The Thirty-Six Stratagems of Wáng Jìngzé

Chapter 1

Kill With A Borrowed Knife

The news filtered through the Citadel piece by piece.

The Alliance channels lit up, files and footage, the Omega 4 relay had been activated. Kaidan had watched that footage a hundred times, listening to Joker's voice, clinical, professional. Like it was any other relay, just a routine jump. No one had ever come back from that jump.

But they had come back; the vibrant mockery of the Normandy had jumped back not twelve hours later, accompanied by an even greater wave of chatter from all official channels. Something twisted inside him to see that Cerberus logo emblazoned on the victorious ship. Something twisted harder knowing that Shepard would live to tell the tale.

After that came the C-Sec reports, the Normandy SR-2 requesting docking permission at the Citadel. Kaidan had been there for nearly a month. Waiting, he suspected, to be used as bait again, though for Shepard or the Collectors he couldn't be sure. No one could figure out if the ship should be allowed to dock, but after a long debate they could find no solid reason to deny the request, and the Cerberus crew were allowed onto the station.

How Emily Wong had known they were coming remained a mystery, but the cameras were there the instant the Normandy opened her airlock, and streamed live to every office in the Citadel.

The twisting, wrenching feeling in Kaidan's gut seemed to wind in on itself. The Commander Shepard who lived in his dreams, haunted his memory, was clean cut and almost prim. The only outward sign of her profession was her perfect military posture, and, of course, the thin scars that wound down her face, through her lips. She walked in his mind accompanied by Alliance soldiers as clean and pretty as herself.

The woman who set foot on the docks was not the same. Like the Normandy, the basic structure was intact but the integrity was compromised. A neat, regulation hairstyle was now untied, letting her wild hair fall over her shoulders. Wide eyes that had once been simply alert and attentive were now wary, darting over her surroundings, analysing. The height that had made her imposing in N7 armour now just seemed willowy, maybe even lanky. The last few years had been hard on her, that much was obvious.

She wasn't accompanied by Alliance soldiers anymore. Tali and Garrus were the only familiar faces he could see. Some of her crew looked outright psychotic and only a handful looked anywhere near professional.

He watched the security feed for too long, switching between the feed and his own work, each new oddity arriving and departing showed him exactly how separated he had become from her life. She shook hands with a young drell at C-Sec, someone he didn't recognise, then clapped Bailey on the shoulder with familiarity and friendship that had never existed before.

The Normandy was busy, people coming and going, but Shepard was nowhere to be seen for hours. He saw a few of the crew on the C-Sec feed. An older drell met up with the younger at Bailey's office. It took all of an hour for an inked up waif to get arrested for assault and be bailed out by Garrus. Several women carried paper bags onto the ship, shopping sprees that were probably long overdue.

Kaidan was so engrossed that he almost missed the buzz of his omni-tool. A message from Shepard.

I'm on Citadel. Can we talk?

That sounded ominous. He stared at the message for a long moment, every conflicting emotion he'd felt on Horizon welling up in his chest again. There were still no clear boundaries between them, she still unapologetically wore Cerberus sweats. No, he couldn't do this, not right now. Once she'd talked to Anderson, once she was reinstated to the Alliance, they'd be on even ground, they could talk as equals.

Not today, Shepard.

He sent the message and closed his omni-tool, then the security feed. He had to stop obsessing over this or it would be too easy to slip back into the depression he'd felt over her 'death'.

It was several hours later that the Normandy SR-2 departed the Citadel. She hadn't gone to see Anderson. She hadn't even asked to be reinstated. Kaidan opened up his omni-tool late in the evening to see one unread message that had been sent just seconds after his had been received.


Shepard looked at herself in the mirror.

A bubble of laughter escaped her lips and she turned to stare dubiously at the women who lounged on her sofa. Every female member of her crew sat in her quarters, helping her 'be a girl' as Tali put it.

