“Do you ever think about it?”
Brought back from the edge of sleep, Kristine Kochanski Lister rolled over towards her husband, dislodging the duvet in the process. The room was warm and soft and dully gray; her face all shadows and charcoal angles. “Think about what?”
“Red Dwarf. What it would have been like if you hadn’t left.”
“If I hadn’t left?”
“The pair of us, then.”
“You said I.”
“Never mind what I said,” Dave (never Spanners here, not in this room, in front of that smile with those eyes watching) insisted, hoisting himself up on one elbow. “Do you miss it?”
Kris shrugged, pulling at the duvet. “I dunno. I don’t remember much of it; the shifts all ran together by the end, to be honest. When you’ve got a degree in astronavigation, you’d rather like to do more with it than just sit around repeating what a computer says, you know what I mean?” She frowned. “Why do you ask?”
Dave smiled, shaking his head slowly. “I suppose it’s Ace.”
Kris snorted. “Oh, Ace.”
“He's out there right now, jumping between dimensions, exploring uncharted territory…”
“It’s not like we did much exploring on Red Dwarf. Unless you count the entertainment sector on Mimas as uncharted territory.”
“If only it was.” Dave shuddered briefly with drunken, uncomfortable memories. “But you know what I mean. He was always going on about how there’s so much out there to explore; like how, if there are no aliens, there has to be something.”
Kris yawned, and Dave shrugged himself back under the covers, his mind still buzzing. He hadn’t been able to sleep since Ace left, though paradoxically, he felt more energetic than ever. He just couldn’t stop thinking. Take the alien thing; there were no aliens, everybody knew that. But, well, maybe it didn’t have to be aliens? Listening to Ace talking, it was so easy to believe… you wanted to believe, just so he’d be right.
Dave shifted, uneasily. “They say there are all these different dimensions. Billions and billions of them, all different. Maybe there’s one where there are aliens? Or maybe one where people evolved from… dinosaurs, or fish or something, not monkeys.”
“Apes,” Kris corrected him gently, her voice muffled.
“Maybe there’s even some crazy dimension where I’m better looking than Ace?” He grinned, turning his head just in time for Kris to smack it with a pillow.
“Maybe there’s one where David Lister lets his wife sleep though the night?”
Throwing the pillow back, Dave giggled, settling under the dark grey duvet. It didn’t look much different from the rest of the room in this half-light. Everything was dull and soft; soothing. Yet here he was, wide awake.
“Do you miss him?” Kris said, suddenly.
“It’d only be natural, you know. He was your best friend.”
In the darkness, Kris’s hand found his, and squeezed it. “Go to sleep, Dave.”
“I will. I just… sometimes… sometimes I wonder what he’s doing right now.”
The distant, guttural moans echoed across the decaying urban landscape, as ubiquitous as the dusty wind tearing at Ace’s pristine leather jacket. He swore guiltily under his breath and made a note to increase his nightly oiling regimen. Right now, however, there were more urgent matters to attend to.
Just about 1,4 clicks to the nor’North East, he could make out the formerly neon lit sign of an abandoned all night diner. The person he was here to rescue would be huddled up somewhere just to the North of that, from what the Wildfire’s computer had told him; one or two streets down. Night would fall in about 27 minutes; as yet, the sky stretched pale green and clear above him, but he would have to act quickly.
“25 minutes to nightfall, babe,” the computer reminded him from its portable interface on his wrist.
“26, but thanks anyway, old girl.”
“Do be careful, Ace. I’ve seen what those creatures are capable of; they’ll rip you apart as soon as look at you!”
Ace frowned. “Seen them? How could have seen them before?” There were no such things as return trips in dimensional travel; the friction would tear you apart. It was literally like an interdimensional electric fence, protecting the universe from too much meddling. Well, perhaps not literally; no actual fences or electricity was involved, and explaining the process itself would involve around 30 average sized whiteboards worth of equations. The point was, you couldn’t go back.
“Oh, just a manner of speech,” the computer said, rather too quickly. Ace filed that away for future consideration; the sky was darkening to an ominous cucumber, and he was still half a click away from where he needed to be.
“Never mind, gorgeous. Just keep those stunning sensors of yours alert, and let me know at the first sign of trouble.”
“Sure thing, Ace,” the computer swooned, switching the remote link off.
Ace allowed himself a small, frustrated sigh. This would be a lot easier if he knew who he was actually looking for. The distress call had come from a small escape pod, which had landed somewhere outside whichever city this once had been. The onboard manifest had revealed very little, except for the fact that its single passenger had been female, which had come as no surprise to Ace. They usually were. His computer was working with the pod’s computer, trying to squeeze out any further information, meanwhile, he was on his own.
