A Serpent in the Citadel, Chapter 2: Corrigan Takes a Walk
This is part 2 of my sci-fi detective story. Part 1 is here. Enjoy. If you want, I mean. I’m not your boss.
It took me longer to get to my apartment once I was on the Citadel than it did to travel the millions of miles from Arcturus to the giant station. Customs was no problem. A scan of my new agent license made them ignore my firearm and I got waved in like I was reputable. Citadel security was slipping. Past security was the no-man’s-land between the Presidium and the Wards. The Presidium was where the people who were a big deal hung out, diplomats and councilors and their hangers-on. The five Wards jutted off the central ring of the Presidium and was where the real action was. Each was a city unto themselves, full of noise and light and the crammed masses of a half-dozen species gawking and wandering. The place was a great equalizer among all us aliens – none of us built it, we were all in awe of it, and being there instantly made every visitor a tourist for at least a little while.
I decided to walk a lot of the way down the long arm of Tayseri Ward, packed in among the milling masses. I could have flagged a shuttle or a ground car, but something about the crazy bustle of the crowd appealed to me. It reminded me of home, the sprawling slum on Earth, only Tayseri was a lot cleaner and I didn’t get mugged every fifth step. There was a buzz to the Citadel, something I could appreciate. Quiet places got to me after a while. Elysium was quiet until the Blitz. Now quiet just meant I was waiting for the explosions and screams.
Being on one of the long glass-enclosed walkways that lined the Wards was anything but quiet. I was surrounded by the babbling of a thousand voices, some human, most not, all talking about events or people I didn’t know. There were plenty of turians, the vaguely avian bipeds that were the backbone of Citadel security and military authority, both as security buzzing around and tourists just like me. They all had the authoritative mask of killjoys, but I knew part of it was the hard mask of cartilage that covered their faces, usually tattooed or painted. Of course, the other part of it was that turians tended to be authoritarian killjoys.
There were a lot of the fast-talking salarians as well. Their metabolic rate was a lot faster than anyone else’s and they talked like it. Asking a salarian for directions would lead to an examination of the concept of self and its relation to the outside, an exploration of the arbitrariness of the designations of up and down in a society surrounded by the weightlessness of space, a snippet of song from a musical that played with those elements, and a request for a repeat of the inquiry. It was a good thing they were tall and skinny and had huge eyes in relatively small heads, because if they looked more threatening a lot of them would end up punched in the face. They did tend to know a lot about what was going on everywhere and were curious at a level that waved as it went past the point of nosy and went way beyond. Giving one your name meant they’d start a file on you. No surprise they were the espionage and information experts the Galactic Council relied on.
If the turians were the muscle and salarians the brains of the Council, the asari were the heart, soul, supple limbs, soft lips, and graceful movements. It was easy to get carried away when talking about them. They were the oldest civilization currently running and the ones that found the Citadel a couple thousand years ago. They were single-sex but looked an awful lot like human females. Really attractive ones, too, despite the blue or purple skin and wavy cartilage that formed a crest on their heads instead of hair. Since they could reproduce with any species or sex they were the object of a lot of fantasies, and the fact that they found dancing an expression of art and were often found in clubs of a certain sort in skin-tight clothes and moving with a smoothness that caught the eye – like I said, easy to get carried away. They were also often powerful biotics, the deadliest commandos, and the wisest councillors in the galaxy, sometimes all in the same lifespan since they lived so long. While most of the races tended to travel in packs, the asari were sort of sprinkled everywhere. They seemed the most at home.
Those three, the Council races, made up the bulk of the crowd. There were plenty of humans, the up-and-comers, as well. Occasionally I saw a krogan lumbering through like a shark and bull’s disreputable lovechild, a hulking mass of muscle and ill-temper and the favorite choice for bodyguards and mercenaries. They got a wide berth, but not as wide as the rare quarians allowed on the Citadel. They were a migrant race, travelling the stars in a fleet of ships after they lost their homeworld and colonies to robots. They’d built them and used them as workers until the synthetics, called the geth, got independently smart, which was a big galactic no-no. Now quarians wandered around getting moved along like refugees no one wanted, because that’s exactly what they were. There was something tragic about the quarians that fascinated me, but most people treated them like thieves and made sure they didn’t get close.
