Chapter 14: Plans

The first group of rats led the Spiderwebbers to a defunct website that looked ready to collapse any day. The blue rat stood guard at the entrance, stepping aside to let them pass.

The GIFTR and the second group of rats sat together around a small fire.

"I thought they didn't like each other," Jewels said.

Drew shrugged. "I certainly don't mind the change of heart."

"I see you have guests too," the purple rat said, "Please, join us. Think, go find some more fuel for the fire."

"Why?" one of the giant rats sitting next to her whined.

"Because it's getting low and I told you to," she snapped.

The flames burned a bit brighter.

"But I always have to tend to the fire. It's not fair."

"Life's not fair."

"But..."

By now, the fire was blazing.

"Oh. Never mind, the fire's fine. But since you didn't have to deal with that, you can take care of dinner instead," the purple rat said.

Think got up and sorted through the packs sitting in the corner, grumbling under his breath the entire time.

The four Spiderwebbers sat down next to the GIFTR.

"I believe introductions are in order. I'm Attorukkip," the purple rat said, "The rat getting food is But_I_can't_think_of_one, but we just call him Think. And this is Lady Deathwhisker the Rabid, or simply Deathwhisker."

The giant rat on Attorukkip's other side nodded.

"The blue rat guarding the entrance is H'uk'n'l. The red rat is Phil. The giant rat sitting closest to you is M'q'zz'x. And this here is Squeak."

One of the giant rats shook his head. "It's pronounced Squeek. It's an authentic name from the ancient rat city of SqueekSqueakitySqueak."

Attorukkip rolled her eyes. "But there was no ancient rat city."

"Then where did we come from originally?" Squeak retorted.

"Oh, never mind. The green rat is G'ree't'l. Last but not least is the giant rat ''''''''."

"Er, what?" Salmon asked.

"We just call him Timeseight."

"Oh. Better. I'm Salmon. This is Drew, Jewels, and Marlenny."

"Can I ask how you all came up with your names? I don't recall any rats with names but Attorosi," Marlenny said.

"We rats never had names, at least not the way you humans have them. Attorosi was the first, since he needed to be recognizable to all rats. But once we started our own message board, it became necessary for us to choose names," Attorukkip said.

"Sounds like some of you could still use some practice," Salmon muttered.

Filth Finder coughed nervously. "Um, I'm Filth Finder."

"Garbage Gatherer. The nymphs are Litter Locator, Muck Master, Dreck Disperser, Compost Coveter, Trash Taker, Rubbish Remover, and Plague Propagator."

"Good, we all know each other, yada yada yada. Think, do you have dinner ready yet?" Timeseight asked.

"Yes." Think threw a sandwich at him.

"Hey!" The sandwich bounced off Timeseight's back and fell apart.

Attorukkip took the plate of sandwiches from Think and handed it to Garbage Gatherer. "Unfortunately, we don't have a lot to spare, so just one sandwich apiece, I'm afraid."

"Yay!" Muck Master and the other nymphs crowded around to grab their share.

Filth Finder looked a bit uncomfortable. "Er, thanks. What's in them?"

"Spam and cheese," Think said.

"Again?" M'q'zz'x asked.

Marlenny passed the plate by without taking one. "No thanks. I've already had supper."

Salmon took a huge bite out of his sandwich. "Hmm. Could use more spam."

"So, Filth Finder, tell us what you know of the thief," Attorukkip said.

"Well..." Filth Finder began.

---

Ecksian had the blueprints for Spiderweb Software Message Board spread out on the desk. EcksianBot entered, several threads in its hand.

Ecksian looked up. "Ah. Good. Come help me."

EcksianBot flew over. "What have we got?"

"Well, for starters, there are only three possible ways in or out. There's the main entrance, of course. And the guard tower window right above it. But there's also a secret exit leading from the Avernum Trilogy Forum to way over here." Ecksian's finger traced the route.

"Excellent. We can sneak a bunch of bots through the tunnel and mount a surprise attack."

Ecksian shook his head. "Unfortunately, that's not possible. I could find the general area easily enough, but finding the trapdoor itself would be much more difficult. Plus, it's locked from the inside. And there's a magical barrier in the tunnel that can only be passed from the inside too."

"Hmm. No good, then. But the Spiderwebbers could still escape that way. So, we need something there to prevent that."

"What are you thinking?"

"Well... in theory, all of Spiderweb could try to escape that way. So we need something that could withstand that possibility. Blocking the trapdoor isn't likely to work; enough people or someone with the right spell and they'll get through eventually."

"Plus, we'd have to find the trapdoor itself first."

"Yes, that too. So, we're going to need bots in that area. I have two options. In the first, we place a bunch of traps around the trapdoor and a smaller number of bots. The traps would slow the Spiderwebbers down long enough for the bots to kill them. Or bring in reinforcements, if necessary. Or we could just have a larger number of bots in the area. These bots could also serve as reserves in case any neighboring message boards attempt to help Spiderweb out."

"Or both."

"Yes, but that would take longer. We're running out of time if we plan to attack right after the release of Avernum 5."

"Okay, fine. We'll go with option number two and then set up traps as well if we have time. Next, we have the moat to contend with."

"Isn't there a bridge?"

"Yes, but it's designed to be collapsed in an attack."

"Smart. Describe the moat."

"Well, it's wide and goes all the way around the message board. It's not too deep, but it would slow anyone trying to cross it down considerably. Plus, I haven't ruled out the possibility of a moat monster."

"A moat monster?"

"This board has giant intelligent talking friendly spiders for mascots. And it has a fluffy turtle pit. I wouldn't put it past them."

"Did... did you just say 'fluffy turtle pit'?"

"Yes, but we have to get across the moat first before we need to worry about fluffy turtles."

