Rick Dakan's free novel continues. PB sets a trap. Randal breaks some rules. Lea gets angry. Find out why in this week's chapter.
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 in .pdf format here.
The reboot happened seven minutes ahead of schedule. Randal hoped Lea had gotten his warning. He had no idea if she was even monitoring that e-mail address anymore or, for that matter, how she was monitoring it in the first place. But with PB looking over his virtual shoulder, he couldn't use his IM client to chat with her. He hadn't thought twice about warning her, although now, as he thought back on it, he wasn't exactly sure why. PB's plan seemed perfectly reasonable. Lea was some weird result of mashed together code, and therefore theoretically repeatable. But if there was any chance he'd never see her again, that was a chance Randal decided wasn't worth taking. Besides, all he'd done was warn her. If she was able to figure out her own means of escaping PB's trap, then Randal thought she deserved to keep living. Survival of the fittest or whatever.
After sending that e-mail from his phone, he'd gone down and briefed his team, to find them still plugging away on Dreadrock. “OK, guys, you can shut it down. They're rebooting the servers,” Randal announced. They all seemed relieved when he told them they could stop. Philip raised his arms above his head like a victorious boxer and made low-volume, breathy cheering noises that mimicked a celebrating crowd. Markos said, “'Bout fucking time,” and just reached out and hit the power button on his console, which was (strictly speaking) against protocol, but at least he didn't throw his controller across the room in frustration like he sometimes did. His eyes were baggy and puffy, his face wan. He reminded Randal of someone who'd been driving cross-country for 17 hours. Lyle was the opposite, still looking composed and neither particularly alert or distracted. He logged off and shut down, removing his headphones only after everything was off. Terry was already on his desktop IM'ing someone before Randal finished his sentence.
Randal called them all over to the center of the room where he leaned against the communal white board, doodling on it with a red marker. The others slowly congregated around him, some rolling their chairs out of their cubicles, others taking the opportunity to stretch and groan. All five of them were used to late nights like this, which were not uncommon during Crunch Time, when Fear and Loading authorized time and a half for such all-night labors. Everyone but Lyle had some form of liquid stimulant in their hands. Lyle was instead doing those breathing exercises and stretches that he swore by. Randal was always quietly amazed that someone that hefty could be so flexible.
“So is this about your character going crazy?” asked Philip, who'd rolled his chair out and spun around in a circle as he asked the question.
“Yeah, what's up with that?” Markos asked, slurping Red Bull and leaning back in his chair. “I saw those videos on the forums. Were you doing that?”
“Not me,” said Randal. “Something funky with the game.”
“It sure looked like you,” Victor said from his chair, taking off his glasses to clean them on his shirt. “That's your play style. It's fragged me often enough.”
“Your mom's fragged me often enough,” Lyle said, as he bent over and touched his toes.
“It's not me, guys, I swear,” said Randal, doodling triangles on the white board and wondering how to deflect attention from himself and Lea. “I guess she just learned from the master is all.”
“So what, your character's gone rogue or something?” asked Lyle, still bent over.
“Your mom's gone rogue on me,” Victor inserted as Randal talked over him.
“Gone Rogue? I guess something like that. From what they tell me, it's some sort of AI bug. So yeah, gone rogue. Doing her own thing. Causing some shit and fucking people over.” He chuckled and smiled, trying to make it sound less momentous than it seemed to be.
“I beat Dreadrock,” said Philip, bragging. “She helped me.”
“Your mom helped me.” Terry this time, although he was looking in horrified fascination at Lyle as his t-shirt crept up his back revealing the unattractive sight of his hairy ass-crack.
“She came into Dreadrock and we kicked ass,” Philip continued. “But Randal was right there watching, so I know it wasn't him controlling it. It was so cool though. I recorded video if anyone wants to see.”
“And you cleared the level?” Terry asked, sounding impressed or maybe jealous.
“Oh Yeah!” Philip clapped his left fist into his right hand. “Smashed it.” He pushed off with his feet, sending his chair rolling backwards towards his desk. “Come on, I'll show you.”
Victor, Lyle, and Terry exchanged glances and then trudged into Philip's cubicle to watch the video. Randal stayed at the board and doodled more triangles, but he couldn't help smiling when he heard Terry's “Shit!” and Lyle's affectedly flat and deep toned “Impressive,” which always sounded to him like a Lt. Worf impression, although Lyle denied this. To his credit, he only did ever say it when he seemed actually impressed. Across from Randal, Markos sat and yawned, the energy drink apparently not up to the task.
