Tareq was crying and shaking as he struggled to connect the snaps on Vimbo’s harness to the cart, his fingers missing the connections again and again.
“It’s all right, Tareq,” said Kutta, pushing her head lightly against his shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
Mhumhi could see that she was shaking a little as well. He himself could not stop swallowing, tasting the acrid smoke again and again on his tongue. Even in the sheltered parking garage, the scent of it was getting stronger in the air.
“I don’t understand it,” Mini was still moaning, sitting uselessly on the sidelines. “These buildings are all modern- they shouldn’t catch fire like this- I don’t understand-”
“Hush, Mini,” said Mhumhi, for Tareq had dropped Vimbo’s harness straps to whimper and wipe his eyes. “They’re obviously on fire now…”
“It must be the drought,” she said, “but I just don’t understand… They shouldn’t catch fire…”
Mhumhi stepped away from her and closer to Kutta, who looked up from nuzzling Tareq’s cheek to meet his eyes. Her lips were pulled tight back in a fearful grimace, her eyes wide.
Mhumhi thought of those hot flames catching them while they were trapped in the parking garage, baking them inside the concrete trap, and swallowed yet again.
Tareq closed the last connection on VImbo’s harness and stumbled back.
“Good, see, you did it,” said Kutta, her lips twitching as she strained to put her face into a more relaxed expression. “Now help us-”
“No,” interrupted Mhumhi. “Kutta, there’s not time for that. Vimbo is strong- he can pull the children alone.”
“By himself? That’s-”
“Just until we get clear,” said Mhumhi, and whirled around. “Mini, tell Vimbo what I said.”
Mini ceased her mumbling, eyes bulging, and spoke to Vimbo. The hyena ducked his head and yowled, which Mhumhi supposed was agreement.
“Get inside, Tareq, and Mini,” he called to them. “Let’s hurry- please-”
Mini jumped over the side of the cart, quivering and panting, and Tareq scrambled in after her. Vimbo did not quite wait until he was settled in to start moving, and Tareq hit his head on the cover with a cry and fell backwards onto Maha.
“Careful!” called Mhumhi, dashing to catch up, but they both seemed to be all right. Tareq was curled up with his hands on his head, and Maha had pushed herself partially up on her uninjured arm, her eyes half-closed and hazy.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s all right,” said Mhumhi, running alongside as Vimbo pelted forward, “we’re leaving- lie back down.”
She looked at him in a fuzzy way, as the cart bumped along underneath her.
“It’s going to be all-” Kutta was starting to say, when they heard a loud howl from outside the parking garage. It was swiftly joined by the voices of several others, barking and yipping in a mad cacophony, eerie cries rising with the smoke on the city skyline.
“Those aren’t gray wolves, are they?” asked Mhumhi, feeling his heart stutter. There were many of them, and they sounded close.
“I- I don’t think so,” stammered Kutta, “it sounds too- too high…”
Vimbo had not altered his pace, though he had pulled his ears back, and now they suddenly emerged into the bright sunlight, the hyena pulling the cart and Mhumhi and Kutta running on either side. The howling had grown louder, and Mhumhi could hear more and more ululating voices joining the chorus- but he could not see them.
He could, however, see the fire. And it was very close. It had formed a kind of arcing line on their left side, only a street or so away. Ash and sparks were flying in the air, as the terrible heat of it parched their skin. As they all stopped and stared, dumbstruck, a shattered shell of a building crumpled and tilted sideways.
“Let’s go,” Kutta urged, giving Vimbo a little nip on the elbow, and the hyena jerked forward, tugging the cart.
They began to run, heading away from the fire. Mhumhi was relieved to see that Vimbo’s great shoulders were pulling along the cart quite easily, if not as fast as Mhumhi would have wished.
“Mini, which way should we-” he began to say, turning his head to look over at the little black dog, and was startled to see that she had tilted her head back and had joined in with a miniature howl of her own.
She broke it off, lowering her nose and tilting her ears forward.
“Sorry! I couldn’t stop myself!”
“You’ve given away our position!” Kutta snapped, and it must have been the truth, because not seconds later Mhumhi glimpsed a dark, four-legged silhouette emerge to run on top of a raised concrete highway.
“Is it a domestic?” he panted.
“No,” said Mini, raising herself up in Tareq’s lap to look the other way. Mhumhi followed her gaze and was startled to see a dog staring at him from down through an alleyway. He only glimpsed it for a moment as they flashed by, but it was enough to identify it.
“Coyotes,” he told the others.
“Coyotes… that’s better than gray wolves,” said Kutta, and then she stumbled and coughed.
“Kutta!” cried Mhumhi, and he fell back with her.
