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written by Rob Burriss

Author's note
The fifth Pickled story. We all know that Duane Dibbley isn't real - he was a venom induced hallucination - but what if he had existed? Why would Duane Dibbley have ended up playing Red Dwarf: The TIV Game? Read this relatively short (and hopefully entertaining) story to find out...

"If yud just like to take yer seats, Gentlemen"

The filthy boiler-suited technician with the 'Andy' badge sewed onto his top pocket waved Duane, Sebastian, Jake and Billy towards the immersion seats.

"Rimmer: there. Lister: here. Cat: round there. Kryten: just round the back, mate."

Duane padded wearily across the cold, hard floor of the game room and fell back into his immersion seat with a tired thump. Even now he was sad. After he'd made his decision and told himself that this was what he had to do. He couldn't continue living as the person he had become, and this game was the only way back for him. Still, it was a little depressing to think that the only way he could be happy was to con himself, literally deceive his own mind, about his true identity.

He settled back into the seat as Andy bustled round him, attaching biofeedback sensors to his body and injecting curious IV needles marked 'Victuals' into his arms.

'Well', thought Duane, 'he'd better get used to the idea of being the Cat because there was no turning back now'. In fact he was lucky to be here. He never thought he'd be able to live that life again and here he was being given the chance to live it indefinitely.

'Yes, I'm lucky,' he told himself over and over in his head, as the AR visor dropped down over his face from above like a dark, black hood being pulled over his head. It hummed past his chin and tightened onto his throat. He felt like he was being hanged. He was.

After all, Duane Dibbley was dead. He was starting a new life. Now he was the Cat.

"'Ave fun, everybody!" Came Andy's voice from outside the hood, loud but muffled. "'Ere we go!"

There was a clunk and then, with a shrill scraping sound - as of metal being pulled over a gritty surface -, the electrodes cracked through Duane's skull and punctured the softness of his brain. There was a fizz and then that was it. The game had begun. Duane was dead, for now at least.

Andy picked up his bag of tools and went off to find a cup of coffee.

Duane sat down at the bar and ordered a hideously expensive cocktail with a decasyllabic and mainly consonant-free name, before turning to his friend, Sebastian Doyle, and asking him what he wanted to drink. He ordered a Bloody Mary with extra Tabasco.

This was five weeks before Duane had entered the total immersion video game 'Red Dwarf', and at this point he hadn't even so much as heard of it. No one had. It was still in production and wouldn't hit the arcades for another month. So Duane sat there, trying to negotiate his way past the impenetrable dome of paper umbrellas that adorned his peculiarly shaped glass, blissfully unaware of the future that awaited him.

Beside him, Sebastian winced as he took a sluice from his Bloody Mary. It was disgusting. Still, he didn't drink it because it was nice, he drank it because he was a professional mass-murderer and it was part of the image. In fact, Bloody Marys were part of the torture repertoire he reserved for the more difficult 'bad-voters' it was his job to convert (before, of course, killing them and measuring them up for a new pair of concrete boots).

Duane looked around the bar, checking out who was there.

"Seb, Buddy, have you seen that guy over there?" He pointed over at a man sitting in a corner, hiding a pockmarked face behind a tall glass of rum and coke. "He is just so ugly!"

Sebastian grunted acknowledgement and took another sip of his drink.

Duane and Sebastian had known each other for two years. They had met at a showbiz party, somewhere on Mars. Where exactly neither of them could remember: not because they had been drunk particularly (which they had been) but because they both went to vastly similar parties almost every day of the week. It was part of their jobs to be 'seen' at these gatherings. Sebastian had to keep his profile up if he was to re-elected by the voters each year (although he did have another, if illegal, way to keep himself in politics). Duane had been there because he was a model. The most famous - and the best - male catwalk model in the business. He was the face of almost every perfume you could buy, every company you could patronize, and every item of food you could eat. He was the advertising people's messiah. 'Slap Duane's face on the packaging', they used to say, 'and anyone will buy it!'