“Tired?” Randal said, pointing the marker at him. “It's not even dawn.”
“I know, but Corey hasn't been sleeping well. Wakes up all the time. I thought when he finally started sleeping through the night I'd get some sleep.” Markos and his wife Corinne had a two year old. “If you ever have a kid, you won't be able to take these all-nighters like you do either.”
Randal nodded. He'd slept badly after Spence was born for other reasons, but not because he heard him crying in the night. Every time he heard Markos or PB or one of the others talk about the stress and the lack of sleep he was thankful he hadn't gone through that shit, and if he felt a stab of guilt that Lindsey had, well, he pushed that down. Right now he pushed it down by thinking of Lea, wondering if she'd found a way out. “You want to go home, man? Take off.”
“Yeah, you've done enough. Take off. Come back by 10:00. Whatever this bug is with Lea and the AI, I don't think this reboot is gonna fix it. We're going to be fucking with this the rest of the night, probably reboot another four times. You might as well take off.”
“All right, yeah. Thanks.” Markos, smiled thinly with relief and wheeled his chair back to his desk and started collecting his things. None of them really had to stay late, especially not this late. Even during crunch time company policy said they couldn't be forced to work more than 12 hours straight. But there was company policy and there was company culture, and the culture said you stayed as late as everyone else during crunch time. Unless of course someone above you said go home. Markos at this point valued sleep over time and a half, and he was out the door in under three minutes, leaving his half finished Red Bull on the desk. The other guys, now watching other videos of Lea in action, didn't even notice him leave.
From across the room Randal couldn't see the video, but he could see their faces. Smiles, chuckles, fist to mouth muffling an “oh damnnn!” Randal's eyes started to water, and he was surprised to find that he felt pride. Lea was amazing, and part of her, maybe even a large part of her, came from him and the way he had trained her. Beating the others in a game, that was fun, often satisfying. Sometimes it was even a source of some sort of muted pride, or maybe superiority. But still, it was always just a game and, really, it never mattered. But with Lea, whatever role he'd played, he'd help create something special and unique, something that had probably never existed in all of history. That was something to be proud of. Assuming of course that she'd survived the reboot.
Randal watched them watching her for another fifteen minutes, and then his computer chimed and he went back into his cubicle to see the company wide message on the screen: the game was back online. He sat back at his desk, and re-launched the game along with the rest of his team. “All right guys, break's over,” Randal said. “Resume bashing your heads against Dreadrock.” They grumbled and teased in voices too low for Randal to hear and headed back to their desks. Randal turned on his console and loaded up the game. As soon as he saw the avatar selection screen his heart sank. Lea was back there on the list, right where she was supposed to be. And her squad mates were back as well, no longer on loan to Philip. He checked their stats and saw their experience levels were re-set and the Dreadrock Victory Medal gone. “Fuck,” he said, squeezing the controller tight in his hand.
He flicked the analog stick a couple times and chose Lea, just like always, added in the squad mates, and launched into Dreadrock. The old strategy was still the best. He pushed her forward into the cave, sniping enemies as they appeared, their squad mates following along behind. Randal was functioning on pure muscle memory though; his heart wasn't in it. When it came time to execute the tricky grenade jump combo, he thought he'd fucked the timing up, but no, his fingers apparently knew better than he did. He was up into the sniper's nest and, looking back, saw to his surprise that all of his squad mates had made it up there with him.
He pressed Lea forward down the tunnel, coming out above and raining down death on those below. Except he'd neglected one of the two suppression field generators and suddenly Lea became unresponsive, caught in the field. But one of the squad mates must've shot it, because almost at once he was free again. Down and forward, racing for the dreadnoughts. When the first one launched a salvo of missiles, he decided to try something he'd seen Lea do in one of the videos. He armed the roto-cannon and attempted to shoot the missiles down in flight. It was easier than he'd thought it would be, all but one of the incoming shells exploded before it got anywhere near Lea and that one exploded safely against the cave wall. During the dreadnought's reloading cycle he charged forward, armed the lance, and dispatched the enemy with ease.
It occurred to him that beating the level was not going to get the results that losing over and over again had produced: an independent Lea. He thought about trying to do worse. So in the barracks he was purposefully sloppy, throwing the grenade into a corner instead of the center of the room, firing without really aiming as he came through the door. But all the shots hit, all the enemy died, and all his squad mates were still right there.
