“Heresy,” he told me. The brackish waters of his pool sloshed gently.
“Another one?” I said wearily. “There are so many these days.”
My Lord Commander was displeased by that comment. He shifted position heavily, sending ripples up and down the pool. One broke over the side, and a sheet of water slid across the tiles of the receiving chamber. My boots were soaked yet again. I accepted that philosophically. I had worn my worst boots, well aware that wet feet are among the inescapable consequences of paying a call on Torgathon Nine-Klariis Tûn, elder of the ka-Thane people, and also Archbishop of Vess, Most Holy Father of the Four Vows, Grand Inquisitor of the Order Militant of the Knights of Jesus Christ, and counselor to His Holiness, Pope Daryn XXI of New Rome.
“Be there as many heresies as stars in the sky, each single one is no less dangerous, Father,” the Archbishop said solemnly. “As Knights of Christ, it is our ordained task to fight them one and all. And I must add that this new heresy is particularly foul.”
“Yes, my Lord Commander,” I replied. “I did not intend to make light of it. You have my apologies. The mission to Finnegan was most taxing. I had hoped to ask you for a leave of absence from my duties. I need rest, a time for thought and restoration.”
“Rest?” The Archbishop moved again in his pool; only a slight shift of his immense bulk, but it was enough to send a fresh sheet of water across the floor. His black, pupilless eyes blinked at me. “No Father, I am afraid that is out of the question. Your skills and your experience are vital to this new mission.” His bass tones seemed then to soften somewhat. “I have not had time to go over your reports of Finnegan,” he said. “How did your work go?”
“Badly,” I told him, “though I think that ultimately we will prevail. The Church is strong on Finnegan. When our attempts at reconciliation were rebuffed, I put some standards into the right hands, and we were able to shut down the heretics’ newspaper and broadcast facilities. Our friends also saw to it that their legal actions came to nothing.”
“That is not badly,” the Archbishop said. “You won a considerable victory for the Lord.”
“There were riots, my Lord Commander,” I said. “More than a hundred of the heretics were killed, and a dozen of our own people. I fear there will be more violence before the matter is finished. Our priests are attacked if they so much as enter the city where the heresy has taken root. Their leaders risk their lives if they leave that city. I had hoped to avoid such hatreds, such bloodshed.”
“Commendable, but not realistic,” said Archbishop Torgathon. He blinked at me again, and I remembered that among people of his race that was a sign of impatience. “The blood of martyrs must sometime be spilled, and the blood of heretics as well. What matters it if a being surrenders his life, so long as his soul is saved?”
“Indeed,” I agreed. Despite his impatience, Torgathon would lecture me for another hour if given a chance. That prospect dismayed me. The receiving chamber was not designed for human comfort, and I did not wish to remain any longer than necessary. The walls were damp and moldy, the air hot and humid and thick with the rancid-butter smell characteristic of the ka-Thane. My collar was chafing my neck raw, I was sweating beneath my cassock, my feet were thoroughly soaked, and my stomach was beginning to churn. I pushed ahead to the business at hand. “You say this new heresy is unusually foul, my Lord Commander?”
“It is,” he said.
“Where has it started?”
“On Arion, a world some three weeks’ distance from Vess. A human world entirely. I cannot understand why you humans are so easily corrupted. Once a ka-Thane has found the faith, he would scarcely abandon it.”
“That is well known,” I said politely. I did not mention that the number of ka-Thane to find the faith was vanishingly small. They were a slow, ponderous people, and most of their vast millions showed no interest in learning any ways other than their own, nor in following any creed but their own ancient religion. Torgathon Nine-Klariis Tûn was an anomaly. He had been among the first converts almost two centuries ago, when Pope Vidas L had ruled that nonhumans might serve as clergy. Given his great lifespan and the iron certainty of his belief, it was no wonder that Torgathon had risen as far as he had, despite the fact that less than a thousand of his race had followed him into the Church. He had at least a century of life remaining to him. No doubt he would someday be Torgathon Cardinal Tûn, should he squelch enough heresies. The times are like that.
“We have little influence on Arion,” the Archbishop was saying. His arms moved as he spoke, four ponderous clubs of mottled green-gray flesh churning the water, and the dirty white cilia around his breathing hole trembled with each word. “A few priests, a few churches, and some believers, but no power to speak of. The heretics already outnumber us on this world. I rely on your intellect, your shrewdness. Turn this calamity into an opportunity. This heresy is so spurious that you can easily disprove it. Perhaps some of the deluded will turn to the true way.”
