Flying With Damaged Feathers

by hornethead

Chapter 1: Chapter 1: Tiran

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Chapter 1: Tiran

"You are seven minutes late, Tiran. I highly advise you get up, now," a slightly monotone female voice complained. The bundle of sheets on the mattress in the dark room stirred and emanated a soft groan. "Tiran," the voice adopted a warning tone, "you are now eight minutes late. Shall I administer some motivation?"

A corner of the sheets fluttered as its occupant let out an annoyed huff, "I"m up, I"m up! Jeez..." The soft linen shifted and slid down as a young man with close cropped dirty blonde hair sat up and rubbed his eyes. His head felt like it was about to split open, the after effects of a pretty heavy night of drinking. Tiran didn't particularly like drinking so much so often because of its after effects, but it was usually the only way he could get a night of uninterrupted, dreamless sleep.
He looked over and checked the digital clock attached to his bedside with bleary eyes and started as he noticed the time, "Shit..."

"Glad to see you awake and healthy, Tiran." the voice said with as much sarcasm a computer program could muster. "Shall I inform the Reintegration Bureau that you are on your way? After all, you are now nine minutes late."

Tiran glanced back at the clock. Its soulless electronic face displayed a time of 10:09. He had an appointment for ten 'o clock, sharp with the Navy's so-called Re-integration Bureau, one that he was now late for. The service was originally set up to help Sailors and Marines smoothly rejoin the civilian population after their term of service was up and that was usually the end of it. But it had another function. It was dreaded by those with particular skills, the day they received the call from the Bureau. They were being summoned back into service.

Tiran rubbed his face and flipped the covers off him, heading for his tiny bathroom, "No thanks, Li, I'm already late as it is, no point in rushing it. Do me a favor and start breakfast, I'll be out in a minute," he said in disinterest.

"Very well," the voice acquiesced.

Tiran shut the door to the bathroom, a pointless gesture as he lived alone, apart from Liania and she was essentially everywhere and anywhere in his small apartment, including the bathroom. LIANI; Locally Integrated Advanced Neural Intelligence, or "Li" as Tiran called her, had served as his personal companion for many years now. Constant tinkering and added upgrades had given her a somewhat unique "personality," as evidenced by her threat of "motivation" to get Tiran up out of bed, which was usually a small, but painful, electrical shock.

After first splashing his face with cold water, Tiran reached for his toothbrush. He was already late, but there was no point in showing up sloppy. He made a grab for the small rubber handle, but but faltered as his fingers remained curled or twitched, refusing to work properly. Tiran cursed and gave the appendage a few hard smacks with his left hand. With a rattle and click, his fingers extended, properly chastised.

He flexed his right hand and moved his arm around in its full range of motion. It still worked fine, but some of the joints felt sluggish. He made a mental note to have Li make an appointment with a bio-technician at some point. It had been some time since his last check-up and it was showing.

Tiran finished up his morning routine and walked out the bathroom, toweling his freshly shaven face dry. He could already smell the coffee brewing in the kitchenette and the old stale burn of the crusty remnants of past meals heating up on the cook-top. Tiran entered the kitchenette and took out a small pan, putting it on the now red-hot surface and pouring some egg concentrate from the fridge onto it and scrambling it up while it cooked. The eggs weren't real, not in the traditional sense. The carton-ed product was all that was available to him, the genuine chicken-laid variety being far too expensive and hard to come by in this day and age.

The coffee wasn't great either. He pulled off the pot and poured himself a cup, grimacing slightly as the hot swill raced down his throat with a plastic-y after taste. Still, it contained the all powerful chemical compound dubbed "caffeine" and that"s all he cared for, really. It was just one of the very few things that kept him buoyant in this ugly, yet beautiful world.

Pausing only long enough to blow the "eggs" slightly cooler than their current piping hot temperature, Tiran wolfed down his meager start to the day and quickly got dressed. He threw on a pair of synthetic denim blue jeans and a dark green t-shirt. "I suggest you bring a jacket. It is currently raining and is forecast to continue throughout the day. Temperatures are in the low sixties and are expected to drop to the fifties as nightfall approaches." Li advised him.

"Thanks mom!" Tiran responded cynically as he snatched a black leather jacket from a nearby hanger. Like most things in the apartment, the jacket wasn't genuine either, instead made out of a carefully formulated mixture of recycled fibers and plastics that gave it the same feel and texture as its old predecessor.

