Initiation Ceremony

The torches that lit the nar­row stair­well burned in­tensely and in the wrong color, flame like melt­ing gold or shat­tered suns.
192… 193…
Bren­nan’s san­dals clicked softly on the stone steps, snick­ing in se­quence, like dom­inos very slowly fal­ling.
227… 228…
Half a cir­cle ahead of him, a trailing fringe of dark cloth whispered down the stairs, the robed figure it­self stay­ing just out of sight.
239… 240…
Not much longer, Bren­nan pre­dicted to him­self, and his guess was ac­cu­rate:
Six­teen times six­teen steps was the num­ber, and they stood be­fore the por­tal of glass.
The great curved gate had been wrought with cun­ning, hu­mor, and close at­ten­tion to in­dices of re­frac­tion: it warped light, bent it, folded it, and gen­er­ally abused it, so that there were hints of what was on the other side (stronger light sources, dark walls) but no pos­si­ble way of see­ing through—un­less, of course, you had the key: the counter-door, thick for thin and thin for thick, in which case the two would can­cel out.
From the robed figure beside Bren­nan, two hands emerged, gloved in re­flec­tive cloth to con­ceal skin’s color. Fingers like slim mir­rors grasped the han­dles of the warped gate—han­dles that Bren­nan had not guessed; in all that dis­tor­tion, shapes could only be an­ti­ci­pated, not seen.
“Do you want to know?” whispered the guide; a whisper nearly as loud as an or­di­nary voice, but not re­veal­ing the slight­est hint of gen­der.
Bren­nan paused. The an­swer to the ques­tion seemed sus­pi­ciously, in­deed ex­traor­di­nar­ily ob­vi­ous, even for rit­ual.

“Yes,” Bren­nan said fi­nally.
The guide only re­garded him silently.
“Yes, I want to know,” said Bren­nan.
“Know what, ex­actly?” whispered the figure.
Bren­nan’s face scrunched up in con­cen­tra­tion, try­ing to vi­su­al­ize the game to its end, and hop­ing he hadn’t blown it already; un­til fi­nally he fell back on the first and last re­sort, which is the truth:
“It doesn’t mat­ter,” said Bren­nan, “the an­swer is still yes.”
The glass gate parted down the mid­dle, and slid, with only the tiniest scrap­ing sound, into the sur­round­ing stone.
The re­vealed room was lined, wall-to-wall, with figures robed and hooded in light-ab­sorb­ing cloth. The straight walls were not them­selves black stone, but mir­rored, tiling a square grid of dark robes out to in­finity in all di­rec­tions; so that it seemed as if the peo­ple of some much vaster city, or per­haps the whole hu­man kind, watched in as­sem­bly. There was a hint of moist warmth in the air of the room, the breath of the gath­ered: a scent of crowds.
Bren­nan’s guide moved to the cen­ter of the square, where burned four torches of that re­lentless yel­low flame. Bren­nan fol­lowed, and when he stopped, he re­al­ized with a slight shock that all the cowled hoods were now look­ing di­rectly at him. Bren­nan had never be­fore in his life been the fo­cus of such ab­solute at­ten­tion; it was fright­en­ing, but not en­tirely un­pleas­ant.
“He is here,” said the guide in that strange loud whisper.
The end­less grid of robed figures replied in one voice: perfectly blended, ex­actly syn­chro­nized, so that not a sin­gle in­di­vi­d­ual could be sin­gled out from the rest, and be­trayed:
Who is ab­sent?
“Jakob Bernoulli,” in­toned the guide, and the walls replied:
Is dead but not for­got­ten.
“Abra­ham de Moivre,”
Is dead but not for­got­ten.
“Pierre-Si­mon Laplace,”
Is dead but not for­got­ten.
“Ed­win Thomp­son Jaynes,”
Is dead but not for­got­ten.
“They died,” said the guide, “and they are lost to us; but we still have each other, and the pro­ject con­tinues.”
In the silence, the guide turned to Bren­nan, and stretched forth a hand, on which rested a small ring of nearly trans­par­ent ma­te­rial.
Bren­nan stepped for­ward to take the ring—
But the hand clenched tightly shut.
“If three-fourths of the hu­mans in this room are women,” said the guide, “and three-fourths of the women and half of the men be­long to the Heresy of Virtue, and I am a Vir­tu­ist, what is the prob­a­bil­ity that I am a man?”
“Two-elevenths,” Bren­nan said con­fi­dently.
There was a mo­ment of ab­solute silence.
Then a tit­ter of shocked laugh­ter.
The guide’s whisper came again, truly quiet this time, al­most nonex­is­tent: “It’s one-sixth, ac­tu­ally.”
Bren­nan’s cheeks were flam­ing so hard that he thought his face might melt off. The in­stinct was very strong to run out of the room and up the stairs and flee the city and change his name and start his life over again and get it right this time.
“An hon­est mis­take is at least hon­est,” said the guide, louder now, “and we may know the hon­esty by its re­lin­quish­ment. If I am a Vir­tu­ist, what is the prob­a­bil­ity that I am a man?”
“One—” Bren­nan started to say.
Then he stopped. Again, the hor­rible silence.
“Just say ‘one-sixth’ already,” stage-whispered the figure, this time loud enough for the walls to hear; then there was more laugh­ter, not all of it kind.
Bren­nan was breath­ing rapidly and there was sweat on his fore­head. If he was wrong about this, he re­ally was go­ing to flee the city. “Three fourths women times three fourths Vir­tu­ists is nine six­teenths fe­male Vir­tu­ists in this room. One fourth men times one half Vir­tu­ists is two six­teenths male Vir­tu­ists. If I have only that in­for­ma­tion and the fact that you are a Vir­tu­ist, I would then es­ti­mate odds of two to nine, or a prob­a­bil­ity of two-elevenths, that you are male. Though I do not, in fact, be­lieve the in­for­ma­tion given is cor­rect. For one thing, it seems too neat. For an­other, there are an odd num­ber of peo­ple in this room.”
The hand stretched out again, and opened.
Bren­nan took the ring. It looked al­most in­visi­ble, in the torch­light; not glass, but some ma­te­rial with a re­frac­tive in­dex very close to air. The ring was warm from the guide’s hand, and felt like a tiny liv­ing thing as it em­braced his finger.
The re­lief was so great that he nearly didn’t hear the cowled figures ap­plaud­ing.
From the robed guide came one last whisper:
“You are now a novice of the Bayesian Con­spir­acy.”


Image: The Bayesian Master, by Erin Devereux