WARNING - This story contains spoilers for the movie "Serenity," as well as for the episode "Objects in Space". You have been warned.
The Road to Heaven is Paved in Blood by Djinn
Since the time I was brought to the training center, I have served two masters: my teacher and the goal of a better world. I have studied and trained and suffered knowing that my role in creating the future would be a hidden but crucial one. I am a monster, but I am a monster in the service of Heaven. A monster whose every act will bring Paradise that much closer.
There is no room for one such as I in Paradise. I know this. My teacher knew this, too. My teacher taught me this.
Until my teacher ran away. Until he abandoned Paradise for his own path. Leaving me in charge of the others. Leaving me the strongest, the one most committed.
Leaving me to deal with Jubal.
Unlike Jubal, I gave up my name--if I ever had one. My teacher brought me to the training center as a baby, and I have gone so long without a name it is natural. It is natural also to not exist as far as the government is concerned. But I existed for my teacher. I was his favorite, because, even then, even when I was so young, I was special. As if to prove my existence, my teacher gave me many names depending on his mood and how he felt about me. Some days he called me Alexander or Achilles. Other days I was Lucifer or Loki. On days when I'd really pleased him, he would call me "son." I lived for those days.
I knew I was probably not the man's son. But I wanted to be. How I wanted to be.
My teacher's name was never known to me. The man who used to be my teacher is now known as Shepherd Book. I am not supposed to know this, but I tracked him down in between assignments. My Alliance masters probably knew I had done it, but those I answer to did not interfere with my personal quest.
They never interfere with me. I am their creature, but they also fear me. Everyone has always feared me. Everyone except this man called Book and Jubal--when Jubal was still one of us. Jubal would not know me now; once it became clear that he was too much a monster to stay at the training center, I ensured that he would not remember us. Although if he were to see me or anyone from the Center again, he might pause, wondering how he knew us before moving on again.
My teacher knew he had to go, I think. My teacher used to look at Jubal with a hopeless expression, as if he could not believe such beauty and grace could hide so much horror. My teacher was about to take steps to deal with Jubal when he ran, leaving me in charge.
I know where Book is, but I have lost track of Jubal. I have made it my burden to ensure he is pointed in the path of good--as much as a man like Jubal ever can be. I throw jobs his way--send him after people who have sinned greatly, people who make the path to Paradise rockier and uglier than it has to be. Jubal takes care of them. Brings them back to the agents of order--or kills them. It has never mattered much to me what he does to them, so long as he gets the job done. And when he is working for the cause of the right, it keeps him too busy to torture and hurt innocents.
I hate that Jubal loves to torture innocents, but it hurts even more to know how hard he tries to fight the urge. It would have been easier if he were purely evil, then I could have killed him and never thought of him again. But he was not purely evil, and I found I could not kill him. So I threw him out of the training facility, mind wiped enough to make him no threat, but not so much that his skills would be lost forever.
Because Jubal was useful in his own way. As a bounty hunter, he could walk places that were too dirty for us to walk. It is to these places that I think River Tam and her brother have gone, and why I made sure Jubal got the information about the girl. I knew he would take the bait. How could he not? River was the first real challenge he'd had in years.
But River may have proven too much of a challenge, because I have not heard from Jubal since my contacts reported his shuttle took off for the black. Jubal is most likely dead. My monster may have met an even bigger one when he went up against that little girl.
My teacher probably wouldn't have used Jubal. He would have gone after River himself. My teacher would have lectured me: "Don't leave what must be done to others." He would have been right.
I will find her myself this time. It is my quest. One that will not end until I deliver her to those who want her, or until one of us is dead. My teacher would approve of that, even if Shepherd Book probably would not. Shepherd Book would rather pretend that the monster he was never existed. The way I have to pretend that both the man I wanted for a father and the man I considered a brother never existed.
But I know they existed because I miss them. I miss my teacher. I miss Jubal.
Even monsters get lonely.
The research facility reminds me of the training center. There is pain here. Pain and learning and children stretched beyond their limits. The woman who shudders every time I call her "young miss" brings me more access information. I type in the numbers, the folders in the system opening like the lotus flower that grew only on Earth-that-was. And I find what I need on River Tam and, more importantly, on her brother.
"Please don't hurt me," the young woman says as I get up, my work here done.
"I won't." I smile; I know it is a reassuring expression because I have practiced it in the mirror many times.
