It only took looking out through the windscreen of the ship to see he was right. Every single visible building was broken and torn apart, and any bodies visible weren't moving. No way they could have moved, what with most of them having bullet wounds in numerous places.
The burning Alliance ship that had crashed in one corner of Mal's plane of view wasn't moving either.
Jayne surveys everything at once before the rest of the crew even step off the ship. Mal hears Kaylee calling out for Book, but Mal doesn't understand how she could really expect an answer from anyone out here. Mal moves away from the crew instead, Jayne moving close beside him, half-running behind a bunker with the cannon mount, finding Shepherd Book crew laying broken beside it.
"Get the Doc," Mal barks, and at once Jayne disappears. Mal puts down his gun to take Book's hand, not noticing the blood that covered it.
"Shepherd...Don't move." Just don't, dong ma?
"Won't go far..."
"Shouldn't've been you," Mal chokes at him. "I'm so sorry, it was...they should've hit us. They should have hit me."
"You'll lose, you'll always lose. You already have lost."
"That crossed my mind." Book coughs, bringing up a faint spray of blood. His head tries to roll toward the Alliance ship, telling Mal, "I shot him down--"
"I killed the ship...that killed us. Not...Not very Christian of me."
Mal's jaw sets so as not to fall to pieces. "You did what's right."
Book's dark eyes set to Mal's, not entirely unkindly, "Coming from you, that means -- almost nothing." Book lets out a groan of pain. "I'm long gone..."
"No," Mal charges. "No, you're not. Doc'll bring you 'round. I look to be bored by many more sermons 'fore you slip - Don't Move ---"
"You can't order me 'round, boy - I'm not one of your crew..."
It is becoming very hard to see clearly for Mal. "Yes you are." Of course you are.
Book raises his hand to the left side of Mal's neck, smearing blood. "You...It's on you now. All this death, this shit...you have to find a course. This can't mean nothing. River...you have to..."
Mal can't not stare at Book with a newly-found horror. And fear, oh aye. Fear.
"I don't care what you believe! Just...believe it." Book coughs again, languishing. "Whatever you have to..."
The sound of Book's breathing slows...slows. And stops. Book's hand falls, and Mal can feel the hot blood on his face. He stands as he hears Jayne and the Doc coming, but Mal can't look at them yet. All he sees is Book friend crew on the ground. Dead.
"Zoe," Mal hears Jayne start in restlessness, "How come they ain't waitin'? They know'd we was comin', how come they only sent one?"
Zoe voices the conclusion they both reach. "They didn't know we would come here -- Wash, get on the Cortex. Wave Li Shen, the Sanchez brothers - anyone who has ever sheltered us after a heist. Tell them to get out. Get out now."
All Mal can do is stare at the vidscreens on the bridge. Sanchez boys were down, Li Shen, everyone - gone. Mal doesn't know how much time went by before all seven vidscreens he had been watching changed to the same feed of the Operative, looking...stern.
"I'm sorry," came the shockingly sincere-sounding apology.
"You - what?"
"If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to," the Operative explains cooly. "You should have taken my offer - or did you think none of this was your fault?"
"I don't murder children."
"I do. If I have to."
"Why?" I need to know. "Do you even know why they sent you?"
"It's not my place to ask. I believe in something that is greater than myself," came his explanation. Like a schoolteacher instruction. "A better world. A world without sin."
Do you know what your sin is, Captain?
"So me and mine got to lie down and die so you can live in your better world?"
Again with the schoolteacher voice, correcting the slowest child in the class. "I'm not going to live there. How could you think - there's no place for me there, any more than there is for you. Malcolm, I'm a monster." At least Mal and the Operative agree on something. "What I do is evil, I have no illusions about that, but it must be done."
Mal looks to the one remaining open vidscreen to check the comm status. "Keep talkin' - you're not getting a location trace off this wave."
"And every minute you keep River Tam from me more people will die."
You think I care?!"
The Operative vaguely nods in response. "Of course you do. You're not a reaver, Mal. You're a human man and you will never--"
Mal cuts all power to the bridge comm off, all screens going blank.
"The Lord is frequently known to favor those who execute an unexpected sneak attack with heavy weaponry, skilled soldiers, and solid tactics."
Captain Reynolds has a plan.