Category: Horror, Drama, Angst, H/C
Warnings: Major Character Death, Very disturbing imagery
Rating: R

Author’s Notes – this plot bunny kind of went nutso on me. I never even dreamed of the end when I started it. It was going to be something quite simple and it evolved – let’s just say! It’s weird.

 

           
He slipped the noose over the prisoner’s head, tightening it slightly about his neck. The prisoner shook his head then gestured with his bond hands. Ignoring the panicked eyes of the prisoner, he turned and nodded to the crowd. The natives surrounded the platform with expressions of rapt awe and shock as they observed the Rite of Purification. There was no sound except for the brief rustle of the few trees. A gag prevented the condemned man from voicing his protestations regarding the proceedings.

            On wavering legs Jack walked to the side of the platform, squinting out toward the plains. Wheat like grass floated with the gentle zephyrs and for a moment he thought it was a shame to ruin such a day with an execution. A red haze tainted his vision and he understood this was part of the Rite. But what needed to be done, must be done. The rest of his team’s lives teetered on his actions. The native peoples of this world awaited the signal. He glanced back at the condemned man. Again the man raised his hands and shook his head as if trying to convince Jack of his innocence. He grimaced.

            For a moment he faltered. The sight of the rope hanging around the man’s neck gave him a shiver like a chill from a sharp fingernail grazing his spine. No, he nodded to confirm his commitment to this course of action. If he’d learned anything from Daniel it was when in Rome, do as the Romans did. Wasn’t he doing that now?

            He raised his hands and gripped the rope that wrapped around the cinch. This wasn’t a hangman’s platform like on Earth. As the hangman it was his responsibility to yank hard on the rope, pulling it tight through the cinch and then securing it on the wooden pin and anchor it to lock it in place. He would feel the weight of the man; he would know the burden of the condemned man’s body on the gravity of this planet. He looked at the man again, the prisoner of this tribe for sacrilegious transgressions. He’d taken this action because it was the right thing to do; he would explain it to his team. He would.

            The tribal leader lifted his staff then stabbed it into the dusty soil. Jack grasped the rope and the condemned man made a noise deep in his throat, then said muffled words. Jack hauled downward on the rope, the mechanism creaked. The rope tightened and the slack of it sitting on the man’s shoulder pulled, yanked and with Jack’s final wrench, jerked upward to tug the man off his feet. The condemned man’s tied hands when to his throat as his feet kicked at the air.

            Jack turned away from the sight for a moment to fasten the anchor of the rope. Blinking his eyes, he tried to get the red haze clear, to remove the stain yet he could not. He snapped the rope in place and then faced the man again. At the very least he should watch the execution of the man he was told to kill. The man had his fingers wrapped against the rope, his feet still battling the air as he choked.

            “Colonel!” A voice broke the quietude. “Sir, stop!”

            He refused to turn toward his oncoming team. This was something he needed to do. The compulsion to see this man dead was a need like a hunger or a thirst. If he didn’t complete this task, if he didn’t see this man dead, he knew deep in the pit of his belly he wouldn’t survive.

            Calls from his team tried to stop him. He ignored them; he watched the kicks starting to slow.

            “Teal’c, the rope. Fire on the rope!” Carter ordered and a blast punctuated her words. It sizzled the rope.

            The condemned man dropped to the platform as the crowd became an angry mob. It was Teal’c’s blast weapon and a round from Carter’s P90 fired in the air that stopped them from surging toward the platform to finish the job.  But he was still there, just steps away from the condemned man.

            He slid a knife from his belt and rushed at the crumpled man on the platform.

            “Teal’c,” Carter screamed again as she ran toward the platform.

            Plunging the blade into the condemned man, something released inside Jack. It spread outward, a warmth heavy with pleasure and want. He pulled the knife out and went to spear his victim again when the discharge from a zat gun hit him. He groaned and spat out a curse as he collapsed beside the man, his murder victim.

            Darkness did not come immediately, but was warded off for just seconds as he sank to his side and the knife fell with a clang to the wooden platform. He faced the condemned man and the haze of red shifted, eased. The oozing feeling seated inside his core popped open and he saw the condemned man’s eyes, the startling blue eyes.

            Oh God.

            “Daniel.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

            A pounding rhythm squeezed his heart and he struggled against the pain. Groaning he turned his head and realized as consciousness drifted closer that he lay on a linen covered pillow, that the constant sounds he heard was that of a heart monitor. Bleary eyed, Jack blinked to clear the grit from his eyes. They felt swollen and bruised as he came awake.

            Standing over his bed with arms crossed in his defining self hug, Daniel smiled as Jack cracked open his eyes. He raised a hand and did a quick flick of his long fingers to wave at Jack. His breath caught in his throat as he came fully awake.

            “Daniel?” Jack went to sit up but his friend put a hand on his chest and shook his head.

            “You better stay put, you’re pretty banged up.”

            “Banged up? That a technical term, ‘cause I expect more from a linguist.”

            “A linguist that is not in any way a medical expert and yes according to one Jack O’Neill – two ll’s please – it is a technical term.” Daniel slid the chair next to the bed over and sat down, his legs stretched out, his back at an angle against the frame of the chair.

            “What the hell happened?” Memories, flashes of images haunted him yet he denied the image of Daniel’s hands raking at the rope as it tightened about his neck. “What I remember doesn’t make sense.”

            “Oh it makes sense,” Daniel said and smiled. “The natives of the fair planet of P2X-005 gave you some not so happy juice and you went a little crazy.”

            His dry lids scratched against his corneas and felt like sand. Closing he eyes relieved him of the desiccated feeling but left him victim to afterimages of a red haze and a displaced throbbing need deep within the hollow of his chest. He turned his head to look at Daniel and realized for the first time that his friend’s expression was bent, off, wrong.

            “Daniel?”

            It took a moment before he answered with his requisite reply. “Jack?”

            Even his voice pitched at a wrong tone and alerts screamed in Jack’s fogged brain. His tactic changed then, instead of the usual banter he decided to jump back and forage for more details. “I went a little crazy?”

            Daniel had curled up on the chair. He bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. His entire stance looked closed, folded, concealed. “Really not much new actually. SG1 gates to planet, SG1 explores ruins, then SG1 meets native population. Native population protests SG1 presence at ruins and takes resident SG1 archeologist into custody.”

            “That would be you,” Jack said and pointed to Daniel, expecting the usual smart, clipped response or even the exasperated groan.

            Instead, he received a quick nod of the head and a continuation of the circumstances that landed Jack in the infirmary. “Leader of SG1 tries to negotiate a peaceful resolution.”

            Jack raised his hands and said, “Oh I remember this. Didn’t the top guy want me to smoke a peace pipe or something?”

            For his efforts, Jack was rewarded with a stifled sigh and then Daniel said, “It wasn’t a peace pipe, stop being so racially inept. It was a sharing of the cup for the Rite of Purification.”

            “Of course, how narrow minded and discriminatory of me.”

            “Can I continue?”

            Jack suppressed a smile. This was more like it; this was the Daniel he knew. He tilted his head and gave Daniel the floor.

            “We all drank from the cup.” Daniel stopped. He gripped the edge of the seat of the chair and leaned forward a bit.

            “And?” Jack ignored his growing concern.

            “And it affected everyone a little differently.” Daniel eased forward in the seat, nearly toppling off of the chair. He hissed a breath through his clenched teeth.

            “Daniel?” Jack sat up, pulled the sheet and blanket back.

            “I can’t,” Daniel said then moaned deep in his chest. “I can’t – I don’t think this is going to work.”

            That’s when Jack saw it. The marks on Daniel’s throat, a swathe of blue and black bruising interrupted only by a red spattering of bloody marks. He leapt off the bed, not caring about the swoon of dizziness that overcame him as he went to his knees in front of Daniel. Wires snapped off, monitors toppled to the floor. His stomach almost rebelled on him as he glimpsed the spreading stain on Daniel’s chest.

            “Jesus, Daniel, you’re bleeding.” Shoving his hand onto his friend’s injury, Jack called out. “Help! Someone, he’s bleeding.” How the hell did Janet not see that Daniel was hurt? How the hell did he make it this far?

            Falling, collapsing off the chair, Daniel grasped a hold of the scrubs Jack was wearing. The pouring blood from his chest wound drained the color from his skin, from his face giving him a corpse’s complexion. Jack cried out again for someone to help him, to save Daniel.

            No one came. But he heard words, people demanding and ordering. Though he saw no one, their conversation rang like clear bells in his head. Fragments echoed in his brain, bash around in his head as the clapper slammed against the inside of a bell. Phrases like bleeding out, we’re losing him clashed in his head with the eerie silence encompassing the room as Daniel dropped into his arms.

