“Why does Mhumhi have to go with Bii?”
That had been Kutta, prowling around in their little kitchen the next morning, claws clicking on the tiles. Displeasure was evident in the way her tail swished low around her hocks.
“Because,” said Sacha, who had taken up her preferred vantage point up on the counter. “Mhumhi’s got the biggest belly, and he can eat the most meat. He’ll be eating both his and Bii’s portions.”
“But why can’t Bii just-?”
“He’s told me he can’t regurgitate it, like a domestic,” said Sacha, tone wry. Bii himself was lying on the floor near the door, paws lined up neatly parallel to each other. He was clearly eager to go.
Mhumhi gave his own sad little whine, as he had hoped to be exempt from the whole regurgitation business. He returned to ripping at the tattered fabric that remained on their old couch to vent his frustration. Kutta looked at him, and he knew what she was thinking: they’d have to postpone their secret mission until they could figure out a way to sneak out alone together.
“I’ll go with you later, Kutta,” said Sacha. “We shouldn’t be all together in a group… no need to attract too much attention.”
Mhumhi wondered if Sacha hadn’t somehow got wind of their plan- she was being so nefarious- but of course everything she was saying made perfect sense. A motley group like them traveling all together would certainly be seen as bizarre, especially once they left their neighborhood, and it had been drilled into them since they were puppies not to have a reason to make the police take notice of them.
Kutta huffed through her nose and trotted out of the kitchen and up the stairs. They heard her scratching around in the bathroom a moment later.
Sacha hopped from the counter down to the scratched old table, onto a chair, and down to the floor.
“I feel better keeping an eye on her,” she told Mhumhi. “She’s been wandering off lately, and she hasn’t been giving Keb much meat, either. Doesn’t it make you wonder?”
“Wonder what?” said Mhumhi, turning so that his front paws dangled off the edge of the couch.
“If she’s met somebody,” said Sacha. “If she’s thinking of splitting off.”
Mhumhi was shocked. “Sacha!”
“Well, I don’t know what else would make her act this way,” Sacha grumbled, furrowing her brow. Mhumhi looked at her a moment, then stepped down off the couch to nose at her shoulder.
“Kutta just likes to run around. Don’t worry about her, she’s not going to leave anytime soon.”
“It would be good if she did,” said Sacha, turning her nose up and away. “For her. To be with her own kind, I suppose.”
Mhumhi licked her tiny ears, saying nothing. Now he was beginning to feel rather guilty.
“Mhumhi,” called Bii, over by the door. “Let’s go now. We don’t want to have to wait in line too long.”
Mhumhi looked over at Bii, who he was feeling somewhat less kindly towards today. He’d been woken up to the loud crunching sound of the fox sitting up next to him devouring a large cockroach. When pressed, he had admitted he’d pawed it out from the underside of the toilet hole.
Still, a dog had to eat, after all. Mhumhi tried to let go of his negative feelings as he trotted beside the fox down the street, where the morning crowd was amassing. He spotted his fennec neighbor sitting in his storm drain, yawning. Mhumhi gave his tail a friendly wave and the fox blinked at him a moment before vanishing back into the darkness.
Even though it was still early morning it was still shimmering hot in the streets, the last of the previous day’s rain vanishing into a haze above the hot asphalt. The dogs around Mhumhi were all trotting with ears back and tongues hanging out, a crowd of lean legs and small white teeth. There were a few growls as more and more dogs fed into the crowd, but it was too hot to really fight.
Mhumhi still stood out as the largest animal, though as they got towards the edge of Oldtown there were more and more larger ones. A family of rotund tanuki trundled up to join the fray, and a pair of thin black-backed jackals were squabbling outside their door while a third panted on the sidewalk and watched. Mhumhi smelled the sickly-sweet musk long before a maned wolf, leggy and ruffled-looking, stepped warily over several smaller dogs and into the crowd. She was taller than Mhumhi, but she cringed nervously away at the sight of him. He kept his white-flagged tail waving high.
