I wrote this story in 1996. It came about partly because I'd read other people's fanfics and thought "I can do that!", and partly because the idea for the opening scene came to me and I wanted to see what happened next. I honestly had no idea how it would all end, if indeed it would. Anyway, I submitted it to Better Than Life, the magazine of the Official Red Dwarf Fan Club, wherein it appeared in Jan '97.
In '98 I attended the Diskworld Convention, wherein I took part in a writer's workshop; I took this story along as it was the only thing I'd written, and had it critiqued by my fellow participants. Much to my surprise it was extremely well-received and survived relatively unscathed.
So here's the final version; basically the same as the original published version, but with a few slight tweaks here and there. My thanks to Neil Padgen and Dave Mills for reading the very first draft, to Diane Duane and Peter Morwood for running the writer's workshop, and to all the participants therein for their constructive comments, especially Margaret Wynn Davies.
The equipment bay was infrequently used, and poorly lit. Three figures clustered together before an empty locker. Moments ago they had been moving cautiously through the unaccustomed gloom, peering into the shadows, weapons at the ready. Now an argument had broken out.
"It's the Cat, man."
"We shoulda bagged him. Now we might pick him up on the tracker again. You gotta go back for him."
The sweat from his forehead was blurring Lister's vision. He didn't need this, not now. He wiped one grubby sleeve across his brow, then fixed his eyes ahead once more.
When it came, there was no warning. Lister stared, paralyzed, as the impossibly huge form lowered itself silently to the deck. Then the misshapen limbs reached out and grabbed, the jaws thrust home with terrifying savagery, the screams echoed in the darkness before abruptly choking into silence...
Lister jumped back in shock, jarring himself on the seat. "Hol!" he complained.
"Oh I'm sorry, is this not a good time?" Holly enquired ironically.
"I've spilt me popcorn!"
"Yeah, well when you can spare a minute could you join us on the bridge?"
Lister switched off the vid, jammed his hat on and headed for the door. Then he turned back and snatched up the still quite full bucket of popcorn. Emergencies were bad enough without having to face them on an empty stomach.
"Ah, Lister", said Rimmer eyeing him with distaste, "so glad you could fit us into your busy schedule".
"Whafth th mwromlem?" Lister munched.
"There's another ship out there. It's not responding to any hails and it's not hailing us."
"So how can you even be sure it is a ship?"
"It's tracking us."
Lister discarded the popcorn and slumped into the navigator's chair. "Can you ID it?"
"It appears to be a GELF battleship sir," said Kryten, looking up from his scanner.
"What do they want with us?
"Well sir, they've had plenty of time to attack us or board us, and they haven't done either."
"Always a good sign."
"On the other hand, they're maintaining radio silence and they've matched our course changes twice", said Rimmer.
"Not so good." Lister pondered for a moment. "Anyone for a closer look?"
"Are you mad?" exclaimed Rimmer. "They'd blast us out of the sky before we got anywhere near them."
"I'm not going to hang around here waiting for them to come and get us." Lister turned to Kryten. "Starbug or Blue Midget?"
"That ship could outrun either of them, sir, but Blue Midget would be more manoeuverable."
"OK. Holly, tell the Cat to meet us at Blue Midget."
"Blue?!" shrieked the Cat, staring down at his bright orange suit in horror. "With this?!"
"Almost in visual range sir", said Kryten.
"OK, keep hailing them."
"Great plan Listy," said Rimmer scornfully. "Why not run up a banner while you're at it; 'easy target, please fire at will'?"
"They know we're here. Let's not look like we're trying to sneak in unannounced." Lister turned to the Cat. "Any response?"
"Nothing," replied the Cat, now clad in black leather waistcoat and trousers over a rich sky blue silk shirt. "There's less activity there than on Rimmer's social calendar."
The ship drew slowly into view; a squat black shape somewhat larger than Starbug. There were several gun turrets, any one of which could have taken out Blue Midget with ease, but they remained as mute as the radio.
"She's damaged," Lister observed.
