The Last Command, Chapter 7

will: Greetings, honored guests, and welcome to Chapter 7 of The Last Command, wherein Luke meets a short, wise alien on an inhospitable planet, has a vision of Leia and Han in trouble, and we see Lando Calrissian deal with an Imperial attack–so basically, it’s The Empire Strikes Back on fast-forward.

Incidentally, if you’re in the Baltimore area this weekend, it’s Balticon time! I’ll be around all weekend, though not on any panels. Come find me if you can! (And maybe Z too!)

z: I’ll be dropping by to have lunch with Will and his lovely wife on Sunday, and maybe see a bit of the programming too.  Saturday, I might or might not be booked depending on Other People’s Project Plans, so no details.  Monday, I’ll be arranging, because that small ensemble piece won’t write itself.

will: Luke wakes up to his ship’s alarm, doing better than I ever managed, and uses the Force to time his exit to hyperspace. (Why he wouldn’t just use the alarm, I’ll never know.)

z: Because that one time he tried to use the targeting computer instead of the Force and got told off for doing so and besides it ended better that way, remember…

will: Also probably to shave some time, as he can use the Force to come out even closer than the astronomical instrumentation, there’s that. As Luke drops out of hyperspace, he sees the uniform brown of kholm-grass, and Zahn quickly infodumps the backstory on the Noghri and Honoghr.

Artoo asks a question, that we can assume is some form of “can we save the planet?” and Luke admits that he doesn’t know–especially because they can’t exactly send out any scientific and planetological assistance, not yet anyway. Still, he doesn’t have much hope.

Artoo agrees, but then screams a warning that there’s a patrol ship there. Luke hopes it’s a Noghri, which he quickly confirms it is–he’d recognize the sense of a human pilot–and identifies himself, as the son of Darth Vader and Leia’s brother.

The Noghri asks what Luke’s doing in orbit, and Luke considers stalling and getting a sense of the Noghri leadership before asking for help…but he remembers Leia talking about how straightforward and honest the Noghri are, and just comes out with it: he needs power cells.

The Noghri on patrol considers this for a moment, and then points out how dangerous this is for the Noghri–what if they get visited by the Empire, and they see Luke?

z: Especially since Imperial ships “visit Honoghr at random times” according to the pilot.  Which is a very Thrawn-like thing to set up, especially since, as you’ll recall, the Grand Admiral is still suspicious.

will: Luke confesses the risk, but at the same time, this actually makes him feel better–inasmuch as if they care about being noticed, they have to at least be considering helping the New Republic.

At any rate, Luke offers to leave, but Artoo quietly frets–it’s not clear that they could get anywhere better any time soon–and the Noghri gets it, too.

z: Actually, it’s not clear if they could get anywhere else period, which is scary.  But as Will says, the Noghri is aware of this:

will: “The Lady Vader has already risked much on behalf of the Noghri. We cannot permit you to endanger your life. Follow me, son of Vader. I will bring you to what safety the Noghri can offer.”

As the Noghri patrol ship takes Luke down into Honoghr proper, Luke reflects on what Leia has told him about the Clean Land, the only place crops can grow–but Luke quickly sees that’s not where they’re going. He asks where they are going, and his escort says, to the future of Honoghr. “In those mountains?” Luke asks, seeing ridges in front ahead of them, and the Noghri pilot gets all “you can read the souls of the Noghri like your sister and father!”

Luke doesn’t admit it was a lucky guess, and the Noghri pilot peels off.

z: That amused me.  And discomfited me.  Then discomfited me more because it amused me.  The difference between Luke not disclaiming omniscience and Vader probably claiming it outright isn’t slight, however, and it’s important.

will: Luke sees new escorts, in cloudcars, and they direct him into the mountains. Artoo tells Luke about a river, and Luke sees it–and now he’s being herded through a canyon that gives him Death Star flashbacks.

z: It says a lot about the nature of the flyboy that he’s smiling at the memory.

will: As he passes through, he sees bright green land–they’ve cleared this part of the planet of kholm-grass, I guess.

z: Not only that–they’ve planted.

will: The cloudcar Noghri, with pride, reiterates that this is the future of Honoghr, and escorts him to a landing pad.

z: He also calls it, specifically, “the future that Lady Vader gave us.”

will: Luke disembarks, looking over the area, seeing a hut, a pipe for irrigation, slightly differently toned areas of green suggesting different crops, and all that jazz. He tells Artoo to stay put–no falling in the water this time–and reassures Artoo that he’s sure the Noghri are friendly.

