Eating an animal.
“Vimbo!” called Mhumhi, hobbling out into the hallway on three legs. “Vimbo, come back!”
His shoulder hurt, but he was not limping on that foreleg- Vimbo’s teeth had not even broken the skin where he had bitten him, only left him with a dull ache that felt like it would become a bruise. It was his back leg that had got stiff again- the old injury where the hair had still not grown over was twinging like a memory.
“Wait,” said O, coming up behind him. “Don’t go after him. He’ll kill you.”
Mhumhi stopped his three-legged progress and looked back at her.
“He was just starting to speak!”
“Speak?” O gave him one of her slow blinks. “He was typing… very badly, too.”
Mhumhi bristled, then flinched- the tension in his muscles had made his bad leg twinge again. “It was the only way he ever had,” he said. “The only thing he’s ever been able to say…”
“Well, he stopped it himself,” said O. “‘I don’t want to be…’ What doesn’t he want to be?”
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi, and his gaze dropped to the floor.
“A hyena.. an animal… a fool… Maybe it was a complete sentence,” O mused.
Mhumhi uttered a low growl.
“Stop talking about it. You don’t know him.”
She blinked for a moment, her eyes round, then lowered them.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt you.”
“Hurt me?” Mhumhi turned the phrasing around in his mind uncomfortably, then shook his head. He could still hear, faintly, Vimbo’s clanging footsteps on the stairs below. Something told him the hyena would have a hard time leaving the building anytime soon even if he wanted to. They’d meet again. Though in what state…
“Let’s finish up our business,” he said.
“Yes,” said O, looking up with big eyes again. Mhumhi thought he heard a bit of a quaver in her voice. “Are you finished with your requests…?”
“No,” Mhumhi said. No, indeed. “I have one more thing I want to ask you to do.”
O inclined her head slightly, moving her hands below her stomach to clasp them together.
“One more thing,” Mhumhi said, or more muttered, pacing back and forth a little. He licked his lips. “Where’s Dot?”
“Dot?” O drew her eyebrows together.
“I mean- that hulker- the one with the black eyes,” stammered Mhumhi. “The one that was at the door in the computer room…”
O turned back and looked at the empty hallway. Sometime between when Vimbo had started typing and when he had nearly electrocuted himself, the screamer had vanished. Mhumhi hoped she had not crossed paths with the hyena in his frenzied state.
“They do wander off, from time to time,” said O. Her eyes had gotten somewhat distant again.
“Do you have names for any of them?” asked Mhumhi. “Or- do they have names for themselves?”
“Of course they don’t,” said O, smiling a little, blinking her milky eyes.
Mhumhi waited a moment, but she seemed to be done speaking. He gave a short exhale through his nose.
“What was done to them, exactly?” he asked. “To make them so… to make them not talk and all?”
“Mm,” said O, looking somewhere to the left of his head. “Not very much… the early development of the brain was slowed… adrenaline was reduced… fear pathways… mitigated… we added a few things, too…”
“Such as?” Mhumhi prompted, doing his best to try and keep up.
O’s smile was wavery when she looked at him. “Other elements.”
Mhumhi licked his lips. “And they’ve been like this ever since? They didn’t go back?”
“Oh,” said O, “maybe you misunderstand… These aren’t the same ones from before. Not like Henli and I are… these are the babies of the babies of the originals. We changed their genetic development… not their physical selves.”
Mhumhi processed this slowly. “Like how the first IntelliDogs couldn’t talk, but their babies could.”
“Yes. Like that.”
“But…” Mhumhi rotated his ears forward and back. “But you said that these screamers- these not-talkers came from humans who said they didn’t want to think anymore. Did you only change their babies?”
“Mm,” said O. “Yes… the first ones… we changed their gametes… but they, yes… Ah… I remember now.”
“What? What did you do to them?”
O’s eyes flickered a bit. “It was crude… but they did not want sapience any longer. We damaged parts of their brains… just enough to take that away.”
