She had come out of stasis many more times than she had told them.
She wasn't sure if it would have been worse or better for them if they had known the truth. Wasn't sure if it had been worse or better for her.
Janus had set the capsule to awaken her three times exactly. But it did not take Elizabeth long to discover that it responded to her thoughts, as she drifted in and out of lucidity in her dreams, and awakened her whenever she wished. It might have been a side effect of not having the ATA gene, causing the capsule to respond in ways its makers had not intended. Rodney would know. But Rodney was dead ... or ten thousand years in her future, along with everyone else she had ever known.
It hurt her to realize, now, at the end of her life, that she could have had not just hours with them but months and possibly years, if she hadn't been so careless in the early millennia of her exile. But in those days, eternity stretched before her like an infinite golden bridge. She had all the time in the world. And each time she slept in stasis, she woke to new wonders. Alone in a city the size of Manhattan, she wandered through high arching corridors, through galleries that echoed with her footsteps and rooms filled with Alteran wonders. Since she did not have the gene, the city did not light up for her, and so her wanderings did not drain the ZPMs. There was a flashlight in her belongings, retrieved by Janus from the ocean floor, and before its batteries were drained she found a supply of the Ancient equivalent -- glowing tubes that resembled neon lights.
She didn't stay out more than a few days at a time, a month or so at the most. In those days it did not seem reckless to her. She had no idea that her body was not perfectly preserved in stasis. At most, she might arrive in the future a year or two older than she had left it. She could deal with that; it was worth it for these days of exploration.
She wasn't lonely at first -- Elizabeth had never been a person who required the company of others to be happy. It came upon her slowly, the awareness that she was not just the only living person on the city, but in the entire world. In the Milky Way galaxy, humanity were a small, fragile presence confined to one world. The time when the Goa'uld would seed thousands of planets with human life was still far, far away.
None of the places that she had known existed. None of the people that she had known existed. She remembered walking in old ruins, standing among the stone circles of Britain and the crumbled remains of Greek temples, of Mayan pyramids, staggered by their age -- it was stunning to think that those sacred places were nothing but forest and jungle now.
The city seemed to press upon her. She thought she heard footsteps behind her, echoing in the dark -- knowing that it was only her own echoes did nothing to alleviate the sense of eyes on her back. Sometimes she ran without realizing it, coming back to herself in strange parts of the city and having to find her way home. Eventually she fled back into the stasis capsule and slept for two thousand years without dreaming.
It took her millennia to realize that she was aging.
She didn't look at herself in mirrors, these days. There was no need. She was the only person in the world; what did it matter if her hair was tidy? No ... she had been sitting on the steps above the gate, eating some food from the perfectly preserved contents of a pantry she'd found, when she happened to notice the spidery blue veins standing out on the back of her hand.
How odd, Elizabeth thought. Was it a trick of the light, making her hand look that way? She held it up, turned it over, noticed the fragility of the bones beneath the skin. She had been short of breath lately, but attributed it to the lack of exercise, the many years spent in sleep.
Suddenly terrified, she went for the first smooth surface she could find -- a window looking out upon the sunken city. The harsh light of the Ancient flashlight showed her what she'd feared she'd see: the face of a woman in her fifties, her red hair gone to salt and pepper, her mouth and eyes framed with a web of fine lines.
Elizabeth leaned on the window as her knees went weak.
Her first thought was that she'd miscalculated, lost track of time, spent years out of stasis rather than months. But unless she'd been suffering from some sort of insanity, she knew that couldn't be so. She was lonely and increasingly bored, but she knew that she was not insane.
Which left only one possibility. The capsule itself was allowing her to age. It didn't preserve her perfectly.
She pressed her forehead against the cool glass, shivering. She had not been afraid before. The idea that she might fail to come out of stasis in time, fail to save her people -- that had been her one great worry. But the idea of dying quietly in stasis if the process failed, as Janus had warned her it might, had held no fear for her. She'd come to the Pegasus Galaxy knowing that she might die here, in any one of a number of ways. Dying in her sleep was the least of the things she'd feared she might face here.
