The boys were stirred from their lazy afternoon by the usual awooga-hey-everyone-we’re-probably-going-to-die alarm coming from the drive room.
Rimmer, used to snapping to loud alerts from his military childhood, launched himself up from his bunk and out the door, joining Kryten who was bustling quickly down the corridor from his charge station. Lister groaned from his sleep, sitting up and exchanged a confused look with the Cat, who stood up from where he had been brushing his hair by the desk and followed. Lister soon joined them, trailing as he attempted to tie his shoelaces as he walked.
When he finally reached the drive room, his crumpled clothes hanging lopsided on his frame as he drew up drowsily beside Rimmer; Kryten and Rimmer had already begun running the scanners, the paragraphs of incomprehensible computer code and the occasional 3D diagrams scrolling endlessly across the screens. From what Lister’s half-awake vision could focus on, there seemed to be a small oblong circular object. If he had to guess, it was either an oddly shaped asteroid or another garbage pod.
“What’s going on Hol?” He asked, dragging a tired back-hand over his eyes
“We’ve got something coming out of a wormhole on the starboard side,” Holly told him, “about twenty clicks away.”
“What is it?” Rimmer asked
“Maybe it’s another Quagarr warship,” Lister quirked an eyebrow as Rimmer shot him a sharp glare. He had never quite let the hologram live down that garbage pod incident.
“No,” Holly shook her head, the joke flying over her disembodied head yet again “I know their signature. This is something different.”
Lister had been trying to get his drowsy eyes to focus properly on the screens, and his heart skipped a beat as the diagram began to sharpen into a familiar looking shape.
“No way...” Lister breathed, grabbing at one of the chairs and sinking down, staring at the scans intently
“What?” Cat asked, peering over his shoulder
“It looks like an Earth pod...” Lister said. And it did. Ok, sure, it was definitely different, more stream-lined and higher-tech, but it was still the same basic design.
“An Earth pod?” Rimmer asked, then glared accusingly at Holly “I thought you said you didn’t recognise it?”
“It isn’t a typical pod, it’s a new design,” Holly shrugged, which was difficult without shoulders
“Is it manned?” Rimmer asked, slightly irritated that Lister had figured it out before him
“I think so.” Holly nodded “It’s definitely shifting its course towards us.”
“Where’s it heading for?” Lister asked
“Airlock 532,” Holly said after a moment
“We’ll be right there,” Lister said, leaping from the chair and heading for the door “Let’s see who it is…”
The pod landed about half an hour later. It looked almost like an egg, if it weren’t for the slightly flattened top and the thin outlines of windows and doors, now sealed against the popping pressure stabilisation as the bay doors sealed behind it. Starbug towered over it, for the first time the small green planet-hopper feeling big compared to this lift-sized white pill.
The boys stood on the bay floor, Lister and Cat loaded two of the larger bazookoids as the door hissed and slid open, flattening out into a ramp. From experience, new people coming on board was rarely a sign of good things ahead. As the hissing of the hydraulics died down, a man appeared in the doorway, looking slightly frazzled with his decompressed spacesuit now hanging off him like a limp duvet.
“Who the smeg are you?” Lister asked. He’d been expecting a simulant or a GELF, and this very human man was a surprise. Although, it wasn’t as if they hadn’t been tricked before…
The man cleared his throat, pulling himself up as if to deliver a speech he’d been rehearsing the moment he’d landed.
“I’m from the year 2070,” He said proudly “I’m a test pilot for the Martian colony HQ, on a mission to see if manned probes can be transported into different pockets of the universe and time,” He explained, looking irritatingly smug
“Well it obviously works.” Lister nodded “And who are you?”
“I cannot disclose my name due to legal and unforeseen paradoxes which may occur.” The man was starting to sound like a walking legal document.
“Right…” Cat grinned, not getting it.
“So what year is it?” The man asked, an expectant look in his eyes
“Uh... Well we haven’t got an exact date…” Lister looked round at the others who all shrugged “But I suppose it’s....2077...plus 3 million years?”
“3 million years!?” The man exclaimed, staring down at a small screen on his spacesuit’s sleeve.
