The broken tube.
“What’s your name?”
Tareq was smiling, head tilted, holding both hands of one of the adult hulkers as he gazed up into its eyes.
“What’s your name?”
He had repeated the question a few times now, in both the hulker language and Dog. Mhumhi had been sure he’d get quickly frustrated with it, in his puppyish way, but he was still smiling, giggling, even, as though it were a game. The other hulker was smiling too, in a vague way, letting himself get tugged back and forth.
The rest of the strange hulkers had fanned out around the hallway, mostly still turned curiously towards the three dogs. Kutta had let many of them come to pet her- she seemed somewhat enchanted by them, wagging her tail as one scratched under her chin. Mini, on the other hand, growled and snapped when they got close to her. Now they were all giving her a wide berth.
It was better with three dogs to deflect the attention, Mhumhi reflected, because they were not so frantic to cuddle with them now. In fact, he was the less novel, less interesting thing at this point, since they had already seen him earlier. Mostly they circled by him and patted him on their way to have a turn with Kutta.
It was strange. It was wondrous that they seemed so guileless, so friendly, but it was very strange. He had a hard time pinpointing why it was so strange, though- well, not that the whole situation wasn’t bizarre, but there was something off, something unpleasant, that he couldn’t quite get under his paw.
“Please,” Mini said. “Pick me up, someone. I can’t get away.”
She was foundering on her forelegs, her hind legs caught underneath a ripped portion of the carpet. A couple of the hulkers were moving closer to her with curiosity evident in their gazes.
“It’s all right, Mini,” said, her eyes half-lidded in bliss as two hulkers scratched along her jawline and neck. “They won’t hurt you.”
“Mhumhi, pick me up,” Mini pleaded, gazing over at him.
“I thought you liked being petted,” said Mhumhi.
Her little button eyes sharpened into a glare.
“I don’t want these things touching me. I will be sick.”
“That’s sort of a bit much,” said Mhumhi. “Is it really so awful that they can’t speak? Or do the eyes just bother you?”
“I didn’t think you were an idiot, Mhumhi,” said Mini, her voice low. “D’you think I’m so bothered by looks? Did it ever… occur to you… the reason why these creatures are like this?”
Mhumhi shifted his weight slightly.
“Or rather, who…?”
“Well, they can’t tell us,” he said.
Mini licked her lips. “We’ve got to- we’ve got to explore the rest of this place.”
“You think we’ll find other hulkers? Speaking ones?”
“How should I know,” said Mini, and it wasn’t angry, just tired. “But I’ve got to hurry up and find answers. I’m not going to live much longer like this.”
This sent a startled jolt through Mhumhi’s body.
“Why would you say that?!”
Mini sneezed with irritation.
“I just said I thought you weren’t stupid. Have you seen me?”
Kutta broke away from her admirers to look over at the tiny dog, her brow furrowing. “Mini, just because your legs- well, you’ve just got to get some rest. Eat something.”
“I won’t bother eating,” said Mini. “I doubt it would do much good. And the next time I rest, I won’t wake up. So please, wild dogs…” She looked at them beseechingly, and the skin on her back quivered a little, just above where her midline went slack. Mhumhi realized that she was trying to wag her tail.
“Well,” he found himself saying, beset by a sudden gnawing, nauseating anxiety, “well, if we find other hulkers- ones that talk- they should be able to help you.”
“It’s possible,” said Mini.
“Yes, let’s go then,” Kutta said, sounding shaken. “Upstairs. Tareq, will you carry…?”
“No!” said Tareq, and he immediately wrapped his arms around the hulker he’d been holding hands with. The hulker patted his head.
“Oh, really,” said Kutta, sighing hard through her nose.
“Tareq, behave,” said Mhumhi, a note of warning in his voice, but Tareq just hugged the hulker tighter, so that mild discomfort appeared in its expression.
