Eyes for the Inquisitor’s Children
by Jedd Cole
part 1 of 2
“Thus I end the recitation,” said the Inquisitor. “Your guilt is irredeemable. Rest now with your body. You may see me again, when the suns fade.”
The human man’s body made an imprint in the snow. The wind blew more flakes of it over the wound, covering the blood before it could spread out upon the ground. The Inquisitor looked up from the body towards the sun, a circle of greenish light behind the blizzard sky.
He returned to the city behind the hill, following the footsteps he and the human had carved into snow. The Inquisitor was close, very close to the end. With the father dead, only the son remained.
* * *
Hassan fingered a hangskin on his right thumb and imagined stealing the boy away from Ibrahim. It could work. And yet...
The port was quiet. Crews shut the doors yesterday against the blizzard just after he and Ibrahim had arrived here with the trade flotilla. Oslo II wasn’t exactly a bustling trade world, but it had enough distractions in its only town to empty the only port when the weather got bad. Hassan liked the quiet, though.
Ibrahim’s old schooner rested wearily on its metal feet beside the other fourteen ships that were grounded until the weather cleared.
He held his thumb upside down in front of his eye, the shape of it eclipsing the schooner. He had always done this, even as a boy back in old Los Angeles years ago, running with his sister along the piers at Alcatraz Star Port, watching the great colony ships come and go with fires and winds and blinking lights.
Hassan would bring his model schooner to the outer platform and hold it up close to his eye to make it look as big as the real ships around him, weaving it through imaginary asteroid fields and dodging explosions framed by his little-boy fingers.
He lowered his hand, began messing with the hangskin again without thinking. There was a scratch in the schooner’s paint, cutting through her name: El Jerez.
Small footsteps echoed in the big empty port hangar. It was little Yusuf. “Hassan! Hassan!”
Yusuf was breathless, his pudgy stomach sagging out from under his tight brown shirt.
“What’s going on?” said Hassan.
“I can’t find Baba.”
Hassan sighed. “This is a big place, Yusuf. I’m sure he just went on an errand or something.”
After eight years working for the man, Hassan was pretty familiar with Ibrahim’s way. He was probably in one of Oslo’s brothels, but he didn’t say that to the boy.
Yusuf coughed. “But he said he would be in the bar. He said to come back there when I was done at the grocer’s.”
Hassan’s jaw tightened. He recognized Yusuf’s anxiety. It was the kind that felt less afraid of losing Ibrahim than it was afraid of having forgotten some direction, some command. It was fear of the fist and the palm. Ibrahim had beaten the boy for lesser things.
“Well,” Hassan said, “what happened to the groceries?”
Yusuf pointed behind him at nothing. “By the door,” he said. “The guard man wouldn’t let me in port with them.”
“Sounds like you just got conned,” said Hassan. He frowned, looking the boy over. “He let you in okay?”
Yusuf nodded, still trying to catch his breath. The boy was in bad need of some exercise. Even though he was still only ten, it was doubtful he would thin out of the bulk he had accumulated.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” said Hassan, putting his hand on the boy’s black hair. Yusuf had a warm head. “It’s probably nothing,” he said. “Let’s go back to the bar and ask around.”
Yusuf ran ahead and Hassan followed with long strides. It was at such moments that he thought about family. The boy was not of Hassan’s blood, but he wished he were.
Hassan himself was little more than a long-term guest of Ibrahim’s, a hired pilot. But to little Yusuf, he was Am Hassan, an uncle. He often imagined the boy as his own. He would be a better father, letting him run on the pier with his model schooner and his newfound sister.
Sister. She belonged to Hassan. There was no doubt about that. The tests had shown. Anyway, Hassan had not seen her since she was an infant and probably never would again.
No, Yusuf was Ibrahim’s son. Hassan’s daughter was all but forgotten.
* * *
The bar was overly full. Loud. The port closing had stranded too many people here. Every brothel downtown had a waiting list. Hassan observed some people, men mostly, but some women, fingering number cards with neon edges just like in the big cities on worlds like Provençal and Alexandretta. The lights would blink when the number was up: 326 — 357 — 399 — 1 — 2 — 3.
Hassan recognized the music, fresh from New Tunisia, but already a decade old by the time shippers got way out here. Music as old as Yusuf.
