Story Excerpt

The Girls with Kaleidoscope Eyes

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.

The public net revealed little connection between the Group and the NSA, other than the fact that a not-inconsiderable number of members in the former were also employees of the latter. Onilongo’s level of access to classified material in the governmental deep net didn’t get her much further than that, although she did learn that the AUB now had three times as many members and four times as many multiple-marriage households as it had half a century earlier. In terms of the percentage of Bluffdale’s land it owned and Bluffdale’s population it employed, the Group was second only to what the locals called “the spy center.”

The Group and the Utah data center were clearly the two biggest things going between the Oquirrh Mountains and the Wasatch Range, but information about the Center was, if anything, more spotty and arid than background for the Group. She plowed through stats about the Center’s data halls—square-footages, maps featuring the locations of tech and admin support facilities, specs on the visitor control unit, the sixty-five-megawatt power substation, backup generators, pumps and chillers, tanks for water and fuel. All the usual nondescript descriptions of restricted access buildings, in other words—and the even more nondescript descriptions of what went on inside them.

Digging deeper into the notes on the Center’s “million-square-foot archive for handling yottabytes of information pumped through the Pentagon’s Global Information Grid,” however, Onilongo began to see the outlines of what the Center not so apparently was: the nearly invisible spider at the center of a nearly invisible ghost web of aerospace data facilities and geostationary satellites; of secret corporate and government communications; of domestic and overseas listening posts; of specialist intercept and analysis facilities in Hawaii, Georgia, and Texas; of research facilities in Oak Ridge and headquarters in Fort Meade, where No Such Agency built supercomputers and advanced artificial intelligence systems destined for the bleeding edge of cryptanalysis—all, it seemed, dedicated to ensuring that no password-protected data or anything supposed to be “private” would by any means remain so, should that private data conceivably pose even the slightest threat to national security.

The strangest documents Onilongo stumbled upon, however, were a particular subset of blog posts, thread comments, and letters to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Valley Journal. Judging by the dates of all of them, the writer first posted telegraphically brief online missives warning about the dangers posed by strong AI, cross-domain optimization power, and arbitrarily super-intelligent machines. The somewhat longer newspaper letters concealed that the Utah data center’s vast accumulation of human cultural information made the optimization engines employed there more valuable for national security purposes, yes—but also warned of the increased danger those optimization engines posed for a “singularitarian-style global AI takeover.”

That last bit sounded rather tinfoil-hat to Onilongo, but also undeniably intriguing. More intriguing still was the authorship of all that material, once she figured it out. The blog posts and thread comments had been written under the internet handle “Mars Town and Gown,” but after she had read two of the newspaper letters, Onilongo at last recognized the name of the writer—P.W. Marston—and from that had decoded the name behind the blogger’s handle.

She rubbed her aching neck and eyes and ended her research for the day. Despite her exhaustion, as she got into bed, Onilongo couldn’t help but continue to puzzle herself about why a high school biology teacher should be so concerned with, or knowledegable about, artificial intelligence. She vowed to learn more about the man’s background before she interviewed Marston the next afternoon.

*   *   *

As Special Agent Onilongo dressed for her day in business jacket, slacks, and dress running shoes, she made good on the previous nights vow. Investigating public and private records further, she saw that his career trajectory seemed to have been on a downward path for a very long time.

He had started off well enough. After a stint in the navy working for something called the Naval Security Group, he topped out as a lieutenant commander. He returned to school, where he earned a PhD in biological anthropology. An appointment to a tenure-track position followed, straight out of graduate school.

After several years in this first academic placement, however, he had been denied tenure at the university. He had then moved on to another college in the role of adjunct faculty. When that position ended, he followed up with one last career move—his eventual return to his hometown of Bluffdale and to teaching at Jordan Summit Charter High School. Onilongo saw too that, despite coming down in the world of academia, he had kept up his memberships in all the loftiest professional and educational societies, as well as in local stargazing, bird-watching, and rod and gun clubs.

Onilongo was unable to determine from the available records why the first university had denied tenure to Philip Marston. All she was able to find was his published comment suggesting that “addressing economic inequality ought to be a higher priority than merely celebrating diversity.” Although Onilongo didn’t fully agree with that analysis—inequality and ethnicity, for instance, were often intertwined—such a political stance hardly rose to the level of hate speech. Still, Onilongo had heard that university tenure committees could be oddly sensitive about such things.

The second university’s reasons for terminating Marston’s adjunct faculty appointment were much easier to figure out, once Onilongo found Marston’s “Ghost of Commencement Future” blog post—and another post discussing the subsequent end of his adjunct faculty career (both posts now over a dozen years old). Onilongo found them noteworthy enough that she launched into a second reading of the “Commencement Future” piece, with distinct interest:

 

Congratulations to my students graduating with this year’s class. Your graduation present is this live feed from your now-virtual teacher.

Because I am old school, I am sending this non-commencement address via tweets, though I know most of you are twitterpated by newer tech.

This year I’ve retired my academic regalia. Given Academia’s demise, I would now have to wear my cap and gown with a Scream skull mask.

