Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Get Your Motor Runnin'

The back cover of The Omega Zone, the third of Joe Dever's Freeway Warrior books, states that 'each exciting episode can be played individually'. When I attempted the second book in the series without first having successfully completed book 1, I failed almost immediately (though, as I got to make one decision before expiring, still not quite as rapidly as I did a couple of other gamebooks), so I'm not sure that that claim has any more veracity to it than the variations on 'any player, no matter how weak on initial dice rolls, should be able to get through fairly easily' in Fighting Fantasy books 5-11. Still, I'll give Zone a shot anyway, and see if I can at least survive beyond the first random number.

Had I not been wiped out so rapidly (or, indeed, at all), my character, Cal Phoenix, would have succeeded in rescuing Kate Norton from the bikers who abducted her, and rejoined the convoy from Dallas Colony One in time to accompany them into a fort in El Paso, which was being held by World Defence League troops. And then Mad Dog Michigan, the terrorist whose brother I killed in self-defence early in book 1, would have turned up outside, accompanied by over a thousand armed rabble, and declared his intent to kill me and my little dog too everyone else in Fort Bliss because he has absolutely no concept of proportionate response.

Two weeks have passed since then, and Mad Dog's mob has been making repeated assaults on El Paso, but not getting through its defences. So far, so goodish, but things are due to change. The bad guys' radio security is still rubbish, as a result of which we've learned that there's a convoy of trucks on the way here, carrying enough explosives to blow the fort off the map, out of the atlas, and quite possibly away from the whole geography section of the library. I'd say 'into history', but according to the Dewey Decimal System, that's right next door to geography, so while it doesn't have quite the same ring to it, I'd estimate that Michigan intends to blow us into numismatics and sigillography.

Of course, for this plan to succeed, the explosives need to get as far as El Paso. If a small team of volunteers were to try sneaking out, intercepting the convoy, and detonating the explosives before they get that far... Well, it's highly unlikely that they'd survive, but it would at least temporarily save the rest of the colonists. So a trio of WDL troops assembles for Operation Certain Death, and as the viewpoint character, I volunteer to join them so they'll have a fourth for bridge along the way, or something.

I should generate a character, regardless of how short-lived I expect him to be.
Close Combat Skill: 12
Endurance: 27
Driving: 4
Shooting: 4
Field craft: 3
Stealth: 4
Perception: 4
If I'd survived books 1 and 2, I'd have extra points in all but the first two of those stats. Given the nature of the mission on which I'm about to embark, I'd probably push Stealth and Perception up to 6, and everything else to 5.

As usual in a Joe Dever gamebook, I have to select equipment at the start. I automatically get a knife, backpack, water bottle and medical supplies, to which I add a rope, a meal, a CB radio and a high explosive grenade. For my firearm I choose a pistol.

The plan is for us to sneak out at midnight, attempt to get through the enemy cordon undetected, cross the Rio Grande on the one remaining bridge across it, infiltrate Mad Dog's temporary base of operations in Ciudad Juarez, and use mines on the convoy as soon as it turns up. The explosion should cause sufficient consternation and brouhaha among the men besieging the fort that the colonists can break through them and resume their travels to the relatively undevastated haven that is Southern California. Any of the volunteer squad that don't get killed in the explosion or related reprisals will have until midday to get to the town of Deming to rendezvous with the colonists' convoy.

Kate will be driving my car in the convoy, so in the last few hours before I have to set off on my mission, I very thoroughly brief her on the roadster's quirks and idiosyncrasies. I'm pretty sure that that's the traditional thing for a teenage boy to do with a teenage girl when they both like each other a lot and may not ever see each other again, but then, I did spend most of my adolescence in a mine-turned-fallout shelter, being homeschooled by my aunt, so there may be the odd gap in my education.

The three WDL men and I then put on camouflage gear and do our best to soundproof our equipment. We'll be splitting into two pairs to reduce our noticeability, and have a choice of routes to the river. The more direct, and thus faster one, passes through more heavily occupied territory, and is thus liable to be more dangerous. The more roundabout route should be less risky, but will obviously take longer. I'm getting a slight sense of déjà vu here. Still, the likelihood of my being killed by a skier is pretty low this time round.

I opt for the slower, theoretically safer detour around the city. Marine Knott, my partner for this stage of the mission, accompanies me across the ramparts, and we start crawling towards what remains of Freeway 54. There's an elevated section still standing, known to be occupied by enemy snipers, so we need to get under that in order to be safe from their guns (and this is the less hazardous route?).

