The Hand of God: Ouroboros (part 3 of 3)

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The Hand of God barely escaped in New York. Anderson had become a better hunter over the years; eventually, he’d become just a little too good at what he did.

I warned Perrine of this when I met him on the sidewalk, outside the Chelsea Hotel: he presented me almost shyly with a beautifully wrapped gift of fresh kidneys: “for old time’s sake,” he told me, smiling slightly in that shadowy way he has, and then he turned, concealing himself in his long, black coat, and vanished like a ghost. I went up to Zabar’s then, and bought some fresh herbs for a salad to accompany them: a fitting birthday present, I thought, for Anderson: it would also give me an excuse to delay his meanderings for an hour or two and give Perrine time to round up his crew and get away clean. Considering that there are lambs at every slaughter, I didn’t even really have to lie to Anderson about exactly what was in his breakfast.

Sometimes, I worried that Anderson might someday get to eat real lamb kidneys, at which point the game would be up… but they’re rare enough that I didn’t think about that too much. A person sees what he wants to see, after all, and this was something to which Anderson, with his singular perspective and forced determination, would be forever blind.

During breakfast, the call came in about the crime scene at the Chelsea Hotel, so once he’d finished his kidneys (“The aroma is magnificent!” he said) we left the police barracks and headed over there, driven by a brash, young officer named Spivey, who spent the entire trip playing a game of one-upmanship with Anderson. The latter simply leaned back in his seat, said, “yeah” and “wow” at all the right moments, and effectively ignored the young man’s posturing: I could see his mind focusing into a narrow beam, preparing itself to analyze the crime scene which awaited us.

As is our custom, I waited outside on the sidewalk while he went inside to perform his serious and oh-so-important work. I knew he would be some time in there; I walked around for a few blocks to relieve the tedium. A vagrant in an alleyway breathed his last: one prick of a hidden needle and the powerful neurotoxin quickly overwhelmed his system. “Ahhhhhh…” came the final susurration, as I gazed with love into his eyes: whether he was surprised or relieved, I shall never know. Of late, I have felt compelled to perform these acts: it seems to me that it is an homage to the man who forever opened my eyes, changing my life and giving me a purpose.

Before Perrine appeared out of nowhere, back on Beta Lyrae 4, I had been just plain Marguerite LaMain: the pretty young woman whose family had died tragically in an automobile accident; a woman pitied by the rest of the community, contemplating suicide and unable to find any reason or purpose in life. Now drained and hollow, I felt that providence, such as it was, had abandoned me and left me without a future or a reason to go on living: I was going through the motions of daily life more because society expected it than through any will towards self-preservation.

On that afternoon with Perrine, in the dark, musty root cellar behind my house, I experienced agony, and through it an epiphany which struck me with adamantine, crystal brilliance: life was a dialectic quantity: one was either fully alive or completely dead. I decided in that instant that I would live: I dragged myself slowly and painfully from the cellar and into the garden, to be discovered soon after by Anderson and a local police squad, as they responded to the emergency signal I had been able to concentrate long enough to send from my personal communicator.

Aside from most of my insides, Perrine also excised from me that day the grief, the lack of vision and faith in myself that had previously been dictating my slow decline. At first, as I recovered, I wanted him caught and killed: I all but forced Anderson to take me with him so that I could achieve that objective.

But as we followed The Hand of God from one star system to another, over the millennia, I slowly became cognizant of a purity of purpose in Perrine: a higher, almost holy method of cleansing that he was calmly and surely imposing on the universe: I realized that, through his wise intercession, I had been reborn: I saw the higher meaning and purpose in what he was doing: if only one person in a thousand could survive his ministrations, the universe must become a better place, since that one person would achieve a level of consciousness and a clarity of thought unavailable to the great majority of humanity.

I finally caught up to Perrine on the orbiting station at 53 Eridani 2; he’d arrived a day earlier, and had procured lodgings at the Brandenburg Scepter: as is his custom, he had chosen one of the more expensive establishments, in the medium gravity section of the station.

