The Last Command, Chapter 28

will: Here we are at last, folks. The climax of The Last Command.

I could say more here.

But no.

z: …yeah, no.

will: Thrawn orders the last two Interdictors to rejoin the ship line, now that the last of the New Republic’s warships have arrived and been pulled out of hyperspace. Pellaeon can’t believe it, but it’s true: Thrawn has outguessed everybody, and is in a position to blast two New Republic sector fleets to vapor.

Not all of them, though. Pellaeon and Thrawn agree to leave one warship and let it escape to bring home the message of destruction…which, they’re sure, will be seen a proof of betrayal.

So naturally they pick Ackbar’s flagship.

z: Nice things about this, or, well, “nice” things: One is that it’s Pellaeon who first makes the suggestion; even though Thrawn was probably already thinking about it, this time it’s Pellaeon’s action and not reaction.  The second is that when the word “betrayed” comes up in conversation, Pellaeon hears a sound like “an overstressed bearing or a sound in the back of someone’s throat,” and then we leave that lying there and move on.

will: Zahn then throws us a bit of a tease; Pellaeon looks over at Rukh, bodyguarding as ever, and wonders if the Noghri can appreciate irony, but figures they’re too unsophisticated to get it.

z: Is this the first recorded instance of ironyception?

will: I’ve said before that I kind of appreciate, from the perspective of “they might be mostly Lawful, but they’re still Evil; they need to work on that,” the casual Imperial racism. Here’s another example. And, of course, a reminder that Rukh is there. Did you pick up on what that was saying?

z: The contempt/racism part, yes; the “there’s something Pellaeon doesn’t know,” yes, the ironyception, no, not back then.

will: Scene shift! Tycho–well, Rogue Two–and Rogue Six (not sure who that would be) blast a pair of TIE fighters off of Wedge’s tail, and Wedge surveys the battle. Technically Ackbar is still holding his ships in a combat formation, but if that doesn’t last, it’ll be a complete clusterfuck. But at the moment, the Rogues are clear, and Tycho and Wedge have the same thought: blowing up a shipyard would make for an excellent distraction. Problem is, there are a bunch more battlestations (remember, the same type that can take a lot of punishment):

It would take more than an attack by even the legendary Rogue Squadron to make them that nervous.

Interestingly, I suspect Zahn wrote that line to be somewhat ironic, Wedge saying that they’re only one squadron. But by the time Stackpole and Allston got their hands on the Rogues, well, that “legendary” is probably literally true.

z: I’m with your interpretation, simply because I can’t ever imagine Wedge seriously thinking of he and his as “legendary.”  Yeah, they’re good and he knows that, but he’s never ever that far from that kind of ulcer that’s the sign of a good, caring commander, either.

will: Fleet Central Communications cuts into Wedge’s ear, saying there’s a diplomatic-encrypted signal coming in for him, and that’s intriguing enough for Wedge to take the call.

A “vaguely familiar” voice greets Wedge, but when he doesn’t recognize it, the voice jokes about the Mumbri Stove cantina… yep, it’s Aves. They snark about Wedge’s memory, and Wedge asks where exactly Aves is.

In the shipyard, of course.

z: “You people are starting to be hard to forget,” is Wedge’s contribution to the snark.  Which, heh.

will: Aves says he wishes he’d known about Bilbringi, Wedge says he wishes he’d known what Aves was planning:

“Did a good job of fooling each other, didn’t we?”
“Sure did. Fooled everybody except the Grand Admiral.”

z: I giggled.

will: Wedge then asks why exactly Aves is calling; Aves explains that they’re on a timetable after all, and they’ll need to punch their way out. And while it doesn’t matter to them which way they scramble, Wedge might have an opinion. Say, passing by those battlestations, hitting them from behind?

Aves, of course, is happy to go out that way, but then it’ll get hairy to be flying through a battle. Can they maybe get a starfighter escort?

Wedge makes the deal, and Aves reminds him that this should be a friendly escort, not the Mon Calamari no-smugglers-allowed type. Which, Wedge is sure, is why Aves went to Wedge with this, instead of going right to the top.

z: Compare and contrast to Luke thinking of either the spanner-in-hand technicians or Mon Mothma when wondering who he could ask to get his ship repair schedule bumped up, no one in between.  Aves knows exactly which level of middle-management to go in order to get results.  Aves is exactly that level of middle-management.

will: And as the explosions go off in the shipyard, Wedge has Two/Tycho update Fleet Central that they’re coordinating with “an independent resistance group,” no names, and Rogue Seven asks, what if Ackbar won’t risk it?

So once again, as it had so many times before, it was all going to come down to a matter of trust. Trust in a farm kid, fresh off a backward desert world, to lead him in an attack on the first Death Star. Trust in a former high-stakes gambler, who might or might not have had any real combat experience, to lead him in an attack on the second Death Star. And now, trust in a smuggler who might just as easily betray him for the right price.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “With or without support, we’re going in.”

