Mhumhi ate the cubes, one at a time, from the bowl, feeling their lying surfaces collapse under his premolars. He kept his eyes on Henli as he did so, eating and eating, though his belly was already fuller than was comfortable.
Henli was looking back at him, but she did not seem uncomfortable; rather, she kept that tired smile. For some reason this made Mhumhi feel sour.
Tareq had not touched the cubes, despite Kutta’s cajoling. He stayed pressed against her side on the couch, curling his knees to his chest, one thin wrist crooked over her neck.
“I want the nice yellers,” he told her.
“The… who?” Kutta said, wagging her tail a little.
“Nice yellers,” Tareq repeated, and pointed at the door. They could hear movement behind it- the screamers were all still crouched outside in the hallway.
“We can see them in a little while,” said Kutta, then, hopefully, “if you eat for me.”
Tareq frowned and retracted his hand at once. Mhumhi felt a pang. There was a little of Maha in his stubborn expression.
He stopped eating, licking his lips. His jaws felt gummed together.
“What now,” he said, directing the question to the whole room.
Kutta turned to look at him, with her pockmarked muzzle, and Henli put her chin in one hand and said nothing.
Tareq said, “Let’s go see the yellers,” and then jammed his thumb in his mouth in an irritated way, as if he knew nobody was going to take him seriously.
“Is that a question for me?” Henli asked, after a moment. “Because I really can’t answer it. Like I said, we left the city…”
“It was not a question for you,” Mhumhi said, raising his lip a little. “And whoever you left the city for, it wasn’t us. I mean us in this room.”
“Oh,” said Henli. “It’s true we were thinking of domestics. But I don’t think you’re all that different from them-”
“There you’d be wrong,” said Kutta.
Henli moved her shoulders up and down. “We were responsible for the difficulties that the wild dogs faced as well. The distinction mattered less at the time.”
Because you were all in such a hurry to die, thought Mhumhi, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to say it out loud. He paced the length of the small table a few times.
Kutta rested her chin on Tareq’s shoulder a moment, watching Henli over his back.
“I think Mhumhi is right. What you just told us doesn’t really mean anything, does it? Not as far as what we plan to do next.”
Henli’s smile thinned a bit, but she merely shrugged again.
“You’re free to do whatever you want. The city is yours.”
“We can’t go back to the city,” said Mhumhi. “So what you mean is, this building is ours.”
Henli’s smile thinned even more, but before she could say anything, there was a loud rustling from the next couch over. O had pushed herself up onto her forearms, blinking slowly.
“Have I fallen asleep?”
For a moment her posture and languid eyes reminded Mhumhi oddly of Hlolwa, the madame of the painted dogs.
“Yes, dear,” said Henli, putting her chin back into her hand. “Would you like to go back to your bed now?”
O blinked a few more times, her arms quivering a little from the strain, and then pushed herself back against the couch into a slouching seated position. She looked at Mhumhi from under her eyelashes.
“No,” she said. “Not right now. This dog…”
“Yes?” Henli prompted.
“I touched his nose.”
O gave a small, wavering smile, still looking at Mhumhi. He had to break the gaze first, feeling oddly embarrassed.
“That’s my dog,” said Tareq. Mhumhi saw Kutta flinch as his little fingers dug jealously into her fur.
“It is interesting,” Henli put in, “considering how you yourselves brought up the fact that you are wild dogs- then why the child?”
“Puppy,” said Kutta, and Tareq sat up and said, “I’m a puppy!”
O laughed, one hand hovering in front of her mouth. Mhumhi put his ears back, but there was nothing false about the sound.
“He’s our brother,” he told Henli. “It isn’t complicated. We took him out of the city to protect him from the others. You must be aware of what dogs in the city are doing to the others…?”
“Yes,” said Henli. Her expression changed- she wrinkled her nose a little. “It’s their lot, since they chose to stay.”
“You sound like you think they deserve it,” said Kutta.
Henli pulled her lips down. “Not that little one, no. But his parents- do you know why there are still humans in the city? It’s because they’re the ones that wanted to go with the original plan. They’re the ones that wanted to eat the dogs.”
