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A Star to Steer By

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Jack appreciated the loan of heated footie pjs, no matter how weird they looked. Sure, they were a little snug in some unfortunate areas, and looked absolutely ridiculous, but they were comfortably and continuously warm.

Kix, as it turned out, was Mostly-Shaved-Head-Guy with the graphing calculator thing, and apparently the head medic. Fella didn’t bitch a bit about loaning out a spare suit – as soon as Jack sneezed, the man made a face and practically shoved the suit at him, insisting he wear it, now.

Medics. Some things were just unfortunately universal.

Admittedly, up close and in slightly better light, Jack could understand why the medic had a spare suit. Anyone who spent enough time to get lightning bolts shaved in his hair and got what was most likely some message tattooed on the side of his head had to give a few damns about his appearance.

Since Jack also gave a few damns about his appearance – on occasion, at least – he pulled his usual gear on over the footie pajamas. He couldn’t quite resist poking Kix as the guy ran some kind of scanner over him. “Hope you don’t mind me covering up your generous gift like this.”

The medic blinked and stared blankly at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Your gear, your face.” Then he nodded. “Yeah, you’ve got a cold. Keep the undersuit on, try to stay out of the rain, and don’t be stupid.”

Jack boggled as the clone wandered off, poking at his not-a-graphing-calculator. No medical type should have let him escape that easily.

“You okay?” someone asked him. Jack blinked over at the guy who’d passed him food earlier.

“I guess?”

“Sound pretty confident, there.”

Jack shrugged. “He’s medical, right?”

“Kix? Yeah.” Mohawk-and-Sideburns crossed his arms and raised a brow. “Why?”

“Where’s his penlight of doom?” At the blank look, Jack shook his head. “No, seriously, please don’t be evil.”

The guy snickered and shook his head. “You’re funny.”

“No, I’m Jack.” He held out his hand, and after a moment the guy shook it, then turned it into a wrist-clasp, a perfect mimic of what Jack and the other guy – Barrel – had done. Huh. Fast learners.


“Pleased to meetcha. I meant it though.”

“Yeah, evil’s not on today’s schedule. Next week, you might be out of luck, though.”

“Well damn. If we’re not off this bog by then, I might join you.” Ion seemed to think this made for a good reason to sit down near him, watching closely as Jack sniffled and sneezed his way into a more comfortable position. “So are you my babysitter?”

Damned if the guy didn’t grin at him. “I think Barrel volunteered. Nah, I’m just curious.”

“That makes two of us. Congratulations, we can swap trivia.”

“Okay. What’s a penlight?”

He blinked. He hadn’t expected the guy to be that persistent, or that curious. “Bitty light shaped like a pen –” He stopped at the politely demanding look he got. “Shaped like a writing tool, that doctors use to check your eyes.”

“For what?”

“How annoyed you get at them blinding you, I think. Don’t look at me, I didn’t go to medical school. What’s with you guys and faces?”

“We have them,” Ion deadpanned. “What do you mean?”

He jerked a thumb over towards Kix. “He said ‘your gear, your face.’ Not the first time I’ve heard you guys use that weirdly.”

Jack was a little surprised at the wry grin he got for that. Ion held up a finger, then got up to fetch a helmet. The yellow trim highlighted some of the edges, giving it weird raccoon eyes and lining the rim. “We wear these buckets most of the time,” Ion said, sitting back down and presenting the helmet. “On duty or in battle. They’re blank when they’re issued.” He gestured towards his head. “We all have the same face, too. So of course we customize ‘em both. Your ‘face’ is the way you look to the world, and it’s up to you how you customize it. Nobody’s gonna complain about you keeping your uniform and mixing it with ours, believe me.”

A very disturbing notion started poking at Jack. Before he could ask, Ion leaned forward and grinned. “So what’s sandalwood, and why would it not be in food?”

“You figured that one out, huh? It’s wood a lot of folks use in incense. You shouldn’t eat it. At least, I don’t think you should. Doesn’t smell like you should. How many of you are there?”

Now the man pulled back and gave him a level, evaluating look. His eyes flickered for a moment past Jack, and one of the others snickered behind him. Jack turned to find Barrel sitting there, arms crossed and leaning against the wall. “How many are there of you?” the soldier asked.

Jack spread his arms and tried to look affable. “Just the one of me, sad to say. Sorry, fellas.”

Barrel smirked at him. “Tell you what. You give me a reason we should trust you, and I’ll give you a handwavy vague number.”

He hesitated, weighing his options, then he shrugged. He’d pretty much already admitted it to Kenobi, so... “You guys seem pretty blasé about space travel. We stick to stargates. You need one on each end. If you’ve never seen one before, it’s decent odds we can’t come knocking.”

Barrel pulled back a little, then nodded. “Several million on active duty.”

