© David M. Kelly, 2020






Maryum Casteneda blinked heavily and switched on the light. Her phone was set to Do Not Disturb, but somebody had managed to crash the barriers she’d programmed into it. That could only mean one thing.

She acknowledged the call, withholding the video output—no one needed to see her bare-faced and haggard from little sleep. The screen illuminated, revealing a cropped-haired man she estimated at around thirty. He was wearing the blue uniform of a MilSec Officer as she’d guessed. No one else would have the authority, or ability, to crash her privacy gateways.

“Ms. Casteneda? This is Captain Gil Densen, MilSec Internal Security. There’s an—”

“Are you dying?” She checked the time. It was just after four in the morning.

“Dying? I don’t understand, ma’am.”

“If you’re dying you should go to the nearest hospital. If not, call back at a civilized hour. Goodbye.”

“Wait, ma’am.” Densen’s eyes widened. “It’s a matter of national—”

“If you’re phoning me personally to let me know we’re under attack, I’m flattered, but I don’t care. Goodbye.”

She ended the call, but before she physically switched the phone off, it rang again. She wondered how persistent Densen would be, and after leaving the phone for a full minute, it continued to ring.

“I assume you have an emergency, Captain?” she snapped, as soon as she thumbed the answer button.

Densen swallowed. “An emergency? Well, Colonel Gover ordered me to—”

“Did these orders specifically include waking me in the middle of the night?”

“Night? No, ma’am. I was told to get you—”

Casteneda yawned deliberately and noisily. “My office hours are between 8:30 and 4:30 Pacific time. Call back then.”

Densen’s jaw hardened. “I was told to get you on the first available transport. There’s an AeroMobile waiting for you at Fort Tyndall.”

“I charge four times my usual rates for out-of-office-hours service. With a minimum call-out charge of two thousand credits.”

Densen didn’t even blink. “I assure you. This is important. Otherwise, the colonel wouldn’t have arranged priority transport.”

“To the military, perhaps. That doesn’t make it a priority to me, however.” Casteneda knew how these organizations functioned—situations were “important” relative to their political impact, not intrinsic merit.

“I’m also instructed to inform you that you were recommended by Harlan Swan.”

Swan? The only person of that name she remembered was from a technical conference several years ago. She’d presented a paper on the security implications of emergent behavior. Like much of her work, it had been largely ignored. As she remembered, the man had been one of her more vocal critics. So his name didn’t encourage her to take the project.

That someone had provided special transport meant the job might have some genuine priority though. The growing pile of bills on the table across from her bed also reminded her that she hadn’t been inundated with contracts since going freelance.

“I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” Casteneda hung up the phone and swung her thin legs out of bed.




The AeroMobile shuddered through an unanticipated thermal layer, and Casteneda grimaced, the lines on her face deepening in shadow to match her cropped black hair. She hated flying, even on regular commercial transportation, which was much smoother than the military vehicle she was in. Am I that desperate, she wondered. Unfortunately, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

The car landed all too bumpily as the powerful turbines fought to compensate for variable crosswinds. She couldn’t see anything—the windows were blocked—but when the car powered down she sensed a blistering heat from outside. The door opened and bright sunlight flooded the blandly efficient gray interior. They’d landed on a concrete aeromobile pad, with a ramp that led toward a large, slab-sided bunker-like building—as gray as the car she’d stepped out of. She strode down the ramp feeling that she was heading towards her own execution.

Several other military vehicles were visible, most of them armored, while a swarm of security drones flocked over her like vultures waiting for their victim to collapse. The heat made her perspire in seconds, and she almost wished she was back in the aeromobile. She distrusted authority in general and all things military. In her experience, they were even less open-minded than civilians, and she avoided them if possible.

Captain Densen was waiting for her outside. His rounded face didn’t look as young as on the screen, and as she approached, she noticed some deep scarring on his jaw and neck as if he’d been mauled. “Well, I’m here, Captain.”

A parched breeze gusted, sending gritty sand into her mouth, and she coughed. There was nothing visible for miles except desert, the bunker, and military equipment. The driver, with the usual military penchant for security, hadn’t mentioned their destination, but the journey had taken three hours at high speed.

“Thank you for coming, ma’am.” He held out an arm, directing her toward a set of heavily reinforced doors. “This way, please. It’s cooler inside.”

Casteneda bristled at “ma’am.” It made her feel ancient, instead of in her forties. It was part of the military etiquette though and unbreakable, even if she requested to be called by her name.

The door turned out to be more of an airlock, leading to an air-conditioned inner entrance hall with corridors disappearing in all directions. The frigid air brought goosebumps to her arms, the temperature far too low for human comfort, most likely a sign that the building contained equipment requiring the cooler environment.

Waiting inside was a tall man with close-cropped hair and dark brown skin. His uniform was pressed to perfection and looked like it had magically formed around him, it was so fitted.

“Colonel Gover. I’m in charge of this facility.” His words were as thin and clipped as the pencil mustache on his upper lip. “If you’d come this way.”

He led her down the wide corridor to the left. There were no luxuries like carpeting or tiling, and their feet scuffed against the bare concrete as they walked. “This facility is top secret.” Gover spoke in fits as they moved. “I’m sure you understand the need for confidentiality. That’s why we arranged to bring you here blind. To protect the location.”

He turned sharply, almost walking into someone carrying reams of papers. Glancing over the sheets, the colonel nodded and scrawled something on the top-most one. “That’s fine. Take care of it at once.” He waved for Casteneda to follow him.

She bristled at Gover’s off-hand manner but suppressed the reflex to turn around and leave. After coming all this way she was determined to at least see what the problem was. Assuming there was one.

“Apologies, Ms. Casteneda. There’s always far too much housekeeping to do. Along here please.”

He guided her into a spacious office and sat behind a buttress-like desk—the most uncluttered example she’d ever seen. It held a data terminal, an intercom, and one photocube and that was it. No rogue papers, no paperclips, stray pens, or even a coffee cup.

“Mr. Swan.” Gover spoke into the intercom. “Please join me in my office.”

There had been no attempt at any civility or small-talk. Casteneda didn’t wait though and noisily dragged the single spare chair to a position offering her a direct view of the colonel.

The office was as sparse as the desk, with no personalization or embellishment. Not so much as a wall calendar or planner. Like the rest of the building she’d seen, there was nothing but concrete, with a functional coating of drab paint.

