Tom Gumbert, The Commute

Perpetual daydreamer, Tom lives along the Ohio River with his wife Andrea, in an area that was once an active part of the Underground Railroad. Operations Manager by day, he has been writing for a decade. @TomGumbert

Brandon buckles himself into the seat, manages to press the start button on his third attempt and struggles to move his seat back enough to allow him space for his laptop. Rubbing his eyes, he sees a kaleidoscope behind closed lids. His fingers wrap around the slender metallic can, which he tilts back, sucking the last of the energy drink into his mouth. In the console, he finds a box of dryer sheets, takes one and rubs it over his shirt.

“Ssset route for wooork.”

“I’m sorry, I did not understand your command.”

Concentrating, he tries again. “Set rroute for work.”

“Primary work route selected. Approximate time of commute, forty-five minutes.”

He powers on the laptop, then reaches into the back seat to select one of the four ties he owns. Deciding on the dark blue background with “badass” written in white binary code, he places it in the passenger seat.  As the laptop boots, he shakes his head, grinning at the noise the device creates compared to the electric car, which is navigating silently through the suburban streets, past darkened homes whose occupants still enjoy the tranquility of slumber.

“Good morning, Brandon,” his operating system greets him through the car speakers, a feature that by itself justifies the auto-synch between laptop and vehicle. It’s the voice of Jessica Alba, and so worth the extra upgrade charge. “Your presentation is due in one hour and fifteen minutes. Would you like for me to load it to your last bookmark?”

“Yes, please,” he answers, imagining he was speaking to Jessica and not a piece of code.

Slipping the noise canceling headphones on, he immediately immerses himself in his work. Minutes pass before he finds himself oscitant. Eyes watering, he slaps himself hard across the face. Focus! Proofreading reveals a surfeit of mistakes, costing him valuable time. Muttering a string of profanities as he makes the corrections, he is interrupted by his OS.
“Incoming call from Suhail,” she tells him and immediately he hears his boss’ voice through the headphones.

“Hey, dude, ready for the presentation?”

“Putting some finishing touches on it, but it’ll be good to go at the scheduled time.”

“About that,” Suhail says, his tone changing.

“Don’t tell me they’re moving it up,” Brandon says, his voice betraying his panic.

“No, actually it’s pushed back an hour.”

“Why do I feel there’s a bomb about to be dropped?”

“No need for dramatics, dude, it’s just a slight change. They want to include phase two in the presentation, that’s all.”

“That’s all? That’s all? Dude, you’re talking a minimum of four hours hard core to get that presentation ready.”

“You have an extra hour.”

“No way.”

“Way.” There was a hesitation and then, “Should I put someone else on it? Maybe Holly or Becca? They’ve both been clamoring for a presentation…”

“I got this,” Brandon says, and then more forcefully, “I’ve got this.”

“Good, see you at the office.”

“This is bullshit,” he mutters as he fishes the ammonium carbonate from his messenger bag. His borborygmus screams, reminiscent of a small animal in pain. When did I last eat? He sets the ammonium carbonate on the seat and goes back into the bag for an energy bar.

“Incoming call from Alisha.”

“Hi honey,” he answers. I’ve GOT to disable auto-connect. “Look, this isn’t a good time, I’m really under the gun on this project—”

“You’re always under the gun on some project. You didn’t call me last night as promised,” she reminds him, with a sigh. “Baby, we really do need to talk—”

“And we will. Tonight, I promise.”

“Brandon, I need you to hear about the doctor visit.”

“Tonight. I’ll hear all about it tonight. I love you baby but I really have to go.” Without giving her a chance to respond, he disconnects. “Block all incoming calls,” he commands.

Glancing out the window, he realizes that the car is entering the freeway. At least from this point the drive will be steady, unless some idiot decides to crash the auto-drive lane. That remote possibility aside, his vehicle will move in harmony with other self-driving cars, until he reaches the exit for his office, in approximately thirty-two minutes.

Resuming his work at a furious pace, he’s ten minutes into it when he realizes that he cannot insert a key component into the presentation. WTF? He checks the links and finds everything in order, yet the file will not load. He looks at the file code and sees gibberish.

“Goddamnit!” He punches the passenger seat, then again five more times. Calm down, a corrupted file isn’t the end of the world, this is the reason you have auto-backup.

“Jessica, locate backup files from Julian Date one-two-seven.”

“I’m sorry, there are no backup files for that date. Would you like for me to try another date?”