“I’m all right, go, go,” she said, shaking her head and springing forward. “We must stay with the cart- we don’t know what they’re going to do when they all see us.”
She was right, and Mhumhi dashed forward again to catch Vimbo, though he had to glance nervously back at her to be sure she was coming up as well.
Vimbo grunted- the street they were running along forked into two ahead of them, turning in opposite directions between the buildings.
“Which way, Mini?” called Mhumhi, heart hammering as they rapidly approached the divide.
“Um- er-” Mini was swaying in time with the cart, her eyes bulging more than ever. “Right- no, no, left! Go left!”
Left took them closer to the edge of that terrifying arc, and Mhumhi was half-ready to ignore her instructions, but she had not yet lead them wrong. He shoved himself against Vimbo’s side, bodily turning the hyena in the right direction.
The cart creaked, running up on one wheel as they turned, and then fell down flat again as they ran in this new direction. Mhumhi glimpsed more coyotes running along on either side of them, and now it was not just coyotes- there were jackals, side-striped and black backed and yes, golden- emerging in droves, yapping and howling. Mhumhi could feel their fear as much as he could feel the heat from the roaring inferno behind them.
They ran for some time, Mini shouting directions to Vimbo in hulker. The dogs running around them began to get closer, many of them running along the sidewalks and over the parked cars on the same streets that they were on, many eyes staring at them. But there were no attack, or attempts- at least not just yet. Rather, Mhumhi thought, they all seemed to be headed in the same direction that Mini was taking them in.
This was unnerving, but it was some small relief to Mhumhi that they seemed to be quickly outpacing the fire, which took its time consuming the buildings behind them into cinders and shells made out of metal struts. Rather more troublesome than the flames was the smoke, which poured blackly around them and into the sky, in such a dense cloud that it felt as dim as early evening- though it was cloudless midday.
The stuff felt awful in the lungs, too, and they were all coughing, the children especially, and the strange dogs around them were coughing too. There was a sense of sickness about the smoke, a chemical smell, from whatever had made up the walls of all the buildings.
Vimbo was starting to flag a little, coughing and gasping as he dragged the cart forward, and Mhumhi tried to run close to him to encourage him, uttering little twitters and whines.
They turned a corner thanks to Mini’s yapping and found themselves suddenly in front of a large flat area. Dogs were streaming in from all directions from around the city, all heading for the very same spot. Mhumhi realized why it was so attractive to all of them. In a fenced-in compound ahead of them were a multitude of large pools of water, some long and rectangular and some circular, all cris-crossed with seinelike apparatuses.
Many other dogs were already leaping over the fences and heading for the pools. Mhumhi saw their immediate problem- with cart and children in tow, that would be impossible.
“There’s a door, a fence door,” Mini called, and directed Vimbo towards it. Mhumhi gave a little despairing whimper- it was locked shut with a chain and a heavy padlock.
Vimbo did not stop moving, however. When he was close to the fence he reared up, oblivious to the shrieks of his passengers as the cart tilted with him, and took the chain in his jaws. He dragged it downward, the muscles in his thick neck straining, digging his paws into the dusty dirt. The fence whined and creaked, and then the metal links around the chain shredded and separated and the metal posts began to bend- all the while as Mhumhi and Kutta stood gaping- and then one post snapped completely and Vimbo staggered back, chain still clenched in his teeth, fence door swinging open.
They had little time to stop and marvel, for he was already moving forward again, heading for the pools, but Mhumhi did allow himself a fervent thanks for the fact that Vimbo was their ally and not their enemy.
Vimbo dashed for the nearest pool and seemed prepared to jump in, and was bunching the muscles in his haunches before Kutta ran in front of him.
“Wait! The cart-!”
Mhumhi had the presence of mind to lunge forward and pull one of the carabiners with his teeth, feeling the clasp flick painfully open against his tongue and lips. Kutta caught on and ran to do the same on the other side. Vimbo scooted back and freed himself while they held on, and then threw himself into the water with a tremendous splash, soaking them all.
“Be careful!” barked Kutta, dropping her end of the harness, as Mhumhi dropped his. Vimbo ignored them and paddled himself in a little circle, mouth open and squealing. The long pool was far from empty- many other dogs had shared Vimbo’s idea- but all of them were giving him a wide, alarmed berth.
Mhumhi was conscious of all the stares that they were getting, but there was little to be done about that. He looked back at the city behind them and was dismayed to see how large the cloud of smoke had gotten, rising high to form a fat, puffy river that flickered red in is blackness. He could not count the number of buildings that were on fire now, but it seemed to be very many.
“Will it burn down the whole city?” he asked.
