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A Star to Steer By

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The planet – PX-e-i-e-i-double-oh-seven or something – was a darkish place. It might have been dusk, or dawn, and cloud cover and tall trees dimmed the light even more. The tangled underbrush was damp from recent rains, soaking Jack’s uniform in short order.

There were a lot of trees. The stargate dais had been in a small open patch, barely large enough to be called a clearing, in the middle of of forest made of tall trees with broad, prickly leaves of dark green. The trunks were at least pale, lending some light to the place. The stippled bark made for subdued beacons amongst heavy underbrush.

Just the kind of place Jack was looking to slog through. He glared up at the clouds scudding overhead and sighed. They were probably due for more rain before long.

It actually took almost twenty minutes before rain started dribbling down past the thick leaves, making for a light mist with the occasional plop of wet right down the neck. Of course all the other bastards had helmets, which kept them drip-free, so he couldn’t even carp about that.  Not that he had the breath to spare.  The forest dampened sound and ate voices, but Jack could swear he heard someone yelling orders back behind them, and two or three white helmets kept glancing back, one soldier even dropping back behind Spark to take the position that was now more dangerous than up front.

By that time, it was clear they’d arrived at dusk. Things had gotten steadily darker until, as if on a pre-set timer, the spots along the tree bark started to light up. It was dim bit of fluorescence, almost lightning bug yellow with bits of darker orange along it.

Jack seriously hoped it was moss, or natural to the trees themselves, because it if was bug related, he was reserving the right to a serious case of the heebie jeebies.

Jack decided to ignore it for the time being, since this gave just enough light to see what he was tripping over. Nobody else seemed to have that problem, probably due to the helmets, which looked high-tech enough to have low-light vision built in. Rex finally motioned someone over, and a guy in blue quietly took up a position behind Jack, switching on helmet-mounted flashlights.

He really wanted one of his own by then.

By his estimates, they’d been hiking for almost an hour, keeping up a steady pace he remembered far too well from boot camp nightmares. When they stumbled over a tiny clearing, they got a tiny rest break, and Jack found a whole new reason to be intimidated by these strange Jaffa. The medics made the rounds, checking over the injuries. It was all quick, professional. The armor plates popped off easily enough, functional rather than fancy.  There were some nasty burns, but they all seemed happy enough to pull out patches of something with a few LEDs, slap it on like it was an oversized but terrifyingly effective bandaid and walk away. A few scrapes and minor injuries spread over wider areas warranted a light coating of reddish goo from a jar, which the medics slathered on before wandering off.  Jack hadn't seen a hint of a ribbon device, but then, these Jaffa didn’t appear to want or need the extra help.

All the soldiers kept as much armor on as possible, shoving black body-suits away from wounds with a casual disregard for how that might not be the smartest thing to do around injuries.

By the time they got back to hiking, Jack could see the injured Jaffa were moving more easily, their injuries either numbed or partially healed already.

He didn’t know if he wanted some of that goo, or he just wanted to hightail it to the gate and home.

A few more hours of shoving their way through underbrush, then the rain cleared out, and they settled down for another break. With the clouds clearing away, a bright aurora had sprung up, helped by a large, mostly-full moon, and leaving them with halfway decent visibility. Jack was sprawled near the back of the group, leaning against a rock – no trees for him, thank you very much – and Spark sat nearby, his grisly burden laid carefully on the ground. The kid had done a valiant job carrying along a guy who looked to be as big as he was, but everybody could tell he was going at least as slow as Jack, the only guy without decent lighting or armor to push through underbrush.

Rex paced over to Spark, and Jack tried not to tense as he saw blue eyes, and the almost mincing way the man moved to crouch next to the kid. Once again, the goa’uld put a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Spark, I don’t think we’re getting out of here any time soon.” His snotty accent couldn’t hide what sounded like actual grief and regret. “We need to move as fast as possible if we hope to find someplace to go to ground.”

“...I know.” The kid’s voice was subdued, and he bowed his head as if in grief, not subservience.

The goa’uld’s voice was just as soft. “We can’t afford a pyre, but we can bury him properly.”

Spark pulled off his helmet, and Jack winced. Yeah, they had to be triplets. Spark had a faintly softer cast to his face, dark hair trimmed short but not quite the buzzcut Rex or “17” had. The kid swiped a hand across his cheek, leaving smears of wet earth and grime that was probably old blood. “Won’t – won’t that take a lot of time?”

God damn, but Jack hated hearing someone that young, that earnest, sound so damn lost. He shook his head a little, calculating how long it might take the twenty-odd of them to move enough earth.

Jaffa or not, goa’uld servants or not, no way in hell was he sitting this one out.

“I’ll take care of it,” the General declared, giving the kid’s shoulder a reassuring shake.

