Author's Note: I am aware that I am a tremendous dork for writing this fic, but the idea wouldn't leave me alone. In Mass Effect 1, upon completing the mission where you gather info on the geth for Tali, there's a weird message that pops up about geth sending a recording of an opera back beyond the Perseus Veil. This is probably a joke playing off the saying that "it's over when the fat lady sings," which is associated with opera.
But what if the geth really were oddly entranced by music?
The mythological character Tali speaks of in this fic is made-up and not a part of Mass Effect canon. I based him off a mixture of Enkidu of Gilgamesh fame and Dubthach Doéltenga of the Ulster Cycle.
Anyways. Uh. This is a one-shot. I'm currently in the middle of a different fic, but I needed to get this one out of my head. This does have a bit of implied Tali/Legion romance, though I suppose it's not terribly romantic. I'm not very good with the mushy stuff. Oh, well, I tried!
"While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres."
-Edgar Allen Poe, The Conqueror Worm
Storytelling was a part of quarian life. When an individual from another race met a quarian and found him or her to be especially talkative, they usually dismissed it as a characteristic of the individual they met. In most instances, this was not true. It was just a part of their culture to spin tales wherever they could. Because of this, her song told a story.
It was only part of an old and very long tale that had been turned, at some point in her people's history, into several different musical iterations. This particular one had never been used as a performance piece. It was a song designed to be sung around a campfire, or in front of a group of wide-eyed schoolchildren. It was one of her favorites. Tali preferred music that was just music, rather than music set to dance, at least for her personal enjoyment. She'd never been much of a dancer.
She only sang when she was alone. Kenneth and Gabriella couldn't be down on the engineering deck all the time, after all. Her voice was rendered somewhat tinny by her helmet, and Tali had never really thought of herself as much of a singer, but she sang for the simple enjoyment of it rather than to impress anyone else. That fact aside, she found it easier to simply enjoy it when there was no-one giving her a running commentary of her vocal skills.
She didn't know the entire song--it was a musical version of an epic, and would take hours to sing. She had only memorized her favorite passages. This part of the cycle told of a cynical warrior, a loyal companion of the main hero, whose ironic humor had always been a constant source of amusement to her as a child. This black-tongued warrior could give as well as he got, though in almost every version of the tale, which had many names, he would wear his enemies down with his wit as much as with his weapons.
The first interruption had come in the first days. The doors to engineering had hissed open, and Tali had looked over her shoulder, expecting to see one of the engineers returning. Instead, Jack was striding quickly to her, her body nakedly tense as she stomped towards the quarian. Tali had fallen silent as soon as the pneumatic hiss of the doors had alerted her of another, but now she spoke, with mingled nervousness and confusion, "Can I help you?"
"You singin' about me?"
Tali stared blankly at her. "I… what?"
"I can hear you guys down there, you know." Jack added, turning to pace slowly back and forth. The patterns etched into her skin flexed and stretched with each movement. Tali wasn't in the right frame of mind to enjoy the unusual display. "And for the past two days you've been singing off and on. You a composer or something?"
Comprehension clicked in her mind, and Tali laughed when she realized what had happened. Jack had drawn a comparison between herself and Tali's mythological hero! The annoyed expression on the woman's face brought the quarian's laughter to an abrupt halt and she said, "No, Jack. That was… I didn't realize my translator would--it's mythology."
"Oh." Jack replied. Despite the fact that she'd just been caught with egg on her face, and was more or less acknowledging that she was wrong, her tone and body language remained strangely defiant, as if this was still Tali's fault. Then she asked, "Well, who was he?"
Tali paused, taken aback. She found her tongue, though, and began to explain. "It's part of an old story. Very, very long. It would take me hours to tell the whole thing. The person I was singing of is a companion to the hero, who is also in several other stories. He was raised in the wild, and was very fierce. Eventually the hero found him and took him along on his journeys."
She was into it now, and she began to gesticulate as she spoke. Jack was privately amused. She'd never had much to do with quarians, but if they were anything like Tali, they were excitable little shits. "As soon as he learned to speak, all he could say was unpleasant things. It's a trend throughout the story. 'No matter the shape of the sound, he growled ere he spoke.' I always liked him as a child."
"Really?" Jack cocked a brow.
