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art by Alan Bao

Schrödinger's Outlaw

The small grey man walked into Ben Murphy's office and stared at him with enormous black eyes. Ben had seen a lot during his fifteen years as Sheriff of Chaves County, but nothing like this naked, spindly-limbed, huge-headed critter. For that matter, he couldn't rightly say whether the thing was a man or not, despite the lack of pants. Still, Ben knew the value of remaining calm and helpful, whatever the situation.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
The little man (Ben decided that was the simplest way to think of the critter) blinked its eyes. "Are you the Sheriff?"
The little man's small mouth didn't move, the pleasant baritone just seemed to come from thin air. Ben was impressed, but worked against looking startled, or looking around the room for the source of the voice. A lawman has to be calm and controlled at all times, or there won't be any respect for the law. That had been Ben's credo for his time in office and he saw no reason to change that now.
"I am," he said.
"My name is Oorlatu'u," the critter replied. "I was in your... jurisdiction and thought that we could help each other."
"What did you have in mind?"
"I am a bounty-hunter," Oorlatu'u said.
"Can't say I care much for your profession," Ben said.
"You are not alone in this dislike. Nevertheless, I have adhered to the local laws and customs quite scrupulously. I hope that will ameliorate your attitude."
Ben frowned at the big words and wondered if Oorlatu'u was trying to make him look ignorant. That was something Dell Martinson, the town's only lawyer, liked to do, and it irked Ben something fierce.
"Can I take it that you've bagged an outlaw?" he asked.
"I have brought in the Wichita Kid," the little man replied. "I have used a box rather than a bag."
At that the door opened again and two more creatures, identical to Oorlatu'u (at least as far as Ben could see) walked in guiding a metal box that floated about six inches off the floor. The shiny, black container was the size and shape of an upended coffin and its surface seemed to be seamless.
"The Kid's in there?"
"He is."
"What kind of box is that?"
"It is a quantum entanglement chamber," Oorlatu'u replied. "The Wichita Kid is inside along with a radioactive source and a flask of poison. If the atom has undergone decay then a special mechanism will have released the poison and the Kid will be dead. If the atom has not decayed, the poison will not have been released and the Kid will be unharmed. Since the decay of the atom is contingent on the influence of an observer, the Wichita Kid currently exists in a state of quantum uncertainty. Only when you open the chamber will the situation resolve itself into one outcome."
Ben opened his desk drawer, took out a wad of tobacco and bit off a plug. He rose and walked around the box, chewing thoughtfully.
"Is this not the custom in your jurisdiction?" Oorlatu'u asked.
"Can't say as I've ever seen anyone go to so much trouble before."
"The poster said he was wanted 'Dead or Alive'," Oorlatu'u said. "I know of no other way I could have brought him to you in the state you requested."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 5th, 2011
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