The Hand of God: Blue Shift (part 2 of 3)
Good breakfast it was, too: lamb kidneys and a herb salad. It’s not easy to get your hands on stuff like that these days: Marguerite had made a point of going to Zabar’s (which is still there after all these millennia) to get it for my birthday – for whatever reason, she always seems to make this particular dish on special occasions. Well, happy birthday to me, then… but I digress.
Looking at something like this is enough to make most people just despair of humanity and give up. It wasn’t so much the blood all over everything, as though someone had come in with buckets of the stuff and tried to cover the entire room by kicking the buckets around at random. Even the artfully-arranged corpses, all sitting around in a kind of family group, their faces focused on a single point in space (I imagine the killer himself had been standing there) weren’t too bad; no – it was the leftovers that really did it to me. See, after this guy had finished butchering these people, he’d gone and cooked himself a fancy meal – real Cordon Bleu stuff – and his main protein in this culinary delicacy had been whatever he’d thought fit to remove from the corpses after his initial blood lust had been satiated. Now, I’d been expecting that, but there’s just something about poached genitalia in a sauce Hollandaise that you never really get used to. “Bollocks Benedict” – sounds like a preacher.
So, after my breakfast had joined the other unspeakable contents of the floor, I kind of pulled myself together and stood up and just looked at it all for a while. Obviously, I was disgusted by the sight: “What have you done?” I wanted to cry; “What are you thinking?” but I repressed the impulse: it’s not a good idea to lose it in front of the local cops, because if you do, you have to put up with all the whispering and sniggering that generally goes on when people think you’re past it, and you’ve lost it, and so on. Besides, I had a pretty good idea of what he was thinking: I’ve been after these buggers long enough for that, after all.
The first thing that leapt out at me while I was studying the charnel house in front of me (actually, it was a rented room in some ancient fleabag of a hotel on 23rd and 7th) was that whoever did this must’ve been drenched in blood by the time he left here, so I sent the young, self-important head of the local squad, one Officer K. Spivey, off to find out whether anyone fitting that description had been seen in the local vicinity within the previous day or so. Spivey, of course, reluctant to do anyone’s dog-work, uttered a perfunctory, “Yes, Commissioner Anderson,” and immediately delegated the task to one of his subordinates; uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t even really notice, let alone give him the explosion of anger I normally would’ve unleashed.
At any rate, the junior officer came back half an hour or so later to report that “some big hairy bastard” had been seen heading for the city spaceport with a Jack-The-Ripper grin on his face which could just about be made out through the liberal amount of blood covering him.
I could feel excitement building in me: this was about as close as I’d gotten to the Hand of God and its band of degenerates in centuries: I might actually have a chance here. I’ve been chasing those bastards for God only knows how long: by now it’s become my sole reason for existence, and to be honest, I think Marguerite, who’s stuck with me through thick and thin, bless her, has finally started to get sick of it.
It all started back on Sigma Draconis 9; I was the law on that planet (yes – the entire planet!) back when I was really only a kid. It was a frontier world then: the recon team had arrived only some fifty years earlier, and by the time I got shipped there, the first batch of colonists had erected their domes and pods and so on, and were beginning to get started trying to topple the thick, sulfurous atmosphere off its base and terraform the surface. Lovely place it is now, though: it’s amazing what technology can do after twenty thousand years or so, but back then, it was, figuratively speaking, the asshole of the known universe.
Anyway, I had a pretty cushy job as things go; the sort of crimes I had to deal with mostly involved people having one too many at the local watering hole and taking out the frustrations of living on a toxic planet on one another. I’d help the maintenance guys with the odd fix-up, but I’m not really a mechanic or a scientist, and most of the time all I did was get in the way: I could tell they didn’t really want me there; I think they let me join in just so I’d feel useful, or something.
Well, life was good on my little toxic utopia for a while, but then this god-awful looking ship – all dark planes and sharp, nasty-looking bits – showed up looking like it’d just been on the receiving end of most of the firepower of a good-sized flotilla of navy warships (later, I found out that this is exactly what had happened). Their FTL drive (it was one of the first Wilson drives, in fact) had conked out after being shot up and they’d been forced to drop out of hyperspace early, which was what had led them to us – and more specifically, as it turned out, to me.
