The Last Command, Chapter 2

z: Hello, gentlebeings, and welcome to Chapter 2 of The Last Command, wherein we get what we seem to get every time when two particular characters interact.

Personal notes from me this week include the very novel experience of playing a piece in a recorder quartet—and staying, apparently effortlessly, in tune. That doesn’t always happen. To put it mildly.

will: My personal notes this week have my first session running D&D, seeing Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear reading two hilarious unpublished stories, and a whole lot of doctors–it’s just that time of year, I guess. How’re you, Internet?

z: Being the second chapter, this is where we check in with the missing one of the Trio.  Last chapter, there was a single line where Leia worried about Luke “alone in enemy territory.”  We find out where enemy territory is, and it’s an extravagantly gorgeous setting:

“…the Calius saj Leeloo, the City of Glowing Crystal of Berchest… The entire city was nothing more or less than a single gigantic crystal, created over the eons by saltile spray from the dark red-orange waters of the Leefari sea… painstakingly sculpted from the crystal over decades by local Berchestian artisans…”

This would have registered as straining suspension of disbelief seriously if Zahn had kept harping on it.  But after this rather poetic description, he only touches on the surroundings inasmuch as they shape the action.  And so the moment of beauty stays with me, and I’m not forced to think about the mechanics or indeed the chemistry of it all.

will: We’ve talked before about Zahn’s use of small scenes on different planets as his equivalent of the cantina scene, and his preference for new locales if possible. Another aspect of this that he uses well is that he understands that an infinite universe (or at least, a big galaxy) will have a lot of weird stuff in it. And people being people, that weird stuff will be marketed…

z: We are told that this place was naturally a tourist attraction and the war, equally naturally, diminished the tourist business, but the trade routes so established remained, so this is now a big trade hub.

will: Though, we are told, not on the level of Svivren or Ketaris, which are of course two places we’ve never heard of. See above.

z: And that’s why Luke is there.  The New Republic is trying to find out wherever the clones are being grown, which means tracing them back from a known transfer point, and Intelligence has unearthed rumors that Calius, which is under the control of the Remnant, is one such point.

will: Job one is to confirm that, obviously.

z: Luke is uniquely suited to the task. He’s literally just walking around, reaching out with the Force wherever he notices a group of people to find out whether he’ll get the same strange feeling he got from the clone troopers on board the Katana.

He steps out of the way of a (non-cloned) stormtrooper squad; reaches out to touch the minds of this or that group, so on so forth; and eventually notices that there is someone who a) is consciously aware of his presence, b) has a coolly calculating mind, and c) is in fact focused on him, i.e. watching him.

will: And d) feels familiar. Like Luke’s met this someone before.

z: Luke considers that he’s away from his transport and it’s only carrying his lightsaber, which–heh–”would identify him the minute he drew it.” The Energy Weapon ID system is active in full force here too.

will: She said that without realizing it, folks.

z: <stare>

<reread>

<impotent glare>

But Luke’s not that worried. For the Force is his ally, and a powerful ally it is.  (He doesn’t quote Yoda, but he might as well have.) He turns into a less crowded pedestrian bridgeway and as the crowds thin, identifies his follower. His reaction is more resignation than anything else (“not as bad as he’d feared, but potentially bad enough”), which amuses me when he decides to stop just past a bend in the covered walkway and the follower steps into view.

will: Even Jedi aren’t immune to “oh. It’s you.”

z: It’s Talon Karrde.  He doesn’t immediately show himself either; just before the bend he stops, having figured out Luke would have stopped too.  That is clever. Drawing a blaster, which Luke hears, is a bit incongruous until we realize that Karrde wasn’t certain it was Luke and not Inept Spy No 792.   At any rate, Karrde walks out when Luke says that it’s all right, and remarks that he was surprised to find Luke there.

\begin{sarcastic} Really. \end {sarcastic}

will: Not surprised to find someone, mind you; it being Luke himself was the surprising part.

z: What follows is several pages of nearly non-stop dialogue, which seems to be the norm whenever Luke interacts with Karrde. Just like at the Evil Tree Hall on Myrkr, it’s also a very information-dense conversation that is hard to condense.

