Heir to the Empire, Chapter 20

z: Hello gentlebeings.  It’s Chapter 20 of Heir to the Empire today.  I’m taking the lead again this week as Will comes back from ConQuesT.

will: I’m back! Hi! Oy, it’s Thursday already? Better get cracking…

I’d just like to point out for the record that Z apologized to me for this chapter, being mostly recap and not analysis. She did a fantastic job, for the record, which is why it’s kind of funny.

z: We start with Threepio in his Leia-impression, talking to Winter—Leia’s assistant—spinning excuses about why they haven’t returned to Coruscant yet.  Well, choppily repeating the excuses Han is spinning into his ear in his programmed Leia-voice, that is.  Winter, no fool, and probably rolling her eyes enough to remind Wedge–or his XO–of a barrel roll had he been watching, asks gently at the end of the conversation if she could talk to Captain Solo for a minute too, please.

will: The reasons for which are immediately apparent to Han and Lando, of course.

z: But once Han gets on the comlink, a sort of a comedy of coded-not-really talk is all they can manage.  Winter says Ackbar is looking forward to their return.  Han, who knows Ackbar doesn’t give two Tatooine sand grains about him since he’s resigned his military commission, tries to ask what’s up without asking what’s up; Winter tells him something about some problems with Ackbar’s family, squabbles among Ackbar’s children and such.  Han, who probably cares as much in turn about Ackbar’s children’s bedtime arguments as he cares about how thick the equatorial ice in Hoth is this season, struggles a little, then asks about the neighbors. It’s Winter’s turn to hesitate, then say that she hasn’t heard much about the neighbors lately.  Han says if the family is fine, it’s probably fine, but we’ll be back soon, OK?

will: While Z makes it seem like they’re struggling, Zahn makes it read more natural. It didn’t feel like guesswork and on-the-fly verbal coding until Han said so after.

Zahn’s story about giving his beta readers (as we would call the term now) the preview of the Thrawn Trilogy and having to talk about it via code was a nice bit of history, not to mention his take on the “steam under the crust”: how he figured any mention of the main characters would attract a lot of attention even in 1989.

z: Then Han wants to know what’s up with the rebuilding efforts in the places the Empire hit lately, Bpfassh among them.  Winter says that there were problems with the supply shipments, so Ackbar repurposed some capital warships and crewed them with extra droids.  Which worries Han, as well it might—that’s giving the Imperials target practice.  Winter is sure Ackbar thought of that, and the shipyards in Sluis Van are well defended, no worries about that.  Oh, she often randomly mentions those shipyards, nothing to worry about.

will: Not to mention the staffing requirements for warships. Oh, and the existence and purpose of slave circuitry…

z: Lando, who’s listening to the conversation, mentions that if the Star Cruisers had been fitted with slave circuits they wouldn’t have to bolster the skeleton crews with droids, but Han doesn’t care.  What he got out of the awkwardly coded conversation was that something is about to come crashing down on Coruscant, so he wants to get back ASAP, maybe bringing in Leia as well. Han isn’t quite clear about what it is, since the code is not a prearranged code at all; he and Winter had been improvising.  Ackbar might not have been successful in plugging up the security leaks on Coruscant yet, but if Fey’lya wants to make a power grab it’s important to have Leia there.  So they’ll get through this contact on Abregado, in the Abregado-rae spaceport, pick her up, and head right back…

will: For all the work the went into “let’s find Leia a safe place to hide,” the reversal-of-fortune of “we’re going back” seems very sudden, as Lando suggested. But then, that seems to be a habit of Zahn’s–nothing ever runs on rails.

Heh, rails. (This pun only makes sense if you know that one of Zahn’s other major series is basically Trains In Spaaaaaace!)

z: They get out of the Lady Luck on their way to the rendezvous in a nearby tavern called LoBue, and walking away, they notice that whoever is in the landing pit 63 is about to have an unpleasant visit from what looks like local law.  I like the description of LoBue, though I don’t quite know why:

“Right over there,” Lando said, pointing to a small windowless building built in the gap between two much older ones.  A carved wooden plank with the single word “LoBue” hung over the door.

will: Probably because it’s a used future, no fancy electronic sign or anything. Especially because of Han’s mental notes about the status of Abregado-rae.

z: …yes, that’s it.  I latched on the “carved wooden plank.”  Good catch, Will.

