Chapter 9

                The wave of heat that washed over Owen was oppressive, stifling, and strangely familiar. It had been well-past a decade since he plunged himself into a wild inferno; he found the experience a touch nostalgic. The bottom floor was almost entirely engulfed in flames to some degree, thick, dark smoke pouring out and limiting visibility. From what he could make out, the situation looked grim. Despite the brick exteriors, almost the entire inside was made of wood, wood that was rapidly turning to ash. At the rate the fire was spreading, it was a matter of when, not if, the entire structure was going to come crashing down. By his estimates, they had maybe twenty minutes left, and that was only thanks to the incredible efforts of the firefighters to control the flames.

                “Come on,” Galvanize urged, his voice coming through the communicator in Owen’s left ear. Right ear was always reserved for Dispatch, but he needed to be able to talk with his team as well. Their earbuds weren’t quite as good as the Hero-issued ones; however they weren’t as far behind the curve as he might have guessed they’d be.

                Owen followed his leader, taking careful steps. The floor appeared solid enough, but the stairs were a source of concern for him. They weren’t blazing in earnest yet, so thankfully their structural integrity was enough to hold his weight as he ascended to the second floor. Still, Owen continued being watchful in his movements. Him falling through a few burning floors wouldn’t injure him in the slightest, but it would definitely hasten this building’s destruction.

                The first and second floors were clear of everyone save for emergency responders, and it was clear they were going to have to pull out soon. The building was eight stories tall, so that meant they likely had at least two more levels to go before they met up with Zone and Impers, assuming neither team had to stop and facilitate any rescues. He hoped they would find the whole place properly evacuated. Getting someone out of the middle floors might be tricky.

                “So, does the heat bother you?” The question came so suddenly that Owen nearly twitched in surprise, a move that easily could have crushed the smoldering wood beneath his feet. Luckily, his entire career of experience hadn’t quite deserted him, so he managed to keep control.

                “No, not really,” he replied. “I’m a little surprised at how well you’re taking it though.”

                “I did mention I was a bit hardier than normal,” Galvanize replied.  “Besides, the costume does a lot of the work. It’s specially built for extreme temperatures in either direction, along with a fair bit of armoring in the more vulnerable spots, just in case I get hit by debris or something. Pair it with the breather mask, which keeps me from getting carbon monoxide poisoning, and it’s a handy ensemble.”

                “Pretty snazzy,” Owen said, dating himself unapologetically with his word choice.

                “One of the perks of working for the big guys. When I started out all I got was a t-shirt with a logo on it. This is much safer.”

                Galvanize’s word choice struck Owen as intriguing. He’d have expected the glorified model to use words like nicer, cleaner, more appealing, or even sexier. Safer implied that his first concern was for the job the uniform denoted, not how it made him look. Owen had known Heroes who wouldn’t have said safer. Again he felt his respect for the wavy-haired young man raise a few degrees. Even if he was only playing a part, he played it exceptionally well.

                It was on the third floor that their streak of finding everyone safely removed came to a halt. They’d just come off the stairs when Owen heard the sounds of muffled screaming coming from a few apartments away. His hearing was good, above human grade but not so impressive that it would count as an ability on its own, so he could also make out sounds of someone scuffling about.

                “We’ve got people,” he declared, alerting Galvanize while taking two careful, but sizable, steps toward the apartment that the noise was coming from. A single attempt on the doorknob told him it was locked, and he could see keyholes for three deadbolts. He reared back his hefty fist and prepared to turn the door into splinters.

                “Titan, hold!” Galvanize’s order was curt and quick, spoken with the sort of veteran authority that reminded Owen of his intern days. “Time is short, but we don’t know where they are behind that door. You punching it could seriously injure someone.”

                “Got a better idea?”

                “Yes, actually. You’re incredibly strong, so just stick a finger through the door and run it down past where the knob and deadbolts are. That should let us in without sending chunks flying through the home.”

                Owen bit back a terse remark and did as he was told. It was easy, like sticking a finger into pudding. The deadbolts put up a valiant effort to stop his index finger, but they may as well have been trying to reason with a thunderstorm. In less than half a minute the locks were removed. Galvanize moved forward, pushing the door open and stepping into the apartment’s living room.

                The two men had both been in rescue situations before, and this was not the first fire for either, so they’d had certain expectations of what to find behind the door. A huddled, scared group of people awaiting rescue, a panicked cluster that would race forward and possibly knock their rescuers down, or even the worst case scenario: one or more bodies that had already been claimed by smoke inhalation. This was none of those situations. Not even close.

                A group of four adults were racing about, filling buckets from the sink and, judging by sound, the tub, emptying them onto a person in the center of the room, then repeating the process. This person in the center was young, roughly seven to nine if Owen had to guess, and sitting in a metal washtub that was glowing from the heat. This heat wasn’t from the fire that was engulfing the building; it came directly from the source.

                This young person, a girl, Owen realized as he noticed her hair and facial features, was the one who had released the muffled screams. They didn’t seem to be ones of pain, that would have been impossible to bite back. No, these screams were likely of fear, or guilt, some mixture containing elements of the two. She was clearly terrified, and Owen didn’t blame her one bit.

                Because, in addition to sitting, crying, and screaming softly; the young girl was also engulfed in fire. Her whole body rippled with flame, cascading off her and flowing to the world around her.

                “Shit,” Galvanize said, taking a step back. “We’ve got a Super.”