Mass Effect: Crux – 5: The Show Must Go On
Empty spaces, what are we living
for? Abandoned places, I guess we
know the score…on and on, does
anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero, another mindless
crime, behind the curtain in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore?
- “The Show Must Go On”, Queen
“Careful! Hold fire!”
Bailey was so focused on mowing down the group of Reapers advancing towards the phalanx of Citadel Defense officers across the Presidium commons that he almost didn’t see the small boy standing among the tables in front of Apollo’s Cafe. He jerked the muzzle of his assault rifle sharply down in his left, lifting his right fist upward. The gunfire on either side of him ceased immediately, except for Shiddef, who aimed carefully and fired two more shots. The head of the last husk in sight, which was crawling towards them, claws scrabbling at the ground, exploded in a shower of blood and bone.
Holding his rifle at the ready, Bailey loped forward across the Presidium with the sound of the others’ boots in his ears as they followed. He leapt over the corpses of Reapers and people alike, trying to keep from tripping over them without having to look too hard at the slain. The entire area seemed deserted except for the scattered dead, of all species. Bailey saw a couple of C-Sec officers as he passed by, their uniforms almost unrecognizable under the blood. He kept his eyes on the boy, willing himself not to look down and recognize who they were.
“Boy! Hey, boy!”
The child, dark-haired, dressed in a white sweatshirt that was now splattered with dark maroon, was turned away from him, towards the entrance to the cafe proper. He did not move, or act as if he heard Bailey at all. He stood perfectly still with his hands held up to his ears, standing among the corpses.
After what seemed like an eternity, Bailey finally reached him, letting go of his rifle with one hand to reach down and turn the boy around.
The boy’s expression was completely blank, as if he was a doll instead of a human being, ice gray eyes empty as they stared back up at Bailey with indifference. He did not lower his hands from his ears. There was a dark patch on the front of his pants where he had wet himself. He could not have been older than six.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Bailey whispered, kneeling next to him, keeping a sharp ear out for approaching danger even as he came down to the boy’s level. “You’re okay, we’ve got you now.”
The boy didn’t answer. He stared through Bailey as if he wasn’t there at all.
There was a sudden burst of shattering glass, and Gaelan’s voice rose in a high scream. Xaleb’s voice rose behind Bailey, strident. “Hey Boss, we got Reapers!”
Bailey cast a quick glance over his shoulder and saw that another group of husks and cannibals had come barreling through the shattered glass of a storefront, gobbling inhuman screeches and roars. In the blink of an eye, two husks dragged Gaelan down, ripping and tearing. His men fired in unison, and Bailey thought it was a miracle they didn’t shoot Gaelan along with the husks crawling over him. At the sound of the renewed gunfire, the boy let out a heartbreaking keening whine and dropped to a rocking crouch on the ground, closing his eyes.
“Keep those ears covered kid.” Without further hesitation, Bailey holstered the rifle over his shoulder and scooped the boy up in a fireman’s carry, throwing the child over his left shoulder, holding him tightly, and drawing the pistol at his right side. He walked forward, aiming for headshots, feeling helpless rage well up in him as he looked into the twisted faces of the things. They were an abomination against the tranquil beauty of the ruined Presidium. Bailey found himself remembering having a sandwich on the park bench not two hundred yards from where he now stood in battle, looking out over the grand arching walls of the station, staring into the hologram of the sky, listening to the easy banter of the store clerks and—
“Get off my colony you bastards!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, and put the beasts down, one after the other.
It seemed like an eternity, but it was only the span of a few minutes. When the wave of monsters was finally finished, the parting shots seemed to hang in the air, reverberating in the stillness. Gaelan was moaning on the ground next to the dead husks sprawled around him, holding his abdomen as it poured blood. Bailey saw the shiny coil of his lower intestine through Gaelan’s splayed fingers.
Bailey set the kid down none-too-gently on the ground and dropped to his knees at Gaelan’s side, holstering his pistol – the boy simply collapsed on the ground like a sack of rags, curling into the fetal position. He put his bloodied thumb in his mouth.
“Hold on, Gale. Xaleb, carry him.”
“No,” Gaelan ground out between clenched teeth, his voice gasping. His eyes bored into Bailey’s, fervent. “You can’t lose the firepower. Just leave me a gun.”
“Fuck that,” Bailey snarled. “Xaleb, get him.” Xaleb started half a pace forward, then stopped, unsure of who to listen to.
“No.” Gaelan grabbed the front of Bailey’s uniform in one fist, bringing Bailey’s face close to his. He grimaced with the effort. Bailey could smell death on his breath, the stink of spent adrenaline and failing organs. “No…no sir. You get that kid out of here. You can’t carry us both.”
Bailey gave a furious shake of his head. “No. I’m not going to leave you, son.”
“For now. Just for now…” Gaelan insisted, looking over Bailey’s shoulder at where his brothers in uniform stood helplessly watching. His eyes rolled back to Bailey’s face, wild. “For now…you get them out of here. Leave me a gun. Help me hole up. Then…if you can…come back.” His grip on Bailey’s uniform weakened, and he swallowed. “Please.”
