Dark Force Rising, Chapter 21

will: Welcome, readers, to Chapter 21, wherein the Socrates meets Sock-in-the-teeth, and synthetic life gets its own back.

z: Yay, synthetic life!  Good for you!

(Right now I don’t feel very eloquent, because I’m exhausted, because Reasons.)

will: We left Mara dangling from something of a cliff, inasmuch as her Skipray blastboat’s repulsorlifts have just been shredded by C’baoth’s game of “Rock, Paper, Starship.” She pulls a fancy bit of trick piloting, what she calls “airstilting”–using her main sublight drive to control her altitude while the glider gets her to a safe landing zone. Ever play Lunar Lander? Like that.

z: Said “safe landing zone” is a ledge on the sheer cliff face under the castle, so… yeah, she’s good.

will: At any rate, any landing you can walk away from and all that, she makes it. Most of the systems survived, though she’s dangling like the last scene of the original Italian Job (OK, OK, not that precariously) on the edge of a cliff. She gets out and brings her ysalamir, but suddenly there’s a bunch of floodlights. She jumps out, going into Action Defense mode (blaster out, firing), and takes out one light source, then hears a familiar sounds: an R2 unit.

“Hey! You–droid. Are you Skywalker’s astromech?”

She reminds Artoo–who’s “the droid” the whole time; I know that eventually she’ll think of him as Artoo too (or is that R2 2?)–

z: <weary glare>

will: –but for now, it’s only fair–anyway, she reminds the droid who she is, and he makes it clear that he remembers her. Not fondly. Mara just says forget all that, “your master’s in trouble.”

Another electronic warble, this one fairly dripping with sarcasm.

I want an R2 unit. That’s maybe one of the best lines of explanation for Artoo-Detoo I’ve ever heard.

z: Yup.  I can hear that one in my head, too.  And everyone needs an R2 unit, want nothing.

will: Mara insists she’s serious, and she needs to talk to Luke before C’baoth finishes her off. When Artoo doesn’t respond, she realizes that he probably saw the RPS match and explains that C’baoth was out for her death. Artoo beeps a question, which Mara correctly interprets as “what do you want anyway?”

To rescue Karrde. Who, she reminds Artoo, helped Luke and Han and all pull the Myrkr escape.

Artoo snorts. That’s how it’s written, no electronic translation needed.

z: R2 units.  Specialties: Astromech functions, counterpart pairing with X-Wing computers, carrying secret messages, carefully editing what parts of secret messages they show to whom so they get wet-behind-the-ear farmboys dragged into rescuing princesses, and expert-level sarcasm.  Accept no substitutes.

will: So Mara goes to plan B: “C’baoth is working for the Empire and I need to tell him.”

That does it. As Artoo rotates to point his lasers elsewhere, Mara wonders how she’ll keep the ysalamir carrying framework with her… but no worries, she’s not getting in the cockpit. Artoo presented her with a landing skid. She’ll be a Klingon for this one.

(Sorry, wrong universe.)

(Ahem.)

z: Is all good.  Very recently–as in, less than a week ago–I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. All I’d seen of Trek previously was some episodes from the original series, plus some movies.  Now seriously following the plotlines for the first time, it was brought even more strongly home to me how comparing Star Wars and Star Trek is even worse than comparing apples with oranges.  It’s comparing apples with bottles of nail polish.  Form, function, contents, everything is different.

will: Anyway, Artoo flies Mara nice and slowly, and C’baoth doesn’t attack. (If I had to guess why, I’d say because he can’t sense the droid, the X-wing, or the be-ysalamir’d Mara.)

z: Huh.  I’d wondered about that.  Good catch.  Or at least, he didn’t want to shoot down the X-Wing that he would have seen gone (because when the X-Wing lands, he’s lurking there, waiting), but might have figured that the droid had gone to explore the site of the explosion, and he couldn’t sense Mara because, yup, ysalamir.

will: So Mara lands and confronts C’baoth.

Mara took a step towards him, feeling an eerie sense of deja vu as she tried to peer into the hood at the face not quite visible there. The Emperor had looked much the same way that night when he’d first chosen her from her home…

Huh. I didn’t realize Mara had any memories so far back. Some part of me wonders if it isn’t the ysalamir field. But that doesn’t make sense. Probably just retcon.

Mara snarks about C’baoth’s way of greeting visitors, C’baoth says he has no visitors, just Imperial lackeys and intruders, and Mara says how does he know she isn’t the first category? She was following an Imperial beacon, and she even has an ysalamir…

z: Which she calls “The Grand Admiral’s ysalamir…”

will: C’baoth cuts her off, saying he knows her mind, he read it as she approached.

Mara gets just plain scared, recognizing the madness, but also the “hard steel behind the voice,” the power and confidence.

It was like hearing the Emperor speak again.

