Classic Computer Magazine Archive HI-RES VOL. 1, NO. 3 / MARCH 1984 / PAGE 56


Episode I: The Perils of Pokey

by Leo G. Laporte

McGinty had been running down the long, hot corridors of the data bus for hours, and the exhaustion was beginning to show in his stride. Suddenly, he crumpled into a ball on the floor, the dying echo of his footsteps fading into the silence of the deserted hall. A second passed, then another. The low thrumming pulse of his pursuers' steps grew louder . . . then fainter, as they turned off toward another part of the Mother Board in search of him. Finally, the hall was quiet, except for the sound of McGinty's racked breathing.

After a moment, he struggled to his feet. Warily, he began to walk down the hall. The Personality Board lay just ahead; in it were the offices of the CIO, and Jack Truehart. Truehart had to know; everything depended on it.


Step by step, McGinty grew closer, his sharkskin suit glowing an unearthly blue in the hall's dull light. All at once he stopped and sniffed the air. His nostrils flared with apprehension. Suddenly, a huge crackling red sphere of static electricity roared around the corner ahead.

"No!" the man shrieked, and turned to run, but before he could take a step, the field caught up with him and threw his body against the wall with bone-cracking violence. Pinned helplessly, he felt the sphere begin to squeeze the life out of him.

It was over in seconds. McGinty's body slumped lifelessly to the floor like an abandoned marionette. The killer sphere retreated down the pathway, its shimmering red form shrinking away to the size of a firefly's tiny glimmer, then disappearing altogether, leaving only McGinty's body and the acrid odor of ozone in the deathly stillness.

A short distance away, in the offices of the CIO, a single light burned in the darkness. Jack Truehart, the stubble of a two-day beard darkening his square chin, sat hunched over his desk. A large map lay spread before him, in his hand a red pencil.

"There's got to be a pattern here, Hube." With a quick sweep, he drew a line from one end of the map to the other. "Clock cycles missing here," he drew a circle. "Unauthorized disk accesses there." Another circle. "Someone else has been using the system. But who, and why?"

Hubert didn't answer. His 4-foot-tall form was leaning motionlessly against the stained couch across the room. He'd shut down his circuits for recharging hours ago, and was oblivious to anything but a direct command.

Jack grimaced, "I wonder where McGinty is. He should have checked in by now. I hope he didn't have any trouble with the POKEY people."


POKEY was a tough area in the northeast quadrant of the Mother Board. Jack had sent McGinty out to talk to its inhabitants earlier in the day. He was due back at 5 o'clock. It was after midnight now.

Jack opened a drawer of the old oak desk and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels. "Drink, Hube?" He laughed to himself quietly, then poured himself a shot. "Guess it wouldn't do your circuits much good, old fella." He tossed it back quickly then grimaced. "Doesn't do much for my insides, either." He glanced over at the cartons of half-eaten Chinese food and shook his head.

"I think I'll go for a walk. Get some fresh air." He stepped through the office door, trotted down four dark flights of stairs, and made his way out the front entrance to the broad, slick surface of the data bus. By day, thousands of bits of data flew down the bus, eight at a time, but now, in the quiet of the evening, traffic had thinned to nothing. The charge of a few stray electrons gave the corridor an electric blue tint. Truehart tried to relax as he breathed the clean, cool night air. The click of his heels on the specially treated roadway sounded like keystrokes from the board above his head. As he walked he thought back to his meeting with OS two days before.

"Jack, we've got a problem."

"What is it, OS?"

"Take a look at these reports from SIO. Someone's been bypassing us. There's a clear pattern here of unauthorized use, mostly during the vertical-blank interval. Whoever's doing this is pretty cagey."

The vertical-blank interval was a break in processing that occurred every few thousand cycles. Everyone took a breather while the artisans in ANTIC touched up the screen display. The guys in 6502 appreciated the VBI. They worked pretty hard the rest of the time. But it looked like someone was taking advantage of this break time to do a little computing on his own. He wouldn't be able to get much done, but added up over a period of hours and days, who knows what could be accomplished?

That was what was worrying Jack when he stumbled across McGinty's body.

"Great arcing flip-flops! McGinty!" He rolled the cold bundle over. "What in the name of Grid are you doing here?"

Truehart pulled a thin plastic card from within his rumpled jacket. "Hubie, Hubie! Wake up. I've found McGinty."

"I'm already awake, Jack," came the robot's reply over the communicator, "I was just cleaning up the awful mess you left behind."

"Plenty of time to do that later, Hube. Didn't you hear me? I found McGinty!"

"Oh, that's nice."

Jack could hear the crumple and crackle as Hubert compacted and incinerated the Chinese food cartons. "Hubie, save the sweet and sour shrimp!"

"Too late, Jack. But you know it's no good for you. Why you eat this stuff is beyond me."

"Rats! Hube, just reboot McGinty for me, and hurry!"

"Right away, JT."