Two Noghri come up to greet him, and Luke holds his hand out the way Leia had told him. The older one introduces himself as Ovkhevam, and the younger is our old friend Khabarakh, allegedly a fugitive, clearly hiding in plain sight. Or at least poppy-seed sight.

z: …<blank look>?

will: I’m buying you a bagel on Sunday.

Luke thanks Khabarakh for all he has done, and the older Noghri says that the debt is the Noghris’ to Leia and company, not vice versa.

They explain further that yes, Leia had dispatched some of the chemicals that the decon droid had on hand, and they’ve set up this area for agriculture. Luke goes through how well hidden, supported, and defensible (and destroyable) the area is, and once again we are told how amazing and skilled the Noghri are.

z: I think this counts as showing, not telling, actually.  We know that it’s been not more than a month since Leia, in effect, pointed at the decon droids as being mobile depots of kholm-grass cleanser and left; in between then and now the Noghri have chosen the land, planned, cleansed, built and planted.  Yeah, those are people I want on my project team.

will: At any rate, Luke says he just needs some power cells, and he’ll pay. Inevitably, this gets the “we could never accept payment” response, and he sighs internally (and barely keeps from sighing externally) about how the Noghri need to get over their whole guilt complex. The Empire does this to peoples, is all.

Luke says the first step is, do they have spares? Khabarakh says yes, they’re on it, and his superior (as ‘twere) offers Luke hospitality, which he accepts. They take him to the hut, and Luke asks what they’re doing there. Ovkhevam is the caretaker and farmer, and Khabarakh is the fugitive–and his absence from anywhere in the galaxy, Luke sees, is the excuse to send out commandos–who will pass news of the Imperial betrayal to all the Noghri on assignment. Clever.

z: And sneaky.  I liked that a lot.

will: Luke refuses food and rest, and instead gets to work pulling out the fuel cells; he accepts Khabarakh’s help more to help them get over the debt than because he needs it.

Some time later, it’s night-time, and Khabarakh is apologizing profusely. Seems an Imperial patrol ship is getting repaired in Nystao, and Luke will be held up for two days. Luke understands, of course, and there’s a back-and-forth of hospitality and imposition. Luke hopes the Empire hasn’t noticed the X-wing, and Khabarakh suggests that Luke would have known.

“Even Jedi have limitations, Khabarakh. Distant danger is very hard to detect.”

Which a lot of writers will start to forget–but anyway. Luke also realizes that the Force was with him, inasmuch as the X-wing had got to hidden safety before the Strike Cruiser turned up.

Khabarakh sits down next to Luke by the river–it’s not stated outright, but I imagine this goes back to Luke’s desert upbringing–and asks the question he’s clearly been turning over and over for a while: this isn’t enough, is it.

Luke agrees. It’s an astounding achievement, but it won’t save Honoghr. Khabarakh says many Noghri agree, and Luke says they’ll find a new home for the Noghri.

“But it will not be Honoghr.”

They digest that for a moment, and Luke is reminded of the limitations of the Jedi all over again.

z: It hurts to read.  People are people everywhere and get attached to their land.

will: Khabarakh gets up to get food, and Luke just sits and thinks. He wonders whether Leia had realized that Honoghr was doomed, or whether she’d had the ability to think like that during her time there instead of just needing to survive.

