Friday, June 11, 2010

"The Dark Man" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Part 3 of 3)

The Dark Man

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

[Continued from Part 2]

The alarm brought her out of it a moment later -- or so it seemed. Five a.m. looked the same as midnight had, same darkness, same feel. She got up, turned on the lights, and took a quick shower.

Then she grabbed her equipment bag and headed back to the Spanish Steps.

The morning was cool, comparatively speaking. It had to be about 80 instead of the 100 that had stifled Rome for the past few days. She wondered whether fall would ever show up -- and if it did, whether or not she would recognize it as a brand new season.

She trudged up to the Spanish Steps, noting as she went how many merchants were already up, cleaning the small sidewalks in front of their shops, and rearranging the wares in the window. She bought a pastry from a cart vendor she'd never seen before and ate as she walked, decided that the pastry was so good the vendor probably sold out long before she normally got up.

The carts at the top of the Spanish Steps were still shuttered. The professional beggars hadn't arrived yet. The restaurant tables, full and covered with food when she had left them, were stacked one on top of the other near the restaurant's doors.

A small group of people hovered near the top of the steps, staring at the city unfolding before them. The thin light of dawn seemed brighter than an average day in Colorado, and made Condi feel like she was very, very far from home.

She walked past the group, not seeing anyone she recognized, and headed down the Steps until she was only a few yards from the spot where the figure would turn up.

She set up the video camera she brought, turning it on so that she would get the moment of appearance. She would also make a recording on her phone as a backup.

The rest of the equipment remained in the bag. She would only remove it if she needed it.

She sat on her perch, the travertine steps surprisingly cool through her khaki pants, and waited. She wanted the figure to appear. She needed it to appear. She didn't want to wait several more days for some kind of phenomenon that, until this point (at least for her), had only existed in artists' renderings.

Then Giuseppe sat down beside her, too close as usual. He wore a cologne as peppery as the wine had been the night before, and just as strong. Clearly he had just gotten up as well.

"So," she said, irritated that he was sitting so close, irritated that he had frightened her the night before, irritated that he continued to bother her, "you guys think this is aliens, huh?"

He looked at her in surprise. She had a hunch that was the first unguarded expression she had ever seen on his face.

"You think I can't do research?" she asked. "I had simply thought you guys were a rumor until last night."

She didn't want to tell him she hadn't heard of his group until he had talked to her a few hours ago.

He didn't say anything. She pulled out her phone, cupping it in her right hand.

"What do you think this is," she asked, "some kind of portal and the aliens send one guy to it every ten years or so? Is this an invading army that hasn't quite got the concept down?"

She didn't try to cover the sarcasm in her voice.

"Not aliens," he said. "Alien."

"So you think it's alien. Tell me something I don't know."

He shook his head again. "An alien."

"That's what I said." She looked at the spot. "The one-by-one invading army. What keeps them out? Some kind of force field?"

"No," he said. "We think it's one single alien. The same alien. That it's always been the same alien."

He had her attention now. She moved her head so that she could watch him and the spot. "Over hundreds of years?"

"Yes," he said.

"I don't get it," she said. "Is this a projection?"

He shook his head. "He's out of phase."

"Out of phase with what?" she asked.

"Us," he said.

# # #

It took some explaining. Giuseppe had to switch from Italian to English and back again, because Condi didn't know the scientific terms. Twice he had to use some Latin cognates, and she had to guess.

It came down to this: the Dark Man, the figure, moved at a much slower rate through time. He had fallen or was injured or had done something that put him in this particular spot, and made him phase into human time perceptions only briefly.

In spite of herself, she got caught up in the theory. "How do you know it's time? Why can't it be something else, like an image or something?"

"Oh," Giuseppe said, "it could be a parallel universe that crosses into ours. But still there is some linkage, and time happens much slower in that other place."

"And you've decided that he's an alien and not a ghost because…?"

"Because there were sightings of his ship," Giuseppe said.

"When?" she asked.

"As the Steps were being finished," he said. "I can show you the literature."

"I'd like to see it," she lied. She wished he wasn't a crazy. She wished his theory was based in some kind of reality. But she should have known it wasn't when she first saw him trailing her with that protectiveness only the truly obsessed had toward the object of their obsession.

He continued to talk about it, and she asked the occasional question, surreptitiously glancing at the clock on her phone. She was experiencing time slowly, and she was convinced it was because of Giuseppe and the conversation.

