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Look, the future isn’t going to save itself. And when it comes to guiding the course of history, Alec is pretty sure he could’ve done it better than all those dead dudes in the textbooks. So when two lovely time travelers offer him a chance to alter the future by changing the past, he jumps at it. Too bad saving the world ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I Could’ve Done Better

Gregory Benford & David Brin


They didn’t have to do this to me. Dump me in this place, with no chance of going home.

I told them I’d try harder. Really. Make up for my mistakes. Be a better person. They could choose someone else, easy.

But did they listen?

How I miss the things I’ll never do again. Eat a hotdog at the ballpark. Take a flight out to the coast. Catch a Vegas show or watch a playoff game on TV. I suppose I could invent baseball or teach these people how to play poker. But they’d just let me win all the time, so where’s the fun?

Here comes slender Mirimani now, carrying a basket of fresh fruit, followed by Deela—buxom Deela—with a pitcher of beer. I’ve grown used to the strong, bitter stuff they brew here, though I’d trade Tut’s treasure right now for a cold, frothy Budweiser . . .

“It is time for my lord to have his morning massage,” Deela says, leaning over me to fill a golden goblet. Her scent is mild must and myrrh. Two more girls approach with linen towels and scented oils.

Mirimani smiles. She’s leaner, more athletic.

“Or would the Father of the Nile prefer to bathe first?”

All right, I admit it. I used to get a kick out of talk like that, the first hundred or so times. Till I realized what an absolute pit it is to be Pharaoh.

“Not now,” I respond. My Old Kingdom Egyptian has an Illinois accent, but no one complains. “What’s on our schedule today?”

Mirimani can glide smoothly from seductive to pure business—one reason she’s risen so high in my service.

“A new ambassador from Babylon wishes to present gifts.”

“Right into my lapis, I suppose.”

“My lord?”

“Never mind.” Making puns in English, instead of my tortured Ancient Egyptian; I really am homesick today. “Okay, then what?”

“You grant clemency to the Libyan rebels.”

“Clemency? Those guys gave me real trouble last summer, raiding caravans and burning my new schools. Remind me. Why was I planning to spare them?”

“In order to set an example, my Lord. To illustrate your innovations called ‘due process’ and ‘rehabilitation,’ as I recall. Have you changed your mind?”

“Well . . . no, I guess not. It’d be more satisfying to set another kind of example, though. One involving hungry lions. Oh, never mind. Is there anything else?”

“Only an audience with the High Priestess of Isis, who craves a few moments from the Father of Waters.”

At this I groan. “Aw, man, do I really have to see her?”

Mirimani smiles gently. We’ve been through this before. “No one commands the Pharaoh of all Egypt. But you have found the wisdom of Isis indispensable in the past.”

Her phrasing tugs with bitter irony.

In the past, Mirimani? Oh, if only you knew how far off you are.


All right, picture this. Two babes come swaying into Mulligan’s Bar, wearing identical black dresses with slit sides and plunging backs. One blonde and the other with tightly curled hair that’s a deep, almost black, henna red. They seem awkward on spike heels—wobbling a little—yet getting the hang of it fast. Athletic types. No. More than that.

Right away the old radar is up, beeping. They’re knockouts. Tall, luminous, luscious . . . every male in the place takes notice. So does every female. You’d have to be dead not to.

Let me get something straight—I wasn’t asking for trouble. Just stopping by the old haunt to relax with a brew—one!—after a racquetball match. I demolished poor Fred from Accounting pretty easy, three to one, picking up fifty bucks on bets and feeling smug over grinding his nose in it. I’d been riding my underlings at work, too—working off the steam that kept building up in my life. The feeling that I should be doing more. More than middle management. More than this.

Sandy expected me home by six-thirty. I really meant to be prompt. Maybe put in some quality time with the kids.

The after-five crowd was trickling in. My fave time of day. Allowing for a twenty-minute commute, I had three quarters of an hour to just relax and be me. If I cut it close.

