Once A Warrior, Part VIII Rating: R

Master Shaper Yal Phaath looks at the corpse laid on the surgical bed in the centre of the damutek. The young Jeedai Anakin Solo lies dead in his slashed jumpsuit, his body bloodied and gashed, the last residual haze of heat and chemical energy dissipating from his cooling skin, visible like a heat-haze to the sensitive irises of his eye-implants.

The infidels say that the dead look peaceful, but, inasmuch as Yal Phaath has learnt to read infidel body-language, Anakin Solo's face seems expressionless. Blank.

Oddly, he doesn't look dead, though no scan — Yuuzhan Vong, infidel, or even Jeedai — will find life in his body now; at least, no more than a faint flicker, not enough to coax back into a flame.

Smiling slightly, the Master Shaper turns to examine the manikin of blood and muscle suspended in the damutek's main vivarium.

The skinned stumps of disarticulated limbs twist round the struts of the armature, held in place by by sharp-toothed claws biting deep into the bloody meat of biceps and thighs. Naked muscle and bone is clothed only in coils of pulsing cable-vines, pumping dark, saturated plasma through catheter quills and into throbbing veins and arteries.

The torso is even more of a mess, flaps of muscle trimmed and pinned back to reveal the splintered spears of the phalanx of broken ribs guarding exposed heart and lungs — the only major organs that can be called intact — and even they rise and fall to the rhythm of the apparatus, wrapped in grafts of prosthetic muscle-tissue, woven round them by the spider-limbed symbiotes which have now shifted their attention to the gutted belly.

The limb spiders are working with the delicacy of angels, gradually untangling and removing the messy wreckage of the digestive tract, carefully working around the rows of spinerays stabbing up and in to slide their quills between vertebrae and interface with the neural tissue of the spinal cord. Behind the body's shoulders, a further cluster of long probes fans out from the upper back and neck, like the flaring crest of some alien creature.

The head hangs heavily against the exposed bone of the sternum. There is nothing recognizable as a face any more, just gashed muscle over bare bone.

To look at, this grotesque display of bloody meat and broken bone seems dead — at best, a parody of life. Small insects buzz around the apparatus, like carrion flies around a corpse. Indeed, that is what their ancestors were, before the shaping of their species by the Yuuzhan Vong.

Yal Phaath glances back at the body on the slab.

It is hard to imagine that the body parts in the vivarium can still be defined as 'Anakin Solo'. They certainly no longer constitute a human body. Grafts and symbiotes have blurred the bioelectric boundaries between what was once Anakin's flesh and the hive of the vivarium, and viral RNA is already at work, transforming his remains on the cellular level, knitting the genetic sutures tight — so even if Yal Phaath accept the idea of a fundamental unity between the cuts of human tissue wired into the armature, he feels that it would be misleading to think of the aggregate of organs, bones and muscle-groups as a separate creature any more. As to whether there is any true continuity of consciousness, the Master Shaper is unsure.

Then again, the same is true every time a creature falls asleep.

What matters is that something that was once Anakin Solo lives, the blood-soaked muscles of his throat rippling with every savage breath. Within the crucible of his skull, at least some of Anakin's memories and attitudes will have been preserved.

That he lives at all is due more to Yuuzhan Vong bioscience and the skill of the shaping team than any will or physical strength. Anakin was dead when his body was brought in, and in his current state, death would follow with the speed of a tropical night were it not for the biotechnology which sustains life in what is left of him.

But still, he lives.

Yal Phaath turns away from the thing in the vivarium, and looks at the corpse on the slab. To all intents, this appears to be Anakin Solo — a human being, a dead body. Yal Phaath is unsure whether he has harvested viable tissue from a corpse, or created a remarkably convincing illusion of death, and kept Anakin alive after all.

It is a strange thing, life.

Master Shaper Yal Phaath sees the chimes beside the portal shiver. He glances at the body on the slab, and smiles — though in part, he realises, the smile is for the sightless, mindless thing in the vivarium behind him, that cannot see it.

He turns, still smiling, and with a calm, firm gesture, embodying all the strength of his species' superior genetic heritage, all the dignity of his long centuries of experience, he brushes the subtle fingers of his Master's Hand over the fronds of the control villip, and watches the membrane darken and fold shut, obscuring the living things locked inside.

"Sleep well, Jeedai Solo," he hears himself say.

He turns again, and watches Niia usher the visitors into his damutek.

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