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the problem, he thinks--

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When Shepard needs to settle his mind, he hides down in engineering, with the drive core. He can't afford to leave the CIC unattended for long, and it's not that he doesn't trust the crew, but-- but sometimes.

It's nice to just let the ship's heartbeat rattle into his bones.

Shepard always feels like he's doing something dangerous, reckless, unfit for command when he leaves the CIC. It doesn't matter if he's checking up on Garrus (always calibrating, and Shepard's not sure when he got enough experience with Turians to recognize tension in his posture--) or checking to see that the engine is still clicking (cleaning out the engineers at cards, and come on, he's been dead, of course his poker face is murder--) or even if he's just going to the head. It all feels dangerous.

This feeling is stupid-- he knows that it's stupid-- but he can't make it stop. It's like every second he spends outside of shouting distance from the galaxy map is one second closer to their unexpected annihilation. Like he's leaving them to drift aimlessly through space until some new horror kills them. Like he's abandoning something. Duty. Family. ...something.

It isn't like this on missions. He leaves the whole damn ship behind to personally oversee whatever the day's new disaster will be. And yes, okay, missions also feel dangerous, but it's different then, it's adrenaline and problem-solving, not heart-stopping irrational terror. He can turn off Commander Shepard (vas Normandy) and turn on Commander Shepard (Council Spectre) and that's fine. He just resets his brain while the shore party's on the shuttle.

It's a system.

It works.

He talks to Chakwas about it, edges around questions about implant psychosis, never quite mentions the word "disassociation".

She thinks he's talking about Kaidan, about L2s, about all the people who are even unluckier than Shepard is. (He should be grateful he was an L3, he should be grateful he survived Mindoir and Akuze and Eden Prime, he should be grateful he was useful enough to resurrect--)

She wants to know why this still bothers him, when Kaidan's been dead for years now. (He doesn't remind her that it hasn't been years for him, that Kaidan died days, weeks, months ago, that he can still almost hear his voice in the static on the comm channels. Shepard wasn't alive long enough to mourn him for years.)

"Do you think you could have changed something?" she asks.

"Just been thinking, Doc," he says.

The answer is yes. But then, the answer is always yes. (He's a survivor. He just hasn't figured out the trick to getting other people to survive with him.)

She doesn't ask him again. He's careful not to bring it up anymore.

The problem, he thinks, is that he doesn't have a setting in his brain for being on the ship but not being in charge of the ship. Not that he is ever, technically, not in charge of the ship. And it's not as if EDI wouldn't page him in the middle of REM cycle, or a shower, or a breakdown cleverly disguised by staring at his dead fish, if she wanted him to solve some minor inconvenience on or around the ship, as she has proven time and time again. But there's an attitude, or maybe a posture, or some kind of ineffable aura that comes with being at the map, with standing at the helm, and he can't seem to turn it off. It clings to him every time he steps away, and drags him back into position by excruciating inches if he resists it, like an iron filing skittering along the counter towards a magnet (like a slug of super-heated metal being sheared off its column and mass-projected at a terminal velocity.)

Anderson never had this problem. Shepard is positive that Anderson never had this problem.

(He knows that Anderson doesn't like being idolized, he's been told enough times. But he can't help it and it isn't as if Anderson is around to complain about it. Anderson will probably never be around again, if Shepard is honest with himself. There's an indelible Cerberus stamp on him now, probably in his bones (if they are his bones), and Anderson has too many people to worry about to take the risk of associating with Shepard now. That's fair. He understands that. It's fine.

The email was nice, anyway.)

The thing is, Anderson could always be human. He was the captain of his ship, no matter where he happened to be on the damn thing, and if he wanted to smile like a complete goofball and utterly fail to wrangle chopsticks in the mess and read incredibly bad espionage novels between shifts, he just did it and it didn't make him any less the captain. And Shepard just... he can't do that. He doesn't know why.

The crew talks about his rounds, stopping at every station and trying to drag at least three sentences of conversation out of everyone before he cycles back to the CIC with the inevitability of a tide, as if it makes him some shining paragon of leadership. They can only think that because they didn't serve with Anderson-- these Cerberus crewmen, with their slipshod discipline and their papered-over xenophobia. If they had, they would recognize what a poor job Shepard does at trying to be him.

At trying to be a person, instead of just useful.

