The Last Command, Chapter 19

will: Welcome, loyal readers, to Chapter 19 of The Last Command, where we get a whip-round of the good guys, and Zahn starts setting up the next set of dominoes. Plus reminding us about one of the big ones that will weave its way through the whole EU.

(Yes, a weaving domino.)

z: I’m so exhausted with Work Stuff this week that I can’t even be bothered to look askance northwards.  And that’s all she wrote about that.

will: Before that, though, I wanted to report that MidAmeriCon II was a lot of fun, and I’m fairly grateful overall to have survived. (One of these days, I’ll take a vacation that’s actually a vacation, I swear it.)

z: I’ll believe that when I see it.

will: Me too.

will: Han and Lando are extracting Artoo out of another thicket of tree roots, complete with Han almost throwing his back out, some snark about how last time they dropped him, and Threepio being nervous while Artoo explains that “he trusts [them] implicitly.”

This is how you can tell the sequence was pre-prequels: no stupid flight thrusters. (Did I say this back when Artoo was riding on a travois through Myrkr’s forest? I guess not. Different type of forest maybe.)

z: You didn’t, because there was no multiple tangling incidents, since Luke just up and carried him from the beginning.  But I agree with you re: stupid.

I’m not entirely certain if Threepio is translating what Artoo is saying accurately there, though, or being diplomatic (after all, “human-cyborg relations” implies a certain kind of relationship-management, and he’s a protocol droid…).

will: At any rate, Luke’s in machete-lightsaber mode, like Mara was back on Myrkr, and Chewie and Mara are on defense duty for the vine snakes that show up when you cut the vines.

Like everything else on Wayland, they’d learned about that one the hard way.

Poor Han.

z: He’s surely having his post-smuggling-career lessons about forests reinforced in just all of the ways he probably didn’t want them reinforced.

will: Han and Lando trade snark on the advantages of not having landed closer, namely, having vs. not having Imperial patrols, when they hear what sounds like a pair of whistles. Han checks, but can’t see anything, and Artoo’s scanners are limited–he can’t detect anything within twenty meters, but that’s all he has. Han’s used to that routine too.

Han and Lando try to figure out where the predatory species are, and where the natives are–seems they haven’t seen hide nor hair of either of them, at least not after the garrals when they landed. Han knows that something’s watching them, he just can’t figure out what.

I didn’t remember this back when I read it at first, but now, heh.

z: I definitely hadn’t figured out what it was.

will: Anyway. Luke finishes cutting the vines, but points at a nest of “clawbirds,” which they’d previously run into (and Chewie still has the injuries from that particular remedial lesson), but the nest is empty. Han’s suspicions go into overdrive, and he tries to casually set up himself and Chewie as rearguard.

Luke doesn’t buy it, and Han knows Luke doesn’t buy it, but he goes along with it anyway. Lando likewise knows that Something Is Up, but whatevers out.

z: Oh, that line is funny enough that I’m going to quote it:

“Something wrong?”
Han looked back at [Luke]. “No,” he said, trying hard to be casual.  “No problem.  Why?”

We’re all fine here now…thank you…how are you?  And of course Lando doesn’t need Jedi senses to not buy it either, he’s known Han for how long?

will: Once they’re proper rearguards, Chewie asks what they’re really doing, and Han says it’s time to put that Wookiee nose to use–remember Endor and Chewie thinking with his stomach? Han tells Chewie to see if he can find some clawbirds.

It isn’t that hard at all–one is dead beside a bush, and Chewie quickly says it wasn’t a predator that killed the bird, it was a knife. Besides, why would a predator leave good meat behind?

Han figures it was the natives, so there goes being unnoticed; but he doesn’t know why they haven’t done anything either. Chewie knocks down the theory that they’re getting reinforcements because that bird was killed by a single stab in flight.

z: Ergo, reinforcements are probably not necessary.

will: Right. See above, in re: heh.

They rejoin the crew, and we shift perspectives. As you can tell from the use of “Solo” and “Skywalker,” it’s time to take a ride in Mara Jade’s head.

