Far out on the rim of Australia, where towns were widely scattered and the sunlight nearly absolute, the GM’s house stood at the end of a nondescript street. Looking like a perfectly ordinary suburban house, it gave no external sign that every week on Friday nights, it housed worlds that had existed only a long time ago in a galaxy far away, not to mention vampires, fire mages, airline pilots, and superheroes. Whatever story was currently unfolding in it, what was certain was that it contained five gamers so different that they might as well have been (and sometimes were) five different species, with five very different approaches to role-playing.
Except that, at present, there were only four.
Jim warily pressed the doorbell, wondering how to make his apology. Saying to Annie, ‘I’ve come to promise I won’t mention that thing you said you didn’t want to talk about ever again,’ in front of Ben, Pete, and the GM (not to mention Ben’s little sister, Sally) would only make them curious, which could annoy her even more. On the other hand, since that day at the art gallery, Annie had been refusing to answer his phone calls or texts, so his only alternatives for re-establishing contact were to go to her house and try to talk to her while her mother hung around, out of sight but just within earshot, or to turn up at a gaming session and speak to her there. On balance, the gaming session seemed the less awkward option.
Jim wondered what the current campaign was about. He had missed a few sessions since the Art Gallery Incident, but Ben had told him that they were playing another science fiction campaign, in which Ben was playing a doctor. Jim wasn’t sure why anyone who was working as hard as Ben at medical training in real life would insist on bringing it into his fantasy life as well. Then again, Jim’s own knowledge of geology, as well as Annie’s acting skills and the devious way of thinking that Pete’s job had taught him had all come into play in the past.
His thoughts were interrupted by the GM opening the door, with a planet map in his hand.
‘Etla?’ Jim read out. ‘Isn’t that a type of cheese?’
‘Sssh, we haven’t been there yet. I’m planning to introduce it this session.’
‘So – Ben’s a doctor in this game?’ Jim asked, as they walked into the living room.
‘I’m a human surgeon working in a multi-species hospital in a huge space station,’ Ben explained, indicated a cylindrical cardboard model that occupied most of the table. Surrounding it were Sally’s drawings of assorted aliens, ranging from dinosaurs and teddy-bear-like creatures to bizarre tentacled monstrosities. ‘I have flashes of inspiration, but my flaw is that I’m no good at explaining to my colleagues what I’m doing or why,’ Ben continued.
‘I’m a human nurse training to become a pathologist, and I have to deal with stupid male chauvinist rules about what female life-forms are allowed to do,’ said Annie.
‘I’m an alien surgeon who looks like a giant insect and can read emotional radiation, so I can sense when Ben has a good reason for what he’s doing,’ added Sally.
‘I’m…’ began Pete, but the GM stopped him.
‘Instead of explaining all this, it’s probably best if Jim takes a character, so that he can see how this works,’ he said. ‘I’ll draw up a character sheet for you. There’s no hurry – help yourself to a drink.’
‘I might make myself a cup of tea,’ said Annie. ‘Does anyone else want anything, while we’re in there?’
‘I can help,’ offered Sally. ‘I’ve just learned how to do coffee with the cream floating on top…’
The GM scribbled a note, and passed it across to her. Sally read it with interest. ‘Oooh!’ she exclaimed. ‘My empathic faculty indicates that friend Jim and friend Annie want to be left alone. Their emotional radiation suggests confusion and anxiety, along with emotions linked to the instinct to reproduce…’
‘That WASN’T on the paper!’ put in the GM sharply.
The wall between the kitchen and the living-room was thick enough to make a fairly private discussion possible, especially with a kettle boiling. Nevertheless, by the time Jim and Annie had established that they did not harbour aggressive instincts towards each other, and did feel emotions linked to the reproductive instinct, even if actual reproduction could be delayed for the time being, Jim could hear traces of the argument in the next room.
‘But how do we know pathogens from one planet can’t attack life forms from another?’ protested Ben. ‘Sally’s playing an alien who eats Earth pasta, so why can’t there be alien bacteria who prey on us?’
