Part Three: Mosaic

Prologue: The Captain

"So, you two gonna kill us or just look at us all threateningly?"

Sammy Dallion glared back at the man standing opposite him in the cargo hold, and kept his sidearm trained on him. The big man glared back, sneering all the while, as if he was inadequate or something.

Well, Sammy's gun was a bit smaller than the .45 monster they'd taken off of the prisoner, and it didn't have that nifty micro-laser triflex sight, or the pop-up close-range radar holo-imager. It was just a simple .38 revolver, but it would kill just fine. He'd dropped plenty of folks with it before, so Sammy made sure he wasn't going to feel inadequate. Besides, he was the one with the gun; they weren't.

"Captain says we keep you under wraps," replied Mike, standing beside Sammy. Mike had a shotgun, and was a little bit bigger than Sammy. He'd been with Captain Vickas a lot longer, so he got trusted with the heavier ordnance. Of course, now that Doober was dead, Sammy was a few rungs higher on the priority ladder.

"Oh, okay," the big man said, shrugging. "So, you're just gonna look threatening-like." He glanced to the woman beside him. "Zoe, this is kinda pathetic. Last time I got snatched they were a lot more professional about it."

The woman didn't look up, and instead kept staring right back at Sammy and Mike. Her eyes kept flicking back and forth between them, and every time she looked at him, he felt a little worried, even with the shotgun covering her. The big guy didn't scare him at all, but there was something about her that made him horribly nervous.

"The last men to snatch you worked for Adelei Niska, Jayne," she replied, and Sammy heard a sharp intake of breath from Mike. For his part, the younger man tried to keep his cool; he'd heard some stories, but Mike knew a lot more, and the reaction from the older, more experienced man sent all manner of nervousness down his own spine.

"You're tellin' a funny joke, huh," Sammy said, gesturing with his revolver. "Niska doesn't snatch folks 'cept who cross him, and no one who crosses Niska and gets snatched ever gets away with it."

The woman and the big man turned their eyes toward Sammy, and he felt the bluster drain away at their gaze. There was a striking edge of truthiness to their looks, something that reminded him of when his brothers stopped playing games with him and got dead serious.

"Mike," Sammy muttered, "No one who gets Niska ornery lives, right?"

"Right," Mike replied, his voice taut, and Sammy nodded, hoping that the tone was just him getting a handle on the bald-faced lies.

"Right," Sammy said, nodding. "Y'all quit fibbin'. You ain't tangled with a mean bull like Niska. You wouldn't be alive."

The big man snorted, and then stifled a laugh. Sammy frowned.

"What's so funny?' he asked.

"You," he replied. "Look. I've gotten into fights with idiots ten times meaner than you two. I fought militia, mercenaries, goons just like you. Hell, I've fought Alliance marines before." His voice lowered, and he leaned forward slightly, a tight, dark grin on his face.

"I've even tangled with Reavers."

"I said quit yer fibbin'!" Sammy growled, putting as much force into his voice as he could muster.

In truth, the way he spoke told the young man he wasn't lying, but that was impossible. No one fought Reavers and lived. Never. He was lying, he had to be.

"Both of you, shut up!" Mike yelled, glaring at his partner while keeping the other two covered. "Sammy, they're just putting the scares into you. Don't listen to them."

"What if I don't shut up?" Jayne asked, and Mike gestured toward the woman.

"Sammy here will put one in your girl's leg," he replied. "Then we pull her into another store room for fun."

The glares that came back at that threat would have wilted most plant life and sent hungry predators scurrying for cover. But it got the point across.

Truth be told, Sammy wouldn't want to try that, even with a bullet in the woman's leg. Doober and Fannigan were left dumped in the valley back at the old landing site because they'd tried to take her down in close. Woman was a damn monster in hand-to-hand.

What was really scaring Sammy was he'd heard the big man muttering that they should have brought in the "xiao gui" to deal with this. He didn't know who that was or what they did, but they way he'd spoken that had the younger man on edge.

Didn't help that the rest of their gorram crew was chasing their ship halfway across the moon right now. If whoever he'd been talking about was on their ship . . . .