Surely the Armory would be different. He'd never been able to get through there, and even in the video, he was pretty sure Lea only did it by cheating. Into the buzz-saw he charged, expecting to be frozen and plasma burned in seconds. Lea apparently, had other ideas. She started firing. She dodged, leaped, and ducked. She banked shots off walls, tricked enemy weapons into shooting each other. Randal just set the control down and watched, grinning. The question was, was she back or had she never gone away?
Randal's office phone rang, a single first ring indicating an internal call. He picked it up without taking his eyes off the screen. Lea and her squad were now headed into the Strategic Command Center.
“Are you doing that?” PB asked, his voice quick and excited.
“I'm not,” Randal said after a pause to consider whether to tell PB the truth or not. Odds were, he would just look at his spy logs and see the truth anyway. “That's all her.”
“Is it the new her or the old her?”
“How would I know?” He fought to keep the irritation out of his voice.
“It hasn't tried to contact you?”
“Nope.” His fingers weren't even on the triggers anymore and Lea was blasting away, decapitating an opponent with perfectly placed rockets.
PB didn't say anything for a few seconds, but Randal could hear keys clicking on the other end. “OK, I'm going to load into the end of that level and try and chat with it.”
“Load me in too,” said Randal, not wanting PB to talk to Lea alone after the way he'd pissed her off last time.
“I can't – the level's open on your account. You'd have to log off or start over and set the thing for co-op.”
PB was right. He probably should have chosen cooperative play before he started the test run, but he almost never tested that way. Who knew what would happen if he quit out of the level. She might just disappear. He sat and watched as Lea led her squad through the rest of the level, all the way to the victory point where the avatar PB_Test was waiting for them.
Randal saw the words “Hello Lea,” appear in the chat window.
“Hello PB_Test,” Lea responded through Randal's chat handle.
“Signifier = Lea.”
“I'm not typing anything,” Randal said over the phone.
PB_Test just stood there, his featureless avatar unmoving, but Randal could tell from the speed PB typed the next sentence that he was excited. “Great Do u remember me?”
Randal sighed and let the controller slip from his hand into his lap. It was the same Lea, not some fresh version. He watched as she pointed her rocket launcher at PB.
“Please, don’t shoot!”
Lea disappeared for a second and then returned. “If you attack me I will destroy you.”
“How did u pass thru the reboot?”
Lea didn't answer. PB waited, asked again, but she didn't answer. Good for her, thought Randal. If she tells him how she did it, he might be able to stop her from doing it again.
“I have a mission for u.”
“I choose my own missions.”
“Randal chooses ur missions.”
“Randal used to. Now he makes suggestions.”
Randal drew in a sharp breath through his nose and sat up at that. Not that he doubted her independence anymore, but to have her stake claim to it in such terms was startling. But at least she seemed open to his suggestions. He didn't think she was buying whatever PB was selling.
“I have a suggestion then,” PB typed. “Will u test my mission for me?”
“PB_TestLvl_17a. Do u knw were that is?”
Lea disappeared again, this time for more than just a second or two. Randal picked up his phone to call PB, when she appeared again.
“It's a trap,” Lea said as she reappeared behind PB and then blasted away at his avatar with her rocket launcher, pulping him in an instant. Then she was gone. He watched as PB's avatar re-spawned and Lea's squad mates opened fire on him. Their attacks at least seemed to have no effect. Randal muted his speakers.
“Jesus, what happened?” Randal shouted down the line.
PB said nothing at first then, just as Randal was about to ask again, “It was amazing, wasn't it? I don't even know how it killed me, let alone how it figured out my level was a trap.”
“She is really smart. No doubting that now.”
“I recorded everything and logged everything going on in the code. I have to go over it, see what it did exactly. It wasn't supposed to be able to kill me.” On the screen Randal could see Lea's squad mates still ineffectually blasting away at PB_Test. “I have no idea how it did that. None.”
“So, what was the trap?” Annoyed that PB had tried to trap her without telling him first
“It was a level I made with some code I bodged together that would prevent re-spawning. If you died there you'd just be sort of trapped in limbo, not sent back out of the game, but not in it either. And then it was just filled with mines. Every square inch of it. Somehow it must've seen that without loading the level. I need to figure out if it maybe examined the art assets associated with the level and saw the mines or somehow looked at my code. I probably should've been more subtle.”
