Bloodmarrow 10

"Yes?" Obi-Wan prompted, the smile still on his face. His blue eyes sparkled in the overhead light and he stepped nearer. "Don't let fear stop you from being whole again. Don't you owe yourself that much?"

"I have my duty." Vader firmly replied as he tore his eyes off the tempting blood slowly oozing from the shallow cut. He wouldn't lie to himself. He wanted it, even if he knew he shouldn't. It was wrong and dangerous and everything dark, but those things hadn't stopped him before. Hadn't he joined the Dark Side? Wasn't he a Sith Lord? Yet the desire for it glowed within him like nothing he knew before. It was within every cell of his body screaming out to be healed once and forever. No more agonizing days gasping for air with fume-damaged lungs and charred body parts.

Obi-Wan's blue eyes widened in disbelief and his mouth dropped open. "Your duty? Anakin, you have a duty to yourself, to heal yourself!"

"Would you have me abandon the people that need me?" Vader asked, his voice stead. Resisting temptation was one of the hardest things he ever did and he knew he still might give in yet. He had never been good at that sort of thing. It had been his undoing. He lusted after too many things; first flesh, then power and now healing.

/My duty is to Executor… my ship and all aboard her must come first…/

It was true. It was a solemn oath he had taken when he had accepted command of the Super Star Destroyer. It was the first ship of its size – ever. The Emperor had built it just for him as a gift and as a way to show he appreciation of his worth. The thousands of lives aboard rested on his shoulders and he took it seriously. If he were to accept this miracle that the Jedi was offering him, he could very well be giving up everything else he had worked so hard to achieve. What would become of the ship then, its crew, the Empire? With him gone, it all might crumble away.

"No, of course I wouldn't! You know that…" Obi-Wan replied, his hand dropping down to his side. It hurt that his apprentice didn't trust him enough to accept this gift he had offered. His gaze slumped to the floor sadly. "I suppose I can't expect you to trust me after what I did to you…"

"Perhaps if you can prove to me that you will not turn into one of these murderous creatures…" Vader let his words trail off. He could make no promises to Obi-Wan. He still clung to the wispy hope that a donor would be found for his good friend and mentor, but it was as thin as evaporating mist.

"The offer is still open, Anakin. If you should change your mind…" Obi-Wan smiled weakly, the points of his sharp canines sticking out between his lips.

The sight was enough to send shivers down Vader's spine.

"I should go. You get some rest." Vader turned and walked out the door, his floating respirator following him. Once he heard the door swoosh shut behind him, he sighed loudly and his broad shoulders visibly slumped downward. Closing his eyes for a moment, he leaned against the nearby wall. His legs were trembling and he feared if it weren't for the wall he would collapse into a boneless heap on the floor. Walking out that door had been one of the hardest thing he had ever done in his life and he feared he might have given in.

/But I did it. I remained strong…/

But he almost hadn't. He had been so close to accepting Obi-Wan's offer. How many other people hadn't been so lucky? How many others had been given no choice in the matter, like Luke and Obi-Wan? Where had the disease had come from? He still needed the answerers to these very important questions. The safety of the Empire itself might be at risk. A lot of people out there were weak-willed. They didn't have the fortitude that he did, the discipline of Jedi training. If someone started hawking it as an easy Miracle Cure…

A dark cold lump formed in his stomach and he shuddered. It would be horrible. The disease would spread rapidly then and would be near unstoppable. Dismissing the feeling in his stomach the best he could, he pushed away from the wall and stood on his own two feet. It didn't matter that he had just given bone marrow; he had a ship to run and decisions to make. It was just sheer luck he had stumbled upon this at all. What would have happened if he hadn't? Sure, the local troopers had been searching for a dangerous animal, but they would think it was just an animal. Troopers, by their very nature, weren't very smart. Upon entering the Imperial Academy, everyone was given tests. Those with the lowest scores were trained to be stormtroopers. Mainly all stormtroopers did was stand guard and fire guns. Most likely once the animal was caught and killed, they would have tossed its carcass onto a garbage heap totally unaware of the deadly pathogen it carried.

