They wake something up.
Mhumhi sat on the crest of a dune, head low and shoulders hunched. The wind had blown sand to cover his paws and tail, and it had made his fur gritty, and had even coated his eyelashes around his closed eyes.
If he had cared to open his eyes and look, he would have seen a bizarre scene below the dune: a collapsed, crumpled cart, two dead dogs, and the body of a little human girl. Or- to be more accurate- this is what he would have seen some time ago. Now everything was a shapeless lump under the attention of the tireless blowing sand. The top of the cart still peeked out, but sand was piling on the windward side, and would soon spill over.
Like the fire, Mhumhi could not help but think, the desert had a consumptive hunger of its own.
Mhumhi did not respond, nor did he open his eyes. He heard the soft scrape of his sister’s footsteps growing closer.
“Mhumhi,” she whined. “Please. Don’t go away now. I need you. Tareq needs you.”
Mhumhi said nothing, and flinched when her warm tongue suddenly brushed his sandy, bloody shoulder.
“We must keep this clean,” she said.
Mhumhi opened his eyes to this.
“Don’t. There isn’t any point.”
Kutta drew a little away from him, fixing him with her yellow gaze.
“What do you mean by that?”
Mhumhi himself was not sure. Was it the fact that the sand would keep blowing into the wound, fixing it into red, crumbling sludge? Or was it the fact that it was bound to get infected no matter what they did? Or was it the fact that they had nowhere to go, no guide to lead them, and no hope at all?
“Please, don’t say things like that,” said Kutta, after a long silence. She opened her mouth to pant, then shut it again against the sand. “Please. I need you to stay with me… I can’t go on by myself… If you give up…”
She was shivering a little, despite the harsh heat. Mhumhi felt himself stirred, pained, but he could not manage to move.
“We- we-” Kutta swallowed, searching out his gaze to try and hold it. “We’ve still got someone to protect. We can’t abandon him.”
Mhumhi let his gaze drift listlessly away. He was not sure where Tareq was at the moment, and if he were to be truly honest with himself…
“Don’t you dare,” said Kutta, “tell me you don’t care. Don’t you dare- you’ve played favorites, yes, but-”
Mhumhi’s chest rose a little with a sudden pang of anger.
“Sorry,” he growled, “that I’m sulking because my favorite died.”
Kutta jumped and grabbed his ear in her teeth, dragging his head painfully downwards, growling, and then let go.
“I’m sad too,” she said. “I’m angry too! But we can’t just- just sit here! Think what Sacha would say to do-”
“How can you bring her up!” Mhumhi shouted, the fur on his back rising. “How-”
“I’m sorry, but she’s dead, and she’s been dead, and that doesn’t mean she-”
“You were the one whining over those bush dogs at the water treatment plant! Don’t tell me you aren’t still grieving!”
“It isn’t the point!” Kutta let out a yowling scream. “Am I supposed to not talk about her until I am done grieving? What I was going to say, Mhumhi, was that just because she died doesn’t mean she was- it doesn’t mean she was never alive!”
“Oh yes,” said Mhumhi, “how comforting- I’ll remember that when I think of her being digested inside some hyena’s guts-”
Kutta struck out at him, mouth open, and he jerked his head up and parried her, snarling, rising to all fours. In tandem they began to pace, circling that ridge on top of the dune, bristling, teeth bared. Mhumhi could feel something dark between them, real venom, real rage, lingering bloodlust after the brutal execution the two of them had enacted together…
The sand slid underneath Mhumhi’s paws and he stumbled. His hind legs were quivering strangely, his old wound aching, and the shaking seemed to consume the rest of him, too, until he was shuddering and sliding sideways in the sand.
“Mhumhi?” cried Kutta, looking down at him, vitriol shocked out of her.
“I don’t want to think anymore,” he heard himself saying. “I don’t want… I don’t want to be here. I don’t want it, Kutta… I want- I want Mother. I want Sacha.”
Mhumhi was whimpering again, in uncontrollable bursts. “They all died… they all died… Everyone I love is dying…”
Kutta turned her head away, shutting her eyes, and said, “You are always so selfish.”
Mhumhi looked up at her, his ears back, his eyes wide.
“We have to figure out what we’re going to do,” she said. “For Tareq- for us, too, for whatever you think that is worth.”
Mhumhi looked down at the sand flowing over his front paws.
“I don’t know where to go.”
“No,” said Kutta. “Neither do I… There’s nothing, is there, to guide us?” She gave a strained laugh. “We could try to dig up the road again. But I think that it is buried too deep.”
Mhumhi watched the sand rise up to his forelegs.
“The only thing I can think of is to- is to turn around and try to walk back to the city.”
Now Mhumhi looked up.
“You think we should try to go back?”
“No,” said Kutta. “I think it would kill us. But there is nothing else left, Mhumhi, no sense of direction, no nothing.”
Mhumhi’s sour thought at this was, Why walk to our deaths, then, when we could stay right here.
He did not say it. His shoulder began to hurt a little, the first time he had really noticed it, Biscuit’s toothmarks aching a little more with each gust of wind.
“The cart is finished, I think,” said Kutta, glancing back behind herself. “I chewed through your harness, and one of the wheels got crooked. We’ll have to eat and drink as much as we can here, and then…”
And then, thought Mhumhi, but he held back again from saying what he was thinking.
