Forced Perspective Rating: PG-13
ThrawnMcEwok

Lean, toned muscles sheathed in sheer, silk-smooth skin; body drawn sinew-taut between the outstretched limbs of the tireless aparatus that the Yuuzhan Vong called the Embrace of Pain: the human slave had been splayed on the curved wall of the damutek's main antrum for more than six klekkets — more than a standard year by infidel reckoning.

In that time, she had become a thing of beauty.

In that time, she had, quite literally, become a work of art.

She still had a vague idea she had had a name once, an identity beyond the definition which her owner had given her. But she didn't mind that it had been taken away, that the person she had been had ceased to exist.

She preferred to imagine that she had always been what she was now — always there, like that. She liked the idea that her transformation had remade her past as well.

She was happy to be simply this, savouring the tangible sense of being alive — chin rested against her chest, face framed by uncut curls; breath fluttering between parted lips, quietly watching the world through lidded lashes.

She was where she belonged.

It was early after sunrise now, the start of another day — the brief rest-hour before work began in the little settlement that she thought of vaguely as here or home, on this world whose name she didn't need to know.

She had skimmed through the hours of darkness in a sort of trance — dreaming, but not asleep, until she realised that the music she could hear was the song of the yellow scissortails greeting the sunrise in the trees beyond the compound walls, answered by the triumphant bellow of a herd of rakkarans striding across the plain to the river.

She had watched the dawn light filter into the antrum through the translucent membranes of the damutek's outer layers — watched as the chamber woke up around her, the petals of the viara khaa unfurling, a rosy blush of colour rising in the fibres of the walls, the specimins stirring in the salt pools and the vivaria.

But she was no mere specimin, no mere animal — not merely the viable biological product of compatible gametes. She had been wrought and worked to serve a purer purpose, crafted into an embodiment higher qualites — and through the mere act of making her into something new, the Master Shaper had transformed every facet of her existence.

In shaping her, Fehig Kwaad had exalted her to new planes of existence — and on the most exalted plane of all, she had become a living expression the very purpose she had been shaped to serve.

Giving her life meaning seemed such a simple idea — but in itself, it gave her richer, fuller, deeper meaning than she could have ever expected she could have.

She was an artwork.

Purpose and beauty are latent in every creature, she remembered the Master Shaper saying to her — or perhaps, because the memory was so clear, he had simply implanted it in her mind. The duty of my caste is not simply to produce cleverly-engineered devices, but to find the true, inherrent form and function of every piece of living flesh that comes into our hands, and to work it to embody that purpose. If you understand this, and how it applies to you, then your own shaping has already begun.

At the memory, she nodded absently in agreement. Was it really possible that she had shivered at his words, wept when she first heard them?

It was hard to believe — but if it was a real memory, it must have been in the earliest stages of her shaping, when the Master Shaper had only just begun the long work of remaking her as a living sculpture. It had been when she was still a Jeedai, still an infidel, a iiumnh; before she had become the exquisite expression of the strict and complex canons of true beauty that she now was.

It hadn't really been her.

But even then, her impending transformation had already been inevitable.

First, Fehig Kwaad had fixed her physically within the architecture of the damutek — positioning her on the outer wall of the main antrum, just along from the entrance portal, and alongside the curving path that lead up to the succession pool and the Grotto of Yun-Ne'Shel. She was invisible from the entryway itself, but anyone entering the antrum had to walk right past her, and they could hardly fail to notice her there, the only ornament on the long, bare curve of the bulkhead.

She was there not, as she had thought, because of the bitter humiliation of being put on public display, but because it was the place that best suited her complex purpose. And more importantly, the Master Shaper had placed her there, when she was still just an infidel animal — contextualizing her before she even understood that being there was an inevitable part of her true purpose, imposing the inevitability of what was about to happen to her as the first stage of bringing it about.

This was where she belonged, where she would belong forever.

Next, with brutal speed he had stripped her of her name and identity, whatever they had been. Then, slowly, he had brought new qualities to the fore — a hard, honed strength and a tense, trembing stillness, brought together in a healthy, muscular physicality. In purely aesthetic terms, her flesh offered a perfect counterpoint to the architecture of the Embrace of Pain — her skin smooth and copper-bright against the brittle white bone of the creature's exoskeleton and the translucent pearl of the wall; her strong arms and legs drawn straight between the crooked ends of its long, slim limbs; her body bowed in front of its central thorax, head bent in obesiance beneath the spinerays and neural probes that slanted down and in, offering the nape of her naked neck to the aparatus.

