PRC-984 was a pre-industrial world with a mysterious energy source that had Rodney curious, as most in the Pegasus Galaxy were turning out to be. Teyla's people had not traded with the indigenous people --- the Bylinn --- but she had heard from others who had that they were a pleasant and caring people.
First impressions bore this out. The Bylinn wined and dined AR-1. They spoke of exchange of assistance, of their mutual hatred of the Wraith, of stories each had heard of the other.
And John and Rodney were invited to participate in the Bylinn's Listening Ritual.
They looked at each other, then John said, "We need a few moments to ---" He gestured at the rest of the Team.
"Of course," Lebtal --- the leader of the Bylinn --- nodded and withdrew a short distance.
John turned straight to Teyla. "Have you heard of this ritual?"
"I have heard.... rumours," she replied, her voice wary. "It is supposed to be a quest --- but not an arduous one --- where the participants learn to listen deeply."
"A quest for what?" Rodney asked. at Teyla's hesitation and headshake, he turned and raised his voice. "What's the quest for, Lebtal?"
"To learn to listen deeply," Lebtal replied. At Rodney's expression, he broke into a wide grin. "The searching part of the quest is for the Temple, where a ritual object is returned the village as proof that you have completed it." As the Team looked at each other, he added, "A map will be provided."
"So, it's basically a walk," Rodney nodded. He looked at John. "I'll do it if you will. Maybe we'll find that energy source."
"I'd love to see you learn to listen," John chuckled.
"Hey! I listen!"
John turned to Lebtal. "We'll do it."
Lebtal nodded. "Wonderful! Thn come --- refresh and prepare!"
John and Rodney followed Lebtal, and Ronon turned to Teyla. "You trust him?"
She frowned. "Not.... completely. I do not feel that this is quite as.... harmless.... as Lebtal indicates."
"Yeah, me either," he sighed. "So what do we do?"
"For now?" She looked after their friends. "For now, we wait. But not for long."
"Sounds good to me," he rumbled.
Lebtal led them to a "meditation shack" --- where they were fed and left alone for the evening to prepare for their quest.
Near dark, a young woman came in and offered them wine and bread. She watched them drink. When she refilled Rodney's goblet, she added a bit of powder to it.
She watched Rodney drain it, then refilled both goblets a second time and left the shack. She nodded to Lebtal as she passed him, and Lebtal smiled.
"Now their quest begins."
It was the silence that woke John in the morning. He rolled over to see Rodney sitting against the wall, in a pool of bright sunshine.
John sat up as alarm bells went off in his head. Rodney was sitting ramrod straight, his hands balled into fists. His breathing was shallow and ragged, nearly panicked.
John trailed his eyes up to Rodney's face and swallowed hard at what he saw.
Rodney's eyes were huge, fixed and staring. His pupils -- which should have been small in the sunshine -- were dilated so badly that there was only a tiny sliver of blue around a gaping black maw.
And in that terrible instant -- John knew. "Rodney."
His head turned. "John --- oh, thank G-d, I thought I was alone!"
John stood and made his way over, where he sat down beside Rodney. "Rodney," he said softly, "you can't see, can you?"
"No," Rodney choked out. "No, I... I.... I woke up b-blind."
"Okay, buddy," John said. "Okay. Come on. We'll get you to Carson. Find out what's going on."
Rodney nodded, and reached out his hand. John took his hand and helped him climb to his feet.
Lebtal met them outside the shack. "Ah! You are ready for your quest!"
John shook his head. "Lebtal, we need to get home. Rodney --"
"Yes. He is in darkness. It is part of the journey. In his darkness, he will learn to truly listen."
John's eyes narrowed. "You mean you did this to him? On purpose?"
"It is our way," Lebtal said calmly. "To pass through the barriers that prevent listening, it is necessary to pass through the darkness."
Rodney clutched John's arm. "Let's... let's just go."
"We're leaving," John snarled. "Don't try to stop us."
"You will return," Lebtal smiled.
"Don't bet on it," John shot as they walked away.
The four walked through the Ring, and Lebtal's smile never faded.
"You will return," he muttered. "And you will save my people."
The staccato sound of his heels driving a beat born of panic-driven hyperactivity filled his head. "Well?" he finally demanded, his voice an embarrassing squawk.
Carson's only answer was another of the noncommittal sounds he had made since he started his examination -- and it was simply too much.
"Carson!" he wailed, and he felt the reassuring touch on his forearm, grounding him enough to breathe deeply and regain a little bit of control over his whirling thoughts.
"Carson," John's voice, very close by like he had been since those first terrified moments in the shack. "Just tell us before Rodney spontaneously combusts!"
