Sample Chapters

CHAPTER ONE: BLOOD BATH

Dexter’s body was bloated and blue by the time I found it floating in a bath of his own blood. One arm hung over the side of the tub, the slash on his wrist squinting at me like an evil, bloody eye.

Suicide.

It wasn’t my first dead body. It wasn’t my first suicide. It wasn’t my first discovery of a mangled loved one. But you never grow accustomed to sorrow.

Numbed by the surreal, dreamlike quality of the scene in front of me, I sat down on the lid of the toilet next to his husk. The day’s events began to whirl around me like a hurricane.

I had begun to suspect that something was wrong with Dexter when he failed to show up to work. He hadn’t returned any of my calls that day, and by the time I left the office, I was beginning to worry. It was worse than I could have imagined.

He had drawn himself a bath of his own blood.

Dexter and I had fought the day before. In the haze of tragedy, I couldn’t remember most of the specifics. Lately, he’d been taking a lot of time off work, tinkering with a few personal projects. I needed his brain; I needed him to program our game back at the office. He didn’t understand why I made a big deal out of deadlines. He never understood deadlines. That had been our last exchange.

It was a stupid way to end a relationship.

My whole world felt inverted. Earlier in the day, I’d been fretting over a list of bug fixes our middling video game company had yet to implement for an upcoming project. I’d been arguing with my programming team about whether or not we could efficiently stream video off a disc and cursing Dexter for playing hooky. Now, all that passion was drained out of me. Who cared if our game had a bug list as long as my femur? While I was at the office arguing about programming priorities, Dexter was in his bathroom opening his wrists.

His body must have lain there for hours before I finally made my way over to his house to check on him. I knocked on his front door three times without getting an answer, and started to leave – until a gnawing in my gut drove me back. Snatching the spare key from the doorframe, I let myself in.

Dexter lived alone, in a house too big for one person. He’d grown up in a large manor, and I think all the empty space made him comfortable. That night, the dark corners of his home overwhelmed me. How had he ever found peace in this place?

The living room TV had been left on. It splashed random colors across an empty couch. An ad for a local jewelry store spun out soft piano music.

“It’s what your loved ones deserve,” echoed a rich baritone.

There was no sign of Dexter. I wandered the house looking for a life that no longer existed. The bathroom door was shut. Through a crack between the door and the floorboards, I could see that the lights were on. A subtle but malodorous odor drifted under the door.

I rapped on the towering rectangle of wood in front of me.

“Hey Dex, you in there?”

No response.

I knocked a little louder.

“Dexter!”

Still nothing.

I tried the handle and the door creaked open.

The odd details are the ones I remember most. The floor’s noisy squeak as I stepped forward. My own distorted reflection in the bathroom window. The once white threads of a bathmat soaked pink as they broke above the surface of a red pool.

I didn’t see Dexter at first – he was invisible to me. All I could see was the deep redness of his bathwater. I knew there was something wrong with the scene, but I stared into the tepid bath for a long while before my brain was able to put the pieces together. I felt like my mind was running through sludge. I couldn’t process the colors and shapes in front of me. Then I looked into Dexter’s bloody third eye, and reality came into sharp focus.

My friend was dead.

He looked like a gutted fish. He had spread his life across the bathroom tiles. Bloated and blue. The razor blade sat on the island of his belly, in the middle of a red bath. Dexter’s blood had swamped the bathroom floor. One arm hung over the side of the tub. The open gash in his wrist winked at me as if I had just been hit with the punch line of a terribly offensive joke.

Numbed by the surreal dreaminess of the moment, I passed the rest of the night in a haze. There were phone calls, flashing lights, and EMTs. I remember the parts, but I don’t know how, where, or when they fit together. The TV remained on; playing an old eighties movie about a woman on a suicidal vengeance quest. The police brought questions and paperwork. The EMTs took the bloated, blue corpse away in a body bag. I left a half-brewed pot of coffee and a trash can full of vomit in the kitchen sink.

When there were no more questions or flashing lights, I was left with my memories and regrets, and the inescapable image of a winking bloody eye.

 

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When I was eleven, my grandfather took me sailing off the coast of his home in Branford, Connecticut. It was the last day we’d ever spend together. Half a century of sailing experience couldn’t save us from the storm that sprang up halfway through the day. We spent hours trying to get back to shore – rain poked our eyes as icy winds cut though the polyester of our windbreakers. A series of ten-foot waves turned our boat on its sails, and by the time the Coast Guards pulled me out, I’d lost sight of my grandfather. The Atlantic had swallowed him. His body was never recovered from the depths of the sea.

