“Rise and shine!
It’s time for your daily medical.”
Qar’s voice broke into Darth’s meditation, bringing him back to reality with unpleasant rapidity.
Qar turned on the lights and stepped into his private chamber, the door closed behind her with a soft swish.
“I am not asleep,” Darth grumbled and blinked into the bright light assaulting his uncovered eyes and for the millionths time asked himself how anybody could be as permanently cheerful as his personal physician.
Qar grinned and, waving towards the medical equipment, said, “I know, I can read.”
Darth pressed the button to retract the head-rest and stretched his arms. He still felt tense, but the meditation had loosened at least the worst knots in his muscles.
“Also,” Qar continued as she started the computer’s automated medical check-up, “you are not in the habit of sleeping in the afternoon, unless there was some serious emergency the night before and you didn’t get any rest. There was no emergency last night, was there?”
“No,” Darth agreed.
“So, I take it the Senator did finally agree to see you,” Qar suggested.
As usual, Darth thought it was a good thing that Qar hardly ever had to deal with the Emperor in person. Palpatine would not be pleased to be still addressed as Senator, not by anybody and particularly not by a mere doctor.
“The Emperor ,” Darth said, stressing Palpatine’s title, though he knew that it would do little to change Qar’s attitude, “had time for a debriefing today.”
“And?” she asked. She turned back to face him, arms folded across her chest. He did not even have to feel her aura, to know that she was less than pleased with Palpatine because he had let Darth wait for five days before he agreed to see the commander of his armed forces. Darth himself was not happy about the long wait either, but he knew he had to keep his feelings under control. Allowing Palpatine to sense his irritation had had unpleasant consequences in the past. If the Emperor knew of Qar’s opinion the consequences for her would be truly dire.
Darth sighed and rubbed his eyes.
“The Emperor was satisfied with the results of the campaign against the Mezze Rebellion,” he answered. Even that was an exaggeration, Darth knew. Palpatine had noted that the campaign had been a success but these days he took success for granted.
“Satisfied?” Qar echoed. “He should show a little more gratitude. The campaign was a resounding success. The Mezze’s forces are quashed, their bases taken and their resources destroyed, and all our beloved Emperor can say is that he is satisfied. Does he have any idea how serious a threat this Rebellion has been?”
“No,” Darth found himself replying. “Nor is he interested.”
Qar shook her head and turned back to the instruments. There was really no point in arguing about Palpatine again.
It was not that Darth felt any different than his doctor about Palpatine’s lack of interest in so much of what was going on in his Empire. Still, Darth found himself trying to explain the Emperor’s actions every time Qar criticised them.
The Mezze Rebellion had been very different from the previous uprising that had happened during the Emperor’s as yet short reign. This time the attackers had not been a group of idealists with more bravado than brains and more enthusiasm than equipment. The Mezze were not people who thought that they would win just because they were right. Nor were they disgruntled politicians whose influence had been reduced by Palpatine taking over, or some Jedi who had escaped the prosecution until now.
This had been a highly organised movement, more wide-spread than any group opposing Palpatine’s rule before. In fact this had been the first time, a group fighting against the government had convinced more than their own followers to call it a Rebellion. Starting on the remote planet Meza the revolt had quickly engulfed the system and three others bordering on its territory. It had been an explosive mixture of a charismatic leader, strong religious fundamentalism, a failing economy and widespread discontent with the rule of the Emperor. All of this had been supported by the organisation of Bobbio Lupi, a mediocre crime lord, who had hoped to enlarge the area under his control this way.
It had taken Darth longer than it should have, to realise that the backbone of the Rebellion was a crime syndicate and it irritated him to think of the time and men he had lost fighting against insignificant parts of this Mezze’s forces.
Of course, since the so-called rebels themselves did for the most part not know Lupi’s involvment, it was difficult to uncover. Even the rebellion’s leader, the Lady Amelia Catini, had not been aware of it. Admittedly, Lady Catini had not been particularly interested in who exactly funded her uprising, but she had been outraged when she found out. This, perhaps, had been the one point where the astute Lady had been more than a little naive.
Darth still felt a pang of regret that he had allowed Amelia Catini to be murdered by Lupi. She had been a forceful leader and could have been a great help in the reintegration of the affected region in the Empire. But there was no place for women in Palpatine’s Empire. More importantly, after Catini’s death the Rebellion had disintegrated rapidly.
Rapidly and messily. Darth wondered if he should have tried harder to prevent the Imperial troops to vent their anger as violently as they did. It was hard to stop innocent people to get slaughtered alongside the guilty, if half of the civilian population - if not more - had been supporters of the Rebellion. And this Rebellion had not been squeamish about their own methods either. Had it been possible at all to reign in the troops, when they knew what had happened to their captured comrades?
Additionally, it was the policy of the Empire to come down hard and without mercy on anybody suspected of treason, or anybody even vaguely connected to any rebellious group. Perhaps, Palpatine was right, perhaps this was the only way to bring peace to the Empire and ensure that others who were contemplating sedition were deterred by the knowledge of the cruel fate awaiting them. Only time would tell whether the Emperor was right in this.
“You are tense today.” Qar’s voice ripped Darth out of his reveries. With deft fingers she started to ease the tension out of the muscles in his neck.
“I’m fine,” Darth grumbled.
Her fingers working their way from the base of his head down to the top of his armour and a few inches under it, sent a tingling sensation into his head and further down his spine. A pleasant sensation, but one he did not particularly like. It reminded him too much of his body, he thought, as Qar’s finger moved back up along his spine, of the fact that it was damned useless for anything pleasurable. But if he asked her to stop, she’d just tell him not to be a baby.
“All I need is a little more time for meditation,” he told her.