Mhumhi swallowed. The first sight he’d had of Lamya flashed in his mind’s eye: a hulking monster, dragging a bloodied coyote by the leg. Yet somehow, Henli’s disgusted expression made him feel just as sick, his stomach churning. He could see discomfort in Kutta’s expression as well.
“There’s no question as to whether they deserve it,” said Henli. “And they’re all suffering a harsher death than they would have if they had come here in the-”
“Oh!” exclaimed Kutta, jumping to her feet on the couch, dislodging a startled Tareq. “I can’t believe you! Those hulk- those humans just wanted to stay alive, didn’t they? I don’t see anything wrong with it! Even if they did want to eat dogs- how is it worse than eating your own- own kind…”
She cut herself off, standing there, confusion drawing on her face, and Mhumhi felt it too, because her words felt right and wrong at the same time, with the awful image of Lamya and the smashed coyote…
“My dog was my kind,” said O. They all looked at her, for her tone had been unexpectedly lucid, even though she was still swaying a little in place where she sat on the couch.
“I would have died for her,” she continued, casting her eyes down.
“We were all willing,” said Henli, looking at her with a kind of syrupy sympathy. Mhumhi felt gummy bile in his throat.
“But you’re still here,” he pointed out.
Henli looked at him again.
“Yes,” she said. “From those who were willing to give their lives- some were chosen at random to stay behind. On the- on the slightest chance that we could make still contact with others someday.”
There was real sincerity in her tone, yet Mhumhi couldn’t help but recall her words earlier: I’d say I don’t envy the one who made the decision, but I do…
“Other humans, you mean,” said Kutta.
“It’s not likely to be other dogs,” said Henli. “Yes. There must be some still out there- somewhere- far out of our reach. The ones that abandoned us. I’ve always wondered how they’re getting along out there.”
Mhumhi pondered this for a moment.
“What are they eating? Are they eating their dogs?”
“Intellidogs are mostly a local thing,” said Henli, “so I doubt they’d have similar- er- pathos issue. But they probably have other resources as well, now that they don’t have to share so much. Crops… cows…”
“Ah, cows?” Kutta shot Mhumhi a nervous look.
“We managed to keep a few alive here,” said Henli. “But they’re horribly inbred now. It’s a losing battle, and it certainly can’t feed us all.”
“How many of you are there in this building?” asked Kutta, seeming pressed to get the subject off cows.
“Around fifty or so,” said Henli. “All are sleeping right now, aside from O and I.”
Mhumhi realized O hadn’t spoken up for quite a while. She was sitting slumped against the couch, looking hazy.
“Why so many?” asked Kutta.
“For our knowledge,” said Henli. “Our technical skills. Whatever the best this city had to offer was, we wanted to preserve it. Even O here…” She smiled a little at O, who paused in her swaying to look back at her.
“Tell her what your job was, O.”
“Hm,” said O, blinking. “Job… I… I worked at the center. The conservation center.”
“Don’t be modest. You were one of the top researchers there.”
“Haha,” said O, in a dizzy way. “I don’t… think it’s very necessary knowledge now.”
“Yes,” said Henli. “You could say your hard work has paid off.”
There was a pause, in which O turned and rested her wavering eyes on Mhumhi and Kutta.
“I am happy,” she said, though her face didn’t reflect it very much. Mhumhi felt that same sense of shame again. He shook himself a little.
“I want to know something,” said Kutta. “These things- the things that show you the city-”
“Monitors,” Mhumhi supplied.
“Right, moniders. Where are they? I want to look through them.”
O stood up at once, clutching the arm of the couch for balance. “I’ll show you!”
“Good,” said Kutta, turning one ear back. “They can show any part of the city that’s above the ground, can’t they?”
“To an extent, yes,” said Henli. O was already marching stiff-legged towards the door.
“What are you going to look for?” Mhumhi asked, as Kutta hopped from the couch to the table and down on the floor. Tareq was scrambling after her on his hands and knees, knocking the bowls on the tables astray.
“I want to look through Oldtown,” she said. “For Kebero.”
Mhumhi actually sat back on his haunches at the name. “Kebero…”
“I know he left us,” said Kutta, ducking her head, “but- but if Biscuit wasn’t lying, then Bii’s dead and he- he hasn’t got anybody left, does he?”