"Somethin' scaring you, little man?" Jayne asked, grinning, and Sammy raised his pistol, shaking his head.

"Nope, nothin' at all," he replied. "Just your ugly-ass face an'-"

Sammy heard a horribly meaty impact sound from where Mike was standing. Sammy spun, in time to see Mike go down, and looming up behind him was a man in a brown longcoat, who bore an awful resemblance to their prisoners' captai-

The last thing Sammy saw was Captain Malcolm Reynolds's face, before the sledgehammer he was holding pulped his brain.

"Judicious timing, sir," Zoe said, grabbing the shotgun the man named Mike had been holding.

"I had it under control," Jayne replied, grabbing the little man's revolver. It looked like a toy in his ham hands.

"You had him quaking in his boots," Mal replied, slapping the big hammer in his hand. "Nervous-like. Nearly heard me sneakin' up on 'em."

"Yeah, poppin' up like a ninja engineer and whackin' them both wouldn't get you shot neither," Jayne replied. "'sides, who's brilliant plan got us all caught anyhow?"

"Don't wanna hear it, Jayne," Mal said, checking the bodies for secondary weapons. He found a two-shot derringer tucked into the larger corpse's boot. Zoe was checking the corridor outside. Jayne was still bitching.

"Toldja, shoulda brought more firepower," he added. "Shoulda brought the girl, she could've-"

"Jayne, your mouth is talking," Mal said, standing up, dropping his hammer. "See to that." Jayne was about to reply, but then shut up. He checked his new toy, and grunted.

"Any of 'em touched Vera, I'm gonna tear their eyes out," he grumbled.

"Hallway's clear," Zoe said. Mal and Jayne moved up behind her.

"Which way to the bridge?" Jayne asked, glancing to Mal. They'd hauled him out a few minutes ago for interrogation, so he'd know more about the layout of the ship. They'd only gotten a good look at the cargo bay before they'd been mobbed.

"That way," Mal said, pointing with his new pistol.

"How many are still active?" Zoe asked.

"There were seven left after we got caught," Mal replied. "I took out the two who took me, and there's the two I just dropped back there. I'm guessin' the rest will be-"

The ship shook a bit, and they were jerked to one side as it did some frantic maneuvering. Jayne grinned.

"Now that's a good sign," he said, and Mal nodded, glancing to Zoe.

"Just hope your husband don't make them crash us, burn us all alive," he remarked.

"There they are," Wash whispered. "Almost slipped us."

"Slipped the scanners," replied River, across the bridge. Her eyes were locked on the monitors, fingers slowly tapping keys.

"You can spoof the sensors, but not the eyes," Wash agreed, his voice tight. He glanced to the girl. "Or, well, whatever it is you -"

"Split in the canyon," River spoke up. "Two kilometers." She paused, her gaze drifting. "He's going south."

"Ya sure?" Kaylee asked, standing behind her. River didn't reply, her brow furrowing instead. The mechanic stood next to Simon, who kept a steadying hand on her shoulder.

Dead ahead, flying as fast as its thrusters could, was another ship, a light freighter just like theirs, but a fat, oblong shape with a trio of engines on the back, set behind a large cargo module that dominated the center of the ship. That was the boat Mal, Zoe, and Jayne had snuck into an hour ago, looking for their score. That same ship had taken off with them still aboard fifteen minutes ago when Serenity had shown up to investigate a lack of communications.

The freighter jerked left, which took it south, and Wash was right behind it as it flew through a narrow cleft of rock.

"Topography gets erratic for the next twenty kilometers," River said, looking over the sensor display and maps. Her voice became distant once more. "He's going to slow and try to lose us."

"Whoa!" Serenity jerked as Wash pushed his sticks forward, and it dove under a spur of rock. Kaylee nearly fell over, but she was caught and steadied by Simon's hands.

"Ai ya!" Wash said, hugging close behind their prey. "Ya'll better strap in, this is going to get interesting!"

"'Interesting' is far too vague," Shepherd Book remarked, bracing himself against the lockers. On the other side of the room, Kaylee was sitting at the ops station, strapping in, while Simon remained standing beside her. The ship shook and swerved again as Wash rolled and dropped, fitting them between two stone walls that were only a dozen meters wider than the Firefly.

