By the Numbers
by Tim Major

Three hours to wait and no free seats.

Henry Polter shifted his laptop bag onto a less aching part of his shoulder. The bodies of sleeping backpackers littered the floor of the waiting lounge. Only the occasional wail of a child rose louder than the unhappy murmur.

A winding metal staircase led to a dining area suspended above the waiting lounge. Here, the only restaurant not packed with diners offered ‘a taste of the Savannah’. Henry wasn’t hungry but took a seat at a two-seater table in the corner, facing away from the rows of corpse-like backpackers laid beneath the mezzanine. He ordered the smallest possible dish, bread and smoked snoek pâté, and coffee. As the surrounding tables began to fill up, Henry placed his laptop bag on the unoccupied seat and unfolded his copy of Private Eye.

“‘Scuse me — is this seat taken?”

Henry’s brow wrinkled in apology. He didn’t look up. “Sorry. My friend’s just ordering.”

He took tiny bites of bread and pretended to be engrossed in the magazine, aware of the stranger’s hovering shadow. The man pulled the laptop from the chair and sat down.

“You haven’t got a friend.”

The man looked in his early thirties and wore round, John Lennon glasses. One of those guys who’d once been skinny and it still showed, a narrow head above a body full of bulges. Henry bristled but returned to his feigned reading. He sensed that the man was watching him.

“So what’s new, Henry?”

Henry stiffened. “What?”

“It’s been a while.”

The man wore a checked shirt over a Sonic Youth tee. His blonde hair parted in the centre, slicked to his forehead on either side, a style that hadn’t been fashionable since —

“Shit — Giles? It’s you, isn’t it?”

Henry held out his hand. Giles Freeman glanced down at it, snorted, and ignored it. That attitude hadn’t changed, then.

“What are you doing here? I mean, where are you going?”

“Edinburgh. You?”

“Philadelphia, for work,” Henry said. “Wow. It’s been, what, fifteen, sixteen years? It’s good to see you, man. Do you live nearby?”

“Mainly Edinburgh. Rhodes in the summer.” Another grin.

“Doing pretty well for yourself, then? What do you do?”

“I own a recruitment company. Pharmaceuticals. Vezeera.”

Henry reddened. “I’ve heard of you. I’m in pharmaceuticals myself. Editorial, terms and conditions, that sort of thing.”

When Giles didn’t respond, Henry continued, “I don’t mean to sound — you know — but you never seemed the type back at school. ‘The boy most likely to…’ You were sort of withdrawn.”

Giles laughed. “Withdrawn? That’s a fucking understatement.”

“Yeah. But we were friends, right? On and off. Swapping comics.” Even as he said it, his certainty evaporated. “But — wow, I haven’t thought about this for years — I’ve got this mental image of you, from way back. At the copse beside the playing fields, you with a huge tree branch, chasing me down.” He felt his cheeks blanche. “A look on your face like a demon. God, what were you even upset about?”

An expression difficult to pinpoint flickered across Giles’s face.

“I’ve thought about that day, over the years,” he said. “I wondered about it too. What you’d done to make me so angry. And I did work it out, eventually.”

“Oh? What, then?”

“Don’t look so terrified, Polter. It wasn’t anything you did. Blood sugar issues. Nothing serious, but enough to affect me if I fuck up my diet. On that day, do you know how many times the normal sugar amounts I’d had? Four times, Polter! Blood sugar problems plus adolescence equals one massive hissy fit.”

Henry relaxed a little, his shoulders unknotting. “I’m glad to hear it wasn’t me. Shame, because I don’t think we really hung out after that. I remember thinking you were a psycho. Hold on though – how do you know what you ate that day? Who remembers stuff like that?”

Giles smiled. “Hold on a sec. Just off to the pisser.”

Henry stared at the rolled up magazine, thumbing the pages. From the waiting lounge, announcements of gate changes punctuated the rising hum as backpackers roused themselves from sleep. His flight wouldn’t be called for another half hour or more, but he felt a sudden compulsion to be alone, away from this unwelcome echo from the past. Might he be able to lose him downstairs in that crowd?

When Giles returned and took his seat, he leaned across the table with both elbows on the plastic surface.