I had promised Sandy to do better, and really meant it this time. She had caught me chatting up an intern at the office picnic and raised hell. Then, two days later, I came home late and brewed up a bit. She didn’t seem to understand that I was still a fun kinda guy. That’s what originally drew us to each other, right? We sure had some wild times.

Only now she was auditioning for the role of Wounded Hausfrau and I hadn’t changed. Why should I? part of me protested.

Another part answered—Come on, sport, you know you’ve crossed the line a few times since you got hitched. She’s worth some extra effort. So are the kids. Give it a rest.

I’m sure every married guy has those conflicts, right? Well, a lot of us.

So there I was, just mulling it over, dealing with it, when the two lookers came in.

Lookers in both senses—they sat down and right away started looking at me.

Ah, those sheath dresses, hose, and high heels—tight skirts, covering without concealing two great bodies. And the faces—just my type. High cheekbones, full lips, arching eyebrows, long hair. Redhead’s dusky complexion set a nice contrast to the blonde’s cool snow. Couldn’t be better if I’d ordered them from a menu.

Okay, maybe I was a little irked with Sandy. Maybe I was tired. Give me credit—I went over there more out of curiosity than anything else. I mean, how often do two knockout babes send you pickup looks across a bar?

For just a moment, I recall, something about these two—the way they moved—made me think of . . . soldiers.

The thought was kind of weird. Unnerving.

It didn’t stop me, though.

“Do I know you ladies?”

Not as amateur as it sounds. If they say no, turn it into a compliment, something about getting to start fresh with two such lovelies, blah blah. When I was in practice, I could come off even a routine opening with confidence, like answering a backhand serve.

Only the blonde surprises me.

“Oh, we know you. You’re famous.”

I gave her a quick look to see if this was irony, but she’s beaming a big, white smile. Good teeth, great glossy lipstick, and not a hair out of place. Maybe they’d been in Mulligan’s before and heard something.

I tossed it off with a disarming chuckle. “Whatever they’re saying, Officer, it ain’t true.”

“Oh, no, Alec,” the redhead said, “you’re renowned.”

All right. A bit nervous now. They knew my name. I glanced around to see if any of the guys were giggling in a corner, having put these two up to it.

“Renowned, eh? How come I don’t see myself on magazine covers?”

“Not now—in the future.” And she motioned for me to sit down.

Now I know it’s a gag. But nobody was cackling beyond the potted plants. Mulligan himself seemed unaware, busy with customers. I decided to play along, plopping in a chair.

“Oh, yeah?”

“We’re serious,” the blond said. “We really are from your future.”

“Sure, like in those movies.” The guys knew I was a lifelong sci-fi fan. Whoever set this up, I’d have to come up with something good to top it.

“Indeed—” the redhead nodded “—our research shows several cinematic dramas in your era approached the general concept, so you should easily grasp what we’re talking about. Please do accept it. We are real, from two centuries ahead of this day.”

I gave them a smile of disbelief, with a Cary Grant cock of the head. “Hm, well, they do make real beauties in the twenty-third century.”

For the first time, something I said affected her. A modest blush, apparently sincere. I blinked, more surprised by that than anything she had said. This was no hired hooker or actress. She was nervous underneath and actually appreciated the compliment. My opinion meant something to her.

“So, are you ladies tourists? Come back in time to do a little slumming with the ancestors?”

The blonde was more businesslike. “We are not tourists, Alec. Our mission is serious. We are at war.”

I blinked. A surprising turn. My latest theory had been that they were sorority pledges from a nearby college, pulling mind games on some locals as part of an initiation stunt. The future babes trip had just the right flavor for a tease fantasy. But this—

“At war?”

“Yes. And we are losing.”

“You . . .”

“We,” she corrected. “All of us. Humanity.”

“Uh huh, I think I saw that movie. You want me to go forward in time because I’m a typical primitive warrior type. Only a real man can defeat the alien invaders or rogue computers or mutant spiders, because your males are too civilized.”

They gave me a “don’t be ridiculous” look.

