A Serpent in the Citadel, Chapter 6: A Great Plan
This is the sixth chapter in what was once a short story that has morphed into a novella, which is entirely Corrigan’s fault and in no way mine, since I am the very soul of brevity. Unless reading it backwards is your thing, you might want to start with the earlier chapters:
I’ve never had much luck introducing myself to women. In the last day alone I’d introduced myself to two, and one threw me into a wall and the other took me into custody. As things go, those were two of my more successful attempts. In retrospect, all of five seconds later, dragging my missing person into a rapidly-closing ambush and hinting that she was about to be arrested in the middle of a black market were both exceedingly stupid things to do. I’ve always listened to my instincts and trusted them, which has earned me more ass-kickings than I can count. Sucker me always ends up giving them another chance.
The way her eyes got big told me I was right about her identity. The way the two guys standing near her that I’d unfortunately been too excited to see – part of me never expected to find her at all, so I’d had tunnel vision like a volus who’d sniffed a credit – told me I was an idiot for dropping the name of the law. We all just stood there for a few very rapid heartbeats. Both of the men were dressed better than most and looked squared-away. It reminded me a lot of military officers on leave who can’t help but make sure their zipper lines match up with their belt buckle. Not formal, not informal, but very, very neat.
Then one of them turned his head and looked behind us. It suddenly dawned on me that he was on the same team as our shadows. When he cocked his head towards us I reacted. My pistol would have taken too long to pull, so instead my omni-tool flared to life. I had no idea what to expect, but when my fist swung forward I saw it sheathed in the familiar orange glow. When it connected with the guy’s jaw I didn’t even feel the impact, but the way his head snapped back told me it hurt plenty. I didn’t wait around to ask him how much.
I filed a mental note to thank Madeleine for that upgrade and gave as casual a “run” suggestion as I could manage, grabbing Lorelei’s wrist in order to show exactly what I meant and to make sure she was with us. I heard Severa mutter a few choice and decidedly original words behind me, but I also heard her following. The girl was protesting a bit but she must have had too many complaints and questions to let out since they mostly just garbled around in her throat. I was already picturing the biotic beatdown she was going to give me.
I led the way to the alley I’d picked earlier for our counter-ambush, trying to push my way through as kindly and gently a person dragging someone along by the wrist and in a bit of a hurry could manage. My instincts told me to yell something and I didn’t think about it before I said it. “C-Sec raid!” I shouted, and my running seemed to make a lot more sense to the people around me. I heard more of them repeat my shout and beat feet themselves. I was hoping it would leave less folks around when the fireworks started, and I was hoping the chaos in my wake would slow down our pursuers.
We got into the corridor, a narrow run between two buildings. In my mind, a black market alley would be dank and dirty and filled with garbage, but on the Citadel even the criminal underground was clean. The keepers clearly didn’t just keep to the Presidium. All in all it made me feel a little disappointed. There were exposed power junctions and fans high on either wall and some metal containers haphazardly stored here for no reason I could figure, but I was happy to duck behind some and look to the mouth of the alley to see if our pursuit had caught up.
Lorelei took the opportunity to barrage Severa and me with heated questions. I was too busy scanning the entrance and getting my pistol out and looking to see if I had any quality electronic countermeasures installed on my omni-tool to listen to what she had to say. I did catch a “What’s going on?” and an “Are you really with C-Sec?” and more than a few that denigrated my mental faculties, but I ignored them for now. I checked to see if my communicator was shut down like Severa’s instead, which it was. I figured Severa would break under the questioning before I did.
My instincts justified my future miscalculations by turning out to be right. “Yes, I’m with C-Sec. As for who he is and what he thinks he’s doing, ask him.” She didn’t give Lorelei a chance. “OK, Blake, just what exactly is our plan? And why did you drag her along? This your missing blonde? I wasn’t sure if you noticed that she isn’t.”
I was hoping for a gun-toting force of bad guys to get me off the hook. I sat and watched but, other than a few running people still dashing towards hither or yon, there was no pursuit. I cursed. I genuinely preferred firefights to questions. Finally, the weight of their two increasingly contemptuous stares got to me. “Yeah. Hair dye and dermal pigment alteration and fake tattoos, but that’s her. Lorelei, I’ve been hired to bring you back to Daddy. Severa, I was hoping to jump our pursuers when they came in here after us. I think I managed to spook them back there and they bugged out.” I gave them my winningest grin – the one I pull out when I win.
The way they both called me an idiot simultaneously was almost endearing. Actually, Lorelei portrayed me as a brain-dead vorcha and Severa offered up an unflattering comparison to the back end of an elcor, but it was still said at the same time and I knew what they meant.
They decided to elaborate. Lorelei let Severa start. “These guys were professionals hunting down a C-Sec officer with intent to kill. You think they’re giving up?”
“I have no intention of going back to my father right now, no matter how pathetic a thug he sends.” That one hurt. I preferred scoundrel or ruffian.
Severa had her gun out. “Do you even know if this alley goes anywhere, or are we holed up waiting to see if they go away? Did you bring food?”
Lorelei answered the first part. “I know where this alley goes. It opens back out after a bend or two. They could be coming at us the other way.”
“If all humans had your tactical genius, we’d have rolled you up at Shanxi and never stopped until Earth was a new turian vacation spot.”
