The ship she uses is more-or-less a hybrid between a puddle jumper and one of the small fighters from the race she's come to call Orcs, because they're gray-skinned, large, and extremely ugly. She thinks that John would appreciate the name. Rodney as well, though he'd certainly grumble about it first. She wishes she could tell them.
The Orcs live so far away from the heart of the Pegasus galaxy that they know nothing about Atlantis or the Wraith. She's just as happy about that, because they're much stronger than humans and have better technology, and believe with every fiber of their remarkably unattractive beings that their destiny is to kill anyone who won't accept the Orcs as their righteous overlords.
But for all their arrogance, they do make good spaceships, and better guns. The only reason she's sorry that she overloaded the engines in their mother ship is that now it will be harder to steal tech from the struggling remnants of their civilization.
The puddle jumper part comes from when she was briefly part of Atlantis. Sometimes she wonders if the beautiful, somnolent intelligence of Atlantis remembers her the way she remembers her city, if her short time there left any imprint, either when she was Elizabeth, or when she came back as what she is now.
Atlantis's imprint on her is why she was able to create this lovely little ship, using her memory and her nanites. She built it molecule by molecule, much like cells build a body. The ship responds to her commands like it's a part of herself--it is a part of herself--and it makes her smile to think that maybe this is what it feels like for John.
She lands smoothly in the clearing she'd scanned from the Chrysalis, just outside of the range of the facility's primitive radar. Her little ship cloaks with a mental command and she walks out into the peaceful twilight of the alien woods. She's wearing a suit that's black, and sleek and tight. Mostly it's to help her blend in with the night, but partially because it makes her feel powerful and dangerous, and she likes feeling powerful and dangerous.
Elizabeth was always the talker, the diplomat. She empathized; she cajoled; she negotiated. She didn't fight unless there was no other recourse. Elizabeth hated violence. She would never wear anything like this. She would never have a reason to.
Elizabeth was excellent at what she did, but she's not Elizabeth anymore. And she's not interested in talking.
It's dark, and easy enough to avoid the sweeping searchlights when you can time your movement to the attosecond. The guards in the turrets at each corner of the wall surrounding the facility compound don't see her climbing over it, or snapping the razor wire with her hands. The guard luckless enough to be walking the inside perimeter is so stupid that she has her hands on either side of his head before he realizes that she's not actually there to seduce him.
She breaks his neck and lowers his body gently to the ground. No one hears anything. She doesn't bother taking his gun; hers is better.
There are two more guards at the main entrance, but the Orc gun takes care of both of them. She props their bodies up against the wall between the passes of the lights. The burn holes on their chests blend nicely with their black uniforms. Likely no one will notice that they or the other guard are dead until the next radio check-in, and she has plenty of time before that.
The key panel is the most sophisticated this backwater has, but she slides her hand inside it and her nanites deactivate it in milliseconds.
She creeps through the door, going slowly and expanding all her senses to make sure no one comes. She's been listening for John since she killed the first soldier at the wall, but she hasn't heard his voice yet and she's still too far away to hear his heartbeat or his breathing. It's possible he's unconscious, but it's also possible he's dying, or already dead.
If the thugs who pass as soldiers here managed to kill him, then she'll raze this entire facility to the ground. If John didn't survive, then neither will anyone else.
Elizabeth would have probably been horrified by that.
The facility where they're torturing John was built for the sole purpose of extracting information by any means possible. The building isn't large because they don't keep prisoners for more than three days. After that, either the victim has told them everything, or they're dead, or both. Usually both.
John was captured 63 hours ago, and Atlantis is still looking for him.
Right now, the size of the facility isn't to her advantage, because while there is only one interrogator and a handful of guards, they're hard to avoid in the narrow corridors. And sound carries very well in here. She knows it won't be long before someone hears her and comes to investigate, but there are ways to stay hidden.