"I merely wish to keep you in good health, Tiran." his virtual companion replied. "It would be much more dull and boring here were you to die of pneumonia and leave me all by my lonesome. Though I suppose it would leave me with far more free time without having to constantly pester you to make your appointments on time," she teased.

Tiran gulped the rest of his coffee down as he made his way out the front door. He paused at the threshold and glanced up towards the ceiling, "Li, download to the mobile unit."

"One moment, working..." Tiran felt a slight buzz in his right arm as Li digitally transferred her data, essentially her core being, onto his person. She did however leave a small fragment of herself in the apartment to look after things while they were away. "Download complete." she notified her owner through a tinny voice in his head. "Shall we be going now?"

"Yes, we shall." Tiran sighed as he stepped out his apartment and locked the door behind him.

Fat droplets of water pattered onto his head and shoulders as he stepped out under the swollen gray sky. Rivulets of water left sooty marks down the walls as they picked up whatever filth had accumulated on the roof and carried it down the sides of the concrete building like frightening little conquerors with their spoils. It was a rare rainstorm, the San Diegan climate was notoriously dry and sunny year round, but for the seasonal fog. Tiran decided to enjoy it while he could, taking a circuitous route to the bus stop.

As Tiran reached the bus stop, he considered cramming himself in under the cramped covering, but thought better of it as he eyed the press of bodies. He never did like crowds. Instead, he took refuge under the overhang of a doorway recessed into the building nearby. He like the rain, but there was no reason to get any wetter.

He waited a while, occasionally glancing at his watch. The bus was late, as it usually was. He couldn't really blame it, congested as the city was. The population had grown large enough at this point that what had previously been sprawling suburbs was now a mass of large apartment buildings much like the one he lived in. That wasn't to say that suburbs had gone extinct. One had just to move much further inland to find them.

That wasn't much of an option for Tiran, as that too was ludicrously expensive. In years past, he might have been able to afford such a thing, but that privilege had been savagely revoked from him after the incident. It was why he was living the way he was now, instead of a well-to-do officer of the Navy usually would. He didn't feel like he'd lost all that much anyhow, only those with wives and families tended to gravitate towards the inland and he had neither.

He had some distant relatives, sure, but none he would really call family. The last person he had ever given that title to was his dear old grandfather and he'd since passed away. Tiran's grandfather would often tell him stories about his own parents and grandparents, most all unremarkable people that sounded a bit nasty to him. One of his favorite stories, however, had been of his estranged great uncle, who disappeared tragically in an ultimately meaningless war that had been over for more than a century now.
A great man, by the military's and Tiran's grandfather's account, but not a huge hit with the family, given how the man's will had been carried out. A good majority of the money from his life insurance had gone to some unrelated family out in Brooklyn though none knew exactly why. A great boon for that family, but not so much for Tiran's. It seemed to have left a bad impression on his name with them, and for Tiran, seeing as how he had inherited his last name from his grandfather and he from said uncle.