They’ve stopped after yet another Artoo-vine conflict, this time requiring Chewie to do some repairs, and Mara and Luke trade actually-somewhat-pleasant words about how sometimes even Luke has wished for something that wasn’t “designed to travel on a flat metal deck,” but on the other hand, Artoo got pretty far on Tatooine back that first night.

Now Mara asks what Han was telling Luke about earlier, or is it something she can’t know–and Luke just tells her, of course. It’s the clawbird, and Mara says that the Myneyrshi are supposed to be close-blade specialists. And they don’t like humans–

Luke isn’t really paying attention anymore, he’s focused outward. She realizes what he’s doing and tries to follow suit, reaching out with the Force, going through generic life until she starts detecting minds. Luke identifies five, and Mara realizes there are multiples, but can’t quite sort them out. Luke advises she look for deviations, ways the minds differ, to separate them, and “to her slightly annoyed surprise” she starts managing it. She gets three before they vanish.

z: There is a certain fragile stage in some people’s professional or artistic development where they can bristle at teaching advice, especially if it is offered not-explicitly-solicited…It’s usually defused by the skilled teacher, though.  And even with Luke’s soon-to-come-up worries about teaching, he’s strong enough in the empathy department that he’s a good teacher in that sense.

will: Luke confirms they vanished out of his sense too, probably pulled further back, and Mara tries to say maybe they didn’t know we were here, but she can’t sustain the false belief.

Luke says no, he feels like they were heading toward the group when they were…something, not scared away, but something. It wasn’t humans, though, he’d know if there were humans nearby.

When Mara comments how useful that trick is, he says it’s a matter of training, but Mara picks up something odd in his voice and asks him to clarify.

“Nothing. Just…I was thinking about Leia’s twins. Thinking about how I’m going to have to train them someday.”

Mara asks if he’s wondering how young to start them, but Luke says he’s concerned about managing to teach at all.

“What’s to do? You teach them how to hear minds and move objects and use lightsabers. You did that with your sister, didn’t you?”
“Yes…But that was when I thought that was all there was to it. It’s really just the beginning. They’re going to be strong in the Force, and with that strength comes responsibility. How do I teach them that? How do I teach them wisdom and compassion and how not to abuse their power?”
Mara studied his profile as he gazed out into the forest. This wasn’t just word games; he was really serious about it. Definitely a side of the heroic, noble, infallible Jedi she hadn’t seen before. “How does anyone teach anyone else that stuff?” she said. “Mostly by example, I suppose.”

Hello, central theme of freaking everything. Thanks for standing up and being blatant for a few seconds.

z: So, in one tiny exchange there, we have hooks to consider the Sincerity of Ethics Problem (is there a term in philosophy for that?), the Uncle Ben Clause (which name serves double-duty here, obviously), and the From the Mouths of Maras Principle (for our purposes here, Mara can count as the person who hasn’t lived through the experience or thought about the problem before, hence innocent like a babe, but also completely right of course).

Well played, Mr. Zahn.  Once again, economy of words, economy of imagery, and a whole wealth of meaning.

will: Anyway. Luke now turns to the subject of Mara, asking how much Jedi training the Emperor ever gave her. The question gives her a fresh bout of Imperial-command dizziness, but she chokes it down, and the flash of hatred that accompanies it, as she says she got the basics…and Luke suggests a refresher course.

Mara notices something veeeeery casual in his voice, though, and suspiciously asks if he’s had any visions of what’s to come.

Luke says not really, but he’s lying (badly); he corrects that he’s gotten incoherent images, but that’s it. He just thinks she should be as strong in the Force as she can. Why? Mara asks. After all, Luke will be there, what does she need to be strong in the Force for?

Luke puts on all the Jedi certainty he can and goes full Kenobi:

“For whatever purpose your destiny calls you to. We have an hour or so left before sundown. Let’s get started.”

z: I like the phrase “goes full Kenobi.” Very descriptive.

Remind me, though, were we ever told what Luke saw?  I remember Leia’s vision…and I think Luke did see something, maybe all the way back in Heir, but I’m blanking right now.

will: No, I think we weren’t. Zahn saves Luke’s visions for the Big Stuff.

