The one-way line.
“This building was designed to be a one-way route,” said Henli. “Once you walk through the entrance, the doors don’t open again in the other direction. There is a manual override, but that requires knowledge of computers.”
She was sitting in the wheeled chair, while Mhumhi and Kutta sat in front of her like attentive students. On the projector she had put up a split-screen view of two cameras- the one at the edge of the city, and the one in the desert. Neither showed any activity anymore.
“That means that we can’t get out unless you let us?” asked Kutta.
Henli flicked her fingertips at them.
“It was a designed to counteract the fact that people are fickle,” she said. “Once you entered this building, you could not change your mind about what was to come. You said your prayers, and then…”
“Yes, yes,” said Mhumhi, licking his lips. “How does that help us? If the dogs get inside, they won’t be able to get out- but we’re trapped here with them.”
“Yes,” said Kutta. “And if we do leave- with your help- then they’ll just track us from there. Not to mention, taking Tareq back out into that desert would be…”
“You won’t have to take him anywhere,” said Henli. “I should make it clearer. I said this building was designed to stop people from changing their minds- it’s a giant trap. It’s a slaughter line. I can direct the individuals inside any way I wish them to go. I let the dogs in, and then I lock everything but the route I choose. They’ll have no choice.”
“No choice but to go where, though?” asked Mhumhi. “Even if they’re locked into a small area, how long can we keep them there? How big is this building?”
Henli opened her mouth, but Kutta rose to her feet.
“No,” she said. “A slaughter line… You could kill them all, couldn’t you?”
Henli steepled her fingers together and inclined her head slowly.
“If you gave the word,” she said.
Mhumhi got to his feet as well, glaring.
“You liar! You said you’d do anything for the dogs, and now you want to murder them!”
“I don’t want to murder anyone,” said Henli, pulling down her lips. “You misunderstand me. I don’t relish the prospect of killing them. But it has nothing to do with the fact that they are dogs, and everything to do with what you have said about the city.”
“What do you mean?” asked Kutta, nudging Mhumhi’s quivering shoulder with her own.
“You said that the food is running out,” said Henli. “That a lot of dogs are going to starve to death soon. That they are going to end up killing one another…”
“I didn’t say all that,” said Mhumhi, but she kept going.
“There are limited resources. There will always be limited resources. But none of us can help our biology. We are driven to keep breeding as if the food is limitless- because the one who doesn’t breed is always the loser.” She shrugged. “I know, because it is what happened to my own species.”
“So you want to do what they did to you, to us,” said Kutta, slowly. “You want to trap those dogs- get rid of them- to make it so there’s more food for everyone else.”
“I won’t make that decision,” said Henli. “I leave it to you.”
“No!” snapped Mhumhi. “Don’t say that! I’m not going to- that many dogs won’t make a difference, anyway!”
Kutta said, slowly, “But it would be easy to make it more. When they don’t come back, others will follow… at least for the painted dogs…”
“The right messengers could bring even more,” said Henli. “And we could start up the machines below again.”
Mhumhi thought of that icy-cold black room, where soft music played, and the red entrance to the conveyer line glowed dimly, and felt a shudder of revulsion go through him.
“The meat goes back to the city,” Henli said, softly. “With the right amount of sacrifice, many fewer lives will be lost.”
There was a long moment of silence, and then Mhumhi said, “I won’t make that decision!”
Henli raised her eyebrows. “Won’t make the decision? I would’ve thought you’d say you don’t want to kill other dogs.”
“I don’t,” said Mhumhi, “of course- but you- you’re putting it like- like- if I don’t do it, then it’s my fault that everyone else in the city starves… I won’t do it!”
“You’re not the only one here who can make the decision,” said Kutta. “You know.”
He looked at her, stunned, and she fixed him with her yellow gaze.
“Kutta… you’re not saying…?”
There was another uncomfortable pause, and then Kutta laughed softly.
“I don’t want to have them killed either,” she said. “But I wanted to remind you that you’re not the only dog here.”
“I- I know that,” stammered Mhumhi, putting his ears back. Kutta turned and addressed Henli again.
