Howdy peeps. It's Cazflibs in a new guise! That is, drawing inspiration from my crazy-ass muse that goes by the name of MaxEvelyn.
This is the fic that I know a lot of you have been waiting for - the sequel to 'Rimmer's Return' and 'The Prophecy'. Now, I kinda realised that a reader's enjoyment of this fic is highly dependent on information given in previous fics under my 'cazflibs' author name. Therefore, if there's any of you lovely lot who haven't read the Ace Chronicles or The Prophecy (or if indeed like me, you have a memory of a goldfish and want a quick reminder of everything that's happened to date) then please have a quick look at the CazEvelyn profile where a rather handy plot summary has been written out for you. Aren't I nice? ^_^
Lovingly dedicated to Andy, Butterfly Girl, DaydreamingwithInk, garfieldodie, hummingbird, ksunshine,Lover-Fighter-Writer, PlainSimpleGarak,RagingRambo, Suzie, twentyfourten,Veronica and all the other wonderful people who have reviewed my work over the last few years. You make it totally and utterly worth it. And of course, to MaxEvelyn - without her plotbunny, this fic wouldn't exist.
This has been a long time in the coming.
Tonga had been right. The holograms had grown too arrogant for their own good.
McGruder had been right. Simulants couldn't resist trying to kill the indestructible.
And then there was the prophecy, where simple words had woven predictions of such darkness and destruction. A prophecy in which the disparate species of this universe - holograms, simulants and the last human beings alive - would all play a part.
Yet what none of them had realised, was that events were already in motion. In fact, they had been in motion for the last ten years.
And soon - very soon - the top would stop spinning, the wheel would stop turning. Then like far-flung stars pulled into the eternal, destructive swirl of a black hole, those once arbitrary would be drawn together to face their destiny.
And things would never be the same again.
Having long forgotten its original mission after three million years, the JMC mining ship Red Dwarf glided majestically past the silent stars, unfazed by the dangerous yet beautiful depths of un-chartered deep space. Inside, however, the air was less than serene.
Holding court around the scanner table, the four remaining crewmembers sat in still, grave silence. The light matrix of the scanner readout bathed their faces with an eerie green glow as their tense gazes flitted between each other and the table as they assessed the situation.
Rimmer shook his head. "It's not looking good."
Kryten nodded his agreement, his neon blue eyes imploring to his human master. "It's certainly not advisable, sir," he echoed.
"Hey, hey!" Lister cut in tersely. "I know the stakes are high, but I say go for it." Shielding his playing cards, he drew forth his favourite Rasta Billy Skank CD, sliding the case across the table to join the various assortment of treasures in the centre with unreserved confidence. "I'm in."
He was met with mocking whistles and jeers from the rest of the group as they each masked smirks behind their playing cards. Unfazed, Lister took a cursory swig from his beer bottle.
"You see, unlike you guys I have faith in my skills," he chided, tapping a turmeric-stained finger to his temple. "It's all about thinking ahead. Playing the long game."
An un-amused eyebrow flicked above Rimmer's hand. "You mean you've marked the cards again?" he baited.
Lister didn't reply, an act even more unsettling than his usual bite-backs to Rimmer's insults. Instead, his expression remained unreadable as he replaced the beer bottle on the table. It was the same poker face Rimmer knew all-too-well he'd been putting on for the last six weeks - since the incident on the Blerion trading post.
Ever since they'd returned to Red Dwarf, Rimmer had sensed Lister's unease about what had happened. The premise that he'd once been Ace had been teasingly brief, but met with such fear and awkwardness that it could only raise further questions.
On several occasions, he'd tried to pry out more information from the man, only to be met with deliberate silence or, when pushed further, an uncharacteristic snapped response to drop the subject. So now it had become an unspoken point of contention. A giant white elephant in the room that nobody was allowed to talk about.
Even Lister's priorities seemed to have done a 180 turn. As little as two months ago, Rimmer was berating him for putting their lives at risk on a daily basis. They'd spent almost a year hailing potentially unfriendly GELF ships, braving wibbly-wobbly swirly things, and searching derelicts so ancient and unstable they threatened to disintegrate into a ship-quake if one of them so much as sneezed too loudly. All in the name of one quest - to find Kochanski.
Yet now, Red Dwarf was almost constantly on silent running. They avoided blips on the scanner scope like the plague. And so much as a fleeting mention of a nearby ship would send Lister sweating more profusely than a particularly adventurous vindaloo session.
However, despite the tension and wariness, it had been increasingly noticed over the last few weeks that supplies on the ship were dangerously low. It was critical. It was becoming a life or death situation.
