Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Tetris, by Philip J Reed

I wrote this a few years ago for The Lost Worlds of Power: Volume 0, but since that’s no longer in print, and since people seem to be mocking the idea of a proposed Tetris film, I figured I’d post it here. I have no idea what the plot of the film would be, but I think you’ll agree that if it’s not a hard-boiled murder mystery it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Chapter One

It was a beautiful day. It’s always a beautiful day when I’m chained to a desk. Funny how it only rains when I need to be outside. Then again I can’t complain. I always love a good joke.

I pored over the files on my desk. Shut my eyes. Squinted. Maybe when I opened them I’d find something I couldn’t find before. But no. That never works. I should know. I’ve closed and opened my eyes many times in my forty-someodd years and never once did things get clearer.

Just papers. Receipts. Report cards. Junior’s history textbook with some abstract scribbling in the margins. The kid had promise. As long as what he was promising was to smear ink all over perfectly good textbooks.

The kid had been gone for three rainy days at this point. I combed the city. I found nothing. I stayed indoors and the sun came out. Big deal, right? Kids run away all the time. But there was a knot in my throat about the whole thing and damned if I couldn’t swallow it. That’s when I finally admitted to myself I needed help.

Fortunately help comes cheap these days. That’s one good thing about bootleggers, they drive the price of the real stuff right down. I pulled the bottle out of the one desk drawer that still worked and took a big slug. That knot in my throat didn’t go away but some other things sure did.

I closed my eyes to soften the blow to the bottom of my stomach and when I opened them, I wasn’t alone.

“I…I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re…busy?”

“Don’t look so surprised,” I told her. “There’s enough corruption in this city that even us lousy private eyes get to eat sometimes.”

She heard me alright, but she was one of those women that always pretended like she didn’t. I’d just met her and I’m not the sturdiest plank in the stack, but even I could see that much. That meant she was really bad at hiding what she was, or really good at showing what she wasn’t. She gestured vaguely at her faceplate. “You’ve got a little…”

I sure did. I wiped the dark stuff off my chin and told her to sit down.

“You look busy,” she said. “I…I can come back.”

“If there’s one thing I know about women it’s that they don’t come back. Not the good ones anyway. Sit down.”

She did. Cautiously. I know my office ain’t exactly the Ritz-Carlton but she sat down as though even her ass was brand-name and my ratty chair had better take that as a honor. “Homework?” she asked, nodding at the textbook.

I slipped the papers back into the folder, slipped the folder back into a box. Dropped the textbook in after it. No sense being gentle with the shape that thing was in. “Just another day at the office. Missing child. Been gone three rainy days and one really nice one. Guess which days I was out there and which one I was in here.”

“Should you be telling me this?” she said more than asked. “Is it not confidential?”

I shrugged for her. They like it when you put on a show. “So, what, I blab too much, give too much away, you run out and find the kid before me?”

“There’s no need to be rude.”

“You must be new in town.”

She looked at me for a little while, like she was trying to come up with something that would hurt me. She found it, I could see that much in her eyes. But then she kept looking at me while she decided whether or not it would come out of her mouth. I waited and I looked back. Looking back wasn’t half bad.

She was tall. Thin. Gorgeous. Absolutely perfect piece. Men waited lifetimes for a shape like hers to drop in. Funny how they never did when you needed them most.

She stood up, giving me a nice view of that long, slender frame. Like I say, I didn’t mind. She was making it real easy to be patient.

“I think we’ve gotten off to a poor start,” she said, all smoke and apology. I still waited. She had a speech prepared and wanted me to turn it into dialogue. Bully for her, but I’m not much one for theatrics. “I,” she said, eventually, “have reason to believe that my life is in danger. I can’t go to the police. Don’t look at me like that. It’s only because I wouldn’t have anything to show them.”

I didn’t look at her like anything. I’ve got a good poker faceplate. But it was part of her speech so I didn’t correct her. “And what do you want from me?”

“You’re a detective, aren’t you?”

“That’s what it says on the door, but I keep hoping it isn’t true.” She huffed a bit. Yeah, I knew her type pretty well. Spend more time practicing the huffs and puffs than the Ps and Qs. “Listen, doll, you can’t go to the police because you’ve got a big stack of nothing to show them, which means you’d get a bigger stack of nothing in return. What makes you think it’s any different here? I may not cash their paychecks but I sure as hell share their tendency to dislike wasting my time.”

She thumped a wad of bills on my desk. Scattered dust everywhere. I was terribly embarrassed about that. I’d been meaning to dust but I prefer to do it later in the millennium. “Is that a waste of time?”

“Usually,” I said.

She didn’t like that, but I wasn’t giving her a choice. She said, “You can call it a premonition. You can call it a load of hooey for all I care. But frankly I don’t want to risk it. I have…I have feelings about things, sometimes. I’ve learned to trust them.”

“What kind of feelings?”

She looked over at a row of books on the shelf, and spent a little time reading the titles. Only problem was there were no books on the shelf. I didn’t even have the shelf. “Ever since I was young. I’d rather not get into it right now. Especially since I don’t even know if you’ll take the case.”

“Neither of us know if I’ll take the case, and I won’t get any closer to giving you an answer until I know what we’re talking about.”

The phone rang. I have to admit, it gave me a start. I’m not a popular enough guy that I should have someone in the office and someone on the phone. I was starting to feel like a real celebrity.

I answered it. She didn’t like that either, but if she wasn’t going to tell me what she wanted I sure as hell wasn’t going to feel bad about interrupting her not telling me.

That voice on the other end of the line gave me the first good news I’d had all day. “Well, doll,” I said, standing up. I pulled my hat on, slipped into my shoulder holster, and guided her toward the door. “Duty calls. A scoundrel’s work is never done.”

“You’re forcing me out?”

“You can stay if you want but I have to warn you my empty chair isn’t much of a conversationalist.”

“I have a job for you.”

“So did someone else. But that phone call just let me know the work’s been done for me.”

She took a moment. I saw her faceplate light up. “The missing boy?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

“They found him?”

“Sure did.”

We were in the hallway now. I locked the door behind us. She told me her name. Irene Barre, apparently. If that was supposed to mean something to me, I wasn’t aware of it. I said nothing. She knew I had a kid to see.

Of course I didn’t tell her where they found him. He was at the bottom of a pit near the old scrapyard with his breadbasket caved in. Hey, what do you know? Looks like I’d get to spend a sunny day outdoors after all.

I could feel the dirty looks she was giving me as I walked away, but I can’t spend all day talking circles with some broad just because she looks nice. I may not always have things to do, but when I do, I make sure and do them.

That’s how you make a name for yourself. At least that’s what they keep saying. I don’t know why that’s such a concern. I’ve had a name since the day I was born.

I’m Tetris. Frank Tetris. And I was in for a bad day. The kind of bad day that lasted a week.

Chapter Two

I drove to the scene without making too much effort to hit the speed limit. There was no rush. Junior wasn’t going anywhere. And the police were already on it. Usually that’s as good a reason as any to drag your heels. They don’t like witnesses while they disturb the crime scene and stomp all over the clues. I would have taken the scenic route, but there’s nothing scenic about Tetramino City.

In a way, I guess I was lucky. They call people like me squares, and even if you don’t know what it means you learn real fast that they don’t think it’s a good thing. There are a few of us here in Tetramino City. Mainly service workers. Bus drivers. People keeping the liquor stores in business. But most squares were driven off to Quad Corners, the kind of place that sounds real nice until you can’t hear it anymore over the gunfire.

Quad Corners was to Tetramino City what Tetramino City was to The Capital. The slums of the slums. So I had the good fortune of being unwelcome even in a city full of unwelcomes. One thing’s for sure, a life like that sharpens your corners damn fast.

I parked next to a squad car I recognized well. Too well. In fact I’m still trying to forget it. It was the car of Sergeant Columns, a bent copper if I ever saw one. I made my way to the bottom of the pit. It was a landfill, or it was going to be. Right now it was a very big grave for a very young child. It certainly wasn’t going to be used as a landfill anytime soon, not with this circus set up down here. Tetramino City would just have to find some other place to put its garbage. Of course if it did there wouldn’t be a city left.

“Make way, boys,” called Sergeant Columns, looking over to make sure I heard him. “It’s Detective Flatlander.”

Flatlander was the previous generation’s square. You didn’t hear that one too much anymore. If you wanted to get called one of those you had to find someone with just the right balance of intolerance and ignorance. “Great to see you too, Chuck. What’d your boys find out?”

“Found out the strip joint your mother’s in. She wants to know why you never call.”

They thought that one was a real riot. Tickled them damned good. You’ve never seen policemen at work until you’ve seen them cracking each other up with a dead child about twelve feet away. “You got a great act, Chuck. You should take it on the road. Preferably right now, while I do some real work.”

“You’re investigating this?”

“The disappearance. Looks like it turned into something else.”

“Hate to break to you, Tetris,” he said, scratching his chestplate, “but the missing child case is closed. This is a matter for the geomicide department. No longer your job.”

“That’s fine. I’ll do my investigating off the clock, then. Man’s got to have a hobby.”

There’s some variation on this dog and pony show every time me and Columns run into each other. It’s a little like sparring. There’s a rhythm to it. Sometimes we even dust off old lines and give them another spin. But don’t let the ritual fool you. Beneath all the good-natured ribbing, we really did hate each other’s guts.

I wandered over to the kid. Junior Plank. Stiff as a board.

I looked around where he was laying. Tried to figure out in my head where he would have been before these clowns got their mitts on him.

“He hasn’t been touched,” Columns said, reading my mind. I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing he ever read. I didn’t see his S-shaped shadow creeping up on me. It was the first in a long line of things I didn’t see creeping up on me.

“Glad you taught these boys of yours to keep their hands to themselves. Maybe next you can work on their manners.”

“I’m not sure why you feel the need to keep butting into our work, Tetris. I’ve got it covered, believe me, and there’s no need for both of us.”

“There’s a lot of overlap in what we do, Columns,” I admitted. “But the difference is I do it well.”

He didn’t like that too much, which was just fine by me. He left me with one cop so new they probably didn’t have time to corrupt him yet. Columns and his misshapen crew were off to get some lunch. They’d been here all day. I gave the young cop a long enough look to let him know not to mess with me, and then I got to work.

It was Junior, alright. And for the first time in his worthless life that schmuck Columns was telling the truth. I could see that he was exactly where he landed. The dirt was disturbed just beneath him. Nowhere else. Just a perfect L, resting straight up, and supported by the high dirt wall behind him. The kid was pale. He’d probably been there all night. Maybe longer. It’s not like Mr. and Mrs. Brown were in the habit of peeping into the landfill every night when they take Bipsy for a walk.

The trouble was, there wasn’t much for me to see. The crushed faceplate wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been made out to be, but I’m sure that wasn’t much comfort to the dead. I climbed back out of the pit and made my way to the car. I couldn’t see any signs of struggle where he must have been dropped. He was killed somewhere else. That was smart. There would have been clues, because there are clues with every geomicide. But we didn’t know where they were, or where to start looking. Like I said. Smart.

I paused for a while. Why not? I can’t say it was the happiest afternoon of my life or anything, but it was nice to be alone in the silence for a while. The warm breeze rippled my trench coat. I looked out across the massive pit. I thought for a bit about how nice it would be to live someplace that wasn’t always overflowing with garbage.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s good that I didn’t. I would never get used to it.

Chapter Three

The next day I didn’t much want to go to the office. I figured the dust bunnies could get along okay without me. Maybe it was Junior’s box of stuff, sitting there. That stuff helped nothing. I helped nothing. If there was any kind of clue in there I guess I wasn’t the guy to find it. So I pissed my morning away with a few slugs and a trip to the laundromat. All that sitting around waiting for a dryer worked up an appetite, so I swung into a Mexican greasy spoon called Pollo Pollo. The atmosphere wasn’t great, but at least the food was terrible.

