Heir to the Empire, Chapter 31

will: Welcome to the fireworks factory! Tonight, the part of the fireworks factory will be played by the Sluis Van system and associated shipyards, the part of Itchy and Scratchy will be played by the Imperial fleet, and there’s no Poochie in sight.

z: \flat_voice{Missing reference error.  Please load reference and retry.}

will: That’s right, it’s time to call battlestations and get to your fighters, the Battle for Sluis Van is here.

z: …or don’t bother with the loading, we’ve got our hands full here.

will: In the finest tradition of these things, we start with our hotshot pilot dealing with the little annoyances. Here, Captain Afyon of the Larkhess, who isn’t ever specifically stated to be a Fey’lya supporter (actually, maybe not; his complaint is pretty universal interservice bitching, the sort I imagine Marines get from the Navy), complaining about hotshot pilots who ride along in his ship, spend two hours on escort duty, and then lounge around. Not really earning their keep, are they?

z: Here is why his name is hilarious to me, by the way.  I think I also remember a conversation in which Zahn did mention using modified Turkish words occasionally to sound, well, non-English.  Which is fine.

I just wish he had picked a city whose shortened name wasn’t a homonym for “opium,” though.

will: Wedge tries his best to just drink his tea (caf hasn’t been invented yet, metafictionally) and let it roll off his back, half-regretting not taking promotion, but on the other hand, thinking “there but for the grace of the Force go I,” because if he took promotion, he’d be in Afyon’s boots. Wedge even considers doing Afyon a favor and letting him burn off some frustration by yelling at him.

z: There’s a lot of selfless soldier drinking tea on that bridge there.

will: He looks around at the ships clogging up the traffic lanes around the shipyards: passenger liners with Corvette escorts, transports with B-wing escorts, an A-class freighter with…no escort at all.

That’s suspicious.

He scans it–it’s empty. Completely empty, in fact. Nothing at all.

That’s more suspicious.

Here is where I digress: we all know Wedge isn’t Force-sensitive. So what gives here, one might ask?

Experience.

A friend of mine once played a D&D character, a half-orc cleric. (This was 3/3.5 rules.) The guy had a Wisdom of 18, and an Intelligence of 3. (The character, not my friend.) Could barely form sentences, but he’d survived basically everything–so he was able to run up to you yelling “no!” before you set off the trap.

That’s sort of Wedge, if you replace Intelligence with Force-sensitivity. He’s been doing this a long time (ten plus years at this point), and when his reflexes are screaming at him, he listens. Pattern recognition and an instinctive understanding of what feels wrong.

z: Exactly.  Experienced drivers know something is wrong with the engine just by listening to its sound.  Experienced mountaineers note a combination of temperature and humidity and how much the sun had been shining recently and decide to turn back, fifteen minutes before an avalanche.  All of this is learned behavior and almost none of it is teachable.  It’s all experience–in the symphony of the world, there’s a wrong note, and someone with perfect pitch–Luke–could have heard it without having listened to the symphony before, but someone who’s heard that performed a hundred times will also notice and frown.

will: Though of course, the Force was involved. Wedge was in the system, after all. Nothing overt, all coincidental stuff that he didn’t already hyper out…but there you are.

Afyon, picking up on Wedge’s concern, drops his irritation and asks what’s up. Upon hearing Wedge’s suspicions, he uses a few tricks to get into the records and ID the freighter, as Wedge watches the ship maneuver…like it had full cargo holds. The ship claims to have been jumped by pirates and to be hoping for repairs, and it all hangs together…but Wedge knows better than to ignore his backbrain’s screams, and the Rogues scramble. Afyon’s in full professionalism mode now, no more bitching, and the Rogues launch smoothly. Wedge tells the Rogues to take fly casual and take a little look-see…

And in the space of a single heartbeat, the whole thing went straight to hell.

The freighter explodes to pieces. Wedge calls for emergency services even as he sees that, strangely, he can see into the “empty” disintegrating cargo bay, but not beyond or through it…and the cloak (for that’s what this was all about) drops.