Red Dwarf was completely out of beer. Utterly devoid of cigarettes. And there wasn't a single, lonesome bottle of Tabasco sauce to be seen.
And so when the SS Constantine showed up on the scanners that morning, it had been a perfect time to re-stock. Not that Rimmer minded, despite his characteristic whinging and grumbling. After all, it was a perfect excuse to indulge in a little goody-reaping of his own - stocking up on hologrammatic upgrades.
The hologram suite onboard the Constantine had held a vast plethora of system upgrades - programmes that promised greater touch sensation and heightened taste abilities. And he made swift use of them all. Running the programmes and recalibrating his hard light remote belt, he aligned his projection signal with that of the suite system in order to accept each and every one of them. Synthetic as they were, they allowed him to take those tiny yet important steps closer towards making him feel human again.
Yet right at this moment in time, the only sensations he was getting were the strong wisps of cigarette smoke that curled from Lister's open mouth to assault his flared nostrils. And an increasingly grating headache that somehow refused to shift.
He wafted at the oncoming cloud, sending it to join the canopy of smoke that hung silently above them. "Do you mind, Lister?" he snapped irritably. "If you work your way through yet another pack of those cigarettes we're going to need a fog-horn in here to direct us to safe ground."
Lister rolled his eyes. "Don't get your knickers in a twist, man," he sighed, patiently waiting for Kryten to unscrew the numerous fiddly bolts on his wrist. He was clearly going to throw his hand in - and he didn't mean his cards. "I'm just making up for lost time."
With the bets all in, the group took it in turn to lay down what they hoped to be the winning play.
Rimmer growled irritably. "Pair of fives," he huffed. He knew it wasn't going to be enough judging by the ill-concealed smirks from Lister and the Cat.
"Three of a kind for me, sirs," Kryten offered, his trio of jacks sitting together in a neat row.
Lister placed his hand down with a flourish. A collection of spades. "Oh yes!" he cried. "Guys, I think you'll find that to be a flush." He threw Kryten a cheeky Liverpudlian wink. "Shall I be having your goodies?"
"Hold up, monkey," the Cat snorted playfully. "Not unless you reckon that a measly flush can beat a full house!" He placed his collection of cards - three kings and two fives, the latter much to Rimmer's annoyance - on the scanner table before them. He flashed a toothy grin. "Read 'em and weep, fellas!"
There was a collective grown of disappointment from the trio. Lister muttered obscenities into his beer bottle.
Kryten eyed his detached hand mournfully before a sneaky tactic formulated itself in his CPU. "Without my full inventory compliment, I might be unable to complete tonight's laundry, sirs," he fretted. The mechanoid risked a glance at the Cat out the corner of his eye. "I'd hate for any zebra-patterned jackets or black-shimmered trousers not to be ready for tomorrow's wear," he ventured.
Lister grinned to himself as he stubbed out his cigarette. It was a bold move for a mechanoid. Kryten had clearly been living with humans for far too long if his programming was capable of replicating Bitch Mode.
"Nice try, Butterpat Head, but I know where you keep your stash of spare parts," the Cat countered with a flick of a perfectly-plucked eyebrow. "I shall be wearing that suit tomorrow."
Rimmer's nostrils flared as he watched the Cat scoop up his prized collection of Naploeon's memoirs with the rest of the junk assortment. He shot him a death stare that was sure to strike off one of his nine lives. If that stupid feline used the pages to line his litter tray, he'd flush out the rest of the ship's stock of tuna into space. "I swear blind I'm getting worse at this," he grumbled under his breath.
"Like you ever any good to start with," came a muttered reply.
"Smeg off, Lister," Rimmer bit back; although deep down, he was sure he was losing his touch tonight.
Despite the original reason for its inception - a promise of at least one drunken night of games and laughs each month - Rimmer took Poker Night incredibly seriously. After all, he was a conniving weasel of a man who simply hated losing. He'd meticulously read up on poker techniques whenever he thought the others wouldn't notice. He'd plan out strategies in his notebook, furiously scribbling them down in neat copperplate handwriting, as if he were orchestrating one of his Risk battles.
And of course, he was more than prepared to cheat.
Last month, a cleverly-concealed queen of hearts duplicate had been the key to securing his much-needed royal flush and winning Lister's guitar in the final round of the night. The Scouser had clearly had one too many tipples if he was bold enough to believe he could risk his prized instrument over a pair of threes.
When Rimmer had won it - much to the barely-concealed joy of the others - Lister had begged and pleaded for the chance to win it back. A long, slurred list of promises had spilled forth - no munching at poppadoms over Rimmer's shoulder whilst he was trying to revise; no plucking his nostril hairs with cooking tongs; no switching his Hammond Organ music CD for Rasta Billy Skank in Starbug's cockpit - but all to no avail.