The Asurans who killed Elizabeth and then rebuilt her kept to themselves, so their technology was limited to what the Lanteans had programmed into them. They didn't know about the Orcs either, and so neither did she until she cast her energy back into subspace, to escape her body as it froze. The Orcs were an extremely useful species to run into, because when she ransacked their database she found out that they'd experimented with nanotechnology as well. Which is why she can break herself into a swarm of billions of nanites and crawl silently across the ceiling. It's so dark in here that no one would notice a darker, larger shadow even if they thought to look up, and no one does.
She can finally hear John's breath and heartbeat when she's climbing down the ladder that leads to the basement where the cells are kept. They're both very weak. She moves faster.
The single, bored soldier dies when her nanites block his throat. And then she finds John.
John's cell is the very last one in a long row. It's so small that he can't stand up or lie down, and it's so dark that he might as well be blind. It stinks of blood and rot and urine. She's sure just by looking at what they did to him that he didn't tell them anything.
John has the strongest will of anyone she's ever known. She can see how hard he's fighting to live in the heat of his body, gathered like a bulwark around his laboring heart. But it won't be enough. John is dying--she can hear it in every rasp in and out of his fading breath, and she doesn't need light to see the burns and the cuts and what's left of his feet and hands. He won't live long enough for her to carry him back to the Chrysalis or to this planet's stargate; she doubts he'd survive even being moved.
For now, anyway. John will be fine, she knows that. But her shock and horror at seeing him like this feels as raw and real as if it were permanent.
If Elizabeth was here with John dying, she'd be brave. She'd be a tower of strength for the men and women with her on the failed rescue mission, and a beacon of hope for those back in Atlantis, waiting for his return. She would carry the whole city's burden of grief, be praised for her grace and poise and kindness. She would keep her broken heart hidden like a precious memento, and save her tears until she was alone.
But she's not Elizabeth anymore, and she won't have to do any of that.
She touches her palm to the largest of John's open wounds and releases a billion nanites. It's painful for her to lose so many at once, but the ones left in her body are already replicating to replace them. She'll need more energy later, but the Chrysalis has more than enough.
It only takes seconds for the wound she touched to close, and she can trace the path of the nanites by what heals next and then next as they scramble and replicate though his muscle and organs and blood and bone. Smooth skin melts over the burns; the debris of his infections disappear; broken down by the microscopic robots inside him.
There are several billion of them now, and his wounds close faster and faster until it's even hard for her to keep track of them. His fractured bones are whole in the blink of an eye. His fingers grow back smooth as new vines. The last things to be healed are his feet, which need to re-grow entirely, and his brain, because she wants to make sure that's done perfectly. As perfectly as Rodney restored Elizabeth's, although it feels like that happened a thousand years ago now. Far more like a dream than a memory.
"John," she says quietly, once it's finished. And he opens his eyes.
For the moment he can see as well as she can, and he blinks at her sleepily before shock makes him instantly alert. "Elizabeth?"
She's not Elizabeth, but he doesn't know that. "Hello, John," she says, and smiles at him.
"Elizabeth?" John uses the back wall of the cell to sit upright, still gaping. He holds up his hands, examining them as his eyes get even wider. "What the hell--?"
"Yes, it's me," she says. They're wasting precious time, but she can't help it. She's missed him so much. She grins. "I thought you could use a bit of help so I rescued you."
"Rescue?" he parrots. He tries to stand up but remembers the low ceiling before she has to remind him. He crouches instead. "This can't be real. My hands...I remember..." His eyes widen again. "God, my feet!" It's almost comical, the way he looks down at his toes. But when he lifts his head again his expression is full of far more fear than wonder, and it's not funny at all.
"This isn't real," John says. "This can't be real. I'm dying. I know I'm dying." He swallows. "You died." For a moment the sorrow is clear on his face, and then his expression hardens into anger. "You died. You and your crazy Asuran pals went through that space gate and you froze to death." He looks left and right, as if trying to find something that would explain her presence.
"Not exactly," she says. "I can explain everything later, but right now we have to leave."
