Friday, 30 August 2013

Days Like Crazy Paving

The last of Smith and Thomson's Falcon books that I got from the Book Exchange was the fourth in the series, Lost in Time. I remember little of my first attempt at it, beyond the fact that, owing to book 2's absence from the shop, I missed out on one of the potentially freaky aspects as I hadn't played through the events that my character remembers when sort-of returning to the planet Thrix. 'Sort of' because temporal shenanigans meant that, from the perspective of the entire universe except for Falcon, the original visit never happened, which makes the reunion with an old friend somewhat awkward, the friend never having experienced their previous meeting. Only I hadn't experienced it either, so the disconnect didn't jar the way it was supposed to. And history will sort of repeat itself here, as my attempt at book 2 on this blog ended far too quickly for the relevant meeting to have happened, so only readers of this blog who've read Mechanon themselves will remember dear old Carborundum.

Anyway, in a timestream where Falcon successfully returned cosmic supercriminal Baal to his prison, this triumph led to a promotion. So with vengeful traitor Agidy Yelov still at large, and a whole range of new responsibilities coming my way, naturally the next thing for me to do is attempt to travel into the future, since the last person to try it spent seventeen subjective days trapped in a void and took two months to recover from the trauma. The title of the book may be considered a subtle hint as to how well my voyage will go. And fans of J.H. Brennan's Grail Quest series may be amused to note that embarking on this quest takes me straight to section 14.

Still, this attempt to travel forwards in time at a speed greater than 3600 seconds per hour is not immediately fatal. In fact, I arrive in the year 4000, 965 years and 11 months after I set off an hour or so ago. Mission accomplished, now I can go home and do something more productive, right? Maybe not, as, while I'm geographically more or less where I was when I set off, TIME HQ seems to have slightly disappeared, and the storm raging overhead suggests that global weather control is having problems (possibly with Cybermen or Ice Warriors). My instructions were to return home as soon as shipboard computer CAIN establishes that I've reached the future, but I do have the option of hanging around for a bit to shop for a sports almanac or something. Disobeying orders is more of a book 6 sort of thing to do, so I hit the fast return switch, for all the good it'll do me.

After another hour or so, I arrive, and CAIN points out that we're not in Kansas the former Switzerland any more. Indeed, my time machine appears to have materialised inside a large stomach. There is an exit visible some way above, but CAIN is dubious about my chances of successfully piloting the ship's flyer through it, so I don my environment suit and go for a wander outside to check that there are no mynocks chewing on the ship's power cables. Randomly, I fail to trip over, and wander over to the stomach wall. Climbing to the exit is not going to be easy, but blasting footholds in the wall could lead to a deluge of alien Gaviscon, so I'll endeavour to ascend unassisted.

It's a tough climb, but I make it, and the view outside is quite impressive. I've actually just emerged from a fruit growing on a big tree, and can see only more oversized vegetation and correspondingly large insects. Well, either that or I've had some trouble with space pressure. Regrettably, the choices open to me do not include 'climb back down and try to travel to somewhere less weird', so, looking at what I can do, I take the marginally more sensible-looking option of tying myself to a giant coconut until sundown.

Once I can see the stars, I am able to work out that I don't have the faintest idea where I am. So I climb down the outside of the fruit and peel my way back to the ship (not that difficult with the blaster). Once CAIN can see the constellations, it calculates that I'm somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy, so maybe I should be wary of those giant insects. Further data processing narrows my location down to the planet Zorgon in the year 3747, which doesn't tell me much, as the data banks are a bit deficient in details about what will have happened many light years from home just over seven centuries after the last update.

I can now leave, but being in the future makes navigation a bit fuzzy, and the only destinations on which I can focus are a high-gravity planet and what could be Earth in the Dark Ages. Further cheery news is that I've already used almost half of my fuel, and unless I can make it back home in no more than five time-jumps, I'll be stranded off the shoulder of Orion or near the Tannhäuser Gate or wherever the last of those trips actually takes me.

