The Great Long Road

Emily walks into the Scary Forest.

Emily walks into the Scary Forest with a basket. In the basket is her cornbread. She has many loaves.

Fairies trouble her.

“Emily!” cry the fairies. “Emily! Emily! What are you doing on Great Long Road? What are you doing on Great Long Road, in Scary Forest, with a basket in your hand?”

“I’m taking this cornbread to the Arena to find out whether it can count the real numbers,” Emily says.

Then the fairies shriek and fly all around her, tugging at her hair, rubbing dirt in her clothes, buffeting her with their wings.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals!” they shriek.

But Emily endures.

The great wolf troubles Emily.

“Emily,” rumbles the great wolf. “What are you doing on Great Long Road? In Scary Forest? With a basket in your hand?”

The great wolf is long and slinks low. He has three heads. He is taller than her brother, taller than her father, taller than the city walls.

“Great wolf,” says Emily, “I am taking this cornbread to the Arena. I am taking it to the Arena for the Judges to judge. I baked it hard. I baked it well. I think it might just have a chance, a tiny chance, to count the reals.”

The wolf smiles. Its tongue lolls to the side.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals,” it says. “But I’ll eat it. And I’ll eat you!”

“Well,” says Emily, “you may certainly have some.”

She takes out three loaves of cornbread. She throws them in a pattern around the wolf. The wolf lunges, then frowns. The cornbread smells delicious—but whichever direction he goes is further from two loaves and closer only to one!

“I’m trapped at a local maximum!” wails the great wolf. He looks at the loaves. He attempts to wobble towards them all but only winds up stretching. He whines.

Emily carefully walks past the wolf. He wants to eat her, too. He eddies closer to her. But at no point on her path does the wolf’s optimum location put him within reach.

“Curses!” sighs the wolf. He flops down in the middle of the road and waits, grumpily, for two of the pieces of cornbread to decay.

Emily passes through a glade, and she sleeps there for the night. Then she’s back on the road again.

The cornbread horror troubles her.

“I am the cornbread horror,” it says. It is a large block of cornbread with teeth. “I have killed ten thousand of your kind, mortal girl. I have cut them into squares with my sharp, sharp teeth.”


“It is my destiny,” says the cornbread horror. “I will kill all those who bring cornbread here, if that cornbread is not different in some notable respect than each piece of cornbread that has passed through here before.”

“I see,” says Emily.

“It is not my desire,” says the cornbread horror. “I am not truly sentient, being made of cornbread. I simply do what it is my nature to do.”

It seethes and eddies horribly, as is its nature.

“Pardon,” says Emily, “but are you included in the list of ‘each piece of cornbread’?”

“I am,” says the cornbread horror.

“So if my cornbread is different from every sort of cornbread that has come through here before, but not different from you—”

“Then I will still kill you,” says the horror. “And your cornbread will merge seamlessly into my tasty fluffy aurulence. This is what normally happens, for my destiny contains a terrible twist—I cannot meaningfully distinguish differences between pieces of cornbread!”

Emily winces at that. But she still takes out a piece of cornbread and holds it up hopefully.

“Can you tell if it’s different?” Emily asks.

“It seems identical to me,” says the cornbread horror. “In the right light, it even has teeth. So it is necessary that I kill you.”

“But . . . it knows the difference between the two of you,” Emily says.

The cornbread horror hesitates. “Uncertainty rises! Can cornbread truly be distinct from the cornbread horror if its only distinction is that it knows itself distinct from the cornbread horror, while this distinction the cornbread horror knoweth not?”

Leaving it to fret over the complexities of destiny, Emily moves on.

“I’ll kill you if it happens to be identical!” shouts the cornbread horror, behind her. “You’ll see!”

Once she is out of its sight Emily breaks into a run.

Fairies trouble Emily again. They’re very troublesome.

“Emily! Emily! Is it worth your life? Is it worth your life to have cornbread count the reals?”

The fairies swarm about her, pinching and tugging.

“I want to know what happened to Mom,” Emily says.

“To Mom! To Mom!” shout the fairies.

One fairy hangs in the air in front of Emily. “Your mother makes cornbread tastier than yours—but even her cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“It can’t,” shout the fairies. “It can’t count the reals!”

Then a western wind rises and they all swirl away.

The great face troubles Emily. It’s a great face, that’s in the middle of the road. Also, it has tentacles.

“Emily!” booms the great face. “Emily, you are here.”

“I am!” says Emily.

“I am the great face,” it says, “on the road to the Arena, where the Judges judge cornbread to see if it can count the real numbers. I will not fall for such tricks as the cornbread horror did. Do you know why?”

“No, sir,” says Emily. She looks attentive.

“It is because I am more than cornbread,” says the face. “I am self-aware. I am a person, with an internal model of myself and my intentions—an ‘I’ inside. When I declare my intention to snatch you up with my tentacles and cram you and your cornbread in my mouth and chew and chew until you’re all dead and gone, it is not the gallows prediction of an inanimate pastry—it is the unswervable declaration of a dedicated soul!”

“I see,” says Emily sadly.

There is a pause.

“Make it fast,” Emily says. “I mean, faster. I mean, don’t just sit there.”

The face scrunches up unhappily.

“My internal model is inaccurate,” it says. “I believe that I intend to eat you, but I am not making any move to do so.”

Emily pats a tentacle.

“That can happen with self-awareness,” Emily says sympathetically. “Like, I never thought that I’d try to make cornbread that could count the real numbers. But then I did!”

“Thank you,” says the face. It is pleased by her commiseration.

The face hesitates.

