Thursday, 1 August 2013

A Bad Enough Dude

I don't remember the circumstances of my getting Star Strider, the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook attributed to Luke Sharp (not the author's real name). It was probably a Saturday, as I took the book with me to a church picnic, which would have been on a Sunday, and I think it unlikely that I'd have still been carrying the book around more than one day after getting it.

It's another SF adventure. The Galactic President has been kidnapped by the Gromulans, a humanoid species renowned for their illusion-creating technology. My character is a Rogue Tracer (the in-setting term for bounty hunters), and as one of the top-ranking Rogue Tracers (also known as Star Striders), I've been semi-blackmailed into rescuing him. He's been traced to a backwater planet named Earth, and I have 48 hours in which to find him - after that, the device that prevents his mind from being read will no longer be functional, and the Federation's secrets will be available to the highest bidder.

Rogue Tracers must be a pretty pathetic bunch if I'm among the crème de la crème, since my stats are a measly:
Skill 8
Stamina 21
Luck 7
Fear 8
Fear doesn't work like the similarly-named attribute in House of Hell: it just determines how much I'm likely to be harmed by Gromulan illusions.

The shuttle to Earth is less than half full, and has clearly seen better days. A service android asks if I want anything, and I choose food cubes, as this book dispenses with the usual restrictions on exceeding Initial scores. I only get one extra Stamina point for eating, but that could mean the difference between success and failure at some point.

Arriving in a desolate area, I notice a Sweepertron taking an interest in me. Could be one of my employers' 'spy' Androids, so I approach it. The Android tells me that the Gromulans are based in four cities, which I'm most likely to be able to reach on Silverhound buses. High-ranking Gromulans access the equivalent of the internet through their ComTerms, so if I can get my hands on one of them, I might be able to find out something about the President's location. After dispensing this information, the Android self-destructs, and since it's the cleaner, there'll be nobody around to get rid of the resultant mess.

I board the Silverhound and spend the next couple of hours dozing. Then the bus is pulled over by a couple of GromPol Androids, which check all the passengers' IDs, and throw me off the bus when they discover that I'm a Rogue Tracer. I wait to find out what's going on - no point in raising suspicions by trying to run away. The Gromulan commander asks whom I have come to Earth to capture, but I refuse to give a name as I know from past attempts at the book that Rogue Tracers never name their quarry. Annoyingly, this detail isn't mentioned anywhere in the background, and the only way to learn it is in this encounter - if I were to name a criminal, the book would point out that I'd just done the wrong thing, and penalise me for doing what it had neglected to point out that I should never do.

Still, I made that 'mistake' on my very first try, so now I know better. The Gromulan accepts my refusal to answer, and then creates the illusion of his head enlarging and biting my head off for no apparent reason. I'm not scared, and just return to the bus. A couple more hours pass, and then the Silverhound stops at a diner for breakfast. One of the patrons turns out to be an escaped criminal I've arrested before. He runs away, and I give chase, as doing my job is a good way to make it look as if I'm here on everyday business rather than hunting for the President.

As the fugitive attempts to attract the attention of some Rocket Bikers, I pull out my Catchman, a weapon designed to harmlessly immobilise criminals. It has a 2/3 failure rate, but today I'm lucky, and it neatly ties him up. I prepare him for retrieval and return to the diner, where I become the focus of attention. The proprietor asks if I caught the criminal, and I chat with him for a while, learning that his son is a member of a Houlgan gang in Madrid (Houlgans are one of the book's better humorous elements, being feuding tribes who belong to different sects of a 'long-forgotten religion' (actually football fans, but the text never spells that out, though the clues are pretty obvious if you think about them)). All this chat means that I don't manage to actually eat anything, but it's information worth having all the same.

Eventually the bus reaches Madrid, where I find a poster indicating Silverhound routes. From here I can only travel to Roma. None of the listed travel times are anything like as long as it took to get here, so either the timetables are ludicrously optimistic, or the shuttle terminal is a long way away. Since Silverhounds can fly, it's even possible that the middle-of-nowhere place I arrived on Earth is in America - having the United States reduced to a state of complete insignificance would fit in with the author's quirky approach to the future.

An Android signals to me. When informed of the activation of the 'spy' Androids, I was also warned that the Gromulans are good at reprogramming, so there's no guarantee that 'friendly' Androids are actually on my side. This one's been suspiciously proactive, so I don't return the signal. Furtive observation enables me to spot it reporting in to a couple of GromPol Androids, proving that I was wise to maintain my anonymity.