It’s the kind of memory that haunts a boy for his entire life.

I barely remember it.

From the moment that first strong wave sent me to my ass to the moment I woke up on a cot inside a Coast Guard’s rescue station, my memory is a blank slate. Like a spliced film, the scenes didn’t line up. There was nothing between the cold slap of ocean water and the warm scratch of a thermal blanket.

It was the first time I had experienced loss. It was my first lesson in the frailty of the mind’s recorder. My memories – especially the ones preceding a death – act like my grandfather’s wrecked ship. They are moments from my past that only exist as shattered images and sounds. Sometimes they sink into the night, disappearing with the waves. Sometimes they wash up on shore in fragments, cluttering my psyche. And sometimes they bring back extra debris – buried tragedies that I wish would stay lost in the brine.

I didn’t know it yet, but Dexter’s death would be this last kind of memory.

I remember a lot of things about Dexter. He was smart. He was funny. He hid his intelligence behind a goofy exterior. There was something irresistibly charming about the guy. Dexter was a freckle-faced computer programmer who’d inherited his short temper and drinking habits from his father. He was a math genius, an ambitious programmer, and a terrible golfer.

Once a month, we’d fire hollow, depleted uranium slugs at one another using electromagnetic rail guns – we played Quake at a doughnut shop turned LAN gaming center. We were bound together by our love of gaming. Years before, we’d both obsessed over hacking into various Bulletin Board Systems across the country. We loved discovering new games to play on those BBS boards. We would sneak into the college computer lab at night just so we could play multi-user dungeons using the schools servers.

After college, we decided to make our own computer games. We started a development house called Electronic Sheep. The name was Dexter’s idea of a joke. To everyone’s surprise, we had made enough money from our first project to keep the doors open. Now Dexter was gone and I’d have to run the company by myself.

I sat alone in the office and let these memories devour me. I hadn’t gone home the night before. My apartment scared me after dark, and I’d always been more comfortable at work. But even surrounded by the soothing hum of computers, I found no comfort.

I couldn’t sleep – that was not unusual for me. I often have trouble sleeping. Some call it a disease: insomnia, the sleeping disorder. I believe they call it that because one’s life must be out of order if they aren’t sleeping.

I call it penance – I don’t deserve the rest.

That night, I tossed and turned for hours on one of the couches in our lobby. When the sun rose, so did I. I retreated to my office, closed the door, and through the cracks in my blinds, watched people filter into the building. Outside my office door, I could hear the studio come to life as people went about their daily routines, making coffee, checking voicemail, and chatting about their adventures from the night before. Soon I would have to tell them that their boss was dead – that he’d killed himself.

I didn’t feel up to the task. How do you deliver news like that?

I stalled as long as I could, slow-cooking with anxiety. Sometime around ten in the morning, I couldn’t stand the heat in my pressurized office anymore, and I bolted from the room. A few animators looked up, startled to see me. No one had known I was in the building.

I cleared my throat like I had something to say. I did have something to say – I just didn’t know how to say it. A few more people looked up. I could feel the terror dripping off my face as I opened my mouth. Then I froze. The words I needed didn’t exist.

“I…” My voice squeaked out one barely audible syllable.

Our receptionist, Amy, came around the corner with a stack of mail. She slowed to a halt as she took in the scene. It was clear to everyone that I was about to make an important address.

“Good morning,” I belted out before turning on my heels and barreling down the hall.

I couldn’t talk to anyone about what had happened to Dexter. I didn’t even want to be thinking about it.

In my embarrassment, I slinked over to Shinji’s cubicle. It was the first place I could think to hide. Shinji Takeuchi was one of ESP’s senior programmers. Next to Dexter, he was our best. Quiet, reserved, and artistic, Shinji’s work was nothing short of genius. Raised in Japan until he was eighteen, Shinji’s tastes were definitively Japanese. His parents sent him to college in the U.S., expecting him to come home after completing his studies, but he’d become friends with Dexter at Cal Tech, and Dexter had recruited him for Electric Sheep.

Shinji worked out of one of the few cubicles in the office. He’d bought the unit himself a few years ago so that he could have privacy while working. I rapped on the side of his compartment, and leaned in. A small television seated on a chair in the corner of his work area played a rotation of Japanese anime that one of Shinji’s friends, had mailed over from back home. When I walked in, it was playing a show called Shin Seiki Evangelion.

