Man's Best Friend

By: sharilyn

EMAIL: sharilyn

The rights to these characters are owned by MGM, etc. No copyright infringement intended, merely worshipping at the altar of Jack's sardonic wit.

Part One

Desperate times call for desperate measures...wasn't that how the saying went? But as Jack O'Neill huddled against the rickety stable wall in the chill predawn darkness, breathing in the combined odors of mud, animal dung, and moldy, rotting wheat, he thought grimly to himself that there was desperate, and then there was DESPERATE. And he was nowhere near desperate enough to come out of hiding and reveal his whereabouts to this village's not-so-friendly inhabitants.

Sure, he was cold and wet, exhausted and hungry; he was also running a fever, and his leg was most definitely infected. His body was covered with wounds, some of them already scabbing over, some of the uglier ones continuing to ooze slow trickles of blood; his hands were like chewed hamburger, and every muscle he had ached dully. He could add three cracked ribs and a fractured pinky finger to the tally, as well, but what were a few piddly broken bones? Nothing, that's what, at least not in comparison to the plans the good townspeople likely had in mind for him if they caught him.

God, he hoped Daniel and Sam and Teal'c had made it back safely through the stargate; Jack had no real way of knowing, but the fact that he'd seen absolutely no sign of his team mates in this rathole of a village was encouraging. He knew that if the denizens of this stinking excuse for civilization had succeeded in capturing his friends, they would not have simply just executed them and disposed of their bodies; no, these people would most certainly have made great sport and ceremony of slowly torturing his team to death and then leaving their bodies in the village square on proud display, with the occasional village cur coming round to rip and tear at decaying chunks of once-living flesh. Jack had already seen what was left of some poor bastard who had been unfortunate enough to stumble across this cesspool prior to SG-1's ill-fated arrival, and he had no wish to take a place of dishonor alongside that one's rotting corpse.

So he hovered here, just around the village's edges, slinking in and out in the deathwatch hours of the night; he moved with amazing stealth despite his injuries, always choosing a time for his incursions when even the mangy curs gave in to the utter misery of existence in this place and curled up in flea-ridden, trembling knots of stinking fur to whimper and growl and dream feral dreams of fresh blood and hot, red meat to fill their mostly empty bellies. Had the animals sensed him at all, Jack knew they would not have hesitated to tear him limb from limb; but in the depths of the night the luckless curs were too far gone in their own exhausted misery to even take note of the silent intruder slinking his way along the rutted mud paths of the village; even the scent of his sweat and blood failed to rouse them from their emaciated dreams. No; he felt reasonably invisible to all of the mutts save one...and that one was no longer a problem.

Jack sighed now, wincing as his empty stomach gurgled and complained. He had managed in his four days of being stranded here (stranded, NOT abandoned, he reminded himself grimly) to steal only a few bare necessities. He'd scavenged a filthy, scratchy length of burlap material to use as protection against the cold and damp that had seeped into his very marrow during his brief sojourn here; and along with that he'd also managed to filch some sort of bitter vegetable that vaguely resembled carrots but were dark green in color and much more bitter. Two days ago he'd dug half a loaf of coarse, moldy bread from some villager's refuse heap, and the fortuitous discovery in that same heap of a dented, fire-scorched metal cup assured him of a supply of fresh water every morn, as he was able to set the cup under the dripping trees of his nearby woods hideout each night to catch the cold moisture the branches collected throughout the cold, stygian hours between sunset and sunrise.

Not that he'd seen much of this world's watery, impotent sun, he thought crossly; vaguely he recalled Carter nattering on about how it was late fall on this side of lovely planet PRG46, but to his own detriment Jack hadn't bothered to pay very close attention at the time. He'd told himself in a foolish (and what might very well prove now to be a fatal) moment of bravado that he and his team would be in and out so fast, they'd have no need to even notice the damned weather. Well, look who's noticing now, he sighed glumly to himself. Four fucking days of ice-cold drizzle and runny, metal-gray skies was doing nothing for his bad knee, and the increasingly unbearable pain in his ribcage was in part a direct result of the miserable, unrelenting dampness that had invaded every pore of his body and continued aggravating his broken bones.

He hoped the others had made it back to Earth by now; if Carter knew what was good for her, she wouldn't have dared to keep the rest of SG-1 on this godforsaken mold spore of a planet just to try to find Jack's ass. No, she had a level head on her shoulders; he was sure she'd ordered Daniel and Teal'c back through the gate with her to report to Hammond and hopefully scare up some reinforcements. Jack knew there was a grim possibility other than that of his team having made it safely home; knew it but in his current, lowgrade despair stubbornly refused to deal with it, to even harbor the notion. No, he decided stubbornly as he crouched now against the rickety stable wall, aching all over; his people were okay. They were alive. And they would be coming for him.

The problem was, when those village goons had captured Jack and made off with him in the silent depths of the night, Sam and the others had no way of knowing exactly where they'd gone. Jack knew Teal'c was an excellent tracker, but in the mush and muck of this world it would have been extremely difficult for his team to trace every step of the villagers' return journey to this stinkhole. Any tracks left behind them would invariably have become just another part of the morass of mud and slime that accumulated hourly here; their tracks would have blended almost seamlessly with the older, crisscrossing trails left by prior passings. Jack knew that his team had the ability to find him; it was just a matter of diligence and time.