She smiles in relief, and her shuddering stills for a moment.
The hologram of River and Simon hovers behind her, and I point at it vaguely, as if barely paying attention. "Turn that off, young miss."
She hurries to do as I say, and I shoot her in the back of the head. She falls through the hologram, her body interrupting the pattern, making it crackle and shimmer before reestablishing itself.
I did not lie. The shot was true. She would not have felt any pain; I have not hurt her, only killed her.
In my business, there is a vast difference between the two.
I push her off the console, and get to work, setting loose the virus that will destroy all records of River Tam in this facility. No one else must ever understand what she may have taken with her when she escaped, what she may have carried away in that jumbled mind. I have the list of those who worked with her closely enough to know things they should not. Five of them in all. Two are now dead.
I walk down the hall to the office of the third person. A woman looks up. She is beautiful. Lovely in the way I like.
"Hello," I smile, in anther way I practice. It is meant to induce shivers of a different kind.
She responds, her smile brilliant. "Can I help you?"
She will have seen by the fabric of my clothes that I am a man of some means, even if their cut and decoration give her no idea of my role in society. And I am handsome. I know this--it is something that is worked on at the training center. People trust those who are beautiful. They relax around smooth skin and even features. They tell secrets to those with deep, soulful eyes.
"River Tam," I say, using the most sensuous tone I can.
The tone does not fool her. Her eyes change, secrets locking down as I watch. "I never met her," she says, trying to scramble back in her chair, but I have moved too close.
"If only that were true." I stab three times into her neck with the fingers of my right hand. Once to paralyze, the next to deaden nerves that might register pain even if they cannot make her muscles move, the last to kill.
She falls. Beautiful, still, in death.
I leave the center. The other two people who know River Tam too well for their own good have been transferred. It will take me a few days to get to them, a few seconds to kill them before I can start my hunt for the little girl.
I feel no joy to be on the hunt again. I feel no remorse, either. This is what I do. This is what I will always do until acts like this done by men like me are no longer required.
The companion is frightened, but she hides her fear well. She has conveyed to her former captain that he is walking into a trap, and I am unsure how she has done it. They have some sort of secret language and that is dangerous. I can tell by the way she moves around her room that she thinks she will not be rescued. That she thinks he will not come.
"Do you love him?" I ask her softly.
She does not answer, but I think she does love him. I think he loves her, too, and that she has misjudged him. He will send someone for her.
But I do not expect him to come for her himself. He may love her, but he is not a hero.
Although...he is a champion of lost causes. He fought in the war. Lost the war. That leaves shadows on a man's soul. Shadows that might make him come for her himself.
Then again, those shadows can warp a man and make him so he cannot love. The way Jubal's shadows made him unable to love, only to hurt. I had to clean up the few times he gave free rein to his urges to hurt a lover. It made me sick--and I've been raised on death and pain.
Malcolm Reynolds' shadows have turned him into a smuggler. Into someone who lives on the wrong side of the law. But he seems to have some kind of honor even if he also seems to live by the percentages. So he will probably send someone to help this woman, even if he will not come himself.
But...if he does come himself, he will come in all guns blazing. The last, big stand. That's how men like Reynolds go down.
It is not how I will go down. There is no dignity in a blaze of glory, despite how the history books paint such ends. To live to scheme another time is a good way to end the day.
"You are lonely," the companion says, her voice honeyed sweetness. "I can feel your pain, the pain you keep hidden."
I ignore her. Companion-wiles are no match for the things my teacher taught me.
"I can help you with your pain."
"I do not believe you can." I meet her eyes, let her see that there is nothing to be read from mine. Nothing at all.
She stares, as if she can break my will. As if by her beauty and her sensual grace, she will wear me down and make me open up to her.
I let my eyes go even colder.
She appears shaken as she finally looks away. I imagine she has never lost like that. She is too beautiful to have ever lost.
"You are evil." She sounds as if she is not sure what else to say.
"I am unsure that is true. I am, however, a monster." I smile at her to show her I do not hold her words against her. It will not do to have her panic.
But she seems stronger than I thought she would be. Panic is not what I see in her eyes. It is resolve and defiance. Perhaps she has spent a little too much time around rebels and smugglers.
"He will come for you," I say softly.
