In 1975, Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) wrote a short story, “The Game of Blood and Dust,” in which two bored and powerful beings take up a position above Earth and decide to play a game. Each being has three moves, with Blood trying to save humanity and Dust seeking to destroy it. Each of the moves changes some key aspect of history: for example, Dust returns to the Paleolithic Era and uncovers metal deposits across southern Europe; as a result, Rome rises earlier and conquers even more. With all moves made, Blood and Dust roll the time stream forward to see who wins. Each “game” produces a different outcome. I’m fond of this story because it ignited my interest in history.
As a tribute to Zelazny I’ve written the following sequel story to further develop his ideas. Who do you think will win this time, Blood (saving humanity) or Dust (destroying it)?
They returned to position at Earth’s Trojan points to reconsider, from high above, its peoples, cities, and devices. They performed their version of flipping a coin.
“I am Blood once again,” said the being at the rearward point. “I go first.”
“…And I am Dust. I follow you. –But are you certain you wish to play again? The last round I bested you two out of three.”
“Even immortals require fresh challenges.”
“So be it. But let us complexify the game a bit. Five moves this time?”
“Five moves. I begin.” And with that they stepped behind Time….
Traveling 13,000 years into the past, Blood stops the Younger Dryas drought in southern Iraq and Iran.
In 482 BCE, Dust, countering, ensures that a certain mine worker at Laurium dies in a cave-in before he can discover a rich vein of silver.
Blood inspires a curious centurion to patrol the tomb of Jesus. Drawing his sword, the Roman shoos away followers of the Crucified One before they can roll aside the heavy tombstone.
Dust, musing: “You can’t eradicate their religion so easily.”
Blood: “Your move.”
Dust finds some Manichaeans for Saul of Tarsus to persecute.
Blood sends a messenger to warn Boudica of Britain against attacking the Ninth Roman Legion as they wait for her with their flanks covered by the forest around them. Instead, she stages a false retreat and ambushes them.
Returning to 394 CE, Dust gives generals Eugenius and Arbogast of the West the notion to ambush the eastern army of Theodosius as it makes a precarious crossing through the rugged Alps.
Blood: “Preserving the Empire to its last gasp?”
Dust: “Just long enough, perhaps….”
In 633, the great caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab endures a Blood-inspired vision that military conquest is contrary to the laws of Allah.
Thanks to Dust, English military commander John Hawkwood falls under a French sword at Poitiers near the end of the Hundred Years War.
Blood: “You can’t deflect the likes of Bruneschelli, Da Vinci, or Pico della Mirandola so easily.”
Dust: “No, but I can slow them down.”
With Blood’s intervention the partners of Fuller Farm Oil in Pennsylvania decide not to increase the flow of oil by using explosives. Dust chuckles, then shifts to the Twentieth Century.
As Nazi Germany’s fortunes decline, Dust ensures that Nazi atomic scientists Georg Joos, Wilhelm Hanle, and Reinhold Mannkopff are spared military reassignment.
Returning to the present, the gamesters pondered their game. Then:
“Ready?” asked Dust.
“Yes” replied Blood.
Because the Fertile Crescent avoided a drought, plants vital to humans and quadrupeds alike remained abundant instead of withering, removing the need to stockpile seed and plant it in straight rows. This delayed the Agricultural Revolution for thousands of years, and with it delayed the centralization of power, institutional religion, the formation of armies, subsequent patriarchy, and the long age of empires jostling for control of the Middle East, then of Europe, then of the entire globe.
Without discovery of silver at Laurium, however, the Athenians lacked the money they needed to fight off the invading Persians. The Golden Age of Greece–a time of philosophy, sculpture, democratic experimentation, high oratory, and cultural dominance–never shone. But the force of its potential waited below the horizon of history to reemerge later and elsewhere.
Blood countered by trying to remove Christianity from history: no Dark Ages, no witch hunts, no Crusades, no Roman Catholic Church or Protestant Reformation. He was merely buying time, though, because the forces of religious monotheism would find other figures and institutions around which to gather.
Dust took advantage of this: Saul found Manichaeans instead of Christians to persecute, fell off his ass, became a monotheist himself, preached the Word of the Primal Man of Light, laid the basis for Western scholasticism, science, dualism, capitalism, and hyper-individualism….
Blood responded by allowing Boudica to succeed in her rebellion against Romans in Britain in 61 CE. Nero recalled all the Romans, but dependence on metals mined from British soil made this an empire-weakening move.