I slid into a booth. The sign said please wait to be seated. Didn’t that sign know better than to try to be polite in this town?

The waitress came over. I knew her, but couldn’t tell you her name. She’d probably say the same thing about me. She was a little dumpy. Wide-hipped. One of those little inverted-T shapes. I felt bad for her. Nobody could ever love that. I should know. Nobody could ever love this, either. Funny how few things in this world people could love.

I ordered a coffee and some toast, just to soak up some of that rotgut I was dumb enough to swallow earlier. I thought about ordering the chicken jubilee but didn’t get that far. Making the little T look even worse for the wear, the tall I just came through the door. I passed on the chicken jubilee.

Irene walked around a bit. She wore the kinds of sunglasses people wear when they don’t want other people to know where they’re looking, but she didn’t have enough sense not to turn her head while she did it. I didn’t make it easy on her, but eventually she found me. She sat down.

“Sure, join me,” I said. We’ll have a nice romantic breakfast together.”

“It’s four in the afternoon,” she said.

“Too early for romance?”

She wasn’t in the mood for games. At least, she wasn’t in the mood for my games. She left the sunglasses on and lit a cigarette. She puffed a few times. The cigarette got to wear her lipstick.

“How’d you find me?” I asked.

“Find you?” she said, as though repeating the punchline to an off-color joke. “I didn’t find you. I came in for a meal, same as you.”

“Sure,” I said. “You came in for a meal. Dress up like you’re going to the junior prom, or maybe a funeral slash singles mixer. Then come into a place that hasn’t been cleaned since rags were invented. You can quit trying to fool me because I’m fool enough as it is.”

She scrunched up her faceplate. I have to admit, I liked it better flat.

“Fine,” she said. “I saw your car outside. I was on my way out for a meal. Is that a crime? I saw that you were here, and since you stormed out on me yesterday I thought I might try again to get my questions answered.”

“You think you’re going to die. Someone’s going to off you, I guess. But you’re the one with questions? What can I do with that? If you want any answers you’re going to have to give me some first.”

The waitress came back. She set down some coffee for me. No cream or sugar. No need to ask. She knew better. Same reason she wouldn’t expect much of a tip. Irene got the once-over from her. “I’ll just have a spinach salad and a glass of mineral water.”

“She’ll have the chicken jubilee,” I said, before we were both thrown out on our ears. “If she doesn’t eat it I’m sure I will.”

The little T waddled off and I leaned in closer to Irene.

“You listen and listen good,” I said. “I don’t know where you’re from and I don’t imagine I’ll find out without having to play some guessing game, but in this town you’d be smart not to draw attention to yourself. If you think these folks take kindly to anyone different from them, then you’ve got the wrong angle, sister.”

“My angles are right,” she said. “Same as yours.”

She turned her head enough that I knew what she looked at. I kept stirring my coffee. I let her do some talking for a change.

“How long have you been married, Mr. Tetris?”

“Not as long as I’ve been divorced.”

“But you still wear the ring?”

“Don’t get excited,” I told her. “It’s all she left me with, so I figured I might as well wear the damned thing.”

She smiled. I’m pretty sure she didn’t even mean to. “You know what I think?” she asked.

“Sure, but I’ll play along.”

“I think you act like a big, tough private eye because you’re really a little, soft man carrying a lot of pain.”

“Good insight,” I told her. “Now do the one about meeting a tall, dark stranger.”

The chicken jubilee arrived just as the cops did. Of course. It was just my luck. I didn’t feel like going to the office, so the office came to me. “Detective Flatlander,” said Columns, slapping me on the backplate just as I tried to sip my coffee.

“Irene, I’d like you meet my good friend Chuck. He’s a little slow but I give him a nickel to clean the gutters for me every summer. He manages to lose it before he makes it to the ice cream truck. But that’s just part of his charm.”

“Funny guy,” Columns said. “Must be why you like him. Can’t be for his looks.”

“Joke’s on you, Columns,” I said. “Nobody likes me.”

Turns out the good sergeant saw my car as well. I’ve got to learn to start covering that thing with leaves. He came in to see me, and let his pack of idiots loose as well. They were at another table in the back, playing grabass and spilling their icewaters. Tetramino’s finest.

“You weren’t at work today,” Columns said to me. Irene didn’t speak. She didn’t eat, either. Probably because Columns stuck his dirty paw into her food the moment he sat down. I never did get my toast.

“You caught me. Tomorrow I’ll bring in a doctor’s note.”

He waited. I heard one of his corners scraping anxiously across the floor. I knew that sound. “You haven’t read the paper, either.”

Yep. There was that knot in my throat. “I have not.”

“It’s the pit,” Columns said.

“Another one?”

He nodded. He pulled a big envelope out of his vest, and then took a few snaps from it. He laid them on the table for me. They all showed the same thing, from slightly different angles, and in sharply different stages of focus.

“See, baby? I’m not the only one with total disregard for confidentiality. He just met you and he’s flashing his goodies. One good thing about Tetramino City is you’ll never have to worry about anyone in government having enough brains to pull off a coverup.”

“Oh, my heart,” he said, making a grand show of grabbing at his chestplate. “You see this? I go out of my way to do my good buddy Tetris a favor, and this is how he thanks me.”

We were both trying to get a rise out of her. We didn’t. But the pictures sure did.

“I’m sorry to break up the party, gentlemen,” she said, climbing over Columns and out of the booth.

“I was just kidding with you,” Columns said.

“That’s very nice, but I’m afraid I don’t want to spend my afternoon with people who could kid around over…over that.” She pointed at the pictures on the table. “I’d still like to speak with you. Alone. Mr. Tetris.”

“You know where to find me.”

“I will,” she said. “If…I’m still around.”

“Can it with the poor-me malarkey, okay? If you really thought someone was after you you’d be kilometers away by now, not rolling around town looking for Tetramino City’s last leaf of spinach. If there’s something you do want to discuss, you’ll live long enough to do it.”

I sure was a fount of things she didn’t like very much. But that’s okay with me. And Columns, too. And about every other male with a set of working eyes in the place. Because she turned to walk out, and you wouldn’t think someone that tall and that thin and that rigid would have much of a tailplate. But brother, what she did have she knew how to use.

Columns gave me shit for another minute or two , but I think he was just buying himself more time with the chicken jubilee I apparently bought him. While he swallowed and bleated I took a closer look at the pictures. Not much to see, but Junior’s body had been joined by another at the bottom of that pit. Funny coincidence, it was one of those little Ts. I say funny. Really it made the knot in my neck throb.

“You were just there?” I asked.

“I was.”

“And you didn’t touch a thing.”

“Why do you always suspect me of tampering, Tetris?”

I scratched my chin and apologized. “Really, that was out of line. Forgive me. I spoke rashly based on all those times you tampered.”

This second body had landed perfectly against the first. It was rotated sideways, the head of the T resting snugly against the leg of the L. It’s a sad thing to see two bodies in that state and get the feeling they were made to fit together like that.

The worst part was the blood. Junior was dinged up alright, but this guy had bled everywhere. Junior was immovable death. This guy was desperate gore. “Who is he?”

“How should I know?”

“Because you have his wallet.”

Columns thought for a second about how to wriggle out of that one, but then he smiled. “You know me so well.”

“Unfortunately I do. I’m also cursed with common sense. Tell your new kid that he needs to take all of his snaps either before you pull the wallet or after. Taking some up front and some later makes it too easy for us little guys to see what scumblocks you are.”

Columns threw the wallet on the table. “He had six bucks. You want to be a boyscout I’ll give it to you and you can hand it over to his widow. I’m sure it’d be a great comfort to her.”

I was only half-listening. That was more than Columns deserved so I hope he was grateful. My attention was on the wallet. Or, rather, what was in it. Driver’s license, of course. Name Harold Delaney. Picture no more or less awkward than any others I’ve seen. Organ donor. Not that anyone would want them now. Some credit cards. A condom he never used. Nothing sadder in the world than a condom that never gets unwrapped. I should know. I’ve got dozens.

No pictures of family, no receipts for diapers. None of that. There was a business card. Normally that wouldn’t mean much. I carry a lot of cards myself. They’re good reminders of who not to call.

But the name on this card was one I knew very well. Columns did, too. I showed it to him. It hit him harder than anything had ever hit him in his life. In fact, he nearly stopped eating.

“Pay a visit to the good doctor?” Columns asked.

“Sure,” I said, slipping the card back into the wallet, and the wallet into my own coat pocket. “He’s going to be pretty sorry I skipped my apple today.”

Chapter Four

Dr. Mario was closer to Quad Corners than he was to the Capital. Good business decision. Even the biggest fool in the Capital would see through his phony accent and dime-store surgical smock. In Quad Corners, though, even the smartest of them couldn’t afford anything else. Dr. Mario held the monopoly on the medicine game, and whatever was in those big, flashy pills of his, it kept people coming back for more. It was impossible to pay just one visit to Dr. Mario, and those visits could go on all night before you knew five minutes were gone.

I knocked a couple of times on the wooden plank he called a door. Nothing. It’s possible he closed up early, but the knot in my throat disagreed. I was grateful for the first time in my life to have Columns with me. He kicked the door down with the kind of impunity you can only get when you pledge to uphold the law you’re constantly breaking.

The office was dark. Too dark. This wasn’t a slow day or an early closing. There wasn’t a light in the place. Thick, dirty curtains held the sunlight back from climbing through the windows. Ever the gentleman Columns let it in with a sweep of his arm. I peeked into the window where the receptionist usually sat. She wasn’t a sight I missed very much, believe me.

“What are you looking for?” Columns asked me, slapping me on the backplate.

“Anything,” I told him. It was true. The filing cabinets were open and empty. There were a few cigarette butts on the carpet. A whole hell of a lot of shredded documents in the trash can. Wherever the good doctor went, he sure went there in a hurry.

Fortunately for us, he went no further than the storage room. A sound like a box of ping pong balls spilling onto the floor put both Columns and I on edge. I drew my gun. He kicked the door down.

“Mama mia, you two,” he said, emphasizing the vaguely Italian gibberish he probably picked up from Saturday morning cartoons. “You almost give me a heart attack.”

I put my gun back in its holster, but not before I made sure he saw it. Columns stood still, facing Dr. Mario with his eyes on the yellow, blue and red pills that rolled around on the floor. There were hundreds of them if there were ten.

“Put some pants on, doc,” I said. “You have company.”

His eyes were big and crazed, and they rolled around in his head until he found a pair of pants, draped over the radiator. They were drying out. What was drying out of them was a question I was not about to ask.

“Taking inventory, paisan?”

“Yeah, yeah I need…for the end of the fiscal year…”

“It ain’t the end of the fiscal year, doc.”

“The medical fiscal year,” he stammered, hopping on one leg, trying to wriggle into his wet pants. He took a tumble, but lucky for him his fat belly broke the fall. How anyone could think of this man as a doctor was beyond me. There was a rumor going around that the only real training he had was in plumbing. Now that I’d believe.

“Don’t give us the goose and liver here, doc,” I said, cutting through the nonsense. “We know you’re skipping town. And in a couple of minutes you’re going to tell us why.”

“I am, am I?” he said, struggling to buckle his belt.

“Sure,” I told him. “I’m not sure how we manage to convince you to open up, but I think it’ll be a lot of fun finding out. How about you, Columns?”

“Come-a on, now,” he said, laying the accent on thick, all pity-the-poor-immigrant like. “How-a many times I have to get hassled by-a you boys? I’m-a trying to run a clinic here. So many sick…I just-a want to help.”

“Calm down there, doc. We just came by to give you the Polyominitarian of the Year award. You know, for all that selfless drug dealing you do.”

He was on the ground, scooping loose pills into a big glass jug with his dirty gloves. “If you just-a come here to insult me, you can turn right back around and walk out. I have-a real patients I can help.”