When Swan walked in, Casteneda recognized him, though she wouldn’t have been able to pick him out in the street. He was a thin, pale-faced man with an unruly bristle of hair and what appeared to be a painstakingly maintained stubble, something undoubtedly meant to make him look younger, but instead suggesting he was desperately clinging to his youth. He nodded to her and smiled, but his eyes showed no friendliness.

“Colonel.” Swan looked like a schoolboy who’d been called to the principle’s office. “I see you followed my suggestion to bring in my esteemed colleague.”

The creases on Gover’s forehead deepened. “Against my better judgment. But as my technical staff are incapable of dealing with the problem, I felt I should attempt to find someone vaguely competent.”

Swan winced. “That’s a little unfair, we-“

Gover silenced Swan with a raised hand. “We have a situation here, Ms. Casteneda. Of the strictest military secrecy. This base and everything in it is classified and all information here is on a need-to-know basis. The location is secret—hence why the transport had screened windows.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Colonel,” Casteneda tutted. “We’re at Moffat Air Force Base, outside Omaha, Nebraska. Anyone would know that.”

Gover’s eyes widened and he looked at Swan, then back to her. “But… that’s impossible. Who told you?”

“It’s simple really. The journey took a little over three hours. With the speed of our vehicle, that gives a distance of eighteen hundred kilometers. Although the windows were shaded, I know we were flying into the sun. Meaning we were traveling east. The arid conditions outside identified the location as inside one of the dust bowl regions, and the angle of the shadows from the sun told me we’re approximately forty-two degrees north. The only MilSec operation that matches those parameters is Moffat, ergo that’s where we are.”

Gover’s eyebrows rose and he moved back in his chair slightly. “That’s… huh… quite amazing. Of course, I’m not at liberty to confirm or deny your… guess.”

Casteneda nodded. “I understand. Now, down to business. Why am I here?”

The colonel reached inside his desk, pulled out a flask, and measured out a small glass of water. After swallowing it in one gulp, he closed the flask and placed it back in the drawer. “We are tasked with keeping our space systems operational and monitoring threats to them. It’s a job we don’t take lightly and it’s safe to say that our nation’s security depends on us. I doubt you can imagine what damage would be done if our space-borne resources were compromised.”

With more traffic being routed around the world and an increasing dependence on always-on high-speed communication, she didn’t need to guess. “Far from it. I’ve authored several papers outlining how potentially damaging such events would be.”

“Quite,” Gover said, dryly. “The threats we usually deal with are clearly visible and their source is easily identifiable.”

“But this time you believe you’re dealing with one where that’s not the case?” Casteneda noticed Gover’s mouth hanging open again and she smiled. “I doubt you’d find it necessary to call in an external consultant if the source of the problem was known.”

The colonel relaxed a little. “Well, yes, exactly so.”

She turned to look at Swan. “What are the technical details of this threat?”

Before he answered, Gover spoke. “There is something up there. In space. It’s located in low earth orbit. And it’s large. Our technical staff has been unable to identify it, determine its purpose… or origin.”

Casteneda could guess how a military mind would react to something like that. “I assume you’ve already tried to blow it up?”

Swan let out a soft snicker and struggled to keep his face neutral, while the colonel’s features darkened. “We coordinated a high-velocity reconnaissance probe with Orbital Command. It was unsuccessful.”

Swan spoke up. “Whatever it is, it was either undamaged or repaired itself in a matter of days. We’ve never seen anything li-“

“Mister Swan, if you please.” Gover paused for a second, then continued. “The object managed to evade the probe and continued its operations unaffected.”

“I’m not an orbital technology specialist,” Casteneda said coldly. “Why bring me in?”

Gover glanced at Swan. “Some of the civilian staff believe you have expertise that may be helpful in this instance.”

She nodded. “You believe this situation is a threat?”

Gover intertwined his fingers and rested them on the desk. “Relationships between nations are highly sensitive right now. The breakaway of the southern states has put us in a vulnerable position, and every other power bloc is looking to take advantage of that. We’re weakened, Ms. Casteneda, I frankly admit it. If someone launched an attack now, the effect would be cataclysmic.”

“My fee structure has been explained?” She waited until Gover nodded. “Then I will do what I can.”

“Payment on results, of course?” He tapped his lips.

“Of course.” She gestured to Swan. “You better let me have access to the technical information.”

Swan led her to a wide room dominated at one end by a large orbital tracking display. The world map on the screen was overlaid by a tapestry of glowing multicolored traces showing various satellite positions as they marched predictably around the sky. On the left, a bank of operator’s chairs was occupied by serious-looking technical staff.

“That was incredible how you deduced the location. Completely rattled old Gover there.” Swan suppressed a giggle. “He hates all civilians and especially technical staff like us. You really put one over on him. Even I’m amazed—that was quite a trick of observation and deductive reasoning.”

Casteneda surreptitiously reached inside her pocket and switched off her Scroll by touch—like all Scrolls it had full location tracking built in. Presumably someone should have confiscated it, but she wasn’t being paid to teach them basic security. She pointed at the screen. “Which track is the one of concern?”

He pointed to a red-fringed trail off the coast of India. “The one designated 9999-000A. It doesn’t have a proper serial number yet as we have so little information on it.”

“You were the one who suggested bringing me in on this?” She examined the network of lines on the large screen as they drifted over the outlines of continents. “As I recall, you were never impressed with my work.”

“That’s not true.” He coughed and looked away. “Your reputation is solid and well known. Everybody knows how successful you’ve been with more… esoteric projects.”

One of the other technicians came over, her pale features contrasting with her red hair, styled into a perfect bun. She held out some flimsies, the sheets loaded with dense calculations. “Mr. Swan, I have the most recent analysis on the object.”

Swan looked pained but didn’t take the sheets. “Thank you, Shari. Leave them on my desk.”

Shari stiffened. “But, you said—”

“I’m busy right now,” he said, shaking his head and sighing. “We can discuss it later.”

Casteneda watched as the woman marched back to her terminal and dropped into her chair in a slouch.

“You don’t think it might have been important?” she said.

“It’s always important.” Swan glanced upwards. “Between you and me, Shari’s a bit of a drama queen. I’m sure you know what that’s like.”

Casteneda’s jaw tightened, but she said nothing.

For the next forty minutes, she sat as Swan explained the characteristics of the signal track. Its orbit was unusually low, and the data showed it to be oddly insubstantial, yet large. No one had claimed ownership, and no launches had been detected linked to its appearance.

“The colonel believes stealth launch technology has been used,” he said. “I tend to agree with him on that point. Otherwise, we’d have certainly tracked something that size going up there.”

