The Last Command, Chapter 14, Part 1

will: Hi everyone, and welcome to Chapter 14 of The Last Command, part 1, wherein professional competence, pride, routine, and habit all fight. As does an Imperial raiding squadron and the Coruscant planetary defense network. We’re splitting this chapter in half, because…like I said. A real lulu.

In personal news, I’ve received some really fantastic personal news.

That’s about all from me.

z: He announced to a limited group of friends on Monday, folks, and Numfar has been doing the Dance of Joy ever since.

will: We open with yet another Force dream, this one of Mara and Luke watching a hooded shadow carrying a lightsaber, behind which is an old man with “craziness in his eyes.” Luke moves into guard position, and–

The alarms wake Leia up.

z: The first-time reader notes that it’s Leia having a Force-dream; the current-time reader notes that it’s Leia having a {ahem} Force vision.  Well, well, well.

will: No confusion like the roll of thunder or the wail, this was full “wake up NOW” alarms. Leia goes through all the possibilities: someone has caught Mara and Luke, another commando raid…but she realizes it’s a different cause.

“Coruscant was under attack.”

Jacen and Jaina, spurred by either the noise or the emotions (or both), start crying, so Leia calls Winter to help while she thinks good thoughts at the twins.

As Leia says she’s heading to the war room, Winter displays her skill at reading Leia by asking if she’s all right.

z: And it’s some skill, folks–Leia’s flying around the room stuffing her arms into her robe, Winter’s described as “already halfway into her own robe” so she’s also still actively getting dressed, it’s probably very dim if not altogether dark, the alarms are screaming and the twins are wailing… and still, her eye catches that Leia’s been disturbed by something above and beyond.  Winter is Good At This.

will:  And Leia gives the quick version of her dream, emphasizing that the dream feelings were “this is a losing fight.” Winter asks if it might have been Jedi premonition, but Leia says it wasn’t, because if C’baoth were on Wayland, Luke would be able to tell from orbit and would scrub the plan.

Winter and the audience and everybody else in the galaxy doesn’t buy that, but Leia insists it was a bad dream, and privately imagines some of it was due to her guilt about letting Han and Luke go to Wayland at all.

Winter says “we” will take care of the twins, meaning her and the Noghri, who have in the last minute taken up guard positions around the crib. The Noghri give Leia reassurances, which she believes, and Leia’s out the door.

She considers calling the war room for an update, but realizes the last thing they need is the distraction of explaining things to a civilian (even one with war room access), and besides, she’ll be there soon. She gets to a turbolift, where two occupants recognize her and give up their places in an otherwise full car, though a group of Jawas (actual ones this time, not Noghri in disguise–I think) push their way on.

z: I think Zahn actually meant those to be Noghri, but then forgot to mention them again later in the chapter (maybe because it would be hard for them to get into the War Room, disguised or no) and later-later forgot to take them out while editing, otherwise why even mention them?

will: Flavor, I think.

The war room is at the center of the bottom floor of the Palace, so she goes through the outer layers of the floor (support and checkpoints), passing into the war room proper, and looks to the Big Board.

There is a full encirclement suite of Interdictors blocking the main hyperspace vector, escorted by a bunch of Katana ships. Definitely not good.

A voice from behind Leia asks what’s up, and she turns to see “a kid, really,” whom she eventually remembers as the slicer Ghent from Karrde’s group. Thus passes the greatest conversation between a geek and a Jedi in history:

“It’s an Imperial attack.”
“Oh. Can they do that?”
“We’re at war. In war you can do just about anything the other side can’t stop you from doing. How did you get in here, anyway?”
“Oh, I cut myself an entry code a while back. Haven’t had much to do lately. Can’t you stop them?”
“We’re certainly going to try.”

z: I’ve got nothing to add, except Will’s description of the conversation is spot-on.

will: She sees General Rieekan (whom you may recall from The Empire Strikes Back; he was the commander of Hoth Base, the one who grounded all ships just before the Imperial attack), and starts to head to him, “when her brain suddenly caught up with her.”

z: You know what that feels like, I bet, folks.  Well, I definitely do.

will: Ghent had sliced himself an access code to the New Republic’s central war room.

Because he was bored.

(As I said back when we were dealing with counterpart encrypts, crypto in the Galaxy Far Far Away is one of those things that is kept blissfully vague.)

She grabs him and drags him to the crypto department, and summons (“who’s in charge here?”) the colonel in command. She names herself, and Ghent, asking if he can be useful.

The colonel asks if Ghent’s ever seen a battle encrypt, but he hasn’t. He has seen some normal military encrypts, including one called ILKO, that took him two months to slice. “Someone whistles” (as in, that long low whistle of “holy shit”), and Leia asks if that’s good.

ILKO was the master encryption for the construction of the Death Star, and it took the Rebellion itself a solid month to crack. Ghent just showed his bona fides in a big way. The colonel beckons Ghent to join them, and Leia heads out.

z: Let’s talk hackers.