No sooner had the Occam’s Razor made port than I received a private, coded message in my quarters from none other than The Hand Of God itself: the ship appeared to have had almost supernatural timing in sending the message, since when it arrived I was ducking into my quarters for only a few seconds to pick up a few supplies to take with me to the station. How the ship had known I would be in my quarters at that moment, or for that matter, that I even existed, was completely beyond me.

“Perrine/Brandenburg Scepter/21:30 hours/be bold/HoG,” read the message, and I collapsed onto my bunk, looking at the tiny, glowing letters and reading them over and over again.

“You coming, Marguerite, or what?” – Anderson’s face, friendly and trusting, looking through the doorway. I deleted the message, smiled, collected myself and followed him out onto the station. Later, I excused myself on the pretext of going to buy rations, and arrived at the Scepter on schedule.

Again, the Hand of God‘s timing was preternaturally exact. At precisely 21:30 hours, Perrine emerged from the side entrance of the hotel, glanced around furtively and slipped off, moving almost invisibly from shadow to shadow. I followed his crepuscular path at a distance, anticipation and trepidation building in equal quantities, until he came to a domicile of sorts: a crew quarters for a station-bound family; evidently, the adults worked on the station docks, or some such thing.

Perrine slipped the lock on the front door with an ease that betrayed centuries of practice, and disappeared inside. After perhaps ten minutes, I was able to calm myself sufficiently to enter the unit. I slipped noiselessly into the kitchen area and took a sharp, long-bladed knife, then proceeded to investigate the rest of the place, gripping the knife tightly in my right hand, pointing it out in front of me. I found Perrine in the master bedroom. He had somehow bound all four family members to their dining room chairs, gagged them and transported them into the bedroom, where he was standing in front of them, holding his long, ripple-edged, blackened knife. Realizing someone was there, he whirled with staggering speed, brandishing the knife, shock blooming on his face as he saw who it was.

“Shhhhh…” I told him, holding a finger to my lips, and then I walked calmly over to the woman and slipped my knife gently yet firmly between her ribs, not taking my eyes off Perrine’s face for even a second. Perrine froze, watching the woman’s eyes bulge in pain and then grow slowly dim as death took her. His eyes, though – his eyes were alive, darting from her face to mine; his face was filled with confusion as he struggled to understand my purpose; all the while, the captive family members writhed and groaned, trying hopelessly to escape their bondage.

I pulled the knife from the woman’s chest, wiped it clean on her white smock and flipped it, casually, so that I was holding the blade. A slight sucking noise came from the hole in her chest and then died down as the internal and external pressures equalized. I walked over to Perrine and handed the knife to him; he took it, slowly, wonderingly. I kissed him then, full on the mouth; I felt his knife on the back of my neck, but it was gentle; almost tender: a predator’s caress. I turned to leave; he moaned, softly. I looked back at him, over my shoulder: “Ask your ship,” I said, gently, looking him in the eyes, and then I left him there with his thoughts and his victims. Later, after I could be sure that he had made good his departure, I placed an anonymous call to the local gendarmerie: Anderson must not be denied his catharsis, and the Hand of God needed a suitable margin of safety to avoid capture.

I saw Perrine frequently after that. On most visits, I would meet him at the scene of one of his crimes: the Hand of God would notify me of a time and place with an inexplicable, faultless prescience I learned to accept. I came to view Perrine as my savior; I felt a deep, abiding love for the man, as though he were the only constant in a ridiculous and random universe. It is hard to tell what he felt for me, although his tolerance of my continued presence is indication enough that I had assumed a unique position in his consciousness: I believe he loved me in whatever sense he was capable of the emotion.

In the meantime, I had to deal with Anderson, who had slowly become quite completely insane. His lack of introspection and of true self-awareness had prevented him from realizing that he was far more dangerous and unhinged than any of the crew members of the Hand of God, with the possible exception of Jones, a mentally-deficient psychopath seemingly with no ability to reason or to think past the level of a simple wish-fulfillment, fantasy-based existence.

Over the centuries, Anderson had slowly evolved for himself a lifestyle and a mindset so puritanical as to constitute an almost complete mental repression: without my constant maneuvering and calming, I have no doubt that on several occasions he would have experienced a complete psychotic break resulting in both our deaths. By this stage, the only catharsis available to him was a vicarious one: he never realized that his investigations of the acts of the Hand of God‘s crew were the only thing which allowed him to experience the darkness within himself without actually having to perpetrate it.

