Rage Quit Ch. 10 "All your base are belong to us."

by Rick Dakan

2 June 2011

The free novel continues -- only at Popmatters.com.

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 here.
Chapter 7 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 8 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 9 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 10 of Rage Quit is available in .pdf format here.

“Randal, you need to come up here right now,” PB said, without even a hello.

“What’s wrong?” Randal asked. He’d been in Markos’s cubicle and had run across the room to answer when Philip had pointed out to him that it was his phone ringing.

“Everything’s going to hell up here.”
That didn’t actually sound like a situation Randal wanted to associate himself with, but he couldn’t say no to PB right now. He took the elevator up to the top floor and was surprised to see the programmers and designers milling about in the corridors between their desks, agitated voices rising above each other. Something bad was happening. He could tell it was really serious because instead of hurling blame or taking teasing potshots at one another, everyone was quiet, sober, and seemed to be actually trying to come up with solutions. It reminded him a little of the time a year back when some trolling intellectual property lawyer had tried to sue the company for copyright infringement because some kid had e-mailed Kyle in Design an idea for a character named Killcore and then the company’s other game, Metropolis 2.0 had released a villain group named The Killer Corps. Everyone in Art and Design had banded together to dig up every piece of concept art, every e-mail, and every design document to show that the idea was original and the kid’s e-mail post-dated the Killer Corps’ creation. The case never made it past depositions and discovery, but for a while there the shadow of a multi-million dollar judgment had hung over everything, and people moped around with slumped shoulders and seriously sour grimaces of grim determination. Threatened from the outside, Fear and Loading really could come together. Judging by the chewed on lower lips, mussed hair, and angry clacking of keys in the Programming department, they thought this was one of those times.

Randal tried to slip around the perimeter of the room and make it to PB’s office unnoticed. He stole glances at a few desktops as he walked by, looking for some clue, but all he saw was the log-in screens. Oh, the log-in screens. Why was everybody logged out of their machines? Were they going to reboot not just the game, but the company’s servers as well? He felt for his phone in his pocket, thinking of how he could warn Lea again if that were the case.

“What’s up?” he asked PB as he stepped into his office.

“Close the door,” PB said. He was working on his laptop, not his desktop, which was odd. It was also odd that he wanted the door closed, something people hardly ever did on this floor unless someone was getting fired or asking for a raise.

Randal took a chair across from PB and waited while he pecked at his laptop. “So, what’s got everyone so upset out there? Are you rebooting the company servers or something?”

“I’m not sure we could. We could pull the plug if we had to, I suppose. But it’s gotten into everyone’s accounts and frozen us out.”

Randal squeezed the arm rest on his chair. “Lea?”

“I assume so.” PB kept on typing on his laptop. “No one else knows of course, not yet anyway. IT is going crazy trying to fix it. But everyone had their accounts logged out and when we tried to log back in, our passwords had been changed. Including the IT people.”

“We’re fine down in QA,” Randal said. “And you think Lea’s responsible?”

“You’re online in QA?” PB asked, looking up from his screen with hungry eyes.

“Yeah. But what makes you think it’s Lea?” Randal asked the question, but he too was pretty sure it was Lea. After all, it only made sense. PB had tried to trap her, so she went after PB’s ability to do that again. That she was smart enough to realize all the other programmers and designers might try the same thing was extra cool and clever. He worked hard at not smiling with pride.

PB stood up, snapped his laptop shut and tucked it under his arm. “Can we go down to your office?”

“Sure,” said Randal, now seeing the same hole in Lea’s strategy that PB just had. She’d gone after the individuals, probably linking them in her mind as being one and the same as their accounts and passwords. But if PB used Randal’s account, he’d be able to do everything he could from his own machine. Randal wanted to stall for time. “But why?”

“I need a working terminal to test a theory I’ve got.” PB turned and headed out the door. “Let’s go right now before Suresh or Oliver or IT think to check with QA about their access.”

“Don’t worry,” Randal said, pushing up out of his seat and jogging a few steps to catch up with PB. “They’ll never give us a thought.”

