To James, there was this constant nagging feeling that something was left unaccomplished. That something in the past had been done wrong. Was the bitter taste regret? Regret seemed to be the right descriptor. He just couldn’t identify what it was that bothered him so much.
Turning back to his work desktop, he resumed working on the autopilot software for the soon-to-be-released facelifted Model S. His boss sent an impending request for him to operate a major tweak in lines 400 to 1,000, which was one of the numerous sections that enabled safer A.I. driving at intersections and red lights. And thus began his 14-hour daily shift of working from 7 in the morning until 9 p.m. It was his 2,579th day of regular 14 hours a day work at Tesla, and the health complications were starting to show themselves. Did he have enough of this nonsense? Probably yes. Wanting to take a break from the loop, he sent a mail to the project manager to request the wellness day that was only given once a year and take a day off. Let that project code itself, because James wasn’t approaching his work desk anytime soon.
Just to be sure that his work has been saved, he downloaded the still not entirely fixed lines of code into a compact USB stick from the computer and tucked it into his shirt pocket. "It's not like I'm going to have to use this half-baked thing of a project anytime soon," he reassured himself.
When he opened his front door, an old-school paper letter was waiting to be opened on the doorsill. As he picked it up, the first thing that stood out were the initials of his old best friend: AB, Albert Browning. The content was short but impactful:
Dear friend, I’ll be straightforward: I’ve landed myself in a pile of legal troubles because I’ve somehow been set up by my own defense attorney. To be exact, he purposefully used the wrong personal pronoun. Now a shady loan shark company wants me to disappear, my neck is on the line, and I know that I cannot avoid it. When you don’t see me around anymore, go to the hidden location with the coordinates I included in this letter, and make good use of the car that you find there. I apologize and thank you at the same time. I have faith in you.
Startled, James stood staring at the paper with enough intensity to burn a crisp hole through it. Maybe something was up, as he recently noticed that Browning’s Facebook account had not been online for much of the past month; a strange thing, considering how the green online indicator was always next to his best friend’s profile. With a frown, James decided maybe it was time to make a visit to his old friend.
Saturday at 6 a.m., he dressed up in his casual blue jeans and white button-down shirt, started the ignition, and pulled out of his driveway. Heading from San Francisco to Albert’s flat in Monterey, the journey took a little more than two hours on Central Fwy. Putting the car to park, James stepped out of his car and came across a large mahogany door. Ringing the doorbell, he waited for his friend’s voice to greet him—only to be met by empty silence. Unwilling to believe that he had wasted two hours to visit a friend who wouldn’t open up, he was even more surprised to be confronted by an angry voice from the intercom.
“Who you?” An unusually gruff voice that did not match that of Albert unpleasantly greeted him. Then again, it has been a decade.
“Do you, sir, by any chance, recognize the name, Albert Browning?”
“Nay, no idea what you’re talking about.”
James was unimpressed but also intrigued by the sudden, unexpected turn of events. As if a sudden light bulb had turned on inside his head, he remembered the coordinates in the letter and didn’t waste a single second to get behind the wheel again.
It was nightfall by the time he stood before a grand warehouse the size of a small factory. He didn’t know what to make of it; no windows were lit, and the area seemed rather too silent and dark for his liking. The good news, though, was that whoever last used this place forgot to lock it up.
Stepping inside, he came across a giant, complex machinery which spanned across much of the entire walls and ceilings in the form of thick, black wires and what appeared to be industrial power cabinets. Plenty of what can be only described as ‘insane things’ existed there: the ‘teleforce’ which could supposedly bring down a fleet of planes from a distance of 200 miles; the ‘omniscient glow’ which was a device that creates a concentrated beam of bright light to temporarily disorient whoever it is aimed at; and a baseball grenade which he didn’t bother reading the description for the fear of it exploding.
But most importantly, he saw a matte-silver colored aluminum-body car that sat squat in the middle of the whole shebang. A rather radically styled 2-door 80s car, it had wires attached to the front and side, connecting to the two box-things near the taillights. Even the doors opened ridiculously, going upward like a gull’s wings than the traditional sideway method. Inside, the interior was rather cramped due to a nuclear reactor taking up space of the rear portion of the armrest and behind. Apparently, it powered the car.
Once in, James ignited the engine by turning the key, and for once, things worked like a normal car. Ahead of him lay a long stretch of an empty hallway for what looked like half a mile, which seemed impossible as the exterior of the warehouse factory was far smaller than that.
The infotainment system alerted him to choose a date. By default, it was set on July 3rd, 1985. One of the instructions in his friend’s letter told him to adjust the dial to five years prior to his death, 2030. But he now understood the motives behind Browning’s plan. Should he do as he was told? After all, this car he was inside wasn’t even his to begin with. Or, would he do it? It was also entirely his choice. Would he help his ‘friend’ who ditched him at his own house? Reaching out to the dial knob, he turned the dial—to 2004, 2012, and 2030—and back to 2028, before he ever worked at Tesla Motors.
Pressing confirm, the infotainment system displayed one word: “accelerate,” and he stepped on the gas. In an instant, the acceleration pinned his entire body was pressed flat to his seat. The speedometer now indicated 60 miles per hour. As the needle in the gauge rapidly climbed up to 88 mph, something miraculous happened: dazzling streaks of blue and white light flashed and his surroundings exploded into whiteness.
Slowly, the white nothingness faded to an environment, revealing an unfamiliar environment. Turning his head left and right, James found himself in the middle of a busy street with tall, sleek glass buildings: Upper East Side, Manhattan. His hometown!
“Excuse me, ma’am, is it 2028 this year?” An odd but necessary question.
