"The key to strategy... is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory."

Cavilo, The Vor Game

Many Waters Meet, Kahje - Dr Liara T'soni

March 20th, 2183

Scrambling up out of the depths of the prison, Liara tried to maintain her focus. Parts of the city were heavily damaged and flooding, and blast doors were sealed everywhere. Her group needed a way to rendezvous with the CRISIS team, but the path ahead was now blocked. Thane, Kolyat and Samara were all powerful biotics and warriors, and Liara wasn't half bad herself. What none of them were was technical experts who could hack open sealed doors or get failing systems to divulge the way forward.

"Can we go back?" Liara panted, leaning against the latest blast door that was far too thick for biotics to force open.

A gargling howl sounded from behind her, and Thane blinked his nictitating membranes once. "I would not advise that."

"Captain Delan, what is your estimated time of arrival now?" Kolyat demanded into his com.

"Heavy resistance in your area. Multiple tunnels flooded. This one's squad has abandoned the shafts and are in the open ocean again. This captain is trying to find a way to reach you now, but this officer does not have up to date information on what is flooded in your area."

"Can't go forward, can't go back," Liara muttered. "There has to be another solution."

"Well, there is, but you'd have to have an expert lock opener who knew how to ask systems to give up their secrets nicely," a voice said from above Liara's head.

She started, raising her weapon along with her bodyguards. There was nothing there though, just shadows. Something about that voice was familiar though….

"Wherever you are, come out and show yourself if you're a friend! If not, be gone! I shall smite thee if you show yourself," Samara shouted.

"See, now that's contradictory and makes me want to stay hidden. You should say 'I won't smite you if you show yourself," the voice replied, a touch of humor in it.

At the moment, Liara was feeling decidedly humorless. "Where are you?" she demanded.

"Right here," the voice said from directly behind Liara, and she spun as she raised a barrier and pointed her pistol. Before her stood a hooded human woman with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips. "Wow. Touchy. See, this is why I wasn't sure if I should just stay hidden and open doors for you or show up. But Miri wants you to come, so here I am."

"You!" Liara gasped, jerking back slightly and lowering her gun. "You're one of the people from Omega, one of Goldstein's aids."

"She's a spy," Kolyat grunted. "Or a thief who stayed behind to pillage an abandoned city."

"I prefer the term material liberator," the human replied. "But anywho, you wanted to escape? Door's open now. That section isn't flooded, but the emergency system has everything locked down with so many breaches."

Liara glanced behind herself to find that the door was indeed slowly sliding open. "I suppose I should ask if we can trust you, but I have a feeling that you'd simply give a smart answer and we'd follow you anyway."

"Too right! Better call that military guy, I can give him the current flood levels in the local sectors," their new guide said, and strode forward towards he door.

Kolyat got back on the comm with Captain Delan and the group hurried through to the next chamber, this one spreading out to multiple different concourses. And full of Reaper troops. The human instantly vanished, and Liara rolled her eyes. Of course it had been a trap.

Kolyat threw a grenade at one of the massive creatures, one of the monstrosities with no face. It let out a thrumming, pulsing bellow of pain and range and broke into a hobbling charge. The smaller ones hefted guns and opened fire, and Liara and Samara desperately threw up barriers. The steady beat of rounds pattered off the biotic shield as Thane used his own biotics to trip up the charging monster in a singularity, which Kolyat then detonated to send the creature's meaty chunks splattering everywhere. The two drell were forced to put up their own barriers as the audible pop of their hardsuits kinetic barriers was heard.

Liara was about to coordinate a new assault, when across the room several of the enemy suddenly slumped dead, mono-molecular blades sticking visibly out of their backs. A few of the enemy turned to search for their opponent, but there was nothing. There was a sudden sharp bark of a submachine gun mass accelerator, and one of the creatures opened fired in the general direction of where the fire had come from. Liara saw a few rounds scatter off what appeared to be empty air, and realization dawned: the human hadn't abandoned them, she'd simply activated her stealth unit to flank the enemy.

"While they're distracted!" Liara shouted, and her own mass accelerator roared.

In short order the remaining creatures were downed, and the human reappeared. "Wow, you know, if I was actually a badguy, which would have been a pretty slick move on my part. I mean, I totally lead you into a chamber with a whole lot of baddies. Then I could have stabbed you all in the back and run back to my masters cackling with glee. After searching your corpses for goodies of course."

"Were these carrying anything of value?" Thane asked, keeping his weapon down, but pointed in the human's general direction.

