Friday, 21 June 2013

There's Been a Thing

Undeterred by unsuccessful attempts at the first two of Smith & Thomson's Falcon books, I'm moving on to the third one, The Rack of Baal. My copy of this book was one of the three I got in one go at the Book Exchange, and as I wasn't prepared to leave it unread until I'd managed to acquire a copy of book 2, I wound up encountering some pretty major spoilers about twists in the book I was missing. Spoilers that I shan't repeat here, because I'm planning on replaying the first two books here at some point.

The ongoing plot regarding renegade TIME Agent Agidy Yelov goes on the back-burner in this adventure, as Falcon's expertise is required for dealing with a more pressing matter. Psychics investigating an artificial asteroid created by a long-dead race discovered it to be the prison of a powerful evil being named Baal. Unfortunately for them, they discovered it by falling under his control and being compelled to ram the asteroid with a starship in order to weaken it enough that he could escape. He can travel through time at will and, being unable to destroy the device which had inhibited his powers (except, apparently, for the 'dominate the wills of curious psychics' one, which his captors really should have done something about) and kept him in the prison asteroid, has scattered its four components throughout space and time. Conveniently, artefacts of such power are liable to cause timeholes to spontaneously form in their general spatio-temporal vicinity, so I just need to find them, reassemble the Rack (as the device is called) and use it to reimprison Baal. Let's hope that this Falcon is luckier than the alternate versions from my attempts at the first two books.

I board my ship and speak with CAIN (the shipboard computer, in case you'd forgotten/not read the book 1 playthrough), who seems to have a bit of an attitude problem, making derogatory comments about organic life forms and boasting about its superiority to all other computers. Then it gets to the point, mentioning the four locations where disturbances have been noted. The first time I played, I chose to visit the Aztecs because Id enjoyed looking into their culture in history lessons. Now I know that it's probably best to start by visiting the Dustbowl Colony in 2764.

One aspect of the first four Falcon books I have yet to mention is the optional scoring system. At various points, the text says to note down a letter. The subsequent book assigns point values (positive and negative) to those numbers, and gives a table of rankings based on the number of points obtained. I remember reading somewhere that it's not actually possible to get enough points for the top rank in books 1-2. As I recall, it is achievable in this book, but only by making every decision that provides a positive point (and none that get a negative), and as some of those positives are found in the red herring locations, and I'd rather not take unnecessary risks just for the sake of an essentially irrelevant ranking, so I shan't be bothering with any of that.

The Dustbowl Colony occupies a large crater, the only part of an otherwise lifeless planet that holds an atmosphere. It was originally founded by a group of exiles from another colony, becoming prosperous when the only native life form, the Dustwhale, turned out to be a source of one ingredient of life-prolonging drugs. The human-sacrificing religion to which most of the founding exiles belonged has all but died out, and the colony is generally considered a boring place. Guess how likely I am to have a dull time that doesn't involve fanatical cultists...

My Rack component detector (a product of the same technology that created the Rack) registers nothing, but it can't scan beyond the protective dome over Refuge, Dustbowl's only city, so I'm going to have to go out onto the Sea of Dust if I want to be thorough. While I'm being kitted out to blend in with the locals, a black-robed man scans my ship, using technology more advanced than should exist in this era. Ominous, but following him may lead me into a trap, so I'll just get on with my trip to the Sea.

I take public transport to the port, where I'm able to scan the Sea. No Rack components. So I head back to the ship. The black-robed man is back, with some friends, and they appear to be selling souvenir daggers, though their attempts to demonstrate the sharpness of the blades by using them on me do take the hard sell that bit too far. I trip three of them, but the fourth manages to cut my shoulder, yelling, 'Die, in the name of Baal!' A quick psionic blast fells him, and I hurry into the warehouse where my ship is concealed.

