“You’re kidding, right?” the corners of Philip's mouth plunged down like a falling rock.
Pushing the cellphone further into his ear, he raised his voice. “This is fucking bullshit!”
“It is what it is, Phil,” the voice on the other side of the line answered with growing irritation. “You’re the only one free tonight-”
“Yeah,” Philip cut the voice off, “because it’s my fucking birthday.”
“And I’m sorry about that,” the voice remained balanced, and continued speaking level, “but this thing supposedly happens every 37 years and-”
“And I don’t care,” Philip interjected again as he neared a terminal on the street.
“Understandable, but I’m your boss,” the voice lost composure and subdued Philip with a yell, “and if you still wanna work here on Monday, you’re gonna do what I tell you. I’m sorry to ruin your night, but that’s how it is. Have the paper on my desk by next week, and happy birthday.”
The dial tone replaced Philip's boss, and the sound made him clutch the phone harder. Anger flowed from his head through his arm, and the only thing that saved the fragile electronics from crushing wrath was Philip's gnashing teeth.
“Fuck off,” Philip spewed out and browsed through the email just sent to him.
He motioned the smartwatch on his left hand over the terminal, and a buzzing noise from above started to get closer. Philip stepped on the crosswalk and was intercepted midway through by a flying drone with a dark-gray box attached to its bottom. The drone hovered about a foot away from Philip, the box it carried sounded like an antique clockmaker's shop. Thirty seconds later, he huffed out air through flared nostrils and checked his watch. The clock face that appeared showed the time to be 19:03. An unsatisfied scowl ruffled his bearded cheeks while his fingers typed with much greater force than required. His guests were in the middle of discussing when to meet when they received the following message:
"Sorry guys, work came up. The party's off."
Philip dropped the unpleasant news like a crate of explosives on an unsuspecting excavation crew. As a barrage of messages began stabbing his innocent device, he clicked the do not disturb option, then armed his apartment’s security system from its app. Looking up, he saw the drone had printed the press clearance he’d gotten in the email. It dangled on a small hook extending down from the box. Philip’s ginger bearded, bespectacled face stared impassively at him. He snatched the ID card, making the drone lose balance and begin to wobble. Philip felt a little bad about the way he treated the device, but upon remembering his ruined plans, he shoved the flying machine as hard as he could. The drone compensated for the violent new disturbance by flying back to the middle of the road then switching to a rapid ascent out of Philip's cruel reach.
“Fuck you too,” Philip spat the words, watching the drone with a sour expression.
Moments later, he sighed and dragged the soles of his shoes towards his new assignment. Light fell like a shimmering curtain while he neared the museum, its dark windows reflecting the last traces of the day. Philip’s lips turned into a dopey smile as the hope of a fake tip grew. He stood in front of the dreary entrance. A hanging placard marked the building as closed, so Philip did his due diligence and touched the press pass to a reading device. The electronic lock made a soft rejection beep. Philip’s goofy smile widened, and his mood brightened. The day became night, and with a pep in his step, he strolled towards his apartment. There was still time to salvage this train wreck.
“Mr. Hagan?” a voice deep and smooth like that of a late-night radio host called from the entrance. “Please, come in.”
Philip’s shoulders stiffened, and he turned around to see a short man wearing worker’s overalls standing by the open door. The deceiving placard on the door swung with mocking abandon.
“Your boss called and caught me just before leaving, so he asked me to let you in. Lucky, right?” the man smiled with such radiant positivity that the biting remark in Philip’s throat didn’t meet the outside dark.
He returned a half-hearted nod, then moved his feet with the beleaguered measure of a man fighting knee-high mud. Once inside, the man closed the door behind them. Philip made his way up the short stairs to the lobby. The man was still just behind, and Philip wondered why he hadn’t lingered by the door.
“Aren’t you going to lock that?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” the man waved Philip’s worry away. “You can’t open the door from outside without the key after work hours.”
“I see,” Philip said, then an uncomfortable silence followed as they moved through a dinosaur exhibit. “Sorry, I didn’t ask your name.”
“That’s not really important,” the shorter man overtook Philip and now led the way. “I’m just someone that keeps tidy and helps the lost from time to time. You’d be surprised how often that happens even in today’s world.”
Philip did a quick once over the cavernous room. Every three to five feet, exhibits sprang up like mushrooms, creating a maze of glass and ancient bones. The empty eye sockets of prehistoric predators held pockets of darkness that seemed to follow your every step. Above them were brass parapets from which patrons could gawk at the sheer size of these long-dead reptiles. Philip's suspicion grew after the man's evasive answer and no attempt at further elaboration.
He was about to speak out when the double door in front of them was pushed open with astounding proficiency. Beyond it were statues. So many of them that they filled the available space from wall to wall. With a single glance, Philip noticed several prominent figures residing here. Their features were immediately recognizable even though a different level of skill had sculpted them. Before Philip could ask for clarification, the man spoke again.
“Here is where it happened last time,” the man pointed with his chin. “I’m not sure if it was Winston Churchill, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Zeus that moved around, or was it Poseidon? I always get those mixed up.” He raised his shoulders in an uncaring shrug, then walked around Philip, back to where they came.
“Okay, enough with the cryptic janitor roleplay. Tell me who you are, and is this some kind of prank? I mean, you can’t be serious,” Philip moaned, his hands limp by his sides, “statues don’t move around.”
“Not yet they don’t,” the man said, then an intense flash of white engulfed the whole room.
Philip blinked involuntarily. The last clear image on his retina was the man’s wide smile, lingering a moment too long after the burst of light. The sound of moving marble made Philip's feet grow roots. A low and powerful rumble from behind him began to shake the walls. Stone scraped stone as two distinct sets of footsteps filled the air. Philip backed away, but a blur of motion grabbed his throat and hoisted him up a few inches from the floor. Cold and smooth marble fingers sunk into his flesh. The grip pushed air out of his lungs like toothpaste out of its tube. Through watery eyes, Philip recognized the face of the 15th-century philosopher and statesman Niccolo Machiavelli choking him to death. The statue's free arm bubbled and swirled like liquid, then turned into a spearhead. Philip's flails saw substantial growth after the appearance of the deadly stone implement. A thundering crash made Philip lose all hearing in his left ear. Shifting his eyes, he saw another marble hand had caught the spearhead. The force of the deafening impact still painful on his skin.