They (Cerberus, or the Illusive Man, or the engineers-- someone) built Shepard this huge room at the top of the ship (as close to space as they could get him, as far as possible from everything that matters) and he doesn't know what to do with it. It still looks factory-sealed. Someone put his old N7 helmet on the table, after he went sifting through the nightmare wreckage of the SR-1. He doesn't have the heart to throw it in the compactor, even if it feels sometimes like his own skull is watching him in the dark. It's the only thing that even pretends to belong to him in this room. That and the fish.

The dead fish.


He doesn't remember it being like this, before. Maybe the ship was just smaller, maybe they were just moving so much faster, maybe they were just younger. And he's not as old as the rest of them are, they've gone ahead and etched new lines into their faces without him, but he's got his own new lines (glowing scars that Chakwas is sure will heal, any day now, just stay positive--) and he feels old.

But it didn't feel like this. He could move around the ship and feel like it was home, all of it, as much of a home as he'd ever had, after Mindoir, after his first lesson in clinging to life and sanity with his fingernails and teeth. The Normandy then was... it was a little calm in the ongoing storm of his life. A place where he could stop, breathe, check himself for new and exciting holes, rhythmically disassemble and reassemble his pistol while Ashley watched him out of the corner of her eye. Sometimes she would recite old Earth poetry at him, and he would half-listen, break his weapon down, build it back up. Listen to Garrus tuning up the Mako and griping about Shepard's driving in the background. Carefully, so carefully, open old memories and realize, yes, this was what family felt like when he still had one. Marvel at them all, his little crew of strays, all the galaxy's survivors coming home and fighting for it.

Now he just... haunts the CIC, stares at the galaxy map until the stars are etched on his eyelids, leans on the rail and tries to look casual and not like he's just trying to stay upright until the walls stop slowly closing in on him.

He doesn't dare go up to that enormous room, tucked just beneath the Normandy's skin, too close to vacuum, too far from command, just him and the fucking fish.

He wonders if he would have been able to keep the fish alive, before, if the SR-1 had been the kind of ship with an aquarium. (Considering his track record for keeping things (family, friends, marines, ships, himself) alive, he doubts it.)

Now Garrus is the one stripping his weapons, angry and defeated, over and over again. Like a sufficiently clean rifle might change something. Shepard doesn't know any poetry.

Ash won't let him explain.

He can't even blame her.

The SR-1 had a higher tone, and a kind of wobble to her engine sound. An irregular oscillation that used to distract him, if he let it drift to the top of his awareness. He had liked the SR-1-- as frigates went she was sleek and deadly and clever, a masterpiece of engineering.

The SR-2's engine grumbles a little, settles him if he spends long enough standing at the railing. The engine's bigger, more efficient, somehow quieter-- Joker wasn't wrong, Cerberus did good work. She lacks the SR-1's compact elegance, but she has a kind of charm.

(He worries that he's been conditioned to prefer their ship on some kind of subconscious, primal level. Like a dog. He doesn't know if they did that, or if he did it to himself. He doesn't really want to examine it closely enough to find out.)

The problem, he thinks, is that he has settings. People don't have settings.

Machines do. Synthetics do. The ship does.

They checked. Of course they checked, none of them trust Cerberus or the Illusive Man as far as they can throw them. He thinks Miranda was indignant somewhere under her layers of cultivated superiority, but she didn't argue when Shepard queued up test after test. Chakwas says he's still mostly meat, the important parts, even if he has more metal in him than he used to, even if he feels heavier, if he sometimes thinks he can hear servos whine if he twists the right way.

He doesn't even have the right implant, anymore. L5x, Miranda informs him smugly-- more powerful than his old L3, with none of the L2 side-effects. Sure. (And they didn't touch anything else in his brain while they were peeling out the implant that had been a part of him since he was teenager. Of course not. They would never.)

But of course, they did those scans with Cerberus equipment, on a Cerberus-built ship, rigged with a Cerberus AI. To really know for sure, he supposes, Shepard would have to hack off a limb and check the blood and muscle and bone for himself, verify it with his own eyes. But even he isn't that self-destructive.

He tries not to be that self-destructive.

After all, how can he even know he can trust his eyes. Cerberus made them, too.

