It's hard to know whether this is an overall improvement or worsening of the normal moonhopping situation, Rimmer pondered. On the one hand, he was spared the android's pedantic knowledge of Space Corps regulations and a rather selective application thereof. On the other hand, he had to share the cabin with Lister, whose personal habits would make a hippopotamus turn up its nose in disgust. Pondering this metaphysical dilemma kept him happily entertained as they plowed through the vacuum, and Lister was busy filling out the Do You Know How To Please A Man? quiz in Cosmonautpolitan. Their target was not far, and the route was clear, so there was little else to do.
"Wha?" asked Lister, not looking up from the magazine.
"Why do you fill out the women's quizzes?"
"I've done the men's quizzes twenty times already. 'When you're having that quiet dinner and you feel like you're approaching that Sexy Moment, do you a) Change the subject - you're a good girl! b) Take his lead and see what he wants, or c) Make your move before you lose the moment?' Definitely c. I bet I'm going to be one sexy momma."
Rimmer sighed and looked out the viewscreen at the unchanging starscape. "I don't know why you wanted to go moonhopping with me. Kryten is perfectly willing to be my hands." It irritated him to no end that he couldn't fend for himself in this.
"I need to stretch me legs. Breathe a little unrecycled air."
"You'd better hope it has an atmosphere." A bright crescent off to the side of the viewscreen was becoming noticeably bigger. They were approaching from the day side, thank goodness. If there's one thing worse than landing on a strange and potentially hostile planet, it's doing it at night.
The planet was rocky, but otherwise featureless. Starbug settled gently on an outcropping. Rimmer gave silent thanks that Lister was absorbed in the Secret Sex Tips feature and let Holly do the landing. There was nothing gentle about a Lister landing.
Lister shouldered past Rimmer as the hologram started down the gangplank. He noticed that Lister looked nervous; the last man alive was most likely worried that Rimmer was going to sing all 23 verses of the Space Corps anthem in order to claim the planet. He would be correct about that. Rimmer cleared his throat.
And the ground began to shake.
"What the smeg?" he gasped, trying to keep his feet on the gangplank. Lister lay down on the ground as it shook and tossed; he seemed remarkably sanguine. Rimmer was not, however; he instinctively tried to grab the rail with insubstantial hands as an upthrust of rock knocked Starbug spinning. He fell off of the ramp as a shoulder from that upthrust passed through his soft-light body with a crackle of energy, and the world went dark.
It must have been moments later that he came to; the ground was still heaving, and Starbug was dancing to a halt half a kilometer or so to the side. The outcroppings of rock had started to pull back into the earth, revealing a different side of themselves to the double yellow sun.
Rimmer checked his body; it looked normal enough. The rock must have knocked his light bee for a loop, causing a reboot. He checked the footing for his red-clad legs and stood. Starbug looked intact; it was a tough bugger to dent. Rimmer immediately made for it. He had not seen a bloody pulp in the vicinity, so Lister must either be nominal or beyond hope; the scanners in Starbug would tell him more. As he walked to Starbug, he looked with surprise at the landscape that had been bare rock. Grass was springing up from black, loamy earth at an impossible rate. Off in the distance, he saw gnarled trees, branchless up to their tips (he recognized them as baobabs from pictures in a book he once read by a French bloke). Birds appeared from out of nowhere to twitter melodiously.
Something was horribly wrong. Rimmer ran the rest of the way back to Starbug. Once inside, he called, "Holly!"
Nothing happened. The tumble Starbug took must have made the safeties shut down all systems. They needed a manual override. Out of habit, Rimmer reached for the controls to start the systems back up - and his hand went through the console. Bugger.
He frowned and tapped his foot. His frown deepened when it made no noise. How the hell was he going to get out of here?
He would just have to find Lister the hard way. And hope he was alive enough to restart Starbug's systems.
