by Howard V. Hendrix
The school buses had just started unloading by the time Agent Onilongo arrived and pulled into a Visitor space. Fingering the Möbius softclock pendant on the necklace Philip Marston had given her, she watched as the girls of the Special Class walked toward their temporary replacement classroom.
She picked up the extended magazines from the seat beside her, took her recovered twin Glock pistols out of the glove compartment, slipped the magazines into the pistols and the pistols into a holster at the small of her back. She donned her long jacket, opened the car door, and stood up. Looking into the sunshine of an early morning in late September, she saw a flock of birds shape-shifting like a cloud of animate smoke. They were still distant, but growing closer by the minute. Watching and waiting, she thought back over all that had happened to lead her to this moment.
* * *
Special Agent Ciera Onilongo didn’t quite know why she had been ordered to Bluffdale, Utah from the FBI office in Sacramento, California. Her usual work within the Bureau was cybersecurity—particularly cyberterrorism and cyberespionage, in the context of foreign and domestic events linked to state and corporate actors. The case of Philip Waypoint Marston was not the sort of thing Onilongo was accustomed to working on.
A high school biology teacher in his late fifties, Marston stood accused of the attempted mass killing of sixteen students. Nothing in his actions, however, suggested he had been specifically motivated by politics or corporate espionage. Judging by the all-too-brief briefing Onilongo had received before coming to Bluffdale, there also appeared to be very little that was “digital” or “cyber” about the Marston case. Given the type of crime, even Marston’s age harkened back to the predigital era—when mass murderers had most often been men of middle years who had endured decades of frustration before “going off.” Since the advent of social media, though, the average age of mass murderers had been falling sharply year by year.
About all Onilongo could say in favor of her taking the case was that at least she had been brought in on it early. She’d received her perfunctory briefing about the same time the first reports of “The Terror Teacher” began breaking in the media. Given the choice, Ciera Onilongo preferred to approach her cases in an interview-driven fashion, a circuitous approach which, more often than not, helped her get a more in-depth sense of what had actually occurred, especially when it came to the question of motive.
On her flight to Salt Lake, Onilongo had pored over the slim briefing materials she had received. Initially, she’d thought Marston’s attempted mass murder might be some sort of hate crime. He didn’t seem prompted by race, though—all of Marston’s would-be victims were as lily white as Marston himself. Perhaps he was motivated by some sex and power hate kink, given that all the intended victims were young and female. Or perhaps the trigger had been something religious: All of the students involved came from families who were members of a polygamous Mormon splinter movement headquartered in Bluffdale—the Apostolic United Brethren, who referred to themselves variously as the Work, or the Group, or the Priesthood.
Onilongo discovered, however, that Marston had himself been raised AUB, and was now what the locals called “Jack Mormon.” That just didn’t fit the profile of someone whose actions had been motivated by sectarian hate. Nothing in his record indicated any particular tendencies toward pedophilia or violent misogyny, either. Marston and his wife Melinda, although they had no children themselves, had been a sort of aunt and uncle to the kids in their community. They had also, by all accounts, been happily married for thirty years, until Melinda passed away from ovarian cancer five years back.
Once on the ground in Bluffdale—on the ride into town from the airport, in fact—Ciera came across what might be a possible digital connection for the case, however remote. What her initial briefers had neglected to remind her about was the other source of notoriety (beyond the AUB) that this small, white-bread town twenty miles south of Salt Lake City might lay claim to: namely, that Bluffdale was also the home dirt of the National Security Agency’s Utah Data Center, or the “Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center,” as it was officially known.
Onilongo thought it strange that no one who briefed her had bothered to mention the black hole at the center of the local galaxy. Had they presumed she would already know? She didn’t want to look stupid, but still, her first afternoon in town, she raised that issue with the Bureau’s local field officers—Robinson and Gediman, an undistinguished and almost indistinguishable pair of time-serving functionaries she couldn’t help but think of as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” The field boys, in response to her query, emphasized that, although Marston’s wife Melinda had worked at the Center in a low-level position almost up to the day of her death, Phil Marston himself had no known current connections to the NSA’s global/local cloud and code-cracking operations.
That struck Onilongo as both fortunate and unfortunate. She would have appreciated a solid cyber-linked lead. Yet she also knew from experience how persnickety No Such Agency could be when it came to Never Saying Anything about their projects and personnel. If Ciera was going to have to talk to someone at the Center—and she thought she probably would—it might be best to start the ball rolling that way ASAP, via inquiries and requests.
* * *
That evening, once she had settled into the small apartment she alternately called her “crash pad” and her “uchi,” she phoned her husband Mark and eight year old daughter Geneva in California. As much as federal law would allow, she brought them up to speed on her situation. Shortly thereafter, she started contacting her higher-ups about the possibility of meeting with NSA staff at the Center, in the event such a meeting became necessary.
