There had been plenty of things for Mhumhi to get nervous about, in this building Mini had called the forbidden place, but he was more nervous than he had yet been at the sight of the quiet hulker in front of him.
Perhaps ‘hulker’ was the wrong word for it, because this, more than anything else he had seen before, seemed to fit the word human. He was not sure why it felt that way. The human-hulker was standing up straight, her arms clasped loosely behind her back, watching them with calm eyes. Her sclera were white, Mhumhi noted, not black, like the screamer hulkers’.
“Do you speak?” asked the human.
Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a look. Mhumhi was feeling lightheaded, almost, and frightened, though he again could not say why. He felt rather relieved for how stable Kutta felt beside him.
“We speak,” she said.
“I thought you did,” said the human. She loosened her arms to put one hand near her cheek, hesitated, and then dropped it without touching herself.
“Are you-” Kutta started, but the human interrupted her.
“Do all dogs talk now, or are there a few ordinary ones left? I can’t remember.”
“Ordinary?” repeated Mhumhi.
“We all talk,” said Kutta. “Clearly not all of your kind do.”
She had the sharp edge back in her voice. It seemed she was feeling some of the unease that Mhumhi was after all. He stole a quick glance at her, at the way she stood with her legs braced and her face still dark with cow’s blood. His fur, too, felt thick and matted.
The human appeared to be thinking, and she raised her hand again, then put it down again.
“You mean them?”
Her eyes had focused behind Mhumhi and Kutta. Mhumhi looked back and realized that none of the screamers had come into the hallway with them. He could see their dark forms still huddled through the window to the stairwell. Mini and Tareq were still with them.
He got a sense that Mini should be there to meet this human, but then again, he still felt that nervousness. What was so strange about it all?
“They don’t talk, do they,” mused the human. Her eyes slid back to them. “I forgot about them. Sorry, dogs.”
That was what was strange, Mhumhi realized, as the human’s calm gaze pierced him. There were two dogs- wild dogs- standing here, covered in blood, in front of this human in a place where presumably there had been no dogs for centuries. And yet the best this human could muster was a sort of vague disinterest. That hand inched its way up towards her face again, then flopped back down, swaying.
Kutta seemed at a loss for words, and she looked at Mhumhi. He felt little better. How were they supposed to proceed with this?
“Are there more of you?” he asked.
“More of… me?”
“More humans, I mean. Not like the ones back there.”
“Oh,” she said, blinking slowly. “Yes, there are more humans.”
Mhumhi waited a moment, then prompted her. “And they are…?”
“Sleeping,” said the human. “Mostly. I’m not. Not right now.”
“Did we wake you up?” asked Mhumhi, thinking to himself that he’d be surprised if that was the case, since this one did not strike him as a light sleeper.
“Oh, no,” said the human. “I was supposed to wake up. You’ve got to, once and a while, otherwise you go into a coma.”
“What’s a-” Mhumhi stopped himself. Perhaps it was time to go with a different tack. “What’s your name?”
“You do have one, don’t you?” Kutta looked rather worried now, and her tone had softened.
“Hmm,” said the human, blinking slightly faster. Mhumhi felt like she had almost shown a spark of irritation at being spoken down to, but he wasn’t sure.
“My name is O.”
“O yes,” said O. “Or O no. Or O my.”
“It’s a joke,” said O. She cast her eyes down for a moment, hooding them under her long lashes.
“It’s, um,” said Kutta, and looked at Mhumhi again. He wished she’d stop behaving like he had any better grasp of the situation.
“O,” he said, “we have a, er, friend, who’s very badly injured. Can you help her?”
“O no,” said O, and then she gave them both a quick look, as though measuring their response. “O no, I said.”
“Can you help her?” repeated Kutta, laying her ears back.
“O,” said O, looking down again. “I mean, I don’t know. Does she need a bandage?”
“Her back legs don’t work,” said Kutta. “She’s dying.”
“O dear,” said O, and then seemed to finally give it up after examining their body language. “That doesn’t sound very good.”
“Dying usually doesn’t,” said Mhumhi. “But you know things, don’t you? Can’t you help her?”
“Hmm,” said O. “I do know things. But I’m not technically a veterinarian.”
“Can you help her?” Kutta said again. One of her forelegs was quivering a little.
“Mm,” said O. “Maybe somebody else is a veterinarian. I can’t remember.”
Kutta cast a frustrated glance at Mhumhi. “I think this is pointless.”
