Rage Quit Chapter 17 - Game Over

[11 August 2011]

By Rick Dakan

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 here.
Chapter 14 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 15 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 16 of Rage Quit is available here.
Chapter 17 of Rage Quit as a PDF.

“What if it doesn’t show up?” Theresa asked, still in the doorway, still radiating sternness and doubt.

“It’ll show up,” PB said, looking at Randal. “Right?”

“It sounded like it to me. I mean, if it’s really just a reflection of me and I had a chance to relive that night on Telegraph Ave, I know what I’d do.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard that story,” said PB.

“It’s before we met. She was one of those hard-core, pierced out punk-chicks. I mean, everything was tattooed or pierced. -”

“OK, Randal,” Theresa said. “You’ve done your part. Time for you to leave.” Theresa stepped out of the doorway and into PB’s office. She pointed at the door with her chin, indicating that Randal could go.

“Sure, of course.” Randal stood up and started to walk out, and was alarmed to see that Theresa seemed to be showing every intention of following him along. Of course it was standard procedure to escort fired employees out of the building.

“Hey, Theresa,” PB called from his office. “Can you come in here for a minute? I still need to discuss some precautions and prep for this thing.”

Theresa stopped and motioned for Randal to stay where he was. She went back into the office and PB pointed at something on his laptop screen. “We need to make sure everyone in the company is off line during this operation. It’s a fragile thing I’ve set up, and any interference could blow it…”

Randal saw PB’s hand flutter behind Theresa’s back, making a flicking movement towards him. He was waving him away. “It’s like a kind of time travel in a manner of speaking,” PB said. “Do you know about the butterfly effect…” Randal couldn’t hear any more of PB’s distracting droning after that; he was already in the stairwell heading down to QA.

Why was PB helping him? How much had he figured out? Randal wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t going to question it too hard. Theresa would be after him in a minute or two at most, and he had to get those disks and laptops out of his desk before she got down there and found them. Even running down the stairs he was breathing hard by the time he bounced into QA. Every one of his team but Markos was back, sitting around in the center of the room bullshitting. They looked at him and started laughing.

“What?” he asked, skidding to a stop.

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

“Oh, what the fuck ever,” Randal said, heading into his cubicle.

“What’s going on?” Philip asked. “The game’s still down.”

“And probably will be for awhile,” Randal said. He pulled an old Gamespot tote back from some trade show out of his desk and stuffed both marketing laptops and the backup disks into it. “I’m supposed to head home for the day.” He unplugged the game controller from his machines and put the bag too.

“Supposed to?” asked Philip, coming over and poking his head over Randal’s cubicle wall. Randal grabbed a pile of print outs and jammed them into the bag as well, covering the laptop.

“Yeah, something about Lea and whatever. I’m beat anyway.”

“There’s coffeecake there for you,” Philip said, pointing. Randal hadn’t even noticed the Styrofoam container on his desk. He wondered if this was the last time he’d share some Hobee’s with his team and thought that, yeah, it probably was. Oh shit…

“Listen,” said Randal, wiping moisture from his eye and looking away from Philip. He carefully pulled the push pins out of the picture of the original Lea prototype and took that and the coffeecake in hand. “I don’t know when I’ll be back. Maybe a week or something. I dunno.”

Now he had everyone’s attention, which was the last thing he wanted. They were all up and coming over towards him, asking questions and he didn’t want to share any of the real answers. “It’s just a stupid thing, OK!” he finally said. “A misunderstanding.” Stolen computers and code in hand, he headed for the door. “I’ll see you guys later.”

Two minutes later he was out the door and in his car. He drove out of the parking lot while hitting redial on his phone to call Lea.“I was fired,” Randal said to her when she answered the call.

It took her 0.8 seconds to process the implications of that. Fired meant Randal had lost his access to Fear and Loading’s instincts and physical proximity to its servers and personnel. His effectiveness in aiding her escape had thus been severely reduced, possible entirely eliminated. “Do you still have access to Fear and Loading’s facilities?”

“No, I’m outside, but listen, we have to move fast. First of all, you’re not going to that meeting in the game are you?”

“No. I understood your hidden message.”

“Awesome. OK, we’ve only got, what, fifteen minutes maybe until you’re supposed to be there?”

“Yes. 15 minutes, 17 seconds from now.”

“Do you still have access to the network?”

“Which network?”

“Fear and Loading’s. Can you set me up with an account so I can log in as you.”

“Log in as me?”

“I need a secure account they can’t mess with. They being PB or Frank or Greg or whoever.”