“Certainly,” I said. “And the nature of this heresy? What must I disprove?” It is a sad indication of my own troubled faith to add that I did not really care. I have dealt with too many heretics. Their beliefs and their questionings echo in my head and trouble my dreams at night. How can I be sure of my own faith? The very edict that had admitted Torgathon into the clergy had caused a half-dozen worlds to repudiate the Bishop of New Rome, and those who had followed that path would find a particularly ugly heresy in the massive naked (save for a damp Roman collar) alien who floated before me and wielded the authority of the Church in four great webbed hands. Christianity is the greatest single human religion, but that means little. The non-Christians outnumber us five-to-one, and there are well over seven hundred Christian sects, some almost as large as the One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds. Even Daryn XXI, powerful as he is, is only one of seven to claim the title of Pope. My own belief was once strong, but I have moved too long among heretics and nonbelievers. Now even my prayers do not make the doubts go away. So it was that I felt no horror—only a sudden intellectual interest—when the Archbishop told me the nature of the heresy on Arion.
“They have made a saint,” he said, “out of Judas Iscariot.”
As a senior in the Knights Inquisitor, I command my own starship, which it pleases me to call the Truth of Christ. Before the craft was assigned to me, it was named the Saint Thomas, after the apostle, but I did not consider a saint notorious for doubting to be an appropriate patron for a ship enlisted in the fight against heresy.
I have no duties aboard the Truth, which is crewed by six brothers and sisters of the Order of Saint Christopher the Far-Traveling, and captained by a young woman I hired away from a merchant trader. I was therefore able to devote the entire three-week voyage from Vess to Arion to a study of the heretical Bible, a copy of which had been given to me by the Archbishop’s administrative assistant. It was a thick, heavy, handsome book, bound in dark leather, its pages tipped with gold leaf, with many splendid interior illustrations in full color with holographic enhancement. Remarkable work, clearly done by someone who loved the all-but-forgotten art of bookmaking. The paintings reproduced inside—the originals, I gathered, were to be found on the walls of the House of Saint Judas on Arion—were masterful, if blasphemous, as much high art as the Tammerwens and RoHallidays that adorn the Great Cathedral of Saint John on New Rome.
Inside, the book bore an imprimatur indicating that it had been approved by Lukyan Judasson, First Scholar of the Order of Saint Judas Iscariot.
It was called The Way of Cross and Dragon.
I read it as the Truth of Christ slid between the stars, at first taking copious notes to better understand the heresy I must fight, but later simply absorbed by the strange, convoluted, grotesque story it told. The words of text had passion and power and poetry.
Thus it was that I first encountered the striking figure of Saint Judas Iscariot, a complex, ambitious, contradictory, and altogether extraordinary human being.
He was born of a whore in the fabled ancient city-state of Babylon on the same day that the savior was born in Bethlehem, and he spent his childhood in the alleys and gutters, selling his own body when he had to, pimping when he was older. As a youth he began to experiment with the dark arts, and before the age of twenty he was a skilled necromancer. That was when he became Judas the Dragon-Tamer, the first and only man to bend to his will the most fearsome of God’s creatures, the great winged fire-lizards of Old Earth. The book held a marvelous painting of Judas in some great dank cavern, his eyes aflame as he wields a glowing lash to keep a mountainous green-gold dragon at bay. Beneath his arm is a woven basket, its lid slightly ajar, and the tiny-scaled heads of three dragon chicks are peering from within. A fourth infant dragon is crawling up his sleeve. That was in the first chapter of his life.
In the second, he was Judas the Conqueror, Judas the Dragon-King, Judas of Babylon, the Great Usurper. Astride the greatest of his dragons, with an iron crown on his head and a sword in his hand, he made Babylon the capital of the greatest empire Old Earth had ever known, a realm that stretched from Spain to India. He reigned from a dragon throne amid the Hanging Gardens he had caused to be constructed, and it was there he sat when he tried Jesus of Nazareth, the troublemaking prophet who had been dragged before him bound and bleeding. Judas was not a patient man, and he made Christ bleed still more before he was through with Him. And when Jesus would not answer his questions, Judas contemptuously had Him cast back out into the streets. But first, he ordered his guards to cut off Christ’s legs. “Healer,” he said, “heal thyself.”