"All right." And he heard Carson draw in and let out a deep breath.
"Oh, dear Lord," he breathed, his hand clamping down on John's as it rested on his other forearm. "This doesn't sound good. Any time Carson has to take a fortifying breath, it's never good news."
John started to chuckle, then he seemed to realise that Rodney was serious. The chuckle turned into a loud swallow. "Rodney, you can't know--"
"Yes, I can," Rodney interrupted. "Every time the man has bad news to impart, he has to take a deep breath!"
"I'm afraid he's right," Carson said gently. "It's not good news."
"Then don't keep us in suspense!" Rodney snarled. "Tell me when I'm going to see again!"
Carson drew in a deep breath again. His reply was soft, but it did nothing to lessen the impact.
"I'm sorry, Rodney -- I don't think you are."
John gasped involuntarily at Rodney's tightened grip.
"No...." Rodney gasped. Then louder, "No! No, I won't accept that! This isn't permanent! It can't be permanent!"
Carson's touch on his knee was gentle, but Rodney still jerked violently from the contact. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "Contact with some kind of chemical caused your blindness, Rodney. It's in your bloodstream. I've never seen anything like this before and I don't know how to reverse this."
"Carson can't help," John groaned. "There's nothing that can be done."
"Wrong," Rodney countered. "We can go back to the planet. finish the quest and learn to listen. Lebtal said once we do that, my sight will return."
Elizabeth made a small sound that Rodney instantly recognised -- she was struggling to hold onto her temper.
"I mean it, Elizabeth," he said. "Carson can't help. He doesn't know anything about what they did to me down there. Going back is the most logical--"
"And what if they hurt you worse?" John snarled.
Rodney turned toward his voice and mustered a glare. "Now who's not listening?" he growled. "I'm useless like this, John."
"Stop that -- you're not useless!"
"Then let me say it out loud, since no one else will." He found John's forearm. "John, I'm blind."
And he felt John wince.
"I'm blind, John," he repeated. "And I'm going to stay blind until we go back to that planet!"
"Rodney," John began, but Rodney cut him off.
"I'm right, John. And you know I'm right. So what's it going to be? Are you going to let me stay useless, a drain on resources, and blind? Or are we going back down to that planet and getting this fixed?"
Silence. He could picture quite vividly John and Elizabeth looking at each other.
"Elizabeth," he said in a gentler tone. "I'm right. Those truly are the only two options we have."
She sighed. "Rodney---"
"I'm right, Elizabeth."
Another stretch of silence. At last, another deep sigh from Elizabeth broke it.
"All right," John sighed, and Rodney heard the scrape of his chair and sensed him rising to his feet. "C'mon, Rodney."
"To where?" Rodney asked, standing up as well.
"To get tacked out. We're going back to PRC-984."
Rodney squeezed his guiding hand. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me yet," John said. "Not till this is over and done with."
To John's surprise, it was not Lebtal who awaited them when they stepped onto PRC-984. "Where's Lebtal?" he demanded.
Beside him, Rodney stiffened. "He isn't here?"
"John," Teyla warned.
The woman -- who appeared to be slightly younger than Lebtal - stepped forward. "Lebtal has been removed from his position and taken into custody."
That visibly surprised Teyla. "Custody?" she gasped. "For what crime?"
"For blinding Rodney," John guessed, his voice a soft, dangerous growl.
"You are correct," the woman said. "The full treatment of preparation for the Listening Ritual was never meant to be applied to offworlders. I am Nervala."
Rodney nodded in her direction. "Well, can we just get this over with? I'd really like to get my sight back as quickly as I can."
"Of course," Nervala said. "Who is guiding you?"
"That would be me," John said.
Nervala nodded. "Then follow me." She turned and lead the way to a hut with no roof.
Rodney frowned as they entered the circular enclosure, tilting his face to the sky. "Okay, I thought we went through a doorway, but it feels like we're still outside."
"We are," John said softly. "It's like an arena or a pen or something."
And Rodney bristled. "So I'm on display?"
John noticed the path at that moment. "Hang on, buddy, I don't think that's the case. There's a stone pillar set up with something like a sidewalk around it and a path leading from it out of here."
"Excellent," Nervala said. "You already have mastered the rudiments of the Listening. Please -- accept my apology for the actions of Lebtal."
"I'll accept after my sight is back," Rodney said. "So." He squared his shoulders. "How do we get started?"
Nervala pointed. "You and your guide follow the path. Everything will be made clear."
Roger nodded. "Let's go, John. Let's get this over with."
John took his elbow, and they began to walk down the path.