If Ash would let him explain, it would sound something like this:


A lot of screaming about sand and teeth and dead marines, and vacuum and pressure and suffocation, about finally knowing how his squad felt being dragged under, except at least he gets a view while he's dying, he gets to be blinded by a sun, they just got blood and dirt--

A lot of screaming about them putting something in his head, something that burned and crackled and seized if he tried to disobey, and doing it anyway, half-blinded by his brain's attempt to properly convey punishment, because the Alliance was right there, he just had to get to them, nobody was looking, nobody had explicitly told him not to do this, he could break implicit rules if he tried hard enough, it was fine, just move--

A lot of screaming that he knows, okay, he knows what Cerberus did, he knows what they did to him, he's trying, he's doing his best--

Just... a lot of screaming.

He is probably lucky that she won't let him explain.

The first time, when he was sixteen, it was the batarians. The control implant. The Alliance took it out, once he'd escaped. No permanent damage, the medics said. It could have been much worse.

Less than a year later, the Alliance put the L3 in. The biotic implant was installed in a different place-- it was supposed to sync up with his recently-discovered eezo nodules, not make him obedient-- but they still had to sedate him twice during recovery: once just because someone said implant in the wrong tone of voice, again when they tried to teach him how to clean the port. He crumpled a gurney and threw it out a window, but they seemed more pleased than annoyed. (Later, he realized it was because the L3s were still new, mostly untested. A untrained biotic temper tantrum while he was still hooked up to all the monitoring equipment was good research material.)

Then Cerberus took that out, put the L5x in. Just the L5x, ostensibly. He wasn't consulted, of course. He was dead-- corpses don't get to make their own medical decisions. They probably wouldn't have even told him the implant was different if he hadn't noticed the slight changes in the port, a different frequency of tingling in his nervous system when he activated it. He spends weeks trying to test himself, tricking Miranda and Jacob into framing an order or instruction, countermanding it or disobeying with various levels of opacity. Nothing in his brain has tried to punish him, yet. He hopes control implants haven't gotten any more insidious than they were when he was sixteen.

He keeps trying to search the extranet to find out, but every time he actually opens an article he finds himself compulsively shutting down the whole machine before he can actually read it. EDI has probably noticed, but has mercifully refrained from comment.

Kaidan never upgraded to an L3, because removing the implant came with the significant risk of death or, as the medics would say, permanent damage.

Shepard's had two implants removed from his skull. More fingers in his brain than he would like. Maybe, he thinks, that's the problem.

The problem, he thinks, is that he hasn't figured out how to die yet.

It doesn't seem to matter what tries to kill him, or why-- even when they succeed, it doesn't stick.

Talitha could have died. He's not sure, anymore, why he talked her down, when she had clearly made the leap he's unable to. It seemed important at the time. Someone asked him to. He tries to do what people ask him to, to be helpful, to be useful. If he's going to be alive, he'd better make the most of it.

She sent him an email. She's using first-person pronouns, again. She seems happy. She thanked him.

He can't imagine why.

Jack talks him into letting her bomb the ruins of her old life.

They rebuilt the Mindoir colony. He visited once, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there might still be ash, somewhere beneath the new structures, that used to be people he knew. It was full of strangers-- settlers who weren't even there for the raid, walking through ghosts like they'd never existed, never been melted into blood and bones, never been chipped and dragged into cages and--

He hasn't been back.

Apparently there's a memorial on Akuze.

He hasn't been there at all.

"Commander, I'd like to talk about your experience--" is as far as Yeoman Chambers gets before Shepard keys the door closed, locks it, and retreats to the music system he has thus far not touched.

He cycles through everything programmed into it while he waits for the knocking to stop.

He's not an idiot.

He knows what the problem is.

"Commander, I really think--" says Yeoman Chambers, as Shepard is trying to resume his position at the map.

He resists the urge to Lift her-- he finds it harder to control with the L5x, and he mostly ends up flinging things across the field instead of gently levitating them, which would be a pointed but suboptimal resolution to the argument they aren't having-- and turns around instead, walks straight back into the elevator. He hears her sigh as the elevator slides back up to his (terrifying, wasteful, sterile) quarters.

He'll try again in half an hour.

Maybe he'll feed the latest batch of fish.

The problem, he thinks--

Shepard has been at the railing for ten minutes, trying to be subtle about leaning into the drive core's rhythmic humming, when Tali joins him. She positions herself between him and the engineers, who are doing a very bad job of pretending not to spy on him, because she is his favorite. If he pays attention, he can sync his breathing to the subtle sound her air filters make.

"Veetor is doing well," she says.