“There’s another way,” she said. “You’ve been stepping around it when you talk… but you said that the building is one-way, and then you said the meat goes back to the city. How does it get there?”
“Ah,” said Henli, tapping her cheek with her fingers. “I see. There’s an underground tunnel. They used to run trucks down there, but now it’s all automated… It goes one way, so it’s very simple.”
“A tunnel back to the city?” asked Mhumhi. “Really? Where does it let out?”
“The dispensary, of course,” said Henli, a touch of the macabre entering her smile. “That’s what I mean when I say it’s one way. You’ll be exiting with the meat.”
This made Mhumhi recoil slightly, but Kutta pricked her ears.
“We can squeeze out, then,” she said. “But I guess there’ll be no going back when we do. It’d be overland again if we wanted to come back.”
“Yes,” said Henli.
“How long would it take, going by that route…? To get back to the city, I mean.”
Henli opened her mouth to answer, but Mhumhi butted in, stepping between them.
“Kutta,” he said. “You seriously- you want to go back to the city?”
Kutta’s eyes flickered, and she shifted her forepaws closer together on the rug.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “It isn’t safe for Tareq, or us. But if Henli traps the Madame here, we might be able to manage it for a while. It’s better than sitting here, listening to them scratch outside.”
There was sense in what she was saying, but Mhumhi was disturbed; the city felt like death to him, and going back like suicide. They had left it in flames.
“You really think- even if we shut this place up tight- you think they could get in?”
Kutta said nothing, just shifted her nose towards Henli. Henli scratched her elbow and sighed.
“A closed door would keep out ordinary dogs,” she said. “But all I can do is close it and lock it. I can’t prevent them from, say, trying to break the windows, or anything like that. This building was designed to keep people in, not out.”
“But you could shut off the upper floors, you said,” Mhumhi pointed out, and Henli nodded.
“I’m confident in how I can manipulate them within the building,” she said.
“And we don’t really know what their plans are,” Mhumhi continued. “We’re just guessing. They could all be going somewhere… else…”
His words trailed off feebly. Kutta came to stand close to him, brushing him with her tail.
“You’re right,” she said. “It might be better to be cautious. But then, we have to decide now.”
“Whether to stay or to go?”
“I’m afraid,” she said, lowering her head. “They’ve got the scent of us… I’m afraid of staying in one place, waiting for them to find us. I want to keep moving now. I know it’s the opposite of what I said before, but…”
“We lost the puppies the first time because we tried to move them,” Mhumhi pointed out.
“You think it wasn’t already a matter of time?” said Kutta. “You were seen… and the hyenas were all close by. Both times we had trouble, it was because there was an ambush laid for us. I’d rather turn the tables, if I can.”
Mhumhi thought of those long nights they had spent hiding together in the stinking sewers, the wet and the cold and the fear. Surviving… waiting.
“All right,” he said. “We should at least try to trap them. Or Henli should.”
“I’m willing to try,” said Henli. She had put her chin back in her hand, and bore the look of the interested observer. Mhumhi wondered what she had made of their conversation just now. “I do need to know one thing, though.”
“And what is that?”
“What am I to do with the dogs, once I have them all?”
This really made Mhumhi’s belly squirm, and from the look on Kutta’s face, she felt the same way. He knew what the easy choice would be- rather, the more logical choice. All it would take was a word. He had already done something similar when he had told Hlolwa and Imbwa about the bouda; this would not be so different.
He paced a little, just in front of Henli’s computer chair.
“How long do you think you can feed that many dogs?” he asked. “And how precisely can you manipulate how they move?”
“To the first, I don’t know,” said Henli. “It depends on how much they eat. I can only imagine wringing a few more days out of our supplies before it starts risking the lives of those that are still sleeping.”
“A few days is all right,” said Mhumhi, ignoring Kutta’s piercing look. “And the second?”
“What do you mean by precise?”
“I mean,” said Mhumhi, “can you do something like- catch the jackals first, then the painted dogs, then release the jackals and keep the painted dogs longer? Could you do that- keeping them separate all the while?”
