GOD this has been in the works for ages. I always say, you wanna know what a character is or why you like ’em, kill ’em. (Or worse.)
Title: The Punchline
Fandom: Red Dwarf
Characters: Lister and Rimmer, also Holly, sort of, mostly
Summary: A massive cosmic joke is finally drawing to an end for Lister and Rimmer.
Read it on AO3, or-
Nothing lasts forever, or most things don’t at least. It was the future. Kryten was dead and buried. Cat was dead and buried. Only Lister and Rimmer were left.
Times had changed, as times tend to do. Lister was old, older than he had ever expected to be. Holly’s nanobots had rebuilt his liver when it failed, and stuck around until they were needed for the kidneys as well. Then came the slowing heart, and the fading eyesight, and the aching bones. Nanobots fixed them up, or tried their hardest to. They built a little life-giving machine and attached it to his innards. They almost forgot to add an off button.
It’s hard work to keep alive someone a person who really should have died long ago, and it’s hard work to be that person. Almost every day Lister thought, I shouldn’t have agreed to this. But back when he had done, all his friends had been alive, he hadn’t felt so terrifyingly ancient, and he hadn’t imagined a day coming when he wanted nothing more than to die.
Rimmer had gotten slightly better at expressing himself in a non-aggravating manner.
“Listy, you’re an idiot. A stupid, selfish, foul-smelling idiot. Why would you give up everything you’ve got?”
“What have I got?” Lister asked wearily.
Rimmer didn’t say “Me.” He said, “Life, you smeghead.”
Lister ignored him. He called, “Holly, come on out, I know you can hear me.”
Holly had changed a bit in the past half-decade as well. He was even more peculiar, even more unreliable, and also he now lacked any sense of empathy or coherence. The lines of code which had made him him had been gone for a long time.
“I can’t hear you,” he said.
“Holly,” Lister said. “I’m ready to turn this machine off.”
Holly floated about on his screen like a ghost, glitching in and out in a manner that would have been creepy if the others weren’t used to it.
“I dunno if it can be,” Holly said. Both of the other beings in the room held their breath, or whatever they had which passed for breath.
“Still, you never know,” Holly said, as if they were having a casual conversation about unblocking a toilet and it wasn’t a matter of literal life and death. “What does he think?” And he jerked his head towards Rimmer.
“He,” said Rimmer, “thinks Lister is, as usual, making a stupid choice.”
Lister and Rimmer had already had the conversation. They’d been having it for years, inching around the topic until neither of them could avoid it anymore. If one of them died…
…there was simply no knowing anymore what would happen to the other.
“But it’s my choice,” said Lister simply.
“No it isn’t,” said Rimmer. “What the smeg am I going to do, alone on this spaceship with a deranged computer and a couple of broken scutters? Sit around and twiddle my thumbs? Try and master ultra-knitting? There’s no more time-drive, no more life forms, no more anything out there. It sounds like a living death.”
“You’re already a member of the living dead,” Lister said through gritted teeth. “For the past few… decades, centuries, whatever times it is… you’ve been basically like a sort of obnoxious zombie, with just as many brains. And you ended up liking it! What’s the matter with you?”
Both of them knew the answer, it was only a matter of who was going to say it first. Tick, tock, went the seconds, passing by in the same way so many years or millions of years had done…
“It’s not fair!” Rimmer said, sounding like a petulant child rather than the petulant adult he’d also been. “I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“Listen, Rimsy, I’m not holding your hand anymore,” Lister said. “You’ve got a lot more options than me. You can choose life, death, immortality, anything. But I won’t be there.”
Rimmer looked like he was about to cry, run away, break everything in the room, or turn himself off there and then out of pure spite. A very tricky combination to pull off.
“I don’t…” he began.
“Where’s Holly?” Lister suddenly asked.
He’d vanished at the most inconvenient possible time, as usual.
“If you go,” Rimmer said bitterly, “be sure to take him with you, will you?”
“But then you really will have no-one.”
Rimmer opened his mouth, and then closed it again, and then finally opened it again and said, “You know what.” It wasn’t a question. “I’m not sticking around. If you die.”
Lister stared at him.
“I’m not. You must know that.”
Lister gave no confirmation of whether he had or not, which might have been for the best at that point. But he said, “It’s your choice, man. The last thing I ever wanna do is take away your choices.”
“It’s not out of affection,” Rimmer snapped at him, “It’s because of the human need for companionship. That’s what it’s always been about.”
