Heir to the Empire, Chapter 23

will: Hi folks! It’s Friday, it’s Chapter 23, and we’re all here. This week, our gearshift gets a workout, and I compare myself to a droid. And Z, too.

z: Tangentially, I’m glad that Will gets to take the lead on this chapter, since it’s the next long Mara/Luke interaction, and… almost the Wham Episode of that series, but not quite.  It’s only fair since I happened to hit the first one.

will: As we open, Luke is caught between a rock and a hard place. Above him, an Imperial Star Destroyer; behind him, a fighter on his six. He’s not used to flying one of these bricks (it’s sluggish and the controls are strange), he doesn’t have the time to get used to it, and the ship behind him is flying at dangerous speeds, which Luke figures means the pilot has a lot of experience with these ships.

That, or else such a fierce determination to recapture Luke that it completely overrode normal commonsense caution.
Either way, it meant Mara Jade.

Which…yes, if it was option two, but option one could be other people too. Still, some conclusions are just obvious, genre savvy universe or not.

z: I always envisioned the ship in pursuit maneuvering very recklessly, enough for Luke to notice, and he can of course directly link that to Mara’s passionate hatred.

will: Luke skims the treetops, Artoo complaining (“Sorry!”), but treetop-level flying is his best option. The forest scatters sensors, so the Star Destroyer won’t see him as clearly and the fighter needs to stay on his tail.

Luke then does something fantastic–hits upon an entirely logical, entirely reasonable false assumption. Or I should say Zahn does. Of course it makes perfect sense that Luke would assume Mara’s “company’s coming” referred to the Empire. We know it didn’t, that the Empire was as much a surprise to Mara and Karrde as to Luke, but Luke (especially lacking the Force) would have no idea. And his reaction is entirely appropriate. There’s no wild out-of-character assumptions, no Idiot Balls, just appropriate reactions on all sides. Luke even wonders whether the move to the storage shed might have been because Karrde decided not to turn him over to the Empire. “It might be worth asking Karrde about someday. Preferably from a great distance.”

I laugh.

z: So do I.  No one ever accused Luke Skywalker of being a slow learner.

Beeeeeeeeeeeep!

will: That’s Artoo, interrupting Luke’s (and our) distraction, with a warning: Mara’s right behind you.

z: And he means right behind, as in riding your tail close enough to read your anti-tailgating bumpersticker.   Not that I would know anything about that kind of driving, especially not on the DC Beltway, oh no.

will: Heh. Luke is desperate and pulls into a drop-kick Koiogran turn (what we Earthlings call an Immelmann turn), but something goes wrong and he hits the treeline.

By the way, it turns out there are two “Immelmann turns.” One is a fighter maneuver, involving climbing hard out of a diving attack and, just when you’re about to stall, rotating so you’re pointing down again (letting you set up into another diving attack), while the other is a mostly show maneuver, basically doing half a loop and rolling so that you quickly change your flight direction and momentum. The latter was named for the former, and clearly the latter is what the Koiogran turn was meant to be. (This information brought to you by a few minutes of Googling, because I know less about aerobatics and fighter combat than Zahn does.)

Aside: when I was down seeing Z for that concert we mentioned, I ended up showing her Fantasy Flight Games’s X-Wing Miniatures Game–check out this video of Wil Wheaton, Seth Green, Clare Grant, and Mike Lamond playing it for more about that–which has a Koiogran turn as a possible movement action. I like that. When you do Star Wars, when you do it right anyway, you’re not just telling a story. You’re adding strands to a universe.

z: That was fun.

Parenthetically, I also liked how something goes wrong and Luke hits the treeline when attempting an even slightly-trickier-than-usual maneuver in an unfamiliar ship which we’ve been told handles like a dewback and without the help of the Force.  I mean, I don’t like that Luke is potentially hurt, but you know what I mean.

will: Switching gears, both me and the story, Karrde watches as the three Imperial shuttles (incidentally, who named them “Lambda” class? That one actually flickers my disbelief needle. It’s clearly a reference to their shape, which makes no sense unless you know Greek) go through a perfect parade landing. Surprisingly, Thrawn and a Noghri (again described as an unknown alien, of course) emerge from one of the flanking shuttles, which Karrde notes in his master-of-information manner.

z: I suspect that naming might also be West End Games, or even Lucas himself, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin Googling for that one.

will: You have to like a guy who can have that side thought while watching the poodoo on a collision course with the life support module…and yes, I know, “poodoo” means “food,” not feces. Still.