Jack managed to keep his reaction to a blink and a slow nod. “Huh.” That was probably pretty telling anyways, but he did his best to keep his mental swearing under wraps.

“That you guys play around a lot of planets.”

The clones shared a look, then Ion turned to motion towards a guy in yellow. “Oi! Trey! Trivia time. Republic planets?”

The man made a face right back. “Oh fuck you, do I look like some Senate specialist? Ask the General, he brought three or four in. He oughta know.”

“The General,” a refined but shaking voice declared from the alcove, “is trying to not throw up. Ask later, and stop fucking shouting.”

Ion and Barrel winced a little, and Barrel shrugged at Jack. “Eighty thousand and change, depending on if you’re counting shit that’s inhabited, things that were inhabited, and shit that’s in Republic space but no one wants to go to.”

“Geonosis,” someone muttered from the side, earning a heartfelt grumble of agreement.

...Great. We’re fucked. Jack forced himself to take a deep breath. “Oh.” This time, he was more than a little high pitched, but fuck it. “’Scuse me, fellas, I need to get a breath of fresh air.” He was gratified that Barrel hung back, and nobody tried to keep him from sniffling his way to the mouth of the cave.

It had been one hell of a day, for sure, leaving Jack feeling shellshocked as he shuffled around trying to find a more comfortable spot. Jack was gratified that the new suit kept him warm, but he did kinda wish there was a little more padding. Sleeping on mossy rock was a lot less appealing when not stumbling along in utter exhaustion.

Admittedly, that was pretty much the least of his worries.

He rolled on to his side, glaring away from the banked fire.  Far as he could tell, he had two options, and they both sucked pretty equally.

The easier of the two, the worse of the two, was that he was being played. Over eighty thousand planets, or at least occupied territories, with several million experienced, competent soldiers on hand. Who the hell knew what their reserves looked like. They had to have some serious space flight capability, with reasonably fast travel speeds to maintain any kind of cohesion between that many locations. If these guys were lying to him, then either these were fanciful numbers they thought were impressive and would intimidate the hell out of him, or they were seriously undercounting.

Either way, if they were lying it meant he couldn’t trust a single damn thing he thought he’d learned.

If it was the truth....

Then the moment this “Republic” decided they wanted Earth added to their roster, or kill count, they’d probably roll right over it.  Maybe with some work and fast talking and probably the loss of a major metropolitan area or three, Earth could counter the incoming army, but an orbital bombardment? Hell, even a handful of spaceships would screw the pooch but good.

These weren’t Jaffa – or at least, not typical Jaffa.

They were good. Ready battle skills, tactics that would work against an organized, reasonably advanced civilization, and not, god help him, the mindless obedience that most Jaffa showed.

Earth was possibly pretty well fucked.

His mind kept chasing the idea around, trying to find a useful angle. It really sucked that he wasn’t seeing many useful approaches.  Earth’s track record with offworld encounters was anything but encouraging. Typical ‘gate interactions were usually hostile, subsets of “evil assholes trying to take over.” Those that weren’t hostile, were usually folks in need of help of some sort. The rest were either technologically advanced snobs not willing to help others, or pious “allies” that were almost more dangerous than Earth’s enemies.

He wasn’t sure where these guys and their Jedi fit in.

Too much time to think was obviously bad for him. While he was very glad the rest of SG-1 wasn’t stuck on PX-EIEI007 with him, he missed them.  He wondered what they would make of his new playmates. Danny would probably be all over the situation, talking culture and language with Kenobi and the soldiers. Sam and Teal’c would be good to have at his back, and also useful for intel – he was pretty sure Sam would be going spare about that ‘lightsaber’ and the physics that made it possible, and Teal’c might at least know about this Republic thing.

Eighty thousand planets. Good grief.

It had taken him a while to regain some composure earlier, lounging near the two guys on sentry duty.  Hunger and the smell of roasting meat had finally brought him back into the cave for some notadeer meat – gamey and with a texture like shoe leather, but at least it wasn’t like trying to eat a scented candle. Some of the guys had busted out a card game, which as far as he’d been able to figure was like trying to play poker with a tarot deck. He’d pulled out a spare deck he had on him – soaked, but viable – and taken a stab at teaching them poker.

The hilarious thing wasn’t that they picked up on it well enough, it was that they immediately started asking the best ways to cheat.

To catch cheaters, obviously. Of course.

Even that entertainment hadn’t completely pulled him out of his funk, and his cold had settled into proper sniffles and pain in the ass nose leakage. He’d tried sleeping, and it had worked for a while. Now, though, it was oh-dark-who-the-fuck-cared, with most everyone bunked down and snoring. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there and brooding when a goa’uld wriggled into his field of view.