“You know how you said we used to swap comics? Do you remember how many you lent me? Eleven. And how many of mine do you think I gave you? Forty-four, Polter. And seven of those you never gave back.”

His voice had attained a harsh edge. Henry put his magazine down.

“Next question,” Giles continued, “If we were such good friends, how often do you reckon you sat with me at lunchtime rather than sit with your mates? No idea? Four. Thought it was more, did you?”

“Giles, what’s this all about?”

“Hold on, one more. You knew how fucking hard life was at home, didn’t you? Course you did.” A bead of sweat trickled from beneath Giles’s slick hair. “So how much time did you spend in my house or on the phone with me or hanging out with me outside of school?”

“I don’t—”

“Of course you don’t. But I do. It’s less than you’d think, Polter. Fifteen hours, that’s all. And that’s rounded up. Fourteen hours, fifty-two minutes. Can’t remember the seconds.”

“For Christ’s sake, Giles, what is all this?” Henry eyed the exit.

Giles beamed, all trace of animosity gone.

He rubbed his face. “It’s all right. I’m just yanking your chain. Like I said, it was ages ago. Impressive, though, right?”

Henry weighed up the benefits of playing along. But why should he humour this trumped-up little shit who belonged in the past?

“Impressive? All those numbers? Not really. No one remembers that kind of detail.” He shot Giles a look. “You don’t, do you?”

“Nah. No one does, you’re right. But those numbers, they’re one hundred per cent accurate, promise.”

Henry didn’t answer, but his expression must have said it all.

“Fuck it, I’m bored of teasing you, you stuffy old prick,” Giles said. “Are you sitting comfortably? So. School was shit and college wasn’t any better. Took me until uni before I worked out that not only was I a pussy, I was wasting time. The comics, internet, wanking, you name it. So I pulled myself together, figured I’d do something about it.”

“What’d you do? Stop masturbating?”

“That’s not it. It’s about knowing yourself, knowing your weaknesses, seeing the patterns. Ever heard of ‘the quantified self’?”

Henry shook his head.

“It’s on the web. It boils down to a bunch of people all figuring out exactly what makes them tick, just keeping tabs on everyday details.”

“Like how often you masturbate?”

“Shit, give it a rest. But yes, that, or how much TV you watch, or how many calories you eat. Collecting all the raw data. Every day.”

Henry glanced at the exit again. Five strides and he could be away. But to where?

Giles drummed his fingers on the table. Enthusiasm, not impatience. “It’s the bit afterwards that matters. Once you’ve got the data you can start extrapolating, start seeing patterns. For instance, whenever I had breakfast more than half an hour after I woke up, my mood stayed foul for the whole day.”

“OK, I’ll concede the point,” Henry said. The moulded plastic seat seemed suddenly uncomfortable. “That actually does seem useful.”

“I learned a shitload about myself. Hold on.” Giles pulled the phone from his pocket, prodded at it for a few seconds, put it back.

“I’m still not seeing the link to your memory trick,” Henry said.

Giles glanced around before continuing. “Here’s the thing. I get this email one day. Looks like the usual spam, except without spelling mistakes. It mentions ‘quantified self’ in the subject line, so I open it.” He leaned further forward. “Here’s a tough question. How much would you pay for all the data — everything numerical — about your life?”

“Like tax returns?”

“Don’t be a dick. This is what the email was offering. All the raw numerical data about me.”

“The number of hours you watch TV each day?”

“Going all the way back to the first time I ever saw a TV.”

“And how many times you’ve wanked?”

Giles nodded.



“But nobody could have that information.”

“Forget logic for a second. What I asked — what the email asked — was how much would you pay for it?”

Henry watched Giles’s twitching face. An accumulated shuffling sound from the waiting lounge below signalled another departing flight. He checked his watch. Still twenty minutes to go.

“Interesting. I guess it could be useful. You could learn a lot about yourself.”

“No shit.”

“How much?” This could be okay. Just play for time. “I guess… five hundred?”

“Five hundred?” Giles sneered. “We’re talking every bit of data from a whole human life, Polter.”

“All right, a grand then. No, two.”

“That’s more like it. So the email just had the blurb and then asked that question, ‘How much would you pay?’, and then a box to type into.”

Another droplet of sweat emerged from Giles’s hairline.

