The Last Command, Chapter 3

will: Greetings, honored audience, and welcome to Chapter 3 of The Last Command, where you really can’t go home again.

In news of the me, you may have noticed that I spend a number of these introductions discussing science fiction conventions. This week, the World Science Fiction Convention for 2016, MidAmeriCon II, has announced the finalists for the 2016 and 1941 Retro Hugo Awards. Check them out!

z: And in news of the me, there’s… uh, no news of the me.  Busy on multiple fronts?  That’ll have to do.

will: Mara Jade wakes up “as if climbing a long dark staircase,” and wonders where the hell she is. A medical area, but not one she knows. She knows the layout, though: Imperial standard design.

She rolls out of bed, dropping to what I assume is a three-point stance on the floor, and gives herself the once-over: she’s in good shape. No aches, no pains, no dizziness. She finds a robe and slippers, and prepares to “silence or disable” whoever it is keeping guard over her room…leaps through the door…

And meets the geek.

z: The anti-climax is wonderfully done.

will: Ghent gives her the standard “who has interrupted my bonding time with this computer–oh, it’s you, hi, howzitgoing?” look.

Mara is now very confused, but we get a nice infodump disguised as a memory dump: Ghent is one of the best slicers ever, they aren’t prisoners (because imprisoning Ghent with a computer is a mistake too dumb for the Evil Overlord List), but Ghent was on Coruscant, right. Mara sent him there just before she took Karrde’s crew to the Symphonic Suite at the Depot. And Mara tried to kamikaze (with ejector seat, she’s not suicidal–exactly) and got her ejector pod ionized.

Which had fried her survival equipment and set her drifting, lost forever, in interstellar space.

She looked around her. Apparently, forever hadn’t lasted as long as she’d expected it to.

z: I still laugh at that line every time after all these years.

will: Mara asks where they are, though she’s figured it out already, and Ghent tells her Coruscant. She had some neural damage, see, and now her last bits of memory start clicking: she suffered oxygen deprivation, but they had clearly found her before she died.

No. Not they: him. There was only one person who could possibly have found a single crippled ejector seat in all the emptiness and battle debris out there. Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi Knights.

The man she was going to kill.

YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER.

Mara staggers from the mental shock, because she was here on Coruscant during the Battle of Endor, watching through the Emperor’s mind “as Luke Skywalker cut him down and brought her life crashing in ruins around her head.”

Hmm. Where’s that pin we’ve been putting in things?

z: *rummages around between the couch cushions*

will: Anyway. She hears a new voice, a medic, who asks how she’s feeling. Mara gets a wave of Imperial haught: how dare this woman be in the Emperor’s space…

She chokes it down and just goes with “sorry, I’m disoriented.”

How much worse would that have been if the medic wasn’t human, I wonder…

The medic explains that Mara’s been under for a month, comatose, bacta-floating, and otherwise recuperating. Her memory will clear up, she says, as Mara reels from an entire month of lost time, and points Mara to a guest suite.

As the medic arranges that, Mara tries to get a gossip download from Ghent. This…goes about as well as you’d expect, as all Ghent knows is that “Ackbar and Madine and the rest have been running around like crazy. Trying to push em back or cut ’em off—something like that.”

Mara is familiar with slicer monomania–Ghent knows smuggler folklore and computers, that’s it. But she latches onto the fact that Ackbar’s back in command, and Ghent says that he proved that Ackbar was framed for the bank-deposit thing within two days. Seems he’s just been hanging around since. Mara asks, why?

“Nobody’s come to get me,” he explains. Heh. But also, there’s this “really neat” encrypt code called Delta Source, and apparently General Bel Iblis knows how to bait a hook–he told Ghent about it and Ghent did what Ghent do. He’s been working on it since.

And no, Mara knows the answer to this one–there wasn’t ever a discussion of payment. Well, there might have been. Ghent doesn’t remember. (Probably wasn’t listening.)

z: Yeah can we please stop talking and let me at the dataset already.

him. Let him.  shifty look

will: The medic tells Mara that a guide will be there shortly, and Mara chokes down the snap that she knows more about the Imperial Palace than any guide ever will. Her priority is to get a ship for herself and Ghent and get gone.

In glides (that’s Zahn’s word choice) “a tall woman with pure white hair”: Winter. She introduces herself and knows Mara by name, and Mara tries her hardest to be polite (not easy given Winter’s connection back to Luke). Winter explains she’s there for anything Mara needs for the next few days, until Leia and Han are back from Filve.

Mara says all she needs is a ship, and Winter dodges that she’s “working on that.” In the meantime, she offers to show Mara to her suite–which Mara, of course, feels for yet another slight, inasmuch as this is “the usurpers of the New Republic,” and they’re offering her hospitality in her own home.