            “You don’t understand, Jack.” Blood leaked out of his mouth and nose, ran a trail down his cheek.

            “What Daniel?” Jack craned his head and begged, “For pity’s sake, someone help me!”

            A tremor coursed through his friend’s body and Daniel fought against it, thrashing and kicking. He gripped Jack’s shoulder and said, “Don’t blame yourself, promise me?”

            “No, no. I’m not promising you anything.” He stroked the short hair away from Daniel’s face. “You’re not dying Daniel. This isn’t happening.”

            A small smile cracked his wan features and as the light left his eyes, Daniel whispered, “But it already has, Jack. It already has.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Colonel? Can you answer me, sir?”

            A scorching light glanced over his eyes and he batted at the pen light. The burn of the light still chased his vision as he opened his eyes to the face of Doctor Janet Fraiser. Her demure form and large doe like eyes would have welcomed him if the pain blaring in his head hadn’t made him feel like he’d spent the past three days with an ice pick chipping away at his skull.

            “Colonel, how many fingers am I holding up?”

            He clamped a hand over his eyes and peeked through the fingers. Shit. “As many as you say.”

            “Colonel.”

            “Okay, you want me to guess I will but what if I’m right then you’ll have no idea that I actually just guessed and really have no idea what you’re holding up,” Jack said and coughed away the dryness in his throat.

            “Well that tells me what I need to know,” Fraiser said and flipped the stethoscope from around her neck. “Let me check your lungs.”

            “My lungs? What’s wrong with my lungs?” It was then the coughing turned into a full blown fit. A manacle wrapped around his ribcage and clamped shut about his lungs as he continued to cough. Fraiser signaled to a nurse and they helped him into a sitting position. He curled over himself as she soothed his back with a firm circular motion. Though a Nazi on the surface she was a sweetheart underneath. Sighing in relief as the fit dissipated, he lay back on the pillows and blinked the tears out of his eyes. She handed him a cup of water.

            After he drank his fill, Fraiser yanked a portion of his scrubs down and listened to his lungs, then his heart. As she did so, her instructions were minimal to both him and the nurse. Finishing, she slung the stethoscope around her neck and propped his pillows for him as she spoke, “Now Colonel, what do you remember?”

            “Not much.”  As he answered, Carter walked up to his bedside. Her features were drawn and her eyes shallow as if she had been up all night working on her computer. She looked compressed. “Carter?”

            “Sir, how are you feeling?”

            “Like someone dropped a house on me, what happened?”

            Fraiser gave Carter a sidelong glance then turned back to him. “Do you remember what happened on P2X-005?”

            “What do people keep asking me what I remember, when I’ve already asked them what happened?”  He grimaced then eased himself back. “Can someone answer my question first or do I have to make it an order?”

            “I’ll be giving the orders around here Colonel,” Hammond said as he entered the infirmary. “Jack, please, just give the Doctor an answer.”

            “General sir, already did sir, have no idea what’s going on.” He gave the General his best half smile and then stifled a groan. His chest hurt as did his head. “What’s wrong with me?”

            Fraiser eyed Carter again and then inhaled in a long sigh before she began. “Right now my best guess is that you had some kind of influenza, though I have no idea if it was of the home grown variety or not.”

            “I have the flu?”

            “Something like,” Fraiser said and pulled his chart from the end of the bed. “While off-world you were exposed to some kind of drink.”

            “The Rite of Purification,” Jack supplied.

            “So you do remember, sir?” Carter asked.

            “No, Daniel told me that,” he answered and his world tilted, spun and flipped. Daniel, where was Daniel. Then he glimpsed Carter’s drawn look, how she avoided his gaze. “Carter?”

            “As I was saying,” the doctor interrupted. “Whatever was in the drink ended up reacting with the hyperstimulated state of your immune system. Your immune cells attacked you.”

            “Like an autoimmune disease?”

            He glanced at his 2IC and then to the doctor. “So I got AIDS from an alien drink?”

            Fraiser laid her hand on his shoulder and patted. “No. AIDS caused by HIV is not the only autoimmune disease. And in this case, the attack of your immune system on your nervous system isn’t what I believe to be a chronic state but an acute state.”

            “So it should go away?”

            “Yes, but we have the residual illnesses. The pain in your chest is fluid in your lungs due to the pneumonia you developed. The ache which you undoubtedly have in your head is probably due to the other ingredients in the drink.” Fraiser detailed his ailments and then continued, “When your body attacked itself, you suffered from an acute delirium.”

            “But I’m better now, right?”

            “Recovering but not out of the woods,” the doctor responded. “You’re immune profile is still elevated in several of your different cell types but with the infection, I’m not surprised. It’s difficult to tease out what is due to the hyperstimulation caused by the drink and what is due to the normal reaction of your body to having a viral infection.”

            “So Colonel, can you tell me anything more that you remember?” Hammond, who had stood quietly aside as the doctor described his illness, now stepped forward and awaited his briefing.

            “I only remember what Daniel told me.”

            All three looked at each other and then without a word, turned back to him. Something in the pit of his stomach clenched tight. Carter addressed him, “On the planet? Daniel told you something on the planet?”

            “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, I told you I don’t remember any of that. Daniel just told me, right before.” The fist twisting his stomach wrenched hard and he cupped a hand over his mouth. “Oh God, what happened to Daniel? Did anyone hear me calling? Did you get to him on time?”

            “So you do remember, Colonel?” The General asked.

            “Yes, he was here,” Jack said but noted again a look passed amongst his three visitors. He coughed to clear the congestion but also to try and ease the torment in his belly. “He told me about what happened on double o five. Told me about the purification rite.” He waved at the chair, the empty chair sitting in the darkened corner in the infirmary. “He fell off the chair and I went to him.”

            Fraiser averted her gaze from him and faced the General. “Sir?”

            Hammond pursed his lips and nodded. His shoulders slumped a bit, his whole attitude curved in on himself as if he was a crumpled piece of old newspaper, spent and ready to be tossed out with the trash. “Colonel O’Neill, Jack I’m sorry to have to tell you this son but Doctor Jackson died on the planet.”

            “No,” Jack said, he still felt the sticky wet mess of Daniel’s blood on his hands. “No he was right here. In the infirmary, he told me what happened.”

            “Jack, Daniel is dead.”

            He expected his vision to darken, gray out at the edges and fade to a narrow pinpoint of light. Instead the overhead lights in the infirmary burst forth with a brilliance that blazed in his eyes even after he closed them. The features of his friends bleached out, their words streamed into one and he realized it wasn’t their voices he was hearing but his own. His lamented cry, a hoarse scream as he recalled each moment in detail, in fine detail as if it had been captured in some bizarre porcelain sculpture.

            Before him, he saw Daniel’s fingers scratching at his neck, grappling to keep the rope from strangulating him. He witnessed the hard kicks as Daniel dangled in front of him and the gurgling that sprouted from his mouth. Worse yet was the feel, the slide of the knife as his killing blow hit its target. The twist of the blade as he pulled it free and came down as the flesh ripped asunder again.

            “Colonel, I’m giving you a sedative,” Fraiser said as a nurse handed her a syringe. But the rest of what they were saying became a din of noise, lost in the ragged breathing wrenched from his own throat.

            The last thing he remembered was the startling blue eyes as the sedative took over and he succumbed to it.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

            At night the infirmary spoke in quiet hushed tones. The other beds were empty and so the nurses scuffled about in whispering motions like spirits. His eyes were slits as he lay in his bed watching yet not speaking to anyone. Although Fraiser insisted he was physically getting better, he collapsed inside himself. His body one dimensional in its aspect, his very soul had rotted to leave only an empty shell.

            “Fraiser thinks you can go home soon.”

            The sound of a voice stunned him and when he turned to the speaker, something jolted deep down inside of him. Leaning against the unoccupied bed next to his, Daniel stood with arms folded about himself. This time Jack glimpsed the rope marks about his neck and the stain of blood on his chest was evident although it looked old, dried.

            “I can’t wait to get out of here,” Daniel said as he scooted onto the bed, he swung his legs.

            Jack covered his face with his hands and shook his head. “God damn it, a ghost. I do not believe it ghosts.”

            “Why? Why is a ghost any harder to believe than someone having a snake in their head or the possibility of traveling light years through a big ring with a swimming pool in the middle of it.” Daniel eased back on the bed and closed his eyes.  “I need rest.”

            “How can you need rest, you’re dead?” Jack replied. None of this made sense, but then talking to a dead guy isn’t supposed to make sense, is it?

            “Death is a disease, Jack.” Daniel opened his eyes and looked at him. “No one is trying to cure me.”