“I don’t think it should,” said Mini, “but I didn’t think it would even catch like this, either.” She leapt out of the cart. “If it gets far enough to reach the older parts of the city, that’s real trouble. They burn easier. But this place should stay fairly safe, with all this water.”
Mhumhi looked back at the series of pools, now crowded with large dogs of all sorts.
“What is this place?”
“Water treatment plant,” said Mini. “It takes our sewage water and makes it safe to drink from again. Didn’t you wonder where the water from the taps came from?”
Mhumhi put his ears back, finding this to be a very unhappy revelation.
“It should be obvious, but watch which pool you jump into,” said Mini, and hopped down from the cart.
Mhumhi took another look at the pool Vimbo was swimming in. It was not the sort of sludge he’d seen in the sewer, but neither was it perfectly clear, either.
“We should look for some water that’s safe to drink,” he said. “For us and for the puppies. They need it badly.”
Kutta gave a little grunt of agreement, her eyes darting through the crowds.
“One of us should go,” she said. “The others will stay to guard the puppies.”
“I’ll go-” Mini started, but Kutta cut her off.
“No, you will stand out and you can’t defend yourself. I’ll go. I can see some dholes here, so no one should give me a second look.”
Mhumhi thought she still looked nervous, and wondered if it would be better if he ought to volunteer instead- but at the same time, with his painted pelt and larger size, he thought it would be better for him to remain by the cart as a source of intimidation.
“If you get into trouble, whistle for us,” he said. She blinked in acknowledgement and ran off.
“I could’ve gone,” said Mini, and sneezed. “I’m good at this sort of thing…”
“We need you,” said Mhumhi. “Best not to let anything happen to you.”
Mini looked up at him and then gave her rear a single wag.
“Are you going to have a swim with the hyena, then?”
“No,” said Mhumhi, who had had quite enough of swimming in dirty water down in the sewers. “I’m not that hot yet.”
“Well, I am,” said Mini, and much to Mhumhi’s surprise she sprang in a high arc and landed in the water with a much smaller splash than Vimbo’s. The hyena turned and swam back over towards her as she floundered, becoming much smaller and more ratlike as the water flattened her dense fur.
Vimbo put his nose down and jerked his head back, splashing her, and she yapped and tried to paddle towards him, making very little headway with her tiny legs. Mhumhi saw her tail for the first time as it uncurled and flagged behind her.
He looked back- Tareq was sitting up in the cart, looking around, and appeared to be preparing to get down.
“Wait, Tareq, stay in the cart,” said Mhumhi, trotting quickly back over to him. The stares of the other dogs all around were still weighing on him. “Kutta has gone to get us some water to drink.”
“That water?” asked Tareq, pointing to where Vimbo was swimming.
“You don’t want to drink that, it’s dirty,” said Mhumhi. “It’ll make you sick.”
“I’m thirsty,” Tareq insisted, squirming in place.
“Just another minute,” said Mhumhi. He reared up to put his paws over the edge of the cart and look at Maha. She was lying down with her eyes closed, breathing slowly. Tareq seemed to want to avoid touching her and was pressing himself against the other side of the cart.
“She’s too hot,” he complained.
Mhumhi extended his neck to touch her bare arm with his nose. Her skin was indeed hot, and damp and salty-smelling. A fever, no doubt- he had to hope it wouldn’t get much worse.
Mhumhi jumped away and whirled around, looking everywhere for the telltale sign of a spotted pelt, and then realized that the coyote who had spoken was referring to him.
It was a small coyote, rusty-gray in color and standing a respectful few feet away. When Mhumhi looked at it, it backed up a few more steps.
“Police,” it said, “what are all these strange creatures you got with you? Are those two things hulkers?”
Mhumhi raised a lip, and at once the coyote backed up.
“I’m only curious,” it stressed, “and I wouldn’t dream if interfering with police business- no, no. Just I’ve never seen a real hulker before. You gonna eat them?”
Now Mhumhi growled.
“These are not for eating!”
“Sorry, sorry, sir,” whimpered the coyote, ducking her head. The gesture did not mollify Mhumhi, for he could see more coyotes were circling close around them.
“Tell your pack to back up,” he said, “or-”
“Sorry, sorry, sir, these aren’t my pack, otherwise I would,” said the coyote. “Everybody’s curious, I expect, so maybe if you made an announcement-”
“Here is the announcement,” said Mhumhi. “Go about your business. This has nothing to do with you.”
This did not seem to satisfy the coyotes at all, and Mhumhi saw looks exchanged between them, with some creeping slightly closer.
Abruptly and loudly Vimbo pulled himself out of the pool, pausing to shake sheets of water out of his fur, and the coyotes scattered like smoke.
