OSaBC : The Bird of Hermes

Chapter One: Unwelcome Reckoning

"What I find most appalling about Alliance R&D is that there are entire departments that don't exist on paper yet have budgets of hundreds of millions of credits and staffs in the thousands. Don't you think it requires more oversight to avoid abuse, Admiral?"

"I believe if you think 'oversight' is going to improve a group whose very job is to do things the Citadel has told us very explicitly that We Are Not Allowed To Do, you'd better make damn sure they can't pin it on the SA as a whole if the people doing said job get caught. Morals and ethics and all that are fine and good when you live in a world where the biggest danger is other people, but we are no longer in the cradle of Earth, ignorant of the darkness outside."

-Admiral Branson and Admiral Vandefar, 'Review of Project HERMES,' in the aftermath of the Magog Incident

You can do everything right, make all the best choices, take all the best options. But life isn't defined by what you do right… but about how you react when it all goes wrong.

Typical. Everything I spent my life on is a lie or gone, and now I'm sticking my neck out on some crazy-ass stunt for an old friend that will probably get me killed.

Lost in his thoughts, Jeff Bright didn't realize the shuttle had touched down until the VI blared its bland, artificial voice across the 2MC of the craft. "Arrival at Arcturus Station. Connection to outbound docks for SATV Orestes, SATV Earhart, SACTV Shores of Montezuma in fifteen minutes, please be aboard if you are bound for those vessels."

He glanced up at the announcement, the light catching his good eye. His skin was the darker shades of Afro-Chinese, his visible eye confirming his mixed heritage. Black cybernetics covered half his face, his right eye a glowing white oblong in durasteel, his right arm a riot of black combat steel and dark gray myomer muscles. His clothing – matte black jacket with combat inserts, black ripstop pants, a black ballistic cloth shirt, and combat boots – meshed with the color of his augmetics.

Grimacing, Jeff picked up his duty duffle and slowly stood, unfurling to his full height of well over two meters. He watched in faint, tired amusement as the gaggle of Marine orderlies and a pair of civilian techs made way for him as he strode forward, the heavy muted thump-boom of his cybernetic legs a staccato drumbeat to match his mood.

He stepped down off the oversized shuttle, careful not to trip on the stairs that were too small, and glanced around. Same fake-ass public areas, same stupid design to mimic the Citadel and same crowds of sappy looking civilians wearing shit his mother would have horsewhipped him to even look at. He smiled faintly remembering his parents, their admonishments about 'corrupt and godless people' and their mixed pride and apprehension as he joined the military.

They'd lived long enough to see their grandchildren, and died before he had lost it all and his family alongside.

Jeff flexed massive shoulders, adjusting the angle of his duty duffle in his right hand, and glanced around the people waiting at the dock. Several groups of Marines – three-day stubble on the male faces and tipsy walking from the boys and girls both, indicated groups on shore leave partying hard as usual. Two disgustingly good looking ensigns, both with white berets and crisp dress uniforms, holding up holo-placards for someone else.

Finally, at the far end of the dock, a figure stepped out of a dark black aircar and took the steps leading up to the platform in quick succession. Graying hair cut back into a Marine high and tight framed tired but firm features, and the uniform was flat black with a single beige stripe running along the left leg to cross over the chest.

Jeff gave a crooked smile and walked toward the figure, shifting the bag to his left hand as he threw up a salute, his voice deliberately wry. "Major Ryder, Colonel Jeff Bright, 5th Solguard—" he stopped when the other man shook his head and laughed.

"Knock that shit off, Jeff." Alec Ryder extended his hand and Jeff shook it, mindful of his new augmetic strength. The other man looked him up and down after the shake, and Jeff suppressed a wince. He knew how he looked.

