Whisper, bird, tree, notch, hanging.
Mhumhi woke to the feeling of teeth tugging hard on his ear.
“Get up, little white tail.”
He opened his eyes blearily. The trolley was still rocking and clattering in that comforting way it had, though it seemed to have gotten quite a bit brighter. The dog that had been biting his ear put his head down to check if he had woken up, meeting his eyes.
“You’d better stay awake, we’ll be there in a minute,” he said, and wrinkled his nose. “If I were you I’d try to get rid of that stench.”
Mhumhi did not reply to this, and the dog went back to his seat, yawning widely. Vimbo was still a coarse warm mass against his side, and Mhumhi realized that he was actually awake, though keeping his head down on the ground. He titled it slightly towards Mhumhi as he watched. Mhumhi wondered if Vimbo wasn’t more calculating than he gave him credit for; perhaps he had figured out that the best plan was to keep quiet for now.
Kutta was awake too, and licking her lips. Mhumhi stood and walked unsteadily around to Vimbo’s other side to lick her ear, feeling the burning stares of the other painted dogs.
“Let’s look out the window,” he offered.
To his surprise Kutta glanced at Vimbo for a moment, as if she was going to protest leaving him, then seemed to change her mind. She stood and followed Mhumhi to put her forepaws up against the plastic sill to look out.
They were both rather stunned by what they saw. They were not underground anymore, that was for certain- far from it. They were high in the air, following what looked like one of many winding tracks suspended impossibly high between skyscrapers. The ground was a patchwork of gray streets and white concrete far below. The setting sun made the masses of stopped cars flash and gleam as they passed.
Mhumhi stopped looking down, for it made him dizzy, and looked out to the sky, which was flushing with color for the sunset. It reflected off the shiny black glass on the skyscrapers. Not all of them were the square ones Mhumhi had been accustomed to, some were different shapes, curves, circles… Rather, here it seemed to avoid sharp corners, aiming for lazy angles, sleek roundness, shiny black metal that looked like it could purr.
Lights were starting to wink on as they wound between buildings, the trolley switching tracks and turning corners of its own volition. The area above them suddenly lit, suspended arches of lights, winking on all down the track in a serpentine manner. On a building nearby a huge flat image suddenly flashed into being as the trolley passed: a female hulker, touching her hair and turning to show her naked underarms. She smiled at them.
“It’s moving,” whimpered Kutta, putting her ears back.
The huge hulker’s eyes followed them, her fingers still carded in her hair, smiling as if she knew something they did not.
The trolley whizzed on, past more giant moving images, city lights gleaming and turning everything black-red-white-gold. Mhumhi spotted something round and pale and pressed his nose to the glass, mouth open. It was a gigantic glass dome, with white metal supports laid out on top like a giant spectral spider’s web.
“That’s got to be the Great Glass Dome,” said Kutta.
“Yes,” agreed Mhumhi, thinking that the name was fitting enough. The trolley seemed to be heading in that direction, and the dome bulged ominously closer. Alongside the track there now suddenly sprang up great conical structures, with lights winding up them in an oddly asymmetrical latticework. At the tops the lattice spread out in a pattern that seemed oddly familiar to Mhumhi- what was it-
“Trees!” he exclaimed, a bit too loudly, because some of the painted dogs gave him irritated looks. “They look like trees!”
“Trees?” asked Kutta, putting her ears back doubtfully. Mhumhi realized that she had never seen one. Well, of course- the only time he’d seen one was- was during the hunt in Big Park.
He stared up at the gigantic metal branches as they passed. They were as naked as the dead ones in Big Park. He wondered what purpose they were supposed to serve.
“Mhumhi,” Kutta said softly, drawing him from his reverie. “Oh- look.”
He looked to where her nose was pointing, at a section of track above and ahead of them. There was something that did not look like metal or concrete hanging off the bottom of it- several separate lumps that swung perceptibly, flushing with the red sunlight.
Kutta seemed unnerved, her ears pressed flat as she swallowed, and it took him a moment to grasp why. The shape of the lumps looked familiar, sort of.
“You see them, eh?” said one of the dogs, raising his head to grin. “They’ve been there forever. Nzui tells me they did it to themselves.”
