The Last Command, Chapter 17

will: Welcome back to Force Visions, where it’s time to play Thinker Duster Coder Spy.

In other news, I’m going to say this before the convention is in full swing this time: next week, from Wednesday to Sunday, I’ll be in Kansas City, MO (not Kansas City, Kansas) for the 74th annual World Science Fiction Convention, MidAmeriCon II. Look for me on panels including “Creative Commons Rights for Creators and Fans,” “Owning and Controlling Your Art,” and “Share Your Star Wars Theories,” as well as at the 2016 Hugo Awards. Come say hi, especially if you only know me because of this blog, because that would be very surprising to me.

z: On my part, Super Smash Con is in DC (well, NoVa) this weekend, and my orchestra is scheduled to perform on Saturday.  So you know, if you’re enough into fighting games or e-sports to pay for a day pass…

will: Oh, and one more thing.

z: You know, I never thought I’d get to say this again after 2003…is it December yet?

will: Leia and Winter enter the Grand Assemblage and head toward a gaggle of beings, probably a lot more subtly (they’ve had practice at this) than it seems reading Leia’s first-party narration. It’s not entirely clear what they’re doing at first, except inasmuch as they’re definitely Up to Something.

As they walk, Winter reels off a bit of Intelligence reporting, about a possible information source, and a potential operation to confirm that source’s reliability. They keep Sorkining (walking and talking), Winter looking around, until they have entered a more quiet area, then they head for the turbolifts.

z: Leia is trying not to look around openly, reminding herself that Winter is constantly watching and that her perfect memory would recall who was close to them for every particular part of the conversation. From which one can deduce that a) they want to be overheard, b) they care about who overhears what.

will: At which point we learn that Ghent is involved with what they’re up to, which confirms it’s The Hunt for Source Deltober.

z: Will…

will: They’ve cut their way into “an old backup powercell room” wedged between two departments’ offices, where Bel Iblis has helped run power and data lines (welcome to the ‘90s–these days, that wouldn’t be necessary given a good battery and Wi-Fi) and Ghent has set up his decrypter program.

z: Not to mention, good batteries and Wi-Fi would be a lot less detectable.  Assuming Ghent is good enough to mask his stuff joining Wi-Fi or the GFFA equivalent, of course.  (Hint: Ghent is plenty good enough.)

will: Ghent is “staring dreamily off into space with his feet propped up on the edge” of the desk when they come in. He sits up with a thump, which worries Leia (this is supposed to be secret), and reports that Bel Iblis has brought the latest transmissions from Delta Source. Ghent has finished decrypting them, and Winter and Leia look them over: “as usual,” they range from military matters to completely trivial gossip, verbatim.

You know, the only thing that makes this work is that that no one knows what Delta Source has sent until now. Once the encrypt code was discovered, everything that’s about to happen here is basically inevitable.

z: One of the big weird features of encryption wars: How to figure out how much the enemy knows that you know and what the enemy knows about how much you know.

Say that five times fast.

will: Winter spots one of the stories (like the one they’d discussed earlier) they’d planted, and starts making the list for Ghent of all of the people who saw the conversation.

And the plan is clear: use Winter’s perfect memory and their knowledge of Delta Source’s encrypt code to figure out who Delta Source is.

Ghent, continually awed at Winter’s memory (he probably has a standard computer geek’s Swiss cheese memory), runs all of the lists through a sifter/sorter program, and comes up with his first list, mostly low-level people.

z: To be a bit more explicit: They are correlating between the lists of people who heard the bits of staged conversation that the Delta Source has been reporting.  They needed two things for that plan to materialize and be practical: A way to know what was going out from Delta Source (which Ghent’s slicing gave them) and a way to know who heard those things and may be leaking them (which Winter’s perfect memory gives them).

will: Leia says it has to be higher, and Ghent does come up with a big name: Sian Tevv, the Sullustian Councilor. Leia can’t believe it–Tevv was a formative part of the Rebellion, bringing in Nien Nunb (Lando Calrissian’s copilot at Endor), but Ghent says he was in the room where it happened–that is, all fifteen of the Delta Source plants. Winter though, says he’s out, he didn’t hear the most recent batch, and more importantly, he did hear several things Delta Source didn’t send.

