A chat over lunch.
Danai led them through the halls to a large room she called a cafeteria. There were myriad tables and benches, all laid out neatly in rows, and a vast counter at one end with glass over it. It was completely empty.
Danai shut the door and let Maha unclip Mhumhi’s collar, giving him free reign of the place. He shook himself gratefully, glad to be rid of the hateful pressure it had been put on his neck.
He jumped onto the nearest table, sniffing curiously- it did indeed smell heavily of food in here, though he couldn’t see any of it anywhere. The table was sticky, and on the plastic there were faint, sweet-smelling stains. He licked at them, then moved in, sniffing eagerly. Maha scrambled up after him on her hands and knees to rub the spot he had licked with her finger and bring it to her mouth.
Danai made a soft noise, clearing her throat, and Mhumhi looked over at her.
“I’ll get you some food by the counter,” she said. “Um- it would be best if you did not walk on the tables.”
Mhumhi caught her tone, and jumped down obediently. Maha scowled and stayed where she was, her finger still in her mouth.
“Come along, puppy,” said Mhumhi, rearing up again to gently mouth her arm. “It isn’t our house, so it isn’t our rules.”
Maha gave a kind of dismissive grunt, but she slid back down to sit on the bench.
“These people are like Tareq’s mama,” she complained. “They don’t think that they’re really dogs.”
“Of course they don’t,” said Mhumhi, licking her bare arm. “They’d never seen any other types of dogs before we came here. They’ve never even been up to the city.”
“That’s stupid,” said Maha, putting her chin in her hands. “If they came up top, maybe the painted dogs wouldn’t be able to be so vicious to all the other hulkers. Or they could at least invite the hulkers and the- and the nice dogs down here.”
“I don’t suppose you’d want strangers coming to live in our den,” said Mhumhi. “I bet they feel the same way.”
“Yeah- well-” Maha kicked her bare feet. “Why’d they come up to the city anyway with that hyena?”
She glanced over at Danai, who was busying herself at the far-off counter, and lowered her voice.
“D’you think that hyena used to be a hulker like them? D’you think they all turn into hyenas?”
Mhumhi tilted his head a little; the thought had occurred to him, but he had never been quite sure how to present it to Danai as a question.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I saw where they keep them, though, and it isn’t pretty.” Danai had said the hyenas were their brothers and sisters, but cages were pretty poor places to keep your siblings.
“I don’t like ‘em, Mhumhi,” Maha said fervently, shaking her head. “After we eat, we should take Tareq and leave. I want to find Kutta again. I’m scared for her…”
“Don’t worry about Kutta, she can take care of herself,” Mhumhi said. “She’ll find somewhere to lie low… recuperate and wait for us…” He hoped that was what she was doing, anyway. It was hard to think about.
“What about that friend of yours?” Maha licked her finger again. “Biscuit?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi. He hadn’t spared a thought for the domestic ever since they’d left him spouting off in the midst of the foxes. “He’ll be fine if he makes it back to his hulker, I guess.” He wasn’t going to waste time worrying aboutBiscuit, anyway.
“Kutta told the little dogs that they could kill him,” Maha pointed out.
“She didn’t mean it,” Mhumhi lied. “Anyway, he’s not a very nice dog. He’s not really our friend, he just wanted to help because you two were hulkers…”
“Is that why he told you to save Tareq and not me?”
Mhumhi looked up quickly at her face, then put his forepaws on the bench so he could lick it.
“Like I said, he wasn’t really our friend,” he told her, voice firm.
Maha rubbed her nose and then patted his head.
There was the noise of someone clearing their throat. Danai had returned, bearing a pair of plastic trays. She slid them now onto the table side-by-side, making Maha pull her elbows away.
“I got you plain meat, Mhumhi, I figure you’ll like that best,” she told him, sliding onto the bench across from them. “Would you like me to put it on the floor…?”
In answer, Mhumhi hopped up onto the bench and sat on his haunches beside Maha, putting one paw on the table to steady himself.
“I see,” said Danai. “Maha, I managed to get some fruit for you, you’ll like that. It’s sweet.”
Maha said nothing, still being stubborn, but couldn’t seem to hide the interested expression on her face. Danai leaned over to arrange the plates on the trays in front of them. Before Mhumhi she put a large slab of something grayish that smelled salty; in front of Maha she put a smaller slab of the same and a bowl of some yellow things sitting in a viscous fluid. Mhumhi supposed it was the fruit, because it did smell blindingly sweet.
He looked back at his plate, sniffing the gray stuff warily. “This is meat?”
“Yes,” said Danai. “Cooked meat- perhaps you’re not used to having it that way…?”
Maha pulled hers up to her mouth and took a wary bite. “It’s tough,” she complained, pulling back and smacking her lips. Her eyebrows raised.
