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This earlier question about a seemingly trivial change preventing a nuclear war made me remember a short story I read more than 20 years ago.

In the story, there are 2 intelligences (it is not clear if they have any physical form) that are able to randomly access time. They take turns making a few minor changes to human history and observing the results. I think the story starts with them picking which outcome each is playing for, and then one stating that it will go first.

The first makes a few changes (details forgotten), and they observe that the result is Earth becomes a nuclear wasteland. Then the other takes its turn; as best I recall it makes 3 changes. The one I remember most clearly is that it kills Cato the Elder (by some medical condition like a stroke or aneurysm) before yet another "Carthago delenda est". (The implication being that the 3rd Punic war is averted.) The other 2 changes were similarly minimal, but I have only an impression that they may have involved other historical figures.

Fast-forwarding, the intelligences find a thriving space-going civilization, and the first congratulates the second, remarking that it had not expected such small changes to have such a large effect.

The story ends with one suggesting to the other "best 2 of 3?"

This may be a conflation with another story, but they may have picked the outcome each was playing for in terms of "blood" (life) and "dust" (death).

I definitely read this more than 20 years ago, but probably less than 30. It was most likely in an anthology, since I didn't have many single-author collections at that point. (But I can't rule that out, or that I might have read it in a magazine like IASFM or Analog.)

  • Note: I was actually fairly confident about "blood" and "dust" but had absolutely no luck searching on those terms, so I started to doubt them. – DavidW Jan 3 at 18:52
  • The title alone made me think you were talking about Doctor Who. – bruglesco Jan 4 at 4:06
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This is Roger Zelazny's "The Game of Blood and Dust". It seems like a good match. There are two intelligences, Blood and Dust, and they take turns making changes to history. They are alien, I guess.

To my surprise, I found the text of the story online.

The story begins:

They drifted towards the Earth and took up stations at its Trojan points. They regarded the world, its two and a half billion inhabitants, their cities, their devices.

The last couple of lines are:

"Best two out of three?"

"All Right. I am Blood. I go first."

...And I am Dust. I follow you."

The death of Cato the Elder is another of the changes one of them makes to history.

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