Randal had long ago pretty much given up on the whole going out to lunch in a big crowd thing. He still tagged along maybe once a week with the rest of his QA gang, especially if they were going to the Indian buffet place. The lunches were fun, he supposed. Lots of joking around and gossiping and griping about the game, and he thought it was important to keep in touch with all the various rumors and trends swirling around the company. But the whole rigmarole of choosing a place, deciding who was driving, and leaving at a time when everyone was ready got on his nerves. Most of the time he preferred to take his breaks when he pleased, often waiting until two or even three in the afternoon to have his lunch. That way it was sort of like having two lunches – he got the QA area to himself while the others went out, and then he could take some more time to himself when he grabbed a bite to eat.
The Fear and Loading cafeteria was on the ground floor along with QA, human resources, and marketing, and was actually a pretty comfortable space. It offered clean, round tables, comfortable brightly colored chairs, and a plasma screen TV where employees could play videos. It offered three microwaves, free soda, and coffee drinks from a Starbucks branded machine. The vending machines had a decent variety of snacks, including microwave-ready burritos and Hot Pockets. Some people were brave or confident enough to leave their lunches in the communal fridge, but Randal never had. Of course Randal never cooked anything at home, so it wasn’t like he had something to put in there anyway. He mostly subsisted on Hot Pockets and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Tuesdays were anime days on the plasma screen, with a larger than typical lunch crowd often ordering in pizza while watching some frenetic collection of big eyed, small mouthed characters cavorting excitedly across the screen. For a self-described geek, Randal had a very low anime tolerance, and it was in order to avoid that particular programming block that he first discovered the joys of the nice and quiet 2:30 lunch break. It was also how he met PB.
There was very little direct social interaction between QA and the programmers. Well, to be fair, there was very little direct social interaction between QA and anyone else, but the programmers in particular seemed inaccessible. They either lunched in the same tight-knit cliques every day, or they had lunch at their desks or maybe up in their break room. Randal suspected that they’d insisted on having those break rooms upstairs added in just so they wouldn’t even have to make the trip two stories down to grab a free soda and risk running into any of the lower caste employees. PB, however, was the exception. He always brought his lunch, usually some leftovers from the previous night’s home-cooked dinner. He liked to eat in the cafeteria almost every day, although, like Randal, he did go out with the rest of his gang once a week or so.
Randal had noticed him at once of course. Randal kept a wary eye out for any changes in personnel or personal habits at Fear and Loading. Based on his carefully ironed dress shirts and wrinkle-free khakis, Randal had at first assumed PB was in marketing or maybe an accountant – something non-developer related. Over the weeks, they had run into each other in the mid-afternoon and smiled and nodded. Randal usually had a magazine or a comic book with him, wanting a break from staring at screens. The well-dressed man always had his laptop, and the few times Randal had walked behind him and glanced at the screen, he saw various non-computer game or programming related Web sites rather than code. More often than not it was some social networking site like Facebook. That was a sure sign the guy wasn’t working through lunch, which really made Randal think he wasn’t a programmer.
One Tuesday afternoon last May the anime day had run long. Apparently someone had downloaded a torrent of some new series that wasn’t available in the US. It wasn’t even subtitled, much less dubbed. That didn’t stop the animistas from pumping up the volume, and when 2:30 rolled around they were all watching the final, seemingly endless demon and ninja-filled epic battle with rapt attention. Randal took his Coke and Hot Pocket and went outside.
There were a couple of weathered old picnic tables along the side of the building that they’d inherited from the previous tenants. The numerous butts littering the ground testified to the area’s primary function as a refuge for smokers. A few of those were even Randal’s, who liked to bum a cigarette from time to time, especially in the late night hours of crunch time when he needed a little boost. There was one smoker out there that day, plus PB, sitting at the table with his laptop open. Randal knew and hated the smoker, Jake, an annoying prick of a developer from the design department, so he took a seat next to the well-dressed man.
“You’re not going to play any anime on that thing, are you?” Randal asked as he sat down, gesturing to the laptop.
“Got to you too, eh?” he replied, smiling at Randal and turning his laptop slightly to one side so Randal couldn’t see what was on the screen. “That movie is all a couple of the guys were talking about all day. I thought I’d escaped it.”
“I think they liked it so much they decided to watch it again from the beginning.”
“I can’t imagine…” PB said, trailing off as something on the screen caught his attention.
