Short story: Swarm

Driving used to be fun back then,  before CO2 levels reached 600 ppm, machines took over the driving and a dirty licence plate was a punishable offence.Story by Chris Miller | Illustration by Derek Bacon

In 1895, legend has it, the only two cars in Ohio crash into each other, injuring one of the drivers. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Not anymore. The lesson endures.

Older passengers like Joe, who remember once having driven themselves, invariably close their eyes when traversing Philadelphia’s junction 40.09477, -75.015336, ranked as the second worst intersection in America by State Farm back at the turn of the millennium, when only Roosevelt and E. Roosevelt Blvds’ combined six lanes met Red Lion Rd’s four under a quadruple set of lights. Today the Roosevelts are 16 lanes each. Red Lion is up to nine (with three more under construction). Plus now there’s Lincoln Mall’s eight merging thoroughfares, a busy Kia dealership’s test-drive courseway, and a pair of bird-named four-lane side streets meandering across north & south. A scenery of sponsored billboards flash and flicker, vying for attention—but not a single traffic sign or signal.

Reflexively Joe grips the armrests and clenches his jaw as his mini-SUV drones into the Barack Obama Skyway’s long afternoon shadow. He, better than most, knows roads don’t weather driverless traffic’s relentless pace and coverage well. Wheel track ruts, potholes, surface abrasion and pavement deterioration are all measured, plotted and integrated by the swarm. But when something huge comes crashing down, there’s not a lot to be done. Last Thursday, for example, during early morning rush hour, Dallas’s High Five Interchange’s topmost flyway collapsed onto the lower connection ramp which fell onto the LBJ Freeway, a long section of which then sheared off onto one of the second-tier frontage roads, and all down onto the I-75. To bring levity to the situation, news reports dubbed it “Dallas’s Flat Five Interchange” and “Texas 5-card (can’t) hold’em” (the latter alluding to both gambling and a house of cards). Thanks to construction near Galleria, flow on the interstate had been a little slower than usual, but the swarm had compensated with road surface efficiencies touching on 85%, easily triple that of the nation’s most hellish commutes (corridors like LA’s CA-91 Eastbound past the Costa Mesa Freeway exit, or DC’s I-395 through Russel Rd) back when humans did all the driving. So there’d been a lot of damage and fatalities. In order to precoup losses and maintain shareholder equity, insurers quintupled life and auto rates on and below all bridges, overpasses and flyways nationwide retroactively to the beginning of the week, followed, naturally, by a jump in foreclosures and rental evictions.

As a boy, to take his mind off the crumbling tons of cement and traffic overhead, Joe recalls sliding up next to his dad on a shark-finned Caddy’s wide bench seat where he sometimes got to work the gas as the family sped vacationward on one of America’s abundant open highways. Of course this was before airbags and even seatbelts, before laying a little squawk of rubber became the crime of “stunt driving” and GPS monitoring chips started recording and eventually reporting every little excess and infraction in real-time. Back when a car was just a big piston-pushing six or eight under an endlessly flushing toilet of a multi-barrel carburettor. Back when drivers popped wheelies, blew trannies and really drove ‘em into the ground. Joe’s first car, a ‘63 Impala SS with a big-block 409, burned more oil than the buzzy little VVT-i flex-fuel electricam golf cart of an SUV he’s driving now does gasohol. Man he loved that car. Driving was fun back before traction control systems made it impossible to stand on the brake and burn rubber, back before neurotic onboard diagnostics dictated near constant dealer servicing, and something as minor as a dirty plate or burnt out interior light could suspend a license, disable a vehicle and invoke the police. Even though he’s now out from under the skyway, Joe’s gut gives a little twist, as it always does, at the thought of his son serving a mandatory two-year sentence in Detroit’s Dearborn Correctional for a third low tyre-pressure conviction.

