Title: Five Ways They Cheated Death (in our universe)
Author: Sholio, a.k.a. friendshipper
Word Count: 3100
Rating: PG, gen
Summary: There but for the grace.
Warning: Written for the "Ways To Die" challenge at SGA-Flashfic.

I.

"You cannot honestly think you can keep her here, Janus. In the City! Are you mad?"

Elizabeth listened quietly, hands folded in her lap, as the Alterran Council determined her fate -- and that of her expedition. Her attempts to speak were overruled, and in the end, they gave her clothes and a bag of food, and turned her loose on a world that she thought might possibly be Athos, ten thousand years in the past.

The people were friendly, the climate pleasant -- but she couldn't dial back to Atlantis. Somehow, she wasn't exactly sure how, the Alterrans had managed to disconnect the Atlantis gate from the network. Had that changed, she wondered, by the time the SGC had tried to access the city across the light-years? Or had her coming made the difference, made them realize that if they truly wanted the city to remain undetected for millennia, they had to stop all attempts to reach it.

She hoped it was the latter, because if so, in ten thousand years, the SGC would be unable to dial to the Pegasus Galaxy. She smiled, imagining the looks on Dr. Jackson and Dr. McKay's faces as they tried to cope with that. The alternative -- that the destruction of the city and the expedition would continue to play out, over and over, in a time loop she had no hope of stopping -- chilled her to the bone.

Perhaps, if it all happened again, if she jumped back in time again, then another Elizabeth could succeed where she had failed.

She fed another stick to the fire in the hut that the proto-Athosians had offered her, and hoped.


II.

"Clear!"

Rodney wanted to look away from Major Sheppard's body, but instead he stared in horrified fascination, as electricity made it stiffen and flinch. The raw wound on Sheppard's neck left a trail of blood on the floor of the jumper, utterly ignored by the medical staff; Carson was actually kneeling in it, and Rodney closed his eyes, swallowing.

There had to have been another way. He should have been able to come up with another way. Maybe if they'd just stuck the Major into the event horizon, bug and all --

He opened his eyes to see Carson sit back on his heels, laying the paddles aside. His back was towards Rodney, so his face could not be seen, but the slump of defeat in his shoulders spoke volumes. The nurses performing CPR paused in unison.

"I'm calling it," Carson said softly. "17:32."

Next to Rodney's leg, Elizabeth made a soft sound in her throat. Rodney looked down to see her looking up at him, eyes wide, freckles stark against her pale skin.

He imagined that the same thought was running through both their heads: What the hell do we do now?

He should've stayed at the SGC. He knew he should have stayed at the SGC. He could be cataloging Antarctic artifacts in a nice safe lab. Instead, for some reason, he'd voluntarily come to a galaxy full of life-sucking aliens, and now the top military commander of the city had been killed twice, and things really weren't looking good for anyone's long-term survival.

Rodney thought he probably ought to be grieving, or something, because he'd really liked Major Sheppard, and he'd met few enough people in his life that he'd liked. But mostly, he was just terrified, and this time there wasn't a Sheppard to talk him through it. Turning blindly away, he nearly collided with Ford on the jumper's ramp.

"What's going on?" The young Lieutenant was still a bit unsteady on his feet, his skin gray-tinged. He peered past Rodney's shoulder, and Rodney could see his face go utterly bloodless when he caught sight of Carson's staff quietly and efficiently zipping the Major's body into a bag.

"I thought you were in the infirmary, Lieutenant," Elizabeth said as she came down the ramp to join them.

"They released me, said I was okay. I just had to come back and make sure the Major --" Ford broke off; his throat worked convulsively. "The Major --"

"Lieutenant, you're in charge of the military in Atlantis now." Elizabeth tried to smile; it looked ghastly. "I'm sorry that the job doesn't come with a ceremony. Or a promotion."

"No -- Ma'am, I --" Ford looked helplessly from the body on the floor of the jumper, to her face, sympathetic but unforgiving. "I can't, ma'am."

"Major Sheppard didn't think he could, either." Elizabeth straightened her back, lifted her chin. "You will."


III.