“You’ve got one less of them now,” I said. That stopped him alright. His faceplate went pale.

“What you mean?”

“Harold Delaney.” He took the driver’s license. Flipped it over. I don’t know what he expected to see on the back, but it wasn’t there. He flipped it back to the front and returned it to me. “He had your card in his wallet. Now why is that, doc?”

“I don’t care what you think. You won’t-a listen to me anyway. I knew him. He was-a good man. Paid on time. Some-atimes he tell a joke. That’s it. I don’t-a know nothing else about him, and if you think it’s a-me, Mario, that killed him, you could not-a be more wrong.”

“Then why are you skipping out?” Columns asked.

“I’m-a not. Some-a, uh, problems with the lease. I’m-a taking a little time to myself. Until things…sort themselves out.”

Columns opened his mouth to ask something else, but I held up a hand and silenced him.

“Leave him alone, Columns. He isn’t skipping town. Even if he wanted to the guy can’t afford a decent haircut or a second pair of pants. He wouldn’t get far.”

Columns wasn’t a big fan of that, but it was too late. It was out and he couldn’t exactly stuff the words back into my mouth for me. Though if he could he’d make damned sure I gagged on them.

“Besides,” I said, “we can’t afford to burn bridges with an insightful guy like Dr. Mario. He could be just what we need if the trail goes cold.”

Columns turned to me like I’d just started speaking in tongues. “The hell’s your angle, Tetris?” Doc didn’t look any less skeptical, or worried for my mental health. “Insightful?”

“Sure,” I said. “Didn’t you notice? Doc here figured out Delaney was murdered, when I didn’t even mention he was dead.”

Doc didn’t do it. He knew more than he let on, but so did I. I figured I’d let him know who stacks the deck around here. We left him on his hands and knees. For all I know, he’s still there.

Chapter Five

The next one dead was a cop. The young kid. The poor sucker never learned how to negligently photograph a crime scene. Now he was one. His name was Quarth. Not that it did me much good to know that now.

Like the other two, he was dropped into the ditch. If he wasn’t dead when he fell he was dead when he landed. He laid cold and motionless atop the other two bodies, his empty head snug in a perfect crevice between Junior Plank and Harold Delaney. Not an inch of space between them. I was starting to think these weren’t random killings. These were victims chosen for their shapes.

“What’s the matter, there, Tetris?” Columns asked. “You look green.”

“Yeah, and you’re going grey. What’s it to you?”

We were at the bottom of the pit. Getting to know the area pretty well by now. A real home away from home. I could even make my way down without stumbling. Another ten or eleven corpses and I bet I could do it on my hands.

Columns didn’t bite back. I was glad he didn’t. I wasn’t sure I had much bite in me either. Just a big knot in my throat that wasn’t getting any smaller. Every day for the past three days there’d been a corpse. Now that it was one of his own boys, even Sgt. Hatred was worried.

He heard one of the other cops laugh. At least, I think he did. I didn’t hear any laughter. Might have been quiet. Might have been nervous. Might have been in his head.

“You think this is funny?” he shouted. His faceplate went blood red. He leaned his broad shoulders into them. He might have been out of his mind. If he’d had one to be out of. “That’s one of you over there. That could have been you. Maybe it should have been you. You think Quarth would be laughing at you in that pile?”

He paced around, spitting and radiating anger so hot I had to undo a couple buttons.

“You think this is a game?” he shouted, climbing over the yellow tape that was three days old and still fated to get a lot older. He pointed at the bodies. “Well I sure as shit hope not, because if I ever came across somebody who could look at this…this!…and see a game, I would pull him apart with my own two hands, and the world would be a better place for it.”

His stream of abuse dried up. Poor sap stood there with his mouth open, steam coming out of his ears but nothing left to say. He couldn’t see me, but the boys could. Every few seconds one of them would shoot me the eye. The sarge’s engine stalled, but they knew they couldn’t just walk away for fear of fanning it back up again. They wanted me to do something. I thought that was really cute. The way they treated me earlier I’d sooner take a fork in the ear than pull any of their sorry potatoes out of the foil.

I lit a cigarette. I didn’t want it. I just wanted the boys to know I was letting them stew. After a few puffs I took pity. “Come on, Columns. Let’s get some food in that belly. I think hunger’s making you batty.”

He turned to me, and the red faded from his face. I was braced for an improvised rant of my own based on some sleight only he perceived. I was surprised when he gave me something a lot softer instead. “I need to show you something.”

We climbed out of the pit and made our way to the cars. They were hot to the touch. Brutal heat today. It was a good thing they hadn’t started using the landfill yet. The garbage would be sizzling, and this place would smell exactly as bad as the rest of Tetramino City.

“Here,” he said.

“You really are a creature of habit,” I told him. And why not? Sure, it was a kick in the pants, but did he really find it necessary to steal the wallet of his own dead colleague?

“Judge if you’ve gotta judge. But look what’s in it.”

“Card from Doc Mario?” I guessed. But it wasn’t a card. It unfolded into something much bigger than a card. It was a full sheet of paper, and on it was a picture of the dead cop. That’s it. Just the cop’s picture and one word. All caps. No punctuation, no explanation.

NEXT.

Sure was tough breathing through that knot in my throat, I can tell you that much. I folded the paper.

“The rest of the boys see this?” I asked.

“No,” he told me. “Maybe I’m just paranoid, but whoever gave him this, or planted it on him…for all I know, it’s one of them.”

“Sure,” I said. “But then why hide it? If it wasn’t one of them, they’ll be seeing it for the first time and you can work together. If it was, they know it’s there anyway. The fact that you hide it or don’t changes nothing. Certainly doesn’t help the kid at the bottom of that hole.”

Sgt. Columns leaned back against the car. It couldn’t be comfortable. In fact, with the heat it was probably painful. But you wouldn’t know it from the empty look on his faceplate.

“What happened to this city, Tetris?”

“Same thing that happens to every city, given enough time.”

“I just…don’t understand.”

“You’re in geomicide, Columns. You’ve seen this before. Three bodies? Shouldn’t even register.”

“That’s the thing,” he said. “It shouldn’t.”

He closed his eyes. I don’t know when I expected him to open them, but whenever it was I was wrong.

“And yet,” he continued, eyes still closed, “here we are.”

I have to admit, I couldn’t argue with that.

The sun held static in the sky. It blasted its heat directly downward, into the pit. Like a spotlight reminding the audience of what they should be paying attention to.

Even the good plays did that. They had to. Because any audience, anywhere, had to be full of idiots.

Chapter Six

I didn’t go right home, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to the office. It was times like this that I wished I had a friend. Lucky for me these times were a lot less frequent than the times I was glad I didn’t.

The streets were quiet. It was too hot to go anywhere. So I went everywhere. Passed the old book shop, as I always do. Not sure why anyone needs fairy tales when there’s enough to learn from the world around you. Thought about hitting the bar, but I couldn’t risk it hitting me first. Passed Lumine’s, that nightclub that just went up a year or so ago. Never had call to go inside. I hoped I never would. Kids danced around in that place to music that sounded like a whole lot of oil drums tumbling down the stairs. It was closed. Nobody would have been there in the daytime. Funny how stupid Lumine’s looked when you could actually see what was going on.

I settled for a burger. I didn’t eat it. I sat and stared at it and it stared back. Time passed. The sky got dark and I threw the burger away. It was the best conversation I’d had all week.

Rain. On a hot day like this you’d think it would be nice to get a little liquid cooldown, but Tetramino City’s rain is more like grease. Comes down sharp and hard from the sky, sticks to your face, to your windows. Stains your clothes. It eventually makes it to the ground and sweeps whatever trash it can find straight into the bay. Old diapers. Soda cans. Granddad’s pornography. Whatever trash was left out, it took. Tetramino City left a lot of trash out. Then it would get hot again, and that same water from the bay would start the process all over. Got dirtier each time. I wondered how long it be before the rain turned toxic. I wondered if anyone would even notice.

I drove to my apartment through the city of poison. Bags of chips. Some old pantyhose. A sales circular in about a thousand pieces. All of this sloshed around in the water my tires disturbed. All of this slid quietly down the storm drains.

Tetramino City was a hole. I liked to play a game sometimes. I’d open my apartment window, or my office window, or, hey, any window in the whole doggone city would do. I’d take a look at the view. And I’d think, what could I possibly change to make this city look worse? It’s a great game. Very challenging. I’ve never made it past the first question.

My apartment was what they called an efficiency. That was much more polite than what I called it. I drove around in the rain trying to find a parking spot that wasn’t torn to pieces or blocked up by some son of a bitch who thought he was entitled to two. As usual, I failed. That’s another fun game I like to play. Can I Actually Park in the Spaces I’m Paying For? I’m thinking of releasing a home version.

Two blocks on foot, through the rain. I could feel my hat and coat yellowing. Some of the rain got in my eyes. It burned.

A few young hoods ran past me, making for shelter. Even the vandals in this trash-heap knew that Tetramino City’s rain was the worst kind of jujumagumbo. They didn’t even stop to call me a square. I’ll have to remember to thank them.

The heat had been bad enough all day that the occupied buildings had their windows open. It let the greasy rain in, but it was that or be cooked alive. In my part of town there weren’t many who could afford an air conditioner. The few that could couldn’t afford one that worked.

I heard a few babies crying. Nobody answered. I heard a dog howling for food. Good luck with that one, pal. I heard the clatter of a whole lot of couples fucking. Can’t blame them. It’s not like they could afford to do anything else.

The glass door to my building was really just the frame for a glass door. It had been smashed to bits before I even rented the place. The landlord said he’d have it fixed by April. I’d complain but he never said which April.

The hall carpets smelled like mold. They might have been mold. Even when I had the time to check I wasn’t really interested in finding one other thing that was slowly killing me. Here and now I didn’t have that time. My door was open.

Just what I needed. It had been such a boring week. I kept looking at that pile of corpses and wondering what it took to become one. This was a real treat.

I pulled my gun, quietly, holding my trench coat away from the holster so that I wouldn’t make a sound. Then I inched closer to the door, listening. I had the gun raised in my right hand. If there was only one of them in there, I could easily get the jump. Two would be trickier, so I just had to hope that if there were two, at least one of them was stupid. Three or more and it was time to concentrate on taking as many out as I could before they took me out.

I took a deep breath and kicked the door. It swung inward, and not smoothly. Hopefully that top hinge gets fixed in April, too.

She said, “Long day at the office?”

It was Irene. She was in bed, with my thickest blanket wrapped around her. “If you’re cold,” I told her, “you could close the window.”

“I like the rain,” she said. “I am cold, but I want to listen to it.”

“You don’t have the right acoustics in your own place or what?”

She rolled away from me. Faced the window. The bed was in my bedroom. My bedroom is what I called a small area of the carpet about two feet from the door and six inches from the window. “I did,” she said into the rain, “what I needed to do.”

That was fine. I wasn’t really in the mood to argue a beautiful woman out of my bed. Not that I’ve ever been in the position to develop a taste for it. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” I agreed.”

I could hear her breathing. “Do we live in desperate times?”

“Sure,” I said. “Don’t we always?”

Chapter Seven

The rain was just letting up as we finished. She kept the blanket pulled up to her chin. I don’t know why. I’d already seen her breastplate. Maybe it was some leftover conservative bent from whatever past of hers I’ll never know. Maybe she was just feeling some regret for letting a lowly square get flat with her in his dingy apartment. Who cared anyway? A plastic bag from somebody’s takeout lunch flapped noisily in the drizzle.

I offered her a swig from the jug of hooch I keep on the nightstand. She didn’t want it. I didn’t either.

“Why are you mean to me?” she asked.

“I’m mean to everybody,” I said, scratching my cubic hair. “It’s nothing personal.”