And the guilt flares up as he realizes that Leia’s due. Han would be there, but he’d wanted to be there too. But, he realizes, maybe he could use the Force. He remembers Dagobah, using the Force to find and view Han and Leia, and tries that trick again…

He sees Leia, her weapons in her hands, Winter with the kids and Han there with her, Lando and Chewie nearby, but under assault. A door jerks open–

–and Luke jerks out of it, seeing “a faceless person moving toward his sister and her children from behind the shadowy evil. A person edged with the power of the Force…”

Khabarakh and Ovkhevam are there, battle-ready, and Luke says that Leia and the twins are in danger and he has to get back to Coruscant. They point out that he’s days away from Coruscant, but Luke says it was a vision of the future. As the two Noghri chat, Luke focuses and applies logic: Lando was still at Nomad City, but Lando was in the vision, so Luke probably has time to get back to Coruscant. Unless Luke’s getting an incomplete picture? The future is always in motion, difficult to see, quoth Yoda.

Ovkhevam says that if necessary, the Noghri can commandeer the Strike Cruiser–if they hit it hard and fast they can take the crew out before they get a message out. Luke says it’s a risk. Ovkhevam says they’ll take the risk.

Luke, now, begins to understand that he’s dealing with friends and allies…and ironically, that’s what stops him. The fact that the Noghri would risk their lives for Leia makes Luke not want them to.

z: It’s interesting, the way Zahn puts it.  “Those nightmare Noghri faces hadn’t changed, but in the space of a heartbeat, Luke’s perception of them had.” Now he looks at them and sees the faces of friends.

It’s both sweet and very human, and limited and very human, and in general, very human.  Or, well, sentient.  Zahn does that kind of thing very well.

will: Luke explains that the last time he got a vision of the future and ran off without thinking, he didn’t help, nearly blew their escape…

“And lost other things, too.”

Is that a shadow I see, somewhere to the fore?

z: <knit brows>

will: Ahem.

Luke says that he won’t make that mistake again, so he’ll wait.

Khabarakh tries to comfort Luke, saying Chewbacca is there, and Luke also remembers that Hn and Palace Security and all are there too, but then he remembers that last sensation of a Force user, and wonders whether C’baoth might have decided to do the job personally.

As Khabarakh says that Leia and co. will prevail, Luke agrees, so as to not worry everybody.

z: I also enjoyed Khabarakh’s word choice: “prevail.”  It’s very strong, and just right.

will: Scene shift! The fires are put out, the cracks are repaired, the injured are healing, and the gambler is staring at his busted flush. Twice now, he grumps, the Empire has taken away what he’s “worked and sweated and connived to build,” and he is not happy.

z: And he’s always honest with himself–note the inclusion of  “connived” there.  Reminds me a bit of Moist von Lipwig’s thoughts about having to give away the money he had embezzled from banks because Reasons and how unfair that was:

He’d worked hard for that mon— well, the banks and merchants had worked har— well, somewhere down the line someone had worked hard for that money …

(Going Postal, Terry Pratchett, run don’t walk to the bookstore, etc.)

will: Nicely done–for those who don’t know, in addition to the 39th anniversary of the premiere of Star Wars, this past Wednesday was the Glorious 25th of May (see Night Watch, same author). Not to mention, it was Towel Day (for Douglas Adams).

Lando gets a message from Engine Central that the last drive motivator just blew up, and there’s no way to fix it “without a frigate’s worth of spare parts.” Lando instead says that Engine Central should shift to keeping life support running, and Bagitt (the engineer) asks instead about the rumor regarding long-range comms. Yes, Lando says–they’re offline, but briefly, and they have enough people and supplies to repair it quickly.

Lando has Bagitt get to life support, and checks the time. It’s twenty days until Nomad City fries on the warm side.

Lando starts running numbers on the timing for the transmitter, then the tech teams to arrange an evacuation, and cuts off when he sees a shieldship arriving. He starts by freaking/panicking, because if that’s the Empire come back to finish the job…

Reality catches up with him. If that is the Empire, he has nothing that can help him. And there’s no need to freak everyone else out.

z: Oh no, no responsible, sensible, valuable leadership here.  None at all.

