Chapter 146

“Are you certain this is a good idea?” Mr. Transport asked, his voice slightly raised to be heard over the roar and crackle of the blaze.

“Honestly? Not really,” Vince admitted, his own tone at an equal volume.

The two stood about a mile away from the perimeter of a tremendous inferno, the forest fire that was currently assaulting southern California. Since that morning’s report, the ravaging flames had grown in proximity, defying the valiant attempts of local officials to bring it under control. The area had been evacuated hours ago, so Mr. Transport and Vince stood alone as they stared into the flickering heat steadily creeping toward them. Even from this distance Mr. Transport’s face was warm and his breath felt a touch smoky.

“Then perhaps we should conceive of a different plan,” Mr. Transport proposed.

Vince glanced down at his wrist watch. “We have ten minutes left. Any ideas for something we can put together and execute in that much time?”

“We could raid a camping store. You could pop the Sterno cans one by one to absorb their heat in more manageable chunks.”

Vince shook his head. “I somehow don’t think it would be quite the same effect.”

“And why exactly do you need this effect?” Mr. Transport asked. “I realize you are facing a significant challenge, but doesn’t this seem a bit like overkill?”

“None of us landed a single hit on Coach George when we fought him,” Vince told Mr. Transport. “Not even Mary or Chad. With only Alice, Nick, and me coming at him we have zero chance of winning, or even stalling long enough for one of us to recover our friends and escape.”

“I was beginning to wonder if you were aware of the realistic odds.”

“I am. I am also aware that I’m the only one of us left who was enrolled in the combat training. That means I’ll have to handle George on my own and trust the others to retrieve Mary and Hershel. As it stands I have minimal ability to battle against Coach George and no defense against Persephone. That only leaves me one viable option.”

“Do tell,” Mr. Transport encouraged.

A slow, half-mad smile spread across Vince’s face. The firelight’s reflection danced in his blue eyes as they seemed to drift off to some long ago place and time.

“Pure offense.”

“That seems like a poor strategy to win,” Mr. Transport told him. “Assuming you can even handle this much energy. I’ve read the reports on your activities, you know. You’ve spent all year focusing on minimizing how little you took into your body. You haven’t tried to find your limits in the slightest. For all we know this exceeds what you can contain.”

“It very well might,” Vince agreed.

“So, again I must ask, why are you so set on this course of action?”

“Because even if this has a ninety nine percent of killing me or not being enough, at least it gives us a shot. I’ll take one percent over zero any day.”

Mr. Transport let out a short laugh in spite of himself. “I think that’s more the mindset of a fool than a Hero.”

“My father once told me the best Heroes were the ones too stupid to care about the odds,” Vince replied. “So, thank you.” Vince drew in several deep breaths, saturating his lungs with oxygen. He knew once he entered the blaze he would have little time and less air to act with. A few moments lost choking on the smoke could break his concentration and cost him everything. He glanced down at his watch. Eight minutes left.

For all his brave words, the truth was Vince was scared to step forward. He wasn’t at all sure he could do this. And even if he did, he wasn’t sure he would be able to take back Hershel and Mary.  He was afraid he would die in the process, of course, but that didn’t scare him nearly as much as the knowledge that there was only one chance to get them back. He, Alice, and Nick were that chance. Vince was terrified he wouldn’t be strong enough and he would let his friends down, but despite all that fear, he never questioned the fact that he had to try.

“I’m ready,” Vince said softly. Mr. Transport gave a curt nod and moved them through space. They reappeared at a central point in the fire, Mr. Transport lingering long enough only to be sure the heat didn’t render Vince unconscious. The boy stood stalwart, so Mr. Transport retreated to their previous position. Vince could survive such temperature though his ability, but Mr. Transport had no such protection. All he could do now was wait and try to have faith in the strange little silver-haired boy.

Vince didn’t breathe once he was dropped off. He’d had more than enough experience to know that in this environment the air would burn his lungs as it was already doing to his skin. Normally when he was absorbing, Vince had to reach out to connect to the energy, finding it amidst the ambient sources permeating the world around him. This time was different; from the moment he appeared, the heat was overpowering him, trying to choke and claw its way inside his fragile fleshy form. The heat wasn’t just knocking at the door, it was slamming its shoulder against it and screaming profanities in an effort to force its way in. Vince didn’t have to reach out this time. Instead he closed his eyes, steeled his nerves, and flung the door wide open, demanding every ounce of energy this fire could give.

For a sliver of an instant, nothing happened.

What followed next was captured on satellite imagery. The cause of it was debated for several years to come, with a wide variety of conspiracy theories centering around it and entire doctoral theses being written on the phenomenon. It wasn’t until Vince’s story was told and the dots were connected that the curious event finally made sense.

From the images, it initially seemed as though a glitch occurred in the system tracking the wildfire. It went from moving in standard pattern to turning inward, the direction of every path becoming a single uniform spot. The fire then began flowing in the direction of this spot. It moved at similar speeds to earlier at first, then steadily sped up in ever-increasing intervals. An image near the very end showed a circular pattern, as though the fire was swirling about like a hurricane as it was funneled down into a singularity. After that are two progressively smaller images of the fire before the final photo showing nothing.

Nothing except for miles of earth that had been scorched to the ground in mere minutes instead of the days it should have taken.