Dark Force Rising, Chapter 12

will: Welcome one and all to Dark Force Rising Chapter 12. Z has had One of Those Weeks, so I’m in the pilot’s seat for this return to Honoghr. Please ensure your seat backs are in their full upright and locked positions and stow your tray tables and your carry-on baggage in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you, and here we go.

z: This particular One of Those Weeks was largely of my own damn making, but still.

will: Leia wakes up slowly, smelling burning wood and remembering a peaceful childhood (complete with campouts!). Then, she remembers where she is and jumps awake entirely: she’s in the Noghri bake house, having successfully avoided the sensors. Even given the fraughtness of the situation, I’m not shocked she fell asleep in a hot, smoky environment.

z: As someone who really values warmth because I have no internal temperature regulation to speak of, I find the bakehouse sleepover idea very appealing.

will: But she pulls herself awake, and at the urging of her stomach and one of the little humans inside it, eats–a ration bar, which almost seems cruel when she’s in a giant bakery.

z: I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought so.

will: She sees that Chewie is out and about, but senses he’s nearby and not in danger, and changes into a fresh jumpsuit–practicality over style here on Honoghr, I suppose.

Leia dresses, positions her belt relative to her rapidly-showing pregnancy, and clips on her lightsaber (which, as always, Zahn represents as just as much a status symbol/badge of office as it is a weapon) before calming herself–as she thinks it, they won’t turn her over to the Empire…at least until they’ve heard her out–and heads outside to the the three kids playing with a ball outside. She says hello, they say something she can’t follow (but that does include the word Mal’ary’ush), then switch to mangled Basic to say “go to the dukha.” Off she goes, musing that even children playing with a ball serve a purpose–duty starts young.

z: Duty, and learning the customs and rituals all.

will: Leia also notes the relative lightness of the young Noghris’ skin. Zahn had mentioned back in Heir that he originally wanted the Noghri to be a uniform dark gray, but changed it up for potential racial insensitivity, if I recall correctly.

Anyway. Leia makes it to the dukha, which she sees more clearly now that it’s day, with columns and pillars and a chained light fixture. To reinforce the “Noghri are Zahn’s answer to the Ewoks” angle, Threepio is doing his storyteller bit, and Leia hopes that he remembers that Vader should not be the villain this time…Chewie and Khabarakh are having a thumb war–or something, Leia isn’t sure, but there isn’t any arm removal and Chewie is able to check on Leia, so all seems well.

The maitrakh sneaks up on Leia–well, appears behind her, anyway–and explains that Threepio had volunteered to “tell the last story of our lord Darth Vader,” his sacrifice on the Second Death Star. Leia frames it as Vader freeing himself of the Emperor’s lies, and the maitrakh says nothing for a moment, then continues to talk about the rapport growing between Chewie and Khabarakh. Ah, here’s where we learn that Chewie quick-faked the compensator computer failure.

z: I was duly impressed at that, and at Threepio’s skill as a storyteller to pick the right story in the right framing for his audience.

will: At any rate, the maitrakh turns the topic to family and trust networks, and Leia explains her own history: like Noghri, Alderaan put a lot of stock in family and dynasty (especially for royalty, or viceroyalty), and Chewie is family now, as much as Han or Luke.

The maitrakh goes back to asking why Leia is on Honoghr, and she repeats that she wants to help. The maitrakh suggests that “some will say” she’s here to sow discord, but Leia points out that she, the maitrakh, said just that, but that isn’t her intent.