Wedge Antilles: the New Republic personified.

z: I have to admit, I get a bit misty-eyed at that “trust” paragraph.  *salutes*

will: Scene shift!

The clone falls to the ground, and Luke feels the pressure on his mind vanish. For what feels like the first time in hours he takes “a clean breath,” and thanks Mara for what she did.

“No problem,” she says, probably lying through her teeth, and asks him if his brain is all clear–confirming she could feel some of it too.

“Yes. How about yours?”

She looks at him, and he sees that the “pain and hatred” aren’t there behind her eyes. “I did what he wanted me to. It’s over.”

z: There’s even a bit of amusement in her face.  Under ordinary circumstances, this proclamation of “hey, I am not obsessed with the idea of killing you any more” would be a bit momentous, but right now there’s no time for that.

will: They survey the scene; Karrde has tied the vornskrs to something, and is heading their way across the wreckage of the room. Han and Leia are picking themselves up and all ready to get the hell out. And C’baoth…is staring at the dead clone, “his eyes furious and lost and insane.”

Mara says go ahead, I’ll catch up, and when Luke asks, she confirms she’s going to “finish the job. Like I should have done on Jomark.”

That gets C’baoth out of his own head, and he stares at Mara saying she will die, “slowly and in great pain,” for what she has done. As he settles inward, eyes closed and hands in fists at his chest, Mara heads his way… and then the ceiling opens up, and they get hit with a downpour of gravel.

Ow.

z: That’s “gravel” in the sense of “many small stones,” which would be pointy, and are hitting them with some speed, and yeah, ow.

will: Luke tries to leap clear, but the rocks follow him. Mara likewise, and Luke hears Han shouting something.

z: Luke thinks Han and Leia are probably also getting hit by the same attack.  In the meantime:

“I am the Jedi Master C’baoth! The Empire–the universe–is mine.”

will: Well, this was inevitable.

z: What was, the total switch into monomaniacal narcissistic power claim mode?

I know what you mean, and I don’t disagree, but I can’t be happy about that being inevitable, in this year of two thousand and sixteen… *sigh*

will: Luke knows there’s danger coming, but it doesn’t help–C’baoth blasts him with Force lightning, eventually knocking his lightsaber away. Mara, sweeping her (well, Leia’s) saber at her feet for no reason Luke can tell, tells him, if he’s going to kill them, just do it.

But C’baoth resumes his dreamy smile, and says Mara can’t die until she’s been cloned.

“For I have foreseen that Mara Jade will kneel before me. One Mara Jade…or another.”

Scene shift!

z: Not before I go all shuddery again.

will: Lando and Chewie have finished the setup, and head for the exit. Too late, though, as the door blows up behind them, and they drop prone on the bridge they’re on. Lando has an idea, though, and tells Chewie to come by, hold onto a guardrail, and once he does, it’s Indiana Jones time.

He disconnects one end of the bridge with the controls, then shoots out the other, so the bridge swings downward, Chewie and Lando with it, until they can shift around to a lower walkway.

z: Wheeeee!

will: And as they leave, the charges they planted in the central column of the cloning system blow up. The column starts to collapse, and they get out of the chamber before it falls.

Lando breathes a sigh of relief, confirming that Artoo has gotten all the troops reassigned, and goes for his comlink. He gets a crackle (the rockfall), and Han gives him an update: “this crazy Jedi’s dropping the roof in on us.” Lando asks if they need help, and Karrde–also on the line–says there’s already a blockage in the way of the turbolift. Chewie’s pissed, but Han says he wouldn’t be able to help, so it’s up to Luke and Mara.

z: Apparently Han and Leia managed to “get a little cover,” maybe under the pieces of the walkway C’baoth had dropped on them first.

will: Lando tells Han about the resonance trick, and sure enough, Han’s answer is that at least they can make sure C’baoth is gone.  Han gives the usual goodbyes: “Chewie, it’s been great, but if we don’t make it, someone beside Winter’s going to have to take care of Jacen and Jaina.”

z: why is it dusty in here

(It’s the “it’s been great” that gets me the most, actually.)

will: Karrde tells them to get to the Wild Karrde, and Lando does, but he has an idea…and he has floor plans and a ship with turbolasers.

Scene shift, again. Luke tries to maintain his composure, his calm, his peace, as he tells C’baoth “you aren’t well, I can help,” and C’baoth asks why he would bother.

z: …listen to the insane Dark Jedi, Luke.

will: Because C’baoth can help, says Luke, but C’baoth says he wouldn’t serve the lesser peoples. And to Luke’s point that the great Jedi Masters did, C’baoth says that was their downfall, why the lesser peoples killed them.

