The sun was rising as they loped through the inner city. Mhumhi noticed this, and then realized in a bleary way that it had been going down when they had been captured in Oldtown. That meant that they had been in captivity the entire night. It also meant that the night had held no sleep for them, and that it marked the second day since he had eaten. He was not sure about Kutta. Or Mini. Did they even feed the captives in the kennel?
He slowed his pace a little and cast a subtle glance back at Mini. Though she was supposed to be leading them, the little domestic kept falling behind, her little legs moving double-time to try and keep up. She was panting in a rather painful-sounding way.
“Should we take a rest?” he asked the air. Kutta pressed her jaws together, saying nothing.
“I’m all right,” Mini wheezed. Ahead of them, Vimbo turned around and trotted back to them, having gone on a little further before he had realized they were stopping. His black eyes seemed to fix on Mini. Mhumhi took a tactical step sideways to block his view.
“Let’s take a short rest,” he said, more firmly. Kutta might not like it, but if Mini’s little heart burst they would be in much deeper trouble.
Kutta gave a soft little huff through her nose and looked around. “Fine; let’s go in there,” she said, jerking her muzzle towards a little awning.
The street they were on was rather narrow, with buildings clustered close all around. Some were shorter here than the vast towering monoliths that clustered around the Great Glass Garden. The squat things nevertheless had a bit of flair of their own, with bright neon lights that were just fading away as the sun rose.
Kutta had been indicating one such building, tacked onto the front of a much larger one, with doors of clear glass under a faded, fluttering awning. There were little lights wound around the poles that held it up.
“Let’s be sure to check inside carefully first,” said Mhumhi. Kutta responded with a grunt of agreement and went to trot up the three steps to the doors.
With a bit of effort they got the doors open, gripping the handles sideways in their jaws, and let Mini and Vimbo trot through, the latter ducking his head and giving them the benefit of his hyena grin as he passed. Mhumhi reminded himself not to have his back to him.
He and Kutta slipped in behind, letting the doors shut behind them. The immediate interior of the building seemed to be a sort of plush-carpeted hallway, with walls lined with large hulker images. Mhumhi was glad he’d been exposed to them in the trolley, so he only jumped a little when a few of them stuttered to a start. Most of them seemed to be broken, wither showing the same, flickering image, or entirely dark.
“Ah,” said Mini, as though she had realized something.
“What is it?”
“It’s nothing. I know what this place is,” she explained. “Passed it a few times but never gone in before. It’s a theater.”
“What’s that, then?” asked Kutta, sniffing warily. Mhumhi joined her. He could smell no strange dog-scent at all, which was a relief, but there was something else… Kutta glanced at him. There was a very old scent of hulker here.
“I dunno how to explain it,” said Mini. During their joint inspection she had laid down on the carpet, her tongue curled at the tip as she panted. “It’s sort of a… place where humans come to look at moving pictures for a long time.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi. “Like these ones?”
“This is only the lobby,” said Mini. “The theaters must be behind some of those doors on either side of the ticket booth. They’ve got much larger players.”
Mhumhi debated on asking what lobbies, ticket booths, and players were, then let it lie. He was tired enough as it was. Kutta, however, was turning her head from side to side with curiosity.
“I suppose it must be very interesting for them to come out and look at these moving things at first,” she said. “But wouldn’t they get bored looking at the same things over and over again?”
“Oh, these ones are just advertisements,” said Mini. “The ones they play in the theater are longer, and they’ve got stories.”
“What’s an advertisement?”
“Shows you where to get something,” said Mini, yawning. She put her head down on the carpet. Mhumhi glanced out the glass doors, checking to be sure the street was still clear, then lay down a few feet away from her.
Kutta and Vimbo stayed on their feet. Kutta went around to the moving pictures, her eyes bright and her ears pricked, and Vimbo snuffled deeply at the carpet and wandered down one end of the hallway.
“Don’t let him wander off,” said Mhumhi, raising his head, but Kutta ignored him, engrossed as she was in one particular screen.
“Mini,” she called. “Can you understand what they’re saying in this one?”
Mini got to her feet and shook herself, then walked to stand beside Kutta. Mhumhi rolled over and laid on his side for a few moments before sighing and walking over to join them.
The image they were looking at had a queer patch of discoloration in one corner, but otherwise seemed to be in decent working order. As Mhumhi approached, it flickered back to the start.
The image was of a white domestic with floppy ears. It ran up to a small hulker puppy and licked its face. The hulker let out a giggle and said something in its high voice, throwing its arms around the dog’s neck. The dog pressed its head against the hulker’s shoulder and opened its mouth and replied with the same words.
