"My God," Jacob said. He felt a sudden crushing weight of despair as he realized that he and all the men who had become his family over the past five years were going to die.
Flames surrounded them, and even through their fire resistant clothing the heat was almost like a living thing. It was getting hard to breathe or even see.
Their last avenue of escape had just vanished, as a burning tree had exploded and fallen, blocking them off from the cool unburned area on the other side. All it had taken was a sudden shift of the wind for their safety zone to vanish in the space of a moment.
Jacob looked around quickly. There wasn't any ditches or depressions to lie in, and this area hadn't been cleared yet of the massive amount of underbrush that a hundred years of bad fire control policies had let build up.
The sound of the fire was deafening. It was hard to hear the others as they tried to shout suggestions for getting out.
He could see the knowledge in their eyes that this was the one that was going to end them.
Jacob suddenly found himself regretting all the things he hadn't said to his family, all the things he hadn't yet gotten to do. He knew these men's families, and he regretted the thought that there would be nine funerals.
Still, he wasn't dead yet, and he owed it to all of them to do everything he could to survive, no matter how unlikely it was to work.
Jacob scrambled to set up one of the emergency shelters, the last ditch protection of the hotshot crew. He knew though that it wasn't going to help. It was always a crapshoot using the shelters; set them up too early and the heat inside became suffocating. Deploy too late, and the fire was on top of you.
Lying on the ground underneath the shelters, a hundred percent of the heat from the flames and ninety five percent of the radiant heat would be blocked.
It didn't matter, though. These flames were burning hot enough that they'd cook before they passed.
He'd heard that there were tinkertech versions that worked better, but they were too expensive to be handed out to the usual fire crews. Only parahumans had access, as though they needed it.
Jacob had never seen a parahuman lift a finger to help common people.
He scowled and muttered a short prayer, not for himself, but for his family. It was the greatest fear of every firefighter, leaving family behind to grieve unprotected.
The sound of the fire suddenly faded away to nothing, and the heat vanished as well. Jacob looked up, and he saw a group of people wearing black leather with H's on their armband. The outfits weren't Protectorate, but they were obviously well made.
"It looks like you need some help," a gawky teenager said. She was staring out at the fire like she'd never seen one before. She was the only one not wearing a costume. She looked familiar, but it took Jacob a moment to place her.
Taylor Hebert, the Endslayer.
People were talking about her like she was the next Eidolon, except that she'd accomplished what even Eidolon, Legend and Alexandria together hadn't. He'd seen speculation about her powers and about how she was going to do against the other Endbringers.
The one thing that was clear was that she was powerful, and everyone seemed certain that she meant well, even if she was sometimes a little clumsy and tended to cut the limbs off of villains.
Considering the extent of the fire, Jacob wasn't willing to be picky.
Jacob glanced at the other members of his crew, all of whom had frozen in their frenzied effort to lay down shelters.
"Zephyr," Hebert said. "I'll protect you. Take care of it."
A Hispanic woman nodded curtly. She raised her arms, and suddenly she was in the air. A moment after that the formerly cloudless sky began to roil.
The flames that were battering along the outside of what had to be Hebert's force shield suddenly shifted in the opposite direction as the winds suddenly turned in the opposite direction.
"Who are you?" he asked the others.
Hebert was staring up at the other woman and didn't seem to hear him.
A teenager scowled. "We haven't picked a name yet. Nobody liked the name I picked, so I guess we're Team Hebert for now."
"Alchemy?" Hebert asked without looking. "Please don't make any more Twilight references. It tends to give adults headaches."
The girl scowled.
"Also, you're up." Hebert said without looking at them. She seemed to be concentrating on the Hispanic woman in the sky, presumably protecting her with some sort of force field, because without protective clothing even reflective heat would have been like being in an oven.
Alchemy nodded and walked to the edge of the force field. She put her hand against it, and Jacob could suddenly feel some of the heat returning.
A moment later the burning underbrush outside the force field rippled and changed into something else, something red and foamy.
It looked a lot like the fire retardant foam that got dropped from helicopters, even though there was rarely enough of that to make much of a difference. The changes were spreading out in every direction, though, moving outward as fast as Jacob could run. He could only stare.
A moment later it was raining, water pouring down in such a torrent that the steam misted against the walls of the force shield and no one could see anything.
He looked up and saw that the Hispanic woman had her hand's raised, and the sky was suddenly dark with clouds. Water was pounding against the force field, which he could now see was a large dome.
It would take a flood to actually stop a fire this size, but that seemed to be what this parahuman was trying to provide.
"Thank you," Jacob said to Taylor Hebert. "I wasn't sure we were going to make it."