Jack froze, wondering if this was some kind of hallucination or fever dream. He kinda hoped it was, because the alternative meant that it was real. The main reason he didn’t reach for the nearest rock was that the snake was well out of reach, and didn’t look like it was paying the slightest bit of attention to him.

“The General” slithered further into the cave, finally off to the side where everyone was giving Spark some space to himself. The kid – if he really was; it could just be that everyone treated him as junior guy in the squad, and therefore he was automatically everyone’s kid brother – had been coping well enough, but he still had moments of grieving and needing to be left the hell alone.

Jack let out a tiny breath of relief as the snake went right past the kid too, only to blink as it glided up to the helmet Spark had carted around since the funeral. For a long, strange moment, the goa’uld reared up a little, glowing blue eyes directed towards the battered markings. Then it moved slowly, first twining around the helmet, then gliding underneath the curve of the side to sit under it. It was those eyes that Jack could still see, dim spots of neon as the brain-snake curled up underneath the helmet and snugged its head up close to the side.

Bad Jack, he told himself, trying not to read too much into the snake’s body langauge.  No feeling sorry for a snake.  Fuck if the damn thing didn’t look lost and dejected though.

During the short, infrequent rest stops on the forced march, they’d all had opportunities to spot Rex with blue eyes, holding the helmet from time to time, staring down at it with a faintly sad expression. Whenever he realized he had any type of audience, he’d politely put it down and done a good job of playing nonchalant, but even Jack had treated it the same way they did Spark. They just quietly went about their business, giving the man enough space to do...whatever.

Helmet. Face. Face of the goa’uld’s first host, which sounded like first ever. It was really confusing to realize he had some actual sympathy for a goa’uld.

A soldier.  That broke his brain a little bit more. This...“General” who had lost – what? A friend? God damn, it was hard to look at that way, and he was more than pragmatic and experienced enough to know that humanizing the enemy could be a very bad idea leading to very ugly messes. For all that, he didn’t want these people – brain snake thing aside – as “the enemy.”  People were people, and Jack kinda liked people, no matter how much he tried to protest it.

This meant he found himself in a very, very strange situation where he just kept quiet, the way you did in the barracks when you could hear the new guy a few bunks down reacting to his first real firefight, or the guy whose squad didn’t make it, or the fellow officer who had to make the best of a really lousy engagement. It was never a comfortable feeling; being on the outside, seeing or hearing grief, and for whatever reason not daring to do anything about it.

Having your meat-suit kick the bucket hadn’t been high on Jack’s list of reasons to give someone that kind of space, but he couldn’t quite get past that keen the snake had made, crouched down on a dead man’s chest. It had pressed up against the man’s chin the same way it cuddled close to the helmet, the “face.”

Deep down inside Jack was cursing himself out for several hundred kinds of a fool.  He wanted to like these guys, brain snake included.

When Kenobi finally slithered away from the helmet, back towards his alcove and what seemed to be a sleeping host, the movements were slow, almost reluctant. Jack found himself really regretting the Loony Toons marathon he’d inflicted on Teal’c not too long ago, because reading that much into a goa’uld’s body language was cracked.

Ah, FUCK. The goa’uld froze when its path was closest to him, and Jack was pretty sure it looked at him. There was a moment of what had to be hesitation, then the front end, finny and fangy and creepy as hell dipped down towards him. A nod, a bow, Jack wasn’t sure what if anything he’d call it, but Kenobi gestured to him, then went back to his slow slither home.

It took Jack a damn long time to fall asleep.

Five more days of heavy, endless rainfall made everyone twitchy. Kenobi and Rex didn’t say anything to Jack about the little midnight walkabout, so he figured the first didn’t want to talk about it, and the second didn’t know.

Keeping secrets with a goa’uld felt really damn weird. It was also nice that Kenobi let him have his zat back that first day, but it felt more like respect than bribery. Jack didn’t know what to do with that.

Kenobi had also did more of his freaky telekin-whatsis that day, lifting up some impossibly huge boulders with the puppetry hand gestures. It bothered the hell out of Jack that this was what made the snake’s eyes glow, instead of the anger, threats, and torture it usually accompanied in goa’uld.  Jack definitely wasn’t in Kansas, in more ways than one.

On the plus side, the new near-blockage of their cave both made it a fraction more snug, and meant that three large groups of Jaffa had wandered by without seeing a damn thing.

The enemy goa’uld was still looking for them, and it looked like it had ramped things up given the size and urgency to the search efforts.

Everyone had gotten fed up with sabacc by day two, so Jack had resorted to teaching card tricks and other stupid shit to guys who had nothing better to do and memorization skills that kinda creeped him out.

He was taking a break near the cave mouth when Waxer wandered over to Rex, who had taken half of the guard duty and spent the entire time glaring out at the rain. “Sir?” Waxer was speaking softly, but Jack never let an opportunity to eavesdrop sneak by. “You’re making the men twitchy, being all broody and crap.”