Lando orders some fancy wine with a vintage and all, “since Coruscant will be picking up the tab.”

will: Maybe it’s Z’s dispassion for politics, but she glosses over the conversation (and note) about the government: the discussion of the New Republic versus/and (depending on your read) the local government, their crackdown on smuggling (and what they’re smuggling), and the dating system on the wine. Just note it here, for now.

z: Han notices that one of the guys in a nearby sabacc table looks familiar, and asks Lando to casually verify, which he does.  The name, Fynn Torve, doesn’t mean anything to the reader yet, though Lando and Han exchange some noodle-incident descriptions about him, arriving at the sabacc game in which Lando lost the Falcon to Han.

will: We’ll see it in person, as I said, some time in the future/past/whatever. Though Han’s offense at being called an amateur is amusing–because he is, by comparison. Lando was a professional gambler for a while in there, after all.

z: Han realizes and remarks to Lando that if Lando hadn’t been unlucky that day, Leia would have died on the Death Star and the Empire would have taken out the Alliance. And he might still lose her… Lando tries to soothe Han’s fears, but Han’s not got one, but three—he’s figuring the Empire is after the twins; they didn’t use stun guns in the kidnapping attempts because those can trigger miscarriages.

will: Han also is smart enough to know that Leia probably knows that too.

z: Torve might be their contact, although they are not certain of this.  Looking around more, Han notices that there are members of the planetary security force there too, lurking at a table in plainclothes.  Lando concurs with this identification too, and points out that this might be why Torve is hiding at a sabacc table instead of coming to talk to them.  Han decides to try something a little risky, gets some sabacc chips and joins the table.

will: I like how no matter how plainclothesed they are, Han and Lando both recognize them instantly. Such is life.

z: …plainclothesed.  *humorless auntie flat-stare*

Moving on.  Some more improvised-coded talk ensues, but this time both parties are a lot more sure about their meanings.  Han brings up “dropping the heavy end of the hammer” on people, which is apparently smuggler talk for law enforcement coming down on someone, and Torve picks it up right away.

will: Seems less smuggler-specific, and more just a general way of saying “lots of painful trouble.”

z: Han mentions the number sixty-three with a pretext.   Torve reacts to the number, glances at Lando, and asks Han if he’s “willing to put [his] money where [his] mouth is.”  Han says that he’ll meet everything Torve’s got, Torve says he might take Han up on it, and one of the other players says “This is all very interesting, I’m sure.  Some of us would like to play cards, though.”  I laugh.  But then neither Han nor Torve were being particularly subtle, since the planetary law enforcement people are not at the sabacc table.

will: And really, the rest of the players don’t care except that it’s annoying. A place like this probably has five clandestine meetings a week. I can almost see the other player saying “excuse me, cloak-and-dagger contacts are supposed to be at the other table!”

z: But just when Han is bidding, a very large man “like a bushy-bearded thundercloud twice his own size,” comes up behind him and starts bellowing that Han is a cheater.  He pulls one of Han’s cards out of his hand—or seems to—and demonstrates that it is a skifter—a card that changes faces when it’s not supposed to, as opposed to the regular sabacc cards which change faces at set times.

will: Well, at random times, but consistently so. Cards aren’t allowed to shift on cue, anyway.

Every once in a while I’m tempted to take the rules of sabacc and my residual computer science skills and design a sabacc program. Then I realize I’m not in that line of work anymore.

z: The LoBue security people come over at the disturbance, and it seems that the “thundercloud” is a member of an extreme anti-gambling religious group; they address him as “Reverend.”

will: I feel like Han is jumping to conclusions; why would an anti-gambling Reverend be busting a cheater?

Note that the Reverend’s mark of office is a “black, crystal-embedded band nestled against the tufts of hair at the…throat.” Sounds like a Catholic collar, to me.

z: The security people are a bit irritated about the Reverend’s vigilantism.  Han claims he was dealt the skifter, so the Reverend pushes for him to be scanned to see where he palmed the “actual” card he was dealt.  The security people scan him.  Nothing.  Then, the Reverend says, it must be with the dealer.  The dealer protests vehemently—“I’m a Class Double-A Citizen.”  They still scan him as well.  Nothing.  The Reverend says that then it must be a fixed deck.  The LoBue security head protests vehemently—“We don’t fix decks here.” The Reverend suggests that they might, and include special, in-the-know players in the game.  The security person protests even more vehemently about that, but one of the other players pipes up with “Where did the guy next to me go?”  (Torve has made himself scarce at the first hint of the distraction.)