"Yes. He was very funny. One of my favorites." A pause. "A-anyway, ah, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you." When she saw that Jack wasn't about to immediately unleash a biotic shitstorm on her, she added with amusement, "Though now that you mention it, I think I see parallels between you."
"Ha ha. Don't push your luck, quarian," Jack snapped. Before Tali could apologize, she was turning and leaving with a lack of social aplomb that most of the crew had grown accustomed to by now.
Tali called after her, "I'll stop, if it bothers you," and turned to her instruments. A moment passed and she didn't hear the hiss of the doors. When she looked over her shoulder, Jack was staring thoughtfully back at her.
"Nah," she said simply, and with that, left.
After that, Tali decided to sing without her translator. She doubted anyone would come to the same crazy conclusions as Jack, but she didn't think she could handle it if Grunt came storming into the engineering bay. Granted, anyone walking by with their translator active would get some sense of what she was singing, but anyone who had theirs switched off would just hear pure quarian lyrics echoing faintly near the engine core. It was better to be safe than sorry.
Knowing that Jack could hear her made her a little bit self-conscious, but eventually she simply got used to the idea. It had to be faint, all the way down in the cargo bay. Besides, singing helped her work, sometimes. Tali was highly intelligent, but even she got burned out every now and then. Singing as she ran simulations and decoded data helped keep her mind from otherwise wandering.
In a fit of rare whimsy, she tapped at the electronic keys in tune with her song as she sent typed a message to Garrus. He always sent his calibrations her way to be double-checked, but he was getting the hang of it now.
She very nearly wet herself. Tali turned, startled that she hadn't heard the doors open, and stared at the tall, imposing form of the ship's resident geth. Legion watched her impassively. "Keelah, Legion, you scared me. When did you get here?"
"Approximately one minute forty-five seconds ago."
"I didn't hear you come in." She felt the nervous tension easing out of her limbs. Whew.
"You were singing." Legion intoned flatly.
Yes, she had been rather in the moment, hadn't she? That must be why she didn't hear the doors. "Well. Sorry for making you wait." A full minute and forty-five seconds, to a creature with lightening-fast thinking capacity, must have seemed like a long time. Legion had probably waited out of politeness. "What do you need?"
The geth was silent for a moment. Its face-plates shifted restlessly, disturbing the otherwise sleek, smooth curve of its graceful neck. Tali watched it worriedly.
She and Legion had not really gotten off to a good start, as far as their working relationship went. She'd eventually learned to tolerate the geth (thanks in part to Shepard, who had defused a potentially hazardous situation after visiting the heretic station), and eventually rely on it. Legion had played an integral role in their assault on the Collector base. They had saved each others' lives more than once back there. There had been no time to worry about their strained relationship when they were running for their life and fending off hordes of hostile aliens.
Even now, as they investigated rumors of continued Collector activity, Shepard sometimes brought them along as a squad. No-one could dispute that Legion and Tali made an impressive infiltration team. Tali could take close-quarters combat with Chiktikka and her shotgun, and Legion was just as deadly from a distance as it was up close.
Still, when the battle haze died down, they were left with their awkwardness and years of bad blood (or whatever blood equivalent geth possessed) between them. She wasn't sure if she liked Legion, but by now she trusted it, which was enough to prompt her question, "What's wrong?"
"It has been… many years since we heard a quarian-creator sing."
Tali had most certainly not been expecting that response. Her knee-jerk reaction was to say, "I can't imagine why, Legion."
The geth was silent for a moment. "You are referring to this is a consequence of the Morning War. We remind you that had we not chosen the course of action we did, we would not presently exist, and such would not have the capacity to speculate so."
That was true, and Tali was forced to bitterly accept it. "Well," she responded, unsure of what else to say. She was momentarily shocked at the anger in her voice, especially when it was juxtaposed against Legion's perpetually calm tone, and she took a moment to gather her wits. It was difficult for her to accept Legion's point of view. She had spent so much of her life hating the geth and working to bring her people home. But after all she had seen, everything she had learned since meeting Legion… she had to admit that she was holding onto her grudge for emotional reasons more than logical ones.
Legion broke the silence. "We heard you singing before. We have been visiting the krogan on a regular basis for the past two weeks."
Tali blinked. "Wait, Grunt?"
