One of the things about John Ringo as an author, is that he knows how to pander. Take the Ghost series; as he calls it, “James Bond with the good bits left in.” That’s not true; Mike Harmon would cap Bond’s ass from a half-klick away while the latter was tossing off a one-liner. On the other hand, 007 probably wouldn’t cross Ghost in the first place, seeing as they have different jobs. Beautiful babes and a fair amount of sex; a hero with an honest-to-god harem for crying out loud.
But Ringo’s latest novel, which is available as an advance copy in electronic format, is made of different stuff. Fourth in the Looking Glass series with Travis Taylor, it mixes hard science with more pop cultural references than a month’s worth of MTV. The cast and crew of the Vorpal Blade II, former Ohio-class submarine converted to spaceship, shot up by the Dreen, and then rebuilt by friendly aliens, is on the prowl again, but this time dealing with “less than optimal” replacements in key positions, while getting into its usual grapped-up situations. Have to improvise a mirror to concentrate lasers for ersatz asteroid mining? Of course someone makes a “The Death Star has cleared the planet!” joke when it’s launched. Find an alien artifact that responds to music? Of course an eclectic mix of 70’s rock and 21st century death metal makes it into the play list. And just as “of course,” the Dreen, that hideous race that just happens to produce combat units that look just like the ones from a popular 90’s computer game (hint: origin of the verb “zerg”), are back for another heroic pasting by our, well, heroes.
But this time, Ringo outdoes himself as he establishes that the artifact at the heart of the Blade’s engine can have strange effects when mixed with different aliens’ technology — and just when you think it was merely typical weirdness of the type the Blade constantly gets into (and a plot device to “rehabilitate” one character unjustly in the doghouse), it turns out that was just to establish the principle before using it again with another, even more bizarre interaction with another alien technology. As the Vorpal Blade goes to dock inside an alien artifact…
“Approaching force field in ten seconds,” the pilot said.
“Reduce approach speed to one meter per second,” the CO said. “Let’s take this nice and slow.”
“One meter per second, aye,” the pilot said, reducing their forward velocity. “Fourteen seconds . . . Ship entering field . . .”
“XO?” the damage control talker said. “Forward torpedo room is reporting odd effects . . . really odd effects . . .”
“Conn, Damage Control,” Bill said automatically. “Reporting odd effects from forward.”
“Define odd effects,” the CO responded just as the damage control center entered the field.
“That is a good question, Captain Prael,” Weaver responded, taking the meerschaum pipe out of his mouth for a moment and stroking his Van Dyke beard. “Precisely defining it, however, is much more difficult.” Weaver looked at his pipe and, despite being a violent non-smoker, stuck it in his mouth and puffed. “I suspect . . . (puff, puff) that what we are experiencing . . . (puff) is an induced (puff, puff) hallucination . . .”
The damage control section was still the same, a mass of readouts on conditions throughout the ship, five seamen and petty officers to handle communications and orders and four steel bulkheads. But at the same time, it was . . . different. Bill knew the reporting system like the back of his hand and looking at it now he still understood it. But all the controls and readouts had changed, becoming much more garishly colored, with formerly muted reporting screens now being covered in blinking green lights and yellow arrows. The whole room had changed, becoming darker and more sharp edged at the same time, as if it were seen through some sort of odd lens. The petty officers were wearing ornate uniforms, including brim caps, that he recognized as wrong and yet correct at the same time. The seamen manning the consoles had shrunk in size to be almost childlike and simian at the same time.
What really bothered him, though, was that much as he could recognize there was a major, even catastrophic, change going on on the ship, the most he could muster was a quiet sense of academic interest.
He also found a tweed, patch-elbow jacket and a turtleneck sweater, clothing he wouldn’t normally wear in a million years, to be oddly comfortable.
“Mr. Weaver to the Wardroom!” the CO barked over the 1MC. “On the double triple-time! We have a level nine emergency! Set Condition One throughout the ship! All hands! All hands! Man Your Battle Stations! Report Undue Effects! Report! Report!”
“Holy grapp!” Sub Dude squealed. He looked at the wrench in his hand and couldn’t figure out why the hand holding it looked like a black leather glove.
“What the grapp’s happening?”
“That is unclear,” a bass, robotic voice said from over his shoulder.
Gants turned around and squealed in fear, dropping the wrench and climbing up the bulkhead to look at his friend from the overhead.
“Red? Is that you?”
“I do not know,” the cyborg replied, his head rotating upwards with a whir of motors. While still the same height, Red now was about half covered in glittering metal and had a metal skull for a head. All he was wearing was a pair of electric purple pants and metal and leather boots. “Is the orangutan speaking to me my good friend and brother-in-law Michael Gants?”
