Authors: Penny Publications
Tags: #Asimov's #459 & #460
The action in William Preston's self-contained and powerful new novella almost directly follows his March 2010 story, "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down." The author is looking forward to completing—to his satisfaction and the satisfaction of readers—his Old Man saga with a fifth and final story. He tells us, "Special thanks go to my students, who constantly force me to think more deeply about my own writing as we plunge into great works of the past."
Jimmy Randolph, who had driven all four hours of the trip, went silent as they came in view of the lake, seeing a landscape his girlfriend did not see and hearing words she had not heard.
Bekka said, turning from the open window,
is something else. Right? It's
Both hands on the wheel for the highway's curving descent, Jimmy made a sound that signaled agreement. From above, the road followed the lake's slender finger, the valley walls dense with trees, the water blue with the day's blue, the slender finger pointed toward the white beach and the city of Ithaca. Attention on the highway, Jimmy saw overlaid on this bending stretch a two-lane road arrowing between horizontal Texas fields; saw a low sky too bright, scarred with meager gray clouds; felt again, despite the hot air from the road, the harsh sting of a Hummer's air conditioning. The driver, a young man from the base's private security team, wore a sparse red beard that failed to conceal his acne. He heard the man say, "This isn't just nowhere. This is the
of nowhere"—most likely repeating something he'd been told on his arrival, Jimmy thought, but then recognizing how so cynical a response so early in the mission wasn't good.
Most times, Bekka's presence suppressed some of his cynicism, muted his depression. Still, Jimmy wondered how many times someone had said at just that point on the road, "It's
Was her judgment as common and unconsidered as the judgment of all those others, all those people who couldn't find something to say but had to say something? How far wrong was her judgment about
His leg jumped when her hand settled on his thigh. "What's running through
brain?" she asked.
"Just trying to watch the road," he said, glancing in each mirror, taking in the modest traffic.
"Uh huh," she said, making it clear she didn't believe him. She had picked her hair into a massy weave; the wind pushed it to the roof. Leaning close, she drew her other hand over her forehead to restrain her hair. "Just don't go totally silent on me," she said. "I want my friends to like you."
His clenched lips twitched as he worked to say something, but she let him off, patting his leg. "Okay," she said. "No pressure. Be inside yourself."
How deep inside himself had the prisoner been? And silent for years. Could Jimmy have sustained that? Anyone would hunger for human contact, for human voices, or to hear your own voice, the reassurance that all of you is still there, that you are still familiar to yourself.
The steering wheel suddenly slick, he shifted his grip toward the middle. Perhaps Bekka had let the relationship move too quickly. Surely when she got to know him more fully...
The beach below was flecked with people. Jimmy and Bekka planned to meet college friends of hers, stay with them for a night, then, if the weather cooperated, camp at a park near a waterfall; there may have been more details, but he had not been a terribly attentive listener in the past six months, a condition that, rather than improving, had worsened in recent weeks. He imagined lying on a precipice to see water cascade through a cleft, but he couldn't get close enough to see where the water struck bottom. Six months ago, he had stood before a hole in the earth, a guard gripping each arm, and, peering down, known for sure there were mysteries he would never solve.
Before lunch, in sunglasses, they strolled the glary white-paved Commons, an open mall with shops on either side. "This here," said Bekka, tugging his elbow, angling him toward a glass-fronted store. THE SAME PAGE TWICE: USED BOOKS. A narrowing chute of glass led to the entrance; when Bekka opened the door, a cold blast shouldered past them.
The twenty-ish male at the elevated front desk wore a rainbow bandanna. "Let me know if I can help you find something," he said. A tattoo, possibly the clawlike conclusion of a wing, patterned his neck, the bulk of the image beneath his yellow, saggy-necked T-shirt.
"I'm a browser." Bekka fanned out both hands and intoned with cosmic significance, "I
"I just tag along," Jimmy said, tucking his sunglasses in his shirt pocket. Bekka cast back a puzzled frown he peripherally caught.
"I will make you interested in used bookstores," she said. Had she mentioned this before?
"That can be your mission," he joked, and then regretted the word "mission." Although she was in a graduate physics program, she headed for the art books. He did not follow her.
The air sharpened its chill the deeper Jimmy progressed. At the store's rear, he stopped below a dented lamp clipped to an exposed beam. It registered as too bright and hot—he saw an iconic interrogator's bulb. A stenciled paper banner thumb-tacked to the top shelf read "Sci. Fic./Fantasy." A book for the beach. When he was a middle-schooler, he and some friends had passed around a fantasy series, but that was the extent of his exposure to invented book worlds. In high school, he had discovered psychology and philosophy; he almost never read fiction, unless his father passed him one of Walter Mosley's mysteries.
Some books faced outward; he plucked one: a ringed planet in the background, spacesuited people probed with floating mechanisms a richly cratered moon.
A desolate place, far from anything familiar. Had that job, he thought. He put back the book.