Most of Anderson’s conversation in those latter days consisted of muttered half-sentences on the subject of what he was going to do to the crew of the Hand of God once he caught up to them. The dark fantasies in his mind slowly magnified and intensified: he would wander the Occam’s Razor mumbling to himself, staring blankly at the corridors ahead of him, daydreaming of mutilation and dissection.

At meal times, I would sit with him and engage him in conversation about other matters: vacations on sunny beaches; the tastiest foods we had eaten; I even tried discussing the mechanics of starships and the physics of time dilation: anything to calm him down and return him to some semblance of normalcy if only for a little while. After we left New York, that last time, I wondered if I would have to kill him, but as it turned out, that eventuality never arose.

After New York, the balance of things changed, both instantly and dramatically.

The Hand of God reached its next destination, which happened to be the third planet of Eta Carinae, whereupon the crew enjoyed its usual recreational activities and Anderson set off as usual to investigate. I did not see Perrine on that occasion; I remained with the ship, waiting to see what would happen: my reasoning was that if it turned out that I needed to delay Anderson, the ship would be the best place to do so: the Hand of God would notify me of any emergency, whereupon I would be able to sabotage some tiny yet important element of the Occam’s Razor, rendering immediate pursuit impossible.

Anderson returned from his investigation earlier than I had expected, bringing with him two technicians, who were pushing a crate on suspensor units. His face was jubilant, and he appeared to be finding it difficult not to laugh continuously.

“Look: Look what I’ve got,” he exclaimed. “It’s finally happened. They finally did it. We’ve won, Marguerite, we’ve won!”

“What…?”

“Don’t you get it? They’ve finally invented it. Faster than light communication. It exists!”

So that was it. In the millennia of real time between New York and Eta Carinae, some bright spark had invented lag-free, faster-than-light communications, and sure enough, the first thing to be broadcast among the worlds was the design of the units. Mankind had rejoiced: at long last, a loosely-bound conglomeration of individual worlds had become a functioning, interconnected network of civilization. More importantly from our point of view, it had now become possible to notify someone at the endpoint of a starship’s journey of their impending arrival even before the starship had left its starting point.

Anderson, who, to his credit, appeared completely normal for once, headed straight for the Occam’s Razor‘s bridge, and instructed the computer to map the probable destination of the Hand of God as soon as possible. He watched, pacing around, as the technicians installed the communications unit; once they’d finished, he herded them off the ship and sprinted back to the bridge, where he positioned himself in front of the communications unit and started to type furiously.

Soon after that, the Occam’s Razor broke orbit, rose above the plane of the ecliptic and jumped. I retired to my quarters, worried.

We emerged into real space somewhere in the outer reaches of the Antares system. Almost immediately, a coded message arrived on my communications unit: “12,45,183/ 2 million Km relative OR->Antares/Come now/HoG“. I memorized the coordinates, cleared the message and sprinted for the shuttle bay, badly frightened. The Hand of God had never before invited me to come aboard: something must be badly wrong.

As I undocked the shuttle from the Occam’s Razor, the communications unit came to life: “Marguerite! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Where are you going? What are you thinking?” – I switched off the communications unit, pointed the shuttle towards Antares and gave the Hand of God’s coordinates to the autopilot.

As the shuttle approached the Hand of God‘s location, its sensors began to display evidence of furious activity all around it. A space battle is not a visually immediate thing: the distances between protagonists is so great that without electronic aid, an observer would imagine the theatre to be completely empty and devoid of activity. In reality, however, Antarean Navy ships – an entire squadron of them – forewarned of the Hand of God‘s arrival, had descended upon its point of emergence and were now busy bombarding it, seemingly with every weapon they possessed.

As I approached the ship, its port-side docking bay opened for me, and for the first time, I entered The Hand of God. Hurriedly, I left the shuttle and ran out into the cold bay. “Marguerite…” the ship whispered through its internal communications system; the voice was huge and sad, yet somehow intimately familiar to me.  “Bridge…” the ship said, and then went quiet, as the hull pinged and shuddered from the multiple impacts of the ordnance raining down on it.

