Once A Warrior, Part X Rating: R
ThrawnMcEwok

Yuuzhan Vong bio-science is fast and efficient. The Yuuzhan Vong build their warriors tough and strong. They build them to heal fast.

It took them five days to build me, if you're interested — almost to the kenket, from the time Yal Phaath excised the viable organs, muscle-groups and bones from my corpse, to the time Niia sewed Kunra Jamaane's skin tight shut around the finished package.

To now.

Stop and think about it, and you might notice a paradox or two in there. But in my defence, I don't actually exist any more, so I hope you can excuse my somewhat eccentric point of view at times.

If you want specifics, they've replaced almost half the cellular mass of my brain, and thoroughly rewired and reprogrammed most of what was left. It's Kunra's brain now — it just happens to have been built around my modified cognitive centres. I can lapse back into Basic, into my own voice, and fragments of my memory are lodged in there alongside his Yuuzhan Vong childhood — but there's nothing left that should bind what's left of me into a person any more.

I'm supposed to be Kunra now.

I still feel like me, though.

I'm not sure if that was part of the plan.

But Uncle Luke always did tell me to trust my feelings.

It's a strange feeling, in a lot of ways. I'm slipping from one mindset to another — not simply transiting from 'Anakin' to 'Kunra', but travelling through a whole series of different perspectives and personas, rediscovering familiar memories and finding things about myself I never knew before.

But whoever I am, I always feel like me.

I'm pretty sure that people's minds wander like that even without quite such dramatic surgery on their identity, though — or at least, that my mind always has. It's just the perspective of being two people now — except that I'm not! — that has enabled me to finally express it clearly.

Or maybe it's just a Yuuzhan Vong thing. I may be Anakin, still — sorta, somehow, kinda, maybe — but I don't think I'm really human any more.

I'm getting used to seeing the world through Yuuzhan Vong eyes, starting to savour to the alien flavour of the thoughts being served up inside my skull. There's something almost erotic about the exotic ways they move and interact, like silk-spun nests of sidestepping spiders — or like the ripples of tides over the shallow sand of the Small Sea on Jamaane'tar, drawn by the complex gravities of the alien moons riding low and luminous in the starry sky.

I smile at that memory.

Then the smile twists — pure Anakin, appropriately asymmetrical for Kunra — as my attention shifts to the pain and pleasure of my new-built body. I'm starting to enjoy the constraint of the bone-jaw vices that grip my head and shoulders, the sense of helpless submission to the True Way inherent in my Shaping. I'm being forced to become a Yuuzhan Vong, and I'm liking it a lot.

Not that I'm quite prepared to admit any of that to the Shapers — or, entirely, to myself. Part of me is still stubbornly insisting that I'm still me, physically crushed by carrying the hundred-kilo weight of Kunra Jamaane's body on my shoulders, pushed down past the black-shield radius of unconscious numbness by the neutron pressure of my own gravitational collapse — my death.

Yep, part of me is pretty sure I'm still dead.

And there are times — normally when the Shapers remove the inhibitors to test the raw pain-tolerance of Kunra's scar-head central nervous system — when that dead-star Anakin unleashes pulsar screams of agony.

Most of the time, the pain is like a drug — spice or anaesthetic, depending on your taste — and the simple logic of my Yuuzhan Vong thought-processes stuns me into stupor. I'm so far gone that I'm in charge of my own brain-twisting now, or at least, Kunra is — working with the patient insistence of a devout Yuuzhan Vong, slowly grinding down and sharpening the parts of me that are still human, working them into pain-honed weapons he can wield against the infidels.

But that doesn't mean that I don't know what's being done to me, what I'm becoming, have become ...

It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, deep down.

I remember Yal Phaath explaining it to me.

I don't know if it was real, or if it's a false memory, but it serves — and it also serves as a refuge for my thoughts, an escape from the agony.

Why? I asked, mouthing the word, rolling my eyes up to look the Master Shaper in the face. My memory tells me that my body felt like fire — still just wreckage in the vivarium. But I could move my head again — my new grey eyes could convey my feelings, and the pit of my mouth could shape my words.

Why?! I repeated, though the only sound I could make was a moan.

In reply, Yal Phaath's eyes gleamed, he smiled sympathetically, and he told me.

We have plans for you, he said. Plans that require you to be a Yuuzhan Vong. Then he shrugged, and paused, and after a bit, continued. You will already have experienced the new memories being made in your mind. You will have had moments when these have seemed real to you, and you will have wrestled yourself back to who you believe you are.

