Story: Michael DiBaggio | Illustrations: Shell Presto
We found our working class hero weighing down the back of an ambulance, his massive shoulders hunched as he breathed deeply from an oxygen mask. He was naked except for a blanket draped over his lap, with stony fragments of what I later realized were his petrified shirt, pants, and underwear still stuck to his body in places. At first, I thought he was just covered by a fine film of pulverized masonry, but as I got closer I noticed that his skin had the same color and texture of white marble as the less fortunate visitors in the gallery. His was less dense somehow, and the pale blue traceries glowed much brighter. A roadmap of small cracks and fissures spread over his stony integument, particularly around his joints and across his bald pate.
(If Range was narrating this story, this is the part where the guy would be described as ‘granite-jawed’ or ‘flinty.’ You’re welcome.)
Overall, the guy was huge. Given that his head was above mine even while he was stooped and sitting in the back of the ambulance, he must have been about seven feet tall. He was easily 350 pounds even before his skin turned to rock. He had the look of a lumberjack or circus strongman: tree trunk arms and block-shaped head, his musculature beefy rather than toned, but possessed of great strength and physical vitality.
When he saw us, his eyes widened and the oxygen mask fogged up with incredulous laughter. “Holy crap,” he muttered, pulling off the mask. “You’re here to talk to me, aren’t you?”
His voice was uncanny: basso profundo, but muffled by his stony skin so that it sounded distant. There was a subtle echo, too. I imagined that his words were being shouted by a man lost in a deep cavern hidden somewhere within his chest.
“We are indeed. I take it that you recognize us,” said the Promethean.
“Recognize you! You’re the Promethean! My little girl isn’t gonna believe this. We watch you on TV all the time! I must’ve seen a hundred episodes of Martian War Diary and World of Tomorrow! And here you are, wanting to talk to me! I’m Pete Halstein, but I usually just go by Hal.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Halstein.” Matt snapped down the aether goggles and leaned in for a look. “How are you feeling?”
“Well, I’m naked and I had two hundred bucks rent in a wallet I can’t open, but other than that…” The semi-statue thought about it for a moment. “Hot. Yeah, mostly I feel hot.”
“Naturally. Your skin can no longer perspire. We must be careful to keep you from overheating. Is there any other pain, any other physical difficulty?”
“It was hard work breathing for a while there, but I’m getting used to it. I can get a full chest of air now.”
“Remarkable,” the Promethean said under his breath. “I don’t suppose you have any idea why the gas only partially affected you?”
“Heck, you’re the scientist; I was hopin’ you’d tell me.” He paused, as if reaching for a long-distant memory. “I covered myself up in a tarp when I saw the gas. Maybe that did it. I ran away from the cloud, too, but so did everyone else and it didn’t help them. Even folks farther away stiffened up.”
“But not you.”
“No, but all the same it got to be too much to keep movin’. Too heavy, too hard to breathe. I stopped for a while and just stood there, tryin’ to catch my breath.”
“How did you manage to stop Medusa?” I asked.
“She’s the broad with the green hair, I guess? Well, they were running in my direction. My back was turned to them, but I could hear them panting and yelling, and from what they were yelling—‘forget about the loot’ and so forth—I knew they were the bad guys. So I clotheslined them. They musta thought I’d been frozen like everybody else, but I stuck out my arm and—WHAMO!— the two guys in front ran right into it and went down. The broad—that is, Medusa—backed away. I warned her to give up because I ain’t the kind of man that relishes hitting a lady, even if she deserves it. She didn’t give up, though, and she pulled something out of her pouch and aimed it at me, so I swatted her, open-handed. Well, she went down like a sack of potatoes.”
He grew sheepish, looking away from us as he went on in a lower voice. “I ain’t proud of hitting her so hard, but I’m not used to movin’ in this condition.”
“I know how you feel, mister. But sometimes it just can’t be helped,” the Atomic Ranger said.
Hal did not reply immediately. He seemed to dwell on other thoughts. When the Promethean was finished the once-over, the stone man said, “Hey, doc? Those people in the museum and my buddies, are they gonna be alright? Is there anything you can do for them?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t asked that about yourself,” the Promethean deflected.
“I’m worried, sure, but I’m still movin’. They ain’t.” He pointed at the crime scene with his thumb, and the quick motion of his arm made a sound like pebbles scraping on pavement. In a low voice, he added, “It’d be nice to have something positive to tell the wife, though.”
We all looked at Matt, but he didn’t answer. He just stood there, lost in his own musings and perfectly oblivious to the effect silence would have on this very worried man. You have to understand that Matt got his credentials long before bedside manner was invented.
Halstein braced himself and spoke up. “Give it to me straight, doc: Is this gonna kill me? The weight, the physical discomfort, those things I can deal with, but I got a wife, a little girl. They gotta have someone here to take care of them. If I can’t—”
At last, the Promethean interrupted him. “My good man, put such thoughts out of your head this instant. I have good reason to think that these effects are temporary and that they will wear off on their own, although I cannot be entirely sure, nor can I say when that might happen. But even in the event that a worse fate awaits, I personally guarantee that your family will be well taken care of. ”
“You’d do that, even for me? For a guy you’ve never met? Why?”
“Because I can. I have accumulated a great deal of wealth throughout my life. If I can’t use it to help good people, it is no use at all.”
“You’re really something else, mister. Doctor. Sir,” Hal rambled. “I’d heard a lot about the great things you do, but I never imagined! You’re truly a great man!”
“Oh, please,” I muttered.
The Promethean smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Thank you for allowing me to examine you. I think I’ve learned all I can. Now go home to your wife and daughter and be as comfortable as you can. If you are in need of anything, you have only to call upon the Challenger Foundation.”
From an inner breast pocket on his coat, he produced a small token and handed it to Halstein. It was about the size and shape of a gold ingot, but with the texture and sheen of polished soapstone. Inlaid on the faces of the ingot were the Mancini family coat of arms and his personal sigil, a rampant griffon, minutely worked in gold. “My calling card,” he explained. “Don’t hesitate, you won’t harm it. It only looks fragile.”
Halstein squinted at it, bemused. “Is this tiny writing an address or phone number?”
The Promethean snorted. “Nothing so unhandy. Depressing the sigil establishes a Gridley wave channel directly with me. It should reach me anywhere in the Tellurian Empyrean. If I am elsewhere or otherwise indisposed, it routes to the Savant, my personal secretary.”
“Wow,” the rock man mouthed, obviously impressed by the trinket despite not knowing what the hell the Tellurian Empyrean is. (I’ve never been, myself, but I hear it’s nice when the leaves change.)
“And please, Mr. Halstein, don’t trade this to anyone. I detest the bother of the press.
“Now, if you’ll excuse us, I think it’s time we interviewed this Medusa character.”
The story you’ve just read is an excerpt from Copper Knights & Granite Men, the first volume in the Challenger Confidential series. Buy the book online or learn about the other ways you can support us.
This is my favorite of the Ascension Epoch books.