Mhumhi kept his mouth shut, because if he had said anything it would have been that Kebero had cast his lot in with the wrong dog and it was his own fault, but he knew that was too harsh, and Kutta did too, which was why she was now giving him a sharp yellow look.
“This way,” called O, opening the door. It bumped into something solid- a screamer. They scattered away through the hall, hooting and slouching. It seemed they’d all been clustered around the door.
“Nice yellers,” said Tareq, in a happy way, and he left Kutta’s side to reach out for the nearest one, a female. She knelt down and put her arms around him at once.
O passed through them, seemingly oblivious to their existence, and they parted way for her.
“Hey,” said Mhumhi, trotting a bit to catch up with her. “Why don’t they like you or Henli? Why are they frightened of you?”
“Hm?” O looked down at him, and then patted the top of his head, catching him off-guard. “Because we don’t like them to hug us. They’re too friendly.”
Mhumhi stepped out of her reach. “Didn’t you make them that way?”
O only gave a wispy laugh. “The computers are in this room,” she said, pushing open a glass door.
Kutta and Tareq caught up with them, though he noted that Henli had chosen to stay alone in the room with all the couches. They went into the computer room and Mhumhi was at once struck by the similarity it had to the place Mini had taken him to in the building with the yellow stripes. If on a slightly smaller scale- there were only two rows of large monitors here, with thick bundles of cable tied together with plastic tangling together under the tables and down through the floor.
O sat down in a chair with wheels on it and rolled herself to the nearest monitor.
“Where do you want to see?”
“Oldtown,” said Kutta at once. She came and sat on the floor besides Mhumhi, tilting her head back to try and get a good view of the monitor.
O looked at her, then pressed a button. There was a grinding sound from the ceiling, and Kutta jumped back to her feet. A large, thin sheet of some sort was sliding down like a cosmic tongue in front of them, stopping when it nearly touched the floor.
“What-” began Mhumhi, then bristled, for the tongue flickered blue and then suddenly there was an image on it- a primally familiar image, of shabby stucco houses squashed together on a dusty street.
“Oh, look!” said Kutta, wagging furiously. “Look, Mhumhi! It’s- it’s ah, the street next to Food Strip! I forget what it was called!”
“Drain street,” Mhumhi supplied. He stared at the image. Nothing was moving in it- the street was bare. If it hadn’t been for a little dust blowing in the wind in the corner he would have thought it was a still picture.
“It’s close to our old home,” said Kutta, her tail wagging lower between her legs. “O… can you go two streets down?”
O gave a few blinks, then turned and clicked away on the buttons in front of the monitor. Mhumhi glanced back at the glass door, which O had propped open- the screamers were again clustered outside, evidently aware that they were not allowed in. The same female was holding Tareq in her arms.
“Look!” cried Kutta. Mhumhi snapped his head around. The screen now displayed a street- their street, from a strange high-up view, yes, but it was their street and there was their home…
Kutta moved closer to him, and Mhumhi shivered. There was not a sign of a dog anywhere. He could see dried white feces still sitting on their doorstep, courtesy of the painted dogs- but there were no painted dogs prowling around, hanging out on rooftops. He could see the long black line that was the storm drain that the little fennec fox liked to hide in- but his pale head was not sticking out. There were no strutting red foxes, no fat raccoon dogs, no noisy black jackals…
“Maybe they all went underground,” said Kutta. Her words were slightly hollow. “O, have us look around the streets nearby a little more.”
O obliged, flicking through street after street- there was Food Strip Street, there was the alley with the blue dumpsters with the rusty stain, there was the place where the little bridge ran over the entrance to the sewer- the manhole cover on top was still shifted open- there was the school with its dirty playground, there was Wide Street, all parked cars, swaying, flickering street lights on wires… but no dogs at all. The dispensary stood closed and silent.
“Wait, go back,” said Mhumhi, as O continued to flick through cameras. “Go back- I saw something moving.”
O obliged, paging back slowly.
There it was- a large, dark shape moving slowly down one street. Mhumhi stared.
It was a hyena, limping, its movements painful, one ear missing.
They watched in silence as it hulked its way down the street, pausing to sniff now and then. It opened its mouth, but no sound was transmitted to them from the cameras. Mhumhi could guess the noise it was making, though.
“That’s not a dog, is it,” said O, peering.