A radio on Shinji’s desk whispered a J-pop group I had once mistakenly called a Japanese boy band. Offended, Shinji had given me a nasty look and grumbled for weeks about how “Chage and Aska” were not a boy band. Shinji remained highly focused under the bombardment of stimuli.

At some point, Shinji had replaced the lights above his desk with bulbs of a lower wattage. He preferred working in a dim enclosed space. As a result, the corners of his double wide cubicle were always dark. The lack of light didn’t seem to affect his work as Shinji pounded on his keyboard with the intensity a four-year-old might exhibit with a drum set. The display was almost magical. Lines of code flowed onto his monitor in quick bursts.

On an adjacent monitor sat an early build of one of our levels. I looked over the environment. The art team hadn’t passed over this level’s geometry yet, so the landscape looked like a cardboard model washed-out in grayscale. It would take someone who knew the project inside and out to envision what the finished level would look like. It was going to be our Viking level, but at the moment it resembled a snow-covered field at midnight.

“Hello, Jack,” Shinji said without missing a beat on his keys.

“Hey,” I replied, a little startled that he even knew I was there.

Did he wonder why I was there? He didn’t seem to care. Shinji was one of our first employees. It seemed reasonable that I should break the news about Dexter to him first. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

The sound of Shinji’s fingers against the keys was like a calming metronome. His fixed rain pats came with such a regular beat that it purred over all other sounds in his cube.

I glanced at his thirteen inch, fuzz-spackled TV. Onscreen, a military battleship slipped over glacial waters. From the safety of a glass cabin, two men looked out across a blood-stained sea. For no reason, I felt myself drawn to the show. Through my three-year, B minus study of Japanese, I tried to translate their dialogue.

“No life forms may exist in this world,” I deciphered. “In this dead world of Antarctica. We might even call it…Hell?”

I glanced at Shinji, his fingers pausing over the keys for a moment. Despite the foreign sounds coming from both the TV and radio, the room felt almost silent.

“How’s my translation?” I asked.

But Shinji was lost in a computer problem. Still enraptured by the scene unfolding on the television, I watched a second man, who wore rounded sunglasses, step forward.

“Nevertheless, we humans stand here,” said the man in glasses.

“Only because we’re protected by the power of science,” said the first man.

“Am I close?” I asked.

“You are close,” Shinji nodded.

He swiveled his chair toward me, snatching a can of Diet Coke from the edge of his desk as he robotically brushed a curtain of hair from his thin rimmed glasses. He didn’t say anything, but I finally had his attention.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I added. “I just came by to see how work was coming along.”

That was a lie. I have something important to tell you about Dexter, I thought, but I couldn’t manufacture the words.

“Yesterday I finished integrating some of the lighting and shadow techniques I’ve been experimenting with.” Shinji stared at me calmly. He had never been generous with information.

“Great,” I said flatly. The small talk was already boring me. I wasn’t going to tell Shinji about Dexter. I was just wasting time.

After a beat, Shinji turned back to his computer, and I started to leave when he added, “But I’ve recently discovered a problem with our AI routines.”

I turned back.

“What kind of problem?” I asked, but I didn’t really care. Work hardly mattered to me in that moment.

Shinji cleared his throat.

“A few bots have started opening up gated areas throughout the environment.”

In the world of video games, bots were programs designed to simulate a set of animated behaviors. Generally, they were a game’s enemies. Programmed with specific patrol routes, they would respond to a player’s actions with a quasi-random list of responses. If a designer did his job right, this quasi-random response would simulate real world intelligence. Like most toys, bots didn’t do much until a player interacted with them. Shijni had just told me that our AI had fallen off its rails and was running free. The toys were taking over the toyshop. It should have freaked me out.

Instead, I shrugged.

“They’re moving through the whole level?” I asked.

“Like rats in a maze.”

“How is that possible?”

“It’s not supposed to be.”

Shinji finished his soda and threw away the can.

“I’m looking into it,” he added.

I glanced over at Shinji’s right-hand display. He’d positioned an in-game camera above the level, giving him a wide, birds-eye view of our virtual ant farm. I saw one of our in game creatures grab a keycard it shouldn’t have been able to interact with, then open a door on another part of the level it shouldn’t have cared to enter.

“The game looks like it’s playing itself,” I marveled.

“And it’s getting faster,” Shinji added. “It’s learning how to run the maze.”

This situation was almost unfathomable. Most video games are filled with a series of events that programmers call gates. Essentially these are challenges that players need to overcome – set pieces that drive the experience forward. They vary in scope from simple combat scenarios to complicated environmental puzzles.

