The Black Butterfly is the first short story in my new weekly short story series. I am so excited to share it with you! Have a read and let me know what you think.
As it travelled upward, the glossy dark wall of the elevator reflected Taiwo’s image back at her like a black mirror. Across the centre, the start-up’s name and motto were emblazoned in gold typography:
Time Travel Today
Taiwo felt a flutter in her stomach; she took a deep breath in an attempt to dissipate it. Despite a childhood filled with sci-fi books and an academic career in theoretical physics, she had never truly expected to ever encounter a real-life time machine. In her experience, time travel was the stuff of university libraries, academic conferences as well as TV shows and movie productions of varying quality. In truth, even as she made her way through this top-secret building in the heart of London, she was still a little sceptical. Perhaps this was all some elaborate ruse. She looked over at her host standing beside her. Swati was certainly the real deal. A child prodigy who had attended Oxford to study Physics in her teens. Then, seven years ago, Swati had seemingly disappeared, she completely dropped off the academic landscape.
“I’m guessing you’re as sceptical as I was the first time I walked into this building,” said Swati.
“Perhaps a little less,” said Taiwo. “I mean, you’ve been working on this for seven years, and the research papers Erin sent over were very compelling. If they had been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it would be ground-breaking. But the secrecy doesn’t permit that, so I’m here to see for myself.”
“Well, time travel is really more of a show-not-tell, affair,” said Swati. “But it’s not an exaggeration to say that what you see today will change your life.”
The elevator doors opened, and the two women walked out into a huge air-hangar-like room with a large chrome cube at the centre. The cube looked to be about twenty feet long, wide, and deep.
“So, this is what a time machine looks like,” Taiwo remarked.
“Is it what you expected?” asked Swati.
“I don’t know,” Taiwo said, walking up to the cube. “I guess I was expecting it to be round, because of the name. But Halo refers to the circulating unidirectional beam of light, right?”
“Exactly. We call the machine itself the Cube.”
Taiwo walked up close to the Cube. “Can I touch it?”
“Of course. Feel free to examine it closely.”
Taiwo passed her hand across the surface of the cube. It felt smooth and cool like stone. The sides of the structure were reflective, like huge mirrors, but periodically the reflections of the surroundings blurred and the surface began to glow. She knew that the smoothness hid incredible advances in nanotechnology, that every inch of the object contained tiny lasers capable of producing pulsing light of such intensity that they could produce a time-bending gravitational field. Taiwo thought back to the email she had received three weeks prior. A paragraph of compliments of her work in general relativity and quantum physics had been followed by a claim that she had initially dismissed outright. A tech start-up claiming to have built a series of technologies capable of generating a wormhole and transmitting objects through it. She did not believe it at first, but after an intense brunch conversation with the start-up’s founder, Erin Mobolade, and four incredible research papers, she was very near convinced.
Having circled the machine, she returned to Swati’s side. She laughed lightly.
“If Rita Imole-Summers hadn’t won the election last night, I think I’d be even more eager to get in this thing.”
“It’s certainly one way to leave your troubles behind,” Swati said with a smile. “Especially as far back as we’re going.”
“I read the Jurassic Period,” Taiwo recalled. “Why are we going back so far?”
“We’re being careful to avoid human populations for the time being,” Swati explained. “And for some reason we have extremely high accuracy jumping to that period.”
“Interesting. Do you have any indicators why that is?”
“No, do you have thoughts?”
“Well, there is the school of thought, sometimes called the bus stop theory, that wormholes are finite and specific; thus, time travel is possible but only to specific points. Then there’s the theory of temporal scarification,” said Taiwo. “It holds that frequent time travel to a time period would lead to degradation of wormholes or regions of space-time, resulting in a temporal scar that would prevent further travel in and out of that region.”
Swati stared at Taiwo and smiled. “That’s exactly why we want you on the team. We now have the opportunity to explore these theories. Let’s get you kitted out.”
Swati turned and Taiwo followed her to a set of tables on the opposite side of the room where what looked like jumpsuits and other strange-looking equipment were laid out. Each set of equipment had a name card set before it.
Catching a strange glint in Taiwo’s eye, Swati stopped and turned to face her. “You’re not scared, are you?”