Together apart, those of us listening now hear the opening strains of the second movement of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we should ponder the following lyrics whenever we hear this ponderous tune, but especially on this day:

Everyone starts with a B . . . / And Cs get degrees. / No need to learn skills or content; / Just smile a lot, and pretend! Dum-dum-dum.

How did we come to this pass? Our AI commencement speaker and arguably human university administrators won’t tell you. But I will.

*   *   *

Ciera Onilongo stopped and shook her head. Marston’s adjunct faculty contract was “not renewed”—big surprise. Down he fell, to another lower plateau on the descending spiral. Yet, through it all, his wife Melinda had amazingly stuck with him—for thirty plus years. Agent Onilongo marveled at such patience.

Glancing at her watch, she realized she would have to hurry to arrive on time for the interview she had scheduled with Marston. Recovering from burns suffered during the mass-murder attempt, the former teacher was in a secured ward of the county hospital and not going anywhere, but Onilongo still liked to be on time. As she made her way to her silver government car, she popped in one of her ear buds and commanded her text-reader to continue Marston’s “Commencement Future” in “aloud” mode. She ordered it to fast-forward until she reached the part she wanted to hear again.

*   *   *

. . . Everyone had to go! More students, spending more money, for more degrees worth less and less. Diploma assets purchased by long-term debt.

Colleges with no business being in the education “business.” Digital diploma mills. Massive open online con-job academies. W.E. Scam U.

Students with inflated grades pursuing inflated degrees at inflated prices from universities paying inflated administrative salaries.

The bubble burst. Trillions in loan debt. Students walked at graduation, walked away from debt. The latter more often than the former.

Yet that was not the whole story of American higher education’s collapse—a story full of truths so unpopular no one wanted to hear them. . . .

*   *   *

Onilongo switched off the text reader as she got into her car. Driving out of the parking structure and onto the highway past a NeuroLockPure billboard, she shook her head again. Marston’s “Commencement Future” predictions, in the blog post, had been pretty much on target. The post had helped get him a contract for a collection of essays, Ritual Humiliations of the Digital Age, and some small fame as a satirist—but at the cost of his job.

Still, from everything she had seen on him in the public and private web, Marston had not regretted his screed. He had quite contentedly unsheathed the naked sword of his truth for all to see, and then proceeded to fall upon it. Again and again.

Once into the flow of traffic, Onilongo set the car’s driving mode to semiautonomous and commanded the text reader back on, fast-forwarding once more.

*   *   *

. . . Pass/Fail and checkmark grading. Contract grading, based on assignment quantity rather than quality. Teaching to the tech.

The decades-long rollout of a public higher education system staffed mostly by adjunct faculty. Stress of a CEO, pay of a burger-flipper.

The growing emphasis, from college administrators and state politicians, on lower admissions standards, higher and faster graduation rates.

High academic standards in the classroom growing ever more likely to get teachers punished rather than rewarded.

(Academic standards? Insensitivity to the endless diversities of our students! To the concierge service demanded by our paying customers!) . . .

*   *   *

Commanding off the reader again as she took the wheel and the turn leading to the hospital, Onilongo realized such sentiments as that last one must have endeared Marston to neither the Left nor the Right—in that order. Brave words, in their way, but foolish. The man had not earned his doctorate from Self-Created Adversity University, Ciera thought, but he might as well have.

On the hospital floor where Marston was recuperating, Onilongo presented her credentials to the security personnel at the nurses’ station, and then to the armed Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputy outside Marston’s room. As the deputy opened the door, Onilongo found herself thinking of Marston’s grim, head-shaved mug shots. The man in the bed before her now, with his white hair stubbling in, seemed almost frail—more “cancer survivor” than “Hannibal Lecter.”

The young man standing by the window beyond the bed strode toward her. Sticking out his hand, he introduced himself as “John Hertenstein, Mister Marston’s attorney.” Agent Onilongo shook the proffered hand and introduced herself and again presented her credentials. She asked Hertenstein if she might record the interview with his client, but Hertenstein demurred, saying that he preferred she restrict herself to making notes. She agreed and turned to Phil Marston. They shook hands, then he gave a small nod in his attorney’s direction.

“I’ve lawyered up, as you see, Ms. Onilongo. I suppose John’s here, as usual, to make sure I don’t reveal anything self-incriminating. Before I answer your questions, would you be so kind as to answer a few of mine?”

Surprised by Marston’s rational and calm—even gentlemanly—demeanor, she nodded. She found him much easier to talk too than she’d expected.

“Do you have any children, Ms. Onilongo?”

“A daughter.”

“And how old is she?”

“Eight years old. Geneva, but we call her Gena. She’s just entered third grade this fall.”

“Hmm. Not so good for me, I suppose, but be that as it may. Do you have a particular specialty in your work for the Bureau, Ms. Onilongo?”

“Cybersecurity—mostly counterterror- and counterespionage-related.”

Marston flashed a quick smile.

“Neurosecurity too?”

“Some, yes.”

“Better, better! Could it be possible? Has somebody out there gotten it right—and not sent in just another beat detective with no idea what I’m talking about?”

Ciera Onilongo found she had nothing to say to that.

“Did you start in domestic or foreign counterterrorism?”