A twelve-foot long fly buzzes into the warehouse and tells me that Baal wants me dead (I had already gathered that). I try another psionic blast, but it's ineffective. My blaster works, though. Good thing, too: I've already had one fly-related gamebook fatality this week. Hurrying into the ship before the black-robed mob can start hassling me again, I head back to home base to see if any more leads have turned up. Along the way, I can get some healing done, which would be most welcome if the book had listed any Endurance point cost for the knife in the shoulder.

When I get back, Agent Bloodhound informs me that there's just been a massive temporal disturbance on Dustbowl, which didn't involve any conventional time machine. Time to choose the next place to visit, and returning to Dustbowl is an option. One of the other locations mentioned in section 1 is no longer on the list, though a couple of words from it have been appended to one of the remaining options. Looks like an editorial blunder.

Anyway, I go back to Dustbowl. This time I materialise at the port, and when I set up the detector again, it registers the presence of part of the Rack. That's the good news. Less pleasing is the detail of its location: somewhere out in the sea, buried under tons of dust. After consulting with CAIN and my boss, I wind up disguising my Time Machine as a diving bell and impersonating one of David Attenborough's descendants in order to legitimise a diving expedition. I'm also warned that there are some pretty stringent rules about carrying weapons in this-era Dustbowl. Noted, but I may have to become a little bit flexible as regards my law-abiding status if I encounter any more of those giant flies.

There's a whaling ship moored at the quayside. It's called 'The Winged Demon', and flies a black flag. Subtle. I pop into the closest bar, and hear one of the patrons waxing eloquent about his most recent voyage, which just happened to be aboard the Winged Demon. Standard sailors' tall tales, except for the bit where the regular crew turned out to be Baal-worshipping cultists who met the bad guy himself and sacrificed a few of the hired hands to him. Yeah, I think I'll wait for a different whaler to dock, and book passage on that one.

The following day I head out again to see if a better ship is available. The Winged Demon has gone, but a few of the black-robed pests are waiting for me, knives drawn. I try a little mind control of my own, making one of the would-be assassins turn on his comrades. Not very nice, but I can't use my blaster without risking trouble with the authorities, and the psionic blast would only work on the fanatics one at a time, giving some of them an opportunity to use their daggers on me.

Another whaler, the Dustskate, has moored since my last visit. I make the necessary arrangements to have it transport my 'scientific expedition', and get my 'diving bell' loaded aboard. Some of the crew give me funny looks, so I'd better be careful, in case Baal has any more subtle minions. He does. Though 'more subtle' turns out to mean 'breaking into my cabin after dark in order to knife me. I try the same trick as before, and get him to attack the two accomplices the book neglected to mention when it told me about him. This time there are no fatalities, as I'm able to summon help from the rest of the crew, and the three cultists wind up in the brig.

The following day, the Dustskate reaches the right location, and I make the dive. On the way down, CAIN tells me all about the sonar-based senses of the creatures that live in the Sea of Dust. All just colour text, I'm sure. My battlesuit is just able to bear the dust pressure down there, so I pop out to collect the Rack component. As I'm heading back to my ship, my radar registers something approaching. The sort of something that gets the title rôle in SyFy monster movies. Head of a shark, body of a Dune-scale sandworm, and at least seven tentacles, according to the illustration. I hurriedly download a track from Pavarotti's thrash metal phase and broadcast it at the approaching monstrosity, confusing the creature's sound-based prey detection system long enough for me to get back to my Time Machine.

I then sever the cable attached to the'diving bell', making it appear to the people up above that I must have died in a freak bathysphering accident. The Captain will be wishing he'd asked for full payment up front, rather than just under a third in advance and the rest on completion. Back inside the Time Machine, I observe that the Rack component has triangle shapes on it, and dematerialise. One piece down, three to go.

The list of times and places to visit next lacks the red herrings that were originally offered, so I've missed my opportunity to have a cameo appearance by Yelov in the adventure. I'll move straight on to the next relevant location, which is Aztec Earth. Hey, I never said that that was a red herring - it just so happens that I'm better off waiting until I have the first Rack part before I go there. Makes for a rather counter-intuitive optimal route through the adventure: first I need to go somewhere that doesn't have part of the Rack (and I think pre-Rack Dustbowl is the best of those options, even with the cultists and the giant fly), then back to HQ, then to Dustbowl again, and only then to the Aztec Empire, which has been on the menu since section 1.