Wet sand and coral crunched under Radek's feet. He couldn't help raising his head to stare at the gray-blue tunnel surrounding them, trying not to think of the incredible weight of all that water above. The only light came from the jumper's running lights, glittering on water frozen all around them in wavery patterns that made him think of molten glass. The other jumper was a dark, dead hulk, and Colonel Sheppard's fist rang against its hull as he struck again and again, trying to get a response.

"McKay! Damn it!"

They hadn't been able to raise Rodney or Griffin on the radios. The scans showed that the other jumper was nearly full of water -- a small space remained, enough that it was possible there could still be some air inside to breathe. But, in all that cold water, Radek knew the odds were slim that they'd survived hypothermia this long. Worse, if they'd lost their radios, they would have no way to know that rescue waited just outside.

Sheppard's pounding on the jumper's metal skin had stopped. Radek turned around to see the Colonel looking back at him, eyes dark and desperate. "Damn it, there has to be some way to open it from the outside!"

Radek had been wracking his brains trying to think of something, but he was drawing a blank. They'd never encountered a situation like this before. "I am sorry, Colonel. If they can't open it from the inside, I do not think there is anything we can do."

"I'm not coming this far --"

"-- without doing something, I know, but sometimes there is nothing you can do."

"Crowbar. We've got to have a crowbar, or -- or something."

Radek checked his watch, and swallowed. "Colonel, we must go now. We are running out of power."

"There's got to be a way to get that door --"

"Colonel." Radek raised a hand as if to reach out, then let it drop; the Colonel radiated a vicious field of don't touch me. "If we do not leave, now, we will die down here as well."

The Colonel said nothing on the flight back to Atlantis.

Two weeks later, when the Daedalus arrived, they were able to lock onto Rodney's transponder and beam his body back for burial. Griffin's body they never found.


IV.

"Damn." Sheppard nudged one of the decaying Wraith bodies with the tip of his boot. "Wonder what the hell happened here."

With Michael's massacre of the Tarannans still all too fresh in his mind, the last thing he wanted was to come upon another charnel house -- but at least this was a Wraith charnel house. He counted at least ten bodies, plus the wreckage of two darts, though the thick jungle vegetation had overgrown the scene to the point that there could be another dozen bodies underfoot and they'd never even know.

Even Rodney's voice was hushed; Sheppard wondered if he was thinking of the Tarannans, as well. "I'm getting an energy reading from over ... there." The scientist waved his scanner towards the cave in the hillside, and winced. "Why is everything interesting always in caves?"

Teyla laughed softly. The sight of all the dead Wraith seemed to have elated rather than depressed her; Sheppard supposed that after living in this galaxy for another few years, the sight of a Wraith graveyard would probably have him dancing for joy, too.

Falling into position with the unspoken ease of four people who know each other intimately, Sheppard's team closed on the vine-draped cave, with Teyla covering their six. All around them, the jungle seemed quiet, but if whatever had killed all these Wraith was still around, Sheppard didn't want to wait for it to come back. Something crunched beneath his boots; he flinched, jerked his foot back, and prodded at the moss, revealing a Wraith stunner in pieces.

"Rodney, can we find this energy reading of yours and get out of here?"

"Believe me, I'd like nothing better, Colonel." The beam of Rodney's P90 flashlight illuminated more Wraith bodies inside the cave, sprawled in grotesque positions. Either this world didn't have scavengers, or they didn't bother Wraith, because the bodies were decayed but not torn apart. Apparently whatever killed them didn't want to eat them, Sheppard thought.

Rodney made a little "Aha!" sound, and flicked off his flashlight for a moment. Sheppard started to bring up his own to cover it, but Rodney said impatiently, "No. Over there. Something's glowing."

Carefully they picked their way through the Wraith corpses towards the back of the cave. The sandy floor sloped upward to a kind of natural shelf, where Rodney made a beeline for the heap of rags that contained his elusive energy source. A second later, he gave a yell and jumped back, almost stumbling into Sheppard.

"Jesus! Rodney! What!" Nothing had moved as far as Sheppard could see; he swung his P90 around, making shadows dance wildly across the cave.