“Actually I started in bank robbery and fraud investigation. Then domestic counterterror, followed by foreign. I did a couple of overseas stints in the Legal Attaché program, serving under the State Department auspices.”

Marston stared hard at her.

“You were part of the Legat program? Where were you posted?”

“Bagram/Kabul and Islamabad. After I got married—especially after my daughter was born—I didn’t want to travel as much. So I began to work more on the cyber side.”

“Hmm. Interesting. Do you have permanent neural implants, Ms. Onilongo? You don’t appear to. I’d have thought those would be de rigeur for an expert in cybersecurity.”

Ciera was surprised and vaguely embarrassed. Implants could be very small, and discreet. How had he known she had no permanents?

“They’re not absolutely required. I do removables only—templants, they’re called. Temporary implants. I’m a bit old-school, that way.”

“I’ve been accused of the same thing myself, Ms. Onilongo. I also tend to be rather direct—another of my failings, but I’m nonetheless going to expect the same failing of you. So, talk to me straight. What do you want to know?”

Ciera inhaled and then asked the question that had been niggling at her from the moment she was assigned to Marston’s case.

“If you were in fact trying to kill those girls, then—why?”

“Ah, ‘if.’ Very good. One might almost hope that you’re still open-minded enough to look at the facts—that you’ve not just uncritically accepted all that ‘Terror Teacher’ and ‘Murder Professor’ noise buzzing about in the media, like a billion annoying gnats.”

“I’d like to think so.”

“I hope so, Ms. Onilongo. So I’ll tell you about that ‘if.’” He glanced at his attorney. “Don’t give me that look, John—I’m well aware we’re almost certainly being eavesdropped on, but what does it matter, at this point? Yes, Ms. Onilongo, I was in fact intending to kill those girls, but I changed my mind. Which is why they are largely unhurt, and I’m here recuperating from my injuries.”

“But why did you want to kill them in the first place?”

Marston gave her a direct and level look. Onilongo noticed that the man’s eyes were so light a blue they looked almost grey.

“Because, Ms. Onilongo, before there can exist a world of machines that can pass for people, there first must be a world of people that can pass for machines.”

“I don’t think I understand.”

“No, it’s not an easy thing to take in. You have to know quite a few things already, to understand it. What do you already know? What has your research shown you about me?”

She told him. About the NSA data center. About the Apostolic United Brethren. About his naval and academic career history. About his deceased wife Melinda. About his blog posts and letters to the editor. About her hate crime theories, and why they hadn’t seemed quite right. When she had finished, he flashed her another brief smile.

“That’s a start, then. The Center, the Group, my dear wife Melinda—they are indeed part of it, but not in ways you might expect. You’ve left out one very important piece, however.”

“What’s that?”

“The girls, of course. My ‘intended victims.’ What do you know about them?”

“They’re all ten years old. And they were all your students.”

“Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“Why should it?”

“I was teaching high school, Ms. Onilongo. Almost exclusively junior and senior year courses. Do you think ten year olds would normally be my students?”

“I thought they might be your students in Sunday school, or something.”

“No, Ms. Onilongo. They were among my students at Jordan Summit Charter High. Among them—but apart from them.”

“Maybe they were . . . advanced?”

Marston flashed his enigmatic little smile again.

“Oh, they’re advanced, all right. They always have been—and I’ve known them almost their entire lives. You might want to visit Jordan Summit High. Ask admin and faculty and staff about the ‘Special Class.’ And the local spike in youth suicides. See what answers you get.”

Agent Onilongo looked up from her notes.

“All right. I will. Anything else?”

“You also might want to ask around town about the Nightshift Nodoff, aka Bluffdale Blackout. Happened about eleven years ago.”

“Anything else you think I should know? About the data center? Or the AUB?”

“Many things—about both of them. I’ll give you a couple for each, if you bend close and let me whisper them in your ear.”

Overcoming her reluctance at the thought of placing her ear so close to the teeth of a would-be mass murderer, Onilongo leaned forward. Marston cupped his hand between his mouth and her ear and spoke very softly.

“At the Center, you might want to look into a tech they call the Sifter system,” he said, just above a whisper. “Also the spike in female reproductive cancers, and why the Center stopped using terahertz-wave tech in security screening and ultrafast computing. As for the Group, perhaps you should look into the Adam-God Doctrine, and its history. And here—” he said, pressing something into the palm of her hand, “wear this. It’ll let each of us know when the other is in the vicinity.”

Marston sank back into his pillows and spoke at a more ordinary volume once more.

“That should be enough homework for today, Ms. Onilongo. I know I’m feeling tired, at any rate.”

Onilongo shut her electronic notepad and nodded. Whatever it was Marston had pressed into her hand she now palmed into her pocket without looking at it. She folded the notepad into her carry bag and turned to leave.

“Oh, and something else, Ms. Onilongo.”

“Yes?”

“As you go about your investigations, keep this in mind: The strangest thing is how normal everything still is. Or how normal we pretend everything still is. Make sure you get some time out of town, too. There are some wonderful hikes in the area.”