“I imagine there are some obvious suspects?”

“Well, the Pan-Asians are always a threat. And the MusCat Alliance would like nothing more than for us to be destroyed so they can reclaim their territory.” Swan took a sip from an oversize coffee cup decorated with large-chested cartoon figures. “I don’t think the Alliance has the technical chops for something like this though.”

“I want a private office.” She gestured at the tracking display. “There’s something in this situation that’s not obvious. I need to concentrate.”

“We all work together.” He examined his nails. “I’m an egalitarian. I don’t believe individual offices provide the right operational culture.”

Casteneda stood. “Then you’d better inform the colonel I’m unable to work.”

Swan looked around and lowered his voice to a hiss. “I’ll find something. The military personnel are the only ones with office space. But I’m sure they won’t mind, under the circumstances.”

“I’ll also need plenty of coffee.”

“Coffee?” He stiffened. “I suppose Shari can bring you some.”

She nodded. “That would be perfect.”

He showed her to an office just down the corridor and provided her with credentials to access the terminal. She brought up the information on the suspect orbital track and was studying it when Shari knocked on the door and entered, carrying a large jug of coffee.

“Thank you, Shari. Did you show the information you had earlier to Mr. Swan?”

Shari shook her head. “I left it on his desk. He’s never interested in anything I find.”

Casteneda filled a mug that Shari had brought with the thick, brown liquid. “That seems a strange attitude.”

“He doesn’t like me.” Shari shrugged. “Not me personally. Swan thinks women can’t really understand technology.”

“Odd.” She sipped her coffee. “Then why did he recommend me for the job?”

He recommended you?” Shari stiffened. “What a complete ass.”

“If that’s your professional assessment, I tend to agree.”

“I was the one who suggested you may be able to help.” Shari glanced over her shoulder. “He didn’t want to hear of it—said one woman was enough, we didn’t need more hysteria.”

“I wonder what changed his mind… Not that it matters. What was the information you wanted to show him?”

“I don’t know if I should say anything.” Shari glanced at the door. “The orbital track. It’s changing. I’ve been monitoring it closely, trying to figure out what it is.”

“Changing how?”

Shari sucked in a breath. “I’ve tried to tell Swan several times. It’s getting bigger. The radar reflections that we’re getting show that—as though it’s growing or spreading.”

“Very peculiar.” Casteneda pointed to the track data. “That explains the numbers I’m seeing here?”

Shari nodded and leaned over the desk to get a closer look. “Yes, that’s the radar size estimate. This figure is the orbital velocity, and these specify the ground track location—where the object is over the Earth.”

Casteneda smiled. She’d done some work on communication satellites, but it was several years ago, and she hadn’t been involved in the orbital aspects. The math interested her though, and she was pleased her steel-trap mind hadn’t lost its edge. “So, if I read this correctly, it measures around ten square kilometers?”

“That’s what’s so puzzling. My latest figures show it to be over fifteen now.”

Despite Casteneda’s limited knowledge, the size was a shock. That would make it among the largest structures humans had ever put into orbit. “Has anyone pointed a telescope at it?”

“We’ve sequenced several telescope tracks of the location. They see nothing. What’s crazier is this number here.” Shari pointed. “That’s the average density of the object. It’s as though it isn’t there. That’s why there’s such a concern over it. It’s like a ghost.”

Casteneda checked the figures once again. Even she recognized how odd they were. The object was bigger than the platform they were building at the top of the space elevator, and yet the density of its composition was so low it looked like a mistake. “And that’s why the military people think cloaking technology is in use?”

Shari nodded. “But even if it was stealth, I don’t see how anyone could launch something that big without it being noticed.”

“The systems here”—Casteneda swiveled her finger to encompass the whole room—”monitor launches worldwide?”

“Absolutely. They’d be useless if they didn’t.” Shari thought for a moment. “Except MicroSats. They’re filtered out automatically or we’d be inundated.”


“You know, the tiny things the kids launch all the time.” Shari laughed. “One of my neighbor’s kids sent up his pet hamster when it died, can you believe that?”

Casteneda had heard of the latest fad but hadn’t paid much attention. The Korev Slingshot, released on an unsuspecting world over ten years ago, made it cheap to launch small payloads into Earth orbit and the devices were sold everywhere. Much to the alarm of the official space authorities, worried about the impact of more space junk. The objections died down when they realized the launchers barely scraped into orbit and deteriorated after a few days to burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere.

“That sounds strange,” she said. “But people are so unpredictable.”

Shari moved toward the door. “I better get back to my desk. Swanny will be docking my pay if I’m gone too long.”

“He actually does that?”

“It’s like workplace reform never landed here.” Shari gave a short laugh. “He’s a good match for Gover. The colonel doesn’t think women have a place in military operations either.”

“Thank you.” Casteneda picked up her mug of coffee. “You’ve been a great help.”




Casteneda had been given access to a standard Fulton TriLytical terminal, much like the one she used at her home office. It took her barely seconds to break the security locks and access the raw command interface. Before doing anything, she wanted to set up a core trace to find the key code sections of the monitoring systems. Who knew what ridiculous restrictions she was facing?

 The security protocols were more than enough to stop a casual user from accessing anything sensitive, but she broke through them in a few minutes. She’d expected a greater challenge but wasn’t entirely surprised she was able to gain full control so quickly, especially when she noticed the code was digitally signed to Swan.

She uprated her privileges to system owner, allowing her to access any part of the system from the front end displays, then closed the command interface and restarted the tracker map. She tutted as the map updated. “And the moral is… never send a man to do a woman’s job.”

Ten minutes later she’d dismantled the filtering system and was ready to reverse the process. It had taken so long, not because it was so well protected, but because it had been so badly coded. With one last adjustment, she was done and engaged the newly edited filter.

The regular satellite tracks vanished, leaving the outline of the continents. It wasn’t long before a new track flashed into life, rising from the surface and then vanishing. The “launch detected” symbol flashed brightly, then a short time later there was another, and another.

“Busy little world…”

Casteneda studied the launches on display. There was no obvious pattern, but there were a lot of them, and it was understandable why the team usually filtered them out. In ten minutes, over two hundred had been recorded, and she’d be surprised if that was the full extent of what was happening.

As she worked, she pondered what Shari had said about Swan. She’d dealt with chauvinists like him many times in her career, but it was strange he’d agreed to bring her in. She checked the display again. The fact that she couldn’t yet see any logic to the launches didn’t mean there wasn’t one. She activated a data analysis script that would run numerous pattern-searching algorithms, looking for similarities between the microsats.