Karrde starts by pointing out that for someone who knew how to look, Luke was rather noticeable as a New Republic spy, although Karrde is surprised they’d risk Luke.  He also suggests they move on, because stopping dead in the middle of a bridgeway for a conversation isn’t exactly inconspicuous behavior either.  Luke hesitates, then goes along, reasoning that he’d sense an ambush anyway, but Karrde notices his hesitation and gets sardonic: “You still don’t trust me, do you?”  Luke tries to brush that away as being Han’s influence.  I laugh.

will: I like that Luke says that “apologetically.” “I’m terribly sorry to admit I have suspicions about you, no doubt the result of your imprisoning me and then my having to break you out of a different prison.”

z: Zahn’s Luke is always courteous; it’s almost one of his defining characteristics.  I like.

Luke continues by saying that it may also be Karrde’s, or Mara’s, influence, and Karrde asks after Mara.  Apparently she’s being treated from the effects of losing life support systems in an ejector seat in outer space in New Republic facilities, and she’ll be all right, although Karrde’s med team would not be able to help her.  Karrde is grateful; Luke says that it’s the least they could do after the help from Karrde’s people at The Depot Symphony.  Karrde’s response is slightly worrying: “Perhaps.”

They wander around in silence for a while.  It’s entertaining, imagining these two just keeping quiet company.

will: Though now I have a different image–one that doesn’t quite fit yet–of a suitor and a prospective father-in-law.

z: Heh.

Finally Luke asks if Karrde’s going anywhere particular, and Karrde–raise your hand if you saw this coming–responds with “just wandering the city, you?”  Luke says he’s doing the same, and Karrde’s response is admirable, expectable, yet hilarious:

“And hoping to see a familiar face or two?  Or three, or four, or five?”

will: Snerk.

One imagines that Karrde was following the same leads that sent Luke to Calius.

z: Of course he’s figured out that the New Republic is looking for the clone transfer routes.  Though apparently he didn’t quite remember Luke could feel them, otherwise he wouldn’t have professed surprise that the Jedi would be the one looking.

will: Not sure Karrde ever knew that, in fact. We got told from the Katana sequence, Karrde was busy on the Quenfis. And if I were Luke I’d keep that information close to the chest until I was home on Coruscant. One imagines he promptly informed the Inner Council (because hey, he’s useful for clone-sniffing).

z: Luke isn’t surprised that Karrde knows his purpose there; we always knew that our farmboy learned quickly.  He just cuts to the chase to ask if Karrde knows anything to help, and Karrde responds in kind by simply asking if Luke can meet his price.  Luke says probably not with what he’s carrying on himself, but he can set up a credit line when he gets back?

will: One wonders from where. And to where. Another bank like Switzer-Palanhi? But more centrally, exactly what money is Luke drawing from? He’s not really a government official as such…

z: Karrde doesn’t have the same faith in the Force as an ally as Luke does, as far as guaranteeing Luke’s safe return to New Republic space, because he actually calls Luke a “not good investment risk at the moment” in as many words.  I laugh.  Luke is stung, and says that Karrde isn’t exactly safe either, what with being on the most-wanted list and all, but Karrde says he’s safe there–he’s had an understanding with the Berchestian governor, and he’s the sole supplier of some items important to the governor. Before we can even finish raising our eyebrows, Luke asks if those are military items, and Karrde gets cold.  He isn’t part of “your war.” He’s neutral and intends to stay that way.  He’s already made this clear to Leia.  Right?

Luke, being nice and polite, doesn’t say “now where had I heard that before” either.  But I laugh anyway.

will: As far as I can tell, he doesn’t even think it. He just agrees that’s what Karrde said after the Katana battle.

z: He does remark that the past month’s events may have changed Karrde’s mind?  From which we can deduce that the all-out Imperial offensive, introduced in the previous chapter, is going rather well for the Imperial Remnant.

will: Eh. I gather the month refers more to learning about clones and the Dreadnaught capture and all that–the offensive has only just started now.

z: Karrde keeps a poker face, but since Luke can sense his mood changing, that’s probably in vain.  He does admit that he doesn’t like the idea of Thrawn being able to grow clone soldiers, but, hey, it’s not as bad as all that, right, it takes at least a year to grow a clone “mentally stable enough to trust with your warships.”

will: Three to five years being even better–and of course Karrde has the ability to track down documents from a period of history that suffered substantial destruction (and the attendant loss of communication and coherency of information, not to mention specifically targeted deletion campaigns)…dude practically has a library card to the Vault of Lost Knowledge.