“Should I be?”
“Perhaps,” Swati said thoughtfully. “Perhaps we should all be.”
Swati turned to pick up her spacesuit and began to put it on and said, “We have state of the art equipment and we take extreme security measures, but nevertheless this remains a perilous scientific expedition. If you don’t feel safe, you can decide not to come.”
“I was an only child who read every sci-fi book in the local library. Now I am a single woman who has spent most of her life and all of her academic career thinking and writing about traversable wormholes and time travel. No husband, no kids, this field is my life. Even if you had only made the slightest progress with this technology, there’s no way that I would miss out.”
Taiwo grabbed the equipment next to the card with her name and started getting changed. She put on a jumpsuit, a pair of bulky boots, a pair of gloves and a helmet that looked like a fish-bowl. All of the items fixed together into an air-tight outfit. Breathable air was supplied via a tiny filtration unit on the back of the jumpsuit, beside which was housed an intercom that allowed the team to speak to each other via the suits. On the left arm of the suit was a small tablet. The five other members of the expedition team joined them at the table.
“That’s is Tom, expedition security lead, Olu, our pilot, Kofi our navigator, Nikẹ our biology lead and Bea our temporal cartography lead,” Swati said pointing out each member of the team. Before long, the seven of them were ready to go. They walked towards the Cube.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please prepare for our faster than light jump,” said Olu.
After a few minutes of checks, Olu said, “Standby to jump.”
“All systems online, preparing to jump in 3…, 2… 1.”
Taiwo braced herself, but no jolt came. Instead, after a few seconds, she heard, “Jump completed.”
There was no turbulence. No real perceptible movement. Like flicking a light switch. They had apparently switched from one position in spacetime to another.
“Physical and temporal destination achieved. Thank you for a successful jump team. Standby.”
Taiwo flicked the switch on her intercom to speak to the others.
“Was that it?” asked Taiwo.
A couple of the team laughed.
“Everyone asks that the first time,” said Swati. “Dr Emmett Brown and Dr Who have a lot to answer to for depicting time travel as a bumpy ride.”
“So why all the theatrics of strapping in?”
“Just in case.”
Waiting quietly while the pilots completed the landing checks, Taiwo experienced a heady mix of impatience and excitement. Her scientific brain was waiting to assess the evidence on the other side of the door. She understood the science. She had written more than half of the papers exploring how time travel could be made possible. She could even explain the lack of turbulence scientifically. What she couldn’t explain was the feeling in the pit of her stomach; it was a tightness, a clenching, as if she was adrift at sea, attempting to stay afloat.
“Landing checks completed. Prepare to exit the Cube.”
As the hatch came away from the side of the Cube, it was replaced by what looked like a door of light. Bright sunlight streamed into the Cube. It took a second for Taiwo’s eyes to adjust. She saw that they were on a slight hill in the midst of a rainforest.
“You haven’t been born yet, neither has your mother or your great-great-great-great-grandmother. Britain has not yet invaded half the world and British monarchs have not yet started squabbling and killing each other over thrones,” Swati said exuberantly.
“We are sixty million, two thousand and seventy-seven years before the day you stepped into the Halo office.”
Swati kicked Taiwo’s boots.
“These boots are part of our security protocols — they are hover boots to ensure your feet never touch the ground. Yours are on beginner mode. You just need to step as if you are walking up and down stairs to change your height; then once you have achieved your height, walk as you would on the ground. If you kick the back of your left boot with your right boot it will switch into the advanced mode; we call it glide mode. You basically skate on the air rather than stepping.”
“To stop us affecting vegetation and insects on the ground.”
“Exactly. We are just observers. As you know, there are many theories about the effects of a change in time, but we’re not looking to test any of those yet. Maybe not ever. But we do want to optimise our technology, improve our accuracy.”
“How exactly do you optimise?”
“Time travel is about precision. There are things in nature that help us to pinpoint moments which enable us to make accurate calculations. It’s all about the data. Everything, from the position of celestial bodies to DNA. We feed it into our computer models, and they perform the calculations that enable us to traverse the wormholes and arrive at the right time and place.”
