After the deepest sleep you’ve ever experienced, on the softest bed you’ve ever slept on (you can’t recall the last time you slept on an actual bed, let alone a soft one), you awake to soft chirping sounds. The noises seems to be coming from outside. You get out of bed and draw the curtains.
The chirping sounds are coming from docile, midget birds sitting in the trees – a far cry from the bluzzard and death eagles you’re used to. Though the birds seem non-threatening, your hand instinctively grasps the fastener on the window, and you check that it is shut tight. It never pays to take a chance with birds.
“Good morning, good morning!” Milford says cheerfully once you make your descent. “Why are you still wearing those rags? Didn’t you see the nice clothes I had laid out for you?”
You shrug. His choice of outfit wouldn’t protect you for five seconds in a dust storm.
“If you hadn’t solved so many of MM’s puzzles, I wouldn’t take that for an answer.”
Though he follows this statement with a hearty chuckle, there’s something sinister in his tone that sets you on edge.
“Anyway, I have another puzzle for you to solve! Follow me, and try not to track mud, haha!”
Milford leads you into a small room in the back of the house, the only feature of which is a plain wooden desk and chair. On the desk sits a well-maintained desktop computer with a small square screen.
Milford bids you watch the screen over his shoulder as he pecks out a login password and slowly drags the mouse around. Eventually, he opens a folder on the desktop named “MM”. Inside the folder you see a document with the filename “OPENME.DOC”.
“It says ‘open me’, but I just can’t get it open!” Milford cries. “Typical of MM’s sense of humour. But maybe you’ll have more luck. I really don’t have time to fiddle so much with these infernal machines.”
You wave Milford aside and double-click the document. Unsurprisingly, it’s not that easy.
“Well, I have absolutely no idea how you did any of that, but you certainly did it!” Milford says, once you’ve uncovered the final password. “If there was any doubt before, consider it fully dispelled: you are definitely the one MM is looking for.”
Milford wants to celebrate your victory over this latest challenge by going out and proclaiming it to the townspeople. You politely decline, remembering the looks of disgust the citizens of Eden gave you, even after Milford talked them down from outright lynching you. Milford pleads with you for a while, but eventually throws up his hands in resignation and leaves you to “mope around inside”.
Milford has barely been gone a minute before you hear a scratching sound coming from above your head. You glance up to see that the ceiling tile directly over your head has been removed, leaving a dark gap in its place.
Your heartrate spikes and your muscles tense up. Eyeing the gap above you, you swiftly but carefully edge away from it.
A black hoodie drops from the ceiling, followed by a shower of plaster and dirt.
“Relax,” says the hoodie, which you realise contains a small person. The hood is too big for them, and hangs over their face, obscuring it from view. “I’m on your side.” The voice is high pitched, but muffled and indistinct.
“How can I be sure?” you challenge the masked interloper.
“You can’t. But you don’t know that ‘Archpresident’ Buchanan is on your side either.”
You can’t argue with that logic.
“I put my skin on the line to break in here and tell you that he’s not. All His Majesty wants with you is your solutions to MM’s challenges – two of which you’ve already given him. He plans to get the rest from you, and then present them all as his own to MM.”
The intruder’s harsh words make an impression on you. You realise for the first time how very little you know about the “Mutant Mastermind” and the series of challenges you’ve chased across the wasteland. Why are you doing all this? Why did you leave behind your shelter and your friends and all your best scavenging spots for a series of puzzles with some nebulous end goal? What could you possibly hope to achieve?
“Sometimesthepuzzleisitsownreward,” the intruder says, speaking so quickly all the words mush together.
If there was ever going to be a reason to trust this stranger in a hoodie, it was that phrase. You nod solemnly.
You can’t see it of course, but you get the distinct impression that the stranger is smiling. “The next challenge can be found in the settlement of Jarta, in an abandoned planetarium – that is, a building with a circular roof, where the people of the old world worshipped the stars.”
“I’ll go there,” you reply. “But first, how do I get out of here?”
The stranger’s grin probably just grew wider. A grappling hook appears from the folds of the oversized hoodie.
About an hour later, you drop onto the ground beyond Eden’s outer wall. The familiarly bleak and sickly landscape stretches before you, and you wisely resist the urge to take a deep breath of the outside air, opting instead to tighten the bandana over your mouth.
You turn to thank your benefactor, but see nothing but a dark speck on the horizon.