Mass Effect: Crux – 1: Hell on Heels
We’re for real about this shit…this is the remix.
Hope you niggas bought your ringside seats, ’cause it’s whoop-ass season.
– “Welcome To My Hood”, Evil Empire
“And so then I told him that if he didn’t give me the money, I was going to stick my foot so far up his ass-”
Aria T’loak closed her eyes and took a sip of her drink as she reclined on the couch in the VIP section of Purgatory, feeling the Hallex she took a half hour before pound through her bloodstream like pulses of sweet light as she listened to Grizz tell her a story she had already heard four times since they got to the Citadel. Not that she was counting. Hallex tended to do that to Grizz. He would recount every half-interesting battle story he could remember with unflappable, rambling enthusiasm. She didn’t have the heart to tell him to shut the hell up. He was such a sweetheart compared to the other thugs she ran with that it made her feel like an even bigger bitch than usual. He was a little soft, but that was one of the things she liked most about him.
Everything at the Citadel bored Aria though. Grizz told her a few days ago – carefully – that she wasn’t even giving it a chance, and maybe he had a point, but everything about it annoyed the everloving shit out of her. The Presidium, so perfect and monotonous. The embassy, filled with stuck-up paper tigers and cops who seemed dead set on making her vacation on the “beacon of galactic civilization” as miserable as possible.
The entire place was the antithesis of Omega, and some nights she missed it with a ferocity that surprised even her. As far as she was concerned, Purgatory was the only remotely bearable spot on the whole station, but the constant sight of off-duty C-Sec officers, gung-ho soldiers on shore leave, and Citadel university students pounding drinks like there was no tomorrow was wearing her nerves thin. It didn’t help that she was perfectly aware that the students were not wasting their opportunity – there might not be a tomorrow.
She missed the grumbling batarians, the mercs, the crowd at Afterlife that would poison or shoot you as soon as look at you. They might have been the biggest collection of scumbags in the Terminus Systems, but they were her scumbags. Part of her wanted to go down to the refugee docks and spend a little time with the shadier crowds, get a feel for home, but it bothered her to pass the giant memorial wall, thousands of pictures collaged together like a collective outcry of loss. She couldn’t stand looking at the shellshocked refugees, orphaned and wounded and lost.
She told herself it was because she hated the stink of the place, so many mostly-unwashed bodies packed in together, the stench of festering wounds and spent adrenaline. She really hated it because she knew that even with her pretty mixed drinks and her designer drugs and her comfortable settee in the bartenders’ quarters at Purgatory, she really wasn’t any different than they were at all.
Fucking. Stuck. So she took pills and drank until Grizz had to carry her back to her bed and paid the DJ to play anything she wanted, whenever she wanted, but underneath it all there was that darkness. Waiting.
Aria was brooding on this cheerful thought with her eyes closed and a cold drink in her hand, letting Grizz’s repetitive, soothing words wash over her with comfortable normalcy – she almost could have been back in Afterlife, if she pretended hard enough – when a female turian suddenly burst through the entrance of Purgatory, screaming. It was a sound that Aria heard even with the techno music pounding at a deafening volume, and she turned towards the doorway with elegant eyebrows raised. There was no way to ignore it; that strange keening noise – halfway between a bullet pinging off metal and a hawk’s cry – was full of unadulterated terror. In her peripheral vision, Aria saw several dancers stop and turn to gawk, their faces ghostly in the strobe lights.
“Reapers! The Reapers!”
The music cut off, and the frightened whispers rose like a wave. Sensing the crowd on the edge of a panic, Aria glared at the DJ, yelling across the bar with all of the authority she could muster. “Bellac! Turn that shit back on!” The turian DJ looked at her for a moment with open incredulity, then did as he was told. He was a quick learner.
Aria didn’t believe the turian’s story as she sighed and got up off the couch in a languid slide to go talk to her. Obviously a Palaven refugee, the turian possessed that damned look common with most of the refugees down in the holding docks, their eyes glassy and horrified, as if they could not forget the sight of the terrible things which had doomed their homeworlds. To Aria they all looked like animals trapped on a highway median, paralyzed with fear. It wasn’t the first time since she came to the Citadel that she had seen one of them snap, mind broken. Grizz stood with her, and they exchanged a knowing look. Some of the dancers were already looking away, jaded to the chaos that had been gradually building up on the station over the past few weeks.
“Please, you’ve got to listen to me, they’re coming!”
Aria approached the raving female with Grizz at her right side. She could almost feel the sympathy radiating off of him for his fellow turian, but he said nothing and let her take the lead with unconscious devotion – it was one of his many redeeming qualities. A large part of her was exasperated with the refugee – with all of them, gods how she missed Omega – but there was no way to look into that stark unseeing fright and not feel some kind of compassion. As helpless and angry as they sometimes made her feel, she knew some of these people were her people, too, fleeing from Cerberus to one of the only safe havens left.
She kept her voice smooth and low. “What are you talking ab-”
A bellowing roar erupted from the front of the club. Aria felt it as much as she heard it, the sensation of standing too close to speakers with the bass turned all the way up, reverberating in her chest. The turian screamed again and covered her face, the sound a surreal treble counterpoint.
“What the fuck was that?” Grizz whispered.
Aria narrowed her eyes, pulling her pistol. “Something that got off on the wrong floor.” She glanced back at the female turian. “Get to the back of the club. Now. Everyone, move back!”
