Actions

Work Header

Indistinguishable From Technology

Work Text:

Eliot Waugh seriously considered getting into the saloon (which looked just like the ones in the Westerns his father and brothers unironically watched) via a splashy Halvorsen’s Sprint, or a more modest Przblewski Machination. Then he said screw it, and just walked in, deciding he’d better save his energy for figuring out what the hell was going on.

The portal that had opened in his room in the Physical Kids’ clubhouse—dilapidated, with a sign on its loosely-hanging white door—fortunately didn’t smell as bad as the “Portal Potty” sign menaced. Eliot was hanging around during Brakebills’ Christmas vacation, boycotting Oregon as usual. He walked into town to see if Walgreen’s had his preferred brands of either lip balm or condoms (mint and mint, respectively)—no, it didn’t. It wasn’t an emergency, just that he was bored and wanted something to do.

He walked past a cardboard display hung with Firefly brand kids’ toothbrushes. “Oh, Eliot,” a Spider-Man brush said. “Take me.” Eliot blinked, waited for further enlightenment, and when none came, bought the toothbrush and walked back to his room. He thought he might take it over to the Mihuli-Bouk Laboratory (nicknamed CSI-Brakebills) to see what was up with *that.*

After he took off his gloves and mink earmuffs and hung up his jacket (one glove still stuck in his teeth), the portal appeared. The glove dropped from his open mouth. Eliot turned the door handle, and found himself in…Western Somewhere. Although some of his exes lived in Texas, he didn’t think a surprise visit would be all that welcome.

The louvered doors sprang back where he pushed them. A beautiful woman looked him up and down. Her tight breeches reminded him of the guys trash-talking in their cells in “Darkness at Noon.” Thighs like a wild mare. Any champagne glasses her breasts would fit into, would be Eliot’s kind of champagne glasses. “Oh, God, not another one,” she said, when her gaze reached his crewel-embroidered cream linen vest. “Sit down,” she said, not overly effusively. Since she had a sawed-off shotgun leaning against her leg, Eliot sat down.

“So, you’re Eliot Waugh,” the woman said, looking down at a slip of paper in her hand. “I’m Zoe Washburne.” She took a box of matches out of her pocket and held the paper in one hand while it burned.

“It doesn’t actually rhyme with ‘Yo, dawg,” Eliot said. “More like ‘waw’. Hello, Ms. Washburne. Possibly glad to make your acquaintance.” He lifted his hand. “Garcon! A pitcher of your best rotgut! The lady’s paying!”

“We need your help,” Zoe said. She slammed back a shot, winced, and noticed that Eliot seemed unconcerned by his dosage. “My husband, that’s Wash, and the captain—that’d be Captain Mal Reynolds—got captured by a very bad man with a big grudge and a worse temper.”

“I take it, not a police matter,” Eliot said.

Zoe shook her head. “Mal, well, he didn’t do the crime he was supposed to do. Tried to pay back Niska and everything, but Niska don’t over-much favor independent thinking. So he’s got Wash and Mal at his skyplex, and there’s only one thing on his mind. ‘Less we can get ‘em out ma-shang, he’s gonna kill ‘em real slow. But gettin’ em out, well, that’d take a miracle. And River says miracle, magic, pretty much the same thing.”

“And River is…actually a river, personified? Like, with water? Or an AI? Or a person?”

“She’s pretty…unusual, not to mention cross-thread twitterpated, but, yeah, she’s a person.” Zoe put her hand over Eliot’s hand that wasn’t holding a shot glass. “We can’t offer you nothin’ to do this. But, they’re good men. Not exactly honest in the Sunday school way, but their hearts are in the right place. And…Wash is my husband. We love each other. Mayhaps the Captain could fight his way out on his own, although it would be like takin’ a machine-gun nest all on his own. But he’d never leave Wash behind, and Wash couldn’t fight his own way out. We need you to even up the odds.”

