Eritran ran down the slope at full speed, hand tugging at the blaster in his shoulder holster, cybernetic legs carrying him down with inhuman balance. There!
As they had feared, it was too late. The body lay there, dragging in the cooling lava flow, snagged on a hardened rock that kept it from being totally disintegrated. Eritran squinted with his right eye, and the multitude of miniaturized sensors inside scanned the body. Human or partially human male, badly burnt, probably dead or dying. But it - he - was important, at least to the Emperor. And the Emperor was important to Isard. And Isard was important to him.
The Intelligence officer sprinted and leaped forward with enhanced strength, doing an aerial flip to land right next to the body. He picked it up gently, almost reverently, and looked at the burned, shriveled face, eyes rolled back into its head. Stang!
He bent at the knees and leapt again, off the rock and onto solid ground, where he laid the young man. The positronic processor buried in his chest accessed the local airwaves.
"Medical emergency, medical emergency, any Imperial medical personnel within receiving range of this transmission respond immediately."
There was no response.
"Repeat: medical emergency, medical emergency, any Imperial medical personnel within receiving range of this transmission respond immediately. This is a Priority-One Imperial Intelligence transmission, code eight-one-seven-two-six-three-zero-four-Naboo-Ithor-Sernpidal. Respond immediately."
"This is starship Empire's Fist. Whoever you are, get off the commlink immediately. Eight-one-seven-two-six-three-zero-four-NIS is not a valid Imperial Intelligence code."
Eritran blinked in disbelief.
"Empire's Fist, recheck your database. This is a Priority-One Imperial Intelligence transmission, code eight-one-seven-two-six-three-zero-four-Naboo-Ithor-Sernpidal."
"Attention: Imperial Navy transport Tyderium has triangulated on you position, ETA three minutes. Please confirm your identification."
"Shuttle Tyderium, the transmission is unauthorized and clearly a Rebel infiltration unit. Back off immediately or we will be forced to fire-"
Eritran took a deep breath. He heard a whine behind him but didn't bother to look.
"Tyderium, this is a Priority-One Imperial Intelligence transmission, code eight-one-seven-two-six-three-zero-four-Naboo-Ithor-Sernpidal. Ignore the previous transmission. I have a dying man on the ground here. Switch to twenty megacycles under this frequency, encryption code Hapsor."
"Don't bother, sender. We're right on top of you."
Eritran whirled and saw a Lambda-class shuttle hovering overhead, its lower ramp extending without touching the ground. Two white-clad stormtroopers and a medic carrying a propelled stretcher scrambled out.
"Where's the nearest hospital, trooper?" called out the cyborg.
"First Republic, less than a hundred klicks," responded the medic.
"Take me there, now. That's an order!"
Dr. Kayel was surprised by how quiet it was. Not a single case this shift. The Mon Calamari had had time to relax, read the latest copy of The Inner Rim Journal of Medicine, and even catch two full hours of sleep, something that most of the senior physicians at First Republic Hospital cherished. The human physicians, anyway, of which was the majority now, with the Alien Affirmative Action program disbanded by COMPNOR. The only thing that had saved Kayel from the wave of RIFs at First Republic was his skill at surgery and his perfect record. Even the human surgeons admired Kayel's calm demeanor, his manual dexterity, his ability to direct the team of droids that staffed the ER, and his aptitude at learning techniques merely by watching others.
Kayel, in fact, had first learned to be a doctor by watching his father operate on the tourists who came to Mon Cal. After that had come Rhinnal State Medical Academy, where he had studied and practiced to extremes. He graduated as Valedictorian in a class filled with medical geniuses, one of whom went on to help design the 2-1B medical droid for Geentech, and another who became the Emperor's private physician.
Dr. Kayel prided himself on his ability to handle any situation, with any patient, under any circumstance. Little did he know that his ability was about to matched.
They burst in without warning, a full team of stormtroopers and their commanding officer escorting a repulsor stretcher. They bypassed reception and headed directly to the Emergency Room.
"Who the hell's the on-duty surgeon?" demanded their leader.
"I am," replied Kayel in his deep voice.
"We have an injured man here. You'd better be good." The officer pivoted on his heel and shouted at his men to get out.
"You don't need to know that. The patient's body was badly burned and subject to some sort of sword or vibroblade attack. He's already well into shock." Kayel nodded, and pulled the stretcher into the sterilizer. The officer started to follow, but Kayel shut the door, motioning him into the adjacent observation room.
"Activate Sterilization Procedure Two." The doctor shut his eyes and waited for the ultraviolet lights to kill anything that didn't belong in the Emergency Room. He then pushed the stretcher inside.
"Emdee-oh, get to work on the patient." The diagnostic droid moved silently and began to analyze the body on the stretcher.
"What's the situation, sir?" asked Two-Onebee. Behind him, Emdee-Three and Emdee-Seven, experts in pharmacology and emergency trauma respectively, quickly hooked up the patient to life support monitors.