Mixed in the crowd were also the hanar, floating jellyfish that talked a lot about the Protheans, their so-called Enkindlers, and would give a sermon about them if given half a chance. I had once and so now gave them no chance at all. Sometimes they’d be accompanied by a drell, a bipedal snake-like species that were the most polite snipers and assassins one could hope to meet. I hoped not to. Isolated groups of batarians were also around, but not much. The four-eyed outrage addicts were self-imposed outlaws now, in trouble with the Council for the Skyllian Blitz and general slaving and black-market dealings. Most of the conversations I’d had with batarians had been exchanged via assault rifle fire and that was usually how I preferred it.
I passed my way through the crowd peacefully for a change. The worst thing that happened to me was getting stuck behind a group of elcor, four-legged massive aliens that moved slow and talked slow and took forever to get around. It was fine because it gave me a chance to look around at everything around me. Outside the walkway flying cars shot past, taking people between the wards or just for a joyride. Below was a mass of ground vehicles, generally self-driving ones, doing the same. Vid screens were everywhere, showing news or brightly-flashing advertisements for all kinds of things, from the latest Blasto movie to luxury vacations on Illium to salarian skin moisturizers. I passed every kind of restaurant, casino, shop, and club imaginable. Ignoring a shuttle for the stroll helped me get a feel for where I’d be working.
Walking also gave me time to think. Finding two people on the Citadel who didn’t want to be found was a fool’s errand. Lucky my sister knew the prime fool to send on her errand. I chewed on what Madeleine said and didn’t say, looking for angles. The Admiral had a reward for the return of his daughter, but not for the boy. The way I figured, the old man must have assumed one of four things: one, they ran off together in some dramatic declaration of love, in which case the Admiral would be pissed at Cole for absconding with his daughter and so wouldn’t care if the kid went back; two, the young cadet-to-be was in trouble and Lorelei went after him, and if that were true Pops would definitely not care to have him back; or three, the girl was in trouble and our hero Cole Montgomery had gone AWOL to save her, which meant York didn’t need to post a reward for him since he would either bring the daughter back home or call for help if he couldn’t; or four, which was they were both in it deep and ran off together, and in that case the old war hero would still see no point in paying for the boy’s return. So basically, at no point would paying a reward for Cole be worth it to the old man.
I wasn’t getting anywhere with that so I thought about the drugs for a while. Red sand was a big deal for non-biotics, but less so for those who could already move things by thinking about it. That didn’t mean biotics didn’t do it, but it pointed away from them. X3 was a real big deal for biotics, but less so for those who weren’t. One thing I didn’t know was how they interacted together, if they fed off each other or something along those lines. The presence of both muddied the waters. I’d have felt a lot better if it was just one, since it would indicate who the user was. That left me thinking that it was very possibly both. If the drugs had hooks in both of them, that could explain why they disappeared together. It wouldn’t be the first time a rich kid chased a high.
That line of thought led nowhere as well. Too many unknowns. My thoughts turned to how they got off-world and on the Citadel. Plenty of ships left Elysium, humanity’s biggest colony, and not everyone was scrupulous about thoroughly vetting their passengers. Lorelei’s ID pinged with customs when she got here, then nothing else, so either Cole had fake ID or never arrived. After that, there was no trace of the girl, which either meant she got her own false papers after she got here or she was using hard currency instead of credits. Cash in hand left no electronic trace, and exchanging them was easy. I’d made a few untoward purchases in my time that way. No matter what, either daddy’s little girl had a stash of bills or an account in a false name, and in both cases I was left without options for tracking the money.
Long story short, I wasted my time thinking but got a long walk in.
