The sprawling ranch-style house might fit into any suburb anywhere. Its lawn was well cared for, its mailbox full and the driveway free of cars during the middle of the work day. The position of the sun suggested late afternoon. School was out for the day.
That's why Nate Insley was home. The fourteen year old sat in front of the television, transfixed by the news. He'd just had a call from his best friend, Becky Rysdam, alerting him to the live broadcast. Now he could only stare in horror at the footage unfolding.
"The following footage is coming to you now, live, from a Seattle news helicopter," said a newscaster over the background noise of the vehicle's propeller blades. "As you can see, the cars go as far as the eye can see. I've never in my career seen so many cars on the road all headed one direction. There's...there's no gaps I can see, no slower or faster traffic. Cars are nearly bumper to bumper down there but the police have confirmed all vehicles are moving in excess of 80 miles per hour. Law enforcement is at a loss on what to do. Conventional methods for stopping a car could cause a traffic accident the likes that have never been seen in American history."
Jia took a step back at the horror on the young Nate's face before she glanced around. Sure enough, Alley stood in the living room beside her along with Finn...and Nate himself. The older version had an identical look of horror, not at the television but at the scene unfolding before him.
"God, don't look!" he cried out. "We have to go!"
"What's happening?" Jia asked. She looked at Finn. "What's going on? How can I hear his thoughts? You're the Advanced Mind. Are we, like, inside Nate's head?"
The voice didn't come from Finn or any of the others. Instead, it came from a fetching young lady with slicked back ebony hair and a chocolate complexion almost as dark as Finn's skin tone. Wearing a yellow sundress, the stranger leaned against the wall with crossed arms.
"Who are you?" Jia asked.
"I'm the HCP security program. Kind of." The black girl smiled. "I used to be Kelsey Huston. You might know me as the Electric Ghost. I was a Hero until I died back in, oh, 1994? My ability was kind of a blend between Advanced Mind telepathy and what you now know as a Mechanical Genius. I can project myself inside computer systems, possess them and control them. A villain named Cosmocrush killed my body while I was plugged into the computer systems of his front corporation."
"Cosmocrush?" Jia blinked. "Really?"
"I know, worst name ever." Kelsey made a face. "Anyway, I stayed around somehow. So I volunteered to watch out for the HCP, making sure the next generation of Heroes grows up in anonymous safety. I watch the internet for damaging video clips to protect students from themselves, fend off cyberassaults from villains and serve as a kind of super firewall for the HCP, that kind of thing."
"Oi," Finn muttered. "So, which is this then?"
"You tell me," Kelsey said.
A knock at the door interrupted their conversation. The door swung open before the younger Nate could rise from his couch. A fourteen year old brunette ran inside and promptly threw her arms around Nate. Worry and sympathy were the only emotions Jia could see on her face.
"Nate, are you okay?"
"It's...I think it's Mom!"
The two teenagers watched an ocean of cars flooding I-90 continue their way into Seattle in a relentless tide. Only the newscaster's voice spoke in the completely silent room as faded memory stirred in Jia's mind. Old horror of some kind. Something terrible.
"Ah, we have confirmation that Shut Down is on scene, being flown in by Ramjet. What started an hour ago as unusual traffic has become something only a Hero can stop now. That's Shut Down setting down on the Homer M Hadley Memorial Bridge. Just in time too, they're nearly out of I-90. I think he's...yes, he's-"
The screen flared and abruptly went to static. Jia knew as well as her roommates what had happened. Shut Down's total mastery over electromagnetism had cut power to the now-thousands of cars filling I-90, a surge of power that'd disrupted even satellite transmissions because of its scale.
Jia looked away from the mute teenagers back towards Kelsey and her enigmatic smile. The others didn't seem to know what to make of the scene. Except for Nate. His eyes were closed, his head turned away from the television .
"What's going on?" she asked at last.
"The four of you are committing the most egregious breach of HCP security I've ever seen students do," Kelsey answered. "I've locked you into a shared thoughtscape to hold you while I try to kick you out of the HCP terminals. In the meantime, enjoy the show! Each of you are going to watch one of the worst moments of your lives, and you're going to share it with each other so everyone on this team of yours knows exactly how awful you're capable of being. Have fun!"
"Oh my God..."
