The Last Command, Chapter 16

z: Hello, gentlebeings, and welcome to Chapter 16 of The Last Command, wherein there are arrivals–to a planet, to some conclusions, and to the telling of a certain story at last.

This past weekend I watched The Force Awakens again, on DVD.  Then I went looking for the soundtrack at last–I’ve been busy, okay–and have had “Rey’s Theme” on repeat play almost constantly since.  That was the piece that had stuck with me as I walked out of the theater the first time, and its arrangement in the official soundtrack is phenomenal.  It’s delicate, light, longing, and determined and driven all at the same time.   John Williams is, well, John Williams.

will: “John Williams is the Man.” (A video with better sound is here; that one, though, is lip-synced off of the CD recording by the group from the first link, so I put the singers first.)

In the meantime, I’ve begun a new job that I’m very excited about, and I’m settling back into a new routine, so I anticipate not much further interruption (not that you would have been aware of some of the near-interruptions we have avoided; we work hard to be opaque. Though I’m wondering whether a “sausage factory tour” of the workflow of the blog might make for an interesting bonus post someday).

z: We open in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon with Han and Mara.  They are approaching a planet, and Mara states that this is Wayland.  Han, while noting that her voice sounds hollow, gets some search parameters from her about the location of the mountain (“about halfway between the equator and the north pole, near east end of the major continent, single mountain rising out of forest and grassland”–not only Space Is Big, folks, Planets are Also Big and mountains are small in comparison).

will: I wonder about “east” in that context. Either there are some sort of satellites, or there are conventions involving the cardinal directions for new planets.

z: I figured it was based on the planet’s direction of rotation–the direction which is exposed to the sun gradually is east.  Then north and south poles are by convention…

Lando and Chewie pop in, they discuss the apparent absence of guards and technology, Mara points out that this place was meant to be on the hush-hush so there were never really any open garrisons or anything obvious to defend it.

will: That doesn’t knock out my satellites point–there’s a difference between “guards and tech” and “certain default background features.” That said, yeah, rotation as direction makes sense.

z: So the defenses are all going to be in the mountain itself, which comforts exactly no one.  Unless Thrawn decided to set up some garrisons himself.  Lando and Chewie leave to “charge the quads.”

…which means something very very very different to anyone who’s played Mass Effect, so I’m going to spell it out: They are preparing the quadruple laser turrets, you know, the ones Luke and Han used in A New Hope during the escape from the Death Star, to fire.

will: Yup, “charge the quads” sounds like a krogan euphemism.

z: Han also does a sensor scan, and… might be a glitch, but he almost sees something?  Like that one time on the way, Lando thought he saw something?  Mara suggests something with a good sensor stealth mode.  Han thinks that it’s probably a glitch.

will: Especially because nobody knew to follow them from Coruscant, and it’s the Falcon. Something’s always glitching.

z: They talk about their target: Mara really only saw the path between the entrance and the throne room, but knows where the cloning chamber is.  The only entrance is on the southwest side, but the cooling systems draw in water from a river on the northwestern slopes. Han isn’t certain about there being only one entrance, but doesn’t want to argue with Mara, who seems to be in a mood.

will: They both have some good points in that. Most places that have “only one entrance” don’t. On the other hand, this one might, and Mara is being very dogmatic about it, because…yeah.

z: Luke comes in, and there’s an interesting exchange: Han announced they are “here,” and Luke says he already knew: “Mara told me.”. As Mara has been in the cockpit since they came out of hyperspace, that is quite a feat, especially since she’s spent the whole journey trying to avoid Luke and Luke spent it trying to help her avoid him.  Surprisingly, Han doesn’t think to himself that Luke must have sensed the change in her mood, let alone been in outright mental contact with her (which, frankly, he may or may not have been), given that two books ago he was complaining about Luke and Leia sound like half a conversation when they transmit moods between them that way.  But whatever Han does think, it must have unsettled him, because Luke reassures him that it’s all right.

will: I gather that Han’s look was that he realized it was mental contact–it doesn’t bother him because it’s not his wife this time, but it is still a bit creepy, especially in light of everything swirling about Mara and the death wish. That is, her wish for Luke’s death.

