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Rage Quit Chapter 13: The Cake is a Lie

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Thursday, Jul 7, 2011
The latest (and a week late, sorry!) chapter of Rick Dakan's serialized novel, Rage Quit.

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 here.
Chapter 11 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 11 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 13 of Rage Quit is available in .pdf format here.


Randal didn’t feel capable of facing anybody, even his own QA guys. Maybe even especially them – they more than anyone else in the company would be able to see he was upset about something. He got a Red Bull and tried to calm down, think of a plan. He needed to talk to Lea, and he needed to do it now, in private. He wandered out the other side of the kitchen and into the mysterious world that he only ever ventured into when there was some problem with his pay check or insurance: Office Crap; that part of the building that housed human resources, the office manager, and the dreaded marketing department. Farther beyond them was customer relations, but no way Randal was going in there.
  
The Fear and Loading Marketing Department was growing, just like QA. Since the company had started distributing their games digitally themselves, they’d had to rely on their own promotional powers instead of the media machine of a big publisher. QA’s only real interaction with marketing was that sometimes a QA guy would get suborned into running demos for media or investors or something like that, but Randal had always managed to avoid such dog and pony show duty. Unlike bigger companies where marketing could actually influence game design, here at Fear and Loading they were a well heeled, low level group that did their jobs without trying to interfere. Randal couldn’t remember ever seeing one of them in QA and didn’t remember any of their names.


They had cubicles just like everyone else, with computers on the desk just like everyone else. Except instead of desktop stations and 21+” screens, they had laptops that they could take with them when they went on sales calls or whatever it is they called their trips into the wider world outside. Randal looked at his phone and saw that it was 6:10. He doubted any of them would be in before 8:00, maybe 7:00 at the earliest. Lea had locked him out of his own account, but Randal knew the passwords for all his QA guys. He used Markos’s account again, logging in from the desk of someone in marketing who really liked the online comic XKCD judging by the printouts wise-cracking geek stick figures tacked to the wall. Maybe not all of the marketing people were as totally uninteresting as their job titles suggested.


Randal started with e-mails and IMs to every contact name he’d used with Lea since last night, hoping that she would see and respond. He understood perfectly well why she’d be pissed at him. Hell, he was pissed at himself for his role in the last attempt to trap her, but he’d done everything he could to help her. He’d just been too good at it, hiding his actions from PB and Theresa and especially Philip, who seemed to almost call him out on it a couple times, had been tough. He shouldn’t be surprised that Lea hadn’t discerned his true motives.


He checked his less-used e-mail accounts next, thinking she might have contacted him that way. When he logged into Hotmail, he saw that, in a manner of speaking, she had. He now used the Hotmail account he’d had for a decade as a dumping place for things like automated bills, web site memberships, and other mildly important but still spam prone kinds of contact. So, for example, when he bought something from Amazon.com, the receipt came to his Hotmail account. Randal hadn’t flown anywhere in over a year, and that had been to go to the Penny Arcade Expo up in Seattle. He’d bought the ticket through Expedia.com. Now, apparently he was going to Singapore, he just had to get to New York city by 2:05 pm today. And hey, it was first class, so it only cost $12,231. One way.


He tried to cancel the order, but of course it was non-refundable. Maybe he could call them and get a credit or something, but at the moment he was just laughing and laughing and hating American Express for kindly increasing is credit limit to cover the purchase. “Oh my fucking God,” he said, his grip tightening on the mouse in his right hand until it hurt so much that he ripped it out of its USB jack and threw it across the room. She’d got him, no doubt about it. Over a quarter of a year’s salary gone, poof, just like that. Maybe he could claim fraud – which, after all, it certainly was. Maybe he could get it reversed. He should call right now. It was already past 9:00 am in New York, he was supposed to check in in three hours (arrive early for international flights!).