“Hm,” Qar made, but did not stop her massage.
Darth found himself closing his eyes and relishing the sensation of the knots and strains in his neck easing away. This, he thought, was pathetic. His doctor was giving his neck a massage and it sent prickles down his spine and made his skin crawl in a very sensuous way. Of course, he had been deprived of any really sexual experience for five years.
They had had discussed possibilities. On one memorable, drunken occasion Qar and he had been debating whether or not he was still capable of sleeping with somebody.
‘Positively, definitely, yes,’ Qar had said. ‘Not very difficult.’
It had been like a game of ‘I dare you’. The question had been who would end the discussion of this embarrassing topic first. And, drunk as they both were at the time, neither of them had called a halt for a long time. Up to the moment when Darth had realised that his nice, little doctor was not regarding this as a hypothetical question. On a word of him she would have discarded her clothes right there and given it a try. When this realisation had penetrated this intoxicated brain, he had excused himself, rather abruptly.
It had been the last time he had been really drunk.
“You really have to take care not to tense up so much,” Qar said. “You might damage something.”
“Aren’t all the implants made of indestructible titanium alloy?” Darth asked.
“Yes, they are, “ Qar said, and finally stopped her administrations. She stepped round his chair to face him. “I am not worried about the implants. If you continue to put so much pressure on your spine, something’s gone to break, and it’s going to be one of your remaining natural vertebrae. It will have to be replaced and that means you have to spend a few weeks tied to a bed, not being able to move. Your body is not mending any better now than five years ago.”
Darth pulled a face, he had spend enough time on his back to last a life-time. He was not planning to do any more of it.
“Next time you get out of this armour,” Qar said, and punched him lightly on the shoulder, “I’ll give you a proper massage.”
Darth stared at her for a moment, but she was only thinking of massaging his back, nothing else. Perhaps he was the one with too much sex on his mind.
And why not, he asked himself. Qar was probably still interested, and if she wasn’t she wouldn’t hesitate to refuse. It wouldn’t be cheating either, since Shura was dead for almost a year now. Why he should still feel bound to his wife he did not know. She had deserted him after all.
Shura was dead now. And her death had been the last time he had been really drunk, he remembered, correcting his earlier estimate. The strange discussion with Qar had been the last occasion he had got drunk in company, but after Shura’s death he had drunk himself into oblivion on his own. Very much in Anakin’s style, he had thought, and very fitting. Shura had after all been his last link to his past life, had stopped him from forgetting his former identity completely. It was only fitting that her death had been the occasion for his last performance as Anakin Skywalker, former hero of the Republic and devoted drinker.
“Apart from the tense muscles,” Qar said now, “you are perfectly fine.” She switched the med computer off, and looked at him. “You seem to be far away with your thoughts today.”
“I am,” Darth agreed, hoping that she would let it rest at that, but this was Qar and she asked, “What is occupying your mind so much?”
For a moment Darth considered telling the truth, but if he said ‘Sex’, Qar would burst into laughter and pursue the topic ruthlessly. And he did not want to get into this discussion now. “The Rebellion, still.”
Qar nodded. “You ought to think of something else, otherwise your back is going to be in knots and twists again in no time.”
“Can’t you just give me some muscle-relaxants?” Darth asked.
“I could,” she replied, “and I will if it is absolutely necessary, but not before. You have enough medications running through your system as it is. I prefer to deal with it the old-fashioned way. - When is your next bath scheduled?” Qar turned around and picked up the folder lying on the computer.
“Ten days,” Darth replied. It wasn’t strictly speaking a bath, of course, but a general overhaul and maintenance check of his life support equipment, accompanied by a cleaning of his body. Not a procedure he looked forward to. At least Qar had managed to integrate enough auto-cleaning parts in his life-support that ‘the bath’ was only necessary every month.
“Hm,” Qar made. She rifled through the notes with a frown on her face, then she suddenly smiled and put the folder back down. “I haven’t told you yet. I got the first copy of my new book today,” she said. “I brought it, so you can look at it if you want to.”
“Of course, I want to,” Darth told her.
Qar grinned. “I know. The official launch is in two days. On Halanday I am going to be interviewed by The Medical Observer, and my publisher has told me that News of the Galaxy have asked if they could talk to me. They seem to plan a special on the book for their ‘Science and Medicine’ program. Five minutes or so. It seems I am making a name for myself in the field.”
“That’s great,” Darth said. “I am glad you are.”
He was indeed glad that Qar had been successful in creating a new life for herself. It had been good she had started on her new career as a researcher and lecturer when she did three years ago. Then Palpatine had been protesting vehemently against her decision. He told her and Darth, who had supported her idea, that people would recognise her and ask questions, that she was jeopardizing everything they had achieved in creating Darth Vader.
Palpatine had protested but not done anything. These days, he would simply forbid her to start working again.
As it turned out, it had taken almost two years and the publication of a half-score of acclaimed articles on reconstructive surgery before anybody realised that this Dr Qar Hadasht had been the same doctor that supervised the treatment of Anakin Skywalker. Her explanation that she’d taken an extended sabbatical after Skywalker’s death and then did some privately sponsored research had stopped all curious questions. That she was also the personal physician of Darth Vader was a well-kept secret.
“So, when are you going to win the Elbon Price of Medicine,” Darth asked.
Qar laughed. “Not yet. Perhaps with my next book; Back on your feet - Reconstructive Surgery of the Lower Spine and Legs. If this one is a success, I may actually make the publisher leave the ‘Back on your feet’ part in.”
Darth grinned, knowing of her continual battle with the publishers about the titles of her books.
“So, this one is not called Setting it straight?”