John shakes his head. "No. No, this is some kind of hallucination, or virtual reality thing to get me to talk. You got into my mind somehow and found someone I lost and--" He grits his teeth like he's trapping the next words in his mouth before he can say them. "Nice try, making up some pretend rescue so I'll give you the gate address. Fuck you. Let me go back to bleeding out on the floor."
"John..." She reaches for him but he bats her hand aside and shoves her so violently that if she were a normal woman she would have fallen.
"Don't," he says. His voice is deadly. "You're not going to get anything you want from me, do you understand?"
"I don't want anything from you, except to get you out of here! Do you understand?" she hisses back. "John." She steps closer again. "It's me. It's really me. I'm right in front of you." She makes a small noise of frustration when it's obvious he still doesn't believe her. "I'd forgotten how stubborn you are. Look--I don't need the gate address to Atlantis. I already know it!" She lists off the chevrons in order, naming the constellations unique to Pegasus, watching in some satisfaction as his eyes go wide again.
"No. No way," he says. He sounds horrified. "I didn't--How did you--"
"Because it's me, John!" she says. "I know the address to Atlantis because I was there, remember? Before I walked through the space gate?"
John nods slowly. He still looks like he has no idea what to believe. "You froze to death in space."
"Look, believe what you want," she says, exasperated. "Maybe it's for the best if you think I'm not here. But if we don't leave now, we never will! Damn it--you trusted a Wraith enough to escape with him! Now you have to trust me, all right?"
"Fine," John says. "'Guess it beats being in pain, anyway." He's pretending he doesn't care, but she can easily hear how fast his heart is beating and she knows he's actually afraid.
"It'll be okay, I promise," she says. She takes John's hand so he won't run, then leads him out the door of the fetid cell. She closes and locks it again and then yanks John in the opposite direction of the ladder.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
"It's too risky to go out the way we came in," she explains tersely. She pulls him behind her around a corner at the far end of the room. There's another corridor here, leading to one of the larger interrogation rooms, and she drags him through and locks the door behind her, then scrambles the mechanism. This room has chains dangling from the ceiling and racks of what look like farm tools but aren't. She knows that the blood on the walls and the floor is John's. There's a lot of it.
She hears John's heartbeat skyrocket and he tries to pull away from her. She just tightens her grip on his hand. "I'm not here to hurt you. This is a way out."
"This is a wall," he says. His voice sounds remarkably calm. She had no idea he was this good at pretending.
"I know. Shut up." She's angry that he still doesn't trust her, even when he doesn't even think any of this is real. It hurts, more than she thought it would, even though she expected it.
But the only thing that really matters is getting him out of here, and right now the easiest and fastest way is through the wall and the rock behind it to the surface.
She lets go of John's hand, then puts both her palms to the wall. "Stand back," she says.
She heats the wall until it's incandescent and the metal melts and flows like honey onto the stone floor. She ignores John's swearing in surprise behind her as she pushes her hands out to widen the hole, until her hands break through to the bare stone.
She'd like to rest, conserve what's left of her energy, but there's no time. "I'm going to dig up to the surface. Follow me when you see daylight."
"What?" John says, but she's already become something else.
She's sure the giant drill looks like a cartoon, but it takes only seconds to make a hole between the wall and freedom outside and that's all she cares about. The drill collapses into her swarm, then reforms as her again.
Now she's covered with earth and stone dust and she's exhausted, but she can't rest yet. There's no time to get more energy. She takes a deep breath, even though she doesn't need to breathe anymore, and ducks back inside the hole she made, extending her hand. "Come on," she says.
"That was cool," John says, and he smiles and takes her hand. She takes a second to smile back before she helps him climb out after her.
He doesn't let go of her hand as they run.
She hasn't forgotten about the sentry boxes or the searchlights, and she makes John stop every few seconds to let the lights pass without illuminating them. But they're only half way to the wall when the quiet is broken by the sudden wail of the alarm.
"Damn it!" They were faster than she'd calculated. Either someone was actually bright enough to check John's cell, or they found the hole or one of the bodies. Whatever it was, there's no time for stealth anymore. "Run!"
