The sudden question interrupted the quiet beeping of the life support equipment in the small room deep inside the Dubrillion military hospital. Jacen looked up to see his sister walk in and immediately jumped up to give her a hug. "She's still in a coma," he finally said, gesturing to Tenel Ka's bed, where she was hooked up to life support equipment. "They managed to make an antidote for the venom, but they told me they're not sure how far the extent of the damage is. Apparently it's a really horrible cocktail, the cytotoxin is the fastest-acting component of it, but it also functions as a neurotoxin. They're worried it may have caused brain damage. I guess we were lucky we didn't get exposed to more of it on Belkadan."
"That's horrible," Jaina said, reaching up to touch her eyepatch at the memory. "How's her arm?"
Jacen sat down and shook his head. "She's going to kill me when she wakes up, I just know it," he said. "At least this time her lightsaber's still intact, but..." He trailed off, his voice hitching. "She took such a large dose that in the time it took me to get her to the ship and put the arm in stasis, the muscle had already started breaking down. They told me the only option is prosthetics, but I still remember her reaction the last time someone tried to put prosthetics on her."
"Wait, when was that?"
"Come on, sis, you've known her as long as I have. Whose fault was it she lost her right arm in the first place?"
He nodded. "So afterward Ta'a Chume tried to force her to get a prosthetic installed. As soon as it made contact, she panicked and sent the arm flying."
Jacen nodded. "I told the doctors that decision would have to be up to her when she wakes up. It's only fair."
Jaina put her hand on her brother's shoulder. "Jacen, look, at least you made the right choice. If you hadn't done what you did, she might not even be alive right now. I'm sure she'll see that as more important than the fact you had to amputate her only good arm."
"I hope you're right," Jacen finally admitted, leaning back and resting his head against the wall. "So, I haven't seen you in a while. You never told me what happened on Jorrkona."
Jaina took a seat across the room and stretched. "Well, I guess I didn't tell you, but Lowie and I have been working at cleaning up the mess left over from the battle, ever since the sector fleet showed up and spooked the marauders."
"Praetorite Vong," Jacen muttered.
"One of the crab-armored warriors I fought on Dantooine, he said something about the 'might of the Praetorite Vong.' The way he said it, it sounded like the name of their empire or something."
"Huh," Jaina mused. "That could be useful. Anyway, when we reached Jorrkona everything was calm, but once we were in the middle of loading the transports the, uh... Preterit Vong?" She half-grimaced at forgetting the name already.
"Praetorite Vong," Jacen filled in.
"Right. I'm just going to call them the Vong, the other part takes too long to say. So, we were in the middle of loading the transports when the Vong arrived. We took pretty heavy casualties. I organized some of the local militia to hold them off while we tried to finish loading as many as possible."
"The same thing happened to us on our second trip from Dantooine," Jacen said. "But the locals weren't really armed or organized so Tenel Ka and I were the only ones fighting back."
Jaina shook her head. "It was a slaughter. Sure, we got a few, but they attacked with so much force it just overwhelmed us. We finally cut our losses and retreated, only to run into some warships in orbit. I think they followed us here, which is why you ran into the middle of the battle."
"So I take it the Lady Luck survived?"
"Yes," Jaina replied. "Took pretty heavy fire though. The hull plating is still scarred and pitted from all the molten rocks and plasma."
Jacen nodded. "Same here. So, are Mom and Dad still here?"
"Yes, and pretty badly shaken up, too. Lowie and I are going to go with them after we finish the cleanup and testify before the Senate. Sometime after that we're all planning on meeting up on Kashyyyk for Chewie's funeral. If Tenel Ka recovers by then, you should come too."
"I'm planning on it," Jacen said. They sat in silence for several minutes before Jaina got up. "Hey, would you mind coming with me for a while?"
