Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Cybernarc #6: End Game

Cybernarc #6: End Game, by Robert Cain
April, 1993  Harper Books

The Cybernarc series wraps up with a sixth installment that was clearly written as the series finale; William “Robert Cain” Keith doesn’t leave readers hanging with an unresolved cliffhanger, the title being a firm indication that we are truly reading the “end” of the series. And I’m happy to report that the bantering, action movie-esque spirit of the earliest volumes has sort of returned – if greatly minimized from, say, the first volume – though still we have to endure a lot of military acronyms and coke-industry info-dumping. 

Indeed, I get the suspicion Keith was pretty worn out at this point. End Game runs to an unwieldy 230 pages of small, dense print, and I suspect our author was struggling to fill the pages. Thus we get a lot of arbitrary detail on one-off cocaine industry characters, stuff on how cocaine is manufactured, all sorts of otherwise-mundane stuff that is greatly expanded upon for no other seeming reason than to hit the word count. The writing’s as good as ever, but you can’t help but feel that the novel would be greatly improved if it was a little leaner. Another change this time is that the plot is slightly more developed; the previous couple volumes have just been protracted action scenes, some of them taking up a full third of the narrative or more. This template is shaken up a little this time, but unfortunately the potential of the new direction isn’t fully exploited. 

I’m not sure how long it is after the previous volume; seems to be a few months. But we know at least that it’s been a little over one year since the first installment. Now Rod, the titular Cybernarc (apparently a name only used by his druglord enemies – and they all say “cybernarco” because they speak Spanish), has gone full HAL 2000 and has gained what appears to be a fully formed consciousness, with emotions and whatnot. What most troubles his government creators is his new tendency to ignore orders and make on-the-spot decisions based off his own conclusions. We see this in effect straight away, as End Game opens with Rod solo in a Peruvian jungle, tracking some drug-dealing forces. This is his first time out without his human counterpart, Chris Drake, and his mission is solely reconaissance. But Rod figures that he would do more good by destroying this pipeline, and thus goes into action, blowing stuff apart and running amok in the jungle in his Combat Mod body. 

An interesting thing about this series is that Keith writes so much of it from Rod’s point of view that you can’t help but think of him as human. But Keith’s strength is that he’ll have Rod do crazy, inhuman things, like operating on himself when he’s damaged, or accessing internal data banks. Even here though Keith relays it all in humanistic perspectives. In fact, Rod is really the main star of the book, with Drake relegated to mostly supporting status; I still like the publisher’s original request for the series, of a “crazy ‘Nam vet” building a robot to take on the drug barons, but I have to say Keith did a great job of taking the series in a more mature direction. I mean honestly that’s still the gist of the series – it’s about a friggin’ android that has been created by the US government, at the cost of millions of dollars, to combat the drug menance – yet Keith somehow has elevated it above its pulpy and goofy premise to something almost believable. 

Anyway, Rod dwells on his motive in life – to kill drug barons – and concludes, “I am Death.” Back on the mobile HQ, project boss Weston gives Rod the go-ahead for this Peruvian attack, but really it’s just so the robot won’t go nuts. Per resident hotstuff scientist babe Heather McDaniels, Rod could have some sort of mental breakdown, thus he must be treated a little delicately. Oh and meanwhile Drake and Heather are now fully an item, and indeed Drake drops the tidbit late in the novel that he intends to marry Heather and retire from the drugfighting game; yet more proof that this one was written as the series finale. As for the Drake-Heather relationship, it’s pretty much entirely happened off-page. Curious too that, while Drake himself has moved on from the murder of his wife and daughter, which happened in the first volume, Rod himself hasn’t; due to the PARET mind-symbiosis deal the two shared in that first book, shortly after Drake’s family was killed, Rod was imbued with Drake’s anger and desire for revenge. And it has now become a self-fulfilling thing, as Rod realizes that he not only was programmed to kill drugger scum, but that he now basically “lives” for it. 

Keith also resolves a longstanding series subplot with the apperance of Roberto Sandoval, drugger baron who appeared in the first book and who is one of the few survivors to have seen Cybernarc. Sandoval is about to meet with all the other major coke dealers of South America; he’s aware, due to his inside contacts, of Operation Takedown, a last-ditch CIA plan to wipe out the druggers at this meeting. Rod and Drake find this out when the two go to Bogota to round up a minor drug-world figure named Cardona. But as ever Rod shows independent thinking, and ends up blowing Cardona’s face off. This leads to an unexpected plot development: having learned of the big drug meeting, Rod and Drake will crash it…only Rod’s face will be changed to that of Cardona’s, and he will impersonate the man, with Drake acting as his American bodyguard. A further unexpected development ensues as the two arrive in the desolate Colombian jungle location of the meet – and Rod as Cardona runs into Maria, sexy fiance of Cardona. 