The memory of the firefight flashed in his mind again – the stupid heroics of Steffan Manswell, the screams of the wounded and dying, the Fist of Khar'shan trooper who'd gotten the drop on them. He could see himself shoot down the first one with a beautiful deflection even as Steffan dodged the melee charge of two more, and then he saw the goon at the top of the stairs with the missile launcher…

The doctors stated he was lucky to be alive. Both legs, his right arm, right lung, most of his face, both eyes, right ear… all cybernetic now. 57%.

The fact that he'd saved the life of Maxwell's favorite grandson was not lost on anyone, and Jeff knew that well, both from the fact the Manswell's had both knighted him and paid for his surgery, recovery and physical therapy, and for the heavy gray knotted belt he now wore, the Iron Valor, that implied they owed him a debt they could not repay, yet would always strive to repay.

He knew how he looked. He met Alec's gaze squarely, and the other man sighed. "I haven't seen you since… hell, Dimitri's funeral. They… well, shit. They told me it was bad, but…"

Jeff's crooked smile faded a little. "It was. Never get all your shit wrecked in one go, it is a mess to get fixed up. My favorite part had to be them cutting off what was left of my legs with a laser."

Alec winced, and Jeff continued, his voice dropping a little. "I've been in and out of hospitals, cyberclinics, labs, and therapy facilities for almost a damned year. For a while it was touch and go. Now… I don't know." He shrugged. "BuPers had lined up some kind of stupid shit for me to do – TDY at Pinnacle to push boots, or Citadel duty with the ceremonial pukes. No combat postings."

Alec gestured to the aircar, and Jeff followed, his voice low as he continued to speak. "So when you sent out that message, I figured I might as well see what this was about. You did say it was combat related, right?"

Alec gave a little laugh as he opened the rear door and got in, followed by Jeff, who had to bend a bit. The car was roomy and elegant, black leather and real wood interiors. In the front was a slender blade of a young woman, her hair pulled back into thin dreadlocks tied behind her and her features a softer echo of Alec's.

The man's rough voice sounded as Jeff closed the door. "My daughter, Sara." To the girl, he spoke in a warmer tone. "Main office, please, Sara."

She only nodded, engaging the car's drive systems, and Alec leaned back. "You're right, Jeff. It is a combat job. Probably more than one, and all… ugly. VERY ugly. I've already lost a bunch of damn fine men and women and I hate sending you into this clusterfuck… but I don't have any options. Most of the big-time shitwreckers are either too public, hate me, or are dead. And my pull isn't what it used to be."

Jeff arched an eyebrow. "You had pull? That's how you ended up in the Shit Brigades with me, Dimitri, and Elexia? Fuck outta here." The two laughed, and then Alec's mirth faded a little.

"Yeah, laugh it up. But I'd been making progress… until I fucked it up. Don't know if you kept up with what was going on with me and Ellen…"

Jeff winced. "I heard about the disease, and the… kangaroo court over your AI thing." He gave a shrug, one that Alec nodded at. "Beyond that, well… I've been distracted being turned into the Seven Million Dollar man."

Ryder's expression flickered into something vaguely closed looking, as if he was picking the words he used. "I understand what I did violated the law. I also understand that it hasn't stopped the SA or other governments from doing the same kinds of things, with less than benevolent reasons. I got cashiered… then I got picked up out of the dirt and dusted off and given an opportunity."

He looked Jeff in the eye. "While most of the old squad is dead – Elexia isn't but she's pregnant and getting married – I knew you were still kicking and when I saw BuPers bullshit in the works, thought I'd ask you to help me."

Jeff kept his expression calm and neutral, but his mind was turning. BuPers – the SA's Bureau of Personnel Deployment – was a top-level secure commission, with some of the most restricted access levels in the entire government. To see active BuPers deployment was something only a very few people were supposed to have access to, and to modify them…

Alec's statement about 'losing his pull' had new and darker connotations. He decided to ignore them, and instead took a deep breath. "I'm guessing this is a lot more serious than having me ride herd on a bunch of scientists digging up shit in the Deep Traverse, Alec."

Alec Ryder merely nodded, his features hard to read. "It is. I'm guessing you're not much interested in settling in first and finding a place to stay before getting read in on this? Like I said, it's fucking ugly."

