Alas, poor Isabeau

Isabeau, Shin Megami Tensei IV

In a few days we’ll be playing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Well, I say we, but really I’ll have to wait a bit as I’ll be out of the country for a few weeks. So it’s actually everyone but me, and I think you’re all jerks.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is one of my favorite role playing games of all time. It may well be one of my favorite games of all time. It’s not perfect, but I never asked it to be. I bought it expecting a fun and hopefully engaging adventure. I ended up with one of the most unexpectedly profound narrative experiences gaming has given me.

In spite of its actual flaws — a confusing map screen, unclear objectives, repetitive side quests — it’s a work of hideous beauty. It’s a dark, dismal meditation on free will, on identity, on the very concept of progress, both in the game and in reality. (The more advanced society, ironically, is the backward one.)

It also has one of the all-time great gaming soundtracks, so even if you don’t want to think you can sure as hell rock out.

Impressively, its most significant — and rewarding — plot twist comes at a very early point in the game. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll know it when you get there, and it’s a very brave thing to play your trump card so early in a long experience. A lesser game — or team of artists — would have saved the reveal for a more structurally climactic moment. Shin Megami Tensei IV lets you get just comfortable with what you think the game is, then plunges you into something very different, leaving you, like the character you control, to wonder what the fuck, exactly, you’re doing.

There are also a few perceived flaws in the game that, for my money, actually enrich the experience, and help Shin Megami Tensei IV to make its point in ways it wouldn’t be able to if things were ironed out. Two of these “problems” are interlinked, at least in a thematic sense. First, it’s the hamfisted characterization. Second, it’s the game’s odd approach to determining your alignment.

The characterization thing is bunk. The alignment thing is…less bunk, so we’ll deal with that second.

When people point fingers at the characterization in Shin Megami Tensei IV, they’re pointing at Walter and Jonathan. Those are two of your companions throughout most of the game. They pop up to give advice, to express their feelings about certain decisions, and to help you fight. Beyond that, they serve as little more than a devil and angel on either shoulder, suggesting what your next move should be.

And people say that their characterization is flimsy. They’re both right and wrong. When they’re right, however, they’re missing the point.

Neither Walter (Chaos) nor Jonathan (Law) are nuanced characters, but they also shouldn’t be. They can’t be. That’s not their purpose, and adding nuance would only interfere with their purpose.

They need to exist in order to show you the extremes of the two alignments. That’s what they’re there for. By giving Walter second thoughts about betraying the samurai code, or some such thing, you’d be dismantling him as a signpost for Chaos. By allowing Jonathan to concede that the social structure of his home kingdom is unfair, unsustainable, or untrustworthy, you, as a player, would then need to doubt his devotion to the Law path.

Walter and Jonathan both represent flawed individuals in the sense that they are steadfastly, unthinkingly, innately devoted to their paths. There’s not a rulebook that Walter doesn’t tear up and Jonathan doesn’t respect. This idea is reinforced over and over again, with neither of the two being painted in particularly flattering colors.

The odds are good that you’ll agree with Jonathan’s peaceful solution in one case, and find it frustratingly naive in the next. You’ll side with Walter one time that he suggests that someone can’t be trusted, but wish he’d shut up about it the 50th time, when he has no particular reason to doubt that person’s intentions.

You’re supposed to know who they are, and you’re supposed to get angry with their reluctance to give. Softening Walter or educating Jonathan wouldn’t allow that to be possible. If either of them struggles with internal conflict, there’s no reason for you to struggle with them externally. They need to be devoted entirely to what they believe in, because they need to stand in stark contrast to you, the player, the individual, the actual breathing living human being who can’t possibly side with either of them all the time.

You want nuance? You are the nuance. You are the deeper character, trapped between two poles of natural, eternal conflict. Which, hey, when you think about it, is the entire theme of the game. What do you know? Maybe that choice of simple characterization was deliberate and meaningful after all.

(Also, it’s telling that complaints about characterization ignore the mass of non-companion characters that do have deep — if only oblique and suggested — backstories, drives, and desires, such as Hope, K., Fujiwara, Hugo, Tayama, Aquila…hell, even the towns you visit have unspoken histories that unfold detail by detail the more you dig and explore.)

Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t deepen Walter and Jonathan because it doesn’t want to. It’s not that it can’t; other games in the series (and especially in its celebrated spinoff series, Persona) have characters that are large, that contain multitudes. That fact — and the presence of other rich characters in this game — is your clue. If these characters are not deep, it’s because there’s a purpose to their shallow natures.

And that purpose has to do with your alignment.

It’s up to Walter to side with the forces of Chaos every time. It’s up to Jonathan to be unflinchingly devoted to the Law. But everyone else in the game, including those anonymous residents you’ll meet in the most hellish places imaginable, is somewhere in between. You see those who live in relative comfort, which is only possible because they’ve allowed themselves to adapt to Chaos. You see those in low places, lost, without hope, who yearn for the chance to build up the exact same kind of Lawful society that collapsed and damned them in the first place. You see one particular character who seems to exemplify Law, until you find out he’s addicted to the pleasures of Chaos, and sends you repeatedly out for forbidden artifacts just so he can indulge in private.

And throughout, you, quietly, make your decision.

You’re neither Walter nor Jonathan. You can’t be, because they’re unrealistically dedicated to their definitive solutions to trickier problems. You’re a human being. And you see the way other characters in these tragic civilizations live. Those who manage to survive, those who don’t, the tragic circumstances that define each of their existences.

And you try to determine how you’ll make things better, whatever that may mean to you.

At least, you think you do. Ultimately, the game makes your decision for you, based on your actions.

And, yes, I admit that it does so in a pretty frustrating way.

Choosing to side with Walter’s suggestions of how to proceed will gradually shift your alignment toward Chaos, and choosing to side with Jonathan will tip it toward Law. That’s easy and clear enough.

But there’s a third path. The path of Neutrality. Which is, essentially, the right path. It’s when you land directly in between the two extremes. You anchor them. You keep them both in check.

And it’s an extremely hard path to get.

In some respects, that’s okay. The best ending should be the most difficult to get. But it requires you less to adhere to a truly Neutral doctrine than it does require to you flit back and forth between allegiance to Walter and allegiance to Jonathan, which makes the Neutral path feel more like the Indecisive path. It also involves a lot of guesswork in figuring out the right way to proceed, because the Neutral personification, Isabeau, tends not to speak up.

Yes, there’s a third personified alignment on your team. And she’s why I’m writing this.

Isabeau is a great character. Not because she’s more realistic, exactly, but because her struggle is an exaggerated version of your own. While you can often find yourself in agreement with either the caustic Walter or the cautious Jonathan — and are many times forced to side with one of them — Isabeau never bends to either side. She sees both points of view, but doesn’t exactly accept — or dismiss — either.

She’s there. In the middle. Not knowing what to do. Deferring, often, to you, not only because you’re the player character, but because you are a lot like her. You also have some difficult choices to make, and there often isn’t an answer you agree with. The only difference between you and Isabeau is that you have to choose something anyway. Isabeau is always in a state of limbo.

I liked Isabeau. I also liked Walter and Jonathan, and many other characters. But it was Isabeau I felt something for, something a bit deeper than the default affinity you feel for a party member that doesn’t actively upset you. This was probably because she was the only character who seemed to lack agency. (She didn’t really; she’s just quick to surrender it.) But whatever the reason, the game delivered a terrible gut punch toward the end, when I had to kill her.

Characters die in games. Characters that we like. Characters that we’re invested in, either in terms of our time or our emotions. Heroes leave to conquer, and not all of them come home. We know this.

But we don’t often have to kill them. Especially those we agree with. And yet Isabeau, if you end up on either the Chaos or Law path, must die by your hand.

Suddenly the opaque restrictiveness of the Neutral path, the monumental unlikelihood of finding yourself there, makes sense. You’re supposed to fight her. And it’s supposed to hurt.

This may not be the decision you’d like to make, but it’s one you have to experience. It’s something the game wants to put you through. Maybe, just maybe, so that the next time you’ll play it, you’ll work so much harder for the Neutral path, just to avoid having to do it again.