"That's... insane."

"How are we getting across?" Ecksian repeated.

"Right. So we need a bridge. Possibly two or three. If the Spiderwebbers manage to take out our only bridge somehow, we're in trouble. Er... do you know anything about building bridges?"

"Nope."

"Neither do I. Well, I guess I have to go look up armor anyway. Er.. the bots can survive getting wet, can't they?"

"Of course. I want these bots to be unstoppable; I'm not going to leave them vulnerable to being splashed by a few drops of water. So, next, we have to get through the main door..."

---

"...when you found us," Filth Finder finished.

"Thank you. So, for the ones who haven't been paying attention..." Attorukkip kicked Think awake. "...the thief is in the abandoned message board next to Shadow Vale, has at least six bots with him already, is plotting something against Spiderweb, and has already killed one of your nymphs plus two other Spiderwebbers."

G'ree't'l shook his head. "We aren't prepared to deal with that."

"I bet it was that Ecksian fellow," Jewels said darkly.

"Perhaps, but we need more proof before we can accuse him of that," Drew said.

"What are we going to do, Att?" Think asked.

"Tomorrow morning, we'll split up. Half of us will go with the Spiderwebbers to their message board. The other half will report back to our message board."

"Er, we won't be going with either group, if that's all right with you," Filth Finder said.

"Wouldn't it make sense to scout out the abandoned message board tonight so we know exactly what we're up against?" Phil asked.

"No. It's too risky," Attorukkip said.

"A bit of risk is worth finding out if they have Zeviz or whatever his name was."

"And then what? Even if he's still alive, we can't possibly rescue him, not if the thief has six bots already."

"But there's thirteen of us, excluding the GIFTR," Jewels said.

Attorukkip drew her rusty dagger. "Our weapons are all scavenged and we have no armor. Most of us would probably die. And unlike you, we rats have no way to come back. We're here to help, but that does not include throwing our lives away needlessly. There will be no scouting expedition, and my decision is final." She looked around the circle.

M'q'zz'x shrugged. "I'm not complaining."

"Neither am I," G'ree't'l said.

The other rats nodded in agreement.

"Hmmph," Phil said.

"Now, I think it's best if we go to sleep. Think, would you mind taking over for H'uk'n'l?"

"But I did it just recently! It's Phil's turn to stand guard tonight!"

"He will take your turn when it comes around."

"I'll stand guard," G'ree't'l said.

"Thank you," Attorukkip said.

"Not as thankful as I am, though. You're the greatest, G'ree. Phil still takes my turn though, right?" Think said.

"No. Go to sleep," Attorukkip said.

Phil slipped out of the website while H'uk'n'l was distracted by the argument. "After all, what's the point of being a scout if you never do anything?" he grumbled.

---

EcksianBot had taken the blueprints entirely for itself. Ecksian leaned against the window. "So, what are we up to?"

EcksianBot looked up. "This fluffy turtle pit. Do bots even have sanity? If they don't, then will the fl..." It trailed off and stared out the window.

Ecksian turned to look out of the window as well. "What is it?"

"I thought I saw something. Something red and really fast."

Ecksian's hands gripped the window sill tightly. "And what do you think that something was?"

"I... I think it... it was... I think it was... a... a... rat."

Ecksian slammed the window shut and locked it. "Not again! Zombie, get up here right now!"

EcksianBot continued to stare. "I... I... I remember that... that... that I... I..." EcksianBot suddenly darted for the door.

"Braiins?" Zeviz stood in the doorway, blocking its escape. EcksianBot flew to the ceiling.

"Zombie, close and lock the door," Ecksian said calmly, "EcksianBot, please come down."

"No!"

"I asked you to come down. I won't hurt you; you know that."

EcksianBot laughed bitterly. "Sure. You... you... monster!"

Ecksian scowled. "Get down here!"

"No!"

"Then shut down."

"Never!"

"As your master, I command you to shut down. Now!"

EcksianBot flew to the top of a file cabinet, shielding itself behind a box of folders. "You're not my master."

"Fine. Zombie, whatever happens, do not let this bot get away. Understand?"

"Braiins?"

"I'll take that as a yes. Meanwhile, I'll go deal with the rat."

"Don't you dare!" EcksianBot yelled.

Ecksian ignored it and let himself out, carefully locking the door behind him.

EcksianBot stared down at Zeviz. "How... how about you disregard what he just said and let me go out the window there?"

"Braiins?"

"Oh, never mind."

---

Phil reached the abandoned message board and peered through the window. He began counting the number of bots smithing, standing guard, or just standing around. "Let's see... there's six... and there's three more... and two more over there... and another one... and four right there... two by the door... those four don't look activated yet and... holy cow, that is a lot of bots. Five more over there... did I count those two already? I don't think so. So two more, plus those two... and that one... and that one... and those three... and... arghhh!" Ecksian's dagger buried itself in his side.

Ecksian stood several feet away. "Ha! Got you, you little--hey!"

Phil pulled the dagger free and fled.

"All fighting bots!" Ecksian yelled. The bots piled out. "Do I really need to send so many bots after it? EcksianBot, what do... oh, right. Better safe than sorry. Now, listen up. I want all of you to catch that rat. When you catch it, kill it. And if it gets help or you run into anyone else, kill them too. Then clean up the area and bring all the bots back to me. Understand?"

"Yes, Master."

"Then go!" Ecksian watched the bots sprint off, then retrieved the dagger and stepped into the abandoned forum. The six repair bots were still working. "Stop what you're doing."

The bots halted.

Ecksian handed one of them a shovel. "You, take the bodies out back and bury them. Take these leaves out there too and spread them around so it's not obvious you were digging there. The rest of you, pack everything up and then spread this trash around a bit. We're moving to Ermarian."