Randal left him to his laptop, turning his attention to Jake, the flabby-chinned, pony-tailed designer staring daggers into the back of his head. The prick had thrown a hissy fit when Randal had sent back a bug report spiced up with a few pointed comments about the lack of quality design in the level Jake had just uploaded. Wasn’t assuring quality of design and game play part of a Quality Assurance guy’s job? Not according to this schmuck. He’d complained to his producer who complained to the QA lead who ended up issuing a memo about “proper language” and “constructive language” in bug reporting. Randal considered the phrase “designed by a cross-eyed, fucked-up, leprous howler monkey” to be pretty constructive. Pursuant to the memo, Randal took out the part about being fucked-up.
Jake the designer dick made a big show of looking everywhere but towards Randal as he sucked hard on his cigarette. Randal, couldn’t resist. “Hey, can I bum a smoke?” Randal said, forcing Jake to look at him. If he’d kept on looking the other way, Randal had planned to go over there and give his scraggly ponytail a playful tug.
The designer tossed his butt to the ground, his eyes narrowing. But common smoker and co-worker courtesy demanded that Jake give Randal a cigarette or look like a total asshole. Randal put on his most innocent, friendly face but didn’t get up from his seat. Jake didn’t say anything, coming over and shoving the open end of his cigarette packet towards Randal. He took one. “Thanks Jack.”
“No, I’m Randal,” he said, slipping the Camel light behind his ear.
The dick licked his lips and then didn’t say whatever he was thinking before stalking off back into the building. Randal tossed the cigarette over his shoulder into the bushes.
“God I hate that guy. He’s such a freaking whiner,” PB said without looking up from his computer. Randal laughed out loud. The two had been lunch buddies ever since.
Heading up to the top floor, the designer and senior programmer level, Randal had no doubt PB would be in his office. The fact that PB was not only a programmer, but a programmer who rated his own private office on the top floor had been a big surprise to Randal. His lunch friend was pretty humble about both his status and qualifications, and it had taken Randal a little asking around to discover that PB was some kind of programming Wunderkind that Fear and Loading had managed to lure into gaming from a post-doc fellowship at Cal Tech. PB was the big idea man when it came to the AI system in Excelsior. His dissertation project had somehow come to the CTO Frank’s attention and he’d used every lure in his arsenal to get PB out of southern California and into a private office that included not only a really nice, not at all standard like on the first floor, chair and two giant flat screen monitors, but a six figure salary, stock options, and three weeks of paid vacation each year.
Not that PB had taken off a day of it yet. He’d never even taken a sick day as far as Randal knew. He worked a hard twelve to fifteen hours a day, five days a week, but was also scrupulous about leaving the weekends for his wife and kid. Only in the crunchiest of crunch times would he show up on a Saturday, and never on a Sunday. That kind of doctrinaire weekendism wouldn’t fly for most Fear and Loading employees, but PB’s stuff was so high level he seldom got too involved in last minute bug fixes anyway. He was the big theory guy. The detail work was for the programmers in the cubicles.
Randal knocked on PB’s open door and stepped into the dim office. PB liked the lights low and his monitors bright. The walls were bare except for the one opposite his desk, on which hung a huge white board covered in formulae and graphs that were way beyond Randal’s pay grade. There was also a to-do list that included things like picking up Cheerios, soy milk, and Parmesan cheese on the way home and a Saturday dinner date with the Sieberts. The only other personal touches were two framed pictures on the desk, one of his wife Mariel and one of their child, Kelly. Randal usually tried to avoid looking at those, not wanting to be distracted by thoughts of that particular aspect of the outside world.
“What’s up?” PB said, leaning back in his chair and smiling at Randal. PB never looked annoyed when Randal stopped by unannounced. But PB in general never looked annoyed at all. With his business-casual khakis and shirts, his no-nonsense, no-fuss but always neatly trimmed and parted on the right brown hair and sensible but expensive leather shoes, PB presented the perfect picture of unflappable professionalism. Randal knew him well enough to suspect that his easy-going demeanor hid some more than opinionated passions, but even he couldn’t say for sure what they might be.
“Chasing down this database bug that’s fucking with my main testing avatar and not having any luck.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s the story?”
Randal explained the whole, weird sequence to him, and PB listened attentively. But then, PB always listened attentively, which is one of the reasons he and Randal got on so well at lunch. They both knew how to listen and ask the interesting questions.
“How long have you been using this avatar? What’s it’s screen name?”
“Lea. L – E – A. I’ve been using her over a year now.”
“How is that possible? We’ve gone through some major top to bottom revisions in that time.”
“I got one of the designers to port her over each time. I didn’t want to give up her experience and training, because it let me test those weird corner cases in the tougher levels.” That was true as far as it went. But he also took some secret pleasure in always having the best character going in QA.