Mhumhi could see that his stubbornness was not going to yield, so he walked over to Mini and picked her up in his jaws himself, by her scruff. She hung there, a deadweight, her rear paws brushing the ground.
One of the hulkers nearby reached out for him, and Mhumhi jerked his head away, letting a low growl sound from his throat. It vibrated through his teeth clenched around Mini’s fur.
Kutta went over to push the door open, rearing to use her weight. As when Mhumhi had done it, one of the hulkers ran to hold it open for her, cringing in a servile way. The one holding Tareq picked him up and walked towards her.
Mhumhi put his ears back and forward again, and then began moving awkwardly forward, Mini’s body dragging back against and between his forelegs. In this proximity to her he couldn’t help but notice she bore a new stench, besides the smell of drying blood; a stench he was familiar with, having spent so much time in a sewer. It came from her lower belly.
Something brushed his head. He looked up. A hulker had moved beside him to stroke between his ears, smiling. Now she reached out and caught the fur on Mini’s back in her fingers and tugged. The little domestic came right out of Mhumhi’s surprised grasp.
“No!” cried Mini, struggling, as the hulker immediately drew her to her chest, like an infant. To more appeared, shoving Mhumhi out of the way, despite his growls of alarm. They went to touch Mini, ignoring her squirming, snapping state, as the hulker holding her nestled her in her arms and rocked her.
“Stop,” whined Mini, panting, as they patted her. “Stop…”
Mhumhi reared up to growl at one of the hulkers surrounding her, and it and its companion fell back in surprise. The one holding her, pressed her closer to her chest and pressed its lips to her forehead.
Mini closed her eyes and gave a very long whine.
“Oh,” she said, “they’re gone.”
The hulker looked down at her with no understanding in its dark eyes.
“They’re gone,” whimpered Mini. “The humans are gone. If this is all… they’re gone. We tried so hard to pick up the pieces… My man… I- I saw his pieces… I should have known…”
She laid her head and her paw down on the hulker’s arm, tension going out of her body.
“It’s all right,” said Mini. The hulker kissed her again, and her muzzle tipped limply from the contact.
The hulker holding the door open gave a grunt, its extended arm quivering.
“Let’s go!” said Kutta, her tail tucked underneath her belly. “Let’s go and look upstairs now. Don’t close your eyes, Mini.”
Mini’s dark eyes flickered, but she did not close them.
Mhumhi felt that sickness in his gut worse than ever, but he felt there was nothing to do but move forward, towards the door. The hulkers holding Mini and Tareq followed them. It seemed to come naturally to them, as if they had known what the dogs had needed by instinct.
Kutta went ahead, walking up the stairs in a wary way, with Mhumhi and their odd entourage following slowly behind. It was a loud, clattering progress up the stairs with all the large and unsubtle hulker feet traveling behind.
Kutta stuck her head out the next door, and gave a low, unhappy sound. Mhumhi went to peer out next to her, popping his head above hers.
They looked out onto a hallway that was nearly identical to the two floors below it, though this was much less trashed- indeed, almost pristine. There were no hulkers here. Kutta whistled to be sure, but when they pricked their ears they heard no movement. Rather, their hulker followers seemed reluctant to even get near the open door; no one had come forward this time to hold it open.
This hallway also bore a curious low humming, that Mhumhi slowly became aware of, like a persistent itch in his inner ear. It reminded him of the strange humming in the desert, and how it had stopped the minute they had set foot in the place.
“There’s nothing here,” said Kutta. “Let’s go to the next floor.”
Mhumhi looked back into the stairwell, and up. The flights repeated their upwards crawl at least a dozen more times. He had a sinking feeling that what they would discover, again and again, were more identical-looking and empty hallways.
“Do you smell that?” asked Kutta, raising her nose.
Mhumhi inhaled slowly.
“That…” He took another breath. There was the scent of something hanging very faintly in the air. Something he did not recognize at all, a sort of muddy, heavy scent. It was most certainly the scent of something alive.
