“All purchases are nonrefundable,” John recited as he processed the timeshadow application. “If you wish to proceed, sign your name on the pad.” The young man, Quentin according to his application, did so. “Follow me.”
John led Quentin down the hallway to Prep Room 5. Quentin was 19; John had been just a little younger when he timeshadowed for the first and only time.
Motioning Quentin to sit in one of the two dozen chairs, he said, “We’ll watch a short video that explains the process followed by a short safety presentation. And yes, you are required by law to watch them.” John pressed a few buttons on the podium at the side of the room. The lights dimmed and the video began.
He sat in the back and waited patiently. He had memorized the videos years ago. They’d been updated a few times, but he could still recite the words effortlessly. He had been a shadow tech for nearly fifteen years. The title had sounded cool straight out of high school. In truth it was like calling the kids who manned rollercoasters over summer breaks Thrillmasters.
Usually, he ran orientations for at least a half dozen at a time, but he was filling in for Ethan tonight. Third shift was usually dead, especially between two and four.
The lights rose. John returned to the front. “Any questions?”
“I heard that someone died while shadowing last week.”
“He died of causes unrelated to shadowing. Heart attack, actually. I saw the pictures. His girth was rather unfortunate.”
“Did he know he was going to die? Did he see it? I heard he was a regular.”
“I don’t know.” John smiled thinly. “But if you’re trying to figure out whether I’m a free will or predestination guy, let’s just say I’m both.”
Quentin jumped to his feet. “Guess I’ll find out for myself. Let’s do this.”
After a few more corridors, they entered Shadow Bay 27. The cocoon was sleek and white, a vast improvement over the ugly coffins John had first helped insert clients into. He opened the hatch, Quentin settled into the foam cushioning, and John checked the diagnostic readout. “You’ve paid for five minutes, three years from today, is that correct?”
“Yep. That’s it.”
John punched a few more buttons. It was mindless work; the computer did everything. It just needed a human to hit Accept a half-dozen times. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”
“Not yet,” Quentin joked.
“When I shut the door, your consciousness will be transported to the date selected. We are not allowed to draw you back until the totality of your purchased time has elapsed, except in the case of an emergency. As the video explained, events in the time you are shadowing cannot affect you physically, so stay calm. Are you ready to proceed?”
“Beam me up, Captain!”
John shut the hatch and sat at the room’s control panel. For a longer shadow, he would have returned to the main control room.
Five minutes was probably all Quentin could afford. An half hour was an extravagance, or a shadow two decades in the future. What Quentin hoped to see, John did not know. People came for all kinds of reasons. But John could guess. When he’d shadowed at that age, questions had surrounded him. Which college should he choose? What major? Would he and Kristin still be together? Shadowing let you see your future world. People almost always came to alleviate anxiety, to find direction, to escape the present for a hopefully brighter future.
It was not always brighter. That is what gave timeshadowing its deep appeal. No one had proved, yet, whether seeing your future changed it, made it happen, or simply showed it. In the beginning, lots of people had shadowed hoping to get rich by betting on some sporting event. Some had. But how many people taking the same opportunity did it take to change the odds? Studies were inconclusive, and each person had his own belief. Some swore that everything happened exactly as they had seen; others, that their abhorrence to what they had seen had allowed them to change it.
The ambiguity didn’t bother John. What he had seen in his five minutes was that he would still be working at TimeHop four years out of high school. Here he was, fifteen years after, when everyone else had gone on to bigger and better things. But he understood now why he was here. Had the shadow shown him that? Or had he used the shadow to discover a new future that looked the same as the old? He didn’t know. Honestly, he didn’t think it mattered.
At five minutes, John opened the hatch. Cold air drifted out and Quentin’s open eyes refocused. His face was white. John had seen that expression before. He helped Quentin out. Quentin remained quiet.
“If you’re willing, we’d like you to fill out a comment card. Your email will allow us to follow up with you for research purposes, if you choose. Returning a comment card will get you ten percent off at the gift shop.”
Quentin nodded distractedly. John, having said all required of him, said softly, “Was it dark?”
Quentin jerked. “Yes.”
“It happens sometimes.”
“Does it mean—I read that—”
“Yes.” John reached into his pocket, retrieved a card, and handed it to Quentin. “This isn’t associated with TimeHop, but if you want to talk, please come.”
Quentin took the card.
“Please,” John said. “There’s something more solid than what people find here, something more certain than the future.”
Quentin studied the card and nodded. “I’ll…think about it. Which way out?”
John led him to the gift shop exit, praying that Quentin would come to service Sunday morning as so many others had.
This story was written in response to a prompt from Nathan Marchand. The prompt was simply, “Write something with time travel.” As usual I decided to do something a bit different with the request.