A pragmatic talking toy.
Across from Mhumhi and Kutta, most of the cages were filled with domestics, often with two or three packed together in a single run. Most of them had quieted down now, seeming to swallow their barking, for they were all looking at the dog that had called out to Mhumhi.
It was in one of the pens nearly directly across from him. It was pressing its black nose to the bars. It was tiny.
Mhumhi stuck his head out low to get a better look at it, marveling. It was coal-black from head to toe and covered in fur that looked quite plush, if somewhat matted. Its large round eyes shined from its face, which seemed puppyishly round, eerily so, really, because he could tell it was an adult. Its forehead curved down into its petite little muzzle.
The stunted little dog said, “Did you hear what I asked, big-ears? You Pariah’s or not?”
“Why should you care?” challenged Kutta, stepping closer to Mhumhi on the other side of the chain-link. “How do you know of her?”
“Didn’t ask you, did I?” said the dog. Her voice was high but surprisingly steady. She looked over at Mhumhi. He found he didn’t like looking at her eyes; they almost seemed ready to pop out.
“We knew Pariah,” he said. “Were you a friend of hers?”
“No, obviously,” said the little dog. She wagged her tail a little- Mhumhi hadn’t realized it had even existed before, for it was tightly curled up in the thick fur on her back. “I’d be dead, wouldn’t I? I’m surprised you’re still alive. You’re her puppy, aren’t you?”
Mhumhi, not knowing what to say to this rapid-fire series of statements, looked at Kutta. She seemed mildly bewildered, turning one ear back. Behind her Vimbo was pacing a little, bobbing his head.
“Hm-hm,” said the dog, seeming satisfied by his silence. “You look a little skinny, if you ask me. Need to eat more meat.”
“Right, I’ll get on that,” said Mhumhi, eyes thinning. “Who are you?”
“Me?” The little black dog closed her mouth and tilted her head. “My last owner called me Mini, so I suppose that’s who I am.”
“You mean the hulker- the human you were with,” said Mhumhi. “Is it…?”
“Yes,” said Mini. “He’s dead. He blew himself up in a building.”
“What?” said Mhumhi, at the same time Kutta exclaimed, “Blew himself up?”
“Oh, yes,” said Mini, blinking her glassy eyes. “He had quite a plan, too. Made me fetch things from all over the city to make a bomb with. Mapped it all out. He was going to kill the dogs at the nest, he said.”
“What’s a bomb?” demanded Kutta.
“It blows something up, doesn’t it? Don’t ask stupid questions. Anyway, he got the bomb all ready and set it off and destroyed one of the big black buildings.”
“Destroyed-!” Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a fearful look.
“Yes, it was quite a splendid explosion. Really intimidating.”
“He destroyed a whole building?” asked Mhumhi, still not quite able to fathom it when he thought of the size of the buildings outside.
“Well, a bit of the bottom part is still there, to be honest, but-”
One of the other domestics in Mini’s run suddenly spoke up. “Quit bragging, Toy. Tell them the rest.”
Mini laid her ears back, making them nearly vanish into her dense fur.
“What’s the rest?” asked Kutta, her yellow eyes sharpening.
“Well, unfortunately,” said Mini- shooting a desultory look to the domestic that had spoken- “he, err, miscalculated. The building wasn’t one where any wild dogs lived. It was actually- err- quite far away from anything important.”
“He blew up an empty building,” the other domestic informed them. “Not only was it embarrassing, it cost us the only hulker we had that knew about explosives.” He gave a little growl at this, looking down at Mini. The little dog bristled.
“It wasn’t my fault! I was- I was given bad information!”
“You should never have let him go through with it in the first place!” cried another domestic. There were barks of agreement from the others, eyes turning unpleasantly towards Mini, who was quivering a bit under their gazes.
“How was I supposed to-!”
“Don’t blame her, she’s a Toy,” jeered someone else. “Her existence is an embarrassment!”
