It took Kutta a great deal off effort to pull the large lever down, turning her head sideways and tugging, putting all her weight into it. Mhumhi kept his eyes on her, trying to ignore the stench of the dead hulker that shared the kiosk with them.
Finally the lever clicked, and Kutta let go and stepped back, panting a little. Mhumhi could see deep gashes in the rubber handle where her teeth had sliced through.
They waited a moment, but nothing seemed to be happening.
“Better try something else,” said Mhumhi.
“Maybe nothing works here anymore,” said Kutta. “Or maybe Mini’s wrong, maybe this doesn’t bring a train… Why d’you think that hulker died here?”
“I don’t know, I thought we agreed not to think about it.”
“He doesn’t look like he starved…”
Outside the kiosk, Mini began yapping furiously. Mhumhi could hear a great deal of shrieking and hooting beginning to well up from the crowd of screamers.
“Maybe it-” began Kutta, and then she and Mhumhi dashed out of the kiosk.
Mini appeared to be yapping at the screamers themselves, her foreclaws scratching at the concrete. There was a great roiling turmoil in the mass of them- Mhumhi saw them scrambling towards either wall, away from the dark tunnel, clutching and whimpering to themselves.
“We must have done it!” said Kutta. “Called the- the train…”
She faltered. The widening gap in the crowd revealed that a few screamers were lying down on the ground, across the tracks, unmoving.
“They fell over!” yapped Mini. “What did you two do?”
“We didn’t do anything,” said Kutta, who had tucked her tail. Mhumhi went warily over to the nearest one- the other screamers had given the tracks a wide berth by now- and thrust his head forward to sniff it.
“It’s dead,” he said.
“Why?” cried Kutta.
Mhumhi said nothing for a moment, sniffing the body with more confidence, lightly nosing under an arm. The screamer’s ribs jutted out starkly, and the hair on its chest and face was faded.
“Electricity,” Mini was saying. “If you turned that rail on, it must have had a surge. They’ve been electrocuted.”
“If we turned the rail on, does that mean the train is coming?” asked Kutta.
“Who knows?” Mini gave a little sneeze-growl. “I didn’t think you two would just go messing around in there without asking me…”
Mhumhi heard Kutta make a kind of uncomfortable noise.
He himself went to the next body, being careful not to touch the metal rail, and found it to be similarly thin and faded. This one was female, curled up facing away from him, her flesh sagging downwards on her back.
“These ones are all old, I think,” said Mhumhi. “It smells like they were already dying.”
“Well, don’t you feel better,” said Mini.
“You shut up,” said Kutta. “Do you want to get back to the city or not?”
“I don’t, remember? I wasn’t planning on going on this little-”
There was a small hand curled over the dead screamer’s side, Mhumhi realized, tuning out the argument that Mini and Kutta had launched into. He sniffed the fingers touching them with his nose, then jerked back.
He had felt an unmistakeable pulse in those small fingers.
He glanced back. Kutta and Mini still had their hackles up, while Vimbo paced in front of them, his dark eyes on the screamers huddling against the walls. Tareq was sitting on the floor with his hands around his knees.
The little fingers tightened around the flesh of the dead screamer’s back, the knuckles dimpling.
Mhumhi stared at them, hesitating, and took a step back, his tail swinging low. If he went and looked around the other side…
He stepped back again, then licked his lips, and went around to the other side of the dead screamer.
There was a little screamer puppy clinging to her, even smaller than Tareq, with puffy black eyes. It looked at Mhumhi, turning its head a little, and uttered a soft gurgle.
Since it was a screamer, it could not have the capacity to realize that its mother was dead, thought Mhumhi, and felt a faint sense of relief. He went up to the little thing, wagging his tail a little, and the infant reached out to him, dropping its grip on its mother so that it fell on its back.
It was quite a hard thud, but the little screamer only blinked, smiling up at him in a gooey way. Mhumhi went to nose it and it grabbed at his muzzle.
“What have you got, Mhumhi?” called Mini.
“Oh, it’s a little screamer,” said Kutta, raising her tail. But her brow was wrinkling.
Mhumhi licked the screamer’s snub nose, and the screamer giggled and said, very clearly, “Ga.”
It made Mhumhi smile a little, the first time in a while, his tongue hanging out. A puppy was a puppy, after all, and there was nothing one could do against a puppy…
“Guh,” said the little screamer, and grasped his lip, pulling it away from his teeth. Mhumhi extracted himself carefully. For a moment he caught himself wishing that it could actually talk.
“Mhumhi,” Mini called, “leave it be. You should get away from the rail.”
“But it’s mother’s dead. We can’t just leave it,” said Kutta, brushing past Mini to approach the dead screamer. “Do you think it has more family out in the crowd?”
“They certainly didn’t stay with it,” Mhumhi said. “I don’t think they care very much.”