Probably.

z: Mara may disagree, since she just says she’ll be back and slips out past Luke.  Han says Luke and Mara work well together.  Oh look, probing again. Luke agrees, mentioning the time they rescued Karrde from the Chimaera.  She’s a good person to have by your side.  Except when, Han remarks, she’s trying slide a knife into it: She still has that murder-Luke idea, you know, she told Leia back in Coruscant.

will: I really like the “at your side/slide a knife” exchange. Reminds me of “I was born here/you’re going to die here,” a good example of Zahn nailing the interplay between Luke and Han in dialogue.

z: Luke’s answer is both hilarious and true:

“Which tells me that she really doesn’t want to do it. People don’t go around announcing murder plans in advance.  Especially not to the victim’s family.”

will: True enough, but what I think this boils down to is, these aren’t murder plans exactly. It’s almost…premeditated manslaughter, if that was a thing (since manslaughter is generally defined as non-premeditated killing). Something she won’t exactly have control over.

z: …tangential, but that reminds me: Last night I saw Inside Out again, and was awed anew at how Pixar took a developmental psychology textbook and made it into a movie.  It’s quite a something, which you should see if you haven’t, but use caution if you have had depression.  Digression over.

Han asks if Luke is willing to bet his life on that nicety, and Luke points out the obvious: He already has.

will: Again, Luke has Jedi/samurai serenity in that. It must be so frustrating for Han.

z: Han decides on a south approach to the mountain so that they have forest cover on their way in, and remarks that the venture is risky enough already.   Luke asks if he has any suggestions, then, and Han suggests leaving her at the landing site.  An interesting exchange ensues:

“Alive?”
At other times in his life, Han reflected, it wouldn’t necessarily have been a ridiculous question. “Of course alive,” he said stiffly. “There are a lot of ways to keep her from getting into trouble.”

You know, after a moment’s reflection, I’m not sure that there are any, necessarily, that would hold her safely.

will: I also like the glimpse there about Han’s checkered past. Even at his worst I have a hard time believing he would commit cold-blooded murder, but this is more like the Greedo situation, after all.

z: Luke rejects the idea anyway:

“She needs to see this through.”
“Which part of it?” Han growled. “Hitting the clone factory, or trying to kill you?”
“I don’t know,” Luke said quietly. “Maybe both.”

will: That Jedi thing.

z: Well, then.

After a short interlude during which Han reflects that his time with the Alliance has changed his view of forests from “background to clandestine meetings” to “every one different with their own headaches,” they land, managing to slip through an opening in the tree canopy only to discover that there’s a second layer of canopy and inadvertently trimming some trees.

will: Ah, smugglers. I like the explanation that if you’re meeting out in the forest as a smuggler, you are watching the client for a double-cross. The client can watch the forest.

z: Lando’s in the cockpit now, and makes the mistake of complaining about the landing, which prompts a very-expectable “hey, at least the sensor dish is still there.” Nope, Han’s never letting that go, nor Lando’s promise that there wouldn’t be a scratch on the ship.  Which leads to funny:

“Fine,” Lando grumped. “Next time, I’ll destroy the energy field generator and you can fly her down the Death Star’s throat.”
Which wasn’t all that funny.  If the Empire got enough of its old resources back again, Thrawn just might try to build another of the blasted things.

I’d just like to point out that all the rest of the EU universe authors, plus the writers for Episode VII, were writing after this line.  Also, come to think of it, there’s a one-to-one correlation between “our favorite authors in the EU” and “authors who didn’t come up with another Death-Star-follow-up.” (I’ll give the Ep. VII writers a pass because their entire narrative structure depended on a retelling.)

will: One of our favorite authors did come up with a Death Star follow up that worked, but we’ll get there. (The secret: it wasn’t meant to scare the reader.)

Come to think, Zahn himself did something not-dissimilar to that too, in the Hand of Thrawn.

z: After the Luke-Mara dynamic, this may be the second most significant thing that was summarily ignored by some of those who came later.  Rant over.