“No,” said Kutta, and she sat down again. “You can stop…”
“No, keep going,” said Mhumhi. “Keep going further out… There’s got to be dogs around somewhere.”
“Mm,” said O, perhaps in agreement, though he couldn’t tell. She jabbed at the button. Mhumhi kept recognizing the sights that passed by. The old diner with the heavy trash can lying on its side out front- the parking garage where he and Kutta had once leapt over turnstiles- the high monorail that the train ran on- and here was the rest of the city, the buildings getting higher away from Oldtown- streets and streets and streets, empty, empty, except for a sudden flash of that giant square image of a grinning hulker, staring directly at the camera.
“Go away from this street,” Kutta urged. Mhumhi’s eyes slid over the image and spotted the entrance to the store where his mother had died before O changed the view.
A few more streets down, they finally saw dogs. Painted dogs, to be precise, in a small group, between tall, shimmering black buildings. They too were moving slowly, though it seemed to be with much more purpose than the hyena. Their mouths were moving, frustratingly soundlessly.
Mhumhi had the dim thought that he might recognize one- Nzui or Ligwami or Umenzi- but they were all strangers to him. It made sense, of course- there were a lot of painted dogs he did not know in the city.
The dogs seemed to be patrolling up and down the street, as they watched, pacing as a small pack up and down from an area just out of the camera’s view. Suddenly there seemed to be a bit of excitement, for more dogs appeared, greeting the others. Mhumhi gazed at them as they wagged and licked at one another, feeling odd- the dogs would never know that someone had been watching them all this time.
More dogs came on camera, and then beside him Kutta gave a little grunt of surprise. In the midst of the mass of dogs were two cringing hyenas with bloody faces. The dogs swirled around them, jumping to nip at their flanks so that they ran forward a few steps at a time- driving them, Mhumhi realized. He looked again at the tall black buildings, and recognized them.
“Why don’t they just kill them?” Kutta muttered, her brow wrinkling as she watched.
“They’re taking them to Big Park,” Mhumhi replied, in a short way. “I don’t think that the bouda did well in the fight.”
Kutta, watching the hyenas, swallowed. They were tracking blood on the street, even as the painted dogs drove them forward. Mhumhi could now glimpse that some of the dogs were wounded as well, though only slightly. They had come out of the fray better-off.
He found he did not know what to feel. It had not been a fight where he’d been cheering for either side to win.
“The other animals are very hurt,” O observed. “Are they going to be all right? Are they going to help them?”
“No, O,” said Mhumhi. “They’re going to eat them.”
O tilted her head slightly, staring at the image. A frown creased her features. “Why should they want to eat them? There’s so much meat for them already…”
“Well, it ran out,” snapped Mhumhi, half-rising in agitation before he made himself sit down again. “They’re finding other sources.”
“It ran out?” O’s eyes were very wide. “Impossible. So many people-”
“There’s nearly none left,” said Mhumhi. “It must not have been as much as you thought.”
“Or,” put in Kutta, “there are many more dogs than you expected.”
O looked back at the screen, where the dogs and hyenas had nearly moved out of sight, her eyes growing misty. “Running out…?”
The last painted dog’s white-tipped tail vanished from sight at the top of the screen, and then a dark shape emerged near the bottom.
“Look, another hyena,” said Kutta, her ears pricking. “Do they know it’s there?”
The hyena looked around, then loped forward in a kind of zigzag, keeping to the shadows of the building. Kutta stood up in her urgency.
“I think it’s going to attack them!”
“Maybe,” said Mhumhi, staring at what he could make out of the hyena’s face. The eyes were blank and black. It slowed down, lowered its head, and opened its mouth- and whooped.
Both Mhumhi and Kutta jumped, trembling, bristling, and O spun around in her chair, her eyes wide. The screamers were uttering little shrieks of alarm, the female holding Tareq cuddling him close to herself. The whoop had not come from the monitor. It was much closer than that- within the building.
“Ah- ah!” Tareq worked his little arm out to try to push himself away from the screamer. “Ah! It’s the ‘yena!”
Mhumhi looked at Kutta, and found that the startled fear in her eyes mirrored his own, because when the second whoop came they knew for sure that they recognized that voice.
“we could make still contact” still make contact
“so I doubt they’d have similar- er- pathos issue.” issues, or a similar?