Project Hellhound
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Previous: Oh-Fucking-Seventy-Six

A compact plum-purple Toyota Scion navigates the hidden back-roads of the Appalachians. Gravel pops under the tire treads as it settles into a parking spot at the foot of a hill.

Two men abandon the car's pleasant air-conditioned climate, stepping out into North Carolina's humid summer heat. They make their way along the winding path up to the single-story home hidden in the trees.

"This is a waste of our time." This is the driver, Allen Sendek. He retrieves his handkerchief as he walks, dabbing at his pale and balding head. He's an older man, paunchy and perpetually displeased; the sort of person who is forever vexxed by a universe that adamantly refuses to arrange its particles in a manner more convenient to him. "We ought to be working on the portable containment module."

Samuel Valerio is younger and leaner, with amber-gold skin and a head full of dark sable-black hair. Ever the optimist, he is undeterred by his fellow researcher's cynicism. "Behave, Allen."

Once they reach the patio, a dozen or more dogs start barking from inside. Sam reaches for the door. It opens before he can even knock.

A large and muscular black man in loose slacks and a blue-collar shirt pokes his head out. He has an angry burn scar that covers the left side of his face, narrowly missing his eye and snarling its way across where his left ear should be. Though still functional, the exterior ear itself has been melted down to a nub.

"You here for a dog?" he asks.

"Not exactly," Sam replies. "We've been told you have a knack for training dangerous animals."

The man looks them both over — from their expensive shoes to their clean, well-ironed clothes. He rolls his eyes. "Lemme guess. You bought a tiger and you just figured out it's not a pet, it's a fuckin' tiger."

Both researchers exchange looks, then focus on the man at the door. "Not, ah, precisely," Sam says. "We work for the Foundation. You came highly recommended by Mr. Wilson — said you're the man to talk about regarding, ah…"

"Anomalous predators," Allen says. "The kind that hunt humans."

The man's brows grind together like gears in a calculation engine chewing over a particularly difficult equation. Finally, Charlie Smoots steps out of the door, folds his arms over his chest, and nods.

"You fellas got a monster that needs house-breaking?"

Charlie never set out to be a 'Monster-Hunter' — it just kind of happened. After an IED took away most of his hearing, he left the Army to do rescue work with feral and traumatized dogs. When one of the dogs turned out to have tentacles, well… it wasn't like tentacles changed the fundamental principles of rehabilitation.

From there, things just got wilder and wilder. It wasn't long before he was looking into reports of a feuding 'dwayyo' and 'snallygaster' in Maryland while teaching a baby chupacabra to stop sucking its owner's cats dry. Eventually, the Foundation noticed his work. They picked him up as a tracker and handler for anomalous predators.

Now, a lot of anomalous predators can't be trained. Some are too smart; others aren't smart enough. Some aren't capable of bonding with humans — they can't perceive them as anything but food or a threat. But if it responds to conditioning, adheres to some form of socialization, and is capable of trust? Smoots can work with that.

Of course, training an anomalous predator doesn't make it tame — or even domesticated. Domestication takes hundreds (if not thousands) of years of selective breeding, and taming requires that on top of human interference during the formative stages of development. Smoots is the first to point out that a well-trained panther is still a goddamn panther, and a well-trained monster is still a goddamn monster.

But an anomalous predator that successfully bonds with its keeper is healthier, happier, and easier to contain. It's a win-win for everyone.

"What can you do with this?"

Dr. Samuel Valerio's voice is tense. It doesn't sound like the researcher is expecting much — and Charlie can see why. On the other side of the blast-proof glass is a twenty-foot wide room with thick calcium silicate panels. Water sprinklers along the ceiling run constantly, filling all but a small corner with a heavy mist.

In that one dry corner, six columns of human-sized flame 'sit'. They flutter and smolder, poised at the edge of the water-cloud.

"It's fire," Charlie says. "You want me to train… fire?"

"It's a sentient form of oxygenation and combustion." Dr. Allen Sendek corrects him. "And we want to know if it's even possible to train."

"Our goal is to see if they can provide tactical support for task forces."

"You want to make these things into weapons?" Charlie frowns.

"Not weapons, Mr. Smoots. Support," Dr. Valerio insists. "These things can move through a battlefield effortlessly. Provide surveillance, snuff out fires, create cover, and yes — even act as mobile artillery if the need arises. Think of them as… a combat K-9 unit."

"Are they intelligent? Do they form social bonds? Have some sort of hierarchy?"

"Kind of," Dr. Valerio says. "The bigger they burn, the more intelligent they get. Also, if they 'eat' enough material, they reproduce. Initially, these 'progeny' would attack their parents, but we discovered that —"

"We've been breeding them," Dr. Sendek says. There's a hint of pride in his voice. "Iteration after iteration, selecting them for more passive, less aggressive characteristics."