It was his own stupid fault, anyway, getting caught; it had been his watch, and therefore his responsibility to stay alert and aware...but the intruders had managed to take him by surprise. One minute there was nothing but cold, gray drizzle and silence, with Jack pacing the camp perimeter and casting occasional, longing glances toward the tent he shared with Daniel--a tent sheltering his empty, snug sleeping bag, its warm, zippered length just waiting for his cold, miserable body to slide into it and descend into weary slumber. Jack had allowed himself to be distracted for the briefest instant, making a goddamned, stupid mistake only a rookie would have managed...and that was all it took.

Even in the mud, their feet made no sound; not a squelch, not a squish, nothing. Before his brain and trained reflexes could even process what was happening, Jack had felt rough arms snaking around him from behind, had seen a dull glint of metal and felt the knife at his throat. There was no time to struggle, to call out a warning; filthy hands had forced a wet, reeking wad of cloth over his nose and mouth, and the overwhelming stench of some sort of kerosene-like fuel had snaked its oily, suffocating way down into his chest and lungs, causing him to jerk and twist wildly but ineffectually against the implacable bodies holding him.

Just before he lost consciousness, a dark male figure had stepped around in front of him and tilted his head up, cold black eyes searching his in the gloom. A low, muttered comment came from this one's mouth, and dirty fingers lifted to yank once, cruelly, at Jack's hair. A satisfied smile had stretched across his tormenter's face, revealing rows of blackened, rotting teeth; and then Jack couldn't breathe, couldn't think, anymore. He had fallen into oblivion, his last, desperate thoughts going out to his team mates sleeping unaware not fifty yards away. Oh, God, don't let anything happen to them, he had pleaded to some vague, faceless deity, and then there was nothing.

Jack shifted carefully now in the gray chill that presaged dawn on this world, his left knee throbbing in tandem with the fiery pain of the infection streaking down the back of his right thigh. He didn't have to look to know that it was getting worse; he could feel every deep, scoring line left in his flesh by that damned monster's claws. Funny, he thought to himself with weary irony, that the very thing that had initially saved his butt would now probably kill him, too. Distractedly his mind went back in time, back four days to the events leading up to this current moment--back to the men and the trip and the beast that had attacked them so close to the end of their journey...

His captors had taken him away from the others of his team that night while he was still unconscious, had carried him and dumped his unresponsive body onto some sort of cart which his abductors took turns pulling; when Jack had come to, groaning with the severe headache that was an aftereffect of the stuff they'd used on him, he had found himself trussed up like an animal headed for the slaughter and surrounded by six stinky, filthy men with matted hair and dark, cruel eyes. He could make no sense of their guttural, growling language, and when he tried to shift his numbed body on the cart, two of his captors had proceeded to pummel the living shit out of him. Surely--if they weren't completely incapacitated themselves--his team mates would come for him, Jack remembered thinking fuzzily. Surely they should be able to catch up to these assholes in no time and rescue him...

But that hadn't happened; the cart had trundled monotonously forward, its rickety wheels creaking and groaning and miring over and over again in the thick sludge that passed for ground around here. Over and over the six men had worked the wheels free, cursing and muttering and sometimes laughing harshly as they worked, and Jack had wondered dimly why they even bothered with the damned thing. Wouldn't it have been simpler just to drag him to his feet and force him to march along with them? It made no sense, their wasting valuable time and energy transporting him in this way; but Jack decided that much of the things he'd seen in his time with the SGC didn't make a whole lot of sense. And by the time his new 'friends' had given him several more poundings--for no other apparent reason than the fact that they seemed to enjoy it immensely--Jack was in no condition to give much of a damn about any of these peoples' motivations.

"Okay, okay," he'd tried once, his voice coming out raspy and strained on the cold, damp air; "Okay, fellas, why don't you just let me know what the hell it is you want from me? I'm no expert like Daniel, but there must be some sort of frigging hand gestures or sign language or something you can use to get your point across...besides THAT," he'd grunted as two of the men took offense at his speech and slapped him roughly upside his head. Ears ringing, Jack had growled at them but subsided again on his back in the bottom of the stinking cart, his tailbone crying out a silent protest as each jarring thump into another pothole vibrated painfully all the way up his spine.

Teal'c, Carter, Daniel...where the hell are you? he found himself thinking worriedly as the cart swayed and groaned ever farther away from the stargate. Visions of his friends lying murdered in their sleeping bags circled like vicious phantasms in his head, and Jack was suddenly overcome with a black, seething rage. Something horrible HAD to have happened to them; otherwise they would never have let his captors get this far without making at least some effort to recover him.

Lost in fury at the grim idea of his friends lying dead back in camp, Jack had done something stupid then--had surged up halfway out of the cart, and even bound as he was with thick lengths of rough rope, had attempted to hurl himself at his amused captors. Obligingly they'd yanked him the rest of the way out of the rickety conveyance, had stood him on his feet and then begun shoving him back and forth amongst themselves, laughing and jeering and wearing him out a bit before hurling him face down into the mud and kicking him half senseless.

