The cannibalistic mind.
Mhumhi walked at the end of his tether, staring at Vimbo’s hindquarters before him. The hyena would frequently turn to look back at him with anxious little chatters; Pepukai would tug him into walking again.
Mhumhi had been allowed to go free of the muzzle, but the collar still chafed, and now, watching the hyena as he was, he felt fresh disgust for it. He bore the same restraints as this- as this animal.
And he had done nothing while Maha had been lead away, and he did nothingnow, when he could turn and bite Danai, make her release him. He was not in control. These hulkers- these bouda– they had assumed it from him so easily. Perhaps it was because Mhumhi was used to following behind others. Behind Kutta- behind Sacha- oh, if only Sacha were here! If only he had not run ahead that day… run into the wire… if only he had called her back from the grey brutes when she went forward… if only… if only…
The collar exerted dull pressure around his neck as Danai tugged him, for he had stopped. He began walking again, obeying mindlessly. And that, Mhumhi, he told himself bitterly, is why you are still here, because all you can do is wish for Sacha- for anyone- to come and save you…
His mood had grown so dark that he hardly noticed that Danai was speaking to him.
“I am sure you are curious about why Vimbo gets special treatment,” she was saying. “Pepukai has always felt that we should treat the hyenas better; certainly it is a good sentiment, but impractical, considering the limitations we have on space and food. And considering that now we must breed nearly twenty hyenas to get a single bouda.”
Mhumhi’s claws clicked on the linoleum of the corridor. The hall walls, he noticed, were changing around them, from plain concrete to something sleeker-looking- perhaps metal- that he could not really identify. He saw his reflection, warped and stretched impossibly long. Behind them, the young male that Danai had called Jabulile was still following, and Mhumhi saw his stretched features watching him.
“But Pepukai’s mother has some political weight, even though Pepukai herself is not interested in politics, so she was allowed to take one cub when her daughter gave birth.”
“Her daughter?” Mhumhi broke in, finally.
“While in the form of a hyena, Pepukai was bred- we do it early, you understand, because once the hyena becomes human we obviously cannot. It is risky, so we remove most of the cubs surgically… which brings its own set of complications… but anyhow, Pepukai’s daughter was not a bouda. Pepukai wanted to take her in anyhow, but she was too old- so she took one of her cubs, when she had them. The male, since they are often attacked by the females.”
“She took it from its mother?” Mhumhi looked at Vimbo, who was looking back again, with his empty dark eyes.
Danai gave a pained smile. “Yes, to raise herself, to make him docile. It is unusual, but not unheard of; some people retain attachments to the hyenas they were once related to.”
Mhumhi, looking up at Danai’s face, caught something of pity in her expression.
“But Vimbo is not, unfortunately, a bouda. He will remain a hyena for his entire life. Unfortunately, at some point she will have to give him up.”
“To release into the city?”
“Well- yes, that too. It seems that yesterday Vimbo was having a medical examination and the veterinarian put him in with the other hyenas to be released. Pepukai was obviously quite upset and managed to get authorization to retrieve him. It was an unfortunate mistake…”
Pepukai was looking at him too now, her gaze hard as she tugged Vimbo forward. Mhumhi wondered what she thought of such a ‘mistake.’ He hoped she really couldn’t understand Dog.
“We’re here,” said Danai, stopping. At the end of the hall there was a solid metal door. Danai took something plastic out of her pocket and flashed it before herself. The door opened.
Mhumhi eyed the plastic thing as she returned it to her pocket. It reminded him of the flooded building on Silent Street. Biscuit had buried that card in the dirt again after they’d left.
Danai tugged him forward, and he went reluctantly. The room seemed oddly chilled. There were long metal counters everywhere, and cages, and curious black screens on the walls and on partitions that divided the room. They were not alone: as they passed one set of partitions Mhumhi turned and saw a thick pane of glass and a creature leaning up against it.
