ECHOES IN THE ROCK

From the testimony of Lady Ti'ana

I did not think him alive when I passed him the first time. Someone had beaten him, tortured him. By the time I got there, he did not seem to draw breath. There was so much blood everywhere and he lie so still that I did not bother to check for a pulse. Truth be told, I was more concerned about Aitrus, for however ashamed I am of that fact. But my father had told me to think of the Whole, to examine the individual factors and the totality of their sum weighted against one another. Regrettably, and to my eternal shame, I did not have time to sparing in stopping for someone who was already dead, not when the lives of my husband, my son, and all the D'ni where in such jeopardy.

I have read A'Gaeris's journal. I have seen with my own eyes what the so-called great "Philosopher" did to both the outsider and Veovis, twisting them both to his will. He detailed it clinically and with a disregard, as though studying an experiment. The things A'Gaeris did to him.... I.... I cannot imagine surviving what he did....

I left him. May the Maker forgive me for it, I left him.

This is my testimony, and I do swear by it.

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He cannot go back to whence he came; he knows that now even if he does not know where exactly that is. There is only moving forward and away from what had perhaps been the most impressive empire to ever exist. But that is no more, nothing more than echoes in the rock and black, curling scrawls upon the page, lingering on long after their authors have returned to dust.

He still does not know where it all went so very wrong, how such a vast, glorious, and precisely ordered empire of D'ni could fall to disaster and chaos so quickly, so..... efficiently. He had been there to pay witness to it all, even through the eyes of an ahrotantee, an outsider. He had felt the tumultuous earthquakes rumble through what should have been stable rock, humming through the air, toppling elegant mansions and splitting a gaping maw of a jagged crack in the side of the main cavern. He himself had narrowly escaped being crushed to death beneath one of the many walls to crumble under the mighty tremors. He had stared impotently and slack-jawed as a vile, inky black cloud of gaseous death spewed from the crack, spreading over the lake with languid curls, almost insidiously hypnotic. Everything the vapor touched had died before his eyes, starting with the orange, bioluminescent algae of the lake before the cloud reached out with deadly intent for the city itself. At night, sometimes, he still hears the terrified screams and desperate wails of the thousands fleeing to the Common Libraries and the supposed safety of the Ages contained therein. When the cloud had settled, when the city turned unnaturally silent, and when he dared return, he spied the two traitors to the empire collecting their victims from where they dropped and ferrying them to the Ages, sending bodies rife with contagion through to the poor souls who had thought themselves safe. And, yet, despite having seen all that with his own two eyes, he still cannot fathom how easily the empire fell overnight.

Somehow, the lack of understanding in that regard is worse than not remembering his own name, his own identity before D'ni.

He stares out through his tinted, protective glasses in quick surveil at this, the most recent incarnation of his Age, before checking his own notations in his personal journal that permanently resides in his knapsack alongside several copy books of this Age's text throughout all of his attempts at chasing perfection. He has been at this for some time now, since long before D'ni fell. Each day, he carefully adjusts the words that craft his Age in the book that remains tucked away and hidden in what has become his study, delicately fine tuning the properties of this Age. Then, he copies the alterations to his journal and links, chronicling his discoveries upon linking, documenting his varied successes and failures in what would have surely been a master work. However, thus far, he feels no closer to manipulating this Age to his will than he did when he first began.

He sighs to himself, wistful at the damp saltiness of the air; a beach must be close. He misses the ocean, even if he cannot exactly remember it. He recalls little of his time from before awaking in the Guild House, surrounded by the Healers. What he does remember comes only in fleeting glimmers in his dreams, shards of recollections. He remembers a glittering, oceanic world, warm and salty like this one, with wide, blue skies and dazzling stars in the night.

The hint of nostalgia tugs him along unseen strings through the moist, mellow, deciduous forrest, green and budding in what seems a spring season to where the trees thin and part to a wide, sandy beach. It is sunny and warm, conforming perfectly to the precise description of the Age in its book, and, yet, it seems.... inherently wrong somehow. It smells slightly off to his scattered memory, and the colors do not seem quite right, distorted as though by tinted lenses. He misses his world, even if he cannot recall it accurately, perhaps as much as he misses the comfort of simple human interaction.

He shakes his head. He has been at this too long. His quest to find world of his dreams is constantly in vain, and his searches of the Ages had yet to yield any survivors. He is surrounded by death, both in the city and in the Ages. Every man, woman, and child of the D'ni empire. Whatever plague struck the city but spared his meager life has spread to the Ages, carried by the corpses linked through by Veovis and A'Gaeris, the bastards. After exploring an Age long enough to ensure that no survivors remain, he summarily burns each and every one of the books linking to that Age, fearful that, should any survivors return to the city alive and healthy, they might travel to these infected Ages in search of other survivors.

A part of him wonders why he alone is unscathed by the creeping, black death that swept the city, while another part of him constantly reminds the weary traveller that he is touched, tainted by the memories of the city and the shards of his own past. How long has it been? Two years since the fall of D'ni, since he last saw another living person. Five years since he awoke on Irrat without any identity save the fractured memories of a past that no longer feels his own. No, he may not have been physically afflicted by whatever killed so many, but that is never to say that he has not been emotionally scarred by the ordeal. He heart still aches even now upon recollections of both D'ni and a glorious, floating city upon his oceanic world.

No. He cannot go back to those thoughts. This will be his last attempt at completing this Age, for his heavy heart cannot bear the sorrow and disappointment any more. He will explore this Age for a few days to finish his survey and allow his heart to appropriately grieve this decision. Then, he will return to the city and abandon his quest for his ocean world. He has several kortee'nea, blank books for the intent of crafting an Age. He will write himself a new Age, a place where he can live out the last of his earthly days accompanied only by his guilt and woe. Perhaps something temperate and soft?

He shrugs to himself as he strides down the long, dusty dunes towards the water. There, he finds a rounded boulder to sit upon and peels off his protective glasses. He eats a small and simple pack lunch, listening to the lulling sound of waves rumbling in the distance and the sharp caws of gulls overhead. This world is a fairly pretty Age. A few clouds mar an otherwise wide, blue sky. The ocean surf sprays with white, billow breakers beyond wide shoals, while the waves lap gently at the creamy sand just a few yards away. The sun shines warmly upon his face, while a brisk yet gentle breeze caresses his cheek. The air tastes sweet and salty. If this Age were not so painfully familiar and so depressingly alien, he might have been tempting to call this place home.

He reaches into his knapsack for a sheet of vellum, a protective cover, a quill pen, a pot of ink, and his journal to write what is to be his last letter. He sets the pot of ink beside him on the stone, along with the polymer sheet, placing the journal in his lap and spreading the vellum across it for a smooth surface to write upon. It is a tradition for him now after all this time. He is not sure why he does it, for he always ensures that the linking book will be destroyed upon his return to the city, but he still does this. He leaves his story on every world he visits, hoping that it may serve as some sort of memorial to the once great D'ni people, penned out on a sheet of vellum and covered by a protective polymer sheet.

Midway through the initial paragraph introducing himself and tersely explaining his amnesia, a sound startles him. A soft, whirring noise from behind. He turns, glancing over his shoulder warily. He is relieved to find the woods still and silent behind him once more. It is likely a bird or small mammal; many of his attempts at his Age seems to proliferate in such innocuous life. However, he has encountered a few variations of his Age populated by large predators, and experience has taught him to be cautious, as he may very well be the last man alive in the known universe.

He shrugs it off, finishes his letter, and begins to recopy it in a second, angular and sharp script quite familiar to him but foreign to the D'ni. When he finishes rewriting his third sentence, punctuating with a flourished dab of his quill pen, something cracks behind him, like a twig snapping. He tenses up, going on edge now, yet, upon checking, there is nothing once more in the trees. He chortles noiselessly at himself, mentally chiding himself for being so easily frightened like a child.

It is only when he completes his copying and surveys his work that a voice calls from behind him. "Hello?"

He jumps now, spilling his precious ink to the sand into an expanding puddle of black, along with the journal and the vellum sheet. He does not care. He has not heard a human voice in two years, and it sends his heart racing, hammering in his chest and thundering in his ears painfully. He trembles. He wants to turn away, but he cannot, not when the faces emerging from the woods are so familiar, as though torn right from his dreams.

He holds his ground but his nerve breaks when the three approaching figures step completely from the woods, aiming their weapons at him. He steps back. The logical part of his mind shrieks and screams at him to say something, do something, do anything, but he cannot.

A tall, well built man that could has passed for one of the Maintainers from his bulk and stiff visage calls gruffly, "Hey..."

He closers his eyes, thinking they will vanish, but, when he opens them once more, the strangers remain. Two men and a woman, their faces fraught with concern as they exchange worried looks and lower their weapons. He quakes visibly and quivers violently, inexplicably.

The smaller of the two men, a creature with black hair that stands impossibly on end moves slightly forward, taking gingerly steps towards him with his palms out and flat to display their naked emptiness as one would approach an injured, cornered animal. "Rodney?"

He blinks uncertainly. Is that really his name? Is it truly so harsh and guttural? Oh yes, he had remembered at least snippets of his existence to know his name, but the language of the D'ni did not accommodate the hard sounds. The language he has spoken for five years is soft and lyrical in a way that he cannot properly explain, full of hushed utterances that coax the tongue to fluidity. The Healers had called him Rahd'ni, with a breathed "uh" sound slipped between the "d" and the "n," proclaiming the documents found by the Maintainers of his prior captors identified him as such. In this, his name's seemingly appropriate pronunciation, it sounds less like a name and more like a profanity, alien to him after all this time without knowing, gritting against his ears.

The dark haired man takes another, hesitant step, and he backs away, shaking his head. This cannot be real. It cannot. How could these strangers know him, know his name, when this Age is so utterly wrong? Blood rushes to his brain with absolute and unimaginable terror. He staggers backward drunkenly and stumbles on the sand, tripping slightly on the smoothly polished ink pot and nearly falling to the ground.

The familiar stranger's face blanches. "McKay.... Rodney.....it's just us..... we're not going to hurt you."

Rahd'ni freezes. He knows this somehow. He knows they would never hurt him, could never hurt him. But he could hurt them. He might be contagious even now, carrying the deadly plague that wiped out the D'ni.

"Rodney.... are you well?" The coppery woman inquires, raising a curved eyebrow curiously and radiating motherly concern.

Rahd'ni could have cackled aloud if only he could make his own voice work. His throat tightens and constricts when faced with the question, with all this sound and motion. It's too much, much too much. Dizzying. Chaotic. He licks his dry, salty lips and swallows to wet his suddenly parched mouth. His tongue abruptly feels too large and swollen somehow. He gives a harsh, coughing sort of laugh, all he can manage, shaking his head.

"Rodney, listen to me," the man with the pale face and ebony hair orders sternly.

Rahd'ni freezes tensely, his breaths turning ragged in an instant as the fractured shared of a memory bubbles up in his consciousness. He remembers the last time anyone called him by his name that way, so demanding of authority. That last person had beaten him savagely shortly thereafter, and Rahd'ni remembered the pain clear as day, the uncomfortable, terrifying fear of struggling to draw breath and a sense of drowning despite the fresh air all about him. He jumps wildly back once more and away from these strangers who dare speak his true name.

"Rodney..." the woman breathes, stepping towards him suddenly.

He panics and does the only thing he can.

"RODNEY, NO!"

Before these strangers can catch him, he wrenches the linking book from his knapsack, tears open the cover, and jams his hand firmly upon the glowing panel. He links.

