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A Step Back in Time, a Short Story
A Science Fiction Story by Tamara Wilhite
A step back in time, they called it.
Really, you step into a machine, get ripped apart molecularly or turned into energy and get reassembled at your allotted time and location. A lot of physics happens, but for you, it seems like nothing did.
That’s what they said would happen, anyway. What did happen was far more complicated.
Being materialized in about 60,000 BC, the air was cold, thin and couldn't get into my rematerialized lungs. The gasping must have been standard, because I could hear Marcus making similar gasping sounds. The faint blue sky wavered as air finally made it into my lungs. But the thin atmosphere and cold kept it from being enough.
I tried to reach blindly for a gas mask, but collapsing on my back made me as useless as a post turtle. How lucky were we that some massive Ice Age predator hadn't come along to eat us as we flailed like fish out of water?
Marcus made the first understandable word. "Oh, God!" I finally had the strength to flip onto my stomach, hating the pack for being so heavy and myself so weak. "What!" I barked. I really, really hated time travel. If it hadn't been for the whole "save the species" angle, I wouldn't have come at all. But only a few people had the genetic makeup to handle the transfer, based on our best guess.
"Contact," he gurgled with barely contained excitement. I followed his gaze and saw what might have been a historic moment. Well, we were early in human history, so it was all historic.
Neanderthals in one camp. Early humans out of Africa in the other. First contact in the Middle East. The humans below were the ancestors of over 90% of humanity, the first to exit that continent before colonizing the rest of the world. At this cross-roads, maybe even this specific encounter, the species would meet and mingle. The 1-4% of DNA in all non-Africans from Neanderthals came from meetings like this.
We needed the Neanderthals’ DNA against pandemics resurrected to kill all but Africans, thanks to an Arab regime happy to ensure the descendants of non-Africans all died. That it killed a big chunk of his people didn’t matter. Our project also wanted ancient human, too, to understand the makings of those willing to travel far and wide.
Marcus was in it for the adventure, being first, being a hero. I just wanted the pandemics stopped.
The scene felt like a movie, especially through the binoculars. I recorded it because I wasn't going to stop it. I wondered about the culture instead. All the Neanderthal DNA we had was mixed. No Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, no Neanderthal Y chromosomes. Some of this could be lost with time, but the percentage of their DNA indicated either a heavy admixture early on or gradual mix over a hundred generations. Either way, they'd been selected for their DNA markers and against direct lineages. Why?
Ancient history unfolded, revealing answers in ways that would interest an anthropologist but no one else. The Neanderthal females present had no interest in the human males, though the human males made motions that were untouched by time. Make fun of the ugly chick and joke about who is willing to do her. Neanderthal men did have an interest, though human females weren't majorly interested. Neanderthal men were big, burly, strong.
Human females of all ages looked like nubile, young, likely sexy to them. Humans had more numbers, but we knew many of the hunters were away. From our location, the hunters were 20 or more miles away.
Marcus started to get up and run toward the scene. Then he shed his pack to make himself faster. "No!" I screamed. He didn't seem to care. The Neanderthals killed the human males present and enjoyed the females. "Marcus, you'll change history!" If he changed the timeline, and we were here, we'd never go "home". Home would cease to exist. Neither would the pandemics, but I’d rather die than live a lifetime in the Ice Age.
The fear that held me still was ancient, primal, and instinctive. The Neanderthal men were raping human women. And I was a human woman. I thought about the implications instead. So no Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA in the hybrids. The DNA from our own time suggested the second half of the story - of the hybrids born, the females were allowed to live because it was fresh blood and new females in a small population that needed all they could get in order to grow. But the mothers or hunters who returned killed all the hybrid males. The disease immunity of the few female hybrids was superior to that of humans, so they had a higher survival rate, passing on their DNA at a higher rate than the rest of the band. Their DNA was so good that they'd passed it on to nearly everyone else.
