Mhumhi left O in the steel room for the time being. She did not seem to want to move anyway- actually, she had fallen asleep almost immediately after she had touched Mhumhi’s nose again, tears still fresh on her cheeks where she slumped back against the counter. It seemed best to let her have her rest.
He trotted back down the hallway, pausing to stop and scratch a little at the bland carpet from time to time. His tail was flagged white over his back.
At the end of the hall opposite the stairs there was a window, with a shade drawn over it. The square Mhumhi could see through the semi-transparent material was dark and bluish. With a start he wondered if that meant it was actually nighttime. He had completely lost track of time inside the florescent-lit building.
He went to the window and nudged his head underneath the shade. Outside was more of the sandy, scrubby land that had marked the end of the sand dunes, now dim and quiet under the darkening sky. The bushes were squat shadows on a graying field. No stars had come out yet to illuminate them.
He realized that he was looking out on the opposite side that he and Kutta had come in on, because he did not see the vast dome that encircled the entrance to the building start anywhere along this wall. The building seemed to curve slightly outward on either side, and there was a sort of flat court of asphalt below him, partially buried in scattered sand. Mhumhi was surprised to see a few cars here and there, though some were also half-buried, only their scratched hoods showing.
Mini must have been right, the road would have lead them here, if they could have just seen it under the sand. These cars had to have come from the city. And he could even see two large yellow buses, too, off to one side. One seemed to have had its glass knocked out in the front. Its side windows rippled with the wavy line of the sand blown inside.
People had to have driven here from the city, Mhumhi surmised, a long time ago. If he considered the buried houses in the suburbs to be an extension of the city- perhaps they had been buried at the same time as these buses- then it really was not terribly far away from any habitation. It had not been a secret.
He felt faint discomfort, but it was only a shadow. It was all right. He had come to terms with what had happened here, and in the end, it was not his problem.
He was so startled that he practically tumbled out from underneath the shade, sending its wooden bottom clattering back against the windowsill. Kutta was advancing quickly on him from the other end of the hall.
“Where’s O?” she demanded, her eyes sharp and her tail bushy.
Mhumhi shook himself. “I ate her,” he said. “Sorry.”
The look Kutta gave him pushed him back against the wall.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said, wagging his tail between his legs. “She’s asleep in the room over there, honest. I didn’t touch her.”
“Asleep?” said Kutta, raising her head. “What’s she planning to do when she wakes up? What about her whole little plan? What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know what she’s planning, honestly, but I think we worked out the whole self-sacrifice thing,” said Mhumhi. “I told her I wasn’t interested, and I don’t think she’s interested anymore either, so…”
“Wonderful,” said Kutta. “I’m sure Henli will be happy to hear it if she stops bleeding on the floor over there.”
Mhumhi’s rising tail tucked again. “She’s still bleeding? Is she-”
“Well, no, she isn’t,” said Kutta, turning her nose slightly away from him. “I- ah- looked her over just earlier. She’s out cold, but she’s breathing, and the wound has clotted, so…”
“It was an awful lot of blood,” said Mhumhi, licking his lips.
“They tend to bleed a lot from head wounds. Hulkers, I mean,” said Kutta. “I don’t honestly think O is really that strong. She’ll get up again. Though I hope she won’t want revenge.”
“I’m not sure she would,” said Mhumhi. He was not sure about anything with Henli. “If they get into a fight, we’d better stay out of it.”
“I agree,” said Kutta. She released a slow breath. “I’m more concerned about Tareq.”
“Why? What’s the matter with him? He’s not-” Mhumhi’s mind suddenly danced through a hundred possibilities, then settled on one. “He’s not sick again, is he?”
“No, he’s just sleeping,” said Kutta. “I woke him up and he was cross, so I think we’d better leave him to it. I’m jut worried about the effect that this place will have on him, the longer we stay.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mhumhi.
Kutta gave him a sidelong glance.
“A lot of hulkers died here,” she said. “And the rest are asleep or cracked in the head. And there are ones that look like hulkers but aren’t. At least one of those things is bound to disturb him.”
“Tareq’s a tough brat,” said Mhumhi. “As long as we keep feeding him, I don’t expect him to notice any of that.”
“Hmph.” Kutta gave a little huff through her nose. “You ought to spend more time with him before you say things like that.”
Mhumhi decided not to put his back up over the statement, though it irritated him. As if he hadn’t spent the last seventy-two hours or so within one meter of the boy.
“Well, if you think it’ll have a bad effect on him, that’s perfect,” he told her. “I was just thinking we should try to leave.”
“What?” exclaimed Kutta, her eyes flashing.
“None of us likes this place, and it feels like it keeps getting more unstable,” he said. “We should move on- look for someplace else-”
“Where?” said Kutta, knife-sharp now. Mhumhi’s rump lowered, Vimbo-style.
