The white handled knife

He felt sure he was thinking, but instinct told him he wasn’t the only one involved in the process. He was gripped by a feeling much like the concept of an echo, an answering that was definitely and uniquely his but an answering that had also been stripped of some of its distinctive humanity and imbued with something cold, unknown and mechanical, as if an artificially expanded consciousness beyond his reach had fired the tiniest of electrical impulses across his synapses in order to form that thought.

Again there came that stony rattling, children laughing in play, small hands flicking smooth pebbles into a dry well, young ears hearing them clatter and skip over the old bricks. He knew it was beginning again.

Somewhere within a limitless and unexplored dimension, a word appeared in an alien tongue and fell into an ocean of blackness. In a kingdom spared the tyranny of time, the word was unable to construct any concept of where it began or when it would end, it had no memory or history and it arrived without instructions, it acted purely on instinct. Its only compulsion was to swim forward and to drive its meagre body up the tar dark river that opened before it.

And so it swam. It swam forever, but in truth it did not swim at all as it was equally without an end and without a beginning. It was incapable and all-powerful and even before its birth and after its death it was everywhere and nowhere. Its constituent parts meant many billions of things, the bulk of which were not translatable into sound waves formed with soft tissue, air and saliva. It was but a single thought, yet that thought was a common one to all sentient creatures across all dimensions of the universe of existence.

When at last it spoke its name, countless tiny sparks flew out into the endless canopy of reality in arching, fiery, furious contrails. They spat and sizzled their way into the very furthest corners like handfuls of burning rice thrown into a reservoir of shadows, the last gasps of an untended bonfire burning out in the freeze of a winter night. Faced with this confusion of blinding light and unintelligible data, the computer did as it was programmed to do, it simply chose to ignore everything it could not immediately comprehend. Instead, it gently picked out a lone white pearl against the boundless beaches of sharp, volcanic sand. It stooped low and plucked out a singular treasure, a tiny speck of human thought. The computer held the thought up to the scrutiny of its unblinking eye and saw a word formed on the delicate jewel. The word was “Out.”

 

*

 

Commander Alex Trousseau lay naked and shivering, as vulnerable and blind as a new-born baby. The superhuman effort of holding the massive battleship in warp had wrung every last ounce of strength out of his mind and body. Mechanical arms deposited his slack form onto the recovery room extraction grills and a plague of tiny parasitic robots no bigger than a child’s fingernail began hungrily sucking the amniotic pod fluid from every inch of his lean and scarred body. His skull was throbbing, his brain was pierced by sharp pains that remained long after the neural lances had been removed. Painful side effects were the inevitable price that the cream of New Eden’s pilots had to pay for the pod privilege, side effects that felt like the morning after a night drinking Ammarian temple wine. It hurt like hell, but it was a small inconvenience when measured against the rewards of a life of immortality and the ability to fling millions of tons of glass and metal at dizzying speed through the warp tunnels that crisscrossed the galaxy.

Hours later, washed, shaved and wrapped in an elegant Gallente robe, Trousseau leant forward and rested his fluid wrinkled hands on the cold metal of the master console of The Aquila, his Dominix class battleship. He allowed his eyes to gaze unfocused into the vast expanse of freezing blackness that lay just the other side of four frail seeming inches of transnano glass. Space. It was a strange dead name that his ancestors had picked for these new lands but he knew that they had chosen it before they had any knowledge of what could be grown in the fertile soil of this midnight garden. They had named the void before they had any understanding of its true nature and that lack of understanding had spared them the madness and lust of planetary conquest and protected them from the terrible realisation that had gripped all the later frontiersmen that mankind could fall into the bottomless depths of this dun pool and not a ripple would be left to mark the passing of a race.