"Dunno. I swipped some stuff, but I haven't had time to really look at it. It's like a treasure hunt!"

"Are all humans this mad?" Kolyat grumbled under his breath.

"Goldstein seemed stable enough, though she did have an asari to point her in the right direction," Liara sniffed. "But enough of that. Kolyat, where are the CRISIS suits?"

"There," Kolyat pointed, indicating a general direction.

"Hmm, that sections flooded, we'll have to work our way around," the thief mused, tapping at her omni-tool. "Ah, that should work! And it even takes us by a bank!"

"As a justicar, I am obligated to punish crime wherever I find it, regardless of circumstances," Samara observed aloud. That wasn't strictly true; she was oath-bound to follow Liara, and to ignore any crimes that would impede Liara's overall goal of stopping the Reapers.

"-where I will obviously not take anything, because that would be wrong. Come on kids! It's exploring time."

Ocean of Perpetual Dawn, Khaje – Miri Goldstein

March 20th, 2183

"Good to hear from you again, Doctor," Miri said, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.

The asari's face on the pickup was weary looking, but pleased. "And from you as well Ambassador, though I confess I did not think to hear from you again so soon. Why have you come back already?"

"For you, actually. I've enlisted the aid of two stealth ships, one League, one Citadel, to break you out. You're needed elsewhere Doctor."

"I'm not sure that's wise. I've just been extracted to the CRISIS suit firebase, and we are starting to coordinate the defense of the planet. They need me-"

Miri interrupted Liara, pointing a finger at her screen, "Doctor, what exactly have you actually contributed to the defense of the planet that no one else could do? From what I understand, so far you've been more of a risk than an asset, what with staying behind until long after it was advisable."

There was a moment of silence, then the asari nodded. "Perhaps you are right. There is some intelligence that we've gathered that needs to be shared, and things that must be found out. Such as just what exactly these creatures are and where they have come from."

"Agreed. The fact that what appears to be a new species could come up with such a massive fleet is disturbing indeed. They have to have had Reaper assistance, and that raises disturbing conclusions. The first being that the Reapers are capable of manufacturing a fleet of this scale so quickly."

"Yes, that is indeed of no small concern. Hopefully this can convince the galaxies powers they need to unite, not stand apart."

Arturus Station, League Senate – Prime Minister Stephen Hackett

March 20th, 2183

"The arrival of such a force outside our borders is a matter of no small concern yes, but they are dreadnought based which means-"

"Which means they can jump into a system and destroy it before we could even react without garrison forces! The outer colonies-"

"ORDER!" Bellowed Speaker Weyrlock. "I will have order! If I have to tear off your head to get it, by the Oath I will do so!"

The special joint session of Parliament, both the House of Commons and the House of Homeworlds, came slowly to order. Heads turned toward Hackett, who stood in his civilian blue suit, with two ribbon on the lapel. His service ribbons for the First Contact War and what was already being called The First Pan-Galactic War instead of the Great Pan-Galactic War. No one had really thought it would be the war to end all wars this time anyway.

"As you are all already well aware, hostilities have renewed with the Citadel and we have what was an unknown force in the Luxor system. That force has now been identified," Hackett waited for the image on the screen behind him to appear and the murmurs of confusion begin. "The image you see was picked up by League intelligence," no mention of how intel had gotten it, or of the SR-1 Normandy, "and depicts a known species of an alien being. The yahg."

A few sounds of understanding from the particularly well informed, blank looks from the rest. "The yahg were a pre-space civilization located on the planet Parnack at the fringes of Citadel space. We had heard rumors that at one point the Council had planned to uplift the yahg, similar to what was done to the krogan during the Rachni War."

Now there were sounds of outrage and anger. A few krogan stood and began to slam their chests with their claws in a display of aggression, but the Speaker quelled them quickly.

"We had thought the Council had mothballed the idea. Apparently, we were wrong," Hackett took a deep breath. All those talks with Aethyta. She'd seemed to want peace. Perhaps she had. But facts were facts, and too many in Parliament would find out all this soon or later no matter what Hackett did. Better they hear the full truth from him now then play shadow games. "These ships have been carefully analyzed by our VIs. They are not a perfect match for any known ship classes currently in use, but they are a match for modified old-style turian warships. Warships that have been out of commission for over 500 years in some cases, but still a match."