THAT worked well, Jack thought to himself with dim sarcasm as his groaning, bloodied body was unceremoniously dumped back into the cart. He guessed he must have passed out again, and for some little while; because the next time he came to, a watery sun was halfway overhead in the pewter sky, and damp wisps of steam that reeked of sweat and unwashed flesh were rising off the furred garments of the men trudging in surly silence all around him. There was no sign of his team anywhere, no evidence that anyone or anything else but himself and his attackers inhabited this dreary landscape; and for a moment Jack had to struggle to remember why the hell his team had even come here to begin with.

Oh, yes, something to do with evidence that the snakeheads had once used this planet as a secret weapons cache...he and his team were supposed to follow up preliminary MALP and UAV readings and find out if anything useful in their fight against the Goa'uld still existed here. Faint evidence of some ragtag humanoid civilization had come to them via the UAV's flybys, but the few inhabitants of the two distant, crude villages noted on the surveillance tapes had seemed non-threatening. Another huge, honking miscalculation on our part, Jack thought dazedly as his journey to hell continued on and on throughout most of that day.

They had stopped a few times, his captors settling down on their haunches around the miserable flickers of a campfire on some two or three occasions during their trip; as the men conversed in low tones and bit off stringy chunks of some kind of cured meat jerky, Jack had lain shivering in his smelly cart, absently cataloguing his latest injuries. Broken ribs, yep; broken finger, got it. Numerous bruises, contusions, lacerations, and abrasions...ditto. Knee pummeled all to shit, now THAT was beginning to get old. Much more abuse to his cartilage and he'd spend the rest of his days before retirement sitting behind some damned desk.

If he even made it that far, Jack reminded himself ironically as he heard his captors dousing the fire in preparation for resuming their journey. Dimly he hoped a rescue party would be able to follow their trail using the evidence of these paltry fires; if nothing else, the earlier UAV flybys should provide significant assistance in leading his fellow SG teams to these goons' final location. After all, the machine's flyover had clearly shown the location of two small settlements. His captors had to be heading for one or the other, Jack mused; he just wondered if he'd still be alive to greet his team if and when they did show up to rescue him.

That point had almost become moot on the second day. Jack was fairly certain they were nearing their destination, if the increasing animation and vigor of the six men around him was any indication; laughing and boasting vociferously amongst themselves, the men had given Jack a few good-humored punches to include him in the fun and had begun gesturing and pointing ahead of them through the drizzle, as if letting their prize know that soon a whole new chapter of excitement was about to begin for him. As indeed it was...just not in the manner his kidnappers had planned.

It was almost poetic justice, Jack reflected here and now as he waited in the predawn stillness; yes, rather fiendishly ironic, how his attackers had become the attackees. For as the cart had rumbled and jerked its rickety way over a muddy rise two days ago--heading toward the barely discernible outlines of some low, squatty village in the distance--all hell had suddenly broken loose. Jack could still clearly recall the half-comical looks of sheer surprise and terror that had bloomed across his captors' faces as some huge, slavering, hairy monstrosity had plowed into their midst out of nowhere, its claws and fetid breath and its deafening roar plunging the group into total chaos. Jack had huddled in a small, shivering ball in the very bottom of the cart, pressing his face against moldy remnants of old straw and listening to the agonized screams of his attackers being savaged and gutted and feasted on by the beast. Dimly he was aware of at least three sets of frantic footsteps running away in mad panic; with silent, fearful revulsion he listened to the dying gurgles of the others and heard the terrible, wet sounds of ripping flesh and crunching bones.

Oh, God, eat your fill, buddy, he'd found himself sending telepathically to the monster chowing down on his kidnappers; eat till you're ready to pop, then go find some nice, dank cave to lie down in and sleep it off. You don't need me for dessert--I'm just gristle and stringy muscle, anyway. No need to come over here sniffing around, no need to even notice old Jack O'Neill lying here, about to piss himself in terror and helpless, so helpless...

But the beast HAD noticed, had smacked and swallowed and chuffed in annoyance as it found the remnants of its feast not to its liking, once the choicest entrails had been consumed; Jack had lain in frozen dread as the ominous squelching of massive paws in mud had come ever nearer, ever closer. He didn't want to look up, to see his own, gruesome evisceration coming; but as the cart was suddenly pulled roughly sideways by the beast's impressive weight leaning against it-- and as hot, fetid breath wafted suddenly over his face--Jack couldn't help himself. He'd opened his eyes to the sight of slavering, four-inch-long canines still gleaming with blood just above him and had watched in numb fascination as a huge, red tongue, still coated with bits of human skin and fatty tissue, extended to swipe along his jaw, testing and tasting him for succulence.

Oh, Jesus, Jack thought wildly, despairingly, as the great beast that resembled some prehistoric grizzly bear leaned its weight even further into the cart, methodically rocking it back and forth until it could tip his trussed-up body out onto the muddy ground. Jack landed hard on his right shoulder, his body face-up; and as the massive animal turned to inspect its newest tidbit, Jack had used the last of his terror-drained strength to curl himself into as tight a ball as he could manage, pressing his face and the vulnerable column of his throat into the choking mud.