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John Sheppard dashes in horror as the figure presses his hand into the book, shimmers, and disappears before the colonel can reach him. The book, now unsupported by any mortal hand, tumbles to the sandy beach and lands amid a scattered array of assorted items with a soft, muffled thud. Sheppard falls to his knees before the ominous, leather bound thing, reaching out with hesitant, fearful hands to cradle it and ease the cover open. His concern is warranted; it was, after all, a book not unlike this one that whisked McKay the first time.

Sheppard peers into the glowing panel, a window into another world. The small panel presents the image of a round, stone room, lined with bookshelves loaded with ancient, leather bound tomes similar to the one he holds, but far wider. The walls are stone, bare and almost cold. There is a stone door with scrolled images carved onto it. A lantern glows with eerie blue-white light from where it rests upon a desk. It is just enough light to see a shadow moving with something behind the view of the panel.

Sheppard closes the book once more and places it gently, reverently upon the sand. He can already hear Teyla radioing calmly for Lorne to bring both a team and Radek Zelenka to the beach to study the thing, but those sounds are watery and distant at best. It is the first opportunity they have had to study these strange books that hold such dreadful potential. When the first book took Rodney, Sheppard had regrouped, hopping in the jumper, and returning straight to Atlantis to fetch Zelenka, only to find a vat of bubbling acid in place of the original book. They will not be so foolish to let this book slip so simply through their grasp after all these years.

The colonel takes up the letter. The first portion is scripted in an elegantly flowing language of predominantly scrolled curls. It reminds him dimly of the elfish language adorning each and every copy of The Lord of the Rings, both dvd and book. It is nothing more than an ornate jibberish to Sheppard, albeit a pretty one. The linguists and anthropologists will have a field day with it when they get their hands on the delicate sheet of vellum, but that is neither here nor there. Below that block, however, is a snippet McKay's all too familiar handwriting, although jilted and awkward somehow, as though it is no longer native to him.

"What's it say?" Ronon rumbles from behind him.

Sheppard furrows his brow and reads solemnly, "To whoever it may concern, my name is Guildsman.... Raad-nee, and I am the last survivor of the...." He pauses at the word- D'ni - and frowns, guessing at the pronunciation, "Dunnay. Do not attempt to follow me or return to Dunnay, as I may still be.... contaminated." He jerks in surprise. "Shit. Call Lorne back. Tell him we need Keller and a biohazard team out here ASAP."

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Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon spend the next four weeks in quarantine, subjected to countless tests and scans before Keller finally declares them clear of any sort of bacterial or viral pathogen known to the Ancient database. It is boring, monotonous, and utterly irritating. Time swells and drags endlessly, spanning before them like years when only days have passed. It is absolutely intolerable for John Sheppard, and, so, he spends his time pacing, working out, and sparring to keep his mind from drifting too far for too long.

However, when he pushes his body too far and he succumbs to the demands of a fragile, human body, that is when he cannot help but think of Rodney. Sheppard remembers with a deep, weighted guilt, that it is his fault that Rodney vanished without a trace. The team had traveled via space gate to a series of unexplored worlds that had shown signs of possibly harboring an indigenous people. The world, which only featured a single, rocky cairn of an island of interest poking from a vast, frigid sea, had been bland but beautiful in a solemn way, and completely devoid of human life. However, there had been a towering keep there, standing in defiance fo the freezing surf and chilling rain that pelted down over the waves, like something torn right from the pages of a fairy tale, and Sheppard had escorted Rodney inside while Teyla and Ronon kept watch outside.

"I only turned my back for a minute," Sheppard mentally chastises himself.

They had found a small room bearing one book when it happened. McKay had been jabbering away in Sheppard's ear, chittering like a little squirrel in complaint of why the Ancients always seemed so dead set upon inhabiting unfathomably decrepit worlds with dismal weather conditions while he approached the book. Sheppard, to his eternal shame, had rolled his eyes and turned his back to the physicist in annoyance, wondering absently why such a fortress would be so clearly abandoned. In the space of what amounted to a heartbeat, McKay had been gone, simply vanishing entirely. When Sheppard had turned back, only the book remained. Sheppard bears his guilt openly like festering wounds; he knows he should have been keeping a closer eye upon his friend, his partner.

That was why, when Radek Zelenka had spotted McKay's subcutaneous transmitter id on the array that Sheppard had to go, had to see for himself, and oh what a sight it had been. The man seated upon the rock had been a stranger to Sheppard's eyes. He had been dressed in strange clothes, something in between formal attire and a working jumpsuit, clad in a long cloak adorned with four symbols below the lapels on each side. His sandy brown hair had been long and grown out, swept back and neatly tied. Instead of the datapad and stylus Sheppard had been so accustomed to seeing in McKay's hands, there had been a leatherbound book and quill pen. He had looked less like the astrophysicist Sheppard recalled and more like a fairy tale nobleman or explorer.

The only fortunate thing about the medical incarceration is the fact that the four weeks leaves plenty of time for the SGC to ferry in Dr. Daniel Jackson and a team of anthropologists, linguists, and other researchers to assist Zelenka in decoding the mystery of the artifacts they had collected on the beach. For the first few weeks, when the three invalids inquire about the work, Zelenka has nothing to offer. By the close of the third week, when asked, Zelenka merely looks down and diverts the subject. It unnerves Sheppard to no end. When Keller and her cronies finally cut the team loose, Sheppard immediately leads the charge for the labs to demand answers from Zelenka.

The wiry Czech has the things collected from the beach laid out upon a work table, including the dreadful book. Zelenka is engrossed by his studies, and John allows him to work. Dr. Daniel Jackson and his team sit hunched over copies of the book's pages along with copies of the journal and the sheet of vellum Rodney had been penning. Occasionally, the anthropologist mutters to himself and scrawls a note down upon his own pad. John pointedly ignores the linguists working to unravel the secrets of that flowing language. His eyes skim across the other items, and he idly picks up the glasses, noting how fine and exotic they seemed with their varied levers and buttons to the side.

Zelenka notes his curiosity and gestures to the glasses. "Here. Allow me."

The Czech assists Sheppard in placing the glasses upon his head. The fit snugly and comfortably on the colonel, but he knows, upon Rodney, these unusual things would be downright airtight. Sheppard fiddles absently with the delicate settings, noting the changes in both opacity and magnification. After a moment's play, John shrugs the glasses off and sets them back upon the table carefully.

"So," John finally inquires. "What have we got?"

Jackson flusters for a moment, startled from his work, then settles quickly. "It's like nothing I've ever seen before." He gestures to the note. "McKay left enough English for me to build a rudimentary understanding of the language, but it's not enough to get a complete translation of both the journal and the book."

"Gimme what you got."

"Well, you know the first part." Jackson clears his throat and holds up the vellum to the light to read. "To whoever it may concern, my name is Guildsman Raadnee, and I am the last survivor of the Dunney. Do not attempt to follow me or return to Dunney as I may still be contaminated." He furrows his brow. "It is the fault of Veovis and Augaris. They brought this creeping death upon us, upon the people who wronged them. It gets complex here. It seems Raadnee has survived some kind of a both geological and biological disaster that killed everyone else but him." Jackson sighs in frustration and pinches the bridge of his now. "At least, that's as close as I can get. There are several key words here that seem to have no direct translation."

Sheppard nods acceptingly. "And the book? What do we have on that?"

Radek haves an exhausted shrug; he has been working on that particular problem for weeks now and has come no closer to a definitive answer. "Much... and nothing." He rakes a hand through his thin, scraggly hair. "I believe it to be a means of transit between this, our world, and to wherever the panel shows."

"How?"

Daniel pipes up, "We've only been able to decipher limited portions of the text, but certain phrases seem to reference a location."

"Like the Stargate?" Sheppard ventures.

Radek looks down. "The principles seem similar, yes, but, without actually testing it, I cannot be certain."

"Is it safe?"

"Excuse me?" Radek blurts.

"Is. It. Safe?" the colonel asks once more, slowly and deliberately annunciating each word.

"In theory.... yes. I would think."

Sheppard nods. "I'm sold."

"What?" Daniel breathes.

The colonel shakes his head and smiles almost wistfully. "Someone's got to go save Rodney's sorry hide."

The idea is instantly vetoed by the erupting chaos of squabbling voices.

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From the personal journal of A'Gaeris

An outsider came to our remote island this morning, snared in a trap meant for any Maintainer or fool hard who dare follow in our footsteps and link through to this Age. He is unlike any bookworlder I have ever met. He is coarse in bone structure like the outsider Ti'ana, but rounded and portly. His hair is cropped short like that of a criminal, a prisoner. He is shrewd, arrogant, and bitter seeming in expression, often twisting his face into grotesque grimaces of displeasure. He often scowls and makes unintelligible remarks that are likely sarcastic in nature judging from the roll of his eyes and the tone of delivery. He snaps at us in a barking language in what is likely primitive profanities. He speaks not any language similar to D'ni, nor can he write, but he is cunning and intelligent beyond compare. Already, he has attempted several rather ingenious escape plans, only to be thwarted by the simple locking panels I keep upon each and every linking book not currently in use and the fact that I keep the only active linking book on my person at all times.

He is shackled now, for both his safety and my own.

He has tools and devices the likes of which I have never seen, far more advanced than many D'ni tools, while occasionally lacking a finesse and a degree of fine detail of D'ni tools. A strange juxtaposition. I have toyed with these devices at my leisure and found them to be utterly fascinating in their nature. Did this outsider descend from an advanced race, perhaps something more than D'ni?

He often gesticulates and coaxes words from me. He is far more intelligent than he appears. He is attempting to piece together D'ni from mere fragments. He speaks softly yet forcibly, as though struggling to keep his own unpredictable and generally raging frustration within reasonably check. But he is learning, swiftly. He absorbs information readily, greedy for more.

I have kept him as my pet for observation, already beginning with a simple experiment. He had been scratching idly at the floor, attempting to draw but finding the stone unyielding to his ministration. To satisfy my own curiosity at the machinations of this outsider, I offered him paper, quill, and ink to use at his discretion. The things he drew were crude in aesthetics, of course, but marvelous in sheer ingenuity and with enough detail to the schematics to seem plausible when compared to D'ni technology. He detailed out a ring like device and plotted constellations on the paper, gesturing frantically at it like I should have some idea of whatever grand concept he wanted so desperately for me to understand. I can see now, from these rudimentary mappings and schematics that his mind is a fruit ripe for the plucking.

He may prove useful.

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A day later, Sheppard sits through the tedious briefing as both Zelenka and Jackson recount their findings on the books and the haphazard translation of this newly discovered language in Rodney's hand. He taps his foot on the floor nervously. He watches lazily and without care as both the scientist and the anthropologist handle the artifacts from the beach. The journal and its many secrets still trapped in the complexities of an alien script. The unusual glasses with their varied opacities and magnifications, as though intended for a scientist like McKay. He listens as they drone on and on, but his mind is not on their words.

When they pass him the book with the strange, glowing panel, Sheppard acts before they can stop him. He puts his palm to the glowing panel of the book, feeling an electric tingle at his hand. The world tears away from him with a downright stomach churning lurch. The image in the page seems to stretch and grow with an odd groan, engulfing Sheppard. The pages swallow him like a gaping maw, sucking him in until the world blinks away.

And, suddenly, he feels the same strange jolt of rematerializing on the other side of the Stargate, only worse somehow. His stomach rebels at the unexpected shock, and he collapses to his knees, gagging on the acrid bile lapping at the back of his throat. He swallows the nausea and staggers to his feet.

