Chapter 21: Victory or Death

"We've got incoming drones!" Joker shouted over the bustling activity on the Normandy's CIC deck. "Brace for evasive maneuvers!"

Shepard grunted as she ship lurched upwards, the artificial gravity taking a moment to compensate for the sudden change in direction. Even with a synthetic body, the feeling of negative-G maneuvers was still unsettling. She heard the light hissing of the Plasma Lances firing, followed by a momentary flash of light from the bridge as one of the Collector drones went up in a brilliant explosion.

As the Normandy elegantly weaved through the debris field, the capital ships in the fleet simply advanced through the wrecks. The powerful energy shields knocked chunks of ancient starship aside as Retribution deployed a swarm of fighters. Point-defense weapons across the fleet flared to life as the Collector drones closed in on the UHE's vessels. When the fleet was finally in range to discharge their weapons, one of the Collector ships was nearly cleaved in half from the concentrated plasma fire.

Other ships were targeted, but the black hole at the galactic core was playing Hell with the UHE sensor equipment. Understandably, sensor equipment was not exactly designed to be used this close to the theoretically infinite mass of a supermassive black hole, and this was reflected in the accuracy of the larger weapons in the fleet. It seemed that the Collectors had some sort of workaround for this, as their particle weapons impacted against the bow of Retribution and the forward formation of Ares-Class Battlecruisers with relative impunity.

The two fleets continued to slug it out, with the UHE fleet working to close the distance as Retribution soaked up damage from the Collector Fleet. The sheer immensity of the Human flagship naturally drew fire, and the smaller vessels were taking advantage of that fact by masking their own signatures behind ECM. Eventually, under constant sustained plasma fire and the occasional use of nuclear ordinance, the last of the Collector fleet was swatted from space. Oculus drones continued to pour out from concealment around the debris field, but the immense fighter screen provided by Retribution was more than enough to keep them at bay.

As the fleet slowly converged on the massive Collector station, swarms of heavy dropships departed their motherships and began bearing down on the Collector Base. The heavy blast doors covering the base's hangar bays were blasted open by sustained autocannon fire from the dropships, and UHE Marines and N7 Fireteams stormed the facility.

XXXXX

Shepard's team exited their dropship, protected from incoming fire by the biotic barrier being projected by Samara and Liara. Six other dropships had landed in this hangar, and Marines were pouring out. All of the Marines were equipped with some of the heaviest armor available to the UHE. Hulking masses of powered armor were hefting autocannons, gauss cannons, and the occasional plasma thrower. Thanks to the intelligence gleamed from the destroyed Collector fleet over Eden Prime, much of the Seeker Swarm's effectiveness was nullified. The occasional Marine's armor still locked up if a swarm of the small biomechanical drones overtook him, but automated systems in the armor overrode the stasis field relatively quickly.

Looking to put her new abilities to the test, Shepard activated her biotic amp, and tossed a warp field into a chunk of debris a Collector was hiding behind. The warp field disintegrated the cover surprisingly quickly, and the perverted Prothean was shredded by incoming fire. Miranda simply grabbed one of the Collectors in a biotic field, lifted it into the air, then slammed it down onto the metal deck with incredible force. Kaidan, in his infinite recklessness, launched into a biotic charge and slammed into a Collector, throwing it into a wall with a squelch. Kaidan enhanced his already powerful shields with a biotic barrier, and switched to a coil scattergun.

Eventually, as they were completely outgunned, the Collectors in this hangar bay were whittled down to nothing. The UHE forces took minimal casualties, with medics moving to tend to the wounded. The dropships departed, clearing space for the next wave of Marines to land, and Shepard assumed command over this contingent of UHE forces. "Clear the station sector-by-sector! Mark any points of interest with a transponder and move on!"

XXXXX

Tevos turned her attention to the opening door of the Council Chambers, already knowing who was entering. Before she could turn to see the Chancellor, Sparatus muttered to himself "Spirits…" When she did see Stratton, she immediately understood what had Sparatus so shaken up. Despite the assassination attempt less than a day ago, Stratton lacked the scarring from the jaw wound. Even more obvious than that, his formerly dull-blue eyes were now glowing a bright blue. The old blemishes in his skin were gone, replaced with an almost… unnatural perfection.