"The damage appears to be superficial, sir. Certainly not enough to cripple her."
"And she tracked us," Rimmer reminded. "Something's still functioning."
"Take us in, Kryten."
"Why exactly are we doing this?" asked Rimmer.
"To find out why it's there," replied Lister. "To see if there are any supplies we can salvage. To make sure it's not a danger to Red Dwarf. You got anything better to do?"
"Auto-docking engaged", said Kryten before Rimmer could reply.
"OK, let's break out the bazookoids and get to it."
"We come in peace, shoot to kill?" suggested Rimmer.
"Just in case," explained Lister. "We'll split into pairs and..."
"Just a minute miladdo. You may be mad enough to board a GELF warship armed only with a swiss army hole punch, but that doesn't mean I am. I'm staying right here."
"An excellent suggestion", agreed Kryten. "We're a sitting target here, so in the event of hostile activity, Mr Rimmer can pilot the ship out of firing range."
"Right!" Rimmer sat back down at his console, and watched the others file out.
A slight frown crossed his face as he reconsidered the flaws in this plan. Sitting target, he thought. He prodded the console experimentally. What, he mused, were his chances of actually flying this thing when his hands kept passing through the control column? Seriously?
He ran to catch up with the others at the airlock.
The first corridor seemed empty. The lighting was dim and the air stale. Whatever life support systems were still functional were obviously running on auxiliary power.
Lister checked a sign at the next junction, then pointed with his bazookoid. "Cat, Rimmer, you check the hold, we'll take the bridge." He and Kryten headed off down the corridor. Rimmer and the Cat hesitated for a moment, then made their way in the opposite direction, each looking at the other as if they'd just found a used condom in a lucky dip.
The hold was a mess. Stacked crates had fallen, leaving several aisles blocked. But the crates themselves were sturdy, and their contents mostly undamaged. Rimmer automatically began taking inventory. "Bazookoids, ammo, mechanical spares..."
They reached a series of large unmarked lockers along the back wall. The Cat opened the first one, revealing only a few small sealed cases.
"Medical supplies," said Rimmer.
"This one's empty," said the Cat, closing the door on the second locker. He reached for the next one.
The bridge seemed as deserted as the rest of the ship. Kryten located a panel and studied the readouts carefully.
"The main computer seems to be offline, sir", he announced. "The only things functioning are a few isolated sub-systems. The tracking system appears to have locked onto us by accident."
"Can you find out what happened?"
"If I can bring the computer back online I should be able to access the ship's log, and also restore full life support."
"Do it." Lister prowled the rest of the bridge. Rounding the foremost console he started in alarm and instinctively raised his bazookoid, but lowered it again almost immediately. The bodies were awkwardly sprawled, and the way they looked they weren't going to present a threat to anyone.
"Kryten, there's three dead GELFs down here!"
Kryten counted rapidly. "Only three sir?"
"There are four consoles."
The Cat opened the next container. Something large and dark fell forward out of it. A bright flash and a thunderclap were followed a moment later by an explosive impact high up the far wall behind them. Then the dead GELF was falling to the deck where it lay motionless, its spent bazookoid trapped beneath it.
Rimmer looked down slowly. The sight of his unblemished chest was reassuring, but he knew perfectly well where that shot had gone. The only reason it hadn't killed him was...
"You're lucky to be alive buddy", said the Cat.
"Thanks a smegging bunch", snarled Rimmer. As much as he hated being dead, he still hated the thought of dying even more. He hadn't enjoyed it much the first time.
"Cat, Rimmer," radioed Lister, "we've found three dead GELFs with gunshot wounds, and there may be another. Keep your eyes open."
"Thanks for the warning buddy," the Cat replied. "Glad to see you're on the case."
"What? Is everything OK?"
"We found the fourth GELF," explained Rimmer, "and it's dead too. We're on our way up to the bridge." The line curtly clicked shut.
With a gentle hum the main lights came on. "I have the main computer online again sir," announced Kryten.
"Anything in the log?"