"Why… are you two buddies now or something?" Tali asked, feeling her confusion and anger dissipating in the wake of the mental images her brain was conjuring up. Legion and Grunt having a few drinks. Legion and Grunt sitting watching a sports vid.
"Grunt is impressed by my weapon." Legion was referring, of course, to its Widow Anti-Material Rifle, and everyone on the ship was impressed with it. Tali had caught Zaeed staring longingly at it more than once. Sometimes she worried about that man.
"He's not trying to get you to teach him to use it, is he?" Tali crossed her arms. "I don't think even a krogan could handle that thing. Not without a bit of cybernetic enhancement, anyway…"
"No. But we are working in conjunction with Dr. Solus to design a shotgun for his use based on the same principles of design as the Widow Anti-Material Rifle."
"An… anti-matter shotgun," Tali said slowly.
"Well, if it makes him happy, and as long as he doesn't try to use it on me," she shook her head. Content to be distracted by that line of thought, Tali now found herself having to bring up the apparent main subject of their conversation. "So you… came here to tell me I was singing?"
"In part," Legion admitted. It stepped closer. "We believe we are experiencing a communication error. In addition to the unusual nature of error, there is no-one else on the ship more suited to the task of geth diagnostic and repair as you, Tali'Zorah."
Tali sighed through her helmet and shook her head, staring at the floor. "Legion--"
Tali looked up sharply. The geth's expressionless face had not changed, nor had the tone of its voice gone beyond that same vaguely polite note, but something about those simple words made her feel a stab of guilt. Legion was standing close enough for her to be aware of the size difference between them. She was a petite quarian, and this hulking machine had to crane its neck slightly to look her in the eye (so to speak). For some reason this absurd, almost endearing mental image helped her make up her mind. "Okay. What's the matter?"
"As you know, the geth have several different ways of assimilating data. We are able to utilize a method similar to your sense of sight. We are able to wirelessly communicate with other synthetics and synthetic devices. We are also able to integrate aurally-transmitted information." Legion's face-plates were moving very slightly as it spoke, a twitch here, a raise there. " And the geth, as a race, have never understood music. It is something of a puzzle to us. Over our long period of activity, we have not been able to achieve consensus on this phenomenon."
"The geth consider music a phenomenon?" Tali had never thought they'd be interested. Music was an art, and even if the geth were sentient, they weren't designed to be artistic. They weren't designed to do a lot of things, she reminded herself grimly, and they did those anyway.
"Yes. Even the Heretics dedicated time to analyzing music in its data-form. All of our current runtimes have, at one point, assisted in such study as well among the geth. But it has been many years since we aurally integrated with authentic quarian music." Legion fell quiet for a moment, but before Tali could speak, it started again, abruptly. "You were singing a song from the quarian-creator mythology. You were on Canto twenty-seven of--"
"Yes, I know what song I was singing, Legion," Tali replied. "They were about to fight the--"
"Large ichthyoid life-form--"
"The monster fish at the bottom of the well," Tali went on, shaking her head with a smile. Legion might appreciate music, but it hadn't got the hang of lyrical language yet.
"Part of the exploits of a famously irritable character in the saga." Legion said. "If one were to draw parallels between our current situation and this tale, we would say that such a character reminds us of--"
"Jack," Tali said.
"Crewman Jack," Legion said, at the same time. Tali chuckled, and its face-plates shifted, surprised. Legion gestured between them and said, "We have achieved consensus." Tali began to openly laugh, and Legion watched her. It was difficult to tell its mood.
"You made a joke," she explained.
"That was not our intention."
"That just makes it funnier." Legion seemed to consider this for a moment. Tali decided to get them back on track. "And this song is causing… an error?"
"In each instance that we heard you sing, a large percentage of our current programs abandoned their current task to analyze the aural data. Once, it happened while we were with crewman Grunt. He was not pleased. He said we were 'distracted.'"
Tali considered the situation that Legion had told her, analyzing it with a mind gifted both in understanding electronic and organic thought, and laughed. "That sounds about right, actually."
"It is our tendency to act only once consensus is achieved, if possible. There is no logical reason for these programs to leave their current tasks unfinished. It causes errors with other programs. We are an interdependent network. When parts of that network cease to function normally, it effects the whole." Legion raise a single plate over its large, expressionless optical sensor. "You find this amusing."