But the visual dialogue which the Master Shaper had created between her body and the Embrace of Pain also suggested, subtly and elegantly, how her strength had been dictated by its demands — how qualities that now seemed inherrent had been worked into her by the relentless effort of balancing the outward pull of its spreading limbs, refined by the electric dance of the spinerays across her skin. The effort that the aparatus asked of her was carefully measured, but unceasing — never more than her body could handle, but never slacking. Slowly and inexorably, even now, symbiosis with the rack-creature was building her strength, stretching her endurance — and, best of all, making her less and less like the human she had once been.

As her body became stronger, she was learning to endure an ever greater counterpoint of pain. Permanent agony had become a part of her being, intimate with her like a lover — a rich contralto note singing in the molten metal of her muscles, a live electric current coursing through her nerves and sinews, a tense, trembling energy in the sweat that glossed her skin.

Meanwhile, as her physical senses had sharpened, her mind had dulled. Originally, she had been fitted with an inhibitor collar, so that whenever ideas threatened to assemble as articulate thought-structures in her mind, a surge of agony would tear her thoughts apart before they could truly form. Gradually, she had learned to ignore the parts of her mind that dealt with the infidel language, or assembled complex thought-patterns, and after less than three klekkets, the Master Shaper had been able to remove her collar permanently.

The few memories she retained of the time before her capture were vague and incomprehensible now, wrapped in a haze of hurt and humiliation: not worth remembering.

She was no longer that person; she was no longer any sort of person.

Who she had once been didn't matter at all. How she had been changed didn't matter much more. And far more important even than what she had been changed into was the simple fact that she had been changed, and she was still changing. She had been remade, and she was still being remade. She was not a static, finished object like some infidel sculptor would make, but a truly living artwork, evolving like a blossoming flower — an eternal work-in-progress.

On both the most fundamental and the most abstract level, she was an organic object, a beautiful work of art; but there was a whole spectrum of meaning encompassed within that basic purpose.

Once every klekket, when he was teaching the crèchelings, the Master Shaper used her as an anatomical and neurological model for the phylum of infidel species called iiumnhiiyd. She savoured the whack of his swagger cane against her belly. She drank up the stab of agony as he peeled back a long flap of skin to show the muscles of her arm or leg. And she gasped in pain and pleasure at the crack and snap of joints and tendons when he twisted her head round and forced open her jaw, and called the children over to peer in and probe at her teeth and tongue.

Whenever a commander or prefect came to inspect the progress of work at the damutek, the Master Shaper always brought them over, and explained a little bit about her. As he spoke, the high-ranking warriors and intendants allowed their eyes to explore her curves and clefts, sometimes squeezing her thigh or bicep, always smiling at what had been done to her.

Sometimes, she smiled dreamily back.

And every day, when they tidied up the antrum after dusk, one of the teenage Initiates was assigned to 'wash down the human' or 'clean out the Jeedai's lurr'. They were the ones she had the most contact with — and they were all different. Some of them treated her like the mute object she was, some talked away cheerfully while they worked, and some mocked and tortured her a bit. But however they treated her, they always left her feeling cleansed inside and out — mind at peace, body poised and balanced in the Embrace of Pain, skin gleaming smartly from the clyriz wipe.

She still had a vague idea that there was something else important about her, some ongoing aspect of her shaping that she no longer understood — if she ever had. It was like an itch she couldn't scratch. Sometimes, she heard the Master Shaper and his Adepts talking about her, using words she didn't understand; and sometimes, they did strange, painful, shivery things to her body.

Then again, it didn't really matter whether she understood or not. She was happy simply to have a meaning, even if she didn't fully understand what it meant. The mere fact that she received the attention of her owner and his assistants was enough to add a sense of quiet, honed fulfilment to her purpose in life.

She was, after all, meant to be noticed.

It was part of what she had been made for.

She liked the attention. It was part of what made her who she was, part of her quiet purpose.

