Being Ace wasn't about which side your bread was buttered on. Not really. It takes all kinds in the multiverse; it wouldn't be the multiverse if it didn't, and while some Aces were strictly butter-side-up (though those were few and far between), others moistened their bread products in infinitely varied ways. It was taken as read, however, that you were fond of butter, in general. Or, well… at all.
The current Ace Rimmer – number 1 536 643, as it happened, but who was counting – worried at his lip. There didn't seem to be any survivors on the station, but you could never be sure. Right around this corner, or the next one, a simpering, scantily clad young man or woman could be cowering, waiting to throw themselves into Ace's arms and upon his mercy, as well as other, more tangible things. And, to be perfectly frank about it, not that Frank had ever been forthright, Ace wasn't overly fond of that sort of thing.
It had been easy when he was just plain regular Arnold Judas Rimmer; far easier than he'd realized at the time. Before he died, no one had seemed particularly interested in having sex with him, and after death, it had been something of a moot point, anyway. He wanted to have sex with women, of course, because that was you were supposed to do. The few, fleeting encounters he'd had with the opposite sex had been fairly enjoyable, in the manner of a cup of hot, strong tea, but all that bumping and grinding and moaning and petting had seemed rather excessive and ridiculous. Sex with Nirvanah Crane, for example, had felt somewhat like being forced to play a board game to which everyone else knew the rules, and having to bluff your way through. Even though he won multiple times, as it were, they seemed like flat, hollow victories.
It was after that he'd began to seriously worry that he was gay. He'd liked Nirvanah, he'd liked her a lot, and though her breasts had been firm and shapely, yet soft to fondle, Rimmer had never felt any driving urge to do so. And if he couldn't feel drawn to someone like Nirvanah then, well…
Most of the lights in the corridors were out, but the soft glow of the computer banks was enough to highlight the surroundings in a dull, light blue flicker. Ace cleared his throat, more for the benefit of anyone listening than to clear his non-existent airways, and stepped carefully around the corner. "If anyone is out there," he said, in his most reassuring voice, "make yourself known."
If anyone were out there, Ace hoped they at least were male. He'd been convinced he fancied men by the time he became Ace, and so he'd tried to sleep with them. It was better than women, in a lot of ways; their bodies weren't so uncomfortably alien, and he tended to find them more attractive, but he'd been surprised to find that he had no particular urge to seek out male sexual partners either. After a while, he figured there had to be something wrong with him. Holography was a complicated process after all; fraught with potential malfunctions. Lack of sex drive was a minor problem compared to what could have happened; he should probably count himself lucky, he told himself, ignoring the part of him that remembered that it had been like that before the accident too. Of course, as his mother had always said, the important thing was to keep up appearances. Rimmer found that bravado and brash insistence got him a long way, and in time, he found he had a something of a talent for it, so he made sure to have sex as often as the opportunity arose. It just… well… it could get rather tedious.
He was further down the corridor than he had expected to go – his shipboard computer had warned him that the station's fragile life support systems were tethering on the edge of a breakdown, and the further he went in, the more time he'd have to spend getting out. He checked the readings on his pad again. "Not to rush anyone, but there is a teensy weensy bit of a time issue here. We did get a reading for…" the word 'primitive' nearly slipped out, but Ace managed to keep it in, "mechanical life. The sensorooskis are still a little wonky when it comes to biological life, I'm afraid, so if anyone el-"
Arnold J. Rimmer would have tripped and fell, but Ace had better reflexes. When something snagged his foot, he caught himself just as he was about to go off balance, and froze. He looked down. A small, charred box about the size of a loaf of bread lay on the deck, LED-lights blinking erratically on what presumably was some sort of cover. Righting himself, Ace took a step back, which is when he noticed that the indicator light on his pad was blinking furiously. He looked down at the forlorn box again, and sighed.
"You have got to be smegging kidding me."
Ace had never been very good with appliances, even back when he was alive. Some might argue that this did not make him the ideal candidate for a shipboard technician, and several people in fact had, but he had always felt that his skills lay more on the managerial side. That whole physical mucking about with wrenches and wires had been more Lister's line; he was a simpler sort of person, more suited to working with his hands. But as Ace you had to figure these things out without dwelling pointlessly on the memory of some clumsy twonk who was probably dead by now anyway, not that it mattered, so Ace didn't know why he was thinking about it.
