Food-sharing seemed to be a kind of ritual for hulkers, Mhumhi thought, as he and Kutta sat close together on the couch in the room the hulker had taken them to. O lay on the opposite couch- the other hulker had put something over her face.
But it always did seem to come down to sharing food, with them. His mind went back to his strained first meal with Maha, and then tea with Lamya (he pointedly avoided thinking of Biscuit), and even the time in the cafeteria with Danai. Now this new hulker immediately offered to dine with them. Mhumhi thought rather critically, for a moment, that it was sloppy; a dog would only share food with his family.
Then he felt ashamed. It simply wasn’t true. He and Kutta were there that day only because of the generosity of the dogs at the water treatment plant.
The strange hulker had vanished through another door for a moment, leaving them in this strange room of squashy couches and low tables, but now she returned, with a box and three bowls stacked in one hand.
“It will only take a moment,” she said, glancing at them. She was rounder in contrast to the willowy O, and she drooped more around the edges, her black-on-white eyes surrounded by tired folds.
Kutta was holding close to Mhumhi, the curve of her furry back pressing into his side. They had made use of the hulker’s absence for some mutual facial bathing, and Mhumhi’s ears were finally no longer stiff with blood. Tareq was lying with his head on Kutta’s haunch, but he was not asleep. He opened his eyes and glared at the stranger.
“See that he doesn’t bite,” said the hulker, as she drew close. Mhumhi wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a joke or not.
She laid out the three bowls for them on the low table, and then poured the things from the box into them: transparent cubes the size of Mhumhi’s paw pads with a faint yellow tint to them. They did not look or smell very appetizing.
Perhaps noticing their dubious looks, the hulker said, “They taste better than they look,” and took one out of Mhumhi’s bowl and put it in her mouth to show them.
Kutta licked Tareq on the forehead, so that he pushed himself off of her and rubbed his eyes.
“Go eat,” she told him. “Aren’t you hungry?”
Tareq looked at her and made a garbled noise of displeasure. Mhumhi found that the sentiment was well-expressed. He himself was not particularly hungry- Kutta and he had gorged themselves on the cow just a little while ago- but he felt that he ought to eat something, just to complete that peculiar hulker ritual.
He rose to his feet and hopped down from the couch, squeezing around the side of the table so that he could tilt his head sideways over the bowl and snap up a cube.
Right away he recognized the lie by the taste. It was meat, no matter how it looked. Dispensary meat.
He met the hulker’s eyes. She returned his gaze with a weary one.
Kutta put a paw on the table to lean closer and sniff the cubes, then retracted herself back onto the couch, curling around Tareq, who was huddled into the cushions.
“What’s your name?” she asked the hulker.
The hulker moved to sit down in one of the chairs opposite them, rather heavily, making it creak.
“Henli,” she said. “Do you two have names? Do dogs still use names?”
“Of course we do,” said Kutta, her forehead sloping with irritation. “I’m Kutta, and this is my younger brother Mhumhi. The puppy is Tareq.”
“Sorry,” said Henli, raising both hands. “I didn’t mean to offend you… the last time I saw dogs, they were talking about rejecting all sorts of human things. Like names.”
“How are names human things?” asked Mhumhi.
Henli gave a little smile. “I suppose there are more dogs with names now than there are humans.”
“And when was the last time you saw dogs?” asked Kutta.
“In the flesh?” Henli shook her head. “A very long time ago. But I do watch you lot on the monitors all the time.”
“The monitors?” asked Kutta.
“Like O was talking about,” Mhumhi told her, picturing the computers Mini had showed him with pictures of dogs on them. “They show things to you, and speak.”
“These ones don’t speak,” Henli corrected to him. “They don’t carry sound all the way from the city. I watch the dogs on mute. It’s quite interesting still, to be honest. I’ve seen fights, births, weird gatherings…”
“You’re saying you can see all the way into the city from this building?” asked Kutta.
“Yes,” said Henli. “I imagine the dogs weren’t aware of the cameras originally, which is why they didn’t tear them down. Though they were probably also worried about damaging the solar panels and not having electricity.”
“You mean to tell me that you could see into the city and tell me what was going on right now?” Kutta demanded, rising to her feet on the couch. Tareq grabbed at her front leg.
“In some places, I could,” said Henli. “Why? Do you want to look for something?”