“No,” Qar replied, “just Reconstructive Surgery of the Upper Spine. Very snappy title.” She pushed herself away from the med computer. “I think we ought to have a celebratory drink,” she stated and walked out of the private chamber into the hall.
Darth rotated his chair to face the door. He considered refusing the drink, but she was right, a celebratory drink was in order.
He stood up and followed her into the hall.
Qar had already gone ahead into the study. “The book is on the flower table.”
The book, large formatted and fat, lay under the current arrangement of blue and white flowers. Darth stared at the flowers thinking as usual that it seemed to him slightly incongruous that he, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, should have a cheerful flower arrangement in his entrance hall. He did not know what kind of flowers they were, and their only purpose was to make the occasional caller feel more at ease. A lot of the furniture in this apartment was there only for this reason. Palpatine had advised him to make these concessions to normality. Suddenly, Darth asked himself whether Palpatine would give him the same advice now.
He shook his head, wondering why he kept on thinking on how much Palpatine had changed in the last few years. Yes, the debriefing about the Mezze Rebellion had been a frustrating experience but surely not that bad.
“Kahy?” Qar asked from the study.
“Alright,” Darth replied. He picked up her book and stared at the cover. At the top the title of the book ran over two lines Reconstructive Surgery of the Upper Spine, printed in one of these minimalistic fonts that seemed to be required on science books. The smaller line by Dr Qar Hadasht was in a slightly more adorned font, making Darth wonder whether Qar had insisted on a little flourish to liven up her book.
He could hear her getting a bottle out of the liqueur cabinet and glasses rattling.
The drawing on the cover showed a schematic of a spine, the skull above was only outlined, but the vertebrae, shown from the left, were depicted in careful detail. A small number of the vertebrae were bone, others made of metal and all were connected by a brightly green wire running alongside the spine: his auxiliary spinal cord.
“That’s my spine,” Darth stated.
“Yes,” Qar said, coming out of the study holding a tray with two glasses and a bottle of 34-year-old Resarian kahy. She looked at the book in Darth’s hands and nudged him with her elbow. “You’re my master-piece after all.”
“Palpatine is not going to be happy,” Darth reminded her. He turned the book over and read the caption: ‘Reconstructive work on Anakin Skywalker’s upper spine’. “He’s not going to like this.”
“Ah, hell,” Qar said dismissively. “He’s not going to see it. And, Anakin Skywalker died of a heart attack, not because his spine was damaged. - Come on.”
She walked past him into what was called to be his living room, though it was a room he never used. The only occasions he ever actually sat in the room was when Qar was visiting.
Looking back on the book in his hands, he could not help but feel worried what Palpatine’s reaction would be, he’d be furious most likely. But Qar was right, the Emperor was not going to see it.
“Shall we sit on the balcony?” Qar asked. “It’s a lovely evening.”
Darth suppressed his immediate response to say no. He knew that Qar liked to sit on his balcony and watch the sun set. “Alright,” he replied
His balcony was, of course, completely hidden from view. It was also protected by the best anti-observation devices money could buy. Even if some idiotic person was trying to spy on him, all he’d see was a scarred, bald man wearing a breathing mask. Nobody would recognise that he had been Anakin Skywalker.
Perhaps he should put his mask back on. It had been years since he was in the sun without it. But with the mask on, he would not be able to drink anything.
A rattling noise from the living room told him that Qar had put the tray on one of the low tables.
Not only would the mask make it impossible to drink, he would have to first to strap on his collar and somehow he couldn’t be asked.
“Shit,” Qar swore quietly.
Darth looked back at the front cover of Qar’s book, studying the diagram of his spine. He remembered every operation that had been necessary to make him mobile again. All of them had been excruciatingly painful.
‘Birth is a painful process,” Palpatine had told him. ‘After all, these operations are giving birth to your new identity.’
Realising that he had not yet heard Qar open the balcony door, Darth automatically and without thinking on it checked on her, noted she felt irritated, and tried to remember when Palpatine had said this.
Palpatine must have made the comparison to birth early on, just after they had begun to realise the mad scheme of transforming Anakin into a mechanical man of mystery. Before they had come up with a name for this new creation. Qar had insisted that before they allowed Anakin Skywalker to die, she had to get as much of the reconstructive surgery done as was possible. That was the reason why the drawing on the book showed her work almost completed.
New emotions had crept into Qar’s feeling, Darth realised, anger and - fear.
Darth dropped the book and turned towards the living room.
Qar was standing in the door with a perplexed expression on her face. There was a small, brightly red spot on her white lab coat just under her left collarbone.
“I’m dead,” she said. She held up her right hand, showing him a white needle, perhaps five inches in length. “It’s poisoned.”
Darth wanted to contradict her, ask her where to find an antidote, where he could find her deputy or another doctor to save her, but he could feel her complete conviction that it was too late. The poison was in her veins and any antidote would not be able to stop it in time.
“They booby-trapped the closet,” Qar continued. She had wanted to get two of the folding chairs out, for the balcony, so that she and Darth could sit outside, sip kahy and watch the sunset. Now, she would not be able to do either, not now, not ever again.
Panic started to overcome her. Adrenalin raced through her veins, speeding up her heart and her breathing. She was dying, she knew with absolute certainty.
I don’t want to die! Qar’s thoughts screamed loudly in Darth’s mind. I can’t die now. I still have so much to do. My next book, the interview with News of the Galaxy. I can’t abandon Darth.
She looked at Darth, panic and fear clearly visible on her face.
Helplessly, Darth stared back at her. There had to be something he could do. But he knew, because Qar knew, there was nothing that could save her. The poison was spreading rapidly into every part of her body.
You have to calm down, Darth heard Qar telling herself, or you are going to die even quicker.
