Monday, 23 June 2014

A Mass of Incandescent Gas

As I recall, I had a bit of trouble getting hold of The Dying Sun, book 5 of Smith and Thomson's Falcon series. Unlike most of the preceding volumes, it never turned up at the Book Exchange, so I had to buy a brand new copy, and I'm pretty sure that it was the last one in the series that I acquired - if so, that means I came across and bought the last book in the series before I got this one, and I wouldn't have got them out of order if I could have avoided doing so.

Having more or less successfully returned from a trip to the future (taking in visits to alternate timelines, a different book series, and the interior of a large coconut along the way), Falcon now faces a new kind of challenge: interviewing trainees to pick a replacement for Agent Bloodhound, who has vanished into the next book in the series. Though the selection process is just a prelude to the actual mission at hand: dealing once and for all with Agidy Yelov, the ex-TIME operative who's been a persistent annoyance since turning out to be a villain back at the start of the series. He's now joined up with a criminal organisation known as CYBERNET, and got a few of its members to act as henchbeings.

In other news, completely unrelated to the main plot, contact has been made with a hostile alien civilisation in the 1743 star cluster. They've destroyed several of the Federation's probes, but how am I supposed to worry about the possibility of war with another species when I have dossiers to read? And so many, too - files on the interviewees, records on Yelov's new partners-in-crime, reports on current staff... It's like getting to play a solo version of Bureaucrat: The Paperwork.

As I'll be doing the interviewing before anything else, I start by finding out more about the people I'll be considering. I shan't go into detail about their academy ratings and biographies here, but one thing that did catch my attention is that the different skills and capabilities tested at the academy include deadliness. I'm not sure I want to know too much about the practical assessment aspect of that course.

Next I look up the new villains on the block, as knowing what my team is going to be up against might help me figure out who's best equipped to help deal with the opposition. No point in choosing someone who suffers from anatidaephobia if they're likely to have to face Desmond the All-Seeing Duck.

No duck, though there is a hawk-headed humanoid called Dark Star, who hates humans and has a pet genetically engineered killing thing. Oh, and she escaped from Chicago, which is apparently one big prison in this enlightened era. I wonder why Smith and Thomson didn't make it New York for a hat trick of John Carpenter references, what with their earlier homage to The Thing. Accompanying Dark Star are a human who's become host to a parasite that feeds on the suffering of others and uses psychic attacks to create that suffering, and the only representative of the Thaccoid species (sort of giant predatory spiders with lizard-style heads) in Federation territory. So psychopathic that diplomatic immunity has been waived in favour of a 'kill it with fire' directive. Nice bunch.

While I'm at it, I also check the profiles of the agents under my command. Bloodhound has lost two fingers since I last saw him (just like his counterpart in the alternate reality I visited in book 4), and has since gone missing. Lynx is in hospital after a run-in with Yelov at the Battle of Gettysburg. Chameleon is an inscrutable non-human who can change his appearance at will. Leopard is a human who lost the use of his body in a war, and had his brain transplanted into an android body. Sparrowhawk is from the same planet as Yelov, trained under him, and was very fond of him, but there's no way she could be harbouring any resentment against me for lasering half his face off at the climax of book 1, right?

And now I have to decide which of the three potential candidates I get to add to this crack team. One of them has yet to arrive, so for the first interviewee I must choose between Yellowblades the Rigellian (big blue-skinned guy, scored highest overall at the academy, more limited than the others as regards powers of the mind, but what he does have is stronger) and Sosquilla the Ardann (anthropomorphic squirrel-being, most intelligent candidate, but scored very poorly at unarmed combat and deadliness, has emotion-manipulating powers, doesn't really want the job, but is applying out of a sense of duty).

The Ardann get stressed easily, so I'll interview Sosquilla first: in my experience, pre-interview nerves are worse than waiting-for-results uncertainty. As I'm showing her to a seat, the third candidate arrives. I'm not sure that being 'fashionably late' is a particularly clever thing for a potential TIME agent. Mind you, my character is more concerned about the diplomatic repercussions of this first interview.