Jack could hear the beeping of McGinty's program loading. Seconds later the sharkskin covered bundle at his feet began to rise like an inflating balloon, and soon, a vacant, but relatively human face grinned at Jack and said, "Hi."


"McGinty. What happened?"

"Don't remember a thing, Jack."


McGinty's circuits had been wiped clean as a blackboard on the first day of school. Questioning him about the POKEY people was useless. But Jack now knew one thing: whoever was making use of the computer was very anxious that no one catch on, and the trail led straight to POKEY.

"McGinty, you'd better head home. I won't need you anymore, tonight."

"Right, Boss." McGinty shuffled off, toward his address in RAM Estates, still grinning brainlessly. Jack switched on the communicator again.

"Hubie, I'm going to take a walk. I'll see you in the morning."

"Jack, you forgot your raincoat. It might rain. Shall I..." Truehart clicked off the communicator and stowed it in his pocket before the robot could finish. "I'm going to have to get him reprogrammed one of these days," he muttered, as he headed north, toward POKEY.

POKEY was the toughest neighborhood on the whole Mother Board. The POKEY people were only three feet tall, but they were built like oxen. All input into the computer was onloaded by the POKEY people, and years of manual labor had left them looking like miniature Incredible Hulks -- that is, if you could overlook the fur. But what was most curious about these tiny people was that they had singing voices of ethereal beauty, and they loved to harmonize. It was like finding the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a Neanderthal cave.

Jack could hear the music as he walked toward POKEY. It came in waves, first sweet and clear, then harsh and distorted. Up and down the scale they sang, the highest note five and one-half octaves above the lowest. Two more steps and Jack Truehart turned the last corner of the data bus to face POKEY.

The chip was huge. Out from one side ran a line to the serial port, beside it, the lines to the keyboard and the paddle controllers. These thick cables were the connection between the Mother Board and the outside world. Along the other face of the chip ran the data and address buses, along which ebbed and flowed the vast quantities of information generated by the system.

Inside the chip were the great choir halls, four each, where the POKEY's made their music. Also inside, timers to regulate every activity on the Mother Board, and, in an office buried deep within POKEY, the random number generator. Each of these rooms and halls were staffed by the POKEY people.


Jack took a deep breath and stepped through the double doors of the data bus, into the chip itself. The din of thousands of POKEY's singing and laboring, shouting and straining, nearly deafened him. He clung to the wall, battered by the noise and confusion before him.

After a moment he began to catch his breath and noticed that he was standing on a platform that looked out onto a great hall. Below him the POKEY's had formed a bucket-brigade-like line along which passed the sparkling green and blue data bits as they came in from the serial port, 10 at a time. The first bit seemed a signal to the workers below that data was on the way. They redoubled their efforts and pulled in the eight data bits that followed. After the last data bit, one last bit straggled in, as if to signal the byte's end. This entire process was accompanied by loud beeps of effort from the laboring POKEY's. The 10 bits were gathered at the back of the room. There, still more POKEY's lopped off-the start and stop bits, and bundled up the middle eight into a single byte-sized package, which they sent up a conveyor belt to an opening just below Jack's feet. From there, he knew, it would be sped down the data bus to a holding area for processing. This entire process took only milliseconds and continued ceaselessly before Jack's amazed eyes. In fact, he was so engrossed in their labors, he hardly noticed the security POKEY that was jabbing at his kneecaps with a sharp stick.

"Hey you, I'm talkin' to you, Buster! What are you doin' here?"

The little man kept up the jabbing and Jack was getting more than a little annoyed. He pulled out his bill fold and flipped it open.

"Jack Truehart, CIO. I'm investigating a complaint of unauthorized use. And stop poking me!"

"Unauthorized use! Are you insinuatin' that a POKEY would take advantage of the system? We're patriots here, buddy, and don't you forget it. Besides, who has time? We've got work to do. Not like you sniveling lay-abouts in the OS. I'm runnin' you in for a 202: Aggravated Snoopiness With Intent To Insult. C'mon with me."

The little creature started waddling down the corridor. Jack turned and began to go in the opposite direction. He didn't get very far. The POKEY had been watching out of the corner of his eye.

"Resist arrest, will ya! Get him boys!"

To Jack, it seemed like a hundred furry bowling balls had dropped on top of his head. Within seconds he was trussed up like an Easter ham and riding on the shoulders of a half dozen POKEY's. They were cheering and jeering, in their bizarre way, as they carried him. Walking ahead, the constable POKEY brandished his stick in the air and sang.

Fleshy meat, strong and sweet,

Home-brewed ale, dark or pale,

Round the table the POKEY's meet,

To laugh and sing and share a tale.

To our kitchen we bring a feast,

A tall and dark and vicious beast,

We'll slash him and bash him, 'til he gives up the ghost,

Then into the oven, for 10 hours he'll roast,

Fleshy meat, strong and sweet,

Tonight the POKEY's will devour a treat!

Jack was beginning to wish he had stayed at home, after all.

(To be continued)