Ibrahim wasn’t here.
They walked up to the counter.
“Barkeep,” he called. The robot swiveled and glided in his direction. Some of the barkeep’s synthetic flesh had worn off of its skeleton over time and the bits that had not were dingy with oil and dirt or corroded by a thousand splashes of whiskey, wine, gin, and beer. Its optics glowed blue in radiating lines, just like a human’s iris.
“Yes,” it said, its voice in bad need of modulation.
“I’m looking for an Ibrahim Al-Rashid,” said Hassan.
“That’s nice,” said the barkeep. “Can I get you something?”
Glancing over at Yusuf, Hassan grabbed the boy’s shoulder and dragged him away from a prostitute who looked like she was running on hard times and needed another facelift. Yusuf looked a little confused, or perhaps disappointed. Hassan kept his hand on the back of the boy’s neck.
The barkeep was about to move off.
“Hey,” said Hassan, “can you tell me if he made a purchase or anything?”
The barkeep’s eyes shifted, seesawing up and down as they scanned invisible data entries and recordings and transactions. “Yes,” it said. “Customer 1963, Ibrahim Al-Rashid, purchased three Vonneguts at table 212 earlier this evening.
“At 19:07 local time stamp, the pusher broke up an emotional dispute-slash-fistfight between Customer 1963 and the Inquisitor. Customer 1963 left the premises accompanied by the pusher.”
“Inquisitor?” said Hassan. “Is that some local thing?”
“Okay. Well, is this Inquisitor still around?”
The barkeep swiveled around. Men hung over the bar’s edge watching it impatiently, dozily, cradling themselves and their glasses. A woman with purple hair stood on the opposite side of the oblong bar, casting glances their way with puckered lips and dark red synthetic arms adorned with mock henna designs: dots and flowers and suns. Another woman — perhaps a man, an authentic human in any case — approached her with cash card in hand.
Hassan looked down and said, “Don’t ever hang around these kinds of places long, Yusuf. They’ll mess you up.” He felt his chest swell when he said it. The boy didn’t respond, just looked around him with a new sense of suspicion.
The barkeep finally returned, shaking up a martini between its hands with precise movements. “Please repeat query,” it said with all the wrong intonation.
“Where’s the Inquisitor?” He watched the eyes seesaw again.
“The Inquisitor is seated at table 344,” it said. It pointed a sticky finger toward one of the corners, and then swiveled away.
Yusuf looked up, clearly bored and munching on olives.
“Where’d you get those?” said Hassan.
Yusuf shrugged, chewed.
“You shouldn’t eat so much. You’re stress-eating.”
Yusuf blinked. “Okay.”
“Stay here,” said Hassan. “I’ll be right back.”
* * *
The Inquisitor was bathing in the noise of chaos, his eyes open and yet unseeing under the hard, smooth skin of his face mask. In his hands he held the writ, though he had no need to read from its tiny pages and faded script; its sacred words had long since been committed to his mind:
And you shall tread upon their pasts and they will see you for who you truly are or they shall not. They who forsake the doctrine of the fading suns and the power of your coming hand shall feel the sword. The annals shall lay open their pasts; the writ of the gods, their hearts.
“I am the sword,” he said.
“Excuse me,” came a voice from above him.
The Inquisitor opened his eyes. A human man stood before him: tall, black-skinned, of middling age.
The Inquisitor kept silent.
The man squinted through hovering cigarette smoke and sat down in the chair opposite, leaned over on the table. “The barkeep says you got in a... well, it said you might know where I can find Ibrahim Al-Rashid.”
The Inquisitor remained silent. The name of the fallen one in the snow. This man must be the pilot, the one that clung to the son, Yusuf. He knew this, but now that they were face to face, the Inquisitor felt there was something else to this man, something he recognized. The annals would reveal it.
Abruptly, the Inquisitor closed the writ in his lap and stood to leave.
“Hey,” the man said.
The Inquisitor moved smoothly through the crowd of drunkards and other sinners. They mattered not to him. The high priests had sent word almost a month ago — thus many years ago — that the Altar had passed over this galaxy after all.