            An actual chuckle came out of Jack. This dream was weird. “What do you need to cure you, Daniel.”

            “First I need you to believe.”

            “Believe in ghosts? I don’t think so.”

Daniel shifted to his side, the wound on his chest broke open and started to bleed again. It made a pool of red around him. “This is gonna get ugly if someone doesn’t help me soon. You have to help me.”

            “You know, now I know you’re not Daniel,” Jack said. “Daniel would never talk like that. He would never say ‘gonna’. He is a linguist.” He looked at the figment of his imagination and clenched his teeth at the sight before him. He stopped the urge to curse.

            The broken wound seeped thick pus, dripping down onto the bed. The figment of his dream cringed as he moved and rocked against the pain. “Was, I was a linguist. Not is.” He moaned a bit and then lay still.

            “Daniel?”

            He didn’t move for several seconds, his breathing harsh and irregular.

            “Daniel?”

            Opening his eyes, Daniel glared at him. “Don’t leave me like this Jack. Don’t make me go through this.”

            “What?”

            “If you make me go through this, you’ll be killing me all over again,” Daniel moaned and bashed his head against the rail of the bed.

            “No,” Jack stated. “No.” He pressed his fingers into his forehead and squeezed his eyes closed.

            “Help me Jack.”

            Though he fought against looking, Jack peered over at the bed next to his. The occupant, the thing calling itself Daniel clawed at the air and clutched his wounded shoulder and chest. He tossed himself back and forth on the narrow bed until he plummeted to the floor. Glancing over the edge of his bed, Jack pushed himself up to see the thing.

            He cursed low in this throat as the pus mushroomed outward, crawling over Daniel’s chest and arms like a million tiny worms. Jack gulped back bile as Daniel skin started to bubble up and break open in bloody infected boils. With a red streaked gaze, Daniel turned to him and pleaded, “Please Jack, only you, only you can help me.”

            He bit his lips and shook his head. “You’re dead, you’re dead. I can’t help you, you’re dead already.”

            “Only you, Jack.” Daniel cried out as the tendrils of infection slithered over his flesh consuming it. His skin melted, puddling around him and his face expanded like the colors of a watercolor painting smearing in the rain. Jack heard one last word as Daniel liquefied onto the concrete floor.

            “Jack.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

            In his hand he held the sum total of his life to date. As he glanced down at the single sheet of paper, Jack wondered if he should just call it a day and realize the glory days of his life were long since gone. He’d had his adventures, his heartaches, his loves and his pains. On this single sheet of paper, he totaled it up and came up with an equation he didn’t much like. Maybe Carter could have looked at the figures, the parts of his life a little differently and calculated something grand. He doubted it.  Teal’c would summarize Jack’s life as a successful one but Teal’c didn’t know all of what he had done or what he committed in the name of God and country. Sometimes he hated what he’d done.

            Especially now.

            He walked to the door of the General’s office and with a single knuckle gave a knock. Hammond invited him in with the soft Texan twang and he entered, paper held low. But his demeanor didn’t fool the old wise ass, didn’t even come close. Hammond looked him up and down, gave a short huff and said, “If that’s your resignation, I don’t accept it. You might as well just tear it up now and save us both the trouble of the speech we both know I’m going to say.”

            “Sir?”

            Hammond pointed to the chair and glowered at Jack until he took it. Sitting in his leather upholstered chair, the General eased back but grabbed the arms as if he worried the ride might be unstable.

            “Both you and I know Jack that you were under the influence of an alien drug. One that took weeks to clear your system and you are now just recovering from its affects.” Hammond continued, “I know you blame yourself for Doctor Jackson’s death.” Hammond rubbed his bald forehead and said, “I know this is hard to accept. Doctor Jackson’s death was in vain, the reason for it, no purpose. You were caught up in an alien culture and it caused unforeseen circumstances to arise.”

            “No sir,” Jack replied. “I could say with all due respect, but I’m not. That’s a bunch of bull. We deal with alien cultures on a daily basis. We’ve been under the influence of alien devices, drugs, hell even possession, and the end result was never one of my team member’s deaths. I killed Daniel. I put the noose around his neck and hung him then when Teal’c tried to save him, I plunged my knife into his heart. And you want to know what, General?” He stood up, hulking over the desk. “I liked it, nearly got off on the feel of his flesh ripping under my hands.”

            “Colonel! Let me remind you where you are and to whom you are speaking,” Hammond said as he rose from his chair.

            Jack took a steadying breath, trying to quell the throb of his heart. “The truth is the truth General. I’m a bastard, a murderer. I killed my best friend.” His voice cracked and his hands shook as he handed over his resignation. “Please take it, if you give even a shit about me, please take it.”

            Hammond met Jack’s gaze and for a moment they were not General and Colonel, but just two men. Two men mourning the loss of another. Something deep inside Jack withered, decayed as he stood there staring out at Hammond. A part of him had died with Daniel.

            “Okay,” Hammond said and accepted the sheet of paper. “I’ll keep this here for the next week, give you time to think about it.”

Jack was going to tell him to just accept it, there would be no turning back – not this time. Instead he nodded then reached out his hand to the General, his friend. Hammond took a moment before he grasped the offered hand, gave it a quick shake and then nodded.

            “Think about it Jack. I don’t want to lose the best second in commander anyone could ask for.”

            “Thank you sir.” Jack went to leave but before he exited he turned around, stood at attention and raised his hand in a smart salute. Hammond straightened his shoulders, mimicked Jack’s stance and saluted him. With a quick nod, Jack left his friend’s office.

            He strode down the corridors, ignoring the passing glances of his former colleagues. This was no longer his home; he needed to escape. As he turned the corner, he nearly bumped into Teal’c. The Jaffa had a unique skill of never making a noise.

            “O’Neill, I did not expect you to be here at this early hour in the morning.”

            “Just leaving now, T man.” Jack attempted to sound easy, casual as if there wasn’t a shadow cast over half his soul.

            “You are only now leaving the base for the night?” Teal’c asked as he followed Jack down the corridor.

            “Went and pulled an all nighter,” he lied. Although he’d been at the base all night, it had been to finish cleaning out his locker and his desk. After Fraiser discharged him yesterday, he went to Daniel’s office. He walked through it just once, he only touched one thing, the ceremonial wedding bowl that Daniel so cherished – one of the few mementos his friend possessed of his dead wife. For a moment, Jack considered taking the bowl, something precious and truly Daniel’s but he left it. He’d killed Daniel and he didn’t deserve to have a token of his friend. He’d left Daniel’s office and went instead to his office to write his resignation letter, to clean out his desk.

            “I do not believe that pulling an all nighter is a course of action you would take O’Neill,” Teal’c said as they entered the locker room.

            Jack opened the nearly empty locker, the photos were gone, packed and stored in his truck. His barren space didn’t escape Teal’c’s notice. Just a raised eyebrow indicated his acknowledgement of the clearing out of his locker space.

            He bowed his head and bit back his response. There was no anger, there was only pain, sorrow, frustration. Suddenly the open locker room felt like a closet, the walls shifted inward and the ceiling dropped.

            Teal’c said, “It will be a great loss to this command if you leave O’Neill.”

            Jack didn’t reply.

            “For myself, O’Neill, I will be losing a great friend and a brilliant commander. Above all else, O’Neill, you are a leader. With little effort you make people believe in you and your cause. I will be forever indebted to you.” Teal’c finished and then turned and left, not giving Jack the ability to even answer him.

            He stood there – not moving – his hands paralyzed on the door to the locker. The cold steel of the door shuddered through him as if it infected him. He shivered. Damn, this wasn’t him. Teal’c saw someone that didn’t exist anymore, probably never existed at all. Black Ops – that’s all he was – nothing more.

            Slamming the door closed, he gathered up his jacket and made his way up to the surface. He never looked back, refused to meet anyone’s gaze. He needed to get out, the place felt suffocating, claustrophobic. Without stopping he exited Cheyenne Mountain complex for the last time and went to his truck. He tossed his jacket in the bed of the truck with the rest of his boxes, the last vestiges of a life once lived and now lost. Climbing into the cab, Jack slide behind the steering wheel and braced himself with it. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the wheel. It took him what felt like forever to thaw out his hands, to twist the key to start the engine. The truck rumbled to life even though he hadn’t turned the engine over in weeks. He pulled out of the parking lot and got onto the main road without thinking. For some reason it felt like any other day.

            “So, where are we going?”

            The truck veered toward the edge of the road and he grasped the wheel and gave a sharp tug on it. Righted, the vehicle came under his control again and he gasped.

            “Well? You still haven’t answered me?”