The beast had mauled him, had swiped at his exposed back with its lethal claws and had bitten savagely at his hands and fingers still bound behind his back; in an ironic stroke of luck, the heavy loops of thick rope his captors had used to tie him had covered his wrists and most of his hands and protected the majority of his flesh from the beast's teeth. Jack had lost plenty of superficial skin from his fingers and had some nasty teeth marks in one palm; but the ropes had taken the brunt of the creature's gnawing.

And thank God the monster was no longer very hungry; as Jack played dead and lay absolutely limp, the beast had merely toyed with him, satisfying its curiosity by sniffing and licking at Jack's clothes and hair and taking a couple of painful but non-fatal nips out of his upper right arm and his left ass cheek. Its casual mauling seemed to last for an eternity, and at one point it gave a low, threatening growl and swiped one razor claw down the back of Jack's leg. The agony that seared through Jack at this attack had made his body jerk spastically, his reflexes acting without his conscious volition; and as he bit back a scream of pain, the angry beast had roared once and closed massive jaws over Jack's head.

This is it, Jack thought with numb fatalism; I'm history. God, just don't let Daniel see what's left of me, he wouldn't be able to take it...With a sudden, crystal-clear image of Daniel Jackson's face looming in his mind, Jack had closed his eyes and waited to die. He could feel the sharp pain of pointed teeth digging into his scalp, could feel and smell the beast's thick saliva trickling through his hair and down his neck; and some part of him wanted to scream out, "Hurry up and crush my head, you son of a bitch! Eat my fucking brain and get it over with; just DO IT!"

But the beast had become distracted; suddenly it had stiffened, its senses alerted by some minute change in the wind, perhaps. Maybe the men who had escaped its surprise attack had made it to the village and called for help; maybe, even at this moment, the beast could smell them returning and dimly sensed that the tables might now turn from being the hunter to becoming the hunted.

Snuffling irritably, the mighty creature had decided to save Jack for later, to drag him back to its fetid lair and consume him at its leisure. As Jack fought back a sob of despair at the realization that his nightmare was not to end, after all, the beast had hooked one massive claw into his shirt and the tender skin of his shoulder and had dragged his bleeding, brutalized body through the mud and into a nearby stand of trees. Jesus, Jesus, oh God, not like this...Those had been Jack's last, conscious thoughts before shock and blood loss had dragged him down into black oblivion.

I owe that damned beast my life, Jack thought now, on this cold and rainy morning two days later; as he slid down the stable wall and waited for a clear shot at raiding the property owner's refuse heap again, he ruminated to himself on the irony that his would-be devourer had furnished him with the perfect escape from his kidnappers and whatever fiendish plans they had had in store for him. Jack was fairly certain that the villagers who'd returned to the rise to retrieve what was left of three of their brethren were given the distinct impression that Jack had become animal food, himself; the clear signs of bloodshed and of his body being dragged away into the woods should have satisfied them as to their temporary captive's ultimate fate.

Of course, there was always the possibility that they would search out the creature's lair, kill it, and discover no telltale remnants of cloth, shoes, bones, and the like to verify that Jack had met his end; should that eventuality come to pass, Jack had the sinking feeling that a search party would be put together and he would be caught and subjected to God knew what. His one hope was that Hammond would have a rescue party here before that could happen. Jack only prayed that the rest of SG-1 would be leading that party, that they weren't just corpses lying on some morgue slab right now back at the SGC.

Why me? Jack brooded as a cough tried to rattle its way up from his increasingly congested chest; why me and not the others? Did they take me simply because I was the only one awake, the only one aware? Did they just pick me at random and leave Sam, Teal'c, and Daniel behind because they didn't have a sufficient number of men to keep four strong, healthy adults subdued? Not to mention the fact that there was no way all four of us could have fit in that cart, Jack thought wryly. And what the hell did they want with me, anyway? his fevered thoughts raced on. Based on the pathetic remnants of the human corpse he'd glimpsed hanging in the village square, it couldn't be anything good.

Okay, time to earn my daily wage, he mused drily as the arthritic old cur that served as guardian for this place wandered stiffly around the corner of the stable now. Even though he was confident that he'd befriended the half-blind mutt, Jack couldn't help but tense momentarily as the ugly critter made its way along the side of the stable, its rhuemy eyes fixed on Jack's crouched form as a low, constant growl emanated from its throat.

"Easy, fella, easy..." Jack whisper-crooned, extending one cautious hand in the dog's direction. For a brief moment the animal drew its lips back over worn but still dangerous teeth, it's head going down; but as Jack risked giving a low, coaxing whistle, the canine's tail suddenly wagged once, stiffly, and it whined a greeting and moved to nuzzle Jack's ravaged hands.

"That's right, that's a good boy," Jack murmured, scratching the dog behind its raggedy ears. "Such a stud you are, so handsome..." As the animal fumbled its way up on its back legs to swipe a clumsy tongue along Jack's cheek, the Colonel couldn't stifle the brief grin that transformed his face from anxious fatigue to a strangely boyish happiness.

"Even here, goodness exists," he whispered into the dog's ear, stroking a shaky hand along its flank. "Or so Daniel would probably say; sounds like him, anyway. Are you it, boy? Are you all the goodness left in this pit of suffering?" A dark veil of sadness dropped suddenly over Jack's exhausted eyes, and he buried both hands in the ruff of fur at the dog's neck and murmured, "God, I miss my team. I miss all of them, my friends...They have to be alive, they have to be! Dammit, where are they, why isn't someone coming for me?"

