Electron Dance

The Alien Cortex Must Die, 3

Trapped on remote planet Zaga-33 with a hostile alien population, there is only one way to escape.

The alien cortex must die.

(Please read the first chapter and second chapter of this dark pilgrimage if you have not already done so.)

Level 16

I remember little about life out there, beyond the caves of Zaga-33. Sometimes I wonder if there is anything else.

There are six of them. Six that want to fry me.

These cross-shaped abominations are the most feared creations of the alien cortex. According to the Zaga-33 Zoology Handbook, they are called "smatz" but I like to call them lasers. It's because they shoot lasers.

Lasers are deadly because they can burn you from the other side of a chamber. Boom. Approach with extreme caution. Even worse, they're not stapled to the floor like limpets, oh no no no. If a laser can't shoot you in the head, they'll up and move until they can. They also tend to nullify drones too, because drones will march straight into the open fiery gob of a laser without thinking and get vaporised before landing a single blow.

I know many others before me have fallen in these laser caves. Mawths chop you up; lasers turn you into roast dinner. Impassive and deadly, they do the job.

Take another look at this chamber, flaunting a sexy pair of artefacts. There is no way in Hell I am traipsing up there to grab those artefacts. Aside from that strategic decision, there's not much I can do here other than manage the damage. The lasers move and impede my progress; even the laser at the top slithers across and gets a shot in.

I reach the exit, a shadow of my former self with several dead lasers in my wake. I have just one point of health remaining.

Level 17

Invisible lines stretch out from each laser, creating infected zones that can burn. Little of this cave is safe to stand in. Space itself has become dangerous and panic sets in. I can handle this, I know I can.

There are a few too many moving parts on this one for my liking. There's no way I'm going to get through this without getting hurt so, before I start out, I heal myself and nuke the room to weaken every alien.

Things turn out better than I hoped. I swipe the drone artefact, get hurt just twice and kill almost everything in the room.

I'm not a killer. Right?

Level 18

Drones and heal artefacts? Is this all I'm going to find on Zaga-33 for the remainder of my journey?

Instead of taking on the two lasers with a bit of the old ultraviolent, I charge straight down and dive out of the way. Now as I've mentioned before, lasers have a nasty habit of moving. They don't actually move any slower or faster than any of the other alien denizens, but they seem to move with such dark purpose. Like a cannon sliding into position. Or some other phallic shape moving into an appropriate hole.

Too smart by half. As I move down into the tunnel, they don't follow. No - the pair of them start drifting right, waiting for my emergence from the passage below. God damn.

I don't remember much of what follows. Somehow I'm catapulted into a bloodbath. One moment, there were eight aliens in the chamber with me. The next, everything is dead. I have silenced these caves.

I had to heal and use a drone artefact to survive - but fortunately the chamber has compensated me for this expenditure. Time to go.

Level 19

It's about time I had another mass-killing device on the roster. I spy an Xbox, I want an Xbox.

I crawl northwards and only get wounded once on the way to the top of the chamber, but once I reach the bomb, things go bad. The snark and guard are not playing ball and I end up using my prize, this shiny new bomb, to avoid coming to harm.

And then on the way to the exit, I'm caught in the crossfire between two lasers which have crawled their way towards me.

After destroying them, I've lost half of my health. This room has been a net loss.

Level 20

What's Zaga-32? Why do these alien artefacts respond to me? Why can't I answer these questions? What am I missing?

If I had Zaga-33 nightmares, they would look something like this.

My worst enemies have teamed up to double-team me. Four mawths. Six lasers. A path that forces a confrontation with every alien. It's melted chocolate and tuna and dog shit in a sub and I have to eat it. I am out of ideas. Play this wrong and I won't see the next cave.

Trapped in a small room with two lasers, I release a drone and observe what happens. At the very least the drone will shield me from the oncoming fire.

The drone puts up a strong fight and, to my surprise, takes down three lasers before succumbing to the aliens. I now have to choose - deploy my remaining drone or take the bastards on myself? Is this going to be an Aliens-style last stand? Come on! Get some! Or is it going to be a Aliens-style Bill Paxton breakdown? Game over, man! Game over!