But much time had passed since then and time had taken innocence with it and now only fear remained as a constant for those who sought to probe out the new frontier. If you survived long enough to think about it, fear usually developed into respect and respect inevitably gave way to affection. All capsuleers seemed inexorably drawn to that which had not one iota of regard for their lives or their deaths. Against this backdrop of disregard, lives were lost daily. Thousands of souls ripped away unremembered or remarked upon, but like motes of dust falling from the ancient beams of a cathedral hall, they sometimes flashed brightly in brilliant sunlight before they winked out to nothingness beneath the coal tarred footfalls of impervious planets.

Trousseau heard quiet steps behind him, soft feet approaching from the elevator that brought crew members hundreds of feet up from the lower decks and onto the bridge. He didn’t need to turn around to know that Emile Fortune was scant feet behind him, the diminutive assassin had walked as firmly as he was capable of walking, to alert his superior to his presence and to give Trousseau the chance to extricate himself from his reverie and collect his thoughts. Emile Fortune was a respectful, careful, and above all, very dangerous man.

“Time to get kitted up Skipper? I’ve been liaising with Cuttelus‘s handlers, they’ve instructed him to start moving slowly toward the extraction point. Hopefully he’s good enough to shake off any hostile surveillance. I just don’t know what the opposition will have out there looking for him.”

Trousseau stood up and faced his friend,

“How did he sound Emile? Was he spooked?”

Fortune weighed this up and replied,

“He sounded young, young and scared.”

Trousseau nodded his head,

“I think I would be too, there’s no guarantee that he’s going to get out of this in one piece. Our orders from Command are pretty blunt, extraction is required only if it’s possible without detection or compromise, if we can’t get to him in time or he’s captured, then we move to Phase 2. Liquidation is sanctioned and the elimination of any witnesses is absolutely required. Cuttelus has to go down, as does anyone else who gets in the way, be it man, woman or child.”

Fortune didn’t appear to be overly concerned by the news,

“Spies are well paid Skipper, he knew what he was getting into, odds are we’ll pull him out anyway but we need to get shifting.”

Trousseau nodded,

“Agreed Emile, we go now. What’s the word on weaponry?”

“That’s your call Skipper. Command has indicated they have an operative inserted within the Customs and Immigration Processing Unit who’ll arrange a sixty-second malfunction in the scanning gear that quarantines the Arrivals Hall, we contact him by LPI burst transmission and he throws the switch. That’ll get us in the front door with anything we want to bring along but after that we’re on our own.”

Trousseau thought for a brief second, then replied,

“It’s a full combat load out Emile. If we’re going down, we’re going down fighting. I just hope to God we won’t have to take out one of our own people.”

Fortune turned his big sad eyes on Trousseau and shrugged,

“It wouldn’t be the first time…………….”

Trousseau let the comment hang heavy in the quiet air of the bridge, there was no need to say anything else, they were both soldiers who fought in secret wars and collateral damage went with the territory.

 

*

 

They stood silent as statues as the elevator plunged down into the heart of the massive battleship, a dagger thrust between the ribs of a downed opponent. This was the dead time that lay heavy on men’s hearts before any combat operation, spilt blood was almost a certainty and death was always a possibility, so soul and sensibility rattled around in the racing brain like brittle bones in a steel coffin. Trousseau had been here before, as had Emile Fortune, so many times that the names of the bright young boys who had fought alongside them were forgotten now, though not their faces, nor the remembrance of the looks of terror that accompanied short lives draining out to a sordid end on a mountain pass, in the depths of an emerald forest or in the cold grip of the black hand of space.

It could so easily have been Trousseau or Fortune, but for some reason that neither man could properly fathom, they had both survived. The Federation Navy had trained them and the Gallente Marines had used them as a weapon of war, disgorging them from drop ships onto foreign planets where they’d waded through the blood and mud so the great and the good of Gallente society could continue to preach liberty and freedom to the hungry population.