“Our warriors are strong, Alec,” the redhead said, “both men and women. Indeed, many of our greatest heroes and most innovative thinkers are descended from you.”

That made me blink a couple of times, momentarily at a loss for words. What a line! I should try it myself sometime. Somebody at the sorority had an imagination, all right.

Well, if they wanted to be outrageous, fine.

“Descended from . . . Oh, I get it now. You’ve come back in time to ask me for genetic samples?”

The blonde put her hand on my thigh, a pleasant warm pressure, and rather more alarming than I expected. Her smile broadened.

“Yes, but more than that, we need your help.”

“No fighting aliens in the future? Shucks.”

A small corner of me felt strangely disappointed. I kind of hankered after that.

“We would not risk your life. But you can save humanity, Alec. If you are willing to accept a most difficult, onerous, but ultimately rewarding task.”


The ambassador from Babylon brought mostly the same old crap. Jewelry that my kid might’ve spurned at a discount store, back home in Chicago. Some pathetic rugs. Spices to cover the smell when food starts to go stale.

We’ll fix that problem by next year, if I keep making good progress setting up Pharaoh Laboratories, Inc. I think I can remember how to make a refrigerator and there’s no lack of willing labor. Nor any corporate bean-counters or stockholders to hinder us. We’ll keep trying till we get it right.

I’ll have cold beer yet! You’ll see.

The ambassador looked scared, trying desperately to impress me with his gifts. Well, can’t blame him. Babylon and all the other ancient powers are pissing in their pants because Old Kingdom Egypt now has muzzle-loading cannon.

He seemed especially upset over the girls. He brought twenty of them. Real beauties. Didn’t Pharaoh like ’em?

Shucks. The ever-efficient priestesses of Isis whisked them all away before I could even get a good look! Only those who actually volunteer—of their own free will—may come back to the palace, later. It’s my own law, dammit.

To compensate, I enjoyed making the ambassador sweat some more. But not too much. To my surprise, I’ve found a little groveling goes a long way.

Anyway, the Libyan rebels were next. They should put on a good show.


All right, so there we are in the bar, see? I’m getting into their little game—this time travel story thing. As I said, it just had to be a sorority prank. A sexy little mind tease. Even the “future war” scenario fit in. Maybe they were “assigned to protect me” from some horrible android assassin. Why not play along? It wouldn’t be sporting to spoil their fun, right?

Only part of me was getting worried. The part that knows people, often letting me manipulate them to my own advantage. The part that does well at poker. The part that knew these weren’t ditzy sorority chicks out on a dare.

They were formidable women. Capable adults, serious and determined. Whatever they were up to, they meant to accomplish it.

Part of me already half believed them.

“Um . . . a task?”

“In another era.”

“Another . . . right. You want me to come with you in a time machine.”

“Not a machine. A time beam. Our greatest scientists managed to create just one, with an interference fringe here in your era and another at our final destination. So this has to work.”

“Hm. Will it take long? My wife expects me home in less than an hour.”

That’s not like me. To mention Sandy, up front. First clue that I really am starting to take this crazy story as more than a joke.

“Your wife was destined to be disappointed tonight, whether or not we came to intervene. Do you see the brunette sitting behind me? Three tables back, trying to read a book.”

“Yeah, so? I noticed her before.”

“You were about to go to her and . . . what is your expression? Pick her up.”

“No way.”

“After your third beer . . .”

“I was just having one!”

“. . . one thing would lead to another. Amid the subsequent accusations, lies, and recriminations, a downward spiral would commence, with more such philandering episodes, more alienation, resulting in divorce and then two more failed marriages—”

“Hey!” This was getting weird. “I’m happy. All right, I need more control. And maybe I can be a bit self-centered. But I wouldn’t spoil things like that! Not where it counts.”

The redhead stayed serious. They were dividing roles.

“During the next month, by our records, everything will turn sour. You will go back to gambling, promiscuity—”

“No! I’m through with all that.” Then I recall how I was feeling a minute ago. “Dammit, you started flirting with me. I was just having a beer, and . . . and I’ve been trying harder.”