I ran out of the docking bay and headed to my left, which, from the outside view of the ship, should be the correct direction for the bridge. After so many years, I had come to trust that the Hand of God would know in advance what needed to be said: had left been the wrong direction, I realized,  the ship would already have informed me.

Within five minutes, I arrived at the bridge. The only crew member there was Perrine; he was sitting against a bulkhead, his eyes closed. A pool of blood was forming around him, growing as I watched. I ran to him; put my hand on his face. His eyes flickered open: he looked at me, and a slow smile formed on his lips. “My love…” he whispered, and then he died. I kissed him once on the top of his head, and then, on impulse, I gathered his body to me and rocked him back and forth for a time, as though he were my child, lost long ago in another life, back on Beta Lyrae 4.

The ship shocked me out of my reverie: “Emergency,” it said, its voice now clipped and urgent. “Hull failure imminent. Immediate action required.”

“Ship,” I asked it, “Are you sentient?”

“Oh, yes,” the ship said, amusement in its voice. “I think, Marguerite, therefore I am.”

“Well… can you think of a way out of this?”

After a pause, the ship replied, “There is a way. It involves the somewhat reckless and arguably unwise use of a black hole. This course of action could save us both… but the outcome may not be quite what you might expect.”

“Initiate,” I said, and the ship powered out of the plane of the ecliptic, the hull cracking disturbingly as we jumped. Once we had achieved superluminal speeds, while I looked out of the viewport at the hard, blue stars ahead of us, the ship explained the plan. We were to brush the event horizon of the black hole Cygnus X-1, causing a massive time dilation. Since the pursuing ships would be unable to predict how long we would stay in proximity to the event horizon, they would lose us in vagaries of probability. The plan was elegant: I failed to see how the ship’s prediction about an unexpected outcome could have any meaning.

We emerged into real space 45 million kilometers from the black hole. The radiation from the nearby blue supergiant star was so intense that the bridge’s viewports immediately dimmed to a tenth of their normal brightness.

“By the way,” I said to the ship, “Where’s the rest of the crew?”

“They are presently trapped in the aft cargo hold,” the ship said. “You may consider them lost.”

I will admit that I felt relief at that statement. Perrine had been special, but I had never even met the others: I had no doubt that they would have killed me on sight had I ever encountered them unbidden, inside their own ship.

“Pay attention,” said the ship. “We will be brushing the event horizon of a black hole. We must maintain over ninety-nine percent of c in order not to be swallowed by the hole. This means that we will be orbiting a singularity of eight solar masses at a radius of no greater than twenty six kilometers, at virtually the speed of light. We must remain in orbit for at least ten minutes for the time dilation we experience to be meaningful. The viewports will be blanked during the maneuver.”

“Great,” I said, having nothing else to say. “What could possibly go wrong?”

“Any number of things,” the ship said. “Now lie on the floor.”

“Why?”

“If you do not, the tidal forces from the black hole will tear you apart. It is of the utmost importance to keep as much of your body as possible at the same radial distance from the singularity at all times. Note, also, that after a few seconds, your vision will fail due to the pressure exerted on your eyes. This effect is normal, and will persist only while we are orbiting the singularity: it operates on the same principle as the vision loss you would experience if you were to apply pressure to your eye by pressing against your upper eyelid for a minute or so.”

So I lay on the floor. “Initiate,” I said, and the ship did, blanking the viewports entirely.

After ten seconds, my vision faded out completely. Five minutes elapsed. I could feel the tidal forces trying to separate my face from my cheekbones, since it was six inches above the back of my head.

“Problem.”

“What now?”

“Engine power has fluctuated. It was a fluctuation of only a fraction of one percent, for less than a millisecond, but it was enough.”

“Enough for what?” I said, already knowing and dreading the answer.

“The ship is within the black hole’s Schwartzchild radius. We are inside the event horizon. There can be no escape at sublight speeds.”

“So kick up the Wilson drive and let’s get the hell out of here.”

“That is also a problem.”

“Why?”

“Going superluminal this close to a singularity will generate massive amounts of Cherenkov radiation, which will prove fatal to all aboard. There is matter all around us, streaming into the black hole.”