Henli put two fingers on her chin and gazed skyward for a moment, brow wrinkling. After what seemed like a long while she nodded and said, “I can try to do that.”
“What are you planning, Mhumhi?” asked Kutta.
“We just need the time,” said Mhumhi. “Time where we can figure out what’s happening right now in the city- who knows, maybe the extra meat from the bouda is making the pressure ease off. Maybe we could find a good hiding spot again.”
Kutta gave a short sigh through her nose.
“Or, we could look for somewhere else to go,” said Mhumhi. “We could just keep moving. I don’t know.”
“We could leave Tareq inside the dispensary,” said Kutta, with a hollow laugh. “All the food he’d need. So long as he doesn’t accidentally get ground up too…”
“That’s not funny,” Mhumhi snapped, and Kutta pressed her jaws together.
“We must protect Tareq,” she said. “That has to be our goal in all this.”
Mhumhi wanted to ask why, perhaps insolently, but it would be fooling himself. He knew why.
“We could take care of him here, you know,” said Henli. “Let him sleep with the others-”
“No!” exclaimed both Mhumhi and Kutta, nearly simultaneously. They passed a glance, then Mhumhi added, “We’re not trusting him to anyone else’s care anymore.”
“Fair enough,” said Henli, who did not seem the slightest bit offended. “I admire your devotion to him.”
“You can shut it tight behind us after we go through the meat conveyor, right?” asked Kutta. “So the other dogs can’t get in?”
“I am certain of it,” said Henli. “I can block off that part of the stairs completely.”
“Good,” said Kutta. “We can’t stop them from smelling us, but…”
“Henli,” said Mhumhi, “if we really do go through with this, you ought to find O.”
Henli gave him an odd smile, then touched the matted hair at the side of her head.
“My inclination is to stay away from her for now, to be honest.”
Mhumhi winced; he’d nearly forgotten about the incident that had left Henli on the floor.
“I know, but she’ll be killed, and maybe eaten,” he said. “You don’t want that, do you?”
Henli glanced at the blank images on the screen for a moment.
“I don’t plan to let her die, in general,” she said. “You’ve no need to worry about that.”
It occurred to Mhumhi, very roughly, that it was like O said- Henli indeed did not want to die. For some reason it still felt better to him than O begging for him to sacrifice her.
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta, “do we want to do this? Do we really- do we want to run away and trap the Madame?”
Mhumhi raised his tail and curled it, white-flagged, over his back.
“If we don’t want to trap ourselves, I think it’s our best bet,” he said. “Henli, how much time do you think we have until the jackals get here?”
“About half an hour,” said Henli, swinging from side to side in her chair. “For the painted dogs, most of a day. They looked like they were making good time.”
“Then so should we,” said Mhumhi.
Kutta rose to her feet a this.
“We can’t begin to thank you,” she said, looking at Henli. Henli flicked her fingertips at them.
“It should prove to be interesting,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time merely looking at dogs on monitors. It will be nice to see more up close. Not too close, of course.”
“Not too close,” agreed Mhumhi. “That sounds about right.”
He and Kutta quit the computer room after that, which was quite a relief- not only because it did feel good to be moving again, getting something solid accomplished, but because Mhumhi wanted to step around the knowledge that he was leaving O and Henli and the other sleeping hulkers in a great deal of danger. Well; Kutta had wanted them to share the blame, so she was leaving them too.
He padded back down the hallway again beside his sister, back towards the room where Tareq was sleeping. There was one thing he was certain didn’t bother Kutta; a persistent, awful thought that gnawed at him.
He knew that if he had a way- just a way- to nudge Henli into murdering all those dogs and not having any of the blame come back to him. He knew that! It was a horrid thought to harbor, even if he was just frightened. It was like a sort of preemptive guilt. Or rather, preventative guilt. He didn’t really care for the lives of all those dogs, just his own selfish feelings.
He was twisting this around in his mind when they came upon Tareq, who rather than being on the bed where they had left him, was lying in a tangle of sheets on the floor.
