They cringed back as Sergei walked forward, singling out one of them, a girl with wide eyes and long, blood soaked hair. He touched the point of his bayonet to her cheek, and she turned her face away, quivering.
“Mir, malen’kaya devochka,” he purred in a cloying, gentling voice. “Ne boysya.”
Peace, little girl. Don’t be afraid.
She didn’t understand his words, but she knew the face of death, and averted her eyes, waiting for the bayonet point to go into her cheek, for bullet that would take off her head. She caught sight of Vikram watching her with a mild frown and scrambled away from Sergei. She crawled to Vikram’s feet, closing her fingers in the hem of his pant leg, choking sobs issuing from her as she tried to form the words, to beg him to spare her, to make it go away.
“Please,” she finally managed.
Vikram stood as the girl’s tears fell on to his boots, watching her as she struggled for some kind of composure, her eyes beseeching but her mouth unable to make a case for herself.
“Where is Miryam?” he asked, directing this question to the frightened huddle of brutalized humanity. “I’ll know soon if she’s out there among your dead. Or if she’s left you, now that you’re just useless mouths to her.”
They only gaped, either too broken to take in his words, or understanding him perfectly and realizing that they had been deserted and left vulnerable by their beloved prophet.
Vikram looked down at the girl, still bent at his feet. “What is your name?
“Rose,” she answered in a small voice, as though trying to confine her words to his hearing only.
“And do you love God?”
She nodded, a sweet, desperate little smile coming to her lips. Slowly, she released her grip on the fabric of his pant leg. Vikram almost hated to disabuse her, but he felt beholden. He owed her and these other people some explanation. They had not, in any real sense, offended or harmed him, had not damaged his interests. In another world, one where he had believed in the potential for human progress, this evening’s work would never have taken place, because the man he had been had dedicated his life to thwarting such operations.
“I want to tell you a story, Rose,” he said, wanting to calm her. She stared up at him in rapt attention, her evolutionary design making her respond to the threat with instinctive submissiveness. Hopeful of his acceptance, his protection.
“In 2035, the Foreign Service sent me to South America to aid the UN troops there against the Kaibil rebellion,” he began, his voice echoing dully over the broad, open floor. “The Kaibeles were kidnapping, trafficking the indigenous peoples there, and the UN needed a linguist.”
He paused, ensured he had her full attention. The space carried his voice to the others, and he could see their eyes, shining like new coins as they followed him.
“They brought me a little boy named Cristóbal,” he continued. “He had swum the Amazon to get away from the Kaibil camp. He understandably didn’t want to talk to the soldiers, but he remembered everything he’d heard about where the rebels intended to fly their prisoners, in order to sell them into domestic slavery.
“Because of what he told us, we intercepted the transport, captured or killed all of the rebels, and recovered the captives. I hoped to return Cristóbal to his family, but he told me that the Kaibeles had shot them, and thrown them in the village well. He and his two sisters were the only ones left. I arranged for them to get visas to the United States. A family in San Francisco adopted them. Happy ending, don’t you think?”
Rose gave a weak little smile, not entirely tuned to the abstract nature of his thought.
“Cristóbal would be about seventeen now,” Vikram told her, knowing the others were listening. “Starting college ahead of schedule. He was very quick. Now he’s gone. Now he’s less than dust. Nothing remains of his resourcefulness, or his will to survive. None of it could save him.”
Now she looked into him with wide eyes, full of a dawning understanding, the dread pulling at the corners of her mouth, and he knew that his rage was shining through the fractures in his brittle, tranquil aspect.
“And your mullahs,” he said softly. “Your rabbis. Your padres. Your reverend. Do you know what they would have to say to that?”
Her lip quivered as she waited on his judgement, her innocence, her gullibility and weakness sending a razor edged hatred through him. He looked up at the others, made sure they could see him, that they understood him completely.
“They’d call it God’s will,” he intoned, his voice thickening with unutterable loathing.
The girl dissolved into weeping. “My whole family is gone.”
“So is mine,” he reminded her. “This isn’t happening to you because you deserve it. It’s happening because you are unlucky. You put your faith in the wrong person.”
“But why… ” her round, terrified eyes travelled over to Sergei, who was now lounging on one of the pews, bloodied and bored.
“Listen to me, Rose,” Vikram said, now slipping off his tactical gloves and taking her face in his hands. She was a pretty girl, even under the grime and blood. He stroked his fingers over her cheeks, looked into her bright, honey-brown eyes. “Do you really want to live another day after this? Another moment?”
The girl’s shoulders sagged, and he could feel the strength going out of her. Her body relaxed with surrender, the fear and pain subsiding as she realized the sweet possibility of his mercy.
“Will it hurt?” she whispered.
“You won’t even know,” Vikram promised her. “Go to the others. Tell them…”
“Yes?” Her face was eager, as though by pleasing him she might escape the sentence he’d already pronounced on them all.
He smiled bitterly at her. “Tell them to pray.”
Once outside, Sergei got on the radio, then turned to Vikram. “The team is in place.”
“Will the ridge be far enough?”
Sergei glanced up, and nodded. Together in silence, they made their way up the track. From up here, the bodies of the slaughtered looked like dolls scattered by careless hands. Once they were outside the blast radius, Sergei sent a Morse code signal. Then he handed the radio to Vikram.
Vikram looked at the radio, then at the beautiful building half a kilometre away, truly a feat of engineering in times of dire scarcity. A feat of immense corruption and theft. A false sanctuary. A church of lies, treason and hate. He never should have allowed it to be constructed, but he hadn’t known. So much he’d failed to see.
He punched in the Morse signal and handed the radio back to Sergei. The explosion was silent for a moment, then a rumble like fireworks thundered through the air as the great gold fire billowed out of the collapsing, shattered structure. Glass would no doubt be flying everywhere, cutting up those who were not lucky enough to be blown apart or crushed by debris. He looked into the conflagration now burning furiously in the building’s shell, and wondered if sweet little Rose had gotten the quick death he’d promised her. He wondered if Cristóbal’s death had been quick, or if he had drowned pinned against the ceiling of his bedroom, the way he did in Vikram’s dreams.
Beside him, Sergei watched the last of the glass melt into slag, crystal blue eyes drinking the fire, reflecting it as though it burned inside him. Vikram looked at him for a long moment, this berserker warlord paying worship to his own dark, hungry god. As the last of the structure collapsed into the blazing inferno, Vikram felt the heaviness return to his heart, and wanted nothing more than silence and solitude.
He left Sergei to his vigil, and walked away in search of a vehicle to take him back to the barracks.