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art by Shothot Designs

Hypotheticals

D.K. Latta hails from Canada and has had dozens of short stories of SF, fantasy and horror appear in a variety of publications, including the webzine Strange Horizons, and the book anthology Lords of Swords. He has also written reviews of books, movies, and comics for various publications, including his own website: The Masked Bookwyrm's Graphic Novel Reviews.
"Picture this: an astronaut arrives on another world, searching for mineral resources. There's an unanticipated snag. Specifically, the exhaust from his stabilizers destroys the crops of a local farm lord. The astronaut did not anticipate encountering inhabitants, and is improperly trained for the encounter. Words are exchanged (through translation devices, of course), tempers flare, and the earth astronaut utters what is construed as a challenge. The farm lord has him placed at the base of a volcano, knowing that molten rock will pour over him. The air is thick with sulphur and radiation levels are beyond human tolerance. What does he do?"
Edward shifts slightly in his chair. "The whole thing seems a bit farfetched, don't you think? After all, it was an accident. Hey, is that it? The correct answer? The whole scenario is invalid because it's based on a false premise?"
"No. Though that's a highly original argument. But remember, you're dealing with aliens here. Their ideas on culpability, even punishment, have their own unique cultural foundations." I wait as he considers this grudgingly.
"Why doesn't he just walk away?"
"He's spread-eagle, the back of his gloves are affixed to the ground."
"With what?"
"Doesn't matter. But if he pulls free, the gloves will tear and the sulphur and radiation will flood his environment suit."
Edward thinks for a moment, then says, "He pulls free."
"No can do, I said--"
"He's secured by the gloves, right? Well, standard issue environment suits have an inner glove. Even if the outside one is torn, the body of the suit won't be compromised."
"That'll keep the sulphur out, true, but not the radiation. He'd lose his hands."
"But he'd live. He could make it back to his ship and get away."
I consider this for a moment, then make a note. "Fair enough."
"Where's his co-pilot in all this? Wouldn't it be more authentic to have them together?"
"The co-pilot's a non issue. He doesn't know where she is. O.K. Next question: an astronaut, blah, blah, blah. You know the scenario. The alien drops him into a forest with a methane atmosphere, crystal growths and sponges. Lots of sponges."
"Some forest."
"Well it is an alien world, Edward. In this forest are flying creatures who thrive on nitrogen. They store it in big sacks on their backs to see them through the methane."
"Like dolphins swim around underwater with a lung full of air?"
"Sure, whatever. They sense the oxygen nitrogen in his suit and can tear through his suit and extract his air, leaving him choking on methane."
"But if they need nitrogen...?"
"The oxygen's a harmless element to them--it won't hurt them."
"Can he out-run them?"
"That's what makes it so horrible. He can keep ahead of them for hours. But they don't tire. He does."
"Turnabout," he says suddenly. "If they store his air in sacks on their backs, he could tear into one and breathe it."
"It's three Earth-days out of the methane forest. He's going to do that the whole way?" I'm doubtful, but I get ready to mark it down. "Well, if that's your answer--"
Edward shouts, "Wait!" Then he grins sheepishly at his outburst. "Uh, just a minute, O.K.?"
I wait.
"They, uh, they want the nitrogen in his air--so they tear his suit. If his suit is violated, he dies," he mutters. "So how to keep them from tearing it in the first place...?" His voice trails off. Then he grins. "He voids his air."
"But--"
"The suit has a secondary tank... of oxygen helium. Intended for heavy atmospheres. He can breathe that until he gets out of the forest."
"Very good," I say, marking it down. "I wouldn't have thought of that in a million years."
He wipes a hand across his upper lip. A trickle of sweat starts down the side of his face.
"Are you feeling O.K., Edward? Is it too hot in here? I can--"
"I'm fine," he says quickly. "Let's... just keep going. How many more?"
"Just a few. You're doing very well," I tell him encouragingly. "How about this: our astronaut is put in a boiling spring, but the air is breathable."
"He's in the water with his suit?"
"Yes."
"The thermal compensators will keep him cool and--"
"Slow down, I'm not finished."
Edward grins apologetically.
"His head's above the water, but so are a flock of vicious bird things who want nothing better than to eat his brain."
"Can they survive the boiling water?"
"No."
"Can they punch through his helmet?"
"They can punch through just about anything. But they don't ha-"
"Fine," he interrupts eagerly. "He ducks beneath the boiling water since his suit will protect him. He just waits 'em out until they decide to seek easier prey." He folds his arms across his chest, cockily.
"You didn't let me finish. Who said he had his helmet? The aliens took it away."
His face freezes in that smirking expression. He stares at me for a moment. Then slowly, his lip starts trembling. "No," he whispers.
"I take it I should mark this down as an 'unable to solve'?" I give him a moment to try again.
But he's just screaming, straining against the straps that keeps him in his chair. "Please! Oh, God!"
Sighing, I mark it down, then rise. "Good day, Edward." The door dilates and I leave, not even listening as it cuts off his shrieks of protest. I go next door and I slither across the threshold.
The young woman jerks her head up, eyes wide with horror.
I try to put her at ease, saying jovially, "I know I look pretty repulsive, but you aren't much better from my point of view." She doesn't respond, so I just get on with it. "You and your pilot are responsible for the destruction of the crops of one of our local farm lords. In the course of the ensuing arguments, your pilot--and, by association, you--challenged the farm lord. Challenges are taken very seriously here, with forms that date back millennia. As the challenged party, the farm lord had the right to select the method of the duel. To whit: you will be presented with a series of hypothetical situations concocted by the farm lord. If you can propose a way to get out of all of them, you will be declared the victor. If, however, you should fail to come up with a reasonable solution to any one of the scenarios, then that's the scenario you will have to face.
"For real...."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 17th, 2010


My attempt in writing the story was just to create a good old puzzle piece--to present a curious situation that, hopefully, intrigues the reader and which they want to learn what is at the root of it.

- D.K. Latta

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