A government special agent known only as the Signalman gets off a train on a stunningly hot morning in Winslow, Arizona. Later that day he meets a woman in a diner to exchange information about an event that happened a week earlier for which neither has an explanation, but which haunts the Signalman.
In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible—the Children of the Next Level—and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in.
A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA’s interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact.
And a woman floating outside of time looks to the future and the past for answers to what can save humanity.
Agents of Dreamland is a new Lovecraftian horror novella from award-winning author Caitlín R. Kiernan—available February 28th from Tor.com Publishing.
Oddfellows Local 171
(July 9, 2015)
Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert. The heavens above West Second Street are blazing like it’s 1945 all over again and the Manhattan Project has mistakenly triggered the Trinity blast one state over from the White Sands Proving Ground. Or, he thinks, like this is the moment fifty thousand years ago when a huge nickel-iron meteorite vaporized herds of mastodons, horses, and giant ground sloths just sixteen miles southwest of this shitty little diner and its cracked Naugahyde seats and flyblown windows. Either simile works just fine by the Signalman; either way, the sky’s falling. Either way is entirely apropos. He checks his wristwatch again, sees that it’s been only seven minutes since the last time, then goes back to staring out the plate glass as shadows and fire vie for control of the dingy, sunbaked soul of Winslow, Arizona. His unkind face stares at him from the glass, easily ten years older than the date on his birth certificate. He curses, stubs out his cigarette, and lights another.
It’s not that she’s late. It’s that the train from L.A. dumped him out in this den of scorpions and Navajo tchotchkes at 6:39 a.m., and by 7:15 a.m., whatever wasteland charm the town might hold had worn thin and worn out. What the fuck do you say about a place whose sole claim to fame is a mention in an Eagles song? He got a room at La Posada, the celebrated Mary Colter masterpiece of terra-cotta and stucco, but then discovered that he couldn’t sleep. He turned on the radio and tried to read a book he’d brought, but it was impossible to concentrate; he kept reading the same paragraphs over again. So the Signalman spent the day haunting the sidewalks—restless, sweating, half blind from the sun, wearing down the heels of his JCPenney oxfords, and ocasionally ducking in somewhere for a soda, then ducking out again into the heat. Wanting to be drunk, needing to stay sober. The scalding air stank of dust and creosote, and he watched the local PD watching him, their minds clicking like locusts. Who is this scarecrow in a cheap suit and Wayfarers that the Southwest Chief has seen fit to disgorge on our doorstep? If it weren’t for the long arm of the Company, he’d likely have been arrested for loitering or vagrancy—or something else. But all his papers are in order, copacetic, so to speak, no matter how off the books and need to know this meet-up might be. Albany isn’t taking chances, not tonight. Not when Y has seen fit to cough up the likes of Immacolata Sexton for a sit-down.
The waitress comes around again and asks if he needs anything else, a refill or maybe a piece of pie. There’s lemon meringue, she tells him. There’s blueberry. He would say she’s a pretty enough girl, despite the ugly scar over her left eye, a pretty girl who’s escaped the hillside slums of Heroica Nogales to serve cheeseburgers and huevos rancheros in this gringo grease trap. Still, it’s a job, right? Better than her mother ever had, a woman who died at forty-three after twenty-five years sewing designer tags on jeans in a maquiladora. The Signalman knows the waitress’ story, just as he knows the stories of the two cooks and the dishwasher, just as he knows the names of the proprietor’s three daughters. Every little thing that the Signalman doesn’t know is a blind spot, a weakness he can’t afford and won’t abide.
“Estoy bien, gracias,” he says, but doesn’t ask for the check. On her way back to the counter, she glances over her shoulder, and he catches the glint of wariness in her eyes.
The Signalman checks his watch again.
And then the brass cowbell nailed above the diner door jingles, and he looks up as a tall, pale woman steps in off the street. She’s carrying a carbon-fiber Zero Halliburton attaché case in her left hand. For a moment, it seems to him like something is trailing behind her, as if the coming night has tangled itself about her shoulders, has snagged in her short black hair and won’t let go. But the impression passes, and he sits up a little straighter in the booth, tugs nervously at his tie, and nods to her. The Signalman’s heard stories enough to fill a fat paperback bestseller, but he never expected to actually meet this woman face-to-face. Immacolata Sexton is a long way from home.
She takes off her sunglasses, and he wishes that she hadn’t.
“They have pie,” he tells her as she settles into the seat across from him. “Lemon meringue. And blueberry, too. Welcome to Winslow.”
One of his jobs is not to flinch. It’s right there in the fine print.