"Nothing, nothing." Rodney's breathing slowed to normal and Sheppard gave him a little shove forward. "Sorry. It's just -- that one's human. You'll excuse me if dead people make me jumpy."

"It is?" In the beam of his flashlight, Sheppard could see it now, the un-Wraithlike contours of the skull and the body draped in rags and furs. Recovering quickly from his shock with the source of his energy readings at hand, Rodney had fished a pencil out of his vest and was using it to poke through the rags at the corpse's side.

"It appears that there are no other humans here," Teyla said, stepping cautiously over a dead Wraith to join them. "Only Wraith."

Sheppard cast a glance over his shoulder at the floor of the cave, littered with bodies, sloping down to the bright jungle outside. "Looks kinda like a last stand, doesn't it?"

"One man could not have killed this many Wraith," Teyla said flatly.

"Oh, figures." Rodney gave a snort of disdain, not in response to her words, but rather to the fruits of his labors. "It's just a gun. Uh ..." He broke off, and Sheppard saw why. It wasn't just a gun; it was a Traveler gun, which explained the faint energy signature. Sheppard looked around to see where his fourth teammate had gotten off to -- she was peering over Teyla's shoulder, her face intense in the flashlight's reflected light.

"Anyone you know, Lirrin?" he asked softly.

"I don't think so. He's not dressed like one of my people." She nudged at the long leather coat half-covering the corpse. "Perhaps he stole it, or traded for it on another world."

"Well, whoever he is, we owe him one for killing all these Wraith." Sheppard looked around, meeting each of his team members' eyes in turn, and saw the same thought reflected in all of them.

The floor of the cave was too rocky for an actual burial, so Sheppard and Lirrin planted small C4 charges at either side of the cave while the others waited outside.

"You gonna keep that?" Sheppard asked, looking over from setting his timer to see Lirrin standing by the corpse, turning the gun over in her hands.

She shook her head. "No. Regardless of how he got it, it was his. I think it should stay here with him." She flicked the gun's power switch to off, and reverently laid it in the corpse's lap before retreating to the mouth of the cave with her team.


V.

"Honey," Sheppard caroled over the radio as the Apollo leaped out of hyperspace, "we're ho-oome ..." and then he broke off in shock as nothing met their eyes on the ship's monitors but the blackness of empty space.

"Are you sure you brought us to the coordinates I gave you?" Rodney demanded, turning on Colonel Ellis.

The Colonel looked to his helmsman, who shrugged. "This is the place, sir."

"They were supposed to wait." Rodney looked between Sheppard and Ronon. Their mission was a shambles, they'd lost Elizabeth and the experimental jumper, but Atlantis was supposed to be waiting for them. Home was supposed to be waiting for them.

"Rodney," Sheppard said, in his I want an explanation NOW tone.

"I -- I don't know! Maybe they couldn't wait for us. Maybe the power drain was quicker than we thought, and they tried to jump to the coordinates that we agreed on."

"Where, Doctor McKay?" Ellis broke in.

Voice shaking slightly, Rodney gave the helmsman the new set of coordinates. A blue hyperspace window opened in front of them --

-- and they emerged into a fireball. Rodney yelled, throwing up his hands instinctively to shield his face. The deck tilted underfoot as their direction changed suddenly; the blue sphere of a planet caromed across the viewscreens, and then the ship straightened out, pointing towards a sky filled with ships and fire.

"Oh, my God," Rodney whispered.

Atlantis was in flames, falling into the atmosphere. Parts of the city had already broken up and were forming their own meteor-streaks across the alien planet's sky. All around the dying city swarmed Asuran ships -- dozens of them, bombarding the city with a ceaseless barrage, ripping it apart before the atmosphere had a chance to do it.

Elizabeth.

Rodney felt the bottom of his stomach drop away. They must have read everything she knew in seconds. While they were attacking the escaping jumper, they'd also sent ships to deal with Atlantis. Teyla and Radek must have jumped the city here, trying to escape -- but the Asurans also knew about the backup plan, and were waiting.

