Chapter 18: Behind the Scenes

"Who would've thought…" Garrus managed, walking out of the rear Hangar door of the Normandy. The system's star shone brightly down on Rannoch's surface, illuminating the small city that had been set up as the planet's first Quarian settlement in hundreds of years. The Empire had provided quite a bit of materials for the construction efforts, even providing for the defense of Rannoch with the 12th Light Fleet, comprised mostly of Destroyers and Frigates. Quarians and Geth alike roamed the area around the small spaceport, working tirelessly to finish the new city.

"Nobody." Tali answered, taking in the warm air of Rannoch through her suit's filters. "Nobody in the Galaxy thought this would ever be possible… but here we are."

"And there's Humans here?" Garrus asked, seeing a few Humans walking around the spaceport, clad in what appeared to be civilian clothes.

"Volunteers." Tali answered. "They're here to help get the planet back on its feet."

"Let's just get this Geth." Wrex sighed. "You still have your end of the bargain to fulfill, Shepard."

"Illium's our next stop, Wrex." Shepard responded. It had taken more than a few times to get Wrex to understand that it wasn't her decision to go to Rannoch first.

XXXXX

Stratton smiled as he stepped out of the elevator, watching all of the Marines, Imperial Guardsmen, and Naval Officers snap into a salute before him. "Chancellor on deck!" One of the Guard Commanders shouted, prompting the shift in attention from the viewport to him.

Stratton returned the salute, allowing everyone to stand back at rest. The reinforced viewport of Phoenix Station looked out to the endless abyss of space. The only visible object beyond the glass was a small glittering light: Voyager.

Councilor Tevos, standing just a few feet behind Stratton, looked out at the hundreds of assembled soldiers, officers, politicians, and media crew with a sense of wonder. She had been told by Stratton that the entire ceremony today would be broadcast to every corner of Human Space. At her request, he had even allowed it to be sent to Council Space with the proper censoring and filtering if anything classified was discussed, of course. As the Chancellor stepped up to a small podium, she remained behind with the Intelligence Agents that had been assigned as her guard for her five-day stay on the Human Homeworld.

The entire crowd all fell into a still silence as the Chancellor stepped up to the podium. Dozens of small camera drones floated before him, slightly obscuring his view of the Voyager itself for a moment before they settled into a pattern. With a small sigh, he collected himself before he began. His voice reached billions of ears… and he could only hope that all who listened could appreciate the wonder of this moment.

"We were hunters and foragers… the frontier was everywhere." Stratton began, his eyes scanning the room as he spoke. "We were bounded only by the Earth, the Oceans, and the Sky. The open road still softly calls. Our beautiful, cradle of a world is the madhouse of those hundred, thousand, millions of worlds."

"We who, at the time, could not put our own planetary home in order between all of the rivalries and hatreds, the chaos and the war… even then, mankind chose to venture out into space. Carl Sagan once said that when we were finally ready to settle even the closest planetary system to our own, we would have changed."

"It was not the simple passage of generations that changed us, but it was necessity. He was correct that it was not Humanity as he knew it that settled Alpha Centauri, but rather a species very like it: us. The Humanity of the thirty-first century. We carry more of the strengths of our ancestors: The far-sight, prudence, confidence, and capabilities."

"For all of mankind's failings, we have proven ourselves time and time again to be an adaptable species. We have proven that despite our limitations and fallibilities, that we Humans are capable of greatness. It was the brave souls that sent the Voyager on its way who longed to see how far our nomadic species would have wandered by this time. We… their remote descendants, safely arrayed on dozens of worlds in the Sol System and beyond, are unified by our common heritage, our laggard for our home planet, and by the knowledge that the only Humans in the universe come from Earth."

"Young children on Humanity's various colonies today gaze up in strain to find the Pale Blue Dot in their skies. They marvel at how vulnerable the repository of our potential once was. How perilous our infancy. How humble our beginnings. How many rivers, valleys, oceans, and mountains we had to cross before we found our way."

"It's easy to imagine schemes of historical causality. There were many possible historical paths. Our ancestors walked from the plains of East Africa, hunting with stone spears. They walked the Moon a decade after walking among the stars. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. It was certainly beyond the powers of those who saw life as they knew it come to an end over a millennium ago."

