Full marks will be awarded to anyone who immediately recognised my mistake. As any experienced Linux user will know, Window's Computer Management Tools do not play nicely with dual boot setups at the best of times. I had now done two things that would render my system unbootable:
1) I had deleted the Mandrake Linux partition, containing the Grub setup utilities and tools.
2) I had told Windows to mess with the booting of the system, in this case by trying to add the option of making the MMC available at boot time.
Unfortunately I was too preoccupied to realise that anything was wrong at the time, as at that very moment the nice girl from Newcastle called again to tell me she was around the corner, and that I should go wait outside to let her know where I live. I picked up the laptop and trotted outside to the cafe next door, our designated meeting place. The first thing she said to me was;
"Hi, sorry about the mix up. I thought we might have trouble finding you, but there aren't many people around these days that stand on the side of the road and wave a laptop at passing cars."
Me: "Ah, yes, I just wanted to make sure I would get your attention. Well, this is the laptop, as you can see it's in excellent condition, and has all the original software loaded."
I spent a few minutes showing her the computer, then uttered those few fateful words:
"I'll just reboot it, and you can take it away."
I switched off the machine (that was mistake number three) and switched it back on again. The BIOS took the machine through its paces, and then I was presented with a crisp, beautifully rendered "GRUB>" prompt, in that blocky, nameless font that will forever remind me of the subtle taste of bile.
Those in the know would immediately suggest that I now do what I should have done in the first place: Use the "fixmbr" utility available when booting directly from the Windows XP CD-ROM. The only problem being that (for a number of reasons) I did not have such a CD available. "But wait!" I screamed inside my head. "I have those 'ACER SYSTEM RESCUE' CDs that came with the machine!" I searched frantically high and low, turning over every piece of our (admittedly sparse) furniture and...
...and I found them. Praise the lord, I found them. I popped "Rescue CD 1 of 2" into the drive, set the BIOS to "Boot From CD" and...
...it didn't boot. The CD wasn't bootable. I tried again. I tried booting from "Rescue CD 2 of 2". I even tried booting from the Acer-branded copy of Norton Anti-Virus that also came with the machine. I booted from a Mandrake Linux Install disk just to make sure the drive wasn't playing up, then I tried booting from the rescue disk again. It was no good, the disk just wasn't bootable.
Okay, now I had a problem. This nice girl had just driven two hours expecting (not unreasonably) to buy a working laptop, positively overflowing with preloaded software. At the moment this silver and black rectangle I held in my hands might just as well have been a piece of expensive modern art, well suited to a wall in the Tate gallery nestled snugly between the original "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and a supermarket trolley that some famous artist had, inexplicably, painted blue.
For all the good it's going to do this prospective buyer, that's where this damn laptop might as well be right now.
But all is not lost. Being the sociable beings that we are, us engineers often have enough friends with enough spare time to help us through these close scrapes.
Me: "Uh, I just did something REALLY stupid to this computer and deleted something important, is there any chance we could pop over to a friends house and pick up what I need to fix it? It shouldn't take long."
Her: "Sure, Not a problem! Don't stress about it."
That was good advice, as I could feel my wrists starting to sweat. Wasn't that supposed to be a warning sign of a heart attack? Well, it would have to wait. I had to make a quick phone call;
Me: "Mike? It's Sean. I need to come over. No, right now. Yes, now. You remember I said I was selling my laptop to buy an iBook? Well, I'm selling my laptop to buy an iBook. Yes, I know what you think of Apples, but now is not the time. Yes, I have thought it over. No. No, I don't want a Sony. Yes. Exactly. No. Look, I nuked the MBR and I need your XP disk to fix it, OK? Yes, even if you help me I'll still use the money to buy an Apple. Okay. Okay, see you soon."
So we hopped into the '93 Commodore that they had used to drive down from Newcastle - crazy, I know, you'd have to take out a second mortgage to cover the fuel for a long distance trip in that thing - and headed across town to Mike's house...
--- Slow fade to skyline, then dissolve to "Mike's House", external ---
A few minutes later we arrive. I throw a quick "Just wait here, this shouldn't take long," at the girls in the car and launch myself through Mike's front door..
Mike: "Huh? Sure, it's on the desk over there."
I grabbed the XP disk, threw it in the drive tray and booted up the machine.
Before we continue there's something you need to know about Windows. Windows has a user called "Administrator" that is used whenever the computer is run in single-user mode, and whenever you use the recovery console on that machine. The Windows XP boot disk performs any recovery by allowing you to "log on" to an existing Windows installation (found on the hard disk), however you can only log on as the "Administrator" user, and must know the "Administrator" user's password. This doesn't sound like a problem, but this feature is a little bit - what's the right word? - temperamental. There are a number of conditions that you must satisfy to be able to log on as the "Administrator" user, any one of which could mess up your chances of being able to log on to the machine. Firstly, there must still be a user named "Administrator", you may not have renamed this user (check). Second, you must know this user's password (I don't think I ever set the "Administrator" user's password..), and third you must have ACTUALLY SET such a password (uhhhh..). The process will bork if the password has never been set, or if a zero-length password has been used.
For system maintenance I had always used an account called "Sean" that had been given Administrator privileges, and as such had never made use of the actual "Administrator" account. The "Administrator" password had thus never been set, or was still zero-length.
Needless to say, the process borked.