Taking a deep breath, Qar forced herself to look at her situation from a doctor’s point of view. She turned the poisoned dart in her fingers. It had hit only a small artery, but that was enough to release the poison into her blood. How bloody stupid of her, to step right into the path of the dart. It would be interesting to see what would happen as the poison spread.
Darth wanted to not believe her, to convince himself that this was not happening, but Qar was so certain of it, he had to accept it as well.
Her calmness, so quickly regained, surprised him. He could feel that her heartbeat had returned to its normal speed. How could she suppress her fear and panic so quickly? She simply had pushed these feelings aside, ignoring the fact that her life would be over in a few minutes. She concentrated on the medical aspects as if she was to write an article on the effects of poison on a human body.
“They did not even do it properly,” she stated now, “that thing would never have pierced your armour.” The white needle slipped out of Qar’s fingers. “It’s a muscle relaxing toxin,” she explained. “Paralysing every muscle, from my fingers to my heart.” A smile flashed briefly over her face. “They got the dosage right. There was a second dart but it missed me. One is more than enough for me.”
Qar took a step towards him, then her leg buckled under her and she stumbled against Darth, who grabbed her arms and held her up.
“The darts would not have hurt you, they would have stuck in your armour,” Qar went on.
Darth could feel her trying to get her feet under her again, but her legs did no want to take her weight any more.
There had to be something he could do. Somehow there had to be a way to safe her. Darth stared down into her face, paler now than usual. The spot of blood on her coat was glistening. It looked so small, so negligible. Were a few drops of poison enough to kill her?
“Even had both darts gone through the armour,” Qar whispered, “your life support would have kept your body working long enough for me to save you.”
Her legs went completely limp, left her hanging in Darth’s grasp.
He had to save her life, somehow. She could not just die like this. Killed by mistake, killed by a trap set for him.
A vague smile appeared on Qar’s face.
Darth felt a shiver run through her body. There had to be something he could do, use his powers to stop the poison from spreading, keep her heart beating until help arrived. If his life support could keep him alive long enough, shouldn’t he be able to do the same?
“What can I do?” he asked.
Qar shook her head. “Nothing.” Her voice was hardly audible.
Darth refused to believe her. He could not accept that he couldn’t do anything.
Looking into her eyes, he touched her mind and sent his thoughts into her body. He had to stop the poison from killing her.
There’s nothing you can do, Qar told him, her thoughts were clear and understandable. The poison has dispersed through my entire body. It’s freezing all my muscles. I’m sorry.
Darth could feel the poisonous substance in her body, as she had said, it had already spread into every muscle. Its chemical components joined to the muscles’ proteins and stopped them from working. He did not know what he could sense and what he picked up from Qar’s mind. There were just too many places where the poison attacked. He could not stop it, he could not revert the process. The poison was made for this, snapping into place like two pieces of a puzzle, like two halves of a DNA strand. He might be able to stop the process in one place or the other, but he could not stop all the hundred thousand molecules doing their damage. It would be like trying to stop a sand-slide with a teaspoon.
He could feel her amusement at the comparison, felt her smile and notice with interest that she was still able to smile.
Still got the desert on your mind, Qar thought.
Her legs and arms were completely paralysed, not every single fibre of muscle, but enough to stop any movement. Breathing was getting harder, too. With ever less oxygen being brought into her lungs, it was probably touch and go whether she’d suffocate or die when her heart stopped.
With cool detachment, as if this was happening to somebody else, Qar analysed the progression of the paralysis. The muscles in her neck stopped working, letting her head drop back. Her eyes unfocused so that instead of looking up into Darth’s face, she stared past him at the ceiling, formlessly white.
Darth pulled her closer to him, holding her against his chest with one arm and gently placing his hand on her cheek, grateful he was not wearing his gloves.
Don’t die, please, don’t die, he pleaded.
Qar smiled in her mind, her face did not respond any longer.
I’m sorry, Qar replied. He thoughts sounded already more distant than before. I am curious what is going to happen. Do you think I will meet your wife?
A strangled, coughing sound came from her throat, something that had been intended to be a laugh.
How could she be laughing at her own death, Darth wondered. He had never understood her, not really, and he realised that he would now have to live without her laughing at the strangest things, never when one expected her to.
Her heart was slowing now, her breath was only the merest whisper.
Darth could feel her frown in her mind, as she tried to figure out whether her thoughts were getting slower or duller. Though, she reasoned, it would be difficult to notice it when the mind observing was slowing too.
Her blood was running through her veins slower .
Her heart was only beating feebly, it did not contract properly and the amount of blood it propelled forward was pitiful.
Then, quite suddenly, Qar’s heart stopped.
The blood still in motion, whispered through her veins for a little while longer and came to rest. Immediately, it seemed, it started to coagulate, the heavier particles settling at the bottom of the veins, the smallest capillaries clogging up within seconds.
That’s interesting, Qar thought, startling Darth enough to almost drop her limp body.
A faint wave of amusement reached Darth. There was still some oxygen left in the blood to allow her brain to work for a few moments longer.
Nobody knows how long it takes a brain to die, Qar thought, it depends of course….
It depended on a multitude of factors, the oxygen level in the blood before the heart stopped, the general state of health, the particular state of the person’s brain, whether or not the person was conscious, whether he or she tried to hang on to life.
Qar was focusing, trying to focus as her consciousness faded away, on his monitoring of her body. And she was listening. He could hear the steady wheezing sound of his iron long through her ears.
It’s oddly quiet in here. The thought sounded distant, echoing as if she was speaking in a great cavern or hall.
Then she was gone.