“A boiling wave front of TIE fighters” appears in front of him, spreading out from where the freighter was. The Rogues angle away and go to attack position, and we leave Wedge with the grim thought that Rogue Squadron is definitely earning its pay today…

z: So that’s the deal with the modifications to the cloaking technology Thrawn had his engineering crew working on: The freighter still has to be visible, and seem normal so that it can snug its way into a line of ships waiting to dock, but the cloaking shield has to conceal its mass data.  Do that, and you’ve got a Trojan frigate.  Well done, Imperial Engineering.

will: Scene shift! Han is piloting the Falcon into Sluis Van when the freighter goes boom, He starts to move in to help…and gets hit with a laser bolt from behind. The rest is instinct: he goes full-speed evasive without a second’s hesitation and gets clear enough to check the sensors…and sees the Imperial fleet. Luke manages to get to the copilot seat, and in a “glacially calm” voice assesses the situation. Han reflects on the change compared to the Luke he met all those years ago (“at the rate they’re gaining?!”), but at any rate, they quickly figure out what the Empire’s been up to: forcing the New Republic to overextend and pull ships from Sluis Van, softening it up…

z: …all the meanwhile forcing more and more undercrewed capital ships, being used for shipping, into Sluis Van. Veritable smorgasbord of ships, all-you-can-steal for the low, low price of… well, we’re about to see.

will: Then they get Wedge’s battlestations call, and hail back.  Wedge reports at least forty TIEs (four squadrons, one imagines), plus fifty “truncated cone-shaped things,” and they’re outgunned. Luke can’t get to his X-wing, so he heads to the gun well, Han gets ready for the fight, and spends a half second wondering whether the cone-shaped things are the mole miners, but that makes no sense, why did he think about that at all?

Another scene shift! Pellaeon orders the attack and reports to Thrawn, but Thrawn is distracted by a ship towing an X-wing. Pellaeon gives a neutral response–he can’t really tell what ship was there towing what, but he isn’t about to contradict–and reports the status of the battle. Thrawn emphasizes his orders concerning the handful of spacetrooper-equipped mole miners–yes, Han was on to something, but he didn’t know what–and choosing targets. Oh, and warn them about the Falcon.

I imagine this is where the reader puts the pieces together, or at least gets close. I don’t recall if I went “aha!” here, and I kind of doubt it. At any rate, Thrawn and Pellaeon spare a moment to think about whether Luke Skywalker is also there, and if so, how badly they’ll need to punish Talon Karrde.

z: I know I didn’t, until it was made explicit.  Lucky that that isn’t too far away now.

will: Further scene shift! Back to Wedge, who has a tail on him, and pulls a pincer maneuver along with Rogue Five (unnamed; it probably would be Wes Janson if Zahn had made it that far, but that’s fiddling even for me) to blast it to bits. They find themselves un-shot-at, so he decides to continue toward the Star Cruiser he’d used for cover and pull around it.

z: One bit I noticed in this readthrough: Zahn uses the construction “[Wedge’s] momentum had been carrying him [in a direction]…” a couple of times while describing the action here.  Because an object in motion tends to stay in the same motion until another force is applied, so of course Wedge isn’t running his engines to keep going at the same speed.  This is very much not our experience with the things we drive on the very-friction-full Earth, or even the airplanes we fly in; maybe that is why I do not remember any other mention of that mode of motion in battle scenes written by others.  Turning, changing speed, sure.  Just keeping flying because there is no trouble at the moment: No force necessary.

Anyway, Wedge swings by the Star Cruiser, and…

will: That’s when he notices the mole miner, still not knowing what it is, and again trusts his instincts to investigate further.

z: What he quickly sees is that the mole miner seems to have attached itself to the cruiser somewhere near the bridge, but he can’t quite see–

will: Just as he gets close, though, the Star Cruiser fires on him.

Which confuses the hell out of Wedge and Five, of course, but the Star Cruiser doesn’t follow up, so they get away. Wedge is now even more suspicious, and asks where the rest of the miners are. There are only fifteen that Five can see, oddly, so they fly toward the nearest one and its four-TIE escort. The TIEs aren’t surprised at all, and peel off to engage. Wedge, Five, and the now-arriving Falcon take care of them, but the mole miner (which Han identifies, and Wedge points out he saw once already) beats them to the Escort Frigate it was nearing. Just as it hits the hull, it fires its plasma jets, and Han gets it.

“Luke–we got it backwards. They’re not here to wreck the fleet.
They’re here to steal it.”

