The holding pens.
Quitting the garden for the trolley station again made Mhumhi suddenly more aware of smells he had become accustomed to all his life: the dry, acrid smell of concrete, the sharp tang of metal, and the flat, oily scent of plastic.
It was strange to be aware of these scents, and Mhumhi felt briefly uncomfortable with them, as if he had returned to his own dwelling only to be made aware of his own personal stink, lingering, and not wholly pleasant.
But of course, as Nzui led him down a set of long stairs into a dim concrete tunnel, there were other, more nerve-wracking smells: the scent of many, many painted dogs, well-fed and well-seasoned. He suspected the place was much emptier than normal, what with the ongoing raid on the bouda- it felt ill-filled with just Nzui and the few members of her pack surrounding Mhumhi.
Nzui herself had not spoken to him at all since they had left the dome. She had merely walked ahead of him, leading the way with her white-flagged tail raised high. Mhumhi thought he detected something in her silence, but he wasn’t sure what. Her pack-mates were quiet too, not even chattering amongst themselves, though Mhumhi occasionally felt their dark eyes on him.
Nzui took him through a darkened row of shops underground before taking him up another stairwell that caused them to suddenly reemerge onto the surface, into the night. The city glittered around them, street lamps making the dark night air tint yellow and orange, and far above them Mhumhi heard the rattling passage of another trolley.
He paused and turned back a moment and saw the translucent glass dome sitting behind them, massive yet delicate-seeming with its faint jade light streaming from within. Around it those strange concrete trees were lit up and festooned with color, casting beams of light towards the sky.
The sky itself was black. The few stars one could occasionally glimpse in Oldtown were all entirely absent.
“Come along,” said Nzui, who was looking back at him; her expression and stiffly-waving tail betrayed a kind of impatience. Mhumhi hastened to follow her, lowering his head. He thought, as they passed between the mighty bases of tall buildings, that escape would not be impossible out here in the open if he was quick and clever enough. But escape was also really out of the question. All of the things he loved would be where he was being taken, and he could not see how he could possibly help them if he was not with them.
This thought was slightly comforting when they entered one of the black-glassed buildings and found it to be a concrete court filled with cages of moaning hulkers.
Mhumhi stumbled back a bit as the cacophony of noise washed over him and earned himself a nip on the flank from the dog behind him. It was simply overwhelming inside. Harsh artificial light glared down over the rows and rows of tall metal kennels, all with chain-link sides that extended up to the top of the ceiling. About a third of them had hulkers inside, most housed singly, some crammed together in twos or threes, clinging to each other and shivering. They were all naked of their coverings.
And the stench was overpowering, not just of bodies that reeked of fear and hulker-sweat, but of urine and feces and sickness and despair. These would have to be, after all, the hulkers that were awaiting their turn to be taken to Big Park, and they all had to know it.
Mhumhi felt petrified with guilt and sympathy. But Nzui’s eyes slid right over them, and she instead focused on a broad open area near the center of the court, covered in what looked like false grass. A few dogs were lying down on it, looking bored, some shaking their heads as if the persistent noise were irritating them. Nzui wagged her tail furiously and ran towards them. Mhumhi was startled when the rest of her pack followed her lead, practically abandoning him by the door.
A dog jumped up to greet Nzui, and Mhumhi recognized him- it was Ligwami, Nzui’s-mate-to-be. Or current mate, it seemed, from the frenzied way they greeted one another. Their pack-mates were reuniting with equal fervor, all whining and licking and wildly wagging tails.
Mhumhi could not help but stare at them all, in their small bubble of happiness on the fake grass, for a moment. All around them, the hulkers wailed and rattled their chain-link. Many were climbing all around, sticking their fingers through the bars, some were huddled and rocking in corners, their hands over their ears, some bashed their heads on the wire, again and again. Mhumhi was reminded of another place he had been where there were rows of cages with pacing, crying occupants, though they had been covered in fur…
Not all of the hulkers had completely lost themselves, though. He could see some that were moved close together, linking their fingers through the bars and whispering together in their liquid speech. Mhumhi walked a bit closer to one cage, where there was a pair of them- a female and what he could only assume was her small infant.