Oldtown’s crowded apartments and townhouses soon gave way to larger buildings, squat and flat like the one that had housed the subway station. Some of the dogs spilled through a gap in a chain-link fence surrounding a playground, startling a small family of fennec foxes that had taken refuge underneath the roundabout into furious, sleepy yapping. Mhumhi could see movement within the darkened and shuttered windows of the school beside it.
There were old cars here, too, scattered and parked permanently in different areas along the roadside. Some of them had their windows broken in and served as makeshift dens for the smaller and less lucky dogs, but mostly they served as vantage points, especially as the crowd continued to swell. Mhumhi broke away from Bii for a moment to bound on top of a sedan, paws thumping dully on the metal and adding dusty pawprints to the dozens that were already on the metal.
Beyond he could see the line where Oldtown ended and the rest of the city began. Far off there were skyscrapers, some square, some spiraling. The rest of the city fell into a kind of dip and formed a vast basin of buildings and metal winking and shimmering in the sunlight. There seemed to be no end to it at all. Mhumhi looked out to his left, where far in the distance he could see a large flat patch of yellow and green: that was Big Park.
“Come on,” Bii called, putting his paws on the car’s fender, and Mhumhi leapt down in two bounds.
Their final destination was along the street they called Wide Street, for it was exceptionally wide compared to the single and two-lane streets that wound through Oldtown. Across the massive intersection a single traffic light lay on the ground like a dead thing, glass lights long shattered. The rest still hung on their tall wire, flicking through colors for the carless streets. A narrow lane of gleaming solar panels stretched above them; Mhumhi caught a glimpse of a lone fox running across, paws slipping on the smoothness.
The horde of dogs hit Wide Street and fanned out, filling it with their grumbles and yaps. On the other side of the road there was a massive building, its tall walls a clean and gleaming mismatch to the dirty, tired buildings of Oldtown. It had a base of blue and white, and above that rose black metal struts and tall windows of blackened glass. In front of it there was an elongated white concrete booth with metal sliders protruding every few feet.
The dogs organized themselves into rough queues around each of these sliders. Many were growling now, as impatience mounted; puppies yapped and whined next to their parents. The tall maned wolf cringed more than ever as her much shorter neighbors jostled her on both sides.
Mhumhi, panting from the heat of the sun and the streets and the commingled dogs, helped guide Bii to a spot in one of the queues. He was relieved to see that it wasn’t terribly far back from the slider. It was probably a good thing Sacha had pushed them out of the house so early.
A sharp scent pricked at him, and he turned to see a three large dogs sitting together atop a parked car, surveying the crowd. Painted dogs, police dogs. Mhumhi, standing out in the crowd of little dogs and foxes, tried to make himself look small and solid-colored.
Abruptly a loud tone rang out, and from beyond the gleaming black glass, something hissed and ground to a start. Several dogs responded to it with eager whines and howls, and the line began to move.
Mhumhi had been to this meat dispensary a thousand times, though he had never really understood it. Somewhere behind that brick and featureless glass lay a vast store of meat. No dog had yet been able to penetrate one of the dispensaries, but they had little need to. The meat was delivered to them regularly, once a day, one hank per dog.
As each dog took its turn and stood on the flat metal scale, the slider clicked and hissed out of the wall, bearing a package wrapped in opaque white plastic and stamped with a collection of letters Mhumhi could not read. The air was soon filled with the sound of hissing and the smell of bloodless meat as each dog carried its package away in its jaws to devour in a more secluded area. The size of the hank matched the weight of the dog, roughly, for there was even a smaller scale that the littler foxes could jump onto.
A fight broke out on one of the nearby scales- a coyote had snatched the meat from a little corsac fox, which was squealing furiously. Immediately one of the painted dogs bounded down from the car. At the sight of it the coyote dropped the meat and darted away. The painted dog wheeled around, scattering the crowd, and hopped back up onto the car.
Mhumhi was caught up staring, but Bii nipped his heel- it was his turn. Hastily he loped over onto the metal scale, claws clicking, and felt it depress slightly underneath him with a dull clang. He reared up and pressed his nose against something black and round set in the wall and felt the familiar weird tingle.
