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by Sethnakht

It slices through space, an icy white gash in the sea of pitch; somehow too majestic and imposing to be dwarfed by the stars. It calls all attention to itself, for there is nothing like it. It is the incarnation of cold.

Its mass alone is staggering. The bulk of it reaches for kilometres -- the command deck alone can comfortably house five thousand. It is shaped like a wedge. A wedge with a city on top of it, more precisely. The top deck is a pile of intelligence towers and sensors, and various guns. From a distance it looks like an enormous scrapheap, stacked carelessly atop the knifelike edges of the ship's lower floors and underbelly.

It glides forward smoothly, engines thrumming, secure in invincibility.

The crew is similarly confident. They are all precise men, well trained for battle and used to the monotony of living on a ship, proud to be in the largest ship of the Fleet. They are proud of the Fleet in general, and eager to destroy the Rebellion.

Of course, no one has the gall to say otherwise. Should Lord Vader hear of it (and he would; he had his ways), the man who'd spoken would be dead before he could say "efficiency".

Lord Vader was frightful. He was also the master of the ship -- and the Fleet -- and the Emperor's Right Hand, and endowed with sorcerous powers that no one dared to cross. There were things he could do. . .

There were also rumours -- not amongst the _Executor's_ crew, who knew better than to spread rumours about Lord Vader, but on the other ships in the Fleet -- that he wanted to be Emperor himself.

Vader was too mysterious to assess properly. The _Excecutor's_ crew never even tried. He had a strange breathing problem, and wore a gruesome black mask and helmet over his head. There was a blinking panel on his chest -- life support, they said -- and more little blinking machines on his silver belt. The rest of him was black; black and shiny, like a droid. He wore a leather suit and a flowing cape.

There was the way he breathed. It was slow, like he was sucking the air in with his mouth. It sounded terrible.

Vader kept the _Executor_ efficient. Every trooper and officer aboard was too afraid of him to do their job improperly, so, naturally, the _Executor_ had the highest performance rank in the entire Fleet. Secretly, the crew had to admit an admiration for Lord Vader and his efficiency, despite the fact that he scared them immensely -- but they would never admit to such a thing once outside their private rooms. Not even the workers on the Lowest Decks -- the sweltering, grimy underbelly; the engines were there -- dared to speak of him. One simply never knew if he'd hear. Or how he'd react.

And that was the thing about Vader -- he could be found on any level of the ship, and at any time. He was just as interested in the mechanisms running the _Executor_ as in commanding it. Often (and always without warning), he would come down to the engine rooms to talk with the mechanics. Once he'd been found _playing_ with the hyperdrive motivator. They said he'd handpicked _Excecutor's _TIE pilots -- it was a known fact that he supervised the maintenance checks on the TIEs, anyway. Sometimes he even flew into battle, which was just strange.

Still, they had to admire him for it -- for his efficiency -- if only from a safe distance. Vader despised smalltalk as much as he despised _in_efficiency -- meaning, consequentially, that no one dared to talk to anyone else about anything, for fear that he might hear and fly into some sort of ennobled rage.

But sometimes they talked about their orders.

'Any news from the droids?'

'Which ones?'

'The probe droids. . . you know, the ones to find Skybopper.'


'Oh. Well, the ones to find him.'

'I think we're heading to Hoth.'


There was rather little to say. Still:

'You'd better learn to say Skywalker properly. It. . . it would be better.'

'Oh. Right.'

And that was all.

On the higher decks, the decks that the officers frequented and Vader supposedly lived in (only Captain Piett and General Veers seemed to actually know), no one dared begin a conversation even _that_ innocuous.

For something had changed, recently -- something none of the crew could really put a finger on. It seemed Vader was more demanding; that the _Executor_ was sliding into hyperspace more often than necessary; that some ebb on either Imperial Centre or in their Fleet Commander had shifted, and was quickly preparing to explode. If those probe droids didn?t find something soon . . .