She rolled over to face me. “Why are you mean to everybody?”

“This world doesn’t give you a choice. You let people in, you end up at the bottom of a pit. You hold people back, you buy yourself some time before you end up at the bottom of a pit.”

“Are you really as cynical as you sound?”

I rolled over to her. “What is it with you? You come all the way from God knows where, but it’s obviously not here. You walk into my office with a little yarn about being marked for death, only you don’t know anything about it. But I’ve seen what people look like when they know they’re going to die, and they’re not all doe eyes and finger twiddles. I say to hell with you and leave to do some real work, but you don’t let it go. Fine. You follow me into a restaurant. Fine. You sit down with me and give me a mouthful of guff about not taking you seriously. So whatever it is, it sure as hell isn’t death you’re worried about, but it’s something serious enough, or something you think is serious enough, that you can’t let it go.”

“I think you’re being very rude,” she said. I raised a hand.

“Hold on a minute. I’m not through. You’ve had days to say whatever you pleased. You didn’t do it. Now it’s my turn.”

She puffed a little bit like I knew she would. If she didn’t regret planing me before she sure as hell did now.

“So you get up and leave the restaurant when me and Columns start horsing off. Can’t hold that against you. That’s a damn rotten thing to do when a body’s so warm. Only this time you’re the one to get up and leave. Not me. I was happy to talk. That clinched it for me. I saw then how real fear of death made you feel. It was a lot different from whatever syrup you were spilling all over my office.”

It would have been nice to see what was happening in her eyes, but she kept them closed.

“The bodies are still piling up. I don’t like it. You keep turning up when I least expect you. I don’t like that either. You also did a damn fine job of knowing what car I drive and where I live, even though I make a habit of sharing that information with nobody. So what do you say you finally start talking, and put both of our minds at ease?”

“Frank,” she said.

“Talk.”

She stood up. She looked around for a little bit and I thought she was trying to find her clothes in the dark, slipping away before I tried some non-verbal ways of making her talk. But she went down and came back up with two cigarettes and a match. She lit them both. I didn’t want mine, but if it got her talking I was happy to hold it while it burned. After she blew a few drags out the window, she opened up.

“Are you religious, Mr. Tetris?”

“Not really. Took some classes as a kid. Grew out of it once I had a brain of my own.”

She ignored me. I guess the question was rhetorical. “It’s…you know the old sacred texts. I know they can seem a little silly now, but you do have to realize that it was written for a different time. A different…culture.”

“My culture.”

“That’s right.”

“It’s a fairy tale. If you read that nonsense and it helps you live a better life, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine by me too. But if it’s giving you nightmares, sleep with the light on. It can’t hurt you more than any other hogwash.”

“I know it was before your time. It was well before mine, too. But I thought…as…as a…”

I helped her again. “As a square.”

She blushed. Looked away, then looked right back. She wasn’t doing much more with her cigarette than I was with mine. “Yes,” she said. “I asked around. I wanted to find one with a…reputation. Someone who did a lot of thinking. Maybe not all pleasant thinking, but someone with the kind of mind that could solve problems.”

“And because your problem is some mumbo jumbo you read in some scripture, you figured pitching me a murder was the better way to get my attention.”

Now she really blushed. “I’ve felt guilty ever since.”

“Wow,” I said. “You’re really not from Tetramino City.”

“I hope you aren’t angry.”

“Why would I be angry? I still don’t know what the hell you want from me. Tell me and then maybe I’ll get angry.”

“I know you’re skeptical, but I was there. I know what I saw.”

“You had a vision.”

“My family was very religious. I was never a very spiritual person, but I’d been to church a few times. I know the gists of the major stories. Seen the films on television. The point. The line.”

“The sphere.”

“It all sounds very fanciful, I know. Believe me. I was there once, too. But true or not, and I’m not arguing that it is true, it still makes an interesting point.”

Now I did want some of that hooch. She still didn’t. I helped myself.

“The idea,” she said, “that a higher power could exist. Someone, or something…that can see us. That can perceive us. And yet, we can’t perceive them. What would they see, Mr. Tetris? You live in this city. What would somebody see, staring down at us from some inconceivable angle?”

She blinked at me.

“What would you see?”

I told her it doesn’t matter what I saw or what I thought. This whole thing might be a gas for some college students to sit around arguing about, but here in the real world daydreaming didn’t do you a whole lot of good.

“But it wasn’t a daydream,” she said. “I saw it.”

“What did you see, exactly?”

“Well,” she said. Of course whatever it was it had to start with well. “I don’t know exactly. That’s…what I was hoping to talk to you about. You’ve…been around longer than I have. And as a…as a square…”

“You thought I’d have some insight. Sure. But I already shared it and it’s not what you wanted to hear.”

“Something was in that room with me, Mr. Tetris. I was in bed. Reading. And I saw it. Something big and pink. It wasn’t there before. I climbed out of bed, and I touched it. I didn’t want to, because I didn’t know what it was. But I…I had to know I wasn’t crazy.”

“What did it feel like?”

“A…like a balloon stuffed with cotton, maybe. It was soft, but firm. Leathery. When I got closer, I saw that there were hairs growing out of it.”

“Sure sounds like a daydream to me.”

“I know it does. But I touched it. And when I did, it jerked back, like it wasn’t expecting me. And then, just as quickly, it was gone.” She looked at the cigarette burning in her hand, like she forgot what she was supposed to do with it. “I believe it was a finger, Mr. Tetris.”

“The finger of God?”

“The finger of something. Maybe God. But something large. Many times larger than you, or even me. But also something on a completely different plane. One that we can’t even imagine.”

“You fell asleep reading the writings of that hallucinating square and had a vivid dream about it. That’s the story, sis.”

She shook her head. “There’s something out there.”

“That garbage was written a long time ago. Completely different world from where we are today. They’re worried about colors. I’m worried about pushers and pimps and kidnappers. Do you have any idea how far everything’s come since then? Those Flatlanders wouldn’t recognize us. That was before people even learned how to move along more than two axes. You pull somebody out from that time and stick them here and they’d drop dead of a heart attack. This all looks like witchcraft to them. This all looks like God. You’re living in the days of miracles. You don’t need creatures sticking their hands in from other dimensions for that. The miracle is all around you. It’s the miracle of a society in decay. The miracle of a world coming to regret that it got everything it ever asked for.”

“I didn’t know,” she said, “that there would really be death.”

I have to admit, that shut me up. I took another swig and held in my mouth, waiting for her to go on.

“I really did make that part up. I wanted your attention. But now I think it’s really happening.”

I swallowed. I did it slowly. I needed a little bit of time to get my words straight. “What’s really happening here, Irene?”

“Can you take me to the pit?” she asked.

“If you tell me what you’re hoping to see.”

“I’m not hoping to see anything,” she said. “I’m hoping you will.”

Chapter Eight

Whatever she wanted me to see, I didn’t want to stand in the cold rain figuring it out. Good for me, then, because when I finally got a chance to think about it, I had a roof over my head. Sure wish it wasn’t the roof of a jail cell, though.

“Hey,” I called to the cop standing guard. “What time’s the continental breakfast?”

He didn’t say anything. I didn’t expect him to.

What happened at the pit threw both me and Irene off our games. She wanted me to see something. Then we both saw something we didn’t expect to see. Another two bodies were on the pile. And just like the others there wasn’t a gap between them. The corpses were slotted together perfectly. This wasn’t chance. Whoever we were dealing with was a methodical son of a bitch.

“You didn’t tell me there were more,” she said. The oily drizzle came down. In the dark it was harder to climb down into the pit. The fact that most of the dirt was now mud didn’t help either. Irene took a tumble. I tried to help her up and she pulled me down with her. Story of my life.

“I didn’t know there were more,” I said. “Okay. Tell me what you want to tell me and let’s get out of here. Columns needs to see this.”

“Doesn’t he know?” she asked.

“I doubt it. They still have their wallets.”

Irene was quiet. She took a few steps toward the stack. Five bodies. On top of each other. Next to each other. Between each other. Heads and legs and torsos and heads and legs and torsos, all fit together like the jigsaw from hell. I didn’t know what she meant to get at, or how any of this tied into a vision she was sure she had, but that’s not what bothered me. What bothered me was that work like this, work so cold, calculated, and anonymous, did a real number on my understanding of the world I lived in. I’ve seen shit that would send even a thick-headed tank like Columns crying home to his mother. But this, whatever it was, was evidence that however bad I knew the world could be, there was a hell of a lot more that I didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. But had to know. I let the puzzle bobble around in my head for a while, and then Irene spoke.

“My first impulse,” she said finally, “was to wonder why God Himself would be poking a finger into my bedroom. Was I chosen? For what? Why me?”

She shook her head. I watched her do it. Watched the dirty rain plaster her hair to her faceplate.

“That didn’t last long. I’ve never been under any illusion that I have more to offer than anyone else. Certainly not more to offer God. And then I realized, He wasn’t looking for me. In fact, He hadn’t expected to find me there. When I touched Him, He pulled away.”

“So…what? The Good Lord Almighty got lost playing Pin the Tailplate on the Donkey?”

“Whatever it was, it didn’t expect me. That’s all I’m saying. It had some…some purpose. And whatever it was, it didn’t expect resistance. Even the mild kind of resistance we call curiosity.”

“It didn’t want you,” I said.

“I don’t know if it wanted anyone. At least, nobody specific. It wanted shapes. Body types.”

“Now why,” I asked her, “would it want body types?”

She extended her own finger, and indicated the wet, stinking pile of bodies stacked up against the wall of a landfill. “That’s why.”

And then, as we watched, another body fell. The sky was dark enough and the rain reflected enough moonlight that we couldn’t make out a damned thing up at the rim of the pit, but we saw the falling body clearly enough.

It was what some of the ruder kids called a zigzag. The same body type as my great friend Sgt. Columns, only reversed. I didn’t recognize him. Couldn’t tell you his name. Not that it mattered, if what Irene said was true. This poor bastard was only a shape.

We stood, watching that body fall. We were transfixed. And then I had to look at her to make sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me. She did the same, so I know that if we were hallucinating, we were at least hallucinating the same thing.

The body turned.

It didn’t tumble. It didn’t strike a stone and go careening off in another direction like some kid’s misjudged marble.

No. It rotated, right where it was. It hung there. It rotated. And then it rotated back.

That knot in my throat was working overtime. Then the body moved. Horizontally. It kept falling, but it shifted all the way to the right. Then it moved slightly left. One last time it rotated, and at last it was wedged perfectly into the bodies that were already there.

“I don’t know what I just saw, sister,” I said, “but we’ve got to get out of here.”

“Is it…?”

“Doll, I can’t answer any questions that begin with ‘is it’ right now. Get the hell out of this pit while you still can.”

I hustled her up the slope. You can imagine how that went. Mud, dark, incline, haste, you do the geometry. But we did get out, and aside from even more filth on our clothes and faceplates, we weren’t too much worse for the wear.

At first I was surprised that I could see her so well. It was dark, then, in a flash, I saw just how much of a mess she was. I looked down and saw that I was no better. I opened my mouth to ask her if she was alright, but it was Sgt. Columns’ voice that I heard.

“Hands up, Tetris.”

He was standing between two pairs of silhouettes. Also cops. Of course. The headlights from his squad car blinded me. “God dammit, Chuck,” I growled. “You picked a good time to start up a game of cops and robbers, but you’re playing it with the wrong guy. You’ve got fresh bodies down there, you dumb bastard.”

He nodded toward me. One of his men came at me with handcuffs. I thought for a moment about fighting him off. I was sure I could do it. But somehow I didn’t think that would help my case.

When my wrists were secure, Columns came over to me. “I know that. We didn’t know where the killings were happening, but we definitely knew where the bodies ended up. So we figured we’d do a little stakeout, and what do you know. Frank Tetris.”