“It’s up this way,” Kutta said, an eager note entering her voice. Mhumhi wondered why- but then, the scent had elicited a strange excitement in him as well, his heart suddenly fluttering in his chest.
They went up the stairs, past two more doors, before they found the one that the strange scent was emanating from behind. Mhumhi took another deep whiff; it had grown stronger. It was neither hulker nor dog… nor hyena… nothing even remotely close to any of those, no. He felt that it was the scent of a large animal, but it did not incite a sense of danger in him. Still, he felt wary.
“Let’s keep together for this,” he told Kutta, and she gave him a dry look.
They eased through the door together. The hallway behind it was quite different from the others. For one thing, it was not really a hallway at all, more like a very large, rectangular room, with many open stalls laid out, and a vast grate for a floor. Mhumhi looked down at it between his paws and saw a wet metal floor a few inches underneath.
“Look!” exclaimed Kutta, and ran forward. Mhumhi followed her, his heart pounding. In one or two of the large stalls there was a thing with black straps hanging from the ceiling, but the high stall walls obscured what it held.
Kutta came round to the side of the stall and stopped, and Mhumhi did too.
In the stall, being supported and held up by the straps, was a creature that he had never seen the like of before. Or rather, the rear of said creature, for it was a somewhat vast rear, with a hanging ropelike tail and a smelly orifice underneath.
It was black in color, and massive around, through its little dangling legs were so thin and limp Mhumhi suspected it had never got a chance to use them. Its paws were peculiar, hard and rounded, with no digits or claws. A fat heavy teat hung from its belly.
Kutta licked her lips, staring up at it with a familiar intensity in her yellow eyes. The strange animal made a lowing sound, and turned its head around to look at them. It had large ears, and sharp bones coming out if its head, and a vast moist nose. The whites were showing around its eyes as its nostrils flared.
“What is it?” Mhumhi asked, feeling frankly bewildered. He noticed that there was was something odd coming off the animal’s neck- something not biological- a plastic tube, that appeared to be leading from a port in the wall right through a hole in the outside of its throat.
The creature lowed again, a heavy, hopeless sound, and shifted a little in its hammock of straps, making it sway a little from side to side.
Kutta licked her lips, and Mhumhi felt himself salivating. There was no point in denying that the sight of the pathetic thing made him feel hungry; he had felt this upon his first glimpse of the hulker puppies too. And with this thing the hunger-feeling was even stronger, as if his body were certain that this was the sort of thing he should be trying to eat.
But he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and pity, looking at it hanging there, held helpless, its stick-legs much too feeble to support its own weight even if they could somehow cut it down.
There were two animals like it in the large room of stalls, held aloft in a similar manner. The rest of the stalls were empty, though in some black straps still dangled down from the ceiling, as if their occupants had only recently left.
Kutta went and sniffed the thing’s leg, and it lowed again in an unhappy way, the flesh quivering.
“Mini,” she called, “do you have any idea what this thing is?”
Mini was still in the hulker’s arms, back by the door to the stairwell- the hulkers still seemed reluctant to come forward. Her head was down and her tongue was protruding between her teeth again.
“Mini,” called Kutta, when she did not answer, and shot Mhumhi a worried look. Mhumhi could not reassure her. He could see that Mini’s small ribcage was still moving up and down- barely.
“Cow!” said Tareq.
He, too, was still being carried, and from his clinging vantage point he reached out a hand and pointed at the strange animal.
“Is that what it is, Tareq?” asked Kutta.
Tareq nodded, putting his hand back to grip the hulker’s shoulder again.
“And what is a cow?” asked Mhumhi. “Why is it hanging like this?”
Tareq put his thumb in his mouth and sucked it blankly.
“Do you think it’s spent its whole life like this?” asked Kutta, sniffing at the cow’s haunch again. It gave a kind of miserable moan.
