He loses something.
The city was dying.
That was Mhumhi’s thought, as he and Kutta pulled the cart together along the road Mini had pointed out for them. Vimbo loped alongside, for they had decided to alternate taking on the burden, to stave off weariness and to cover more ground. It did not hurt their sense of security to have at least one member of the group moving about freely, either.
Mhumhi could recognize when his own thoughts were veering towards the melodramatic, but as he watched the buildings starting to peter out, shrinking and moving farther and farther apart, as the concrete was gradually replaced by bare dirt- all as the breeze sent smoke to sting the inside of his nose- it felt like he was losing something.
He wished the cart were not behind him, for he kept wanted to look back, even though he knew he’d see the same thing: the city’s jagged skyline accented with that massive plume of smoke like a feather too large for a cap. They had left the fire burning sluggishly, not with near the same roaring force as it had had before, but still with a stubbornness, a sort of hunger, licking gradually away at the buildings until they twisted and crumbled.
Mhumhi knew that at that pace, the fire would have to burn for weeks to really make an impact on the city as a whole, for it was so large- he’d never seen anything like an edge to it his entire life. Mini had been anxious to reassure them on that front as well.
“It’s going to burn out in a night or so,” she had said. “Soon as it finds a spot where the buildings aren’t so close. Then it’ll die. Or even if it rains. It’s this drought, you know, the drought and how hot it’s been- that’s what’s causing all the trouble…”
Kutta had murmured to Mhumhi that perhaps Mini wanted to convince them to forget her part in starting the whole thing. Mhumhi thought so as well, but he wasn’t inclined to blame her for it. It gave him no pleasure to try and squeeze more guilt out of her.
How many dogs had not…? No, he was trying to avoid that sort of thinking for now.
“Let’s stop here,” said Mini. Mhumhi could hear her snuffling from within the cart. She had been stopping them every once and a while to dig up little caches- according to her, they were little emergency rations that domestics had buried for their humans. Boxed and canned stuff, mostly, but it would be a great help.
They had also procured a large plastic container for water, the weight of which might have been why Mhumhi’s shoulders were so stiff when Tareq unhooked him from the cart. He shook himself gratefully, feeling the still-attached fabric of the harness chafe at his fur.
“There’s not enough room,” Tareq was complaining, holding fistfuls of Kutta’s fur instead of unhooking her. “No more food!”
“That’s a funny thing to say,” Mhumhi told him, looking at the cart. For all Mini’s scavenging there really weren’t more than a few boxes and cans stacked on the side where Maha wasn’t lying. The water container took up the most space.
Tareq’s brow wrinkled a bit. Kutta turned and licked him.
“The food will be very good when you eat it,” she cooed. “You can look forward to that later.”
Tareq appeared to be thinking deeply for a moment. “I’m hungry now.”
Kutta shot Mhumhi a pleading look, but he decided to leave her to her own devices, and sidled over to where Mini was giving Vimbo instructions in hulker language. The hyena was snuffling along the ground, his black eyes wide, and suddenly he jabbed straight down at the loose dirt with his paws.
“Help him dig, Mhumhi,” Mini ordered, as the hyena started making dirt fly.
Mhumhi put his ears back, but obeyed her, and soon they had uncovered a tightly sealed metal box. Mini twisted the clasp open with her teeth. The lid sprang back.
Inside there was nothing but the strong smell of old urine. Vimbo drew back and pawed at his nose.
“Ah,” said Mini. “That happens sometimes. Police found it. Reburied it too, the neck-biters.”
Mhumhi looked at the dismal little thing and thought that it couldn’t have held more than a single small box anyway.
“Well, at least we’ve got some supplies,” said Mini, nipping a little at Vimbo’s wrist as she passed. “I think we should be all right.”
“Two days, you think?”
“Yes,” said Mini, though Mhumhi thought her pop-eyes had gotten a little wider.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, anything can happen, so no, I’m not sure, but it’s the best approximation I have,” she said, bristling, nearly vanishing into her own puffiness.
“We haven’t even reached the edge of the city yet, though,” said Mhumhi.
“Oh, no, this is the edge, certainly. Look around- we’re in the suburbs.”
“Suburbs?” Mhumhi looked around again. All there were were small houses along the road with stretches of bare dirt between them. Farther back he could see other rows of houses along other streets, with little variation between them all.
“I don’t think we’ll find many more food caches after this,” said Mini. “I can’t think of any dogs that could live out here, with all the dispensaries so far away. Still, we should be on our guard.”
“Why? Do painted dogs live out here?”
“No,” said Mini, “not that I know of, anyhow- but any dog that does live here has a food supply we don’t know about, and I’m inclined to be suspicious about that.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, tucking his tail.
“Well, don’t worry about it too much,” Mini advised. “Seriously. Conserve your energy.”
Mhumhi could already tell that the trip was going to be thrilling.
They got back onto the road with Kutta and the puppies and gave them the disappointing news. Kutta was diplomatic about it.
