Jeremy stared blankly at the video screens stretching across the Titan station's wall as they scanned Earth's video feeds for crimes in progress. Glimpses of Christmas trees flashed across them as the world he called home, almost a billion miles away, prepared for Christmas the next morning.
"BJ, do you think we'll see Santa from here?" Bridget turned to watch Jeremy's eyes.
He barely cracked a smile. That would certainly get his mind off all the events of the past year. "No, Sis, I seriously doubt it." Jeremy met her eyes. Her short, brown hair brushed her shoulders. "Santa operates under the radar."
She huffed. "You make him sound like a bad guy."
"He does break into people's houses."
She slapped his arm. "To give stuff, not take it."
Jeremy's gut sank. "Christmas did take my life from me. From us." A year ago, he had a normal life. All gone now. All because he had received that stupid helmet for Christmas, had put it on, had become involved with another world's battle, then had become the hero who saved Zoir, SuPuten, and Earth. A year later, his parents dead, the world moved on as if nothing had happened. Another Christmas had come. This time without the Mind Game, but he still had the hero game going.
She slumped in her seat. "I was trying not to think about that."
Jeremy swung around. "Hey, Mick. What took you?"
"Family returned late from a Christmas Eve service. Said I wanted to go to bed right away, like I couldn't wait until tomorrow." He smiled. "But I don't have to."
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, you don't have to wait?"
Mickey slapped Jeremy on the back. "Because I have Astro Man right here. Just use that x-ray beam of yours and I'll know what my presents are tonight!"
Jeremy shook his head. "Mick, you're crazy."
"Oh, come on. I'm hoping they snagged the latest game—"
Jeremy jumped out of his seat. "Another game? Are you crazy?"
Mickey grimaced. "Bucko, what's the deal. It's just a video game."
Jeremy rubbed his forehead. "That's what we thought last year. Just a game. A game that stole my life from me."
Mickey's eyes grew wide. "Ah, of course. Christmas would be triggery for you. I'm sorry."
Jeremy sucked in a deep breath. "Forget it, Mick. It's all I can think about right now."
"What you need is some action. Anything on the vids tonight?"
Jeremy shook his head. "Christmas Eve is pretty quite all over the world it seems."
"Santa." Bridget's voice rang out.
Jeremy spun around. "What?"
She pointed at a video screen. "There's Santa. And he's breaking into a house."
Mickey slapped his hands together. "There's our action. Let's take down Santa."
Jeremy held up a hand. "Mick, this is suspicious. Think about it. How would a live camera crew know about a break-in to a home as it happens and be there to record it?"
Mickey shrugged. "Happened to be in the right place at the right time? They've probably called the cops, but are filming it for the drama."
"Maybe." Jeremy stared at it a bit longer. "Aren't there movie plots about Santa stealing things?" Micky stared at him. Jeremy called out, "Computer, find movies where Santa steals." A screen went blank and then a list of titles appeared. The highest rated link read, "The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus" in 1914. Related links followed it.
Mickey read the results. "Are you saying the Zorians are behind this? Else I'm not following you. Santa thieves have been around forever."
"Yes . . . I mean, no. I doubt it is a Zorian. But it still makes me suspicious."
"Okay, so maybe it's a trap. Maybe it's not. And if it's not, guess who loses?"
Jeremy ran his fingers through his hair. "Yes, you're right. But stay together. My gut is saying something is wrong here."
"Agreed," Mickey responded.
Bridget jumped from the chair. "Sure, but we'll be virtual. We can't get hurt."
Jeremy stood. "Then as you say, Mick, let's do this."
Mickey grinned. "This will be good for you. You'll see."
Jeremy entered the coordinates. "Suit, appear as Astro Man."
The room faded and a breeze blew across his chin extending from below his helmet. The half-moon cast a dim glow over the residential neighborhood. A street light flickered a few yards to the right. Activity buzzed to his left where a camera crew recorded the house, waiting for the thief to exit. A siren blared in the distance, indicating the police were indeed on their way. Mickey was probably right. They would save someone's Christmas from being stolen and save Christmas for some kids.
Mickey appeared beside him as Blue Nova. Jeremy could barely make out the blue-green suit, blue briefs, and dark blue cape in the moonlight.
Bridget materialized as Rainbow Girl to his left. Her sparkly mask flaring at the end reflected the meager light.
Jeremy caught her eye. "Rainbow Girl?"
She smiled. "You catch 'em. I'm make 'em cooperative."
Jeremy nodded. "Sounds like a plan. You stay out here. Blue Nova and I will grab this guy." He turned toward Mickey. "I'll use my light-flash on my gun, and while the crew is blinded, race in there and grab him, bring him to Rainbow Girl, and she'll make him giddy with cooperation."
Mickey saluted. "Sir, yes, sir!"
"Lighten up, Bucko. Have a little fun with this. You're way too wound up."
Jeremy unsheathed his gun and set it for a light blast. "You should never let your guard down. Assume nothing."
"It's just a lone Santa thief. What could go wrong?"
"I hope you're right." Jeremy pointed the gun toward the camera crew. "Hide your eyes. On three. One, two, three!" Jeremy squeezed the trigger and a blast of light lit up the area. The camera crew rubbed their eyes and swore in the quiet neighborhood. Within a second, Mickey flashed back with a squirming man in his arms. Mickey dropped him on the ground.
"What the—" The man's eyes darted around.
Bridget extended her arms and flow of rainbow colors enveloped the man.
Santa's eyes blinked and a grin spread across his face. "So much for my Christmas. But that's okay. I'm happy anyway."
Jeremy pointed to the street. "Go sit on the curb and wait for the police. Give yourself up when they arrive."
"Oh gladly I will. I was so bad to try and steal . . . you."
Jeremy's eyes widened. "What did you say?"
The back of the news van flung open. A line of soldiers carrying automatic rifles streamed out the door. Jeremy raised his gun to set it for shields, but before he could, a rain of bullets spread over them. He could feel the bullets hitting him. He would have called out to exit the suit, but dying in the virtual body would accomplish the same thing. This did appear to be a trap, but what trap? They would wake up and come back again. Apparently they didn't know much about how virtual bodies worked. But why did the army set this trap?
As life ebbed from the virtual body, Mickey dropped out of nova speed and fell to the ground. He hadn't reacted fast enough, despite his super speed. Jeremy crumbled onto the grass as blackness swept over him.
