Death and revival.
The little valley around the fire pit was suddenly filled with bodies.
Coyotes and golden, side-striped, and black-backed jackals were everywhere. They lay panting in the heat or prowling atop the ridges or interacting with the screamers, which had filtered in amongst them over time. Here and there screamers and dogs would be huddled together, or stroking and licking one another, or gently wrestling with one another. The air held so many sounds: yips and grunts and hoots and whines, and wherever Mhumhi looked his eye caught movement, his nose the warm smell of other living creatures.
He had almost forgotten what it was like to be surrounded by other dogs. It seemed so long since they had left the city. He felt almost anxious about their presence. They had eaten all of the meat that they had in their little refrigerator in minutes.
He had wondered if Kutta would protest when he brought the hungry horde of them back to the valley, but she had immediately offered them meat, saying in an aside to Mhumhi that these dogs had fed them before, and that they should return the favor. She had added in a lower voice that nothing would stop them getting the meat once they got hungry enough, anyway.
Mhumhi knew that they were still hungry. There had to be about twenty of them, and the meat in the refrigerator didn’t even comprise one whole hulker. It was a temporary mainstay.
But on the other hand, there was a sense of comfort in having so many others around, chatty and confident. They were kind to Tareq, exclaiming on his well-spokenness and letting him pet them, and they seemed fascinated by Sekayi. Sekayi was equally enthralled by them; he watched them with wide eyes, holding Mini against his chest with one arm, as though he were drinking it all in. Mhumhi had no doubt that this was the sort of scene that Sekayi had fantasized about for a long time.
Mhumhi could not share in his joy. There was a conflict coming with their growing hunger, and he did not know how smoothly it would all go over.
Kutta knew this too, from her expression, but she kept her voice calm as she invited Telipa to lie with her next to the fire pit. The coyote came over, wagging her tail, and stopped to sniff at the pot Sekayi used for cooking meat. She eagerly washed the inside with a series of rapid licks.
“Can you tell us what happened while you were inside the safe- I mean, the other building?” asked Mhumhi. “Where you said a hulker spoke to you?”
Telipa looked up, licking her lips, and for a moment Mhumhi caught the sharpness of her pointed ears and pointed muzzle and yellow eyes. Then she wagged her tail again.
“I don’t really know where to start,” she said. “We saw you’d quit the city and we figured you had an idea where to go. It helped that the little dogs cleared us out of the water treatment plant, and that the fire was still burning the place up.”
“Was it still burning by the time you left?” interrupted Kutta. “How much was gone?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Telipa, turning one ear back. “More than a few blocks, that’s for sure. It wasn’t burning quite so fast, but it seemed stubborn. If it’d just rain…” She sighed softly through her nose. “Well, anyhow, the dispensaries weren’t working in that sector, so we picked up your trail and followed it.”
“Lucky you managed to, with all that sand,” said Kutta, tone wry.
“Coyotes and jackals have good noses, you know,” said Telipa, her fluffy tail waving. “We mostly dug up the places you’d shat and sniffed them.”
“Did you dig up anything else out there?” asked Mhumhi.
“What do you mean?” Telipa tilted her head.
“What happened when you got to the building?” said Kutta. “Did you ever realize the police were following you?”
“We did catch wind of their scent a few times,” Telipa admitted. “That’s why we didn’t turn around, even though some wanted to after the first day of walking. Caught between the police and the unknown, I guess you could say we went for the unknown. We saw the building and went in right away; we could smell you everywhere.
“We went through a bunch of doors and up some stairs. Then there were a bunch of rooms, and when some of us went into them, the doors shut behind us. Before we could do much, the air started smelling funny and we blacked out. Just like that.”
“That’s what Hlolwa said, too,” said Kutta, glancing at Mhumhi.
“But Hlolwa said everybody who inhaled the stuff died,” he retorted. “And they’re obviously not dead. She was lying.”
“Oh, well, I don’t think she was,” said Telipa, widening her eyes earnestly. “I think when blacked out we really did die. A little bit.”
“A little bit?” Mhumhi twittered his disbelief.
“Hush,” said Mini, from Sekayi’s arms over by the wall. “This is getting interesting.”
Mhumhi shot her a look, but then it occurred to him that Mini might have a good reason to find Telipa’s tale ‘interesting.’
“When we came to again, there were a lot of hulkers,” explained Telipa. “Like these ones you call screamers. They didn’t talk, but they carried us. We were all feeling very weak, you see, and there was stuff in our throats. And then a hulker started talking to us through the ceiling.”
“Did you get her name?” asked Kutta. “Was it by any chance…”
“She said it was Henli,” said Telipa, confirming their suspicions. “Anyway, she told us not to be frightened, since she’d just had to have us sleep for a few days. Er, a very deep sleep. She said the gas relaxed all our muscles and stopped our hearts.”
“Stopped your hearts?” repeated Mhumhi, appalled.
“Yes,” said Telipa, “that part is a little hard to believe, but when I listened to the chests of the ones who hadn’t woken up yet, there weren’t any heartbeats at all. But the screamers were able to revive them all the same.”