Ordered to kill, Trousseau had killed repeatedly and the violence that had been sleeping deep within his soul finally found the outlet it had craved for so long, an outlet that he knew was a shocking betrayal of his serene and spiritual Intaki upbringing. But as war dragged on, his heart rapidly emptied of humanity until the man he had once been disappeared into the planetary dust and he became little more than a sharpened spike in the hands of his generals. Killing for the Federation was all he had apart from his friendship with Emile Fortune.

Then came the blackest day, Emile was lost during a highly secret mission, missing presumed dead after a disastrous raid on a Serpentis drug factory in Serpentis held null sec space. Badly outnumbered and fighting hard, the marines had reported heavy casualties and dwindling supplies of ammunition, then all comms had been severed, that was the last anyone had heard of Fortune’s team. Trousseau raged for hours and smashed up his quarters, they told him to take some leave, to come back afresh. But how could he come back? None of it made sense to him any more. Why had he killed with such appetite? How had the war reduced him to the level of a savage animal, devoid of feeling or empathy for his fellow-man? He had no answers, there seemed no rhyme or reason to it, it was all a terrible blood-soaked nightmare. He’d just followed his orders, hadn’t he? It sounded as hollow and craven to him as he knew it would sound to others. He didn’t feel like the hero they told him he was, he felt more like a common murderer and if indeed he was a murderer, it was time that the murderer was brought to justice.

Ordered off his troop ship, he jumped blindly onto the first available shuttle and was half way across Gallente space before the tannoy chirped into life and he realised he was heading for Luminaire. The shuttle landed in the great university city of Caille on Gallente Prime and Trousseau headed straight for oblivion. The night rapidly blurred to a drunken stumble from bar to bar before he collapsed into a cheap hotel room and the blessed arms of a night of dreamless sleep.

Despite the drink, he woke clear-headed in the morning, dressed in simple clothes from his kit bag and left the hotel with the only two items he knew he would need, a bottle of spirits and his service pistol. He walked slowly, savouring his deliberate movement toward a thing he had only seen in pictures and holoreels, the impossible beauty of a street made entirely of glass and diamonds, the jewel of The Gallente Federation, The Crystal Boulevard. Sunlight crashed in on him from the blaze of the morning sun and it was instantly exploded into millions of tiny chips of silicate wonderment. All around Trousseau, the strident voices of the vacationing tourists faded away as his head was anointed with a shower of light-infused diamond dust, a panoply of fractal heat and energy that washed through him and washed him clean. He raised the bottle of spirits to his lips and drank a deep draught that hit his bloodstream like a spike of electricity, he reached under his tunic and into his waistband and his hand closed around the bulk of his pistol but a soft voice pulled him back sharply from the precipice,

“Hello Alex.”

Trousseau flew around and faced the smiling aspect of a thick-set man with flinty eyes. He instantly took in the taut muscles, the close-cropped hair and the man’s air of confidence and felt the danger. He replied guardedly,

“Who are you?”

The man held out his hand and Alex shook it tentatively,

“My name is Aaron Chime. I hoped we could have a little chat.”

Alex moved slowly back and readied his weight on the balls of his feet in case he was forced to defend himself,

“How do you know my name and tell me why I should give you the time of day?”

Chime sat down on a low wall and placed his hands flat on his thighs as if he was trying to reassure Alex that he wasn’t any threat,

“I hoped you’d hear me out, I’ve served the Federation like you, will you spare me five minutes?”

Alex nodded and Chime continued,

“What do you think of The Crystal Boulevard? Beautiful isn’t it? But I wonder why they built it? Think of the expense, it’s shocking when you consider that the Federation has so much trouble feeding hungry mouths, don’t you think?”

The man’s inane questions were annoying Trousseau. Chime might be a soldier but he certainly didn’t sound like a patriot, Alex snapped back at him,

“This street is here to remind all Gallente of the purity of our vision, the rightness of our belief in liberty and justice, it’s a shining testament to our ideals and our race. That might mean nothing to you but it does to me, so show some respect.”

