Kent considered the little man for a long time. "Exactly what do you mean?"
The man hopped back into the chair on the other side of Kent's spacious desk and smiled, "Exactly what I said, my rich friend. I'll allow you to make one change, at any point or period in history, that you like."
Kent would have thrown most men out his house, but this Rostain was different than most. It was even a valid to question his status as human. In fact, Rostain himself made no bones about the fact that he didn't consider himself human. Kent had known him for years, and for years he'd always come through no matter how bizarre the offer.
This man had not only made Kent rich, but had stocked his home with some of the most rare of antiques, all authentic and all in pristine condition. Thanks in no small part to this mysterious man, he lived in a palatial estate, owned more cars than a man could hope to drive, more horses than he could ride and had more women than he could handle.
The man, it could be said, had abilities.
Kent leaned back in his chair a bit, considering. "Why me? Why would you allow me to do something like that?"
Rostain grinned wide and sat cross-legged in the chair. "You're a good chap, my boy. Don't think that I didn't think of others, though. But you've tended to be the most fun for me over the years. After all, it's my last hurrah."
Kent's eyebrows raised at that. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, that for all things there is an end. I must return to where I came from soon, and this will be my last chance to travel in your history. I've made little changes here and there, but I thought that a human might have a different take on what to change."
Kent didn't know that he could raise his eyebrows further, but he found the ability somehow. "You've been altering out history? How?"
The little man swept his hand across the immensely valuable antique collection on the far wall. "Whenever I took one of those items for you, I changed history. Perhaps in only a tiny way, but there is no way for you to tell for sure. Suffice it to say that the changes have been relatively minor and typically local. But not that it matters. You wouldn't remember either way."
That put a damper on Kent's thoughts. "Wait, if I allow you to change history, then I might cease to exist, or I may never have met you. Wouldn't that create a paradox?"
"Oh, pish posh!" scoffed Rostain. "You humans and your silly theories on the immutability of time. Trust me, nothing that I do will cause the universe to fold up or spin in circles. You won't suddenly start moving backward through time until you get younger and younger and return to the womb, and you won't simply vanish. I have really a great deal of control over my abilities, and a firm grasp on what I can do."
He tapped his hand on his leather bound chair a moment. "So, I can have you change history, but I could still know the difference?"
"Sure. I can make sure that there is a minimum of disruption in your own timeline. It may take a bit of doing, depending, but I can do that."
"But the rest of the world wouldn't know?"
"As far as the rest of the world would know, the sun will come up tomorrow and all will be as it always was. What was, of course, might be very different." Rostain leaned back again and smiled, "So do you want to do something or shall I take my leave of you?"
Kent held up a hand, "No no! I think that I want to do this. Can I have a few minutes to think about just what, though?"
Rostain stood up and waddled over to the wet bar. "No problem. I'll just help myself to some Scotch if you don't mind. We don't have anything like it where I'm from."
Kent nodded enthusiastically and then turned his attention to the art collection. He had art from every conceivable culture on that wall, from all continents. He even had pieces from societies that history had never recorded. What should he decide on, though? He glanced at Rostain again. "How big a change are we talking?"
He shrugged as he poured the drink down his throat. "Anything that you can say in a single sentence."
"Huh? I don't understand."
"You could tell me to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy, stop World War II or preserve the Roman Empire for a thousand more years. All of those can be requested in a single, straight forward sentence that pertains to one historical period."
Kent frowned. "That makes no sense. I mean, the assassination of JFK took moment on a single day. Preserving the Roman Empire for a thousand years is totally different!"
Rostain rolled his eyes as he poured himself another drink. "Let's not get into this, shall we? Given your limited understanding of my abilities, much less temporal mechanics, it would take far longer to explain that you have left on this world."
Kent sighed and started looking over the artifacts again. What should he do? Anything of significance could have, would have, massive implications for humanity. He fingered a chess piece. Should he stop a war? Which one?
World War II was obvious, but wasn't it World War I that led to it? How about the American Civil War? Few conflicts were as bloody, but too much good came of it. Perhaps farther back in history. He ran over all of mans atrocities in his head. From the massacres just these past few years in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to the execution of Socrates, there was evil through mans history. Then he came to a tentative decision.
There was something fundamentally wrong with humanity.
Every society, no matter how well intentioned, had managed to commit atrocities of some sort. Some were more heinous that others, but he couldn't stop them all.
Or could he?
An idea was forming in his mind, something that he wasn't sure about. He wasn't even sure if Rostain would be able to do it. But it might be worth the try.
After all, if man coming from the primates didn't work, then what about some other species? He asked the little man about it.
Rostain smiled and shrugged while he downed another drink. It was amazing that the man never seemed drunk. "Child's play, really my friend. All you need to is choose where man came from, and it will be done."
Kent sat back down and began to seriously think. Did he want to do something so drastic? It would mean a fundamental alteration of the human shape, but one that would have always been. Could he take the responsibility for something like that?
Looking at mans history, could he not?
But, what would make a good replacement for the human race? After a moments thought he discounted most predators. He had to assume that it was some predacious tendency in his ancient ancestors that caused man to follow the wrong path. What else could explain it?