"I'm not sure. Our patient has been badly burnt, and subject to intense penetrating trauma," replied Dr. Kayel. "MD-0?"
"Heart rate, breathing patterns, and brain activity at two percent optimal. Patient has gone into a state of shock similar to mammalian hibernation. Seventy-two percent of the patient's skin and muscular systems have been charred beyond recognition, and the remaining twenty-eight percent has suffered third-degree burns. A small, almost microscopic wound has been detected slicing through the stomach and liver. Data suggests that it was cauterized almost the instant it occurred. Fusion cutter or low-power cutting blaster suspected. Skeleton remains sixty-one percent intact, with multiple severe fracturing along the rest. Surprisingly, nerve endings are damaged but not destroyed, regenerating in a manner generally unseen in human and near-human species." MD-0 waited for a moment, then said, "Instructions?"
Kayel took a deep breath. "All right, here's what we're going to do..."
In the observation room, Eritran watched quietly through a transparisteel mirror as Kayel began to work. A human physician, this one coming on duty in twenty minutes, stood there as well, listening.
"The Emperor would much prefer that a human surgeon handle this case. He is very displeased to see an alien working on this man. Would you go and take the Mon Cal's place?" Eritran asked.
"No," answered the man immediately. "Dr. Kayel's the best we've got. If anyone has a chance of saving your patient, it's him."
"Then why aren't they moving him to a bacta tank?" demanded Eritran. The doctor sighed and shook his head. People, even this Imperial, were so ignorant of medicine.
"Bacta isn't a magic cure-all. If it were, we wouldn't get nearly the amount of deaths in the ER that we do. It helps people recover, yes, in a manner that can exceed the natural rate. But bacta immersion can't remove a piece of shrapnel from a wound. It can't amputate dying limbs. It can't-"
"It can't save the patient?" asked a cold voice from behind. Eritran had his blaster halfway out when the shadowy figure caught his wrist and snapped it down and around. Another hand came up and rapped soundlessly against Eritran's throat.
"I didn't say that," said the physician quickly. A slender woman stepped into view.
"Ismaren-" rasped Eritran. "Didn't - know - youwerecoming."
She released him and turned to the doctor. "What's the prognosis?"
They hadn't bothered with anesthesia, but instead got to work immediately, Kayel cutting away the dying parts of the body and 2-1B working with scalpels to get a clean shot at the wound. MD-7 set the fractured bones with internal casts, and injected two units of bacta and four of blood plasma.
Kayel almost thought they could win this one when MD-0 said, in his curiously calm voice, "Analysis complete. Lungs eighty-nine percent necrotic and deteriorating. Alveoli damaged beyond state of possible repair. Patient is at level Red-Thirteen." Kayel's response was immediate.
"Go to superoxygenated." He opened a drawer and pulled on a filter mask as gas hissed into the room. It was really a stopgap measure, but superoxygenated air was used to help patients suffering asthma attacks. It might help out here.
He picked up a commlink and thumbed the transmit button. "Get Dr. Septchuk from Cybernetics and Dr. Qtus from Regeneration/Recovery over here stat!"
The Verpine and Lurrian arrived within two minutes, sterilized and ready to go. The room was getting crowded. "What do you need?"
"Everything you learned in medical school is about to be put to the test. MD-0, fill them in."
They worked for seventy-two hours. Seventy-two straight hours of nerve-wracking surgery. Organs were replaced by cybernetics. Skin was cut away and replaced. Muscles were grown again. Large quantities of pure bacta were used and discarded. Eritran watched every minute of it, engrossed. It reminded him of his own wretched condition. How must they feel, knowing that they were saving a life? How had his own surgeons felt, knowing they were creating something to take it?
The assassin and Intelligence operative turned to see the physician he had talked to earlier come back.
"Judging from what they are doing, they will save him." There was a shrug. "They have saved him. In fact, the process is almost over. But he'll be crippled for life. There will be physical therapy. Even with the armor he's wearing, even with the cybernetics they've given him, he won't be able to walk for months-"
Inside the ER, there was a crash as the patiently slowly hauled himself out of the bed. Once a handsome young man, he stared down at the heavy, awkward armor they had encased him in, and then began to walk around the room. Every one of the observers saved for the woman called Ismaren stared with awe.
The droids lined up and saluted their recovered patient farewell. The dark man strode out of the Emergency Room.
Dr. Kayel watched his patient with a sense of success, and then collapsed onto the stretcher. His normally salmon-colored skin was pale and dry with exhaustion.
He heard someone walk into the room. He forced his eyes open, and they showed him a petite human female.
"The Emperor thanks you," she said simply.
"Who," he managed weakly, "Who was he?"
The woman paused. "The man whose life you have saved is called Darth Vader."
She left. So did Septchuk and Otus.
"You should rest, sir," ordered 2-1B, and MD-0 backed him up on that statement. There was a needle. It was sedative, as though he needed any right now.
Before Kayel began to slumber, he wondered if it had been really worth it.
Original cover by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.