From boredom, curiosity, and homesickness, she began poking around on the public web to see what she could learn about the respective roles and goals of the data center and the Group. She hoped there might be some overlap. Popping a temp implant into her head plug, she had hoped she could start browsing, but first she had to push past a barrage of neural implant anti-hack ads—“Are you and yours neurosecure? Make sure, with NeuroLockPure!” The ads, so persistent and dense, were probably more inconvenient than the potential hacks. READ MORE
by Jay Werkheiser
The heat shield separated from the shuttle and dropped clear. Gayle nosed down hard and switched the scramjets on. Her stomach dropped, giving her one last taste of the exhilarating feeling of freefall, and the gray horizon rose around her. The scramjets, now free of the heat shielding, began to thrust against the shuttle’s descent.
“Are you trying to kill us?” Anju said from behind her.
“Leave the flying to me, Doc. I’ll get you down fast.”
“I prefer alive.”
I prefer first, Gayle thought. Five survey teams, five members each—most of Pioneer’s crew—were screaming in from orbit simultaneously. Mission Commander Madison Taylor had insisted they keep telemetry off and make no contact with the ship for the first day, some egalitarian bullshit about the new world having no first founder to idolize.
Eff that noise. When their descendants wrote the book on the colonization of Kepler, they’d have a whole chapter on Gayle Donner’s first words.
Madison would be a barely remembered footnote. Damn that woman, anyway. If she’d had her way, they would still be up there analyzing probe data. Like they had somewhere else to go if the data turned out bad. Marginally habitable or not, Kepler was humanity’s one shot at survival.
“Aren’t you coming in a little hot?” Randi said from the copilot’s seat.
“I got this.”
But the tropospheric cloud deck was rising fast, and she still wasn’t over land. Gayle grudgingly nosed up and activated the radar HUD. The curved coastline appeared as a green line on her windshield, with elevation contours rising toward rim mountains in the distance. A red dot marked her intended landing site.
She checked elapsed mission time and cursed. Geta’s team had drawn a landing zone with an easy approach, further north along the crater rim with clear weather. She was probably on final approach by now. Gayle checked the altimeter and cursed again.
She was a little too high and a little too fast for it, but she cut the scramjets and rigged for the final descent. The shuttle dropped precipitously, punching her stomach up into her mouth. She flipped on the fans and ignored the complaints from her team.
The shuttle flashed through the cloud deck, and Gayle suddenly found herself facing a rapidly approaching river valley surrounded by rim mountains. Rainwater streaked the windshield. She reflexively yanked up on the yoke, and the shuttle shuddered and groaned.
“Jeez,” Anju said. “Take it easy.”
“You’re gonna stall.” Randi’s voice overlapped Anju’s.
Moments later, red indicators flashed. Fans two and four out. “Goddamn it,” Gayle said.
“Working on restart.”
Gayle fought the yoke, struggling to get the shuttle somewhere close to level. The HUD showed ground impact was imminent. “Brace for a hard landing.”
“Oxygen accumulators on,” Randi said.
Gayle caught motion in her peripheral vision. Her mind filled in the blanks, the crew positioning the devices on their noses. Someone’s hands clapped an accumulator onto the bridge of her nose, stinging her eyes, and slid the breathing tubes into her nostrils.
The shuttle jolted, and Gayle’s harness slammed into her chest. Stressed metal creaked then silenced, leaving nothing but the patter of rain on the outer hull and the hum of the air circulators. All four fan indicators flashed red.
The three passengers grumbled acknowledgement.
“Damage report?” No response. “Randi?” She looked to her copilot and found her slumped in her seat, harness unbuckled. “Damn it. Doc?”
“Randi’s not. I’m going out to assess the damage. Carla, Miho, you’re with me.”
She opened her harness and stood on legs made wobbly by years of alternating hibernation and spin gravity. Miho popped the hatch and stood aside, leaving that crucial first step to Gayle. She grinned despite everything. Here goes!
She stepped down onto the spongy wet ground. Rain patted her on the head. Next to her, the starboard landing strut was twisted out of shape.
“Goddamn it.” Not exactly the first words she had mentally prepared. Ah well, the history books could be fixed later. She moved to inspect the damage more closely, and the others piled out behind her.
“Whoa, take a look at this,” Carla said.
“You find more damage?”
“No. It’s just . . . beautiful.”
“Just take a look.”
Gayle stood with a sigh and wiped at the rainwater running down her face. Miho and Carla stood a few meters away, at the top of a low rise. She walked carefully over to them and followed their gaze.
Low clouds hung over the valley, dropping a light rain and fogging the view after a few kilometers. Gayle could see the bank of a slow moving river, but its far shore was obscured. Some sort of low vegetation, each looking something like a giant stem topped by a large semitransparent mushroom-shaped leaf, formed a regular hexagonal grid along the bank. A hundred shades of green, yellow, and brown streaked the soil, forming psychedelic swirls of color.
“Nice view.” READ MORE