She shrugs, and even that gesture is one of great loveliness. "If you say so." This must mean she is not sure at this point whether he will or will not.
I would not come for her. But then, I would not allow myself to fall in love with a woman like this. She can make you forget yourself. She can turn your heart and your resolve and your entire world upside down, and leave you wanting more of that nonsense.
I do not fall in love. It is not that love is forbidden to us, but it is too hard to establish ties like that when one leads a life that is no life. It is hard to fall in love when one does not exist at all.
When I was very young, I asked my teacher if he had ever been in love. His eyes got a faraway look and he nodded.
"Where is she now?"
"She died. I was not there." He looked at me with such sadness. "Do not fall in love, son."
"I will not." It was an easy promise to keep. My teacher kept us all too busy to fall in love. When we were going through puberty, when hormones might have made us act stupidly and cleave to others, he stepped up our training. Put challenges and competitions to us. So that even if we had wanted to fall in love with each other, we would not have. We were too busy trying to win.
Which is not to say he discouraged sex. We were given ample opportunities to work out our energy. But not with each other. Operatives did not build such ties. He set us loose in less-honored houses than the one I now waited in with this rare beauty. Houses where we could lose ourselves in the bodies of those who were not our own kind.
It was the first time we learned what Jubal was capable of. It was the last time my teacher ever let Jubal go on that type of field trip.
I wonder if this companion has met Jubal. I wonder if she knows what happened to him. But I do not ask because I cannot give away that I know him. Even if I do plan to kill this woman as soon as I have River Tam in my custody.
"Do you love him?" I ask her again.
She must see something in my eyes that frightens her. She moves away, to her altar, bowing her head.
"Yes," she murmurs, but it could just be part of her ritual to her gods.
"Yes," I repeat. If it is an answer, she should know that I have heard her. "I will leave you to your prayers," I say, walking out and finding the place I have chosen to wait for her man to come to her. And I think he will come to her. I face the door, out of range of an "all guns blazing" approach.
And I wait.
My teacher looks up in surprise. The world he has chosen to settle on is covered in dust. But then most of the outer worlds are covered in dust. His clothes are old--cut down from something that was probably a miner's uniform. His hair is different now. Last time I saw him, it was long and held back in a simple tie. Now he wears braids--distinctive, too distinctive for our line of work. He would not fade into the background with his shepherd's collar and his rows of braids.
But then, he is not in our line of work any longer.
"You?" My teacher does not seem surprised that he has been found, more that his former pupil would come out all this way to speak to him personally.
I give him a careful smile. "Hello, sir."
"No sir needed, son. I'm a simple shepherd."
"Hardly simple," I say, showing him I am aware he is trying to lull me with the title he knows I crave. "I am on a job."
"I didn't think you came here for the nightlife."
I smile. He has always been able to make me smile. If I have a sense of humor, which some say I don't, I have learned it from him. "You know what I seek?"
He shrugs. I think that he knows I am looking for the girl. He can guess that I know that he has given her and the others who protect her sanctuary. Fitting since he has settled on a world called Haven.
But I play the game. "I'm looking for a girl."
He smiles, as if I am quite the foolish young man. "Better places to look than a dust trap like this."
"This young woman is on the run."
"Well, catch her."
I smile tightly. "That's why I'm here."
"She's not here." He waves toward the open desert behind him. "Nothing much here."
"I know she's with Reynolds."
"Do you?" He gives me the beatific smile of the man of god.
"I know they were here."
"I won't help you. Even if I didn't know them, I wouldn't help you on principle. I'm done with all that."
"People help me that know nothing of 'all that' as you call it. You, too, can help me without being part of it." It is a threat. I am threatening my teacher.
"Only if you make me. Are you going to try to make me?"
We both know I cannot, but he almost looks like he wishes I would try. I wonder how the life of a simple shepherd suits him. He was the finest fighter, the most canny strategist. He had to be to become the master of our Center.
To leave that for this--I cannot fathom it. "Why do you call yourself Book?"
He seems surprised at my question. It is the first time I have caught him off guard. "Why not?"
"It must have some significance."
"The good book." He taps the bible in his shirt pocket. "Something to believe in."
"You had something to believe in." I am angry suddenly. Rage fills me. Rage that goes back to the day he left.
The day he left without a word.
"How could you do it?" I ask. "You had a purpose. A role."
His look is almost pitying. "Our purpose is empty. Our role is a lie."
