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Rage Quit Chapter 6 - "How high can you get?"

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Thursday, Apr 28, 2011
Randal strives to figure out who the hell Lea is, while PB seems to know more than he's letting on in this week's installment of Rick Dakan's new, serialized novel.

Chapter 1 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 2 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 3 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 4 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 5 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 6 of Rage Quit is available in .pdf format here.


“That might be the most amazingly strange and wonderful thing I’ve ever seen,” said PB, a little out of breath as he came running into Randal’s cubicle from Eli’s office. Eli, the QA Lead, was in Korea with Frank the CTO for a localization meeting with the publishers.


“It’s like I said, it’s got to be a hacker or something right?” Randal asked, his temples still pulsing from adrenaline, like he’d just seen a ghost or witnessed a mugging in a dark alley. “That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
  
“Maybe. Yeah,” said PB, looking past Randal to his screen where AI Joe was re-spawning. “We’ll see.”


“Someone hacking in from the outside?” Randal pressed. “That’s it, isn’t it?” PB didn’t reply at once. He’d taken out his phone and stood there keying notes into it. “Doesn’t it? Some sort of hacker thing?”


“I don’t think so,” PB said, his fingers poking as fast as he could at the phone’s touch screen. “I don’t see how. It changed database entries too fast. Moved back and forth too fast. Not a hacker, no.”


“What, you think my game character somehow is doing this on its own?” Randal asked, his voice rising. “Dude, that’s fucking nuts. You know that right? How would that even happen?”


“What’s going on over there?” Victor’s deep, flat California accent yelled from his cubicle, compensating in volume for the noise only he could hear in his headphones. “Did you guys repeat the bug?”


He saw PB shake his head back and forth and Randal called back, “No, keep trying.” Until they figured out what was going on, no sense in getting the others all riled up.


“That’s what your mom said,” Victor replied.


PB’s face twisted in a look of mild confusion, but Randal didn’t want to try and explain the whole “mom-joke” ethos in QA at that moment. “Let’s keep this between us for now,” he said to Randal in a low voice. “I need to talk to Tony Kim. Where did you say he was?”


“On vacation. A wedding I think.”


PB was headed toward the door. “I’ll talk to his producer and get his number…”


“What’s going on?”


“I don’t know. If she contacts you again, record everything and let me know.” PB walked out of Randal’s cubicle and disappeared around the corner, leaving him staring at the drawing of proto-Leas pinned to his wall. Why her? Why him? What had he done to deserve this weirdo-hacker or whatever coming after him? The phone rang, the double ring indicating an outside line. It was PB. “Don’t tell anyone else about this yet, OK?” He was on his cell phone and from the choppy signal and the echo-chamber effect, it sounded like he was in the elevator. “I want some time to track it down on my own. OK?”


“Sure, sure.” Randal didn’t want to be the one to try and explain this all to the IT/security guys anyway.


“Good,” said PB, and hung up.


Well, it was PB’s problem now. Randal had done his job. Sort of. Unless it wasn’t a hacker but really was some kind of bug. One hell of a bug. Hell, not even a bug, a feature. He needed to find out for sure. Randal leaned back in his chair, suddenly reclining all the way, almost tipping over backwards. “Fucking chair!” he yelled, followed by chuckles from his underlings. Last he’d checked, Markos had the Back Breaker, and he thought about ordering him to switch back with him. But he really didn’t have the authority to make those kinds of orders, and they’d all just laugh at him again if he tried to break the rules of the chair game by demanding a switch instead of surreptitiously engineering one on his own. He just went into Eli’s empty office and took his chair.


His back firmly supported at his own desk, Randal leaned forward and brought up the word processor on his screen to start a list. Making a list would help him sort through everything. He needed a test plan in fact, an organizational framework to figure out what exactly was going on with Lea. He started typing, coming up with a quick set of action items, the standard sorts of things he did to try and find and repeat any bug. But the first thing to consider was that this might not be an in-game phenomenon. Right off, he had to assume the most likely answer was that it was a hacker. No, it didn’t feel like a hacker, PB was right there. It was too fast. But eliminate that as a possibility first. He typed “test on secure server” and then stopped, paranoia spreading down the hairs on the back of his neck.


If there were hackers in his shit, screw the game, he needed to protect himself from exposure first. Lea or whoever it was seemed to take an interest in two things: his love life and the game. There were plenty of people looking after the safety of the game. While he wouldn’t suffer any great losses right now if there were forged e-mails from him sent to women on AFF he didn’t know, it would be embarrassing. If some of his exploits got broadcast to the world or just his co-workers it wouldn’t be great either. He could imagine the QA team replacing “Your mom” with “Randal” as their go to sexual innuendo punchline. “Ugh,” he said out loud.