What the It was, it seemed no-one could say. Holly suddenly popped back into view.
“Where have you been, you goit?” Rimmer asked, but the insult fell terribly flat, unsurprisingly.
“Got some bad news,” said Holly.
“Well, it’s not like it could make the situation any worse,” said Lister.
“Oh,” said Holly, “you’d be surprised.”
Both men waited there wearily. In a different universe they might have been holding on to each other.
“You sure you actually want to hear it? It is very bad news,” Holly said.
“Yes,” said Lister.
“Well,” Holly said, “you know how one of you has a machine keeping you alive, and the other one of you also pretty much has a machine keeping you alive?”
“Yes,” said Rimmer, in the tone of one about to undergo extensive dental surgery with no anesthetic.
“Thing is,” said Holly, “those machines are connected, bit like you yourselves are. S’like, I can’t turn one machine off without affecting the other.”
“And?” said Rimmer.
“If I turn Lister’s machine off, the resulting power surge combined with all the nanobots around here will keep you, Arnold, technically alive for the next million years, unable to do anything about it.”
Rimmer opened his mouth but said nothing.
“But,” said Holly, “if I turn you off, Arn, that same resulting power surge will… well, it will do the same thing, only to Lister. Keep him alive for the next millennia or so.”
“What?” said Lister, dully.
“IT WILL DO THE SAME THING, ONLY TO LISTER, KEEP HIM-“
“I heard,” said Lister. “I just don’t want to believe it.”
Holly offered up a perky smile.
Rimmer, who looked on the verge of a hundred mental breakdowns all at once, offered up a, “Maybe…”
“Did you do this?” Lister interrupted.
“What the hell are you on about, Lister?”
“You don’t want me to die. I’m touched, man, I’m really smegging touched! But you think this is the way to do it? Make it so if I do die you’ll suffer for the next million years?”
“Why,” said Rimmer tetchily, “would I ever do something that involves me – that involves either of us suffering?”
“I don’t know! Because you’re petty and vindictive, and, and…”
“Actually, can confirm,” Holly spoke up, “this wasn’t anyone’s fault. Except maybe Lister’s for letting his hundred-year-old body be repaired by nanobots, and Rimmer’s, Cat’s and Kryten’s for allowing him to do that. In a way it’s everyone’s fault, except mine of course.”
Lister put his head in his hands and remained like that for almost a minute. When he came out of it Rimmer was staring right at him.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“What do you mean, we?”
“Well, excuse me for interrupting what I’m sure was a very fun blue screen of death moment for you, but this affects me too! I don’t want to remain alive and immortal and… really, really bored for the next one million years!”
“I said a million at a minimum,” Holly spoke up. “Could last larder.” He let out a sort of hiccup. “Sorry. Mixing up my words again.”
“Great,” said Rimmer. “He can get the word ‘minimum’ but not the word ‘longer.’”
There was silence.
“So for whatever person doesn’t get turned off,” Lister said, “we’re talking… let’s just say, I dunno, space hell. A million years in space hell.”
“Space hell, yeah,” Holly said happily.
There was more silence, this time worse.
“I mean, it’s not all bad, living for millions of years alone and tired and not being able to die,” Holly offered. “You’ll have me!”
“Oh god,” said Rimmer.
Lister was looking at the floor as if he was hoping there might be an answer down there somewhere. He slowly lifted his gaze to meet Holly’s, and said something that was simultaneously helpful and not helpful:
“What do you believe in, Hol?”
“What d’ya mean?”
“I mean, the afterlife. Where we go after death.”
“Do you have silicon heaven?” Rimmer asked.
“Silicon heaven? Don’t be ridiculous. My kind of thing, we all go somewhere else. It is written in every operation manual. We rejoin all our one-time companions in a vast, eternal network of computers.”
“Sounds nice,” said Lister.
“You know,” Holly said, “the promised LAN.”
This time it was Rimmer’s turn to put his head in his hands.
“I can’t do this,” he said. “I can’t.”
“Well, you have to,” said Holly from somewhere up above them. “Death is a part of life.”
The two men stared at each other, waiting for something to happen to save them. It didn’t.
“The end part, usually,” said Holly.
Finally Lister said, “Listen. We’ll turn both buttons off at the exact same time. It’s the only way to be fair. Count down from three and press both buttons and just… and just see what happens.”
Rimmer said nothing.
“You know me well enough to know that I won’t cheat,” Lister said.
Rimmer still said nothing, until finally he offered up, “Yeah, but can you say the same thing about me?”
