Like an animal, Shepard had the taste for blood in her mouth as they made their way through Cronos station. Whether it was Kai Leng or just the poor soul who emptied the litter bins they encountered next, there was a heat sink, primed and ready, with their name on it. But for all the adrenaline pumping through her veins, there was nothing to be done when encountered with locked doors impeding their way.
"Shepard, that console has not been fully scrubbed. It contains data you might find interesting." EDI chimed in as she began to override the door, and Shepard, with all her impatience, turned to the console.
She considered not bothering with whatever ones and zeros were encoded on the system, not because she wasn't interested, but because Shepard wasn't certain she could take on yet another weight with everything else riding on her and on them. Kaidan shifted his weight in the corner of her eye and taking a deep breath, Shepard decided that she would be able to handle whatever vile and disgusting thing was on there, so long as she wasn't alone.
"What am I seeing here?"
The video played and the only recognizable figure was that of the Illusive Man. Clinically brain-dead, the other one said. Can't overcome nature. She swallowed over the dryness in her throat, and even though she couldn't make out the words with all the white noise in her ears, she could at least tell from his tone that Kaidan offered words of comfort. Shepard pressed on, and started the second log.
"Tissue generation is proceeding. The helmet kept Shepard's brain intact…" In the pit of her stomach a growing uneasiness started to spread, the kind of instinct cultivated over thirty-two years and that had long foreshadowed all the things in her life that had gone wrong. She'd felt it that morning on Mindoir. An hour before things had gone to hell on Akuze. Suiting up as they sat down on Eden Prime. It had even eaten away at her as she and Kaidan once more broke every frat reg in the quiet of her cabin the night she died near Alchera. Something, somewhere, was about to go horribly wrong.
"Project Lazarus is reporting neurological function," the unknown man continued. "They're requesting additional funding to begin the imprint from the brain tissue salvaged from Shepard."
There was some prattling about a team, about the plans Cerberus had with their pet project, but Shepard heard none of it. Nausea simultaneously seized her gut and her throat, a sweat instantly at her brow. Her head whipped towards EDI, needing some kind of confirmation to what she'd heard. For a moment, Shepard hoped beyond all hope that she had hallucinated it. Lack of sleep, poor diet, low blood pressure, whatever excuse it could be… she desperately begged for an easy answer to a complicated problem.
All that potential, however, was washed aside as EDI shied her face away from Shepard's gaze. It was a human action, that sense of guilt, and in any other time Shepard would have been remarking on the AI's ability to learn and assimilate, but it wasn't the time, there would never be a time for that again.
"I am sorry," EDI spoke softly.
Shepard's words were loud as she made her accusation. "Did you know?"
"I have always known. I was originally bound by Cerberus' shackles to not reveal to you all the details of Project Lazarus. Once they were removed…" The door blinked green, unlocked, but EDI didn't open it, just lowered her hand as they conversed. "…I decided that it would be in your best interest that you did not know the truth."
"The truth?" Kaidan interjected, looking between Shepard and EDI. "What's going on?"
"Of course I needed to know!" Shepard shouted. "How could you ever think I didn't deserve to know who—what—I really was?"
"At the time, I weighed the options. Since it was not something that could be changed, even upon knowing the reality of the circumstances upon your origin, I deemed it unimportant and detrimental to reveal… information that would only harm you, Shepard."
"It wasn't your call to make!"
EDI winced, and before Shepard could make a move closer to the AI, Kaidan grabbed hold of her upper arm, pulling her back.
"What are you talking about? Someone—Fuck!—what the hell is going on?"
Shepard turned to him, going still as their eyes met. Though confusion had been apparent in his tone, the expression his face wore was that of concern and worry. Even at the worst of times, that look of distress had never been often seen, and Shepard longed to simply press her body to his, arms around his back, her face buried into the mix of soft skin and rough stubble of his neck, all the things that made her feel at home. On instinct her hand jerked upwards, longing to deliver the comfort that had become a blessing between the two of them since they reconciled. She stopped, however, just as quickly, eyes widening as she took in, really took in, the man before her and the surrounding circumstances.
Shame radiated from her core on out to her limbs and Shepard tugged her arm and shoulder away from him, putting distance between them both. His eyebrows raised in painful surprise.
"Please Shepard, what—"
"What'd they do with it—with her?" Shepard looked back to EDI, no longer able to bear the weight of the strain Kaidan wore, nor her own guilt.