PB cocked his head a few degrees to the right. “Which designer was able to do that for you?”
“Why?” Randal asked, glancing at the open office door to his right.
“Well, I just wouldn’t have thought it was possible, that’s all. I’m curious how they did it.”
“It was Tony Kim.” Tony was a sweet guy, one of the few designers PB really got along with. He was smart and innovative but sometimes sloppy in his designs – like the low-gravity battlefield in the Shadow Gorge level that was awesomely different and fun right up until you got stuck in some piece of geometry and had to re-start the level to escape. From talking to him, Randal knew he was more interested in incorporating cool new features like force grenade jumps than he was in making sure they worked right. Normally that kind of development ethic pissed Randal off, but the first time he came upstairs to give Tony shit about Shadow Gorge, the pudgy young man had been so apologetic and worried that Randal couldn’t stay mad at him. Besides, as one of the few designers actually making really interesting and unusual design choices, Randal wanted to support him. So he started doing Tony favors by privately e-mailing him bugs and letting him fix them on the QT rather than entering them into the bug tracker. This made Tony look much better to his producer and design lead, and Randal’s own numbers were far enough above everyone else’s that he could afford to spare the credit. Since Tony mainly focused on avatar abilities and stats and weapons, it seemed only fair that he’d return Randal’s favor by porting Lea over with each new revision of the game.
“Tony. OK, I can see that,” PB said, staring past Randal towards the white board for a moment. “He started in programming but his code was a little spaghetti even though his ideas were great. And they already had one of me and nobody wanted another, so he got moved over to design to add some tech know-how over there. It’s a lot of work though. He must really like you.”
“I’m a great guy,” Randal said. “Everyone really likes me. You know that.”
“You’re everybody’s favorite. All they do is talk about how great you are.”
“What a great big pain in the ass I am.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I knew they were talking about you,” PB said, his voice lilting with mock revelation. “So why not have Tony do the fix for you?”
“Well, it’s firmly a database problem I think, so that puts it in Oliver’s boat. Plus Tony’s out of town this week for some family thing. And Oliver’s being either incompetent or a pain in the ass, so I decided to come to you instead, old buddy, old pal.”
PB motioned to one of the two empty chairs. “I’m honored. Have a seat and I’ll see what I can do.”
Randal plopped down in the “guest chair” which was more comfortable than the Back Breaker currently at his desk. Maybe he’d take it with him. He waited quietly for a few moments while PB saved off whatever he’d been working on and started in on the Lea problem. As he pulled up code and databases and who knew what else, PB turned the conversation to one of his favorite lunch-time topics: Randal’s love life.
“So, tell me stories. What’s the latest tale of conquest?”
“Not much going on right now,” Randal said, blowing out air through his nose in resignation. “Nothing since Penny really.”
“Was she the one that wanted to pee on you?”
“No, no, that was the Russian lit girl. Kelly.”
“I can’t believe you let her do that.”
“I didn’t let her! She just kind of did it.” Just thinking about it brought back the bile-raising smell. “And then I didn’t let her ever have a chance again.”
“Then I don’t think you told me about Penny.”
“She’s just this girl, you know. Met her on Craig’s List, which is always random. She’s cute. She’s a phlebotomist. We had some fun, you know, but nothing really exciting.”
PB typed something, paused, and then typed some more, eyes locked on the screen. “So what was wrong with her then?”
“Nothing really exciting.”
“Come on, man. Get it together. You know I count on you for my vicarious dating thrills. Mariel does too.”
“Aw, jeez, you tell your wife my stories?” Randal didn’t actually mind that PB told his wife about his exploits. He’d only met Mariel once, at the Holiday Party, but she’d seemed cool. Or at least she had a cool cobra tattoo. Besides, he was actually kind of proud of his conquests, although he’d never say so out loud. He even kept a list on his computer at home. After however many hundred different first dates and dozens of short term (sometimes one night) relationships, he’d accumulated a lot of great stories, and PB always seemed hungry to hear more of them. Besides, he didn’t know anyone else who was interested in that part of his life. It wasn’t the kind of thing he discussed with his fellow testers.
PB looked up at Randal, probably making sure he wasn’t really mad. “Of course I do. She doesn’t get to date any more than I do. Don’t worry though, I keep your name out of it. I just refer to you as ‘this asshole from QA.’”
“OK then, as long as you’re not sullying my reputation.”
