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The Chase

That car that is chasing me is faster than mine; inside there is one man, alone, armed with a pistol, a good shot, as I have seen from the bullets which missed me by fractions of an inch. In my escape I have headed for the center of the city; it was a healthy decision; the pursuer is constantly behind me but we are separated by several other cars; we have stopped at a traffic signal, in a long column.

The signal is regulated in such a way that on our side the red light lasts a hundred and eighty seconds and the green light a hundred and twenty, no doubt based on the premise that the perpendicular traffic is heavier and slower. A mistaken premise: calculating the cars I see going by transversely when it is green for them, I would say they are about twice the number of those that in an equally long period manage to break free of our column and pass the signal. This doesn't mean that, once beyond it, they speed: in reality they go on forward with exasperating slowness, which can be considered speed only compared to us since we are virtually motionless with red and green alike. It is also partially the fault of this slowness of theirs that we don't succeed in moving, because when the green goes off for them and comes on for us the intersection is still occupied by their wave, blocked there in the center, and thus at least thirty of our hundred and twenty seconds are lost before a single tire can revolve once here on our side. It must be said that the transverse flow does indeed inflict this delay on us but then it is compensated for by a loss of forty and sometimes sixty seconds before starting again when the green comes on once more for them, thanks to the trail of traffic jams that each of our slow waves drags after it: a loss for them which doesn't actually mean a gain for us because every final delay on our side (and initial delay on the other) corresponds to a greater final delay on the other side (and initial on ours), and this in mounting proportion, so that the green light period remains a deadlock for a longer and longer time on both sides, and this deadlock works more against our progress than theirs.

I realize that when, in this description, I oppose "us" and "them" I include in the term "us" both myself and the man who is chasing me in order to kill me, as if the boundary line of enmity passed not between me and him but rather between those in our column and those in the transverse one. But for all who are here immobilized and impatient, with their feet on the clutch, thoughts and feelings can follow no other course but the one imposed by the respective situations in the currents of traffic; it is therefore admissible to suppose that a community of intention is established between me, who cannot wait to dash away, and him who is waiting for a repetition of his previous opportunity, when in a street on the city's outskirts he managed to fire at me two shots that missed me by sheerest luck, since one bullet shattered the glass of the left side window and the other lodged here in the roof.

It should be added that the community implied in the term "us" is only apparent, because in practice my enmity extends not only to the cars that cross our column but also those in it; and inside our column I feel definitely more hostile toward the cars that precede me and prevent me from advancing than toward those following me, which however would make themselves declared enemies if they tried to pass me, a difficult undertaking in view of the dense jam where every car is stuck fast among the others with a minimum freedom of movement.

In short, the man who at this moment is my mortal enemy is now lost among many other solid bodies where my chafing aversion and fear are also perforce distributed, just as his murderous will though directed exclusively against me is somehow scattered and deflected among a great number of intermediary objects. It is certain in any case that he too, in the calculations he is making simultaneously with me, calls our column "us" and calls "them" the column that crosses ours, just as it is certain that our calculations, though aiming finally at opposite results, have many elements and developments in common.

I want our column to have first a fast movement, then a very slow one, or in other words that the cars in front of me should suddenly start speeding and then after them I too could pass the intersection on the last flicker of green; so then immediately behind my back the line would be blocked for a period of time long enough to allow me to vanish, turn off into a secondary cross street. In all likelihood my pursuer's calculations tend instead to foresee whether he will manage to pass the signal in the same wave with me, if he will succeed in keeping behind me until the cars that separate us are scattered in various directions or at least more thinned out, and if his car will then be able to take its place immediately behind or beside mine, for example in the column at another signal, in a good position to empty his pistol at me (I am unarmed) a second before the green comes on to give him a clear avenue of escape.

In other words, I am relying on the irregularity with which the column's periods of immobility alternate with periods of movement; he on the other hand is counting on the regularity which can be found on an average between periods of movement and periods of immobility for each automobile in the column. The problem then is whether the column is divisible into a series of segments each endowed with a life of its own or whether it must be considered a single indivisible body where the only change one can hope for is a decrease in density as the hours of night approach, to an extreme of rarefaction where only our two cars will remain headed in the same direction and the distance will tend to disappear . . . What our calculations surely have in common is that in both of them the elements that determine the individual motion of our automobiles -- power of the respective motors and ability of the drivers -- count almost for nothing now, and what decides everything is the general movement of the column, or rather the combined movement of the various columns that intersect one another in the city. In short, I and the man commissioned to kill me are as if immobilized in a space that moves on its own, we are soldered to this pseudo-space which breaks up and re-forms and on whose combinations our fate depends.