But he was the last of the Inquisitors, and he couldn’t return quite yet. Without another Inquisitor to give him his recitation, his own sin was also irredeemable. Unless this pilot...
The annals would reveal it.
He looked to the side as he reached the door. The man still sat at the table in the corner, watching, and then the Inquisitor walked out into the snow.
* * *
Hassan came back to Yusuf, who now perceived every moving and unmoving figure in the bar as some insidious threat.
“Who was that guy?” Yusuf said.
“I don’t know. Alien.”
“Wow, an alien? I’ve never seen an alien before.”
“Me neither. You okay?” Hassan put his hand on the boy’s head.
Yusuf nodded. “I’m tired.”
“Yeah, it’s getting late. Look, I have a bad feeling about this guy. Let’s get you in bed and then I’ll look for Baba. You hungry?”
Yusuf nodded again.
They went again to the grocer’s and got a few things. When they returned to the port entrance, the guard was nowhere to be found. He and Yusuf shared a couple protein bars for dinner in the mess room of the El Jerez.
“Am Hassan,” Yusuf said when they were done.
“I like it when it’s just you and me.”
Hassan nodded, looking down at his hands. He put Yusuf to bed in the tiny bunkroom and knelt down beside him in the dark. It always felt odd not to hear the hum of the engines vibrating through the walls.
“Can you tell me one of your stories, Am Hassan?” The voice came out small.
“Sure,” said Hassan. He paused a moment to think. “Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a boy who lived on Earth. Do you remember where Earth is?”
“Yes. It’s really far away.”
“That’s right. Now, this boy wanted to be a pilot. He would go out to Alcatraz Star Port and play with his toy schooner on the platforms and watch the big colony ships take off and land. There were a lot of them.”
“I was born on a colony ship,” Yusuf said.
“That’s right. So — many years later — he finished his first freight contract. It brought him to the carnival world.”
“That’s right. Now, you’re supposed to fall asleep in the middle of this, remember?”
Yusuf chuckled. A beautiful sound.
Hassan continued: “Granada’s a huge colony. There are lights everywhere, and stores and shops with all sorts of stuff. Now, this boy just got his first paycheck, so what do you think he wanted to do?”
“Exactly. The city was nice, but he was itching to get back into space. A boy could become a man, you see, flying through space, exploring and fighting and making money.”
He heard a rattling sound up above in the vents. Soft. It faded away.
“Why’d you stop?” said Yusuf.
Hassan shook his head. “Uh, sorry. So then, something amazing happened. He met the most beautiful woman in the whole galaxy.”
Yusuf groaned. “Aw man, not a love story.”
Hassan smiled, but felt it sag in the dark. “Life’s a love story, Yusuf,” he said. “This woman’s name was Arielle, and she was a performer in one of those circuses. She could fly through the air with nothing but ropes and the strength of her arms and legs.”
“Did she have wings?”
“No, but she may as well have. She was beautiful. And mysterious, too. The boy couldn’t get over her. They would go to these big bridges that went over the whole city, and Arielle would show him how to jump off the edge and swing underneath. It was like flying. I didn’t want to leave, and we got married because that’s what Arielle wanted. And I, uh...the boy, I mean...”
He stopped and listened. Yusuf’s breathing had assumed a soft rhythm, moving up and down. The silence of it made Hassan’s face clench up, the bottoms of his eyes wet. His voice became little more than a whisper.
“And we had the most beautiful daughter in the galaxy. Pleiade — that’s what we called her. She clipped her mother’s wings I guess, and Arielle hated me for it and I learned to hate her back. That’s when your father hired me and you were just a couple years old and...”
He put his hand up and rested his fingers against the boy’s sleeve.
“You never knew your mother because she was so poor she had to sell herself. What’s my excuse? I sold myself to get away from my daughter. My own daughter. Hassan, you idiot.”
He became transfixed by the rise and fall of Yusuf’s chest. He pictured Yusuf playing on the piers at Alcatraz with a toy schooner, marveling at the world. He saw Pleiade in his own arms, just born and at peace. Arielle looked on from far away, a simple smile on her face.
A sigh came out of him. Ibrahim was missing. Yusuf was Ibrahim’s son. Hassan left, though — not for the first time — he let himself nurse the thought of taking the boy and never looking back.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Jedd Cole