Chime laughed, a low, easy chuckle that annoyed Trousseau even more,

“It’s certainly pretty but how much liberty and justice have you seen here recently Alex? And how much have you meted out?”

Trousseau avoided looking at Chime as the older man continued,

“What if I told you this Federation isn’t quite what you think it is? The high ideals, the righteousness, all this talk of liberty and justice, what if I told you that the building of this empire of freedom and justice is still just a work in progress?”

Alex shrugged his shoulders apathetically, he’d ceased to care about what Chime was telling him but Chime wasn’t stopping,

“We hold up a shield Alex, a shield that hides the truth about what we really are. The reality is that we’re not really that different to the Amarr or the Caldari or the Minmatar. We present our own way of living as the paragon of correctness and if you interfere with us, insult us or disagree with us we will surely destroy you, because if we’re right, then the others must be wrong, because there just isn’t enough room in New Eden for everyone to stand on top of the mountain. But, being Gallente, we hide that truth behind our ideals. Take this place,”

He waved his hands around at The Crystal Boulevard,

“you’re right, it’s definitely a symbol but few people see the truth behind the symbol. The truth? This whole street is just an elaborate subterfuge, a clever piece of set dressing for a colossal defensive emplacement that protects the Federation’s three most important command bunkers from orbital bombardment.”

Chime paused for effect,

“The Federation’s most vital military infrastructure is right here Alex, communications, command and control, logistics – it’s all just under your feet.”

Trousseau’s mouth hung open in disbelief but he quickly recovered his composure and shot back at Chime,

“Say’s who?”

“Say’s me, say’s my boss, say’s the President.”

Chime reached into his pocket and brought out an ID card, it carried the name of a government agency Alex had never heard of, The Special Department of Internal Investigations and Federal Security. What Alex did recognise though was the signature of the man who had authorised the card, Mentas Blaque, the most powerful man in the Federation after the President, but Alex was tired of Chime’s diatribe, right now he didn’t really care who the guy worked for,

“Why don’t you just leave me alone? I’ve already given everything I have for the Federation and now you’re telling me the whole thing is a sham? Why? You want me to break down, you want to watch me cry? Well tough luck mister, I’m finished here, I don’t care.”

Chime must have realised that he was losing Trousseau, he edged down the wall a little until he was closer,

“That pain you’re feeling inside Alex, that’s the walls coming down, the walls we erect to protect ourselves from our fear and weakness. You’re being re-born and that hurts like hell. You see, the price of our freedom is constant vigilance and only people like you and I seem prepared to pay that price Alex. We’re the eyes that watch while others sleep, we’re the steel that straightens the spine of the Federation, we’re judge, jury and executioner and we’ve earned that right because we risk everything and ask for nothing. We do it not for the gratitude of the Gallente people or the glory of the Federation, but for the love for our brothers who fight and die beside us, that’s the soldier’s way. I know the freedom we fight for is a bloody, grubby sort of freedom, and sometimes we have to do the unspeakable just to preserve it, but it’s still our freedom and it’s so eminently preferable to the alternative.”

Alex turned his back and began to walk away, Chime raised his voice and where his delivery had been soft and cajoling, it was now firm with authority,

“Three days ago, an off-world combat team under my command infiltrated and assaulted a drug factory orbiting the second moon of Serpentis Prime 8,”

Trousseau’s head snapped around violently,

“Our mission was to overpower the defenders and retrieve the bodies of Gallente Marines who had been killed in a failed attack that had taken place some hours earlier. Once the assault was over, our orders were to place charges and blow the station sky-high, no evidence, no eyes, no come back. It was a mess Alex, God knows what that firefight was like but there were bodies and parts of bodies everywhere, the walls were running with blood and it didn’t look like anyone was left alive. Most of those Serpentis had terrible knife wounds, the Marines died with bayonets in their hands, fighting with their backs up against each other. While we were bagging the bodies, one of those marines started moving, he was still alive, just. He was terribly injured Alex, but he will get better.”