“It doesn’t- um-” Mhumhi paused, and then walked around to the cow’s head. It turned to look at him, nose very wet and eyes very white.
“Do you speak at all?” Mhumhi asked, feeling foolish, but certain that he would want to know. “Do you underst-”
The cow interrupted him with a louder low, waving its head back and forth as it struggled harder. Mhumhi’s stomach felt like it was twisting. He could feel the cow’s fear, clearly see its desire to get away, and how it was trapped and helpless… and yet, all of these things made him hungrier.
Kutta was panting a little, her yellow eyes on the cow’s meaty rump.
“Do you think,” she asked, “we’ll find any actual meat in this place? Or will we have to-”
“I hope you weren’t going to say make some,” Mhumhi said.
Kutta licked her lips.
“Why… not? It doesn’t talk, clearly.”
“That doesn’t mean it can’t-” Mhumhi paused. He had been going to say that it didn’t mean that the cow couldn’t think, like Vimbo, but he was not sure why they were making the distinction at all, as though thinking and speaking were things that prevented one from becoming food… It surely didn’t, as he could attest himself…
“You can see in its eyes that there’s nothing there,” said Kutta. “Like a rat. Like them.” She pointed her nose towards the hulkers crowded in the doorway.
Mhumhi looked at the cow’s black, moist eyes.
“Let’s keep exploring a bit,” he said, “and we can always come back to it. It’s not going anywhere.”
Kutta’s throat bobbed as she swallowed.
“Yes, you’re right,” she said. “That’d be hasty of us, anyway, to kill it now. We’re not desperate yet.”
Mhumhi was not sure about the last part. He stepped away from the cow’s head. The grate made his paws rather uncomfortable with the way it dug into them.
There was a whirring sound, and Mhumhi glanced back. He could see something moving through the semi-translucent plastic of the tube leading to the cow’s throat. Some sort of liquid, from the port in the wall to the inside of the cow. It twitched.
Mhumhi found the sight a little sickening, and his pity welled up again. He went back over the the cow’s head, ignoring the way it swung from side to side, and put his teeth into the plastic.
He had meant to just pull it out of the hole in the cow’s throat, assuming somehow that holes in the throat were something a cow naturally had, and the tube would slide out easily. Instead as the cow jerked its head to the side the tube tore in Mhumhi’s teeth and there was a ripping sound from the cow’s neck.
The cow lowed wetly, suddenly bloodied. Mhumhi realized the part he was holding in his teeth had torn in half, and now the cow had the broken-off part dangling from its throat, bloodied around the base. Pale brown liquid sloshed back out of it and spattered through the grate below. The cow drew a shuddering breath and wet air hissed through the tube.
“What have you done?” cried Kutta. “Why did you-”
The cow gave another wet moo, its head drooping forward. Blood was dripping down with the brown liquid. Mhumhi dropped the tube in his teeth, tension and guilt lighting his body, and grabbed the cow’s nose in his teeth.
Its weak breath entered his throat as he held it there. He saw behind it that Kutta was staring at him in a horrorstruck way, but then she but her ears back and crouched underneath the cow, biting at its belly.
Mhumhi squeezed his eyes shut. The cow moaned in a thin, hissing way. Kutta was drawing blood, but the straps were blocking her from opening it up. She was snarling a bit with frustration, her eyes lighting with something that was not pity. She backed out from underneath the cow and went behind it again. Mhumhi did not see what she did there, but the cow moaned, shuddered, and stopped breathing into Mhumhi’s mouth. Blood trickled down from the tube.
Mhumhi held onto its nose a few minutes, because its body was still jerking a bit, but then he realized that it was from whatever Kutta was doing to it. He let the head go, and it fell and swung above the grate.
It was the shock that must have killed it, that or having its breathing tube cut, was Mhumhi’s thought, because when he went around to see what Kutta had done, he knew it was not nearly enough to have murdered the thing. She had opened up its rear, exposing the back part of the intestines- foul-smelling in the enclosed room, yet not so foul as a dog’s or a human’s. She drew her bloodied face back.
