Less fire, more boom.
“You mean to tell me, Mini,” Mhumhi said, feeling very patient, “that when your hulker got this information- this information about this safe place we’re trying to get to- it made him light himself on fire? Like in the hotel?”
“Less fire, more boom,” said Mini, “but yes, essentially. I really wish he hadn’t.”
Mhumhi closed his eyes a moment.
“Doesn’t that suggest that the safe place isn’t actually safe at all?”
“No, no,” said Mini, wagging her tail in a worried way. “He told me that it was all right. I really do think that it is safe. There was just something about it that he found upsetting, that’s all.”
Mhumhi sighed through his nose. He was beginning to get the feeling, even as Mini made little placating noises from on top of the desk, that he and Kutta had been used.
“Find out where it is,” he said. “And maybe find out what it is, so we don’t have any more nasty surprises.”
“Oh yes, oh yes, of course,” Mini said, wiggling submissively. “And then everything will be all right. You just stay down on the floor there, I’ll do the work.”
Mhumhi gave another little sigh and laid down on the cool floor, tucking one paw under, noting that he really didn’t have much of a choice.
Mini turned back around and jabbed both her paws downwards onto a large switch in front of the monitor. There was a loud humming noise that made Mhumhi prick his ears and shift nervously. Mini said something in hulker, and sat back, panting.
The humming increased, and a high-pitched tone played, eliciting a whine from Mhumhi, who was beginning to feel somewhat nervous. The monitors in the room all flickered and suddenly lit with pale blue light.
Mini yapped out another command. White spots began to appear on the blueness of each monitor in tandem, then gleaming white grew and engulfed them.
“What’s going on?” Mhumhi asked, swallowing. Black lines were appearing on the whiteness.
“Hush a moment,” said Mini, panting. “I can’t read- I’ve got to figure out a way for it to speak it to me.” She yapped a few commands, and the monitors made a few flickering changes to their screens.
“Is it like Pepukai’s machine?” Mhumhi piped up again.
“Yes, sort of,” said Mini, turning one ear back to him. “Except it’s got to translate what it says in the writing. I just can’t think of the right command- ah, wait!” She said something else, wagging her tail.
The white suddenly receded on the monitors, making them blue again, and large blocks of text suddenly appeared on them. A chorus of voices suddenly began speaking, and Mhumhi scrambled up into a seated position, flattening his ears.
“I didn’t mean for them all to speak at once,” said Mini, flinching. The voices were still speaking, as the monitors highlighted the blocks of letters in time with them. They were all the exact same voice, Mhumhi realized, which did not make him feel a whole lot more comfortable.
Mini waited for a moment, until the voices quieted down again, and then said something else. The voices flared up again.
“What are they-”
“Hush now!” snapped Mini, her ears and body straining forward. “I need to listen!”
Mhumhi clamped his jaws shut. Mini continued to question the machines in rapid hulker, quivering a little each time they answered her in an abrupt chorus. Mhumhi swallowed. She really was having a conversation with these- with these things, even though he knew that in all the metal and plastic that formed them there was nothing alive, no body. Ages ago some hulker had put these voices inside them. It was as if Mini was talking to the dead.
At length the voices snapped off into silence and Mini turned to look at him again.
“I’m in,” she said.
“In?” Mhumhi repeated. “In what?”
“In the place where I can get the information.”
“But we haven’t moved,” Mhumhi pointed out.
“I mean inside the computer,” said Mini, and then, seeing the way Mhumhi was peering dubiously at the monitors, she seemed to give up. “Never mind. Look, now we can ask them any question and they’ll answer us.”
“Oh!” said Mhumhi, springing up. “Then ask them where the safe place is!”
“I- well, it is a little bit more complicated than that,” Mini admitted.
“So they can’t answer any question after all?”
“No! I mean, you have to know the right words. The humans aren’t going to call the safe place the safe place. I have to figure out how they would have referred to it before I can ask were it is, otherwise the computer won’t understand the question.”
“So they can’t answer any question after all,” repeated Mhumhi, and Mini slitted her eyes.
“You sit still,” she said. “I’m going to have to shift through-”
“Can’t you make it so I can talk to them too?” Mhumhi interrupted. “Like Pepukai’s machine could?”
Mini sneezed. “It doesn’t work like Pepukai’s machine, I’m telling you. It’s much more powerful-“
“If it’s so much more powerful, why can’t it do what her machine did?”