Let's motherfucking do this. I release the drone. I'm Butch Cassidy, she's the Sundance Robokid. Come on! Get some!

Together, we do some serious damage but eventually Sundance goes down. I want to hold her battered frame in my arms and sing to Sundance, but she was vaporised so probably better to just move on.

I make it out the other side of the chamber with two health, a new drone artefact and an enigmatic flower artefact... with a mawth hot on my tail.

Level 21

I have this horrible suspicion that the flower I plucked from the last chamber is a quake artefact and those are, well, rather cosmetic. They have a grand name and who wouldn't want to have something like that in their possession, eh? Be the cool one at parties, let slip in every conversation that you've got a quake artefact tucked into your shirt pocket. This is no ordinary flower, my dear. But in the morning you'll sober up and remember that the earth didn't move for you. That quake artefact? It usually transmogrifies a situation in which you say "oh dear I'm fucked" into one where you say "oh dear I'm fucked in an entirely new way".

Lest I be too negative, I should announce that the laser caves are behind me.

I don't know what to make of the latest alien evil, the vulfs. To me, they look like K-9 from Doctor Who. If K-9 was a cat. And green. And a little vicious. The faithful Zaga-33 Zoology Handbook merely ascribes them the attribute "loyal". Right. Does that mean they like to hang out with friends? They form packs? Do they have an online social network? Will they Like me? Look, as far as I'm concerned, they are another thing ripe for squishing.

Still, this does not look great. The caves are becoming busier, like I'm getting closer...

Here's the plan: grab the spiral nuke and activate the flower if I get into trouble. A cynic might say that's not much of a plan, because it only takes me two spaces forward, but the cynics are all dead. That's because they never demonstrated enough bold initiative.

Erm, so once I've got the nuke in my mitts, I'm surrounded by that squid and those two vulfs. I guess the vulfs really do like being in a gang? I take another step and end up in more trouble. It's time to try Plan B, spend my way out of the recession. Wait, no, I mean try flower power. I try flower power.


The flower... it's a freeze artefact! There hasn't been such joyous news since Mr. Bennet learnt that his daughter Elizabeth was to wed Mr. Darcy. Even though there is a special order to things here on Zaga-33, where nothing happens unless I move, I find myself dashing for the exit, trying to outrun the eventual thaw. But there are so many enemies frozen in place, like locked doors in front of the exit. I've got the key, it's called a knife. Slash, hack, slash, hack.

Just as I'm about to make it to the exit, the beasts thaw and I'm surrounded. After some more stabby action, I need to pop another heal before I leave.

I'm not a killer.

I'm not a killer.

I'm not--

Level 22

Twelve monsters.

I must be close. The alien cortex knows I am close. Escape cannot be far away now. But escape to where? Where am I escaping to? Why am I escaping again? Zaga-33 is all I know. The chambers. The artefacts. The killing. There's nothing else for me out there.

Right, this chamber. I'm thinking nuke. So that's what I do and then crush every alien that dares to challenge me. I am become death, destroyer of green alien worlds. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! I pick up the two artefacts - a heal and a drone. I'm feeling a little compassionate today and leave a vulf, a mawth and a squid behind.

They're all horribly maimed, of course.

Level 23

Stealth doesn't work any more. There is no evading the enemy. Our relationship has changed; they are Gandalf screaming "you shall not pass" and I am the Balrog, fearsome and powerful.

I drop a drone but the fights go wonky. I need to support the drone so as to multiply our efforts but the drone keeps blocking me. The fool keeps taking on two aliens at a time.

I break into the artefact store but when I retreat I notice a vulf and a snark stand between me and the exit. Thinking stealth impossible, hubris overcomes me and I rush into battle. I end up having to take apart the vulf and two snarks before I can get out.

I pop another heal but there are far too many scars on my body.

Level 24

I can smell the alien cortex. But, to paraphrase Nietzsche, if you can smell the cortex, the cortex can also smell unto you. So the cortex rams a bunch of lasers in my face again. I'm not having this; it may well be time I deployed a laser of my own.

Hiding behind the rock beside me would merely postpone the inevitable, so I take a fearless step to the right, directly into the path of the laser above. It fires. The laser to the right also slithers upward so it can look at me... and its hot maw begins to shine. So fuck you.