For a moment Darth stayed in touch with the place where her mind had been. He registered the tiny changes happening in her body now that it was dead. Her brain was silent. Where until now intricate patters of sparkling electricity lit up as manifestation of her thoughts, there was only darkness now.
He pulled his thoughts back and closed his mind as well as his eyes to any outside information. He just stood there, her body suddenly heavy in his arm, her cheek still warm against his hand.
Qar was dead.
He found it hard to believe. Even though he had been there, literally, as her mind died, or left, disintegrated or moved on to another plane.
Wasn’t it odd that even though he had been in touch with her mind as she died, he still did not know whether death was the end or not.
But she was dead. Her body nothing but an empty shell.
Darth opened his eyes and looked down at Qar’s face. Her head hang back, her eyes and mouth were half-open. She did look the same, but she also looked dead. But he wasn’t sure whether he could actually see any difference or whether he just saw in her features what he sensed to be true.
He had to call in her deputy and security.
Somebody had set up a booby-trap in his personal quarters, he realised only now. Somebody with either influence or a great deal of skill and know-how had managed to get past various levels of security to install a devise that shot poisonous darts.
Whoever this person was, it had been a badly planned booby-trap, as Qar had pointed out. It would not have killed him. It had killed her, though.
Somehow, when he looked at her face, he still thought that she must wake up any second now. Straighten up, put her legs under her again and laugh at his bewildered face.
But he knew, she would not.
With a sigh, Darth dropped his hand from her face and stooping a little picked her liveless body off the ground.
Her head lolled back, her arms hung down limply.
For a moment he wanted to shake her, yell at her to wake up, even though he knew it was useless.
He carried the body into the living room and carefully lowered it on the low table. He hadn’t noticed before that she was not wearing any shoes. She must have taken them off when she came.
The tray with the bottle of kahy and the two glasses were still standing on the table. The door of the closet next to the balcony stood ajar.
He ought to call security.
Instead he straightened Qar’s lab-coat and smoothed her hair.
Why, he thought. Why her? Why now?
He glared at the open closet door, but it was too dark inside for him to make out anything but the dim outline of four folding chairs, neatly stacked against one of it’s wall.
Whoever had planted this trap had been doubly stupid. Not only had they not taken his armour into account, they had put it behind a door he hardly ever opened. He could not even remember when he had last taken anything out of this closet. For all he knew the trap had been concealed there for months or even a year.
But security had been compromised and he had to call the security officers so they could start the investigation. He had to if he wanted the person responsible caught.
Perhaps he was in shock. He had heard that people in shock were doing the strangest things.
Darth picked up the tray and carried it back to his study. Her shoes were indeed in the entrance hall, right next to the book he had dropped. He returned the bottle, glasses and tray to their allotted places in the liqueur cabinet and closed the door.
The mirrored outside caught his reflection. A large part of his face was hidden behind his breathing mask but what he could see did not look like a person in shock. He did not even cry.
He did feel grief. Turning his thoughts on his feelings, he did notice the dull aching of his insides, not literally, but it felt like it. It felt as if something had been taken away from him, and this was exactly what happened. Qar’s ever cheerful presence he had been aware of somewhere for the last six years was gone.
Darth walked to the com panel and pressed the button. “Yes, sir,” a male voice answered immediately.
“Send Dr. Velasquez and a medical team to my suite, and a security team,” Darth said, surprising himself how normal his voice sounded.
“At once, sir,” the reply came.
Darth cut the connection and stared at his bare hands.
Somehow, he thought, there ought to be blood.
He looked up and caught sight of his face again.
This would not do.
Darth quickly walked to his private chamber and the door closed behind him. He did not want to face either Velasquez nor the security detail like this. Nor would they be happy if they suddenly had to confront his scarred features.
Darth attached the collar to his armour, his fingers apparently working on their own.
He remembered the first time he had worn his complete armour. It had felt heavy, stifling and constricted. He had a short attack of claustrophobia when Qar attached the face mask. It snapped into place with an audible click and in the moment his eyes needed to adjust to seeing through the mask he had thought, what if I have to get out? Of course, there was no reason why he should want to get out.
Qar had put the top section of the helmet in place and stood back with a satisfied smile. ‘Now your own mother wouldn’t recognise you,’ she had said.
He had refrained from pointing out that his mother would not have recognised him anyway, since she had died when he was ten.
He remember feeling slightly ridiculous. He had felt dressed up.
Now, only a few years later, he felt exposed without his mask.
He snapped the face mask on and placed the helmet on his head. As he pulled his gloves on, he stared at the closed door separating this room from the hall and wondered whether he should have a lock installed. Dr Velasquez was surely a fine physician, but Darth did not want him to simply stroll into his private chamber the way Qar did - had done.
A beeping sound from the hall announced the arrival of the security team, he could feel the three men standing nervously outside his quarters wondering what on earth had happened. Dr Velasquez was still further away, hurrying down a corridor, two nurses in tow, trying to keep the panic under control that was threatening to overwhelm him.
Darth stepped back into the hall, realising with growing irritation that he would have to deal with the frightened doctor on a regular basis from now on. On the few occasions he had to make use of Qar’s deputy, he had been amused by Dr Velasquez badly concealed panic. To deal with the man every day would not be amusing. No more daily medicals, Darth decided.
“Open,” he said loudly
The door opened silently to reveal the security detail standing tensely on the doorstep.
“Sir,” the senior officer said, snapping to attention.
Commander Welquem, if Darth remembered correctly, and the two troopers were still confused about what was going on.
“An attempt was made on my life,” Darth told them, “follow me.”
Darth did not have to read their minds to know what they were thinking. Obviously, they would think, the attempt had failed. At least one of them would be wondering whether there was any life in this armoured figure that could be threatened.