Jeremy jerked his eyes open. He tried to focus, but the ceiling he saw was not the stucco of his uncle's house at the top of a Montana mountain. Instead, polished metal greeted his eyes. He pushed himself up.
Thick hands wrapped around his arms and another pulled the cowl off his head. "Commander, Operation Christmas Gift has been completed, sir."
Jeremy groaned inwardly. Their bodies had been captured while they were virtual. Two men on either side of him kept a firm grip on his arms, another two stood toward the foot of his bed, rifles aimed at the floor, ready to use. No doubt another two stood behind him.
A higher ranking solider beside his bed examined the cowl. "Very interesting. I'm sure our scientist will have a field day with this."
Jeremy struggled to speak through a dry throat. "Earth's best scientist couldn't figure out how the Mind Game helmets operated. What makes you think this will be easier?"
A smug smile creased his lips. "We've actually made progress in figuring out the helmets. But we're missing a point of reference."
Jeremy squinted at him. "What?"
"Point of reference. The helmets, as you know, don't work. And even when they did, the destination was in another galaxy. But with these in hand and the destination being in the same room, they'll be able to trace the energy field being created, and hopefully come up with the remaining pieces of the puzzle."
Jeremy let himself fall back to the cot. The soldier's hands loosened but remained firm. "No one can use the mask but me. Same with the other mask Mickey and Bridget have. They are programmed to respond only to our voices."
The man shot a stare at Jeremy. "You'll forgive me if I don't trust you."
"Be my guest." Jeremy turned to meet his eyes. "But how did you find us?"
He waved his hand. "Simple deduction. When the superhero appearances began to be reported all over the world, and your friend and sister's personas helped in defending Earth from the Similarians, it became obvious that the same virtual reality of the Mind Game was at work. From there you were the most logical culprits. We tracked down your locations and set the trap to grab you."
Jeremy stared at the wall. He should have foreseen this possibility. "Why, though? Why revert to kidnapping us?"
The soldier stuffed the cowl into his pocket. "Control, Jeremy Goodhue. We like to have control over situations. And I didn't suspect you'd approve of us gaining that control. But if we can duplicate this technology, our forces would be invincible. We can fight wars on the ground without losing a life. With a legion of virtual Blue Novas to speed in and hit the enemy before they even blink, we could maintain control for decades. Centuries even. Can you imagine the progress? Can you see the peace we could uphold?"
Jeremy knew he didn't want to tell the man anything else. Let him think he could succeed. As soon as the Zorians caught wind of it, they'd shut off the virtual energy going through the wormhole and that would be that. No more superhero days for himself, Mickey, and Bridget. Then again, that didn't sound so bad. He wouldn't mind putting the whole thing behind him and salvage what he could of his life.
"Peace?" Jeremy breathed deep. "By killing?"
He smiled. "Youthful idealism. I'm afraid the world is a dangerous place. Some people only understand one thing. Brut force."
Jeremy grumbled under his breath, "That's what all bullies think."
"What?" The Commander stared at him for a couple of seconds. Then turned and headed for the door. He paused as he opened it. "By the way. Merry Christmas, Jeremy." He left and shut the door behind him.
Jeremy groaned. We may have killed Rillian, but his spirit lives on.
The Commander returned to the room after an hour had passed. His lips down-turned, he faced Jeremy lying on the bed. "You were right. We have to use you to get the mask to operate. Come with me." He turned on his heels and headed to the door.
Arms pulled Jeremy off the bed. He stumbled along beside the soldiers as they exited the room and marched down the hall. The Commander stopped in front of a door and pointed at the window.
Jeremy moved to look in, keeping his eyes fixed on the Commander's stoic gaze. He peered in. Uncle George sat on a cot, wearing coveralls and a hat as if they'd snatched him while he milked the cows.
"Just want to ensure your cooperation. If you resist or try anything foolish, it won't go well for your uncle, sister, or friend."
Jeremy met his gaze. "We're United States citizens. What about our constitutional rights to due process? You can't threaten us like this."
A smile cracked on his lips. "To the government, the Congress, and the Constitution, we don't exist. You'll have a hard time suing an organization that doesn't exist."
"How do I know you have my sister and friend?"
The Commander nodded down the hall. They stopped at the next two cell doors. Bridget sat on the cot rocking her feet under it. Mickey circled his cot as if deep in thought. "Satisfied?"
Jeremy nodded and followed the soldiers down the hall, a right turn into another hall, a left, and a few doors on the right, they entered a room. Waist-high tables lined the walls. Chairs sat scattered in front of them where soldiers worked on different projects. Centrifuges, Bunsen burners, test tubes, microscopes, and various other lab equipment littered the table-tops.
In the center of the room stood a dentist-like chair fastened with heart monitors, IVs, and a foil ring that swiveled off the top of the chair's back, as if it would fit on someone's head. A moveable light hovered over the chair. The light probably wasn't to get a better view of one's mouth.
The soldiers jumped to their feet as the Commander strolled to the center of the room. He patted the chair. "Lay down here."
Jeremy didn't see he had any other option. So he crawled into the chair and laid his head against the back. Jeremy watched as the Commander reached onto the table where a soldier stood at attention, and picked up his cowl. Bridget's and Mickey's masks had lain beside it.
The Commander held the mask in front of Jeremy. "You will put this on, then appear in this room as one of your characters. If you do not appear here, I will order the termination of one of those we are holding."
Jeremy's jaw dropped. "Murder?" He had to be bluffing.
"Oh, it would be an accident. Your Uncle falls off the mountain. Your sister drowns in a lake. Your friend shows up in an automobile accident while walking home. All after we terminate them and plant the evidence. We could even implicate you in their deaths if we wished. Now you don't want their blood on your hands, do you?"
"Investigators would know we didn't die that way." Jeremy gritted his teeth. "You couldn't get away with it!"
The Commander stared into Jeremy's eyes. "We have, we are, and we will again. Now are we clear?"
Jeremy bored into the Commander's eyes. If the man was bluffing, he couldn't tell. Nor could he take the chance he wasn't. "You're clear. I'll cooperate."
"Good." He handed Jeremy the cowl.
Jeremy slipped it over his head and leaned back. The ring was snuggled down upon his head. He whispered in hopes they wouldn't pick up the words, but the mask would. "Suit, appear here as Astro Man."
