Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Just Another Machine With Megalomania

1985 was the last year in which the traditional stocking was part of the Christmas set-up at my home. As had been the case the year before, I'd given strong indications of what I'd like the book at the top to be, so while the presence in my stocking of Rebel Planet, Robin Waterfield's first Fighting Fantasy book, was far from surprising, it was definitely welcome. I don't remember much about my first attempt at it, beyond the fact that my first decision was the less wise of the options, but I know I didn't win.

My previous playthrough made it clear that this is not one of the FF books for which I know the best path, and as I know that there are at least two blind choices where picking the wrong option guarantees failure (both of them beyond the point at which I failed on that attempt), I think it unlikely that I'll win today. And the probability of my succeeding shrinks even further as I roll up:
Skill 8
Stamina 20
Luck 11
I might get lucky, though. And even if I don't, I could learn something that'll be of use on a future try.

As should be fairly obvious from the title, this is a sci-fi adventure. It's set in the mid-25th century (no sign of Buck Rogers, so I guess the future's not all bad), at a time when humanity is under the control of the Arcadian Empire. My character works for SAROS, the organisation that was responsible for colonising other planets back in the days before the Arcadians took over, but has since branched into covertly seeking to overthrow our alien masters.

The Arcadians' chief tool for keeping their Empire under control is also their biggest weakness: all Arcadians have their minds connected to a computer back on their home planet. This apparently makes them more efficient or something, but if the computer were to be destroyed, they would all effectively become mindless. That's one element of the plot that hasn't weathered too well in the intervening years - phenomena such as server lag and limited bandwidth make it hard to take seriously an Empire which depends on 100% reliable connections to a computer on a distant planet.

But that's enough nitpicking for now - time to get back to the plot. The computer is housed in a building with a binary-coded lock, and assorted freedom-seeking humans have managed to track down clues to the number that will open that lock. All I have to do is travel to the three worlds that humans colonised before being conquered by the Arcadians, make contact with the underground resistance movement on each planet to find out what they've found out about the number, and then proceed to Arcadion to crash the computer. Good thing my day job is 'merchant', as that's the only type of human permitted to travel between worlds.

Anyway, I set off for the first planet on my itinerary, Tropos. Along the way I become aware that my ship is being shadowed by another, but correctly deduce that it's an Arcadian vessel watching to see if I break the speed limit or fail to give way to priority traffic or some other petty offence, so I pay no attention to it. On Tropos I get through Customs without any bother, and take a hover-taxi into town. The leader of the resistance here has the code name Bellatrix, and that my best shot at contacting her is through a certain club.

It's a little early to be heading there, so I go to the off-world human hostel to register. It's a bit of a dump, and the South Arcadian receptionist (despite the computerised hive-mind thing, the Arcadians do have a more diverse culture than the vast majority of alien races from TV and films) appears in no hurry to sign me in. After a while I grow tired of waiting, and just head for the dormitory, which is decidedly squalid. There's one other person there, and he's clearly unhappy, so I leave him alone. My reluctance to intrude is apparently a bad thing, as the book hits me with a Luck penalty and forces me to start looking for the club.

The city uses a numbered grid system, and is dominated by the Temple of the Five Suns. No, Tropos isn't in a quinary star system: the Arcadian Empire encompasses planets in five solar systems. I wander around for a while, finding no sign of the club, and starting to get hungry, so I decide to pop into a shop and ask which way to go. The proprietor of the hardware store is another South Arcadian, so I decide to make a purchase before asking. While the thought of owning a hand-klaxon is quite amusing, I have limited funds, so I'd be better off getting something useful like a rope. After paying up, I ask the way to the club, and get a response that seems more like a quotation from James Joyce than directions to my destination. Then again, I'm able to extract some meaning from what she says...

After popping into the grocer's to get something to eat, I proceed to the club, which is in the basement of the derelict Adolpho videorama. I must admit to being amused at the description of Star Trek (the Adolpho's last presentation) as 'a classic science-fiction comedy'. The club doorman won't let me in unless I say who recommended a visit. Again I have to suppress the urge to be whimsical, because 'The Grand Vizier of Tropos' is such a magnificently inadvisable wrong option. Instead I name no names, which seems to satisfy the doorman.