“Oh my Gods,” the Commander breathed, when he saw Qar’s body. He stared at it for a moment, than, his mouth hanging open, at Darth.
The Commander thought Qar had tried to kill Darth and had not survived the attempt.
Darth suppressed his irritation, the Commander did not know who she was.
“Somebody installed a booby-trap in that closet,” Darth told the shocked Commander, “Dr Hadasht accidentally set it off.”
The Commander still gaped at him, standing in the door as if he did not know what to do. His two companions crowded behind him, trying to see the body.
“The devise released two poisoned darts,” Darth continued, “one hit the doctor and one missed her. The one who hit her is lying next to your foot, Commander Welquem.”
The Commander looked down and seeing the white dart next to his foot, lifted it off the ground as if it were a snake that could bite him.
“Excuse me, Sir.” One of the troopers gave Commander Welquem a shove and bend down to examine the dart.
“Don’t just stand there and gawk,” Darth ordered, losing his patience with the man, “examine the damned trap. Find out who planted it and when. I don’t have to remind you that this is a serious breach of security. And if you don’t find out who is responsible for this, you will have to answer for it.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Welquem managed to say and pulling himself together with some difficulty he walked over to the opened closet, followed by the second trooper.
The man crouching on the floor placed the poisoned needle in a small plastic bag. He stood up, gave Darth an apologetic grin and shrugged as if to say ‘what can one do about incompetent commanders’. He stepped around the table on which Qar’s body lay and started searching for the second dart.
“My Lord Vader,” Dr Velasquez reached the door at a run. He recoiled at the sight greeting him, bumped into one of the nurses behind him. He, too, assumed Qar had been killed by Darth.
“I’m afraid, Dr Velasquez,” Darth stated, “your colleague has been killed by a trap set for me. I want you to examine what exactly caused her death and find out who is behind this cowardly attack. You will work with the security team on this.”
Dr Velasquez straightened up, surprising Darth by controlling his shock quicker than Welquem. “Of course, my Lord,” Velasquez said.
Darth watched as Dr Velasquez and the two nurses, started to examine Qar’s body. Perhaps he thought, given time, the doctor would get over his panic and be able to function as Darth’s personal physician. If not, he had to find a replacement.
It seemed that their original plan, to create a terrifying, mysterious persona to help Palpatine to create a new, better government and get rid of the Jedi, was working better than they had planned. Perhaps it was working a little too well, terrified people had sometimes difficulties to do their job properly.
At first, Darth remembered, he had had doubts about the effect his outfit would have on people. Walking up and down in front of Qar and the newly elected President Palpatine, he had not thought he looked terrifying.
“I look like the villain in a bad holo-soap,” he had complained.
“You look great,” Qar had said.
“You look mysterious enough,” Palpatine had stated, “and once you got yourself a reputation, your name will strike fear into the hearts of the Jedi.”
“I thought that was ‘into the hearts of the wicked’,” Qar wondered.
“Isn’t that the same?” Palpatine had asked.
Darth sighed, drawing a curious look from one of the nurses. He would have to tell Palpatine. At least he had to try. Palpatine seemed to be just as determined to erase from his own memory what happened before he became Emperor as he was to destroy all evidence of it in the public mind, but he had to remember Qar, he had to remember their wild conspiracy.
If Dr Hadasht’s reappearance in the medical world had not made people wonder what she’d done after Anakin Skywalker’s death, her death in the private apartment of Darth Vader would certainly have some people start to see a connection.
“Commander Welquem,” Darth said, and waited until the man had hurried to his side. “You understand that it will not throw a good light on the quality of the security in the Palace if it became public knowledge that a member of my staff was assassinated in my private quarters.”
Welquem swallowed. “Yes, sir,” he answered. “We can depose of the body easily enough.”
“No,” Darth shook his head. “Take it to her quarters and make up some cause of death.”
“Burglary?” Welquem suggested.
“No,” Darth replied. He knew he was being stupid and sentimental, but he did not like the idea of Qar’s flat being ransacked by security, her body mutilated to make the story credible. Qar would not mind, she was dead after all. “Heart attack,” he said. He saw Dr Velasquez, who had listened to his conversation with Welquem, shake his head. “Doctor?” Darth asked.
“Brain hemorrhage,” Velasquez stated. “Happens all the time, very unpredictable.”
“See to it,” he told Velasquez and Welquem. “I’m in my study if you need me.”
“Yes, my Lord,” both of them responded.
Darth nodded and went to his office. He was not looking forward to informing Palpatine of this. As he passed the liqueur cabinet, he was overcome by a wave of emotion strong enough to make him stop in his tracks. Grief and anger surged through him in equal proportion.
Just fifteen minutes ago, Qar had insisted they had a celebratory drink to toast the publication of her new book. Now she was dead. Killed by a stupid mistake. She had been full of life, hope and expectations and now all of that was gone.
Darth could understand that somebody would want to kill him. But Qar? She had never done anything to anybody, had she?
He reminded himself that whoever had planted that booby-trap had not intended to assassinate her, but Darth. It was an unfortunate coincidence that an innocent bystander had been killed instead. In war, it happened all the time. It was a fact, Darth had had to accept this since he joined the armed forces many years ago.
But this wasn’t war, and this was not the navy.
Somehow, Darth thought he ought to have been able to sense the danger, prevent her from inadvertently activating the trap.
He couldn’t have, since it was just a mechanism, not a sentient being whose hostile intention he could have picked up.
Gods damn it, Darth cursed inwardly. All she wanted was to have a drink and watch the sunset.
He wished he could have a drink now. A good, tall glass of kahy, to honour Qar’s memory - and to fortify him for his talk with Palpatine.
