Chapter 3: Hacked!

It was midmorning. Arancaytar stumbled out of bed and searched for a clean robe to wear. Although his tools and books were carefully organized, the rest of his room was a mess. Discarded and half-finished scripts covered his desk while clothes—some clean, most dirty—were scattered across his floor. He found a robe, snapped on his bandolier and tool belt, and headed downstairs, hoping there would still be some breakfast left.

Twenty minutes, three cups of coffee, and two pieces of toast later, Arancaytar carried a basket of dirty clothes into the laundry room. The laundry room was located in the basement of the General Forum across from the fluffy turtle compound. Fluffy turtle growls mixed with the thumping sounds of washing machines and dryers in use. The air was warm, damp, and filled with bits of lint. Ephesos, wearing clothes taken from the Lost and Found, sat in a corner reading some old threads while he waited for his robe to finish drying.

Arancaytar dumped his clothes into a washer and started it. “Good morning.”

Ephesos didn’t bother to look up. “Hey.”

“You planning on leaving, then?”

“Yep.”

“Is there any way I could change your mind?”

“Nope.”

“Did any other oldbies show up?”

“Dunno.”

“So, uh, what are you reading?”

“AIMhack.”

“Ahh. Well, I’ll leave you alone then.”

“Thank you.” Ephesos turned a page.

Arancaytar left the laundry room and headed back up to the main hall. He scanned the crowd. Everyone was calm and busy doing their own thing. If another oldbie had returned, there would have been a commotion. Arancaytar felt vague disappointment. There were a few old faces he wouldn’t mind seeing again. Oh well. He headed for the Moderator Board.

---

The Moderator Board was hidden within the Announcements Forum. To anyone not of moderator rank, the Announcements Forum was a long, slightly sloped hallway with two doors leading to the Tech Support Forum at the higher end and an open gate leading to the Avernum: Escape from the Pit Forum at the lower end. To the moderators, and therefore to anyone who might somehow obtain mod powers illegitimately, rows and rows of nearly identical doors lined the hallway. Only one led to the Moderator Board. The others were fakes that revealed only a recess in the wall and one of several nasty traps. Some spewed gouts of magical fire. Others triggered a trapdoor that shunted the door-opener to a pit of starving fluffy turtles. Still others dumped buckets of strong acid. A few even summoned a ghostly avatar of Saunders, a former Spiderweb moderator known and feared for her swordsmanship. Perhaps the nastiest trap of all, however, was a powerful magic spell on the entire forum that enabled the door which led to the Moderator Board to be different for each person. When the system had first been installed, moderators died constantly as they tried to figure out and remember which door was correct. Now everyone instinctively headed to their door.

Arancaytar opened the correct door and stepped into the Moderator Board. It was designed to be as boring as possible so that moderators would focus on the task at hand. It consisted of two small rooms with gray walls and brown tiled floors. A ragged and stained quilt hung in the doorway between the two rooms. The larger room contained a conference table with uncomfortable wooden chairs, a projector and projector screen, and several locked file cabinets that held important documents and a handful of emergency supplies.

The smaller room contained a row of bulky machinery along one of its walls. This machinery was connected to almost everything electrical or mechanical within Spiderweb Software Message Board. Defenses could be activated or deactivated. Electricity could be turned on and off. Doors could be opened and shut. The bridges outside in the garden could be raised or lowered. Heat, air conditioning, humidity control, signature length, bans, templates, profile settings, water, gates, alarms, sensors, censors, even the location of forums and rooms within Spiderweb; it could all be controlled from here. All of these things could be controlled from elsewhere since the machinery had a tendency to breakdown or malfunction, but when it worked it did everything.

Wires and cables emerged from the top and back of the machinery to disappear into the walls. Fans sucked in cool air from the Moderator Board while a pipe in the floor carried hot air down to warm the basement. A control panel projected out from the largest portion of the machine. It was covered in a complicated array of buttons, switches, and dials. Only half of them had any sort of label. The labels that did exist were mostly confusing. One simply said “Islands.” Another said “Ave sprkls/acnt/hr.” And what did “D t ch” stand for? The displays on the rest of the machine weren’t any better. Only a few were actually digital screens. The rest were just lights that flashed on and off in various colors. Several of the moderators actually refused to have anything to do with the machinery. They let Arancaytar or Stareye decipher any problems.

Slarty was not one of the moderators afraid of the machinery. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing or what he was looking for, but his gut told him something was very wrong and, as a prophet of the Nine-Headed Cave Cow, he trusted his gut above all else. He cautiously flipped switches and pushed buttons on the control panel, hoping to get a printout of the machine’s recent activities.

Slarty was a large, stout human. He wore a robe made out of black cowhide, a broad white cloth belt, and a stern expression. He kept his beard and scalp shaved. Slarty also had large brown eyes that betrayed his stern expression by revealing his inner emotions half the time and the other half laughing at some joke only they could see. His only weapons were a dagger, a notepad, and an obsessive delight in examining, documenting, and analyzing everything he came across. He did have a tendency to overreach in his analysis, which was why Arancaytar approached cautiously once he saw that Slarty was at the control panel.

“You haven’t changed anything, have you?” Arancaytar asked.

“I’m trying not to. Where is the button that prints the log, anyway?”

Arancaytar reached over and pushed a button. A hidden slot in the machinery opened up and spit out reams of paper filled with tables and figures almost as unintelligible as the labels on the control panel.

