By Moff Peter
Darth Vader’s chamber was illuminated by a single shaft of light which fell on the brooking Dark Lord as he sat within a raised meditation pod. General Veers entered the room and approached the silent, unmoving Vader. Although seemingly very confident, Veers was still not bold enough to interrupt the meditating lord. The general stood quietly at attention until the evil presence spoke.
"What is it, General?"
Carefully choosing his words, Veers updated Vader on the Imperial fleet’s progress. "My Lord, the fleet has moved out of light-speed. Com-scan has detected an energy field protecting an area around the sixth planet of the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment."
Vader seemed irritated. "The Rebels are alerted to our presence. Admiral Ozzel came out of light-speed too close to the system."
Veers attempted to cover for Ozzel. "H-he felt surprise was wiser..."
"He is as clumsy as he is stupid. General, prepare your troops for a surface attack."
"Yes, my Lord." Veers turned smartly and exited from the room.
Vader rotated in his chair and activated a large view screen behind him. The screen displayed the bridge of the Super-class Star Destroyer Executer. Admiral Ozzel, responding to Vader’s summons, stepped forward to report the fleet’s status.
Several weeks earlier, Admiral Ozzel had been enjoying a furlough back home on Coruscant. From the window of his living unit, he could see the spire of the Emperor’s palace some several hundred kilometers away. Supposedly, it was the largest building in the galaxy. A fitting home, Ozzel amused, for a man with an enormous ego like Emperor Palpatine. The old man built more elaborate monuments to himself than there was room available on this already overcrowded world. Nonetheless, Coruscant was home for Ozzel when he was on leave. He had no choice but to accept this locale as his regular residence; the Empire would have it no other way.
Ozzel turned on the holoscreen in his living room. "Let’s see what the Emperor is up to today," he mumbled to himself. A rotating 3-D image of the Imperial emblem appeared accompanied by patriotic music. A news program then came on. A re-run actually. It reported on the completion of the Empire’s newest ship, the Executor. With an inclement rebellion in progress, the Empire had become more visible with its display of military might. The Executor was the Emperor’s newest "big stick." It had been officially commissioned in a ceremony held at the Imperial Transfer Post near the Kuat System. The Emperor himself had presided over the ceremony.
Ozzel flipped to a different channel.
The next broadcast featured a roundtable discussion between a group of intellectuals. The men and women were discussing the virtues of the Emperor’s agenda for nationalizing industry.
He changed channels once again.
The last program Ozzel switched to was a virtual tour of the Imperial Art Museum which featured works by notable Core World artists -- all officially approved by the Empire, of course.
Ozzel sighed as he turned off the holoscreen. It seemed every channel was propaganda for the Emperor. In these times of the New Order, the Empire constantly reminded you of who was in control.
But there was a time when things were not always so bad.
In the days of the Old Republic, Aryk Ozzel had been a promising junior officer in the Navy. He had even graduated top of his class at a prestigious academy. He loved the Navy. It was his life. When the Old Republic "rotted from within" and the Empire came into existence, Ozzel was offered a command aboard an Imperial-class Star Destroyer. For Ozzel, politics were for politicians and he would have none of it. As long as he was on the bridge of a star cruiser, he was content with his own existence. Besides, Palpatine had promised to clean up corruption and restore the galaxy to its former glory. Ozzel quickly accepted this new commission without hesitation. Many officers from the old Navy did not understand the true meaning and nature of the Emperor’s "New Order," but as a career Navy man, Ozzel new better. Same job. Different boss. The work would be no different. A few officers who declined these new Imperial commissions were given early "retirement." Ozzel loved the Navy too much to throw it all away.
Unfortunately, the New Order which promised to bring unity and balance to the galaxy brought instead oppression and terror. Through his years of service to the Empire, Ozzel witnessed various acts of atrocities committed against innocent people. Planets were bombarded from space. Millions were imprisoned or unceremoniously executed without benefit of trial. Non-human races were forced into slavery or exterminated in a systematic program of genocide. The Emperor even went as far as dissolving the Imperial Senate -- the voice of the people.
Al of this done in the name of the Empire.
The final act of total dominance came when Palpatine completely obliterated an entire world and its inhabitants.
While city-covered Coruscant was the galaxy’s political center, ancient and peaceful Alderaan was its heart. As a young teen-ager, Ozzel had once visited Alderaan. His memories of that planet were of a beautiful and enchanting place with calm, vast skies, oceans of grass and lovely flying creatures; he had even hoped to take his young daughter Aryka there some day. But as chance would have it, Alderaan was no more. The blatant destruction of such a beautiful and peaceful world was the final stroke that soured Ozzel’s allegiance to Palpatine and his New Order.