Stratton walked into the conference room with a confident smirk on his face. "Sorry, probably should've warned you that I'd look a little different."

"What… happened?" Tevos managed, stunned by the Chancellor's sudden change in appearance.

Stratton leaned most of his weight back on one leg, the confident smirk widening. "You're looking at the culmination of three centuries of research…" He gestured to his body. "Mankind… redefined. Complete organic-to-digital consciousness transfer."

"Goddess… you're a synthetic now?" Tevos asked, brain slowly working to comprehend the technological bombshell that Stratton had just dropped on the Council.

"Synthetics were the first step towards this." Stratton answered, still smiling broadly. "This is a perfect synthetic replication of the Human body, capable of all of the same functions, without carrying the weaknesses. Fatigue? Gone. Disease? Gone. The only organic part of this body is the brain, which by itself is only partially so."

"Spirits… you've fused yourself with a machine?!" Sparatus asked, simply dumbfounded.

"Not quite." Stratton answered. "The old me is sitting safe and sound in a stasis pod for backup purposes… not like I'll need it." He gave an experimental flex of his biotic amplifiers, thin wisps of dark energy emanating from his fingertips. Tevos simply gawked at the sight of the previously non-biotic Human chancellor generating a biotic field. "Reproduction is still possible, growth and maturation is still possible, and self-repair is enhanced… all thanks to advances in nanotechnology."

"That's… incredible." Mesu managed. Even the Salarians had never considered the synthesis of organic and synthetic to be a realistic possibility, but here it was. The Council was, for all intents and purposes, looking at an entirely new form of life. The inherent instincts, compassions, and goals of the organic mind merged with the efficiency and durability of a machine body.

Stratton chuckled. "Sorry for making this a hectic news week for Council media. The whole mobilization against the Collectors…" He began, listing off the galaxy-shaking events of the past few days on his hand. "Imperial Intelligence arresting the Dalatrass… and now the Ascension Project."

"Is that what you call this?" Sparatus asked, confused. "Ascension?"

"Indeed." Stratton nodded. "A technology originally meant to be used for war, now being used to completely eliminate Human suffering."

"Wait… this is going to be a species-wide thing?" Tevos asked, slightly terrified of the concept of billions of Humans with the capabilities she could only imagine the Ascension bodies carried with them.

"Only in the sense that it will be available to everyone relatively soon." Stratton explained. "I'm no despot, I would never force this on billions of people. Participating in the Ascension Project is strictly voluntary. The Empire isn't a monolith, after all. Not everyone shares in the… Transhumanist philosophies I believe in."

"Well, regardless of that, this is a scientific marvel." Mesu said, silently trying to work the numbers on costs for such an efficient machine body.

"Oh, and by the way…" Stratton added after spacing out for a moment. Unbeknownst to the Council, the Chancellor no longer needed his Datatool. Now, it was built directly into him. "The Battlegroup reports a victory over the Collector fleet near the Galactic Core, and Marines have boarded the Collector Base and are pushing them back steadily."

"That's… good news." Tevos sighed, pushing the mind-numbing thoughts of a hybrid machine-organic species out of her mind for the time being. They were here to talk about the Collector situation after all. "Has Shepard and her team recovered anything of note yet?"

"Not yet." Stratton answered, settling into a more business-like tone. "Standing orders are to secure the base, then gather intelligence on the Reapers. Until Admiral Hackett sends the mission complete burst and any relevant data, there is the question of what exactly to do with the Collector installation. Imperial Intelligence would like to oversee the study of the facility by the JRC, due to the potential hazard of the Indoctrination Effect."

"That makes sense…" Mesu nodded. "You'll find no disagreements from me."

XXXXX

Shepard placed the shaped charge against the blast door, priming the thermite-based charge and stepping back. Sending a silent signal out with her implanted Datatool, the metal of the door started popping and hissing as the thermite charge began eating away at it. Eventually the Prothean alloy was weakened enough, and the plastic explosive component detonated, sending shards of superheated metal jetting into the room. With metallic vapor and the faint smell of ozone still filling the air, Shepard and her fireteam filed into the room, weapons primed.