She looked back at him and shrugged. "It's what we're here for, right? Parahumans shouldn't be out fighting each other; they should be out helping people and making the world a better place."
Jacob stared at her for a moment. That wasn't the impression he'd gotten from the Protectorate "heroes" who tended to stay in their ivory towers, only emerging for the occasional villain fights or press junkets.
He'd even gotten into bar room arguments with other members of his team about parahumans; some of them were fans.
"Even with all the water, there's going to be hot spots that may turn into fire when everything dries out," he said.
There was with every fire, which was why crews had to go back out and check for every ember. A lot of times there were layers of unburnt materials that could burn for a long time before suddenly restarting a blaze.
"Don't worry," she said. "We've got it covered. Frost?"
The rain vanished as suddenly as it came. Jacob felt like protesting. Despite the force of the rain, it hadn't been nearly enough time to cover everything.
A large, muscular man stepped forward and lifted his hand.
The rain on the ground turned to ice, spreading as fast as a fast car.
Ice and snow tended to work a lot better at stopping fires. Jacob stared at the group in front of him. Who were these people?
A moment later the force field vanished, and steam hit him in the face. The humidity was massive.
The forest around them had turned into a winter wonderland, and Jacob spared a moment to wonder how many trees would be killed by the frost. Fortunately summer hadn't started and many of the trees hadn't gotten all of their leaves yet.
They meant well, at least, which was more than he could say about most parahumans.
Jacob forced himself to smile. He knew he wasn't thinking clearly yet, his mind overwhelmed by adrenaline. Once he crashed, he'd crash hard.
A man wearing a blue and black uniform with a cap suddenly appeared. He looked around, then tapped his watch.
"Well, gotta go," Alchemy said. "People to save and heroing to do. No rest for the wicked."
It was too late to run.
People had gotten a little complacent since Leviathan had left, forgetting that mother nature could sometimes cause almost as much damage.
Saito stared at the wall of water coming toward them, and while the people around him on the beach were starting to run, he knew that it wouldn't matter. He'd been in Japan when Leviathan had struck, and he knew what a wall of water like that meant.
A woman suddenly obstructed his view of the water. She was tall for her age, and she was an occidental; possibly European or American.
She looked up at the approaching wave and shook her head. She said something to other people who stepped forward.
A muscular man stepped forward, and the waters along the shore suddenly exploded with pillars of stone, pillars that were growing together like crystal to form barricades forty foot thick.
Another man stepped forward, and ice began to spread behind the barricades, creating massive buttresses that stretched for the entirety of the three miles of beach in both directions.
Saito wasn't sure that it was going to be enough, but he felt a sudden sense of hope. He didn't know who these Gaijin were, although the girl looked somewhat familiar. Possibly she was some kind of western pop star.
What mattered was that they were here to help.
He glanced behind him and saw that other members of his community had stopped and were staring back at the scene in front of him.
The first girl raised her arms, and Saito suddenly felt himself being pulled forward slightly, as though gravity itself had changed direction.
He struggled to keep his feet, when a young looking teenager put her hand on his shoulder and steadied him. She smiled at him.
A low thrum filled the air, so low that it made his teeth hurt, and suddenly he saw the air ripple as something exploded from the girl's hands, heading in the direction of the wave, which was still growing higher.
For a moment it looked as though it hadn't had an effect.
However, the wave began to collapse on itself the moment afterward, although sheer momentum continued to push it forward.
The gawky looking westerner raised her hands again, and again there was a burst of sound that made Saito feel the fillings in his teeth. Again, the tidal wave collapsed a little more.
Again and again she did it. By the time the wave struck the barrier it had collapsed into a chaotic mess, but it still had the weight of millions or billions of tons of water.
The sound of the water hitting the wall and the cracking as the wall was strained made Saito hold his breath for a moment.
The wall held.
The westerners looked at each other and grinned. A moment later they were gone.
Saito stared at the remains of the beach and wondered who was going to remove the barriers. The beach had been a major tourist attraction, a source of income for his small village of Japanese transplants.
Well, at least they weren't dead.
"She's been stumbling all over the world like a bull in a china closet, and you've been helping her. That's going to stop now," Renick said.
Strider shook his head. "My contract specifically says that I'm allowed to use my powers in the case of emergencies, even if it's to help people or groups outside of the Protectorate."
"You can't seriously consider this to be a charitable cause. They're paying you!"
"I've made more money in the past two weeks than my salary with the Protectorate for the past two years," Strider said.
"You are accepting money from the enemy. That's going to get you in serious hot water," Renick said.
