Better Than None

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Nevillea Chesterton had lost the inspiration for her life, and her half a dog was dying. At least she figured it was probably dying, that it had to be dying … didn’t it?

Though nobody seemed to have informed the half a dog.

There was a flag outside, and seventeen stars upon that flag, which didn’t seem quite right to her—one for each State in the union, only, that was somehow wrong, too. In fact, she posted, it is quite clear that there ought to be more States than this; somehow President Obama has misplaced them, and I hope he is ashamed.

To this post the White House failed to reply.

“I’ve lost the inspiration for my life,” she explained, cogently, to her best friend Chalcedony. Chalcedony nodded.

“I told you things would get better,” Chalcedony said. “… sorry.”

“It’s not that they’re worse,” Nevillea said, and then hesitated. It was possible that having half of a dog wandering around one’s apartment bumping into things did count as “worse.” She just couldn’t remember what it was actually like to have a whole one. “It’s just … I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.”

“Don’t look at me,” Chalcedony said, which was ironic, because by any possible measure Chalcedony was succeeding at her life.

It wasn’t just Nevillea, of course, who was having trouble. There were widespread concerns just about everywhere about the apparent absence of part of the constructive fabric of the world. Pieces that people were pretty sure ought to have been there weren’t, and the world was widely understood to be undergoing a mysterious process of decay.

Chalcedony’s functional life was an aberration, as such things went.

“Already we have lost our proud eighteenth State,” one pundit said, “and tomorrow we may well wake up to have lost another one; we will forget that there ever was Wisconsin, and count sixteen stars on the American flag, and wonder at its strange and dairy absence to the world.”

This was existentially terrifying to Nevillea, on account of how she hardly ever remembered Wisconsin in the first place.

She’d wake up in the morning and rush to the news and check the status of the States, only to be certain, absolutely certain, that they’d lost one; that the seventeen that they currently had was one fewer than there’d been before. She monitored her half-a-dog carefully for signs of thirding and worried every day that her lamps might be one fewer than they had been before, or her arms and legs, or brain—

Which worries were misplaced, of course, but Chalcedony could not relieve her on them in any fashion; they were wrong, but every bit as likely as they were not.

“I don’t think there’s really room for another hemisphere in your brain,” Chalcedony did say. “I mean, by definition. So you don’t have to worry too much on that account.”

“Not a hemisphere,” Nevillea said. “A brain.

“You think you might have had two brains,” Chalcedony said, “in a proper world?”

“For redundancy,” Nevillea said. “You need redundancy for a good design.”

Indeed other brains were hard at work; and they were not Nevillea’s.

By a process of pure reason it was deduced that the great State of Virginia ought to exist, for all that it didn’t and it never had; a team of explorers found the ragged edges of the map and ventured out beyond it. There in the darkness of the absence of Virginia they were harried by knife-winged creatures and slithering creatures in the muck; but still they returned triumphant, carrying some vague enlightenment on the nature of what had come to pass.

“It’s data,” Professor Lethiwick said. “We found that we could perceive it directly—immanently—when we got out far enough past the tattered bound. Data, meaning that the world is a simulation: and the errors we’ve encountered are the signs of it coming undone or shutting down.”

Nevillea was not alone in blaming the President for this; his approval ratings spiked violently downwards before leveling off at the “what does it really matter, anyway?” plateau.

Solutions were enumerated and discarded.

Troops massed in the “Virginian Interdict,” pacifying the ur-life of the border region; an Institute was established at the tattered bound to study the border region and the lands beyond it to see if the ontological decay could be reversed. Maps of the hypothetical United States became popular, some listing as many as 45 distinct States and territories, including such refined potenstates as Puerto Rico, Arizona, Madison, and Mars. As for the rest of the world, it intruded on Nevillea’s television mostly in the form of episodic horror—

If Sweden were more or less in one piece, the networks did not show it, preferring to focus on the Italian revolution or on the refugees from Lost Beijing.

She’d watch, glued to her screen, petting half a dog—

But twenty minutes later, they’d be back to endless rounds of punditry and speculation on the Institute, on the missing regions, and on just why we seemed to be missing more than half of the world.

“I think the worst part of it,” Nevillea said, “of losing my inspiration, I mean, is that it’s not even an interesting lack of inspiration; I mean, it’d be one thing if I were suffering, but I’m just … kind of dead.”

“Tell me about it,” said Chalcedony.

Nevillea turned off the television as it cycled into its seventy-ninth discussion of the day of how it was probably premature to speculate on whether the “active primitives” the Institute had unearthed were actually data in the process of being executed.

“I just think my life was probably better than this,” Nevillea said, “when there were all thirty States.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Chalcedony asked.

Nevillea stared blankly at her. Then she shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “That’s rather the point.”

“Hm,” Chalcedony said.

She pet the half a dog. Its tail thumped against the couch.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Chalcedony pointed out.

“—Yeah,” Nevillea agreed.

It was called the Vigil—the thing that people took to, of waiting for the next thing to be lost… . not that you could ever really tell.

Nevillea kept the Vigil.

She kept it for days and days.

“I think I just lost my spark today,” Nevillea told Chalcedony—by instant message—but it was too early in the day for Chalcedony to read it, and the message never got a reply.

