A dark jewel of a novella, this definitive edition of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Black Helicopters is the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original.
Just as the Signalman stood and faced the void in Agents of Dreamland, so it falls to Ptolema, a chess piece in her agency’s world-spanning game, to unravel what has become tangled and unknowable.
Something strange is happening on the shores of New England. Something stranger still is happening to the world itself, chaos unleashed, rational explanation slipped loose from the moorings of the known. Two rival agencies stare across the Void at one another. Two sisters, the deadly, sickened products of experiments going back decades, desperately evade their hunters.
An invisible war rages at the fringes of our world, with unimaginable consequences and Lovecraftian horrors that ripple centuries into the future.
About the Author
CAITLÍN R. KIERNAN is the author of science fiction and dark fantasy works, including ten novels; many comic books; and more than two hundred published short stories, novellas, and vignettes. They are also the author of scientific papers in the field of paleontology.
Read an Excerpt
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
Here's the scene: Ptolema sits alone in the booth at Bewley's Oriental, sipping bitter black coffee. The October morning sun makes hard candy of Harry Clarke's stained-glass windows, and she checks her watch, and she stares into her coffee cup, and she looks at the stained glass, in that order, over and over again. The two agents are late, and late could mean anything. Or it could mean nothing at all. She's surrounded by the clamor of Trinity students and faculty, locals, tourists, latter-day bohemians. Ptolema hasn't been in Dublin in almost twenty years now, and it made her angry and sick to her stomach to see the Starbucks that's opened almost directly across the street from Bewley's. This thoroughfare is no longer the Dublin of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, not the Dublin of Mícheál Ó Coileáin and the Easter Rising. Grafton Street, she thinks, might as well be a Disney World reconstruction of the city. It was not so far along, this cancer, the last time she was here. But, again, that was almost twenty years ago. This is Dublin attempting to remake and sanitize itself for the World At Large, for the travelers who want history as exhibit, local color free of anything that would make them uneasy. Plastic Paddy souvenirs. Leprechaun and shamrock tchotchkes. But, Starbucks or no Starbucks, the McDonald's at the intersection with Wicklow Street or no, Burger fucking King or no, a block or two in almost any direction, and that, that is still Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town," sure as Salford ever was.
Heard a siren from the dock.
And even here on Sráid Grafton, there are still the buskers, the street preachers, the children sent out by their parents to beg for spare change. Stand on Ha'penny Bridge, and the Liffey still brings to her mind Murdoch and how "No man who has faced the Liffey can be appalled by the dirt of another river." The tourist-friendly cancer is kept hemmed in by the disagreeable, living city that will never have its face scrubbed up presentable for company. So, good for you, Dirty Old Town.
I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.
Ptolema checks her watch again: 10:38 a.m., which puts the X agents almost a half hour tardy. She's already called her handler in London once, and if she calls again Ptolema knows she'll be pulled. Because it could be a setup. Because it might be. She turns off her phone, just in case Barbican Estates decides to ring her. There's too much riding on this meeting, and she's not about to see three months' work swirl down the shitter because someone can't tell time. Or can't be bothered. This is, of course, to be expected from the X motherfuckers, and she knew that going in. She leans back in the booth, wanting a cigarette, and the air smells like frying eggs and dry little disks of black and white pudding.
Watch face. Coffee. Stained glass.
She bought the watch from a Munich pawnshop in 1963. The steaming coffee reminds her of the mist rising from that bay in Maine that has disgorged Hell's own derelicts. The windows hint at an unfamiliar world.
Ptolema notices four students at a nearby table staring. Laughing amongst themselves. Sniggering boy-men. Muttering German. One jabs a thumb her way. To those pasty, pale bastards, she must cut a strange sight, sure: bald head smooth enough it glistens in the sun through the windows, her brown skin, the ugly scar over her left ear, and, to them, she probably appears no older than thirty, thirty-five. Ptolema smiles and shows them her middle finger, and they shut the fuck up and mind their breakfasts. Perhaps it was the impatience in her eyes. Maybe they caught sight of all the secrets there, all the necessary evils of her station, all the men and women she's sent to Charon — by her own hand or the obedient hands of her subordinates.
Ptolema stares at the door, as though she can will the Xers to show up.