To those he has left behind in Atlantis, this is simply another in a long string of Sheppard's extremely rash, highly impulsive, and downright foolish of acts that will likely be his end one of these days. If they had been there, in he stone room where he emerges, they would know that Sheppard had prepared for this well, thought this out. In truth, all of his more harebrained seeming schemes are so. No one had noticed that Sheppard had arrived more than thirty minutes early for the meeting, with his pockets stuffed with supplies and a pack lashed tightly to his ankle just in case his opportunity arose to handle the book once more. He reaches down, pulls loose the slip knots binding the pack, and slugs the thing over his shoulder, smug in his actions.

He glances about and finds he is in the room the picture depicted on the inside of the book, while the book is not there with him. There is no lantern, but an eerie, orange glow illuminates the scene spread before him, the walls lined with ancient, leather tomes, the large, stone desk, and the stark lack of a roof overhead. Instead, there are silk sheets drawn overhead like sheer tenting.

He had expected to arrive in this place and expected that those he left behind in the staff meeting would be staring in horror at the book. To placate their fears, John reaches to his pocket and draws both a chemlight and a piece of chalk liberated from the stow of humble toys and amusements meant for the Athosian children. He snaps the chemlight and shakes it out, producing a radiant, neon green light. That, Sheppard sets on the desk. Then, with the white chalk, he scrawls a simple message upon the only door in the door, jumping the piece over the ornate curls of carvings.

LtCol JS Safe

It is not much, but it is all he can offer at the moment. He slinks through the door, carefully shutting it behind him and leaving the chemlight glowingly cheerfully on the desk in all its dayglow splendor. The message will remain, but, as the room was empty, there is no sense in his remaining. He draws his sidearm, along with a second chemlight, snapping it with a quick shake and holding both out.

The corridor beyond the small room is bathed in the same, unnatural seeming, orange light. It casts eerie shadows this way and that, drawing long, unusual shapes on the floor that Sheppard silently, cautiously treads. However, this world is oddly silent and still, and even his mere passing is deafening in the silence. He almost wonders that, in this almost primordial stillness, if his stealth is truly necessary.

Sheppard shrugs off the pondering as he moves through the corridor to a grand vestibule, equally as abandoned as the book room. John checks his corners before stealing into the open-air vestibule, roofed only be a filigree lattice of fine, black-red stone that seems to hold the light and glow back from within. The vestibule is bright and cheerful compared to the dour hall, flooded with an orange glow to illuminates everything. The delicate red veins look like smears of crimson blood under the green of the chemlight and the orange of this place. He ignores the sinking feeling the sickly black stone leaves in his heart and approaches doors that lead outward, only a wide, gaping balcony. He steps out and gasps at what lies before him.

"Jesus....."

John almost drops his sidearm. Almost.

The site spread before him is nothing short of amazing. He stands upon a balcony perched atop a great keep of a building towards the top of a towering spire of rock reaching up from a sea of glittering, light-giving orange. The spire seems to rise up from the ruins of a city beneath him, vast and probably once glorious but now silent and empty. Grand, elegant bridges arch this way and that, connecting different parts of the city. And, above him, there is even more. He glances out, across the sea and spies, to his great curiosity, little islands pocking the orange, and, beyond that, a crack, toothy crack of pure black against the brown void. It takes his mind a long moment to come to terms with just how large the crack must be in relation to himself and to the city he stands upon.

A part of John thrills at the discovery. Daniel Jackson would have been pissing himself in delight at the sight of this great town, and the five-year old inside Sheppard would have to agree. However, there are hundreds upon thousands of homes beneath him, some crumbled and ruined, while many stand relatively untouched. And, yet, he knows within him from the silence of this place that draws the blood to his ears, that no one is alive in any of those homes.

He cannot resist. "Hellloooooo?"

The call does not echo as he would expect and is, instead, swallowed up by the vastness of this place. For a moment, John attempts to mentally calculate just how large a cavern must be to do such a thing before abandoning the thought. He surveys the city below, pondering now just how long the seemingly short blocks truly are from this height, and suddenly realizing how immense of a task searching this hollow earth truly is.

A sound catches his ear, like the scuff of a booted heel, and Sheppard whips about on his heel, his firearm drawn and aimed at the silhouette in the door. His heart hammers in his throat upon spying the shadow in the hall, but he does not fire. Instead, he gasps at the familiar form standing there.

"Rodney?" Sheppard breathes in almost disbelief.

Rodney jumps, but there is no recollection in his eyes, only naked fear and panic. The cloaked man bolts. Sheppard follows, but the man is swift, faster than the colonel recalls. He ducks through the dark passageways and corridors of this odd keep without any light save that of the orange lake filtered through the awnings overhead, as though he knows this place like the back of his hand.

Sheppard calls after him, "Rodney, wait!"

But the figure shows no signs of slowly. Rather, his attempts at calling spurn the physicist faster. They race through the halls to where they open to a great, cobbled avenue, leading down, spiraling about the streets. His pace becomes frantic almost, his booted feet clawing out at the evenly formed street beneath them.

Ahead, the remnants of a once great building block their path. Sheppard smirks in satisfaction of a chase quickly ended, but Rodney gathers himself and scrambles up the side of the rock heap onto a narrow stone ledge left by the foundation of the building tearing away from the spire. He slithers over the tiny gap as it races upwards. Sheppard follows, his heart lodged quite firmly in his own throat as he scoots along the ledge as it rises from the buildings to another lane, his mind distantly rationalizing that a staircase must have once resided there atop the crumpled building.

This new, agile Rodney surprises Sheppard, easily slipping over rock heaps and through narrow passages that would have sent the old Rodney blanching white as a sheet and shrieking in horror. In fact, as the two descend from the upper levels of the city towards an of elegantly curved arches running towards a massive gating system, Sheppard feels the color drain from himself as Rodney thunders on over the smoothly worn stone. The thing is built like a feather, so fragile and delicate seeming, and so well polished by the tread of thousands of years of foot traffic. Ahead of them, this airy pathway is cracked with a wide, gaping maw of space where debris from overhead had obviously come down through it over whatever catastrophe hit this place. Rodney springs, skillfully throwing himself across the gap and fleeing down the other side.

Sheppard swallows as he approaches, but, at the last moment, his boot slips on the stone. He flies through the air, but he knows it is without the momentum necessary to carry him safely to the other side. Sheppard hurtles forward, his arms swinging and clawing out. When he hits the other side, it is only his upper body that lands with a heavy thump against his ribcage that tears a grunt from his lungs. The chemlight and his sidearm skitter across the stone, forgotten and useless anyway in this situation. His hands reach out for purchase, but the stone beneath his fingers is too smooth. A powder fine layer of sickly, yellow grime coats the rock, making it all the more slippery to the touch.

Ahead of him, Rodney rushes away, and Sheppard forces out, "RODNEY, SHIT, HELP ME!"

The cloaked form pauses for but a minute hitch in its stride, but it does not look back. Sheppard curses him under his breath as he ventures a glance over his shoulder. The drop is imposing, perhaps twenty or thirty feet, to another stone street below. It will hurt to land, and Sheppard struggles feeble to find any sort of purchase on a surface that feels buttery and cool to the touch.

"RODNEY!"

The scream tore from his chest as his fingers slipped on the worn rock. He has but a moment of terrifying, lurching freefall before he slams to the ground, below his feet landing first with a horrific, audible crack the echoes in the desolate alley. Sheppard cannot stifle his own scream of white hot agony, his body tensing and contorting with the pain. He reaches down instinctively, but the pain lances through his leg once more even before his fingertips reach the actual trauma. He doesn't need to see or to feel with his fingers. He knows; his lower leg broke in the fall.

John could almost kick himself if he weren't so deliriously amused by the thought. A strangled chortle bubbles up in his throat, but, in those lonely, dead streets, it sounds less like a laugh and more like a grizzly death rattle. He is alone, injured, and with no possible way to get back to Atlantis without McKay's help.

When the adrenaline subsides and his mind clears, Sheppard glances about himself. His pack lies perhaps fifteen feet away, not far at all, really. He knows there is a bit of a first aid kit in it. He should know; he cobbled it together at the last minute. Sheppard reaches for it, but his leg shrieks in protest at even the slightest of movement. Sweat beads his brow, and he nearly passes out before Sheppard realizes what a lost cause it is to even try for the pack now.

Instead, he settles back against the chilled pavers of the avenue, rears his head back and bellows, "RODNEY!" He waits for a moment, listening, but receiving no answer before he calls again, "RODNEY, IT'S SHEPPARD. PLEASE.... PLEASE COME BACK!"

Above him, a shadow looms over the edge of the bridge.

Sheppard trembles involuntarily. "Rodney..."

But no one answers

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Sheppard goes on calling until the world begins to dim about him, until his throat goes hoarse from his cries. He struggles a bit more fervently then for the pack, suddenly afraid of the encroaching darkness. His mind tumbles over its self, seeking a hundred thousand reasons for why a cave world might be dimming so strangely. It is a pathetic attempt at appeasing himself and assuaging any fears of serious head injury in the fall. However, the fear is more than enough tom motivate Sheppard beyond a pain that greys his vision at the edges whenever he dares even twitch a single muscle.

There is little in his pack to staunch his pain or properly brace his leg, but Sheppard has been in enough survival situations to know that a well motivated mind is key to survival. People far more adept at survival and in far less dire situations have succumbed purely by psychological failure alone. In time, just before the abandoned city plunges into full dark, he reaches the pack and its meager supplies, pulling out one of the spare chemlights and snapping it for another blissful twelve hours of neon glow. It is not much, but the green staving off the ever increasing shadows is enough to give Sheppard a limited morale boost.

He lies there in the street for a while longer, sipping a bit of the water in his pack but too nauseous to try to stomach any of the rations, trying to think through his next move. Sheppard had been think that the threat of whatever contagion Rodney had spoke of in the letter was the only thing keeping the physicist at bay behind the barricade of weathered, yellowed pages. He had initially assumed all he would have to do is touch the page, find Rodney, tell him they were all clear of any virus or bacteria, and bring McKay home to a happily-ever-after ending. Now that he has seen Rodney for his own eyes, he knows there is something else there, some sort of instinctive, animalistic terror that goes beyond any logic, something deeper and more perverse than just that. He wonders idly what he could possibly do now that his original plan has gone completely bust.

A sound catches his attention in the ever deepening shadows. Sheppard pricks to the motion. He sits up slightly on one elbow and holds the chemlight out with another.

"Hello? Someone there?" he calls softly, forcing his voice to remain even and unthreatening as possible while gritting his teeth against the motion. Something shifts in the dark, startling Sheppard slightly; he tenses and speaks once more, "Who's there?"

A small shape bursts from the dark, and Sheppard jerks back, yelping at the quick lightning hot pain bursting through his leg. When a ball of fluff leaps and pounces him right in the chest, Sheppard cannot help but chuckle ruefully at himself. It is a cat. Or, at least, it is what passes for something about halfway between a cat and a ferret of some kind. It is a slinky sort of animal, with what appears to be black, silky fur, deep eyes, a leathery neck, and a bushy tail. It mews at Sheppard like a kitten and nuzzles against him playfully. Sheppard laughs outwardly against the pain as the exotic creature licks at his hands.

"Jeruth," a rough voice beckons from the dark, as though unused to speech.

Sheppard stiffens, but the creature lifts it head in the direction of the call and sniffs before darting towards the newcomer. Sheppard remains there, suddenly frightened once more. The creature mews in the dark, clearly as pleased with the newcomer as it was with Sheppard's attentions, and a part of Sheppard relaxes oh so slightly at the thought.

Something snaps in the dark and flares quickly. A small orb of red light pierces the dark of the street. It bobs for a moment before it seems to nestle itself into a wireframe. A lantern. The same lantern from the desk, Sheppard recognizes. He swallows hard as the lantern approaches and the figure holding it comes into view. The cloak is drawn over the head, but the furred creature sits curled about the stranger's neck. When the figure kneels beside Sheppard, he feels himself impulsively strain away.