The planet was probably Earth, though these things were often hard to tell. Interdimensional differences between planets could mean anything from variations in continental shift to kumquats being a different color. One thing was certain; at some point, something had gone terribly wrong with the planet’s GELF population. Or, more accurately; the GELFs were fine. Less could be said for the human population, which was currently nil. The only non-GELF life sign Ace had been able to pick up, was his elusive shipwrecked friend, somewhere in this area.
He was making his way across the diner’s parking lot when the computer’s overly sensual voice chimed in again. “Ace, darling?”
“Talk to me, baby girl.” The ground was covered in a disturbing, pinkish dust the origins of which Ace didn’t particularly want to dwell on.
“I managed to wrestle some more information out of the pod, Ace.”
“Another hidden talent, m’dear? I had no idea computers could wrestle.”
“Oh, Ace!” A somewhat disturbing electronic giggle sounded. “I mean, I found out who it is you’re rescuing. She’s a Doctor.”
“Astrophysics. Kristine Kochanski.”
In the middle of brushing down his expensive leather boots, Ace froze. “Kochanski, eh? There’s a turn up for the books.”
“Brought someone with her, has she?” If Kris was here, the local version of David Lister would not be far away. The thought made Ace smile.
The computer made an effort to cough politely. “In a manner of speaking. She’s pregnant.”
Nodding, Ace fished into the pocket of his flight suit jacket for his sunglasses. “So I’m rescuing a pregnant scientist from a horde of crazed z…”
“I thought we’d agreed not to use the ‘z’ word,” the computer interrupted, petulantly.
“Nevertheless.” Ace slipped his sunglasses on. No way to tell the color of the sky with them shielding his eyes. “All in a day’s work.”
“I suppose you miss him, don’t you?”
“Eh?” Spanners let the piece of beetroot slip off his fork, scholoping slimily back onto his tray. The food in the enlisted personnel’s cafeteria was shite, and he hated eating there unless he had to, which unfortunately, due to his schedule, was rather often.
The Padre looked at him expectantly, and suddenly, realization hit.
“Who, Ace? Yeah, I do. ‘Course I do.”
Nodding sagely, as though Spanners had just shed new and interesting light on the nature of original sin, the Padre carefully picked up a roll and began to butter it with firm, easy swipes. “The children ask about him all the time, wondering where he’s gone to, what he’s doing.” He eyed the roll critically, as though addressing it. “I don’t know what to tell them. He was a good man.”
“Is,” Spanners corrected him, attempting to stab the beetroot again, slightly more aggressively than strictly necessary.
Looking up from his roll, the Padre coughed politely. “And how’s your lovely wife these days?”
“Don’t change the subject; he’s not dead. Why do people keep talking about him like he’s dead?”
The Padre frowned. “I’m not sure what you mean, my son?”
Feeling a bit ridiculous, Spanners put his fork down, cutting the beet into neat, smaller pieces. “Never mind. It’s just odd, you know? Not having him around.”
They ate in silence for a while, until suddenly, the Padre caught his hand, patting it gently. “If you ever need to talk…”
Spanners pulled his hand away. “Thanks, but you know I’m not into the whole invisible pink unicorn thing.”
The Padre stiffened, just noticeably. “The Invisible Pink Unicorn has not been a part of official Church doctrine for more than forty years now.”
Oh right, the mischievous part of Spanners thought, and how could you possibly know it was gone? But that was the sort of impulse he’d worked very hard to repress, so he merely smiled politely, left the table, and recycled his tray.
The thing about post-apocalyptic landscapes, Ace had come to find, was that buildings all started to look the same when they reached a certain level of decay. The building coming up on the right side of the street seemed a promising shape and size, though. His ship’s computer had come up with another useful tidbit of information; Kochanski had been suffering from gestational diabetes, and the medicine cabinet in the pod had been damaged on impact. She would very likely be heading for the nearest hospital, which should be… ah. Ace allowed himself a smirk as he noted the faded red and white cross just above the building’s door. 17 minutes to go, he told himself, pointlessly looking to either side before crossing the street. Some habits were harder to break than others.