"What are we going to do once we catch them?" Simon asked.

"That's a good question," Wash replied, gritting his teeth. "I'll have an answer when we do." Being the pilot and the third-longest member of the crew, he sort of had seniority with Mal and Zoe away. By unofficial agreement, Kaylee was fourth in line, followed by Simon, and finally followed by River. The Shepherd and Inara technically weren't in the chain, and Jayne was definitely not, and hadn't been since the Ariel heist, for some reason the crew didn't know.

"He's considering ascending," River said after a couple more seconds of close flight. "He knows he can't lose us here."

"Wuh de mah," Wash muttered. "Why would he-"

"Now!" River yelled, and wash hauled back on the stick, a half second ahead of their target, and Serenity rose right behind the other freighter.

"If we had guns, we could at least intimidate them," Book muttered as they shot up into the blue sky.

"If we had guns," Simon added, and Book nodded.

"If we had fuel," Kaylee said, and the others nodded. The supply situation had gotten a bit more strained over the month since the escape from Persephone.

"If we had food," Wash added, nudging up closer. He didn't need River's warnings to keep on their pilot's tail; every juke and turn was something he saw coming a couple of seconds ahead of time, and were utterly predictable.

"If we had chocolate," River muttered.

Everyone in the room except Wash turned to look at her for a moment, and she glanced up, then raised her eyebrows and shrugged. They turned back toward the forward windows as Wash edged up above their prey, trying to force him down.

"I'm spending my cut on chocolate," River added under her breath.

"I can't lose 'em!"

The yell was a mixture of terrified panic and disbelief, and it came from the man in the pilot's chair of the square-shaped bridge of the little freighter.

"What do you mean, you can't lose them?" demanded the tall, bearded man with the long jacket towering behind him. Malcolm Reynolds frowned, and knew that this had to be the ship's captain. Only captains wore such dynamically long coats.

"They're right behind me," the pilot wailed. "Its like they're reading my gorram mind every time I break!"

"That's impossible," the captain said, shaking his head. "You're just incompetent." The pilot didn't reply, instead swerving again and nearly tossing the sneaking trio of escapees who were crouched in the corridor behind the bridge.

Mal peeked into the bridge, and noted a line of lockers by the door. Their various weapons were stuffed inside, and he signaled to the others where to get their gear.

"Bobby," the captain added, pointing to the third man on the bridge. "Go get Sammy and Mike, have them bring the prisoners up here for a wave. Maybe shooting one of them will teach these idiots to back off."

"Sir," replied the large, muscular man beside him, a fellow with a mighty beard and long, dirty dreadlocks. He turned toward the doorway, and the escapees ducked out of sight.

Mal looked to his team and nodded. Jayne gripped his revolver, slowly pulling the hammer back, ensuring it moved soundlessly as he did so. Zoe readied her shotgun. Mal clutched his derringer like a talisman.

Bobby stepped into the doorway, and Mal slammed his shoulderinto his stomach before he could even see the trio. The huge man doubled over, letting out a shocked bellow of agony, and Jayne crashed into him, throwing him out of the way and giving the others a clean shot into the bridge.

Mal rolled around the corner and fired both shots, rounds smashing into the console beside the pilot and barely missing the captain. He cursed at his horrid aim as he ran into the room, Zoe firing a blast past him that had the enemy captain diving for cover. The pilot started screaming, and spun around, scrabbling for a pistol holstered on his leg. Sparks flew from the smashed console and from another panel where Zoe's shotgun blast had pockmarked the metal.

The enemy captain was rising, and Mal tackled him as he drew his sidearm. It went off as they met, the shot grazing Mal's arm and hurting like a son-of-a-bitch. They tumbled across the bridge, Mal trying to wrestle the gun out of his foe's hand. A pistol went off behind him, but he didn't know who was shooting; instead, he focused on his foe, spinning him around so he wouldn't get shot in the back by the panicking pilot. The bearded captain responded by viciously headbutting Mal, snapping his head backward, and then started shoving him across the room, hands and wrists locked together.