The little hulker handed the dog a handful of something and the dog gulped it down. The images of the pair grew fuzzy and white lines came across the screen, as an adult hulker spoke from somewhere unseen. Then the image flickered and started over.
“What did they say?” Kutta demanded, looking at Mini.
“Er,” said Mini. “The sound’s a little messed up, but…” She looked up at Kutta’s expectant face. “Well, the little boy said, ‘I love you,’ and the dog said ‘I love you’ back.”
Mhumhi looked back up at the screen. The child and the dog were embracing again, parroting one another in the language he did not speak.
“And then it said something about buying such and such brand of dog food,” added Mini.
“Dog food?” Kutta repeated. “You mean, this advertisement is telling us where we can find food for dogs? Where does it say? Is it nearby?”
“Er,” said Mini, again. “No, you don’t understand. It’s an old advertisement, it doesn’t mean anything now. All that food’s been eaten a long time ago.”
“Oh,” said Kutta, glancing down at the rug. Almost at once her eyes flicked back up. “The longer ones you mentioned- the ones with stories- where can we watch those?”
“Er,” said Mini, and Mhumhi butted in.
“Kutta, if you haven’t forgotten, we’re not here to play around.”
“I know that,” she replied, a tad quickly. “I only thought, while everyone rests…” She paused.
“Where is Vimbo?”
Mhumhi looked behind himself. Vimbo had vanished from sight.
“I said we shouldn’t let him wander off…” He got to his feet and trotted around the corner to the other end of the hallway, where there were several closed doors, and no hyena.
“This one’s opened a crack,” Kutta noted, sniffing along the bottom of one. “He went through here.”
Mhumhi reared up and helped her pull it open. Inside was a pitch-dark room that felt vast by the way cool air was flowing across Mhumhi’s fur.
They both lingered near the door, wary of penetrating the yawning darkness. Kutta stepped a bit closer to him, a brush of warmth.
“Maybe…” He heard her lick her lips. “Maybe it’s time we leave him, anyway.”
Mhumhi said nothing. Before him lay a black abyss which held a hyena he did not fully trust; of course it would be smarter to turn back.
Suddenly beams of light penetrated the darkness. Mhumhi flinched and squinted, and Kutta let out a whine.
The room was lit up, and Mhumhi realized it was shaped very odd, like a tall slope with rows and rows of what seemed like chairs down it, except they were all stuck together. They all faced a blank black wall.
Trotting towards them down one row was Vimbo. His paws raised up whirling motes of dust into the beams of light coming down from the ceiling.
“Where’d the light come from?” Mhumhi asked, still blinking rapidly to let his eyes recover. “A switch?”
“I didn’t pull one,” said Kutta. “Mini…?”
They glanced behind themselves. The domestic had not entered the theater with them.
Vimbo came lose, lowering his rump and keening, raising a leg to present himself for Kutta to sniff. She was distracted enough that she actually bent her head and gave him a cursory examination.
“Must be automatic,” said Mhumhi, watching the pair of them. “Like the doors at the store where the wolves lived.”
“Hm,” said Kutta, leaning away from Vimbo, drawing her lips back as though she had just realized what she’d done.
Vimbo looked at Mhumhi and opened his mouth, flattening his ears against his skull. Mhumhi turned an ear and looked away.
From the other side of the door, they heard Mini start to bark shrilly.
“Oi! Oi, you wild dogs! Hurry!”
Kutta ran forward and shoved the door open with her shoulder, letting Mhumhi and Vimbo run through. Outside Mini was yapping and circling in a frenzy.
“What, what is it!” Mhumhi shouted, putting his ears back. The little dog seemed too worked up to even speak anymore.
Kutta ran forward, ears pricked and nose quivering, then ran back and bit Mini on the ear.
Mini whined and rolled over, kicking her legs and quivering. Mhumhi felt a tad concerned, but there was urgency in Kutta’s eyes.
“I hear something,” she hissed. “Listen to that…”
Mhumhi focused his ears, and indeed, he could hear something approaching. It was not an animal, but a low, grinding thrum.
“We know that sound,” said Kutta. “And so does he.”
Mhumhi looked to where she was indicating, at Vimbo. Indeed the hyena had his rounded ears trained forward, and his moist nose twitched. His eyes seemed to glint.
“A car,” said Mhumhi, slowly. “A car that’s moving…”
Mini managed to roll herself over, panting again. “You lot know about cars? That they move?”
“Of course cars can move,” snapped Kutta. “Don’t be silly. What I want to know is who’s riding inside this one.”
“I’ll bet Vimbo knows,” said Mhumhi, and the hyena glanced at him. “Don’t you?”
As usual there was no sign of understanding in the empty black eyes. Vimbo did seem rather agitated, however, in a way not consistent with his usual submissive demeanor: he was hunching and grunting and twitching his lips.
