April 2012


“That particular branch of the family tree died with Mr. Baines, who would have been…let’s see…your third cousin once removed.”

“How do you mean it died with him? Family tree says he had a daughter.”

“Yes, but mind the dates: she died a full two years before he did: April 1918. There’s something of a salacious story that came down to me regarding that.”

“Really? Tell me.”

“Well, as I remember it, Mr. Baines was the chair of the local draft board. He was a businessman of some means and well-positioned to sway the other members’ opinions, quite the literal first among equals. Then one day he tried to use that power, much to his sorrow.”

“He had someone drafted?”

“It seems his daughter, Isabella, fancied a young man of very modest means. She was all he had after the death of Mrs. Baines in–what’s the chart say?–yes, in 1889, by the Russian flu. He was determined to arrange a suitor for her that matched his aspirations for her future. But, as it always does, love had other plans.”

“He drafted his daughter’s suitor? That’s horrible.”

“He threatened Isabella with that, yes. Story goes that Mr. Baines picked out a young dandy for his daughter and threatened to draft the poor boy she preferred straight into the Ardennes if she didn’t break it off and marry his preferred gent.”

“What happened next?

“Well, that’s the salacious part. Isabella refused, and Mr. Baines, in a fury, followed through on his threat. That young boy–don’t rightly know his name–was shipped off to France. He fell at Château-Thierry in 1918; the very day she got the telegram young Isabella took her own life.”

“That’s…horrible.”

“Yes, and I imagine the horror of what he’d done dawned on poor Mr. Baines as well. He was, after all, the only child of only children and the legacy of his entire line had been bound up in that child. Is it any wonder he died not long after? Our distant side of the family inherited his holdings and sold them off piecemeal. You owe your college education to that sad turn of events, matter of fact.”

Detective Stevens had seen the book among the deceased’s personal effects, and had been sufficiently intrigued to gingerly open it with gloved hands. There, in ink that had been wet enough to blot the opposite page when closed, the young woman with her head in the gas oven had written a meticulous account of how she planned to end her life and the silly, petty (in Stevens’ mind) reasons behind it.

He’d listed it as evidence at the inquest, but the volume had vanished before it could be consulted again–most likely taken by a family member worried about the poor young thing’s posthumous reputation, Stevens reasoned.

Fifteen years later, arriving at the house of someone who had dissolved a bottle full of sleeping pills in sparkling water, Detective Stevens saw the book again. The last page bore, in the dead woman’s own hand, her research on the dissolution of sedatives in carbonated waters and the personal and professional failings she felt had driven her to such.

How could he be sure it was the same volume? For one, leafing through the myriad and Bible-thin pages brought up that long-ago death by natural gas. For another, the dark leather binding and embossed writing were unmistakable.

The title? The Book of Ending Softly.

The Institute served a dual purpose: rounding up and containing the rowdiest and most dangerous delinquents the City had to offer…and honing those skills to a fine edge. The officers who ran the Institute normally kept the second part of their mission a secret, naturally, lest some graying City Councilor complain that the youngsters were being rewarded for their transgressions.

And, to be sure, few of the Institute’s residents would call it a reward.

The “cadets” were enrolled in a rigorous program of martial training along the lines of the City’s final military schools. But there was a second, and unwritten, training system in place: for each cadet to graduate, they had to perfect the skill that had landed them in the Institute in the first place.

Say that, as it was for one cadet, they had stolen a car on the outside. Their challenge, then would be to steal more cars–perhaps one of each type, or just a round number like twenty-five or fifty–from the Institute grounds. A delinquent who had hacked into a transport network to steal a shipment of nutri-gel might be tasked with 50 comparable hacks at the Institute. In a very real way it was a crucible, since the Institute staff did their utmost to prevent the assigned tasks from being carried out.

Those who didn’t meet their hidden goals? If they were still at the Institute at 21 they risked transfer to the City Prison as lifers or executes.

Claymen weren’t really clay and they weren’t really men.