“That’s impossible,” put in Sekayi. “A stopped heart? That’s death.”
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” said Mini. “Eh? What do you two think?”
She was looking sardonically at Mhumhi and Kutta.
“You know something?” said Mhumhi, warily.
“Not very much,” said Mini. “I do know that hulkers are very good at fixing things, even living things. And if you didn’t want to have to feed someone much, I suppose it’d be best to make him dead. Or at least almost dead.”
“Yes, the hulker said something like that,” said Telipa.
“That rascal didn’t want to have to feed these mongrels,” said Mini, chuckling. “Clever. I bet the hulkers that are ‘sleeping’ might have their hearts stopped too.”
“But nobody can survive for more than a minute or two with their heart stopped,” insisted Sekayi. “This woman said you were out for days?”
“I can’t explain how they did it,” said Telipa. “When I came to, I was on a table in a cold, dark room, and a tube was in my throat. There were screamers everywhere. I was quite terrified, to be honest. But they took the tube out of my throat and set me down with some others that were awake. We were all to exhausted to move or speak. And they put a jackal that looked dead onto the table. There was frozen water all over his fur and a tube sticking out of his mouth. And they did something that made a loud noise and suddenly he was choking and his eyes opened.”
Mhumhi and Kutta looked at Mini.
“Yes, the process seems familiar,” the little dog admitted. “Granted, when it happened to me, I was mostly relieved. I’d changed my mind about wanting to be dead by then.”
Kutta’s forehead wrinkled. “Telipa, I’m surprised you trusted the hulker after all that.”
“Well, I didn’t really,” said Telipa, “but then she had a bit of food drop out of the ceiling for us- odd food that didn’t look like meat but tasted like meat. And then she said we were free to go, and the doors opened up. She told us the police were still in there waiting to be revived and that we had a couple days head start.”
“I can imagine that encouraged you to go,” said Mini.
“Yes,” said Telipa, whisking her tail. “But we didn’t much know where we were going. All your marks were long gone, and we were still weak. It feels like we walked around in that desert forever…” She sighed, her thin sides constricting. “I’m glad we heard the howling. There was some nasty talk happening before that.”
“Nasty talk?” Kutta pricked her ears up.
“I’d rather not repeat it,” said Telipa. “It was said by very hungry individuals. We’ll pretend it didn’t happen. The point is that we’ve got food now.”
Mhumhi and Kutta looked at one another. Mhumhi had answered Telipa’s question about the origin of their meat with a halfhearted answer about it being in a refrigerator, and she had accepted that easily enough. He wondered if she thought the refrigerator produced meat just like a dispensary.
“You two had better stop making eyes at each other and open up about it,” said Mini. “The longer you wait, the worse it’ll be.”
Kutta gave her a dirty look. “Us? Haven’t you got a mouth, too?”
“I’m only a little crippled Toy,” Mini said primly. “I haven’t got any responsibility or any heft around here.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Telipa, her tone hovering between curiosity and alarm.
Mhumhi looked at her wide eyes, then beyond her, at the other coyotes and jackals. And the screamers that were interacting so peacefully with them. He drew in a long breath, than released it.
“Telipa,” he said. “Do you know where the meat in the city comes from?”
“The dispensary,” the coyote chirped at once.
“Do you know where it came from before it got in the dispensary, though?”
“Of course she doesn’t know,” snapped Mini. “Quit pawing the subject around.”
“Be quiet if you’re not going to help,” said Kutta, exposing a fang.
“Does the meat come from somewhere bad?” Telipa asked dubiously.
“No,” said Mhumhi, though his voice wobbled a bit. “Not exactly- it- it comes from hulkers.”
“Oh,” said Telipa. “Is that all?” She hesitated, as they were all staring at her. “I mean, do the hulkers put the meat inside the dispensary or-”
“Coyote,” said Sekayi. He let Mini slide down to his lap, and raised his wounded arm to grip the hanging flesh with his fingers. “This is where the meat comes from.”
Telipa gazed at him.
“You don’t mean that you lift it in with your front legs.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You mean…” She hesitated. “But… but only the police eat hulkers. And the meat… and there aren’t many of them. And there’s always been so much meat.”
“Meat has to come from a living thing,” said Mhumhi. “A rat, or a hulker, it doesn’t matter.”
“But… but…” Telipa put her ears back and whimpered. “Does that mean a lot of hulkers had to die?”
She was attracting the attention of the other coyotes and jackals with her distress, and now they were turning their heads towards her, sharp-pointed ears pricked.
“And… and the meat we just ate,” Telipa whimpered, and licked her lips, her throat bobbing like she was going to be sick. “Are you telling me that it came from…”
“It came from hulkers,” said Kutta. “Not ordinary hulkers, though. It came from them.”
She thrust her nose out, and Telipa slowly looked- at the screamers with their arms around dog necks and the vacant smiles on their faces.
Telipa whimpered again. The others immediately around them were showing similar signs of distress, one turning and retching. Those further back who perhaps hadn’t caught the whole thing seemed confused.