Onilongo nodded again, handed him a solar-powered wi-fi business card with all her contact info, and left. Winding her way down from the secured floor, through the hospital and back to her government car in the parking lot, she thought Marston had proven more than helpful enough, in his own way. That was just it, though: his own way. She didn’t want to be manipulated, or sucked into some would-be mass murderer’s distorted view of reality. She needed to retain her objectivity. Partly to remind herself of how quirky Marston’s view of reality was, once she was back on the highway, she commanded her text reader on again and listened as it finished reading Marston’s “Commencement Future” to her.

*   *   *

Looking back, the edu-bubble bust now seems inevitable. And, like the housing crash before it, the post-crash reforms have changed—what?

The truth is as unpopular as ever. We keep spraying the groves of Academe with digital Agent Orange. Is it any wonder the trees are dying?

Would that we could go back to before it was too late! Before the edu-bubble burst and made everything worse! But we lack a time machine.

Its message much different from mine, our commencement AI has just finished speaking, to applause and smiles from mostly ghostly people.

Soon the band will strike up “Pomp” as our recessional. The music will be familiar, but we’ll have forgotten the words few dare to ponder.

*   *   *

Time machines, Onilongo thought as the text reader fell silent. The pseudo-tweeted essay was itself all that: a piece written in the past but looking back from a future of “Commencement AIs” that sounded a lot like the present. A document from the time before Marston’s intended victims were born, yet still, Ciera sensed, somehow relevant.

Remembering the object Marston had pressed into her hand and that she had palmed into her pocket, Onilongo took the item out to look at it. It was a necklace, the pendant of which was a strangely beautiful image of Time’s arrow bent into a Möbius strip—a small Möbius-band softclock, “closed in time and nonorientable in space,” as she learned once she matched it with images online. Like the temporal complexities of Marston’s essay, it made Ciera’s head hurt. It likewise reminded her that she would need to stay on her guard while dealing with this man. Yet she donned the necklace, nonetheless.

*   *   *

Finding out about the “Adam-God doctrine” was easy enough: Ciera looked it up online via a Mormon History site. The doctrine, originally preached by Brigham Young, was eventually rejected by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but was still revered by the Apostolic United Brethren and other Mormon splinter sects.

The doctrine (or theory—sources varied) held that Adam and one of his wives, Eve, came to Eden as “resurrected, exalted personages,” after traveling in their celestial bodies from another world. According to the doctrine, Adam not only helped make and organize Earth, but was also the Archangel Michael, the Ancient of Days, and the father of all the spirits of humanity, as well as of all physical human beings. Adam and Eve fell and became mortal so that they might create physical bodies for humanity, their spirit children. Later, Adam was also the spiritual and physical father of Jesus Christ.

That was all well and weird, Onilongo thought, but she really didn’t see why Marston had referred her to it. She wondered if she might have to speak to an elder or priest of the Group to figure out the theory’s relevance—or if Marston might just be toying with her. Pushing down her suspicions of the latter, she posted a query to the AUB’s headquarters, explaining her role in the Marston investigation and requesting an interview with an elder or bishop.

Her research into the Nightshift Nodoff was much less fruitful online—just a wry comment in a blogpost thread in the Valley Journal’s digital edition from eleven years back—but much more productive in person. And almost by accident.

Burnt out on her research, Ciera had touched based late with her husband in California, thankful the coast was an hour behind the mountains, time-wise. Still tired but wired, she made her late-night way to the Denny’s off Bangerter Highway. Over decaf coffee and a midnight French toast breakfast—served to her by Vera, a veteran waitress who seemed to add the word “honey” to almost every question—Onilongo thought to ask her server about “this Nodoff thing.”

“How long have you been working the night shift here, Vera?”

“Sixteen years, I think it is. Why do you want to know, honey?”

“Someone told me today to find out about something called the ‘Nightshift Nodoff.’ Ever hear of it?”

“More than heard of it,” she said, pouring Ciera some coffee. “I was part of it. Night of March fourteenth and early morning of the fifteenth—eleven years ago. Pretty much covered the whole town, from this Denny’s right here to the data center up there. I remember it just as right as right ever was.”

“What happened?”

“It was a little after midnight. I had just put a chicken fried steak special in front of a customer, and I—fell asleep. Boom, down, out! Then woke up, just after one in the morning. Got to my feet and didn’t remember a thing. It happened to everyone in the restaurant. I remember watching the customer—the one I had just served—come out of it. He poked at his meal, then complained that it was cold, though the last thing I remember I had just brought it out, piping hot. Strange as could be.”

“And it covered the whole town, you say?” Onilongo asked, noting that one of Vera’s much younger coworkers, a busboy with a soft Mohawk and scalp tattoo, was eavesdropping.

“Pretty much. Of course, we’re a quiet town. It was a weeknight, so when it hit most people were already asleep anyway. About the only ones who really noticed were folks working the late shift—waitresses and waiters, busboys, janitors, night nurses. Police, fire, paramedics too. Crime was nothing during that hour, though. The only thing the firefighters and paramedics had waiting for them were a couple of accidents—involving drivers who weren’t on autonomous-vehicle mode and fell asleep at the wheel.”

“Was there any formal investigation?”

