This would make the
fifth raid this month. Jeremy sighed. Why did he act like a terrorist
instead of a superhero? He shifted to Astro Man's night vision as he
and Mickey hovered at 2000 feet in the sky. The Pacific island lit up
against the moonlight as shimmering waves rolled in from the ocean.
On the five-mile-wide land mass, amidst a dense jungle of trees, a
compound sat in a clearing.
Jeremy zoomed in until
he could see the uniform insignia. "Mick, it's ESEL all right."
ESEL, Earth Security
Enhancement League, a super-national military organization bent on
gaining the Stuian's virtual technology that interacts with reality.
That ended when Natalie successfully collapsed the wormhole between
Earth and Zori. Yet Jeremy never found out how far along their own
virtual program had advanced. Did ESEL get enough info on Zori's
virtual machine before the wormhole collapse to build their own?
Mickey nodded. "What's
the plan, Bucko? Go in with guns a blazin'?"
Jeremy rubbed his chin.
"Sort of your style. We did that last time to destroy the
facility. What we need is information. How extensive is ESEL's
network? What nations are supporting them? Now that Zori is out of
the picture, what do they plan on doing with the virtual power
they've gained, however much that is?"
Mickey raised his arms
into the air. "If we can find a complete list of all their
locations, it would speed up this process. But what if there are
hundreds all over the world? We'd never find them all."
Jeremy grunted. "Sort
of like roaches." Jeremy looked Mickey over. "Are you
wearing the same jeans as yesterday?"
"It's not like I
have a huge wardrobe with me. Any idea when our costumes will be
"Any time now,
Uncle George said. Maybe by the time we get back from this mission."
Jeremy ran his fingers
through his hair. "Let's walk in through the front door. I'll
protect us with my shields. They don't have anything that can get
"Let's do this,
then." Mickey pulled the mask over his face.
After Jeremy did
likewise, he adjusted the gravity field around him to dive toward the
island. Mickey followed. Within a minute, they landed outside the
door of the main building, shields engaged.
Soldiers jerked in
surprise and raised their guns. Bullets threw sparks as they
ricocheted off the shield. One group moved between the pair and the
door, firing their weapons.
Jeremy stepped toward
them. The shielding threw the soldiers several feet back upon
contact. Jeremy tried opening the steel door. The knob didn't move.
Mickey held up a hand.
"Allow me." Using G-Man's gravity power, he pulled the door
off its hinges, then reversed gravity to toss the object to the side.
They stepped inside.
After dispatching a few
more soldiers with stun rays, they found the hive chamber. Rows of
extended virtual insertion cylinders filled the small warehouse-like
room. Every facility had such a room. Tapered on both ends and
wrapped in a transparent, plastic casing, bodies could be plugged
into the virtual world when placed inside them.
Since the wormhole had
been destroyed, however, the cylinders had been empty. Until now.
Mickey gazed over the
room. "Why are ESEL soldiers plugged into virtual reality? They
can't be on Zori."
had been inserted into a virtual reality? They learned how to do that
much. Maybe it is some type of virtual training program."
Someone moved out of
the corner of Jeremy's eye. He moved down the rows until he spotted a
soldier with his back against a cylinder.
Jeremy lifted his hand.
man held his palm toward Jeremy. "I have a message from
Jeremy glanced at
Mickey. "For me?"
"You are Jeremy
Goodhue, are you not?"
Jeremy just stared at
him. "What's the message?"
wishes to meet you at the original site where your bodies were held
in New Mexico, and discuss terms of a truce."
Mickey frowned. "A
truce! And I suppose you have some used glazed donuts you'll make us
a good deal on?"
The soldier shrugged.
"That's all I know. He put out a broadcast to everyone to give
you that message if we ran into you."
Jeremy let his hand
lower. "What would you think in our shoes?"
the message, sir. I'm expected to bring back an answer."
Mickey shook his head.
"Don't do it. Probably a trap."
Jeremy smiled. "G-Man,
we're standing in the middle of their compound without one scratch.
What kind of trap would be successful?"
"Uh, you do have a
Jeremy focused on the
soldier. "Tell Commander Fisher this. G-Man and I will meet him
at the plateau tomorrow at 1600 hours. We may not show up, but if we
do, that will be when.
"Now, open your
database so we can download it."
"Sorry, sir. I
cannot do that."
Jeremy jerked his hand
up and fired a stun ray. The man crumbled to the tile floor. Jeremy
scanned the control panel along one wall. He sat at a console and
typed in a command. It beeped and asked for a password.
Mickey shook his head.
