Once A Warrior, Part III Rating: PG
ThrawnMcEwok

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.v “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.”

* * * * *

The light of our torches dances in the darkness of a dead world.

Around us, the flames glance off canyon walls and cavern vaults — dark, shiny and sap-smooth. Sometimes, the dark waters of a lurr canal wink back at us from the distance, or the torchlight catches a fleeting glimpse of living things that pulse and writhe in the darkness, twisted and distended in their niches amid the shadows.

Around us, the foundations of the Yuuzhan Vong city grip into the planet, crushing the remains of the mid-level city into baulks of rubble, as cold and impenetrable and unseen as solid bedrock. Occasionally, though, you can still see a jagged fragment of metal embedded in the living flesh of Yuuzhan’tar — and in most of these shards of sharp-edged wreckage, an imaginative mind can still find some engimatic suggestion of what they once were.

My favourites are the relay pods where passing zealots have torn off the access pannels and left the fragile circuitry underneath untouched. I know of two that still have intact interface patches, and three with the glowing diodes of functioning powersources — emergency batteries that might run for centuries, while the local processors wait patiently and quietly for a service droid to come along.

Sometimes, a broken bulkead carries a broken inscription. G14. Service. Under Me. A capital esk that looks as if it was likely once part of a longer inscription. But I cannot complete these phrases. The wider pattern in which they once had meaning seems lost forever.

At an intersection in the cargo-tunnel system, a proud inscription reading ’nsboro- is still visible in high relief beneath a veneer of dark coral. It might have once been a hoverrail depot. Further on, a neat white circle reminds me of the logo of a popular party-food manufacturer, suggesting that one of their factories once stood nearby. To complete the illusion, the glyphs of the company name have been daubed on the upper arch of the circle.

The graffiti artist has even signed his work — Phlebas, with a date well after the fall.

But these may only be misreadings. These fragments look like shrapnel; keepsakes of a lover’s conquests, tucked away under scarred skin; or waste in the digestive tract of a monster that has snacked on a star cruiser. I wonder if there will come a time when people no longer even recognize them for what they are — the last remnants of the three-dimensional world-map of durasteel and ferrocrete that we used to call Coruscant.

I am one of the few now who can read the fragmented texts, and I read without any real understanding.

None of my companions spares them so much as a glance.

Unlike them, I suppose, the fragments have acquired personal meaning for me, fixed in their new contexts. I saw this world transformed with my own eyes. I even helped out, did my bit - when we first shifted our base to this sector, I worked undercover as a labourer for a klekket and a half, helping to shape the atmosphere-filtration systems beneath the Western Sea.

But even here, where the Yuuzhan Vong have chosen to retain the existing features of Coruscant’s geography and infrastructure, there was no question of hauling out the rusted remains of the planetary iron lung and simply sliding the new in place.

Instead, the lurrs, aerolungs and filter-tracts were physically rammed through the remains of the old machinery. The crushed wreckage was roughly shoved aside, impacted into the surrounding rubble, and sealed behind thick revettments of seeded earth and solid walls of yorik coral.

For a race whose warriors rent a Galaxy asunder in a little under twenty months, the rapid reshaping of a single planet is hardly a daunting task.

But if you go deep enough — perhaps two miles below the surface — you enter another world. A maze of iron chambers that seem like empty tombs — silent and stark, walls gleaming with icy sweat. In these empty spaces, the air tastes cold, and clear and pure.

Sometimes, the passages of the labyrinth are so narrow that the walls brush your shoulders. Sometimes, you feel as though you are walking through the chambers of an abandonned home, though there is no hint in these bare rooms of any comfort or amenity. And sometimes, you step unexpectedly into a cathedral crypt amid the catacombs.

The largest of these spaces are so vast that the light of a thousand worshiping torches would reveal only a vault of intangible darkness overhead, as black and empty as the Void beyond the galaxies, the mysterious emptiness which haunts the earliest childhood memories of every Yuuzhan Vong — myself included.

Here, if anywhere, the spirit of Coruscant - her ghost, her soul - survives. In this surreal, empty city, created by long-dead builders, for purposes that we can now only guess at.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Rust, of one sort or another, tarnishes almost every surface, and the air is hushed and heavy with moisture, stilling the rumours of our footsteps, breaths and heartbeats.

But still, there is life here.

We are here.

Every so often, a casual flame reaches down the charred stump one of our glowcane brands, and takes hold of a new splinter. The dired fibre and hardened sap burst into green flame — breaking the silence, igniting the night, and sending electric shivers thrilling up my spine.

Sparks leap into the black void like dying stars.