A hand shoots out from beneath the cloak, flat, empty, and almost reassuring, as the voice steadies enough to murmur. "Shorah." The newcomer pauses before muttering swiftly in a decidedly unintelligible babble with an unmistakably familiar cadence, "Khrehgitsahth gah khrensoygith-"

Sheppard holds up a hand, ignoring how it quivers with his pain and blurts out, "Whoa, whoa.... slow down." The stranger says nothing, as Sheppard peers through the shadows and breathes, "Rodney, is that you?"

When the cloaked figure reaches up to drop his hood and speaks once more, it is slowly and carefully, as though unused to the words that once spilt easily from his tongue. "Forgive me." He licks his lips. "I had... forgotten that you would not speak D'ni."

The word is a soft utterance, pronounced 'Dunny.'

Sheppard goes rigid. "You understand me, Rodney?"

"I haven't.... spoken this in some time," the man replies, the disquieting hesitation at the words emphasizing the point. The man frowns, furrowing his brow to Sheppard with a vague concern. "Is that.... is that my name? Rodney?"

".... uh.... yeah...."

The man shakes his head, as though unfamiliar with his own identity, because asking timidly. "And you.... do I know you?"

"Of course you do. It's me, Sheppard." When Rodney shows no sign of recognition, the colonel blinks between the surprise and the creeping agony climbing up his leg. "Rodney.... Rodney.... what do you remember?" When the man gives no reply, Sheppard presses, "Do you remember me? Atlantis? The Stargate? Anything?"

The physicist tenses visibly at the mention of his real name but shakes his head quickly. "I... don't."

"What is the last thing you remember?" Sheppard questions, feeling a knot of dread coiling in his gullet.

Something indiscernible flickers through the man's eyes. "My memories begin the moment I woke in the Guild House vaht hahrtee -" his face scrunches before he corrects himself -" five years ago with no name, no family, and no place."

"Alone?" Sheppard pressed, glancing around them at the still, dead city spanning about them.

"No." He looks down, averting his gaze strangely. "It was....before."

"Rodney..."

The man winces curtly at the name once more and scowls with acute displeasure, darkly intoning, "Don't call me that."

Sheppard flinches at the anger resonating in his friend's harsh voice, but he nods accommodatingly. "Sure... sure..." He shakes his head for a moment in thought. "Uh... what should I call you, then?"

"Rahd'ni."

The colonel gives a low now. "Um... right."

When John shifts his weight and hisses from the pain, Rahd'ni comments flatly and almost brusquely, "You're hurt." When he touches the leg and Sheppard's muscles tense, commiseration washes over those familiar and, yet, for once, utterly alien features. "Badly." Rahd'ni glances overhead to a small device on his wrist. "Wait here."

Sheppard rolls his eyes, wanting desperately to comment on how he isn't going anywhere anytime soon, yet he cannot bring himself to tease so. He does not wish to drive this strange, shell of his friend away with what had once been such familiar, playful, although mildly acerbic banter. Rahd'ni trots off, into the dark until he is nothing more than a bobbing, red light in the dark. He curls on his side, watching the light move about, worried that, perhaps, it will just wink out in the darkness of this dead city.

His fears are assuaged, however, when Rahdn'i returns in quick order, carrying two long staves of wood, perhaps some of the very little wood Sheppard has seen in this subterranean world along with a few long strips of fabric. He crouches beside Sheppard, almost hesitantly, as though faced with a deadly asp. The once brilliant astrophysicist licks his lips.

"This may be uncomfortable."

Sheppard shakes his head and gives a mirthless chuckle. "Sure could have fooled me."

"I will have to splint the leg so we can return to the Guild House," Rahd'ni tersely explains, reaching for the leg. "I can set it there." At the clear look of distrust in Sheppard's eyes, he quickly adds, "Lord Tullah insisted that Grand Master Deretheni teach me when they realized how I was."

"How so?" the colonel inquires.

Rahd'ni smirks, a faint ghost of a smile, chuckling to himself wistfully. "Lady Ti'ana preferred to call me 'Enyaloth.'" When Sheppard merely shoots him a questioning look, Rahd'ni blushes and sheepishly supplies him with, "The Sickly One." Sheppard actually hoots at that one, unable to control himself, sending Rahd'ni blanching. "What?"

"Nothing, it's just..." the colonel frowns, unsure of how to word this. "It's just that it's rather appropriate all things considered."

Rahd'ni furrows his brow, peering intently into Sheppard eyes as though seeking the some sort of barometer to the truth in the colonel, before he breathes, "Prove it."

The colonel flinches inwardly at the man's outward distrust, but he rolls his eyes and answers without hesitation. "Rodney.... er, Rahd'ni.... you're a.) allergic to citrus b.) a hypochondriac and c.) hypoglycemic. You get really sick if you don't eat regularly and keep your sugar up."

The stranger recoils almost reflexively, as though extremely unsettled by the exceedingly tactless yet truthful answer. Those blue eyes flash and pop for a heartbeat with what the colonel hopes to be remembrance. The colonel's heart flutters. Rahd'ni opens his mouth to say something and just as quickly snaps it shut, swallowing convulsively. The urge to speak, to dare question this small revelation that Sheppard undeniable knows something about him in earnest seems to tingle at the tip of Rahd'ni's tongue. To Sheppard's great dismay, in an rather uncharacteristic move of Rodney, the man's lips thin, and he composes himself and keeps any commentary he might have to himself. However, the conflicted, questioning look does not flee entirely, giving Sheppard some small glimmer of hope.

Sheppard reaches out and touches Rahd'ni tenderly by the wrist before the make can do anything, imploring, "If we just go back to Atlantis, Keller could patch it up in no time."

Rahd'ni looks down, a flicker of what may be regret drifting over his gaze, before he sighs in admission. "The book is in the Guild House."

The colonel wishes to argue, he truly does, but he cannot help but hold his tongue. There is a desperation in the blue eyes that stare back at him, a fear perhaps, lingering beneath the surface. Rahd'ni is afraid, deeply afraid of something. Sheppard concedes, nods, and silently allows Rahd'ni to work.

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The climb back to the Guild Hall is nothing short of misery, but Sheppard swallows both his agony and his pride as he allows Rahd'ni to bear most of his weight. He limps alongside the physicist, one arm slung across Rahd'ni's back. Fortunately, the avenue is even and easy in its upgrade, as though intended for heavy foot traffic.

At one point, Rahd'ni pauses at a heavy gate and props Sheppard up beside it; when the colonel furrows his brow, the physicist tersely explains, "I haven't finished unlocking all of the gates the Maintainers managed to close during the initial quakes."

Sheppard does not question and instead holds the lantern for Rahd'ni to see by. He takes a moment to study the lantern while Rahd'ni fiddles through his sack to retrieve a key. The lantern is not illuminated by any actual flame. Instead, a small, round sphere rests in the middle of a wireframe. It seems to both glow and swirl on the inside, like a marble. The thing glows and pulses with a warmth and life that vaguely reminds the colonel of a ZPM, only far smaller and safer, organic almost. Sheppard reaches a tentative finger through the structure of the lantern, instinctively drawn to the sphere like a moth to the flame. He hesitates. What if it is hot?

"Fire marble," Rahd'ni pipes up. "You can touch it," he insists, as though sensing the question on Sheppard's tongue. "It won't burn."

Sheppard reaches with a slender finger and graces the small sphere with a fingertip. The fire marble, surprisingly enough considering the name, is quite cool to the touch. It is a delightful little marvel, and Sheppard realizes grimly that perhaps this tiny artifact is only a tiny glimmer of the wonders this dead city might hold.

A click draws Sheppard's attention from the fire marble, and he looks up to see Rahd'ni turning an unusual key in its appropriate groove. The gate hisses with a hydraulic release of some kind. Then, with a heavy thunk, the gate slams open, revealing a much nicer seeming part of town than the limited area Sheppard had viewed from where he had fallen. The buildings here stood taller, spanned wider, and spread further apart. He put together the security and the architecture and reasoned this was the "nice side of the tracks."

Sheppard shrugs it off and lulls in the motion, letting his world distill down to the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and ascending the lanes and alleys back to the keep at the top of the spire. He is thoroughly exhausted and worn by the effort of keeping up with the man shouldering his weight. He is hardly consciously aware when they shamble back into the Guild House, or when Rahd'ni eases him into one of the stone niches and manipulates his injured leg and the bones therein. He screams once when Rahd'ni adjust the bones and goes silent.

He does not see then, the pained expression on Rahd'ni's face as he turns away to scribe the unusual occurrence in his journal as just another in a long list of events since the downfall. Rahd'ni checks the time piece in his pocket, logging the time he estimates this newcomer linked to D'ni. Sheppard does not see the cursory survey Rahd'ni gives him, noting his approximate size in both length and pounds, and his relative physical condition. The notes are terse and clinical to a fault, hardly including a name, while the name of the Age he suspects this "Sheppard" came from merits more attention. He painstakingly scrawls down the name he has christened that Age with, even if it is not a true D'ni name.

Lantea.

Rahd'ni does this because he knows that, when Sheppard falls to the contagion just like all the others, his documentation of Sheppard's inevitable progression to the raging, hallucinatory fevers and eventual cardiac arrest may very prove necessary to his ongoing studies of the plague that destroyed an entire civilization within weeks.

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He tumbles to the ground in an uncoordinated, crumpled heap, his body aching with various bruises. A cloaked figure looms over him, dark and silhouetted against a blinding, frozen white light. He flinches, recoiling as a hand reaches down to grab him sharply by the chin. Long talons of fingers dig into his rounded cheeks and haul him up by his jaw alone. He whimpers against the cold, against the pain, and against the fear that consumes him so thoroughly.

He bickers, a surge of defiance flaring through him as he spits, "Get your damned hands off of me!"

A balled fist slams into his stomach, knocking the wind from him. The blow is driving and deliberately aimed to hurt but not seriously injure. He sucks in sweet, chilling air until it tickles devilishly at the back of his throat. He coughs, hacking up a wad of blood and mucus in surprise.

Cold, icy eyes survey him stiffly and a voice rumbles stiffly in his ears, "Na'grenis."

A second set of eyes roves hungrily over his bruised and battered body, and all he can think is, "C'mon, Sheppard! Where the hell are you and the calvary when I need you?"

"Pft. Rildil roob bahro." Another voice intones before he is cuffed sharply on the side of his head.

When the hand releases him to the ground once more, a booted heel connects swiftly with his head, and the world of consciousness bleeds away.

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Rahd'ni jerks awake with a start shortly before second bell, long before the light giving algae of the light become active. He so rarely sleeps beyond perhaps second or third bell anymore, despite the fact that none of the soft chimes that once marked the passage of time break the stillness that is this tomb anymore. His dreams do not allow that, the fitful nightmares of a past fragmented into dazzling shards of little to nothing. Master Relem, of the Healers, had cautioned Rahd'ni to be prepared for such dreams and fleeting glimmers of memories, that his past and identity could surface at any given time at any trigger, or never at all.

He staggers from his pallet, drenching in sweat and still shaking from the last remnants of the dream. He knows, at the time, he did not speak D'ni. That much is certain. The words had sounded alien and bizarre to him.... at the time, nothing more than lurid babble. However, now, Rahd'ni understands what was being bandied about over him.

"So brittle."

"Pft. Nothing but an animal."

They had been toying with him right in front of him. But why? What did he do?

