Inferno – Chapter One

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Malcolm Reynolds, Sheriff of Bickford Parish, Argo Moon, Astra System, looked over the two men standing before him.

Ryan and Leander Greggs were, as promised, two strong, strapping 'boys'. Both stood well over six feet, and were heavily built men. Heavier, Mal figured, than Jayne, if not quite as well defined in musculature.

"Mister Harwell sent us along to see you, Sheriff," Ryan was saying. Mal was sitting at his desk, in what was now his office. The events that had led to his being appointed Sheriff were still rolling through his mind.

It was the day after the wedding, River and Jayne having departed on a shuttle for Ridgecrest Resorts for their honeymoon, a wedding gift from George Harwell. Now, Mal was trying to get a grip on his new position.

It wasn't going to be easy. Six deputies had resigned when the former Chief Deputy hadn't gotten the appointment. The former Sheriff, the late and unlamented Grippen, had been as corrupt as any Alliance official, with a hand in every illegal operation in the huge parish. Mal faced the unsavory job of trying to fix all that was wrong.

"I'm glad to see you boys," Mal smiled, pushing his thoughts aside. "Your brother, Liam, works for me, aboard Serenity. He's been a good man on my crew, and George tells me that you two would do just as well working for me here. If you're interested, that is. Are you?"

Ryan and Leander exchanged a glance, and Ryan answered for them.

"If it pays at least what we're makin' now, yes sir," he nodded. "We can't afford no pay cut, at the moment. Takes a lot to keep ma well." Mal nodded.

"I'm aware, at least sort of, about that. What's the problem, by the way?" Mal asked, thinking of Simon, and wishing he'd thought of it sooner.

"Lung disease," Ryan told him. "Doc can't figure it out, and the only thing keeps her breathing is the oxygen, and them treatments. They're kinda expensive."

"Well, I don't know what your current job pays," Mal leaned back, "but my deputies make one hundred fifty, platinum, per week, to start." Both men looked at each other in surprise.

"That's. . .that's a right fair wage," Leander spoke for the first time.

"Only we don't. . .we don't rightly know much about the law, sir," Ryan put in.

"Neither do I," Mal admitted. "But I reckon I know right from wrong. How 'bout you boys? Reckon that ma o' yours taught you as well as she did Liam," he added, smiling.

"We know right from wrong, Sheriff," Ryan nodded firmly, and Leander followed suit.

"Then that's good enough for me," Mal said, rising to offer his hand. "Welcome aboard. Evelyn will see that you get outfitted. Be back here first thing tomorrow morning, and we'll take a ride."

"Yes, sir!" both men said at once, and headed for the secretary's desk. Mal wondered how much of that was enthusiasm for the new job, and how much was because he'd sent them to see Evelyn.

His thoughts were interrupted by the howl of a shuttle settling in nearby. Frowning, Mal headed to the door. That sounded oddly like. . .

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River settled the shuttle gently onto the ground near Mal's new office. Jayne had the door open as soon as it was safe, and waited to help River out. She didn't need it, really, but smiled gently at the gesture.

"What are you two doing here?" Mal demanded, walking up to the shuttle. "Ain't you 'sposed to be on your honeymoon?"

"We got a problem, Mal," Jayne said quietly, and Mal realized with a start that River's face was streaked with tears.

"What's wrong, Albatross?" Mal asked, concern in his voice. The girl treated him as her father, and he felt that way toward her.

"Blood, Baba," River whispered. "Blood and Fire."

"She's been on about that since the wee hours, Mal," Jayne told him. "She's seen something, something in the offing, that she says will affect us. It's got her some tore up. Says there's an inferno that will consume the world, and call us to it."

"Here?" Mal asked, fear in his voice.

"No," River's whisper was barely audible.

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"Come on," said Mal, leading the couple into his office. "No calls, Evelyn," he said to the secretary. She nodded.

"Yes, sir."