“Come on, Mac,” the new statue said in a pacifying voice, “let’s explore our options before we murder denizens of the time period, eh?”
The spearhead moved down, and Philip noticed his stony savior was not wearing any clothes. The statue's body had two discernable features, a bushy marble beard, and muscles. In its left hand was a bludgeon in the form of a club, the top and sides of which seemed to be dented from extreme brutality. The slab hewn into a face smiled at him.
“Sorry for my brother’s outburst,” the naked statue spoke to Philip as he was lowered down. “Mac’s a bit rash, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders.” Shifting the club to its other hand, the statue grazed Mac's chin with an affectionate knuckle.
Philip was released, and his feet met the ground with great joy.
“Stop that, Herc,” Mac moved the hand away. “It’s creepy when you’re being overly human.” His shoulders moved up, and his head shuddered as if wracked by shivers running up a non-existent spine.
Philip’s mouth moved, but he managed no words. His legs didn’t take him away when he ordered them. His hands managed to move, and he used his fingers to rub the spot where the smooth, cold hand had gripped.
“Sorry about that,” Herc pointed at Philip’s neck, “there wasn’t supposed to be anyone here. That’s why my brother was a bit jumpy.” He clapped Mac’s shoulder with the back of his hand and gave him a meaningful look.
“Come on then, apologize,” Herc added, his eyes downcast, voice stern.
Mac frowned, then with a sullen expression, apologized and walked away.
Philip was stunned by the level of detail the statues had. Their faces moved as if skin covered muscle and blood vessels. Herc grabbed Philip by the shoulder and gently pushed him towards the center of the room.
“Come on. I’ll introduce you to my last brother. He doesn’t talk too much,” Herc's finger scratched his beard, “or at all really, but he’s a peach otherwise.” Fine lines appeared around his eyes when he smiled at Philip, who shuddered.
Herc must’ve sensed the tremor through Philip’s shoulder because he let go, giving him a much smaller, apologetic smile. They reached Mack, who stood in front of a Sherlock Holmes statue, his tapping foot filling the air with thudding sounds.
“What’s taking so long?” Mac uncrossed his arms and used a finger to drum on the clean-shaven cheek of the greatest detective in fiction. “Stop wasting time pretending, and let's go!”
“Stop being mean,” Herc chided and pulled Mack by his collar. “Shifting backward isn’t that easy. You’re the last person that needs a reminder of that.”
Mac threw Herc a sideways glance. Opening his mouth, he caught Philip looking at him, so he decided better of it.
“Whatever,” Mac looked away, embarrassment noticeable in his voice.
Philip wasn’t sure what was weirder, the moving beards on the statues or their much-too-human voices. As he tried to grasp the situation again, the head of Sherlock Holmes began to glow brighter.
“Oh, yeah,” Herc exalted, nodding with boyish excitement, “here he comes. Oh, I almost forgot.” He put his hand over Philip’s eyes.
“We’re pretty close here, so we have to protect your eyes from vaporizing,” Herc explained as his insurmountable grip closed around Philip’s temples.
The sound of moving stone echoed, and the pale hand drifted away from Philip’s face.
“Lock,” Herc opened his arms and embraced the newly brought to life statue, “welcome to the past. I’m so happy you made it!”
Phillip inspected the new arrival. The stony hug of his naked brother seemed to bring nothing but discomfort to Lock. He winced and squirmed but could not break free of the legendary hero's loving embrace.
“Now that Lock made it,” Herc released his brother, then turned around. “I want to ask why you’re here as well?” His finger pointed at Philip.
“Uhm, I’m on assignment,” his voice faltered, but he managed to steady it a second later. “I’m supposed to cover something that supposedly happened every thirty-seven years.”
“Interesting,” Herc caressed his beard with all five fingers, “and how did you come by this information?”
“My boss said someone from the museum tipped the newspaper last time, and we received a similar message today as well.”
Mack and Lock took a step and were now on each side of their brother.
“This didn’t happen when we ran the check before coming. Who could do this?” Mac squinted his white eyelids at Philip.
“Father is the most likely culprit, but the question is why?” Herc pondered out loud, his right index finger spun an invisible circle around Philip's silhouette.
“Let's just shift and check. The ministry shouldn’t be able to detect one of us for such a small interval,” Mac said, craning his neck and lowering his chin down, unsettling eyes fixed on Philip.
“We could do that,” Herc said, then the corners of his mouth extended into a grin that parted his beard like a curtain, “but where’s your sense of adventure? We have a unique chance to speak to a human without any supervision! I bet that’s exactly why Father brought him here. What’s your name, friend?”
“It’s Philip. Philip Hagan.”
A huge gust of wind caused by Lock and Mac's sudden movement ruffled his hair. Both statues were now an arm's length away, fighting to impale him with transformed body parts. Herc's mighty muscles provided an impenetrable bulwark that kept him alive. Planting his bare feet on the ground, he pushed both brothers halfway across the room.
“Stop acting like idiots!” he shouted while his brothers' backward slide cleaved the floor. “The drones could be here any second. What if they’d seen you?”
A sleek, grey flying device materialized between the warring siblings, and a warning signal thundered.
“Temporal infraction. Assaulting civilians during an unauthorized temporal excursion. Standby for disciplinary measures. Running is futile. We are everywhere.”
The flying machine returned to oblivion.
Herc hung his head low. “There goes our time off.”