            He had hoped the lack of nightmares, the lack of appearance by the specter over the last week had meant an end to his mental torment. Peering over to the passenger’s seat, Jack cringed when he glimpsed the injured figure of Daniel seated in his truck. “Christ,” he cursed.

            “Not quite,” Daniel replied and smiled.

            “Hell, what do you want?” Jack hadn’t told anyone about the nightmares, the continued visions of a dead Daniel after that first admission.

            “Not a nice way to greet an old friend.”

            “An old friend who is dead.”

            “Okay,” Daniel leaned back in the seat, his skin wan and thin. “Just wish it didn’t hurt quite so much.”

            Jack stared at the road trying his best to ignore the man or thing or whatever the hell it was sitting in the cab with him. His gut knotted and he gulped for a breath. Was he dreaming again? Had he fallen asleep at the wheel?

            “This is not happening. This is not happening.” He kept his eyes glued to the white striping in the road. Ignoring the subtle moan coming from the apparition that sat next to him, Jack bit back his curse.

            “Please Jack,” Daniel whispered, his voice only a soft cry. “Please you have to help me.”

            God damn it. God damn it. “I can’t help you. You’re dead.” His soul felt as if it balled up in his throat to choke him. His nostrils flared as his body begged for breath.

            “You have to help me Jack.”

            The sound of Daniel’s plea cut open his inner core, peeled away at who he was deep inside. His heart flayed at the pain in his friend’s voice. He curled his hands about the steering wheel and shook his head. “There’s nothing I can do. You’re dead.” 

            “Oh Jack,” he said with the barest of breath to mouth the words.

            The simplest words caught him and Jack turned to look at the remains of his friend. “Good God.” The thing that called itself Daniel’s chest was torn away, blood drained down into his lap. His lips blued and his neck bruised and laced with peeling, rotting flesh. It hurt to look at him but he couldn’t tear his eyes away at the last remnants of Daniel.

            “Are we going to your place?” Daniel murmured as he grasped his wound. “Maybe you could help me then. Could you help me then, Jack?”

            Jack blinked once to clear his head. No this was not happening. He veered to the side of the road and slowed the truck to a stop. “Get out.”

            “What?”

            “I said, get the hell out of my car. You’re not Daniel, I don’t know what the hell you are. Some kind of fucking ghost,” Jack said.

            “Please Jack, just call someone. Call them to help me.”

            “No, no, no.” Jack wrenched the door handle and leapt out of the cab. He rounded the front of the truck and then strode to Daniel’s door. He pulled it open and yanked the thing out of the seat. “Get out of my fucking truck.”

            Daniel skidded along the gravel on the side of the road. He staggered as he tried to maintain his footing. Jack clutched his shirt collar and screamed at him. “Stay away from me. I don’t believe in ghosts. Get away from me.”

            “Jack, please, I’m not a ghost.”

            “Crap, how can you not be? Look at yourself, you’re a walking corpse.” Jack rifled a hand through his hair. Only too late realizing his hand was sticky with blood and tissues. “Crap, crap.” Tears burned the edges of his eyes. Was he under the possession or influence of some alien parasite or device? God everything was all screwed up.

            “No Jack, no.” Daniel shook his head but started to walk backwards away from Jack toward the road. “No, I just need you to help me. Jack please.” He opened his hands and his chest shuddered.

            “No you are a God damned ghost, the living dead,” he yelled. “God help me, for cryin’ out loud.”

            With a wide eyed stare, Daniel denied Jack’s statement. “No, Jack. You have to listen to me. You need to believe you can -.”

            It happened without notice. An eighteen wheeler truck sped down the highway, its brakes squealing as Jack jumped out of the way. As he narrowly avoided the truck, he rolled onto his hands and knees. The stones of the gravel sliced into his hands as he stumbled to his knees. The blare of the horn blasted through him as the truck slammed into the figure of Daniel, his body flung and broken from the explosive impact. Arms and legs bent at absurd angles, ribs crushed and caved inward, skull cracked and split open.

            “Shit,” Jack said and his arms trembled at the shreds of his friend’s body strewn about the roadway. The truck powered up the road and streaked to a stop. “Daniel.” But he couldn’t say anything more as the nausea conquered him, defeating him and he threw up at the side of the road. On his hands and knees, Jack heaved again with the smell of cleaved flesh. He heard nothing just the roar of silence in his ears. Streaming down his face, tears mixed with vomit.

            “Hey, you okay?” A voice slashed through the storm of pain. A hand touched the edge of his shoulder as a shadow covered him, darkening the day to a cold chill.

            “I don’t know.”

            “God, I almost hit you. You gotta be careful man, stopping on the side of the road ain’t a good idea.”

            Jack glanced up at the man. Balding but with gentle eyes, the truck driver sought his verification that everything was okay. How could it be okay, though? Daniel was dead. The thing, God Daniel, was shredded across the roadway. Christ. Daniel. He looked up and saw a pristine road. The glisten of asphalt black and shining in the morning was serene and untouched, unstained in the sunlight.

            “Daniel.”

            “Who’s Daniel?”

            He shook his head and started to his feet. The truck driver offered a work roughened hand and Jack took it as he hoisted himself to his feet. “He’s-.” Who was Daniel? His friend, his compass. “Someone who’s gone now.”

            “Sorry ‘bout that.” The truck driver patted him on the shoulder. “You be careful now.” The man walked away, a limp evident as he moved off to his truck to climb in and start the rumble of the big vehicle.

            He watched as the truck moved down the road into the turn ahead. As he stared into the distance, a chill prickled his spine. The high mountain winds whispered over his skin and he turned to a phantom sound. Down the road a figure stood. He couldn’t make out features, but the stance, the structure spoke of Daniel. The figure raised his hand and then turned and walked down the path of the road. He disappeared around the bend of the road.

            Why was this happening? Why was Daniel or a spirit of Daniel harassing him? Was it a specter? He glanced at the road again, back to Cheyenne Mountain. Perhaps he’d made a mistake and should go back to the mountain, confess the continued visions. For Christ’s sakes, he’d nearly killed himself.

            Again he looked at the path the figure had taken into the dense mountain foliage. Something inside him yearned for it to be true. That it was somehow, someway his friend.  As he realized the chill of the day had eaten into his bones, Jack only whispered, “Daniel.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

            Moonlight captured the white calla lilies blooming in his backyard. He remembered when he planted them, knowing they would be difficult to nurture in the mountain climate. But the tulip spiraled blossoms were Sara’s favorites. He planted them right after Charlie died.  They lived on. His son was gone.

            Sitting in the living room in the growing darkness of night, Jack settled into his chair and gazed out the large picture window. A beer drooped in his slacken grip, the label peeled away. He sat here every night for the past week, sat trance like with eyes focused on the sway of his garden. He’d have more time for his garden now, he could let his garden service go – don’t need to pay for something he could do himself. He wasn’t going back. He called Hammond today and told him to please accept the resignation. With regret the General had.

            Shutting his eyes, he inhaled and exhaled once. It was too hard to say good bye to friends but it was especially hard when those friends left these confines by his own hand. No inquiry had been performed on his participation in Daniel’s death. Teal’c and Carter had written reports, confirming that he had been a victim of an alien ritual that caused him to act as Daniel’s killer.

            Teal’c had visited earlier in the evening. His presence did not calm Jack, made him feel insignificant. He’d never seen Teal’c impatient and bothered. Teal’c had walked into the living, hands clasped behind his back, a frown furrowing his brow. In some respects, Teal’c moved like a gathering storm, his mass a fury of clouds and wind. When he confronted Jack, he glared and demanded but his voice never pitched in anger.

            “Hear me O’Neill,” Teal’c had started. “You are not yourself and it has troubled me for some time. I have perceived that you are concealing something from us and it is now time for your full confession.”

            “There’s nothing to tell,” Jack dropped down the few steps to his living room and swung the bottle of beer. He hadn’t been sure how many he drank that day. He wasn’t going to confess to his visions; deep within him there was a fear that the rare visitations would disappear altogether if he told anyone. In the back of his mind, he knew it was irrational but it was his last link to Daniel. He switched topics and said,  “I killed my friend. No one gave a damn and now I’m living a life of relaxation and reward – off my retirement.”

            “I would contest your contention that no one gave a damn about the unfortunate circumstances around the death of Daniel Jackson.” If Teal’c could have deepened his frown, he seemed to then. “I take it with great offense that you assert that no one gave a damn. I do O’Neill. Major Carter cares. You have belittled our affection for Daniel Jackson and our concern for you, O’Neill.”

            As Teal’c glowered at him, the heat rose in his belly and caused the pounding of his heart to ricochet in his head. His battle to hold the line against the rising tide of his emotions failed, crumbling without a battle. “Get the hell out of here. You don’t have any idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

            “In contrast, O’Neill, I would maintain that I do. I have spoken with Major Carter and she has confessed to me her pain over the incident.”