There would be no more evenings sitting around with Qar, talking idly about this and that, drink and watch Stars without End. Life, he realised, would be a lot more boring.
Darth heaved a sigh and walked on to this desk. It wasn’t as if he had not enough to do, but the rare evenings he spent with his doctor had been the only time he was really off work.
Sure you’re miss her, he reprimanded himself, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Or do you want to befriend Velasquez? Do you really want to spend your evenings making small talk with the scared doctor?
He’d rather spend his time walking through the minefields of Asebiye. And Velasquez no doubt felt the same way.
Darth sat down at his desk and called the personal quarters of Emperor Palpatine. It was possible, more than likely, that Palpatine refused to talk to him, but he had to try. Even if Palpatine had little interest in the welfare of the personal physician of his second-in-command, the breach of security had to be brought to his attention.
“Yes?” The voice of the young attendant of the Emperor was crisp as he answered. The young man certainly was not intimidated by the fact that he had to face Darth Vader.
“I have some important information for the Emperor’s attention,” Darth said. “If possible, I would like to speak to him personally.”
“I will enquire,” the attendant said, and switched Darth’s call to hold.
Staring at the blank screen, Darth tried to remember when he had first become aware of the fact that he could not simply call his old friend Diam any longer. It had not been the first time he his call had been intercepted by one of Palpatine’s attendants, that was natural. In the old days it had been Diam’s press secretary who had taken most of the calls. Darth remembered her face well, but her name had slipped from his mind. He had liked her, and even though she did not know that the masked Lord Vader was the same person as Anakin Skywalker she treated him courteously.
Patty, that was her name, Darth remembered. Patricia Zeajay.
Then, one day, Darth had returned from a campaign to a place he could not remember, and instead of Patty a strange young man had answered his call. He had not at first wondered about her absence, and when he later asked he was told she had retired. He had thought it odd, but only later, when Palpatine passed the law excluding women from the military, he had realised that Zeajay’s dismissal had been part of a larger plan. Just as he had not realised that the new attendant was not just there to take calls for Palpatine, it was a means to show that even Darth Vader had no immediate access to the Emperor.
Perhaps, Darth wondered, Palpatine was responsible for Qar’s death, to remove one of the last women in an important position. Darth dismissed the idea immediately. If Palpatine wanted to get rid of Qar, he would have either ordered Darth to dismiss her or have one of his body-guards take care of her.
Darth stared at the still blank screen and thought that it must give this little bastard of an attendant a real kick to be able to put Lord Vader on indefinite hold. He would really like to strangle the little shit. Perhaps it would make the others respect him.
Darth imagined the young man’s shocked face, when he realised that some invisible force was slowly squeezing his throat shut. His eyes would bulge, his hands trying to free his neck from the strangling grip and not finding anything to tear away. Yes, Darth decided that would be very satisfying. Palpatine would probably not mind, as long as Darth did not strangle the idiot in his presence.
“My friend.” Palpatine’s face appeared suddenly on the screen in front of Darth. “You have ‘important information’ you want to share with me?”
“Yes, my master,” Darth answered automatically.
He had spoken to the Emperor only a few hours ago, but he was still shocked about his appearance. Perhaps his dwelling on the past had brought memories of the old Diam Palpatine to his mind. The man facing him now looked twenty years older than he ought to. There were deep grooves in his face, his skin was of a sickly yellow colour, as if it tried to emulate the colour of his eyes. But it was Palpatine’s eyes that really showed the difference, they looked - mad.
“I am sorry to inform you that we have discovered a serious breach of security,” Darth continued. “A booby-trap has been installed in my quarters by a person or persons unknown. Security is looking into it as we speak.”
The Emperor regarded Darth for a while without speaking. “You were not hurt?” he asked, a note of real concern in his voice.
“No, I was not,” Darth replied, “but Dr Hadasht, my personal physician, was killed.”
Palpatine’s face twitched briefly. “I am sorry, Darth,” he said and for a moment, he sounded just like he had when they had been friends.
“Thank you,” Darth replied.
“You are aware that the doctor’s presence in your quarters endangers your -,” the Emperor searched briefly for a word, “camouflage.”
“It is being taken care of,” Darth assured him.
“Ah,” Palpatine made, and the shadow of gone again. “Are there any possible suspects?”
“No, not this early in the investigation,” Darth answered.
“The Jedi, perhaps?” Palpatine suggested.
Darth had to suppress a groan. That horse was thoroughly dead, but Palpatine seemed to be unable to get over his obsession with his erstwhile arch-enemies.
“The involvement of Jedi seems to be highly unlikely,” Darth stated. The Order had been disbanded years ago, the high-ranking members and those who refused to be disbanded were all dead. There were probably still some Jedi about, but they would not have the opportunity to set the trap where they did. It was also not their style. It was a badly set trap, indicating the would-be assassin was not a professional. But if the person was not a professional, how did he or she get past security, Darth wondered. “I fear we have to look for the culprit within our own ranks,” he said.
“Ah,” Palpatine made again, sounding disappointed. “Inform me when you have found the guilty person.” With that he broke the connection.
Darth stared at the dark screen for a moment and thought, that went better than I expected.
But then, what had he expected?
That his request to speak with the Emperor was denied? That Palpatine would not recall who Dr Hadasht was?
Palpatine had remembered and he had surprised Darth by offering his sympathies.
Darth also remembered his reaction to Palpatine’s comment. It reminded him of the time ‘when they had been friends’. Had been.
That is it, isn’t it, he told himself, we’re not friends anymore.
Of course, they weren’t. They were ‘my master’ and ‘my friend’ these days. Sometimes, Darth thought, he was really slow on the uptake. They had not been friends for years, despite Palpatine’s insistent use of the word.
