Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Destruction of the World. The Scientist's Dream of Supreme Power!

I remember very little of my original experience of Andrew Chapman's Space Assassin. Just that it was a (probably dice-free) successful play-through, in which I had no problem solving a couple of puzzles, and shot a computer just because I could. The last time I played it, it went like this, so in view of the book's not having a narrow 'true path', I may try things differently for variety's sake. Or not, as the mood takes me.

As the title suggests, this is another SF adventure. An inhabitant of the implicitly technocratic sector called Od (a suitably strang name for such a peculia place), I have been engaged by the planetary Assassins' Guild to (as the title does not suggest) capture Cyrus, the ruling scientist, whose latest plan just goes too far. Abducting and experimenting upon individuals is only to be expected, but now he means to bombard the entire planet with radioactive isotopes and deadly viruses. That's not just immoral and unethical - it's downright unscientific. If we had a sister planet that he was using as a control, I could potentially see some academic merit in the exercise (though I'd still disapprove of its genocidal implications), but this isn't even going to produce any results that will be accepted by the scientific community as a whole.

So, as Cyrus' ship, the Vandervecken, makes a refuelling stop in an isolated system, it acquires an extra passenger, whose stats are as follows:
Skill 12
Stamina 21
Luck 10
Armour 9
Austerity measures have prompted some pretty drastic cuts in the planet's Averting Total Destruction By Mad Scientists budget, so I'm armed with just the most basic weapon on the list: an electric lash.

Having boarded the ship, I find myself in front of an unopenable security door. There are maintenance hatches to left and right, and what appears to be a mound of refuse by the door. A closer look at that reveals that I should have brought my glasses with me, as it's actually a dead alien, and I somehow failed to notice the trail of blood it left while crawling from one of the hatches towards the door. The body is carrying an incomplete gadget, which I take.

Leaving via the hatch through which the deceased entered, I enter an access tunnel. Before long I reach another hatch, and decide to investigate the voice I can hear from behind it. The voice issues from one of two cells which are being guarded by a robot armed with an assault blaster. Experience has taught me that with most robots in this book, it's best to shoot first and not bother asking questions, so I open fire. Three shots with the lash reduce the robot to a heap of damaged parts, while only one of its ripostes is on target, and that fails to get through my armour. Still, the blaster is superior to my existing weapon, so I take it before checking out the occupied cell. It contains an old man who has been tortured by Cyrus, who gives me advice  that is best ignored. Okay, so the worst that can happen as a consequence of following it is that I get called 'boring', but disregarding it will lead to a more favourable outcome.

As I recall, the other cell contains nothing worth encountering, so I return to the tunnel. Before long I reach another hatch, which leads into a lounge for aliens: the furniture is inconveniently sized for me, and the lighting is that bit too blue, but it doesn't prevent me from spotting the two lab-coated, glasses-wearing rodents before they notice me. I aim one weapon at each of them and utter some kind of pithy threat. They promptly surrender, and provide me with keys to the security doors, so I activate the one leading from the lounge. Why crawl through tunnels when I can walk along corridors?

In a kitchen (also designed for species other than my own) I find a small amount of food that my metabolism can handle. Beyond it is another guard robot, this one armed with a pair of electric lashes. It manages to inflict a little damage on me before I send it to Silicon Heaven. Searching the remains reveals a hatch in the floor, with coloured buttons set into it. It is traditional for playthroughs of Space Assassin to end at around this point, with a description of having pressed the wrong button and been blown up, plus optional rant about arbitrary unfairness, but I shall be bucking the trend, because I figured out the correct sequence of button presses on my first ever try at the book, and only learned that this made me abnormal when I got involved with gamebook fandom last decade. There is a logical sequence to it, even if the book provides no clues as to the source of that sequence, and given that 13-year-old me got it, it can't be that obscure.

Anyway, I successfully open the hatch and retrieve the gravity bomb that would have gone off had I not been a freak pressed the wrong button. Two doors lead on from here, one leading to a laboratory guarded by a remarkably fragile device similar to the baby Death Star Luke used for lightsaber training in the first Star Wars film. Most of the lab's contents are for vivisection, but I do find a spray can of nerve gas and some tablets that restore Stamina.

(With minor side effects)

Further exploration leads to a library, where I have time to read one of the three microfilm volumes that have been left out. I pick the one on robotics, because the computer on which I'm writing this is not in the warmest part of the house, so to reduce the amount of time I spend here, I'll be avoiding the detour on which it could come in handy to have read up on molluscs' nervous systems.

The next door I reach bears a sign, which tells me that the room beyond contains Cephalo Squirrels. These are small, six-legged creatures with black fur, though some of them have been shaved. They're held in a glass cage, at least until I open it for a closer look, at which point they escape. I manage to capture one unshaved squirrel, which draws my attention to a crate of orangey-purple fruit. I give the squirrel some fruit, and it falls asleep on my shoulder.

At this point the book could do with being a bit clearer on the rules regarding equipment - I'm only allowed up to five items (excluding weapons), but it's not entirely clear what constitutes an item. Those tablets I found are functionally identical to the tablets that the book uses as a Provisions-substitute, which don't count towards encumbrance, so do the tablets from the lab count as an item towards my limit? Does the sleeping squirrel on my shoulder? Given that I've already decided to skip the detour to the onboard planet (don't ask), I won't be finding the rest of the incomplete gadget (which is fun, but not essential for someone with a Skill as high as mine), so I might as well discard the part I have and defer the question of how close I am to my limit.

Up ahead, the corridor ends in a wall with two buttons set into it. I press the correct one, which causes the wall to disappear, revealing three cleaning staff, one tall and carrot-headed, the others short and somewhat feline. They're evidently low on job satisfaction, as they decide that attacking an intruder is much more fun than cleaning. It's certainly a lot more lethal, for them.