"Previous generations used to talk. But as they got calmer and calmer, well…"

"Are they still hostile to humans?"

"Extremely." Dr. Valerio frowns. "We've tried interacting with them in the burn-suit, but they attack anyone who gets even remotely close."

"Burn suit?"

"Over there." Dr. Valerio gestures to a bulky, insulated cover-all. It resembles a canine bite-suit, but with a full-head helmet and mask. It has its own internal cooling system and an air-supply. The fabric is a dark, dull seaweed green.

Charlie looks the suit over, pondering it. He then looks back to the six pillars of flame.

After about half a minute of reflection, he turns to Dr. Valerio: "Okay. What do they eat?"

The suit is heavy but flexible. Charlie can feel the coolant pumping through a complex lattice of arteries beneath the dark green padding. The internal O2 tank keeps the interior operating at a positive air-pressure, with a bell that rings if the supply drops below half.

All in all, this thing is a lot more comfortable than he expected. Though he's still pretty sure he won't be running a marathon in it.

The chamber's entrance is enclosed in a prefabricated modular containment chamber that incorporates a pneumatic air-lock. As he steps in, he hears the door behind him hiss shut. There's three loud beeps. He gives Dr. Valerio a thumbs up. The interior door then slides open, permitting little waves of water to roll in.

The six pillars of fire instantly respond. Although they're shapeless, Charlie gets the sense that they're facing him. The biggest one nudges up against the cloud of water. There's a sharp flash of steam accompanied with an explosive ssss; then, there's a high-pitched squeal. It resembles super-heated air escaping a narrow nozzle.

Charlie does his best to shield the bundle of papers he's holding from the mist, then taps his side of the glass. "Give me a path."

Three water sprinklers shut off. The flames are still boxed in, but Charlie now has an 'dry' path to the center of the room. Slowly, he strides forward.

The biggest flame leaps at him. Again, there's a flash of steam followed by a high-pitched squeal. The five smaller flames mimic the motion, producing smaller squeals.

Charlie waits for them to calm down. He then continues to the center of the room, bending forward to set the bundle of papers down.

When he stands up, the largest pillar lunges. An appendage as thick as Charlie's thigh whips out to slam into his chest. Steam and smoke issue forth from where the fireball hits, pushing him back. He feels the heat seeping through to his sternum.

Charlie recovers quickly, jogging backward. The pillar of flame that attacked him is smaller, now — but the others still huddle around it. Charlie grimaces in pain as he makes his way to the modular chamber, never turning his back to the flame.

The chamber door closes in front of him.

Now out of the suit, Charlie gulps down a bottle of water while watching through the glass. Dr. Sendek shuts down several more sprinklers, giving the flames a path to the massive stack of redacted documents in the center of the chamber.

The pillar that attacked him creeps forward. Once it's reached the stack, it extends tiny tongues of fire to lick at the stack's corners. The other five pillars then follow, joining it at the center. Together, they descend on it like a horde of hungry piranhas devouring a blood-soaked slab of beef.

"Well, that went well," Dr. Sendek says, scowling.

Charlie finishes the bottle of water and wipes the glistening perspiration from his forehead. "Better than I expected, anyway."

Dr. Sendek's scowl deepens. "How is this in any way good? They attacked you."

"One did. Others just followed." Charlie gestures with the empty bottle at the flame that attacked him. "Big one's the Bitch-in-Charge. Their Queenie."

"You think they can be trained?" Dr. Valerio asks.

"Maybe. Still not sure. But all in all? This looks good. They've got a clear social structure going on, here. See how she went out first? To make sure it was safe. Like the oldest sister checking both ways before leading her brothers and sisters across the road."

"Or maybe it was just hungry," Dr. Sendek counters.

Charlie shakes his head. "If that was it, she would have gobbled that stack up in one gulp. You saw how hard she hit me — she's got the juice for it. But all she did was nibble. Like she was showing the others that it's safe."

"They're not just submitting to her authority. She's looking out for them, protecting them. They're like a family. And if they're a family, that means they can form bonds with each other. And if they can form bonds with each other?" Charlie tosses the plastic bottle into the trash.

"That means there's a chance they can form one with a human."

The undertaking is not easy. Training any wild animal — particularly one that's long past its window of developmental socialization — is a herculean undertaking. It requires patience, compromise, and humility. Sometimes, you just gotta accept that a feral cat might never let you pet her, a wild dog might never let you leash him, and a living fireball might never stop trying to set you ablaze.

Fortunately, Charles Smoots is a persistent man. There are seven days in every week, and he spends six of them working to acclimate a family of sentient fire to the presence of human beings. It is a process measured in only the smallest of increments — but a measurable process, nevertheless.