The _Executor's_ captain, Piett, was a prim, orderly man, with pale eyes and a pleasant face. He was of the opinion that the _Executor_ was the finest ship he?d ever had the fortune to serve. He was also of the opinion that Lord Vader was a man to be feared. And he could sense that something had changed in Vader. Something . . . dangerous. Vader had always been fair. He promoted officers based on the quality of their work, not for the politics of the admirals or other deep-rooted military men. And Piett knew from his work on Vader's old flagship, the _Devastator_, that the Dark Lord was an effective leader. But now . . . now there was an edge in him . . . a heatedness that was unheard of -- for when Vader was angry he was always very cold . . . _something_ to him now that spoke to Piett of danger.

He didn't like to pin his Lord that way. Vader's views on slavery and women's rights (he was less outspoken on the latter, but it was known he disapproved of any form of racism) were to be commended. And the _Executor_ was laudably efficient.

The best in the fleet.

There was an obnoxious voice floating around behind him. Piett identified it immediately as belonging to Admiral Ozzel, an oily man he personally thought imbecilic. He had a suspicion that Lord Vader thought so, too.

'Piett. . . a _word_.'

The Captain grimaced, but turned around.

Ozzel stepped up to him, until they were mere inches from one another, and gave him a look of utter loathing. 'This is your problem,' he said in a low voice, so none of the other aides could hear. 'If the Rebels aren't on Hoth --'

Piett sighed. 'Understood, Admiral,' he said. 'But I don't think you need to worry.'

An aide suddenly came to Ozzel's side, looking terrified. 'Sir . . .'

'What?' Ozzel snapped. He shot Piett a poisonous glare.

Piett used the distraction to his advantage, and took a discrete step away from Ozzel.

'Sir, Com-Scan has detected an energy field protecting the sixth planet of the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment.'

Piett's head jerked in surprise. 'We came in too close . . .' he murmured.

'What?' said Ozzel. 'Not at all, Piett. We've surprised them, now all we have to do is finish them off. I'm certain this _field_ can?t be that potent, anyway. . .' He turned to the aide. 'Prepare --'

Another aide came up to Ozzel, looking even more terrified than the first.

'Admiral, Lord Vader is on the viewscreen.' He pointed to a large monitor on the wall, showing Vader seated in his chambers.

Piett straightened slightly.

'Blast,' muttered Ozzel under his breath. He stepped closer to the viewscreen, smiling.

'Lord Vader, the fleet has moved out of light-speed, and we're preparing to --'

Vader lifted his gloved hand in one swift stroke, and clenched it. Ozzel began gasping for breath.

_Oh, no._

'You have failed me for the last time, Admiral,' Vader said. He looked at Piett, his hand clenching tighter still. 'Captain Piett.'

Piett stepped forward, suddenly numb. Vader was killing -- he had never killed before -- and yes, Piett despised Ozzel too, but he would never wish death on him --

'Yes, my lord,' he said.

'Make ready to land out troops beyond the energy shield and deploy the fleet so that nothing gets off that system,' Vader said, as Ozzel began making loud, strangled noises. The black mask was unmoved. '_You_ are in command now, Admiral Piett.'

Was he supposed to be pleased?

Ozzel groped for his throat and let out a sickening wheeze. Piett's cheek twitched, but he kept his gaze on Vader.

'Thank you, Lord Vader.'

With a final gasp, Ozzel tumbled to the floor. He was dead.

Vader cut the connection.

Stumbling his way to the bridge, in a daze but too intelligent to consider disobeying for even a second, Piett relayed Vader's orders. He wondered, privately, if he too would look like Ozzel when he died.

The mediation chamber was brightly white inside, in contrast to the Dark Lord. Darth Vader rose awesomely from his chair, thinking for a moment on what he'd done. He really had no regrets. He had no time for regrets. Ozzel had cost him time -- his stupidity might have cost him his son.

No, there were no regrets at all. And Piett, at the very least, would be efficient.

Vader stormed from his chambers to his private hangar, praying to the Force for time.


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