We make it to a ditch undetected, and Knott points out a trio of gunmen behind a nearby mound of rubble. In spite of the fact that visibility is poor enough for us not to have been noticed, I am somehow able to see that they're Detroit Lions, members of Mad Dog's original biker gang. Trying to cause a distraction risks alerting them to the fact that there's someone sneaking around here, so I'll take a detour from the initial detour instead.

Crawling along the ditch, we soon reach a collapsed drainage tunnel. No more cover to be had there, then. I climb out and make a dash for the freeway section. One of the men on it chooses this moment to sweep the ground with his torch, but my Stealth score is just high enough that I succeed at the roll to avoid getting noticed. I sustain minor damage in the process, but at least I don't get shot. Is my companion in any trouble? He is Knott. Come on, the pun was inevitable.

Ruined industrial buildings provide enough cover for us to continue to evade detection as we move further away, but then we reach an area where the biker clans have a command station, and need to make yet another detour. We end up cutting through the municipal park, and get caught in a truck's headlights. The driver doesn't seem to spot that we're not on his side, and just parks, then heads for a nearby building. Dare I risk snooping in the truck, or should we just keep moving? Death by inventory failure is less common in Joe Dever gamebooks than the likes of Fighting Fantasy, so I'll pass up the opportunity to pilfer anything of value that might be in the vehicle, and keep focused on the mission.

We head through what must once have been a prosperous part of town. It's all been looted by now. Up ahead, we see flickering lights, and hear drunken cheers and laughter. If we take enough diversions, we may end up heading in the right direction again. Indeed, that is precisely what happens. By the time we get to the Stanton Street Toll Bridge, Captain Frankland and Sergeant Haskell have already arrived and scouted out the bridge. It has four guards on it, but none on the service walkway beneath. I hope none of us suffer from vertigo.

We get most of the way across without incident, but then the captain spots a couple of sentries at the end of the walkway. They're facing away from us, but we need to deal with them quietly before they become aware of our presence. The random number selection that determines what happens next is unmodified by any of my Survival Skills, and weighted in favour of one outcome, so the fact that I get the less likely one strikes me as ominous. No cause for concern, though, as Frankland and Haskell creep up on the sentries, knife them and dispose of the bodies without any trouble. Makes me wonder what the alternative could have been. Possibly a chance for me to get my hands bloody - no doubt with another random number selection to see whether or not I could avoid attracting attention.

Nobody notices us as we infiltrate Ciudad Juarez, and we shelter in a burnt-out cafe near the dog racing track that Michigan and Mexican gang leader Santiago have chosen as their headquarters. While we wait, I have to eat, so I'm glad I brought that meal. And, while my backpack was nowhere near capacity anyway, eating does free up space for the contact mine that the captain gives me for the next phase of our mission.

It is unlikely that we'll be able to do anything to the convoy while it's on the move, so we're going to have to get into the race track and plant the mines on the trucks once they're in there. This does significantly decrease the likelihood of any of us getting out alive, but on the plus side, it'll eliminate the local enemy HQ, and while I'm sure Mad Dog has plot armour right up to the end fight of book 4, we may at least get Santiago and an assortment of anonymous thugs in the blast.

The captain points out that we should try and spot a suitable getaway vehicle before planting the mines, as the 5-minute timers won't leave us much opportunity for searching once they've been set. He then leads us through a warren of alleys to an unguarded entrance at the rear of the track We move closer to where the action is, and catch sight of Mad Dog. He is not a happy chappie, and a quick look at a timepiece indicates the reason for the yelling: the explosives are late.

Knott spots a truck that we could use to escape, and the captain tells him to discreetly get it ready for a quick departure. The marine hands over his mine to Haskell and sneaks over to the truck. Just after he slips aboard, a siren goes off, and there's a section transition to heighten the tension (incidentally, since the random number on the bridge, the text has passed through five sections without any decisions or randomised forks in the narrative).

In a not entirely unpredictable twist, the siren turns out not to be an alarm alerting the assembled gang members to the presence of an intruder in the truck, but a signal that the convoy of explosives has finally arrived. We watch as the explosive-laden trucks pull in and Michigan reprimands the drivers for their tardiness. He and his cronies eventually move away, possibly to revise the schedule for plan Blow Up Fort Bliss With Loads of Explosives to take into account the delay, and the sergeant hurries over to the rearmost two explosives trucks to plant the two mines he carries. That leaves the two frontmost explosives trucks for the captain and me, and I get to pick which one I attach my mine to. Well, I suppose a completely blind choice is still more interactive than no choice at all.