Jeff shrugged. "Amanda is gone, so are the kids. I don't blame her, she didn't sign up to be married to… this." He gestured with his left hand at all of the cybernetics, to the black steel overlay covering his right eye and half his face. "I can't do anything about it, and sitting in a shitty block apartment staring at four white walls and a glass of whiskey isn't about to put me in a better mood or mindset."

Alec's voice, always hard, softened audibly. "Fair enough, old friend. I'm sorry, as meaningless as that is, for what you went through saving that Manswell kid."

Jeff shrugged. "He was just a kid… brave, didn't play his name up, or act all better than everyone. Every Marine in the team respected him. I'm more sorry he's as busted up as I am, even if I did save his life. Some life."

Alec's eyes narrowed. "You know better than that. The alternative isn't pleasant. As for everything else… well, you can crash with me for a bit, assuming you don't laugh me the fuck out of here when you hear 'bout the shit I just dropped you into."

Ryder sighed and pulled an OSD out of his shirt pocket. "Here, slot this and you'll get an idea of what we're on about."

Jeff took it and inserted into his omni-tool, which hummed quietly for a second. He spoke. "VI, internal playback, HUD and aural implant only."

Data scrolled across his vision, the shape of a planet – blasted, gray, dead – hanging in a lurid greenish-tinted nebula, with data points neatly listed down the side. A strong, elegant female voice spoke. "Project HERMES is an Omega-Level project that performs investigations into listed sites that are believed to be of pre-Prothean, pre-Inusannon, or in some cases, even pre-Griannon antiquity. Most such sites have been serially and repeatedly picked over and excavated but we have discovered some which remain undisturbed.

"HERMES is run under the direct control of the Department of Abnormalities, with no outside oversight, audit, controls, or reporting. All reports are to be verbal and absolutely no recordings are to be taken outside of requirements for testing. All artifacts, recovered data, biological samples, or archaeotech is to be remanded immediately to DepAb for analysis, classification, or restriction.

"HERMES is a deniable Level Six operation with direct Red Note authorization from the High Lords and standing mandates to prevent information of the project, its goals, or recoveries to date from falling into the hands of any outside party, not only alien nationals but the AIS, Commissariat, or SA High Command. All operators in HERMES are therefore fitted with contextual-detonation cortex bombs and anti-grain dead-man's switches, cognitive and chemical restraint on interactions with non-HERMES personnel, and no less than sixty hours of hypno-suppressive indoctrination.

"In the event of a breach of the HERMES TALARIA Security Protocol, all agents are to be remote liquidated and all information nodes not already on the Black Network are to be wiped and then physically destroyed. Station X98-12 in Adolus Minor is to be used to store all data until transfer to the Black Network, if TALARIA is violated, it will auto-drop into the nearby black hole.

"As of 1900 sixteen days ago, the primary HERMES team, Argicida, failed to report in after investigation of planet RHO-19-Theta Eleven. Preliminary data indicated recovered ruins and possible archaeotech in excess of six million years old. Secondary teams Eriounios and Dolios were dispatched fourteen days ago to investigate. Both teams reported multiple anomalous data entries, energy readings, and possible disruptions of VIs. Contact was lost at 2200 nine days ago upon their descent to RHO-19-Theta Eleven.

"Neither Argicida nor Eriounios were combat rated teams, although they underwent standard R&D weapons familiarity training. Dolios was a double-strength detachment of 20 A-rate Marines, 4 snipers, 2 scouts, and 2 medics. The fact that none of them got off emergency transponders is alarming. The fact that we have not detected detonation of the dead-man switches based on radiological monitoring from the drone left in orbit is more alarming.