Once he was under control again, Vader headed back to his room in Sick Bay. He wasn't dumb enough to think the doctor would release him just yet; not enough time had passed. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he reached for the comm. the doctor had given him. He would call the bridge and ask for an update on the situation. Perhaps they had found out something by now. Making sure the device was set for audio only, he dialed Captain Piett. For some odd reason, he seemed to favor Piett over Admiral Ozzel, but then Ozzel was busy with the day to day running of the ship. "Captain, has there been any progress backtracking that beast?"

"Yes, My Lord," Piett's voice came over the link. "There actually has been."

"And what is the news, Captain?" Vader asked, managing to keep the surprise out of his voice. He really hadn't expected much progress on this matter.

"Well, the report … it says …" Piett hesitated, a loud gulping sound clearly heard. "I'm not too sure if this information is accurate, My Lord…"

"I understand, Captain." Vader replied. He could sense Piett's fear and nervousness clearly all the way from the bridge. "Just read what it says. You shall not be held accountable."

"As you wish, My Lord." Piett sighed in relief. "It says that the beast was backtracked to a motel where he owed a week's rent and that he was originally a human by the name of Jacques Sato. The motel's owner had contacted the local stormtroopers in hope of being paid the rent somehow… Does that make sense, My Lord?"

"Yes, Captain Piett, it does." Vader explained as he imagined the sick man, Sato, stumbling into one of the run down hovels of Mos Eisley spaceport upon arriving. The man must have known something was wrong and had sought a place to hide. "We are dealing with a DNA altering pathogen, Captain. Once infected, the disease slowly turns the infected into a bloodthirsty beast. What else have you learned?"

"We further backtracked Sato to a ship that recently landed on Mos Eisley. It appears Sato boarded it on Coruscant. He's listed as AWOL from the Empire, as he was a stormtrooper that did local guard duty…"

Vader's heart lurched at those words and cold dread filled him.

/No, not Coruscant!./

Coruscant: the biggest, most heavily populated planet in the entire galaxy. If the disease truly was there it could spread like wildfire throughout the population! It would be a living nightmare. Quarantine would be impossible. The city was built layer upon layer upon layer. It was a mass of streets and tunnels that twisted about like the most tangled maze ever. No single person knew every street; it would be impossible. Not even the best computers held a complete map. There were sections and areas that the more civilized inhabitants didn't enter on fear of life. Those were the dark lower parts of the planet where gangs ruled and criminals hung out, where Coruscant's poor lived short, fearful lives. And below that there were yet more levels. Vader knew somewhere, if one went deep enough into the infrastructure of the one huge city, one would have to find the planet's real surface: the rock, the ground, and the soil. But no one had reported touching it in thousands of years. No one wanted to or cared.

/Anything could live down there…/

Although the Empire did the best it could to patrol Coruscant and the other planets in its grip, they could still only do so much. And with a planet like Coruscant whose total population was so high, it was near impossible to keep track of every single sole. The fact is, people moved. And when they did, they often didn't bother to say where they were going, especially the poorer people. People could vanish and no one knew. If a waitress didn't show up for work at the local trashy grease trap way down in the depths of the city, the owner just hired someone else. Or better yet, he bought himself droids. There were often no problems with droids and they didn't require a salary like a live person. They could sleep right in the establishment and didn't ask for sick days or complain that their feet hurt. So it was a very real possibility that one of these things could be living down in the depths of the maze snacking on people with no one the wiser, especially on the lower levels where the sunlight never reached.

/This could be one heck of a mess…/

Yes, it could be a nightmare trying to track down and eradicate all of the creatures. They were fast and deadly with too many hiding places. Worst, they would be familiar with the territory.

/And there would be no guarantee we'd get all of them…/

How many people would be at the beginning stages of the disease? With the wounds healing so quickly, they might not seek out medical aide. And the poorer class of people, the most likely to be infected, would have no way to pay doctors anyway. They'd just hole up wherever they could and hope they didn't get sick. When just simply getting enough food everyday was a struggle, one didn't have money to waste on expensive doctors.