Just how much of nutcase was he? “You can’t type into an email someone sent you,” Henry said. “How would that even work?”

“I wasn’t taking it seriously either.”

“So you typed in a number?”


“How much?”

Giles paused, drumming both thumbs on the table. “Bear in mind that I was already really into this shit. I was spending an hour each day just logging what I was doing in the other twenty-three.”

“How much?”

“I took the question in the spirit it was asked. How much did I think it was worth, hypothetically? A lot, that’s how much.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, come on.”

“Ten. Ten grand. That’s what I thought it was worth.”

Henry snorted. “Bloody hell. Well, whatever. So what’s the point of this Aesop’s fable?”

Giles stretched backwards in his seat with a mock yawn. “An email came back straight away,” he said. “Not much in it, just the words ‘payment accepted’. That made me laugh. Ten grand’s a fair whack.”

“It is. But what does it matter? It was only hypothetical.”

“Hypothetical, yeah. It was, until I checked my savings.” He picked up Henry’s cup and slurped cold coffee. “Gone.”

“Fuck!” Henry was sitting up straight now. “But how? You didn’t give them your bank details, did you?”

Giles shook his head.

“What’d you do then? Call the police?”

Another shake. “A third email came through. And there, in all its glory, it was.”

Henry found that he was gripping the melamine edge of the table.

“The data, Polter. My data. All of it.”

Henry forced his fingers to release. “So you’re saying that the same person who magically stole ten grand from you then sent you a magical spreadsheet? With lists of figures about every aspect of your life, from birth onwards?”


“Jesus, Giles. You were kind of nuts at school, but compared to this… Are you on something? Medication?”

“No. Hold my seat would you? Need the loo.”

As he waited, Henry spun the coffee cup in its saucer with one finger. He glanced around the restaurant. Now, all the nearby tables were occupied. He picked up Private Eye, then put it down again. He beckoned a waitress wearing a leopard-print apron and ordered two fresh cups of coffee and, in response to the glaring waitress, two slices of milk tart.

Giles returned. “So?”

Henry reached back, scratched his neck, winced. “I’ve still got a while to wait for my flight. There are no other free seats in the whole terminal. And I’m kind of into your story, despite myself. So go on.”

With a look of satisfaction, Giles put his phone in his pocket and settled himself back into the moulded seat.

“Where was I?”

“The email, the data. What did it look like?”

“You know you get tabs at the bottom of spreadsheets, linking to different pages? There were tons of the fuckers, hundreds. But all locked, couldn’t see any of them except the first sheet. And all that contained was an empty text box with a flashing cursor.”

“That doesn’t sound worth ten grand.”

“Right. So I’m kind of in shock about the money, but still in that hypothetical frame of mind too. What do I do? I type in a question.”

“What question?”

Giles laughed. “You’d think it’d be something rigorous. Something revealing my inner nature. Nah. ‘How many fingers do I have?'”

“Fair enough. A question that could fool any crappy AI, I suppose. And did it answer?”

“It did. Ten. Written in big red digits underneath the text box.”

“Now we’re starting to see where the money went!” Henry grinned. “What did you ask next?”

“Well, I’d been logging data for the day anyway. So I tried asking about something I’d just put on my own chart. ‘How many hours of sleep did I get last night?’ Just wrote out the question like that. And there it was, seven-point-three-two hours, or whatever the fuck it was, in big red digits.”

“And you’re saying it was right?”

“It wasn’t what I’d recorded it the table. But then how do you know exactly when you fall asleep anyway? What’s the exact dividing line between sleep and awake? But it was pretty close to my own number. Then I try a bigger question. I ask it how many times in my life I’ve said the word ‘kettle’. Only just over two thousand, quite a surprise.”

Slow down. Maybe humouring him might do more harm than good. Maybe he was an escapee from some asylum or other.

“Giles, anyone could have made up a number in answer to that question. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“True enough. But it sounded halfway plausible. If it had told me I’d said ‘kettle’ six times, that would have blown it. So I asked a question that I knew the answer to. ‘How many different women have I ever made love to?'”

“Nice. How many?”

“Doesn’t matter. But it was right. At first I thought it was one out, then I realised that I’d counted one that didn’t really qualify as sex.”