Kristine Kochanski! Ace had rescued quite a few of them over the years, as he had David Listers, or even… well. He shook that particularly unpleasant thought away. He had to focus. Somewhere in the building in front of him was a wounded pregnant woman, desperately in need of his help. The poor thing was probably cowering somewhere, weeping and afraid for her life. Truth be told, Ace was somewhat relieved that she was pregnant. With Kochanskis, there was always a moral dilemma; obviously, they would want to shag him, but would it be ethical of him to have sex with them? Most of them were usually in some sort of a relationship with a Lister, and Ace considered every David Lister a close and personal friend. But the preggers thing, well, it eased things quite considerably; shifting the balance firmly towards ‘no sex’. Good.
The doors weren’t locked. As he burst through them and up the stairs to the mezzanine where the elevators were, Ace idly wondered if that was a good or bad sign, up until the point where the crossbow bolt nailed him to the wall.
“I don’t mind telling you,” Bongo’s eyebrows, like the rest of the man, jittered nervously, “I haven’t quite been myself since he left.”
Hunched over the station commander’s computer, Spanners did his best to nod politely without appearing too interested. If you appeared interested, Bongo would go on for hours. It was odd; Spanners didn’t think he even knew what Bongo’s real name was. When Ace gave you a nickname, it stuck.
“Is that right?” Spanners mumbled, plugging in wires as hastily as he could.
“It took me a full week to get the hummus out of the upholstery, for one thing.”
Spanners sighed. “You know that’s not Ace’s thing.”
Bongo shook his head sadly. “Oh, I know.” For a few, terrified moments, Spanners was convinced he was going to cry. Eventually, he seemed to mentally pull himself together, however, busying himself with aligning the stationery on his desk. “But you can’t blame a man for trying.”
“I suppose not.”
“He was the life and soul of the station.” Bongo fiddled with a tape dispenser, repeatedly failing to fit it between the stapler and the auto-copier. He looked up at Spanners, who was just fitting the case back onto the computer, screwdriver stuck in his mouth. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”
“Oow...” he spat the screwdriver out, “no?”
“He was just always there! Chatting with the crew, helping out in the hangars, in the R&D labs giving helpful pointers… What a guy. I swear I even saw him in the cafeteria once, serving up chow in an apron and a hairnet.” He paused, eyes glazing over. “He looked magnificent.”
“Yeah, well.” Packing his tools together, Spanners got up. The thing was, Bongo was right. With Ace gone, nothing did feel right; like all the colors had drained away. Life was as bland as a station cafeteria meal, now. But so what? There was nothing anyone could do about it, and people harping on about it just made him depressed. “I’ve got to get going.”
Bongo’s hand was suddenly on his arm. “You don’t have to hide it, you know.”
“I know what you’re going through. Ace was your best friend.”
“Well… yeah.” Spanner scratched the back of his neck. Were the temperature controls off in this office?
“When we lose a loved one… not that Ace… I mean…” Bongo flushed like a beet on holiday in the Algarve, “not that Ace was your….”
“No, that’s what I’m saying; I know you two weren’t…”
“He’s not smegging dead, fer smeg’s sake!” Kicking the computer into place with his boot, Spanners muttered an apology under his breath, and did his best not to storm out. He couldn’t go on like this. For some reason, he suddenly wanted to go on holiday to Portugal.
For some reason, the phrase ‘Don’t be alarmed; I’ve come to rescue you’ didn’t come quite as easily when you were nailed to the wall by a steel bolt. The best Ace had been able to manage under the circumstances had been a less than impressive ‘hullo’. Thankfully, the bolt didn’t seem to have gone through more than his jacket. Then again, his arm, had it been shot, would have healed. Of course, it still would have been inside the jacket. He reached up, trying to get a feel for the damage.
“ Don’t move a muscle!”
The shout had come from the stairs to the upper floors which, Ace now noted, had been barricaded with an impressive number of medical supply boxes. He should have seen that immediately; he was slipping. From behind these boxes a lithe figure now approached – or rather, lithe except for the fact that it appeared to be five months pregnant. Ace was expecting the face; Kristine Kochanskis came in two main flavors across dimensions. This was the smaller, puckish looking type, much like the one Spanners was married to. The familiar face was nice, and Ace found himself focusing on it, rather than the massive crossbow she was wielding.
Ace was about extend a friendly greeting when she cocked her head to one side and, narrowed her eyes. “You again?”
“Whatever; there’s no time. Just get behind me.”
“I…” Ace pulled away, but the jacket wouldn’t budge.
“Oh, for smeg’s sake.” With one hand, Kochanski tore him away from the wall, the jacket giving way with a painful ‘rrrrttsjjjj’, and pushed him towards the stairs. “I said, get behind me!”
“Ace?” The computer flicked to life on his arm.
“Not now, gorgeous.”