Jacen looked across the room to where Tenel Ka lay, her unconscious form slowly rising and falling with every breath. The nurses had undone her braids and her hair, kinked and messy as it was, was was pulled back behind her head to keep it away from her arms. A feeding tube ran into her mouth, and fluids were dripping through IVs into her. She just looked peaceful, and Jacen didn't want to leave her in case she woke up...
Seeing the hesitation in his eyes, his sister took his hand. "Jacen, how long have you been inside this hospital, anyway?"
He shrugged. "Kind of lost track of time. Since they put her in this room, I guess?"
She sniffed the air. "Have you even showered? C'mon, Jace, you gotta take care of yourself too."
"What!" he objected, waving toward the refresher stall. "Of course I showered."
His voice got quiet. "Uh, after they moved her here..."
The flat stare on her face spoke volumes. "Yeah, that's not gonna fly. Tell you what. I'm going to go get you some clean clothes, and you're going to hit the refresher while I do that. Then we're going to get out of this place for a bit."
"But..." he protested, knowing full well it was in vain.
"No buts. The staff are more than capable of watching her for a couple hours without your supervision. Anyway, it'll do you good, you know I can't stand it when you're all mopey like this. You've practically been broadcasting your despair since I got here."
"But what if she wakes up and I'm not here?"
A not-terribly pleasant smile crept across Jaina's face. "Oh, is that how it is? It'll be so hard for me to not mention that to her when she does wake up. You know she'll never let you live it down, Jace. She's always hated being treated like a princess."
"Wh-" He spluttered. "No! I swear that's not what I meant. It's just that..."
"It's kind of obvious," Jaina said. "You're just living out that old nursery story Threepio used to tell us, the mildly creepy one with the sleeping princess." She fixed him with a serious look. "You haven't been taking any liberties with her, have you?"
"What!?" he half-shouted, shuddering. "No! Ew. I'd never."
"That's not a terribly convincing denial. Look, I'm just saying, you could have snuck in a kiss and nobody would ever know."
"Ugh! Not like that, that's just wrong. Who would want to do such a thing?" Then again, now that he thought about it, there probably were some people he wouldn't put it past. Now that he thought about it, his denials were probably giving his sister even more ammo... and there was that smirk. He facepalmed.
"Not even thought about it?"
"Well I have now, thank you very much." He shuddered again. "And now I'm worried that if I leave somebody else might have the same idea. Thanks a lot."
She punched him in the arm. "That's what the security droid outside is for, you dope. And come on, as the elder sister it's my sworn duty to embarrass you."
"Only by a couple minutes," he muttered in protest, but she continued anyway.
"You should've seen how red your face was."
"Yeah, yeah, yuk it up. I'm coming, all right? Don't you have some clothes to grab or something?"
She nodded. "Sure, I'll be right back." Then she winked at him. "Behave yourself, all right?"
He ducked into the refresher in lieu of making eye contact with his evil traitor of a sister. Now he was definitely going to need some cold water, and probably some meditation to get his stupid treacherous mind off the subject.
A short while later, washed and feeling much better, he was dressed in the clean flight suit that Jaina had brought out of the ship's stores. They'd grabbed a quick bite in the cafeteria, which was exactly as underwhelming as it had been all the other times he'd eaten there since arriving on Dubrillion. Now they were riding to the outskirts of the city in a hovertaxi that had definitely seen better days, going by the ratty state of the upholstery and the unidentifiable melange of smells gracing its interior.
"So where is it we're going, anyway?"
"Classified," Jaina promptly responded.
He rolled his eyes. "Seriously?" But the absence of a smirk on her face suggested that she was, in fact, serious. "Oh."
"I mean, I can't tell you what it is right now, but I can tell you that you're going to love it."
"That makes me feel so much better."
The hovertaxi pulled up outside what at first looked like an industrial park, going by the nondescript uniform blocks of prefab duracrete buildings. But the entire compound was surrounded by stresscrete walls and razor wire and the guards at the gate they were approaching looked a little too alert to be private security.
"Don't tell me," Jacen began to say as he stepped out of the taxi, "this is one of Lando's black ops sites."