Mini paused a moment, then said, “I guess I can check the languages it has. No telling if there’ll be Dog in them, but…”
She turned and spoke to the machine, and several things scrolled over the screen as she squinted at them. The voices spoke at length.
“Oh, there,” said Mini, wagging her tail. “Well- that’s sort of strange. It calls it something else, but I think it mentions Dog here!”
“Then tell it to talk in Dog!” cried Mhumhi, bouncing on his forepaws.
“I’m not sure it can,” Mini said. “Here what it was telling me. It says that Dog- well, it calls it ‘Common Canine’- is a primitive language developed by a large group of speech-capable IntelliDogs for-” She paused. “Hm.”
“What, what is it?”
“Well,” said Mini, “I suppose it makes sense… It says that Dog is discouraged by dog owners because the sounds are harder for humans to make. And that there was a law about things not being written or recorded in Dog… So the computer can’t speak in Dog.”
“What?” Mhumhi fell still. “What does- what’s a law?”
“Like a rule,” explained Mini.
“A rule?” Mhumhi put his ears back for a moment. “I suppose the dogs didn’t care either way. Bits of words in machines…”
“Oh, round-ears,” said Mini. “I can’t figure out if you’re stupid or smart. Was that a joke? You think that there’s anything in this world more vital than information?” She snapped her jaws together. “This makes more sense than I thought. It really wasn’t so harmonious back then, was it? They didn’t want the dogs knowing too much!”
“But Mini,” said Mhumhi, tail waving slowly, “nobody was stopping the dogs from speaking hulker, were they? The dogs could just get the information in the hulker language. And if the hulkers really didn’t want them to be able to get to it- than they’d stop the machines from responding at all to dogs. Couldn’t they?” He thought back to what Danai had told them, about the meat dispensaries only responding to human genetic material.
“I believe they could,” said Mini, “but maybe I phrased it wrong. This wasn’t about shutting dogs out. It was reminding dogs of their place. If a human wanted his dog to find something out for him- he could send him away and have him come back with it. But if a dog wanted to find out something for himself- something he did not want to share with his owner- well, do you see?”
“Well, he should just leave his owner,” said Mhumhi. “And if dogs really wanted to, we could find a way to record things, I bet. Like with peeing on things. Humans are awful at reading marks.”
“Dogs weren’t allowed to not have owners,” said Mini. “They were rounded up.”
“Rounded up?” Mhumhi couldn’t help but think of the pens full of screaming hulkers, and swallowed. “But why not? And anyway, who stopped the dogs?”
“It was a law, so I assume that the police did,” said Mini. “Er- the human police, not the painted dog kind.”
Mhumhi swallowed again. “Well- it all happened a long time ago. I don’t think it matters very much now.”
“Hm,” said Mini. “I guess it doesn’t at this moment.” She returned to facing her vigil at the monitors and yapped out a few more commands. Mhumhi listened to her exchanging conversation with the chorus of computers for another minute or two before irritably butting in.
“Well? Did you find out where the safe place is yet?”
“Not yet,” said Mini. “I was actually asking for more information about this city. It’s telling me- ha, ha, it’s telling me that this is one of the most dog-friendly cities in the country.”
“Why’s that so funny?” asked Mhumhi, but she was still going on.
“The birthplace of the IntelliDog… well, there’s no doubt about that. Ah…” She paused, cocking her head. “Oh, you’ll like this. It just told me something like- the largest canine conservancy in the world is in this city, Mhumhi, dedicating to preserving endangered canines- all sorts- all in the homeland of the highly endangered painted dog!”
“Highly… what does ‘endangered’ mean?”
“Rare, I think. Dying out.”
Mhumhi felt mildly insulted. “Aren’t there more painted dogs than anything else in this city?”
“I haven’t been keeping a head count… but yes, I don’t think any of us are endangered right now. Except, you know…”
Mhumhi did know. “So the domestic dogs- they want to set up a hulker conservancy, just like that, right?”
“I guess you could call it that,” said Mini, “though it’s a shoddy operation, and it’s been deteriorating for a long time. All the hulkers that are left are either too old to breed or slightly related to one another… and then the ones that aren’t either of those find some other reason to refuse to breed with each another. It’s a nightmare. I’m glad I was never really involved with it.”
Mhumhi looked at her sidelong. “I thought all domestics were supposed to be of one mind about it.”
Mini turned her tiny muzzle towards him.
“That’s what we are supposed to be, yes,” she said. “And I’m sure you are aware of the means domestics have used to enforce it. Pariah was lucky to get out of it alive.”
