Welcome, contestants, to the Universal Machine Contest!

Your purpose, as I'm sure you know from the pre-briefing notes that were handed out, is to build a machine. However, this is no ordinary contest, and these will be no ordinary machines.

The prize? I'm afraid I'm not allowed to divulge that information. The purpose of the machines? I can't tell you that either, although you're more than welcome to guess.

You will each be given a workshop, sealed off from the rest of the contestants. Each workshop contains a small mountain of references in a digital format. We've been kind and given you a few technical manuals, but most of the material relates only to the external appearance and functionality of previous machines - not all of which may have been completed or even existed.

You will also be given access to our parts warehouse, which contains several million different components. Some of them are new, but most of them are spare parts designed for previous machines - or the disassembled remnants of such. As such, none of them are labelled, and many that look okay on the first inspection may conceal a fatal flaw deep inside. Others which look obsolete and worn-out may serve as an anchor to hold your entire machine together.

We don't like to dictate what your machine must or must not contain, but as a hint, the input/output and encryption/decryption subsystems may come in very handy, since they'll allow you access to the references. Of course, you can get by without them, but it'll be a long, difficult journey, and whether or not you believe there'll be an additional reward for doing it "blind", as it were, is entirely up to you. Implementing a network interface will allow you to communicate with other machines, although bandwidth is very limited due to our large number of contestants and the aging network. It's needed an overhaul for a long time, but as of yet nobody has managed to come up with a machine capable of the task, although we've had some worthy contenders.

You will be given a "black box" power supply to start you off. Activation of said power supply will be your very first task, and its deactivation - whether your fault or not - will cause you to forfeit your place in the contest. Deactivation can be caused by four things.

First, a major malfunction in your machine may cause enough backlash to overload and destroy your supply. Ideally, this should never happen - but it's fairly common in the case of particularly badly-built machines, or those using faulty parts.

Secondly, interference - either accidental or intentional - from another machine can cause shutdown. It's nasty, but it does happen.

Thirdly, every five minutes we select a random contestant from our database of several billion current contestants. They are removed from the Contest and taken to the next level. Which, of course, I can't tell you about.

And fourthly, your power supply has a limited lifetime built into it, randomly selected upon activation - anything from one day to over a hundred years. Once this time is up, the next level awaits.

Part of the beauty of this contest is that we give you no tools to start off with, apart from the power supply. Your machine will become your tool, as well as your source of reference and your overall purpose. The first components you add will be building blocks which will allow you to add more sophisticated components, which in turn will allow you to add yet more, or even to construct your own. You'll probably find that you end up doing a lot of work on the fly, as opposed to stripping entire subsystems out for rebuilding. Just watch out - although some pieces may slot in easily and immediately mesh with the rest of the system, there are others which may cause things to seize up or break or, more insiduously, slowly damage and corrupt other components, requiring extensive repair later on.

Of course, this wouldn't be the Universal Machine Contest without the Challenges. Every so often, depending on your performance in previous Challenges, your machine will be entered into a series of improbable and extreme situations, often joining with or competing against other machines. You may get the chance to help repair a badly damaged machine or have your own machine repaired by another. You may be tasked to keep your machine running under an onslaught of attacks from others. You might have the opportunity to set up temporary or permanent networks with other machines, to compare and contrast the inner workings of other projects. You may have networks that you set up in previous Challenges disrupted or subverted. Every Challenge is different.

Passing a Challenge entitles you to a reward, which may range from a whole new subsystem... to nothing at all. You will have the chance to modify your machine on the fly during each Challenge, repairing damage, or occasionally picking up discarded parts from other machines and making them part of yours.

In the end, every machine is unique. No machine undergoes the same set of Challenges as any other, and even those which look identical at a quick glance are usually radically different inside. You'll end up with something that any sane designer would flee in terror from, an assemblage of odd parts tied together with duct tape and hope that somehow works despite all the odds. Maybe you'll be proud of your creation. Maybe you'll hate the sight of it by the time your spell in Stage One ends. Regardless, I'm sure you'll find the Contest to be the experience of a lifetime.

And now, without further ado... I bid you luck. You may begin.

Inspired by a couple of pages of night-time scribble found in an old, forgotten notebook.

Closed-captioned for the Metaphorically Impaired (clumsily)