Later she discovered that her bathroom didn’t have a little thing to clean the toilet with, and, in fact, neither did the store. She got extremely confused attempting to explain what it was or what it did to the customer service technician and finally came home with a feather duster, which she propped up, for lack of any better ideas, in the general vicinity of the porcelain throne.

“It’s got to be a new hole,” she concluded. “It’s got to have just vanished. I know I clean my toilet with some regularity and would have previously noticed its absence.”

“It’s hard,” Chalcedony said. “I get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure how often one actually thinks about the fact that little things to clean the toilet with have never actually existed.”

“Or stop lights!”

“Stop lights exist, Nevillea.”

“… I can only think of examples of things that exist,” Nevillea admitted. “Except for Virginia and Beijing. And go lights, I guess.”

“… go lights exist, too.”

“What?”

“They’re the green ones, Nevillea.”

Time passed.

It was eventually confirmed that yes, the Institute had observed data in the process of execution—data that was not merely static elements disjoined from the process of existence, but active elements that were doing something in the great void beyond the tattered bound.

“There is no formal divergence,” Dean Lethiwick explained, “between data that simply is and data that does; the fabric of the … thing … is identical. But we have confirmed that there exists an immanence interpreting some of the data that lies beyond the tattered bound as procedural instructions.”

This immanence Dean Lethiwick preferred to interpret as a sort of cosmic computer, but it became more popularly known as “the eye of God.”

The eye of God looks upon data, people would write, and it becomes truth.

Or

The eye of God looks upon that which had been still, and it burns with the fire of motion.

“Our own brains,” Dean Lethiwick said, “possess an elemental division between the understanding of data as passive declarative information and active procedural information; although it is surprisingly difficult to maintain a more than superficial grasp of this, because grasping is something we do to declarative information alone.”

“But what does it mean,” the interviewer asked, “that this particular data is being executed?”

“Well,” Dean Lethiwick said, “the negative perspective is that there’s a memory leak somewhere that’s causing stuff that should just be, like Virginia, to become instructions for action instead; but I think it’s a far more interesting notion that, just possibly, the simulation itself, our baseline existence, isn’t just a passive thing, but a doing. That the reason that there’s stray procedural data beyond the tattered bound is that there’s procedural data here; not just a Wisconsin but a Wisconsoning, if you know what I mean.”

“Thank you,” the interviewer said, and “This has been a discussion with Dean Lethiwick, of the Institute at the tattered bound …”

The religious commentators won Nevillea over; their interpretation superseded Lethiwick’s for her; in understanding the active data breakthrough, she preferred to imagine not a cosmic computer but a divine eye that could look upon stuck, still, grey things and make them move. She daydreamed of that eye looking upon her and it making a moving thing of her; it seemed to her that it would be like being set on fire, only painless, and she resolved that if Chalcedony should question this description she would airily dismiss her concerns by claiming that Chalcedony’s declarative memory couldn’t grasp the true and essential experience of procedural divinity.

“I see,” Chalcedony said, when this actually came up; and, “… I suppose that’s true.”

There were still seventeen stars at the end of that week, and at the end of the week after; although, for all Nevillea knew, it had been twenty the day before. There was still half a dog, not a third of a dog; though, again, for all she knew, it had been recently whole. It seemed almost tragic that after losing so much she couldn’t tell if she had actually lost any more, or if there was any point in the Vigil that she kept.

“It’ll never get better,” she said, to Chalcedony, but Chalcedony waved her to silence. Chalcedony un-muted the television, which had been running silently in the background. She leaned forward.

Breaking News was running along the bottom of the screen.

There was the familiar face of Dean Lethiwick, and one of the thousand interchangeable interviewers; this one, Stacy Glenn.

“… what lesson should we take away from the discovery of this ‘initialization incident?’” the interviewer was asking.

“It’s really too soon to be making hypotheses,” Dean Lethiwick said. “But it’s brought a lot of weight to the formerly-disregarded Expansion Interpretation, wherein the missing pieces of the world are from our future rather than the past. What we seem to have witnessed in the ‘initialization incident’ was the formation or re-formation of a piece of the world that was always supposed to have been there; and now, it always actually has.”

“Fascinating stuff, Dean Lethiwick. We’re with Dean Lethiwick, whose team recently caught what appears to have been a retroactive rectification of one of the missing pieces of the world …”

The screen blanks out.

Nevillea comes to the realization that she has seized the remote control; that she has clicked the television off; that she is trembling.

“Nevillea?” Chalcedony asks.

It is terror.

And she thinks for a long moment that her terror is the terror of being forgotten—that if they have gotten the progression backwards, and one day at the end of her Vigil she wakes up to a world with all the States, and all the dog, and all the rest, always and forever, then the Nevillea of today will be lost; that the world will be back, and whole, but the Nevillea who kept the Vigil, the Nevillea of the world of missing pieces, will be gone and unremembered—

Only, that isn’t it.

That could be terrifying her—but that isn’t it.

“It’s just,” she says, aimlessly and unsure, “that that means—”

She imagines the eye of God turning to stare at her; imagines herself as wax, burning under the awful fire of that gaze.

“That things could turn out right.

And Chalcedony doesn’t even blink at the idea that that would terrify her; that the possibility of waking up one day to discover herself a Nevillea who hasn’t lost the inspiration for her life would frighten her;

Just: “In fairness,” Chalcedony says, “Nevillea, it’s probably really rather a good thing, for the dog.”

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Categories: Hitherby, Legends