The word processor.
Henli was still alive. Her chest was moving, slowly, and her features had contracted into a frown. Her fingers curled next to her cheek, which was marked in a mottled pattern from pressing up against the rug. Mhumhi could have thought her to be sleeping, if it weren’t for the blood matting her black hair.
“What did you do, O?” said Kutta, stepping a little closer to Mhumhi.
O looked down at Henli for a moment, then back to them.
“I hit her,” she said. “I took something heavy and I hit her on the head. I thought it would kill her, but you see she lived.”
“And…” said Mhumhi, “and why- why did you hit her, O?”
“Mm,” said O, her eyes crinkling a little at the corners. “Because she wouldn’t have liked it. My idea.”
“We must get Tareq, get away from here,” Kutta breathed in Mhumhi’s ear. He brushed his tail against her flank, keeping his eyes trained on O’s face.
“What was you idea? Why wouldn’t she have liked it?”
O looked directly at Kutta for a moment, blinking.
“She’s too scared,” she said, “that’s why. She doesn’t really believe that we’re supposed to die.”
“Why are you supposed to die?” Kutta burst out.
“Why…” O gave a soft little laugh. “For you! We’re supposed to die for you. The only reason we are all still alive here is that there was supposed to be enough meat. But there is not enough meat anymore, is there?”
Kutta gave a little whine, pushing her shoulder against Mhumhi’s. But Mhumhi found that he was less surprised than he ought to have been.
“You want to turn yourself and the rest of the humans into meat, O?”
O swayed, and then gave him a smile, gentle, her eyes crinkling.
“I want you to live,” she said. “I want to protect you.”
“You want to die?” cried Kutta.
O looked at her, her head tilting slowly.
“You’re so sad,” she said. “But there isn’t any reason to be sad. When you were wild, I watched you kill many animals. They didn’t want to die for you. But you had to eat.” She paused, then that rapturous smile returned to her face. “I want to die for you. I want you to eat me. Be happy.”
“Let’s leave,” Kutta insisted, no longer bothering to try to keep her voice quiet. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” said Mhumhi, and he made a little more space between himself and his sister. “She’s making sense, Kutta.”
“Mhumhi!” Kutta swiveled her head around to stare at him, her yellow eyes wide.
“You see,” said O, swaying.
“Isn’t it better if they want to give it to us?” said Mhumhi. “Rather than taking it by force. What would we have done if we stayed here and ran out of food?”
“Yes,” said O. “And the dogs in the city… we can share it with them, too. We can send it there.”
Kutta swiveled around to glare at her.
“You know it won’t be enough,” she said. “For all the dogs in the city! It wouldn’t feed a fraction of them!”
O’s smile faded.
“We must feed as many as we can,” she said. “We can’t… we shouldn’t be alive, if dogs are starving.”
“I understand,” said Mhumhi.
“Madness,” Kutta growled softly, gazing at him. “Mhumhi…”
“I can do it now,” said O. “They’re sleeping… It’s what they would have wanted.”
“What about Henli?” said Kutta. “She didn’t want to die, you said!”
“That’s why she deserves it,” said O, in a soothing way, as if Kutta were a puppy. “She lied to you. She was going to kill you.”
“Fair enough,” said Mhumhi, and this time the look Kutta gave him was horrified.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Didn’t you help me kill Biscuit?” he said. “Wasn’t that you?”
Kutta took one, two steps back.
“He killed Maha!”
“Yes!” For a moment Mhumhi’s hackles rose, but then he settled himself again. “It’s the same idea.”
“It isn’t,” said Kutta, but now her gaze had dropped to the floor. Mhumhi turned to address O again.
“You said you can kill all the rest without waking them up?”
“Yes,” said O, her eyes dipping closed, so that her long eyelashes curved towards her cheeks. “And the dogs- no, I mean the others, like that one behind you…”
She raised her hand and pointed back, to where Dot was standing in the doorway behind Vimbo’s humped shape.
“They can contribute too,” she said.
“Them,” said Mhumhi, eyeing Dot, who was licking her knuckles and using them to scrub at one speckled cheek. “Of course.”
“You won’t touch Dot,” Kutta rumbled, her teeth flashing.
Mhumhi met her eyes, just for a moment, and her tail slowly lowered.
“I think it should be very helpful,” he said. “If that’s what you want to do.”
