Chapter 8 – The Instrument of Improbability (Part IV)

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Larry Pilgrim spoke up. “Brad and I take German,” he said. “I’m a bit more advanced but he’s in my conversational classes. That’s how come I got caught up in all this. Do you need me to translate it for you? It says—”

Elaine put her hand on the page, covering the text before Larry could lean over and read.

“This is a language triggered spell,” she said. “You trigger the action of the probability engine by translating each of the paragraphs. Much like an electrical circuit, it requires not just an energy input but a substrate for the energy to flow along. Your brain would provide the media and energy.”

“I thought they were just instructions,” Larry said. “It’s what they read like.”

“A probability engine?” Casey asked.

Elaine paused for a moment, thinking it over. “A probability engine functions by doing work to imbalance two sides of a probability equation. It does so by relaxing error. What I see here would probably be better described as an improbability engine as described by Jacob Bernoulli in his Ars Conjectandi. When we model a system, we don’t model every variable but instead their end outcomes and from that we conjecture about the likely outcome. It will tend to fall into a curve as you’ve seen projected on the wall the entire time we’ve been here.

“The improbability engine acts on a specific set of events by causing them to escape the curve by suppressing either the minimum or maximum outcomes. In your case, and the model data that is being crunched right now its suppressing minimum outcomes. I suspect that it only triggers when you make an arbitrary guess when you don’t believe you know an answer since then you introduce an inherent randomness to your answer.”

The simulations she’d set running on the Enoch earlier displayed that they had some preliminary results for her to review, so she selected them from a menu and threw them up onto the projector. There, a generally natural Bell curve with a bulge in the center and sloping edges that lay near the right edge of the graph.

“Quite a few of those questions didn’t mean anything to me,” Brad said. “You put aerospace questions on my test. I don’t take any of those classes.”

“Same here,” Larry said. “I saw some questions involving Spanish.”

“I wondered about those too,” Casey said.

Elaine scanned through the results and picked a few analysis that might help her explain visually to those in the room.

“That should become clear in a moment,” she said. “I needed to trigger skewed error rates by throwing in questions that some of you should do well on and others should do very poorly on.” Her fingers played a couple spinners together that mapped scoring with different colors. She tossed them onto the screen as well.

“The two dashed lines you see are Frog and I,” she said. Both dashed lines displayed somewhat natural, but flat, Bell curves further down the graph with three solid lines near the far end, one in particular stood extremely far to the right. “The black solid line is Casey. All three of you managed an ‘A’ on the Spanish portion.”

“But I don’t know Spanish,” Larry said. “In fact, I guessed on almost every one of those.”

“Same here,” Frog said. “My Spanish is crap. So, look at me, I made a… Gee, Elaine, you gave me a D-minus?”

“Just in Mexican and Brazilian Spanish,” Elaine said. “By the way, some of those questions were unfair and used a dialect of Spanish that Casey doesn’t know. As you can see even as a near native speaker she didn’t get a maximum grade. That tells me the improbability engine doesn’t trigger when you believe you know the answer. However, Larry and Brad, who don’t know the answers, were carried.”

“So, it rewards guessing,” Casey said. “How does this help us get out of this mierda?” (She looked askance at her partners and mouthed, “That means ‘shit.'”)

“I guessed what that means,” Larry grumbled.

“It does more than reward guessing,” Elaine continued, “which is what tells me that chances are the problem is that your use of the spell is incomplete.”

“Incomplete?” Brad said gesturing to the journals laid out on the table. “This is all of it that we found. And it looks pretty complete to me.”

“This probability circuit diagrams a pretty basic algorithm,” Elaine said. “Yet it has no terminator. It’ll never stop running until it receives a signal telling it to stop. The reason why you haven’t noticed it in your scholastics is because its effects have been diminishing. That’s only because Larry and Brad are forgetting about it.”

“Wait,” Larry said, touching his head. “You said that our brains are the media earlier, didn’t you? So—my brain is what’s keeping this running?”

“Like a computer program,” Elaine said.

Larry looked at his hands, obvious distress crossing his face. “How do I get it out?”

“I have something for just this purpose,” she said. “If you’d all like to accompany me across campus for the second time today, I think that we can resolve your situation once and for all.”

“Across campus,” Frog said, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder. “You mean to the Computing Commons? But what do you have in there—?” She quickly pinched off a smirk and put a hand on Brad’s arm. She used her other hand to grab one of the discarded tests to hide her face. “Wait a sec, you don’t mean the industrial degausser?”

“I haven’t used it on human beings yet,” Elaine said as she started stacking the journals up. She didn’t need them any more, after all, the photograph has been taken and they could be returned to the shelves from whence they came.

“What do you use this machine for usually?” Larry said.

Brad shook his head and chuckled. “They’d use it for erasing mass storage magnetic media,” he said. “What? I’m an Electrical Engineering major. Degaussing can be used to erase all the data on a hard drive. It shouldn’t do anything to people. I don’t think.”

“You don’t think?” Larry said.

“If it’ll get rid of what’s happening, I’m all for it.” Casey said she walked over and offered her hand to Elaine. “For blasting us at your brother’s house… I forgive you. Thank you for all this… Even if this doesn’t work.”

She took Casey’s hand to shake it and the other girl pulled her close and hugged her. Elaine froze momentarily with the sudden, unexpected touch and did her best to mirror the girl’s squeeze against her ribs and abdomen. It took her a moment to decide on what an appropriate expression might be, but before she knew what happened Casey released her and nodded. The other girl wandered away to collect her own backpack and Elaine looked at Frog uncomfortably.

“It’s rare for one of her ideas not to work,” Frog said as she stuffed the tests into her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “Sometimes that’s a problem.”

The group slowly poured out of the room into the brightly lit corridor beyond.

“It’s not going to erase my memory, is it?” Larry asked as he killed the light. He stood for a moment and peered into the room with worry lines etched across his face. After closing the door and locking it, he suddenly noticed that not only had nobody heard him—but they’d already made it most of the way down the hall to the stairwell.

Brad had his arm around Frog’s shoulder, smiling and laughing; Elaine and Casey stood shoulder to shoulder as Elaine showed the other girl something on her smartphone.

Larry trotted after them as quickly as he could with the stack of journals under his arm.

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