The trio entered his office, and Mal closed the door. He guided River to a chair, but River shook her head, taking Jayne's hand and pulling on it. Jayne sat down, and River was instantly in his lap, head buried in the crook of his neck.

"'tross, I need to know what's goin' on, you want me to help," Mal said kindly. She looked up at him.

"I don't know," her voice was small, and desperate. "Just know what I've seen, can't. . .can't make out where it is, but it's coming." Her head lay back down, and Jayne stroked her back, whispering into her ears. Mal was about to say more, when his comm beeped.

"I know you said no calls, sir," Evelyn sounded apologetic, "but it's Mister Harwell, and he says it's urgent." Mal nodded, and opened the screen.

"Mal, thank goodness," Harwell's voice was strained. "I need your help."

"What can I do for you, George?" Mal asked.

"I don't know if you've heard, but there's a bit of a catastrophe out on Aberdeen," Harwell's face was drawn. "I just got a piece of a wave from my sister, who lives there with her husband. Seems they've had some sort of an attack. . ."

"Aberdeen?" Mal's brow shot up. "What kind of catastrophe?" Mal's heart was thumping.

"Well, I don't know for sure," Harwell admitted. "But there was smoke in the background, and I caught the word 'reaver' in the garble. I. . .it doesn't. . ."

"Both my ships still there?" Mal demanded, cutting him off.

"Yes. Zoe is about. . ."

"Call her, tell her to stay put. Off load the cargo onto Serenity. I need to borrow two of your men to help man Serenity, preferably someone with space work in their resume. Men you can trust. Call Simon, tell him I want him and Kaylee ready to go in one hour. I assume you want me to send a ship after your sister and her family?"

"I was hoping. . ."

"Done. We'll be going anyway, soon as we can get into the black. I'll see you soon."

"Thank you, Mal," Harwell said, and broke the connection. Mal turned to Jayne.

"Catch that?"

"Ain't Aberdeen where. . .?"

"Yeah," Mal sighed. "That's where Kaylee's from. Albatross, looks like your search is over. Let's go."

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Zoe had been shocked at the orders, but set about them at once. Workers from the plant showed up in less than ten minutes, and soon the cargo was aboard Serenity.

"Zoe, what's going on?" Inara asked.

"Don't know," Zoe replied thoughtfully. "Mal sent word to move the cargo over here, and be ready to lift." Before Inara could reply, the comm alarm sounded. Both women hurried to the bridge. When Inara activated the screen, Mal's face was on it.

"Good, got you both. Here's the deal." Without preamble, Mal ran through what he knew. When he finished, he looked at Zoe.

"How's Companion set for fuel?"

"Was gonna fuel up on this run," Zoe admitted. "Cells are below half."

"There is a fueling station four days travel in the direction of Aberdeen," they heard River's voice say off screen.

"Mal, is that River?" Inara asked.

"Her and Jayne showed up just before Harwell called," Mal nodded. "Seems she had a vision of whatever is wrong. Kaylee's folks live there. Tell her to try and wave them. See how bad things are, if she can, and that we're coming."

"We?" Zoe asked. "Mal, you can't go!"

"And why not!" Mal demanded.

"You're the Sheriff, Mal," Inara reminded him gently. "You can't just run off, especially not with things in the mess they're in right now." Mal's face was a study of emotions. He'd not even considered that.

"We'll talk about that when I get there. Me, Jayne and River are on the way. Be there in a few." He broke the connection abruptly. Zoe looked at Inara.

"I'll get Kaylee," Inara said. Zoe nodded.

"I'll make sure Companion's ready to fly."

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"Inara is right, BaBa," River said softly. "Cannot abandon your responsibility here."

"I ain't abandoning Kaylee's family!" Mal declared. Jayne snorted.

"Ain't nobody asked you too," he said gently. "We'll see to them, and to Mister Harwell's family as well, Mal. You're needed here." The finality in his tone made Mal look hard at the former mercenary.