The slider hissed and emerged smoothly from the wall, bearing his own personal hank of meat dangling from a clip in its plastic wrapper. Mhumhi tugged it loose and stood to the side as Bii hopped up on the higher scale and touched his own little button with a paw. The slider retracted back into the wall and returned a moment later with a much smaller package.
“Let’s get out of the crowd,” he called to Mhumhi as he leapt down to snatch it.
They squeezed back through the crowd, earning hungry looks- the rest of the Oldtown dogs had yet to eat, and more were still squeezing into Wide Street. Bii flicked his tail and led Mhumhi underneath a ramp held up with round concrete columns. There were a smattering of other dogs lurking there already, and they were greeted with growls, but Mhumhi’s appearance was enough to keep them unmolested.
Mhumhi found an empty spot in the shadows and tore through the plastic on his package. As always, the malleable stuff got stuck to his teeth and on the roof of his mouth. He curled his lips and scraped the roof of his mouth with his tongue, spitting plastic. It always reminded him of the first time he’d eagerly ripped into a package, with his mother warning him to be careful not to choke on it. He’d choked.
Bii was having an easier time of it with his sharp, tiny teeth. He sliced a neat line through his wrapper and tugged it fully back, exposing the pale red meat. Mhumhi started salivating at the sight, which didn’t help him much in trying to get a grip on the slippery plastic.
“I can help you,” Bii offered, watching him struggle, but Mhumhi warned him with a soft growl. He hooked his teeth onto one corner and managed to pour the squashy stuff out of the hole he’d made. It was not all in one piece- some of it was ground, and some of it was in flat strips. Mhumhi set to eating it right away as Bii watched.
“Don’t you ever get tired of eating the same thing every day?”
Mhumhi swallowed his mouthful and licked his chops. “There’s nothing else to eat.”
That was not strictly true- if a dog was clever enough to bargain, he could gain access to fruit from the Great Glass Garden that sat above the center of the city. But Mhumhi rarely desired any of the stuff, and it was never quite so filling as meat.
Mhumhi finished his portion and went on to devour Bii’s little packet as well. It felt like a negligible addition to his stomach, and he found himself rather cross at the prospect of having to give much of it up again.
He licked his chops again and sat down, fully intending to digest a moment, but Bii was waving his tail.
“Let’s go, Mhumhi. We’ll want to hurry back. Aren’t you and Kutta going somewhere today?”
“What makes you think that?” Mhumhi said, springing back to his feet, though his full belly protested. “Were you-”
“Listening? Not intentionally.” Bii laughed, and rotated his overlarge ears forward. “I’m afraid you’ll have to go further than the next room for me not to hear you. I should have warned you, but I didn’t know the house would have secret conferences.”
Mhumhi wavered there nervously, one canine exposed, until Bii added, “I don’t plan to do anything about it. I don’t have any stake in what you and Kutta do, or in getting on your bad side.”
“What about Sacha’s bad side?” asked Mhumhi, relaxing a little.
“I think that’s the only side she has,” said Bii, briefly drawing his lips back in a tiny, devilish grin.
Mhumhi wagged his tail, reassured, though the thought tugged at him that what stakes Bii did have were as mysterious as the inside of the meat dispensary.
They made their way back through to the heart of Oldtown. The streets were much quieter now, as the flood of dogs leaving had turned into a slow trickle of dogs returning. Mhumhi kept an eye on Bii, who was starting to limp worse again, debating on whether or not he should offer to carry him again.
Quite suddenly Bii stopped dead in his tracks, and Mhumhi nearly tripped over him.
“What’s the matter? Is it your leg?”
Bii did not respond right away, just stood there with his ears forward and the fur on his back rising. They had been cutting through a back alley near Food Strip Street that was filled with empty plastic dumpsters. Bii was focused on the sunny street intersecting the far end.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said, “but it’s coming towards us.”
Mhumhi was puzzled. “What, it’s a dog, isn’t it? How big is it?”