But he will not answer such a broad question, and I cannot bear to ask the deeper ones that might elicit answers. That is how he trained us. You ask the right question; you get an answer. But you must work for it. You must drill down and find the right tack. It is a matter of focus, and I do not wish to focus on it.
"You have lost your way," I say.
"I never had a way, boy. And neither do you." His eyes flash for a moment, but then the fire in them dies. I realize he looks...ill.
"Are you sick?"
"No. I'm dying." He sighs. "I don't have much time left."
"If you don't tell me where she is, you'll have even less time than that."
He looks at me, a slow smile crossing his face. "I trained you well, son." Then the smile dies. "Too well." Something flickers in his eyes. Something dangerous.
I reach for my weapon. I am not sure I can take him hand to hand, even now that he is slightly gray with whatever disease is killing him.
But he does not even tense, just lifts his hand and waves me away as if I have displeased him. "Go," he says in the old tone of master to pupil.
It is instinct that makes me turn. It is the habit of doing what my old teacher says. And the old desire to please him. I turn back to look at him. "You taught me to believe in a better world."
"I know. But...believe in something else."
"I can't." At the sadness in his eyes, I ask, "What else is there?"
And he seems about to say but is taken by a fit of coughing. By the time he finishes, the urge to share seems to have gone.
I turn on my heel and leave.
"Will you do it yourself?" he shouts after me. "Will it be you who kills me?"
I think he wants the answer to be yes. I think he wants to be put down by the only man who could take his place. I will not give him that.
I give him nothing, not even goodbye, as I walk away. Just as he did to me.
My shuttle takes me up quickly. I am onboard the fleet ship in no time. There is a smaller ship waiting, heavily armed, with a crew who will shoot anything or anyone on command. There are other such ships waiting at the edge of atmo of any world that has ever given the crew of Serenity safe harbor.
"Do it," I say.
The captain looks at me in horror. There are women and children below. Innocents.
"I can't," he says.
I wait. Can't is not a choice. Can't can change.
"I won't," he says, crossing his arms behind him.
I shoot him where he stands, then turn to the first officer, giving him an instant promotion. "Captain?"
He stares at me for a moment, then nods to the communications officer. "Give the command."
"Begin strafing run," the young officer says, her voice trembling as the other ship slips into Haven's atmo.
"How can we do this?" the newly minted captain mutters, probably thinking I cannot hear him.
"Because we believe in a better world," I say, meeting his eyes with what I know is blinding faith in the future.
I see only horror in his.
But I don't do this for him; I do this for his children. They will never have to look at me that way. They will never have to look at me, at all.
For now, there are monsters. But someday--maybe someday soon--there will be only Paradise.
I watch as Reynolds works on his ship. The owner at the Persephone shipyards has welcomed him and his crew. Reynolds does not know that I have used my own wealth to make the man throw open his arms so widely.
I do not think the good captain would welcome my generosity.
I am hidden now. In the hold of a dead ship, on the outskirts of the yard. I've been here the better part of the day. Sitting quietly, sipping at my water, watching them work alongside the repair crew. I was here when they arrived, and I will not leave until they are gone. They do not know I watch. They will never know that I am guarding them, although I think I will say goodbye to Reynolds. I do not need that kind of closure, but I think he does. And once they leave here, they will be on their own. But for now...for now, I will make sure they are not molested in any way.
A touch on my arm makes me whirl, dropping my water container, liquid splashing all over the deck.
The girl has snuck up on me. No one ever sneaks up on me.
She smiles. "Sorry." Crouching down, she picks up the container, saving a small bit of water for me. She puts the lid on, sets it to the side, then moves away from the water as it slides down the canted floor of the ship. "Nice place you have here."
She sounds so much like my old teacher I can't help but smile. But then, she probably knows that she is channeling him, may be doing it on purpose to see how I will react.
I choose to not react, to change the subject. "You killed all those Reavers--all by yourself."
It is still astonishing to me. It is one thing to be a living weapon. It is another thing to be a destroyer. I have the image from the vid recorders in one of my soldier's visor. River Tam--the little girl--standing in the light from the guns of a score of Alliance soldiers all ready to kill her. The way she looked at them. The way the blood of the Reavers dripped off her axe.
She was magnificent.
"They would have killed us, so I killed them." She looks at me, as if it is very simple. Which, truthfully, it is. She has the right of it.
