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Trolls and Trouble
One rainy day, the third one in a row, the four Alden children and their cousin, Soo Lee, gathered around the family computer. They were playing Ringmaster, a game Grandfather Alden had given to Henry for his fourteenth birthday.
"I'm stuck," ten-year-old Violet said. "I made all the trolls disappear except one."
"Can Soo Lee and I try?" Benny asked.
He was six and already an expert on the computer. Soo Lee was pretty good, too, and Ringmaster was their favorite game.
"Know what?" Benny said to Soo Lee. "When it's our turn, let's give the troll an apple from the boy's pack. Maybe he'll go away. Then the little kids can get to the waterfall."
Violet lifted her hand from the computer mouse. "Okay, you try, Benny. I'm going out to the porch to play checkers with Grandfather."
Benny sat down at the computer. "We know what to do. Right, Soo Lee?"
Soo Lee nodded. "That troll is scary," she said, "but the kids are just like us."
"And the Magician is just like Grandfather," Benny added. "And their dog, Tracker, is just like our dog, Watch."
Watch heard his name from where he lay under the computer desk. He thumped his tail against the wooden floor to let everyone know he was listening.
Twelve-year-old Jessie pushed a stray curl back from Benny's forehead so he could see better. "That's why Grandfather bought us Ringmaster," she explained. "There are five children and a dog in the game. They all live by themselves out in the woods. They have to solve mysteries to find the magic ring."
"We're always solving mysteries, too," Benny said. "And we find things, too, and not just on a computer. Only we don't live in a boxcar in the woods anymore but right here in Grandfather's house."
Benny and Soo Lee went back to Ringmaster. Henry and Jessie looked on. They let the younger children figure out the game by themselves.
The computer made a dub-dub sound.
Benny slowly read aloud the pop-up message over the troll's head:
"I thank you now for feeding me.
But watch out for the tree."
"The apple worked, Benny. The troll is gone," Jessie said.
"Hey, that reminds me," Benny said. "I'm hungry."
Henry laughed. "Even computer food makes you hungry."
Luckily for Benny, Mrs. McGregor, the family's housekeeper, showed up just in time. She held out a plate of her famous chocolate chip cookies. "How about a snack? You children were so caught up in your game, you didn't even notice I was baking cookies."
"How come you didn't ask Soo Lee and me to help?" Benny asked.
Mrs. McGregor held out the plate. "I usually don't have to ask. The minute you hear me clanking my baking bowls, you're right there. But ever since your grandfather brought that game home, I've lost all my kitchen helpers!"
Henry took a warm, gooey cookie. "Not anymore, Mrs. McGregor. We've almost finished the whole Ringmaster game. It's fun, but not as much fun as making cookies and eating them."
Mrs. McGregor handed him the plate. "Why don't you bring the rest of these out to Violet and your grandfather. He was getting pretty lonesome out there. Goodness, you children used to play checkers with him for hours on end not so long ago."
The rain was still falling when everyone joined Violet and Grandfather on the porch. Violet jumped one of her red pieces right over two of Mr. Alden's black pieces.
"You won again!" Mr. Alden said. "Have you been practicing computer checkers behind my back?"
Violet grinned. "Sometimes, Grandfather," she confessed. "But I like playing with you much better than playing on any old computer."
Everyone noticed Grandfather had an extra twinkle in his eye. This usually meant something special was about to happen. The children didn't have to wait long to find out what it was.
Grandfather settled back in his chair. "Speaking of old computers, when I bought Ringmaster for Henry's birthday, the salesperson told me our computer is too old to run Ringmaster II."
"Ringmaster II?" Henry said. "That's not out yet, Grandfather. At Computer City, people have to put their names on a long list to get it when it goes on sale. The company that makes it keeps delaying the date."
"Well, I have some good news about that," Grandfather said. "We don't have to wait until Ringmaster II goes on sale. And we don't even have to buy a new computer, either. The nephew of my friend John Romer is the founder of QuestMaster. The company is replacing all their computers. They're donating most of their old ones to a school. The good news is that John's nephew, Charles, set aside one for you children when he heard we needed one with more power."
"QuestMaster," Jessie said. "Isn't that the company that designed Ringmaster?"
"Exactly right," Grandfather said. "They've moved their headquarters out near the university, not far from Greenfield. It seems they've been having problems with the new game. They've hired some students and engineers from the university to help them work out the bugs."
Soo Lee looked up at Grandfather. "Are there bugs inside our computer? I saw trolls but no bugs."
"The bugs Grandfather is talking about are little problems," Henry said. "Like when something bugs us."
Mr. Alden had more good news. "One other thing. The company likes to try out all their games with real players. You children have been invited to test out Ringmaster II before the designers make the final changes."
