A poorly-oiled machine.
Mhumhi was surprised that they let him sleep with Maha and Tareq that night, considering his outburst of aggression, but Danai seemed keen to convince him that they were allies. She had argued passionately with Pepukai, gesturing, until the other female inclined her head.
Now, with Maha’s arms around his neck, Mhumhi tried to make himself relax. The room was quiet and dark, and he could hear Tareq’s soft breathing from the other bed. Maha was also asleep, or nearly asleep, her face against his fur and her breath warming him. He would hear her steady little heartbeat.
He could not get himself to sleep, though. His mind was in turmoil, both from the new information he had learned, and from his uncertain future. He simply was not sure what he should do. He wanted nothing more than to leave this place, and yet-
He had to face the truth: Oldtown was a thousand times more dangerous for the puppies than this place was. No, more than that, it was near-certain death, where here he was beginning to be certain that no harm would ever be done to them. As uneasy as the bouda had made him, and as restrictive as they were, they had not done him or the puppies any actual harm. As humans, anyway. No, indeed, they had given them shelter, shared their food- more than Mhumhi could ask from any dog on the street. The collar was unpleasant, but it also came with a full belly.
His mind roiled and he rolled over, kicking a little at Maha’s stomach to disengage her. She let go with a grunt and curled up against his back. Mhumhi let his forepaws hang off of the bed and raised his head.
The room was entirely dark, aside from a tiny blinking light near the ceiling. Mhumhi stared at it while he thought.
He had to find Kutta, there was no doubt about that. And Kebero, if they could… But then, should they come back?
Or should they leave the puppies here?
Mhumhi gave a soft grunt-whine and put his head down again, closing his eyes.
He opened them not a second later, ears pricking. He could hear footsteps approaching the door, and smell the stink of hyena. It was Vimbo.
Mhumhi slid off the bed, claws digging into the carpet, and slowly approached the door, sniffing. He could also hear and smell that someone- a hulker- was with the hyena. They had stopped near the door.
The fur on Mhumhi’s back began to rise, but before he could do anything, the door opened a crack.
“Dog?” hissed a voice. It was Jabulile.
“What?” Mhumhi replied, voice equally soft. His fur was still prickling.
“Come out here, quick,” Jabulile whispered. “That room is being watched. I’ll let you through.”
The door opened wider, spilling a beam of golden light into the room. Mhumhi glanced back to where Maha and Tareq were still sleeping- the band of light illuminated Tareq’s ear.
“Why?” he whispered.
“I want to help you,” said Jabulile, “but I don’t want my face on the camera. Hurry, I’m afraid someone is going to come.”
Mhumhi looked back again, at their still faces, and then slid through the open door, blinking in the sudden brightness of the hallway. Jabulile shut the door at once behind him.
Mhumhi jumped a little from the noise, then jumped again when a cold nose hit his cheek. Vimbo was sniffing him, his stunted tail flicking up and down. Mhumhi’s growl sent him scurrying away, mouth open in a nervous giggle.
“Shut up, Vimbo,” said Jabulile, reaching out to tug at the hyena’s collar. “Dog, we don’t have much time. If you follow me-”
“Wait a moment,” said Mhumhi. “You’d better explain yourself. Why did you bring me out here, what is a camera, and-” he gave Vimbo a pointed glance- “why is that thing here?”
“Pepukai lets me walk him,” said Jabulile. “And no one’s around right now, so he doesn’t have to be on a leash, yeah? I thought it’d be good to have him with us.”
“With us for what?” demanded Mhumhi, his tail raised.
“I’m gonna get you out of here,” said Jabulile. “Otherwise they’ll keep you here forever. You realize that, don’t you?”
“Why do you say that?” Mhumhi asked, feeling himself go stiff-legged. “Were you told that by Danai?”
“Don’t have to be,” said Jabulile, widening his eyes. “They want to use you, dog. You know they want to get to the center of the city, right? Pepukai said that Danai’s gonna make you go out and talk to the other dogs. Convince them to let the bouda through.”
Mhumhi actually gave a sharp laugh. “They’d tear me apart first! I’m not one of the police-“
“Yeah, yeah, they’re not going to listen to you,” said Jabulile. “You think they care? They’ve got these kids, don’t they?”
Mhumhi tensed at the veiled threat in his words, and glanced back towards the closed door. His words made an uneasy amount of sense.
“They wouldn’t hurt the puppies,” he said. “They think they’re human.”
“No, they wouldn’t hurt them,” Jabulile admitted. “But they don’t have to. You know what Danai told the little girl earlier, to make her leave you? She told her that if she didn’t leave and shut up, they’d have you killed.”