“No, 2023,” the woman he asked replied, looking up from her phone to give him a well-deserved frown. She was still using the discontinued iPhone 15, so perhaps he really was in 2023 again.
Quite a strange occurrence it was; he thought that he had set the dial to 2028. Feeling his forehead and the skin under his eyes, he chuckled at the sad realization that his age had remained the same even though he was in the past.
Still, something about that middle-aged woman was familiar, even though he had just met her. Deciding and then again deciding against himself, he struggled the urge to catch up to the woman again and get a better look at her face. Finally, he gave in and ran up to her with a tap on her shoulder.
“Sir what do you think you are—” Her speech stopped mid-sentence. The expression on her face shifted from disgust to astonishment, then back to neutral, all in a split-second moment. As if composing herself, she began again. “I haven’t introduced myself properly. My name is Jane Handler.”
“I…my name is Logan Handler,” James awkwardly fumbled.
“What a coincidence! We both have the same last name.” They exchanged a handshake.
“I’ll tell you what, you sure do resemble someone.” Jane continued in a surprised tone.
“Might I ask who that would be?” asked Logan, although he already knew the answer to that question very well. Good thing that he looked old or his cover would have been blown.
“Let’s see… ah, yes, your sharp features are reminiscent of my son,” she replied. “Speaking of my son, I also remember his best friend Albert. I wonder what happened to him.”
A stab of guilt filled Logan’s stomach. But before he could dwell on that, a voice yelled.
“Jane! I’m about to leave on our road trip if you don’t come here this instant!” They both turned to see who was shouting. “Who’s that you’re talking to?”
Jane, flustered, hurried to introduce the men to each other. “John, this is Logan. His last name is also Handler, and we just happened to have a conversation.” John looked Logan up and down, and Logan maintained professional eye contact. “Logan, this is John, my husband.” The two men grinned and shook hands.
“Seems like an interesting fellow, this man.” Something about the way the wrinkles formed next to John’s eyes when he smiled in that good-natured manner seemed to cause an ache for Logan. He just had to avert his eye to somewhere else, else mist might gather in his eyes.
“Is that a Tesla?” Logan asked as the sleek white sedan behind John came into focus.
“Indeed, that’s our proud newly purchased family car, though it’s a little too sad that our son left for college right after the purchase.” A set of complex emotions seemed to be behind his eyes when he said this, which Logan quite couldn’t describe. Regrets, maybe. “Well, at least he went to a good one: Stanford!”
“Stanford it is!” With Jane’s laugh, the mood was restored.
“Speaking of Teslas, I actually work there,” added Logan. To be authentic, he flashed his employee badge from the future, thus bringing a string of questions from the couple.
“Jane, the day just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?” Grinned John. “So why not give us a tour of my ride, if you don’t mind?”
Which James did. His smooth talking and basic salesman skills instinctively flowed out of him, as if the curb had just turned into a showroom. An hour already flew by.
“I must apologize for taking up too much of your time, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this magnificent experience with you today!” Said John while stretching his arms a little. “And you yourself don’t look that much older than my son. Might I ask who the fine parents of yours are?”
Logan couldn’t bear it anymore. To stop his eyes from welling with tears, he quickly and stoically replied, “Yes, my late parents.”
The atmosphere once again quickly became awkward. To divert the conversation, John made an ahem and replied, “We’re going out on a road trip today. As a courtesy, we can drop you off in a nearby location.”
“Sure, at the 86th Street subway station after you take a right from Park Avenue.”
All of a sudden, the car refused to start. But Logan had a solution: the USB he pocketed back home.
As he plugged the USB stick containing the autopilot A.I. data into a port below the infotainment screen, a bright white Tesla logo filled the screen. Before he knew it, an electric hum was filling the interior.
“That’s my man, I knew you weren’t lying about being a Tesla engineer,” thanked John.
While riding in the backseat in silence, Logan tried to recall what his last interaction with his parents was before he left for college. The smooth vibration and white noise from the cabin slowly filled his brain, and the weight of his eyelids sliding down his dry eyes was too heavy to resist. In a matter of minutes, his body went limp.
“Good luck out there, son. Let me brush your hair for one last--”
“Please, just let it be, mother,” said James as he nudged her hand out of the way.
His father loaded the last suitcase into the cab’s trunk. James was now ready to move out.
“So, this is it. You’re all set and will be on your way to success at Stanford,” his mother spoke. “Anything to say? It might be long before we all get together.”
James did, in fact, wanted to say something. Goodbye? I’ll be in touch? A heartfelt thank you? He debated whether to say or not say the thank you, but chose not to in the end.
“No, I’m telling you, I’ll be in touch,” was what he said instead.
It was when a week later, when his parents were out on a road trip, that they were fatally T-boned at an intersection, both too gravely injured to survive. A defunct autopilot software was the apparent cause of the accident.
A glossy drop of tear streaked down Logan’s chin as he woke up from his nap. So that was why he came back to 2023, at this exact specific location.
“Let’s turn on the autopilot so we can talk, shall we?” asked Jane.
“Sure.” Replied Logan.
“Alert: Approaching intersection, 400 ft away,” the A.I. reported.
Logan didn’t have much time to say it. To say what’s been nagging at the back of his mind since that fateful day. But all he managed was a weak, trailing “I…”
“200 ft away.”
He tried again, but only the same mumbling sound escaped his lips.
“Yes?” replied John, averting his eyes to the rear-view mirror to meet Logan’s gaze.
“0 ft. WARNING: vehicle is running a red light.”
The Tesla’s side panels were smashed by a pickup truck, sending it spinning into more oncoming traffic, resulting in two more consecutive crashes.
James Handler’s time was over, right then and there.