But he could handle that. There was one place it might matter, one person who’d somehow find a way to give him hell for it. He added it to the top of the list and then started to type an e-mail and then realized how dumb that was if the hacker was in all his accounts. Randal leaned back in Eli’s chair and took a deep breath, steeling himself for the inevitable. He’d have to call her.


She picked up on the fifth ring, sounding sleepy. “Hello, Randy, do you know what time it is?”


“It’s not even past 11, Lindsey,” Randal said.


“Spence has been sick, and I was up all last night with him.”


“Is he OK?” Randal asked, surprised as always at how hearing something like that made his stomach churn. The few times he ever did hear something like that.


“Just a little flu. He’ll be fine. What is it?”


“Umm…” Randal was at a loss as to how to try and explain himself and his situation to his child’s mother. They’d met when she was still in high school, a senior, almost 18. He’d bought some friends of hers a case of beer and then brought along a bottle of Jack Daniels to the house party where he helped them drink it. He’d been 23 at the time, right at the height of his shiftless period. Lindsey, with her petite frame, wild hair, and almost hyper-fun attitude had entranced him at once, like some sort of mischievous sex-pixie. She ended up coming out to his car with him. “A good thing I’m tiny if we’re going to fuck in that,” she’d teased as she pulled off her shirt. They saw each other behind her parents’ back for the next eight months, which is to say, most of her senior year of high school. The age difference never bothered either of them, wasn’t even something they thought or talked about much. They were too busy having a blast.


The last time in his life that Randal had sex without a condom was two weeks after her graduation, when they’d gone camping together. It had been late at night, in the camp ground’s women’s showers, and, well, lust had ruled the night. She got pregnant. He angled, wheedled, and hinted at abortion, and she thought about it and thought about it until it was too late. Then Randal had to finally meet her parents, deflect their unspoken accusations, and take his own time thinking and thinking and thinking about marriage. Then it was too late. Lindsey had grown sick of his moping, his lack of drive, and everything else about him. “God,” she had said, “I don’t even want you to want this anymore, you’re a fucking walking rain cloud.” She dumped him six weeks before Spencer was born, and made it perfectly clear that she didn’t expect another damn thing out of him.


He hadn’t lived down to her low expectations, and had at first tried his best to be a part of Spencer’s life. Granted, his best in those days wasn’t much. He bought some toys and dropped them off at her folks’ house, along with some flowers and a bottle of cheap champagne. He didn’t even see Spence until six weeks after Lindsey had brought him home, and even though the kid was quite clearly his and definitely fucking awesome, he also raised all sorts of frightening issues of responsibility in Randal’s mind. He visited every couple days at first, then every week, then a couple of times a month. “Oh, Randy, we’re surprised to see you in these parts,” Lindsey’s mom would say when he appeared at their door, her smile not going anywhere near her eyes. The most galling part was that she was right, it usually was a surprise, it happened so infrequently. Before his first birthday, Lindsey had stopped referring to him as “daddy” when she talked baby-talk to Spence, and he became “Randy” before his son could speak.


Randal chipped in when he could, but his spending and earning habits hadn’t changed. He’d been dating again of course, but not in any meaningful or lasting way. So when Carlos started talking about San Jose at that party, Randal’s interest shifted from the girl on his arm (Holly? Molly?) to the money-filled metropolis of Silicon Valley. Five years later, and here he was, making good money, in a good industry, with solid prospects. He could finally afford to be there for his son. Except of course that Lindsey had been married for three years now to a Best Buy manager and “awesome guy” named Aaron, who not only seemed to love her, but loved Spence too. They weren’t interested in his support.


“What is it, Randy?” Lindsey asked again, her tone consistently annoyed.


“It’s just that, there’s been this hacker thing here at work.”


“Yeah…?”


“And well, it looks like he got into my e-mail. Into a bunch of people’s really. And he’s maybe sending out fake e-mails using our accounts and making shit up and stuff. It’s happened to a few of the guys here already. So I just wanted to let you know.”


There was a long pause at the other end, then Lindsey sighed and said, “Let me know what? What has this got to do with me exactly?”


“Jeez, Lindsey, I’m just trying to give you a heads up in case you get some weird fucking e-mail that you think is from me when it’s really not.” He could feel his brow furrowing in familiar frustration with her.