What I overheard of Sosquilla's dialogue with Yellowblades suggests that she doesn't think she is the best candidate, so my questions in the interview focus on her confidence and suitability for the job. I finish off by telling her of my most recent adventures, then reading her mind to find out how she reacts to the prospect of such terrifying experiences. Obviously the account I give her is a little different from my playthrough, partly because Falcon wouldn't make the in-jokes I do, partly because 'I climbed out of a big coconut and then broke up a bar fight without endangering myself' isn't really the sort of hair-raising stuff that will help determine whether or not she's psychologically prepared for the dangers of being a TIME agent, and partly because ending up with 'and then my counterpart from an alternate timestream shot me in the face and killed me' would raise all sorts of awkward questions. This 'test' is ultimately inconclusive: Sosquilla is perturbed but not traumatised, and it's not clear how she would react to experiencing such things rather than just hearing about them.

Next I interview Yellowblades, who is discussing the academy's combat simulator with the third candidate when I call him in. He thinks he may be the best fighter in the galaxy, but isn't so sure of himself when it comes to diplomacy. Indeed, interacting with other people seems to be one of his weak points: he prefers weapon practice to socialising. At this point the book presents me with a choice between insulting him and insulting him, so I pick the option that he's likely to find less offensive - while calling him 'an oversized killing machine' is overly dismissive, accusing him of being a spy would be a slur on his honour, and I'm not that desperate to get a demonstration of how he scored 9/10 on deadliness. He calmly replies that there's more to him than just a killing machine, and the rest of the interview is sufficiently uneventful that the authors don't cover it in any detail.

The third candidate is a human known only as 'the Bounty Hunter'. His origins are unclear, but I suspect that he's the product of an experiment to create the ultimate edgy eighties action movie hero. CYBERNET put a hefty price on his head seven years ago, and, well, he'd hardly be attending this interview if any intergalactic low-life had managed to claim the reward, now would he? Maybe he was slightly late for the interview on account of having been ambushed by a gang of cyborg ninjas on the way here. Oh, and he's completely invulnerable to mental attacks because he's Just. That. Hard.

Unlike the other two candidates, he doesn't hesitate to declare himself the best candidate when asked. More surprisingly, he doesn't appear to have a problem with taking orders - I was expecting the old maverick, loose cannon, if-City-Hall-don't-like-it-they-can-shove-it attitude. He seems okay with teamwork, too. The book then has me put some pressure on him, and as with Yellowblades I turn down the more insulting approach, instead suggesting that he might be too dangerous for TIME, and reading his mind to see how he reacts (his invulnerability to mental attacks evidently not blocking non-aggressive telepathy). He's not offended by the suggestion, but just wants an opportunity to prove himself.

That's the interviewing over - now I just have to decide who gets the job. The book warns me that 'The fate of the Federation may hang on your choice', and my memories of a couple of the authors' other books suggest that that's not just hyperbole. I can think of at least three in which not making the right decision at one point guarantees failure at a later stage. No pressure, then...

I'm picking the Bounty Hunter. That invulnerability to mental attacks is liable to come in handy, what with one of the villains specialising in psychic assaults. And it's just possible that the target that CYBERNET have painted on his back might distract one of their operatives at a crucial moment. He's a little surprised, but only for a moment, and then tells me I won't regret my choice.

Can we get on with the adventuresome stuff now? As it turns out, no. Because there's a solar yacht race on soon, and I wind up spending some time watching the preparations rather than getting on with my mission, even though I am never, ever going to participate in such a dangerous sport, ever. On a slightly more relevant tangent, the TIME equivalent of Q Branch has come up with some nerve gas grenades, wrist-mounted mini-lasers, a backpack with a built-in harpoon/grapple launcher, and some homing tranquiliser darts for me to try out.

The head of the Monitoring Section contacts me, and I get a bit short with him when he asks me how things are rather than immediately reporting on situations requiring attention, because this is important work and we don't have time to waste on pleasantries or social niceties (I did remember to switch off the sports channel before telling him off, right?). Anyway, there are disturbances in the timelines at the siege of Troy and deep space in the 27th century. Also, an undercover cop in Cybernet (presumably in the lower ranks of the organisation, where they're not notorious enough for ALL CAPS) reports plans for a raid on a polybdenum warehouse, presumably to procure fuel for Yelov's stolen Time Machine. I need to attend to one of the temporal incursions, and send agents to deal with the other and the impending raid.