Then came the Repentance, the vision in the night, and Judas Iscariot gave up his crown, his dark arts, and his riches to follow the man he had crippled. Despised and taunted by those he had tyrannized, Judas became the Legs of the Lord, and for a year carried Jesus on his back to the far corners of the realm he once ruled. When Jesus did finally heal Himself, then Judas walked at His side, and from that time forth he was Jesus’ trusted friend and counselor, the first and foremost of the Twelve. Finally, Jesus gave Judas the gift of tongues, recalled and sanctified the dragons that Judas had sent away, and sent His disciple forth on a solitary ministry across the oceans, “to spread My Word where I cannot go.”
There came a day when the sun went dark at noon and the ground trembled, and Judas swung his dragon around on ponderous wings and flew back across the raging seas. But when he reached the city of Jerusalem, he found Christ dead on the cross.
In that moment his faith faltered, and for the next three days the Great Wrath of Judas was like a storm across the ancient world. His dragons razed the Temple in Jerusalem, drove the people forth from the city, and struck as well at the great seats of power in Rome and Babylon. And when he found the others of the Twelve and questioned them and learned of how the one named Simon-called-Peter had three times betrayed the Lord, he strangled Peter with his own hands and fed the corpse to his dragons. Then he sent those dragons forth to start fires throughout the world, funeral pyres for Jesus of Nazareth.
And Jesus rose on the third day, and Judas wept, but his tears could not turn Christ’s anger, for in his wrath he had betrayed all of Christ’s teachings.
So Jesus called back the dragons, and they came, and everywhere the fires went out. And from their bellies He called forth Peter and made him whole again, and gave him dominion over the Church.
Then the dragons died, and so too did all dragons everywhere, for they were the living sigil of the power and wisdom of Judas Iscariot, who had sinned greatly. And He took from Judas the gift of tongues and the power of healing He had given, and even his eyesight, for Judas had acted as a blind man (there was a fine painting of the blinded Judas weeping over the bodies of his dragons). And He told Judas that for long ages he would be remembered only as Betrayer, and people would curse his name, and all that he had been and done would be forgotten.
But then, because Judas had loved Him so, Christ gave him a boon: an extended life, during which he might travel and think on his sins and finally come to forgiveness. Only then might he die.
And that was the beginning of the last chapter in the life of Judas Iscariot. But it was a very long chapter indeed. Once dragon-king, once the friend of Christ, now he was only a blind traveler, outcast and friendless, wandering all the cold roads of the Earth, living still when all the cities and people and things he had known were dead. Peter, the first Pope and ever his enemy, spread far and wide the tale of how Judas had sold Christ for thirty pieces of silver, until Judas dared not even use his true name. For a time he called himself just Wandering Ju’, and afterward many other names. He lived more than a thousand years and became a preacher, a healer, and a lover of animals, and was hunted and persecuted when the Church that Peter had founded became bloated and corrupt. But he had a great deal of time, and at last he found wisdom and a sense of peace, and finally, Jesus came to him on a long-postponed deathbed and they were reconciled, and Judas wept once again. Before he died, Christ promised that he would permit a few to remember who and what Judas had been, and that with the passage of centuries the news would spread, until finally Peter’s Lie was displaced and forgotten.
Such was the life of Saint Judas Iscariot, as related in The Way of Cross and Dragon. His teachings were there as well, and the apocryphal books he had allegedly written.
When I had finished the volume, I lent it to Arla-k-Bau, the captain of the Truth of Christ. Arla was a gaunt, pragmatic woman of no particular faith, but I valued her opinion. The others of my crew, the good sisters and brothers of Saint Christopher, would only have echoed the Archbishop’s religious horror.
“Interesting,” Arla said when she returned the book to me.
I chuckled. “Is that all?”
She shrugged. “It makes a nice story. An easier read than your Bible, Damien, and more dramatic as well.”
“True,” I admitted. “But it’s absurd. An unbelievable tangle of doctrine, apocrypha, mythology, and superstition. Entertaining, yes, certainly. Imaginative, even daring. But ridiculous, don’t you think? How can you credit dragons? A legless Christ? Peter being pieced together after being devoured by four monsters?”
Arla’s grin was taunting. “Is that any sillier than water changing into wine, or Christ walking on the waves, or a man living in the belly of a fish?” Arla-k-Bau liked to jab at me. It had been a scandal when I selected a nonbeliever as my captain, but she was very good at her job, and I liked her around to keep me sharp. She had a good mind, Arla did, and I valued that more than blind obedience. Perhaps that was a sin in me.
