Shepard is dead.
He has been dead for just over two years. I imagine he died panicking, thrashing in the vacuum of space as the SSV Normandy violently blew out its guts into the void. A meaningless speck in the cosmic darkness. Silently screaming, wresting with an invisible, unstoppable foe, watching helplessly as his suits precious oxygen supply escaped into the void, turning his shield against the elements into his coffin. Knowing that there was no-one and nothing to save him from the end, to forestall the inevitable.
I often wonder what or who he thought of, in his final moments.
As it happens, the unsettling manner of his death ensured his body's survival. With no air, virtually sealed shut, and nothing but the vacuum beyond his suit, Shepard's body was spared the natural processes of decomposition and decay there are no microorganisms in dead space, after all.
I'm told there was a race for Shepard's body, once the news of his death found its way into unscrupulous and clandestine organisations, of which thankfully there are but a few in the galaxy. Cerberus won out in the end, a drell employed by the secret-hoarding Shadow Broker defecting to their cause and assisting in the location and retrieval of the frozen corpse. For an alien to assist a pro-human paramilitary organisation speaks lengths of the Shadow Broker's casual disregard of morals for the sake of profit and business.
But I digress.
Cerberus, under the Illusive Man, that charismatic figure that has forever eluded the Systems Alliance, began what was called the Lazarus Project. Inspired by the story of a man, Lazarus, being resurrected from the dead by the Prophet Jesus in the Biblical myths, the project, likewise, was to "bring Commander Shepard back from the dead". He was too important to lose, according to the Illusive Man. Shepard had become a totem, a holy icon for humanity, a symbol of their power and strength against any and all foes. To lose Shepard would endanger humanity's morale in the coming threat of the Reaper invasion.
The Galactic media had already kept a tight lid on Shepard's death
he was on a classified mission
he wasn't available for comment at this time
details concerning Commander Shepard are of a sensitive nature and would endanger the lives of others
- the list goes on. Unintentionally, the media blackout ensured the circumstances surrounding his death were never investigated seriously, allowing the Lazarus Project to continue unmolested.
So they depressurise the suit, crack open the amour, and spend the next two years working on resurrecting a frozen corpse. Facial reconstruction, skeletal augmentation and enhancement, nanomachines, drugs to kick-start the blood, organs, immune system the works.
Unofficially, the project cost more than four billion credits a testament to Shepard's perceived importance. No expense was spared. The best cybernetics and medical treatment money can buy, and then some.
The Illusive Man knew, though. He knew that once a heart stops beating, once the blood stops flowing through veins and arteries, once a brain stops functioning and it burns itself out in a final spasm of nerve endings and sensory outputs and sleeps it's over. No amount of credits, or science, or nanomachines can prevent that. When someone dies, they die.
Shepard is dead. He died in an inconsequential sector of the galaxy in the orbit of an unnamed world, drifting, panicking, the bittersweet thought of knowing his friends and comrades had escaped the fires of the SSV Normandy doing little to prevent the terror welling up in him as the air of his suit bled out into space. Shepard died.
In his place, I stand.
What I am, I'm not sure. To his enemies, comrades, friends and lover, I am Shepard. To Cerberus, to the Systems Alliance, to the Citadel Council, I am Shepard. Lieutenant Commander Shepard, graduate of the Systems Alliance N7 program, Executive Officer of the SSV Normandy, Spectre for the Citadel Council, Leader of the Cerberus Lazarus Cell, and hero of Humanity. To all intents and purposes, I am Shepard.
Only I'm not.
I am a carbon copy of Shepard. I have his goals, his drives, his personality. His memories, his regrets, his joys.
I remember my his induction as a Spectre. I remember life as an orphan on Earth. I remember coming face-to-face with Saren for the first time. The horrors of Eden Prime. The Rachni Queen. Witnessing the nuclear firestorm from Virmire orbit. Sovereign. Vigil.
I have many sleepless nights, most likely a side-effect of Project Lazarus. I have many nightmares, sensory overloads of Shepard's memories flooding my unconscious mind, a sweeping tide of phantom pains and elusive faces smashing against the floodgates of my sanity. Sometimes they break through, jolting me awake in the night screaming and whimpering, running to the bathroom and emptying my stomach amidst intense nausea and crushing vertigo.
I have drugs to suppress the nightmares. They don't always work.
The most sobering thing I can do is look in the mirror, once I've cleaned myself up. When I see my face Shepard's face there's one thing that shocks me back to reality, one element that unquestionably shows the truth.
Angry red canyons cross Shepard's face. Dim light shines from within, testament to the lattice of advanced cybernetics underlying the skin. As long as I see them - as long as I can follow the dim valleys webbing across the cheeks and arching over the forehead, culminating in faint orbs in the eyeballs I know that I'm not him. I'm just wearing his skin.
I don't know what I am. I suppose human wouldn't be entirely correct. I'm a conscious entity, part-revitalized human brain, part-cybernetic enhancements, inside the body of a dead man kept alive by nanorobotics and biomachinery. By all natural laws I should not be alive. I should not even exist. I feel like a living blasphemy against the cosmos, literally a dead man walking.
My memories are not my own. My motives are not my own. My response to the universe consists of pre-written synaptic channels, leftover from Shepard. And I don't know whether to fight against my Shepard's - very mind and carve my own path, or to willingly obey and enslave myself to a dead man's brain.
But humanity, and the rest of the galaxy, needs me. War is coming, bloody and dark, a red harvest, a galactic genocide last seen fifty thousand years ago. They need Shepard.
But Shepard died. And they need someone.
That may as well be me.