“The children really are running out of room anyway,” she said.
Vimbo allowed himself to be hooked back onto the cart by Tareq, who seemed to have very nearly lost all fear of him. Mhumhi still kept a sharp eye on the pair of them when they were together but he had to admit that it was obvious how exaggeratedly gentle VImbo was being with the boy, lowering his head and ears demurely at his every approach.
Vimbo’s black eye often rested on him or Kutta when he was behaving this way.
They began to walk again, on either side of the cart as Vimbo pulled. Mini joined them on the ground, complaining of a need to stretch her legs, trotting briskly with four strides to every one of Mhumhi’s.
“My man showed me a picture of a yard once,” she informed Mhumhi. “Have you seen one? They’re very green.”
“A yard?” Mhumhi racked his brains. The words sounded vaguely familiar. “Like an outside pen?”
“More of a- like a carpet around the house made of grass,” said Mini. “It’s a plant that used to grow on this dirt around us, but without watering it’s all died, I expect.”
Mhumhi knew what grass was, but he decided not to brag.
“If the houses are surrounded by grass, isn’t it hard to see where you’re getting to?” he asked.
“It’s not long grass,” said Mini. “The humans cut it.”
“If they’re just going to cut it, then why have it?”
“Because it’s nice. Oh, never mind, you wouldn’t get what’s so important about yards. You’re not domestic.”
Mhumhi gave a grunt. “You can have your yard, then.”
Mini wagged her rump somewhat stiffly, but seemed disinclined to bicker. “if it were like the before-times, I’d live in a house like this with my man, and we would go out into the yard together. How strange would that be!”
“Grass wishes,” suggested Mhumhi, who was still mildly interested in starting a fight.
Much to his surprise, Mini snorted. “I don’t wish it. It would be awful.”
“Regardless of what rhetoric the other domestics might spew,” said Mini, “I don’t think those were good times to be a dog. Not one with a real mind, anyway. Oh, Mhumhi, can you imagine it? Me forced to do nothing more challenging but chase a ball a thousand times?”
Mhumhi drew his ears back. “Why would you chase a ball?”
“Exactly! Why would I?” Mini gave a little growling yap. “I’ve suspected it for so long, you know, the way things were… Like what we saw in the library. ‘No recording anything in Dog.’ Stifling, don’t you think? They gave us these minds and then they… they didn’t want us to use them!”
They were both silent for a moment, walking along beside the rumbling cart and Vimbo, pulling tirelessly, eyes downcast. Mhumhi could see Kutta’s paws walking on the other side and could practically sense her listening in to their conversation.
“There’s something I’ve been confused about,” he said. “All right, maybe I believe that the hulkers did something to dogs to make them smarter- and before they were like rats, or flies. But if it’s like you said, and they didn’t want us to use those minds- then why did they give us them?” He glanced down at his paws, still dirt-stained from digging up the empty cache.
“Why they made us think and talk?”
“Yes… Lamya- a hulker once said something to me, she said, ‘Everybody wanted a talking dog.’ I just don’t understand. Why would you want that? I don’t- I don’t look at a rat or a cockroach and think, ‘I wish it could talk.’”
Mini cocked her head, trotting along and panting with the end of her tongue curled up.
“It wasn’t the way we are with rats, though,” she said. “A dog and a human, you know, that’s very special. I mean, it’s like poor Vimbo here. We’d certainly like for him to be able to talk, wouldn’t we?”
Mhumhi glanced at the hyena, stolidly tugging the cart along.
“Yes,” he said, “but Vimbo’s got a mind in there, we know that. It’s different if something is just an animal.”
“Sometimes I think it was just that,” said Mini. “They didn’t think of us as just animals, did they? My man told me- he told me the first dogs, all they gave them was the ability to talk. Not the smarts. And the dogs learned to talk.”
“So…? What did they say?”
“They said,” Mini said, “the words their masters taught them. A few, anyway. They did not use them the right way. Or they would only use them to ask for things they wanted.”
“Isn’t that still talking…?”
“Not the way you and I are talking,” said Mini. “I suppose it must have been disappointing. No, I know it was, because think of how you would feel if you taught your dear Maha to talk and she only screamed for food the whole time. That was not what they wanted from the talking dogs. They wanted something the dogs could not give them on their own, I think.”
“Yes…” Mhumhi glanced over at Maha. He could just make out her shoulder and arm, rising and falling slightly with her breath.
“My man said that the people who made the talking dogs said it was because the dogs didn’t have the means of understanding how to speak,” Mini informed him. “So they added some- some bits and pieces, just ways of understanding words, and things, and a bit more, and a bit more. And then one day you really could have a conversation with your dog. And then…”
“Well, it was another huge disappointment, wasn’t it?” Mini sighed. “It wasn’t what they wanted. Because we weren’t quite dogs anymore, were we? I mean, I know we were dogs, but not those old dogs. My man would want me to fetch a ball, and I would want him to teach me how to disassemble an old car engine. We rather overshot each other much of the time. You know, I think of it this way- they wanted to hear a dog’s thoughts, but in order to do that, they had to make him have thoughts they could understand in the first place. Human thoughts.”
