Once A Warrior, Part II Rating: PG
ThrawnMcEwok

We sit either side of the campfire, looking at each other over the hot coals.

I’m not quite sure why I agreed to stay for supper. Why I let him talk me into it.

But here we are.

I look around me, at the space he has cleared in the city-choking jungle. It seems comfortable, like a home.

Little things stand out.

The hunter's hearth, carefully made from duracrete rubble.

A meat-eating jawplant — sacred to the Lovers, according to the Yuuzhan Vong; growing here in a blue plast wastebin in the walkthrough to the kitchen, the twin-lobed trapleaf surrounded by a thick ruff of dark-green foliage.

The marble meat-board, one corner smashed, the smooth cutting-surface hatched with scars. A warrior's bone knife rests on the slab, beside a neat little pile of animal guts and the remains of a wire snare.

Veined, fibrous smudges of moss and rot, scarring the glass panes of the expensive family holos on the wall.

Wax candles on the mantelpiece over the hearth. A crude, improvised grate on the blackened flagstones where the showpiece stove used to be. A pile of chopped wood on some sheets of pulped-bark matting, and a robust old electro-spark lighter.

Thick vines frame the windows at this end of the room, sinewy shoots forcing their way through the surround, broad leaves dappling the sunlight.

Then, finally, I look at him.

“You’re taking this remarkably well,” Anakin remarks, lifting one eyebrow in a lopsided expression, poking the coals around his cooking-pot with a charred stick.

“You not being dead?” I ask. “Or you being Yuuzhan Vong?”

“Either?” he shrugs, pulling a face. When he does that sort of thing, I can still recognize the boy I used to know beneath the scars and shaping. He’s just grown up a bit, is all.

Beneath the scars, his face is still surprisingly human. His hair is longer and darker, but no less unruly, and it hides the shape of his skull. He has the broken nose of a prizefighter, crushed without the artful asymmetry that the Yuuzhan Vong value so highly. To a real Yuuzhan Vong, he probably looks handsome in the way some ugly people do.

The smile helps, of course. Always did.

“So,” I say. “You, um ...?”

“Yeah,” he nods. “I guess. You?”

“Yeah, everyone’s fine. Your Mom and Dad miss you, you know.”

“I miss them too. Tell them, um. And Jace? Jaya?”

“They’ve not changed.”

We both smile at that.

“Nor have you,” we say, simultaneously. By now, the distinction between the boy he used to be and the warrior he is now has blurred, and he’s just Anakin again.

“The, ah, Vong thing ... suits you, by the way.”

“Thought you’d like it. Warrior chic. Meant to be all the rage in Alliance space.”

“Fashion. Guess that’s a sign that things are getting back to normal.”

“Don’t you believe it. Warrior chic. My sources tell me that death and glory are the new peace and justice. Biggest long-term attitude-shift since khaki went out at the end of the Civil War.”

For a moment, we look at each other, grins creeping across our faces.

“Don’t tell me that I started this,” he says, crumpling, and holding his head in his hands, impersonating despair. Then he looks up. “Don’t you dare.”

And then he falls silent again.

I cock my head to one side, and I watch him turn the meat on the skewers. Something in the way he moves seems deliberate, strangely engineered. He wears his new identity like armour. His skin is grey and tough, hatched with scars, his body modified with the usual suite of warrior implants — most obviously, little curving horns on his shoulders, a subaltern’s insignia.

I wonder why I can look at him so calmly.

I’ve grown used to scars, of course. My own, and those of others; the ones you can see, and the ones you try to hide. After everything that’s happened to me, scars don’t scare me.

I don’t scare easily, mind you. Never did.

So I follow the long scar that runs down from his hairline, zig-zagging inwards across his cheek, nicking the corner of his upper lip in the Yuuzhan Vong equivalent of a lopsided grin. The scar slashes across his chin, almost straight, then cuts back and forth up to the corner of his eye, before dropping down the side of his neck and switching sharp across his throat to where it disappears down the collar of his tunic.

The puckered welt shines red and blue against his horizon-grey skin, serving as a keel-line for the unfinished pattern of brands and tattoos that cuts across his face in sworls and switchbacks. Like the scar itself, the tattoos vary in colour, from burgundy through scarlet, through indigo to blue-grey.

