Young Phils appear about once a month and only in the afternoon. They used to be seven years old but now they are eleven.
I feel a tingling in the back of my neck and see one walk by. He must have appeared out of thin air, somewhere nearby. He is wearing pajamas. I rush outside, leaving my laptop unattended on my table. Once I catch up to him, I put my hand on his shoulder and tug him in the direction of the café.
Young Phil does not want to come with me. This happens a lot. They are all stubborn, something I don’t remember being when I was that age.
‘‘You’re a stranger,’’ he protests. He doesn’t want to be kidnapped, which is sensible. Too late, I want to say. But I get the sense that it’s my job to be comforting, so I lie instead.
‘‘I’m you ten years from now.’’ He stares at me. His eyes go wide in recognition. He sees himself in me. He will follow me now.
‘‘You can stand out here if you want, but I’m going inside to eat a donut and play a video game.’’ I enter the café without looking back. I order for him. One donut, with sprinkles. Us Phils are not so different.
He sits down at the table. There, our donuts face off. Mine is gone, except for two bites and scattered sprinkles. His, yet to be eaten. It’s hard not to be jealous at times like these.
I allow him a moment to marvel at my laptop. I can tell he wants to push some buttons, so I close the program I am trying to debug and let him play a few rounds of Ninjaman Cadpocalypse.
‘‘What year is it?’’ he finally thinks to ask.
‘‘It’s 2003, but it’s not your 2003. Your 2003 will be different.’’
‘‘How will it be different?’’
‘‘I don’t know,’’ I say, ‘‘All I know is that when I was your age, I never got to visit an older version of myself.’’ I am a tourist destination. It makes me a little melancholy. I am the Phil that all the young Phils visit, but I never get to go anywhere myself. I try not to be too unhappy about it. At least my life is not ordinary. I would hate to have a mundane life, the kind everybody else seems to have.
He does not have any follow-up questions, he just wants to stare at my face. I offer him the newspaper, but he declines. I take back my laptop and begin running my code again. We sit there silently. Me working, him staring.
Young Phils don’t know what to do once they get here. They have about three hours before they leave. At that point they vanish and I presume they go home, but who knows, there might be other stops on the Phil tour. This Phil might spend the whole time looking at me.
The smart ones want to see movies with lots of special effects. Given the time constraints, we often show up in the middle of screenings already in progress. If we are lucky, we get to see cars crash into trucks. Trucks crash into robots. Robots crash into buildings. Buildings crash into helicopters.
Some want to visit the arcade.
‘‘All the arcades have closed down.’’ And that’s how you make a young Phil sad.
The Phils arrive about one or two a month. The first one got here about three years ago. He knew who I was and he was looking for me. Good thing too, or else I would have never caught on. Sometimes I am dumb. He was a lot smarter than me, despite only being seven years old.
I wish I had asked First Young Phil more questions about how he got here. But regret haunts the aftermath of every meeting of the Phils, I imagine. The Phils that have arrived since then have all been clueless and disappointing. Perhaps it is just a phase they are going through.
They always materialize close to where I am, but never so close I feel my personal space has been violated. They never arrive at inconvenient times. They never materialize in the middle of physical objects. No Phils impaled on parking meters or stuck halfway in mail boxes. The mechanism that brings them is very polite, very precise and a total mystery to every young Phil except that first one.
Time passes and I get older and the young Phils get older too, so that they are always exactly ten years younger. After they turn thirteen, they begin to get interested in cars. We go to dealerships and test-drive things we have no intention of buying.
When they are fourteen, I teach them how to drive. At fifteen, I let them ride on the back of my motorcycle, then at sixteen I teach them how to drive that too. I let them draw monsters and grafitti on my helmet and knee pads. I am liking them better as they age.
I wait for them to stop appearing, but they keep coming. I wait for them to stop disappearing, secretly hoping that they will stay and pile up. But they keep leaving. I wait for Young Phils that have already visited me to visit me again, but none ever return.
I wait for it to be my turn. I want to visit an alternate universe and meet an alternate version of my future self. But I appear to be stuck where I am, when I am.
I can sort of feel the arrivals when they happen, it feels like static electricity at the top of my spine. Today I feel it when I am crossing the street. A sportscar nearly runs me over because I am looking forward and back, not left and right. I get myself to the sidewalk and scan my surroundings. I even look up, just in case one falls from the sky.
Cars are honking. The sportscar is still in the intersection honking at me, and the cars piled up in a jam are honking at him. And then I notice the driver. It is a Phil, a grownup one. He waves at me. That’s my cue to get in the passenger side.
‘‘Phil?’’ I ask.
‘‘Phil Plus,’’ he replies.
We shake, he has a nice firm grip. His face looks about like mine, but his hands look a lot older.
‘‘How old are you?’’ I ask.
‘‘Seven hundred years old.’’
Okay, sure, whatever. I offer to buy him a drink and he pilots the car towards Philz, the café I frequent. I can’t help it, I’m just drawn to things that share my same name.
‘‘Are you surprised to see me?’’ he asks over coffee. Everything about us matches, even our identical donuts have identical bite patterns. Only our hands betray the difference.
