Fiction – “Deal with the BSDevil”
This was composed intermittently at various periods throughout 2011 and 2012, and only finished recently. If you intend to read this, I hope you have some interest in old computers.
“I have come into possession of a tome of obfuscated Perl code. I do not know its purpose, nor am I particularly handy with regular expressions. However, being the curious soul that I am, I’ll load it into our BSD mainframe. Worst that could happen is a system crash. Nothing a mere reboot and backup wouldn’t handle.”
I closed the book – a diary manufactured some time in late 1988. It was now 1994. The sysadmin who had owned the book had been missing for 6 years, presumed dead. The book of Perl regex was all they found in his office. The mainframe was deader than dead – even if the CPU wasn’t a molten mess, and the memory controllers ruptured in ways that weren’t supposed to be possible, the VAX 8600 represented obsolescent technology and was best consigned to a museum. BSD had moved on to Intel processors, DEC had moved to Alpha processors, and in the intervening years, computers had actually become faster and more useful.
Me? I use Windows 3.11 for Workgroups. It’s unstable, but it’s usable. A GUI has its uses when you’re not tinkering around with programming languages. If you want to typeset, do graphical design, surf the web, it has its perks.
Also, in Microsoft Windows, you can’t open up a portal to hell by typing in a huge regular expression.
In that somewhat enlightened year of 1994, I had to do some publishing/publicity work with a small startup who just happened to use this BSD stuff. They were in the process of transitioning from VAX mainframes to the more familiar Intel machines. In addition, they were rather short on cash, so some of the programmers were tossing around CDs of something called “FreeBSD”, which supposedly would reduce their operating costs.
I, being the design oriented fellow who could barely write a “Hello World” in C++, was still interested in this whole Unix thing, so I managed to get a copy of the OS from them. It took me some time, and the help of those programmers, but I eventually got it working on the old 386 I had as a “backup”. I made close friends of those programmers, and we eventually exchanged skills – I became a good programmer, and I’m guessing they learned how to communicate to nonusers without striking fear into their little hearts.
So now I had a BSD system and knowledge of C++, Perl, shell scripts, pipelines, but little reason to use any of them. It was then that I remember the book full of the arcane Perl code, and I pulled it out of my bookshelf. I must’ve spent an hour just typing that code into a text, carefully checking each few characters to make sure I hadn’t made some freakish mistake. Then I ran the file as an executable. Nothing happened for some time.
Makes sense, at least. It must’ve been at least 20 pages of random symbols. Even on a 386, that probably would’ve taken some time to parse. Instead of producing some characters, or even an error message, the unthinkable happened – a horrid shriek filled the air, piercing my ears. The temperature in the room raised by at least 20 degrees, and an ellipsoid portal opened in my room – at least a dozen clawed hands must’ve been grabbing desperately at the air, hoping for flesh to rip, tear, drag into their disturbing realm.
I didn’t wait any further – I just ran like hell (except away from it). Never mind the fact that what just happened was logically impossible. I was a good 100 feet away from my house when I did a double take at the absurdity of my situation. As if to confirm, one of my home’s windows exploded, as a jet of flame came out; that probably wasn’t good.
Anyways, I don’t know how long I stood there, just staring at my home, but I was roused by the sound of police sirens. I’m guessing that someone called in a complaint of a domestic disturbance or something. I was just too dumbstruck to stop them from knocking on the door. The lack of response convinced them to break down the doors and infiltrate the place. They really shouldn’t have – only moments after that, I heard a scream of pain, followed by gunfire. Someone must’ve been dragged bodily into hell, or worse; perhaps a segfault of some sort. Gradually, the gunfire ceased, and then two cops sprinted out of the building. Before they could jam the door shut, a skull came flying out – it’d been picked clean of flesh and possibly polished. The thing shattered at my feet, and slowly it dawned on me that maybe now wasn’t the best time to be standing slack-jawed outside the scene of a massacre.
“What the hell did you do?” one of the cops shouted at me. I informed him that I’d been tinkering on a computer, because the fine details probably would’ve melted what remained of his brain.
“Maybe you should’ve just bought a Mac,” muttered the other policeman in a disturbing monotone. Clearly he’d suffered psychological trauma of some sort.
“Look, I’m just going to drive to a friend’s house and see if this has ever happened before,” I responded.
“… right. You probably want to get as far away as possible.” So I was able to get into my car without something violent forcing its way out of the house, and the cops were too shocked to hassle me significantly. It was a long drive, and I had plenty of time to think about the calamity. It was still fundamentally absurd, but the basic principle suggested that Perl and BSD didn’t exactly play well together. Maybe it was okay to prepare code for a compiler or something. Typing huge amounts of random characters with intent to produce magical results? Probably not a good idea. Also, I’d managed to mangle someone’s fender in my altered state of consciousness, but if I didn’t get to help quickly, he’d have slightly worse problems on his hands. So I tried to make the exchanging of insurance as quick and polite as possible.