But she was equally content to be left alone.

Most days, there were just occasional glances and smiles from the Shapers, and a brief rubdown from a silent Initiate as the sun went down.

Most of the time, the Yuuzhan Vong simply left her alone to grow further into her quiet niche in the ecosystem they had shaped her into, like a lim tree that had put down roots there.

She smiled vaguely at the metaphor, not quite sure why.

For a while, she just breathed, and enjoyed the rise and fall of her chest around her beating heart; the ache of effort in her muscles, the warming daylight on her skin.

Then, she heard the portal pucker open. Her serpentine eyes switched to the side in instinctive reaction, and the dark voids of her pupils pooled wider as she saw the Master Shaper step into the chamber.

She bowed her head a fraction lower as he passed — she didn't know if he noticed, but she hoped that he did. She liked her owner, and she hoped that he felt some affection for her. It seemed only sensible, after all — he was, in every way that mattered, her maker.

But as she kept her head bowed and heard him move deeper into the chamber, she felt a frown knot her forehead. The day was still in the violet hour between first light and sunrise, which the Yuuzhan Vong had to themselves, before the day's work began. Obviously, it was the Master Shaper's prerogative to go where he wished within the compound — but still, she couldn't think of a time he'd come into the damutek so early before.

This was a departure from the regular, disciplined rhythms of which she had been made a part — the rhthms which governed Fehig Kwaad's life, as well as her own, and those of the damutek as a whole; and that, understandably, bothered her.

What was her owner doing?

She kept her head bowed, and her frown grew tighter as she tried to listen — tried to understand, to know how this fitted, and how she fitted into the situation.

Now, she could hear his voice, talking to someone.

"Belek tiu," he was saying, by way of greeting — the obesiance to a superior. It was the same formal phrase of submission that she used on the rare occasions when she was required to leave the silent comfort of her solitude, but a slave like her owed obesiance like that to every Yuuzhan Vong. For the Master Shaper to use it suggested that whoever he was talking to was very important indeed.

Surely that made some sense of it — the Master Shaper, though absolute ruler of this small world, was not the most exalted of the Yuuzhan Vong, and if others, with different duties, deigned, he was obliged to conform to their rhthms, just as she had been bent to the Embrace of Pain.

But even so, she shivered for a reason she didn't fully understand.

"Fehig Kwaad," another voice answered — unfamiliar, female, with a slight accent that seemed strange. "How is your barbarian?"

For a moment, she felt a niggling itch inside her skull, the memory that she had once been able to use another language, to see the world in a different way.

But it didn't really matter. Another language would be an infidel language, and she wasn't an infidel, not any more — she was a work of art shaped and crafted by Master Shaper Fehig Kwaad, displayed on the wall of his damutek.

But still, she listened.

"The yorau polyps have successfully established themselves in the specimin's bone marrow," her owner confirmed. "The conversion of her midichlorians into ordinary mitochondrial organelles has reached equilibrium. Her reading has been reduced by ninety-nine point eight-seven percent, and has stabilized on that level. What remains of her Force-sensitivity may be considered a negligible trace absorbed from the surrounding biosphere."

"Impressive," the other voice answered, with an approving purr. "Most impressive."

The artwork frowned. There were a lot of words that she didn't understand, but it was clear enough that they were talking about her — about the part of her purpose she didn't really understand.

"If I may, milady," the Master Shaper said. "The reproductive systems for the yorau we have developed here are not suitable for effective infestation on a large scale. After the problems with our early attempts ..."

"That has been a separate project," the unfamiliar voice explained in answer, then paused, as though waiting for something.

"I find it hard ..." Fehig Kwaad began.

Then, in the whispering silence, through the soft walls of the damutek, she heard a distant, electric sound.

She stiffened in her straps.

That had been a blaster-shot.

"What is happening?" the Master Shaper demanded, alarm singing in his normally unflappable voice.

"The diffusion of our weapon against the Jeedai," answered the other voice. "Since you were unable to find a way to get the weapon to them, I decided to bring them to your damutek instead."

The Master Shaper snarled at that, and after a moment to draw breath, he turned away from the villip choir, and started back towards the portal.

"M-master?" she asked, as he hurried past — word tumbling clumsily from her lips, like drool through a gag. "What is happening?"