Sighing, Jack delved into the pocket of his torn, filthy BDU's and withdrew the last, crushed morsel of an old chocolate bar he'd found there earlier; technically he knew chocolate was bad for dogs, but this old fellow sure seemed to love the little crumbs of the candy bar Jack had used to win him over. The animal whined again now, its bristly tail wagging with the enthusiasm of a much younger pup as it recognized the scent of the crumbles of chocolate in Jack's palm. Eagerly it snuffled at his hands, its runny eyes beseeching on the commander's, and Jack smiled gently as he opened his palm and let the creature lick up every morsel of candy he held.

"Good, huh?" he whispered, shrugging and showing the still-hungry mutt his empty hands. "Sorry, no more. Guess you'll just have to like me for me now, no percs added. C'mon, pal, what say you to keeping a look-out for me now? Papa's gotta scavenge a few more groceries, you know? I'll share, never fear." The dog sat back on its haunches, head cocked to one side in a curious manner as it listened to the soothing voice of this interesting new friend; as Jack reached to pat its grizzled head, the dog rose to its feet and looked expectantly toward the fetid trash heap positioned several yards away from the stable.

"That's it, fella; keep watch for me while I go transact my business," Jack murmured, and as he rose painfully to his feet and began to slide along the concealing wall of the stable, the owner's cur slipped with surprising silence to a point on the property halfway between the stable and the house proper. There it settled on its belly, ears twitching and whining low in its throat as it cast anxious glances toward the still-dark house; if the dog heard even the slightest stir from inside, Jack knew it would give one short, sharp bark to clue him in.

Always good to have a loyal friend, Jack thought ironically to himself as he reached the reeking amalgam of trash and unsavory detritus mounded up in one corner of the yard. Too bad for the owners that years of their constant mistreatment had failed to win the dog's affections; good for Jack O'Neill, however--who was indeed a dog person, he thought smugly.

Not much to choose from today, Jack fussed silently to himself as he dug with as much stealth as he could manage into the nasty innards of the refuse pile. His questing fingers came up with the moldy heel of a bread loaf, some half-rotted tops of a vegetable that resembled a potato, and wonder of wonders, a wedge of browned, curled cheese that he knew his new friend would appreciate. He hated this, hated being reduced to scrabbling through garbage to stay alive; but with his injuries and the first, slow signs of septic shock he could feel worming its way into his body, he knew he needed to keep himself fueled as much as possible just to keep any semblance of strength going. Over the past twenty-four hours he'd forced himself to swallow down some nasty snails he'd found in the woods and had chewed on the shriveled remains of the last berry crop of the season, left behind on nearly naked shrubs by those who could afford to be more particular in their gleaning. He had no trouble procuring water, but it wasn't water he needed now; right now he needed protein, carbohydrates, he needed some sort of thick, hot stew to warm his chilled insides and a huge, honking iv bag filled with lovely antibiotics. Oh, and a hot shower...God, what ecstasy that would be.

Sighing, Jack pulled himself stiffly out of the middle of the stinking trash heap and faded back against the stable wall, his meager discoveries clutched in his hands. The dog met him on the other side of the stable, its tail waving once, uncertainly, as Jack knelt with laborious care and extended the rotting piece of cheese.

"Sorry, bud, this is all I found," he apologized; but the emaciated cur wolfed it down with apparent enjoyment and whined once, softly, for more.

"Maybe later, okay?" Jack promised; and as the dog stood looking wistfully after him, he made his way in the first, tentative graying of morning light back into the thick growth of trees rimming the village. He had found a hiding place there, a hollowed-out hole where the roots of a fallen, long-dead tree had once found purchase; and it was to this place that he retreated now, praying distractedly that his friendly canine partner in crime wouldn't get a sudden hankering to come visit and bring a posse along with him.

"God, General, what's taking you guys so long?" Jack huffed as he curled up on his scratchy, stiff piece of burlap and stuffed the nasty chunks of bread he'd scavenged into his mouth. He could feel the heat of a growing fever sending questing fingers throughout his body, the steadily increasing waves of pain radiating from the infected claw marks on his leg and tingling like fire ants in his blood. Stifling a cough against his dirty, blood-streaked palm, Jack closed his eyes and tried to sleep, shivering helplessly in the morning's damp chill and fighting off macabre mental images of Sam and Daniel and Teal'c lying back at camp in twisted positions of ugly, frozen death.

Part Two

Jack dreamed that the beast had him again, that he had never really managed to drag himself out of its lair once it had fallen asleep but was still trapped inside its den, just waiting for it to finish him off. Moaning unintelligibly in his sleep, the fever-ravaged Colonel raised helpless hands against the bite of sharp, phantom teeth and shivered himself awake, only to find himself alone in his hollowed-out burrow, his body trembling uncontrollably with fever and with his own, panicked reaction to the dream.

"I escaped," he mumbled indistinctly to himself now. "I escaped...staggered and ran, waded through a stream, kept going, kept moving till I found this place...Worked for hours to free my hands, to get those fucking ropes off...I found food, the dog, I'm alive..."