‘‘Nothing Phil-related surprises me. I am unsurprisable,’’ I say. I am tempting fate. On purpose, of course.
‘‘I can do things no other Phil can.’’
‘‘It probably helps to be super old,’’ I point out.
‘‘It’s because I am the most technologically advanced Phil that I can live so long. But I don’t know how much longer I have left.’’
‘‘Oh my god. You want my organs, don’t you?’’
‘‘No,’’ he says, ‘‘I just wanted to meet you.’’
‘‘The same reason I wanted all those young Phils to meet you. Because I think you are a good influence. Because I think you are the best Phil.’’
‘‘You are the best of us that has ever existed. I have a mathematical proof that demonstrates this.’’
He hands me a thick manuscript. A proof that I am the best me? Sounds like a pretty good read, so I dig into right away. It starts out with an introduction about the Axiom of Choice and soon descends into indecipherable symbology. I recognize bits here and there.
An arbitrary Phil is denoted by Pi , where 1 ˂ i ˂ ∞. He denotes me as P++
I read a couple more pages and the Continuum Hypothesis is introduced. That’s when I give up. I did pass my course in Set Theory, but I had to fail it first.Then I switched my major from math to computer science. He obviously stuck it out. Maybe he’s what I could have become if I had hung in there.
I tuck the proof into my briefcase. It merited further examination, but laziness might get the better of me, as it often did.
‘‘This proof wont self-destruct, will it?’’ I ask, ‘‘Do you promise you didn’t come here to kill me? Maybe you are the second best Phil and I’m all that’s standing between you and the number one spot.’’
Plus shakes his head no. ‘‘I am not the second best Phil. Not even in the top ten,’’ he says.
I retrieve the proof from my brief case and start flipping through it, trying to discover who the second best Phil is. I might have to start watching my back.
‘‘No, I wouldn’t ever try to kill you. Already I do my best to keep you alive. I’ve equipped your world with robot bodyguards to protect you.’’
‘‘Secret robot bodyguards?’’ I ask and he nods. All around me there are guardian angels and I’ve never noticed. I wonder if they shoot lasers from their eyes. I wonder if they would do my bidding. I look around the café. Only humans here, as far as I can tell. Some of them are listening rather intently to our conversation.
‘‘So what is it that you want?’’ I ask.
‘‘First of all, no. Second of all, how would that even work? I’ve always wondered.’’
‘‘We would body swap. My experiences and memories would inhabit your body, and your experiences and memories would inhabit mine.’’
‘‘How is that taking my soul?’’ I ask.
‘‘The body is where the soul resides. Living in you would change me for the better. It would influence my thoughts and dreams and reactions. And after a while, living in you would make me you. It would be a gradual process, it would take years, even decades.’’
‘‘Still, the answer is no. What makes you think I would say yes to that?’’
‘‘Because you’ve always wanted to go somewhere else, and this is your chance. You would get to inhabit my existence. I own so many incredible things. And you would do it because I asked. Because you are generous and large-hearted.’’
He is wrong about the size of my heart. It is only medium-sized. But maybe medium-sized is the largest a Phil’s heart could possibly be.
‘‘No,’’ I say.
‘‘I understand,’’ he says. We stand up and shake hands. ‘‘How bout that picture?’’ He removes a scary looking camera from his briefcase. I decline to be photographed.
I walk him out to the sidewalk.
‘‘Time to vanish?’’ I ask.
‘‘No.’’ He points to his car. ‘‘I’m going to joyride for a while. This world has the best Bugattis.’’
‘‘Okay. Enjoy yourself.’’ I decline a ride home, still a bit paranoid. But my apartment is not too far away.
The rest of my day is normal. I watch an episode of Top Gear. I have a frozen burrito for dinner. At bedtime, insomnia keeps me up. I am worried about something and I don’t know what. But I find my way to sleep eventually.
When I wake up, I am in a totally different place. Everything is bright and gleaming. There are palm trees outside of my window and a beach. I look at my hands. They are old man hands, and that’s how I know what’s happened to me.
His computer knows the way home. Its name is Tara. It has been burned to ashes. He doesn’t want me coming after him. This setback will delay my return, but it won’t stop me. He should have sent me back to a pre-technological timestream if he really didn’t want me to find my way home. So why didn’t he?
Maybe he thought I would like it here. Plus is vastly wealthy, he owns countries on every continent. This version of earth has been visited by alien intelligence. There are underwater cities. The coffee sucks, though. And their version of TV hurts my head.
Everyone here acts like they’ve been lobotomized. Maybe they have been. There’s no humor and no grafitti. No guns and no hydrocarbon powered anything. The motorcycles don’t roar, they gurgle and whine. I tried to start up Plus’s Ducati, but it sounded like a hamster being haunted by a ghost so I shut it off.
The funnest thing to do here is to try to rebuild Tara. It takes me twenty-seven years and a staff of a thousand. It’s a long time to wait, and I worry about Plus’s soul intruding on my consciousness, but I don’t feel myself becoming more like him. I am not any greedier or any more ruthless or any more obsessed with best-case-scenario might-have-beens. I am older now and I have spent some time abroad, but I am still me.