The room dimmed, then reappeared, except now he stood to the side of the chair watching his body breathe in front of him. Feet scurried behind him. "Hand's up!"
Jeremy raised his hands. Fingers wrapped around his gun and then yanked it from its holster. The soldier held the raygun in his hand. A slight smile spread over the man's lips.
Jeremy nodded at the gun. "Careful with that, dude. Whatever you do, don't pull the trigger."
The Commander jumped to the soldier and pulled it from his hands. He turned it over as he examined it. "Why? What would happen."
Jeremy forced a grin to stay hidden. "Trust me. The last thing you want to do is pull that trigger."
The Commander continued to scan the gun. "Sargent, start the energy trace from the body to the virtual body."
"Sir, yes, sir." Several of the men turned back to their work.
The Commander lifted the gun's barrel and rested it over his extended left arm. He pointed it at the far wall where a two-feet thick, titanium, three by three foot wall stood. A blackened area covered the center of the metal wall as if lasers had hit it countless times.
"Sir, do you think that is a good idea? We should interrogate the prisoner first to know what it does."
The Commander turned and stared at the officer for a long five seconds before responding. "You're out of line, soldier. This is a raygun. This dial on top sets the strength. Anyone can see that."
The soldier shrank back to his table. Another officer called out, "Yes, sir. But I saw—"
The Commander ignored the officer and pulled the trigger. The last setting Jeremy had used being the light blast with the camera crew, a blinding light filled the room. Rifles clattered to the floor as everyone hid their eyes.
Jeremy, protected by his helmet's visor, dove to his raygun falling from the Commander's hand, caught it in midair, spun around, and landed on his back. He flipped the gun to the stun ray before anyone could regain their sight and spun himself around on the floor, dropping everyone in the room with a series of thuds and clanks.
"Suit, appear here as Inviso Dude." The room darkened and returned with the bluish glow of the invisibility field. He leaped to his feet, grabbed Bridget and Mickey's mask from the table, then scooped up his own body lying in the chair and flopped it over his shoulder. "Man, I've got to lose some weight."
Jeremy stopped by the Commander's unconscious body. "I told you, you didn't want to pull that trigger." Did the Commander ever read Briar Rabbit. He thanked God that the Commander was numbered among the men who didn't think they needed to read the instructions.
With the invisibility field cloaking both his virtual and real body, he stepped through the wall, down the hallway, and into Mickey's cell. He pulled Mickey's mask from his pocket and threw it onto the cot.
Mickey stopped his pacing and jumped. "What the . . ." His eyes widened. "Bucko?"
"Put it on, Mick, grab your body once you've gone virtual, and then hold onto me. I'll extend the invisibility shield around you so we can walk through the wall."
Mickey flopped onto his cot and yanked the mask on. "Suit, appear here as Blue Nova." Blue Nova materialized beside the cot. He pulled his body onto his shoulder, grabbed hold of Jeremy's arm, and became invisible. Jeremy headed for the wall and they stepped into Bridget's cell.
"Sis, put this on." He threw her mask onto the cot. She smiled and jumped up clapping. She put on the mask and became Comet Girl. Jeremy knelt down and pulled Bridget's limp body onto his other shoulder. "Hold onto me everyone. We have one more person to get. They walked through the next wall and into Uncle George's cell. Uncle George latched onto the chain of people. The energy drain on Jeremy caused him to wobble. "Quick, though this door. I can't hold the field much longer."
Jeremy focused on energizing the field as they entered the hallway. They released Jeremy, causing Bridget, Uncle George, and Mickey holding his own body to become visible again. Jeremy breathed easier.
Mickey glanced down each hallway. "Now how do we get out of here? Wherever here is."
The sound of footsteps sounded down the hallway. Jeremy frowned though no one could see it. "I think they've discovered my breakout. Mick, give me your body and do a quick recon. Knock out the soldiers coming and find out where the way out is."
"Your wish is my command." He slipped his body to Jeremy, who piled it on top of his own. Jeremy thanked Holbreth for giving Inviso Dude super human strength.
Mickey sped away into a blur. Jeremy motioned to the rest. "Follow me this way. Comet Girl, scatter some knockout comet dust behind us. Mickey won't be affected by it because he's going too fast."
She nodded. "One dose of sleeping dust, coming up." As Jeremy led Uncle George down the hall away from the coming boots, Bridget extended her hand and scattered dust into the air as she walked backwards.
Sounds of grunts and guns clattering to the floor echoed down the hall. Jeremy doubted they ever saw Blue Nova hit them. Uncle George glanced back. "Is he all right?"
"He's fine. Don't worry about him." Jeremy rounded a corner to find four soldiers pointing rifles at them. Before Bridget could follow him, Jeremy yelled, "Back!" Bullets whizzed harmlessly through him. "Comet Girl, send dust this way."
Bridget stuck her hands around the corner and showered the men with dust. They collapsed onto the floor. Jeremy said, "It's clear." The pair followed him again.
A steel door loomed in front of them. A blue streak stopped in front of Jeremy and Blue Nova appeared. "It must be this way. I checked a few hundred bunk rooms, eating rooms, bathrooms, rec rooms, laboratories, cells, etc., and they were all dead ends."
"Very well." Jeremy stepped through the door and examined the area beyond it. A hanger greeted him dotted with jets. Multiple soldiers worked on the aircraft and guarded the area. A big door that Jeremy bet led outside stood on one side of the massive walls.
Jeremy stepped back into the hallway. "This is certainly the way out. But there are a lot of soldiers on the other side of this door. I'll step you through, Blue Nova, then you can take out as many as possible while I break a hole through this door and we can escape."
Mickey nodded. "Let's do this."
Jeremy held onto Mickey's shoulder until he was through the door, then released him. He watched a moment as Mickey zoomed from person to person, knocking them out with a hit to the head. Jeremy pulled back into the hallway.
Jeremy lay the bodies in a corner. "Suit, appear here as Astro Man." The hallway faded to black immediately returned, but seen through the visor of his helmet. "Stand back, you two." He reached for his gun.
"Halt!" the Commander's voice rang out.
Jeremy jerked his head around. His gut twisted at the sight. The Commander stood, arms crossed, surrounded by ten soldiers pointing rifles at Bridget, himself, and Uncle George.
"Deactivate your virtual personas now, or I'll fire on your uncle." The Commander's eyes bore down upon Jeremy, daring him to disobey.
