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Part 1: Hellraiser

Chapter 1: We Didn’t Start the Fire

“Oh, Christ!”

“Whaffuck – oh, shit!” snarled Paul.

For a moment the two men stood before the entrance to the cattle pens, eyes wide and jaws agape, as they unslung their modified AK-47s. Standing just behind them, I could see little of the interior of the vast cavern beyond the doorway because of the darkness filling it, save for fitful flickers of flame and the occasional spectacular fireball or blazing jet of fire erupting within. The rock walls around us seemed to shake from the tremendous blasting bellows and basso, blethering roars, occasionally interspersed with screams of fury so far up the audible spectrum they could have deafened bats, of something huge rampaging through the caverns beyond the doorway, trampling or crashing or burning its way through everything in its path as it went. Every few seconds those bellows were punctuated by all too human screams of terror and anguish. Oily black smoke drifted through the air, further obscuring the view, reeking of charred flesh, spilled intestines, and burning wood and concrete.

Though it had seemed like an eternity, it must have been no more than a few seconds before Monty and Paul, fanning out to either side, advanced warily into the area beyond the doorway, their weapons at the ready. My own BAR slung over my shoulder, I came through the doorway behind them just in time to see them firing off rapid-fire bursts of those nasty little rounds of high-explosive modified rockets at a gigantic, prime Tyrannobos cow, who stood some 25 feet high at the shoulder, their fire more or less converging on her torso and abdomen, blasting gigantic chunks out of her body, nearly cutting her in half as they brought her down, the shallow booms! of the rounds adding deafeningly to the cacophony already filling the area. But even then, with her intestines heaped in mangled, steaming clumps and pieces about her body and twisted around her legs, in what seemed to be an ocean of her own blood, she snapped and writhed and kicked in all directions, now raising her enormous head to let off yet another bellowing blast of flame, now striking out in all directions with her forelegs in an attempt to eviscerate her enemies with those hellaciously sharp, metalloid hooves.

“Oh, screw!” Reaching down to his belt with his free hand while he kept his weapon trained on the great cow with the other, Paul took one of the grenades he’d hung there and, using his teeth to pull the pin, counted ten and threw it at the cow, leaping backward as he did. Monty was one step ahead of Paul, pushing me backward, into the hallway, as he went, shielding me with his body as he pushed me back behind the doorway and tucked in beside me. On the other side of the doorway, Paul threw himself behind a layer of rock wall.

Suddenly a shattering blast erupted within the caverns. The hideous, ear-splitting screams and bellows of the enraged cow were cut off abruptly. Into the relative quiet that followed, only the whimpers and soft moans of the injured and dying could be heard. Not even the normal continuous low, griding roar of the Tyrannobos' gizzards at work, milling down the nutritious seeds, marijuana plants, alfalfa, and, occasionally, oats we fed them remained to break that deadly silence.

“Uh, hon’ – I think you’d better come take a look at this,” Monty told me. He had just walked a little farther into the big room and was looking around. Shaking his head, he asked Paul, who had joined him, “You ever seen anythin’ like this?”1

“Not lately, that’s for sure,” Paul told him. “Batrix, like the man just said, you need to see this. I think our profits for the year may be shot to shit,” Paul said, looking back at me.
Not all that sure I wanted to see what had happened there but knowing I’d have to, in order to assess the damage and help figure out where to go from there, I stepped through the doorway and joined the two of them.

“Oh. My. God!”

“Ain’t that the truth, darlin’,” Monty sighed.

“The only thing I ever saw that was anywhere near this bad,” Paul said thoughtfully, “was that time up at Red Rock when Johnson’s pet grizzly ate that hand-grenade. Only that wasn’t even a patch on this mess! Jesus, Batrix, what’re we gonna do? I think we just lost about half our herd here . . .”

“Dear creepin’, jumped-up Jehosephat!” snarled Monty, surveying the ruined Tyrannobos pens and what was left of our Tyrannobos, those that weren’t charred black and still on fire after the rampaging cow had got through with them. “Oh, Christ damn it all to hell, anyways!” he exploded, suddenly catching sight of the roasted corpses of the men and women who had been tending to the Tyrannobos at the time.

Shaking his head, Paul told him, “Hey, man – you don’t want Him to hear you takin’ His name in vain and come down here and see just how fucked up things are around here!”