And thus, everything that Mara has missed, everything she arguably needed. If she didn’t have that ysalamir, I think C’baoth could easily have twisted her into his servant right then.

Mara forces all that down, though, saying she needs Luke, just to borrow him. C’baoth jokes (for some values of the word) that once she’s done, she’ll bring him back? Mara just says she’s taking Luke, like it or not, and C’baoth will just have to accept it.

z: I’m sorry, but could you spare me half a cup of sugar?  And a Jedi Knight?  Just until I can make it to the store on Sunday.

will: C’baoth asks whether Mara really thinks he’s powerless just because of a ysalamir, and Mara pulls her blaster. C’baoth…does not react well. No one points a weapon at him, she will pay dearly, standard Big Bad Evil Guy dialogue.

Mara puts her back to a wall, or at least a firm surface (the S-foils of Luke’s X-wing), as Artoo “chirps thoughtfully to itself,” and follows up with “easy way or hard way” standard threat dialogue.

C’baoth, “almost conversationally,” tells Mara he could destroy her, without her even knowing it’s coming, but he won’t. He’s felt her presence and her powers wax and wane, and someday, she will come to him of her free will, and someday, she will kneel before him. This, he Foretells.

(Sorry. Wrong universe again.)

z: …again, nah, because if you hadn’t done it I would have.

will: Mara throws some shade on the idea of Force prediction of the future, because it didn’t help the Emperor.

I’ll just point out how much I like Zahn playing with Force prediction. Context is king, and especially here. Mara kneeling before C’baoth, Luke’s vision of Mara ten years later…it’s wonderfully done.

z: It’s a mark of good fantasy writing, I’d say, to be able to use prophecy well.  Jordan was a master of it, too, arguably.  For most of his series, anyway.

will: C’baoth says maybe he’s wiser than the Emperor, but then turns and says something new. “I told you to go to your chambers.”

Luke’s here.

“I felt a disturbance in the Force. As if a battle were taking place nearby. Hello, Mara.”

At Luke’s presence, Mara suddenly realizes just how difficult her task is, something she probably didn’t think about–in her focused, “these are the steps” way, she just did what needed doing. But now she has to convince Luke Skywalker that she, a former assassin who has told Luke she is going to kill him, is more trustworthy than a Jedi Master.

As if reading her thoughts (which he isn’t–ysalamir), Luke asks why Mara is aiming the blaster at C’baoth, doesn’t she want to kill him ?

Mara says no, but even she doesn’t like how she sounds. She explains she needs his help for Karrde’s sake, and Luke nods, then asks C’baoth what happened. C’baoth asks why it matters, because Mara did come to kill him, and Luke should be glad C’baoth stopped her.

z: All through this scene, Luke has a sense, a presence, that reads “mature Jedi Knight” at a minimum.  Mara’s still fledgling in those aspects, and C’baoth is, well, things loose and all that.  Luke’s presenting as very, very calm and collected.  If the Luke point of view had started here instead of later into the chapter, we might–probably would–have read about his self-doubt and hesitations just as in the tapcafe- and Jomark-village-judgment scenes, but now we’re seeing him through Mara’s eyes, and he’s just… calm.

will: As Mara starts to protest, Luke continues to question C’baoth. Did Mara attack him, or threaten him?

And Mara realizes that C’baoth is looking daggers at Luke.

Skywalker wouldn’t need convincing of C’baoth’s treachery after all. Somehow, he already knew.

C’baoth calls Mara an example of the hatred and fear and destruction all Jedi risk, but Luke won’t have it.

z: Besides, C’baoth, that was really a non-sequitur there.  The woman says “I need your help,” and you say she hates him?  Incongruent, to say the least.

will: Ends don’t justify means, Luke says. He even quotes Yoda about the Force being used for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

Which C’baoth calls “a platitude for the simpleminded.” Heh.

z: When eight hundred years old you are, as complex a mind you will have not.

So to speak.

will: Anyway, C’baoth says he’s beyond such platitudes, and if Luke stays, he can get there too. Luke turns to leave, but C’baoth shifts, going eager and earnest. We can help the galaxy, Luke, together. Teach them and guide them.

Luke tries a logic bomb of “how do you teach those who hate you,” but C’baoth just doubles down. We are the last hope. We can do it together.

Mara cuts in, saying “maybe Luke can do this without you,” because she’s seen this sort of “verbal spell,” and Luke’s eyelids are already drooping…

…like Mara’s were when she reached Jomark. Mara walks to Luke, pointing her blaster at C’baoth when he reacts.