My apartment was near the end of the arm of Tayseri. In the Wards, the farther away from the central ring you got, the less savory it became. C-Sec patrols got less frequent, the clothes a little shabbier, and the alleys a little darker. It was still the same pristine architecture everywhere, pretty much, since the keepers saw to that. The big green aphids wandered around doing maintenance and cleaning up and occasionally rearranging furniture without a word, like butlers with dementia and eight legs. The streets were less crowded, too. Most of the tourists stayed as close to the Presidium as they could afford, and those of us at the ends of the arms weren’t here for the ambiance. Black markets, shady deals, and strongarming were the main attractions, besides the nightlife. Danger made the bars and clubs a little more interesting.
My apartment was in a towering high-rise, which meant I had to go into an airlock to get in. There was a layer of atmosphere above everything in the Citadel, but the skyscrapers often extended above that and needed to be sealed against the vacuum of space. That meant cracking a window for a breeze was a bad idea. I reached my level – four – after an interminable time in the elevator and wandered down a gleaming white hallway that still managed to be vaguely disreputable. I confirmed my identity to the door with my omni-tool and then was asked for voice ident. I wondered how that would work, since I’d just gotten here, but I remembered that my sister was involved so just said my name. The door slid open and I looked at my new temporary home.
It had all the charm of an accountant. All the things were there – bed, desk, chair, kitchen, bathroom, couch, vid screen – with the personalization of a completed checklist. I dropped my gear – remarkably little, considering it was everything I owned – in the hall and explored my one-bedroom paradise. It held one pleasant surprise. On a table at the end of the couch was a decanter and a glass already holding two fingers of brown liquid. I sniffed the hooch and sipped it, savoring the mellow burn of a good Earth scotch. The salarians made something that was called scotch and was as good as their cigarettes, and the volus stuff was even worse. I picked up the folded-over note next to the bottle and read the three words:
With compliments. – Madeleine
I tried not to think about how she got a handwritten note here before I did as I sipped my drink. Nothing involving her surprised me, except the fact that she was still just a Commander. Me not getting promoted in the Alliance was one thing, although to be fair I got promoted regularly then got busted back down shortly afterwards, but Madeleine was good. Smart, tough, and capable. The Alliance was better than most at recognizing talent and taking care of it regardless of family name or pedigree, but my sister hadn’t been promoted in five years. Part of me thought it was karmic justice for her impersonal adherence to Alliance doctrine, but it still didn’t feel right. She never complained about it, though, and seemed to love her work in AJACs, so I let it go. I had more pressing thoughts to go nowhere with anyway.
I needed information, and on the Citadel there were plenty of people willing to sell or exchange it. Information brokers were big business. Some were legends, like the Shadow Broker, people who had eyes and ears everywhere and trafficked in secrets that could shake empires. Some were overblown neighborhood gossips. The service was pricey, though. I wondered if the Admiral was using one right now to get a bead on his daughter. He could certainly afford it, although he might want to keep the whole affair under wraps, and contacting a broker for information was a surefire way to give them something new to sell, in this case that a certain Admiral had a missing daughter and might be involved in drugs. Secrecy could be bought as well, but relying on a broker to keep a secret was like trusting a krogan to babysit. If the Admiral did hire one, there could be others out there on the trail. I wouldn’t have any way of knowing unless I ran into one. Something else to complicate things.
The ruminations were outpacing the scotch. I took my standard approach to complex situations, which was stop thinking and just do something. Either the problem got solved or I got arrested, but it beat giving myself a headache. I finished the scotch and put on the suit Madeleine gave me. It was tight but fit under my clothes well enough, and I knew it could stop a few rounds that might come my way. I put on some fairly non-descript clothes, black durable workpants tucked into my boots, a shirt that was mostly still white, and my dark jacket on top. I debated leaving the pistol since I was just asking some questions, but at the last minute grabbed it because questions were a thing people in this area of the wards often objected to. I drained the glass and left the apartment, heading for the bar and my only slim lead.