As Tevos listened, she could practically feel a few hundred eyes turn to gaze at her, reminders of the animosity that the Humans held towards the rest of the Galaxy.

"Catastrophic events have a way of… sneaking up on us. Of catching us unaware." Stratton continued, drawing those eyes back to him. "Your own life, or your tribe's… maybe even your entire species' might be owed to a restless few drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds. Each victory is only a prelude to another, and no boundaries can be set to our rational hope."

"Our… particular causality scheme brought our species to the edge of the abyss. Perilously, we teetered. Some believed it to be the end. Those restless few, those brave souls… they knew it was only the beginning. All of our modest, rudimentary, and in many ways heroic series of explorations that took place before we arrived on the edge of that abyss were proven to be those victories that served as the prelude to ours today."

"Mankind no longer teeters on that abyss, no longer do we fear the unknown, wallow in the pity brought on by the destruction of our home. Today, in a wonderful reciprocity, we send that same hopeful message out to the stars. Today, the Voyager returns home. With it, it will carry the collective wills, hopes, and dreams of a species. Regardless of the events that have shaped the Human species, all of our hopes and aspirations for peace will remain. There could be no better proof of this than the return of the Voyager, bearing its original hopeful message."

"This will serve as a gesture of thanks to those who sent it on its way in the first place, and a gesture to any life that may stumble across it in the future that despite their humble beginnings, a home in the stars awaits them."

The gathering of people before the Chancellor broke out into an applause as he finished his address. All eyes turned to the viewport as the ancient Voyager probe was turned on its proper heading, and then sent on its way by those old rockets that carried it all those centuries ago, internally modified to use modern fuels.

"Per Aspera ad Astra." Stratton added. "Through Adversity, to the Stars."

XXXXX

"Operative, we have a positive ID on target." Voight-Kampff's voice rang in Lucassen's ear. "Maelon: protégé of Professor Mordin Solus. Mission orders stand."

"Copy that…" Lucassen affirmed, dropping down from the edge of the building he was using for overwatch. His synthetic joints locked up as he hit the ground, dampening his fall. He removed the smart-link scope from the rails of his battle rifle, flipping up the iron sights as he moved towards the hole in the outer wall. With a quick command from his neural interface, the metal plates of his helmet shifted up from his collar, encasing his head. The optical systems engaged, bringing his HUD online.

As he stepped into the dark interior of the Clan Weryloc camp, he activated his low-light vision and brought the rifle to his shoulders.

Descending a small flight of stairs, he heard a faint conversation from behind a locked door. It seemed to be a medical procedure, with one voice carrying a notably higher pitch than the others. With practiced precision, Lucassen reached into his combat harness and produced a large roll of polymer material. Unfolding the exothermic charge, he placed it against the thin metal surface of the door, the charge locking onto the door with a soft click. Satisfied with the charge's placement, he produced a small half-spherical EMP charge from his rig, taking cover behind the metal guardrail of the staircase.

With a quick signal from his Neural Lance, the exothermic charge began hissing and popping as the thermite melted away at the aging metal surface. After five seconds the plastic explosives locked behind a layer of polymer detonated, sending superheated metal shrapnel into the other room as it blasted the door open. The second the door popped, Lucassen tossed the EMP charge through the door. With a soft beep, the EMP crackled through the air. Any electronics in the room were shut down, including personal shields and Council-grade weapons.

The Operative stood, storming through the still-smoldering hole in the door. On the other side, he was greeted by the sight of three Krogan attempting to fire their overloaded shotguns at him, and a Salarian frantically scrambling for cover behind a hospital bed. Time seemed to slow for Lucassen as his rifle's reticle darted between the three Krogan, a burst of three rounds spearing through their armored heads. Before the first corpse had even struck the ground, a single slug embedded itself in Maelon's thigh, sending him to the ground in a heap.

As the Salarian cried out in pain, Lucassen stepped over the now-dead Krogan and around the hospital bed, seeing Maelon attempting to apply pressure to the wound in his leg. An armored boot rolled Maelon onto his back, and he found himself looking down the barrel of a distinctly Human weapon. "Your research data."

