Dum Vita Est

by Domenika Marzione

"I suppose we'll see what's cooking," Sheppard said as they left the medical room. The soldiers -- marines, they were called, although Ronon had yet to see water anywhere and wondered if the word meant something else in the local language -- watched them closely, fingers near the triggers on their rifles and impassive expressions. Sheppard ignored them as he moved down the hall and so Ronon did, too. "Can't say I'd choose my first meal in town to be prepared by Weapons Company, but they do a few things all right. At least we'll have cookies."

Ronon said nothing in reply, instead rolling his shoulder carefully, feeling the pull of the stitches and the dull throb of pain from the surgery that removed the tracker. The doctor who'd looked him over had been thorough, firm but not causing pain, and the medicine in the metallic packets in his hand were supposed to help. Ronon would have been more suspicious of the drugs if Sheppard hadn't been given the same ones, too, and chided for not accepting them earlier. He'd have been more suspicious of the doctor as well -- far less nervous than the one who'd taken his tracker out earlier -- but these people seemed to be interested in charity for its own sake. Or maybe they were just paying him back for helping with the crazed half-man.

This unnamed city -- he didn't miss how nobody spoke its name in his presence -- was as strange to him as its people. He didn't know how big it was; Sheppard had told him that it had been built by the Ancestors, but none of the ruins he'd seen during his years of Running had been intact enough to get a sense of how large they'd once been. He'd also never seen a Ring inside a building before, nor ever seen a place so clean and soulless and foreign as this world with its automatically opening doors and mysterious lights and hollow echoes. It didn't seem to fit the people he'd met on the too-bright world; Sheppard and Teyla and McKay were strange and open and chaotic, but maybe they weren't representative of their world. The others with them and all of the people here wore uniforms and were either guarded or overseen by these marines and the corridors were empty for more reasons than just that he was being escorted through them. There were no children here, no elderly, no commerce, no entertainment, no evidence of anything he'd ever associated with life near a Ring. Maybe it was because their Ring was indoors, but he didn't think so.

Ronon was grateful for the freedom from the Wraith, but his gratitude wouldn't extend to living in a penal colony if he couldn't go back to Sateda right away.

The marines had followed them to a closet-sized room, half stopping outside and half crowding in with him and Sheppard and Ronon wondered what this was, whether it was some experiment or whether the small space was supposed to provide the marines and Sheppard with some advantage over him. He could take them, even in a closet, and was prepared to do just that as the door closed and Sheppard tapped at a display that revealed itself on the wall. But he never got the chance. It felt like the world blinked, or maybe it had just been him, and the doors opened again. The marines went back out and Ronon wondered what he'd missed --he didn't feel different, although that didn't mean anything, either. These people had tools that operated on you without you feeling it.

"C'mon," Sheppard said, stepping past him. "Chow hall's this way."

Ronon put a hand on Sheppard's shoulder to stop him, to ask him what they'd done to him, but before he could get a word out, he heard noise. The clatter of dishes and voices, things he hadn't heard when they'd gone in. He also smelled food -- strange food, nothing he was used to, but definitely hot food. They were not where they'd been a moment before.

The room had been some kind of elevator, obviously, even as he hadn't felt its movement, and the knowledge that he had lost his mental trail -- he'd memorized the path they'd taken from the Ring through the city -- scared him a little. The display Sheppard had used was covered up and Ronon had no idea how it had worked or whether they had gone up or down.

"Are crowds going to be a problem?" Sheppard asked, confused and maybe a little amused, but mostly just concerned. Like he'd mostly forgiven Ronon for taking him and his people hostage and was instead just worried about being a gracious host. "We can order take-out, but it's late and there shouldn't be too many people around. The marines on KP are just noisy."

Ronon took his hand off of Sheppard's shoulder and shook his head. He didn't want to confess ignorance on any front, let alone fear; weakness wasn't anything he wasn't prepared to let show. He stepped out of the elevator and the doors closed behind him, opening up a heartbeat later to reveal the three other marines, who rejoined their unit and waited for Sheppard to start walking again.