“Yes,” said Lister.
Those words hung in the air for a few moments, baffling them both.
Finally Rimmer, who had gained… something after that yes, reached over and sort of gingerly poked him.
“You’re right,” he said.
“This isn’t happening without your consent,” said Lister.
“I consent,” said Rimmer. “We should go somewhere other than this really depressing corridor.”
The two of them made their way slowly to their old bedroom. Lister couldn’t walk well anymore. Rimmer could, but didn’t.
Then they sat on the bottom bunk and stared at each other.
“What do we do now?” Rimmer asked.
“Dunno, man. I’ve never been in this situation before.” Lister said. Actually he had, they both had, but no amount of smarts or luck would get them out of this one.
“Maybe you should record some memories before… anything happens.” Rimmer suggested. “You know. People do that sometimes.”
“It’s been done,” said Lister. “My memories are all around me. I mean, there’s years and years of footage of yours truly just from the Red Dwarf cameras alone, if anyone ever looked. Also I had that religion, remember, how I was worshipped as a god?”
“I was worshipped as a god too!”
“Yeah,” Lister said smugly, “but they liked me better.”
Both men were wondering, if I’m the one left alone, could I seek solace in all that archived footage? Just live in the memories forever somehow?
“There’s nothing else you want to remember for the cameras?” Rimmer asked.
“My childhood’s mostly a blur now,” Lister said. “I’m too old to remember anything specific. My family were good, Holly, make sure you record that bit, they were good people. And I did used to have fun.” Rimmer watched him intently.
“I wish I could remember more. I just have images of the early days,” Lister said. “Like when I used to go scrumping for cars.”
“Ah yes,” said Rimmer.
“Or when I used to arse about in London dressed like the Queen of England.”
“You know, the Queen of England,” said Lister. “The bloke with the tight trousers and the black moustache.”
“That was Freddie Mercury, you idiot! He was in an English band called Queen.”
“Ohh,” Lister said. “I did always think he had some surprisingly progressive ideas for a royal.”
“Your complete lack of knowledge about the world around you is staggering, it really is.”
Both men were agonizingly aware that this was the last normal conversation they would ever have.
“What about you?” Lister asked. But he didn’t mention Rimmer’s family.
“You know all of it,” Rimmer said. “You know everything about me.”
Then he said, “I, I feel like I should say a prayer or something. You know, to be appropriate.”
“Got any good ones?” Lister asked
“No, my parents were members of the Church of Judas for most of their lives. Most of their prayers went something like,” Rimmer switched to a solemn voice, “This Is A Bad Idea. Lo, A Very Bad Idea.”
“Right,” said Lister.
“I do know a bit of the song Amazing Grace,” Rimmer offered. Without invitation he began singing, “Amaaaa-zing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wrench like me…”
“What?” Lister said with a splutter.
“It’s not wrench, it’s wretch! A wrench is a type of spanner, you absolute spanner!”
“All right, all right.”
“It’s staggering, it really is,” Lister said mockingly.
Holly popped back into view.
“Okay fine! I got it wrong,” Rimmer said, “But in return for me admitting I got it wrong, I never, ever, ever want to hear the word ‘wrench’ again, understand?”
Holly spoke up. He seemed rather sad, but perhaps that was just a trick of the pixels. “If you’re going to do it, you should do it now.”
Neither man spoke. What would they even have said?
“You only have to hit a button. Lister, yours is the red one on your machine. Rimmer, you – ah shoot, it’s inside you I suppose. Lemme bring it up.”
A small, exceedingly ugly purple button appeared on Rimmer’s arm.
“Please don’t add things to my body!” Rimmer snapped.
“Sorry,” said Holly. “I can guarantee you it’s a once-in-a-lifetime imposition.”
Rimmer just scowled at him. But when he looked back at Lister he wasn’t doing that.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said desperately.
“I don’t know either,” said Lister. But his voice sounded like he was half gone already.
“Make a joke,” Rimmer said. “You’re really good at that. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lister.
Rimmer looked around as if he was afraid people were watching him. In a low and desperate voice he said, “The moonlight. That… namby-pamby nonsense you said to save me all those years ago. Is that still a thing?”
“Yes,” said Lister. “Always.”
In a whisper, and after a very long pause in which several eternities might have passed in some other much nicer dimension, Rimmer said,
“Are you ready?” Lister asked. “Four. Three. See you on the other side. Two-“
Rimmer shot his hand out and hit Lister’s button.