"No way we'll be breaking into here without help. Want me to
scramble the database?"
Jeremy wiped the sweat
from his forehead. Why did the bad guys operate in jungles. "No.
We don't know what it will do to the people connected to the VR. We
might find out more info from Commander Fisher."
Mickey scanned the
room. "Seems a shame to come all this way and not take the place
out. But you're right. We don't want to kill all these people."
Jeremy headed toward
the door. Then let's get back to headquarters and plan our next
Mickey grinned. "And
try out our new superhero costumes."
Jeremy spotted the city
of Helena as they flew over Montana. "There's the city."
Jeremy used his finger to draw an invisible line. "That means
Uncle George's house is on that mountain." Jeremy flew toward
it. Mickey followed.
Jeremy missed one
feature of being a virtual superhero: near-instant transport. Now he
had to fly everywhere. While he could zip along pretty fast using
Earth's gravity field, it still couldn't beat instant.
"I see it."
Mickey pointed at a house nestled among tall pine trees. They angled
The rust-colored house,
trimmed in yellow and topped with a green metal roof, barely fit
among the trees. It added to the secrecy of their hideout.
They landed in the
front yard and entered. The living room exuded a lodge vibe. A
mounted elk head graced the wall over a brick fireplace. Curtained
windows abounded, interrupted with knickknacks and pictures. A
leather couch sat in the center of the room, surrounded by two
matching recliners, and a bear-skin rug between them and the
Bridget bounced in,
wearing her new Comet Girl outfit. A silvery green leotard covered
her torso and a matching half mask, rising to points on its corners.
Silver gloves, boots, and a back-length cape completed the ensemble.
She halted her bouncing
upon spotting Jeremy and Mickey. She smiled, threw up her hands, and
spun around. "BJ, Mickey, what do you think?"
Mickey whistled. "Nice
job, Uncle George."
Jeremy rubbed the cape
between his fingers. "Looks pretty much like the virtual
version. Except before you didn't have a cape."
Bridget stood with her
feet apart and her hands on her hips. The cape spread out behind her.
"I wanted to look superheroish when I flew. Uncle George said
sure, especially since today is my birthday."
Jeremy rubbed her hair.
"You do look cool. Is Uncle George finished with my and Mick's
"I most certainly
am." Uncle George appeared from the hallway holding two bags. A
grin beamed underneath his mustache and long beard. He wore his usual
overalls with a blue shirt.
Natalie, in jean shorts
and a T-shirt bearing a graphic of a pine tree over the words
"Ponderosa Pine," popped into the room from the kitchen. "I
helped, in between cooking dinner."
Jeremy and Mickey both
received the bags from Uncle George. Jeremy opened the bag and looked
Mickey pulled orange
material out of the bag. "Most excellent! I'll go try this on
"Hold on, Mick.
Since we have everyone's attention, there's something I need to get
your input on."
Uncle George motioned
toward the couch. "Let's have a seat, then."
Everyone sat except for
Natalie. She pointed a thumb toward the kitchen. "Timer will be
going off soon."
"Something is up with ESEL. For the first time since closing the
wormhole, we spotted extended virtual reality insertion cylinders
filled with ESEL soldiers."
Natalie frowned. "Doing
what? I'm sure they're not getting eaten by a virtual monster over
and over again like I was."
"Not likely. But
that's the thing. We don't know if it was some type of virtual
training exercise, or something worse, like they've figured out how
to create virtual people in this world. And if so, what is their plan
"Whatever they're up to, I'm sure it isn't good news."
"But that's not
all." Jeremy paused for dramatic effect. "We received a
message from Commander Fisher. He wants to meet with me and negotiate
Natalie gasped. "You're
not going, are you?"
"I've set up a
time tomorrow, at four."
"Are you crazy?"
Mickey raised his hand.
"I'm supposed to be the crazy one, and I didn't like the idea
Jeremy rubbed his
forehead. "The way I see it, it will be our best chance to find
out what they are doing, what they know."
Natalie shook her head.
"And Commander Fisher's best chance to take you out. One sniper
bullet and you'll be dead. You ain't virtual no more."
"You can't trust
him. He has an ulterior motive."
"And we'll never
find out what his motives are by breaking in and destroying their
facilities. It might slow them down, but we aren't stopping them."
Jeremy sighed. "We've got to do something more."
Uncle George cleared
his throat. "Seems to me they could also want to cooperate.
After all, their main goal, to protect Earth from future invasions,
seems good. Now that you don't have to worry about Zori, why not see
what he has to say?"