Trousseau was staring into the sky, tears falling freely down his cheeks,

“Emile and I have been talking Alex. I have work for you, work for both of you.”

Chime held out a contact card to the young soldier and when Trousseau took it he saw a black Gallente eagle outlined in white against a dark background. Words were printed underneath,

‘We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.’

Trousseau stared intently at it for long minutes before he slid it into his pocket and for the first time since Aaron Chime had spoken to him, Trousseau eased his finger off the trigger.

 

*

 

Trousseau and Fortune stepped from the elevator and walked past the long windows of the observation deck. For a brief moment, Alex saw a reflection of their Dominix shot across the walls as a sleek and shining Amarr Zealot flashed past. He saw the rusting bulk of an almost obsolete and scrap ready battleship looking every inch the decaying veteran of the Gallente-Caldari War. She was tired and dirty and stained all over by the impacts of the space detritus that had pockmarked her once smooth features. But looks could deceive, and in all things The Aquila was intended to deceive. Deception was in fact her raison d’etre, it was her pride and it was her glory.

Beneath a weathered and worn skin she was a devastating and brutal fighting vehicle capable of sustaining massive incoming damage while outputting a withering wall of concentrated fire that any craft without logistics support simply could not mitigate. The Federation shipyards had produced her as a Navy variant of the venerable battleship line but any signs of her enhanced abilities had been carefully concealed by the engineers at Duvolle Laboratories who were seconded to work on the outfitting of covert craft. Her armour had been expertly honey combed, effectively cutting her mass in half. She’d been rigged with T2 trimark armour pumps and equipped with the latest in micro jump drive technology meaning that even if she was fighting outnumbered and losing, it was likely she could extract herself far enough away from the battlefield to escape. In short, The Aquila was at the bleeding edge of what the Gallente Federation could throw into their secret wars and her helm had been entrusted to Alex Trousseau.

They descended steep stairs into a huge hangar softly lit by the diffuse red and amber glow of emergency lanterns. Neatly parked across the pristine floor and garaged by boxes of hazard tape were long lines of all terrain vehicles, miniature spacecraft and humanoid robotic suits. Maintenance droids scurried beneath the machines performing essential tasks, checking lubricants, re-charging fuel cells and re-arming weapon pods. Trousseau and Fortune began to move around the hangar, carefully selecting their personal equipment. Every available wall space was gridded with racking that held some of the tools of their deadly trade, their eyes danced over painblades, plasma rifles, grenades, stun batons and panniers of spoke bombs. Pods above the racking held their medical equipment, hardened syringes of pain medication and bio-nanological sealant that would allow the men to tend any injuries they sustained in combat. More sinister and unstable items were concealed behind the doors of air-locked vaults sunk into the floor of the hangar. Containers of nano disintegration fluid and disease cultures peered out from windows that were bathed in the sick yellow warning light that the Federation scientists used to indicate bio-hazards.

The contents of the hangar had allowed Trousseau and Fortune to bug, burgle, torture and murder right across the home systems of all four competing nations. If either of them were ever caught in high security space with the equipment they now so casually handled, they would be arrested and then most likely hung by the neck until dead, an end reserved for traitors and spies. It was a reality of the world of deniable operations that the shadowy figures who ordered them into the breach would claim to have no knowledge of their agents if they were captured and would then calmly stand by and watch Trousseau and Fortune swing.

They went to work. It was a practiced routine honed by the many previous extractions and hostile station infiltrations that had become Trousseau and Fortune’s stock in trade. Modular body armour was strapped on over an insulated combat suit, then weapons, magazines of ammunition, grenades, medical kit and communications gear were stowed into place in the relevant recessed slots on their body armour that also served to hide this contraband from view. They carried only very limited quantities of emergency oxygen to keep their weight and signature radius to a minimum. Their primary source of oxygen would come from injecting themselves with a serum that Duvolle Laboratories had synthesised from aquatic mammals. It allowed operators to super-saturate their blood with oxygen and meant that combat teams could travel in the vacuum of space for up to fifteen minutes without needing to breathe.