“Dead things,” Telipa said, backing away, her head lowered. “Oh! I’ve eaten dead things… how… how could you? They’re so-!”
“Telipa,” interrupted Mhumhi. “We didn’t do it because we wanted to. We had to. And you will, too. You’ve eaten the rest of our meat.”
Telipa gazed at him dumbly.
“There is nothing else here to eat,” Kutta said, rising to her feet. “Do the rest of you hear me? There’s nothing else here to eat!”
She held her head high, as though she were trying to sound staunch, but under the eyes of the dogs sitting and standing on the valley walls all around them like a forum, it might have sounded a little desperate.
“I won’t kill anyone,” Telipa said, voice painful. “You- you’re not what I thought you were, Mhumhi. I thought you were a good fellow. You took in that little hulker…” She slowly raised her gaze. “Are you just fattening him up for later?”
Mhumhi stepped forward with a snarl. The dogs around them reacted with shrill yaps and growls. The air suddenly felt electric.
“Tareq is not to be harmed,” said Kutta, stepping beside Mhumhi. “Spare us your high-mindedness. We’ll see what you say when you’re starving.”
Telipa hesitated, her eyes flickering, but then her gaze hardened.
“You’re wrong,” she said. “You’re wrong, and it’s sick. It’s all very sick. I can’t believe you.” She turned away sharply. “There is something else we can eat. Something that won’t harm anyone.”
“If you find it,” Mhumhi said, bitterly, “be sure to let us know about it.”
The tension was gone. The jackals and coyotes were drawing away from them, back up onto the sides of the valley. The screamers followed along with them, trudging and crawling up the loose trash on the sides. They, too, were hungry, Mhumhi thought bitterly, and they, too, knew that there was no more meat left down here.
Kutta came close to him and licked his muzzle.
“We had to tell them,” she said, softly. “There was no way we could have kept it a secret. And anyway, they should know.”
“Why?” Mhumhi asked. His head fell lower. “They were happier without knowing. Knowing doesn’t help anybody, it only makes things worse.”
“They’ll come to terms with it,” said Kutta. “They’ll have to.”
“And what if they don’t?”
“Then they’ll starve,” Kutta said, with conviction.
“You sound like Hlolwa,” Mhumhi said, and Kutta gave him a dark look.
“They’ve just got to accept it, Mhumhi. We did.”
Had they? wondered Mhumhi. Had they really? Was there any way to calmly, rationally, accept the brutality that was needed to maintain their existence?
“What if Telipa’s right?” he said. “What if there is something else to eat out there- something that doesn’t hurt anyone?”
“You said it yourself, Mhumhi. Meat comes from a living thing.”
Mhumhi lowered his head even further.
“There is one way,” said Sekayi, and they both looked at him, Mhumhi from his low position.
“What do you mean?”
Sekayi gave a kind of crumpled smile, his swollen cheek unmoving. “Very soon, a lot of the screamers will drop dead. From starvation. Meat everywhere without having to lift a finger.”
“Sekayi,” said Mini, tugging at his wrist. “Don’t.”
“It doesn’t much matter,” said Kutta. “Meat everywhere! Until it all goes rotten. And then we’ll have nothing at all. What then? Where then?”
Mhumhi looked at the retreating backs of the jackals and coyotes.
“Maybe they really do have the right idea,” he said. “Keep searching for… for something else.”
“What,” said Kutta, “you mean go out there? Back into the desert? Mhumhi, we were there. We saw it. There was nothing.”
“That’s not true,” said Mhumhi. “There was the safe place. The underground tunnel. And now here. We had no idea all of this existed when we were inside the city.”
“Yes,” said Kutta, “we found these places by sheer luck, do you realize that? Anybody who goes out into that desert without a sense of direction dies.”
“The other dogs made it here.”
“Because they heard Mini howling!”
“Well,” said Mhumhi, “maybe… maybe if we walk far enough, we’d hear someone howling too.”
Kutta looked at him for a long moment, then said, “It’d be the wind in our ears just before we died.”
Mhumhi turned away from her. She was right, of course, even right to quash that little bit of hope he still clung to in his heart. Hopes like that brought them out of hiding and got the ones he loved killed.
“I want there to be something better,” he said.
“So do I, Mhumhi,” said Kutta. “So does everybody. But we’ve got to-”
Mini suddenly burst into sharp yaps.
“Oh, shut up for a moment, you two!” she cried, tiny nose quivering. “Look up there! I thought I smelled him!”
Kutta spared a little growl, but they followed her gaze. Standing at the top of the valley was a familiar three-legged silhouette.
“I thought I’d let you finish your conversation first,” said Bii, his heavy ears tilting forwards. “Didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Oh, really,” said Kutta, fur rising. “And where have you got to, these past few weeks?”
“I’ve been making my own way,” said Bii. “I don’t recall us having any sort of arrangement. But anyway, I came back because I found something you might be interested in.”
“What something?” asked Mhumhi, raising his head. Bii flashed his impish little grin.
“Why don’t you come and see for yourselves?”