The hotel was burning merrily when Mhumhi glimpsed it again between two streets- a distant flickering blaze. They had paused to rest in front of the building with the yellow stripes, which thankfully had not taken them much time at all to reach. There was a large metal statue of a dog in front of the building, and he had climbed up to stand on the high vantage point on its back.
“Anyone following?” asked Kutta, looking up from where she was sitting by the statue’s massive paws. She was still wearing her harness, as Mhumhi was wearing his- Mini had convinced them all to keep them on, pointing out that it would be much easier to transfer between walking and pulling the cart without having to strap in. As usual, her words made a good deal of sense. Mhumhi just didn’t like the unpleasant reminder of the straps as they rubbed against his fur.
“I don’t see anybody,” said Mhumhi. Indeed, the city beyond looked deserted- the blazing beacon of the hotel was the only sign of movement. He supposed it had deterred the painted dogs after all. He was rather deterred, traveling with such a little pyromaniac.
The hot wind that was blowing was making the inside of his nose dry and sore, making it hard to detect any scent. The metal he was standing on was quite uncomfortable for his paws, too. He hopped down, panting.
“D’you think there’s any water nearby?”
Mini, sitting with the puppies in the shaded cart, piped up. “I know of a place where we can get some water after this. We’ll need it, if we mean to get out of the city.”
“Right,” said Mhumhi, swallowing, feeling his dry throat stick together. He was still quite uneasy about the whole leaving the city issue. “And how long will ‘this’ take?”
“A minute or too,” said Mini, and she leapt lightly down from the cart. “It’s been a long time since I used a computer.” She trotted over towards the building’s glass doors, sniffing.
Mhumhi eyed her a moment, then trotted to rear up and look at Maha and Tareq. Tareq seemed sleepy, curled up beside Maha with his eyes half-lidded. Maha’s eyes were open and hazy.
Mhumhi shifted to gently lick her cheek, and she flinched. Her bite wounds were swelling up, looking horribly sore. Her skin tasted salty with sweat.
“How is your arm?” he asked her, softly.
“I ‘unno,” she said.
“Do you think you can walk a little?”
He stopped himself from licking her again, trying to bite down on his own feeling of trepidation.
“I’m hungry,” Tareq piped up. “And thirsty.”
“We’ll get water for everyone soon. Mini says so.”
“I like Mini,” Tareq informed him, making Mhumhi narrow his eyes slightly.
“Can they get inside the building?” asked Kutta, who had come up beside him. “Can Maha make it?”
Mhumhi glanced at her wordlessly, and she furrowed her brow and swallowed.
“We can’t very well leave them out here… it’s so exposed…”
“There’s a parking garage around the side,” said Mini, trotting back over to them. “We can hide the cart, and it’ll be cooler for the children.”
“But we can’t just leave them alone,” said Kutta.
“You lot stay with them, then,” Mini replied. “I told you, I just need to go check something.”
“You can’t go alone,” said Mhumhi, and when Mini looked sharply up at him, added, “You can’t protect yourself either, remember?”
“True,” she admitted, looking down at her small paws, “though I don’t think we’ll meet anybody dangerous in there. The painted dogs don’t know the significance.”
“The bouda do,” Mhumhi pointed out. “They’ve been trying to get in there for forever, and I bet the police have picked up on that. I bet the only reason it wasn’t guarded is because most of the dogs are out on the raid. We don’t know what we might find in there…”
“Fine, fine, you win!” exclaimed Mini, sneezing with annoyance. “I just want to get it done quickly.”
Kutta brushed up against Mhumhi so they could share a look. Mhumhi said, “Let’s get hooked back in so we can move the cart, then. Where’s Vimbo?”
Nobody had to answer that, for at the sound of his name the hulking form of the hyena emerged from behind the cart, the rings on his harness jingling slightly. Tareq gave a little whine at the sight of him.
They managed to convince him to get out and help hook them all back in, and then they took Mini’s directions around the building to a low-slung parking garage, all quiet concrete and echoes. It was cool and dark within, with a few caged lights dimly illuminating rows of rusting cars and what Mhumhi thought might be a few more empty dog-carts.
In the gloom they found what Mhumhi recognized to be the shiny silver doors of an elevator. Mini leapt out of the cart again to sniff at them.
“This should take us up and inside,” she said.
“Tareq, help us out of the cart again,” Kutta called, panting. Mhumhi put his head up over Vimbo’s shoulder- she looked weary, and who could blame her. They had been moving nonstop for a some time with little rest and no food. Mhumhi himself felt an exhaustion threatening to creep up on him the moment he held still long enough.
“I don’ wanna,” said Tareq, from within the confines of the cart. Mini walked around and yapped at him.
“Come on, come on, do as we say!”
