A Serpent in the Citadel, Chapter 3: Corrigan Goes to a Bar
This is Chapter 3 of A Serpent in the Citadel, a pulp noir detective story set in the Mass Effect universe. I try very hard to make it unnecessary to have played the games to enjoy the story. Let me know how poorly I’ve done so in the comments.
The bar was called Tranquility but Surly would’ve described it better. I’d envisioned asari dancing girls and a lively crowd of villainy, but the place wasn’t a wretched hive. It was barely a disheveled nest. The place wasn’t small, with tables and secluded booths in a large open area that looked like it could seat a hundred with more on the spacious elevated dance floor. It was, however, nearly empty. There was an asari but she wasn’t dancing. Instead she wiped a spot on the bar with a towel and seemed intent about it. A krogan sat on the right side of the bar, in heavy armor that looked beat to hell and halfway back, nursing a drink. On the left was a lone turian, female, dressed like a merc looking to get in a company. Ragged was too kind a term. A quartet of salarians sat at one table and a pair of quarians were at another, their environmental suits dusty and worn. The bar was quiet, except for a vague electronic dance tune that sounded like it was on a loop and the whispered conversations from the tables that stopped when I got there.
I’d planned to be inconspicuous and blend in, and when everyone looked at me I definitely didn’t. It didn’t stop me from walking in anyway, like this was exactly what I was looking for. I stood at the bar, halfway between the krogan and turian, in front of the bartender. She didn’t look up from the towel. Whatever she was wiping, it was stubborn. After a few seconds I said, “Can I get a drink? No rush.”
“Sure. You’re in a bar.” Most asari had voices like silk dancing in a zephyr. Hers was more broken glass in an ashtray. She didn’t look up from the rag.
“Good. I wasn’t sure. How about a whiskey? Human, if you have it.”
She froze solid then, except for her eyes, which drifted over to me like she expected me to be gone by the time they got there. Her look was flatter than a sailor’s wallet after shore leave. After a while they flicked over to my left. “There’s a terminal right there.” The invisible spot riveted her attention once more.
The turian to my left snorted her amusement. I didn’t tell her that on Earth only a constipated pig made that sound. I wasn’t here to cause trouble. It just happened to frequently show up as my wingman. I punched through the menu on the terminal’s screen and ordered a colonial bourbon from Elysium and waved my bank card at the terminal to pay. Ten credits wasn’t cheap, but it beat vorchan beer.
The bartender stirred. “Bourbon? You should’ve just said.” She poured the drink like it owed her money, all distaste and contempt, and plunked it in front of me before she and her rag attacked a new area of the bar. I took my drink and sat at a table, turian snickers and krogan chuckles following me. Ignoring them was easy because getting hit in the face didn’t crack my hundred favorite things. The bourbon gave me something to do while I explored my options. When I was done a few seconds later I studied the quarians. On my first colonial posting as a Marine, I found a stash of books left behind by the last bored sucker stationed there. It took me a week before I started on My Flotilla, My Passion. I finished the whole stack of novels in a couple of days and ordered the rest of the quarian romance series to be delivered to me. The stack of books sat in my duffel back at the apartment. I just happened to be moved by the tales of their plight as poor wanderers in an uncaring galaxy.
Unfortunately it didn’t form much of a basis to start a conversation. I finished my drink and headed back to the bar. That made the turian laugh again. I looked over at her. A fight was rapidly becoming an option. She was looking back like she agreed. There was a nasty scar on her forehead and she was happily showing me the sharp teeth around her mandibles. She had no markings or tattoos on her face, which was a little surprising. In turian society that meant you were “bare-faced”, a synonym for untrustworthy, and was a pretty rare thing. I felt my mouth open and heard it offer, “I didn’t catch the joke.”
She did the turian equivalent of a sneer. “If you don’t know who the butt of a joke is, it’s probably you.” The talons on her fingers clicked on the bar. Turians were tough, with teeth and claws, and they were light and quick. I was probably stronger, especially after the Alliance played with my genes to make me all I could be, increasing my muscle mass and endurance. Part of my brain was telling me a show of toughness might earn me respect. Another part suggested that getting my ass kicked would not. A different part just wanted to punch some frustration onto someone else.
Democracy won out. I squared my body towards hers. “I have a joke. How many turians does it take to hold a human colony?”
I didn’t need to finish the joke. The turians took Shanxi, one of ours, and started the First Contact War. Humanity’s counterattack destroyed their force easily. It wasn’t much of a joke, but it did its job. She pushed off her stool and it slid back abruptly. Our faces were inches apart. She was a little taller than me so I had to look up at her close-set predator’s eyes. The thought crossed my mind that I might need to remember how to activate that bludgeon on my omni-tool. I studied her face and noticed something interesting. Before I could mention it she snarled, “Kreeg. Pound this varren-kisser into the dirt and toss it out.”
I heard the krogan’s stool creak as he stood up behind me. I said, “Kreeg. 50 credits for you to finish your drink.” I heard the krogan’s stool creak as he settled back into it. Our eyes were still locked. “Well, you gonna kiss me? I’d prefer you buy me a drink first.”