Mara asks Ghent to come along, but he waves her forward.

z: “I want to sit in on this run for a while.”

I don’t know much about de-encryption, actually, but my numerical computing professor once told the class how he describes his job to non-technical distant family:  “I sit and look at numbers scrolling on a computer screen all day.”  That’s one way to get insight into things like convergence issues.  (Oooor you could just collect a lot of data about the rub during the run, then analyze it after it’s done, but that means you have to wait until it’s done, instead of stopping it mid-run and tweaking your algorithm.  Four out of five numerical anything coders would stay right there with Ghent, is what I’m getting at.)

will: As they leave, Winter tells Mara that Ghent has a suite, but he’s been there maybe twice–he set up in the foyer next to Mara, to keep an eye. Mara snorts at the idea of the King of the Geeks as a bodyguard, though it’s more his obliviousness than anything else that causes the humor.

z: But she’s a bit touched, too.

will: Likely. She thanks Winter for taking care of her, and Winter says it was a thank-you for the assistance with the Katana fleet. Mara waves that back to Karrde, thank him and not her, and Winter says they already have, but she helped too, and they won’t forget it.

Mara now changes the topic and asks who Winter is; she’s read up on Leia, as on all of the Rebellion’s leaders, but this woman isn’t familiar. Winter says she grew up with Leia, and was her aide in the Senate. Mara says she doesn’t remember Winter being attached to Leia during the war, but Winter says she was a scout—”Supply and Procurement,” but it boiled down to scouting for materiel raids. She got into warehouses on a pretext, and drew a map later.

z: Insert (I think Pratchett) line about “quartermaster” being another word for “thief” here, although I think he meant it in the stealing-from-own-side sense.

will: Mara remembers pre-Yavin Intelligence reports and names Winter as “Targeter,” and Winter (slightly surprised) confirms that was one of her many code names. Mara remembers that “Targeter” was something of a heated topic among Intelligence types.

Which…we’ll come back to later.

Anyway. They reach the turbolifts in the back of the Palace, which Mara remembers was a modification Palpatine made to update the place–and a cover for some other changes. Mara asks what the delay is with a ship, and Winter says that the Empire is on the offensive, and ships are few and far between.

Which, in retrospect of the size of a planet, seems a bit weird. I bet that Mara could find some passenger liner or independent shipper (or mail carrier, which will come up a while later in one of the Tales collections as I recall) to get her and Ghent away. I grant that there’s an element of “under no one else’s control” to Mara wanting a ship for herself, but it’s a bit contrived.

Anyway. Mara is a little surprised that Thrawn would be on the offensive, but Winter tells her that between the Katana fleet (Mara hadn’t been aware of the swing in ships) and “their new bottomless source of ships and crews,” the Empire is in control of the tempo. That makes more sense to Mara.

As does the bitter realization that Mara almost got herself killed for nothing; Winter just says Mara wasn’t alone in that.

Mara realizes that for Ghent to have even said the Empire was making trouble is pretty impressive, in terms of seriousness.

z: Because his Master Obliviousness would have filtered out anything less.

will: Winter agrees. The Empire has taken four sectors, and thirteen more are threatened. Worst was Ukio, captured with shields intact. She explains that the rumor is the Empire could fire straight through a planetary shield.

Mara remembers “the old Death Star spec sheets,” and gets very wary.

z: I imagine the Death Star spec sheets, and my eyes cross and I huddle into a little quivering ball.

will: But Karrde is neutral, he said so, time to leave. Given everything, she decides to get in touch with Karrde directly to get a ship. Winter agrees that would be faster than waiting for the New Republic, and that there’s a data card with a contact to get messages to.

They arrive at the “Presidents Guests” floor, which proves how early this was written–but at any rate Mara knows this was a floor the Emperor didn’t change much (actually she says he left it “strictly alone,” which I assume doesn’t include bugging every room), using it to impress the easily impressed or nostalgic.

z: Well, yeah.  Bugging every room is pretty much equivalent to, like, making sure every room has running water and power.

will: Winter opens a door and hands Mara the data card, and Mara stands, inhaling the Cardooine-origin Fijisi wood, remembering “the glittering days of grand Imperial power and majesty,” until Winter snaps her out of it by asking if there’s anything she can do.

This reminds Mara that “the glory days of the Empire were gone,” and Mara says no, thank you, get out (kindly). Winter does so.

Mara gets down to business, after one more sniff of memory. She gets out of the medical wear and into her clothes, which includes her forearm blaster holster. There’s no blaster, of course–the Empire confiscated it back when Mara tried to cut a deal with them, though why Mara didn’t grab another one from Aves when she rallied the troops I’ll never know.

z: I always figured that a blaster that fits into the forearm holster was sort of a specialized, if not personalized, weapon, and that’s why she couldn’t get an easy replacement. Especially since… see a little ahead.

will: Would have been easier to just say there’s no way the New Republic would let her keep it, as Mara next thinks anyway. But the moment of imagining Winter’s face if she asked was nice.