Anyway, Falcon's Wing (that's the name of my craft) arrives in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan during the reign of the tyrant Ahuitzotl, a particularly violent period in their history. The book asks an awkward question about how many timeholes I've visited on this mission. Does the return trip to HQ count? Is Dustbowl to be considered as one timehole visit or two? Peeking at the sections for 'first-to-second trip' and 'third trip or later', I get the impression that this constitutes 'third or later', as one of the differences in the text is that I get to decide whether to keep the Rack component on me or leave it in the ship. Better to keep it with me, I think.

There's a second Rack component in a building near the Great Pyramid. Dressed in the costume of an Aztec Eagle Knight, I head for the pyramid and see the Emperor and a number of black-robed priests, who are extremely busy sacrificing prisoners to Huitzilopochtli. Baal manifests himself above the altar, and is assumed by the Aztecs to be the deity in question. The priests pick up their pace, and I realise that Baal is feeding off the life force of the sacrificial victims. The Rack part I have reacts to his presence, but he doesn't notice it.

There's nothing good to be gained by attracting his attention at this time, so I do my best to ignore what's going on, and concentrate on seeking the Rack component that's here. The building containing it is guarded, but Jaguar Knights have no defence against psionic blasts, and are unconscious by the time I reach the entrance.

That is not the correct section number. The editing on this book is a bit sloppy in places. A quick check via the 'first or second trip' path indicates that I should be turning to 311, not 331. That takes me to a large room containing an altar, with the Rack component on it, and I can see that this one has circles on it. The floor between me and the altar has a 3-by-3 grid of Tiles of Doom on it. I try the middle tile of the first row, and nothing happens. Diagonally right... is not so good. Something clicks above me, so I jump to one side, and the obsidian-tipped spear I just triggered misses me. And back to the middle for the final row - no, that's a bad choice too. This time the click is below me, and I leap forward to avoid being impaled on the wooden stake that springs up.

I'm at the altar. As I reach for the Rack component, Baal registers my presence, and he's not happy about it, judging by the way he's trying to smash through the ceiling. I grab the component, and he breaks through and lands on one of the tiles I avoided. This triggers a volley of javelins, which shatter on impact with Baal's skin. He tries to take over my mind, but my having two bits of the Rack disrupts the attack (so the complete Rack failed to keep him from controlling the psychic archaeologists because...?). They're less useful against fireballs, though, as I learn when Baal flings one at me. A pencilled-in amendment to the section numbers for outcomes to the impending Evasion Roll suggests that this is another editorial black spot. Yep, the 'successful roll' number leads to having a third of my Endurance singed away, while the 'clumsy oaf' one has me unscathed. I succeeded at the roll, so I'm going with my corrected version of the book. And yes, I'd have taken the hit if I'd rolled badly.

Baal is displeased to see me still alive. I'm guessing that the recent appearance above the Great Pyramid of a 20-foot high red-skinned monstrosity means that there's little point in avoiding displays of anachronistic technology, so I decide to see if a shot from my blaster will distract him while I dash back to Falcon's Wing. It only causes him a little pain and throws him off balance (a human subjected to the same blast would be charcoal), but that's better than nothing, and I leg it while I can.

By now the plaza is almost deserted. Baal smashes back through the roof (couldn't even be bothered to reuse the hole through which he entered) and flies towards me. My blaster pack is half drained, but that still gives me power for one more shot, right? Indeed. It's on target, and temporarily floors him. The few onlookers now think I'm a deity as well. No time to correct their misunderstanding, though, as Baal is picking himself up again and my blaster needs a recharge.

A few black-robed nutters attempt to get in my way, but they know nothing of the hologram that conceals Falcon's Wing, and do a double-take when I seemingly walk through a wall. I hurriedly board Falcon's Wing, and dematerialise just as Baal fireballs the ship. It's not damaged badly enough to keep me from making it back home, but some repairs are required. On the way, CAIN reassures me that disruption to established history will be negligible as Cortez is due to genocide the Aztecs in a few decades' time anyway.