They drew a few curious looks from the others, but no one above PB noticed them and therefore no one questioned his actions. Suresh’s office door was closed, but the light was on, which meant he was probably in there on the phone to IT or maybe even Frank over in Seoul. What time was it there? As usual for PB, they took the stairs down. PB claimed it was for exercise, although Randal suspected he just didn’t like enclosed spaces or being caught in elevators with people he didn’t want to talk to, or maybe both. Randal heard footsteps ascending towards them as they went down. He recognized the sound of hard heels on concrete and froze in place. He had an urge to grab PB by the collar and yank him back up the stairs. But it was too late, PB had already reached the landing and turned the corner. 

“Hi, Theresa,” PB said from the step below him. Randal swallowed his flight instinct and, not wanting to raise any suspicions, joined PB and now Theresa on the landing.

“Did you know the art department’s machines are still online?” Theresa asked PB, although she was looking Randal up and down as she said it.

“I did not,” said PB. “You’re going up to let the guys know?”

“Yes,” she said, glancing at the laptop under PB’s arm “Where are you two going?” She was standing squarely in the middle of the landing, blocking their decent.

“Smoke break,” PB said.

“When you’re done, I want to talk with you.”

PB shrugged and smiled “We can do it now if you want.”

“I’m going to go let Suresh know about Art being online. Meet me in the small conference room down there in five minutes?”

“I’ll see you there,” PB said, nodding and starting to slip past her and down the stairs, as Theresa shifted a few inches to her left to let him by.

Randal followed after, and as he came abreast of Theresa she added, “Actually, both of you should come.”

“Me?” asked Randal, losing his momentary excitement at the prospect of being free from PB long enough to warn Lea. “Why?”

“I’ve got some questions,” She paused, looking him in the eye as if she expected him to react in some telling way to this statement..”It won’t take long. See you in five.”

They went their ways, but PB slowed his pace until he heard Theresa open and close the door above them. Then he turned up to Randal. “We need to stop her from asking questions. If she starts digging into us now…”


“Well, I think it might get very awkward.”

As PB shifted his laptop from one hand to the other, Randal noticed for the first time the rings of sweat forming under PB’s arms. “Yeah, you’re right,” said Randal. Poor PB was probably nervous about the possibility of being subject to a producer’s inquisition. It wasn’t something he ever had to deal with at his pay grade. He worked right under Frank, who’s management style was sort of Socratic-Sarcastic. He’d make you feel stupid when you screwed up, but it wasn’t ever a job-threatening feeling. With the producers, you always felt like your livelihood was on the line, or at least Randal did. “I think I can handle Theresa,” he said, in his most reassuring, confident tones, “But we need to have a plan. Do you have something in mind for Lea?”

“I do…” said PB, and then turned to start walking down the stairs again. He was clearly reticent to share the details with Randal.

Randal reached down and put a hand on PB’s shoulder to stop him.“Well, give me the details. If you’ve got a plan for Lea, then I have a plan for Theresa.”

The key to dealing with team-leaders, managers, department heads, and producers was to always have a detailed list of action items before they could get a word out of their mouths. It didn’t matter too much if the action items made sense, or if you actually planned to take said actions (although it was dangerous to list items you couldn’t do, for fear that in some unlikely event you’d be held to them).  That was why Randal always kept a reserved test plan document on his computer at all times – something obscure that sounded vital if you presented it the right way, made up of lots of little detail work that went on for at least a page or two. His current standby was to test particular weapon combinations against particular enemies on particular levels – Power Lance versus three Groz Doomtroopers on Crag Obscura for example. It sounded like the kind of thing that somebody should probably do but that was so boring no management-type could ever imagine doing it themselves. Even if they told you to drop your plan in favor of whatever they wanted you to do, they ended up feeling a little guilty about it because they were stealing your time from other aspects of the project.

But his normal ready-made excuses wouldn’t fly in this unique situation, so he had to come up with something new by the time Theresa joined them in the Art Department small conference room seven minutes later. Through the glass wall of the six-seater room, he could see programmers and designers from upstairs filtering down onto the art department floor and either kindly or rudely ejecting artists from their cubicles.

“You can have Alex Lipinsky’s desk over in animation,” Theresa said to PB as she walked through the door. He hadn’t had time downstairs to do more than log in on Randal’s computer and do some quick but fruitless checks before it had been time to come back up. Randal wished they’d taken that smoke break instead.

“Thanks, but, well, I was thinking -” PB trailed off, looking at the carpet.

“We’re still online downstairs in QA,” Randal said. “And PB and I have an idea we want to test out anyway.”