“When was the last time you e-mailed me?”


“I know, that’s the point. So if you do get one, then you know it’s not from me, OK?”


“Fine.”


Randal mimed throwing his phone across the room. “Just wanted to clue you in.”


“At 11:00 at night.”


“I thought it was important.”


“Well, thanks for the heads up.” Lindesy didn’t sound thankful at all.


“Great, well, I’m going to get back to…”


“Since I’ve got you on the phone and we’re both awake now, I need to ask you something.”


Randal felt his stomach lurch. “Oh?”


“Spence’s birthday is in three months—”


“Right. Yeah, I was thinking maybe—” he was about to tell her about how he wanted to take Spence down to the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, but she cut him off.


“And Aaron and I have been talking about adoption again.”


“Oh, Christ,” said Randal. A year ago, Aaron had offered to adopt Spencer as his own son. Randal had recoiled from the idea, and had stalled them on signing the papers, or even agreeing to look at them. They hadn’t mentioned the idea to him in months. “Why now?”


“He’s getting a promotion and there’s a chance we’ll move to Sacramento to open a new store. It’ll just make everything easier. Benefits and all that? It’s not like you couldn’t still see him.”


Randal concentrated on the pin-up of proto-Lea in front of him so he wouldn’t yell. And the only reason he didn’t want to yell was because the other QA guys would hear. “Tonight is not the night, Lin,” he said, slow and serious.


“You called me.”


“Not about this.”


“Well, I don’t care about your hacker shit. I care about Spencer.”


“And you’re saying I don’t?” It wasn’t quite a yell, but it was loud enough.


“I don’t know anything about what you think, Randy.”


They both let the line lie quiet for a moment. “You don’t what?” Philip called out from his cubicle, Randal ignored him


“I have to get back to work,” he said, his voice low again.


“Aaron’s having a lawyer draw up the papers.”


“I’m going.”


“I’ll have him e-mail you a copy.”


“Bye.” Randal hung up.  “Fucking hell,” he said.


“Fucking hell what?” Philip said, still not realizing Randal had been on the phone.


“Nothing,” Randal yelled. “Just the fucking game.” That was a lie of course. The game never made him nearly as mad as Lindsey could with just a few words. He looked back at his list, deleted “Warn Lindsey” from the top of it, and went to the next item.


“Have you guys repeated my fucking bug yet?” he yelled to the room, as he stood up. None of them replied at once, so Randal went to go look over some shoulders and annoy other people for a while.


After checking in with his guys, Randal found that none of them had been able to repeat his Lea problem or had any problems with anything really (the game was supposed to ship in a few weeks after all). Philip was still using Lea’s squad mates, “They’re teaching me some cool tricks. Can I keep them?” he asked with a little awe in his voice. If it had been anyone else, Randal would have thought they were sucking up to him, but Philip pretty much always just said whatever he was really thinking. Terry wasn’t even playing on Dreadrock anymore, but he had started over on Proving Grounds with a new character that looked a lot like Lea except her armor was red instead of yellow. “It could be some weird graphic thing,” Terry had protested when Randal told him to stop being stupid and test Dreadock. Terry’s testing ideas were often like that – creative but ignorant of the way the game actually worked.


“Just delete that thing you’ve made and test the level I told you to, OK?” Randal said.


“Sure, fine,” Terry said, slouched over in his chair, not looking at Randal. Randal stayed until he’d seen Terry delete the Lea-clone and reboot on Dreadrock.


Markos was busy dying over and over again in the opening stages of the level. Randal tried to show him the grenade jump trick, but Markos and his squad didn’t have any force grenades. “There’s gotta be a way through this main corridor,” Markos maintained. Well, Lea or the Lea-hacker or whatever it was had gone off the rails after dying repeatedly. Maybe Markos would get a similar result by banging his head against the wall. Randal left him to it.


Back at his desk, calmed down from his call to Lindsey, he propped his feet up on the Back Breaker and leaned back in Eli’s chair and returned to his to-do list. He sent a few vague inquiries to the IT department about whether there had been and recent security breaches. There were no signs of any trouble, at least that they were willing to tell Randal about. Randal went through and changed all his passwords to every e-mail account and Web site he could think of, although if there really was a hacker who was logging his key strokes or whatever, that wouldn’t help. He then made sure all his software had the latest security patches and scanned the corporate message boards and bug tracker for any other possible signs of outside interference. There wasn’t anything, and the more he looked, the less likely it seemed that some hacker would choose him and only him as a target, and then use that access in such a specific and, really, very strange way. Why take over one avatar, and play games with him like that? If the mystery hacker’s goal was causing trouble, there were better ways of causing much more if he had that kind of access. And if he was just fucking around and playing a joke, there were funnier, more important people at Fear and Loading that he could mess with. Why Randal?


