The Thing About Heisenball

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"The thing about Heisenball," Paulie tells me with a grin on their face, "is that you can't win. But you can't lose, either. Not really. It's not about the game."
Which is, I think, magnanimous, wishy-washy bullcrap. It's like everything else in life. There are only two possibilities: yes or no. Win or lose. Happy or sad.
But I roll my eyes and say: "I know. You've told me a million times." Ever since we started dating, I add in my head. Even if this is the first time I've asked for a game, it doesn't mean I'm stupid.
The court's smaller than I'd thought it would be: a square three paces across set inside a hexagon twice as large. The walls are a shimmery purple colour that changes slightly every time I look away and back again.
"You don't have to do this, you know," Paulie says as they set the ball in the centre of the square. "I don't blame you for anything."
I shrug, looking away. This is why I'm ending it, I want to tell them. I'm sick of your measured disinterest, your wishy-washy justifications. Why can't you admit it when things hurt you?
Instead, I ask: "What's up with the walls?"
"Let's just start the game," they say. "You'll understand after."
It sounds like a dismissal, which would sting if I wasn't pleased to have gotten under Paulie's skin for once. "Fine," I say.
They walk over to the wall near the door and flip a switch. The lights dim, and the shapes on the floor flicker into three dimensions. The walls glimmer briefly, then fade to black. From the corner of my eye I can see the ball glowing, but I'm too busy staring to ask about it.
"Cool, huh?" Paulie says. "But that's not the best part. Where's the ball?"
"Right where you put it. Now are we going to play or are you just going to talk down to... " I trail off. The ball, of course, is not where they put it. "What did you do?"
"Me? Nothing." I can practically hear the grin on their face. "You're the one who observed it and changed its momentum."
"What does that even—"
There's a whack, and next thing I know I'm lying on the floor with an aching shoulder, the ball rolling to a stop beneath my feet.
"Ah," Paulie says. "Your first conundrum." Laughter, barely restrained, in their voice. "Now watch... "
I'm about to demand an explanation when the walls light up with silent, flickering images. There's our first date on one wall, Paulie grinning at the look of concentration on my face while I try to fish a rubber duck out of a pond at the state fair. Another shows me, alone, and a third shows me looking utterly miserable as some blonde guy in sunglasses and a popped collar puts one arm around me in an empty movie theatre. Only I've never seen the guy in my life. There are others, too. Things I've never done mixed in with things I remember quite clearly.
"Why am I—" I start, but Paulie cuts in before I can finish the question.
"Ah ah ah," they say. "No talking about your observations. It's bad luck."
"You mean you can't see them?"
"Only the player who gets hit—that's what we call a conundrum—gets the observations. They look like they're on the walls, but it's just a trick of the light."
"Weird." I'm quiet for a minute. "Too weird. At least the ball's stopped."
But as soon as I say that it vanishes with a quiet little pop and appears right under Paulie's feet. They slip and land on their butt on the ground with an oomph as the ball ricochets around the room like mad, popping in and out of existence as it goes. It gives me a headache, and I look over at Paulie so my eyes have something real to focus on—just in time to see it hit their arm with a hollow, echoing whack.
It's dim in the room, but I can still see Paulie's eyes go unfocused. A moment later, they shake off whatever they've seen and grin. Then I find the ball, set it moving with a glance, and the game is on.
We play for what seems like hours. I see scenes I'd forgotten from our past together; scenes of things that never happened. Scene from what I guess might be the future. One time I see my own funeral—that I shake off immediately, looking at the ball so it moves away. Paulie, for all that they're more experienced, takes just as many hits as I do from the glowing ball. I don't ask what they see.
The lights come on again just after Paulie gets a conundrum, and they're sitting on the floor as the ball loses its glow and rolls to a stop against one wall. For a while, neither of us speak. We just stay where we are, panting.
After I catch my breath, I clear my throat. "I'm sorry," I say. "For whatever it's worth. For everything."
"Thanks," Paulie says. They look up at me, eyes moist but not crying. "And it's okay. Some of it was my fault too. And some of it was nobody's. Sometimes things just don't work out."
I think about everything I've seen in the past few minutes—choices I've never questioned before, playing out before me on the walls—and understand, suddenly, what Paulie means about there being no winning or losing. And why they never seem to get mad, no matter what I do.
I'm sad, then, for what I've had with Paulie. What we've lost. But only a little. Hiesenball's not just yes or no, win or lose, happy or sad. Neither is life. What matters more is who you're with when you play. Why you play. What it is you see on the walls.

About the Author: 
Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer, and haikuist. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future, Nature, and in other places. Stewart was born in England and lives in Oregon with his family. (This story first appeared in Daily Science Fiction in April 2017.)