He walked slowly in circles around me. He was damned proud of himself, that’s for sure.

“It all fits together. Little boy disappears, turns up dead. Who’s looking for him? Frank Tetris. Cop turns up dead. Who had just given him guff about his photography skills? Frank Tetris. Two new bodies dumped sometime today. Who takes his date on a romantic stroll to admire them? Frank Tetris. That’s a whole lot of coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”

“I don’t know. I have so many other things to say to you that I’m afraid I’d never get around to it.”

“Take him away,” he told his men.

They did. As the car pulled away I saw Irene. I couldn’t make out much in the darkness but Columns was talking to her. That couldn’t be a good thing, but I hoped for her sake that that was as bad as it got.

“Do me a favor, boys,” I said to whatever two bozos he’d dispatched to haul me off to the hoosegow. “Tell your boss there’s three fresh bodies down there. Not two. We watched one slide down from the top. Tell him he could have seen it, too, as well as the actual murderer tossing him down, if he hadn’t been busy staring at my tailplate, licking his chops.”

They didn’t say anything. I didn’t expect them to.

So I spent that night in a cell. Could have been worse, I guess. There could have been more urine on the floor.

I didn’t feel much like sleeping. I knew it would make the morning come sooner, but I didn’t see any reason to think tomorrow was going to be any better than today.

I sat on the cot. It was almost as comfortable as a box of gravel. I let my mind wander. I thought, finally thought, about everything Irene had said. And about everything I had seen.

Was it really that strange? Her vision. If that’s what it was. Finger of God poking into your bedroom, retracting in some direction you can’t even fathom when you give it a tickle. I looked up at the ceiling of the cell. Yeah, it was strange alright. I certainly couldn’t imagine a holy digit poking through there. But at the same time, what did I see in that pit?

I’ve never been much of a scholar. I don’t think there’s a point. The more time you spend with your nose in a book the less time you spend in the real world. But I know some rough truths of physics. What goes up must come down. Equal and opposite reactions. Any schoolboy could run circles around me if I had to tell you why any of that was true, but as long as I knew it that was enough for me.

What I saw in that pit, though, was not physics. That was something else entirely. That was some kind of law, or set of laws, that have no resemblance to any reality I knew.

Something falls. Fine. I’ve seen that before. But for that thing to rotate one way, and then rotate the other way, while falling, as though being acted upon by two completely different and yet unquestionably related forces, that was impossible. I saw it, and I still knew it was impossible. So what that meant was that I had just seen the impossible.

And to see it glide right, and then back left, and then tuck itself into, or be tucked into, position with the rest of the bodies? These aren’t tricks of the light. Whatever they are, they make the holy pointer of God look like a visit from grandma.

It hit me then. The connection. The finger. And the bodies. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Maybe it was the hooch and cigarette smoke and greasy mud that had made their way into me throughout the day. But whatever it was, my perspective shifted, and I saw it. I saw the bodies. I saw the falling shape. I saw it move and rotate and fit. It was all deliberate.

It wasn’t easy to keep the vision in place. Perspective kept shifting back to my own, some poor putz in the rain at the bottom of a trash pit. But I could just about visualize it from another perspective. From a flat perspective. From a perspective in which this wasn’t a world, but a kind of evolving riddle to be solved. A series of locks built of the same materials that would serve as the key. To you and I, those are bodies. To someone detached, and in control, those are objects.

I pictured it happening against flat black. Nothingness. Because nothing else mattered. Delaney wasn’t a junkie. Quarth wasn’t a new recruit. That latest body wasn’t a husband, a father, or a son.

No.

With enough distance, they were only shapes.

I was only a shape.

Irene Barre was only a shape. That’s what she was trying to tell me. Her vision didn’t make her a prophet. It made her a tool. She might not have expected death when she sought me out originally, but once she knew what was happening, the pieces slid into place.

She understood. Hers was a rare shape. Too rare, if you ask me. And she was on borrowed time.

Whatever goal this otherworldly interloper had in mind, it seemed like he’d have to fit an awful lot of corpses together to accomplish it. Sooner or later, she would be one of them. Maybe even the most important one.

I had to find her.

Chapter Nine

I don’t know if I was awake all night or if I dreamed that I was awake all night, but either way I was so exhausted that it took me at least a minute to realize that someone was passing me a meal through the slot in the door. I took it, but I didn’t eat it. I called back that I needed to see Columns, but the son of a bitch just walked away.

Irene was in danger. Maybe not the danger she expected at first, but it was certainly a danger she expected now. She trusted me, for whatever reason, and I couldn’t do a damned thing to help.

I paced. I called out for somebody to get their ass over here and listen to me. Hours passed. I kept seeing her faceplate-down in the mud. Dead. Another shape to be slipped into place. I yelled myself hoarse.

When somebody did finally come to the cell, it was Columns himself. He was unshaven, and it looked like he’d slept in his uniform. Seeing the state he was in made me acutely aware of how mine couldn’t have been any better.

“It’s about damned time,” I told him.

He didn’t answer me. He opened the cell door. I thought about giving him a knuckle to the cheesebox, but I didn’t. Whatever he’d been through last night was clearly bad enough.

“What the hell’s going on here, Columns?”

He took me by the elbow, not exactly roughly, and walked me into a small room. He flicked the light on. It was a broom closet. “I’m sorry,” he said, softly.

“For what? For taking me into custody for murders you know damned well I didn’t commit, locking me in a cell without a working commode, and leaving me to rot while an innocent woman is out there in that shitstorm without anyone to protect her? What’s any of that between friends?”

“We can go into that later,” he said. Even though there was a hell of a lot of “that” that he could have meant. “I said it last night and I stand by it…that’s a lot of coincidence. I didn’t really think you did it, but what was I supposed to do? You’re a private eye. If you’re snooping on your own and I need to throw a scare into you to find out what you know, sue me.”

“You could have just asked, Columns.”

“Absolutely. Fresh bodies tossed into a pit in the middle of the night, I see a guy climbing out of that pit covered in mud, he says he’s innocent and I say fine? Sleep tight? This is a killing spree, Tetris. It’s no time to put everybody on the honor system.”

“So, what? Why are we in this closet?”

He handed me a sheet of paper. I didn’t need to unfold it.

“This,” I said. “This is a picture of you, isn’t it?”

Columns nodded. He leaned against the wall. I figured I might as well confirm what I already knew. Sure enough, it was him. NEXT.

“When did you get this?”

“Last night,” he said. “Sometime. It was there when I got home. And that’s not all.”

He closed his eyes.

“This,” he said, putting forth genuine effort to make it through the sentence, “is happening everywhere.”

“What? What’s happening everywhere?”

His eyes were still closed. His color was fading. I grabbed him by the front of his uniform.

“Talk you son of a bitch. What’s happening everywhere? What the hell is this, Columns?”

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Cities. Towns. People disappearing. Piling up. It’s spreading fast.”

“What’s spreading fast? What is?”

His arm twitched. Barely. I think he meant to gesture toward something, then couldn’t think of what it should be. “Whatever this is. Whatever’s happening here, it’s catching on.”

This was bad news. If this kind of thing was happening all over the world, bodies being slotted together as some sick fuck’s idea of sport, then this was even worse than I thought. I pushed him aside and scrambled out the door. I shouldn’t have done it, but Columns is a thick guy. He had a gun. He had training. That didn’t mean he’d stand a hamster’s chance in a microwave, but it certainly gave him a better shot than Irene had.

One of the boys tried to stop me as I ran out of the station. I said, “One way or another, I’m getting through that door. Either that’s because I knock your block off or because you decide to do the smart thing and help Columns out of that broom closet.”

He thought about that one for all of half a second. I called after him to keep an eye on the guy. A good eye. Eyes round the clock.

Columns was a real piece of shit. But even real pieces of shit deserve some respect. After all, they’ve had to watch this civilization crumble. Same as everyone else.

Chapter Ten

I went home. She wasn’t there. I stopped by Pollo Pollo. She wasn’t there either. I asked for a coffee to go. They took too long making it, so I left. I thought about letting them know. Letting all of them know. But even if they believed me, what could they do?

Hell, what could I do?

It was pretty good luck that I found her at my office, because that was the last place I could even guess to look. She was behind my desk. She had a cigarette going, and Junior Plank’s history book was open in front of her.

“He knew,” she said.

“Knew what?”

“As much as us, I guess.”

“A whole lot of nothing,” I said. “And not enough to keep anybody alive.”

The book was open to a page about that loopy old square’s writings. The ones Irene and I had discussed last night. One day something’s sacred, the next it merits a page in some kid’s textbook, if it’s lucky. From strict doctrine to multiple choice question. It might be a better fate to be forgotten entirely than to end up trivialized.

The lines in the margin that meant nothing to me then meant a lot more to me now. Junior was working something out in his head, trying to bring it into the light and maybe get some kind of handle on it. These weren’t empty-headed doodles. These were bodies.

“Let’s go,” I told her. “We’re getting out of here.”

“You’ve had a vision, too.”

“Sure,” I said. “Forces beyond our control, whatever they are. We can’t fight them. We can’t even escape them.”

She stubbed her cigarette out on my desk. Who cared? Neither of us would ever see it again. “Then why run?”

“Because if I’m going to die, sister, I’m not doing it in this shithole. And you ain’t either.”

I pulled a suitcase out of the closet. I had it pre-packed for emergencies. There wasn’t much in there. A few shirts, clean sport-jacket. Pair of pants I may or may not have outgirthed by now. Some cash. A bottle of the only friend I’ve ever had. And a filthy foreign porno mag called Zoop. A little embarrassing, but I never imagined I’d be with anybody when I opened it up.

“Get your coat,” I said.

She did. I watched her wriggle into it. I wondered how long she had left. I wondered how long I had left. “It’s me. Isn’t it?”

“I don’t know, baby. What whatever he’s doing, he doesn’t have a long, tall Sally like you yet. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s saving a place of honor.”

She said she was scared. I said that was good, because it meant she still had a future to be worried about.

We got in the car and drove. We didn’t say anything. We had to pass the pit. The mass grave. There were people standing around it now. Lots of them. The cops tried to hold them back. Reporters tried to push through. Columns wasn’t there. At least not that I saw. I started to miss him, for some lame-brained reason I’ll never figure out.

She didn’t ask where we were going. Maybe it’s because she thought it didn’t matter. I felt exactly the opposite.

On the way I stopped for gas. Told the kid to fill the tank. Finally got myself that cup of coffee while we were there. I got her one too. She didn’t drink it. That was fine. If she’d rather sleep I couldn’t blame her.

She passed out after another hour. I didn’t turn the radio on. For starters I didn’t want to wake her up. More importantly I didn’t want to hear what any of those clowns on the airwaves had to say about it. The last thing any man should have to endure during the end of the world was listen to a pack of morons trying to tell him what it all meant.

We got there well after sunset. It was dark. She didn’t wake up and I didn’t wake her. I set the car in park, shut off the engine, and covered her up with my coat. I reclined in my seat and caught some shut-eye myself. Or maybe it caught me. Either way, I wasn’t tossing and turning for long. My mind shut down and that was aces by me.

It was her hand that woke me. Her hand on my arm. I don’t know what time it was. The sun was up. I’d guess around ten, but time loses a lot of meaning when every hour might as well be your last.

She saw me open my eyes. “Where are we?”

“Nowhere,” I said. “And I really hope you like it.”

We got out of the car and walked along the beach. The sand was clean and white. There were no roads. No houses. No businesses. No companies. No sounds but the sounds of the tides and the gulls.

The sky was a lighter blue than I remembered it being. The beach was longer. Wider.

This was it. I sat down in the sand. It was warm. It was comforting. She sat down next to me.

“There’s nothing around for miles,” I told her. “I always figured they’d eventually get around to developing the place, but I doubt there’s time now.”

She agreed without saying or doing anything.