Mhumhi sniffed at his, then licked it. He saw the meaning for her expression. It really didn’t taste quite like meat, but it was warm and savory, the salt stinging his tongue.
“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” said Danai, reaching for his plate. “Let me cut it for you-”
Mhumhi was startled, and bared his teeth at the motion. Danai froze, fear crossing her features.
“Cut mine,” said Maha, dispelling the moment of tension. “It’s too tough!”
Danai quickly reached for her plate instead. “Yes, I guess you’re used to having yours raw, aren’t you?”
“What’s raw?” asked Maha. “Is that after a dog throws it up? Cause it’s always softer and better-tasting after Mhumhi throws it up for me.”
Danai elected not to say anything to this, and just put all of her attention into cutting the meat into tiny places with some shiny metal things. Maha pulled her lips down and picked up one of the yellow things with her dirty fingers.
She popped it into her mouth and raised her eyebrows again. “It’s good! Mhumhi, do you want to try some?”
She held some out in her hand and Mhumhi took it, lapping it up more than biting it, as it was so soft. It tasted as sweet as it smelled, and he wrinkled his lips a little.
“It’s all right,” he said politely. Danai returned Maha’s plate, with the meat cut up into tiny chunks. Maha promptly fed a piece to Mhumhi, giggling when he licked her fingers.
“Cut his up too,” she told Danai, tone haughty, and Danai took Mhumhi’s plate, looking a bit startled.
The meat was tough and chewy, but not bad at all, thought Mhumhi. It gave off savory juices. He licked his lips and looked over expectantly at the piece Danai was cutting apart for him.
“Have you ever turned into a hyena?” Maha asked.
There was a moment of silence at the table. Danai had not stopped cutting, nor had her expression changed. Maha and Mhumhi both watched her, Mhumhi shifting to put his opposite paw on the table.
“No, I haven’t,” said Danai, and she slid Mhumhi’s plate back over to him. “Why do you ask?”
“Because we saw a hulker that sounded like a hyena,” Maha said. She picked up another of the soft fruit pieces, but she didn’t take her eyes off of Danai. “And Mhumhi saw a hyena with a hulker hand.”
“A… hulker hand?”
“She means human,” Mhumhi clarified, turning his head sideways to snap up a piece of meat.
“Well,” said Danai, spearing a piece of her own meat with a fork, “that’s very strange. That shouldn’t be happening.”
“Why shouldn’t it?” Maha demanded.
“Because hyenas that are changing shouldn’t be getting out into the city at all,” said Danai. “I don’t know who’s been in charge of it, but they’re clearly not discriminating enough about which ones they let out…”
“You let them out intentionally?”
That had been Mhumhi. He swallowed the chunk of meat he’d been chewing, feeling his mood go down with it. “Why would you let them out into the city?”
“Well,” said Danai, and now he thought she was really beginning to look uncomfortable, “I didn’t vote for it. Some people think it’s the best solution… they’ve been doing an atrocious job of it, though, apparently…”
“Solution for what?” Mhumhi asked. When she didn’t answer, he filled it in himself. “It’s a solution to get rid of all the dogs, isn’t it.”
Maha uttered a little gasp. Danai rubbed her forehead with one hand.
“You must understand,” she said, “we did not realize that you were so- intelligent- that you could be reasoned with. Not until I spoke to you today. Had we known-”
“How can you say that, though?” Mhumhi put both paws on the table to lean forward. “You told me yourself you knew about the changes in those gene things- that we had a language-“
“We knew you were intelligent, but not without human help,” said Danai. “Or human training… Intelligence… we thought it meant like the hyenas; they’reintelligent, just not- not in the same way we are.”
“You thought we were animals, and that you’d kill us,” Mhumhi said flatly.
“That’s awful!” Maha looked like she might begin crying. “You’re as bad as- as bad as the police! You want to kill everybody?”
Danai’s expression was pained, but Mhumhi slowly sat back down on his haunches. He had conveniently forgotten about the police and their means of dealing with hulkers.
“The hyenas are let out so they can kill dogs,” he said. “Do you expect they’ll kill all of us?”
“Some,” Danai admitted. “That was the plan- to introduce the surplus population to help curb the wild dog population- we know how to deal with hyenas, so it’d be preferable to come out into a city overrun with them than…”
“You want to come out into the city?”
“Yes,” said Danai, giving a little sigh. “Eventually. This place is not meant to last for much longer… we should have emerged a long time ago… but the dogs…”
“You should of come out,” said Maha. “You should’ve come out, because a lot of hulkers up there think no one’s left, and they’re going out and dying cause they don’t care anymore.”
Mhumhi gazed at her, startled; he’d never heard anything like this come out of her mouth before. Danai looked physically pained.
“We didn’t know there were people left up top… if we had… It was by chance that Pepukai and her lover went out and saw you…”
“Why did they come out?” asked Mhumhi. “And why did they have that hyena?”