All of this flashed through Vader's mind in mere seconds. It was his ability to analyze a situation quickly and come to a decision had helped him rise to the lofty position he now held. "Is there anything else, Captain?"

"Yes, My Lord." Piett's voice said over the comm. "The stormtroopers have confiscated a diary from the motel. Should I bring it down?"

"Yes." Vader replied as hope rose within him. "Bring it down immediately."

/This could be just what we need…./

Yes, a diary could explain exactly where Sato had picked up the pathogen; providing the man was smart enough to include such information. There was the possibility that the item would be totally worthless and filled with mundane entries. Still, he allowed the hope to blossom within him.

"Captain? Contact the hospitals on Coruscant and inform them to watch for the symptoms of Metoncedo Belua, especially fast-healing wounds that sprout white hair. Anyone exhibiting these symptoms should be put into quarantine at once. Extreme care should be exercised when handling their blood, saliva or other body fluids."

"At once, My Lord!" Piett replied.

Opening a new channel, Vader contacted Admiral Ozzel. "Admiral, set a course for Coruscant."

"Yes, Lord Vader."

Vader closed the channel and impatiently waited for the electronic diary to arrive. If it didn't contain any helpful hints as to the whereabouts of where Sato had picked the disease up, it would be near impossible to track it down. Coruscant was just too large and the air traffic could easily take you to the other side of the globe in mere hours. Still, if he was stationed to guard duty somewhere, perhaps he picked it up in a nearby establishment? Not one to waste time, Vader picked up the padd that also rested on the table near his bed. It was a small portable computer that could hook into Executor's main computer banks. This allowed the Sith Lord to do his work while still resting his body.

He hadn't forgotten about Luke or Obi-Wan, yet he couldn't ignore the bigger picture, either. Luke needed his rest and barging in every few minutes to check on him wasn't conductive to healing. It would just annoy him, no doubt. The poor boy felt miserable the way it was. The mystery would also serve the purpose of keeping his mind occupied. If it weren't, he'd spend every spare moment fretting about Luke.

Once Vader was hooked in, he called up the file of Jacques Sato. Thanks to Piett, the file was already there and red flagged. Like he had been informed, the man was a stormtrooper and listed as AWOL. The military term simply meant Absent With Out Leave and it was a very serious offense. It could lead to jail time and much more. But Sato needn't worry about that now. He was dead and his transformed body was stored in the medical freezer reserved for just such cases. Scanning through the file, Vader learned that Sato had been twenty-five and had come from Corellia. The man's record was relatively clean, except for one note about coming back from leave drunk.

/So, it appears that Sato liked to drink…/

But Coruscant had literally thousands of clubs, bars and assorted places that served alcoholic beverages. He served guard duty at the Museum of Imperial Art; a boring post that mainly meant he stood around acting important while holding a gun. His presence was supposed to deter trouble and perhaps it did. Only the wealthy visited such a place and they were often well behaved. Another quick search revealed that none of his fellow guards from the Museum were missing; just him.

/Perhaps Sato was a loner…/

Or perhaps he was just unlucky and had been in the wrong place at the wrong time…

/Like Luke had been…/

Vader gazed at the screen of the padd, not really seeing it. This was a vast, far-reaching problem he had found and who knows what he may uncover next? The moments were ticking by and he impatiently glanced towards the door to his room. Where was Piett with that diary? The man was an extremely good officer and he would put him in charge of the case. The final decisions, however, would be his. He heard approaching footsteps in the hall and his heart sped up with anticipation. This very well could be it.

The door swooshed open and Dr. Corrigan came in, a small gray device in his hand. "This just arrived for you."

"Thank you, Doctor." Vader eagerly reached for the electronic diary and studied it for a moment. It was the common kind that stores sold everywhere, offering the buyer a choice between a voice recording or typed words. If the owner chosen the later, a small keyboard folded out from within the case. Turning the device on, he sighed with relief when no password was asked for. Sato had apparently chosen to type his diary entry, because words soon appeared on the screen. Bending forward slightly to see them better, Vader began to read.

The first words sent chills down his spine.

I don't know how much time I have before I go crazy and kill someone…

To be continued…