The Last Command, Chapter 9

z: Hello, gentlebeings, and welcome to Chapter 9 of The Last Command, wherein I have to try really hard not to think words like “ungrateful wretches.”

But first, we’re entering that part of an orchestral season when I start going around with a big glassy smile and try to pretend I’m not really panicking. We have two concerts coming up, one in Virginia not this coming Saturday but the one after, the second in Maryland one week after that. eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

will: I’m hoping to attend the Virginia concert, assuming I can make the trip down. So if you’re lucky, you might get two Visioners–Visors?–for the price of…well, $5 in advance, $6 at the door, right?

z: …or $6/$7, but not more than that. I’ll be the one on the chorus risers. And I prefer “Visioners.”

The chapter opens at the tail end of a meeting.  Lando and an unexpected (for me, anyway) Bel Iblis are meeting with Admiral Drayson; trying to get him to spare one measly Assault Frigate to help with the recovery on Nkllon before the now-immobile Nomad City is carried to the terminus line and fries.  Drayson won’t, because he won’t dare, because he can’t be sure that Thrawn didn’t have Nomad City attacked and disabled just to make him send one measly Assault Frigate there from somewhere that Thrawn will then proceed to attack because the lack of one measly Assault Frigate will be the linchpin in his attack on this fictional Assault-Frigate-assignment-place.

will: I’m not sure why Bel Iblis was unexpected. Lando asked him for a ride to Coruscant, after all. The fact that Bel Iblis is advocating for Lando is a bit surprising maybe, but Lando and Bel Iblis are at least more united in their purpose than divided by their issues…especially after Dark Force Rising.

z: No, really.

He actually asks Lando and Bel Iblis to “prove” that that isn’t what Thrawn is planning.

No one tells him anything about negatives being un-proveable.  But the reader is forcefully reminded of something that both Leia and Wedge have been the author-mouthpiece about before: Overestimating your enemy, if it paralyzes you by assigning him omnipotence, can be just as bad as underestimating them.

will: All sorts of this. Drayson is Zahn’s stand-in for “a perfectly serviceable admiral, but not up to the task he’s given” throughout the whole book (as we’ll be told in so many words later), and one aspect of this is that he lets his paranoia and fear control him.

z: After Drayson none-too-politely sends them packing, on the way to their quarters in the President’s Guests hall, Bel Iblis sighs and tells Lando that it might not have been that Drayson doesn’t like Lando or has anything against Nomad City; it might just have been the presence of Bel Iblis himself.  Apparently, Drayson is one of those people who thinks any disagreement with Mon Mothma is close enough to Imperial collaboration as to make no difference, and given Bel Iblis’ history…

will: Which certainly doesn’t help either. Bel Iblis is also still paranoid (this time with justification) about Delta Source, too, inasmuch as even if Thrawn hadn’t planned to take advantage of the Assault Frigate difference, or to (say) attack the Assault Frigate that got dispatched to Nkllon, that doesn’t mean he won’t do it if he knows when it’s happening.

There’s also something to Drayson that I really like–there is a tendency in fiction, especially in very stark, mythological (and if you don’t think Star Wars is mythology, never get me started–especially when I’m drunk–or I won’t stop until I’ve regurgitated one of my all-time favorite college courses on you) fiction, to draw up sides in extremes. The Good Guys are Good, the Bad Guys are Bad, threshold guardians are motivated by evil…it’s much better that, here, there isn’t any hint or suggestion that Drayson isn’t completely loyal to the New Republic–and in fact that it’s Bel Iblis’s shifting loyalties that are the problem.

z: Oh, I’m completely certain Star Wars is mythology, but I will get you started when I get the chance anyway because I want the lecture *grin*.

But Bel Iblis is distracted.  He’d noticed that there were guards when they were in that part of the Palace before, but now they all seem to be gone…?  Since they are both old hands at trouble, both men are now fairly uneasy, but only Bel Iblis is armed.  There’s probably a very simple explanation, says Bel Iblis.

will: The definition of “trying to convince yourself.”

z: No one is fooled.  Lando pulls out his comlink to call in, and as soon as he turns it on–

And as quickly shut it off as a soft squeal of static erupted from the speaker. “I think the explanation just stopped being simple,” he said grimly.