Or, rather, Hackers, as their story is told in Stephen Levy’s book, which is worth reading, by the way.

will: Ooh, yes. Love that one.

z: Levy’s definition of a hacker in the early days (we’re talking PDP-11s here) was someone who liked to make tools to make more tools.  Similarly, the version of hacker who likes to break things and look into them just to figure out how they work.  Come to think of it, that same archetype appears in Pratchett’s works as well: I don’t remember the quote exactly now, but it was something about people who would poke their finger in the outlet plug of the universe just to see what would happen?  At any rate, by the time I read The Last Command, I had not read any Pratchett yet, but I had read Hackers (one of the first books I read from the library at my undergraduate college, actually) and found Ghent… familiar.

And comfortable, believe it or not.  I don’t have the hacker impulse in exactly the same way.  I love making things, and I love figuring out what makes them work (…uh, so, yeah, engineer) but I have never been consumed by that.  But occasionally, usually when reading about such people, I feel wistful, the same way I’d read about someone taking a nice drive through the mountains and stopping at a vista and feeling the wind and taking pictures of the spectacular view.  It’s not something I preferentially do even when I have the time, having other things to put my time into, but I intuitively know that it’s something nice.

will: For a while, I was something of a hacker, larval stage at least, before I went into law (and among lawyers, my field is known for being the engineers and hackers of lawyers), so yeah, for me Ghent was very personally familiar.

Emerging from Hackerspace, Leia sees that six Star Destroyers have dropped into the battle, heading for the defense platforms. Leia finally meets up with Rieekan, who greets her, and Leia looks back at the center of the war room. Things do look active–shields are up, ground defenses are active, fighter groups are scrambling…and Admiral Drayson is in command. She reacts…negatively, and Rieekan (who agrees with her negative assessment) explains that Ackbar is offworld.

z: On some inspection tour.  And, we’ll find out as the chapter progresses, it won’t be easy for him to return.

will: Drayson, Leia knows, is “competent enough,” which isn’t enough. The sector fleet might have heard the distress call, but the Empire took out the comm relays, so they don’t know for certain that the call went through–and this proves that Thrawn’s target is Coruscant, not anything else.

And Drayson quickly shows his lack of skill (relatively) by firing off some ion cannons way too soon, at too long a range and with a defense platform way too close. As Leia looks for Mon Mothma, hoping that she can put Rieekan in charge, she stops.

Sena is there. Sena, Bel Iblis’s chief aide. Bel Iblis, “who was considerably more than merely competent.” She heads over, and Sena greets her, asking what’s happening.

“What’s happening is that we need Garm,” Leia says. He’s up in the observation gallery, Sena, says, the home of government civilians and high-ranking officials who can’t be on the war room floor. And he won’t come down until Mon Mothma personally asks him.

z: Here’s my confession: I didn’t get why when I read this.

will: Leia has had more than enough of stiff-necked Correllians, so decides to ask him herself. Sena points to one of the Bel Iblis Dreadnaughts, saying her sons, Peter and Dayvid, are on board, and I can’t help it because my Tuckerization meter has redlined, and I wonder whether we aren’t seeing some cross-universe references, given that Peter David is a rather famous Star Trek tie-in writer…

z: Why not?

will: Anyway, Leia takes the identification as the plea for help it is, and heads up to Bel Iblis.

z: …so I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get it either; apparently Sena didn’t either (and neither did Leia).  So I’m feeling better about it.

will: He says he thought she’d be downstairs, and she says she should be–and so should he.

Bel Iblis, though, cuts her off, saying she needs to know that two of the Interdictors are trouble–they’re going to pull the Qat Chrystac trick (the Thrawn Pincer, as it will later be known), using the Interdictors to aim incoming ships. Which means the arriving ships will be blind and shieldless for a few seconds. She needs to warn Drayson.

Leia tries Drayson, but gets his voicemail, even in light of Council overrides (military trumps Council). Ditto Drayson’s aide,  and then Rieekan, and then it’s too late. Two Victory Star Destroyers jump in and fire, and the New Republic isn’t ready.

z: The way this sequence is written is very tense, and you can sense the frustration from both parties almost viscerally.

will: Bel Iblis sighs that Drayson just isn’t a match for Thrawn, and Leia tells him that he has to come down and take command.

Bel Iblis says he can’t, until Mon Mothma asks, and Leia throws diplomacy out the airlock, telling him he’s being childish, letting people die out of pique.

But he looks at her with pain in his eyes. It isn’t about pride, he says, it’s about Mon Mothma. He finally realized why Mon Mothma was doing what she was doing, keeping such a tight control over all aspects of the New Republic governance, as indeed she did over the Rebellion’s leadership. It’s not about power for her, and as Leia (who doesn’t really care, yet) asks for an explanation, he gives it:

With everything she does there are lives hanging in the balance. And she’s terrified of trusting anyone else with those lives.

