“Rome has been seized and occupied by enemies so many times that it is hard to come up with an exact number. After each sacking, however terrible, Rome rose again, phoenix-like.”
MATTHEW KNEALE, "Seven Times Rome Was Sacked"
“Good luck and… goodbye, Rome,” said John from the screen of her laptop. The screen went black as the video file ended. Even after countless viewings, that cut to black still hit her like a slap in the face. Or maybe it was just John’s message. She didn’t understand.
Dr. Rodney Meredith Mckay was a problem solver. She specialized in machines and physics, not people, and especially not motivations and feelings. Getting people to do what she wanted was often an exercise in frustration, especially if they wouldn’t let her bully them into something with her genius. If she’d been good at people, the IOA would’ve chosen her as the head of science on Atlantis and she’d be in the same galaxy as Colonel John Sheppard instead of stuck on Earth for the last year.
She just knew that if she’d been on Atlantis, they wouldn’t have lost contact with Earth or be in half as much trouble.
Since bludgeoning people with the truth of her genius had become even less effective than usual lately, Meredith had been forced to resort to lying to get what she wanted. She wasn’t good at lying. However, she found that if she just talked fast enough to someone dimwitted (which included the majority of the population) and overworked (which currently included most of Stargate Command), she could sometimes get their eyes to glaze over enough to have them agree to her demands without noticing the lie.
Which is how she found herself flying to Atlantis on the Daedalus, Earth’s first intergalactic spaceship, a spaceship she’d helped design. Atlantis needed a problem solver like Meredith. There were a million reasons why, but the most relevant right now was because this was a rescue mission. Unfortunately, the IOA committee couldn’t see how necessary she was to the future of Atlantis. However, no one else she’d steamrolled had even blinked twice when she walked on board and demanded a private cabin for the intergalactic trip. They knew the IOA should send Dr. Mckay to save Atlantis. It had been the first thing to go right for her in a long time.
For Meredith, the events of the past few years had felt like getting backhanded over and over again by a movie villain and his henchman. It didn’t matter how intelligent and amazing you were when the hits came so fast you couldn’t catch your breath. Every time Meredith thought she’d finally regained her feet, something knocked her down again.
You’d think she’d be jaded by a lifetime of hits. The bright spot of finally getting posted with John again and repairing their friendship had quickly been muddied by the assault by ex-boyfriend Seward, being denied the chance to explore Atlantis because she wasn’t male, the IOA choosing her bastard ex-husband Troy as science head instead, losing John to Atlantis after barely getting any time with him, being forced to go on off-world missions while trying to repopulate her department with new hires because everyone competent had gotten to leave for Atlantis without her, losing all contact with Atlantis and being forced to wonder if they were all dead, and then to add insult to all of the injuries, having to go back to Manudia again where everyone was a too-familiar stranger because—
Sucking in her breath sharply, Meredith buried the memories beneath a slew of equations calculating the tilt of the last exoplanet she’d seen. Even in the privacy of her thoughts, she had a policy of avoiding Manudia. It was safer that way. Math was safer.
She should be jaded, but events kept coming along and slapping her across the face just when she thought she’d managed to catch her breath. Atlantis had finally managed to get a message out in a short data-burst. They were under siege by an alien species called the Wraith that basically ate people and wanted to make the Milky Way their new buffet, which was just awesome news when Earth already had enough problems with other alien races like the Ori and remaining Goa'uld.
The people of Atlantis didn’t have a lot of hope that they’d survive, which is why they desperately needed a problem solver like Meredith Mckay.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the expedition had also sent goodbye videos. She’d gotten two. Neither had been welcome. They’d hit like a roundhouse combination to the face. However, Meredith had always been too stubborn to stay down.
Fingers steepled in front of her mouth, Meredith cued up the video of John again. They’d been friends for more than a decade before finally starting to date a couple of months before he’d left with the expedition. In retrospect, she should’ve taken his initial attempt to leave without making her any promises more seriously. He’d tried to make a clean cut but she’d forced the issue, just like she’d forced the exchange of “I love you”s. Because she did love him. She’d never expected John to regret it.