"It's all aboveboard. I had it checked out by Protectorate lawyers before I signed it."
"And they agreed to it?" Renick asked incredulously.
"They seemed to think it would help to encourage inter-agency cooperation. Your team in Brockton Bay works with New Wave regularly."
"New Wave is a bunch of heroes, not a bunch of jumped up mercenaries."
"You don't think the drought in the southwest was an emergency?" Strider asked.
Renick shook his head. "They charged money to cities to fill their reservoirs."
"Money that went to Hebert's charity," Strider said.
"That she administers as she sees fit, without any oversight," Renick said. "It's another way for her to try to create a cult of personality around herself."
"I think you've got her wrong," Strider said. "I've spent a couple of weeks with her, and she really does seem to want to help people."
"By creating ecological disasters everywhere she goes?" Renick asked.
"By saving people's lives," Strider said. "People complain, sure, but they complain about everything. They used to complain that Panacea wasn't healing people enough, or that Narwhale was running around nude even though nobody could see anything."
"Panacea is still working with Hebert, even though she has been warned to avoid that whole family."
"She's not doing anything with her grandfather, and he seems to be the dangerous one, the biotinker," Strider said. "Everything she's built has been standard tinker fare, and she hasn't even built anything in the last few weeks."
"This whole thing is a headache," Renick said. "Dealing with Hebert and all the freaks who are coming out of the woodwork means that this promotion was a punishment and not a reward."
"I'm sure you'll do a great job," Strider said.
Renick scowled. "I don't need a suck up. I need people who will actually do their damn jobs and stop consorting with the enemy."
"Are you sure you are seeing the right enemy?" Strider asked. "I get the impression that Taylor seems to be as worried about her grandfather as you are. Have you ever considered trying to ally the Protectorate with her?"
"We've tried," Renick said. "Nothing seems to convince her that we aren't out to get her."
"The fact that we've rotated new faces here and rotated others out might help," Strider said. "And having individual Capes making friends with her and her crew on a one on one basis might be easier to sell than trying to get her to accept the organization."
Renick stared at him witheringly. "Is that how you sleep at night? Thinking that you are taking dirty money hand over fist and that you are actually helping the Protectorate?"
"You don't think I am?"
"Her grandfather has caused more damage to the reputation of this agency than any supervillain in history, including the Slaughterhouse Nine. We are losing membership because people are blaming us for this whole mess here."
"That's her grandfather," Strider said. "I've never agreed to work for him, and I kind of agree with you that he's an enemy. Taylor isn't her grandfather, though. For all her power she's still an impressionable young girl, even though she likes to pretend that she's a lot more mature than she really is."
"Can you at least agree to give us any actionable intelligence about her and her group?"
"I signed an NDA," Strider said, looking apologetic. "It has a rider that I am allowed to break the agreement in cases where not revealing information would be dangerous to people."
"Her group is dangerous!" Rennick barked. "Our thinkers have only gotten partial samples of the formula that they used to cause all this chaos, and they think that he deliberately engineered it to create as many parahumans with very strong powers, even though that also meant the risk of worse physical mutations in everyone else."
"He's gearing up for the Endbringers," Strider said. "Of course he doesn't want weak Capes."
"That team of Hebert's... every member has the potential to be top tier, maybe even Triumvirate level. That's not just a statistical aberration. They were chosen to be able to do the most damage to us, to send a message that Hebert isn't to be trifled with."
"After what happened to Lung do you really think she needs to send that kind of message?" Strider asked. "You are stuck in thinking about the last war. Even Alexandria needs to breathe, and powers don't work out in space. Is there a cape in the world that she couldn't curb stomp, except maybe Masters?"
Strider shook his head and he stood up.
"The mistake you are making is thinking that she cares about the Protectorate, that she wants to damage us somehow. I can tell you that the Protectorate barely even crosses her mind. She's focused on the Endbringers and her grandfather, and on making the world a better place once the Endbringers are gone."
"You're a fool if you think this isn't a PR stunt to win people over," Renick said.
"It might be," Strider said. "But not by Taylor. I think her grandfather might be playing some kind of long game, one that requires that the Protectorate be out of the way."
"And you are helping her make us look like fools?"
"I'm helping her help us to become better. Did you know that the Phoenix Branch is helping in a Mexico earthquake, Alaska branch is helping to rescue some Russian sailors in a submarine, and at least four branches are helping put out forest fires?"
"Those things aren't what we were chartered to do."
"Everybody who joined the Protectorate wanted to be a hero at some point in their lives. Heroes help people," Strider said. "It's just a pity that it took a fifteen year old girl to remind us of that."