Karrde comes up to meet Thrawn, and they trade pleasantries and bits of information: this is Karrde’s private base, or it was—

z: –the “is… was our private base” made me laugh a bit uncomfortably–

will: –which explains the informality and their inexperience at putting on a grand show, and Thrawn asks about the fighter chase. Karrde feeds him a line about it being an internal matter, a disgruntled employee, and Thrawn tells him the fighters went down. (Karrde didn’t know, as the metal in the trees messes with sensors.). Karrde is about to organize a rescue party when Thrawn says he’ll take care of it. He orders a trooper detail to the crash site, to bring back any survivors “and anything that looks like it wouldn’t normally belong in a Skipray blastboat.”

Karrde insists it isn’t necessary, but Thrawn calls it debt repayment, which nobody believes. Karrde just hopes Mara can handle it, and turns back to the job of giving Thrawn the ten-credit tour.

z: Significant character moment: “With anyone else, [Karrde] wouldn’t bet on [that person having the situation at the accident site under control.  With Mara… there was a chance.”

How Karrde sees Mara, how Mara has shown herself, all in one tight neat package.

will: Switching gears again, Han and Lando have apparently been sent into hiding in the tall grass, with Ghent to keep an eye on them.

(Like that’ll work. Karrde must have been desperate.

Which he was.)

z: It’s also comic relief.  Ghent is so clearly flailing and losing his grip on any and all threads whipping around here.  Zahn later lampshades it in this section.

will: Anyway, Han is observing the little welcoming ceremony through macrobinoculars, and narrating to Lando. Ghent says that the Empire hasn’t been to the base before, just to the forest to get some little furry snakes with legs, no he doesn’t know what those are good for, and can they go hide now?

Han and Lando discuss the Skipray, which Ghent says was a prisoner–Lando is surprised at the fact that Karrde would get into bounty hunting, while Han recognizes the Noghri (thus at least linking the kidnapping attempts to the Empire explicitly; data!)–and Han and Lando grill Ghent for more information.

Ghent is so far out of his element, he’s out of his entire periodic table, so he spills what he knows…up to and including that the guy with the red eyes is “a Grand Admiral or something.”

z: This is where Zahn has to slip in a bit of new-then Star Wars mythos: Both Han and Lando react to the news of a “Grand Admiral”  surfacing again pretty similarly to how they would react to news that the Empire was constructing a third Death Star.  Or even worse–with a third Death Star there would have been a bit of “really? really? seriously?” tinge to the reaction, while they greet the Grand Admiral idea with plain trepidation.

(Speaking of how much a third Death Star would be unintentionally hilarious, later {grumble} {mumble} {sit on hands} OK, we’re not speaking of that.)

will: OK, time to get back to the ship. Han and Lando have just had their entire trip to see Karrde justified…if they can get back to Coruscant and report in.

Big if.

Switching back to the first gear–hope your clutch is in good shape–Luke wakes up and doesn’t hurt. This fighter must have had more than just seatbelts and airbags restraints and crash balloons. He got a little knocked around, but he’s not hurt. Artoo isn’t either, though his USB cable information retrieval jack broke off. They figure Mara could be coming back with a ground party, so time to get–oh, there’s Mara’s ship, and it’s in even worse shape. Artoo “whistles in squeamish-sounding awe,” and Betsy Mitchell, one of Zahn’s Lucasfilm editors, says what we’ve been saying:

Anthropomorphism FTW!

z: {victory sign}

will: Luke goes to investigate and sees Mara seems motionless in her own pilot seat, and debates whether to check her condition or get going. He makes the only choice he really could, to check on her–she knew it was coming, and levels her holdout blaster at him. “Back up.”

Luke backs up, and, to his credit, asks if she’s hurt. She shuts him down and says “get the survival kit.”

They trade banter on how they ended up here–sounds like Luke got distracted (he’s probably a bit rusty at flying without a Force assist) and hit the treeline, and Thrawn already said Mara’s fighter was caught in the slipstream–and whether Luke will be coming back at all (interestingly, even now the bluster about shooting Luke is getting routine and a bit hollow to my ears, and we don’t even know the full story yet), and they hear the whine of a ship approaching…but once Mara recognizes the whine as an Imperial shuttle, she shoves Luke into the trees, hisses at him and Artoo both to shut the hell up, and even as Luke wonders whether this is a ploy to shoot him, and then whether he might want to take his chances in Imperial custody away from the ysalamiri, Mara convinces him (with a blaster muzzle) to wait them out.

z: Number of comments here: 1. Luke’s not only rusty without the Force, he also isn’t familiar with the ship and doesn’t like how it handles, and apparently it’s not the easiest thing to handle; 2. Mara recognizing the whine isn’t spelled out in the text, which I liked a lot because it can slip by the reader, as it seems to have slipped by Luke; 3. Completely agree about the blaster-shooty thing, but don’t blame Luke for still taking no chances either.

will: Because Mara is familiar with stormtrooper practice, she gets Luke and Artoo away from the sensor they would have left behind before they sit down and take stock. Luke thanks her for saving him, she blows him off, explaining that she can’t deal with the Empire until she’s gotten her story straight with Karrde. Eventually she figured out where she is and how long it’ll take to reach the nearest thing to civilization, which is when Luke raises the question: is she going to bring him along?