Kutta turned and gave Mhumhi an incredulous look. He hopped back up to stand next to her on the couch.
“Have you looked recently? Haven’t you noticed anything that’s been happening?”
Henli drew her brows together. “There are always many things happening- like what?”
“Like- like the hyenas! Or the painted dogs going under the city!”
“Or the massive fire,” Kutta put in.
“Oh, yes, there was a fire in one of the top quadrants,” said Henli. “It’s been a while since there was one. To tell you the truth, though, I wasn’t paying much attention to the area.”
“You didn’t see the hyenas?” Mhumhi asked. “Aren’t they noteworthy?”
“They do appear periodically,” said Henli. “Those bouda, or whatever they call themselves… they used to be a lot more numerous. I’m surprised that they haven’t yet died out.”
“Well, they might,” said Mhumhi, feeling much aggrieved. “The painted dogs have gone down one of their entrances to attack them. Do you have cameras down there?”
“No,” said Henli. “The bouda were quick to dissociate themselves from us, so that area has always been out of our system. Quite a queer group…”
“The people of this city- well, the human, non-bouda people, I guess.” Henli put her chin in one hand. “How much do you actually know about the city’s history, dog…?”
Her clear gaze suddenly made him a little uncomfortable, and he shifted beside Kutta, making the couch creak.
“The humans were starving,” he said. “And they had nothing to eat, so they…”
Henli was quiet, and Mhumhi shifted again.
“They made themselves into meat.”
Kutta gave him a swift glance. Henli’s expression did not change.
“Shortened, but yes, it’s true.” She looked down at her hands and gave a little smile. “The parts you’ve left out, though… That makes me a bit sad.”
“Which parts?” asked Kutta, leaning forward a little, pricking her ears.
“About the dogs, I guess,” said Henli. On the couch across from them, O stirred, and rolled half on her side. They all stared at her for a moment, but she made no further movement, aside from the soft rise and fall of her chest.
“She’ll wake up again soon if she’s not put back to bed,” said Henli.
“What about the dogs?” demanded Mhumhi. “What were you going to say?”
Henli looked back at them, then rubbed her chin.
“You know why we were starving, don’t you?”
“You ran out of food,” Kutta said promptly.
“Oh, goodness, that’s simple.” Henli shook her head. “We were cut off. This city- like a tumor. There were too many humans. The ones in power picked the places they liked, and the rest- well, the planes flew over.”
“What’s a plane?”
“It doesn’t matter what a plane is,” said Henli. “All you need to know is that it dropped something on us that meant we couldn’t make any more babies.”
Mhumhi processed this, then looked at Kutta, and then both of them looked over at Tareq, who was drowsily clutching a pillow to himself.
“Yes,” said Henli, “it’s been wearing off for some time. But for a while, we couldn’t reproduce anymore. And our ways out were cut off, one by one, like closing down blood vessels… We stopped having contact with the outside world. They didn’t kill us- but they left us to die.”
“They…” repeated Mhumhi, gazing at her tired face. “Other hul- humans?”
“We were eating the world away, with our billions,” said Henli. “I suppose some just had to go. I’d say I don’t envy the man who got to make the decision- but I do, because he probably put himself on the better side of the line.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mhumhi. “You couldn’t leave?”
“A lot tried to,” said Henli. “I suppose some of them succeeded… But this city was far away to begin with- from anything remotely habitable, I mean. And there are always plenty who can’t afford to move. We had to find a food source, and quickly.”
“Oh,” said Kutta, and she cast a swift, painful glance at Tareq. “So that’s when some of you decided to… lay down their lives?”
“We were not that selfless yet. I’m surprised you haven’t thought about it, dogs. This city didn’t have the sort of land where you could keep livestock like cows or goats, and there certainly weren’t many crops you could grow in that desert- but we did have one sort of creature that lived with us. In droves.”
Mhumhi stood still, listening to his own heart beating. Kutta shivered beside him.
“You mean, they were going to eat the…?”
“It isn’t unheard of,” said Henli, shifting her chin to her other hand. “In fact, I know it was the norm in some places… to breed dogs for eating. It could certainly be done humanely here without much trouble. Except we had already shot ourselves in the foot, so to speak. Er- maybe you don’t understand that expression. We did something that would make eating the dogs difficult.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, understanding at once. That moving picture he had seen- the dog and the child, speaking together.