will: Well played, Torve.

z: The Reverend now jumps on that and asks Han where his partner went; Han denies this partnership as well.  The planetary security people at their separate table jump up as if stung, swearing, and run out.  The LoBue security person tells Han to just go away and not come back, please.  Han is happy to oblige, is not surprised to find out that Lando’s disappeared as well, but is surprised to see Lando has already paid.  I laugh.

will: I’m sure he kept the receipt.

z: Han gets back to the Lady Luck to find that Torve has beat him there.  Lando mentions that he’s waiting “in the lounge,” which, of course Lando’s ship has a lounge.

will: So does the Falcon, after all.

z: Somehow I don’t think the decoration is in the same class, though.

Torve thanks them for the save.  That was his ship in 63, but thankfully his cargo, which was food for people who wanted to live in the hills with no government interference (no, really) has already been off-loaded.

will: And here’s where the political point comes up: this is what’s being smuggled. Food, for people who just want to be left alone.

In the US, that has a rather…complicated history, and something about it makes me think of groups like Branch Davidians–but come to think, the book predates Waco. And it’s made clear that the problem is that the new government is not into autonomy at all–depressingly so, and I bet the New Republic just doesn’t have the resources to spare to say “really, back the hell off”–though at the same time, there could be reasons why that wouldn’t be any good. We don’t know what it is they’re doing that the government doesn’t approve of…maybe this is a Branch Davidian thing, for all we know.

But Zahn’s footnote makes clear that this is a setup for Karrde to be a good guy.

Ish.

z: Torve thinks it’s nice to see Han and Lando are “still together,” because so many teams have broken up recently, since “Jabba bought the really heavy end of the hammer.”  Han and Lando exchange glances and mumble something about actually ending up together again during the war.  I laugh,  but this is interesting—apparently it’s not common knowledge who dropped that hammer.  Torve needles Han a bit about the rumors that he stole, not won, the Falcon, which gets Lando and Han semi-mock squabbling, which Torve apparently wanted to hear: If people lie about their past they’ll lie about business too, but the duo passed, so what can Talon Karrde do for them?

will: And provides more of Han and Lando’s history. I’m surprised so much of it was figured out already, and it’s not clear whether Zahn invented this or was told. All we got in the movies was “you lost her to me, fair and square.”

z: Han presents the “New Republic wants smugglers cargo shippers” pitch.  Torve presents the usual skepticism about Ackbar.  Han gives the usual “that’s not it.”  It sounds OK with Torve, but he doesn’t make the decisions.  “Take us to Karrde,” Lando suggests, and Torve says he can’t, since Karrde is at the main base and that’s, well, secret.  OK, says Han, how are you getting back there, exactly, with your ship in impound?

Ooops?

will: With added “do this, and I’ll get your ship out of impound.” Lando also notes that he has met Karrde, at least in passing.

z: Torve demurs a bit, but agrees, provided he does all the navigating.  Unless Han would like to go back and play sabacc, since he’s still holding the chips in his hand?  By the way, didn’t the “Reverend” do a magnificent job?  Han and Lando both go “uh, you know him?” Yes, he was the contact with the hill people.  Han gets huffy at being the bait in Torve’s diversion, but Torve is all “what are you complaining about, I’m taking you to Karrde, right?”

Right.

This is a transition chapter, which sets up motion in two directions: Han and Lando going to see Karrde in the immediate future, and Leia needing to get back to Coruscant, like, yesterday, before Fey’lya blows something up.  So it’s a lot of conversation, some chicanery, and almost no action, and very little character development.  It’s not all purpose-driven, though—it’s good to see Han and Lando working in tandem, there are some funny moments, and enough detail to fill in some more local Galactic color, which is always appreciated.  It’s good to be reminded that the sandbox is actually a big one.

Will?

will: Like I said, I think it also shows some of the potential cracks and weaknesses of the governmental system, the tension between centralized and regional, and I think it does a lot of, if not character development, characterization, specifically Han and Lando, and how they’ve changed and grown (especially Han). And like Z said, the local color is important.

But this is more setup for Zahn himself, for later, than it is tied into what’s been going on before. It gets Han and Lando where they need to be, for what’s coming next.

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