The script started assembling a data spine from the incoming streams. Luckily, there were so many launches that there was no shortage of information to collect. She watched as the patterns built up on the screen.

There was something hidden in the data. While many of the launches were unconnected, a number of them displayed a high degree of correlation. She fed the data into the orbital analysis system and the answer popped out with stark clarity.

“Ms. Casteneda, Mr. Swan, come see me immediately.” Gover’s voice came over the intercom system, his tone leaving no doubt that it was an order rather than a request.

Casteneda sighed and locked the terminal so no one could interfere with the data gathering. After swallowing the remains of the now-cold coffee, she made her way to his office. Swan was already there, in the solitary chair she’d used earlier. He looked up as she entered, but made no move to stand. She smiled—it didn’t matter. With the other two sitting, she was in a better place to psychologically dominate the conversation—something she often found difficult because of her diminutive size.

“Mr. Swan. A serious matter has come to my attention and I—”

“I reconfigured the terminal.” She spoke with no trace of guilt, only annoyance at missing something in their security systems, but her actions were justified. “It was necessary to carry out a proper analysis of all the data. I assume the importance of this project overrides protocol.”

Gover’s jaw tightened. “Nothing overrides protocol, Ms. Casteneda.”

“Thank you for the clarification. The data I have gathered shows a—”

He turned away from her. “How long have you been working here, Mr. Swan?”

“Three years,” the technician said quietly.

 “Long enough then to know the limits of your authority.”

Swan seemed to shrink in his seat. “I do. But I wasn’t aware—”

Gover lifted his hand. “You are responsible for those under you. You should always know what your subordinates are doing.”

“But… that’s…” Swan shifted uncomfortably. “I mean—”

Casteneda peered down at the colonel. “Mr. Swan did not authorize my activities, nor is he responsible for me or anything I do. He is not my supervisor and neither are you.”

“Ms. Casteneda, if you’d—”

“Please arrange transport for me to return home.” Her voice was cold. “I’m leaving.”

Gover’s frown deepened. “You’ve finished your investigation?”

“No, but I am finished with you.”

Without waiting, she walked out. She stopped at the office she’d been using to collect her few belongings and was headed toward the main entrance when she heard Swan’s nasal tones behind her.

“Casteneda? Wait.” He hurried up, panting at the exertion despite the chilled atmosphere. “You forgot to unlock your terminal. We can’t see your findings.”

She stopped and turned. “I will provide the unlock code after I receive payment.”

His eyebrows compressed into a V-shaped line. “Payment? What are you talking about?”

“Two thousand credits minimum call-out fee. Results presented in full within thirty days.”

“Why, that’s blackmail.”

Her lips tightened. “No, just protocol.”

Swan took a small step back. “But—” He glanced over his shoulder. “Please, come with me.”

Casteneda gave a brief nod and walked with him back to the colonel’s office. She waited outside while he went in to talk to Gover alone.

She heard the muffled conversation through the door. Not clearly enough to make out the words, but enough to understand that Gover wasn’t happy. When the door opened again, a white-faced Swan gestured her inside. The colonel was sitting impassively, but Swan danced nervously from foot to foot before offering her the spare seat.

“Ms. Casteneda, you must understand that this is a highly—”

It was her turn to hold up her hand. “Colonel Gover. I am willing to work with you, but to do so we need to establish some ground rules.

“First, I must have complete freedom to work how I choose. My methods are irregular, but I get results. Which is presumably why I have been brought here.

“Secondly, I will present my analysis when I am ready. Early release of half-formed ideas and speculation leads to nothing but confusion and wasted efforts.

“Thirdly, I am an independent consultant. As such, I am under no one’s responsibility except my own, and I report only to the project head. In other words, you, Colonel.”

Swan had grown increasingly red as she outlined her terms until finally, he was a dark shade bordering on purple. “This is outrageous. You can’t expect everyone—”

Gover cut him off with a frosty glare. “The results are of prime importance, of course. You will report to me.”

She almost laughed at Swan fighting back his badly concealed rage, but forced herself not to react.

“Could you at least update us on what you believe you’ve found so far?”

She didn’t miss the slight emphasis and considered for a moment. She was against the idea of giving incomplete reports, but decided it was better to demonstrate her willingness to work with the colonel.

“There are thousands of microsat launches every day,” she said.

“That’s why the system filters them out,” Swan grunted, clearly unimpressed.

Casteneda ignored him. “Preliminary analysis indicates a coordinated effort to place large numbers of these into the same orbital vector as the object you detected.”

The colonel blinked. “How many? It would take hundreds, possibly more to produce the signal we’ve seen.”

“I can’t say, but my studies show they are launching at a rate of hundreds per day.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Swan made a dismissive gesture. “What would be the point?”

She thought of answering, but there seemed no reason. She’d already said this was preliminary. Swan, like so many, seemed unable to deal with that concept.

Gover ignored him also. “Is there any commonality between the launches?”

He was probing, and Casteneda guessed what he was looking for. Over a third of the launches had originated inside the PAC, but that didn’t mean anything—they had by far the largest population. She wasn’t about to feed military paranoia.

“Nothing conclusive.” She looked from one to the other. “My analysis was interrupted before I was able to uncover any solid trends.”

“Would you mind providing me with a report on your findings?” Gover smiled. “I have access to other resources that might shed some light on the matter.”

She paused. It was a reasonable request, but she knew the military minds would overreact when they saw the launch origin data.

Gover must have sensed her hesitation. “Purely in the spirit of cooperation.”

“I’ll let you have a summary as soon as I get back to my office.” A very careful one, she thought.

“Perfect.” Gover tapped his knuckles against the table. “Please include the raw data—we may need to verify your findings.”

Her stomach tightened and she fought to stop any visible signs of her reluctance. “Of course.”

“Keep me updated.” He looked at Swan. “Ensure Ms. Casteneda has everything she requires.”

She left, with Swan scurrying to keep up with her. “I don’t think…” He was struggling to talk and keep up. “That is, that wasn’t very professional. I’m sure that the Association would take a dim view of such matters.”

The Association of Information Professionals was the key group regulating professional accreditation inside the USP, but she had little time for them. It was full of older versions of Swan, high on self-aggrandizement and low on innovation, who defined self-serving “standards” designed to keep them at the top. She was a member out of necessity, but it provided little for the dues she paid. “Do as you think fit,” she snapped. “But you may want to check with the colonel first.” She closed the office door, swearing under her breath.

