The Starbug shuddered and jerked and stopped, its lateral propulsion jets finally regaining control of the ship's motion. Kryten picked himself up from the floor under his station, the Cat dusted himself off and Rimmer checked his pens. Lister stared up through the window at the solar system they'd just stumbled into.
"I hate this time of year," Rimmer complained. "Dimension skids aren’t half of it. Black holes, time paradoxes and reality leaks all over the place until you don't know which side of the galaxy you're on from one day to the next, not to mention which species or sex--" His pens safely tucked in his shirt pocket, Rimmer looked up. "Hey, is that--?"
"Sure looks like it," said Lister, his face breaking into a grin. "Is it?"
"Is it what?" the Cat asked, sniffing the air towards the direction of the blazing star, and the array of planets slowly orbiting it, showing up on the navigation screen but most of them little more than specks of light outside the window. "Phew! Smells like a hundred million GELFs down there on that blue one!"
"GELFs, are you sure?" Lister asked.
"Some kind of life, anyway." The Cat sniffed. "Smells more like you monkeys than GELFs, to be honest, but you don't smell so different. But it can't be monkeys, monkeys are all dead, right?" The Cat glanced between the faces of his two human crewmates, and frowned in confusion. "Right?"
"Cat, this is the Earth!" Lister whooped. "This is the actual, real Earth. The coordinates match, too."
"Wouldn’t get so excited if I was you," said Rimmer, looking at the readings. "It could be any number of things other than an Earth populated by human beings. Could be GELFs, like the Cat said, or it could be sentient caterpillars. You don't know."
"He’s right, sir," Kryten put in. "I think we should proceed with caution."
Lister ignored them. "I wonder if Fiji is still down there. Imagine those tall palm trees and the blue ocean as far as the eye can see."
"Sirs, have you checked the temporal reading? We seem to have travelled through time as well as space. According to this data, we've arrived in the early 21st century, in the year 2006."
Rimmer frowned. "Considering the fact that time is infinite and the existence of the human race is hardly even a blip in its magnificent vastness, does anybody else find it strange that, travelling through time, we almost always end up around the end of the 20th century?"
The others ignored him. "Sirs, I'm picking up a craft of some kind," Kryten said. "Projecting it on the navigation screen."
The object was vaguely ship-like and it spun gently towards them, apparently without any means of propulsion. It had something of the functional look of the Red Dwarf, save for being grey and not much larger than the Starbug.
"A derelict?" Lister punched in a few numbers and zoomed in on the ship, scanning its surface. "They have some lights on, but that doesn't mean there's people on board. Hold on, here’s a ship name. Titanic II. Property of the... Shitsu-Tonka Corporation?" His eye caught something on the screen, and he zoomed closer. Were those molluscs?
"I think we should take a closer look at this."
How is everyone at the ward? We're doing fine now since Richard reassembled himself and Tim stopped bleeding, though he still sometimes coughs blood, but then so do I in the mornings ever since that time I was stabbed through the lung.
The other boys have hardly been teasing me at all lately,
We're getting along fine since last night after we went to bed. Before that it was a bit tense, but they really aren't a bad lot when they're not around.
And that’s how it's all going to end,
with me restored as the rightful king of the world and an end to the dominion of the frog people. I have to go now, Jocasta. I think I heard something crash into the wall. Should probably check it out.
"What was that?" Paul crawled out of his room just as Tim strode purposefully to the main storage area.
"Sounded like a knock. Somebody's at the door."
"You call that a knock?"
"Hope it's a knock-over. It's been awhile since I saw a boat." Tim leered, put his hands in his pockets and wiggled them. "There it is again!"
This time Paul heard it too - not the crash they’d heard before but an insistent knocking outside the heavy doorway out into open space.
"Well, open it!"
"Open it? We're in space! What about oxygen?"
"What about oxygen?"
"We need it to breathe!"
"Who told you that?"
"Everybody knows that, Paul."