The first time I played this book, I went to Troy, which turned out to be something of a red herring (well, there is villain activity taking place there, but nothing that significantly impacts history as I recall), and the agents I sent to Deep Space 2665 weren't able to resolve the situation there, leading to changes in the timeline that brought about the extinction of humanity. I think I'd better handle the space crisis this time. I send Chameleon and the Bounty Hunter to Troy, and give the task of preventing the polybdenum raid to Sparrowhawk and Leopard.

Having presented me with that array of gadgets, the book now limits the number that I can take with me, because picking potentially life-saving equipment is so much more fun when you have no idea what you're likely to need, right? The reason given for the restriction only makes things worse - I only have time to pick up three items (and with the tranquilisers subdivided into types for use against four different series, that's a bigger limitation than it might at first seem). Two sections back I was forced to waste several minutes watching pre-sport blather, and now I can't afford the seconds it would take to grab an extra tranquiliser or two. Based on what I can remember of the situation I shall be tackling, I take the harpoon/grapple-launching backpack, a homing tranquiliser suitable for use against insect species and a wrist laser.

Making the time-jump, I find myself not adrift in the void between worlds but in a dusty hangar. CAIN (my time machine's AI) identifies my location as the Ark, a colony ship full of cryogenically preserved humans sent off in search of colonisable worlds in the M43 star cluster. Only someone has changed the settings, so it's now heading for the territory of that hostile alien race that was oh-so-casually mentioned back at the start of the adventure. Prematurely attracting the attention of aggressive non-terrestrials by dumping several thousand deep-frozen telephone sanitisers in their lap-equivalents is not likely to go well, so I need to put the Ark back on track. There's a time limit, as the ship is moving away from the timehole that brought me here, and once we're out of range, there'll be no way of returning to my own time. Even so, that shouldn't be too much bother, unless whoever it was that tampered with the steering is still around, but what are the chances of that?

Gamebooks, like most TV shows and films (and Windows downloads), measure countdowns in Variable Units of Time. They might describe them as more conventional units such as seconds and minutes, but the duration of a VUT rarely matches the length of any real-world measure of time (nor even other VUTs in the same countdown). I have 11 VUTs before the Ark moves too far and I'm stranded in 2665.

11... Wearing my environment suit in case the ship's hull has been punctured anywhere, I head along a corridor lined with tanks of would-be colonists, eventually reaching a crossroads. Up ahead, the corridor ends at an unmarked door. In corridor networks, the shortest distance between two points isn't necessarily a straight line, but I decide to see if it is on this occasion.

10... A section of the floor is smashed open by the Thaccoid lurking beneath it, and the creature lunges at me. I manage to dodge out of the way of its forelimbs, and it makes a clicking noise that my translator interprets as something along the lines of, 'Oh, ******!' Scuttling backwards, the creature prepares to leap at me again, and I fire the homing tranquiliser. It hits its target, to negligible effect. Having eight limbs rather than six, the Thaccoid is an arachnid rather than an insect, and the tranquiliser is that bit too specifically targeted to interfere with its motor functions. Stupid taxonomy! The Thaccoid attacks again.

9... I manage to dodge it a second time. Drawing my blaster, I open fire - but not at the Thaccoid itself. Instead I shoot the bulkhead behind the alien, creating a hull breach (which raises some questions about the layout of the ship, what with this being a central corridor - I could understand there only being the one wall between me and space if I'd gone to the right or left, but as I went down the middle, I'd expect there to be a whole load of spaceship infrastructure in the way). The atmosphere rushing through the hole drags us both out into space, but while the Thaccoid confirms that explosive decompression is a reality in this universe, I am safe on account of being in my environment suit. Oh, and having a handy harpoon/grapple-launcher strapped to my back, which I can use to attach myself to the ship and climb back in rather than being swept out into the void.  While the ship's Maintenance Droids start repairing the hull breach, I resume my approach to the unmarked door.