Which they didn’t.

z: At this point, I think we’re going to be able to call that “Details.”

will: C’baoth doesn’t care what Luke thinks. C’baoth is in charge. They will bow, or they will die. Luke has already chosen death.

z: Also a detail: Luke hasn’t done anything except stay alive in a fight against his clone, so far.  Mara put an end to that battle decisively, not Luke.  But, again, details.

will: “What about Mara?” Luke asks.

C’baoth says he’ll deal with her later.

“No. You will deal with me now.”

Remember those sweeping lightsaber swipes? They opened up a path for the rocks to drain out from under Mara’s feet, and Mara’s ready to fight.

z: While Luke’s still weighted down with stones all around him, which he’s feeling too weak to move (and he lost his grip on his lightsaber early on).

will: Mara charges C’baoth, who zaps her, but she catches it on her blade and keeps advancing.

Then C’baoth shifts tactics, throwing some of the loose gravel into Mara’s face. She blocks with her arm, but her charge falters, and Luke still can’t summon the energy to move the rocks that are trapping him. Suddenly, though, Mara gets a new expression on her face, and Luke hears Leia’s voice in his head. She’s telling Mara to keep her eyes closed, and let Leia guide her.

A nice reversal/repayment of “I’m coming up behind your attackers, surrender so I can blow them to bits.” And also interesting how Leia’s Force powers lend themselves a lot more naturally to communication, trust, and teamwork.

Gee, how not subtle in the slightest.

Leia Organa Solo: also the New Republic personified.

z: Well, yeah, and also the banner and etc etc.

will: Luke wonders how C’baoth will retaliate, but he seems to be faltering, running out of strength, focusing on Mara probably because he can’t do everything anymore.

z: It’s worth noting that he’s up against three Jedi/protoJedi at this point, not one.

will: Luke sees his lightsaber, and realizes he might have a chance to help, if he can get that, free himself, and summon the energy to keep going…

And then he gets a better idea. Karrde’s vornskrs are tugging at their leashes:

Straining toward Mara. And toward C’baoth.

Strictly speaking, Luke doesn’t know what Karrde has figured out. But he isn’t a fool, and he noticed how the vornskrs always went after him before Mara, and he also knows what the ysalamiri do. So yeah, this isn’t a shock. Luke calls his lightsaber, ignites it, and as it flies through the air, he drops it just far enough to cut the vornskrs’ leashes.

z: Remember what I said about C’baoth not having disarmed his present enemies completely?  Even though it’s very animal-unfriendly of me, I meant the vornskrs. Although, given that C’baoth naturally attacks back and harms one of them to some degree, I’m not sure if Karrde would have chosen to release them in harm’s way like that.  But anyway, bigger things happening:

will: C’baoth, of course, sees them coming, and focuses on throwing lightning at them. He even gets one (no clue which, and it probably wasn’t fatal), but he also gave Mara an opening.

She jumps forward, and as he swings around, she does exactly what he had foreseen: She kneels at his feet.

He hadn’t seen that she would then stab him through the gut with her lightsaber.

Prophecies, man. Get you every time.

z: I admit: I laughed.  Even the first time.  I’m not certain, but this might have actually been the younger Z’s first explicit exposure to the “literal prophecy fulfillment equals very probably something you wouldn’t want to happen to you” device; I hadn’t read much mythology at that point yet.  More to say about this, but I’ll leave it for the end-of-chapter notes.

will: C’baoth explodes with dark side energy, and Luke (with an assist from Leia) pulls Mara out of the central blast. He almost faints from the exhaustion, but pulls himself together as he feels and hears the rocks around him being cleared. Leia’s in about as bad a state, and Han and Mara both need medical attention for burns.

Han says, call the Wild Karrde in, they can pick us up.

“Where?” asks Karrde.

And Han points to the place where C’baoth died, where the explosion left a crack in the mountain. Luke can see a star.

z: Nah, not symbolic at all, nope.

will: And Lando has already mused on the usefulness of turbolasers…plus, there are lightsabers. Leia has hers back from Mara, and Luke has his.

Final scene shift. Pellaeon is no longer as happy, since the Rogues’ approach has worked–now there are several Assault Frigates pounding away at the battlestations, and more squadrons in the shipyards proper. Thrawn tries to say that this isn’t over yet, but even he sounds unconvinced.

z: Wedge’s trust has paid off.

There are things I’ll have to say about the lines just to come, of course, but I’m not going to interject anything until… well.

will: And then a communication comes in. Priority message from Wayland.

Pellaeon gets very, very scared, and Thrawn, “his voice deadly quiet,” says to read it.

“It was exactly as he’d feared,” says the narration. Mount Tantiss is under attack, from the locals, Rebel saboteurs–and he can’t even believe he’s saying this, a group of Noghri…

And that’s when he gets throat-punched, and collapses, gagging.