And Marcus was running, screaming, trying to stop it. His DNA as an African-Brazilian-American and mine as a European American both carried those Neanderthal markers. Anything he did could create the Grandpa paradox, with him preventing the conception of an ancestor.
When he reached the band, at least two miles downhill from our plateau vantage point, I watched him try to stop the rapes. The Neanderthals did the job fast, I had to admit. These were not big lumbering hulks. If any human female down there were fertile today, she'd have conceived by at least one of them. And they made sure all the eligible females were serviced.
This is why there was no mitrochondrial DNA from Neanderthals in humans - we had a few serious experiences like this and got on our guard about them before getting in the habit of killing them. The women who survived and had babies might keep the girls to add to the tribe, but they wouldn't - hadn't - let their sons by those monsters live.
Marcus, however, wasn't thinking. He put bullets in each of their bodies, screaming so loud it echoed even to me. Talk about changing history!
I was angry. His actions were a violation of our protocols not to change history. Study the living. Take samples from the dead. And he'd killed all the Neanderthal males before I'd finished getting my taser fully charged and my gun loaded. The hunters were approaching. I picked up sample vials, too. He'd made bodies. I couldn't leave that alone.
I walked slowly to the camp. The camp itself felt surreal. The smell of smoke and sweat. The coppery stink of blood. I took samples of blood from several Neanderthal corpses. On to a sample for a dead human male child, his head bashed in by a Neanderthal. A dead girl, raped to death. I took a DNA sample from her and a quick swipe for what I hoped was sperm. The smell of death was mixed with other odors that made my head swim. I longed for my husband to be with me, alive, warm and ...
A scientific part of my mind remembered that ancient people had biorhythms in sync. Have your periods together. Have your fertile times together. I remembered bits and pieces of sensations, from when I'd been in a good mood, conceived my only child ... the undercurrent was ancient humans in heat. No wonder the Neanderthals did this.
I finished with the samples. Then I went looking for Marcus. I found his gun on the ground first, covered in blood. I put that in a pocket. Couldn't risk his gun changing the timeline. Then I found his clothes. And his back side. A barely conscious female resembling a San bush person was beneath him, though he was far from thinking anything clearly himself. My blood boiled from conflicting emotions.
"Marcus, you're changing the timeline." No intelligent response from him, nothing better than the creatures we'd just dealt with. "You can't do this!" I screamed at him. The pheromones in the air made me ill, but I knew what it had done to them.
He looked up at me, a satisfied grin and glazed eyes my only response. He lazily looked me over before looking for better prospects.
I was so angry I put a bullet between his eyes. The female didn't seem to notice. Was heat that strong in ancient humans? A worry of modern human DNA getting into ancient human gene pools came to mind. So I put a bullet in her head to be safe. I walked around the bodies in search of other evidence. Other females and some children had moved away, frightened, horrified, hiding. It looked like Marcus hadn't done anyone or anything else. And I couldn't kill others without risking the human future. I returned to the scene and picked up his clothes and loaded them in to my pack.
Many thoughts flowed through my mind as I returned to the rendezvous point. If history found anything, it would be some bullet casings, bullet holes in some bodies, a modern human body in a location with many human bodies. I tried to be calm and logical about the situation, the way humans could and should be in the future.
I'd saved history. I sat down on Marcus' pack and put my own back on. Yes, I had. And I couldn't tell anyone what I did because I'd have to admit I'd shot him. Could I blame the pheromones? The effects of time travel? What if I myself had changed the future? I took a deep breath and activated the "return home" control.
The journey back took too long, though it should have been nothing. I had time to feel suffocated.
When I materialized again, I fell semi-conscious into a supportive wall of nothingness. Robotic hands lifted the backpacks from me, then my clothes. I guessed it was a sterilization routine but was too drained to care. It took a while before I was aware enough to realize I wasn't home.
I saved my timeline, I later learned. But others sought to save themselves, so they redirected my time stream and pulled me forward. To save themselves.