Tiran didn't really care about he money at all, but the rest of the family didn't have the same attitude. They had felt cheated and made it well known to anyone closely associated with the man and then down through the subsequent generations of those relations. They had given Tiran enough grief more than once the few times he visited just because he still carried the man's last name. It certainly hadn't helped. Still, as much grief as Tiran had gotten from it, he had no desire to change it, even if it was the root of many a bad memory.
Tiran yanked himself out of his dark thoughts as he noticed the mass of people at the bus stop had begun to shrink, piling into the bus as it arrived and opened its doors. Tiran quickly jogged to the back of the line and shuffled in with the rest of the group, sliding his card over the reader and taking a standing position near the back of the already overcrowded transport. Then with a lurch, the bus pulled away on its journey.
After a trolley ride and two more transfers, Tiran was finally standing outside the gates of the sprawling 32nd street Naval Base. He walked up to the pedestrian gate and handed the Master-at-Arms on duty his ID. The MA scanned Tiran's card, handing it back with a grim expression after his scanner beeped and blinked green. Tiran thanked him and asked for directions, strolling away after the MA pointed him towards what Tiran hoped was the right way.
Tiran recoiled as filthy water splashed around his shoe, soaking through his sock and chilling his foot. Already, this was becoming a bad day. The drab, featureless building of the Reintegration Bureau loomed above him like some morose tomb awaiting to swallow any careless man or woman foolish enough to enter.
Tiran entered, receiving a disapproving look from the MA standing guard just inside the door as he traced a trail of muddy footprints across the otherwise immaculate, white tile floor. He handed his I.D. to an attractive receptionist at the thick plastic desk and was pointed down one of the corridors. Tiran quietly thanked her, flashing what he thought was a charming smile as he turned and left. She returned the favor. As he sauntered down the passageway, Tiran made a note to himself to try and get her number on his way out.
The walls seemed to press in around him. The tile soon gave way to thin carpeting, muffling Tirana's steps and lending the beige walls an oppressive nature. He counted the doors as he walked, occasionally glancing at the placards mounted on the walls that announced their location.
Finally, he arrived, stopping at a door labeled 114-B. There it was, the door that possibly lead to a new career or another disgrace. Taking a deep breath, be reached for the handle and pushed his way in, uncertain of what he would find.
The room was windowless, a dead end. It was lit by two rows of bright, sterile fluorescent's that cast the room with a cold, unfeeling light. A wiry man in a stained lab coat looked up from his plush seat at a rich mahogany table ringed by identical chairs, what appeared to be a sneer began to form on his face. Tiran continued to take in his new surroundings, moving his eyes around the room.
When they finally reached the end of the table and the old woman in uniform sitting there, Tiran frowned, scowled, and turned to stomp back out the door, "I'm sorry, this appears to be the committee on witchcraft and devil worship, I must be down the hall..." he said with a light coat of malice.
"Now, Tiran, don't be trite," the woman said in a soft tone, "can't we put all that behind us?" When Tiran showed no reaction and kept walking, her voice became hard and flinty, "Or should I inform the MAs that you're being belligerent and uncooperative?"
Tiran paused at the door, "Really?"
"Yes, really. Now why don't you take a seat so we may begin?"
Begrudgingly, Tiran turned back around and closed the door. He went to the seat furthest from the woman and plopped down, propping a leg up on an adjacent chair. Disgust briefly flashed across woman's face, but she said nothing.
Tiran crossed his arms and glowered at her. Miram Cherovic. Or, Admiral Miram Cherovic, Tiran thought as he noticed the gleaming silver stars on each of her epaulettes. She had come a long way since he'd last seen her, at the court-marshal. Back then, she had been a Commander on her way to Captain. Seems her career had enjoyed a nice boost after seeing his so casually discarded.
He coudn't make anything of the man in the lab coat. The guy looked almost dangerously underweight with rapidly thinning gray hairs clinging to his scalp. He seemed to be studying Tiran while simultaneously shuffling through a reef of papers as if he were comparing notes on something.
"Now," Cherovic began, "I'm sure you're wondering why you've been called in today."
"The discharge wasn't enough, you want to try for prison now?" Tiran guessed with a sarcastic bite.
Cherovic looked displeased with his response, but didn't reply. "No," she said, "rather, we're here to offer you an opportunity. As you may well know, the war hasn't been going well for us."
"That's an understatement."
She was referring to, Tiran knew, what people were calling the last true great war. In the past, it was thought that World War Two was to be the last world war, and that a third would result in the utter annihilation of the planet. As usual, people were wrong and history was again doomed to repeat itself.
It started out slow, with what was assumed to be another small terrorist organization carrying out attacks here and there in secluded parts of the world. At first, people believed it was merely a clone of the radical groups of the past, but then, as they were tracked and studied, a more daunting truth emerged. These were no ordinary terrorists.
They didn't quite fight for some obscure cause or religious goal. They didn't even call themselves freedom fighters. No, this group had but one goal in mind; rampant destruction of anything and everything.
In the beginning, certain religions were blamed, but none fit, not even Satanism. Nihilism was out, too, because even the most hardened Nihilist didn't see the point in waging a war about it. Besides, it didn't quite fit their stance.
For years, experts were baffled as to what this might mean or who exactly was behind it, the movement seemed to have sprung from no where. All the while, it grew, their ranks swelled, to the point that they couldn't really be called just another terrorist cell. Attacks became more deadly, devastating. The loss of human life at the hands of these marauders staggering.
It was difficult to pin them down and attack them directly, because at first, they didn't belong to, or were located in, any one place. In this instance, they succeeded in doing what many thought absolutely impossible. They united the world. An uneasy union, but still a union, between governments that had once been bitter enemies.
Of course, there were exceptions, radical holdouts that still believed they were righteous and true above all others, that believed that the 'west' or the 'east' were their true enemies. They were the first to fall. And when they did, they fell hard. because of this, the central Asian region was the first to become the thralls of their enemies.
Once again, there was war in the Pacific. This time, however, countries like China, Korea, Japan and even remnants of India and Pakistan fought as one. The rest of the world began to contribute to the effort of containment, soon leading to the creation of a multi-national special forces group. In war, the world was united.