They'd walked about twenty minutes when Rodney closed his useless eyes and tilted his head toward the sky again.
"What is it?" John asked softly.
"The sunshine feels good on my skin," Rodney said. Then he frowned. "Huh."
Rodney shrugged as he straightened his head. "It just hit me. I seem to worry less about SPF when I can't see the sun."
John squeezed his arm.
"I bet you're wearing your aviators, aren't you? It feels bright enough for them."
"I sure am."
And there was a slight smile drifting across Rodney's lips. "I thought so."
Then, suddenly, Rodney's fingers were snapping. "Do you have that map Lebtal said would be provided for us?"
"Sorry, buddy. No map."
Rodney snorted. "Not surprised. So what do we do?"
"Looks like we have a nice walk along the path, here." He squeezed Rodney's arm again --- the one he was guiding him by. "I hope this doesn't last long."
"Yeah, I wanna go home, too," Rodney groused. He frowned as they abruptly stopped. "What?"
"The path forks. There's a stone pillar between them, with an inscription. I can't read it. It looks Ancient."
"Is it a carved inscription?"
John blinked. "Yes---?"
Rodney grinned. "Put my fingers where it starts." John obeyed, and Rodney's lips moved as he felt each letter of the short inscription. then he lowered his hands.
"Well?" John asked.
"Right leads to power, left to wisdom," Rodney said, turning toward John's voice. "Nervala said we'd learn how to listen, right?"
"To these people, listening seems to be wisdom. So we go left."
John grinned. "I think you just might be right, buddy. Let's go." He took Rodney's arm again, and they headed down the left hand path.
Neither of them noticed the right hand fork vanish --- the illusion's work done.
Neither of them would ever know they had only been forty steps away from a serpent-infested cave.
Rodney came to an abrupt halt, his hand clamping on John's guiding hand on his other arm. "What was that?" he gasped.
"What was what?" John asked.
"Sh-sh-sh, hush! Listen!"
John fell silent and lowered his eyes, focusing all his attention onto his ears.
"That," Rodney whispered. "What was that?"
"I don't know," John said. "Let's find out." He drew his sidearm and guided Rodney to sit down. He put Rodney's sidearm in his hand. "Safety's on," he said, guiding Rodney's fingers to it. "Don't use it unless you feel you absolutely have to."
Rodney nodded. "John."
"I'll be careful. I promise."
"Okay, then, buddy." He leaned on Rodney's knee as he stood. "I'll be right back."
Rodney pulled the gun close to his body and waited in silence, straining his ears to hear what was happening.
There was an audible scuffle, then John's voice. "I'm back."
Rodney closed his eyes and slid the gun into his own holster. "What was that?"
"Tell him,"John ordered.
There was a grunt, then Rodney stiffened as a familiar voice said, "I came to check on you. Your success is vital."
"Lebtal!" Rodney gasped. "What---"
"What do you mean, our success is vital?" John demanded.
"You must pass this test. You must remove the poison from our village!"
"Okay, back up," John growled. "You're not making sense!"
"Maybe he is," Rodney said. "Remember when we first got here --- before we got to talking about the Listening Ritual?"
"Your mysterious energy source," John said.
"Right," Rodney said. "And if his village is in danger, that would account for---" He gestured toward his useless eyes. "Desperate times call for desperate measures."
John's reply was a single hum.
"Lebtal," Rodney asked, "why are you talking about poison?"
"Recently, there was a series of tremours. They came from the area of the cave where the Listening Ritual ends. At the end of the tremours, my people began to sicken ---especially those who had recently attempted to complete the Ritual. None have been able to complete it since the tremours."
Rodney slowly nodded. "So you think whatever's at the end of the Ritual is causing it?"
"Yes," Lebtal said. "The Artifact has somehow come to life and is taking revenge on my people."
Rodney held up a hand. "Describe the artifact, Lebtal."
And John and Rodney's jaws lowered in shock as Lebtal perfectly described a ZPM.
The three men moved on down the path, and Rodney just kept shaking his head. "A ZPM," he breathed. "I can't believe it --- hey, wait," he said, stopping abruptly and turning in the direction abruptly and turning in the direction he'd last heard Lebtal's voice coming from. "Why are you even here?"
"Rodney's right," John said. "You were under lock and key, the last time we knew anything."
"Yes, that," Lebtal chuckled. "Foolish of Nervala, thinking she could imprison me. I designed the holding pit, after all."
Rodney hummed and they resumed their walk. Moments later, Rodney frowned as they came to a halt. "What---"
"We're at a cave," John reported. "The path dead-ends right into it."
