Chapter 17: The Shadows

"Suit up, prep for combat!" Lucassen called out, stepping into the hanger bay of the Shroud, his heavier Marine Raiders Hardsuit feeling alien in comparison to his light tactical gear. His carbine had been reconfigured for CQC, the barrel measuring at a meager 13 inches.

"Copy." Commander Jacob Taylor barked out over the light thrumming of the Void Drive, stepping into his exoskeleton and working to attach the armored plates into their proper places on the frame.

"Any bets on who this Broker arsehole is?" Zaeed asked, sliding his wicked-looking serrated combat knife into its sheath on his chestplate. "My money's on Asari."

"I'll take you up on that." Kasumi smiled, strolling over and producing her twin machine pistols from the weapon rack by the elevator. "Fifty creds on Hanar."

"You think this goddamn thing is a big, stupid jellyfish?" Zaeed barked out a laugh. "I ain't ever heard a' those goddamn things being anything other than preachers."

"I'm with Zaeed." Oriana grabbed her AR-190 from the rack, attaching ten spare magazines to the retention clips on her armor. "A hundred on Asari."

"Ya' goddamn right, sweetheart." Zaeed chuckled. "Word is this Shadow Broker's been around for hundreds of years, only makes sense that it'd be one of those squid-head bastards."

"Can it, team." Jacob called out, pulling his helmet on over his head. "And you're all idiots, it's probably a Salarian."

Lucassen paid the banter no mind, simply grabbing a pair of disruptor grenades from a small metallic crate and locking them to his combat harness. "Voight-Kampff, link the comms." He asked into his communicator, taking care to ensure that his helmet's speakers were deactivated.

"Comms check." Lucassen said as he heard the soft pinging of a communicator linking to a local network.

"Helix Actual, comms are green." Jacob responded.

"Helix-2, hear you loud and clear, Operative." Lawson answered.

"Helix-3, ready." Kasumi responded.

"Helix-4, prepped and ready." Zaeed's gruff voice came over the comms.

"The light is green, let's move!" Lucassen ordered. "Helm, bring is down into Hagalaz's atmosphere."

"Copy, Operative Lucassen." The ship's pilot called out over the ship-wide PA system.

Lucassen felt the ship shudder beneath his feet as it made contact with the turbulent atmosphere of Hagalaz. After a few moments of waiting, the hangar bay door opened, the gale-force winds of the perpetual storm whistling past as the ship matched speeds with the Shadow Broker's vessel beneath it.

"Go, go, go!" Lucassen ordered, taking the lead as he leapt out of the Shroud, activating the thruster pack that was built into the rear of his armor. His boots met the metal hull beneath him with a heavy clang, followed by a quick click as the magnetic seals locked with the ship's outer hull.

The four other sets of boots met the hull a few feet behind him. Lucassen gave a quick motion with his hand, ordering the N7 team to advance with him. There was a strange, violent beauty in the perpetual storm that the ship followed. Lightning struck the focusing rods that jutted out from the hull of the vessel, which focused the raw energy and converted it into fuel for the vessel's constant motion.

"I bet the Broker's men love patrolling the hull…" Kasumi commented, making the mistake of looking over the side of the hull, down into the seemingly endless void beneath.

"Not even a goddamn guard rail." Zaeed agreed, walking near the center of the pack.

Lucassen held up a closed fist, the entire N7 fireteam halting behind him. "Maintenance drones ahead." Lucassen brought his rifle to bear, looking down the smart-linked scope. He painted four targets for the N7 to engage, then settled his crosshairs on the fifth target. "Engage." He ordered.

All five coilguns barked out in unison, the sound of the hypersonic slugs drowned out by the whistling winds. All five of the strange holographic drones crackled and fizzled as the slugs impacted, eventually fading out.

As a dozen more began appearing from behind them, Lucassen flipped his rifle into automatic fire, firing controlled bursts as the drones began converging on his team. "Move up, get off the bridge!" Lucassen ordered, moving as he fired.

XXXXX

"Get that goddamn door open, Goto!" Zaeed shouted, switching to his pistol as the magazine in his rifle ran dry. He popped out of cover to pepper the kinetic barriers of a Salarian.

"I'm trying!" Kasumi shouted, wildly looking between the door's console and her Datatool as she worked to bypass the security measures. Despite the limited capabilities of Council-grade computer systems, this one was proving to be quite the hassle.