Mhumhi felt a stirring in his chest.
“She’s dead now, you know.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Mini, and she did sound sorry- if not surprised. “So they got her? Domestics or painted dogs?”
Mhumhi gave a sharp laugh. “Gray wolves. She was going after one of their puppies.”
“Hm,” said Mini. “A shame! She was quite a dog. Wish I could have met her.” She made a little snuffling sound and licked a forepaw. “Gray wolves… makes you wonder.”
“A type of dog that licks everybody’s chin,” said Mini. “Gray wolves! They’ve got ties to the domestics and the police. And they’re so bloody big. Don’t trust ‘em.”
Mhumhi found himself vaguely irritated again. “Maybe each gray wolf decides for himself what he wants to do. Not every type enforces a single mindset.”
Mini blinked at him a moment.
“Yes, I guess you’re right. I suppose I go against the traditional domestic mindset myself. I’m not personally interested in furthering the human species.”
“I thought you said you loved your man!”
“Well, you love your girl, and I don’t see you looking up the human studbook.”
She had a point, even if Mhumhi was not entirely sure what a studbook was.
“I mean,” said Mini, “it’s not as if I want them to… you know, die out, but… well, I am a selfish individual. I’ve no desire to support them now that my man is dead. I don’t want to love another human.”
“Why not?” Mhumhi tilted his head.
“I don’t know,” Mini admitted. “It doesn’t make any sense. I know I could. They are- Mhumhi, they are so very easy to fall in love with, and it frightens me. It’s so easy, it’s like it’s a lie.”
Mhumhi was silent for a moment, then said, “I don’t think I’d love Maha so much if she wasn’t a puppy.”
“Yes,” said Mini, “because you love taking care of her. That’s why toy domestics are still around, you know. The big fellows consider us useless and would have gotten rid of us long ago if the humans didn’t love us so much.” For a moment she raised her head, sticking out her chest so that the little mane of fur she bore made a pretty puff. “It’s because we’re so little and useless that we survived.”
“Maybe so,” said Mhumhi, blinking. He would not have thought of it like that.
“I am sure my man picked me because he thought I could not hurt him,” said Mini. “And they let him pick because he was such an important human, though nobody was happy about it. But I could care less. He grew to love me all the same. That I am sure of.” She gave a little sneeze, as if marking the finality of it.
Mhumhi looked at her, still standing proudly on the wooden top of the desk, and felt a little bit sad.
“Let’s hurry up- Kutta and the children are waiting for us.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mini, jumping a little so that her nails skittered on the polished surface. She spun around and began speaking to the computer again.
At length she said, “I think I’ve got it.”
Mhumhi, who had laid down with his head on his paws in the meantime, jumped back to his feet.
“You found out how to get to the safe place?”
“Then where is it? How far?”
“It’s as I thought,” said Mini, “it’s outside the city. But we should be able to get there within a day or two.”
“A day or two?”
“Calm down, calm down- we have the cart, remember?”
“Yes, but Maha!” exclaimed Mhumhi. “She’s so unwell- and what if we get attacked? And what about food and water?”
Mini hopped down from the desk.
“I know where we can stock up on our way,” she said. “And we shouldn’t meet much trouble, or any at all- we’re going outside the city, remember?”
Mhumhi gave a little whine, pacing back and forth on the thinly carpeted floor.
“Are you really sure that this place will be safe? And we’ll be able to find food and water there? And that the police won’t be able to get in?”
“I am certain of all of those things,” said Mini, looking up at him, her eyes bulging. “It is the perfect place for humans.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, still feeling very uneasy, “all right- then how do we get there?”
Mini maintained the same expression, eyes wide.
“I’ll show you.”
Mhumhi stopped pacing.
“Why… why not just tell us?”
Mini was quiet for a moment, licking her lips.
“I’ll show you,” she repeated. “The directions would be hard for you to understand anyway…”
Mhumhi’s voice had dropped an octave, and now he stepped closer to her.
Mini stiffened, but kept in the same spot while Mhumhi loomed over her.
“I’ll show you,” she said, “because I know that if I tell you, you won’t have any reason to keep me around anymore.”
Mhumhi said nothing, just gave a soft growl. Mini quivered.
“I won’t be trouble,” she said. “I’ll be useful, I promise. But if I stay in this city, I’ll be killed, you know that, same as you-”
“If you won’t tell me,” said Mhumhi, “this might as well be a trap.”
