Ask the Next Question: stories + images inspired by Theodore Sturgeon - Carl Rauscher

When I finished reading "Microscopic God", I felt a little chill down my spine, knowing a day would come when Mr. Kidder ran out of questions to challenge his evolving creatures. They'd already demonstrated they would abandon his rules to keep the instructions coming, so he'd be forced to seek outside the barrier for a new source of challenging questions or face the consequences of a runaway population of determined (and angry) problem-solvers. Mr. Kidder, however, isn't the sort of man who'd admit he wasn't smart enough to solve a problem he created...


By Carl Rauscher

 Congratulations! It takes a skilled mind to complete all five challenges in this year's Kidder Challenge, and your unique solutions stood out from among the hundreds of contestants who participated. I'm sure you'll have a lot of questions about what comes next, but I hope you'll allow me to diverge a bit from the traditional announcement letter and share some history about the contest itself.

The Kidder Challenge, as you've probably surmised, is inspired by the work of James Kidder, who vanished a decade ago after leaving a legacy of inventions and discoveries that stagger the imagination. We constructed this challenge in the hopes of finding other talented minds like his, which is why we pose five questions of increasing difficulty that require expertise in diverse fields of study to achieve elegant solutions.

Our efforts succeeded in coaxing the brightest minds out of obscurity, but not in the way we expected.

Mr. Kidder himself reached out to us two years ago, in a manner that left no doubt as to his authenticity, and offered a sizeable contribution to our prize pool on the condition that we allow him access to the winners. We eagerly complied with his requests and when the grand prize was announced our contest servers were deluged with a quantity of entries far exceeding our expectations.

Increased attention demanded tougher questions, so I personally crafted a series of devious problems that were by any measure harder than any prior challenge. I underestimated the tenacity of our audience, for the final question received close to a hundred correct answers! There was even a few that appeared sound but defied conventional logic. I proposed eliminating those entries as random guesses, but Mr. Kidder strenuously objected. He insisted they be chosen as the true winners and arranged to pick them up for an exclusive awards banquet in their honor at his private residence someplace in New England.

I wish I could tell you what that banquet was like, but only the winners were invited to his estate. We hoped to entice one or two to give us an interview or perhaps act as honorary judges, but Mr. Kidder assured us they were actively engaged in a project of great importance and could not be bothered. I tried to learn more of their assignment under the pretense of shaping the next contest's solutions to target similar minds, but he dismissed the idea, saying answers were less interesting than the questions that spawned them. He suggested we focus on making the next challenge more difficult and hung up.

I was more determined than ever to impress our benefactor, and contracted for the use of a local university's supercomputer to aid in devising the hardest questions ever, throwing out any that the machine could answer in less than a day. As the weeks went on, I found myself spending more and more time at the university, tweaking the program's parameters to make the questions nearly, but not impossible to answer.

One night, when I was overtired and staring at the blinking cursor awaiting the next potential question to test, my exhaustion led me to accidentally hit 'start' without entering one and the computer dutifully went to work. I did not catch my mistake and thought perhaps that I'd finally found a worthy question for the contest.

When I arrived early the next morning, I found the testing program had indeed continue to operate, but was shocked at the results. The software had taken over most of the available memory, rewriting idle program code into bizarre parodies of their original purpose and aggressively seeking to override password protections that would grant unfettered access to the internet.

I immediately reached for the mainframe's power switch and shut it down. Still shaking from what I had seen, I called the university's IT supervisor at home and he had his team perform a complete wipe of the internal memory, then run every antivirus and malware program they could before turning the supercomputer back on.

An email from Mr. Kidder arrived in my inbox less than an hour later. The message was short - "Keep the questions coming. Not every computational machine has an 'off' switch."

I guess I always knew he saw our work as more than just an intellectual exercise, but those two  sentences sent a chill down my spine. His brilliance was so far ahead of mine, yet his need for questions seemed to pale in comparison.

Sorry, I didn't mean to ramble on so long. This is about your achievement, not some idle musings of a weary puzzle designer and I'm sure you'll make a valuable member of Mr. Kidder's team. If not, I sure could use someone with your abilities to help me with next year's Kidder Challenge.

Any questions?


When CARL RAUSCHER was young, his mother told him he could be anything he wanted and he's tried hard to accomplish just that. He's driven a nuclear submarine, landed a Cessna plane, hunted squirrels with a slingshot, shook an astronaut’s hand, got kicked out of a midnight showing of Rocky Horror, drove a truck while talking on a CB radio, sailed across Long Island Sound in a rented sailboat, played D&D with Gary Gygax, ordered food in a foreign McDonalds, rode on a firetruck in full gear with the sirens blaring, blew the engine of a car in the middle of nowhere, watched a baseball game from the Green Monster at Fenway, and appeared in a major motion picture (or at least his elbow did.)  Despite his colorful history, Carl lives a fairly uncomplicated life in suburban Maryland with his wife and daughter, and he writes fanciful stories when he can.

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