Kryten scanned through it rapidly. "It appears the damage was sustained in a battle with another GELF ship. This one attacked the other-" Kryten paused to double check, "-accidently, when the automatic weapons system was activated by a computer malfunction. The other ship was taken completely by surprise and totally destroyed."
"What about...?" Lister gestured toward the bodies.
"They were wiped out when the computer overrode the internal defence systems. It appears that its positronic brain developed something analogous to schizophrenia. Only the complete internal breakdown of its neural network seems to have halted it before it destroyed its own ship."
Lister felt an icy jolt pass down his spine. "What, the main computer?"
"The one you've just brought back online?"
"Yes sir." Kryten looked up to meet Lister's wild-eyed stare. "Ah. Oh dear."
"I don't see why we should have to get the hold," grumbled Rimmer, "just because some space-slumming scouse troglodyte and a megalomaniac lavatory brush decide they want the cushy bit."
"Hey, at least the lights are on again," replied the Cat, "they must be doing something right." He paused, his expression suddenly intense. "My nose is twitching."
"Really?" said Rimmer skeptically. "We know the crew are all dead, what else is there to worry about?"
The Cat gestured impatiently for silence and stood for a moment, listening. Then he suddenly dived face forward flat onto the deck. "Get Down!"
Rimmer followed his example just as a shot passed through the space where they'd been standing a moment before. "Where did that come from?" he gasped.
"Dunno. Got any ideas?"
They scrambled to their feet and raced to the end of the corridor. Another shot narrowly missed them as they turned the corner, and another one was fired from the entrance to another corridor as they passed it, but they were moving too fast for the tracking mechanism to lock onto them. Finally they burst onto the bridge, and the Cat turned to slam the door hard behind them.
"Are you OK?" asked Lister.
"Something shot at us!" Rimmer gasped out.
"Yeah, the internal defences are back on line." Lister explained the situation. "We're safe for now. One of the GELFs managed to disable the gun in here, but he must have taken a fatal wound in the process."
"The one we found in the locker was wounded too," said the Cat.
Rimmer nodded. "He must have crawled in there to hide from the camera, then died waiting for the others to shut it down."
"Sir," Kryten called from his console, "I think you'd better see this."
They gathered round. "The ship's changed course. The battle systems are back online and they've locked on a new target." He pointed at the scanner. "Red Dwarf."
Rimmer looked sick. "How long to firing range?"
"It's no good," said Lister, wrestling with his console, "I can't break us off this course. All the manual controls have been locked out."
"Is there any way we can override the computer?" said Rimmer.
"Not from here sir," said Kryten. "We need to completely disconnect the computer's power supply, and we can only do that from engineering."
"But there's no way we can get there," said Rimmer. "Not while the corridor defences are still on."
"Right," agreed the Cat. "Try getting through there you'll end up crispier than Lister's boxer shorts."
"Is there any way there that wouldn't be defended?" asked Rimmer.
"Got it!" exclaimed Lister after a moment's silence. "We just use the Dr Who all-purpose emergency get-out procedure."
"We get our cute brunette assistant in a skimpy dress to squeeze through a ventilation shaft."
"An excellent plan sir," said Kryten, "with just two minor flaws. Firstly, we don't have a cute brunette assistant in a skimpy dress, and secondly," he pointed at a small grille high up one wall, "we don't have a big enough ventilation shaft."
Lister examined the five inch square grille, then looked around the room thoughtfully. Finally his gaze came to rest, and a slow smile broke upon his face.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" asked Rimmer.
Lister yanked the grille off. "OK Rimmer, do your stuff."
"You can't seriously expect me to get in there," Rimmer pleaded.
"Rimmer, you're the only one who can. If you can't find a way through there we're all stuffed."
"But what am I supposed to do when I get there? I've got no body, I'll be about as much use as a Christian Scientist at a medical research convention."
"You ought to be used to it by now," smirked the Cat.