While designing these challenges, I try to ensure that both the goal and the events leading up to them are fun. It’s not hard to create an interesting goal for players; humans have an emotional reward system built into their psyche. Achievements naturally feel good. The hard part of game design is making the build-up to that solution feel rewarding as well. In real life, the process leading to a reward is called work. Essentially, a game designer has to make work feel like play.

There is a constant and growing pressure in every industry to stay fresh, but with games we are also fighting technology – a technology that constantly pins down the imagination. These technological limitations made Shinji’s problem all the more bizarre. Because no matter how much I would have loved for our artificial intelligence to be smart enough to interact with its environment in realistic ways, it wasn’t possible with any known technology.

“Who else has been working with the AI?” I asked.

“Just Dexter.”

I should have been suspicious then. But I didn’t know enough about Dexter’s suicide or its connection to our rogue AI at the time to think this was anything more than a programming fluke. My mild excitement twisted into sorrow as I remember my task. I had told the police that I would share the news about Dexter’s suicide with his friends and family. So far, it had been a burdensome secret.

 

CHAPTER TWO: SINS OF THE FATHER

I felt like I was approaching the back door to Hell as I drove through the wrought iron gates of the large Victorian-style estate. I was here to tell one of Electronic Sheep’s financial backers the news about Dexter. He deserved to hear about it in person.

Our silent partner was David Hayward – a man so rich he’d been born with a silver industrialist’s spoon in his mouth. David had studied engineering at Georgia Tech then business at Notre Dame, and by his late twenties had proved his genius in both by steering the family fortunes into the manufacture of machine tools. He made the machines that made machines.

Raised in a world of decadence, immorality, and lust, David assumed a carefree, playboy lifestyle. At the age of twenty-three he was married, by thirty-four he was widowed, at thirty-seven remarried, and by forty-one divorced. All the while, he kept a steady string of mistresses too numerous to list. As an avid mountain climber, polo player, and swimmer, he pampered his physique. At Notre Dame, he had even built up an impressive reputation as a boxer. Holding a six-foot-four and nearly two-hundred-thirty-pound frame, he was an imposing figure to all around him.

Even to his son, Dexter.

David had tried to instill a healthy work ethic in his son. He believed in honest work and self-made success, not living off your ancestor’s wealth. He forced his son to live out those beliefs. Dexter’s father had paid for his schooling, but the “charity” ended there. Any money Dexter received from his father after that had been a contractual loan. So when Dexter and I went looking for capital to start Electronic Sheep, we had to go through a mess of business dealings and paperwork to borrow his inheritance.

I had to tell this man that his son was dead.

The house was grand, modeled after a Victorian villa where David had spent a few summers during childhood. No expense had been spared during its construction: marble imported from Italy, decorative volcanic rock from Hawaii, Pagoda Trees from Japan, and a $50,000 handmade crystal chandelier from some obscure Czech manufacturer. I was engulfed by the manor the moment I stepped through its mahogany doors.

Nearly a dozen employees maintained the estate – four of which lived on the grounds. One of them, Mr. Hayward’s personal assistant, Emmerich, greeted me at the door and led me to the drawing room. Emmerich had the stately skittishness of a wild cat, but his mind was sharp. Despite the fact that I’d only met him seven months ago, during a lavish Christmas party, he remembered my name and was able to hold a brief conversation about my job.

I sat alone in the parlor while Emmerich went to find David. In the corner of the room stood a bar that looked to be well used. On the other side of the room was a mantle, heavily adorned with all sorts of business achievements, awards, and merits from charitable organizations. David dabbled in philanthropy, not because he cared, but because in the social circles of multibillion-dollar business moguls, it was a culturally chic activity.

The double doors leading to the patio were directly behind a grand piano. Through drawn curtains I could see an outdoor fountain, where a gardener was quietly trimming hedges. I found myself imagining what his life must be like. How did it feel to work with nature? To work with living things and to surround yourself with beauty? At a glance, his existence seemed so distant from my own – long days filled with digital software, cold math equations, and a string of lost loved ones.

The house itself was offensively spacious, and I was overpowered by a lonely gloom. My one bedroom apartment was big enough to create echoes. How did the wealthy live in the horror of such vacancy? A frost crawled down my spine.

“Care for some coffee, Mr. Valentine?”

Emmerich had returned, followed by a maid, who filled a cup and placed it in front of me.

“Thank you,” I said, dropping two sugar cubes into the fifty-dollar blend.

I slowly sipped from the cup. It was good – the taste of money.