“You look like you’re having a really bad day,” said the victim.
“Yeah, whatever.” Luckily, I remembered how to drive without collisions for the rest of the trip.
The friend I chose was not the best programmer I knew, but he had simultaneous interests in automaton theory and demonology. If my hunch was correct, both would be useful.
“I find it unlikely that mere regex would open a portal to hell. Most likely, there was something else in your home that aided the ritual. It could be a text file, it could be a credenza. It could be anything,” said the friend after I explained my situation.
“I did kind of run it as an executable.”
“… right. Fetch me that notebook on the table.” I did, and he flipped through it idly.
“My predecessor was also obsessed with the occult. I don’t know how he became a computer programmer, but apparently something happened in the early 1980s.” I snuck in a look at the front cover of the notebook. Someone’s scrawl proclaimed “Discoveries 1983-1985.” What an excellent, meaningful name. For some reason, my friend felt the need to read its contents out loud.
“May, 1985. Sun’s NeWS system looks very promising. It is easy to program and is based on a variant of PostScript,” intoned the friend. He then switched back to his normal voice (lower, less nasally). “Most of it is fairly uninteresting. There are some exceptions.” He flipped back a few pages.
“February, 1985. Dragged out the TRS-80 and a copy of ‘Temple of Apshai’. What once amazed me a few years ago now tries my patience. Still, I was able to extract and modify some of the BASIC code for my own use. I implemented some of these modified subroutines into the summoning program and now can dump useful information about any given creature into a text file.”
He went on in this vein for a while. Apparently one of his friends had learned how to take control of a stereotypical fire and brimstone hell through his computer and do various shifty things.
“Excuse me, I can’t help but notice that my home needs to be cleansed of evil, and I was hoping you would do something about it,” I interrupted after some time.
“Yeah, I get it. It’s not as if you need to know what’s going on, anyways.” He sauntered over to his computer.
“486DX4,” he babbled as he started pulling up windows. “It’s not as fast as a Pentium, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.” He too ran the newfangled FreeBSD, and used the extra computing power at his hand to run X11 and have a GUI.
“Xeyes watches what you do and reports to the Boss.” A cavalcade of keystrokes. Weird vibrations. More keystrokes. I began to feel mildly uneasy as the eyes on the screen popped out, gained form and depth, and floated about the room, always staring eerily at my friend’s cursor.
“You’re absolutely sure that we can fight demons with daemons, right?” I asked him.
“Yeah, sure. Better bring up some AWK scripts.” He typed in more stuff, and an eerie purple aura began to coalesce around him.
“Most likely, everything we’re going up against will take the form of a data structure. I’m good for hashtables and heaps, and with this next one, I should be able to sever a linked list if I have to.” The aura shifted towards indigo. He then beckoned me over to the keyboard and handed me a piece of paper with some simple commands.
“They bind to the user,” I was informed. If anything, I was a fast typer, but my friend made me look like one of those ‘hunt and peck’ novices. Never the less, I banged out the codes, and pretty soon, I was surrounded by pretty colors and had plucked the cursor right out of the computer screen. Apparently X11 wasn’t ready for this sort of black magic, so it crashed, leaving my friend’s computer back at the terminal.
“Be a dear and type ‘startx’ in there, okay?” he asked. I did. X returned. What did you expect, an explosion? We left the house and piled into my car. It took a while, especially with all the equipment we were taking. Eventually, we made the decision to plop the Xeyes in the back seat, and everything else in the front. Some doofus was walking down the street and saw the absurd scene.
“Let me guess. You’re going to a Robotech convention, right?”
“If I were to say ‘no’ a million times, it would not even begin to describe the inanity of your statement,” my friend sneered. And we stuffed ourselves into the car.
It was a long drive back home. What had happened to my house in the meantime was best described as ‘eclectic’. A thick, viscous slime was oozing out from under the doorstep; its deep shade of crimson reminded me of blood. A few tentacles were draped from the windows, perhaps idly feeling the air. Needless to say, we intended to do some extermination. My friend was uttering some odd syllables under his breath. I caught a few instances of ‘grep’, but I didn’t know what it meant. Then, his eyes seemed to flash incandescent blue for a moment, and he informed me that he “knew the way”. I followed him into the house, and the Xeyes slowly followed. The moment I stepped over the threshold – the sensation of massive recoil buffeting me from all sides. If not for the shielding I’d been provided with, I would have probably immediately been slammed into a wall, possibly breaking a bone, or disintegrating. It took me a moment to adjust, and in that second, my friend was already advancing further into the house, and turned into the living room. Its walls were beginning to take on the consistency of intestines, and an odd smelling fluid covered parts of the floor.