Rimmer jolted as if he'd been stung. Yes, he was used to it, dammit. He knew he was a worthless excuse for a sentient being. But he didn't need anyone else pointing it out for him; that was just adding insult to injury. He resented it deeply, it really hurt his...
"Just improvise," said Lister. "We're out of options, anything's better than nothing at this stage."
Rimmer looked at the vent again. It couldn't really be all that bad, could it? It wasn't as if it was defended, after all... "I don't suppose we have anything resembling a map?" he enquired, without much hope.
"I'm afraid not sir," said Kryten, "you'll be quite literally in the dark."
"Indeed." Rimmer looked at the narrow entrance apprehensively.
"Come on Ace," Lister encouraged, "be a hero."
Rimmer sighed, then gathered his composure and straightened. "Gentlemen," he said resolutely, and threw them a full Rimmer salute. Lister gravely returned it. Then Rimmer's image slowly flickered out, and his light bee floated slowly into the narrow duct. The sound of his disembodied voice humming the Space Corps anthem sounded from the opening, slowly receding. Then it was gone.
"Now what?" said The Cat.
"We wait," said Lister.
Rimmer proceeded slowly along the duct. His desperate conviction that it wouldn't be as bad as he thought had rapidly given way to the resigned conviction that yes, it could be that bad, and could probably only get worse. Not being able to see the four steel walls enclosing him did nothing to reduce the intense sensation of claustrophobia; indeed the oppressive darkness merely served to heighten it. Feeling as if he was suffocating, Rimmer continued.
A faint glimmer of light ahead marked a junction. The light came from a grille at the end of a side corridor. Welcoming the opportunity to check his bearings less than the chance of escaping the darkness for a moment, Rimmer headed toward it.
"I've found the monitors for the security system," called Kryten.
Lister and the Cat came over to look. The screen showed a deserted corridor. Kryten selected another button and the view changed. "If I can find the camera in the engine room..." He tried again. "A-ha! This is it!" He studied the image for a moment then pointed at a bank of switches. "That's the panel he needs to get to."
Lister pointed to a box on the wall. "I've found the intercom. So we can give him directions when he gets there. How much time?"
The only way Rimmer could navigate in the dark was touch. If he hit a wall he knew he'd reached a bend. He had no idea whether he'd passed any more junctions in the dark; he had no way of telling, short of bouncing off the walls constantly as he moved. He'd passed three more vents, revealing crews quarters, an empty corridor and the hold where they'd found the dead GELF. That was enough to confirm that he was heading in the right direction.
With an abrupt thump, the duct came to an end. Rimmer tested the way to his right, but immediately came up against another wall. Left then. He moved to the left, but again his path was blocked. A dead end.
He almost cried with frustration. How much time wasted? He turned back. He had to find another junction fast.
He paused as a thought struck him. A dead end? That didn't make any sense. He backed up and tried a new tack, but once more he was brought up short. He probed again, cautiously, and encountered... nothing. A-ha!
"Any sign yet?"
The duct had levelled out again after dropping one floor. Now there was a single vent in front of him, and a passage leading off to one side. He floated up against it and looked out into the engineering room. He'd made it! Now all he had to deal with was this grille.
No time for niceties. He retreated along the duct as far as he could, then accelerated forward. Blunt end first he collided with the grille, and heard it clatter to the floor beneath him as he burst into the room.
"He's made it!" Lister cheered as he watched Rimmer's light bee emerge on the screen.
There was a sudden bright flash from beneath the camera, and a wispy cloud obscured the image. When it cleared the room was empty.
"Another gun," Lister choked. "Did it get him?"
"I don't know sir."
Rimmer hovered in the duct.
For the second time his speed had saved him. The shot had missed him by a fraction, and he'd managed to double back the way he'd come before the smoke cleared. Now he considered his options.
Go back? Impossible. There was no other way to get the others free, and without them he couldn't fly Blue Midget, or even recharge his light bee. He'd die too. He had to go on.
On the other hand, he couldn't evade that gun indefinitely. As if he had that much time to play around with. He edged cautiously toward the opening and peered out.