“Not much of one. The police confiscated a bunch of surveillance camera records, but there was thunder snow, maybe followed by a dry lightning bust. Lots of power outages that night. I don’t know how much the cameras really got. The Bluffdale police and Salt Lake County sheriff interviewed some people—including me—but not much ever came of that. Most day-people don’t think it actually happened. Those of us who know it did happen don’t much like to talk about. Kind of an embarrass, waking up cold, damp, and clueless.  What makes you bring it up, honey? You a reporter?”

“No. I’m in law enforcement myself.”

“Really? What branch?”

“FBI. Investigating the case of Philip Marston.”

Vera nodded, her grey-blonde hair bouncing.

“Makes sense that you’d be interested in the Nodoff, then.”

“Oh? How’s that?”

“Those Allred Group girls, the ones they say Phil Marston was trying to kill.”

“Allred Group?”

“The Allreds founded it, though members mainly just call it the Group, now. Those Group girls were all part of the Christmas baby rush.”

“I don’t see the connection.”

“They were all born right around Christmas—just a bit over nine months after the Nodoff. Some of us who went through that think those mothers all got pregnant that same night. Another embarrassment.”

“How so?”

“Because some of the mothers were young and unmarried. A few claimed to be virgins. Said they had never been touched that way by a man—despite being pregnant. Others, their husbands were out of town or overseas in the military. I remember Lori Jenkins—her husband was a long-haul trucker then, before the trucks became self-driving—she was the first to claim she had a vision of an angel, and that’s how she got pregnant while her husband was away. She wasn’t the only one. Several of the mothers who were embarazada, as the Mexicans say—they claimed to have been visited by an angel, or visions of an angel.”

“And people believed them?” Onilongo asked, disbelief in her voice. Vera shrugged.

“We’re a visionary people, us LDS folks. All the mothers were part of the Group, but that’s true for them too—maybe more so. Some of the more cynical sort thought the angel stories were all a cover up for a rape-on-the-night-shift sort of thing, but visions constitute a mark of divine approval in our church, and among those in the Allred Group, too. We don’t much question that idea.”

“So you just accept unexplained supernatural occurrences?”

“That’s not how we look at it. In our doctrine, visions aren’t really supernatural. My bishop says it’s like X rays and atomic particles. You can’t pick those up with your ordinary senses, but scientific instruments can spot them. In visions, the instrument is the person, who has become attuned to visions through faith and the help of God’s spirit.”

“Sounds more like LSD, than LDS!” the busboy said, laughing.

“That’s a very old and very tired joke, Ricky,” said Vera. “Don’t you listen to him, honey. He forgets the rule: Whereof one cannot say, thereof let one keep silent.”

Ciera smiled at them both. She could see that these two had bandied such comments between them before.

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the info. I appreciate it.”

Onilongo finished up her meal, left a tip, then went to the front to pay her bill. After she had exited the restaurant and had almost reached her car, the young busboy sidled up to her.

“Hey! There’s something Vera forgot to tell you.”

“What’s that?”

“A bunch of those Group people lived on the street where I grew up. They told us kids that those Christmas girl-babies all had the same father. Adam, or an archangel, or something. They were real protective about the girls with kaleidoscope eyes.”

“The what?”

The busboy gave a surprised laugh.

“The girls of the ‘Special Class.’ You haven’t actually seen them yet, have you?”

“I’m hoping to see them tomorrow. At the high school.”

“If you see them, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Ricky. Ricky Dwyer.”

“Thank you, Mister Dwyer. I’ll keep in mind what you said.”

“Nobody wise messes with those girls with kaleidoscope eyes!” he said, nodding and waving. “They’ll blow your mind to pretty glitter!”

He scurried back into the shadows. With a puzzled frown, Ciera watched the young man until he disappeared. Getting behind the wheel of her car, she felt very tired, very suddenly. She hoped she could stay awake long enough to get back to her crash pad.

*   *   *

Even before she got in her car to drive there the following morning, Agent Onilongo learned from a net ad that Jordan Summit High School claimed to be “the most STEM-intensive high school educational experience in Utah.” The school and its staff were big on the life sciences, physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, computing, and robotics—all the major STEM career-path curricula.

Walking across campus, she thought the grounds and buildings didn’t look much different from those of any other well-funded high school facility built almost anywhere in the United States in the last twenty years—except for the charred remains of what looked like a modular classroom building, surrounded by yellow police line tape, on a hill behind campus. The scene of the crime, she knew, from the reports she had already read.

Walking through the halls, she did notice that Jordan Summit had a high ratio of labs to classrooms, and that the student body seemed a bit on the geeky side, but otherwise it could be a good public or charter high school almost anywhere. Agent Onilongo also noticed that the students and teachers were almost entirely Caucasian, overwhelmingly enough that Ciera felt the reality of her Filipino-Korean heritage much more keenly than she usually did.

Remembering how forthcoming Vera and Ricky had been the previous night, however, she felt her “difference” might be somehow a good thing—branding her as the sort of outsider some people might be more willing to open up to than those who looked just like themselves and their fellow townsfolk. Maybe it had even helped her with Marston.

Such had not always been the case. The school environs she moved through this morning reminded Ciera of a joke a seventh grade classmate had made at Ciera’s expense—about Ciera looking “Mexican-Chinese” and asking her if she’d ever made a mu shu burrito. Ciera had not found it funny.