Lucassen winced as an incineration package slammed into the metallic wall that he was using for cover. He popped out of cover, slotting a round through the head of the Asari that had sent the tech package his way, the slug passing cleanly through her chest armor and sending her to the floor.

"Man, gravity's one mean son of a bitch, ain't it?" Zaeed shouted, watching a Turian that Jacob had unleashed a biotic pull on get swept away in the winds.

"Got it!" Kasumi shouted, seeing the door's console light up in green.

"Move inside!" Lucassen shouted, tossing a stun grenade over his cover before standing up and backpedaling towards the door.

XXXXX

"Powering down Void Drive." Joker said, hands dancing across the interface at the helm of the Normandy.

Shepard watched as the distant singularity faded from view, replaced with the image of Rannoch. The remnants of the Quarian Heavy Fleet orbited around the planet, joined by a few UHE Heavy Cruisers and Frigates. Scattered among the formation was the entirety of the Geth armada.

The surface of Rannoch was speckled with a few points of glowing light, indicating civilization had returned to the planet. The Geth had assisted the Quarians with building settlements on their homeworld, and had even begun integrating themselves into Quarian enviro-suits to speed up the reacclimation to planetary life. Shepard allowed herself a small smile as she saw the two retrofitted Turian dreadnoughts spearheading the Heavy Fleet's defensive formation, the Turian markings replaced with Quarian ones.

"Commander, receiving comms from Rannoch. Patching them in." Traynor's voice came over the intercom.

"UHE Normandy, this is Rannoch Fleet Command." The slightly synthesized voice of the Quarian on the other end of the comms came over the tightbeam system. "You are cleared to dock at Cooperation Spaceport on the surface. Welcome to Rannoch."

"Copy that, Rannoch Fleet Command, we are beginning our descent." Joker answered, closing the comms a moment later.

XXXXX

Stratton stepped into the Council's personal hanger bay, perplexed. He was unsure of why the Council had asked him to come to the Citadel, they had only mentioned that "this was something that he should see in-person."

He casually followed behind the Asari greeter that met him every time he made a trip to the Citadel. Strangely enough, he wasn't led into the Council Chambers. He was led into the Citadel Archives. The vast amount of hermetically-sealed cylinders containing artifacts that were thousands of years old, all neatly arrayed in retention slots on the wall. Some holographic images flickered, showing footage of important events throughout galactic history. As the Chancellor was led into an observation room, he was struck completely still by the sight before him.

The three Councilors stood around a large table, looking up to him as he stepped in. They all looked to him in confusion as he stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth hanging open as he eyed the large object resting in the middle of the room. The ancient-looking spacefaring probe, adorned with a transmitter dish connected to a shallow cylindrical base, was immediately recognized by the Chancellor. "Chancellor Stratton?" Tevos asked, seeing the almost entranced state that he was in. "Is something wrong?"

Wordlessly, Stratton strode over to the ancient probe, kneeling down next to it. Spotting that old golden record, sitting proudly on the metallic casing of the probe. He reached out to touch the golden plating, his hand stopping a few inches short of its surface. "Where did you find this?" Stratton asked, turning his head to the Councilors.

"We detected it just outside Turian space, drifting through the empty space beyond Haliat's star system." Tevos answered. "We… believed it to be significant to you."

"You're goddamn right it's significant…" Stratton muttered, fiddling with his Datatool for a moment. His device took a detailed scan of its surface, translating the data carried on the record into a format that the Datatool could recognize. He stood up, walking over to the table, unhooking his digital tool and tossing it onto the table. "You've found Voyager-1…"

"What is it?" Sparatus asked, looking to the crude construct, confused by the Chancellor's reaction to it.

"A scientific probe that we… repurposed." Stratton answered. "We knew that there was… at least a small chance that sometime in the remote future one of the Voyagers would be intercepted and examined." He let out a small chuckle, looking back to that simple Golden Record. "We thought it would be impolite not to say 'hello'."

"We thought that those hypothetical aliens would… look at this message in wonder." Stratton continued, his voice wavering slightly. "We wondered if the Aliens would think that we destroyed ourselves, or if we had gone on to greater things." Silently, he tapped the 'Play' button on his Datatool, receiving a series of coded beeps and pauses in return.

"What is that?" Tevos asked, listening intently.

