Power reversal, or the plan of attack.
Mhumhi lapped water from the faucet on the tiny sink, his claws scratching the porcelain as he balanced himself on his hind legs. The water had a cool, chemical taste to it, and he realized now that it had been rather different from the water he had drunk during his brief time with the bouda. Theirs had tasted like nothing at all.
He pushed the tap off and got down, licking his chops. His back leg was sore again, a sort of aching sore, and it had trembled while he’d had more weight on it. He sat down to lick at it, though it was more of a comfort motion anyway, as the external wound had long healed.
“Does it still bother you?”
He glanced up, tongue sticking out. Kutta was standing in the doorway, looking at him with concern in her eyes.
“Not much,” he said, and got to his feet to brush against her. “And your shoulder?”
“Oh, it’s never been better,” said Kutta, rather sourly, and turned around to walk with him back to the center of the comforter. Mhumhi saw that two days with three dogs had done more damage than all the weeks with the two hulkers had managed; it was shredded in places from scratching and digging, and there were feathers everywhere. Kebero was in fact working away at one large rip, his head a rooting lump underneath the fabric as he kicked more feathers away with his back feet. Bii was curled up on a shelf above him, looking down at him indulgently.
“I’ve told you not to dig in there, Keb,” said Kutta, swishing her tail and very pointedly not looking up at Bii. The fox took the time to yawn and stretch his little paws out. Kebero reemerged, his shoulders all fluffy and his eyes bright, holding something in his mouth.
“What do you have there, Kebero?” asked Mhumhi, eyeing the yellow object in his mouth.
Kebero shook himself, sending feathers floating everywhere, then trotted over to Mhumhi and let the thing drop at his feet. He went into a play-bow at once, his tail wagging.
Mhumhi nosed the misshapen plastic thing and realized what it was: it was Maha’s little yellow bowl, the one she had used to wash his face with once, now chewed into something nearly unrecognizable by the puppy’s teeth.
Kutta must have seen his expression, for she spoke to Kebero rather quickly. “I’ve got to talk to Mhumhi, Keb, so no playing right now. Go lie down.”
Kebero seemed almost like he was going to ignore her for a moment, for he looked back at Bii, but the fox let his nose hang over the bottom of the shelf and raised his upper lip slightly. Kebero lowered his head, snatched the bowl, and slunk to the opposite corner.
Kutta looked back at Mhumhi. “I didn’t mean for-“
“It’s fine,” said Mhumhi, not really wanting to dwell on the matter- it was far too petty. He was rather more disturbed by the silent communication that had gone on between Kebero and Bii.
Kutta seemed to be of a like mind, for she turned her body slightly away from the pair of them before she spoke again. “I’ve got a plan, for how we might be able to get the children back. It’s really stupid, but…”
“I don’t see how any plan that takes us back in there is smart,” said Mhumhi. He had meant it as a joke, but Kutta gave him kind of a miserable look.
“I know. But-”
She was interrupted by a loud thump and a squealing whine. Mhumhi flinched. Vimbo had apparently decided to test the door again.
“Drat that beast!” Kutta gave a thin little growl. “I’m about ready to go kill him! Why doesn’t he give up?”
“He’s hungry, obviously,” said Bii, from the shelf. He had his overlarge ears turned toward them, shading his brow. “And what else is there around here to eat?”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Mhumhi. “I told you he was tame. He’ll have never eaten meat from a living thing before; how’s he supposed to know he’s got to kill something for it?”
“Is it something you have to be taught?” asked Bii, leaning to scratch the back of his head with his hind leg. Mhumhi gave him a dark look, but he could also sense Kutta’s unease, for they were surely feeling the same discomfort. No, they did not need to be taught that living things could be turned into meat.
“It doesn’t matter why he wants to get in, because it’s all bad,” said Kebero, from his corner. Mhumhi could see yellow plastic caught between his teeth. “I wish he’d go away!”
“We could drive him-” started Kutta, but Mhumhi swished his tail.
“He’d just turn around and follow us back, I think. I’d say if- if we had two more large dogs in the group we could kill him, but it isn’t worth picking a fight as we are… we don’t want to make him unnecessarily aggressive.”
“So, what? Leave him be?” Kutta shot the door an angry look.
“Has it occurred to either of you,” said Bii, “that he, himself, is not the only problem he could bring to us?”
“You were the one that said all the hyenas up above were probably dead, and I don’t see how it could get any worse, honestly, if he brought some here,” snapped Kutta. “They can’t open the door, and who knows, they might eat him for us!”
“It isn’t those hyenas that I’m worried about,” said Bii, and he sat up, curling his tail around his feet. “It’s the ones he belongs with, the ones wearing hulker flesh.”
“What about them?” said Mhumhi. “The bouda don’t come up here…”
“You know that isn’t true,” said Bii. “You said it yourself. Else how did you end up in that car? They came up to find this hyena originally, didn’t they? Don’t you think they’ll do it again?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, and his heart abruptly sank. “Oh… oh, I think they would…” He swung his head around and stared at the door, a sudden spark of fear entering his consciousness.
