Killing with kindness.
The heat in the little room was becoming oppressive. Biscuit was panting on the couch under his thick coat, and Lamya flapped her stomach covering a bit before rising to open a window. Mhumhi stared after her. He had sat in silence after her last words, trying to put them together.
“Where did all the humans go?”
Lamya did not answer him right away- she was leaning out the window.
“When are you going to find me that fan, Biscuit?”
“When it’s safe to wander around the stores again,” Biscuit replied, licking his broad paws. “I told you, the police are hunting domestics right now. It isn’t safe for me.”
“What will you do if I die of heat stroke, you useless dog?”
“Please,” said Mhumhi, “tell me. Tell me what happened.” The heat was not bothering him, but he was panting anyway.
“You shouldn’t be listening to her,” Biscuit muttered.
“I heard that,” said Lamya. She turned around in front of the window. “Mhumhi, use your expensive little brain. I don’t think I’ve been very subtle about where they went. They’re still in this city- well, what’s left of them.”
“No,” said Mhumhi.
“And I suppose a great deal has been swept out through the sewers as dogshit, too. How much of it must there be for you to already be running out?” Lamya tapped her chin, then shook her head. “Whoever’s left is still hanging in that big freezer underneath each dispensary, though. Bodies of man, woman, child, being ground up and prepared for your mouth-”
“No!” exclaimed Mhumhi. “No, that’s impossible!”
“How do they taste, anyway? I’ve avoided having any, but-”
“The meat can’t be hulker!” He had to leap off the couch, startling Biscuit to his feet, and paced on the carpeted floor. “Why would- I mean, who put all of them down there? The dogs?”
He was beginning to feel a dull horror, like the time Sacha had told them about the half-breed cull, only a thousand times worse.
“I told you, the dogs had nothing to do with it,” said Lamya. “They put themselves down there.”
“You mean, other hulkers-”
“No, I mean they put themselves down there, Mhumhi, how hard is that to get. There’s no great secret. They all willingly became meat.”
“That makes no sense!” exclaimed Mhumhi. “Why would anyone-?”
“The reason I am alive,” said Lamya, “is because my parents asked themselves the same question. The selfless ones went and died, Mhumhi, and so we’ve only got selfish genes left to pass on.”
“Because we needed meat,” said Lamya. For a moment her face became slightly pinched, the first expression of discomfort Mhumhi had seen on her. “We were starving. There was a program. Advertisements everywhere. Celebrities volunteered to do it. Everybody was doing it, Mhumhi. Everybody wanted to save everybody.”
“But if everybody wanted to die-”
“That’s right.” She bared her teeth at him. “If everybody died for everyone else, they didn’t die for anyone.”
“I don’t understand…”
“You’re not human, Mhumhi.” Lamya turned and gazed back out the window. “You don’t feel that… oh, that special kind of compassion we feel. That altruism. You’re just an animal. You wouldn’t sacrifice yourself for anyone else; you’ve got instincts against that. Survival instincts.”
Mhumhi was silent, and glanced at Biscuit. He was watching Lamya attentively.
“I suppose I’m like an animal too,” she said. “Because I never wanted to die for anyone. Too scared, even though it was the right thing to do. I suppose that means that all the real humans are dead.” She laughed. “We’re an extinct species, Mhumhi.”
“You’re not extinct,” said Biscuit. “Don’t say that. When the time comes, you will be many again.”
“When the time comes,” Mhumhi repeated. “You mean, when the meat runs out, and there isn’t enough left for all the dogs?”
Biscuit turned to glare at him.
“He’s caught on,” said Lamya. “Not that it matters.” She turned to smile at Mhumhi. “You still have to eat, no matter what you think the meat is. You’ve got to feed those little kiddies, too, right? Kindness kills, doesn’t it.”
She stretched out her arms above her her head for a moment, tilting her neck to and fro. “To tell you the truth, though, I really look forward to what you lot will do when it comes down to it. When the food runs out, like it did for us. If dogs start offering to die… well, I guess you’ve made it. You’re an advanced species.”
“Advanced…” Mhumhi shuddered. “You, you’re mad, aren’t you? If the meat runs out for the dogs, it runs out for you, doesn’t it? What will the hulkers eat, then?”
“What do you mean, what will we eat?” asked Lamya, her eyes thin and sharp. “There’ll be plenty of leftover meat, the kind I can stomach. Which reminds me…” She pushed herself up from against the window and went over to the white refrigerator. “You can join us for dinner, Mhumhi, if you want.”
She opened the refrigerator. Mhumhi found himself backing away, bumping into the couch that Biscuit was sitting on. Draped limply over one shelf was the body of a red fox; Lisica. Mhumhi could see the snare wire still tangled around her neck.
“What’s the matter?” Lamya asked.
“How… how can you…” He could not tear his eyes away from the indignity of her, the moisture beaded in her fur and the way her pale tongue hung out of her mouth.
“I don’t understand what your issue is, doggy,” said Lamya. “You don’t want me to eat dogmeat? How many thousands of times have you eaten human meat, though?”
“I… it isn’t…” Mhumhi found himself struck dumb, and Lamya grinned and swung the fridge shut again.
“I was lucky to get her,” she said. “Someone’s been picking the meat out of my snares lately. Someone who discriminates less than you, hmm? They seem to know just where my traps lie. I’ve had Biscuit try to track them, but-”
“Wait,” said Mhumhi, turning, finding the big domestic staring down at him from his higher perch on the couch. “You… you help her?”