“I don’t know battle magic,” Eliot said. As if *that* were the only fly in the ointment, which was more like an ointment with a plague of locusts. “I mean, nobody does, it’s like the back-alley abortion of magic.”

“Well, more’n one girl’s got herself in trouble and took that way out. Come back to the ship with me, see the others, talk it over?”

Eliot did another shot. Sipping slowly proved to be a mistake, so he filled up the glass again and hammered it down. In his mind, “What a splendid adventure!” warred with “This is crazy” and “There’s nothing on TV anyway,” and he nodded. Zoe put some big flat coins he didn’t recognize on the table. They walked back through the saloon doors, Zoe a little steadier on her feet.

“Where are we?” Eliot asked, as a tumbleweed blew past his knee. It seemed awfully dusty for anyplace even reasonably close to anywhere you’d put a ship.

“Ezra. Mule’s right around here.”

“And that would be, a regular mule? Like, one horse, one donkey, strangers in the stall exchanging gametes?”

Zoe sighed, as if she were regretting the whole enterprise or wished she didn’t have to put up with whatever the portal dragged in. “No, it’s this kind of mule.” Giving Eliot barely enough time to hop on, and not checking whether he did, she put the mule in gear and drove off.

It took a lot to surprise Eliot (Brakebills was, after all, a Weird Shit R Us franchise location), but he was surprised and delighted find himself in what was obviously a spaceship. Before he could geek out to repletion, Zoe led him through to the dining area, where most of the non-abducted crew was already waiting.

“Hail!” River said, first sweeping into a curtsey, then dipping all the way down to the floor, shifting her weight back, stretching out the front leg a la Dying Swan, and rippling her arms down until her head was on her knee. “King wilt thou be, but get none!” Eyes, in quantity, were rolled, and Zoe shrugged her shoulders at Eliot—what can you do? which made him feel that finally they were on the same team. River smirked and said, “You should have just stolen the toothbrush.”

Eliot deduced that, although bringing him in seemed to be pretty much River’s idea, Zoe was the one sent to meet him because there were some very valid concerns about River serving as spokesperson.

Eliot leaned against the archway between the galley and the dining area. “I am a very good magician,” he began, which for reasons that escaped him absolutely broke up his audience. He was going to point out that, although he really wished them all the best, he didn’t really think that an apprentice dipsomaniac college kid was their best bet. They should have asked Quentin. Signing up for the Antarctic Nude Half-Marathon showed the right attitude, if they needed an external candidate for the job at all. Anyone who could open a portal that worked over centuries and light years probably had this one.

“What’s so funny?” Simon asked, rounding the corner carrying a flatscreen.

Simon and Eliot looked at each other. “Please help us,” Simon said. Eliot blinked, swallowed hard, and waved a hand, as if to say, Of course, why are we even talking about this?

Eliot plonked into a chair, in a wide second position. It was the chair at the head of the table. This gave some offense, but everyone decided that since they asked Eliot to be in charge, for the time being he was. “Right!” he said. “How many people, uh, troops have we got?”

“Countin’ you? Seven,” Zoe said.

“Eight,” said the beautiful but severe-looking woman making an entrance through the door to the dining area. She reminded Eliot of Hedy Lamarr, but who would probably never have been caught dead wearing cargo pants and a bulky sweater with the braids of her long black hair suppressed into a bun.

“And how many people has this…Neko? guy got?” Eliot asked, waving vaguely at the new arrival.

“Niska,” said a rather fetching bearded ox who Eliot designated “Himbo” pending formal introduction, and probably even then. “And he’s got all of whatever he needs. Hey, ‘Nara, practically didn’t recognize you, in that get-up.”

“I borrowed the pants from Kaylee, the sweater from Simon, and the boots are an old pair of Zoe’s,” Inara said.

“Wash wanted me to toss ‘em out,” Zoe said mournfully. “Eliot, you better get him back so’s I can throw that in his face.”