The creature was like nothing he’d ever seen. It had long, furless legs and hulker toes, but its top half was covered in matted gray fur, with paws it crooked at the wrist, and a lopsided hyena face with open, panting jaws. One cupped ear flicked- the other was human.
“Don’t mind her,” said Danai, tugging him away. “She’s in the middle of her transition at the moment, and we’re keeping her here for her own safety.”
Mhumhi resisted the tugging, staring. The malformed creature looked back at him. Its mouth would not shut around its drooping tongue, and its muzzle seemed slightly mashed in, wrinkling its furry face. It panted with a fixed grin, one eye black and bulging, the other white and bloodshot.
Behind it Mhumhi could see that the room had normal furniture in it- though much of it looked torn- a tray of food- bars on the door-
Pepukai walked over and tugged down a black shade, and the creature vanished. Vimbo flinched at the motion, tangling her legs in his leash as he backed away.
“Come on, Mhumhi,” said Danai, insistent, and Mhumhi went along. She seemed almost embarrassed. He wondered if she had ever looked like that. No, there was no doubt that she had.
“How long does the change take?” he asked. “A full day?”
Danai laughed. It was sharper than he’d become accustomed to, more guttural.
“Often well over a year,” she said. “These things take time, Mhumhi. And there are many who never complete it.”
“What?” A sense of horror filled him. “You mean, some are stuck… stuck looking like that? What happens to them?”
“It depends,” said Danai. She did not seem eager to elaborate, but Mhumhi could not stop himself.
“Depends on what?”
“On how human their brains are,” Danai said, pressing her lips together. “Anyway, here we are, Mhumhi-”
How human, Mhumhi thought, feeling ill. He made himself look up. Danai was pulling something forward on a rack- a sort of hanging frame, with a cross-hatched lattice, and many wires running along each side.
“That’s- that’s from a dispensary!” he exclaimed. It looked exactly the same as the ones from the building on Silent Street.
“Oh, you recognize it,” Danai said, sounding pleased. “I was hoping you would. I was about to ask you just what it was you ate up there, you see.”
“Why?” Mhumhi demanded, backing away a little as he looked at the swaying rack. “Why do you care?”
“If you’re getting food from the dispensary, it proves something,” said Danai. “I suspected it as soon as I started speaking to you; it all makes sense.”
“What makes sense?” asked Mhumhi. He was getting a bad sort of feeling, like the one he’d got when Lamya started talking to him with her bared-teeth grin. On his other side Pepukai had sat down on one of the other counters, swinging her feet, while Vimbo alternated between straining towards Mhumhi and retreating underneath it, caught somewhere between friendliness and fear.
“How much do you know about the history of this city?” asked Danai, laying a hand on the rack to stop it from wobbling. “I’m afraid we ourselves have little knowledge, but we do know one thing. There was a famine.”
“I’ve heard that,” Mhumhi agreed, drawing the words out reluctantly. It was not a story he was eager to hear repeated.
“Yes, and that is why the dispensaries were set up,” said Danai. “To ensure that each citizen within the city got their allotted nutrition. Down to the smallest child.”
“If there were any left,” said Mhumhi, thinking back to Lamya.
Danai had another of those increasingly frequent moments where she appeared not to hear him. “Do you know how the dispensaries work, Mhumhi? How they function to allow everyone to get their fair share?”
“You can only get meat from them once a day,” said Mhumhi. “I expect that’s how.”
Danai shook her head. “But what stops everyone from getting the meat out of them many times a day?”
“Would that it worked that way,” said Mhumhi, thinking that if that was the case, most of his problems would have been long solved. “But it only works for each dog once a day.”
“That’s right,” said Danai, pushing the hanging rack lightly across its rail. Vimbo’s eyes followed its movement. “I suppose you have to touch something to activate it, right?”
Mhumhi recalled the shiny button he pressed his nose against- it seemed like forever since he’d gotten meat from a dispensary. “Yes, you do.”
“That’s because it looks at your genes,” said Danai. “Everyone has a different code within themselves, so it can match them against its records each day to make sure no one cheats.”