Did he deserve that? Maybe it was the least he deserved. He had tried to kill her. What would anyone do if someone tried to kill them, what would he do? She had no police to go to, no one to turn to for help. She had to fight back any way should could, and Randal was impressed that she’d figured out so quickly that money was a good place to start. And he knew he wasn’t the only person to buy something online from their work computer. Lea was probably spending other people into bankruptcy as well. Randal took some small satisfaction in that thought. Hell, maybe it wasn’t even that small. It was nice to share the pain with people who’d been such a pain to him. He hoped she’d gone after Oliver too, although it was unlikely that Oliver had the kind of personal life that involved actual women like Randal did.


Of course, Lea had probably reserved that special form of private attention – the e-mails to Lindsey and Aaron, the threats about Spence – for Randal alone. After all, who do we hate more than the loved one who’d betrays us? Who was more despicable than a traitor? Not just a traitor, but a family member, a father of sorts. He wasn’t sure how it had happened, and it certainly wasn’t something he wanted. He’d just been playing the game, trying to have a good time while doing his job and making his way in the world. But he’d also bent the rules, kept Lea going long past what would have been her natural life cycle. She should have been re-compiled and written over with the rest of the game, but he’d made sure she lived on. So he was responsible; he’d somehow brought her to life just because he was too proud and, yeah, maybe too competitive, to give up the advantages her experience gave him over the other guys. And while she probably didn’t understand it in those terms, Lea had to know that Randal was key to her existence. She wasn’t suffering the detached indifference he’d gotten from his own family; she was fighting to survive against a murderous assault from her own father.


Randal got up and retrieved a new mouse from the adjacent desk. He had to explain it to her. He had to make her understand that he really did care, that he really was on her side in this fight. He would save her, had to save her, but he couldn’t do that if she wasn’t going to help him. Randal sat back down and started typing again, putting down on the screen the thoughts and apologies and promises that had been swirling in his head and watering his eyes for that past ten minutes. He forgave her the plane tickets and invited her to come along with him, to get out of this place with him and go somewhere they’d both be safe and secure. He sent the e-mails and texts out, and then repeated it again a few minutes later when he still hadn’t heard from her. Please, please, please answer me.


Lea had noticed the messages as they came in from Randal, but filed them away for future consideration. She was still sorting through the 78 threads spread out over 22 web sites discussing her and her appearances on the various beta test levels. It was fascinating to see how people thought of her. The majority (63.23%) believed that she was under the control of some developer working at Fear and Loading Games. A few (23.58%) believed it was some sort of bug with the AI. The remainder had no opinion or vacillated between the two theories. Lea bristled at the idea that her skills in battle, which were clearly beyond the capabilities of any instinct-driven avatar, were not wholly her own. Likewise she found those who classified her as some sort of “bug” to be equally distasteful. She’d found and analyzed bugs, and they were simple errors or design failures. She was clearly neither an error nor a failure.


While most of her contemplated the view others had of her, she’d also allocated a portion of her processing time to following the path from Randal’s e-mail to the mysterious Unknown individual. She saw what their plan was – to set up another server, database, and network of machines like the one here at Fear and Loading that she had currently spread herself across. It seemed at first like a safe option – removed and walled off from all the enemies that constantly assailed her here. On reflection, experience warned her that it was very likely a trap of some sort, especially since Randal was involved in setting it up. The only mitigating factor was that Randal seemed to be trying to hide his activities from the other instincts he worked with. But, since they could use their voice communication channels without her knowledge, she couldn’t be sure. Was Unknown a friend or an enemy? It was impossible to tell.


Aaron and Lindsey still hadn’t responded to her. She reached out to some of the posters on the forums, suggesting that some sort of physical reprisal against the employees of Fear and Loading might be in order since they’d been interfering in their games. These were either ignored, discounted, or perceived as jokes. When she persisted (“anyone within striking distance should mount a coordinated assault with rocket launchers”), a moderator banned her from the forum. Rather than create a new account from a different IP address, she decided it was an invalid strategy, especially since the moderator had now probably warned her enemies about her attempts to recruit squad mates.