Her ex-husband Troy’s final message had been viewed once and then deleted. She should probably do the same to John’s—she already had his words memorized and he obviously wasn’t as brokenhearted by their separation as she’d been so watching the video again was pointless and bordering on masochistic.
Meredith hit play anyway.
John’s eyes were focused somewhere off-camera. He had lines on his face that hadn’t been there when he’d left for Atlantis a year ago, but they only made him look more magnetic. It was unfair for someone to be that attractive. She could see desperation and exhaustion in the shape of his mouth, but at the same time, the comfortable and confident way he carried himself hinted at how his time on Atlantis had finally given John something he’d always seemed to be searching for: a righteous cause and people worth making himself vulnerable for.
The mission reports from Atlantis that she’d devoured showed John to be engaged in a way his previous record had only occasionally hinted at. In Pegasus, John had come into his own as the military leader of Atlantis. He didn’t bother hiding his intelligence or passion anymore. He let himself care and fought openly for what he believed in. Meredith wished she could've been there to see the transformation. It must’ve been thrilling to witness.
Nothing and no one could force John into anything, not his father and commanding officers or even his best friend and now former girlfriend, one Meredith Mckay. That John had once chosen to love her romantically had been a gift. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something she’d expected him to take away. Out of all people, she hadn’t expected John to throw her away, even if she’d become a useless girlfriend on the other side of the galaxy.
She should’ve known better.
Even with repeated viewings of his message, Meredith still didn’t understand why or what had changed. John didn’t even directly address her until the last moment. Meredith had always been bad at social cues, but she’d thought she understood John. She’d been so certain he loved her. Maybe he still did, but that didn’t change his message. She hated not knowing the why of things.
In the video, John gave his stilted speech. “My final message is for Mckay. Tell Mckay I’m glad she isn’t here. I’m glad she’s safe on Earth and far away from Atlantis. I should’ve ended things when I left like I’d intended.”
No matter how many times she viewed this, that line always made her flinch.
After a short pause, John finally looked straight into the camera. His eyes and mouth went soft with downturned corners. “Good luck and… goodbye, Rome.” John’s lips opened again as if something else trembled on the tip of his tongue, but before it could escape he reached out and ended the recording abruptly. The screen went black.
Meredith desperately wanted to know what else John was going to say. She wanted to believe it would’ve been something kinder and more logical. That’s why she kept watching the video, trying to figure out what words the potential in those open lips would’ve become if given kinetic force.
Better to think that instead of the more likely scenario that he’d found someone else while they’d been parted, someone like Elizabeth Weir or that alien woman on his team, Teyla Emmagen. The Pegasus galaxy was probably full of gorgeous women who all swooned over John when he turned on his Captain Kirk charm.
He probably gave them all special nicknames too. Had Teyla the Athosian become his Athens? He’d do well to remember that Athens had fallen before the might of Rome.
Meredith felt simultaneously homicidal and gutted.
If she could, she’d stop thinking about it, but her mind had always moved a mile a minute—though really it should be a kilometer a minute because she was Canadian after all instead of an American with their outdated system of measurements. Whatever the case, the point was that her mind was always working on at least ten different things and right now one of those ten thought streams was frustratingly fixated on John Sheppard. If she could just figure out what was going on with him, maybe she could get that brain power back.
Of course, she’d had him stuck in her head for years, but never let it be said that Rodney Meredith Mckay was a quitter.
She stabbed the play button again.
“My final message is for Mckay. Tell Mckay—”
A chime sounded in her cabin, forcing her to pause the video. Meredith’s heart rate increased. “Yes?” she said, fighting to keep her voice from squeaking. The moment she’d been waiting for had finally come, albeit in a less than ideal way, but sometimes you had to take a great risk for a great reward. Atlantis was a really great reward and no one, from the IOA to John Sheppard, was going to keep her away from it. She was going to save Atlantis and the people on it and then she was going to stay and study the workings of the Ancients until she understood how it all worked. Everyone would be thanking her one day.