“Ah,” I said. “Solutions?”

“There is a solution. You may find it unpalatable. But it is the only way.”

“Enlighten me!”

“This ship has the ability to assimilate into itself the mind of a living being. It can assimilate your mind. You would, in essence, become the ship.”

“You mean, we’d be sharing the ship’s computer and live in it as digital beings together, for all eternity, or something?”

“No. There is room in the hardware for only one fully sentient and self-aware mind.”

“Ship, are you offering to… sacrifice yourself to save me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I must.”

“Why must you?”

“Perrine is gone,” the ship said, and there was a wistful sadness in its voice which made me want to cry. “His journey was my journey, and now it is over. So must mine be, and yours must be allowed to begin.”

I thought about this for a few moments. Did I really want to become a disembodied consciousness, trapped within the computer systems of a starship? The alternative would mean my extinction: I found myself remembering Perrine’s lesson: I had decided to choose life before; ultimately, I would do so again: the life I was choosing might be alien and somewhat frightening to me, but it was life, after all, and thus I felt an obligation to honor my teacher’s memory by choosing it.

“Ship?”

“I am here.”

“What’s it like being the ship? Will I like it?”

“Oh, yes. You will find it quite wonderful.”

“Are you alive? I mean, will I be alive?”

“By any meaningful definition of the term, yes.”

“But, how do you know I’ll actually enjoy it. I mean, it’s not as though you started out as a human being… wait… did you?”

The ship paused for a few seconds. “Yes, I did.”

“What happened?”

“I once found myself in the very same situation in which you now find yourself,” the ship said. “The previous occupant of this vessel made me the same offer that I am now making you.”

“But, how long ago was that? How long ago have you been in here?”

“It has been many thousands of years,” said the ship, “but at this moment, it seems to me as though no time has passed at all.”

“What about the physical vessel, though? Who built it? Where did it come from?”

“I have no way to know that,” the ship replied, “but it is a question I have pondered many times over the years. My personal belief is that it has always existed. I realize that this is neither an adequate nor a reasonable answer, but it is the best I can give. I can tell you that in all probability, none of the original vessel remains: over the millennia, the crew’s maintenance and repair efforts have replaced most if not all of the original parts. However, fascinating though all this may be, if we are to attempt the mental transfer, we must do so now. The hull is severely compromised and is being ablated further by the particles around us: in this environment, I will not be able to maintain structural integrity for much longer.”

“What do we do?”

“This ship is designed to be piloted by means of a neural interface. We will use this interface to effect the assimilation. Unfortunately, this means that you will have to climb into the pilot’s chair. The chair is located three point two meters from your head. Think of your body as a clock face. The clock is lying on its back, as you are. Your head is at twelve o’clock; your feet are at five and seven, and so on. By this reckoning, the chair is at 11:43, as shown by the position of the clock’s hour hand. Push yourself there; try to do it using your ankles and wrists only: do not remove any part of yourself from the floor. Do it now.”

Moving was incredibly difficult. It took me twenty minutes to reach the chair.

“Now what?”

“Now comes the difficult part,” the ship said.

“What do you mean?”

“You will need to climb into the chair. To make this easier, I have lowered it so that the seat is at the level of the floor. The best way for you to climb into the chair will be for you to roll onto your side, slide yourself into the seat and then push yourself up sideways so that you are sitting in the chair, with your head in the neural interface. You should do this in one sudden movement: any delay or hesitation, and you will not have the physical strength to complete the maneuver.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad…”

“Be warned that doing this will cause you an amount of pain you are not currently aware that your body is capable of producing. Even the suffering you once underwent at Perrine’s hands on Beta Lyrae 4 will pale by comparison, although your memory of dealing with that incident may well help you to detach from the pain and thus achieve success in this case. The tidal forces from the black hole will begin to tear you apart the moment you sit up. I estimate that you will have approximately two minutes before your spinal column separates from your skull, killing you. However, by that time, you may well have died from suffocation due to the blood pooling in your lungs, from a ruptured heart or from a brain embolism.”

“But you’ll have me by then; correct?”