The maid left the tray and silently retreated as David appeared in the doorway. He wore swim trunks. His hair was ruffled and damp. I knew David had a medium-sized indoor pool in addition to the outdoor water garden I’d admired from a portable Jacuzzi during last year’s Christmas party.

I had been waiting nearly fifteen minutes, but David spoke no quick apologies. After closing his robe over his barrel chest, he crossed the room. His even step reminded me of a horse’s strut. For a man journeying through his fifties, David was remarkably well-aged. He sat on the other side of the coffee table and rested one long arm atop the back of his couch.

I briefly considered apologizing for intruding on his life. I settled on, “Sorry for not calling ahead, Mr. Hayward.”

He smiled and waved me off while pouring himself a cup of coffee.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Valentine?”

I didn’t know how to approach the subject of his son’s death. His casual entrance made this whole visit seem inappropriate. I had always felt slightly intimidated by Dexter’s father, but the man’s current nonchalance made my task even harder.

I leaned forward. The easiest way to get through this was to just say it.

“This is about Dexter, Mr. Hayward.”

He looked at me – eyes widening – over the lip of his cup. I imagined he was dreaming up the kinds of disasters his son could have gotten into.

I don’t know how I ever got the words out.

“Your son passed away…”

I only know that somehow I did.

“…last night…”

The words left my mouth choppy and limp, but they must have landed like stones against a father’s ears.

“…he committed suicide.”

David’s arms snaked down the back of the couch. He glared at his coffee with an angry distaste. I couldn’t begin to imagine what he was thinking now.

I silently watched him for what felt like a very long time. I didn’t know what else to say, and he wasn’t moving. It was as though his brain had broken. He appeared to no longer be able to perform the most primitive speech or movement. He just sat there staring into the muddy liquid in the cup in front of him. Was that how I had looked as I stared into Dexter’s bloody bathwater? Was that how I looked as I searched for reason when all I felt was madness?

“What time is it, Mr. Valentine?” David asked abruptly.

Thrown by the question, it took me an extra few seconds to decipher the time from my analog watch.

“Almost eleven thirty,” I stammered.

He stood.

“You know, some mornings I find that coffee isn’t enough to get you through the day.”

He walked around the couch and behind me to the bar.

Emmerich, who had been quietly waiting in the corner this whole time, tried to intercept.

“Sir, allow me.”

David held up a hand to stop him.

“Emmerich, why don’t you go see how lunch is coming along.”

David’s tone was firm; it wasn’t a question. Emmerich’s body stuttered for a moment, but he knew how to deal with his boss when the man was upset.

He obeyed.

Behind me, I could hear the soft clink of ice tumble into a crystal glass as David poured himself a drink. I felt awkward. Should I turn around and face the man? Would that have been appropriate? I didn’t think I had the courage to meet him face-to-face anymore. I felt as though Dexter’s actions had humiliated me in his father’s eyes. I couldn’t bare the shame.

I sat in silence.

What was David doing? Was he looking at me? Was he waiting for me to turn around and face him? Did he want me to leave?

Suddenly, he asked the question I had feared.

“How?”

Such a small word, yet it required such a big and difficult answer. There were too many emotions involved to tell a whole story, so I stuck to raw facts.

“He…” My voice cracked, and I had to clear my throat. It was lumpy and dry. I took an eager sip of coffee, which burned my throat.

“He slit his wrists,” I said, without turning around. It was easier if I didn’t look at him.

“Where?”

“In his bathroom. In the tub.”

“When?”

“They estimate mid-morning. Yesterday.”

Why?

“You saw him?” David asked.

I suddenly realized that I was probably the last person to see Dexter before he took his life, and the first to find him afterwards. Was that important? Had Dexter planned that? Did that make me privileged? Did it make me more capable of understanding why he had done it?

“Yes,” I said.

We were silent again. I felt David’s eyes focused on the back of my head, but I didn’t turn around. I had nothing to offer him. He needed consoling, and I had my hands full with myself.

I heard more ice tinkling as David tipped back a second drink. He poured himself a third.

I stared at an old Asian rug in the middle of the room. It had been around since Dexter was a child. He had told me a story about spilling soda on that rug once. Something about a fat Italian cleaner and arguing about extra charges for a rushed job so it would be done before his father returned from a trip. I could still see a faint brown stain in the lower left-hand corner of the rug. It made me smile.

David finally walked back around the couch, and I had to quickly stuff down my expression. For a second I thought he’d caught me with it.

“Don’t worry about the service. I’ll arrange everything,” he said.