            “It wasn’t a God damned incident, T man,” Jack taunted. “And it wasn’t an accident. I killed Daniel. Me the leader of SG1 – I took that cup of purification, drank it down and sentenced Daniel to death. I killed him with my own hands. Me.”

            “No one is challenging that fact,” Teal’c said. “It is this you must listen to O’Neill, you are twice over failing Daniel Jackson now. You have abandoned him in his memory. You have betrayed his memory. You have no honor O’Neill as you sit here with your bottle and stink of beer.”

The roll of anger curdled deep with him as he faced off with Teal’c. His fists opened and closed in spasms with his anger. He wanted to tear the Jaffa in front of him apart, he wanted to punch his fists into his pouch and pull out Junior and kill the parasite. He snarled and, through clenched teeth, said, “Get the hell out of my house.”

            “I will assuredly leave O’Neill. I have delivered my message that you should be ashamed of your behavior and your lack of respect for Daniel Jackson’s memory. I have asked you to reveal what you are concealing from your friends and you have refused. I will leave you now but I do beseech you O’Neill that you consider my words. Though they are harsh, they are offered in friendship.”

            That was hours ago. He watched the sunset in the time between Teal’c’s departure and now. He sat with the same bottle of beer in his hand. It was now warm and flat, tasteless and uninviting. He stared blankly at the flowerbed beyond his window. A shadow shifted over his shoulder and he knew before he heard the voice.

            “Hi Jack.”

            He didn’t turn to his nemesis. “Daniel.”

            “You had a visitor.”

            Jack turned to focus on the spirit sitting in his living room.  The gleaming light of the moon kept the details of the dead man hidden. He let out a shivering breath – at least he didn’t have to look at ripped tissues and rotten flesh. “Teal’c came over. Think he’s upset with me about retiring.”

            “Giving up, you mean.” The ghost eased back on the couch and moaned in an all too human voice.

            “I didn’t give up, I did the right thing for once in my life,” Jack said and took a swig of the warm beer. He grimaced against its bitter taste.

            “Leaving your friends behind to fend for themselves against the Goa’uld, the replicators and whatever other menace might be out there? That’s the right thing huh?” The ghost shifted his legs as if he was fighting against the pain.

            “The right thing was not to put them in danger anymore,” Jack said. “Just go away, go back to where ever you keep coming from. Halloween was last week.”

            “You don’t mean that.” Daniel rose, stumbling as he tried to make it over to Jack. “If you would listen to me Jack. Just listen to me, can you hear me?”

            Jack glanced up at the figure standing above him. The tattered man, his chest a mass of torn flesh and his neck a tangled open wound, reached out and grabbed a hold of the mantle on the fireplace.

            “I need you to hear me Jack,” Daniel cried out as a shudder racked his body. “You need to help me, if you don’t help me I can’t help you.”

            He gave a little laugh, tilted the beer to his lips, sipped then asked, “How can a ghost help me?”

            “You have to believe in yourself Jack, if you don’t believe you can’t do this for me.” Daniel’s hold of the mantle slipped and he staggered to his knees, hand to his chest. “God, I can’t Jack.” Daniel’s other hand clawed at Jack’s knee. “The pain, it’s too much. Please, help me.”

            He couldn’t not help, the thing looked too much like Daniel for him not to react, not to try and assist. He reached out and clasped the arm of the ghost. Under his touch, he felt clammy skin, chilled but still very much alive. Did a ghost feel like this? Could you actually touch a ghost?

            Being haunted wasn’t high on his list of things he wanted to continue in his life but if he let Daniel go then he would completely and finally lose his best friend. Yet he had to help the fragmented phantom struggling on its knees next to him, he hated to think about leaving this man to suffer more.

            “What, what do you need me to do Daniel?”

            Daniel dropped his forehead against Jack’s knees. Tremors shook his shoulders as he panted against Jack’s calf. “I can’t keep coming to you Jack. There isn’t much time left. I can’t tell you what you need to do, you have to believe.”

            “Believe?”

            “Yes, you have to believe.” Daniel cursed low in his throat and then fell to his side a seizure racking his body. He rocked back and forth on the floor, the tendons and veins in his ruined neck tightening and straining.

            Jack knelt down next to Daniel and although he scowled in disgust at the shattered remains of his friend, he gathered his friend into his arms. Daniel’s eyes glazed over and Jack recognized the look of death. “Tell me Daniel, tell me what I need to believe.”

            Daniel grasped the collar of Jack’s shirt and through gritted teeth said, “In yourself Jack. Who do you believe you are.”  Collapsing to the floor, Daniel’s form quavered as blood tear streamed out of his eyes. The veins in his neck bubbled and popped. His hands feebly tried to clasp Jack’s but the fists would not close. “It’s over Jack. Too weak now.” A scream rendered the air and Daniel’s form wavered and as Jack held him close, disintegrated.

            He sat there, stunned and shocked. The ghost of Daniel had simply disappeared, but he still felt the weight of the man in his arms, felt the claw of his fingernails as he faded into oblivion. This wasn’t a ghost.

            Damn it, Daniel. What am I missing? “Damn it, damn it.” Jack put his hands to his head and like a vise squeezed until he might crush his skull into his brain. He looked at his empty hands, at the space on the floor where Daniel had suffered and sobbed for him to understand. “What am I missing?”

            He jumped up and started to pace in front of the wide window. Believe in yourself. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Stopped in front of the window, he kept repeating ‘believe in yourself’. Sara had said that to him after Charlie died. He caught the sway of the calla lilies, saw the glint of moonlight sparkle off the dew beginning to form on the tips of the blossoms.

            ‘If you believed in yourself Jack, you could come back to me,’ Sara had said during his months of self-loathing after Charlie’s death. But he hadn’t understood then, never had. But Daniel brought him back to the living. He believed in Daniel, in a cause, that he had worth and could make a difference. He believed in himself again because of Daniel.

            He had worth. It smashed him in the chest, hard like a fist cracking his sternum. “Shit. Damn it.” He raced to the phone but as he reached for it said, “Forget that.”  He grabbed his keys and jacket and sprinted to the door. Within seconds, he was in his truck, foot to the accelerator speeding toward the Cheyenne Mountain.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

            “Where is he?” Jack said as he rushed into the infirmary. Fraiser and her nurses grouped around a monitor discussing the latest readout of some medical study. She peered up at him, obviously exasperated with his demanding nature.

            “Excuse me, Colonel, can I help you?”

            “Yes, where’s Daniel?” She squinted at him as if he’d lost his mind. “No, his body. Where the hell is Daniel’s body. It’s been weeks, have you had a funeral yet? I’m assuming that you haven’t had a funeral yet. At least no one invited me to a damned funeral.” His patience thinned as he fisted his hands to still them. “So where the hell is his body?”

            Fraiser eyed the airman standing guard at the door then her attention was drawn back to him. “Colonel, are you certain you’re feeling well?”

            He clamped his jaw shut and exhaled through his nose. He spoke deliberately with carefully chosen words. “I would like to see my friend’s body.”

            The doctor placed the clipboard on the table next to the monitors and nodded to the nurses. They went about their duties. She motioned for him to sit and though his blood pressure threatened to burst his arteries, Jack pulled a chair up and settled into it.

            “You’re feeling okay?”

            He nodded.

            “You want to see Daniel’s body?”

            Again, he nodded.

            “He’s in the morgue but Colonel it has been weeks. Though his body has been in cold storage until such a time that you were ready for his funeral, it won’t be a pretty site.”

            “Death never is.”

            She pursed her lips as she regarded him. He kept his eyes narrowed and without outward emotion. He needed to see Daniel, needed to verify that something was awry. Shaking her head, Fraiser opened her hands and said, “I don’t think it’s a great idea but it might put some closure to this and I think you need that.”

            He stared straight ahead and didn’t deny that he needed something – maybe not closure but something.

            “Let’s go.”

            As they walked down the corridor, Jack strode at an easy pace but he needed to rush to the morgue, to see for himself if he was right. Rounding the corner, they bumped into Teal’c and Carter.

            “Sir, it’s good to see you,” Carter greeted him, a small smile dimpling her features.

            “Good to see you as well Carter.”

            Teal’c only bowed to him. He thought for sure that Teal’c would rip his head off after their last meeting but the Jaffa exuded an aura of calm.  He gave a short nod to his friend.

            Fraiser broke the strain of the silence. “We’re going to the morgue. The Colonel would like to say goodbye to Daniel.”

            Carter averted her gaze a moment as Teal’c laid a hand on her shoulder. “You are not alone Major Carter.” For a moment, Jack was sure he detected a slight crack in Teal’c tone.