“’Nara, it’s real touchin’ you showin’ up like this ‘cause you’re sweet on Mal,” Jayne said. “But you’d be slightly less use’n tits on a boar hog, the whole time before you got yourself killed.”

“I actually didn’t have to borrow this,” Inara said, removing a very large handgun from one of the cargo pockets and holding it, with a practiced grip and stable shooting stance, centered between Jayne’s eyes. “It’s mine.”

River said, “She represented Sihnon in the Companion Olympiad in both pistol and rifle shooting, dodobreath.”

“I didn’t medal,” Inara said modestly. Her best weapon was the compound crossbow, but she thought that firearms would be more adaptable in a combat situation.

An elderly man with an air of authority mildly said, “I believe the violence should be reserved for those *outside* our friendly circle.”

“Any other weapons?” Eliot asked. The kitchen didn’t seem to stretch beyond butcher knives and cast-iron frypans, heads, clonking of, suitable for, but a bunch of crooks would probably have more than one gun.

“That ain’t a problem,” Zoe hold him.

Eliot stopped fiddling with the flatscreen and cleared his throat. “Do you have anyone, good with their hands? In the sense of manual dexterity?”

He figured he’d teach them Nidderdale’s Darkling. If the guards at whereverthehell they were going couldn’t see them, they’d be less inclined to shoot them. Not that there was anything that could go wrong, nope, trying to teach a bunch of rank amateurs a spell when Eliot himself didn’t have the faintest idea of what the Circumstances were even for his current location. He didn’t even know what century it was, much less how to accommodate a gallimaufry of alien planets.

“I’m a mechanic,” Kaylee said. “So, yeah. Name’s Kaylee, by the way.” Eliot thought they were a surprisingly good-looking group of random future proletarians.

“I’m a surgeon,” Simon said.

“Read ‘em and weep,” River said.

“I think I’d be of more use on the front line,” Book said. “There have been some…aggressive episodes in my past.”

“Actually, we’ll—me, Kaylee, Simon, River—go in first,” Eliot said. “We’ll do a spell to confuse the defenders and prevent our being detected. Magical covering fire, sort of. I’ll find out for you where in the complex your friends are. Then we’ll drop back, and keep up the shields, while you do the military stuff. Military team, you go get weapons, and confer with Zoe about your logistics. Magic team, come over here with me. Both teams, meet up here in…half an hour.”

“It’s been real laughs watchin’ you teach them jabberin’ loons how to jabber like loons,” Jayne said. “But, we gonna do this thing, or not? If you got cold feet, that’s fine, we’ll just take the ship that Mal left us and fly off somewhere no one’s tryin’ to kill us.”

“Then I’d kill *you* and they’d help me drag your carrion out the back,” Zoe said.

“Hey, no offense,” Jayne said. “Someone’s gotta be the one to tell the hard truths, y’know? It’s about ethics in ass-kickin’.”

Eliot poised himself for a stirring battle speech, but all that came to mind was “Die all, die merrily,” which would be counterproductive. “Wait!” Simon said. “Uh, are you used to small spacecraft?” Eliot shook his head. Simon reached into his medical bag and took out an elastic bracelet with a copper bead in the middle. “Here, put it over the acupuncture point,” Simon said. “Anti-nausea. We’re all pretty used to the shuttle.”

“Thanks,” Eliot said, which he considered a more dignified potential Last Word than something about a few other points that Simon could go right ahead and stimulate if he felt like it. “Okay,” Eliot said. “Let’s go. Team Magic, keep practicing.”

They piled into the second shuttle, the one that wasn’t Inara’s home office. Zoe piloted. “I’ll fly on the way back,” Inara said. “You’ll want to be with Wash.” River kicked Jayne in the ankle hard enough for him to say “Gorrammit!” instead of what he had been planning on saying, which was “Fat chance!”

