The rules of the contest were vague and unhelpful and, as Harold suspected, probably deliberately so. Laid out on the otherwise blank page, they were as follows:
GREETINGS FROM VIRTUPETS!
ARE YOU INTELLIGENT? CUNNING? POOR?
IF SO, TRY OUT OUR NEW CONTEST!
To enter the contest, simply purchase one of our new TS-99 virtual console machines and solve the puzzle! The first person to figure out the riddle and send the answer to the Virtupets Space Station will receive ten million (10,000,000) neopoints!
LET THE GAMES BEGIN!
The plain, black words were accompanied at the bottom of the page by the Virtupets logo. Other than that, there was nothing. No official announcement from the Station, no help line, no advertisements. The message had simply been delivered in the mail one day, and that had been that.
Harold, upon seeing the criteria to start the contest, fairly jumped for joy. Along with being brown and a Gelert, one of his foremost characteristics was that he was poor, almost phenomenally so. To be fair, it could almost be said that he owned a house, if one considered a squalid apartment in a half-flooded apartment building to be a house. It was despicably destitute, but it cost next to nothing, which fit well within Harold's budget. He ha no job of his own, a small inheritance that trickled down every month, and no desire to actually go out and work for a living.
Rather than act like the rest of the planet and provide for himself, Harold chose instead to keep busy with puzzles, hundreds and hundreds of the things. His water-damaged apartment was filled with books upon books of crosswords, sudoku, minute-mysteries, cryptograms, word searches, and even the occasional Rebus puzzle thrown in for good measure. Harold devoured these puzzles, burning through as many as three books in one day, throwing them aside when done and vowing always to find a new puzzle that would challenge him. If one looked hard enough, it might be possible to find something in Harold's childhood that made him this way, that compelled the young Gelert to prove himself a hundred times over... but that is not this story.
The console itself was more expensive than a year's worth of rent for the abysmal apartment, but Harold had not paid his rent for over two years and had accumulated what might be called, in a demented sort of way, a nest egg. The landlady, a prehistoric Tuskaninny with bad eyes and a worse memory, only barely remembered that she owned the building, and on the very best of days, she remembered she had tenants. Harold was not alone in his withholding of rent, and it allowed for the continuation of his bad habits. After the announcement of the contest, however, it also allowed for his purchase and subsequent installation of a brand new TS-99 Virtupets Virtual Console.
When Harold flipped the machine on, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, he found that Virtupets had wasted no time in confounding him. Instead of a home page, a log-in screen, a "welcome to your new Virtual Console," there was only a string of ten characters, buzzing green against the blackness of the screen: 6W448JLM00. They flickered and glared, watching Harold threw the glass. The Gelert tapped a few keys, wondering if he could interact with the console at all. Nothing happened. He turned the machine on and off again; perhaps it was broken and could be reset. When the screen came to life once more, the same thing popped back into existence, winking and shimmering: 6W448JLM00.
"The game is afoot," Harold muttered.
Out came the pencil, the paper, the compass and ruler, the reference book of ciphers, the encyclopedia, the maps and atlases and directories. Out came the cork board, the push pins, the colored yarns (red for direct connections, blue for guesses, and yellow for important things,) the crayons and inks, the rolls of butcher paper to be spread across the walls and floor. Harold had come prepared; twice before he had entered contests of some enormity, and twice before he had lost. This time, nothing would be left to chance. The apart became a riddler's den, a haven of the mind. The door was locked, the threadbare curtains drawn across the prisoner's window. Nothing would come between Harold and his contest, his flickering goddess writ in green and black.
For hours, Harold worked, writing the letters and numbers out in different combinations on his papers; alphabetical, JLMW004468; numerical, 004468JLMW; alternating, J0L0M4W468. These early excursions provided little in the way of clarity, but Harold was not deterred. Oftentimes, the first steps one took when solving a puzzle were merely to clear the air, vanquish the debris, and allow for better solutions to come to light.
Night fell quickly that first day, and Harold went to sleep with only mild disappointment in his heart. He had not expected to solve the puzzle that easily, not really, but... there had been some mad glimmer of hope, some absurd belief that he and he alone would be able to solve the puzzle with only a moment's glance. He, Harold R_____, would have the knowledge and the experience necessary to shame Virtupets at their own game and win the prize with a minimal of effort. And yet night had fallen, ten scraps of paper littered the floor, scratched with ink, and still the green enigma gloated in its technological palace: 6W448JLM00.
Harold awoke the next morning unsure of whether or not it even was morning. The curtains were still drawn, and he could not bring himself to open them lest the sudden burst of light jolt his brain into a state of catatonia. He needn't have worried, since the window opened onto a brick wall and a narrow alley rather than the delightfully sunny meadow he no doubt pictured in his head. The portal of the window led to a place as morbid and miserable as the apartment itself. Harold was quite in the dark.
He breakfasted, hastily downing a few crackers and a glass of water before returning to the TS-99. Today was a day for maps; it was quite possible that the characters represented coordinates of some kind. If the coordinates could be located, triangulation might be possible and, from there, it was simply a matter of search the encyclopedias or directories for knowledge of what happened that location. Harold set to work eagerly.