And as soon as the Force-null zone hits Luke, the spell is broken. Luke Skywalker turns to the Dark Jedi Joruus C’baoth and all but names him such, labeling his tricks as coercion and deceit.

z: Again, good catch: I hadn’t realized that that was the moment when Luke either completely realized or completely accepted that C’baoth had turned to the Dark Side.

will: C’baoth throws back his head and laughs, and Mara freezes at the unexpected reaction…and C’baoth attacks. He may not be able to use the Force on her, but he can fling rocks, and he knocks away her blaster. Mara goes Action Hero again, dropping into a crouch (ducking another rock) and scrabbling for the gun while she shouts a warning to Luke.

Luke, though, just brings up his blade and tells Mara to get behind the ship.

Mara is about to tell him “how useless he was without the Force”–which I actually disagree with (as many other adventures will show), but when it comes to blocking projectiles with a lightsaber, that’s fair–when Luke goes outside the Force-null zone. One imagines that C’baoth won’t try again to Force-nudge Luke, and now Luke’s ready for it anyway.

Luke takes out two more rocks without hesitation.

C’baoth throws Force lightning.

Mara doesn’t react, as I said last chapter (she’s probably hit her limit), but Luke catches the lightning on his blade.

z: Or maybe she unconsciously feels that it fits; after all, she was thinking that C’baoth was reminiscent of the Emperor…

…there are many twos and twos that she’s going to need to put together, aren’t there?

will: Finally, Mara finds her blaster, brings it up…

And Artoo fires on the scene.

z: It’s, once again, beautifully written.  There’s Luke, catching rocks with the lightsaber blade, there’s Mara, scrabbling on the ground behind him, awkwardly with a heavy frame on her back and still on the alert for rocks, and then “…the whole scene lit up.”  Artoo’s fired the X-Wing’s lasers to the ground between them and C’baoth, closer to C’baoth.

You know how, sometimes, there are scenes when you just cheer?  The “Giles!” moment of Buffy Season Six, or “What does that make us? “Big Damn Heroes, sir!”  I will freely admit that as soon as I realized what had happened–before it’s clarified in the text, I might add–I cheered at this,  because…

will: Score one for the abomination!

z: …exactly.  Mara realizes that C’baoth must have forgotten about the X-Wing and the droid, but she wasn’t exactly remembering either.  But it’s doubly satisfying that C’baoth forgot, because he’s always disregarded R2–“abomination” indeed.  Abominate this .

will: As Mara’s vision clears, Luke’s standing near C’baoth, who’s alive (“we can fix that,” Mara growls), and unharmed. Artoo wasn’t shooting to kill, and the sound and the shockwave are probably what got him. Mara levels her blaster.

Luke says no. Not like this. They don’t need to kill him, they can just leave.

And all I can say is, what about the people of Jomark, Luke? I mean, I do sort of get it. They’re not actively being tortured (except for the guy who got Force lightning’ed), they’re just living, and really, C’baoth probably won’t stick around now. But it’s clearly a bit of a write-off, with Zahn not bringing them up in the hopes that we won’t notice either…

Mara just says that you don’t leave a living enemy behind you–

z: True story: I used the line “Don’t leave a live enemy living behind you” to teach a friend how to distinguish between the pronunciations of those three words, once in college.

…English, how I love you.  Anyway.  Tangent over.

will: –but Luke says C’baoth’s not an enemy, or he doesn’t have to be. He’s sick. Maybe he can be fixed.

Mara says that Luke missed how C’baoth was talking, like the Emperor and Vader used to.

Luke, though, says Vader was brought back to the light, so…

And remember, kids, Mara’s knowledge of what happened there is…let’s go with incomplete. And Luke doesn’t know that, either.

Remember what I said about the theme of the Thrawn Trilogy being information?

z: Who knows what, how much, how accurately, when did they learn.  And what they can or cannot use it for.  Yes.

And it’s interesting how Mara either doesn’t cotton on to that right there and then, or, more likely, is so focused on getting the hell out of dodge and getting to Karrde in time that she basically ignores the line, as it has no bearing on the mission as she’s construed it.

will: Mara gives up. She needs Luke’s help, after all, so “he has effective veto.” She just says, don’t come crying to me if you get a knife in the back for this. Luke agrees: now, what’s this about Karrde being in trouble?

Mara likes changing the topic away from the Emperor and Vader because of her dreams, and simply says that the Grand Admiral has Karrde and she needs his help, then gets ready to launch into argument and bargaining.

“Okay,” says Luke. “Let’s go.”

Ah, Jedi.

z: I giggled.  Yup, Jedi.

will: Shifting to a bit later, Luke’s talking with Artoo on the comm as Artoo finally wails a goodbye (this is classic “you’re going off with who to do what aboard where ? I’m really never seeing you again,” perhaps with a bit of added “just like your damn father,” not that Zahn would have known that Artoo would definitely be thinking that) and jumps to hyperspace to head home. Helluva message to bring back, though…

z: “Mistress Leia, I am sure something must be malfunctioning in Artoo’s communication circuits.  He insists that Master Luke went to rescue a smuggler from a Star Destroyer along with that woman who was planning to kill him.  Should I take him down to Maintenance?”