Idling, he made a cautious effort to empty his mind. The army psychiatrist had recommended it, not caring whether Jimmy wanted to call it prayer or meditation or mindfulness; Bekka had offered to introduce him to yoga, knowing only that he needed to put some stressful events behind him. The problem was, to go blank was the beginning of the process, the first step into the passageway across the gap between himself and another. He had explained this to the doctor, but the man was skeptical. All he saw was someone traumatized by violent experiences. Jimmy's details of the matter defied belief.
Rather than go absolutely empty, he kept up a silly patter in his head: the titles of the books, snide comments on the covers. "I don't think that dress will work in outer space. How does that creature see straight with so many eyes?
That's just stupid.
The Unknown Men.
Dreams of a New World.
Nice raygun, pal. Man, you're too old to fight that—"
Jimmy's inner commentary went silent. The paperback's yellow cover—sky lemony, the human figure and the ground a shade darker—contrasted with the bold orange title—
The Methuselah Ray
—in a flag-shaped banner above the action. An elderly man, bald, his shredded shirt revealing striated muscles on age-slimmed arms, knelt on one knee in a cracked desert, fist drawn back to strike an obscure figure lurching in from beyond the cover, said figure bearing a lantern-shaped object that sent forth a gray-green light.
Cold air rattled the nearby vent. When Jimmy snatched the book from the eye-level shelf, the front cover, barely holding on, missing the top inch, shifted under his thumb. It lacked a back cover.
Book against his chest, he strode purposefully to the front desk. His urgency, his martial stride, caused the clerk to straighten from his slouch. Jimmy snapped the book onto the glass counter.
"What can you tell me about this?"
The clerk hesitated, then shifted his shoulders, bent to look, and relaxed. "Oh, cool. It's a reprint of an old pulp. You like those?" He looked up briefly. "Like the Shadow and shit?" He corrected himself, "And
"Action-adventure, mystery stories, science fiction. The twenties, thirties, so forth. This book's just a reprint, but the story, um, this one's from theee... thirties. Early thirties." He looked up again and read Jimmy's ignorance. "They're called pulp because of the cheap paper they used." Jimmy managed a nod. "And this character—" "The Stone Avenger." The clerk now had the book in his hand. "I'll tell you, my great-aunt... or whatever she was. Great-
aunt? Her mother and my great-grandmother were sisters. Does that actually make her my cousin? My mother always said 'your aunt.' Anyway, she wrote a lot of these, a lot in this series." He set the book down with some care. "I'm pretty sure she wrote this one. He battles this group called End of Days. They have a ray that rapidly ages people," he said, spinning one index finger as if he were unraveling a thread.
Jimmy read the author's name. "Acton Frost?"
"It's a pseudonym. One of the Brontës used Acton. Anne Brontë. Acton Bell. Trying to conceal that she was a woman. Same with my aunt. Women weren't supposed to write pulps. And she wasn't white, either. She was Mohawk. Anyway, the publisher used Acton Frost for what they call a house name for a couple of series. The stories always said Acton Frost no matter who wrote them."
"So this... this is fiction."
"Wellll..." Jimmy couldn't read his expression, a smile as erratic as his head bobbing.
is a real guy. My aunt knew him. Seriously. That's how she ended up writing the stories. They're based on an actual person. Go dig up newspapers from the thirties and forties and fifties. You can find references. Mysterious giant of a man. A dark man from out of nowhere. Superior intellect. Inventor. Knows what he can't know. Rescuer of the helpless... along with his team of
He was based in New York, but he got around. There was a book a while back that pulled together all the accounts, but it's out of print. The writer claimed he was even active in the 1970s and eighties. But the novels stopped back in the forties. I think they tried some new ones in the sixties, but his time had passed. He was huge in the pulp days. Like Batman-level huge. And these reprints did well in the seventies."
did you call him?"
The clerk drew a finger below the tear on the cover, where the bases of some letters remained. "The Stone Avenger. That was the title of the first story,
The Stone Avenger.
He gets completely sealed in rock. And he emerges in kind of a resurrection scene where he's transformed into this...
being. But it's not like people start calling him the Stone Avenger. That was some editor's idea, the same way an editor came up with 'Peanuts' for the Charlie Brown gang. I mean,
a couple of times someone calls him the Stone Avenger. His followers call him 'Big Man' or 'Boss.' Villains don't even speak about him." His head wobbled again. "Like if they don't say his name, he can't be...
"I mean, it's not a bad name. And 'stone' gives you the sense that he's invulnerable. He's not, but of course, if they kill him, the series is over.
"Here, look at this," he said, and produced a magazine from the glass case behind him. "This is one of the original magazines. First it was called
he said, pronouncing the title with dramatic verve, "but once he became so popular, it shifted to
The Stone Avenger.
Here's what he looked like in the earlier images, before the reprints. His hair hangs down more. And he's lighter than he is on the paperbacks. I think that's a race thing."
"He's... what race is he supposed to be?"
"It never directly comes up. He's described as copper-colored or golden or bronze. There's a line that gets repeated about 'skin darkened by equatorial suns.' Innn-teresting, right?"
"How many of these are there?"