The coffee steams, and she tries not to think of Deer Isle, Maine. She hasn't entered the quarantine zone herself, and she won't if she can help it. Thank you very much, but there's plenty enough ugliness this side of the pond without going abroad in search of more and better. Let the CDC handle it, the CIA and the NSA and that Other American Group that has no official or unofficial title, those faceless, hollow men who crouch in the shadows beneath an Albany skyscraper and are ever on standby when this sort of shit goes down — which seems to be happening more and more often, and fuck all if she even wants to know why. It's not her job to know why. That's way above and beyond her pay grade. It's only her job to monitor the comings and goings of the X. To fathom the unfathomable, as it were, because how do you understand the goals of an organization so secretive 99.9 percent of its operatives have only the faintest idea of the big picture and are let loose to make up the dos and don'ts of a mission or experiment as they go along. Anarchy leaves almost as bad a taste in Ptolema's mouth as would the crap they sell at that McDonald's across the way.
The four German kids depart, surly and still muttering amongst themselves. She checks her watch again — 10:45. And she's just about two centimeters away from Screw these idiots, and screw Barbican when she catches sight of two faces that match the photos tucked into the dossier in her satchel beneath the table. These expats, supposedly cast out by their own designs. Fallen from their brethren quasi-Buddhist, mongrel Hindu, cyber-Shinto, Gnostic Thelemite worshippers at the shrines of Castaneda, Crowley, Camus, Blavatsky, Robert Anton Wilson, Velikovsky, Berlitz, Charles Fort, ad infinitum, a congregation based, possibly, in Saigon, or Calcutta, or Buenos Aires, or, more likely, nowhere at all. Anyway, this pair of ladies, they look like the rough end of flattened shit. Even more tattered than in their photographs. A wonder someone didn't turn them away at the door, because they sure as fuck look more like panhandlers than anyone who could afford a meal or a pint. Between them, probably not even the &8364;2.20 for a side of potato farl. Oh, but how looks can be deceiving, and for all she knows, these two might be goddamn stockbrokers or solicitors on the bum. Still, no one's going to touch an X. Not anyone who isn't deep in the know. Won't have the foggiest why, so call it instinct. In their rags both genuine or carefully cultivated, these two weave their way between the tables, untouchable because that's the way it is. Fucking ghosts, the whole lot of them. Even rogue agents like these two — assuming they actually are rogues, and that's not just another layer of some other ghost's one-dimensional logistic map or what have you. Ptolema sits up straighter and straightens the lapels of her leather blazer — force of habit from years when the Y didn't send her out to do business with sketchy cocksuckers, when the Bureau's resources were not stretched so bloody thin, and Ptolema was held back for shadow dignitaries and face-to-face sitdowns with those occupying unquestionable power, for whom appearances actually mattered.
They reach her booth, there below Harry Clarke's windows. One of the women is a tall redhead with a buzz cut and a ring in her nose. The other's not so tall, and her black hair's pulled back in two long braids. Right off, it's obvious neither of them are Irish. Ptolema doesn't even have to hear them speak to know that much. Americans, the both of them, and she'd bet half her Swiss bank account on that. They slide into the seat across from her.
"You the Egyptian?" the redhead asks in a phony brogue. "You P?"
"When the need arises," Ptolema replies, "but not in my fucking trousers." And she points at a stain on the crotch of the redhead's jeans.
The girl with the braids laughs. "Cute," she says. "Real cute."
"Told you," says the redhead, "that she'd be like this. Every one of them, they're all cheeky, smart-mouthed cunts."
Ptolema checks her watch again. "I assume tardiness is a point of pride with you."
"Close enough," says the redhead. Beneath her biker jacket, she's wearing an oatmeal-and-mud-colored sweater that might once have been white. The array of buttons festooning the jacket is just a little too deliberate. But only subtly so, not the sort of affectation one would notice unless one were trying to spot affectations, which Ptolema can't help but do. It keeps her on her toes. It's kept her alive more than once. Even the selection of buttons — a red anarchy symbol on a black field, the Sex Pistols, a skull and crossbones, the Dead Kennedys, the Clash — and the array of spikes and studs set into the shoulders and collar and sleeves. It all comes off prefab, calculated, studied.
