The Legend of the Half-Handed Man - The Glorious Hack

Teddy pulled his chair closer to the table, and leaned in conspiratorially. He looked around, a nervous expression flitting across his face as he checked to make sure no one would overhear their conversation.

"Thomas over there, he's a software engineer. The control system that runs the Mill? He wrote that." The assembled men nodded in approval; the new control system had improved the efficiency of the men two fold, and ensured that they could remain competitive with those fancy new Steel Mills the Japanese were building in De Moines. "I guess they fly him around, some kind of trouble shooter. And the first time they flew him out here, he could count to ten..."

They were the best of the best, a tiger team assembled from the far reaches of the Mohawk Valley, brought together to form the single greatest Java development group in the history of Utica. Nine men strong, they had a combined forty-five years of experience, which was several lifetimes in the computer industry. They were called Roomtangle Beta, in honor of another legendary team, from an earlier time.

The Steel Mill was in danger; the Japanese had built a new Mill in Iowa, and they had used their knowledge of electronics, along with their powers of Kung Fu, to build a hyper-efficient mill that was run by robots. Robots that never needed to eat or sleep. Robots that never asked for a pay raise.

The Robo Mill was a threat to all of the Steel Mills in America, but the Old Utica Mill faced perhaps the greatest threat. Utica had already lost their Air Force base, and the Mob was no longer willing to pump money into the failing economy. The Mill, along with half a dozen pizza shops and a couple of low-rent strip clubs, was the only real industry left in the area. If the mill fell, Utica would fall, too.

Roomtangle Beta's mission was simple: make sure the Mill stayed open. Like John Henry, they needed to beat the machine.

But this team wouldn't beat the machine with sweat and muscle, no. They would overcome the insidious robot menace through a combination of smarts and human spirit. They would use a machine to beat the machines. They would design a control system that make a man twice as efficient, allowing him to compete with the soulless abominations shipped over from the Land of the Rising Sun.

They worked long and hard, trying and rejecting a dozen designs before they stumbled upon the path to success. Finally, after months of work, the team had developed a production worthy system, and they were ready to demonstrate it to their customers.

That was when Frank, the Chief Engineer, walked in.

"Gentlemen," he said, his voice heavy, "I have... terrible news. Our source code... is gone. Our production servers... lie in smoking ruins. Or backups... deleted."

"What?" John, the new hire, exclaimed. "That's impossible! How could this have happened?"

Frank was quiet for a moment, and then whispered, "sabotage."

The eyes of Roomtangle Beta opened wide in surprise. Sabotage! Those crafty robot-makers had done them in!

"Never fear," said Jay, the Tech Lead. The team walked to the center of the room and bumped fists. "Overtime Powers, Activate!"

Fueled by the promise of free pizza and the ability to make their mortgage payments, the Roomtangle Beta set off in a frenzy of coding, re-implementing the Mill's control system from the ground up. Days flew by, but the code flew faster, until the day before the customer was due to inspect the system.

"Excellent work, gentlemen," Frank said. "I never would have thought that you could accomplish so much, given so little. Only, how will we demonstrate our capabilities to the customer?"

The team was silent. A client! In all of the rush, they had forgotten to write a user interface!

"We have... some SoapUI tests... and a couple of... shell scripts..." And then silence hung in the air.

"Well," Frank said, mollified, "I suppose all we can do is show up tomorrow, and explain ourselves to the Mill. You put in a valiant effort, gentlemen, and I don't want you to blame yourselves for this. We were faced with an impossible task, and we nearly worked a technological miracle. If only the fate of all of Utica hadn't rested in our hands..."

Dejected, the Roomtangle Beta began to drift out of the room, hoping to catch a few hours sleep before they had to tell the workers at the Mill that their jobs would soon be lost.

"Thomas, are you coming?" Frank asked.

"In a minute," Thomas said, his eyes far away.

"All right. See you tomorrow, son."

But Thomas stayed where he was. Because Thomas, you see, thinks a bit differently than most. Where most people see a blank screen, he sees possibilities, and where most see an empty text file, he sees a canvas. To him, code is like music, and the computer is his instrument.

Thomas shut off the lights, and dragged a case of Mt. Dew over to his workstation. He would need all the caffeine and sugar he could get, if he was going to pull this off, and even then, it might be too little, too late. He could only hope...

He opened a new project in his editor, and gave it a name: And then his fingers began to dance...

When the team returned the next morning, the found him sitting there, still as a statue, barely breathing. He was surrounded by empty cans of soda, and bags of Skittles and Doritos were scattered around the room.

"Thomas?" Jay asked, concern evident in his tone. Thomas made no reply.

"What is this?" Frank asked, looking over his shoulder at the editor on the screen.

"It looks like... is it... my God, that just might work..."

"What, what?" Frank asked, agitated.

"A client!" Jay exclaimed. His eyes looked at the file in awe; more than just a single class, this client was implemented as one amazingly intricate function, stretching over a hundred thousand lines. They would later learn that its cyclomatic complexity was over nineteen trillion, and the checkstyle errors caused an overflow.

"I... haven't... had a chance... to test it," Thomas said, his voice hoarse and thick. "My hand, cramped up... and I can't... click the 'run' button." Indeed, the mouse pointer hovered over the green arrow that would launch the client, but his finger seemed frozen in place, gripping the mouse like a vice.

"What can we do?" Frank fretted. "The clients arrive in five minutes!"

They struggled mightily to free Thomas' hand, but to no avail. All of the coding, the hours of typing, had caused his hand to seize up, preventing anyone from actually running the new user interface.

"Jay," Thomas said, "I need you to reach into my pocket."

"Um, Thomas, now isn't really the time..."

"I assure you, old friend, that I will take no pleasure in what is about to happen. In my right front pocket, you will find a small pocket knife."

Jay did as he was instructed, and found the tiny blade. "Okay, I've got it. So..."

Thomas took a deep breath. "Cut me," he said.

"They took two of his fingers," Teddy said, "the pinky and the ring finger, and they were working on the pointer finger, mostly I think because they thought it would be funny if he was walking around always flipping people the bird. But then they realized that the problem was in his tendons, so they cut his wrist a little bit. Loosened the tendons right up, and freed his hand. Story goes, even though he was bleeding all over the place, he stayed to run the demo before he let them take him to the hospital."

"That's incredible," Terry said, looking over at the dark man sipping his diet Coke.

"Saved the Mill, he did," Teddy said.

"Sure, sure," Larry said, "that... Roomtangle group? They saved the Mill, but that ain't how he lost them fingers. Lemme tell you what really happened..."

Tune in tomorrow for Part Three of the Exciting Story of Thomas' Lost Digits, The Tale of the Demon Hand From Hell!