Powers of Observation

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** QUANTUM SHORTS 2021/2022: SHORTLISTED

>> Read an interview with the author

 

Observer wanted, the ad read. Top pay plus eigenbonus for the right applicant with stamina and discretion. I scratched my wiry head and chewed on the end of my stylus. I’d been out of work for four months since the university imploded, my benefits and housing allowance about to expire. The ad was cryptic but enticing. Observe what? I wondered. But how hard could it be?

I flipped a coin: three moons up. So I applied.

A reception mech led me down the corridor to a door with a small inset arc of crystal. Meant to resemble a moon in early phase, it glowed velvety black with a halo of silver at its edges. Nice effect, and expensive. I calculated the crystal import and artisan fees, running the numbers in my head like a devotion, and relaxed. This place could pay.

Inside, the Director sat me at a mahogany table. I could see my reflection and hers in the gloss. Jet-black hair pulled into a complicated knot at the base of her skull, a tailored ebony suit with lapels like pinned daggers, tiny diamonds in her ears, skin caramel and flawless. Her eyes glittered behind lavender contacts.“We don’t get many applicants from botanical math,” she said.

“My field is a little crowded, and I’m ready for something different.”

“Well, your assessments are a match. Observers need a very specific temperament, organic yet precise. Let’s audition you.”

We stepped into an adjoining chamber of oddly indeterminate size, and my eyes blurred as she fitted me with goggles. “These interface with the chamber, powered by splendifying math. Field panels in each surface feed the math to your goggles, and your brain does the rest.” She touched a zone on the goggles’ rim and I was splendified, in a milky puddle swirling with stars. The puddle whirled around me, tightened. I fought down nausea. “The symptoms will fade, and if we hire you, we’ll provide supplements to replenish your neurotransmitters.” Glowing geometries flew up at me, and the Director showed me how to select the right group and melt into it until the target scene stabilized. “You can’t be seen, but avoid collisions with objects or the targets. It’s delicate work, like surgery.”

I zoomed past triangular buildings, sculptures in a narrow park, a kid on a uniscooter. My pinprick of light settled in a spot the Director swore would be free of spatial conflicts, next to a dragonfly ticking its wings like a windup toy. The target approached, his shape fuzzy. I encompassed his satchel, his loose sleeves, the paperfilms he shuffled. There! An equation and a credit figure scribbled in a margin, the symbols rippling like water. Math flowed through me and the text settled, sharp and clear. I double-blinked, sending it back to be logged by the receiving field.

The Director removed my goggles and steadied me. “This was a recorded scenario; your real work would be live. There’s a nondisclosure, of course, and a quarterly eigenbonus depending on our profits and your performance. We use four Observers, but to keep the collapses clean, they’re not allowed to interact. We’ll be in touch.”

I got the job. By three weeks in, the nausea and dizziness had passed, and splendifying math was my new best friend. “It’s all about nudging the wave function, collapsing it in a particular direction,” the Director told me. “Observations, amplified. We’re reality consultants. Small changes make big money.” Zipping into a lemon jumpsuit before work, I admired my upgraded quarters. I even let myself think, briefly, about a permanent homestake.

In my dedicated chamber, behind a door with a ruby sun, I spun vectored solids into patterns like symphonies, coaxed magma between mantle shelves, lavished symmetries on the turbulence of stock exchanges, and stirred atmospheres into friendly gas blends. I made people walk toward each other, or away, at the right moments. In that room I was a goddess.

But the work changed my dreams: I chased irrational roots through my childhood warrens, singing them home but hearing only echoes. Once, brushing my teeth, my mouth multiplied into a hundred gaping mouths, and I couldn’t remember what to do next. Cooking or writing a report, I was struck by déjà vu. I began to fear colliding with myself at every corner.

It got harder to make decisions. Salad, soup, or noodles for supper? I paced before my kitchen unit, staring at nothing. And was the Director glowering at me when we passed in the halls? Even my first big bonus didn’t shake the ominous feeling.

At my next review, I cradled one hand in my lap, nails bitten and rough. The Director gazed out at the blue mist settling on the hills where the first of three moons, just risen, hung like a ghost lamp. “By the numbers, your predecessor excelled beyond hope,” she said. “His record still stands. But something went wrong, a cognitive decline. We’ve adjusted our screenings, but this field is so new.” She glanced down at the table, where her reflection swam and sputtered next to mine. “I want you to get checked, next week. I’ve made the appointment.”

―――

I lean my head back against the medical office wall, eyes closed. After batteries of tests, the docs recommend two months of therapy at a brain spa, at company expense. They’re doing the paperwork now. “At the seashore, mountains, or deep forest?” they ask. “Your choice.”

Images of the late university float through my mind: my office cubby, the quadrangle, lecture halls. Meetings with nodding heads and busy styluses. The financial shock wave that collapsed it all. Did an Observer’s splendid math nudge, nudge all that away?

The docs are waiting. I sigh against the thud in my temples, and the math limps through my brain. Seashore, mountains, forest.

It’s a lot to think about.

 

About the Author: 
Charmaine Smith currently collapses the wave function in coastal California, where she plays with words and worships a tabby who outsmarts the box every time. This is her first piece of short fiction.
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