Mass Effect

White Noise

Commander Shepard isn't exactly sure what time of day it is. It's not always obvious on the Citadel: the nightclubs are always heavy and pulsing and the streetlights are always on. But she's been on her feet for some time, fixing things, little details, and she's almost done with those. And she's had a drink. So she figures it's night-time.

The shuttle doors open out onto the Presidum's familiar watercoloured metal landscape: nice relaxing seaside white and blue. There's a visible cloud of smoke somewhere below her, which spoils it. The Cerberus attack hit the place hard. There are people all over, too. The kind of people who have lived here for years and forgotten what the wards look like, let alone the colonies. A lot of asari, and a lot of C-Sec.

They're rebuilding, and quick. Cerberus really shook them into action, at long last. If Joker has noticed, he must be glad. People are acknowledging the war now. The council races are everywhere, waving around omni-tools and rifles, talking via comm or just to themselves. Shepard gets a little annoyed as she thinks about Earth, but doesn't dwell. These aren't soldiers. Yelling at them isn't going to do much. And hey, they're working now, aren't they?

And they're murmuring, too. Lots of that these days: little voices coming from all corners, even here. Shepard can't exactly hear what they're all saying, but their tones are clear enough. Worry, mourning, panic, blame, commands, a little bit of optimism. A teary 'thank you' or a broken-voiced 'so sorry' every now and then.

Shepard's boots are too tight. Maybe her feet are swelling up. Either way, they're complaining.

'Who?' a woman asks.

The voice is close to her ear. The Commander almost spins around, but catches herself.

'Commander Shepard!' says a man. 'You know, that human Spectre? She was on the news! Look!'

Shepard pretends not to notice and carries on. But after a few steps she stops to lean against the balcony railing, pretending to stare at the café. She has to think. There was something a little off about that woman's voice, the one who startled her. Something about her accent or maybe the way she pronounced the 'ard' in Shepard as 'erd' that brought something up in her mind. Some uncomfortable feeling.

The voice is familiar. Was it the asari doctor? The one who was struggling to talk down the marine who needed an amputation? Was it her? It sounds like her.

Shepard glances back to check but no, they're both human. That's pretty odd. That woman sounds just like the asari doctor with the amputee marine.

'Shepard,' the girl says, quietly, but she's not trying to get the Commander's attention. Just talking to her friend. They look a little more hopeful now.

After running a hand through her hair, Shepard marches away, as casually as she can make herself. The murmurs settle back down and carry on.

She left Cortez in the bar a half-hour ago and shuttled up to the Spectre office to take Miranda's call and make some life-changing decisions at the information terminal. That took ten minutes, and now she has business with Barla Von. After that, she'll be back to D-24 and on with the Normandy elevator run: a map to look over, a little careful planning to do, some business with Liara, a careful eye on Vega, check in with Javik, probably an awkward conversation with Kaidan. Feed the fish. And then shore leave will be over. But first she has to see Barla Von.

'So... what were they able to pull from the inscriptions?'

Shepard keeps getting distracted by voices. This one is an asari. In fact Shepard knows this one, though she can't recall her name. The crew had picked something up for her. Something for the Crucible.

'Really?' She's leaning her head into her omni-tool. 'I knew they'd find something.'

Again the voice is a little familiar, and again, Shepard feels strange. Kind of... hungry. Empty, as though there is some nervous twitch her body associates with that woman but her brain is too tired to remember the reflex. She looks at the café again and wanders off toward it, just lost in thought.

She probably ought to check the markets, she thought. Show her face to keep Oraka's arms deal nice and secure, and see about upgrades for the Cerberus pistol EDI had picked up.

The murmurs settle again. The boots squeeze her feet again. She loses her train of thought and heads downstairs. The Presidium's artificial lake looks almost completely undamaged, so it's no wonder so many people are standing at its edges. Some of them are even silent, or holding hands. The water is relaxing.

