In the dust-swept reaches of interstellar space, where the density of matter is measured in atoms per cubic meter, a small vessel of yorik coral blinked into existence, slewed through a radical curve that altered both its vector and its velocity, then streaked away, trailing a laser-straight line of ionizing radiation, to vanish again in the gamma burst of hyperjump.
Some unknown time later, an unguessable distance away, in a region indistinguishable from the first save by the altered parallax of certain stellar groups, the same vessel performed a similar manuver.
On its long journey, the vessel might fall into the galaxy any number of times, and each time be swallowed once more by the nothing beyond.
Jacen Solo hangs in the white, thinking.
He has begun to riddle out the lesson of pain.
The white drops him once in a while, as though the Embrace of Pain understands him somehow: as though it can read the limit of his strength. When another minute in the white might kill him, the Embrace of Pain eases enough to slide him back into the reality of the room, of the ship; when the pain has crackled so hot for so long that his overloaded nerves and brain have been scorched too numb to feel it, the Embrace of Pain lowers him entirely to the floor, where he can even sleep for a time, while other devices—or creatures, since he cannot tell the difference anymore, since he is no longer sure that there is any difference—bathe him and tend wounds scraped or torn or slashed into his flesh by the Embrace’s grip, and still more creature-devices crawl over him like spider-roaches, injecting him with nutrients and enough water to maintain his life.
Even without the Force, his Jedi training gives him ways to survive the pain; he can drive his mind through a meditative cycle that builds a wall of discipline between his consciousness and the white. Though his body still suffers, he can hold his mind outside the pain. But this wall of discipline doesn’t last forever, and the Embrace of Pain is patient.
It erodes his mental walls with the inanimate persistence of waves against a cliff; the Embrace’s arcane perception somehow lets it know that he has defended himself, and its efforts slowly gather like a storm spinning up into a hurricane until it batters down his walls and slashes once more into everything Jacen is. Only then, only after it has pushed him to the uttermost limit of his tolerance then blasted him beyond that limit into whole new galaxies of pain, will the Embrace slowly relent.
He feels as if the white is eating him—as if the Embrace eats his pain, but never so much that he can’t recover to feed it again. He is being managed, tended like wander-kelp on a Chadian deepwater ranch. His existence has become a tidal rhythm of agony that sweeps in, reaches an infinite crest, then rolls out again just far enough that he might catch his breath; the Embrace is careful not to let him drown.
Sometimes, when he slips down from the white, Vergere is there. Sometimes she crouches at his side with the unblinking predatory patience of a hawk-bat; sometimes she stalks around the chamber on her back-bent legs like a dactyl stork wading through a swamp. Often, she is incongruously kind to him, tending his raw flesh herself with oddly comforting efficiency; he sometimes wonders if she would do more, would say more, if not for the constant monitoring stares of the eyestalks that dangle from the ceiling.
But mostly he sits, or lies, waiting. Naked, blood seeping from his wrists and ankles. More than naked: utterly hairless. The living machines that tend to his body also pluck out his hairs. All of them: head, arms, legs, pubis, armpits. Eyebrows. Eyelashes.
Once he asked, in his thin, weakly croaking voice, “How long?”
Her response was a blank stare. He tried again. “How long . . . have I been here?”
She made the liquid ripple of her flexible arms that he usually took for a shrug. “How long you have been here is as irrelevant as where you are. Time and place belong to the living, little Solo. They have nothing to do with you, nor you with them.”
His questions always meet with answers like this one; eventually he stops asking. Questions require strength, and he has none to spare.
“Our masters serve stern gods,” she said, the second or fifth or tenth time he awoke to find her at his side. “The True Gods decree that life is suffering, and give us pain to demonstrate their truth. Some among our masters seek favor with the True Gods by seeking pain; Domain Shai was legendary for this. They used the Embrace of Pain the way you or I might take a bath. Perhaps they hoped that by punishing themselves, they might avert the punishments of the True Gods. In this, one must suppose they were . . . ah, disappointed. Or perhaps—as Domain Shai’s detractors like to whisper—they grew to enjoy the pain. Pain can be a drug, Jacen Solo. Do you understand this yet?”