"I feel like a fool," she declared.

Kasumi raised one derisive eyebrow. "That's because you're used to being a cross dresser."

"Wearing armour is not cross dressing."

"The only dress you own is one I gave you," the thief said.

Shepard smoothed down the floor length gown. At least the last dress had been black, so she could pretend to be a spy or something. This one left nothing to chance, she looked like a princess, all flowing silk and braided hair. She wasn't letting them dress her up for no good reason, it was an extremely important night on the Normandy.

"I can't believe I'm taking clothing advice from four women who wear catsuits and one who wears tattoos."

"Neither can I," said Jack.

"You look beautiful, Shepard," Samara said. Her voice was soothing and authoritative as always, making her sound absolutely, undeniably right in whatever she said. Shepard took it with a grain of salt – her catsuit was the worst of the lot.

"Wonderful, now I can get a date to the prom. I should wear my uniform. That makes me look professional, at least."

"Which uniform, exactly?" Kasumi asked. "The one from the Alliance who aren't supporting you, or the one from the pro-human extremists who aren't supporting you?"

"Shepard, are you being shy?" Tali said.

Shepard frowned. That was designed to bait her, turn it into a challenge and force her to respond that if she could take on a Reaper she could most certainly take on a dress. Sometimes Tali knew her a little too well. At least she wasn't suffering alone in this, all five women were zipped into the most unadorned, conservative versions of their normal outfits, looking like proper soldiers instead of lap dancers for a change. The men would be in 'uniform' as well. So they could all feel like fools together.

"I am not shy, just concerned. I'm supposed to be inspiring confidence tonight, not laughter," she said.

Samara stood and slunk over to her, adjusting her hair. "Perhaps you don't realise how a human can look to other species. Even in armour you seem soft, fragile to us. Appearing without any protection is a great show of self-confidence."

"She's right, Shepard," said Tali. "If you need to wear armour on your own ship they won't believe in you."

The room was lit with a white glow as EDI appeared. "The first shuttle has arrived, Shepard."

"Thank you, EDI. Send Garrus up when the last one gets here."

"Of course. Logging you out, Shepard."

Shepard turned to her team, who were already prying themselves off the couches one by one and heading for the elevator. She swallowed the lump in her throat. The bickering had distracted her for a while from what she was about to do.

The elevator closed and she was alone.

She closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath, settling in for a meditative session to stave off the panic attack. She could do this. She could do this. This wasn't the time to be doubting herself. She had the facts behind her, she had the resources, she even had something very close to proof. Maybe it was idealistic of her, but she believed that having the truth on her side was as powerful a weapon as her thannix cannon.

Breathe in, breathe out. Don't panic.

She concentrated on her breathing, ignoring the reality of her situation until she heard the door open. She had almost fallen asleep.

Garrus gave her a smile and offered his arm. "Looking good, Shepard."

"You're just saying that." She took his arm and he led her to the elevator.

"You're right. Do you really think blue's your colour?"

She frowned. "Samara said it brings out my eyes."

Garrus stopped before they reached the elevator, giving her a bemused stare. "I'm joking, Shepard. You look great for a human. You're really that nervous about tonight?"

"Yeah, I am."

He dropped her arm and stepped back, forcing her to face him. His mandibles flared. He thought she was being foolish. Still, it was an affectionate smile that graced his face, and her took her face in one hand, pressing his forehead against hers, lending her some of his strength.

"Shepard, you're one of a kind. If you can't do this, then none of us ever stood a chance to begin with."

She jerked her head against his in a nod. "Thanks, Garrus. Let's go raise an army."

The doors opened and he led her into the elevator. The ride was blessedly quick, not giving her time to rebuild her insecurities, and they stepped out into the crew deck.

The refitting of this deck had cost her almost every credit she'd scavenged. Admittedly most of the refit was holographic and would be stripped down and sold for parts after tonight was over. Samara and Kasumi were a little put out at having to strip and vacate the observation decks, but they understood. For tonight the arrangement was actually kind of classy, and she was grateful, because her current guests wouldn't accept anything less.

