"To Die a Martyr"
A short story

Persecution of the innocent has been one of the most deplorable aspects of our history as a species. People need to hate. It's not personal, except for those who are persecuted; it's just that some people would rather find a target for their fears than change the negative qualities in themselves. If they can project that which they like least in themselves onto others, then they can expunge, eradicate, those things with a clean conscience. It's kinda like metaphorical self-therapy. To put a face, name and body with "evil" makes it easier to "fix," even if the face, name or body in question is beyond reproach.

And so it is with me. I stand here, in front of this firing squad, for doing nothing wrong to anyone. My crime? Apostasy, hereticism; I am a heretic, so named by the powers that be. Do I believe in God? Certainly! Absolutely, yes! Praise God, He is God! Do I believe in equality? Why, only a cohesive society can enjoy longevity, of course. Love? Oceans of it, for all people- despite even this. Justice? The Laws of God are my prime directive, and even so, I must also obey the Laws of the Land in which I find myself. Truth? It lights my steps and guides my way through all dark valleys. I live by the Truth, even if I don't agree with it or like it.

And yet, here I stand, staring down my dozen-muzzled death, triggers at the ready, a heretic. Am I afraid? Yes. Yes, I am. Will I cower and plead and recant my faith in things that are good and honorable? I am afraid, but I am not that afraid! I understand that my faith will not protect my mortal shell, but I believe that it will calm my soul. I am afraid of the unknown, but in truth I am curious and even eager to move on.

The people holding their guns, waiting to take careful aim, stare coldly at me, their hate almost seething at my stubbornness. They don't want to kill me for my beliefs; they don't want to kill me at all. But because I won't recant, just in word alone, they are forced to do so by the rest of society, and that is why they hate me. If I would just renounce my faith, then they wouldn't have to pull the triggers. After that, I'm free. What they fail to realize is that by pulling their triggers, for whatever reason, they're granting me the greatest freedom of all.

These gunmen aren't soldiers. They're not even government officials. They are simply average people who had the misfortune of discovering me. They will probably have trouble sleeping, nightmares do that to people, but I will not deny what my mind and soul tell me is right. I'm sorry, but I won't. And what's probably worse to them is that I won't go blindfolded and whimpering. If I am to die this way, then I shall do it with dignity, aplomb, peace and my eyes wide open. They don't have to shoot, but they will- it's their duty to their beliefs, not the Law of the Land, but what they perceive to be the Law of God. The plain simple truth, though, is that they are going to murder me. They will disguise it as a dutiful execution and they won't be found out because no investigation will be started- my body will be disposed of in a way that won't point to them. I'm aware of these facts in a dispassionate and clinical sense, but that doesn't bother me a bit. When I'm dead I don't think I'll be in a position to complain. I won't feel a thing by then.

The lead executioner steps forward, as is part of the traditional execution. I smile warmly at him, courageously and with care. And why not? They're about to send me to the Abha Kingdom. I should think that I've never been so lucky as to be released from this hell we call Earth. "Do you have any last words?" he asks. "A final request?"

I shake my head slowly. "No last words, but a small request, if you will be so kind."

His body stiffens somewhat in surprise. He wasn't prepared to find me so calm and collected. Most people, when faced with being executed or death of any sort, usually can't remain coherent. "What is it?" he asks with a measure of uncertainty.

"When I fall, when I'm dead, please say a prayer over my body. Doesn't matter what prayer you choose, but please say one for me. I've done no one here any ill, so it's a very small thing, don't you think?"

He looks at me for a long time. Perhaps he's trying to decide how his fellow believers would react if he granted me this final wish. Would they persecute him, too? Would they merely ostracize him? Would they even think twice about it, assuming that he was giving me Last Rites? Last Rites were certainly allowed in his religion, even for criminals, as well as in many other religions, so it wouldn't raise suspicion of his character. Besides, in a sense, Last Rites are exactly what I'd asked for. Finally he nods his head in silence and steps away from me coldly. If I had asked for my favorite meal, sex, alcohol or even a cigarette, then at least he'd be able to despise me for indulging in creature comforts during my final moments on Earth. Instead, though, I asked for a noble prayer- without even specifying what kind of prayer- one from his religion or mine, didn't matter to me. I left that completely to his discretion.

The way they set up the firing squad was simple: a dozen rifles, eleven blanks and one live round, in a random weapon. I suppose that made it easier for them psychologically if they were unaware of who actually killed me. Being part of a firing squad was hard enough for any man. A guilty conscience can be downright devastating. Definitely, it was the kinder, gentler thing for them to do- as for me, I am doomed regardless, so I never entered the picture of consideration except as a target. Each of the gunmen are practiced and experienced hunters, so I would make a very easy target indeed since I am standing still. My hands are unbound, but where would I run?

The leader raises his arm. "Ready!" he calls out. His voice didn't carry the conviction of the order and cracked. I suppose his is still shaken up by the prospect of praying over me. Will he actually do it? Is he having second thoughts? Again, I'll be dead by the time he's faced with that decision, so it's not like I can complain if he changes his mind.

I turn my attention to the gunmen. I can see the uncertainty in their eyes as they raise their guns. I wonder if that's how electric chair executioners feel just before they throw the switch? Oh, wait. There hasn't been an active electric chair in a decade, has there? These days the "state" strictly uses lethal injections. They say it's more humane that way. A humane method of killing someone is an oxymoron, in my honest opinion, but no one bothered to ask me.

"Aim!" Yes, he's definitely nervous. His voice jumped an octave higher, making the order sound like a strangled squeal. I mentally say a quick and silent prayer for God to give him courage and strength to remain steadfast in this. It's the least I can do for him, if he'll pray over my corpse.