Spark looked down, his nod covering what was probably more tears. “Thank you, Sir.”

Kenobi, or whatever the hell his name was, nodded back with a faint, lop-sided smile that took some obvious effort. Then he stood and walked to the center of what passed for a clearing they were sprawled in. The soldiers started sitting up, not quite at attention, but giving the strange scene an air of seriousness, or ritual.

Kenobi knelt down, pulling off his gloves to place both hands flat to the damp, rich, leaf-covered ground. He stayed there for a while, eyes closed, then he stood and walked over to a patch that didn’t seem much different from any other. He sat down, crosslegged, hands on knees and breathing slow but deep like Teal’c meditating. The air seemed to go still, a hush falling over the area, and the hair on Jack’s neck started to rise. It wasn’t just the soldiers falling entirely silent and watching their General; something was happening.

Eyes still closed, Kenobi reached out, gripping the air then raising his hands. A block of damp earth lifted up out of the forest floor like a giant child’s play-block. It was roughly three by six, at least four feet deep, and shorn clear like some kind of fancy exhibition piece, not even dribbling dirt or pebbles. Kenobi took another deep breath and opened his eyes. They were still blue, but now they were glowing from the inside. Goa’uld eyes.

Kenobi twisted his body to the side, carefully setting the block of earth aside like he held puppet strings to the world in his hands. Jack’s skin kept crawling as the goa’uld settled the dirt down, still moving slow and precise and without any evidence of a ribbon device, or anything else the SGC had ever run into.

There was now a hole in the ground decently sized for a body, and it had taken less than a minute.

The General took another deep breath, then he stood. “Spark.”

The soldier carried 17’s body over, cradled in his arms instead of draped over his shoulder again. Someone else in yellow helped him ease the corpse into the grave, and Spark arranged 17 in an approximation of attention, hands at his sides. The rest of the group gathered around the grave, solemn and quiet as the snake was. The closest soldiers offered hands to pull Spark out once he was done, and for a moment they stood in respectful quiet around their fallen brother-in-arms.

One by one, the soldiers started taking off their helmets, tucking them underneath the left arm in a smooth, practiced move.

The eerily identical maneuver was made even stranger by the fact that it was the same face, over and over and over again. There was a range of variation in hair and facial hair, tattoos and scars and a handful of piercings, but the face was exactly the same.

They’re not triplets, Jack thought in a daze, his eyes wide and maybe a little panicked. Thankfully, no one was looking his way, and after a moment the General cleared his throat and began to speak.

“17 was – was my first host. I’ve been with him since I was only a padawan. He saw the start of the war with me, and carried me through all of it. We didn't agree on everything, but he was loyal, and courageous, and I could always count on him, even when I was pulling the craziest stunts. He always did his best by his brothers – by all of you. He will – he will be missed. May the Force be with you, 17.”

A quiet mutter passed through the crowd, a phrase in some new language that he didn’t know and thank God it didn’t seem to be knocking at the back of his skull.

The General started to turn away, then his hands clenched and he turned back. Voice still subdued and threaded with emotion, he looked over at the man standing closest to the grave. “Spark, could you hand me 17’s face? That, at least, we can take with us.”

Wait, what? He – he could not have heard that right. Besides, even if he had, they all had the same damn face anyways.

He could not have heard that right.

“Yes, General.” Spark climbed down into the grave, once again standing near the dead man’s head, and Jack could not look away, no matter how gruesome a picture his imagination was painting. Spark reached down, gently sliding 17’s helmet off, and Jack had to fight off another shiver at that same damn face, slack and pale in death, blank eyes glaring out at the world. Spark’s shoulders hunched, then he slid a hand over the corpse’s eyes to close them.

Turning, Spark grabbed another offered hand up, and hauled himself out of the grave, brushing dirt off the helmet before handing it over to Kenobi.

“Thank you,” the General murmured, voice thick with emotion as he slung the helmet under his arm.

The helmet. Sonnova- The damn brain-snake mean the helmet.  What the hell? Relief washed over Jack.  So did the urge to shake the damn snake until it started making sense.

In the meantime, the goa’uld stretched out a hand, his eyes lighting up again as the block of earth lifted back into the air. He directed it back into the grave, even tamping it down to bury the former host.

Kenobi cleared his throat, sounding almost normal as he looked around his men and nodding. “We should move out.”

There was a quiet murmur of “yes Sir”s, and, professional once again, the men pulled on their helmets. Now that he was looking, Jack could see how there was a variety to them. While they all retained the signature color, there were stripes and designs, all distinct, some of the patterns extending even to the body armor. A bunch of identical men, wearing individualized armor and each with their own style of “face.”

He didn’t know what to think as he followed the strangest Jaffa he’d ever run into deeper into the trees, though he did glance back once, at the equally strange grave.