Jeremy glanced at Uncle George. Uncle George stared at the rifles with wide eyes and backed up against the wall. Jeremy checked on Bridget. She'd closed her eyes and bowed her head as if admitting defeat. There was no way he could pull his gun fast enough to initiate the force field before they pulled the trigger. And Blue Nova, trapped on the other side of the door, couldn't help either.
"Now, Jeremy!" The Commander lifted his hand to give the order.
Jeremy held up a hand. "Okay, you win." He breathed deep. "Suit—"
A blast of light filled the small hallway. A force knocked Jeremy off his feet. His helmet's visor protected him from the light, but he flew through the air, slammed against the wall and crumbled to the floor. The helmet had protected his head from serious injury, but pain roaring through him said otherwise. The force rebounding off the door smashed into Jeremy's body and shoved him ten feet across the hall. Every bone in his body ached, and he could barely move.
"BJ, I mean, Astro Man, are you all right?"
A hand touched his head. He cracked an eye open to see a blurry Comet Girl standing over him. "Was that you?"
"Uh huh. Sorry I couldn't protect you, but I felt keeping a protecting field over Uncle George and our bodies was more important."
Jeremy nodded. "I'll reset myself. Suit, appear here as Astro Man." The room faded and with it, the pain. It reappeared and now he could see clearly. He hopped to his feet and examined the pile of unconscious bodies. "Comet Girl sure knows how to pack a punch."
Bridget giggled. Uncle George rubbed her head. "You can say that again."
Jeremy pulled the raygun from its holster and dialed in the gravity ray. He pointed it at the door and pulled the trigger. It burrowed into the metal. A red glow spread across the door as the beam dissolved the molecular cohesion, disintegrating a hole into the thick metal.
Blue Nova flashed to a stop in front of Jeremy. "About time. What took ya?"
Jeremy pointed at the pile of men. "Needed to clean up after ourselves."
Mickey smiled and slapped Jeremy on the shoulder. "Way to go, Bucko. That'll teach 'em."
"It wasn't me. Thank Comet Girl here. I was ready to surrender."
Mickey tussled her hair. "I should have known when I heard an explosion." He turned back to Jeremy. "But now what?"
"First, let's get out of here. No doubt they have cameras all over this place. We can't discuss plans here. You take yours and Bridget's bodies. I'll take Uncle George's and my body in my ship. Comet Girl can fly. We'll meet again once we are clear of this place and figure out what to do."
Mickey nodded. "Sounds good. Let's do this."
Bridget gave a thumbs up. "Yes. Let's."
Uncle George said, "Anything to get out of here."
Mickey picked up his and Bridget's bodies, and Jeremy grabbed his own while Uncle George and Bridget followed him through the doorway. "Watch your step. The edges of the door are still hot."
Once into the hanger, Jeremy called out, "Suit, call ship." A dark jet-like aircraft materialized in the center of the hanger. The wings slicked back and pointed upwards at the tips. The rear tale marked the shape of a V. The glass hatch raised open from the back where the ship's nose narrowed to a point and angled slightly downward. Uncle George crawled into the back seat.
Jeremy settled his body into Uncle George's lap. "Sorry for the tight quarters, Uncle."
"Just get us out of here."
Jeremy saluted. "Sir, yes, sir." He hopped into the pilot's seat and lowered the hatch. After firing up the space jet, it rose from the ground. Jeremy aimed the ship's gravity ray and blasted the hanger doors. A red glow spread from the center followed by the disappearing wall. Sunlight poured in as the hole grew. Jeremy shoved the throttle forward. The ship accelerated toward the door and into the air of freedom.
Jeremy engaged the radio in his suit. "Mick, I'm going to send the government a Christmas present. Give me a minute."
Jeremy banked and came back around to the hanger door. He flipped the ship's camera on and filmed the smoke rising from the side of a mountain. As he dove back into the hanger, slowed to a stop, hovered around, and then blasted back out, he added the following audio narrative:
"Dear Mr. President and members of Congress, what you are seeing here is the secret base of a hidden military unit, or so I've been told. They kidnapped Astro Man, Blue Nova, and Comet Girl in order to steal our power. I was told you do not know of this unit, that it doesn't exist in the books. They threatened to ignore our constitutional rights upon capturing us. Even threatening to kill innocent civilians if we didn't cooperate. You can see the coordinates displayed on the video of the site's location. I'm sure you'll figure out how to proceed with this information. Thank you."
Jeremy saved the file, then addressed an email to the president, top cabinet members, and key members of congress, attached the video, and hit send. Jeremy couldn't help but grin. Even if some were in on the plot, now that it was exposed it would die a quick death. If it was truly a hidden organization, investigations and prosecutions were sure to follow.
Jeremy opened up the radio. "Blue Nova and Comet Girl. Operation Christmas Gift has been completed."
"What was the gift?" Mickey responded.
"The gift of truth. When truth is brought to light, it forces changes. Usually big changes." Jeremy smiled. "See that plateau I'm headed to?"
"We'll all met there. We can't return to our homes now. We'll have to take our bodies to Titan and figure out a plan of attack from there. We'll discuss the details on the plateau."
Jeremy focused as he angled the ship for a landing. Now he not only had lost his normal life because of these powers, he'd lost the last semblance of normalcy he had left: a home.
Uncle George placed a hand on his shoulder. "Jeremy, you've done good. I'm right proud of ya."
Jeremy smiled. He hadn't lost everything. He still had family and friends. And that mattered more than being normal. Now that was a real Christmas gift.
"Merry Christmas, Uncle. I love you too."
Bridget pointed at one of the many monitors along one wall of the control room. "There he is! I knew it."
Jeremy glanced up. "Who?"
Jeremy focused on the screen she pointed at. "The Grinch?"
"Yeah, you know. Who stole Christmas?"
A man on the screen, dressed in an outfit that appeared to mimic the Grinch, slid open a window and climbed into the house. Ironically, it was Christmas Eve.
Bridget shook her head. "Last year, it was Santa. Now this."
"And you remember what happened last year?"
"Yes, it was a trap."
Jeremy stuffed the new superhero mask in his pocket and rose from his chair. "Would they be so stupid as to think we'd fall for it again, two years in a row?"
Jeremy sighed. "Problem is, if it isn't another trap, someone is going to have their Christmas stolen by a real grinch. If I go as Inviso Dude, I might be able to check before committing myself to it."