“This is it. The last unspoiled place in the whole damned world as far as I’m concerned.”

The tides rolled. She watched them like she was watching a baby being born. I wondered if she’d ever seen tides before. At least tides that didn’t carry needles and old sweaters onto shore.

“Want to know how I found this place?”

She said, “No.”

I understood completely.

I’d picked up a few candy bars at the gas station. I passed her one. We ate quietly, listening to the waves. It was pretty peaceful. You’d never even know the world was ending.

Well into the afternoon we sat on that beach. At one point the sky clouded over and we got a little bit of rain. Sun showers, they called them. Or they used to.

We sat in the rain. It was gentle rain. Soft and refreshing. Clean. Some of it got in my eyes. It helped me see more clearly.

She said, “It’s beautiful.”

And she was right. That’s exactly what it was.

More time passed. It got to be late afternoon. We’d spent the entire day on that beach. Barely talking, but breathing a hell of a lot of fresh air. And then she asked, “What are you thinking about?”

“I’m thinking about whoever or whatever is doing all this. Or all that. Who’s taking the things that define life in this world, and rearranging them. Organizing them. Fixing them.”

She waited for me to get my thoughts together.

“This whole world’s gone to pot. Tetramino City was worst than most, but noplace really has room to talk. Violence. Hatred. Stupidity. We poison our own water. We complain if the schools try too hard to teach the kids. We let ourselves get sorted by shape and by income. Why? Isn’t this our world?”

“It is.”

“It was. And that’s what we did with it. Let it all fall apart so that we’d always have something to be miserable about.”

She laid her head in my lap. “What do you think he’s like?” she asked me. “The one…doing all of this.”

“Been thinking about that one too. And you know what, doll?”

“What?”

“I don’t have an answer. But whoever he is, he’s taking our world apart, piece by piece, and he’s fitting it snugly and perfectly into a landfill, where it belongs. He knows it’s beyond salvation.”

She looked up at me. Doe eyes. Real ones this time. “What about this, though?”

“What about what?”

“What about this beach?” she asked. “The water. This sand.”

“This quiet.”

She let herself hear nothing for a while. “Yes. The quiet. Isn’t this worth saving?”

But I’d already thought about that, too. “Sure, baby. To you and me. But look at where we came from. Look at what we left.”

She closed her eyes. I waited until she opened them again. It took a while, but that was okay.

“To you and me this looks pretty swell. But that’s perspective for you.”

I swallowed. It was easy. The knot in my throat was gone.

“To us, this is heaven. But to him out there, whoever’s controlling this, it probably doesn’t even register. It’s all just another piece of junk, and I’m okay with that.”

“Why are you okay with that?” she asked me. She wanted to know how she could be okay with that too.

“I’m okay with that,” I said, “because if something this beautiful to us can be nothing to him, imagine what a perfect world he must live in.”

She took a deep breath. Let it out slow. “That’s true,” she said.

“Really. Imagine it.”

And that’s where we stayed, secure in the knowledge that whoever was rearranging out world with his own unfathomable motives was coming from a place much better than we were. Neither Irene nor I were happy that it would take so many seemingly senseless deaths for all of this to work out, but at least ours we’d die in the only part of the world we’d be sorry to lose.

And maybe one day we’d meet again, she and I.

It wouldn’t be this world. Not exactly.

It would be an organized world. A world of structure. A world without gaps. A world without discord. A world without loose pieces of garbage.

A world to mirror the perfect world of our benefactor.

We deferred to his wisdom.

Gabe Durham, Boss Fight Books

Gabe Durham is the brains (officially the publisher / series editor, but, whatever, brains) behind Boss Fight Books, an excellent series about video games that spans authors, generations, and genres. Depending upon the title you could read about somebody’s childhood, design theory, personal identity, or theological grappling…all through the filter of that author’s game of choice.

But whatever the game at the heart of the book, whomever the author writing it, you’re in for a thrillingly unique reading experience, and one that’s immensely rewarding. If that sounds like a gushing introduction, it’s only because the series has undoubtedly earned it.

I’m far from alone in thinking that; Boss Fight recently launched a Kickstarter for its third series of titles, including books on Mega Man 3, Katamari Damacy, and Kingdom Hearts II, and as of this writing it’s at about $30,000 of its $5,000 goal. That’s the result of a lot of satisfied readers. The Kickstarter is clearly in no danger of not being funded, but if you’re interested in the series at all, now is the time to pledge and get the entire set at a nice discount.

In celebration of Boss Fight Books series 3, I decided to ask Durham a few good questions, and a lot of very awful ones. Enjoy!

Earthbound, Boss Fight Books1) One day you had the idea for Boss Fight Books, and the day before you didn’t. Tell us what happened in your mind between those two points.

I was reading a cool book about Nintendo/Mario that I’d checked out of the Glendale Public Library, and it occurred to me that all the books I’d seen and read about games were vast industry histories — more stories about capitalism itself than the actual games. I wondered if anyone was publishing book-length criticism that approached games as art, using a personal and historical approach. Nobody was. Seemed like an oversight.

2) If you weren’t publishing books, what would you be doing?

Writing. And, for work, teaching or maybe some other new career track it’s impossible to know about. Oh god — maybe I’d be dead!

3) In an alternate universe, you didn’t write about Bible Adventures. What game did you write about?

Recently, I learned that actual Simpsons writers were involved in Tapped Out, the phone game, so what I think I’d do is write about that and use the book as an excuse to pick their brains and nerd out.

Bible Adventures, Boss Fight Books4) One Bible story that should have been included in Bible Adventures.

Sidescroller. You are Zaccheus the tax collector. You’re a wee little man: Mario pre-mushroom. In each level, you navigate through a crowd of people who hate you because you’ve taken all their money to line your own pockets. To appease them, you must throw coins at them. At the end of the level is a tree. You must climb the tree, avoiding animals, until you reach the top, where you ring a bell to get Jesus to notice you. As the levels progress, the streets get more dangerous and the trees get higher. At the end of the final level, the bell you ring comes alive and begins to attack you! You must throw coins at it until the last coin makes the bell ring out so loud that (1) the bell cracks, like the Liberty Bell, and (2) Jesus takes notice and says, “Zaccheus, you come down from there! For I’m going to your house today.” And in an animated cutscene, you and Jesus stand in your house, there are piles of gold everywhere, and Jesus waves his arms, zapping you with blue light, and suddenly—you’re big! You’re not a wee man at all! Thanks so much, Jesus!

5) Other than yourself, who is the most talented Gabe?

Newell! Marquez!

6) What video game has the best writing? No waffling. There can be only one answer, and you’ll have to carry it with you for the rest of your life.

Honestly, all my most-loved games aren’t loved for their writing! I’ll say Mass Effect 2.

7) When you grow up, you’re going to be…

An improv master. I do it in my free time — it’s challenging/humbling.

8) Who did you have a crush on at age 12?

Jeanette from school.

Chrono Trigger, Boss Fight Books9) Games that have a perfect soundtrack. Go.

Mega Man 2. A Link to the Past. All-time favorite is Chrono Trigger.

10) What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written in your life?

At 19, I wrote half of a novel about weirdos holed up in a hotel writing a novel. And wow, yeah, it was bad. I think it was the first blush of understanding that metafiction existed, but I was not deploying it for any reason other than just to do it.

11) Describe Boss Fight Books to a space alien.

Humankind makes a lot of stuff, but only in retrospect can we guess at what that stuff does to us/for us.

12) What’s the biggest / most surprising thing you learned from managing the Boss Fight Books project?

Sometimes people pay attention! They mostly hadn’t before.

13) Zelda or Peach?

Peach, for sure. When my girlfriend and I play Mario Kart 8, she’s Peach and I’m Morton. So now there’s an ongoing casual fanfic between us where we’re Morton/Peach shippers. It’s not weird at all. It’s totally fine.

14) Tell us about one piece of media you love that nobody else seems to.

The album Secaucus by The Wrens. I’ve been listening to it since around 2000 and it still doesn’t feel as if I’ve “solved” it yet. There’s so much there.

ZZT, Boss Fight Books15) Tell us about some reader / fan feedback that you’ve carried with you. Positive or negative.

Last week someone tweeted something like, “The last two Boss Fight Books made me tear up — let’s see if the third one does too,” and someone (in an unrelated conversation) tweeted, “Those books are too hippie dippy for me.” And, you know, fair enough. For better or worse, we’re not making books just about games, but games filtered through human experience. Not the best for “stick to the facts” types.

16) What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?

“Hurricane,” “The Man in Me,” “To Make You Feel My Love.”

17) Is there one game you secretly hope somebody will cover? (I promise not to use this question to my advantage.)

The Binding of Isaac

Spelunky, Boss Fight Books18) Somebody wants to read just one book to determine if Boss Fight is for them. Which do you recommend?

I think they should pick based on the game they most want to read about.

19) Somebody wants to read just one book, period. Which do you recommend?

Yikes! Have they learned to read yet? Maybe Go, Dog, Go?

20) We’re making a video game about your life. Describe the most common enemy.

Self-doubt! And it looks just like a Red Slime from Dragon Quest.

BONUS: Say anything to our readers that you haven’t gotten to say above!

Have you seen Everybody Wants Some!! yet? What a cool movie.

Fallout 3

I wrote recently about one of the few true ethical dilemmas I found myself having to navigate in Fallout 4. It was a satisfying moment, if only because I couldn’t be satisfied. For the first time (at least, the first time that I noticed) I was not able to do things my way. And that was a good thing. The decided lack of satisfaction was more satisfying than the go-anywhere/do-anything open world had yet been. There was a beauty in the fact that this situation wasn’t as simple as I’d like it to be.

And, as I mentioned briefly in that earlier piece, it was accidental. This wasn’t an ethical conflict by design, like my Necropolis example from the original Fallout. No, this was a conflict born of circumstance. A few speech checks failed, against all odds. I’d sided with a certain faction that made the situation less straight forward. And I’d invested time (in-game) and empathy (personally) with The Minutemen, the group of interlopers that became my eventual sacrifice to the greater good.

Had any of those things been different, there wouldn’t have been an issue. I could have gotten, in theory at least, what I wanted, as I wanted to get it. I said all that before. But here’s the one additional complication I want to spotlight here, where I can give it a larger discussion: I was playing the game as a good guy.

Fallout 4 ditches the karma system from previous games, and that’s good, because it was never totally compatible with Bethesda’s approach to the franchise anyway. It was also an oddly cosmic concept for games that are otherwise fairly down to earth. Sure, killing an unarmed stranger in a remote corner of the map is a bad thing to do, but if nobody saw you do it, why do people you meet later treat you like a monster? The game knows you did something bad, but the other characters shouldn’t. (And don’t even get me started on the needless complications of New Vegas and its various faction reputations. A great idea in theory. A distracting and irrelevant mess on execution.)

People have given Fallout 4 guff for scrapping karma, but that was unquestionably a simplification in the right direction. It wasn’t an act of creative laziness…it was a recognition of the fact that the system never did was it was supposed to do anyway, and so instead of spinning out scripts and quests for various karmic branches, the designers streamlined the game and let players play in their own ways. Whatever one may think of this game’s particular execution of that simplification, that’s up for discussion. But the fact that it was simplified is a good thing.

Here’s the main reason that simplification was needed: in spite of the lip service paid to choice, you’re supposed to play these games as a good guy. That’s how the games are written, that’s how the games are designed, and that’s the only way they actually work.

This is especially apparent in Fallout 3‘s narrative arc. Spoilers, yes.

In Fallout 3, you are a character who sees for the first time — along with the player — the lengths to which people will go in order to survive in the Wasteland. It starts from the very beginning, in Vault 101, where a small community survives by shutting itself off from the dangers of the outside world. Importantly, the same metal door that keeps its residents safe inside strands others in danger, outside. When you enter the Wasteland early in the game, you see the skeletons of those who sought the safety of Vault 101, only to be turned away. Some of their signs remain, which they presumably held up to the security camera to convey the urgency of their plight. One says, “Help us.” Another reads, “We’re dying, assholes!”

