Chapter 20: Welcome to the Machine

Shepard grunted as she fell to the cold metal floor, the world around her feeling vague and fuzzy for a moment as her eyes adjusted to this new range of vision. Her new form, the synthetic body she now inhabited, simply felt powerful… far beyond anything she had imagined. She gave an experimental flex of her fingers, watching the fine movements come naturally. Just like the mechanical augmentation that was commonplace in the Empire, she had full tactile sensation. As she watched her hand open and close, she saw a faint biotic aura surround her hand.

When the biotics flared up, so did a new readout on her HUD. She was stunned, seeing the sheer amount of biotic capability that was granted to this synthetic body. As she looked around, she spotted the rest of her team slowly pulling themselves to their feet, testing their range of motion in these new bodies. When her vision shifted over to the pod she had stepped into at the start of the procedure, she was transfixed. Her old body was cryogenically preserved in the pod, almost looking to be peacefully sleeping. It still had yet to set in fully, but the feeling of existential dread knowing that her body was slowly withering from the sheer volume of augmentation she received was fading. Based on Ryder's explanation… death was a thing of the past.

Ashley was the first to look over to her. She looked just like Shepard remembered her, with one notable exception: her eyes. They seemed to glow, almost like hundreds of tiny LEDs were placed behind her irises. Everyone on her team shared that same quirk now.

It took a few minutes of acclimating, but everyone eventually donned their uniforms. When a message flashed across their HUDs, indicating that they'd be undertaking a combat trial in their new bodies, Shepard couldn't help but smirk. She couldn't wait to see what two centuries of research could do.

XXXXX

Stratton grunted as he threw himself to the floor, a high-velocity slug whizzing through the air and puncturing the glass window of his luxury condominium the UHE Embassy had procured on the Citadel's Silversun Strip. The round sailed directly through a Cerberus Agent's arm, sending him to the ground in pain. Thankfully, the condo's security measures kicked in and deployed bullet-resistant shutters over the wall-spanning windows.

Accenting the rather precarious position Stratton now found himself in, the encryption on the door's locking mechanism was overridden from outside, and the pneumatics hissed open. "Grenade!" Agent Brooks shouted out, yanking Stratton into cover behind the kitchen counter. The frag grenade went off a moment later, throwing debris and metal shrapnel in all directions.

The assailants, all six of them Turian, attempted to file into the room, but were met by a hail of gunfire from the PDWs carried by the Cerberus Agents. One was cut down, and the others scattered for cover. Stratton reached into his coat, producing the M-3 Plasma Pistol he carried with him.

The firefight was short, but bloody. Brooks took a round to the shoulder, and a grazing shot found its mark on Stratton's jaw. He pushed the pain back and returned fire, searing a neat hole through a Turian's carapace and boiling the grey matter in his head. Right when Stratton ducked back behind cover to replace the spent power cell of his handgun, he heard the distinct warbling sirens of C-SEC Skycars, and the synthesized shouting of Imperial Guardsmen as they approached the condo.

Eight Imperial Guardsmen in full battle dress stormed through the door, stepping over their two fallen comrades that were once guarding the Chancellor's door, and opened fire. When the gunfire finally died down, Stratton pulled himself to his feet and looked around. Two of his personal Cerberus guards were now dead, along with three Imperial Guardsmen. The six Turian attackers were scattered around the living room, positively riddled with bullets.

"Motherfuckers…" Stratton muttered, wiping the blood off his neck with his sleeve. He turned to the Guardsmen that were putting confirmation rounds through the Turians on the floor. "Keep C-SEC the fuck away from that fucking door!"

"Understood." The Guard Captain nodded, moving to stand vigil down the hall.

"Fuckin' come to the Citadel to re-open the Embassy, and these fuckers try to knock me off…" Stratton muttered. "I want these Birds ID'd ten minutes ago!"

"Understood, sir." Brooks nodded.

"And notify Ryder that I want my new goddamn body tonight!" Stratton barked, sliding the handgun back into his coat.

XXXXX

"Councilor Tevos, Chancellor Stratton is, erm… demanding a meeting." Tevos looked up from her Omni-Tool. One of the aides had just barged into the conference room, looking somewhat frazzled.

"What, is there some problem with the Embassy?" Mesu asked, confused.

"Uhm… not quite." The aide began, awkwardly fidgeting with the sleeve of her dress. "There was an attempt on his life one hour ago, on the Silversun Strip."