I like that line very much.  But be that as it may, they need to find a way to alert the guards… as they are heading towards Lando’s suite to pick up his blaster, they see Mara Jade sneaking ahead of them.  They sneak up on her in return. Bel Iblis draws the blaster and quietly says “All right, Jade, it’s all over.”

will: And we’re back at the cliff of Chapter 8. Which…

z: Mara pays so little attention to the blaster that it’s almost funny.  Instead, she sees Lando and, obviously relieved, tells them about the Imperials in the Palace, dressed as New Republic Security.  Bel Iblis tries to be skeptical, how-do-we-know-you’re-telling-the-truth style.  Mara slaps it down with sarcasm.

will: And Lando finds “the relief and underlying tension in her voice” clear enough that he doesn’t doubt her. And, of course, as with everyone else, Lando has had too much evidence of Mara’s choices to doubt.

As shifty as Mara seems, and as complicated as her history is, the more time you spend with her, the more you trust her, because deep down she’s actually an honorable person. (Which ties into her failure to fall to the Dark Side and all.)

z: They notice that the Imperials have left that floor, Bel Iblis theorizes that they are going downstairs to attack some reception, but Lando gets a lightning strike of inspiration: No, they’ve gone up, they’re after Leia’s twins.  Mara swears “under her breath,” which as we know is codeword for look-seriously-unprintable, and remembers the conversation Thrawn had in front of her, about wanting the babies for C’baoth.

will: “Swearing under her breath” is definitely an older style–the Golden Age of SF had writers actually write “unprintable” in for a curse word. The newer style has made-up curses (which, yes, these novels do start to trend into), and the newest just has the characters swear in words the readers would recognize. I like Zahn’s style best.

z: Agreed.  Rex Stout also has some nice digs in the Nero Wolfe novels (“Inspector Cramer used a word which is a misdemeanor to use on the phone.”)

Bel Iblis decides to go around back, go downstairs and raise up some help.  Lando hurries back to his room to get his blaster, looks back a moment as the door is unlocking and sees Mara… standing at the corner… face strangely empty, and thinks, again, that she’s… very familiar.

will: Lando’s been bothered by this since the first time he saw Mara, back on Myrkr.

Also, Mara’s face is empty, but intense. Which…

z: Scene shift.  Leia, asleep, suddenly wakes up at a voice in her head: Leia Organa Solo.  Leia Organa Solo.  Wake up. You’re in danger.  Wake up–and she’s up.  She moves slowly to the main room of the suite, blaster and lightsaber in hand, and feels the presence of four people just outside the suite door.  Then she hears a faint hum, assisted by her Jedi sensory enhancement techniques, and recognizes it as someone trying to break through the lock.  She shoots at the door.

will: Z’s jumped over some of Leia’s mental process, including her scan of the rest of the people in the suite: Han grunting in his sleep, the twins huddled together, and Winter “dreaming in the laser-sharp images of her perfect memory.”

I wonder. Maybe Winter would dream about not being burdened with her memory?

z: You know, that is a wonderful angle to think about?

will: But at any rate, the sequence of events is as Z describes it–as soon as Leia realizes what she’s dealing with, which takes moments but pages to describe, she acts.

And yeah, Mara was sending to Leia. And it worked. Who needs comlinks?

z: The door is supposed to be very tough wood, so she doesn’t expect her shots to actually go through, but to trigger the sensors set a little ways into the door instead, which they do, and a metal security door slams down on the inside.  Nice feature.  Too bad the Imperials don’t seem to have a lightsaber.  Of course, her own blaster shots have woken up Han as well, who joins her in the main room and tells her to call Security, he’ll hold them up there.  Aww.

will: Along with odd hours, smugglers need to go from zero to blaster very quickly.

z: The Imperials realize what has happened a moment later and start trying to just blow the outer door up.  Han and Leia grab Winter and the twins and start doing some “fast planning.”

will: And with that, the security delay and Han and Leia planning, the advantage has shifted to the Light Side.

z: Shift, to Mara, who’s with Lando and can now hear the first blaster shots, followed by more, then by heavy blaster shots.   At the top of the stairs they are currently climbing there is a landing, and two more stairs start up from there in opposite directions and wind around each other.  Mara thinks that the landing is a great place for an ambush, with Intelligence operatives lurking in the shadows, hidden behind balustrades.

will: Which could be seen as more “Mara knows Imperial techniques,” or just “Mara knows an ambush point when she sees one.”