They “clay” in question was any old material that could be worked and shaped–clay in the poetic, the Biblical sense. In practice, just about anything could be modified to serve as a Clayman: battered old refrigerators, rocks, thatch. Attending Claymen would usually modify the raw materials, adding arms or legs or eyeholes for the animated chi within. But sometimes they would animate a single rock or a handful of pebbles or even a tree; those “ambusher Claymen” tended to be created rather sparingly, as it required much more chi to fashion them.

No one could say for sure how the Claymen had come to be, as they did not deign to speak to mankind or its allies–their communication seemed to be on a much more primal, perhaps telepathic, level. But they were certainly driven, as any other being would be, to reproduce themselves. People had observed Claymen, singly or in small groups, loving crafting “children” from the same materials as themselves and passing a portion of their own chi onto them; there were others that slapped together “offspring” out of whatever parts that could be found and gave no gift of their own chi.

In that respect, one must admit, they were not so different from humans.

One major difference, though, was chi. Humans are born with some innate chi and the ability to generate more from their environment, but Claymen completely lacked that. Chi was imbued in them at “birth” and lost at “death” but did not otherwise change. They were immune to the energy-sapping of negative chi that could come about through poor decisions or inauspicious events, but a rather large pool of chi had to be gathered before one could be imbued with the spark that turned it from a pile of refuse into a genuine Clayman.

Some Claymen carefully gathered chi from the natural world, cultivating zen gardens and practicing careful feng shui to direct positive chi into a soul jar. Since they had no need to eat or drink, chi farming was the key use of Clayman lands.

Others, though, were impatient and wary of what could happen were a chi farm disrupted. It was these Claymen reavers that were terrors unto mankind and its allies, leading groups of raiders to slay all they encountered and steal their chi. In areas where Claymen had been sighted, travelers tended to be vastly paranoid, for the very rocks and trees about them might be ambusher Claymen with a mind to steal their life energy from the source.

I first noticed the symbol on the back of a car in the student lot. It was one of those little raised plastic badges that get slapped on bumpers by dealers so you’ll be free advertising for them and that don’t come off without taking some of your pain with them.

But instead of a dealer’s name, or even a please-don’t-pull-me-over Fraternal Order of Police badge, there was only an odd abstract symbol. Even up close I couldn’t quite place the very complex and artfully molded sign; maybe two dogs eating a zipper or a pomegranate being pulled apart with tongs. Either way, I shrugged it off as a curiosity.

The next week, walking through that same lot for the same class, I saw that there were now half a dozen plastic bumper mystery symbols. I recognized that one was on Craig’s car, ans asked him about it when we were smalltalking before class.

“Oh, it is what it is,” he said, and quickly changed the subject.

A month later I was seeing the mystery badges all over town, on bumpers attached to everything from pot junky junkers to police cars and EMTs. People also started wearing it as a lapel pin, and I saw it embroidered on a scarf and embossed into a fancy cellphone case.

In addition to my own innate it’ll-get-you-into-trouble-someday curiosity about what the hell the symbol actually depicted, I was ravenously curious why, despite its increasing ubiquity, no one would tell me why they were displaying it:

“It is what is is.”

“If you have to ask you don’t want to know.”

“It only means what you believe it means.”

At the beginning of summer term people like me without a car badge or a lapel pin or an embossed/knit/whatever were a distinct minority. Oddly—maddeningly—the other “have-nots” seemed blithely unconcerned, regarding the symbol as just another vague fad like slap bracelets or pogs.

I would sometimes lay awake at night—now that there were no classes to otherwise occupy me—and think about those zipper-eating dogs or pomegranate-pulling tongs. At this rate, the time would soon come when I was the only one in town without the symbol. Or perhaps whatever the other people had done to display it would have to happen to me.

Can’t say which of the two possibilities creeped me out more.

Werner Voss found Manfred von Richthofen standing next to his Fokker triplane, watching Australian soldiers remove his still-warm body from the cockpit.

“I thought they might send you for me,” Richthofen said, barely glancing in the direction of his friend and rival who had been dead for over a year. “Hell of a thing. I was about to down a clumsy little Canadian when one of his buddies forced me to dive right into some ground fire.”

“I see you were able to land safely,” observed Voss politely.