Tevos couldn't even find the words to describe the feeling of sheer terror that washed over her. Just before she could pick her jaw up off the floor, she could hear a familiar voice shouting on the other side of the door. "No, goddamnit! I'm getting some fucking answers now!"

"Uhh… let him in." Tevos managed.

As the Asari aide stepped over to the door and pressed a hand to the holographic interface, the door hissed open and revealed the enraged Human Chancellor powering down his Datatool and shooting a fiery glare to Sparatus. He was flanked on both sides by a squad of Imperial Guardsmen, each of them wearing their ornate exoskeletons. When a C-SEC officer attempted to stop the Guardsmen from following the Chancellor into the conference room, a Guardsman with a white shoulder-cape raised his rifle to the C-SEC officer. "Officer, his guards may enter!" Tevos called out, hoping to defuse the situation. The C-SEC officer reluctantly stepped back, and the Guardsman lowered his rifle, falling back into step with the Chancellor.

As Stratton stormed into the conference room, the door hissing shut behind him, he glared at Sparatus for what felt like an eternity. Tevos could see that the grey fabric of his suit was stained crimson in blood, and a nasty-looking wound was sat on his jawline, seemingly sealed by a medical coagulant. "You have a lot to answer for if you want to leave this room peacefully, Sparatus." Stratton growled, reaching down to his Datatool and tapping the display. "I have two wounded Cerberus Agents and two dead Imperial Guardsmen… all at the hands of Turian Spectres!"

"What?!" Sparatus shouted in surprise.

"Look for yourself." Stratton removed the Datatool from his wrist, sliding it across the table to Sparatus. The Turian Councilor looked down at the device's screen, seeing six Turians lying on the floor of a Silversun Strip condo, biometric data for all of them present as well. The Chancellor was not lying… all six of them were active Spectres. "You've massed fleets on the border, and now you try to assassinate me?!" Stratton shouted, slamming a hand onto the table. "If it's war you want, I'll happily give you a fucking war!"

"Stratton, whatever you're implying, I'd advise-" Sparatus attempted, only to be cut off by the Chancellor.

"Interrupt me one more goddamn time and I'll bolt your mandible to your face, do you understand me?!" Stratton shouted, silencing the Turian Councilor. "I've had it up to here with the wishy-washy bullshit of the Council! Did you, or did you not, send these Spectres to assassinate me?"

"Of course I didn't!" Sparatus declared.

"You'll pardon me if I don't take you at your word, Sparatus!" Stratton barked back. "The Spectres answer to the Council and only the Council! All six of their Omni-Tools were set to self-destruct on death, all six were Turian, and all six of them were veteran Spectres transferred to C-SEC Liaison duty on the Silversun Strip by your office! This is either the most elaborate ruse in history, or you tried to knock me off!"

"You have no proof to substantiate this!" Sparatus shouted in return. "I never gave an order like that! Why the Hell would I?!"

"Oh, I'm sorry, which Council race refuses to de-militarize the border?" Stratton asked, rhetorically. "Which Council race has continued to be antagonistic towards Human traders at every turn? Which Council race threw a fucking fit when the Empire agreed to joint training exercises with the Asari Republics?"

"If I can offer a suggestion…" Tevos began, seeing that Stratton was getting terrifyingly close to walking around the table and making good on his threats. "Why not let the Empire's intelligence agencies have limited access to your systems to verify?"

"Absolutely not!" Sparatus declared.

"Of course, why would he allow that?" Stratton gritted his teeth. "He's afraid of what Cerberus will find."

"There are classified communications in those systems!" Sparatus retorted.

"I said 'limited' access, didn't I?" Tevos added.

"Let me put it to you bluntly, Sparatus…" Stratton said, leaning against the table. "It's the only way you'll be seeing peace tomorrow."

Sparatus glanced over to Tevos, then back to Stratton, then down at the Datatool again. He knew damn well that Stratton would make good on that threat. He let out a heavy sigh. "Very well… I'll grant your 'Cerberus' access to my office's computer systems."

"Good…" Stratton grunted, pushing himself off the table and beckoning for his Datatool. Sparatus slid the small device back to the Chancellor, who re-attached it to the mount on his wrist before activating a communicator. "Agent Brooks, you're clear to perform a full sweep of all communication and computer systems in Councilor Sparatus' office. Forward all findings to me directly."