Well, we didn’t have any of the parts they needed to repair the thing and we certainly didn’t have a space dock, but being a colony world, we did have a fairly adequate machine shop, so the crew of the Hand of God, who’d apparently had adequate foresight to steal the schematics for the drive along with the drive itself, brought the whole ship down to the planet’s surface, parked it in the excuse we had for a spaceport and set about engineering spares from scratch. They paid us an almost inconceivable amount of money, too: it’s probably fair to say that, what with compound interest and so on, the money they dropped on those repairs is in large part responsible for SD9 eventually becoming the paradise it became.
They were a weird bunch, that crew: one of them in particular seemed especially friendly – a strange-looking chap with a depilated head named Perrine, who went around in a long, leather duster all the time; every time I looked at him, he gave me a seriously uncomfortable feeling, as though he had a whole bunch of knives or something hidden under that coat… but he was friendly enough, and the ladies seemed to like him, so I kind of put it in the back of my mind and tried to forget about it.
It was when the disappearances started that I began to become suspicious. See, most worlds have their fair share of kidnappings and murders and what have you, but on a colony world, it’s just not something that usually happens. People are generally too busy trying not to get killed by everyday things – faults in the air recyclers, leaks in the domes and all that – to have time to get mad enough at anyone else to do much more than just smack them a couple of times, as I said before. At any rate, the Hand of God had only been in dock for a couple of days when the first colonist went missing, and after a while, that kind of thing started happening so frequently that people began to panic.
Trouble was, the Hand of God‘screw had dropped so much money by this stage that the governing council had no interest in starting a real investigation: I tried pointing out that the ship had shown up with all these interesting plasma burns and impact craters on it, not to mention a bunch of real weirdoes inside it, but they just laughed it off and said that there were all kinds of crap out in interstellar space, and you’d be lucky not to get killed even thinking about flying around in it, and that would be enough to turn anyone a little strange. So I thought I’d try investigating the crew myself, and despite not really getting any answers or making any progress, I was quite pleased with myself until Perrine showed up at the station one day, muscled me into a chair (Christ, that bugger’s strong), tied me down with some of my own restraints, cut off my little finger with one of the knives he really did keep under that coat of his (the knife had this weird, rippled edge – I’ll always remember that), smiled gently at me and said, very calmly, “Just say when.” I happened to look into his eyes at that point, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer picture of death in a living thing: they were the eyes of a shark: black, flat and completely expressionless: they could’ve been made of plastic for all the life there was in them.
Well, I was in some serious pain, I was only twenty four, and (I don’t mind admitting it) I’ve never been that scared in my life – before or since. I just sort of nodded shakily at him and said, very weakly, “When!” and he nodded back at me once, very seriously, then he smiled once again and was gone. I still don’t know why he didn’t kill me – maybe he thought the council would be forced to take an interest if he did – but at any rate, after he left, I felt this irrational gratitude towards him: it’s at times like that when you really understand the whole Stockholm Syndrome thing.
A couple of days later, the Hand of God, now fully repaired, left the planet, pissed off somewhere above the plane of the ecliptic, went superluminal and disappeared, never to be seen on that planet again. These days on SD9, it’s something of a legend, that ship: the sort of thing mothers use to frighten their children: a monster from the early days of the formation of the world.
A day or two after that, the missing colonists were found: they’d been stashed in a cave at the Baleares Cliffs, some five or six kilometers out of town, and parts of them had been eaten. I threw up my breakfast that day, too – not much fun when you’re wearing an environment suit. So I went home and changed clothes, then I marched over to the administrative building, screamed at the idiots-in-charge for a while, and when I’d had enough of doing that, I threw my badge at them, went straight to the spaceport, bartered and sold everything I had for something – anything – with a serviceable FTL drive in it, and got off that planet as fast as I could. That’s how I came to own the Occam’s Razor.
