Maha and the rats.
Mhumhi led Maha out through the concrete hallway after instructing her to shut the door behind them, shutting Tareq and Kutta safely inside. Maha had brought with her something lumpy that she slung over her bony shoulder. When he questioned her about it, she explained that it was a bag.
“See, it’s got all kinds of stuff in it that I can take with me,” she said, reaching inside the lumpy sack and showing him the candle Kutta had found once. He could still see her teeth marks in the soft wax.
“Why do you need to take anything with you?” Mhumhi asked, and Maha blinked.
“In case I need it, right?”
Mhumhi still didn’t get it, but he let it slide. The bag wasn’t costing him anything, anyway.
“Which way is it up ahead?” he asked. “This level, or the one below?”
“Below,” said Maha, and so Mhumhi went in front, sniffing carefully for any other signs of life, and led her down the long, spiraling staircase through the large reservoir room.
Maha directed him down through another series of long concrete tunnels shuttling sewage, walking behind him on the narrow raised platforms. She sounded unsure of herself occasionally, and dithered at some corners, but for the most part she was a fairly good guide.
“Not that way!” she said, at one point, pressing back against the wall when Mhumhi nosed down a dark branch. “There’s lots of dogs down that way. Rats, too, but lots of dogs.”
“It smells a little bit like meat,” said Mhumhi, trying to sort through all the scents that his nose was picking up. “And offal.”
“It’s where the pipes from the dispensary go out, I think,” said Maha. “I went down there once or twice. There’s stuff that leaks out sometimes that you can eat. But lots of little foxes. They get scared when they see me, usually.” She broke into a brief, toothy grin.
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll go tell the police on you, though?” asked Mhumhi, and her grin faded.
“Well, let’s go this way,” he said, backing up to face the other fork. “And don’t worry, I’m with you. I can fight off anything that comes after you.”
Maha looked at him with her eyes shining a little, and again he wished he felt as confident as he sounded. Especially for a dog that still limped every third step on his aching back paw.
They went down the other fork, which sloped gradually upwards. Mhumhi liked that, though it meant it was sometimes slippery, especially for Maha on her two feet. It had not rained for several days, so in most pipes the sewage had slowed down to a sludgy trickle, a slick scum that Mhumhi did his best to avoid stepping in. Maha slopped through it, squashing it between her bare toes.
They came finally to a narrower tunnel entrance, an offshoot of the main line. It smelled rather cleaner.
“It’s just up this way,” Maha said, putting her forearm out over the metal railing that was on the concrete platform they were standing on. It looked as if it had not been completed: it was littered with metal things, round sections of pipe, coils of wire, flat sheeting. Across from them gaped the tunnel entrance.
Mhumhi could see a slight problem: the round opening was set up high, possibly higher than he could jump with his injury, and he would have to jump from down in the muck to get at it.
He poked his head under the railing and assessed: the entrance might have been reachable if he jumped from the platform without the railing in the way. Though it was a fairly small target, and he was already not at his best. It looked as if his only choice was to have to get down into the muck.
“What’s the matter?” asked Maha, watching him as he bobbed his head up and down under the railing.
“Nothing,” said Mhumhi, withdrawing. “I didn’t want to get my foot dirty, but it looks like I’ll have to step down in there to jump up. Hopefully it won’t get into my wound.”
Maha squatted to look at his leg for a moment, brushing one hand down it, which made him stiffen.
“Don’t do that!”
“I’m sorry,” said Maha, backing away a bit. “But we don’t have to walk through that part, Mhumhi! I’ll show you, look, I’ll make a bridge.”
“A bridge?” Mhumhi asked. “How…?”
He was beginning to suspect that he’d have to learn to stop asking that question where hulkers were concerned. Maha smiled impishly at him and went to pick something up from the ground, a long, narrow plank of wood. She slid it forward, making Mhumhi jump sideways to get away, and out across the gap between the platform and the tunnel entrance.
“There,” she said, puffing her little chest out. “A bridge!”
Mhumhi looked out across the narrow plank and felt impressed in spite of himself. It was a clever idea. He tested it with a paw, putting his full weight onto it. It wobbled slightly, but if he darted fast it ought to hold his weight.