“I didn’t see you at first,” she says. “I thought maybe I’d been stood up.” She has a hint of a Southern Appalachian accent—North Alabama or East Tennessee—and a funny way of moving her lips, so that they hardly seem to move at all. It’s a little like watching a ventriloquist at work.
“Has that ever actually happened?” he asks, stubbing out his cigarette, only half smoked, in the saucer he’s been using for an ashtray.
“On occasion,” she replies, “but never by the same person twice.” She points at the saucer and the cigarette butts. “You can smoke in here?”
“No one’s told me not to, and I don’t see any signs posted. I took that as a yes.”
The waitress comes back, and the Signalman knows that whatever she sees when she stares into the eyes of the operative from Y, it’s not what he sees. Civilians get all the breaks. Immacolata orders coffee.
“I will admit,” she says when the waitress has gone, “I was skeptical when I heard they’d assigned you to the case. After Maine and all. Rumor has it, an awful lot of the blame for that mess landed squarely at your feet. They say it was you who waited so long to take the situation seriously, that you were the man who ignored the writing on the wall.”
“Rumor,” he says. “Is that what passes for intel at Barbican Estate these days?”
She shrugs and lights a Marlboro; the smoke curls about her face. “Well,” she says, “it’s what I heard, that’s all.”
Of course she’s leading off with Maine. A sharp left hook and all that, get him off-balance and reeling right from the start. As if just the sight of her weren’t more than enough for that. Sure, he’s got his own headful of rumors to go with that face she wears, but the Signalman knows better than to start trotting them out. He knows better than to ask any one of the dozen questions darting about behind his eyes.
Is it true what they say about your mother?
About your father?
About Berlin and the night the Wall came down?
He rubs his eyes and turns his head back towards the wide diner window and the last smoldering dregs of sunset. Across the street, outside a defunct and shuttered movie house, there are two guards standing watch like rejects from an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Her guards, even though the deal was they each come alone, no entourage, no backup, no fucking fan club, and he’s honored his end of the bargain. But fuck it. There’s no profit in making a fuss, not at this late date. He’s here, she’s here, and the only way out, kiddo, is straight on till morning. The waitress from Heroica Nogales is back at the table, talking to Immacolata, serving her coffee, and he counts off the interminable seconds until they’re alone again.
“You can’t be too careful,” she says, stirring a packet of Sweet’n Low into her cup. The spoon clinks loudly against the china.
Is it true what they say about the night you were born?
“So, how was the trip up from Los Angeles?” she asks. “It’s been a long time since I went anywhere by train.”
“Forgive me, Ms. Sexton,” he says, and fishes the last cigarette from the crumpled pack of Camel Wides he bought at noon. “I’ve never been particularly good with chitchat. Nothing personal, it’s just—”
“Relax,” she says, and he could swear her voice drips honey. “We’re on the same side, aren’t we? United by a common cause?”
What big eyes you have.
“That’s what they tell me,” he mutters around the filter as he lights his cigarette. The Signalman takes a deep drag and holds the smoke until his ears start to hum.
“Right, well, I brought everything we have on Standish,” she says, her demeanor changing entirely between one breath and the next, the strange creature that poured in off the cooling summer sidewalks of Winslow becoming suddenly businesslike and to the point, effortlessly shedding one mask and donning another. “We’ve had a million diligent monkeys with a million file cabinets hard at work ever since Barbican gave the thumbs-up last week. So, you go first. Show me yours, then I’ll show you mine.”
My, what big ears you have.
He hesitates only a few seconds before reaching into his suit jacket and taking out a brown kraft envelope, six inches by nine, stained with perspiration, creased down the middle, and bent at the edges. “Sorry,” he says, “if mine’s not quite as big as yours, but there’s a shortage of monkeys—”
“—in Hollywood?” She smirks. “You expect me to believe that?”
The Signalman surrenders a halfhearted smile and opens the envelope, spreading the contents out on the table between them. Ten glossy black-and-white photographs, a tarot card, a flash drive, and a very old gold coin. At first glance, the photos could be shots from any murder scene, snapped by any forensic shutterbug. But only at first glance. Immacolata looks at him, and then she crushes out her Marlboro in the ersatz ashtray and picks up one of the pictures. She turns it over and briefly examines the back, where a date, time, and case number have been scribbled in indelible red ink, along with several Enochian symbols, and then she exchanges it for the tarot card.
“The World,” she says. “The dancer is meant to signify the final attainment of man, a merging of the self-conscious with the unconscious and a blending of those two states with the superconscious. The World implies the ultimate state of cosmic awareness, the final goal to which all the other cards—of the Major Arcana, that is—have led. Der Übergeist.”
“I seriously fucking hope you’ve got something more for me than what we could pull off the Internet.”
“You’re an impatient man,” she tells him.
