Innocence in ignorance.
The mist was thick, and the cloudy sky blocked the light from the moon and stars. Mhumhi was navigating almost entirely by sight and sound. He was forced to move slowly, the puppy dangling from his aching mouth.
He could smell gray dogs. Not close by, thankfully, but one must have urinated after crossing the rough border they had set up for themselves. And he could hear trash shifting. Was it settling from the rain- or was it screamers- or-
The puppy kicked and gave a little squeak. He had inadvertently bumped its hanging legs against garbage. He raised his head higher with a silent apology, turning his ears from side to side. Nothing else seemed to have heard.
His fur felt damp and heavy from the moist air, and it clung unpleasantly to his body, giving him a claustrophobic feeling. In the dark everything seemed too close and too far all at once. If he listened too hard he thought he heard whispers.
He struggled onwards, shaking his head a little, momentarily forgetting about his precious burden. The puppy squeaked again. He relaxed his jaw slightly- it was hard to keep it gentle, this long, hard not to bite down all the way. Lucky he had never felt that awful monstrous hunger directed towards the young of his own kind.
The metallic scent of blood wafted through his nostrils, and he flared them. He was close to the screamer he’d killed before. Good. At least he hadn’t gotten too off course.
But he stopped short a few meters later, because he smelled them: members of the gray pack. They were near the corpse- might even be on it. And if he could smell them, they would most certainly be able to smell him…
He backed up. Maybe they would be too distracted over finding food to notice he was there… or they would think it was his old scent, lingering on the kill… He stumbled over a bottle, making a loud rattling sound, and froze.
The air around him was silent, so silent he heard his heart pounding in his head. Then he heard the sound of sniffing.
It took all his strength not to break and run, right then. But if they heard him running, they would wonder why. He did not want to give them a reason to wonder.
His straining ears picked up a soft whisper: “Why’re they killing all the way out here?”
(The second voice sounded gruff and hungry, which was encouraging.)
“And why at night?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
There was a wet, ripping noise.
“I’m frightened,” whispered a third voice. “What if he’s waiting… waiting to kill us…”
“Not with three of us,” said the gruff voice. “We’ll tear him apart.”
“I’m worried about those puppies.” That was the first voice. “They can’t be trusted with them.”
“We’ll get them,” said the gruff voice, and there came more sounds of eating.
Mhumhi’s muscles were beginning to ache from standing so stiffly for so long when the frightened voice suddenly spoke again.
“What if they can talk?”
“What do you mean? These things? They can’t talk. They’ve never talked.”
“We thought the hulkers in the city couldn’t talk, either.”
“If they start talking, we’ll stop eating them.”
“But then what will we eat?”
“Shut up. They don’t talk.”
“Don’t tell him to shut up.”
“You both shut up. I didn’t see either of you starting a movement to stop the hunts in Big Park. You- you’ve traded meat from there yourself, I’ve seen you!”
“I didn’t know,” whined the voice. “If I’d known…”
“Innocence in ignorance!” That came out as a snort.
“We can only use what we know-”
Just then, everything went abruptly quiet. Mhumhi started trembling. The puppy in his jaws had just given a loud whine.
After a moment, his straining ears picked up the sound of faint movement. Breathing. They were coming in his direction. And he could hear them starting to sniff…
No choice. He bolted, springing sideways, scrambling loudly over garbage. Shrill cries filled the night, from gray dogs and from screamers. Distant howls answered them.
Mhumhi turned away from the concrete wall, because if they caught on to where Hlolwa was… no, better to risk himself and this one puppy. He wondered if she could hear the din from where she was.
He was hampered by the weight of the puppy, but the darkness was on his side: whatever obstacle his nose brushed he put to good use, making sure it was well between him and the scratching claws and sniffing noses behind him. The wet, heavy air was nearly choking him as he strained to keep breathing through his nose, to keep holding the puppy.
He was outpacing them- his longer legs did count for something- but it didn’t matter. Their reinforcements had not been far away, and in the dark something suddenly lashed into Mhumhi, filling his neck with needle-sharp teeth.
Mhumhi dropped the puppy. It landed somewhere in the dark with a little cry as he fought off his pursuer, rearing and snapping at the air, at the darkness. He could not dislodge those teeth. And now suddenly there were teeth in his rear legs, in his tail, gnawing for the thick vein in his inner thigh. He struggled, scraping with his forepaws, and dropped to the ground, finally dislodging the one attached to his neck- the puppy squealed somewhere- and bit into the air, but not air this time. Fur and flesh.
There was nothing but a frenzy of snarling and snapping for a time. Something warm and wet hit Mhumhi in the face- saliva, blood, urine, he didn’t know. He had his teeth in someone’s back, and he was shaking it, making the dog scream, but they were back at his legs again, and he was forced to let go and whirl to dislodge them.