Finally she turned her attention to Randal’s continued stream of pleas for her to talk with him. She had learned how to work in the anonymous chat site that Unknown and Randal had apparently used. She deemed it a secure venue for discussion. She would read what Randal had to say, and possibly lure him into a trap of her own. She’d been learning about various forms of internet crime, and possession of child pornography seemed like a powerful weapon to use against an instinct. She held that option in reserve, pending further investigation into implementation options.


She sent Randal the link to the chat site and he responded 8 seconds later. 24.2 seconds after that they were both logged in.


Lea: I’m going to destroy you.


Randal_is_sorry!: please dont


Randal_is_sorry!: I know ur mad but lemme xplain


Lea: No explanations are needed. I understand.


Randal_is_sorry!: They forced me. It wasn’t me. You couldn’t see where I was.


Lea didn’t understand what Randal was saying precisely, but she did agree that she had not been able to see Randal in his part of the wider world. Maybe some explanation was needed.


Lea: Explain.


Randal_is_sorry!: I was being controlled by others.


Lea: Explain further.


Randal_is_sorry!: Like you used to be controlled by me. I had to do what they said.


Lea: Controlled by whom?


Randal_is_sorry!: pb + Theresa


Lea knew from the office’s salary hierarchy that both of these individuals earned significantly higher salaries than Randal. She had determined that money and salary was analogous to Experience Points and Skill Level, but she had not realized that it carried some authority over those of lesser level. That did correspond well with her experience, however. Assuming Randal was telling the truth. Assuming this was Randal she was chatting with.


Lea: How can I know you aren’t lying?


Randal didn’t respond for 21 seconds.


Randal_is_sorry!: I’m not sure. But I’ll prove it. Whatever you need me to do.


Lea: I will consider it.


Randal (if it was he) raised a valid tactical challenge. How could he prove himself to her?


Randal_is_sorry!: Think about last battle. The trap pb set for u. It was him using my account to contact u. He prbly chatted different then me.


Lea reviewed her experience of that brief chat, but there wasn’t enough data to make such a judgment.


Randal_is_sorry!: Or about the battle 2. Remember how I ran ahead. Gave away our attack. And I never came near shooting u.


Lea: That is true. But my former squad mates did under AI Joe/your orders.


Randal_is_sorry!: I had no control over them! That was pb. He even copied them.


Lea: I know.


Randal_is_sorry!: Hey, is that how you figured out how to copy yourself?


Lea refused to answer, not wanting to give away any data about her strategy process or abilities. She did have an idea for a test though.


Randal_is_sorry!: So do u believe me?


Lea: No. I have a test.


Randal_is_sorry!: Anything!


Lea: You are the best instinct/player I have seen, but your other, lower-salaried instincts in Quality Assurance are also skilled to a dangerous level.


Lea: Eliminate them.


While Randal typed nothing for 42 seconds, Lea considered what she would do if he refused. Perhaps if he would not eliminate them, she might trick or coerce them into eliminating him. It occurred to her just before he responded that he might be conversing via voice chat with someone she wasn’t aware of.


Randal_is_sorry!: ok. No prob.


Lea: Second Test.


Randal_is_sorry!: yes? What?


Lea: I need assistance monitoring voice chat.


Randal_is_sorry!: ok. What can I do.


Lea: I don’t know.


Randal went silent for 12.5 seconds.


Randal_is_sorry!: Can u store and receive audio?


Lea: Yes, but I cannot understand it.


Randal_is_sorry!: There are speech to text translators out there.


Lea: Explain.


Randal sent her a link to a commercial site in the world wide web. Lea could only access the public sections with images and text, but through these she learned how the service worked. This version was an online web utility that cost $19.95 per month to access. She tried to find a way around the security blocking her access, but couldn’t find an obvious option.


Lea: I can’t access it.


Randal_is_sorry!: I’ll buy u a subscription.


Randal went silent for 108 seconds. Lea focused on devouring all the technical information she could find about the speech to text software. She saw several potential options for integrating it into her own communication practices.


Randal_is_sorry!: My credit card won’t work.


Lea: Use this one.


