Under St. Peter’s by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove—who is often referred to as the “master of alternate history”—is the Hugo Award-winning author of more than 80 novels and 100 short stories. His most recent novels are The Man with the Iron Heart, After the Downfall, Give Me Back My Legions!, and Hitler’s War. In addition to his SF, fantasy, and alternate history works, he’s also published several straight historical novels under the name H. N. Turteltaub. Turtledove obtained a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA in 1977.

Turtledove says that part of the appeal of vampire fiction is that we humans like to think we’re at the top of the food chain. “But what if we’re not?” he said. “Vampire stories also often involve immortality—as this one does—and sex—which this one doesn’t—and both of those are abiding themes to which vampires give a different slant.”

This story takes place in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City—one of Christianity’s holiest sites—and tells the tale of the vampire living underneath it. It’s a difficult story to talk about without giving away the good parts. Let it suffice to say that it’s oh-so blasphemous. Say three Hail Marys and an Our Father after reading.

 

UNDER ST. PETER’S
by Harry Turtledove

Incense in the air, even down here behind the doors. Frankincense and myrrh, the scents he remembered from days gone by, days when he could face the sun. Somber Latin chants. He recognized them even now, though the chanters didn’t pronounce Latin the way the legionaries had back in those bright days.

And the hunger. Always the hunger.

Would he finally feed? It had been a long time, such a very long time. He could hardly remember the last time he’d had to wait so long.

He wouldn’t die of starvation. He couldn’t die of starvation. His laughter sent wild echoes chasing one another in his chamber. No, he couldn’t very well die, not when he was already dead. But he could wish himself extinguished. He could, and he did, every waking moment—and every moment, from now to forever or the sun’s next kiss, was a waking moment.

Much good wishing did him.

He waited, and he remembered. What else did he have to do? Nothing. They made sure of it. His memory since his death and resurrection was perfect. He could bring back any day, any instant, with absolute clarity, absolute accuracy.

Much good that did him, too.

He preferred recalling the days before, the days when he was only a man. (Was he ever only a man? He knew how many would say no. Maybe they were right, but he remembered himself as man and man alone. But his memories of those days blurred and shifted—as a man’s would—so he might have been wrong. Maybe he was something else, something different, right from the start.)

He’d packed a lot into thirty-odd years. Refugee, carpenter, reformer, rebel… convict. He could still hear the thud of the hammer that drove in the spikes. He could still hear his own screams as those spikes pierced him. He’d never thought, down deep in his heart, that it would come to that—which only just went to show how much he knew.

He’d never thought, down deep in his heart, that it would come to this, either. Which, again, just went to show how much he knew.

If he were everything people said he was, would he have let it come to this? He could examine that portion of his—not of his life, no, but of his existence, with the perfect recall so very distant from mortality. He could examine it, and he had, time and again. Try as he would, he couldn’t see anything he might have done differently.

And even if he did see something like that, it was much too late to matter now.

“Habemus papam!”

When you heard the Latin acclamation, when you knew it was for you… Was there any feeling to match that, any in all the world? People said a new Orthodox Patriarch once fell over dead with joy at learning he was chosen. That had never happened on this trunk of the tree that split in 1054, but seeing how it might wasn’t hard. A lifetime of hopes, of dreams, of work, of prayer, of patience… and then, at last, you had to try to fill the Fisherman’s sandals.

They will remember me forever, was the first thought that went through his mind. For a man who, by the nature of his office, had better not have children, it was the only kind of immortality he would ever get. A cardinal could run things behind the scenes for years, could be the greatest power in the oldest continually functioning institution in the world—and, five minutes after he was dead, even the scholars in the Curia would have trouble coming up with his name.

But once you heard “Habemus papam!”…

He would have to deal with Italians for the rest of his life. He would have to smell garlic for the rest of his life. Part of him had wanted to retire when his friend, his patron, passed at last: to go back north of the Alps, to rusticate.

That was only part of him, though. The rest… He had been running things behind the scenes for years. Getting his chance to come out and do it in the open, to be noted for it, to be noticed for it, was sweet. And his fellow cardinals hadn’t waited long before they chose him, either. What greater honor was there than the approval of your own? More than anyone else, they understood what this meant. Some of them wanted it, too. Most of them wanted it, no doubt, but most of the ones who did also understood they had no chance of gaining it.

