Mr. Butterfly

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Space bends in on itself, the air itself twisting into a spiral.

Or at least, that’s what it looks like. It’s actually time that’s bending. When it finishes, everything is the same, except a man is standing there who hadn’t been there before. He wears a fine suit. It’s a few years out of style, but it fits him well, and he’s not overly conscious of such things. Nobody should be here to see him anyway.

He studies the hallway, ensuring he is where he needs to be. The hallway leads to the auditorium for the state senate of Main, but he’s here for the hallway.

It isn’t, as places go, a terribly important one. Sure, it leads somewhere important (although only nominally so, when it came down to it). But a specific metal tube isn’t important either, even if a bullet’s firing through it.

This hallway is the barrel of his gun, and – he scans the room for a moment – this vase is his bullet.

He nudges it, half an inch to the edge of the table.

‘Time travel sounds impressive,’ he thinks to himself, ‘but most people don’t realize that big events are composed entirely of little events. Big events are heavy, and hard to change directly, but little events…’ His teacher had compared changing the past to knocking a bolder down a mountain. The boulder was too heavy to simply push, but if you went higher up the mountain, a small pebble thrown in the right place could start an avalanche that would easily dislodge the larger stone.

As a member of the Chrono Corps, it’s his job to throw the pebble so the avalanche knocks down the boulder, but touches nothing else. Some people preferr to cast the stone, then run around resetting all the little, unwanted changes, but Paul always thought that was much too much work. If you studied the situation long enough, you would find one variable that would change what you wanted, only that. His devotion to this principle earned him the nickname “Mr. Butterfly.”

He is preparing to leave, when he begins to taste electricity in the air. Turning, he sees a ball of lightning explode into a blinding light. It clears, revealing two women. They, too, wear clothing a few years out of style, except their clothing has not actually been in style yet.

The older of the women – who was, like him, in her late thirties – meets his eyes, and the two exchange an almost apologetic look. Running into alternate travelers was an eventuality, but it is invariably awkward when it happens, rather akin to running into a co-worker while you’re both shopping for… personal items.

“Paul,” she says, nodding her head politely. She was one of the few people to use his real name.

“Laura,” he says, with equal respect.

The younger woman stares for a second, then pulls out a gun that crackles with blue electricity.

“This is the Time Police. Under provision two-point-three of the paradox laws, you are under arrest for illegal time jumping!”

“Stop that,” the other woman snaps. She rolls her eyes and turns to Paul. “Forgive her, she’s new.” Technically, he is in violation of the Time Police’s laws, just as they are in violation of Chrono Corps regulations. Both groups have an unofficial policy to not bother with enforcing these on the other, as when both members of an altercation are attempting to arrest the other, on at least hypothetically legitimate grounds, it gets confusing for all involved.

(The Continuum Patrol, however, would have been less lenient on these grounds. Its agents would have insisted on trying to arrest every time traveler they would have run into. This is why the Chrono Corps and the Time Police would have teamed up (again, unofficially) to ensure that the Continuum Patrol never actually existed.)

“Hold on,” Mr. Butterfly says, “is that Pauline Evander?”

The younger woman begins to look uncomfortable. “Have we met?”

He laughs. “She must be new, if she’s asking questions like that. We have met in my personal timeline, yes. We haven’t in yours, but odds are we you will meet me for the first time, from my perspective at some point. We might have diverged from that possibility, but probably not.”

“There’s also the fact that you’re him,” Laura smirks, “just from my timeline.” She turns to him. “She gets better, then?”

Mr. Butterfly shrugs. “You know I’m not allowed to tell you that. I can tell you that I was completely hopeless on my first trip, too.”

Pauline looks back and forth between the two. “How can he be me? We’re not even the same gender.”

“Yes, yes,” Laura says, getting a little annoyed. “You’re not technically the same person. Genetically, you’re 93% identical. Your parents did not differentiate notably on gender, and your upbringing is just under the standard deviation. That’s close enough for the Time Police to classify you as alternate persona. Class time’s over.”

She turns back to Mr. Butterfly. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me who knocks over the vase?”

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. What’s your shift?”

She shakes her head. “Sorry, this is too sensitive.”

“Then you’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Um,” Pauline says, “can’t we just move it back, so whatever he’s planning won’t happen?”

“Race condition, kid. We try not to directly undo another time traveler’s shift. It just means he’ll have to try to shift it again, and we’ll have to come back and undo it again. It gets messy, and who manages to get the last shift in is pretty much luck. We stick with the plan, and hope that our timeline has re-aligned itself more recently than his.”

“And if it hasn’t?”

“Odds are about fifty-fifty that our changes aren’t exclusive, and we both walk away with a victory,” Mr. Butterfly says with a smile. “If they are exclusive, and my timeline is more recent, then your shift is probably already been included in my shift.”

Pauline frowns, mulling that over. “Then how do we know what to do?” she asks Laura.

“I told you. We stick with the plan. Always assume you’re timeline has the best alignment. You’re just asking for trouble trying to adjust for shifts that you may or may not have already experienced.”

She studies the vase for a minute, before snapping her fingers. “The intern. He’s going to spill it on himself. He’ll take too long trying to clean it up in the bathroom, and be late for his appointment.” Her eyes flicked back and forth, following an imaginary graph. “He’ll try to run the yellow light, but he won’t make it…”

“And the building burns down,” Mr. Butterfly says with a sigh, jumping to the end of the chain. It’s a pretty obvious one, really, once you figured out that the intern had a dentist appointment on Tuesday.

An awkward silence fills the hallway.

“Do you mind?” Laura asks after a moment.

“Right, right,” Mr. Buttefly says, flushing slightly. It’s bad form to sit around and watch another time traveler at work. Besides, they can always wait him out. His sideburns aren’t long enough for him to stay in this time period as long as they can.

A little fiddling with his phone, and time curves in around him again.


Prompt: Competing Time Travellers

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A scene occurred to me this morning, where on a man’s wedding day, two future-hims came back with conflicting advice on whether he should go through with the wedding or not. I though that would be great for a prompt, but I don’t let myself tailor a prompt for a scene that’s already in my head. The prompt has to come first.

So the prompt is competing time travellers, and I’ll come up with a different scene to write.

Good luck and good writing!