“Mm,” said O, “yes, it is.”
“Then, fine.” For a moment Mhumhi looked at her, his eyes half-lidded. “I have a request before you do it. More than one, actually.”
“Of course,” said O. “Anything you want.” She gazed at him with a kind of affection, the kind of wet look that Dot would have given him, except the paleness of her eyes made it all the more sickly.
“The first one is that I want you to show Kutta where Tareq is, so she can stay with him,” said Mhumhi. “It goes without saying that he won’t become meat.”
Kutta’s glare hit him hard, but he ignored it. O seemed faintly perturbed, her eyebrows drawing slightly together, but she nodded.
“I will do it.” She stepped slightly aside, over Henli’s still form on the floor, indicating the open doorway behind herself. “If you go down this hall, there is a little bed. He’s there…”
“Go see if he’s all right,” Mhumhi said, looking at his sister. Kutta stared back at him for a long moment.
“We came here to save them,” he said to her. “We’ve got to at least save him.”
She was silent for a little while longer. He was aware of her piercing eyes, her sharp whiskers, the red-golden highlights on her individual hairs.
“I’m going to trust you,” said Kutta, voice low. “All right. I’ll go.”
He put his head down a little, and they touched noses, lightly. She stepped slowly past Henli, then looked back at him.
She fixed him again at the end of her long yellow stare, then whisked her black brush-tail and vanished into the hall beyond.
“That’s for the little boy,” said O, putting one hand on the doorway to brace herself as she stared out in the direction that Kutta had gone in.
“And to keep her busy,” said Mhumhi. “Let’s leave this room now. I have a second favor to ask you.”
O blinked at him, then levered her way off the doorway and followed him back to where Vimbo and Dot were. The hyena gave way for him, backing up silently into the hall, his black eyes resting on O. Dot stayed where she was and scratched behind his ears with her slightly damp hand.
“What is the second favor?” asked O.
“Before you go, I want you to speak to Vimbo- this hyena,” said Mhumhi, “You can speak in hulker- I mean human language- can’t you?”
“Human… of course,” said O, but she seemed puzzled again.
“It’s all he understands,” Mhumhi explained. “I want to pass a message to him. But we should move to a different room in this hallway first.”
O’s brows knit entirely together, but she followed him, walking slowly past Vimbo, who kept his black eyes on her. Dot walked up front, beside Mhumhi, one hand on his back.
They came to the computer room with the glass-fronted door, and Dot moved to hold it open for them, beaming down at Mhumhi. Mhumhi wagged his tail and gave her a few licks on the hand, which she hooted happily about. O passed them by into the room with a vague air of worry about her.
Vimbo came forward too, stopping to stare through the glass at the rows of monitors. He gave a little grunt.
“Go on in,” Mhumhi told him- he was standing still, letting Dot scratch his chin. Vimbo looked at him. His short tail rose, curling against his back, and he gave a little giggle.
“What’s the matter?” Mhumhi asked, stiffening- a pointless question, of course, and he got no answer- Vimbo turned and went into the computer room, and now Mhumhi had no choice but to bring up the rear, with Dot staying put at her station by the door.
“What do you want me to say to the hyena?” asked O. She had been, Mhumhi noticed, growing steadily more lucid, and there was a steadiness to her gaze now that had not been there before; even a trace of impatience. Impatient for what, exactly, Mhumhi wanted to know; he also wanted to know what Kutta was thinking of him, at that moment- what she thought he was doing- what he thought he was doing-
“I want you to- I want you to ask him what his plans are,” he said. “Er- tell him to try and respond to the best of his ability.”
O absorbed this, her eyes flickering slightly, but she did not question the apparent nonsensical nature of it all, and turned and addressed Vimbo in slow, halting hulker. Mhumhi thought it sounded like she had not spoken it for a very long time, or was not practiced in it at all, which was sort of odd.
But Vimbo, who had been getting more agitated from the moment he had gone into the computer room, did not appear to be listening to her. He was pacing up and down, his maned back passing in front of the bluish monitors, sniffing at wires, giving nervous little giggles.
“Vimbo,” Mhumhi called, after O had finished speaking- the hyena had made no indication that he had understood any of it, or even responded. “Vimbo!”
