Serpent in the Citadel, Chapter 1: A Mass Effect Noir Detective Story
I’ve never written fan fiction before. Now I have. It doesn’t feature any characters from the game, it takes place a few years before the first Mass Effect, and is a noir detective story instead of sci-fi, but since it’s in the ME universe I suppose it’s fanfic. Once again, I can’t help but mash genres. Hey, I’m just happy I’m writing – this plus the short story I wrote for my wife for Valentine’s Day means I’m on a roll!
This is Part 1 of the story – I’ll be posting it in serial form.
Anyway, here we go:
The last time I was this hungover while being escorted through a military facility I was looking at ten years in a prison colony. Lucky for me I wasn’t wearing tin bracelets this time and no one had their gun drawn. Unlucky for me I was being marched to the Alliance Judge Advocate Corps office on Arcturus Station, the giant place where the most muckety of the mucks who ran the entire Systems Alliance Navy called home. I was krill in the mouth of humanity’s whale, and that wasn’t even the worst part.
The worst thing was, I was being escorted to my sister. Yes, I, Corrigan Blake, ex-Marine, former mercenary, galactic traveler, feared nothing in the universe half so much as I did my big sister.
We walked down the corridors faster than I prefer, passed by a constant stream of Alliance Navy functionaries trying to look busy in case an admiral was around. The hunk of metal we were in looked like every other Alliance facility I’d ever been to: white where it wasn’t metal, angular, and boring as a doctor’s waiting room. The only difference was this place was cleaner and had a lot more brass around, especially on the lapels. All the uniforms made me nervous, like they’d shanghai me any minute and I’d end up getting yelled at by some sergeant for not running fast enough. The thought did my pounding head and gurgling stomach no good.
Unfortunately they didn’t enlist me. Instead my meaty Marine escort took me into the offices of the AJACs, down a couple hallways, and deposited me on a couch in front of my sister’s closed office door. The grunt looked at me and said, “Is there anything I can get for you while you wait, sir?” Him sirring me, when he outranked me plenty the last time I’d worn that get-up. He must have been on Arcturus a while, since he was able to keep his lip from curling into a sneer as he said it.
“Sure, buddy,” I said, giving him my best morning-after smile. “How about a comfier couch, on, say, Omega?” He nodded, considered himself answered, and left my sorry ass there without a second’s thought. Cruel bastard, I thought, looking at my sister’s brass nameplate.
I smoked a cigarette as I waited. It was a salarian blend and oddly fruity, but I persevered through the taste since I didn’t have much choice. Humanity did the galaxy a favor by introducing them to tobacco, and the daffy aliens turned around and made it taste like something other than a six-day old ashtray. It was a good thing we were here to straighten things out. It didn’t help my hangover but it gave me something to do. Just before I finished, the doorway to my own personal hell opened and a pleasant electronic voice said, “Commander Blake will see you now.” I knew that was the last pleasant voice I’d hear for a while. I stubbed the cigarette out on the bottom of my boot and dropped it into a plant as I walked to the door. Here goes nothing, and me without an assault rifle.
Madeleine Blake’s office looked like a reflection of herself: organized, clean, and heartless. The only spot of color was a single red rose in a white vase. Her back was to me, so all I could see of her was short brown hair and the double stripe of rank on the shoulders of her navy blue uniform. I stood inside the doorway for a while as she moved some digital papers around on the orange screen behind her desk, doing busy work because she knew it would irritate me. I surveyed the few pictures she had around and grinned to see that she couldn’t help but have one of me up. I then grimaced when I saw it was from right out of boot camp with me looking like a shorn sheep.
I couldn’t take the silence as I moved towards the open seat. “Heya sis,” I said, settling into the white-and-metal (what else?) chair. “How’re the kids?”
“I don’t have any,” she answered without turning around. “I’m also not married, before you ask. Of course,” she said as she spun her chair around to face me, “if you ever read any of your messages or made the occasional call, you would know all of that.”
I shrugged and waved my hand to the side. “I hate spoiling the surprise. You look good.” She did. Lucky for her she got all the looks in the family, along with the brains, charm, manners, and ambition. The only thing I got was the testicles. She looked young, clear-eyed, fresh, and ready to tell a bunch of people what to do. Sadly I was the only one around.