z: Back to the “who knows what and who knows who knows what” question, only with the “who knows who doesn’t know what” added in as well ow my aching head.

will: Ghent hadn’t figured on that, and says he needs to work up a better program to account for it. Presumably Winter will just hand Ghent a list of all of the plants, transmitted or not, and Ghent can cross-reference. I bet I could code up that database search…it would be one really complicated JOIN statement.

z: So true story: I’ve studied data science on my own on the side for a couple of years, but I only dipped a toe in SQL for about fifteen minutes during an introductory course section, and came out of it with a sense that relational algebra equals thinking sideways and inside-out.  Fun.

will: Anyway. Bel Iblis shows up to say that they’re about to start the “Stardust” plan, which Leia mentally exposits (a bit clunkily) is the plan to find the cloaked asteroids. They head to the war room, and Leia tells Bel Iblis that the number of potential Sources is around 130…a serious improvement over the thousands they would have started at, Bel Iblis says. He’s used to the Intel game.

Leia then says she’s worried that Delta Source might be a group, which would be a problem, but Bel Iblis has a hard time believing security is that bad.

z: [reaches for keyboard to write mini-treatise on why, mathematically, that would be a bad, bad thing for anyone trying to identify Delta Source…]

[…pulls hands back] Sorry.

will: Bel Iblis is not even convinced Delta Source is a person. Maybe it’s a recording system?

Leia can’t see how that could stay secret, and neither can Bel Iblis, so they table it and meet Rieekan and Drayson in the war room.

z: Riekaan still greets her as “Princess,” which makes me smile.  She’s always royalty to more than one person, eh?

will: Leia watches as a transport leaves the far orbit position and heads for low Coruscant orbit under remote control. It drops its cargo of dust, and Drayson orders the transport away–Bel Iblis reminds him that it has to go slowly, and Drayson shoots him an annoyed “who’s in command here?” look. But he does tell the transport to go slow.

The next step is for the Harrier to fire a negative ion beam (as if positive ions wouldn’t work–eh, it sounds good this way) into the dust, which charges the particles and spreads them out, like “the opening of some exotic flower.” The result is pretty clever; if an asteroid passes through the dust, they’ll see it.

z: I liked that solution when I first read about it.  Clever, indeed–you can’t spread nets over all of the orbit, and even if this is going to be very, very slow, it’s also going to be a lot more feasible.

I ain’t commenting about the positive-vs-negative ion thing though, because [sits on hands again]

will: The first dust dump doesn’t seem to do anything, which doesn’t surprise Leia. There’s lots of Coruscant orbit to cover, after all. As the solar wind starts sweeping the dust, Drayson orders the next transport to dump its cargo, and Bel Iblis and Rieekan grumble about how useful a crystal gravfield trap would have been. (Bel Iblis had one at Peregrine Base, which I guess we learn was on Svivren, as Rieekan says that “they” lost Bel Iblis’s CGT there). A CGT is a sensor system that zooms in on mass, making it perfect against cloaks, and according to Rieekan, Intelligence knows of three others–all in Imperial space. (Stick that one in your back pocket.)

z: Yup.  Chekhov’s Crystal Grav Trap doesn’t flow as nicely, though.

will: Bel Iblis doesn’t even know whether a CGT would help, because Coruscant’s gravity well would get in the way, as they watch Stardust continue. The second transport doesn’t seem to work either, and as the third one goes out, Bel Iblis and Rieekan trade ideas on working around the solar wind–bigger particles, or nightside operations–when they get a hit. Something’s carving a path in the dust.

Harrier tracks the dust path and blasts, and suddenly an asteroid appears. Drayson orders a tech team from the Allegiant to go in, but before they can even launch, the cloak self-destructs. Well, damn.

Leia: At least we found one of them. That’s something.
Rieekan: Right. Leaves just under three hundred to go.

Leia figures to go back to the Delta Source search, when a sensor officer shouts that the third dust transport has been hit. Drayson orders tracking, but all they can do is project probability; Drayson says he’ll take it and orders a bombardment. Even opening up the cone to 50% probability and getting the battlestations in on the act, they get no hit, and he finally gives up.