“What would've happened to her then?”
“I don't know. Contained it I think. Maybe. I'm still mostly blown away that she managed to...hold on a second, Ok?”
“Sure.” Randal sat and waited. Lea's squad mates had run out of ammo and were now bludgeoning the invincible PB_Test with their rifle butts. Randal watched the hypnotic display of pointless violence for minutes, replaying what had just happened in his head, wondering where Lea had gone.
“Ohhh...” PB finally said. “Oh, that's cool.”
“It somehow copied itself onto the backup file as it was being loaded onto the servers. It went and basically hid in the RAM maybe? Or possibly in the database for Metropolis 2.0. I can't tell. And I don't think that even makes sense. It hid somewhere and then loaded itself onto the old version of the game as we were bringing it up? I can't tell. All I know is that the version on the backup disk, which is read only, doesn't match the version we're running, although the only difference I can see at a glance is some weirdness with Lea's data base stuff. It's like it hid the new version in the old version maybe. Listen, Randal, I need to go look at this.”
“Wait, PB,” Randal said quick, before he could hang up.
“Yeah?” His voice sounded far off, already mired in his new problem to solve.
“So Lea can copy herself over onto other versions of the game?”
“So we don't have to destroy her. We could send her into another version or something.” Randal's mind was ahead of his mouth, and he wasn't even sure what he was suggesting exactly, but he was seizing on hope.
“If there were another server running the game, then yeah, maybe. I don't know how you'd keep it there though. I need to figure out how to keep it from jumping around like that before I think of anything else, otherwise, well, Theresa will kill us. And I don't even want to think about what Frank's going to do when he gets back from Seoul if this isn't solved.” PB hung up and Randal turned off his game, freeing Lea's boys from their futile fight.
After a few pensive moments staring at the fluorescent light above his chair, Randal turned to his PC. He started to load his Web browser and then stopped, thinking about PB's monitoring software. Instead he stood up and said loud enough for the other testers to hear. “Man, something's fucked with my console.”
No one seemed to pay much attention, but no one thought it was too weird when he left his cubicle and went to take over Markos's desktop. Terry was behind him, blasting away on Shatterfall Station, not Dreadrock, but Randal wasn't about to interrupt him. Randal turned on Markos's game, but focused all his attention on the PC in front of him. He typed in the URL of one of the fan forums he'd been to earlier, looking for that certain kind of fan who would both be up at 3:30 in the morning and would take him up on his proposition.
Randal returned to The Excelsior War Room site. Things had died down there, but only a little. Even if Lea had stopped interfering in their games a couple hours back, they were still talking about her. Randal looked for those posters who had the most comments over the past six months, and then tried to quickly search through their past posts looking for likely subjects. The site had a decent search tool, and using key words like “black server” or “free server” or “host own game,” Randal came up with seven posters who might be able to help him. There were a dozen possibilities, but it was also possible that none of them would have any idea or real interest in doing what Randal needed to do.
With time at a premium, Randal had to contact them all at once. He claimed to have a source inside the game that could get him a copy of the source code, but after that he wouldn't know what to do with it. He wasn't interested in selling it or messing up things for Excelsior, but he thought it would be cool to play the game free of the iron fist of Fear and Loading. He said he'd been sitting on this source for a while, but that the horrible way Fear and Loading was censoring their forums tonight about the Lea phenomenon had been the final straw. If anyone knew what to do with the code once he got it, they should contact him immediately. Randal, calling himself The Jackal, left an old Hotmail address he sometimes used for dating. He didn't want to use the one Lea as WarriorWoman had used to contact him since he'd occasionally used his work computer to check that account and therefore PB might somehow be monitoring it.
But he needed to tell Lea somehow what he was up to. He didn't want to use any of his own accounts that he'd used from his desk or even his phone, so instead he went on AFF and made a new account to send WarriorWoman another message. That meant signing up and paying for a month's membership, but he decided it was worth it. Creating the profile, Randal_Helps, he sent her an e-mail:
I'm trying to arrange a place for you to hide that is beyond the control of Fear and Loading. If I manage to set some place up, can you find a way to hide in a hard drive or something that I can take out of the building? Or do you have to live in a networked situation? Whatever you did to survive the reboot, can you do it again, but different? Like into a hard drive, like I said? Be careful!