z: Lando, realizing that it’ll take them too long to get past the rear guard, suddenly has an idea, tells Mara to stay there, and heads down–to the main hangar, where Chewie is working on the Falcon.  Mara says that the transparisteel windows of the suite cannot be opened and if you try blasting them you’ll kill everyone inside–Lando reminds her that Leia has a lightsaber, and is gone.

will: Ah, sideways thinkers and nonstandard approaches…

z: Mara turns her attention to the landing above.  One of the rear guards is standing a little too much in the open.  She starts to take aim, and is shot at by the other guard, since what the first guard was, was bait (in her defense, Mara was aware of that too, but still wanted to take the shot).  She decides on some trick of her own and carefully edges out in the open again, gets a premonition of danger very obviously from the Force, and throws herself down just in time–two more men are coming from the opposing corridor and firing on her, obviously working on sneaking up on her while the first two distracted her.  Mara manages to shoot one, but the other is tracking her and–and then there’s a barrage of blaster fire from behind her, her assailants are down, and Bel Iblis is there with reinforcements.  Having met Lando on his way down, he knows about the Falcon plan. But the door upstairs will still be opened before then.  They have to get there quickly, but the two landing guards are still holding the defense.  They have a repeater blaster coming from the armory, but that’ll also take time, so…

…Bel Iblis nodded slowly, his lips compressed into a tight line, a hint of strain around his eyes.  It was a look Mara had seen only rarely, and then only on the faces of the best military commanders: the expression of a leader preparing to send men to their deaths.  “We can’t wait.”

So, a) Mara has known some good military commanders in her time, b) …but not many of them in the Empire, go figure.

will: Indeed.

z: The squad with Bel Iblis starts to move onwards, but Mara points out that they will still probably not make it in time. Bel Iblis says that he knows: They’re probably looking down the throat of a hostage situation coming up.

will: And two of the hostages will be newborn twins.

Eeeeeep.

z: Scene shift, back to Leia.  They are all holed up in Winter’s room, one of the two bedrooms that the main suite room opens into.  Winter has the twins; Threepio is there, and Han and Leia are the armed resistance. The door and security door are once again closed, and all the furniture they can move is heaped behind them, behind the other door out, and one wardrobe is tipped over near the window and is being used as cover.  But until the intruders break through, all they can do is to wait and be quiet and hope they’ll gain another few moments if the Imperials go for the wrong door off of the main suite first.

will: Threepio is back in state-the-obvious mode, exclaiming that the Imperials have gotten into the main room.

z: Leia is suppressing a new, serious fear: Back when she was pregnant, she had made herself think of the kidnapping attempts as being made on her only, but now, they can take the twins separately, and take them away from her.

will: Remember Leia’s Adult Fear on Honoghr?

z: She grabs her lightsaber tightly, thinking that she won’t allow that, and I have some uncomfortable thoughts about anger/fear/aggression vis a vis the Mama Bear state, then relax when I remember that Yoda said “A Jedi uses the Force for defense.”  There is, quite possibly, no greater defense.

As they hear crashes outside coming from the makeshift barricades in the main room being demolished, she banters with Han a bit about needing more furniture, because it’s her and it’s Han and that’s how they deal with tension like that.

will: I’m in the process of preparing to move, as it happens, so all I can say is nobody needs more furniture. Furniture is evil.

Oh, also, the twins are waking up.

z: They hear the Imperials starting attempts to demolish both doors from the main suite at once, which will still earn them some time because the intruders have to split their firepower, but.  Leia gets the idea to cut through to adjoining suites, upstairs, or downstairs with her lightsaber, which isn’t a bad idea, except, Han points out, if Thrawn planned this all those directions would already be held.  Then Leia demonstrates why she should have been down there helping Lando if they did want to get that one-measly-Assault-Frigate from Drayson:

…He was right.  If the Grand Admiral had planned this attack personally, they might as well open the security doors and surrender right now.  Everything they could possibly have come up with would already have been anticipated in exquisite detail, with counters planned for each move.

She shook her head sharply. “No,” she said aloud.  “He’s not infallible. We’ve outthought him before, and we can do it again.”