There’s nothing to do now but watch the transport, spinning, spewing dust, fall toward the shield. It finally crashes in a blaze of fire, and Leia has to remind herself not to give in to hate, because it would get in the way of her ability to contribute. And lead to the dark side.

z: And at least, it was a remote-controlled transport.

will: At an inhalation, Leia turns to see Winter, wearing a haunted expression. Though this transport was remote-controlled, Winter’s reminded of seeing a passenger transport go up in a similar fashion at Xyquine. (Xyquine’s a fraught place, I guess.)

Winter takes a deep breath and reestablishes her calm, asking to see Leia at her convenience. A quick check of her Force sense confirms that Winter does not have good news, so Leia heads off.

The news? Ghent explains:

“Feed in everyone who heard and didn’t hear the stuff Delta Source sent out; feed in everyone who heard or didn’t hear the stuff Delta Source didn’t send out, and you come out with the same answer every time. A straight, flat zero.”

z: The Venn diagrams aren’t that complicated, actually, just big, and apparently the intersection is the null set.  Grump.

(See?  Told you I liked that word.)

will: Leia says what if it’s more than one person, but Ghent says you have to assume upwards of fifteen people (because, again, you can exclude people who heard what Delta Source didn’t send); and as to Delta picking and choosing what to send along, that doesn’t fit the facts. Delta Source reported two Arcona discussing baby names, for crying out loud.

z: This is also touching another one of the age-old dilemmas of the espionage game: You’ve broken the German submarine encrypts, you know that they are going to hit a particular convoy on a given day, but if you warn them or if they change course the Germans will know you’ve broken their code and will change encrypts and then you won’t know what they are planning next and what do you do?

will: Bel Iblis comes in then, and Leia gives him the news. Bel Iblis, still the Intelligence veteran, says this is “interesting,” and maybe Delta Source is onto them and has gotten cagey. But Leia never sensed any deception, so Bel Iblis turns to a spy ring possibility–if they focus on the 130 people, that’s a strong place to start.

Leia can’t let that sort of paranoia start growing, though, not on the heels of the Fey’lya versus Ackbar debacle. Any more rounds of suspicion and distrust and the entire government collapses.

z: …and that’s a worse kind of dilemma.  Good for Leia, obviously.

will: Bel Iblis doesn’t see an alternative, but Leia reminds him of the “recording system” idea. Winter cuts in and says that’s feasible, because every conversation that got transmitted was in the Grand Corridor.

Winter, you’re fantastic, but open with that. Seriously, as soon as you noticed that correlation, you should have said something. You were a spy–still are.

At any rate, Leia gets excited about the idea of a recording system, but Bel Iblis is back to the question of counterintelligence sweeps, because microphones and bugs work in understood ways, and the sweeps could find them.

z: And they’ve been sweeping the Grand Corridor regularly and in detail.

will: Ghent suggests that maybe the recorder can shut itself down during sweeps, but Bel Iblis says that is reaching droid levels, and that would–(he’s cut off, but his point is that that’s even harder to disguise).

Ghent, though, twigs to the word “droid,” suggesting that’s the solution: Delta Source is a droid. Leia says that the problem is getting a droid with a spy system past Security, and then, again, avoiding the counterintelligence sweeps. And in the Grand Corridor, there are a lot of sweeps.

Leia has Ghent slice into the computers and look for a sweep schedule, so they can investigate the droids, but Winter has a better idea: just watch. If a droid develops a sudden need to leave when a counterintelligence sweep starts, that’ll be suggestive.

Ah, the Mark One Eyeball approach. Ghent starts slicing as the rest of the crew heads out, in search of Their Droid Flint.

z: [missing references error, load and retry?]

will: Scene shift. Leia has taken a seat in the lounge in the Grand Corridor, on the comlink with Winter and Bel Iblis.

She takes a moment to reflect how many droids are just Around and About, be they 3PO protocol droids, maintenance spiders, mouse messengers, and even a larger MN-2E maintenance droid pruning the ch’hala trees…she wonders which one the Empire has subverted, and Winter says there’s a sweep starting. Suddenly someone from Security cuts into the line to ask about the three-way call, confirming it was intended and not the revelation of Delta Source after all.