Maha went behind him and slipped her hind legs out under the railing to dangle over the side of the platform, coming into a kind of bizarre sitting position.
“Go across,” she said. “Then I can climb up after you.”
Mhumhi disapproved of the bossiness in her tone, but she’d built him a bridge, so he listened to her. He went across the plank in a cautious trot that turned into a run as the thing wobbled and bounced under his feet.
Maha gave a kind of hooting noise and slid down from the platform. Mhumhi was getting his bearings in the smaller concrete tunnel when she put her forelegs over the side, shoving away the board, and pulled herself up. Mhumhi backed up, half amused by the way her long legs kicked out into the air as she wormed her way forward.
“It’s just up there,” she said, when she had gotten into the tunnel enough to kneel. One of her forelegs was scraped and bleeding, and Mhumhi went up to lick it without thinking.
Maha gave a little utterance of pain, flinching from his tongue. Mhumhi moved back and licked his lips nervously. Her blood tasted just the same as any dog’s.
“Don’t let that touch any sewage,” he said, keeping his voice stern. “If you had proper fur, you’d be better protected from that kind of thing.”
“What do you want me to do,” asked Maha, “start growing it?”
“Can you do that?” Mhumhi put his ears forward with interest, and then back again at her peals of laughter.
“Come on,” he said, as she covered her mouth with her hands to staunch her giggles. “We’ve got to hurry on, because even when I get out I’m going to have to find the dispensary, and then figure out what time it’ll be open.”
“Oh, it’s just up that way,” said Maha. “Don’t be cranky.”
Mhumhi gave a little huff, not understanding the word but definitely picking up the nuance, and turned and trotted up the tunnel. Maha followed him at a much slower crawl, as the tunnel wasn’t tall enough for her to stand up in.
He saw the larger chamber of the storm drain very quickly, and stopped abruptly. There was a mass of what looked like old paper and assorted wood near the bottom, and his ears were picking up all sorts of strange noises.
“Why’d you stop?” asked Maha, crawling up behind him.
“There’s something in that pile,” said Mhumhi, lowering his head with his ears trained forward. He was picking up rustling and high-pitched chittering. “And I think it’s alive.”
“Ooh!” said Maha, and she suddenly squeezed by him, shouldering him out of the way without so much as a by-your-leave. She was taking something out of her bag- a flat piece of wood- and to Mhumhi’s amazement, she scrambled over to the pile and began beating it furiously.
There was more shrill squeaking, and something small shot out of the pile and passed Mhumhi, who snapped at it out of pure instinct. His jaws missed, and it vanished down the tunnel.
“Aw,” said Maha, who had paused in her beating to wipe her forehead with a hand. “You let it get away!”
“It was fast,” Mhumhi said, rather defensively. “You didn’t get any!”
“Yes I did!” Maha hopped back off the pile and peeled back a particularly large piece of faded cardboard. Beneath protruded the limp gray body of a rat.
Mhumhi’s ears pricked, and he helped her dig around the pile. They found another dead rat, and then something unexpected: a dying rat curled around a pile of pink newborns.
When Mhumhi went to sniff the mother, whose back looked unpleasantly dented, she squealed and snapped at his nose from her prone position. He flinched away. Maha picked her up by the tail and bashed her on the ground, and she went still and limp.
Mhumhi stared at the dead rat in her hand, but Maha put it in her bag right away with the others and grabbed one of the blind, squirming newborns.
“These are the best!” she exclaimed, and bit off its head.
Mhumhi stared at her, eyes round, as she ate the rest of the body, which sounded crunchy. “You- it’s only a baby!”
“Yeah, so you can eat the bones,” Maha said, and reached for another one.
“But it’s a baby!”
“So?” She drew up the hairy parts above her eyes. “That means they’re better. And plus they can’t get away.” She bit through her second, and Mhumhi cringed. He looked back down at the remaining pink newborns, which were squeaking softly and beginning to crawl every which way.
“Do you want to try one?” Maha picked up one of them and held it out to him, flat on her palm.