Kutta suddenly gave a rumbling growl, and the heads of the domestics all turned towards her at once.
“Shut up, you filth,” she said. “We weren’t done with our conversation.”
There was a beat of silence, then a domestic said, “As if you could enforce that, wild dog!”
“She’s right,” said another voice, sounding somewhat far away. “Be quiet. All of you.”
Mhumhi turned his ears fully forward in surprise. The voice was familiar. The dogs in front of him turned and pressed against the sides of their run, unintentionally granting Mhumhi a view through the chain link into the row on the opposite side. In a kennel by himself sat the blue-eyed domestic: Biscuit.
He looked much worse-off than the last time they had seen him. His dense pelt seemed fouled and matted, his flanks thinned, and it was apparent that his face had been mauled- there were scabby wounds marking it in different directions.
“You’ve been taken too,” he said, turning his tattered countenance to look at them. “Then the children must be dead.”
This sent a rather startled ripple through the domestics in the cages all around, and their heads turned back to look at Mhumhi and Kutta.
“Children?” repeated Mini, defiantly sidestepping a snap from her cagemate.
Mhumhi put his ears back and glanced at Kutta, wondering if this might be information they might not want the domestics to know, but her expression seemed merely tired. He supposed at this point it didn’t really matter.
“They aren’t dead,” he told Biscuit. “Why, has Lamya-”
Biscuit sprang to his feet with a sudden fearsome snarl.
“In the cages counts as dead, wild dog! They’re all dead!”
Kutta gave a startled little whine, for Vimbo had pushed himself up against her, turning his black eyes to the domestic, showing his teeth. The fur on Mhumhi’s back rose.
“Put your teeth away,” he told Biscuit. “Getting upset isn’t going to free anybody.”
Biscuit gave a little grunt, staring now at Vimbo.
“Oh, yes, that hyena!” Mini exclaimed, rearing to put her paws up. She thrust her dainty nose through the chain link. “What’s it doing in there? Why hasn’t it murdered the red dog yet?”
Mhumhi gave her a look, though she seemed quite earnest, even in spite of the ire in the way her conspecifics were all looking at her.
“It’s a tame hyena,” said Kutta, shoving Vimbo away with her shoulder. “Or tame-ish. That’s all.”
“A tame hyena?” exclaimed Mini, her rear end wagging. “Like a domestic hyena? Does it like humans?”
“For supper, no doubt,” someone said snidely.
“Does it belong to one of them- those underground creatures?” asked Biscuit. There was a sort of delicate derision in his tone.
“To the bouda, yes,” said Mhumhi, turning one ear when Vimbo’s head swung around to look at him. “Don’t you like them? They’re human-”
This had an immediate effect on the domestics- there were sharp barks and growls. Several of them even shook themselves, as if to dislodge an offending liquid.
“Those things aren’t human,” Biscuit told them, a trace of his former pretentious manner returning. “They look human, but they are- indeed- beasts like the ones they have with them. They are tainted. Dirty blood. Even if they could breed, we would not let them mix with the real humans-”
“You seem to know quite a lot about them,” Mhumhi pointed out. “Funny you didn’t mention any of this before.”
Biscuit raised his head, letting his eyes grow half-lidded, nearly reminiscent of Hlolwa.
“I couldn’t think of any reason it would help you to know. In truth we domestics would rather them eliminated so that we might lead the true humans down into their warren, where it is safe- but it is quite hard to penetrate.”
Kutta gave a sharp laugh, and he turned his nose towards her.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Well, you. Mhumhi’s been inside, and back again.”
Biscuit pricked his tattered ears at this, as excited murmuring spread through the crowd.
“And? How was it? How d’you get in?”
That was Mini, bouncing a bit against the chain link, her tiny pink tongue showing with her eager smile. In the kennels behind her Biscuit scratched the gate loudly.