Natalie raised a
finger. "Maybe Zori is no longer in danger—"
Beeps sounded from the
kitchen. Natalie banged her fist on the back of the couch. "But
Earth might be. Hold that thought. I'll be back." She scampered
off to the kitchen.
Mickey nodded. "I'd
have to agree with Natalie. If they progressed far enough to create
virtual people on Earth, no telling what they might try. That kind of
power can be too tempting in the wrong hands."
Uncle George leaned
forward. "Like an over-protective mother ruining her child's
life by trying to save it."
Mickey pointed at him.
Natalie's voice echoed
from the kitchen. "I said, hold that thought!"
Mickey frowned, then
crossed his arms and flopped his upper body against the couch's back.
Bridget giggled at
Mickey. "You look like you did when Natalie flew the Raven on
Zori." The corners of her mouth drooped. "I miss our
Jeremy wrapped his arm
around her shoulders. "We all do, Sis." The one big
downside to losing the wormhole was no more trips to Zori. No more
contact with Holbreth or Jornash. Despite all the drama they had
created in his life, knowing he'd never see them again left an empty
He'd thought losing the
wormhole would get rid of that drama. But no. Virtual superhero
powers became attached to their real bodies in the nuclear explosion.
He still couldn't live a normal life. Ever.
Natalie stepped back
into the living room. "As I was saying, Earth could be in
danger. Think about it. With the wormhole closed, the threat from an
alien invasion like Lorian delivered is practically nil. So any
preparations and use of a virtual reality can't be to protect Earth."
Jeremy rubbed his
forehead. "They might try to protect Earth from itself? Maybe.
Could also be they'd use the virtual reality to explore our system,
maybe even our galaxy."
"So they could
find a new wormhole to conquer new worlds."
"Aren't we being a
little too cynical?"
Natalie crossed her
arms and leaned against the door post. "What does a world-wide
military organization with no mandate or political affiliation do?"
Bridget raised her
hand. "Try to take over the world."
Bridget's arm. "We have a winner!"
Jeremy glanced at each
face. "That may be. We can't rule anything out right now. But
we're not going to find out by raiding their compounds either.
Talking to Fisher may be our best opportunity to learn what they're
Natalie shook her head.
"You don't think they'll tell you what they're up to, do you?"
Jeremy smiled. "I'll
get more info from what they don't say than the line they'll dish
Bridget stood up.
"Speaking of dishing out stuff, is the casserole ready? I'm
Natalie stepped out of
the doorway and swung her arms toward the dinning table. "Come
and help yourselves."
Jeremy slid the belt's
end into a holding strap. "I've got to hand it to you, Uncle
George. This suit fits well and is almost identical to Astro Man's
Uncle George held out a
helmet. "Mostly. Couldn't find an exact duplicate of the helmet.
This is a used racing helmet, modified. Including . . ."
He tapped the visor. "Mirrored and light-filtered glass. Not
only to protect your identity but also to shield your eyes when you
use your light blast."
Jeremy received the
helmet from Uncle George. "Nice job. Thanks."
Uncle George smiled and
nodded. "Nothing to it."
Bridget yanked on
Jeremy's pants. "Hey Astro Man, I should go with you this time."
Jeremy tucked the
helmet under his left arm. "I would, Sis, but I have no idea
what Fisher plans on doing. If this is a trap, best only one of us
"BJ! What has
happened every time you've gone all Lone Ranger on us?"
"Saved the world
and come back home in time for dinner?" Jeremy grinned.
Bridget stuck her
tongue out through a smile. "Hardly. You get caught in a trap."
"Not every time."
"Most of the
Jeremy scratched his
head. "But one of those times I saved Earth."
"Natalie was with
you." Bridget crossed her arms as if to say, "Checkmate."
Uncle George chuckled.
"I'm afraid she's got you there."
Jeremy sighed. "I
just don't want you to get hurt."
Bridget uncrossed her
arms and placed a hand on Jeremy's shoulder. "I'm a big girl
now. I can take care of myself."
Jeremy stifled a laugh.
"Sis, you're only eleven."
"And how many
eleven-year-olds have done what I've done and lived to tell about
Natalie called out from the living room. "Quick, you've got to
Jeremy ran down the
hallway and into the living room, followed by Bridget and Uncle
George. Natalie and Mickey's eyes stared at the TV. The President of
the United States sat behind his desk in the Oval Office in the
middle of an address to the nation.
Santiago leaned forward in his chair. "Again, I plead, if Astro
Man can hear this, please come to me. I have a matter of utmost
importance about which I must speak with you." He leaned back in
his chair and let out a breath. "Please, come."