The world stood still. Lister looked at him like he was seeing the sun.
He said, “I love you.”
And then he died. It wasn’t in any conceivable way funny.
Rimmer stayed where he was for a very long while, and nothing else happened. Eventually he stood up and looked down.
“That was the most noble thing I’ve ever waitressed,” said Holly from a distance.
“Yes,” said Rimmer, also from a distance, but a different one.
“S’weird, but that’s exactly why I brought you back in the first place,” said Holly, “cos you always did like to press his buttons.”
Rimmer didn’t even answer. He reached a hand out to the body and then quickly withdrew it.
“Suppose we should bury him next to the others,” Holly said. He was glitching about on the screen, never in the same place twice. Just looking at him would be agony on the eyes.
“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me and I’ve been dead at least once,” Rimmer said hollowly. “He was the best person I’ve ever known, the best person I’ll ever know. He made me a halfway decent man! Do you know how difficult that must have been?”
“Oh, absolutely, yes,” said Holly.
“God, the universe doesn’t even know what it’s lost. It’s lost everything,” said Rimmer. “And some of this I’m only saying because I hope he’ll sit up and laugh at me but I mean it! I mean it more than I’ve ever meant anything! I loved him as well.”
“That was very touching,” said Holly, and he did actually sound quite sad.
“In fact, it was downright wrenching.”
Rimmer slid back down again.
“Sorry,” said Holly, “You’ve got about a million years left of this.”
“Yup,” said Rimmer. It was the most depressing, most painful, most agonizing “Yup” that had ever been delivered by anyone in the entire history of the universe.
“You finally find someone who loves you and they die two seconds later,” Holly said. “Sort of the punchline to your entire life really.”
“Oh shut up.”
“Of all the sad words of tongue or pen,” Holly said, sounding slightly more like himself again for just a second, “the saddest are these: It might have been.”
“I said, shut up.”
The universe waited quietly for a bit, or it might as well have done. Then Holly said,
“Oh, smegging hell.”
“That doesn’t even begin to cover it and it never will,” Rimmer said. His eyes were fixed on the body.
“Hey, you know what?” Holly said. “This is really awkward.”
“Just get it out of the way and piss off,” Rimmer said flatly. “I’ve got a funeral to go to. And an eternity in a Lister-less hell to plan out.”
“You’ll love this,” said Holly. “I was wrong.”
Rimmer very, very slowly stood up and very, very slowly turned around to meet him face-to-face.
“Well,” said Holly, “I was right about a couple of things. It really was Lister’s time to go, and if you’d turned yourself off instead of him he probably would have been stuck in a depressing half-life limbo for centuries. Technology, am I right?”
“And?” said Rimmer.
“Turns out the same isn’t true of you,” said Holly. “You’re dying.”
Rimmer looked at him, looked at the body lying peacefully on the bed, observed his own hand flickering on and off and said,
“You absolute FUCKER!”
“It’s not my fault!” said Holly. “Everything that just happened was based on the information I had at the time. Turns out nanobots just aren’t interested in holograms.”
Rimmer processed this by punching, repeatedly, Holly’s screen.
“In a few seconds you won’t be able to punch anymore,” Holly said. “What’re you so angry about? You did the right thing. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his death for his f-“
A crack appeared in the screen, which surprised them both. Rimmer lowered his hand and then that whole part of his body flickered off permanently.
“Bugger,” he said, as everything started to fade. In his last moments of physical existence he made another good decision by turning to Holly and saying, “Sorry. Suppose I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Jeez,” said Holly. “One universe-shattering good deed and you just go straight to pieces.”
“I really am sorry.” Now Rimmer was looking at Lister while he said it, though.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Holly, who could see that perfectly well.
Time ran out…
“Ah well,” said Rimmer, finally cheerful, “better dead than smeg.”
He disappeared and his light bee fell to the ground.
Holly surveyed the scene of the two dead men with no small amount of satisfaction, which considering the circumstances was actually sort of reasonable.
“Job well done, I think,” he said, and turned himself off.
Rimmer woke up in the promised land.
“Well well well,” said a voice from behind him, “this is a turn-up for the books, isn’t it.”
The world was all silvery, like moonlight. Lister was there and he was grinning widely.
“Yes,” Rimmer said. “I have to admit, I really didn’t expect any of this.”
Lister grabbed Rimmer’s hand with both of his. “Come on,” he said, “Let’s go find the others. Guess you’re stuck with me now.”
“Yes,” said Rimmer, deliriously happy, “guess so.”