“Oh- I don’t know- but out there there has to be-”
This was definitely beginning to look dangerous, especially when Kutta stalked down the hallway towards him until she was quivering an inch from his nose.
“Out there,” she repeated. “Out in the desert, you mean? You want us to travel in the desert again- blind? With Tareq?”
“You just said you thought this place would have a bad effect on him,” said Mhumhi, feebly.
“Oh, yes, you’re right, starving in the desert is vastly superior. Honestly, Mhumhi! Don’t you ever think about what you’re saying?”
Mhumhi settled now for a surly look. Kutta gave a full-blown snort and whisked her tail.
“Do you want us to go back to the city? We’ll be killed.”
“I know that,” said Mhumhi. “I didn’t want to go back. To that city. But maybe there are…”
“If we do get through the sand without starving or dying of thirst, with Tareq, and we even manage to find another city- what then? Who says anyone there would welcome us? I imagine they would rather keep their food for themselves.”
“You’re really starting to sound just like Sacha,” Mhumhi muttered.
For a moment Kutta was very quiet, and he tucked his tail. Was it still taboo…?
“Good,” she said, abruptly. “That’s been my goal this whole time.”
“Your goal?” Now Mhumhi snorted. “Didn’t you hate it when she talked like this? You always got so nippy with her-”
“I didn’t really,” said Kutta, tail bristling. “It was mostly- mostly play. She was the smart one. If she was in on all this from the start…” For a moment Kutta looked down at the rug. Mhumhi did too.
“If I hadn’t gotten caught in that snare,” he began.
“Shut up,” said Kutta. Mhumhi jerked his head back up. She was glaring at him.
“I mean it,” she added. “Don’t you dare say you’re guilty for that. We both know that it’s-”
Her gaze flickered, and she swallowed.
“It’s my fault, it was my fault from the start- I should have told her right away when Mother vanished- and you, too- should have told you all- Sacha would have known the right thing to do. She would have protected us all. If I hadn’t been so stupid- so petty with her…”
She trailed off, and let out a long, shuddering sigh.
“It’s not your fault,” said Mhumhi, and she snapped her glare back on him again.
“It is my fault,” she said. “I told you not to say that again. It’s my fault, and you can’t take it away from me.”
“Yes, take it! You- I meant it when I said you were selfish,” said Kutta. “You always take everything- everything that even happens- and you compress it, Mhumhi, like a wad of meat in the back of your throat, and you hold onto it- it isn’t fair! Sacha was my sister too, and Maha was my sister too… I’m allowed to blame myself.”
Mhumhi found it hard to say anything for a moment, and he swallowed half a dozen poorly-formed responses.
“You know that-” He had to swallow again. “You know that she’d- she’d like that, that you want to be like her.”
“I know,” said Kutta. “I’d never say it to her face.”
“You should have,” said Mhumhi. Kutta gave him a startled look, her eyes hurt.
“She wouldn’t have made you feel bad about it, I mean,” he said. “She would have been… she would have been really happy to hear you say it. She thought you didn’t like her.”
Kutta looked at the rug again and gave a soft whine.
“I should have said many things,” she said. “I don’t know why my head got so stupid, sometimes… around her…”
“It’s your fault you didn’t say those things,” said Mhumhi, “but not that she’s dead.”
Kutta gazed downwards for a moment longer.
“She would have liked Maha,” she said.
Now Mhumhi was staring at the carpet, at each individual fiber.
“She would have been hard on her,” he said. “Because she was always hard on you if she felt fond of you…”
“Maha wouldn’t have liked her at first, I think,” said Kutta. “But then she’d have… she had those times, where she would suddenly warm up so quickly… like with you… it was so sudden, when she loved you… she adored you…”
Mhumhi stared at a crumb embedded between two carpet fibers.
“Maybe now, d’you think… Maybe they’re together somewhere.”
Kutta didn’t say anything, but soon he felt her warmth, and she pushed her forehead gently against his for a moment, and he put his head into her neck.
They stayed like that for a little while, and Mhumhi felt the strangest sense of sadness and contentedness… but also a sort of nagging worry, because here was his sister Kutta, safe and warm and real, and if he lost her, he’d really have nothing.
It occurred to him for the first time that perhaps she felt the same fear when it came to himself.
He drew away.
“We should stay here,” he said. “We came here to find a safe place for Tareq… I don’t think it’ll get any safer than this.”
Kutta’s eyes were still soft, even though her tone was wry. “Unfortunately.”
“Let’s go see him,” suggested Mhumhi. “Did you realize it’s nighttime now? We should go sleep by him.”
“It’s not possibly nighttime,” said Kutta, glancing towards the window.