“There is a difference,” I said.
“Is there?” she snapped back. Her eyes saw through any masks. “Ah, Damien, admit it. You rather liked this book.”
I cleared my throat. “It piqued my interest,” I acknowledged. I had to justify myself. “You know the kind of matter I deal with ordinarily. Dreary little doctrinal deviations; obscure quibblings on theology somehow blown all out of proportion; bald-faced political maneuverings designed to set some ambitious planetary bishop up as a new pope, or wrest some concession or other from New Rome or Vess. The war is endless, but the battles are dull and dirty. They exhaust me spiritually, emotionally, physically. Afterward I feel drained and guilty.” I tapped, the book’s leather cover. “This is different. The heresy must be crushed, of course, but I admit that I am anxious to meet this Lukyan Judasson.”
“The artwork is lovely as well,” Arla said, flipping through the pages of The Way of Cross and Dragon and stopping to study one especially striking plate—Judas weeping over his dragons, I think. I smiled to see that it had affected her as much as me. Then I frowned.
That was the first inkling I had of the difficulties ahead.
So it was that the Truth of Christ came to the porcelain City Ammadon on the world of Arion, where the Order of Saint Judas Iscariot kept its House.
Arion was a pleasant, gentle world, inhabited for these past three centuries. Its population was under nine million; Ammadon, the only real city, was home to two of those millions. The technological level was medium high, but chiefly imported. Arion had little industry and was not an innovative world, except perhaps artistically. The arts were quite important here, flourishing and vital. Religious freedom was a basic tenet of the society, but Arion was not a religious world either, and the majority of the populace lived devoutly secular lives. The most popular religion was Aestheticism, which hardly counts as a religion at all. There were also Taoists, Erikaners, Old True Christers, and Children of the Dreamer, plus adherents of a dozen lesser sects.
And finally there were nine churches of the One True Interstellar Catholic faith. There had been twelve. The other three were now houses of Arion’s fastest-growing faith, the Order of Saint Judas Iscariot, which also had a dozen newly-built churches of its own.
The Bishop of Arion was a dark, severe man with close-cropped black hair who was not at all happy to see me. “Damien Har Veris!” he exclaimed with some wonderment when I called on him at his residence. “We have heard of you, of course, but I never thought to meet or host you. Our numbers here are small.”
“And growing smaller,” I said, “a matter of some concern to my Lord Commander, Archbishop Torgathon. Apparently you are less troubled, Excellency, since you did not see fit to report the activities of this sect of Judas worshippers.”
He looked briefly angry at the rebuke, but quickly swallowed his temper. Even a bishop can fear a Knight Inquisitor. “We are concerned, of course,” he said. “We do all we can to combat the heresy. If you have advice that will help us, I will be glad to listen.”
“I am an Inquisitor of the Order Militant of the Knights of Jesus Christ,” I said bluntly. “I do not give advice, Excellency. I take action. To that end I was sent to Arion, and that is what I shall do. Now, tell me what you know about this heresy, and this First Scholar, this Lukyan Judasson.”
“Of course, Father Damien,” the Bishop began. He signaled for a servant to bring us a tray of wine and cheese, and began to summarize the short but explosive history of the Judas cult. I listened, polishing my nails on the crimson lapel of my jacket until the black paint gleamed brilliantly, interrupting from time to time with a question. Before he had half finished, I was determined to visit Lukyan personally. It seemed the best course of action.
And I had wanted to do so all along.
Appearances were important on Arion, I gathered, and I deemed it necessary to impress Lukyan with myself and my station. I wore my best boots—sleek, dark handmade boots of Roman leather that had never seen the inside of Torgathon’s receiving chamber—and a severe black suit with deep burgundy lapels and stiff collar. Around my neck was a splendid crucifix of pure gold; my collar pin was a matching golden sword, the sigil of the Knights Inquisitor. Brother Denis carefully painted my nails, all black as ebon, and darkened my eyes as well, and used a fine white powder on my face. When I glanced in the mirror, I frightened even myself. I smiled, but only briefly. It ruined the effect.
