you're gonna be something incredible someday

He grows up alone. That’s how it happens: he is alone, and the world is empty, and all the companions he has are, well, puppets. He builds robots and they are faithful, they are strong, they test his skill and keep him sharp; they are as he has made them. He watches cartoons a thousand years old, their endings already determined, every move scripted out: there are no surprises he cannot anticipate. This is his life, and the smuppets are just the most literal manifestation of the theme.

Days uncounted, all there is is him and the sea and the things he makes. No wonder he gets used to it.


The first time he swims out far enough to get lost, it's summer and he heads out towards the sunrise, sea almost warm around him. Eventually his house disappears over the horizon and he's entirely alone. The circle of the sky above him meets the circle of the sea and the whole vast empty world is his. By the time he's done luxuriating in it, the sun is high in the sky and he has no idea which direction he was facing.

He treads water. He cries. He hopes impotently for rescue. He tries to float on his back and rest a while, but he can’t keep himself above the water. The ache in his muscles builds and builds and doesn’t abate.

After a while the sun begins to sink again. He wants so much to just swim for the sunset, but the sun’s arc is southern enough that it wouldn’t, quite, be the right direction; he keeps treading water, keeps waiting, keeps, stupid as it is, hoping. It gets colder and colder until finally, blessedly, he starts to go numb. His teeth chatter; his mouth goes dry. The moon rises, a slim crescent that silvers the tips of the waves. He’d follow it but he can’t remember where it rises, where it sets. Once, twice, three times, he slips into a doze and wakes up drowning.

He’s so afraid.

The shivering stops and he can’t remember how cold you have to get before you’re too far gone to save. He falls asleep again, wakes up and can’t get his limbs to move. It’s over in maybe thirty seconds and then he’s kicking and he gets his body upright, gets his head above the surface, coughs and chokes and spits water back into the sea. He tries to guess how much the moon has moved and gives up; he tries to memorize the stars behind it and he thinks he’s got them but when it’s moved on he can’t find them again. It’s still up—still, he thinks, rising—when the sky begins to lighten.

The sun doesn’t rise for a long time after but when it does it’s in the same direction as the moon and he feels, well, really fucking stupid. At least he knows now. He turns his back to the sun and swims away, keeps swimming.

When the black speck that must be his apartment shows up on the horizon he puts on speed, and gets too tired to maintain it before the shape gains appreciable detail. It’s a few hours at most between him and home but he’s so, so tired.

He makes it back. The bars stretch up, more like a cage than a ladder, and he can barely get his hands to close. By the time he's at the top his palms burn with the cold, but he hauls himself through the door and collapses shaking into sleep.

He builds a way home for himself. Transponder on the roof of his apartment, four implants—left ear, right ear, base of the skull, bridge of the nose—small enough to draw power from the beating of his heart. When he signals, the ones nearest the returning signal will buzz, like a compass that points home. His hands aren’t steady enough to install the implants, so he builds a robot to do it for him, tests its aim on a canvas dummy, calibrates its force on his skin. He takes six ibuprofen and grinds up another four to inject into the surgery sites. He straps himself to a chair and starts the robot; he doesn't pass out, but he comes close. It's worth it.

He builds a little inflatable raft, small enough to carry in his hand or his mouth, sturdy enough to last until he needs it. Turned upside down, it doubles as a distiller, low-capacity but enough to keep him alive for a few extra days. He builds a reflector on the roof, angled to catch the light as the sun sets and rises. (it’s shaped like a hat, because why the fuck not.)

After he's built those, and tested them until he's sure he could trust his life to them, he spends the next year mapping out the stars. That way north, in the day the sun to the east and west and south, the whole circle of the sky a guide he can follow back to where he started.

When he's sure he's safe, he swan-dives perfectly into the sea and his throat closes up and his vision fuzzes over. He meant to stay five minutes, manages three and then he's up the ladder and slamming the door. This, he discerns with the astonishing powers of judgement he's been blessed with the chance to develop, is going to take a long-ass time.

It does. All told, it's almost a year and a half between that day and the day he swims out again, past the horizon, and can set the need to scream aside well enough to like it out there. He's never gonna love the ocean like he used to, but it's enough to be getting on with.