The maitrakh lays out that the advantage of serving the Empire is unity of the Noghri people, who no longer war among clans, and points out a large and complicated genealogy chart on a wall. Leia can’t read it, though the maitrakh doesn’t realize that; she points out places representing massive loss of life, and Leia is reminded of the battles of the Rebellion.

z: Thing what I noticed for the first time this read through: There’s a bit of subtle foreshadowing in this Chapter about what this storyline will come to, and a bit of even subtler foreshadowing in the emphasized fact that Leia can’t read the genealogy tree.  Because one assumes that there are not only names, but also dates.

will: Leia says she doesn’t want to cause more loss of life, so the maitrakh tells her to leave. Leia asks if the Noghri couldn’t all leave Imperial service, thus avoiding internal conflict, but the maitrakh lays down the semi-guilt-trip of “we [the Rebels] didn’t know.” And, privately, she admits, they probably couldn’t have helped anyway.

The maitrakh then says they don’t want to be a resource, fought over like animals fighting over food. Leia counters that the Empire is already using the Noghri, taking their “sons” (no female Noghri Death Commandos, huh?) off to die.

The maitrakh says that those sons have bought life for the Noghri, and finally gives Leia the story. Honoghr was never lush, but it was manageable. Until “the battle in the sky.”

z: I’m going to have to pause here and wince at the maitrakh’s statement that their sons go and die to buy life for the Noghri.  Because.  Just.  Damn.

will: The maitrakh, remembering, tells the story in semi-mythical tones, with all of the “the lightning is the gods’ anger” tones you’d expect from, say, the Greeks, the Norse, or Marvel Comics fans; Leia translates it to herself: There was a battle in orbit, a ship crashed and set off earthquakes and released toxic chemicals.

z: Yes, I did inhale soda when I was reviewing this bit and hit the Marvel Comics line.  So thanks so much.  Again.

will: And she knows that the chemicals at issue would have been from older ships.

“Which had been virtually all the Rebel Alliance had had to fight with in the beginning.”

Leia’s guilt redoubles, because she knows–knows–that it was a Rebel ship that crashed. She tries to find more details, but dammit, the maitrakh is a maitrakh, not a doctor, and all she knows is that the Empire came shortly thereafter; the survivors of the planet had come together to neutral ground to try to survive, and Vader landed with stormtroopers. The Noghri attacked, out of fear, and it was a slaughter?

z: I’ll point out here that this time, it’s Leia making deductions from incorrect assumptions.

will: But no, the troopers didn’t slaughter the Noghri, as Leia thought. Despite the “lightning-weapons and rock-garments” it took Vader’s intervention to stop the Noghri killing all the stormtroopers. (This cues Leia in as to why the Empire would have bothered; talk about your useful dupes! If they’re that good…)

Vader made peace, bringing food, medicine, and tools (probably just stores from the nearest Star Destroyer), and then “the metal droids,” the decon droids Leia had seen, were sent to clean the poison. Leia confirms there were no toxins in the air or water, so clearly the decon droids work, but nothing will grow outside the decontaminated land, except kholm-grass, which isn’t food. The few animals that can eat that, or that can eat animals that can eat that, survived; all other biodiversity died.

The maitrakh continues that Vader and the Empire educated the Noghri, set up the Clean Land as a common living space, and brought the dukhas from all over the world to be there. The Empire made an “honorable peace,” and the Noghri are grateful.

z: The first read-through, I was touched a bit at how the Imperials made sure to bring everyone’s irreplaceable cultural artifacts and the touchstones of their history along to the resettlement area.  Of course it’s incredibly cynical and manipulative that they did so, but being manipulative in that way at least requires you to pay attention to what these people value, so…?

…OK, maybe “touched” is really not the right word.

will: As Threepio’s history lesson ends, the young Noghri file out to do their chores, followed by their training as Imperial commandos. Leia is frustrated, calling this an impossible bargain, but the Noghri think it honorable duty.

Back to Chewie and Khabarakh; Khabarakh is teaching the Wookiee some aspects of Noghri hand-to-hand; seems Wookiees aren’t exactly subtle, talented fighters, usually relying on sheer size and power. (It’s a theme other writers will pick up, too.) Leia comments that Chewie doesn’t trust Khabarakh, but the maitrakh suggests that’s part of it–if Khabarakh is willing to teach, Chewie wants to learn so Khabarakh doesn’t glass-jaw him again.