"Morse Code…" Stratton answered. "Per Aspera, ad Astra." Stratton's voice broke just for the slightest moment, a bit of humility and Humanity peeking through that hardened, political exterior. "Through Adversity, to the Stars." He translated.

Tevos' expression, the only one that Stratton could understand fully, softened as she heard the translation. The weight and meaning of that message suddenly hitting her. This was the species that the Council of a millennia ago had destroyed. A moment later, the Datatool on the table projected a message, written in plain English. Once again, Stratton translated it. "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."

Stratton's hand covered his mouth, clenching down as he saw digitally-interpreted analog images of Humans going about their daily lives in the late-20th Century. The sounds of Earth, long forgotten and lost, played from the device. The droning, deep calls of whales, the cries of a child, and the pleasant calls of birds. A vast majority of the creatures represented on this record had been killed off, and the cradle of Humanity was left lacking the sounds that gave it life. Of the few creatures that had managed to survive, the only ones represented here were the birds and the child.

Tevos watched as Stratton listened to the Record. The expression on his face was likely lost on Sparatus and Valern, but she knew. The Chancellor's eyes were a mix of sorrow, longing, and just pure sadness. As he listened to more and more of the Sounds of Earth, the music that was carried with it, and the messages from long-dead Humans, his eyes grew heavy with unshed tears. He kept his composure, but Tevos could see his emotions threatening to break through the barrier.

For the first time since he arrived, she saw the Chancellor smile. It wasn't a predatory smile like she was used to seeing from him, it was a genuine one. He listened to the upbeat, quick music of Chuck Berry, letting his history overtake him. "I hope you don't intend to keep this…" Stratton managed.

"No… this is for your species to have." Tevos shook her head. "It's your history, the history that our predecessors wrongly cut off." Try as she might, she couldn't help but feel sorrow for the Chancellor. He was stood around the aliens that had demolished this version of Humanity, listening to their hopeful message to the stars.

"Good…" Stratton managed, composing himself. "I might've killed you for this." He chuckled, casting a look over to Voyager-1.

"I'm sure your people will be happy to see this in a museum on Earth, Chancellor." Valern offered.

"No… this doesn't belong in a museum." Stratton smiled as a thought struck him. "Voyager's home is the stars."

"You're sending it back out?" Tevos asked, confused.

"The Universe is like a… time machine, in a way." Stratton began, looking at the ancient probe. "You see things as they were, not as they are. It would be best if Voyager was sent out among the stars, bearing its original message."

"You don't wish to alter it? Modernize it?" Sparatus asked. Even he could understand the significance of this. Truthfully, it shattered his preconceptions about Humanity. Despite their strength, despite their current nature, they were just as lost as anyone else in the Universe.

"No…" Stratton half-whispered. "That would be a disservice to the people that sent it on its way all those years ago. This Voyager, untouched by the remote events here, bearing the memories of a world… and a species that are no more, will fly on."

XXXXX

"Contact right!" Zaeed declared, a round pinging off the wall next to him. He blindly aimed his sidearm down the hallway, firing a few rounds downrage, satisfied when he heard the cries of pain from one of the Broker's agents.

"Grenade out!" Oriana tossed a small impact fragmentation grenade just beside a pair of Vanguards, the shockwave from the explosive pulverizing their insides and sending them into the nearby wall.

"Check your fire, Goto's moving up!" Lucassen ordered, sliding into cover beside Jacob. A few moments later, the cries of the Broker's agents could be heard, along with the snapping of necks, blades slipping beneath the seams of helmets, and suppressed gunshots.

"All clear!" Kasumi happily shouted, wiping the purple Turian blood off of her combat knife before sliding it back into the sheath on her chest.

"Get to work on that door." Lucassen stood, swapping out his spent magazine for a fresh one. The Broker's men were hell-bent on keeping them away from this particular door. They had even sent heavy troopers with missile launchers in a desperate attempt to stop them.

"On it." Kasumi nodded, activating her Datatool and setting to work.

"Orders for when we find the Broker, Lucassen?" Jacob asked, sliding an empty magazine that he had discarded back into his carrier rig.

"Engage with extreme prejudice." Lucassen responded, walking over the lifeless corpses of Asari, Salarians and Turians as he made his way over to Kasumi.

"Teach this bastard not to fuck with the Empire…" Zaeed mused with a smile, concealed behind his helmet. "I like it."

