Heir to the Empire, Chapter 28

z: Welcome, gentlebeings, to Chapter 28 of Heir to the Empire, wherein we leave Wedge traveling through hyperspace towards Big Space Battle (™) to check in on our friendly neighborhood Force-less Jedi and his prospective killer.

Hey, you know that at this point, she’d probably smile to hear herself be called that.

will: Though more and more in this chapter, she probably wouldn’t, on the “not yet” theory.

z: Luke and Mara are nearing the end of their forest journey.  They are close to the forest’s edge and Hyllyard City, only about two hours away by their best estimate in fact, and they have been hearing speeder bike whines.  An interesting point is that it is Luke who positively identifies them this time, maybe since he’s the one who heard what they sound like in a forest more recently.

will: Impressive, since that was five years back and all. Then again, that’s not an experience you forget. And Luke does realize that mentioning Endor “might not have been a good idea.”

z: Upon requesting Artoo to make an audio map (from the description, he plots the audio intensity in all directions) and seeing that there are no units to the north, Luke thinks they must have veered north of their original direct course to Hyllyard City, because he reckons that the Imperials would be concentrating their search on the direct path.  Mara naturally mocks that:

Mara smiled thinly. “Such wonderful Jedi naïveté,” she said. “I don’t suppose you considered the fact that just because we can’t hear them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”

“…they could have a force lying in wait there,” [Luke] agreed. “But what would it gain them?”

“Oh, come on, Skywalker—it’s the oldest tactical trick in the book.  If the perimeter looks impossible to crack, the quarry goes to ground and waits for a better opportunity.  You don’t want him to do that, so you give him what looks like a possible way through.”

There are a couple of things different in her sarcasm here, however.  One is that this is once again one of the justified ones; I basically said “oh, come on” along with her when I hit his line here.  (I’ll touch upon the “Jedi naïveté” phrase later.  (By the way, it’s wonderful that either Zahn or his copyeditor or possibly both use the proper all-accents-aboard spelling of “naïveté.” (Digression over.)))

will: Agreed on the justification. Once again, the Jedi way of straightforward approaches means he’s less concerned about traps–it’s been a habit five years in the making. And yeah, the diacritics are present even on my ebook copy, and that’s very good work–ebooks are rife with screwups on that front.

z: The more significant difference became clearer to me as they continue the discussion on what to do:

“…if we swing north to avoid the obvious speeder bikes, it’s instant proof that we’ve got something to hide from them.”

Luke grimaced. “Not that they really need any proof.”

Mara shrugged and straightened up again. “Some officers are more legal-minded than theirs.  The question is, what do we do now?”

will: That bit about legal-minded and the standards of proof…hits unexpectedly hard these days.

z: Her question here isn’t rhetorical; the conversation continues with Luke making another tactical assessment and her refining that using her knowledge of Imperial tactics.  Let me repeat that: She was actually asking Luke what their joint course of action should be, with the intention to use the response in further planning.

In fact… here’s a thought experiment: Replace “Mara” with “Han” in this dialogue.  Modulo pronouns and exact knowledge of standard Imperial procedures, it still works.  Mara’s mood and mode has shifted to working with Luke, instead of having Luke as a prisoner, and even that only because what she wanted to do to him would get Karrde in a lot of trouble, at that.

will: And it’s a very good team indeed.

z: Whether she’s admitted it to herself yet or not, things have changed a little bit.   A great part of that is her pragmatism, of course.  Mara is a survivor.  Given the impasse they are in, the only way out of her current predicament is cooperation with Luke.  She is one of those people who do things well when they do them, so she’s using all the resources at her disposal, one of which is Luke’s cooperation, some others are Luke’s skills.  So there we go, and she less pointed even when mocking Luke’s “naïveté.”

(Why yes I intend to copy-paste that every chance I get.)

So they can’t break out of the closing Imperial circle.  What to do, then?  Luke suggests walking up to the Imperials and “calling to them” before they see the two of them and the droid.

will: How very Jedi, again.

z: Mara remarks that he wants to do the role-shift trick too, she supposes, and when he says he does because there are no better ideas, she “reflexively” glares at him (Luke’s perception) but agrees.  There’s a brief sticking point when she gives him her blaster without the power pack and Luke points out that the Imperials will almost certainly search him and a blaster that couldn’t fire, if he’s a bounty hunter bringing in a prisoner, is going to raise eyebrows invisible behind the stormtrooper masks.  And if another vornskr gets to them in the meantime…

“Maybe I don’t care,” she shot back.

Luke nodded.  “Maybe you don’t.”