“As if we could use that information in here! Wild dog, you are one of them- they won’t kill you, surely- if you escape, you must tell-”
“Don’t assume I’m planning on helping your kind or your masters,” Mhumhi cut in. “And anyway, it doesn’t matter. The warren is not a safe place anymore.”
This gave Biscuit pause, the corners of his lips drawing back in a sort of frightened grimace. Kutta put a paw up on the barrier between them, her eyes wide.
“Mhumhi, what do you mean? Maha and Tareq aren’t-”
“The children will be safe,” said Mhumhi, thinking to himself, if only for the moment. “I’ve made a deal for them. But the police have already begun attacking the bouda at both entrances.”
“No!” cried Kutta, her jaws working. “No! But Maha and Tareq- how will they-”
“I’ve made a deal,” said Mhumhi. He hesitated for just a second, then pitched his voice loud enough for all to hear. “I’ll tell them how to breed the bouda for meat if they spare the children.”
This produced a great deal of confusion and yipping, as he had thought it would. He did not look at any of them, though- he looked at Vimbo, almost a little frightened- as if the hyena would be outraged. But Vimbo was sniffing at a drain in the concrete floor, his black eyes as empty as ever.
Mini got back down on all fours again in front of them.
“Breed them for- for-” she stammered.
“For meat,” said Mhumhi. “But it’s not that you care, is it? Don’t they have dirty blood?”
“That’s quite foul!” yapped Mini, at the same time that Kutta whimpered, “Mhumhi, really?”
He bristled again at this, half turning to her. “Wasn’t it your plan before to-“
“I didn’t mean for them to be treated like livestock!” said Kutta, though her tail was tucked, and he looked away guiltily. “You told the police about the entrances?”
“No! No, Bii did it, and you don’t understand-” He wanted to tell her how he had had no choice, about the looming food shortage, about the way the threat of starvation blanketed justice like a waning moon, but Biscuit cut across him.
“So what? I think this wild dog has done well. The bouda are a hinderance to us; with them out of the way and the warren opened up, the police pressure will ease. I f they keep to their word and do not harm the two children, we even have a male and a female to start breeding again-”
“Stop talking, you monster,” cried Kutta. “They are not to be bred like animals! They are our puppies!”
At that several of the domestics growled, almost jealously, putting their ears back and leveling glares across the runs. Biscuit’s pale eyes flashed, but he seemed to get himself under control.
“If we had time for sentiment,” he said, “we would have sentiment. But we do not. These hulkers in here, they are as good as dead. There are only a handful left in this entire city. Do you understand? They are on the verge of being wiped out. That has been the goal of these infernal police all along. The children do not have a choice; if they do not breed, they doom their very species.”
“I could care less about the species!” Kutta snapped her jaws together and paced in the narrow area in front of her gate. “I care about them! I will not have them managed like-“
“Oh, hush, both of you,” piped up a little voice. Mini had sat down, and now she yawned, curling her tongue. “Stop using fancy words and getting upset all. Don’t you know it’s pointless? We domestics have known for a while the hulkers won’t make it if they don’t inbreed, and that’s bad news- everyone remembers what happened to the less fortunate members of our kind- and really, they’re doomed. And we’re doomed. And the wild dogs will have their huzzah, and then they’ll all up and die when the food runs out. Realistically, everyone’s going to be dead one way or another within the next few years. I don’t see the point of all these pissing contests in the meantime.”
The kennel had got quite quiet during her little speech; Mhumhi thought even the noises from the hulkers encaged a few rows away had gotten softer, as though they were straining to hear her words.
After a moment, Biscuit said, “You’re a disgrace.”
“I could care less what you say, glitter-gaze, as you seem to be in the same situation as the rest of us.”