With some amount of exasperation, he jiggled the screwdriver where it was poking into the little box's innards. He did have the accumulated memories of former Aces at his disposal through his light bee uplink, but finding any sort of useful information in that hodgepodge quagmire was like trying to use a wiktionary without a digital search interface. Having to work on his cramped bunk on board the Wildfire did not help matters either. "Can you hear me now?"
The box emitted an erratic sort of splutter.
"I'll take that as a 'yes'." Ace carefully removed the screwdriver and replaced the lid. The panel of lights suddenly shone brighter and at shorter intervals, which had to be a good sign, surely? "Now then; is this your home dimension, or is there somewhere I can drop you off?"
The box squiffled and squeeped forlornly.
"Still a bit under the weather, eh?" At least it had, thus far, made no attempt to have sex with him, Ace noted with relief. Then again, would he know if it did? How would that even work? The familiar dread of performance anxiety began to wash over him, at which point the box finally emitted a voice-like sound.
"How… howd… how's it going?" The speakers croaked, in between bursts of static.
"Fairly tickety-boo, I suppose," Ace mumbled. It was not a question for which he had been entirely prepared. "What's your handle, my metal chum?"
There came a brief burst of static, almost like a hiccup. "I don't remember," the digitized voice admitted, sadly.
"Well, not to worry; we'll soon figure it out. How are you feeling? All bits accounted for and in working order?" Ace asked, knowing full well he'd have no idea what to do if the answer was 'no'.
"I feel… crunchy. Sort of crisp. Slightly soft in the middle. Not too burned."
"OK," Ace replied, desperately flicking through his borrowed memories for incidents or encounters involving computer senility.
"And how can I serve you this… is it morning?"
"It's always morning somewhere," Ace suggested. 'Serve'. Oh smeg. It was coming on to him. He knew it! How would you even begin to pleasure something without limbs or a torso, much less any sexual organs? Ace could feel a migraine coming on.
"Then what can I do for you this morning, my friend? What's your pleasure?"
Smegging smegging smeg. "Erm, yes. Might we have a word about… that, actually?"
Ace swallowed. It was a ridiculous analogy, but far too many Aces had been far too fond of it, and now it was the only thing that popped into his mind when considering the topic. "I don't know how much you know about butter…"
"Oh, I know everything there is to know about butter!"
Ace hesitated, glancing at the bleeping, blinking box. "Ah. Good. Well, my square shaped friend, there's all kinds of ways a man may choose to butter his bread."
"Oh yes," the box enthused; "literally thousands! And not just bread…"
"Quite," Ace interrupted, not wanting to drag the conversation out longer than was absolutely necessary. "Some people are what you might call strictly butter side up, while others turn their slices the other way 'round. I'm sure there are even some that slather it on both ways."
"You'd be surprised how many."
Ace had no doubt he would be. How on Io the box could know was a mystery he'd rather not dwell on, however. "And then, there's me. I'm…" he hesitated, "what you might call a toast only man."
The box's speakers emitted a loud screech of feedback, making Ace jump. When it spoke again, it was in a still, small voice, almost reverential. "What did you say?"
"A toast only man," Ace repeated. It didn't sound any better the second time around.
"So," the voice was still rather unstable, almost shivering, "it's the butter you don't like?"
Ace frowned. "It's not that I don't like it, as such; I just don't feel the need for it. If there's buttered toast to be had, I'll eat it. I just won't volunteer to make any."
"That won't be a problem."
"Nothing. So you don't have any problems with toast? At all?"
"None at all." Ace watched the eager lights and increasing cheerful beeps– he had no idea how beeps could be cheerful, but these were - with concern. "Look, perhaps there's been a bit of a misunderstanding, old crumpet."
"Would you like a freshly toasted crumpet?"
"No! I mean… perhaps we've gotten some wires crossed here."
"Not at all, pal! Every part of me is present, accounted for and rearing to go!"
The migraine was definitely coming out in force now. Why would anyone give holograms the ability to have migraines? It was nothing short of sadistic. Then again, maybe it was just another malfunction. "Look," Ace said, flopping down on the bunk, brushing aside discarded tools, "just so we're entirely clear here, I'm not interested in having sex with you," he snapped. "There's something wrong with me; I'm never interested in having sex with anyone. There you have it. It's some sort of malfunction."
"It just sounds like you're asexual, to me," the box chirped.
"Asexual?" The word triggered the right memories, and suddenly, Ace wasn't alone in his head anymore. There were others. Well. About a dozen or so, but importantly, it wasn't just him. It never had been.
"That's right. Now, would you like some toast?"
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.