Proteus

In March of 1992, the following story was posted to a Usenet discussion about processors. The poster’s identity has not been verified. The JPEG that follows is the only known attachment to the article.

 

The [redacted] County school system came into an unprecedented governmental windfall, the donation of 30 new computers. While free, they were not without their drawbacks. The brand, Proteus, was not a local business presence and the tech support number was notoriously hard to locate(etched directly on the motherboard casing.) The boxes were also lacking any kind of instructions or supplemental material. This was rendered more or less moot by the computer’s being fully loaded upon arrival. Once booted up, the computers proved to be totally incompatible with the school’s DOS-based systems. However, they came loaded with their own in-house educational programs, with titles like “Circus Math” and “Doodlebug,” that passed staff muster. 27 of the computers were set up, with three withheld in case of breakdown.

In the coming weeks the staff noticed an increase in agitation among the children. Older students would get frustrated at the “baby games” installed and demand that they be allowed to re-apply for their scores, despite staff’s continued reassurance that the computational score had no effect on their grade. Younger students were prone to anxiety, often freezing up on basic math equations well below their level. One of the computers was taken out of commission when staff found a fourth-grader taking apart the tower, ostensibly to fix it. After ensuring the child did not receive any kind of medical harm, the staff member boxed the model and rotated out one of the other three.

Two staff members, Robert [redacted], graduate of MIT, and Pieter [redacted] took an interest in the computers, having observed them from afar. Utilizing one of the reserve computers, they resolved to first play through each program over the weekend, and then examine the coding for any unseen errors. They decided to alternate, one playing three games in a row and the other observing. Robert, the first test player, noticed a slight rise in anxiety despite the simple nature of the games. They played through the list of fifteen original games and, aside from an increased heart rate and slight adrenal fatigue, they noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

The two then decided to try the “broken” computer. The tower had been given a temporary repair and worked buggily, resulting in delayed response time and loss of coordination due to cursor lag. Robert noticed an almost immediate difference in program response, tips appearing on-screen to encourage the user to get the highest score possible, stressing the importance of performance. This continued on through all programs, even the document writer dubbed “Scribe.” Rather than indicate a misspelled word, the word “no” in all capital letters would flash on-screen, taking up 90% of the display. This happened so quickly that the first few instances went unnoticed by the teachers. The second oddity was the score displayed at the “end” of the document, counting misspelled words and forgotten punctuation.

The final shock came upon completion of the original fifteen games. A window automatically opened up on-screen, displaying a top-down game similar to Centipede already in mid-play. The soundtrack was a steadily building crescendo, found by the teachers to be unnerving. Robert, the odd teacher out, was tasked with handling the game while Pieter watched and made observations.

The actual gameplay consisted of a squat, “tank” figure chasing smaller, pink figures. At first the teachers assumed that the player controlled the pink running figures, but found the controls were for the tank. What were taken to be inspirational phrases flashed on-screen, almost totally unnoticed by the player but noted by Pieter. Peppered among such fare as “don’t give up!” and “save them!” were oddities as “where do you begin?” and “do you think anyone saw that?”

Even after 36 continuous hours of play, neither teacher was able to reach an end level. Rather, the game increased to almost sadistic difficulty.

Monday arrived and the two brought their findings to the school administration, who were understandably concerned. The hunt for the support number began, and the two continued their research. Several screenshots were taken during this time, which follow this account. In addition to the phrases, Robert noticed there were split-second “static” screens, one of which he captured with some difficulty. They then set upon the coding, which was hidden behind walls of encryption.  They extracted only one phrase, curiously repeated throughout lines of gibberish, “wheat from the chaff.”

This discovery coincided with the location of the tech support number, which provided only periodic beeping noises. The next day, a man in an unmarked uniform arrived at the school, claiming he was responding to their complaint. The staff found it odd that he produced details specific to their case, as the call had consisted of the school name and repeated inquiries to whether there was a human operator available. He quickly loaded up all computers located at the school, and agreed amiably to return the next day for the last three models. The school summoned Robert to the building. During that time, his house was burgled thoroughly, the three Proteus models taken and his other processors damaged beyond repair. Pieter took a sick day and never came back in for work.

Note: the following picture is the only surviving shot of a set that was taken by the teachers during their investigation.  It is ostensibly one of the “static” screens encountered during gameplay.

screen

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