The hyena ignored him, his movements becoming more frenetic- he made for a moment like he was going to bite at a bundle of wires, but backed away- he kicked and stumbled over a protruding desk chair, then shoved at it with his shoulder and reared to put his big paws clumsily on top of a keyboard. The plastic clattered, and the monitor made several shrill noises of protest.
O said something else in hulker, perhaps an admonishment, for now he did look at her, from his upright position- a round-eyed look. He shuffled sideways, his paws dragging loudly across the keyboard- the monitor whined at him again, like a living thing. Vimbo put his head down close to it, then turned it side to side, like he was trying to get his muzzle out of the way, squinting downwards at the keys with one eye at a time.
“Vimbo?” Mhumhi asked, tentatively- the hyena was making all his nerves jangle. And he didn’t even have Kutta there beside him at the moment.
Vimbo ignored him, and did something odd- he stuck out his tongue between his lips, just the tip of it, almost like he was mimicking Mini. He splayed his clumsy paws even wider apart, so that they were off the edges of the keyboard, and then leaned down, touching his tongue to the keys.
For a moment all was silent- only the faint sound of Vimbo depressing individual keys with the tip of his tongue- and it seemed a slow, laborious process, too. He kept having to bring his head up and turn it so he could peer closely at the keys again, as if he was gleaning something from the little marks on their black surfaces.
“Oh,” said O, after they had stared at him for a little while. “Is he…”
“Is he what?” asked Mhumhi, glad for anyone else’s input at this point. Dot was still smiling and holding the door.
“I think he’s typing something,” said O, turning her head this way and that.
“Words,” said O, patiently. “A message.”
“A- a message!” Mhumhi’s tail shot up stiffly. “Like- words? Words you can read? Can you read?”
“Yes, I can,” said O. “But I can’t read what he’s writing just now…”
O’s smile was misty. “It’s difficult to explain… there’s no word processor open. It isn’t being recorded.”
“Can you make it be recorded?” Mhumhi asked. “He’s never been able to give us a message before!”
He looked over at Vimbo, at his intensity and concentration, with his tongue sticking out. Writing a message that they couldn’t even receive.
“I can try to see if he will open one for me,” said O, and Mhumhi thought she sounded a little intrigued in spite of herself. She said something to Vimbo in hulker. The hyena appeared to ignore her again, intent on the plastic in front of him.
O moved closer, one hand hovering in front of herself, speaking in a soft tone. Vimbo turned an ear towards her. Then, when she was nearly close enough to touch him, he turned and lunged at her with a loud giggle.
O jumped back- Vimbo had not made contact, but his legs had slid off the desk, and the keyboard had come with them with a terrible clatter. The wire adjoining it to the computer snapped and it landed down on the floor.
Vimbo looked down between his forelegs at the keyboard, which had landed keys-down. Several of them had been knocked free, even, and now lay as dark little squares on the floor. O backed up a step, saying something else, and turned to manipulate the keyboard directly next to the one Vimbo had destroyed.
Vimbo raised his head to watch her- Mhumhi craned his neck too. She made a white square appear on the screen, her hands moving swiftly. Mhumhi thought of the glossy white pages of the magazines he had seen.
Vimbo gave a squealing whine, and he bumped O, shoving her sideways. She fell down, catching herself heavily on her hands.
“Vimbo!” cried Mhumhi, bounding a few steps forward. O shook her head and crawled a little away from the hyena, who had gotten up on his hind legs again, dragging his forepaws to position them on either side of the keyboard. Again the monitor made beeps of distress.
O moved backwards so that she was sitting on the floor beside Mhumhi, and put her arms around her knees. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask her if she was all right, but Mhumhi didn’t say it.
Vimbo had gone back to laboriously typing with his tongue, his rear legs shaking from the apparent effort it was costing him. O pulled herself up backwards into a chair, fumbling a little as it rolled on the carpet and was halted by a cable.
“What is he saying?” Mhumhi asked, tail quivering. Tiny black symbols were appearing all in a row on the white square- to tiny on the harsh glare of the monitor for his eyes to really pick out clearly- but it was just like the blurry squiggles in the magazine! Maha’s words that you could hear in your head if you knew them!
O peered at them from her perch on the chair, one cheek protruding from where she had put her tongue.
“It’s hard to make out,” she said. “He doesn’t spell well.”
Mhumhi gazed at her, and she blinked.