Tangentially, I also like the use of “grumped” as a “said” substitute.  Grumped.  Hehehehe.

will: Onomatopoeia FTW.

z: Luke pokes his head in, announcing they’re ready, and they discuss how the landing site looks: There are a bunch of animals, about fifteen, but they seem to be keeping their distance.  The team heads out.  Han and Chewie are the first off the ramp. They see the animals, which have grey fur, with some white, about two meters nose-to-tail, “beady little eyes” and the claws and teeth of a predator. They kind of look familiar to Han and Chewie, who can’t quite place them.

will: Nice example of Noodle Incidenting, that they’ve encountered this some time in their aforementionedly-checkered past.

z: Han calls back up to Luke, and the rest of the team activates the speeder bikes they had brought along, which is when the first animal charges Han.  A rapid fight ensues.  By my count, Han, Chewie, and Luke (who leaps in with his lightsaber) drop seven.  Luke says that three more are watching, and Han does see two of them, which, heh.  But Han’s recognized the animals from the closer look he can take at the corpses.  The speeder bike repulsorlifts were what set them off.  At this, Chewie also remembers where they’d seen them before, and Mara declares, coming off the ramp, that they are called “garrals,” which the Empire used to use as watchdogs near wooded garrisons “where probe droid pickets weren’t practical”. They are drawn to something in the ultrasonic spectrum of the sound from a repulsorlift, which sounds like one of their prey species, or something.  Yay.

will: Once again, Zahn plays with the size of the galaxy and the ways evolution and speciation happen. The idea that somewhere a species would develop with such a frankly useful ability is a clever one.

z: So they were waiting at the landing site because spaceship=huge repulsorlift, and if they have radiotags, the jig, she is already up.  They search for tags, but luckily don’t find any.  (The nineties nature of the story comes up again since no microchips are mentioned.)  Probably these are descendants of the original guard animals, but it doesn’t matter, since they can’t use repulsorlifts either way and have to walk.  Including Threepio and Artoo.  Joy.

will: Mara also says maybe this is where the garrals come from, since she’s never learned their homeworld.

z: Han estimates that it’ll take them eight or nine days to get to the mountain on foot.  Mara describes the native sentient species, the Psadans and the Mynyershi (whom we had met all the way back in Heir to the Empire) as hostile to humans.  Between that and other predators, she estimates twelve, thirteen days.

Han looks around, and “something more than a little disturbing” catches his eye.  He hurriedly organizes everyone to get them to move away from the landing site with a quickness without mentioning this, but it’s not like he can hide the change in his sense from Luke. To his quiet question, Han responds that the remaining garrals, which had still been watching, are gone. Something else might have drawn them–a flock of prey animals? An Imperial patrol?  Luke can’t sense anyone, but… They can’t abort anyway.  When the Empire learns that the Republic knows about the place, they’ll be openly defending it very heavily. They can’t call for backup with any guarantees it won’t be picked up otherwise either.

will: Luke also offers to stay behind and deal with cleanup, but Han says no, for a host of reasons, including that Luke always gets in trouble when Han’s not around.

z: Pot.  Kettle.

We switch to Luke’s point-of-view as they start off, immediately running into trouble: dead-end paths, a swarm of smaller animals that attack and damage Threepio, another animal that attacks Threepio, Threepio whining, Han threatening to shut him down…

will: “Just like old times.”

z: Exactly.  Luckily, they soon hit a dry creek bed and can go much faster, making nearly ten kilometers (about 6.4 miles) before nightfall.  They are making camp on the creek bed.  Luke is cutting thornbushes with his lightsaber to make sort of a barrier for the camp when Mara comes up to him, dropping her backpack, and snarks about how this brings back wonderful memories, which starts a conversation initially about Myrkr and how Karrde’s group cleared out half a step ahead of the Empire.