Her eyes flicked up and down my sorry carcass. “Thanks. You look like something the cat refused to drag in.”
“Hey,” I said. “This shirt was clean a few days ago. I don’t have a bunch of enlisted folks to do my laundry.”
Brown eyes rolled. “If you think that’s true, you’ve forgotten what Navy life is like.”
“And I’m thankful for that every day.”
A few taps of her fingers on the hologramatic keyboard at her left hand pulled up a glowing orange document that spun lazily towards me. “This’ll fix that. An order reinstating you at your former rank. Emergency conscription to fill a dire need for your area of expertise. I imagine there is a clogged latrine somewhere needing attention.” I could see it already had my information on it. It was even signed by an admiral. Assault rifle? I need a grenade. Or a Grizzly.
I rubbed my forehead. “Thanks sis. My headache needed a twin.”
She flicked the document away. “My god,” she said, “you’re hungover. You have to be the only idiot in the galaxy dumb enough to have one. The cure is cheaper than a drink and easier to get.”
“I know. It’s too easy. If I took it there’d be nothing to stop me from drinking.”
She shook her head and turned her left wrist towards her. Her military-grade omni-tool glowed brightly as she tapped on it. My crappy civilian-grade one flickered to life duller than a politician’s wit. She linked to mine and with a faint hiss the drug spun through my system. The pounding went away before I could be thankful for it. Heartless? I thought. Clearly she’s a different person now.
“I’ve got something to keep you from drinking. A job.”
I shifted in my seat. “A job, eh? I’m between those at the moment. It’s hard work keeping it that way.”
“I know. It’s the only hard work you’ve ever done.”
“And the only work I’ve been proud of.”
She sighed, but didn’t look surprised. “It was more than I could hope.” She tapped her keyboard then dragged some lights around. This time I couldn’t see what it was – they must have been classified in some way. “So where’ve you been? Last I heard you were on some backhills colony pushing dirt. Tiptree, right?” She had decided to open a new front. My sister was military to the core.
I grunted my affirmative grunt. “Yeah. I went looking for peace and quiet.”
“Why’d you leave?”
“Too quiet.” I shifted in my chair and fished out the lousy salarian cigarettes. “Mind if I – “
“Yes, I mind. It’s disgusting.”
“C’mon. It’s not like the whole cancer and emphysema thing is an issue anymore. Even the krogans are doing it.”
“Being a krogan would be a step up for you. Where’d you go after that? Earth?”
I nodded as I put the pack back into my jacket. No point denying it, since she probably knew anyway. Like every lawyer, my sister only asked questions she already knew the answer to. “Yep. Lovely Las Angela-Vegas. Looked up some old friends there.” I knew that bothered her. We’d grown up in that megatropolis, in not-so-great circumstances, and were both lucky to get out with our hides intact and criminal records clean. Going back always meant bad news. Sometimes it had to be done.
“Old friends.” Her tone was flatter than my wallet. “Leave in a hurry?”
She knew, all right. “Sure. Made a bad bet on zero-G football. Roof Attack let me down. Had to skip before Big Linda tracked me down.”
I got my sister to snort. “You’re too cheap to bet anything but your skin and your pride. It’s amazing you have either. How’s Big Lin?” Big Linda was kind of a second mother to us, keeping an eye out when we were kids and our mom was working late. She ran a little diner and had as much to do with books as a vorcha.
“She’s good. She says hi.” I dusted my brown trousers. “She had a bit of trouble with some folks. She’s OK now.”
Madeleine nodded. Her dropping the subject told me she knew all the details, probably more than me. “Where are you heading to now?”
“You mean before I got yanked off the boat by uniformed heavies asking by name as soon as we jumped to Arcturus?” I gave her some time but she didn’t have the decency to look guilty. She never did. “I dunno. Maybe Illium.”
“Illium.” Just like that, I was vetoed. I was a grown man, not that it mattered. “Why not the Citadel? If Tiptree was too quiet and home was, well, Earth, why not try the hub of the galaxy?”
“Moonlighting for the travel board now?” Truth be told, I’d been considering it, but now I couldn’t let that on. I gave in. Even if I could win on this attack she’d just send the cavalry to outflank me. I didn’t want to know what that would be. “OK, sis,” I said, looking up at the ceiling, “what’s the job?”