“Damaged…” Mhumhi swallowed. “You mean, you hurt them.”
“They felt no pain,” said O. “There are no nerves for it in the brain… anyway, it was done with electricity. They were able to breathe and eat and sleep and live… but more simply.”
“Like animals,” Mhumhi said. O gazed at him.
“They could not speak any longer,” she said. “I suppose they were happy.”
“Happy,” Mhumhi repeated, his tail curling slightly over his back, the white-flagged tip hanging loose. “I guess they were.”
O tilted her head again, her chin rising. “Is understanding this what you were requesting?”
“It isn’t,” said Mhumhi. “No, well, it’s part of it. I- now I want to know something else. What you did to those first hulkers- with electricity- can you still do it?”
O gazed at him for a very long moment before she said, “Yes… I think so.”
Mhumhi licked his lips. “And it doesn’t hurt?”
There was a definite quaver in O’s voice now. “Wild dog… what are you requesting?”
“Show me,” said Mhumhi.
“Show me the place where you did it. I want to see it.”
“Oh,” said O, though her eyes still looked worried. “The place… there’s not a place, really.. any laboratory with the right equipment…”
“Show me,” Mhumhi insisted.
O licked her lips, and looked down the empty hallway again. “That door…”
She looked back at Mhumhi, met his hard stare, and swallowed.
“Shall we go?”
The door she took him to was much like all of the others in the hall, but when she pushed it open, the first thing he saw was the stainless-steel tables. He shivered. It must have been all the metal in the room that made him feel that sudden chill.
There were many things in this room that he had no way of recognizing- contraptions of metal and plastic, squat and low-humming containers, black displays with sharp little lights on them. There were also cages- just a few, glass-fronted, and one or two made of wire. They were large.
The odor coming off the cages was somewhat familiar, and Mhumhi tried to shut his nose to it. O was walking towards one of the mysterious contraptions- a sort of flexible plastic crane with a circle at the end.
“This is what they used,” said O. “You put your head here…” She rested her fingers on the circle of plastic, and it swung slightly down. “It uses magnets.”
Mhumhi reared up slightly, sniffing, trying to get a better grasp of the thing, but it just smelled of plastic with a slightly acrid edge to it.
“You put your head there,” he said, “and then you don’t think anymore?”
“If it’s programmed the right way.. yes,” said O. She moved her right hand as though she were going to clasp her other arm, then curled her fingers. “Wild dog… what do you want to do?”
Mhumhi gazed up at her for a moment.
“You said you wanted to die?”
“For you,” said O, her voice lowering nearly to a whisper.
“Right,” said Mhumhi. “For eating. Well, this is my request. Before you die, I want you to put your head in there, and make it so you can’t think anymore.”
O’s eyes widened slowly, but hugely, until white was showing all around her irises.
“That’s my request,” said Mhumhi. “I want to eat an animal.”
O opened her mouth, then closed it again.
“An animal… I don’t understand…”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mhumhi. “Either way, you won’t be thinking any longer.”
O gazed at him, and a little tremor passed through her.
“I… I don’t want to do that.”
“Why not?” asked Mhumhi. “What difference does it make to you? If you’re going to die.”
O licked her lips. “If… If I do it… I will lose… reason. Foresight. I will not… understand what it means to help you.”
“But I can still kill you,” said Mhumhi. “That doesn’t matter.”
O’s fingers twitched, and she leaned back against one of the steel tables.
“I’ll feel pain. Fear… It won’t be the same. Please…”
“I’ll kill an animal and eat it,” said Mhumhi. “Not something that talks.”
“But…” O’s eyes looked damp. “But… I said… I wanted to die for you. An animal would not… I would be afraid to die if I could not think… Why do you want that? Are you… so cruel?” She shivered, tremors passing through her lean shape. “Is that because you are a wild dog?”
“Maybe it is,” said Mhumhi. “Because the more you say you’ll die for me, the less I want to kill you.”