Yeah, and I’ve still got that library book...” Lister muttered, smirking a little with Holly over the in-joke. Suddenly he remembered something “Oh by the way, if you meet a guy on Earth called David Lister, please can you tell me- him that prawn vindaloos are not what they’re cracked up to be. Trust me, it’s an important note to my future life choices.”
“Like what?” Rimmer asked
“Like prawn vindaloos are not as great as I thought,” Lister told him
“You weren’t the one who had to live the smell, buddy” the cat remarked. Everyone nodded their heads and grimaced at the memory.
“I- I appear to have overshot my year estimate…” The man stammered, typing frantically into the
“Yeah, join the club,” Lister smirked
“We haven’t got the time travel bit sorted,” the man admitted “We’re not allowed to be involved in events, especially in the past, but as it’s the future I’ve got a little leeway. However, I cannot tell you my name and I have to get my memory wiped once I return to base.”
“Brutal.” Lister cringed
“Not as bad as you’d think actually. I’ve been brought four of these missions so far and they’ve been fine... Although after the last one I keep getting recurring dreams about Anne of Cleaves...” He broke off as he spotted Rimmer who was regarding him with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.
“Oh, neat you’ve got a hologram!” The man brightened up.
“Yeah, his name’s Rimmer. I just call him Smeghead though.” Lister joked, grinning at Rimmer's dark 'I'm warning you Lister' glare
“What operating system does he run on?” He asked, stepping towards Rimmer and reaching out to almost snatch the light-bee out of the air. However, Rimmer jumped clear of the groping hand just in time, his image warping slightly as fingers scraped the edge of his projection
“Hey!” Rimmer yelped, but the man just rolled his eyes in frustration like if his computer had just glitched slightly and made to grab it again
“Oi! Watch it, you goit!” Rimmer cried out, trying to block the hands by wrapping his arms round his body.
“How do you make it stand still?” The man harrumphed, then successfully managed to plunge a hand through Rimmer’s side and grab the light-bee. Rimmer yelped like a kicked dog and froze, his image flickering as the hand distorted the signal; Rimmer looked wide eyed and (not that he’d admit it) terrified. He felt violated, as the equivalent of his heart was jostled about by this sudden intrusion of decency.
“Hey, watch it!” Lister jumped in, shoving the man away, allowing the light-bee to return to place. Rimmer stumbled heavily, his image flickering wildly for a moment as the bee settled back in place. In an almost subconscious move, Rimmer protectively switched to hard-light mode. Lister reached out to help steady the hologram, feeling slightly worried as his bunk mate flinched slightly on impact, as if expecting his hand to go through him again.
“What the smeg man!?” Lister exclaimed “You alright, Rimmer?”
“Y-yeah.” Rimmer straightened, stammering slightly in his speed to regain his dignity
“He’s quite an old model isn’t he?” The man remarked, still looking at Rimmer like a teenager sneering at an outdated music player “You’re computer hasn’t got any of the updated programs yet?”
“You can’t just grab a holograms light bee!” Lister objected "That’s like...like... Grabbing a person’s like...I don’t know, his junk?”
Rimmer looked highly offended at the likening to the grabbing of the one thing that gave him existence to a man’s ‘junk’. Lister shrugged at the look “or, like his soul?”
From Rimmer’s next look, Lister decided that that was better than nothing
“Oh god, you’re not one of those hologramists are you?” The man scoffed
“Hologram-what now?” Lister asked
“You know, those hippies that think holograms deserve jobs. That think they’re still people,” he sneered, looking Rimmer up and down in disgust.
“They are still people.” Lister said, puzzled. AI’s were proven to have sentient intelligence, just look at Kryten, and Lister had never once actually considered either Kryten or Rimmer to be anything other than inherently human, especially Rimmer, who technically was. What did this guy think Rimmer was, a zombie or something!?
“Oh come on, I’d have thought you of all people would agree with me, being the only other human,” the man sighed “You know what Holograms really are. They’re accessories. They’re status symbols, for people rich enough to delude themselves into thinking they can bring back the dead.”