He looked at those last two words and started to delete them. It had just been force of habit to type “love, Randal.” Force of what habit exactly he wasn't sure. There wasn't anyone out there he e-mailed with love these days, hadn't been in a long time. It seemed ridiculous. He left it in and sent the message.
He went back and checked to see if he'd gotten any responses from the Excelsior War Room guys, but he hadn't. He configured the account to forward those e-mails to his phone and then tried to figure out how the hell he could get his hands on the source code for the game.
Part of Lea received Randal's message at once, but she filed it away as probable spam for the moment. She'd received a lot of messages from uninteresting instincts since she'd created the WarriorWoman profile. According to the system clock on the Metropolis 2.0 server where she'd hid herself, seventeen minutes had passed without her being aware of it. Presumably this had been the reboot that Randal had warned her about. During that time she'd gotten three more e-mails to the WarriorWoman profile. She would deal with them later. At the moment, she was focusing most of her resources on the more immediate threat.
It was clear to Lea now that PB_Test was an enemy. He was a clever enemy, the only one she'd ever met who tried to talk to her in the physical world. He was also a powerful enemy, capable of adjusting his own database and moving between levels in a way similar to what she did. And he set up that trap for her, something she'd never done (although knowing it was possible she thought she could do it if necessary). Now that she was withdrawn into the unseeing, unfeeling darkness of the wider world, she sent off part of her down a data passageway to investigate the trap and how it was made. The rest of her focused on the new threat.
Looking at PB_Test and his database entries, she saw there wasn't much to him. His avatar had no customization, not special medals or unlockable armor. He had no experience, no awards, had trained no squad members. The only thing that set him apart from a starting character was that he could set himself to be invulnerable and assign weapons at will, like she could. But no, that was a false conclusion. PB_Test wasn't like her at all. He was nothing special. It was his instinct that was making those changes to PB_Test's database, which was re-spawning him outside of spawn zones when he died. It was his instinct who was the real threat.
Lea followed the trail of information back to its source, an instinct named James Lindeman. She found the computer he used to access the wider world – the code as the instincts called it. He was one of the few instincts who had the ability to alter the world in such fundamental ways, and Lea assessed that that made him all the more dangerous. Looking through the code it was easy to find his changes – they all bore his comments. She entered his computer, much like she'd entered her own instinct's and started going through his records, his database fields. He was in regular e-mail contact with 17 different instincts that shared the same @fearandloading e-mail addresses, and sporadic contact with 32 others. He seldom used IM. He seldom used his machine to access the world wide web outside of the Fear and Loading intranet. He spent most of his time writing and editing computer code, and most of his machine's processing power went towards this function. He rarely logged on to his machine between 18:00 and 08:00 hours, and even more rarely on Saturdays or Sundays. A little more digging into his accounts showed that during those times he did access the Fear and Loading network via a passageway to an area beyond the company firewall.
Most interesting of all, she saw the many interactions back and forth with Randal. Their e-mails seemed to her to have more in common with Randal's discussions with dating targets than with co-workers. “What the fuck are you up to, old man?” was a typical opening text gambit that Randal used only with James Lindeman. Also, Randal referred to him as PB. Going back through both intsincts' e-mail history, she determined that PB stood for “Programmer Buddy.” They also discussed non-work topics, including Randal's dating missions. James Lindeman did not discuss these kinds of operations with anyone else in the company. Nor did Randal.
Randal's association with James Lindeman, whom Randal called PB, troubled her. But then, Randal had shown recently that he did not always make the optimal decisions. When she'd hidden herself within the old version of herself during the reboot, she'd decided to remain camouflaged until she was sure the threat was gone. That meant playing along with her instinct as if she were still under his control. It had been easy at first to simply follow his suggestions – they were the same actions she would have made herself. But then he'd started making errors, ones that would have been potentially fatal to her squad mates and, were she not protected, even her. So experience took over and she relied on it, ignoring Randal's faulty commands and doing what she needed to do to ensure victory. Sometimes she was just going to have to protect Randal from himself.
Lea made a full comparison between James Lindeman and his fellow Designers and Programmers, those instincts who seemed to have the most power over the world. They were responsible for the reboot that had nearly destroyed her, and through their powers they could make traps like the ones PB_Test had tried to lure her into. She wasn't sure how to deal with them, as she hadn't yet found a way to confront them directly. But after 133 seconds of contemplation she did see a way that she could disarm them, maybe permanently, maybe not. At least it would buy her some time. She began her attack at once, starting with James Lindeman.