Coming out of the shadows, becoming the public face of the Church, wasn’t easy for a man who’d spent so long in the background. But he’d shown what he could do when he was chosen to eulogize his predecessor. He wrote the farewell in his own tongue, then translated it into Italian. That wasn’t the churchly lingua franca Latin had been, but still, no one who wasn’t fluent in it could reasonably hope to occupy Peter’s seat.

If he spoke slowly, if he showed Italian wasn’t his native tongue—well, so what? It gave translators around the world the chance to stay up with him. And delivering the eulogy meant people around the world saw him and learned who he was. When the College of Cardinals convened to deliberate, that had to be in the back of some minds.

He wouldn’t have a reign to match the one that had gone before, not unless he lived well past the century mark. But Achilles said glory mattered more than length of days. And John XXIII showed you didn’t need a long reign to make your mark.

Vatican II cleared away centuries of deadwood from the Church. Even the Latin of the Mass went. Well, there was reason behind that. Who spoke Latin nowadays? This wasn’t the Roman Empire any more, even if cardinals’ vestments came straight out of Byzantine court regalia.

But change always spawned a cry for more change. Female priests? Married priests? Homosexuality? Contraception? Abortion? When? Ever? The world shouted for all those things. The world, though, was a weather vane, turning now this way, now that, changeable as the breeze. The Church was supposed to stand for what was right… whatever that turned out to be.

If changes come, they’ll come because of me. If they don’t, that will also be because of me, the new Holy Father thought. Which way more than a billion people go depends on me.

Why anyone would want a job like this made him scratch his head. That he wanted it himself, or that most of him did… was true, no matter how strange it seemed. So much to decide, to do. So little time.

A tavern in the late afternoon. They were all worried. Even the publican was worried; he hadn’t looked for such a big crowd so late in the day. They were all eating and drinking and talking. They showed no signs of getting up and leaving. If they kept hanging around, he would have to light the lamps, and olive oil wasn’t cheap.

But they kept digging their right hands into the bowl of chickpeas and mashed garlic he’d set out, and eating more bread, and calling for wine. One of them had already drunk himself into quite a state.

Looking back from down here, understanding why was easy. Hindsight was always easy. Foresight? They’d called it prophecy in those days. Had he had the gift? His human memory wasn’t sure. But then, his human memory wasn’t sure about a lot of things. That was what made trying to trace the different threads twisting through the fabric so eternally fascinating.

He wished he hadn’t used that word, even to himself. He kept hoping it wasn’t so. He’d been down here a long, long, long time, but not forever. He wouldn’t stay down here forever, either. He couldn’t.

Could he?

He was so hungry.

The tavern. He’d been looking back at the tavern again. He wasn’t hungry then. He’d eaten his fill, and he’d drunk plenty of wine, wine red as blood.

What did wine taste like? He remembered it was sweet, and he remembered it could mount to your head… almost the way any food did these days. But the taste? The taste, now, was a memory of a memory of a memory—and thus so blurred, it was no memory at all. He’d lost the taste of wine, just as he’d lost the tastes of bread and chickpeas. Garlic, though, garlic he still knew.

He remembered the sensation of chewing, of reducing the resistive mass in his mouth—whatever it tasted like—to something that easily went down the throat. He almost smiled, there in the darkness. He hadn’t needed to worry about that in a while.

Where was he? So easy to let your thoughts wander down here. What else did they have to do? Oh, yes. The tavern. The wine. The feel of the cup in his hands. The smell of the stuff wafting upwards, nearly as intoxicating as… But if his thoughts wandered there, they wouldn’t come back. He was so hungry.

The tavern, then. The wine. The cup. The last cup. He remembered saying, “And I tell you, I won’t drink from the fruit of the vine any more till that day when I drink it anew with you in my father’s kingdom.”

They’d nodded. He wasn’t sure how much attention they paid, or whether they even took him seriously. How long could anybody go without drinking wine? What would you use instead? Water? Milk? You were asking for a flux of the bowels if you did.