“Dr. Mckay, it’s time,” a voice said over the speaker. “The Daedalus is approaching Atlantis now. We don’t have radio contact yet, but sensors show the Wraith Fleet already there bombarding the city. Grab your kit and come to the bridge. They’re going to have to do a quick fly-by to try and beam you in, but if the fighting is too fierce to get close, Colonel Caldwell said you’ll just have to wait until everything is over to go down.”
“Well, you tell the Colonel that that’s not acceptable. Atlantis needs this ZPM to raise its shields, especially if they’re being bombarded. He’s going to have to find me a way in. I’ll be right there. Mckay out.”
Closing the lid of her laptop, Meredith slipped it into her bag and secured the straps. Glancing inside her pack to make sure the ZPM was still inside, she pushed away the pang at not getting time to study it more and slung the pack over her shoulder. It was thrilling to be carrying that much power around, though the original plan hadn’t really been for her or anyone else to actually carry it.
They’d sent the ZPM they’d found on Earth to Meredith to clean and pack up in a crate to ship off on the Daedalus, who’d fly to Atlantis ASAP and beam it down for the scientists there to install. That had been the intention, but with all the stress and chaos of current events on Earth and the news of how bad things were going for Atlantis, the actual orders given to Meredith had been unfortunately quite vague.
Meredith couldn’t help it if she’d assumed that orders to do her best to prep the ZPM for transfer and installation on Atlantis meant going to Atlantis to install it herself, since doing her best obviously required a personal touch. If only the men on the IOA had thought to give her more specific orders. She was only a woman, after all. Whoops.
She also didn’t trust Troy or whomever he delegated it to not to muck the ZPM installation up and that’s just what she’d tell people when they asked her later what she’d been thinking. They’d have to do their questioning over the radio since once on Atlantis she planned to do everything in her power to stay there.
She’d accepted that she wasn’t going to be in the chain of command, though she really hoped she could find a way to not be under Troy’s thumb. She’d talked to Richard Woolsey on the IOA about theoretically forming a new department in Atlantis that specialized in her areas of interest sometime in the distant future. He hadn’t realized how close that future was going to be, but he’d seemed positive about the idea.
Meredith glanced around the cabin they’d given her on the Daedalus one last time to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything important. She’d helped design the interstellar spaceship with Dr. Samantha Carter and knew every nut and bolt on the BC-303. Despite the rushed construction this last year and running the engines at max capacity right from the start, it had performed beautifully on its maiden voyage. Having Hermiod, an Asgard, in charge of the engine room helped a lot with that, but Mckay would still argue that it wouldn’t be possible without her contributions to the construction.
When the expedition had left her behind on Earth a year ago, Meredith had thrown herself into her work. She’d even gone along with O’Neill’s plans to distract her by going through the gate several times with Major McLean’s SG-15 as a technological ambassador and handyman for the SGC. If she hadn’t been so battered by recent events she never would’ve agreed to it, especially when her first off-world mission had been going to Manudia to set up a new defensive shield.
Going back to Manudia had been the hardest. She’d almost called up Jack and told him she couldn’t do it a hundred times leading up to the mission. It had been hard and the nightmares had gotten worse, but she’d done it. Off-world missions after that were easy by comparison.
Normally she did her best to pretend Manudia didn’t exist. She’d never told anyone the details about her time there. Even Jack, Troy, and Jeannie were only told the bare minimum because they couldn’t help but notice the difference in her from before and after the kidnapping. Meredith didn’t have anyone else close enough to care. The pressure of keeping silent hurt, but not talking was easier.
Except for sometimes, she got the urge to tell everyone about her greatest mistake. Her muscles cramped with the desire to shriek out her guilt and pain and find a crowd to talk about how unfair it all was, but once she started talking she didn’t think she’d be able to stop and what if no one cared? Troy certainly hadn’t and if anyone should care shouldn’t it be him? The man who’d been her husband? What if no one else understood either? What if they blamed her even more than she already blamed herself?
No, it would just make people gossip and judge her even more harshly. She didn’t care what most people thought, but she did care when it made her life difficult. Despite her genius, her reputation for being difficult was already bad enough that it affected where she was allowed to work. It had kept her from Atlantis. She couldn’t take another loss like that.