She shook her head. "That also means you'll be going solo. Too risky."
Jeremy nodded. "You're right." He'd done that too often before and ended up getting caught. Even as Inviso Dude. "I should take Mickey with me. As Blue Nova, he can pretty much stay out of sight as well."
Bridget crossed her arms. "And what? I'm just supposed to stay here while you two get all the glory?"
Jeremy smiled. "Oh, why not come along too? Just stay hidden. We don't want to give ourselves away before we're ready."
Mickey's voice rang through the control room behind them. "Not going anywhere without me, are you?"
Jeremy spun around and smiled. "Just in time Mick. We have a situation similar to last year, except this time, Grinch instead of Santa."
Mickey frowned. "You're not thinking of going down there are you?"
"Yes, but we'll be more careful this time. I'm going as Inviso Dude, Bridget's staying hidden, and you'll hide as Blue Nova. We'll check it out before doing anything to reveal ourselves."
Mickey sighed. "I don't like it. Most Christmas Eve robberies we'd never know about anyway. Let's let this one be."
Jeremy put a hand on Mickey's shoulder. "Mick, it's not only because some kids might lose Christmas. If this is another trap, we need to find out who is doing it. I thought we'd shut down that special unit last year. If they are back in operation, they'll keep coming after us. Better to go into a trap knowingly than not being aware, don't you think?"
Mickey scratched his chin. "Bucko, you make some sense, for once. Let's go in."
Jeremy entered the coordinates into his suit. "Suit, appear at coordinates as Inviso Dude."
The cold steel of the space station on Titan vanished to be replaced by a wind whipping chills through the trees of a residential neighborhood. Bridget materialized as Comet Girl behind a tree, and Mickey as Blue Nova just out of sight.
Jeremy scanned the street. A news van recorded the event, just like last year. Over his communicator he said, "Mick, I'm going to see if anyone is hiding in the van. While I'm doing that, speed into the house and knock the burglar out. Don't bring him outside, just tie him up and make sure the presents he took are put back."
"You've got it."
Mickey disappeared in a blur. Jeremy worked his way toward the van, being as quiet as he could. He circled around the trees, staying out of sound range. The strong wind whistling through the trees helped mask any crackling leaves under his feet. He reached the side of the van and stuck his head through the metal.
Inside the van, two men sat at chairs bolted to the floor. Technical equipment surrounded them, complete with blinking lights and switches.
Camera and transmitting equipment? Nothing too suspicious here. Jeremy focused on the uniforms. Not US military, but they did look similar. Except patches on their side displayed in capital letters the acronym "ESEL." Who could that be? He didn't know any news stations with that call sign in the area.
One of the men turned to the other. "The Grinch is out. I repeat, the Grinch is out."
"Bucko," Mickey sounded over the com. "I've knocked him out and tied him up. Getting ready to put the presents back."
The other man in the van nodded. "Initiate Subspace."
Jeremy didn't like the sound of that. He pulled his head out of the van. "Mick, Bridget, return to base now! This is a trap."
"Rodger," Mickey responded.
"Got it," Bridget returned.
Jeremy started to speak the command, but grew lightheaded. The scenery wavered for a second before snapping back into place. Jeremy rubbed his head as he said, "Suit, appear as Astro Man."
The neighborhood vanished and then the control room materialized. Jeremy checked the monitor. A news piece ran on the recently elected president's plans once sworn in.
Mickey and Bridget appeared beside him. Mickey faced Jeremy. "Did you feel that phase in and out?"
"Yes. How about you, Bridget?"
She nodded. "Very strange feeling. But what was it?"
Jeremy shrugged. "I had my head in the van when they said the Grinch was down. Like they were monitoring him. Then they said something about initiating subspace. That's when I warned you both to return to base."
Bridget sat on a stool. "Well, they failed. They didn't get us this time."
"But what was that phased feeling?" Mickey asked.
Jeremy thought for a second. "If they initiated a subspace signal, it's possible it could have affected our virtual feed. We don't know they were trying to get us."
Mickey shoved a hand at the monitors. "Why else would someone fake a newscast? They know we monitor these feeds."
Jeremy turned on his heels and headed out the doors. "Better check on our bodies. I can't imagine they could do anything from here, but best to check."
They stepped down the virtual steel corridor, stopping before a door. It slid back and they entered the medical room. Their three bodies lay on the beds, IVs in as usual. The medical robot hummed over them, taking readings.
When the secret military unit captured their bodies last Christmas, they decided the only safe place to keep them was on Titan. It meant frequent trips to get real food and supplies, but it worked. Occasionally they would haul Uncle George and Natalie to the station for a visit.
But it meant any visits to Earth, short of flying their real bodies back to Earth, were by their virtual bodies. Going to school, even visiting Uncle George and Natalie.
Jeremy met Mickey and Bridget's eyes. "Let's return to our bodies for a bit. They probably need stretching anyway. We've been virtual for a while now."
Mickey nodded. "Good idea."
Jeremy pulled a mask out of his pocket and placed it on a counter.
Bridget scrunched her mouth. "What's that?"
"Don't tell, but it's Natalie's Christmas present."
Her eyes lit up. "Great, but what is it?"
Jeremy lifted it from the counter so that it dangled from his fingers. "A mask."
Mickey gasped. "Not like ours, is it?"
Jeremy nodded. "Holbreth gave it to me about a month ago. I've been saving it for a Christmas present for Natalie."
Mickey slapped his forehead. "Bucko! Just what I need! Having her around showing me up all the time." He pointed a finger at Jeremy. "You know how she feels about being virtual anyway. She probably won't like it."
Jeremy let it fall back to the counter. "I know. She may hate it. But I think she might be ready for it. She regrets not going with us when we leave."
Mickey laughed. "Bucko, that's just what you want to think she's thinking. She gets a good night's sleep and wakes up to go with you to school and wherever else. I think she's perfectly happy."
"We'll see. It's only an hour till dawn. So let's get back into our real bodies for a while, eat some real food, and then we can go home for Christmas."
As they nodded, Jeremy said, "Exit suit." His view shifted from Astro Man standing in the room in front of his body to seeing out his own eyes again. He yawned as he heard Mickey and Bridget give the same command. He disconnected the IV from its port.
Jeremy rose from his bed and met Mickey's eyes. "Mick, do you feel stiff like you've been laying for three days?"