Tareq sniffled and got out, jerking angrily at their harnesses as he freed them. Kutta tried to lick his swollen cheeks, but he covered his face with his hands.
“Right, well, you can deal with that here,” said Mini, giving a loud sniff. “Come on, round-ears, let’s go have a look inside.”
“You never told me exactly what this building was,” Mhumhi pointed out, glancing at the closed silver doors.
“It’s a sort of records-keeping place,” said Mini. “I don’t expect you to understand it, but the humans have a way of keeping words so that they can talk to you later-”
“I do understand that. It’s writing, isn’t it?” said Mhumhi, sticking out his chest a bit. “I know about writing.”
Mini gave him one of her pop-eyed looks. “O-k, well, there’s lot’s of that in here, and I know how to get at it. It should tell me how to get to the safe place.”
“Oh, then let’s go get it,” said Mhumhi, wagging his tail a little. trying to maintain the image that he knew exactly what was going on.
Mini gave another little sneeze, perhaps a derisive one, and then went over to the elevator and sat down underneath the doors.
The hyena lurched to his feet and walked over to her, bobbing his head. Mini tilted her nose upwards, pointing at the buttons, and said something to him in hulker.
Mhumhi watched, bemused, as Vimbo surged upwards to jab at the buttons with his nose, then dropped down again, keening and flattening his ears. She had certainly got him under her spell.
Mhumhi looked back at once, ears rotating forward. That had been Maha. She had struggled to sit up in the cart and was now frowning at him.
Mhumhi went to her, tail wagging, but stopped when she asked, “You’re leaving?”
“Just for a moment,” he said, and went and put his paws up on the side of the cart to nose at her. “We’re trying to find a place where we can all live together.”
Maha frowned again. The expression seemed painful on her swollen face, and Mhumhi licked the air, wishing he could ease her pain.
“You didn’t want to live together in the- in the place with all the hyenas.”
He felt like flinching. “I made a stupid mistake. I thought I could come back for you.” I thought you were safe. I was frightened for myself. Those words he was afraid to add.
Even bleary and bloodshot as they were, Maha’s eyes still had that sharp glint to them, and he felt uncomfortable when they flicked over him. There seemed to be words at the tip of her tongue- and then she seemed to change her mind.
“I tried to talk to the police when they came for us,” she said.
Mhumhi was not sure what to say, so he kept silent. Maha seemed to have recovered a bit of strength, and she kept talking.
“‘Cause when they started chasing the car, that Pepukai tried to run them all down, and she hit one with a- a bullet-shooter thing and it died. Tareq cried, which was dumb, cause they wanted to eat us.”
She scowled, or tried to.
“And then- Pepukai took the body and us and put us in that room and left- and then they came back- and they broke the door and got around us. And-”
She broke off, her chest rising and falling. Mhumhi gave a little whine, shifting his paws where they hung over the side.
“You don’t have to tell me about it!”
“No, listen,” said Maha, a bit raspily. “Cause I tried to talk to them. Cause I thought, Pepukai killed one and it’s in the bathtub, so no wonder they’re mad… and I tried to talk to them. And I said…”
Tareq, who had before been listening quietly, suddenly clapped his hands over his ears.
“I said, Don’t hurt me. I’m a dog. I’m a painted dog too. I’m like you.”
“You are,” Mhumhi burst in, “you are a dog, you are-”
“It was strange, though,” said Maha, and she sniffed. “Cause before that, they were just circling an’ trying to herd us. But after I said that one came up and bit my face.”
I’ll kill him, thought Mhumhi at once, and then thought, but he might be dead already, if he’s the one I killed. That made him feel unpleasant and strange.
“Mhumhi,” said Maha, “Mhumhi, it’s like when the little dogs went up and bit us, cause I said that… cause I said that we were dogs. It makes ‘em… it makes ‘em angry, doesn’t it?”
Mhumhi felt even more uncomfortable when she said this, and he could not really think of anything good to respond with, so he said, “They are just jealous of you.”
He saw from Maha’s eyes that it was not quite the right thing to say, and he turned the words over in his mind- maybe they were a little bit true, but mostly false.
“Mhumhi,” Mini yapped. Vimbo was standing half in and out of the elevator, which had opened, though the doors kept sliding forward and threatening to shut on his spotted pelt.
He turned back to Maha, loathe to leave her, but she had closed her eyes.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. She did not move. “Kutta will be with you. I’ll be right back.”
Maha spoke without opening her eyes.
“I’m tired right now, but soon as I feel better I’m going to be really mad at you, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi whined as he got down, slinking towards Mini. The little dog said nothing, only stared at him a moment, then turned and said something to Vimbo. The hyena stepped backwards out from between the doors, giving out little grunts.