Mara asks why she should bother bringing Luke. Luke answers, he has a droid with convenient sensors.  Mara scoffs–she was going to dismantle Artoo (which she refers to as “it” throughout), and the jungle’s sensor blocking gives no range at all.

z: There’s even this very direct exchange, emphases mine: `”He won’t tell them anything.” Luke insisted.  “Not after it’s in pieces, no,” Mara agreed.’

I suddenly have a lump in my throat, and it’s related to the Mass Effect storyline again, so we’ll pass.

will: Luke argues that’s still a step up from what they can sense unaided, and if  Mara took Artoo she’d need to bring him as well, but Mara doesn’t bite. She doesn’t need them. Luke wonders aloud whether Mara is letting her emotions cloud her judgment.

“Let me tell you something, Skywalker. I’ve wanted to kill you for a long time. I dreamed about your death every night for most of that first year. Dreamed it, plotted it—I must have run through a thousand scenarios, trying to find exactly the right way to do it. You can call it a cloud on my judgement if you want to: I’m used to it by now. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to a permanent companion.”

z: My jaw had dropped the first time I’d read this.  Not at the particular situation itself, even, but at the point-blank in the face intensity of her rage.  At how much Luke’s mentioning emotions clouding judgement was a perfect “Oh No He Di’n’t” moment apparently.  It still hits very hard, as it should.

will: Luke, equal parts scared, confused, and feeling her pain even without the Force, wonders what he had done to her.

“You destroyed my life.”

z: …exactly how, she doesn’t say, and we have to wait a bit more.  Again.

will: They digress briefly into revenge and the old dig-two-graves bit–she admits that it won’t help bring her life back, but doesn’t care, though she stops short of why (and I just looked it up…it seems like in the original formulation, the proverb says that it’s worth it to dig those graves), but Luke scores a hit when he asks about Karrde’s wishes. Still, it isn’t enough, and Mara is about to pull the trigger when Luke has a brainstorm: what if he could provide communication with Karrde?

The problem isn’t just communication–there’s an antenna they can use–but encryption. The Empire can break anything Mara has…but they can’t get through a droid counterpart encrypt, not quickly anyway, and Artoo and Luke’s X-Wing have reached that level.

And here I digress. “Counterpart,” what a choice of words. Of course, we all know where it comes from: “I am C-3PO, human-cyborg relations. And this is my counterpart, Artoo-Detoo.” But that never got fully described, in classic Lucas style, and now Zahn is filling out the pieces. I can visualize it: you know how you’ve been working with someone for a long time that you have developed your own idiosyncratic workflow? Like, I don’t know, trading off writing reviews of book chapters? (“I am Z-3PO, reader/reviewer relations. And this is my counterpart, Willtoo Detoo.”)

z: [vacillates wildly between feeling happy and honored, and glaring.]

will: That’s a counterpart system. And with droids and semisentient computers (we’re not given clear evidence that the X-Wing’s computer is sentient, and I believe we’ll later learn that the trend is toward distributed, sentient droids and not-fully-sentient computers, partly because of the dangers of centralization), it can be even better. A combination of familiar pieces, nonstandard terminology, bits of code already present in both sides…reminds me a bit of code talking, most famously World War II’s Navajo.

z: When I first read this I knew nothing of cryptography.  Now I find that my brain insists on replacing “one-time pad” for “counterpart encrypt,” at least as far as security level is concerned.

will: Not sure that’s entirely accurate in method, but yeah, the security level comparison works. Anyway, Mara calls bullshit on Luke’s claim that Artoo and his X-Wing have a counterpart system, because standard practice is to wipe and reload droid memories every six months. Luke says he doesn’t do that. (At this point, Artoo’s clearly been going at least since Star Wars without a wipe, so that’s on the order of nine years. And depending on what we believe from other sources, it could be more like twenty to thirty. Minimum.)

z: Oh, you know he wasn’t wiped.  I kind of lost track of what Lucas thinks about that, and at this point I don’t care either.

will: Mara grills Luke on the details, and admits that a thirty-plus percent efficiency increase is a droid counterpart, and that even though the Empire can crack it eventually, it will take more time–and they only need a few days.