As though having read his mind, an overhead billboard presents an ad for GEO Group: “The world’s leading provider of correctional, detention and community re-entry services.” A pair of racially diverse, professionally badged and uniformed, not horribly unattractive, apparently unarmed middle-aged women stand watch over two equally racially diverse but slightly older-looking men in janitorial garb. The women’s expressions and body language convey the sort of non-intrusive concern and service readiness one would expect of a luxury hotel’s washroom attendants. The men, who appear well fed and groomed, are bent to the task of gardening. Stooped almost as if praying, they evoke a sense of harmless conformity bordering on subservience—and yet, somehow, a quiet sort of dignity as well. Bushes, the apparent fruits of their labours, flower along a high chain-link fence. A bullet-list of GEO Group’s many “turnkey” solutions scrolls down an overlay: Re-education Programs; Pre-trial and Immigration Custody Services; Hospice and Mental Health Conservatories; Interrogation Services; Secure Prisoner Escort; Sentencing Oversight; Geriatric Solutions. The list seems endless. Joe remembers, as a boy, the big green road signs that helped people figure out where they were and how to get where they wanted to go, and how, once rendered vestigial by GPS, they all became LCD screens.

Only after he looks away does he realise it is probably a robotic sex slave that came with the car. Even in ‘economy’ vehicles, good entertainment is paramount.

Except for in the wee morning hours, junction 40.09477, -75.015336 is always busy, even by driverless standards. In satellite images taken during peak capacity, it’s hard to tell from the adjacent mall’s vast car park, where, because driverless-valeting necessitates no in-lot opening of doors, vehicles are packed together all but touching. But out in the intersection the traffic’s always hauling ass, never gridlocked. Never a wasted drop of nitro or milliamp of electricity. Speed limits vary by road conditions and vehicle inertia-to-traction ratios, with velocities determined on-the-fly by complex algorithms whose inputs are constantly updated through Pennsylvania’s traffic cloud under the auspices of the national Department of Transport’s ever-evolving e-legislation. But barring extreme weather (which is not predicted) or significant advances in driverless technologies (which are), today (June 1) at 17:53:06 EDT (Joe’s ETA) projected mean velocity in junction 40.09477, -75.015336 is 64 mph with lateral inter-vehicular gaps measuring in inches and an accordianing median bumper-to-bumper separation of almost exactly seven feet: spacious enough to co-ordinate lane changes and interweave cross traffic, but still close enough to support fore/aft NFC (Near Field Communications).

It strikes Joe as funny that manufacturers are still required to include ergonomic interfaces (such as wheels, sticks and pedals) with electronic overrides that allow a human to usurp control of a vehicle. It’s doubtful that one in 20 people today could “drive” 50 feet down an empty laneway without triggering some minor contact, if not collision, alert. As a programmer/actuary for Sunshield Insurance’s Peace of Mind party, Joe knows that, even on relatively deserted side streets, a car under human “guidance” enjoys by-the-second premiums anywhere from about a hundred to ten thousand times that of the same car in driverless mode. Yet, though it need not be occupied, there must be a driver’s seat. He figures this is to provide the illusion of dominion, and smiles at our need to feel as if we’re in control of our machines. Again he tries to imagine what will happen, not just in and around junction 40.09477, -75.015336, but all across America, when, today at 17:53:06 EDT, his and every other vehicle falls suddenly under human guidance.

From out of nowhere, a Quicksilver Quark, Google-Tesla’s latest ceramic tribrid, materialises and sticks low alongside him. A couple appears to be screwing missionary in its reclined driver’s side seat. Just as Japan’s packed trains bring out their Chikan and other pervs, America’s crowded roads seem to bring out its exhibitionists. Music pumping on top-shelf speakers erases the din of surrounding traffic. The couple’s really humping up a storm. There’s something about sex that’s always struck Joe as mechanical. It’s just so pneumatic. He doesn’t realise he’s staring until the woman winks up at him through the open sunroof. Only after he looks away does he realise it probably isn’t a woman at all—too perfect—but a high-end ichi doll, a robotic sex slave that probably came with the car. Even in “economy” vehicles, a good entertainment system is paramount.