Duane looked up from his drink and caught his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. God, he was good-looking! His black hair pulled up and back in a perfect pompadour; his wonderfully formed lips, nose and pretty much everything else; his miraculously faultless teeth, white and gleaming with two cute eye-teeth that peeked down over his lips whenever he smiled. He was truly the best-looking man, no: the best-looking person, in the whole Solar System.

Duane's mobile phone beeped out a fast-tempo rendition of Rossini's 'The Thieving Magpie', dragging him away from the contemplation of his own unparalleled beauty, and he answered it.

"Heeeey!" He said into the phone. There was a pause. "No, Guy, I'm in the bar... No, in the bar!" Another pause, this time a long one. "Now? Do I have to?... OK: half an hour. I'll be there." He hung up.

"Who was that?" Asked Sebastian, although he already knew. Duane only received calls from his agent, and even then he's get about twenty per day.

"My agent. Apparently he wants me to do some body-modelling thing for this new computer game that's coming out next month. They're gonna call it 'Red Dwarf'. It's set in space and they want me to model for the graphics for a character called 'the Cat'. It's gonna pay well so my agent told them I'd do it tonight. Sorry, Bud. I've gotta go." Duane gathered up his zebra skin PVC jacket, poured the rest of his cocktail over his chin, and left the bar with a wet paper umbrella stuck to his cheek.

Duane was strutting down the street when it happened.

He was coming out of the Artificial Reality Recording Studio and turning towards his limo, which was parked just two blocks away, when they jumped him. He liked to take a walk down a deserted street at night every now and again, even if it was only for a couple of hundred yards. Made him feel like a normal guy, although he went out of his way to assure himself at every step that 'no, he was not normal. He was inordinately special'.

The recording had gone well. His body had been photographed from every conceivable angle at least three times, and the computers had quickly created his 3-D image. Perfect in every detail and in incredibly minute resolution: he'd been shown a holographic representation of how he would look in the game and it would have been impossible to tell Duane and the Cat apart. They were identical. They'd even recorded his voice, too, and taken samples from his personality to fill in the gaps of the Cat's that the programmers had been unable to fill in. All of these extras had bumped up Duane's fee and after only a couple of hours 'work' he was a considerably richer person. He was very happy with himself (which was why he was 'strutting' and not just 'walking'). Lots of lovely cash to chuck on the pile, plus loads of free publicity when the game was released and his image was plastered across every fly-postable wall in the Solar System.

It was because he was so smug and happy with himself, his perfect nose thrust into the air like a lightning rod, that he didn't see them coming. Five or six figures who tumbled out of the shadows, cracked him on the back of his head with a steel cosh, and tumbled back into the darkness with Duane crumpled up in their arms.

Duane woke up. He looked about the room he found himself in, but he was so groggy that his head started to spin and he had to fling out his arms to keep himself from falling off the bed. He closed his eyes again. Right. He was in a bed. So far, so good. But whose bed? It was true that Duane often woke up in beds that were not his own, usually with such symptoms as he was apparently suffering from at the moment. But he already knew that this wasn't a hangover. It felt different. He didn't so much have a headache, but a general giddy-drowsiness. And his face hurt like hell.

He took a deep breath and opened his eyes again. From out of the haze swam a dirty lampshade, suspended from a dirty ceiling, holding a flickering 20-watt bulb. He slowly lifted his head up and looked over the foot of the bed. It was a small room, a room he didn't recognise at all. Items of filthy clothing hung over a crumbling chair, next to a flat pack desk. A fat fly buzzed around a greasy window pane, trying to knock its way out into the orange glare of a street light that stood directly outside the glass. A horrible thought entered Duane's head: he'd slept with a cheap hooker and ended up in her apartment! At this very moment she would be selling Polaroids of him in the buff - and in her bed - to every tabloid journalist from here to Pluto!