“Tareq!” whined Kutta, running over to paw at him. “Did you fall off the bed? Are you all right?”
Tareq rolled over, it seemed with great effort, and squinted up at her.
“I want to get,” he said.
“Want to get what?” asked Kutta.
“Want to get,” said Tareq, raising a hand to rub hard at one of his eyes. “Up.”
“Well, get up then, dear one,” said Kutta, licking his little forehead. Tareq squirmed in the sheets, flailing, not making much progress. Kutta had to run around and grip him by the back of the shirt, tugging at him to extract him from his little cocoon. Mhumhi pulled on the sheets a bit to try and assist, revealing Tareq’s small bare feet one by one.
Eventually they got him up on his feet, though he moved drunkenly, staggering and bumping into walls. Mhumhi and Kutta decided to walk on either side of him, letting him hold on to the loose skin at the backs of their necks- it was the best the three of them were going to manage. Mhumhi felt somewhat bad for the little fellow, since he seemed to be trying very hard to stay away and mobile. Each time his head began to droop he would snap back awake so fast Mhumhi feared he’d end up breaking his little neck.
One way or another, they got him down the stairs. Mhumhi wondered if Henli was watching their progress from her omnipotent computer room, probably laughing to herself.
They got to the cold room at the bottom of the stairs, the room with all the metal tables. Right away Mhumhi noticed that a few things had changed. The first was that the little crowd of screamers had disappeared, much like Dot had. The second was that Mini had vanished with them.
Kutta went up to sniff at the table where she’d been lying.
“Only some blood,” she said, shivering.
“The screamers must have taken her,” said Mhumhi, keeping Tareq stable by bracing against him while she searched. His gut was beginning to churn again. “I suppose… I suppose we’ll have to try and find her before we leave.”
“Let’s put Tareq in the conveyer line first,” said Kutta. “Let him settle back there for a moment. I hope Henli wasn’t lying when she said this would wear off quick.”
“I hope Henli wasn’t lying about a lot of things,” was Mhumhi’s rather gloomy comment in response. Kutta elected not to respond to this.
They went into the next room- the dark room- and as before, the tinny music started playing when they nudged the door open. They were greeted with a familiar, nervous giggle.
“Vimbo!” exclaimed Mhumhi, wagging his tail in an odd loop- he was glad to see the hyena, but also quite wary.
Kutta had no such qualms- she had not witnessed his minor breakdown in front of the computers. She went up to him, all a-wag. In the dim light Mhumhi saw Vimbo’s hulking shape cringe away. The hyena’s giggles were abrasive to the music that was still playing.
“What’s frightening him?” Kutta asked Mhumhi, stopping in her tracks. “I don’t know wh- Oh!”
She stopped speaking. Mhumhi followed her gaze and, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dimness, beheld a small black lump in one corner of the room.
He swallowed a whine. Mini was not moving. Vimbo gave that awful snicker again, and his large dark form briefly passed across Mhumhi’s vision, blotting out Mini, like a planet obscuring the sun.
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, his tail tucking now, “is Mini…”
“She is not dead,” snapped Kutta.
She went up to the black lump, stiff-legged, and gave a shrill whistle. Mini did not move. She lowered her head and nipped at one of Mini’s puffy ears. There was still no response.
Kutta’s brow wrinkled, her ears rotated- she was listening for something- and then suddenly lunged down and grabbed Mini by the scruff.
“Ow!” exclaimed the little dog, opening her eyes wide. “Ow. Put me down!”
Kutta more or less dropped her, but luckily she’d not even gotten Mini’s back legs off the ground yet. Still, the little domestic fell into a heap.
“Never been treated this way,” she muttered. “What would you have done if I really was dead, hmm?”
“Flung you around like a bit of old plastic,” said Kutta. “I could care less about your life status, anyway. Do you want to escape back to the city with us?”
Mini blinked her little pop-eyes for a moment, then licked her lips.
“What a question.”
“It’s got to be a yes or no, now,” said Kutta. “Otherwise we’re just going to leave.”