Sheppard did, down a hallway that was wider than the ones they'd been traversing. The noise and smells grew more intense and Ronon's stomach rumbled. They entered a large hall with a wall made up entirely of windows and a cafeteria-like arrangement to the left. Ronon worked out his escape route automatically. He counted the heads of the people in the room, eyed the pattern of tables and people sitting at them, and figured he could reach the doors in the windowed wall in a dozen strides, hopping on or over tables if necessary. Marines were behind the counter and they looked curiously at Ronon and Sheppard and their escorts.

"Sergeant Byrd!" Sheppard called out cheerfully, as if this sort of arrival was in no way strange. Perhaps it wasn't. "Can you tell me what the carnivorous specials are tonight?"

Sergeant Byrd, a fair-skinned, wiry young man, looked surprised.

"That's meat, you retard," the marine next to him said in a loud whisper.

"I knew that," Sergeant Byrd hissed back. "We've got beef stroganoff, sir. You missed the fried chicken."

Sheppard arched an eyebrow. "Actual beef stroganoff or near-deer stroganoff you're hoping to pass off as beef?"

Sergeant Byrd smiled as if Sheppard had made a great joke. "It once mooed in Texas, sir. Not as good as once mooing in Kentucky, but they do buy our food from the lowest bidder."

This was apparently a great joke, as both Sheppard and the marines laughed. Most of them, at least. Maybe some came from Texas.

"We'll take two beef stroganoffs, then," Sheppard said grandly. "And the Dirty Half-Dozen behind us can make their own choices."

"They can choose between beef stroganoff and beef stronganoff, sir," Byrd said.

"What, no vegan option?" Sheppard asked.

"We don't offer vegan options to marines, sir," Byrd explained, clearly horrified at the thought. Maybe vegans weren't warriors. Ronon first thought Sheppard had made a social error, but some of the marines were laughing and so it was apparently another joke.

Sheppard was on good terms with the marines, that much was clear. Once upon a time, that had been a good thing as far as Ronon's moral scale went. But Kell had once been on great terms with his men, too, and that hadn't ended well. Sheppard hadn't explained his rank -- or anyone else's rank -- and Ronon didn't know where Sheppard stood in terms of his world's military. Doctor Weir and Colonel Caldwell were his superiors, the marines were his subordinates, and the doctor who'd looked him over was somewhere in between if he'd been able to force a compromise between what he wanted and what Sheppard did.

Beef stroganoff turned out to be meat in a creamy sauce over a large plate of noodles and it came with salad and bread and Ronon filled his glass with water after being confronted with a baffling array of drink choices. He hadn't seen such casual and careless bounty since Sateda and, even then, only in the rarefied atmosphere someone of his class could travel in. The barracks had had no menu and everyone simply ate what was prepared.

The marines escorting them didn't eat beef stroganoff -- or anything else. They stood nearby, not hovering but not out of sight, and waited. Ronon felt like a prisoner being observed, but Sheppard acted as if nothing was amiss and Ronon might have wondered if this were something normal to this world except for the fact that the others in the cafeteria were watching with curiosity and concern.

Ronon ate, trying to make his determined consumption look more like defiance and less like ravenous hunger. He hadn't eaten with anything but a knife and fingers in years -- even before he'd been taken from Sateda, they'd been living pretty rough by the end. It felt clumsy and awkward, but he felt no shame; there was no one around who knew that he'd once had lessons in comportment and he'd long since stripped away those parts of himself that weren't conducive to survival. Eating more was of greater importance than looking good doing it. Besides, Sheppard used his fingers to mop up his gravy with his bread.

Sheppard was finished before he was and when Ronon cleaned off the last of his plate, he sat up from his slouch. "You want more? Or do you just want to go straight for dessert?"

