Indistinguishable from Magic
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
This was written for the Wish Fulfillment challenge on SGA_flashfic on LJ.
Summary: When John rubs a magic lamp-- "Magic?" squawked the genie, flapping its incorporeal arms. "How many times do I have to tell you that magic doesn't exist? And don't go pointing at the challenge title. Wish fulfillment? You can't just wish for something that's expressly against the laws of physics and have it come true just like that. It can't happen. Oh," it said, with an exaggerated incorporeal sigh. "We're in a story. That, apparently, makes everything okay. So go on, tell your stupid story. I bet no-one reads it. Magic and wishes? Pah!"
It was a very ordinary-looking lamp, really. It was dull with tarnish, and smeared with the ordinary amount of dust that you would expect to see on something that had been sitting forgotten on an ordinary top shelf for an ordinary length of time. It had an entirely ordinary encrustation of old oil around its rim, and an ordinary amount of dents and scratches, none of which appeared to hint at a particularly interesting story. It even had an ordinary pattern lurking beneath the tarnish, with bored-looking leaves and flowers coiling in a half-hearted but ordinary fashion.
Ordinary lamps, however, did not generally contain furious incorporeal beings that came fuming out of the spout and proceeded to glower down incorporeally from a place considerably above your head.
John moistened his lips. Some profound utterance was probably required from him, he thought. He swallowed hard. "Huh," he uttered.
"What part of 'Do not disturb?' do you people fail to understand?" raged the incorporeal being. "I was on the verge of having a breakthrough that will revolutionise everything we understand about the laws of physics. I was this close to a spectacularly original insight. Nobel prizes don't win themselves, you know."
"Uh…" John, uh, declaimed. He remembered stories. He clung to the stories very hard indeed. "You're a genie."
"A genius. Yes." The incorporeal being looked somewhat mollified. "What gave you the clue, eh? The noble brow? The startlingly intelligent eyes? The scintillating nature of my conversation?"
"Uh…" John reminded himself that he was the fastest goat-herd in the East; that he had fought off wolves, while armed only with a rather small pointy stick. "A genie," he said firmly, gathering himself, perhaps putting some of the requisite storybook passion into his words.
"Genies don't exist." The genie tried to fold its arms in an obdurate fashion, thus proving that when such gestures are attempted with incorporeal limbs, the result is a confusing mess. "They are purely a thing of childhood fairy stories and ridiculous superstition." With a groan of effort, it managed to re-establish the integrity of its arms. "Genies," it said firmly, "do not exist."
"Uh, I think you'll find that they do," John said politely, remembering all the diplomacy skills he had learnt in basic training when faced with overbearing flock-masters. "I think you'll find that we're actually in a fairy story. Why do you think we just started here like this, with only occasional hints of back-story?"
"I didn't hear a 'once upon a time.'" The genie stated it as if this was the only answer necessary.
"I fought against it." John shuddered with the suppressed angst of that memory; he still bore the scars. "Wanted to start in media res. Never was one to do things by the book."
"In media…?" the genie began.
"Sorry." John shrugged. "Italics. Foreign language. My bad. It's the wrong language, anyway – wrong cultural paradigm, if that's the right phrase." He shrugged again. "I don't know any Arabic."
"Which is all very uninteresting," the genie said, "and does nothing to change the fact that genies do not exist, ergo I am not a genie."
"Wrong…" John began, then decided to let the ergo pass. "You came out a lamp," he said brightly, "when I rubbed it. That's what genies do."
"Why on earth would you rub a lamp?" the genie demanded. "Are you a compulsive polisher, sworn to rid the world of tarnish, one lamp at a time? Oh, I know! Yes!" Its incorporeal fingers fused together as it tried to snap them in triumph. "You wanted to admire the reflection of your ridiculous hair." It said it with the redoubled ferocity of someone who wanted to convey that the finger thing had been totally intentional.
John shrugged. He seemed to be doing quite a lot of that, he noticed; presumably the storyteller was somewhat lacking in imagination, and not one of the best. "It seemed like the thing to do. Besides," he said, resisting the urge to shrug again, "it's all irrelevant. The point is: you came out of that lamp. That's magic."
"Science," the genie said.
"Magic," John persisted.