It sounded pretty lame, even to me, but I had been doing better. Really I had. Right up till that evening!

The blonde was merciless.

“Yes, but you will fail. If it helps, let me assure you that it isn’t entirely your fault. Blame it on upbringing and a wretched environment—certainly not genes.”

“What about my genes?” The weirder this got, the more I seemed compelled to stay and listen.

“Your traits are mostly outstanding and they manifest that way through all eight of your children. And their heirs, far downstream.”


“I mentioned other marriages. That is how we know your genes are the critical factor, since you were not especially helpful to the mothers in any other way. Yet, all eight achieved wonders.

“Again, it’s not really your fault, Alec. Twisted by your own past, you were merely a somewhat successful executive in this era, good at manipulating and defeating competitors, but also thwarted by those above you, who were put off by your drive and apparent amorality. At a root level, you have powerful leadership talents, inheritable traits that will prove crucial in our future. Your descendants will be mighty leaders, ambitious, innovative, demanding, and yet fair.”

I couldn’t even begin to imagine the point of this “joke” anymore. It was taking on a harshness that burned inside.

“What did you mean by twisted?”

“Our analysts believe your abilities—especially your sense of empathy for others—were stunted because of traumas you suffered while young.”

Ouch. I felt a wrench in my stomach. How the hell could this bitch know about—

I very nearly got up at that moment. Got up and walked away from the lure of their beauty, the fascination of their teasing game. I almost stood up to go home, to where I knew I was loved in spite of my faults. At least up till that night. Stand . . . up! I commanded my muscles and bones. But they betrayed me.

“Those childhood traumas twisted your gifts, turning you into a user of others. Unpleasant traits you fought to overcome, beginning with your playground experience—you always felt badly about being a bully, didn’t you? History gives you credit for that, Alec. And yet, you were never able to—”

“Hey, wait a second—”

The redhead injects with enthusiasm “—but what struck Special Projects HQ was how those very same traits ideally suit you for a special task! A role in saving all humanity.”

I blink. Doubt, anger, and disbelief welled up in me. None of this made sense, even as an elaborate practical joke. It came rushing back: Tony Pasquetto beating the crap out of me in fifth grade, my seething anger, a bile from that simmered on and on. I took it out on others, roiling with both pleasure and guilt. One word from these two and presto—back it came. And worse, much worse from my own parents, too caught up in their war against each other to see what collateral damage they were doing to me inside.

I made myself take a deep breath. “I . . . had some rough times as a kid, sure, but that doesn’t mean—”

The blonde’s hand slid higher up my thigh, threatening to drive out all rational thought.

“Let us persuade you.”

“Huh? Of what?”

“Of our purpose. Our resolve to make your decision obvious.”

“Yes,” the redhead added, leaning closer. “We are here to give you everything that you presently want. To fulfill your fantasies, such as they are.”

“And you figure I want more than a good exec job and a wife and home?”

“We know you. Better than you know yourself, Alec,” Red said with a slow, sly smile.

Struggling for some sense of control, I stretched, pretending nonchalance, knowing that I’m fooling no one.

“You ladies have got quite a line, I got to hand it to you.”

“You do not believe us,” the redhead said. “Of course, it is a fantastic tale.”

“It’s original, I’ll give you that.”

Blonde is all business. She leaned back, giving me a good long look at her perfectly proportioned body. “For now, let us see about collecting those samples you offered.”


The rebels groveled very well. Heads smacked on marble, moans of supplication echoed, they even trotted forward some women to offer—probably their poor frightened wives. I yawned.

My Western Frontier Advisor whispered, urging me to put them all on spikes. “As an example to others!” he finished.

“Have you watched an impalement?” I answered. I had made that mistake the first time I went along with this joker. They put the pointed shaft up the anus and it takes the victim a full day to work down on it. I would still wake up in a sweat, years later, remembering their screams.