Jaina, who was handing the driver a credit chit, groaned and got out herself. "You know what? That's entirely too plausible, so I'm going to forget you even suggested it. I don't wanna know."
"So what is it then?"
She waved him forward. "You'll see when we get inside."
They passed through the security checkpoint, where the guards waved some scanners over them. Jacen could tell that the guards were keeping an eye on the lightsabers attached to his and Jaina's belts, but they evidently chose not to say anything.
Another guard pulled up driving a hoversled, and Jaina stepped toward him. "Building 42-besh, please."
He nodded, and the sled pulled away a moment after they had both stepped on. A few minutes later, they pulled up in front of a large warehouse with more guards waiting inside the entrace. When they saw Jaina, they opened ranks to let them pass inside.
The lobby of the building had been converted into some kind of decontamination area. After Jaina showed them some kind of card, they were both handed disposable white coveralls to wear over their clothes, which they put on followed by shoe coverings, masks and gloves. Once they were fully attired, another guard gestured for them to pass through the doors at the far side of the room.
Jacen let out a low whistle when he saw what was inside. Chunks of volcanic-looking, rocky material were organized in neat rows. Further down, he could see stasis pods with what looked like bodies inside.
"DubSec has been using this to store and catalog some of the materials they captured after the attack," Jaina explained as they walked across the warehouse before coming to a curtain. She grabbed a hanging flap and pulled it back before gesturing to her brother to enter.
Inside, he found himself staring at what could have only been one of the Vong fighter-craft. It was more aerodynamic than Jacen had expected, its surface polished to an obsidian shine and sharpened or perhaps chipped into jagged leading edges. Where the cockpit should have been was a hole surrounded by chunks of translucent shards of iridescent crystal. Carts with tools and instruments were scattered seemingly haphazardly around the fighter as techs and scientists bustled about in a barely organized state of chaos.
"It crashed in one of the marshes outside the city," she continued, clearly excited. "It's in the best condition of any craft they've found so far, but nobody's come up with an explanation for how it works." She looked around for a moment. "Dr. Young?"
A short-cropped, gray-topped head popped up on the other side of the canopy. "Miss Solo? Ah." He stood up fully, brushing some dust and dirt off his white coveralls before walking around the craft. "This must be your brother?"
"Jacen Solo, sir," he replied, extending his hand which the doctor briefly shook.
"Pleasure to meet you. Your sister mentioned that you had a talent for understanding living organisms?"
"Yes?" Jacen replied, not quite understanding what that had to do with the fighter in front of him.
Dr. Young climbed up a short ladder, reached into the cockpit and after a moment's struggle pulled out a purplish bucket-shaped mass, attached by a pulsating umbilical cord of some sort to the fighter. "We were hoping you could help us with this."
Jacen blinked. "What."
"They're pretty sure the fighter is a living organism of some sort," Jaina unhelpfully clarified. "So I said you should take a look at it."
Jacen tentatively reached a hand out to touch it. It felt slightly warm, with a rubbery, leather-like texture. "May I?"
Dr. Young passed him the bundle, and he grunted as he took the full weight of the thing. "Damn. What the hell was this for, anyway?"
The doctor shrugged, stepping down. "We found the pilot wearing it over their head. As far as we can tell it has something to do with life support, since the aliens clearly breathe standard atmosphere. We fit a dummy head with sensors and feedback mechanisms and put it inside but there was no response to stimuli."
Jacen flipped it over, poking at the inside of the floppy mass. Unlike the exterior, the inside felt spongy and somewhat moist, and he rubbed his fingers together experimentally.
"It secretes a mucus compound, presumably to provide a seal against vacuum," Dr. Young explained. "Protein-stabilized aqueous compounds, with some remarkably effective broad-spectrum antimicrobials based on the tests we've conducted."
"What about the cockpit?" he asked. "Anything else inside?"