And it was not the face but the back, the fleeing back, that he felt the strongest urge to chase down… The smell of fear, and the desperation… that was what whetted his wild dog’s appetite. Mhumhi knew this.
“I don’t know if it’s more right for me to kill you if you ask for it,” he said aloud. “Perhaps it is. But I don’t want to.”
“You won’t have to kill me,” whispered O.
Mhumhi looked up at her sharply.
“I don’t want it,” he said. “I don’t want your sacrifice.”
O gave a little gasp, and there were tears running down her cheeks. She reached up with a wavering hand, her fingertips just missing her skin.
“Please,” she said. “Please…”
“No!” Mhumhi growled. “I- I don’t want it! It’s stupid! No, I’m stupid- I know- it doesn’t make any sense- but I can’t!”
O squeezed her eyes shut, cheeks shining with wetness.
“Why do you want to do it?” asked Mhumhi. “Why… we don’t want it, not really… I don’t see how we ever could have wanted it! The domestics, especially!”
“No,” said O, sounding garbled, “no, they didn’t want it- but- we loved them. Couldn’t let them die.” She gave a gasping sob. “Please… you can’t die…”
“If I put my head in there,” Mhumhi whispered, “it wouldn’t matter.”
“No,” moaned O. “No… no… please, please…” Abruptly her head dropped, and she put it in her hands. “Don’t,” she continued, muffled. “Don’t do that.”
“Why does it matter?” Mhumhi asked, tucking his shaking tail. “A dog is a dog…”
“It doesn’t matter,” said O, though it was hard to make out, for she was sobbing so hard. “It doesn’t matter… why is it so sad? Please… please stay the way you are… Don’t be… don’t be like us…”
“Don’t be like us,” O said, looking up at him through her fingers. “Don’t be like us… please… don’t be human.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Mhumhi. “If I take away my own intelligence…”
“That’s not what makes us human,” said O. “Please… be different.” She wiped at her cheeks, shivering. “We’ve ruined it all… we ruined ourselves… I don’t love us… we should disappear.”
Mhumhi uttered a little grunt of surprise.
“Please,” said O, “get rid of us. Please.”
Mhumhi stared at her.
“I can’t,” he said.
“I can’t! Do you understand? And I don’t want to! I- I don’t understand why you think you’re so awful!”
“You don’t know,” whispered O.
“I don’t care! I don’t care what you think or what you want or anything! I like you- some of you!” He raised his lip a little. “Why must you put dogs ahead of your own kind?”
O looked back down at her hands.
“They loved us. Without words.”
Mhumhi looked up at the plastic contraption, hovering silently above them, its ringed end gaping.
“If you die, I won’t eat you,” he said. “Even if you use that- make yourself not speak- I won’t. I changed my mind.”
“You never would have,” said O, from her hands.
“No,” said Mhumhi. “Not unless I was starving. Then… I don’t know. But not now.”
“If you’re starving…” said O. “There isn’t much food left here…”
“Then we won’t stay here,” said Mhumhi. “No, we can’t. This isn’t a safe place. We have to find somewhere else.”
O slid her hands down her face. “There is nowhere else…”
“Henli said there were,” said Mhumhi. “Somewhere far away.”
“You can’t walk that far,” said O. “You’ll die.”
“A human would,” said Mhumhi.
O was quiet for a long moment, then she said, “You really are better than us.”
“No,” said Mhumhi. “Stop that. You were the ones that gave me these legs.”
“I’m sorry,” said O, and gave a little hiccough. Mhumhi stepped closer.
“I don’t want you all to die,” he said. “I’ve loved some of you.”
“I… I loved my dog,” said O. “She didn’t speak…”
Mhumhi stepped closer, and she slowly put her hand on his head.
“You’re… different,” she said. “Coarse… coarse fur, and you smell… wild. She was soft…”
Mhumhi shifted so that the end of his nose touched her palm, and she jumped and gave a surprised little laugh.
“Cold nose,” she said. “Dog’s nose.”