At the moment of impact, I wasn’t surprised when a life flashed before my eyes. I just expected the life to be my own.
The silver Porsche must have been doing eighty when it hit black ice. I couldn’t swerve, couldn’t get out of the way. There was nowhere to go as the Porsche whipped around, skidding toward my little car. Headlights rushed toward my windshield, flooding everything with brightness, obliterating the night. And then I was – someplace else. A home that once belonged to me. A place I’d loved, the only safe refuge in an increasingly dangerous world. And I recognized my surroundings – Belgrave Square, London. But not modern London, with its funky little cars, leather-clad punk rockers, and Virgin Mobile billboards. No, this was Victorian London. Cobblestone streets, iron fences, gaslights glowing through the thick yellow fog. And I was myself again, my former self…
The memory-stream jerked, flickering like an old zoetrope camera as images flew by, pulling me deeper. Past the big oak tree shedding its leaves, past the front step whitened by a maid each morning, past the red-lacquered door with brass lanterns on either side. And beyond the wallpapered foyer, beyond the brass spittoons, the coat rack, the butler with downcast eyes, I saw – myself. Seated in the drawing room with two men who meant more to me than anything in the world. Dominic Belden – black eyes, black curling hair, handsome as a Greek statue. I trusted him with all my heart, yet didn’t fully love him. And Theodore Harrington – tall and broad-shouldered, mouth curving sardonically, brown eyes alight. I loved him with all my soul, yet couldn’t fully trust him. Dominic and Ted, Ted and Dominic…
Was it right, how I remembered my feelings for those two? Or did I have them reversed?
I sat on a red velvet divan, a proper lady in the autumn of 1870, brown hair pinned up, bosom covered in lace, whalebone stays so tight a three-minute sprint would have sent me fainting. During the Order’s final days, even the most powerful among us acted our proper parts in society. Yet behind closed doors, our Council ruled the Parliament and Prime Minister, steering the ship even as Britain ruled the world. I was a hereditary member of that Council – Cassandra Fullbright Masters, scion of two telepathic families that could trace their bloodlines back to William the Conqueror. Dominic, also a telepath, was nearly my equal in raw power; Ted, a telekinetic, was the last Master the world had ever seen. In October of 1870 we had been young, arrogant, convinced of our own immortality. What had gone wrong? How had we lost our lives almost before they began?
I tried to answer, but only coughed. My forehead throbbed. Everything smelled of hot plastic and baby powder.
My cousin Brannon’s voice turned loud and abrasive when she was upset. Judging by how she sounded, somebody was going to get it.
“Rachel!” Hands grasped my shoulders, shaking me violently. My head seemed to rotate one way while my stomach wheeled the other. I wasn’t quite sure who I was or where, but I knew one thing. If Brannon kept shaking me this way, I’d vomit.
The rough handling ceased like I’d thrown a psi-bolt. But could I still do that? It had been so long since I’d thought of such things, remembered my birthright …
“R-rachel.” Brannon’s tone was frightened. Shaky. “W-w-what did you do?”
With a supreme effort I opened my eyes. For a moment I had no idea what I was seeing. It was just a conglomeration of weird shapes, colors, and smears, like trying to turn an abstract painting into a seascape. But then the part of me that recognized Brannon’s voice, that understood she was my cousin, interpreted my surroundings. The cracked, half-missing glass screen was a windshield. The strap cutting into my shoulder and abdomen was a seatbelt. The mass of tan billowing all around me was an airbag. And the red splotch on the airbag was my blood.
“Rachel?” Brannon asked again. Her black hair, arranged in waves for the Christmas party, was flattened where her airbag had cushioned her impact. White powder from the airbag coated her dress and hair, even sticking to her magenta lipstick. Part of me, the part that belonged to 1870, was shocked by the amount of cleavage Brannon displayed, not to mention her unbound hair, black fingernail polish, and painted face.
“Cassandra,” I said, trying out my name aloud. The tone of my voice sounded right, but the vowels came out funny. I didn’t sound like a West Londoner. I sounded like one of those braying Yankee tourists, pointing out landmarks in Trafalgar Square.