"Just this," Dr. Young replied. "My working assumption is that the hood also provides some kind of neural link to the fighter, but I haven't been able to find a volunteer willing to try it. For obvious reasons. There's also some sort of orifice in the seat which is presumably for the pilot's other biological needs, but again we haven't been able to test this."
Jacen snorted. "I can't imagine why." Curiosity getting the better of him, he climbed the ladder and stepped into the cockpit, taking care not to tear his coveralls on the jagged chunks of translucent mica at the edges of the canopy. Like the helmet, the seat felt like it was made of some kind of very spongy material, except that its surface felt much drier compared to the gooey inside of the hood.
He gingerly eased himself into the seat, feeling it compress somewhat to fit his form, and then looked at the hood again.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Jaina asked, and he looked up to see her and Dr. Young peering down at him from the entry ladder.
"Well, he said it doesn't respond to simulated stimuli, and nobody's volunteered to try it on, so..."
"Yeah, but what if it, I dunno, sucks your face off?"
He let out a laugh at the holovid absurdity of the comment. "Come on, the pilot was wearing it. Why would it hurt its pilot?"
"You're not the pilot," she pointed out. Huh. That was actually somewhat compelling.
"Eh, it's just a hood. What's the worst that could go wrong?"
Somehow both she and Dr. Young managed to deliver synchronized glares.
"I mean it's tied to that umbilical cord, so if anything happens just cut the cord with your lightsaber. Easy, right?"
"I'd prefer it if you didn't damage our only intact specimen," Dr. Young protested.
"Fine, just let it eat me then. I'll make sure I give it indigestion," Jacen joked, lifting the hood up.
"Hold on," Dr. Young interrupted. "I want to make sure the instruments are recording this." He disappeared down the ladder for a moment, returning with a thin wire cap that he placed over Jacen's head. "That'll let us get some readings on your brain activity while you're in it."
"Is that all?"
The doctor nodded, so Jacen lifted the hood again and carefully lowered it over his head. The sensation of the slime-covered membranes sliding down his face was one that he would have sooner forgotten, and he tried not to breathe as it went on. Once it was all the way over his head, the bottom tightened suddenly, and he had to keep himself from reflexively clawing it off. Everything was dark, and he couldn't breathe. Where was the air? He thought it was going to supply air, and that was clearly a mistake.
Dimly, as focused on holding his breath as he was, he became aware of something other than the blackness inside the hood. It was a strange feeling he couldn't properly describe, but there was a sense of mass, as if he could reach out and touch the core of the planet below him. In fact, he was suddenly sure he could touch it, so he reached out and gave it an experimental poke. The world suddenly shook.
He heard Jaina yelling outside, but the hood completely muffled whatever she was saying. He looked around to try and see her, instead feeling several smaller moving masses around him. Then the blackness started sparkling, and he wondered briefly if he had gone to space before the realization hit him: he needed oxygen.
As if responding to his sudden panic, the bottom of the hood unclenched, and he hurriedly pulled it off his head before greedily gulping the fresh air.
"Jacen!" Jaina shouted, appearing above him again. "What the hell happened?"
"There's no air under that hood," he said after he'd gotten his breath back. "It sealed around my neck and I couldn't breathe."
"I should have expected that," Dr. Young muttered from behind Jaina.
"No, besides that," Jaina replied in an irritated tone. "You did something and the whole ship rocked. What was that?"
"I don't know."
She sighed. "No shit. I mean, what did you do just before everything moved?"
He considered it. "I could feel everything. The planet, you, nearby objects. So I poked the biggest thing around."
Her eyebrows raised. "The ship bounced off the ground." Then her eyes widened. "That means-"
Dr. Young cut her off, apparently equally excited. "We know how their drive system works! Do you think you can do it again?"
"I, uh," Jacen hesitated, "I nearly suffocated. Sure that's a good idea?"