Rukh’s voice comes into his ear. “For the treachery of the Empire against the Noghri people. We were betrayed. We have been avenged.”

Pellaeon manages to get enough control of his limbs to hit the emergency alert, and turns to see what has happened.

Like last chapter, there’s really nothing to do but quote.

Thrawn was sitting upright in his chair, his face strangely calm. In the middle of his chest, a dark red stain was spreading across the spotless white of his Grand Admiral’s uniform. Glittering in the center of the stain was the tip of Rukh’s assassin’s knife.

Thrawn caught his eye; and to Pellaeon’s astonishment, the Grand Admiral smiled. “But,” he whispered, “it was so artistically done.”

The smile faded. The glow in his eyes did likewise… and Thrawn, the last Grand Admiral, was gone.

Unfortunately we can’t quite end here, as the comm officer asks for orders for the Nemesis and the Stormhawk, and Pellaeon knows he’s doomed. The shipyards are in disarray, the New Republic is pressing its advantage, Wayland is exposed and almost certainly taken…

“Thrawn could still have pulled an Imperial victory out of it. But he, Pellaeon, was not Thrawn.”

Pellaeon orders a full retreat.

And we’re done.

Whooooo.

And with that, the two great evils of this trilogy are dead.

C’baoth died exactly as he had foreseen, not knowing his death was what he was seeing.

Thrawn died because of what he didn’t know, and couldn’t predict.

So yeah, exactly as it would have to happen.

z: Very nice way to put the parallel/antiparallel.

will: I’ve been blathering for a while, so all I’ll say here is that Zahn did a good job of making the two fights and the two deaths connected, but not dependent. This isn’t a case like Endor, where the Emperor’s death crippled the Imperial Navy. In fact, even Thrawn was starting to have a very bad day when the smugglers’ trap split the Imperial focus. Had Thrawn lived, he probably would have had to retreat himself. And had C’baoth lived, nothing he could have done would have stopped Rukh.

z: That’s another thing Thrawn didn’t foresee: He knew how much trouble the Smugglers’ Quorum had the potential of being, hence his anger at Ferrier, but he didn’t know that they would actually outright militarily cooperate with the New Republic, nor that the New Republic would consent to such a collaboration (for one thing, I bet it was the Calamarian psychology he was considering, and this was basically one unilateral decision by some hotshot Corellian—showing adaptability, which is another thing Thrawn has been bad at taking into account).

will: Good catch, since the New Republic would be more willing to respect hotshotism, in a way the Empire won’t, “quick and adaptable” tractor operators notwithstanding.

Still, it’s appropriate that they both died at the same time. (And there’s enough leeway in the timeline that there’s need for instantaneous travel between, say, Coruscant and Mustafar!)

That’s all for me, at least for the moment.

Z?

z: There is actually a bit of a link between their deaths from my point of view, actually; not a causal link, but one that has to do with setting the timing.  Granted that C’baoth’s death was a result of the Wayland attack, but not planned to be a part of it by the Noghri (because they didn’t know he’d be there), the timing of Thrawn’s death was unambiguously set by the Wayland attack.  It’s where the Noghri come out and act against the Empire openly for the first time, and they knew there’d be reports.  Rukh had to have been on alert for, waiting for that.

will: Agreed. He would get one perfect opportunity.

Talk about not throwing away your shot…

z: And speaking of foreseeing… I was completely there with C’baoth’s end; it was not surprising that that was a part of the plot; I hadn’t seen Thrawn’s death coming at all.  Although in retrospect it makes sense that the Noghri Revenge Checklist includes that item. Just… there are villains that die and villains that are beaten, and for whatever reason I guess I had put Thrawn in the second mental category?

will: Agreed–but I feel like he did that too, as demonstrated by the Bilbringi attack going so badly for the Empire.

z: Other random remarks… There’s the chaotic mess of C’baoth’s death—go back and read the action again—against the picture-like perfection of Thrawn’s, which is in a sense even lampshaded by his last words. Which, by the way, are probably the last words that have stuck with me the most among all that I have read in fiction.  It’s not even completely obvious what he’s referring to.  It may be the full scope of the Noghri Revenge movement, which became fully clear to him right away (genius and all), it may just be Rukh’s action.

Going back to the first scene, I also felt that it’s significant, although also probably inevitable, that it was Mara not Luke who killed C’baoth.  What wasn’t inevitable was that she did so with Leia’s lightsaber and partially with Leia’s guidance, while Luke was essentially an incapacitated observer.  Nicely played, Mr. Zahn.

And finally, I’ve often wondered what became of Rukh.  I still do.

will: We find out. A long time from now.

z: Wham episode and then some, folks.  There we are, then.

Next week, we’re going to hear what some newly-minted quiet sounds like.  Until then, may the Force be with you.

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