Before I can enter the club I have to submit to a search, though. It's possible that my lightsab laser sword may attract the wrong kind of attention, but kicking up a fuss wouldn't be any wiser a thing to do, so I endure the frisking. The security measures SAROS took to ensure that the sword wouldn't be detected by conventional scanners convince the doorman that I can't be spying for the Arcadians, and he gives me a hint about what to do next.

After buying an unpleasant drink (only Arcadians get the good stuff) I spot the doorman speaking with a young woman, who then leaves. Disregarding his instructions would not be clever, so I make for the visiphone booth as directed. There's another nice little detail here: the booth is next to a screen displaying a moving hologram of a busy Arcadian office, making it possible for patrons to convincingly lie about still being at work if they feel the need. Nor is that the only gimmick with which the booth is provided, though the other one is less amusing.

They don't like it when you try to reverse the charges

When I come round, I am interrogated by three people, one of whom identifies herself as Bellatrix. I convince them that I'm the agent they're expecting, and pass the morality test they throw in just to make things that bit more challenging, so I get to hear what they've learned about the code number. It's a marching song that the Northern Arcadians apparently composed to help them remember a three-digit sequence. Rather conveniently, while the song must be in Arcadian (and humanity had switched over to Esperanto before getting conquered and being forced to use their oppressors' language), the acrostic still works in English. I'd be interested to see how the lyrics were rendered into the other languages into which Rebel Planet was translated.

I'm then covertly returned to the hostel, and the following day I head back to the spaceport. Having avoided a certain possible run-in yesterday, I need not worry about the consequences of having failed to deal with any witnesses. As before, getting through Customs is not a problem, and I'm soon on my way to the mildly decadent world of Radix.

My stay here is to be longer than on Tropos, which is a good thing, as I have a lot less information about the resistance movement here. Here's a list of the relevant facts I do have:

  1. There's a resistance movement.
Not the strongest of leads, is it?

Two hotels stand out from the list of places I could stay, the somewhat pricey Zodiac (which gets three stars) and the unrated Porky's Palace. Better stick with the more affordable option. As I head there, I notice that assorted houses have been demolished, while the surrounding ones remain intact. I ask Porky about this, and he's reluctant to say much, but does mention a 'Street Fighter' that the authorities are paranoid enough to be using against demonstrating students. Deducing from this that the local university is liable to be a good place to find revolutionaries, I head there.

Now for a tricky decision. If I don't go straight in, I'll have an opportunity to acquire an item that could save my low-Skilled neck when, for me, it's Tuesday. However, I will also run the risk of not getting that far into the week. Still, I might as well risk it, so I visit the archaeology museum. The watchman is a Southern Arcadian, and consequently speaks mostly in non-sequiturs, as a result of which I inadvertently accept a guided tour. Shaka, when the walls fell.

I learn a few things, though. The original inhabitants of Radix may have been responsible for the flying saucer sightings on 20th century Earth. They got slightly genocided when the human colonists arrived. And there's a closed-to-the-public section of the museum where they store everything that's not on display. I bribe the watchman to let me have a look around there, but he's secretly offended by the bribe, and gets suspicious enough to attack me when I cast covetous glances at an exhibit in storage. I'd say it's been mislabelled, but there are probably people who do treat grenades pretty much as religious artefacts.

I win the fight, but moments later someone pages the watchman, and I realise that I need to be elsewhere fast. Two corridors lead east out of the cellar, so I head down one of them. After getting needlessly scared by a carving, I eventually reach a point where the passage starts looping back the way I came, so I take the next turning. Dead end. The book makes me stop to loot some coins from the first Soviet-Brazilian Alliance (another detail that hasn't dated well), and forces me to go back the way I came when I return to the main corridor. Taking another turning, I soon find that corridor curving round, too. A search party is now clearly audible elsewhere in the cellars, and I take a chance on heading for the sound of dripping water at the next junction. The dripping turns out to be because the passage leads to a washroom, which has a locked hatch leading to the street. A random roll determines whether or not I can get the hatch open before my pursuers catch up to me, and the outcome is unfavourable. The Arcadians slice me into little bits while I'm still looking for the right key.

While describing Rebel Planet as one of the better SF Fighting Fantasy adventures is pretty much damning it with faint praise, that is a fair comment on the book. There's some nice worldbuilding in there, and a decent amount of low-key humour, but elements of it are rather unfair. Not as unfair as one bit of the author's next FF book, but that's a complaint for a later blog post.

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