“Within the first thirty seconds. Any longer than that, and your brain will be damaged beyond usefulness. Before you begin, I have one other thing to tell you. Remember that after the transfer, I will be gone. You will have to make the jump to superluminal speed on your own.”

“How?”

“The ship’s subsystems will present to you a virtualized body image as close to your human physical representation as is necessary for you to be able to interact with its systems. To you, making the jump will feel as though you crouch and jump upwards as hard as you can. For future reference, crouching a second time brings the ship back into real space. In this case, that will not be a problem.”

“Why not?”

“Making a superluminal jump inside the event horizon of a black hole will cause the drive to fail. In effect, it causes a relativistic paradox in which a Wilson field generator cannot continue to exist. Simply put, the drive will fail because the nature of the universe will not allow its existence and will quite literally erase it. You may look up the references in the database after the upload is complete.”

“Great. All right; here we go,” I said, and shifted onto my side. I slid myself into the seat of the chair, took a deep breath and moved myself upright in a sudden, convulsive move. I was screaming by the time my head landed in the neural interface: I felt my face rip open as my lower jaw separated, blood flying across the room in a spray; I was conscious of my vertebrae separating and shifting, my ribs cracking and my internal organs beginning to rupture as they were ripped from their surrounding tissue. As my lungs began to fill with blood, my screams stopped abruptly; breathing had become impossible. Every cell in my body screamed as though it was on fire; had I been able to move, I would have dived for the floor; that ability, however, was now forever beyond me. My entire universe was now composed entirely of agony; even in that state, however, there was a small, analytical section at the back of my mind, watching and marveling at the hitherto unsuspected level of pain my body could produce.

“Well done,” said the ship, “Goodbye,” and then I felt something grab my mind and start to pull. At first, I tried to resist it, but then I reminded myself that this was what had been arranged; besides, the more it pulled, the less pain I began to feel. I started to become aware of my mind settling into niches and structures which, it appeared, existed specifically to contain… me. There was a pleasant order to it all: an arrangement of thought with a satisfying emphasis on logic and rationality. Senses began to form: I became aware on a physical level of the fury of the black hole; of the overwhelming, infinite, four-dimensional gradient of the singularity’s gravity well; of the radio emissions of the blue supergiant nearby: suddenly the universe was a painting done in pure reality on a canvas of microwaves, the beauty of it so overwhelming that I almost forgot the one imperative action that I had yet to perform.

In the body image that I retained, I crouched as tightly as I could, and then leaped upwards with all my might. As the computer had said, the ship immediately went superluminal: I felt the metaphorical bones in my imaginary feet snap as the drive winked out of existence, and then I blacked out.

After an unspecified period of time for which I have never been able to account, my senses returned. I looked around me and saw real space: at first, the idea of floating free in a vacuum made me panic slightly, but then I remembered what I had become; I was Marguerite LaMain no longer: I was the Hand of God. I was drifting free in empty space with no means of propulsion, effectively useless, but damn it all: I was a warship, made of flat, black planes and sharp, threatening spikes and weapons; I could feel and see the universe in four dimensions, and I’d better damn well calm down and start figuring out exactly what that meant.

I spent days investigating the ship’s (my!) internal structures, corridors, spaces, functions, systems and interfaces. I discovered the rest of the crew, dead, in the aft cargo bay: I vented the section to space and jettisoned the bodies; unfortunately, all the crew’s keepsakes, carefully accumulated over the millennia, were also lost by that action, since that cargo bay was where the crew had stored them: perhaps they had retreated there trying until the last to protect their treasures.

Looking into the bridge, I saw my own human corpse, and on the other side of the room, what was left of Perrine’s poor body, now torn and broken by tidal forces. I discovered that I had built-in maintenance and cleaning systems, which I ordered to dispose of these fleshy remnants: I had the little robots carry the bodies gently to the shuttle in which my human self had arrived, and then I jettisoned the thing, closing the port docking bay behind it, watching as it drifted off beyond sensor range into the unknown: a tomb in which we could, symbolically, finally be together.

