The Thing About Heisenball Stewart C Baker
“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.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know. You’ve told me like a million times.” Ever since we started dating, I add in the privacy of my own 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 about 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 center 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 magnanimous bullshit 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, then,” they say. “You’ll understand after.”
It sounds like a dismissal, which would sting if I wasn’t so pleased to have gotten under Paulie’s skin for once. “Fine,” I say.
“Here we go, then.”
They walk over to the wall near the door and flip a switch. The lights in the room 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 do anything about it.
“Cool, huh?” Paulie says. “But that’s not the best part. Where’s the ball?”
“Right where you put it, in the center of the square. 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 from their voice. “Now watch…”
I’m about to demand an explanation when the walls suddenly 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 with some blonde guy in sunglasses and a popped collar, looking utterly miserable as he puts one arm around me. 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, and the ball ricochets around the room like mad, popping in and out of existence as it goes. It give me a headache and I close my eyes just in time to hear the hollow, echoing whack as it hits Paulie straight in the arm.
It’s dim in the room, but I can still see Paulie’s eyes go unfocused for a moment, before they shake off whatever they’ve seen and grin at me. 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 shared past together. Scenes of things that never happened. Scenes 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 from where they’re sitting, 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 just in the past few minutes–choices I’ve never questioned before, playing out before me on the walls–and understand, suddenly, what Paulie’s meant all this time 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 about the game. 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.
Previously published in Daily Science Fiction, April 2017. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
Become a 2022 Super Subscriber!
If you’re a fan of our bold, brief, and beautiful fiction, we hope you’ll consider purchasing a 2022 SUPER SUBSCRIPTION. You’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to publish amazing stories by talented writers… plus you’ll receive the following benefits (details listed below)
- 12 monthly issues (+ a vote in our first FFO Reader Awards!)
- bonus content from our authors
- live events on our Discord server
- one FFO annual anthology
- your choice of one ebook from an author or staff member
- entry to our $100 gift card giveaway
Support Flash Fiction Online
Flash Fiction Online is a free online magazine that pays professional rates. So how do we make that happen? It’s due to the generosity of readers like you.
Here are some ways you can help:
Sign up to become a monthly donor. Read more…
Subscribe to FFO.
Never miss an issue! E-reader formats delivered to your inbox. Available from WeightlessBooks.com
Buy our issues & anthologies.
Consider a one-time gift that fits your budget.
Advertise with us.
Have a product, service, or website our readers might enjoy? Ad space available on the website and in our e-reader issues. Sponsored posts opportunities are also available. Learn more…
Spread the word.
Love one of our stories or articles? Share it with a friend!