Mickey bent his leg. "Interestingly, no. I don't."
Bridget leaped off her bed. "I think this virtual air is doing our bodies some good."
Jeremy stood up. "You may be right, Sis. Let's go get some food." Jeremy led the way to the mess hall.
It would have felt weird attending Christmas with family as a virtual being, if it wasn't for the fact that the virtual reality was so real. It wouldn't have crossed Jeremy's mind save that he caught Uncle George staring at him every once in a while.
Uncle George had cut down a tree the old fashioned way. He'd decorated it with lights and tinsel. Jeremy gained the distinct impression that it had been a long time since Uncle George had a reason to really decorate for Christmas. Maybe because he felt sorry for their parents having died and wanted to make the holiday special.
"Here's yours, BJ." Bridget held out a wrapped package.
Jeremy grinned, recalling two Christmases ago when she tripped and fell, throwing his present into the air. The Mind Game helmet. In some ways, Jeremy wished it had broken on the floor that day. Maybe his parents would still be alive if it had.
He reached out for the gift. "Thanks you, Sis." He rattled it next to his ear. "I wonder what it could be?"
"Open it and find out already!"
Jeremy chuckled with the rest as he ripped the paper open. He pulled out a red and blue striped scarf. "Cool. I can use this on cold nights."
Everyone stared at him. Jeremy gulped. There were no cold nights on the space station. "Hey, virtual bodies need comfort too."
Natalie, dressed in a blue, short-sleeved blouse and jeans, grabbed a present under the tree and gave it to Jeremy. "Here, virtual man."
Jeremy smiled at her. She smiled back. He ripped the paper off and opened the box. He reached in and pulled out a watch. He nodded. "Sweet. Mine's a bit old."
"But it isn't just a watch. Mickey helped me work on it."
Uncle George chuckled. "If Mickey worked on it, no telling what it will do."
Natalie waved a hand at Uncle George. "Nothing that crazy. But if you push the button on the top right, it will give you a weather report on the screen. The bottom-right button taps into the virtual communication link, even when you aren't virtual. The bottom-left button initiates a homing beacon that registers on the virtual waves. For when you get captured by another alien—"
Bridget laughed and pointed at Jeremy. "Now that's a feature he needs."
Jeremy grinned. "It only happened three times."
"And . . ." Natalie lifted a finger. "The top-left button shifts the watch between watch mode and special ops mode."
Jeremy put the watch on his wrist. "I was going to ask how one set the time on this thing if none of the buttons could do it."
Jeremy reached under the tree and snagged a present for Uncle George. "Appears to be from Bridget, Uncle."
He accepted the wrapped box and gently removed the bow. "Now this is what I call a finely wrapped gift."
Bridget stuck her clasped hands between her legs and squeezed her shoulders tight, grinning as she watched him open it.
He slid the paper off the box and popped the top open. He dragged out a belt. He wrinkled his forehead and stared at Bridget.
"What?" Bridget's face fell.
Jeremy placed a hand on Bridget's shoulder. "Sis, Uncle wears suspenders and overalls. He doesn't use belts."
Bridget bowed her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't think about that."
Uncle George laughed and rubbed her hair. "Thank you, little angel. I've been thinking I should give belts a shot. I do, when called for, dress up." He stroked his beard.
Bridget raised her eyes to him. "When? I've never seen you dressed up."
"Well . . ." He coughed. "Wasn't going to say anything, but I do have a lady friend in town I've been wanting to visit. But without a belt, I wasn't sure she'd give me the time of day."
Bridget waved a hand at him. "Oh, Uncle. You can't expect me to believe that."
He pulled his head back and widened his eyes. "You don't think I have any romance in me?"
Natalie and Jeremy giggled under their breaths.
Bridget put her hands on her hips. "Uncle George. No silly. I meant I don't believe she would care that much about a belt." Bridget smiled. "But I'm glad you'll use it, anyway." She rose from her chair and pulled a present from under the tree. She read the tag, "From Jeremy to Natalie." She giggled as she handed the present to Natalie. "I know what it is, I know what it is!"
Natalie shook her head as she received the present and unwrapped it. She pulled the mask out of the box. She raised an eyebrow. "What is this?"
Jeremy grinned. "A mask."
Her eyes widened. "Oh, you mean like yours?"
She stared at it for a moment, her face blank. Without saying a word, she put the mask back in the box, placed it to the side, pulled another present out from the tree. "This one is for you, Little One. I'm going to get some coffee. Be right back." She rose and walked out.
Bridget held her gift in her hand. "What's wrong?"
Jeremy met Uncle George's gaze. Uncle George nodded to go after her. Jeremy jumped up and entered the kitchen. Natalie stood over the sink, her hands on the edge of the counter. She was bowing her head over the sink, breathing heavily.
Jeremy put a hand on her shoulder. "Sorry. I was hoping you might feel excited about it."
She turned to face him. Her wet eyes glistened in the morning sunlight. "Jeremy, how many times have you told me you wished this would have never happened to you? And now you want to drag me back into it too?"
"But you always look so sad when I leave to go fight crime without you."
She stared out the window. "I am. Yes. I want to be with you, but . . ."
Jeremy rubbed her back. "But you are still afraid of the virtual world."
She nodded. "I don't want to be controlled like that again."
"Holbreth designed this to be like ours. Only your voice can activate it or exit it. No one can break in and take you over like last time."
She returned her gaze to him. "Can you guarantee that? Is it impossible?"
Jeremy shrugged. "I don't think anything is 100% guaranteed. But this is about as close as you could expect to get to it."
Natalie blinked. "Nope. I can get 100% certainty by not putting it on."
Jeremy sighed. "Yes. Of course. I just thought . . . you'd want, I mean, I wanted . . ." Jeremy brought his lips to hers and savored a kiss. He parted from her soft lips and focused on her eyes. "I wanted you to be with me. I don't like having part of my life without you."
The corner of her lips turned up. "If I didn't know better, that sounded like a marriage proposal."
Jeremy pulled back. "Uh, no. Not meant to be. But . . ." He stomped his foot. "I do love you, and want you by my side as I fight crime." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "I was hoping you'd feel the same way."
Natalie leaned against the counter. Her brown, shoulder-length hair created a halo in the sunlight. "I do feel the same way. But this fear inside of me is hard to ignore. Despite your assurances, I don't feel safe."