XXXXX

"Chancellor…" Agent Brooks' holographic avatar appeared on the Council's conference table. It had only been about thirty minutes, and Stratton had notably cooled off, but there was still a feeling of tension in the air. "The scan of Councilor Sparatus' computer systems is complete. He was being truthful, he did not send the order."

"But it was still sent." Sparatus added. "Who did this?"

"Dalatrass Linron, through encrypted STG channels using previously-unseen methods for masking a data route." Brooks explained. Stratton could swear that he heard the cogs turning in Councilor Mesu's head.

"W-what?" Mesu managed, seeing the Guardsmen glaring him down.

Stratton sucked in a deep breath. "Thank you, Agent Brooks. Prepare this information for a public release." With a quick nod, she severed the connection from her end.

"Chancellor, I can assure you-" Mesu began, only to be cut off by Stratton raising a hand.

"The evidence implicates the Dalatrass and STG, not you." Stratton deadpanned. "However, consider it a… friendly request for you to contact the Dalatrass. As in, right now."

Mesu simply nodded, typing away at his Omni-Tool for a moment. "Chancellor, are you sure you wouldn't like to handle this… without us present?" Tevos asked, fearing more for Mesu's safety than anything.

"Don't worry, Tevos." Stratton turned to look at her. "If the Dalatrass is… cooperative, there won't be any need to escalate this unfortunate situation." Stratton diverted his attention again once the Dalatrass appeared in the center of the conference table, her avatar facing Mesu.

"Councilor, what's the meaning of this?" Linron asked, Mesu's call obviously interrupting something important.

"There's been an, erm… diplomatic incident here on the Citadel that requires your attention." Mesu explained. Stratton took that as his cue to step into range of Mesu's Omni-Tool. He could see the exact moment when Linron's heart stopped.

"Dalatrass, it's come to my understanding that we have some… disagreements we need to settle. I always knew STG preferred covert operations, but throwing the Turians under the bus? That's low even for a lizard."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Stratton." Linron attempted to deflect. "What are you implying?"

"Don't try me, Linron. You're going to explain to me, in simple terms, where our problem lies." Stratton snapped. "Really? You'd prefer to deal with Vice-Chancellor Muller? The same Vice-Chancellor that called for war after that little stunt STG pulled with one of our cargo freighters?"

"Again, I have no idea what you're talking about." Linron tried again. Stratton could see, she was nervous… rightfully so.

"Really? So when Cerberus goes public with a recent assassination attempt on yours truly, it'll be the first you've heard of it?" Stratton scoffed, sending the data packet Brooks had sent his way to Linron. "How about that? Ringing any bells?"

Stratton watched the Dalatrass open and closer her mouth a few times, searching for the right words. "Chancellor… I'm sure we can settle this peaceably."

"Oh, I have no doubt." Stratton nodded. "You might have a little problem with the Turians you used as a proxy, though."

"Truth be told, Dalatrass…" Sparatus spoke up. "If the Empire decided to march on Sur'Kesh, I'd be more than happy to let them."

"And you would find no help from the Asari, Dalatrass…" Tevos added.

"So, Linron…" Stratton's predatory smile returned. "Like you said, let's settle this peaceably. Councilors, any suggestions?"

XXXXX

"Captain Aboard, Flight Lieutenant Moreau stands relieved." EDI's synthesized voice came over the ship's intercom as Shepard's fireteam stepped back aboard Normandy. Garrus was standing beside Joker at the helm, overlooking the Earth with a bit of wide-eyed wonder.

"Spirits, Shepard. Did you get caught up in another-" Garrus clamped his mandible shut when he saw Shepard's team. They were… different. The faint marks of surgical scars, the wear and tear from countless battles, and the various imperfections each of them wore like badges of honor were all gone. Their eyes seemed to give off a faint glow, and their movements seemed more fluid and smooth. "What in hell happened to you four?"

"We'll go over all that in the briefing." Shepard deflected the question. "Get everyone together in the War Room, fleet's mobilizing in an hour." It took Garrus a moment, but he eventually nodded and went off to find the others. Satisfied that she wouldn't have to tell the same story fifteen different times, Shepard and her team all headed for the elevator behind the Galaxy map to prepare their equipment.

They all caught amazed looks from the crew, and a dull murmur overtook the CIC Deck. It was only once the four N7 Operatives were in the elevator that everyone slowly went back to their duties.