“It can’t actually count them, you know,” the face says. “No cornbread could. Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“But . . .”

Emily flounders.

“But, why is there an Arena at the end of the road, then?”

“It has been there since the dawn of time,” says the face. “But no cornbread has ever reached it; for the road has many dangers, and at each step the cornbread must pass a new test. The tests are infinite; thus even an Iron Chef would be doomed to failure.”

“That’s too bad,” says Emily. She hesitates. “My mom,” she says. “I mean, a long time ago. She went this way. With cornbread.”

“I did not intend to eat her,” says the face. “She is somewhere ahead. But her fate is predetermined. She will fail.”

“You don’t know that!” snaps Emily. “Maybe she could go down the road forever, never finding a challenge that her cornbread can’t pass! Maybe when no typical cornbread can pass the test, hers is just atypical enough! Maybe when she faces a monster that despises people carrying unusual cornbread, hers is normal enough to get her past! There’s no way to determine if she’s dead without finding out where she’s dead, and to find out where she’s dead, I have to catch up to her, and if I don’t catch up to her then maybe she’s still alive forever and her cornbread will pass the test!”

There is a silence.

“Wow,” says the face. “You’re really passionate.”

“I have to be,” says Emily. “You can’t make ambitious cornbread without a burning passion. And corn meal.”

“I really think that I’m going to eat you,” says the face. “But instead, I’ll say, ‘good luck.'”

In the infinite distance there stands the Arena; and along the road are infinite dangers and hardships; and somewhere ahead, Emily’s mother; and the fairies swirl in the air over the Scary Forest and the Great Long Road, dancing, playing, spinning, crying, shouting when they’re near her, “Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

And it may be that this is so.

15 thoughts on “The Great Long Road

  1. There’s no way to determine if she’s dead without finding out where she’s dead, and to find out where she’s dead, I have to catch up to her, and if I don’t catch up to her then maybe she’s still alive forever…

    So the fate of Emily’s mother is indeterminate…

    Is she carrying Schrodinger’s Cornbread?

  2. unlikely. it is not both sentient and non-sentient at the same time. unless you believe in the many-worlds interpretation, in which in some universes the cornbread can count the reals and in some universes it can’t.

  3. The cornbread smells delicious—but whichever direction he goes is further from two loaves and closer only to one!

    I knew this would be a Very Special Hitherby from the moment I read this line. Yay!

  4. I read this last night (Canberra time), just after it came up. While I was pretty sleepy, I think that the last line has been changed since then. It was something like:

    “It’s true. Cornbread can’t count at all!”

    Did anyone else see this, or am I imagining things?

    The current line is more hopeful, and I think Emily needs hope.

  5. Final edits occur after posting, because stories look different on site than in the preview. Once or twice I’ve still been editing a few hours after the post appears. ^_^


  6. Well! Now I’m wondering whether corn bread is NP-complete or not. I suppose that the Judges have a giant Turing machine in the Arena, made completely out of cornbread. Tasty and practical!

  7. Hmm. This seems very… cognitive science-ish, with the nature of the barriers and of the ways Emily evades them. Have you done AI work, Rebecca, or is this more of a hobby?


  8. I’m sure that most of you know this, but….

    In our world at least, there are two seemingly-insurmountable barriers to Emily’s quest to count the reals.

    The first of course is the nature of cornbread. Cornbread can’t count! It’s just bread.

    The second is the nature of the real numbers. They can’t be counted! It’s logically impossible. This article has a decent explanation of just how we know this.

    In a world where cornbread can grow teeth and speak, the first barrier might be overcome. It’s hard to imagine getting by the second….

  9. Assume a countably infinite number of pieces of cornbread in the basket. Then, although the reals cannot strictly speaking be counted, it is possible to establish a schema for generating subsets of the set of all cornbread in the basket such that a one-to-one correspondence can be formed between such subsets and the real numbers. Perhaps Emily hopes to baffle the Judges by equivocating on the word “count”?

  10. Yeah, Metal Fatigue, but the story says that she has many loaves. If she had an infinite number of loaves, wouldn’t that be more than “many”? I know that in the world of a Hitherby legend, she might actually have an infinite amount of cornbread, but that would spoil what I take to be one of the themes of the story, the existence of finite human beings within effectively infinite time.

    The loaves aren’t even infinitely divisible, because each one is composed of a finite number of molecules. (Not that there is a cornbread molecule. Presumably you’d need a set of molecules in order to form a minimally small piece of cornbread.)

    Let’s get pseudo-numeric! With her current usage rate of three loaves of cornbread per five encounters, I’d guess that she’ll run out of cornbread by the time she passes a hundred monsters — sooner if she actually has to eat some cornbread along the way. Then she’ll have to turn back, and probably get eaten by one of the monsters she passed already. Unless she starts mugging other travelers to the Arena, or looting their remains, and taking *their* cornbread.

    Or there could be depots of cornmeal and cooking supplies along the way. If she knows the formula for her cornbread, and makes more along the way, she’d never run out. Until she gets too old to make more, or to remember the formula.

    Clearly she needs to use the local biology. She should sit down and create a species of intelligent cornbread, and imprint them genetically (or whatever the equivalent is for cornbread) with the desire to go down the road, find her mother and report back if they do, and to count the reals at the Arena if they ever get there. If they breed along the way, they would last longer than she would. Of course, even they couldn’t traverse an infinite series. Mutation would eventually get them; any signal will eventually fall to noise if propagated down a long enough channel.

    OK, stopping now.

  11. This is too awesome for words. I hope that at the end of the infinite road, Emily has a cornbread with “Beth-1” baked into its surface.

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