It was all coming back to him now, the memories falling into place as he forced his stiff, aching muscles to propel his body from the damp ground to a partial sitting position in his hideout. He wondered what time it was, wondered dimly how long he's slept and just how much higher his fever had gone in the interim. He felt sick, desperately sick, but he told himself he wouldn't give in to it. Blearily he ordered himself to get moving, told himself everything would be all right, that help would be coming soon...

But it wasn't help that greeted him when he eventually dragged his weakened way up out of his hidey-hole; it wasn't the blessed, familiar arms of his team mates waiting to enfold him when he stumbled into the drizzly air but someone else's arms entirely. As he found himself practically crashing into the two fur-clad, ominously familiar figures who had been creeping up on his position as he slept, Jack O'Neill gave a snort of self-disgust for screwing up yet again and waggled a sardonic hand in his captors' angry faces.

"Fancy meeting you here," he sighed; and as the two wrapped iron fingers around both his arms, he lowered his head and stared glumly down at his feet.

"Ah, shit..." he managed to rasp out, just before the flurry of rockhard fists descended on him with a vengeance and he fell and fell and fell, spiralling back down into the stygian depths of nothingness.

"I had a dog once, when I was a kid," Jack murmured to himself, lost in the throes of delirium. "I loved the hell out of that damned mutt, too; his name was Zippy...My God what a stupid, fucking name for a dog. But that was his name, all right...Zippy. He was a beagle, you know. Cutest damned dog you ever saw. I was eight when I got him, and Jesus, I loved that mutt."

Jack sagged against his bonds, his head lolling bonelessly as disjointed words slurred from between his cracked lips. He could see his dog, his beloved Zippy, sitting just a few feet away from him now, its head tilted to one side as it surveyed him through strangely mournful eyes. But something was wrong; Zippy wasn't looking so hot, Jack noted dully, and he appeared to have changed a matter of fact, he wasn't even a beagle anymore.

"Oh, shit, Zippy; what did they do to you?" Jack moaned, his eyes filling with tears of helpless anger. "Was it the snakes, did the Goa'ulds do this to you? I'm sorry, Zippy, I didn't know they'd stoop to torturing my childhood pets...I don't know how they did it, those sneaky bastards have their ways..."

A sudden, devastating paroxysm of coughing racked the Colonel's trussed-up body, had him writhing and jerking helplessly against the pole he was tied to; as flecks of bloody spittle trickled from between his lips, Jack tried to find his numbed feet beneath him, tried to stand straight and tall so he could get a better look at what those fuckers had done to his poor dog.

"You got old, Zip," he murmured brokenly, focusing with some effort on the dog's grizzled muzzle and torn, tattered ears. "They turned you into some skinny old stray, took away your red collar and your favorite chew toy...damn those bastards! I thought you got hit by a car, my dad said it happened that way...but you're here, here in this horrible place, and I think maybe the snakes had something to do with it...why'd he do it, why did my dad say a car hit you when it was the snakes, the damned snakes..."

A sob caught in his throat, and for a bit Jack went unconscious, his gray head sagging limply to one side as he hung like an empty, broken husk against the rough wooden pole behind him. His presence went largely unnoticed by the roughly garbed villagers who moved about him, carrying out their daily business; he was, after all, merely the latest surrogate, a fortuitous offering dropped in on them through the great round orb as so many others had been before him. The gods required a regular 'donation,' a suitable sacrifice in return for leaving the rest of this worlds' inhabitants in peace; and whenever some stranger appeared to save one of their own from an undesirable death, so much the better. Only one was needed every full turning of the moon, and this time the ancient hag who served as village oracle had declared that one with silver locks and eyes of glittering fire would bring honor to their village with his sacrifice.

And so it was; this one that was captured once, lost, and then captured again was exactly the sacrifice the hag's first sight had envisioned. This one surely possessed much power that the good gods needed; why else would the bad gods have sent their mighty beast to try and snatch him from their midst? Three of their own had died grisly deaths so that this one--this perfect sacrifice--might be returned to them. He would die, his power ascending to feed the good gods; and life for the villagers would continue, their doom forestalled for yet another moon's cycle.

"Zippy?" Jack's voice hissed out again in the shadows of late afternoon, his unfocused eyes sliding blindly from shape to shape as preoccupied villagers milled around the square where he hung. "I was dreaming, my dog...damned dog died years ago, why'd I remember him now?" But a low whine pulled the Colonel from his fuzzy musings, jerked him into sudden awareness as he honed in on the sound and found his little friend from the trash heap.

"Oh, it's you, is it?" he murmured, feeling a pained attempt at a smile trying to pry apart the cracked line of his lips. "Sorry, pal, no more chocolate, no more anything...can't help you, can't even scratch your ears..." Jack watched as the mutt's ears perked forward, tried to lift his head and whistle one last, friendly farewell to the furry form cowering and whining pitiably at his feet.

"Go 'way, now," Jack slurred, feeling something break in his chest, feeling his lungs seize and groaning helplessly as ribbons of fire seared up from his leg into his brain. "Go on, 'fore they see you fraternizing with the sacrifice..." His loyal friend merely gave a deep, resigned sigh and settled himself across Jack's feet, resting his graying muzzle on the toe of Jack's right boot and flicking out a tongue to give his friend's shoe a sympathetic lick.

