Chapter 1: The Big Day
“Well, today’s the big day.” Dirk rolls out of bed as he smacks at the dead static of his radio alarm and mumbles, to Cal but really to himself. Cliche or no, if there is one thing that someone must say on The Big Day, that’s it.
As it turns out, The Big Day doesn’t even merit changing out of the unremarkable boxers and undershirt Dirk usually wears to bed. Why bother, really? It would only waste time. Dirk isn’t sure exactly what time zone Jake falls into, only that he's several hours ahead of any of the others. With that in mind, Dirk has slept in until one o’ clock in the afternoon, a habit characteristic of a Strider with nowhere to be. Except today, for the first time in, oh, forever, Dirk has somewhere to be.
He first came up with the idea months ago, nearly a year by now. It started as an idle daydream, one of many, that involved getting off of this pile of sticks and being magically transported to anywhere with the appearance of society. Pointless, unattainable, a total waste of brain space, as usual. Except — Dirk had been jolted to realize — this one was, quite by accident, entirely possible. Was it worth it? It took Dirk nearly a week to decide. This was a crazy thing he was considering, after all. But yes. Of course it was worth it. What was he going to get from living out here, just him and his robots and Lil Cal? What wouldn’t be worth going somewhere, doing something, seeing someone for the first time since his bro’s death? Nothing. Exactly.
So Dirk had begun his project. He hadn’t told a soul, and even his auto-responder hadn’t been able to guess. After all, this was a crazy move he was going to pull. Totally out of character for him. But he wouldn’t be doing it without caution. Oh, no. He did test after test, sometimes with the two robots he already had around the house, lovingly dubbed Squarewave and Sawtooth, and sometimes using throwaway shells he had created specifically for the purpose of test runs, all while carefully building, programming, disassembling and reassembling to ensure the process would be as simple as possible for a novice, his masterpiece.
He called it Brobot. It had been the auto-responder’s idea to name it after his bro, on the principle that it was the most human-looking thing to accompany Dirk since his bro had left. And it was indeed uncannily human-like. Dirk had built it to look exactly like himself, with the eye of a master and the hand of a perfectionist, and he hadn’t built it for the reason he’d told Jake — for a battle robot.
He’d built it so he could escape. Escape the solitude of his house, this place he had always been. Though he wouldn’t admit it, he had built it to get a chance at the kind of warmth an overheated circuit board couldn’t provide. Even if that warmth was expressed through built-in heat sensors rather than skin.
Dirk opens a laptop he’s dedicated to the project and studies the monitor, leaning in close so as not to miss a detail. On the screen, he has overlaid a simple map of his buddy Jake’s island, drawn by the man himself, onto a grid showing Brobot’s — soon to be Dirkbot’s — location. Good. He’s on his own, far away from Jake’s house, his base of operations. That will allow for the necessary grace period of orientation Dirk has found his brain needs in every test run. This will be it, then. Carefully, Dirk removes his sharp-edged sunglasses and plugs them into the laptop via a hidden port on the side of the lens. He catches a glimpse of his creamsicle-orange eyes in the glare of the fluorescent light overhead off the shades. For a moment, he’s tempted to reconsider. He hasn’t even told English about the plan, after all. But no. He’s waited for this for much too long. And anyway, he does have a backup plan. A way to get back, in case of emergency or for repairs. A way to ensure his original self is kept in working order. Once he does get back, it won’t be easy to cross over again. But at least he won’t be trapped. That’s what Dirk hates most of all. Being trapped.
He opens another window on the Brobot laptop with one hand, gingerly picking up a syringe with the other. As the window opens, the clear liquid contained in the syringe glitters, the near-invisible metal of a million tiny picobots. This is where the organic part of the equation is eased in, and Dirk must be careful, so careful, not to damage himself. Robots could be repaired. Humans, not so easily.
Once the program on the screen requires no more attention, Dirk eyes the syringe. Finally, this is it. He relocates to his bed with the laptop and the needle, hardly taking his eyes off the latter of the two. Slowly, with a practiced eye, he finds a vein on his right arm with his left thumb. Then, he injects himself. Immediately after, he activates the program with two swift keystrokes. There is a keen ache as the machines enter his bloodstream through the vein in the crook of his arm. Dirk lies down, and, more quickly than it should naturally, the world goes black.
Chapter 2: Brobot
Dirk orients himself. Short chapter.
Even more quickly, Dirk snaps back into consciousness. The little ‘bots have scoured time and space and finally found their receiver, 400 years ago, on a little island in the Pacific. They have done their job — Dirk’s thoughts are now being streamed as they are born into the complex processor of this metal machine, and his brain back home is getting input only from Brobot’s sensors. It’s as if he is the robot. Brobot. Dirkbot, maybe, now.
