Friday, 5 April 2013

Strange Cargo

The third Combat Command gamebook is set In the World of Keith Laumer's Star Colony. So that's a series about which I know nothing, by an author of whom I've never heard before. The Omega Rebellion by Troy Denning, has an introduction by Mr. Laumer, which spells out some of the specifics of the Star Colony universe (Earth a dystopia with overcrowding like Make Room, Make Room or Vonnegut's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, emigration to a colony world strictly limited in order to maintain the power base of Earth's ruling quadrumvirate, there are rebels) and goes on to describe much of what can happen in the gamebook. Doesn't exactly inspire me to get to know his works any better, but it does clarify the implications of the first decision, and suggests that this adventure has a number of viable plotlines, and decisions might affect more than just the probability of failure.

It's another third person narrative gamebook, and the protagonist is Gasper Newlin, one of the lucky people who actually have a job. Okay, he's only a junkloader, but that entitles him and his eleven-strong extended family to a flat with three rooms. And on the day on which the adventure starts, he's liable to be late for work, as he steps out of the lift to find that a dozen cops have set up an ambush for some wanted individual, and are blocking his commute.

He sees a woman with an eye patch approaching. The cops cannot be seen from her end of the corridor, so she may well be their target. Gasper must decide whether to warn her or mind his own business. Weighing up the situation, I note the following points:

  1. The status quo in this world is pretty horrible.
  2. "Cops sometimes detain even innocent citizens." (A direct quotation from the book).
  3. The woman waved and smiled, and actually behaved in a friendly manner.
  4. I find fiction's use of disability (specifically, the loss of an eye) to denote villainy objectionable. 
  5. Even if Gasper doesn't rock the boat here, horrible stuff is still liable to happen to him and/or his family (see points 1 and 2 and Keith Laumer's introduction).
Some of the cops notice Gasper, and indicate their desire for him to keep quiet by putting their gun barrels to their lips. The lift doors open again, and as Gasper steps inside, he shakes his head at the woman, who turns and runs. The cops divide into two groups, one pursuing the woman, the other heading for the lift, but the doors close before any harm can come to Gasper. Bet the trains run on time, too.

The lift takes Gasper up eleven floors, further increasing the risk of his being late for work, but the delay is the least of his worries, as a dozen armed men, most likely rebels, are heading towards the lift when the doors open again. They want to go to the floor from which he's just come. He could refuse to wait for them and go up another eleven floors (does the lift not do shorter distances?), but I think it's time he accepted that he's chosen a side, so he holds the lift for the rebels.

I was expecting that they'd force Gasper to take them down, but he chooses to stay in the lift - evidently Mr. Denning also thinks that by now our hero has committed himself to a cause. He warns the rebels of what's happening on the lower floor, and their leader hands him a spare pistol, urging him to try not to hit any of his new comrades. He also puts Gasper in charge of their tactics for the forthcoming fight, on the grounds that the junkloader knows the territory. Gasper protests that he's never been in a gunfight before, and the rebel replies that neither have they. I don't know if the setting provides any justification for the rebels' lack of experience, but at least in this set-up it makes a little sense for the character I control to be calling the shots. Besides, it's mildly amusing.

There's no reception committee waiting when the doors open, and the sound of gunfire indicates that the cops have the woman cornered. Gasper and the rebels head to where the fight is, and see the woman sheltering behind trash barrels and wielding a submachine gun. Time to try and make things a little less one-sided...

Somewhat implausibly, the cops turn out to be significantly worse fighters than the rebels. The dice appear to be on board with the 'inexperienced combatants' thing, as the minimum possible number of casualties is inflicted in several rounds. Still, eventually the last of the cops realises that he's just a day away from retirement, and only four rebels have perished in the exchange of fire.

Though no introductions have been made, the woman is now referred to as Tita. She flirts with Gasper a bit, and points out that he's definitely one of them now, as CSI:Hillgrove Production Complex will be able to identify every participant in the firefight. Gasper is formally welcomed into the rebel group, which goes by the catchy name of the Organization (wonder if the Piranha brothers were among its founder members), and gets appointed as Tita's bodyguard.