Maybe I worked on this a different day. “Yes, try range one-two-five through present.” Overkill but I can narrow down later.

“I’m sorry, but there are no backup files for that range.”

His stomach roils and he feels the sweat break out from seemingly every pore of his body. “Check backup settings.”

“Settings for auto-backup are disabled.”

“Fuck me!” he screams.

“I’m sorry, but I won’t do that. Please stop, you are making me uncomfortable.”

“Ball sweat!” he shouts, defaulting to the preferred expletive of his youth.

“What’s wrong?”

He jolts upright in his seat. “Dad?”

“Yes, this is your father. You DO remember your father, don’t you?”

“Of course, I’m just surprised because I’m working on a deadline and thought—”

“That you had blocked all incoming calls, you did, and I overrode it. I wrote that code, remember?”

“Right, you ARE the alpha coder, how could I forget?”

“I don’t appreciate your sarcasm, Brandon, just like I don’t appreciate how you are treating your mother.”

“What did I do to mom?” he asks with a sigh. He adores her, practically worships her. It was typical of his father to conjure some peccadillo to belittle him and invoke undeserved guilt.

“You hurt her. You forgot.”

“Forgot what?”

The silence, another ploy often used by his father, infuriates him. “Look Dad, I have a deadline that you are seriously jeopardizing and I don’t have time for these games. I’ll come by this weekend to see mom,” he said, hoping that the omission would not be lost on his father.

“When is your mother’s birthday?”

It took only a few seconds for the realization to sink in. “Ah jeez. Tell her I’m sorry, Dad. It’s just that—”

“Yeah, you forgot because you are so busy at work, the song is familiar,” his father mocks.

The blood in Brandon’s temples pulses as he clenches and unclenches his fists. “See you this weekend, end call”

As soon as the call drops, he adds, “Jessica, block calls from Dad.” It’s the first time he employs the custom code he wrote specifically for blocking his father and he has no idea whether it will work. Pushing aside the guilt nibbling at his conscious, he asks,

“Navigation, how much time before reaching destination?”

Silence. He repeats the question. Still no reply. “Run diagnostics,” he commands. I wonder if my code may be interfering with the OS.

He glances out the window, hoping to use the landscape to gauge the time and distance to the office. He frowns, then looks closer, then out the passenger window, the panorama obscured by wisps of white. “Navigation, where are we?”

Silence.

Did Dad crash the OS by attempting to override the call block? He stabs at the command console, getting no response. Reaching into his messenger bag, he retrieves his cell phone and checks for a signal. Shit. His body pushes back against the seat as the car accelerates and he realizes that he is no longer on the interstate.

He kicks at the break, then pulls at the emergency break, neither which has any effect.  Reaching under the console for the fuse box he screams, “Motherfucker!” and pulls his hand back. Inspection of his finger reveals a blackened nail. Short circuit. Inside the glove box he finds the operator manual and locates the emergency commands section.  He attempts to regain control of the vehicle through voice commands, each command louder, more urgent and to no avail. Next he tries to interface via his laptop, but that also fails.

Through the window, the auroral glow reflects off something in the west. Intermittent flashes through the lifting brume. The ocean. Why are we near the ocean?

The car slows, then turns to the west.

His heart pounds as his mind races for a solution, ultimately narrowing to two possibilities. Glitch or Hack. He has no answer for either.

The speedometer reads 45 mph. If he could get the door open, or even a window, would he be able to survive an extraction? Tuck and roll. Through the windshield he sees the ocean, turquoise with shimmers of orange and gold, looming before him. Gulls disappear below the horizon, before riding the wind up again. A cliff. I’m on a cliff.

Frantic, he pulls at the door handles, stabs the unlock and window buttons with his finger, while screaming voice commands. Looking through the windshield, he can see the edge of the cliff with not so much as a guardrail to impede him. He lays across the seats and kicks at the driver window to no effect. Realizing he is almost out of time, he curls into a fetal position and checks his phone one more time—no signal.

It feels like floating. He expects the plummet to be fast and violent, but this feels smooth, serene. How long does this take? Twenty seconds? Thirty? He closes his eyes and counts.

At sixty, he opens his eyes and looks up at the driver window. Sunlight and blue sky. The car has stopped, but the engine is still running. He sits up, looking around. Has he died? Is this heaven?

Golden sunlight, spectacular ocean view. The windows go down and the sweet scent of clover and clean air wash over him.

“Brandon,” Jessica says, “breathe.”

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