As they drew closer Mhumhi was able to perceive a flat foot with dried skin clinging tightly around bone, a shrunken, crooked head with hollows for eyes and grinning flat teeth.
“Hulkers,” he murmured. Kutta shut her eyes.
“Why would they do it to themselves?” she demanded, turning her head away.
“Apparently,” said the dog, “they wanted to deny us the pleasure of eating them.”
Mhumhi looked up at the bodies and thought that the hulkers had certainly succeeded, for no dog had the hands to pull them up onto the narrow track.
“Awfully spiteful things, hulkers,” said another dog, wiggling his round ears. “D’you think it really matters to a corpse whether or not it gets eaten?”
“All that wasted meat,” moaned a third, turning around in her seat. “I get angry every time I pass underneath it!”
Under her breath Kutta muttered, “Then they got what they set out to do, didn’t they?”
Mhumhi was inclined to agree, though his stomach had been empty enough times for him to feel a twang of bitterness himself.
Thankfully it was only another moment before the trolley passed by underneath them. Mhumhi took a last glimpse and saw their legs swinging faster from the wind of it.
The next moment they were in shuttered darkness, stripes passing over them as they entered into a tunnel, and the trolley slowed its rocking, clattering progress to a sudden and complete stop. Mhumhi slid into Kutta, knocking them both into the nearby seat in a tangle. Some of the painted dogs laughed, though their laughter stopped quickly when Vimbo jumped to his feet.
“You’d better control him!” barked one.
Mhumhi kicked his legs to turn himself over and got off Kutta. He went to the hyena to give him a nudge with his shoulder. Vimbo jumped and stared at him and Mhumhi jumped a bit too, realizing he had been absent-mindedly treating the hyena like a dog.
The painted dogs were all getting up, looking rather more leery over the hyena in their midst, and some moved to stand in front of the door.
“You don’t move an inch when this door opens until we tell you to,” barked out one. “And that hyena gets his throat torn out if he tries anything.”
Kutta gave a little snort at this, but even she seemed too uneasy to bite back, instead passing her eyes over the grayness outside the windows. Mhumhi knew that she, like him, was filled with trepidation. They had absolutely no idea what was to come.
The door of the car slid open, and Nzui was standing outside, tail waving slightly.
“Clear to disembark,” she said, stepping aside, and the first few dogs jumped down. Those behind herded Mhumhi, Kutta, and Vimbo after them.
They hopped out of the trolley into a sort of concrete tunnel, dimly lit and stretching far on either side. Mhumhi heard a sort of odd tinny buzzing, and the sound of several voices speaking softly. He twitched his ears. It was not in Dog.
Nzui was issuing quiet orders to her lieutenants on either side, and now she turned back to Mhumhi.
“You’ll be coming with us,” she said, and without warning several dogs slipped in between him and Kutta, separating them, her and the hyena in one circle, him in another. He found himself backing up automatically as the dogs flashed their teeth at him, his heart beating rapidly, and Kutta was whirling about in alarm.
Beside her Vimbo added his squeal, ducking his head and keeping close against her.
“Calm down,” said Nzui. “We certainly can’t take the hyena inside the dome, and it won’t stay calm without her next to it. I promise you, you’ll only be separate for a few minutes.”
“The dome?” said Mhumhi. “As in, the Great Glass Dome?”
“Very good, you know your landmarks,” said Nzui, flashing an amused look to the dog at her side. “Take them away.”
“Wait!” Mhumhi cried, trying to spring forward, though a wall of dog-flesh and teeth blocked his way. He couldn’t be separated from Kutta this quickly again, not after they’d just been reunited. “Let me go with them!”
“You have an appointment,” said Nzui. She whisked her tail and the dogs surrounding Kutta and Vimbo herded them farther away, their heads thrust forward low and menacing. Kutta did a fearful little dance back and forth in the center space, looking desperate, but there was nothing she could do.
“Come,” said Nzui, and one of the dogs bit his ear and tugged. He gave a little whine and turned away from Kutta, hoping that it would not be the last glimpse he got of her.
They led him down along the concrete station, the murmuring, buzzing voices growing louder. Mhumhi realized that it was coming from yet more flat moving images of hulkers on the walls, these ones adding chatter in their own tongue to the motions. Yet many of them seemed off, flickering or repeating sections, or fuzzy, or cracked about the middle so that the disjointed portions of their bodies moved separately around the black lines.