She glared at him again, but again, the glare lacked conviction.  Teeth visibly grinding together, she slapped the power pack into his hand.

will: Bluff, called. You could have killed him, Mara, but you didn’t, and it wasn’t a one-time thing, and he knows it.

z: Yet once again the reflexive-barb-calm-deflection, and just like that, Luke’s prisoner status is officially over.  One more thing, though.  He asks Artoo to open the storage compartment which we’ve seen in Return of the Jedi, and holds out his hand to Mara.  She looks at the compartment and at his hand and puts two and two together: So that’s how he managed to smuggle the lightsaber in to Jabba’s.   That could have been another tight moment, what with “the day he ruined my life” and all, but right now more important considerations prevail, so she hands him the lightsaber for Artoo to hide it, and even warns him not to rely on his Force-related skills with it because the ysalamiri effect will be extending into the city.

will: This really is a test of Mara’s compartmentalization–avenging lightsaber-wielding Jedi, references to Endor, to Jabba’s palace, and Luke not a prisoner…good thing she’s trained to focus.

z: Again worth repeating: She warns him not to rely on some particular fighting skills she thinks he might reflexively fall into.  Because she needs him to be ready for what’s coming, too.

Luke’s all “good to go,” and Mara points out that his face is kind of known to the Empire whatever he calls himself or pretends to be.  Luke snarks, or rather sadly attempts to snark, that Artoo can’t hide that, but Mara has another plan.  She knows the local flora, including this one plant whose leaves cause instant puffiness and pustules on the skin if someone allergic touches them—and Luke’s allergic as anything to those, what chance.  Luke grits his teeth and brushes his face with the leaves.  Mara reassures him that the itching will fade.  Eventually.  She also says that he looks “pretty horrendous” and unlike any  photos the Imperials are likely to have, so off they go.

will: Note that Luke does try to do his Jedi pain-suppression exercises, but because they do rely on the Force, they don’t work as such. Still, focus and calm (as they likely involve) help.

z: Zahn then has another of those turns of phrase that have stuck with me, because perfect word choice and hilarity:

They made good time, despite the lingering tenderness of Mara’s ankle and the distractions inherent in a faceful of itch.

Heh.  And also, note that Luke’s very aware of Mara’s condition, again.  And not only her condition, but her feelings; he thinks that he’d like to offer to trade places with her to drag Artoo’s travois, but the Imperials might appear before they can hear them and trade again and it wouldn’t look like she is the prisoner in that case, and… “Besides which, she had far too much pride to agree.”

will: Heh.

z: And suddenly, two biker scouts appear!  Luke and Mara stop, and one of the scouts “unnecessarily” calls “Halt!”.  I laugh.  Luke and Mara misidentify themselves and start acting. Luke plays the greedy bounty hunter Jade, Mara the surly thief Senni, with Luke trying to make sure the Imperials despise him and therefore have entirely the wrong first impression and mental image.

And then he wonders to himself if this is the sort of trick a Jedi should use.

will: Back to Kambei’s topknot, after all.

z: Talk about Jedi naïveté. (Told you.)

I mean, maybe Luke has a point.  Anything other than complete openness and honesty isn’t the Jedi way, right?  …erm (“from a certain point of view.”).  Even against your actual real non-ambigious not-a-matter-of-interpretation enemies?  …um (how’s Jabba doing nowadays—wait, he isn’t).

But maybe it isn’t, or rather isn’t going to be, Luke’s way.

will: There is a distinction, though, between this, entirely a matter of preconception and acting,, and some later tricks Luke will do with the Force (that Zahn will eventually have to call Luke–and a bunch of EU writers–out on).

z: It’s another one of those seeds that Zahn tries to sow, being acutely aware of the need for an actual Jedi philosophy and mode of behaviour if there is going to be more stories set in this universe.  As with other things he’s attempted to set up, that is also going to get wobbly further on, but it is definitely not his fault, and I appreciate the attempt very much.

The scout commands Luke to drop his blaster, and they escort the pair and Artoo out of the forest and into the city, where they are met by a major and some stormtroopers.  In another brief shower of foreshadowing+plot thread linking, Luke thinks to himself that the presence of the stormtroopers indicates that the Imperial commander-in-charge is taking this incident very seriously, since “even at the height of their power, the Imperials hadn’t spent stormtroopers lightly.”  Thrawn: 3, everyone else still including Pellaeon: 0, on that count.

will: Well, Pellaeon was the one who wondered about the value of Thrawn’s decision to station troopers, so it’s more a matter of Thrawn deciding this one was worth it.

z: The major is a bit more on the ball than Luke and Mara would like, it turns out.  Though they do seem to be taken in by the prisoner being a woman and the pursuer a man, at least so far, the major also realizes right away that the condition of Luke’s face is a condition (and Luke has to explain that he ran into some plant) and not how he naturally looks. Conveniently, there’s a medic nearby.  Heh.

will: Of course, they’ve probably been told that Thrawn is expecting Luke Skywalker, so they would be surprised at the gender breakdown…

z: The major orders both Luke and Mara to be cuffed, over Luke’s protests—“for the moment you’re both prisoners.” One of the first biker scouts they meet gives Mara’s blaster to the major, who remarks that it is an “interesting weapon”—this is a touch I hadn’t realized until this reread, nice one, Mr. Zahn.

will: I don’t follow you on that one.

z: Mara’s blaster isn’t yet described, but when the major found it interesting, I suddenly found myself wondering where she got it, and when, and doing what.