I walked to the House of Saint Judas Iscariot. The streets of Ammadon were wide and spacious and golden, lined by scarlet trees called whisperwinds, whose long, drooping tendrils did indeed seem to whisper secrets to the gentle breeze. Sister Judith came with me. She is a small woman, slight of build even in the cowled coveralls of the Order of Saint Christopher. Her face is meek and kind, her eyes wide and youthful and innocent. I find her useful. Four times now she has killed those who attempted to assault me.
The House itself was newly built. Rambling and stately, it rose from amid gardens of small bright flowers and seas of golden grass; the gardens were surrounded by a high wall. Murals covered both the outer wall around the property and the exterior of the building itself. I recognized a few of them from The Way of Cross and Dragon, and stopped briefly to admire them before walking through the main gate. No one tried to stop us. There were no guards, not even a receptionist. Within the walls, men and women strolled languidly through the flowers, or sat on benches beneath silverwoods and whisperwinds.
Sister Judith and I paused, then made our way directly to the House itself.
We had just started up the steps when a man appeared from within, and stood waiting in the doorway. He was blond and fat, with a great wiry beard that framed a slow smile, and he wore a flimsy robe that fell to his sandaled feet. On the robe were dragons, dragons bearing the silhouette of a man holding a cross.
When I reached the top of the steps, he bowed to me. “Father Damien Har Veris of the Knights Inquisitor,” he said. His smile widened. “I greet you in the name of Jesus, and in the name of Saint Judas. I am Lukyan.”
I made a note to myself to find out which of the Bishop’s staff was feeding information to the Judas cult, but my composure did not break. I have been a Knight Inquisitor for a long, long time. “Father Lukyan Mo,” I said, taking his hand. “I have questions to ask of you.” I did not smile.
He did. “I thought you might,” he said.
Lukyan’s office was large but spartan. Heretics often have a simplicity that the officers of the true Church seem to have lost. He did have one indulgence, however. Dominating the wall behind his desk console was the painting I had already fallen in love with: the blinded Judas weeping over his dragons.
Lukyan sat down heavily and motioned me to a second chair. We had left Sister Judith outside in the waiting chamber. “I prefer to stand, Father Lukyan,” I said, knowing it gave me an advantage.
“Just Lukyan,” he said. “Or Luke, if you prefer. We have little use for hierarchy here.”
“You are Father Lukyan Mo, born here on Arion, educated in the seminary on Cathaday, a former priest of the One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds,” I said. “I will address you as befits your station, Father. I expect you to reciprocate. Is that understood?”
“Oh, yes,” he said amiably.
“I am empowered to strip you of your right to perform the sacraments, to order you shunned and excommunicated for this heresy you have formulated. On certain worlds I could even order your death.”
“But not on Arion,” Lukyan said quickly. “We’re very tolerant here. Besides, we outnumber you.” He smiled. “As for the rest, well, I don’t perform those sacraments much anyway, you know. Not for years. I’m First Scholar now. A teacher, a thinker. I show others the way, help them find the faith. Excommunicate me if it will make you happy, Father Damien. Happiness is what all of us seek.”
“You have given up the faith, then, Father Lukyan,” I said. I deposited my copy of The Way of Cross and Dragon on his desk. “But I see you have found a new one.” Now I did smile, but it was all ice, all menace, all mockery. “A more ridiculous creed I have yet to encounter. I suppose you will tell me that you have spoken to God, that He trusted you with this new revelation, so that you might clear the good name, such that it is, of Holy Judas?”
Now Lukyan’s smile was very broad indeed. He picked up the book and beamed at me. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, I made it all up.”
That stopped me. “What?”
“I made it all up,” he repeated. He hefted the book fondly. “I drew on many sources, of course, especially the Bible, but I do think of Cross and Dragon as mostly my own work. It’s rather good, don’t you agree? Of course, I could hardly put my name on it, proud as I am of it, but I did include my imprimatur. Did you notice that? It was the closest I dared come to a byline.”
I was speechless only for a moment. Then I grimaced. “You startle me,” I admitted. “I expected to find an inventive madman, some poor self-deluded fool, firm in his belief that he had spoken to God. I’ve dealt with such fanatics before. Instead I find a cheerful cynic who has invented a religion for his own profit. I think I prefer the fanatics. You are beneath contempt, Father Lukyan. You will burn in hell for eternity.”
“I doubt it,” Lukyan said, “but you do mistake me, Father Damien. I am no cynic, nor do I profit from my dear Saint Judas. Truthfully, I lived more comfortably as a priest of your own Church. I do this because it is my vocation.”
I sat down. “You confuse me,” I said. “Explain.”