This was already more food than Ronon had seen in weeks, maybe months. And it was cooked and spiced and fresh and prepared for enjoyment instead of subsistence. But while his instincts said to eat as much as he could since there was no way to know when his next meal would be, his mind was already adjusting to his new status as a free man. He'd be home on Sateda soon, able to enjoy foods that would be familiar to him, and, besides, too much rich food would have him all throwing it back up.

"What's for dessert?" he asked instead. Sheppard beamed, like that was exactly the answer he'd been hoping to get.

They were looking over a table full of baked goods and fresh fruit, Sheppard awkwardly trying to explain what each was but lacking any useful frame of reference, when he suddenly stopped talking and held his hand to his ear.

"Go ahead, Lieutenant... Are you sure?.... Well, do a thorough sweep and see if you can find something. Wouldn't be the first time... Yeah, I know, McKay... Tell Elizabeth that I'll be up in a minute, once I get our guest settled somewhere... No.... Yeah."

Ronon waited for Sheppard, who had turned away to speak on his radio, to turn back. "Something's come up. I'm going to have to stash you somewhere for a little bit -- you're pretty much our first guest since the Wraith came, so, you know, don't take it personally. Let's get you a doggie bag."

Sheppard found him a white paper bag and filled it halfway with fruit and cookies. With their escorts trailing behind, they retraced their steps to the elevator and Sheppard tapped a point on the display, which still looked like nothing Ronon recognized as useful now that he could examine it openly. They did not emerge at the point they had started at. It was somewhere else and Sheppard did not offer either apology or explanation, simply leading the way and expecting Ronon to follow.

Their destination was a small room that was obviously a holding cell, although a comfortable and well-appointed one.

Sheppard grimaced when Ronon caught his glance. "I can't really let you wander around," he said. "This won't take long, so just enjoy your snack and I'll be back before you reach the bottom of the bag."

Two of the marines stayed inside the room with him and the other four were probably waiting outside the closed door. Ronon was confident of his ability to get past the marines, just as he was confident that he had no idea where to go once he did so. And so he gave Sheppard the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn't be waiting too long and ate his food.

"Is this a prison cell?" he asked the marines as he finished a cup full of berries.

"No, sir," one of them answered. "The brig is somewhere else."

"Okay," Ronon replied, then held the bag out to them. "Want a cookie?"

The marines looked amused, but declined.

Sheppard was good on his word -- he returned before Ronon was through the last of the cookies. The humor on his face was gone, however, and Ronon wondered what had happened in the city and whether it would delay his return home. But then Sheppard said that he had something to show Ronon about Sateda and Ronon felt the first wave of fear he'd allowed himself in years.

This world, with its quiet and its safety, was clean and spare and strong and Ronon wondered if Sheppard was merely worried that he would be unsettled by seeing the damage done to his homeworld. Seven years wouldn't have been enough to effect serious repairs, not with how much damage was done and not with how few people were left when Ronon was taken. It would be a humbled home that he would return to, that much he'd been prepared for since the start, and seven years of Running had only made the thought of helping rebuild his world seem more dreamlike and hopeful. He didn't care how ugly it looked; it would be home. His fears were that he wouldn't be forgiven for surviving when so many had perished, that he'd be blamed for not seeing Kell's betrayal sooner, for not doing more to save Sateda's people when he had the political connections to do so. When he slept, his nightmares were not of the Wraith, but instead of being cast out from Sateda by angry mobs of survivors.

The reality was much worse. The grainy images on the screen were of a landscape battered almost beyond recognition. In Ronon's memories, he still could see Sateda as she had been before the Wraith and he hadn't realized how much he'd minimized the damage in his dreams. The destruction was worse than he recalled, the standing ruins lower and the rubble piles higher, all of it washed clean by years of rain and completely unrepaired.

There was nobody left on Sateda.

Unable to say anything, unwilling to display his grief before these well-meaning strangers, Ronon turned and left. He went back the way they'd come, the marine escort trailing behind although Sheppard did not pursue him. Ronon waited at the elevator, unsure of how to get back to the holding cell. He didn't know why he wanted to go back there except that it would be more private than here in this nexus of control, right in front of the Ring.