There was a single, abnormally-large Collector rapidly tapping away at a dozen different computer terminals. Its vaguely-insectoid head craned to look back at the Human invaders. Shepard, for just a moment, was confused. The creature's eyes seemed to be glowing a bright yellow, and its movements were significantly less-jittery than its cousins outside. It all clicked into place when she saw a holographic representation of a Reaper being projected from a central display. The Collector's body was encased in a strange biotic field, and it stood upright, staring Shepard down. "Human…"

Shepard wasn't sure which of the two was speaking, the Collector or the Reaper. "Who am I talkin' to? The bug or the cuttlefish?"

The Reaper ignored her sarcastic quip, inadvertently answering it in the process. "Once rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh, you have accomplished what was thought to be impossible. You have achieved Synthesis, and shall be spared in the coming cycle."

"You'll understand if I don't take you at your word." Shepard deadpanned. "Fire."

The Collector was shredded by automatic coilgun fire, reducing it to a pulpy mass as it slumped against the console. There was a low rumble emitted from the Reaper's holographic image, followed quickly by it flickering out. Her comms buzzed with the voice of Fleet Admiral Petrovsky from Retribution. "All sectors showing clear, report back to your LZs and standby for pickup."

Shepard gave a quick signal to her team over their comms network. "Let's move, I'd rather not be on this hunk when they deploy the nerve agents."

XXXXX

Tevos stared on in awe, seeing what seemed like an endless wave of Imperial soldiers marching down a massive boulevard in the center of Imperium. For the first time, the entire Council had been invited to Earth to celebrate the defeat of the Collectors. She had seen previous parades broadcasted to the rest of the galaxy, but seeing them in-person was a completely different matter. There were hundreds of thousands in the streets of Imperium, waving the blue-white-gold banner of the UHE. It was a veritable sea of eight-point stars with Earth their centers, orbited by a golden wreath and stars.

Tevos glanced over to Stratton, whose now-synthetic eyes gleamed with a pride she had only ever seen in a Turian or Krogan as his lips just barely mouthed along with the song that the soldiers down below were chanting.

-Lord guide me through my battles

Lead me home

The victorious shall rise to the glory of the gods

Rise above the mountains

Light a fire in the sky

For the blood is running still

'Cross the plains and all the hills

Rise above the mountains

Light a fire in the sky

Carry me to the hill

To the top of Yggdrasil

In the dust I swore my hatred

From seeing unborn children die

The mother's weeping wakes my sword… for vengeance

I ride into infinity and as I fall, I rise

The victorious shall rise to the glory of the gods

Down below, as Tevos averted her eyes from the Chancellor, she could make out the small collection of power-armored super-soldiers marching in an orderly formation. She knew that N7 customized their armor, but it was still strange to see different armors marching alongside one another during such an event. She could clearly see Shepard's team as they followed behind a lead N7 operative wearing an all-black set of armor and a golden mantle cape.

Following the N7 were the elite Stormtrooper regiments. As she understood, the lead regiment was the famed "Hammer of the Gods", the same Stormtroopers who had dropped into the thickest of the fighting on Torfan.

"Incredible…" Mesu commented, seeing the sheer scale of Imperium for the first time. Even on the balcony they were seated at, the city itself seemed to stretch on forever, streets winding on in all directions for as far as the eye could see. The thundering feet below shook the Salarian to his very core.

"I assume the destruction of the Collector base is enough to convince you of the value of cooperation in the face of our… mutual enemy?" Stratton asked, glancing over to the Councilors.

"You already have the support of the Asari." Tevos noded.

"Judging by the data your men uncovered?" Mesu asked, sighing. "It'd be suicide to stand alone."

Sparatus took the longest, his pride standing in the way for a moment before finally relenting. "You'll have our support, Chancellor." Sparatus was easily the most impressed by the sight of Imperium. He doubted the Mesu or Tevos understood, but he could tell rather easily that this entire city was designed like a fortress. The streets were laid out in irregular, winding patterns that forced any invader to fight for each and every block. Imperium alone housed hundreds of military installations, big and small, and was virtually insurmountable with traditional tactics. If he had to guess… this was the bleed-over of an older, more afraid Humanity; one that would have fought to the last if an invader ever landed on Earth again.

Stratton gave a genuine smile. "Excellent… once the parade's finished, we can talk business. I still have an Empire to address."