And we shift again. (Oddly, my ebook version has absolutely no marker of a scene transition here; one paragraph it’s Luke, then it’s Wedge, with not even a blank line.)

Wedge takes his seat in the war room, presumably the same one as was on Home One in Return of the Jedi, thinking that whatever this is, it’s clearly big, given how many commanders are around.

Pash Cracken, previously discussed but not yet seen, and described as “son of the legendary General Airen Cracken, and one of the best starfighter commanders in the business,” sits down with a hello. Wedge had thought Pash was out “baby-sitting” in the Outer Rim, but the base they were guarding was taken. They go through the numbers–the entire comm center was taken intact, as were supply depots, but all the ships were wrecked (to deny them to the Empire) and the staff escaped, so call it a loss but not a catastrophe.

z: Hi, Pash, nicetomeetcha.

On the one hand, Pash, just like Lt. Page and Ghent, has all the characteristics one needs for a dark horse.  On the other hand, throughout all of the EU, I never felt he attained that status, even when he came up again in more, um, fighter-related books.  Come to think of it, the dark-horse quota is very, very much filled in the starfighter-pilot side of the Force, which may be why.

will: They discuss how it feels to be fighting clone pilots, which is “like stormtroopers but in ships”–the same degree of singleminded mechanical precision and focus. Wedge agrees, the pilots are doing things you wouldn’t think could be done in TIE fighters, that non-clone pilots wouldn’t try out of self-preservation.

Clearly, and we knew this, Thrawn is using his best people as the clone templates. They discuss fellow commanders they knew, including one, Wing Commander Varth, “a bitter, caustic-mouthed tyrant” with the saving grace of being really, really good at his job. They agree he’s too stubborn to die for the Empire’s convenience, and that’s when the meetings starts.

Admiral Ackbar, General Madine (also of Jedi, he was the briefer and presumably commander for Han’s part in the Endor mission), and Colonel Bren Derlin (who was a Major at Hoth, and ordered the base doors shut after Han and Luke went missing) are at the holotable. Ackbar lays out the situation, which is not good. Right now, they have the edge in resources and personnel, but they’re losing it fast…and they need to do something about the morale hit they took at Coruscant.

It’s time to break the asteroid siege…which means getting a crystal gravfield trap. This task group is going to get one.

Pash: “Sounds like fun.”
Wedge: “Quiet.”

z: Aw, Wedge, you never let anyone have any fun.

will: Madine explains that there are three that Intelligence knows of, and one of them is held at a fairly lightly-defended Ubiqtorate base at Tangrene. But that’s almost certainly a trap, so they aren’t going after it.

z: Um…

will: They’re going to hit one of the primary Imperial shipyards at Bilbringi.

z: Erm…

“And I know what you’re all saying to yourselves: it’s big, it’s well defended, and what in the galaxy is the high command thinking about? The answer is simple: it’s big, it’s well defended, and it’s the last place the Imperials will expect us to hit.”
“Moreover, if we succeed, we will have severely damaged their shipbuilding capability,” Ackbar added. “As well as putting to rest the growing belief in Grand Admiral Thrawn’s infallibility.”

z: Anyone here who isn’t thinking that the trap you know to be the trap is probably the trap to direct you to the actual trap instead?  Anyone?

…okay, okay, I’ll wait until you parse that.

will: No, I followed you. And on the one hand, that’s true, but on the other hand, there’s an upper limit on that. And as we’ll see, if it were anybody else…

Anyway. Wedge gets to quietly think that this assumes Thrawn is infallible, but that’s not something he wants to say out loud. Everyone already knows anyway.

z: It’s spreading.  Or maybe it’s already spread.  But it’s important to note that Wedge doesn’t for a moment think that doesn’t mean they should concede defeat without trying.

will: Madine explains that this will be a feint-and-attack situation; Derlin is overseeing a scheme to make this look like a plan for an attack on Tangrene, and the rest of them will be prepping to attack Bilbringi.