“I see a point,” said Kutta, raising her tail a bit. “In continuing to fight. Because if it means my family will survive…”
“Well, that’s true,” said Mini, tilting her head. “I suppose it means a lot to have a family. I wouldn’t know. I thought my human was my family, but he went and got himself killed without caring about me. And then I had no one. I really envy you wild dogs, to be honest.” She let out a little sigh. “We domestics are all broken, really, because we’re not made to love our own kind.”
“Shut up, you little-” growled the dog beside her, and she raised one tiny paw.
“You see my point.”
Mhumhi gave a surprised laugh at this, glancing at Kutta. In spite of everything, the little dog had a glint of humor in her eye.
“Which is why I think it’s funny,” she said, “what Pariah did, because she was trying to make you all be like domestics- loving those not of your ilk- but it didn’t quite work, did it?”
“What do you mean?” asked Kutta, but Mhumhi whisked his tail.
“It did work, we do love each other like a family-“
“No, no,” said Mini, “if you were a domestic, you wouldn’t love each other like that, you’d be content to love anybody, especially any human, if the opportunity presented itself. Domestics were made to have their families broken, I think, as it suited the humans. Which is why I’m surprised you took in those two little ones…”
“They’re puppies,” Kutta put in. “Nobody could hate a puppy. It isn’t natural.”
“Hm,” said Mini, and she seemed to cast a look all around her, at the domestics in the cages. There were a few low growls.
“Well, it all really is pointless. Without point.” She shook herself, tottering on her little legs. “If I’m to spend the last few days of my life starving in a little cage, I’d rather not spend it philosophizing. Unless it’s about escape plans. I have been trying to pee in the same spot on the metal for a while, but-”
She paused, cocking her head the other way. Mhumhi turned and looked down the row. There was a quick darting shape moving towards them.
“No,” muttered Kutta, disbelievingly. Mhumhi himself could not speak. In a hundred years of imagining spectres that might come walking down the aisle towards him, he would not have picked this one. But the huge ears and sharp grin were unmistakeable.
“There you are,” said Bii, wagging his fluffy tail a little. “This was much easier than I thought it’d be.”
At their mutual silence, and the near-silence of all the bewildered domestics around them, he tilted his head a little.
“Something wrong? I thought that you would be more pleased to see me-”
“Only,” Kutta said, “if it meant I could drive my teeth through that eggshell you call a skull.”
“Ah,” said Bii, and he sat down in front of their kennel, wrapping his little tail around his paws. “Yes, your resentment is justified. I’d like to explain myself, but there isn’t much time- not if you want to intercept your two puppies.”
They both put their ears forward at this, suddenly very attentive. Bii whuffed.
“I thought that would do it-”
“What’s your game?” growled Mhumhi, starting to go stiff-legged. “You’re trying to get us killed for good, are you?”
“No, not really,” said Bii. “I felt bad for having put you here, in fact.”
“Oh, you felt bad,” said Kutta, too flabbergasted to even sound sarcastic.
“If you had let me take Kebero with me during my investigation, I wouldn’t have had to forcibly separate you from him,” said Bii. “I don’t have a grudge against you, but you must understand my issues with you putting him in danger over a pair of hulker puppies.”
“They’re his family too!” Kutta snapped, banging against the chain-link in frustration. “You’re no right-”
“I don’t know what I do or don’t have the right to do, but I do know that Kebero is a son to me, and I won’t see him killed for stupid reasons,” said Bii, his voice rising a bit uncharacteristically. “You’re free to do as you wish. I mean no harm to you or anyone. But I must have Kebero, and I must have him fed.”
Kutta gave a kind of snort-snarl and looked over at Mhumhi, but Mhumhi was looking closely at Bii.
“You know… you know about the dispensaries.”
“It is no secret,” said Bii. “They’ve begun to fail. One only has to consider what the repercussions will be. I wonder, Mhumhi, have you considered? What is the logical next move for the police to make after the meat and the hulkers are all gone?”
Mhumhi said nothing. Bii’s words circled around in his head, with frightening surety, and he began to see an edge of something- thinking of Hlolwa’s disdain for canine solidarity-
He snapped the thought off at once, before he had seen more than the fearful sharp edge of it.