All the time he was kitting-up, Trousseau was repeatedly reviewing the dossier that Chime had delivered to him. He played it backwards and forward ad nauseam, constantly looking for flaws and imperfections in his plan, rehearsing his reactions to complications and memorising fall-back positions and extraction points from the charts and maps he had committed to memory.

Cuttelus Alba – The white handled knife – codename for a Federal Intelligence Office agent infiltrated into the workforce of The Caldari Navy Assembly Plant at Jita 4-4. As planned, Cuttelus passes all necessary vetting procedures and begins working as a drawing apprentice in the high security blueprint design labs within the Jita 4-4 shipyards that produce combat vessels for the Caldari Navy. The apprentice’s training will involve him studying all aspects of new starship design as a precursor to advancement towards a senior spaceframe designer position. He will gain a unique insight into the structural integrity of new military vessels and their associated strengths and weaknesses. But a problem arises, a routine review of surveillance footage shows the apprentice photographing things he shouldn’t be photographing. Cuttelus is marked for arrest and interrogation. Signals intelligence is intercepted by an FIO listening post and Cuttelus Alba is advised by his handlers to disappear inside the sprawling station until safe extraction can be arranged. How will he hide himself? He will hide himself in plain sight with ragged clothes and a begging bowl, because in Jita 4-4, no one looks twice at the poor.

 

*

 

So now Trousseau faced the stark reality that they were about to attempt to infiltrate Jita 4-4, the biggest spaceport and trade hub in the known worlds and home to every cheat, shyster, shylock and confidence trickster in the New Eden cluster. The station was seething with crime, intrigue and espionage and all the requisite players of these tawdry games were present. You didn’t have to search the concourses for long to find narcotic dealers, corporate thieves, military deserters, industrial spies, jihadists, animal smugglers, mercenaries, bookmark traders, gambling addicts, assassins, terrorists, prostitutes, pimps, tribes of beggars and other ne’er do wells. Nothing was what it seemed in Jita 4-4 and nobody was who they said they were. Despite the vast wealth that was station traded every day, or perhaps because of it, the spaceport attracted the very worse scrapings from the bottom of humanity’s barrel. It was as if centuries of accumulated filth had been hacked up from the depths of New Eden’s phlegm-choked lungs and then the whole putrid mess had been hawked and spat into orbit around the desiccated husk of Moon 4, to hang heavy in orbit and serve as a pulsating host for the legions of hungry parasites that called it home.

The mission would have seemed an impossible task to any ordinary men but the facts were simple enough. They had to depart The Aquila and then navigate through the most densely congested and highly secured docking ring of any space station in New Eden, then they would enter the cavernous main docking bay of Jita 4-4 and proceed through numerous security points and airlocks until they were able to reach the Arrivals Hall where they would pass through the hands of the heavily armed and highly trained guardians of the station, The Customs and Immigration Processing Unit. They would have to do all this before the extraction of Cuttelus Alba could commence and they would have to do it unseen and without arousing suspicion. It was a testament to both men’s skill and courage that their superiors thought they had even the glimmer of a chance of success.

With one last look back inside the ship that they were leaving, Trousseau and Fortune secured the visors of their helmets and entered the exterior air lock, the door hissed shut behind them. For a brief second, had anyone been looking, they would have seen two tiny figures emerge from the huge grey belly of The Aquila, remote winking pinpricks of light highlighting the shape of stick-like appendages as the men’s suit mounted micro-boosters started to push them away from the towering hull of the Dominix class battleship. It was impossible to see that their grim faces were set hard with determination and purpose, because from space, the men appeared to be nothing more significant than two glowing embers falling into the yawning maw of Jita 4-4.