The prize was won. Through a combination of wit, skill and downright deceptiveness, Rimmer was the uncontested poker champion of the universe. Not a huge accomplishment really, when the only arguable sentient life their universe had to offer was one remaining human, a dead man, an evolved feline and a mechanoid who had a fetish for cleaning toilets.
But tonight he felt different. Whether it be skill, mojo or straight-forward luck, something simply wasn't there anymore. Something was distinctly missing, having buggered off to places unknown and not bothering to leave a note.
Yet against his better judgement - and perhaps thanks to a drive far too instinctive to Arnold J. Rimmer to ignore - he felt an overwhelming urge to see Lister lose. He would dangle the prized carrot to see how high this dumpy onion of a man could jump.
"OK then, mi'laddo," he smiled a vulture's smile. "Then let's see how good you are." Rimmer regarded Lister through hooded eyes. "Just you and me on this one. Win this round and I'll give you back your guitar." He paused for dramatic effect. "If I win, the guitar is flushed into outer space with the rest of this week's rubbish."
Lister blinked, surprised. "You serious, man?" he grinned.
Nodding enthusiastically, Lister rubbed his hands together with glee. "Deal."
With the wariness clear in his computer-blue eyes, Kryten dealt the cards once more. Unlikely as the premise seemed, both he and the Cat were rather keen on the hologram winning for once, especially if it resulted in the demise of that tortured, noise-polluting safety hazard.
Rimmer regarded Lister slyly over the top of his cards. It was strange to see him looking so animated and excited about something for the first time in weeks. Ever since that incident, he'd been acting incredibly strangely around him. He'd often catch Lister staring at him out of the corner of his eye when he thought he wouldn't notice - at the breakfast table, calibrating coordinates with the mainframe, revising on his bunk.
And when they did speak with one another on those rare, civil occasions, it was almost as if Lister was looking through him or past him. As if he were searching his eyes for something or someone else he couldn't quite make out, or was no longer there.
An ugly scowl crept across Rimmer's face. The little bastard was hiding something about him and Ace, he just knew it.
He watched as Lister slid three cards over to Kryten to change. Not an overly confident sign, he noted. His attentions turned back to his own hand - a pair of kings, a nine of hearts, and a three and a ten of clubs. He cursed inwardly. Not bad but not great.
The timeless dilemma reared its ugly head. Build upon the pair? Or try for the flush?
After some careful thought (and a little dabble in Ippy Dippy) he too abandoned three of his cards, leaving the kings in play. Kryten slid back three cards from the pile and he drew them up to join the royalty.
Oh bloody buggering hell.
A four of diamonds, a jack of spades, and an eight of hearts.
He glanced across at Lister. He wasn't showing any signs of smug celebration either. Perhaps his hand was just as useless.
Rimmer bit his lip and went for the plunge, laying down his cards. "Pair of kings," he stated matter-of-factly, praying to a God he didn't believe in that it would be enough to let him win.
Unfortunately, it seemed that God was attending to slightly more pressing business, as a cocky grin tobogganed across Lister's chipmunk cheeks. He threw down his cards in triumph. "There'll be another rendition of Baby, I Want Your Love Thing tonight, guys. Two kings and an ace kicker!"
Rimmer stared in disbelief at the offending hand as Lister performed a seated victory dance before lighting up yet another cigarette. Indeed, the rival kings flanked a two of diamonds, a nine of clubs, and an ace of hearts.
The Cat groaned audibly, his head sinking in his hands. "The only way I'm gonna get any sleep tonight is if we're at least fifty decks apart," he sulked.
Yet Rimmer remained silent, staring hard at the ace that lay smugly in the middle of the action, as if it were mimicking its arrogant namesake.
"Ace saves the day again," he sniped meaningfully, his voice hard but low. "I've got to wonder how you do it, Lister. Is it luck of the draw?" He stared at him unflinchingly. "Or perhaps there's some secret you're not telling me?"
A horribly awkward silence descended on the room; a dense fog that seemed to sink through the darkness, sitting heavy on their shoulders. Under Rimmer's accusatory glare, Lister's eyes flitted up to meet his through the swirling clouds of cigarette smoke. He said nothing.
Rimmer ground his teeth. "Thought so." He pushed back his chair and tossed the cards onto the table. "If you'd excuse me?"
Nobody watched him leave. They merely listened as echoed footsteps strode purposefully towards the corridor, the metal door sliding shut behind him with a resounding clang.
Lister's eyes sank closed. He couldn't do this forever.