Taiwo turned and looked around; the science was fascinating but the landscape was breath-taking. Luscious green trees surrounded them and blanketed the mountains in the distance. About 100 yards from them, a lake that glimmered like a pool of jewels reflecting the blue expanse and the glowing yellow orb in the sky. The whole scene seemed to sing. Insects chirped and buzzed in the blanket of green that surrounded them, while birds cawed from on high.
“This is incredible,” Taiwo said breathlessly. “Yet somehow terrifying at the same time.”
“Every major scientific breakthrough is a source of trepidation,” said Swati.
“No, it’s not about trepidation, it’s about danger. The danger to time and humanity and existence. The risks are huge.”
“We’ve been working on this for seven years. It took three years just to get the machine working. It was another four years before we started travelling. We are very cautious.”
“But what if something happens?”
“Look, we always do a pre-jump exploration. We send a scout to do reconnaissance. They stay in the machine, cloaked, observing for an hour, noting everything that happens to ensure this is an uneventful spot in time and space.”
“I can see that you’ve taken precautions, but it’s so hard to be sure that it’s enough. Our field is literally called theoretical physics, we’ve spent so much time theorising we’ve barely begun to consider the practical implications. I guess it makes sense to go back to a time when you can’t interact with humans, but still, humans could be affected by the most minute incursion.”
Taiwo continued, “Imagine this, we step on a burrow that is home to one of the ancestors of the rat that carried the bubonic plague.”
“We don’t step on anything out here,” said Swati. “That’s why we have the hover boots.”
“Accidents can always happen,” said Taiwo. “As I was saying: we kill an ancestor of the bubonic plague rats which causes the plague not to happen. As a result, the British Isles are overpopulated; intercontinental trade progresses much differently because the ships do not spread the plague at every port. And that’s a simple, linear example. We could do something that causes a change so obscure we’d never realise. If we somehow wiped out a microorganism, we could wipe out a key gut bacterium with unseen consequences for millennia.”
Swati sighed, “It’s like you said, accidents can happen, but all the precautions we take make them less likely.”
“So, what exactly will you all be doing?”
“Taking readings, mostly from trees and other plants. We also take DNA readings from any dead animals we find, and any debris like skin-cells, fur, scales and the like.”
“We’ve learnt to tell time according to the movement of the stars and planet, but looking at the evolution of the DNA of living organisms is more accurate,” explained Bea. “That’s how you can really tell when you are.”
“I guess accuracy is important, but even if you can actually jump to a certain point in time, how do you decide whether you should or not?”
Taiwo’s question resounded. She realised that the forest had gone silent, as if someone had commanded the creatures to cease making any sounds.
Suddenly, the jungle shook with a sound unlike anything Taiwo had ever heard before. It wasn’t a growl or a roar. It was a deep rumble, like an earthquake, but guttural. In the distance, she saw it: a Tyrannosaurus rex stood just over one hundred metres from where the group had landed. They stood still in awe. The creature stood tall, dominating the landscape. It opened its mouth revealing teeth that looked like a collection of diverse ivory swords. It walked with the confidence of a warrior, every limb ready to render destruction. Muscular thighs and arms were encased in large flat scales in various shades of deep purple. Time travel had restored muscles, blood vessels and skin to this creature that Taiwo had previously only seen as a skeleton suspended from the ceiling of a museum. It was alive, and she was alive in the same moment. She was sharing space with a living legend.
“It’s magnificent,” Taiwo whispered.
She was smiling. She wanted to sing. The sceptic in her had been holding on, even as they exited the Cube. It could have been an elaborate hoax, but now she was filled with joy. Her work had been right, and now here she was, a child of time, dancing in and out of time. The creature before her was proof; proof that she had not wasted her life. Proof that she had been right to trust in science.
“Why is it so close?” asked Kofi.
“Yes, Tom, didn’t you pick this up in the recce jump?” asked Swati
“Yes, but I thought it would be nice for everyone to see. Leaves are boring.”
“Leaves are safe. Leaves can’t kill you,” Swati said with annoyance.
The dinosaur turned towards them slightly, sensing something in their direction.
“It’s getting closer,” Kofi said with a tremble in his voice.