Leia reels from the shock as it clicks for her, too. She’s terrified of trusting the wrong person (probably related to seeing the Republic fall into Empire, due to misplaced trust in Palpatine), and that means she puts a lot of trust and responsibility on a few shoulders.

Thus bringing to a fullness the underlying theme of Leia’s Jedi training and her responsibility, paying that off.

z: …and who among us who’s ever managed anything or worked with a team didn’t have an uncomfortable moment at seeing ourselves a tiny bit in Bel Iblis’ explanation?

will: Bel Iblis explains that that’s why he won’t take command until she asks. Unless she can trust him fully, she won’t ever actually give him authority; and she can’t be hovering behind him, it won’t ever work.

Leia understands his point, but people are dying. Maybe, she says, she can convince Mon Mothma to trust him? Like that ever works. You can’t be “convinced” to trust, not really.

“She has to decide this for herself.”
“Perhaps she has.”

Mon Mothma’s there. Leia feels “the guilty awkwardness of having being caught talking about someone behind her back,” and starts to say something, but Mon Mothma cuts her off, steeling herself to talk to Bel Iblis. It’s awkward, difficult, and stilted, but finally Mon Mothma says that they were a good team, and maybe they can be again.

Leia realizes how difficult this is for Mon Mothma–to have to ask a person who walked out on the Rebellion to help, now. She worries that Bel Iblis is going to be too literal, demand the right words…but he comes to military attention, and formally requests permission to take command of the Coruscant defense.

Apparently, her willingness to ask him, and the urgency of the situation, is enough for him. And the fact that there is going to be some awkwardness no matter what. And that Mon Mothma, having heard what they were saying, is probably realizing that she’s been too sparing with her trust.

z: It just struck me that if Mon Mothma was close enough during the whole futile frantic attempt to warn Drayson about the Thrawn Pincer, that would be a bright sparkling underline for the phrase “Bel Iblis: Competent General.”

will: Mon Mothma accepts, and they head off, and Leia realizes that she is probably only aware of half of what just happened, given the long history between those two leaders. And that the empathy that happens after long friendships (and even rivalries) is a microcosm of the shared passion and hope that created, and sustains, the New Republic. Empathy and respect, between people, cultures, species, planets.

The strength that would create the future of the galaxy.
If it could withstand the next few hours.

She follows in their wake.

z: Once again, I’m reminded of Pratchett, who wrote about the through-the-dark-mirror image of this.  Why would a police sergeant stop his very young lance-constable from attacking a man tied to a chair, even though said man is a torturer, surrounded by his own handiwork, and said lance-constable just came back from finding some of that man’s victims and is in a state of shock and rage?  Because, as the sergeant puts it while they watch the entire civil order of the city teetering on the brink of collapse around them and they’re trying to hold it back from the edge, “That’s why [I stopped you], lad. Once we break down, it all breaks down.”

And if the center holds, the edge has a better chance of holding.

will: And that’s where we’re stopping this week, because that was a pretty big set of events, and there’s another half a chapter to go, wherein Thrawn reveals his genius, and Leia gets her plot coupon for the second act of the book.

z: I think you’re missing an “again” in there.

will: Well, yes.

This part of the chapter is all sorts of intense–the Bel Iblis/Leia/Mon Mothma interaction is obviously the heart of it, and pays off everything Zahn’s been seeding about responsibility and authority and Mon Mothma being In Charge, turning it into…not a strength, but a weakness that makes her a better character, instead of the power-hunger weakness Bel Iblis was afraid of. But as Z has already pointed out, there’s a substantial amount of awesome from the slicers’ interactions. (That’s definitely a case of Ghent finding his natural home. No shock he eventually becomes their boss…)

But that’s enough out of me. Z?

z: It’s… not amusing, exactly, but satisfying that Leia’s initial instinct is to go into the War Room herself, not the observation gallery–she probably correctly thought that she’d get to know more about what’s happening that way, but more likely, she didn’t think about it at all.  Diplomat or not, councilor or not, she’s always been in War Rooms (or out on raids… or “diplomatic missions to Alderaan”) so why not this time?

Very tangentially, I want to know what ILKO stands for.

And that’s all she wrote, too.  Leia saw a vision of the future… we think… the Imperials finally arrived for the grand attack that they’ve been telegraphing for a while… Leia rushed to watch the battle being handled not quite competently enough and then witnessed history as the leadership changed hands.  I have to think that Drayson will be a little relieved, too, because he never hit me as someone who’s too deep into the Dunning-Kruger syndrome.  We’ll get more on what it is that they must defend against next week, with a scene shift on board the Chimaera to start with.  Until then, may the Force be with you.

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3 thoughts on “The Last Command, Chapter 14, Part 1

  1. You have a broken blockquote up there, at ”With everything she does there are lives hanging in the balance. And she’s terrified of trusting anyone else with those lives.”

    Like

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