HP and the Eye of Tripoli

By Gary McGath
Copyright 2008 by Gary McGath. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fan fiction. All trademarks, references to published works of fiction, and allusions to familiar characters are for purposes of entertainment or satire only. This is not a commercial work and is not offered for sale.

Chapter 4

No clues about the Eye turned up for a long time. The filters which the Eye had created were still in place, but it was no longer providing active protection from violation of its standards. On one occasion, Professor Lockfile tried to demonstrate how proper configuration of a firewall would prevent a malicious program which he had loaded from spreading. It took days to clean it out of the local network.

In February Hugh got an anonymous message on his computer. It had a map which showed the grounds behind Bugwarts, with a dotted path leading to a spot a couple of hundred yards away, and a picture of an eye at the end of it. Was this some kind of joke? He printed it out and showed it to Rom, who said, "We might as well check it out."

They waited till after curfew to sneak out, crawling out a window to avoid setting off alarms. With the help of a GPS device and a flashlight, they were able to follow the path in the woods. Soon they saw a faint glow ahead. They advanced quietly but eagerly to the end of the path, and there they saw the huge eyeball, glowing serenely.

"The Eye of Tripoli!" said Rom, starting to rush toward it.

"Wait," said Hugh, holding him back. "This doesn't make sense. Why would someone send me a note to tell me about it? And why didn't anyone else see a glowing eyeball in the woods? Let's be careful and see if someone's having fun at our expense." They approached cautiously.

"That glow doesn't look right," said Rom.

"It doesn't," Hugh agreed. "That's a krypton or xenon light for illumination. In fact, I think it's just argon."

Just then a barbarian warrior emerged from the woods and took it away. Since his loin cloth was brandishing a broad sword, they weren't about to call his attention to their presence, much less argue with him.

Somewhere in the distance they heard a laugh that sounded like Draco Malware's. "We've been had," said Rom.

Returning to the building, they climbed in through the same window they'd exited from -- only to be greeted by the watchman Argo Filk, turning the light on as they entered. "Out after hours?" he sneered. "I think you'll be putting in some extra hours for a while."

The next morning they had to report to Professor Tape, who was in charge of issuing detention tasks. "We have an old inventory application that really needs updating. It will be just the thing to keep you two busy and out of trouble. You'll be working on them from 7 to 9 PM each weeknight until the changes are done and working. Oh, and did I mention that it was originally written thirty years ago? In Cobol?"

Hugh and Rom couldn't suppress their groans. "But I don't even know Cobol!" Hugh protested.

"Then it will be a good opportunity to broaden your skills," Tape responded. "It shouldn't be an impossible task for someone of your famous abilities." There wasn't any answer that wouldn't get them in deeper trouble.

That evening they reported to the business office, where Tape showed them the equipment they had to work with: two card punches, a reader, and an ancient minicomputer. They saw the dusty manuals and thick program deck and turned pale. "Take as long as you need," said Tape. "But I'd advise you to have the enhancements implemented by the end of the term, unless you want to repeat your second year."

It was a week's work just to get the existing code to compile and run. They weren't allowed to have any visits from students during their detention hours, but Grid was able to visit them occasionally to offer some tutoring. He had worked on some of the old Cobol applications in his student days at Bugwarts, twenty years ago.

"The PERFORM A TO B statement is easy to understand," he explained to them. You start executing at A. Then whatever path the code might take, when you eventually reach B, you return to the statement after the PERFORM."

Hugh shook his head. "That means it's a COME FROM statement. A computed assigned COME FROM!"

"You've got it exactly right," said Grid.

"How did you stand this language?" asked Rom.

"Oh, I started writing games in my spare time. Somewhere in here you might still be able to find the first one I ever wrote," he said enthusiastically. "Mancala, with the board printed out with each new move! In Basic!"

Rom groaned. In his view, Basic was the worst language in the world, except for Cobol. "So what happened to it?" Hugh asked.

"Who knows? Probably it's gone forever. Or maybe it was stored away in the Chamber of Encryption."

"Is there really such a room?" Rom asked eagerly.

"Well, yes! It's -- No, I'd better not tell you. Knowing you two, you'd go looking for it and get in even more trouble."

Trouble was something they managed to avoid in the following weeks, busy as they were with the wretched inventory application. Another student, Justin Case, had fallen into a coma while at his computer and was taken to the infirmary, where Semicolon was still out cold. Again there was no apparent cause.

Rom was getting worried about his sister Genie. She was spending hours and hours on Droll Time Plot, and both her studies and her social life were slipping. But nothing he said had any effect. Hermioport tried to help too, but Genie wasn't taking advice from someone who studied not just every waking hour but every hour that others would have slept. Hermioport promised she'd keep an eye on Genie, but Rom said she should really keep both in their sockets.

In a couple of weeks, Rom and Hugh were able to do some live test runs, using the old data deck. By mid-March, even Tape had to concede they'd done enough to get out of their detention. But by then, the project had taken hold of Hugh's natural fascination with ancient computer equipment. It wasn't the Programmer's Printer, but it was something out of elder times, of the days of mysterious incantations in long-forgotten languages. He asked if he could continue working on the program as a spare-time project. Tape was deeply suspicious, but could hardly refuse to let Hugh continue to work on a project he'd been requiring him to work on.

Quadratich was starting up again for the spring, and his team, the Linuxes, was really determined to beat the Macs and the Windows this year. As a result, his time for the project was limited. Besides, he was now working by himself, which made it less fun. But he put in a couple of nights a week and continued to make improvements. Professor Bitbuckets, who made the most use of the program, almost seemed impressed.

By May, he'd implemented a new search function. As he thought about how to test it, he remembered Grid's Mancala game and decided to try searching for that. He punched the appropriate instructions, loaded the massive deck, and waited for the printout. Ten minutes later the printer -- a device as massive and noisy as the Programmer's Printer had been -- produced a short block of output:

NAME      MDM            RM            LOC
----      ---            --            ---

He stared at the page in amazement, then tore it off and went running back to his room. "Rom," he said in an excited whisper, "you won't believe what I just found out!" He pulled Rom over to an isolated corner and showed him the printout. "That has to be the Chamber of Encryption. And it says it's on the twelfth floor!"

"The twelfth? But the only floors we know about are the public ones that go up to eight and the secret thirteenth floor."

"But when Cthulhu came up, he burst through the fl -- "

"Oh, no. No, no, NO. Are you thinking of going down into a room where Cthulhu's lurking to look for the Eye?!"

"He isn't there. The Programmer's Printer just made him exist for a little while. If Bugwarts had a resident Cthulhu in hiding, we'd have a lot bigger problems than we do! Besides, how do we know the Eye's there? It could be hidden anywhere. Whoever stole it probably took it miles away."

"Whoever stole it had a reason. I think it was one that needs keeping it in Bugwarts."

"You're sure it'll be safe?"

"No," admitted Hugh.

Rom grinned. "OK. Let's go look for it. At least $DARK_LORD isn't around any more."

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