Part Three — Equals and Opposites

Rating: PG-13

Slowly, painfully, Kaeer Saa woke up.

He lay on his side, curled up on a smooth deck that could have been Yuuzhan Vong mica or Sekotan laminate. He could feel the wounds he had taken that morning, keen knives of pain driven into his body, deep enough to cut the darkness of his dreams.

He smiled slightly, as though still asleep, and savoured the pain, letting the barbed blades of hurt drag his mind back to wakefulness, opening his eyes just a fraction, trying to work out where he was.

He thought about Tahiri. He had attacked Sekot's hunters, bought some time for her and the boy to get away. He had fought well, better than he had thought he would. He remembered making moves he didn't recognize from his childhood training, moves he didn't think he was capable of.

He remembered snapping a hunter's neck with his bare hands.

He frowned, the skin between his eyebrows wrinkling. His eyes slitted against the light.

He couldn't see much yet, but he didn't want to risk any sudden movements, not before he knew where he was. If the hunters — or whoever was guarding him — thought he was still unconscious and insensible, they wouldn't try to hurt him any more.

It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the pain — he was a good warrior. It was simply practical. A warrior fought better — and thought more clearly — if he kept the pain at a level he could control.

He waited, hearing the whisper of his own breath, wondering if it had all been a dream. But he could still feel the pain of his injuries, and he had a sense that wherever he was, the space in which he lay was far bigger than their bedroom in the bungalow — open, as vast as the valley at Camp Dorn beneath the vault of the sky, but still, somehow, enclosed.

"Kaeer?" a soft voice whispered.

Tahiri, he realised in surprise, as someone shook his shoulder — as though to wake him.


He blinked, and saw her crouching next to him — combat boots, ankle-socks, and smooth, tanned shins. Old shorts, a sleeveless tee, one bare arm reached out to touch him. He looked up into her smiling face, and saw the familiar glint in her infidel eyes, the wonderful light in her bright, golden hair.

"Ree?" he asked, rolling into a sitting position — then frowned at her, looking into her eyes.

"Sekot," he sighed, with a grimace. In answer, the avatar of Zonama Sekot's planetary consciousness just smiled Tahiri's smile back at him.

"Kaeer," Sekot said, with Tahiri's voice. "I just wanted you to be comfortable when you woke up. I didn't want to startle you — or to hurt you."

"You could have chosen a more appropriate avatar," he told her, his voice flat and sharp, like the blade of a warrior's dagger.

"I thought you liked this one," Sekot laughed, springing nimbly to her feet.

"I'm not in the mood for your jokes today," he answered, wondering for a moment if his words were directed at Sekot, or at the girl she was pretending to be. Holding his right hand to the wound in his flank, he hauled himself unsteadily upright, and took two steps after her.

"I don't like it," he called after her. "And Riina wouldn't, either." To his surprise, he saw her shoulders tense, the way they often did during the arguments and awkward silences that had punctuated their relationship. He grinned, and shook his head. "I don't like people pretending to be who they're not, Sekot!"

Tahiri turned on her heel, and looked back at him, a bright intensity in her eyes — a steady, unwavering light, coupled with a smouldering darkness that he didn't understand.

"Oh, Kaeer," she whispered, sadness in her voice. "I'm so very sorry."

Kaeer blinked, and he saw the group of bioengineers standing in the shadows beyond her — the human scientist, Danni Quee, two unfamiliar Yuuzhan Vong in Shapers' robes, and several of the Sekotan engineers, Langhesi human and milk-skinned Ferroan. They were standing in a grove of boras, he realised, as his eyes began to make sense of the gloomy shapes behind them. He frowned, and wondered why they had brought him here.

As if in answer, he heard a sound like thunder, and looked up. Through the canopy of branches, he saw storm clouds gathering, electricity flickering within their leaden bellies.

"NO!" he breathed, shock and awe making him shiver.

Sekot was still looking at him, the same expression on her face. Behind her, the shapers stood like spectators — watching, but apparently uninvolved in the action.

He turned round, and saw the mighty shapes of the jentari looming out of the darkness, gnarled trunks bending as they stooped over him, massive limbs bowing slowly towards him.

They had brought him here to shape him, he realised.

"You could have at least given me a chance to fight like a warrior," he growled, glancing back at Sekot.

"There will be time for you to fight later," she answered, and he saw a twitch of pity on Tahiri's face.

Somehow, it didn't seem entirely genuine.

"You're fooling yourself, Sekot," he snarled at her. "You're no different than the rest of us."

Without waiting for an answer, he looked back at the jentari, and tensed, waiting for the limbs to snap towards him, as he knew they would.

He saw the jentari move, almost before it happened — and leapt, aiming a warrior kick at the massive, monstrous things sweeping towards him.

"Do-ro'ik vong pratte!"

Almost contemptuously, the living boughs caught him in mid-air, and he felt the smart of lacey tendrils across his skin, and a moment of surprise as they lashed around his limbs. He began to struggle as they tightened their grip and snapped his body taut, drawing him in.

He saw the glint of metal against the creatures' rough skin, and twitching nodules knotted into the depth of the bark — organs and implants that he didn't understand.

A warrior knows no fear, he thought, but his eyes were bulging in desperation, his thrashing growing more frantic, and all the more useless.

He felt trapped, like a spectator in his own body.

Then, to his surprise, he felt rain spiral down from the lightning-clouds overhead, soft drops splashing his face.

He stilled for a moment, almost smiling.

Then he saw the flash, and heard the thunderclap.

He saw something streak towards him — a bright blur of burning pain.

And he screamed.

* * * * *

He stood in a dusty dawn, slitting his eyes against the rising sun in front of him.

Tahiri stood facing him, silhouetted by the sunrise, her gold hair haloed by the light. She wore tight, supple armour, overlapping plates of pale grey and bright black.

She smiled, the scars on her face twisting like tight cords.

She seemed beautiful.

She seemed deadly.

She seemed perfect.

He shivered, as though there was something he was missing here — something he couldn't unravel. Something he hadn't seen.

Who was he?

He saw her lightsaber slip into in her hand, saw her knead the soft hide of the techno-organic hilt between her fingers to ignite the blade.

He felt a twist of ecstasy and despair inside him.

Like love. Like heartbreak.

"The last of your kind," he heard her whisper, as the purple blade came alive in her hands. Then, she smiled, like a madwoman. "The last of my kind."

He saw her smile as she raised the blade to kill him.

He saw her love, and the hatred in her.

And the bright blade slashed down, sending a stab of pain and light into the very centre of his soul.

* * * * *

They awoke from the dream with a twinned cry of agony and victory, Tahiri's supple body arching up from the hard earth.

Then, slowly, as though spent, they sank back down together, sprawling on the ground, feeling the cold, damp of the morning seep into the fibre of their being.

He blinked, confused, and she answered with a bat of her own eyelids, brushing the tears from her eyes.

"Kaeer", she sobbed. "khora zhai ... they're hurting him ..."

Khora nai, Anakin's voice soothed. I swear to you, Tahiri — if we have to, we'll come back here with a hundred Jedi and a battlefleet to get him back ...

For a while, she didn't answer. Instead, she stared up at the pale dawn sky above the treetops, her thoughts silent.

She wasn't crying any more.

She didn't know if she would ever cry again.

"Best get going," she said, eventually, pushing herself to her feet. "I want to make Middle Distance by lunchtime."

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