The scientist tapped his commlink. "I sent for a rebreather as soon as I realized what happened. Should be here any minute." He looked down and then thumbed the commlink on. "Bren, I think we've figured out what that crab-squid thing stuck in the pilot's throat was. Some sort of armored symbiotic breathing apparatus."
Jacen paled. "That sounds horrible."
"Not half as horrible as it looked," the researcher jokingly agreed.
True to his word, the mask arrived a few minutes later. Jacen wasted no time in fitting it over his nose and mouth before grasping the hood again.
"Vong starfighter neural interface test, attempt 37," Dr. Young narrated. "Subject is Jacen Solo, age 19, wearing rebreather and neural mesh. Begin test."
He slid the hood over again, forcing himself to continue breathing normally as it oozed over the rounded rebreather, fortunately without dislodging it. The mask also included a commlink, so he could communicate with them more easily this time around. "Hood is on," he reported, feeling it seal around his neck a moment later. "And sealed."
Once again, the sense of weight, of mass, came back to him. It felt strange in the way that tasting a color might feel, and he reported as much.
"Synaesthesia," Dr. Young mused a moment later. "It's not an uncommon side effect of neural links, especially when feeding additional sensory information to the brain. Now, do you think you can 'poke the planet,' as you said last time?"
"I might be able to do better than that," he replied after considering the request. "Let me try to hold it."
"Proceed when ready," Young replied.
Using his newfound sense, he reached out, but given the vast mass differential between him—or rather the fighter, it was getting hard to tell—and the planet, it was more like placing his feet under him and using his hands to balance as if he was learning how to walk. Probably an apt analogy, all things considered, and he said as much.
"The fighter just lifted off the deck," Dr. Young replied. "Wobbling a little, but holding steady at about a half meter. Can you move forward slightly?"
Jacen did so, at which point the scientist had him walk through all the cardinal directions before turning in a complete circle and setting the fighter back down.
"I think we have data to work with for now," Dr. Young finally said. "Go ahead and get out of there, we'll take care of tidying everything up."
He thought about taking the hood off, and somewhat to his surprise, the collar unsealed and he was able to pull it off with a wet slurp. He looked up to see his sister giggling, and ran his hand through his hair which was now completely covered in mucus. "Great. Looks like I'm in for another shower," he sighed, and then flicked some of the mucus on his hands at her.
She twitched backward in surprise, barely catching herself on the ladder's hand rail, and then glared at him as she wiped the flecks off her cheek. "Jerk."
"Hey, you're the one who brought me into this, I don't think you've got much room to complain here."
As his sister turned around with an irritated huff, he climbed out of the cockpit, trying to ignore the wet squelching noises it made every time he took a step inside it. She was standing at the bottom of the ladder when he got down, arms crossed and glaring.
"Don't even think about it," she warned.
"Think about what?" he replied.
"Getting any more of that stuff on me."
He reached up to touch his face. "It's already drying. Ugh. My face feels like it got dunked in icing, it's cracking every time I twitch."
They were silent as they went back through the warehouse, took off the coveralls in the entry area, and then got in the hovercar for the ride back. Finally, Jaina broke the silence. "Sorry I dragged you into that."
He shrugged. "It's fine. Not like I've had a lot of time to go cataloging xenobiology lately. That fighter did have a pretty cool control system, and it was alive. Do they build the shells and then grow the internals, or is it all one organism which molts the shell as it grows? I have so many questions."
Jaina chuckled. "And that's why I pulled you out of that hospital. You were so melancholy, I could feel it from across the city."
His face fell. "Yeah. It's just... I wish I could have gotten there sooner, you know? Then maybe it wouldn't have happened."
"There's nothing you can do to change that now, Jacen," she reassured him.
He nodded. "Yeah. I keep telling myself that. Dunno if it's helping."
Jaina fixed him with a serious look. "Jacen?"
"When was the last time you told Tenel Ka how you felt about her?"
"I, um." He opened his mouth to reply and then closed it again. "I don't know."
Her disapproving glare didn't help. "Promise me you'll at least think about it."