"Wow!" Henry said. "We'd get to see it way ahead of everybody else."
"I'm told there's one condition before we go over there," Grandfather went on. "John's nephew told him that before trying the new game, it's important to become a Ringmaster on the first game. Now I hope one of you will tell me what a Ringmaster is."
Benny jumped up and down. "That's what we turn into if we find the magic ring. Soo Lee and I are almost Ringmasters."
Grandfather shuffled a deck of playing cards. "Well, I'll leave magic rings and computer games to you children. I use the computer for reports often enough. But when it comes to games, I prefer a simple game of solitaire. I want to become a Solitaire Master!"
The children returned to their computer. They started up Ringmaster where they had left it.
"We're getting close," Jessie said when the sound and pictures came on. "The two youngest children and their dog, Tracker, are right near that waterfall."
Benny put his hand on the mouse. "First the boy and girl have to finish eating. I wonder if there's a biscuit in their packs for Tracker."
Benny clicked the mouse. The computer boy poured himself a drink from a container. Just as he lifted the cup to his lips, Soo Lee cried out, "Look, Benny! There's green steam coming out of the drink. Maybe something bad is in it."
Benny hit a key on the keyboard and read aloud the message that popped up:
"Should this liquid cross your lip,
Never shall you drink another sip.
Yet set aside at least a drop,
Every enemy shall you stop."
"Phew!" he said. "You warned me just in time, Soo Lee, or else the game would be over for me."
He hit another key and continued with the game.
The smoking poison liquid dripped from the cup. It landed on the ground, sizzled, and a hole opened up large enough to explore. Benny and Soo Lee took turns guiding the two computer children through the underground passageway. At the other end they found a spooky forest. One strange tree had branches like arms and twigs like fingers.
"Eeee!" the Aldens screamed when the tree branches turned into a twisted hand.
The hand reached out for the boy and girl. Even Tracker, their dog, wasn't safe.
Violet took over the mouse and clicked on another tree covered with apples.
"Look, the apples have smiley faces!" Soo Lee said. "This must be a good tree."
Several clicks later, Violet had the computer children safely resting in the branches of the magic apple tree.
Henry and Jessie then took turns using the mouse to guide the children through dangerous adventures until all the computer children and their dog were found and brought together.
"All together. Just like us," Soo Lee said.
The computer children stood at the bottom of a hill that arose from a valley.
"Doesn't that hill look odd?" Jessie asked. "It's all covered with vines."
Soo Lee remembered the tree with the finger branches. "Ooo. Be careful."
Jessie had an idea. She tipped the container of poison liquid to drop a little on the vines. Instantly the vines shriveled up. "Look! There's an old house underneath the vines!" she cried, pleased with her decision.
Benny clicked the claw-shaped door knocker, the door creaked open, and the computer children, along with Tracker, stepped into a cavelike room.
On-screen, the Aldens saw a large gold bell with a rim of jewels at the bottom.
"What do the words on the bell say, Jessie?" Soo Lee asked.
Jessie read them aloud:
"Behold, to find the ring you seek,
Within your treasures you must peek.
Present yourselves all alone,
Not one minute do postpone.
Make your offerings to the bell,
Give every wish and every spell."
Benny tugged at Jessie's elbow. "What should we do?"
Jessie thought for a second. "I have a feeling the characters must give up all the magic in their packs before they can find the ring."
Benny wasn't so sure about this. "We can't! What if we need some of the spells and things?"
Jessie put her arm around Benny. "At the end of stories and games like Ringmaster, the characters sometimes have to go through the hardest part of their quest all by themselves, with no magic to help them."
Each of the children took a turn clicking on the backpacks of the on-screen children.
When the last pack was empty, another pop-up message appeared. This time Violet read it:
"Behold, you stand before the bell
Empty-handed, without a spell.
Think hard and think faster,
Ring the bell to become a Ringmaster."
Violet stared at the jeweled bell on the screen. She clicked on it, but nothing happened. "'Ring the bell,'" she said. "I wonder what that really means." She stared some more. "Wait! Let me try one more thing." With that, she guided the mouse to place all the children on-screen in a circle around the jeweled rim of the bell. Suddenly the bell separated, leaving a beautiful jeweled ring floating by itself in the air.
"You made a ring around the bell, Violet," Henry said. "That's what the message meant. Look, the Magician is coming onscreen."
In his royal blue robes, the Magician walked over to the ring and picked it up. "I pronounce you Ringmasters!" his voice rang out through the computer speaker. "You have found the ring. Game over."
The Aldens jumped up and down.
"We won the game!" Benny yelled. "Now we're real Ringmasters. Hooray!"CHAPTER 2
A New Quest
The next afternoon, the Aldens headed out for their appointment at the QuestMaster Company, just outside Greenfield.