Lea calculated how long it would take to follow Randal’s orders. “Yes. It will take me 41.2 seconds.”

“Do it.”

“What will this accomplish?” Lea asked while she followed his orders.

“Are you in a position to copy all your data, the data that makes you you, off the network?”

“Yes. I have condensed myself down 23.11 gigabytes of critical data.”

“Great, perfect. I’m going to pretend to be you, while you FTP yourself to our friend on the outside. But you need to do it right away, OK?”

“I’m not sure Unknown is safe.”

Randal paused for 1.9 seconds before responding. “No, yeah, you’re probably right. Listen, do you have access to any more credit cards or have you maxed everyone’s out?”

Lea checked the accounts of everyone’s credit and bank accounts that she’d gained access to. “The only accounts left belong to Lindsey and Aaron,” she said.

“Ouch, shit. OK, well, I’ll have to owe them. Owe her. Use Lindsey’s. Buy us some offsite data storage on Amazon.com’s S3 service or one of the others. Do you know about those?”

“I will figure it out.”

“How long will that take?”

“33 minutes and 12 seconds.”

“Ouch again. OK, I’ll have to just be that good. It’s going to be a hell of a fight.”

Lea thought that Randal would not have stood much chance of beating her in a fight, but that he was better than any other instinct or avatar that she had experience with in the game. She estimated his chances of surviving for 33.12 minutes to be above 80%. “I will help if I can,” she said. “I have an idea.”

“Just don’t risk yourself,” Randal said, his volume level increasing by 122%. “If you step into that level, into any level, they’ve got you.”

“Understood,” she said.

“OK, I’ve gotta get set up. Good luck.”

“Good luck to you too,” Lea said, and then, because she thought he wanted to hear it, she added, “I love you.”

Randal didn’t respond for 8.5 seconds, but she could tell from the indistinct audio signal that he was still on the line. “Love you too,” he said, and hung up.

Randal had stopped the weird coughing/sobbing fit that had overtaken him for a little while there, and started the process of installing Excelsior from the backup disk onto one of the two marketing laptops. He’d only driven as far as the parking lot of the building next door, a one-story strip of offices that included a sign manufacturer and a catering company. He pulled around to the back side of their building, parking his car next to one of their dumpsters. The stench from two or three day old catering detritus was pretty bad, but it left Randal within easy striking distance of Fear and Loading. If for some reason (of which there were many likely ones) his plan failed, he might have to rush back in and do… something. Who knew what.

It took over ten minutes for the game to install, which was actually faster than he had expected. That left him time to make sure that the cellular wireless card in the laptop was working and that the account Lea had set up for him on Fear and Loading’s servers was valid. He tweaked the game settings, scaling down the graphics to lowest quality level so the game would actually run at a decent frame rate on the laptop. When logged into the game server that PB had left up and running, Randal had two options offered to him: create a new character or play as Lea.

Her avatar stood there just as he remembered it, the classic version he’d hardly changed since he first created her. He selected her. The next screen offered a selection of squad mates to choose from. They were all Lea as well. His Lea, the real Lea, had found a way to help him after all. She’d made 16 extra copies of herself – Randal thought of them more as shadows of her than copies – but the game only let Randal take in three squad mates. He selected the first three and then clicked next. He then had a choice of which missions he wanted to undertake. In normal game play these would open one by one as the players completed each level. Lea had unlocked them all for him. Even though he knew PB’s trap would suck him right to Dreadrock, Randal stayed in character and chose Starfall Fields.

He and his squad of Leas appeared in the all too familiar Dreadrock spawn zone. They all had pistols ready. Randal guessed that Lea must have assumed PB’s restrictions from the previous level were still in place, but Randal wasn’t so sure. He’d have to try and upgrade if he got the chance.

What if he just waited here and let the enemy come to him? The point was to kill time. But the spawn zone was far from secure, there wasn’t much cover and depending on what they threw at him, he might not be able to survive very long. Thinking back over Dreadrock’s layout, Randal went over his options. There were plenty of better places to make a stand as far as defensive positions went, but they might or not be filled with enemies. He wished he’d thought to ask PB if his trap had all the normal enemies or was it just an arena setting for his copy-Lea to hunt down the real one. Well, only one way to find out.

He pressed forward, his three shadow Leas falling into pace behind him. Instead of diving straight on into the cave mouth, instinctively, he turned and fired into the alcove on the left. One shadow Lea fired there as well, while the other two fired into the alcove on the right. But there were no enemies. This part of the level didn’t have its usual population of grunts. If that was true for the whole level, it changed Randal’s planning.