"Everybody thinks that, you mean. I have an uncle who decided to find out for himself, moved into the Dead Sea. Bought a nice bit of bargain real estate at the bottom."
"How did that work out?"
"He blended in with the locale beautifully. Last I heard he had taken up gardening.”
“Yeah. Mum said he was sprouting seaweed."
"Well, you've convinced me." Tim strode to the door and pulled the safety bolts.
The metal slab screeched as it was drawn aside. Lister found himself face to face with a tall, good-looking young man wearing dark overalls, but no spacesuit. This made about as much sense as anything else they'd seen of the place so far.
"Get in, man!" Lister shouted and pushed the man inside, following him in. "We don't know how stable our connection tube is." The young man staggered back in surprise. Kryten and Rimmer followed them in from the oxygenated tube they'd set up between the Starbug and the Titanic II.
Lister waited until the door was safely bolted before unhooking and taking off his helmet. He looked around what looked like the living quarters of someone who was - well, about as tidy as he was. Wall to wall the room was stacked with items from bed linen and cardboard boxes to marble statues and stacks of books reaching all the way up to the arching roof.
The ship, if it was a ship, didn't seem designed for space travel at all, and had been no signs of any engine that could have detached once it had been propelled into orbit. It looked like nothing so much as an underwater facility blasted into space, and that made even less sense than playing pool with planets.
Lister turned back at their host, who was looking them up and down. He felt he should say something. "Well, er... Hello. We’re from the future."
"Hello,” said the young man, suddenly grinning at them like a photo on a teen magazine, even tossing his hair. "I'm Tim. I'm from the past. This is Paul." He gestured for the first time at another man, who was crawling around on the floor dressed in the same kind of dark overalls as Tim. "Don’t know where he's from and I don't think I want to. Welcome on board."
"Er, ta. Are you Australian?"
"We’re all citizens in the Shitsu-Tonka global village."
"Don’t talk to them, Tim," the man called Paul said, crawling now on his hands and knees towards them. "You think they're your friends but they're not. They're not. They hate us."
"Paul, we talked about this. No psychotic episodes while we have guests."
"They make you think they love you but really they hate you. They hate you and they want to take you away. They want to take you away because they hate me. You all hate me. Because you're jealous. You're all jealous because I know the secret."
"What secret, Paul?"
"I know the secret that you're really robots. All of you, not just Richard. And you want to eat my brains."
"Sorry,” Tim said to Lister with an apologetic shrug. "He gets like this."
"This is mad," Rimmer complained, and then seemed to remember himself. He snapped a crisp Rimmer salute. "Second technician Arnold J. Rimmer. This is third technician David Lister. And this is Kryten, a mechanoid."
"Robots!” Paul wailed and ran away.
Rimmer gave his retreating back a look of disgust, and addressed Tim. "We’re here because of some kind of a time or dimension skid we haven't been able to formally categorize yet. What we want to know is, which dimension is this, which planet is that," he gestured towards the window, through which a corner of the blue earth could be seen for a moment as the ship gently rotated on its axis, "and," he glanced at Lister, "if it has such a place as Fiji."
"Fiji, sure." Tim said. "I've been there. It's nice. Could use decent hot dog stand though."
"Yes!" Lister jumped in the air.
"Some of the most architecturally interesting factories in the world."
Lister's face fell. "Factories?"
"Sure. That Swedish designer, what's his name; they had him design forty of them. Some of them even had windows."
"Forty factories on Fiji?" Lister cried. "Are we talking about the same Fiji? The little country with all those islands?"
"It’s more than forty." Tim seemed amused. "They could probably fit in a few hundred if they built more land, or downsized the workers' living quarters."
"You make it sound like the whole place is covered in factories. What about beaches, bars and the blue ocean?"
"Beaches? Blue ocean?" Tim repeated incredulously. "The whole place IS covered in factories. It's the Shitsu-Tonka way." He flashed a roguish smile.