The screen went dark
and an announcer said, "We now return you to your regularly
Jeremy palmed his
forehead. "The President wants to speak to me?"
Mickey shook his head.
"Go figure. I talked with him last time. Why would he be calling
Astro Man instead of me?"
Natalie smirked. "He
knows you're not the brains of this outfit."
Mickey eyed her,
frowning. "I'm being serious. When you and Jeremy were off
playing around on Similaris, Bridget and I invaded the White House to
prove our point that they needed to prepare for the coming war. I was
Blue Nova at the time, and Bridget was . . ."
Mickey snapped his fingers.
Bridget raised a
finger. "Rainbow Girl."
Mickey held out his palm. "It's logical. We were their main
contact. Why would they ignore Blue Nova and call specifically for
Jeremy ran his fingers
through his hair. "It is suspicious, I'll give you that. But I
don't see how I have any other option than to go see what he wants."
Natalie grimaced. "One
further problem. Of course the president would not know this, but his
public announcement will be seen by ESEL too. That could make your
meeting with Fisher more risky."
"Yes, it does
"Might be too
risky. Maybe you shouldn't go. I have a bad feeling about this."
Jeremy gazed into
Natalie's pleading eyes. "I have to get more info. Unless we can
hack into their computer systems, this is our best shot."
Natalie bowed her head.
"As Sensei I could have. That hero had mind-reading abilities
whenever I touched someone."
Bridget stood up and
stepped next to her brother. "Don't worry. Comet Girl will
Jeremy glanced between
Mickey and Natalie. Even with Uncle George around, he didn't feel
comfortable leaving them alone after their affair ended a little over
a month ago.
Jeremy focused on
Bridget. "Sis, I—"
"He has a secret
mission for you." Natalie broke in.
Jeremy swung his gaze
toward Natalie, his mouth half open. "I do?"
She winked at him.
"Sure. Don't you remember, sweetie? The secret mission for Comet
Mickey laughed. "It's
so secret apparently I don't know about it either."
Jeremy relaxed. She
could see his concern and covered for him. "Oh, yeah. That
secret mission." Jeremy placed a hand on Bridget's shoulder.
"Sis, Natalie knows all the details. Do what she says. Hopefully
by the time I get back, you'll be done too."
Bridget sat back down
and crossed her arms. "Okay, but it better be good."
Jeremy met Mickey's eyes.
"Just let me suit
up." He leaped to his feet and launched himself down the hall.
Jeremy caught Natalie's
grin. Something about her eyes said she was up to something. "Should
I be worried?"
She released a maniacal
laugh. "What? That us girls might try to take over the world?"
Jeremy raised an
eyebrow. "Are you?"
Bridget clapped her
hands. "Now that would be good. When do we start?"
Natalie waved her hand, beckoning Bridget to follow her to her room.
Bridget bounced off the
couch and sped down the hallway, leaving a slight trace of comet dust
lingering in the air behind her.
Natalie mouthed, "I
love you," then disappeared to follow Bridget.
Jeremy lay back into
the couch. Surely she didn't really mean it. She only wanted to
distract Bridget. "That has to be it."
Jeremy's body jerked.
He'd forgotten that Uncle George never left. "Uh, nothing ,
Uncle." He nodded his head toward the hallway. "Keep an eye
on those two. I don't know what they are up to, but they're up to
"When are they
not?" He smiled.
Mickey walked in,
suited up. The G-Man he'd always known stood before him. An orange
body suit, thin blue spirals winding their way around him, covered
his body. A yellow cape hung from his shoulders. A yellow full-face
mask hid Mickey's auburn hair.
Mickey opened the front
door. "After you, Bucko."
Jeremy strapped on his
helmet. Then he ran out of the house, powering his way into the sky
using his gravity ray. Mickey zipped up behind him.
Jeremy adjusted his
course toward New Mexico. His mind focused on dealing with Fisher. If
he was lucky, Fisher hadn't seen the President's message. But he had
to plan as if he had. And pray Fisher didn't have any new tricks up
Natalie closed the door
to her room. Bridget, in her Comet Girl outfit, sat in a corner chair
next to the wooden, oak dresser. A large mirror on it reflected
Natalie's unmade bed ten feet away. Natalie ignored the chore begging
for attention. She had more important matters to deal with.
Bridget crossed her
arms. "So, what is this mission? Or was it merely a plot to keep
me from pestering BJ about going with him?"
"That's what he thinks it is."