"Per Procedure Tammuz, a combat drop of expendable assets has been authorized to Intercession pending approval from Admiral Kurgan and Major Ryder. Assets are not required nor allowed to be fitted with stock HERMES security measures, hypnotic controls, or cortex bombs. As we do not have any idea what is presently on RHO-19-Theta Eleven, it is strongly suggested the individuals be prepared for technology from GOI-227 (Arcann Hegemony), GOI-941 (Pentafar Alignment), or, worst-case scenario, GOI-545 (Codename: Reapers).

"Additional details to follow from handler. This is a BLACK-CERVANTES-FIVE authorization, Red Note Affirmation string Alpha-Delta-Delta-Sierra-Tango-Charlie-Charlie-November, Niner. Repeat, ADDSTCC 9. As such, if you are discovered by alien nationals or SA internal security forces not cleared for Omega/SUPERNOVA-level projects, you will be disavowed and not recovered.

"This file will self-wipe within thirty seconds. Please eject the disc and dispose of it as it will dissolve within one hour of being played.

"This is Admiral of the Green Synthia Vandefar, authorization code Beta-Alpha-Beta-Sixteen-Gamma."

The file terminated, and the disc slid out of his omni-tool. Alec gestured toward the ashtray in the center console between them and he dumped it in, frowning at the faint black residue on his fingers.

He gathered his thoughts for a moment. "Jesus fucking Christ, Alec."

The other man gave a thin smile. "It's… bad, Jeff. HERMES was not only black-level but the best of the best – these men and women had gotten past ancient security systems, Arcann death traps, and the kind of sick bullshit Inusannon used as security. To lose one or two on an op was bad, but to lose both teams and the security backstop team?"

He grimaced, something strained in his features catching Jeff's eye, and Jeff spoke. "…There's something else, isn't there?"

Alec nodded. "We don't know much about the site, Rho-19, except that it was referenced by several different races in ruins we found. I argued for remote observation, drone exploration, what have you, but I was overruled by the Admiral. With some of the mess heating up now based on some other work we've done with other situations…"

He slumped and Jeff nodded. "I don't recognize much of what was said – but I know my clearance ain't nowhere near SUPERNOVA. Alec, level with me. I don't mind going in alone. I don't mind sticking my dick into a deathtrap. I don't mind any of that as long as I'm going in to save someone, not recover a fucking data disk of bullshit from a pile of rotting corpses. What's the chances they're alive?"

Alec's smile was a mere line against his dark skin, and his eyes were empty. "I honestly don't know, and that's why we're worried. If I knew they were dead, I'd nuke the site from orbit. If I knew they were alive, I'd engineer a reason to get a heavy drop of combat mechs and DACT. But we don't know, and we can't expose this shit right now."

The aircar slowed and drifted down, coming to a neat stop in front of a tall white building. "The Admiral wants to brief you on this as well, but it should be short. The quicker we move on this the better, but if you need time to think about it—"

Jeff raised his left, organic hand. "Nah. I'll do it. I didn't… ask for all this shit…" He gestured again to his cybernetic limbs. "…but if I have it, I might as well use it. And I know I'm augmented way fucking beyond what they authorize for DACT or even Ns."

Alec nodded sourly, opening the door. "You are. Based on the specsheet the Manswells were nice enough to send us, you might be the toughest and hardest to kill SOB in the SA military right now."

Jeff chuckled. "Old Man Ahern would disagree." He stepped out, straightening. One good thing about cybernetic spines was your back never hurt anymore.

Alec turned back to the car. "Sara, we'll probably be a while – pick up some Chinese and head over to the apartment. Jeff can crash with us tonight if he doesn't mind."

The woman nodded, and the aircar took off, banking sharply to head toward the center of Arcturus.

Alec nodded at the door. "Let's get this over with, and get you kitted out. I'm glad you took the job, Jeff."

Jeff Bright took a last glance out over the gleaming lines of Arcturus before shrugging his shoulders again, slinging his duffel over his right shoulder. "I gotta believe God makes things happen for a reason. Maybe this is how I'll find some meaning in what's left of my life."

They entered the building, the heavy durasteel doors shutting behind them with a faint booming noise, muffling their footsteps trailing off into the distance.