It's sad. Relem had instructed Rahd'ni to embrace these memories, for they were the only thing that could make him whole again. Instead, these fragments that range so wildly from tortuous to bittersweet to utterly mundane leave him numb and hollow feeling. Rahd'ni finds no comfort in these memories and finds it almost unbearably ironic, really, that the memories and dreams that should theoretically make him whole serve only to point out how fractured he truly is, with a diabolical precision.

Sheppard stirs in his sleep momentarily, but it is still too dark to see accurately by. Rahd'ni furrows his brow and strikes a fire marble, setting it in the cast lantern and turning it to the stranger he somehow intrinsically knows. Sheppard stirs again, his brow knitting even in sleep. It is a nightmare. Rahd'ni leans over Sheppard, idly wondering if perhaps he should wake the stranger, but he decides against it. The man will need his strength when the illness takes him.

He remembers vaguely thinking and hoping for this man to come and rescue him. The man's features appear so familiar as he settles once more. Rahd'ni admonishes himself for not asking the night before who Sheppard really is, what ties do they have to one another. The man had seemed so downright adamant that they knew one another, when Rahd'ni bears little to no recollection of such.

Rahd'ni shakes his head and departs.

He does not like this.... this not knowing; he appreciates facts and concrete information that cannot be tainted by memories or emotions. He leaves Sheppard in favor of his limited experiments, where the stringent laws of physics and thermodynamics leave not even the slightest margins for such irksome shades of grey. Only steeped in his calculations and experiments laid out neatly upon the parchment can he truly forget the numb darkness of his forgotten past and appreciate the awesome beauty of the math and the mechanics, allowing it to blossom before him. He knows the mathematics have always been absolutely gorgeous, but, before he learned to appreciate D'ni math, Rahd'ni never truly appreciated how seamlessly the calculations could flow together, especially when coupled with their curling script.

This is a part of his daily routine, rote and perfected after so much time. He sleeps fitfully in the night, and, upon waking, Rahd'ni shuffles to his desk to work. There is something familiarly alien and yet oddly relaxing to this, as though this is an old habit woven and laced deep through every fiber of his subconscious. He will work for a few hours, savor the sweet taste of an unfathomably beautiful world of mechanics and mathematics that transcend the limits of both his guttural, seemingly native language and the lilting language that is D'ni. When he eventually descends back down to reality, to the lonely cavern that is D'ni and to the ancient, island city of Ae'Gura, he will eat a sparse, simple meal and return to the Council Chambers to study their records and further his understanding of the biological disaster that struck D'ni. And, after that, he will return to the Guild House to fine tune his Age.

Sheppard murmurs something in his sleep. It startles Rahd'ni, this sudden remembrance that he is decidedly not alone anymore, and he jumps, hunching protectively over his work instinctively. He is not sure why he does this, but he does it anyway. He thinks to himself that there may have been a time from that ever elusive space before he awoke when Rahd'ni had many onlookers holding their breaths and staring in awe over his shoulder. He shudders at that thought. The last people he vaguely recalls standing over his shoulder had savagely struck him on the oft occasion, although Rahd'ni is not certain why.

There is something dangerous to his work, he knows it instinctively. When Rahd'ni had begun with his initial calculations, long before D'ni fell, he felt guided, as though someone else were ghostwriting the work through him or as though he had already done this before somehow, and it had frightened him immensely even then. The Maintainers and Surveyors had immediate noted how similar his work was to D'ni technology, worrying that he were perhaps backwards engineering the manufacture of both fire marbles and the power supplies so natural to the D'ni. Guild Master Relem had insisted the Maintainers allow Rahd'ni his work, in hopes that it might assist him in rebuilding some of his lost past. However, Rahd'ni had moved beyond simple fire marbles and batteries in short order, leaping forward into something fretfully powerful, something even Rahd'ni knew to fear and respect like the flame. The Maintainers, ever cautious, in particular about the nature of the ahrotantee, had brought the matter before the Council, and, in the end, when it had become apparent that Rahd'ni's skill and knowledge far exceeded that of even the greatest of Guild Masters, it had been the intervention of Lord Eneah alone that allowed Rahd'ni to continue his work.

Rahd'ni shivers to himself at the thought, but he cannot explain why.

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A playful mew rouses Sheppard to the supernatural orange glow of the world about him. He rubs the sleep from his eyes, regaining his focus once more and finds himself supine on a stone niche in the wall with a simple pallet for a bed. The furry creature from the night before nestles at him, nudging his hand as though imploring to play. It gives another curious sort of mew and prods at the colonel with a curious paw.

"Jeruth," Rodney's voice growls from not too far away.

"No," Sheppard corrects himself mentally with a tight, sharp, contraction of his heart. "Rahd'ni. Not Rodney."

"Jeruth," the stranger wearing his friend's face calls once more. "Mahlah tomeht, Jeruth." His voice drops low, as though gently chiding an infant in soothing warnings. "Koozah ah ahrotahntee."

The catlike creature that Sheppard now recognizes must be "Jeruth" - makes a plaintive sort of sound, not quite and meow, but now quite a whine either, and reluctantly leaps from the warmth of Sheppard's chest. He follows the motion of the creature as it pads gently and almost silently across the floor to the base of a large chair at yet another of the D'ni's imposing desks. Jeruth rubs against the base of the chair, and the figure in it leers over the creature.

"Beerah, Jeruth," Rahd'ni commands sternly to the creature before reaching down, stroking the leathery hide about Jeruth's neck and returning to his work.

Rahd'ni sits at a wide desk, hunched over a few ancient seeming tomes. His shoulders curl over the work as his quill pen scritches over a piece of paper. Rahd'ni mutters to himself under his breath and hastily pens something down, but Sheppard cannot tell if it is in D'ni or merely unintelligible Rodney-babble. It is just like the good old days, watching Rodney labor over some unsolvable Ancient dilemma. For but the briefest of moments, Sheppard can almost pretend that the years have not been so cruel and so very long.

Jeruth breaks the spell, giving another soft mew.

"Oehnahzo b'rees?" Rahd'ni stifles a chortle and shakes his head absently. Hepauses in his work to pat the creature at his feet and gives a shushing noise before noticing Sheppard's eyes upon him. "Shorah." Rahd'ni blinks and sheepishly corrects himself, speaking in English now. "Sorry. I forgot." He flushes at the social blunder and checks his time piece. "Good morning."

"How can you tell?" Sheppard asks inquisitively, his gaze cast upwards to a cavernous ceiling, as though pointing out the stark lack of sunlight to indicate day or night.

Rahd'ni smirks knowingly. "The lake." When Sheppard cocks an eyebrow at the answer, the man rolls his eyes in a rather Rodney-ish of expressions and explains. "The lake is inhabited by several species of bioluminescent algaes and planktons which give it the glow in a distinctly diurnal and nocturnal periods of activity and dormancy, giving a sense of day and night.... or a distinctly black and orange kind."

"Gotcha."

Rahd'ni approaches slowly and offers Sheppard a tumbler of a reddish liquid; when the colonel eyes it warily, the man explains, "Just juice mixed with a mild painkiller to take the edge off."

Sheppard gulps the sweet juice down, but his stomach rumbles desperately, growling audibly in the stillness of the place. He has not eaten since the day before. The colonel looks to this stranger and wonders when Rahd'ni last ate. It has been some years since he had to worry about Rodney's constant badgering about his supposed hypoglycemia. However, old habits die hard, grizzly deaths, and Sheppard finds himself wondering when was the last time Rahd'ni ate.

Rahd'ni smirks though. "Hungry?"

"Whatever gave you that idea?"

Rahd'ni nods and gathers up his papers in a hurry, stuffing them into a book and shoving that into a knapsack. "Come on. I'll make you something."

Sheppard cocks his head at the offer but says nothing; instead, he clambers to his feet unsteadily with Rahd'ni assistance and hobbles beside the man through the long, barren halls of the House. There seems an endless amount of twisting and turning halls, each with hundreds of rooms, most filled with books or supplies. It is Daniel Jackson's wet dream, but it is too eerily empty and quiet for Sheppard's taste. It rattles him instinctively. The only lost empires and peoples Sheppard has ever seen so well preserved are those left in the wake of a Wraith culling.

Sheppard shouldering his weight, his arm slung across the colonel's back. The warmth of Sheppard against his body as he limps. Running together.

Sheppard screaming at him, urging him. "Almost there, Rodney, almost there. Just a little further."

A puddle of glittering light pooled in a massive ring that could have easily been a locking collar to a newly excavated tunnel node. A sense of home. A sense of welcome. A wash of brilliant light. Then stars.... just stars and dust.

Rahd'ni tenses at the flicker of memory, but Sheppard notices the shift in body carriage and quickly diverts his attention by asking almost reverently, "What is this place?"

"The Guild House."

Sheppard shakes his head. "No, all of this. The island, the city, all of it."

"This?" Rahd'ni sighs, perhaps too heavily and mournfully, the grief all too evident in his guarded expression. "This is all that is left of D'ni."

Sheppard says nothing more.

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Excerpt from the personal journal of A'Gaeris

The bookworlder resists. I have spent the last three weeks teaching him D'ni. He had been learning slowly occasionally prompting me to learn his language. I cuff him from this error repeatedly on his ear, yet it seems to bother him more when I simply deny him food for such a transgression. Not for long, not to starve, mind you. He grows anxious and nervous when denied nourishment, growing quite jittery and sweating profusely. He often holds his abdomen or head as though in a nonspecific pain, as though his race is designed to be a grazing race, ill-equipped for periods of longer than eight hours without food. It seems to impair him mentally, making him irritable and fatigued, but much more receptive to lessons so long as nourishment is within metaphoric sight. A single meal denied a day is generally enough to curtail his insolence for a few hours, and he recovers quickly once fed again. He is learning far more swiftly now and with only petty, childish sulks in place of once furious outbursts. He speaks, but only in rudimentary phrases, baby-talk really.

Ah, but he is swift to twist what little D'ni he knows into sneering insults, the hallmark of a cowardly fool hiding behind brave words. I shall have to purge this new habit of his from him if he is to continue to live in my good graces.

I suspect he is up to something, this outsider, this pet of mine. There is something to his eyes. He is plotting, ever plotting, his hands always moving, always in motion. I fear he may try to kill me. I do say try, for he is a smart creature, as I have said so often. Surely he knows his salvation from this Age of mine can come only through myself, Suahrnir, or Veovis. And, yet, still he plots. I often wonder what gears turn in his mind, what he must think of we pale D'ni. Does he see us as weak and fragile, hoping to overtake us by brute, physical force? Again, I think he is aware that he could never. But he is most assuredly planning.

[The handwriting changes suddenly, from controlled, neat strokes to jagged, harsh letters, written hastily with hard pressure upon the page]

I hear something.

xxx

xxxxx

xxx

Sheppard sits awkwardly across the plinth from Rahd'ni, watching at the man darts in and out of the great, vastly stocked pantry. The kitchen and pantry are both tremendous in size, obviously meant to serve the hundreds of people of this "Guild" Rahd'ni continually mentions in passing. There is perhaps a month or two's worth of food stores and rations lining the shelves for all those men, perhaps three or four lifetime's worth for Rahd'ni.

Rahd'ni sets his knapsack along with a few exotic items down on the plinth between Sheppard and what seems to be a preparatory area. They appear to be varied sorts of fruits and vegetables. A detached and rather distant part of Sheppard's mind notes the sprigs of green leaves attached to a round, orange fruit that seems to be almost apple-like; those tiny bits of emerald suggest a photosynthetic plant, meaning there must be sunlight somewhere in this world of D'ni. Rahd'ni ignores his study and takes the orange fruit to carefully carve into the juicy flesh with a sturdy and finely honed blade to prepare a simple fare of what seems like a sweet porridge with a mixed fruit.