Luke, Mara and Artoo are herded into the center of a stormtrooper formation and they start marching into the city, which reminds Luke of Mos Eisley, at least in design and function.  (Which probably translates to “backwater city in any of a zillion backwater worlds,” which Zahn will make explicit soon.)

Then the stormtroopers abruptly change formation, with the inner circle around Luke and Mara tightening, and they stop and wait.  Almost immediately, around the corner comes the likely reason for the stop: “Four scruffy-looking men walking briskly toward them with a fifth man in the center of their square, his hands chained behind him.”

This “prisoner” is Han.  Lookit the coincidence.  The spokesman for the four new capturers identifies himself as Chin (we’ve met him in Karrde’s camp before), saying that they “caught this ratch snooping around the forest—maybe looking for your prisoners there.”  There’s a little bit of verbal scruffle, at the end of which the Imperials take over this “prisoner” too, but this time letting the “bounty hunters” go.  Who grumble a bit for good form and quickly make themselves scarce.

will: Speaking of resonances to Jabba’s Palace, once again, Zahn’s ear for dialogue and proper reuse pops up: “Together again, huh?” “Wouldn’t miss it.”

z: As the formation starts moving again, Han having joined Luke and Mara in the center, expectable banter immediately gives way to code talk: Han says that his “friends” left in a hurry because they probably don’t want to miss the party they are arranging to celebrate his capture.  Party, huh.  At this point they turn into an avenue and start approaching what seems like a central plaza or square.  Luke notices that this is a huge open area, with a very large, incongruously ornate arch (he thinks) at the far side.

(Seriously, flyboy?  No one who grew up on a moisture farm on  Tatooine for the Force’s sake is allowed to snark at any bit of architectural ornamentation anywhere ever.  Good for the Hyllyard City citizens, I’ll say, and wish them many disproportionately large, extremely ornate arches.  Of course, later on, oops—but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

will: I think Luke’s upbringing on Tatooine may explain why he has that reaction. He isn’t used to frills and ornamentation at all.

z: Though what keeps Luke’s interest is not the architectural intricacies of the arch, but the fact that the open plaza completely commanded by the arch might as well have “KILLZONE—IDEAL FOR AMBUSH” spelled across it in pebbles.  But in contrast to Thrawn, Luke isn’t in the habit of underestimating his enemies, and realizes that the stormtroopers will also be perfectly aware that this is an ideal spot for ambush and be on alert.  Which they in fact instantly are; they change formation once again and ready their weapons before stepping into the plaza.

Luke asks Han if Threepio is here, and upon learning that Threepio’s around there with Lando, he sticks his foot out and trips Artoo.  Squea–CRASH!  Owww. Under the guise of trying to help him up clumsily with bound hands, Luke whispers to the droid to call to Threepio and tell him to “wait until we’re at the archway to attack.”  Artoo doesn’t wait even a moment before starting to warble loudly. The stormtroopers and the major pull them both up, and the major is suspicious: “What did [Artoo] say?”  “He was probably telling me off for tripping him,” Luke replies, “How should I  know what he said?”

will: One assumes that Artoo sent not just a standard-astromech message, but a counterpart encrypt code. The comparison to code talkers strikes again.

z: Heh.  Also, some more heh.  Also, some extra heh, given that discounting Threepio and other droids which speak astromech, Luke is probably the one sapient being in the galaxy who will come closest to literally understanding Artoo.

will: And now, I can’t help but think of the “I speak jive” scene from Airplane!

z: The major calls for more alertness and they start moving again.  Han mutters to Luke that he hopes Luke knows what he’s doing.  Luke says that he hopes so, too.  Well.  And scene.

And here we are, dangling from yet another cliff.  Will?

will: It’s interesting that chapters that have a lot of plot tend to have shorter commentary, because they have less introspection, less examination of characters and reactions. As the book winds up and the avalanche of events cascades, we’ll probably have less to talk about except in the moments of revelation (like at the Battle of Sluis Van).

You see it in the footnotes, too, stripping those down as the action takes over.

It’s economical, too, though I wonder. We’ve been talking about tension building for a while–does anybody ever feel like there’s too much and something should just happen? I mean, I don’t. But is that just me, or is Zahn playing things out appropriately?

z: I think that’s a bit from our self-enforced pace of reading, one chapter a week.

will: That’s all from me. See you next week for a bona fide action sequence, and may the Force be with you.

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