As if to convince me that I had gone off the deep end, we saw a man in an immaculately clean suit sitting at a polished ebony desk. All eldritch biology ceased exactly six inches from where the desk touched the ground.
“May I help you?” he said, as if he was supposed to be there.
“What are you doing here?” asked my friend.
“Filling out paperwork.” A computer spontaneously formed on the desk. I can’t quite remember, but I believe it was made by Hewlett Packard. Soon, the strange, well dressed man began typing at inhuman speed; it was a wonder that nothing caught fire.
“What is the name of your employer?”
“I work for Brøderbund. Have you heard of our ‘Print Shop’ software?”
“Yes, yes, that’s very nice. You do realize that you’re sitting in a house that’s been infested with demons, right?”
“How silly. I am a daemon.” I expected him to morph into a more fitting form and assault us, but he just sat there and kept typing. So I continued my visual inspection – he looked like a reasonably pleasant middle-aged business man, with thinning auburn hair and a comb-over.
“But what are you doing in my house?” I almost shouted.
“It’s not your house anymore. You sold it to us, remember?” That wasn’t good.
“You incanted your salespitch and terms into your computer. Mind you, my superiors thought you were driving a very hard bargain considering the size of this estate. But, in the end, they decided to offer you it, but you ran out before we could inform you of your compensation.”
“But this is-” I was interrupted before I could even think of what objections I could raise.
“My friend here is unversed in your tongue and wishes to see a translated version of the contract he entered, with intent to make sure he wrote his terms correctly.”
“That can certainly be arranged.” Now the daemon had a dot-matrix printer. I didn’t question it; I just took the banner it spouted in my hands and began reading. Even though the terms were now in English, I still found the text stilted and hard to interpret. Meanwhile, the Xeyes just kept staring over my shoulder. Rather frightening.
“You really should run your Perl regexes through the interpreter in the future,” my friend cautioned.
“There’s an interpreter?”
“Of course there’s an interpreter. How else would the computer understand you?” I ignored this and kept reading.
“Huh. According to this, I sold my house for a value to be determined by the proximity and strength of local ley lines, in return for… mystic sorcery? What does that mean?”
“It means you have magic powers, doofus,” said my friend. “Probably.”
“Well, I don’t feel very magical.”
“If you are wishing to determine the specifics of a user, finger them,” the daemon interrupted, albeit ‘politely’.
“A user can finger themselves if they wish.”
“Come upstairs. We probably won’t be killed,” commanded my partner, who beckoned me to follow, yet again. I can’t have been thinking clearly, but I did follow him. The second floor was slightly less deranged, although the constant fires and smoke couldn’t possibly be healthy. We crawled with intent to inhale less of it. By the time we reached the room where I kept my computers, the scent of sulfur was almost unbearable. The computer I’d installed BSD on was essentially fine and still running, except for a thin layer of transparent goo covering the monitor. On the other hand, my Windows computer? As far as I could tell, it had exploded. Shards of plastic were everywhere, and what had most certainly been my LAN card was embedded in the opposite wall.
“You’re lucky you got out before whatever self-defense systems this place has kicked in,” I was informed. “The shrapnel would’ve ended your life instantaneously.”
Ignoring the filth and fire, he simply ran the finger command on my user account, the name of which I gladly provisioned him with.
“Huh. I didn’t know you were a Methodist.” Unsettling to hear from him, but such personal knowledge seemed like small play compared to the mysticism I’d experienced this day.
“Well, you don’t have any magical abilities according to this, but it appears you’ve been magically employed at NeXT Software to work on something called WebObjects. It seems to pay well; you should accept it.”
I pored over the data. It necessitated a complete overhaul of my life, but I figured I could get used to it. After all, I’d been in the bowels of some sort of hell. Even moving home couldn’t phase me now. Why, I’d-
“Phone’s ringing downstairs,” said my friend. I sprinted to pick it up. Sure enough, the people at NeXT wanted an interview the following Monday.
After that, I got slightly richer. NeXT was soon bought out by Apple Computer, and I became enamored with their computers due to my chances to use them at no cost. Either way, I swore never to use BSD proper again, but I figured the dark gods behind it would find some way to contact me in the future. First, large swathes of the operating system’s code found their way into the latest MacOS, then a community sprung up around the ‘Darwin’ variant, and then some time in 2001, I felt a sharp prod on my shoulder, and heard a voice intoning.
“My name is Hexley, mortal. I have a task for you…”