Rimmer headed back out. He stopped at the top of the gangplank and looked, slowly, at the view that vantage point afforded. Whatever process that had started with the quake had apparently run its course. The ground was covered in a thick, verdant lawn of wild grasses, spotted with colorful wildflowers; it stretched up to a rough circle about fifty meters from Starbug, and stopped there in favor of the dull rock that had been the planet when they first landed. Puffy white clouds floated across a deep blue sky. Songbirds flitted by on brilliantly colored wings.
And something sparkled on the ground.
Rimmer descended to the ground and trotted across the meadow towards it. It was a beer can. Lager. Lister's favorite.
Had he somehow smuggled it down the gangplank? Where on Io had he put it? He couldn't have just happened to find it lying around on the planet. That was ludicrous. As ludicrous as bare rock turning to meadow. Rimmer's grimace deepened even more.
The springy grass left traces, though. He saw faint footprints in them, leading off towards the distant trees. Lister was alive, then, and mobile - and he had simply run away from Starbug like a gazelle given a standing ovation at the first sign of danger. Rimmer snorted. He'd have to find Lister in order to get out of here.
He set off, following Lister's footprints. Despite himself, he began to relax. It truly was a beautiful day on a beautiful planet. The grass was soft and springy below his feet, and the underlying loam was delightfully cool. The sun warmed his bare back...
He shouldn't be able to feel anything.
Rimmer touched his forehead. The H was gone. He reached down and tugged a blade of grass; it came out in his fingers. His feet were bare; in fact, most of him was bare. He wore nothing but a loincloth.
But - he could touch! Whatever the reason, he was real here. He turned around and ran back for Starbug. He could get out of here!
Rimmer reached the circle of rock surrounding Starbug - and stopped. Once he left the grass, he converted immediately back to hologrammatic form. The difference was night and day - or life and afterlife. He crossed back and forth from grass to rock; on rock he was a hologram, and on grass he wasn't.
He turned and resumed his pursuit of Lister's tracks grimly. His physicality was linked to the terraforming that had occurred. He knew now what had happened; they had found another psi-moon. This one had molded itself to Lister's mind instead, and it annoyed him to no end that the end result was so much more beautiful than the landscape of his own mind.
Well, with a physical body, at least he'd be able to punch Lister when he found the goit.
The tracks often disappeared altogether, but as long as Rimmer continued to head towards the forest, he kept rediscovering the trail. For whatever reason, that had been Lister's destination. It was farther away than Rimmer had initially thought - baobabs must be huge. He had thought them about chest-high when he first saw the pictures, but from the way they continued to grow, they must be taller than a man. He swallowed nervously.
They were many times the height of a man by the time he reached them, with trunks he could not put his arms around. If he had any desire for intimacy with a strange Earth species, that is, which he did not. A trail that snaked through the monstrosities was visible once he reached the edge of the forest. He looked around in apprehension. The thick, interlacing tops obscured the sun, and strange noises came from the depths. He could, he thought, wait in the meadow instead for Lister to emerge; it was a much more inviting locale than this one. But he had no reason to believe Lister would emerge, or would emerge from this side. He fortified himself with thoughts of the jolly good telling-off he would give Lister once he found the gimboid, and walked into the forest.
Ten minutes later, the rehearsed speeches had run their course, and he was becoming increasingly nervous. The ground was no longer soft; sticks and rocks stuck up from clayey soil, poking at his bare feet and making him stumble. The strange sounds had gotten louder, and he would swear that the noises were gasps and moans. From his readings, this was not the normal complement of noises one would find in a forest.
What ghastly metaphor had he wandered into?
He turned his head nervously to look behind him - and then whirled around completely. The trail that he had followed into this forest was gone, and only trees stood behind him.
He decided that it was time to do what he did best in the face of danger. Panic and whimper. He backed up against a tree trunk, his eyes wild, and slipped down it to land on the ground with a thunk.
He was half-naked, dangerously real, and trapped in some godawful corner of Lister's mind. And handcuffed.