8... Behind it is a shaft leading down to the Engineering Deck and up to the Systems Control Deck. I climb the ladder, reflecting that the Thaccoid can't have come here alone, as it lacks the capability to pilot a Time Machine. But has whoever brought it here gone again, or could they be waiting in ambush? I can afford to wait for a couple of VUTs.

7... This ship has many floors. If it were transporting a certain type of fish instead of humans, that would make it a multi-storey carp-Ark.

6... Suddenly Yelov shouts from inside the Control Room, warning 'Thak' that it's almost time for the Symbiont to get back here in the Time Machine. Muttering what the Thaccoid might well consider a racist slur, Yelov steps out to try and find out what's delaying his psychopathic pal. Resisting the temptation to make a weak pun about the Thaccoid's demise, I fire at my nemesis. It's too early in the book for me to kill him, so he spots me and dodges back into the Control Room in the nick of time. By repeatedly firing through the door, he is able to deter me from entering until his ride home arrives, and he taunts me as he does so. Only once he's inside the Time Machine does he stop shooting, and by the time I get to the doorway, he's dematerialising.

5... Checking the ship's instruments, I find that, in addition to redirecting the Ark towards a dodgy neighbourhood, Yelov has also slowed it down, wasting a significant amount of fuel. I need to set the ship back on a course that will take it to the originally intended destination despite the depleted reserves. I can remember which of the three suggested courses is the correct one, but I'm not convinced that one of the wrong options is as non-viable as the authors make out. There's time to check.

4... I was wrong: Smith & Thomson did think it through properly. The most direct route doesn't work because the ship's systems don't have a separate power source to the propulsion unit. At the current speed, the remaining fuel won't suffice to keep the cryogenic tanks, maintenance droids and in-flight movies operational until the Ark reaches M43. And increasing the speed would use up more fuel, so that wouldn't work either.

Programming in the correct course doesn't use up any VUTs, so the countdown no longer matters. The solution to this quandary is to program a course that slingshots the ship around a few suns along the way, thereby accelerating it without expending as much fuel as it would take to boost the ship's velocity without the assistance of a bunch of conveniently located gravity wells. So, having minimised damage to the timelines, I return to my Time Machine and head back to the 31st century.

For some reason, TIME HQ is located a significant distance from the Time Machine parking facilities. It takes half an hour by hovrail just to get to the terminus (and the background section states that 'the longest journey need take no more than an hour', so it must be possible to travel at least a quarter of the way around the planet in the amount of time it's taken me to get part of the way crosstown), and the hovrail for the second leg of the journey leaves from a different level. The lift has just broken down, so I'll have to use the stairs.

The stairs are not enclosed, though there is a low wall on either side to reduce the risk of falling off, and my descent provides the authors with an opportunity to show the readers some of the city of the future. To the left is a Maintenance Droid walkway leading to a hospital, and there's a hovcar landing park to the right. Ahead and up above I can see Highway 1232, and close by is a CYBERNET sniper with a laser, who just drilled a hole in the concrete by my foot.  A careless shot, especially as it only takes the police seconds to respond to any discharge of an energy weapon. Still, it would be possible for the would-be assassin to get off several more shots in those seconds, so I ought to take some evasive action.

What with that wall, and my having seen the blast, the shooter must be somewhere overhead, so running down the stairs or ducking would be unlikely to help me much. There's not a lot of cover on the Droid walkway (and I don't know how the Droids are programmed to deal with trespassing humans), so I think the hovcar park looks like the best place to take cover. Vaulting the wall, I see sunlight reflecting off the sniper's gun, way up on a nearby Communication Tower.

An explosion from the stairwell draws my attention to a second killer, heading up from a lower level. He hasn't yet spotted me, but the first one knows where I am. Time I was elsewhere. But I botch my Evasion Roll, and take a shot in the thigh as I leap behind a hovcar. Further shots from the Tower-based sniper fail to penetrate the hovcar, but they do get the attention of the other guy, whose weapon is powerful enough to blow the entire vehicle away. I try to incapacitate him with a psychic attack, but a second flubbed roll means that I don't succeed, and there's no time to pick up the dice a third time before he opens fire, blowing up the hovcar and incinerating me in the blast.

Oh well, at least the next time I attempt this book, I can gloss over the admin and get straight to the action.