Neither of them were even aware of Maria, thus Rod must again fumble through the interraction. We learn here that Rod, in his Civilian Mod form, has the exact body of a human male, but the naughty parts aren’t, uh, operable, thus when Maria starts squeezing on his junk she doesn’t get the reaction she expects. Luckily a fully-clothed Rod is able to explain it away as being keyed up about the meeting – but this is that missed opportunity stuff I mentioned earlier. There was a lot of room here for some fun, with Maria trying to figure out what’s happened to her Latin lover, but she disappears for the majority of the narrative, and instead we have an overlong sequence where Rod sits in with the meeting of drug lords and they talk and talk. And we get inordinate backgrounds on many of them, and how their businesses run. Again, stuff that’s clearly there so as to fill pages. 

A quickly dashed-off subplot has it that Maria was secretly planning with Cardona to kill her own father, another drug baron who happens to be at this meeting. Rod, once he’s deduced the girl’s plot, goes about it in an odd way – he approaches Maria’s dad and tells him that his daughter plans to kill her! Something the kingpin already knows, and now he realizes that “Cardona” is someone he can trust. Again, not that anything comes out of this subplot: instead, we get into an extended action scene, as Rod, indulging in the “aggressively macho” temper of your average Latin drug lord, starts up a fight at the big meeting that culminates in a massive shootout. Here characters who were just introduced – at much page count – are casually blown away. And also Rod’s robot nature is revealed, as he takes several bullets despite his inhuman jumping around and accurate shooting; one of the shots shears off the skin of his face, so that the black metal beneath can be seen. But the robot’s CPU is knocked offline so that he appears “dead,” and Sandoval – who already suspected “Cardona” of being an imposter – assumes that it was really just a man after all, and not the cybernarc. 

Drake meanwhile is cut off from Rod and must figure out what to do. An interesting thing about Cybernarc is that Drake, who as a badass SEAL with a score to settle with the drugger scum, would be the main protagonist of any other men’s adventure series, but here he’s so out of Rod’s league that he comes off as a hapless sidekick at times. Eventually the two meet up, where Drake has to do high-tech surgery on Rod; more superb writing from Keith, as he again reminds us that Rod is not human, despite looking, acting, and thinking like one – he directs Drake on the surgery while it’s happening, even when Rod’s head is excised from his Civilian Mod body to be grafted onto his Combat Mod one. This leads us to the finale, capably depicted on the cover, with the two again bucking orders and taking the fight directly to the druggers. As Rod argues, there’s no better time than now to wipe them all out, given that they’ve so conveniently gathered here. 

Keith also excels at action scenes, but at times they tend to go on a bit. A neat quirk this time is that Rod wields an XM-214, a minigun which he uses to blast countless drug soldiers into bloody pieces. The gore is slightly toned down from earliest volumes, however, save for a crazy part where Rod, still in his Civilian body, spins like a top and uses his razor-sharp fingers to slice and dice a group of soldiers. Maria witnesses this and runs away, certain that “Cardona” is not human; she takes the info to Sandoval and another major baron, and the two realize that Cybernarc is here. This leads to a “hunted chasing the hunter” scenario where they arm themselves with LAW rocket launchers, determined to wipe out the robot that is coming for them. 

It’s here in this major action piece that Drake informs Rod he’s “too old” for this sort of thing, and plans to retire and marry Heather. Rod seems to take the info well, but as mentioned there is an air of finality to the entire book. It’s clear that Rod has gone too far rogue from his programming and, were he to return to Weston and his controllers, he would be deprogrammed or have some major changes to his CPU. The finale plays out in a well-done sequence in which Rod, alone, goes after Sandoval and the rest, blitzing them to pieces. The final confrontation is suitably apocalyptic, with Rod calling in an air strike on his exact location and strangling Sandoval as the bombs come down. In the aftermath it seems that the robot has “died” with the baron; Drake is told nothing at all is left of Rod in the destruction. 

But the book isn’t over yet; we’re treated to an almost humorously-rushed conclusion, in which it’s a few months later and Drake and Heather have just returned from their honeymoon. And of course they’re talking about Rod. Drake still wonders if he survived, but Heather’s like, “It’s time to move on.” But there are all those mysterious drug-world deaths Drake has read about in the papers…then the doorbell rings, and Drake answers it, and it’s none other than Rod at the door! This is the end of the book as well as the series. As stated it seems clear Keith knew this would be the final volume, but of course the setup exists for future installments, with a fully-rogue and independent Rod taking on the drug barons on his own. Actually now that I think of it, the series ends with the setup Keith was supposedly originally given: Drake’s not a “’Nam vet,” but he does now have his own drug-fighting robot, and plus he’s married to the scientist who created the damn thing. 

Well anyway, I enjoyed Cybernarc, and I’m always happy when a final volume of a series gives a fitting conclusion, which End Game certainly does. Overall this was a fun series, with the caveat that the first couple installments were better, while the last couple got more into humorless “military fiction” and somewhat lost the action movie-esque banter between Drake and Rod. But Keith did a great job with the series, investing it with a lot more thought and care than you’d expect.

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