Henry widened his eyes in mock surprise. “Still. Wow, that’s pretty great.”

“Yeah, so I’m getting really excited now. I try a different kind of question, something like, ‘What was the first word I spoke as a child?'”

“What was it?”

“‘Rabbit’. At least, so my mum tells me. But the dataset doesn’t give any answer at all. Cursor just keeps flashing. I reread the email and sure enough, it’s only numerical data that it can give, nothing else. I ask how far the Sun is from the Earth. Nothing. Fair play again — it can only give me answers about me, my own life, not general knowledge.”

“No good for pub quizzes then.”

Giles shrugged off the comment. “But then I input a load of questions about me, all with numerical answers. And it’s all coming out right, or at least right enough to sound real. The number of miles I walked that day, that week, year, ever. The volume of shit I’d produced in whatever time period. The whole thing was fucking true, Polter!”

Henry slumped down again into his seat. “You know what? For a minute I was getting carried away with you, can you believe that? But this is mental, Giles. You didn’t really believe all this?”

“It wasn’t a matter of believing. It was just happening. Now, think about it for a second. I could ask it anything and use the answer to sort myself out for the better. It wasn’t just a novelty. I had a job interview coming up a few days later. I got down to business using the dataset, analysing all the other interviews I’d ever done. Which things helped me get the job and which didn’t, even down to the number of times I said the interviewer’s name. All gold. Cruised through the interview with total confidence.”

“Nothing like being prepared is there?” Henry said. “All right, I can buy that. Ever heard of the placebo effect?”

“Fuck off. Anyway, so I started the new job. Call centre manager, nothing swish. But the dataset helped me work out how to deal with people. Went down a storm. Course, I still wasn’t prepared for what I discovered next. I was still logging all my normal data in the old-fashioned way at that point, Microsoft Excel sessions every night after work. Saw it as keeping the dataset up to date. And what do you know? They matched. The dataset had already updated.”

“You mean they sent you another one?”

“Nope. The same spreadsheet I’d saved to my PC, up to date with information about stuff that had happened that day, even.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Henry struggled to think straight. It was ridiculous, wasn’t it?

“I guess. But there you go.”

Henry spoke slowly, spelling it out. “Okay, so the magical spreadsheet is magically updating all the statistics of your life, every second. There must have been a fairy following you around with a clipboard, right?”

Giles shrugged. “Haven’t really thought about it.”

“Oh come on. Listen to yourself! This is the biggest imaginable pile of bollocks.”

“All right, I’ll be off then, if it’s going to be like that.” Giles stood up.

“Whoa, okay, okay. Sorry, all right? Sit down.” Henry felt oddly uncertain which of them was wasting the other’s time.

The moulded seat squeaked as Giles settled down again.

“So, you realised you had all the information about yourself, updating instantly forever more…”

“Pretty much,” Giles said. “But it was hard. Knowing so much about yourself, I mean. Kind of like looking into a mirror all day long. So I tried to turn it to my advantage again. Maybe it could help me get women.”

“Your plan was to get a girlfriend using the power of statistical data?”

Giles affected a wounded look. “It’s not so crazy. Anyway, I was just interested in knowing my own mind, remember? Stands to reason the dataset could help me order my thoughts.”

Henry stared blank-faced.

“Use your imagination, Polter. There were a truckload of girls in that call centre. Some I got on with, some that wouldn’t give me the time of day. And in all the other departments of the company too, hundreds of them. I was in and out of meetings the whole time. Maybe I was losing my nerve, not trusting my own mind. Seemed easier to consult the oracle, as it were. How many glances a day did I give to each of the girls on my team? How many minutes of conversation had I had with each? How many times had I come while thinking about them?”

“Good grief. I hope you mean when you were safely back home.”

“Very funny. But the point was that the dataset knew about my innermost thoughts. Unbelievable, right? And all the data seemed to point to one particular girl. Marianne, in HR. Pretty and all, but not outstanding, at least so I thought at first. But once the oracle had spoken, I was all eyes for her. Turns out that she was a real sweetheart. We just fucking clicked.”

“You started coming on to a girl because a spreadsheet told you to? That’s messed up.”