My mute stare, the bunching of my neck and deltoids, serves as assent.

No doubt, you think that we want you to believe that this is true, that you are really Kunra. Perhaps you will come to believe it, but that is not the main issue. What matters is that the new neural lattices will lead your thoughts down certain avenues, that you will think and act like a Yuuzhan Vong — even though you know that these memories are lies, that you were once the Jeedai Anakin Solo, and that you were remade here in my damutek ... made like an infidel machine..

He spat out the words with an anger I didn't entirely understand, and turned away, leaving me to reflect on what I'd just been told — leaving me to gauge my own reactions, and to see how much of me was already Yuuzhan Vong.

After a while, Niia came over, and talked to Kunra — and it was Kunra who answered, reminding himself that he had already thought she was beautiful even when he thought he was an infidel.

She is kinda pretty, actually.

She's in here now with me — putting the finishing touches to me, while I hover on the edge of sleep.

Blink.

Drip, drip.

I blink again.

Drip-drip.

This place seems familiar.

My body is a blurry haze of distant hurt. I'm hanging at about a forty-five degree angle, the downward drag of my weight and the inward vector of my thoughts balanced against the thrust of the Embrace of Pain that racks my limbs, lifting up and bracing outwards. I can feel the grind of bone on bone, the burn of effort-taxed muscle, the fire of breath in my lungs.

My body wants me to wake up.

Kunra wants me to enjoy it.

Drip-drip.

Blood drips slowly onto the deck from the sutured scar which laces up my body. Through my eyelashes, I can see the pattern it makes, a dark spatter on the pearl deck.

I blink, and realise that I can see a Shaper Adept's hands on my left shoulder — one crustacean prosthesis, one beautiful, blue-skinned hand with a surgeon's deft fingers. She is fussing with the lapel of skin across my left pectoral, pinning it shut again where the torque of my ballet with the rack has torn the stitches.

I mutter something, and sink back towards sleep, trying to imagine that the stabs of needles through my flesh mean something else.

I must say something, because she kneads my shoulder, and speaks to me.

"Shh," she says, and she has a beautiful voice. "You should be more careful."

"Careful is for Shapers," I grumble.

"Well, I'm done now," she says, and her mismatched hands lift my head, encouraging the pop of my vertebrae. "And you should be grateful, even if you are a warrior."

I lift my eyes to look at her, her fingers slipping over my chin and jaws, and my grin grows bright as I realise I'm looking into the face of one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen.

She's a Shaper, too — and that brings back good memories.

"Hi," I say, and my grin splits my face wide open.

Literally.

"Oh. Ow."

That's what happens when they've only just finished building your body, I guess.

"Dummy," she chides — at least, that's how my mind translates khapet, because it was Riina's favourite word, and then Tahiri's. Her armoured thumb flicks back the flap of skin across my nose and cheek, and she peers at the muscle underneath. "I'm going to have to sew this back up now."

"I'll enjoy it," I say.

"You would," she says. "Close your eyes, breathe through your nose, and try not to move too much."

"Okay," I nod, with a subaltern's informality — squaring my shoulders, bowing my head, and feeling the long hem-pin slide through my cheek to hold the edges of my skin together as she begins to work.

I allow the rhythm of the stitches in my face to lull me back to sleep, like a lullaby being written on my skin. Here, in the hazy half-light between awareness, death, and dreams, I can sense her warm presence with me — as clear as the warriors shone around me in the moments before my death, or rather, what that would be like, filtered by the haze of my lazy state of mind.

I have a feeling that when I open my eyes, the Force will be gone, so I continue to doze — trying not to think, and slipping slowly deeper into the depths of sleep.

Sleep, and dreams.

Memories, synapse flaring.

At least, it feels like a dream. It feels like a memory.

I'm not sure what 'sleep' means, any more.

But I know one thing. This is a lie. It never happened.

But in a way, that doesn't matter. I still remember it.

This feels real.

And that's me talking. Anakin Solo.

Trust your feelings, remember?

Go figure.

Anyway, enough of that.

I'm falling asleep, falling past self-pity.

Falling ...

An indigo sky, studded with silver diamonds. Long grass, yellow-green, whispering in the breeze. The little corral of shals, the muddy green between the houses.

Jamaane'tar.

A family. A brother, Uuen. Running through the long grass, playing — two or three years old. Uuen is his blood brother, the child of the same two parents — such distinctions are normally less important among the Yuuzhan Vong than crèche and domain, but there is only one crèche on this nameless planet they call Home.