High up on the right hand wall, just beside the camera, was another vent.
Rimmer raced down the side passage, and arrived in front of the other vent. There was less than a foot run-up to the grille. He backed up and hammered into the grille. It flexed, but didn't give. He tried again. And again.
After several more blows Rimmer knew his time was running out. He tried again, and was rewarded with a satisfying crack. The grille was still in place, but one corner had given way.
Encouraged, Rimmer backed up one more time and drove himself against the grille as hard as he could. With a crack of splintering metal it finally came loose.
Rimmer edged slowly out of the duct. He was was just to one side of the camera, safe as long as he remained in its blind spot. But he had to cross the room at some point. He measured the distances, planned his course. He might only get one chance at this.
Then he launched himself.
There was a flicker of movement on the monitor, then the image suddenly dissolved into static.
"What happened?" exclaimed the Cat. "Where'd the picture go?"
"It's Rimmer," gasped Lister. "He must have found another way around." He dived for the intercom. "Rimmer? Rimmer!"
Lister's voice came out of nowhere. Rimmer almost fainted in shock.
He looked around the room to locate the source of the sound. Seeing the intercom he headed toward it.
"Are you there Rimmer?"
He slammed hard against the respond button. "Yes, I'm here."
There were inarticulate sounds of relief from Lister, then Kryten's voice cut in. "Listen sir, you've got less than half a minute, and without that camera I can't see to direct you. Can you see the big bank of switches next to the desk console?"
Rimmer looked around. "I see it."
"Is there a large red switch near the bottom of that panel?"
"Yes, there is."
"That's the safety lock. You need to turn that off before you can disengage the others."
Rimmer headed toward the switch and nudged it. It was quite stiff. He strained against it for a few seconds before it finally snapped into place.
"Good. Now look at the panel above it. Look for anything that says Main Computer or Battle Systems."
"Ten seconds," came Lister's voice.
Rimmer rose to face the panel and scanned the labels urgently.
Main computer! Rimmer raced towards the switch, wedged himself against it and pushed hard.
Click! "It's off!" Rimmer screamed.
"Manual control restored sir," he heard Kryten saying.
"Battle systems disengaged!" replied Lister. "We're safe!"
Rimmer sighed a huge sigh of relief.
"Stay right where you are Rimmer," Lister called. "We're coming down to meet you." The intercom clicked off.
The feeling of release after all the tension was a new experience for Rimmer, and he settled back to enjoy it while it lasted. He'd done it. He'd actually done it! He was a hero! And a hero's welcome awaited him...
That was a thought. How did heroes deal with all the adulation? He thought back to all his favourite heroic novels and films. Modesty seemed to be the key word. That was going to be a new experience too. Modesty. He'd never needed it before. He'd never had anything worth being modest about.
He spent the next couple of minutes practicing his opening lines, and when the others entered the room he was ready for them.
"Well, gentlemen," he began, "I thought that went quite well, all things considered."
Lister stared at him. There was a new expression on his face. For the first time since Lister had known him Rimmer looked totally at ease with himself, and his stride was relaxed and even as he came towards them. But the manner in which he was rubbing his hands together was undeniably smug. And there was one other thing wrong...
"Rimmer, where's your leg?"
Rimmer looked down, and fainted.
They had transferred all the useable supplies to Red Dwarf and left the GELF ship to drift. Lister and the Cat were slouched on the lower bunk, sipping lager and watching the remaining few minutes of Alien.
"I've put Mr. Rimmer to bed," announced Kryten from the doorway.
"Is he OK?" asked Lister.
"Yes sir. Nothing but a damaged projection lens. Easily repaired, but I think after all that excitement the shock was just a little too much for him."
"I hope so," commented the Cat. "If it wasn't he's going to be unbearable for the next few days."
Lister nodded. It was a sobering thought. He reached for another beer.
This story is © Adrian Ogden 1998, and may not be reproduced or altered without the author's consent.
Red Dwarf and the characters therein are © Rob Grant & Doug Naylor.