Branwen’s mobile phone shivered in her hand. It was Harry, her hyperactive younger brother. He was always a distraction. He could be a bit too much sometimes, but she was in a generous, and bored, mood.
“Are you in?” Harry said excitedly. “I’m outside – buzz me up.”
Branwen obliged. One minute later Harry stumbled into the flat clutching his new laptop. Branwen was surprised. Harry’s computer set-up in his own flat was usually untouchable, immovable, sacrosanct, with leads and dongles stuffed into every orifice. She only had to sit down heavily and he was on the ceiling.
“What’s up bro?” Branwen asked.
Harry sat on the settee and put the laptop carefully on the coffee table. He flipped the lid open.
“Look,” he said. “Come and see.”
Branwen sat beside her brother and stared at the screen. There was a display of six coloured balls bouncing slowly at random. On each ball was a number.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Can’t you see?” he said.
“It looks like a load of balls to me.”
“Ha ha. Very funny – but honestly, can’t you see what they are?”
Branwen shook her head. “Nope.”
“It’s tomorrow night’s winning lottery numbers.”
“But the numbers are changing.”
“Well all right. They’re not the actual numbers – not yet. The program is still running, it’s going to take another twenty hours. It’s analysing over a thousand complex spreadsheets.”
Branwen laughed. “Idiot! You’ve gone over the top this time.”
“No, listen. I’ve been working on it for months – years. I didn’t have the computer power before, but this new set-up I’ve got is awesome.”
“No one can predict the lottery, not even an awesome computer.”
“You’re wrong,” Harry said. “Look, let me explain.”
Branwen sighed. “Oh – all right, but let me open a bottle of wine. This could take some time.”
Branwen sipped the wine absently while Harry rambled on in his entirely logical way.
“It’s just mathematics, physics. It’s all about action and reaction – one thing follows another, it’s obvious. Can’t you see? For example, every lottery ball is different. Yes, I know they’re probably ultra careful to get each ball as identical to the next as possible, but no matter how hard they try, each ball will be totally unique, different, if only by a few nanograms – a few specks more dust on this one, and a variation in the specific weight of the inks or dyes in another – and that’s not even talking about the differences at the molecular level. Then, the other variables, like the ambient temperature, the humidity, the time of year, even variations in the radio signals that pass through the space. Every one of them is different – but, get this, it’s predictable. If you know all the variables, what state they start in, what forces are acting on them, and so on, you can predict exactly what will happen. You can predict the lottery numbers.”
Branwen shook her head. “I can’t even think long enough to consider all the variables. I mean just a few that have come to mind: the air pressure in the machine, the time it takes the announcer to tell some anecdote, the vibration of a passing aeroplane, the barking of a dog in the next street – it’s impossible.”
Harry stood up and gripped Branwen’s shoulders. “Yes, I’m not stupid. I know that. But don’t you get it? You don’t need all that.”
“I don’t get it – no.”
“How long has the lottery been going? I’ll tell you, it’s nearly twenty years. That’s a lot of data, a big sample, and that’s all you need. All you’ve got to do is examine that data, and the patterns, there’s always patterns, that’s how we do things: build bridges, fly aeroplanes, cook food, don’t you see – everything is done to a pattern, it has to be, otherwise it doesn’t make sense – it has no use, in fact, something without a pattern is nothing – it doesn’t exist. So, all you’ve got to do is find the pattern. The pattern has already worked out all the variables, it’s in their nature, that’s what they do – the patterns connect the dots – make things real.
Branwen screwed her eyes and stared suspiciously at her brother.