"Stay there," the Master Shaper snapped — a somewhat unneccessary injunction to a slave that had been trained to obey without thought or question, and spent the past year shackled in exactly the same place.

"Belek tiu," she noded, hiding her shame with a bow that flopped her hair down over her face, tugging inwards with her wrists and shins, so that the Embrace of Pain drew her tighter, made her hurt more. She scrunched her face, and rode the tide of orgasmic pain, until the shame had passed, and she was strung taut and alive with agony — and there were voices in the antrum with her.

Three of the senior Shaper Adepts and a Commander, with a cadre of warriors. They looked worried.

She caught snatches of what they said, but she didn't really understand. There seemed to be more important things happening. She watched them improvise barricades, and take up positions around the chamber.

The damutek was under attack.

The warriors wated, as still and silent as she was. One of them — a subaltern who had become a friend of one of the Initiates — saw her looking at him, and threw her a reassuring grin in reply.

She flushed with embarrassment, and he laughed, and looked away, leaving her confused.

Moments passed, each like an eternity.

Then there was a hiss and flash, and the portal of the damutek fell open, sliced from arch to deck by a bright-blazing blade. Smoke roiled through, followed by a sudden storm of red light, and then, the infidels shoved through the open wound, violating the sanctum of her world.

First through were a group of low-crouched warriors, dark-masked and dressed in infidel armour the colour of smoke, moving fast.

Then came three figures who stood tall like heroes, with bright-bladed machine-swords in their hands, switching their weapons to swat blast-bugs and spin-stingers into the walls.

In the Force, they slammed through her like light through dark.

"Jeedai!" she gasped — surprised that she had spoken, surprised far more as her thoughts snapped abruptly back into Basic. And then — "Jacen!"

"Tahiri!"

She watched as the the warriors howled ther hostility and charged across the antrum, as the Adepts' whipstings lashed out from their hands, whistling through the air — only to be abruptly cut apart by the dashing blades of lightsabers.

She watched in disbelief as the Mandalorian commandos overwhelmed the last of the warriors, and the three Jedi Knights — Mara Jade Skywalker, Corran Horn, and Jacen Solo — hurried towards her.

Long-buried memories leapt up in her mind, dashed dreams of rescue and freedom — now, impossibly, made real.

Her name was Tahiri Veila, and she was a Jedi Knight. This wasn't the first time she had been a Yuuzhan Vong prisoner. That was how they had been able to lure her here; how they had been able do this to her.

She had been a living artwork on the Master Shaper's wall for more than a year, but she had never really forgotten — she'd just pulled her true self inwards away from the Shapers' probes and blades, like a ruka gor curling up inside its coral shell.

And now, the Jedi were here to rescue her — actually releasing her, lightsabers slashing open the straps of the Embrace of Pain.

Jacen's blade stabbed past her, into the monster's heart.

She dropped into Mara Jade Skywalker's strong, lean arms.

"Oh," she said, blinking.

"Tahiri," Mara's voice soothed, and she sagged back, roling her eyes back up at her. They laid her on the ground. "Are you okay? Can you understand? Tahiri?"

"No," she breathed, a flutter of despair as strong arms gripped her shoulders, Concerned eyes looked at her — Mara's eyes, hard, green and human; and they looked through her.

"What have they done to her?" Jacen Solo asked, appearing above Mara's shoulder.

"Nej," she repeated, lapsing back into Yuuzhan Vong. She didn't know how she knew — it only seemed like a few moments since she'd been listening in incomprehending confusion to Fehig Kwaad and Lumiya talking over the villip-link. But now she understood everything.

With every breath, she was spreading the spores.

Her lip began to tremble, and she felt tears well up in her eyes.

"Yorauak!" she cried, but even that effort seemed to exhaust her. She slumped in Mara's grip, breathing heavily, blinking miserably. "It's too late ... too late."

"Scans show clear," a rough male voice said, filtered by the vocoder of a blast-shield face-mask. She felt the press of a hypo on her arm, and tried to struggle — not sure whether it was because there was a metal machine touching her skin, or because there was something she had to tell them — something she had to warn them about.

"Nej," she mumbled. "No ..."

The sedative sent her to sleep before she could work it out.


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