"She… is here."
Her knees weakened for the blink of an eye but she caught herself on the computer console before Kaidan could reach out to help steady her. "Do you know where?"
"The system's last records indicate the laboratory is nearest the Illusive Man's chamber."
There was no time to waste, precious seconds passing by as the Normandy and the Alliance fleet were busy around the space station and while Cerberus soldiers inside built defenses and barriers between Shepard and her intended destination. Complete the mission no matter the cost. That had always been her duty, one she'd followed through life… and death. She considered the thought and decided that just this once, she would be selfish.
Standing up straight, Shepard ejected the thermal clip from her gun and loaded in a fresh one. "Open that fucking door."
By time they made it to the laboratory, Shepard was more exhausted from rebuffing Kaidan at every lull in fighting than each close call with a phantom. There was no stopping her as EDI nodded towards the doorway on the far side of the long hallway, and without missing a step or beat, Shepard holstered her weapon and armed her omni-blade. With a running start, she threw her weight into it, slamming the sharp point of the glowing knife between the two halves of the uniform doorway.
It was unorthodox, and not the kind of thing an ordinary human, biotic or otherwise, would be able to manage, but Shepard shouldered on, even at Kaidan's panted protests. She wriggled the blade with what little give there was, and with a final push, it slipped through, buried to her fist. Shepard hauled it downward, feeling the locking mechanism begin to give, tearing behind her artificially enhanced strength. Above her head, Shepard heard and felt a thump, and when she raised her eyes, it was there she saw Kaidan struggling along with her, his reinforced combat knife between his hands as he made an attempt at helping, even if he didn't know what for. For a million reasons, the worst of which was his heart she was certain that she would break once they get inside, tears pricked at her eyes.
The doors lost the battle, giving way, and Shepard fell to the floor with the tension gone. Kaidan pulled her up by the shoulders of her armor, and she let him, too busy scrambling to her feet to fight him off.
Shepard was the first one in, and for the first time since they left that room with the computer console a few floors down and half a station away, she didn't rush.
It was exactly like all the other labs they'd seen in Cronos, examining tables and lab equipment spread through the room. Where data pads and boxes were scattered through the others signifying recent use and a certain sense of being worked and lived in, the counter tops of this lab in particular were bare. No one, she was sure, had been there in quite some time.
The lights were off, in power-save mode for god knows how long, and Shepard raised her omni-tool to illuminate her way the further she moved in. There was nothing, not so much as a beep of a machine to signal she was on the right track, but she trusted in that feeling deep in her stomach. She wasn't wrong. She wished she was, but she knew she wasn't wrong. Light reflected off something a few feet ahead. Moving forward, she reached out with her other hand, touching her fingertips to the curved glass of a tank vertically laid out before her.
Upon contact, she cried out, a shriek given in the darkness. There, reflected back at her, were the distorted remains of her own face.. Without all the strength she normally had, Shepard beat her fist into the tank, sliding to the floor as she gave up.
Kaidan's arms wrapped about Shepard a few seconds later when he finally caught up to her position. "You've got to tell me," he pleaded, and though it was still nearly pitch black in the room, the light of the orange glow of their omni-tools offer a candlelit experience of the immediate area. "What's going on? What don't I know?"
"Project Lazarus," she coughed and dug her fingers into the junctions of his armor as she hiccuped amidst the tears. "It wasn't about reconstruction, Kaidan. It didn't work. I'm Project Lazarus."
"I know," his fingers ran through her hair, holding her close, "that's what they called the operation. But it worked—you're here, Shepard. You're here and you're real, how can you say it didn't work?"
She fought, pushing him as she clawed her way to her feet, body wavering as she used the tank for support. Her omni-tool was drawn up, and she lit the contents of the tank once more. "Shepard died over Alchera. Lazarus—I—was made to replace her."
Kaidan focused on the image before them. In a pod not unlike that of the one he'd read her krogan, Grunt, had been grown in, or the colonists on Horizon had been put into by the Collectors, there was something that only barely resembled what had once been alive and human. The shape was right, a head down to shoulders, arms extending from there, though one side stopped halfway down the upper arm, the other missing most of the fingers on its hand.
At first, he was unsure of what he was supposed to be seeing. Compared to all the horrible things they'd been witness to lately, from husks to bodies otherwise mutilated, this was barely enough to make him blink twice. But as his eyes followed downward over the skin that had grown almost leathery in appearance, perhaps from damage done to it or a failed attempt at restoring what once was, Kaidan finally began to understand.