The corridor leads to a large tunnel, a small landing extending into it. There's another maintenance hatch set into the corridor wall close to the end, so I go through that and spend more time clambering around ducting. A hatch leads me to a room occupied by a terrified-looking quadruped, which shows me a rather nasty wound on one of its legs and tells me a little about what caused the damage. It is easy to make a catastrophic inference based on that information, though the data can also be interpreted in a more helpful way if you extrapolate well.

The next hatch I go through leads to a room containing a pool of water. Not worth investigating, as I recall, so I head straight for the door. Beyond it is a path, floating in the air miles above the countryside. Cyrus has some seriously odd ideas about interior decor. After a while, the path splits, and several kilometres later (how many designers went incurably insane just looking at the plans for this ship?) I find myself in a levitating aluminium cube full of cryogenic sleep capsules. Only two capsules are occupied, and I decide to awaken the occupant of one of them.

I pick what turns out to be a large, spider-like creature and, not being the sort to judge by appearances, attempt to communicate with it. The book compels me to do so in a particularly unwise manner, but the creature mistakes my efforts for a bout of interpretive dance rather than an ethnic slur, and applauds the performance. To thank me for letting it out, it gives me a sachet of Anti-Mollusc Formula Four, so I'm back wondering about equipment limits.

Returning to the junction, I take the other turning, which eventually leads to another junction, and thence to another cube. This one contains many examples of Cyrus' work in the field of Elephantoplasty and related sciences. On an operating table is a man with tentacles instead of arms. I tell him that I'm here to kill Cyrus, and he gives me further advice of questionable value. I should be okay if I follow it consistently, but if I don't always follow the directions given here, I could wind up encountering a trap that will kill me if I do as directed. To give the author his due, he says he didn't write that bit, and was as surprised as everyone else to find it in the book, but that's probably not much consolation for any player who's failed the adventure there. And unlike the booby-trapped hatch, that sequence is genuinely arbitrary.

There's a vehicle parked beside this cube, so I drive back to the last junction and keep going until the path terminates at a wall. A door leads to a room where two security guards are using the monitors to watch sport. I'm amused, but I imagine Cyrus would not be, and to save the guards from his wrath, which would probably lead to some 'ironic' punishment like having their legs replaced with goalposts, I use the can of gas on them. It takes care of one of them, but the other is made of tougher stuff, so I have to finish him off with the blaster.

Continuing on my way, I reach another pool, this one traversed by a narrow bridge without handrails. There's also a path around the edge, but I take the more direct route, and no ill befalls me.

Beyond this room is a chamber with three other exits, guarded by a creature with a disintegrator gun. It says it won't let me past unless I can solve its puzzle. Not much of a challenge, as I knew the answer back in '85, but it's more fun to set the squirrel on him. Not that the squirrel suddenly turns vicious - it actually engages the alien in debate, outlining a series of mathematical postulates. I sneak past before they start arguing about the semiotic thickness of a performed text.

The door I want to go through is locked, but that's nothing a gravity bomb won't sort out. The hole where there used to be a door leads via a corridor to a room full of floating black spheres. I leave them alone, and they leave me alone. The next room contains four pairs of strange manufactured creatures on pedestals. As I approach the first pair, one makes a cryptic utterance, the other asks me about the relative speeds of swallo light and time. I answer correctly, and the second pair present me with a conundrum about up and down, which I also get right. One of the third pair addresses me with an insult that's been directed at me in the real world while I was cycling home a few years back, the other demands to know where I'm going. My answer gets them contemplating alternative career paths.

That's the easy part of this room over. The last couple provide advice on which exit to take, plus a twist on the 'lying guard, truthful guard' puzzle that does not yield to straightforward logic, and frequently catches me out. It does again today, leaving me slightly electrocuted and in need of more healing than I've required for the whole of the adventure up until now.

The next room is guarded by two levitating robot Sentinels. This particular model was mentioned in the microfilm I read, so I'll be able to do slightly more damage every time I hit one in combat. Or I could climb up into the web of girders at ceiling level and hope that the airborne robots will be unable to get at me. Think I'll be sticking with the blaster. I take a little damage in the firefight, but blow the Sentinels apart.

Another corridor leads me to the ship's bridge (the 'centre of command' sort, rather than the 'means of crossing a body of water' kind I used earlier). The pilot, a shiny humanoid robot, expresses a desire to talk with me, and as this is one of the few robots on the ship that don't want to kill me, I chat. We discuss the themes of Borges' The Circular Ruins (though the story is never explicitly mentioned), and part on good terms, the pilot seemingly convinced that it thought me into being (and possibly also that I thought it into existence).

Going through the door indicated by my new friend, I enter a room that looks like one you might find in a stately home. Cyrus is there, reading a book, and appears not to have been expecting me. I decline his offer of a drink, refuse his request for a game of cards, and am not taken in by his bluff that a randomly-grabbed device is a deadly weapon, so he activates a secret door and flees. I give chase, but by the time I catch up with him, he's hopped into a Waldo (which, for the benefit of those not familiar with the Heinleinian use of the name, is something like a more human-shaped version of the machine Ripley was in while fighting the Queen at the end of Aliens) and grabbed a big laser.

Even with his capabilities enhanced, Cyrus is no match for me, and I've barely taken any damage by the time I've rendered the Waldo non-functional. The section describing my victory is a bit brief, but a cursory triumph is still better than a detailed death scene, right?

For all the SF trappings, this isn't really all that different from a standard 'travel through the lair and defeat the evil wizard' adventure. Still, it's more fun than Starship Traveller was, and has better characterisation (heck, that squirrel had more personality than the Traveller's crew combined). Not a classic, but nowhere near the worst the range has to offer.

No comments:

Post a Comment