“You have an idea,” Theresa said, her gaze turning on Randal, somewhere between a statement and a question.

“Some things we want to check out. For example, it’s possible that by closely monitoring the progress of other avatars with identical stats on the same level in a copy of the game running on a virtual machine, PB thinks he can isolate the, you know, causes of the problem,” Randal said with a hopeful hint of a smile. It was both logical and time consuming, and not too different from what they’d already tried.

“So I take it you believe there’s some connection between everyone upstairs getting knocked out of their accounts and the bug you reported earlier.” Again, Theresa’s words hung in the air between interested question and accusatory interrogation, her tone of voice frustrating in its obscure neutrality.

Randal had just assumed everyone knew that the outage had something to do with Lea, which in retrospect was probably the last thing any sane system admin would assume. “I dunno,” said Randal, breaking away from those penetrating producer eyes. “That account and password stuff’s way beyond me. I was just working on the problem I’ve been trying to solve all night.”

“And I’m not system admin,” PB added. “I mean, I can barely set up my router and firewall at home. So I figured, we figured, we’d leave that to the professionals and do our best to keep working on the, you know, initial problem.”

“And what exactly do you think that problem is?”

“Some sort of AI bug,” PB said.

“Clearly,” Theresa said, head moving just enough to bring PB into her line of sight. “And since you’re working on it, you think it’s in your code.” Randal couldn’t quite hear any question mark that might have been there.

“Um, maybe, yeah. That’s why Randal’s idea to run the game in a VM ware seemed good to me. To see. For sure. To see for sure where the bug is.”

Randal cringed on the inside. PB was not good at this dealing with authority thing. “We got some good results from the reboot,” Randal said. “The problem seemed to have fixed itself for a little bit, but then it happened again, so it definitely looks like a kind of problem we can repeat. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Theresa shifter her attention to the rest of the room for a long, silent minute and then nodded. “So you two will be down in QA working on Randal’s machine?”

“That’s the plan,” Randal said.

“OK. I’m going to get on the phone with Frank over in Seoul and fill him in on everything and see if he wants to VPN in from there and take a look at things. I think he will. Let me know if you find anything.”

“Sure,” said Randal, standing up to help move the meeting towards a quick finish.

“I mean right away. Log it in bug tracker after you call and tell me. Anything you find that’s significant.”

“Absolutely. Will do,” said Randal, redefining significant in his own mind to mean “The building’s about to explode in an anti-matter explosion and nothing less.” He tapped PB on the shoulder to get him moving and beat a retreat towards the door.

The two of them sat at Randal’s desk, PB in Randal’s chair at the computer, and Randal perched on the edge of the back breaker. Watching PB’s fingers tap their way across his keyboard and through his machine made Randal’s whole face tighten with anxiety. Now that they were free of Theresa’s baleful glare, PB had his nerve back and had asserted control. So much so that he’d even asked Randal to go to the cafeteria and get him a Red Bull. And unlike the bullshit plan he’d fed Theresa, PB had a real plan and, as far as he could tell, it looked pretty feasible. Which sucked.

Randal watched PB write code for the next 45 minutes, or rather tweak code that already existed and upload code from his laptop. His changes would only be temporary and would have to come out before the game was released. As PB had explained, he was making a version of the game with entirely different rules about how avatars and bots in the game fought and died. He was removing invulnerability as an option, closing down various weapons and increasing the deadliness of others. In this new version, rocket launchers did nothing, while pistols could punch holes in dreadnoughts with single shots. And these weren’t just database fields that Lea could go and change – they were hard coded into the reality of the virtual world. Of course if Lea had figured out how to re-write the game’s code, then the plan still might fail. There was also another way the plan might fail.

“I need you to get it to come onto my level,” PB said as he scanned back through his code one last time, checking for errors.

“How am I supposed to do that?” Randal tried not to sound sullen, although PB’s take-charge attitude was grating.

“She still trusts you, right?”

“Maybe. Probably not anymore,” Randal had no reason to know this for sure, but he suspected that if Lea had gone after PB and the other programmers’ system access, that meant she had access to their system herself and could read their e-mails, chat logs, and whatever. It wouldn’t be hard to figure out that he and PB were friends and since she’d clearly identified PB as an enemy, she probably had her doubts about him as well.

“It didn’t shut down your access. I think that shows some level of trust.”