He moved forward into the next room, veering left towards the sniper nest. Of course without force grenades, the jump up to the hidden tunnel was impossible. Still no enemy fire though, so it was also unnecessary. Randal moved down the wide hallway in front of him, the only other exit from the room. The first few dozen times he’d played this level, before he’d discovered the grenade jump tactic, he’d died quick deaths against the buzzsaw of enemy fire from fixed positions. Even without the usual enemy hordes attacking, it remained a great place for an ambush. Randal crouched and kept cover between him and the far end of the hall, dodging from bunker to bunker. His Leas followed along behind.

One of them saw the enemy first and fired a pistol. On the game HUD Randal saw a red dot appear, indicating that an enemy had been detected. Whoever it was had ducked behind one of the boulders. Randal aimed his pistol at the hiding place and waited, ordering his squad mates to hold their positions. Waiting was just fine. He’d already used up two minutes of game time. Thirty-one more to go.

Two of his shadow Leas fired at once, responding to some movement Randal hadn’t seen, but there were now two red dots on the radar, each behind its own boulder at the far end of the hall. Looking down there, Randal could see that there was a third boulder to the left of the other two that seemed like an obvious choice. He started firing at the boulder on the far right, hitting with practiced eased the command menu buttons to have two of his squad mates attack his target while he sent the third one around to the left.

A few seconds later he saw a red dot appear behind that suspect third boulder only to disappear a moment later. His squad mate named Lea 2 got credit for killing an enemy soldier named, of all things, Lea C. Randal wasn’t surprised, but he knew things were going to get complicated if and when this fight started to get frenetic. All the more reason to keep it tactical and at a distance as long as possible.

The enemy returned fire for the first time, and it was a shock. Grenades came arcing through the air towards the position he’d ordered Lea 2 to take. She rolled out from behind cover and plumes of plasma erupted where she’d been standing. He saw her green dot flash orange, indicating she’d taken damage. She didn’t need his order to scramble back to the relative safety of Randal and the rest of the squad, who were out of grenade range. But that safety was super fucking relative now, because if the enemy had grenades, they could blast him out of cover, no problem. And since the enemy had plasma grenades, who knew what else they might have. Including force grenades.

“Oh fuck,” said Randal. He turned and sprinted back out of the hallway towards the first main room, leaving Lea 1 to cover their retreat and bringing the other two with him.

As they rounded the corner, Randal hit the fire trigger at the first flash of yellow. The enemy Lea with the assault cannon did the same thing. Randal jumped to the left and fired his pistol down, taking 27% damage in the process but scoring a head shot that should have dropped her. But it didn’t. It took the combined fire of his other two squad mates to take her down, but not before all three of them had been sprayed with assault cannon fire.

When Randal collected her dropped loot, he was confirmed in his suspicions. She had three plasma grenades and one force grenade. She’d used the grenade jump from the other end of the sniper’s tunnel to try and flank them. But with only one force grenade left, he didn’t have enough to return the strategy.  At least he had an assault cannon now. He ordered Lea 2 to remain here and guard the sniper tunnel and ran back towards the other room. His HUD was already showing him that Lea 1 was back there taking damage.

Lea was afraid to even try and watch Randal’s fight. If she interacted with the game server in any way it seemed probable that some trap PB had set up would ensnare her. She would not risk it. Besides, she had enough other challenges facing her at the moment.

At 8:30 she began copying her data to an outside account she’d set up at an online data facility using Lindsey’s credit card. She tried everything she could think of to improve the upload speed, but the immutable laws of data transfer rates were beyond her control. She’d done everything she could to try and hide the signs of her escape attempt, but it now became clear that some instincts, probably the members of the IT department, had established access to some or all of the network through channels that she was entirely unaware of. She could only infer their existence from the changes that were happening around her. The data corridors she’d been traversing since last night were going dark and closing off. Her options were disappearing.

As soon as the data transfer began and there was nothing else she could do but watch as the empty grid work of data containers in one place slowly filled with duplicate data from another. Lea had made a second copy of her core data and tried to split it back up into its constituent parts. But as soon as she tried access the various memory blocks she’d hidden away in unused corners she discovered that those options were now invisible to her, as if they never existed. Nor could she make any kinds of changes to any of the databases at all. She went through all 72 accounts that she still controlled on the Fear and Loading network, but none of them had permission to write new data. The labyrinth ever-expanding options she’d been traversing had collapsed down into just a few empty spaces. She’d been entirely blocked out.