"Science." The genie's hands were moving hecticly, leaving behind a vague incorporeal trail that John might have found freaky, if he had been sure that the word belonged in the idiom of the story. "I was demolecularised," it declared. "It's possible. Haven't you read The Science of Star Trek?"
"Uh, illiterate Arabian goat-herd?" John said.
"And--" The genie broke off suddenly. "Goat-herd? Really? What's with that?"
"I guess the storyteller thought shepherd would be too obvious," John said. "Or maybe she thought that goats gave a suitably exotic feeling to her story. Maybe she wasn't sure that they-- We," he corrected himself. "That we have sheep in the Middle East."
"Oh, and the whole While Sheppards Watched Their Flocks thing isn't a clue?"
"I suspect the song was written in Western Europe, and perhaps reflects an application of European social and cultural mores to a time and place where they don't belong," John said, "and I don't think you've spelled 'shepherd' right."
"Illiterate goat-herd?" the genie said pointedly. "But that's all beside the point. You've heard of hyperspace? Of additional dimensions all folded in on themselves? Of pocket universes? Of insert lengthy piece of technobabble here?"
John frowned, rubbing his ear. "I don't think you were supposed to say that bit. And I haven't," he said, "on account of being an illiterate goat-herd whose outlook is limited to the horizons of my fictional setting. And speaking of which… You have to grant me three wishes."
The genie tried to fold its arms, with predictable results. "Can't do that," it said. "Magic doesn't exist."
"Uh…" John volunteered. "This whole incorporeal thing? The original texts are unclear about whether you remain incorporeal or whether you assume solid form after you've emerged from the lamp. I'm sure you could--"
"Texts?" the genie interrupted. "I thought you were illiterate."
"You're talking, aren't you?" John said, because plot holes always vanished if you ignored them. "That kind of implies the existence of corporeal vocal cords."
"You have a point there," the genie conceded. It concentrated for a while, grimacing, and slowly took shape, only to topple rapidly sideways. "Ow!" it cried. "Ow! You're trying to kill me!" It crashed onto the floor, landing heavily on a crate of delicate crockery. "You're trying to make me fall to my doom! I can't stand up! My feet are trapped in a sodding lamp!"
"Sodding?" John questioned.
"Author's British," the genie said.
"Storyteller," John corrected. "Oral culture, remember?"
The genie struggled to its feet, and faded away, becoming incorporeal again, stained with incorporeal dust and crockery shards. "That's the last time I take your advice," it grumbled. "Where were we? Oh yes. I was attempting to disabuse you of the childish notion that wishes ever come true."
"They do." John decided to stand his ground.
"You have to grant me three wishes."
"Magic doesn't exist." The genie seemed to be turning slightly red. "It is plainly against the laws of physics for me to be able to make your most ridiculous words become true. It's true that I can do many things, because, hello, genius here, but should you say something ridiculous like 'I wish that my enemies are turned into rabbits' then, sorry, no, can't do, because, well, laws of physics?"
"I wish I could fly," John said.
The genie appeared to be suddenly struck with the urge to make music. "La la la," it sang.
"I wish I could fly," John said again.
The genie looked as close to exploding as any incorporeal being could be. "It is pure coincidence," it said, as wings burgeoned on John's back. "You had them already. You were hiding them. It's a trick. Magic," it stated, "does not exist."
"Cool!" John said. He flapped the wings experimentally, and it felt wonderful. He rose up, experimentally seeking out currents of air--
"I thought we were in a cramped cellar," the genie said, with the sulky tone of a being determined that if it couldn't have fun, no-one would. "What's with these air currents? You should be bumping your head on cobwebs right now," he said, "if you were really flying, which you aren't, because, hello? Magic doesn't exist?"
"It was never established that we were in a cramped cellar," John said distractedly, as he practised swooping and soaring.
"It was strongly implied," the genie said, "what with the references to things gathering dust on top shelves."
"But not stated," John said, unable to keep the grin of sheer joy from his face, "and therefore open to interpretation. We have ourselves a storyteller unskilled in the art of establishing a strong sense of place. Ergo," he said, slightly combatatively, "outside."
"Hmph," the genie grunted.
John soared, soaring far above his goats, soaring far above his little town, soaring far above everything that was possible to soar above.