Lebtal spoke up, "There is the final destination. Inside lies the artifact that has caused all this trouble."
Rodney nodded. "John, my pack --- can you scan for that energy reading?"
He felt his pack opened and John rummaging around before he slid the scanner out. He heard a beeping hum, then John's quiet, "It's there." He described what exactly he was seeing, and Rodney breathed a curse. "What?"
"That's radiation as well. That's why your people are getting sick, Lebtal." He took a deep breath. "Carson is going to have a field day with us after this."
"No kidding," John groused. "Okay, Lebtal, what do we have to do to finish this quest?"
"Go inside. Doctor McKay, have your helper direct your hands to the shelf on which the artifact rests. Remove it, bring it to the village, and you will be given the antidote to restore your vision."
Rodney tilted his head. "And the ZPM -- the artifact?"
Lebtal sighed. "It has sickened many. I will argue for its destruction and a wooden copy will be installed."
"No!" Rodney gasped. "Don't destroy it! If you put the copy in, let us take the ZPM off your hands!"
"Hmmm." Lebtal considered. "It would rid our village of it, indeed. Go. Complete your quest, and we shall see what transpires."
Lebtal remained outside as John and Rodney entered the cave. "Huh," John said suddenly. "There's a plaque over to hte side with more carved writing."
"Show me." John put Rodney's fingers on it, and he nodded after a moment. "It's the same directions Lebtal just told us." He lowered his hand. "So where's the shelf?"
"It should be just ahead --- oh, crap."
"What is it?"
John took a deep breath. "I think we just found out why the Artifact woke up."
"Is it a ZPM?"
"It is. And it looks like the tremours collapsed the shelf. The ZPM fell --- into the console's power slot. It's half-inside, but apparently that's enough to activate it."
Rodney took a deep breath. "So we've got to extricate an active, possibly damaged ZPM. With me completely blind."
"Looks that way."
"Oh, crap." Rodney allowed himself another five seconds of sheer freak-out before he wrestled the nervous panic into its box. Running a hand over his mouth an nose, he straightened his shoulders. "Okay," he said, a small tremour still in his voice. "John, I need to know exactly what it looks like."
John took a deep breath. "Right." And he began to talk.
For three minutes straight, John described the scene before him. Beginning at the left wall and going into meticulous detail, he ended his description at the right wall. He told Rodney the size, shape and colour of the console. He told Rodney of the softly glowing ZPM sitting at a ridiculous angle (his mental description -- what came out of his mouth was the precisely accurate 38 degrees) where it had fallen into the slot. He even included the shards of the wooden shelf scattered about.
As he'd woven his verbal picture, Rodney had closed his eyes. when he fell silent at last, Rodney opened them. "Okay," he said softly. "Get me to the console. Let's try the easy way before we resort to the hard way. Which, with our luck---"
"We're not there yet," John pointed out as they moved. He lay Rodney's palms on the console.
Rodney nodded. "Okay, Gene-Boy--" His spirits lifted immensely on hearing John's snort. "C'mere. Put your hands on either side of the ZPM."
John did. He glanced down as he did so, and the results of a readout made him gasp out loud.
"What?" Rodney gasped. "What is it? What do you see?"
John couldn't read Ancient script. But he'd seen enough countdowns and interfaced with Atlantis enough that he knew numbers when he saw them. And he'd been in the ZPM room enough that he knew exactly what he was looking at. "The ZPM is in enough that the program is telling us how much juice it has."
"Great, so we know how depleted it is. What does the readout say?"
"So, nearly depleted."
"No --- it has 83%."
Rodney spluttered. "It's nearly full?"
"That's what it's saying."
Rodney muttered incoherent gibberish for a long moment, then shook his head. "Are your hands on the console?"
"Right where you told me to put 'em."
"Close your eyes and think to it as hard as you can. Tell it to power down."
John closed his eyes. C'mon, baby. Go to sleep for me. Power down. It's time to sleep. Go on.
With a soft whine of deceleration, the ZPM slowly went dark.
"It's powered down," John said softly.
"Good. Now help me get it out of there."
"They come! They come!"
Nervala rose to her feet, as did Ronon and Teyla. The pair had refused to return to Atlantis to wait, preferring for the team to leave as they had arrived --- four strong.
"They come!" The scout who had been sent came racing into the village, stopping his shouts only when he saw Nervala. "Milady, they have completed the quest and come bearing its fruit!"
Nervala broke into a wide smile. "The first to complete in months....." She started to turn toward Ronon and Teyla, when the scout added:
"And Lebtal returns with them!"
The smile froze and then erased from Nervala's face as she turned to the scout. "Lebtal? He was imprisoned!"