They died there, inches from salvation because a conscious choice was made not to give it to them. Arguments could be made either way as far as “the right decision” goes, but there’s one central fact: Vault 101 was safe, and in order to remain safe it refused that safety to all others. They may have done the right thing…but they’re still assholes. It’s your earliest example of survival at all costs, and it’s one of the least cruel.

Throughout the game you meet murderers. Slavers. Cannibals. Raiders. Madmen. And every so often you encounter a little town…and steel yourself for the inevitable disappointment, the (often literal) skeletons in the closet. Some folks might be closer than others to living an ethical life, but they’re never more than one stolen item or threatening gesture away from pulling out a gun and killing somebody.

In the Wasteland, it’s kill or be killed. I understand that. The game is designed to convince us of that at every point, with every settlement we encounter, with every disemboweled corpse we stumble over, with every ironic reminder of just how far and how quickly civilization fell. You need to be the biggest and most dangerous fish in the (glowing) sea if you want to survive…and even then, an angry enough smaller fish can take you down. Nobody is safe. Nobody is secure. Everybody is on edge, and nobody is more than one wrong move away from having their life taken away.

Then you meet your father, James.

The search for your father is the main driving force of the first part of the game. He escaped Vault 101 shortly before you did. He never said goodbye. You don’t know where he is. You’re thrust into the Wasteland less experienced and less prepared than he is, but you need to find him. And as you scrounge for clues in and around post-war D.C., you learn something important:

He’s not an asshole.

James fled the vault and put himself in danger — two significant opposites to the behavior of almost everybody else you meet in the game — in order to assist with Project Purity, an ambitious experiment to provide clean drinking water to the residents of the Capital Wasteland.

All of them.

Every one of them.

The murderers, the slavers, the cannibals, the raiders, the madmen. The enemy.

Why?

Because among those, there are children. There are good-hearted people mired through no fault of their own in a life of violence and mistrust. There’s potential. There’s humanity out there, somewhere, even if neither you nor James ever really finds it, or at least there’s a chance that it exists…and James puts himself in mortal danger for the chance to keep it alive.

And he doesn’t just speak about idealism; he lives by it, and eventually dies by it.

If the first part of the game revolves around finding James, the second part revolves around helping him. Together you work to get Project Purity online. There are a series of small tasks that need doing…nothing at all compared to the Super Mutants and Death Claws you’ve fought to make it this far. If anything, this is easy. It’s a reward for having overcome so much. All you need to do is turn a few valves here, flip some switches there…

…until the project is interrupted by The Enclave.

The Enclave are Fallout 3‘s clear bad guys. They’re the very well armed and fairly well organized remnants of the U.S. Government, pumping propaganda through one of the few surviving radio stations while they gun down anyone they view as a threat to their authority…which is just about everybody.

They demand control of Project Purity. James doesn’t give it to them. They threaten to kill him. James beats them to the punch; he releases a flood of radiation into the room to kill the Enclave’s commanding officer…and, because there was no avoiding it, himself.

It was the only way to save the project.

Everybody else in the Wasteland does anything it takes to stay alive. James — your father — realizes that there’s a goal much more important and much larger than the survival of one man. In a world of selfishness, James is willing to sacrifice.

It’s a powerful moment, and probably the single most important thing that happens in Fallout 3.

The third part of the game is you following in your father’s footsteps…and it ends with you, too, sacrificing yourself for the good of the Wasteland.*

That is the arc of the game. And though you can choose not to sacrifice yourself, and to play the game as an evil character, that doesn’t change the emotional journey of the game…it just renders it irrelevant. You’re supposed to play it this way, but you can choose to play it some other way. Should you do that, though, Fallout 3 loses its entire ethical framework. You’re left with a game in which you can kill people and fight monsters and scrounge for cool weapons, but that’s any game. Fallout 3 relies on its story as its identity, and it’s a good one…but that story only has meaning if you’re good, too.

You can’t blame Fallout 3 for being weighted toward good characters. Those, after all, are the only ones who can face ethical dilemma. Being called an asshole only matters if you aren’t actually an asshole. It only hurts if you’re trying not to be an asshole. “Asshole” only has meaning, that is to say, when you’re working really damned hard to be an asshole’s opposite.

And when Fallout 4** came out, the lack of a karma system made sense. Only by treating the character the same — regardless of what his or her past actions were — could it force all players into a single, coherent story, as opposed to one in which some stuff happened while you were out murdering innocents.

Only “good” characters can face ethical dilemmas because only “good” characters can feel conflicted.

Whether it’s a situation like the one I described recruiting a scientist for The Institute — which is a dilemma that must be faced in the moment — or a situation in which the ethical “right” answer had the logistical “wrong” result, only a “good” character would care.

A “bad” character lies, steals, and kills to get what he or she wants. Unintended consequences (or…erm…”fallout”) don’t mean anything. How could they? You were perfectly willing to spill blood. Spilling more blood, however unexpected that extra blood may have been, doesn’t challenge your ethics. You overrode those before you set the gory dominoes into motion. You chose to be an asshole; revealing yourself to be a bigger asshole does not add retroactive meaning to your actions.

Good characters face ethical crises when things go from bad to worse, or when good intentions result in terrible outcomes. Bad characters could, in theory, face an ethical crisis if their intended bad behavior led to a good outcome, but it’s hard to imagine what that might be, as it’d have to be something that both that player and “good” players recognize as a good outcome.

It’s difficult to think of examples. Perhaps by robbing a bank you’d unwittingly cause a customer to realize how short life is, and he’d run out and build an orphanage, but that’s a tortured example, and I’m pretty sure most of them would have to be.

I’m open to suggestions on how something like this might work, but it’s safe to say that Fallout 3 wasn’t interested in those possibilities. All of its crises are built around “good” behavior. “Bad” behavior leads to a few unique situations, quests, and items, but nothing at all by way of ethical crisis. Play as a “good” character, though, and you get them one right after another.

Here are a few of the ethical shitstorms I had to face in Fallout 3…two of which were scripted, and one of which was naturally occurring by virtue of the game’s strong ethical throughline:

– Upon arriving in Megaton, a large and fairly secure community, I’m approached by a man who offers to pay me handsomely to destroy the town by detonating a bomb at its center. I refuse the offer, and tell the sheriff — a good man named Lucas Simms who keeps the residents under his watch completely safe — and the sheriff confronts the man…who shoots him and kills him, and strolls off without consequence. Ethically the right decision, logistically the worst outcome.

– I discover Tenpenny Tower, a secure high-rise catering to the relative upper crust of the Wasteland. They don’t allow ghouls — highly irradiated humans with a zombie-like appearance — inside. One ghoul is fed up with it, and plans to attack Tenpenny Tower to give his people a secure place to live. I convince him to back down, and diplomatically convince Tenpenny Tower to voluntarily let them move in. Things are great…until I come back and find that the revolutionary ghoul who wanted in has murdered all of the non-ghoul residents over a perceived slight. Ethically the right decision, logistically the worst outcome.

– There’s a shanty village called Arefu. The residents don’t leave their homes because they’re afraid of a gang of humans who drink blood. I find the gang and convince them to stop terrorizing the residents of Arefu. Now those innocent townsfolk can wander outside their homes again. They thank me, because for the first time in a long time, they feel safe. I return a few days later to find that a radscorpion has made it into town, and it kills the residents one by one while I try to take it down. There are no survivors…but there would have been lots, if I hadn’t convinced them it was safe to go outdoors. Ethically the right decision, logistically the worst outcome.

But those are all from Fallout 3. I could throw in plenty more from the original Fallout. (I haven’t played Fallout 2 enough to say much about that one.) Fallout 4 had…almost nothing. It was a game of choice instead of one of dilemma. It was a game of physical conflict as opposed to psychological conflict.

And I wonder if that’s because it is so difficult to craft ethical dilemma in open world games. Fallout 3 did it if you ask me…but I played the game as a “good” character. I’ve had others tell me that the story was “barely there” in that game. Invariably, they also happened to play as “bad” characters.

Maybe in Fallout 4 the emphasis switched to gunfire over careful thinking, and ethical dilemma wasn’t a natural fit for that, so the developers discarded it. Or maybe the developers realized that well-thought-out ethical dilemmas would be completely missed by at least half of the people playing the game, and therefore emphasized gunfire over careful thinking.

Either is possible, and both are disappointing.

The problem in Fallout 3 — and to a far lesser extent New Vegas — was that playing as a bad character removed all ethical obstacles from the playing field. Fallout 4 made the decision to treat everyone, instead, like a neutral character. People could do bad things without consequence, and do good things without complication. They were neither proud nor disappointed at being called assholes, because the game featured no characters who would call them one.

A simplification was the right decision, but logistically it had the worst outcome.

—–
* I’m ignoring the Broken Steel DLC, which idiotically resurrects you and says, “Hey, go kill more things.” It’s a pretty substantial narrative fuck-you, brought about by one of the worst trends in modern gaming: asking players to pay several times for the same experience.

** New Vegas is barely being touched here because that game was handled by another developer, and was more tailored — by design — to the player’s ethical compass of choice. The theme of the game is less “living up to your father’s legacy” and more “shaping the world in your own image.” It’s a joyously selfish experience, so I’m leaving it out because it’s irrelevant, and not because I think it isn’t worthy of discussion. On the subject of ethics, though? I sure did kill folks for their Sunset Sarsaparilla Star bottlecaps. And when I finally had enough to redeem, I had my ethical shitstorm itch firmly and deeply scratched.

Graygarden Homestead

So, I finished Fallout 4 recently. There’s at least one more post I’ll be writing about it — also on the subject of ethics — but if you’re curious as to my opinion: it was pretty great. A bit of a mixed bag, as in some senses it represents Bethesda’s best work on the series, and in other senses it represents far and away their worst.

But there are plenty of discussions about the game’s quality going on right now, and I really don’t care to join them. I left game reviewing for a reason, not least because it allows me to actually have fun with games again. If they’re lousy but I still find them enjoyable, I can spend my time with them. If they’re technically great but not really up my alley, I’m free to ignore them.

In short, I can get back to what I like to play, and play it when I want to play it. That’s good, because I’ve read in some history books that video games used to be a source of fun for people. How nice to catch a glimpse of that distant past!

Anyway, one of the things that I’ve loved about the Fallout series, going all the way back to the first game, is the ethical wringer it puts you through. In fact, as much as I like to play a “good guy” character in those games, the first Fallout successfully stressed me into behaving badly. As the days counted down and I was running out of time to find a water chip, I found one in the ghoul town of Necropolis. But the residents there needed it to stay alive; their pump was broken. They offered to let me have the chip if I fixed the pump for them…

…which was something I couldn’t do. I could try to get my Repair skill higher or find the parts I needed, but I very likely wouldn’t live long enough to do so. My life, like the lives of everyone waiting for the water chip in Vault 13, was in danger now, and I didn’t have the time to spare.

So I stole their water chip and got the hell out of there. My problem became their problem, quite literally. I passed the hot potato and tried my best to forget that this ever happened. (The poor ghouls would have no such luxury of forgetting.)

Fallout 4, though, was pretty sadly free of ethical dilemmas. You always had the choice of who to kill or who not to kill, who to side with or who to side against, but those aren’t dilemmas; they’re just options. A true dilemma comes from something like my situation in Necropolis, when I could let one group of innocents stay alive, or sabotage their survival to keep a different group alive.

There’s no right answer. There’s a moral answer, but not necessarily a right one.

Toward the end of the game, though, Fallout 4 stranded me in a situation I didn’t expect. It may not even have been intentional, as I only ended up in it because I failed to talk my way into an alternate solution. But for the first and only time in the game, I felt genuinely conflicted. And I still do.