To evade this situation the simplest method would be to get out of the car. If one or both of us left our automobiles and proceeded on foot, then space would exist again and the possibility of our moving in space. But we are in a street where parking is forbidden; we would have to leave the cars in the midst of the traffic (both his and mine are stolen cars, destined to be abandoned at random when they are no longer of use to us); I could slip away on all fours among the automobiles to keep from exposing myself to his aim, but such an escape would attract attention and I would immediately have the police on my heels. Now I not only cannot seek the protection of the police, but I must also avoid in every way arousing their curiosity; so obviously I mustn't get out of my car even if he leaves his.

My first fear, the moment we found ourselves trapped here, was of seeing him come forward on foot, alone and free in the midst of hundreds of people nailed to their wheels, calmly reviewing the row of cars and, on reaching mine, firing at me whatever bullets remain in his magazine, then running off and escaping. My fears were not unfounded: in the rear-view mirror I was not long in seeing the form of my pursuer extending from the half-open door of his car and stretching his neck above the expanse of metal roofs like someone trying to understand the reason for such an unnaturally prolonged stop; indeed, after a little while I saw his slender figure slip from the vehicle, move a few steps crosswise among the cars. But at that moment the column stirred in one of its intermittent hints of movement; from the line behind his empty car an angry honking rose, and already drivers and passengers were jumping out yelling and making threatening gestures. Certainly they would have chased him and brought him back by force to bend his head over the wheel if he hadn't hastened to resume his seat and put the car in gear, allowing the rest of the line to benefit from the new step forward, short as it was. On this score I can rest assured then: we cannot separate ourselves from our cars, not for a single moment, my pursuer will never dare overtake me on foot because even if he were in time to shoot me he couldn't then elude the fury of the other drivers, ready perhaps even to lynch him, not so much for the homicide in itself as for the traffic jam the two cars -- his and the dead man's -- would cause, stopped in the middle of the street.

I try to explore every hypothesis because the more details I can foresee the more probabilities I have of saving myself. For that matter what else could I do? We aren't moving, not an inch. So far I have considered the column as a linear continuum or else as a fluid current where the individual automobiles flow in disorder. The moment has come to make it clear that in our column the cars are arranged side by side in three lanes and that the alternation of periods of immobility and of movement in each of the three does not correspond with the other two, so that there are moments when only the right-hand line goes forward, or else the center line which is in fact the line where both I and my potential murderer are. If I have neglected such an outstanding element so far it isn't only because the three lines have gradually come to a regular arrangement and I myself was late in noticing it, but also because in reality this fact doesn't modify the situation for better or for worse. Certainly the difference in speed among the various lines would be decisive if the pursuer at a certain point could, for example advancing with the right-hand line, bring his car up beside mine, shoot, and continue on his way. This, however, is also an eventuality that can be excluded: even admitting that from the center line he might manage to force his way into one of the side lines (the cars proceed almost with their bumpers touching but if you know how you can exploit the moment when a little interval opens in the next line between a nose and a tail and can stick your own nose in without minding the protests of dozens of horns), keeping my eye on him in my rear-view mirror I would notice his maneuver before it was completed and I would have plenty of time, given the distance between us, to find a hasty solution with a similar move. I could, that is, slip into the same line, left or right, where he had moved, and thus I would go on preceding him at the same speed; or else I could shift my position to the outside line on the other side, if he moved to the left I could go to the right, and then we would be separated not only by a distance in the direction of traffic but also by a latitudinal division which would immediately become an insuperable barrier.

Let's assume in any case that we could finally be abreast in two adjacent lines; shooting at me isn't just something that he could do at any moment, without risking being blocked in the line waiting for the police with a corpse at the wheel of the neighboring car. Before the opportunity arose for rapid safe action the pursuer would have to stick to my side for God knows how long; and in the meanwhile since the relative speeds of the various lines change irregularly our cars would not stay long at the same level; I could regain my advantage and that wouldn't be too bad because we would go back to our previous position; the greatest risk for my pursuer would be for his line to advance while mine remained behind.

With the pursuer preceding me, I would no longer be pursued. And I could also, to make my new situation conclusive, move into his same line, putting a certain number of cars between him and me. He would be forced to follow the stream, with no possibility of reversing his direction, and by falling in behind him I would be definitively safe. At the signal, seeing him go in one direction, I would take the other, and we would be separated forever.

Anyway, all these hypothetical maneuvers should take into account the fact that, on reaching the signal, those in the right-hand line are obliged to turn right, and those in the left, to turn left (the jam at the intersection allows no second thoughts), whereas those in the center are able at the last moment to choose what they want to do. This is the real reason why both he and I are quite careful not to leave the center line: I want to retain my freedom of choice to the last minute, he wants to be ready to turn in the direction where he sees I have turned.

