DEGENERATION, THE GHOST SQUADRON
“It’s okay! Come on, pal,” said Eddie. He dashed forward and scooped the kid into his arms, the heat more intense on that side of the room. “Hold on to me.”
The child clutched Eddie’s neck tightly and his legs wrapped around his waist.
Eddie ducked as much as he could with the boy attached to him, and ran out. Eddie could hear the boy sobbing, although it was barely audible over the sound of the fire destroying the house. He wrapped an arm around the child’s back and shielded his eyes from the smoke, which was thicker now, with the other.
“It’s going to be all right,” said Eddie, screaming to be heard over the crackling flames.
The boy vibrated with terror as Eddie carried him back to the trap door and ladder. The house rocked again, this time sliding forward, and Eddie lost his footing and slipped. The floor was at an angle now, and the stilts weren’t going to stay upright much longer. Eddie realized that they were at the bottom of the house, so if it fell over they’d be crushed in the burning destruction.
Eddie threw his weight and that of the small child forward to try to make up the ground they’d lost when the building tilted. He pressed his boots hard into the tilted floor, but it felt as though he were trying to climb a slick mountain.
The fire had now overtaken most of the main living area, and it was closing in on them fast. Without a second glance Eddie shuffled over to the ladder and clumsily crouched, locating the first rung with his boot. It was harder to manage with the boy clenched to his front, but there was no time to change positions.
“Hold on tight,” he said to the boy. “We’re getting out of here!”
The child nodded against Eddie’s chest, his face pushing into him hard. Eddie climbed down, although now the ladder was leaning. The fire had crawled under the house and was eating at two of the four stilts and, now overhead, the wooden floor creaked and ached.
A loud crack shook the structure and the house dropped two feet. The boy’s body tensed against Eddie’s torso as his gaze flew to the stilt on the right, which had splintered and was barely holding.
The house groaned, fire now spreading over the floor above them and heading for the ladder.
Making an impromptu decision, Eddie jumped backward off the ladder, wrapping his arms around the child as they plummeted down. By crouching as they hit he relieved the brunt of the fall, and now, finally on the ground, he hunched over and started running.
A tumultuous crash echoed behind them. The house was leaning aggressively forward and it started to fall, so Eddie kicked it into high gear and barreled away faster than he had ever run ever before. The heat from the fire seared his back, and smoke and fire shot from the building as it crashed to the ground right behind him. He’d barely made it out! He kept running as trees toppled toward him in the wake of the collapse of the burning house.
The rush of heat made Eddie’s skin feel like it was melting, but he kept his head tucked and pressed the boy against him as he sped back the way he’d come. Only a little farther, he said to himself, unable to say anything aloud. He wasn’t out of breath from running, but rather from the smoke he’d been inhaling since this started.
Fire had taken over most of the jungle, and it was closing in on them. Eddie leapt over a burning log since he didn’t see a clear path around it, then ducked under a curtain of vines and leaves, smoking and singed at the ends. Soon the entire area would be engulfed.
The boy jostled Eddie’s body oddly, but his weight didn’t slow him down. The threat of burning to death was motivation enough for him to hurtle through the flames, but finally Eddie burst into a clearing where the ground was already charred and the tree stumps still smoking. The fire had already consumed the trees and since been extinguished. This had been where it all started.
Eddie halted, and after heaving in a giant breath he tried to unclasp the boy’s hands from behind his neck. For a little guy he was strong, and clearly not willing to let go.
“Hey, buddy. You’re okay. You’re safe,” said Eddie, patting the kid on the back gently. The child relaxed a little and slowly pulled away, staring at him with large brown eyes. He cried softly, tears glistening down his cheeks.
“That’s it. Take a breath. It’s okay,” said Eddie.
“Dracott!” a woman yelled in the distance. She ran in their direction with her brown hair flying behind her.
The boy whipped his head around, and another sob emerged from his mouth. He pushed away from Eddie eagerly now, dropping to his feet and sprinting for the woman. “Mommy!” yelled Dracott.
When the two met on the charred ground, the woman grabbed her son and cradled him to her. She was shaking and crying as she clutched the boy, pinning him into her chest.
Eddie strode toward them, seeking refuge from the heat of the fire at his back. In the distance he saw the team, who were tirelessly trying to quell the stubborn fire which had taken over this part of the jungle and was destroying many homes and much animal habitat.
When Eddie approached, Dracott’s arms were wrapped around his mother’s neck and his head resting on her shoulder like he was ready for a nap after the whole ordeal. The woman rubbed her son’s lean back, tears still puddling in her eyes.
“Thank you, sir. I cannot thank you enough for what you did,” said the woman, her voice vibrating with relief.
Eddie smiled at the mother and son, finally reunited.
Julianna approached from the side. She had a sly smile on her face, and didn’t seem relieved to see him safe after entering the forest fire.
“You’re absolutely welcome,” said Eddie to the woman. “Now, you two should get as far from the fire as possible. Dracott has inhaled a lot of smoke.”
The woman nodded and carried her son away.
“You weren’t worried about me, were you?” Eddie asked Julianna when she paused beside him to stare at the retreating woman and child.
“When did I have time to worry? I was timing you,” joked Julianna.
A laugh popped from his mouth. “What was my time?”
“Two minutes and ten seconds,” answered Julianna.
“And you didn’t worry even a little bit?” asked Eddie.
Julianna cut her eyes at him. “Maybe toward the end, but I knew you were going to drag that boy to safety one way or another.”
“Poor kid! He was terrified,” said Eddie.
“Yeah, fires like this bring chaos. It was a shame that he got lost, but at least you jumped in to save him,” said Julianna.
Eddie surveyed the burning jungle. “What do you think? Is there more we can do here?”
“The fire crew says they could use an extra few hands on the eastern perimeter. They’re trying to fence in the fires there,” said Julianna.
Eddie slapped his hands together, rubbing them eagerly. They’d had Pip monitor the radios, listening for disasters on nearby planets just so Eddie could swoop in and do something brave. That was how he was breaking in his newly enhanced body.
“I’m ready! Let’s do this,” said Eddie, ambling forward.
“You think you’re going to get this adventuring out of your system soon?” asked Julianna from beside him.
“Does it ever wear off, having these enhancements?” he asked.
“No, not really. Not for me, anyway,” said Julianna.
Eddie grinned. “Then no. What’s the point in having this body and not using it?”
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