The Lambert Acres Crew turned back to Nate's memory as the television static cleared. It took a moment to process the camera footage. The newscaster's voice droned on, trying to vainly explain something there were no words for.
When Shut Down had switched off power to all those vehicles, every single one of them proceeded to swerve off of the Homer M Hadley Memorial Bridge. Even more had apparently driven off of the East Channel Bridge just before Mercer Island. More Heroes arrived by the minute, trying to stop the remaining cars on I-90 from plunging to their death like lemmings. Others went into the water, madly hauling cars out. One Hero even managed to part a good portion of Lake Washington, where both bridges crossed.
By and large, the damage was already done. Hundreds had drowned. Hundreds more had died on impact with the water or just from hitting the bridge railing at 80 miles an hour.
"Get out," Nate said, his young, thin voice pinched and turned harsh by utter grief.
"Nate, it's not your fault." Becky Rysdam took him by the shoulders and hugged him again. "It's not your fault, Nate."
"I said get out!" Tears poured down cheeks turned bright red from sheer fury and anguish. Perpugilliam , his younger and somewhat smaller cat, rubbed against his legs. Either she needed affection or she sensed her master's distress.
"I'm not leaving you like this!" Becky yelled back. "I know you, Nate, I know-"
"You don't know me at all!"
Even in the thoughtscape, Jia thought she could feel the strength in Nate's voice. Was this the first time he'd ever used his ability? Only things didn't go as she expected. Becky backed up in a hurry but not with the empty vacancy Jia had seen on others Nate had Dominated. She looked confused, like she couldn't believe her eyes.
"W-Why am I seeing myself?" Becky asked. She looked down. "Oh God, I'm a girl. How the hell did I turn into a girl?"
"What?" Whatever Nate might have expected his best friend to say, it clearly wasn't that. At least the strange statement had, for the moment, broken through to him in a way Becky's earlier consoling hadn't. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm Nate," Becky said, pointing at herself. "I...I-um, I'm somehow not in my body but I'm Nate Insley. Except you're here. Did I jump bodies like Dad can?"
"How did you know what Dad can do?" Nate asked, incredulous and with a rapidly growing fear. "No, you can't have jumped bodies. I'm still in mine."
He winced and hopped once as Perpugilliam dug her claws into his leg. Looking down, he saw his cat extend one claw and deliberately scratch the word 'Help' into the hardwood floor. Nate took one look at it before he got right out of his chair before tumbling back over it in an effort to get away.
"No, no way, no way this is happening." Nate pressed both palms against his temples and glared at Becky and his cat. "No way. Come out of there! I'm Nate Insley! I'm the only Nate Insley! Come back, Becky! Come back!"
Jia turned to her roommate in horror, seeing the same look on everyone else's face. Except...except she didn't. Alley wasn't surprised, only grimly sympathetic. Finn didn't look surprised either. The black Brit just looked deeply saddened.
"Now you know," Nate said. In a bizarre twist, the Dominator was the only one in the group who seemed to share Jia's fear. "Now you know why the army locked me up. Everything I've done at the school? That's just a fraction of my actual ability. I have to hold it back, every time. God it's so hard! But if I slip..."
"Did Becky-" Jia started to say.
"It's permanent," Nate said, trembling. "I-I try to stay in touch with her. Me. With me. She went to Oberlin College this year. We used to play MMORPGs together but I've been busy with the HCP and she's busy with school and her boyfriend."
"A boyfriend?" Finn said, sounding interested. "Really?"
Nate grimaced and nodded. "Yeah, it...it kinda weirds me out. I mean, I'm not into guys at all. But I guess a lot can happen in four years when you're in a girl's body."
"It's not your fault, Nate," Jia said slowly. "We just saw what happened. It wasn't your fault."
"These things happen," Finn said in agreement. "It's not like you were having a laugh. Just be careful around us and we'll be alright."
"Yeah, sure," Nate said. He rubbed tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. Then he looked at Alley. "What about you, Allster?"
Only Alley had stopped paying attention. Her eyes fixed on a distant point over Jia's shoulder. The Chinese girl turned around to look and realized they were no longer inside Nate's house. Instead, they seemed to be standing in a courtyard in the middle of a college she'd never been to. At least, she assumed it was a college judging by all the students walking about.
"Oh we're golden, Ginger," Alley said suddenly as she watched herself march into view. "In a few minutes, no one's going to worry about you after they see this."