‘You’ve never found one in all the time Sector General has been operating,’ replied the GM noncommittally.
‘My virus isn’t from my home planet,’ retorted Pete. ‘It’s a foreigner I met in my travels.’
‘Maybe it’s a shape-shifter virus!’ suggested Sally.
So, Pete had taken ‘Terminally Ill’ as his flaw, had he? That was unusual – mostly he bitterly resented being mortal, and played well-nigh indestructible robot characters where possible. Still, he might well have decided to take illness in exchange for awesome powers, knowing that the medics would probably be able to cure the illness and leave him with the powers. At any rate, he was carrying a highly transmissible, world-hopping disease.
When Jim returned to the living-room with drinks and snacks for everyone, the GM handed him a character sheet, and notes about his background. He was a native of the plague-ridden planet of Etla the Sick, a member world of the Etlan Empire, which had only recently encountered the Galactic Federation to which Earth and many other inhabited worlds belonged. Up till then, his planet’s only contact with the rest of the universe was when an aid ship from the Empire came every ten years bringing medicines. However, the Empire did maintain a military presence, in order to protect the planet against invaders.
‘Can you describe what you look like?’ asked the GM.
Jim considered. ‘I’m about six foot two, with olive skin, black hair and brown eyes, ruggedly handsome despite the livid welts covering my kilted body…’
‘No, your world isn’t anything to do with Earth,’ said the GM. ‘From an Earth-human’s point of view, you’re an alien, like Pete and Sally. And from your point of view, Earth-humans are aliens, too.’
‘Okay, I’m an alien who looks exactly like a human,’ retorted Jim.
‘Oh, come on, what are the odds of an independently evolved species just happening to look identical to us?’ demanded Ben.
‘Less likely than my pre-rolled dice rolling a 1 again,’ said Pete.
‘Which actually happens about one time in twenty,’ Ben pointed out. He considered for a minute. ‘Hold on – this is convergent evolution, isn’t it? It’s like the way that you’ve got the same body shape in unrelated species like fish and whales…’
‘And ichthyosaurs!’ added Sally.
‘Exactly. We already know that there are at least three humanoid species in the Federation: Earth-humans, Orligians, and Nidians. Clearly, having two arms and two legs is a very useful shape. And given that we all have the same four-letter physiology code, it implies that we don’t just look superficially similar, but have evolved a similar metabolism in response to similar environments. And that map of Etla looked very Earth-like indeed, therefore the inhabitants would look more like Earth-humans than the Orligians or Nidians do.’
‘Hmmm…’ the GM scribbled a note on his pad, out of Jim’s line of sight. ‘Fair enough.’
‘Bingo!’ called Pete, taking a slurp of beer. ‘We’d got humanoid aliens, little-green-man-in-a-can aliens, insectoid aliens, starfish aliens, octopoid aliens, and plant aliens – human aliens complete the set.’
‘Anyway, Jim, you’re hobbling towards the town to collect your pitifully small Disability Living Allowance, when you see a huge, pear-shaped creature crawling towards you on the heavy apron of muscle around its base. It weighs about a thousand pounds, and, uh…’ the GM looked to Sally, who took over.
‘He’s got five tentacles all round his head, and he’s got an eye on one of them like a snail’s, and a big bony club that could swipe off your other leg on the next one, and hands on the other three. And he’s got a mouth under each tentacle, with six rows of razor-sharp teeth.’
‘I fire my machine-blaster at the sucker until it’s dead!’ yelled Jim.
‘You don’t have a weapon. The creature opens one of its mouths and speaks...’
‘Greetings, small native,’ said Pete. ‘I am Lonvellin, member of a super-intelligent and immortal race acknowledged as gods by intelligent life-forms across this and other galaxies. I won’t bother saying, “Take me to your leader,” as they’re clearly incompetent, but if you take me to the nearest medical facility…’
‘I run off,’ Jim began, and, as the GM coughed pointedly, he corrected himself to, ‘I hobble briskly to the army base to look for weapons.’