“Sire, for the good of the Kingdom—”

“Clemency is granted!” I said loudly. “One year at hard labor, helping to build the Great Library in Alec-Sandria, then back home on probation—and I better not hear of any more raided caravans! This rebellion stuff has got to stop. Get a life!”

Okay, not eloquent. But the expressions on their faces—and their wives’—made me feel like Abraham Lincoln. Sheesh, these ancient guys are easily pleased.

Not that I was always Mr. Nice Guy. Especially at the beginning, building a ragtag band of followers, then eventually taking over and ejecting the old Pharaoh. Had to show I was the kind of ruthless cutthroat that my growing army expected. Those first years were hungry, danger packed, and tense, even with some modern tricks from the twenty-first century. And yet . . . it’s funny how finally taking power didn’t turn out to be as voluptuously satisfying as I thought it would be.

Who would have expected that I’m nowhere near the bully that I used to think I was?

The cries of gratitude from the rebels hardly faded away before the chief herald cried out. “Lo, the Priestess of Isis arrives!”

Damn! I had meant to slip away—

She came in at full swagger. And though she bowed low before me and uttered all the proper phrases, anyone could tell that she’s my equal here.

Some may even suspect the truth.

The gold bracelets were striking, the ivory headdress and ebony belt gave her authority, and the figure . . . well nobody else in 1400 B.C. has anything like it.

But she was all business. How did I ever think she was so alluring, back in Mulligan’s?

“Lord of All the Lands, I approach you with supplications.”

Which meant work to do. With a sigh I sat back on my throne and answered in English.

“The usual?”

“I bring laws for you to proclaim. Matters that we discussed at our last monthly meeting. Regulations for fair trade in the Sinai. A better plan for Nile boats. The apprenticeship and scholarship program for bright sons and daughters of the peasant class.”

Yeah, yeah. Half of the ideas were mine. I’m not a complete puppet. Still, I winced when I saw a crimson scroll under her belt. The weekly quota of heirs for me to sire.

Dammit, I bet she was planning an increase! What am I, a machine?

“Look, what’s the rush?” I mumbled. “We’ve already accomplished—”

“A great deal, proving that our estimates of your abilities were correct. You should trust—”

“Trust!” I laughed, without joy. “You tricked me! All of this, in order to—”

“In order to help guide society quickly toward a more advanced state, so that in three and a half millennia it will be capable of defeating a dire enemy from the stars.”

None of the guards, deputies and ass-kissers around the throne room understood us, of course. They assumed we were talking in the Language of the Gods.

“Do remember the Enemy, O great Pharaoh.”

I shivered. They had showed me a foe, all right—made me experience them in full. Not classic aliens or terrifying robo-devils, nothing you’d expect at all. They came from a world where smart mammals like us were herded. Not like cows, but more subtly. Symbiotic, they had mastered how to tap our deepest fears, using them against us. They ruled by immersing us in them. Imagine a chilly analytical engine, impersonally merciless as it uses you, only far worse to look at and impossible to look away from—because it’s always there, slimy, inside.

The blonde and the redhead made me experience that. They showed me how humanity was losing.

But on this new timeline, we’ll have an extra 3,000 years to get ready. Time enough, maybe, if we bypass the cruel stupidities and waste of the Assyrian and Roman and Ch’ing empires and all the dark ages between. If feudalism gets replaced by opportunity and science a whole lot earlier. Especially—they say—if that future has plenty of people with my traits. Traits that did me little good in my old life, but ones that would breed true, making great leaders in the future. Leaders not stunted the way I am—only good for simple tasks, like bullying primitives by the marshy borders of the Nile.

“One of your descendants invented the time beam,” they had told me that night—it seemed like ages ago—as if I was supposed to be proud. “She knew this attempt would be our only chance.”

“Well then, why not take her back in time? Or pick my son to be Pharaoh? He carries the same miracle genes, right? He’s better and wiser than me, too, ain’t that right? Anyway, if I leave, won’t they vanish?”