What did that leave? Something small and harmless like a chipmunk or raccoon? No, not likely. He wasn't sure how much man would change, and Rostain refused to allow himself to be pinned down to a description no matter how hard Kent asked. He didn't want to take the risk of creating a society built up of people only two feet tall or shorter. I was just too hard to imagine.
Something larger then. Something basically a herbivore or perhaps somewhat omnivorous. Something that was capable of being gentle. There was a lot to choose from that fit that build.
Then a smile slowly spread across his face. If he had a lot to choose from, why not choose based on ascetics? He stood and looked out his window at the pasture outside and somehow knew that he had been headed in this direction all along. There was no question about it.
He looked at Rostain. "I think I know what I want to do. I want you to change the start of mans evolutionary path from the primate to the equine."
The little man slid off the bar stool he had been sitting on and grinned from ear to ear. "I love a challenge. This should be fun. You should notice the changes in a moment."
No sooner had the man vanished than did the room change.
Kent blink a couple of times. He was sure the room had changed, but in what way? The colors seemed the same, the books, the art...
The art! One of his prize possessions was a painting by Van Gogh. A painting that, according to Rostain, only he and the great artist had ever seen completed. It was a relatively simple work, a portrait. One that he had studied for years. He knew the woman's smile, the glint in her eye that was so mesmerizing.
The glint was still there, but now the eye was larger and darker. The head longer, the nostrils more pronounced. The face, once a shade of slightly pink white, was now covered in a fine coating of black and white hair, a lock from her mane draped attractively over her left eye, as a lock of the human subjects had. Kent slowly looked down at his own arms and discovered the same stripes covered his own features. Shaking slightly, he moved into the bathroom and looked at his reflection. He saw a humanoid zebra looking back at him.
"Happy, my friend?" came the high voice from behind him.
He turned to see the little man, still looking like he did a few moments ago. "Rostain! How did you do this?"
The man rolled his eyes. "We've been through this, my friend. It would take too much time to explain. But suffice it to say that it took a few hundred millennia to get these beasts hands. I didn't think that you wanted to be on all fours."
Kent snorted once in laughter. "Thanks. I guess you could have screwed us all over with that one."
"I wasn't here to destroy. I like this place. It's just to bad that I probably won't be able to return later. But I still have a little time. You don't mind if I have another drink?" Without giving Kent a chance to say a word, he vanished into the study.
Kent looked at his hands a little while. They still looked human enough, if they were different. The palms seemed tougher, and the nails were more white than pink. But after flexing them a couple times, he realized they were just as dexterous as his old primate hands. He swished his tail a bit in amazement.
Then a smile spread across his face. He raced back into his study and pulled an encyclopedia off the shelf. He wanted to see how history was different. He sat down in his chair (noting that he had slipped his tail through the slot with a practiced motion) and started reading. His jaw slowly started to hang open. Then he started flipping through the volume in shock. He slammed it shut and grabbed another. Then another, then another. They were all the same!
Not entirely, of course. All of the pictures were of equines. They were all variations on this bipedal zebra form that he wore, but they were all the same people. The famous and the infamous. Kennedy and Nixon still debated. Hitler still tried to take over the world. The French still had a bloody revolution. Jerusalem was sacked. The Roman Empire rose and fell.
This world had all the same problems as his old one. Even racial differences based on the color of the hair on someone's hide! He threw the last encyclopedia to the desk and looked at Rostain. "It's all the same! Nothing is different!"
The man looked up from his drink amused. "Have you checked a mirror lately?"
Kent snorted in anger, "You know what I mean! This was supposed to change the world!"
Rostain looked at him seriously a moment. "You wanted to change the world, but you wanted to see the effects. Despite my boastings to the contrary, that's a tall order. I couldn't totally let history be altered, because then your line would have died out, or never even been started. Do you know why I chose the zebra rather than, say, a North American equine?"
Realization dawned. "Man started in Africa..."
"In the same general area that zebra developed. That geography was important. Oh, there are some minor differences, but most are academic at this point. It took some fancy footwork here and there to make a quadrupedial ground dweller follow the same path as a bipedal tree dweller, but I think that I've done a fine job of it."
Kent felt frantic now. This wasn't working out as he wanted. He didn't want to change the world like this! He wanted to do something more significant! "Go back and let it develop on it's own! I don't care about myself!"
The little man laughed. "That's what I love about you humans. You're consistent. Short sighted and so focused on the trees that you never see the forest. You people have been an endless source of amusement. But, I'm afraid that I couldn't change this now even if I wanted to. Besides, you people certainly smell better now, and that's an improvement."
Kent started to protest, but the man held up a hand. "I'm sorry Kent, but I've got to take my leave of your world now. I doubt that I'll be able, but if I'm ever in your dimension again, I'll be sure to pay you a visit. I always loved pony rides." And the little man simply vanished in a small flash of light.
Kent simply stared open mouthed at the half empty bottle of Scotch on the bar until the sun fell below the horizon, and the room was plunged into darkness.