Good thing there are other ways.

In a sign of the early-Internet-age nature of these books, the Imperial residence floors include a library, which has boxes of datacards. In one of them, A Complete History of Corvis Minor–a world so, well, minor that the box has probably never been opened, which is just as well–Mara finds a spare blaster.

z: “Memoirs of the Great Accountants, vol. 23-57” could have worked better?

Anyway, so either we’re talking about a small crow or raven, or… Mr..Zahn has a son named Corwin, after Corwin of Amber I believe.  Which might make  “Corvis Minor ” the kind of wordplay my co-author would be proud of.

will: Heh. Or it’s a raven-as-death-omen image, corvus being the genus for crows and ravens. Anyway, about the whole “hidden blaster” thing, I’m…dubious. It works thematically and all that, but as with a lot of Star Wars, it doesn’t hold up particularly well as an actual working Thing. But what the hell. Mara has always had one foot in the John le Carré style of espionage drama anyway, this fits.

z: It’s a big part of her character that she’s privy to the inner workings of the Empire, of a sort that the average Imperial bureaucrat or even soldier would never have been exposed to.  If that means we have to make up some more workings for her to be privy to, I’m fine with that.

will: As Mara re-arms, she twigs to something that Winter had said–a “bottomless source” of personnel. What, she wonders, does that mean? A defection? A “hitherto unknown colony world” that Thrawn could, ahem, mine for people?

(Again, this is one of those things, like how hard it is to get a ship off of Coruscant, that marks a rare failure–compared to everyone else at least–of Zahn’s sense of scale. But eh, I’ll live with it.)

She resolves to ask about that… later. Once she’s sent a message to Karrde’s contact.

Scene shift: Thrawn tells C’baoth no.

Well, won’t this be fun.

Turns out that C’baoth has demanded–ordered?–a full frontal assault on Coruscant. Thrawn says they don’t have the numbers, they don’t have the supply lines, and they won’t do it.

C’baoth claims to rule the Empire, and Thrawn takes a shot at him by petting a ysalamir.

In inevitable response, C’baoth goes maniacal, shouting that he rules the Empire, and Thrawn will obey or die.

Pellaeon sidesteps a bit further into the Force-null bubble, reflecting that C’baoth’s power and control are growing, but so are his bouts of “clone madness,” and sooner or later he’s going to kill someone.

Thrawn simply reminds C’baoth that if he (Thrawn) dies, C’baoth will lose the war, and lose Leia and the twins.

C’baoth suddenly collapses out of his mania, and “almost petulantly” says that Thrawn would never have said that to Palpatine.

Thrawn says he did that at least four times to Palpatine’s face, to which C’baoth laughs. Only fools and suicides would do that, he says.

z: …which is interesting, because I don’t think he was going by reputation alone when he said that.  I just have that feeling.

will: Thrawn agrees, and says that the first time it happened, Palpatine was furious, accused Thrawn of treason, and ordered someone else to attack…and when that someone else’s attack force was destroyed, Palpatine “knew better than to ignore my recommendations.”

I will say that Thrawn’s efficiency and unwillingness to waste lives has been a consistent trait, at least. Spend freely, sure, but not waste.

z: That also wastes time, after all, because now you have to try again and meh.

will: C’baoth now knows he’s losing, and shifts to offering to help again with the cloak trick, but Thrawn (thanking C’baoth for his generous offer to help) rejects that. No matter how good the trick is, the Republic will figure it out before they surrender. The Woostrians, he says, won’t. And they’re galactic gossips.

z: And therefore they are whom Thrawn is planning to attack right now, not Coruscant.

will: C’baoth, of course, is focused on the Jedi issue, so Thrawn defangs that. A large-scale assault on Coruscant to capture them? Crazy. An Intelligence commando team? Not so.

C’baoth starts to point out that the Noghri have utterly failed at capturing Leia and the twins so far, but Thrawn concedes the point–which is why this isn’t a Noghri mission.

This is all news to Pellaeon, who glances back to where Rukh is waiting outside. Pellaeon admits in his own mind that Darth Vader had “duped” the Noghri, but they’ve attached their code of honor to each mission, and this will be a slap in the face. “Or worse.”

He starts to ask Thrawn about that, but Thrawn says they’ll discuss that later, and simply asks C’baoth whether he’s ready to actually have the twins, not just to yell about it. After all, two newborns plus Leia might be a bit much for him…

C’baoth very calmly points out that the twins might be too much for the commandos, and agrees to help the Death’s Head in the attack on Woostri, leaving with a typical vague ominous “there will be consequences for failure” cliche.