The other dogs seemed very used to them and ignored them entirely, their tails wagging loosely as they trotted forward, as if there were something ahead they were eager to reach. Nzui soon reared up to push open a door, and bright light flooded through, making Mhumhi blink and squint at the change in contrast.
He took a breath and coughed as he passed through it, for suddenly his nose was flooded with a rich and heady scent he’d never had the like of. The closest he could compare it to was that of those dried stalks of grass in Big Park, yet that was absolutely nothing compared to this. It was a real stench, like the hyena’s, except it was moist and heady and sour and sweet and lively and rotten all together and at once.
He had to stop and blink to get his vision back, even though the other dogs were nipping at his heels.
What he saw he had no real words to describe, for he had never seen a garden before, but it was a garden- a garden of most incredible quality, like a dense thick jungle beneath the dome, all shiny green stippled fronds hanging and waving, fleshy leaves and hairy vines, thick-petaled flowers in lurid colors, and- and trees, living trees, like a loveliness Mhumhi had never dared imagine. He had not ever understood that the branches of trees were meant to be covered in leaves, yet there they were, dense and rustling, wafting gentle scent towards him, mild underneath the riot of other plant matter, like scented water. Amongst the branches he saw for a moment a bright black eye, and then it snapped off again.
One of the dogs gave him an impatient nip on the rear, and he jumped forward, stumbling into a walk. There were paths through the immense garden, paved with flat shale, though this was hardly visible under the dense covering of dried and rotten leaves. These were so shaded with foliage that Mhumhi only got occasional glimpses of the pale dome of glass overhead that shut out the sky.
They went round the winding path and suddenly a little brown and black creature appeared on a low hanging branch, tilting its head. Mhumhi was taken aback, for again he’d never seen anything like it before. It had yellow feet and an odd, pointy yellow muzzle, and no front feet that Mhumhi could see at all. It was sleek, if plain, its only ornament being a flash of yellow round its eye, and it tilted its head at him this way and that. Something in the twitchiness of its movements quickened a hunger in Mhumhi, and he looked at it sidelong as he passed underneath the branch. It hopped around to watch him, and then suddenly it burst from the branch in a powdery flutter. Mhumhi gasped- it could fly, like an insect.
It brought a memory to his mind, of a word, from the hulker Lamya of all things. A bird.
The bird followed them up the hill, occasionally emitting alarmingly loud hoots and chatter for such a small creature.
“Don’t leave!” it shrieked, and when Mhumhi looked at it sharply it burst into flight again.
“Ignore that thing,” one of the dogs advised him. “We’ve been trying to kill it for ages, but it’s too wicked clever for us.”
“But- it talks,” stammered Mhumhi.
“It doesn’t talk, it repeats,” chided Nzui. “It only says what it hears- it isn’t intelligent.”
“Don’t leave!” cried the bird, again, from a branch somewhere on the other side of the path. Mhumhi was unable to suppress another shudder.
They reached the top of the gradual hill. There was a vast stone fountain at the top, trickling weakly. The pool at the bottom was covered in a thick film of floating leaves, and the top seemed choked with them, only emitting occasional spurts of browned water.
Lying on a bench near the fountain was a painted dog, and around her lolled what seemed to be several attendants, scratching or snoring in the leaf litter.
“Oh, Nzui, you’ve got him,” said the dog on the bench, pushing herself up on her forelegs with a yawn.
“Yes, madam,” said Nzui, putting her ears back and wagging her tail low, and the other dogs surrounding Mhumhi displayed similar kowtows. Mhumhi kept himself stiff-legged. The female on the bench moved into a seated position, swinging her ears towards him.
“Come look at him, Imbwa,” she said, without taking her eyes off of him.
“I’m looking,” came another voice, and Mhumhi jumped and looked up. There was a dog lying on a thick branch, his tail and forefeet hanging over the edge.
“You’ll break your back, Imbwa!” called one of the dogs below, wagging his tail, and Imbwa lowered his brow and gave him a regal look.
“Show me another dog who can climb a tree,” he said.
“Everyone’s impressed, love,” said the female, in something like a monotone. “But about this little white-tail here-”
“Yes, where did they find him, Hlolwa?” asked Imbwa, his hanging tail swishing. “Isn’t he the one that up and disappeared?”