Almost before she could get the words out of her mouth, a monstrosity exploded through the doorway of Purgatory, something that was such an affront to the senses it hurt her to look at it. She could only catch a sense of what it looked like, though the Hallex brought each glimpse of the thing to her in hellish detail – great swathes of gleaming armor stippled with gore, metallic tubing, two-foot talons, eyes that burned in the bulk of its gigantic frame like living flame.
In one giant claw it held a salarian…or half of one, green blood pattering on the dance floor like rain and trails of purple intestine swinging as the thing moved forward in great lurching steps. It roared again and threw the corpse it was clutching at the back wall of the dance floor, where it knocked an unfortunate breakdancer cold and hit the wall with a boneshattering crunch that Aria could hear over the music. The salarian’s blood glowed ultraviolet, like an abstract painting. The strobe lights made the monstrosity look like it was moving in stop motion, something from a nightmare. It was slow, but it was coming. The crowd on the lower dance floor erupted into screams, and on hearing the shrill sound, the beast advanced towards them.
Without thinking, Aria aimed and shot at its back, putting three rounds in it. The warp ammo did no damage that she could see – she might as well have been shooting a brick wall.
“Hey big boy! Why don’t you come over here and pick on someone your own size!?”
The creature turned on her with a snuffling snarl and roared again. Suddenly it was moving, faster than she thought possible – how could something so big move so quickly? – and she felt the wind of its rush past her as she threw herself to the side, feeling the vibrations of its feet as they stomped past her face. Somewhere she could hear Grizz yelling her name, and the deafening boom of a shotgun blast.
She looked up in time to see him unload the shotgun at the beast again, distracting it, but it raised its claw and swept forward in a terrible arc. The claw smashed into him and sending the turian tumbling into the wall like a rag doll, his Eviscerator clattering across the floor with the barrel still smoking. Clubbers clawed and stampeded to the far corners of Purgatory in blind terror.
Aria scrambled to her feet, teeth beared in an unknowing snarl back at the beast, her body beginning to glow with a cold blue light as she turned to the brute.
“I know you did not just charge at me.”
She ran forward, feeling the biotic energy surge through her like a telekinetic rage-fueled tsunami. She lowered her shoulder and hit the reaper in the chest at full force, blinded by a nova of cobalt light that erupted and made the entire bar blaze. The beast went flying twenty feet, landing on the end of the smooth metal bar and sliding down it in a move that would have been comical under any other circumstances; it sent the glasses perched there flying in a cacophony of shattering glass. The reaper fell behind the bar with a thud that knocked the shelves off the wall, the dozens of bottles of liquor exploding as they hit the floor. It didn’t get back up.
Somewhere on the edge of her perception Aria could hear other things beyond Purgatory, over the sound of still-screaming mob, rasping growls and distant gunshots, but for a moment those things didn’t matter.
She ran to where Grizz was crumpled on the floor next to a table and kneeled beside him. He was trying to breathe, but dark blue blood spilled out from between his fingers at his torn throat where the beast’s claw savaged him, running in rivulets down the sides of his fringe as he choked on it. Aria held her hand over his, trying to hold the blood in, but when his eyes met hers with feverish intensity, she saw that he already knew.
“Damn it, Grizz,” she whispered, feeling his blood warm against her palm, his life spilling away. She felt hot tears prick at her eyes, unbidden, and blinked them away. “Hold on. That’s a fucking order.”
The turian did not answer, only convulsed, issuing that hissing, drowning gasp, feet beating a tattoo on the floor, his hand coming up to squeeze her arm hard enough to leave bruises. Aria looked up at a trio of off-duty C-Sec officers on the edge of the dance floor who had drawn their sidearms and were looking back and forth between her and the doorway with blatant bewilderment. The entire battle took less than two minutes.
More reapers came through the entrance now, smaller ones, some new kind of half-human, half-synthetic horror that stumbled towards her like the dead animated by some cruel puppeteer, eyes glowing. She raised her pistol and took them out with three headshots, then whipped her gaze back at the C-Sec officers.
“For fucks’ sake, are you going to stand there holding your dicks all night or are you going to help me?! I can’t shoot them all!”
Somehow her words broke the spell of shock that had come over them, and they moved into a protective formation in front of the crowd, raising their guns towards the entrance. Aria felt the grip on her arm relax and looked back down to see that Grizz’s eyes were flat and empty.
She took her hand away and wiped it on her pants as she heard a weak growl issue from behind the bar where she’d thrown the brute. She glanced in the direction of the noise, then reached down and grabbed her bodyguard’s shotgun. She reloaded as she walked across the room, and when the thing lifted its head above the edge, she was holding the barrel a foot away from its face.
She pulled the trigger and the reaper’s head exploded in a cloud of black gore. It slumped back behind the bar among the broken bottles.
“Tell your friends, you son of a bitch.”
Aria looked back at the C-Sec officers, seeing that some uniformed soldiers had joined them now, forming a line in front of the unarmed crowd. She gestured towards the entrance with the barrel of the shotgun, speaking with an authority that only came from being the pirate queen of the Terminus Systems. It was a voice that did not allow for argument.
“We need to barricade that and collect any confiscated weapons from behind the front desk. Get some tables to bar the doorway and keep more of those bastards from getting in. Move your asses if you want to keep them.”
They got moving.
Aria took a last glance at Grizz’s body, then set the warm shotgun down on the bar and loaded another thermal clip into her pistol, keeping a careful eye on the door.
So much for a safe haven.