XXXXX

Eighteen Months Later

"Admiral Hackett, we've picked up something massive on deep scans coming in from the galactic rim." Hackett's attention turned to the sensors station aboard Retribution.

Hackett, despite having nearly two years to prepare for this eventuality, felt a knot forming in his gut. "How many contacts?"

"Tens of thousands, Element Zero is present and in high quantities." The sensors operator returned. "They're here."

Hackett sucked in a deep breath, steeling himself. "Bring the fleet to alert, notify all vessels and stations to prepare for imminent attack. Get Stratton on the QEC."

XXXXX

Stratton ran a hand through his hair as the elevator door opened, revealing the bustling bridge of Imperator. Crewmen were darting all around, moving to their stations as the vessel was preparing to depart its drydock at Phoenix Station. Ignoring the few crewmen who stopped to salute him, he simply made his way to the command console near the center of the bridge and tapped away at the display for a moment. "Report." He beckoned to the display, which had just connected to the entirety of the Sol Defense Fleet.

"Multiple confirmed pings in the Exodus Cluster, no incoming fire yet." Rear Admiral Jensen acknowledged. "Planetary garrisons on Shanxi, Eden Prime, Elysium, and Demeter are preparing their defenses. Their defense fleets report no enemies in-system yet."

Stratton nodded, swiping his hand across the display and bringing up the new Galactic Communications Grid. He linked up with the Salarian, Turian, Asari, and Batarian command networks and finalized the connection. Hackett had already notified the Council and Humanity's allies in the Batarian Republic of the inbound Reapers, and his communication was accepted almost instantly from all parties. Primarch Adrien Victus, Matriarch Menoris, Rear-Admiral Kirrahe, and Fleet Admiral Grothan Paznees all answered around the same moment.

"Chancellor…" Paznees began, his four eyes glancing away from the transmitter for a moment. "We're already receiving reports of Reaper activity around the Alpha Relay. Tightbeam comms have been hampered by the Reaper Oculus drones, we weren't sure we'd be getting any assistance."

"Don't worry, Admiral…" Stratton began. "The sixth fleet's already en-route to assist; ETA: one hour. Move in to intercept any Reaper movements through the Alpha Relay. We cannot afford for the Citadel to fall."

"Copy that, we'll be there." Paznees nodded. "I'll link this comms channel to central command on Kar'Shan."

"Good luck, Admiral." Stratton nodded. "Godspeed."

"Godspeed, Chancellor." Paznees saluted, his image fading from Stratton's console, replaced by the Batarian Joint Armed Forces Command's general staff all sitting around a conference table.

"We've had no imminent threats to Salarian space reported, Chancellor." Admiral Kirrahe explained. "We'll divert some fleet assets to Turian and Batarian space to assist in the defense of the Rim territories."

"We're getting comm buoys knocked out all along the Rim, it'd be greatly appreciated." Victus nodded. "Judging by their movements, they're coming for Palaven."

"I'll have the Second Fleet link up with the Palaven defense cluster." Matriarch Menoris began, swiping away at her Omni-tool. "We've had no imminent threats reported near Asari space."

"Consider the Eighth Fleet and UHE 1st Marines under your command, Matriarch." Stratton offered, making reference to the Corps-strength Marine unit and battle group that had been running war games in Asari space. "Admiral Petrovsky will defer to your judgement for now."

"Got it." Menoris nodded. "And the Empire's standing?"

"We're detecting mass movements towards the Terminus on deep-space probes." Stratton explained. The Navy had sent thousands of stealth probes beyond the galactic rim to monitor for any incoming Reapers, which still seem to have gone undetected. "Looks like the Reapers are looking to bolster their forces in the Terminus."

"Closer to home, we're detecting multiple Reaper formations converging on Sol." Stratton continued, sending the report compiled by Imperial Intelligence over the QEC. "We'll be unable to provide large-scale reinforcement to the rest of the galaxy until we've dealt with this."

"Are they moving through the relay network, or using conventional FTL?" Victus asked. "We might be able to dispatch the Phalanx's battle group from Haliat to assist."

"Negative, we can't afford to waste dreatnoughts on delaying actions." Stratton denied the offer. "Haliat's far too important for the war effort as it stands."