Mhumhi stared at the tiny naked thing, its eyes still covered in skin, its soft little paws twisting as it tried to right itself. As horrible as it was, he could feel a sudden urge- that same urge he got when he watched sick Tareq whimper, when Maha fell down and he saw the back of her neck. He began to salivate.
“No,” he said, licking his lips, and backed away.
Maha turned down her lips and moved her shoulders up and down, then ate the little thing herself.
“I’ll have to bring one for Tareq,” she said. “He likes these a lot… I found a nest in here before, but I didn’t think any would come back after that…”
“What are they doing, having babies all the way up here?” asked Mhumhi, averting his eyes as she picked up yet another one. “Is there something to eat?”
“No, but I bet they were lookin’ for a place those little dogs don’t normally go,” said Maha. “I mean, they never come up here. There’s no reason to, cause when it rains it gets all flooded out. But it has’t rained in a while.”
“No, it hasn’t,” Mhumhi agreed. He could dimly remember the last time it had rained: the day Sacha had called him out of the subway. That had been the day that started everything- he’d seen the dogs fighting- he’d met Bii- and it was because of Bii that Kutta had felt it was safe to share her secret with him…
“Mhumhi, you can go up now,” Maha was saying, and he blinked. She had stowed the remaining naked rats in her bag, and was now rearranging the pile of trash so they could climb up it. “I can move the grate. You have to hurry, right?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, and watched as she clambered up the pile, teetering, and reached up for the rack of iron bars above. Sunlight was streaming through them, lighting her dark cheeks, and the shiny flecks of blood around her lips.
Mhumhi started up the pile, slipping a bit on bits of loose cardboard, as she shifted the grate. It scraped very loudly. Maha gave a little grunt; apparently it was heavy.
“Have you got it?” he asked, bounding to stand next to her where she squatted at the top of the pile, straining with the bars. She did not answer, merely bared her teeth and squinted her eyes and forced the grate sideways. For a very frightening moment, as the edge cleared one side, it tilted diagonally and looked like it might fall in on them. But Maha caught it and was able to shove it the rest of the way to the side.
Mhumhi gave her bare shoulder a quick lick, feeling rather humbled. There would have been no way for him to do that himself.
Maha scrubbed at her forehead again, panting a little, and then turned to give him an expectant look.
“You did very good,” Mhumhi felt compelled to say, and she smiled and reached out to him. He moved back and away, paws sliding on the trash.
“I’ve got to go up now,” he said. “Pull it back closed after me. I don’t want any dogs catching you.”
Maha’s face fell a bit, but she bobbed her head in the affirmative.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be,” he said. “I’ll try to be quick… Stay here, understand? Don’t go running in the sewers without me.”
“But like I said, I do it all the time,” Maha argued, but fell silent when he moved closer with his ears back.
“Do as I say. No one should find you. When I get back, you need to be here to pull the grate off for me again, too.”
Maha scrunched her whole face together at this, which Mhumhi found extremely off-putting.
“Eat the rest of your rats,” he told her. “I’ll be quick as I can, and I’ll come back with proper meat.”
“All right,” she said. “Don’t get hurt anymore, okay, Mhumhi?”
“I won’t,” he said, an easy lie, and then leapt through the opening above, out onto the street.
His paws touched asphalt and he felt his senses heighten, and he cast all around, sniffing. He could smell dogs, but not terribly nearby. It looked like the storm drain led out into some sort of alleyway, because there were very tall buildings on either side of him with banks of glossy black windows.
He turned back around and watched Maha pull the grate back over for a moment, grunting and straining.
“You should get out from where someone can see you if they look down,” he told her. She stuck out her tongue.
Mhumhi decided it’d be prudent to leave her to it and trailed down the alleyway, limping a bit as the pain in his leg flared up again. The impassive rows of black windows seemed to go on forever on either side, and the street began to curve around. There wasn’t a door in sight anywhere; Mhumhi wondered how anyone could possibly get inside. The way it looked did remind him a little bit of the dispensary, strangely enough.
He saw the corner, finally, and hastened around to it, hopping on three legs. He was not prepared for what he saw on the other side.