As they digest this, Pash asks what if Imperial Intelligence manages to miss the Tangrene prep entirely? But Madine just smiles, saying they’ll be very disappointed, and let’s get to work. A nice way of saying “then we’re screwed, but what can you do?”

z: “Our plan failed because the adversary was criminally incompetent” isn’t something you get to say every day…

will: Final scene shift. Leia wakes up, not sure why, and Mobvekhar asks if she’s OK. Leia says she doesn’t need anything, thank you, noting that he could tell she was awake just from her breathing changing. He assures her that he isn’t disturbed, and asks if she’s troubled.

Leia says that she was having a…flash of insight that didn’t stick, a piece of a puzzle she was trying to link up. She isn’t even sure which puzzle. Mobvekhar says it could be the “siege of stones in the sky above” (nice poetry), or “the mission of your consort and the son of Vader.”

z: Nice poetry, and very descriptive.

will: And Leia pulls on whatever Force insight she can and eventually figures out that it was something Mara said, fitting with something Luke did, and it’s important.

The Noghri have infinite faith in the Mal’ary’ush, and Mobvekhar says she’ll get it. Leia finds herself comforted, and indeed, there’s an element of “I’ll figure it out because the Noghri trust me and I need to be worthy of it” going on.

z: So, here, personal reasons meant I cringed into a pretzel inside.  But Leia is made of sterner stuff than I am.

will: Plus, you know, this is exactly the sort of thing Leia’s been doing all damn trilogy. (“Forty-four years” and Delta Source, anybody?)

At any rate, she also senses the twins starting to wake up, and grabs her robe. Whatever this is, it can wait until morning.

And we’re out.

So. Zahn spends half the chapter building up to the Luke-teaching-Mara setup, with a combination of his fears about his ability to teach, the tension about responsible Force use, and even some hints as to what they’ll be facing at Mount Tantiss…and then he gives us a few pieces of what’s to come as a sort of…what’s the opposite of a palate-cleanser? He lets us keep chewing on the big stuff while we read some more casual scene-setting.

z: Amuse-bouche?  It’s not exactly palate-cleansing, but it keeps you busy and entertained while the main courses are being prepared…

will: At the same time, I would like to point out that specifically as a consequence of reading the last bit with Leia, I ended up jumping ahead to read her next big scene because cliffhangers are brilliantly evil.

That’s enough outta me for now. Z?

z: I actually a) didn’t remember what “Mara said + Luke did” adds up to, and b) am sitting on my hands so I don’t do exactly what you just did and look ahead.

will: I did remember, for the record, because my brain works like that.

z: I feel like I want to say more things about Mara’s remark on Luke being sincere about the things he says–about power and responsibility, about the difficulties of teaching–but when it comes to it and I look at the blank page, I find that I can come up with very little that isn’t trite.  In one sense, that remark of hers, given that she isn’t (that much of) an unreliable narrator when it comes to what she’s thinking of a given situation, is enough, because we believe her, so we believe that she believes Luke is sincere.  In a culture and time when “paying lip service” is very much a thing and, painfully, when people say “he says it as it is” they usually refer to things the rest of us think of as outright evil things to believe and say, that moment stuck up for me: It’s important that Mara believes Luke is sincere, and not just paying lip service to some Jedi ideal or another.

I also wonder what kind of an image of the old Jedi, if any, she carries with her.  She was pretty certainly born after the Jedi Order was no more.  I can’t actually imagine the Emperor gave her a detailed history.  She never spoke to Ben.  So she wouldn’t have the image of the Jedi Knight with Shining Sword Defending Truth and Justice–or rather, she could, but it would be the image the Emperor gave her, and it would boil down to “…but of course they were all hypocritical pretentious hypocrites who pretended.”

will: We’ll see some of what the Empire cast the Jedi as (under pre-prequel rules, anyway) in a few books, I believe.

z: So I’m happy Mara sees that Luke is sincere, is what I’m trying to say, I guess.

And that’s all I have, too.  Next week, we check in with the other two factions once again.  Until then, may the Force be with you.

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