The elevator shut away the sight of Kutta, Vimbo, Maha, and Tareq. Mhumhi licked his lips and sat down.
“I didn’t know a wild dog could love a human,” said Mini, as they rose upwards.
Mhumhi looked at her, feeling an itch of irritation. “Why do you think we were looking for them, then?”
“I don’t mean that kind of love,” Mini said, “not like, the sort of love for puppies. I mean the sort of love I felt for my man. A domestic’s love.”
When Mhumhi bristled at this, she said, “It’s not an insult, you know. And it’s not demeaning, because I can see you bursting to say that, It’s sort of… you pick a human, and you love it.”
“Didn’t you say before,” said Mhumhi, “that a domestic had to love many different humans? How’s that so special?”
“Yes, you’re right,” Mini admitted, shifting her feet. “But it is still very strange… Because you don’t always know them. They’re not a part of your family. But after you meet them, you love them so much… Look, you for that girl- you’ve got it bad, you know.”
Mhumhi did sort of know, in a level in his brain he preferred not to acknowledge.
“She’s a puppy,” he said. “You can’t not love a puppy.”
“She won’t be a puppy forever,” Mini pointed out.
“I’ll always be older than her,” said Mhumhi. “So she will be a puppy forever.”
Mini gave a little snort and wagged her tail.
“I suppose that’s a way of seeing it.”
They let the subject drop, watching the buttons on the inside of the elevator light up in tandem with their upward movement. Mhumhi was surprised to feel how companionable the silence felt. He had been beginning to suspect that the little domestic was insufferable as well as surprisingly dangerous, but perhaps it was not so. She could be quite easy to get along with.
The silver doors slid open, revealing a pitch-black room beyond. Mini trotted in without hesitation, her little black shape being more or less swallowed up by the darkness at once.
“Mhumhi,” came her voice, a moment later. “Help me find the light switch.”
Mhumhi lowered his head and stepped nervously out of the elevator. The room felt large and airy, and he could not quite make sense of the interior- it seemed that there were many obstacles within, dampening sound echoes. He wondered at the human tendency to build tall things in rows.
The elevator doors slid shut automatically behind him, and Mhumhi turned around rather despairingly. That had cut off the last little bit of light- now he was bumping around in total darkness.
“Ah,” he heard Mini’s voice say, just before there came an alarmingly loud clatter.
“Are you all right?” he called, rotating his ears to try and get a lock on her.
“Yes, yes,” she said. “I just realized that we don’t have to look for it. This is a modern building.” She added a few words in hulker language.
Mhumhi was about to ask just who she was using that for when the lights all came on at once in a dazzling blast of white. He flinched mightily and rubbed his smarting eyes with his forepaw.
“Oh, sorry, sorry, should have warned you,” yapped Mini. He lowered his paw and squinted upwards to see her sitting on what looked like a desk a few feet away. The room, lit up, seemed to have a lot of these desks, some even boxed up in partitions that blocked the others from view. On the desks there seemed to be screens.
“Well,” said Mini, “I said this was a modern building, but it’s more an old idea that’s well kept-up.”
“What old idea?” said Mhumhi, still a bit sore. “Invisible light switches.”
“That’s a voice-activated switch, Mhumhi,” she said gently. “And no. I mean the whole having a database you can visit physically. We’re in what they call a library.”
Mhumhi looked around himself at all the boxed desks with all the screens, and gave up on even feigning the knowledge of what she was talking about.
“And what is a database? And a library?”
“I told you before,” said Mini, rising to her feet. “It’s a place where they keep records of things they don’t want to forget. The problem is that I don’t know when they would have stopped being able to keep records…”
“Problem?” repeated Mhumhi. “You never mentioned this problem before.”
“I mean, I don’t think it should be a problem for our purposes,” Mini said hastily. “I was curious about a few other things as well that happened later. But I think the records of where the safe place is should be solidly in there. I know it was something humans were planning for a long time before they built it.”
Mhumhi gave a little grunt. “What other things were you trying to find out?”
“Well,” said Mini. There was a pause, in which she turned her gaze down to the desk a moment, then back up at him again.
“You see,” she began. “A lot of the humans have been trying to get into this building. To look at the records, you know. And my hulker and I, we did it before. We worked hard and we did it. He was so happy…” She trailed off a moment, then shook herself. “Anyway, I was supposed to stand outside and keep watch. It was quite dangerous then. And he went in to find out about the safe place, and about what- you know, what all went wrong.”
“What went wrong,” Mhumhi repeated. “You mean, for them.”
“Among other things,” Mini said, her white teeth flashing a moment as she spoke. “And I suppose he did find out, because he came and put me under his arm and we went home together. And-”
“And…?” Mhumhi prompted, after she had been quiet for a little while.
“And then he went and blew himself up right afterwards.”