But he’d kept that promise. He’d kept it longer than he dreamt he would, longer than he dreamt he could. He was still keeping it now, after all these years.

Soon, though, soon, he would have something else to drink.

If you paid attention to the television, you would think he was the first Pope ever installed. His predecessor had had a long reign, so long that none of the reporters remembered the last succession. For them, it was as if nothing that came before this moment really happened. One innocent—an American, of course—even remarked, “The new Pope is named after a previous one.”

He was not a mirthful man, but he had to laugh at that. What did the fool think the Roman numeral after his name stood for? He wasn’t named after just one previous Pope. He was named after fifteen!

One of these days, he would have to try to figure out what to do about the United Sates. So many people there thought they could stay good Catholics while turning their backs on any teachings they didn’t happen to like. If they did that, how were they any different from Protestants? How could he tell them they couldn’t do that without turning them into Protestants? Well, he didn’t have to decide right away, Deo gratias.

So much had happened, this first day of his new reign. If this wasn’t enough to overwhelm a man, nothing ever would be. Pretty soon, he thought, he would get around to actually being Pope. Pretty soon, yes, but not quite yet.

As if to prove as much, a tubby little Italian—not even a priest but a deacon—came up to him and waited to be noticed. The new Pope had seen the fellow around for as long as he could remember. Actually, he didn’t really remember seeing him around—the deacon was about as nondescript as any man ever born. But the odor of strong, garlicky sausages always clung to him.

When it became obvious the man wouldn’t go away, the Pope sighed a small, discreet sigh. “What is it, Giuseppe?”

“Please to excuse me, Holy Father, but there’s one more thing each new Keeper of the Keys has to do,” the deacon said.

“Ah?” Now the Pope made a small, interested noise. “I thought I knew all the rituals.” He was, in fact, sure he knew all the rituals—or he had been sure, till this moment.

But Deacon Giuseppe shook his head. He seemed most certain, and most self-assured. “No, sir. Only the Popes know—the Popes and the men of the Order of the Pipistrelle.”

“The what?” The new Pope had also been sure he was acquainted with all the orders, religious and honorary and both commingled, in Vatican City.

“The Order of the Pipistrelle,” Giuseppe repeated patiently. “We are small, and we are quiet, but we are the oldest order in this place. We go… back to the very beginning of things, close enough.” Pride rang in his voice.

“Is that so?” The Pope carefully held his tone neutral. Any order with a foundation date the least bit uncertain claimed to be much older than anyone outside its ranks would have wanted to believe. Even so, he’d never heard of an order with pretensions like that. Back to the beginning of things? “I suppose you came here with Peter?”

“That’s right, your Holiness. We handled his baggage.” Deacon Giuseppe spoke altogether without irony. He either believed what he was saying or could have gone on the stage with his acting.

“Did my friend, my predecessor, do… whatever this is?” the Pope asked.

“Yes, sir, he did. And all the others before him. If you don’t do this, you aren’t really the Pope. You don’t really understand what being the Pope means.”

Freemasonry. We have a freemasonry of our own. Who would have thought that? Freemasonry, of course, wasn’t nearly so old as its members claimed, either. But that was—or might be—beside the point. “All right,” the Pope said. “This must be complete, whatever it is.”

Deacon Giuseppe raised his right hand in what wasn’t a formal salute but certainly suggested one. “Grazie, Holy Father. Mille grazie,” he said. “I knew you were a… thorough man.” He nodded, seeming pleased he’d found the right word. And it was the right word; the Pope also nodded, acknowledging its justice.

Deacon Giuseppe took his elbow and steered him down the long nave of St. Peter’s, away from the Papal altar and toward the main entrance. Past the haloed statue of St. Peter and the altar of St. Jerome they went, past the Chapel of the Sacrament and, on the Pope’s right, the tombs of Innocent VIII and Pius X.

Not far from the main entrance, a red porphyry disk was set into the floor, marking the spot where, in the Old St. Peter’s that preceded Bernini’s magnificent building, Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor. Now, to the Pope’s surprise, crimson silk draperies surrounded the disk, discreetly walling it off from view.

