Chapter 1: Rainy Day
“Look, Val.” Wallace held up his notebook. “What do you think?”
I was watching the rain come down in Wallace’s front yard. I looked at his notebook. There was a weird drawing in it.
“What is that thing?” I asked.
“It’s a heat blaster,” Wallace said. He pointed to the homemade action figure sitting on the porch swing. “Zixtar could use this to fight the ice aliens.”
“It looks like a flying hot dog,” I said. “What’s the power source? Ketchup?”
My stomach grumbled. Hot dogs and ketchup made me think about the barbecue happening soon. All of Wallace’s relatives were coming, and the whole neighborhood was invited, too. I couldn’t wait. I just hoped it stopped raining by then.
“Whatever,” Wallace muttered. “I’m just saying we need to figure something out, or the earth will be a giant snowball forever.”
I shrugged. “We can figure it out after the barbecue.”
He looked unhappy. I wasn’t surprised. Wallace was obsessed with the TV show Comet Jumpers. He was even entering a contest to write an episode for the show! Zixtar was a new character he’d created. That’s what Wallace told me when he moved here last week. He doesn’t know much about science or outer space, but lucky for him, I do! That’s why everyone calls me Astronaut Girl. And it’s why I offered to be his partner to write the script.
“Hey, Walla Walla!” someone shouted.
A car had just stopped in front of the house. “Who’s that?” I asked. I couldn’t wait to meet all of Wallace’s relatives.
“It’s Aunt Celia, Uncle Walt, and my cousins Kayla and Dwayne.” Wallace still sounded grumpy. I wondered if he was worried about the barbecue being rained out. I wasn’t worried, though. His gramps already said he would move the grill onto the back porch if he had to.
The adults waved and went inside. Dwayne and Kayla stayed on the porch. They were a few years older than us.
“Hi, I’m Val,” I said. “I live next door. I’m Wallace’s writing partner.”
Dwayne grinned. “Writing partner, huh?” he said, and elbowed Wallace. “Is she going to help you not embarrass yourself at the family storytelling contest today?”
Dwayne and Kayla laughed. Wallace didn’t.
“Storytelling contest?” I said. “What’s that?”
They told me they had a family tradition. When everyone got together, they ended the gathering by holding a contest. Anyone who wanted to could tell a story, and everyone voted on the best one.
“I won at Easter dinner,” Dwayne said. He held up the big fancy medal that hung from his neck. “I told the story about how I found a lost puppy when I was mountain biking. Everyone loved it.”
Kayla nodded. “And at Thanksgiving, Aunt Kim won with this wild tall tale about a haunted henhouse. We couldn’t stop laughing!”
I laughed, too. “That sounds fun!”
Wallace wasn’t laughing. “Everyone else will be here soon,” he said. “I should go see if Gramps needs help with the grill.” He stomped off into the house.
“Oops, that reminds me,” I told Dwayne and Kayla. “I promised Mom and Daddy I’d help with the potato salad. See you soon!”
I ran home through the rain. Mom and Daddy were in the kitchen. Mom was scrubbing the potatoes, and Daddy was mixing herbs into the mayonnaise. The Baby was helping by tossing Cheerios at Astro Cat.
“Hi, Val,” Daddy said. “You’re just in time to peel the eggs.”
I washed my hands and got to work. “I hope the sun comes out soon,” I said. “Wallace seems kind of grumpy about the rain.”
Mom looked surprised. “Really?” she said. “Wallace doesn’t seem like the grumpy type.”
The Baby giggled and tossed a handful of Cheerios at Daddy. A few landed in the mayonnaise bowl.
“That’s not part of the recipe!” Daddy exclaimed with a laugh.
Suddenly the door flew open. Wallace rushed in.
“I just had a great idea for the script!” he cried. “We need to discuss it right now!” Chapter 2: Lab Work
“Now?” I said. “But the barbecue is starting soon.”
I looked out the window. More cars were parked in front of Wallace’s house. People were hurrying inside.
Daddy looked outside, too. “The sun’s coming out just in time!”
“The sun is what we need to talk about, Val!” Wallace exclaimed. “I just remembered an idea that my friend Carlos from back home had. He said Zixtar could hide from the ice aliens on the sun. While he’s there, he can use the heat to power his blaster ray!”
I burst out laughing. Astro Cat stared at me in surprise.
“You have to be kidding,” I told Wallace. “Nobody can survive on the sun!”
“Well, we have to think of something!” Wallace said. “The deadline for the contest is only a couple of weeks away!”
Daddy winked at me. “We can finish up the potato salad without you. You and Wallace might need to review some data down in your lab.”
Daddy always talks like that. He’s an astrophysicist. That’s a scientist who studies outer space, like I do.
“I guess you’re right. Come on, Wallace,” I said.
“Hang on,” Mom said. She picked up the Baby and handed him to me. “Take him with you, or there will be more Cheerios than potatoes in the salad.”
I took the Baby and led Wallace to the basement. Astro Cat tagged along.
My lab has everything a scientist like me needs. There’s a table where I draw blueprints and a whiteboard for making calculations. I have tools to build stuff and lots of cabinets and drawers. Everything is labeled with my state-of-the-art label maker. Some of my projects are on display, like my mobile of the solar system that won a prize in the science fair.
The Baby uses part of my lab as a playroom. I put him in his playpen with the stuffed rocket ship I gave him.
Wallace sat down on a stool. “So what about Carlos’s idea? I think it’s great.”
“Great? ” I said. “No way. It’s a good thing I’m your writing partner now instead of Carlos.”
Wallace scowled. “Don’t insult my friend.”
“I’m not insulting anyone,” I said. “Facts are facts. And a star like the sun is the last place someone would hide out. For one thing, the surface temperature is almost ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit, and—”
“Wait,” Wallace interrupted. “If nobody can go to the sun, how do they know how hot it is?”
I sighed. As Daddy always says, not everybody knows as much about science and outer space as we do!
“One way is to use a solar probe,” I said. “That’s a spacecraft made to get close to the sun or other stars so scientists can learn more about them. As a matter of fact, I’ve been working on one this summer. Here, I’ll show you.”
My half-built probe was on the counter, and covered to keep the dust off. I whipped off the sheet. The probe was made out of a big metal wastebasket. Sensors, antennae, and other instruments covered its surface.
Wallace looked impressed. “That’s cool,” he said. “Maybe Zixtar could drive it to the sun.”
“No way,” I said. “Even NASA hasn’t tried making solar probes that people can travel in. The technology isn’t there yet.”
“That’s okay,” Wallace said. “Remember, Comet Jumpers is set in the year 3000. Use your imagination! I’m sure scientists will work it out by then.” He grabbed something off the counter. “What’s this?”
“Be careful!” I grabbed it back. “They’re the goggles Daddy and I made for viewing solar eclipses.”
I put the goggles in my space pack for safekeeping and opened my favorite book, The Universe, to the chapter about solar probes. I was explaining how carbon heat shields help protect from the sun’s extreme heat and energy waves when I noticed that instead of paying attention, Wallace was scratching Astro Cat with Zixtar’s tentacle.
“Are you listening?” I asked. “Our episode won’t work if we don’t get the facts right. I wish you’d think like a scientist more often!”
“I wish you’d build a time machine so we could see what the year 3000 is really like,” Wallace said at the same time. WHOOOSH!
“It’s happening again!” I cried as Astro Cat yowled, the Baby squealed, and the room went dark—and then suddenly very, very bright . . .
Copyright © 2021 by Cathy Hapka and Ellen Vandenberg; Illustrated by Gillian Reid. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.