Gentlebeings, the Flame of the Rebellion, once again refusing to give in to despair, subclass I Don’t Believe My Enemy is Omniscient and Omnipotent.

will: Woo!

z: Looking at the twins sleeping under the window, she gets an idea, too: What if I cut through the window?  Then I can make handholds or something with the lightsaber and we can climb down?  Somehow, I don’t think that they are likely to be as successful as Luke was with that maneuver, but the point is moot: She sees headlights approaching through the window.

At first she and Han are both worried that this is yet another part of the enemy force surrounding them, but then the headlights start flickering in a pattern (although one Leia can’t read) and hilarity ensues:

“Captain Solo!” Threepio spoke up, sounding excited.  “As you know, I am fluent in over six million forms of communication–”

“It’s Chewie,” Han cut him off, scrambling to his feet and waving both hands in front of the window.

“–and this signal appears to be related to one of the codes used by professional sabacc players when dealing with–”

“We’ve got to get rid of this window,” Han said, throwing a look back at the door.  “Leia?”

“Right.” Leia dropped her blaster and scrambled to her feet, lightsaber in hand.

“–cheating by third or fourth parties to the game–”

“Shut up, Goldenrod,” Han snapped at Threepio, helping Winter and the twins out from under the window.

Tell me that isn’t perfect rhythm in dialogue.

will: It is.

I’m a little unclear, though, as to the nature of this “professional sabacc players’ cheating pattern”–seems a bit counterintuitive for gamblers to have a language that the droid can read, no?

But eh.

z: For a moment Leia is worried that this might be a repeat of the fake-Millennium-Falcon trick, but she knows she can sense Chewie on the ship once they are close enough, and she’s about to start cutting when the door to the room blows up.

Bugger.

The Imperials dive in, Han yanks her down, and there’s a hailstorm of blaster fire.  The Imperials try to destroy their cover (the wardrobe) and Leia and Han fire back as they can and a small bedroom with two babies in it is no place to conduct a dense-fire blaster fight and she knows it and–and there’s a pressure on the back of her mind…  a voice telling her to:

She took a deep breath.  “Stop!” she shouted over the din.  “Stop shooting.  We surrender.”

She drops her weapon, raises her hands, Han is stunned by disbelief, and the Imperials approach cautiously.

will: I wonder–were we supposed to think that C’baoth had come after all, or was it clear what was really going on? I can’t really look back and think about it, because I know where this is going.

z: Scene shift, to Mara, who’s working through the rearguard with Bel Iblis and his men… very, very slowly.  They know they won’t be in time, and also know that the commandos have to come back down this way through those stairways (since turbolifts are naturally out of commission and some fighters are already scrambled covering the airspace above the Palace).  Bel Iblis summarizing this situation gives Mara a flash of inspiration, and she thinks to herself that either Thrawn doesn’t know she’s in the Palace (Commenter’s note: …wrong) or didn’t believe that she was the Emperor’s Hand (Commenter’s note: …wrong, again), so didn’t plan for her edge when he planned this operation, which is otherwise brilliant.

will: Tying into Pellaeon’s surprise at some of Thrawn’s orders.

z: Mara tells Bel Iblis that she’ll be back, rushes down the way they came, and when she’s out of sight, triggers a hidden sensor in the molding and slips into a secret passage that opens as a result.  It turns out that, shock surprise, the Emperor who was also very big on personal control had private passageways seeded throughout the Palace, even reaching into the guest quarters… ow, who left this foreshadowing anvil here?  I stubbed my toe.

will: Only your toe? I’ve been dodging the things for books now. It’s like a Looney Toon in here, playing Verdi.

z: Heh.

Anyway, she knows her way around as well, and quickly climbs up to the correct floor.  She slips back into the corridor, finds two more guards with their attention in the other direction, shoots them down, and has just reached directly outside the outer door of  Leia’s suite when she also hears the inner room’s door coming down with a crash.

She can’t run in directly, and she can’t wait, as someone is likely to get shot down any minute, unless… she reaches out through the Force, attempts to contact Leia (still calling her “Leia Organa Solo” in her mind), and although uncertain if she could make contact, tells Leia to surrender because she herself is behind the Imperials. And she hears Leia call out to surrender.

will: I wonder whether some of the use of the name is for clarity, reinforcing the “this is who I’m reaching out to make contact with” aspect.

z: It would be a great way to start concentrating on one specific person.  And remember, Luke did this too, the very first time he attempted it–“Leia, hear me.”