“Oh come on, Mhumhi, it isn’t a trap,” Mini whined. “Who’ve I got on my side here…? No one. What good is it to me if I lead you into a trap? I’d be eaten up by whoever I’d betray you to…”
Mhumhi hovered over her for a few more moments, menacing, or hesitating, he was not sure which.
“You are useful for more than your knowledge of where the safe place is,” he said. “You know a lot more about hulker things than we do- and we never know what we will come across next. You got us out of that fight in the hotel all by yourself.”
“I- well,” said Mini, swallowing. “I suppose I did.”
“Let’s trust one another,” said Mhumhi, and he took a step back. “You haven’t done anything really bad yet, but you’ve got to stop hiding things from us. If we are to help each other, we shouldn’t be on such teeth-to-neck basis.”
Mini folded her ears back into her dense fur.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I- oh, well, I’ll just tell you. There’s a certain road.”
“Yes- a road leading out of the city-”
She stopped speaking quite abruptly. Mhumhi’s head went up. There was a low sound- the whoop of a hyena. And the thudding of footsteps.
Mini gave a little yip and hopped back up onto the desk as Vimbo burst through a door at the other end of the room, ducking his head to whoop again.
“Vimbo!” exclaimed Mhumhi, tucking his tail, for the hyena was barreling towards them, grunting and yammering. He leapt onto one of the desks, knocking the monitor on it over with a crash. All of the others seemed to flicker.
“What’s the matter with him!” Mini yapped, jumping back down to huddle underneath Mhumhi’s legs.
“I don’t know, why don’t you ask him?” said Mhumhi, nearly tripping over her as he backed up. Vimbo was thumping his black forepaws on the table, carrying on.
“He can’t talk,” Mini was saying, then gave a little squeal of surprise when Vimbo jumped off the desk and lunged at the pair of them.
Mhumhi gave a little chatter of surprise and jumped sideways. Vimbo raised his head and looked at him with Mini dangling from his jaws, yelping and thrashing.
“Wh- Put her down, Vimbo!” cried Mhumhi, aiming a snap at the hyena, and Vimbo cringed and let the very puffed-out Mini drop.
“Now get out of here!” Mhumhi growled, showing his teeth. Vimbo cringed even more, ducking his head down between his forelegs.
“Wait, Mhumhi,” said Mini, who was panting and disheveled. “He didn’t hurt me- I think he’s trying to tell us something.” She took a quivering step forward and said something in hulker.
At once Vimbo raised his head and grunted. He sprang towards the door he had come through and looked back at them. Mhumhi could see that the door was hanging open, showing stairs.
“He wants us to come with him,” said Mini. “And I’d say it looks urgent. Let’s go, Mhumhi!”
She went pell-mell towards the stairs, her little legs a blur. Mhumhi was about to follow her, but he stopped in the doorway, looking back. Vimbo seemed to have frozen in place, staring up at the monitors.
The hyena looked at him, and with a little whine seemed to shake himself and ran towards the stairs. Mhumhi followed him, wondering, but was quickly distracted. He could hear the echoes of Kutta’s panicked whistles emanating from down below.
The stairs let out through a heavy door leading back into the parking garage. Kutta ran to meet them, whimpering. As she did, Mhumhi smelled a sharp, acrid tang in the air.
“What’s going on?” he called, stopping short as they nearly crashed into one another.
“Fire- fire,” gasped Kutta, who was panting rapidly, her tongue hanging out. “There’s fire coming- we’ve got to get the children out of here!”
“What?” cried Mini, her eyes bulging even more, and then gave a little cough. “Fire shouldn’t spread- these buildings are all-”
“Quiet!” said Mhumhi, and he ran forward, looking around. The cart and the children were still where they’d left them by the elevator- Tareq was huddling beside it, tears shining on his brown cheeks. Maha was a featureless lump underneath the cover.
Kutta run up beside him and pushed him with her shoulder. “Look,” she said, and ran up towards where the daylight shone into the parking garage’s entrance.
They ran out onto the asphalt and sunlight, and Mhumhi coughed, and felt a raging fear in his heart. He could see the tops of tall buildings burning brightly in the distance, billowing clouds of smoke, which the hot wind was blowing towards them.
“It keeps getting closer,” Kutta whimpered. “It’s eating the city!”
Mhumhi began to pant himself, feeling the foul air fill his lungs. The burning buildings were a block or so away from them, but even as they watched the flames were beginning to curl hungrily against the next building over.
“We have to get out of the city now,” he gasped.