“I have to protect Kebero,” Bii repeated. “And of course, myself. We must keep those with stronger jaws happy and well-fed, my dears.”
Mhumhi said nothing. Kutta was quiet too, her tail sinking, and he wondered if her mind had come to the awful conclusion that his had started to.
“Now,” said Bii, rising on all fours, “we’ve got a bit of leeway because the female breeder for the pack here is in estrous and she’s off distracting her mate, but I’m not sure how long it will take for one of the guards to get roused up and bother doing his rounds. I mean to show you the way out of here, and-”
“We still don’t know we can trust you,” said Mhumhi. “Honestly, at this point it’s getting a little ridiculous.”
“I can’t argue with you,” said Bii, “but, I think you must be aware that there really isn’t much worse I could do to you at this point- is there?”
“I say let him free us, Mhumhi, we can kill him,” said Kutta, her eyes shining. Bii’s tail seemed to get even fluffier for a moment.
“Oi,” came a voice behind him, “oi, oi, wait a moment. He’s going to let you out?”
Mini had reared up, wagging. “Let me out too, won’t you? Won’t cost you anything!”
Sharp barking spread up and down the row from this, and Bii flattened down his huge ears, cringing.
“No one else is getting out, sorry. Relatives only-”
“No, no, you don’t understand, I can help you!” said Mini, dancing urgently on her hind legs. “You’re getting your children, right? Don’t you want to know where there’s a safe place to keep them?”
“We already know about the house on Silent Street,” said Mhumhi, straining a bit to be heard over all the barking. Kutta gave him a frustrated look.
“Don’t say such things in front of the fox!”
Bii was pawing at his ears and seemed disinclined to care anyway. Mini kept yapping over the others.
“Not there! Outside of the city! There’s a-”
“Shut up, you fool!” snarled Biscuit, slamming against the chain link on the far side. “Not another word!”
“Oh,” said Kutta, her eyes getting round, “interesting. Tell us more.”
“It’s a safe place, well beyond where the wild dogs can go, and I know how to take you there,” said Mini. “And even if I can’t, it’s not as it a little thing like me isn’t a snapped neck away from being quiet, right?” She wagged her rear.
Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a look; Mhumhi thought Kutta’s expression was similar to his own.
“But you’re not the only one in your kennel.”
“Just open the door a tiny bit, I can squeeze out, and then shut it quick,” advised Mini. “I’m only a little Toy, after all.”
The dog beside her was gaping at her.
“Very well,” said Mhumhi, amused in spite of himself. “I think that’s reasonable.”
“I don’t know if that is the best idea, Mhumhi,” said Bii. “I think you ought to be more careful of whom you place your trust in…” He trailed off at the way they looked at him and gave a little chuckle.
“Humor has never been a skill of mine. Very well, the domestic too. As I said, your endeavors are your own. I am resolving myself of guilt, and saving the family of my beloved Kebero. I’ll be leaving after this.”
“And Kebero…?” asked Mhumhi, even though he already knew the answer. Bii gave him a tight little grin.
“I think you realize where he has thrown his lot.”
Kutta gave a displeased little whine. Mhumhi caught her gaze and she shook her head and subsided.
“He’s alive,” he said. “Fine. He doesn’t need us anymore. It’s natural enough.”
“Indeed,” said Bii. He looked down the row and raised his tail a little- a lean figure with a sickly stench was approaching, skulking with something set in his teeth.
“Thank you, my friend,” Bii told the dog, which turned out to be the maned wolf. Mhumhi tilted his head from side to side- it was the very same one that had been using his kennel previously.
“The information,” said the maned wolf, as he opened his jaws and let the thing drop. It was the little plastic stub- the kennel key.
“When we are outside, I will give it to you,” said Bii. “Now, I will tell you which doors to unlock.”