Walking into the principal’s office now, she introduced herself and presented her credentials to the receptionist, then asked if she might speak with the principal regarding the Marston case. Virginia Willey, the receptionist (who promptly informed Ciera that she was actually the “management services officer”) told her to wait while she spoke with Principal Tewly. Agent Onilongo took a seat and, for the first time, paid actual attention to the bespectacled, business-casual blond woman already sitting in the waiting area.

“Nancy Harlow,” said the woman, extending her hand for Ciera to shake. “I heard who you are when you introduced yourself to Ginnie. I’m the school psychologist and counselor.”

“You must be very busy, given what happened to those girls.”

“Oh yes. Near escape from a fiery explosion is unsettling in real life, no matter how many times action heroes do it in the movies.”

“Yes,” Ciera said, nodding. “I saw the burnt building surrounded by crime scene tape when I drove in. Quite the mess.” She was trying to figure out how to broach to Ms. Harlow the subject of her colleague Mister Marston’s behavior, when Ginnie opened the door to the inner office.

“Principal Tewly will see you now.”

“Nice to meet you, Nancy,” Ciera said, getting to her feet. She shook the hand again of the still seated Ms. Harlow, then turned to enter the principal’s office.

The thin man in blue suit and red tie rose from behind the large desk of dark wood. He appeared to be about sixty years of age—white haired, blue eyed, lantern jawed. He shook her hand briskly and gestured for her to sit down, as he also returned to his seat.

“What can I do for you, Special Agent Onilongo? Is that how I should address you?”

“Ms. Onilongo will be fine.”

“Very well then. How may I be of assistance, Ms. Onilongo?”

“I’d like to get some background on Philip Marston and his intended victims.”

Tewly frowned.

“Ms. Onilongo, we’re very serious about quality education here. Our families and students are also very serious about that quality education too. As you might guess, this whole episode is quite the black eye for us. And for me personally. I was the person most responsible for hiring Dr. Marston, nearly a dozen years ago.”

“What about him made him an appealing candidate for the job?”

Tewly leaned back in his chair, thoughtful.

“Balance. We’re a science-heavy school—very ‘left brain,’ if you like. Although his bachelor’s and master’s degrees were in Biology, Phil’s doctorate was in anthropology. He had also published a book of essays—”

“Ritual Humiliations?”

“That was the one. That came with baggage of its own, of course. The California State University system had terminated his appointment because of what he’d written, but he was a full-pop PhD, with many years of teaching experience. I’m just a humble EdD myself. Getting someone like him to teach in a small town high school—his own hometown, no less—that seemed quite the coup, at the time. Even that controversial little book of his was proof to me that Phil might be a help to us, not only in the sciences but also in the humanities.”

“And he was?”

“Yes indeed. A very rigorous teacher, with very high standards. The students considered him something of a ‘hard ass,’ but those that valued academic rigor liked him a great deal. And even for those students who found him more than challenging, he could be entertaining enough—playful, eccentric, even a bit goofy.”

“My grandfather used to say something about that,” Agent Onilongo said, looking up from her electronic notepad. “He was a teacher himself, but he said, ‘To be a great teacher, one must also be a very great fool.’ He was usually talking about somebody like Socrates or Jesus or Buddha, as I recall, but I always thought he was talking about himself, too.”

“Exactly so. Phil Marston has never suffered arrogant and ignorant fools gladly, but he was more than willing to play the wise fool himself, to get a point across. That’s the kind of teacher he was. In his heart of hearts I think he always saw himself as some kind of educational reformer.” Tewly frowned. “Here I am, talking about him like he’s already past tense—almost as if he’s already dead. But in some ways the Phil Marston I knew is already dead. Trying to kill sixteen ten-year-old students is a very strange brand of ‘education reform.’ The Phil I knew would never have done such a thing. Yet he did. Have you seen what he did to that building on the hill? And we have the surveillance camera records to prove it. Already turned over to the police.”

Agent Onilongo nodded. She made a note, reminding herself to take a look at those.

“And the girls? What is their background? I’ve heard mention that they’re part of a ‘Special Class’. . . .”

Tewly looked uncomfortable for a moment but then recovered.

“Yes, yes they are. Precocious in the extreme. Phil Marston used to liaise with the local grade schools, helping them, and us, to groom students who might be well suited to eventually enrolling here at Jordan Summit. He ‘discovered’ those girls. He was the one responsible for getting them tracked to skip all those grades. A gifted bunch, no doubt. Gifted in another way, too.”

“How so?”

“An anonymous donor put up a goodly sum of money to make sure that our best teachers are available to work with them, especially during summers.”

“Any idea who the donor might be?”

“None whatsoever. Around the office we’ve speculated it might be someone who’s AUB, since all those girls are part of the Group. But we really don’t know.”

“Might I meet with the girls?”

In a manner Ciera always thought of as “aw-shucksing,” Tewly glanced away at nothing in particular on his desk.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to take that up with Nancy Harlow,” Tewly said. “She’s our school counselor—and the point person with the girls and their families, after all that has happened.”

“I already met her, in your outer office.”