Maelon attempted to sputter out an insult, but his eyes kept darting over to another locked room on the other end of a long hallway. Lucassen glanced over to the room, allowing himself a short nod. "The Empire appreciates your cooperation." He brought his weapon to his shoulder, putting Maelon out of his misery.

Lucassen sighed as he replaced the magazine of his rifle, glancing over to the occupant of the hospital bed that Maelon had obviously been standing over. It was a female Krogan, lying awake and in shock. Her lower abdomen had been split open by a surgical tool, revealing her reproductive organs. Just as expected, Maelon was attempting to cure the Genophage on an individual level. No anesthetic, no painkillers, no IV line… it was no wonder he was failing.

Lucassen sighed again as he produced his X-03 Plasma Weapon from his thigh, the bright lance of energy spearing through the Krogan female's head. That was the least he could do, end her suffering and all that.

He reattached the plasma weapon to his thigh and began making his way down the hall, seeing the red "LOCKED" hologram over the center of the door. "Voight-Kampff, if you'd be so kind…" He said, placing his palm against the holographic interface.

"Of course, Operative." Voight-Kampff responded. In a few moments' time, the hologram flickered and shifted over to green. With another tap, the door slid open. Inside was a large collection of computer terminals, data flooding across the screens. Genetic information, medical jargon, everything that the Director had briefed him on.

Lucassen reached into his rig again, producing a storage drive and slotting it into the mainframe terminal. In a few seconds, the entire collection of data stored on Maelon's drives had been copied over to his drive. With the confirmation ping sounding out, Lucassen removed the drive and slid it back into the armored casing on his carrier rig. "Sending the mission complete burst now, Operative." Voight-Kampff informed him. After a moment, the voice returned. "Orders from the Director… set the charges."

"Understood." Lucassen nodded, reaching around to the carry-all pack slung over his shoulders.

XXXXX

"Alright, Wrex…" Shepard sighed, stepping back aboard the Normandy with their new Geth crewmember. "Now that we have Legion, we'll be heading for Illium."

"About time…" Wrex huffed, making his way back towards the little nook he had claimed as his own in the hangar bay.

"Shepard-Commander…" Legion began, artificial neck craning over to look to her. "Where should this unit remain during transit?"

"We have space here in the Hangar, take your pick." Shepard shrugged, looking to a few of the Marines that were sitting around their little makeshift table. "Marines, find a spot for our Geth here."

"Aye, ma'am." Vega nodded, standing upright and heading for Legion.

Shepard pressed a hand to her ear, keying into the bridge's PA system. "Joker, get us in orbit and on a vector for Illium."

"Copy that, Commander."

XXXXX

"I thought you said you'd be sending an Admiral, Chancellor." Tevos commented from her seat aboard the UHESS Geneva, a "small" envoy cruiser. Of course, a ship carrying the Chancellor was not alone. It was joined by a fleet of six Atlas-Class Cruisers, two Ares-Class Cruisers, eight Wolf-Class Destroyers, ten Wyvern-class Frigates, and a Petrovsky-Class Carrier. It had taken some convincing, but Tevos had managed to get clearance for the Imperial Escort Fleet to pass into Asari space.

"The plan's… changed, somewhat." Stratton answered, crossing his legs as he leaned back against the couch. "My schedule's been cleared up somewhat, so I can spare the time. Something this important should be attended to personally."

"Well, it should help lend credibility to your proposal… as long as the Matriarchs don't decide to turn it down." Tevos answered.

"Well, I'd love to see them turn down my offer." Stratton smirked. "You Asari seem quite fond of foreign cultures."

Tevos couldn't help but smile at that. It was true, the Asari had taken quite an interest in Human culture. The way she saw it, they were fascinated by what seemed unattainable to them. Try as the Humans might to remain isolated, their merchant vessels had brought their culture with them to the Citadel; and it was slowly but surely starting to spread across the galaxy. Human art, music, and vids were now a valuable commodity in Asari space especially. A Human painter's work had even sold on Thessia for several million Credits, due in no small part to its rarity. "Not exactly the same thing as cooperative training, but I suppose it works. Who will be directing this if it goes through?"

"Admiral Hackett will be overseeing the exercises." Stratton explained. "I'll allow him to hand-pick the Marines and Army personnel that will be training alongside your Commandos."