(“Machel Kendy”? Tuckerization for sure.)

Leia kills the com and watches, but as the sweeping team goes through the Corridor, no droid so much as blinks (metaphorically speaking). She sighs as she watches the maintenance droid “hunting for dead or dying leaves.”

Dead or dying. Rather like their theory.

Bel Iblis suggests maybe the critical droid wasn’t there that day, and they need to have Winter add droids to her list, which Winter isn’t sure about–a lot of droids look the same. But Bel Iblis says to try, because he feels like they’re close, and Leia’s Force sense agrees with Bel Iblis’s “warrior instinct.”

z: I’d call that more intelligence-officer instinct or even lead-conspirator instinct, but the shortcut works.

And in particular, Leia senses “something about the Grand Corridor…”

will: She tells Winter to get started, and Bel Iblis goes with her. Leia sits back, exhausted and disappointed. Every time they get somewhere, something doesn’t work out. And they’re under the gun–they can’t keep Ghent’s decryption secret forever, and sooner or later Delta Source will just shut down, and leave a legacy of suspicion in its wake.

Imperial Intelligence’s use of false-flags and suspicion to stir the pot of New Republic politics will be a recurring theme throughout the Expanded Universe, from Krytos to Project Minefield/Funeral and beyond. I originally had this as a parenthetical, but I’m pulling it out because I think it has an interesting consequence in light of my previously-discussed thoughts on “hierarchical empire versus messy liberty” contrasts. It can’t be denied that faction is a major flaw in the New Republic (and, ahem, other republics). But I think the Star Wars universe does generally (not always, but generally) come down on the trade being worth it.

z: I…

Um.

You know, I’d go through a convoluted paragraph just to mean “what he said”, so there you go: What he said.

will: Anyway. Leia watches as people move through the palace, and catches her eye on the maintenance droid pruning the trees, as she remembers the probe droid on Honoghr that almost led to the end of the Noghri, but for a lack of transmitter. But even a droid would have to get into the Palace, and that would be impossible without help; Palace security knows what to look for, and if there was a try at the Manchurian Droid play, “[h]idden secondary espionage programming would show up like a burst of pale red against the subtle background pattern on that ch’hala tree–”

Something pings her mind at that one, and she looks more closely at the tree, watching as bursts of red appear on its trunk over and over.

And each of them exactly in time with one of the clucking noises from the MN-2E droid.

And suddenly then it hit her, like a violent wave of icy water. Fumbling at her belt with suddenly trembling fingers, she keyed for the central operator. “This is Councilor Organa Solo,” she identified herself. “Get me Colonel Bremen in Security.

“Tell him I’ve found Delta Source.”

z: And here it is: Another one of those lines that I have remembered perfectly, since the first time I read them years ago.  It’s the cadence of it–her inspiration, the “click” moment, and the flow of words in her call.

will: Hours and much digging later, Bremen and his team have found a tube filled with sensors leading to a transmission cable, and after another hour of preliminary findings Bremen is convinced.

z: (We’re talking literal “digging” here, as in digging into the tree roots.)

will: But they have it. Bremen explains that the ch’hala trees react to any pressure, including sound pressure, to change color chemically, which is obvious in hindsight based how fast they react; and the sensors just track the chemical changes and decode them back into sound, which get passed to the encryption/transmission component.

It’s an organic microphone, says Bel Iblis, with no electronics at all.

z: To be sure, the sensors and transmission device are electronic, but they are eight meters (>26 feet) deep.  And what goes down there from the tree trunk are all passive sampling tubes.

“Such a brilliant plan,” Mon Mothma mused. “And so very like the Emperor. I’d always wondered how he obtained some of the information he used against us in the Senate.” She shook her head. “Even after his death, it seems, his hand can move against us.”

will: Interesting choice of words there, Madam Chief of State. His Hand isn’t moving against you at all, really…she’s busy helping you.

z: …heh.