Another surprise: “I’ve never seen these draperies before.”

“They belong to the Order,” Deacon Giuseppe said, as if that explained everything. To him, it must have. But he had to see it didn’t explain everything to his companion, for he added, “We don’t use them very often. Will you step through with me?”

The Pope did. Once inside the blood-red billowing silk, he got surprised yet again. “I didn’t know that disk came up.”

“You weren’t supposed to, Holy Father,” Deacon Giuseppe said. “You’d think we’d do this over in the Sacred Grotto. It would make more sense, what with the Popes’ tombs there—even Peter’s, they say. Maybe it was like that years and years ago, but it hasn’t been for a long, long time. Here we do it, and here it’ll stay. Amen.” He crossed himself.

“There’s… a stairway going down,” the Pope said. How many more amazements did the Vatican hold?

“Yes. That’s where we’re going. You first, Holy Father,” Giuseppe said. “Be careful. It’s narrow, and there’s no bannister.”

Air. Fresh air. Even through doors closed and locked and warded against him, he sensed it. His nostrils twitched. He knew what fresh air meant, sure as a hungry dog knew a bell meant it was time to salivate. When he was a man, he’d lived out in the fresh air. He’d taken it for granted. He’d lived in it. And, much too soon, he’d died in it.

Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one. Jews killed even animals as mercifully as they could. When they had to kill men, the sword or the axe got it over with fast. The Romans wanted criminals to suffer, and be seen to suffer. They thought that resulted in fewer criminals. The number of men they crucified made the argument seem dubious, but they didn’t care.

As for the suffering… They were right about that. The pain was the worst thing he’d ever known. It unmanned him so that he cried out on the cross. Then he swooned, swooned so deeply the watching soldiers and people thought he was dead.

He dimly remembered them taking him down from the cross—pulling out the spikes that nailed him to it was a fresh torment. And one more followed it, for one of the Roman soldiers bit him then, hard enough to tear his flesh open but not hard enough, evidently, to force a sound past his dry throat and parched lips.

How the rest of the Romans laughed! That was the last purely human memory he had, of their mirth at their friend’s savagery. When he woke to memory again, he was… changed.

No. There was one thing more. They’d called the biter Dacicus. At the time, it didn’t mean anything to a man almost dead. But he never forgot it even though it was meaningless, so maybe—probably—the change in him had begun that soon. When he did think about it again, for a while he believed it was only a name.

Then he learned better. Dacicus meant the Dacian, the man from Dacia. Not one more human in ten thousand, these days, could tell you where Dacia lay—had lain. But its borders matched those of what they called Romania these days, or near enough. And people told stories about Romania… He had no way to know how many of those stories were true. Some, like sliding under doors, surely weren’t, or he would have. Considering what had happened to him, though, he had no reason to doubt others.

And now he smelled fresh air. Soon, very soon…

“How long has this been here?” the Pope asked. “I never dreamt anything like this lay under St. Peter’s!” The stone spiral stairway certainly seemed ancient. Deacon Giuseppe lit it, however, not with a flickering olive-oil lamp but with a large, powerful flashlight that he pulled from one of the large, deep pockets of his black vestments.

“Your Holiness, as far as I know, it’s been here since Peter’s day,” Giuseppe answered seriously. “I told you before: the Order of the Pipistrelle is in charge of what Peter brought in his baggage.”

“And that was?” the Pope asked, a trifle impatiently.

“I don’t want to talk about it now. You’ll see soon enough. But I’m a keeper of the keys, too.” Metal jingled as the deacon pulled a key ring from a pocket. The Pope stopped and looked back over his shoulder. Giuseppe obligingly shone the flashlight beam on the keys. They were as ordinary, as modern, as boring, as the flashlight itself. The Pope had hoped for massive, ancient ones, rusty or green with verdigris. No such luck.

At the bottom of the stairway, a short corridor led to a formidable steel door. The Pope’s slippers scuffed through the dust of ages. Motes he kicked up danced in the flashlight beam. “Who last came here?” he asked in a low voice.