“If you keep quiet, everything will be fine. It’s going to walk into the path of that tree there. The tree is old and rotting; it will fall and kill the dinosaur in a minute. I tracked and timed it earlier,” explained Tom.
“This is crazy. We have protocols for a reason,” said Kofi. “We need to go back to the Cube now.”
The other members of the group were barely paying attention to Kofi. They were mesmerised by the dinosaur.
Kofi looked at his colleagues dumbfounded. “I’m out of here,” he shrieked.
At that moment, the dinosaur looked straight at them. The eyes locked on; its nose and ears honed in on the strange objects in its landscape. It began to proceed towards them.
The blood drained from Tom’s face.
“Shit,” he said. “It’s moving away from the tree.”
A paralysing panic fell over the group.
“Should we get back to the Cube and jump home?” asked Olu.
“If it doesn’t die, we change time, we might not have a home to go to,” said Tom.
The dinosaur was closing in on them.
“Swati, how fast can these boots go?” asked Taiwo
“What?” Swati looked at her confused.
“The boots, top speed, please,” said Taiwo.
“20mph in basic mode. About 40mph in skate mode,” Swati told her. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
Taiwo turned to Tom. “Do you know the exact time the tree will fall?”
“From the mapping I did in the recce, it should be in about 30 seconds.”
“I need to know exactly.”
Tom looked at the screen on the arm of his suit, “33, 32, 31.”
“Keep counting down,” Taiwo said as she kicked her boots into skate mode.
Shakily she glided up until she was over 40 feet in the air.
“20, 19, 18,” continued Tom.
She skated at full pelt, gliding over the head of the dinosaur. Her blood was pounding in her ears, along with the sound of Tom’s countdown coming through the suit’s intercom. A combination of the fear and the speed blurred her vision. She stopped for a second and located the tree.
“9, 8, 7.”
She sped over and stood right in front of the tree. She could already hear it creaking. The dinosaur had her locked in its sight. It ran towards her.
“4, 3, 2.”
Taiwo glided up into the sky, and as the dinosaur looked up, stretching its arm to grab her, the tree fell pinning it to the ground. It couldn’t move. She could hear it gasping for breath. Soon the raspy sound was replaced by gurgling. It gazed up at her as she hung in the sky like an angel standing guard over its final moments, paying silent witness as it lost its life’s breath. After one last stuttering, gurgling breath, there was stillness. As Taiwo hung there in the air, she saw something rising from the ground, something dark and shadowy. As it got closer, she saw that it was a black butterfly, bigger than her two hands together. It continued to rise, coming right past her, then flying off in the opposite direction to the group. Taiwo glided back towards the group and the Cube.
Back in the Cube, Kofi took off his helmet and threw up in a bag; the rest of the group sat silently.
“Thank you Taiwo,” Tom said, breaking the silence.
“Yes, thank you,” said Swati.
“I hope it was enough,” Taiwo said. “The past could still have been changed; we have no idea what we might be jumping back to.”
Tom got up and walked over to his workstation. “There’s one way to tell. I’ll run a multi-sensor scan, same as I did in the recce jump, we can compare the scans to see if we spot anything.”
In the five minutes that it took for the scan to complete, the Cube began to smell slightly. A combination of Kofi’s sickbag and the stress sweat of the group battled against the sterilising mist periodically pumped out by the vents in the ceiling of the machine.
“Yikes! Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” said Tom as he looked at the results.
“What is it?” asked Taiwo as she and the others gathered around Tom’s station.
“The multi-sensor scan I take on recces isn’t really cut out for this sort of thing. It’s super noisy, and its aim is really to identify hidden dangers — creatures in the undergrowth, toxins in the air, that sort of thing.”
“Look here, we only have a 2D scan of the part of the dinosaur facing us,” explained Tom. “It more or less looks like it’s in the same position, but there’s no way to tell if the two falls were in exactly the same spot.”
“Well, we’re alive, aren’t we — none of us have disappeared, that’s a good sign, right?” asked Kofi.
Taiwo rubbed her temples. “Despite all of this, we can’t be sure. We know so little about the practical application of all this. For all we know, time could be able to resolve the paradox of us never being born without us knowing it.”