The trouble with bodyswapping is that only Tara can do it properly. After a switch one of us has to end up here, with the computer. If I want to switch us back, I will have to send Plus back here, with Tara or what remains of Tara. I won’t try and kill it the way Plus did, I have seen for myself that its intelligence is unkillable.
My other dilemma is that time travel is hard. Plus and all those young Phils made it look easy. Going forwards through time is always possible, going backwards is not always possible. What I learned is that I can’t return to my own world in my own time at any moment before I left it. But I can return any moment after. I could return one second after the switch took place if I wanted to.
I decide to give Plus one day. As badly behaved as he was, I still wanted him to get his wish and be me for a little while.
When I get to him, I will switch us back. But first I will explain. I will tell him my story, this story, to help him understand what I have to do next. Tara has assembled a mind packet for me, so that the knowledge may pass wordlessly from my brain to his. And Tara has furnished me with a high powered ray-gun, so that his death may be quick and painless.
I find Phil Plus at the same café where so many Phils have found me. He is not surprised to see me. I ask him to step outside and he nods, gravely. We walk into an alley, where we will be unseen.
‘‘You’re going to kill me,’’ he says before I even have the chance to explain it to him. He is not surprised or angry, just resigned. He understands the logic of it, understood even before he switched us. He knew it was suicide, that’s why he told me he didn’t have much time left.
‘‘Did you enjoy yourself?’’ I ask.
‘‘Was it worth it?’’
‘‘I think so. I won’t know for sure until I get to the next place.’’ He means the afterlife. Tara has already shown me glimpses of it.
‘‘It was an act of mercy to give me a whole day, you really are the best Phil,’’ he says. I am not the best Phil, but I don’t correct him, I wouldn’t want to ruin his day.
‘‘I have one last gift for you.’’ I touch my fingertips to his forehead so that he may know what I know.
‘‘Enjoy it here,’’ he says.
‘‘Enjoy it there,’’ I say. Then I take out my ray-gun. It is heavy in my hand. I point it at my own head, keeping a six inch gap between nozzle and skull.
I had Tara disarm any robot bodyguards in my vicinity, so I am able to pull the trigger. Tara has programmed the switchback to take place the second the ray gun discharges. Its timing is impeccable. One click and I am me again. One click and he is a pile of ash.
Toy gun, no corpse. It’s almost like I’m not a murderer at all.
But I am. And there’s even a word for what I’ve done. We call it Philicide.
• • •
I vow to resume living a normal life, and I do. I vow to enjoy my normal life, and I don’t.
There is one thing that bothers me a great deal. I gave Plus one day of my life, in exchange for the rest of his. He seemed to think it was a fair trade, but I can’t bring myself to agree. And yet, I can think of no other outcome that would have allowed me to resume my rightful existence. Tara agreed with me on this point, though it may have had its own agenda.
There must have been another way to resolve our differences. I was just too blinded by revenge to consider other possibilities. Maybe after twenty-seven years, Plus’s soul really had seeped through from his body to my consciousness. That is the best explanation. I was not myself.
As time passes, I begin to realize I am lonely without my monthly visits from young Phils. My life is too ordinary now. I am going to eat donuts, code for a paycheck and probably die in my eighties, probably of cancer. What made my mundane existence meaningful was the few hours a month it was strange. Every life should have such strangeness. And now it is gone forever. I have no way of getting back.
I am going to have to change my life radically to make any of it worthwhile. I will devote my life to public service and perhaps truly earn the title of Best Phil that had been bestowed upon me. I will sign up for Peace Corps, Teach for America, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders. I will save the children. Or the whales. Or my whole universe, small as it is. Tomorrow, that is.
I wake up the next morning with a plan. First I will check my email. Then I will join something, some world-bettering organization. Maybe I can start out by volunteering on the weekends.
I sit up in my bed and grab my laptop. When I flip it open, a ghostly grey screen greets me.
‘‘Do you want to go back?’’ it reads. My options are: yes, no and ask me later.
I say yes. A moment later, I am back on Phil Plus’s private island. Tara’s 3D avatar greets me. I had programmed it to look like a retro robot and talk like an English butler.
‘‘Is Phil Plus truly dead?’’ I ask.
‘‘Indeed,’’ it says.
‘‘So all of this belongs to me?’’
Plus had willed it to me even though he knew I would kill him one day. This is my inheritance. Wealth beyond reason and the ability to glide through the multiverse. I may not be the best Phil but I am certainly the luckiest. It isn’t fair, but I could make it fair. I could continue the Old Man’s work. I could improve upon it. That might even make his death just.
I could resume mentoring the young Phils. I could travel and visit the old Phils. I could help those in need, regardless of their first name. I could visit and be visited. I could open my heart to the whole multiverse and all of its inhabitants. In my free time, that is.
I still want my old life, my Kawasaki, my favorite TV shows, my donuts and coffee. Most days, I would be me. Two weekends a month, I would be Super Phil. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I plan on living for a thousand years or more. That should be enough. It sounds like plenty to me.
Dominica Phetteplace has a degree in mathematics from UC Berkeley. Like Phil from “The Philiad,” she had to take Set Theory twice.