Vergere seemed never to care if he didn’t answer; she seemed perfectly content to prattle away endlessly on any random subject, as though interested in nothing beyond the sound of her own voice—but if he so much as lifted his head, as soon as he croaked an answer or murmured a question, the subject somehow turned to pain.
They had plenty to talk about; Jacen had learned a great deal about pain.
His first actual clue to the lesson of pain came once when he lay upon the corded floor, trembling with exhaustion. The branchlike grips of the Embrace of Pain still held him, but loosely, maintaining contact, no more. They hung in slack spirals overhead, dangling from bunched, knotted bundles of vegetative muscle that shifted and squirmed above the leather-barked ceiling of the chamber.
These periods of rest hurt Jacen almost as much as the Embrace’s torment: his body slowly but inexorably dragged itself back into shape, resocketing his joints and achingly releasing the overstretched tension of his muscles. And without the constant agony of the Embrace of Pain, he could think of nothing but Anakin, of the gaping wound that Anakin’s death had opened in his life—and of what Anakin’s death had begun to do to Jaina, driving her toward the dark—and of how his parents must be suffering, having lost both their sons—
More to distract himself than out of any desire for conversation, he had rolled over to face Vergere and asked, “Why are you doing this to me?”
“This?” Vergere gazed at him steadily. “What am I doing?”
“No—” He closed his eyes, organizing pain-scattered thoughts, then opened them again. “No, I mean the Yuuzhan Vong. The Embrace of Pain. I’ve been through a breaking,” he said. “The breaking makes a kind of sense, I guess. But this . . .”
His voice broke despairingly, but he caught himself, and held his tongue until he could control it. Despair is of the dark side. “Why are they torturing me?” he asked, clearly and simply. “No one even asks me anything . . .”
“Why is a question that is always deeper than its answer,” Vergere said. “Perhaps you should ask instead: what? You say torture, you say breaking. To you, yes. To our masters?” She canted her head, and her crest splayed orange. “Who knows?”
“This isn’t torture? You should try it from my side,” Jacen said with a feeble smile. “In fact, I really wish you would.”
Her chuckle chimed like a handful of glass bells. “Do you think I haven’t?”
Jacen stared, uncomprehending.
“Perhaps you are not being tortured,” she said cheerily. “Perhaps you are being taught.”
Jacen made a rusty hacking sound, halfway between a cough and a bitter laugh. “In the New Republic,” he said, “education doesn’t hurt this much.”
“No?” She canted her head to the opposite angle, and her crest shimmered to green. “That may be why your people are losing this war. The Yuuzhan Vong understand that no lesson is truly learned until it has been purchased with pain.”
“Oh, sure. What’s this supposed to teach me?”
“Is it what the teacher teaches?” Vergere countered. “Or what the student learns?”
“What’s the difference?”
The arc of her lips and the angle of her head might have added up to a smile. “That is, itself, a question worth considering, yes?”
There was another time—before, after, he could never be sure. He had found himself huddled against the leathery curve of the chamber’s wall, the Embrace’s grips trailing upward like slack feeder vines. Vergere crouched at his side, and as consciousness trickled through him he seemed to recall that she had been coaxing him to take a sip from the stem of an elongated, gourdlike drink bulb. Too exhausted for disobedience, he tried; but the liquid within—only water, cool and pure—savaged his parched throat until he gagged and had to spit it out again. Patiently, Vergere had used the bulb to moisten a scrap of rag, then gave it to him to suck on until his throat loosened up enough that he could swallow.
The vast desert inside his mouth absorbed the moisture instantly, and Vergere dampened the rag again. This went on for some considerable while.
“What is pain for?” she murmured after a time. “Do you ever think about that, Jacen Solo? What is its function? Many of our more devout masters believe that pain is the lash of the True Gods: that suffering is how the True Gods teach us to disdain comfort, our bodies, even life itself. For myself, I say that pain is itself a god: the taskmaster of life. Pain cracks the whip, and all that lives will move. The most basic instinct of l...