My laser tears them from the existence and also levels two shoggs. This is a disappointment; I was hoping I'd fry more of the bastards.

I release a drone and heal myself again before picking up a replacement drone artefact. I was hoping the drone would take the fight to the vulfs but it decides to take on the most non-threatening target, the laser stuck in a narrow corridor at the bottom of the screen. It charges down there looking rather determined but is sadly shot to bits by the laser before it even gets close. Shit. I have to do this myself.

After some more combat, I rip apart the laser near the exit with my bare hands. A snark and a vulf advance on me - but I am gone.

They are too late. We are all too late. There are always those things that don't seem to make sense until it's too late. When she's on the plane, flying away for good. When you cut the blue wire and hot metal perforates your body.

When the planet explodes.

Level 25

Hello, alien cortex.

Curious. It's right by the entrance and I don't even have to go anywhere. It has secured the chamber with thirteen protectors, all of which are on the other side of the cortex. The cortex is shielding me from harm.

I release my final drone to fight this final fight. It has the same idea as me; it takes on the cortex directly. The combined attacks from the laser, the shogg and the cortex quickly put it down, but gives me the space I need to fulfil my role as agent of death.

I like to pretend I am not a killer. I don't know why I have to destroy the cortex, but I do. It's genetic, an addiction, something in my veins. Impulsive. Compulsive. There is nothing else for me to do here but kill.

As I cram the last chunk of the alien cortex into my mouth, I have a strange thought, an epiphany: perhaps the cortex wanted this. I am in the Zaga-33 Zoology Handbook, labelled HEROIC and SADISTIC. I said the lasers were the most feared creation of the alien cortex. That is plainly not true. For I am euthanasia. For I am salvation. For I am suicide.

There was never anywhere to escape to because Zaga-33 was my home.

And as the cortex expires, its final order carried out with lethal precision, my home explodes.

Can you escape Zaga-33? Michael Brough's procedurally-generated Zaga-33 can be downloaded free for the PC or purchased for the iPhone and iPad.

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  1. So *that’s* what happened to the Dignitas space station.

  2. Notes: This game took place on 12 October 2012. It lasted approximately 90 minutes, although it would have been quicker had I not made screenshots and scribbles over the duration of the game. It was the second time I completed Zaga-33. It was not the intention to go the distance again – I was expecting to end this story with failure – but note-taking meant I thought very carefully about every move.

    @Shaun: No. The station is still out there. Somewhere.

    @Pippin: Thanks!

    @Michael: Thank you for your game. I had a lot of fun with it. I wasn’t originally intending to put a fictional slant on the series but it just sort of happened.

  3. “There hasn’t been such joyous news since Mr. Bingley learnt that his daughter Elizabeth was to wed Mr. Darcy.”



    I would be in more of a position to say something cutting here if I were absolutely positive that it were spelt with two Ts. (Yes, you have to spell it “spelt” in this context.)

    Also, awesome series.

  4. 1) That was one hell of a heck of a damn of an ending. Gosh darn!

    2) Clearly I remember jack from reading Pride & Prejudice. As expected, because I can’t take a book seriously when “silly” is apparently a hyper-offensive thing to call someone.

    3) Really though, I enjoyed the write-up and, also as expected, didn’t actually ever start Zaga-33 because I’m selectively lazy. But now I definitely 100% might possibly play it for sure, maybe,

  5. @Matt: What are you talking about. I never wrote that. You must have been seeing things. I absolutely did not change that when you weren’t looking.

    @BeamSplashX: I read P&P in school, required reading for my English Literature exam. Glad to read that the probability of you playing Zaga-33 has doubled.

  6. That was awesome. So… many… lines… to plagiarise! Starting with the melted chocolate tuna dogshit sub.

    I don’t know how you do it, Harbour Master, but you do it well.

  7. Thanks Steerpike. That sub is actually what I got fed when I visited Gregg in person back in April.

    On a more serious note, I’m feeling like too much of my writing has become to-the-point and less expressive since I feel under time pressure most of the time. Looking back to The Aspiration, my sentences seem to pop and fizz more than I think they do in more recent articles. Here’s to more pop and fizz in 2013.

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