Isabeau isn’t a difficult opponent.

She barely even fights.

You encounter her as you set off on your game-ending journey to buoy either the forces of darkness or light.

She can’t abide either.

She never could.

And now she stands in your way. Not because she expects to win. Not because she wants to fight. Not even because she wants you to fail.

But because she has to. Because she’s opposed to both Chaos and Law, and if you’re either…well…she knows she needs to die by your hand, because she can’t bear to watch you go down those paths.

It’s not a pleasant scene. It hurts to witness. It feels wrong to push the buttons that tip the fight, turn by turn, even more steeply in your favor. When you also have to fight either Jonathan or Walter later — depending on who you sided against — the emotions involved are not as complex. They each represent, after all, by design, the polar opposite of the path you’ve chosen. (Again…deliberate characterization, as this wouldn’t work with shades of grey.) They’re also each bolstered by supernatural strength, and they put up incredibly demanding fights.

Isabeau isn’t, and doesn’t.

Isabeau falls.

She’s nothing special.

She has no tricks up her sleeves.

The only time she’ll hurt you at all is when she slumps over, half-dead. Her portrait appears, bloodied by your sword.

She has something to say.

She never wanted to fight. But you chose a side. And this is what had to happen.

No matter which path you pursue, innocents will be hurt. You know that. Those are the main stakes of the game. You’re reminded of that at every juncture.

But those innocents are collateral damage. They die, whoever dies, in the service of what you’ve decided is a greater good. They choke on fallout. They’re injured by debris. They’re mowed down by the force of cosmic war. They die indirectly.

But Isabeau, the most pragmatic, rational, respectful character in the game, is the one you must slay face to face. Hers are the eyes you must look into as she dies, her blood staining your weapon.

The Neutral route is so difficult to find because you have to see this first.

You have to see this.

And you have to ask, “What the fuck, exactly, am I doing?”

Pop Questions: What the Hell is Wario Doing?

Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins

I had a Game Boy as a kid, and I loved it. Hell, I still love the Game Boy. There were too many great games available to list here, but one that I certainly played endlessly was Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. I had the first Super Mario Land as well, but it always felt a little…off to me.

The sprites were too small. The fireballs bounced. Invincibility stars played the can-can music. It was just…weird. Like falling into another dimension and playing their version of a Mario game.

But Mario Land 2 was great. It looked (and looks) gorgeous. The branching paths and secrets felt perfectly designed for the series as I knew it. It contained this song for fuck’s sake. I played it constantly.

And I don’t just mean I picked it up and beat a few stages. I mean I completed it. Over and over and over again. As an adult I’ve revisited it, and while it’s not the game I quite remember it being, all of that childhood charm came rushing back to me.

…but so did a question.

Here is that question:

What the absolute hell is Wario doing at the end?

Wario — who you probably know by now from other games and spinoffs — is the evil converse of Mario. He’s greedy and hoards coins, unlike Mario who…

…anyway, point is, he’s bad. So at the end of the game you run through the fortress he stole from Mario and beat him up. Easy enough.

But then…well, watch the fight if you like, but feel free to skip to 1:28.

And what the hell does he do after Mario defeats him?

He shrinks. I get that. Mario does the same thing (usually) when he takes damage.

Then he cries. I get that. He’s a selfish bastard who just lost his castle. (Well, Mario’s castle. Why, exactly, is Wario demonized for wanting the kind of impenetrable fortress Mario himself already had? Why is Mario the hero and Wario a villain to be vanquished if they both craved the same exact kind of power? Okay…another Pop Question at some point then…)

But then he…throws a projectile of some kind. It doesn’t hurt Mario. Wario makes a silly face and runs off.

…I don’t get that.

What actually happened?

What did he throw?

This is the very end of the game…Wario’s final gesture of defiance…the last word from our fallen adversary…and I have no idea what it is.

It looks like no other item in the game. Part of me wants to assume it’s his hat, as you see the hat disappear before he throws whatever he throws.