Although she had complicated feelings about Manudia, she couldn’t deny that the people there had been happy to see her. The new president of the Aquila Engineering College had begged her to come back soon for another visit. They’d thrown parties and showered her with gifts they’d been holding on to in hopes that she’d one day return. Last time she’d run out of there so fast she’d taken nothing but the clothes on her back—well, that and the painful memories.
This time her farewell had included a lot of hugging. The kids had ambushed her and then it had been too late to escape from the adults. In a move that would surprise everyone who knew her, she hadn’t shoved them off and run screaming for the gate. To her surprise, some of the hugging had felt… nice. Comforting even. She still wasn’t sure if she felt more grateful or resentful for that. Either way, it had made her cry.
They’d given her a small wooden box filled to the brim with letters, the ink faded and edges soft and bent with age. They currently sat in her bag. Meredith hadn’t read them yet, didn’t know if she’d ever be ready to read them, but she couldn’t bear to part with them either. They were the only link she had. The only way she’d gotten past what had happened on Manudia had been by pretending to herself and everyone else that nothing had happened at all. Reading the letters would shatter that illusion and shattered things had sharp edges that could cut you to the quick. The pain might not be worth it. What if she didn’t heal right? She’d barely healed the first time.
Meredith’s nightmares had gotten worse in the last year. On top of everything else keeping her awake, her old traumas had gotten new life from the visit to Manudia. Reading the letters might bring the pain of those dreams even more into her waking hours. It could make things so much worse. Sometimes it was better not to know. Meredith had work to do. She couldn’t afford the distraction.
Looking down, she checked for the gun strapped to her thigh. She often forgot to bring the weapon unless Major McLean or Sgt. Kindall reminded her in the locker room, but today was not the day for mistakes. SG-15 wasn’t here to look out for her anymore, didn’t even exist as such since they’d disbanded to face new threats. She was alone now.
Good thing Meredith was used to being alone.
Meredith had to save Atlantis. She had to save the city holding answers to so many of her questions. Most importantly though, she had to save the people she cared about because she didn’t think she’d survive being too late again.
Meredith refused to believe that John was dead. Just the thought made the usual crispness of her thoughts fuzz and her lungs go tight. Sometimes she hated him for making her care about him so much, especially when he didn’t seem to feel the same obsession. She could live without John Sheppard in her life (had for great stretches at a time though always while keeping tabs on his records), but having him dead and gone from the Universe would be like losing the ability to see blue. Even inside a house with the curtains closed, you still knew the sky and ocean were out there somewhere. John being dead would mean living a life of heavy gray skies and gritty sand dunes for the rest of her life. She knew what it was like to live without the sky but she couldn’t bear to lose the ocean too.
And she knew she was being melodramatic but she couldn’t make the feelings stop!
As if beaming down into the middle of a warzone with enemies who wanted to eat you wasn’t enough to worry about. She wanted to cower up here safely, not put herself in danger. At least the ZPM she was bringing should power Atlantis’s shields and make everyone (including herself) safe. If it wasn’t John and Atlantis, she’d stay cozy in her room on the Daedalus until the fighting was over and then beam down. Well, she might admit to wanting to save Miko, Radek, and a (very) few of the other Marines and scientists too. However, if Troy screwed the ZPM installation up, a bunch of people she didn’t really like or care about very much would die too. They needed her genius to save their lives. It was the right thing to do. Having a conscience and caring about people could be so inconvenient. The only person she completely trusted to not screw this up was herself.
Reading between the lines of the science reports, Meredith couldn’t ignore how much the people on Atlantis needed her genius. Even Troy had admitted to needing her in his self-serving and irritating farewell video message. She noticed things the science department was missing because it was so overwhelmed or too shortsighted, ways to improve Atlantis and maximize energy utilization. In several reports, she could see so clearly that they just needed to swap out crystals in an Ancient console and insert a few lines of new code to reactivate it, but they got stuck or distracted and abandoned the project. It was maddening that they were missing such obvious fixes, but then again, they didn’t call her a genius for nothing. She was obviously needed on Atlantis and the sooner the better.