His best friend is his crèche-sister, the daughter of the heretic shaper from Domain Kwaad.

Riina.

She is called Riina.

His name is Kunra Jamaane.

Or at least it was, once.

The Jeedai killed my family.

The voice is my own. Kunra's.

The words, I was taught — programmed to say.

I suppose we all have to learn to speak, though. All the words we use are merely approximations of our meaning, and the meaning we intend our words to carry is often quite different from what underlies the feelings we are actually expressing.

Kunra's voice is low, and dry, and angry now, with a flat-edged intensity that most other Yuuzhan Vong find a little unsettling.

Flat and straight and sharp-edged, like an infidel blade.

The Jeedai killed my family.

The Jeedai ...

Jeedai ...

Green eyes.

But that comes later.

First, I have to die, and be reborn ...

They came in the rainy season. First, the the cold wind came, ripping across the long grass, and the sky above the grashal knotted and darkened into a brooding front of purple clouds, endless banks sweeping across the sky — tumid and heavy, bruised, pregnant with the winter rains.

For days, he used to watch the, seeing how the clouds made shapes, and how the shadows sped across the long-grass fields. Sometimes with Uuen, but more often with Tahiri. No, with Riina.

Then, the lightning forked from the sky, and then, the first heavy drops of rain came to fall, and they ran indoors, and watched from the windows, as the water hammered the mud flat and washed away the sweat and dust of summer.

And then the Jeedai came, from the sky like black-winged preybirds, howling, shadows in the twilight, with lights on the wings of their ships like stars or sunset.

The adults fetched their weapons. Riina and Kunra watched.

And then the Jeedai walked down the sword-blade tongues of their iron flyers, into the rain and wind and lightning.

Tall, broad-shouldered shadows, wrapped in dark robes — tanned leather and tough homespun. Grey, black, brown. Kunra and Riina watched as the lightsabers ignited — cobalt, emerald and blood-red.

Calls were exchanged — insults and challenges. One of the Jeedai wore green robes shaded like a lone-tree's leafy canopy, frayed and old, but neatly patched and carefully re-sewn. Another had long hair whipped back in a tail like a warrior, streaked with a grey that matches the grim set of his face.

The men and warrior-women of the settlement faced them, in old armour, with the weapons that they had.

And then the dying began.

Riina ran then, to her mother's damutek. He stayed rooted to the pane.

Warriors, dying.

This is real.

The rain slants down, the lightsabers slash at bright angles, and the warriors stop, and twist, and fall, often cleaved into more than one peace.

He stares, his grey eyes wide. Ears alive to the song of their energy-blades. In spite of himself, something in that song calls to him. He stares, wide-eyed, at the blade slicing through bare flesh. Fascinated.

He hears the screams, sees his father die. He hides in the storage-sac below the chew-board, shivering cold.

Anakin Solo crouches in the damp-half-dark under the table — a shivering child, scared and numb. His bare arms feel cold and clammy, and the aurora of lightning and lightsaber blades plays across the wall opposite him.

Anakin Solo ...

But that's not his name. Not yet, anyway.

Anakin Solo doesn't exist.

He is Kunra. Kunra Jamaane.

My name is Kunra.

(Another memory. Teeth gritted, clenched with a child's stubbornness. The grip of metal clamps, silk-smooth and ice, cold.)

My name is Kunra Jamaane! I ... am ... Yuuzhan Vong!!

But that comes later.

Now ...

The door slams open, kicked clean from its hinges, and he stares up at the figure of the Jeedai who steps into the kitchen. He recognizes this one as female, even if she is so strikingly alien — though he doesn't yet understand why. He doesn't understand those lean curves, the sleek leather sheathe of her bodysleeve, the impact of the level green eyes that switch down to look at him.

Not yet, anyway.

The corner of Mara Jade's mouth twists up in a friendly grin.

They drag him out, kicking and punching, laughing as he struggles and yells. His eyes go wide as he see their leader standing in the centre of the muddy, rain-levelled green, a man with a dark cloak shrugged over a black jumpsuit; with electric eyes and fair hair, cropped short. A scarred, savaged face.

"This is the one," someone says, and Kunra Jamaane is shoved towards him, stumbling on the churned ground, towards the terrified huddle of skin and ragged wrapsilk that is Riina Kwaad. They look at each other, and cling to each other, and look around them at the tall, terrifying infidels who have killed everyone they ever knew.

No. There are other survivors — huddled, afraid, some wounded.

Luke Skywalker looks at them, and a grim expression shapes on his face, a grimace of pity or disgust.