“Very well then,” Tewly said, standing and offering his hand for her to shake, concluding the interview. “I leave you in Nancy’s capable hands. We wish you the best in your investigations, Ms. Onilongo. Feel free to call or stop by if you have any more questions.”

Tewly sat back down. Ciera would have liked to ask him more about the girls and about the jump in youth suicide rates Marston had mentioned, but Tewly’s time for further questions had passed, at least for today. Awkwardly, Ciera turned toward the door and passed into the outer office, where Ms. Harlow was still waiting.

“Principal Tewly tells me you’re the person I’ll have to go through if I want to meet the girls involved in the Marston case and learn more about them.”

Harlow got to her feet, smiling.

“I can help you with the latter, but not with the former—at least not until they’re back on campus, day after tomorrow. After what happened, we’ve been trying to strike a balance between bringing them back to school too soon, and not bringing them back to school soon enough.”

“Understandable. But you are willing to talk to me about their background?”

Ciera noted the way Ms. Harlow’s eyes darted quickly to left and right.

“I’ll be happy to do that. Let me walk you to your car. We’ll talk along the way.”

Ciera agreed, and they departed the office.

“So, what was the subject of your conversation with the principal?” Harlow asked.

“We talked about Philip Marston and the girls presumed to be his intended victims. But we didn’t talk that much about the girls, actually. He just said they’re part of the Special Class, because they’re precocious. Gifted.”

They pushed out of the Administration Building through double doors.

“They aren’t ‘part of’ the Special Class,” Harlow said quietly as they walked across a concrete path bisecting a quadrangle of lawn. “They are the Special Class.”

Onilongo highlighted that snippet of conversation on her note-taker and nodded.

“When I suggested to Philip Marston that they were ‘advanced,’ he agreed, but I don’t think he was using that word in the same way I was.”

“Probably not, knowing Phil. And he would know—especially about how that ‘Special’ has changed.”

“Changed?”

Harlow looked down at her feet as they walked.

“When those girls first came to our official attention, six years ago, they were considered ‘special’ as in ‘special education,’ not ‘special’ as in ‘gifted’ or ‘advanced.’ The one thing they were precocious in, at that time, was their love of tech. Voracious consumers of digital media, almost from the get-go. Three of their pediatricians claimed their patients, among the girls, had been solidly screen-addicted since the age of fourteen months. Fractured thinking, lack of focus, frantic superficiality—all off the charts, as a result. By age four, all the girls were throwing gale-force tantrums, trying to push their parents to let them have neural implants.”

“They do sound like problem children,” Agent Onilongo said, stepping off the curb and onto the parking lot.

“The preferred term is ‘neurologically diverse.’ Because no child is ever really a problem, I suppose. Not that we had any brain-scan evidence, then, of that supposed neurodiversity. Until this most recent episode, none of the families have allowed the girls to be scanned. There was other evidence, though, that the girls were advanced—if you consider it ‘advanced’ to have a bundle of nascent identity-formation issues and other disorders more often associated with screen junkies in their late teens and early twenties.”

“What sorts of issues?”

“Narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, bipolarity, autism spectrum, ADD and ADHD, paranoid schizophrenia, you name it.”

“How did you turn them around?”

“I didn’t—we didn’t. Not entirely. I came up with the description of their problem, and Phil came up with a solution to it. Or at least a partial fix.”

“What was the problem? And the solution?”

Harlow glanced up at Ciera a moment.

“Since the girls spent so much time gaming and blogging and living in virtual worlds, they were engaged in a constant reinvention of identity. I suggested that the creation of that multiplicity of identities loosened the bonds that normally develop to keep the mind’s psychoid autonomous processes more or less under the control of a more or less unitary self. That’s where Phil’s background in anthropology came into play. He began to think of each of the girls as sort of her own ‘tribe of mind.’ Especially after they told him about their text-empathy.”

Ciera thought she might have heard that last phrase wrong.

“Do you mean ‘telepathy’?”

“No, although sometimes it seemed like that, even then. Much more so later, after they got their neural implants. Anyway, when the girls were about five years old, all of them began telling us that they could ‘feel’ another person’s mood just from how that other person was texting. That led Phil to suggest bringing all the girls together in a classroom setting—one in which it was only them. He thought that change would help their little tribes of mind sort each other out, and the girls would become more socially functional overall.”

Agent Onilongo and Ms. Harlow stopped beside Onilongo’s car.

“And it worked?”

“In its way. They got better at code-switching from online to offline behavior. Their rate of task-switching became less manic too. At about age six, they transitioned into the sort of peer-centered identity formation we usually don’t begin to see until kids are in their teens. And they’ve done it with a vengeance, ever since. The girls are adult- or family-centered almost not at all, now. Much to the chagrin of most of their parents and teachers—and more than an annoyance to their siblings at home.”

“But otherwise, the changes have been positive?”

“I suppose so, yes. The girls are like a lot of kids these days—only much more so. Probably more dopamine-jumped and amygdala-pumped from digital stimulation than most. They still treat electronically mediated communication as more ‘true’ than face to face, also. For them nothing is real until it’s seen on a screen. They’re not ‘on’ social media—they are social media. Early on, one of them asked me, ‘Why do I have to be good with people when I’m already better with machines?’ They still demonstrate a fairly severe lack of empathy, toward people outside their group.”