Dirk, or Dirkbot, he thinks wryly, trying to come to terms with the implications of the combined words, is now standing, in a tree, as it happened. Dirk’s first instinct is to go very rigid and make his way to the ground with extreme caution. But metal, he remembers, is durable. Metal can be repaired. And Dirk has made Brobot with the toughest stuff he could find, even using a sizable chunk of uranium for its power supply. His power supply, he checks himself, turning over a hand which is colored a sort of cobalt grey and glints in the early morning sun. Everything he used for Brobot is the best. With the glasses optics installed, he can see individual leaves on the ground far below. The minuscule heat-sensing chips he’s hidden beneath his metal skin allow him to feel the mist-diluted sun on his back in a way that’s almost passable as human. It had taken him months to perfect them. Still, he isn’t as sensitive as a real, live human being. He can’t feel the mist which is surely settling on his metal skin, for instance, and any wind is not felt, but registered as a speed in his processor. But Dirk is as perfect as a robot can get, without a doubt the finest machinery ever created. Or he likes to think so, anyway. In any case, he has never been more proud of his workmanship than he is of Brobot. Dirkbot. Himself.
Slowly, he crouches, looking at the ground below as small white numbers play in the corner of his new visual field. He is sixty feet in the air, say the numbers, and casing strength is at 97%. Dirk knows that he will suffer no damage in a fall from this height. And he doesn’t. He even lands on his feet, and the leaves that he scattered dance around him like a silent shout of trumpets announcing his arrival. Dirk has arrived. He’s out of his house. He’s somewhere else. His actual body may still be at home, but leave the technicalities. This is where he is now, as far as he’s concerned.
Brobot, he thinks in his most user-control tone, Override system restrictions, restore full function. Override code: Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. As good a password as any, especially since he’d named the robot after his bro. Absolutely no sentiment attached there, no way. And now that he had undone all the restrictions he put in place to keep Brobot functioning like the battle drone he pretended to be, he should be able to—
“Speak,” Dirk finishes for himself. His synthesized voice is a startlingly good rendition of his usual organic one, complete with a mild Texas undercurrent. Not that it would matter to Jake, who had never heard Dirk’s voice before. But it matters to Dirk. And for some reason, he feels he wants Jake to associate the correct voice with him, anyway. “Good. System override worked just fine.” Dirk reaches to run a hand through his hair, remembering on his way up that he no longer has any hair, nor sweat to wipe from it. Well, that’s a pity. He did model Dirkbot’s hair on one of his very best hair days, though, so that’s something. He just hopes that traitor doesn’t fuck up the real thing.
The white numbers read off the time just as Dirk begins to think about trying to discover it. Local time is six o’ clock AM, and — again, hardly a thought and the programmed features come to life — Jake is nearly due east of here, marked with a little red tracker that Brobot’s AI had been very clever to place. Dirk doesn’t know whether the tracker indicates the house or Jake himself, but both are likely to be in the same location at this time of day. Dirk heads in the direction of the red blip in his vision, and is pleased to discover that flashstepping is nearly as intuitive as a robot as it is normally — and there’s a much bigger field to work with here than at home.
Chapter 3: The English Residence
Wow it was unbelievably hard not to make this corny sounding. Expect things to pick up pace from here.
Dirk meets up with his good buddy Jake.
When Dirk finally reaches the English residence, it is completely silent. Not daring to call Jake’s name, not yet, Dirk ascends the first spiral staircase he comes to — after all, Jake had mentioned his room being at the very top floor, and Dirk had no desire to get lost in this maze of… He’s torn between the words ‘treasure’ and ‘garbage’. Jake would probably insist that his inane relics were entirely the former.
And, lucky for him, when Dirk finally reaches the top of the staircase, he finds himself in what can only be Jake’s room. It’s like a pinata exploded in there, and the pinata was full of guns and comic books and all genres of movie paraphernalia. On a night table near the bed sits the DVD copy of Dirk’s bro’s movie that he sent Jake last summer. Inwardly, Dirk smiles at this, which makes him realize that inward smiling is, in fact, the only kind he’s still capable of. Soon after, he sees a pattern of red lights play across the floor, presumably from his glowing red glasses optics. Dirk isn’t sure what that’s about, but he’s hoping it isn’t an error sign. Nothing has come up in the corner of his vision reserved for data display, which is a little baffling. Dirk decides not to worry too much about that right now, instead focusing on the more tangible situation at hand.
He hesitates for a moment before approaching Jake’s bed. The little devil’s still asleep, of course. Way too early to be up, despite the fact that all his friends in the world — all three, Dirk realizes, suddenly feeling a lot more kinship with his best buddy Jake — would just be getting out of school. For those who had school, that is. Which narrows the list down to Jane. Dirk and Roxy made their excuses, home school for her and half days for him, but really, neither had had a lesson in all the time they’d been guardian-less.