"Encryption's heavy, Lucassen." Kasumi explained, grinding her teeth as the console locked her out.

"Forget the bypass, set exothermic charges." Lucassen ordered.

"Copy." Zaeed nodded, stepping forward and pulling a set of four discs from his armor's carrier rig. He placed them at each corner of the door, the shaped charges adhering to the metal with a magnetic "click".

As Zaeed remotely activated the charges from his HUD, they began hissing and popping as the thermite within began eating away at the metallic door. "Might want to step back, sweetheart." Zaeed nodded to Kasumi, taking a few steps back. "A bit of a… special mixture in these." As everyone stepped back, they eyed the door with their weapons primed. "Detonation in three… two… and… one!" Zaeed declared, internally grinning as the shaped charges finished their detonation cycle. Superheated spalling was sent through the doors, spraying the room on the other side with metal fragments.

The four N7 and their Imperial Intelligence Agent stormed through the hole, stepping over the smoldering wreck that used to serve as the door. What they found themselves locking eyes with nearly made them stop in their tracks, but their training pushed the thoughts away.

A gargantuan bipedal creature stood up from behind its desk, picking a particularly sharp piece of spalling out from its shoulder. Its tri-point mouth lined with sharpened teeth twisted in pain as it yanked, its multiple eyes glaring down at the Humans before it. "I must say…" It began, its voice gravely and rough as it spoke. "You travel with fascinating companions, Synthetic. I appreciate you bringing the N7 team with you… a particular Batarian has quite the bounty out for N7. Not to mention the bounty on your head."

Lucassen had some rudimentary knowledge of the creature before him. It was a Yahg, a species quarantined to its homeworld after massacring the Council's First Contact Party. He easily stood at twice the height of Oriana, the tallest Human in his group. "Fire." Lucassen ordered into his private comms channel with the N7 Fireteam.

In an instant, the four N7 bolted into action. Zaeed tossed a pair of adhesive incendiary grenades at the towering Yahg, one flying too low and connecting with the metal desk before it, and the other finding a home on its chest. The towering creature grunted as the thermite began burning its way through its armored carapace. Simultaneously, Kasumi had vanished and Oriana engaged the maneuvering thrusters built into her armor, propelling herself backwards towards a pillar that she took cover behind, firing a stream of coilgun slugs at the Yahg all the while. Jacob unleashed a Warp Field on the creature, striking it center mass.

Lucassen's vision was overtaken by his neural implant's tactical module, showing the armored skin of the Yahg, as well as the kinetic barrier surrounding its form. Just as the Shadow Broker began charging at him, he raised his sidearm, a thin beam of ionized plasma spearing forward from its barrel. The intense heat of his X-03's plasma quickly tore through the already weakened kinetic barriers, spearing into the creature's left thigh and cauterizing a neat hole clean through.

The Shadow Broker stopped dead in his tracks, falling to one knee as the muscles in his left leg gave out. He activated a shield mounted on his right gauntlet, the orange glow of Omni-Tool fabricated material casting a faint light before him. It was too little, too late however. From behind, Kasumi leapt up, burying her combat knife into the weaker carapace on his neck. The creature howled in pain as Kasumi tore the knife towards the top of his skull. Kasumi struggled for a moment as the Broker attempted to throw her off, but she succeeded in burying a fragmentation grenade in the exposed muscle, activating it before she jumped off.

Just as the Broker attempted to stand again, the grenade detonated. The explosion alone shattered his spinal column, liquefying his insides. The shrapnel speared through the soft internal tissue, killing him instantly. His body fell limp, blood pooling and oozing from the gaping maw in the back of his neck. "Good work, Goto." Lucassen praised, tucking his handgun back onto its magnetic retention strip.

"Nice pistol, Agent." Zaeed noted, gesturing towards the blocky construct on his hip. "I'll 'ave to get me one of those when they leave experimental phase."

"Give it a few months, and they'll roll them out to the N7." Lucassen shrugged, grabbing a micro-QEC system from his combat harness and connecting with Earth. He tossed the small disc-like object onto the Broker's desk, and a holographic image of the Illusive Man appeared on the far side of the desk, flickering slightly as a smirk overtook his normally neutral face. "Director, primary objective complete." Lucassen stated.

"Excellent work, Agent." Harper praised, flicking ash from his cigarette away. "Are the Broker's systems intact?"