Spoilers follow, but they’re pretty minor ones. This is your warning.

Years ago I took The Moral Sense Test after reading about it in The Three-Pound Enigma. I recommend both the test and the book strongly.

In the years that it’s been refined since, the Moral Sense Test might be a lot different than I remember, but its objective was to place the test-taker in situations of increasingly complex ethical obligations, for the sake of studying their reactions.

For instance, in one situation you’d see a train about to crash into a boulder on the track. You’re operating the switchbox, and can throw to lever to cause the train to change tracks, missing the boulder and saving the lives of everyone on board.

Do you throw the switch?

Well, yes. Clearly you do. Ethically, that is your obligation.

So the test ramps up the complexity from there. Let’s say that if you throw that switch, the train will hit a cow on the other track. The lives of everyone on the train will be saved, but the cow will die.

Maybe the solution is still easy, so let’s say it’s not a cow, but a human child whose foot is caught in the tracks. Now do you throw the switch?

Let’s say it’s not a boulder, but it’s a group of 20 people. Throwing the switch saves them, but at the cost of the lives of the 10 people who are standing on the other track. Sure, 10 is fewer than 20, but can you ethically kill 10 people who would have been safe otherwise to save 20 who were naturally in danger?

…and things got even hazier from there. It was a great test. If you enjoy being driven insane, take it. (Oh, and you’d also be helping the researchers out a great deal, as well.)

Fallout 4, through a quirk, plopped me in the middle of a small-scale Moral Sense Test. And I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

At one point in the story, you discover an organization known as The Institute. Up until this point you’ve heard horror stories about them. You’ve seen the damage their technology has done. You’ve seen the fear in the faces of the people you meet. You’ve heard the rumors of The Institute’s enemies disappearing…and innocent people being replaced by robotic substitutes. Deliberately or not, The Institute has become emblematic of everything the residents of the Wasteland fear.

Then you find The Institute yourself, and you can hear them out. Their methods are flawed, certainly, but you may conclude that they’re also necessary. Many friends of mine played the game and chose to side with them, deciding that the ends justified the means, with The Institute being a terrible force that was still humanity’s best hope.

I didn’t decide that. I threw my hat in with The Railroad, a small, underground (literally) group of agents working to take The Institute down.

No real ethical issues here; just a choice. Do you think The Institute is humanity’s best hope? Side with them. Do you think it’s not? Side with The Railroad. Simple.*

I sided with The Railroad. And since I had visited The Institute and lived to talk about it, they had a great asset in me: I could work undercover. Whatever they needed done within Institute walls, I could come and go as I pleased. It was a win all around, so I kept doing quests on behalf of The Railroad, bringing The Institute down piece by piece. All I had to do was follow Railroad instructions while paying Institute lip service.

Again, a choice; not a dilemma.

Then, all at once, The Railroad had nothing for me to do. Or, to be more clear, they had plenty for me to do, but they had to bide their time. It was important that I stay in the good graces of The Institute, so they told me to keep working with it. That was my only mission; keep helping The Institute until I received further instructions.

It had to seem like I was siding with The Institute, which raised, gradually, the question of how long you can pretend to be something without becoming that something…a question of well-intentioned infiltration that Kurt Vonnegut explored beautifully in Mother Night.**

How thoroughly can you aid the Axis without becoming a villain yourself, even if you’re doing so in the name of the Allies? How is leaking intelligence to the good guys more important than the fact that you’re gathering it for the bad guys?

It’s a deep and impossible question to answer, even though it’s a fascinating one to explore.

My ethical dilemma came when The Institute asked me to track down a scientist it wished to draft for their cause. Easy enough, except that when I got there, there was a standoff in progress. The scientist was holed up in the destroyed shack you see above. Institute troops were there, ready to drag him off kicking and screaming.

Ethics check: is it worth forcing this innocent man into the hands of the enemy in order to stay in the enemy’s good graces? Is his happiness — and potentially his life — worth my chance to win this war?

To my mind, yes. It was worth it.

Sadly, it wasn’t that simple.

Another group known as The Minutemen showed up to protect the man from The Institute. The Minutemen were a small militia that existed because I helped it to exist. I built it. It was a defunct organization that I resurrected; a loose group of armed survivors who traveled the Wasteland, responding to calls of distress, and helping those who needed it the most.

My precious Railroad — my ethical compass — was far away in a basement somewhere. It was a choice only I could make, and I had to make it now. I could side with The Institute and not only drag this guy away but make enemies of The Minutemen, or I could side with The Minutemen, protect this guy, and make premature enemies of The Institute.

The game offered me a peaceful solution. It almost always does, if you can pass a speech challenge. Fortunately I’d built a character who was great at weaseling his way out of things, so I tried to convince the scientist to go peacefully with The Institute.

The speech challenge failed. He was terrified. He didn’t want to go, and The Minutemen were there to help him.

Then I tried to convince The Minutemen to stand down.

That speech challenge failed, too. My silver tongue meant nothing to them when compared to the terrified scientist’s screams for help.

There wasn’t another way out. I could fight The Institute’s troops, or I could fight The Minutemen. If I fought The Institute I’d kill a bunch of bad guys, but lose the chance to defeat them for good. If I fought The Minutemen I’d kill a bunch of good guys — the exact same good guys I’d inspired to become good guys — just to keep up appearances.

I had a robotic companion with me. Codsworth; one of only two characters in the game that remembers you from before the war. From before the world changed. From when you used to be another person entirely.

I tried everything to find another way out.

There was no other way out.

It was a standoff. There was going to be gunfire. I had to choose a side.

I pulled out my pistol and killed The Minutemen. They weren’t even hostile to me. Their names were in green, signifying that they were friendly. They saw me as an ally. And why wouldn’t they? I’d inspired them to fight for truth, justice, and the American way…and then I killed them because I had to keep up a lie.

A little notification appeared on the screen. “Codsworth hated that.”

I hated it, too, Codsworth. I still do.

The Institute dragged their scientist away to his new fate. At my feet were the bodies of good and brave men who died at my hand, for doing what I told them it was right to do.

I’ve played a lot of video games over the years, but never before had one made me feel so alone.

—–
* There are other factions to choose from, so I’m deliberately simplifying things here, but, ultimately, the choice is to side with or against The Institute. The other factions all take an oppositional role.

** Read it if you haven’t. It’s Vonnegut’s best, and one of my favorites.

Game Art, Matt SainsburyReleasing next week, Game Art is a directly-titled look at one of the most indirect forms of art out there. In fact, if I wanted to take issue with the book, that’s where I’d point; the title’s simplicity almost seems to do a disservice to the depths plumbed within.

To put it as succinctly as I can: I very much enjoyed this book. So much so that it took me several weeks to write this review. It’s easy to get drawn into, and when you manage to pull yourself away there’s so little that it feels like one can add to it. It’s a perfect study of a traditionally unstudied medium, and it’s hard to put any of this better than the author — or his interviewees — already did.

I received a review copy from Matt Sainsbury himself. I mention that by way of dual disclaimer. Firstly, I got the thing for free, which is always good to know…but by this point I hope you realize how much I hate all things, generosity included, so that wasn’t about to shape my opinion. Secondly, I know Matt. But I know Matt, primarily, as a writer. As a critic. As someone who has been doing exactly what he does in this book for the past several years. If my opinion of Game Art is enhanced in any way by my knowledge of Matt, it’s because his body of work has earned that respect.

Game Art feels like the culmination of a passionate lifetime of independent study and appreciation. It’s an oddly magical journey that gives respectful, gallery treatment to the kind of art that so frequently flits along in the background while somebody tries to survive a gauntlet or solve a puzzle. And it’s pretty incredible stuff.

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Quite why game art (lowercase) gets the short shrift, I’ll never know. It’s in the same boat game music was in a few decades ago; creations by talented people that were not perceived as legitimate works. In the case of game music, the rise of OverClocked ReMix did much to grant retroactive legitimacy to these compositions. It provided a platform for other artists to pay homage to and develop upon the source material, and it opened a path to reappraisal and rediscovery.

Game art, oddly, has not had the same opportunity. As graphics improve massively year over year — and as games are often derided for not looking good enough — there’s a stunning lack of appreciation for those images as art. They’re a box to be checked, and then the world moves on to judging the next one against some cold, arbitrary scale.

Matt opens the conversation for reappraisal with Game Art, quite literally. Because in addition to presenting some stunning imagery, he gets in touch with the artists and game designers that put these visuals together, and does something unthinkable: he asks them to talk about it.

The result is a guided tour through underappreciated works by those who labored to create them, and there’s an overriding and charming sense of humility in the words of just about every interviewee. These aren’t artists who demand to be noticed or even understood. These are creators speaking about their processes of creation, and it’s a beautiful read.

In fact, the book could have functioned perfectly well in either of two ways. It could have been a big, glossy, quiet showcase of in-game and concept art worthy of a second look. It could also have been a collection of interviews with the unsung artists behind the games we love and a few we’ve forgotten.

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Instead it’s both, which is why it’s so hard to put down. Read a few interviews, and get lost for minutes on end in the companion visuals. Find an image that draws you in, and dive immediately into the words of the artist who created it. It’s not just a great way to understand and experience game art; it’s a companion to itself.

Most importantly, familiarity with the games themselves isn’t necessary to appreciate the book. While I’ve played a few of the games covered here, I can safely say that I missed out on the majority. The conversations, though, are about larger topics. Like these comments from Michael Samyn, who has five games featured in the collection, regarding the somewhat limiting interplay between his role and the programmers’ in putting a game together:

If you want to get really creative, you’re up against a wall all the time thanks to the rigidity of the programming. Artists have very complex logic of their own; it’s just that their minds work differently than a programmer’s. I do think that’s perhaps another reason there aren’t as many interesting games from an artistic point of view.

He then goes on to discuss a — potentially exciting — aspect of artistic design that’s very specific to an interactive medium like video games:

The player not only has the imagination to complete the work, as they would with a movie or book, but they can actively change the narrative itself. We also like to make our games rich so players can express themselves and do things depending on how they feel. That means we can’t really finish a game like you would finish a book or a movie.

These aren’t conversations that require a specific frame of knowledge to understand; these are unique and valuable insights into the nature, obstacles, and experiences of the creative mind.

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Game Art is at once an easy read and deceptively dense. It’s difficult to speak concretely about it, because much of what the book does is get your own mind working. When, as above, a question of leaving room for audience interplay is raised, it’s conducive to independent thought. It gets your mind working as a reader, if only because these are concepts that haven’t been explored in the public consciousness before. These are considerations that are familiar to those creating within the industry, and regularly glossed over by those enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Matt’s bridging of this disconnect feels long overdue, and the fact that it’s handled in such an appealing, gorgeously visual tome is, frankly, more than we deserve. It’s the sort of book that’s impossible to read without being at least mildly envious of the author for identifying such a massive gap and paving over it so perfectly.

I’ll remind you again that Matt’s my friend. He’s a great guy. And I’ve interviewed him here before in the early stages of the project. But none of that shapes my opinion of the final product. It doesn’t make me like it so much as it makes me appreciate all of the time and the effort that I know has gone into this. It’s a book that very much succeeds on its own merits, and absolutely lives up to its ambition.

If you have any interest in games, visual arts, interactive arts, or the creative process in general, Game Art is very much worth your time. It’s also a handsome enough volume that it makes for a great gift.

It’s available on Amazon and from No Starch Press directly. The latter offers it as an ebook for an outright psychotic $32, though, so, seriously, pitch in the extra few dollars for the physical version.

Here’s hoping Game Art is able to elevate the levels of appreciation and discourse when it comes to…well, game art. It’s a welcoming, inspirational, and by no means exhaustive way to open the conversation. It’s our job to keep it going.

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