As Palpatine’s oppression intensified, dissension began to swell among the populace. Led by several former senators of the now-defunct Imperial Senate, a rebellion was born. The Rebel leaders pledged to overthrow Palpatine and restore the former democratic government. In his heart, Ozzel sympathized with the Rebels. These people gave up everything: their homes, families and even lives for a cause which struggled against tremendous odds. After some time of inner reflection, Ozzel resolved in his mind he would do what he could to help the Rebellion. Since the Emperor tended to conceal himself from the populace, Ozzel would never have to confront the Emperor face to face. It would make his resolve all the more easy.
But there was a very visible side of the Emperor Ozzel had to contend with -- Darth Vader. Every high-ranking member of the general staff knew Vader was the Emperor’s right-hand man. Physically handicapped and bitter, Vader zealously carried out Palpatine’s every wish. Whether it was commanding a military expedition, constructing massive space stations or "negotiating" terms on behalf of the Empire, it appeared Vader was everywhere at once. His fierce and fanatical loyalty to the Emperor was unquestionable. Like a vicious Nek battle dog ready to maim the unwary, Vader impaled fear into the hearts and mind of everyone he came into contact with.
Vader was also non-military. But this mysterious and masked agent of terror didn’t need a rank to garner respect. Vader’s foreboding presence alone was intimidating to say the least. Understandably, many Navy officers, including Ozzel, dreaded the idea of serving on a ship under Vader’s command.
Ozzel could hear his five-year-old daughter Aryka playing in the next room. She was his pride and joy, the one thing that kept him going from day to day. He wished he could spend more time with her, but with the rebellion taxing all of the Navy’s resources and personnel, spending quality time with Aryka had become much more difficult. His wife would have to do the nurturing for now.
Ozzel had often had the urge to jump ship and join the Rebellion. However, as long as his wife and daughter remained on Coruscant, outright defection by Ozzel to the Rebel Alliance was impossible. Imperial edict required all families of high-ranking officers were to live in Imperial City. It was apparent the Empire used these families as passive hostages to keep its officers "loyal" to the New Order. Ozzel would have to conduct his course of action a different way. By carefully diverting Imperial ships on less-than productive forays, he hoped to buy needed time for the Rebels to strengthen their forces. Hopefully, to the Imperial high command at least, this would create the appearance Ozzel was just being cautious.
Unfortunately, this covert plan presented a grave risk for him. Although he was certain he could hamper the Navy without being detected, it was no joy ride serving under Lord Vader. Vader demanded unwavering obedience from those under his command. Failure by his subordinates, including over caution, was not something Vader accepted readily.
Ozzel had been given a fourteen-day furlough from his command. In these troubling times such a lengthy leave was unprecedented, but Ozzel had tenure and this vacation was well earned. Months of probe droid launchings in the outer rim regions of the galaxy had been a laborious task. He was certain the Navy would be following up on these excursions very soon.
He had been home for only a few days when the Empire called on him unexpectedly. As the door chime to his living unit sounded, Aryka raced from her playroom to see who it was.
"Papa, there’s a soldier at the door," she announced.
Ozzel met his daughter at the doorway to their living unit. Standing at attention, in black regulation uniform and helmet, was a fresh-faced Navy Trooper, barely out of his teens. He saluted and spoke as one does to a superior officer. "Admiral Ozzel?"
"Yes, how may I assist you, Trooper?"
"Sir, I have an urgent dispatch for you from General Staff Headquarters."
The young Trooper removed a holocube from his travel case and handed it to Ozzel.
"Ah, I see. Thank you, Trooper." Ozzel unclipped a rank cylinder from his tunic and inserted it into an opening on the bottom of the holocube.
Upon verifying Ozzel as the intended recipient, the holocube unlocked its message. As he held the cube in his hand, a grainy holographic image of Grand Admiral Tigellinus appeared within. "Admiral Ozzel, you are to report immediately to Black 15." Black 15 was the Imperial code name for the Empire’s naval yard in orbit around the planet N’zoth. "The Imperial Death Squadron is docked there for a special mission the Emperor himself has planned. The expedition will be under the overall command of Lord Vader. You will serve as fleet admiral. Lord Vader’s vessel Executor will be the flag ship. You will receive your orders once you have arrived at Black 15. Lord Vader is anxious to depart. I suggest you make haste. To your continued health." The image of Grand Admiral Tigellinus faded abruptly.