“Get ready!” With some difficulty, Kochanski got down on one knee, keeping aim at the doors below.
“Get ready for what?”
“Ace,” the computer nearly screamed “time’s up!”
The doors exploded.
On this particular planet, or so the local interplanetary information networks had relayed to Ace’s computer, scientists had come up with a unique way of enhancing GELF lifespan. Getting GELF biology to work without shutting itself or various key processes down at the – sometimes literal – drop of a hat, was a challenge to begin with. Many GELF genotypes were notoriously unstable, yet still desirable for various work shunned by regular, non-engineered folk with inexplicable aversions to things like toxic medical waste, sewage and radiation, or lacking double jointed legs or a proboscis. Work to prevent degradation of GELF physiology was always ongoing, but the local projects only met with real success when the food service industry got involved.
Using a combination of gene therapy and methods commonly used to increase shelf life for meat based products, a generation of GELFs were eventually produced that virtually could not die. Unfortunately, as was discovered when the first individual accidentally fell into a garbage compactor and came out still walking, the hindbrain remained active even when the rest of the brain was dead, controlling the remaining, rapidly decaying body. And hindbrains weren’t generally noted for their aptitude for civilized discourse.
The altered GELF population at the time was approximately six million. The human population was at least twice that, but unfortunately for humans, they had no cure for death.
Humans were, however, the GELFs discovered, quite delicious.
Ace watched the approaching horde of shambling humanoids for half a second before his instincts kicked in, propelling him back towards the barricades with his gun drawn. Almost immediately, however, there was a hand on his arm.
“We can’t hole ourselves up in here; the only way is up!”
“I’m glad to hear you’re keeping your spirits high,” Ace shouted back through the gunfire – Kochanski’s crossbow was as good as silent, “but shouldn’t we…”
“I mean literally, twonko!”
Ace nodded, understanding. If took they took the stairs, the horde would only follow. And when they got to the roof, they’d be trapped. The only way out was… He shot a couple of wailing figures in matching day-glo orange overalls with ‘Caution: Health Hazard’ on the front, peering over their toppling bodies to glimpse the exit doors. “Can you keep up?” He shouted in Kochanski’s direction, but she was already running ahead of him, smacking the smaller GELFs with the butt of her crossbow and expertly dodging the larger ones.
“I’m parked two clicks to the North,” the computer chirped, helpfully, as Ace dove into the fray.
The Wildfire's sound system was playing smooth 21st century jazz, a pleasant backdrop to Kochanski's excited chatter. This one certainly was more talkative than the others Ace had come across, though perhaps part of it was the after-effects of the adrenaline rush. Ace had never seen a pregnant woman kick someone’s arm off.
“…by then, of course, I figured out why they were nocturnal, not that it mattered very much.” She paused, and for a moment, there was a certain something in her eyes. Not the usual certain something; they’d been over that. Pregnancy. Best friend. Marriage, and so forth. No, something else…
The ship really did fly itself most of the time, but Ace pretended to concentrate on the controls anyway. “So, where’s home? Not that you’re unwelcome, but the old girl barely has sleeping space for one.”
Kochanski kept her eyes on him, smiling strangely now. “There’s a base on the fourth planet’s moon. Most people were relocated to other colonies, but a small team stayed behind to try to solve the problem. I was recruited to help.”
“You and Lister, eh?”
That earned him a raised eyebrow in response, but she quickly recovered. “Yeah. We’ve been married five years; this’ll be our third.” She nodded, indicating her stomach. “How did you know?”
Ace shrugged. “Long story short, there are a lot of dimensions out there. I’ve been to quite a few over the years. Listers and Kochanski’s usually come in pairs.”
She seemed amused. “Really?”
“Certainly. So what’s your Lister like?”
Amusement gave way to keen interest. “There are differences?”
Ace chuckled. “And how! In dimensions that are close together you don’t notice much, but take a few steps sideways, and you’ll find any flavor. I’ve met short Listers, tall Listers, Listers who finished art college; Listers who made a career in zero G football – all lovely people, of course.”
“Oh yes! Just like the Listers; like anyone – different looks, different lives, but the same basic template. Variations on a theme. I’ve even met one or two Kristoffer Kochanski’s.” He’d meant to lightened the mood, but Kochanski looked shooked.
“There’s a dimension where Deb is straight?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ace,” the computer interjected smoothly, “we’re closing in on the base.”
Ace cleared his throat, politely. “Well. Time for goodbyes, I suppose.”
In the seat beside him, Kochanski shifted slightly, her face falling into a frown. From this angle she looked absurdly small, like a pregnant elf. “You know,” she said, eventually, “earlier, when I thought I recognized you?”
