A year has passed since I went completely off the grid, like a ghost among the lifeless masses with no prior records of having ever existed. It’s 0600 hours, and I begin to do the daily deeds of a new day. I eat my breakfast and drive to the facility. I reach there at precisely 0800 hours as I have for the majority of the last year.
I sit down at my desk and turn on the PC to begin my daily work.
To hear everything, see everything, know everything.
I am the glue keeping this fragile world together.
I am the reason things happen.
I am one of the many.
I am #3301.
Whatever you’ve read and will read further, remember it, for this is meant to be burnt after reading.
My phone rang for almost five seconds before I woke up out of my deep slumber. I picked up the phone and was received by a familiar voice. Even though I was jet-lagged, my brain was able to comprehend the words it was receiving.
“I know you were probably asleep, but you need to check this out. You’ll love it.”
“What is it?” I replied in my gravelly morning voice.
A notification popped up onto my screen.
“Check out the link which I just sent. You’ll know what to do. Anyway, I’ll call you when it’s morning at yours. See you soon, man. Bye.”
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t even slightly curious.
So I opened the link which led me to an image with a message on 4chan. More than a thousand websites on the internet are unheard of, 4chan was definitely one of them. The text in the image was pretty straightforward. Still, after years of solving the most demanding algorithms and cryptic mazes, one develops a knack for questioning everything.
Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in the image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us.
We look forward to meeting the few who will make it all the way through. Good luck.
I read the text and got down to figuring it out at 2:00 AM. Nothing was leading to any sensible clue, except for the ‘hidden’ part on the surface.
I opened the image in a text editor, and there was the embedded link leading me to the next clue. At first, it looked like gibberish, but all it took was a simple shift cypher, one of the most popular cyphers from the Roman times, and there I was on a Reddit link and a book code in hand.
Reddit. I thought to myself and humoured it had to be related to this in some way or the other.
So far, this had been relatively easy—also because I wasn’t the only one on this wild goose chase. The Reddit link led me to a subreddit which already had the masses joining it. I used the book codes and found The Mabinogion in it.
After 4 cups of coffee, the neurons in my brain knew no rest. It felt like my sleep receptors never existed as I rapidly connected the dots with the clues and highlighted the letters that the clues led me to in a PDF of The Mabignon. No, wait, Mabigonion. Nevermind, the book.
As it turned out to be, the letters were a phone number. I dialled the number as soon as I figured it out. I expected the line to be busy, but I was received within seconds. Did I dial an utterly random number? Was it even an actual clue? Or was I just late to the party and the others have already gone ahead?
My thoughts were interrupted by an almost robotic, automated voice.
“Very good. You have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final.jpg image. 3301 is one of them. You will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these numbers together and add a .com to find the next step. Good luck. Goodbye.”
This was pretty elaborate for an internet puzzle, I realised. Usually, kids attempting puzzles like this would’ve left it at the book with the hidden message being a word in one of the pages. Often an obscenity.
This might just be much bigger than that.
3301 was the only number in the text and going back to the text I couldn’t find any other hidden number—a prime number at that—which could lead the way.
At this point, I took a breather and lay down on my cold bed. I repeated the words of the voice message over and over and over again, racking my brains over every possibility.
Eventually, it hit me that maybe it wasn’t in the text after all. Perhaps it wasn’t even embedded in the previous clues. The voice literally told me where the numbers would be—and that’s the ‘original final.jpg‘.
It was there that I found the other two prime numbers. I found them in the pixel dimensions of the JPEG file.
Hidden in plain sight, I realised I might just be the first one, or maybe the people who found it felt too proud to share it. I understood that because I thought the same.
It was almost 9:00 AM, and my stomach had begun to rebel against me. I decided to move out of my chair and at least get fresh. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, popped a toast in my mouth and kept a coffee mug on my desk.
I multiplied the three numbers as per the instructions and it led me to a pretty large number which I believed was supposed to be a web address. Ultimately, it was. It led me to a website with an active countdown under an image of a cicada.
The countdown was for almost three days. The only option left now was to wait.
This gave me enough time to actually study my special programme as I should have. After all, I had just arrived here in Germany as a foreign exchange student and all I’d done was sit inside and solve Cicada 3301 up till the last clue.