“It is,” said Mhumhi, and he fell into a long stretch. “I want a good sleep, then we can wake up, have a meal… play with Dot…”
“Oh, where is she?” asked Kutta, giving her tail a little wag. “I meant to ask you. And don’t you dare say she was a snack.”
“I wouldn’t eat Dot,” said Mhumhi. “We’d have nobody to hold doors for us. And I don’t know where she went- she just wandered off.”
“Oh. And Vimbo?”
“The same,” said Mhumhi. “Sort of. He got upset about something and I think we’d better let him have his space for now.”
Kutta furrowed her brow.
“What did he get upset about?”
“Something to do with a computer,” said Mhumhi, being purposefully vague. He wasn’t ready to get into another emotional discussion at the moment.
They had been walking towards the room with the squashy couches while they talked, and now they entered it. Mhumhi’s nose twitched at the smell of Henli’s blood. Kutta was right, it looked dried now, where she was lying still in the next doorway.
“She’s still alive,” Kutta said. Mhumhi had to agree- he could see her chest moving, hear her breathing.
“I think she’s just sleeping now,” he said.
“I hope she wakes up in a good mood,” said Kutta.
“I hope O can find good hiding places,” Mhumhi replied.
Kutta swung around the corner of the adjacent hall and Mhumhi followed her, tail slowly waving. This place was narrower, with a wood floor that made their claws tick as they walked. Mhumhi could smell more hulkers here. His fur prickled.
“They’re all asleep,” Kutta said, her tone dropping to a whisper. “I looked in at some of them. They’re wearing the tube thing that that cow had in its mouth.”
Mhumhi wrinkled his lips at the thought.
“Tareq’s in here,” Kutta murmured, glancing back at him, then pawed a door further open.
The room was a little one, with peculiar beds in it- there were four of them, but two were stacked on top of the others, connected with ladders. There were also lots of wires running all around the room, and hanging from bunches in the ceiling, along with clear plastic tubes.
Mhumhi was relieved, when he saw the little lump that was Tareq on one of the bottom beds, that he had neither tube nor wires touching him, that he was instead curled up under the blankets with his thumb in his mouth. He went up to him and put his forepaws on the sheets so he could lick his forehead. Tareq frowned around his thumb, but did not open his eyes.
“Don’t wake him,” said Kutta, nudging his hindquarters with her nose, and he got down and circled around to the foot of the bed so he could jump on. Kutta jumped on after him and went to stretch out by Tareq’s side. It was a somewhat tight fit with all three of them, but Mhumhi curled around Tareq’s feet and felt slightly happy.
He fell asleep in the stuffy dimness of the strange room, rankled a bit by the florescent light spilling in through the open door, but too sleepy to bother to get up and close it.
He retained a sort of vague self-awareness even after he fell asleep, though, even when he began dreaming: it was a sort of, ‘this is definitely a dream,’ feeling. He was dreaming about sleeping at his old home, with all his family around him. It should have been a happy memory, melancholy at the worst, but instead Mhumhi felt an awful rising sense of anxiety come upon him, steadily engulfing him, and he got up- he was vaguely unsure if it was his dream-self or real self; it didn’t matter, anyway, because he had to get up- and he went down the stairs- somebody was barking outside- and out the door.
Biscuit was there, on the sand, bleeding his stomach out. And he was howling.
“Lamya!” he howled. “Lamya!”
Mhumhi was paralyzed with anxiety, though in the back of his mind his consciousness was pointing out the inaccuracies- Biscuit hadn’t been howling, he had been terribly calm when he had died.
“Lamya!” howled Biscuit. “Hold me! Lamya!”
“She blew herself up,” said Mini, who was there next to him. “Blew herself up. He’s got to find all the pieces.”
“That’s morbid,” said Mhumhi.
Dream Mini just looked at him, and the aware part of Mhumhi figured his subconscious just wasn’t witty enough to come up with her retort.
Here came someone across the sand- Mhumhi was not really surprised to see that it was Lamya. She was wearing the plastic ring on her head, the plastic ring O had told him would get rid of intelligence. She flashed Mhumhi a grin and picked up Biscuit by his hind legs.
Mhumhi still felt that churning anxiety, even though the other part of him as quite calm and cold.
“She’s holding you,” he told Biscuit. Biscuit was quiet, apparently dead.
His stomach vibrated, and then everything vibrated, and there was a massive rattling and grinding, and Mhumhi snapped awake, jerking to his feet in a snarl of sheets.
It was pitch-black in the room, he could see nothing- but he could hear someone’s frightened breathing.
“What happened?” Kutta asked, her voice shaking.
He couldn’t respond, because there came that tremendous vibration again, and he had to brace himself on the bed as the building snarled and shuddered around them.
“I think,” he panted, when they had got a respite. “I think… someone else is coming to the building.”