Tali was still quietly laughing and trying to hide it. Her shaking shoulders gave her away. "I'm sorry, it's just--what Grunt said seems to be right. Being distracted is nothing new. I get distracted all the time."
"We are not like you, Tali'Zorah."
"No I… I think, in a way, you are." She paused for a moment, silently regarding the unusual creature standing before her. For the first time, she thought of him not just as "the geth," but as Legion, as her squad mate, as a confused person seeking her guidance. She felt a little guilty for having taken this long to get around to it. "We have one mind, but at any given time, many different wishes, desires or thoughts. These impulses aren't truly sentient, but they make up sentience. The way your programs work together to make you a whole… that's not so different from the way my mind works. What I really feeling like doing right now is crawling off to my bunk and taking a nice, long nap." She shifted her weight and sighed. "But I have a lot of work to do, so I won't."
Legion was silent for a few moments. "How do you cope?"
"I just… do." Tali couldn't shake off her sense of amusement. Legion was an intelligent, fast-thinking, highly advanced killing machine, but there was a sense of naiveté about him that she decided she rather liked. "If I were to guess it was a mechanical error, I'd say those programs were caught in a feedback loop. What's causing it, I have no idea."
Legion didn't seem to, either. "We have never experienced errors of this nature before. We can only conclude that this unusual response is the result of unusual stimulus. You say that this error is present in organics. Perhaps our extended time among your kind is causing us to emulate your behavior on a level that we were not previously aware of. It is possible that we are damaged."
Tali shrugged. "It could be. Your programs have been active a long time. They were designed well, but nothing's perfect. Everything's bound to change once in a while." She paused. "Maybe this is just… a normal by-product of being apart from the geth for so long. You are made of many consciousnesses, Legion, but you are one gestalt mind. Your experiences here, with us, in this body--" She reached up automatically to touch its shoulder, and paused for a moment. Legion looked to her hand, then back to her, and Tali felt a rush of embarrassment. "Oh, sorry." She withdrew.
"Yes. Well. What was I… oh, right. I don't think you can help developing a unique point of view, the way you're isolated from your people. You're adapting. It's bound to happen." She shrugged. "If it is an error, either you leave to get it repaired, or you work around it. But if the singing's bothering you, too, I guess I'll stop."
"We are not 'bothered,' Tali'Zorah. We are simply confused." There was another moment of silence as Legion came to several rapid internal conclusions. "We would also like to point out that the errors do not cease when you stop singing. At times , they linger. Several times immediately after moving out of aural range, percentages of our programming have proposed further study."
"What exactly do you mean?" Now Legion had lost her.
"We want to hear it, when it is gone," the machine replied slowly, attempting to translate it into terms she would understand. Tali continued to stare, and then Legion said, in that same even tone of voice it almost always used, "The affected programs have proposed further analysis again."
"Just now?" Hmm. That was worrying.
"A moment," Legion interrupted. It lowered its head slightly and its face-plates went still. "Unaffected runtimes are in agreement with our programs in error. We have reached consensus."
"Well," Tali was watching Legion warily now. She was alone, in a cargo hold, with no-one to watch her back except for a potentially-damaged geth. "That was quick."
"Yes," Legion was capable of changing the tone of its voice. Tali had heard it yell before. She had never heard it lower its voice in this manner, though, and was still staring in surprise when it said, "All programs are prepared for aural download."
"You want… oh." Suddenly it made sense. "Oh. Legion, I think I… well." On the heels of realization came humiliation. "You just… you're not damaged, Legion. You just like to, er, listen to me sing."
"Yes," Legion agreed, apparently coming to the same conclusion. "We are not used to having preference. In all other circumstances, we behave logically and objectively."
"You've behaved irrationally before," Tali accused, pointing to Legion's shoulder, and the mismatched armor welded there.
The plates immediately bristled. "There was a hole."
"I think you're more like us than even you realize," Tali replied, amused and feeling a little better about the whole 'a machine that drove my people off my homeworld likes to listen to me sing' situation. "All geth are interested in music, you said? Even the Heretics?" The knowledge that it was a trait of their race would make Tali feel less awkward.
"Most are," Legion agreed. As if it was anticipating her words, it added, " We have aurally downloaded other forms of music before. Other voices. Other songs. Yours is the only one that causes this error." It paused and tilted its head minutely. "The only one that we… 'like.'"