Jeremy breathed deeply. "I understand. Give it some thought, at least. Then if you still feel the same way after a couple days, I'll get you a different present."
She cracked a smile. "Okay." Then reached out and swallowed Jeremy into her arms. "Thank you for understanding."
Jeremy hugged her back. "What are true friends for?" He released her and held her hand. Come on, let's go back to the party."
She nodded and followed him back into the room.
The details of the control room shifted into focus from the black void as Jeremy appeared. Mickey sat at the monitors. The one he viewed displayed text instead of a video feed.
Jeremy said, "Hey Mick, what are you doing?"
He jerked his head up from the screen. "Oh, not much. Just looking through my list of superheros. Wanting to find something new to try."
"Find anything yet?"
"Nothing that hit my cool meter."
Jeremy sat next to him. "So, how was your Christmas?"
He nodded. "Pretty good. Liked your gift."
Jeremy shook his head. "Not nearly as cool as the one you helped Natalie with." Jeremy glanced around. "Where's Bridget?"
Mickey shrugged. "She's your sister, not mine."
Bridget said, "I'm right here."
Jeremy scanned the room. "I don't see you."
"That's because I'm using Holbreth's Christmas present. A new superhero. Inviso Girl."
Jeremy smiled. "Like my Inviso Dude. We can be invisible together. Hey, maybe I can see you while I'm invisible. Let me try."
Jeremy stood. "Suit, appear as Inviso Dude."
The room went black and then returned. It appeared the same as before, except now in the middle of the room stood a ghostly form of his sister.
Bridget giggled. "I see you!"
"And I see you, Sis."
Mickey chuckled. "Now that your both invisible, I can rule the world!"
Jeremy grinned. "Suit, appear here as myself."
After returning to normal, he sat down at the screen. "So, Sis. You say Holbreth gave us new superheros for Christmas?"
"Yeah. He told me about it yesterday."
Jeremy jerked around. "What? You talked with him yesterday? When?"
She said, "Suit, appear here as myself." She materialized wearing jeans and a shirt. Her blonde hair dangled over her forehead. "Yeah. You may recall I took a nap yesterday afternoon."
Mickey shook his head. "Little One, you are getting too devious. But certainly you didn't plan on meeting Holbreth."
"No, he just showed up. When he told me of his Christmas presents, I asked him not to tell you guys. So he left a message with me."
Jeremy glanced at Mickey. "What message?"
Bridget cleared her throat. "He said there was a disturbance in the force." She shrugged. "He said you'd know what that meant."
Mickey scratched his head. "It's a line from an old movie. Usually used when someone died or something had gone terribly wrong. But it isn't like Holbreth to use such cryptic lines."
Jeremy held a finger up. "Unless he thought someone might be listening in."
"But he wasn't going over communicators. He was here in person."
Jeremy shook his head. "Mick, keep in mind, he was here in person, but virtually. The 'force' had to be a reference to the virtual world. He may have feared someone could listen in on our talking."
"Well then, we've just given it away. How else are we going to discuss this?"
Bridget laughed. "In our real bodies, of course."
Jeremy hit his forehead with his palm. "Duh! Exit suit." He heard the others say it as the control room disappeared to be replaced by the sick bay. He blinked his eyes, disconnected his IV, and pulled himself off the bed as Mickey and Bridget did the same. Jeremy stretched and flexed his arms. He was overdue for some exercise. He'd been virtual too long.
"Okay, Sis, did Holbreth say anything else? Did he explain what he meant?"
She sat on the edge of the bed. "I asked, since I had no idea what he meant. He only said you'd know what he was talking about, and he didn't know enough to say anything more."
Mickey hopped off the bed. "Apparently he's noticed some oddities in the virtual world and wanted us to keep our radar active." He headed for the door. "Let's get something to eat while we talk. I'm hungry."
They nodded in agreement and followed him. Jeremy pulled up beside him as they stepped down the hall. "Oddities like that phase in and out we felt last night at that robbery."
Mickey nodded. "That would certainly qualify."
"Question is, what happened? I've not felt differently. We weren't trapped like last time. I'm not sure what it might have done."
Bridget tugged on his pants leg as they entered the mess hall. "Maybe it did something to the virtual energy if Holbreth is worried about that."
Mickey stared at Bridget, and then Jeremy. "Little One may be on to something. But the hard question is what could it have done?"
Jeremy shook his head. "And who are they? What does ESEL stand for?"
They grabbed some sandwiches and chips, and headed for the control room. Once in, mouths munched on food as Jeremy and Mickey sat at the monitors and started checking their list of superheros.
Jeremy pointed at the screen. "Look, right there is something new. It says, 'Latest changes.'" Jeremy touched the link on the screen. A superhero name popped up.
Mickey stared at his screen. "Mine says Chameleon Soldier and Captain Subspace."
Jeremy's eyes widened. "Subspace?" He turned to face Mickey. "That was the code name for whatever it was that the man initiated when you were taking down the Grinch robber."
Mickey continued staring at his screen. "You think this might have been added when that phase hit?"
Jeremy sat back in his chair. "Too much of a coincidence, wouldn't you say? They would have no clue I heard the name of their program. I'd say this has to be it."
Mickey nodded his head toward Jeremy's screen. "What about you? Anything suspicious?"
Jeremy checked. "Just one entry. Magic Man." Jeremy spun around to face Bridget. "What about you, Sis? Did you have more than one new superhero?"
She shook her head. "Nope."
Jeremy pointed at Mickey's screen. "See what the description for Captain Subspace is. Maybe that will give us a clue."
Mickey touched the description link. "Says Captain Subspace can warp to another location in seconds, and has rays that disrupt reality at the sub-atomic level."
Jeremy rubbed his chin. "Nothing definitive. But this does worry me on a different level. Someone has the ability to insert an add-on program into the virtual world. It's probably a virus. Once activated, who knows what it might do."
Bridget tapped Jeremy on the shoulder. "Doesn't this fall into an oddity? Shouldn't we tell Holbreth?"
Jeremy stood up. "Yes, I think we should. Why don't you two use an Eagle to return to Earth in the flesh and get some supplies from Uncle George. Meanwhile, I'll head to Zori, and relay this info to Holbreth in person, and see what all he has to say."
Mickey nodded. "Sounds like a plan."
Bridget put her hands on her hips. "Why can't I go?"