"Sir," the young Trooper said. "My orders are for you to accompany me to the spaceport."
"Right now?" Ozzel said surprisingly.
"Alright, one moment. Give me a minute to collect my things. Please wait outside."
"As you wish, sir," the young Trooper said as he snapped to attention and saluted.
Ozzel returned a half salute and closed the door.
Aryka took the holocube from her father’s hand and rolled it between her two index fingers. "Does this mean you’re going away, Papa? I thought you were going to go to the zoo for Mama’s birthday? You were going to show us the Rancor monster."
Ozzel took his daughter’s little hands in his. Her large blue eyes were the epitome of innocence. "Aryka, the Emperor wants me to help him with some very important business. I will be back soon. Papa will have a very special present for you. I promise." He planted a kiss on her forehead.
A woman’s voice could be heard in the next room. "Aryk? Is there someone there?"
"Yes, Mady, It seems I’ve been called back to duty a bit sooner than I expected."
Mady, Ozzel’s wife, was younger than him by about fifteen standard years. People would often mistake her for being his daughter. The life of an aspiring naval officer did not allow for romance at an early age. Ozzel married in his forties. As Mady was the daughter of a high-ranking member of the general staff, Ozzels’ tenure in the Navy was very secure to say the least. Promotions did come much easier it seemed now that there was a Mrs. Ozzel.
Mady met her husband and daughter in the foyer of their living unit. "Do you know how long this mission will last?" Mady was accustomed to her husband being called away on short notice. It was a normal part of being the wife of an Imperial Navy officer. She had lived around the Navy all her life. They would just have to reshuffle their plans. They had done it before.
"No. But I do know Lord Vader will be in overall command of the expedition."
Mady put a trembling hand over her mouth. "Oh, dear. Not Vader’s ship. Can’t you request a replacement?"
"They’ve ordered me to be fleet admiral. I’ll be aboard Lord Vader’s flagship, the Executor," Ozzel said as he clipped his rank cylinder back onto his tunic.
"I thought that was Admiral Griff’s ship. Why isn’t he commanding?"
"It was his ship. He was killed attempting to intercept the Rebel fleet at Yavin Four. I suppose you could say I’m his successor."
"Aryk, please. I’m pleading with you. For Aryka’s sake. Whatever you do, don’t upset that monster," Mady said, her voice trembling. "I hear he is the epitome of evil."
Ozzel couldn’t disagree with that.
As the Lambda-class Imperial shuttle came out of hyperspace, Ozzel could see the enormous Super Star Destroyer Executor looming in the distance. It was one of the largest Imperial vessels of its kind. Second only to the recently-destroyed Death Star. Measuring 8,000 meters from bow to stern she was a colossal ship. It was said because of her intimidating size she was capable of winning engagements without even firing a single shot. She was surrounded by five Imperial I- and II-class Star Destroyers, all of which were dwarfed by the huge flag ship. Each vessel was essentially a small city complete with a crew of thousands. TIE fighters and bombers maneuvered between the giant ships as their pilots performed last-minute flight checks. From the cabin window of his shuttle, Ozzel took in the sight with a child-like fascination. The view was simply spectacular.
This enormous fleet, code-named the Imperial Death Squadron, had been assembled after the Battle of Yavin to conduct a search and destroy mission. The Rebel Alliance had scored a major victory with its destruction of the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. No longer considered militarily insignificant, the Emperor had dispatched the Navy to every corner of the galaxy in a vain attempt to engage the Rebels. The Death Squadron would be the cornerstone of the Emperor’s drive to intimidate and crush the Alliance.
Ozzel knew the Rebel Alliance was well organized. Broken down into an elaborate cell network, the Rebels were able to move freely and undetected among galactic society. Locating the Rebels’ new base would surely be a difficult and hopefully-unsuccessful undertaking. Ozzel would make sure of that.
As his shuttle neared the Executor, the pilot in command of the ship glanced over his shoulder to speak to Ozzel.
"Yes," Ozzel replied, his spectacular view suddenly interrupted.
"Sir, I have been instructed by Lord Vader that he wishes to meet with you upon your arrival. You are to proceed immediately to his quarters upon our docking."