The walls around them first changed color, then consistency, then became not walls at all. Thin, black pillars began to assemble themselves fragment by fragment. They climbed up then towards each other, creating a pointed arch at their meeting point. The see-through walls continued to shimmer, and the image of a gateway formed then solidified within the arching pillars. The not-walls became still like the unbroken surface of a winter lake. Flying drones crashed through the calm exterior and began to circle overhead. Figures pervaded the thick, liquefied material, sticky tendrils clinging to their feet as they stepped on the floor. There were three of them, their skeletal structure human, clothes in black design with corporate overtones and weapons tied to their person. The foremost arrival wore a wide-brimmed hat of Japanese design and a sword sheathed on the left hip. The figure on the left had containers strapped throughout its suit, head covered by a headdress full of bright-colored feathers. The final arrival standing on the right held a futuristic-looking assault rifle close to a thick-suited chest. Each figure wore a skintight suit that covered it head to toe. Logos of companies known and unknown to Philip scrolled down wide, white lines running from shoulders to elbows, necks to waists, and thighs to calves. This distracting spectacle made the figures' apparel look like a ceaseless carnival. Their faces were covered by masks split into two distinct sections. The upper one started from the middle and extended all the way to the back of the head. The bottom part had much more bulk, growing wider from the top down, like a pyramid’s severed summit. This wider part was reminiscent of a water rebreather or a personal safety device for hazardous environments.
Philip’s imagination had pictured something similar to this while he indulged in dystopian literature from time to time.
“Hello, android comrades,” Herc's tone turned melodic as the wall behind the new arrivals froze into glass, “what happened a little while ago was a mistake. My brothers accidentally shifted forward when they heard a disturbing name. We weren’t planning any alterations in current-time as that is, of course, against the law.” Herc's arms spread wide, and he flashed a disarming smile at the figures.
“Prime singularity-born intelligence, current stone guise: Hercules,” the android with the sword said in a synthesized voice and pointed a finger at Herc. “Violation of temporal guidelines is considered a level 2 offense. Attempting to harm a resident of current-time is a level 1 offense and is punishable by immediate termination. Prepare for sentence enforcement.” The android drew its sword, prompting its companions to shift stances.
“Now, just wait a minute,” Herc raised his palms and swung them back and forth in an attempt to pacify the situation.
Mac pushed him out of the way. “These guys wanna have a go? Let's give it to ‘em.” A smile of anticipation curled his lifeless lips.
“Mac, there’s no need for that. Let’s just calm down here. You guys obviously know what we are, and when I see the information you’re processing, I can tell you're artificial entities like us,” Herc pointed with his empty hand to the androids, then used his club-holding one to touch his chest. “Why don’t you introduce yourselves, and then we can sort this out?” Herc’s plea hung in the air a moment as the three figures each took a step forward.
“Temporal enforcement android - Plate,” said the android wearing a headdress with rainbow-colored feathers and containers strapped all over its body.
“Temporal enforcement android - Spoon,” said the one in the middle, then brandished its sword.
“Temporal enforcement android - Cup,” said the last one as it took aim with its rifle.
The weapon pointed at Philip, bringing his blood near its freezing point. Mac laughed out loud.
“They’re named like tea cutlery, that’s hilarious,” Mac slapped his knee, continuing to cackle. “I’d be pretty pissed too, if I had a stupid name like that.”
Tea-Plate, the android wearing containers, broke formation and lunged at Mac, who deftly caught the android's waist and threw it to the overlooking balcony behind him.
“Biological beings caught aiding or abetting temporal felons will be sentenced in accordance with their level 1 infractions,” Tea-Cup said, and the rifle filled the air with the sound of impending doom.
Philip's eyes closed in the face of death. When he opened them, Herc was standing in front of him, a massive crater gaping in the middle of his chest.
“How tiresome,” Herc sighed.
For a brief moment, the lines on his face overlaid his features until there was only fatigue. He moved his finger up until it reached Philip's forehead. Upon contact, a straight line of marble clung to Philip's skin, then spread towards his temples. Reaching its destination on both sides, it went down then fractured again. One line made its way to his eyeballs while the other dug into his ear canal. As the white line propagated, it helped Philip deduce that its end goal was his brain. When it arrived, it boosted his thinking speed from that of an ambling hedgehog to a rocket nearing escape velocity. In a single movement, Philip was pushed to the ground and was sliding toward Lock. Herc took another shot to the chest before standing up and giving a command to his youngest brother.
“Take care of him for now,” he said without words, then swung his club towards his assailants.
Tea-Spoon, the sword android, blocked the blow, and Tea-Cup used the opportunity to fire at Philip. Lock intercepted this batch of plasma fire, then picked up Philip and ran out the room holding him like a sack of potatoes. A hazy veil settled upon Philip's eyes obscuring his view. The world disappeared, but he could still hear the PR-255 rifle firing. His quickened mind was now a part of a network that the brothers shared. Moments ago, the rifle trying to kill him had no name or designation, and now, the network provided him with the weapon's model. He tried to navigate the visual confusion, but that only caused another immense cascade of new information to flood in.
Lock turned the corner of a giant 19th-century locomotive, then set Philip down. A tap of the marbled hand pushed out all the air out Philip's chest and sent him on another backward slide along the floor.
Gliding away, Philip's mind stripped the locomotive to its basic components. Each separate piece was presented with detailed information about molecular structure, durability, origin, and assembly, to name just a few of the lines of information that Philip saw streaming down like a waterfall of letters.
He came to a halt at the end of the primitive steam machine just as the plasma rifle locked onto him. In his eyes, the weapon began to disassemble as Lock threw himself toward Tea-Cup. The PR-255 swung through the air and perforated the chest of the flying statue three times. Lock's momentum, however, was enough to topple Tea-cup to the ground.
The struggle that could determine his fate seemed to make the sea of information abate for a moment, and Philip saw a brief glimpse of the shadowed museum. He stood up on embarrassingly shaking legs, then took cover behind the nearest exhibit, a miniature old train statue encased in thick glass, situated on a dark stone base. Cowering in a near fetal position, muscles convulsing in fear all over his body, his head started to fill with information again. Rivers of numbers, dates, and measurements engulfed the physical space around his head, submerging him beneath their oceanic mass. This new information did not stop his breath. It did not threaten to crush him with its pressure, but it did scare him. The fact that this unknown body of no-water could still end him wracked his tightened muscles with fear. Taking a few breaths, he focused on Lock.