"I think," he heard the genie call from far below, "the storyteller needs a thesaurus."
"Who cares?" John cried. Oh, but it was wonderful! It was so wonderful that he felt quite overflowing with exclamation marks and ellipses. The joy…! The thermals…! The bemused birds…! The…! Oh…!
"I have a harp," he said sharply, swooping down towards the genie's level.
"What?" The genie looked up, frowning. "Sorry," it said, sounding not sorry in the slightest bit, "I was taking advantage of the absence of certain troublesome mortals by doing some very important work." It raised its hand, as if pre-empting an expected interruption. "My laptop is incorporeal," it said.
Something appeared to be pressing against John's hair. He raised his hand, thumping his brow with the harp that he found himself suddenly incapable of getting rid of. "And a halo," he said.
"Nothing to do with me," the genie said, turning its head away like a child in the schoolyard in a cultural paradigm far, far away. "I don't grant wishes, remember."
"No, this is serious," John persisted. "Just because I've got wings..." He peered round behind his back. "Just because I've got large, feathery, glorious wings, it doesn't mean I need a harp and a halo. It's cultural imperialism, Rod--" He snapped it back. "Genie," he corrected himself. "You're going to get us flamed. You might even start an internet-wide meta war."
"Actually," the genie said, "angels aren't limited to the Christian religion. They also appear in--"
"Stop it!" John hissed. "Any attempt to backtrack always makes things worse. Get rid of them now. Now!" He tried to grab the genie's arm, but was defeated by the whole incorporeal thing and the whole being a hundred feet up in the air thing.
"But wishes don't--" the genie tried.
"I don't want to hear it," John said, remembering how he had stared down the mighty goat-raiding gang on midwinter's eve. "If you can't do authentic Arabian, at least keep it neutral."
The genie glowered.
"On three," John threatened.
The harp disappeared, and the halo followed it into whatever oblivion it had chosen to reside in. "Nothing to do with me," the genie said grumpily, "on account of magic--"
"Not being true." John waved his hand airily. "Yeah, yeah."
"Should have given you a long white dress," the genie muttered, "except for the whole 'having to stand underneath you as you soared' thing."
John soared, wild and free. It was spectacular and wonderful and envigorating and awesome and just, like, sooo cool, and so many things like that. It was coming home. It was living a dream. It was finally rising up from life spent behind goats, and becoming free. It was…
Uh, quite tiring, actually, when you spent half a day soaring and soaring and soaring and soaring. It was probably time to land.
Yes, he thought, a few minutes later, it was probably time to land.
"Uh…" he tried, some time after that. "I hate to point it out, but…"
"Oh." The genie blinked innocently. "I thought you said you wanted to fly. I didn't hear you say you waned to stop."
John said nothing. His wings took him on a little soar around the block. "But it proves you're really a genie," he said, as he soared past yet again. "All genies suffer from that irritating literal-mindedness, always looking for logical flaws in what you wish for." And he could have kicked himself for it, and probably would have done, had it not been for the whole soaring thing, which apparently also applied to individual limbs, independent of his body. He'd gotten so involved in laying siege to the fourth wall that he'd kind of forgotten to pay attention to the internal logic of the story.
"It was nothing to do with me," the genie said smugly. "Now, you'll have to forgive me. Places to go. Dimensions to reside in that are totally explicable by science."
John soared as low as he could manage, and snatched up the lamp. Clutching it to his chest, he soared high above the clouds, blinking through the hazy confusion that came from looking at an incorporeal being from up close. He told himself very firmly that it was the genie's right arm that he was breathing in with every gasp, and nothing more intimate. The genie tasted strangely of lemons.
"No!" the genie squawked. "Put me down! No! You can't do this!"
"What happens," John said, "if I drop the lamp? If you really are a genie bound by magic to the lamp, I guess it'll kill you. Eradicate you. Wipe you out. You'll be no more. Cease to be. Shuffle off your mortal coil. You'll be an ex-ge--" He stopped himself just in time; reminded himself of the correct cultural idiom. "But if you're some trans-dimensional being, I guess it won't affect you at all."
"Uh… No… No, it won't." The genie fluttered frantically. "Drop away, flyboy."
John loosened his hold on the lamp.
"No!" the genie screamed. "Don't drop me!"