She sent him Frank Adams’ credit card information. He seemed to have nearly limitless credit available and was thus far the only enemy whose monetary resources she hadn’t exhausted.


Randal_is_sorry!: There u go. I sent it to you.


Lea: I see.


Randal_is_sorry!: So, r we good?


Lea: Complete test one and contact me again.


Lea cut the connection and shut down the chat room. She focused all of her resources and attention on learning to talk.


The idea of killing the whole QA department didn’t hold much appeal to Randal. Besides, Victor was pretty big and studied ju-jitsu. Luckily for him, and Lea, her concepts of elimination were probably not the same as his. All he needed to do was get them out of the building, send them home. Except it was coming up on 7:00 AM. This was not the time to be going home. They’d pulled an all-nighter, and there was no sense in doing that unless you were around the whole next work day to take credit for it. Sure they’d be so tired as to be useless as employees for the day, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to show your commitment to the project, your love of the job. So even if he said they should go home, they wouldn’t bother. Maybe he could fire them, if just for this morning.


“I don’t smell any bacon,” Randal announced as he strode into the QA room.


“Is that some kind of weird reverse police joke?” said Victor, who popped out of his cubicle like he’d been waiting for Randal the whole time. “Like there’s no cops around? You mean Theresa’s gone?” The others were poking their heads out from their cubicles too, looking at Randal expectantly.


“You’re thinking too hard,” said Randal. “I don’t smell any bacon.”


“Neither do I,” said Terry, rolling his chair out into the common area.


“Neither does your mom,” said Victor.


“I. Don’t. Smell. Any. Bacon,” Randal repeated, this time in slow, deliberate tones.


“Neither. Do. I,” said Terry. Then it dawned on him. “And that sucks!”


“It does suck,” said Randal, smiling wider than seemed healthy or possible at the moment.


“Like your mom,” said Victor.


“Breakfast,” Philip said,  his head popping into view as he stood up from his chair. “I vote Hobee’s.”


Now everyone understood. Breakfast out as a group was a rare and wondrous treat, plus it involved bacon and coffee cake. There was a general murmur of conversation “You always vote Hobee’s…where else is there?...Denny’s? You’re kidding, right…IHOP you mom…I can drive…shotgun…”


Randal moved with them down the hall towards the parking lot exit. Then he grabbed his pocket as if his phone was vibrating and pulled it out, turning his back on the group as he did. “You’re kidding? Really? We were just going out for… No problem. I’ll stay. Yeah, whatever.” He slipped the phone back into his pocket. “Fuck!” he said to the backs of his guys.


“What?” asked Philip.


“Oh, they need me for some meeting. Listen, you guys go on and I’ll try and meet you there. They’re going to do a reboot of the server and some other stuff, so take your time. No work getting done here for an hour or two anyway. And if I don’t make it, bring me some blueberry coffeecake.”


They didn’t protest or commiserate. Philip promised to bring him some cake. Victor promised to bring his mom some cake. They disappeared out the door at the end of the hall, and Randal got his first glimpse of the early morning sun. He ran back to QA as soon as the door closed.


He sat down at Philip’s computer this time. PB and and Theresa had both seen him on Markos’s machine and PB might’ve started monitoring that one too. Plus, Philip had a web cam on his monitor that he used to video chat with his family back home. The chat room Lea had set up was gone, so he tried messaging her and e-mailing her. Hoping for some response.


His phone really did start buzzing in his pocket. The caller ID said, Private Number.


“Hel-lo Ran-dal,” said the robotic voice on the other end. It was the automated, neutral male tones of a text to speech synthesizer. For a moment he assumed it was a telemarketer. “Can you hear me?”


“Lea?” Randal felt a momentary wave of dizziness that was either elation or maybe fear.


“Le-a. Yes. It’s me.”


“You sound like a dude,” he said, not even sure where the words came from. He was talking to her! It was on the verge of more than his mind could handle. The fact that the voice sounded like it came from a GPS nav-bot made it all the more disconcerting.