Come to think of it, he eventually basically goes there, doesn’t he. Long time from now.

z: Luke then earns a serious distinction: He manages to stop Karrde in his tracks from shock.  By saying that no, from “studies” (read: enhanced autopsies), the New Republic scientists have concluded that the clones killed on board the Katana were grown in fifteen to twenty days.

(In terms of what this means for the New Republic, militarily: Grnkhk. Or something along those lines.)

will: Zahn tends to just say “swearing harshly,” and lets you fill in the rest.

z: Karrde, being Karrde, spends only a moment staring in disbelief and no moments at all with “I don’t want this to be true therefore it isn’t true” type of nonsense. Instead, he starts thinking deeply and says that this explains Ukio, at least.  Luke hasn’t heard about Ukio, the major agricultural producer planet whose capture was described in the last chapter, so Karrde brings him up to date.

will: He also describes the areas as “the Abrion and Dufilvian sectors,” which fits with Filve being one of the targets…

Apparently, by the way, “Ord” (Ord Mantell, Ord Padron) eventually got explained as having been an acronym for “Ordnance/Regional Depot,” a colonization/military force projection outpost; as the planets became more settled they adopted the name “Ord Whatever” from what would have been “ORD Whatever,” I guess.

z: The Grand Admiral, Karrde says, has done what seems to be the impossible in capturing Ukio without badly damaging it, with its food production capabilities mostly intact.  So, Luke thinks: Warships from the Katana fleet, check, crew for said warships, check, food for said crew, check–“The Empire is getting ready to launch a major offensive.” He wants to know if that doesn’t change Karrde’s mind about neutrality.  Karrde still keeps a poker face.  Luke can still sense his mounting uncertainty.  I am still laughing.

will: Hang separately, after all.

z: But Karrde is still stubborn, too: He doesn’t trust certain elements in the New Republic government enough to join them, and no, he wasn’t talking about Fey’lya, he was talking about Ackbar and his long-prevailing anti-smuggler attitude.  Luke says what we’re probably all thinking: Dude, Grand Admiral major offensive do you really think Ackbar’s got time to chase smugglers?  Karrde says probably not, but he won’t risk his life on it either.  Luke has to give in on that.  OK, he says, let’s do business-as-business then: You probably already keep track of what the Empire’s up to, we’ll pay you for it.  Karrde agrees, but says that he won’t take orders from the New Republic Intelligence, he’ll decide what to pass on.

This strikes me as eminently sensible on his part–they cannot agree to be sent this way and that according to Intelligence’s needs and still hope to maintain neutrality let alone keep their business up–but the way he’s phrased it is a bit unfortunate still.  You could easily read that as implying they may choose to keep some information to themselves.

will: Sounds like an outright statement of that. But it’s an information pipeline, so.

z: Karrde says, how about we start with a little information exchange–why did the New Republic focus on Calius?

Luke says he can show, not tell, as he’s just sensed clones.

will: Thus providing Zahn with an excuse to not explain the intelligence hoops jumped through.

z: Thataway, towards the government towers…. No, they’re moving.  Almost towards to the two of them.  Karrde decides that they must be going to a landing field and says they’ll “probably use Mavrille Street.”  They saunter that way, but quickly.  Karrde says that the clones won’t be in anything obviously military, probably a light transport or a cargo carrier instead.  Luke laments that he doesn’t have macrobinoculars with him.  Over my disbelieving stare, this time Karrde says what we all think: “You’re conspicuous enough as it is.”

will: One wonders about that–couldn’t it be just that Karrde’s that good?

z: I’m inclined to say “no,” given that Luke seems to think that pulling out macrobinoculars in the middle of a crowded street and watching a cargo transport with them makes sense.