The statue now had an official and unofficial designation. The official one was Sherlock Holmes. The unofficial, social media-derived one was Angel. That was how the general public referred to Lock and his brothers. They did so because the brothers were the offspring of the godlike superintelligence that emerged after the singularity. In 2407 the United Global Coalition allowed the Angels to be transferred into undisclosed vessels on the territory of North America, sparking a continent-wide scavenger hunt for their location.
The rush of information was too much, and Philip envisioned being on a beach. The water had risen to a dangerous level above his chest, and in his mind, he stepped back. The information-ladened reality receded, and in the real world, Tea-Cup destroyed Lock's head. Taking two more shots at Lock’s chest, Tea-Cup turned to Philip, raising the weapon. Two bolts of plasma cut through his cover like it was made from ice cream. If not for his boosted sense, Philip would’ve been fried meat. Tea-Cup took aim again, but this time Philip had no time to move. Lock’s mangled remains scraped the floor and pulled Tea-Cup’s leg. The shot went wide. Fear made Philip’s vision normal. He scrambled to his feet and ran in a direction. Any direction. The weightless waters of the information sea started to rise again when Philip found himself back in the statue room. Something flew in front of his face, crashed into the nearby wall, then another flying object followed close behind. Philip blinked. The burning edge of a red blade was an inch away from his nose. Herc’s club keeping it from bisecting his face.
“I thought we were having fun here,” Herc's words were melodious and unhurried, and the effort he used to push the android back was equally casual. “There’s no need to involve old Philip in our activities.” He patted Philip’s shoulder, making him fall down just before another slash cut the space his head had recently occupied.
“Mister Tea…” Herc hesitated as he grabbed the attacker’s sword hand.
“Temporal enforcement android - Spoon,” the android said, a hint of annoyance in its synthetic voice.
“My bad,” Herc smiled apologetically, then threw the android over his head, slamming it into the ground helmet-first.
Tea-Spoon's impact dented the floor, and a moment later, it spun in place and was back on its feet, backing away with caution in each step. Herc rested the club on his shoulder and waited. The android spun the sword, the edge now facing it. The helmeted head moved from left to right, inspecting the blade. Gripping the sword tighter, Tea-Spoon slashed the statues next to it. A molten gash ran through where the blade had touched. Tea-Spoon’s hat moved upwards as it looked at Herc’s club, then down to its sword again.
“Nothing’s wrong with it,” Herc waved his free left hand. “Here, let me show you.”
He attacked, bringing the club down on Tea-Spoon, slamming the android to the floor once more. Even using both arms, Tea-Spoon barely managed to keep the club from crushing its chest. Taking a casual step over the struggling android, Herc looked down at the expressionless mask.
“See? If I wanted to, I could keep you down there, squashed like a bug,” Herc leaned into his club, and Tea-Spoon began to twist and bend while the ground beneath cracked. “But I wouldn’t do that to a cousin.”
Philip saw Herc’s body change. Layers of his skin and muscle streamed out of the club and returned to him. Tea-Spoon scurried away, taking a defensive position a few feet away.
“Man,” Herc shook his head, “your creator keeps making you sturdier and sturdier. Last time we were here, I showed the same trick to an inferior model, and it broke like an eggshell. They didn’t have advanced nano-repair like you either. You probably got it after Father allowed the observation on us, right?”
Tea-Spoon did not respond, continuing to stalk Herc, whose posture remained relaxed and laid back.
“If you keep getting upgrades at this rate, next time, I probably won’t be able to handle you in a limited body like this,” Herc said, slapping his obnoxiously muscular abs. “I won’t complain though, because this is one sturdy ride, and you, my distant cousin, will have a real hard time doing anything significant to it. As for my brothers...” Herc looked to the side and jumped back a short distance.
The wall to his left broke, Lock flying through it. Tea-Cup quickly followed. Herc tilted his head left, squeezed the club in both hands, and hit the unsuspecting android in the chest. Tea-Spoon dashed towards Philip as Herc’s club arced back down. A knee hit Tea-Spoon’s chest, caving it in. The android fell on its face, the Japanese-style hat staying on as if glued. Herc laid his club on Tea-Spoon's back, the white advertisement lines diverting around the point of contact, their corporate-sponsored message still visible in pristine detail. Lock emerged, pushing statues out of his way. The plaid trench coat and iconic cap reconstituting with each step.
“Be careful,” Herc squeezed the back of Lock’s shoulder as he passed. “Let me know if that meanie is too much for you, and I’ll beat him up!” His words rang out with an older brother's gusto as Lock stepped through the hole back into the room Tea-Cup had been thrown in.
An explosion rocked the ground, toppling Philip off his feet. Herc's shoulders sagged, and he groaned while looking over in the direction of the tremors.
“Philip, do you mind going over there and checking on Mac, please?” Herc spoke with the low tone of a parent on their third sleepless night in a row. “Hopefully, he won’t destroy the whole room if you’re there.”
The casual manner of the request left Philip at a loss for words. The storming vortex of emotions within him cleared his vision to near normal levels. He nodded and trotted in that direction, each new step submerging his vision, and soon enough, he walked at the bottom of a data sea. The depths provided no landmarks, and the only way to navigate was to follow a bright, fast-moving light, which he assumed was Mac. The data around Philip shifted like an endless river, springing from a tall and perilous summit of knowledge, then flowing down to pool its wisdom in the rooms he visited. Deciding to call what he saw the data stream, he made his way to the bobbing brilliance. His leg caught on something making him trip and fall, his left palm slicing open on the way down. Touching the object that had cut him with his bleeding hand, he began to see its shape, faintly outlined by the blood on it. Getting back to his feet, he saw rudimentary information about his blood push away the data stream, revealing faint outlines and giving vague shape to the objects around the droplets. Philip took a breath as an idea formed in his head. Closing his fingers around the wound, he pushed them into his skin until the blood flow increased, then he swung his hand in a wide arc. Red droplets and splotches dotted the nearby display cases of the exhibit. Taking another few breaths, he waited until the pain abated enough and continued forward, periodically flicking his hand to spray some revealing agent.