The pandemics I had wanted to stop eventually ran their course. Not everyone with those Neanderthal DNA traces died, but the species came to rely upon genetic engineering against waves of plagues to survive, so I am now the Neanderthal.
Ironically, the old diseases of my history had come roaring back during re-colonization. Tuberculosis, MRSA, West Nile Virus, varicella strains. The solution we had sought they also sought. I had ancient human DNA samples and Neanderthal samples. I had “intermediate” human DNA from Marcus' blood on my boots and in my own body. They needed all four to restore immunity sequences to the “modern” human population they'd edited out or lost to unnatural selection.
My time "lost" me. That fear prevented anyone near my time considering time travel again. Advanced humans, so certain they were smarter than us, researched the option again. Why travel back when the answer was only a millennium away? Now I was here.
I never saw the "real", outside world. I could guess about the impact of more advanced war technologies reducing a population of billions down to tens of millions. For people engineered for perfection over generations, I was ugly, primitive, stupid. However, I was a curiosity. The only time traveler known to exist upon arrival. I was also the only person who had witnessed primitive times of two eras. The video from the binoculars of "ancient" humans had been seen by half the surviving population.
They asked me questions. The ethical debates of genetic engineering came up from time to time, because I could quote from ethical and religious leaders whose work had been deliberately erased from their history. The cultural perspective of pre-altered humans was encapsulated in a single time capsule, me.
But there is no respect, no welcome. I lived, because they knew I might have uses as a source of information. That didn't mean they actually cared about me, only cared for me to make sure I would live a long time.
The environment is carefully tailored to maximize the basic comforts without luxury, since they deliberately choose not to give me anything too nice. It was enough to keep me sane and prevent death. They also couldn’t do too much due to their own relative poverty. Maintaining quarantine and safety for an ancient human took a lot of effort. The resource constraints of their world, too, make any endeavor an "act of logistics", akin to the phrase "act of God".
I believed what they said. There was no need to lie to the primitive. And they had created perfect people in appearance but with empty souls, since each person was obsolete once a "better" batch was made. But obsolescence along with genetic engineering like ordering from a menu meant you could tailor diseases to kill specific populations, specific generations – or just all the babies. Mostly it was to hurt, since killing one side risked a disease that would mutate and come back to you.
I saw the toll every day. Maybe this project, where I was, was the dumping ground for workers not fit for general society. They had created germs with the intent to maim those beautiful bodies, to wear down each side psychologically and physically. Modern humans in this time had ancestors who looked like supermodels and gymnasts. The latest germ warfare left healed up rips across the skin, horrifically demoralizing to people disdainful of my natural, modest imperfections. But I was obsolete beyond compare, so there was no comparison.
The current generation was pragmatic by necessity. They were even glad that the latest definition of “better” for the next generation was real this time. The latest definition of “better” was not just engineering each batch to greater extremes because you “had” to do something better for the children, because a world without faith in even human nature had only bare-bones Nietzschean view of more descendants and fewer competitors and more extreme enforced evolution. The latest batch would carry genes for disease resistance from the blood samples I carried. But they wouldn’t use my DNA; I was a throw-back to all the wrong ways.
I’d saved the future from Marcus' primitive exuberance. And now I wished he’d spread his DNA into that ancient human gene pool. The survivors of our era and its wars were the genetically engineered descendants of type A personalities that one might say were like me. Little curiosity, no compassion, little vision except tighter parameters of perfect … uber-perfectionists. And I’m merely human. I realize those mistakes, but I cannot change them. I had my chance, and there will not be another.
Maybe more compassionate ancestors would have led to less violent descendants. If I could step back in time, I wish I could let Marcus do what he was doing, that I'd lived and let live. My punishment is to live a long life in solitude with an emotion no one here understands – regret. No one here understands abstract, historical words like that anymore.
And with time travel proven too dangerous, there will never be another step back in time except in my nightmares.