"Shepard," Wrex greeted her and shook her hand. "You look like a female."

"I am a female, Wrex," she replied, working to keep her posture and grace, not slipping back into the mask of the boisterous soldier. "Glad you could make it."

She would have liked to stop and talk to him for the next few hours, but there were a lot of people to greet, so she continued into the main hall, regularly known as the mess. It was busy, most of the people she recognised, but it was the ones that she didn't who would need the most attention. Aria T'Loak was leading the drinking, joined by patriarch, utterly uninterested in greeting her host. A couple of the hanar had actually shown up, she made a mental note to thank Thane until she was blue in the face.

Two quarians ambushed her before she could go much further. "Captain Shepard."

"Admirals," she inclined her head. "How are you this evening?"

"We would be better without an AI watching over us," one replied, then looked over his shoulder to where Legion stood, armed and alert. "Or a geth. You have some gall, Shepard."

"I do. I assure you both that neither EDI's nor Legion's allegiance is preprogrammed, they are as much a part of my crew as any organic." She smiled as sweetly as she could. Legion noticed the attention he was receiving and waved in his usual, adorable manner. Shepard waved back. "Please feel free to speak to them as you would anyone else aboard."

"I just hope you dragged us here for good reason," one growled, ignoring her thinly veiled threat.

Shepard tried to keep her smile, but it didn't feel sincere anymore. "I will be addressing everyone on board later in the evening. Enjoy yourselves, Admirals, this might be your last chance to relax for a very long time."

She bowed out of the conversation and grimaced at Garrus.

He chuckled. "You're going to have a lot of fun tonight, Shepard."

"Go be a guard," she growled, just restraining herself from sticking out her tongue at him. "And make sure if the quarians interrogate Legion it at least doesn't involve thumb screws."

He saluted, just the barest hint of mockery in the gesture, and made to be a guard for the night. Most of the crew were on guard duty. She didn't really expect anyone to start trouble, and her crew certainly didn't need to be armed to deal with them, it was more of a chest-pounding 'these are my guards, imagine my soldiers' deal. Some crew were assigned as peace makers, the ones she could trust to keep their mouths under control.

Shepard scanned the crowd, trying to pick out someone strategic to approach. Liara was deeply engrossed in conversation with the raloi ambassador. The elcor general whose name escaped her just now was talking to a hanar, a conversation she wouldn't enter into even if it would save the galaxy. Talk about an unforgettable fourteen hour experience. There were a surprising amount of asari present, including several matriarchs. Mother of God, was that Jona Sederis? Who had talked the founder of Eclipse onto her ship?

The Council had, to the man, turned down her invitation, but then she'd only really sent it out of courtesy. Garrus' words to her back on the original Normandy had preyed on her mind. He wanted to know if the Council was being half-hearted in their attempts to bring Saren to justice, unnecessarily dense about the issue of Reapers. She was beginning to suspect that the Citadel itself had some indoctrinating qualities. It was Reaper tech, after all, and the Council had been exposed to it for a very long time.

"Shepard." A hand unexpectedly slid into the crook of her elbow and she very nearly threw a punch before remembering where she was.

Thane fell in beside her, and she let out a huff. "You scared me."

"I apologise. You looked lost, not a suitable appearance for a host." He gently guided her forward, their slight movement giving the impression of deep conversation. "The rest of your appearance is... very suitable."

Drell compliments. Less than epic, but she appreciated the thought. Coming from him he may as well have dropped to his knees and begun a rendition of 'The Way You Look Tonight'.

"I bet you say that to all the girls. How did you talk the hanar into this?"

"I worked for a well respected family on Kahje. They were willing to listen to me, and convince the Illuminated Primacy to hear you out. How they will respond to your proposal remains to be seen, they are protective of their client races."