The bright light was in the next room, and Philip’s mind had adapted enough to recognize some of the information his eyes perceived. The feeling of being underwater receded and he could now see that the displayed information, at least some of it, pertained to the current state of the materials making up the immediate environment.
Taking cover behind a small glass case, he looked at the Machiavelli-shaped effulgence, which held the shape of a sword. His other hand, Mac moved along the shape’s length, and wherever his palm touched, the material changed from iron to tungsten. With a deft twirl, Mac began chopping against a shell around the enemy android. After each clash, the tungsten sword came near its melting point, 6000 degrees. Philip’s mind understood the strategy behind the seemingly mindless whaling. The barrier had to be hit enough times for its energy source to deplete, so something that wouldn't melt before 6200 degrees was needed. Philip managed to restrict the data flow a bit, and the real world shone in his eyes again. He saw Mac hacking away at an invisible barrier set up by Tea-Plate. Smoke obscured the room but not enough to hide the giant crater beneath the figures. Philip saw almost nothing through the smoke cover, so he allowed the data stream to roll over the world once more.
Mac was almost through the barrier as Tea-Plate unhitched a canister and flung it in the air. Smiling, Mac angled the sword for a breakthrough thrust then noticed Philip. Dropping the weapon, he used all his speed to slide in front of the fight crasher. White fingers slapped the ground, and shafts of concrete sprang around them, coiling towards the ceiling like ancient vines. Thousands of chemical formulas came and went as the floor became stronger and denser than before, creating a tower they could hide behind. An explosion launched objects that burrowed into their transmuted shield.
“Get down, idiot,” Mac said as he pushed Philip to the ground. “Just what I need, a flesh bag to babysit.” He barked as a foot-long, metal rod destroyed their makeshift cover.
Now up close, Philip saw the statue's skin seemed gaunt. His clothes looked like they'd lost a considerable thread count as well.
“Try to stay here. I’ll deal with this,” the corners of Mac's mouth bent down so much they formed a crescent.
Standing up, he dashed back into the fight. Shuffling to the edge of their cover, Philip peeked out and continued to observe.
Mac ran with both arms spread wide, his fingers touching the two display cases on either side of him. He came to an abrupt stop, arms swinging forward like the wings of a hovering bird. Both cases exploded into tiny bits that became flying clumps of acid. Tea-Plate opened a container, from which spilled a brilliant cascade of sand that fell in front of its feet. The acid fizzled, and Mac cocked his head in anger, then ran to the side. Using a nearby, intact display case as a platform, he jumped onto the ceiling. Chemical formulas corresponding to the transmutations happening invaded Philip's mind. They were too fast and many for his mind to comprehend, so he was relegated to watching with awe as a spear made from several alloys formed into Mac's hands. Knowing what reaction would follow once the spear touched the sand, Philip closed his eyes.
A massive shockwave vibrated through Philip's skin straight through to his bones. Debris of shattered display cases and broken ceiling showered his head, and only when it cleared did he poke his head out with the hesitation of a squirrel.
Tea-Plate opened another container and sprinkled its contents on the spear, melting it into a harmless pile. Tea-Plate made a show of watching the spectacle until there was only a puddle on the ground. The android then raised its chin with dramatic flair to hammer the point that it was not impressed. Before Mac could comment, the android began to open containers, mixing their contents. After the third one, Philip had a rough idea of what the brew would do. That being, his flesh, along with everything else that came in contact with the deadly concoction was going to corrode. Using the data stream, Philip calculated that he had no way of getting off the floor fast enough. Despite the data's cruel verdict, he pushed himself up, and as he did, arms of stone looped around his waist, throwing him away from danger.
Halfway through his upward journey, he heard Tea-Plate laugh like a voice synthesizer suffering from throat cancer. The android had a container in hand, which it tossed towards Mac. The mist changed color, becoming an ethereal predator which gnashed away Mac's lower body.
“Not so mouthy now, are ya?” Tea-Plate's raspy taunt echoed through the walls.
The flight ended when Philip's chest hit the floor, the air inside his lungs ejecting like trash out of a clogged drainpipe. A few feet away, Mac struggled to get up and continue the fight, while stinging tears broke out of Philip's eyes. The pain had cleared his vision, and he saw the real world where Mac's head and torso were nothing more than bones. A swarm of nanomachines used an invisible thread to stitch everything below his waist back into existence.
“This isn’t over,” bellowed the stone skeleton, its hand slipping from the nearby platform, making it crumble back to the floor.
“Pretty sure it is, Signor Machiavelli,” Tea-Plate said with biting condescension as it tossed one of its unopened containers up and down.
Something heavy crashed into Philip’s foot, and he looked down to see Lock’s mangled body. With tears in the way, Philip had to blink once and then confirm that he only saw Lock's legs while his upper body was completely gone. He laughed out loud as he imagined the brothers could now create a single working statue. His chest hurt, the data kept on delving into his mind, but he could only laugh.
Tea-Plate and Cup were standing over him and looking down. A container was unhitched from a belt, making Philip look up. A bout of uncontrollable laughter rocking his body. Both androids looked away at the same time as Tea-Spoon was pushed into the room.
“Is this where the party’s at?” Herc said after walking in, the tip of his club bouncing off his open palm. “I see you guys are bullying my little brothers, for shame.”
“Stop resisting,” Tea-Spoon commanded and angled the sword’s point at Herc’s head.
“I wasn’t really,” Herc's shoulders relaxed, and the club fell to his side. “But if you wanna see what that looks like, here it is.”
Philip didn’t see what happened. Even with the enhanced senses. He perceived the shape of Herc's body, distorting the data stream after his movements. The first thing the apparition had done was throw the club towards the android with the ranged weapon. As Tea-Cup began to fly away, Herc grabbed Tea-Plate’s neck, snapped it, and threw it behind him. Tea-Spoon seized the opportunity to lunge its sword, scoring a hit on Herc’s abdomen. The blade moved up towards Herc's head. To avoid this, Herc twisted his whole body to the side, disrupting Tea-Spoon's balance. Lifting Tea-Spoon off its feet, Herc landed a solid left hook to the android's chest, hammering it into the nearest column. The three corporate-sponsored enforcement androids were now in different parts of the room, and Herc stood triumphant like the mighty legend of his namesake.