He thumped his head back onto the urine-stained pillow in exasperation. Ouch! The back of his head felt like someone had cracked him there with some sort of metal cosh. He felt the lumpy bruise there with his fingertips and after a couple of seconds it all came back. He had been hit over the head with a metal cosh! Well, now all he had to figure out was why? He took another deep breath and pulled himself out from under the crackling, nylon sheets and stood up on the thin carpet. The sort of carpet everyone remembers from primary school that used to shear the skin off your knees when you had to sit down there. He was a bit dizzy but he managed to cross over to the desk and sit on the chair, leaving the clothes there to crumple under him. There was a digital clock on the desk that reported the time as 13:06 on the 8th of May: three full weeks since the night of the Red Dwarf Game job. Had he been out cold the whole time? There was a note beside the clock. Duane picked it up and started to read.

Dear Mr. Dibbley,
I suppose at this point you are wondering where you are. Let me answer that question immediately before we continue. You are in the Salvation Army Hostel, and this is your new home. Welcome!

Next, on to more important matters. Namely, why you are here. You are here, Mr. Dibbley, because you are, or more accurately were, the face that epitomised the media's preconception of ideal beauty. You were the norm, they told us, the idyllic model we should all look up to. We should all want to be you, be like you, live your dream-life. Your commercials for breakfast cereal, your hundred-feet high posters advertising fizzy drinks, the reels and reels of film of you looking happy and contented at film premieres, aftershow parties and award ceremonies: all of them designed to say "If you looked like me, you could live a life like this too."

And it's bullshit, Mr. Dibbley. All of it is.

'Is it?' Thought Duane, then read on:
Because of people like you, the everyday normal people put themselves through hell trying to attain an ideal. An ideal that they never will attain. They starve themselves to nothing. They make themselves sick. They mutilate themselves with knives, hacking great chunks of flesh from their bodies. They lock themselves away and never leave their homes, afraid that they are too ugly to be seen by other people. In the past, stars such as yourself have not been directly blamed for these occurrences. After all, it is the mass media that chooses the image it wants to project. The models and actors who are foisted upon us are simply taking advantage of an opportunity to make money: an opportunity they cannot turn down.

But you, Mr. Dibbley, are different. You have gone out of your way to damage the collective self esteem of the public for years now, professing that you are (and I quote) "the most beautiful creature alive, bar none". Your public shows of narcissism and your displays of arrogant egotism have only served to destroy the one remaining level of protection the public has: knowing that whatever the media tells us, it is all a façade. In you they see the contradiction of that fact. They are forced to conclude that beauty does equal happiness.

The suicide rate Solar System-wide within the 14-25 age group has more than doubled within the last ten years since you began modelling. The amount of self-mutilation in the same age group has tripled, as has the frequency of eating disorder diagnoses. You are accountable for all these ruined lives, and for that reason you have been punished.

Duane was confused. They'd cracked him on the head and dumped him in a hostel because he'd ruined all those lives? Even if he was guilty, which he didn't think he was, that didn't seem to be a very severe punishment. But wait: the note continued on the next page...
You have been punished in the most appropriate fashion. All that you value is beauty - without that you feel you are nothing - so now, you are nothing. Now you are just one of us...

Best wishes,
The Venusian League Against Offences Towards Self Esteem. (Militant Division)

What the hell were they talking about? Punished by making him one of them? Normal? What were they talking about, the crazy Venusians?! Duane put both his elbows onto the surface of the desk and propped his chin in his hands, trying to think. But he couldn't. Because his face felt like a Vietnamese village that had just been strafed with napalm. He yanked his hands off his face and the burning sensation slowly ebbed away.

Oh dear. What had happened had already dawned on him, but his consciousness refused to believe it. He tentatively prodded his face with his forefingers. His cheeks were all swollen and bruised. Then his fingertips brushed over his mouth, and his heart stopped. Each tooth in his head was the size of a postage stamp. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...