Zoe recoiled, cursing an oath that would have made small children cry, and felt pain lancing up her flank. The pilot kept firing wildly, rounds deflecting off the door. The soft bullets he was using weren't designed to pierce armor and fragmented when they hit the frame, sending shards flying about. She grit her teeth, pumped the shotgun, and fired another blast right into his chest. The pilot let out a strangled cry and slumped in his chair, the instruments around him splattered with blood.

Jayne and Bobby were locked in a death grip, though in this case it was Jayne doing the gripping and Bobby doing the dying. He'd managed to roll around behind the enemy thug and get one arm up under his chin, gripping his jaw. Jayne's other arm was pressing against the back of his neck, and Bobby was frantically thrashing and trying to escape the hold.

"Hun . . . dan!" Jayne hissed, and his arms twisted. He pulled up and back on Bobby's chin, and thrust forward with the hand pressing against his neck. The sudden motion shattered his opponent's vertebrae, and he clanged onto the deck, quite dead.

The enemy captain was pushing Mal back against a console, the edge of the device biting into his neck. Mal grit his teeth, blocked out the pain, and saw an opportunity. He released his foe's wrists, and the enemy captain fell forward in surprise. Mal ducked, slamming his shoulder into the captain and flung both of them back across the room. They crashed into the lockers by the door, weapons spilling out onto the floor. Mal dropped down to his knees as his foe tried to cave in his head with the butt of his pistol, and then took a step backward, arm flying out behind him.

Mal scooped up his pistol, jabbed it into his foe's stomach, and pulled the trigger.

Mal froze, and looked down as he heard a hollow click. They'd unloaded his gun.

He then got punched in the face, and toppled backward. His foe leveled his sidearm at Mal-

And took the unloaded, spinning pistol right to the jaw. his head snapped back, and then Mal slammed into him, shoving him down to the floor after kneeing him hard in the gut. The captain of the not-so-good ship Serenity raised his leg as his foe hit the floor, and then brought his boot down across his head, ending the threat.

Or, Mal soon realized, ending that one.

"Controls are shot," Zoe said, having pushed the pilot out of his chair. The sparking consoles that had been damaged in the gunfight seemed awful important. Mal cursed his bad aim.

"Can you get us under control?" Mal asked, and she frowned.

"I can keep us straight," she offered.

"Well, that ain't nothin'," Jayne added, scooping up their arms and distributing them.

"You might want to revise your opinion on that score," Mal said, pointing out the forward window.

Dead ahead, about thirty kilometers away, was a mountain on an intercept course.

"Oh, that's somethin' bad," Jayne muttered. Mal slapped the comms switch.

"Wash!" he yelled.

"Captain?" Wash replied a few seconds later.

"We've got the bridge, we need you to fly directly overhead," Mal explained quickly. "Get Kaylee to lower the winch now! In about two minutes we're gonna be kissin' a big pretty mountain at full speed!"

"Gotcha, Captain," Wash replied. "Permission to panic for you, sir?"

"Granted," Mal replied.

"Oh god, oh god, we're all gonna die!"

Mal pointed toward the rear door of the bridge.

"Let's move!"

Fifteen seconds later, Mal and his crew were running into the cargo bay, where the two other goons were still sprawled on the floor. By now the trio were slinging or holstering their weapons as they ran down the catwalk and toward the stairs.

"Jayne, the cargo!" Mal yelled. "Zoe, doors!" They nodded and split up as they reached the bottom floor, Zoe hurrying toward the controls while Mal and Jayne ran to a bundle of heavy-duty crates in the center of the bay.

The ship class they were on was one that had a central cargo module between the forward crew sections and the engine section. Unlike Serenity's Firefly design, which had the cargo module in its belly, this model allowed different kinds of industrial loading to take place via doors set into the top and the bottom of the cargo bay.

In their case, that was an extremely wondrous blessing, because Serenity's bay only opened downwards. Mal keyed the radio he'd recovered from his few captured belongings and helped Jayne secure the netting around the cargo.

"Wash, we're opening the doors now!" Mal yelled, and then heard the familiar hydraulic rumble as Zoe opened the cargo bay's upper doors. Daylight and rushing wind poured into the bay.