They docked at the skyplex. The first line went in. Eliot took the hand of his nearest teammate—it was River. River clasped Simon’s hand, and Simon took Kaylee’s hand. “It’s all going to be all right,” Simon whispered to Kaylee.

A couple of guards wandered over, and lights flashed and sirens howled. Eliot cut them off. He went a little far. The lights dimmed, but he decided that it was an advantage, and anyway Book had a powerful lantern. “Now!” he told his teammates.

The guards looked around vacantly, wondering without much urgency why all hell had broken loose and then tucked itself back in. Eliot pushed a Suggestion to go back to quarters for a nice nap.

Eliot shut his eyes, thought hard, and then went to the second line. Zoe brought up the skyplex map on the flatscreen, and Eliot showed her where to find Wash and Mal. Zoe led her squad down the corridor. Eliot turned back to his soldiers. Simon and Kaylee and River were working on the Nidderdale. Eliot could hear shooting. He scryed the location of Team Military. Zoe dropped to the ground, did a somersault, and came up with one gun in each hand from inside her shirt, which Eliot thought was pretty badass.

There was a lot more shooting. Some more guards ran down the passage toward the entrance. Eliot stage-whispered “Get down!” and desperately tried to figure out what to do next. River, far from hitting the deck, gave him a hideous leer that distorted her face (usually as round as a frozen pizza). She turned her back and threw three fireballs that homed on to the three guards. Nothing remained but Eau de Barbecue and three piles of ashes. Eliot thought that was pretty badass too, but he still could have done without seeing it.

Simon’s comm. crackled. “We have them,” Book said. “We’re coming through. We could use a hand helping our friends, though. Jayne’s staying behind to mop up.”

“Mop up is good,” Eliot said. “River, you’re on that. Kaylee, do shuttles have to be warmed up?”

“Not really,” she said, “But I’ll go open the door and see what I can do about the layout. Gonna be pretty crowded in there.” She looked pale and wobbly, like a Watergate Salad mold that had seen a ghost. Simon put his hand on her shoulder, and gave her Jayne’s hip flask of peppermint schnapps, which he had pickpocketed on the way in because he deduced at least somebody was going to need it.

“OK! Simon, with me, let’s go meet them half-way.”

Wash staggered, head down, half-dragged by Inara and Zoe. He saw Eliot, tried to focus his eyes, said, “Who?”. “Later, baby,” Zoe said. “Right now, we’re makin’ a graceful but hasty exit.”

Mal was trying to walk on his own, making it harder for Book to support him. Simon and Eliot exchanged a look, and Eliot just scooped up Mal’s feet as Book and Simon each held a shoulder in what they all thought was tastelessly reminiscent of pallbearing.

Eliot whistled. “Jayne! We’re done here! Let’s go!” (Go-go-go, he chanted to himself.) The shuttle took off. Eliot reassured himself that he really wasn’t going to throw up. Kaylee, seeing that Eliot hadn’t looked like a crazy monkey when she first met him, passed him the flask. Eliot took a drink and passed it to Jayne, who looked a little huffy but, hey, they left him a little.

Simon did whatever he could with his travel case, but it wasn’t much, especially in a moving vehicle. After a muttered conference with River, his usual triage nurse, Simon shot up both his patients with enough painkillers to sedate a rhinoceros. He also gave Wash enough scopolamine to forget the whole thing. If he wanted details he could get them second-hand from Zoe.

Kaylee sat as far away from River as she could manage, in the well-packed shuttle.

Just before the shuttle docked with Serenity, Simon said, “Jayne, Shepherd, please come to the MedBay with me. Bring the wheelchair and stretcher out here to the cargo bay. Zoe, please help Wash into the wheelchair. We’ll load Mal on the stretcher, and then I’ll start treatment immediately.”

River went off to get a shower while there was still some hot water left. Jayne went to Mal’s cabin to see if there was any booze to refill his hip flask. Book went to read the Evening Office.