            “Thank you Teal’c,” Carter said as her chest rose in rapid succession.

            “You could come with,” Jack said, guilt shading and warming his cheeks. He cringed at how it sounded, like he was asking them to go fishing. Trying too hard, he was trying too hard to project normality. Why the hell should anything be normal? Daniel was dead.

            “That would be a good idea,” Fraiser noted. “Why don’t we all go down and give our farewells to Daniel.”

            Carter agreed as did Teal’c. 

            The quietude of the morgue reminded him of a church after service on a late winter Sunday morning. A frigid sterility permeated the room with its metal surfaces and cold steel.  Fraiser checked the log and opened a computer program. She did a few quick keystrokes and searched for the exact location of Daniel’s body. Once she completed her search, she closed down the program and escorted them into the storage room. The walls of the long dark room were lined with the storage units. Fraiser ushered them to the right one after she switched on the light.

            Pulling the drawer open, Fraiser said, “Remember it has been some time, so he won’t look as you expect.”  She reached to open the body bag and unzipped it. Tugging back the vinyl she hissed and covered a hand over her mouth. “Oh my-.”

            “Janet?”  Carter asked and stepped forward, peering into the bag. “Holy Hannah.”

            “What the hell?” Jack yanked the bag down and startled at the thing inside. It writhed and squirmed. A cocoon like webbing covered the translucent skin of the thing inside the bag. He went to touch it but a searing pain streaked through his brain and he crashed to his embattled knees. “Crap.”

            Teal’c bent to his side and assisted him to stand.

            “Major, sound the alert,” Jack ordered though he technically was no longer her commander. She raced to the phone and as she spoke lights flashed and a distant siren blared. Through tearing eyes, Jack fumbled but Teal’c allowed him to lean against him for support.

            The cocoon twisted and the silken fibers slithered, falling away. The creature underneath oozed upward and Fraiser, Teal’c and Jack staggered backward to join Carter near the perimeter of the room.

            “Teal’c,” Jack said and the Jaffa took off, disappearing through the door on Jack’s unvoiced command.

            As the creature birthed itself from the cocoon, its tentacles explored the air and surrounding areas. The gray-white limbs shined in the light as fluid dripped down their length. The great mass of its body moved up and the many tentacles shifted to support its weight. It turned its many eyed head toward them and Jack felt a pulse throb at his temple.

            It glided off the table, the tentacles probing and thumping to leave a wet trail behind it. It stared at Jack. Within his head he heard its voice as it said, ‘You have fed me well.’

            “Damn it, you ate Daniel?”

            “Colonel?” Fraiser said responding to the fact she could not hear his conversation.

            ‘You are a small minded species. No, I have used his form to entice you. I have fed off of you, my Jack.’ The voice was smooth and feminine in it aspect. The creature slipped over the floor. It stood over seven feet in height.

            “You killed Daniel?” Jack asked, his heart skipping a beat as he realized this thing connected with him inside his head. This thing had been manipulating him all the time, forming the image of Daniel as a ghost to haunt him.
‘           Oh no, my Jack,’ It whispered in the most tender of tones. ‘I’ve only used his image. He is my prisoner until my children are born.’ It rubbed its large rounded middle and Jack realized for the first time that he could see small, jelly-fish like animals wriggling within the creature’s abdomen.

            Rushing into the room, Teal’c entered with several Marines following him. They raised P90s and zat guns at the creature. Jack shoved his way between them and the creature. “Stop.” He turned to it and said, “Where’s Daniel?”

            ‘He awaits my return. He will provide nourishment for my children. You must allow me to return.’

“Like hell.” A jolt of pain pierced through his brain.

            “Sir?” Carter joined him, reacting as he closed his eyes.

            “He’s alive,” he stated it more than asked.

            ‘He lives to feed my children when they are birthed. As you fed me with your pain. It was sensuous to feed on your pain and terror, my Jack.’ It raised a tentacle and though he backed off, it caressed the side of his cheek. ‘What a beautiful species you can be, so pain-filled, so tormented.’

            He shrugged the appendage off and as he held the creature’s attention said to Teal’c. “Now, but only once.”

            The zat gun flashed and the creature shrieked, thrashing and bashing its limbs about the room.

            “O’Neill it is not responding as expected.”

            “Again,” he ordered and hoped he wasn’t condemning Daniel to some nightmarish prison. He needed the thing alive to get as much information on Daniel’s whereabouts as possible. The spark of the zat gun filled the air and the burn of flesh and o-zone flared and sizzled. The creature howled then spun about to plummet to the floor. Its mass quivered and then settled.

            “Is it dead?” Carter asked.  Fraiser inched forward, examining the creature.

            “No, I don’t think so.” Just as she spoke, the creature shook, its tentacles vibrated then quieted. “Definitely not. Must be the different physiology allowed it to survive the two zat blasts.”

            “Okay let’s get it restrained,” Jack said.  The Marines stood around and looked at each other and then back to him. “The rumors of my retirement were greatly exaggerated.”

            One of the Marines shook his head and lifted a shoulder. “It’s not that sir. How do we restrain it?”

            “I don’t know, use a ziplock bag or something. Just get the damn thing tied up and ready for transport.”

            “Transport sir?” Carter asked.

            Although he wanted to be able to interrogate the thing, he wasn’t sure their techniques would actually work on its googy mass. There was only one option. He would bargain with it, bring it home but not release it until he knew the whereabouts of his friend. “We’re going back to 005,” Jack said. “We’re bringing Daniel home.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

            The empty noose swayed over the platform. Jack stared up at it as they passed but continued forward, ignoring the images that taunted him. It had never been Daniel. They hadn’t figured it all out yet but he was fairly certain the thing must have taken Daniel’s form sometime after they’d each partook in the cup of the Rite of Purification. What he couldn’t figure out was why the creature would allow itself to be hung and stabbed to death. He peered over his shoulder at the airmen carrying the biohazard pod containing the sedated alien. It had taken enough sedative to bring down a horse to keep the thing out.

            Fraiser and Carter walked along side the pod as Teal’c took their six. When he announced to Hammond that he was not retiring, the General only smiled and said of course, of course. Evidently, he’d used that card once too often and Hammond had not filed the retirement papers yet for him. Following, Hammond had assigned three SG units to accompany SG1 to the planet as well as ordering a very willing Doctor Fraiser to go off-world.

            Down the slope of the hill from the hangman’s platform, they entered the small, simplistic village. The thatched huts and pit fires greeted them with smells of dung and smoke. Jack squinted his eyes at the soot and the blazing glare from the planet’s sun. One of the tribe’s elders raised a hand to stop them.

            “You have not been welcomed back.” The old man glared at them, his thin lips down turned and frown lines burrowed through his features.

            “Well, get used to it. I’m not asking for an invitation. I want to know what you know about that thing.” Jack pointed to the pod.

            The elder looked into the transparent front of the pod. As the old man glimpsed the alien creature, he began to screech then yell out, “The Mother, they’ve killed the Mother!”

            “Look sharp,” Jack directed and all of the members of the SG teams tensed with their weapons raised.

            Several of the villagers raced forward to examine the contents of the pod. They screamed and cried as they saw the creature they called the Mother. A few of the children spat at them as the men of the tribe threatened them with bows and arrows. The one Jack recognized as the tribal leader started forward and a path through the mob cleared for him. He scowled at Jack and then studied the creature.

            Jack coughed. “It isn’t dead, just sleeping.”

            The man hissed a few words at Jack that he couldn’t understand. A few of the men with weapons shifted closer but Jack opened his hand and said, “I’m not here for a fight. I just want my friend back. You can have that thing.”

            The tribal leader motioned for Jack to follow him and walked to one of the few stone buildings in the village. With a glance over his shoulder and a nod to Carter, Jack followed the man into the low ceiled structure. He bent and then sat as the leader gestured for him to do so.

            “You have taken the Mother.”

            “Don’t know what you’re talking about. All I know is that you have my friend and I have your ‘Mother’. I figure we can deal.” Jack clenched his hands on the P90 slung over his shoulder, he wasn’t letting his guard down.

            “You should never have taken the Mother away. You agreed to undergo the Rite of Purification. The Purification prepared you and your friend to accept the Mother.” The leader reached over to the small shelf near the table they sat at and retrieved a box. “The other two were deemed unfit, and unclean to accept the Mother. You accepted the cup.” He opened the box and Jack recalled the intricately painted cup.

            “This Mother, who is she?”

            “She is our Keeper. She protects us from the false gods, but she must regenerate and have her children every ten cycles of the sun. It is a great honor to be selected to take part in the Rite of Purification. It prepares the candidates for the selection.” The man reverently placed the cup back into the box and then replaced it on the shelf.