The end of the second day brought a gloriously adorned map; bits of colored string wound their way around and around Neopia in a blind man's cat's cradle. Pictures were ripped out of the encyclopedia and pinned to important locations with such notes as "448 Willow Lane" and "J.L. Moore's home in the mountains." It was an impressive piece to look at, and it would have done any number of the Defenders of Neopia proud to look at, but Harold was not tracking a criminal nor creating the next great modern art. He was a millionaire in the making, a poor Gelert just looking for his due, and the map was the ticket, he was sure of it.
"Very clever, Virtupets... Very clever indeed." Harold rested in his bed, but his eyes were focused on the map, flitting this way and that, looking for some hitherto unseen connection that only his sleep-deprived mind could find. It was some time before he finally drifted into unconsciousness.
The third day brought nothing. Harold's endeavors with the map found nothing but a seeming string of coincidences. It crossed his mind at some point that the contest might be easier if he actually knew what it was he was trying to solve. To this end, he recovered the original flyer from under the ever-growing carpet of scrap paper and began dissecting it, underlining every instance of the letters W, J, L, and M. Some words had four letters, only a few had eight. Some words were capitalized on the flyer; those might have been more important, since the letters on the screen were all capitalized as well. There had to be some importance to the amount of the prize as well: ten million neopoints. It might have just been a large sum, but that's precisely what Virtupets wanted people to think. The secret to the puzzle must lie somewhere in the flyer.
Harold skipped lunch and dinner that day, relying solely on the piece of bread he had had for breakfast. He pored over the flyer for hours, making painstaking copies of it in case the original became illegible for the notes. By the time Harold managed to fall asleep on the third night, it was already the morning of the fourth day.
His sleep cycle broken beyond repair, Harold only slept an hour or two; when he awoke, he was not sure if he had slept five minutes or five hours, but he was beyond caring. He had dreamed feverishly and awoke with a sudden inspiration. There were letters and numbers on the screen this was true, but it was also quite possible that there were letters and numbers in the screen. 6W448JLM00...it danced across the black screen now, swaying back and forth. It hadn't done that before. There was evidently some sort of mechanism in the console itself, shifting those indomitable letters and numbers backwards and forwards, writhing under Harold's penetrating gaze.
Harold dismantled the console, then, spreading the components across the floor, separating them all into piles based on shape, size, composition. The butcher paper had been used, so it was torn down, baring the walls. Ink was splashed across the peeling wallpaper, marring the faded flowers of six tenants ago. The inevitable phrase, 6W448JLM00, was scrawled above it all, a constant reminder to Harold of what the goal was. A checklist of parts was made, a catalog of exactly what the TS-99 had been composed of. This was scribbled above the bed. Harold tried to create 6W448JLM00 from the parts of the machine; he sketched blueprints on the wall, designs for a phrase made from that which initially displayed the phrase.
"How far down the rabbit hole... A phrase from a phrase... Does it go even further?" Harold's bloodshot eyes scavenged the room, looking for something to even further deconstruct the console. The encyclopedia was the heaviest thing in sight. He gathered the components of the machine together and smashed them with the book, reducing them to gears and gizmos, infinitesimally small pieces of glass, wiring of all sorts, bits and bobs and other irreducible, unknowable parts. These too were sifted and sorted and remade into mad approximations of the phrase.
"Origins... where it all started..." Back to the map was Harold, furiously looking up where each of the component parts for the console could be located. Glass from the sands of the Lost Desert, copper from the mines of Moltara, metal from any number of places: junkyards, mines, Kreludor even. The tangled net of the map grew even more disastrous. Yarns knotted themselves, pins flew free of the board, whole swatches of the map were lost to the scrawled notes about this oasis or this trawler or the price of copper in Y6.
Days and nights lost their meaning. There was no more sleep for Harold. There was no more food for Harold. Such things were a waste of time, especially so close to a breakthrough in the riddle. Having figured out that the clue was somewhere in the origins of the machine, Harold devoted every minute to tracing the lineage of the components. After a few days more, it dawned on him that the origin of the phrase might be necessary to establish as well, and he dove voraciously for the encyclopedia, ready to look up the origins of such meaningful things as the concept of the number 6. The book, however, was in shambles. It was torn apart, strewn across the room, written on, used as scrap and tissues and all other manner of things. It was no longer usable as the source of knowledge Harold needed it to be.
He moaned, softly at first, then louder and louder. "No... no no no no no! NO!"
More days passed. Harold began to grow listless, crawling among the wreckage of his books and the scraps of paper he had written over the week. He attempted to organize his notes, first by size, then by jaggedness of the edges. When he could no longer differentiate between the edges, he gave the notes up as worthless anyway and returned his attention to the map. This was a difficult feat, however, since Harold was no longer capable of standing on his own two legs without falling over. And from the ground, the map looked like the weavings of a mad seamstress.
"It's all wrong... all wrong. Where's... the answer?"
Harold's plea went unanswered, and he dove back into the sea of ink and parchment with a fervor that bordered on the criminally insane.
Two days later, Harold stopped talking to himself.
A day after that, Harold stopped moving.
The landlady didn't find him until a month later.
Three days after the initial announcement of the contest, Virtupets issued a formal apology, stating that the new TS-99s were broken and displayed only gibberish when turned on. The contest would resume on the new TS-100s which displayed the true puzzle, a logical one where the user had only to figure out which guests ate what, what they wore, and how they got back home. Apologies were issued for any inconvenience.
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