One of the marines pushed the right spot on the display and brought them back; they did not follow him into his room, instead letting the door close behind him.

He went to the small facilities room and threw up everything he'd eaten that day -- or at least it felt like it. He rinsed his mouth and face and then sat on the floor and wept.

For seven years, he had had only one goal: return to Sateda. He'd allowed himself to be distracted by the mechanisms of achieving it, the dark thrill of outwitting or killing his captors. More than once, he'd had to pull himself back from despair, from confusing the means and the ends, from exhaustion and from resignation, by remembering Sateda and its beauty. He'd gone through long stretches when he'd given up hope of being able to return, of being chased until he was too old to serve his purpose and then killed without ever seeing his home and her people again. But there had always been signs, reminders of who he'd been and what he'd hoped to be again, and through those he'd regained his center and his purpose.

And then had come these strange people who had reciprocated his violence with kindness, his suspicion with trust, and granted him his freedom in return for nothing. Except it wasn't nothing; the cost had been everything he'd ever wished for, everything he'd ever wanted.

A small part of him wished he'd never found Sheppard and Teyla, as if undoing today would undo whatever had become of Sateda. He'd have remained ignorant, but there would have been hope in that ignorance, and a purpose to his seemingly unendable life. When he'd been Running, his life had had no value to anyone but the Wraith. And now, not even them.

Now he had nothing. No home, no people, no purpose, no dreams, no ambition, nothing to do and no reason to do it.

Nothing to do except kill Wraith.

He could do that -- and do it well -- and so that was what he would do. He was no longer their toy and their tool, so he would instead be their curse. Predator instead of prey. It would be something to do, something to fill up the emptiness inside him that echoed like a cavern and made him feel so, so cold.

He got up off of the floor and ran back to the facilities room, retching because there was nothing left to bring back up.

The door opened while he was rinsing his face again. When he emerged from the facilities room, he saw Teyla standing there. She nodded to him in greeting and he felt anger and embarrassment -- that the room smelled obviously of vomit, that Sheppard thought he'd need a woman to comfort him, that Sateda's destruction hung on him like a weight he could not yet pretend to ignore.

He focused on the hate coiled tightly inside, the manifestation of his promise to make the Wraith pay for what they'd done. It was calming. He took a deep breath and nodded in return.

"Would you like to take a walk?" Teyla asked. "It is a warm evening, the first we have had in a while."

He gestured for her to lead and she did, turning around and going back through the door. The marines in the hallway were different and there were only three of them. They made no move to follow him as he walked away from the room, his long strides making up for Teyla's head start.

They entered the elevator again and Teyla tapped the display with elegant fingers. She was not dressed as she'd been before, all traces of the uniform gone and instead flowing skirts and exposed arms displaying her strength and beauty and Ronon wondered if it was intentional, if she would offer him that kind of solace. If he would take it if she did.

The doors opened up and they were again somewhere else; Ronon wondered if these elevators were not like Rings, moving its passengers further away than merely up or down. They were still indoors, but Ronon could smell salty air, like they were close to a sea.

"This way," Teyla said, walking left. He followed.

The doors at the end of the corridor opened as they approached and, for the first time since coming to this world, Ronon could see the sky without a window between it and him.

There were lights at their feet, dim ones, and the half-moon and stars were bright in the sky. Once they were out from the shadows of the building, Ronon could tell that they were on a pier and that this place, far from being underground, was instead surrounded by water for as far as he could see. Turning around, he looked up at the city, massive and modern and unlike anything he'd seen before or after he'd been taken from Sateda.

"This is not an ideal place for a walk," Teyla said. "But so much of the city is still under repair and it is safe here."

"For you or for us?" he asked.

"Both," she answered honestly. "The marines can see us and we can see the stars."

He wondered if there were marines hiding in the dark spires in the distance, ready to shoot him, or if they were closer and preparing for a different attack.