“But they’re so affectionate!” Kutta sniffed the little screamer, smiling when it waved its fists at her and gurgled.
“I mean it, you two!” Mini was starting to yap again. “Get away from the rail!”
Vimbo uttered a whine, and Mhumhi realized that Mini was on to something. He could detect a faint vibration coming from underneath his paws.
“I think the train’s coming,” he said to Kutta. “Quickly.”
“We have to get the puppy out of the way,” she said, pinning her ears back. “Hurry…”
Mhumhi looked down at the little screamer and realized that there might be an issue. Like the rest of them, this infant was entirely naked, and he cringed at even putting his teeth gently into that soft, unprotected flesh. Kutta appeared to be having a similar dilemma- she mouthed the screamer’s little arm, then drew away.
“I’m afraid I’ll break the flesh if I drag it,” she whined.
Mhumhi glanced at the tunnel, feeling the vibrations growing perceptibly louder, and felt a little flutter of fear. He put his nose under the screamer’s shoulder and turned it over, so that it flopped onto its belly.
“Good idea,” said Kutta, as he gently put his teeth around the back of its neck. But the screamer whimpered and squirmed.
“There’s no loose skin,” he said, drawing back.
“Oh, oh,” said Kutta, whipping her head around urgently. Two lights had become visible in the tunnel. “We may have to just hurt it! How did its mother carry it? In her forelegs?”
“Yes, but obviously-” Mhumhi hesitated, then lay down next to the screamer.
“What are you doing?!”
Mhumhi edged closer, so that the fur on his shoulder brushed it, and stretched his paws out. The screamer, apparently already having forgotten the pain he had inflicted upon it earlier, made a happy sound and reached out and grabbed the fur on his shoulder.
“Oh- I get it-” Kutta ran around his other side and nudged at the screamer, helping it to crawl on top of Mhumhi’s back, gripping at the loose skin around his shoulder blades. Mhumhi marveled in the strength in those little fingers.
Mhumhi got up, with the little creature clinging to him like a little parasite- gripping with its toes, too- and trotted quickly towards Mini and Vimbo, past the end of the rail.
It was not a moment too soon. Kutta burst past him, running full-tilt, as the ground underneath his paws shuddered. The assembled screamers gibbered and howled, and Tareq grabbed Vimbo’s foreleg. The train- it was really not much of a train, having only two cars like the trolley- whooshed out of the tunnel at an alarming rate, shining brilliant headlights over them all in the dim thoroughfare.
Mhumhi had realized the horrible thing that was going to happen, but he still flinched when the front of the train impacted with the first of the screamer bodies that was lying across the tracks with a sickening crunch. Kutta hastened to stand in front of the seated Tareq.
“There’s your food,” said Mini, as the train creaked to a stop at the end of the rail. Mhumhi gave her a sharp look, but found himself faltering when he saw how she was lying, her head on her paws, lolling, and her pink tongue protruding slightly.
“We can’t let Tareq see us eating them,” Kutta said, lowering her voice slightly- Tareq had buried his face in her fur.
“But you don’t mind eating them?” Mini shot back.
Kutta glared at her. “They’re not dogs.”
Mini gave a little snort. Mhumhi realized that she probably didn’t catch Kutta’s meaning- that she also included hulkers in her definition of what dogs were. He shifted his footing slightly. The little hulker’s fingers and toes were still digging sharply and securely into his skin, its solid weight heavy on his back. He marveled that the adult screamers could carry such weight around so nonchalantly.
He looked over at Tareq. Someone had had to carry him once, too, hadn’t they? He would have been difficult for them to manage if they had gotten him when he was much younger.
His back was also beginning to feel a bit damp- it seemed that the little screamer was starting to drool.
“Get rid of that backpack, Mhumhi, and let’s ride the train,” said Mini.
“Get rid of it where?” said Mhumhi. “You think I should try giving it to them…?”
He looked dubiously at the huddle of adult screamers, who all seemed to be cringing away from the train as though it were a hairy monster- granted, it had done fairly awful things to the bodies now piled up in front of its headlights.
“Go and try,” said Mini. “Better not be thinking about keeping it. What an addition that would be.”
“I don’t plan on keeping it,” said Mhumhi, looking to Kutta for some kind of support, but she was focused on Tareq, trying to coax him out of his frightened state.
Mini said something to Vimbo in hulker, and he picked her up by the scruff and approached the train. Mhumhi saw that he kept casting glances at the corpses piled up in front of it.
The little screamer on his back was now breathing very evenly, as though it had fallen asleep. Mhumhi took a deep breath himself and approached the left wall, the same side as the kiosk, where one half of the adults were massed. The frontmost ones swayed and hooted at his approach.