His perusal of the company message boards led him by force of habit over onto the public beta testing message boards. Here the thousands of beta testers could gather to gab about every little thing that was pissing them off about the current state of the game. Luckily it wasn’t his job to comb through these for actual potential bugs or problems – there was a team of Customer Service drones that owned that task. Randal started to itch behind the eyes whenever he spent too long on the Beta Forums. The tone, the attitude, and the self-righteousness of the posters there grated. His superiors told him it was a necessary evil, and the Customer Service people said that most of the Betas were actually quite nice and helpful, and that even the not so nice ones provided valuable critiques. Sadly, that was all true, so sometimes when Randal felt his current test plan had reached a dead end, he’d lurk on the boards for a while, scanning threads for possible areas of the game to go bug hunting next.


Randal’s roving eye settled on the typically useful thread title, “Who the hell is this B*TCH?!?!?” The thread was less than an hour old, but already had 32 comments on it. He clicked the link and started reading complaints that would have been more profanity laden than even Randal was comfortable with were it not for the moderated forum’s language filters. A tester with the screen name War_Meister_von_Kickarseburg started things off:


“WT freaking F?!?!?! I’m playing pvp on Hold Out and all of a sudden some a$$hole crashes out match and just wastes everyone. Closed match. Not invited. Must’ve been a bot or cheet cuz noone could touch him. Yeah, this game is ready for launch FnL. Oh frak yeah.”


Three other players who’d been in War Meister’s match chimed in with similar stories, and within minutes more players had come to report the same phenomenon on other levels, both PVP and co-op levels. The description clearly matched Lea, but Randal’s suspicions were confirmed when one of the poster’s attached a video clip of a game play session where she’d made a personal appearance.


The video showed the game from the player’s perspective. From the display around the edges of the screen, Randal could see that the player was in heavy stealth mode, which meant he was invisible to most other players (except scouts with IR enhancements), but couldn’t attack without giving himself away. The video showed him sneaking into the enemy base, approaching their heavily defended flag. Then he stopped as Lea popped into existence in the middle of the room, the same rocket launcher she’d used to kill Randal in her hand. She leaped around the room, spraying explosions with precision into the heads of every defender in the room before switching to a power lance to take out the auto-turrets that were having a hard time hitting her. In less than five seconds the room was clear. She then turned directly towards the camera/point of view of the stealthed soldier and shot him in the face with a rocket.


“Well, fuck,” said Randal. He thought about sending PB a link to the thread, but then worried that his e-mail and IM were both compromised. What if Lea saw that he was tracking her activities? Or the hacker? Whatever. Then again, if she was, or he or whoever was, they probably already knew because they could see wherever he went on his computer. He called PB instead, but it went straight to voice mail so he left a message with the forum thread name and hung up.


Going back to the thread he watched as some of the more vitriolic complaints he’d just read disappeared. He felt the heavy hand of the Community Relations forum moderators at work here, and if they were clamping down this hard and this fast, he had to assume the Lea’s interference out there was causing a shit load more excitement and complaint than this one, censored thread indicated. He wasn’t going to learn anything more about this from the company’s forums, and he was not going to go ask Community Relations directly, even if he hadn’t told PB he’d keep things to himself. It’s not like they had any idea what was going on anyway – they were just putting out fires.


He steeled himself and decided to head into what was, for him, unexplored territory: the outside forums. Like any big or even moderately sized game release these days, fan-run forums and Web sites had sprung up within months of the Excelsior’s announcement, which had been over two years ago. With the game in open beta, the forums and chat rooms on these sites had become new hotbeds of discussion, rumor, complaint, and general babble, along with fan fiction, guild organizing, and more bitching. Randal had never even looked at these sites. Unlike some of the others, he didn’t get a kick out of laughing at how wrong the speculation was, nor did he get any ego stroking from the fawning of fans. It was all just white noise to him.