“Well, this part’s about to be stilled, anyway,” Bel Iblis said. “Let’s get a team up here, Colonel, and dig up some trees.”

will: I can just see Bremen (or maybe Kendy) grumbling about how they were supposed to be trained counterintelligence and security soldiers, not landscape artists…

z: Yeah, yeah, they can just deal with it.

(I spent about six hours in the yard this past Sunday.  I was hurting all the way into Tuesday.  And strangely–I enjoy it.)

will: And that’s that.

First: Have you ever heard of The Thing? Bet you Tim Zahn had.

Given Zahn’s fondness, especially in his original settings, for espionage drama, I bet the Cold War battle of spies was a favorite topic of his. It’s one of mine, too (as you might be able to tell from the movie references). If you’ve never been to the International Spy Museum in D.C., I recommend it.

z: I should go there. I did go once, but did a very fast walkthrough and didn’t really pay attention to anything that much; I was with people who weren’t that into it, maybe?

will: Well, I was one of those that time, but I’d been before, as I remember, so I wasn’t dawdling.

z: OK, so you were into it, but had been there before :).  (It was also very soon after 9/11, and I was actively avoiding paying attention to… certain things, to avoid trauma.)

I also should go to the Newseum.  One day.

will: Look for the Berlin Wall and a familiar name.

z: Will do.

will: Anyway. This is one of the chapters Zahn does very well, the pieces-fitting-together Eureka moment. It’s one of the two great highlights for Leia in this book, the other being an even longer version that we’ll get to eventually. (Her best moment in the whole trilogy is also one of those: “forty-four years?”)

z: Good point, and one that I hadn’t paid that much attention before.  Leia really shines in deductive reasoning.

will: The Stardust plan, likewise, is creative and clever, a good example of Zahn showing us how the New Republic isn’t going to just sit still and let Thrawn outsmart them. But the heart of this chapter is the Delta Source story coming to a close, and Zahn paying off the ch’hala trees in spades. We’ve been seeing these trees for two and a half books now. How’s it feel to know they’ve had a purpose every time?

z: I can actually answer that, because I remember how I felt when I got here the first time through.  Awed.  And very… entertained isn’t the right word.  Satisfied?

I feel empowered to say that this was foreshadowing done right.

will: One more thing: I occasionally wonder whether Leia and Bel Iblis might have somehow co-opted Delta Source, used it to feed false intel to Thrawn. But every time I think through the logistics, I can’t see it. Saying “no conversation in the Grand Corridor” wouldn’t work, if they circulated any memo it would get out, and I don’t think the trade-off would be worth it. I do still wonder if they might have used it for one more bit of intel feeding, about Bilbringi versus Tangrene (as we’ll see)…but no, I think it would still be too much of a problem to keep it. And as soon as things changed, Thrawn likely would figure it out anyway.

That’s all from me. Z?

z: A chapter of two investigative searches, one of which bisects the other and succeeds very, very partially (and that is shown to be the only way it will succeed), and the other succeeds in the way the most successful scientific investigations or research work succeeds, actually: You accumulate data, you try out theories, you get them falsified, all the time something grows in the back of your mind, and then the correct stimulus comes and oh of course that was the answer.  I guess that’s another reason why I love this.

I also like how everyone involved has a very well-defined and without-which-nothing role: Ghent’s slicing, which yielded a big fat zero, which was absolutely necessary to eliminate the wrong answers; Winter’s memory, which was absolutely necessary to give Ghent the data to crunch; Bel Iblis’ experience, which I am willing to bet was instrumental in getting them set up in the best way possible and keeps them discussing their way to the solution, and Leia’s insight, which demonstrates that she has been thinking very deeply about this for a while and which breaks the thing open at last.

As for the Stardust plan: It’s not The Best Plan, but it’s a Good Plan, and it also counts as a good demonstration of the principle that the perfect is the enemy of the good, if you let it be that.  They knew it would be slow and painstaking.  They set it in motion anyway.  And they at least found one, even if out of ~300.

And that’s all for this week.  Join us next week, when the smugglers get together again, and Ferrier attempts to follow orders competently.  Emphasis on “attempts.”  Until then, may the Force be with you.

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