“It is hard to explain the subtleties of temporal dynamics,” the redhead had said. “All of your children made large contributions to our future. That timeline must continue to stand like a trellis for the new one to grow alongside. And it will continue to stand, even after you are removed.”

I think of myself as flexible-minded, but this made my head hurt. You can’t do time travel without a painful paradox, and the two savants in front of me were accommodating.

“But still . . . why me? Because that time beam had a fringe that appeared here? I mean now?”

“That’s part of it. Also, we must borrow the least important element. One whose suite of actions—personal choices and conscious involvement—can be spared, and yet someone capable of exercising fierce power in a primitive era, then growing into the job. All of those reasons pointed to you.”

The least important element. Brutally frank, those gals were, once they knew they had me. Their futuristic personality analyzer told them I’d be fine leading a nation of millions, though in my real world I never made it beyond middle management. I could satisfy harems, but not one modern wife.

Go figure.


It really came home to me later that day, in the privacy of my seraglio.

Did you ever work in an ice cream shop? First week you gorge. Second week you peck a little. Third week . . . well, I was getting that third week feeling again, real bad.

A voluptuous lady of the Levant, soft like pillows. A stately and dignified Nubian, like warm ebony. A leering, silky submissive of the West and a skilled contortionist from the Far East. All of them were volunteers, of course, never coerced. That moralist, Isis, made sure of their enthusiasm before any came to me. (What did she do with the others? I wondered.)

I had done the research every other man only dreams about, and learned a daunting truth: there is only a finite range of women, as there is of men. Probably Casanova learned the same lesson. Who would’ve figured the polygynous drive for variety turns out to be satiable, even in a rutting fool like me?

Eventually, it palls.

And then, dammit, you start dreaming every night of someone who actually loved you, who chose you, as an equal, despite knowing all your faults.

I tried to shake off the mood. It would be unseemly for Pharaoh not to watch the Parade of Lovelies, then show that he still has what it takes to govern. Sighing, I proceeded to do my best.

Later, the Priestess of Isis arrived for another consultation, this time accompanied by her redheaded companion, now the Priestess of Karnak, proudly bringing the latest crop of infants to show off. Each one a gift for the ages, or so that pair of eugenic time warriors crooned.

And yet, once again I wondered. They’d told me that a chain beginning in the year 2006 would not be long enough to create a new civilization with sufficient power by 2200. But three thousand years might suffice. We were growing a parallel timeline, a vine climbing alongside the world I had known. One that would be strong enough to battle a terrible foe. Too much High Concept for me, I’m afraid. But one nagging doubt kept bothering me—

I have only their word for it that I joined the right side in their war.

Looking at my latest offspring, one baby after another whom I would barely know, I found myself wishing with a pang that I hadn’t missed so many of Bobby’s Little League games. That I had gone to see Rachel win the science fair.

Who knew they’d turn out to be geniuses?

And who cared about that? I just missed them.

Oh, the blonde and redheaded time agents played me right. They offered power, which I enjoyed at first—till I got responsible. They knew it would happen. . . .

“Hey,” I barked at both of them as they packed up their latest harvest of healthy, cooing princesses and princelings to depart. “I’m here running the Kingdom all day, begetting heirs all night, and meanwhile—what are you two doing in those temples of yours?”

The Priestess of Isis interrupted her inspection of a young heir. Her eyes became slits.

“We are organizing the women, Alec. Mind your own business.”

I sighed as they left, ruminating yet again on my fate. And especially on one awful irony.

Somewhere deep down, way back in my former life, I always expected to be punished. For my faults. For my failings.

Now, despite pleasures that would have stunned Hefner, I couldn’t escape feeling that way again. Exiled and condemned. Wishing . . . though I knew it was hopeless . . . for clemency.

A pardon.

For some way to go home.

“I could have done better,” I muttered. “If only they left me alone. Really. I would have changed.”

The pall lingered over me like a familiar cloud . . .

. . . till a nearby Grecian-primitive beauty gave me a slow, suggestive smile.

Ah, well. One endures.

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