"Okay, I see it," Wash replied. "Keeping it steady. River, you good?" A static-laced voice replied, and Wash murmured in reply. "Kaylee is lowering the winch now."

"Feng le girl better not spaz on us," Jayne muttered as he secured the netting.

"Heard that," River's voice came in over the radio, a bit more clearly.

"Good," Jayne shot back.

"Quiet, children!" Mal growled.

"Here it comes!" Zoe yelled, and Mal looked up. Through the doors overhead, he saw something big and ungainly blocking out some of the light, and a long cable was lowering down into the bay. He waved his hands as it lowered, even though he knew it wasn't going to do any good.

"Keep her steady Wash, we've almost got it," Mal said as the cable continued dropping. He and Jayne grabbed the cargo netting and pulled the pile of boxes a little closer to the center of the bay. The cable was flipping about wildly, but Zoe jumped up on top of the pile of boxes and grabbed the winch. She immediately fixed it to the netting, securing it tight. It only took a few seconds, which was good, as they didn't have time to do anything else.

"Wash, Kaylee, we're attached!" Mal yelled, trying to keep his heart from punching out of his chest as he and Jayne clambered aboard. "Get us the hell out of here!"

The cargo bundle jerked, and started to rise. As it ascended, it began to waver about, while Wash fought to keep Serenity stable. They rose up, the bay starting to drop out beneath them, when Mal heard a mumble on the radio.

"Repeat that?" he asked.

"Minor . . . complication, sir," Wash said. Mal shut up, gritting his teeth, and then the cargo bundle swayed to one side. The cable hit the lip of the upper bay doors, and a jolt went through the line, shaking the trio. Zoe grabbed the wire, Jayne hugged the netting and let out a savage series of curses, and Mal found himself in a sudden, gut-wrenching fall, followed with having the wind blasted out of his lungs.

He lay on his back on the bay's floor, looking up at the rapidly ascending bundle of cargo, and realized that he was in serious trouble.

There was a shriek over the radio - it sounded like River's voice - and Mal clambered to his feet. He heard yelling overhead, and saw that the bundle had halted about four meters off the deck. Mal leapt up, trying to catch the netting, and cursed again as his fingers fell short. Jayne was leaning over the side of the bundle, waving his free arm like a desperate idiot and yelling for him.

"Mal! Grab my hand!" he was shouting. But he wasn't low enough to reach Mal and hold on to the cargo at the same time.

Mal spun, looking around the bay for something he could use, anything that could extend is reach to-

He bolted across the bay, and then ran back almost as quickly.

"Mal!" Wash was yelling over the radio. "Impact in fifteen seconds!"

He leapt up into the air, arm swinging, and the head of the stolen sledgehammer barely hit the netting, hooking inside the straps. Mal found himself hanging from below the cargo bundle, swinging precariously.

"Go, Wash!" Zoe shouted at the top of her lungs. The bundle began to ascend, and Mal pulled himself up, grabbing the bottom of the netting. A few seconds later, wind began to blast him as he was washed in daylight, and Mal looked below.

He wished he hadn't. A blur of brown and red and green passed beneath him, and he saw the little freighter they had been riding on continue flying forward for a few seconds, and then slam into a gray rock face at full speed. It crumpled into a horribly flattened shape that made Mal's stomach churn to just imagine he could have been inside it. Debris exploded outward in all directions, mixed with rock blasted out of the cliff face by the collision.

He closed his eyes, tightening his grip, and waited as the bundle continued ascending. After a bit, the wind cut off, and he was surrounded by the blessed sounds of closing hydraulic doors and the whirring of the cable winch.

Several long, happy seconds passed as Mal let his brain catch up with the fact that he wasn't about to die again.

"Sir, you can let go now," Zoe said, and Mal opened his eyes, looking around the comforting interior of his own cargo bay. He glanced down, and saw his feet were a couple of inches off the floor, and he let go of the hammer and netting.

"Okay," he said, backing away and sitting down on the nearest sturdy cargo crate, looking up around the room. "'scuse me one tick, I gotta have a heart attack." Laughter echoed in the bay from the rest of the crew.