“Yes?” She must have had a bad experience with the Rimmer in this dimension. That would certainly explain her earlier behavior.
Kochanski turned towards him, turning off the computer’s speakers in one smooth motion. “I think we need to talk.”
The fact that she hadn’t messaged him had already made the answer obvious, but Spanners still felt his heart sink when Kris took his hand over the dinner table and actually told him in soft, gentle terms. Like he was the one that needed soothing! The hand, he noticed, was trembling just a bit.
“Hey,” he said, giving it a reassuring squeeze, “it’s all right. We’ll try again, eh?”
Kris smiled. She’d put candles up and made his favorite; Vindaloo with extra chilis. Spanners couldn’t remember the last time they’d had it; he tried to stay off spicy foods, just in case it, well, interfered with anything. “Yeah,” she said, like she really believed it. “We’ll be fine.”
There was wine even; in her glass too. Another reminder. He felt a sudden, almost violent surge of tenderness, and leaned in towards her. “Listen,” he said, brushing the hair away from her eyes, “it’ll be OK. I promise. This is going to happen. We’ll be a family.”
“We are a family…” Kris began, just as the sirens started.
Spanners sighed. Leaning in even further, he planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek, then jumped away from the table, reaching for his tool box. “I’ll be back right away.”
From the sound of it, you’d think the entire station was on fire. Spanners ran down the corridor towards the hangar bay, where his pager told him the emergency was. Impossibly, as the massive doors whooshed open to admit him, the sound got worse, as though someone had tried to put the fire out with acid. Possibly alcoholic acid. Spanners certainly hoped so; he would need a strong drink after this.
Minerva, the flight coordinator, was huddled by the maintenance shed, waving frantically at him. Spanners hurried over. “What’s the problem, he yelled.
“We don’t know! All systems indicate an incoming flight, but there’s none scheduled, and there’s nothing in visual or radar range!
“So not ALL systems, then?!”
She didn’t seem to welcome the comment. “Don’t get smart with me! You know what this means!
And suddenly, as the air began to crackle and sound seemed to bend, Spanners realized he knew exactly what she meant. When the charred and burning but still in-on-piece-seeming Wildfire blinked into existence, Spanners just about had the presence of mind to yell for fire control. But then he was running, safety and protocol delightfully forgotten just for this moment, towards the silver-suited man slowly emerging from the cockpit.
With considerable effort, Ace removed his sunglasses, revealing that the skin around them had been dangerously burned. “Spanners,” he choked, blinking “I told you to smoke me a kipper, but this is taking things too far!”
Unless you were a test pilot or an engineer with too few hours in the day, there was surprisingly little to distract you on Mimas Base. The enlisted men and women welcomed any excuse for a party, and Ace’s return made it more or less an order. In point of fact, when word reached Bongo, it became a standing order.
Food and drink was rustled up by chefs commanded back on duty; makeshift decorations were made in record time, some of them looking suspiciously like women’s underwear. By the time Ace himself arrived, having been patched up by the stations medi-droids, there was even a banner made of stitched-together bedsheets, bearing the legend ‘Welcoe Abck Ace’ hastily written across it in marker pen. By that point, the party had been going for at least an hour, giving some of the rougher and tougher crew members an inebriated excuse for the teary bear hugs they treated him to.
Spanners watched from a distance, too overwhelmed to feel anything but numb. He had sent a hurried text to Kris, who had begged off, claiming a headache. All things considered, Spanners didn’t feel much like a party himself, but, well… it was Ace.
When the welcome committee had settled down and everyone had gotten their fill of him, so to speak, Ace sidled down towards Spanners’s corner, a drink in each hand. “Well then, Spanneroo,” he said, setting down one glass and raising his own.
Spanners raised the offered drink in return. “So,” he said, after a half-hearted sip, “you came back.”
“A near thing, but yes.”
“Didn’t think you could do that.”
“Like I said, it was a near thing.”
Spanners nodded. Ace was watching him rather closely in a casual sort of way; like he used to when he was helping him prep for his engineering exams and was waiting for the right moment to ask a surprise question about power couplings. “Well, everyone’s missed you ‘round here.”
Ace quirked a smile. “So I’ve gathered.”
“Yeah. Funny that; you’ve only been gone…”
“…five years,” said Ace.
“…three months, said Spanners.
They stared at one another. Finally, Ace shrugged. “Time moves differently between dimensions, I suppose.”
“More or less. I must admit, you tend to lose count after a while.”
