By Susannah Mandel

Note: This story is a game of skill. Can you solve it?

“Which door should we open? Help me think.”

“I’ve told you already, I have no idea!” Thad let himself sag back against the wall. Even with the support, he could feel himself trembling with fatigue and fear.

“Which one?” she murmured, studying the doors; her back was turned toward him, her hands on her hips. “Hell,” she said, “there’s a clue here somewhere. I’m positive. There has to be.”

“Elizabeth,” he started. “What…” His voice came out rasping and thin. It shocked him.

“This clue,” he said, groping for steadiness. “Explain this to me again, would you? What exactly are you looking for? How will you know it when you see it?”

“I should think it would be obvious,” she said. Turning to face him, she seemed to loom before his eyes, then suddenly recede. Expect disorientation, man, he thought, you’re badly dehydrated.

“We’ve been kidnapped by parties unknown,” she began, “–my vote’s still for aliens, by the way. Held, then dropped into this… this labyrinth, or whatever it is. Incredibly slowly, we’ve inched our way through it. Tackled games of skill, strength, wit–and learned that, incidentally, our captors aren’t above penalizing us for a wrong guess… “

“Exploding thresholds,” he muttered. “Weight-dropped arches, and that napalm thing–”

“Horrible stuff, yes. It’s clear they’d let us die here, and want us to know it. …That brings us to these doors.”

“Exactly.” Which stood before them now in a neat row. Heavy, simple, cold. Identical, except for their colors. The smooth surface of the first shone with a green luster; the second, white; the third, a pale, chilly gold.

Eyes throbbing, head pounding, he felt dehydration and low blood sugar beginning to take him down. “Why don’t you just pick one?” he demanded, seized by a convulsion of despair. “Hand on knob and shove it open. It’ll blow us up or it won’t. That’s better than waiting here to starve to death–or, God knows, whatever else they have in mind!”

Elizabeth scowled. “With due respect, Thad, no. Help me think this through. I know I can find the clue–”

“There is no clue, Elizabeth!” he said angrily.

“Everything can be understood if you look carefully enough. We can find the key. Help me think! It’s got to be here somewhere… They can manipulate everything in our environment, Thad. Examine everything. Where would an alien put the pattern? How would they hide the key?”

Impossible, but he tried. Think like an alien. Everything can be understood…

White, green, gold. How would a master manipulator hide the clue? It’s here, somewhere…

Thad felt the last of his energy leaving him, like a spasm of physical anguish, and closed his eyes to blot out the corridor and the brilliant, hopeless light. Elizabeth stood silently, still staring at the doors.

 * * * *

Is Thad right, or is Elizabeth?

Which door should they try?

First appeared at The Daily Cabal, July 9th, 2009

Susannah Mandel was born in California and grew up near Boston. She has since lived in Philadelphia and northern France, and is now heading for Japan. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Sybil’s Garage, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among others. Her flash fiction appears regularly at the Daily Cabal (www.dailycabal.com).

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