Randal dated exclusively online. It was easy, it let him be as picky (or not) as he wanted to be, and he could do it from the office. It started as a way to meet girls when he was working stupid-long crunch hours at Namco and didn’t have the time or energy to hit the local bar scene – or the money to compete with the dot-communists. He took his time and learned the system, figured out how to weed out the girls he liked from the ones who wanted to get married or have kids or settle down. Anyone who said they were a “typical girl” or put a high value on “traditional values,” was out. Those who called themselves “non-conformist” or were “just looking” were in. He then sculpted the perfect profile pitch and figured out just the right combo of joking tone, the mildest of innuendo, and plenty of friendly, easy questions “about her” to put in those opening e-mails so that things would move quickly to a phone call that almost always resulted in a first date if he wanted it. Once he had the system down, there was no turning back for him. Screw old-fashioned dating, this was the way to go. And of course once he got good at it, he was seldom not in the process of wooing at least one woman, even as he was going out with another. And since the best time is always those first few exciting dates, he was forever drawn forward, thinking that “this girl is fun and all, but that new one seems like she’d be even cooler.” Sometimes she was, sometimes she wasn’t, often there was little difference, but he kept hoping and hopping from one to the next.
There were the attendant dramas of the break ups, which he always did his best to avoid, usually by claiming “crunch time” at work as his excuse for not returning calls or e-mails. Not that he always did the breaking up. He’d been dumped too, sometimes to his relief, sometimes to his regret. One time to his horror. Pam the half-Mexican, half-Japanese science teacher. He’d really liked her, but she didn’t have time for his lack of time and had moved on. After her he’d ventured onto the dating sites that were just about the sex, and that seemed to suit him much better these days. The women weren’t usually quite as attractive, and were almost always more damaged, but then the quick and easy sex made up for a lot. Match.com had almost entirely given way to Adult Friend Finder, and he’d been eying those Erotic Services ads on Backpage.com lately too, especially since he got his recent pay raise, although that wasn’t something he’d want to share with PB and, apparently, his wife.
Randal told the story of Penny and her corgi obsession while PB poked and prodded around the game’s database looking for some sign of Lea. Randal felt kind of like a white noise generator as he talked – just something droning on in the background to keep PB’s subconscious engaged. Still, PB asked enough questions to show he was really interested and even looked up from the screen when Randal told him about the breast reduction scars.
After about twenty minutes of fiddling around, PB announced, “OK, that should do it.”
“What’d you do?” Randal asked.
“I restored your avatar’s data from the backups.”
“Oliver said he couldn’t find any sign of it in the backups.”
“Oh, he probably couldn’t. The data wasn’t in the normal backups. I had to get them from a second off-site backup server.”
“There’s a second off-site backup?” The off-site backups were, as far as Randal knew, were in a data storage company somewhere in the valley that charged an arm and a leg but guaranteed 100% reliable service. He was surprised the CEO Greg was willing to pay for the same thing twice.
“Well, sort of. It’s not the official backups. They’re from my own personal machine at home. The one I use on weekends when I need to get work done.” This was a surprise. He didn’t think PB did any work at home. That was his sacrosanct “family time.”
“OK, well, thanks,” said Randal, standing up. “I appreciate the help, man, I really do.”
PB looked back at his screen. “You should be all set. I’m refreshing the database now and it should be ready by the time you get to your desk.”
“Great. I’ll let you know when I’m up and running. But don’t tell Oliver, OK? He still needs to figure out why it disappeared in the first place, and if he knows I’ve got Lea back he might blow it off.” Randal wanted to test Lea out right then and there, but PB didn’t keep a console or a live version of the game in his office. He could run a virtual version on his computer, but the control scheme would be all off and Randal hated that. He was already thinking ahead and planning on raiding the programmer’s break room before he went back down to QA when PB stopped him.
“That’s really interesting…” PB said, almost under his breath.
“It’s gone again.”
“What is?” Randal came back from the doorway and around PB’s desk to see whatever had him so fascinated.
“Your avatar data. I put it in there and then it just kind of disappeared. That’s really very interesting. Let me try again.” Randal sat back down and waited as PB repeated his attempted bug fix once and then twice. The same thing kept happening; month-old Lea data would be uploaded and a second later it would just disappear again. “I think I’m going to have to talk with Oliver after all, Randal. This is really strange stuff.”
Randal took a deep breath and sighed, disappointed. Why were these guys screwing shit up this bad, this late in the dev cycle? It was bullshit, and it was making his job harder. “That sucks,” he said, standing up. “I’m going back downstairs then. Let me know when you figure something out, yeah?”
PB just nodded, and started typing. Randal was definitely going to raid the programmer’s break room now.