She moved fast, a shove with her left arm to open space between us as she drew her right hand back to slash at my face. I lifted my left fist to block her attack and prepared a punch with my right. We froze just like that and stayed there for a few seconds. My skin tingled a bit from the biotic force that was keeping us immobile. “No fighting.” The bartender held us there for a few seconds more, then dropped her stasis field. The turian went back to her seat.
Kreeg broke the silence. “Aww, Tomyra. You spoiled the show.” My feet rumbled from the bass. Krogan had voices like stampeding wildebeests. “How about another drink? They’re all on him.”
I waved my card on the terminal to transfer the credits. I figured I could sneak them through to Madeleine as expenses. Security detail and backup sounded official. “How about another bourbon, and whatever my turian friend is having.” The bartender seemed less annoyed and disgusted with me, which I took as a good sign. Her movements were a little more graceful and she still looked like an asari, so I decided to apply my charm. She dropped off my drink and I said, “Thanks. My name’s Blake. Corrigan Blake.” Saying a name that way always weakened knees, or so the vids told me. “I’m looking for a girl.”
“I’m not surprised.” Tomyra had graduated to wiping a dry glass.
I punched up a still of Lorelei on my omni-tool and showed it to her. I saw the krogan and turian look over as well. “Seen her? We were supposed to meet up here.”
The asari did me the favor of looking. “Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “Try Merrin. He has the day shift.”
I thought this was the day shift. Time was hard to track on the Citadel. It was like a forty-five-kilometer-long casino. “I will.” I shut off my omni-tool and gave her my winningest smile. “I like it here. You know, if you’re ever looking for a bouncer, I might be persuaded to accept the offer.”
She stopped and looked at me, hard eyes narrowing. My vision blurred for a second and I saw a flash of white light, but then her eyes softened. “You know,” she said, her voice softening into a melting purr, “I could use a big strong human like you to help me. I’m so lonely.” She moved in for a kiss, and when I realized that I was late for an exam in a class I hadn’t been to in years and I’d forgotten my locker combination, I knew I was dreaming.
My eyes blinked open and I felt the floor under my back. I lifted myself onto my elbows and saw the bar at the far end of the room, then looked back at the wall she’d thrown me into. Shrewd guesswork made the blur my flight and the white light the impact. I climbed to my feet and made my way back to the bar. At least this time no one laughed at me. Maybe I’d earned some respect after all. “Don’t mind her,” Kreeg rumbled. “Her mother was a krogan.”
“It was my father, you humpless quad-kisser.”
Kreeg rumbled a landslide disguised as a laugh. I swallowed half my drink to quiet the pounding that was already starting in my head. “Nice throw,” I said. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have that kind of power.” Pausing for a second, like I knew I was about to say something dumb, I said, “I understand there are things that can, ah, facilitate that. Do you know of a place where a guy can, uh, dust up?”
I froze again, the biotic field shooting those weird tingles through my nerves. Tomyra stood in front of me. “If you ever,” she said, in clipped tones my sister would envy, “say anything, like that again, in my bar, I will personally show you, what embracing eternity, is really all about.” She let me go. “Finish your drink and get out.”
I did both. I walked out and into the corridor that led vaguely towards my apartment. I didn’t move fast. The area was pretty deserted. I heard the footsteps behind me and I lingered near a dark access corridor that jutted off the main one. My turian friend drew close. “Blake, was it?” she said, sounding friendly for a change. She looked around and stepped into the shadows of the access corridor. “You looking to get sandblasted? I can help with that.”
I smiled and moved in closer to her. “I thought you might.”
She tilted her head. “Follow me, and I’ll take care of you.” We moved through the shadows, past several metal shipping crates that seemed to litter the Citadel everywhere.
“Much obliged,” I said. We went a short way in silence. “Oh, I forgot to mention. Your makeup is smudged.” The turian spun and faced me with her pistol out and pointed at my gut. I stood there with my hands in my pockets, as relaxed and calm as one can be while at gunpoint. “Am I to assume I’m under arrest?”
I enjoyed the way her lower mandibles worked in silence as she looked for something to say. “You’re coming with me,” she said in a cop’s clipped official voice, which fit her much better since she was one. She waved me on with the pistol. “How did you know?”
“Well, you’re a turian, so it’s always a safe assumption.” I started walking again, to show I was coming peacefully. “I saw a tiny bit of blue on your left cheek and guessed you were covering your markings. I knew C-Sec was working that place for a red sand angle. You played the part of a merc and got into it with me but you didn’t draw your gun, and you made sure Tomyra had plenty of time to prevent a fight. Your armor is crap but your pistol is pristine and also standard C-Sec issue.” She radiated displeasure. “Maybe next time leave the infiltration tactics to the salarians.”
“Shut up,” she said, pushing me into the back of a waiting C-Sec patrol vehicle. She got in the passenger side and wiped the makeup off her face as the uniformed turian driver took off.
I knew Madeleine would be pleased. It had been almost twelve hours before I got hauled in by the cops.