"I am not judging you. Merely impressed."
She knows this, though. She can read me, surely?
But she does not seem interested in reading me. Seems trapped in her own mind. "The triggers. Can they do that to me again?"
I shrug. I have not collected those kinds of secrets on her. I have only killed to protect them. But I can give her some small gift. "I was only told the one. Perhaps it is all there is."
"Perhaps." She does not sound like a seventeen-year-old girl.
We sit in silence. For a very long time. There is the sound of the water, dripping from the deck onto another piece of metal below. The blood on her axe would have sounded the same way if it had not been dripping onto soft bodies. The blood from Jubal's knife when he cut up the woman who'd taken a fancy to him in that pleasure house had sounded this way, too. When I'd had to take the knife from his hand, ordering him back to the shuttle.
"Jubal is dead." Her voice holds no remorse.
I do not have to wonder how she knows who I am thinking of. She is psychic. She is gathering the tangled bits of her mind and putting them all back together, and weaving in the new skills. It is extraordinary that she can do this. She is extraordinary.
"Are you sure he is dead?" I ask. Jubal is not easy to kill. Many have tried, although I never have. If I had, he would be dead.
"We cast him adrift in his suit into the black. He had limited air."
"He might be alive, then."
She meets my eyes, and I see understanding in hers. She can tell that I wish that Jubal is dead and also that I hope he might still be living. I should have killed him long ago; I could not do it. I loved him as a brother--some part of me had always wondered if he was my bro--
"--He's not your brother," she says.
I turn to her, and I know that I am not controlling my expression very well.
"It is what you have feared all your life. That he was your brother."
She is not wrong. He came to us the same way I came to the Center. In my teacher's arms, only older. He had a name. I'd always been jealous of that name.
"He was not Book's son." She touches my arm.
I nod in relief.
"You're not Book's son, either." She sighs. "But he loved you like one."
I close my eyes. When he used to call me that, then, it wasn't manipulation; it was true.
"The Book I knew," I tell her, "you never did."
"At the end I did. When he was dying. I got a lot of images. I didn't understand them, then. But now...now, I think I do." She reaches over, takes my hand in hers.
Killer to killer.
"He was what you are. You are what he was, when he left." Her hand tightens on mine. "He regretted leaving you that way. Remorse was heavy in the things I picked up."
"I was a killer."
"You say it like it's a bad thing." Her voice shakes and she lets go of my hand.
And suddenly I can imagine the pain of this child. Knowing she can fight anything, including a man like me, probably. But never knowing if that skill will be activated against her will. I take her hand, squeeze it until she stops shaking. "If I ever find anyone else like you, I will bring them to you."
"Yes," she says as she pulls free of my hand.
Then she is crying, and I let her cry. I do not try to soothe her, do not touch her or hold her or seek to offer warmth. I do not tell her it will be all right because I do not know if it will be. Finally, she stops, and wipes at her eyes.
Then, to my surprise, she leans in and gives me a kiss on the cheek. "I loved him. And you killed him. But you didn't kill me. I don't know if I should kill you or not."
I shake my head and shrug just enough to show her that I am no one to offer guidance in this case.
Taking a deep breath, she reaches into the pocket of her sweater and pulls out a small book. "This was his."
I do not take the bible. "It is not what I believe in."
"It's not what he believed in, either," she says, pushing it into my hands. "But it's a start. If you don't want it, take it to Haven. Bury it next to him."
"I believed in a better world," I whisper as I clutch the book to me.
"You still can. This time make it a world you can be a part of." She turns, as if she can hear something. "Mal's looking for me. I have to go." She smiles at me, but there is so much pain in her smile that it makes my breath catch.
This little girl should have been one of the ones I've been fighting for. She should never have been a victim.
I think about Jubal. Floating somewhere. Dead perhaps. But maybe not. Maybe he found a ship passing by. God help anyone who found him once this child had bested him.
Finding Jubal will be my first task. Either to collect his body and bury it. Or to find Jubal still alive, kill him, and then bury his body. It is time to put an end to monsters.
She looks down. As if she thinks I am including her in that indictment.
I rest my hand on her shoulder. "River Tam, you are not a monster. I know, because I am one."
"Takes one to know one?" It is the rebuttal of a child--a child we never allowed her to be.
"Yes. It takes one to know one."