…but Wario’s hat doesn’t look like that. His looks like the kind of ballcap Mario always wears, and this item looks a lot more like Link’s Phrygian cap.

Then I wondered if it’s Wario’s shoe…but it’s completely the wrong size for that, and it still doesn’t explain why the hat disappears. Granted, the coloring of the sprite’s feet changes, so that could represent a shoe being removed, but then where is the other shoe?

Or is it something else entirely? I honestly have no idea what Wario does here.

It’s clearly something cheeky, but I must have finished the game 30 times as a kid and I’ve done it a few more as an adult, and I still have no idea what in the world Wario is doing here.

He throws something at Mario. The game plays a sort of collision sound that you wouldn’t expect from a soft item of clothing. It also doesn’t seem to phase Mario. Then Wario scampers off…his final rebellion a mystery.

So I ask you:

What the hell is Wario doing?

How to Get the Gold Key to the Tunnel Man in Spelunky

Spelunky, The Golden Key

So, Spelunky is great. Come on, you know this. If you don’t, go play it. It’s available on just about everything that doesn’t say “Nintendo” on it.

But only recently did I finally unlock the last shortcut in the game…the one that requires you to bring a golden key all the way from the Mines to the end of the Ice Caves. It’s a difficult task, because while you are holding the key you can’t hold anything else, or attack with your whip, and if you drop it into a spike pit or something…well, you need to start all over again.

To layer that challenge on top of Spelunky‘s already steep difficulty and randomly generated levels…and your own character’s comical fragility…well, let’s just say that it took me sporadic play over the course of several years to accomplish this.

Do I suck? Sure I suck! I suck less than I used to, but Spelunky is a game that continues to challenge even the best players, as its procedural generation algorithm requires every player to find a brand new strategy every time.

So, yeah, I suck. I’ll always suck. So will almost everybody who plays it.

That’s why I’m writing this guide for anyone who has as much trouble getting that key to the Tunnel Man as I did. I’ve never written something like this before, but when I looked for a resource that would help, I couldn’t find one. Mainly it was just people saying, “Keep trying.” Or “Just focus on getting better at the game.” And that’s good advice, but it’s not enough advice.

There’s a lot you can do, and be aware of, that will help you carry that damned key from the beginning of world one to the end of world three. And I’m going to provide actual, real, genuine, usable, helpful advice here, instead of the vague platitudes I usually see.

Transporting the key is hard. It always will be. When somebody asks for help, it’s because they already know that. “Get better” is meaningless to them.

So here are a few things they can do to make it easier.

Getting the Golden Key to the Tunnel Man

Exploit that First Room!

The first room is crucial for this run, as the key will never spawn here. That means that — mercy of mercies — you can play the game normally! So, y’know. Do that.

Explore 1-1 thoroughly. Grab every gem and bar of gold you find. Take it slowly and carefully. Eliminate enemies so they won’t trap you or surprise you later. Rescue the damsel for a (more or less) free hit point. You won’t need much money in this run, but having it helps, and this is the only guaranteed safe time to gather it. Don’t use bombs and ropes to get to inaccessible areas, though…not even for a damsel. You’ll need those tools later.

From rooms 1-2 through 1-4, the key can spawn. If it doesn’t spawn in 1-2, treat that room the same way. Explore it thoroughly, gather everything you can, save the damsel, and don’t use up your bombs and ropes. If it doesn’t spawn in 1-3, do the same thing there.

Once the key does spawn, wherever that is, your strategy needs to change immediately. Use however many rooms until that point to rack up your money and scratch your explorational itch. Once you have the key, though, you need to be all business.

Remember Your Mission…

This is important, and it’s difficult at first to remember. Long before you’re asked for the key, you “learn” to prioritize certain things. Gem collection, fighting monsters, rescuing damsels, and so on. But when you’re bringing the key to the Tunnel Man, that’s all you’re doing. Every other objective should be pushed out of your mind.

Don’t worry about anything else. Let huge caches of gems go uncollected. Let the damsel scream for help. Leave that giant spider alone. Do nothing aside from finding the exit in each stage. You never know when something that looks ripe for the picking turns out to have a spider dangling over it or a spike pit beneath it. All it takes is one unfortunate jump or misstep to end your run, so ignore everything that isn’t an immediate threat.

