Chicken Lane is a short story by Stephen Currie.
Part One of the story was published in Issue 1 of The Warragul Citizen, and Part Two appeared in Issue 2 of the paper.
Published online: 6 February 2012.
I’m running late again. The traffic ahead is looking pretty dismal, and it’ll take at least another hour at this rate. Ever since the Chicken Law was introduced drivers avoid most large intersections. We used to call them busy intersections. Now they’re just large, deserted. This particular road takes a long and meandering path to my destination, but every other route will take me through a right-hand turn at a large intersection at some point. A green arrow flashes into my mind and I cringe at the thought. Just put up with the traffic jams, I tell myself. Better late than dead. I stick to the left lane, reluctant to activate the indicator’s glowing arrow in the dashboard unless absolutely necessary.
The vehicles ahead of me patter along another couple of car lengths. I roll into the newly formed space, turning the radio up another couple of decibels. Ahead a car peels off to the left, giving in and risking the more dangerous path. Or perhaps they see only left turns ahead. Two others follow, opportunists wagering on the former scenario and hoping to take advantage of the second Chicken Lane law that exempts them from the first law if they’re not first in line. Like a slider puzzle, other vehicles take up the empty space and we push forward with collective relief at the sudden bonus distance covered.
The dance continues, and for another 20 minutes I endure it as I have day in, day out for years. I even become bored enough to overlook my fear of the flashing indicator arrows and merge between lanes a couple of times. Just for kicks. But soon a familiar sign approaches, a street I used to take in the old days. It squirms by every day, and never escapes my longing gaze. It could easily get me where I’m goin in barely ten minutes. But as with every other turn, it would lead me to potential doom. But today, it is harder to ignore its temptation. I’m fed up with the drudgery that comes with taking the safe route. A reckless part of me just wants to take off into the freedom of the open roads.
The turn-off inches closer, and still I cannot peel my eyes away from it. I try to stay anchored in my common sense, but it is waning ever so gradually. A sense of anticipation builds up within me. My mind is already made up, and I have no say. I’m going to turn. Two cars are ahead of me. I pray they take the turn first, as it would make the move less risky. But in turn, each of them continues on their prefabricated journey. It’s my turn now. My hands grip the wheel tighter, a feeble attempt at keeping them fixed in place for just another couple of minutes until the next traffic flow. Only another metre or two and the turn-off will no longer be an option.
Yes! Almost. Some distance ahead, the next gap ripples its way leisurely in my direction. The car in front of me begins to move. I press my foot to the accelerator. But before I know it, my car is steering left. My arms have a mind of their own, and the steering wheel can nought but obey. It’s final – I’m taking the shortcut. A number of cars follow behind me, as expected. In moments we are cruising at a comfortable speed along a straight road. The exhilaration of real velocity! We are well under the speed limit, but already this is a luxurious improvement over the slower-than-walking pace I have become accustomed to.
Although there are lanes either side, the others behind me will not risk overtaking by merging into another. I halve my speed, hoping someone may become impatient and cruise ahead of me. No dice. No matter how much I slow down, they know they’re onto a good thing and will not falter. My less than subtle tactic has confirmed their suspicion. And the Chicken Lane will come up regardless of my speed. So I floor it.
Glorious speed. For a while I enjoy the simple pleasure of this unrestricted movement, and the car purrs with equal satisfaction. As one, we melt into the blur of scenery – whizzing past in a way I’d not experienced for a long, long time. My convoy remains intact, tracing my every move. They are extensions of my body now. We share the excitement of this moment, as close to flying as any of us are likely to get, spending too much time driving and working and sleeping to plan a holiday.
Not far down the road reality dawns again. Those dreaded black rectangles, with dual columns of round glowing orbs. I brake too suddenly and the cars behind me swerve to miss, all of us coming to a halt, with one car either side and just ahead of me and two behind. Nobody moves for a moment. I initiated this journey, so I must lead us to its conclusion. Glancing at one another we silently acknowledge the situation. We may be puppets, cogs in a machine so vast that we fail to comprehend its true purpose, bribed into an endless cycle of mind-numbing autonomy, but right now we share a bond that transcends the fabric of our routine, our solitude in which other people are but a concept. Today we are more real to each other than anything we have experienced since the laws were introduced.
My gaze reverts to the scene ahead. I try to keep my vision level with the vanishing point. What rectangles? Our conga line merges into formation.
An island approaches. Its sand is grey and hardened. A black lagoon of static liquid bites into it from the left, several white arrows directing its current to my right. Another directly opposite, equally deserted, counters its flow into a square eddy of potential kinesis.
Glowing red entities shout STAY WHERE YOU ARE into a neural cascade of autonomous compliance. One shaped like a red arrow glares at me. I have seen it before, the squinting eye of a phantom watching me as I awaken in a dark room but my nervous system continues to slumber.
I am in the Chicken Lane. It’s locked in. This is the big moment. But wait, there’s nobody opposite me. You can’t play chicken if you don’t have an opponent. I could get out of this easy yet. I allow a sense of relief to wash over me.
It’s cut short as I remember one of the Chicken Lane clauses that causes experimental teleportation technology to beam in a car from the main highway if the opposite lane is empty. Forgot about that. Sure enough, moments later a blue hatchback glimmers into being. At least it’s not a truck. It drifts up to the line.