Spanners shook his head, mouth falling open. He knew he looked ridiculous, but he couldn’t help it. Five years. That was longer than he and Kris had been married! “Oh smeg. You must think I’m a right twonk if this is how I welcome ya after five years!”
Ace said nothing, merely sipped his drink and kept looking at him. It was starting to make Spanners feel a little uncomfortable.
“I’ll try to make it up to ye.” As always when he got excited, his accent reasserted itself. “Ye’ll have to come ‘round fer dinner; Kris isn’t feeling too good, but I could always rustle up something. It’d keep ye away from Bongo’s party.”
Ace’s face twitched, presumably trying not to grimace. “Planning one, is he?”
“Last I heard.” Spanners mentally replayed their last comlink conversation; he had sounded rather hysterical, there had been screeching vacuum-bots in the background.
“In that case, I’ll take your offer. You know me, Spanners; these formal dinner parties bore the life out of me. I wouldn’t know my forks from my filet mignons.”
“I’m not sure it would have been all that formal.”
They both downed the rest of their drinks, at that.
“That’s settled then.” Ace wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, somehow managing to make it look elegant. “I look forward to it.”
“Yeah,” Spanners grinned, “Kris’ll be glad to see ya.”
“How is the family these days?”
Spanners raised an eyebrow. “Fine. Just fine. There’s still just the two of us, if that’s what you mean.” It wasn’t like Ace to be so insensitive. Something was definitely off, but then again, he’d been through a lot. Five years, Spanners thought again. It sounded like a lifetime.
“Of course,” Ace said, not missing a beat. “Sorry old fruit; didn’t mean to speak out of turn.” As Spanners protested that everything was fine; no harm done, Ace collected both of their glasses, and excused himself, nodding in the direction of the makeshift bar.
Spanners watched him go, settled back into his chair and finally allowed himself to relax. Of course everything was fine. Ace was back, if a little shaken, and soon, everything would be back to normal, like before. It had been a long day, and the chair was comfortable, but for once, Spanners didn’t worry about falling asleep. Ace would wake him; and besides, he’d earned a rest.
It was only when he happened to look at his watch and saw that nearly fifteen minutes had passed that he realized that Ace had gone.
“Are you absolutely sure about this, Ace?” The computer cooed.
“That’s a fine question, coming from you.”
A disembodied voice shouldn’t be able to pout, but the computer did its best. “Come on, darling! You’re not still mad about that, are you? I only did it to protect you.”
“You lied to a human being. I thought they put Asimov-circuits in AIs to prevent that sort of thing.” Thrusters at the ready; so. Wings in take-off position.
“They’re the ones that made me do it! I’m hard wired to keep you from harm, you know.”
Fuel at maximum capacity. Testing diagnostics. (He was in a hurry, but you had to test the diagnostics. Otherwise, how could you tell if what told you what was working was working or not?) “You lied to me.”
“I only omitted the truth. You can see why now, surely?
Ace certainly could see why, but it didn’t make him feel any better. Refraining from further comment, he flipped the final switches, pressed the last buttons, and slowly eased the Wildfire out of dock. The ship was self-repairing; he’d been given a set of maintenance-nanos when he saved a research station from a herd of sentient lab rats a couple of years back, and having been given a few hours to work, they now had everything more or less back to normal. Ace had made it a point to learn the generation sequence for the hangar bay doors before his first flight, and luckily, they seemed to be working. As they passed through into open space, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He had stopped taking anything for granted anymore.
Somehow, out here in the airless void, it was easier to breathe. Ace took the ship one quarter of an AU away from the base, then shut the thrusters off and leaned back in his seat.
“Ready when you are,” the computer purred.
Ace quirked a smile. “Then let’s go.”
He curled his fingers around the dimensional shift, and pulled. The stars slid sideways, like hamburgers on greased paper.
What the ship’s blueprints charitably called a ‘bunk space’ was essentially just a hole in the back wall, which led to a enclosure in which lay a mattress, just long enough for a man of Ace’s height to lie down without serious injury, and just wide enough for just less than comfort. Spanners wasn’t quite as tall, but nonetheless the fit had been a snug one. The idea of Ace seducing women in there was both impressive and terrifying. With some amount of effort, Spanners managed squeezed himself out. Ace hadn’t heard him, apparently; he was looking out through the viewscreen, slumped back in the pilot’s seat.
The view wasn’t any different, of course. Space was space, after all; there were limits to how difficult a childhood giant flaming balls of gas could have. They didn’t tend to be held back a year from their development cycle, either. It was rather pretty, though, and Spanners watched it for a while before clearing his throat. “So, where’re we going?”