“My Lord,” Commander Welquem said from the door. “We are finished. The results from the lab will be in tomorrow morning.”
“Very well, Commander,” Darth replied. “You will inform me of your findings at 10:00, my office.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Welquem saluted and left.
Darth sat back in his chair and sighed. Palpatine was no longer his friend, and the only friend he still had had, had been assassinated.
By somebody from within the palace, as he had told the Emperor, he was sure of it. Somebody who had a high enough security clearance to get himself or his agent into Darth’s quarter.
That would include all high-ranking navy officers, but Darth would bet his life on their innocence. Mulcahy, Nevoy, Castracani, Ennalage, and all the others, they would never do anything as sneaky and cowardly as booby-trapping a bloody closet. And, if they had for some strange reasons done it, they would have made sure it worked.
No, if somebody was trying to get rid of him, it was surely one of Palpatine’s new cronies. The Commander of the Imperial Guard perhaps, Scopas. Or one of the so called advisors. They might be interested in removing Darth Vader, who was not a member of their circle, who was an outside influence they could not control or intimidate. With him gone, and one of their creatures replacing him, they would gain control over the entire armed forces.
This sounded like a plausible explanation. The group of suspects was also, fortunately, small.
Darth got up and walked across the room. He would find out who the bastard was who killed Qar and he would make the murderer pay. Strip his skin off inch by inch, break every single bone in his body.
v And if Palpatine tried to stop him, they would find out whether all the Force enhancing drugs were really up to a confrontation with the real thing.
Darth stopped at the door to the living room.
Outside the last light tinged the sky in pale pinks and purples, inside it was already dark. Darth switched the light on and for a moment expected that Qar’s body would still be there on the table, but of course it was gone. As were her shoes and the new book, he noticed now. The door to the closet was closed and it looked as if nothing had happened.
Darth stared at the empty table. He ought to have said good-bye to her, not have her body removed like this. He did not even have anything to remember her by.
Dammit, he told himself, I don’t need her body, nor her bloody shoes to say goodbye to her.
He twirled round and activated the lock on his door. Anybody who wanted to come in now, would have to break the door down.
He was furious with himself, with Qar and the entire damned universe. With himself for being so stupid, with Qar for being dead, and the rest of the universe just for being there.
Darth ripped his cloak off and let it drop on the floor. Next, he pulled his helmet off and slammed it on the flower table, sending vase and flowers with a crash to the floor.
He had been kidding himself, when he thought that Anakin Skywalker had been finally laid to rest when his wife died. There had been still strands that bound Darth Vader to Anakin’s life, and only today the last of them was cut.
He pulled his gloves off and threw them into a corner.
The friendship with Diam Palpatine had died so gradually, Darth had not even realised it, but this, Qar’s death, had brought it home with a vengeance. What he had tried to achieve for years, he had finally accomplished. He was rid of all the gods damned emotional baggage Anakin Skywalker had been burdened with.
Darth bent down and pulled his boots off as well.
He just was not sure anymore, whether he wanted to be just Darth Vader. He hurled his boots against the wall.
What the hell was Darth Vader living for anyway? To destroy the Jedi? They had already done that. To be a faithful servant to the Emperor? Gods, that sounded like a laugh a minute.
Darth stared at his mismatched feet, his prosthetic right foot and the original left in its black sock, shaking his head.
That’s all there was now, he told himself, be Palpatine’s faithful servant and make as good a job of it as he could. It was too damned late now to wonder whether becoming Darth Vader had been a good idea.
There also were the armed forces. They were his responsibility as well. He had to look after his men, since Palpatine obviously spared them no thought at all.
Dammit, Darth thought again, dammit, dammit, dammit.
Carefully he pressed the release mechanism of his mask and pulled it off his face. He turned it around and stared at the strange features that were his face.
“You may be Dr Hadasht’s favourite creation,” he said quietly, “but tonight she needs her friend to give her a proper send-off.”
He carried the mask into this private chamber and placed it on the med unit, then he walked back to his study and got the bottle of Resarian kahy and a glass out of the liqueur cabinet. He sat down at his desk and propped his feet up on it. Carefully he poured himself a large kahy and studied his feet.
Why was he wearing black socks, he wondered. Nobody saw his feet, neither his natural foot, nor his prosthetic one. He might as well wear a red sock, or socks with the Warlord of Warhoon characters on them. Should he get killed at some point, it would at least give the mortician something to laugh about. Though he doubted that a mortician would dare to laugh even if he found out that the Dark Lord of the Sith was wearing novelty socks.
Qar would have liked it.
“Here’s to you,” Darth said and raised his glass, “may your passage to the next world be smooth and your welcome there warm.”
He drained the glass and hoped that his wish would come true. His own future looked bleak to him. Life as Darth Vader certainly would have no warmth in it.
Gods, he thought, it won’t be that bad. He just had to concentrate on the job and forget about the past. This really had to be Anakin Skywalker’s last hurrah.
He poured himself another drink.
“If you meet my wife,” he went on, “give her my love. I am sure you’re going to be great friends.”
He did not drink the kahy in one go this time, but relished the taste of this exquisite - and gods-awfully expensive - stuff.
Money, for one, was a thing Darth Vader need not worry about, he was richer than Anakin Skywalker had ever dreamed to be.
Then, Darth Vader’s position as commander of the armed forces was generally interesting and rewarding. As long as he could keep Palpatine out of his hair - not that he had any hair any more, Darth thought wryly, nor had Palpatine.
Admittedly, his private life would be frightfully dull, but he’d get used to it.
He finished the glass and poured more Kahy into it.
Hell, he thought, he had gotten used to looking like Darth Vader. He could get used to being Darth Vader, too.
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