"I need to be there," he said. Jayne looked at him.

"Zoe will be in command, Mal, not me," the big man replied, his voice neutral.

No matter what I do, he'll never trust me, Jayne thought to himself sadly. No one to blame for that but me, though, he added.

River heard the thoughts, but didn't reply. Instead she turned to Mal.

"Have to learn to delegate, Baba," she told him plainly. "Can't be everywhere at once." Mal thought about that. Suddenly, it dawned on him why Jayne was so standoffish.

"Jayne," he said quietly. "I didn't mean that like I couldn't trust you. I can, and I do. I was just. . .River's right. I do need to learn to delegate. Maybe this is the time and place for that."

"Okay, then. Zoe's in charge. You'll take River, Simon, Kaylee, and Liam. And Goldie, since the Doc's going along. Inara will run Serenity, with Holly, and two or three of Harwell's men."

"Get there as fast as you can," he continued. "I don't know how bad things are, not yet. And I don't know where this inferno of yours comes from, Albatross, so be careful. All of you."

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Mal had the entire crew assembled when Simon escorted a crying Kaylee down from the bridge. He sat her down, then looked to Mal.

"Here's what we know," he said, his own face pale and stiff. "It's not good. Aberdeen was hit by Reaver's five days ago. The planet had some warning, though not much. Kaylee's family had a safe-hold, and they all made it inside. Other weren't so lucky."

"Some of the people tried to fight, including a small Alliance detachment that was planetside. Their ship was destroyed by Reaver's in space, so they really didn't have anything to loose."

"Aberdeen's chief export is fuel oil," Simon continued. "The oil is processed from the shale that covers about seventy percent of the planet. A reaver ship crashed into a mountainside, flying without containment, of course. The explosion, and the core leak, ignited the shale. It's spreading, quickly. There's. . ." Simon's voice broke, slightly. "There's no way to stop the fire, or the spread. Not with what they have to work with. Families are evacuating any and every way they can."

"Inferno," River whispered softly from Jayne's lap, and he hugged her closer to him.

"You're right, mei mei," Simon nodded. "The entire planet, basically, is going to burn up. What's left. . .?" Simon shrugged.

"I think we get that part," Mal said grimly. "Albatross?"

"We can make the fueling station in sixty hours, at max burn," the little pilot intoned. "We'll have minimum reserves when we arrive, but the safety margin is manageable, and acceptable. After refueling, we can make Aberdeen in three days, baring the unforeseen, traveling at full burn."

"Will we have the fuel to make it back, at least to the fueling station, if we do that?" Zoe asked, brow creased in thought.

"Allowing for some maneuvering while there, we will make the refueling station with just over minimum reserves," River nodded. "There may be other places, closer than that, I have not yet checked."

"We. . .you, can do that underway," Mal told them. "Long as you can make it back safely, I don't care if you burn the engines out, so long as you get there and get Kaylee's folks, and George's, off that rock. Anything else?"

"Need some things," Jayne said pointedly. "River and I can take a shuttle back to town, drop you off, and get what we need. Meet the ship in orbit."

"Do it," Mal said at once. "Make sure there's plenty o' grub, loaded, " he told Zoe. "You'll have a buncha extra mouths to feed. Simon?"

"We're well stocked," Simon said at once. "I need a few thing, but I can go with Jayne and River, get what I need then, and not waste any time."

"Kaylee?" Mal said softly, and the girl lifted wet eyes to him. "I know you're upset, mei mei, but I need you to focus for a minute. Is Companion up to this?"

"Yes, Cap'n," she nodded at once. "She'll make it, no worries."

"I want you, Goldie, and Holly to make sure you've got every part and tool you could possibly need, just in case. Take whatever you need from Serenity's stores, if needed. Holly can replace them on Astra." He turned to the assembled group.

"Everyone has a job to do, so let's get to it. I want you on your way in no more than two hours. Every minute is precious. Move."