“Okay. Goddamnit, okay.” Bailey shrugged the C-Sec officer’s arm over his shoulder, pulling him to his feet, and Xaleb moved beneath his other arm. Gaelan screamed at the effort, one loud piercing shriek that tore at Bailey’s heartstrings, almost making him change his mind and order Xaleb to grab him after all. Rivulets of bright arterial blood marked their path as they half-dragged, half-carried the wounded C-Sec officer to the door of the weapons store next to the one where the Reapers had burst through. Its glass front was still intact – a small miracle against the destruction that littered the Presidium walkway. The other officers followed and held the entrance, watching their flank. Fisato stayed outside to watch over the boy, without being asked.
Together, Bailey and Xaleb pushed open the door to the shop. All of the officers jumped as they heard a voice, loud in the dead silence. A cheerful, throaty female voice come over the intercom.
“My name is Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel.”
Amazingly, Gaelan let out a ragged laugh, then groaned. “Great. Perfect.”
Xaleb and Bailey carried him behind the counter. There were no bodies here. A watered-down drink and a splayed magazine sat on the counter, as if whoever had been tending the store left in the middle of their shift when the invasion began.
Bailey helped prop Gaelan up against the backside of the counter while Xaleb broke the glass countertop along the store’s side display and started removing boxes of thermal clips, storing them in the backpack he had grabbed from the C-Sec office for their extra ammo. He removed the clip from his heavy pistol and replaced it with a new one.
Bailey started to grab his medi-gel pack, but Gaelan grabbed his wrist. His fingers were slippery with blood as shook his head, his gaze never breaking.
“You know, I’m sick of you boys telling me no, now,” Bailey said, his voice hoarse as a hot lump rose in his throat. He tried to sound angry. “First Tacori, and now you wanna get uppity too. If I want to give you medi-gel I’m damned well going to.”
Gaelan shook his head. “Save…it. Please.”
“I…okay. Christ,” Bailey whispered.
Gaelan loosened his grip on Bailey’s wrist, leaning back against the counter, his eyes closed. “Good…man. Give me…give me a goddamned gun.”
Silently, Xaleb handed down the heavy pistol, and Bailey put it in Gaelan’s bloodslicked palm, curling the officer’s fingers around the trigger. Gaelan looked barely conscious enough to pull it. Sweat stood out on his forehead like opals in the store’s fluorescent lighting, and his eyelids fluttered. “Thanks. Now…get the hell out of here. Get that kid. Get—get all of ‘em.”
“We’re coming back for you, Gale. Do you understand that?” Bailey asked, his voice fierce. “Tell me you understand it. I’m not leaving until you do.”
Gaelan smiled weakly. “You’re…coming back, Commander. But first…you gotta go.”
“All right. Sit tight. Keep quiet.” Bailey said, standing up. Gaelan’s bloody handprint stood out on the front of his uniform like a brand. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
Bailey took one of the thermal clips and refreshed his rifle, glancing at Xaleb. The other officer looked back at him, his expression troubled. “Okay. Let’s go.” He turned and walked out of the store, hearing Shepard’s insincere chirping voice at his back. Xaleb followed him out. The others looked at him expectantly. Bailey was struck suddenly with how young they all looked.
They’re not young at all, Bailey. You’re just getting way too old for this shit, his mind opined.
“Are we really just gonna leave him here, Commander? What about when those things come back?” Tuza said, looking back at the store with uncertainty. “Won’t they…I don’t know…smell his blood or something?”
Not if they come back…when.
Bailey reached down and picked up the little boy, throwing him over his shoulder again without ceremony. The boy didn’t make a sound now. “We’re coming back. But first we have to get this kid and all of those people trapped down in Purgatory out of here. T’loak and Epson aren’t going to be able to hold out forever.”
Bailey started walking across the commons again, holding the boy tight with one arm and redrawing his pistol with the other. For a split second, he had the dreadful thought that the others wouldn’t follow him at all, that they would simply stand there and stare at his back as he walked away, appalled at his callous abandon of their brother. Then he heard their footsteps fall in behind his own, the methodical clicking of replaced clips.
He felt a chill as they crossed back across the commons, heading towards the apartment complex where the main elevator was. They passed a pair of Keepers dragging a mangled body as if it was so much trash to be carried to the incincerators, completely unperturbed.
The silence was eerie, almost more frightening than the cries of the reapers themselves. Bailey found himself hoping that the months of drills and public service announcements after the invasion of the geth – and more recently, the attempted Cerberus coup – had finally paid off, and that most of the people in the Presidium were already off-station in the evacuation shuttle pods that were scattered throughout the hubs of the Citadel’s major residential areas. But he knew it was equally likely that the silence was born of the harvest.
Please…please let the elevator be working, Bailey prayed, shifting the weight of the boy on his shoulder, which was beginning to ache. The thought of trying to fight their way through the dim stairwells on the backside of the Presidium made his guts roll.
They were in luck. The elevator doors opened without a hitch. They filed into the elevator, staring out onto what was left of the beacon of galactic civilization.
The elegant voice of the elevator’s VI spoke as if nothing was wrong. “Welcome, Commander Bailey. Which floor would you like?”
“As you wish, Commander.”
Bailey tried to to pretend he didn’t hear the gunshot that came from the direction of the storefronts as the elevator doors slid closed, but he couldn’t.