Leia recognizes some moves, in the way that a lot of martial arts would share commonalities for similarly-designed humanoids, and shivers. That skill plus Wookiee power…Leia’s unease at Chewie’s frustration over Endor is probably returning tenfold.

The maitrakh goes back to the theme: given the insufficient food, which means the Noghri buy food from the Empire (with soldiers as currency), they couldn’t feed all the soldiers anyway even if they did summon them home.  Her bitterness finally comes out: she knows this is a permanent servitude cycle, and if all the Noghri did, maybe they could change things.

z: The quiet way she slips into the pained admission—pained, because she also sincerely believes in the duty and honor and life-debt the Noghri bear for the Empire still—is, however, touching, with no qualifications.  The dialogue is really great writing there.

will: The maitrakh and Leia stare at the light fixture, which is effectively a primitive planetarium, and talk about the stars as the birthright of all species–the maitrakh even says that a lot of Noghri would have traveled with Vader just to go into space. Which–yeah, I get that. (Especially if you didn’t know about the whole “evil” thing.)

z: Seconded.

will: Leia muses about talking to all of the leaders of the Noghri, but the maitrakh asks what she’d say. Leia thinks–tell them they’re being used? That the Empire is dragging out the cleanup as long as possible? That the New Republic could help? Nothing sounds good even to Leia, and the maitrakh knows it. So Leia decides, she has to leave. But she hopes the Noghri will figure it out, and when they do, she’ll be ready to help.

As they start to make semi-formal goodbyes, though, a child runs in and says something. Khabarakh and Threepio jerk in shock, and the maitrakh explains, “her face and voice suddenly very tired and very alien.”

“It is the flying craft of our lord the Grand Admiral. And it is coming here.”

Scene, and Zahn gets in his favorite cliffhanger style.

This is part of the meat of Leia’s story; learning about the Noghri, seeing them live, and realizing that she can’t help them, not yet. She sees the box they’re trapped in, but it’s a fairly well constructed one. (For now.) And she is reminded, as she would have been many times as a Princess of Alderaan and a Rebel leader, that there are many things she can’t do.

And now she has to face, again, the risk of discovery.

The lower the character sinks, in my experience, the more triumphant the return. So yeah, Leia earns her victory.

Z?

z: In spite of imminent danger, I’d say that the most important part of Leia’s hour-of-darkness here is the realization that she cannot help, not right now, not with any means she can bring to bear at the moment.  I think even her feelings of guilt about the assumption that it was a Rebel ship that crashed and brought about all this destruction cannot overwhelm the helplessness.  She accepts failure in her mission, in as many words.

The description of the maitrakh at the end, “her face suddenly very tired and very alien,” has always strongly stayed with me.  It conveys the character’s mood at the moment so clearly.

This is not a mistake that a writer of Zahn’s caliber would do, so I can’t say I’m exactly relieved at its absence, because I didn’t really expect it to be present in the first place, but it still bears noting: There’s nothing, but nothing here, to challenge the Noghri’s view of Vader as the saviour from the stars.  And it fits my mental image of Darth Vader.  He was sometimes a wiser evil than the Emperor (*); note that the maitrakh’s story of the initial fight between Noghri and stormtroopers didn’t end with “Three of the twenty attacking Noghri died, but the clash only ended when Vader interfered himself and killed the other seventeen personally.”  Given the Luke-vs-seven-Noghri scene in Heir to the Empire, one assumes that Vader wouldn’t have any trouble, but my guess is that he used the Force to immobilize the seventeen Noghri, or take them out of the fight in some other way.  Because he saw, quickly, what it is that they could have there.

Next week, we’ll once again not leave the cliffhanger, uh, hanging, but immediately spring into action and the aftermath.  Until then, may the Force be with you.

(*) Prequels?  What prequels?

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