“Tareq!” cried Kutta, and then she gave a little whistle. “Tareq, come back over here!”
She pricked her ears, rotating them, searching, and then gave a small whine.
“Where’s he gone? Tareq!”
She dashed down the side of the dune, spraying up sand, and Mhumhi forced himself up on all fours again to try and follow her, slipping and stumbling.
They finally spotted the little figure, standing on a dune several meters away. He turned back around, blinking rapidly.
“Oh, g-” started Kutta, and then the sand under their feet shuddered and and howled.
Tareq was knocked over, and they heard him crying from the surprise, as the sand shook harder, rattling them all, a rumbling whine rising up from what seemed the very earth itself, a sort of thudding, vibrating undertone carrying with it, as if the rotors of a vast subterranean machine had begun turning again.
Kutta fell sideways into Mhumhi, making him stumble, her fright mirroring his, but almost as soon as the noise and shuddering had started, it died down, almost completely. There was only the barest of hums now, a faint tingle of movement in the sand under Mhumhi’s paws.
“Oh!” cried Kutta, jumping apart from him, panting and gagging a little on sand.
“What was that?” said Mhumhi- purely rhetorical, because there was no way anybody present would have any idea.
Kutta just passed him a worried look and then ran to Tareq, who was still lying on the sand, sniffling. Mhumhi went after her in a kind of reluctant trot, no longer trusting the ground under his feet.
“What’s that?” said Kutta, hesitating just a few feet from Tareq. At first Mhumhi thought she was repeating his earlier question, but then realized what she was looking at. There was a narrow metal pole sticking up from the sand, so narrow that they had had to get close for it to materialize before them in the heated air. Something was sticking out of it. Mhumhi bypassed Tareq and reared a little to sniff at it. Best he could understand, it was a rubber-coated lever.
Kutta eyed it anxiously, then turned to Tareq. “Did you pull that, Tareq?”
Tareq only whimpered and held his arms out, and she leaned down to let him wrap them around her neck.
“If that’s what that was,” said Mhumhi, “then- what has he turned on?”
They both turned their noses past the pole, out into the ceaseless desert- the rumbling and shuddering had had a definite epicenter, and it was in that direction.
Mhumhi eyed Kutta- it had been in the opposite direction that the city felt like it was in. She licked her lips, held immobile by Tareq’s grip.
“I think,” said Mhumhi, “I think-”
“You want to go that way?”
“You said we’d die if we went back to the city.”
“I’m not arguing with you.” Kutta gently pulled away from Tareq, who was blinking, seeming much recovered. “Either direction… you know, we haven’t got much of a-”
She hesitated, looking back at Tareq.
“He’ll have to walk,” said Mhumhi, less because he wanted to point it out and more because it had just occurred to him.
“Yes,” said Kutta- this had obviously occurred to her long ago. “He’ll walk.”
Mhumhi found he could not quite share her confidence. “Do you think we can- did you hear that?”
They both turned their heads around, ears pricked, back in the direction of the broken cart.
The sound came again, thin and wavering: a dog’s howl.
“Someone’s- someone’s over there!” Kutta put her ears back, but Mhumhi sprang up.
“He’s going to eat the bodies!”
He found himself dashing back, for this fear had gripped him- this mangy, unknown scavenger must not be permitted to feed on Maha’s body- she had asked him not to- in case she was still alive- it would not-
He leapt over the last dune, skidding down, just as the howl came again, and looked all around.
The scene was much as he had left it, all silent and buried in sand, except there was something black struggling in a sand mire, paddling with her forepaws.
“Where- d’you- think-” she panted, dragging herself forward, “-you’re going- without me-”
Kutta skidded down beside him, cried, “Mini!” and nearly fell into a somersault.
“Obviously-! Did you think I’d let that- filthy- rottenrumped- bad breath-” She stopped to pant again. Mhumhi smelled the metallic tang of blood coming off of her.
“How bad are your wounds?” Kutta stammered, walking over to her stiff-legged, as if she thought the little domestic was an apparition that would vanish upon close inspection. “Where does it hurt?”
“Nowhere, really,” said Mini, blinking her sandy eyes. “Though I’m having a little trouble walking.”
She paddled forward another inch, quite uselessly, her hind legs dragging through the sand.
“Let me help you,” said Kutta, and ran to her, licking at her thick fur.
“S’all right,” said Mini, blinking slowly from the attention. “I think I just need a bit of rest- I was resting, when that grumbling and rumbling woke me up- what was all that, anyway?”
“We don’t know, but we’ve decided that’s where we’re going,” Kutta informed her.
Mini went briefly pop-eyed, then squinted again from the wind.
“I suppose that’s fair enough. Sounded like a machine to me, a big one, so I guess it’s the right thing to go towards.”
“The safe place has machines in it?”
“Ah-ha-ha. Yes, it does…”
Kutta was now giving her a very wary look, but Mhumhi was distracted, looking over by the cart. He put one paw forward, then another, creeping around the side.
It was a foolish notion, indeed, but he always held that unquashable hope in his heart… The noise and motion had woken Mini up, so why not…
On the other side of the cart, there was only a faint wrinkle in the sand, a little pleat marking the otherwise unbroken waves of sand. Mhumhi sat down on his haunches.
He was not getting her back.
“Mhumhi,” Kutta called. “Get Tareq- let’s have him carry her for now. We have to start moving now. Mhumhi…?”
He rose and turned around.