David Eskobar came to wishing he had a blanket. It was freezing cold in this field; he mentally kicked himself for not bringing a jacket, or gloves, or sturdier shoes. He glanced up from where he was lying in the grass, saw several distinct landmarks. Oh, it’s Washington, he thought, I always heard how cold Washington was in the winter, but I had never felt it before. Probably lucky it’s not —
Wait, what am I doing in Washington? Last thing I remember, I was—
And then David realized the world around him was in black-and-white, and the crackling of snow beneath his hands as he rose up sounded far away, like it was happening underwater. This wasn’t real.
“It’s very real, David,” a voice said from in front of him. “Just strange.”
David looked around and examined his surroundings. He saw a tall, elderly man walking across a large, Greek Revival-era patio. The White House, he realized. Another man was hiding, squatting around a corner, waiting for the old man to walk past. Holding two pistols.
Oh God, he’s going to—
“Shoot him, yes,” the voice in front of him said.
It was like David’s eyes were refocusing to see something that had been right in front of him, but that he didn’t want to look at. Suddenly David saw what was there; a man, tall, wrapped in a long, dark blue cloak, facing away from him. Facing towards the scene unfolding in front of them.
The old man kept walking forward, oblivious. He passed the corner where the man sat, hiding.
“Twenty, ten, even five years ago,” the voice in front of David said, “he never would have been so stupid as to walk unaccompanied, not paying attention to his surroundings. He just left a funeral, you see. His mind is dwelling on thoughts of death. Thinking about his wife, dead five years now; and his brother, murdered before his eyes when he was a child; and the many men he has killed himself.”
The man behind the corner emerged, screamed incoherently, raised his pistol. Fired at point-blank range into the elderly man’s side. The man screamed as he fell, pivoted towards the gunman, who raised his other pistol and fired into the man’s chest.
“He has been shot so many times, risked his life so many times. But this is the last. He dies now.”
David watched as the gunman fled the scene. “He’s going to get away with murder?”
“Oh, no,” the tall man said. “He is completely insane. He will begin raving about what he has done in a paint shop not far from this place, and will be arrested. A mob will lynch him before he can make it to jail after the trial. Nobody will mind. People will believe the old man was killed by a vast conspiracy led by the British. Largely for unrelated reasons, a war will break out, in the fitful way it did in this time period. There are more consequences; would you like to hear them?”
David was horrified by everything he was seeing. “Who is he? The dead man, I mean?”
“One of the leaders of your nation-state, Andrew Jackson. I am told he is somewhat important in your history.”
I don’t really remember much about him, David thought, but isn't he on the twenty-dollar bill? “I think so, but I don’t recall very well. What happened to my stutter?”
“Your ideal mind is in this place, rather than the flawed one of your more permanent existence. I know Jackon’s importance. So many branching paths lead from this moment. Some lead to aristocratic dominion, some lead to civil war, some lead to mediocrity, some lead to greatness. One of them leads to a utopian world government that ends disease and death and takes mankind to the stars. One of them leads to a catastrophic plague wiping out the human race. But none of them truly end, not ever. Time marches on, as one of your philosophers put it. Lawrence, as I recall. So much variety with assassinations. I think it is why I interfere in so many of them.”
“Who are you?” David asked.
“You know of me,” the being said, and turned to face him.
David understood many things better in that moment. He understood why men went mad after seeing what he was seeing now. He understood why the only detail they remembered were the eyes. “You’re…you’re the man in the sundial. 961-1, we call you.”
“I am aware of what you call me,” the entity said. "The name is not less wrong than any of the others. I think of myself as the Intruder." David noticed his lips weren’t moving. Then he noticed the man had no lips, or eyes. Then no head. For a brief moment, he saw that the entity both had and didn't have a face. David had to stop looking.
“My appearance is confusing to you. It is what it needs to be at the moment. Beings such as yourself perceive from me what I wish them to perceive. For example, perhaps I look like this.” His face, clothing, body, all transformed. The entity then looked…completely human. And was dressed in the same style of clothing the other two men he saw had been. Nineteenth-century menswear.
David saw the figure shimmer, flicker out of existence for a moment, then returned. He reverted to his previous form. “See? They thought I was one of them,” the entity said.
David was confused, then turned around, hearing voices behind him. The scene was very different; the shooter was being held down by several men accompanying Jackson. But Jackson was still dead. Others were attending to his wounds, but David knew they would fail.