"Don't you have an assignment? Aren't you supposed to be doing something?" she asked.

"I am doing it," he said.

She looked at him sideways. "Babysitting me?"

He gave an elegant shrug. "I must be able to report that you did not hurt him."

"Report to whom?" she asked.

He gave her a baleful look.

"I don't see why you're so secretive," she said. "Do you have aliens in your organization or are you afraid they'll find you out?"

"We do not know what they know," he said. "We do not know what they see."

She remembered her mother saying something very similar when Condi asked about God. How can he watch billions of people? Condi had asked. Why would he care?

The Bible says he does, her mother said.

But people wrote the Bible. What if it's wrong?

In exasperation, her mother had said, We do not know what God knows. We do not know what he sees.

"What do you mean, what they see?" Condi said to Giuseppe. They had five minutes until the figure appeared.

"Time and space," he said, "they are different."

"I know," she said, trying to keep the annoyance from her voice.

"The aliens experience time differently. So we do not know how they perceive the space around them."

She frowned at him. "So if the Steps were torn down tomorrow…."

"It would be, perhaps, like an earthquake to him. A sudden change. We do not know."

She looked at the spot on the Steps, which was still empty. "So you think the aliens are all around us, like the ultimate tourists. They walk the Spanish Steps like we do and we can't perceive them?"

"Something like that," he said, looking away from her.

"Then why do we see him?" she asked.

"Perhaps because he has not moved," he said. "Perhaps because he has crossed a little into our time."

Then he lowered his voice.

"Perhaps because he is dead."

She shuddered -- and at that very moment, the figure appeared. Even though she had expected it, she jumped. He -- and it was clearly a he -- was sprawled along the steps like he had fallen there.

He was as big as she was, thicker than she imagined, and glossy black. The blackness looked shiny, like some kind of metal. She wanted to touch him, but didn't dare, not with Giuseppe next to her.

She checked to see if her cell phone was recording this. It was. Then she moved the phone to her other hand and removed some of her equipment from her bag. She tried not to take her gaze off the figure.

He didn't move. He looked like he should move. He looked like he could easily get up. Two arms, two legs, a torso -- very humanlike, except that she saw no features. No face, just a smooth surface.

She couldn't even tell if he had fallen (if he had fallen) face down or face up.

And the reports lied.

He had an odor. A faint one, dry and dusty but machine-like, almost like she had stepped inside an empty mechanic's bay.

She rubbed her nose, wondering if the scent was real or if she imagined it. Or if Giuseppe's cologne interfered with it.

"May I touch him?" she said. "I promise not to hurt him."

"We do not know what hurts him," Giuseppe said.

She glanced at him. "If you're right and he's experiencing time slowly, he won't even know that I brush against him."

Giuseppe didn't argue. So she leaned forward and swiped her finger along the figure's arm.

She shuddered. Pitch wasn't quite right, but close. Like tar that hadn't completely set -- rubbery, but soft, almost like partially baked cookie dough. But that wasn't right either.

Something in the feel of him was wrong, so wrong she wanted to step away. She resisted the urge to rub her fingers against her pants. Instead she touched them to one of the handheld analyzers the Organization had supplied her with.

Other people had gathered. Many had cameras and cell phones, others had handheld pieces of equipment. They were taking readings. One man, using the light meter for his camera, said the light was different in the area around the figure than it was just a few meters away.

She didn't know what to make of that, just like she didn't know what to make of all the information she was gathering. Most of it made no sense to her. She was there to run the equipment, not analyze the data.

She did as she was told, collecting everything, watching and working, and listening to what everyone else said.

Somewhere in the confusion, Giuseppe moved away from her. The figure was all that existed for her -- for her and the dozen people around her, people trying to figure out the phenomenon just like she was.

Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, the figure vanished.

And, it seemed, the morning got a little brighter. Had the man with the light meter been correct? Had the figure changed the light? Or had he brought a bit of his slower-moving universe with him?

She backed up the readings on the USBs the Organization had provided her. Then she gathered the camera she had placed a few feet away.

She was shaking, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She was in some kind of shock, some kind of near-denial. She wanted to tell herself that the thirty minutes hadn't happened, and yet it had.

And that was the surprise. She never expected the figure -- L'uomo Scuro -- to appear. Only the name Dark Man wasn't right either. He was something else. She would have thought him a robot or a sculpted bit of art if she hadn't touched him.