He went all tense, anticipating the grabbing and screaming that was about to ensue, but perhaps Vimbo still lingered in their minds, making them wary, and he merely received a few polite pats when he walked into the middle of the crowd.
They didn’t, he noticed, seem very interested in the puppy now snoring softly on his back. He wriggled his shoulders a little, then lay down.
The screamers seemed to take this as an invitation to come closer, feeling him all over with their hands, which he tolerated well enough until one yanked on his tail, making him raise his lip. This seemed enough to get them to back away a little.
The little screamer was waking up, squirming and making soft little noises on his back. One of its feet slipped down and touched the ground beside him.
One of the screamers reached out and picked up the puppy, tugging it loose from its grip on his skin, and put it up to his own chest. Mhumhi was surprised- and perhaps a bit offended- by how little the infant reacted to the transfer. It merely directed its gurgling smile towards its new caretaker.
Well, that was that, thought Mhumhi, rising to his feet again, shaking himself to dissuade the more amorous screamers. He pushed his way back through the crowd, towards the train, but he couldn’t help but pause and look over his shoulder.
The hulker holding the infant had put it over his hip and was patting its head in a clumsy way. Mhumhi thought he seemed quite young, at least for an adult- he was skinny and lanky. He felt mildly uncomfortable.
But he could not worry about it. The baby screamer was among its own kind; fine. He increased his pace again towards the train, where it seemed Mini and Vimbo had gotten the door to the front car open.
Kutta was there, too, with Tareq still clinging anxiously to her side. Mhumhi gave one of his ears a swift lick.
“It’s gonna squish us,” Tareq informed him, small face grave.
“No it won’t,” said Mhumhi, which was all he could really think to say to that. “We’re going to ride inside.”
“What if it squishes us?”
“Puppy, the ones that got squished were already dead, so-” Kutta paused, seeming to reflect on the actual words she was saying. “Mhumhi’s right, we’ll be inside, where we can’t get squished.”
Tareq did not seem wholly convinced by all this, his face wrinkling with concern.
“Look at this, look at this,” said Mini, ahead of them. “It’s no good.”
Mhumhi left Tareq with Kutta and went up to stand beside Vimbo, who had his forelegs raised inside the car, Mini still dangling from his jaws.
“You feel that cold?” she said.
At first Mhumhi did not really understand what she meant, until he got very close to the car entrance. Right around there he was suddenly aware of the chilly air emanating from inside the car, and even coming from the inside of the thick door that was swung open.
“Why is it so cold? Is it because it hasn’t been opened in a while?”
“It’s a refrigerated car,” said Mini. “For meat. I bet it would smell like something else if there wasn’t this nose-numbing cold. But I don’t know about you- I don’t want to ride in that.”
“No,” Mhumhi agreed. “But what about the other car?”
“It looks to be the same make, and I can’t imagine what else they’d be hauling down here than meat.”
“Then…” Mhumhi turned his nose forward. Ahead of the heavy door, there was a cab with blacked-out windows. “What about up there?”
“Awfully small,” said Mini. “Oh… but there’s one at each end.”
Mhumhi stepped back and craned his neck to see that she was right- there was another cab at the other end of the train, identical to the first in all except for the fact that it pointed in the opposite direction. He supposed it made sense, oddly enough- the train couldn’t turn around, so it had to face both ways.
“Then Vimbo and I will go in the far one,” said Mini, managing to keep her voice level even when Vimbo abuptly swung his head and her around to see what they were looking at. “You two and the child can go in this one. Don’t, err, touch anything. I’ll work on the controls.”
Behind them, Kutta gave a little huff through her nose.
“Vimbo would probably understand them even better,” said Mhumhi, unable to resist one last dig. But he was chastened for it when Mini turned her pop-eyes on him and said, “Yes, just like the way he understands me.”
They each went to their separate cabs. Mini was right, they were woefully tiny. Mhumhi felt that they could barely accommodate one adult hulker, seated in the chair attached by a pole to the floor, much less two quadrupedal dogs and a hulker child. At least it was a relief that Tareq immediately forgot his fright and clambered on top of the chair to put his hands on the windows and look out.
“Are they coming?” he said, as Kutta pulled the door shut behind them with her teeth.
Mhumhi reared up, placing his paws gingerly away from the controls on the dashboard. Tareq was pointing to the screamers. They seemed to be fanning out more, covering the area in front of the train, moving away from the walls.
“No, they’re not coming; they live here,” he said. He was half-distracted, looking through the crowd.
“Say goodbye to them, and thanks for letting us visit their home,” Kutta offered, and Tareq waved his hand at the window.
Mhumhi found what he was looking for in the crowd. The infant screamer was now on the ground, on its back. The others were stepping all around it, ignoring it as it waved its little fists in a parody of what Tareq was doing.
The train shuddered, and they began to move, faster and faster and then into the dark tunnel.