Monsieur B. and Monsieur Q. had played cards at the same table at the same club every Thursday evening since time immemorial, so when Monsieur Q. did not show up one night, Monsieur B. was justly concerned.
The central census bureau where Monsieur Q. worked was a nightmare to navigate because of its size and complexity. Although B. knew that there must be some sort of reasoning or logic behind its anatomy, he had never been able to discern it, so he simply wandered aimlessly. Inevitably, after what seemed like an age, B. finally found Q.’s nameplate on a door. He knocked, and when there was no response, tried the handle, found it unlocked, and entered.
Monsieur Q. had always been the model bureaucrat, and his office reflected both that and his rank: it was terminally organized, classified, and systemized with all the most important and definitive reports and documents. What Monsieur B. saw now did not make sense to him. It looked like a murder had taken place, like an artery had been severed and allowed to bleed everywhere. All the surfaces of the office was covered with piles and piles of files and papers: the tables, the walls, the ground; it was all chaos. Only the grey ceiling remained blank, like the pupil of some giant eye starting down.
A noise came from behind a mountain of paperwork, behind the summit of which was one Monsieur Q., looking very disheveled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Q.?” said Monsieur B, slightly nervous. Q’s corneas were black as space, void of light, without the characteristic twinkle that indicated the sharp mind behind it. “Where were you at our game last night? Are you alright? What’s happened?”
“Oh B.,” said the man. “I do apologize. I have been absorbed by my work. I have not slept in—days, perhaps.”
“What are you working on?” asked B., intrigued despite himself.
“I have realized something,” said Q. “Something that will have ramifications in every field, something that will shape the future even as it clarifies the past, something that shall…” Looking up, Q. saw the look of apprehension on B.’s face, and trailed off. “But where do I begin?”
Q. withdrew a shiny gold coin from his pocket. “Consider the coin,” said he. “If we flip the coin once, we can get two possible outcomes: heads (H) and tails (T). If we flip the coin twice, there are four possible outcomes: HH, HT, TH, and TT. And if we flip the coin three times—”
“Yes, we get eight possible outcomes,” interjected B softly. “A child would be able to do that arithmetic.”
“And what if I was to ask you the chance of flipping a coin or coins?”
Monsieur B. gave an indulgent shrug. “What do I care about chance or superstition?”
“I’ve always said that you and I are very different kinds of cards players!” said Q., grabbing a paper and a pencil. “Well, I do care and so I sought the answer. If p is the probability of a “heads” and q = 1- p is the probability of a “tails,” then the probability of k heads in n flips is:
Pr(k) = (n!/(n – k)! k!)p(n – k)qk
Or, if graphed, it produces a continuous curve; behold; the shape of the universe—”
With one fluid motion, Q. drew the shape, like a hunchback’s spine:
Q. beamed joyfully at his friend. “Isn’t it marvelous?”
B. was at a loss. “But that’s about what I would expect,” he said, after a pause. “The more times you flip a coin, the more likely you would be to the true ratio of 1:1. How does that explain any of this?” said B., gesturing at the disorder that surrounded them.
“Do you know where we are?” said Q. with unusual ferocity. “Do you know what this place stores? I have access to every document and file since the invention of bureaucracy in our state. Look around you! What you see is our great state converted to data, demographics, statistics. We’ve enumerated the population and the place, metamorphosing them into a number in a table or a point on a graph. This is what I do. This is my day-to-day until I die.
“Once I saw this,” he pointed forcefully at the curve, “it was like a secret cataract had been excised. Suddenly, I began to see it everywhere in my work: whether it was the financial fluctuations of economics indices or the range of heights in our army conscripts; I looked into the data from our geographical societies, from our embassies and consulates, even from our astronomy centers; anywhere there are measurements, it will conform to this curve. Every last facet of our state and earth reduces to this. This is the secret design of God, or perhaps it is even God Himself, and I am His seer and prophet…” He was almost manic now, the cords in his neck sticking out, eyes bulging like globes, spittle flying from his lips…
“This can’t possibly be true,” protested B., even as he looked around and saw that yes, the curve was on every graph in sight.
“You and I are proof!” laughed Q. “If I was to measure the circumference of your chest several times, the measurements will differ, resulting in a distribution clustering around the apex or the average—yet we know that your chest must have a true circumference. And if I was to measure the chest of multiple individuals once, its distribution would be akin to multiple measurements of one person. Don’t you understand? That means in our state, there must be a man or measurement who is objectively at the very top of the curve, who all the other men are deviated from. If we can find or create this man, think of the new controls and understanding we would have!”
“You’ve gone mad,” said B., backing away and avoiding Q.’s gaze.
“And this is only the start,” said Q., who gave no indication that he had heard B. “There are always more people, more measurements, more data. Birth rate, growth rates, mortality rates, and everything in-between—the entire life and death of a man can be found resting on this curve. I envision a statistical society, one that has codified the measure of man. Not just mundane measurements like height or chest circumference, but breath and pulse and mind and soul! The state shall become a perfect panopticon with the normal man as its jailer and model…”
B. had slowly crept to the door, his fingers on the handle. “You’ve gone mad,” he repeated. “I shall come back with help.”
“Just open your eyes and look around you!” shouted Monsieur Q., eyes blazing and chest heaving up and down.
And when Monsieur B. turned and surveyed Q.’s office for the second time, he looked and he did see: he saw the endless waves in the ocean and he saw the peaks and crests of the mountains; he saw the swell and contractions of populations and he saw the rise and fall of empires and civilizations; he saw all of it, all in that same curve.
He looked at Q. one last time, and saw the expression on his face reflected in Q.’s eyes, and he knew it to be true. With a final effort, B. mustered: “You forget something, Q. When you flip a coin, there is also the possibility, however remote, that it will land on its edge, being neither heads nor tails.”
Q. laughed, “Very good! Chance has crept in, and you have accepted probability. But this is not some fanciful speculation or conjecture, this is a theorem; this is our reality. This is the beginning of the last era for the Normal Man has been born.”
This is an entry to The Taming of Chance Story Competition by the Fields Institute in partnership with Vretta.