“I don’t know,” Mhumhi replied. He hesitated. “Maybe we aren’t asking the right questions.”
“Don’t you two have very dirty faces?” asked O.
“O,” said Mhumhi, “Where are the other humans sleeping?”
“Hm.” O’s fingers twitched. “I think I might not be supposed to tell you.”
“Hmm… Because you might be hungry.”
Mhumhi felt that nervous squirm in his chest again. “We aren’t.”
“Probably not, but that’s the rule,” said O. “I don’t think you’re even allowed up here. I guess the dogs just let you in.”
“Dogs?” exclaimed Kutta. “There are dogs here?”
“Of course,” said O, her eyes widening very slightly. “Didn’t you mention them before? Behind you.”
Mhumhi looked back again- his heart feeling like it was sinking in wet sand- and saw the lumped dark shapes of the screamers in the window.
“You mean, those other hul- humans,” said Kutta. “I didn’t think you’d think of yourselves as dogs-”
“I’m not a dog,” said O, waving her hand, a tiny movement. “Those are the dogs.”
“If you’re not a dog,” said Mhumhi, “then they-”
“I guess they’re not dogs,” said O. “We only call them dogs.” Her voice did not vary in its tonelessness. “It’s a joke.”
“Then why do-”
But O apparently hadn’t finished speaking yet, and she cut over Mhumhi.
“I forgot that they looked different from dogs, actually, until I saw you outside.”
“Outside?” Mhumhi felt dizzy. “Then, you were looking out through the window?”
“Mm, no,” said O. “I saw you in the desert. She said not to, but I thought it would be funny to call you over here.”
“Wait a moment,” said Kutta. “Call us over here- was that you? Doing that weird sand-vibration thing?”
“Mm,” said O. “It was for people, but there haven’t been any people. I think it’s been a long time. And then I saw the dogs in the sand. I thought I would see if they would come.”
“A funny joke, was it?” Kutta said, her hackles rising.
“Was it?” O’s hand danced closer to her face until her fingertips just brushed her cheek. “Was it?”
“I don’t understand,” said Mhumhi. “That was very far away. How did you see us?”
“Camera,” said O. “On a pole. There are lots of them, really. I watch lots of dogs.”
“You mean, dogs like us,” said Mhumhi. “Not dogs like the ones in the stairwell.”
“Those ones are boring to watch,” O said. “The ones on the screens aren’t. It’s probably because they aren’t real.”
“They aren’t real?”
“Well,” said O, “I’m not sure. I only thought that because they were interesting. But you seem like you’re real.” She paused, and narrowed her eyes slightly, staring at them.
“We are real, and I can prove it,” said Kutta, raising a lip.
Mhumhi thought he’d do her one better. He walked over to O and put his nose against the palm of her dangling hand.
“Is it real?”
O’s eyes suddenly got extremely wide.
She snatched her hand away, flexing it, for a moment almost wiry-seeming. Then her expression relaxed again.
“It’s cold. Your nose.”
“But it’s real,” said Mhumhi.
“Mm.” O gave a very small smile, the first he’d seen on her.
“Dog’s nose,” she said. “It’s wet. I remember. They lick you.”
“You must have been around a real dog before, then,” said Mhumhi, encouraging, looking up at her. “A domestic, probably.”
“Probably,” O echoed. “I can’t remember too hard, though. I’ll get excited and go back to sleep.”
“Isn’t it usually the other way around?” asked Kutta, her eyes narrowed.
“No,” said O, blithely. “Excitement makes your heart speed up, and adrenaline, and all. It ages the body quicker. It’s important to stay calm.”
Now she had got Kutta mildly alarmed, for she was putting her ears back again. “It doesn’t really do that, does it?”
“It sounds foolish,” said Mhumhi. “How can you go through life without getting excited, anyway?”
“Drugs and sleep,” said O, and the little smile returned to her face. “We only have so much time, in our bodies. We’re waiting it out.”
“Waiting what out, exactly?” asked Kutta. Mhumhi was feeling nervous again, that wet-sand feeling.
“This,” said O, without gesturing. “You know. The world. Hell.”
“You’re waiting out the world?”
“Only as long as it takes,” said O.
“As long as it takes for what?”
“For someone to find us. Save us. I don’t know.” O’s little smile was back, chasing away the faint wrinkles at the corners of her mouth. “We didn’t want to be dead when that happened. We might be, though.”