Thing is, I had a hunch, and it turned out to be right: I figured that serial killers or cannibals or psychos or whatever you want to call this lot would be so fixated on getting out of the system that they probably wouldn’t be too smart or too scrupulous about covering their tracks, so if I could just follow the vector they’d used when they went superluminal, I should be able to figure out where they’d gone, assuming the ship’s computer was powerful enough and had good enough maps and charts to superimpose that vector on the known moments and positions of inhabited stellar systems. So I followed them, hoping to catch up with them somewhere, and then, I told myself, there’d be bloody hell to pay.
I followed that ship to one planet after another, always arriving there too late: the frustration became almost insurmountable, but I pushed on and on, and as time went by – a lot of time, as it turned out – I began to get closer and closer to them, after a while missing them only by a few days. On Beta Lyrae 4, an unprecedented thing happened: I got to the scene of one particularly nasty little crime: one of our friends had disemboweled a young woman there, but miraculously, she’d hung on long enough to crawl outside with long strands of ropy intestine trailing behind her; as she crawled, her feet had gotten tangled up in them and ripped them still further. The pain she’d felt must have been unimaginable, but she’d realized in those last moments that if she wanted to survive, she’d have no choice.
Fortunately, BL4’s a pretty advanced place, technologically speaking: the locals airlifted her straight to the nearest medical facility and replumbed her: most of her insides needed to be replaced with vat-grown, hypoallergenic surrogates, but by the time a few weeks had passed, she was as good as new; as far as I know, she’s the only person who’s ever survived a close encounter with anyone from the Hand of God, except for myself of course. Curiously, from what she told me, it sounded as though it was our bald friend again: there’s karma for you. She didn’t remember much of the actual attack, but I think that’s to be expected, what with the blood loss and the trauma.
Well, anyway, that’s how I met Marguerite: I told her what I’d been doing for the last few millennia and she asked if she could come along and help. At first, I said no, but that dear lady broke down and cried, and said that she had nothing left on BL4 now that her son was dead; she didn’t want to go back to her house, not after what had happened, and please, please would I take her away so that she could at least get some satisfaction when we caught these bastards and strung them up… well, I got a bit sentimental then, I don’t mind telling you, and I caved in and brought her along for the ride – good thing I did, too, or I think I’d have lost it by now.
See, there’s a problem with chasing serial killers, which is this: the first time you see what they do, it appalls you on such an absolute and visceral level that you think your brain’s going to shut down or explode or something. After a while, though, it just seems normal, and eventually, after it’s become a predictable part of your life, you become almost comfortable with it: you start to appreciate the elegant simplicity of their existence, the artistry of their technique… in hyperspace, you have plenty of time to think, and in short, you find yourself staring after them into the blue-shifted universe ahead of you, beginning to admire them; one day, you catch yourself wondering what it would be like to join them. Madness creeps up on a person, slowly, and I think there’s a point where you just slip over the edge without even knowing it. Marguerite stopped that happening to me, just by being there, and I’ll tell you right now that I was getting close to that point before I met her – rather too close for comfort, as they say.
At any rate, that’s how my ongoing relationships with the Hand of God and with Marguerite got started. That brings us up-to-date, I think, so here we go: back to today.
After I found out about the blood-drenched lunatic who could only be Jones, the Hand of God‘s ugliest denizen (although I have a feeling some other crime scene’s going to be found soon: this looked more like that creepy bastard Perrine’s monstrous work), I ran outside, grabbed Marguerite, who’d been waiting on the sidewalk, jumped into a transport pod and told it to get us to the spaceport as quickly as it could, the idea being either to catch them before they took off (preferable but unlikely) or to intercept their ship in orbit.
We got to the spaceport half an hour later (the traffic in Manhattan hasn’t improved over the millennia) and found out from the Port Authority that a shuttle had left ten minutes earlier, one of whose destinations was indeed the Hand of God, which had just decloaked in orbit; apparently, it’d been sitting there for a fortnight and nobody had noticed it. Nobody recognized it, either, once it did show up – not even the Port Authority’s computers, since their databases had undoubtedly been purged repeatedly over the years.
