as he applied the brakes near the end of the tunnel, preparing to stop and let the shuttle crew disembark from the other engine. All other complications considered, he wasn't about to notify Mal that it was neither speed control nor smokestack velocity that concerned him now, but the added stress that the applied brakes would put on the rails. The track straightened a few hundred feet from the end of the tunnel, whose portal, as Robert and Kaylee could already see, framed the first light of sunrise. Perhaps a half hour of daylight had been and gone while they were underground.

Seeing the light ahead, Mal unconsciously rested his hand on the stock of his pistol. "Better hurry this up," he said to no one in particular. "By all we know – " He broke off, his eyes widening at the slight movement he caught outside the tunnel exit. Almost immediately the movement stopped, but as the train drew closer no further movement was necessary. Mal could already see that it was a warm body – now standing stock-still, awash in the headlight beam and petrified at the sight of the oncoming train.

"Ta ma de!" Mal snarled. "Bastards're already here, must be gettin' a first-light start! Let's go, kid, get a move on!" Reaching out from the gangway to the window, he clapped Robert on the arm, spurring him to release the brakes and yank sharply on the throttle.

"Kaylee, five and fifty and start the gun!" Robert hollered across the cab. Kaylee nodded quickly in response, her right hand already grabbing for the oil valves and her left for the injector handle.

"Hey, leave the guns to me!" Jayne protested, hefting Vera.

"He means the injector, Jayne," Kaylee called over her shoulder as she tugged the handle sharply backward. Even over the increased bark of the exhaust, the hiss of fresh water coursing into the boiler could make unprotected ears ring. Mal, pulling himself back in from his lean out of the cab, jammed one hand into his coat pocket, crushing the transmit button on the radio before he had even extracted it.

"Wash, we got company!" he yelled. "You're gonna have to drop off on the fly and prep that shuttle just as quick as you can afore they get to it!"

"Say what?!" Wash's voice over the radio was incredulous.

"You heard me!" No longer in the mood for further denials or protests, Mal pocketed the radio and leaned out of the gangway again. The other engine was now exiting the tunnel and Mal's uninvited guest was waving animatedly: now Mal saw that he had a friend – he recognised neither of them from the previous afternoon, but the only matter was that both were bolting toward the moving train with the clear intention of jumping aboard.

"Jayne, get over here!" Mal yelled. "Need you to throw a little scare in!" He gesticulated furiously at the two running miners, whose presence had not escaped Zoe's notice – Mal saw her mare's leg protruding from the other engine's cab gangway before Jayne crowded in next to him. He flattened his back against the rear bulkhead, allowing Jayne to join him at the top of the ladder: the sight of the mare's leg on one engine and Vera on the other inspired in the two miners a second standstill.

"There's only two of 'em." Jayne had cocked the immense auto-lock some time ago, but he hesitated in firing just long enough to make the observation.

"That's two too many," Mal grated. "Just scare 'em off!"

Zoe, however, was first to open fire, almost knocking the first miner off his feet as her bullet slammed into the ground between them. Shock and fear sent him stumbling backward, but his crony was on hand to catch him before Vera's booming bark drowned out the harsh report of the mare's leg. Most of the huge gun's shells struck the ground in a haphazard pattern around the two fleeing miners, one lucky shot catching the second man in the calf, almost breaking his shin bone cleanly in two. His friend's run ended almost as quickly: stopping for a poor second to turn back and help him up, he hustled him through a willy-nilly barrage of shotgun shells toward the first available cover.

Jayne cursed under his breath, trying to keep enough of a balance to maintain his aim, but the poor condition of the track was even less help than the opening range: the deck heaved from side to side constantly, throwing off his elevation. Zoe opted not to waste ammunition – the two miners were still on a hobbling run as Jayne's withering spitfire sent them scuttling toward a low pile of rock at the foot of the mountain, very possibly loosed by the explosion of the ammunition car. Survival instinct sent even the wounded man literally diving for cover, flinging himself over the pile and prostrating out of sight, his friend joining him under a hail of tiny shards flayed off the top of the pile by Jayne's last few shots.

Enemy sighted and sent packing, Mal thought to himself. He held his pistol languidly in one hand as he surveyed the receding landscape for any sign of further movement, from either the two shaken miners or any of their approaching companions who might have been alerted by the gunfire. Jayne, lifting his eye from his sight, relaxed his grip on Vera, eyeing the rock pile to make sure the two miners were no more of a threat.

"Last we'll see o' those pansies," he said with a satisfied nod.

"Never pegged you for an imagination." Mal's tone was as grim as it was sarcastic. "Ten minutes' time, word's gonna be out, their reinforcements'll have reinforcements and then we're shang fu xi gou shi."

Continue to Part 13....

Blame PhyreLight for the tension, but I'm hoping to blame everybody else for leaving some love! ;)


Monday, July 14, 2008 10:12 AM


*sigh* Seems I always get blamed for everything. :p

Monday, July 14, 2008 11:47 AM


Wonderous! Love the Little engine that could reference. Very fun!! Especially with it being River who said it. LOL!

Monday, July 14, 2008 12:26 PM


Brilliant! I was so relieved when they came out of that tunnel in one piece though it looks like they are going to have one hell of a lot of company from Carabella's men. I was also all kinds of happy that they didn't kill those two miners just because they could. I am totally impressed by your knowledge of steam trains and it gives the story that much more kudos. Loved Kaylee getting the hang of it so soon too but then the girl is sheer genius with anything with workings. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Saturday, July 19, 2008 4:56 AM


Loved your dialog and word choices in this one - very Jossian, and very natural in your writing. Getting used to the constant state of tension, and you certainly ramped it up perfectly at the end. Just in time to escape the cave in they meet up with witnesses, of course. But my favorite was River playing at being the Little Engine That Could!


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Solar Winds and Silver Skies
"You're going to shoot a Mountie? They'll hunt you to the ends of the 'verse!"

Where They Don't Follow (Prologue)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 2, Prologue. Roughly six months after 'The Guns of Yamenmiao', Inara says her final farewells before Serenity returns to Roma on a new job. This time, Mal's treasure quest must run the gamut of a not-quite-right scientist, a nameless, ruthless privateer, and a deeper penetration of the Alliance than Mal has ever attempted before.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Epilogue)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Epilogue. Kaylee and Serenity are once again flying. Mal and Inara are once again at odds.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 16)
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.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 15)
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.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 14)
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?

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 13)
The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 13. Mal's cover is altogether blown, and he must figure out how to keep the mission from going south - but he has only one dangerous way to get the word out.

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 12)
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.