The puppy was sitting on the ground near the door, and the female further back, but as soon as she saw him she scrambled to pick the puppy up in her arms and press it against herself, glaring, all the white in her eyes very visible to him. Mhumhi found it to be a curious motion, but it made sense. Hulkers carried everything else in their arms, so why not their offspring? After all, they could walk on their hind legs.
He gazed at the mother, who had now partially turned her back on him, trying to shield the infant from view in the corner of her enclosure. The puppy’s small hand was visible underneath her shoulder- it was holding her back with it’s own little arms. Its pudgy fingers were pressing into her bare flesh.
Maha had always wrapped her arms around him, Mhumhi recalled. This must have been the motion she had wanted to emulate. But he could not return the gesture in the same way.
The thought made him uneasy, because even such a small thing brought Hlolwa’s words to the forefront of his mind again. The difference between hulkers and dogs was so vast that they could not even complete mutual motions like these together. It was not as if he agreed with Hlolwa that Maha could not be a part of his family- but it only proved his own selfishness, that he would take her from her own kind when he could only give her an incomplete embrace.
The sharp word brought him out of his thoughts and he turned to see Nzui and Ligwami trotting together towards him, both looking much invigorated.
“Pardon the delay,” said Nzui, her tail waving cheerfully. “Good of you not to run off.”
“I don’t plan on leaving, or anything,” Mhumhi responded, a bit taken aback by her tone. Nzui gave him a little grin.
“If you come with us, we’ll take you to your cell.”
Ligwami gave a little grunt at this. “Blunt my nails, Nzui, this isn’t a hotel.”
“No, no, but Mhumhi is a good boy, not like the others,” said Nzui, glancing at Mhumhi for a moment. Her gaze seemed softer than it had been. “Madame was awfully rough with him, too.”
“If Madame thought it prudent…” Ligwami began, but Nzui silenced him when she stepped forward, brushing her tail teasingly over his back.
“Let’s get Mhumhi settled in now, all right, Wami?”
Ligwami made a low sound in his throat, standing quite still. Nzui flicked an ear at Mhumhi to indicate that he should follow, and moved off through the rows of cages. Ligwami took up the rear, though he seemed rather distracted, and more focused on keeping an eye on Nzui’s hindquarters than anything else.
Mhumhi couldn’t help but give one last glance towards the mother and puppy in the cage together. The puppy was peeking around its mothers’ shoulder, its little eyes round, one finger in its mouth.
“You like hulkers, then, Mhumhi?” Nzui asked, looking back at him.
Mhumhi jerked his head forward and stammered a bit, trying to find the most diplomatic reply. “W-well-“
“It’s all right,” she said. “I understand a bit better about the way you acted during the hunt. We shouldn’t have pushed you into it.”
Ligwami gave a little snort, seeming to snap out of his daze. “I say it was good for him. A pup ought to know where his food comes from! Listen, you, without those hunts, dogs will starve, won’t they?”
“Oh, stop,” said Nzui. “Not everybody gets their meat from the hunts.”
“They will soon!”
“Yes, but it’s perfectly fine for some to feel uncomfortable about it,” Nzui said firmly. “We aren’t animals, are we? Of course it can be upsetting, watching a hulker get taken down-“
“And that’s why I say he ought to get used to it! We’ll be bringing our puppies to the hunts as soon as they can walk, so they don’t adopt this attitude of em-” Ligwami paused, for Nzui was looking back over her shoulder again, her ears going slowly back.
“That, I think, is a discussion for a later time,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little compassion. Mhumhi, you were keeping a pair of hulker puppies as pets, weren’t you?”
“Pets?” sputtered Ligwami, stopping dead in his tracks.
“Well, I only caught the end of that conversation- but you know he’s not the first one who’s tried.” She ignored Ligwami, who was shaking his head vigorously, and focused her attention back on Mhumhi. “But they don’t get far, you know. Once they get past a certain age they’re impossible to keep, and they can be vicious, you know, these hulkers. And then you’ve got to turn in a pet you’ve had your whole life in to this holding facility, and have it be hunting stock- it really tears a dog up. Which is why I wouldn’t recommend keeping them at all, my dear.”