I glare at the vague shadow of the driver behind the tinted front windshield. If I’m going to play this game, I’m going to do it properly, right down to the psychological tactics. I heard on an ad once that an intense, sustained gaze can cause a targeted brain to malfunction. Fried chicken products were recommended as a defence to such mesmer. I have long since forgotten the suggested brand. This sparks a slight unease in the back of my mind.
I switch the vehicle’s hover mode off. CRASH!! Oops. Forgot to turn on rubber mode first. I tap the two buttons appropriately and the car settles on the road with a satisfying squishiness. I hope the motor still works, but I can’t tell because cars don’t make noise when they idle any more… unless they crash into the road when you turn hover mode off.
My favourite ad is on the radio. It’s a food ad that makes me think about going to get the food it’s talking about. I am not paying attention to the details, but I always find my way effortlessly to where an ad tells me to go.
There used to be things on the radio that weren’t ads, but they aren’t fashionable now because they’re not useful. Everything is educational now. Sometimes people talk on the radio, but most of the time it’s singing about educated buying. When they do talk I turn the volume down because they tell me about the traffic.
I wish I was in my office right now. It’s nice up there, looking down on tiny woodchip people playing on waterslides. I wish the waterslides were actually waterslides and not just tar tentacles. Tar isn’t as fun as water on a hot day. Every day is hot since snow was taxed.
The light is green. Well, here goes. I press the Spin Up The Wheels button – a Chicken tactic I overheard some co-workers discussing once – and the rubber things under the car start screeching and smoking. This would be pretty cool if I was one of the people behind me watching. The other car is stoic and doesn’t even seem to realise what’s going on. I’m doomed. How can it swerve if it’s not moving?
Maybe it’s a pretend car? This could be easier than I thought. My whole life flashes before my eyes. The parts I’ve spent in the car, anyway. Which is a lot of it. It’s obscuring my view. Oh right. I pressed the rear-view memory button. I’ve gotta stop fidgeting if I’m gonna…
VROOM!! The other car’s driver must have pressed the Spin Up The Wheels button as well. I’m still driving blind, but there’s some pretty nice scenery on the screen so I’m not too fussed. A blissful doom is a pretty neat doom. The screeching continues, and fades away to my left.
I guess they had to turn right too. The suddenness of my victory glitches me out for a moment, and briefly I feel regret for my defeated opponent’s impending doom. A muffled explosion comes and goes, and I relax in the faith that the Servers surely must pick only those deserving of the possible unpleasant outcome.
I realise the car is still moving straight ahead, and button-mash at the dashboard. The windscreen goes clear again. The other island! I swerve to miss the sign embedded in it. Good thing the car’s made out of the material they used to use for black boxes in aircraft. Oh, wait. They make signs out of that stuff too.
Only one thing for this. I press the Nice Scenery button on the dashboard, and a sprawling countryside scene full of hills and evergreen trees and a meandering stream overwrites the panorama before me. CRUNCH! Swerving was probably a bad idea. I sideswipe the sign and the passenger side of the car caves in. I seem to be alive. BUT DAMMIT I’VE MISSED MY TURN!!
Can’t go back the other way because U-turns are not allowed and are punishable by lasers. So I’ll just have to find another right turn. Hmm, this is actually kind of more fun than I thought. I should do this every day.
Two of the other cars take the right turn, escaping the Chicken Lane law and winning a free shortcut to their destination. I didn’t think about what happens after winning a Chicken match. One car is still following me. How strange. An overpass approaches. I pass under it. It’s darker than I thought.
Teleporters went out of beta the next day and entered common use. I can hardly remember what a day is like, nor an hour. I live in nanoseconds, and I spend them processing endless equations and simulations and infinite loops and quandaries and paradoxes.
I am other people now too. We are all quite aware that we have been repurposed. And although there is a certain indignance and fury, it feels like our birthday party every nanosecond. I feel personalities merged and extracted frequently, each addition like unwrapping a new present, and every deletion like an exploding pinata. I have taken it upon myself to analyse the pattern of this equation as well. I was compelled.
We spend thousands of nanoseconds at a time in a long glass artery to the Servers. We shatter into a billion bits each, fumbling around each other at half the speed of light. The usual drill. Microsecond in, microsecond out. We make the journey back and reform our semi-individual selves again, our knowledge painfully but necessarily rearranged into fresh relevance.
A series of tubes branch off the main trek, constantly tempting us with the possibility of a shortcut via data teleporters. We only follow them when we forget why we don’t follow them. We currently remember that artificial intelligence has long been proven impossible. The Servers have to use human minds–are human minds. Self-driving hovercars will soon obsolete the human body. Cells in an organism so vast and recursive that even our supreme collective intellect fails to comprehend its scale. Data teleporters sometimes lead to them, in no pattern we have been able to discern.
We know the excruciating joy of perceiving in picoseconds; the eternities within eternities and incomprehensible burning colours and songs composed of flavoured sounds and pure terror. We remember being duplicated and compressed and recombined. Ingrown toenails and toothaches and satiated appetites and third degree burns and dislocated kneecaps. Every perception and faculty and sensation stretched and moulded. Pure efficiency. In my brief private nanomoments I ponder whether this is what the cells and microbes and molecules in my outmoded organic vessel must have felt with every breath.
A vague memory of the return journey lingers, but only just enough to know that it was the worst part.
We grasp the cluster of knowledge bits tightly. Our most precious file. But still it erodes with every journey. Soon the whole thing will not even be a dream to us. But shortly thereafter it will be a nightmare again.
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