An involuntary growl burst out of Mhumhi.
“Shh, not to loud,” said Jabulile, glancing around furtively, but his eyes were shining with a sort of excitement as well. “I’m not lying. I’m telling you, they’re gonna use you if you don’t get out now.”
Mhumhi paced in front of the door a moment, his tail wagging stiffly.
“What is this escape plan of yours, then?”
“I know a secret way out into the city.” Jabulile spoke fast and eager now. “A little tunnel. I can get you there, but we have to be quick, and go now.”
“Then let’s get the puppies,” said Mhumhi, turning back to rear up against the door.
“No!” cried Jabulile, as he put his paw on the handle. “Not them. This route’s too dangerous for kids. And they’ll be seen leaving the room. I can get you out, but not them.”
“I can’t just leave them-”
“Let them go, dog! I told you they won’t hurt them here- and you aren’t helping them if you stay-”
Mhumhi exposed a fang, frustrated, and pawed the door handle. “I cannot just leave them without saying anything-“
“Yeah, well,” said Jabulile, scratching the back of his head, reminiscent of his aunt. “That door’s also locked now, so you can’t.”
Mhumhi fell back onto all fours, baring all his teeth now. “What are you trying to do?!”
“Come on,” said Jabulile, raising his hands. “I’m telling you, this is your only shot. If you ever want to be a free dog again-”
Mhumhi paced again, furious, but there seemed to be no alternative now. He had just been thinking the same thing- but to not be able to say goodbye-
“This tunnel,” he said. “It goes both ways, right? I’d be able to get back in?”
“I dun- yeah, no, I think so,” said Jabulile, half-mumbling and rubbing one ear, which didn’t give Mhumhi a whole lot of confidence.
“You’d better be right,” growled Mhumhi. “Well, lead me out, then- if you’ve been lying I won’t hesitate to tear you apart- and your stupid little thing, too.” He spared a glare for Vimbo, who tilted his head slightly.
“Right, right, yeah,” said Jabulile, not really seeming to register the threat, for he seemed excited again, flashing his teeth in a grin. “Come on then, let’s go! It’s down this way!”
He lead Mhumhi down the hall at sort of a pounding lope, his shod feet slapping the linoleum. Vimbo ran after him at once, raising his tail and ears. Mhumhi followed third, still watching the hyena with suspicion. He thought it might not be very smart of Jabulile to run away from him like that, given the intensity of the way Vimbo was staring at his back.
But Vimbo stayed docile enough, only glancing nervously back and Mhumhi now and then, and Jabulile led them at a brisk pace through the halls. He was right about one thing- they were deserted, though still flooded with light.
Soon they were back in the halls where concrete changed to metallic surfaces with queer stretched reflections. Jabulile leaned one skinny hip against a door and it beeped and slid open.
“In here,” he said, “quick, now.”
Mhumhi and Vimbo followed him inside, the latter nudging up against Mhumhi too close until he raised a lip at him. It was a room like the one Danai had taken him into before, full of shiny tables and dark shades. Mhumhi wondered if these, too, blocked pens with half-formed bouda inside. He had no intention of checking to see if he was right.
Jabulile led them all the way through the long room to a door on the other side, where he again stuck his hip out at it. This door, however, made a lower-sounding beep and did not open. He frowned and pulled a little white card out of his pocket, waving it aggressively at the door, but the thing stayed stubbornly shut.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mhumhi, for he was clearly starting to get agitated as he kept waving the card.
“This should work,” Jabulile said, swallowing. “It’s Pepukai’s card- she has access to everything- I dunno why it’s not working-” He said a sudden sharp word that Mhumhi did not know. “Damn! They must have deactivated it-”
“What does that mean?” Mhumhi demanded, but Jabulile did not answer. He ran to one side, where there was one of the heavy black shades hanging, and yanked it up. An empty pen was illuminated on the other side.
“There’s another way,” he muttered, but all of his previous excitement seemed to have drained away.
Vimbo gave a sudden little grunt, turning towards the door they had come in through, and Mhumhi flicked an ear in that direction.
“Someone’s coming this way,” he said. “More than one.”
“Damnit!” growled Jabulile, who seemed to be wrestling with a panel on the wall. “Damn thing-”
The gray plastic cracked, and he managed to reach his dark fingers behind it and yank on something. There was a loud beep that kept on going. Mhumhi flattened his ears as Vimbo whined.
“They’ll hear us! Stop that!”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” said Jabulile, and then he yanked the glass panel open. “Hurry up, get in here.”
Mhumhi darted after him, Vimbo jumping to follow, shaking his head. The whining beep was still going on. Mhumhi heard the door at the other end open.