Ozzel’s heart raced. He remembered a story he had once heard from a Navy captain who had escaped the destruction of the Death Star. It was during a meeting of the battle station’s commanders that Vader became angry with the late Admiral Motti. Using his "dark magic" as the captain described it, Vader nearly strangled Motti without even laying a hand on him. Without the interaction of Grand Moff Tarkin, the captain was certain Motti would have been killed. It was stories like these that further deepened Ozzel’s resentment toward Darth Vader.
Ozzel cleared his throat. "Of course. Inform Lord Vader I will see him shortly."
"Very well, sir."
Vader’s voice was cold and mechanical. "Admiral, we will be executing two objectives on this expedition. The first objective will be to locate and destroy the Rebel base. As you know, we have been sending out probe droids into many of the uncharted regions. We will be making a sweep through these sectors to scan for any indications of a hidden Rebel base. Once the base is found and destroyed, our second objective will be to locate and capture the Rebel outlaw Luke Skywalker."
"Yes, my Lord. I have heard Skywalker was the Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star."
Vader paused acerbically, his breath shield suddenly more imposing, threatening. "We will utilize, if necessary, every ship, weapon and man in this fleet to procure the capture of Skywalker. I do not intend to return to the Emperor empty handed. Do you understand, Admiral?"
"Yes. Completely, Lord Vader."
"Good. We will be departing momentarily. I suggest you brief your commanders at this time." Vader paused. "Do not fail me, Admiral."
"I will not fail you, my Lord." Ozzel bowed his head as Vader’s meditation pod closed. He turned and walked from the room. It was a cold room. It felt like death.
Three of Ozzel’s senior officers in the Death Squadron were Captain Piett and Captain Needa, skippers of the Executor and Avenger, respectively, and General Veers, who was in command of both the Army and Stormtrooper contingent. All of these men joined the military during Palpatine’s reign and all were known to be fiercely loyal to the Emperor.
Captain Piett began his military career as a young commander of a small patrol squadron on the outer rim where he amassed a tremendous record of "arrests and suppressions." His military record and reputation soon reached the top-brass on Imperial Center. As a result, he was chosen to command the Super-class Star Destroyer Executor.
In private, Ozzel referred to Piett as "the wash woman" for his tendency to gossip among the officers. Piett was also known to be a ladder climber. He had once arrogantly remarked to Ozzel, "You don’t have to be nice to anyone on the way up, if you’re never planning on coming back down." Piett lived by that motto.
General Maximilian Veers advanced rapidly through the ranks of the Imperial Army. As a young officer, he showed promising strategic skill and fierce loyalty to the Empire. The power vacuum that ensued after the destruction of the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin provided Veers with further promotion. He soon found himself in charge of ground forces for Lord Vader’s fleet. Veers was also a good friend of Ozzel. The two officers had served together on patrols in the outer rim territories and gained a mutual feeling of trust and respect for one another. Ozzel knew he could always depend on his old friend Max Veers when the going got tough.
Captain Needa was the skipper of the Imperial Star Destroyer Avenger. Like Veers, he climbed the ranks through his diligent service to the Empire. He was an efficient commander and Ozzel placed a lot of faith in him. Although, sometimes Ozzel wondered if Needa felt the same way about the Empire as he did. There was just something about him Ozzel couldn’t quite put his finger on. Perhaps on this mission he’d find out.
On the bridge of the Executor, Ozzel summoned all of the fleet’s commanders and executive officers to brief them on the expedition. He also wanted to make it very clear to them he preferred a more-personal approach to any major situation that could arise. In other words, he would be the first one, short of Lord Vader, to follow up on any substantial leads.
"I expect all of you to be alert and to follow my orders exactly, without hesitation. I am also directing all of you to confer with me first, personally, on any lead regarding our probe droids. Lord Vader does not like to be disappointed and I will not burden him with false leads. Am I making myself clear? Captain Needa."
"Your ship will take point. I expect you to stay in close communication with me. If I need to detail you away from the fleet, I want you to be ready to go. Understood?"
"Then I trust you will all carry out your orders to the Emperor’s satisfaction. You may all depart for your commands." Ozzel saluted his officers. "For the glory of the Emperor. Good luck, gentlemen."
As the Death Squadron made its jump into hyperspace, Ozzel thought about the future. He wondered if he was jeopardizing the lives of his wife and daughter by choosing his present course. But what kind of life, what kind of future was in store for his daughter, or for any child for that matter, in a galaxy ruled by the likes of Palpatine and Vader? He was in a position to make a difference and he wasn’t going to back down now. Not even if his own life depended on it.
As Darth Vader watched the endless array of stars, Captain Piett rushed across the wide bridge of the Executor, carrying a message for Ozzel. "Admiral."