This time it took several minutes for the Speaker to calm the parliament. It was a well-known fact that the turians flat out did not throw away military hardware. They had massive fleets, no one knew how big, stored away in various parts of the galaxy. Those sites were mostly unknown to the League, and very little effort had gone into finding them. After all, those ships were grossly behind the times, and not much of a threat. The turians theoretically had the personnel to crew them all, but if they did it would strip their economy to the bone and put most of the ships on only a skeleton crew. With some modern retrofits though, those ships were dangerous enough. Not a threat by themselves, but in conjunction with existing Citadel forces, they were very, very worrisome.

After that, it was all over but the shouting, and there was plenty of that even if it didn't last long. The first punch had been thrown already in the Thal system when most of the crew of the St. Petersburg had been taken captive. There was enough outrage in the media over that, much of which Hackett shared. With the new developments, it was obvious what the outcome was going to be. The Parliament declared renewed war upon the Council by unanimous vote. A few had abstained, but not many. No one had the courage, or perhaps the insanity, to stand against the proposal.

Part of Hackett agreed. He'd presented the evidence that there were reaper forms on the ground, but that had only convinced many of the MPs that the Citadel was just in the Reaper's pockets again. Mostly though, Hackett couldn't help but feel they'd all just signed their own death warrents. Could the League hope to defeat the Citadel? They'd finished Stargate true, but so had the Council. Would any side dare to bomb a homeworld into dust? Was there any other option? Hackett didn't know.

The Citadel, Council Chambers – Councilor Aethyta

March 20th, 2183.

"They're going to declare war," Valern stated simply. "It's their only real option. The STG has dropped the ball on this in a way I don't even understand yet. I take full responsibility for it."

"You're not to blame in this anymore than the rest of us, Valern," Quentius sighed. "Saren's alive, we know that much now. It wouldn't have been hard for him to infiltrate our only listening post and subvert it. And the ships they're using. Turian. We're checking the stores now, but I already know what we'll find. They were always guarded mostly by secrecy, and Saren could have found them with the same sources he dug up the Tuchanka bomb with seven years ago."

Aethyta rubbed her forehead. She could feel wrinkles there. Wrinkles. Asari didn't get wrinkles or worry lines. But she had. She was old, she was tired, and this shit was just too unreal. "Let's stop blaming ourselves for a moment and think. What are our options?"

"First strike against Arcturus and Earth," Valern answered instantly. "But if we do, they'll respond in kind. Guaranteed."

"We can't hope to wage a defensive war either," Quentius pointed out. "That's always the fastest way to lose. Hitting a homeworld isn't a good option either. We need to hit the League where they'll feel it enough to sue for terms, but not on one of their homeworlds."

"Do you have a target?" Aethyta demanded.

Quentius nodded. "Three: Watson, Terra Nova, New Rannoch. They are all industrial worlds by and large, and their three largest colonies. We hit those hard and fast. Complete destruction of all orbital infrastructure. We can leave the planets mostly alone, the League is touchy about civilians and there's not much value in bombing them anyway, population isn't high enough. We'd do a few strikes on military targets of opportunity, but that's about it."

"How soon can it be done?" Aethyta asked, feeling a cold pit knotting in her stomach.

"Within two days," Valern answered. "We'll have to coordinate the strikes carefully, but they should be able to be carried out with light casualties. We'll use expendable units incase they're not."

"Let me guess, asari units mostly."

Quentius hesitated, then nodded. "Two of the strikes will be done with asari units. Your new designs have the best chances of success and they're the closest. The third will have to use turian units, they're the only ones in place."

Somewhere, a part of Aethyta was screaming. This was wrong. Her daughter was in terrible mortal danger. She should send help. She should fight the Reapers, make peace. But she couldn't. She had a duty to perform, and trillions to protect. Her daughter was just one of them, and the Reapers were not here, not yet. Just their damned puppets again.

"Do it. I'll tell the Coven to fold their chain of command into the Hierarchy's as planned. We need central authority for this, and your admirals are just plain better."

With that, three heads nodded, and signed the death warrants of millions.

Authors Note:

I was always immensely disappointed that there was no class in Mass Effect that could use a cloak + blade for backstab attacks from stealth. Granted, that might have made certain classes hilariously overpowered, but hey.

So, my first year of teaching is going very well. Except for the fact that I keep getting sick with whatever my students bring in. That's actually pretty normal, though it does mean that when I'm lying groaning in bed on the weekends I don't feel much like writing. Summer will be here soon though, and while I do have a summer job, I anticipate much more free time for myself. And more chapters for all of you ;)

And finally, March 20th is over at long last. FEW! That was a long day in this story.