“They weren’t supposed to be out,” said Danai. “You’re not allowed… but Pepukai heard that they’d put her grandson in with the hyenas to be released, and so-”
“Her grandson?” Maha interrupted.
“Oh, yes,” said Danai, eyes flicking away nervously.
“The hyena is her grandson?” said Mhumhi, putting his ears back.
“Yes… in a way, anyhow, not genetically…” Danai looked extremely uncomfortable. “It’s all a bit complicated.”
“You’d better explain it, then,” said Mhumhi, and he took another piece of meat.
Danai made a face and scratched the side of her head very vigorously, as it this would somehow get her out of the situation, and then sighed.
“I told you there had never been children here…?”
“Not human children,” said Danai. “We emerge as adults. The hyena is a vessel…” She hesitated, perhaps recognizing the confusion on their faces. “I told you about genes, didn’t I?”
“A code,” Mhumhi said, “that tells you what you are.”
“Yes. Exactly. Well, inside of every hyena here, there are two codes in each cell- er, two codes, anyway. Only one is active at a time. When the hyena code is switched on, it stays a hyena, but- something can switch on the human code, and cell by cell, they can become an adult human…”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Maha.
“Well, it’s difficult to explain merely in lay terms… and there are other factors- the bones- the brain-” She stopped and rubbed both her temples with her fingers. “The point is, some of the hyenas here become human.”
“But not the other way around,” said Mhumhi.
“No, thank goodness… It’s one way.”
“Why? Did you not like being a hyena?” asked Maha.
“Oh, I don’t remember it at all,” said Danai, with a faint laugh. “You must understand, the hyena bore my genes, but it was not me. My consciousness, my mind, were entirely separate. I believe it was a male hyena that harbored me, in fact.”
Maha pulled her lips down. “Then what happened to the hyena’s mind?”
Danai put her shoulders up and down, a faint smile on her lips. “As I said, the hyena is a vessel.”
And that would be why, Mhumhi thought, these hulkers were willing to put their hyena brothers and sisters in little cages.
“I still don’t understand,” he said. “You do not seem to care for the hyenas very much. Why do you not breed as humans? Does that mean you give birth to hyena puppies?”
Danai pulled her lips far back and put her brows down. “No, though that would be something. We are infertile, Mhumhi. Only the hyenas can breed. Or no- I should say that the females are infertile; we are not sure about our males. But it doesn’t matter. We cannot have human children, so we depend on the hyenas to carry our genes. But with every generation, the hyenas that make the change are fewer, and the hyenas that complete the change are fewer still. It makes sense, because the ones that stop being hyenas also stop breeding… But you see, we ended up with a surplus of hyenas, as our human population shrinks.”
She leaned forward suddenly, beseeching. “And we did not simply want to slaughter the hyenas- that was why it was proposed to send some out and try to make a dent in the dog population. But with you here, Mhumhi, everything might change. That the dogs could be reasoned with- we never even considered this before.”
“And what would you try to reason with them?” asked Mhumhi, disbelieving. “That they should all leave? That they should die, so you can take back the city?”
“What? No!” Danai looked appalled. “All we want is to be able to access the records that are kept in the center of the city. We hope that we might be able to break our tie with the hyenas and live on as ordinary humans, but we don’t have the sort or information or equipment here to be able to do it. With access to those, however…”
“Why don’t you just go up and get them?” asked Maha, but Mhumhi had figured it out.
“The center of the city- that’s where they live. The police- the painted dogs.”
Danai gave that little smile again. “Those who go up in that area never come back. And we don’t have a great number of people to spare to begin with. We’re running out of time down here. You can understand how we are desperate to gain access to the city.”
“Or,” said Mhumhi, “you could stay here, stop worrying about breeding, and live out the rest of your lives in peace and comfort…”
Danai gave him a vague smile, as if she thought he had made a joke in poor taste.
“I still don’t get it,” Maha put in, tracing out something in the table with her fruit juice. “Why’re you hyenas in the first place?”
“That’s the question we’d like to ask,” said Danai. “But no one really knows the answer. It’s simply that a long time ago, before the other humans disappeared, they made this place and left the bouda inside.”
“Sorry,” said Danai. “It’s what we sometimes call ourselves. Or really- what the records we have call us.”
“If the records-” began Mhumhi, but he was interrupted. The door at the far end of the cafeteria had sprung open.
A hulker female entered, bearing a mass of bandages on one arm. In the other she held a leash attached to a hyena.
The fur on Mhumhi’s back rose, for the hyena was not muzzled, and it locked eyes with him and giggled.
The woman saw Mhumhi too and shrank back against the wall, but the hyena disconnected itself from her with a snap of fabric and ran directly at him and Maha, leash trailing. Mhumhi leapt down from the bench in front of her, baring his teeth and growling, as Maha screamed and clambered on top of the table.