“And a lot of good it did me. They’re already picking the Fokker apart for souvenirs.” Richthofen sighed. “I bet they give that Canuck wichser credit for the kill too.”

“Would you rather credit went to some Aussie digger?” asked Voss. “In any case, it’s time to go. Unless you’d prefer to spend your eternity haunting what’s left of your plane.”

They turned away from the wreckage and Voss led Richthofen to a spot of blinding light that beggared description. “What’s it like?” the Baron asked.

“Oh, it’s quite nice, actually,” said Voss “You become one with the cosmos and the font of all things and gain total knowledge of the past, present, and future. Even if you were reduced to mincemeat like I was.”

“Total knowledge?” Richthofen cast a sidelong glance at his plane. “So tell me, Werner, what do the people of the future think of me, if they even remember?”

“Oh, they certainly remember,” Voss said, clapping a hand on the Baron’s back. “You’re the best-known fighter pilot from any country for the next thousand years or so! Even the smallest children will know your name.”

“Because of my exploits in securing ultimate victory for the Empire?”

“Ah…no,” Voss said hesitantly. “They’ll remember you from that cartoon, and from the lid of an American pizza box.”

“A cartoon? What’s that got to do with anything, Werner?” Richthofen fussed.

“Yes, there’s an American cartoon dog that pretends to dogfight you. On top of his doghouse. You always win, if it’s any consolation.”

“And the Italian food?”

Voss shrugged. “I think it’s a metaphor for the red of the sausage and sauce and how ruthlessly inexpensive it is? Anyhow, the picture on the lid is very unrealistic. It has a mustache.”

The Baron hesitated at the edge of the light.

“Oh, don’t be like that. Go on in and see for yourself.”

Nex was able to jimmy the door open with her reprogrammable card–the place was so old that it didn’t have networked biometrics installed. It opened quietly, even as she had to struggle with the last few inches, and closed with a nearly inaudible click. Peeking through the peephole, Nex was able to see the Redmen continue down the corridor without so much as glancing at the row of “bedsit brick” doors.

With the pursuit shaken, at least for now, Nex crept into the tiny one-room apartment looking for the occupant. There was the taser in her left sleeve if they were asleep and the knife in her right if they were awake. But the pile of unopened and moldering mail by the door–which had made it so hard to open– and the burned-in channel guide on the cheap TV quickly made the situation clear. A cursory search revealed the dessicated remains of the tenant on the futon facing the screen, remote still in hand.

“Karoshi,” Nex muttered.

There had been a time, years ago, when the idea of someone dying by themselves with no one noticing was a big enough social trauma to merit an extensive search for answers and documentary filmmaking. Nex had, during a morbid phase in her teens, seen one such film about a pretty young Londoner who died wrapping Xmas presents and lain undiscovered for three years. Nowadays, with automatic rent debiting and the proliferation of tiny, cheap “bedsit brick” one-room apartments (with little more than a couch-bed, toilet, and high-speed network connection)…”karoshis” were common. The word meant “death by work” according to the cold Japanese instruction vids that Nex used to watch. In the modern sense it was more likely death by heart attack or stroke, but sitting on a couch was probably the closest thing to work the late people ever did.

Nex gave the remains an abbreviated reading of the last rites and flicked a coin onto their chest for the boatman, as was her custom.

In October 1979, a group of seniors from the University of Colorado Boulder Alpine Club resolved to use their week of “winter break” to go hiking and climbing in the remote Branson Pass area in Montana. Eight set out, all of whom were experienced hikers and climbers; two of the students had climbed all of Colorado’s peaks above 14,000ft. in elevation. They left a copy of their itinerary and explicitly requested a search if they had not reported in by November 4.

The small town of Alexander served as their base camp, and local residents later recalled being mildly annoyed by the group’s antics as they purchased supplies and film for their three 35mm and one Super 8 cameras. Just before the ascent, which had Mt. Bronson (14,987ft.) as its goal, two of the club members fell ill with food poisoning. The party was reduced to six and begun its ascent on October 27.