However, Eugenius and Arbogast defeated Theodosius in the Alps and killed Alaric, who would have led a Visigoth army into Rome itself in 410, and Stilicho, who would have spirited away the Emperor Honorius to the safety of Ravenna. The Roman Empire never split into East and West, and its fall was delayed many centuries, setting a pattern of corruption and military dominance that cast a thick shadow over world politics and culture far beyond the influence of the original Roman Empire.
The delayed cultural and intellectual flourishing put on hold by Dust in ancient Greece now came to fruition when the Caliph Umar devoted his energies even more fully than originally to the development of science and philosophy under the mantle of Islam, a religion that, deprived of imperial pretensions, never suffered from Paulism’s world-negating fundamentalism.
Dust’s removal of John Hawkwood prevented him from becoming “the first of the modern generals,” the mercenary commander who would have cleverly protected Florence from invasion by its neighbors. The Renaissance arrived decades after this but was crippled by lack of democracy in Florence and by the loss of the Florentine bankers who would have funded soaring new works of art, literature, and culture.
The dynamite that destroyed the oil works of Fuller Farm Oil never fired, so one of the partners, John Wilkes Booth, lived as a wealthy plutocrat instead of as a malcontented, self-hating nobody determined to assassinate President Lincoln. Under Lincoln’s care the Reconstruction brought healing to South and North alike instead of leaving a legacy of ill will, racism, and resentment. Deprived of backing by Southern party bosses, Truman never became Vice President, let alone President; after the death of FDR, President Wallace won favor by pushing an agenda for world peace, justice, and equal rights. No atomic bomb fell on Japan, no Cold War chilled the world, and the Soviets and the United States, neither as paranoid as they might have been otherwise, founded a more influential United Nations.
Nevertheless, Joos, Hanle, and Mannkopff remained at work on the world’s first atomic bomb. Nazi scientists built two prototypes and dropped one on London and the other on Moscow. However, the Manhattan Project gave the Americans the bomb within two years and they destroyed Berlin, ending World War II. An international moratorium on atomic weapons went into effect and was rigorously enforced under a branch of the vastly strengthened United Nations, an organization that evolved into United Earth.
“Splendid play,” remarked Dust, impressed by his partner’s victory. “But did you notice a certain…stickiness to the events we manipulated? Monotheism continuing under Paul despite your elimination of the Jesus cult, for instance?”
“I not only noticed it, I anticipated it.”
“So that is why you agreed to another match.”
“To repeat wisdom previously received: anticipation marks out the inspired player from the good player.”
“Indeed?” replied Dust, restoring Earth’s original time stream. “Five more moves?”
“Very well. You first.”
Blood’s invisible presence snakes into a Mongolian camp, curls around the nomad who would invent the modern stirrup, and stops his bones from knitting after his spill from a wayward camel.
Dust visits China in time to ensure the downfall of Li Yuan and Li Shih-min.
Blood makes silent adjustments in the womb of Ermengarde of Hesbaye, wife of Louis the Pious, to prevent the conception of their son Lothair.
At Ethandune, Dust ensures that Alfred the Great falls in battle against the Vikings.
Blood: “Who needs the English language anyway?” Moving forward in time, he implants in the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II the idea that Kemal Reis is a traitor.
Dust: “You don’t think they’ll institute slavery anyway?” In West Africa he drains the leadership skills from Ìfikuánim of Nri.
Blood: “Not then, at least.” Thanks to him, Sir Henry Stanley catches malaria and dies before meeting Dr. David Livingstone. “So much for the Berlin West Africa Conference.”
“For a preserver of life your moves fall rather short of pacifism.” In Pune, Dust corrects the aim of an assassin’s thrown bomb so that it lands in the car of Mohandis Gandhi and his wife, killing both. “Move four completed.”
“Insufficient.” Blood heals Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Dust, after a pause for thought: “Now watch this.” In Florida a biologist fails to follow laboratory containment guidelines and drives home to Miami unknowingly infected with a genetically modified influenza. The following day he boards a flight to London. “Fifth and final move completed. Let us see the results.”
Without the invention of the stirrup, Mongol cavalries never overran Central Asia or threatened China or Europe. Although both regions flourished, the early demise of Li Yuan and his son prevented the cultural transformations brought by the T’ang Dynasty. When Queen Sonduk of the Korean kingdom of Silla tried to open relations with China, her ambassadors found only warring tribes, a disaster that stultified both nations and, by extension, the entirety of Asia. Deprived of trade along the Silk Road and other now-nonexistent routes to the East, Europe stagnated, and the Heian Period in Japan was muted.