What they’re doing isn’t criminal. But sanctions will be levied for every road and sky cam that captures their performance. With everything everywhere under surveillance, it’s hard to get away with anything anymore. Joe locks his eyes on the few feet of road whizzing by down between his car and the one in front, but can feel in the whir of its engines the Quark, probably in a wind pocket, still holding position, and so can’t resist glancing again down at the couple. The man’s arched up, his broad torso supported by muscular-looking arms. A translucent tapeworm of a cable snakes from the back of his head into some out-of-the-way dash port. It hinders his performance not at all when the woman pulls herself up by clinging to his neck. Briefly her eyes meet Joe’s. Flirtatiously she licks her lips. Her face appears crafted; her body, too, from what he can see. But at least she’s human. One of them has to be. Of this he’s almost certain. The device atop her, detecting something in her metrics, picks up the pace. As if in sync, dual rotary alcohol/hydrogen-diesels with electric torque-assist seem to hum and growl at the same time as the car accelerates ahead and vanishes into the swarm. Joe would bet at least a thousand vehicles had to make minor navigational adjustments to facilitate that manoeuvre, the kind of manoeuvre he knows costs in terms of emission and bandwidth fees, not to mention, of course, insurance spikes. Still, not the sort of thing those who like sex with billion-dollar toys in ten-billion-dollar sports cars tend to fret about.

Cynics like to think it is about providing the illusion of choice, some nostalgic semblance of a democracy that never was. But really, no one cares any more.

In the distance, on a rectangular array of 24 billboards, there presents an ad for the Bank of America’s Prosperity party, to whose attention it has no doubt come, via targeted analysis of income and spending patterns as well as social networking and inter-personal communications, that the current mile or so of traffic’s line-of-sight audience affords a high enough susceptibility/conversion quotient to warrant the multi-board commercial.

Next year’s an election year, and, while it’s still too early for attack ads’ specificities, deep-pocketed investors are really starting to ramp up the PR. Ahead on the conjoined billboards, in ultra high-def resolution, a young couple smiles from the gate of a bungalow’s white picket fence. An affably laughing realtor, whose features hint at some non-threatening Latino component, removes his suit jacket, rolls up his sleeves and yanks with joy and determination from a manicured lawn a red, white and blue “For Sale” sign, which he tosses to the side, careful to avoid the flowers that bloom in a well-tended garden. Just before Joe passes under the display, a little girl with a drop or two of Mexican or maybe American Indian blood in her family tree coasts up on her bicycle and waves, eager to meet her new neighbors. The woman, Joe notices, looking almost straight up now, is pregnant, and fashionably mulatto. Though he’d almost swear she’d been neither at the beginning of the spot.

Joe, who taught history at La Salle back before higher education became a financially ruinous investment, knows political ads for the two major and few big spoiler parties like Cancore Energy (“for a fracking good future”) are all underwritten by the same investors. So, really, it doesn’t matter who wins. As with marijuana ads, it’s not about product but brand selection, because they’re all the same. Sure, some will argue, if they’re all the same, then why spend all that money trying to influence voters? Joe knows it’s not about deciding who wins but rather who plays. A lot of cynics like to think it’s about providing the illusion of choice, some nostalgic semblance of a democracy that never was. But really, no one cares anymore. It’s just that there has to be enough money involved to ensure ownership of whatever board member is run and keep out the unpurchasable riff-raff. And a trillion or two is nothing against the authority—for four whole years—to write law, “print” tender and command the largest and most advanced military the world has ever known.

For the third time since Allentown, Joe swipes up his itinerary. Nine minutes to go. He knows these checks won’t draw suspicion unless he starts to get neurotic about them. As if to challenge this assumption, a Purveyor drone drops from a thunderhead gathering rapidly in the west. Now that atmospheric CO2 is pushing 600 ppm, even with multi-petaflop computing and recent advances in chemical-plume modeling, meteorology’s not the exact science it once was. So maybe the storm will become a supercell and drop some funnels around; maybe it’ll fizzle out. The drone banks hard, tipping almost perpendicular to the horizon. A radar beacon’s orange LEDs wink on a dorsal battery of MERV cannon whose electromagnetic pulses can fry even shielded CPUs. Greenish sunlight glints off an array of air-to-ground Diplomats, any one of which locked onto a vehicle, even for a second, even just for test purposes, sends the vehicle’s and all in its vicinity’s insurance through the roof.