“The straps are still in the way,” she said.
She was right, Mhumhi noted, but there did not seem to be much they could do about that. He still felt a little sick, looking at the dead cow, yet still, it hung there in death much the same way that it had hung there in life…
He looked back, and realized that they had had an audience. The hulkers had all moved closer. He saw in their expressions interest, curiosity… no fear.
Tareq had buried his head into his hulker’s shoulder, and was sobbing quietly. Mhumhi put his ears back.
To avoid looking at the boy, he looked over at Mini, still in the arms of her own captor. Her head was still down, but she had retracted her tongue back into her mouth and her eyes seemed more focused.
“Wild dogs,” she said. “Yes… you are, aren’t you.”
“It was dying,” said Mhumhi, feeling defensive. “We’ve got to eat-”
“I’m not angry with you,” said Mini. “I think it’s good. You know how to make more meat.”
Mhumhi looked at the dead cow, at its open, bloody rear. Kutta was still widening it, quickly and quietly, despite the hampering straps. Her throat was moving as she swallowed. Mhumhi was swallowing too, and salivating, feeling all that hot food so close by.
“Eat it,” said Mini. “It’s all right. It was a cow. It’s made to be eaten.”
“What do you mean, made…?”
“The hulkers made it like this,” said Mini. “They eat them. Breed them, so there’s lots, and then eat them. My hulker told me about cows. A living dispensary.”
Mhumhi looked at the cow, which certainly did seem to comprise of a lot of meat. “The hulkers did this?” The tube, the straps. “But isn’t it…”
“Isn’t it what?”
Mhumhi put his ears back again. He was not sure what he had been trying to say. Behind him, there was a lowing sound, and he jumped- it was still alive?
But no, it had only been one of the other two cows in the room; he’d forgotten about them. More living dispensaries, waiting to be eaten.
“Tareq,” Kutta was saying, voice wheedling. “Tareq, it’s all right, it’s not alive anymore. Come and have some meat.”
Tareq kept his head in the hulkers shoulder and said something muffled. Mhumhi thought he could extrapolate well enough.
“Let him be for now,” he said. They could regurgitate for him later, with the meat disconnected from the cow by several iterations.
He and Kutta at, best they could, their heads inside the cow, under its skin, as they pulled out mouthfuls. The body swayed from the straps, making it difficult.
Kutta offered to give some to Mini, but she refused.
“If I eat, I’ll die faster,” she said.
Mhumhi drew his bloody head back out of the cow. He did not want to think about Mini dead- dead things… became meat. If they had no other choice, what kinds of meat would they consume? They had already killed a living being to do it. His mind whirled around unpleasantly and came to rest on the worst image of all: that of Maha saying, again and again, “Don’t eat my body, Mhumhi.”
“I’m finished,” he said, backing away from the corpse. “Shouldn’t we keep moving now?”
“I guess,” said Kutta, withdrawing as well, though her eyes still looked hungry. “We can come back to it…”
Mhumhi swallowed and went to the door. Kutta followed, parting through the little crowd of hulkers that had amassed to watch them. Mhumhi looked back over his shoulder and saw that many of them had moved forward in their absence to stare at the cow. Some were touching it, then licking blood off their fingers.
Tareq’s hulker seemed to gauge his reaction well enough and went back towards the dogs.
They went back to the stairs, Kutta’s sour comment about scavengers not leaving any meat for them notwithstanding.
They sniffed around for more mysterious signs of things, but the scent of blood was everywhere and very strong and distracting. Mhumhi led the group up another two flights of stairs, and then stopped in front of a door, more at random than anything else.
He and Kutta pushed open the door. Here was another hallway, with a carpet. It was very like the other ones. Except- except-
There was a female hulker standing in front of them, her arms folded behind her back.
“Oh,” she said. “Dogs.”