"Might cause a bit of tension with the rest of the Council when they learn you've allowed us to train with your men, Chancellor." Tevos smirked.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Salarians and Turians are unwilling to work with us." Stratton dismissed with a wave. "They're quite lucky I decided to hold the more… hawkish Senators back when we uncovered that little STG virus in a Haken Corp shipping vessel. If Chancellor Volker were still in office, Sur'Kesh would look a lot like Earth used to right about now."

"Why did you decide to look the other way?" Tevos asked.

"I meant what I said, Tevos." Stratton answered. "I don't want war, and I'm pushing for Humanity to come out of its shell. Undoing a thousand years of hatred isn't easy, but I have hope. Hell, I could've twisted the narrative of Eden Prime using Saren's corpse… but I didn't."

"And you could've vaporized the Citadel when Imperator arrived, but you didn't." Tevos smiled. "You're quite the enigma."

"Well… we have four hours until we arrive over Thessia." Stratton shrugged. "Go ahead… see if you can crack this enigma."

"Meaning?" Tevos asked, confused.

"Sorry, should cut back on the idioms." Stratton chuckled. "If you have any questions, ask away."

"Alright…" Tevos nodded. Truthfully, she had absolutely no idea why Stratton was humoring her like this. She wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to learn more about the man who had singlehandedly shaken the galaxy to its core. "Humans tend to have three names… what's yours?"

"Haddock Grayson Stratton." He answered.

"Where are you from?" Tevos asked.

"Arcadia, a suburb outside Imperium on Earth." Stratton answered. "Born on August 13, 2971."

"Do you have any family still on Earth?" Tevos asked.

"I do…" Stratton nodded. "My two brothers are in local government on Earth. One is the Governor of the North Americas, the other is on the Senate Military Committee. My mother and father both… passed when I was a teenager. I also have a daughter."

"You have a daughter?" Tevos asked, surprised.

"Not in the… conventional sense." Stratton chuckled. "She's a synthetic. Surprisingly, it's a bit difficult to go about it the normal way when you're Chancellor." He smirked. "Her name's Eden. She's a student at a private Imperial Academy on Earth, on her way to earning a degree."

"Huh…" Tevos hummed. "I can't even imagine that, having a synthetic as a child, I mean."

"It's not too different from having a 'normal' child, I suppose." Stratton shrugged. "Synthetics still grow and age up until they reach a certain point in their maturity. We've attempted to create fully-matured synths, but they miss a few crucial stages in development. Most of our attempts ended with the synthetics falling into insanity, so we did away with that aspect of the research."

"How in the world does a machine mature?" Tevos asked. The Human synthetics technology was so beyond anything the Council had ever seen, but this. She wasn't even sure if they fell into the traditional definition of synthetic anymore.

"Synthetics are a combination of cybernetics and biological parts." Stratton explained. "Their bodies mature in an identical way to biological Humans. The only real difference is… well, the brain. The synthetic brain is the only fully artificial part of a Synth's body. Everything else is grown from synthesized DNA."

"Why not just grow the brains too?" Tevos asked, now even more confused.

"Synths don't exactly have a… definite lifespan." Stratton answered. "The other cybernetics that make up their central nervous system have the effect of slowing down cellular degradation. The Human brain can only contain so much information before you start running into problems. The artificial brain has a… boosted capacity, among other things, to put it in simple terms."

Tevos very quickly found herself lost in the conversation. In the short time she had to talk with Stratton openly, she had learned so much about Human society. Now it all made a bit more sense. She knew why it was easy for them to live alongside their synthetics, why their architecture was so… practical, and above all else: she learned about the almost terrifyingly enigmatic Chancellor of the Empire. Now that she had a better idea of him, it confirmed her suspicions. He wasn't so different than the people she was used to dealing with. She didn't understand the saying "only Human" until now. Stratton, and all of his kind, were distinctly "Human".

They as a species weren't inherently anything. The Turians were inherently disciplined. The Salarians were inherently pragmatic and scientific, and the Asari were inherently complacent. The Humans, however, could be anything. They weren't short-lived or long-lived like the Salarians or Asari. They weren't forced into military service like the Turians. They were just… there. Living as they pleased, doing what they pleased, and making whatever impact they could with the time they had.

And they had made one hell of an impact.

A/N:

See? I'm not dead.