“What are the signs of that?”

“People are ‘pausable,’ as one of the girls told me—especially people outside their group, and especially when the girls start communing via their implants. That’s when they tend to zone out, to be preoccupied, in a unique way—‘present, but unavailable’ is how Phil describes it. That was one of his proofs for the idea that they’re growing up in a hurry—taller, bigger than kids their age—but not becoming mature. Physically ‘prematurely mature,’ he called it.”

“Marston was one of the adults they were willing to work with, then?”

“Absolutely. They trusted him. He was probably their only true friend, outside of their own ‘special class.’”

Ciera Onilongo opened the driver’s side door.

“That makes what he tried to do to them almost worse.”

Harlow’s eyes flashed left and right again. She glanced upward, too.

“I don’t quite understand it myself, but we shouldn’t be so quick to judge him. Phil knows those girls better than anyone. He must have had some reason for doing what he did. Or what he was planning to do.”

“Must be a pretty crazy reason.”

Nancy Harlow colored slightly, perhaps in embarrassment, Ciera thought.

“Oh, I know he talked about some wild ideas—the whole ‘Cloudbirds of Saltate City’ thing, but I don’t know if even he believed that stuff.”

“Cloudbirds of Salt Lake City?”

“No, Saltate City. That’s what Phil began to call Bluffdale, a few months back. He began researching all this crazy stuff about saltation, and xenogenesis, or machinogenesis—I forget what all.”

“And cloudbirds?”

“Phil’s pet name for the girls. He also used the term for those swarms of flocking birds—when they make those weird swirling and shifting clouds?” Her eyes darted swiftly around them and overhead again. “Strange as it sounds, I can’t help thinking Phil knows something about those girls that the rest of us are still trying to figure out, or refusing to see.”

“Any idea what?”

“I’m not quite sure. A number of people at the data center who knew Phil and Melinda had questions about what happened to Phil’s wife, and some of the other women who took ill. They were sympathetic enough to funnel him information from the inside, I think—the Navy signals-intelligence guys, particularly.”

Ciera drummed her fingers lightly on the roof of her car.

“Do you know what conclusion Marston might have come to, given that inside information?”

“No. Phil didn’t take me all the way down that road with him. I do remember him saying those girls are birds to our dinosaurs—and that it’s not wise to anger them. He’s certainly right about that last part.” She tried to pass it off with a girls-will-be-girls smile and shrug but then undercut any lightheartedness she might have been aiming for when she glanced around them surreptitiously once more—left, right, up, around—then looked fixedly at her own feet. “I hope that covers everything Principal Tewly wanted addressed. I’ve probably said too much already.”

“Not at all,” Ciera said, sitting down in her driver’s seat but leaving the door open. “Just a couple more things. A young man I spoke with referred to the girls of the Special Class as ‘the girls with the kaleidoscope eyes.’ Do you know anything about that?”

Harlow gave a shy smile that looked, somehow, relieved.

“Oh, that’s the retinal backscatter pattern, the ‘iris transillumination defect’ the girls all share. More a marker than a defect, if you ask me. It’s particularly obvious when they’re using their implants’ entoptic displays. Some in the Group think the kaleidoscope eyes are evidence the girls all share the same ‘secret father.’”

“Might he be the ‘anonymous donor’ the principal told me about?”

Harlow looked confused.

“What?”

“Mister Tewly told me he thought the one who put the money behind the tutorial programs for the special class might be someone in the Group, since all the mothers and daughters are members.”

“I’ve never thought that—although that last part’s true, about their all being members. But the mothers were also all employees at the spy center, too. I’ve always thought the anonymous donor is somehow connected with NSA.”

Nancy Harlow looked like she wanted to literally dart away at that moment—and was only restraining herself through a deep act of will.

“If you see Phil Marston, please tell him that Loretta—the girl who suffered the mild concussion, and was scanned—tell him she’s okay. And tell him the brain scan shows he was right. Grey matter atrophy in the striatum, and the insula. Got that?”

“Loretta’s okay—right,” Ciera said, looking up from her notes. “Atrophy in the striatum and insula. Will do. If I see him or hear from him, I’ll tell him. One last thing. Phil Marston mentioned something about a jump in youth suicide rates. Do you know if that might have any relevance here?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say much about that,” Harlow said, her eyes doing their shifty darting again. “I heard it had something to do with online stuff—cyberbullying, I think. But I really can’t say.”

Nancy Harlow turned and strode swiftly away. Agent Onilongo closed the car door. She checked her rear view mirrors but saw nothing except Harlow’s retreating backside and the burnt-out classroom building on the low hill beyond her. Dealing with that charred crime scene would have to wait for another day. At least local law enforcement’s reports on it were already in the can, as far as she knew. While it was on her mind, she sent a message to the Bluffdale Police Department over a secured channel, requesting the surveillance camera records of the explosion incident involving Marston and the girls.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2017. The Girls with Kaleidoscope Eyes by Howard V. Hendrix

Content here.

Website design and development by Americaneagle.com, Inc.

Close this window
Close this window

Sign up for special offers, information on
next month's issue and more!


Signup Now No, Thanks