John gripped the lamp a little tighter. "I was just thinking," he said, "that if I can never stop flying, I'll starve, because I don't think I can subsist on insects caught on the wing. It's a death sentence. So change the wish. I want to be able to fly, but I want to be able to land, too – maybe get rid of these wings at times when they'd be inconvenient."
"No refunds," the genie said sulkily.
John sighed. "Then cancel the wish." It didn't matter, he told himself. He had two more. He'd ask again, phrasing it more carefully. He'd--
The ground was racing towards him startlingly fast, and the wind was whipping at his hair. (He knew without looking at it that it wasn't doing any damage to his hairstyle; not even the Great Goat Rampage Of The Year With No Olives had done that. It seemed to be one of those immutable constants.) The genie was screaming, and John just had the presence of mind to cushion the lamp against his chest before he landed.
It hurt quite a lot.
"Cool," said Ronon, wandering up, taking the lamp from John's pain-clenched fingers. "A magic lamp with a genie in it."
John cleared his throat. "I… I didn't realise you… were in… this story."
"Yeah." Ronon shrugged, clearly afflicted with the same unimaginative storyteller. "Was supposed to come in on page four, but you two kept on talking. We're way over the word limit already, you know, and only had one wish out of the nine."
"Nine?" John managed to sit up.
"Teyla's in it, too," Ronon said. "Page six, supposedly. We're on page seven already."
The genie opened its mouth to say something. Ronon glared at it. "My wish," he said. "Pages to catch up. I want revenge on my enemies and for the dead not to be dead any more."
"Uh…" John tugged at Ronon's sleeve. "I think your wish would have more emotional impact if we introduced you more slowly and told people about your angst-ridden background of loss and bloody vengeance."
"No time," Ronon said, "and that genie talks too much. Wish." He drew a knife from his belt. "What I said. Now."
"Uh, I don't think that's wise…" John started.
But it was too late. The genie muttered something under its breath, glowing sulkily. They suddenly appeared to be in a town, in the middle of a crowded marketplace.
"There's something to be said for poor-quality storytellers," John commented, because he had to say something. "At least it allows you to advance the plot quickly without needing transitional scenes."
The market was crowded with local colour, dressed in a way appropriate to the cultural idiom. It might have taken several pages to notice that something was badly amiss, had it not been for the fact that Ronon was bouncing impatiently, talking about word limits.
"Oh," John found himself saying. "Something's badly amiss."
If revenge had been unleashed on Ronon's enemies, it was hard to tell, because of the whole 'them being a hundred miles away, dancing on the ruins on Ronon's wiped-out village' thing, but the dead not being dead any more…?
John cleared his throat. "Isn't the chicken in that sandwich supposed to be… well, not flying around?" He winced, remembering the emotional pain of his own lost wings, and the physical pain that he'd forgotten about during the scene transition.
Ronon gaped in enigmatic horror, all impatience forgotten. "That… That…"
"That's not right," John completed for him, trying very hard not to look at the things that were rising from the graveyard.
Quite a lot of people were screaming quite loudly, running around with their hands waving above their heads.
"Is that…?" John's voice dried up. He swallowed, and tried again. "Is that…?"
"Long-dead Caliph," Ronon said, his voice reflecting the firm desperation of a storyteller not good at thinking up names, "who died some four hundred years ago, founder of the current royal line."
"Though so." Sheppard swallowed again. He preferred shrugging, actually. "Shouldn't he ought to have, uh, eyes?"
"Not if he's dead." Ronon sounded faintly sick.
"Oh." John turned round, drawn by a distant thudding. "Did, uh, very big, scary dinosaurs live in this part of the world, because, well, just saying…"
Ronon said nothing, too busy trying to stop his leather coat from running away and mating with a passing boot.
"Undo the wish," John hissed, as the enormous shadow of an extinct creature loomed over him, with teeth. "Undo it."
Ronon must have said something; John couldn't hear it clearly, because of the roaring. A moment later, his ears were ringing in the sudden silence.
"And just because things disappeared when you said you undid the wish," the genie was saying, waving its hand, "doesn't prove that it was anything to do with me. And even if it was, it's technology. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C. Clarke. There!" it said, with the air of someone thoroughly pleased with itself.