“Let me know if I can do anything.”

“Is there any other business you need to discuss?”

The temperature in the room dropped. Did I have any other business?

“I-I didn’t come here on business.”

But I hadn’t spoken loud enough.

“What?” he asked.

“No, that’s all.”

I stood. Grieving was the only thing on the agenda now, and I didn’t need to help with that.

“Sorry that I had to be the one to bring you the news.”

He waved off my last comment, and began rubbing the glass against his forehead. Two shrinking ice cubes swirled around the bottom, causing a small bead of condensation to drip onto the bridge of his nose. The bead rolled its way down to the crease of his lips. It was the only tear I ever saw on the man’s face.

Dexter’s father was about to fall apart. I had to leave.

“Have a good day.”

I cringed even as I said it. Then I sprinted for the door. My departure was not acknowledged. However, the sound of shattered glass chased me down the hall.

Emmerich emerged from another room off the main hall. He met me at the front door.

“Taking off already, Mr. Valentine?”

The stupid smile on his face pissed me off. How could anyone remain so detached from the events around him?

“I have to get going,” I said hurriedly.

He shook my hand and paid hollow consolation, which fell at my feet like broken offerings. I eagerly left.

Outside, in my car, I could breathe again. Though, I still didn’t feel up to facing any of my co-workers. Regardless of all that, I had a more pressing mission. Dexter’s father had reminded me that I didn’t know why Dexter had taken his life. I desperately needed to understand why he had killed himself. It was time to go stir up a few personal demons inside a dead man’s house.

 

CHAPTER THREE: DIGITAL GARBAGE

The house had been locked down and taped off by police, but I still had Dexter’s spare key from the night before. I let myself in. I’d been trying to wrap my mind around why Dexter would take his own life. It didn’t add up. He had a career he loved. He always seemed to bounce into the arms of women who looked like European supermodels. He had a vigorous body and healthy finances, despite his generous appetite in both areas. Most importantly, he’d had plenty of natural years left to enjoy all of it.

Why end it early?

Why had he left me alone?

I brooded while wandering the halls of his lifeless home. Dexter’s suicide had awakened some very powerful emotion. If his death had been an unfortunate mishap, the result of something like a car accident, at least I would have been able to understand why he was gone. Accidents happen. It was unfair, but accidents kill people. If he’d died as a result of some kind of genetic fuck-up like cancer, I could have dealt with that too. It would have been painful, but I understood why cancer kills. Cancer doesn’t think. It can’t rationalize. It can’t know how its actions are going to affect those involved. Cancer was never somebody’s friend.

But Dexter was.

I started going through some of Dexter’s things: his old photo albums. His old set of Thor comics. His old Atari collection. I was exploring old memories, getting lost in distant lands, far from real tragedies and real death. Looking back, I think that I’d hoped to piece enough of him back together to find some answers.

Hours passed while I searched through Dexter’s belongings. I wandered through my friend’s world, touching his possessions, trying to resurrect his ghost. Personal invasion didn’t seem applicable to a dead man. The sky dimmed. I became hungry. And I grew tired.

No, that isn’t right. I was always tired.

I didn’t bother turning on any lights. I was happy enough in the dark, and the dim illumination pouring in from the streetlamps lit the living room well enough. The house was close enough to the highway to be convenient, but far enough away from any main street that it created an eerie sense of solitude not easily found in big cities. This must have been why Dexter continually had guests – why he was always throwing parties – he was trying to push away the emptiness of night.

In the kitchen, I noticed the light on Dexter’s answering machine, and I hit the button. I heard my own voice play back.

“Dex, you there? Hey, it’s Jack. Haven’t seen you at work today. Just wondering if everything is okay. Are you sick? Give me a call.”

I wandered into the bedroom. It was a simple place. Dex had a vintage Dick Tracy poster framed above his bed. He’d often talked fondly of listening to those old radio shows with his late uncle. The king-sized bed filled most of the room –its sheets were ruffled and made out of habit, but very haphazardly. It was obvious that Dexter didn’t care anymore. I could hear the clock on his dresser tick away another minute. The closet doors were closed, and the shades to his windows were shut tight. The room was too Spartan to hold any important secrets. This was where Dexter slept. I needed to explore the place where he lived.

Down the hall, I entered another room. A work table sat in one corner, papers strewn about it in a deceptive mess. Knowing Dexter, there was an order to each pile. An unplugged Star Wars arcade cabinet sat in another corner. Dexter had saved up to buy one of those in college, but sold it six months later. Impulsively, he’d bought another one after we’d formed the company for almost five times the price he’d paid for the original.