The countdown eventually came to an end and as soon as the time hit 00:00:00, the page updated, and a list of coordinates popped out. The closest one to me was in Warsaw, Poland. This could no longer be mocked as an internet troll because whoever was behind it also had a global influence. There were 14 coordinates, and they were not related to the puzzle in any prior way. I decided that since it was a weekend, I could actually travel to Warsaw on Sunday.
I got onto the train almost soon after that decision and travelled to Warsaw. I reached the exact coordinates and began to look for the next clue. It just so happened to be in plain sight as my eyes caught the presence of a flyer with a Cicada on it along with a QR Code on a light pole. Excitedly, I ripped it down, stuffed it into my handbag and quickly headed to the train station to head back home.
As soon as I sat on the train, an uneasy feeling took me over. I looked over my shoulder, and I realised the whole compartment is empty save for a man in a black trenchcoat, shades, and a top hat. The man didn’t seem to be looking at me, but it was hard to tell because of his shades.
Was he also going for the coordinates? Was he going to knock me out and force it from me? Or was I just being paranoid because I had one of the flyers from the 14 out there in the world?
The train started and the uneasy feeling kept growing within me. I felt like I was walking in the dark, and my eyes could not adjust to the darkness. The man slowly got up and took slow and deliberate steps towards me, almost as if to pass the holy judgement. I clutched my bag tighter, ready for a fight.
The man stopped beside and took the seat in front of me.
“Who are you?” I asked confidently enough for me to regain my composure.
“I intend no harm to you. I am here to receive you on behalf of Cicada. If you do not believe me, scan the QR code in your bag right now.”
I gazed at him to check for any sudden movements while my hands reached for the code. I pulled my eyes away to scan the code, and it led me to a website with a moderately tricky riddle. I looked up at him, and he nodded at me almost as if to say, “Yes, you must solve it right here and right now.”
The riddle was relatively easy and led me to Agrippa, more commonly known as ‘A Book Of The Dead‘. Wary of the man in front of me, I went through Agrippa and unearthed another URL. This URL took me to a website saying,
“We want the best. Not the followers.”
The site then shut down. The man put his hands on the table between us and spoke.
“We wanted the best, and now we have you. This stage was a two-step stage. One where you find the QR code and solve it, and the other where you maintain the solution’s secrecy. I am here to keep a check on the latter. There are 13 others like me out there with the same job. I do not know who they are, or what happened on their end, but we work together in secrecy and harmony.”
My mind was buzzing with confusion, and I had a hundred questions for this man. This felt more like recruitment than the endgame of the puzzle.
“Are you like the CIA?”
The man chuckled and shook his head. “What we are will be apparent to you soon enough. What you need to know right now, is that you’re not going back home. We asked for highly intelligent individuals for a reason, and we would like you to fulfil that reason. We understand should you choose to refuse, but you must maintain all secrecy of our interaction if you do. If you don’t, we’ll get to know and let’s say, considerable measures will be taken. What we work for is the peace and cooperation of the world. We are much more different than a murderous organisation under the facade of an Intelligence Agency. We are the reason certain things happen, and we wish for you to join us. In the scenario that you do, you must leave behind everything. You must leave behind who you are, who you wanted to be, and whoever you ever saw and met.
We are no one, and you need to become no one as well.
Cicada 3301 must always remain a dead-end written by bored cryptologists for the world.
Do you accept?”
The question lingered over my head for a few moments, as my mind divided itself, between what I dreamt of becoming and what I could become soon. My train of thought was interrupted by a notification on the man’s phone. He read it and says to me, “It seems the other candidates have either refused or have breached secrecy. You’re the only one left.”
I looked at the man with furrowed eyebrows and cold sweat at the small of my back and said, “Yes. I accept.”
The man nodded and said, “We won’t be going back to Berlin. There’s a briefcase on the seat I was sitting in earlier. There’s a change of clothes, further instructions and a ticket and temporary passport inside the briefcase for an economy class seat. Leave for your destination at the next station. You’ll be under training for a month, and you’ll be given your first assignment soon after. To satiate your curiosity, I’ll inform you of the project. You will have to fake the death of Jeffery Epstein. He has valuable information which we will release soon enough after acquiring it from him. He must be protected from those who do not wish for him to spill the beans. That will be all now.
There’s no going back now, so be as anonymous as one can be.
Welcome to Cicada, Agent 3301.”
Written by Aditya Kapur and Varun Vyas Hebbalalu for MTTN
Edited by Radhika Taneja for MTTN
Featured Image by Ritwika Sarkar for MTTN