Also, if it’s not obvious, don’t go looking for the Haunted Mansion or the Black Market or the Mothership or any of those other secret areas. Worry about them later. Never, ever worry about them at the same time as the key.

…Except When These Things Happen

Sometimes it will be worth deviating from that rule, though. This is where risk management comes in, and as any Spelunky player knows, risks often refuse to be managed. That’s why you need to make sure every risk you take, no matter how small it seems, is worth it.

In other words, assume everything you do will go wrong and kill you. Is that gold bar worth grabbing under that assumption? Of course not. Is that compass? Maybe…because if by some quirk you do survive, you’ll be much better equipped to finish the mission.

So deviate when deviation increases your odds of delivering the key, but deviate only then. We’ll discuss which items are worth the risk next, so for now let’s focus on some other pickups.

Damsels can be worth the extra hit point when you see one in an easy to access location near the exit. Since you can’t carry both a key and a damsel, it’s not worth taking one to the exit and then backtracking for the other unless you can do it quickly and without incident.

If you can’t, don’t bother. You’re weak, and it’s not worth risking health for the chance at another hit point…nor is it worth losing the key for good.

Money shouldn’t be gone out of the way for. You’ll earn enough just walking from the entrance to the exit, since we won’t be buying much in this run anyway. The same goes for chests. If you encounter them on your path, grab them. If you don’t, don’t.

Crates may be worth the effort, as you’re guaranteed either some bombs, some ropes, or a utility. Unless reaching a crate requires you to navigate tricky enemies or use more than one bomb (assuming you can spare one in the first place) to reach it, in which case you should ignore it. But if you can get there safely (and get back out again) go for it.

Items Worth Grabbing

Shops will spawn at unpredictable intervals throughout the run, so if you see one, try your best to at least get a glimpse of what they’re selling.

The compass guides you to the exits, so that’s worth going out of your way for if you see one. It allows you to make a beeline that can complete the run in just a few minutes, it’ll keep you out of treacherous corners of the map that you don’t need to be in, and it will help you enormously in dark rooms. It’s the most valuable item you can find in this run, bar none.

The climbing gloves are also valuable. These will allow you to grab onto sheer vertical surfaces, increasing mobility and eliminating most fall damage. It also renders the ropes in many cases redundant, which is a good thing, as it’s one less item to worry about.

Capes and parachutes also help with fall damage, but for this run they’re a bit more limited in their utility.

Spiked shoes are handy for dispatching enemies, but not worth going out of your way for.

…and that pretty much covers it. Basically anything you can equip without having to hold (being as you can only hold the key) is fair game, but aside from the compass, and maybe the climbing gloves, nothing was especially helpful to me.

If you have money left over, buy any bombs that the shops have, and then any ropes. And ignore those beautiful weapons you wish you could carry; you’re stuck hauling the key.

The Key is Your Weapon. Be a Pacifist.

On the bright side, though, the key is a weapon! You can kill things with it pretty easily, it’s thrown just like a rock or pot would be, and you can pick it up again as many times as you like.

…in theory. It can also be crushed by falling stones or boulder traps. It can fall onto a bed of spikes. It can slip into piranha-infested waters. It can tumble into bottomless pits. So while you can fight with it, follow this advice instead: don’t.

Pressing up or down will allow you to see a bit of what awaits you in that direction, and that can help when deciding whether or not to toss the key at an enemy or an arrow trap, but whenever possible you should set the key down carefully and pick up something else to throw. (Obviously remember to pick up the key again before moving on, or you will say a very loud curseword.)

Don’t use the key as a weapon, as tempting as it is. Maybe this is a lesson everyone has to learn the hard way. Maybe you’ll do just fine with it until you’re in the last room of the Ice Caves and so confident slinging the key around that you sling it right off the bottom of the screen just before the exit. Maybe that’s the way you need to learn this one.

But if you’re willing to take a piece of advice from a stranger, take this: guard the key. Treat it as a fragile object, even though it’s not. Place it carefully, and never take more than a few steps away. It’s the one and only thing you need for this run, so treat it accordingly.