The room was cramped. Dexter had a television hooked up to several video game consoles, a VCR, and a laserdisc player. He’d even cleared a spot for an imported Japanese machine that would play a new format called DVD. When he told me about it I had laughed, because he’d spent several thousand dollars to buy something that would only play movies in Japanese.

This was Dexter’s office. This was where he lived.

I went over and sat by the desk. Its surface was covered with so many action figures, music CDs, art books, and computer magazines that it was a marvel there was any room for Dexter’s state-of-the-art PC. Attached to his monitor was a Post-it note that read, “Like Pygmalion. All the power of life, but no strength to use it.” In college, Dexter had dabbled in writing poetry. He was always jotting down his ideas down in notepads and leaving half-finished stanza all over the house. He rarely wrote a whole poem anymore, but he was always leaving himself notes.

I pushed a model skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus-Rex to the side and started up Dexter’s PC. While I waited for Windows 95 to boot, I began looting Dexter’s file cabinet. It struck me that I should look for some type of journal. I had never known Dexter to keep a journal, but I prayed that he had tried to work through some of his emotions using either paper or processor.

The desk itself turned up nothing, save a business card from some professor at Stanford University, so I began looking at the files on his computer. It quickly became obvious that this task was ridiculous. Dexter never deleted anything. The assortment of files on his computer appeared unending: digital audio files, computer games, old college papers, saved emails, saved responses or forwarded emails, attachments to emails, Internet articles, his attempt to write a play, build notes and bug reports for old Electric Sheep games, Christmas shopping lists, power-point presentations, an old query letter Dexter had sent to Game Informer Magazine about the future of PC gaming, and a copy of the article that was never published.

I hadn’t scoured through half of Dexter’s files before my eyes felt raw. I love technology, but for one of the first times in my life it was pissing me off.

I had to wonder if it was healthy for human beings to hang onto this much information. The advent of the digital medium had created a society of electronic packrats. In the future, would the challenges of research become burdened by the amount of trivial, or even incorrect, data polluting our records? I was having enough trouble sifting through the digital garbage of one man – and it was a man I had known well.

What would happen as the networks between computers grew? When every person on Earth had voice to flood the information superhighway with conflicting facts? How would we know what was ultimately true? Then again, maybe these multiple viewpoints would give us a better perspective on the world? If our history books had all been relative truths, written by the single-minded eye of the victor, then our future history would be a Beholder’s gaze – a thousand-eyed perspective from the hive mind. I couldn’t decide what was better.

That’s when I came across a program simply titled Alpha Build. It was filed under something called Project Evi. The program had last been modified the day Dexter killed himself. On a whim, I booted it up.

The screen immediately went blank, and a blinking cursor appeared near the upper left side of the screen next to the words, “Input username.”

I mentally ran through a short list of Dexter’s usual screen names, but just as I was about to try one, a question popped onscreen.

“Load username Dexter?”

I typed, “Yes,” and another question appeared.

“Load Dexter’s Death?”

I stared at the sentence – I was sure I wasn’t reading it right. What kind of program was this? I placed my fingers back on the keyboard, but it was another minute before I worked up the nerve to type anything.

“Yes,” I typed.

The program immediately loaded up a level from a video game, but I didn’t recognize the game. If Dexter had built this himself, I figured he would have used Electronic Sheep’s proprietary game engine. A game’s engine is its base program. It functions like a game’s invisible skeleton, driving every element of the experience. Most engines have rendering, animation, and level editing tools, allowing designers to get into the guts of a program and tinker with the game. I wanted to look at these, so I tried the command inputs we used at the office to bring up these software tools, but they had no effect. I was stuck using this program like a normal person.

This particular game was set in a first person perspective – meaning the player saw through the eyes of the game’s protagonist. Dexter loved the intensity and immersion of first-person shooters. He felt they gave the player ownership over a character.

“I don’t want people to play through our games,” I remember him saying once. “I want them to live through our experiences. I want them to become someone else.”

Inside the program, I stood at the center of a city street. I didn’t recognize the area immediately, but it seemed somehow familiar. It looked like a barmy rendition of a suburban neighborhood.

It seemed like Dexter hadn’t implemented any sound effects, and walking around Dexter’s muted digital creation gave me a dull sense of dread. This was akin to the anxiety or sense of supernatural one feels after dreaming about a dead loved one.