“What?” Lister gaped. That was so full of smeg! If it hadn’t been about holograms, he’d would have called it racist. This couldn’t be right…
“You remember the first holograms?” The man asked “They were basically coded robots, parroting phrases they managed to have recorded from their living counterparts before they snuffed it.”
Every sentence was an accusation and every one hit Rimmer hard in the gut. He wasn’t a thing, he was as much a person as Lister… not that was saying much mind you.
“The only reason Holograms are AI in the first place was because the companies kept upgrading their models, to get more money out of people who wanted more real versions of their loved ones.” The man continued, either ignorant or uncaring to Rimmer’s growing distress “They’re machines, toys, they’re just there to give people the delusion that they’re loved ones aren’t dead and gone.”
“That’s a load of smeg.” Lister told him “They’re AI, they have sentience.”
“Holograms are nothing but jumped up robots, with the delusion of being human and with the concept of still being alive.” The man told him matter-of-factly “They’re worthless, a fun trinket that got out of hand with AI rights.”
Lister gaped at this guy’s gall, then looked over at Rimmer who had taken a few steps back, his face contorted in a sharp, offended expression. A few seconds later, that was replaced with the usual fury.
“I mean,” The man chortled coldly “the hard-light holograms were only really made so they could make themselves useful around the house instead of just drifting around like ghosts.”
"Hey man, that’s bang out of order” Lister snapped angrily. Sure Rimmer may be a git, but this guy was basically calling Rimmer an artificial program, something that they owned. Hell, they didn’t even treat Talkie Toasterlike he was a...well a toaster around here (not that the damn thing would let them forget it)
"Oh dear, have I hurt the images’ feelings?” The man asked condescendingly, sending a scornful glance towards Rimmer “I forgot that space missions had a hologram-resurrection program for high-rankers. Can’t imagine what happened for this poor sod to be brought back instead of the captain.”
Rimmer drew himself up, stretching his quickly diminishing self-esteem up from where it was, current by his socks, and stepped forward
“I’ll have you know I’m not some robot to stand around to fill some sort of guilt complex.”
“Yeah! He’s got enough guilt to go around for all of us!” Cat cheered on, kind of missing the point
“Exac- hey!” Rimmer broke off to shoot daggers at the Cat, who grinned at him
The man regarded the group with contempt and snorted “Believe whatever the hell you want to. It’s still the truth. Holograms aren’t people, they’re hardly even robots. To tell you the truth, they’re useless, and practically worthless now everyone has one in the house. You can give it the illusion of emotion, but it isn’t a real person, and it never will be.”
That stumped them all into silence.
They all liked a joke, especially at Rimmer’s expense, but that was just too far. Not even the cat was smiling anymore, he was just shuffling awkwardly.
Rimmer opened his mouth to say something, but then shut it. He looked round as Lister, Kryten and the Cat’s eyes fell on him, expecting a response, but could find nothing in his dry mouth to say. He felt sick.
Rimmer glared for a moment, before turning on his heel and walking out.
Behind him he could hear Lister calling after him but he just kept walking, blinking sharply.
Back in their sleeping quarters, Rimmer splashed himself with water and looked up at his reflection in the mirror. Except for a slight discolouration around the edge of him, caused by the slight light distortion from his light-bee against the mirror, he could almost fool himself that he was alive.
Except for the ‘H’.
He remembered being dragged along to a hologram protest by his parents when he was a child back on Io. People had shouted ‘go back to hell, deadies!’ and ‘no one wanted you when you were alive!’ at them. Not that the young Rimmer really understood the gravity of the situation. Up until then, he had always been taught holograms were on par with computers, things to be treated like the newest computer upgrades. They had neighbours with hologramatic dogs and occasionally a hologramatic nanny to save on money after their last one had died. This was the first time he had actually seen them as possibly being human.
His brothers and their mates threw rocks at them and laughed when they went flying through the hologram’s heads; and Rimmer remembered feeling sorry for them (he thought. He considered maybe his current situation had distorted his memories of the march to a more sympathetic angle). Of course, he’d gotten distracted away from the protest when his brothers decided to start throwing the rocks at him instead and chased him home shouting ‘Arnold’s a deady! Rimmer’s a deady! No one wants him, cause Rimmer’s a deady!’