There are four of us, making our way downwards, through this chaos of warped life and buckled metal, picking our way through knotted diaphragms of splintered steel and striding along smooth tunnels of cold-moulded root-resin. Sometimes, I think of this encounter of muscular biology with cold metal as a mating, sometimes as an argument or a wrestling-match — sometimes, as a struggle to the death.

Sometimes, I just see it as another pointless campaign in a Galaxy-sundering war with no winners.

Of the four of us, two know this world now as Yuuzhan’tar.

To the other two, it is still Coruscant.

Two are Jedi. Two are Yuuzhan Vong.

Nom Anor leads the way, in his disguise as the Prophet of the Jeedai heresy — not simply a matter of robes and a masquer, but a character conjoured from the supple cadences in his voice, and the fluid dignity with which he moves. It is a powerful performance, a pleasure to watch.

Tahiri follows him like a prowling vornskr, sometimes almost alongside him, sometimes lagging just behind. She is talking to him, or trying to. Her broken, jagged phrases are like whispered knives for him to parry — deftly probing for weakness, and being just as deftly turned aside.

Oddly, neither of them are enjoying this.

Corran Horn comes next — cloaked in wary silence, his cowl pulled forward over his face. He seems more withdrawn than I remember, far more cautious and careful. I suspect that he is acutely aware of how dependant he is on Tahiri as his interpreter — and of how little he understands her now, either.

But, although he’d never admit it, he is enjoying this.

I take up the rear, following like a shadow thrown behind the party by their torches.

Once, in another life, I was a Jedi Knight. More recently, I have served as a warrior in Warmaster Tsavong Lah’s personal guard. And now, I am Nom Anor’s senior lieutenant — commissar and confidante, committed and disloyal in equal measure.

It’s what friends are for, I suppose.

I have no illusions about exactly what Nom Anor is hoping to achieve with his masquerade. Over the past few months, I have come to realise that the man behind the mask has a genuine affection for Yuuzhan Vong orthodoxy, far deeper and richer than the loyalty they tried to burn into my brain in the damutek at Myrkr — far more real. It may have taken exile for the Executor to realise this truth about himself, and he may be trying to claw his way back to the reassuring embrace of the crèche-whore we call the True Way through heresy and revolution, but he has no further ambition than the green robe and turban of a second-rank Intendant, a comfortable appartment near the Palace with an antique Embrace of Pain and an hand-woven thorn seat.

I am the only member of the movement who knows his true identity, but I am content that he knows me only as Kunra — coward, traitor, heretic. A failed warrior, motivated by shame and something which he can’t quite put his finger on.

I figure that part of the reason he keeps me around is that he hasn’t figured me out yet. I can’t explain it much better myself, either — though I think his evaluation of Kunra maybe cuts closer to the truth than most people realise.

“Recoginze them?” he asked me, about an hour ago - crouched beside me in the shadows like a co-conspirator. Below us, two cloaked figures, pacing irritably at the rendezvous, frowning at the bioengineered plantlife clinging to the bare metal walls — one male, the other female, hoods pulled low.

Two Jeedai.

I offer him a blank look, a broad-shouldered shrug. He smiles in answer, mocking me.

“Corran Horn,” Nom Anor whispers. “The hero of Ithor — I’ve told you about him, haven’t I? And Tahiri Veila.”The broken smile grows wide. “You’ve heard of her, I’m sure.”

I allow my eyes to go wide, and my jaw drops, my gaze switching from Nom Anor’s amused smile to the Jedi standing in the junction and back again.

“The One-who-was-shaped?!”

I’m not nearly as good an actor as he is, but my hamming seems to give most people an impression of basic guilelessness.

I guess there’s a certain sort of logic to that, if you think about it.

Niirit once told me that you can still catch a flash of blue in my eyes in certain lights, especially in moments like this.

Then, I collect my scattered wits, set my jaw and narrow my eyes. I look at the Jeedai, weighing them up. Hiding my treacherous thoughts behind a warrior’s professional appraisal of a potential combat situation.

To be fair, my thoughts as I look at them don’t amount to much more than an unquenched hunger for the ex-girlfriend I haven’t seen in almost a year. It feels a little like I imagine a Force-choke must. I hear the breath glide between my teeth, and I want to whisper her name.

Riina.

I pause, reconsidering that. It’s all too easy for Kunra to think of Tahiri in those terms — she’s his Yuuzhan Vong crèche-sister, after all; it is the Jeedai who stole us, who shaped us, and who gave us false memories and new names.

I am the one who has come home.

But the knowledge lurks in the back of my mind that something isn’t quite right with this idea.