His hands were abruptly yanked above his head, and he was hauled to his feet by a dual presence behind him. He looked frantically left and right; tall, broad-shouldered black beings with red eyes stood on either side of him and slightly behind, hauling his cuffed hands up to fasten them to the marble column that the tree behind him had suddenly become. He could either stand on his tiptoes or hang from his wrists, and he shifted uncomfortably from one to the other.
The beings stepped in front of him and turned their unconvincing, yet suitably terrifying, red eyes on him. They studied him like scientists scanning a petri dish with an unusual culture of mold growing on it, then turned to each other and nodded, slowly.
They turned and walked off into the forest, disappearing into the blackness. Rimmer twisted his hands to try to extricate them from the cuffs, but they were fastened too tightly. And they were attached to the marble column as if it had formed spontaneously around them.
What the hell was going on?
Well, if this was to be a repeat of the previous experience, he hoped he would at least have the same handmaidens.
As if on cue, the two long-limbed, white-haired maidens appeared from nowhere behind him and stepped delicately in front of him. One poured oil into a basin in the other's hands from two silver-embossed crystal ewers; they both set down their loads and began to rub oil from the basin over his body. He closed his eyes and tried to enjoy the experience, not thinking of what was to follow, as they rubbed their long-fingered hands over his chest, up his arms, down his thighs, refilling their hands frequently from the basin until he was glisteningly slick all over. As before, the oil was sweetly scented, and annoyingly full of sawdust and splinters from the wooden basin.
It was all becoming clear to him. Lister had enjoyed watching him tortured on the last psi-moon, and when he had dared to intrude on Lister's little paradise, he had set up an encore.
"I suppose," he said, reluctantly turning his thoughts to the next stage as the handmaidens toyed with his nipples, "that the Master wishes me oiled to better conduct the electricity..."
"Oh, no," said the maiden on his right in a low, sultry voice.
"His plans are facilitated by you being slippery and pliant," said the other, as she slipped one oiled hand where only customs officials dared to probe. Rimmer's heart leapt into his throat. He sputtered and coughed to try to evict it as they picked up their dishes and started to walk away.
"Wait! I... er... there's been an awful... wait!" The last came out as a squeak as their white forms faded to nothing. Rimmer began to wrench at his handcuffs in earnest as his heart, unsuccessful at the oral escape route, tried to push out of his chest.
He froze as the ground began to rumble. A dome of soil bulged up from a clearing that had suddenly formed in front of him. The dome rose higher, to just above Rimmer's height, and the soil fell away from a vaguely humanoid form.
It had two legs, two arms, and one head. Its skin was dark, almost black, and scaly. It had a head from a nightmare; a triangular nose like a dog's that was all mouth, with two red slits for eyes above it. It had a broad torso, and below it, an enormous...
Rimmer returned to the study of its head. Two thick strands, almost hairlike, fell from its otherwise bald, dark, and scaly head down to its waist. Its red, slitted eyes focused on Rimmer, and it reached out to grab his face between two of its four fingers. Long, sharp nails dug into Rimmer's temple as it forced his head upwards to meet its intense red gaze. The corners of its mouth curled up in an evil smile, and its lips parted to reveal the tips of sharp teeth. A long, red tongue emerged, and licked Rimmer's cheek, leaving a trail of thick saliva in its wake.
"Why are you being so horrible to me?" He was immediately sorry he spoke, as his voice wavered and trembled pathetically.
The grin disappeared. "Horrible?" Its voice was deep and raspy, like a demon that dined on broken glass. The creature put its mouth near Rimmer's ear and growled, "You haven't seen horrible yet."
It reached over Rimmer's head and grabbed the handcuffs. The marble column behind Rimmer reformed, releasing the cuffs. The creature spun Rimmer around; he was now facing a flat marble slab with an ornate base, very like an altar. It pushed Rimmer forwards, forcing him to bend over the waist-high slab, and slammed the cuffs into the marble again, pulling Rimmer far forward. He tried to kick, but the creature pinned his ankles with one froglike foot. It traced one nail down his back, drawing blood, and hooked it into the loincloth, ripping the cloth apart and tossing it away.