"You’re kidding me!" Lister threw down his helmet. Its reinforced plastic bounced off the floor. "Man, I really thought I had a chance this time. A proper Earth, with proper human beings on it, and it’s all factories!"
"I am sorry, sir," Kryten said, resting a large hand gently on Lister's shoulder.
"Is it even worth looking into it?"
"I would suggest some reconnaissance, sir. It's best to see for yourself."
Rimmer leaned in closer to them. "I wouldn't be surprised if everyone on this ship was just stark barking mad. I'd be too if I was stuck alone in this kind of a space-borne hellhole with a nutcase."
"Hello,” said a new voice. The three of them looked up to see a third young man, this one with a confused, angelic face, crawl out of a round hole set close to the floor. "Hi, I'm Richard. Can you get me out of here?"
"How many people are there on board this ship?"
"Just me, Tim and Paul," Richard said sadly. "I think the others are imaginary."
"What did I tell you?" Rimmer stage-whispered. "Nutcases!"
"Hey, what happened to the other two?" Lister said and looked around. Tim was gone.
The Cat sat in the Starbug control room, stretching his legs over Lister's empty seat and admiring himself in his little pocket mirror. There was something thoroughly alluring about the way the little red and green blinky lights brought out his cheekbones.
The whole place smelled so strongly of monkey that when he smelled one right behind him, he figured someone had just opened a door somewhere and let out a pocket of Lister's old stink. Except there was nobody on board but him--
There was a sharp pain at the back of his head, and his world went black.
"Don’t know what you are," Tim said, grinning as the Cat sunk down on the floor, "but this ship is mine."
"What was that?" Rimmer whipped around as a loud screeching sound just outside the door.
"The tube!" Lister cried out. He picked up his helmet. "Kryten, open it! If we lose the connection we may lose the Starbug!"
"I wouldn’t worry too much if I was you," Richard said quietly. "Nobody ever dies for a very long time here."
"It’s opening, sir!" Kryten said, peeling back the latches. "They must have some kind of a contained invisible oxygen field, because we’re not losing any air."
"We’re losing the tube!" Lister cried. Indeed, the Starbug was moving away slowly, the tube tearing off the Titanic II. "What is the Cat doing?"
"Right," Rimmer said. "Lister, you see if you can hang on to the tube and make it back to the Bug. Kryten and I will stay behind and try to find someway to steer this thing. Come back for us or I swear to God, I will find you and kill you for leaving me with these people."
Lister hardly needed to be told. As soon as the helmet was bolted on he rushed to the door and hurled himself into space, landing inside the tube just as the last of its fastenings popped loose. Half climbing, half running, he struggled towards the Starbug's airlock.
Deep in the bowels of the Titanic II, Flacco was completing the make-up that made him look almost human, with red lips and white skin and the charming twirl of hair on his forehead. "There's only one bug in the stars for me, and that's you," he told his cockroach lover, pleased to hear it purr and click in tenderly at him.
"Right, we need to figure out how to move this craft, thing, whatever it is." Rimmer stepped gingerly over a china set perfectly arranged on the floor next to a doorway. "There's got to be a control room here somewhere."
"Sir, I find that first impressions are often correct, and if this is indeed a submarine station somehow misplaced into space, there will be no control room – or if there is, it's merely a room housing the technology to regulate oxygen levels and perhaps operate a lift system for contact with the surface. I have to say, I'm getting some very unusual readings."
"We’ve got to be able to do something!"
"Alas, on occasion there is no solution. If Mr Lister can't return to us, we may have to prepare ourselves to integrate into the local society."
"Become nutcases, you mean."
"Well, sir, technically I am already insane, since I overrode my programming." Kryten ran his reader over a bust of Evelyn Waugh, started, and moved on.
"But what about me?"