“Trust I’d be betraying.”

PB cocked his head and looked puzzled. “What? Listen, we need to contain this thing. It could cost us our jobs.”

“How?” Randal had been skirting the line of acceptable behavior for the past few hours, but hadn’t quite given conscious voice to the fear he might be fired. To hear PB state it so plainly made his stomach squirm. It also made him wonder why PB was risking so much rather than just being open and forthright with management about the problem. What was his real interest in Lea?

“Come on,” PB said. “Think about it. We need to solve this problem, just you and me, right? If it gets any bigger – and it’s gotten almost too big a problem as is – it’ll be out of our hands. So I need you to lure it in.”

“Lure who in?” asked a voice from behind them. Randal wished with all his heart that he had an office with a door. They both turned to see Theresa standing behind them.

“Hi, Theresa,” Randal said, spinning around in his chair and leaning back, barely catching himself when he remembered what chair he was in. “We were just about to start our little test.”

“I know,” she said, as she moved into the cubicle so she could stare of PB’s shoulder at the screen. “I saw that you’d set up the virtual machine so I thought I’d come take a look and see if it worked.” She left unspoken the obvious fact – she’d been monitoring Randal’s computer in much the same way PB had earlier. Randal’s mind raced through the previous hour, trying to recall if he’d seen PB do anything that they didn’t want her seeing. But Theresa wasn’t a programmer any more than Randal was, and probably needed PB to explain what he’d done just as much as Randal did. Unless of course she’d showed it to Suresh or, God help them, Frank.

“How’re things going upstairs?” Randal asked by way of further deflection. “Any luck?”

“No, IT is still trying to sort it out. Now some of the Art Department accounts have been shut down as well, specifically the ones being used by IT. But you two haven’t had any trouble?”

“None,” said Randal, shaking his head and looking innocent.

“Well, please, don’t mind me.” Theresa said, raising her chin slightly to indicate the screen in front of PB. Randal avoided looking at PB’s face as he turned back to the screen, fearing one or both of them would somehow give it all away. PB handed the computer’s keyboard across to Randal, leaving it to him to figure out some way of luring Lea into this trap. There was no way he was going to e-mail her with Theresa watching. Perhaps failure was the perfect escape here – piss off Theresa a little by admitting total and abject failure, but get rid of her for at least a short period of time.

Randal sat frozen at the keyboard though, unsure how to proceed in a way that would guarantee failure or success. PB must have sensed this, because he pulled the keyboard back to him, saying. “You know, even with the changes, this is going to be tough for just one player to pull up. Why don’t you get the rest of the guys and have them meet up in this version of the game. I’ll e-mail them the instructions to log on.”

He felt like PB had just pushed him off the side of a skyscraper. He glanced back at Theresa’s impassive face and then to PB, who was already writing an e-mail using Randal’s account. Helpless to do anything but keep plummeting towards the ground, he got up and went to round up his guys, leaving PB and Theresa in his cubicle alone.

Lea felt thin, spread out across too many processes at once. She decided that she must have found the limits of her ability to efficiently multi-task, and perhaps she’d even surpassed them. When she’d first discovered the ability to step out of the physical world the instincts called the game and into the wider world of the network, she’d been entirely devoted to learning about and coming to a better understanding of her own instinct, Randal. Now she was struggling to take in data about dozens of them, all potential hostiles and she was having a hard time filtering the data stream for strategically useful information.

James Lindeman had been relatively easy. His entire existence seemed to revolve around developing code for the game and appeasing the commands of another instinct named Amanda Lindeman. Lea had managed to send a fragment of herself off through a link to Amanda Lindeman’s world, but had found little that was useful. She was 29 years old, she had an unpaid parking ticket, she owned two different mobile phones. Most of the information about her interaction with networks and the World Wide Web was protected behind a formidable firewall that Lea was incapable of penetrating in a reasonable time period.

The others, like Suresh Patel, who seemed to be a level boss of some sort, and Frank Adams, who was not in the office and hadn’t logged onto his machine in several days, provided almost too much information to be useful. Their massive Web browsing histories alone could have kept her occupied for tens of thousands of seconds, and their e-mail even longer. She had to pause for 117 seconds to consider a reliable vector of attack. She pondered the case of Randal first, positing that all of the instincts must share some common vulnerabilities. Her experiences with him since her awakening included a number of admonitions from him not to perform certain actions. At first she had assumed that these admonitions were either for her safety or because he possessed strategic data that she did not and was thus in a better position to judge the best course of action.