“Well,” Kaylee said, “I was pretty useless, and seen a lot of stuff I sure never wanted to, like my best friend—sorry, ‘Nara, one of ‘em anyway—just flat-out murdered some people in a way that wasn’t even possible.”

Inara hugged her. “You were very brave, and an essential part of a brilliantly successful military action that saved Mal and Wash. Come on, we’ll have a bowl of tea.” (and I’ll clean my gun, Inara thought. And light some candles for the dead.)

Inara didn’t feel like making Kaylee feel better, but she knew that Companions are never really off the clock, and she felt even less like being alone anyway. She hoped that maybe Kaylee would burst into a storm of tears so Inara could comfort her, dry-eyed.

With the melting away of the home team, Eliot spent a little time exploring Serenity. He went back to the area he’d already seen, which felt like home base. On the one hand Eliot thought that a splendid banquet on gold plate would be a nice hostess gift, but on the other he didn’t want to show off, so he rooted around in the back of a cupboard until he found a wizened thing that probably once was a turnip. He turned it into a glazed ham, and left it in the center of the table to be discovered. (He did pick off one of the pineapple rings, and ate it).

Simon started a cocktail bar of IVs in Mal, then went back to Wash, covering the burns and the worst of the abrasions with sheets of healing promoter.

Eliot drifted into the medbay. Simon stretched his gloved hands out, away from touching anything unsterilized, and releved up and kissed Eliot on the cheek. “You were amazing,” he said. Then realizing that, not unreasonably, Eliot was going to grab him, he said, “Umm. Not here.”

Eliot lowered his hands. “OK. Uhh, can I, you know, hand you things?”

Simon nodded. “Scrub your hands, use the dryer, gloves in the canister.”

A few minutes later, Simon comm’d Zoe and said that she could take Wash back to their cabin. “He’ll be fine, Zoe,” Simon said, his voice ringing with the certainty he’d been expensively trained to display when he didn’t have a gorram clue if the patient would be or not.

After an hour, Simon decided he had done as much as he could for Mal for the time being. He opened his mouth to tell Mal to take it easy, shut it again because he knew it was a waste of breath, then said, “Stay in bed tonight. I’ll come and check you first thing in the morning,” because his entire career on Serenity was premised on doing things even though he knew better.

It took Simon’s and Eliot’s combined strength to get Mal down the ladder into his cabin. Simon wanted to ask if there was a way to just transmit him there, but didn’t think it was polite to ask.

***

“I never did any magic before,” Simon said, dazed. “I mean, maybe I would have if I knew it was a real thing.”

“I was there, baby,” Eliot said, tracing his index finger down Simon’s nose, “And I’m pretty sure you still haven’t.”

Eliot considered throwing in a little Sex Magic (which wasn’t taught at Brakebills either, but self-study was rampant) but he was too wiped.

***

Book found Jayne sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigar, clad only in striped boxers, bunny slippers, and a gimme cap from Kwon’s Tractor-Trailers. “Drug outta my own rack by the noise,” Jayne said self-righteously. “I swear, they make Wash and Zoe sound like a bunch of them trapped monks.”

Book put the Chinese Checkers board down on the coffee table. “How about a game?” he said. “For matchsticks? Or chores?” Book didn’t think there was any way to cheat at Chinese Checkers, or if there was, one of his congregants would have confessed it before now.

***
It was a good thing that Eliot was in a mood for coziness after the day they’d been having, because Simon’s bed with the two of them in it was cozier than a Cozy Horse appliquéd by Martha Stewart in a Yankee Candle store in a strip mall. Eliot’s head and shoulders were propped against the wall. Simon sheltered in his arm. They were, for the moment, approximately the same height. The best Eliot could figure out was that Simon was trying to hold hands, but with feet, with his foot upside-down over Eliot’s.