She put together a synopsis of her activities ready to send. When it came to the data, she did exactly what he’d asked, including the unprocessed information that was simply a list of launches and trajectory information, deliberately holding back the analysis she’d done on the launch origins. If they wanted that piece of the puzzle, they’d have to do some analysis themselves.

Once finished, she sent it to the colonel through the internal communication link and unlocked the terminal to resume her investigation, scouring for any new data patterns. She hadn’t been working on it for more than fifteen minutes when she heard a soft tap on the door.

She took a deep breath, then turned to see Shari edge inside with a a broad grin on her face.

“What did you do? I’ve never seen Swanny so riled before.”

Casteneda shrugged. “I provided him with an opportunity to understand the limits of his responsibilities.”

“Well, he sure doesn’t like it.” Shari glanced back at the door. “He threw Papa Wongle clear across the room.”

“Papa Wongle?”

“Yeah, you know. The 3V show The Wongles? He usually has Papa sitting on his display.” Shari giggled. “But not anymore.”

“I’m sure they’ll both recover.”

Shari noticed the data displayed on the screen. “What’s all that?”

“Microsat launches.”

She moved closer. “That many? Wow, I knew the numbers were high, but that’s crazy. Good job we filter them out or we’d get nothing done. Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees.”

“They’re interesting. Where can I find out about them?”

“Are you thinking of getting into the hobby?” Shari said.


“There are all kinds of groups on the info nets. Try U-Space, they’re probably the biggest source of information.”

“Thanks. I’ll have a look.”




Susie hooked into her S-Net account and checked her messages. She skipped through the usual ones offering to tell her about ten surefire ways to attract a boy and the latest hot fashions—they had no interest for her since starting her special project. Instead, she opened the folder called “Heartthrob” and nodded in satisfaction. There were over sixty confirmations. She hummed as she updated her files. The reports had been slow initially but were coming in more frequently as the project caught on. It was on track for her planned implementation goal—now less than two weeks away.

An alert flashed on her screen. Manda, her closest friend both on and offline, was calling.

“Hey, Susie.” Manda’s freckled face appeared, smiling as usual. “What’s the goog?”

Susie checked the numbers. “Seventy-four percent as of this AM.”

“Wow. You’re in good shape then.”

We are,” Susie said. “Couldn’t have done it without my BFF.”

It was true. If anyone had been central to Operation Heartthrob other than Susie, it was Manda. Although Susie had handled coordination and the project management side of things, Manda had done the tricky part of extending the hardware specs to make everything possible.

Manda chewed her lip. “Hope it works. My grades need the boost.”

That last was a lie. Susie knew Manda could easily be straight-A, but her friend often didn’t work too hard. Manda was far more interested in boys than grades, which was silly because she was not only a super-nerd but also so cute she made other girls cry in desperation.

“Did you hear Grace is going boom-boom with Robbie?” Manda winked. “What a skeek.”

Susie ignored her—she wasn’t interested in the latest gossip. The great thing about Heartthrob was that as well as its core goal, it would also give them both top marks in science, programming, and projects all at the same time. Susie grimaced—unlike her friend, she wasn’t in the position where she could afford to throw out As on a whim.

“Still planning for the fourteenth?” Manda lifted one perfectly delineated eyebrow.

“If everything’s ready.” Susie’s stomach quivered.

Manda detected the doubt in her friend’s voice. “You’re not getting flossie, are you?”

“A little.” Susie picked up her hairbrush and tugged it through her black hair, trying pointlessly to straighten it. “What if Darren doesn’t—”

“Don’t even think it,” Manda interrupted. “You’re a sweet and he’s a boff. How can it not work out?”

“But he’s never said anything. In two years.”

Manda sighed. “He’s a guy. So he needs some help—obviously.”

“He spends more time looking through that telescope of his than he does at me.”

“That’s why we have to finish this.”

Manda checked the time. “I better go. Class in ten. Don’t worry. Once he sees this, he’ll melt.”

Susie checked her timetable. She had two hours in the V-Classroom too, though not with Manda. They were scheduled for one of their twice-weekly face-offs at the Socializing Center that afternoon though. “See you at two?”

“At the zoo? Sure.” Manda grinned. “Darren will be there too. Wear something bobo and maybe he’ll notice you without Heartthrob.”

Susie’s stomach tingled. “You know I can’t make that work. ‘sides I want him to like me for my brain, not my body.”

“What’s wrong with both?”

Both girls giggled, then signed off. Susie sighed dramatically and connected with EdServ for her class.




Coffee cups littered Casteneda’s desk, and twice she’d sent out for a sandwich. The food was stale and would have been considered inedible by most, but she’d hardly noticed. When she focused on a problem, little else penetrated her mind’s steel shutter boundaries.

The microsat launches had provided more data, and she’d also been investigating the U-Space resources. The group not only provided detailed information on how to build and launch the devices, it also had a discussion section where people bragged about their successes, bemoaned their failures, and organized joint projects. It was the latter feature that gave her an idea.

Using her Scroll, she reached out to her home workstation and set up several monitoring systems by remote. External network access was completely locked down at the Base, but her Scroll provided the bypass she needed. She tapped into several of the major communications systems through a variety of illicit back doors left open by poor systems design and maintenance. By the time she’d finished, she could monitor around seventy-five percent of the world’s communications traffic. She’d hoped for better coverage, but it should be enough to get a good picture of what was happening.

She wasn’t interested in individual communications and set up more filtering heuristics to tease out anything of interest.

The intercom crackled and Gover’s frosty voice sounded. “Note to staff. We are now in a state of alert with regards to PAC activity. Ongoing investigations give reason to believe that they may be preparing to attack. All activity regarding Track 999-000A should be relayed directly to my workstation.”

Casteneda cursed. They’d analyzed her data all too quickly and jumped to exactly the type of half-witted conclusion she’d been afraid of. There was nothing she could do about it though, and she checked the external data feeds—at least those offered some hope of a rational explanation. Although early, a possible trend was emerging.

A few minutes later, Gover stepped inside the office, his face even more deeply lined than earlier. “This is for your ears only, Ms. Casteneda. If you can’t come up with a verifiable explanation in the next eighteen hours, I will have no choice but to recommend the First Minister bring us to DEFCON 2.”