"Alright…" Victus nodded.

"Chancellor!" One of the comms stations called out. "Multiple gravitational distortions in the Oort cloud! SWARM-IV nuclear mines are ready to arm!"

"Do it!" Stratton called out.

"We've got a Sovereign-class Reaper coming out of FTL!" Another sensors station called out. "Just outside effective SWARM-IV range! It's contacting us on tightbeam!"

Stratton glanced down to his console, seeing looks of concern from his compatriots. "Answer it."

Wordlessly, the comms station did as its was ordered. A booming, synthesized voice reverberated from Stratton's console. "Human… You have achieved Synthesis. Your kind shall be given one final chance to withdraw. The Cycle must be complete. Comply and you shall continue your meager existence."

Stratton scoffed, ignoring the looks he was getting from his crewmen. "Shepard already gave you our answer, so how about this? I give you exactly five seconds to get the fuck out of my galaxy?"

"What shame… such potential wasted." The Reaper's influence seemed to fade, replaced with the Imperator's artificial intelligence's voice.

"Electronic warfare attack detected, hardening systems." Deckard, the ship's A.I. began. A mere moment later, he returned "Attack repulsed, he's running."

"His friends aren't!" A sensors station called out. "Distortions are gone, Reapers are in-system! Repeat! Reapers are in-system!"

"Arm the mines!" Stratton called out. He glanced down to the console. "We'll continue this conversation in a bit, we've got some cleaning up to do."

XXXXX

Deep in the Oort cloud, as over two hundred Sovereign-class and Destroyer-class Reapers slammed back into sublight speeds, a veritable swarm of twelve-meter metallic spheres were remotely activated. Among the swarm of comets and icy objects that perpetually orbited Sol, these nuclear mines kicked on their EM thrusters and began honing in on the hundreds of Reapers.

The Oculus drones carried by the Reapers began acting as an ad hoc CIWS screen, operating with rather ruthless efficiency. The armada that made up the Sol Defense Fleet received reports from the probes that were stationed in the Oort cloud, making up for the time lag of observing a battle from such a great distance. Thousands of the mines were destroyed before they reached their intended targets, each of them going up in a brilliant display of nuclear fission. The few that did manage to weave through the Reaper defenseive screens magnetically attached themselves to the Reapers' outer shells and detonated.

Over a hundred megatons of force effortlessly cracked and splintered the few Reapers that were struck directly, vaporizing the strange violet alloy that made up their carapace. Sensors registered a dozen Sovereign-class Reapers simply evaporating under the immense heat and force of a nuclear detonation. Eight Destroyer-class Reapers were also destroyed, and six Sovereign-class Reapers were damaged by the nuclear onslaught.

A few moments after the Reaper formation cleared the treacherous space of the Oort Cloud, they all blinked into FTL. The Sol Defense Fleet finished scrambling their fighter screens just as the first of the Reapers popped back into subspace.

Civilians on Earth and Mars watched as bright lances of energy leapt across the stars, occasionally accented by brilliant flares of a detonating drive core or a nuclear missile impact. Millions of men and women took to arms as a few Destroyer-class Reapers descended all across Earth, jumping below the firing arc of orbital installations along with a few-dozen smaller troop transport-style ships that had been deployed from the Sovereign-class Reapers. Planetary defense batteries roared to life. The faint traces of coilgun slugs and the streaking of missiles roared up from the planet's surface. Strike fighters swarmed from their groundside hangars to intercept the hundreds of landing craft, meeting moderate success.

The fighting spread all throughout the streets of Imperium, with a combination of Collectors, processed Batarians, processed Turians, and even a moderate number of processed Asari that were dropped seemingly at random throughout the megapolis, likely to confuse and disorient the defenders. The winding streets of Imperium served the defending Marines, Army personnel, and the few civilian militias well as they fought the invaders street-to-street.

The Destroyer-class Reapers which survived the descent to Earth's surface began acting as massive heavy walkers, supporting the ground troops. The havoc they wrought was indiscriminate, simply levelling buildings.