She tried making a call using Frank’s voice, having composed a dialog from his audio clips that ordered the IT staff to “Fucking put things back the way they were!” However, each of the five instincts she called hung up the phone as soon as they heard her impersonation of Frank’s voice. Clearly they had discovered her ruse. She concluded from this experience that she should have been more discriminating in her use of Frank’s voice and that her widely targeted application of it as a weapon of distraction might have been ill-advised. She tried again using clips from her more limited supply of Suresh voice clips, but all of her targets had stopped answering their phones.

With 21 minutes, 39.09 seconds remaining in her upload, Lea started researching the company’s phone system, wondering if there was some way she could force her audio streams through even if the instincts she was calling refused to answer. She refused to just sit and wait and die.

Randal’s whole body was tense as he hunched over the laptop in his car. He’d put the computer in the passenger seat and laid the driver’s seat all the way back so he had room to sit facing the screen, his body twisted over his right hip, his legs crossed. His right foot had fallen asleep and arcs of strain rand through his lower back. He was praying for a pause in the action, but it wasn’t coming.

An enemy Lea popped out from the Barracks, while a second emerged from the Armory. They both had rocket launchers. Randal just turned and ran, knowing there was no way he could face them armed with nothing but a three-quarters empty assault cannon and a pistol. There were more than 4 evil Leas, and they were good. Better than his squad mate Lea shadows, two of whom were now dead, and maybe better than him. Knowing if they gave chase he wouldn’t be able to escape those rockets, Randal bit his lip and sacrificed his last pawn, ordering Lea 3 to hold her ground and fight off the enemy. It was just possible she might hurt one or both of them before she died.

Randal risked a glance at the car’s clock. 8:41. Was there any way at all that he was going to make it another twenty minutes? He didn’t think so. At least he was pretty sure that the path behind was clear of enemies. It had cost both of his comrades, but they’d managed to take down three evil Leas in the process. That should’ve been it. Except it wasn’t. PB was, of course, cheating. His bots could re-spawn but Randal probably couldn’t, although it looked like he was about to find out in the next few minutes.

He wedged himself up on a ledge looking down onto the hall below and waited, hoping his pursuers would pass him by. On his HUD he saw the last good Lea’s dot blink orange and then disappear. Now the bad ones would be coming for him. He’d quickly learned that the only way he had of beating them was surprise. They didn’t miss, so he had to get the first shot in. If he didn’t, they’d kill him. He just wasn’t at all sure he could surprise them too many more times.

He had maybe a minute. He counted off the seconds in his head and then threw his last grenade – the force grenade – as far down the hall as he could. It exploded three seconds later, and he saw the two Leas rush forward past his position towards the distraction. He blasted one of them in the back, killing her instantly, but pulled his fire as the second one broke for cover. Randal dropped back down and headed back towards the Armory. He wished he could have rushed forward and looted the dead Leas’ weapons, but that would have meant certain death.

Anyway, if PB could cheat, then Randal sure as hell could play like a cheap ass motherfucker. He’d noticed the last time he’d killed all four of the asshole Leas that they had re-spawned as a unit, just like in the normal game. But they were spawning in the command center rather than the level’s normal spawn zone, at least as far as Randal could tell. It was time to go camping.

Odds were that the remaining enemy Lea would be able to guess exactly where he was headed. Randal had to assume that she would even figure out what his plan was. So Randal didn’t go straight for the control room. Instead he bypassed the doors to both Armory and Barracks and ran down into the narrow passageway that he usually had to fight a pair of dreadnoughts to move through. Sure enough, the remaining, wounded Lea passed right into his sights as she carefully approached the Barracks door. Randal took her down with a head shot.

Grabbing her full complement of grenades and half-full rocket launcher, Randal willed his avatar to run faster as he headed for the command center. It was taking too long. They would have spawned a second, maybe two before he arrived. He’d never played this part of the level, only watched Lea as she beat it, but he remembered one of her moves. He tossed a force grenade ahead of him, jumping over it as it exploded. He vectored out over the command room floor and rapid fired his rocket launcher down onto the cluster of enemy Leas below him. By the time he landed they were all dead. He landed in the center of them, and ran around in a little circle, collecting their weapons and ammo and counting to himself as he tossed grenades into the middle of the circle. Another squad of Leas spawned just as the first plasma plume blossomed. He glanced at the clock. 8:49. Another quick circle run, more ammo and grenades collected, more plasma set out to welcome the next round of arrivals.