Or perhaps just the everyday distaste of a man faced with a sour taste in his mouth.

"Kill them," he says.

Kunra watches as the aliens turn towards the other survivors of the Jamaane'tar colony — turning towards the remains of his fragile, innocent world, their blades alive in their hands, implacable expressions on their faces.

"NO!" he screams.

The blades fall, throwing a blur of blood-red movement through the shadows.

NO!!

And, with a gut-wrenching spasm, I wake up from the nightmare — grey eyes going wide, grey-skinned body bucking hard against the Embrace of Pain, straining against the sharp tongues of muscle-cord lashed tight around my naked limbs.

Screaming.

My body is strung taut between the limbs of the Embrace of Pain, balanced between the irresistible draw of gravity and the upthrust of the rack-booms. I tense and tug against the straps, and feel the pleasant stretch of bone and muscle through my body.

I enjoy this.

I let my chin drop against my chest, and take several slow, smooth breaths, rolling my wrists forward, curling my feet back — making the Embrace rack me tighter, making lightning-burns of effort sear through my outflung limbs.

"Huh?" I ask.

Didn't I used to be Anakin Solo?

Blood drips onto the deck from the sutured scar which laces up my body.

"Anakin?" Niia Phaath asks me.

I don't answer. My breath grows hot, but I fight to keep it smooth and level.

A grin drifts across my lips. I feel the stitches twist and twitch on the zig-zag seam that holds my face in place.

"Anakin?" she asks again, in concern.

"That name no longer has any meaning for me," I growl back, looking up at her, eyes cold as grey cometary ice. "Anakin is is dead."

I relent, grinning as she steps back. She flushes, but then smiles shyly.

"Belek tiu," she says, folding her arms over her face in salute. "My apologies, honoured one."

"It's okay," I say, and smile — then frown, as I remember, and the shaping. The fact that none of this is real.

Yal Phaath was right.

I look down, seeing my tough, grey-blue skin, the livid, new-stitched scar that runs the length of me. I feel a surge of warrior pride in my chest, a heave of heady, muscular satisfaction at the sight of me.

This is who I was born to be, I think.

I hear Niia click her crab-shelled fingers, and catch a flash of movement behind her. I lift my head, and watch as a slave-creature waddles over, carrying a full-length mirror.

I look into the mirror, and a Yuuzhan Vong warrior looks back at me, spread between the spars of the Embrace of Pain. Kunra is tall, taller than I ever was — as tall as a Yuuzhan Vong should be, as tall as Darth Vader.

My grey eyes narrow slightly. I remember my dream.

I smile.

With a warrior's narrowed eyes, I trace the line of the scar up my naked body, from the hook around my knee up to the top of my bald scalp. My hair hasn't grown in yet, and I suppose that helps. Being raised as an infidel, my skull hasn't been shaped elegantly in early childhood — or if it was, they rebuilt it when they rebuilt my brain inside it.

But the baldness, and the curve of the scar hooking up to the top of my scalp, make it seem as though it's taller, more Yuuzhan Vong than it really is.

Yeah, I don't think I look too bad. I experiment with facial expressions, seeing how the zig-zag scar tugs in different directions.

I like what I see.

Who'd have thought I'd scrub up so well?

I chuckle.

"What ...," I gasp. "What did you just ... do to me!?" Then I blink, and shake my head in disbelief. "Never mind. Thank you."

Niia blushes.

"I trust that everything is as you would wish it, honoured one?" another voice intrudes — Yal Phaath. It feels odd for him to be showing me deference, but I'll get used to it.

"Yeah," I concede. "Thanks."

I glance up at my wrists, feeling stabs of pain as the apparatus draws me tighter. But I already know how to unfasten myself from this thing. It feels like I've done it before.

Fighting down the pain and the gasp that comes with it, I flex against the tug on my limbs, making the straps draw even tighter. There's a point that an Embrace of Pain will break even a Yuuzhan Vong body — even one as supple and powerfully-built as my own.

The apparatus snaps open, and flings me to the deck like a living slingshot. I twist in mid-air, and land in a perfect warrior's crouch — shin, foot, forearm, hand.

Good to know that Kunra's body knows what it's doing.

I rise, grinning, to face Master Shaper Yal Phaath and Adept Niia Phaath. I laugh in gratitude, snap my fists to my shoulders in salute, and flash a smile.

"Thank you!" I bark, as my grin tugs my keel-scar into a handsome snarl.

Her cheeks darken. My grin grows.

I think I'm going to enjoy this.



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