“The what?” Gants asked, looking at his hand again. Then he noticed that his forearm was covered in orange fur and it was strangely . . . long. “YAAAAH!”
“As I always suspected,” the cyborg said, looking downward again, “deep down inside you are a monkey.”
There was a roar from down the corridor and deep in Gants’ primate bones he knew what it was.
“I should go determine Tiny’s condition,” Red said, straightening up with a whir and a click and marching down the corridor.
“Be careful!” Gants squealed. “I didn’t like the sounds of that! If this is happening all over the ship . . .”
“Lieutenant Bergstresser, what happened to your hair?” Morris asked.
Berg looked in the compartment’s small mirror and blanched. His formerly buzz-cut haircut was now long, black hair that stuck out on either side like uneven wings. The hilt of what looked very much like a claymore jutted over one shoulder. Looking downward he also determined that he was now unquestionably armed, in violation of regulations, the weapons being dual glittering pistols with mother-of-pearl hand-grips. He had never seen them before in his life but somehow knew that they were “laser” pistols that shot a green beam that would disintegrate any sufficiently small enemy. Given that lasers didn’t do that, his mind was having a hard time with the image.
“I have no idea!” Eric replied, spinning in place and gesturing with one hand held upwards, his fingers in a weird pointing position. “But My Great Enemy And His Army of Darkness Approaches! Call out! The Space Marines!”
. . .
“What Is! Going On!” the CO shouted, waving his arms in the air dramatically. He was wearing a purple and orange jumpsuit that was skin tight and revealed that he’d apparently gained about thirty percent in body mass, was now about seven feet tall and looked like the Terminator, complete with one eye that had been replaced by a red-glowing laser emitter. “This is! Unacceptable! Completely unacceptable! This cannot be accepted!”
The wardroom now had orange walls and a screen on the back bulkhead that showed a mass of trajectories that appeared to have nothing to do with anything.
“As I was (puff, puff) saying,” Weaver replied, calmly, leaning one patch-covered elbow on the edge of the table. “The first theory (puff, puff) that must be entertained (puff, pause, ponder, puff) is that we are experiencing a mass hallucination . . .”
“All I want to know!” the CO barked, his laser emitter shining in Weaver’s eyes, “Is How! We Are Going! To Stop this!”
“I would recommend,” (puff, puff . . . pause . . . ruminate . . . puff . . .) “that we extract the ship from the field (puff, puff) and investigate the results . . . (puff.)”
“Well, do it fast!” Miriam snapped from the hatch. “I can’t find anything to wear but these stupid school-girl outfits!”
The linguist was astride what looked like a white saber-toothed tiger. She was wearing a complete school-girl outfit from the saddle-loafer flats to the plain blue tie. If anything, compared to most of her wardrobe it was muted. The worst part, though, were her . . .
“What has occurred to your eyes, Miss Moon?” Bill asked, puffing politely.
“I don’t know!” Miriam shrilled, rolling eyes that took up most of her face around the room. “The weird part is, I can’t get contacts in them but I still can see normally! I should be blind as a bat. Tee-hee!” she added, clapping her hands over her mouth. “Oh, God, did I just giggle?”
“And now the effect is explained . . .” Weaver said, leaning one elbow on his station chair and taking a puff off his pipe while rotating his whole body to look at the overhead. “We have entered . . . the anime zone!”
“Okay, now that we’re back to normal,” Captain Prael said. “Can anyone explain what just happened?”
“Hang on a second, sir,” Bill said, making a face and sticking his tongue out. “I need some coffee or something to get the taste of this damned pipe smoke out of my mouth!” He spat without actually ejecting matter and winced. “God, that’s nasty!”
“Captain Weaver,” the CO replied, sighing. “If you could focus for just a moment?”
“I think it was some sort of effect from the interaction of the drive and the protection field,” Miriam said, stroking Tiny’s belly. If the cat was affected by the recent experience, it was not apparent. Of course, his anime image was probably what he thought he was anyway. “It has to be the drive, given that neither the Marines nor the dragonflies had a similar experience when they approached the station. Hallucination? Change in reality? Who knows?”
“How?” the CO asked. “That doesn’t seem physically possible!”
“Well . . .” Bill said, still working his mouth. “Remember that discussion of chaos as related to the effect of the ball generators on molycirc and other materials, sir?”
“Vaguely,” the CO said.