“Very big,” said Bii, quivering, and then he turned and squeezed into the tiny gap between the nearest dumpster and the brick wall.
“You should hide too,” came his strained voice. “It’s coming faster. Hurry, Mhumhi!”
Mhumhi, bewildered, turned and sniffed towards the street. All he could make out was dog… and meat… and a faint scent of blood. He quivered slightly. Ordinarily he would have thought nothing of the three together, but Bii’s fear was catching. He ran around to the front of the dumpster, thinking he’d jump into it, but the heavy lip was shut tight. He dithered, plainly visible in the middle of the alley, and briefly considered abandoning Bii entirely for a sprint in the opposite direction.
He deliberated too long, and now his ears caught the sound of it, cupped and round as they were. He understood why it had frightened Bii. It was a slow, shuffling, scraping gait that sounded like no dog he’d ever heard. And it had definitely come from something much larger than him.
Mhumhi, tail tucked as far up against his belly as it would go, slunk to the other side of Bii’s dumpster, shaking, and pressed himself in the juncture between the plastic and brick. Maybe the thing would pass right by the alley, not go in.
The shuffle-scrape continued, growing closer, pausing… Mhumhi was drooling now, out of fright. It entered the alley.
He heard its footsteps, and swallowed convulsively, pressing himself as far back as he could into the shadow. It had such a heavy tread, its paws must have been huge- and that scraping sound, that must be something dragging– Mhumhi was suddenly able to visualize it: a massive dog, badly wounded, dragging its heavy back legs behind it as it staggered on its front paws. Now that it was closer, it smelled like death.
He squeezed his eyes shut as he heard it start to pass the dumpster. He hadn’t any idea what state Bii was in now, jammed into that little crevice. He did not know why he was so frightened. A dog was only a dog, and it sounded injured at that, so what did he have to fear? Why was his heart hammering so rapidly?
It was so close now, so close, and it it had any sense its nose would be able to pick up Mhumhi’s scent now- it was coming past the dumpster now- if it looked to the left it would see Mhumhi pressed there, helpless- he had to open his eyes.
It was not a dog.
For a moment that was all he understood, that it was not a dog, as it continued to make its sluggish progress, looking neither right nor left. He had nothing butdogs to compare it to, but it was not one. It was tall- very tall- much taller than the maned wolf or any other creature he’d ever seen. It only had two legs- no, that was wrong, it stood on two, the others dangled straight down, looking broken at the shoulder. It was covered up- in wrapping, he thought hysterically, like the meat from the dispensary. What showed through the wrapping was hairless, glistening skin.
Mhumhi swallowed again, feeling the meat he’d just eaten roil in his stomach. It had not noticed him, just kept moving forward in its slow, dull way, lurching step by step. He tilted his head up- up to see its face-
Its face- there was something horribly wrong with it. It had no nose. It was as if the muzzle had been chopped off, leaving a weal of raw flesh. It had no ears at all, just more wrapping around its misshapen head. Its eyes were huge and bulging and the white was showing all around them. It was a face of madness.
It took another lurching step forward. Mhumhi suddenly realized what it was: it was a hulker, like the police pack chased, like his mother had told him about. Slow, dull, and meaty, the painted dogs always said, when questioned. Gentle, his mother had called it. Different-looking, but a dog like we are.
The hulker heaved itself forward, feet thumping, and there came the scraping. It had something with its front paw, dragging behind itself. Mhumhi couldn’t help but crane his neck from the shadow to try and see around the edge of the dumpster. Its paw was naked, split, skeletal, curled around like talons.
It was holding the back feet of a dead dog.
Drool dripped from Mhumhi’s lips as he struggled against the urge to gasp and pant- it was a coyote, yes, he saw that now, maybe even the coyote he had seen just earlier stealing from a corsac fox- he did not know, he could not recognize it, as its face was smashed to a bloody pulp that wobbled as it dragged along the ground.
Mhumhi couldn’t stop himself then, he gave an awful rasping gasp, and the hulker’s raw red mouth split open, showing square flat teeth, and it turned its head and looked directly at him.