Embrace Ideal Circumstances

The random nature of Spelunky means you won’t ever play the same game twice. But it also means that some runs will be extraordinarily difficult, while others will be much easier.

I want to break down what an “easy run” (relatively speaking) looks like, because I think it’s important to be able to recognize one. When you see that you’ve been dealt a hand that gives you something of an edge, you’ll want to play more carefully, because you know that it could be a long time before you get as lucky again.

I won’t take into account enemy and trap placement, since there are too many variables there to even give an overview, and since you’ll know at a glance what looks good (few enemies and traps) and what looks bad (shitloads and fucktons of enemies and traps).

Good Circumstances:
– A first level that does not require ropes or bombs in order to explore the whole thing.
– Golden key does not spawn until level 1-4, giving you more time to collect money, items, and damsels.
– Shop spawns in the Mines, carrying a compass.
– Multiple levels spawn damsels near the exits.
– Kissing booths.

Bad circumstances:
– Levels with “trap rooms” that force you into using bombs or ropes to escape.
– Golden key spawns in 1-2, especially after a 1-1 that didn’t provide you with much money.
– Weapon shops spawn instead of item or clothing shops.
– Dark levels. (These can end a key run on their own, no matter how good you’re doing otherwise.)
– Shopkeeper gets angered by something you didn’t do.

Dark levels are the only variant levels that really affect things one way or the other. Snake, spider, and restless dead levels just require you to be aware of certain enemy types, and shouldn’t change your strategy at all. Rushing water levels just mean you should be even more careful about throwing your key around, but you shouldn’t be doing that anyway.

If you have a compass, dark levels are much easier. But no matter what, juggling the torch and the key is a nightmare. Run straight for the exit and hope for the best, knowing you probably won’t experience the best. And that that’s okay.

Take it Carefully

Don’t rush. You might see the exit, but do you see that boomerang guy waiting to whack you? You might see the key, but do you see that cobra spitting venom just offscreen? You might see that damsel, but do you see that you can’t get back out of her little alcove without using a rope that you may not be able to spare?

Always survey the area thoroughly, and don’t run headlong into what looks like a safe area unless you know it’s a safe area.

This is especially important in the Jungle, which is easily the most dangerous part of the run. It’s also why you’ll want to make sure you didn’t use up your bombs before this. If you see the exit directly below you, it may be worth blasting your way through rather than navigating a series of death traps or man-eating plants to get there.

Take every opportunity to examine your surroundings and figure out the safest way through. Don’t take unnecessary risks. And don’t even worry about the ghost. You’re moving toward the exit, remember, and the levels are small enough that she will never have time spawn if that’s all you’re looking for.

Don’t Miss the Key!

The key (and chest) will always spawn in either 1-2, 1-3, or 1-4. You don’t need to look for it in 1-1, but you do need to look for it after that. If you miss it, it’s gone forever, so be exhaustive in your search.

Won’t that use up bombs and ropes, though?

Fortunately, no. The way Spelunky works is that every level (though maybe not once you get to the Temple) is generated in a way that provides a direct path from the entrance to the exit…one that does not require bombs, ropes, or fall damage to reach. In other words, there’s a clear, relatively safe path through every level; you just need to find it.

In the level in which the golden key spawns, you will either see it, the golden chest, or both along that path. This is all the more reason not to bomb your way through levels yet; you’d miss the key you’d otherwise see if you took the clearer route.

In my experience the key and chest usually spawn close to each other, which makes them easy to find…but of course be careful not to accidentally touch the chest after picking up the key. (I’ve done that. It’s not fun.)

If you see the chest and not the key, you’ll absolutely have to make sure you find the latter before leaving. You may need to use bombs or ropes in order to do so. If you use too many of them, though, or take damage while you’re searching, you’ll be in trouble for the rest of the run.


Don’t Be Afraid to Reset

Seriously. Don’t.

Better players of this game will read this advice and turn up their noses. Good. Fuck ’em. Because you’re not reading this to become a world champion Spelunky runner; you’re reading this because you just want to get the damned key to the damned Tunnel Man.