Significant thing we’re not explicitly zooming in on: Mara goes to where Luke is, instead of hanging out with the others at the camp or going off to one side by herself.  And, sarcastically or not, brings up the similar experience they shared. The sarcasm is even directed at the incident, not at Luke.  In short, probably without noticing it, Mara is behaving exactly like someone would behave in a group of relative strangers and one friend.  (Without the “friend” bit, I think she’d just withdraw into solitude.)

Luke asks if Mara is helping because the Empire put a death mark on Karrde, and hilariously, this time Mara declares that Karrde isn’t in this for the Rebellion, and isn’t in this for you, princess: She works for Karrde, Karrde is staying neutral in this war (yeah, Mara, about that…) and she just doesn’t want another Clone War and she’s not helping them, they’re helping her, because she can’t shut the place down by herself, see.  Luke says he understands.

He uses the Force to stack the thornbushes on the ground, decides to cut some more, turns on his lightsaber, cutting two more bushes… which, imagine how it must look: Under a darkening sky and two layers of tree canopies and down in a creek bed against the backdrop of a makeshift wall of thornbushes, I mean “dim” and “gloomy” are probably understatements, there’s the brilliant line of the green lightsaber, flashing as Luke makes the cuts.

He feels Mara’s mood change as he’s about to shut the lightsaber down.  When he looks around, she’s staring at the lightsaber, a  ration bar forgotten in her hand and a haunted expression on her face.  He asks if she’s all right.  She looks away “almost guiltily,” mutters that she’s fine, glares at him and violently bites into the ration bar.  For someone who was a secret agent for so long, she’s a terrible actress… at least when Luke’s around.

will: Luke, though, doesn’t even acknowledge that, and goes back to thinking about stretching vines.

z: As usual, Luke doesn’t prod, but turns back to his work on the barrier, when Mara calls his name: “Skywalker.” She’s quiet. “I have to ask.  You’re the only one who knows. How did the Emperor die?”

Luke studies her, noting that it would hurt but she still really wants to hear it.  He tells her that the Emperor was trying to turn him to the Dark Side.  He’s fighting the pain of his own memories—it’s hard for her to hear, and it’s hard for him to tell, too. He says he took one swing at the Emperor in anger and ended up fighting Vader; the Emperor must have thought that if Luke killed Vader in anger, Luke would be opened to the Emperor through the dark side —

Oh.

Oh.

I just realized something that is probably not news to anyone else.

That one swing he’s talking about, the one in anger and hatred, the one the Emperor goaded him into–that was his only action taken in rage in the throne room until Vader learned about and threatened Leia.  And the Emperor wasn’t trying to make him attack Vader. He was explicitly saying “strike me down.”  Yes, he probably knew Vader would defend him, but for years, I had a sense that he didn’t really rely on that, that he had something else up his sleeve against Luke’s lightsaber.  I don’t know why I have felt like that.  But I just realized that Vader didn’t only block Luke from striking the Emperor.  He blocked Luke from striking the Emperor in anger, from the one action that would have led to Luke’s immediate fall.

Uh.  So.  They both saved each other there.  Epiphany.  Sorry.

will: Well put. And of course, it ties into the Other Thing.

z: But there are enough revelations coming up in the creek bed.  Mara snarls that Vader and Luke both turned on the Emperor.  Luke protests that he didn’t attack the Emperor after the first swing (because, see, that part is kind of important to him as it is to Mara, though for a different reason).  Mara is at the edge of rage herself:

“What are you talking about?” she demanded. “I saw you do it.  Both of you moved in against him with your lightsabers.  I saw you do it.”

will: We saw that from her perspective multiple times, in her dreams; but there’s something to be said for “this was how Mara saw it happen,” not just a constructed image, but the actual memory of the images she got.

z: Luke realizes that Mara, the Emperor’s Hand, who could hear his voice from anywhere in the galaxy, had been in contact with him as he died… except somehow she received the wrong image.

will: “Somehow.” Heh. Yeah. Somehow.

z: Still quietly, he repeats that he didn’t move against the Emperor, and describes how he was half-paralyzed from the Emperor’s lightning bolts when Vader picked the Emperor up and threw him down a shaft, so Luke couldn’t have killed the Emperor even if he had (still) wanted to.