On the heels of that prayer, I mutter a short phrase in Persian. "Yah Baha'u'l'abha." Thou Glory of glories. According to my religion, we should say that if we're aware of impending death. It's supposed to let the Abha Kingdom know that we're on our way (arriving in the Next World unannounced should be considered rude, shouldn't it?) and, as a spiritual bonus, it calms your soul for the event. Another side effect that I don't count on is that it reminds my executioners of why they're killing me at all: I am a Baha'i, a follower of the glory of God, by literal translation.

In the pregnant pause I look into the eyes of the gunmen. Some of them appear thoughtful, as though they're finally considering the weight of the situation. I notice one, just one, looking directly back at me and going pale with realization- he's about to take a human life. He blinks away the distracting thought and reacquires his target: me. Which one of them has the live round, I wonder? I push that curious thought aside and exhale. I'm not entirely certain why I do this, but a little voice in my head says that it's a good idea. That little voice hasn't led me astray before (I don't consider this as being led astray, despite the fact that my "little voice" is what compelled me to become a Baha'i in the first place, which ultimately led to this moment), so I obey it.

I've had a good life, really. I was born to loving and understanding parents who were, themselves, Baha'is and raised me to be a kind person. I've fallen in and out of love with a few women on occasion, but my love affair with life itself never ended- until now. I've held honorable jobs and learned the lessons that I could recognize. I've done good deeds for as many people as I could. Yes, a good life indeed. I'm proud of it, entirely. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing- even the tough stuff.

I wonder what the Next World will be like? Did I really live a good enough life? I've made my fair share of mistakes here and there, but I feel good. That has to count for something, doesn't it? Will the Abha Kingdom be as astounding as I've come to believe? Nearly all religious scripture is sketchy, at best, about life after death. I certainly hope it's worth the sacrifice. All I have to go on is my faith; that's always been enough for me.

"Fire!" I glimpse the fall of his arm out of my peripheral vision. His arm dropped like dead wood, almost reluctantly. He's really concerned about that last request of mine. God bless him.

My pupils dilate at the command, taking everything in completely. My ears get a little keener, too. Someone standing by and watching, a spectator, gasps in horror, grief and astonishment. I can actually sense that woman in the fraction of a second I have left to live. She's a Baha'i, too, here to witness my martyrdom in relative secrecy. Yes, my dear fellow believer, they actually did it. Did you really believe they wouldn't? We've been under intense persecution in this country for dozens of years. This world is no longer the one we grew up in. That world was dark, yes; this one is far darker. Don't worry for me, my friend. This won't take long. It took a long time for Mankind to reach this point, but my ordeal will last a heartbeat or less.

The firing squad does as they're told, some closing their eyes as they do so. It will take a quarter of a second for the only live round to reach me, drilling a new hole in my head. The firing chambers flash and smoke and I can actually see the bullet's point of origin: third gunman from my left. He'll never know it was he because he's one of those who closed their eyes. Good. As I said before, a guilty conscience can be devastating.

The bullet makes no noise as it rushes toward me faster than the speed of sound across thirty feet of packed dirt. And suddenly it strikes home, entering my skull. I can feel the pressure of it invading my head, but there isn't any pain. Not a thing. Someone might as well be pressing his or her finger to my forehead. A nudge and that's it.

My vision disappears instantly as my cerebral cortex (where'd I learn that from?) is obliterated and scatters outward behind me. Motor control is gone as well as any real sensation of my body. Nope, still no pain. No sight, but no pain. My equilibrium fails me and my knees buckle. I can feel the ground as I fall down, but it doesn't hurt a bit- like falling on a bed of feathers. Nice.

My hearing begins to fade and my breathing capacity ceases. No death rattle, which I guess is good. Maybe that's why I exhaled before they shot me- so that there'd be no disconcerting death rattle in my lungs. I've seen people die of old age right in front of me and that last breath always seemed painful to me. Bliss.

There's enough hearing left to notice the shuffling of feet. Someone is kneeing beside my body, probably to check my non-existent pulse, but I'm beyond feeling the contact to my skin. My spinal column, the nervous system, tries to send out some alarming notices to my body that something is desperately wrong, but the "lines of communication" have been severed and it doesn't know what's happening. The nervous impulses simply fizzle, causing my body to twitch and convulse slightly. I must admit, that feels better than a good massage! It feels like I'm turning into energy, just crackling to break free (which is probably quite true and apt).

Is this it, nothing more than this to the process of dying? Man, that wasn't so bad after all! Actually, if people knew that dying could feel this good, they'd be lining up for miles to do it. What's left of my semi-conscious mind finds that thought terribly amusing: hundreds of thousands of people die every day, so in one sense, people do line up for miles just to die, whether it's against their will or not. That seems ironic to me. I wish there was enough energy left in me to smile, but I feel sleepy just now. Good thing my eyes are closed. Maybe they aren't. I am blind, after all, so how would I know one way or the other?

Suddenly a sensation of being immersed in water rushes over my entire being. This is it! My soul is departing from the body! I can see! The lead executioner, God bless his soul a million times over, is praying over me- with a Baha'i prayer, too! That explains his uncertainty: he was trying to decide which prayer to say. It warms me to find that he knows a Baha'i prayer at all. Good for him! If he ends up in the same place I'm going to, wherever that may be, I'll be sure to thank him properly!

Oh, would that I could speak! This is truly wonderful! I'm dying at last! What's next, Lord? Show me to it, whatever it is, I'm eager to see!
If I still had use of my jaw, it'd drop open in a little "o."
Oh. God. Wow.
Death should last an eternity, it feels so good. Think, then, how beauteous the Next World will be!

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