            “Candidates?”

            “Yes there were others, awaiting the selection. But the Mother chooses by the blood,” the leader explained. “Within the cup is the essence of the Mother harvested upon her last days of the cycle. All who have committed a transgression must take of the cup to be purified by the Mother taking them.”

            “You infected us with that drink?”

            The leader grimaced as if he didn’t understand. “You were selected. You pointed out who the Mother should inhabit. The friend you speak of has been cocooned in the hive of the Mother. He will feed her children, though we feared she would not return when the unclean ones removed you and the cocooned Mother from our world.”

            “So I selected Daniel, you took Daniel when we were all out from this happy juice and this creature thing took on Daniel’s form,” Jack repeated, trying to make sense of it.

            “If you mean, the Mother reshaped to become your friend and to feed from your connection with your friend – yes that is what happened. It is considered to be a great honor, to be spirited by the Mother. But you were not supposed to leave this world. The unclean woman threatened us with her weapons as did the Jaffa. We prayed to the Mother to make you believe, and help her come home.” The leader sighed and with desperate eyes met Jack’s gaze. “The Mother is our only protection. We sacrifice two members of our village every ten cycles. It is not much to sacrifice, but this time we believed you would -.”

            “Serve as the meal,” Jack finished.

            “It was you or my daughter.” The man glared at Jack. “I did what I had to do.”

            “What happens to Ma’s kids?” Jack asked.

            “They are part of the land,” the leader answered. “This world depends on them to nourish it.”

            Carter and Daniel would be having a field day with this, Jack frowned. The whole symbiotic relationship between the native creature and these humans plus its relevance to the cultural impact on these transplanted people and the geobiology of this world. Wait until he told them! He rolled his eyes, best not to let them know about it. Standing up and fingering his weapon, he said, “I mean to take back my man.”

            “You will find him in the hive. I do not believe you will be able to save him.” The leader stood and followed Jack outside of the building. “If he is dead, you would be better off allowing the Mother’s children to feed off of him.”

            “Like hell I would,” he stated and then said, “I’m only asking this once, where’s this hive?”

            “If you do this, the children of the Mother will not survive. Our world needs the nourishment from the children. They inhabit the earth and allow it to be fertile.”

            “I can’t NOT do this,” he answered tugging his arm out of the man’s grip. “Now tell me where the hive is.”

            “I will show you, but you must bring the Mother,” the leader said and called over several of the women. He whispered to them, one began to cry. He patted the woman on the shoulder and then left.

            Trailing behind the tribal leader, Jack waved his people to follow. The entourage set off in search of the hive. The path through the high dry grasses led to a barren savannah. The leader gestured for them to continue and they ended up on the edge of a riverbed. A shallow trickle of a muddy creek, the tribal leader grunted as he climbed down to the caves near the banks of the creek. It took some maneuvering but they were able to bring the pod down to the creek’s edge.

            The man nodded to Jack and indicated the cave. He hunched over and called for Carter and Teal’c to accompany him. The rest of the teams and the doctor lingered behind with the native man. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low lighting but then he realized across the rock of the walls grew a thick iridescent mold. It glimmered and glowed with its own internal light. Flickering as he passed it, it seemed to flutter against the slight passage of wind like sea anemones in the currents of the ocean. The tiny passage opened abruptly to a vast chamber with hanging mold and an underground lake.

            He scanned the area but didn’t see Daniel anywhere. “Okay, let’s take a look around; don’t go out of line of sight.”

            Carter started around the left bank of the lake as Teal’c examined the walls of the cave. He started forward to search the right side of the underground water when a gasp from Carter stopped him dead.

            “Sir!” She knelt down on the edge of a rock jetting. “I found him.”

            Both he and Teal’c raced to meet her. He skidded to a stop and got to his knees alongside his second in command. She pointed into the black water as she shined her flashlight onto the still waters. Below the water, Daniel floated. His eyes closed, his skin pale and thinned, the underlying veins laced blue across what could be seen of his face and neck. Tangled about him, tentacles undulated and held him in place. Across his face, appendages penetrated his nostrils and mouth.

            “Christ, let’s get him out of there.”

            “Sir, we don’t know if we’ll be attacked or not. He could be dead and we could be just rescuing a corpse.”

            “We are not rescuing a corpse, we’re rescuing Daniel,” he reprimanded. “T man get ready will ya?”

            “I am prepared O’Neill,” Teal’c said and lifted his staff weapon, twisting it to engage its mechanism.

            Plunging into the icy water, Jack grabbed a hold of Daniel and slipped a hand next to the appendages near his neck. The water felt unnaturally viscous. He felt for a pulse. Could he still be alive? After weeks of being beneath the surface of whatever this liquid was? He waited; they all waited as he tested Daniel’s frozen flesh for a pulse.

            A slight flicker, momentary but there. This stuff he floated in must be some kind of stasis fluid. “He’s alive, barely, but he is alive.” He grappled to get his hands underneath Daniel’s arms as he commanded, “Carter go get Fraiser. We’re going to need her. Teal’c stand ready.”

            He heaved Daniel out of the mire, the black liquid oozing off of him. Dragging him onto the jetting, Jack laid the unconscious form of Daniel down on the rocks. The tentacles from the lake extended out and still covered his friend’s face.

            “Ready?”

            “Perhaps you should fire the weapon, O’Neill and I should clear Daniel Jackson of the creature,” Teal’c suggested. “If it is needed, I am able to carry Daniel Jackson at an increased pace to safety.”

            Jack wasn’t sure he was happy with what Teal’c was implying but he figured the Jaffa was probably right. They switched places and Teal’c bent down over Daniel to peel away the invading tentacles. As he began the operation, the tentacles vibrated and tensed.  As Teal’c released the appendage from Daniel’s mouth, the thing whipped the air in violent slices. Jack aimed and fired without a thought. The flesh flamed and burned as the appendage eased back into the water. The last appendage holding onto Daniel sank deeper into his nasal cavity.

            “Are you prepared O’Neill.”

            “As I’ll ever be.”

            This time as Teal’c took the alien tentacle from Daniel’s nostrils there was no resistance. It flowed back away from them and sank into the lake. He exhaled a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. Blood ran from Daniel’s mouth and nose. Was he even breathing? Just as Fraiser rounded the entrance to the cave though, a wave disturbed the quiet lake. No time to figure out if Daniel was breathing on his own.

            “Shit!” Jack screamed. “Teal’c get him up.”

            The Jaffa didn’t need the direction. He scooped up the unconscious form of their friend and slung him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Pivoting, Jack turned to Carter and Fraiser to yell, “Get out, get out.”

            The creature rose from the water, roaring and spurting the thick dark liquid. Tentacles slapped at the air, groping from purchase along the rocky banks of the lake. With a circular motion of his arm, Jack motioned for his people to move. He waited until they all left the inner chamber then followed them as the creature slithered out of the mire.

            They ran out of the cave as tentacles reached out. The tribal leader watched and called out, “Release the Mother! Release her now!”

            The creek behind them bubbled up and roiled as the creature in the cave shook the ground beneath them. Stumbling, Jack fell to the ground as he clutched the staff weapon in his hands. He aimed it at the creature searching for them but the tribal leader grasped hold of it.

            “Please, listen to me. Release his mate,” the leader said as he gestured to the creature from the cave.

            “His mate?” Jack said, still aiming the weapon on the seeking appendage. The creature in the cave was Papa and was looking for Mama. Christ, this was one weird planet. “Open up the pod.”

            “Sir?” Carter said, refusal brimming in her eyes.

            “Open up the damned pod!”

            The airman guarding the pod moved away as Carter went to the side of it, pressed a keycode and it slid open. The creature within the pod rose with tentacles gripping the sides of the biohazard chamber. It let out a high pitched wail and, in responding, the ground beneath them quaked and split open. Jack tumbled down the side of the bank toward the mud of the creek. He yelled for his team to take defense positions.  They formed a circle with Daniel’s limp body in the center. Jack was a part from the circle as he watched from the creek bed.

            The roiling ground erupted with the same dark liquid from the lake within the cave. The thing called the Mother raised its many tentacles as if to imbibe the liquid. The creature from the cave called out in a horn like voice that Jack could only liken to the deep throated song of a humpback whale. The Mother creature stretched forward, its tendrils curling about the cave creature’s extended appendages. They merged and the wailing and blaring silenced. An eerie stillness settled over the landscape as the two creatures probed and fingered one another. The Mother creature then turned to reach out to the tribal leader. With soft caresses she touched his face and shoulders as if to verify where she was and with whom she connected.