None were ever seen alive again. A storm blew up on the 31st, and on November 4 the Iran Hostage Crisis exploded, greatly hindering the two ill climbers from beginning a search. It wasn’t until November 8 that one was mounted; searchers found the bodies of the climbers, each over a mile from their campsite. Their tent had been torn to pieces, apparently from the inside, and the climbers appeared to have fled into the storm wearing only their underwear or scraps of clothing.

Despite that, they hadn’t all died of exposure. Each had a number of cuts and broken bones, and one of the climbers had a jaw fractured with such violence that her tongue had apparently been bitten off; searchers were unable to locate it. Despite the winter season, searchers reported that the bodies were all quite tan, and then a Geiger counter in a survival kit was accidentally turned on it registered significant radiation from the bodies. No cause for the hikers’ sudden and panicked flight, or their injuries, were ever ascertained.

Once the furor over the hostage crisis died down, the mystery became popular among conspiracy theorists. Most notably, the film that was left in the tent was subsequently developed, and some have claimed to see a tall shadow in the background of several shots in Alexander and at the campsite. The Montana government holds that this so-called “Thin Man” is simply a processing artifact. The final shot in one of the cameras also, according to some, shows lights in the sky or a mysterious form visible behind tearing fabric; skeptics argue that the shot is a simple artifact.

The few that had gone and returned left tales, naturally, and those tales spread far and wide on the lips of tellers who never had and never would see the place with their own eyes. They said that what you found down there reflected who you were as a person much more than any external, metaphysical reality.

Ellis wasn’t sure what a vast wasteland of frozen mountains and snow said about him. Maybe he didn’t want to know.

In the world above–say, in Antarctica–trekking through such a wasteland would have required more supplies than Ellis could possibly have carried, and far more survival training than he possessed. But that wasn’t the way down below. He got hungry but never had to eat; got thirsty but never had to drink; got cold but never had to build a fire. One might have thought that the removal of those things would have made the journey an easy one.

Instead, Ellis found his pain and suffering focused to a thin, white-hot edge. If there was no death at the end, no unconsciousness, then the pain simply brooded and grew far beyond what was possible–or even conceivable–above. Forget the stories of torments unnumbered, or even other people. The suffering of an unforgiving environment with no company but memories was infinitely worse.

There was no night and day, only a constant gray haze. As Ellis struggled through waist-deep snow and up naked rockfaces savaged by high winds, he occasionally tried to take shelter in a crevasse or eat a little snow to dull the pain. It didn’t work; the snow quenched no thirst, the deepest caves and crevasses were canvassed by the same howling polar winds, and the memories were omnipresent above them all.

Those same dilettantes, seated by cozy fires above, said that the pain down there wore away at a soul until it obliterated every trace of memory and left them to wander infinitely in their own personal “down below.” Ellis wouldn’t let that happen. He’d had no inkling of what was ahead when he had performed the ritual of key and coin to venture down below, even after all the interviews and research and preparations.

But even as the pain threatened to devour him, even as the snow and solitude made him question whether he had ever really seen another living being, Ellis pressed on.

Annemarie and Cassandra were out there, somewhere.

And he had to bring them back.

There were plenty of names for it. The Tattooed Man, the Vandalized One, the Defaced. Most were male, which was in and of itself a misnomer; it always appeared as the same sex and roughly the same age to the person that beheld it.

As for the markings, they varied by the watcher too.

Kids would see someone with few or any markings, a fellow innocent with youth-flushed cheeks. But to older people…at first, the figure would seem to bear a number of strange tattoos or markings. But closer inspection would reveal that each was actually an etching of something that the observer had done in their life–always a misdeed. The Vandalized One displayed the sins of a lifetime carved into its very flesh.

As to what happened when you met it…well, that varied too. Those with few misdeeds, or children, would receive a curt salutation, a welcome mixed with a warning. Someone with more would be met with a simple question: “Do you regret it?” In their response, the person would have their fate in their hands. Enough people had escaped the encounter in that way to spread wildly contrary tales about it.

And a soul whose misdeeds were so voluminous that the skin of the Defaced was completely covered by an overlapping cyclorama of wretched inks? Suffice it to say that they do not return from the encounter.

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