"Why did you bring me out here?" There were undoubtedly better places to spend a warm evening. He didn't want her pity, wasn't ready to speak of what he'd learned or what he'd lost, wasn't sure he was in any mood to listen, either.

"It is very disconcerting to not see the sky after having lived under it for so long," she said, eyes on the stars instead of him. "It is not the same sky, but it is something familiar when nothing else is."

She was right, but what was wrong with him went deeper than any sense of displacement. He wasn't lost in place. Or not only in place. The stars couldn't moor him anymore. He had grasped on to his anger, the only constant since the Wraith had first appeared over Sateda's skies, and he did not want to let it go for fear of losing what little of himself he'd kept safe.

"I cannot know the depth of your sorrow," Teyla went on. "But I will tell you this: when you have mourned your losses and can look to the future instead of the past, consider this place. These are good and fair people; they are generous and brave and committed to destroying the Wraith."

Ronon looked at Teyla; she has stopped watching the stars and was watching him instead. "They'll let me stay?" he asked, not sure he wanted to. Not sure he could even think clearly about what he wanted beyond killing every Wraith he found.

Teyla smiled faintly, like she knew a secret, and turned back to face the sky. "They expect that you will convalesce here, so you may take your time before deciding to extend your stay."

This was a gift, he was aware of that, but not one he could appreciate yet. He thought she knew that, too.

"Will I be followed around by their marines?" He didn't want to be a prisoner.

"You took Colonel Sheppard and me hostage," Teyla answered. "You demanded with violence what would have been given freely should you have only asked. These are a generous people, but they are not foolish."

"That's a yes?"

"That is a 'they will be mindful of you,'" she said, arching an eyebrow. "Give them time to forgive you and no further cause to fear you and they will be your greatest allies."

Within the promise was a threat of what would happen if he didn't.

"Why do you stay?" he asked. He knew she was not from here and yet she spoke with the authority of one who was.

"The simple reason is that I believe that these people will save us all from the Wraith," she replied. "The not-so-simple reason... you will hear in time should you choose to stay."

They remained on the pier in a silence broken only by the crashing of the waves. Teyla sat motionless, but Ronon could not muster the stillness and instead paced up and down and then broke into a run, feeling the sharp pain in his shoulder and back with each footfall. He could tell from the motion of the stars that time had passed, but Teyla did not move nor did she tell them that they had to return to the city and his cell.

Sheppard arrived and Teyla, who'd had her back to the city, rose to greet him.

"You ready to go in?" Sheppard asked him after his circuit brought him back to where Teyla had been sitting. "It's late and it's been a crummy day for everyone."

Sheppard didn't look like he was making a reference to his own captivity; there was no amusement on his face the way there had been when he'd done so earlier. Ronon remembered the crazed man they'd been chasing, the one they'd lost and brought him home instead. One man, however beloved, did not outweigh a world, but that did not negate their grief. He wasn't ready to be gracious or giving, but he could grant them that.

"Okay."

Sheppard led them back inside, to the elevator and back to the holding cell, which no longer smelled of vomit and now had towels and clothes stacked neatly on the bed.

"We'll figure out a place for you tomorrow if you want to stay a while," Sheppard said. In the harsh light, he looked worn. "Do me a favor and stay inside here tonight? If you're gonna hang around, we'll work out where you can wander off to and where you can't. But everyone's a little antsy tonight."

Ronon nodded. He thought he might enjoy a fight, but they'd taken his gun from him and the marines still had theirs.

"Good night, Ronon," Teyla said, smiling warmly and bowing her head in farewell. He couldn't reciprocate except with a curt nod.

She left and Sheppard turned to follow.

"Sheppard," Ronon called after him. He stopped and turned. "What is the name of this place?"

"Atlantis," he answered. Ronon didn't hide his surprise at hearing the name of the home of the Ancestors -- no wonder they kept it secret -- and Sheppard acknowledged his reaction with a wry half-smile. "This is Atlantis."



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16 March, 2008