“I appeared at the funeral he was leaving,” the figure said. “I convinced several men to go with Jackson, fearing for his safety. They did so. I altered time, changed the past. A dramatic act. You see the difference?”
David didn’t. He was still dead, with whatever implications that held for…everything. The nation, the world, he thought. The Foundation, maybe; who knows what that kind of change—
“Your Foundation organization always exists, if I can help it,” the entity said. “Or something similar to it. I have changed many things, in many times and places, but there is…a need for people like you and your group. Forces and beings that desperately need to be suppressed.”
David’s mind was reeling. So much was happening back in the real world, and he was here, watching a deranged time-traveling demigod justify himself. He had to get back.
“Not a demigod, David,” the creature said. “Many things, but not godlike. Just…trapped. I have an obligation to undo certain…errors I have made. And this is where you come in. Whether you like it or not, you are a part of those mistakes now, and it is part of your future to help correct them.”
David was stunned. All fear forgotten, he said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I began doing this out of…pity, of sorts. I found myself in possession of certain abilities, felt I had an obligation to…help. I wanted to help people. I did.
“One of my first actions, I tried to tweak a military contest, one from long ago. I was…I was so sure I understood enough, that I could avoid the pitfalls. I was sure I could make this world a better place if I could divert all of the energy that this species spends on warfare, channel it into more creative tasks. Centuries, millennia of constant fighting and killing and dying. So I changed the outcome of a battle and waited to see how things unfolded. I was so stupid.
“Everything is permanent, you understand. Even I cannot undo an edit once it is made. You can change things back, but there is always a place, somewhere, where everything remains. The world I made when I changed that battle is still there. And now it is breaking through into your world. Others, as well. Their technology is powerful, but incompletely controlled.
“I can edit certain aspects of this world, but I cannot leave it. I cannot even know with certainty what will happen if others leave, or if the errors can be rectified. But there are certain guesses I can make, certain extrapolations of what that world looks like, of what can be done to protect this timeline. Of what has to be done to protect us all.”
David stood there and listened while the being in front of him spoke. He detailed a lengthy plan, maybe an impossible plan. A plan that would involve dozens, hundreds of factors going together perfectly. Even before the completely unknowable part of what would happen on the other side. David asked questions; the entity answered them, in such a way as to persuade him that the plan was feasible. There were holes, of course, but the entity promised to help as far as it could.
The being flickered in and out several times. “I have made certain…arrangements that will make the task you must perform easier. Make sure the person I have specified is at the designated location at that particular time. Make sure her instructions are clear. You will remember this conversation very acutely when you awaken in the containment area; your actions are responsible for her actions, and the damage that could ensue if she fails is incalculable. Do you have any final questions?”
“Two,” David replied. “Why do you care so much about our welfare? If you’re outside of the timeline, or however you exist, why are you so concerned with what happens?”
The entity paused, stood silently. “I can accept that humans are inevitably bound to destroy themselves,” the entity finally said. “What I cannot accept is the idea of myself as the one who destroyed this species. Others can ignore the rapid decline of cultures, nations, civilizations, knowing they are powerless to do anything about it. I do not have that privilege. As poor a choice as I may be for this task, I am the one who has it regardless. I cannot stop.”
David had no choice but to accept this answer. He had a second question. “Why do I feel it getting warmer?” he asked.
“More humid, actually,” the entity said. “I have had a change of heart. Look.”
David turned and looked at the spectacle behind him, only to see it had reset to the beginning. The elderly man walking across the portico, talking to his friends, his cane tapping against the stone. The madman with two pistols, lying in wait. The man walks past the corner. The assassin raises the pistol in his right hand.
Click. The first gun misfires. He raises the second pistol, aims directly for the heart, prepares to make history—
Jackson’s friends had to restrain both men; the assassin, who was trying to flee, and the president, who was trying to beat the man to death with his cane.
“They will recall how unseasonably humid it was,” the entity said. “The model of pistol he was using will be remembered as one with a high probability of mechanical failure in humid conditions. It will be noted that the statistical likelihood of bothguns failing remains remarkably low. It is a sloppy job.” The entity stood for a moment. “It will do.”
David was no longer even surprised by this. He turned back to the entity. “How do I get back?”
“Quickly,” the entity said, and David disappeared from the White House lawn. The Intruder stood and watched the scene for a moment, and disappeared as well.