So, I bundle up what little courage I can find inside myself, and step out of the shadows.

My heart hammers against my ribs, like a caged prisoner. My breath catches in my throat.

Tahiri spins, almost as though she sensed me in the Force, and her lightsaber flashes alive in her hands.

Jeedai,” I say, and feign surprise.

Then she sees me, and she relaxes her guard.

For about three second, everything goes fine.

It’s perhaps not all that surprising that Corran and Tahiri don’t recognize me. But all the same, it’s a minor miracle that I manage to avoid saying anything that gives myself away.

I see Tahiri’s eyes narrow as she looks at me, and I begin to smile.

I know that look.

Then, with the sudden speed of an assassin, she drops into Yuuzhan Vong. It feels like a punch in the guts, and the unexpected kiss of a blade on my throat.

“One-who-was-shaped!” I gasp.

This new Tahiri scares me. Thrills me.

After what they did to her at Yavin, she used to be able to slip into the language at the switch of a synapse — but this is different. Now, she slides herself right into the attitude, into the mindset — as cleanly as a couffee into naked flesh.

She isn’t just speaking the language — she’s become a Yuuzhan Vong, in a way that I don’t know I ever have.

Or maybe it’s exactly the same. Maybe I’m just in denial — but then again, if I am in denial, that’s a difference, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Either way, I panicked.

I started babbling.

I started talking to Corran.

And that was stupid.

Tahiri, I might have been expected to recognize — after all, how many Jeedai are fluent in Yuuzhan Vong? How many have a Shaper’s caste-scars on their forehead?

How many are ... well, Tahiri?

How many have they mistaken for religious saviours?

Well, yeah. I don’t count. I’m dead, okay.

But Corran Horn?!

Sure, there are rumours about what he did to Shedao Shai at Ithor, but to the average Yuuzhan Vong, Corran is just another infidel with a lightsaber, and he’s changed his appearance a lot in the past three years. He’s bulked up a bit, he’s let his beard and hair grow bushier, earned some more steel in the dark curls, and he carries himself very differently.

Three years ago, he normally wore the traditional green robes of his Halcyon ancestors, Corellia’s Jedi guardians for as long as anyone can remember. Now, it’s an old combat jumpsuit under a dirty brown cloak.

In other words, he looks, and acts, nothing like ‘the slayer of Shedao Shai’.

In other words, I just gave myself away.

Maybe it was something in my unconscious mind screaming for help — whatever’s left of the straight-edged human being I used to be, most likely.

Whatever’s left of Anakin Solo.

Thankfully, people seem to have this trouble seeing me for who I really am.

I flail helplessly for a few moments more, until Nom Anor steps in and saves me from the wrath of my ex-girlfriend. Obviously, he doesn’t realise why I’m fumbling this — and perhaps that’s less important than I think it is. He just does the right thing, for all the wrong reasons.

He does that more than he realises, you know?

Somehow, we muddle through — it probably helps that I shut up and stay quiet, brooding on my own incompetence — and once Nom Anor has sweet-talked them into accepting us as who we say we are, we set off down into the catacombs.

And now, here we are.

Nom Anor is leading Tahiri and Corran deeper into the darkness, all three of them probably wondering why we’re not trying to kill each other. And I’m bringing up the rear, hovering on the velvet edge of the shadows that fold behind us as we move.

It’s easier that way.

I shrug that thought off, and walk on into the embracing silence.

Corran turns and glances back at me, his smile thin and sharp in the torchlight.

I nod in answer, and I realise that, for the past fifteen minutes, I’ve been silently weighing him up as a potential opponent, a potential adversary. No doubt he’s been returning the compliment.

Perhaps it’s just as well that they don’t recognize me any more.

Perhaps it’s no surprise.

To take my mind off who I have become, I try to remember exactly when I learned to think this way, when I ceased to be the person I still think of as ‘me’. For a moment, it strikes me as an odd way to take my mind off what’s happened to me.

Then I remember, and I have to flatten my old grin into a thin smirk in the darkness again.

Corran smiles back, but he does not recognize me. It’s a sort of human contact, but it doesn’t mean he can read my thoughts.

Being Yuuzhan Vong has some advantages, I suppose.

But it’s ironic.

Evaluate constantly, I remember her saying to me. The more information you collect before shove comes to shake, the more choices you’ll have, and the fewer ways your enemy might surprise you.

My smile grows, like a blade sliding from the sheath.

See, it was Aunt Mara who taught me to think this way, back when I was Anakin Solo and this was Coruscant.

It was supposed to make me a better Jedi Knight.



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