Their teeth and weaker jaws did not inflict deep bites, but there were so many now, so many, and Mhumhi was panting bad, bleeding bad. Couldn’t hear the puppy crying now. Couldn’t hear much of anything with his ears ringing like that. Nose clotted with blood.
They weren’t going to let him go, he thought dimly. Not even if he surrendered. He’d killed Telipa. This was the price he paid for showing his power.
A new snarl cut into the night. A dog screamed.
Mhumhi stood still for a moment, disoriented and bewildered, for he could hear a furious fight still going on, except it no longer involved him. The teeth had left his legs- he could hear growls and yelps and cries of shock.
A division within the gray pack, he realized, or something like that- but it didn’t matter at all. He dragged himself into a loping run, wheezing, away and away and away.
He ran for a long time, mind a blank void. Rain was dripping down. The sounds of the fight became distant, like a memory.
Rain falling in eyes… why did that image keep coming back to him? Mhumhi snorted, trying to clear his blocked nostrils, and then snorted again, tottering a little from the effort.
He could smell something: a few drops of puppy urine. But why here? He circled, confused, but there was nothing else it could be. Where was he? How far had he run? He was entirely disoriented.
Then: a whine. Nearby.
Mhumhi felt a surge of relieved elation, but it lasted a mere second. The next sound he heard was a screamer’s soft hoot.
He forgot his wounds and ran, ran towards the sound. He heard the screamer get up and start running, too, the puppy whimpering in its grasp. He chased it, stumbling and staggering, jumping clumsily over garbage he could not see. He landed hard, his own teeth cutting into his tongue.
Abruptly the quality of the air changed, and Mhumhi stopped and blinked hard. It was cold, and there was a rushing sound, and somewhere- dim, electric light. The screamer had led him inside the subway. He could hear its feet slapping wetly on concrete.
That was not all he heard. He heard something else: something like a low moan, rising from the blackness. A horrible moan, because it could not have come from just one creature. Not two. Many more than that. Many, many, many…
Through it all, Mhumhi heard the puppy crying, and it was the only reason he stepped forward. The only reason. He wished he had left his nose blocked. It was a bad smell down here. Rotten. Not garbage-rotten.
His eyes adjusted to the faint light, and he walked slowly forward. At first he could only see the movement, weak movement, scattered everywhere. Then he made out the forms. Not all of them still moved. And the shine of the many, many pairs of black eyes.
He finally had a sense of where this was- it was much further down the concrete tunnel where the train had been, near the little room Sekayi had used to prepare his meat.
The screamers had crowded here, for who knew what reason: perhaps they thought Sekayi was going to come back and feed them, or that they could walk down the tunnel back to the safe place and find food, or they had simply followed their families. There were many of them here. Most of them were already dead.
It was hard to see them as hulkers like this. It was hard to see them alive like this- the ones that were alive. Mhumhi had not known that anything could live in the condition that the survivors were in. Their flesh had retracted so much that he could see the outline of every bone, with only their heads and their stomachs seeming grossly swollen. Most of them could not even walk on legs thinner than sticks; they could barely raise their hands in that screamer gesture of supplication.
Mhumhi heard the slapping footsteps and wrenched his eyes away from the pitiful sight in front of him. A screamer, skinny but better off than the rest of them, was scrambling on her hands and knees to fit herself under the limp arm of another. Mhumhi saw the raw hunger in her eyes, and the puppy in her arms.
He ran forward, teeth bared. The screamer cringed, hugging the puppy against herself; the others around her moaned with the fear of those that could not run.
Mhumhi slowed down. The screamer blinked, relaxed a little, then cuddled the puppy, pressing it against her cheek.
The screamer she was next to- the one who’s arm she had draped over her shoulders- reached for the puppy too. Its horrible bony fingers just brushed the fur. And then the screamer’s cracked, ruined mouth pulled itself into a smile.
After a moment the female screamer moved the puppy away so she could stroke it herself, and the pathetic thing on the ground- Mhumhi could not even tell the sex anymore- slid away and went limp.
He looked for a sign, for a flash of greed, for a snap of those square teeth, but there was none. The starving screamer was holding food right in front of her face, but she must not have known it, for she only kept stroking or cuddling it, making the puppy’s eyes flutter drowsily, finally calming.
Mhumhi almost wanted to scream at her: You’re dying! Eat! Eat! Eat!
But there were corpses all around her. She didn’t understand. None of these screamers understood where meat came from. That was why they were dying here, in this tunnel, and why the savage ones outside still lived.
Mhumhi stepped forward and took the puppy from her arms. There was almost no force left in them anyhow, and she only gave a soft sound of protest before slumping backwards. No energy left.
Mhumhi turned and walked back down the tunnel, his tail tucked, the puppy hanging heavy from his jaws once more.