Tents sag and flap, but the first refuge of America’s homeless has
always been the automobile.

As if to counter the Bank of America commercial, billboards up and down both sides of the road present Sunshield’s trademark “All Together” spot in which over 10 million people (or so it’s claimed) of every age, ethnicity and occupation, hands joined as if about to say grace around some nation-sized dining room table, smile down on the eternally passing swarm. Men, women and children, in hard hats, power suits, school clothes, coveralls, clerical collars, g-strings, chaps, jumpsuits, scrubs, camouflage, everything from sequinned tuxedos and patent leather wing-tips to high-top Adidas and Rockawear jeans, uniforms of every ilk and persuasion for as far as the eye can see, ahead and back—a human chain that if one looks long and hard enough might find oneself in, and that seems to say: We are America; we stand as One.

Which Joe, of course, knows is total bullshit. That America fell a long time ago. Now it’s just a hyper-inflated imperialist corporate dictatorship cum security state desperately sucking up what little remains to the increasingly few who are not already destitute—a parasite in the process of destroying its host. To the left, and then the right, Joe gives his government the finger. It’s not a crime, this gesture, though ordinarily it’d cost. And it’s not the good citizens videoshopped into the ad he’s dissing. Most of them are incarcerated or homeless now. Tents and lean-tos sag and flap under many of the billboards. But the first refuge of America’s homeless has always been the automobile. Joe’s been living out of his for months, having sublet his apartment to a currency trader from Milwaukee to help defray the costs associated with his son’s imprisonment’s legal and advocacy fees. Accommodation, food, medical, supervision, representation, protection, even collections—it all adds up. He isn’t broke yet, but being a millionaire isn’t what it used to be. Joe looks around at the swarm, on its way everywhere and nowhere, and wonders why we bother. It’s all the same now, anywhere you go: Wal-Marts; Burger Kings; BPs; Waffle Houses; Banks of America; Sheetzes; Goodwill Stores; Super 8s; maybe a tourist trap or two—and the swarm. Always the swarm. It’s like blood coursing through corporate America’s infinitely redundant vital organs. He realises now that it isn’t about going places, but only leaving them. Like the buffalo that once pounded the Great Plains, we’re forever running away.

Software’s an old man’s trade. One line of g-sharp is all it took. Joe has found it is ridiculously easy to slip custom legislation into government bills and resolutions. Corporations, even before corporate personhood led naturally to corporate candidature, did it all the time. But whereas they accomplished it through threats and bribes (lobbying), as a traffic actuary and programmer, Joe’s role is more that of translator, someone who oversees conversion of the Department of Transport’s thousands of weekly pages of legislative poetry into the sort of hard algorithms the swarm can understand and obey.

Below, smoke billows from a battlefield of fuel and electrical fires
burning rubber and plastic.

At first it was just silly little tweaks and kludges to test potential and alleviate boredom. He remembers the rush he got the first time, when he made just one vehicle, his own, honk at the Liberty Bell Center. Or the time he legislated that, for the first 10 seconds after sunrise, every all-electric vehicle passing Penn Square on the 611 flash its lights directly in front of the Register of Wills. Even yesterday, after every vehicle parked at the Valley Forge service plaza watching via satellite Chicago play Mexico City, five seconds into a commercial for Monsanto’s Alphasect, a new super-pesticide that kills mutant European corn borers and other super-bugs grown resistant to its various GMO super-crops’ bt-delta endotoxins, toggled for a second to the Capitol Hill Club channel. Though it was only a test, and he was probably the only one who noticed, he felt something. Not so much excitement, though, but a sense of closure.

Sunshield’s billboarded Americans still fly past on either side. Just for an instant, between what appears to be either a hygienist or a nurse and a hair-netted girl in Tim Horton’s mud colors, he’d swear he sees himself. A rarity that, according to popular lore, portends either death or good fortune. Joe offers himself up a peace sign, but he is already gone.