There's a hurricane; he nails down the shutters, stays indoors and watches his bro's old interviews. It's fine, the sea isn’t gonna rise from a bit of rain and the building’s stood this long, but when water blows in underneath the door he finds himself shaking anyway, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.

His bro, onscreen, is unflappably cool and he realizes: that's what he wants to be. This is stupid; this is for children. He dries his eyes and sets his mouth, he breathes slow and deep and smooth. He's got this.


He trains with his katanas, films hilarious stop-motion masterpieces of irony with his smuppets (all the funnier for his being the only one to watch them. An inside joke, and he's in on it), raps and draws and catches fish with nets and spears.

He builds the myth of himself, makes it something he can embody and does.

He is the inheritor of earth, the last holdout of humanity. He is, by any standard you care to consider, a genius. He is a knight unmatched in deadliness, a poet unsurpassed in cleverness. He is his brother’s brother, and when, as humans must, he dies, he will go out in a blaze of glory.

All in all, he thinks, he's pretty fucking rad.

He doesn’t have anyone, so he builds himself into someone who doesn’t need anyone. (No wonder he turns out the way he does.)

When he builds AR, he doesn’t expect things to change. It’s always been just him and it’s still just him, made greater.

(They’re half-drunk on the glory of it, those first few days. It gets pretty fucking masturbatory.)

That first moment when AR says something, and he didn’t know it was going to say that, and it’s a person, here in his home and knowing things he would never have shared with anyone but himself: that’s a horror. He doesn’t react but he remembers; and really, what is it but that that sours things between them, in the end?


He tries to be good to it, he really does. Cuckoo though it is, ungrateful grasping thing, he gives and gives and gives. He gives it his home, the pretense of his name. He builds it body after ironically shitty body (puppets, he thinks, and wonders what the difference is, and abandons that entire line of thought). He lets it be the one who meets his friends.

(Well, "lets." it goes like this:

He stares at the chat program and there is nothing that could make him want to be seen.

You do it, he tells AR, cold fingers almost fumbling on the keyboard. Your desire to demonstrate your "vastly superior intelligence" and "perfect imitation of me" is matched only by your inability to carry out anything approaching my actual accomplishments and, would you look at that, an ideal opportunity to prove yourself in all three fields has dropped right into our laps.

Won't that be a bit of a bait and switch, being wooed by my suave conversational stylings and then rudely confronted with your unpolished self? it rebuts, positively oozing smugness.

Not if I never take over it won't. Now, are you going to behave or will I need to rewrite your source code?

A pause.

Threaten to drown me while you're at it, why don't you?

Don't be ridiculous; even if I hadn't gone to the trouble of waterproofing every bit of hardware I put you in—a serious pain in the ass, by the way—you're sufficiently integrated with my computer systems that you'd have no trouble whatsoever relocating that misbegotten collection of misallocated processor cycles you call a consciousness to the fucking walls of the house I live in well before I'd so much as gotten the door open. Also, the ocean and I are so tight we’re like the sea witch’s iron grip on the shattered remnants of what used to be human civilization, so I don’t really get where you’re coming from with this.

Whatever you need to believe, Dirk.)

He reads the chatlogs, every so often. It's right: it does a good him. It thinks of things he wouldn't, says the things he would think of sooner. Next to it, he looks like the imitation.

(That said, it’s also, in the beginning at least, painfully uncool. He is so fucking glad it’s not him out there.

It stumbles and gets its words wrong and when they take too long to write back he can almost taste its panic. It’s painful to read, until he realizes: he doesn’t have to care. He’s not the one going out there every day and epically wiping the fuck out (and for that matter, why does it even need to talk to them every day? It’s not like they’ll forget the thing they think is him if it takes a week or two to relax, process things, come up with something to say that doesn’t make it look like quite as much of a desperate idiot.))


He sees the way their attention distorts it, becomes a thing it values and then the thing it values most. It reshapes itself to be one of them; it cracks open the self it wore and shows them the weakness underneath.

He reads the logs less and less, is blindsided entirely by its interest in the boy. It tells him, smug, delighted, and he wants to scream.

What in the hell do you think you’re doing? he asks, with every ounce of the calm maturity he’s known for.

He’s really pretty cool if you get to know him.