If his strange skin (should she call it skin?) hadn't been warm.

She shuddered.

Giuseppe made his way toward her. She stepped away from him. The experience had been too weird to dissect. She didn't want his perspective to contaminate hers.

She gathered her belongings, took one last shot of the empty place on the Steps, then climbed up them. At the top of the hill, she tried to send the data from her phone. She couldn't tell if it went through.

She would have to send it all through the internet café, and she really didn't want to.

But she had no other choice.

# # #

The waif was not there as the café opened at seven, which had to be some kind of record, a business opening that early in Rome. Another young woman, this one without piercings who wore a tasteful sundress, didn't seem interested in Condi at all.

Condi sent the information as well as a brief blog, promising to send backups by Fed Ex later in the day. Somehow the Organization would get the information.

She didn't know what they would do with it.

She didn't know what she would do with it either.

But it made her feel odd.

As she watched the little blue bar that told her the information was going across the internet, traveling as bits of information across a space impossible to traverse instantly when the first appearance of the figure was first recorded, she tried to calm herself down.

She had felt like this when she had discovered corruption in Denver's City Council elections. She had felt like this when she had found the smoking gun in a military airplane crash not far from Fort Collins. She had felt like this during all the major discoveries of her career.

Only she had known what those meant.

She wasn't sure what this one meant.

Except that it had shaken her assumptions.

Frankly, she had said during her job interview, I think they're all going to be hoaxes.

Only this one was not. She had investigated the area for weeks, knew there was nothing beneath it, no way for the figure to suddenly appear without some obvious help.

Unless someone was using technology she didn't understand -- and had used that technology for centuries.

She gathered her equipment, put it away, used the remaining computer time to surf the news sites, seeing if anyone covered the reappearance of the Dark Man.

Not yet. But she suspected he would appear on YouTube quite soon now -- and she felt tempted to put him up herself.

But that would mean editing her phone video, taking out the conversation with Giuseppe, which she had deliberately sent back to the Organization.

She didn't know what they would think about his theories. Had she heard them without seeing the figure, she would have dismissed them out of hand.

But she couldn't now, no matter how much she thought of Ross making fun of her.

The theories made an odd sort of sense. The same kind of sense that most of Rome's legends made. That it was founded by Romulus, that Peter the Apostle had founded a church in this place, so far away from Jerusalem, that he had actually been buried here.

Yet the past lived in Rome, more than in any other place she had ever been. If someone -- something -- were to phase in and out of time, this would be the place, because time was strange here. Old and new and forward and backward all at once.

It was, she privately believed, the reason her phone did not work well here, although it worked well in Paris and London and Berlin. Those cities had history, yes, but they were modern. They had a twenty-first-century feeling, clearly built on the foundations of the past, not dwelling within the past.

She shook her head, gathered her stuff, and stopped long enough to buy herself a Coke. A cold, sweet example of the modern era.

She carried it outside, stopping at the door like she had the night before, watching the girl inside shut down her computer. No screen capture this time. Maybe it hadn't mattered. Maybe just the waif was trying to steal information.

Maybe Condi had imagined all of it.

All of it except the Dark Man.

And Giuseppe, who waited for her in his usual spot, looking a bit shaken himself, somewhat vulnerable.

Now was the time to dissect the experience, to share perspectives.

She needed to talk to someone. And Giuseppe, at least, would listen.

Even if he was one of the crazies.

Even if she was too.


"The Dark Man," reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, is one of fifteen original stories included in the anthology Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern, and published by Daw Books on June 1. For more information on this anthology, start here.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a best-selling, award-winning writer of genre fiction, whose latest book, Diving into the Wreck (Pyr), has garnered excellent reviews. She also writes mystery as Kris Nelscott and funny paranormal romances as Kristine Grayson. Kris was the first writer to have a science fiction crime story in the prestigious Best American Mystery Stories and The Year's Best Science Fiction anthology. That same year, she won the Asimov's Readers Choice Award and The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Choice Award. Her short story collection, Recovering Apollo 8: And Other Stories has just appeared from Golden Gryphon Press. She is a former editor of the prestigious The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for which she won a Hugo Award in 1994. Kristine Kathryn Rusch lives and works on the Oregon Coast. Find out more about Kris's work (and those of her pen names) at her official website. You can also follow her on Twitter: kristinerusch

The next story to be presented from the anthology Is Anybody Out There? will be "Where Two or Three" by Sheila Finch.

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