“Of course I help her,” said Biscuit. He sat stiffly, his forelegs stretched out, his curled tail pressed tight against his back. “She must have good food. I am not a wild dog, I am a domestic.”
“That’s right,” cooed Lamya, and she stepped forward to rub one of Biscuit’s thick ears between her fingers. “And when all the wild dogs are dead, and you’ve fulfilled your role…”
She put two fingers against Biscuit’s head. The large domestic did not move.
Mhumhi did not understand the gesture, but he felt a sort of sick chill all the same, looking at the two of them. There was something wrong… terribly wrong here… He should not have come.
He looked back towards the closed door, and both Lamya and Biscuit seemed to pick up on the motion, for Biscuit rose and Lamya flashed her square teeth.
“Ready to be off, Mhumhi? Sure you don’t want any meat for your little kiddies?”
“No,” said Mhumhi, taking a step back. Biscuit leapt heavily down from the couch and was walking towards him, stiff-legged.
“I hate to see you go, honestly,” said Lamya. “I haven’t been able to talk to anyone besides Biscuit for a long time.. it was nice. Especially as you’re a terribly large animal. Hypothetically speaking, I’m not sure I could even fit you in the fridge.”
Much to Mhumhi’s surprise, Biscuit turned around, a few feet in front of him.
“Lamya,” he said, “that is enough. We’ll let him go.”
Lamya pulled her eyes tight and the corners of her lips down.
“You were the one who said he was hearing too much!”
“That’s your fault, not his,” said Biscuit. “And I don’t think it matters. He is already in too dangerous of a position to talk to the wrong dogs.”
He glanced back at Mhumhi, who elected not to say anything. Lamya gave an elongated sigh and flopped back down on the couch.
“Fine, fine! Then tell him to come again. I’m lonely. Bring his sisters- not those children, though.” She uttered a harsh laugh.
“Come,” said Biscuit, tone cool, and he reared up and took the doorknob in his mouth to turn it. Mhumhi found he was still shaking a bit and said nothing, his tail tucked, as he left the room.
Biscuit led him back through the silent school until they came to a small room overlooking the playground. Here he again reared up and pushed a window pane with his paw, tilting it outwards with a soft creak.
“Through here,” he said, and scrambled up on a desk, his claws scraping, and leapt out of it. Mhumhi followed somewhat more gracefully, though his injured paw clipped the sill and made him stumble on the landing.
When he regained his balance he saw that Biscuit was digging in the wood chips underneath a teeter-totter.
“Here,” he said, as his paws made loose dirt fly. “I’ve got something for you… for the children.”
Mhumhi went over cautiously and recoiled when he saw the domestic draw a long piece of tattered, dirty meat from the ground.
“I won’t give them meat from a dog!”
“Don’t be stupid,” grunted Biscuit, dropping the stuff on the wood chips. “You can’t afford to be picky right now. Besides, it isn’t dog meat. It’s my share from the dispensary. I hide it here to keep Lamya from suspecting what it is.”
Mhumhi went up and sniffed the stuff warily. It did smell like dispensary meat, though the dirt had made the color unrecognizable. He found himself still rather reluctant to eat it, given what he had just heard.
“Listen,” said Biscuit. “You must not pay any mind to the things Lamya told you in there. Being without other humans can- well, it can make a human act very strange. You must realize that she was trying to say the things that would shock you the most. And they simply aren’t true.”
Mhumhi raised his eyes up to meet Biscuit’s. “The dispensary isn’t stocked with hulker meat?”
“Of course it isn’t,” said Biscuit, licking his lips. “No… the meat is not human.”
“Then where did all those hulkers go,” said Mhumhi, “and where did all the meat come from?”
Biscuit hesitated for a long moment, wavering.
“The hulkers were killed and eaten by you wild dogs,” he said. “You are the ones who ruined everything. You are.”
“Then where did all the meat come from?”
“It must be dog meat,” Biscuit insisted, licking his lips again. “Or rat meat. It does not matter. It is not human.” His pale eyes seemed to fade even more. “This world was made by humans for their servants, the dogs. You are the ones who betrayed that. We must suffer the consequences… we must wait until the usurpers starve and eat themselves, like a string of rats eating their own tails, so that our proper masters can rise again…”
“You’re the one who’s gone mad,” said Mhumhi, almost admirably. Biscuit’s tone had taken on a strange fanaticism, his eyes staring somewhere beyond Mhumhi, but at his words he seemed to snap out of it with a snarl.
“Were you not taking care of the children, wild dog, you would be dead- remember that. You are lucky I can smell them on you.” He prowled around Mhumhi, raising his lip, as if to remind him how very much larger he was. The hair on Mhumhi’s back was rising again.
“But,” said Biscuit, “you have done a good thing, and we cannot spare anyone else to look after them- not with the arrests- so you will be aided. I will try to bring you food, if you tell me where they are hidden.”
Mhumhi hesitated for only a fraction of a second. “If you want to give them food, we can meet somewhere- but I won’t tell you where they are.”
This did not seem to please Biscuit, for he rumbled. Mhumhi managed to meet his gaze for a moment, and finally the large dog looked away.
“Fine! Then take this meat and go back to them. Count yourself lucky that you have the privilege to be near them.”
Mhumhi said nothing to this, but he took the meat, in several quick, unhappy gulps. Perhaps it was the dirt smeared into it, but it was the worst he’d ever tasted.