Casteneda stiffened. That was only one step away from launching nuclear missiles and would involve all branches of MilSec being brought to full readiness for war. “That’s a risky strategy, Colonel. When the PAC detects those preparations, it will undoubtedly see it as a sign we’re about to attack them.”

Gover’s mustache twitched. “I’m well aware of that.”




Susie threw herself onto her bed, the anger welling up inside her like an imminent explosion. The face-to-face meeting hadn’t gone well, and Darren had spent more time talking to the awful Francine than her. She’d even tried to dress up a little and it hadn’t made any difference. Fran had batted those long artificial eyelashes at him, proclaimed she was helpless, and he’d rushed to her side, leaving Susie feeling like yesterday’s congealed breakfast oats.

At least she’d managed to confirm her meeting with him on the fourteenth—they’d booked time on the telescope to spend the evening observing. Only now she wasn’t sure if it might not be better to make some excuse not to go.

But it was the big dance the following weekend and she had to know one way or another before then. She hated that she was such a klutz around him. If only she could relax and tell him how she felt. She knew she couldn’t do that though—every time, her stomach knotted and the words froze in her throat somewhere below her tonsils. That was why the project had to succeed.

The call indicator flashed on her Scroll.

“Hi.” Susie’s voice was flat.

“Hey…” Manda noticed her friend’s expression. “What’s wrong?”

“You know what’s wrong. I made a complete fool of myself today. Darren didn’t want to be near me. All he wanted to do was spend time with Fran.”

Manda clucked sympathetically. “Don’t worry. He doesn’t like her. He thinks she’s dud, he was just being nice.”

“I dunno…”

Susie opened up the project message log to check progress. They were up to eighty-four percent and well on track to complete on schedule. There were several other alerts though. She opened them and skipped through the information.

“You okay?”

Susie realized she’d been ignoring her friend while she scanned the reports. “Something’s happened.”

Manda smirked. “Lemme guess. Darren left you a message telling you he’s gaga for you.”

“Someone’s been poking around the Heartthrob project files.”

Manda blinked rapidly, her voice quiet when she spoke. “Who? Why?”

Susie shrugged. “Who knows? Could be anyone with EdServ access. Could be routine admin scanning. We’ve been getting a fair bit of traffic recently.”

“You don’t think…” Manda drank from a glass. “What about your dad? If he found out, we’d both be in the shinky.”

“Told you before, forget about him. He doesn’t notice what his baby girl is doing. He thinks I’m a brainless moron who can’t do anything.”

Manda nodded but still looked worried. “Hope so.”

“Hey! Thanks…”

Manda laughed. “I didn’t mean it like that—chill, you geekness.”

“Sorry.” Susie shrugged one shoulder. “I’m getting flossie. It’s always the same with me. I almost get where I want, then something goes wrong.”

“Not this time, girl. Not with me helping you stay straight.”




Casteneda had finally profiled the data fully. It had taken more hours than she cared to think about, and she felt as though splinters of glass coated her eyeballs. There were two clear spikes of data: one sixty minutes before each launch, the second coming five minutes after. She was fairly certain the first was a coordinating signal and the second a confirmation from the MicroSat.

While she’d been waiting for the data to gather, she’d not been idle. She’d rifled through the documents on the U-Space servers, including the ones held in “private” areas, and found the MicroSats had a wide variety of uses. Most of them were trivial and often imbecilic, but many had real scientific or educational purposes. The plans for the devices were being accessed and downloaded daily, and it took little effort to grab the statistics on the data.

A stab of nausea hit her and she realized hadn’t eaten for several hours. She didn’t know what time it was without checking. She stretched and wandered out into the corridor. Most of the building was quiet, with only an occasional dim light providing a ghostly twilight that deeply shadowed the wide-open space. Even the large main display was dimmed, as if the watch on the orbital traffic had ceased for the night, though she knew that wasn’t the case.

A vending machine stood to attention near the entrance, like a vintage science idea of how a robot would look, and she inspected the contents unenthusiastically. It contained nothing vaguely healthy, but it didn’t matter. At that point, all she was looking for was something to fill her stomach.

“The chocolate almond bars are about the best thing in there.”

She jumped at the unexpected voice and turned, coming face-to-face with the colonel, half-hidden in the shadows.

“I thought everyone had left,” she said.

“In situations like this, I’m on duty around the clock.” Gover’s voice was low. “Your attention to duty is commendable. Everyone else has gone home. To be honest, I prefer to be here at night sometimes.”

“Psychological pressure—it’s lower when fewer people are looking to you for the answers.” She pressed the buttons for the recommended almond bar. “I can’t take credit for being here late though. I’d have left too, but I have nowhere to go or means of getting there.”

Gover stiffened. “Apologies. We should have arranged transport and a place to stay. I’ll see to it as soon as someone comes in tomorrow.”

She dismissed his concern with a shrug. “It’s not important. I lost track of the time.”

“Have you found anything else?”

“I will discuss my findings when it’s appropriate to do so.” She saw him wince at her tone and continued less sharply. “Some interesting results, but nothing conclusive as yet.”

“Please log everything. If action is required I’ll need all the evidence lined up to support it.” He frowned. “These aren’t the good old days when the military could do almost anything and get away with it.”

“Do you resent that?” Casteneda opened the candy bar and sniffed suspiciously at the contents.

“Not really.” Gover shrugged. “Actions were taken that shouldn’t have been, and overall I’m far more comfortable with the rules we work under now, but sometimes they can be restrictive. My superiors are worried. The breakaway of the Atoll space-habitats so soon after the separation of the southern states to the MusCat Alliance has got everybody on a hair trigger. And now we’re dealing with a potential PAC superweapon.”

She bit into the chocolate and grimaced—sweet, lumpy, and the almonds tasted liked solidified dust. It had spent far too many months sitting in the vending machine.

“Sorry.” He noticed her reaction. “There’s nothing else available.”

“I’ll survive,” she muttered.

He lifted a finger. “I just thought of something. There are some army cots in the storage rooms. I could bring one to your office for you if you’d like to rest.”

She shook her head. “Don’t worry, I can manage on a chair. I don’t anticipate getting much sleep anyway.”

After making her way back to her office, she sat and forced herself to eat the bar, swilling it down with cold coffee. As she finished, there was a light knock on the door, and a moment later the colonel entered, pulling a fold-up bed behind him.

“You didn’t need to do that,” she said.

He rattled open the bed and slid it alongside the far wall. “It was no trouble.”