The directions here are a bit badly structured: where I turn next depends on which of two conditions is true, but both are. I go for the one listed first, and things do follow on logically, but it's still an awkward means of establishing how much I've already achieved, especially as the next section offers me the option of going to Dustbowl post-disturbance, which is the sort of redundancy that this kind of filtering ought to eliminate.

Getting back to the point, a new timehole has formed on the planet Cave, and the rookie who was sent to set up a monitoring device didn't survive the trip. Odd things are suddenly having happened in the past. Could be worth looking into. Has to be, in fact, as it's that or Dustbowl again.

While in Falcon's present day, Cave has an advanced society, its inhabitants are very primitive at the time to which I'm travelling. They live in underground tunnels, divided into complexes. It's a vaguely hive-like set-up, with Mothers ruling over Workers, Warriors and Nobles. Falcon's Wing materialises in a cavern where a score or so Burrowers are excavating tunnels. These are furry bipeds with two pairs of specialised arms: one clawed, to dig, the other with hands to pick up and carry debris. The atmosphere is not breathable for humans, and there's no way of convincingly disguising me as a local, so I'd better keep a low profile, as the Cavers are currently very xenophobic. And this particular period is unique in Caver history for featuring a civil war.

The Burrowers' light-sensitive eyes register my use of the Rack component detector, but Workers aren't sapient enough to recognise me as an outsider, so I needn't worry about them. There is a component here, so I'm going to have to find it. The sound of battle catches my attention, and I cautiously investigate. Two Warrior groups are fighting: red-furred versus black-and-yellow-striped. Only two arms each, but they end in blades of bone. Add in the assortment of horns, the taloned feet and the fangs, and these are not a sub-species I want taking an interest in me. A few roughly human-shaped Nobles direct the hostilities, and the red-furred ones help sway the course of the battle with lasers that shouldn't exist at this time.

The yellow-and-black Nobles retreat, getting Burrowers to block off the tunnel behind them. The red Nobles decide to fetch some of their own Burrowers, and send their Warriors to secure a nearby cavern and work towards the victory of the Baal-Mother. Not much of a guy for aliases, is the villain?

Some of the Warriors enter the corridor where I am. Let's see if they're as easy to turn on one another as the Dustbowlers. Indeed. Within seconds only one of them is still standing (well, limping), and a quick burst from my recharged blaster puts it out of its misery. I feel less bad about what I just did when I reach the cavern containing the remnants of a batch of Caver eggs, ruthlessly destroyed by the red-furred lot. Beyond that cavern is a fungus farm, and further on I encounter more fighting. While the striped Cavers have the better strategy, the reds' lasers are proving too much of an advantage. I don't think intervening would do enough good to offset the disadvantages of attracting attention, so I slip down a side tunnel.

The passage forks, and I can see light some way down the left tunnel. Could it be the glow of a bit of Rack? No, there's a hole in the roof, letting in the harsh light and radiation of the sun. Best not to loiter here. Moving on, I eventually reach the heart of the Caver rebellion, where several Nobles are consulting with the Baal-Mother, expressing concern at 'her' not yet having laid any reinforcements for them. Of more interest to me is the not-of-this-time machinery, and the massive metal door behind which I sense the Rack part I seek.

At this point, if I didn't have the piece of Rack from Tenochtitlan, I would automatically fail. And if I didn't have the one from Dustbowl, I'd be open to a potentially lethal mental attack. As it is, while Baal detects my presence and sets the Cavers on me, the Rack parts I carry suddenly activate and cancel out the hallucinatory mind-powers that had enabled him to impersonate a Mother. Suddenly realising that they've been duped, the Nobles call off the attack and try to decide what to do. I dash for the door, and Baal shoots a bolt of energy at me. Sooner or later I was bound to fail a roll, and this time I do, getting quite badly hurt. At least the next time I have the option of using my Autodoc, I'll be able to avail myself of it. Assuming I live that long.