"Aw, cap'n," Kaylee said, sidling up beside Mal and wrapping him in a big hug, which he was happy to reciprocate. "You got the cargo, didn't ya?"

"One too many heartstopping escapes for this month, little Kaylee," Mal said, exhaling. He stood up after a moment, stretching his back as Jayne and Zoe worked to get the bundle of goods lowered to the deck.

"Let's get this stowed, people," Mal said, looking about the bay, and nodding to Simon and Book as they came down the stairs.

"You want me to have a look at that?" Simon asked, pointing to the graze across Mal's arm. He glanced down and shook his head.

"Its fine, Doc," he replied, and Simon nodded after a moment, used to Mal's general refusal to seek treatment for non-serious injuries. He drifted off beside Kaylee, and started trying to help unload the cargo and check the others for wounds as well.

Mal drifted away himself, heading up the stairs. He was going to have to give his pilots a raise after that bit of wild flying, he promised himself. A few moments later, he was entering the bridge.

"We on course?" Mal asked, and Wash spun around.

"We are extra shiny, Captain," he replied with a smile. "And I just want to say how proud I am to be serving under a ninja captain, sir."

"Ninja captain?" Mal asked, and looked at the copilot's station, where River was leaning back in her chair, apparently engrossed in the rivets in the ceiling.

"I have it on reasonable authority you were a most stealthy hammer-wielding hero, sir," Wash replied with a knowing grin.

'That might be a bit of truth, yeah," Mal replied.

Wash hit a couple of switches and rose.

"Course is set," he added. "Should be where we need to be in a couple of hours at this speed. Got a nice, quiet route through nice, uneventful countryside and canyons plotted out."

"An easy, languorous journey, for once," Mal said, and Wash nodded. He glanced toward the door, and Mal caught his intentions.

"I'll take the wheel for a spell," he offered. "Need to relax a bit anyway, you can catch up with Zoe."

"Now that's command thinking, sir," Wash replied, and slipped past him, heading straight for the cargo bay to check on his wife. After what happened on Persephone, Wash had become even more of a worrier than normal. As he disappeared down the corridor, Mal moved over to the pilot's chair and plopped down, relaxing in the comfortably worn cushions.

"That was some good flying you two pulled off," he said, glancing to the copilot, and she looked down, her eyes meeting his. River smiled, and that did him a world of good to see.

"That was some good improvisation you pulled off," she replied, and Mal nodded. She was oddly lucid today, which made things better.

"Man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," he said. "You knew I was sneakin' about?"

"Yep," she replied, leaning further back. Mal nodded, a slight, satisfied smile on his own face, and he settled back as well.

"Did good today," he said after a few minutes.

"Yes," River replied. "Captain Hammer did a very good job today."

He glanced across the bridge, raising an eyebrow.

"Captain Hammer?" he asked, and she swiveled her chair about, grinning at him. He rolled the name over in his head, and decided it didn't sound half-dumb. Seemed horribly familiar, somehow.

"Sounds good," he said, grin growing. He settled back in his chair, relaxing, and Captain Hammer and his Albatross watched out the windows as Serenity moved forward, to the next job and their next destination. A good bit of peace filled the bridge, before the pleasant silence was broken.

"There's going to be chocolate where we're going, right?"


Author's Notes: Well, I'm back, with a new story arc to throw at you. "Mosaic" is going to be a slight bit different, as this arc is going to focus a lot more on character development, though still within an episodic plotline. This arc is going to be a hair shorter than previous ones - the current plan is for it to be seven chapters total, including prologue and epilogue, but I plan to cram a lot of development into those chapters. This arc will be following a fairly obvious theme, which will become apparent as the story progresses.

River and Mal are both going to be major players in this one, though the others will have their parts, and expect some real action in the latter half of this story. Some threads started in earlier canon apisodes, as well as within this story, will be devloped a little more, and expect to see a few familiar faces return, especially if you've read the comics. There's going to be a lot more growth in our big damn heroes, and some rather surprising twists in the next couple of chapters.

And yes, there are references to another Whedon work in this prologue.

Until next chapter . . . .