"I think we’ve got something, sir. The report is only a fragment from a probe droid in the Hoth system, but it’s the best lead we’ve had."
Inside, Ozzel was furious. How dare Piett announce this information in Vader’s presence. Ozzel attempted to short circuit the situation. "We have thousands of probe droids searching the galaxy. I want proof, not leads!"
"The visuals indicate life readings," Piett said coolly.
"It could mean anything. If we followed every lead..."
"But, sir, the Hoth system is supposed to be devoid of humanforms."
Piett moved to a screen which showed an image of a large, partially-snow-covered power generator.
"You found something?" Vader asked from across the bridge.
"Yes, my Lord," Piett replied.
Studying the image on the console screen, Vader spoke, "That’s it. The Rebels are there."
Ozzel knew this was likely the case. The power generator in the image was typical of one that could be used for powering a large defensive energy field. Ozzel attempted to diffuse Vader’s interest. "My Lord, there are so many uncharted settlements. It could be smugglers, it could be..."
"That is the system. And I’m sure Skywalker is with them."
Ozzel felt a lump in his throat.
"Set your course for the Hoth system. General Veers prepare your men." Vader turned and quickly exited from the bridge. His black cape flowing behind him.
As Ozzel stepped past Piett, he gave him a look of contempt.
As the fleet traveled through hyperspace, Ozzel was in a dilemma. The probe droid had apparently located what appeared to be a military installation on a planet in the Hoth system. This was further verified when the probe came under fire from two life forms and was forced to self-destruct. Vader had ordered the fleet to set course for the Hoth system to investigate. The Rebels would have only minutes to react to a sudden Imperial onslaught from deep space. If Ozzel could get some signal to the Rebels, surely they would have enough time to prepare their defenses. Possibly, they could escape the attack with minimal losses.
From the Executor’s crew pit, a flight technician reported the fleet status. "Admiral, we are nearing the Hoth system. We will be in enemy scanning range in approximately two minutes. Shall I cut off the sub-light engines, sir?"
"No. Inform the fleet to cut their engines just beyond the system. We will then rendezvous in orbit around the sixth planet of the Hoth system. Fire up the main cannons Captain Piett."
Moments later, the Death Squadron entered realspace.
It was a gamble. But Ozzel hoped the Rebels would detect the fleet in time to prepare their defenses. He was taking an awful risk by bringing the fleet out of hyperspace too close to the system. If his real motives were detected by Vader, he would be severely punished or even killed. That was for certain. No. He would act like everything was normal. He had talked his way out of precarious situations in the past. This would be no different. He was just being cautious, he said to himself.
From the crew pit, a flight technician sounded a report. "Admiral Ozzel. A com-scan sensor sweep of the sixth planet of the Hoth system detects a large energy field. The field is capable of deflecting a Star Destroyer-strength bombardment."
Ozzel’s plan had worked. The Rebels had detected the fleet and were preparing accordingly. But what would Vader think? Ozzel decided he would send Veers over to Vader to inform him of the fleet’s status. With a major attack just minutes away, Ozzel gambled Vader would be too preoccupied with engaging the Rebels and capturing Skywalker to worry about his own commander’s performance. "General Veers?"
"Inform Lord Vader the fleet has moved out of light-speed and is preparing to access enemy defenses. All commands have reported in."
Ozzel turned and spoke into the view screen. "Lord Vader, the fleet has moved out of light-speed, and we’re preparing to...Aaagh!" Suddenly, Ozzel felt pressure on his throat. It felt as if he was being choked.
Vader spoke sternly, "You have failed me for the last time, Admiral."
"Yes, my Lord."
Confused, Admiral Ozzeel stepped back as his throat constricted painfully. Suddenly, he realized he couldn’t breath.
Ignoring Ozzel, Vader addressed Piett. "Make ready to land our troops beyond the energy shield and deploy the fleet so nothing gets off that system. You are in command now, Admiral Piett."
"Thank you, Lord Vader."
As an invisible hand encircled his throat tighter, Ozzel saw his life pass before him. There he was as a young man, just out of the naval academy. He saw his beautiful wife and a blissful honeymoon somewhere warm and safe. He could see the smile on his daughter’s face as she opened her gift on Life Day. He could hear a small voice saying, "Papa, when will I see you again? Please come home soon, Papa." But the image faded quickly. And with a final choke, Ozzel stumbled forward and collapsed on the floor in a lifeless heap. Another dead Rebel sympathizer.
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