Shepard waited until her three companions got off on the Crew Deck, likely to a similar gawking collection of Naval Crewmen, then tapped the display and sent the elevator towards her cabin. She already knew what she was getting herself into here, and figured that it'd be best to get it over with.

As she stepped through the door to her cabin, she saw Sam throwing a plain t-shirt on. "A bit long for a meeting, Annalise." She said. Shepard could practically feel the snarky smile on Sam's face.

"A bit more than a meeting, Sammy." Shepard smirked, descending the short flight of stairs. When Traynor turned around, her jaw almost immediately hit the floor.

"W-What?" She managed, taking a tentative step towards Shepard. "Your eyes… your scars… your freckles! Did they give you new augments or something?"

"Not exactly." Shepard answered, stepping a bit closer and grabbing hold of Trayor's arms. "Gave me a whole new body."

"Wait… what?!" Traynor managed, after a few moments of simply gawking. "Why?!"

"Sam…" Shepard began, taking a deep breath. "There's a lot people don't know about the N7 Project… Sure, people know we have the most extensive augmentation procedures, but those augmentations slowly kill us. We're lucky if we live twenty five years after the procedure. Now those augmentations aren't augmentations any more… they're stock. Came with the base model." Shepard smirked, comfortingly running her hands along Traynor's arms. "Basically… they put me in a synthetic body."

"Y-You're a synth now?!" Traynor sputtered. "I-wuh-uhh-"

"Yep…" Shepard nodded. "Plan is to roll it out Empire-wide over the next few years… make this available to everyone. No more disease, no more aging… We've got Human-controlled evolution now."

Traynor processed everything Shepard had just said for a moment, her mouth firing off before her brain could filter it out. "Kinda makes the whole ''till death do us part' thing a moot point…"

Shepard simply looked down to Traynor with a smile on her face, seeing the blush creep onto her cheeks, then broke out into a fit of laughter. "Never change, Sam…"

XXXXX

"Captain, we're one minute out." Joker said, looking over his shoulder. "If there were ever a time to pray, it'd be now."

"What, you scared?" Wrex asked, crossing his arms as he watched the viewport.

"Jumping straight towards a Supermassive Black Hole, about to take on the inbred cousins of the Protheans on their home turf?" Joker asked, craning his head around again. "Nah, no concern here."

"Any word from the fleet?" Shepard asked, carrying her helmet in the crook of her arm. At first, she was a bit apprehensive at the idea of boarding the Collector Station. That all changed when she got put through her paces on Phoenix Station.

"Fleet's reported no issues on their end." Joker shrugged. "Shouldn't have any problems unless they got some of their cuttlefish friends for backup." Looking back down to the instruments, Joker activated the ship-wide intercom. "General Quarters, all hands to stations! Leaving FTL in five… four…"

XXXXX

The space around the galactic core was littered with the wrecks of ancient starships, all lazily drifting around the accretion disk of the supermassive black hole. The Collector station sat eerily close to the whirlwind, surrounded by a half-dozen Collector ships. The Collector fleet quickly changed its heading as three-dozen vessels slammed back into real-space, shields charged and weapons primed. The goliath Retribution sat at the spearhead of the fleet, and the general order to fire at will was given.

A/N:

Patience is a virtue. I'll cut right to the reviews.

Lucifer 9001- Update is now, my friend. Think of Dying Star like the Star Forge from Star Wars, just notably less OP.

EverfreeSparkle- It certainly cannot… just ask the Germans.

AdamZeeper- As much as I love the shit out of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided (original Deus Ex is still one of the greatest games ever made), this was actually mostly inspired by things like Shadowrun and Blade Runner (Hence the Voight-Kampff).

Omeganian- Shit… ya got me there.

BrokenLifeCycle- Seriously, just the sheer fact that we decided to slap the Golden Record onto the Voyager is amazing to me. Such a hopeful message that we sent to the stars, knowing that it'll probably never be found. I always got the feeling it was more meant for a future Humanity than anything.

Ilikebob- Never got super deep into 40K, not too familiar with the deeper lore. I've played a few of the games (like the good Dawn of War games and Space Marine). I always liked it, never really got around to getting really into it.

The-Only-Temporary-Name- We cyberpunk nao.

Frost5- You're in the right universe for Dying Star's basic function. Think KOTOR and the Star Forge ;).

Coduss- Yep, new body is permanent. Having your entire nervous system on constant overdrive tends to reduce lifespan.

Alright, hopefully I can update more frequently, but I make no promises. Work sucks, my dudes.