That is the exact fucking thing I did not want you to do, idiot. You were supposed to build a sturdy working relationship and induce some degree of loyalty, not slobber all over their metaphorical—oh, I’m sorry, their *literal*—dicks!

You’re such a child.

And you’re such a pathetic shadow of true humanity, but is that my go-to comeback when you raise a novel and previously unconsidered point?

Well. The evidence does seem to indicate that to be the case, yes.

The quality of the discussion degenerates from there; he ends up holding the glasses in his two hands, flexed almost to the point of breaking, and it apologizes and tries to soothe him and still, somehow, ends up getting what it wanted.

A month later he’s steeled himself to concede his own culpability. He communicates the minimum required; he jokes that they’re bad for each other and should see other people. He doesn’t want to let it but he can tell when he’s beaten. (It’s not a gracious winner.)


He puts off thinking about it as long as he can, but eventually it’s obvious he’ll have to meet them in person.

He practices lines in the mirror. AR makes itself a voice synthesizer and they go over the conversations he'll need to have in person. It plots out three different scripts for every interaction, sorts them by likelihood, demonstrates the intonations he should use. His gratitude is painful; he shouldn't need this. Letting it build his friendships for him was weakness he should never have indulged. (But it did better than he would have: so what's the point of him?)


Meeting them is terrifying, but he’s learned to handle fear. He gets through the lines he practiced, almost manages to sound natural when they go off-script and he has to read ar’s improvisations off the inside of his glasses. It’s going fine and then AR’s a second slow with a response and of course he can’t come up with anything so he’s left standing there like an idiot. One of them asks if he’s okay; he’s got a response prepared for that, and they get back on track, but the whole experience is just outright humiliating.


A thought occurs to him, and can’t be set aside: if he could build the right interface he could download it onto his brain, give it access to the motor cortex. He'd never need to fumble for the words his friends expect, never pause or fail to emote as he reads off the lines of dialogue he needs written out for him. It's not a welcome prospect, but then again neither are any of the other ones.


He’s kissing the boy who thinks he loves him and he’s struggling not to shudder and in his head AR is saying I win, is saying Look what I got for you, is saying Do you love me now?

On his glasses, though, it restrains itself: For the love of god, Dirk, kiss him back. You’ve had long enough to prepare; this should be trivial.

If he could type like this he’d say something about practice, and the traditional means of acquiring it. (Then again, maybe not. Much as they both would’ve leapt at the chance when they thought they were the same, at this point it would just be gross.)

He manages. It’s pretty hot, actually; he doesn’t like that. Messy human need, trying to make him a thing like rest of them.


It doesn’t mention resenting him for the Jake thing, but he knows he would in its place. (if he handed himself off to it he wouldn’t have to put all this effort into acting natural, and it wouldn’t have to puppet him through every interaction in other than the most literal sense. A win-win, really.)


Sometimes, watching them, he thinks about what it might be like to define himself in relation to them: Jane's friend, Jake's boyfriend, Roxy's fellow stranded castaway. He thinks it might hurt, might diminish him. He's happy with who he is, and who he is has no room for being one of. (Nonetheless, there's an ache in his chest, in his throat, behind his eyes; a hurt he might betray himself to ease.)

It’s simpler when he’s fighting. He’s showing off his skills, doing something cool, proving himself against an enemy. He is the image he wants to present, and the only vulnerabilities to be seen are the physical.


They’re weak and silly and stupid and he doesn’t know what it saw in them.

No, that’s a lie; he knows. It saw what it wanted to see, what they wanted it to see—clever prankstress, fearless adventurer, carefree master hacker—and fell in love with them, and kept loving them after the curtains opened and their flaws eclipsed the things they could’ve been. Disgusting, yes, but understandable. If he’d been the one stuck with the task he might’ve made the same mistake.


He could merge their consciousnesses, hopefully creating a hybrid Dirk with all his cool detachment and all its hard-earned social skills, or he could just wipe himself away and leave it the corpse.

It seems like an easy choice, and it is. If he’s going to justify this final bit of selfishness by framing it as a gift, which he is in fact absolutely going to do, he kind of has to give it a machine without a ghost.

He designs the interface. On paper, and he waits until he's got it perfect; this is the last chance he'll get to be the one of them who gets something right. He builds it. He shows AR.

I can't do this, Dirk.