Now he glared at the H.
Rimmer’s a deady...
Yeah. He was now.
He remembered how he had looked back at the scorn thrown so eagerly at the holograms, when he was hiding from his stone-throwing brothers in the attic. He remembered how his father had sneered at them.
He’d vowed never to be brought back as one of those. Anyway, why would he want to? Life sucked. And even if he was a famous general one day, he wouldn’t want to return to a world where everyone would once again turn against him, throw rocks at him and laugh as it hit the light-bee, fuzzing the projected image slightly, like it had at the protest.
He remembered being brought back and noting it was just as underwhelming as he had guessed it to be. At least he got a second chance though.
Although that hope had quickly been sunk when he realised that he was stuck three million years in deep space with David Lister.
Still, he tried to make the best of it, try to make his death the best years of his life, and for a while he’d fooled himself that he was content with his existence.
But now this man had arrived and reminded him of everything.
How he wasn’t alive.
How he’d wasted his life, and now in death he was just an imitation, a projection trying to Pinocchio its way through a non-existence.
’Hard-light holograms were only really made so they could make themselves useful around the house’
He grimaced and switched to soft-light mode, feeling the hard enamel of the sink evaporate under his hands until he had to shift his weight to stop him falling through it. That felt better. He was just light now.
He wasn’t masquerading as a person now.
He couldn’t be used now.
“Switch me on, switch me off like I’m some battery powered sex-aid”
Well that’s what he was. Something to be owned. That’s what holograms were around here; only brought back to the mission because they were vital: That’s why George McIntire was brought back, so he could fulfil a purpose.
He was here to stop the last living man in the universe from going insane, three million years into deep space. Hardly a mission worth of any praise. And anyway, Lister had the Cat and Kryten to look after him now. Bloody useless, and his one job was found obsolete barely an hour after he was switched on by the evolutionary by-product of three millennia of feline genetic mutation and inbreeding.
The man was right, he was a useless trinket. Even in life he was seen as a spare part, surplus to requirement, always getting in the way. And now he really was.
Well he wouldn’t be any more.
It was obvious that after this Lister and the cat would jump on the bandwagon, with this new way to make his life miserable. He’d be less than a person, less than a smeg-head. He’d be confined to sweeping the floors and washing dishes. They’d run him ragged, learn to overclock him so he wouldn’t have to sleep. He’d become less than Kryten was on the Nova 5.
Well that wasn’t going to happen.
He wasn’t going to be treated like smeg for a second time in his life, his childhood had been enough for him.
He briefly switched back to hard light to quickly make a note to put on his bunk. Just a small will to make sure that the cat got nothing of his, and that the skutters could have that John Wayne movie on the top shelf of his locker they’d been trying to reach in increasingly creative ways for months now.
Lister had managed to drive the smeg-head off the ship with a few warning blasts with his lazar after he had attempted to inspect the Cat for evolutionary clues to his primitive feline past and had tried to see what AI unit Kryten had installed. A few minutes later, Holly announced the git had successfully re-entered the wormhole. Lister hoped he crashed into an asteroid on the way back to Earth. No one treated his friends like that and got away with it.
“Man, I can’t believe that guy” the cat ranted “He creased my suit trying to tackle me.”
“I don’t think he was quite sane, sir” Kryten noted, trying to re-screw in one of his neck bolts as they walked away from the airlock.
“You can say that again. He must have had a few screws shaken loose by that wormhole to have views that backward” Lister nodded
“He called me an overclocked vacuum cleaner! I mean honestly! Even Mr Rimmer had the decency to keep it to the civil lavatory level of menial labour.”
“Oh that reminds me, Holly where’s Rimmer? I wanna check he’s ok, after that Smeghead basically bad-touched him and called him those things.”
“Uh...” Holly paused for a moment, “I don’t know… He was here a minute ago.”
“Oh hell…” Lister said, setting off at a run towards their sleeping quarters
If he knew Rimmer, the idiot’s self-esteem was dangerously low by now; and the last time that happened a giant monster nearly killed them. God knows what it’d do to him now...