“Cassandra Fullbright Masters,” I tried again, still unable to pronounce the words correctly. My forehead throbbed as a trickle of bright red rolled past one eye. The airbag, less than half-deflated, was still inches from my face. Pushing against it until it flattened, I freed my right hand and reached toward my wound.
“Don’t,” Brannon warned. “A piece of glass is sticking out. Let me try and work it free.” Her hand touched my forehead gently. Sharp pain, then a bigger rush of hot wetness as she drew away a wedge of jagged glass. Dropping it on the dashboard, Brannon wriggled out of her black lace shrug, wadded up the fabric and pressed it to my wound. The pressure was uncomfortable, but I didn’t pull away. The other me, the one she called Rachel, trusted Brannon. I still wasn’t sure what kind of women we were, riding together in this strange carriage – car, the Rachel-part of me supplied – without a man or even a servant to chaperone us. But I knew Brannon would never deliberately hurt me.
“Guess the crash really shook you up,” Brannon said nervously. Her eyes flicked through the open windshield toward the silver Porsche. Its crumpled front end was more or less continuous with my Mazda’s, as if the impact had bonded us into a single lump of twisted metal. The Porsche’s windows were heavily tinted.
“Can’t tell if anybody’s alive in there,” Brannon added.
In the distance, a tractor-trailer had overturned across four lanes of I-75, which cuts through the heart of Greater Cincinnati. Vaguely it came back to me: Friday evening traffic, the week before Christmas. Despite sleet and weather warnings, every vehicle had been traveling as fast as possible, hellbound for last-minute shopping or holiday parties. I remembered the Porsche zipping past me, changing lanes twice before gliding ahead of the pack. The semi, the first to hit the black ice, had jack-knifed. The Porsche, going much too fast to stop, had swung wide as the trailer hooked backward, its cab rising in the air. Then the Porsche hit the same patch of invisible ice and spun out of control…
“We’re not the only crash out here.” Brannon kept her wadded-up shrug pressed to my forehead as she craned her neck, looking past the shattered glass. “A truck hit the median and there’s a huge pile-up in the left lane. I hear sirens, but it might be awhile before the EMTs get to us. Rach – tell me you remember your last name. Your real last name.”
I saw the fear in my cousin’s eyes. Felt it, too. This close to Brannon, her emotions pulsed just beneath the skin like bass rhythms shaking a speaker. And her thoughts carried clearly to me:
MacReady … Rachel MacReady … say it … please … say it…
A fist pounded against my driver’s side window, making me jump. Turning, I saw a familiar face – straight nose, wide lips, long-lashed black eyes.
“Dominic!” Unlatching my seatbelt, I tried to open my door. But it was crushed, bulging inward, and refused to budge.
“Rachel, no! Stay still,” Brannon cried. Her wadded-up shrug was now sopping with sticky red blood, but my forehead was still bleeding. Tossing the shrug away, Brannon looked around desperately, then pressed the sleeve of her velvet dress against my wound. “Just be still!”
We heard male voices outside the car, but they were too muffled by oncoming sirens to come through clearly. Had it really been Dominic I’d seen? If I’d known him in 1870, how could he be here now? For that matter – how could I?
Brannon’s door opened. It wasn’t Dominic who peered in, but another guy – blonde and good-looking, wearing a blue plaid lumberjack shirt. “Hey. You two all right?”
“What do you think?” Brannon blurted, more abrasive than ever. “Rachel needs a doctor!”
“Calm down. We can’t get her door open. But if you’ll come out, I’ll reach in and pull Rachel free.”
Only as he said it did I realize the now-deflated airbag wasn’t the only thing around my legs. The dashboard had collapsed on my side of the car, pinning me in place.
“I don’t know.” Brannon peeled her red-stained sleeve away from my forehead. It hurt a little, making me gasp, and she frowned at the result. “She’s still oozing blood…”
“Yeah, but the sooner we get her out of the car, the sooner we can stick her in an ambulance,” the blonde man said. His hair was longish – past his collar – and his eyes were friendly.
“It’s okay, Bran.” I used her nickname instinctively. “Let him try.”