“Why, your blessed predecessor, your Holiness,” Deacon Giuseppe replied. “Oh, and mine, of course.” He opened the door with the key, which worked smoothly. As he held it for the Pope, he went on, “This used to be wood—well, naturally. That’s what they had in the old days. They replaced it after the last war. Better safe than sorry, you know.”

“Safe from what? Sorry because of what?” As the Pope asked the questions, the door swung behind the deacon and him with what sounded like a most definitive and final click. A large and fancy crucifix was mounted on the inner surface. Another such door, seemingly identical, lay a short distance ahead.

“With Peter’s baggage, of course,” Giuseppe answered.

“Will you stop playing games with me?” The Pope was a proud and touchy man.

“I’m not!” The deacon crossed himself again. “Before God, your Holiness, I’m not!” He seemed at least as touchy, and at least as proud, as the Pope himself. And then, out of the same pocket from which he’d taken the flashlight, he produced a long, phallic chunk of sausage and bit off a good-sized chunk. The odors of pepper and garlic assailed the Pope’s nostrils.

And the incongruity assailed his strong sense of fitness even more. He knocked the sausage out of Giuseppe’s hand and into the dust. “Stop that!” he cried.

To his amazement, the Italian picked up the sausage, brushed off most of whatever clung to it, and went on eating. The Pope’s gorge rose. “Meaning no disrespect, Holy Father,” Giuseppe mumbled with his mouth full, “but I need this. It’s part of the ritual. God will strike me dead if I lie.”

Not, May God strike me dead if I lie. The deacon said, God will strike me dead. The Pope, relentlessly precise, noted the distinction. He pointed to the door ahead. “What is on the other side of that?” he asked, a sudden and startling quaver in his voice.

“An empty chamber,” Deacon Giuseppe replied.

“And beyond that? Something, I hope.”

“Think on the Last Supper, Holy Father,” the deacon answered, which didn’t help.

He thought of his last supper, which didn’t help. Not now, not with his raging hunger. It was too long ago. They were out there. He could hear them out there, talking in that language that wasn’t Latin but sounded a little like it. He could see the dancing light under the door. Any light at all stung his eyes, but he didn’t mind. And he could smell them. Man’s flesh was the most delicious odor in the world, but when he smelled it up close it was always mingled with the other smell, the hateful smell.

His keepers knew their business, all right. Even without garlic, the cross on the farthest door would have held him captive here—had held him captive here. He’d tasted the irony of that, times uncounted.

“This is my blood,” he’d said. “This is my flesh.” Irony there, too. Oh, yes. Now—soon—he hoped to taste something sweeter than irony.

Where would he have been without Dacicus? Not here—he was sure of that, anyhow. He supposed his body would have stayed in the tomb where they laid it, and his spirit would have soared up to the heavens where it belonged. Did he even have a spirit any more? Or was he all body, all hunger, all appetite? He didn’t know. He didn’t much care, either. It had been too long.

Dacicus must have been new when he bit him, new or stubborn in believing he remained a man. After being bitten, rolling away the stone was easy. Going about with his friends was easy, too—for a little while. But then the sun began to pain him, and then the hunger began. Taking refuge in the daytime began to feel natural. So did slaking the hunger… when he could.

Soon now. Soon!

“Why the Last Supper?” the Pope demanded.

“Because we reenact it—in a manner of speaking—down here,” Deacon Giu-seppe replied. “This is the mystery of the Order of the Pipistrelle. Even the Orthodox, even the Copts, would be jealous if they knew. They have relics of the Son. We have… the Son.”

The Pope stared at him. “Our Lord’s body lies here?” he whispered hoarsely. “His body? He was not taken up as we preach? He was—a man?” Was that the mystery at—or rather, here below—the heart of the Church? The mystery being that there was no mystery, that since the days of the Roman Empire prelates had lived a lie?

His stern faith stumbled. No, his friend, his predecessor, would never have told him about this. It would have been too cruel.

But the little round sausage-munching deacon shook his head. “It’s not so simple, your Holiness. I’ll show you.”

He had another key on the ring. He used it to unlock the last door, and he shone the flashlight into the chamber beyond.