"Lawson." Lucassen stated, Oriana quickly jogging over to the wall of communications displays behind the Broker's desk.

"All systems functional, Director." Oriana stated, scanning over the diagnostics data flooding one of the lower displays.

"Activate the general communication." Harper ordered.

"Aye, sir." Oriana nodded, pressing a few keys on the holographic display and stepping aside.

Harper's hologram turned to face the wall of displays, his arms clasped behind his back. "This is the Shadow Broker…" He began. Lucassen couldn't tell for certain, but he had a good feeling that the N7 in the room were stunned as he spoke. "Minor power fluctuations have corrupted data in our systems. I want updates within the next solar day. Resume standard procedures. Shadow Broker, out."

XXXXX

Tevos walked through the ornate halls of the Imperial Legislature on Earth. She had been to the Human homeworld on one occasion before, but the sheer size of the architecture never ceased to amaze her. The towering monoliths on Earth's surface seemed to, and sometimes did in the case of the Imperium Tether, stretch to the stars.

Truth be told, she had no idea why Chancellor Stratton had invited her to Imperium. It was unlike him to invite Councilors to Earth for any reason, so she had a sinking feeling that this was a matter of grave importance. She had indeed come to view him differently after listening to the contents of the Voyager Probe, but this completely shattered her perception of him. Stranger yet, she was being escorted to a part of the Legislature that she had only ever heard about: The Pinnacle.

She only knew it to be the Chancellor's permanent residence on Earth, and it was positively shrouded in secrecy. As she understood it, only the elite of the elite among Human society had ever seen it in person. From what she had heard, only the Chancellor's immediate family and the Vice-Chancellor ever regularly entered. It was rare for even close friends to see it. The gravity of this soon hit her, as her escort of Imperial Guardsmen dressed in their ornate and immaculately-pressed grey-gold uniforms was replaced by a pair of Imperial Intelligence Agents, clad in the black and white angular formalwear that was common among Humans. What was uncommon was the fact that they seemed to lack weapons, which was strange in the Human Capital. It seemed that everyone on this planet was armed in some way, but these two men seemed completely unarmed. Deep down, she knew that either of them could kill her before she even had a chance to process what she had done wrong.

As she disembarked the elevator with the two Intelligence Agents, one of them reached a hand out as he kept his stride in sync with her own. "Omni-Tool." He asked.

She had been through a similar procedure when she had first entered the conference room with the Chancellor all those years ago. Back when the biggest concern on the Council's agenda was the possible renewal of hostilities. She disconnected the computer from her wrist, handing it over to the Agent, who tucked it away in a coat pocket. The other Agent ran a scanner over her, searching for concealed weapons. She knew that it was just procedure at this point, as she had already stepped through three scanners on her way into the Legislature. "You may proceed." The Agent wielding the scanner said, closing down the scanner program on his Datatool. "The Chancellor is waiting for you."

"Thank you." Tevos nodded, making her way down the long hallway towards the metallic door on the far side. This level of the building, at the very top, seemed to be dedicated to the Chancellor's home. There were only two doors on this level, one being the elevator that she had stepped out of a few moments prior.

The walls were adorned with rather stunning portraits, a golden plaque beneath each of them. She resisted the urge to stop and examine them, but she did recognize a few of the faces depicted in the paintings. Each of the paintings were portraits of Chancellors from throughout UHE History. About halfway down the hall, she noted that the portraits seemed to stop, but there was a golden plaque devoid of a portrait above. From the corner of her eye, she saw that it read out "Haddock Stratton: 2992 - …"

As she stepped through the door to the Chancellor's home, she was greeted by a surprisingly rustic atmosphere. Instead of the metallic or marble floors that she was used to, she found herself stepping onto a hardwood floor. Paper books lined shelves on the walls, and across the room, the skyline of Imperium flickered and danced in the distance, shrouded in the twilight. Paintings of Terran landscapes decorated the otherwise benign walls, and the décor was surprisingly mild. She was so surprised by the nature of Stratton's home that she very nearly missed the man in question step into the room, clad in a surprisingly informal set of clothes. "Councilor…" Stratton nodded in her direction, drawing her gaze away from the skyline and to him. "Thank you for coming."

"Of course, Chancellor." Tevos nodded, feeling woefully out of place and lost amidst the Human history surrounding her.