“But the hulkers are terrible trackers, they couldn’t find him even if they do come back,” said Kutta, though her own eyes had gone a bit wide at the thought.
“They found him once,” pointed out Mhumhi. “I’m sure they’ve got a way to find him again, likely a way we don’t know about or understand… I’m telling you, Kutta, these ones are different than the other ones we’ve seen on the surface. I wouldn’t underestimate them.”
To his surprise she didn’t argue, merely put her ears back slightly and said, “You really think they’ve got a way to track him?”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Mhumhi.
“Perfect,” she said, her eyes flashing, and let her jaw hang open in a fierce smile.
“Perfect?” stuttered Mhumhi, putting his ears back at this unprecedented reaction. Kebero and Bii seemed startled too, Kebero lowering his head and going a bit bug-eyed.
“Yes, perfect,” said Kutta, and she wrinkled her lips slightly. “That makes my plan much better! We can use the hyena, Mhumhi!”
“Use the…?” Mhumhi found he wasn’t following. Kutta began to pace, her tail waving slowly.
“I thought originally that everyone would all go through the same entrance, but this way there’s two.”
“Two entrances?” Mhumhi put his ears back. “How will there be two entrances?”
“The hulkers don’t come out of that tunnel, Mhumhi,” said Kutta. “They come out by lifting the big gate so they can use their cars to move about in. If they come looking for Vimbo, they’ll have to lift that gate. They’ll have to do it twice, in fact.”
“Oh, I see,” said Mhumhi, his eyes growing bright. “And the other entrance is the tunnel into the hyena dispensary, isn’t it? But- how does having two entrances help us at all? I don’t think it’d be a good idea to split up in there…”
“Our pack won’t split up, Mhumhi. We’ll send the police down into the entrance through the tunnel.”
“The- the police!”
Mhumhi jumped, for that had been Bii’s voice, from right next to him. Apparently at some point during their conversation the little fox had seen fit to jump down from the shelf and creep closer to them.
“Yes,” said Kutta, licking her chops. “It’s high time they did something to earn that name, don’t you think? If we tell them we know how to get into a place with meat… and lots of hulkers… don’t you think they’ll be excited? Don’t you think they’ll go in force?”
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, drawing a little away from her. “You want to incite a fight between them?”
“Incite? No! What they decide to do with the information is their business, it isn’t as though we’ll be doing any of the actual damage,” snapped Kutta. “And I’m surprised at you, Mhumhi. When have the police shown us any favors? To say nothing of the bouda… To incite a fight between the two might be worthwhile, if you ask me.”
“Kutta, they’re dogs. Dogs like us! What you’re saying…”
“Are you feeling a little loyalty, Mhumhi?” said Kutta, her eyes flashing. “To the markings on your pelt?”
Mhumhi drew a little further back, feeling himself go stiff. He found himself at a loss for words.
He saw discomfort flicker through her expression, looking at him, and then she shook herself lightly.
“We tell the police about the tunnel entrance, about the meat and the hulkers. They break in that way. Mhumhi, you said yourself the hyenas in that place were caged or dead, so they should run into little trouble- and you said it was a drop to get in, so they should be trapped. In any case they should attract a lot of attention down there. How many hulkers do you think live down there, Mhumhi?”
“It- it’s hard to say,” Mhumhi stammered, still not fully recovered from her earlier statement. “It was a regular warren… There’s got to be a couple hundred, at least, though there weren’t ever many out in the halls at once…”
“A couple hundred isn’t bad,” said Kutta, pacing, “especially if the police send a large force… they’ll want to catch or kill them, no doubt. Maybe they’ll even try to speak to them at first.” She snorted. Mhumhi had a sudden horrible vision- Danai descending down to the misty red pit, her hands spread, speaking Dog- and what those dogs would immediately do to her.
He had been their prisoner, and they had lied to him again and again, but… They had expressed a desire to negotiate with words. Sending the police down there would erase that possibility forever.
His discomfort must have been palpable to Kutta, for she seemed to avert her eyes from him as she continued to speak.
“It’s imperative that we time this correctly,” she went on. “For things to work best, Vimbo’s hulkers ought to be outside looking at him before the police move in. That way they won’t know about the attack when they return. And when they do return with him, we’ll be waiting by the gate to dart in after them.”
“They might see us,” Mhumhi pointed out.
“Yes, and we can tear them apart if they do,” Kutta said coolly. “Two hulkers are nothing. With luck, the main force of them will be concentrated on the police once we’re inside. We dispatch the two in the car, take their white cards, and fetch Maha and Tareq. Then we can slip away and leave.”
She looked around at all of them, triumph evident in her bearing. Kebero began to wag his tail tentatively in the corner.
Mhumhi let out a soft sigh though his nose. “It’ll be just that simple, will it?”
Kutta’s eyes flashed at him, but Bii spoke up.