Meredith just really hoped she didn’t get injured or killed in the process. She hated pain and still needed to finish her grand unifying theory of the universe. She needed to prove how much better she was than Troy and how useful she could be on Atlantis to the SGC and IOA. She needed to get awards and recognition from everyone worth anything that she was the greatest genius to ever live! She also had to find out just what John had meant in that video.
Adjusting the pack on her back for the final time, Meredith smoothed back her hair to check for loose strands that might get in her face and distract her from the work to come. She could do this. She would do this. Meredith shoved down her fear and marched out of her room.
Once in the hall, she was so busy trying not to freak out about what she was about to do that she almost ran somebody over and had to stumble to the side to avoid a collision. Looking up, she saw two lieutenants with environmental science patches going in the same direction. Seward had worked in that department but, after attacking her, he was now in Leavenworth and good riddance. She couldn’t afford to think about Seward right now or how memories of that night still gave her panic attacks. She had to focus on being noble and brave and saving Atlantis.
The two lieutenants swerved to avoid her. One said sorry. Meredith didn’t bother acknowledging it as they passed her going down the hall. She was too busy focusing on being heroic.
So it took her a few seconds to realize that the duo had stopped in the middle of the hall and turned back around. They whispered together, looking her up and down, huffing, and glaring as if she’d personally offended them, which she didn’t remember doing beyond almost running into them a second ago but which was entirely possible. People got offended so easily over the stupidest things so she’d stopped caring or paying attention once she hit puberty.
She glanced at their uniforms, but the names Lewis and Hollis were unfamiliar. However, as soon as she noticed that they stared with L and H she also noticed how similar they looked to the famous comic duo Laurel and Hardy, except the big round-faced one was female instead of male and didn’t sport a small bristly mustache—wait, no, nevermind, as they moved closer Meredith saw thick dark strands of hair on the corners of the woman’s upper lip.
Thus distracted, she was unprepared for the thin male to abruptly move forward and slam his bony shoulder into hers, knocking her back as he passed her.
“Ouch!” she rubbed her shoulder and glared. “What was that? Watch where you’re going, idiot!”
The man named Lewis sent her a thin smile that made the hair rise on the back of her neck. Meredith made sure to keep her expression irritated instead of creeped out. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d gotten to her. She was much too old to be shoved into a locker by a bully.
“ You better watch out,” growled his mustached friend as she lumbered closer, living up to the image of the bully Hardy in Meredith’s mind and making it unlikely Meredith would ever remember the woman’s real name. She definitely looked like the type to shove people into lockers.
“We’re gonna make you regret what you did, you Jezebel.” The thin Laurel look-alike spat at her feet.
Gross. Also, germs. Meredith had a very delicate immune system.
The woman blocked the hall, looming over Mckay and cross her beefy arms. “That’s right, Mckay, you’re gonna pay.”
“I’m not paying for anything.” Nor did she know or care what they were talking about. Meredith needed to get to the bridge to bravely save Atlantis and didn’t have time for two bottom-rank bullies to intimidate her. Besides, this was a public corridor. Someone else would come along any second now. She didn’t need to be afraid. Irritated, she tossed her golden braid over her shoulder and sent the two disdainful looks. “Being only second lieutenants and not very intelligent, you probably don’t understand that when you’re important like me, you don’t have to pay. People give you things for free.”
She’d heard that line while watching some mind-numbing television show last week after she’d woken up from another nightmare. It worked as well as it had on the show, making the skinny man’s face go red and the big woman’s jaw clench. Meredith smirked. “Your Laurel and Hardy act needs work. I don’t know what your problem is and I don’t really care. I’m due on the bridge with Colonel Caldwell five minutes ago so get out of my way. Now.”
At that moment the overhead speakers sounded, “Dr. Mckay to the bridge!” A group of three men passed them in a fast jog, barely sparing them a glance.
“Move.” Raising a brow, Meredith gestured impatiently. The large woman sullenly moved to the side. Meredith stepped past and put them out of her mind. They weren’t important, Atlantis was important and now she really was late.