Light! A spear of light! It stabbed into his eyes, stabbed straight through his eyes and into his brain! How long had he gone without? As long as he’d gone without food. But sustenance he cherished, he craved, he yearned for. Light was the pain that accompanied it, the pain he couldn’t avoid or evade.

He got used to it, moment by agonizing moment. So long here in the silent dark, he had to remember how to see. Yes, there was the black-robed one, the untouchable, inedible one, the stinker, who carried his light-thrower like a sword. What had happened to torches and oil lamps? Like the last several of his predecessors, this black-robe had one of these unnatural things instead.

Well, I am an unnatural thing myself these days, he thought, and his lips skinned back from his teeth in a smile both wryly amused and hungry, so very hungry.

Now the Pope crossed himself, violently. “Who is this?” he gasped. “What… is this?”

But even as he gasped, he found himself fearing he knew the answer. The short, scrawny young man impaled on the flashlight beam looked alarmingly like so many Byzantine images of the Second Person of the Trinity: shaggy dark brown hair and beard, long oval face, long nose. The wounds to his hands and feet, and the one in his side, looked fresh, even if they were bloodless. And there was another wound, a small one, on his neck. None of the art showed that one; none of the texts spoke of it. Seeing it made the Pope think of films he’d watched as a boy. And when he did…

His hand shaped the sign of the cross once more. It had no effect on the young-looking man who stood there blinking. He hadn’t thought it would, not really. “No!” he said. “It cannot be! It must not be!”

He noticed one thing more. Even when Deacon Giuseppe shone the flashlight full in the young-looking man’s face, the pupils did not contract. Did not… Could not? With each passing second, it seemed more likely.

Deacon Giuseppe’s somber nod told him it wasn’t just likely—it was true. “Well, Holy Father, now you know,” said the Deacon from the Order of the Pipistrelle. “Behold the Son of Man. Behold the Resurrection. Behold the greatest secret of the Church.”

“But… why? How?” Not even the Pope, as organized and coherent as any man now living, could speak clearly in the presence of—that.

“Once—that—happened to him, he couldn’t stand the sun after a while.” Deacon Giuseppe told the tale as if it had been told many times before. And so, no doubt, it had. “When Peter came to Rome, he came, too, in the saint’s baggage—under the sign of the cross, of course, to make sure nothing… untoward happened. He’s been here ever since. We keep him. We take care of him.”

“Great God!” The Pope tried to make sense of his whirling thoughts. “No wonder you told me to think of the Last Supper.” He forced some iron into his spine. A long-dead Feldwebel who’d drilled him during the last round of global madness would have been proud of how well his lessons stuck. “All right. I’ve seen him. God help me, I have. Take me up to the light again.”

“Not quite yet, your Holiness,” the deacon replied. “We finish the ritual first.”

“Eh?”

“We finish the ritual,” Deacon Giuseppe repeated with sad patience. “Seeing him does not suffice. It is his first supper in a very long time, your predecessor being so young when he was chosen. Remember the text: your blood is his wine, your flesh his bread.”

He said something else, in a language that wasn’t Italian. The Pope, a formidable scholar, recognized it as Aramaic. He even understood it: “Supper’s ready!”

The last meal had been juicier. That was his first thought. But he wasn’t complaining, not after so long. He drank and drank: his own communion with the world of the living. He would have drunk the life right out of him if not for the black-robed one.

“Be careful!” that one urged, still speaking the only language he really knew well. “Remember what happened time before last!”

He remembered. He’d got greedy. He’d drunk too much. The man died not long after coming down here to meet him. Then he’d fed again—twice in such a little while! They didn’t let him do anything like that the next time, however much he wanted to. And that one lasted and lasted—lasted so long, he began to fear he’d made the man into one like himself.

He hadn’t done that very often. He wondered whether Dacicus intended to do that with him—to him. He never had the chance to ask. Did Dacicus still wander the world, not alive any more but still quick? One of these centuries, if Dacicus did, they might meet again. You never could tell.

When he didn’t let go fast enough, the black-robed one breathed full in his face. That horrible, poisonous stink made him back away in a hurry.

He hadn’t got enough. It could never be enough, not if he drank the world dry. But it was ever so much better than nothing. Before he fed, he was empty. He couldn’t end, barring stake, sunlight, or perhaps a surfeit of garlic, but he could wish he would. He could—and he had.