Pellaeon next opens with that classic “with all due respect,” and asks just how Thrawn could make promises about the twins. The Imperial Palace is impregnable, he says.

But of course, it’s Palpatine. And he had private ways in and out. And Thrawn knows them.

Of course.

z: Ow, delayed foreshadowing anvil blow to the head.

But groundwork for that had been laid down, too.  Remember where Mara and Thrawn met?   At a secret private ceremony of his initiation to Grand Admiralty.

will: Anyway. Now that Leia is done showing the flag, and is instead settling in for birth, it’s the perfect time to grab her.

But no Noghri, Pellaeon says, and Thrawn explains that he’s feeling something off with the Noghri, though he doesn’t know what. Pellaeon wonders whether it’s Khabarakh? A month prior (presumably just after the Katana fleet fight), a “painfully apologetic” envoy from the dynasts had come aboard with news that he’d escaped.

Thrawn agrees that could be a factor, he’s not happy with them over that, but whatever it is, he’s suspicious.

But they go back to a wider discussion: first, Leia and the Solo twins as a diversion for C’baoth, to keep him from “this mistaken notion that he has the right to rule my Empire.” He has backup contingencies for C’baoth if it comes to that.

But even more important, the grand strategy. The offensive has been going well, but a lot of the worlds the Empire has re-annexed are marginal gains, requiring a lot of force projection–which means clones, which makes protecting the Spaarti cloning cylinders of Wayland a huge priority.

It’s back to tutoring mode, Pellaeon sees–but what’s the issue? Wayland is one of the best-kept secrets in the galaxy. Only the Emperor and his trusted–

Oh, right.

z: Ow, these are big anvils!

will: Pellaeon correctly asks whether Mara Jade, who’s on Coruscant, might have known about the Mount Tantiss warehouse, which is why Thrawn is sending an Intelligence-trained, not military, commando team–read, assassins. Doubling up your mission objectives. And again, there are contingencies, and ways to neutralize Mara that don’t mean killing her.

On to the next item: the clone honeypot. Thrawn and Pellaeon confirm that the whole point of the Calius saj Leeloo is a fakeout, and that according to Governor Staffa’s report, Luke has taken the bait. He’ll tell the New Republic that there is traffic flowing through Poderis based on vector, then he’ll disappear.

(Pellaeon has his doubts on that score, but Thrawn knows what he’s doing, he reasons.)

z: (But by now the reader knows that one of the things Thrawn does repeatedly is to underestimate Skywalker.  Good for Pellaeon for having his doubts.)

will: Oh, and there was another report, from Intelligence. Thrawn explains that the governor’s (apparently loyal and stupid) aide is an Intelligence mole.

Petard, thy name is Thrawn.

Anyway, The aide, Fingal, reports that Luke met with Karrde, not just some random contact, and that Staffa has had a private trade deal with Karrde for years–but there was no way to detain Karrde without tipping Luke off, so they let him go.

Thrawn understands that, calls the smuggling itself no harm, and decides that they’ll have to deal with Karrde later. But in the meantime, the Chimaera is heading to Poderis and wants “a proper reception” prepared,

Pellaeon brings up one more point: what if they succeed? If C’baoth gets Leia, the twins, and Luke, that quintuples the Jedi problem.

But Thrawn isn’t worried. Breaking Luke or Leia will not be quick, and the twins are still infants, so they’ll have plenty of time to “come to a suitable arrangement.”

And Pellaeon knows the alternative would be Thrawn just killing C’baoth.

“If he could. It was not, Pellaeon decided, a confrontation he would like to place any bets on.

Or, for that matter, be anywhere near when it happened.”

Scene.

z: Repeat after me: Poor Pellaeon.

will: And now, a comment that will probably not get explained in full for years, if not decades, assuming we keep this project up:

Michael A. Stackpole clearly loved this chapter.

z: …yup.  Some of its fallout, too.

will: Other than that, this chapter serves as the final reset of the board, and demonstrates some of the changes: now, in many ways, it’s the Empire that’s dealing with fissures in command–the Thrawn/C’baoth tug of war is getting worse–while the New Republic appears mostly on top of things, if on the military defensive. Mara is still playing the role of wild card, but she gets a fair amount of extra pathos from her surroundings, and this time we get flat out told about the informational puzzle pieces acting as the guns on the mantelpiece. So that’s a change.

Z?

z: I’d never thought about it that way before, that the New Republic had the more sound back-end right now while the Empire’s is cracking, but that’s of course true.
Next week, I’ll host a sectional, have a regular rehearsal, sing as a guest choir member  in one piece in the tenth year anniversary concert of the previous orchestra I was with, and we’ll get to see how easy it is to catch Luke.  Again.  Until then, may the Force be with you.

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