Still uncertain, Brannon exited the car. As soon as she was out she almost fell, maybe because of slick asphalt, maybe as an after-effect of the crash. The man caught her, steadying her with a grin. As he helped Brannon to the guard rail, I caught sight of Dominic through the broken windshield. He was pacing around the silver Porsche, trying to peer through the dark-tinted windows. Was the driver unconscious? Dead?
Sliding into the passenger seat, the blonde gave me a reassuring grin. “Hey. I’m Josh.”
“Josh Strickland. I know.”
He blinked. “Yeah. Well. Guess you know my dad. Anyway, I don’t want to hurt you, so I’ll pull gently at first. Get a feel for how tightly you’re wedged in.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and pulled. My torso twisted, but my lower body didn’t budge.
“Okay. Gonna try for real this time. Yell if it hurts.”
I gasped, not so much because of my legs, but because of the wrenching pressure Josh exerted on my shoulders. It felt like he was on the verge of dislocating them, while my legs remained completely pinned, not moving an inch.
“Damn,” Josh panted, releasing me. “Sorry. Guess we’ll have to wait for the jaws of life.”
Through the section of missing glass, I saw Dominic lean over the Porsche’s crumpled front end, pounding on the windshield. “Hey! Anyone alive in there?”
The Porsche shuddered, twisted metal groaning as it broke away from the wreckage of my Mazda. Shocked, Dominic stumbled aside, colliding with Brannon near the guardrail just as the Porsche wrenched itself backward on four blown tires. At the same time, both doors exploded off and the windshield shot skyward, sailing over Dominic and Brannon’s heads to disappear into the wooded darkness along I-75.
My throat closed. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I might never breathe again. I knew who was in that car. Even in the age of barouches and brougham carriages, he’d pushed his team too hard, taken corners too fast…
“That thing’s about to blow! Get your head down!” Josh cried, doing his best to shield me with his own body.
“Christopher?” I asked, staring in Josh’s suddenly familiar blue eyes.
My little Mazda shook again, trembling from frame to roof. The bent handle on my driver’s side door clicked weakly – once, twice. Then my crushed door burst off its hinges even as the collapsed dashboard peeled itself away from my lower half. It had been so long since I’d felt the alien buzz of a telekinetic field against my flesh – that hot, crawling, almost itchy sensation – I was overwhelmed. Josh, understandably terrified, clung to me. When the field dissipated, Josh pulled away. Realizing I’d been freed, he stared in amazement. But I was already swinging my legs out of the car, determined to see my rescuer.
Standing up wasn’t easy. My strange immodest garb presented no problem – my dress, which would have barely qualified as a chemise in 1870, clung to my body without hindering movement. But my shoes were another matter. Accustomed to slippers, I tried to stand on chunky black heels and turned an ankle, falling just as a tall figure in a cashmere coat approached.
“Ted,” I cried, hitting the rough asphalt on my palms and knees. It wasn’t just the shoes that had made me lose balance. My legs were rubbery, head spinning, forehead throbbing with fresh sticky warmth.
“Rachel!” Brannon cried as strong hands gripped mine, helping me rise. Barely taking in the black boots and tan coat, I lifted my face, eager. “Ted, it’s me! Cassandra!”
A woman stared back at me, uncomprehending. Amid the riot of lights – blue police spinners, halogen headlights, red ambulance flashers – I realized the woman’s long straight hair was the same color brown as Ted’s. Her eyes were the same shade, her mouth tending toward the same sardonic smile. She was even the identical height, over six feet, probably taller in those heeled boots. But Ted’s strong features could never be made female. And so this woman’s lips were fuller, jaw line softer, nose altogether different. It wasn’t Ted’s face, but a feminine reinterpretation.
“My name’s Hayden,” the woman said, still supporting me. “Hayden Cross.” She sounded confused. And she wasn’t alone.
“I don’t understand.” I stared up at Hayden, legs trembling. It wasn’t just the physical resemblance. This woman had performed telekinetic feats only a master like Ted could do. Still, I couldn’t accept it.
“This isn’t right,” I whispered. “Nothing in this world is right.” Then the whirling in my head won out, sending me into Hayden’s arms as darkness overwhelmed me.