Note from the author:
This story is a follow-up to Finding a Way by Levi Matthews. I highly recommend reading it if you have the time.
s/5705653/1/Finding_a_Way
If you don't, there is a short summary that'll get you up to speed at the end of this prologue.

This story contains spoilers for Mass Effect 2, its associated DLC, and Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is property of Bioware, who deserves all credit for creating the universe, characters, and games. Finding a Way was written by Levi Matthews and all credit for the story up to this point not claimed by Bioware goes to him.


Prologue: The Lost Cause

An electronic warble echoes around the courtyard, the ancient sun-bleached stone walls raging with the cacophony of tones and clicks. A lone figure stood by a column, careful to keep in the shade as it reached behind its back. The walls instantly took note, silencing themselves as the figure slowly brought a weapon to bear. The figure, fully aware of the omniscient presence, took a moment to steady her breath as she felt the walls' impending wrath bearing down upon her. One of the three fingers on her right hand began a mild tremor, but she willed it to stop.

No sense in losing her nerve now.

She knew she was being watched, that it was only a matter of time before the walls unleashed their fury. She knew that in mere moments, the forces around her could rend her very molecules apart in less time than she could blink. But she relished the quiet moments before the charge, knowing all too well that a single screw-up could end her in a way that most other species would have considered laughable. She had grown to appreciate every breath of heavily filtered air that she took when not surrounded by enemy fire. Her travels, which had taken her through more parts of hell than most trained warriors, let alone engineers, had taught her that much. For what felt like the millionth time, she wished that he was there by her side again.

She knew that he would not, could not, have gotten there in time to help her again. Today would not be like the numerous times he had helped her out of tough situations when she had served under him, always the perfect shield to her shotgun's furious sword. Today would not be like where he had saved her from assassins on the Citadel, when only one other person that day had even acknowledged her presence without immediately sneering or protectively reaching for their pockets. Today would not be like when he had come to the rescue of her mutinous squad -what was left of it anyway- on Freedom's progress. Today would not be like all those times that he'd quietly listened with that slight grin as she had talked about her pre-pilgrimage life and her culture's history. He had been the only person who had ever seemed truly interested in the subject, though she liked to imagine that he was enamored by it.

Today she was alone.

One last breath. A last check that her suited finger to ensure that it was no longer twitching. The quarian then used it to press a button on the side of her shotgun, and it engaged to its full size with an almost too loud schhick followed by a beep.

Immediately, the air around her cover became a fireworks display of blue and white sparks as the geth converged on her position. The deafening din of their electronic clicking returned to its full volume. She hacked one of the attackers, hoping to draw away fire as she aimed her Katana at another one that had had the misfortune of standing in front of its suddenly deranged ally. One down, she thought as she pulled the trigger, finishing the job. A chorus of return fire punctuated her statement with an obvious "many to go". It wasn't long before her hacked ally was decimated by the others' combined fire.

As she took cover, the electronic clicking intensified again, but in a new manner. Their clicks layered over each other in a way she had never heard before, forming a single voice from their many discordant forms. "We wish to help you," the geth droned in an unnatural series of tones and beeps, their many voices uniting to form a monotone chorus.

"Don't listen to them," another voice called. "Give her some cover." Out of the corner of her eye, the quarian saw a squad laying down suppressing fire as a red and white suited quarian barked orders. "Watch out, they're flanking us!" Sure enough, a pair of rocket troopers had pinned them, allowing a crimson geth to sneak up unmolested. "Focus on that destroyer!" the leader finally yelled, but he was too late for most of his squad. All but one of his fellows was soon downed, either roasted alive in their suits by its flamethrower or falling victim to an explosion after its gas tank was ruptured.

"You're only hurting yourself," the unearthly voices chimed again. "Desist so we can help you."

"Can it!" the remaining green-suited squad member yelled, overloading one of the rocket troopers. "Tali, the shuttle's almost here. Kal and I have the data, so we can get off this planet as soon as it arrives."

The quarian nodded, using her own overload program on the remaining rocket trooper. "Let's give them hell Quala," she said.

"Tangoes incoming," Kal chimed. "We should to hole up here while we can." Before he'd finished his sentence, Tali was already sprinting over to her friends' position.

But something wasn't right.

The air seemed to shimmer behind Kal and Quala as Tali ran toward them. Tali shook her head, trying to clear the mist of perspiration that had accumulated in her visor.

The shimmer began to move closer to the two as she realized what was happening. "Hunter!" she yelled, drawing her pistol. She knew she wouldn't be able to down its shields in time though. Kal instantly got the message, moving toward Quala as the geth hunter deactivated its invisibility cloak. Its shotgun was overcharged, giving off a blue aura as the energy stored within yearned for liberation. He dived toward her, arms outstretched. The gun discharged as Kal's arms closed around Quala, and they fell to the ground, their bodies limp. Tali returned fire, her predator pistol's retort drowned out by her furious yells as the hunter's shields flared and died. An irritated beeping alerted her that her heat sink was full, and she drew her shotgun. Tali fired at the geth as she roared, "Get away from them you damn synthetic bosh'tet!.

The hunter cocked its head quizzically, the shot being too far away to have any significant effect.

She fired again.

The hunter made the geth's trademark set of unintelligible electronic sounds, as if angry that she was still attacking.

Tali fired a third time.

The hunter collapsed its weapon, throwing it into a slot on its back.

She blinked in surprise, then fired a fourth time, furious that it would attempt such underhanded tactics. Almost organic tactics.