The space battle was one of attrition, with the smaller Imperial vessels being woefully underarmed and underdefended to handle larger Reaper capital ships, relying solely on their maneuverability and low profile to survive. For nearly two hours the massive naval formations tore away at one another, whittling away each other's forces. Just as the larger Reapers began punching a hole in the UHE's defense over Earth and Mars, hundreds of spatial distortions appeared just beyond the asteroid belt.

From the bridge of Imperator, the stars themselves seemed to shudder as hundreds of Imperial capital ships from the defenders over Europa arrived. At the spearhead of the reinforcements was Imperator's sister ship, finally completed thanks to the stellar lifting capabilities of Dying Star: the UHE Liberation. The Reapers seemed to halt their onslaught for the briefest of moments as they processed their surroundings.

As swarms of fighters leapt from the reinforcement's hangar bays, swarms of missiles emerged from their launch tubes, and streaking ion cannons and kinetic batteries bore down on the significantly weakened Reapers, Stratton heard the sensors station calling out the spooling of Reaper Eezo drives; they were retreating.

Only a few Reapers managed to escape, with a vast majority of them simply shattering under the combined firepower of six hundred Human warships and their titanic flagship. For the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, the Reapers knew fear.

XXXXX

Tevos stared at the communications console on the Council's conference table, watching as the Citadel Fleet's IFF signatures began blinking out one after another. The smaller vessels in the Citadel's fleet were little more than a nuisance to the larger Reaper ships, and even the Destiny Ascension couldn't crack the barriers aboard the Sovereign-class designs. The arms of the Citadel had been closed at the first sight of Reaper presence, and the fleet had been put on high alert since they had first arrived in the galaxy nearly two weeks prior.

The Council had just received word that the Humans had engaged a massive Reaper fleet in the Sol system earlier that day, and there was still no word from the Human defenders. She knew how unlikely it was for the Empire to fold after a single attack, but… she couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong.

Tevos felt a knot form in her stomach at the sound of the Destiny Ascension sounding a 'low barriers' alert across all bands. The Council watched in horror as the Destiny Ascension continued to lose its protective barriers as the rest of the Council fleet was slowly whittled away. If only four-dozen Reapers could launch such an effective assault on the Citadel, they all knew what that meant if Imperial probes detected tens of thousands.

Their spirits were lifted when a comms ping reached the Citadel, sent from an Imperial QEC system. It wasn't anything long, or verbose, simply an acknowledgement of the Citadel's situation and that help would be there shortly. Not even five minutes later, as the Destiny Ascension was limping back towards the Citadel with a few cruisers covering its retreat at Sparatus' orders, their help finally arrived.

Sixty Imperial ships slammed back into sublight between the Citadel and the Reaper fleet, just a bit ahead of the Destiny Ascension. The Councilors could hear the cheers from the surviving vessels in the Citadel Fleet as the Humans arrived, with a Titan-class Dreadnought at the head of their fleet. The Citadel's communications grid was practically overwhelmed by the sheer number of friendly IFFs popping up as swarms of UHE strike fighters were launched from their hangars and began engaging the strange Oculus drones.

Tevos felt a strong urge to cheer when she saw the Sovereign-class Reapers simply blink off of the command console after a massive energy spike was detected from the Imperial Dreadnought and its battlecruisers. After about ten minutes of continuous fire from the Imperial ships, the Reaper IFFs had completely disappeared from the Council's console. With a smirk, Sparatus lifted the Citadel's lockdown and allowed the arms to slowly open again. The cheers throughout the station could be felt.

After a moment, the Council received a communication from the Titan-class Dreadnought that was now identified as the UHE Primo Victoria. Without a moment's hesitation, Tevos accepted the communication with her Omni-tool.

The holographic image of a rather tall and slender woman appeared beside the conference table. Thanks to the recently-upgraded communications equipment aboard the Citadel, her image was in full color and had virtually no distortion. For all practical purposes, this woman stood in the Citadel's conference room with the Council. She seemed surprisingly young for a Human admiral or fleet commander, but had these dark brown eyes that practically seethed experience and determination. Unlike most commanders in the Imperial Navy, she kept her shoulder-length brown hair down. Her dark grey uniform seemed to have a Captain's pin on the collar, but the Councilor's couldn't quite make out what it was.

"Councilors, this is acting commander Eden Stratton." When she said her name, a look of recognition immediately flashed across Tevos' face. "Sorry for the delay. Had some cleanup duty to finish up on Earth."