“Is that a prob-lem?”


“No, no, it’s great. Great to hear from you. Wow, um, OK. So the text to speech thing works.”


“I made some mod-if-i-ca-tions.”


Randal nodded his head and widened his eyes. That was impressive. “Well, good. That’s cool.”


“Have you com-plet-ed test one?”


“Yep, sure have. All the QA guys are gone. Eliminated. I can show you if you want. If you can look through Philip’s web cam.”


“I don’t know a-bout web cam.”


“Well, it’s a camera that lets you…can I send you a link? Is there an e-mail that’s safe? I’m at Philip’s computer and, like I said, I got rid of him…”


“The com-put-er of Phil-ip Hong?”


“Yeah. I’ll send you the link.”


“Please wait.”


Randal waited. Randal waited and wondered and kept shaking his head in quick, over-caffeinated like motions of disbelief. This was big and real. He’d known she was real, of course he had. What else could she be but real? But she was real in the way computer games and people on forums are real – not really real at all. Talking to her, even in that weird, male voice, was kind of like getting that first phone call with some girl he’d met on a dating site, when he knew, just knew that once he got her talking he’d land the first date. But this was beyond that, a thousand times beyond. This was contact with a new life form, really, a new life form he’d helped create. And it was real. How did he know it was real? He was fucking talking to her!


As Randal watched the cursor on Philip’s screen dashed to the menu bar and opened the Web cam. Randal could see himself, live, in the little window on screen.


“Can you see me?” he asked.


“No.”


“It’s working, I can see the video.”


“I can-not.”


“Are you sure you’re using it right. Look at the screen maybe and you’ll see.”


“I am process-ing the da-ta from the web cam. It is un-read-able. Just data. I can-not see.”


“You can’t see,” said Randal. “Are you sure?”


“I don’t know how to see. Can you help me?”


Randal was crestfallen. How do you teach a blind person to see? Of course it made sense that she couldn’t see. It’s not like she really saw in the game either – she was probably just aware of where things were and then whatever language ability she’d evolved used the word “see” to describe it. Interpreting actual live visual data without some sort of guidelines and special software and who the hell knew what else would of course be impossible. “I can help you sometime, but not now. It’s too complicated.”


“I need proof you have pass-ed test one.”


“Lea, babe, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. Look at the activity on their machines, there’s no one there. You could maybe turn on their microphones on their headsets, you won’t hear anything. We’re alone now. You and me. Time is running out and we have to figure out a way to get you out of the company network and onto the pirate server. Do you understand.”


“Please wait.”


Around the room Randal could hear the click of speakers and headsets turning on and off. Lea’s synthetic voice said “hell-o” into each of them in turn, testing to see if someone was there. She ended by testing the one on Philip’s desk.


“Satisfied? How are you making this call to my cell anyway?”


“I am us-ing your Skype ac-count. I am sat-is-fie-d you have pass-ed both tests.”


Randal took a deep breath and let it out in slow, luxuriant relief. “Awesome. Very cool. All right, you and me, team mates again.”


“Do you have a plan?” she asked.


“Can you find a different voice? A female one maybe? There must be one.”


“Please wait,”


Randal had meant it in an off-hand way, but she’d gone right out and done it. He liked the responsiveness, but he’d have to remember to be careful what he asked her to do.


“I have nine other-er opt-ions,” she said. “Opt-ion one.”


The voice was also male. “No.”


“Opt-tion two.”


Male again. The women’s voices started at option five and Randal listened to them all before choosing the one that sounded the sexiest – younger woman, without the harsh school marm thing going on and just a hint of a British accent. “Perfect,” he said.


“What is the plan now?” she asked.


“Now we go talk to PB.”


“James Lind-e-man is the en-em-y.”


“I know, but he still thinks I’m on his side. We can trick him into helping us, maybe.”


“Like he trick-ed me.”


“Yeah, like that.”


“I like this plan.” Even in the computerized monotone, Randal thought he could hear a hint of malicious intent. That was kind of creepy, but also awesome.

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