“That’s got rid of them,” Mini panted, scratching at the concrete sides of the pool vainly with her paws, and Vimbo turned and gently took her in his large jaws and lifted her back onto the dirt.
“Thank you,” said Mini, tottering sideways when he let go, and shook herself, making her wet fur spike up in all directions.
“Maybe we should move,” said Mhumhi, eyeing the crowd, which did not seem any less curious at the greater distance.
“We’ll move when the red dog back, otherwise she’ll have to look for us,” Mini said reasonably. “And we don’t want to have to move these kiddies until we have to. It’s going to be hard enough with this lot around.”
Mhumhi sighed through his nose.
“I don’t know how much longer we can stay here,” he said. “I hope this isn’t the safe place you were talking about…”
“No, no, you dunder, we’re still inside the city. This was where I was hoping to stock up on a bit of water, if we could find any containers nearby.”
“Water’s good,” said Mhumhi, “but we also need food-”
Mini gave him a sharp nip on the foreleg, startling him into a growl.
“Stop that,” she murmured, voice very soft. “Don’t mention food with all these ears listening. We’ll work on it later.”
Mhumhi clamped his jaws shut, annoyed, mostly at the fact that she was as right as ever.
“Here comes the red dog,” said Mini, wagging her draggled tail. Kutta was loping back over to them.
“I found the good water,” she panted, and Mhumhi could see that her whiskers were dripping with beads of clear water. “It’s not far. If we can move the cart now…” She hesitated, and Mhumhi knew she was thinking of all the hassle it would be to get themselves strapped back in. “Should we try to get the children to walk?”
“We’re not leaving them unprotected in this crowd,” replied Mhumhi. “And I don’t think Maha can walk right now anyway.”
Kutta glanced over where Maha was lying, and wrinkled her brow.
“So- well, it isn’t far. I think we can just drag it.”
Mhumhi glanced around at the crowd, which was still full of eyes watching them, and made a noise of assent. Together they gripped one of the long poles at the front in their teeth and tugged, wheeling the cart laboriously and awkwardly forward. This caused no small number of excited yips and laughs from the crowd, but at least nobody tried to hamper their progress. Especially with Vimbo following sedately along behind the cart.
Kutta’s fresh water was not far at all- not more than forty or so feet away was a large round pool of clear water covered over with an awning. Of course, she had not been the only one to discover it- the sides were crowded with dogs that had thrust their heads inside to drink.
They did make way as Kutta and Mhumhi approached with the cart, though those that moved did not look pleased about it. Mhumhi was never gladder for VImbo’s hulking, hovering presence. The hyena himself went straight up to the pool to drink, scattering the smaller dogs even further.
“Tareq,” called Kutta, and the puppy scrambled down from the cart at once, looking curiously around at the coyotes and jackals, apparently unafraid. He went to the edge of the pool beside Vimbo and crouched, dipping his cupped hands in to bring water to his mouth. The pair of them drinking together made an odd sight.
“Go drink while you can,” Kutta told Mhumhi, softly. Mhumhi touched his nose to her cheek, then went on the other side of Tareq to lap at the water himself. It was a cold blessing on his sore, parched throat, and it seemed to trickle wonderfully through his system like palpable relief. Suddenly he felt more alive again, and with that, strangely more aware of how tired he was.
Behind him Kutta gave a warning growl, and he looked back to see her warning away a coyote that had crept too close to the cart.
Mini came trotting forward, a strip of cloth clenched between her teeth, and she dunked this and most of her head into the pool.
“Here,” she said, dropping the cloth so that it floated on the water, “take that to your girl.”
Mhumhi fished it out of the water and went back to leap inside the cart beside Maha.
He stood and held the sopping thing over her face, so that it dripped onto her lips. Maha’s eyes fluttered open and she reached out with her good arm and pulled the cloth into her mouth, sucking on it.
“Better?” asked Mhumhi, licking her forehead in broad swipes of his tongue.
“More,” she said, taking the cloth out of her mouth, and he took it from her and jumped down to go back to the pool. He had to make several more trips like this before she seemed satisfied, or at least too exhausted to care anymore.
Mini came up and hopped into the cart with them.
“The water’s good,” she said, licking her lips. “We ought to find something to carry it in- any sort of old container. And then we can stock up with that other thing you mentioned earlier, and leave.”
Mhumhi backed up and looked around the cart’s cover at the city skyline. The fire had gotten closer to them, but not terribly much. The black cloud above them had grown larger and more ominous.
“How quickly can we achieve all that?”
“Hopefully,” said Mini, putting her head over the side, “quickly enough.”
Mhumhi looked down, at all the curious, sniffing dogs creeping closer even as Kutta growled, and found that he could not agree more.