Despite the early hour, though, just as Dirk is considering plans to rouse Jake, by talking or possibly shaking him a little, Jake’s eyes snap open on their own. Dirk is a little startled, human reflexes still getting the better of him, which allows Jake all the time he needs to respond to Dirk’s — or, rather, Brobot’s — presence. He whips a pistol out from under his pillow, and instead of firing it, brings it over his head towards Dirk’s neck and shoulder with a wild cry. “Whoa!” Dirk shouts, thankful that he can, and automatically lifts his arm to block Jake’s blow, though he’s not sure whether programming or training led him to respond so quickly. Without hesitation, as if he had expected the attack to be blocked, Jake brings his other hand — also holding a pistol, how many of these things does he have? — around and attempts to drive the barrel into Dirk’s side. Dirk just manages to flash-move his arm to Jake’s wrist in time to stop the attack. Clearly, the robot only intended to pass for a training opponent has done its fair share in training Jake in the past many months of its life.
Jake blinks at Dirk’s hand on his wrist in confusion. Surely his nemesis has never moved that quickly before. Dirk hadn’t given the thing access to flashstepping abilities. The robot never knew how to do it. But Dirk isn’t all robot. “Jake!” he snaps, lifting Jake’s arm up, away from where he’s fairly sure his motion coordinator is housed. “It’s me!”
“It’s—” Jake stares into Dirk’s red roboglasses in confusion. His hair is flattened on one side. He had just woken up, after all. Quickly, though, the light dawns on him. “Strider?” Dirk nods. “Oh.” Jake exhales and stops trying to kill Dirk, and Dirk releases Jake’s wrist. “Sorry, there. I’m just used to this contraption trying to kill me, that’s all. Didn’t know you could… hijack it like this.” Dirk shrugs as much as he’s able. The word ‘contraption’ doesn’t quite mesh with him, but Jake had been using the word for Brobot long before this morning, when Dirk moved in.
“It’s sort of an experimental thing,” he says. Truthful enough.
“Pesterchum no longer good enough?” Jake laughs, rubbing his hand through his hair. He seems to have sensed that he looks ridiculous. “Can’t deny that I like hearing your voice for a change, though. What do you call this, then? I bet it’s got some fancy name, like remote… access control override protocol, something like that?” Dirk can’t help but laugh a bit at Jake’s string of loosely-relevant buzzwords. Well, relevant if Dirk was doing what Jake seems to think he’s doing, which is controlling Brobot from his computer at home. Which isn’t the case. And Jake had better know that, because Dirk…
He doesn’t plan on going back. This is the first time he’s admitted it to himself, but it was true all along. He doesn’t want to go back. If he goes back, he may not be stuck for good, but he’ll have a hell of a time getting out of his little cage again. This thing, it’s really different, but different is good in Dirk’s opinion. Anything’s better than same old.
Dirk answers honestly. “It hasn’t got any terminology yet. It’s pretty new. No one’s ever done it on this kind of… scale before.” True. The technology he had used to stream himself into Brobot was normally used to replace missing limbs, allow the blind to see, things like that. Just parts. Dirk had never read a case in which it was used to completely displace a person from his body. But he’d done it. Therefore, it’s up to him to name it. “I guess I’m calling it… thought streaming, maybe?”
“Sounds fairly to the point,” Jake says brightly. “Still a bit above my head, though. What’s that mean to a layman?”
Dirk supposes this will be the point where it’s now or never. English has to know what’s going on, whether he thinks it’s… weird, or creepy, or wrong, or… Dirk feels an uneasy tickle in his stomach which he’s sure is a mental thing, because robots don’t have stomachs or butterflies to put in them. “Well, uh, what it essentially means is that, rather than controlling the robot, I’m… in the robot. I am the robot.”
A trickle of confusion returns to Jake’s voice at this. “Come again, Dirk? I’m not sure I quite know what you’re getting at.” Dirk hopes that isn’t an anxious look on Jake’s face. He attempts to explain a little better.
“See, well… Normally, I’d be talking to you from at home, in my own head. Through Brobot if I wanted to. More likely through Pesterchum.” Dirk is vaguely aware of a pattern of red light playing down Jake’s face. More unusual reflections of his glasses. “But instead, everything I think is going straight to a processor up in here.” Dirk taps his head, producing a soft metal-on-metal sound. “And everything the mechanical sensors take in is going back into my head. Brobot’s AI isn’t active anymore. I replaced it. With myself.”
And oh man, Jake is certainly looking confused now. He’s staring at Dirk like he’s grown an extra set of arms — which he could. “So if I’m catching you right, what you’re saying is that this—” He knocks on Dirk’s shoulder, which creates a duller, sharper sound, “—is you?”
“Yep.” Dirk nods in confirmation. No use beating around the bush, since he’s got the picture already. “I even felt that.” Jake pulls his hand back like he’s been bitten. “Whoa, hey.” Dirk catches Jake’s arm, careful not to hold too tight since he hasn’t gotten used to his grip strength just yet. “I didn’t say it hurt.”
“Sorry, sorry…” Jake mutters, running his eyes over Dirk from head to foot and back. Dirk isn’t exactly sure what that’s about. Jake’s seen Brobot in enough detail before. But whatever the reason for it, Jake’s face brightens up once again. “This is sort of like having you with me, then!”
Dirk feels that inner smile spread back into his mind. “Just the same.”