Fire blossomed across the Apollo's shields. "They've seen us," Ellis said, his voice calm even as the ship rocked underfoot. "I'm taking us back into hyperspace."

"No!" The words tore from Rodney's throat and Sheppard's at the same time, but they were already moving, streaking into the blue calm of hyperspace.

"Damage report," Ellis said, and then recoiled as Sheppard leaped at him, knotted a fist in his superior officer's uniform.

"Take us back," Sheppard snarled, his face twisted. "Take us back!"

Fear and anger flickered across Ellis's face before it locked down like stone. "Stand down, Colonel Sheppard."

All around the bridge, people were reaching for weapons. Rodney heard the whine of Ronon's gun powering up. I ought to do something, he thought, but he couldn't move; he was frozen by the scene unfolding before him, and by the sight seared into his mind's eye of Atlantis falling, burning. Teyla. Radek. Katie. Everyone. Gone.

"Colonel," Ellis said softly, his face inches from Sheppard's. "There's no one alive in that city. There's no one left to save. All we can do if we go back is get this ship destroyed, and we have to take the intelligence we've gathered back to Earth."

For a moment longer, Sheppard didn't move; then he thrust Ellis away from him with a hard shove, and stalked off the bridge. After a moment, Ronon holstered his gun and followed.

"Sir," one of the bridge crew said after a moment. "Should we have him put in custody?"

I'd like to see you try, Rodney thought, and he felt his own hand slip towards the P90 hanging from his vest.

"No, Lieutenant." Ellis took a deep breath, ran his hand down the front of his uniform, and sank down in his chair. "Helm, set a course for the Milky Way."

Rodney finally found his voice. "You're leaving?"

The look that Ellis gave him was sympathetic, but unyielding. "There's nothing more we can do here. I'm sorry, Doctor, but my orders are clear. I can't risk the Apollo, and now that our mission is complete, we're returning to Earth."

"There could be survivors. We have to check --"

"I'm sorry, Doctor," Ellis said again, and there was no room in his voice for argument.

Rodney could still have argued, but instead, he just walked away.

------

He found Sheppard, eventually, in the Daedalus mess, surrounded by Lorne and the other Atlantean F302 pilots who'd been on the Apollo since their mission to move the asteroid in Lantea's upper atmosphere -- only a day or so ago, but it felt like a lifetime. No one was speaking, and there was no sign of Ronon. Rodney paused in the doorway, feeling suddenly unwelcome; everyone he could see was military. Then Sheppard looked up, gave him a small, exhausted nod, and Lorne turned and offered him a tight smile -- the most goodwill anyone could muster at the moment. He crossed the room to join them.

"We're going back to Earth," was all he could say.

Sheppard's lips went white. He didn't speak.

"They won't try. Won't even look for survivors. Won't ..." Rodney broke off, realizing that he was horribly close to tears.

"The Asurans got the information from Elizabeth," Sheppard said in a voice that hardly sounded like his own. "Had to have."

Rodney just nodded, because the significance of that had just hit him like a punch in the stomach: Elizabeth probably wasn't still alive, either.

Lorne stood up suddenly, spun around and punched the wall. He drew his fist back as if to punch again, then just stood there, rubbing his knuckles, before looking at Sheppard with an expression at once angry and lost. "What the hell are we going to do on Earth, sir?"

"We're going to come back," Sheppard said.

Rodney looked at him in shock.

Sheppard got up and paced the narrow confines of the room. "I don't know if we can make Ellis turn this ship around, or if we'll get all the way back to Earth and have to figure out what to do from there -- but I swear to you, we're coming back. We're finding Atlantis, or what's left of it, we're finding any survivors, we're finding Elizabeth -- and we're not leaving this galaxy until every last Asuran and Wraith are dead."

He looked up, and he had that look -- the look that said We can do this, we can win, even when all rational thought said otherwise; the look that said You can trust me to throw you off a balcony, Rodney; the look that said, Follow me, I won't let you down.

All his life Rodney had placed his faith in numbers, in equations, in immutable physical laws. He'd had to come to another galaxy to find something else to believe in.

"Who's with me?" Sheppard said, and Rodney heard his own voice join the chorus.