Tap tap tap. “There is a sensitive case ongoing. I need someone to interview a former garrison Marine about something he saw a couple years ago.”
I looked skeptical. “You mean with all those Alliance people running all over the Citadel, you can’t find one who can talk to a guy?”
She looked like she was playing poker. “This man probably won’t talk to active military personnel. I think he’ll talk to you.”
“Oh, yeah, you know how people open up to me. I must’ve been a priest in a past life. Folks see me and just start confessing.”
That got me a big smile, the main one she used, a professional, friendly, and polite way to show her teeth and remind everyone just how bad she could bite. “In this case, I think you’ll be alright. He’s recalcitrant, insubordinate, shifty, and irresponsible. You’re the big brother he never had.”
I didn’t mention what that made her, as my big sister. “Maybe. What’s it pay?”
Her smile dropped like a rock in a lake. “One hundred credits a day, plus travel and related expenses. Reasonable expenses, Corrigan.” She put so much stress on the reasonable it had an ulcer.
I whistled. “The Navy is still as cheap as I left it. If you’re appealing to my large and well-known avaricious side, that’s not going to do it.”
“I assumed.” She tapped a bit on her keyboard, and a screen appeared in the air in front of me. It was a file with no official Alliance markings on it but had the same overall feel. Despite myself I sat up and took notice. “There’s another job. Unofficial. A retired Alliance admiral has a missing daughter. He’s putting up a hundred thousand credits to the person or group that brings her back.” I flipped around in the file and came across a vid showing the daughter. Mid-twenties and pretty, with blonde hair and green eyes. Either she had the rarest of traits nowadays or a good colorist. She had a strong jawline and high cheekbones, and no doubt plenty of admirers. The file named her Lorelei.
“A hundred grand and a pretty girl? You should have led with that.”
“You’d have been too preoccupied looking for the hook to swallow that fish.” She knew me well.
I flipped around a little more, but there was too much detail for me to care about yet. “OK, what’s the story?”
“I never did get around to teaching you how to read.” She took control of the screen and popped up a still of a grey-haired rock-faced man I knew I could never get along with. “Admiral Desmond York. Decorated, well-respected, the whole nine. Old friend of Admiral Grissom himself.”
I humphed. Grissom was the man humanity sent through a mass relay blind for the first time, becoming the face of the Alliance, and led our first interstellar war, against the turians. The man had space stations named after him. A friend of his would have powerful allies. “So he’s got plenty of pull still. It’s not a criminal matter then, or else the law would handle it. His daughter Lorelei split and she’s old enough to get away with it, but the old man doesn’t like it, because she’s either mixed up in something he doesn’t like or is refusing to do what he wants her to do.”
My sister nodded her assent. “Basically. She’s on the Citadel but dark. There are a couple of leads, but C-Sec won’t touch it since they’ve seen no evidence of a crime and the military can’t officially do anything since it doesn’t involve military personnel.”
Madeleine was always very careful with her words. “C-Sec’s seen no evidence, huh? What’s the evidence?”
“Complicated.” The screen flashed a different picture, this one of a young man, handsome, clean-cut, a jaw that could chew gravel and the posture of a statue. “This is Cole Montgomery. Sort of York’s protégé and son he never had. He’s the son of an officer who served under the admiral and died on Mindoir.” Mindoir was bad news. Almost the whole colony got killed or enslaved ten years ago during a batarian raid while the Alliance defense was pinned down and helpless. “York took the rest of the family under his wing. Top of his class in every class. A born officer. He’s due to start classes at the Alliance Naval Academy in a month. He’s considered one of the most promising candidates the Navy has seen. They’re already whispering that this kid could be the first human Spectre.”
I hated him already. I knew the Alliance was itching to get one of their own as part of the Galactic Council’s special forces branch, but the Council races didn’t seem to be in a rush to do anything about it. “Swell. Sounds like quite a guy.”
“Yeah, he’d hate you too. Anyway, Cole and Lorelei grew up together. Witnesses all say they were close. A few indicated that their relationship went beyond childhood chums. They also left Eden Prime on the same day. C-Sec managed to get a hit on Lorelei’s ID when she arrived on the Citadel three days ago, but nothing on Cole. The assumption is he used fake identification.”