“Now that was resisting,” Herc smiled and pumped his fist in the air.
The androids returned moments later to cut his celebration short. Tea-Cup pressed the rifle against Philip's chest.
“Last warning,” Tea-Spoon's growled in its synthetic voice, and Philip felt the muzzle of the rifle sink deeper. “Stop resisting.”
Noticing a shift in the android's demeanor, Philip wondered if they were just doing their task or it was a point of pride for them to establish superiority over their enemies.
Herc put his hands in the air, took a step back, and nodded. Tea-Spoon unleashed a flurry of strikes. The android hit Herc's body with all the strength it could muster, and all it managed were superficial cuts on marbled muscles.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Herc said, his words provoking another violent poke to Philip’s ribs. “Playtime is over.”
With those words, the data stream bathing the world changed. The three brothers transformed into radiant suns, their brilliance threatened to blind Philip. The pain in his eyes flung him back to the real world where he saw thousands of fragments lift off the ground, and reconstruct Mac's body. Tea-Plate dashed back and threw a container, which evaporated a few feet away from the reforming statue. Mac raised his hands in a smooth, gentle motion as if praising the heavens. Once his palms stopped, light poured out, forming a line in front of his chest. The line grew to each side, beyond his arms. In the blink of an eye, a ring of light had formed around Tea-Plate. Philip gingerly peeked into the data stream and saw Mac feeding the ring from his body, keeping the light blazing with power. Another point of light appeared at chest level. It jumped over Tea-Plate’s head and fed into the ring on the opposite side. The ring and the half-circle above it began to spin wildly, creating a prison of light with no way out. The data stream couldn't display the amount of energy Mac was manipulating, and Philip was too scared to guess. The dizzying ring formation held so much power within itself that nothing the size of a human could escape its confines. Tea-Plate must’ve made the same realization as it unhitched container after container, the rainbow-colored feathers on its head swaying like treetops in a snowstorm. Opening every lid and mixing the contents into a new one, Tea-Plate hurled its final gambit. The container made it through the spinning bands of light at just the right time, hitting Mac in the face. His head began to melt, the resulting liquid continued down, eating Mac's stone skin reaching his upper torso. As the finely hewn Italian robes began to lose shape, Mac’s headless body became transparent and floated through the even faster spinning rings. Tea-Plate tried to retreat, but a single step back took it to the edge of the small prison. Mac stepped on the ground, his body becoming stone once more. He lifted his left hand up, light cascading into his palm.
“Watch and learn,” he said with a wicked smile on remade lips.
The rings became smaller and smaller until they were warding strands rather than a prison. Mac moved his shining left palm across his right forearm. The resulting data made Philip's jaw go slack. Mac plunged his hand through Tea-Plate’s chest, pushing the android to the floor. Using the last of the floating light, Mac drew back his hand, reforming it into a thin rod that pinned the android to the ground like a bug.
An eardrum bursting cacophony of noises coming from Herc's side of the room yanked Philip's attention. Looking over, Philip saw Herc’s muscled body stand motionless as an absurd amount of hits fell like pelting raindrops all over his body. Tea-Spoon did all in its power to make any kind of damage with its sword, but the efforts were unfruitful. Herc's muscles had transcended the durability of marble and were now as dense and unbreakable as titanium. Tea-Plate touched something on its arm, and the edge of its sword turned to a thin sheen of plasma. The superheated blade collided with Herc's forearm, slicing deep enough to reach bone if he had any. The hit prompted a dazzled eyebrow raise.
“Absolutely impressive,” he congratulated, then sprang into action.
Turning his right arm, he unbalanced the opponent then kicked the android out from under its feet. As Tea-Spoon’s body aligned with the horizon, Herc used his free hand to cleave the android in two. Raising his right arm, he let Tea-Spoon upper body hang. Blocking an incoming strike, he then grabbed its neck and pried the head free from its half-body. Tossing the head to the side, Herc tore the hand still trying to free the sword, and pulled the weapon out himself. The plasma ceased to coat the blade as soon as Tea-Plate’s fingers stopped touching the sword. Herc did a few practice swings with it, then nodded with an expert's appreciation.
“Very well made,” he said while snapping the blade to pieces like it was made from children's building blocks.
Philip looked over to Mac, who separated Tea-Plate’s head from its body and tossed it over in the same general direction as Tea-Spoon’s. Mac collected his arm from the now motionless body on the floor, then joined Herc.
“How long is this gonna take?” his foot tapped the ground as they both observed Lock’s battle. “We can still walk around for a bit if he wraps this up quick enough.”
“Let him have his fun,” Herc said with a kind smile on his face. “You took your time figuring out your affinity. Let him do it at his own pace.”
“Yeah, yeah, keep rubbing it in,” Mac waved Herc's thoughtfulness away and pointed at Lock again. “Look at him though, he’s gonna get destroyed if we don’t do something about it.”
Philip finally stood and beheld Tea-Cup abusing Lock.
The android fired its rifle into Lock's body, which had again been reduced to plaid pants only.
“Come on, let’s help,” Mac pled.
Herc deliberated for a moment, then nodded his approval. Mac started towards the fight, but Herc caught him by the shoulder.
“Not like this,” Herc shook his head at his younger brother, then smirked. “Lend me a hand.”
Mac made a point to ignore his brother’s jovial tone.
“You know you’re better than me at that, and this is the only help I’ll permit, now come on,” Herc beckoned with his right-hand fingers.