By the time they were done, I was the size of a volus finger puppet. My grin had retreated to the losingest scowl I owned, and I had a variety to choose from. I used my left hand to light a cigarette, since they hadn’t offered me one or a blindfold before they executed my ego. They were fiddling with their own omni-tools and muttering new nicknames for me I didn’t want to remember. After a minute I said, “OK. Maybe. But why haven’t they just hit us from both sides by now?”
They didn’t have an answer for that, but an electronically amplified voice from the alley entrance answered for me. “All right, C-Sec. Let the girl leave the alley and no one has to get hurt. Both ends of the alley are capped. You aren’t getting out otherwise.”
Forget a winning grin. I gave them the biggest brick-hittable smirking smile I owned, and I had even more of them than scowls. “See? Told you I knew what I was doing.” I didn’t, but what the hell. I now knew that our shadows wanted the girl for some reason, which meant they couldn’t just lob grenades at us.
The looks I got back were icy enough to chill a vat of bourbon. I shrugged them off because I liked mine neat anyway. “OK, so they aren’t going to charge in,” Severa said, “but every second that ticks by means that more of them can get here. And they’ll probably bring gas or something to flush us out. So, yes, we aren’t dead now, but I fail to see how additional time is going to help. I guess I could use it to update my will.”
I liked her attitude. I came up with a dumb plan. Any plan cooked up in an alley when surrounded is bound to be. I asked Severa if she had an earpiece communicator on her. Most C-Sec’s did, even though they could use their omni-tools for it. I guess the idea was that it’d be hands-free, but most of them put their hand to their ear anyway when they used it. I think they feel doing that makes them look like someone more important, like a doorman at Afterlife.
She handed it to me and I said some things in it while I played with my omni-tool. They could shut out my access to communications channels but not its other functions. It took a minute. While I played with it I called out to the guy. “How can we be sure you’ll let us go?” I didn’t listen to his answer because I knew he’d be lying anyway, and it didn’t matter what he said. I shushed Severa when she asked what I was doing.
Lorelei didn’t have that much faith in me. She grabbed the turian’s arm and said, “You can’t let them take me.”
“Calm down. We’re not going to do that. Are we?” That last part was directed towards me, and it clearly wasn’t a question.
“Nope,” I muttered, setting Severa’s earpiece down. With my old military omni, I could have done a better job in a quarter the time, but the Alliance tended to take their goodies back when you marshalled out. I gestured them both towards the back of the alley. We started moving and my voice called out behind us. “OK, give us a minute. We’ll do as you ask, but we need to trust you. We don’t want anything happening to the girl either.”
Severa’s narrowed eyes made it clear that she wanted to hit my smirk with a brick. I flicked my cigarette away and made some hand gestures towards her as we went back in the alley and approached the first bend, a left-hand one. I pointed at my eyes and then towards the corner, made a fist and opened my palm before shaking my index finger down twice. She watched it all impassively. “What is that supposed to mean?”
I sighed. I was hoping she knew, because I’d never bothered to learn all the hand signs. “Let me go first.” I slid down to the corner and squatted before slowly easing the side of my head around to look for trouble. Behind us we could hear my recorded voice ask for someone to disarm themselves and slowly make their way to us, and we’d exchange the girl for the hostage.
The alley ahead of me was empty, but jogged back to the right a short way down. I figured the other end would be guarded, and they’d probably be coming up towards our position, but I hoped not too quickly since they could hear my voice back there. I slipped down, pistol out, hopefully looking pretty competent as I quick-walked to the other corner. I peered around and saw the pair of tails behind Severa from before, the big obvious ones. They held a couple of pistols and were making their way down, but not cautiously. They figured they knew where we were.
I turned and held up two fingers to Severa and made a walking motion with my fingers and flashed all ten fingers. She nodded like she knew what I meant this time, which was good because I wasn’t making stuff up anymore. Two targets, at a walk, ten meters away. The turian sidled up next to me, jammed her thumb at herself then jerked it to her left. I nodded, flashed her a three, followed by a two, then two beats later I spun out in a crouch and fired three quick shots at the lug on the right while she stood over me and popped four faster ones into the one on the left.
I hit with two of three and felt good about it when my target went down. Severa hit all four of hers , of course, but I still felt cocky. “Let’s go!” I said, and started down the alley at a run. We needed to find an exit from the market area, but I was confident that one of the other two would know the closest one. I got about five steps when I saw a couple of shadows at the exit to the alley. I yelled out and started backpedaling just as the clatter of assault rifles echoed down the alley.
I felt the impact of the shots that hit my shields only faintly, but there were way more of them than I was comfortable with. My shields felt the same way. Just before I reached the corner I felt them drop and a sharp pain hit the back of my right thigh. It wasn’t serious, I hoped. It was a graze. I was just happy they weren’t using incendiary ammo or something even nastier.
I could hear shouting from the other end of the alley as my little ruse was uncovered by the gunfire. Severa ran down the short corridor we were in and looked back at where we’d come from. She swore and popped a few pistol shots before taking cover at the corner of the wall. “What now, genius?” Her calm was beginning to wear a bit.
I popped a few rounds at the fellas with the big guns blocking our exit. I didn’t have an answer for her yet, and if I said “Get shot, I guess” I was pretty sure she’d be the one to put me down.