Rex grunted an almost laugh, then shook his head. “General’s being twitchy. Won’t tell me why, and it’s driving me nuts. Better to brood than end up yelling at everyone. Did he do this with 17?”

Waxer sighed. “Way too often.”

The silence between the two stretched out, and Jack frowned. The why was pretty obvious. The food was due to run out that day, and the rain didn’t look like it was going to let up anytime soon.  The notadeer had been a lucky find, but with almost twenty soldiers it hadn’t lasted long.  They’d managed to zap a few small animals, including some ‘kree’, but the heavy rains were driving the local fauna into hiding.  Between that and the absence of edible plant life, barring some berries that gave some pretty bad stomach cramps, or apple sized nuts that tasted like socks, their food stores were diminishing rapidly

At least Jack had mostly recovered from his cold, but three other guys had come down with even worse colds looking for more socknuts, and it looked like the local area had been swept clear.

It was way too early in the morning when Jack found himself jolted out of sleep in a cold sweat. There was just something about the way goa’uld fins rattled that gave him the shivers, and he really hoped it wasn’t another night of grieving or what the fuck ever.

Then he realized the noise was heading away, towards the mouth of the cave.

Shit. What if that’s not Kenobi? Jack sat up, moving quiet and careful. The two guys on guard duty weren’t acting unusual, so either it was, or they’d missed it. A small, dark slithery thing, in the dead of night ducking out into rain?

Yeah, it’d be easy to miss.

Such. A. Bad. Idea. Jack sauntered to the cave mouth as casually as he could, nodding to Longshot and Freight. Longshot’s bucket tilted in question, and Jack mimed “stir crazy, need a quick walk.” Longshot gave him a “get the hell out of here you madman” wave right back, and Jack stepped out into the rain.

There was something that might be a wriggling little furrow in the muck. He followed the trail as best he could, glad that the furrow reflected lightning well enough that he could see...something.

It didn’t go far. On their way to the cave, they’d passed a little body of water maybe five minutes’ walk in crappy light, horrible mud, and no one knowing where the hell they were going. It was now a reasonably sized pond, or maybe even qualified as a small lake. Judging by the scrubby plantlife, it looked like there might be another few feet of accumulation in its future.

This planet sucks.

He heard a “plop” noise, and he was almost able to make out a snaky finned monster dropping into the water. Jack let out a soft curse, because if it wasn’t Kenobi, then they were seriously screwed. He cautiously walked over, trying to figure out what the hell was going on

A tense minute or two of looking and – huge surprise – finding nothing, a strange shape flew out of the water, almost splatting on his boots. Jack hollered and stumbled back, then down onto his butt. His zat was out and aimed at –

He blinked.

Holy fuck. It was a fish.

At least, he thought it was a fish. Finny, bulgy eyes, half the length of his forearm, not really the scales, but close enough. A fish had just tossed itself right at his boots. What the hell?

By the time he’d gotten his head around the concept, another fish – this time a smidge larger, and still flopping, flew towards his boots.

One fish with a foot fetish, he could buy. He’d seen a lot of crazy shit over the years.

Two oddities, however, meant enemy action.

A third fish came flying in on the metaphorical heels of the second, and smacked him right in the gut. “Oh fuck you, Kenobi!” Jack yelped, realizing only a second too late he’d yelled at a goa’uld like –

Fuck. Like someone who just pranked him good.

For crying out loud, he’d seriously gone all in down the rabbit hole, and was treating a fucking brain snake like a fellow soldier.

A fourth fish almost got him in the face, and he had to admit that Kenobi had some decent aim. Sure, like you’re making it difficult for him. Jack scrabbled to his feet, cursing under his breath and not caring that no one could hear or make sense of it, not even him.

Since he’d blown any chance of anything staying dry, he pulled off his overshirt and started gathering kindafish in it, as Kenobi continued to hurl more out of the water. He finally just spread the shirt out like a damn picnic blanket, settling down in the light drizzle as the world got a little easier to see in what passed for early light on this muckball.

I’m babysitting a goa’uld tossing food at my shirt for a target. How is this my life?

They had a nice stash, possibly enough for a day or two, when Rex came charging down towards them, expression absolutely murderous. Thankfully, the host took one look at the situation, gave Jack a dirty glare, then stomped over to the water’s edge.

It...was kinda funny hearing the man bitch out a goa’uld who just calmly tossed more fish at him – aiming so that Rex either had to catch them or let them fall back in the water. Jack couldn’t decide if it was mean or hilarious, but he stayed put, grinning like a fool and not caring at all that Kix was gonna have his hide for being an idiot. The entertainment was worth it.