“Cmon, here,” said Jabulile, and he yanked open a metal panel on the wall that opened up into a kind of huge chute. “Jump in, dog!”
“What?” exclaimed Mhumhi, backing away, eyeing the dark chute with fear. It smelled like blood.
“Come on, it’s safe,” said Jabulile. As if to demonstrate, he grabbed Vimbo around the chest, half-dragging the unresisting hyena across the floor, and shoved him inside. The hyena looked startled and thrashed as he began to slip down, but Jabulile slammed the chute closed and opened it again. Vimbo had vanished.
“Your turn,” said Jabulile, beckoning. Mhumhi, panting, eyed the gaping chute, then turned his ears back to listen to the sounds of hulkers chattering and approaching.
He jumped into the metal chute, paws slipping and sliding, and Jabulile slammed it closed after him. The force of it pushed Mhumhi down and down, picking up speed as he slid helplessly across the smooth, sloping metal. It was pitch black inside, and all Mhumhi could hear was the banging of metal and his own loud, panicked breathing.
Suddenly the chute became a straight drop and Mhumhi yelped and twisted as his paws lost all purchase. A second later light flashed by him and he landed on something soft.
Mhumhi sat there and panted for a moment, his eyes closed, then looked down.
He had landed on a dead hyena.
With a little scream he jumped away, stumbling- more soft things, more dead hyenas, their eyes blank and staring and their mouths open and their bodies stinking. He bumped into something that swung and whirled around. It was- it was-
It was a dead hyena handing with its jaw impaled on a hook, but Mhumhi had not been able to understand what it was for a moment, for it was shiny pink and raw, flayed of all its fur, dangling there like meat.
There was a gibbering whine and suddenly one of the dead hyenas sprang up and pressed against Mhumhi, who yelped, but it was only Vimbo, his eyes wide and terrified. For once Mhumhi did not force him away.
They had landed in a place of nightmares. Underneath where the exit to the chute sat gaping in the ceiling was a pile of dead hyenas, and on a rack hung a whole row of hooks from which more flayed hyenas dangled. It moved in slow jerks, making them swing obscenely, puffing as it drew them closer and closer to a gaping concrete entrance above which a caged red light gleamed.
Mhumhi panted, feeling his own drool drip down onto his feet as he gazed around. Vimbo appeared to be trying to bury his head underneath Mumhi’s stomach.
With a clatter and a thud, Jabulile flew out of the chute and landed on the pile of the hyenas.
“Just made it,” he said, lying on his back. “Man, I hate this place…”
“What is this place?” Mhumhi asked, raising one hind leg to kick at Vimbo, who was still burrowing and starting to lift him slightly off his feet. “What have you done with these hyenas?”
Jabulile sat up and gave a short laugh, looking at Vimbo. “You little coward, Vimbo-“
“Answer me! What is this place?”
“Oh,” said Jabulile, and he laughed again. “It’s the inside of the dispensary, yeah? These are all our spare hyenas.”
Mhumhi glanced down at the hanging flayed line again, at that dark concrete opening with the misty red light.
“You mean- the meat-”
“Oh, yeah,” said Jabulile, and grinned. “My aunty lied to you. That meat you ate, that was hyena. We haven’t been able to have synflesh in forever. They keep trying to get the machines to work, but they only last for a day or so and don’t produce shit worth eating ‘fore they break again. So we gotta eat the hyenas.”
Mhumhi stood still a moment, then said, “So the dispensaries outside-“
“I dunno a thing about them,” said Jabulile, shrugging. “Come on, we don’t have time to sit here. I pulled the shade back down, but they’ll figure out where we went soon. Let’s keep moving.”
“Where to?” said Mhumhi, looking over at the concrete opening rather fearfully.
“Not that way!” said Jabulile, and now even his laugh sounded uneasy. He pointed in the opposite direction, on the far side of the pile of corpses he was still sitting on. “That way. There’s a whole little tunnel.”
Mhumhi felt profound relief fill him, and shouldered Vimbo away. He did not know how much longer he could bear to be inside this place. It stank of blood and death and Vimbo’s fear.
Jabulile stood and clucked, and Vimbo jumped to run after him, dragging his rear low. Mhumhi followed, stepping gingerly over the pile of bodies, of paws and humped backs and jaws with blue tongues hanging out. He couldn’t help but stop to glance back at the jerking line. One by one they were vanishing into the darkness of the red-lit opening, and from within Mhumhi could only hear the puffing of steam and a soft snick, snick.
He had almost turned back when he saw something peculiar. One of the dangling hyenas had an odd growth on one of its front feet- no, not a growth- not a foot at all- a fully formed hulker hand.