Duane reached over the desk and rubbed some of the grimy film off the window, swatting the bluebottle aside. He peered into his own faint reflection. Peering back at him was the face that was now his. His original image massacred by hours of Venusian militant society plastic surgery. His teeth hung over his lower lip like an enamel portcullis: the barrier they made was probably big enough to keep an entire horde of Viking marauders at bay! They also seemed to have cut his hair: shorn away his pony tail, knocked down his near perfect concrete-quiff, and left him with a thick, pudding-bowl cut that curled upwards just above his ears all the way round his head.

Duane blinked a couple of times, gulped, and then passed out.

Sebastian Doyle took a slug from his Bloody Mary (with a triple measure of Tabasco) and tried to fling it down his neck so fast that he wouldn't be able to taste it. It didn't work. God, he could kill for a lager...

Duane shuffled into the bar in his new outfit, made up of the only clothes those bloody Venusian hippies had left for him: a near-plastic nylon shirt, a pair of brown dungarees and a green anorak with orange lining and a furry hood.

"Duane, man, is that you?" Said Sebastian over his glass as Duane squeaked over to where he was sitting. "Where have you been the last couple of weeks - and what the smeg happened to your teeth?"

Duane pulled down his hood.

"And what happened to your hair?"

"A bunch of anti-gorgeousness hippies from Venus knocked me out with an ugly stick. I look like a total prat." Said Duane forlornly.

"You said it, mate! But what're you gonna do?"

"Nothing I can do, buddy. I went to the dentist this afternoon and he said it'd take six years of major dental reconstruction to get my old smile back. All that's supposed to cost somewhere around two hundred thousand dollar-pounds - which wouldn't normally be a lot of money to me - but when I went to the bank I found out those bastards had cleaned out every last one of my accounts! I'm broke! Broke and ugly! Does it get any worse?"

"Maybe not, Duane, but I think I can help."

"If you're gonna offer to pay for the dental work you can save your money. I'll probably have killed myself by the time the six years are up." Duane slumped his chin onto the bar with exaggerated care.

"No, it's something else. Something I think will solve all of this..."

So Duane had listened to Sebastian Doyle's plan, and now here he was, in Sebastian's stretch limousine, on the way to the Leisure World International arcade complex. Even now Duane knew that this whole idea was monumentally sad. He felt more pathetic and low than ever. It was OK for Sebastian: he was going into the game because he was on the run. He was going to use the alternative reality 'Red Dwarf' would offer as a hide-out from the city's police who were investigating his involvement in a series of politically-motivated assassinations. Again, it was OK for Jake Bullet, the detective whom Sebastian was paying off so that he'd keep a certain amount of damning evidence under wraps. For Jake the game was just a hide-out, too.

Even for Billy, Sebastian's alky brother, the circumstances were only slightly different. Billy was also hiding out in the game, although not because he was involved in any crime but simply because Sebastian didn't trust him to keep quiet while he himself was in the game. Billy was a liability and it was easier to let him tag along. But for Duane it was much sadder. He too was hiding out, but not from the police: from himself. From the unforgiving public and from his own mind. The limo passed a crowd of people as it rounded a corner, and the throng peered as one into the car, wondering who could be behind the bullet-proof and blacked-out windows. Just as the car straightened out and was about to accelerate away from the crowd, Duane saw a man squinting at the glass. It was the guy with the bad complexion from the bar the other night. The one with the pock-marked skin. He wasn't that bad-looking, really. He had nice features, and with his eyes narrowed like that he even looked quite cool. Duane felt more than a little ashamed of himself.

He sat lower in his seat, tried to close his mouth tightly, and wished that he was still the person he had been just a few short weeks earlier. And sadly for him, he soon was.


I always thought The Cat was too vain for words, but his predicament seems a little harsh. Poor Cat

Go and visit the Author’s web site – THE PICKLED JAR.