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'Can't open initial console', 'Kernel panic: Free list corrupted'

I've put together an old 486 from bits, and am trying to install Debian 
(hamm) on it.

If I use the boot diskette (doesn't support CD bootup), the bootup stops 
with 'Can't open initial console', and if I try the rescue disk, it just 
Kernel panic: Free list corrupted'.

So - how can I boot this thing up?  What do those messages mean in 
practical terms and what can I do about it?



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