The hyena loped towards him, raising its hairy little tail and giving a squeal at the sight of his teeth. Mhumhi gave it a warning chatter as it stopped just a few feet short of him and whooped.
“Vimbo!” shouted the bandaged woman. Danai ran around and picked up the hyena’s leash, saying words in hulker language. The hyena went with her as she tugged, though it kept looking back at Mhumhi, its jaws parted.
“Sorry, Mhumhi,” said Danai, once she had handed the leash back to the stranger. “Vimbo won’t hurt you, he’s only curious. He’s been hand-reared by Pepukai there-”
Mhumhi suddenly recognized the pair- the hyena had been in the car with him the night before, cringing, and the woman was the one Kutta had bitten on the arm. His mistrust deepened.
“She is the one who kidnapped us!”
“Yes, well,” said Danai, putting her hands out, “she thought the children were in danger, you see, she wasn’t to know, and she was originally looking for Vimbo-”
Pepukai said something to Danai, frowning, her eyes hard as she looked at Mhumhi.
“She says she’s worried a brute like you would hurt Vimbo,” Maha translated from behind him. She had not gotten down off the table, and was now hugging her knees.
Mhumhi wanted to laugh, but he held himself in check. However tame Danai might call the hyena, he could imagine the bloodlust lurking behind its dark eyes for Maha- he, too, had felt it.
“Of course Mhumhi would not harm Vimbo, I’ve told her that,” said Danai, waving a hand. Mhumhi decided to keep mum on the topic for the moment.
“What does she want?” he asked.
Danai appeared not to hear him, for she was talking to Pepukai again. Mhumhi prowled back around and hopped up onto the table beside Maha.
“What are they saying?”
“Pepukai says why didn’t they lock you up,” Maha told him softly, “and Danai says no, you’re smart and nice.”
“I’m not nice,” Mhumhi protested.
“Pepukai asks how the little- oh- how I’m doing, and Danai says just fine, she can see right there. Pepukai says I look like a wild animal.” Maha stuck her tongue out through her lips. “Not as much as her grandson does!”
Mhumhi let his tongue hang out in a grin. “You should say that to her, I want to see her face when she hears it.”
“No, no way, I don’t want her grandson to eat me!” She giggled, perhaps too loudly, because Danai glanced back at them.
“Mhumhi,” she called. “If you’re done eating, there’s somewhere else I’d like to take you.”
Mhumhi eyed Pepukai, who was clutching Vimbo’s leash tight against herself, for a moment.
“Will it take long?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Danai. “But I think Maha should go back with Pepukai and rest now. She didn’t get very much sleep last night.”
“No!” cried Maha at once. “I’m not leaving Mhumhi!”
“She’s not going with that thing,” Mhumhi added fervently. “She’s not going near it.”
Danai’s smile became apologetic. “Vimbo is safe, he is not like the others- but if you are uncomfortable, I can arrange for someone else to take her.”
As if summoned, three more hulkers materialized into the room. Mhumhi recognized one as the younger hulker who had let him out of the bathroom; the others were broad-shouldered strangers.
“Jabulile,” Danai said, frowning at the younger one, then seemed to snap herself out of it. She said something to the two others and they started coming forward.
“I said I wasn’t leaving Mhumhi,” Maha said, and grabbed around Mhumhi’s neck for emphasis. “I know you’ll hurt him while I’m not here.”
“Let me go back and rest with her and Tareq,” Mhumhi said, watching the two strangers slow as they approached him. “I feel more at ease that way.”
“I only want to speak to you a minute, Mhumhi, but it must be alone.” Danai was still giving that same sheepish smile. “There are adult things that children mustn’t hear about. Do you understand?”
Mhumhi hesitated. Maha dug her fingers harder into his fur.
“I said, I won’t-”
Danai said something in the hulker tongue and she froze.
“What, what did she say?” Mhumhi asked, alarmed, twisting to look at her face. Her eyes were wide.
Danai said something else, and then she switched back to using words Mhumhi could understand: “We must check her wounds every now and then to be sure they aren’t infected. Animal bites can be serious, you know. You’ll see her again soon.”
“Is that what she said to you?” asked Mhumhi, looking back at Maha. Her grip on him was slackening, and in a rush she pulled her arms away.
“Yes,” she said.
She looked incredibly unhappy. Mhumhi was willing to bet that there was a great deal more to what Danai had said, but Maha was already getting off the table to leave, letting the two strangers flank her. One put a hand on her shoulder and Mhumhi saw the muscles in her back tensing.
“I should go with her,” he said to Danai, feeling a bit of anger rise up. But Danai had walked over to him with something in her hands: the leash and collar.
“I need you to come with me for just a moment,” she said.