“If we stay in here, out of sight,” said Kutta, “they should pass right by us. Don’t anybody move or make a sound.” She cast her yellow eyes on Mini, and the little dog clamped her jaws shut, though she still quivered a bit.
They all stood together by the set of doors, tensed. The glass door that would have afforded them a view was out of sight around the corner, so they had no way of seeing outside, but they could all hear the thrumming rumble of the engine getting closer, and the rubber tires scraping the asphalt as they turned. The car seemed to be moving very slowly. It came closer- closer- closer- and then it passed them.
Mhumhi breathed an audible sigh of relief. But it was premature. They heard the car grind to a sudden halt. Then the thrumming engine began to get closer again.
“They can’t hear us, can they?” Kutta whispered. Mhumhi could hear her heart pounding. “How could they-?”
“It’s him,” breathed Mhumhi. “It’s got to be Vimbo. Don’t you remember your original plan…?”
“Oh,” moaned Kutta. “Oh, they’re tracking him…”
They all looked at Vimbo, Mini with apparent confusion.
“We’ve got to get rid of him,” said Kutta. “Back into the big room- then shut him out?”
It was a feeble-sounding plan, but it was what they had for the moment. Outside they heard the engine stop and the th-thunk of a car door opening.
Mhumhi reared up and managed to get his nose in between the door and the wall again, ferreting his head inside so he could nudge the weighted thing open with his shoulder. Vimbo’s cold nose bumped his rear as he did so.
“Get back, Vimbo,” said Kutta, letting go of a low growl, and the hyena stepped away from them. “Hurry up, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi manage to push the door wide enough to get through, and Kutta stepped forward. Right away Vimbo shoved past them and ran into the theater again, his clownish face looking expectant.
“Piss and scat!” moaned Kutta.
“Shut the door on him!” cried Mini, her voice rather loud again. “Follow me, follow me!”
Mhumhi sprang away from the door and it swung closed, cutting off Vimbo’s sudden whine.
“He’ll just push through in a moment,” he panted.
“Follow me,” Mini insisted, and she dashed back around the corner where there was a window Mhumhi hadn’t paid attention to before. Mini jumped up to a low metal counter beneath it and squeezed through a narrow depression. She jumped down from the other side, vanishing from their view. Mhumhi danced a little with his front paws, uncertain and anxious, and then there was a clink. A portion of the wall swung open before them.
“In here,” said Mini, a yap bursting forth from her. “It’s the ticket booth!”
“Very good, but shut up,” said Kutta, pushing past her and inside. Mhumhi wasted no time in following. Mini pushed the door shut behind them with her head.
It was cramped inside the ticket booth, with barely space for a small chair, let alone three dogs. Mini hopped up onto the chair, being small enough that her head wouldn’t show over the counter, and watched as Kutta and Mhumhi tried to arrange themselves around it.
“Don’t you dare bark,” Kutta reminded her in a breathless whisper, crouching on the sticky floor below the counter. They could hear hulker footsteps moving closer to the class doors.
Mini flattened her ears and said nothing. Mhumhi, on the other side of the chair, could see the ceiling through the glass window and nothing else from the angle he was at. He heard the glass door open and one… two hulkers enter. Their treads made them sound like adults. His eyes flickered nervously past the cash register and ancient coffee cup still seated on the counter.
One of the hulkers spoke. Mhumhi’s ears pricked; he recognized the voice. It was Pepukai, Vimbo’s grandmother.
He did not understand the words, but there was something urgent in the murmur. Her mate replied.
Suddenly there came a familiar keening whine. Pepukai’s voice seemed to catch.
They heard him walk forward, whining, and Pepukai ran to him. For a moment neither of them made a sound, there was just rustling, and the sound of Vimbo’s paws moving.
Pepukai said something else, voice wobbly. On the chair, Mini’s triangular ears pricked, and she started to raise her head. Mhumhi gave his muzzle a warning jerk and she froze.
Pepukai was saying something else, sounding more steady, but Vimbo was now making more of those grunts, and he giggled, and they heard his paws backing away.
“Vimbo!” Pepukai called, but Vimbo had moved further away, and now they heard his heavy snuffling nose seeking outside the door to the ticket booth. His claws scratched at the bottom, and he keened.
Kutta raised her lip, and Mhumhi felt much the same sentiment.
They heard Pepukai fumbling around on the wall until her fingers seemed to catch on something, and were quite helpless when she swung open the door and saw all three of them crouching within.
Pepukai screamed and sprang back, fumbling for something at her hip. Vimbo gave a yowl and shoved her over on her backside.