Ignoring Paul, slinging his weapon, Monty went over to one of the bodies, that of Mae Lewis, a young girl of about sixteen whom we’d taken in last year after her family, one of our client households, was wiped out by bandits. Kneeling down by her, Monty felt for a pulse at her wrist, then her throat. “Oh, fuck . . . Batrix, she’s still alive! – But I’m not sure for how long.”

Joining him, I looked her over. He was right: the girl, who had sustained hideous major burns on her legs and her lower torso, and somewhat less serious burns on her upper torso and arms, moaned and whimpered as, checking her to see the extent of her injuries, we moved her arms and legs and rolled her over on one side. “Oh, my Lord – Monty, look at this! She’s lost an eye!”

Apparently she’d caught a blast of flame across the left side of her face. All that was left of her left eye was a charred, sunken lump in the eye-socket, and her left ear was no more than a fried rind of long pork. The cow’s fiery breath might or might not have damaged the delicate mechanisms of the inner ear – whether she could still hear out of that ear remained to be seen. If she lived.

Paul, who had joined the two of us next to the girl, said, “Maybe I ought to organize a medic detail and get her to the clinic so they can start workin’ on her, Batrix. What do you think?”

“As usual, Paul,” I told him, “I think I just don’t know what we’d do without you! – I’m sorry for being such a bitch, it’s just that this . . .” I said, waving my arm to indicate the wreckage and ruin of what had been a large, well-ordered barn filled with whole, healthy people and Tyrannobos cattle just a little while ago, unable to finish the sentence. “Yeah, go do that thing,” I finally managed, sighing. “There’s a phone on the wall over there that looks as if it still might be in working order. Try calling the clinic from there, get them to send a detail down muy pronto. But I want you to stay here with Monty and me, help us figure out just how bad we’ve been hurt by this – and also how many of the cows are okay, how many are injured but will be okay once the vet gets down here, whether there are any we have to put down, and – hey, that’s right! Paul, after you call the clinic, call the vet, have her get her tush down here on the double!”

“Was just gonna suggest that, Boss Lady,” he told me, as he rose to his feet again and went for the phone jacked in on the wall about twenty feet away. “I also thought I’d better call Bill and Rach’ first, so they can take charge of the clean-up crews and the docs. That way I won’t waste much time on calling’ for help here.” Reaching the phone, holding the receiver to one ear, he quickly punched in a number. “– Yeah. Hi, Bill? – Yeah, this is Paul. Uh, we got a real Situation here . . . – Down in the pens. Looks like one of the cows went off her head and totaled the place. – Yeah, we sure are! Both. And a good-sized clean-up and repair crew – when I say she totaled the place, I mean totaled it. – Yeah. Okay, see you in a bit. ‘Bye.”

Hanging up the phone, he came back to where Monty and I were still kneeling down by the injured young woman. “Got Bill first off. He’ll have the clinic people and the vet and her crew down here any minute now. Then he’ll organize a crew to get this place cleaned up and like that.”
“Good fuckin’ deal,” Monty told him, a little sourly.

“Hey, man, don’t take it out on me – I’m doin’ my job, okay?” Paul snapped at him.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry, okay?” Monty told him. “It’s just – Lord, unless I miss my guess, we must’a lost about 400,000 neodollars here today,” he said, sighing. “An’ no tellin’ how we’re gonna make up for it, neither. – Darlin’,” he said, more gently, turning to me, “think she’ll make it?”

Looking at the shocky, moaning girl sprawled on the floor between us, I said, “She’ll be damned lucky if she does, Monty. But people have been injured far worse than this and made it – once, back before the War, I read an account of some guy in an industrial accident who got covered in liquid asphalt. It cooked him to a turn, but he recovered. And, of course, there are all those burn-cases from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, New York, Phoenix – when they were found, they were like two-legged well-done steaks, but they lived and actually managed to have fairly decent lives afterward. If she survives the next 48 hours, and doesn’t come down with 30 Minutes to Hell or cryptic gangrene or something like that on top of the burns, I’d say she’ll make it.

“– Mae,” I said to the girl, who was trembling from shock, “can you hear me? If you can hear me, wiggle your right hand, okay?”

But she only continued to moan, tossing her head now this way, now that, her one remaining eye half-open, seeing nothing.

“If that one makes it, I’ll sure as hell be one surprised son of a bitch,” Paul told me, shaking his head. “She’s – oh, hi, Bill,” he said, turning his head and looking up at the Keep’s general manager. . . .

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