Mhumhi said nothing, and she added, more gently, “It’s asking for a heartbreak.”
“If you were a proper dog,” Ligwami muttered, “you would have eaten them from the start.”
“It’s a fact,” said Ligwami. “I can’t imagine it- you must have fed these things, cared for them! When the meat’s already this short! You’re a mad moon-eyed fool, that’s what I think.”
“Stop it,” Nzui said, furrowing her brow, but Mhumhi spoke up.
“No, you are right. I know that too. I’d be much better off now if I had eaten them right away. Much healthier, to start with, and I’d still have- she’d still be-” He broke off for a moment. “I wouldn’t be down here.”
There was a moment when all three were silent. Ligwami and Nzui were watching them, almost with a sort of expectation in their eyes, and when he stayed quiet Ligwami finally said, “So… what? Aren’t you going to say that it was all worth it in the end, or other such scat?”
“I… don’t know what ‘worth it’ even means,” said Mhumhi. He stared at the concrete floor, which was stained in places by trickles of dried dark liquid. “I don’t know how I could measure what I’ve gained against what I’ve lost like that. I’ve lost a lot and I’ve gained… something. And I can’t really go back and change it.”
He raised his eyes and glanced up at the pair of them again. “So if you ask me if it was ‘worth it’… I’d say that doesn’t mean anything.”
Nzui and Ligwami exchanged a look, and for a moment neither of them said anything. Ligwami seemed rather surprised by Mhumhi’s words, and he was wrinkling his brow.
Nzui said, “We’re putting you over this way, Mhumhi.”
He raised his head up and saw that they were approaching a set of kennels that were slightly different from the others- these were larger, arranged in semicircles cut into wedges by chain-link. Most of these, Mhumhi was surprised to realize, were filled not with hulkers but with domestic dogs. They had set up a furious, desperate stream of barking when they saw the three painted dogs approaching, many dancing against the chain-link on their hind legs. Mhumhi caught snatches of pleas for mercy and curses and damnation alike from them. Ligwami had gotten that disgruntled look on his face again.
“Shut up, you miserable lot,” he snapped, raising his lip in warning. This had a calming effect on some of the domestics, but seemed to wind others up even further, sending them shooting from end to end in their kennels like furry missiles, barking their heads off. Ligwami widened his eyes and flared his nostrils.
“I’ll take Mhumhi the rest of the way,” said Nzui, glancing back at him with concern. “You go and get his door open, won’t you?”
“No, I’ve got Umenzi on it, he should be coming by any minute now,” said Ligwami, and went with them down the row, making evil eyes at the domestics as he passed them.
Mhumhi, conversely, found himself rather impressed as he viewed the lot of them, not necessarily by their volume (though it was considerable) but by the diversity of form they had amongst them. His vague mental image of a domestic was of a dog with pointed ears, curly tail, and a tan coat, and indeed this body type was fairly common, but there were also black coats and white coats and red coats and floppy ears and straight tails and short tails- and then the sizes, there were massive dogs and medium dogs and tiny dogs, dogs with short fur and dogs with enough fur to double themselves… They were all, undoubtedly, domestic, but at the same time Mhumhi wondered how they could all even be considered the same type.
Domestics were really sort of the most mysterious creatures of all, if it got right down to it, he thought to himself. Dog and not dog all at once.
He thought no more of it then, though, because even through all the reek a familiar smell trickled into his nostrils and he had to fight to stop himself from lunging forward and sprinting to the source. Just a few cages ahead of them he could see Kutta pressing her nose against the wire, her yellow eyes wide and her tail waving slowly.
Mhumhi opened his mouth to call out to her, but she jerked her head and laid back her ears. Behind her a dark mass came into view- Vimbo, crammed into the same run. The hyena looked terrified, rolling his head from side to side with the whites of his eyes showing. Mhumhi swallowed at the sight.
“You’ve got her with-” he started to say, but Ligwami suddenly shoved by him and went to stand outside the kennel adjacent to Kutta and Vimbo.