"Didn't whoever holds your leash bother to inform you of the current decade?" Ptolema asks and points at the jacket. "The X must be even more desperate than usual."
The one in braids (who isn't wearing a biker jacket, just a ripped-up Bauhaus T-shirt and a ratty faux fur leopard-print coat) leans over and whispers in the redhead's ear. The redhead laughs.
"I'm not going to ask your names, because I neither need nor want to know them," says Ptolema.
"Good, because we weren't planning on tellin' you," the redhead replies.
"Always convenient to be on the same page."
"If you fuckin' say so," shrugs the redhead.
Ptolema removes an early model iPod from the inner pocket of her blazer, complete with earbuds. She sets it on the table between them.
"You've both assured me you're turncoats," she says, "but policy is to treat all defectors and moles as re-doubled agents. Ergo, I am proceeding on the assumption that this will, sooner or later, get back to Julia Set."
"We don't parlay with JS no more," says the redhead. "Bridges burned good and fuckin' proper."
"Bureau policy. Not my call. Also, we know the X routinely factors traitors into its equations. Free variables, as it were. But, as I've said, that's our working assumption, and we've taken it into account. Nonetheless, I am instructed to proceed on good faith."
"Which means you lot are desperate," smirks the woman with braids, and she reaches for the iPod. "What's this, then?"
Ptolema lets her have it, though she'd intended the redhead to hear the recording first. There's the second deviation from Barbican's itinerary.
"That's reason number one that we're having this conversation," she says. "Our people in Manhattan and Boston are picking it up all over the place. A twenty-four-second transmission broadcasting on pirate stations. On FM, it's popping up at ninety to ninety-one megahertz, and on medium wave exclusively at 1710. We've spotted it on single sideband modulation, as well, and shortwave. And we have five instances thus far of it having been embedded in pop and country songs on several Top 40 FM stations."
The redhead glances suspiciously at Ptolema. "Thought this was about —"
"We'll get to that. But first, we're getting to this. Consider it prologue, okay?" And Ptolema taps the iPod.
"Whatever you say, sister."
The redhead takes the iPod from her companion, so, hey, a smidge of realignment, one less red mark. She puts the buds in her ears and presses her thumb against the click wheel. Immediately, she frowns and shakes her head.
"Just fuckin' static," she mutters.
"That passes. Shut up and listen."
The redhead shuts up, and Ptolema watches her closely. The first tell could come right here, the very first hint the X might be lying. Long, long ago, Ptolema learned to read body language like it was words on a printed page. But the redhead's reactions are genuine. Thirty seconds pass, and she takes out the earbuds and silently stares at the iPod a moment before she says anything. The woman with black braids watches her closely.
"Yeah, well, that is the dog's bollocks of mental, I'll give you that."
Ptolema has a sip of her coffee, gone cold now, then asks the redhead, "Where'd they find you two, anyway? A trailer park in Muskogee, Oklahoma?"
The woman with black braids snickers and elbows her companion.
"So, tell me what you heard," Ptolema says, setting down her cup.
"Nothin' much," the redhead replies. "The static, yeah. Then a little girl, kid's voice. Creepy, innit?"
"What'd she say?" asks black braids.
"Six words. Just six words. 'Black queen white. White queen black.'"
"What the feck does that mean?"
The redhead stares at Ptolema, as if waiting for an answer to black braids' question. Instead, she has questions all her own.
"First time you've heard it? Either of you?"
"Sounds like chess shite to me," the redhead mutters.
"Okay, fine, so I'll take that as a yes."
"Take it however you want. That's all you got?"
Ptolema reaches underneath the table for her satchel. The worn leather is camel hide, and there are cracks here and there. She unfastens the strap and removes a manila folder. She lays it on the table next to the iPod.
"The phrase you heard is also turning up as graffiti, but the taggers we've questioned don't know shit about it. Or if they do, they won't say. A week ago, Xeroxed fliers started appearing in both cities, Boston and New York, just those six words, always on canary-yellow paper."
"Canary," says black braids. "Like the bird?"
Ptolema ignores the question, but does note that the woman no longer seems to have an interest in hearing the recording for herself. Which might mean several things or might mean nothing at all. But worth noting, regardless.
"It's nothing from our cell," the redhead says, then glances over her shoulder towards the doors and the big windows fronting Bewley's. "Can't speak for all the others, but you know that."