(Also, only when I wrote that hypothetical C-3PO line did I realize that this rescue is an inversion of sorts.  Luke is not going with the smuggler to save the girl.  He’s going with the girl to save the smuggler.  Well-played, Mr. Zahn.)

will: Mara points out that if he wasn’t convinced to go back to Coruscant, that’ll be a whole other set of frustrations. That X-wing will definitely make it harder to sneak into an Imperial depot.

Luke looks back at Mara, wondering just how stupid he’s being (Artoo would say “very”): she still wants to kill him, he can sense it (the ysalamir’s stowed in the back), and it reminds him of the Emperor, and maybe this is an elaborate trap?

But he can’t sense deceit.

Not that he could sense C’baoth’s, he reminds himself embarrassingly…though he does also remind himself that C’baoth wasn’t all acting, he really was crazy, so that’s something. (From the perspective of “maybe he can be helped,” anyway.)

z: He wasn’t deceptively evil, he was sincerely evil?

will: More, he wasn’t deceptively insane, he was sincerely insane, which may have caused his evil. And yeah, Luke is now convinced, especially given Mara’s report that C’baoth is working with the Empire, that C’baoth is on the Dark Side.

And yet, Luke could save Vader. Can’t he save C’baoth?

If you look carefully, you’ll see the seeds here of what Zahn used, years later, to fix Luke as a character–in no small part by setting up how he could be broken.

Luke shakes his head. Not the time for that. Focus on the present, not the future. He asks how the Empire found Karrde, and Mara embarrassedly admits she led them straight to him. Luke points out that the same happened in the runup to Yavin, but Mara points out that under the circumstances, it was  hardly a problem for Luke’s side.

Luke murmurs that he doesn’t imagine the Emperor was happy about that whole Death Star go boom thing, and Mara says that’s when Vader lost his right hand. (Which of course we now know is several hand-slices inaccurate, but how could Zahn know? No matter. Mara probably just didn’t know any better.)

z: I giggled when I read the line Luke murmured, too, because we know just who broke the Emperor’s toy on that occasion…

will: Luke is put in mind of his own hand-saber collision, gets a bit of phantom pain, and remembers “an old Tatooine aphorism” about evil passing from generation to generation, which…

You know, I’m not really sure one can say anything profound to that, because Zahn treats it like such a minor sidenote, and yet, in the grand scale, given how any continuity treats the extended Skywalker family…

I’m just going to back away slowly.

z: …go slower, I’m right behind you here, don’t trip on me.

will: OK. Luke asks Mara what the plan is, and she says they get to where the Chimaera is going (oh, yeah, BTW, the Chimaera is the flagship and where Karrde is), take over a supply shuttle, and fly right up. Then, because standard procedure is just to hold all shuttle crews in their shuttles until unloading is done, they’ll create a distraction and sneak out.

Luke points out the risk, but Mara asks if he has a better idea?

“Not yet. But we’ve got four days to think about it. We’ll come up with something.”

z: …Jedi.  Also, Luke, whom Zahn has already showcased as a masterful tactician at a moment’s notice, so four days? Not a problem at all.

will: Thus begins the next, and first completely voluntary, team-up between Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker.  And thus ends the chapter.

I joked in the opening and last week’s closing that this is a philosophical debate punctuated by weaponry, but it pretty much is: Luke for the Light Side, C’baoth for the Dark, Mara for the practical, and Artoo for the ace in the hole.

And it’s nice to see Luke, with help, throw off the uncertainty and C’baoth-induced doubt that has been plaguing him and stand straight, a Jedi, and act on it. The rest of his story pretty much runs on rails this time–not entirely, as there’s still the Katana fleet finale, but in terms of the actual rescue, in the words of Neal Stephenson, it’s “just another chase scene.” We know they’ll free Karrde, after all.

Z, your thoughts?

z: It’s like the kind of police procedural where you know whodunnit, again; the draw for the reader is to find out how the good guys will find out whodunnit rather than finding out whodunnit themselves.  In other words, we read this storyline to find out what Luke and Mara can come up with in four days.

And to find out how their alliance will hold or be strained this time, of course.

Then there are the dreams.  What would happen if Mara had one with Luke sleeping on the other side of a bulkhead?

And besides, it was just fun to read them together before…

(Insert standard grumbling about ten missed years story-time again.)

We won’t be left hanging about this storyline to jump back to Han or Leia at the moment, either. Next week, we pick up right where we left off with Luke and Mara, and have some more echoes of the past.  There are only so many ways you can save the girl smuggler, after all, except if the smuggler girl saves herself before you get there.  Anyway, until then, may the Force be with you.

(…and me.  I’m moving house this Saturday.)

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