Arriving on the Dark Ages-type world, I am informed by CAIN that this isn't Earth, but the computer has insufficient data to tell me where I am. Local flora and fauna are a lot like Earth species, though, and a nearby mediaeval-looking city looks pretty human-made. CAIN advises that if I'm going there, I should wear something less conspicuous than my environment suit, and the slightly quirky manner in which the recommendation is made has me worrying that that last trip may have activated a Genuine People Personality buried somewhere in its subroutines. Not knowing what's appropriate for wherever this is at whichever point in its history I am, I have the ship's molecular convertor dispense a suit of armour. Pretty generic, and also good if I should encounter a mob of LARPers.

With no reference points, the city's a little bewildering. Given a choice between two more or less arbitrary buildings, I pick the one displaying the ten-spoked wheel emblem I've seen on a couple of people. It turns out to be a tavern and, perhaps because of my psychic abilities, I'm able to understand the poem being recited by a man with formidable facial hair.

An altercation between a couple of patrons sends me flying into a nearby table, and the men seated at it draw rapiers to punish me for spilling their pints. A quick blast of mental energy fells one of them, probably inducing a worse hangover than the wasted beer would have given him, and his friends back off, worried that I might be able to kill them with my brain. Meanwhile, the man who knocked me over is about to slit the throat of the young woman with whom he was fighting (who's dressed as a page boy). Vague memories of the book suggest that I'm better off not interfering, but I can't ignore her mute appeal for help, and psychically clobber the man with the dagger. If this is where I'm pretty sure it is, that's not the first time I've taken a strictly unnecessary risk to prevent some stranger from undergoing an extreme tracheotomy in this city.

The girl I just saved invites me to her home, but I decline, since I'm pretty sure that that's how to end up having my own throat cut by Mark Smith's player character. Instead I head back to the ship, telling CAIN about an encounter I didn't actually have on this playthrough, getting a seriously snarky response, and entirely failing to comment on the fact that this whole stretch of the book is a crossover with Smith and Thomson's other major gamebook series.

My next time-jump takes me to Earth in 3034 AD, a day after the adventure began, though for a quarter of an hour a malfunction looks set to trap me in null-space. My return home is less triumphant than might be expected and, ominously, there's graffiti in the hovrail car I take home. Well, that's ominous to Falcon, but some might find more cause for concern in the reason why graffiti alarms our hero: 'Normally psychos are given new thought patterns before they can get so dangerous'. Yes, in Falcon's brave new world, those who don't conform can expect a brain-wipe long before they progress to such antisocial extremes as writing on walls. One of the slogans scrawled in the car suggests that the writer sees the Federation as more Blake's 7 than Star Trek, too.

On my way home I meet my friend and fellow TIME Agent Bloodhound, who's lost three fingers and developed a profound loathing of me since I chatted with him yesterday. Puzzled, I continue to my quarters, much to the surprise of Falcon, who's already home. No, that's not a mistake. I'm in a parallel universe, and Bloodhound's difficulties with touch-typing are the equivalent of a goatee or eyepatch.

Not-me Falcon and I both hurl bolts of psychic energy, which cancel each other out. We both switch to attempting to control our counterpart's mind, and are again stalemated. But that gives me the idea of throwing a chess set at Fauxcon. Who has the same idea, but isn't as close to the table. Still, a bad roll means that I fail to checkmate my opponent, and the next moment, we both have our blasters pointed at each other. I don't dodge, because so far this world's Falcon has thought of what I've thought of every time, so any shot fired will be aimed in anticipation of that dodge. Unless Falcon-2 thinks I'll dodge in anticipation of being anticipated, and thus fires randomly, because I'd see an aimed shot coming. Or deliberately shoots at somewhere other than where they were going to not shoot, because I wouldn't expect them to do what they were going to do if they knew that there was no point in doing what they were going to do because I was going to expect it. I think.

And while I'm trying to second-guess myself, the other Falcon gives me a faceful of superheated plasma. Crude, but admittedly more effective than my mental convolutions. For once it was better to shoot first and ask questions later.

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