"Nonetheless, he arrives with the pair!" the scout insisted.
Nervala stalked toward a pit with bars over it. She lit a torch and thrust it between the bars.
It illuminated an empty pit and a small, open door at the very base.
Nervala sighed deeply and retracted the arm with the torch. "Lebtal, it would seem, is indeed with them."
"Teyla," Ronon said, and both women turned to face the woods, where Ronon's attention was held.
Walking from the trees, on the path, were a visibly tired John and Rodney. John was guiding Rodney, and Rodney was cradling a ZPM in his other arm.
Lebtal walked on Rodney's other side. As they emerged into the clearing, Lebtal whispered to Rodney, who nodded and reached out the arm holding the distinctive crystal.
Lebtal took the ZPM from him and held it up. "The quest is complete!" he loudly announced.
And the waiting people erupted in cheers. Lebtal handed the ZPM back to Rodney and spread his hands. "And there will be no more sickness! Our crystal was the cause, and its removal shall be the cure!"
Lebtal went on, "They have even repaired the shelf the tremours destroyed! The crystal will sicken us again if it breaks. So I propose we copy the crystal in inert wood! The offworlders have asked for our crystal instead of our destroying it. I propose they be allowed to remove it!"
Again, the assembled people roared approval.
Until Nervala stepped forward. "There remains the matter of your being taken into custody for forcing an offworlder to bear the darkness of our ritual without the proper explanations or preparations!"
Rodney opened his mouth, but Lebtal interrupted, "And that shall be put to rights right now. Both of you, come with me."
And wearily, Rodney and John followed.
Elizabeth was not pacing.
She would tell anyone who asked her. She was decidedly and pointedly not pacing.
She preferred to think she was just walking a very small circuit. Exercise and all that.
Her not-pacing came to an abrupt end, turning into a short sprint to the tune of Sargent Campbell's announcement: "Unscheduled offworld activation!" and the mechanical whumping sounds of the dialing Stargate.
When it was fully active, Elizabeth stood there, her wide eyes illuminated by the sea-water azure glow of the event horizon, practically vibrating with impatience.
Sargent Campbell turned and smiled at her. "IDC received, ma'am. It's Teyla's."
"Teyla," Elizabeth called. "Is--- did----"
"We are returning, Elizabeth," Teyla replied.
Elizabeth looked at Sargent Campbell, who smiled. "Shield lowered."
"Come on through, Teyla," Elizabeth said. "It's safe."
There was a pause, then they came through the event horizon. Four abreast. Teyla and Ronon flanking John and Rodney --
Who could clearly see again, if the wide-eyed gawking at Atlantis like a man long denied her beauty said anything.
Elizabeth felt the air go out of her in a relieved gasp.
Only then did she notice that Rodney was cradling something in his arms. Radek came jogging over once he saw it, and after an exchange of words, he took it from Rodney and as he dashed away, Elizabeth's eyes widened.
"Is that a ZPM?"
Rodney looked at her and broke into a wide smile. "And it's almost full --- and it's ours."
Elizabeth frowned. "But --- don't they need it to protect from the Wraith?"
"Not that world," John said. "There's something in the atmosphere that protects them. We're not sure what, and neither are they."
"They had it on a shelf, Elizabeth!" Rodney gasped. "A shelf --- treating it like it was just a pretty trinket!"
Elizabeth cut him off before he could really ramp up. "Your eyes --- how ---"
"Antidote," was all Rodney said. Then he took off toward the Infirmary for his post-mission checkup, with John right behind him. Elizabeth didn't miss for an instant the Colonel's reach for Rodney's arm, to guide him, and the quick realisation that it wasn't needed any longer, the hand falling to ball into a fist by John's side quickly before it unclenched a mere second later.
Then she turned to the others. "And Lebtal?"
"The political situation is.... tenuous," Teyla said. "Lebtal overstepped his boundaries --- for a good cause. The ZPM was engaged, but the console was malfunctioning and poisoning his people."
Ronon nodded. "There's a civil war of words going on," he added. "Might be best not to go back until it ends."
"Agreed," Elizabeth said, looking in the direction Rodney and John had gone. "I'm just glad you're all all right."
It was late in the day when John found Rodney sitting on a catwalk close to Elizabeth's office. "What are you doing here?"
Rodney looked up at him and smiled a little. "I was blinded so I'd learn to listen, right? At least that was the party line."
"Right," John said, still a little confused. "So ---?"
"So," Rodney said, tilting his head toward the control room. "I'm listening."
John looked at him and then broke into a smile. He sat down beside Rodney, bumping their shoulders together.
And together --- they listened.
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