Luke can now feel that there are between twenty and thirty of them, and Karrde picks out a cargo carrier.  It passes them and gets stuck in a narrow turn. Karrde slips away briefly, and comes back to say he couldn’t see anything through the vents.  But Luke is certain it’s them, and wants to get airborne before their transport does so that he can try to trace the hyperspace vector.  Just as Wedge did with Mara, he offers to fly together with Karrde, saying two ships may be able to track better than one.  Just as Mara did with Wedge, Karrde points out the obvious: Even if Luke isn’t flying a shiny New Republic X-Wing, collaborating with him openly wouldn’t be a good quiet move right now.  Karrde will try backtracking from there instead.  Oh, and make that credit line a generous one.

will: I do like that Karrde is put in the position of trusting Luke’s Jedi sense, and decides to do that. I also like that Luke realizes this would be the perfect bait for a spy-trap. He doesn’t apparently realize how second-and-third-order Thrawn’s spytrapping can go.

z: As they split, we get a scene and point-of-view shift.  We’re with Governor Staffa and his aide Fingal in the high government towers,  watching them watch Luke and Karrde follow and find the cargo transport, watch it go, and split.

will: Identifying Luke as Luke. Apparently he really is conspicuous.

Staffa also gets a standard “nasty boss” crack, telling Fingal “don’t think, you’re not properly equipped for it.” Comeuppance, thy name is Thrawn…

Hell, Staffa’s even described as “bulky.” This is like every bad Warhammer 40,000 stereotype of a useless lump of a planetary governor…

z: Staffa has had orders from Thrawn, as inexplicable to him as those recent “mysterious troop transports” through Calius have been, but he doesn’t care, as it’s Thrawn’s problem, in Staffa’s opinion.  He directs Fingal to send a coded message to the Chimaera, saying that Skywalker has been observed in the vicinity of the cargo transport and then allowed to let go, as per orders.  Huh.  Fingal wants to know, what about the other man with Skywalker?  Staffa considers that while fifty thousand credits, i.e. the prize on Karrde’s head, is now nothing to sniff at, because of the war private supply lines are rather cramped so he’d better keep his deal with Karrde for now.  So he tells Fingal that “the other man” was not important, just a spy Staffa had sent to smoke Skywalker out.  Little Rodian babies playing in Mos Eisley aren’t fooled.  Fingal leaves with an “odd glint in his eye,” which Staffa attributes to the lighting in the outer office, because he thinks Fingal has an unbending loyalty to the governor, and no imagination whatsoever.

…riiiight.  And riiiiiiight.

will: Yeah, pretty much.

Also, it’s now pretty obvious to us that Berchest itself is a giant honeytrap: Thrawn has set it up to look like a stop on the clone pipeline, but it’s clearly not.

z: We’ll have to wait to see the fallout from that one, though, since the chapter closes here, with Staffa starting to daydream about the uses he can put his private shipment from Karrde into.  The shipment still isn’t identified, and I still don’t know what to think, although a long list of obvious sordid choices present themselves all too easily.

will: I don’t buy the shipment as military–Thrawn’s Empire doesn’t strike me as needing to leave regional governors having to cut deals with smugglers for defense purposes. Unless the governor was planning a breakaway, which Luke would probably be all for, it’s more likely politicking and bribery purposes. Rarities, art, antiquities, probably drugs…you know. All the grease the squeaky politician needs.

z: A relatively brief chapter that catches us up on Luke and Karrde together, and reinforces what we saw from the Imperial viewpoint in the first chapter: To wit, the war is shifting stages and is starting to go badly for the New Republic.

Will?

will: And Karrde is still trying desperately to claim neutrality, which is quickly shifting into “independence but support” in light of everything, and you thought you had problems with the in-laws.

I am glad this chapter’s shorter than the marathon of last chapter, though. Not only because it’s easier to recap, but because a breather after that big opening is appropriate. And there’s only so many characters we can catch up with at the time.

On that note, next week, we catch up with the last principal actor, and a bunch more secondaries, and we get yet another reminder that the peak of the Empire has a seesaw on it…

Until then, may the Force be with you.

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