“OK. All that is nice. I’m still waiting on the evidence. Unless you want me to bust him for underage drinking.”
Her teeth flashed at me again in her predatory way. “Getting to it. Lorelei’s a biotic. Dad had enough pull to keep her from being ‘recruited’ to attend Gagarin Station.” We both knew a couple of people who went through the biotic training academy. It was rough. Kids died there, and in some cases they were the lucky ones. “Instead she went to Illium for a while, trained with some asari. Pricey, but the admiral made quite a few connections that he leveraged when he retired. He owns a big stake in galactic shipping interests. Money isn’t much of an issue for him. His daughter’s been getting involved in politics, movements, things like that. An ambassadorship down the road seems likely.”
“So the kids have prospects, are going places, and run off to the Citadel, and Daddy doesn’t like it. Still waiting for the crime.”
Madeleine paused for a second. I knew what she was about to tell me would get her squashed if it got out. She was entrusting me with her career and more. “The last place Lorelei and Cole were seen on Eden Prime was a sitting room in the Admiral’s mansion. After they disappeared, a search turned up a small rolled-up leather case. Inside were four vials of red sand and another two of Minagen X3. Plus a few empty vials.”
That got another whistle. Both were serious drugs that meant a lot of trouble. Red sand gave a user a sense of euphoria and temporary biotic abilities. Minagen X3 made an existing biotic’s abilities more powerful the more they took, and too much was relative and lethal. “And no clues as to which it belonged to.” This was going to be complicated, sensitive, and dangerous. Three things I liked to avoid at all costs. “How do I figure in?”
“I need an independent agent, unaffiliated with the Alliance. Your official job will be the interview with the marine. I want you to find the girl and get her home. Cole will be a nice-to-have, but the admiral is adamant about his daughter.”
She definitely needed a real professional. “OK. Then why me?”
She clicked a few buttons. “You trained as a Marine. Certified proficiencies in assault rifles, pistols, and combat hardsuits. Hostile environment assault trained. Decorated for heroism for actions during the Skyllian Blitz. High scores in adaptability, cognitive processing, and expedient decision-making.”
“Wow,” I said. “I’d hire me with that resume. Only thing you left off was my high scores in drunk-and-disorderly, gross insubordination, and arrestability, plus my Alliance record of being promoted to Corporal 8 separate times.” I leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees. “Seriously, Madeleine. Why me?”
She didn’t hesitate for a second, bless her. “I need someone I can trust.”
She had a knack. Find a weak point and jab it. I hemmed and hawed for a bit and she let me, since she was a gracious winner once she knew she’d won. “OK,” I said finally. “I’ll do it.”
My omni-tool flickered dully to life again as she worked on hers, occasionally switching to the terminal on the desk and the other one behind it. “Thank you, Corrigan,” she said as she busied herself. My omni-tool died suddenly and I figured that was it – the thing was old and barely worked, and my hopes got raised that I’d get a military-grade replacement. No luck, as my left forearm started glowing again. I was surprised to see how bright it was. Madeleine must have caught the look. “You really should install an update once in a while. No wonder you don’t call anyone or read your messages. I’m surprised you could get it to work at all.”
“Terms and conditions give me hives. It still played solitaire.”
“You’re lucky it didn’t overheat and burn half your arm off. It’s updated now. Maybe you could use it to give a call to Mom sometime.”
I snorted at her. “Why bother, when I get all the guilt I need from you?”
“When you vanish for a year, you deserve it. I also cleaned out some of your old files which should help. I hope you aren’t going to miss the seventeen-hundred hours of asari exercise videos you had on there.”
“Well, there goes my training regimen. I was going to start dancing at Afterlife.”
“With your education I doubt you’d qualify.” It looked like she was done playing techno-whiz. “OK, you’re all set. The relevant files are installed. I’ve set up your independent agency credentials with both the Alliance and the Citadel. Business licenses are paid for and updated, giving you travel documents for Alliance colonies and anywhere under Citadel authority. I renewed your driver’s license, updated your address, and fixed your voter registration. Oh, and you’ll probably get summoned for jury duty in the next few months.” Such a sweetheart, my sister.