“Don’t be fucking facetious. It wasn’t a spreadsheet. It was my own mind I was looking into, I just hadn’t picked up on the signs. Every night, I analysed the day’s data about her, about our conversations and whatnot. The next day, I was even better at sweet-talking her. I was looking out for the little things. Number of laughs. Number of pauses longer than two seconds in conversation, showing one of us had lost interest. Number of times she touched her face when we were talking. If I phrased the question right, I could even work out how many times she’d glanced at me across the office, as long as I’d actually seen it with my own eyes.”

This was getting worse by the minute. “And you didn’t think this was a little, just a little, like stalking her?”

“Everyone does it. Only most people don’t know the answers for sure.”

Henry thought of his own attitude towards women, back in the day. It was a tricky point to argue. “Whatever. Presumably there’s a happy ending to all this? You and Marianne are married? Does she know about your little helper?”

“Never told her. And no. I don’t know where she is now. Still at her desk at the call centre, for all I care.”

“The girl of your dreams?”

“This is just an example, Polter. She wasn’t for me. Turned out that the more I talked to her, the less interested I was.”

“But all that data showed that she was your perfect match. What about the glances, the laughs?”

“That’s how it was at first, anyway. Time moved on and I was thinking about her less and less. Other girls’ faces, you know.”

“So the dataset told you that that you didn’t fancy her? How about the pauses in conversation and all that?”

“Long pauses, Polter. Long fucking pauses.”

Henry snorted. “And you don’t see what happened here? Was there any conceivable chance that the very fact that you had all this information might have changed the way you acted towards her? You don’t think that she might have weirded out a little when you kept acting like a stalker?”

One of Giles’s eyebrows twitched. “Sounds like you believe me now, at least.”

Henry struggled to keep his voice level. “I don’t know what to believe. But I do know that this story of yours is deeply, deeply sickening. I’m guessing you’ve still got your dataset? Do you use it every time you fancy someone?”

Giles shrugged yes.

“So here’s a question with a numerical answer. Since you got your spreadsheet, what’s the longest time you’ve spent in a relationship?”

“You’ve got to understand that with this data I can get pretty much whoever the fuck I want, Polter. It made me who I am today, made me rich.”

“How long?”

“Three, four months. Three.”

Henry shook his head and took a sip of coffee. “Three months. Quite a success story, Giles.”

Abruptly, Giles grabbed Henry’s hand across the table. “Listen to me. Listen to me. I thought you’d get it. They’re everywhere, and all you have to know is what to look for. Even here. Do you know how many women I’ve seen in the airport this morning? Three hundred and thirteen. How many I glanced at more than once? One hundred and thirty-five. How many looked back at me, meeting my eyes? Forty-eight, Polter.” He pulled his phone out from his pocket, brandishing it.

“Get off me.” Henry whipped his hand away. “So you’ve got the dataset on your phone, then? That’s what you were doing when you said you needed a piss, wasn’t it, checking data? About me as well as all those unsuspecting women?”

Giles grinned.

“And what are you going to do with all that information, you nutcase? Look around you,” Henry swept his hand as if to indicate every woman in the terminal. “These women don’t care about you, Giles. And if they did, your data isn’t going to make any difference. They’re human beings! Prick.”

Giles’s eyes darkened. He leant back, head upturned to the strip lights, then stood up. He slipped the phone into his pocket, took a couple of steps away, then turned.

“Whatever. So long.”

Henry remained alone at the table, both palms flat on the surface to stop them shaking.

It couldn’t be true.

Giles was just obsessed enough about analysing himself, so focussed on his own navel that he’d invented a story to rationalise his actions. Right? All this about ‘quantified self’. He’d become nothing but his own collection of stats, corrupted like cheap software.

A week or so ago, someone in the pub had told Henry about a self-experimenting scientist. Some ridiculous name. Sanctorius Sanctorius, Jesus. He’d lived in Italy in the sixteen hundreds, studying human metabolism. After deciding to quantify how his body processed food and turned it into waste, he’d spent thirty years sitting in giant weighing scales, measuring his own excrements.

Henry fished under the table for his laptop bag and turned to look at the departures board. The waitress with the leopard-print apron collected his payment. As he stood to leave, their eyes met.

He counted the seconds.


Originally published in Infinite Science Fiction One from Infinite Acacia.