It reached out a hand as she fired a fifth time, the shots finally making visible dents in the geth's armor. "We're here to help you, Tali'Zorah."

"Help yourself!" she yelled, trading the overheated shotgun for the knife she'd kept in her left boot. Its straight blade shone bright in Dholen's light, thirsty for the geth's coolant and motor control fluid. She plunged the blade deep into the synthetic's chest armor, giving it a meaningful twist for good measure. "You certainly haven't helped me."

Again, the geth made the questioning look. "Tali," it replied, its voice losing the synthetic quality it had carried before, "I already have." Tali returned the look, only to be horrified as its "face" contorted into that of the one man she'd hoped to see. That of the one who had helped her countless times during their travels together on the Normandy. The one who had helped her believe that there was more to the galaxy at large than a bunch of racist aliens who looked down on her instinctively as a vagrant and thief.

The man she'd loved.

"John" she whispered, sinking to her knees by the fallen creature. He smiled, that same smile she had admired and yearned to see again for over two years. She was only dimly aware of the squad of geth walking up behind her as she began to weep. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..." Tears welled in her eyes as she repeated the words, her mind too overloaded to do anything else.

"No, I'm sorry," Shepard managed before the lights left his blue eyes.

She screams in anguish as the geth squad opens fire.


"No!"

Thud!

Tali'Zorah crashed back down on the bed just as quickly as she had attempted to sit upright, her hand instinctively grasping for where she had knocked her head -or, rather, her visor- on the bunk above her.

"Aye, they are fine, aren't they?" a brown-haired human groggily mumbled from the bunk next to hers, his voice heavy with an accent that Tali didn't recognize.

"Shut up, Ken," another yawned from across the room, turning over in her sleep.

Tali shook her head, trying to cast off the things she'd just seen. Of course it was a dream. Just a horrible dream. She lowered herself slowly back to the bed. I made it off that horrible planet. And in the Normandy, of all ships. She began to relax a little, preparing to fall back asleep. Kal'Reegar and Quala'Oro are going to be okay, thanks to Chakwas and the salarian doctor. She closed her eyes. The data on Haestrom's sun was safe, though it had cost too many good soldiers their lives. And John...

She nearly knocked the bunk above her for the second time in as many minutes. Oh, Keelah. The salarian doctor, his name lost to Tali among the torrent of words that had surged from his mouth when he had finally been allowed to check on the quarians' health, had tried multiple times to make her feel better. "Twenty-one-hour combat situation in combination with early loss of resources and shelter and massacre of team members tragic, stressful. Situation highly conductive to hallucinations, difficulty in perceiving and trusting outside stimuli, triggers fight-or-flight response common to most sapient species. Decisions made from instinct, not what person would normally do, especially if not a lifelong soldier. Not responsible for actions, no matter how reprehensible, if not made with sound mind." He'd spun it many different ways in between administering antibiotics to Tali's friends and checking on Shepard's then-unconscious form, but it had only intensified the guilty feelings that had accumulated in her stomach.

She had been exhausted even before holing up in the bunker with a wounded Quala'Oro on Haestrom. The fact that the geth had sent everything they could to break the door, up to and including parking a colossus on the doorstep, had set her on-edge. She'd hallucinated, seeing ghostly visions of John Shepard and Kaiden Alenko, who had lost his life on Virmire. If it hadn't been for the pile of rubble that had overloaded her suit's built-in volume filters, she would have assumed that the geth drones that had flown in through the ventilation shaft had been figments of her starved and dehydrated imagination as well.

She couldn't hear as Shepard called for her. She didn't see that the bleached armor on the hand belonged to an organic. She couldn't feel the warmth as it touched her suit. All she'd known was that her defenses had been breached, her friends' fates uncertain, the mission a colossal failure. She had lashed out with the blade, burying it in the chest of the one man who had fought through a platoon of enemies for her. The man she'd longed to see again ever since he'd reappeared on Freedom's Progress, a living ghost.

She used up her last ounce of self-control by muting her suit's microphone before giving in to the tears, her head burying itself between her knees. Yes, he'd awoken and ensured she was allowed to stay on the Normandy. Yes, he had given her the greatest and most longed-for hug of her life as she'd sat in the shuttle, resigned to the fact she should never see him again. But all of that paled in the face of the one thing that refused to leave her mind.

"I don't deserve him," she sobbed, alone in her quiet corner of the universe.


Note from the author:
Okay, first the essentials:
-Kasumi and Zaeed are loyal
-Everyone except Legion, Thane, and Samara have been recruited; Tali was the most recent to join the crew
-The most recently completed mission against the collectors was on Horizon
-Wrex and Ashley survived the Virmire mission
-The Council and the rachni queen were saved
-Anderson was selected for the Council
-Paragon-leaning colonist/war hero John Shepard
-Shepard romanced Liara in ME1
-Tali/John is the romantic focus of this story (Sorry if you were looking for a Tali/Miri fic)

The main viewpoints you'll see here are Tali's, John's, and Miranda's, though other squad members, major players, and surprise characters are given the spotlight here and there. (Squad members are people, too.)

I want to give a HUGE thank-you to Levi Matthews for allowing me to continue his story.

Quala'Oro is an OC created by Levi Matthews for the story Finding a Way and is used by permission.

Go on.
Read it.
I dare you.
You know you want to.
[Waves hands fruitlessly, remembers Jedi mind tricks don't work over the Internet]
D'oh!