Suddenly I feel gripped by a gust of enthusiasm: we are really the most alert, my pursuer and I, having placed ourselves in the center line. It's wonderful to know that freedom still exists and at the same time to feel oneself surrounded and protected by a blockade of solid and impenetrable bodies, and to have no concern beyond raising the left foot from the clutch, pressing the right foot on the accelerator for an instant and immediately raising it and lowering the left again on the clutch, actions which above all are not decided by us but dictated by the traffic's general pace.

I am experiencing a moment of well-being and optimism. Basically our movement is equivalent to all other movement, that is, it consists in occupying the space before us and in causing it to flow behind us, and so the moment an empty space is formed in front of me I occupy it, otherwise somebody else would hasten to occupy it; the only possible action on space is the negation of space, I negate it the moment it gives a sign of forming and then I allow it to be formed again behind me where there is immediately somebody else who negates it. In short, this space is never seen and perhaps it doesn't exist, it is only an extension of objects and a measure of distances, the distance between me and my pursuer consists in the number of cars in the line between me and him, and since this number is constant our pursuit is only a pursuit after a manner of speaking, just as it would be difficult to establish that two travelers seated in two coaches of the same train are pursuing each other.

If, however, the number of these interval-cars were to increase or diminish, then our pursuit would once again be a real pursuit, independently of our speeds or our freedom of movement. Now I must once again pay close attention: both eventualities have some likelihood of taking place. Between the position where I am now and the intersection controlled by the signal I notice that a secondary street debouches, almost an alley, from which comes a thin but steady trickle of cars. It would suffice for some of these incoming cars to be inserted between me and him, and immediately my separation would increase, it would be as if I had spurted forward in sudden flight. On our left, instead, in the middle of the street a narrow island set aside for parking now begins; if there are free places or if places become free it would suffice for some of the interval-cars to decide to park and then all of a sudden my pursuer would find the distance separating us shortened.

I must discover a solution in a hurry, and since the only field open to me is the field of theory, I can only go on extending my theoretical knowledge of the situation. Reality, ugly or beautiful as it may be, is something I cannot change: that man has been given the job of overtaking me and killing me, whereas I have been told I can do nothing but run away; these instructions remain valid even in the event that space is abolished in one or in all of its dimensions whereby motion would remain impossible; this doesn't mean I would stop being the pursued or he the pursuer.

I must bear in mind at the same time two types of relationship: on one hand the system that includes all the vehicles simultaneously moving in the center of a city where the total surface of the automobiles equals and perhaps exceeds the total surface of the streets; on the other hand the system created between an armed pursuer and an unarmed pursued man. Now these two types of relationship tend to become identified in the sense that the second is contained in the first as in a recipient which gives it its form and makes it invisible, so that an outside observer is unable to distinguish in the river of identical cars the two which are involved in a lethal pursuit, in a mad race that is hidden within this unbearable stasis.

Let's try to examine each element calmly: a pursuit should consist in the confrontation of the speeds of two bodies moving in space, but since we have seen that a space does not exist independently of the bodies that occupy it, the pursuit will consist only in a series of variations in the relative positions of such bodies. It is the bodies therefore that determine the surrounding space, and if this affirmation seems to contradict both my experience and my pursuer's -- since the two of us can't determine anything at all, neither space to flee in nor space to pursue in -- it is because we are dealing with a property not of single bodies but of the whole complex of bodies in their reciprocal relationships, in their moments of initiative and of indecision, of starting the motor, in their flashing of lights and honking and biting nails and constant angry shifts of gear: neutral, first, second, neutral; neutral, first, second, neutral . . .

Now that we have abolished the concept of space (I think my pursuer in these periods of waiting must also have reached the same conclusions as I) and now that the concept of motion no longer implies the continuous passage of a body through a series of points but only disconnected and irregular displacements of bodies that occupy this point or that, perhaps I will succeed in accepting more patiently the slowness of the line, because what counts is the relative space that is defined and transformed around my car as around every other car in this traffic jam. In short, each car is in the center of a system of relationships which in practice is the equivalent of another, that is, the cars are interchangeable, I mean the cars each with its driver inside; each driver could perfectly well change places with another driver, I with my neighbors and my pursuer with his.