“I think it’s a good plan, Kutta. Almost brilliant. We might be able to pull it off.”
Who says you’re going, Mhumhi thought. Out loud he said, “There are a hundred things that could go wrong. For starters, I don’t know how to get to their rooms from the main tunnel. I was unconscious when they took me to the hyena kennel, remember?”
“They were both bleeding,” said Kutta. “And it isn’t as if it rains underground. The blood will still be there.”
“Fine,” said Mhumhi. “And what makes you so sure that the white cards will help get us back out?”
“The white cards are how the hulkers get things to open and close, Mhumhi,” Kutta said, her tone maddeningly calm. “They didn’t touch the gates, so it’s got to be a card opening them.”
“And then there’s the fact that we’ll be leading the police inside through another entrance,” snapped Mhumhi. “Did you think about what that means? What do you think will happen if they make their way up and happen to see Maha and Tareq?”
Now Kutta did hesitate. “Well,” she said, opening and shutting her mouth with a soft whap, “we’ll have to hope they don’t get in. That’s why I want to tell them about the dispensary tunnel. The way you described it, they should be trapped there for a decent amount of time. They may not get any further.”
“Right,” said Mhumhi. “But we’ll have to hope that that distracts all the other bouda so we can sneak in, will we? Oh, and also- have the police gotten any fonder of us since I left? Have I missed a reconciliation? Last I knew, they were shitting on our doorstep! What makes you think we can just go up to them and give them information like this?”
“I…” Kutta put her ears back.
“It isn’t a perfect plan,” piped up Bii. “That’s granted, but any plan is bound to have holes. I think Kutta’s right about one thing- the police would be far more interested in meat and hulkers than arresting any of us. In fact, I’m willing to go and tell them myself. I’m confident in my own ability to escape larger creatures.” His face wrinkled into that implike grin.
“I’m not sure sending you alone is the wisest idea,” said Mhumhi, and Bii gave a little laugh.
“Mistrustful, I know. I don’t really blame you. But I am interested in seeing this plan succeed. For the sake of the children.”
“Children,” repeated Mhumhi, furrowing his brow. “And why, Bii, should you be interested in anything for their sake? Because last I remember, you were with the group of foxes trying to kill them.”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room for a moment. Mhumhi felt Kutta’s gaze shift from him to Bii, for she, no doubt, was wondering the same thing regardless of her plan. Kebero was watching them, though, his ears pricked, his gaze flickering between the two of them, the shredded yellow bowl still wedged in his paws.
“If you trust me on anything,” said Bii, finally, “trust me when I say that Kebero is like my own son or little brother, and I would never do anything to harm him. And by that logic, I could never do anything to harm his beloved family. I told you once, Mhumhi,” and the fox looked up at him, his eyes small and dark under his heavy ears, “I’ve no longer got a family of my own.”
Mhumhi’s first impulse was to want to reply, And you haven’t got one now, to such a blatant attempt at manipulation, but he held himself back and took an uncertain look at Kutta. She did not meet his gaze, merely stared fixedly ahead out at the wall. He felt a little pang; they were not quite a united front right now.
“Regardless,” said Bii, after the moment dragged on for a little too long, “I see only one truly difficult problem ahead of us.”
“And what is that?” asked Mhumhi.
For an answer Bii stayed quiet and looked at the door. Mhumhi became aware again of the noises he had very nearly been able to block out: the sounds of Vimbo scratching and whining, still not giving up.
“If we want to use him to draw out the hulkers,” said Bii, “we’ll need to be able to control where he moves to, and get him to stay in one spot. And afterwards we need enough time to alert the police and get into position before he is found.”
“You’re right,” said Kutta, and she began to pace again. “How to control him… well, it’d be easy to trap him in a house or something- just get the door shut and he’d never be able to figure out the handle, right?”
“But then how do we get him there?”
“Well, in the state he is now, he seems like he’d follow us,” Kutta said, giving the door a wary glance. “We could probably lead him anywhere we wanted to. And- and if that’s the case, we’d better do it fast. We don’t even know if the hulkers have already started tracking him.”
“You’re right,” said Bii, and he rose up from his haunches. “We must move quickly now. I say, open the door and see how the hyena reacts. If he’s calm enough, I can slip out and tell you what the surface looks like right now.”
“The surface?” Mhumhi asked. “Why-?”
“If we are going to be moving about with the hyena, it is imperative that we know the situation. Have the police routed the others of his kind, or are they fighting? How are they dispersed? Obviously, we shouldn’t just go rushing out.”
“Well-” started Mhumhi, but Kutta raised her tail and said, “You’re right. Whatever we decide to do, it’d be a good idea to scout out the surface first.” She stalked to the door, not looking at Mhumhi. “If everyone could prepare themselves, I’ll open the door. We may have to drive it back.”
Mhumhi shot her a glare, his tail tucked underneath him. Bii had successfully outmaneuvered him, and he hadn’t expected that it’d be done with her help.
“I’m opening the door,” said Kutta, and she reared up and pulled the handle.