"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. 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 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.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
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Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer, and occasional haikuist. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet. You can find him at infomancy.net or on Twitter and Facebook as @stewartcbaker