I look at the scar that slices across the inside of his right calf — paler, greyer, except where the end hooks around his kneecap in a livid curl. My eyes cut back up to where it emerges from under his kilt, and then I raise my head, and I look at where the scar disappears down the collar of his tunic. Then up at his face.

Anakin grins at me, and pulls open his lapels, showing me how the scar cuts onwards down his torso, sidewinding across his chest and stomach in broad switchbacks.

I look back to the scar on his leg, then to where the scar disappears behind his waistband.

Ah.

It’s the same scar, I realise.

And it’s not a scar. It’s a seam.

Where they sewed his skin on.

Now that starts to explain things. Growth hormones for the height, maybe — how tall was Vader before they put him in the armour, anyway? — and a new skin sewn on. Simple, effective.

Instant Yuuzhan Vong.

I look up, into his eyes, and see him looking back at me. Anakin’s eyes used to be bright blue, gleaming with life and laughter — like water in a mountain stream, or a summer sky. Now, his eyes are grey, glinting like steel.

New eyes.

I shy away from that thought, what it implies.

He should be human. That’s easy to explain. Grimace-inducing as it is, his shaping has probably been quite superficial.

He should be dead. That, I hope, he has some answer to.

And he should have at least some presence in the Force.

“It must have hurt,” I say, then we both smile, as we realise.

We’re talking in Yuuzhan Vong — thinking in Yuuzhan Vong, inasmuch as our conscious thoughts are being assembled by the alien implants inside our skulls, clever little processors grown from organiform circuitry. The implants make this language as natural and instinctive as walking or sitting on the ’fresher. Most likely, we share identical semantic and semiotic programming.

Perhaps that’s why all this seems so easy.

And that, of course, means that Anakin’s shaping is more than skin deep.

Like me, he has a shard of something Yuuzhan Vong lodged in his skull, an alien parasite hooked into his brain with synaptic claws, gripping so tight that it has become part of him — human being and Yuuzhan Vong programming grafted together in a seamless whole, a single consciousness.

What does that mean, though? Take me, for instance. My own identity, my sense of self. I don’t feel any less like me because something shaped in a damutek has been insinuated inside my own brain.

I guess it’s just a sort of organic machine — now sure, cyborging isn’t exactly going to make the ‘This Month’s Style’ column in Coru, but there’s no stigma attached. Happens to everyone, from Jedi Masters to Tusken Raiders.

And then I smile, as I realise that the thought has been inflected — infected — by the implant itself, by unconscious negotiation with the Yuuzhan Vong attitude to machinery. The implant makes me more than a little bit alien — and, paradoxically, precisely because there’s no trace of where the old me — the real me? — ended and the new ‘me’ begins, it also makes it seem that bit more normal to have the implant in there in the first place.

It distracts me from who I’m meant to be, from Jedi and the Force. It makes it a little less odd that this Yuuzhan Vong warrior is the Anakin Solo that I’ve known since he was a little boy — known so well, for so long, and, more recently, so intimately.

I look at Anakin, and narrow my eyes slightly.

“You hear the Dreadnaughts won?” I say, pronouncing the name of Corellia’s shockball team carefully. It takes an almost-conscious effort, requiring a sort of triplethink to ensure that I don’t come out with something patriotic about Yuuzhan Vong battleships ...

Vorung Uro-ik V’alh urro-tui?

“I heard,” he answers, nodding to the holoproj in the room behind me. I remember glancing at it as I came in — so domestic, so ordinary that I didn’t even notice, except to tamp down the distaste felt by the Yuuzhan Vong in me. “Saw the match.”

Anakin has a faint smile on his face, as if amused by the absurdity of it all. I look at him, and I smile back. It’s hard not to.

He always had a knack with machinery. He could put working devices back together again out of broken wreckage, and sometimes, he’d take apart equipment that any sane person would have regarded as wrecked — but only so that he could put it all together again some other way, and make it do things you’d never have thought possible.

It was as though he’d acquired everything his father, his uncle, and Chewbacca knew about fixing and finessing. I remember the months aboard the Errant Venture, and at Eclipse. Making malfunctions a little more bearable was his way of relaxing between training sessions and Jedi meetings.

Me? I just liked watching him work.

But that rueful smile is an acknowledgement that he’s Yuuzhan Vong now — real Yuuzhan Vong, not just a human being with an implant inside her skull. And most Yuuzhan Vong wouldn’t know what to do with a broken holoproj, except smash it up and throw the wreckage out the window in a blind rage.