“For weeks, yes, right when we’d thought we finally had him,” said the female, Hlolwa. “You did well, Nzui.”
Nzui lowered her head modestly. “I only wish I’d realized who he was when I first saw him, madam. Liduma was the one who told me about seeing him with the red dog and the short one.”
“Liduma got her meat, and you’ll get yours,” said Hlolwa. She looked directly at Mhumhi again, and he saw that she had a nick in one ear, almost perfectly circular, cut out of the edge. Her eyes were light amber-colored, translucent, and lent her an odd air, halfway between disinterest and scorn.
“Your name is Mhumhi, isn’t it?”
Mhumhi did not answer. One of the other dogs growled at him.
“Be respectful to the madam, pup.”
“It’s fine,” said Hlolwa, and indeed to Mhumhi it seemed that she could hardly care any less. “He’s had an odd upbringing, hasn’t he?” She turned both ears towards him. “From domestics to hulkers, I hear.”
“To hyenas, now, madam,” said Nzui, flashing a grin.
“Hyenas?” said Hlolwa, blinking slowly. “I hadn’t heard about this.”
“I heard it just a little while ago from that old scoundrel Bii,” said Nzui. “I didn’t quite believe him until we caught the thing, either. But it follows him and the red dog like a big ugly puppy!” She laughed.
“I want to see it!” cried Imbwa, his tail thumping on the branch above them. “Is it really friendly?”
“Not friendly to us, but it stays more or less quiet,” said Nzui. “Quite strange. I haven’t had much of a chance to examine it myself; I’ve sent it and the red dog down to the cages.”
“Hm,” said Hlolwa. “Isolated, I hope. We don’t want to take chances. We’re not done with the interrogations.”
“Of course,” said Nzui, giving an anxious wag.
“And you said you’d caught the red dog. But wasn’t he with a short dog and a Simien wolf as well?”
“Bii requested we let the wolf go with him in exchange for the information,” said Nzui. “But we can catch them up if you would like.”
“Not Bii,” said Imbwa. “You idiot, that fox has gone deep into one of his bolt-holes again and now we’ll never catch him out.”
“It’s quite fine,” said Hlolwa. “The wolf is of limited concern to me. If he’s spotted, take him in, but I doubt he’d become an information leak. Young Mhumhi here seems to have an empty enough head. I doubt Pariah told him anything.”
“What did you say?” cried Mhumhi, the words bursting out of him. He couldn’t help it. The last thing he had expected to hear in this place was his mother’s name.
Hlolwa looked over at him, her jaws parting slightly in a half-smile, and he realized that her words may have been calculated.
“The domestic, yes,” she said. “It seems she was loyal in her own way.”
She suddenly stood and fell into a stretch, long and languid, wiggling the toes on her front paws.
“The lot of you are dismissed,” she said. “Nzui, you wait by the interest for my word. I’d like to speak with Mhumhi for a few minutes.”
“Yes, Madam,” said Nzui, blinking, and then whisked her tail and led her pack away from Mhumhi. He found himself suddenly standing alone before Hlolwa and her attendants.
“He’s a skinny thing, isn’t he,” commented Imbwa, tilting his head. Light shined through a notch in his ear, identical to Hlolwa’s. “I can see every one of his ribs.”
Hlolwa gave another slow blink. “Are you going to run, Mhumhi?”
She had noticed the way Mhumhi was trembling, looking all around, as if he could spring away and escape into the dense foliage. It looked like the perfect hiding place, a labyrinth of dark leaves. But he knew it was an illusion- the dome of glass would curve around on all sides, shutting him in, and Nzui stood before the exit.
“No,” he said.
“Good,” said Hlolwa. “If you do, it might startle my brother, and he may fall and hurt himself.”
She did not sound altogether distressed about the notion, and Imbwa snorted.
“Should I fall, it would be teeth-first.”
“Admirable,” Hlolwa replied, “if you are aiming to quickly break your neck.” She cast her amber gaze over at Mhumhi again, and he swallowed, for her words had brought the image of those dangling hulkers to his mind again.
“Now, puppy white-tail,” said Imbwa, shooting a dark look at his sister. “We will have to explain everything to you, won’t we?”