However, when the wars ended China rose, culturally and technologically. No Great Wall was ever built. Without the pressure of Mongolian raiders, the Celts spread unhindered through southern, western, and eastern Europe to escape oppressive Roman control. With the removal of Lothair I, civil war never divided the Frankish kingdoms to make them vulnerable to Muslim, Viking, and Hungarian incursions; the Dark Ages were lightened.
In Africa, the loss of Ìfikuánim’s political ambitions prevented the founding of the Kingdom of Nri, an absence that greatly weakened West Africa’s resistance to European colonialism, especially after the gold trade picked up. Without Alfred, Britain remained under Viking domination, and what would be called Old Norse one day replaced Old English. Less flexible than English, Old Norse and its runic script never caught on internationally, where a plurality of languages held sway.
Kemal Reis’s failure to become an admiral stopped him from encountering and fighting the Barbary Coast piracy that impelled Prince Henry “The Navigator” of Portugal to capture their base and convert it into a slave port. Although vulnerable to exploitation, Africa remained relatively unsettled by Europeans for decades because Stanley never wrote fantastic tales of the strange birds and apes to be found in “the dark continent.” The United States never knew a Civil War, but indentured servants labored in Southern cotton fields. As before, their imported brothers and sisters picked fruit in California, where the self-righteously patriotic castigated Mexican immigrants for failing to speak Norse.
With Gandhi dead before he could attain influence in the movement to liberate India from British rule, the movement faltered. Independence came anyway, but too late to offer an example to the world of how to roll back colonialism. However, Pakistan never formed for India to compete with.
A relatively open China, a less divided America, and a Celtic Europe where Christianity and Rome never rose to dominance gave international relations a certain flexibility and ease they would not otherwise have possessed in spite of lingering colonialism in India, where Hindus and Muslims remained a combined population, and Africa, a source of diamonds, precious metals, petroleum, and wood. Russia too remained relatively open, its Red revolution softened by the absence of Lenin, who never lost his father in adolescence. In many nations women ascended earlier to positions of political and financial power. Population rates leveled off. Heavy industries powered by fossil fuels started up earlier in Asia than before, but so did the push for clean energy.
Even so, the escape of a corporate-funded pathogen from its confinement did what no war had ever managed: it wiped out all primate life on Earth. Weeds buckled pavement where the towers of now-emptied cities had climbed skyward.
“If you had not thought of that last game-changing move….”
“Indeed. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Events grow ever more resistant to alteration. Do you know why?”
“I believe so. If I’m right, then as Dust this time I will win in a single move, which I will make only after your five moves.”
“If your move would be to toss an asteroid into the path of this planet, or to drain the heat from its core–”
“No. In accord with the rules of the game, all basic structures remain as they are. I have in mind something much quieter.”
“Very well. You’re on. This time I am Blood. Shall I move first or will you?”
“Be my guest.”
The former Dust, now playing as Blood, founded religions, built up civilizations, advanced great armies of order, promoted the worthy, amassed fortunes for good. “Five moves completed. See if you can undo them.”
The former Blood, now Dust, went back in time 200,000 years and rendered Mitochondrial Eve and all her descendants incapable of love. The time stream cracked like a whip to reveal an Earth barren of human life.
“It is debatable,” noted Dust, having returned to his first role in the game, “whether that does not qualify as an unacceptable structural change.”
“That is so,” admitted Blood as he contemplated his destructive work down below. “Yet I left procreative lust, the urge for gregarious warmth, and the rest of the range of human biological drives fully intact.”
“I do not understand why the people did not survive, then.”
“They vanished because history, and therefore survival, cannot be as simple as great personalities, large battles, or pivotal movements. In the end, history is written in human hearts. History is vision, inspiration, hope, acts of simple care. It is involvement, which means love: the compassionate peasant woman who lifts a soldier back onto his horse; the farmer tilling the land he loves; the contemplative praying by candlelight for a better world. Love is the glue that holds the fabric of life together. Unbind it and all the rest unravels.”
“If that is so,” argued Dust, “then why did we previously succeed in altering their history at all?”
“Love is inconstant among these people. Its effectiveness waxes and wanes over time. But it always makes itself felt in the end. In fact, so much so that we must soon take our gaming elsewhere.”
“That ‘stickiness’ you mentioned. At a deeply unconscious but increasingly vital level, the single organism of consciousness that is the entire human species grows resistant to our meddling.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Let us play one more round and see. Would you care to begin this time?”