So don’t make it harder on yourself. Yes, ideally you’d be able to handle the entire run after having used all your bombs and taken a crapload of damage and encountered two dark rooms and angered the shopkeeper…

…but why do that? Recovering from those handicaps would be impressive, but focus on the goal at hand rather than some additional concept of what would an “impressive” run would look like. You can focus on those things — and should — after you deliver the key.

Until then, play it safe. Look for runs that hand you a compass and 20 bombs and four damsels. Reset ones that keep giving you teleporters and spectacles.

The random nature of Spelunky means that you could have many, many runs before you get the right mix of circumstances to push you across the finish line, so don’t be afraid to reset. If you reset the bad ones, you’ll have more time to focus on the ones that actually give you a shot at success.

If you used two bombs in level one, reset. If you didn’t save the damsel or took damage before finding the key, reset. If you’re at the end of the Mines and you don’t have enough of anything to make you feel confident about surviving the Jungle, reset.

It’s okay. Practice more, yes, because ideally you will be able to recover from setbacks like those, but remember: this isn’t about anything more than getting a key from point A to point B. The moment that no longer has a shot at happening, there’s no shame in going back to point A.

“Get better at the game” isn’t advice for getting the key to the Tunnel Man. So don’t feel as though you need to do both at the same time.

Good luck. And if you have any additional advice that’s worked for you, leave it in the comments.

Pop Questions: Sexual Violence and Incremental Outrage

Digital Devil Saga

A few years ago I discovered the Shin Megami Tensei series of video games. This was mainly due to the incredible Shin Megami Tensei IV, which I keep meaning to write about in depth here. I’m sure I will, at some point, but before that I’ll just say that it’s great, it’s inexpensive, and you should buy it.

Anyway, since playing that game I’ve been working through the previous titles in the series. There’s a lot more than three that preceded it, thanks to sub-series and side-series and spinoff games, and I’ve recently started working through Digital Devil Saga.

That’s also great and inexpensive and you should buy it, by the way, but that’s not why I’m here.

In fact, the entire, larger series is worth your time, serving as an incredible blend of philosophy, mythology, and characterization, giving you a much deeper and more rewarding psychological experience than most other games — RPGs or otherwise — could possibly deliver.

But that’s not why I’m here either.

Something odd happened when I was playing Digital Devil Saga a few weeks back, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s not something odd that happened within the game (though, I assure you, plenty of odd things happen within the game) but rather something odd that happened in my mind.

The game takes place in what’s suggested to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as the Junkyard. (I’ll be deliberately simplifying plot details here, so please don’t comment to clarify things; I want to avoid spoilers for folks who haven’t played it.) The Junkyard is in a constant state of war, with residents pledging their allegiance to one endlessly embattled faction or another, and fighting on its behalf.

At the start of the game, however, something happens that starts to tip the balance: a strange presence arrives on the battlefield, and Junkyard residents are suddenly overcome with a very literal bloodthirstiness. The war has changed. Instead of traditional warfare, the combatants have become cannibalistic. Adversaries don’t just fall; they are devoured.

That’s where you come in…fighting and gobbling up enemies to get stronger and stronger until — it’s implied — your faction, The Embryon, can conquer the Junkyard.

As you might imagine, such a world lends itself pretty easily to a dark, dismal, distressing narrative. Digital Devil Saga absolutely provides on that front.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that as a player you become numb to the violence, as there always seems to be a narrative wrinkle on the horizon to remind you of what you’re doing, and to make you question your role in what’s unfolding. But it does, in a gameplay sense at least, become routine.

You adapt. You understand that this is just the way this world works. You’re going to kill and consume others, because if you don’t do that they will kill and consume you.

There’s plenty even in my broad summary to ponder and question and consider from a philosophical and ethical standpoint…and I’ve indeed been considering a lot of it. But that’s all just background information for my main question.

At one point in the game, you enter the territory of another faction: The Maribel.