“We’re all on the clock with this one,” he replies. “New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto five days from now. So, you’ll excuse my sense of urgency, thank you and pretty please.”
Immacolata lays the card back on the table, facedown, and selects another of the photographs. It strikes him for the first time how long and delicate her fingers are; they seem almost frail enough to snap like twigs.
Maybe they would. Maybe one day I’ll get to find out.
“Jesus,” Immacolata whispers, and she licks her ashen lips.
What big teeth you have.
The Signalman picks up one of the photographs, the one with his shadow in frame, the one where some trick of the light makes a corpse appear to be smiling. Every time he looks at these, every time he touches them, he feels unclean. He went through decon with the rest of the response team, but he only has to revisit these souvenirs of a horror show to be reminded how some stains sink straight through to the soul and are never coming out.
“How tight is the lid on this?” Immacolata asks him, and she raises an eyebrow plucked straight and thin as a paper cut.
“It’s all right there on the suicide drive,” he tells her, and points at the contents of the envelope scattered across the Formica tabletop.
“No,” she says. “I’m not asking you to parrot back to me what they’ve put in the reports. I didn’t come here to play Polly Want a Cracker.”
The Signalman stares at the tip of his cigarette, wishing this were going down in a proper fucking bar, someplace he could get a shot of Johnnie Walker Black or J&B. His mouth is as dry as the arroyos and sage waiting out there just beyond the halogen glare of the streetlights.
“We got lucky, after a fashion,” he says. “We have geography on our side, the hot zone being situated where it is.”
“That’s not what I asked you,” she protests.
“You ever been to the Salton Sea, Ms. Sexton? The lid’s on fucking tight, okay? The CDC would get a hard-on, the lid’s so goddamn tight. Neiman Marcus would be proud of our fucking window dressing.”
He hears the annoyance in his voice, the aluminum-foil edge, and it pisses him off that she’s getting to him.
“Am I making you nervous?”
No way in hell he’s going to answer that question, not for a gold-plated penny.
“The Moonlight Ranch is about three miles north of Bombay Beach,” he says instead. “Off Route 111. The only way in or out is a dirt road, not much more than a cattle trace. Lockdown is solid.”
“The Moonlight Ranch? What, is that one of Watertown’s supersecret code names?” And there’s that smirk again, curling at the corners of her mouth and setting her eyes to glimmering.
I’d give a hundred bucks for a shot of rye whiskey, he thinks, and swallows hard. I’d give a million to blow her fucking brains out.
“No, that’s just what the locals call it, and what Standish’s followers called it.”
“Yes, well, I’m beginning to have Helter Skelter flashbacks to Charlie Manson,” she says. “Moonlight Ranch, the Spahn Movie Ranch, appropriate names for pens to hold all the thunderstruck little sheeple. We’ll run cross-references, see what pops. You know we’re expecting access to the quarantine zone, right?”
“Albany anticipated as much. You’ve got eyes-only clearance, and you’ve already been assigned a handler.”
Immacolata nods, then leans back in the booth and just stares at that one photo held in her alabaster fingers. He’s not even sure which one it is. The way she’s holding it, he can’t make out the number printed on the back.
“And you’ve got mycologists on the ground?” she asks, then takes a sip of her coffee.
Moses on a motorbike, but isn’t she cool enough to freeze brimstone in Hell? Wouldn’t winding up on her bad side make a death sentence seem charitable?
“Yeah, sure. We’ve brought in people from Duke and the University of Michigan, and we’ve given them a state-of-the-art lab on the premises. Right now, they’re talking about cutaneous and subcutaneous mycoses, hyperparasites, opportunistic pathogens, cryptococcosis, aspergillosis, entomopathogenic fungi, and fucking zombie ants,” he tells Immacolata Sexton, reeling off remembered bits from Wednesday morning’s briefings, not because he’s trying to impress Y’s asset, just because it’s something to say, all that geek chatter. And, right now, saying anything feels better than saying nothing. “Jesus, you ever even heard of fucking zombie ants?”
She ignores the question, and he continues.
“But they’ve never seen shit like this, right. And you don’t need a shrink to see it’s sorta blowing their minds.”
She nods and says, “I trust no one’s been so careless as to whisper a word about Vermont or the Scituate Reservoir?” she asks without taking her eyes off the photograph.
“Despite what you may think, we’re not total fucking idiots. Besides, it’s not like they’ll be walking away from this with their recollections intact.”
“Perish the thought,” she says, peeking at him over the top of the photo, and she taps the side of her nose three times.
“Anyway, that’s what I brought, and I believe it’s now your turn,” says the Signalman, and he jabs a callused thumb at the attaché case. She nods and lays the picture from Moonlight Ranch back down on the table.
Excerpted from Agents of Dreamland © Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2017