Shepard quickens her pace, almost breaking into a jog, and appears by the store terminals in a couple of minutes. With a glance of recognition to a turian shopkeeper she steps up to a shop-front. Buying guns for the Normandy crew is still a strange sort of experience to her. Three times now she's found herself on missions that give her the freedom to spend large sums of taxpayer money on personal arms. It's not entirely an uncomfortable feeling, but something about it seems a touch wrong. Still, she gets down to it, mentally weighing her available funds against the price of various pieces of tech that she knows will go down well with the boys in the cargo bay. She comes away with some new greaves on top of what was necessary. Batarian design.

While her omni-tool catches up with her, whirring incomprehensibly and spinning its orange discs in a frantic effort to organise a virtual inventory, Shepard sees an empty spot. The same place she had seen Liara looking at the water this morning.

Liara is doing well for herself these days. They all are, frankly. Most of the old team seem more like superiors now than crewmen. Garrus is like a different person. Wrex has a planet to run, Jack has a school... and Mordin...

Lots of promotions. And Liara is just incredible. She's fighting half this war by herself.

'I said no'.

A faint conversation from the level below this one. Someone talking on a stuttering audio channel, and someone far away yelling back through the static. And... the one with the omni tool has that same damn voice. That doesn't even... Maybe it's the doctor from Huerta after all?

'Now go back and let the captain do his duty.'

No, it's a human. Shepard can just make out the brown ponytail. An Alliance officer, apparently. Shepard's view isn't good enough to make out the uniform.

Every woman on the Citadel has the same voice. What the hell is...

'Belay that,' says the electronic voice, a young man. The female officer snaps her arm down, dumbstruck, gesturing at the lake as if to appeal to its sense of honour. A salarian a few strides away stops to gawk. 'We can handle ouselves,' the caller insists. 'It's the right choice, and you know it!'

Shepard wonders what's going on.

'It's my job to know the right choice, lieutenant, and this isn't it! Sometimes there just isn't one. Do you copy?'

'With all respect ma'am, fuck that. We can save him.'

'Not under my orders, you can't.'

'The Reapers are already retreating!' That word causes an audible tremor in the murmurers below Shepard. People are starting to stare at the officer.

'And if you want to finish them off you will activate that singularity and you will do what I say!'

There is a loud reply from the subordinate, but it's hard to make out from here. Too much white noise. The signal sounds weak.

'You reading me?'

That voice.

'Do you read me, LT?'

Ash Williams.

That's it. That's the voice. Son of a...

Everyone on the Citadel sounds like Ashley Williams.

That doctor with the marine, the asari in the bank, the woman upstairs, all of them. That's what it is. They sound like Williams.

Twenty or so people have stopped to listen-in to the comm call now. They're crowding around with their mouths open. Shepard, metres above, feels a stupid, selfish urge to yell down at the woman, to make this decision for her, but she can't find the words.

'Ma'am, I...'

'Do it now, boy!' the officer shouts. She doesn't care about the crowd. 'You have your orders and if you disobey now then I will personally make sure it was for nothing! Do I make myself clear?'

The comm goes off. It's hard to tell whether the lieutenant hung-up or the signal simply failed. The officer who sounds like Ash Williams stops talking.

Shepard takes a step back and feels her shins aching. There is even the start of a headache. Shepard hasn't had a headache in years. Shepard doesn't let herself have headaches.

She figures she needs to get back to her cabin. This is no good. She's just not at her best here, and she needs to be.

After a second she stops, blinks, waits with her eyes wide for a moment and remembers something. Damn it, she's supposed to see Barla Von about th–


Behind her. A man's voice. Thane's voice? Was that Thane?

This time when she spins around there's nobody there. No drell, anyway. A couple of C-Sec agents talking about duct maintanence. Shepard can't help them.

She should go. She has a lot to do. But it's going to be hard not to think of Thane, or Williams, or Mordin while she does it. The boy from Vancouver.

That memorial wall on deck three is filling up.