A group of Houlgans are trying to break into a food dispenser and, as luck would have it, their leader has a tattoo which enables me to recognise him as the son of the diner owner I chatted with earlier. Name-dropping his dad ensures a friendly reception, and I am treated to a mysterious and disconcerting Earth delicacy (probably scampi, though for personal reasons I'd find it that bit more amusing if it were a battered haddock).

The Houlgans hate the Gromulans, and let me know two places where I might be able to access a ComTerm: the Plaza de Toros and a hacienda. I choose the latter, as I got a dice-related Instant Death the last time I tried the Plaza route, and can't be sure of evading a similar fate if I should go there again, whereas the dice-related trouble at the hacienda isn't automatically game-ending.

Once I'm at the service entrance, my allies depart. Drifting dust alerts me to the presence of light beam-based security alarms, and only random rolling can determine whether or not I manage to avoid all the beams. For the first time since creating my gamebook manager, I get lucky, and reach the hacienda undetected. Once I've figured out that the door needs to be pushed open, I get inside, and encounter an Android with a jar. Attacking before it can alert anyone, I have a harder fight than I should against such a weak opponent, but eventually I damage it enough that it self-destructs.

A Gromulan child enters the hall and demands to know what happened to Beany (the Android butler) and her lemonade. She uses a few cartoonish illusions on me when I don't answer, then asks me to play with her. I suggest a quick game of 'hack the parents' ComTerm', and once she's shown me where it is, I send her off on a spurious errand. Accessing the ComTerm requires me to solve a couple of mathematical puzzles (because a password would be too easy to guess, right?), and I get as far as learning that the President is not in Madrid, but at a high-security base with coordinates beginning 169A. At that point I do get asked for a password-equivalent, and this book doesn't allow an implausible option to correctly guess it, so alarms start going off and I make a hurried departure, blundering into one of those light beams as I do. This triggers an illusion-based, chess-themed trap, but my knowledge of the game's rules enables me to evade capture.

I reach the bus station just as the Silverhound is about to depart. It's full, but when I show my Rogue Tracer ID, an old woman is ejected in order to free up a seat for me. This does not make me popular with the other passengers. It's late when I reach Roma, and I spend the night at a shabby Fast Food and Sleep Unit. A familiar-looking woman is also there, and I try following her in the morning. Despite being delayed by an ID check, I manage to catch up with her, and remember that she's another high ranking Rogue Tracer, named Arana. The 'never discuss business' rule only seems to apply when talking with non-Rogue Tracers, as she has no qualms about telling me that she's after Orvium Egburg, who stole some firmware that probably has important data on it. Suspecting that the data in question may be President-related, I offer to help Arana.

She tells me of two haunts favoured by Orvium and his cronies. I know from past attempts that I'll find him (and be forced to play a variant on Russian Roulette) at Gino's. So is the Roxyrama an investigative dead end, or is this one of those annoying gamebook sequences where reality alters depending on the decision the reader makes? Just for a change (and because I already know that the President isn't in Roma either), I head for the Roxyrama. It turns out to be an outdated 3-D cinema, and seems to be closed. I manage to get in anyway, and when faced with a choice between corridor and stairs, remember the saying that maths teachers used as a reminder of the correct order for graph coordinates.

I find a big man with a lot of guns who's watching an old movie (with a title that's never actually been used for a film according to IMDB), and express an interest in the stolen firmware. The man offers to take me to Orvium, but before we've got very far, a Gromulan task-force turns up. My companion starts attacking them, and I decide against getting into a fight on that scale, and try to sneak off. Which turns out to involve grabbing an abandoned retro pack (what's wrong with 'jetpack'?) and rocketing away. Luckily, I manage not to collide with any buildings, but get up onto a roof. Androids start shooting at me, so I try a little Parkour, and my Stamina is high enough that leaping from one building to another is no problem.

One regard in which Rogue Tracer beats Blade Runner

After all that, I wind up at Gino's after all, and spot Orvium putting the boot in to an acquaintance. I approach him, and he refuses to talk to me unless I play 'the game'. As I indicated before, this is essentially Russian Roulette, and the dice that were so helpful back at the hacienda are rather less so here, causing me to blow my head off on my very first pull of the trigger.

I got further in my previous online attempt, but failed that by running into one of the dozen or so arbitrary Instant Deaths that crop up in the endgame. 'Luke Sharp' went a little overboard with the lethality in his first couple of FF books, though this one is the lesser offender.

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