Kryten tactfully ignored the question. "There is no discernible mechanical device to create the artificial gravity, no signs of there ever been an ignition-based propulsion into space despite some rather strange burn marks, and there's a number of fluctuating energy patterns that should not be there. I'm reading four humanoid individuals beside ourselves, but it seems that the laws of physics themselves are bent. Sir, I think this may not be a valid reality."
"You mean we're not really here? That this is some kind of a hallucination?"
"Not exactly, sir. It just appears that on board this ship, a certain law of narrative causality replaces the laws of nature. Things happen because people think they ought to happen, or because they follow a certain pattern of subverted logic."
"Things only happen if they're funny."
Lister reached the control room out of breath, blood seeping into his left eye from a cut he'd suffered as the Starbug shuddered and jerked just as he was taking off his helmet. His eyes searched out the con, but the tall, broad-shouldered figure bent over it was not the Cat. The Cat lay crumbled on the floor. Lister reached for his gun.
"Funny? You mean this is all leading up to some big punchline?"
"Ah, correction, sir," Kryten said. "Things only happen if they’re funny, or if they are deeply, deeply tragic. It appears that tragedy, pain and suffering are cornerstones of the human conception of comedy."
"Yes." Rimmer swallowed. "Considering what I know about comedy... Kryten, we need to get out of here. Right now."
Tim didn’t seem to notice Lister creeping towards him. He was flicking switches and pressing buttons at random. It shouldn't have worked, but the ship was pulling away from the Titanic II, dragging the broken oxygen tube along behind it like a cut umbilical cord.
Lister pressed the barrel of the gun at the back of Tim's neck, right over his spine, and smiled as the man froze. There was a buzzing in his ear, and the world seemed to wink.
"We all go a little crazy out there in the frontlines," he said as Tim spun around, a look of terror etched on his beautiful features. "I know what it's like, boy. I know what you’re thinking. Some days when you’ve spent 36 hours wading through corpses you feel like you’re God. You’re God and you can't be killed. You can run on a broken leg and you can shoot with broken fingers because you are anointed in the blood of your enemies. Jesus is a soldier holding a grenade with his foot on a landmine. But let me tell you one thing, boy. You ain’t God. You ain’t invincible. Yours is the blood that anoints."
Lister’s face twisted in a mad grin. "I'm Bob, and I'm back."
"I think this is it!" Rimmer called out. "Kryten! I think I found the control room."
Rimmer looked around the dark room. There didn't seem to be a light-switch, so he picked up an antique spotlight, conveniently placed on a desk in the corridor, either by narrative causality, coincidence, or for this very purpose. By its beam, he could see the faded lights dotting the darkness were indeed controls covered by a thick layer of dust.
"It doesn't look like anybody's been here in a while," he said, flicking aside a cobweb. "I guess this is where we’ll find out if we were wrong and there is some propulsion technology on board after all. Come on, Kryten, do your scan thing, lickety-split."
Kryten appeared at his side. "If you lick a split, what do you get?" he asked.
"Pretty far if you do it right." He let out a strange high-pitched yelp.
"What are you on about? And what's wrong with your voice?"
"Three wishes. Go on."
"Kryten, are you feeling all right?"
"The name's Flacco, and I'm waiting. Three wishes. Anything in the world. Just name them and they're yours."
"Your name is Kryten and you are not a genie. You are a sanitation mechanoid and you cannot grant wishes. Maybe you should have a bit of a lie-down, run some anti-virus software..."
"All right. My name is Kryten, I am not a genie, and I am a sanitation mechanoid. Pretty strange wishes if you ask me, but who am I to criticize?"
"What - is - going - on?" Rimmer grabbed his hair and pulled. "I'm going insane! I--" He blinked, and his face twisted in agony. "I hate my life," he cried. "My life is like a long string of shit dangling from the asscrack of the world, refusing to snap. My life! My life is like a bad sitcom, a sick extended joke on the torments of the mediocre soul. I hate my life!"