Silence falls, Mara slips in blaster at the ready, guns down two before the other two even realize she’s there and a third as he turns around, and someone from inside the room–probably Han, who wouldn’t have even had time to put down his blaster–shoots down the fourth.  Crisis averted.

will: One crisis averted, anyway.

z: Last scene shift; to Han’s point of view.  It turns out that there’s one barely-survivor, one Major Himron.  (Oh look he isn’t trying to hide his identity.  Warning sign the first.)  Bel Iblis leads Han and Lando to the intensive care unit to question the Major.  On the way, Han thanks them for coming to help, and Lando responds “no charge,” especially since they didn’t get to do much more than watch.

will: And reminding us that Lando and Han have that sort of relationship, that “no charge” is a valid response to that thanks.

z: Han tells him to blame Mara: It was her timing and she who shot the intruders off of their backs.  But Lando is disturbed at the mention of her name.  He still thinks he remembers her… from somewhere… Han remembers that Luke told him, a couple of days after they left Myrkr, that Mara wants to kill him.

(And that’s actually a continuity error, the only one I remember noticing.  Luke told Han when they were barely twenty kilometers above the surface of Myrkr, though he didn’t expound.)

will: Han probably remembers that somewhat haphazardly, caught between Myrkr and then Sluis Van.

z: Fair.

When they get there, a medic does something which brings the Major back to consciousness.  Bel Iblis greets him; Han thinks that the man looks rather alert, although he’s very badly wounded.  Bel Iblis informs Himron that all his men are dead.  Himron calls this “fortunes of war.”  Right.  The General asks him how they got in, and Himron actually says “I guess it doesn’t matter any more;” over my incredulous stare, he then gasps back door and private passage system and “she let us in.”  She who?  “Our contact here… Jade.”  Bel Iblis, surprised, asks “Mara Jade?” and Himron acknowledges: “Special agent of… Empire.  Once called… Emperor’s Hand.”

You know, Thrawn could have sent a postcard to the head of Palace Security with that information, too.  It would be just as transparent, from where I’m sitting.

will: It can’t be denied that there was just an armed incursion into the theoretically-secure palace. That does add weight to the issue. Even though yes, it was fairly transparent…

z: But anyway, the medic shoos them out saying that he needs to stabilize the Major, and one of the security officers in the room rushes off, saying he’ll put Jade under arrest.  Han protests–on the word of whom?!–but Bel Iblis points out that the security officer really has no choice, having heard the accusation, but no worries, we’ll get it “straightened out.”

will: Right, that.

z: Han, still indignant, sputters that they had better, she shot three of the attackers; then pauses at the look on Lando’s face, who did finally remember where he had seen Mara before.  At Jabba’s Palace, as she was begging Jabba to let her come on the barge for the trip to the Sarlacc Pit.

will: We already knew that part of the story, of course. But yeah, the fact is, the dam of Mara’s history is leaking like a sieve.

z: Nice simile.

Han hesitates… Emperor’s Hand?  And she wants to kill Luke? But then, he’s Han: “I don’t care who she was, she still shot those Imperials off our backs up there.  Come on–let’s help Leia and the twins get settled.  And then figure out what’s going on around here.”

And scene.

Whew that was a difficult chapter to recap.  Once again, I’m aware this is 90% recap and 10% commentary, which is a bit more skewed than the ratio I like to keep, but then this chapter is the very definition of non-stop action, and on several different fronts.  It’s not like anyone gets any introspective or dialog time that I can also go all analytical on.  But I’ve done my best.  Will?

will: Yeah, the action scenes tend to be more recap, twas always thus and twill always be. But the brief snippets of characterization that we do get are pretty interesting–Lando and Bel Iblis, Mara and Leia…not to mention, is this the first time we see Mara actively and consciously use a Force ability, instead of just having things happen to her?

z: …you know, I think it might be.  I did think, but didn’t mention above, that earlier on she was disturbed by the return of her abilities (since it meant that “the dreams would soon follow,”) but here she doesn’t hesitate to reach with her Force senses, even though she isn’t certain of success.

will: I also wonder exactly what Thrawn’s surprising orders were–was it just “if stopped and interrogated, implicate Mara,” or did he give Himron any coaching into how to sell it?

That’s about it for this chapter, and this week. Next week, we return to the Smugglers’ Quorum, and we see Karrde continue to refuse to admit that he’s taking a side–if not for something, then against something worse.

Until then, may the Force be with you.

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