"Protective enough to save them, I hope. Thank you for getting them here, it's more than I should have asked of you."

Glassy black eyes stared back at her, observing, inscrutable. "You can ask anything of me, Shepard. I would not deny you."

"Oh." She hoped that not many of the species here recognised a blush, because she could feel her face growing furiously hot. "Let's... uh... would you introduce me to the hanar?"

He smiled slightly and led her to where one of the hanar floated. He bowed his head and she mimicked the gesture, knowing how easily offended this species could be. One wrong move and she'd be considered an egotistical jerkass for all time. Thane gave her elbow a reassuring squeeze as if he could sense her nerves.

"Commander Shepard, this is Ambassador Ranamen of the Illuminated Primacy. Ambassador, allow me to introduce the captain of this vessel and our host, Commander Shepard."

"This one greets you," the hanar said, its body glowing brilliantly with speech.

"It's an honour to have you aboard the ship, Ambassador Ranamen." She measured each word carefully, trying not to refer to herself in any way. "Your presence is unexpected, but appreciated."

"This one is troubled by hearsay. It has received the disquieting information from reliable sources. It will listen to you."

"The hanar concerns embody much of the information that will be presented this evening, and a lot will be of particular interest to your species. You must be aware of the previously undiscovered information on the Enkindlers that this crew has worked with."

"This one would be interested in speaking at length on the subject when fears of the Collectors are no longer present."

"Thank you for your time, Ambassador. Your concerns will be addressed in due time, please enjoy the party until then."

She bowed again, followed by Thane, and retreated as fast as she could without appearing impolite.

Dragging Thane behind her, she ducked into a dark corner that wasn't already occupied and let out a gurgle of laughter, her nerves standing on end. She'd managed to not mortally offend a hanar ambassador on the first meeting. If drell were laughers she was sure her companion would be laughing with her. Instead a flicker of amusement danced in his eyes.

He looked almost proud of her, if such an expression was in his repertoire.

"I didn't offend the ambassador," she said.

"I noticed. When do you plan to begin the address?"

"A few more minutes. I want everyone on their third drink, we're about done with the first now. If I soften them up with a networking opportunity they'll be more receptive."

She let Thane go and continued circulating. Liara gave her a hug and she had to continue, finding more and more that she was looking forward to the address so that she would have time to really talk with people. Some she could drop in on any time for a friendly or less than friendly chat, some had come from the far reaches of charted space to attend, taking time from their incredibly busy schedules.

It was more than a little overwhelming. Outside the Council, the most powerful people in the galaxy were here, themselves or by representative. And she was about to yell at them. Shepard grimaced and took a drink from Chambers at the bar, downing it in one. Dutch courage would be the only thing to get her through this night. God bless industrial strength synthetic livers.

She counted out her time estimate by the amount Liara drank. By her third Aria would be blind and Xeltan would be starting his first, the rest of the guests somewhere in the middle. Liara caught her staring at the same time she caught herself, watching the last drops of time slip through the asari's lips. She gave the Shadow Broker an embarrassed and apologetic smile, then headed to the stairs by the battery, where she'd be speaking.

Shepard gave EDI the signal and the lights dimmed for a few seconds before bringing them back up, effectively getting everyone's attention. The chatter died down and her crew took their places at the sidelines, ready to be guards if things went badly.

The eyes of everyone who commanded authority in the galaxy landed squarely on Shepard. She felt her throat close up for half a second, then squared her shoulders.

"Good evening, everyone. I'm sure you all knew I'd be shaking you down at some point this evening." A slight chuckle from the crowd eased her nerves, and she continued. "The Normandy is honoured tonight. Some of you know each other, a lot of you don't, most are wondering why no one has tried to kill you yet. We have among us politicians and criminals, royalty, extinct species, kingpins, gang leaders, genetic anomalies, artificial intelligences, and that's just my crew."