“Thanks.” Slarty gathered the papers up and pushed past the quilt into the conference room. Arancaytar stepped up to the control panel. A fan kicked on and a motor deep inside the machinery hummed as Arancaytar adjusted a few dials. Everything seemed to be working fine, but he’d have to examine everything thoroughly to be sure.

---

Ephesos had traveled several miles from Spiderweb. He decided to stop for a few minutes. Breaking out a water bottle and bag of trail mix, he sat in the shade of a dancing banana tree. Above him, the fruit shook and jiggled.

After eating, Ephesos closed his eyes and leaned back against the trunk. He had to move on soon—there was always so much work to be done!—but just relaxing under the tree felt so good, even if the tree in question happened to be an obnoxious weed.

Within moments, Ephesos was asleep. The fruits swung about. One dislodged from its stem and fell. As late morning turned into afternoon, it slowly jigged off to find a place to sprout.

---

Alorael sat in his usual chair in the lookout tower, which was also his room. From this position, he could see the entire Spiderweb neighborhood. It was also exposed enough that anyone nearby could also see him. This made it an unusual position for a sniper to prefer, but Alorael had long since passed unusual, traveled through gimmicky, and settled down in downright strange territory. He enjoyed it there, and for some reason all the other Spiderwebbers enjoyed his being there too.

Alorael was a human of Korean descent. He was elderly, somewhere between sixty and eighty, but his black hair had few streaks of gray. His attire was a worn but still snappy business suit and bow tie. He always kept his sniper rifle within easy reach. A lifetime of skribbane use had stained his teeth orange-green and given him enough tics, twitches, and jitters that everyone saw him with a permanent motion blur. The twitching only stopped during the few seconds needed to aim and fire his rifle once he had selected a target.

Now he unpacked his lunch. The weather was good, but no one seemed to be about. The only movement he’d seen all day was Ephesos leaving Spiderweb and something on a distant rooftop. It was probably only a bird taking flight or a piece of trash blowing about. Alorael mused on the fact that his eyesight was beginning to fail. He’d aged well considering how long he had been at Spiderweb, but he was beginning to slow down. He sighed. One day he’d have to put his rifle and skribbane down, and then his only joy would be reliving the memories of his early days and beating newbies with his cane. He blinked. Some haze was beginning to form in the east. Odd. The weather forecast hadn’t said anything about clouds. He ate his lunch and watched.

---

A hot gust of wind blew dust and dried leaves into Ephesos’ face. He coughed, awakening suddenly. He blinked away the rest of the dust, pulled a leaf out of a bushy eyebrow, and looked around. What happened? What time was it?

Crap! He must have fallen asleep. He repacked his bag and jogged down the road. He reached the top of a hill and stopped dead. A huge cloud of dust was in the east. His first thought was a windstorm, but it wasn’t moving nearly fast enough. Then he saw about half a dozen figures heading west along the road. Figuring that they might know what was going on, he headed toward them.

When Ephesos got closer, he saw that the figures were all noobs. He hated noobs, since they vandalized property and killed or injured the unwary. Too bad he didn’t have time to deal with them. He needed to find another way around. Unfortunately, the noobs had now seen him and were now charging towards him. He sighed and prepared to cast spells. It would be easier to fight them then to run away.

The noobs charged until they were almost within casting range, and then faltered to a halt. One of the noobs seemed to be in charge of the others and attempted to give orders. It pulled out a white flag. It waved it frantically at Ephesos. “we nott atack! we not atack1” It grabbed another noob that was edging forward and threw it to the ground. “don’t atack! don’t!”

“What are you doing here?” Ephesos demanded.

“we…” The noob stopped to think. “scoting. yes we r scoting.”

Ephesos was taken aback. “Scouting? For what?”

“teh amy!”

“…the amy?” Ephesos’ eyebrows furrowed. What did “amy” mean? Suddenly he realized what was causing the dust cloud.

“yes1 we fight na amy! hay wher r u going ??” the noob yelled, because Ephesos had turned and begun to run back towards Spiderweb.

---

Alorael watched the storm in the east. At first he thought it was an ordinary thunderstorm, but it was staying low instead of rising up into the sky. So it had to be something else. What could it be?

Movement caught his eye. A figure in green was hurrying toward Spiderweb along the main street. Ephesos. Alorael climbed out of the nearest window onto the roof. He made his way to the edge of the roof and waited until Ephesos was in shouting range. “What is it, Eph?”

Ephesos paused just long enough to shout back, “Noobs! Hundreds of them, headed this way! It’s some sort of army! We’re about to be attacked!”

---

Slarty had worked through lunch. He had identified a line of data that had been duplicated. The original was from several days ago, but the duplicate was from around the time of the forumquake yesterday. Now that he knew what he was looking for and where to find it, he soon found several more lines that had been duplicated or had suspicious looking timestamps. He had showed them all to Arancaytar after he returned from lunch. Arancaytar immediately attached one of his scripts to the machinery to scan for any viruses or other disturbances. Now the script activated its sirens.

Slarty covered his ears. “Turn it off!” he howled.

Arancaytar ran into the machine room. A moment later, the piercing wail stopped. Slarty stepped halfway into the machine room. “What did it find?”

Arancaytar read the script’s printout of results. Then he read them again. His mind was numb. His heart was racing. No. Impossible. Not here. Not now. How could… this was… oh no. No no no no. He couldn’t even think it, let alone say it, but Slarty was watching him, he needed to warn everyone, to get it out. He swallowed hard. His mouth was dry. How could it happen here? How could this happen at Spiderweb? “We’ve… we’ve been hacked.”