“Now I am going to tell you the truth,” he said. He said it in an odd way, almost as a chant. “I am a Liar,” he added.
“You want to confuse me with a child’s paradoxes,” I snapped.
“No, no.” He smiled. “A Liar. With a capital. It is an organization, Father Damien. A religion, you might call it. A great and powerful faith. And I am the smallest part of it.”
“I know of no such church,” I said.
“Oh, no, you wouldn’t. It’s secret. It has to be. You can understand that, can’t you? People don’t like being lied to.”
“I do not like being lied to,” I said.
Lukyan looked wounded. “I told you this would be the truth, didn’t I? When a Liar says that, you can believe him. How else could we trust each other?”
“There are many of you?” I asked. I was starting to think that Lukyan was a madman after all, as fanatical as any heretic, but in a more complex way. Here was a heresy within a heresy, but I recognized my duty: to find the truth of things, and set them right.
“Many of us,” Lukyan said, smiling. “You would be surprised, Father Damien, really you would. But there are some things I dare not tell you.”
“Tell me what you dare, then.”
“Happily,” said Lukyan Judasson. “We Liars, like those of all other religions, have several truths we take on faith. Faith is always required. There are some things that cannot be proven. We believe that life is worth living. That is an article of faith. The purpose of life is to live, to resist death, perhaps to defy entropy.”
“Go on,” I said, interested despite myself.
“We also believe that happiness is a good, something to be sought after.”
“The Church does not oppose happiness,” I said drily.
“I wonder,” Lukyan said. “But let us not quibble. Whatever the Church’s position on happiness, it does preach belief in an afterlife, in a supreme being and a complex moral code.”
“The Liars believe in no afterlife, no God. We see the universe as it is, Father Damien, and these naked truths are cruel ones. We who believe in life, and treasure it, will die. Afterward there will be nothing, eternal emptiness, blackness, nonexistence. In our living there has been no purpose, no poetry, no meaning. Nor do our deaths possess these qualities. When we are gone, the universe will not long remember us, and shortly it will be as if we had never lived at all. Our worlds and our universe will not long outlive us. Ultimately, entropy will consume all, and our puny efforts cannot stay that awful end. It will be gone. It has never been. It has never mattered. The universe itself is doomed, transient, uncaring.”
I slid back in my chair, and a shiver went through me as I listened to poor Lukyan’s dark words. I found myself fingering my crucifix. “A bleak philosophy,” I said, “as well as a false one. I have had that fearful vision myself. I think all of us do, at some point. But it is not so, Father. My faith sustains me against such nihilism. It is a shield against despair.”
“Oh, I know that, my friend, my Knight Inquisitor,” Lukyan said. “I’m glad to see you understand so well. You are almost one of us already.”
“You’ve touched the heart of it,” Lukyan continued. “The truths, the great truths—and most of the lesser ones as well—they are unbearable for most men. We find our shield in faith. Your faith, my faith, any faith. It doesn’t matter, so long as we believe, really and truly believe, in whatever lie we cling to.” He fingered the ragged edges of his great blond beard. “Our psychs have always told us that believers are the happy ones, you know. They may believe in Christ or Buddha or Erika Stormjones, in reincarnation or immortality or nature, in the power of love or the platform of a political faction, but it all comes to the same thing. They believe. They are happy. It is the ones who have seen truth who despair, and kill themselves. The truths are so vast, the faiths so little, so poorly made, so riddled with error and contradiction that we see around them and through them, and then we feel the weight of darkness upon us, and can no longer be happy.”
I am not a slow man. I knew, by then, where Lukyan Judasson was going. “Your Liars invent faiths.”
He smiled. “Of all sorts. Not only religious. Think of it. We know truth for the cruel instrument it is. Beauty is infinitely preferable to truth. We invent beauty. Faiths, political movements, high ideals, belief in love and fellowship. All of them are lies. We tell those lies, among others, endless others. We improve on history and myth and religion, make each more beautiful, better, easier to believe in. Our lies are not perfect, of course. The truths are too big. But perhaps someday we will find one great lie that all humanity can use. Until then, a thousand small lies will do.”
“I think I do not care for your Liars very much,” I said with a cold, even fervor. “My whole life has been a quest for truth.”
Lukyan was indulgent. “Father Damien Har Veris, Knight Inquisitor, I know you better than that. You are a Liar yourself. You do good work. You ship from world to world, and on each you destroy the foolish, the rebels, the questioners who would bring down the edifice of the vast lie that you serve.”