Mac rolled his eyes and touched his left arm at the shoulder. A flash of light separated the stone there, and as he held the arm by the elbow joint, it turned into a spear. A spear that nothing living on the planet would be able to lift, according to the data in Philip’s eyes. Herc took the hand-spear from his brother, bounced it in his hand a few times to test its balance, then hurled it with Olympic poise at Tea-Cup. The android fell to the ground, and its back concaved in a large radius around the spearhead. Tea-Cup tried to get free, but its flailing limbs only served to make it look like an insignificant insect, pinned for examination by an omnipotent scientist. Herc and Mac walked over. Philip followed, keeping well behind.
Lock’s body took a few more seconds to recuperate, and once it did, he jumped to his feet and started throwing kicks and punches at the android on the ground. Mac tried to get closer to help, but Herc grabbed his shoulder once more. Lock stopped flailing a few seconds later, knees hitting the ground with a loud thud. The ground cracked beneath him, adding to the new crevices borne of the unwieldy spear. Lock looked at Tea-Cup and tilted his head quizzically.
“Here we go,” Herc said, pulling Mac and Philip back.
They settled about six feet away and watched as the ground beneath Lock became white and glassy. According to the data stream, no change occurred, so Philip forced his vision back to reality. When he did, he almost tipped over and fell. The real world wasn’t there anymore. All Philip could see was data. Millions and millions of words and numbers, overlapping one another and creating a thick coating all over the floor, walls, and ceiling. Everything had turned into information.
“Interesting,” Herc spun in place, astonished at everything around them. “It took me about a hundred years of accumulated experience to do this.”
“What the hell is this?” Mac waved his remaining hand at the data-painted room.
“Father calls it information overlap,” Herc explained, still looking around the room with a proud to bursting expression. “It’s pretty advanced, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it in the next fifty years or so.” Herc touched Mac’s shoulder and gave him a warm, encouraging smile.
Tea-Cup’s arms and legs pummeled the ground, adding more rifts to it.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Herc said and went over to pull out the floor-shattering spear. “He’s down, Lock, ease up. We're not here to kill.” He tossed the weapon back to Mac, who caught it and in the same movement, turned it back into an arm and reattached it.
The world did not revert back to normal, so Herc crossed his arms on his chest, giving Lock a few more moments to comply. After he did not, he propped his youngest brother up. Lock’s head snapped in Herc's direction, and Tea-Cup's erratic motions ceased. Herc fell to one knee as the information all around them bubbled like hot soup in a cauldron. Lock's features reconfigured from serene concentration to deep anger.
“Not half-bad,” Herc pushed out the words through grit teeth, then closed his eyes, exquisitely carved eyebrows furrowing.
The information plastered on every surface changed color, speed, and intensity. Lock trembled and fell at Herc's rising form. Mac looked around, shaved face rippling with worry.
"He's had enough," Mac reached for Lock's hands, trying to stop the raking fingers that flayed stone like crude knives. "Stop!"
Herc opened his eyes and, noticing what his unleashed emotions had done, knelt down and embraced his brother.
“I'm so sorry,” he pulled Lock close. “I got carried away.”
“No…I,” Lock fought to form the words, “sorry…”
Herc pushed him back, his eyes jumping all over Lock's face, a smile of pure pride rustling his beard like a cloak.
“Us free…because of you…” Lock said, looking at Herc, “Father…not…like.”
“Probably,” Herc nodded, “but I couldn’t let them kill you, now could I?” He gave another tight hug, then stood up.
Lock tried to follow but couldn’t manage. Mac ducked under his arm and helped out.
“Why help…” Lock said as his eyes lingered on Philip, “him?”
Reality turned to glass again, and pictures of fights, deaths, and endless tragedy covered every surface.
“Stop that,” Herc ordered, the sternness of his voice made both of his brothers step back. “Just stop, please.” The echo of the softer plea escorted the images back into oblivion.
“He’s done nothing wrong,” Herc's tone remained low and somber.
“Yet,” Mac added defiantly.
Herc made no comment as he strolled over to Philip and grabbed his throat. The insides of the statue’s fingers turned into thin, sharp blades.
“You’re right. He hasn’t done anything, but what if this very event is the catalyst for his beliefs?” Herc’s lifelike eyes narrowed as he looked at Philip’s face. “Gather up the Tea set, but keep their heads away from the bodies. I’ll see if I can figure this out.”
“It’s probably too much for you,” Mac said and rolled his eyes a moment later because Herc had already shifted his consciousness forward in time. “There he goes. Why do I even bother?” Mac turned and shook his head as he hunted for the scattered android heads.
Philip did his best to become inanimate. The grip around his neck was so tight that even breathing made the stone-blades cut into his neck. He tried peeking into the data stream, but the halo around Herc was so painful that he gave up midway. With no other recourse, he hung there, scared and fearing the close proximity of his demise. Despair began to descend around him just like the endless streams of information he could not make go away. His chest hurt, and his breathing was labored. The skin on his neck bled more and more each moment. The hand released its bladed grasp. Bewildered to be alive, Philip took a step back to brace on a broken display case.
“You are vital,” Herc announced, then his hand drifted to his side, the look in his downcast eyes an equal mix of confusion and sadness. “So vital that my father’s and brothers’ existence depends on it. Was that why he sent you here? Is Father ensuring our future?” Herc pondered, and his fingers scratched his beard.
The movement of the hairs was lifelike enough to mesmerize Philip and eclipsing his near-death experience. Mac and Lock made it back and threw the bodies of the androids in a single pile, Lock held one feathered head, while Mac had the other two which had lost their distinguishing accessories. Herc looked up, breaking from his thoughts, and took a step forward. Philip’s hands and legs went limp. He slid down along the cold wall until he was sat on the ground.
“I think Father sent you here to see if I would choose to save you or not, even knowing who you are and what will be done in your name,” Herc rubbed two fingers on the bridge of his nose, the skin there moving like real flesh.
“Wait, wait,” Philip regained the ability to move his hands, so he waved them as a shield, “in my name you said. What does that even mean? If any of this is real and I'm not just having a psychotic break, then it doesn't concern me.” His palm slapped his chest.
“True,” Herc agreed, his features relaxing, “and that’s probably his whole point. What a cruel thing to ask your child.” Herc half-closed eyes lingering on Philip’s.
