Chapter 1: Perfectly Normal

A nondescript young man walked casually down a road lined with decrepit buildings. He looked perfectly normal. If anything, he looked as though he was trying just a little too hard to blend in.

Spambots peered out of broken windows as he passed. He shook his head. Spambots were useless. An occupied board could repel them quite easily. Still, he had studied several spambots and used bits of their design in his own bots. Only his bots were much more effective. Once he had an army of them put together, they would be able to storm even the biggest and well-defended boards.

"Hyperbole. You haven't even tested your bots against a deserted board, let alone an occupied one." The speaker was a small bot that hovered just behind the man. It had a huge head and tiny, dangling limbs.

"How did you know what I was thinking?" The man spoke without any definite accent.

"Lucky guess," the bot said.

"Don't worry, we shall know how good my bots are soon enough."

The bot shook its head doubtfully.

"Did I not design you?"

"Yes, but I cannot fight." The bot twitched one of its useless arms.

"But you can think. You can plan, find weaknesses, strategize, learn. Why, you're practically human. If my bots are even a quarter as smart as you, they'll be able to conquer anything within a week."

"Only if the bots know how to fight."

The man patted a small, lethal-looking dagger on his belt. "I know how to fight. My bots will too."

The bot couldn't think of a suitable objection to that. It had seen the man fight before. It knew he spoke the truth. And yet something bothered the bot. How could a person nobody had ever heard of be such a skilled programmer? Where had the brilliance required to build a bot such as itself come from, especially when he was also busy teaching himself how to fight? Worse, the bot knew the man also had some experience with necromancy. How had he learned to do all these things in such a short time? It made the bot's head hurt, so it gave up thinking about it.

They turned a corner. There were still plenty of abandoned buildings, but they were mixed in with occupied ones. They passed a dimly-lit place called Desperance. The bot staying close to the man when it heard a stream of obscenities from inside. It hoped that the place was always like that, rather than a sign that it had been spotted. With so many spambots running around, unpleasant things often happened to unknown bots.

The man paused near a place called Polaris. Faint strains of piano music emanated from it. The man looked around carefully. "I have a suspicion that it's located around here somewhere. Aha! There it is!" The man pointed to a museum several blocks away. "Come on." The man hurried over to it and gazed at the sign. "Yes, this is it. Ermarian. Listen carefully. I want you slip inside and see who is in there. Don't be seen by anyone. You know how dangerous it can be for bots out here."

The bot nodded and flew through a window. A few minutes later, it emerged. "There are no people inside, but there are two bots. One bot is upstairs in a small office. The other is downstairs, in the archives. It will be difficult to avoid it."

The man shrugged. "I've changed enough that no person could possibly recognize me, let alone a bot. I have no reason to avoid it. Let's go in." They stepped inside and descended a flight of stairs and entered the archives of Spiderweb Software. The man gasped. The archives were huge. Never had he imagined so much information to sort through.

Help arrived in the form of the other bot. The man's bot ducked low to avoid being seen while the new bot introduced itself. "Welcome to the Spiderweb Software Archives. I'm PiperBot. How may I help you, Mr...?"

The man had his lie prepared. "I'm a guest. I'm looking for information related to... well, you see, I recently discovered Spiderweb Software and this game called Geneforge 3. Anyway, I have a question about the game, so I'm heading over to the Spiderweb forums to have it answered..."

PiperBot interrupted. "What is your question, Mr. Guest? These archives are extensive. The answer to your question is probably in here somewhere."

"No! I mean, that's not what I'm looking for. I've some spare time lately, so I wouldn't mind hanging around after my question has been answered. But I'd like to know what I'm getting into first, so could you please bring me any information on what to expect?"

"An unusual request, but certainly." PiperBot zoomed off.

The man's bot flitted back into view. "Are you sure that was the right thing to ask for?"

"Yes, I'm sure. Now you go find an abandoned building as close to Spiderweb as possible. Be careful out there."

The bot nodded and left.

"Here you are, sir." PiperBot returned with a stack of threads and dumped them on a nearby table. "That's the first batch. I'll bring the second batch to you shortly." PiperBot zoomed away again.

The man groaned inwardly as he sat down and began sorting through the massive pile.

His bot floated down the street. Most of the buildings he passed now were small houses in various stages of repair and disrepair, the websites of Spiderwebbers past and present. It rounded another corner.

Then the bot saw it. The Spiderweb Software Message Board. It was a massive, boxy structure that stretched across a huge chunk of land. It was completely surrounded by a moat. A long, narrow bridge led to a surprisingly small and ordinary-looking front door. A tower overlooked the door and bridge, and the bodies of several spambots sprawled in front of the bridge. The tower was obviously guarded, and even more obviously, this was not a message board to be trifled with. Why in the world was the man starting here?

Fortunately, there was an abandoned building not far away from Spiderweb. It was located next to another active board called Shadow Vale, which had several woad plants growing around it. It peered through the window of the abandoned building, checking for occupants. There were four, all people. This surprised the bot--it had been expecting only spambots in a place this run-down--but it flew back and gave its report to the man anyway.

The man shoved the notes he had taken into his pocket and followed the bot to the abandoned building. "Hmm. It's a bit close to this Shadow Vale place, and I'll have to deal with the occupants inside, but otherwise it's a perfect place. Good job, bot."

The man ducked low and peered through a window. The inside of the board was a complete mess. Trash, spam, and the ashes of old flamefests lay in piles. The four occupants were either fighting or playing some sort of game that involved throwing a broken spellchecker at each other. They weren't armed or very bright looking, so the man drew his dagger, opened the window, and leaped in.

The four noobs inside were stunned. The one holding the spellchecker let it clatter to the ground.

"hay u cant go thro a windo u hav 2 go thro teh dor" one said.

"Oh really?" the man asked, advancing on them, "Why is that?"

"bcaus im teh adminostator adn i sad s--aaargh!" The adminostator staggered and collapsed, the dagger the man had just thrown buried in his chest.

"hay!!1" The other three noobs rushed the man, causing the bot to rise toward the ceiling in alarm. The man dodged a clumsy punch and threw the first noob into his companions, causing all three to collapse to the ground. He reclaimed his dagger and stabbed the first noob to rise. The other two noobs realized they were outmatched, so they ran for the exit. Another dagger throw brought down the third, while the bot swooped down and headbutted the final one. He fell and lay helplessly while the man approached.

"plz dont hurt mee ill go away or watevr els u want plz dont hurt mee plz plz plz..."

Chunk. The man brought the dagger down mercilessly.

The bot hovered anxiously. If its creator could kill a fellow human so easily, how easy would his army of bots find it to kill people?

The man stood up and looked around. "You look around for anything of interest. I'll take care of the bodies and start cleaning this place up. Tonight and tomorrow, we'll observe the area and draw up plans. Hopefully, by tomorrow night, we'll be able to sneak in my prototype bots and supplies. Once that is done, the plot to destroy Spiderweb really begins!"

The bot destroyed the dramatic tension by asking "Why?"

"Shh! I'll explain later, but not now. We have work to do!"