Bridget frowned. "Just
because I'm a kid, he thinks I can't do anything. Well, I'm growing
Natalie sat on the edge
of her bed and brushed her bangs back. "I don't think it is
that." Natalie paused. "Though I'm not saying it has
nothing to do with it. I think he is mainly more protective of you.
Remember when you got shot rescuing me? I think that makes him think
twice about taking you on missions."
She nodded. "Still
not fair. All this power and . . ." Bridget's
face froze. She blinked twice. "What did you mean, 'he thinks it
Natalie winked. "I
do have a couple important missions for you. Ones I didn't want to
tell Jeremy about."
wrinkled. "Are you sure it is a good idea to keep secrets from
him after what happened?"
"That is the
reason for the first mission, and also why he doesn't want to take
you along on missions. It isn't that he doesn't want you to come.
He's uncomfortable leaving Mickey here with me."
"I can see that."
Bridget twirled the end of her cape around a finger. "But what
would Comet Girl do to help that?"
"It's more a
mission for Bridget than Comet Girl. I want you to convince Jeremy to
Bridget's eyes widened.
"You make it sound
like a bad thing."
Bridget stood up and started pacing. "Was just expecting
something different. Like spying or taking out a bad guy." She
stopped pacing and turned to face Natalie. "What makes you think
he'll listen to his little sister?"
Natalie shook her head.
"I don't mean directly tell him to do it. Just plant the idea in
his head. Tell him how close we've become. Tell him your worried that
I'll eventually find someone else and leave." Natalie stared at
Bridget for a couple of seconds. "Tell him the truth."
"Why don't you
just tell him you want to get married?"
Natalie sighed. "I
don't want to push him, especially after what I did. But I did what I
did in part because I'd grown tired of waiting. We've been dating for
over a year and our relationship is stuck at saying 'I love you' and
kissing. Why is it taking him so long to move to the next level?"
"What's so funny."
"BJ is a manual
reader. Always has to think everything through."
Natalie grunted. "So
you're saying I need to write him a manual on how to develop a
relationship with a girl?"
Bridget grinned. "I'm
sure that would do the trick, knowing him."
Natalie chuckled at the
thought. Ironically, Bridget was right. "Will you give it a try
at least? Plant the seed?"
Bridget let out a sigh
and sat down. "Okay. I'll see what I can do. Now, what is the
Comet Girl mission?"
Natalie rose and pulled
a drawer out from her nightstand. She reached in and pulled out some
cloth. She unfolded it and displayed it to Bridget.
Bridget's mouth fell
open. "Your virtual mask? Where did you get that?"
"Jeremy found it
in one of the ESEL labs they had raided. Took it back figuring the
less they had, the better. Our masks are more developed than the Mind
Game helmets. He stored it with the rest of the masks. I sneaked it
"But the mask
don't work now that the wormhole's been destroyed. What are you going
to do with it?"
"I'm operating on
a theory. When I was trapped in their virtual reality, it was inside
their computer. So we know they've got that far in using it. But I'm
betting they've developed more than that.
reported he saw virtual insertion tubes full of ESEL soldiers, it
confirmed my suspicions. I think ESEL is able to project virtual
people wherever they want and are doing so right now."
Bridget nodded. "Okay.
Where do I come into this?"
Natalie put the mask on
the bed. "I want to use the mask to test my hypothesis. If they
have created a virtual machine here on Earth, my mask should be able
to pick up on it and take me into it. If not, nothing will happen."
"Maybe I should
use my own mask."
Natalie pointed a finger at her. "All three of your masks were
connected to ESEL's piggyback onto Zori's virtual energy for more
than a year. It is too likely as soon as one of them were used, it
would show up on ESEL's system. My mask was never connected."
"They did have it
for a few days. When did Jeremy retrieve it?"
"About a week
after he rescued me."
"They could have
connected it during that time.”
Natalie nodded. "It
is possible, but not likely. But that is why I need you. I can't use
it here, for fear they can track it. We don't want to give away our
hideout. Plus, I'll need a superhero to protect my body while in VR
if indeed I go there. So I need you to fly me to a safe location to
Bridget flapped her
cape for a moment while staring at her feet. She met Natalie's eyes.
"Sounds reasonable. But why not tell BJ?"
"What do you think
Brother Jeremy would say if we did?"
Bridget smiled and said
in her best imitation of Jeremy, "Too risky until we've studied
all the angles."
"Exactly. I bet
I'll find out more about their intentions in one visit than Jeremy
does in several raids and talking to Fisher."
"Just one thing."
Bridget stood. "I need something to eat before we do this."
"You've got it."