“I am content to follow you.”
Blood inspires the pharaoh Ramesses II to generously spread the wealth of Egypt, making allies instead of envious enemies. The allies help Egypt withstand invasion by the Assyrians.
Dust arranges a single descendant for Ashurbanipal instead of three and stops the Assyrian civil war.
Thanks to Blood, Hannibal of Carthage gets the idea to rely on deaf elephants trained to charge columns of armed men. He wins the Battle of Zama and, his elephants having trampled the Roman trumpeters and skirmishers, goes on to conquer Rome.
Dust converts Roman prelate Pontius Pilate to Christianity and fills him with a missionary zeal to bring the new religion to Rome centuries before Constantine.
Under Blood’s influence Christopher Columbus’s crewmen tire of months of voyaging and throw him overboard.
Dust: “Clever. To prevent not just the conquest of the so-called New World, but its annexation by Spain, which in turn will never prompt the British to start their Empire. Ireland and India will flourish, as will China….”
Blood: “Wait and see.”
With Dust’s aid Sir Francis Drake claims North America for England.
Heart failure kills Kaiser Wilhelm II, preventing Germany’s bellicose turn as well as the 1885 conference to carve up Africa for European gain.
Louis Pasteur succumbs to a heart attack before he can test his germ theory of fermentation.
State Secretary of Florida Katherine Harris is prevented by an alert news reporter from purging eligible as well as ineligible voters in her state; Al Gore wins the U.S. presidency.
“Sweeping,” remarked Dust, “but insufficient”:
At the University of Iowa James Hanson decides to stick with astrophysics instead of studying climate change.
“Let’s roll it” — Blood.
The whip of Time cracked. Nothing happened. To Dust’s astonishment, Earth’s peoples, cities, and devices went on about their business as before.
Egypt fell to Assyria, which fell to the Medes and other former victims after tearing itself apart centuries before Abraham Lincoln’s speech about “a house divided.” Scipio Africanus beat Hannibal at Zama, Pilate washed his hands of Jesus, mad Columbus thought he’d reached the Orient, Drake moved on, gobbling galleons as he went, Germany militarized twice, Pasteur discovered germs and treated them, Bush invaded Iraq for oil and set up a police state while ignoring climate change, and Hanson warned the public about overheating the world.
“It would seem,” acknowledged Dust, “that you are correct after all. The collective mind of this species now resists all attempts to alter their past. Sappho, Lao Tzu, Gautama, Shankara, Plato, Muhammad, Tokugawa, Bolivar, Cervantes, Mozart, Harriet Tubman, Sigmund Freud, even Gertrude Stein: my hit list held so many possibles, but this resistance has spoiled it. I could have done in Eleanor Roosevelt even before her husband, and Martin Luther King Jr. before he marched. I should like to have stopped the insufferable Vandana Shiva when she was still a physicist.”
“It is indeed a pity, but we should have suspected this resistance would develop. Consciousness found anywhere has never been known to limit itself, temporally or otherwise. Its very nature is to find new responses.”
Satellites drifted around the planet. Deserts enlarged as ice caps shrank. Storms swallowed entire continents. Whether humanity would survive was now anybody’s guess.
As they pondered the turning world, a disturbing idea came to Blood:
“Do you think anyone ever played this game on us?”
Dust thought it over. “No. How could they without our being aware of it, We who can roll and unroll the fabric of time itself?”
“I suppose you are right.”
They watched the pretty world turn.
“This play has spoiled my taste for the game. Shall we take up other occupations?” — Dust.
“Good idea. We have an entire cosmos of ideas to draw on.” — Blood.
As they vanished, two other entities appeared. Blood and Dust had occupied points above Earth, but so vast were the newcomers that they watched largely from beyond the solar system’s rim. Their invisible tendrils filled the Local Bubble and Rift, Orion Arm, and Milky Way and ran out far beyond. Their experience spanned universes. To them the great whirling galaxy was as a grain of sand lost on a beach at a continent’s edge. Yet it never paid to neglect the details.
“Perhaps,” said Being to Nonbeing, but quietly so as not to push planets away from their suns, “just perhaps Blood and Dust have finally learned their lesson about meddling.”
“Perhaps. But let us keep them under observation for a while. If all else fails we can run them through another game.”
“I am Being. I go first.”
“…And I am Nonbeing. I follow you.”
See also “Pre-Eulogy”
© 2010 Craig Chalquist.