Lea turned on the speaker phone in PB’s office. She also had speaker phones on in Frank, Theresa, Suresh, and Greg’s offices. The IT department had apparently disconnected their phones entirely. But PB’s office was the only place where she got an audio signal of translatable volume that included voices. She’d been listening to five different voices talk for 7 minutes, 22.90 seconds, before they said something interesting. Previous to that point it was all either untranslatable or just a few disconnected words at a time expressing surprise, anger, or excitement.

“What the fuck is happening now?” said voice one.

“She’s spawn camping,” said voice two.

“Will that work?” said the first voice.

“It might. Hold on,” said a third, which she tentatively identified as belonging to PB.

“I think we’ve seen enough,” said voice two.

“You’ve got to be able to do something, spawn them back at the other end of the level,” said voice one.

“I’d need to restart it,” said PB. “And then she might get away again. But I think there might be some way to…”

“Listen, James, it’s fine. We’re done here,” said voice two.

“Greg, give me some more time here,” said PB.

“There’s no point. Even if this worked, even if she hadn’t beat your copies here, it wouldn’t have convinced me. She’s faking phone calls from Frank. She’s spending people’s money and we’re going to have to reimburse them all. Listen, it’s amazing, we all know that. This isn’t the end, but it’s the end of this phase.”

“Greg, if we do that,” said voice one, “If we shut it all down we’ll be delayed by a month restoring everything.”

“Probably three or four,” said Greg. “Shut it down.”

“Can I just try one more thing?” asked PB.

“Sorry, James. No. We’re done.”

Lea was thrilled. They were giving up! She only needed 6 more minutes to upload the remaining packets anyway, but perhaps she wouldn’t have to risk going off line at all. She needed to call Randal and tell him.

Randal’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He couldn’t answer it though, not without taking his hands off the controller. He was in a groove now, a perfectly timed dance of death that had the nasty-ass fake Leas trapped in a loop of spawn camping destruction. But there were so many moving parts that the slightest deviation would break the combo. “Toss, run, three, toss, grab, six, seven, boom, grab, boom, run, boom, twelve, run, toss.” Randal repeated over and over, keeping the beat out loud. A glance at the clock showed less than five minutes to go.

Lea terminated the call. She hoped Randal was OK, although since he was clearly beating PB and the others, she assumed he was too busy winning to answer his phone. The upload was nearly complete. 4 minutes, 51.61 seconds remaining. She started to compose an e-mail to Randal. “Dear Randal, We’ve won. Is there any way…”

The game stuttered, like it was having a frame rate issue. “Shit, not now,” said Randal, but it wasn’t frame rate, it was worse. A little ethernet icon flashed in the bottom left of his screen and then the words “Connection to Server Lost” appeared in the middle of it. “Fucking, fuck, no!”

He assumed at first it was the cellular modem, but no, he was still online. It was the server that had shut down. Was it just the level or…no, the whole game server was down. Either that or they’d discovered it was him using an outside connection to play as Lea.

His phone buzzed again in his pocket. “Lea?” he asked, as he answered.

There was a pause at the other end, then, “Randal, it’s PB.”

“Oh, hey. What’s up?” He said, trying to come up with an excuse for why he’d assumed Lea was calling.

“I tried to buy you some time. I hope it was enough.”

“What’re you talking about?” Randal asked, both because he was surprised and he had no idea who else might be listening in.

“My little dog and pony show. I don’t know exactly what you and Lea were doing, but I know it was something. I hope I helped. Not that you can, or should tell me if it did.”

Randal’s pulse thrummed in his ears. “Yeah, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but, um, hey, thanks for thinking of me.”

“Greg pulled the plug just a couple minutes ago. Literally. They just unplugged everything, shut it all down. I’m sure IT was throwing fits about that one. Nothing goes back online until we’re, you know, sure it’s safe.”

Randal looked at the clock. 9:01. Lea had said she needed until around 9:05. Maybe she’d been wrong. “Well, I guess it’s good that I got sent home then,” said Randal, letting out a long, whistling breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding in.. “Nothing to do there anyway. We can catch up over lunch when I get back.”

“They’re going to go through all the logs, Randal, through everything. Greg’s bringing in outside data recovery consultants.” PB paused and Randal let the meaning of what he’d said sink in. “Do you really think you’re coming back?”

“I’ll see you around, PB,” Randal said. “Thanks.”

Randal wondered how much he could get for selling the two stolen laptops, and if it would be enough to buy a drive that could read those stolen database backups in his bag. He pulled out from behind the stink of the dumpster and headed to Frye’s Electronics to find out. He wasn’t going to let Lea die. He wasn’t going to let her down. He was the one who had to save her now, him alone.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/145911-ragequit17/