“You did a good job,” Eliot said. “Both your patients looked OK. Especially for one of them being formerly dead.” He thought that it was kind of hot in both modes: barking out orders and getting them obeyed, and having Simon boss him around about IV bags and antiseptic powders.

Eliot felt a brush of fur that must have been Simon shaking his head. “There was surprisingly little tissue damage. I…don’t understand people. There are planets where people dig holes in the ground to get their drinking water, and *this* is what we do with technology? Torture people so, so, their minds may never heal, but the burns go away with a sheet of skynth? Kill people, but just long enough to brew a pot of tea?” Simon burrowed deeper into Eliot’s chest, then kissed down his chest and sat up. “I lied. Let’s go see Mal. I’ll see how he’s doing, and he can thank you properly for rescuing him.”

Their very brief and fraught acquaintance made Eliot suspect that Mal was at least as likely to spit in his eye for being beholden to him, but he said, “Good idea.”

“I’ll think I’ll just…for a minute,” Simon said, and crashed out cold. Eliot put his hand on Simon’s chest, pushed him down to horizontality, swung his legs onto the bed, and wrapped the blanket around him. Then he got mostly dressed, kissed Simon on the forehead, and wandered out again, tooantsy to sit still.

River fixed Eliot a ham sandwich with hoisin sauce on some kind of hardtack, and brewed a pot of green tea in a cast-iron pot that contributed echoes of hundreds of old brews to a rather ethereal new one. She told him where to find Mal’s bunk. Eliot felt pretty stupid when, bringing Mal a plate of cold ham, he saw three other plates at Mal’s bedside, attacked with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Eliot said. “I mean, I saw Wash and…he looked surprisingly good, all things considered.” (And he’s also bed-ridden, or anyway in bed and somebody’s ridden, Eliot thought.)

“Got a question for you.” Eliot tensed, but Mal just asked, “Them yellow things stuck to the outside of the ham, what’re they?”

“Pineapple,” Eliot said. “It’s, umm, it’s a tropic fruit, about so big. It’s got a crown of spiky leaves on top, and the rind has little squares…kind of like a hand grenade, if you know what one of those looks like.”

“I do at that,” Mal said. Silence descended.

“Heard you did pretty good,” Mal said.

“I was just one person out of eight, and really, I was just supporting the military operations,” Eliot said.

“Guess you met the Real You today,” Mal said. “Hey, I’ll kill you if you tell Book we had this conversation,” Mal said. “But…do you know what a charism is?”

“Sure,” Eliot said. “I’ll kill you if you tell Richard, but, yes, it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.” Eliot could sometimes be found in church, but usually one selected on the basis of its baroque music and couture.

“It ain’t in the list in the Testament,” Mal said, “But that’s what leadership is. You figured out the situation, not just what you should do—which is more’n Jayne could do even knowin’ where he was—but you found a place for everyone and got ‘em to do what you said. Which is more’n Simon could do even with the best will in the world, which he’s got.”

“It was mostly River. That girl,” Eliot said, “Is not a hedge witch. She’s a hedge *fund.*”

“Guess she’s our witch after all,” Mal said.

***
Simon looked into the washbasin, where he had soaked Eliot’s blood-spattered vest in cold water and oxygen bleach. The crewelwork wasn’t colorfast. The dyes tinted the water khaki, with oily pools of crimson and aquamarine floating on the surface. “I think this is a write-off,” Simon said. He took a couple of steps to the cupboard, and handed Eliot one of his remaining brocade vests. Now that Mal and Wash were back safe, he couldn’t really protest the drain on his already modest wardrobe, but he also couldn’t help noticing it. “Here, take this,” he said, handing the vest to Eliot, who promptly vanished, the scarlet silk crumpled in his fist.

Eliot closed the door to his room, and checked the clock. He’d been gone for fourteen minutes. He spooled out the vest between his hands, and put it on. Eliot shrugged, and reflexively tried to fasten the vest.

A button popped off and fell to the floor.