            Turning, the creature looked at Jack and whispered in his mind, ‘You have taken the nourishment for our children. This world will die without my children.’

            “I won’t sacrifice my friend for your world,” Jack answered but knew deep down that Daniel would never approve, that Daniel’s damned moral compass would surrender his own life for the life of this planet and these people. “I’ll take these people from this world and leave you to die here.” There must be some other way these creatures could live; they obviously hadn’t evolved with humans on this world.

            “This world will not die and we will not leave the Mother or the Father to suffer,” the tribal leader said, his voice grave and halting. “I will feed the children.”

            Jack snapped his attention to the man. The tribal leader’s intentions were set and he approached the cave opening. “Damn it man.” What the hell was this guy’s name anyway? He cursed himself for never learning it, Daniel had, Daniel knew. He gave a glance to his unconscious friend and then implored the leader, “We can move you to another planet. You don’t have to do this.”

            “Can you ensure our safety? Can you ensure the crops will always grow even when there are no rains? Can you give us everything that we need?” The leader shook his head. “We are a part of this land as is the Mother and the Father. It is my duty as the leader of my people to ensure the survival of this world. The Mother and the Father are as much a part of my tribe as I am.” He offered a hand to the creature called the Mother. It sidled up to him and embraced him with its tentacles.

They went forward then to the cave but before they entered the Mother reversed its head and stared down at Jack. ‘You are released.’

A wave of nausea overwhelmed him and he crashed down to his knees, retching as bile filled his mouth. He coughed and choked then a clogging thick mucous lodged in his throat. He riled and it vomited up. A thick spit covered wad dropped from his mouth and he coughed again to clear his throat. Fraiser knelt beside him while Carter scooped up the thing and sealed it into a vial. He grimaced, geez she was interested in anything.

When he looked up again, the creatures and the tribal leader had disappeared into the cave with only the SG teams left behind.

“Colonel?” Carter asked.

His throat was raw and burned anytime he tried to swallow. He wondered how their scanning devices hadn’t detected the thing that had been inside him giving him a link to the creature. “Doc can we move Daniel?”

She’d moved back to her main charge when he waved her off. “No choice, Colonel. He’s in shock, we have to get him back.” With an airman’s help, she was wrapping him in a thermal blanket. “Let’s use the pod to carry him back.”

He cringed at the thought of putting Daniel into that slimy covered container but it was the most practical thing to do since they didn’t have a stretcher available. He nodded and went to assist in bringing Daniel to the pod.

As he slipped his hands across his friends chest, Daniel moaned. “Doc?”

“A good sign Colonel, let’s move.”

“Don’t worry, Daniel, I got you.” He lifted his friend up with the help of an airman. Easing Daniel into the pod, Jack felt him shiver beneath his touch. “Daniel?”

“Jack?” His eyes slitted open. “Real?”

“Yeah, real.”

“Thought you hanged and stabbed me,” Daniel murmured and cried out against some unknown pain.

“Just a nightmare, Dannyboy, just a nightmare.”

“Good, good, ‘cause otherwise we were going to have to have a conversation.” Daniel feel off to sleep, at least Jack hoped it was sleep. Fraiser smiled at him so he pursed his lips and gave her access to his friend.

“Let’s move it out.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

            Amazingly, Daniel was generally fit with only exhaustion and some abrasions to his sinuses, nose and throat. Fraiser worried about the possible damage to Daniel’s sinuses and the future effects on his allergies. She considered surgery but knew the recovery period could be months in length so she decided on a wait and see procedure.

            Jack leaned back in his chair in the infirmary, realizing it was probably the same chair he’d seen Daniel wounded and dying when he awoke for the first time after their return from the planet. He still couldn’t wrap his head around the relationship between the creatures on the planet and the transplanted humans. It seemed more parasitic than not, but somehow those creatures kept the planet safe from the Goa’uld. Carter had advocated going back and studying the creatures and the world and Hammond had taken it under advisement. Personally, he stated he didn’t want to see the planet again. They had the goo that he puked up, that should be enough. Fraiser was busy adding another test to their post mission check ups so that she could detect possible infections with those creatures. Oh joy.

            He tipped the chair back as he watched over his friend. It had been weeks since he’d really talked with Daniel. All those visions of ghosts had been created by the monster that had taken Daniel’s form. The tissues of the Mother had infected both Jack and Daniel to some extent, Fraiser theorized. She also thought that the reason Carter and Teal’c had been spared was that they were both hosts for some form of Goa’uld. Carter believed that the creature took on the form of one of the sacrifices to interact with the tribe – touch base was her technical term - until such a time it would be put to ‘death’ or maybe hibernation –she wasn’t sure. It had been her theory that the form needed to ‘die’ and to be buried so it could give birth into the earth of the planet, thus releasing its young. She was chopping at the bit to get back to the planet. He cursed, that was not happening if he had anything to do with it.

            What he wanted was to talk with Daniel. His friend laid in quiet repose on the bed in the corner of the infirmary. He’d been sleeping for two days. Though he’d been imprisoned for weeks on the planet, he’d been fairly well nourished according to Fraiser but his body had been taxed to its limits. His exhaustion kept him asleep. He twitched as Jack watched.

            “Daniel?”

            “Jack?” Daniel turned his head and blinked. He licked his cracked and scabbed lips. “How -- you --- doing?”

            “Me?” Jumping up he offered Daniel some water. He sipped it slowly and then nodded his head.

            “You ---- coming down ---- something ---- planet.”

            “Yeah well, got the flu we think then I got infected by some kind of alien. Oh and by the way so were you,” Jack said and placed the water on the tray within Daniel’s reach. Fraiser was still trying to identify if the flu virus was even really a virus at all. Since no one else had come down with it at the SGC and they’d not seen it on the planet, she considered whether it was part of the Rite of Purification. “Ended up hanging and stabbing some doppelganger of you while the real you was floating around in lake, was haunted your ghost.”

            “Not --  ghost,” Daniel said, this voice thick and slow.

            “Okay so not a ghost, visions from that damned creature.”

            “Not --- all,” Daniel said and slammed his head down into the cushion of the pillow. The pain of talking was evident by his expression.

            “You need something for the pain?” Jack said, laying a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. Tears welled up in Daniel’s eyes as he struggled to speak. “It’s all right, you don’t have to tell me now.”

            Daniel shook his head. “No --- tell --- now.” Jack conceded to his friend’s wishes and settled on the edge of the bed. “Could ---- connect. Try ---- tell you believe---come back --- couldn’t -- he wouldn’t let me ---- too much pain.”

            “What?” He couldn’t figure out what Daniel was saying. “Are you saying you connected to me mentally?”

            “Scary --- yes,” Daniel whispered. He took another drink and stated, “Touch --- your mind --- through creatures’ --- minds. They ---connected.”

            “And since she was connected to me, you could connect to me too?” Jack asked. “For cryin’ out loud Daniel why didn’t you just tell me what was going on?”

            He shook his head. “Wouldn’t --- couldn’t. He-.” Daniel exhaled in frustration, took another drink. “He --- wouldn’t let ---- me. Hurt.”

            “He hurt you when you tried?” Jack said, the rage boiling up. Shit, Daniel had been tortured by that thing for weeks.

            “Yes --- only when ---used words ---she used--- could get --- through.” Sweat beaded down Daniel’s forehead and his temples. “Sorry --- couldn’t ---know you --- hate it ---- when---- not direct.”

            Jack slipped off the bed and said, “Damn it Daniel, you tried your best. You got through to me, made me believe I would never have killed you. It was because of your message I finally figured it out.” He paced in the confined space of the infirmary. “At first that creature thing sent messages that just terrified me, gave me some horrible nightmares and sleepwalking episodes. But then you must have broken through somehow. You did it.”

            Daniel nodded and sighed.

The thought of that creature in the cave’s lake inflicting pain on Daniel for weeks riled him up almost enough to go to that planet and blast that thing with blocks of C4. But he kept his focus and said to his friend, “You need something for your throat? For the pain?”

Daniel nodded again. Jack started away but Daniel caught his sleeve and whispered, “Scary.” He pointed to Jack’s head.

“Scary being in my head?”

“But --- good.”

“Good?”

“Wouldn’t --- pick ---anyone else,” Daniel said. “Thanks.”

“For what?” Jack stepped back to the bedside.

“Believing.” He indicated Jack.

“Thanks for believing in myself?” Jack asked.

Daniel nodded a smile easing the lines of pain etched in his features.

Jack covered his friend’s hand that still grasped his sleeve. “No Daniel, thank you for believing in me. For always believing in me.”

Daniel stretched his other hand out and clasped it over their hands. Jack laid his hand on their folded hands. In a ghost of a voice, Daniel said, “Always.”

THE END.

           

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