Junction 40.09477, -75.015336 is close enough now that the swarm has begun to spread out in preparation. Though he’s still only a few feet behind a natural-gas limo with blacked-out windows, the unmanned transport behind him has backed off to almost a full car length. His speed has dropped to 67 mph (about the same velocity one would attain just prior to the end of a ten-storey fall) and vehicles appear to be lining up horizontally in preparation for heavy cross traffic. A glance at his driver-info page shows road efficiency’s down to 61%—further indication of the super-busy junction’s approach.

Joe is not 100% sure how vehicles couriering goods or in-transit to collect some person or persons, and so containing no human to pass control to, will comply with his temporary injunction. But even a vehicle relinquishing control to no one will be marginally better off than those with anyone attempting to drive. He remembers his older brother, who drove tow truck back before they all went driverless and he suicided, claiming that when someone loses control of their car and it leaves the road, even if there’s only one tree for miles, even if it’s way out in some field, the car will almost always hit it. It’s because people favour the certain over the uncertain.

Less than a minute to go, and there it is: junction 40.09477, -75.015336. Hundreds of lanes of traffic, America’s fabric, intricately crisscrossing like the weft and warp of some gigantic industrial loom. A soothing “ding” engineered and tested to calm and focus the human mind sounds. A female voice with a slightly nasal and irreverent quality that reminds him a little of his first wife reads from the SUV’s touch screen: “In compliance with the Constitution and National Highway Safety Act Article MMLXIV, The Testing of Backup Systems, Section 13, Page 147, Line 6: prepare to enter manual mode of operation for 60 seconds.” A tiny joystick he’s never seen before appears below the touch screen now filled with instructions. Again the soothing ding sounds. There’s an old, old joke that goes something like, “If all the cars in America were lined up end to end... most would try to pass.”

For a moment, the limo’s brake lights tint everything red. Then all around, as if from everywhere, comes the sound of airbags popping like microwaved corn. Ahead and to the right, a Mac pulling three trailers of genetically modified hogs slams a compressed-air “Smart” car into a methane tanker for one less taxpayer.

Inflation only works when there are savings left to dilute. All that stands between 90% of Americans and total insolvency now is a kidney stone or worn out catalytic converter, a broken jaw or spent lithium-ion battery. Even though he’s not an adjuster, Joe’s pretty sure Sunshield will just file under Chapter 11. Claims will be astronomical, and even the government can only manufacture so much money before it’s all shit. But then maybe, he muses as he’s sideswiped by a minivan on the left and a pickup on the right, with no one left to pay, GEO Group will have to open its doors.

As if in slow motion, the limo in front fishtails across three lanes and rolls onto its roof, blocking his way. But apparently the transport following him has remained in driverless mode. He can hear its Jake brake’s hearty stuttering coughs as it bears down, delaying the inevitable.

He’d always thought the end would be claustrophobic, like being crushed in a giant garbage compactor. But it’s not. At least not anymore. Instead he’s like the drone: high in the sky; omniscient; invulnerable. Even the cacophony of horns (hilarious that anyone would bother to honk in such a melee) and crunching explosions and shriek of tyres and scraping of polymer and steel have all blended together and acquired a distant choral quality. Down below, smoke billows from a battlefield of fuel and electrical fires burning rubber and plastic. Sunshield’s ad, he sees, is still running—except the good Americans, now, instead of looking down at the carnage, are looking up to him as if for answers or direction. Ahead in the distance, a sleek silver sports car darts mercurially through the surrounding chaos: veering; braking and accelerating; dodging and flowing with inhuman facility around mangled wrecks and pileups. Joe wonders if the couple will survive, find a way to reproduce, and some new Phoenix rise from the ashes.

Older passengers, especially those who remember once having driven themselves, invariably close their eyes when traversing junction 40.09477, -75.015336. But, all the way through to the other side, Joe keeps his open. He’s not afraid anymore.

Christopher K. Miller’s fiction has appeared in The Barcelona Review, Confrontation Magazine, TQR Stories, Decomp, fiction365 and numerous other genre and literary magazines.
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