“That seems fair enough,” said Mhumhi, and he thought he did get the gist of the idea, though how it all worked was well over his head. “So what?”
“The machines were designed by humans, for humans,” said Danai. “Why d’you suppose dogs can use them?”
“Because we’re not as dumb as you all seem to think we are,” said Mhumhi.
“I don’t think you’re stupid at all,” said Danai, her eyes wide and earnest. “Really, I don’t, and I have a good reason not to. No, Mhumhi, I know that the makers of the dispensary would not have wanted the meat given to a- to a random animal. It was too precious.”
“Then it was probably for their domestics,” said Mhumhi. He wrinkled his lips. “Probably so they could fetch it for them.” He thought Biscuit would fairly drool over himself at the opportunity to perform such a slavish task.
“No, Mhumhi, there are far too many ways that could’ve gone wrong,” said Danai. “And they weren’t concerned with the dogs’ well-being. This was about the survival of humans only. When there are no other options, we have to protect ourselves.”
“Fine, then,” said Mhumhi. “You’ve refuted everything I’ve said, and I know you’re trying to lead up to something. What is it? Why can the dogs use the dispensaries?”
“Sorry, sorry, I was only trying to see if you could figure it out on your own,” said Danai, tone apologetic, though the words certainly weren’t. “It’s very simple. It’s all in your intelligence, Mhumhi. It makes no sense that a dog mixed with bird genes would be able to talk and reason like you do, Mhumhi! The makers of IntelliDogs must have known that, obviously, they must have known there was a way to make their product better if they broke a few rules.”
“So…?” said Mhumhi, after a moment, when all she had done was stare at him hopefully. “I don’t get it.”
“Oh, Mhumhi,” said Danai, shaking her head again. “You’ve got human genes in you. Your brain- it’s a human one. Or at least it’s partly human.”
Now it was Mhumhi’s turn to stare.
“No it isn’t.”
Danai laughed. “Perhaps it’s hard to take in. But you’ve got a dog’s body with a human mind, Mhumhi. That means the best part of you- the part that matters- is human. Really, for all intents and purposes, you are-“
“No!” exclaimed Mhumhi, overly loud, for both Vimbo and Pepukai jumped and stared at him. “No, that makes no sense! I’m not-”
“You are human.”
“I’M NOT HUMAN!”
Mhumhi was snarling openly, shaking a little, a sort of heat filling him. Danai backed up and stumbled over a stool, hitting the shade behind her. It shot upwards, and pressed up against the glass was the drooling half-creature, pop-eyed and grinning.
“If…” Mhumhi began, then stopped to catch his breath. He had not realized that he was panting, his chest heaving. “If that thing behind you isn’t human, neither am I.”
Danai looked behind herself and jumped at the sight of it. She quickly pulled the shade down again.
“It doesn’t have a human mind, Mhumhi,” she said. “That’s what matters-“
“I am a dog,” said Mhumhi. “And this is my proper form! How am I to know- how am I to know that you aren’t the malformed one? Maybe it’s you who’s got the mind of a dog!”
“That’s ludicrous,” said Danai, but she bumped back against the screen when Mhumhi took another step towards her.
“Why are you so angry?” she asked, in a quavering voice. “I thought- I thought you’d be pleased to know!”
The sheer bizarreness of this statement made Mhumhi stop in his tracks, and in his confusion his anger melted away as quickly as it had come. He looked at the quivering Danai, then behind him at Pepukai, who had jumped from her counter seat, clutching Vimbo’s leash to herself. The hyena himself was squatting with open jaws, eyeing Mhumhi.
Mhumhi sat back on his haunches. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to get angry.”
He had to admit a nasty sort of satisfaction all the same, as if he’d proved his own point. For all the cleverness of a hulker’s hands, there were physical characteristics that he had that were intimidating to them.
A sharp noise made him jump, and he whirled around. Jabulile was a few feet behind- he’d almost forgotten that the younger hulker had been trailing behind them. His face was split into a bared-teeth grin, and he was clapping his hands together.