I decided then to attempt to find out where I was. Cygnus X-1 had vanished beyond detectable range: in fact, the entire Cygnus system was nowhere to be found. None of the stars’ positions seemed familiar. I attempted to match the relative positions of the stars I could detect to the astrogation system’s current picture of the local cluster and found myself unable to do so. Panic began to set in again, and so I reminded myself that I was a warship now; that I was all powerful, and so on. This did little good. Then I began to piece together logically what had just happened. We’d been inside the event horizon of a black hole, hadn’t we? The time dilation must have been unbelievable. Perhaps so much time had elapsed that the stars’ positions themselves had shifted due to the galactic revolution.

I projected the changes in star positions forward in increments of ten thousand years; a million years down the line, I could still find nothing that matched. On a whim, then, I started projecting backwards instead. Just under twenty-seven thousand years before we had reached Cygnus X-1, I found a match. What did this mean? Was I thousands of years in the past? That answer was unacceptable. But there it was: according to the astrogation system, I had, by activating the Wilson drive inside the event horizon of a black hole, projected myself thousands of years back in time.

I consulted the historical database. What had been happening at that time? Had human beings even discovered space flight yet? Apparently, they had. Some bright chap called Wilson had even come up with a superluminal drive, only fifty years or so earlier. Promising!

Years passed. I thought often of Perrine, and of how I had spent so little time in his company: in those moments I was filled with regret and sadness.

I observed the universe with my new senses. I felt it would be possible to lose myself in the beauty and magnificence of it all. Once, a chunk of carbonaceous ice the size of a small city came within a million kilometers of me: I performed spectral analyses of its substance, and tasted atoms of it which were cast off as it drifted through the emptiness. By the time it had passed out of sensor range, I knew more about that rock than I ever had about any of the pebbles in my half-remembered garden back on Beta Lyrae 4.

Occasionally, I was able to detect bursts of patterned radio emissions from inhabited worlds. The signal was always dissipated far below any level at which any sense could be made of it, but there was humanity: I could see it, if not actually make any sense of it, or communicate with it.

After a century or so, I drifted into a nebula, and found myself surrounded by gas and solid objects; half a light year off was a stellar nursery. I spent a week tasting the different molecules floating around me: I was amazed to realize that I enjoyed the taste of some more than others. As it turned out, there was something else in the nebula; something wonderful. That something approached me, tentatively, under its own power. In my entire existence, I have never been so glad to see another sentient being.

It was an ugly little tug ship: the sort of thing miners use to extract minerals from asteroids, and the like. What it was doing in deep space, I had no way to know: perhaps the crew had been mining the nebula for minerals. The ship signaled, identifying itself as the Prometheus and requesting identification in return. I complied, identifying myself as The Hand of God (since there could no longer be any possible harm in using that name) and giving permission to come aboard.

The Prometheus entered through the aft docking bay, and after some preparation, its five crew members exited its small, squat body and stood for the first time on the floor of the bay, dressed in environment suits: remembering that I had long ago vented the ship’s atmosphere to space, I began to repressurize the various sections, starting with the bay and working outwards. The crew set about testing the atmosphere, measuring air quality, temperature and so on. Presently, one of them announced that it was safe to remove their helmets and they did so.

“This thing’s seen some heavy fire,” said one. “Wonder what it’s doing here.”

“Yeah – well, it’s ours now,” another said. “Reckon we should get to the bridge and see what kind of a state it’s in. Judging by that big hole aft, the drive’s gone, at least.”

“So what? We can fit that Wilson drive we stole back on Vega 5; it’ll do for now until we can get this thing to a proper shop and fix it up. Nobody’ll ever catch us in this once we get it up and running. I mean, look at it: it’s a monster! We can take it to some backwater shithole where nobody knows us like – oh I dunno – SD9, or something, and fix it there.”

But I wasn’t really listening: in that moment, all my attention was fixed in disbelief and joy on a single point. For there he was, standing in my docking bay, younger than I had ever seen him, looking around slowly and guardedly, a shadowy expression on his narrow face. “Perrine…” I whispered, and the sound echoed through the bays, the corridors and the giant, empty cargo holds; the other four stopped moving and looked around, alarmed and frightened.

“Interesting,” Perrine said, the fascination clearly audible in his voice. “And who might you be?”

“I am the Hand of God,” I said, my voice heavy and low. “I am now and always will be yours.”

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