As heartening as that was, the price was costly. People like Tiran were created. The average life expectancy in the fighting was low. People advanced through the rates and ranks with a fevered speed as their predecessors fell. Thus, drastic actions were taken.
Tiran was part of a small group of pilots and ground operators that offered themselves up to advance human evolution in the only way humans could. Through neurological augmentation, man was joined with computer. Circuits and flesh fused at the most primal of levels, minds joined and intertwined, both natural and artificial. Many volunteered, but few were successful in this endeavor. Tiran was one of that number.
"So you can see why I've asked you back." Cherovic said.
"Not really." Tiran replied, becoming impatient. "There aren't many of us, but I know there's still a few in the service, people that you didn't personally crucify," he added with some malice.
"True," Cherovic said, bristling up at his statement, but otherwise calm. "However, they do not quite meet our requirements for this particular project."

"Project?" Tiran said, leaning forward and becoming instantly suspicious.
"Yes, though I dare say the good Doctor could explain it better than I," she told him, glancing over at the wiry man seated near the middle of the table.
"Uh.. yes," the man said, leaning in and picking up some papers that had been laid out in front of him. "I'm Dr. Welkin, pleased to meet you!" The man extended a hand towards Tiran and smiled, flashing bright, meticulously maintained teeth. When Tiran did not return the gesture, instead remaining sitting with his arms crossed, a look of contempt on his face, Dr. Welkin uncomfortably leaned back and shuffled his papers, "Well, yes..." he cleared his throat, "Anyway, it seems you are our best candidate for testing."
Tiran cocked an eyebrow in the doctor's direction, "Testing?"
"Yes, testing," the doctor confirmed. "In essence, you'll be helping to conduct tests on a new aircraft. You know, push it limits, see how it flies and how certain...new systems will react."
"I don't understand," Tiran twisted in his seat to look at Miram, "don't you guys have automated systems and drones for that kind of thing now?"
"Of course," she said, "but it seems we've hit a few snags in using them."
"Damn programs," Dr. Welkin began to grumble, "coming out all haywire, going off on their own and—"
"Doctor!" Cherovic said sternly while shooting an acidic look at the scientist. "That's quite enough!"
Dr. Welkin scowled, but grabbed a paper and begin to doodle, visibly cowed.
"Now..." the Admiral adopted a more gentler tone as she returned her attention to Tiran, "You are to be re-instated to your previous rank of Lieutenant, full with accompanying pay grade and benefits. In addition, upon your signature of the requisite forms and Page 13s, all previous charges levied against you will be dropped, including an Honorable Discharge status upon completion of the contract. Do you accept these terms?" she added with an oily smile.
Tiran took in her offer, thought about it, mulled it over. He tried to see the angle in it, the catch. After all, it sounded exactly like it was too good to be true. There had to be something there, something important about this contract he wasn't being told. Of course, Tiran was sure that they wouldn't tell him until he'd signed the gag-order. The doctor had let slip something about malfunctioning programs in the test drones, Tiran was sure that had something to do with it and it caused him worry.
Still, he considered his other options. Namely, going back to that pitiful existence he'd been living in the city, if he could even describe it accurately that way. Tiran didn't mind taking the odd-jobs and doing the dirty work, but money was becoming more and more difficult to come by and soon he'd be living out of a storage unit. If this deal worked out for him, he might have a chance at being able to grab one of the last few available empty patches of land in the world and live out the rest of his days in peace, away from the rest of humanity.
It took Tiran no longer than a minute to make his decision, "Ok, you've got a deal."
Tiran couldn't really tell from across the table, but for a moment he thought he caught Cherovic briefly let slip a sincere smile.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: Relic Estimated time remaining: 8 Hours
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