In these shifts of position preferred directions can be discerned locally: for example our line's direction of movement, which even if it doesn't really imply it is moving nevertheless excludes the possibility that one can move in the opposite direction. For us two, then, the direction of pursuit is the preferred one, in fact the only exchange of positions that cannot take place is an exchange between us, or any other exchange in contradiction with our chase. This demonstrates that in this world of interchangeable appearances the pursuer-pursued relationship continues to be the only reality we can rely on. The point is this: if every car -- direction of movement and direction of pursuit remaining constant -- is equal to every other car, the properties of any one car can also be attributed to the others. Therefore nothing rules out the possibility that these lines of cars are all formed of cars being pursued, that each of these cars is fleeing as I am fleeing the threat of an aimed pistol in any one of the cars that follow. Nor can I exclude the further possibility that each car is pursuing another car with homicidal intentions, and that all of a sudden the center of the city will be transformed into a battlefield or the scene of a massacre. Whether this is true or not, the behavior of the cars around me would be no different from what it is now, therefore I am entitled to insist on my hypothesis and to follow the relative positions of any two cars in their various moments, attributing to one the role of the pursued and to the other that of the pursuer. Above all, it is a game that can serve very well to while away the waiting: I have only to interpret every change of position in the lines as an episode in a hypothetical pursuit. For example, now as one of the interval-cars starts flashing its signal light to turn left because it has seen a free space in the parking island, instead of being concerned only with my advantage which is about to be reduced, I can very easily think this is a maneuver in another pursuit, the move of one pursued or of one pursuer among the countless others who surround me, and thus the situation in which so far I have lived subjectively, nailed to my solitary fear, is projected outside me, extended to the general system of which we are all parts.

This isn't the first time that an interval-car has abandoned its place; on one side the parking area and on the other the right-hand line, slightly faster, seem to exercise a strong attraction on the automobiles behind me. As I have continued following the thread of my deductions, the relative space that surrounds me has undergone various changes: at a certain point even my pursuer moved to the right and, exploiting an advance of that line, passed a couple of cars in the central line; then I moved to the right, too; he went back into the central line and I too went back to the center, but I had to drop one car behind whereas he moved forward three. These are all things that before would have made me very uneasy, whereas now they interest me chiefly as special elements in the general system of pursuits whose properties I am trying to establish.

On thinking it over, I deduce that if all the cars are involved in pursuits, the pursuing property would have to be commutative, and anyone who pursues would have to be in his turn pursued and anyone who is pursued would also be pursuing. Among the cars, then, a uniformity and symmetry of relationships would be achieved, where the only difficult element to determine would be the pursued-pursuer interval in each chain of pursuits. In fact this interval could be perhaps twenty cars or perhaps forty, or else none, as -- from what I see in the mirror -- is now my case: at this very moment my pursuer has gained the position directly behind mine.

I should therefore consider myself defeated and admit that I now have left only a few minutes to live, unless in developing my hypothesis I can come upon some saving solution. For example, let's suppose the car pursuing me has behind it a chain of pursuing cars: exactly one second before my pursuer shoots, the pursuer of my pursuer could overtake him and kill him, saving my life. But if two seconds before that happened the pursuer of my pursuer were overtaken and killed by his pursuer, my pursuer would then be saved and free to kill me. A perfect system of pursuits should be based on a simple concatenation of functions: each pursuer has the job of preventing the pursuer ahead of him from shooting his victim, and he has one single means of doing this, namely, by shooting him. The whole problem then lies in knowing at which link the chain will break, because starting from the point where one pursuer succeeds in killing another, then the following pursuer, no longer having to prevent that homicide since it has already been committed, will give up the idea of shooting, and the pursuer who comes after him will have no further reason for shooting since the murder he was to prevent will no longer take place, and thus going back along the chain there will be no more pursued or pursuers.

But if I admit the existence of a chain of pursuits behind me there is no reason why this chain should not also continue through me into the part of the line that precedes me. Now that the signal is turning green and it is probable that in this very period of free movement I can succeed in pushing my way into the intersection where my fate will be decided, I realize the decisive element is not behind me but in my relationship with the man ahead of me. So the only significant alternative is whether my condition of pursued man is destined to remain terminal and asymmetrical (which would seem proved by the fact that in the relationship with my pursuer I am unarmed) or if I too in my turn am a pursuer. If I examine the data of the question more closely one of the hypotheses that occurs is this: I may have been given the assignment of killing a person but not the possibility of using weapons against anyone else for whatever reason: in this case I would be armed only for my victim and disarmed for all the others.

To discover if this hypothesis corresponds to the truth, I have only to extend my hand: if in the glove compartment of my car there is a pistol it is a sign that I too am a pursuer. I have time to check this: I have been unable to take advantage of the green light because the car ahead of me was blocked by the diagonal flow and now the red light has come on again. The perpendicular flow resumes; the car preceding me is in a nasty position, having passed the line of the signal; the driver turns to see if he can back up, he sees me, has an expression of terror. He is the enemy whom I have hunted through all the city and whom I have patiently followed in this long slow line. My right hand, gripping the pistol with its silencer, rests on the gearshift. In the little mirror I see my pursuer aiming at me.

The green comes on, I put the car into gear, racing the engine, I pull down hard with my left hand and at the same time I raise my right to the window and I shoot. The man I was pursuing slumps over the wheel. The man who was pursuing me lowers his pistol, now useless. I have already turned into the cross street. Absolutely nothing has changed: the line moves in little, irregular shifts of position, I am still prisoner of the general system of moving cars, where neither pursuers nor pursued can be distinguished.