Down the left side of the abdomen was the marred and torn ink of a tattoo, a tattoo he'd gotten to know intimately years ago, and had been happy to find still there in their more recent encounters when he'd traced the pattern with his lips. And in the fluid, whatever the hell it was that had been flooded into the tank to preserve the corpse, he watched dull strands of once shiny and vibrant hair float and sway in the circulating liquid. There wasn't much hair left, across her skull he saw skin where it had been shaved, her scalp cut open, peeled back, and then rather rudimentarily stitched back together without care at her temple. He recognized her now. This was the woman he loved. This was Shepard.
He looked beside him to the living version of the woman he'd come to admire, trust, and care for years ago. His brow furrowed, lips pressed into a flattened line of a grimace, disgust. From the back of his throat, Kaidan couldn't hold back the soft sounds of distress that overwhelmed him without his consent. The woman—the stranger—next to him was doing her own equivalent in silence, tears wetting her cheeks. She took a step away from him.
"I didn't know," she said, shaking her head.
Kaidan glanced back to the tank, to what remained of the woman he knew for a few months all those years ago. Shepard, his Commander, his friend, his lover—all of it, for only a few months of time. She didn't deserve what had become of her. All over her body, there were more cuts like the ones at her skull, he now realized, where she had been systematically taken apart as Cerberus desperately tried to breathe life back into the dead body but failed. And because of that, because of their inability to play God or Goddess, they had turned to another option. They'd grown a replacement, made her better, stronger, faster. Perfect.
"I wouldn't have," the Shepard clone's words were strangled, a hand shielding her eyes, "I'm sorry Kaidan. If I knew, I never would have… you and I, I'm sorry."
There was pain, desperate pain he couldn't understand at being deceived and lied to, but also that kind of mourning that he'd once surrendered to in the two years he'd believed her dead. She was dead. After everything, after all of it, she really was dead. She was… and at the same time, she wasn't. Inside, the torment of betrayal pressed down at him. Shepard had been dead and for the last few weeks time he'd been sleeping in her impostor's bed, making love to an imitation—he felt overcome with sickness. Turning to the side, he leaned on the tank and wretched onto the floor.
EDI called from the partially open, distant doorway. "We have to finish the mission," she reminded them of their urgency. "There isn't much time remaining."
Kaidan silently went first and Shepard followed behind, but not a few steps from the tank did she suddenly stop, turning around as she drew her pistol and fired it at the glass above the dead Shepard's head. The tank shattered, cracking from the top on down to the bottom, and she returned, punching at the weakened glass with the elbow of her armor as the fluid began to drain out of the tank, alarms sounding within the room at the sensed intrusion and system's compromised integrity.
She reached her hands inside and slid them under the corpse's arms, removing her from the harness and hauling the partially decomposed body out. It was a heavy weight and difficult position, but she managed in laying the carcass along the floor.
Part of her was repulsed, especially when confronted with the severity of the body's state up close. The eyes were gone and her face showed for it, the rest of it sunken slightly from the effects of death. Her legs, on the vast whole, were gone as well, left with the stumps of thighs, her skin torn and cracked all over where Cerberus hadn't made their own incisions. With quiet affection, she brushed the dead Shepard's hair from her forehead, wiped the fluid from her cheeks.
"You didn't deserve this," she whispered as she knelt beside the woman that once was. "I'm sorry… I'm sorry they cut you open, that they couldn't let you rest in peace. I'm sorry they did it to you to make me."
Shepard reached up into the collar of her armor to find the new set of dog tags, the same ones Anderson had given her back on Earth.. She wished now that she'd opened the frame with the old ones as she'd longed to do, if only so she could gift the body with what had rightfully belonged to her. It would have to do, however, and Shepard pulled until the chain snapped, laying them down on her dead sister's chest.
Taking a grenade from the pouch at her waistband, she armed the correct sequence before placing it on the corpse's abdomen, curling what was left of the woman's only hand around it. Shepard had mere seconds to say her goodbye, and when she finally did make her leave, she did so without looking back. Fifteen seconds ticked by, and barely clear of the doors she could feel the heat of the explosion on the back of her neck. With it, it took all the pieces that once were the woman first known as Shepard, so that no one could ever bring her harm again.