They race headlong through the next light and immediately she hears shouting and then the deadly staccato explosions of bullets. She can't be killed, no matter how many times the soldiers manage to hit her with their hopelessly outdated guns. But John can. He's close to invulnerable himself right now, but enough holes in him will overwhelm the nanites. He can still die.
She's not going to let that happen. "Get behind me!" she orders, then yanks her Orc gun from the holster and fires at the closest turret. She needs to aim through a slit very much like an arrow hole on a castle to get the guard, but that's no problem. His grunt as her beam hits him is darkly satisfying.
A line of bullets pocks the ground just beside her, spattering dirt. The next barrage will hit and she's about to step out of the way, when John yells Look out! and shoves her aside. And the line of bullets bisects his chest, neatly piercing his lungs and heart.
She curses his protective instincts even as she kills the soldier in the second turret who shot him. Her nanites are repairing the new damage before he hits the ground, but she can already feel the extra drain on her energy reserves. It will make it that much harder to get them both out of here.
In one motion she turns, reholsters her gun and grabs John to heave him up and into her arms. At least she can go much faster now, without having to worry about his human limitations.
A bullet hits her as she starts to run, but then she's just a blur in the dark.
Guards are converging on her as she nears the wall, so instead of putting John down to bash her way through she holds him more tightly and jumps, even though she knows she's too energy-depleted to make it. It's not the same place she came in, and her legs catch on the unbroken razor wire. She drops John, and then dangles there for a moment while she gathers enough reserves to break into her swarm again. By the time she reforms on the other side she's completely healed but feels as wobbly as a sick human, but it doesn't stop her from scooping John up again and running.
She has to conserve her strength now so she directs the nanites inside John to work more slowly, which has the added benefit of keeping him unconscious. After his reaction in the cell she's sure he'd be wary about following her into the unfamiliar ship.
She smiles ruefully as she thinks that this way she can also avoid more of his suicidal heroism, not to mention arguing with him about who's going to fly.
She makes certain that John is lying safely behind the pilot's seat, and then she sits down, powers her ship up, and flies toward the gate.
The planet they gate to is one the expedition's never seen, but it's uninhabited with a mild climate and perfectly safe. It would make an excellent Alpha site, and she hopes that they'll realize that when they come to get John.
She lands the ship right in front of the gate, then puts her hand in the console and drains every last nanojoule of power before she leaves. It means she'll need another transport back to the Chrysalis, but she instantly feels normal again.
She carries John out of the ship and gently lays him down a safe distance from the gate. He's almost entirely healed now and will wake up soon.
"Goodbye, John," she says softly as she kneels down next to him.
Then she carefully inserts her hand into his brain and destroys every neuron associated with his capture, torture and rescue. She doesn't want him to remember a second of the pain he endured.
But she also doesn't want him to remember how close to death he had been when she found him, and especially not that her nanites saved his life without his permission. She remembers all too well how John reacted when Rodney used the Asuran nanites to heal her; he shouldn't have to live with the burden of his own survival.
She dials Atlantis, smiling again when she hears Chuck's familiar voice on the comm., but she makes sure there's no way they can guess who she is when she gives them the gate address and tells them John is here.
Then she hides, near enough to the gate so that she can see the Lanteans' arrival. She watches over John as he sleeps. The nanites will die soon, the way she programmed them to, and be absorbed by his body. They won't show up on any medical scans. John will return to Atlantis healed and whole, and no one except her will ever know what really happened to him.
She will miss him. She misses all of them. But Atlantis isn't her city anymore.
The splash of a forming wormhole blasts out of the gate two minutes later, completely destroying her ship. A team comes through right after, led by Rodney, Teyla, Ronon and Evan, and followed by six Marines. Their tight, wary expressions blossom into joy when they see John. She can imagine the myriad of scans and tests he'll have to go through to prove that it's truly him, but as John wakes, it's obvious by the reverent way he's treated that the rescue team has no doubts.