When he hands a bowl to Sheppard and receives a soft chuckle from the colonel, Rahd'ni does take notice and raises an eyebrow. "Hm?"

"Nothing. It's just...." the colonel shrugs. "You never really struck me as.... culinary inclined." He takes a bite and smiles. "Pretty good. I'm impressed."

"Don't be," Rahd'ni snorts. "It's pretty much all I can make."

"Coffee." Handing a cup over to someone, a woman with strawberry blonde locks who smiles warmly at him, affectionately, tenderly, lovingly. "I wanted to make you breakfast in bed, but this is pretty much all I can make."

Rahd'ni blinks dumbly at the flicker of memory and swallows it whole. He has not the time for these fleeting glimpses to a past that no longer feels his own. However, Sheppard is staring with wide, curious eyes that bore into him. He flusters and looks down to his bowl, prodding at the porridge but accomplishing little more than shoving the food about his bowl.

"Did you know me well?" Rahd'ni inquires, curiously but timidly, as though afraid Sheppard might lie to him.

The colonel nods encouragingly. "Yeah... I mean, we are on the same team, so we worked together, but you are kind of..."

He pauses, as though searching for an appropriate word; Rahd'ni guesses hesitantly, "Private? Or perhaps introverted?"

"I was going to go with 'abrasive,'" the man admits with a small laugh, as though his own, private joke.

Sheppard's voice. "Face it, Rodney. You're an ass. You've always been an ass. And you're always going to be an ass."

When the joke obviously falls flat and Rahd'ni fails to respond to the jibe with his own, cutting snipe, Sheppard blanches sheepishly at the concern written in every feature of Rahd'ni's face. "Sorry. Um... you and I... we used to kind of take pot-shots at one another all the time. I was just joking." Sheppard swallows and goes serious once more, answering honestly, "You are a private person, I guess. I always kind of got the impression that you hide behind your genius and sarcasm like a suit of armor just to keep people from getting too close." The colonel shrugs half-heartedly. "I think that's kind of way you and I got on. Neither of us really seems to like people seeing the real us."

"Then, we were friends?" Rahd'ni presses softly in a shaking voice.

The man's distinctive use of past tense unnerves Sheppard, but he ignores it, seeing no point in forcing anything prematurely and frightening the man off. "Yeah." He pauses and shakes his head. "No. I take that back. No, you, Teyla, Ronon, everyone on Atlantis, we're more like one, big, messed up family."

Rahd'ni picks idly at the fruit for a long moment before breathing, "Am I... as you remember?"

The colonel frowns, having not expected this question. "Well.... you're far quieter than you were before. Never this...." Sheppard struggles to find the right word but comes up desperately short. "Polite. Submissive almost." He glances up to Rahd'ni's imploring face and tries to tactfully evade these more difficult subjects. "And your hair was waaaay shorter. What is this? nYou going for a new, hippy look or just trying to make Zelenka look clean cut?"

Snarling at someone, a wiry, startled seeming man with wispy, thin, but long hair. "And if I wanted your opinion, I would give it to you."

Rahd'ni stiffens oddly, his eyes staring sightlessly into the bowl before him; finally, he shrugs. "Only convicts and servants wear their shortly cropped hair. Guildsmen of D'ni status wear their hair long."

Sheppard flinches at the thought of how Rodney must have appeared to these people, then, upon his initial arrival with scathing sarcasm and short hair. After a long pause, he returns to idly lipping at his food, eating little of it, really. Again, this does not go unnoticed by Sheppard, who takes a quick inventory of Rahd'ni, of how thin he seems, of how deep and shadowed his eyes appear. Rahd'ni must sense his scrutiny and pushes the bowl aside, his appetite soured by the memory.

Sheppard sets his bowl down purposely on the plinth, places his hand upon Rahd'ni's pale wrist, and says quite matter-of-factly, "You need to eat."

Rahd'ni's brow knits. "I'm not hungry."

Ordinarily, the colonel might have expected that statement to sound petulant and childish from Rodney, particularly granted the intense scowl of scrutiny upon the physicist's face. Instead, the words sound sullen and hollow, practically a sigh escaping Rahd'ni lips. It only serves as a further reminder as to how vastly different of a man Rahd'ni is from the Rodney Sheppard remembers.

Sheppard glances down at his splinted leg rather pointedly and shrugs. "Suit yourself. But if you go into hypoglycemic shock, there's no way in hell I'm going to be able to haul you to bed with this bum leg no matter how good of a painkiller that fruity drink is."

Rahd'ni looks up, a glimmer of surprise in those eyes. "Hypoglycemic?"

"Yeah." When Rahd'ni casts his gaze downward, perhaps in shame or perhaps in confusion, Sheppard goes on, explaining softly, "You always told me you had hypoglycemia. You have to eat regularly or you blood sugar drops too low and you get seriously ill because of it."

Rahd'ni fiddles with a pocket, patting it subconsciously. Sheppard does not know what is in that pocket, but Rahd'ni does. Ti'ana had been the first to figure it out when the Healers assumed that he was simply a sickly creature. She made him carry small packets of dried fruits in his pockets wherever he went, but only she had known about Rahd'ni's illness. Even now, the little folded vellum about a handful of dried berries is a small reassurance. Yet Sheppard had known long before that became an issue, known intimately about Rahd'ni's problem. It stirs unsettling emotions within the hollow soul that is Rahd'ni.

"Speaking of that stuff, we should be getting back home, get the doc to take a look at you and slap a cast on this leg of mine," Sheppard announces before grimacing and adding, "It's gonna be like dragging an anchor."

"Home?" There is confusion upon that face once more, thick and suffocating, strangling any coherent thought that might be in Rahd'ni's mind.

"To Atlantis," Sheppard breaths in gentle assurance.

A part of Rahd'ni shivers involuntarily, his eyes drifting to his knapsack. "No."

"People miss you, Rodney," the colonel insists softly.

Rahd'ni tenses at the sound of his name and states more firmly this time, "No."

"You have to go back, Rodney. We need you on Atlantis, and you know it."

A part of Rahd'ni brain screams, "No, they don't. They never did."

The thought is unbidden and alien to Rahd'ni. It reeks of sorrow and something else, something more. Betrayal, perhaps? Yes. That is the sentiment there. It stings at his heart and twists at his nerves. Betrayal. But Rahd'ni cannot place the context of this emotion. He drifts with it, lingering with the familiarity of the painful emotion, wallowing in it. He remembers this feeling, this darkness and despair permeating all of his thoughts and willing his every action. He just cannot place where or when. Alarm creeps into those blue eyes, belaying his panic attack to Sheppard, as Rahd''ni struggles to pull himself together and hold his nerves.

"Rodney. You are coming with me."

A coldhand pressing down upon his neck, squeezing the muscles sharply and digging mercilessly into a myriad of bruises, both fresh and old. "Come here."

The order, no matter how calm or stern, jerks Rahd'ni from his hazy reverie with a start, and he jumps back. He blinks in shock, the color draining from his face as his heart races. Another voice had pushed him, gruff and bitter, in D'ni. His heart races, turning his breaths to ragged, terrified inhalations. He trembles violently, quaking in unbridled fear. Sheppard clambers gracelessly to his feet and reaches for Rahd'ni, but, before those hands can snatch him, Rahd'ni bolts.

xxx

xxxxx

xxx

From the personal journal of A'Gaeris

My but he is a stubborn creature, that scheming little weevil! I had retreated to allow him but an hour or so respite from his studies, only to find he had been building...... something! He tried to hide it when I entered his cell, but he is a slow creature. I cannot tell what the device's purpose, but the bookworlder had cobbled it together from spare parts of his own machines and a few fire marbles i had careless left in his presence. I destroyed the machine, of course, but what sort of damage may it have done to my carefully planning and positioning?

To my regret, we must depart from this Age to another, if only to avoid attracting notice from either the people of this strange outsider and from the Maintainers. But, oh how he will be punished once we are settled once more. I have not waited this long for my revenge to have a mere outsider ruin it!

But, oh, his suffering shall be exquisite for it.

xxx

xxxxx

xxx

It takes some time for Sheppard to make his way back to the Guild House, to the study that has been Rahd'ni's refuge for he cannot tell how long. It is difficult. The halls are labeled by ornately carved plaques, but they are in the script language that Sheppard cannot read. Everything appears the same to him. The same, smoothly worn floors and curled mantles. Yet, eventually, he finds his way and slumps down onto the niche, his leg throbbing from the exertion.

He tries not to think of his leg, and, instead, muses on the downright horrified reaction when Sheppard merely stated that he was taking Rodney home. He replays the situation over and over again in his mind, recounting the words and questions passed between them. He shivers at the stiffness to Rahd'ni. He contemplates severity of the reaction and weights it against the length of Rahd'ni's stark isolation in this grim tomb, surrounded by nothing but empty houses and stiff corpses. The soldier wonders how long it takes in solitary confinement for a body to lose their mind entirely, even if it is not intended as torture.

He flops down onto his back and dozes for a time. When he wakes, Sheppard stares up, through the silk screens to the cavern ceiling. Without sunlight, there is no hint to the passage of time here, and his watchface is dreadfully smashed from his fall. There is no way to be certain if it is late, or how long he spent wandering the halls. The only things that are certain is the ache to his leg and the knowledge that he is not alone.

The scritch-scritching of a quill pen upon paper alerts Sheppard to the presence at the desk, but Rahd'ni does not acknowledge his presence. Instead, he seems to pour himself more furiously into his work, hunching over the papers protectively, his muscles taut with tension. This is not unusual. It is, in fact, a gesture Sheppard recalls quite well from Rodney; the physicist did it often enough in his presence. Rodney - Rahd'ni, whoever - is angry at him, annoyed. This is his simple, primitive yet utterly effective avoidance technique, hoping to drive Sheppard and his pressing, uncomfortable questions.

"Rahd'ni?" the colonel calls, being careful to use the name this stranger specified before; he must be careful now to draw the clearly frightened and confused physicist back in, like coaxing an abused dog back to human contact. "Whatcha workin' on?"

The man says nothing, curling tighter over his work.

Sheppard scowls. "Rahd'ni?"

It is an effort to maintain his soothing tone, especially when the man at the desk hardly seems to flinch at the name.

Sheppard folds his arms across his chest. indignantly. "You can't ignore me forever."

Rahd'ni stubbornly resists, but his writing becomes harsh and swift.

The colonel ventures a new gambit. "You're afraid."

Rahd'ni pauses in his work, raising his head slightly before returning to his work.

Sheppard smirks to himself at the reaction. "It's the contagion, isn't it? The bacteria or virus or whatever that killed everyone."

The hissed reply is just a shade louder than a whisper, so quiet that Sheppard almost does not hear the correction. "Everything."

"Everything but you," the colonel corrects pointedly.

"Everything," Rahd'ni insists in a hushed breath, a frightened urgency to his tone, a desperation that seems unbecoming. "Even the algae in the lake."

The soldier holds his tongue for a moment before loosing the question that has been on his mind ever since he came to D'ni. "Rahd'ni.... what happened here?"

"A'Gaeris and Veovis did this." He sighs heavily. "At least, this is what Veovis told me." Rahd'ni shakes his head and rubs his eyes. "It's complicated, from what little I understand. A web of lies and deceit to lure Veovis into A'Gaeris's plans for revenge against D'ni, and I don't know the whole story."

"That's alright," Sheppard concedes willingly, now that he has Rahd'ni talking. "Why don't you fast forward to the important stuff? The contagion or whatever?"