"Stupid dog," Jack mumbled and felt sudden, inexplicable tears fill his eyes. He was absurdly touched that he wouldn't have to die alone, that the last sight he might see would be that of his furry companion looking up at him with such love and trust in its wise brown eyes...

"Wish I could take you home with me," Jack muttered as evening shadows lengthened across the square and the villagers hurried home to their meager suppers. "I could buy you a collar, get you some kibble and a nice, soft cushion to sleep on...take you for walks in the park, take you fishing with me in'd like that, wouldn't you, boy?"

Yes, he'd like that, Jack decided on the dog's behalf; as his one and only friend on this godforsaken world lay valiantly warming Jack's feet and his heart as well, the jaded military man apologized to his furred companion for not being able to save him from his miserable life here. As the dog wagged its tail and whined up at him, Jack blinked back renewed tears as he realized that his team--his true friends--must, indeed, be dead. He was sorry, so sorry that it had ended this way for them all, so sorry that he wouldn't even be able to avenge his friends' deaths. But soon enough he would join them; soon exposure and shock and blood loss would carry him beyond this place to wherever his team mates awaited...he'd meet them there, it would be so nice to see them again...

"Sir...! Psst, sir!"

Darkness was falling now, closing in the world around him in shades of murky black, and Jack decided he was hallucinating again, that death must be very near if he could already hear his beloved team calling him home...

"Colonel! Colonel O'Neill, you have to wake up!" Carter's desperate voice sounded almost in his ear, and Jack tried, tried so very hard, to obey her, to lift his head and show her he was ready. Ready to die, ready to go with her to whatever lay beyond...

"Hurry, Teal'c, he's barely hanging on," Jack heard Sam say, and he was sure he heard growling as well, low and fierce and oddly protective. Why would Teal'c be growling at him, didn't the Jaffa WANT Jack to go to Heaven with the rest of them? the Colonel pondered fretfully.

"The dog does not wish me to touch O'Neill," Teal'c's voice rumbled very quietly from Jack's right side. "I fear I will be forced to shoot it in order to free the Colonel. Perhaps the villagers have set it to guard him against escape..."

"No! No..." Jack groaned out, trying vainly to raise his head, to let Teal'c know that he mustn't shoot Zippy, mustn't hurt Jack's only friend in the whole world... "No, don't...kill dog...friend, friend!" Jack managed to rasp out, holding to consciousness only with the greatest of efforts.

"I don't think the dog's trying to guard the Colonel from escaping," Jack could hear Sam whispering from somewhere on his left. "I think it's trying to guard him from the villagers; it behaves as though it thinks it's protecting him somehow."

"Zippy...he's Zippy, my friend," Jack mumbled around a choking cough, and for a brief moment he was able to focus clearly on Samantha Carter's huge, beautiful blue eyes as she reached out through the darkness to cut through his bonds.

"Okay, sir, it's okay," she smiled at him, her gaze distracted and more than a little frantic as she observed the gravity of her c.o.'s condition. "Zippy's fine, he's a great little fella..."

"He likes chocolate," Jack murmured faintly, fighting his way up past billowing black clouds of incipient oblivion. "And cheese, he likes cheese..."

"Perhaps we may be able to procure...Zippy...a quantity of each upon our return to Earth," Teal'c's voice announced solemnly from just behind Jack as the strongly muscled Jaffa assisted Carter in releasing their commander from his bonds. With exquisite gentleness Teal'c took Jack's boneless, sagging weight into his arms and lifted the Colonel's body up into his arms.

"You mean, I can keep him?" Jack sighed, dragging one puffy, bruised eye open to stare at the vague blur of his team mate's dark face. "Do they let dogs into Heaven?"

"I don't know about Heaven, sir," came Carter's gentle voice in his ear, her words unaccountably choked with tears; "but we can damned sure haul him back to the SGC with us and give him a bath and a nice meal. If the General objects, we'll just tell him, Zippy, here...saved your life."

"We will also inform the General that, had we not brought the animal along with us, we would have found ourselves in imminent danger of it setting up a ferocious barking in response to our rescue of you," Teal'c continued comfortingly. "We will explain that the dog thought it was defending you."

"Not going...Heaven?" Jack mumbled, one puffed, cracked lip turning up in a confused grimace. "Where's Daniel, is he going with us to Heaven?"

"Daniel's back on earth, sir, back in the infirmary," Sam whispered against Jack's ear. The three of them were moving quickly, Teal'c running almost soundlessly across the muddy ground with Jack in his arms while Sam trotted alongside, Zippy tucked under one arm while she waved her P-90 about with the other, eyes watchful for any sign that their escape had been noticed.

"Just don't bark, little fellow," she pleaded under her breath as they ran. "If you really love the Colonel, you'll keep your little doggy mouth shut." Zippy whined once, very quietly, at this; but as Sam lifted him just enough to rub her chin reassuringly across the top of his grizzled head, the old dog settled down and rested meekly in her grasp.

"Dead, we...dead," Jack muttered fretfully, trying to struggle, and Teal'c tightened his grasp and whispered comfortingly in his disoriented friend's ear.