“IntelliDogs were supposed to be a special breed,” said Henli. “Expensive, and carefully maintained. They neutered every one that was sold initially. But I suppose the people who made the retrovirus weren’t paying much attention to the packaging. It spread with or without breeding. And people encouraged it. Everybody wanted their dog infected.”
“Until they had to eat them,” said Mhumhi.
Henli drew her fingers through her short, coarse hair.
“The talking was a bit of a turn-off,” she said. “And it wasn’t as if the troubles we were having were any secret from the dogs themselves. They knew. They weren’t pleased about the way things were going. They let all the wild dogs out of the conservation center, you know.”
“The domestics did?”
“As a protest.” Henli laughed. “I think they regretted it quickly.”
“So did you eat the dogs?” Kutta asked, eyeing the cubes on the table.
“No,” said Henli. “No, we didn’t… You have to understand.” She peered at them, her eyes nearly lost in the folds of her face. “It was all our problem. It was all our mess. That’s what we agreed on. Most of us, anyway. The dogs… they were here because of us, and they didn’t deserve to die.”
“Oh,” said Kutta. Her voice had gone soft. Mhumhi looked down at the fabric on the couch. This… he had not expected to hear.
“You know,” said Henli, “we made dogs into our image, for hundreds of thousands of years… they lived in our homes, part of our lives, just so we could love them. And then we made them speak to us. I know that once we were over all the excitement, many felt quite bad about it. You can’t ask a dog if he wants to speak, and you can’t take it back from him once given, either.”
“I would rather speak,” said Kutta. Mhumhi said nothing.
“Not even every human feels that way,” said Henli, glancing at the closed door. “We didn’t then. We were mostly tired of slowly starving, of growing older with no children. The city was splitting into factions. Some people still wanted to eat the dogs. Some people, like those bouda, still wanted to find ways to keep having children- keep making more mouths to feed- ridiculous. A very large portion of us had had enough. And then, the idea started to spread…”
Mhumhi knew very well what idea it was, but he kept quiet, listening.
“I am afraid there were already a lot of people that were suicidal,” said Henli. “It was just the environment. So they began saying, ‘We’re dying, we’re too sick to live, make use of us.’ It was suddenly noble. It was the most beautiful martyrdom. More importantly, I think, it offered some sort of control.”
“So you hung yourselves on hooks,” said Mhumhi, his lips curling away from his teeth. Tareq made a little whimper of protest, his hands over his ears. Kutta turned and put herself around him, licking his cheeks.
“What would you have done, dog?” asked Henli. “For your loved ones…? Anyway, it wasn’t pleasant for those left behind. There was a great deal of pressure, you see, because to feed some for the rest of our lives, we would have to drastically reduce our population, which was in the millions. It was wholly depressing. You couldn’t imagine dying- but being left behind, would you want that?”
“I would have left,” Kutta said, keeping herself protectively curled around Tareq. “I wouldn’t have stood for it. I…”
Henli let her trail off. Mhumhi found himself thinking, unhappily, of Lamya.
“There were a few who started the other idea,” she said. “Which, it seems, the dogs have forgotten. It’s all right, though.”
Mhumhi thought her expression looked more embittered than her words let on.
“The dogs were never gone for any of this, you understand,” said Henli. “And they were hungry, too. They shared our problems. And it was a few people who decided to- well, to feed them instead.”
Mhumhi felt blank.
“They fed themselves to the dogs?”
“Yes,” said Henli. “We have always extolled the dogs’ virtues. And since everybody agreed that it was the people who had gotten us into this mess, it might have seemed like a better sacrifice.”
“Oh,” said Kutta, sitting up abruptly. “Oh, oh no. I think I-”
“You get it?” Henli. She looked at Mhumhi. “Do you understand, now?”
“Understand what?” Mhumhi felt uneasy- thick dread was curling underneath his breastbone again. But he really had no idea what they were getting at.
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta. Her voice seemed pale, somehow. “The dispensaries. It… they were never made for humans to use, were they.”
“You’re right,” said Henli. “We took a city-wide vote, and the decision was made.”
“The decision,” Mhumhi repeated.
“The dogs were not at fault,” said Henli. “It was our fault. We made them clever, we made them speak, and we loved them. We couldn’t abandon them. So we…” She laughed, suddenly, and wiped the corner of her eye with her thumb.
“We left the city for them.”