“You’re cool, dog,” he said, voice rough and stilted. Danai’s eyes shot over to him, and she pulled her lips down.
“You insulted him, aunty,” said Jabulile. “He’s a dog! He’s right, maybe humans are copying his mind.”
He looked at Mhumhi eagerly as he spoke, his eyes scanning his face, as if searching for approval. It made Mhumhi put his ears back.
Pepukai said something sharp in the hulker tongue, and suddenly Jabulile seemed to get meeker, ducking his head and scuffing one foot. He muttered a response.
“Who is he?” Mhumhi asked Danai, feeling it was a pertinent question.
“My nephew,” said Danai, rubbing the hollow at the base of her throat. “He has recently completed the change. As you can see, he’s been learning to be a linguist like I am.”
Mhumhi glanced back at Jabulile, who seemed to be undergoing a severe dressing-down from Pepukai. His shoulders were slumped and he had thrust his thumbs into the waistband of his bottom covering.
“Why train two people?” he asked. “Or- why doesn’t everyone learn the languages?”
“It’s time-consuming,” said Danai. “And it takes many years. Down here, Mhumhi, everyone has different jobs that they must do, and we split the work so no one has to bear too large of a burden. A linguist’s job is to be able to communicate with other peoples- should we meet anybody.”
“Other humans, you mean,” Mhumhi challenged. “Humans who speak different languages than you.”
The ghost of Danai’s smile returned to her face. “Yes, but I don’t think I’ll live to meet any of them. You’d think by now they would have tried to contact us… if there are any still alive outside this city… I think we are only left with hyenas and dogs.”
Mhumhi digested this a moment, and thought, no, Maha and Tareq are more human than you; that’s why you failed to mention them.
“I have another question,” he said. “That piece of dispensary- that hanging rack.”
Danai glanced over at the thing, which still swung slowly, suspended between them.
“Is that where you get your meat?”
“Well- yes,” Danai admitted. “It’s separated from the type up top and lets us eat meat whenever we choose, of course-”
“Then you know,” said Mhumhi. “You know what it is you’re eating?”
A look of confusion crossed Danai’s features. “Synflesh,” she said. “It’s-“
“Human,” said Mhumhi. “It’s human flesh!”
Danai actually jumped as if he’d snarled at her. “What- no, it isn’t!”
“Yes, it is!” cried Mhumhi. “I spoke to a hulk- a human, and she told me all about it- how the humans all killed themselves to feed one another-”
“Mhumhi,” said Danai. The patronizing edge had returned to her tone, and she smiled a little. “I don’t know who told you that, but it was probably to scare you. Synflesh is synthetic flesh. It’s meat grown from cells; not flesh from a human or any other creature. That’s what this rack is designed to support.” She put a hand on it again, running her fingers over the little cross-hatching. “The spaces are where the meat grows- it’s given nutrients- electric exercise-”
“No,” said Mhumhi, putting his ears back. “She told me. She said sheremembered– she was there!”
“Then she was clearly lying, dear,” said Danai. “How old do you think she is, anyway? The dispensaries were set up at least a hundred and fifty years ago, and humans only live up to around thirty years. It’s ridiculous that she’d say she remembers it.”
Mhumhi paused. Now that he thought about it, the problem of Lamya’s age had never occurred to him. Biscuit had mentioned that hulkers were long-lived, but he had never said exactly how long.
“Why would we eat our own kind?” said Danai, with a little laugh. “That’s just not healthy. Our ancestors certainly had the technology to do better. Synflesh is enough for anyone to live on- it’s full of nutrients- no doubt why the dog population has thrived up above.”
“It’s… false meat?” said Mhumhi, feeling lost again, his eyes flickering as he tried to comprehend.
“Don’t worry,” said Danai, and she crouched down to smile at him. “You’ve never eaten any human meat, Mhumhi.”
Well, except that one time…