"Indeed, we are most certainly NOT dead, O'Neill," he scolded almost fondly. "When you were abducted, the rest of us were indeed wounded by those who took you. We were weakened by blood loss, unable to instantly go after you...but once we had returned to the SGC and received proper medical care...and after we had fully debriefed the General on the situation...we did our best to come for you as quickly as possible. I regret that we could not expedite your rescue to a greater degree, Colonel. But we are here now, and SG's 5 and 7 wait just beyond the rise, there, ready to back us up if need be. We are taking you home, Colonel. All will be well."

"Not dead," Jack sighed, and Carter's voice trembled faintly in his ear, her breath warm and fragrant as mint against his face.

"Not dead, sir," she murmured; and as a small, stifled bark of agreement sounded on the quiet air, Jack relaxed at last and let his consciousness fade, his body hanging limp in Teal'c's powerful grasp.

"Daniel!" Jack's voice was filled with genuine delight as he looked up to see the pale but much beloved face of Daniel Jackson peering around the infirmary door at him. "I thought you were dead! Get yourself in here!"

"Well, I thought YOU were dead, Jack," Daniel retorted wryly, his blue eyes affectionate behind his glasses. "You don't know how relieved I was when Sam and Teal'c came in and told me they had been successful in rescuing you. But it was close, damned close. You've been really sick for several days now."

As Daniel made his way over to the chair by Jack's bed and settled himself rather gingerly on its cushioned surface, Jack noted the careful way the archaeologist cradled his arm against his chest and vaguely recalled Sam telling him soon after his arrival here that Daniel had been stabbed in the chest and had very nearly died, himself. She and Teal'c had received stab wounds, as well, but Teal'c's symbiote had healed his injury while Sam had been lucky enough to have the knife blade deflect off her rib, saving her from serious damage. She and Teal'c had both fought tooth and nail to lead the rescue mission for the Colonel, and as he lay here now with tubes and wires sprouting from his body like some high-tech gizmo, Jack reflected that he had never been happier in his life to see his team mates' faces, to hear their voices and assure himself they really were here with him. All of them alive, all of them reunited.

"Oh, by the way," Daniel smiled now, his gaze dancing across Jack's ash-pale face with almost childlike enjoyment; "I don't know if you remember," he continued, "but Sam brought you back a present from your trip."

"A present?" Jack asked, quirking one mystified brow. "What the hell would I possibly want from that hellhole...?"

"Well, if that's how you feel about poor old Zippy, I guess we'll just have to send him back through the gate," came Sam's scolding voice at the door; and as Jack looked up in disbelief, a small, furry torpedo launched itself from Carter's arms and hurled its wiggling, wildly barking self at Jack's hospital bed.

"What the--!" Jack began in thunderstruck amazement; but then Sam was lifting a grizzled, wonderfully familiar doggy form carefully onto Jack's chest, her eyes filling with sentimental tears as the deliriously happy mutt slathered Jack's face with wet kisses. '

"Zippy, sir," she sniffled with a grin, and Jack raised shaky, iv-laden hands to bury his lacerated fingers in the dog's neck, hiding the sudden rush of tears to his eyes beneath the old mutt's exuberant, delightfully dog-smelling greeting.

"Hey, you," Jack murmured into the dog's ragged ear, smiling as the mutt whimpered in a paroxysm of joy. "Guess I gotta buy you that collar and the cushion after all, eh?" And as his canine friend settled down complacently alongside its new master, Jack sent a mock-scathing glare at his two human friends and growled,

"Zippy? Zippy? What the hell kind of name is that for a dog? No dog of mine is gonna be named Zippy, for crying out loud; what, do I look eight years old?"

"Sorry, sir; I guess we misconstrued what you were calling him back on the planet," Sam grinned knowingly. At that moment Teal'c and Dr. Fraiser entered the room, Fraiser scowling unhappily at the sight of the dog on Jack's bed but then wisely backing off as she saw how happy the Colonel looked; Jack beamed up at his newly arrived friends like a small boy on Christmas morn and said proudly, "He was my lookout when I was hiding on that damned planet; he helped me scout for food and warned me if anyone came near. Damned fool dog, for some reason he decided he liked me."

"Maybe it was the chocolate you've been babbling about feeding him while you were delirious," Daniel snorted lightly, his eyes bright with emotion as he observed his best friend's simple joy.

"I earned YOUR trust with chocolate, too; so what?" Jack retorted smartly; and as everyone grinned around at each other like happy idiots, Jack gazed down into his new dog's adoring face and murmured decidedly, "Scout. That's his name, that's what I'm calling him."

"And a wonderful name it is," Janet Fraiser smiled. "Now, why don't all you people...and Scout...clear out for awhile so a certain over-stimulated Colonel can get some rest? You can visit later."

"Aw, you never let me have any fun," Jack grumped; but his weary eyes were already sliding closed, and as Sam gently removed a wiggling, protesting Scout from his master's bed and carried the whining dog to the door with her, all three members of SG-1 turned to bestow one last, grateful look at their peacefully sleeping commander.

"You may be Scout to everyone else, but you'll always be Zippy to me," Sam whispered fondly into the dog's listening ear; and with that Jack's friends--furred and otherwise--left him to his rest.