The pilot’s seat wasn’t made for violent reactions and would not turn, so Ace’s knee hit the edge of the navicomp console hard when he twisted around.
“I said,” Spanners raised his voice, irritation shining through now, “where’re we going?”
Something rather odd was happening to Ace’s face. He was actually gaping. He just sat there, staring, and Spanners was about to raise his voice again when Ace jumped to his feet, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. He was shouting, but the words didn’t appear to make much sense; there were some “twonks” and “idiots” in there, as well as some harsher language, but it was all incoherent and ridiculous, and after a few seconds more, Spanners had had enough.
“What the smeg is wrong with you, man?”
Ace had sat back down in the chair and was clearly trying to pull himself together. It was odd to be towering above him like that, but in all honesty, for once, Spanners felt like the bigger man.
“What was that about, eh? Yeah, it’s me; I sneaked in while you were testing the diagnostics. Didn’t occur to you to lock the aft maintenance hatch, did it? I locked it after me when I got in, by the way; if that thing had been open during the jump, we could have split into four different people. No need to thank me.”
Having regained some measure of composure, Ace looked up at him. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I shouldn’t be here? Ace; you come back after five years; that’s how long it was for you, you said, get yerself patched up, have a few drinks and then just leave? It was just a few months for us, but it was like a part of everything was missing, with you gone. Everyone was smegging miserable – you saw how they welcomed you!”
“You really shouldn’t be here.”
“Is that right? Well, if I shouldn’t be here, then take me back! It’s clear you don’t give two goited shits about me or anyone else, if ye can’t stand being around us for more than five minutes!”
“I…” Ace looked miserable. Utterly dejected, like a scrawny cat rescued from a washing machine. “I can’t take you back, old chum.”
“Just do it,” Spanners snapped, blood rushing. To his amazement, Ace nodded, and started plotting in the course.
Suddenly, the stars slid sideways, like doughnuts out of a cheap paper bag.
When the world reasserted itself, everything was white hot fire. Everything outside the ship, that was. Inside, the hull creaked in agony as Ace wrestled with the controls to keep it steady.
This must be what a shooting star feels like, Spanners thought, peeling himself off the wall. The ship wasn’t actually on fire, of course; there was no oxygen out here to sustain it. Spanners didn’t feel much like conversation, but the question slipped out anyway: “Is it always like that?”
“No.” Ace almost sounded like himself again. “The closer you get to your home dimension, the rougher the ride.”
Neither of them had much more to say about the subject, and they spent the rest of the journey from the jump point in silence. The moment they reached the station, Spanners was out of the ship and hitting the ground running, almost before the engines had died down. He could almost feel Ace watching him from the cockpit, but he didn’t care. He’d been gone far too long; he’d told Kris he’d only stay an hour or two at the party, and he’d been away at least four, by now.
The corridors were quiet. Normal for this time of night, but Spanners couldn’t help but grimace at the fact that it was at least partly due to Ace’s welcome back party. He took the long way round to avoid the mess hall, cursing when a corridor didn’t lead where he thought it did. He must have been more tired than he thought, or maybe it was the anger. By the time he reached his and Kris’s quarters, his hands were shaking so much that he couldn’t get his keycard to work, and had to punch in the security override.
The lights were on, which meant Kris was still up, so he stomped on through to the living room without even bothering to kick off his boots. “Twonking bastard,” he yelled, rounding the corner. “Babe; you won’t believe…” He froze.
Kris was sitting on the sofa, a bright, if puzzled smile on her face. “Won’t believe what, darling?”
Her eyes were a different shade of green, and her hair was wrong, but Spanners wasn’t looking at her face. He was looking at the two small, sleeping bodies draped over her lap. A small sound came out of him, soft like a whimper.
“They wanted to wait up for you. I told them no, but half an hour ago, back out they came.” Her smile faded as she watched him standing there, staring. “What? What is it?”
Ace checked his watch. Just about fifteen minutes exactly. Less than he’d expected. He braced himself as Spanners ran towards him, standing his ground. He could have dodged the fist that came flying towards him, but he fully deserved the black eye that would result. He should have been paying closer attention. He’d guessed the truth even before Kochanski had told him about the other Ace she’d met; it stood to reason. If one Ace Rimmer had gone off to jump between dimensions, there had to be others. But he’d never had proof; not before then.
He’d been stupid though; unforgivably stupid. He’d confronted the computer, and when it finally, reluctantly, admitted that there were others; that they sometimes communicated, that there was an information network of sorts, he’d been so sure it had been lying about going back, too.