‘As you drag your wasted limbs towards the base, you overhear a conversation between two guards,’ said the GM, adopting a thin, reedy voice for the first guard and a gruff bass for the second:
‘Have you seen the reports in the medical journals on that last aid ship? Did you know our ancestors used to believe you should isolate people who had infectious diseases? But now the Imperial scientists have proved beyond doubt that people with different diseases get well sooner if they bathe together and share drinking vessels, because different kinds of germs will fight each other to the death. Interesting, isn’t it?
‘Huh! If the Empire care so much about the Plague Planet, how come they’re only sending one aid ship every ten years? Look at all the donations the Plague Appeal’s collecting on all the other planets – what are they spending the money on? More begging letters and classier-looking charity shops?
‘It’s mostly going on research, and you can’t say that’s not effective.
‘Yeah? With half the kids here crippled, and the rest covered in sores? There are way more of them than there were twenty years ago.
‘But that’s because there are more children! The new vaccines have knocked infant mortality to virtually zero. And they’ve proved that the only new diseases here are the ones spread by alien invaders.’
‘There’s one here now!’ gasped Jim. ‘It’s called Langoustine, it’s infected with a deadly virus and it’s trying to get into the hospital! We need to nuke it!’
‘Nuke it?’ repeated Ben. ‘You’re trying to reduce the level of sickness round here?’
‘Well, plasma arcs, whatever they use, come on!’
The GM nodded. ‘The guards follow you to where Lonvellin is. They draw their plasma rifles and…’
‘Will you puny two-legs at least listen before you try to blast me? Which is futile anyway, but if you annoy me, it might put me off wanting to help you afterwards,’ said Pete.
‘Don’t worry, plague-bearer, your suffering will soon be over!’ growled Jim. ‘No offence, Pete.’
‘The guards open fire on Lonvellin,’ said the GM. He rolled. ‘Pete, you take a hundred hit points. That puts you at…?’
‘Minus nine hit points,’ said Pete. ‘I fall unconscious. My self-repair virus remains conscious, and begins working to repair my damaged tissues.’ He took a piece of tissue paper out of his shirt pocket, and carefully unwrapped it to reveal a die. ‘Now, Lucky,’ he whispered to it, ‘I know you’ve only got a one-in-a-hundred-and-sixty-thousand chance of getting this wrong, but I just thought you’d like to know. If you save my life, I’ll repaint your numbers in gold paint. But let me die, and you’re a firelighter. Okay?’
The die rolled across the table, and came to rest on a drawing of a centaur-like alien, hidden from Jim’s sight by the cardboard model. ‘What did you get?’ he asked.
Pete glared at him. ‘I’m dead, Jim.’
It occurred to Jim that everyone else was glaring at him, too. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
‘Pete was the hero!’ snapped Sally.
‘But he’s admitted that he’s a virus-carrier,’ pointed out Jim.
‘Carrying an intelligent, beneficent virus that’s been keeping me alive for the past hundred thousand years, in which time I’ve been a roving trouble-shooter solving the problems of inferior planetary civilisations like yours – until you persuaded those goons to shoot me!’ Pete looked hopefully at the GM. ‘Wait – even if Lonvellin dies, does the virus survive?’
‘Sustained plasma arc fire in which its host was incinerated?’ The GM frowned.
‘As the virus, I search for a surviving life-form in the vicinity,’ said Pete.
The GM rolled a die, keeping the result invisible to the players. He scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded it, and handed it to Pete, who scowled at it. ‘Okay, forget it!’ He stood up, and began clearing his belongings into his backpack.
‘Wait, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean this to happen,’ protested Jim. ‘But come on – I die all the time, and I don’t flounce off about it! Anyway, those guards were talking about plagues brought by aliens.’
‘Didn’t you listen to what else they said?’ demanded Ben. ‘How reliable do you think these Imperial scientists are? Hadn’t you worked out what their real agenda is?’
Annie gave something between a growl and a groan. ‘Jim, I love you, but…’
‘But you’re a complete dorkhead!’ Sally completed.
Jim held out his hands in surrender. ‘I know.’