Luke watches the war in her face. “Bitterness, hatred, desire for survival…and something else. Something that Luke could almost believe might be a touch of loyalty.” She finally agrees after they address how the message will be found (someone is bound to check on the X-Wing eventually, they’ll just leave the message light blinking) and Mara snarks how convenient it is that this scheme requires both Luke and Artoo.

z: I laugh.

will: As to how Artoo is going to get through the forest, he’s pretty resourceful, but Luke offers to cut some branches for a simple carrying frame, if Mara would just give him his lightsaber for a minute?

z: I laugh again.  Nice try, which even Luke says to himself when Mara refuses:

will: But Mara will take care of it herself–and yes, she knows how to use a lightsaber, thankyouverymuch, snap-hiss, trim trim slice slice, hiss turn-off hang on belt, here you go.

Luke reels in shock at that–how does she know how to do that? But at any rate, time to get going. And scene.

I like how this chapter braids the various plot threads. It’s mostly Mara and Luke, but the bits with Karrde and the Empire, and Han and Lando, are important context. How people react to situations outside of their control, how to lie under pressure, the value of information…all of it comes into play, and the non-Luke scenes make the world and the events seem more real than if they cut straight from Luke crashing to Luke waking up. There are more stories than that, after all.

And we get the first real glimpse into Mara’s depth of hatred. We still don’t know why exactly, but we know that what happened on Jabba’s sail barge destroyed her life so much that she’s been living (if that’s even the word; “subsisting” might be closer) with the shards and her desire for vengeance ever since…which is interesting only because we didn’t get that sense before now. Frankly, Mara sounds like a revengeaholic, who had been on the wagon for a while but is now falling off. And as we’ll learn, yes, that’s pretty much right, aided by the waxing and waning of her Force sensitivity and maybe the remnants of the Emperor’s death.

That’s about it for me. Wonder what my counterpart thinks…

z: [looks towards NYC with a very complex expression of her own on her face again, eventually shakes her head and starts typing:]

This chapter features several plot threads developing very naturally, and exactly as you’d expect them to develop given the characters involved, no idiot balls and no forced coincidences.  Take Ghent with Han and Lando, how he loses control of the conversation and spills tidbit after tidbit–he’s a baby and he’s up against two of the slickest customers the galaxy even can offer, so what would you expect?  So then why would Karrde send the baby chick to watch over the foxes?  Because he needed someone who doesn’t explicitly know about Luke, and anyone there who doesn’t and is more skilled at emergency management than Ghent has already been sent out to deal with an actual emergency, of which there are many at the moment.  An ISD appearing over your head will do that.

About Mara’s state, “subsisting” is definitely more applicable, going by her remarks. And “revengeaholic” is also apt.  It’s not her body that she’s keeping going at the subsistence-level:  She is fairly healthy and strong when we meet her with Karrde, and even being so high up in her organization says that she’s done all right.  (Later stories fill in a bit of her backstory, and she’s definitely done things like bartending and such, but never been at the “starving on the street” stage.)  It’s her mind and soul that is surviving on a subsistence diet.  No regular company (except her hate).  No prospects related to future plans (except her revenge).  That kind of poor soul-fare can break someone really fast.

will: Yes, exactly. The sense I get is that working for Karrde, unlike some of the more basic-needs jobs, had let her start to maybe move past her hatred, until it came rushing back, and we later learn that is a pattern–get a job, start moving past, flare of Skywalker hatred, Force manifestations, dreams, time to move on.

z: And it just now occurs to me to wonder whether her loyalty to Karrde, whether she consciously knows it or not, comes a bit from Karrde having met those needs with something other than dust and dirt.  Karrde keeps the relationship professional, but obviously sees her—her capability, her abilities.  Karrde outright comes out with plans of advancement for her future.  She’s got to match those against her subsistence-level food when debating whether to kill Luke or not—and the healthier fare wins, however narrowly.

will: For now.

z: Thanks for bearing with us for another rather long recap and commentary on another rather long chapter—we’re at that point of the book, and until next week, may the Force be with you.

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5 thoughts on “Heir to the Empire, Chapter 23

  1. Oh, I got a hair on the other thing. “The designation of this shuttle type as Lambda-class dates back to the novelization of Return of the Jedi (1983), and was picked up by contributors to West End Games when that company began writing material about the shuttle.”

    Wookieepedia knows all. Also, apparently Tionese was the biggest language predating Galactic Basic, and its letters are greek just as Basic’s are latin.

    Liked by 1 person

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