"I'd have come to the Citadel, but I'm stuck on Earth for the time being." Stratton shrugged, strolling over to a wooden cabinet and rummaging around inside for a moment. He produced an opaque glass bottle. "Busy month, christening ships and keeping the Legislature in check." He pulled a pair of glasses from the cabinet, looking to her. "Would you like a drink?"

"If it's not too much trouble." Tevos gave a polite smile. "Your world never ceases to amaze, Chancellor. So much history in this building alone."

"Thanks to you keeping Sparatus away from Voyager, we've been able to add a copy of the Golden Record to that history." Stratton smirked, walking over and handing her the glass of wine. "Please, have a seat. Make yourself at home." He said, gesturing to the two couches that faced one another, divided by a low coffee table.

"Thank you." Tevos nodded, taking a seat on the closer of the two couches.

Stratton made his way over to the furthest couch, sitting down and sighing. "I'm sure you're probably wondering why I asked you to come here in specific, and not the entire Council."

"The question had crossed my mind." Tevos nodded. She was surprised, the Human wine was amazing, possibly even better than Thessia's own.

"Because the Asari are the only Council race that I trust." Stratton deadpanned. "We're facing the greatest threat to galactic civilization, and the Turians and Salarians seem hell-bent on focusing their fleets on us. Yet the Asari… you've begun defending your border with the galactic rim."

"Truth be told, Sparatus and Valern are still unconvinced that the Reapers are an immediate threat." Tevos admitted. "Even after that talk with the Prothean, they think it will be centuries yet before the Reapers are upon us."

"As short-sighted as ever." Stratton sighed. "I assume that they need concrete proof before they get it through their thick skulls that this threat will be here soon?"

"Sparatus and Valern both agreed that Commander Shepard's report on the Collectors would provide the proof they needed, and they'd wait for that proof before committing their forces to a cooperative defense with Humanity."

"Or a cooperative strike against us, if the buildup of Turian and Salarian fleet assets on our borders speak of their intentions." Stratton chuckled darkly. "Tell me… how much do they know about our fleet compositions? I can't say I'm expecting honesty, but a man can try, can't he?"

Tevos chuckled. "You've been surprisingly transparent with us recently, so I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. The Council believes the UHE Fleets to have doubled in size since the end of the Second Contact War."

"Huh… looks like the Broker couldn't leak everything." Stratton smirked. Tevos felt like a rock had just dropped in her stomach. She had seen all of what the Broker had transmitted across the galaxy, talking of a new Human warship with unimaginable capabilities. The leak had suggested a doubling in fleet sizes, and the thought that the Broker was wrong terrified her. "The UHE Navy has far exceeded our pre-war strength. And the new vessel you've undoubtedly heard about is nearing completion."

"I had the feeling that our intelligence was wrong…" Tevos mused, sighing. "Seeing two of your… what do you call them? Retribution-class Dreadnoughts sitting in shipyards on my flight in."

"We've re-classified the Retribution-class to the Titan-class, but yes." Stratton affirmed. "Two more are under construction… here. Europa is building four more."

Tevos couldn't believe it. Three Titan-classes essentially made Sol untouchable to the Council, but the concept of nine was simply absurd to her. It was clear that Stratton was taking the threat of the Reapers far more seriously than anyone else in the galaxy. "I'm surprised that you're so… open with what you're building. This is new."

"I have no desire for conflict with the Council, not when the enemy is at our gates." Stratton returned, taking a sip of wine. "Like it or not, Humanity is the one hope you have of defeating the Reapers. Even we alone cannot destroy them, however. It will take a combined effort if Javik's estimates on Reaper numbers are even remotely correct. That's why I've asked you here… it's something that I can't trust the remainder of the Council with. I want to establish a cooperative defense with the Asari Republics against the Reapers."

Tevos was surprised, to say the very least. The last thing she expected was for the Chancellor to suggest that the Asari and Humans work together on a military matter. "To what degree?" Tevos asked.

"A… military exchange, if you will." Stratton had to think of proper phrasing. "Not in technology, but in soldiers. Joint training exercises, war games simulations, et cetera." Stratton leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "And when the Reapers arrive… you have my word that the Empire will assist in the defense of Thessia. I simply ask that you extend the same courtesy in the event that Human worlds are struck. I have a feeling that we will be the Reapers' first target."

