Those Left Behind

by darsynia

Notes: First posted for the 'ancient history' challenge at sga_flashfic. Beta'd by lilbreck. Written 2/18/08.

There were the purists who would settle for nothing less than the true transcendental experience, and then there were the opportunists (they called themselves risk-takers; we called them dangerous, naive, and other things as well). The dividing line between these two groups kept narrowing and narrowing until those of us who identified with neither found ourselves suspended almost in mid-air, toes grasping, desperate for a safe place to stand. It was as if the city itself held no beauty anymore—as though it had become more important to look inside ourselves or our technology for answers—when the focus should have been on the question itself.

It was Hershen who finally said what many in our small group were thinking: 'What good will my work here be, if when I reach that higher state, I can do nothing to assist those who wish to follow?'

Rodney's body feels like a tightly wound spring. He has to remind himself repeatedly that it's all right, that Sheppard's back, that he's no longer wasting hours of his team leader's life every time he loses track of a thought or sneezes. Still, he can't sleep, can't shake the desperate rushed feeling (hurryhurryhurry) in his muscles like he's somehow managed to become addicted to adrenaline in under a day. It's frighteningly close to how he felt on the Wraith enzyme, yet different enough to be a new kind of terrifying. He desperately needs something to do—Zelenka banished him from the lab five hours ago with frantic shoo-ing motions and wearing a circular path on the floor in his quarters from pacing gets old in less than fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes... that had been two days, fourteen hours, and thirty minutes for John.

He's at his desk and pulling up the Ancient interface on his laptop before he even realizes it, knee bouncing up into the hard surface in a way that should be painful but is calming instead. He knows he's far better at 'technical Ancient' than he is at understanding anything they've written that's deliberately profound, but there's got to be something in there about what the colonel's been through, he's sure of it. A reference to time dilation, certainly; of pushing the envelope when it comes to ascension, probably; plans for a commune full of repressed aspirants to a Glowing New You—unlikely, but worth looking for just in case.

Two powerbars, countless cups of coffee, and a sunrise later, he thinks he's found something.

If the Wraith judge value by survival—or life force, perhaps—then by that standard we are both valuable beyond measure and worthless beyond belief. Our contingency plan coupled with our tenacity makes our continued existence here almost a contradiction in terms. In my belief, what we value truly is time itself. If we could, we Lanteans would barter our very lives for time—forget power, forget enlightenment. Time itself is true power; the concept of 'eventually' is disastrously underrated.

It was this thought that drove some of us to diverge our contribution to the war. If we could buy our lives with time rather than buying time with our lives, perhaps all of us could ascend. If we could take all of the outside factors away, distill our purpose down to its finest point, it wouldn't matter how long it took for us to get there. It made sense, we reasoned—better to live a lifetime in the blink of an eye than to abandon all we held dear.

Yet still, by that standard, the Wraith are indeed a formidable enemy. For, while we plan to exploit time for our own purposes, all they must do is wait.

"They wanted everyone to be able to ascend," Rodney says quietly, leaning against the alcove wall and marveling at this new ability to keep completely still, if only for a moment.

"I know," Sheppard says equally softly, though his knuckles whiten with the strength of his grip on the railing.

"Most of them wanted to leave, but this one group—they just wanted everyone to—to be safe," Rodney persists, not sure that John gets what he's trying to say, not sure even he knows what he's trying to say. All he knows is what he read has done what restless hours of sleep couldn't do, what agitated pacing in his lab couldn't do—what saving John hadn't done.

"I know, Rodney." John says this in that voice he uses when Rodney's worried about dying and John just needs him to focus on fixing everything so they don't. What really strikes him, though, is the kindness he can hear in John's voice, something that's not usually there in their more tense situations. It's almost as if Sheppard is trying to soothe him, and it actually makes Rodney a little upset—feeling a really screwed-up mixture of 'why would you possibly want to comfort me, when you thought we'd left you behind,' and 'what the hell did they do to you on that hippie planet?'

He tips his head back against the wall, far enough that all he can see now is the ocean's rough surface broken by the jutting spires of Atlantis and the unruly spikes of John's hair. He wants to ask if Sheppard would have actually done it if they hadn't have shown up. If he'd have been able to let go, just like that. Up, up, and away; like flying, he supposes, but so very not. He wants to ask if the price of knowing something is worth the cost of never being able to do anything about it. He wants to tell John that there were no circumstances where they would have given up on him, no situation they wouldn't have saved him from. But he can't, because after what he's just read, he knows it's not true. Instead, he says the next best thing, and hopes it will be enough.

"We missed you, you know." It didn't matter that, for them, he'd been gone less than a day. It was still true.

"I know."

Delay after delay, and I could feel time slipping through my fingers. I had meant to be gone by now—I had meant to be old by now. I'd chosen to be the one to stay behind, to put all of our affairs in order, to say goodbye. We circled the sun, the Wraith circled us, and somewhere in the distance, everyone I held most dear cycled through their lives, each day taking about as long as it took me to cross the hall and ask, again, if I could leave to join them. During those weeks, two of my fellow Lanteans ascended, leaving us, our city, and the rest of the troubles in our galaxy behind.

It was this feeling of abandonment that led me to recognize our mistake: in our mad rush to slow down, we were still being selfish. Our vision had been too narrow, our objectives far too limited for what we had created. I write this now to leave a record of our lives, our children's lives, their children's lives, as they will be lived out in the spaces between breaths, each generation closer to our penultimate goal. Our ultimate goal will be as it should have been from the first—to offer this sanctuary to any and all who wish to seek the same path.

I will leave this message at the mouth of the portal to our safe haven, and hope that, long after I am gone, countless others will still know they can follow in my footsteps.