He found the most Lea-related discussion on a site called The Excelsior War Room. It was one of those fan sites that felt its primary mission was to tell the developers exactly what they were doing wrong at every turn and how if they weren’t careful they’d drive away all their loyal fans. Since it was now coming up on midnight on the West coast and 3:00 AM on the East, only the most die-hard players were still online and in the forums, and they had a lot to complain about tonight. Lea was all anyone was talking about, and for a moment Randal had a real shock when he saw that they were calling her by name. Of course in PVP matches you got a message when you died that said something like “You were fragged by Lea.” or “Lea took you down with a head shot.” In this case, lots and lots of people were getting “Lea blew your head up,” and most of them were not pleased with it. Without moderators to temper their outrage, the forum trolls were venting their fury at full force.


There were three theories vying for attention. One was that Lea was controlled by someone at Fear and Loading who was trying out some sort of cheat system or just fucking with people. Two was that it was some beta-tester who’d figured out some way to hack or cheat the system. Three, it was a bot that was either meant to be for a boss battle and was now spawning in PVP matches because of a bug, or had been unleashed by the developers to test/screw with people. Most people were pissed off about it. Some thought it was cool. Randal read through one interesting thread where a group of guys talked about what they would do to prevent that kind of thing if they were running a server, and more than once they slipped into not “if,” but “when.” He was pretty certain they were talking about setting up a private, pirate game server someday. It happened with a lot of big online games – someone got a hold of the source code and set up their own server somewhere in secret that friends could log onto and play the game without having to pay the monthly fee. Randal had never seen the point of such things himself, as there were only a fraction of the players on these pirate servers compared to the real ones, and most of those guys were total douche-bags anyway. But some people would do anything to avoid paying for fun. Of course Randal hadn’t paid full price for a video game in five years, so who was he to talk? QA at Fear and Loading bought copies of every big title that came out, and he had his pick of them.


The thing that interested Randal the most on the forums was that lots of them had posted videos of the carnage. Randal watched all of them. The rapid-fire clips seldom lasted more than twenty or thirty seconds. Some were from a third person POV, some from first person, depending on the player’s preferred play style, but all of them featured Lea appearing out of nowhere and blasting the hell out of everyone in sight. Randal had watched videos like these before, although usually they were on the screens of his fellow testers. Especially when they were first running tests on the video recording feature last year, the team had made a lot of videos of their PVP matches. They also used them to record bugs, adding links in the bug tracker so the devs upstairs could see exactly what the problem is. These videos of Lea in action looked a lot like the ones his own minions in QA would record when they were playing versus him.


Lea had definitely learned well from him. Even without her squad mates, she was cutting through the enemy with the seemingly erratic yet actually tightly controlled game play. She fired precise shots that always hit, usually right in the head, even as she leaped off at an odd angle. She doubled back a lot, not roaming levels in set patterns, pausing then moving in a staccato rhythm that live opponents tended to have trouble predicting. It didn’t look anything like the way a live soldier might move in a real battle. That was Randal’s hallmark. Many players, especially when they get started, look at the game, any shooter really, as a simulation of real life. But it’s not that. It’s a game, and it has rules, and those rules approximate but don’t duplicate reality. Randal’s play exploited the game’s rules, not the simulated world. That meant jumping into weird little corners, timing shots and explosions to his movements, and knowing the vagaries of the cover offered by different scenery. It meant knowing the levels backwards and forwards, up and down, where to hit for most damage and just what moment to take that second shot that would guarantee the kill. Lea knew all that too.


She placed every shot just where he would have. Taking on a squad, she’d pick out the player controlled soldier first, most of the time getting an instant kill with the incredibly difficult rocket to the head shot. The damage splash from the explosion would rock anyone nearby, weakening them enough that a second blast would finish the job most of the time. During the rocket’s second-long recharge time she was constantly moving, leaping through the air or slipping down under cover. Randal caught himself smiling ear to ear as he watched her take apart two whole squads that were holed up at the blue end of the Rending Trenches map. He couldn’t have done it better himself.


“Nice!” he said out loud, watching another video. Lea was now clearly immune to the effect of her own weapons, and had used a combo of pulse grenades and rocket blasts to send herself flying in a long, high arc through the air and across a chasm, as she rained down rockets on enemies hundreds of feet below. Randal had never seen anything like that in the game before. Or any game. “Fuck, that’s cool.” The commentators on the video seemed to agree. Even their heated outrage gave way to mostly pure admiration. After all, the video was undeniably cool.


Randal was starting to look for the next clip when his phone pulsed twice in his pocket. He had an e-mail, possibly from Lea again. He yanked out his phone but saw it was just from Ebay, he assumed some sort of spam. But no, apparently he’d won an auction. Except he hadn’t bid on anything in months.


He typed ebay.com into his browser.

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