Another laugh, and she knew the ice was broken, it was time to get serious.

"For some of you, the story I tell is just beginning, some of you want to know how bad it's getting. That's why I've asked you all here tonight. Most of you I met down the barrel of a shotgun, and I know some of you can see a mortal enemy across the room. Mine are here, as well. I'm here to tell you that the time to set aside our differences has arrived."

She stepped down one stair, leaving the blank wall behind her – the hologram of a blank wall behind her – in full view of the room. EDI took her cue and the image of white stucco changed. A gasp echoed around the crowd. The might of the Reaper fleet stared down at them.

"This image comes from a geth observation post, the only post in this galaxy that monitors dark space, and it is the most recent picture we have of the Reapers. For those of you unfamiliar with the physics of these monitoring stations, this was the Reaper fleet around fifty thousand years ago, fresh from their victory over the Protheans."

The image changed behind her, to that of the collector base in the shadow of a black hole, and it would keep changing as she spoke, every image they'd collected that could be seen nowhere else. She kept talking, allowing the pictures to back her up, force people to accept that there were things out there they hadn't seen. She even had Aria and Wrex interested at this point.

"Eight hundred and sixty two Reapers is our best estimate. It took the entirety of the council fleet to defeat one. Each of you will find, upon your return to your various home worlds, that there is an information packet waiting for you. Everything we know about the Reapers is contained within. From specifications to personal accounts, every scrap of information that may give us a fighting chance has been given to all of you.

"They are coming. We thwarted them at the Citadel, we thwarted them through the Omega relay, but it wasn't enough. Right now the Reapers are finding another way. Many of you have hailed us as heroes, but all we have done is delay the inevitable. These are machines, they don't get discouraged, suffer no low morale. They can't be distracted or diverted, anything we do short of killing them is just borrowing time.

"The Protheans were more advanced than any species here, they fought with everything they had, and they lost. They didn't just lose, they were enslaved, genetically modified, violated, turned into monsters to do the Reapers' dirty work on the next generation. Reapers take no prisoners. They don't negotiate. They make no distinction between saint and sinner."

A morbid silence had descended over the room. Shepard stayed silent for a long moment to let the information sink, in the image behind her kept changing. The Collector DNA strand versus the Prothean. The derelict Reaper. The horrors of Ilos. Sovereign on the Citadel. The Collector pods and swarms.

"I make no threats, but I make you this promise. The Reapers want us gone. Not just us, not just the Citadel and the Council. Every man, woman and child, of every species, on every planet. Even if they have no interest in your species, they will not leave behind witnesses to warn the people who come after us. We become the next Protheans, just artefacts for the next generation to scrounge through when the Reapers come for them.

"The Protheans were more advanced than us, and they lost, but they left behind enough to prevent us from meeting their fate. Sovereign was defeated at the Citadel, and he was the first of three Reapers I have killed, along with my team. You can see that team around you, the people who have already saved you without you even realising it. Quarian and geth. Mercenary and vigilante. Assassin and justicar.

"This is your vanguard. We stand against them, even if it costs our lives. Everyone here has something they can contribute to this war, and it is a war. There is no resource, no skill, that we can't use. You can contribute, you can help us stop this. The Normandy stands ready to fight. If the army behind us isn't big enough then all hope, for everyone, is lost."

She took a deep breath, the image of the human Reaper, recorded by her own visor, hanging above her menacingly. She met the eyes of the people she trusted, seeing comprehension.

"They want us gone now, before we get too powerful for them to kill. I say they've waited too long. I say we have that power now. And I hope you all prove me right.

"Please be generous. The very existence of your species depends upon it."

Shepard stepped down from the stairs, greeted only by silence.

That was around the time that the drinking really began.

It's a long shot,

She's got the truth and a tongue for a slingshot,

But she's taking steady aim at the big shots.

"Comin' Up From Behind" - Marcy Playground