It’d be amusing if it weren’t so depressing, but even with the advent of FTL travel and the massive dislocations of temporal synchronicity that happen as a result, most people just don’t seem to be able to think much past the span of a single human lifetime – usually their own. It had been four or five hundred years since the Hand of God had last visited Earth, therefore, as far as the inhabitants were concerned, it had never existed. The more I see things like this, the more it convinces me that no matter how advanced we get or how many clever technological marvels we invent, in the back of each one of our brains there’s still a monkey running around, gathering roots and berries and pissing all over everything to mark its territory. It’s hilarious, really: after all the attacks on this planet over the centuries, they still haven’t learned how to set up a truly effective security system.
I didn’t let on what the emergency was all about: if I had, the city (and quite possibly the planet) would’ve unleashed a frenzy of useless activity for years afterwards, enforcing restrictions and annoyances on its entire population in an effort to protect them from something which had already happened – which would be pointless, since they’d only go and forget it again in a century or so.
This time, I really thought we might have a chance to catch the buggers: they’d already left, true, but they were in a ground-to-orbit shuttle which was making more than one stop; by contrast, my ship is a surface-landing type which can take off, break orbit and go superluminal all in one shot. Marguerite and I ran across the spaceport as fast as we could, avoiding loaders, transports, gaggles of off-world tourists and the like, and after what seemed like hours (although it could really only have been a few minutes) we got to the Occam’s Razor, bypassed most of the usual safety checks and took off just as fast as we possibly could.
The way I saw it, the likelihood of us catching up with the Hand of God was described by a cone of probability. At any given moment, we were at the base of the cone, where the probability of success was greatest: the closer the Hand of God came to achieving its FTL jump, the further towards the apex we’d be (or to put it another way, the smaller the cone would become), until, at the moment the ship jumped, the base of the cone and its apex would be the same thing, narrowed down to nothing – a zero-sized probability – because they’d be gone. I could see that cone in my mind’s eye, and it was shrinking far too quickly for my liking.
The trouble with faster-than-light travel inasmuch as chasing people is concerned is that it involves time dilation, sometimes to a staggering extent: while a few days pass on the ship, years and years can pass in the outside universe, so even if we were to manage to jump only five minutes after the Hand of God, that might translate into us being weeks or even months late at the other end of the jump. Now, you can make up for that sometimes by dropping out of hyperspace a bit closer to the destination than whoever you’re following, but the problem in this case was that the Hand of God‘s crew has had quite enough practice to become master pilots: they generally cut it just about as fine as anyone can without smashing themselves into, say, a moon or something. So if we were ever going to catch these evil bastards, we had to do it before any jump could take place.
The Occam’s Razor pulled a little rank on the Port Authority Orbital Traffic Control computer and was able to figure out the general direction in which the Hand of God had been heading when it broke orbit (damn!) – we headed off in that direction but, needless to say, we’d just left the plane of the ecliptic when we saw the stars in front of us shimmer and fold for a moment: again, we’d missed them, but this time only by seconds.
I told the Occam’s Razor to match the jump exactly; a few seconds later, the ship’s hull cracked loudly as we broke the lightspeed barrier and set off towards some distant and unknowable future. Marguerite went to bed, disappointed and upset. I’ll probably go and join her later, but for now, I just want some time alone: I’m looking out of the forward viewport, sipping a glass of scotch, watching the stars in front of us harden and turn blue, just ruminating and letting the anger subside.
I’ll catch up to them soon – I know I will – and when I do, I’ll rip those bastards to pieces with their own weapons, then I’ll eat bits of them while they watch – let’s see what my bald friend has to say about that. Sometimes, in my daydreams, I can almost taste their flesh as I mash it between my teeth, and let me tell you: it’s delicious. I can almost feel the weight of that beautiful, rippled knife while it cuts into their bodies, as though through a ripe, creamy cheese. See, I’ve got two advantages: firstly, I’m sane and they’re not (this is the most important thing); secondly, they don’t know I’m chasing them; they have no way of knowing I even exist. The element of surprise – that’s the thing: stealth and surprise. They won’t even see me until it’s all over.
Batronis, Schwalbe, Jones, Merkevicius and Perrine: I’m coming for you and I’m hungry, and when I catch you, I’ll create a work of art which surpasses your wildest dreams.