Oh, Lando.

will: The comm squeals, and General Bel Iblis’s voice comes out. Lando, probably breathing again, answers.

Bel Iblis says they were in Qat Chrystac (in other words, retreating after inventing the A-wing Slash) when the distress signal came in, so they couldn’t help in time. But Bel Iblis does say that there’s only this one shieldship left.

Lando says that Nomad City is done for, there’s no way to get it moving. And they can’t bury it. Bel Iblis suggests lifting it with an Assault Frigate, if they can get another shieldship going–and, Lando emphasizes, if they can get an Assault Frigate.

Bel Iblis then asks for the numbers: how much of what did the Empire grab? Everything, says Lando, four months’ worth of minerals. Worth three million credits in the market or thereabouts, at the moment.

Bel Iblis is downright shocked. That’s a lot. He didn’t realize how much–and he says it reinforces how important it is to get Nomad City back up and running.

z: …and actively defended this time, maybe?  Although it’s going without saying that the New Republic defense lines are streeeeeeetched thin….

will: In the meantime, Bel Iblis offers to lift the populace of Nomad City out, and take them to Qat Chrystac–oh, hey, that means Qat Chrystac wasn’t the place Bel Iblis had pulled out of. Bad information, Wookieepedia. Or maybe the sourcebook. Anyway–and that’s as good a place as any to ask Coruscant for help. Which means it’s as bad a place as any, so Lando says let’s go straight to the top: take him to Coruscant.

Bel Iblis says it’s a five-day trip, so Lando runs the numbers: five days to get to Coruscant, two days to talk Leia into an Assault Frigate, ten days to come back and lift Nomad City to safety.

Bel Iblis says it’s cutting it fine, but has no better ideas, and he’s been meaning to head to Coruscant soon, so what the hell, let’s do it.

Lando knows it’s a long shot, but hey, worst case, he gets to see Leia and Han, and the twins, and maybe Luke and Wedge.

“And on Coruscant, at least he wouldn’t have to worry about Imperial attacks.”

Ow, Lando, that hurt. Seriously. That was like physical foreshadowing pain.

z: Yeah, I’m still nursing the bump on my forehead from the anvil.  I mean, Luke had his vision not more than four pages ago, ow.

will: Foreshadowing twice, in fact. Though Lando won’t be around for the second one.

Anyway. Lando issues evac orders, and now we know what’s coming.

This feels like the transition chapter into Act II of the book: using the device of the Force to set up what we already know, and what we don’t know, and what exactly is going to go horribly wrong, and horribly right, and just plain horribly, as the next batch of dominoes falls.

But seriously, Lando, ow.

Z?

z: Tangential, speaking of anvils as one does, orchestra-related:  A couple of months ago I had reason to remark to friends about how I loved to live a life in which someone telling me “I bought vast quantities of singing bowls” in conversation was a totally normal, matter-of-course thing.  Just like that, the previous weekend I had the exchange “[composer] Can we find an anvil?  Not an orchestral percussion anvil, but a real anvil?” “[me] Anvils can be arranged,” and I love that I live a life where it’s completely ordinary for me to say that.

But that anvil (probably) won’t hurt, whereas this one did.

I hadn’t thought about this chapter as a transition, because I hadn’t thought about the acts of this book, but then that’s part of why we’re doing this reread: I know that I didn’t know enough to think about book or plot structures back when I first read this.  It does work that way, though.

I love the idea of the Clean Land (although of course it’s bittersweet, since it’s a beautiful act of rebellion and independence and of course it won’t be enough) and that geographical feature goes on my list of “places what I would have liked to visit.”

…oh, I also told that composer he had to get the volunteers to lug that thing on and off stage. Since the percussion section would be the default crew and said percussion section probably won’t be all that happy about it,  may the Force be with him.  And, until we find out about this shadowy Force-user sliding into the assault scene from behind next week, with you.

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