He left her alone, and she considered lying down, but already the sugar rush from the candy was combining with the caffeine and driving her earlier lethargy away. She felt a little sorry for the man. Perhaps he wasn’t as bad as she’d thought earlier. As if to make amends, she assembled the data she had so far and sent it through to him. Although leaving it carefully “raw.”




Susie swiped her finger across her Scroll and opened her S-Net account, holding a piece of toast in her other hand. She reopened the Heartthrob files and nearly jumped out of her seat, the toast spilling from her fingers and landing butter-down on her pants.

“Dammit!” she cursed, picking up the errant food and dabbing at the stain with a tissue.

“Language, Susan,” her mom called through the door.

Susie was more worried about her pants. They were probably ruined, and her mom would have a fit. She’d get the “we had to look after our stuff when I was young” speech from her dad too.

“Ten minutes, young lady.” Her mom was patting a few vagrant curls of hair into place. “You’re riding with me today or taking the Transit.”

“Okay, Mom.” Susie was opening the connection to Manda even as she called out her response. “Guess what?” she gasped when her friend answered.

“You got tickets for Ground Fly?”

“As if. They’ve been sold out for months.” Susie leaned closer to the screen, her voice turning to a whisper. “Heartthrob is complete. We’re at 99.9% confirmed.”

“Ayabichin!” Manda grinned. “Not a day too soon. I was starting to worry we might not make it.”

“I know.” Susie laughed. “It’s all there now though. We only need to run the functional tests and we’re good to go.”

“You still want to do this?” Manda raised one eyebrow. “Not getting flossie?”

“Sure I am, but I’m not giving up when we’re this close.” Susie heard her mom at the door. “Gotta go. Talk later.”

Susie disconnected, threw on some clean pants, and grabbed her stuff, bouncing downstairs with a wide grin plastered across her face.



“Have you seen this?” Gover brandished a DataPad showing detailed schematics.

Casteneda read the diagram reference, even though it was upside down. “Possibly. There appear to be numerous variants as far as I can tell. Though the specifications were thorough, so the differences are cosmetic rather than functional.”

“You sound like you approve.”

“My approval or disapproval is irrelevant. I simply recognize that whoever is behind this went to a lot of trouble and is remarkably thorough—a rare quality.”

“That’s bordering on treasonous under the circumstances.” He placed the Pad on his desk. “The technicians tell me this is an optical device.”

“Yes, low powered, but precise. It’s an ingenious use of carbon nanomesh material in both the gathering array and optical projector. This keeps weight to a minim-“

“Weight be damned! It’s a laser.”

She nodded. It wasn’t hard to guess what was coming next. “It makes use of a coherent light source, but not at harmful levels.”

“Not harmful, if it were on its own.” Gover paused as if for dramatic effect. “But in the hundreds or thousands?”

She took a moment before answering. Yes, such devices could conceivably form a threat, if enough were properly focused. She’d already discounted the possibility. Any unfriendly nation wanting to cause destruction would use far more direct methods. Coordinating thousands of tiny devices for the sake of one attack, no matter how severe or secret, made no sense. The PAC was too logical to risk such a thing. The only group with the jihadist mentality was the Muslim-Catholic Alliance, and she didn’t believe they had the technical knowledge required. And they would have to somehow coordinate launches from inside the PAC and PanAsia, which seemed impossible given the mutual antagonism.

“That scenario is unlikely in my estimation.”

“Your opinion in this instance is irrelevant. This is a national security matter.”

She shrugged. “Your prerogative, but I’d counsel caution. Premature action would reflect badly on you and your career.”

“Spoken like a true civilian, Ms. Casteneda. Fortunately for civilization, soldiers are made of sterner stuff.” Gover turned and marched out, his Pad clenched tightly.

She pulled out her Scroll and opened up the traffic analysis. Whoever was coordinating the microsats had been busy—several hundred new ones had been logged. A flurry of launches had moved the verified number to over ten thousand and an estimate of over twice that. If the colonel saw that analysis, he’d likely recommend DEFCON1 and initiate a nuclear war.

Tracing through the data, she noticed something peculiar: the time stamp of the last launch was ninety minutes ago. She double-checked her figures. There was nothing wrong. The collection systems were working, but for some reason, the synchronized launches had stopped.

Her fingertips tingled. This was about to come to a head. All she could do now was hope she was right about the cause.




Susie’s Scroll buzzed and she checked the caller. No ID appeared and the number was out of area, so it was probably some sales call. Her parents had told her not to answer those and checked her logs regularly.

“You never know when one of these silly cults is going to try and recruit you,” was what her mom said whenever Susie objected. Both her parents were completely hopeless when it came to living in the modern world. They still thought there was a MusCat terrorist hiding in every closet, waiting to pounce.

She canceled the call and turned back to her homework. She was working on a history project based around the rule of the old United States by the Three Generations of Evil, where the presidency had stopped being an electable position, shortly before the collapse. It was boring, and she always confused the order of the names.

Her Scroll buzzed again—same number. Those telemarketers must be desperate, she thought and killed the call, turning back to her console. When the device buzzed again, her temper overflowed and she almost stabbed her finger down on the power button before realizing it was her dad calling, something he almost never did.

“Hey, Dad. What’s up?” The image stabilized and she faced a middle-aged woman with severe features and a shock of cropped black hair. “Who are you? What’s going on? Where’s my dad? Oh my god, has something happ—”

“There’s no need for alarm,” Casteneda said, quietly. “I had to get through to you, and you weren’t answering my calls, so I was forced to use a little subterfuge. I’m Maryum Casteneda, Technical Consultant and Systems Specialist.”

“Ms…. Casteneda?” Susie’s mind was whirling, the text at the top of the display still displayed her dad’s name. “How did you do this? You know my dad?”

“You could say that. I’m researching anomalous aerospace events for the government. I think you may be able to help my investigation.”

Susie flinched and her voice lowered. “I’m not sure I… I don’t think I can—” She reached for the disconnect.

“It’s Susie, isn’t it?” Casteneda paused, her features grim. “You can talk to me, or the security forces. I assure you I’m much more reasonable to deal with.”

Susie’s eyes widened. “Security? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Then you have no reason not to talk, have you?”

Susie checked the time. “I have a class in twenty minutes.”

“I’m sure this won’t take long.” Casteneda glanced down as if reading something. “You’re in charge of a project called the OpenSkyBoard.”

“It’s a collaborative solution with participants from all around the world,” Susie said, stiffly. “No one is in charge. The project is self-directed with people working toward a common set of goals. I don’t suppose someone like you would understand how that would operate—not everyone is a wage slave.”