“I’m not going mad,” he said. “I can prove it. I started by trying to connect the numbers drawn to the dates of the draws, you know, the day of the month, divided by the number of the month, plus the square root of the year divided by the recorded temperature at the time the lottery was drawn – that sort of thing, but it was too simple, so I carried on adding variables and formulae and applying them to the history of the numbers drawn. Slowly, patterns started to emerge. At first it was just one or two numbers – not much more probable than you’d get by chance. I tested that – there was a definite difference. Then I got three numbers, before it fell away to just one or two again, until I realised I hadn’t taken the change in the hours of daylight into account – the sun is a very powerful variable. This went on for some time, and I added more and more important variables, until now there are more than a thousand. A few weeks ago I had enough confidence to actually run a real time prediction and buy a lottery ticket. I won forty quid with four numbers – since then it’s been three or four numbers every time. Look . . .”
Harry pulled a crumpled bundle of lottery tickets from his pocket. “See, I haven’t cashed them in yet. There’s about three hundred quid there.”
Branwen became increasingly astonished as Harry brought up each lottery result on the screen and compared them to the tickets he had in his hands.
“Are you sure you didn’t just buy loads of tickets and only kept the winning ones?”
“Don’t be silly. That would have cost thousands. Do you know the odds of winning just a tenner?”
Branwen nodded, she did. “But that’s still a long way from getting all six,” she said.
“Not as far away as you think. All I needed was to identify one or two more of the major variables – and I did – this week. The last one was the human population of the world at the instant the first number is drawn – to the nearest thousand, that’s predictable as well, but it took a few days to sort that one out – and a very big spreadsheet. So that was it – Bingo! It’s perfect. I checked back to the very first lottery – there’s a web site where you can do that, it lists every number ever drawn. I ran my program and it came up with the right numbers every time, including the last draw’s results. And the beauty is, I don’t need the variables any more. I simplified the equations, reduced them down to a simple pattern. Can’t you see? We’re going to be millionaires.”
“Well of course Branwen, you and me, we’re a team. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“I did nothing.”
“But you did, can’t you see? You’re a major variable in my life – after everything. Without you I wouldn’t exist – my pattern would never have been. You made me.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Not in that way – that’s just physical. Can’t you see? There’s so much more than that to existence.”
“Yes, all right.”
“So, tomorrow, you go out and buy a ticket. I’ll text you the numbers when the program has finished. I’ll get one as well.”
“Why do we need two?”
“Ah! That’s just in case someone else wins, then the share would be diluted with theirs. This way we get two bites. I know, I know, you’re thinking why I can’t predict whether someone else will choose the same numbers. Well I could of course, but then that would involve investigating a whole new set of variables – and that’s going to take time. Eventually, I’m convinced that I can speed up that process – until it could be done in an instant. In fact, eventually I’m sure I can find a pattern that fits everything, not just the lottery. It will predict the stock market, football games, Oscar winners, life expectancy, the lot. And if you can predict you can control. We can have it all Branwen. We can own the world. We will be immortal.”
Branwen noticed a gleam in her brother’s eyes, a gleam she had never seen before, as if a dark brooding monster was lurking there, a timeless demon woken up, ready to inflict his terrible rule on the universe. She shuddered.
“What’s up Branwen?” Harry looked concerned.
He was her little brother again. She shook herself. “Nothing, it’s nothing. It’s all a bit much, that’s all. I don’t know what to think.”
“Can I stay here tonight?” Harry asked. “I can’t possibly go home, and I know I won’t sleep.”
Branwen nodded. “Of course. You can sleep on the settee. She yawned. “I’d better get off to bed. The TV remote is on the coffee table – help yourself.”
“I won’t need that,” Harry said. “I want to run a few last minute checks, make sure everything works as it should, there’s a lot of numbers in those spreadsheets.”
Branwen went to bed leaving Harry stuck to the screen, his fingers a blur against the keyboard. She fell asleep quickly and drifted into a cacophony of weird dreams about Cleopatra and Darth Vader, about the planet covered in a pattern, like a giant’s spider’s web. She woke suddenly. It was dead quiet. She took her phone from the bedside table – 4:24.
Branwen crept to the toilet and afterwards looked in on Harry. He was curled on the settee in the foetal position, sucking his thumb in his sleep. Seeing him like that reminded her of the promises she’d made to her mother before she died. Harry was her precious little brother, he had no one else.