It leaned down until it was breathing in Rimmer's ear. "Lovely." It licked the scratch down his back with that long tongue, grabbed his shoulder with a grip of iron, and shoved that huge... thing... inside of him. Rimmer screamed and flailed, but was now pinned by the weight of the beast as it pounded at him, licking and nipping his exposed back and arms.
If this is what it's like for women, some dispassionate part of Rimmer's brain observed, no wonder I'm not getting any.
The monster finally climaxed with a deep thrust and a long, bestial howl. It might have been ten minutes or a hundred years; Rimmer's voice had gone hoarse from screaming. Then it disappeared, dissipating into mist along with the alter and handcuffs. Rimmer fell face-first into the soft soil, and drifted off into a haze.
He was brought out of it by an irritating prod at his sore shoulder. "Rimmer. Rimmer, man, you OK?"
"Piss off," he muttered into the dirt.
The prodding became more insistent. "C'mon, Rimmer, we need to get outta here."
Rimmer snapped alert with the realization that he was stark naked and bleeding from any number of places, including one rather intimate one, in front of Lister. Hell. "I'll wait here," he muttered, trying to rearrange himself in a more decorous manner.
"We have to move, man." Lister's voice was unusually quiet and grim. He hauled on Rimmer's arm, bringing Rimmer reluctantly to his knees.
The forest was gone. The meadow that had been so lush and green before was brown, rotting away before their eyes. The double sunset filtered murkily through a thick haze at the horizon. Starbug was visible in the distance - barely.
"C'mon, man," Lister urged in that oddly quiet voice. "Move."
Rimmer's legs would not obey him, so Lister pulled Rimmer's arm over his shoulders and half-hauled him across the dying grass. The suns disappeared over the horizon, and the temperature dropped precipitously. They staggered, shivering, towards the hulk of green metal that squatted on its rocky perch.
Once they crossed the perimeter surrounding Starbug, the nothingness that is being a soft-light hologram returned. Rimmer never knew feeling nothing could be so sweet. His arm passed through Lister, and he straightened and spun to face the shorter man. Explanation time.
"Not now, Rimmer," Lister muttered, his voice tight. He walked through Rimmer and up the gangplank.
Rimmer's nostrils flared in acute irritation. He had the kind of day that would make Mother Teresa kick babies, and now he had to put up with a tantrum of Lister's? He stormed up the gangplank.
Lister was starting up the systems and initiating the launch sequence. Rimmer stood behind him, his foot tapping noiselessly on the deck. Things were starting to fall in place for him, and he wasn't liking any of them.
"You knew it was a psi-moon."
"Yeah," said Lister, as Starbug rose from the moon and prepared to swing around on a home course. "Holly told me about psi-moons. She said that they form in clusters, and where yeh find one, yeh usually find a bunch."
"And that's why you wanted to go moonhopping with me."
"I wanted to have a little taste of Earth again. I thought I could control the terraform. Man!" He turned to Rimmer. "I wanted to feel grass again! See a bird, see a tree, see a cloud! I haven't seen anything like that in three million and fifteen years!"
"You couldn't have told me about this little plan of yours."
"You wouldn't have gone for it."
Rimmer snorted. "And you proved me wrong there, didn't you, squire? Well done. What's your encore, smearing me in honey and poking a yellowjacket nest?" Lister turned to face the viewscreen. "You just couldn't keep a your sweet normal mindscape when I tried to intrude, could you?" continued Rimmer, in full snark mode. "No, you had to toss me to your... your..."
Many more things fell into place with a sickening crunch.
"...lust-monster." his voice tailed off. A long silence followed as Lister continued to stare out of the view screen.
"I..." Lister's voice squeaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I can't tell you how long I've wanted to bugger that stupid smirk right offa your face."
They both looked out at the unchanging starscape, until Rimmer turned and left Lister alone with his thoughts.