“I have to wait until he writes more, to see it in- what’s the word… in context…”
“What’s he saying?” Mhumhi repeated, tail waving slowly.
O lowered her lashes for a moment, then leaned forward, clasping her arms over the back of the chair to stare at VImbo’s composition.
“It says… I think… It says, ‘I do not want…’”
Mhumhi waited a moment, then prompted her. “And?”
“That’s all so far,” said O. “I don’t think he’s finished, but.”
She looked meaningfully at Vimbo, who had raised his head up from the keyboard, his mouth open. Mhumhi heard him panting slightly from the exertion, though his tongue did not bob the way a dog’s would.
I do not want, thought Mhumhi, I do not want… what? A sort of quivering excitement was building in his chest. Vimbo… he did not want… what?
Vimbo looked over at the two of them, his black button eyes widening, as if he noticed their scrutiny for the first time. He turned his head and stuck his tongue out again, his whole form quivering, and pressed another key.
“What now?” Mhumhi urged, staring up at O.
“You must wait,” said O. “He’s only typed one letter… and he’s hardly using any spaces…” She squinted. “‘To’… I do not want to… I do not want to… I do not want to be…”
Mhumhi was trembling too, his head thrust forward to stare intently at the screen, as though the intensity of his gaze would somehow enable him to glean knowledge from those meaningless little marks.
Vimbo put his eye close to the keyboard again, peering close against the keys, then turned to apply his tongue, his left paw shifting. It brushed against the edge of the keyboard, and there was a beep- a kind of fatal beep- and the white square vanished.
Vimbo did not appear to notice at first- he put in the next two painstaking keystrokes- but then O started to say something, and he looked up at the screen, and stared.
“Make it come back,” Mhumhi urged O.
O looked at him, then at Vimbo, who was gazing at the blue screen, which reflected tiny blue windows in his glassy eyes. He blinked. Then he leaned forward, put his jaw around the top edge of the monitor, and dragged it forward.
There was a kind of crash and a snap, as Vimbo’s teeth pierced the plastic, cracking it, shattering the blue- the wires snapped, cracking louder than they should have, and the keyboard clattered as again he scraped over it- Mhumhi was stock-still, dumbfounded- and Vimbo threw the monitor on the floor and came crashing down on top of it. He fastened his teeth on the single thick wire still protruding from the back and ripped.
O said something sharp, putting her hands over her mouth, and there was the loudest crack of all and every light in the room flickered. Mhumhi flinched from the sound, as Vimbo was thrown backwards against a chair, upending it, his head slamming against the edge of the desk and sliding down onto the carpet.
It was, Mhumhi realized- the sudden understanding creeping up on him with horror- a bad idea to bite wires- Sacha and Mother had taught him that- there was the dim smell of flesh and hair burning in the room- Vimbo was not moving, his head under the blackness of the desk.
Mhumhi ran forward the few feet that separated them, sniffing the hyena’s body frantically. The fur around his lips was slightly singed and the flesh was raw, his mouth hanging open, drool pooling on the carpet. The hyena’s side rose and fell with a sudden shuddering breath.
“Oh, you’re all right, you’re all right,” said Mhumhi, backing up, wagging his tail a little. Vimbo raised his head quickly- maybe too quickly; he banged it on the bottom of the desk and flopped back down.
“He’s all right,” Mhumhi said to O, then went around to the other side of Vimbo’s head- perhaps he’d lick his ears, something.
But Vimbo was raising his head again, and he gave a hoarse squeal, and pulled himself to his feet, staggering and bumping under the desk until he had got himself out. There was a wire tangled round his paw, and he twisted and jerked at it until it sharply snapped.
“Be careful!” Mhumhi urged, springing forward, and Vimbo turned, his jaws snapping mindlessly, and caught him by the shoulder and shoved him down.
Mhumhi had little time to do anything but squeal from the sudden sharp pain, feeling the sudden terrible power in those jaws- but quick as Vimbo had grabbed him, he let go, blundering backwards, stumbling on wires and rolling office chairs, his coarse hairy form shedding everywhere. O was scrambling back towards the wall, and the hyena’s eyes seemed to catch the movement, and he whirled with a squeal- but then he moved away again, back and back, towards the door- past Dot, who gazed down at him wide-eyed- out into the corridor, changing his pace to a wobbling, stumbling lope, his burned lips curled back away from his teeth, and ran away again.