Even for me, the idea is strangely tempting.

And above the smile, his grey eyes are solemn, with only the slightest silent hint of mischevious humour. Improvising a receiving array and a power supply, and finessing a shadowed uplink into the WEGSport transmission grid — and then sitting down to watch a shockball match? For a Yuuzhan Vong warrior, even thinking about that will put you up against some serious, hard-wired cultural programming.

Quite.

I think of some of the things I have done in the war, and I wonder what sort of ambivalence that simple action asked of him. Did it require him to be reconciled with who he once was, or who he has become?

I wrinkle my nose.

“You’re burning our supper,” I say.

Talking helps, especially in Yuuzhan Vong.

It distracts me from the fact that, where Anakin Solo should be in the Force, there is ...

... nothing at all.

Not even the hateful, gnawing void that the Yuuzhan Vong normally register as. I can feel the lucid shimmer of life, but there’s nothing to tell my Force-perceptions that there’s anything more complex than dust, smoke and breath on the air, still less a human being — still less a man I used to know with the intimacy of a lover.

I realise that I’ve lapsed back into Basic — thinking like a Jedi again. So I let the symbiote inside my skull shape my thoughts into alien patterns again. It helps sharpen my focus, my perception of the Yuuzhan Vong — but that doesn’t work, either.

I look at him.

I blink.

“How do I feel in the Force?” he asks, looking directly at me. His eyes are hard and grey and flat, like facets of knapped flint or plates of finished durasteel, and the light in them glances off the surface. But I still have a sense that they communicate more than I realise.

Then again, maybe I don’t need to read anything in his eyes. Maybe he just has to look into my eyes, and read what he sees there.

It feels like he’s reading my thoughts.

Which, of course, he can’t have done.

How do I feel in the Force? he just asked.

Nii-zhai, I think. You don’t. You aren’t there.

“I felt you die,” I say instead, looking at him. For a moment, I remember the raw, howling agony that was the last thing any of us felt from him in the Force. Like a sudden, savage rent in the fabric of the universe.

Now that felt like a Yuuzhan Vong.

He manages a thin smile. For once, it makes him look like his mother.

“Perhaps what you felt was just something that happened to me in the Force,” he says, “Like what happened to the rest of ... to the Yuuzhan Vong. Perhaps it’s not quite the same thing as ... as dying.”

He pauses. We look at each other. For a moment, I see the glow of the fire reflected in his grey eyes, like struck sparks.

“Then again, I’m pretty sure that I was dead for a while, anyway.”

He lets me digest that for a moment, turning over the skewered meat on its spit again. A carcass. Limbs ending in protruding bones where the claws have been amputated. A shell of skin stretched taut over the fragile architecture of ribs and breastbone, covering the collapsed cavern of a gutted belly.

“Is this some sort of warrior thing?” I hear myself ask, wrinkling my nose. Changing the subject. In the pause in the conversation, he’s moved the skewered meat off the fire, laying it on the flattish top of one of the blocks that forms the edge of the hearth.

“Nahh,” he grins, rubbing the hook of scar-tissue around his knee — slightly self-consciously, but it’s a surprisingly relaxed gesture, considering. And suddenly, we’re back in Basic again. “Hawk-Bat au Solo. Speciality of the house. Want some?”

*****

I look at her, seeing her bite. She holds the ends of her skewer carefully between the pads of her thumbs and forefingers, but there’s something savage, carnivorous, and rather wonderful in the way she strips the meat with her teeth.

I like that, the paradoxical combination of cultured elegance and animal grace, all at once carefully balanced and entirely natural, and more than either.

She chews, experimentally, then nods.

“Eaten worse,” she says, reaching for the wine. “Your cooking’s improved.”

I smile back at her, and take a bite of my own drumstick. The meat doesn’t taste bad once you loose the automatic gag-reaction, and the sauce and the salt crust, improvised from stuff that survived in the back of the kitchen cupboard, helps disguise the fact it’s hawk-bat.

Then again, my breakfast consisted of three raw granite slugs. Good protein source and a nice mineral taste. They wash down well with some of the Corellian ale that survived from Dad’s supplies.

“How did you find me?” I ask. I have questions, too.

“Corran,” she says, smiling. "He thought there was something a little ... odd about you."

“Yeah,” I grin, remembering. “I was funking myself.”



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