The Nobles set the Warriors on Baal. They can't harm him, but they keep him occupied while I hobble over to the door. There's no obvious way of opening it, and I don't have either of the devices that could be of use here, so I'll have to use my blaster. I target the wall next to the door, burning a hole through it, but as I move towards it, Baal wins the fight and fires another bolt of energy at me. I dodge that one, leaping through the hole and grabbing the Rack component, which has squares on it. Another editorial blunder would send me back to being hit by the bolt I didn't evade, but at some point in the past I added the missing digit to the given section number, and thus avoid getting time-looped.

I start to make my getaway. Baal grabs a dead Warrior to throw at me, so I try reminding him of how unpleasant he finds being shot. Pity I used up so much of my power-pack getting through the wall. Luckily, none of the dead Warrior's sharp bits hit me, but I'm still injured again. Baal picks up another corpse, and I mess up another Evasion Roll. At this point further red-furred Warriors attack their deceiver (and an inventory check leads me to suspect that these are the ones I'd have massacred if I'd decided to assist the stripey mob, in which case it's definitely a good thing I didn't stick my nose in), and I take the opportunity to absent myself while I still have a quarter of my Endurance points.

By the time I reach the cavern containing Falcon's Wing, Baal has slain his erstwhile dupes and come flying after me. He carries a girder, which he hurls at me, but this time I manage to dodge, and my experiences here have given me enough practice that I get a bonus on future Evasion Rolls. Before he can try any more tricks, I make a rapid exit from Cave. CAIN speculates on the long-term goals of the plan I've just thwarted, and the three Rack components project the space-time coordinates of the missing piece into my mind. I get to heal 80% of my lost Endurance as I pilot Falcon's Wing to the planet Chill in 2985 AD. Just under half a century before Falcon's home time.

Chill is, as the name suggests, a cold planet. Its atmosphere is ammonia-based, but the planet itself is rich in minerals, and there's a largely automated mining station there to take advantage of that. CAIN claims that 2985 is 'only forty years ago' from 3033, which throws into doubt its earlier claims of superiority. Perhaps more pertinently, it also points out that the Manager of the small human workforce here is Braxton Bragg (which seems to be some kind of early UK gamebook-writers' in-joke, given that there's a character with the exact same name in the RPG scenario written by Jon Sutherland, Nigel Cross (sic.) and Simon Farrell for the first issue of GM magazine), the brother of one of my grandmothers, and a good friend of the associated grandfather. But I'd only confuse him if I actually addressed him as great-uncle.

My battlesuit is redesigned to make me look like a Federation Planetary Exploration Scout, so I can pretend to have crash-landed if I should encounter the humans. Once I've used the Rack detector to get a bearing on the last part, I set off through the driving hail. It turns out that the component is some way below the mining station, so I have to head there. One of the staff is outside in a powersuit, and is understandably surprised to see me. He invites me inside, introduces himself as Sil McReady, and uses the slang term 'ultra' often enough that this mannerism soon becomes ultra-annoying.

In the Rec Room he introduces me to two more of the crew: Bragg himself and medical expert Tsu Tsang, who currently walks with a limp on account of having had her foot broken in a minor industrial accident. I also see a holo-viewer, clearly labelled as the property of Kepy Achov, and currently paused part of the way through Night of the Star-Vampires. Tsu Tsang takes me to a spare cabin, and then McReady turns up to give me a tour of the place, with running commentary on how ultra or non-ultra he finds the different sections. In Mine Control I meet the other crew, and discover that not everyone here is human. Achov is a Siriun, and the seven-foot-tall Caleb is from Proxima Centauri.

Back in my cabin, I'm wondering how I can minimise temporal disruption when I hear a commotion. For the crew, this is the second unexpected development in one day: the Autodrill opened up a subterranean cavern which contained a strange football-sized egg and a piece of alien technology - the last piece of the Rack. Achov anticipates that the Federation will pay a lot for these discoveries (which McReady thinks is 'really ultra'). As Achov takes his finds to the lab, Bragg comments on what a coincidence it is that I should have turned up at this time, rather obviously assuming that I'm some kind of undercover operative for the Federation. At least the team will have a target for their anger when I sneak into the lab later tonight and pilfer one of their treasures.