He should have known. He should have realized when he first looked into his friend’s eyes. There were differences. There were always differences.
“Who are you?” Spanners yelled, swinging at him again. This time, Ace caught his wrist. “What have you done to me?!”
“I’m Arnold Judas ‘Ace’ Rimmer.”
“The smeg you are!”
“I am,” Ace repeated, firmly. “But I’m not the Ace you knew.”
“What are ye talking about; you came home! You said you’d come home!”
Ace shook his head, sadly. “I thought I had. But there’s no turning back, Spanners. The boys in the lab weren’t wrong about that. You can’t return to your home dimension. The friction is just too high; even if you try, you’d just get shifted into the closest equivalent available.” He looked Spanners straight in the eye, still holding his wrist, firmly. “So you can’t go back. But you can go somewhere quite like it.”
Slowly, horror and understanding seeped into Spanners’s face. “No.” He twisted in Ace’s grip. “Take me back. You have to take me back!”
Ace fought to keep his voice steady. “No can do, old friend.”
“I’m not yer friend! If you’re not him, that means the real Ace is out there, somewhere. He’d know what to do! He’ll come back and rescue me!”
The words were loud and angry, but Spanners had stopped struggling. With a sigh, Ace let him go. “The Ace you knew is out there, but he’s not the original Ace. I’m not either.” He caught Spanners’s eye. “And you’re not the first Spanners, either. There was a first; there had to be. But there is an infinite number of dimensions and an infinite number of dimensional alternates, and people like you and me, Spanneroo; we’re just a couple of peas in a never-ending pod. Just making up the numbers.” He tried to smile, but the expression on Spanners’s face made it impossible.
“I told her I’d be back right away.”
“If she’s anything like the Kris in my dimension – or any dimension, come to that – she’ll put two and two together, eventually.”
“I’ll never see her again.”
There was nothing he could reply to that, so Ace didn’t.
“You said there were others out there… other Kristine Kochanskis?”
Ace shifted, uncomfortably. They were heading into dangerous territory. “Yes. No two exactly alike.”
Much calmer now, Spanners nodded. “There has to be others that have lost their husbands, then.”
Ace sighed. He had to be firm. “Yes, but…”
“I know I can’t replace anyone.” He looked up, and amazingly, he was smiling. “But I could be there for them. Make for some of it, somehow.”
He smiled, and that’s when Ace realized that it would be all right.
“We need to do something about the bunking situation though. I’m not sharing that thing with you.”
“It’s all right,” Ace winked, climbing into the cockpit, “We’ll make some changes. I know a good mechanic.”
“D’ye ever think about it?”
“Think about what, sir?”
Lister turned in his chair, leaning backwards and getting an upside down view of Kryten as he patiently polished the long range scanner. “Red Dwarf. What it would have been like for us if the accident had never happened.”
“For us, sir?”
Lister shrugged. “Well, yeah. If you’d’ve been in the crew.”
“A highly unlikely event. It would require not just a complicated series of temporal anomalies, but would also - begging your pardon, sir – seriously endanger your own employment.” Whistling somewhat out of tune to himself, the mechanoid resumed his buffing of a clear plastic button.
“Never mind that! Can’t you just imagine it?”
Kryten paused, twisting the buffing cloth in his hands. “I suppose I could. Is there any reason why I should, sir?”
Lister smiled, shaking his head slowly. “You’re not even curious, are ye?”
Kryten chuckled. “Oh, I’m more than content with my lot, sir. A small lander like Starbug is much easier to keep nice and clean. I suppose the laundry facility leaves something to be desired, but what’s life without a little challenge?”
“Yeah, well; that’s my point, Krytes. You’ve got yer less than stellar washer and dryer; what’ve I got? What’ve I got to overcome, eh?”
“You mean, besides frequent mortal peril, dangerously low supply levels, your intermittently acute claustrophobia, and -”
“What’s going on here? What’s that?” Charging through the door, Rimmer elbowed Kryten out of the way.
“It’s called a conversation, Rimmer. People with social skills have them.”
“Not that, you gimboid;” Rimmer pointed a shaking finger towards the
Appearing from under the navigator’s seat, Cat stretched, sniffing the air. “Bakofoil bud!” He paused, wrinkling his nose. “There’s someone with him, though.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Rimmer slumped down on the nearest chair. “Oh, just get on with it and hail them; whomever else is in there can’t be that bad. I can’t imagine anything worse than having two of myself around.”
Grinning, Lister pressed the hailing button.