“If my lie is so admirable,” I said, “then why have you abandoned it?”
“A religion must fit its culture and society, work with them, not against them. If there is conflict, contradiction, then the lie breaks down, and the faith falters. Your Church is good for many worlds, Father, but not for Arion. Life is too kind here, and your faith is stern. Here we love beauty, and your faith offers too little. So we have improved it. We studied this world for a long time. We know its psychological profile. Saint Judas will thrive here. He offers drama, and color, and much beauty—the aesthetics are admirable. His is a tragedy with a happy ending, and Arion dotes on such stories. And the dragons are a nice touch. I think your own Church ought to find a way to work in dragons. They are marvelous creatures.”
“Mythical,” I said.
“Hardly,” he replied. “Look it up.” He grinned at me. “You see, really, it all comes back to faith. Can you really know what happened three thousand years ago? You have one Judas, I have another. Both of us have books. Is yours true? Can you really believe that? I have been admitted only to the first circle of the order of Liars, so I do not know all our secrets, but I know that we are very old. It would not surprise me to learn that the gospels were written by men very much like me. Perhaps there never was a Judas at all. Or a Jesus.”
“I have faith that that is not so,” I said.
“There are a hundred people in this building who have a deep and very real faith in Saint Judas, and the way of cross and dragon,” Lukyan said. “Faith is a very good thing. Do you know that the suicide rate on Arion has decreased by almost a third since the Order of Saint Judas was founded?”
I remember rising slowly from my chair. “You are as fanatical as any heretic I have ever met, Lukyan Judasson,” I told him. “I pity you the loss of your faith.”
Lukyan rose with me. “Pity yourself, Damien Har Veris,” he said. “I have found a new faith and a new cause, and I am a happy man. You, my dear friend, are tortured and miserable.”
“That is a lie!” I am afraid I screamed.
“Come with me,” Lukyan said. He touched a panel on his wall, and the great painting of Judas weeping over his dragons slid up out of sight. There was a stairway leading down into the ground. “Follow me,” he said.
In the cellar was a great glass vat full of pale green fluid, and in it a thing was floating, a thing very like an ancient embryo, aged and infantile at the same time, naked, with a huge head and a tiny atrophied body. Tubes ran from its arms and legs and genitals, connecting it to the machinery that kept it alive.
When Lukyan turned on the lights, it opened its eyes. They were large and dark and they looked into my soul.
“This is my colleague,” Lukyan said, patting the side of the vat, “Jon Azure Cross, a Liar of the fourth circle.”
“And a telepath,” I said with a sick certainty. I had led pogroms against other telepaths, children mostly, on other worlds. The Church teaches that the psionic powers are one of Satan’s traps. They are not mentioned in the Bible. I have never felt good about those killings.
“The moment you entered the compound, Jon read you and notified me,” Lukyan said. “Only a few of us know that he is here. He helps us lie most efficiently. He knows when faith is true, and when it is feigned. I have an implant in my skull. Jon can talk to me at all times. It was he who initially recruited me into the Liars. He knew my faith was hollow. He felt the depth of my despair.”
Then the thing in the tank spoke, its metallic voice coming from a speaker-grille in the base of the machine that nurtured it. “And I feel yours, Damien Har Veris, empty priest. Inquisitor, you have asked too many questions. You are sick at heart, and tired, and you do not believe. Join us, Damien. You have been a Liar for a long, long time!”
For a moment I hesitated, looking deep into myself, wondering what it was I did believe. I searched for my faith—the fire that had once sustained me, the certainty in the teachings of the Church, the presence of Christ within me. I found none of it, none. I was empty inside, burned out, full of questions and pain. But as I was about to answer Jon Azure Cross and the smiling Lukyan Judasson, I found something else, something I did believe in, had always believed in.
I believed in truth, even when it hurt.
“He is lost to us,” said the telepath with the mocking name of Cross. Lukyan’s smile faded. “Oh, really? I had hoped you would be one of us, Damien. You seemed ready.”
I was suddenly afraid, and I considered sprinting up the stairs to Sister Judith. Lukyan had told me so very much, and now I had rejected them.
The telepath felt my fear. “You cannot hurt us, Damien,” it said. “Go in peace. Lukyan has told you nothing.”
Lukyan was frowning. “I told him a good deal, Jon,” he said.