The group stows away on a cargo jet to Mojave Spaceport. Tita's mission is to stow away on the spaceship Saretta, which is due to be launched tomorrow. The airstrip is ten miles from the launch pad, so the rebels have a bit of a trek ahead of them. After a while they spot half a dozen of Banshire's marines (I'm guessing that Banshire is one of the dictators, but the book hasn't said a lot about him) and manage to sneak past.

The Saretta turns out to be a colonyship, and Tita decides to add Gasper to the group she's infiltrating into the human cargo. With the assistance of an undercover Organization member, they're added to the people in Coldsleep, but arrangements are made for them to wake up in transit. An injection sends Gasper into a rather bland dream sequence.

Just over three months later, the rebel infiltrators are awake. Now they have to take over the ship. Gasper asks if any of them know how to fly the thing, and gets told, "That's not the point." Probably another bit of dark humour relating to the ill-preparedness of the Organization, but in the light of something that happened 14 years after the book came out, it could be taken as something a good deal nastier. Still, the 'rebels without a clue' aspect is soon highlighted more clearly: none of the Organization actually know the way out of the cargo hold where they woke up. It's time to start looking for ventilation shafts!

Gasper finds a hatch in the floor. It only leads to another cargo hold, but this one contains weapons and field rations that are being smuggled on the ship. And then two of the crew open an access panel and start inspecting the deep-frozen colonists. This looks like a good opportunity to make a start on hijacking the ship. Yes, definitely the smart choice: the crewmen notice that some of the colonists aren't where they should be (that'd be Gasper, Tita and friends), and while their response is classic 'let someone else deal with it' material, it'd only take one not-so-indifferent co-worker of theirs to act on their report, and things could get a little unpleasant for the rebels. As it is, things get very unpleasant for the two crewmen, but it's all over quickly.

Kershaw, one of the other rebels, advises waiting for a team to be sent to find out why the hold inspectors are taking so long, and then ambushing them as well. Tita favours attacking the bridge before the crew can start to suspect that something's up. In view of how the two of them have been characterised, I'm having Gasper side with Kershaw. This bunch of rebels doesn't fight as well as the ones from earlier on, so it's probably better to tackle the enemy in smaller groups.

Someone in the crew must be paranoid. Instead of a couple more crewmen coming to see what those two slackers think they're up to, fourteen security guards raid the hold. Still, whether because of superior position, armaments or whatever, the rebels are the more effective fighters in this engagement. They're outnumbered, though, so this could go either way. Or not: four guards and two rebels fall in the first round, and over the course of the next three rounds the rebels pick off the remaining guards without taking any further casualties.

Now it's time to take the fight to the enemy. After a lengthy period of awkwardly wriggling through ducting, Gasper surprises a rather clueless crewman named Kirby, who leads the rebels to the bridge in return for not getting shot. One further rebel dies taking the bridge, but the officers are smart enough to surrender.

Tita subsequently explains the plot to Gasper. It turns out that Banshire was responsible for the weapon-smuggling, as he wanted to overthrow the leaders of the colony on planet Omega. He'd already managed to get a battalion of loyal men stationed there, and the contents of the secret second hold would have enabled them to conquer Omega for him. As it is, when the Saretta makes planetfall around five years later, the weapons are delivered to the colonists, enabling them to defend their autonomy, and the surviving rebels are welcomed into the community by a bunch of characters whose names would probably mean something to me if I'd read any of the Star Colony books.

I win. How about that? And it's a book that might be worth replaying anyway, just to see what plotlines would develop if different decisions are made at key points in the narrative. But even if I do, it won't be for a long while, as there are still a couple of hundred gamebooks awaiting their first playthrough on this blog.

1 comment:

  1. When I was a child, I only played the Fighting Fantasy books, plus a few novelty ones like Crystal Maze, Nightmare and Famous Five. When I started university, I bought a few old books from as many series as I could find, to see whether I liked them enough to collect the rest of the series.

    I'm very glad that this wasn't the Combat Command book I bought, because it sounds good enough that I would have gone on to collect the rest of the dross, instead of swiftly consigning Combat Command to the oblivion it deserves.

    I don't remember which book it was that I had; it was the only gamebook I ever bought that was so bad I didn't finish it, even by cheating. Your posts about the others in the series seem to confirm that I didn't miss much by ignoring them.