Swati took a deep breath. “Whatever the future holds, we need to head back.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, please prepare for our faster than light jump.”
“Standby to jump.”
“All systems online, preparing to jump in 3…, 2… 1.”
Taiwo braced herself again, just in case, but like the first time, it was smooth.
”Jump completed. Physical and temporal destination achieved. Thank you for a successful jump team. Standby.”
As Taiwo stepped out of the machine, her head began to ache.
“My head hurts,” said Swati.
“Me too,” said Taiwo. “Isn’t that normal?”
“I don’t remember having a headache after previous trips,” said Swati. “Maybe it was all of the commotion.”
Taiwo massaged her temples. She felt very odd. Her mind was whirling.
A man with a tablet walked up to them.
“There was an incident Denzel,” Swati said to him. “Code Orange.”
The man stopped in his tracks. He swiped something on his tablet and the bustle of the room hushed to silence.
“Head to the interview room,” said Denzel.
Denzel ushered the group into a room with several closed cubicles. Each cubicle was separated into two by a glass pane with a phone on each side. Taiwo entered her cubicle and picked up the phone on her side as Denzel picked up the phone in his.
“I am so sorry about this,” said Denzel. “I’m going to ask you a series of questions.”
“What is your name?”
“Where are we?”
“We are at the Halo offices in London, England.”
“What is today’s date?”
“Monday the fifth of June 2055.”
“Who is the prime minister.”
“Rita Imole-Summers. As of yesterday’s elections.”
Denzel stopped and looked at Taiwo in shock.
“What, what is it?” asked Taiwo.
Denzel hesitated, but then he said, “Taiwo, Peter Ogden won the election yesterday.”
Taiwo’s head pulsed. She massaged her temples.
“What happened out there?” asked Denzel.
“We encountered a dinosaur,” explained Taiwo. “It was supposed to die from a tree falling, but it noticed us. We managed to get it back on course, but it looks like we still changed things.”
“How did Tom miss this?” Denzel asked in exasperation. “Actually, don’t answer that, he’s being interviewed. I want you to tell me everything that you remember from the expedition.”
By the end of the interview, it was already dark outside. Taiwo leaned against a large glass window gazing out across the London skyline. It was different. There were buildings that she had never seen before.
“Taiwo, we can’t keep you here forever, but we can keep in touch,” said Denzel. “Erin has sent you an email. It has my number. If you notice anything else or need help just call me anytime, night or day.”
“I know it’s an understatement to say that this isn’t a good day, but by all accounts, you probably saved humanity as we know it,” Denzel said, mustering a smile. “Despite this mess, that’s a win for you.”
Taiwo remained silently gazing out of the window.
“We checked with the land registry. The address you stated is registered in your name. So we’ve arranged a car to take you home.”
As Taiwo closed her front door, she could hear music and movement coming from the kitchen. There was someone in her house. She felt around in the darkness and picked up a cricket bat. Engulfed in the darkness of the corridor, Taiwo crept quietly towards the kitchen. She could see that there was a man cooking, and singing quietly along with the radio. Her head began to pound. Her grip loosened on the bat and it fell against the wall.
“Tai, is that you?” the man called out. “I thought I heard the front door. Dinner will be ready in ten minutes. Your sister sent her apologies; she had to cover a late shift at the hospital.”
Taiwo regained her grip in the bat and walked slowly into the kitchen.
“What are you doing with my cricket bat?” the man asked as he tossed a pan of vegetables.
“Who are you?”
“Oh dear,” the man said, placing the pan down and switching off the hob. “You warned me something like this could happen.”
He walked towards her and slowly pushed the bat low. He looked directly into her eyes.
“Your name is Taiwo Ladipo. Today is Monday the fifth of June 2055 and I am your husband.”
The pounding in Taiwo’s head intensified, and everything went black.
Thank’s for reading! If you enjoyed that, here’s what you can do next:
- Read the next story in this series: Every Dog Has His Day
- Read the short story that inspired me: A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury
- Sign up for my newsletter to get the latest story every week: Esther’s Readers Newsletter
- Listen to the podcast episode which explores the time travel in this story: The Fiction & Fact of Time Travel