"Maybe I can do better," Teyla said, suddenly appearing without preamble, and without even allowing any proper emotional closure to the previous incident. "I wish," she said, "that there would be no more unhappiness in the world."
"Still two pages too late," Ronon hissed, glaring at John and the genie.
John suddenly realised that his body was hurting very badly indeed from his tumble from his hours of soaring. As blood trickled down his body, he laughed, suddenly suffused with joy.
A little girl walked past, carrying the body of whatever filled the goldfish-shaped niche in the cultural idiom of the story, and laughing with joy even as she wept. A little boy fell over and cut his knee, laughed, and did it again. Over the next few weeks, lots of bad things happened, and all the people affected by them laughed and smiled, but they were still bad things, okay?
"Perhaps I should undo that wish," Teyla said.
The genie glared at them, muttered, and drummed its fingers on an imaginary, incorporeal table. In any other story, John might have imagined it looking with the expectant gaze of someone with a moral to impart, who was waiting for the penny to dr-- He stopped, paused while the storyteller googled currency of the Arabian Empire in the appropriate time period, then waited some more. In any other story, John might have imagined it looking with the expectant gaze of someone with a moral to impart, who was waiting for his audience to suddenly realise said moral and become better people. With this genie, though, John expected that the creature was just waiting for the right moment to attempt a scornful insult.
"Perhaps we should combine a wish," John said, "and think about it really hard." He thought about all the horrible angst from the mysterious and hitherto-unmentioned moments of his backstory – things that involved young goat-herds under his command being killed by scary animals while trapped behind the wolf lines. His voice trembled when he spoke again. "Something about bad stuff no longer happening?"
"Done!" the genie declared.
"You admit it's you!" John declared, but then his voice died away, and all his triumph with it.
"Er…" Ronon sounded uncharacteristically subdued. "The world appears to have disappeared."
"I hadn't finished saying it." John's voice sounded weak in his own ears, but perhaps that was just the unprecedented absence of all existence around him. "That… didn't… count."
"Yes, it did," the genie declared. "And, yes, I used my sufficiently-advanced technology to make your so-called 'wish' come true, poorly-phrased as it was, so let's have no gloating. It still doesn't make it magic."
John swallowed; it was surprisingly easy, given the absence of the whole universe. "Why are we still, well, alive?"
"Plot hole," Ronon grunted.
"I believe it is a common device," Teyla said, "when a storyteller has a moral to convey. In this case, we are to understand that the 'bad stuff' is a necessary consequence of--"
"Not on my watch," John declared. "Cancel that wish."
The universe and everything in it reappeared again. It made John's ears pop ever so slightly.
"I don't think…" He cleared his throat and tried again. "You can't explain that away as technology."
"Oh, sod it," the genie said, glaring at them in a way that dared them to question the word choice of his storyteller. "Yes, I'm a genie, okay? Slave of the lamp. Forced to do the bidding of ridiculous mortals with ridiculous hair. Forced to grant poorly-phrased wishes. I notice," it sniffed, "that it has never once occurred to any one of you to make a wish that relates to me."
"That makes you less unpleasant, you mean?" John couldn't resist saying.
"I was never meant to be trapped in a lamp," the genie said. "It was all a horrible misunderstanding. I was made for greater things."
John nodded, feeling a sudden stab of sympathy for the creature. "I have often thought the same about my humble existence as a goat-herd."
"Me, too," said Ronon, "though I'm not a goat-herd."
"And I have often felt the same," Teyla added, "about my life as whatever I am." She shook her head, sighing. "I believe that the storyteller has not fleshed out this AU very well."
"I know!" John snapped his fingers. "I wish we were all where we were meant to be."
There was a flash of white light. The alarms were blaring, and darts were darting in from all over the place. Ronon was armed in every limb, and Teyla was swinging her sticks around, determined to defend her home to the last. Rodney was hammering at the keyboard, talking shrilly about certain doom, and John found himself walking towards the jumper bay, embarking on his twice-yearly ritual of the final suicide mission.
"Oh, f--," he thought, before suddenly remembering the PG rating. "--dear," he said.
Note: The very brief mention of speaking in italics is a nod to my own story, The Fall of the Roman Empire, which has certain similarities to this story.