Luke feels the click of everything falling into place, and sees that a whole bunch of the undermanned warships are suddenly retreating–they’ve been taken and are fleeing.

z: There are five Star Destroyers on the outskirts of the system waiting with open arms, after all.  Metaphorically speaking.  The precise mechanics is that stormtroopers nestled in the mole miners are using them as boarding vehicles, cutting through access hatches with the plasma jets under manual control and then taking over the ships with little to no trouble because these are all hundreds-of-crew ships being run by fifteen people at the moment.

will: The only thing Han and Luke can think of doing is to stop the ships from leaving; Luke is willing to board them, but there are too many, so they switch the plan to disabling the ships somehow. Wedge points out that they can start by blasting the twelve miners that aren’t yet attached to ships, and Luke tells Sluis Control what’s going on. He also feels something odd from Han, who says he has a thought…but he’s not sure what. They line up on the mole miner, blast it open to get a look inside, and meet their next troublemaker: a spacetrooper, a stormtrooper in zero-G armor. Fun!

The spacetrooper has backpack-mounted proton torpedoes, and is staying right up against the mole miner, so Han decides it’s time to ram. He swerves around and heads for the miner full speed, as the spacetrooper begins to distance himself from the miner and fire his torpedoes at the Falcon.

Just as they get close, though, Han drops down, and Wedge flashes up, vaporizing the mole miner. With the spacetrooper out of position, the miner was vulnerable (guess the trooper also had shields). See, the whole “ramming” thing was a decoy–Han knew Wedge would get it, and the Empire always intercepts comms…

z: This whole sequence is written from Luke’s point of view, which is great, because Luke (of course) does not get it until Wedge flashes by and does his thing.  Heh.

Also, I’m not sure  how big the mole miners are, but I’d just like to point out that Wedge hit one dead-on with a single shot coming from a weird angle and possibly unable to see his target for more than a split second while going really, really fast.  It’s almost like he’s a good fighter pilot or something, I don’t know.

will: Han gets distracted again as he explains his genius, but shakes it off: Let’s find another mole miner.

Revenge of scene shift!

z: …you’re having a lot of fun with those, but I can’t begrudge you that because, well, that’s what this is.  Rapid cuts.  Quick action.  It’s almost like it’s a battle scene or something, I don’t know.

will: Pellaeon watches as the fight goes on, and the Star Destroyers on the perimeter keep battling. The Chimaera loses a shield section, so Thrawn has his lasers focus on a nearby Assault Frigate and destroy its starboard weapons, then tractors the ship into place over the damaged shields: a starship shield tactic.

z: I remember being extremely impressed by the whole coldness of that maneuver.  Not in a good way.

will: Pellaeon watches the battle unfold, commenting on pressure points and places to watch out for, and Thrawn checks in with the no-longer-cloaked invaders. Some forty and change have latched on to target ships, one spacetrooper is dead (and the other is the one Han left alive, whom Thrawn orders recovered), and Thrawn says it’s time to start pulling out, as soon as the commandeered ships join the fleet. Pellaeon is surprised–why not go after the ships attacking them? Because Thrawn can prioritize, basically: the goal here is a new fleet, not destroying Republic ships. The material advantage of forty new capital ships, plus everything else, would be devastating, and Thrawn knows it.

Bride of scene shift!

z: Scene Shift: The Shiftening?

will: Han keeps the Falcon close as Luke fires into a Frigate’s engine coolant lines, but no dice. Capital ships aren’t exactly easy to disable (“that’s what other capital ships are for,” says Wedge), so Luke has the idea to exit the ship and cut the coolant lines with his lightsaber. That’s crazy, says Han, and Wedge wonders whether they can use a droid (“always hurt the bird”), but still, no dice.

z: Remember that Artoo’s manipulator arm was broken with the fight with the vornskr and it’s possible Luke didn’t get the chance to fix it—but even if he did, en route, he still says that Artoo doesn’t have the necessary manipulative ability and he wouldn’t trust Threepio with a weapon.

Something tells me that only one of those two statements is true.  I don’t blame Wedge for the fairly sensible suggestion, and I am utterly unsurprised that Luke would cheerfully go climbing over spaceships clutching a lightsaber, but wouldn’t even consider sending out the droids. And abruptly…

will: …Han remembers. I’m not clear how it follows, but it doesn’t matter. Han knows what he’s been thinking about.

(z: He gets it because he’s saying something about a remote-controlled manipulator arm that Luke can use from within the hey wait a minute I said remote-controlled.)

will: Oh. Duh. Han calls for Lando to get up to the cockpit, Luke goes to get him, and Wedge asks what’s going on.

z: Han’s retort to Luke saying Lando’s strapped in is not a movie quote, and yet I have no trouble at all hearing it in Harrison Ford’s voice, intonation and all: “Well, go unstrap him and get him up here.  Now.