But ... but this ... Elizabeth sank down to the floor and drew her knees up to her chin. Could she even survive long enough to rotate the ZPMs? And, if she did ... what would she be, when she met them all again in the future? A fragile, broken old woman? The idea of death, she realized, did not frighten her nearly so much as the idea of dying by inches, her youth gone, her entire life spent in a tomb beneath the waves.
She fled to the stasis capsule, swearing not to come out until it was time to rotate the ZPMs again. Her resolve lasted for hardly a century, before she was again wandering the sleeping city.
It wasn't the joy of exploration now, but fear, that drove her down the long dark corridors. She wandered very far from the stasis room, losing herself in the bowels of the city for weeks at a time. She knew she shouldn't be doing it, knew that she was burning up precious days of her life that might make the difference between saving her people or letting them die. But she hated to go back into the capsule now. Each time she had to force herself, knowing that she'd wake up older, with nothing to show for having lived those years.
Her life was slipping away, and she had had no chance to live.
She found herself thinking of Simon, missing him desperately as she lay in dark hallways under thousands of feet of ocean, and touched herself in bitter imitation of Simon's hands. She thought of friends and family, of people like Daniel Jackson whose sharp minds challenged her to do better and think harder. She thought wistfully of her dog.
She had always thought that she would see all of them again someday -- that eternity would pass in the blink of an eye, like one long night of sleep, and then the halls of Atlantis would be bright again and she'd be greeting her other self like a regal queen in the domain that had been hers for millennia. But it wasn't going to happen like that. If she had any time at all with her people, it wouldn't be much time, and she would be old and sick. She was never going to see Earth again. Never see Simon. Never stand on the beaches where she used to go with her family as a child. Never see the sun set behind Stonehenge. Never lie in a warm summer field and watch the stars.
Her life was ending, one moment at a time.
This time when she went back into the stasis capsule, she was crying.
But she came out thoughtful, a thousand years later. It was harder to walk around the city now; she limped, and just climbing a flight of stairs made her breath come in short gasps and her heart do unpleasant gymnastics. So rather than exploring, she just sat in the darkened gateroom -- mere feet from the place where Rodney had died -- and stared at the reflected glow of the stained glass windows.
The city would rise again. She had rotated the last ZPM, and there would be enough power to raise the city. Even if there wasn't, she'd done all she could. There was nothing more she could do to help, short of giving her people the list of gate addresses to planets with ZPMs -- and they could get that list from her dead hand as easily as her living one.
She had done all she can, and looking up into the darkness, she felt at peace with it. Yes, she was dying here, and she might not live to see familiar faces again. But she'd spent the latter half of her life on another world. She'd met Ancients; she'd walked the halls of a city full of wonders that, for ten thousand years, had belonged solely to her. It was a life such as few people could even imagine. She had nothing to regret. If she had it to do over again -- as, in some sense, she had -- she'd step through that gate in an instant.
Past and present blurred together like watercolors in the rain, and Elizabeth knew that she was dying ... and found that she didn't mind. As she had told her younger self -- or maybe would tell her someday -- a part of her still lived in this galaxy. They were, after all, one person.
And maybe it was for the best, this way. This wasn't her city, wasn't her world. These weren't the people she had known. They had grown and changed in many ways, in wonderful ways -- she saw things in them now that had only been potential before. They had done with this city what she and her team had not been able to do. But they weren't her team, for all that they wore the same faces, bore the same names. Her team had died, and even though she had managed to save these people, nothing could change the fact that those she'd cared about were ten thousand years gone ... just as they had been when she'd walked the streets of the city alone.
Dimly, she could hear their excited voices as they pored over the list of gate addresses she'd given them. Elizabeth smiled, as she stopped holding back against the tide of exhaustion and let it wash over her. It was in good hands ... this city, this world. It had been hers, and hers alone, for ten thousand years. The time had come for someone else to take over.
She was very tired.
Closing her eyes, Elizabeth slept for the final time, a sleep without dreams.