After just a week, he's gotten them to stop attacking the glass when the sprinklers are off. After two, the smaller flames stop joining in on the attacks. After three, Queen won't attack when he first walks in. But even after a month of counter-conditioning, she still refuses to let him leave without taking her parting shot.

It's like she's fulfilling an obligation: he opens the door, walks in, sets down some delicious fuel, and she thwacks him with flames. Thanks for lunch; now here's that fireball I'm contractually required to hit you with. By week four, he's starting to wonder if it's performative.

At the end of week five, things get interesting:

Charlie's managed to teach them to self-regulate their consumption of oxygen through incremental changes in the sprinkler system. By now, the sprinklers are always off; the flames are permitted to grow so long as they don't pass any of the clear boundaries Charlie has set (if they do, the sprinklers come right back on). But when they feel threatened, they always return to the same familiar corner.

When Charlie enters the room with today's snack (a stack of kerosene-soaked logs — their favorite), all six are in the corner. They're still there when he sets the stack down. And when he stands back up —

Queen is missing.

Charlie turns — it's too late. She's already behind him, surging up in a wave of liquid fire. She crashes over his back, enveloping him in a sleeve of hungry, snarling flame.

He feels heat seep through the joints of the burn-suit. He feels — smells — the coolant boiling inside the lattice of internal arteries. The skin on his back blisters; the interior of his helmet fills up with scalding smoke. He sucks in a gulp of scorching air, burning his tongue and the back of his throat.

The O2 supply alarm shrieks a warning. Something roughly pushes Charlie back to into the vacuum chamber. He fumbles for the switch, just in time to see Queen standing at the center of the room.

She's holding the oxygen tank she tore out of his burn-suit with two burning tendrils. It's almost like she's just patiently waiting for him to go.

The pneumatic door slams down. There's a brief whoomf, then the chamber is engulfed in brilliant, scintillating light. By the time Charlie stumbles out, all six flames are happily gorging themselves on the stack he left — their bodies burning bright in the oxygen-enriched environment.

"I think we can safely call the past month a wash," Dr. Allen Sendek announces.

Charles Smoots sits in front of the glass, stripped down to just his slacks. He's holding an oxygen mask to his face while Dr. Valerio presses an ear against his chest, listening for signs of abnormal breathing. Inside the chamber, all six figures have returned to their corner. They've already burned through the extra oxygen.

"We need to start considering our alternative option," Dr. Sendek presses. "The containment module —"

Charlie lowers the mask. "What 'containment module'?"

Sam nudges Charlie's hand back up, returning the mask to its previous position. "Alternative approach. If we can't train them to behave —"

"— we don't. The anomalies can be sealed inside a super-heated gas-chamber which permits them to continue burning safely within a small, pressurized environment. Isolated from each other and the outside world. We've discovered that prolonged isolation puts them in a violent state — when released, they blindly attack everything in sight. After approximately a minute, they burn themselves out — become non-anomalous fire."

Charlie lowers the mask again. He brushes Sam's insistent hand away. "You're talking about turning them into bombs."

"And grenades. But, yes."

"You're taking the wrong lesson away from this."

Dr. Sendek lifts one eyebrow. "Precisely what lesson should I take?"

"She didn't kill me. She just took the oxygen tank."

"Well, yes, it didn't look like killing you was a priority. Neither was keeping you alive."

"That's the thing. Why did she just want the tank? Why not me?" Charlie shakes his head. "You saw the footage yourself. She pushed me into the chamber. She waited until the door closed before tearing the tank open."

"Mr. Smoots — far be it from me to tell you how to do your job," Dr. Valerio says. "But doesn't assigning sentiment to the actions of a wild animal strike you as dangerous?"

"Look, I'm not saying she gives a fuck about me. But she just had a choice between me or an oxygen tank. She went with the tank."

Dr. Sendek shrugs. "The human body is sixty percent water. Maybe it just wasn't interested in soggy meat."

"The human body is over a hundred thousand calories of stored energy. The pound of logs I brought in are, what — twenty five thousand? And I don't think being made of water has ever stopped these things from going after us before, has it?"

The two doctors exchange a look.

"That's what I thought," Charlie says. "And this is all besides the point. This whole time, we've been presuming that fuel is the only reward they recognize. But what if there's something even stronger than that? Fuel and extra oxygen, provided together?"

Again, the two doctors exchange a look.

"Let's take one more shot at this. Clean slate. Two weeks," he tells them. "Two weeks with oxygen-enhanced rewards. If we don't start seeing results, then we'll do it your way."

"Two weeks. And the results need to be drastic," Dr. Sendek agrees. "We aren't the only Foundation team developing an anomalous weapon system, Mr. Smoots."

Next: Dogs of War

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