"What makes you say that?" Tevos asked.

"The presence of the 'Sovereign', as we've dubbed the Reaper we destroyed over Eden Prime, suggests that the Reapers have been monitoring the galaxy for some time." Stratton explained. "I think I finally have the answer as to why the technology of the Council seems to have hit a dead end."

"That being?"

"We've run in-depth analyses on not only Sovereign's remains, but technology we've uncovered from our war with the Hegemony." Stratton explained, typing away at his Datatool for a moment, a holographic image of the artifact discovered in the Alpha Relay's system appearing. "This object was discovered on an asteroid orbiting around a Batarian star. The alloy making up its surface is a perfect match to the metals that make up Sovereign. Stranger yet… this same alloy is what makes up the Mass Relays."

"That would mean…" Tevos trailed off, the implications suddenly slamming into her.

"That Javik's assessment was correct. The Protheans inherited the infrastructure of the Milky Way, just as you have, and this infrastructure is the product of the Reapers." Stratton locked eyes with her. "Every race in the galaxy, sans Humanity, has developed almost identical technology completely independent of one another. Mathematically, that would be impossible without outside interference. The Council should know very well what a species that manages to break this mold has the capability to far exceed what is possible with Element Zero-based engineering. The Reapers likely know this as well, and they would be the most inept enemy in Human history if they did not strike at us first. What I'm trying to say is that every species in the galaxy has had their technological progression meticulously crafted by the Reapers. This allows them to know their enemy beforehand… we broke that endless cycle of technological progression, making us their only true threat."

"Goddess…" Tevos muttered, mulling over the data on the holographic projection. "I think you're right."

"Now you see why we've been expanding our fleets." Stratton explained. "The Council has no hope of fighting back an enemy like the Reapers without the assistance of the Empire, and the Empire can't hope to best them alone. You are the one member of the Council that I've come to consider an ally. I hope you take my offer into consideration, but I understand if the Matriarchs in he Republic shut it down."

"Believe me… I'll convince them." Tevos' voice hardened. She wouldn't let the stubborn pride of the Matriarchs damn her race to stand alone against an enemy like this.

"Excellent." Stratton smiled. "Then a toast, to an Asari-Human alliance." Stratton raised his glass. "To victory."

"To victory." Tevos mirrored, lightly clinking her glass against Stratton's own. Thankfully, she had at least picked up on that Human custom, strange as it may be to knock glasses together to celebrate things.

"I'll have one of our Admirals accompany you back to Thessia." Stratton added, knocking back the remainder of his wine. "Having a second voice should help to convince them."

"A good idea." Tevos nodded.

"It's time for Humanity to finally come out of its shell." Stratton sighed, casting a longing glance over his shoulder to the bright lights dancing across the Imperium skyline. "I'm done with the idea of being the enigmatic empire on the fringes of the galaxy…"

"I'm… surprised to see you like this, Chancellor." Tevos mused, catching Stratton's attention. "You're far from the ruthless politician that Sparatus and Valern believe you to be."

"I wouldn't go that far." Stratton chuckled. "I am that hard-ass they know me as."

"Unless you see an ancient probe." Tevos smirked.

Stratton gave a genuine smile, not one of those forced political smiles. "A lot of that history was lost…" Stratton's smile was almost contagious. "Having our satellite grid and wireless communication almost completely eradicated caused us to forget a lot of the old art and music that we created. It was good to hear it… even if it's just a small slice of what we made." He sighed, glancing over to the only non-landscape painting in the room: an oil painting of an old solid-fuel rocket, blasting off towards the stars. "It's amazing how far our nomadic species has wandered… Finding all of those secrets, silently orbiting distant stars, waiting for us."

XXXXX

White... blinding, ethereal white. Forever blinked a few times, hoping to clear it from view, but to no avail. The color remained, overpowering his vision. His ears rang with a high-pitched whine, silenced by a click. He was suspended in a liquid, contained in a tube of sorts. The memories came rushing back. He was alive again. He was breathing. No more was he a piece of a consciousness. He was Forever Among the Stars again, given life once more. "Can you understand me?" A disembodied voice asked, slightly distorted by the liquid filling his ears. Knowing full-well that the Human that was speaking to him was unable to hear him, he settled on nodding, just as instructed before he would be implanted into his new self.