Quite by instinct Mhumhi ran out of the cramped booth, chest heaving as he panted, and looked around. A few feet away, Pepukai’s mate was still standing, seeming rather stunned. In her hand she held an object Mhumhi recognized: a metal catch-pole. With a growl he sprang at her and wrestled it out over her hand.
Behind him Kutta also darted out, eyes roving wildly. Both hulkers seemed more or less incapacitated- Pepukai on the floor, and her mate cringing- and Mhumhi felt wary of starting a fight he was not completely sure they could come out of unscathed.
“Mini!” he called. “Can you speak with them?”
Mini jumped down from the chair, leaving it spinning, and stood next to him with her ears pressed back into her thick fur.
“I haven’t spoken to a hulker in ages!”
“Can you or can you not?” Mhumhi barked.
“All right, all right!” Mini sneezed with frustration, and than said a few sharp words in the hulker tongue. The hulkers both seemed rather alarmed by this. Pepukai gave a little scream, putting her hands to her mouth.
“What did you even say?” cried Kutta.
“I- I only said hello, and that we were friendly dogs,” stammered Mini.
“I don’t think they believe you,” said Mhumhi. Pepukai’s hands were still over her mouth, her wide eyes staring at them.
“Tell them they’re free to take the hyena and leave in peace,” said Mhumhi, figuring it was their best shot at letting the whole matter end peaceably. Mini started to talk again, but Pepukai’s mate talked over her.
“She wants to know if you’re the- er- ‘same’ dog. I dunno what that means.”
“Tell her yes,” said Mhumhi, figuring there was little point in putting up a pretense.
Mini relayed this, and Pepukai dropped her hands from her mouth. Now she simply looked angry, and she snapped something out, drawing her legs up underneath her.
“She says- oh, my- she says you’re the one that stole Vimbo!”
“I did not steal him!” exclaimed Mhumhi, flabbergasted. “He followed me! I couldn’t get rid of his stupid self!”
“Oh, dear,” said Mini, and her rear gave a little wag. “I’ll tell her- wait a minute.”
Pepukai had pulled something out of her pocket. Vimbo’s eyes followed it, but he made no move to strike it out of her hand, as he had done with the other metal thing she’d been reaching for. Mhumhi decided to allow it- warily.
Pepukai fiddled with the thing a moment, fingers jabbing swiftly at the surface, and then she spoke something at it.
“She says-” Mini began to translate, and then all three dogs jumped, for the little metal thing began to speak in a halting voice. In dog.
Mhumhi flattened his ears, entirely unnerved, and Kutta stepped a bit closer to him. Mini’s eyes got rounder and brighter.
“Oh, look at that! It’s doing my work for me!”
“What?” Mhumhi said, but then stopped, because the machine was talking again, this time in the hulker language.
“It’s saying what I said in their speech,” said Mini, “and it said what she said in our speech. Very useful!”
Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a wary look. Mhumhi was finding that there was little that could surprise him anymore in terms of what hulkers were capable of.
The little machine, meanwhile, was still repeating Mini’s words. Pepukai frowned and fiddled with it a bit, and the mechanical voice halted.
Mhumhi glanced from side to side, then stepped forward. Pepukai looked up from the machine at him, her eyes betraying a new flash of fear.
Feeling foolish, Mhumhi said, “Can you understand us now?”
A little voice came obediently out of the machine after he spoke. Pepukai frowned.
“Yes,” said the machine.
Mhumhi was getting a peculiar sense of deja-vu from it all. He shook it off. “We don’t mean you any harm,” he said. “Just leave us alone.”
Pepukai’s frown deepened, furrowing her cheeks.
“You-lie, you-attack-Jabulile, you-take-Vimbo.”
“What? No,” Mhumhi said hastily. “I did not attack Jabulile! He thought so, but-” He paused, as the machine was trying its best to translate all that. “I wasn’t the one that bit him. Vimbo did. I pulled him off.”
The machine took a minute to work through all this. Pepukai pulled her eyebrows down and looked over at him, away from the screen. Vimbo was staring at him too.
“Why-Vimbo-would-attack-Jabulile? Makes-no-sense. They-know-each-other.”
Vimbo grunted and put his head down. Mhumhi turned a nervous ear towards him, but kept his gaze on Pepukai.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was because he showed his neck to him. He is an animal, after all.”
When this hit, Pepukai’s cheeks seemed to darken even more and she spat something at the machine.
“He’s a hyena,” Mhumhi said, beginning to feel irritated. “He can’t think the way we do- he’s got his instincts, and he can’t be expected to control-“
The machine hadn’t finished translating when Pepukai cut over him.
“Vimbo,” said Pepukai, enunciating to the machine, “is not a hyena. He is a bouda.”