We are searching for highly intelligent persons.
To locate them, we have created a test. Within this text, there is a hidden message. Discover it, and you will be one step closer to finishing your journey. We look forward to meeting you.
Do your best.
Alex’s pupils swelled into two black holes, reflecting the blue glare of her computer monitor. She’d been spaced out as she scrolled through pages of the typical Internet rubble; trivial pieces on some hotshot’s life, countless overused jokes, advertisements for products that promised eternal youth. But the lines of the simple message had woken her out of her stupor. There, in the letter, she had found a gem, and she was determined to solve the puzzle. After lighting up a smoke, Alex was ready to begin.
The hidden message wasn’t too challenging to find, it was the process of decoding that was boring. She knew that the image file information contained a cryptogram. Another cigarette later the note was revealed: “The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.”
Alex had read the quote before, she was sure of it. But she wasn’t sure from where, or who had said it. The officials had obliterated most books and blocked access to old knowledge online, so any information that was found, was often cryptic. Since she dropped out, Alex had spent many long nights unraveling codes to hack her way through firewalls. She enjoyed searching for any remnants of lost knowledge. If you dug deep enough through the mess of the Internet, you could even find whole books, but whether or not a book was authentic could never be known.
After three more cigarettes, numerous mistakes and a Bubbly Java, Alex had already made it to the sixth riddle. The message she discovered read, “The way forward is sometimes the way back.” She groaned. This probably meant she would have to start the process all over again, and find new cryptograms within the old ones.
Her father abruptly pounded on her door, which caused her to jump. “Alex! I told you not to smoke inside. We have a guest.” His tone was nicer than usual.
“Uh-huh,” she grumbled. He smoked more than her. A “guest” meant that her father had hired an escort for the night, and this was her signal to leave.
You should be grateful I let you stay here at all.
On the side of their house, although Alex was more inclined to call it a hole, the word “EYELESS” was spray painted across the wall. She had been declared blind at birth. The brain implant had not worked on her, because she was unable to see using Real Eyes. Everyone was given an implant after the new ruler took over the government. The people that did not respond to the procedure were branded crippled mavericks. You weren’t allowed to associate with the blind.
Blindness is the utmost mark of depravity.
Of course, the authorities knew that the blind people could still see using their organic eyes, but the citizens mustn’t understand that. Even the doctors were told that without the procedure, individuals could not see. The transplant allowed them to see the world only as the authorities would have them; scenes could be deleted or edited, entire landscapes could be created or removed. All of it was tangible to those who had Real Eyes.
Freedom from pain, truth and choice.
The city at night was a junkie’s paradise. Programmed commercial bots handed out a hodgepodge of drugs to citizens, essentially for free; pills that would lull you to a serene and carefree state, pills that would make you ecstatic, pills that turned you on. T liked the ones that could make you hallucinate; he almost never slept, and the visuals made him feel like he was dreaming.
T was a lanky, somewhat unkempt guy with long, turquoise hair. He and Alex liked to roam the streets together. Even though he wasn’t blind like her, he considered himself an outcast. His parents had neglected him because he refused to obey them or the law. Said his brain was faulty.
Alex and T made an odd pair. They were two strangers in a world overflowing with automatons.
“I need a hit. Want stardust?”
Holding out a bright pill the colour of algae, T’s tattoo of a grasshopper on his wrist was exposed in the blinding lights of the city. She had never noticed it before.
Alex breathed deeply, but nodded, “Yeah.” She swallowed it dry. Stoplights became red monster eyes, glaring at her from above. A bus became a gigantic caterpillar, crawling through the street at the speed of a snail.
“Can you feel it now?” T slurred, nudging her.
Before Alex could reply, a screen on a high-rise started flashing. Shrill sirens were blasting all around them. They watched as policemen in full armor marched out from a van down the street and ceased the citizens who were in their close vicinity.
“WARNING: A MESSAGE THAT HAS INFILTRATED THE INTERNET CONTAINS ILLEGAL INFORMATION. ANY CITIZENS WHO HAVE ENGAGED WITH OR RESPONDED TO THE MESSAGES WILL BE ARRESTED IMMEDIATELY.”
Alex felt as though the alarms were a blood-orange vortex, reeling around her faster and faster. Her heart was thrashing wildly in her chest and she was rasping for air.
The Boogieman is coming.
T grabbed Alex and hauled her into a filthy alleyway. The last thing she could recall was a man with a mask holding his hand over her mouth and pushing her into a tiny doorway.
I felt a smack to the back of my head, and I toppled over. “Don’t fret darling, I’m here.” His hand roamed over my chest and I gasped. “Go back to sleep.” He was holding me down, gripping my wrists. I couldn’t escape. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew who he was. I had nowhere else to go.
Alex woke up in a tiny, narrow room lit by torches. Although she was covered in a tattered blanket, she was shivering. Rubbing her eyes and rolling over, she saw T sitting on a chair across from her. He had been keeping an eye on her.
“Wh-what happened? Have we been imprisoned?”
T shuffled slightly closer to her. “We’re safe. I hid you so that the watch couldn’t find us.” He handed her a steaming wooden mug.
Alex took a sip and grimaced. “Ugh, what is this?” T smirked, a little amused.
“It’s a bitter tea to help calm you. You were freaking out. I think the sirens triggered you.”
“Where are we though?” She took another harsh gulp.
“Underground. It’s a tunnel. There are others with us.” He pulled a handful of papers from his knapsack. “There’s something I need to show you.” Alex’s eyes narrowed as she read the first few lines on the sheet.
“Hey, that’s my puzzle response. Why do you have it?” Suddenly, she became aware of a faint humming sound in the background.
Pulling his sleeves up, T’s tattoo was unmistakable. It wasn’t a grasshopper. It was a locust. “I was one of the chosen ones. I had to get you —”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me, T? Who are these people?”
“It was the only way to get you here safely. They’re Locust, an anarchist group that wants to overthrow the government. They’ve been in hiding for seventeen years. They needed people to help them.” Alex was shaking her head in disbelief. “People like us, Alex. If you’ll help us.”
She sat there for a moment, stunned. “There’s no way. You can’t do this.”
“We can, if we dismantle the system. The implants that connect everyone to the server can be switched off. That’s where we come in. The cryptograms, the codes, they were all a test to see if we could breakdown the center that controlled the citizens. But then I realized… maybe this wasn’t a good idea.”
T’s eyes were downcast. “Because, if we destroy the server, we could kill thousands of people. Maybe everyone. We don’t even know what the other consequences will be. People will wake up and see the world, but what if they don’t like what they see? That’s why I needed you. What do you think we should do?”
Alex glanced down at the paper, and thought to herself.
The way forward is sometimes the way back.