Friday, 27 January 2017

Prompt 27: A Matter Of Life And Death And Puzzles

27. Closed Doors: What’s behind the door? Why is it closed?

Inspired by a "difficult" question posed to Professor Brian Cox at the beginning of The Infinite Monkey Cage this week.  A question he nearly got right but which I didn't even need to solve because the question had been posed so many times before.

The question was a challenge to say fifty words in a minute - none of them the same - that didn't contain the letter A.   Ready, steady, go!  Did you manage it in half a minute, while the music from Countdown was playing?

I thought I'd won.  The tests they set me hadn't been too difficult.  Not for me.  I don't say that because of some sense of pride or an arrogance in my intellect.  Don't think that of me.  I'd been raised for this.  Almost from birth I'd been surrounded by puzzles in my toys, my books.  Every day from the age of six I would be tested and challenged by family members to solve some conundrum or other.  So much so that they became almost second nature to me.  There were many problems I didn't have to consciously consider anymore.  Show me the terms and conditions.  My head would instantly create a picture of everything, turn it around and the solution appeared.  Other problems were harder but almost instinctively I'd know how to tackle them and reach the right answer or answers.

I always knew I'd be a candidate for The Testing.  They told me so.  Told me I'd be amazing.  Told me that if anyone could beat the system it would be me.  And I believed them.  I passed the qualifying exams with flying colours.  They were easy for me.   Nothing there I hadn't seen before.  Some of the puzzles were exact duplicates of ones I'd solved.  Boring.  When the results came I knew with certainty that I'd be one of the three candidates chosen that year for The Testing.  I knew it.  Because I knew that I hadn't got a single question wrong.

I wasn't excited.  This was what was expected of me.  Nothing more, nothing less.  This was my life for better or worse.  I was scared.  Nobody had beaten The Testing in my lifetime.  Eighteen years old and I didn't have a single person to look at and say it could be done.  Yet I believed.  I would win.  The prize was worth the risk.  A seat high up in the government.  If I achieved that then finally the resistance would have someone on the inside to legally effect change and bring a measure of social freedom.  The alternative was death.  Each puzzle would be self contained in a room with two or more doors.  The correct solution would lead to a choice of door that would open to lead into the next room of The Testing compound.  Any incorrect answer would lead to a door that would lead into the next life via a painless death.

Nothing had been too hard for me although there was a steady progression of difficulty.  The first rooms were trivial.  One of them made me laugh and wonder why they bothered.  No candidate would be challenged by a puzzle like this:

Two doors.  One leads to life.  One to death.  A man is in the room and instructions are given.  This man either tells the truth all the time or he lies all the time.  You are allowed to ask one question and then choose a door.

I ask you.  Where is the challenge in that?  It's nothing that I hadn't seen before, dozens of times.  After that The Testing grew much harder and I found I was having to think about things.  Very carefully.  When death is one of the options you check your working out very carefully.  Logic tests, maths tests, probability, sequences, word play.  On an ordinary day I'd have been excited by it all.  But this was no ordinary day and I was getting tired.  There's no resting in The Testing.  Every puzzle is timed.  If you haven't opened a door before the limit is reached you are automatically disqualified.  By means of a poison gas.  Painfully.  It's better to guess than to fail to answer.  At least that way you don't suffer.

The room I'd just left had thirty-one doors leading from it.  A horribly fiendish question about the lives of eighteen people, with just enough information given to work out the date of birth of all of them.  The final date found led to the solution.  They only gave me fifteen minutes to sift through all the information, collate it all in my head, hold it all in place and connect the dots.  I'd only just made it.  With just a few seconds to spare I knew I was right.  The fictional Henrietta - who had a green shirt, blue shoes, lived in the fifth city, liked toast and could juggle six balls - was born on April 2nd.  I had to open door two.  I ran to it and opened it, breathing a sigh of relief that I hadn't mucked up my solution somewhere.

This was the final room.  A sign said so.  Just one more puzzle to solve and I would have won.  After that last mental stretch I believed I deserved it.  But this was no puzzle.  I could see that straight away.  There was only one door.  No choices.  This must be a trick.  A congratulatory room and then I'd be welcomed into the governmental palaces and begin my life's work for my people.  It must be that.

Printed on the door was a message.

This door may lead to life.  It may lead to death.  Each option is equally likely.  Congratulations.  You have solved every puzzle.  But not every puzzle has a sure answer.  Sometimes you need to guess, take a chance.  Sometimes government isn't about knowing whether you are doing the right thing.  It's up to you.  Do you take the chance?  Do you open the door?  Please note there is no penalty for not opening the door and you will be released back into the city.

I weighed my choices.

Sit and wait.  That gave me a 100% chance at living.  A 100% chance at failing in what I'd been raised to do.  I'd be disgraced.

Open the door.  That gave me a 50% chance of living.  A 50% chance of death.  And a 50% chance of victory.

I didn't want to die.  I didn't want to lose the control and certainty that I'd always had.  I hated this puzzle that wasn't a puzzle.  Random wasn't fair.  Not fair at all but I knew that I had to open the door.  Take a risk, the first real risk I'd ever taken.

I walked up to the door.  Took a few very deep breaths.  Turned the handle.  Pushed the door.  And walked through.  Life.  Or death.

[1056 words]

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