“Are you ready to come out and behave, you stinking thief?”
Mhumhi and Nzui drew up short together beside him and Mhumhi saw something moving towards them up from the back of that run, a dog that seemed to skulk on impossibly long legs. It carried a sickly-sweet stench along with it. Mhumhi recognized it as a maned wolf.
“Please,” whined the maned wolf, cringing, though it was taller than every one of them.
“I hope your time did you some good,” said Ligwami, tail twitching from its raised position. “You know better than to try to break into the garden-”
“Please,” groaned the maned wolf, pressing itself, quivering, against the chain-link wall farthest away from Kutta and Vimbo. “I’ve got to have fruit. You know I’ve got to have fruit!”
“You haven’t got to have anything. You can survive on meat same as any other dog in this city, so quit whining,” said Ligwami. “If I didn’t know you well enough you’d be spending a lot more time down here, understand?”
The maned wolf squeezed its eyes shut.
“I wasn’t stealing… It’s always been fruit for information… I gave the information but got no fruit… What could I…”
“Watch yourself,” growled Ligwami, but the maned wolf went on muttering.
“It’s always been that way… just wanted my re- my reward…”
“You want more time in here, do you?”
That finally got it quiet, and it opened its eyes and lowered its head.
“That’s better,” said Ligwami, and whisked his tail. Another painted dog came trotting down the row then- Mhumhi recognized Umenzi, the dog that had led the ambush group during the hunt he had attended in Big Park. There was something hanging from his mouth.
“There you are,” said Nzui, giving her tail a wave. “We’ll be trading this maned fellow in for some spots right now.”
Umenzi gave Mhumhi a curious once-over, dropping the thing in his mouth to the floor. “What’s he done? Peed on the madame’s tree?”
“Don’t you recognize-” Nzui started, but Ligwami clicked his teeth together.
“Come on, Umenzi, hurry it up. We’ll talk later.”
“Alright, don’t be nipping at me,” said Umenzi, and leaned down to pick his item up again. Mhumhi saw that it was a metal ring holding what seemed to be a gray stub of plastic. As they observed, Umenzi reared up on his hind legs to the lock on the door of the maned wolf’s pen, pushing the ring towards it. There seemed to be a tricky bit of maneuvering with his teeth and tongue, and then the door clicked open as he fell away from it.
“Out, you,” said Ligwami, and the maned wolf cringed its way out, crossing its long legs as it walked sideways in an attempt to give them all a wide berth.
“And you, in,” said Ligwami, looking at Mhumhi. Nzui added to this what seemed to be an encouraging whine.
Mhumhi hesitated. Kutta and Vimbo were still pushed up against the chain link of the cell on the other side. Vimbo uttered a little grunt.
“I know it’s not ideal, being next to a hyena,” said Nzui. “But he won’t be able to get to you, so don’t worry about it.”
“Then what about-” Mhumhi started to say, then thought better of it, and simply walked forward with his head down.
“What about what?” Nzui asked, but Ligwami had already pulled the door shut with his teeth.
“That’s it, let’s go,” he growled, and led his pack-mates away.
Mhumhi watched them go. He had been about to ask why, then, Kutta had been left with the wild-eyed Vimbo, at his mercy in the tiny pen should he go berserk again. But the answer was an obvious one. It had been in everything Hlolwa had told him up inside the glass dome.
“Mhumhi,” Kutta said, and Mhumhi raised his head to look at her. Her tone was urgent, her eyes wide. “What happened? What did they do to you?”
Vimbo pressed his great bulk close behind her, giving a little keen, and she cringed. Mhumhi stepped as close as he dared to the chain link barrier separating them as he dared, seeing the worrying state of the hyena’s eyes.
“They didn’t do anything,” he said, pitching his voice louder to be heard over the continuing cacophony of barking. “Not to me…”
But before he could explain anything else, a sharp voice rang out, even over all the barking of the domestics.
“Hi, you, dapple-coat! Are you Pariah’s get?”
Mhumhi turned around, very surprised, and found himself looking across the row at a dog like nothing he’d ever seen before.