A voice in the back of the control room said, "Because I want to go."
Jeremy caught his breath and slowly turned around. Natalie stood in the control room wearing shorts and a loose blouse. She'd pulled her hair back into a ponytail. She walked briskly toward Jeremy.
Jeremy smiled. "You came."
She smiled weakly. "I couldn't sleep. Felt lonely. Decided why not? Let's give this a try."
"But I never had the chance to tell you how to do it."
Bridget bounced toward Natalie and wrapped her in a hug. "I told her how to operate it. Another reason I didn't come right away." She finished her squeeze and stood back. "I'm so glad I'm not going to be the only girl here."
Mickey saluted her. "Welcome aboard."
She smiled back at him. "So, you're going to Zori."
Jeremy shuffled his feet. "Yes. Are you sure you're ready for that? Maybe you should take some time to feel comfortable before facing Zori again. Bridget could go with me. I don't want you to have flashbacks or anything."
Her lips tightened. "Look. I'm here because . . ." She glanced at Mickey. "Because I decided to face my fears. What better place to face my fears than Zori?"
"If you're sure."
Natalie relaxed. "Yes. I'm sure."
Jeremy nodded. "Sis, reacquaint Natalie with the station. I've got a few more things to tie up with Mickey before we leave."
Bridget started to move. Natalie pointed a finger at Jeremy. "I've been here before. You aren't trying to leave without me, are you?"
"Don't worry. I won't. Since we are keeping our bodies here, though, you need to know a few more things about the station."
Natalie stared a moment into Jeremy's eyes, then left the room holding Bridget's hand.
Mickey stood next to Jeremy. "I guess I was right about how she might feel. But you won in the end. She's here."
"Yes, and that's what worries me. Something isn't right with her."
Mickey laughed. "Now there's a switch. I've always been the suspicious one when it came to her."
"That's just it, Mick. You were right about how she'd react to the mask. She nearly had a meltdown when she opened the box and pulled out the mask. You should have seen the fear in her eyes. How does she go from that, to standing confidently before us, ready to go to Zori where she experienced the takeover of her virtual body?"
Mickey shrugged. "I've always taken her to have a strong nature. Maybe it's just as she said? She's facing her fears. After all, that phase thing couldn't have anything to do with her virtually. One, Holbreth created her mask well before the phase event happened. Two, she wasn't there virtually at the time. Whatever all they did, they needed us in the vicinity to introduce that program into our virtual systems. I doubt it affected her mask that had never been activated until tonight."
Jeremy breathed deep. "You're probably right, but there is another issue if this really is Natalie. Up until tonight, we've had no questions about the stability of the virtual world. We're taking a risk not telling her the danger has increased. She could end up being taken over. Maybe already has simply by putting on the mask." Jeremy rubbed his forehead. "She's going to kill me if that is true."
Mickey slapped Jeremy on the back. "Bucko, if it will help, I'll check on her body when I'm at your Uncle George's for supplies. Make sure she actually put on this mask. It may not tell us if her virtual body was taken over, but it will tell us if that is indeed her and not some new program introduced into the system."
"True. We don't know if the new superhero for you is the only thing that subspace routine changed. Of course, if this isn't Natalie, or she's been taken over again, I could be leading whoever it is right into Zori. Can we take that chance?"
Mickey stared at the floor for a few seconds. "Too many unknowns. If it were up to me, she'd stay here."
Jeremy nodded. "Definitely too many unknowns. Which means we don't want to alert her that we are suspicious, if it is whoever is behind all this. Which means I can't have her in the meeting with Holbreth, or tell her why she can't come. Any ideas on how to convey that? She seems dead set on going to Zori."
"Now that you mention it, it's strange how bad she wants to go to Zori. Maybe tell her you don't love her anymore and don't want her around."
Jeremy jerked his head around to face Mickey. "What? I can't do that. What if this is the real Natalie? What if in revenge she becomes our sworn enemy?"
Mickey smiled. "Bucko! You forget? The making up part is always the best."
Jeremy threw up his hands. "Ah, great relationship advice from someone who's never had one."
"Did so." Mickey grinned. "In third grade. Her name was Amanda."
Jeremy chuckled. "What did you do? Kiss her once?"
Mickey lost his smile. "How did you know?"
Jeremy patted Mickey on the back. "Back to now. I still need—
"Are we ready, yet?" Natalie and Bridget entered the control room.
Jeremy scratched behind his head. "Ah, Natalie. We've run into a snag. We need to run some diagnostics on your software to make sure it's working as expected. Now's not a good time—"
"You're ditching me? After all the effort and struggle I went through to be here for you?"
Jeremy shook his head. "No, not ditching you. But we'll have to take a rain check. You see, it's just too risky for you to go all the way to Zori without test-driving your virtual self for a while. You need time to make sure everything is working—"
"I'm here aren't I? I don't feel anything bad other than what you're saying. I came to be with you. I didn't come here to watch you disappear for three days."
Jeremy ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry. But its been this long. Surely you can wait for a while longer. Mickey can help you get used to the virtual experience while I'm gone. When I get back, we'll spend plenty of time together. But it is too risky this—"
"I'm taking the risk. Not you. You're just scared to let me into your world."
"I'm not! Why would I have given you the mask to begin with?"
"Exactly! Why? When I finally overcome my fear and become virtual, now you want to ignore that and go do your own thing without me?"
Jeremy bowed his head. "I can't bring you with me this time. I may be able to explain later. You'll have to trust me on this one. It's probably best if you exit your suit now."
Natalie gritted her teeth and clenched her fists into tight balls. She released a half scream, half grunt, and then said, "Exit suit." She vanished.
Jeremy collapsed into a chair. He could feel his eyes watering.
Bridget put a hand on Jeremy's arm. "What was that all about? Why did you ditch Natalie?"
"I'll tell you on the way to Zori. Looks like you're coming with me." Jeremy wiped his eyes with his sleeves. "Mick, check on her. Comfort her if she needs it. Try to make her understand I still love her."
Mickey patted Jeremy's shoulder. "You've got it, Bucko. At least this way I should be able to find out if she was controlled by anyone, as long as I can see her mask with no one attached to it."
Jeremy breathed deep. "Thanks." He stood and held Bridget's hand. "Let's go, Sis. Suit, appear at the Zori space station as myself."
The control room vanished, but the knot in his gut didn't.