When in Doubt

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“There’s something you don't see every day,” Lydecker said, nodding up the street.
“The sunset?” asked Simmons, squinting into the purple-orange glare.
“That's something you do see every day. No, the dog.”
On the opposite sidewalk, regarding them with mild interest, stood a small brown dog. “What?” said Simmons. “I don't—”
He stopped talking, stopped walking, stopped breathing. The dog had just spread two brown furry wings, and with what appeared no more than a moderate effort it rose into the air and disappeared over the nearest rooftop.
“Come on,” Lydecker said. “We must be close.”
“We were right,” Simmons murmured, astounded.
“What were the odds, right?” said Lydecker. “So to speak. Too bad it wasn't a pig, but hey.”
“Where to now?” asked Simmons. As sensitive as their algorithm was, it could pinpoint the effect's source no more precisely than an area of a few square miles.
“Keep following the weird,” Lydecker said.
That was an accurate enough summation of the past year and a half, centered as their work was on a sophisticated statistical analysis of strangeness. They’d begun the study with a few strategic categories: odd weather patterns, reduced or elevated incidence of common illnesses, unexplained spikes in the populations of local wildlife. The scope of the analysis had grown, though, until it encompassed every shred of data they could get their hands on, each pattern and every deviation from it.
Simmons didn’t know offhand, for example, the variation in average daily precipitation in Boston between each of the past fifty Decembers, but he could’ve reached into the dataset and pulled that information out if he’d wanted; likewise the proverbial price of tea in any province of China; likewise the rising and the falling of the tides.
The algorithm they relied on to sift through this vast repository of information, correcting for expected variations and exposing the genuinely unlikely, was still a work in progress, but through constant tinkering they’d managed to tease the signal from the noise.
“Look!” said Lydecker, pointing down a side street; or rather, what should’ve been a side street, but was, today, a busy hospital corridor, complete with white-clad nurses striding purposefully around, multicolored guidelines snaking along the walls and floor, and flickering fluorescent light fixtures hovering eight feet in the empty air, affixed to nothing.
“It’s…” stammered Simmons.
“…a clue,” Lydecker finished. He turned to the street, hailed a passing cab, and pulled Simmons inside with him. “Hospital,” he told the driver.
This was their first encounter with such visibly outlandish evidence, but Simmons reminded himself that the oddities they’d tracked here, viewed in context, were every bit the statistical equivalent of flying dogs and displaced sections of buildings.
Simmons and Lydecker had joined forces over a mutual discomfort with the available interpretations of the quantum revolution that had played such havoc with classical physics a century before either was born. Neither had been able to swallow the doctrine that the universe was, at its most fundamental level, unpredictable; or rather, that such was a condition of existence beyond possibility or need of explanation. There must be a reason for such a counterintuitive state of affairs, both passionately felt.
For every binary question, there are, by definition, two answers, one of which must describe reality. The switch is either on or off. The cat is either alive or dead. There are only two possibilities: yes or no. But quantum theory throws that seemingly obvious reasoning out the window, insisting that the answer is neither yes nor no, or perhaps both at once, until observed to be so.
But why? That’s just the way it is, insisted every professor either of them had ever had. Accept it and get back to work. Both had followed the latter injunction, but refused, in their heart of hearts, the former. Until, in one of their endless beer-fueled bull sessions, the answer had occurred to them.
The human mind didn’t need to accommodate the universe’s uncertainties; the exact opposite was true. Reality actually had proceeded according to the old clockwork, deterministic view of physics, right up until the evolution of free will. Once a creature came into being capable not just of complex behavior but of truly, fundamentally unpredictable thought and action, strict determinism was impossible, since there was always a chance, however slight, that one of these strange free-willed creatures would do something contrary to expectations.
The first time that had happened, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, reality could’ve either ripped itself apart, or become the quivering jelly of uncertainty science now observed. Luckily, it had gone with the latter.
It was relatively simple to track significant deviations from the expected, ripples in reality cast by especially unlikely human actions. They’d already predicted the approximate dates and places of various accidents, discoveries, and cultural shifts; just not the nature of those events, to which the algorithm was unfortunately blind.
A cataclysmically unlikely event was about to take place nearby, one that would prove their theory beyond doubt; assuming they survived it.
The cab pulled up in front of the hospital, and they jumped out without paying, since the driver’s head had at some point transformed into that of a bull. They raced through the building, following a trail of writhing walls, giant insects, and waltzing corpses, to the maternity wing.
There, surrounded by hospital basinets occupied by types of flowers that had not previously existed, lay a single newborn, sleeping soundly, as if in anticipation of a busy life ahead.
“That’s it,” Lydecker said, straining to read the baby’s chart through the observation window. “That’s her.”
“What is she?” asked Simmons.
Lydecker shrugged. “The next Hitler, or the second coming of Jesus,” he guessed. “Or Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo. Or the first member of a whole new species. We can’t say.”
“We can say one thing,” Simmons corrected. “Things are about to get interesting.” With that, he became a bolt of lightning.

About the Author: 
Conor Powers-Smith grew up in New Jersey and Ireland. He currently lives in Massachusetts, where he works as a reporter. His stories have appeared in _Analog_, _Nature_, and other magazines and anthologies.