Casteneda’s lips twitched as though holding back a smile. “That may be, but you’re credited as the project initiator, have contributed most to the design specifications, and are the active coordinator.”

Susie tried not to let her surprise show. The woman knew far too much. She might even know the real secret of Heartthrob. “How’d you know all this?”

“I broke S-Net security and encryption, the way I broke your phone security.” Casteneda spoke without hesitation. “After that, I was able to track all information exchanges.”

Susie’s mouth dropped open. She couldn’t believe this strange woman would admit hacking security and the phone system that readily. “That’s against the Charter. They can lock you up for that.”

“Yes. They could.” Casteneda’s eyes gleamed like beads. “Now will you talk to me?”

Over the next fifteen minutes, Susie answered a series of questions that teased out the details of the plan and left her in no doubt of the older woman’s technical background. By the time the five-minute warning beeped for her class, her head was throbbing.

“What happens now? Are you going to tell my parents?” Susie knew they’d explode if they caught wind of this, especially her dad.

“I’m afraid so, otherwise we may find ourselves in a war we will regret.”

“War?” Susie gasped. “But—”

Casteneda waved her hand in dismissal. “Try not to worry. I believe I can handle things with the proper circumspection.”




Casteneda was in the colonel’s office, to deliver her final analysis. Swan was posturing on one side like a trained poodle, listening to the flood of information she was relaying, while Gover leaned forward over his desk hanging on every word. She outlined the description of the devices, their possible functions and best estimates of numbers.

“We have to stop this.” Gover was wide-eyed, when he heard the final numbers. “Over ten thousand lasers in orbit? We should bring them down immediately. Arrest everyone involved.”

“That would be difficult given the objects’ individual small size, orbital meshing capabilities, and the fact that the people involved come from nearly every nation-state,” she said. “And potentially embarrassing politically.”

Swan grunted. “To hell with that—national security overrides all other concerns.”

“It would also be extremely awkward for you, Colonel…”

Gover jumped in his seat. “What do you mean? Who is behind all of this?”

She was silent, but glanced across at Swan.

Gover caught the movement and looked over. “Leave us, Mr. Swan.”

The technician turned purple and he spluttered several times without getting a coherent word out. Then he spun and stormed out, the office door rattling as it closed behind him.

“Now.” Gover interlocked his fingers. “What is this nonsense, Ms. Casteneda?”

“The devices have no harmful or military intent, Colonel. You have my word on that.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. Now answer my question. Who is it?”

Her lips thinned. “I imagine the press will have a field day when they find out the commander of the Space Watch Program allowed a plot to unfold beneath his very eyes.”

“What are you hiding? I don’t understand.”

She slid a printout onto the barren desk. It was a user profile from the OpenSkyBoard project, complete with photograph.

“Susan?” His face darkened almost to ebony. “What does my daughter have to do with this?”

“You wanted the leaders arrested.” Casteneda tapped the printout. “Arrest her.”

Gover leaped to his feet and turned his back to her. “Please explain. Spare no detail.”

She quickly summarized her findings and his daughter’s involvement. It took a surprisingly short time. “Your daughter has an amazing gift for systems design and project coordination. She’s quite a brilliant young lady, with a remarkable career ahead of her.” She leaned back in her chair. “As long as nothing casts a blot on her record.”

“That will be…” His shoulders fell. “Extremely difficult to avoid.”

Casteneda picked up the sheet. “I haven’t filed my latest findings yet. I felt I should talk to you first.”

“It’s Maryum, isn’t it?” Gover faced her once more. “I can’t authorize incomplete reporting, but I thank you for your discretion.”

“My professional report will be complete.” She screwed up the printout and balled it into her pocket. “But as no criminal activity has taken place, I feel free to exercise my judgment as to the content.”

“But we can’t simply do nothing.” He shook his head. “Why would she do such a thing?”

“Were you ever young and in love, Colonel?” She smiled and placed a calling card on the desk. “Please pass this on to your daughter. Tell her if she’s looking for a job any time, to get in touch.”




Susie double-checked everything yet again. She’d run the programming on the simulator at least fifty times in the last day alone. But now it was the real thing. Her Scroll trilled as a call came in.

“You ready?” Manda blurted as soon as the call connected.

Susie shivered. This was it. “I’m not sure, maybe. No, not really.”

“You’re scared?” Manda grinned. “You’ll do great. How could he resist?”

“But what if he…” Susie’s chest tightened. “At least we should be good on our grades, I guess.”

“Stop worrying and do it!” Manda hissed. “Gotta run. Call me later.”

Susie grabbed her coat and took the Transit to the school. Her stomach was doing flip-flops all the way, and at one point she staggered to the bathroom thinking she was going to hurl. Even the fear she’d felt facing Casteneda hadn’t come close to this.

Darren was waiting at the school observatory when she arrived, walking back and forth under the streetlight by the entrance. He looked up as she approached, his unruly mop of hair poking out from under his hood. “Hey, you’re here. I’d almost given up on you.” He punched her arm lightly. “Thought you were still mad at me over Francine.”

“Why would I be mad?”

“I dunno. Because I helped her.”

The air was chill and Susie took a deep breath, welcoming the cool of the night as it filled her lungs. “I read there’s some sort of weird astronomical display tonight. Once in a lifetime, from what I saw.”

His eyes narrowed. “I haven’t heard of anything. We better get inside so we can get the ‘scope on it. Besides, I’m freezing.”

Susie checked her watch. The timing was perfect. “No need. Look.”

She pointed a fraction to the right of Orion’s Belt. He followed her gesture and peered into the darkness. Susie’s throat seemed to close as she waited, unable to breathe. Then she saw it. A square patch of the sky rippled with light, cartoon images of five-pointed stars bursting into life then fading again.

“What the?” he mumbled. “How can that…”

The display changed and a twinkling heart appeared, its border dancing and shimmering with a luminous effervescence. Then it was overlaid by a string of pulsing words. “Susie Gover loves Darren Damiani.”

He stared open-mouthed at the display floating in space. The message changed again. “Take me 2 the Heartthrob dance.”

He looked at Susie, then into the air and back. “How? That’s just…” His arms slid around her and he leaned close. Before Susie could react, his warm lips pressed against hers.

“You’re incredible,” he gasped, several minutes later.

Susie smiled, remembering the carefully handwritten message on the card from Casteneda. “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

Operation Heartthrob was a success.

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