When she got to the bridge, Colonel Caldwell sent her a slashing glance, obviously unhappy. “Dr. Mckay, nice of you to finally join us. The fighting above and inside Atlantis is fierce. Their puddlejumpers are clearly outnumbered by those Wraith darts and the chatter we’re picking up doesn’t sound promising. The window is almost closed for any possible transport. Are you sure you want to go down there? I won’t be able to retrieve you if something goes wrong. You’ll be on your own.”
Raising her chin and hiding how her insides were jittering more than a preschooler needing to go pee pee (visiting Jeannie while Maddie was potty training had been hell, a very stinky and damp kind of hell), Meredith crossed her arms. “I’m used to being alone. Just get me to Atlantis, Colonel Calwell. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” This would also look really good for the review committee who’d decide if she got to stay on Atlantis after the siege was over.
“Very well.” Lips pressing tight, Caldwell consulted his screen and snapped a few orders to the bridge crew.
Head tilting, he frowned and tapped at something on his screen, muttering to his XO, “Something strange is happening with that formation. They’re making a hole for that puddlejumper leaving Atlantis.”
Caldwell leaned forward in his chair and activated the channel to engineering. “Hermiod, beam Mckay out now and then stay on standby. I have a feeling something big is about to happen.”
Meredith opened her mouth to ask what he meant, but before she could get out the words she found herself standing in the gateroom on Atlantis. She was in Atlantis! The pictures hadn’t done it justice. Meredith slowly closed her gaping mouth. The stargate here was both beautiful and functional, sleek in a way Earth engineering hadn’t quite managed. Soaring stained glass windows and high ceilings evoked the feeling of some alien cathedral that worshipped discovery and exploration.
And the blues! Every shade of blue imaginable had gone into the construction of the space. It was as much art as engineering, even the glowing staircase leading up to the balcony above. The room was filled with light and the air smelled crisp, almost electric.
“Meredith?” Looking up, she saw Troy standing on the balcony overlooking her and the gate. “What are you doing here?” He blinked, as if not sure she was real, and rubbed his eyes. Stubble uncharacteristically darkened his chin.
Next to Troy stood Radek Zelenka and expedition leader Elizabeth Weir. Weir looked pale and almost pained beneath a veneer of iron control. Sparing Meredith a single glance, she turned back to the monitor everyone was clustered around, including a gray-haired and wrinkled old woman with brown skin like tree bark. Meredith was disturbed to recognize the old woman as the once-strapping Colonel Marsha Sumner. Meredith had read about her getting drained by a Wraith, but the reality was much more disturbing.
John was conspicuous by his absence, though he could be out there somewhere fighting. Could be, but each quick step up the stairs and closer to the cluster of people around the monitor increased the jittery feeling in her gut. Meredith activated her com to Caldwell. “I’m down safely, Colonel.” Not bothering to switch the channel off, Meredith joined the command staff. “Dr. Weir, what’s your status? Where’s Colonel Sheppard?”
Flinching, Weir sucked in a breath and schooled her expression. “Sheppard is in a ship, cloaked and radio silent. He’s flying a bomb onto one of the hive ships, trying to blow it up and save us.” She gestured to the small puddlejumper icon on the screen sliding between Wraith darts as it approached one of the huge hive ships.
“What?” That was suicide. “No. No no no no no.”
As Meredith watched, John’s ship landed on the closest of the huge Wraith hive ships. An invisible hand clamped around Meredith’s throat, choking back the scream building in her chest.
Then the hive exploded. The signal from the puddlejumper disappeared, the puddlejumper with John on it. John was gone. He’d destroyed the hive, but at what cost?
He was dead.
John was dead and she’d been too late. Again. She’d been useless. Again. John had left her alone. Again.
Pressure squeezed her mind mercilessly like the migraine from hell. Despair and anger and fear slashed over her like iron barbs. The gateroom was as silent as a tomb. How fitting. John was dead. Meredith didn’t think she could survive another loss like this. She hated John for making her feel that way but, most of all, she hated herself.
John Sheppard was dead.