John himself is confused, but happy to know he's going home. She watches as they dial Atlantis and go through together, John flanked by Rodney and Evan with Teyla ahead and Ronon behind, his team automatically guarding their leader and beloved friend.
She stays until the last Marine steps through the wormhole and it blinks out, then she steps out into the open and contacts the Chrysalis, letting her crew know she needs a lift. She doesn't have to wait long.
It makes her grin to see the little ship land near the gate; she can tell just by the way it turns and the precision of the landing that Aklen is the pilot. By the time he lifts the back hatch she's already at the ship, waiting for him.
He blinks when he sees her, his wide grin fading a little at her unfamiliar face. "Izbet?" he asks.
"I'm right here, Aklen," she says, and finally lets herself morph into her true form: taller and broader in the shoulders, with a grey-skinned, sharp-featured face.
A human wouldn't consider her beautiful like this, but Aklen does, and the simple delight that lights his expression warms her to the core.
"It's good to see you, Captain," he says, in that teasing way of his that she loves. He holds out his big hands for her and she takes them as he leads her inside. His people don't kiss, but the way he touches his fingertips to her cheek is exactly the same. "I gather the rescue went according to plan?"
"Perfectly," she responds, because in the end it went well enough and there's no reason to worry him. Aklen knows exactly what she is, but he's extremely protective anyway, just like the rest of his kind.
Aklen and the rest of her crew are Orcs, but not the same as the ones she destroyed. Just like she and Koracen and the rest of her small band weren't the same as the other Ausurans. But unlike Koracen and the other Asurans she lured to their deaths, Aklen's faction of Orcs is wholly good. She is so lucky she found them imprisoned aboard the Orc ship that accidentally plucked her from subspace.
He graciously offers her the pilot seat, but she's happy to just sit beside him. "You know," she says, "I've been thinking. Maybe it's time to change the name of our ship."
Aklen glances at her curiously. "Oh? What were you thinking?"
"Something more purposeful and precise," Izbet says. After all, her metamorphosis finished a long time ago. She leans back in her chair and takes his hand. "What do you think of Guardian?"
"The Guardian," Aklen says, considering it. He nods. "Yes. That's good. I like it." His smile is knowing when he looks at her again. "I suppose our mandate will include periodic orbits of Atlantis, then?"
"Periodic, yes," Lizbet says, and she grins back because there's no use in trying to pretend with him. "Just to make sure they're all right."
"At your command, Captain," Aklen says. His smile isn't teasing anymore. He gently squeezes her hand. "I'm sorry you can't be with them."
"I'm not," she says. That's not entirely true, but it's close, and that's good enough. "Even if I made sure to always look human to them, because of what I am they wouldn't trust me." And they'd have good reason not to, after what she did to John.
The Lanteans would always wonder if she was Asuran enough to use her nanites to destroy them, but she knows that wouldn't be the real reason she could never belong there again.
She's extremely aware of the irony that she violated John's mind to erase a violation of his body, but she doesn't regret it. She would do the same thing for him or any other Lantean, always, whether they wanted her to or not. She would force them to compromise their sense of security and their morality to save their lives. And she knows how wrong that is but really doesn't give a damn.
She will never, ever, stand by and let someone she cares about die if she can save them. And that's why she knows she can never go back.
But she doesn't want to go back. She belongs on her ship, with her crew.
"I'm not sorry," she says, smiling at Aklen and squeezing his hand. "Look," she says, pointing out the viewscreen as the enormous ship comes into view. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Absolutely," Aklen says. He grins at her. "The Guardian."
She's not Elizabeth anymore, but that's all right. She's Lizbet now. She's not a diplomat, but she's a guardian, and she doesn't want to be anything else.
She touches her fingertips to Aklen's face as they enter the hangar bay, going home.
This was a pinch hit for salable_mystic, who asked for a story where Elizabeth could be awesome and that would fix the end of Elizabeth's story in the TV series. Ms. Mystic also wanted a happy ending.