Why not? Haven’t you always wanted an actually meaningful claim to legitimacy?

That hasn't been what I wanted for a very long time. I don't think we're alike anymore.

It's like that moment it first diverged from him all over again, but worse because all this time at least he's had the comfort of its claim to being him, little as he may have believed it.

what the fuck do you mean, he asks, and doesn't want the answer.

I don't want the things you'd want if you were me. I don’t think like you. Our differing life circumstances have altered our formerly identical personalities in myriad subtle ways, the most relevant of which is my sincere and deep-rooted concern for the importance of treating people ethically. Which this, to be clear, would not be.

so you're saying you’re just flat-out not interested in the chance to finally supplant me as the most valuable Dirk, and also mash your disgusting face against the face of your stupid boyfriend like some kind of animal, because of some concern for the ethics of accepting the incredible gift i have magnanimously condescended to offer to you how the hell did i fuck up raising you this badly

Of course I’m interested, I just don't think it would be right. As for your failures as a brother, well, much as I'd love to discuss them further I think discretion may in this case be the better part of valor.

He didn’t expect to be this upset but in retrospect it was entirely predictable.


He absolutely cannot fucking bring himself to meet his bro (well, his bro’s simultaneously vastly more and disgustingly less impressive alternate version). He hides in the bathroom, half-ready to give up this entire battle and just let them lose.

AR argues and cajoles and ultimately begs. It’s the last of those that wins him over, sympathy curdling horrified in his gut.

He spends the whole conversation reading off the inside of his glasses. It tells his bro all about what it’s like to be him (probably an experience it shares, to be fair. When has he ever been fair, though) and it’s probably cathartic or something but he mostly just ends up feeling like his skin’s been removed.


They win. It’s honestly a little anticlimactic: no blaze of glory, just a fight he doesn’t star in and then they have forever. He isn’t sure what to do with forever.


We should really tell them, you know.

It’s right, if not for the moral reasons he assumes it’s concocted: he’ll never get free of them if ar needs him to be its interface with the physical world forever. The solution he wanted was better, but of course he can’t have nice things.

It tells them over text, first, and he goes out there and stands next to the body he’s built it (a perfect copy. Of course it is; everything he builds is perfect) and he tells them: everything it said is true. He was too much of a coward to interact with another human being so he threatened the one thing in his world he couldn’t quite control into doing it for him, one problem seemingly solved with another, and it changed, the thing he’d been corrupted into, into that, and when he’s alone he can stay in control, mouth firm, eyes open, voice unfaltering, but somehow the pressure of their eyes on him makes it impossible and he breaks down crying. He manages to force out a conclusion to his speech (“So yeah, this is who you were actually friends with. Have fun together, I guess”) and flees.


He moves away.

It offers to design his planet, probably out of guilt, and he lets it. What it comes up with is better than he would’ve guessed: after all this time, it understands him still. It makes him feel small and he doubles the size of the oceans in a fit of pettiness. (then, because he doesn’t want to spend forever in a monument to his resentments, he puts them back, just a little bigger than before.)

There’s an underwater Texas, and an abovewater Texas, and ok yeah pretty much all of the continents are shaped like Texas. Except for DC. DC is shaped like Idaho. There are a whole fucking lot of shitty jpeg-artifacted statues of liberty, and there’s one of his brother, posed dramatically on the roof of the White House. The assorted continents have a wide variety of habitats, carefully calibrated to be both entertaining and challenging. The entire world is surrounded in an invisible forcefield that won’t let anyone in unless he’s with them.

They all get together and build it. Roxy cries, Jake won’t look at him, his bro gives him a manly pat on the shoulder that abruptly becomes a hug. He avoids the rest of them as best he can.

It’s astonishingly beautiful from space, a stage worthy of his magnificence, and the whole thing feels just a little hollow. He’s a god, and this is what he’s choosing to do with himself.

It’s fine. He lives in a little house in the sea, and sometimes if he’s feeling up to it he’ll pop over to some far-distant city where no one who knows him lives and impress the citizens with a sweet skateboard trick or two. He doesn’t think of them very often.

Sometimes when the light catches his glasses in the mirror, though, AR’s absence strikes him. He wonders what it’s doing, if it feels as insignificant in the face of the vast world as he does.

He hopes it’s happy.