I go for the lead truck because I suspect authorial sneakiness will make the less prominent truck the more hazardous target. The area isn't completely deserted, so I have to wait for an opportunity to get to the trucks without being noticed, and when I finally manage to dash across the space separating me from the trucks, an oblivious Mexican blunders into my way mere feet from my goal. A combination of randomness, Stealth and Perception determines the outcome of our inevitable collision, and I avoid the worst option but fall short of the best one. We both fall to the ground, but I manage to get up first, and attack him with my knife. The fight is quite nasty, but at the end of it, I'm the one still standing.

After shoving the body under the truck, I plant the mine and, on the captain's signal, arm it. We then make a dash for the truck Knott has commandeered, and he starts the engine. Some of the clansmen in the area spot us running, and start yelling, distracting me from the tool locker on the ground just ahead of me. The roll to see what happens next is influenced by Stealth rather than Perception, which seems odd, but it makes no real difference, as leaving the mine on the truck has eliminated the encumbrance penalty to Stealth, so both scores are the same. And even if they were the higher scores that the hypothetical veteran of books 1-2 would have, the random number is too low to attain the desired target.

I am pleasantly surprised to find that the consequent stumble is not adventure-ending. I lose a little more Endurance, and my CB, half a dozen rounds of ammunition, and some medical supplies fall out of my backpack (good thing I had the pistol: if I'd gone for a rifle or shotgun, I'd now have a negative number of rounds), but the sergeant drags me to my feet and rushes me the rest of the way to the truck, where he and the captain manhandle me aboard. Knott aims the truck at the closest gate, and we are on our way. Woo!

The siren blares again, and this time it is an alarm. Shots are fired, so those of us not driving hit the deck. The gate is flimsy, and the truck easily smashes through it. I carry out a little first aid on myself, and then a few bikers give chase, so I draw my pistol. I'm not convinced that Joe Dever fully thought things through with regard to players who started with this book - but for a last-minute decision to go for a more stealthy weapon, I would now be aiming an empty shotgun at our pursuers.

Before I can open fire (or shout 'Bang!'), the mines go off. The shockwave from the explosion almost knocks the truck off the road, so I imagine those bikers aren't going to be bothering us any more. We hear shots from the far side of the river, and conclude that the colonists have commenced their bid for freedom.

We speed along the bumpy road. Something inside the truck has the captain and sergeant's attention, so I'm the only person to notice when five bikers appear on the road behind us. A different lot from our initial pursuers, or did being closer to the blast and on less robust vehicles prove less of an inconvenience than expected? The lead biker's pillion rider shoots at me, and I return fire. A quick peek reveals that there's no ammunition check for shotgun users, so if I'd chosen that weapon, I would now be firing imaginary ammo, and possibly blowing two men off the road with it.

Given the conditions, the difficulty of making the shot is not unduly harsh. I narrowly fail, and the return fire non-lethally injures me. My cry of pain alerts my fellow passengers to the situation, and while Frankland attends to my wound (do I get to apply the Endurance restoration provided by a Medi-kit when using the thing is compulsory?), Haskell fires my last bullet (or another nonexistent shotgun shell) at the lead biker, hitting him in the hand and causing him to swerve off the road and perish in an explosion. The other bikers continue to give chase, but don't get too close because they don't know that I'm out of ammo.

Knott draws our attention to the fact that we're approaching a town. Our initial wariness diminishes as it becomes clear that the place is long-abandoned, and the captain decides that this would be a good place to set an ambush for the other bikers. We cross a bridge before stopping, and Frankland orders us to spread out and take cover. Apparently all his military experience has done nothing to help him recognise when a gun is empty, as he doesn't provide me with any spare ammunition.

There's nothing that promising close by, cover-wise. I could hide behind a gas pump, or inside an industrial trash can. While I would hope that the pump is empty, if it's not, being close to it when it gets shot at will be very bad for the health, while getting into the can would severely limit my mobility. I'll risk the pump.

As the bikers cross the bridge, the captain gives the order to open fire. The other soldiers do, hitting the lead two bikers and sending the third one's bike out of control. The last one is unscathed, though, and drives straight at the pump behind which I'm hiding. At last the text acknowledges the possibility of my being out of bullets, and between my lack of ammo and my not having boosted my Perception to the levels I would have if I were carrying over a character from the start of the series, there's only one option open to me: to jump out of the way.

Stealth and randomness determine my fate, and this time I get a good number, diving to safety as the bike clips the edge of the pump and somersaults into the gas station wall. My useless pistol drawn, I approach the biker to see if he survived the crash, and find that he couldn't have, as he was already dead. It turns out that a ricochet killed him from behind, but the way his body slumped in death kept the bike upright and, coincidentally, pointed at me. I wonder if it would have equally coincidentally ended up aimed at me if I'd been in the trash can.