"Hmm? Yes, of course." Rahd'ni blinks and looks down, fidgeting nervously from even this coaxing, plying request as though it were an order given at gunpoint. "It was night. It started with the quakes, great trembles in the rock. The Surveyors Guild had always insisted that the rock of D'ni was stable, very stable." Rahd'ni closes his eyes, drifting with the memory of the night, the coolness of it, the calm, mellow glow of massive fire marbles in the lamps that lined the streets and avenues. "It was... peaceful. Just the hourly chimes. A few parties. The sounds of the boats on the lake. People were asleep in their homes when the quakes hit. Some never left their homes. The quakes were so strong, they opened up a crack on the far wall."

Sheppard nods slowly, absorbing the information, mindful of the great chasm he spied in the wall upon his own arrival to D'ni. "Go on."

His eyes squeeze tighter as he allows the memories to flood over him. "I've been to the crag. I've seen the machines, the downfall of D'ni. They must have caused the quakes, amplified the vibrations in the rock, with this.... this device. It was familiar to me. Intimately so. And they used the ventilation units from the Surveyors to pump toxins through the crack."

"What toxins?"

Rahd'ni shrugs but does not even crack an eye. "I can't be certain. But it was something....biological. It was some kind of a black cloud, spreading towards the city. Everything died when it touched it. The algae. The fish. People. Everything. It was death coming for us. But it was more than just a mythological figure. It was definitely some sort of a virus or bacteria."

"How do you know?" Sheppard questions.

Rahd'ni pauses. "I went with the Council men to a world where they, along with the Five Lords could deliberate a course of action. A few days afterwards.... a body came through. It was dead and pale, but otherwise perfect, as though the man had just dropped dead. We buried it and went back to deliberations. I wasn't a Council member, so my input was limited, but I was welcome in their refuge, much moreso when they fell ill. Within hours.... they were dead. All of them." Rahd'ni's lower lip quivers as though he is about to cry, but the urge is stifled quickly. "I couldn't bury them all, so I left them in their chairs where they dropped. It was obvious. The contagion came in with the corpse."

"What happened, then?" the colonel presses.

Rahd'ni shrugs, abruptly noncommittal. "I came back here."

Sheppard furrows his brow and thinks for a moment, licking his lips. "You're not sick."

"No," Rahd'ni admits ruefully. "But I may be a carrier."

It is the faintest hint of the old Rodney. Only Rodney would be such a ridiculous hypochondriac to fancy himself a carrier for some sort of grizzly, lethal infection. Yet Sheppard cannot entirely blame him. Had he survived such horrific events, Sheppard likely would have though himself a carrier as well, a potential Typhoid Marie or small pox blanket ushering fresh death into unsuspecting worlds. It is a tiny kernel of the original Rodney lingering beneath the surface, the part of him that has clearly seen Outbreak and read The Stand far too many times.

Sheppard glances to the windows, to the dusky orange glow of the algae. "The algae, it's alive even now."

"I might not be shedding enough of the contagion to kill the algae en masse like during the initial waves," Rahd'ni intelligently counters.

Sheppard inhales deeply, making a show of it. "I'm not dead."

"I has only been a day or so. It took four for the Council to perish," Rahd'ni argues sullenly, his head hung like a child facing a spanking.

The colonel shakes his head, making a point now of using his real name. "Rodney, did you ever stop to think about why you might not be affected by the sickness? You alone and no one else? Not a soul." Rahd'ni says nothing, and Sheppard pushes, harder now. "Rodney, you're not from this world. You and I probably have antibodies that these people didn't have, maybe a natural immunity."

"And where are we from?" Rahd'ni snarls.

"Earth," Sheppard breaths simply, without hesitation.

Earth. Canada. Home. Jeannie. Home. ATLANTIS! A thousand voices scream in Rahd'ni's ear, but it comes as nothing but noise, jumbled and distorted.

Rahd'ni stiffens, rises, and leaves once more in a huff. Sheppard sighs slumps in defeat, however, to his piqued intrigue, Rahd'ni has left whatever it was he so intently poured himself into spread across the table. All his work and notations. Sheppard hobbles to the desk and gasps in astonishment at the schematics laid out with their precise D'ni notations and calculations neatly labeled and pulled off to the side. What Rahd'ni designs is nothing short of awe-inspiring, to a point that Sheppard cannot fault nor find any humor in.

Instead, Sheppard collapses into the massive stone chair where Rahd'ni works and runs his fingers through his hair in shock, whispering, "Jesus, McKay...."

xxx

xxxxx

xxx

From the testimony of Veovis

I knew A'Gaeris to be displeased with his pet project long before we left that world. He had adopted the outsider, took the fragile, pathetic, sniveling beast under his wing. He was teaching the outsider our language, our writing, but the outsider relented. A'Gaeris discovered him, one night, building some sort of device. Naturally, the Philosopher disposed of the device, fearful that it might be a beacon of some sort.

We withdrew from that Age to another, to the Age A'Gaeris had dubbed Gitsahth, the Age that treacherous snake, Ti'ana, eventually snared us in. Gitsahth is a strange Age. The sea is viscous and dark, filled unimaginable beasts. The island itself pokes up into a great, stone keep, A'Gaeris's secret foothold where he amassed his books and supplies. There were piers reaching out from the island. One to the linking point. Another to a cage partially sunken into the water.

I did not know the purpose of that cage when we arrived, however, it became quite clear in short order. A'Gaeris beat the outsider savagely. When A'Gaeris's rage had been sated and the outsider lie in a sniffling, broken heap that could barely draw breath, the Philosopher had Sauhrnir haul him to the edge of the pier to the cage. At his master's behest, Sauhrnir dumped the outsider into the cage, shackling his wrists about the great lock to hold the outsider upright and keep his head above water. A mercy, really. If you ask me, A'Gaeris would have been better suited to just do away with the beast, but, when I suggested simply putting the stupid thing out of its misery, A'Gaeris just tutted me, voicing that he had a purpose for this outsider.

A'Gaeris left him there alone.

The first day, the outsider did nothing more than to curse us quite vocally in both D'ni and his native tongue until his screams were nothing more than whimpered, feeble protests. He grew especially quiet when A'Gaeris insisted that his serving man, Corlam, serve our evening meal outside on the terrace that overlooked the cage. He was hungry, most assuredly, this captive of A'Gaeris's. The Philosopher knew this. He made every bite of his own meal a well exaggerated act, torturing his captive with the sight of it alone.

By the second morning, the outsider seemed quieter, more subdued, but A'Gaeris knew better. As soon as the Philosopher was within sight, the outsider snarled and snapped like a wildcat. Yet, whenever A'Gaeris retreated to the keep, the outsider merely slumped in exhausted defeat. By the evening of that night, he was sweating and trembling, hanging his head. That afternoon the outsider could hardly speak D'ni coherently, and, still, A'Gaeris left him there, pointedly ignoring the outsiders feeble pleas for help, for food.

At night fall, A'Gaeris finally went back to his captive in the cage. He knelt and held a cup of warm broth just beyond the outsider's reach. He spoke softly to the outsider, in murmured words not meant for my ears. I did not bother listening, not until A'Gaeris patted the outsider on the head, lifted him from the cage and brought him back to the keep, reeking of the saltwater and human filth.

The morning after that, the outsider seemed far quieter and far more amenable to A'Gaeris's tutelage. A'Gaeris even managed to coax a formal greeting from the outsider. Rodney McKay he called himself, no longer as boastful and proud as he once was.

xxx

xxxxx

xxx

Sheppard sits in Rahd'ni's chair for hours, reviewing the papers and schematics he has found. They are nothing short of brilliant, these carefully drawn sketches and diagram, yet painfully detailed in a language he cannot read. He wants so much more now that Sheppard can practically taste it. He reviews them slowly and carefully, pouring over every minute pen stroke to each of the diagrams, memorizing the pictures. He ignores the gnawing hunger in his stomach and the slowly dimming light about him, thoroughly engrossed in these images that Rahd'ni has so carefully drawn and annotated.

Something warm and furred nudges into his ankle; Sheppard glances down and smirks. "Well, hello there, Jeruth."

The catlike creature mews softly at him and jumps up onto the table. It circles once and, then, plops down onto the papers, purring in content. Sheppard cannot help but laugh at the audacity of this creature, musing on how only Rodney McKay could find something so like an Earth cat in this dark place. The colonel reaches out and strokes the leathery neck.

"I know you're there, so quit sulking in door frames," Sheppard calls without looking back.

"How did you know?" Rahd'ni inquires curiously, approaching slowly, striking a green fire marble and setting it in the lamp.

Sheppard shrugs. "I just know you."

Rahd'ni says nothing for a long moment, staring out the windows of the study to the silent city and the placid lake spread before him. He does not move, the stillness so very unbecoming of Rodney, and so very unsettling. In Sheppard's eyes, Rodney should be full of motion and activity, spouting both biting insult and sophisticated insight with equal fervor. In the dying evening light of the lake, Rahd'ni appears exhausted and haggard, scrawny and hollowed. He looks tired. Sheppard worries for a moment, considering the very dire possibility that Rahd'ni might actually be ill, but he stifles the urge to say anything.

"You know me well apparently," Rahd'ni finally concedes sullenly.

Sheppard nods quickly. "Yeah."

"Tell me."

The colonel furrows his brow, setting down the page he had been studying. "Hmm?"

"Tell me," Rahd'ni implores, more urgently this time, his shoulders stiffening.

"Tell you what?" Sheppard asks.

Rahd'ni shrugs. "Everything."

Shepaprd blinks at the mammoth task and swallows. "Ok..., well, you're originally from Canada. You have a sister named Jeannie. She's got a daughter named Madison that you gripe about but I think secretly treasure considering you keep just about every drawing she sends tucked away in a hiding spot you think I don't know about. I didn't, by the way, but Teyla and I found it when we were boxing up some of your things to send back for Jeannie to... remember you by."

"I have a sister that mourns me?" Rahd'ni interjects, still not facing Sheppard.

The colonel flinches outwardly at the error, wondering if perhaps he should have guarded some things from McKay at first, but, seeing no sense in backtracking, he nods. "Yes. Jeannie was torn up when you were declared KIA. I... Keller, Teyla and I went to bring her your personal effects and to attend your... funeral."

"There was a funeral?" Rahd'ni's voice trembles oddly, as though choked; he stares out, distantly.

Sheppard frowns again at his lack of tact - a social blunder that should have been Rodney's - before nodding in admission. "Well, Woolsey and the SGC eventually had to give up the search for you and concentrate man hours in fighting the Wraith." He sighs heavily. "You were initially declared MIA, but, after three years, they switched your status to KIA." He shakes his head. "Jeannie and Keller needed some kind of closure. I think we all did."

"Was it...." Rahd'ni fidgets, wringing his fingers nervously now. "Was it nice?"

"It was a funeral, Rodney. Are they ever 'nice?'" Sheppard questions in a playfully mocking tone of voice that felt appropriate at one point but that he now regrets. "I guess it was.... nice." The word tastes sour, and, so, the colonel just shrugs. "If you like funerals."

"Hmmm..." It is a measured contemplative sound, expressionless and collected.

"Don't be pissy," Sheppard states simply before flushing. "Um.... speaking of not getting mad, I.... er.... liberated some rather choice comics and chocolate from that little stash of yours. And I... uh.... hid your more.... personal effects from Keller and Teyla, but, really, hiding stuff like that under the mattress wasn't all that smart considering you're a genius."

Rahd'ni gives a side glance, looking down to survey the dead city below, musing on the words of Lord Sajka. "You are destined for greatness, Rahd'ni, the likes of the greatest of D'ni writers. Your skill is unquestionable."