Mhumhi’s trajectory wobbled as he stumbled slightly.
“Dog thoughts,” he insisted. “We aren’t human.”
“We’re more human than you know.”
“I know,” Mhumhi said, his hackles raising, “that some of the stuff they put in us was- was hulker. Or human. But I am not a human. I am not them.”
“Hmph.” Mini gave him a critical look. “You know, you do owe your entire existence to them.”
“I do not! Even if they made me, I don’t think existence is a thing you can really owe someone at all.”
“Oh,” said Mini, and she wagged her rump a little. “Very deep. Existential, even.”
“Don’t try to cut me out of the conversation-”
“No, I do mean it,” said Mini, and she opened her mouth a little broader, smiling. “It- it makes me feel a bit better, if I think about it that way, you know? Though Mhumhi- I wonder if you really believe that.”
“I’m not lying.”
“But- those little children. They owe everything to you, don’t they? If you stopped caring for them-”
“They’re puppies. It’s different when you’re a puppy.”
“Hm,” said Mini, but she did not say anything else, perhaps because she was panting so hard, and tottering from side to side a little. Mhumhi blinked at her, concerned.
“Do you want to get back into the cart?”
She responded between pants. “Maybe- that- would be better. I’m sort of- absorbing all the heat.”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, eyeing her puffy fur. “I don’t know how you stand it.”
“Man used to cut it for me,” said Mini, quivering.
“Like the grass?”
She tilted her nose up and did not respond, and Mhumhi took pity on her and nipped at Vimbo to get him to stop moving.
A little later, when they had gone on again and Mini had had the time to recover in Tareq’s lap, she spoke quite cheerfully.
“I really am excited for what we’ll see outside the city, though!”
“Oh yes?” Kutta said. “What is that?”
“A very big yard,” said Mini. “The biggest yard. Er, nature.”
“Nature!” Tareq repeated, patting her head.
“What, cut grass everywhere?” said Mhumhi.
“Shut up about the grass-cutting. No, more like- have you seen Big Park? More like that, but everywhere, and according to my man a great deal prettier.”
Big Park- Mhumhi could barely suppress a shudder. “It had better not be like Big Park out there!”
“What, there won’t be police!” yapped Mini. “Though who knows, maybe there are some real, wild painted dogs still out there in Nature, right?”
Mhumhi pictured a voiceless, brainless painted dog, skittering like a rat, and wished Mini had not put the image in his mind.
“Maybe there will be wild domestics!” he said, in revenge.
“Ha ha, that’s funny. I just hope there’s meat. Dogs’re supposed to be able to find meat out there in the wild. I reckon we might have a good time of it, if we could ever find Nature.”
“A good time?” repeated Mhumhi.
“I doubt it,” said Kutta. “Very much.”
Mini swiveled to look at her from her high perch, eyes popping.
“What do you mean by that? You think my man was lying?”
“I think,” said Kutta, her yellow eyes gleaming in the twilight, “that if nature had a good time and lots of meat, the city wouldn’t be full of dogs.”
That got Mini quiet for a little while- Mhumhi was impressed. But the little domestic quickly fired back.
“Well, there could be a million dogs living in nature, and we just wouldn’t know about it.”
Kutta said nothing. The sky was getting darker, and the dirt gaps between the houses were getting ever longer. The sight of all the open space was making Mhumhi confusingly claustrophobic, as if it were pressing in on him, all that emptiness- it seemed like he could fall sideways through it.
Vimbo paused, because ahead of them was a sort of long, mounded hill that went across the road ahead. The wind was blowing at the top of it and streams of dust and sand were filtering off into the air.
“It’s all right,” said Mini, “it’s just some sand that’s got blown onto the road. I think the cart should go over it. Let’s cross it now before it gets dark.”
She added what must have been the same words to Vimbo in hulker, for he began moving again, gingerly setting his paws into the slippery sand and dragging the cart upwards. The sand slipped around his paws and started to bury them near the top, and the cart slip backwards. Tareq gave a little cry of fear.
“Quick!” said Kutta, and she ran to brace her shoulder against the back. Mhumhi ran to put his weight beside her. The sand was truly hard to get a grip on, and their paws slid, but Vimbo was able to get enough purchase to force the cart over the crest of the hill and rapidly down the other side, vanishing from sight with the addition of a little scream from one of the puppies.
“Coming!” barked Kutta, and she and Mhumhi ran down over after them. At the bottom of the hill the cart was listing to one side, a sandy wheel spinning in the air, and Vimbo was struggling to twist himself and right it. Kutta ran to help him. Mhumhi started, then stopped, still standing at the top of the hill, and stared outwards.
There were no more buildings. There were no more houses. There was only dust and sand- sand, sand, and more sand, for as far as the eye could see.
And the road was gone.