"Of course," Ptolema tells her. Then she opens the folder, and on top there's a glossy color photo of a woman standing on a street corner. There's nothing especially remarkable about her appearance, and if that's deliberate she's mastered the art of blending in. A little frowzy, maybe. She's wearing a windbreaker the color of an artichoke.
"This was taken here in Dublin three days ago, up on Burgh Quay. I'm not going to ask if you know her, because all three of us already know the answer. She goes by Twisby."
"Yeah," says the redhead, and she doesn't say anything else about the photo. She takes out a cigarette, but doesn't light it. She just holds it between her fingers. Ptolema can see she's getting nervous, but anyone could see that.
"And now this woman," Ptolema says, pushing aside the first photo to reveal a second. The woman in this one is as striking as the first was plain. She's sitting on a park bench reading a paperback. Her white hair is cut in a bob. "I snapped this on St. Stephen's Green yesterday."
"The twins," says black braids and chews at a thumbnail. "The albinos. One of them. Think that's the one calls herself Ivoire. That's her mac, yeah? Always wears that thing, if it's rainin' or not. Yeah, that's Ivy."
"Yeah, Ivoire," says the redhead.
"But Ivoire — Ivy — and the Twisby woman, you've never seen the two of them together, have you?"
"No," replies the redhead. "That's not the way it works."
Ptolema sets aside the second photo, and there's one below it that could be the same person. Same face. Same cornsilk hair and haircut, same pale complexion, same startling blue eyes. She's sitting beneath a tree, also reading a paperback. They are, in fact, both reading the same book, which is plain upon close inspection: Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.
"No. Yeah. That one's the other. Bête, I mean," black braids says around her thumb. "Feckin' bitch, in on what they're doin' to her own sister. Just wrong, by anyone's standards of fair play. Not just her sister, either. But guess you —"
"— already know the twins are also lovers?" interrupts Ptolema. "Yes. We know that. And the two of you have spoken with all three of these individuals?"
"That's why we're here, innit?" asks black braids.
Ptolema returns the photos to the folder, the folder to the satchel, and she fastens the strap again. She returns the iPod to her pocket.
"That all?" asks the redhead.
"No," Ptolema says. "That's us just getting started. But it's enough for this morning. We'll talk again tomorrow night. I trust you two know Beshoff's, on O'Connell."
The redhead nods. "We know it."
"Eight o'clock. And at least consider being on time, will you?"
The redhead moves the unlit cigarette between her fingers the way a magician might a coin. But then, she is a magician, isn't she? "My associate and I will take it under consideration, guv'ner." She's trying to sound cocky, but she's rattled. That's good.
Ptolema pays them both, even if it's only a formality and she doubts either of them needs the money. Then again, if they aren't lying and they've actually severed ties with Julia Set, they could be poor as fucking church mice.
"Eight. Beshoff's. Don't you keep me waiting again."
They slide out of the booth, one after the other. Before the pair turn to leave, the redhead grins and says, "Like you have a choice."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Black Helicopters"
Copyright © 2018 Caitlín R. Kiernan.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1.: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,
2.: Anybody Could Write a True Story,
3.: A Wolf at the Door/It Girl. Rag Doll.,
4.: Black Ships Seen Last Year South of Heaven,
5.: How Ghosts Affect Relationships,
6 .: Late Saturday Night Motel Signal,
7.: The Way Out Is Through,
8.: Golgotha Tenement Blues/Counting Zeroes,
9.: Bury Magnets. Swallow the Rapture.,
10.: A Plague of Snakes, Turned to Stone,
11.: Throwing a Donner Party at Sea,
12.: If I Should Fall from Grace with God,
13.: Late Saturday Night Motel Signal,
14.: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]/Hasenohr Faltung,
15.: The Spider's Stratagem,
16.: Now[here] Man Saves/Damns the World,
17.: Thunder Perfect Mind/Judas as a Moth,
18.: Soft Black Stars,
19.: Where I End and You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In),
20.: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
APPENDIX 9.: [le remix Anglaise]Bury Magnets. Swallow the Rapture.,
AUTHOR'S NOTE FOR THE DEFINITIVE EDITION,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
BOOKS BY Caitlín R. Kiernan,