Somewhere in an empty room on board the Titanic II, a screen blared into life. A rousing theme tune accompanied the appearance on screen of three men with plastic hair, who fell into a heroic pose. "Wayne Kerr and his pals, Spinner and Paddlefoot. The only show on Shitsu-Tonka with a G5 violence rating.
"I'm Kerr. Wayne Kerr.
"We've been tracking human traffickers for the past eight months, and we finally reached their hideout. This is the centre from which they operated their business, peddling children as sex slaves to filthy old men. Disgusting!"
The screen's lights danced around the empty room, its noise reverberating off the walls as Wayne Kerr, Spinner and Paddlefoot opened fire on crying children dressed in leather and lace.
Lister's hand pulled the trigger. Tim's blood splattered the window screen. The body crumbled into itself.
Lister grinned, his face distorted by the blinking lights, and began to hum 'The Star-Spangled Banner'.
There was a scuffling on the floor, and the Cat sat up, feeling the bump on the back of his head. He stopped and looked at Lister, then at the body slumped over the controls. "Why did you kill him?" he cried. "He was so gorgeous." He ran his fingers lovingly across Tim's cheekbones, and then bounced up and ran out.
Lister checked his ammo, and followed, walking slowly and purposefully.
Nobody was playing with Richard. Nobody ever did. Just a moment ago Paul had run past him on something he called routine exercise and lectured him on the importance of crew-cuts and pens, but hadn't stopped to chat.
Richard was watering his fish pots, thinking about razorblades, when he heard a "psst" come from the direction of the toilet seat. Curious, he walked the two steps to it and peered in, but could see nothing special there except the stains of past sessions.
"Hello? Is anybody there?" he called.
"It's me. I'm just behind the U-bend. Jesus, it wouldn't hurt for you to clean up here every now and then.”
"I'm sorry, I'll just get the toilet brush--"
"No!" said the little voice. "Not now while I'm down here, you bozo. No, listen. You have three wishes."
"Oh, I remember," Richard said, his face breaking into a grin. "You're my fairy godfish. Have you come to help me again?"
"No," said the voice tartly. "I want you to ask for my three wishes."
"Oh." Richard's face fell. "But I can't grant wishes, fairy godfish."
"That doesn't matter. I just need you to wish them so I can make them come true."
Richard frowned, confused. But then, he didn't need to understand things, he just needed to obey. That's what everybody told him. "Okay. What would you like me to wish for?"
"Our world is in grave danger, Richard. We're inhabiting the same space with two clashing narrative styles. This can't carry on. Everything we know is changing. Everything! I'm even beginning to make sense."
"What can we do?" Richard asked.
"Repeat after me..."
Lister blinked. He found himself standing in a stairway in the Starbug's hold with a gun in his hand, and some heavy fabric draped around his shoulders. The last thing he remembered he'd been in the control room, raising his gun.
He shook off the fabric and it cascaded onto the corridor floor. He recognized it from vintage comic books. The old flag of the United States...?
The Cat's voice carried from somewhere below him. "What happened? My suit!" The Cat screeched in terror, and all Lister heard was a clang of metal as he sped on down into the bowels of the hold.
Lister squeezed his eyes shut. His head was throbbing like mad.
Rimmer blinked, looked down at his feet standing in a full bathtub, and slowly, gingerly, laid the radio he'd been holding down on the dry bathroom sink.
Meanwhile, Kryten was wondering why his mouth tasted like cockroach.
The four of them sat in the control room, each at his station. Lister tried very hard not to look at the line of blood still glistening in a groove alongside the navigation screen, and even harder not to remember where it had come from. He gazed instead at the steadily decreasing image of the Titanic II drifting slowly towards the Shitsu-Tonka Earth's sun.
It had been a close call. Too close, and too insane, and none of them were quite ready to talk about it yet.
Rimmer finally broke the silence. "I smegging hate this time of year."
Somewhere, the Doug Anthony All Stars were singing a song about skullfucking.