In the morning Harry made a great show of preparing breakfast in the small kitchen. All the clattering woke Branwen up. She waited patiently. She knew what was coming, even she could predict that.
A few minutes later the door to her bedroom creaked open slowly and Harry edged in carrying a tray. Branwen eyed him through her fingers as he hesitated, looking for a space to put the tray.
“Are you awake?” he whispered.
Branwen opened her eyes. “Good morning Sunshine,” she said, a phrase she’d repeated almost every morning in the years after their mother’s death and before Harry went to university. He’d looked so nervous that morning as she waved him away on the train. She went home and cried for hours.
By the time Harry graduated, the house had been sold, raising enough money to buy a cosy modern flat each, half a mile apart; and enough in the bank to allow them an easy ride, for the first few years at least.
The tray contained, as usual, enough toast and marmalade to keep Paddington Bear happy for a month, and, as usual, Branwen ate it all, as Harry enthusiastically expounded his latest mathematical theories.
Eventually, stomach full of soggy bread, and head full of soggy words, Branwen got out of bed.
“I need to get ready,” she said. “I have to be in work in an hour.”
Harry laughed. “That’s a bit pointless Sis. You’re going to be a millionaire tonight.”
“Of course,” she said, “but still, I enjoy my job. Saturday is my favourite day – you meet so many interesting people, listen to their stories, make them feel good about themselves.”
“It’s just hairdressing,” Harry said.
Branwen shook her head. “Nothing is just anything Harry. You should know that. We’re all different, all unique.”
“I guess so. Don’t forget to get the lottery on the way home.”
Branwen had a good day at work. She made the most of it, knowing that things were going to change dramatically. It was probably going to be her last day. On her way home she dutifully bought the lottery ticket using the numbers Harry had texted her. She crossed her fingers and mumbled a little prayer: ‘Please God.’
When she got in she found that Harry had been shopping. The coffee table was laden with his favourite snacks and crisps, items that she’d had to get to like too.
“There’s a bottle of champagne in the fridge – for later – for when we win.”
Harry punched the air with joy. “Yee-Hah.”
“Here’s the ticket,” Branwen said, handing it to Harry.
“Great,” he said. “Not long to go now, less than one hour.”
Branwen steeled herself. She knew it was going to be a challenging time. This was a big one.
Harry didn’t stop talking about what they were going to do afterwards. First – a holiday, somewhere quiet. He’d invest in the best computer money could buy – even if it cost a million it didn’t matter. It would make them unimaginable billions.
Branwen nodded and fed him a stream of nibbles from the table, and cups of chamomile tea from the kitchen, while he chattered incessantly in the living room.
The moment came. Branwen sat next to Harry on the settee and put her arm around him, pulling him tightly, tears forming in her eyes. She took a deep breath and braced herself.
The first ball came out. It rolled into the tube, every turn taking forever. She gripped Harry more tightly.
T-W-E-N-T-Y-F-I-V-E the announcer said as if he was speaking underwater.
She looked at her ticket, she looked at the screen. She could feel Harry fidgeting, shaking, next to her. Twenty five was not one of the numbers they’d chosen.
The second number came out, the third. Not one of them matched their numbers.
Harry was shaking, gurgling, fitting. His eyes rolled back into his head.
Branwen held Harry’s hand in the back of the ambulance. He’d been stabilised and was sleeping twitchily.
In the hospital, Branwen sat at his bedside, waiting for him to come round, she had to be there when he did. He’d need her more than ever,
She felt a little guilt, but she knew she’d done the right thing. She’d found the thousand spreadsheets while Harry was sleeping, sucking his thumb. She’d changed one number in one cell of one spreadsheet – she didn’t know which one; and she didn’t know if her actions had made any difference to the outcome, but she did know that it had been the right thing to do. In fact, considering all the variables, it was the only thing she could have done.