"Well." Tali shifted her weight. "I… well, thanks, Legion." Legion didn't seem to have any appropriate response to that. "Thanks." She repeated.
For a moment neither of them said anything. Then Legion asked--and Tali might have imagined it, but she thought she detected a slight halting hesitation in its cadence that she hadn't heard before--"Would you sing for us, Tali'Zorah?"
Tali surprised herself by not immediately refusing. Instead she stared at Legion, feeling unaccountably shy and embarrassed with herself for it. Tali had faced scarier things than singing for an audience. She had faced a suicidal mission in an uncharted region of space. Somewhere deep down, though, she sensed that maybe more was at stake. She remembered what Shepard had said back in the AI core, when Tali had finally gotten fed up with their geth companion.
"Sooner or later you're both gonna have to stop fighting this war, or we'll all end up paying for it."
A simple song was not the balm to heal the ragged wound between the geth and the quarians. But it is, Tali thought to herself as she cleared her throat, a start.
Legion's face-plates shifted into rapid configurations at the first note, but as she got into the rhythm of her song, they smoothed. The geth lowered its head. Tali couldn't help but amusedly mark the differences between the way a machine listened to music and an organic did. A quarian might sway, join in, or sit. Legion just stood there, taking it in.
In that moment, she realized that she wasn't just doing this for the geth. She was doing it for Legion, and that was enough. She sang, relaxed, and began to enjoy herself. Legion didn't move, and Tali let the lyrcs take her away from the room, into the picture she was painting with her voice, of a far-off time that had never existed, but was still wonderful--
The door hissed open. "Tali."
Tali jerked, startled, and Legion turned to smoothly face the familiar tattooed shape of Jack as the woman stepped through the threshold. Irritation was written plainly across her features, but it quickly shifted to one of confusion and amusement when she saw the scene before her. "Oh."
"Oh, what?" Tali asked, bristling defensively at having been caught in such an embarrassing situation. She almost immediately regretted her words. Mouthing off to Jack was a surefire way to become instant wallpaper.
"Hey, hey, not my business!" Jack held up her hands and grinned, apparently too amused to get annoyed with Tali. "Look, quarian, is your translator broken or something?"
"No, I--" Tali realized that she still had it turned off, and switched it wirelessly on with her Omni-tool. Jack must have been tipped off by her tone of voice, rather than her words, that she was angry. "I just had it turned off."
"Right. Good. Listen, I spend a lot of time down in that cargo hold. I like it. It's real fuckin' homey, you know? And if I'm going to be down there all the time, and have to listen to you singin', then please, at least do it in a language I understand."
Tali and Legion stared.
"I just don't like listening to gibberish all day," the human replied with a glare. "Don't give me that look."
Legion looked from Jack to Tali, and then back again. "We are only capable of rudimentary expression, and Tali'Zorah is wearing a mask. What 'look' do you refer to?" In response, a flickering blue aura slid over Jack's skin. Legion watched her for a moment and added, "Further elaboration not necessary."
"I got it, Jack." Tali decided that defusing the situation as soon as possible would be in everyone's best interests. "No more quarian. Any requests?"
Jack's attention snapped to Tali. The smaller quarian tilted her head, apparently unrepentant, and this show of brass made the biotic laugh. The field died. "Hell yeah, if you know any Queen."
Tali smiled. "I'll look into it." The human nodded and turned on her heel, leaving abruptly. A little shell-shocked by the sudden exit, Legion and Tali stared rather awkwardly after her.
"Tali'Zorah." Legion turned to face her again. "We request…" A pause. "We would like for you to sing for us again. In your native language. If you were to join us in the AI core, you would not disturb crewman Jack."
Tali took a deep breath and crossed her arms. Sometimes she found these little awkward social situations comforting. It was nice to be able to worry about something as simple as fatally irritating a hostile crewmate. It took one's mind off the whole "imminent destruction of the galaxy" thing. She looked back to Legion. Its face was expressionless and impassive. There were good things about this crew, though. Tali didn't get along with all of them, but they were bound together. They watched one another's back, both physically and figuratively. Sometimes the simple notion that someone liked your voice could be enough to give you a bit of strength to face the things you had to do.
"Yes, Legion," she said quietly, "I think I'd like that."