"I've never driven a car full of magic Ringmasters around before," Grandfather said. "And here's the place where they make the magic," he added when he turned into the QuestMaster parking lot.
Benny stared at the ordinary brick building up ahead. "That? It sure doesn't look like much."
Indeed, there wasn't a cave or a castle or a haunted house in sight. The small sign in front of the large brick building said QUESTMASTER in plain letters—nothing like the red-and-yellow flame letters on the Ringmaster game box.
"Don't be too disappointed," Mr. Alden said when he parked the car. "My friend John Romer said his nephew, Charles, designed the building for hard work and hard play, too. There's a playing field in back, a basketball court, video games, pool tables, and the like. Some of the employees here even bring their dogs to work."
"You mean we could have brought Watch?" Jessie asked.
Grandfather nodded. "Perhaps—though I'm not sure Watch is ready to sit in front of a computer just yet."
"Just under the computer," Benny said.
The children laughed at the thought of Watch going to a big office. Yet, just outside the QuestMaster building, the Aldens noticed several dogs playing in a fenced dog run. Next to that, they saw several people playing basketball outside.
Henry and Jessie looked at each other.
"Wouldn't it be fun to work in a place where you could bring your dog and play basketball at lunch?" Jessie asked.
A tall young man with sandy hair, freckles, and blue eyes spotted the Aldens on the sidelines. He waved them over, then tossed the ball to Jessie. Soon all the Aldens, except for Grandfather, had joined the basketball game. Many of the players were wearing bright red Ringmaster shirts.
"This is fun," Benny said to Henry a few minutes later. "Only that lady over there doesn't pass the ball."
Henry nodded. He, too, had noticed that the young woman with the ponytail grabbed the ball a lot and didn't pass it much. She was a pretty good player, though, and made lots of baskets.
Finally the game was over.
"Hi, Aldens," the young man said, holding out his hand to Mr. Alden, then to the children. "I've been expecting you. I'm Charles David Romer, but around here everybody calls me C.D. That was pretty good playing."
The Aldens looked surprised. This young man was the founder of QuestMaster? Although he was in his midtwenties, he didn't look much older than Henry.
"I'm the boss around here," C.D. said when he realized the Aldens still didn't quite know who he was.
"You don't look bossy," Benny blurted out.
This made the Aldens laugh and feel right at home.
Mr. Alden introduced the children by name.
"Hi," C.D. said as he went around shaking each of the Aldens' hands. "Here comes one of our new designers. This dynamo hoop star is Jane Driver. Jane just started work here last month. Jane, meet the Aldens. They're going to be testing out some of the new Ringmaster II stuff we've been working on."
The young woman didn't seem interested in the Aldens. "I have to get back to work, C.D.," she said before rushing indoors.
"Jane would spend all her time on game design if I let her. But I don't let her," C.D. said. "In a company like QuestMaster, we all share ideas. So we play a lot of group games to encourage everyone to work together. Jane's not used to our way of working yet."
"We are!" Benny announced. "We work together while we're having fun. That's how we got to be Ringmasters."
C.D. gave Benny a high five. "Way to go, Benny! Uncle John was right to send you over to help us out," C.D. told the Aldens as he led them inside the building to a small room.
He pulled out a box of red Ringmaster T-shirts and gave one to each of the children. "After you try these on, meet me in the design studio," C.D. said to the children. "It's down that hall and through the door. See you later, Mr. Alden. I'll have the computer and your grandchildren all ready to go at five o'clock. Meet us at our loading dock."
After their grandfather left, the children walked down the hall and opened a door. They were surprised to find themselves in a huge room.
"This room is almost as big as the school gym," Jessie said. "I've never seen so many computers in one place, either. Plus two pool tables. What a funny place QuestMaster is. I can't tell if it's a place to work or a place to play."
All along the walls, a dozen or so people were working in front of large-screen computers. All the screens showed the same thing—a mean-looking dragon about to pounce on Tracker, the little game dog from Ringmaster I.
"Look at that!" Henry said. He was thrilled to get a sneak peek at his favorite game.
C.D. spotted the Aldens across the studio. "Hey, everybody. It's okay to leave your work on-screen," he told all the designers. "Meet the Aldens. They're here to help us test out our new game."
C.D. led the children to the fanciest computer they had ever seen. "Come meet Morka, our dragon character," he said. "Our designers are trying to decide what kind of dragon we want Morka to be. Right now we've made him a scary dragon. He's after Tracker, one of our favorite characters."
A real dog, not a computer dog, came out from under one of the nearby desks. He was scruffy, with rough gray fur. He wagged his tail and sniffed at the Aldens.
Excerpted from The Mystery in the Computer Game by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2000 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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