I moved through the environment for a while and stopped when I came to a red and white house. The detailing was blurry, but I recognized it. Dexter had created a digital version of his own home. I moved around the house. The detailing was incredible. It was a pixilated, computer generated version of the real thing, but it was a fair replica.

In Dexter’s digital backyard, I discovered a dead dog. The body lay prostrate across the ground, but it looked like it had been gutted by a wild animal, its innards torn several feet in every direction. I stepped over the carcass.

Then it barked at me.

I jumped in my seat and swiveled the camera around. The body remained still, an unmoving, distorted mess.

It barked again, but its mouth never moved. That’s when I realized the barking was coming from outside. Out in the real world. I walked over to Dexter’s office window and looked into the neighbor’s backyard. It was dark, but I could still see the small figure of a dog running in circles, barking violently at the night.

The dog’s owner came outside.

“Rush, shut up!”

The dog continued woofing as if someone had just walked over its grave.

“It’s late, you stupid dog.”

The owner grumbled as he snatched the animal by the collar and dragged the persistent runt inside.

After I settled down, I returned to the program.

I walked up to Dexter’s digital front door, but a “Door Locked” message appeared at the bottom of the screen. Above the door, I could see the golden image of a key, and as soon as I grabbed it, the door swung open. Inside was a fairly accurate model of Dexter’s real house. Dexter had taken his time building this clone. The living room was stocked with all the appropriate furniture. A TV rested against the wall, flashing an image of what looked like a diamond ring.

I explored the whole house. Occasionally, I would see the flash of a shadow – the hint of some other presence – lurking just around the corner. But every time I reached the point where I thought I’d spotted the illusion, I would turn and discover nothing. I felt some invisible force watching me. Maybe there were ghosts inside this house, but in a digitally reconstructed world, maybe the real specter was the man behind the computer.

In the game, I walked upstairs. A sliver of light framed the bathroom door. The scene instantly reminded me of the night I’d discovered Dexter’s body. My gut tightened. The air in my lungs felt pressurized. This program was too eerily accurate to be a coincidence. I pushed open the bathroom door.

Dexter’s body rag-dolled over the tub. One bloody eye glared back at me. It was a pixilated impression, but still a striking facsimile.

“What the hell, Dex?” I whispered into the empty room.

Onscreen, Dexter’s image began to move. Its head jerked toward me. It appeared as though it was looking through the computer, directly at me. Then the little version of Dexter tilted its head back, let out a spasm, and appeared to die.

Without warning, the monitor went dark and the computer’s internal fans whirred to a stop. I tapped at the keyboard trying to bring it back. Nothing.

I told myself the computer had just crashed, and I rebooted the PC. The system immediately jumped back into the Project Evi program.

“Input username,” scrawled across the screen.

I typed, “Load Dexter’s Death.”

“Username invalid.”

I tried again just to be sure.

“Username invalid.”

Then a third time, because I didn’t know what else to try.

“Username invalid.”

A second later, something else popped onscreen.

“Username terminated. New username required.”

I typed, “Dexter.”

“Program expired. Username Dexter terminated. Create new username?”

I rubbed my eyes. What the hell was going on?

I typed, “Yes.”

“Enter new username.”

Hesitantly I typed, “Jack.”

The screen flashed for a few seconds before a city street loaded up. It wasn’t the same one I had explored moments ago, but it was familiar. It was my own neighborhood. Four stories of digital brick stood challengingly in front of me. I knew it wasn’t really bigger than Dexter’s 19-inch monitor, but the place seemed like a mountain. My apartment light was on. And somehow, I knew what was waiting for me up there.

I didn’t want to go up. I decided to explore a nearby building instead, but upon entering it, I discovered that I was in the lobby of my own building. I turned to leave, but when I left through the front door, I walked straight into my apartment.

The furniture was arranged in a way that it hadn’t been for several years. A wheelchair used for cancer treatments sat neatly in the corner. I’d sold that chair years ago, because I couldn’t stand the sight of it. There was no doubt in my mind what waited for me in my bedroom. I wasn’t ready to face it. I should have stopped using Dexter’s computer that very moment, but I didn’t. At the time, I didn’t understand the demon I was dealing with.

My attention focused down the inflexibly long hall, to the closed door of my bedroom. It pulsed slowly like the weak lungs of a dying person. My stomach stretched tight, and I panicked for a way to leave. But I couldn’t. Without moving I was standing with my hand against the handle. The door fluttered briefly then went concave before finally exploding open.

Then, for the second time in my life, I watched my wife die.

 

The adventure continues in the pages of Kill Screen
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