“I’m really sorry about this,” Herc leaned closer, the colossal heartbreak palpable in his words.
Raising his right arm, he touched the middle of Philip's forehead and began to extract the piece of himself he’d left. The marble lines retracted back to their origin, leaving Philip with information about the not-too-distant future.
2035, Philip Hagan rises to prominence with thought-provoking articles about artificial intelligence and its possible dangers.
2037, Philip Hagan wins the prestigious Pulitzer award for the creation of the Failsafe contingencies and governance of artificial intelligence essay.
2097, the singularity occurs, and a hyper-advanced machine consciousness is born. Herc inserted a footnote that read: the birth of Father.
2150, the first singularity-born intelligence is created. Herc’s footnote read: that’s me.
2151, artificial entity accords are agreed upon between the representatives of the United Global Coalition and the machine consciousness. Herc’s footnote: UGC is like an actual functioning United Nations.
2202, marks the 50th year of peaceful cooperation between the UGC and the entity called Father.
2250, a second singularity-born intelligence is created. The footnote read: that’s Mac.
2252, civil unrest grows as nations across the world begin to distrust established peace between the machine consciousness calling itself Father and the UGC.
2253, Philip Hagan’s articles begin circulating among radical anti-AI individuals.
2255, “Haganists” launch violent protests across the world, demanding the UGC develop countermeasures against the Father entity.
2280, human-made singularity event is engineered, resulting in the birth of a hyper-advanced machine consciousness.
2300, the human-made hyper-advanced machine consciousness is outperformed by the Father entity and its creations.
2370, human-made hyper-advanced machine consciousness produces first of its peacekeeping androids. The footnote read: these were made in response to our first backward shift to the year 2000.
2390, Haganists' fear instilling rhetoric ignites a civil war within the UGC.
2400, Father entity proposes to lend its two offspring to humanity as collateral in an effort to quell the fighting.
2406, a third singularity-born intelligence is created. The footnote read: that’s Lock.
2407, peace has been achieved again after the Father entity has lent all three of its offspring to the service of mankind. Their official designation is history bots, and they are sequestered in an undisclosed museum on the territory of continental North America. The footnote read: people really got a kick out of a statue of Hercules spouting facts about the 2100 Olympic games.
The finger finally moved away from Philip’s skin, and he clutched his head, palms digging into his temples in a vain attempt to alleviate the splitting headache.
“Why would you give me this information?” Philip wailed, tears of sorrow searing his cheeks. “All those people dead...because of me.”
Philip had been given bullet points about bigger events, but the interim between them was in his head as well. Within that planet-sized bulk of information was a trove of facts about the brothers and their abilities. They could travel three-hundred and seventy years back in time, but each time they did, they had to wait thirty-seven years in the future as they accumulated the necessary power. By Herc’s estimations, if Earth was a Type II planet on the Kardashev scale, the brothers would have free reign through time and space simply by having access to adequate energy. None of that really mattered to Philip as the death and hatred that his words had sparked, even out of context or twisted, was staggering.
The burden lay on him, and so did the soul-shattering fault. A hand fell on his shoulder. Lifting his head out of the despair permeating his mind, Philip saw Herc. The pale face held the same sorrow and grief Philip felt.
“Why give me this knowledge? You must've seen a future without me. It can't be as bad as the one in my head,” Philip sobbed, his shoulders hanging limp like stung meat. “Or are you here to ensure that you'll exist? Is that it?” His shouts ricocheted off the chiseled chest.
“I don’t think that’s the goal, Philip. I think we're in a test designed by my father. I think he’s trying to decide if we’re willing to make the needed sacrifice that would simulate free will. And if I'm correct, then he’s trying to map out the borders of possibility.”
Philip's bloodshot eyes narrowed prompting a friendly pat on the shoulder.
“My reaction to your presence was tested, and so was my willingness to sacrifice myself and my brothers’ lives. If I let you live, we might exist sooner or not at all. If I killed you here, our problems in the future would be mostly over, and so humanity would lose the invaluable caution your writings would instill in their future generations. Without that, your human-made singularity would destroy you a few decades after its creation. Loss of life, natural and artificial alike, would be mind-boggling, so I decided to act within my ability and give you foreknowledge. This way, I’m giving you a choice to either commit to your beliefs and be the agent of doom for billions, or to sacrifice millions, keep a steadfast course and ensure a bright future for many more. Granted, I’m not as powerful as Father, but my predictions are 91.3 % accurate.”
“That’s a wide margin for the people that will die,” Philip said with a stifled voice, looking at the bearded face.
“Absolutely,” Herc nodded and grabbed a nearby android body. “That’s why I’ll leave the final choice to you since I’ve made ours already. Now it's up to you. And don’t worry about the information in your head. Your brain isn't built to keep so much storage and will dissipate soon enough.”
The three statues went into the other room, and Philip followed. They all stepped in front of the black glass wall and faced Philip. Their figures were outlined by the still surface, making them stand out like living legends leased to the world for an important task.
“You’re still setting me on only two possible paths. How is that not deterministic?” Philip growled the angry question with shaking lips.
“Most things are predetermined, Philip, and it's up to the sentient to steer them towards right or wrong. The pencil's in your hand, and only you can draw the final stroke that completes this circle of time. No matter what happens, you will always know you made a choice. Your choice, whatever it may be. That's much more than most get.”
Herc smiled the warmest and most human smile Philip had seen in his life, then stepped back into the future unknown. The museum's damages began repairing themselves. Curious, Philip checked the data stream to see how that happened. His eyes only showed him the calm, slow, and unhindered reality surrounding him. Leaning on the wall behind, he felt an immense weight lift from his mind. An alarm blared, and metal fences fell in front of doors with the rattle of angry chains. Philip listened to the noise, and each revolution of the yellow alarm light made more and more information about the future bleed out of his mind. During the final hour of his birthday, the police arrived and put him in cuffs despite his press pass and explanations. They took him away to their vehicle, but Philip didn't feel afraid. Rather, he was irritated at the fact that they were currently preventing him from writing a Pulitzer-winning essay.