Well-played, Mr. Zahn.

will: Han explains that the Empire had jammed communications at Nkllon, but not here, and why would they have done that on Nkllon then? Wedge doesn’t know.

Because the miners were remote-controlled, Lando explains as he reaches the bridge, and they probably still are.

Is it realistic that the Empire wouldn’t have detailed engineering teams to reprogram the mole miners? I’m not sure. I can sort of believe it on the argument that the radio controls were deeply embedded, the Empire was in a hurry, and who would even think of it because what were the odds that the one man who had the command codes would be at Sluis Van?

At any rate, Lando straps in and Han tells him, turn on all the miners. Just have them burn through–they’ll knock out something important for sure.

Lando recognizes that he’s aboard Han’s ship, Han’s the one married to a high-ranking politician, it’ll be Han’s head if something goes bad, and everything else that he can wrap up into “you’re the boss,” and keys the codes.

I’m not going to transcribe the entire sequence, but it works. The miners wreck the ships’ control systems, and that’s that.

z: None of the ships which had a mole miner attached to them is going anywhere under its own power any time soon, but that means that they definitely aren’t getting to the Star Destroyers and jumping off-system, neatly stolen.

will: Return of the resurrection of the death of the son of the bride of scene shift! Pellaeon watches Thrawn, “waiting for the inevitable explosion of injured pride.” But he’s spent too long in the ego-driven Imperial navy. Thrawn snaps back to it and orders a full retreat. No reaching for a blaze of glory, no trying to refuse to admit failure.

“Sluis Van was to be merely a preliminary to the campaign, not the campaign itself. As long as we have Mount Tantiss, our ultimate victory is still assured.”

He further says that there will be more opportunities to get ships, and there’s no need to waste more lives and equipment.

Pellaeon realizes that he’s dealing with a warrior, not a soldier, someone who has “his eye set on the final goal and not on his own personal glory.”

Which I find odd, only because I would have reversed “soldier” and “warrior” there. My personal definitions (and those of the Site that Eats Your Life) suggest that warriors tend to be glory hounds, and soldiers would be focused on the mission, not the ego. Stormtroopers are soldiers, after all, and like I said, they are designed to be as much without individuality as possible. (That’s a theme of this entire series, with clones, mind control, and viewpoint diversity.) But either way, the point is made.

As they retreat, Pellaeon wonders once again what would have happened if Thrawn had been at Endor, and Zahn gives us the obvious answer: the Rebellion would have died.

I say, it wouldn’t have happened like that. Thrawn preparing a massive trap that relied on the Death Star as a symbol of the Emperor’s personal victory? Endor was such a screwy battle, and so personal to the Emperor’s way of doing things in contrast to Thrawn’s, that there’s no way Thrawn would have taken command of it.

z: …but once Vader disposed of the Emperor and the fleet started falling apart without his direct mental control?  There would have been at least one capital ship whose crew would have been less likely to lose all fighting capability or organization, since they would have had a different class of leader still there to rely on.  I don’t believe the Rebellion would have lost either—Thrawn wouldn’t have been able to stop Lando and Wedge, let alone Luke—but the rout might not have been one.

will: At any rate, that’s that. We finally get a full space battle, with a tight focus (there were ten other Rogues that we didn’t hear about, not to mention any other fighters, and the rest of the capital ship fighting), but plenty of carnage. And even though the Republic won, they had to cripple their own fleet to do it.

But Thrawn was beaten–and as will always happen, in the end, he loses to factors outside his control, factors he ignored because they weren’t important. The Force, the right people in the right place. The spanner in the works. There’s a message in there.

That’s all for me. I head to Sasquan next week, but we’ll post as usual, I promise, with our wrap-up of the book, and then move on to the ancillary materials like the foreword and introduction before continuing on.

Z?

z: Ah, yes.  The Worldcon.  Which may be… interesting this time around.  Let’s see.

Come to think of it, Mr. Zahn is a PNW dweller; I wonder if he’ll be in attendance…

will: Doesn’t look like it, more’s the pity.

z: I don’t really have anything thematic to add that I haven’t touched upon up there.  We will see you next week in the middle of more rehearsals for me and the con for Will, and until then, may the Force be with you.

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