Annoyingly, I don't get to check any of the dead for bullets before we drive off again. The Captain joins Knott in the front of the truck, and Haskell settles down to rest as best he can. I follow his example, and end up wishing I'd brought a second meal rather than that grenade. Medi-kits cannot heal Endurance lost through lack of food, but I can at least use one to patch up as much injury-related damage as I sustain from the hunger penalty, leaving myself no closer to death than I already was.

After about an hour's sleep, I am woken by the truck's coming to a halt. Up ahead is a town in a narrow mountain pass, and Frankland anticipates trouble. Not having brought binoculars with me, I can't see much to clarify the situation, but an explanation is soon forthcoming. The town shows signs of being occupied by a biker clan, and a roadblock has been constructed across the entrance. If we want to make it to the rendezvous in Deming, we'll have to smash through the roadblock. The alternative is yet another detour, followed by trying to catch up with the colonists somewhere else along the way.

Frankland and Knott opt for the detour, while Haskell prefers to try and break through. While I could tie the vote if I wanted, the fact that the man who knows our vehicle best doesn't want to risk it against the roadblock suggests that doing so would be unwise. Besides, at least one (and arguably both) of my previous Freeway Warrior characters on this blog got killed in circumstances similar to what Haskell recommends, and I'd rather not risk having this Cal Phoenix go the same way.

Knott points out a cloud of dust which indicates that more of Michigan's goons are on our trail, so we get back into the truck and set off again. Our alternate route passes an adobe shack that turns out to have a few Mexican clansmen in it. They come out into the middle of the road and signal us to stop. Knott floors the accelerator, forcing them to dive out of the way, and they turn and open fire as we speed away. The random factor determines that I sustain minor damage banging my head as I duck.

Peering out again, I see the leader of the group behind us reaching for a walkie-talkie that he dropped while evading the truck. Having no ammunition, I can do nothing to prevent him from radioing ahead or calling for reinforcements or whatever it is he means to do.

Once we're out of rifle range, Knott stops the truck to let the captain check that Haskell and I are unharmed. Then we set off again. After a while we pass through another abandoned town. It starts to get hot. As we draw near to a third abandoned town, Knott notices that the fuel gauge is lower than it should be, and we stop at a derelict gas station. A quick inspection reveals bullet holes in the gas tank, and while Knott and Frankland go off in search of an unlooted fuel supply, Haskell tries to patch the holes. I stay to help him, because leaving him on his own is unlikely to be good for his life expectancy. Sure, I won't be able to shoot at any hostiles who come our way, but I can at least warn him or call for help or throw stones or something.

We plug the holes, and the other two find a couple of gallons of fuel in the station's storage tanks. It's not much, but might just be enough to get us to Lordsburg, where we could rejoin the colony. Somehow I doubt that doing so will be as easy as dealing with the consequences of the punctured fuel tank turned out to be.

I was right. We're driving through a canyon at around midday when the engine develops a fault, bringing us to a halt. The problem turns out to be a damaged electronic ignition unit, and Knott remembers having seen an identical component in the gas station where we dealt with the fuel problem. He didn't think to bring it, though (he'll never make a gamebook hero with that attitude), so it's going to take a trek under the noonday sun to fetch it and get the truck working again. Knott asks for someone to accompany him, and as it's just possible that if I'd helped with the search for fuel, we'd have that spare part with us, I think I'm going to have to be the one who goes with him.

During the walk, I need to use some of my water. Frankly, I'd have made a snarky comment if that hadn't been the case. Back at the town, we spot a couple of clan bikers studying our tyre tracks, and Knott says we have to keep them from reporting back to their fellows. Shooting would attract attention, so we need to use my knives, so I can actually do something useful. I choose to attack the one who's in the process of getting up: between my low Combat Skill and my depleted Endurance, the slight advantage liable to be provided by his being a little off-balance could well mean the difference between survival and a tragic end (seriously, it seems like every single death section I've inadvertently glimpsed while going through the book has a final paragraph that starts with 'Tragically').

I don't get the bonus I was hoping for. And he's a better fighter than the one who sliced away around half my Endurance back by the explosives truck. I'm not going to survive this fight unless I get very lucky. And luck is not with me. The biker's in pretty bad shape by the time he strikes the killing blow, so maybe Knott will survive the encounter and get back to the truck with the vital component. But for me, it's game over. Tragically.

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