When you do, you hear various voices, whispering about your arrival, and what’s in store for you. For instance:

Voice: …At last. Our food is here…

It’s nothing you aren’t prepared for, given the context and the events of the game you’ve played through already. Again, you’re not numb to the horror of people killing and eating others, but you understand it by now. You expect it.

Then they start talking about Argilla, the lone female on your team:

Voice: I’ll devour her breasts…
Voice: Her ass is delicious…
Voice: I’m going to savor her legs.

…and then I was offended.

Not by the game, which had done and continued to do a great job of playing with my emotions and expectations — one of the most rewarding aspects of any Shin Megami Tensei game — but by the characters.

That was my first awareness of incremental outrage. To fight and kill others is one level of wrong; to consume their corpses — as the game makes clear — is another. And now, on top of that, adding the intent to sexually abuse was even worse.

Of course, these statements reflect the literal eating of her corpse, but the sexually charged language is clearly deliberate, and meant to produce in the player a very specific association.

It was bad. It made me feel uncomfortable. It made me realize that the game was marking different degrees of wrongdoing, and making me feel them. It also made me feel pretty glad that I was going to kill these guys.

Which is about when I realized something else: these weren’t guys.

At least, they probably weren’t. The makeup of The Embryon and the other factions led me to overlook the fact that The Maribel was almost entirely female. The makeup of their faction was the inverse of mine.

And once I realized these were women saying those terrible things…it bothered me less.


It’s still sexual assault. It’s still, unquestionably, wrong. But why did the realization that women were planning these awful things bother me less than the idea that men were planning them?

Either way Argilla, my teammate, would be the target of sexual violence. Why did the fact that women were doing the targeting come as a relative relief?

It’s odd to me that I would feel incremental outrage that way. Isn’t sexual assault revolting, no matter who’s doing it?

Yes. I can answer that easily. But I’m also answering consciously. In the game, the first and only time I was in a situation in which I measured these horrors against each other, I subconsciously saw the female-led assault as less terrible.

I wouldn’t have thought about this at all if not for my own internal fakeout. Had I remembered that The Maribel were almost exclusively female (they have one token male, as The Embryon seems to have one token female), I would have felt disgust at the idea of sexual assault and never reconsidered it. But since I first thought men would be the assailants, and then realized it would be women, I was able to feel two distinct levels of discomfort. Why would that be?

It isn’t just me. We see this in the way the media treats teachers who sleep with students, and, of course, in the way audiences react to those stories. A male teacher sleeping with a female student is guilty of statutory rape and abusing his position of authority. Rightly so, and the reporting reflects that. A female teacher sleeping with a male student is instead subject to comments about her appearance, and, unfortunately, comments about how “lucky” the boy was.

In either case, it’s sexual assault. Yet these cases are not perceived or judged (in a social sense) equally.

And why is that?

Are we conditioned, in some sense, to feel repulsed by male attackers? That is to say, specifically male attackers?

We see it also in the debates about the bathroom laws now. While certain (idiotic) individuals believe that allowing transgendered individuals to use the restroom of their preference will trigger a flood of pedophilic activity to take place against their daughters, they seem blind to the fact these hypothetical pedophiles would already be sharing bathrooms with their sons.

Why the outrage in one direction, and not in another? Why does one possibility seem so heinous, while the other was just quietly permissible? In other words, why was one of these things okay in the sense that we never worried about it before, but this other thing so bad that we need to protest and put a stop to it immediately?

Once something goes “too far” and you feel your moral compass click, doesn’t that imply a line of acceptability? Anything prior to that failed to trigger that same outrage in you. Why?

Are we, as a society, subject to view abuse on a kind of spectrum? With “real” abuse happening in a situation that looks like this, and any abuse that doesn’t feeling less and less like real abuse the further away you get?

I find it interesting, and confusing. Would Argilla have felt relieved to any degree that her rapists would be female? Of course not. Are women who have those intentions less “wrong” than men who have them? Again, of course not.

And yet I had one kind of abuse — male on female — in mind, and felt outrage for it. When I realized it was another kind of abuse — female on female — I felt less.

Why is that? And what does it imply about us as a people?


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.


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.


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.


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?”


“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.

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