"Good. We're bringing your optical systems online." The voice answered, the faint tapping and haptic feedback of a projected keyboard filling his ears. In an instant, his vision flickered to the world around him. The transparent pod he occupied was facing many more just like it, and a Human male in one of their Naval Officer uniforms stood over a console, turning to him a moment later. "Blink once for every finger you see." The Officer beckoned, holding up his hand, all of the fingers extended. Forever was amazed... he could see. He blinked five times, and that seemed to satisfy the Human. "Move your limbs, flex your fingers." He asked, and Forever obeyed. "Excellent. Draining the pod now, wait one."

Forever felt the pressure within the tank begin to fade, and the fluid level began lowered. Eventually, he fell to the bottom of the pod, his bare, webbed feet connecting with the cold, damp metal with a soft clang. "I thank you, Human." Forever said, testing his voice. He was surprised to find that it was indeed his own, not some arbitrary fabrication. "You have given my people life once again."

"Thank me once we've finished all of the motor function tests." The Officer answered with a smile, tapping the screen before him, causing the pod to open to the clinically sterile air of the bay it was housed in. He stepped over to the pod, pulling a small flashlight from his breast pocket. "Follow the light, I need to check your optical response time."

Codex Updated:n

X-03 Directed Plasma Weapon- The Experimental Mk.3 Directed Plasma Weapon is a sidearm designed in a similar manner to the micro-plasma lance that is mounted on Imperial Strike Fighters, but on a far less-powerful scale. Only capable of sustained fire for a combined total of three seconds at any given time before requiring a new Hydrogen cell to be loaded into the weapon, and burning at 32,000 Kelvin.

A/N:

Another chapter done, finally. You get a little bit of a sneak peek into the creation of Synthetics in the Empire. I think I'll expand on it next chapter ;).

As always, I love all of the reviews, favs, and follows. I seriously can't believe that this story has broken 1200 follows, and almost 1,000 favs, and I'm not even a quarter of the way done yet! You guys are awesome.

For the Glory of Mankind,

-TallYapflip

Review Responses:

CReaper210: I hope this chapter gave you a bit more insight into the Chancellor. Trust me, you'll be seeing quite a bit more of him in the near future.

Mike: I didn't even know that Andromeda's budget was that goddamn low! Now that I know that they basically handed Bioware a shoestring budget to make a Triple-A RPG game, I'm actually thoroughly impressed by the game and how much they managed to accomplish with so little money.

Western-Otaku: All of the UHE's tech had been tested in combat long before encountering the Council. Just like the Council, the Empire had issues with piracy and small-scale rebellions on their far colonies, giving them a good testing ground for their new weaponry. Ships were tested in a bit of a different manner, though. For the most part, Starship weapons were tested against asteroids to gauge their destructive capabilities, and shields were tested by firing on an unmanned, outdated spacecraft. As for training, all of the Empire's soldiers are trained in simulations kinda like the Anchorage Sim from the Fallout universe, or the War Games from Halo. Occasionally, they train in live-fire exercises with modified variants of their weapons.

Guest: I appreciate the praise on my writing style, and I freely admit that I need to work on writing combat. For some reason, I have the idea in my head that combat writing needs to be frantic and jumpy to actually mirror the nature of combat in real life, and I've been trying to get over that. As for the whole "abandoning" thing, I don't really have any desire to stop writing for this. Humanity is far from god-like in this setting, the Reapers in-canon would still be a massive threat to them, based solely on their numbers. The Humans have a few thousand ships, while the Reapers have tens of thousands of Dreadnought-weight (By Council Standards) sentient starships, and convert their fallen enemies to allies. The roles between the Reapers and their enemies have essentially been reversed here. The Humans have powerful vessels, but they can still be destroyed if they're outnumbered.

SergeantLawson: You'll see Dying Star soon. I'll drop a hint here: Unification of the Great and Small.

RevilledPembroke: Uncanny valley certainly seems like an apt description for Andromeda.

CommissarCritical: I definitely get what you're saying with Sam and Shepard. I've been mulling over some ideas to make it better, here's hoping they work out.

Everyone I didn't respond to, because I didn't want the response part to be half of the word count: Sorry I didn't respond directly. If any of you have questions, I'd be able to give a more complete and fleshed-out response via PM. I appreciate every review I get, and I do read all of them and take any criticism into consideration (so long as it has more substance than "this is shit, lol").