Mara doesn’t ask the obvious question:. Why did Vader do that, again?  Instead she scoffs at the “even if I wanted to.” Wasn’t that why Luke went to the Death Star in the first place?

No, Luke says, he went there to try to turn Vader away from the dark side.

Mara doesn’t ask the obvious question: Why would you even want to try that, again?

I’m still not clear on who knows what about the Skywalker parentage, you see, and I don’t think it’s ever been spelled out, and it’s a bit irritating for me.  Idiosyncracy.

will: Well, we know Mara doesn’t know, because…we’ll get there soon.

But yes, this goes back to an underlying theme, which is that Luke wasn’t there for the Emperor at all.

z: Instead, with a turmoil that Luke can clearly feel, Mara turns away and asks why she should believe him.  He asks why he would lie.

Then he proves that whatever aspects of the Force he might be strong in, what he’s really very, very strong in is empathy.  He doesn’t tell her that the Emperor deceived her to plant this hatred into her;  he doesn’t even think of that possibility explicitly in the narration.  Instead, he takes her lived experience and emotions, and accepts them to the point of giving them context (and pretext) again as they are teetering.  Vader would never have turned on the Emperor if I hadn’t gone there, he says.  So I’m responsible for his death anyway.

Mara hesitates momentarily, then harshly agrees that he is, and she won’t forget it.

Ow.

She doesn’t say anything else.  Luke turns back to the thornbushes.  After a moment she makes a technical remark about not building to high so as not to trap themselves in.  She’s again all business, and needs Luke until the job is done.  Luke thinks that after which, she will have to face her destiny “that had been prepared for her.  Or would have to choose a new one.”

And scene.

Whoa.

So that happened.

Will?

will: Half of the story, acquired.

What I wonder is, does Luke think Mara knows the other half? If he knew that Mara didn’t know Vader was his father, and that was why he did what he did…

The reason Luke isn’t saying it, I assume, is that he figures Mara knows. The reason Mara isn’t asking is she figures she knows everything. And Luke doesn’t know that Mara would get context from it…and even Force sensitivity doesn’t let you know when someone is confident but wrong.

My head hurts a little now.

z: Mine, too.

will: The point is, once again, this is the first in a set of important emotional Luke-Mara conversations and revelations in a forest.

I wonder if that’s deliberate? Not only does it evoke Endor, but neither Mara nor Luke are forest-born–she’s an urbanite, he’s a desert-er. So this is sort of neutral, or equally hostile, ground.

I feel like Luke is also being more heavily Force-driven this chapter, with all the talk about destiny and seeing things though. Not in specific actions, but in his quiet confidence that he’s doing the right thing.

z: And, I feel this bears repeating, in his unshaken belief that Mara must “see things through.”  He never quite says “it is her destiny” in as many words, except getting close to it at the very end of the chapter, but he doesn’t say it very, very loudly.  In fact, he helps her see the Emperor’s death as his responsibility again, instead of making the clarion argument to the contrary, so she can stabilize on the same path again.

And when you think about it, “destiny” is quite a large component of the Force-user philosophy.  Obi-Wan, Yoda, Vader and the Emperor all speak to Luke of Luke’s destiny.  Two of them are more or less correct about it, the others not so much, but they are all very certain that destiny is A Thing.  Luke’s picked up that certainty.

And, well, “always in motion is the future,” so it’s not absolutely clear what said destiny is at all times, but remember, a Jedi has already had a vision about this particular one.  She isn’t there to tell the others, though.

will: (I also note that Luke is not being so heavily into Force power use. He isn’t saying “I can levitate Artoo and Threepio all day” or anything like that. Note this for the Hand of Thrawn books, gang.)

And that’s about it from me. Next week, Leia plays games, including rock-cloak-starship (cloak covers rock, rock smashes starship, starship tracks cloak) and Duck Duck Source, and gets involved in both planting and uprooting.

Until then, may the Force be with you.

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