"I am?" Rahd'ni asks, but it sounds like he is merely seeking confirmation of his own suspicions rather than any great truth.

"You're the most brilliant man in two galaxies and not too modest to say so, and this if, of course, ignoring the fact that you once blew up five sixths of a solar system. You can fix anything. You built an atomic bomb for your sixth grade science fair- which, by the way, sounds like a really cool way to get expelled," Sheppard admitted with a cocky grin.

"Was I?"

Sheppard shrugs. "You never told me."

Rahd'ni gives a chortle. "I thought you said you knew me well."

"I did," Sheppard breathes with a nod. "I just.... Beckett knows you better."

Beckett. Scot. Sheepherder. Voodoo witchdoctor. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Rahd'ni blinks at Sheppard, surprised. He remembers. He remembers a plain, wooden casket. He remembers Sheppard at his side, bearing the casket along with him. He remembers the heft of it upon his shoulder, almost reassuring and yet utterly sickening at the same time. He remembers the lurch in his stomach, the agony, the sense of loss and utter despondency. Sheppard's grammatical error of verb tense bothers Rahd'ni immensely, his stomach coiling with tension. It must be a lie; Rahd'ni swallows his commentary, having learnt long ago the quiet calm and rationale of the D'ni. He is suddenly very relieved to have brought the book to his Age of Lantea with him to the study.

"What else?"

Sheppard smiles warmly. "You're deathly allergic to citrus, or so you claim, and a serious hypochondriac which - not going to lie - I've always found really ironic since you think medicine is a 'soft' science and more like voodoo."

Rahd'ni chuckles to himself, stroking the book in his arms. "You know me too well, I think."

"Maybe." Sheppard draws a deep breath and surveys the papers before him; he announces as steadily and calmly as he can muster, "And I know what you're making."

Rahd'ni jerks, his attention obviously roused by the statement. "And?"

"It's a ZPM. A zero point module." Sheppard turns slowly in the chair, grimacing as the muscles in his leg pulls before smiling uncontrollably. "Rodney, this is.... it's absolutely incredible."

Rahd'ni snaps. He cannot say why for certain, but he goes wild. Sheppard is a liar, a blatant liar, and, now, the outsider has his hands on Rahd'ni's designs, plans he knows to be nothing short of absolutely dangerous. Rahd'ni claws wildly through the air for his designs to snatch them up.

Sheppard clutches the papers to his chest, arguing, "Rodney, do you have any idea how important this is?" Rahd'ni scrambles frantically, clambering over Sheppard and reaching for the sheets of vellum; Sheppard merely holds them just out of reach and barks, "Do you have any idea what this means for Atlantis, Rodney?!?"

"Give me them!" Rahd'ni cries out.

"Rodney, this could save millions of lives!" Sheppard argues vehemently.

"Think of the Whole, Rahd'ni," Ti'ana's words. Her philosophy. Her father's teachings.

"Think of Atlantis, Rodney!"

"Think of the suffering, Rahd'ni." Ti'ana again, her voice soft and frail.

Sheppard bellowed angrily, "Think of all the people this would save, Rodney!"

His breaths, ragged and hoarse with pain. His fingers, snapped and mangled, twisted into unnatural angles, screaming in agony. Mucus and tears streaming down his cheeks, hot and scalding. Difficulty breathing. World spinning, the paper blurring before him, the words suddenly impossible to distinguish in two languages. A large hand gripping his pinky finger.

A hard voice, snarling in his ears. "I grow tired of your obstinance, Rodney!"

"STOP CALLING ME THAT!" the man shrieks suddenly, viciously, recoiling and twisting away suddenly in horror at the flicker of a memory.

In his surprise, Sheppard freezes, the papers slipping from his hands. "Rod... Rahd'ni.... I'm sorry." The physicist falls to his knees, reaching out at the papers; Sheppard reaches feebly from the chair and murmurs sadly, "Let me help."

"No."

Sheppard's face falls. "Rahd'ni.... I didn't..."

"I'm sending you back." The man says it with little to no emotion as he piles the paperwork in his arms.

Sheppard gulps in surprise. "Rahd'ni.... you don't."

"I'm sending you back, and that's final," the man snaps, standing up suddenly and placing the heavy tome that is the Age of Lantea on the desk. When Sheppard does not move, Rahd'ni tears the cover open, presenting the glowing linking panel. "Well?"

"Rahd'ni...." Sheppard whispers. "Rahd'ni, don't do this."

The man gestures angrily at the panel and demands once more, "Well?"

Sheppard stands slowly and with no small amount of effort. "Rahd'ni.... don't.... don't shut us out. Please."

"Go," the man grinds out.

"Please," the colonel whispers. "Please. Just...." Sheppard sighs. "I'm not good at this. Neither of us are." He meets Rahd'ni's cold and bitter gaze. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

Rahd'ni growls. "No, you don't know."

Something strange flickers in the stranger's eyes, and Sheppard flusters. "But you don't either." Rahd'ni trembles, the rage remaining, and the colonel nods. "Rahd'ni....." He pauses oddly and looks down. When Rahd'ni's face stills and calms, Sheppard begs, "Come with me."

"I'm staying here," the man argues firmly.

"Is it because of the sickness?" Sheppard presses. "Dr. Keller cleared the rest of us, and she can quarantine you if that's what you're afraid of."

"No."

"But.... don't you want to know who you are?" Sheppard offers, knowing just how tempting the offer would be the otherwise proud Rodney McKay. "Isn't that worth leaving here?"

"No," Rahd'ni states flatly, holding the designs protectively to himself.

Sheppard notices the reaction oddly and looks to the open book before him, conceding, "Alright, alright. But are yourself something, Rahd'ni. Why would you ask me all those prying little questions if you didn't want to know?"

Rahd'ni's adam's apple works. His eyes glisten with unshed tears. His trembles have gone with minor tremors to serious, almost convulsive shivers. Sheppard knows he has struck a nerve. Sheppard swallows hard, hoping he has won this small battle.

"Rahd'ni.... Rodney.... you're my friend. Please." Rahd'ni turns away, but Sheppard advances, placing a hand on the man's shoulder only to have it swiftly shrugged off. "Rahd'ni, please. I've.... we've.... we've been looking for you for so long now... don't turn away from us now, don't shut us out now that we've found you." When Rahd'ni shudders, Sheppard sighs. "It was my fault."

"What?" Rahd'ni rasps.

"It was my fault," the colonel repeats. "I.... I was supposed to be keeping an eye on you. It's my job." Sheppard looks down to his feet, suddenly feeling quite ashamed. "I.... it shouldn't have happened."

A tear slips down Rahd'ni's cheek; he scrubs it away.

"I just..... I just wanted you to know.... I'm sorry, Rodney," Sheppard heaves in earnest.

The admission sends Rahd'ni's heart contracting, but he blinks back tears and strengthens his resolve, pointing to the book. "Just go." When Sheppard does not move, he whispers desperately, "Please, just go."

"You can give it a try to remember... you know. If it doesn't.... if you want to come back, if you don't like it.... we'll let you.... but please, please, give it a chance." When Rahd'ni chokes back a dry sob, Sheppard withdraws his reaching hand as though scalded. "You don't trust me."

Rahd'ni does not need to say anything. His gulped, controlled breaths and the severity to the taut lines of tension beneath his clothes speak volumes. It is the elephant in the room, and Sheppard was just the first to vocalize it. The colonel nods slowly at the realization, remembering the amnesia and the years of loneliness, wondering just how bowed Rodney has become under these years, how twisted he has been to morph into this Rahd'ni.

"It's okay," Sheppard finally heaves sadly in a tired, dejected sounding voice. "You once told me that you worried that you had 'permanently dimmed my faith in your abilities and trust.' You said you hoped that you could earn it back."

"I may have."

Sheppard winces at the coldness to the voice there, the tightness Rahd'ni speaks with. "It's okay if you don't remember. I know I said something.... hurtful then. But, now, I just want you to know that I do trust you. I always have. And I want you to know that you can trust me." When Rahd'ni shows no sign of backing down, the colonel feels his heart collapsing inward. "Just....just think about what I said, Rahd'ni. If you want.... to know who you are, where you come from, you.... you know where to find us. Just, think about it."

"I..." Rahd'ni turns away. "I will."

The words stir a vague hope in Sheppard, and he licks his lips. "Think about it."

Sheppard says nothing more and turns slowly to the book, to the panel glowing warmly and invitingly before him, displaying one of the beautiful, lush, Lantean forests. He does not look to Rahd'ni, afraid that this will be the last time he sees his friend ever again. The study in D'ni fades away as the image on the page swells and envelopes the colonel. In an instant, Sheppard the room falls away, and Sheppard finds himself back on Lantea, on the mainland, as though nothing happened. Sheppard sits there, in the moist, warm forest, and allows a single tear to fall, allows five years of grief to swallow him whole.

He composes himself, sighs heavily and reaches for his radio, staggering towards the beach. "Sheppard to Atlantis, come in."

"Sheppard, this is Lorne." The familiar voice answers after a moment.

"I need a pick up."

"I noticed. Anything else, sir?"

Sheppard stumbles to the soft sand, surveying his splinted leg. "Yeah, you'd better tell Keller I need a house call."

There is a long pause before Lorne calls again. "And McKay?"

A sound catches Sheppard's ears, and he turns just in time to see a second figure shimmering into existence where he had stood a moment before. The figure congeals and solidifies, taking a familiar shape. Sheppard finds himself smiling deliriously despite himself as the figure blinks in the bright, radiant sunlight and pulls a set of those fine glasses over his eyes. Rahd'ni. He turns to Sheppard, his face pale and sickly in the summer light.

"Sheppard, you still there?" Lorne calls over the radio but goes summarily ignored.

"What made you change your mind?"

Rahd'ni frowns deeply, turning his red, bleary seeming eyes to the sand at his feet. "I can't save D'ni." He inhales deeply, stilling his quivering muscles. "But you said there was people these designs could save."

"Yes," Sheppard breathes uncertainly.

Rahd'ni sighs heavily. "Then, D'ni can wait." At the light in Sheppard's eyes, the unabashed hope, Rahd'ni quickly adds, "For now."

It is not the answer Sheppard wants, but it is a start. A small, tiny, and timid step. The colonel hesitantly extends his hand. It hangs in the air between them, palm up, fingers splayed to show that they are indeed empty and without threat. It is a gesture of peace and of the reconciliation that Sheppard knows they need between them.

"Sheppard?"

"You promise I can go home at any time?" the man asks.

Sheppard nods. "Of course."

Rahd'ni gestures with a nod of his head to his knapsack, his voice thick with warning. "I have a linking book back to D'ni if I do not like what I see. So no funny business."

"None," the colonel assures without delay. Rahd'ni nods, his hand moving of its own accord; Sheppard curls his fingers about Rahd'ni's and beams, tapping his radio. "Lorne, he's with me."

"That's gonna make the doc one happy lady." Lorne speaks loudly over the radio, loud enough for Rahd'ni to hear. "Welcome home, Dr. McKay."

Rahd'ni bristles visibly once more. "We'll see."

XXX

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Author's Notes: No, I haven't forgotten about Feast of the Samhain or Caliber. This diddy just kind of bit me in the ass out of the blue last week while I was at school and nowhere near the files for either of those stories. Alas, though, this week is loaded with exams, labs, dissections, and pre-wedding nonsense (*my cousin is getting married, and my mum is very much of the opinion that I "have nothing to wear" despite a closet full of clothes. *sigh* Mothers.)

*crosses fingers* hopefully I shall have new chapters for all three stories in the next two weeks.