Sparatus and Mesu both looked to one another, asking the same silent question: "Was this in-fact some relative of the Chancellor?"

Tevos' response seemed to confirm their suspicions. "Regardless, we appreciate the assistance Miss Stratton. You'll have to remind me to thank your father for the defense platforms in the Nebula. They very likely saved this station today."

Author's Note:

Took one hot goddamn minute, but I'm back working on this one. I'm gonna just skim over the fact that it took around 8 months, and say: "Work and family shit"

I did want to do something special for you awesome peeps getting this story to the TOP TEN for ALL Mass Effect stories on this entire site! And what is this special thing? Since there seems to be universal agreement that Stratton is indeed the universal problem-solver, I was thinking something along the lines of "Stratton's Fireside Chats", where he basically takes questions from concerned Imperial Citizens (you guys) and answers them in a public address to the Empire/Galaxy. Basically, if you submit your questions, I'll dedicate an entire chapter to Stratton answering them! Leave 'em in the reviews or shoot me a PM and I'll make it happen!

Godspeed, you magnificent bastards! I'm gonna hop into the review response stuff and I'll see you in the next chapter.

Reviews:

Yankee718- I'm not gonna lie, I was not expecting people to like Chancellor Stratton this much. I always try to make characters like him cool and interesting, but something about him in particular seems to have worked really well. I appreciate the review, man.

Pteaset- That actually means a lot, my dude. I always felt like I have a huge problem with pacing, especially in stories with a lot of shit going on both in a big picture and boots on the ground sense. Thanks!

Guest #21193556- None of my stories are abandoned, I'm just lazy. Nam Imperii!

BrokenLifeCycle- You cracked my code, dude! Isaac Arthur has been a huge inspiration for a lot of weapons and tech in this story, specifically the Stellar Lifting platform Dying Star. I've been considering a Nicoll-Dyson beam for a bit, but something that giant and something that awesome is almost too much.

Julius Maxim- Luckily, this story has no intention of ending after the Reaper War is wrapped up. There'll be plenty more stories to tell in this one.

Brainarius- Oh, I've got plans for Joker.

Undeniably Uzimaki- I based Sam's response to that little tidbit off personal experience. I'm not saying that I have experience with my loved ones becoming androids, but what I am saying is that people seem to have a penchant for responding to traumatic or stressful sitations with humor, especially military or law enforcement personnel. There's also the whole thing with this being an entirely different culture, at least in what they consider 'Human'. The Empire is highly Transhumanist in nature, people regularly replace fully functioning body parts with cybernetics.

Gangui- I don't recall saying that there wasn't immense damage to the planet as a result of orbital bombardment. But I'm gonna have to disagree on the alien disease thing. Given that life on other planets evolved with that planet's specific nature in mind, it's highly unlikely that any diseases brought over by alien invaders would have any effects on Humans. We're talking completely different genetic makeup, completely different body chemistry, etc.

V774104- That means a lot, man. Sorry for taking so long with this update, but like I said up above, I've had some real shit going on IRL that's had my attention for a while.

Abbadon44- If you want a real spiritual experience, listen to Arjen Anthony Lucassen's cover of that song. It's basically an industrial progressive metal cover, and I'd consider it far and away better than the original.

Face Yourself- Defenses down, I glide into the New Real. Awaking to another world. God bless, my man. When I heard that album, I just had to integrate that idea into the story.

Zelta-Nine- [Insert 'Yuri shall conquer the Earth' meme here]

Cerjek- Oh, I just finished Andromeda. It did give me some ideas. That's all I'll say.

Guest (OCT 13)- I mean, there's this fancy thing called 'not reading something you don't like'. I've never liked AU stories that just use canon characters and nothing else, since I see that as a bit lazy. If it's for you, then it's for you, no hard feelings or anything.

Guest (OCT 26)- No hybrid kids, sadly. Not really on the priority list for creating that sort of synthetic body. Its focus was more on combat capabilities. But, with the free market, there's bound to be some company pulling it off at some point in the future.

ShadowCub- Not everyone in the Empire is like a 40K Inquisitor, after all.

Guest (NOV 19)- Nope, just busy with IRL stuff.