“Yes. But can he trust the words of such a Liar as you?” The small misshapen mouth of the thing in the vat twitched in a smile, and its great eyes closed, and Lukyan Judasson sighed and led me up the stairs.
It was not until some years later that I realized it was Jon Azure Cross who was lying, and the victim of his lie was Lukyan. I could hurt them. I did.
It was almost simple. The Bishop had friends in government and media. With some money in the right places, I made some friends of my own. Then I exposed Cross in his cellar, charging that he had used his psionic powers to tamper with the minds of Lukyan’s followers. My friends were receptive to the charges. The guardians conducted a raid, took the telepath Cross into custody, and later tried him.
He was innocent, of course. My charge was nonsense; human telepaths can read minds in close proximity, but seldom anything more. But they are rare, and much feared, and Cross was hideous enough so that it was easy to make him a victim of superstition. In the end, he was acquitted, but he left the city Ammadon and perhaps Arion itself, bound for regions unknown.
But it had never been my intention to convict him. The charge was enough. The cracks began to show in the lie that he and Lukyan had built together. Faith is hard to come by, and easy to lose. The merest doubt can begin to erode even the strongest foundation of belief.
The Bishop and I labored together to sow further doubts. It was not as easy as I might have thought. The Liars had done their work well. Ammadon, like most civilized cities, had a great pool of knowledge, a computer system that linked the schools and universities and libraries together, and made their combined wisdom available to any who needed it.
But when I checked, I soon discovered that the histories of Rome and Babylon had been subtly reshaped, and there were three listings for Judas Iscariot—one for the betrayer, one for the saint, and one for the conqueror-king of Babylon. His name was also mentioned in connection with the Hanging Gardens, and there is an entry for a so-called “Codex Judas.”
And according to the Ammadon library, dragons became extinct on Old Earth around the time of Christ.
We finally purged all those lies, wiped them from the memories of the computers, though we had to cite authorities on a half-dozen non-Christian worlds before the librarians and academics would credit that the differences were anything more than a question of religious preference. By then the Order of Saint Judas had withered in the glare of exposure. Lukyan Judasson had grown gaunt and angry, and at least half of his churches had closed.
The heresy never died completely, of course. There are always those who believe no matter what. And so to this day The Way of Cross and Dragon is read on Arion, in the porcelain city Ammadon, amid murmuring whisperwinds.
Arla-k-Bau and the Truth of Christ carried me back to Vess a year after my departure, and Archbishop Torgathon finally gave me the rest I had asked for, before sending me out to fight still other heresies. So I had my victory, and the Church continued on much as before, and the Order of Saint Judas Iscariot was crushed and diminished. The telepath Jon Azure Cross had been wrong, I thought then. He had sadly underestimated the power of a Knight Inquisitor.
Later, though, I remembered his words.
You cannot hurt us, Damien.
The Order of Saint Judas? Or the Liars?
He lied, I think, deliberately, knowing I would go forth and destroy the way of cross and dragon, knowing too that I could not touch the Liars, would not even dare mention them. How could I? Who would believe it? A grand star-spanning conspiracy as old as history? It reeks of paranoia, and I had no proof at all.
The telepath lied for Lukyan’s benefit, so that he would let me go. I am certain of that now. Cross risked much to snare me. Failing, he was willing to sacrifice Lukyan Judasson and his lie, pawns in some greater game.
So I left, and carried within me the knowledge that I was empty of faith but for a blind faith in truth, a truth I could no longer find in my Church. I grew certain of that in my year of rest, which I spent reading and studying on Vess and Cathaday and Celia’s World. Finally I returned to the Archbishop’s receiving room, and stood again before Torgathon Nine-Klariis Tûn in my very worst pair of boots. “My Lord Commander,” I said to him, “I can accept no further assignments. I ask that I be retired from active service.”
“For what cause?” Torgathon rumbled, splashing feebly.
“I have lost the faith,” I said to him, simply.
He regarded me for a long time, his pupilless eyes blinking. At last he said, “Your faith is a matter between you and your confessor. I care only about your results. You have done good work, Damien. You may not retire, and we will not allow you to resign.”
The truth will set us free.
But freedom is cold and empty and frightening, and lies can often be warm and beautiful.
Last year the Church finally granted me a new and better ship. I named this one Dragon.
© 1979 by George R. R. Martin.
Originally published in Omni.
Reprinted by permission of the author.