“The drive generates a thin field of absolute chaotic unreality at the edge of the drive field,” Bill said. “Essentially it’s an event horizon generated by the micro black hole the drive generates then somehow expanded to enclose the ship. Stephen Hawking postulated that at the event horizon of a black hole, anything was possible. Even the impossible. It is likely that the generation system of the Tree is interacting with the warp field in chaotic terms and creating unreality from reality.”
“That tells me so much,” Prael growled.
“And it’s just a WAG,” Bill added. “God, that’s a nasty habit. If it’s not a hallucination, and again an experiment to determine reality doesn’t come to mind, then it had to be perfect quantum chaos somehow adjusted to a functional reality. Interesting effect, I’ll add. If we could induce it to occur by command, we might get some enhanced effects from the weapons, given the sort of things you find in anime. Or not . . .” he added, looking at the CO’s expression.
“But why . . . the specific changes?” the CO asked, frowning. “I hope that it’s not some sort of wish-fulfillment thing. And why anime?”
“Well, this is just another WAG,” Bill said. “More like a GWAG. But the reality of what we do is closest in . . . Miriam?”
“The nature of the Blade missions is closest to the archetype of anime in people’s minds,” Miriam said. “I think that’s where you’re going.”
“That would be it,” Bill said, nodding. “If the field picks up on general thoughts, underlying beliefs if you will, then the closest to the reality of what we do that most people are familiar with is the archetypes you find in anime. I feel like babbling about Jungian archetypes, but when you hear that phrase you know someone’s completely lost it. Skinner will eventually be mentioned and then you know someone’s really off their meds.”
“So why were we . . . What we were?” the CO asked. “I hope that deep down inside I don’t really think I look like I looked. I’m fairly certain Miss Moon doesn’t.”
“God knows I hate pipes,” Bill said, spitting again. “Yuck. How can anyone smoke that foul stuff?”
“Anime has a set number of standard tropes,” Miriam responded. “Captains of ships are always big, fierce looking men, often bullying. Scientists wear tweed or oddly patterned jumpsuits. Enlisted sailors are generally either monkeys or dwarfs. All women have huge eyes and only three or four acceptable ‘looks.’ I could have wished for the laser-cut-leather free-wheeling mercenary type but I got Suzie Schoolgirl instead. I wonder what the Wyverns looked like under the effect. Oh, and when you find the guy with the winged haircut and the sword, you know who the main character is.”
“Well, it wasn’t anyone in Conn . . .”
“Oh, thank God,” Weaver muttered, looking around at the assembled away team. It was apparent when the ship cleared the field; everyone was back to normal instantaneously. “Condition of the people whose suits modified?”
A temporary shelter had been erected and the four sailors, including Red, who had suits that were either nonexistent or sufficiently modified as to be dangerous had been sealed inside.
“All back to normal, sir,” Captain Zanella said via the external speaker on his suit.
“Okay,” Weaver boomed, turning up the gain on his suit. “In that case, I’m leaning in the direction of induced hallucination. I’ve got a question for everyone. When we were in the effect, did anyone change to a guy with winged hair, a chin you could use as a metal punch and probably wearing a sword?”
Virtually every Wyvern sensor-pod tracked around until they were looking at Lieutenant Bergstresser.
“What?” Berg asked. “So I was in a race against time to find the Great Umbrella of Light with which to defeat my Great Enemy who had killed my father, married my mother against her will and was bent on universal domination? Sue me. You guys all were with me then!”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Bill muttered. “Damn, I hate being a secondary character . . .”
It gets worse. Much worse….
“It’ll be okay,” Weaver said, uncomfortably patting the linguist on the shoulder. “Seriously. Nobody will know.”
“You could hear it through the entire solar system!” Miriam screamed. “And the Blade records EVERYTHING! Oh My God. My reputation is so ruined. I’m going to have . . . otaku!”
“Hey, I was a chimpanzee for God’s sake,” Carpenter said. “And what are . . . Oh-ta- . . . whatever.”
“Anime fans,” Bill said darkly.
“She was playing J-pop!” Gants said, bouncing on the deck and waving his arms over his head like a monkey. Some people took longer to get over the effects of the field than others. “Sou da ne bokura atarashii jidai wo!”
“Jesus, man,” Red snapped. “Get ahold of yourself. You’re embarassing me.”
Sadly, after an inquiry from Dr.Heinous, I realized that an opportunity had been missed; no one did the Haruhi ED dance. And Miriam’s outfit didn’t look a bit like the Clannad girls’. Maybe Ringo’s not as good at this pandering thing as I thought….
You know, I really wonder what the Cheerick fighter pilots saw during all this…