After dark I put my plan into action. Achov is still awake, and I hear what sounds like a distant shriek and an odd squelching as I pass his door. Proceeding into the lab, I am unable to find the Rack segment, but I do spot the egg. Which has split open, and is dripping goo onto the floor. A sound from the doorway alerts me to the presence of Tsu Tsang, who has a disconcerting posture. A roll of the die determines what happens next...

Tentacles erupt from her chest, and two scorpion's tail-like appendages emerge from her mouth. It's a good deal more graphic in the text. I fail my Will roll, and just gape at this revolting spectacle until a tentacle slaps me half way across the lab. The monstrosity's head collapses into a gaping maw, and I decide that my blaster is going to be of more use here than powers of the mind. Thankfully, my shot is on target, and the superheated plasma causes the creature to burst into flames. A leg comes off, sprouts limbs of its own, and begins scuttling away, the foot turning into a crocodile-style head as it goes.

At this point, alerted by the noise, the rest of the crew enter the lab, and they don't like what they see. McReady throws up. The crocodile-headed insectoid that was a leg leaps at me, but Bragg lasers it in half. One of the parts sprouts a tentacle in order to rejoin its mate, and as Bragg gapes, doubtless thinking, "You have got to be ****ing kidding!", I incinerate it. So much for a low-key retrieval of the last component.

As the questions and strategising commence, a sloppily constructed sentence attributes one line of dialogue to both Caleb and me. Bragg speculates on the nature of the creature that emerged from the egg, pointing out that other parts of it may still be at large, and it may already have duplicated more of the crew. On the more positive side, my having been attacked convinces everyone that I'm still human, and at least we know that we can kill it with fire.

Bragg orders McReady to radio for some troopers and a relief ship, and sends Achov to get the flamethrowers they use to de-ice the protective dome. Yes, this does involve splitting up. But Bragg, Caleb and I head to the Rec Room together, so nothing bad happens to us. Achov arrives with the flamethrowers, and Caleb takes the one that he personalised. McReady arrives with bad news: the creature already got to the radio and wrecked it. I shoot him, because he didn't call it 'non-ultra news', and his head splits open to reveal something unpleasant. An orifice opens in his neck and spews fluid at me, but I dodge with ease. Good thing too, as the liquid is acidic. I return fire, but the faux-McReady smashes through the door and flees.

The rest of us decide to go on the offensive. All the powersuits have been sabotaged, robbing us of potential protection. Evidently having learned nothing, Bragg has us split up, which does at least give me an opportunity to set up the Rack detector again. The component's been taken back to the cavern, so I'm going to have to disobey instructions and descend into the mine.

I take the lift down to the lowest level, then ride a monorail to the cavern, where I find the fourth component on an altar. Back at the bottom of the shaft, I hear a noise from inside a titanium container. Out bursts a mass of tentacles, topped with McReady's head. Then a serpentine neck issues forth, with a head like something out of Alien on the end, and lunges at me. Again I am paralysed with fear long enough for the creature to attack, and this time it manages to absorb my foot, getting it to spawn barbed tendrils that spring up and pierce my heart. You know, I was only about 14 when I got this book.

Thinking about it, the gruesome elements are probably a big part of why this wound up being one of my favourite books in the series. While the various editorial errors I've enumerated do rather mar the end product, I still find it pretty enjoyable now. Not a very profound adventure, but pulpy (and slimy, and gooey, and ichorous) fun.

3 comments:

  1. I'm reading through the entire archives, and loving them. The Chill section of this book is pretty obviously based on Carpenter's "The Thing".

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    1. So obvious that I didn't think it worth mentioning. I did include a couple of more low-key references to the film, though, because I can very rarely resist an in-joke when writing these posts.

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