She went on. “Your apartment is on Tayseri Ward, paid through the week. It’s reasonable but modest, if you decide you want to keep it for a while. I’ve also registered your firearm and set up your permit.”
“I don’t have a gun.” She reached into a drawer and set a pistol on the table. “Striker, huh? I thought the Kessler was still Alliance standard issue.”
“It is. That’s why you don’t have one.”
“Disavowed already, huh? What happens if C-Sec gets suspicious about me and hauls me in and I crack under the strain? It’ll look bad for you.”
She shrugged. “Don’t get questioned by C-Sec.”
“I’m investigating a red sand operation in their backyard. Your fingerprints are all over this. The Alliance may get drawn in and you’ll be out on a wire.”
Madeleine looked scandalized. “My fingerprints? An investigation will show that the data transfer, funds acquisitions, travel arrangements, license procurements, everything, was all done through a sophisticated hacking tool initiated from your omni-tool after you gained access to an Alliance facility by using my connection.”
“Cute. Except I don’t have any hacking tools.”
“Of course you do. It’s the first thing I installed.”
“You’re a gem, sis. Doing life on some barren colony breaking rocks would at least get me out of jury duty.”
She dismissed my future in prison with a wave. “So don’t get caught. I’m doing you a favor. You lack incentives in your life. Oh, and you also stole a prototype omni app that integrates with your kinetic barrier and lets you use the tool as a bludgeon, which given your way with people you’ll probably need.”
Kinetic barriers were good for not getting killed. “I’m not in the navy anymore. I don’t have shields.”
She pointed to my right. There was a metal case sitting on a table that looked like it was waiting to be handcuffed to my wrist. “There’s a light suit in there. It’s not heavily armored but it’ll give you a barrier. Some protection, but not a lot. Try very hard not to get shot.”
“That’s what I tell myself every morning in the mirror.”
“That’s surprising, given your mouth. Anyway, you’re all set.”
“That’s it?” I said. “You give me a gun, a shield, some paperwork, a picture, and a future appointment with a jury one way or another, and send me to the Citadel?”
“Basically. You do have one lead. Extranet searches from the Admiral’s villa and some cross-references with C-Sec investigations point to a bar called Tranquility on Tayseri Ward as a likely contact point for one of them. C-Sec has checked a possible red sand operation’s connection to the place but has come up empty so far. It’s a good place to start.”
Things were looking up. I’d need a visit to a bar after this. I could picture the asari dancers already. “Well, thanks, sis. I get to do you a favor and risk either death at the hands of drug dealers or prison for stealing from the Alliance. Or both. Remind me to make it 10 years before I get found again.”
“You’re welcome. Have fun. Your pay for the week has been advanced to you. A freighter has a berth waiting and leaves in sixteen minutes. Your gear has already been transferred over. Use the encrypted message drop for expenses. Call Mom before you get there. You’ll have time.”
“Aye-aye sir. Need me to polish your brass before I go?”
She flashed her smug victor’s smile. “Unnecessary. That’s what junior officers are for.” She paused, then added, “Be careful, Corrigan.”
“I will.” I stood up, dismissed. I picked up the case and attached the pistol to a mag-clip on my belt. I turned to the door and said over my shoulder. “Oh, and I also expect an invite to your wedding.”
That caught her off guard. “Wedding? My wedding?” She was almost smooth about it, but I caught the hitch in her voice.
I turned back around. “Sure. There’s a rose on your desk, red, that you didn’t buy yourself because you don’t buy flowers. Whoever gave it to you was important enough for you to display it in your office, which is otherwise impersonal. Except, of course, for your pictures. Four of them. One each of your mother, father, and brother, all facing the door. The last picture faces you.” I picked it up and nodded. “Not family, not yet anyway. She looks nice.” As I put it back I gestured towards her hands. “On the third finger of your left hand there is a small impression of a ring, indicating you always wear it but aren’t right now. My guess is you’ll be hitched in three months or less.”
I could tell by her face that she was impressed and trying hard to not let it show. I turned away and started heading out. I stopped at the door. “Besides, Mom told me last week.”
Stay tuned for Part 2, hopefully coming soon!
Posted on March 1, 2016, in Stories and tagged Mass Effect is the Strongest One There Is, Nerdery, Stories, This Is Probably Something I Should Have Kept To Myself, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.