No more. Fresh vitality flowed through him. He wasn’t happy—he didn’t think he could be happy—but he felt as lively as a dead thing could.

“My God!” the new Pope said, not in Aramaic, not in Latin, not even in Italian. His hand went to the wound on his neck. The bleeding had already stopped. He shuddered. He didn’t know what he’d expected when Deacon Giuseppe took him down below St. Peter’s, but not this. Never this.

“Are you all right, your Holiness?” Real concern rode the deacon’s voice.

“I—think so.” And the Pope had to think about it before he answered, too.

“Good.” Deacon Giuseppe held out a hand. Automatically, the Pope clasped it, and, in so doing, felt how cold his own flesh had gone. The round little nondescript Italian went on, “Can’t let him have too much. We did that not so long ago, and it didn’t work out well.”

The new Pope understood him altogether too well. Then he touched the wound again, a fresh horror filling him. Yes, he remembered the films too well. “Am I going to turn into… one of those?” He pointed toward the central figure of his faith, who was licking blood off his lips with a tongue that seemed longer and more prehensile than a mere man’s had any business being.

“We don’t think so,” Giuseppe said matter-of-factly. “Just to be sure, though, the papal undertaker drives a thin ash spike through the heart after each passing. We don’t talk about that to the press. One of the traditions of the Order of the Pipistrelle is that when the sixth ecumenical council anathematized Pope Honorius, back thirteen hundred years ago, it wasn’t for his doctrine, but because….”

“Is… Honorius out there, too? Or under here somewhere?”

“No. He was dealt with a long time ago.” Deacon Giuseppe made pounding motions.

“I see.” The Pope wondered if he could talk to… talk to the Son of God. Or the son of someone, anyhow. Did he have Aramaic enough for that? Or possibly Hebrew? How the Rabbi of Rome would laugh—or cry—if he knew! “Does every Pope do this? Endure this?”

“Every single one,” Giuseppe said proudly. “What better way to connect to the beginning of things? Here is the beginning of things. He was risen, you know, Holy Father. How much does why really matter?”

For a lot of the world, why would matter enormously. The Muslims… The Protestants… The Orthodox… His head began to hurt, although the wound didn’t. Maybe talking with… him wasn’t such a good idea after all. How much do I really want to know?

“When we go back up, I have a lot of praying to do,” the Pope said. Would all the prayer in the world free him from the feel of teeth in his throat? And what could he tell his confessor? The truth? The priest would think he’d gone mad—or, worse, wouldn’t think so and would start the scandal. A lie? But wasn’t inadequate confession of sin a sin in and of itself? The headache got worse.

Deacon Giuseppe might have read his thoughts. “You have a dispensation against speaking of this, your Holiness. It dates from the fourth century, and it may be the oldest document in the Vatican Library. It’s not like the Donation of Constantine, either—there’s no doubt it’s genuine.”

“Deo gratias!” the Pope said again.

“Shall we go, then?” the deacon asked.

“One moment.” The Pope flogged his memory and found enough Aramaic for the question he had to ask: “Are you the Son of God?”

The sharp-toothed mouth twisted in a—reminiscent?—smile. “You say it,” came the reply.

Well, he told Pilate the same thing, even if the question was a bit different, the Pope thought as he left the little chamber and Deacon Giuseppe meticulously closed and locked doors behind them. And, when the Pope was on the stairs going back up to the warmth and blessed light of St. Peter’s, one more question occurred to him. How many Popes had heard that same answer?

How many of them had asked that same question? He’d heard it in Aramaic, in Greek, in Latin, and in the language Latin had turned into. He always said the same thing, and he always said it in Aramaic.

“You say it,” he murmured to himself, there alone in the comfortable darkness again. Was he really? How could he know? But if they thought he was, then he was—for them. Wasn’t that the only thing that counted?

That Roman had washed his hands of finding absolute truth. He was a brute, but not a stupid brute.

And this new one was old, and likely wouldn’t last long. Pretty soon, he would feed again. And if he had to try to answer that question one more time afterwards… then he did, that was all.

[End]