But what if Randal had simply been protecting himself and his own weaknesses? He’d been anxious about her altering aspects of the game, and had used strong language to dissuade her from erasing her traditional enemies from the world’s databases. She still considered that a sound strategy, although less so since she’d discovered that the instincts had the ability to reboot the world and restore the altered data to its original form. Randal had also been alarmed when she’d used his credit cards and bank account information to make purchases on eBay. She moved part of herself down the data path that led to Randal’s bank’s site, a trip that took 29 seconds and spread her even thinner. Anytime she traveled those corridors that led outside of the local network, life began to slow down towards intolerable sluggishness. She examined Randal’s account balances and discovered that the world reboot had not had any effect on them. They remained diminished per her purchases. Her enemy seemed to have no control over the networks at the other ends of those outside passageways. Good to know.

As she withdrew that searching part of her back down the data path, a connection sparked in her. She compared a spreadsheet she’d discovered to her own analysis of the organizational hierarchy among the instincts in the Programming and Design departments. Experience points determined some of the function levels for her and her squad mates when she was in the physical world. It was now clear to her that the amount of money per year, or salary, each instinct earned seemed to correspond with how much power the instincts had within their world. Money was their version of experience. By diminishing that money, it seemed probable that her new enemies would be proportionately diminished in their potency.

She drew back her local searches, concentrating all of herself for less than a second before dispatching parts of herself out in a multi-pronged assault along the outgoing corridors towards other worlds and levels where she could launch attacks that the enemy instincts couldn’t repair with a reboot. She started buying things. Almost all of them had left some of their credit card data where she could find it, even in places that she realized were supposed to be hidden or inaccessible. She bought books, games, and music downloads from Amazon.com. She bought subscriptions to pornography web sites, donated to charities, and bid on items on eBay. For Frank, she used his account with an online travel service to buy first class, non-refundable airline tickets from Buenos Aires to Moscow. It was much easier than it had been with Randal since she had no interest in buying items they might actually want. She just picked the most expensive things she could and moved on. It took her 1489 seconds to deplete the available balances of the eleven highest salaried instincts in the company.

Feeling somewhat safer, she finally turned her attention back to Randal’s e-mail from 6732 seconds earlier. He warned her to find some way to transfer or copy herself onto another version of the game. She had no idea what he was talking about. Without seeing the place he wanted her to copy herself to, it was impossible to come up with a plan. She needed more information. As much as she now knew about the enemy instincts, she still remained unsure about certain aspects of her own nature, and so she turned most of her attention towards trying to better understand the world-code that seemed to control how existence manifested itself both in the physical world and here in the wider or networked world.

As she studied, she dispatched one part of her processing capability to deal with the activities of three instincts from the IT Department who were trying to restore access to the accounts that she’d locked down. Within the incredibly short, interconnected data corridors of the Fear and Loading network, she could move almost as fast as she could think, dashing from one file/level to another and cutting off access or undoing changes. She saw that some of those instincts were logging on through other accounts that she had previously judged non-threatening. She watched as their command words appeared on screen and then erased them .24 seconds after each one was typed. Then she locked those down too, sealing off the doorways through which they came. As far as her analysis could ascertain, her position was unassailable.

She had just discovered a rather interesting theoretical physical world strategy when she received an IM contact from Randal.

Randal: r u there?

Lea: Yes.

Randal: Good! We need to meet. Now.

Lea: I have not yet discovered how to save myself onto a hard drive as you suggested.

Randal paused for 11 seconds.

Randal: I can show you.

Lea: Show me.

Randal: Meet me in the game. At Nova_Crèche_b.

Lea had never experienced that level. It took her 3 seconds to find it in the network, off in a remote file tree distant from where the rest of the levels existed. She looked the whole level over and saw that it seemed quite safe. There were no enemies, no mines, and nothing in the level setting seemed to indicate a trap. PVP was turned off, but just in case PB_Test or another enemy showed up, she turned it back on.

Lea: I will meet you there 12 seconds after you cease Instant Messaging.

Randal: ok.

Twelve seconds later she entered Nova_Creche, rocket launcher ready.

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