If it rains.
Tareq was carrying Mini, his arms wrapped around her chest, so that her hind legs dangled back against his stomach. Her eyes were closed, her pink tongue protruding slightly from between her lips. Mhumhi kept one ear turned towards her, listening for her faint little heartbeat- it was still there, despite everything.
Tareq was doing better than Mhumhi would have thought. They had been walking for nearly an hour, amidst the sun and sand and wind that raked across their faces, and still he had not complained. He walked between Mhumhi and Kutta and stared at his feet as he slowly trudged on.
It made Mhumhi wonder, watching Tareq’s silent little march, what went on in his mind about all this. He had always dismissed the little puppy on the grounds that he was too young to comprehend any of the danger they faced, or what his role in all of it was, and besides that, there was always- there was always Maha to speak to.
Now he wondered how Tareq even saw them- as family, or just more in a sea of canine faces, more voices urging him from one bolt-hole to the next.
On his other side, Kutta let out a short whistle. She had been doing this periodically, every few minutes or so. Now she added a soft, mournful trill, letting it carry far over the dunes, and then pricked up her ears to listen.
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, and she put her ears back again.
“I only want to know if he’s nearby,” she said. “If he’ll come back.”
“If he comes back, I’ll tear his ears off,” Mhumhi said, and then flinched a little when Tareq turned to look at him.
“Mhumhi!” Kutta quivered a little. “He didn’t know, he couldn’t understand- he was frightened!”
“Why are you making excuses?” Mhumhi demanded. “He’s not an animal- we know that! He chose to abandon us. If he had been there, Maha would-”
“It isn’t his fault,” said Kutta, tension apparent from her haunches to her shoulders. “He’s not even a dog, Mhumhi. It doesn’t matter how intelligent he is- it isn’t his affair, is it? Why should he-”
“Ah, I see,” said Mhumhi. “Because he’s not a dog. Even though he ate our food, drank our water- decided to stay with us over his own kind- you think he had no reason not to leave us?”
Kutta turned a little away, looking at the sand.
“No,” she said. “I think he must have had a very good reason. And I want to know, that’s all.”
“Well, he can’t tell you,” said Mhumhi.
They walked on in silence for a moment, feeling that subterranean hum still buzzing under their paws. Tareq kept stealing sideways glances at Mhumhi.
“I know why Vimbo left.”
They all looked at Mini, who had opened her eyes slightly, still folded in Tareq’ arms.
“it’s because I lied to him, and he knew it.”
“Lied to him?”
Mini turned her head slightly, and Mhumhi caught a metallic whiff of blood from her fur.
“I lied to you, too, but you’ve probably figured that out by now.”
Neither Mhumhi nor Kutta said anything. Mini opened her mouth slightly, a little grin.
“Mhumhi’s sense of vengeance does not extend to an invalid; that’s good.”
“Oh, shut up,” snapped Mhumhi. “I should’ve expected this. You were the one who said we should trust each other.”
“I think it’s good advice,” said Mini. “I’ve failed to follow it myself. Ah, and it bit me in the back in the end, didn’t it. Biscuit, that brute… Not a shred of mercy. I had to fake dead so hard I think I actually was dead for a while…”
“Tell us what you lied about,” said Mhumhi, but he could not keep the edge to his voice that he’d had before. There was a slurred quality to Mini’s words, a dizzy look in her eyes.
“He knew I was still alive when he left,” she muttered. “He looked at me.” She suddenly squirmed in Tareq’s grip, her forepaws digging into his arm. “Ah, it’s my fault, I’m a bad dog!”
“Mini,” said Kutta, “maybe you shouldn’t get too worked up right now-”
“It’s my fault,” said Mini. “I told him more truth than I told you. I told him it was that place. The place all the bouda are surely looking for… That’s why he was going with us, I’m sure of it. I know what he wants.”
“What do you mean? What does he want?” asked Mhumhi.
“Don’t be coy about it. What would he want?”
Neither Mhumhi and Kutta said anything for a moment, though the skin on Kutta’s forehead pulled back as her eyes widened.
“That’s impossible, though, isn’t-”
“Not where we’re going,” said Mini.
“You mean, the bouda can fix themselves there?” Mhumhi felt the sand shuddering with new trepidation.
“Not they themselves,” said Mini, “but the ones who have that knowledge live there. Or so I’m told.”
Mhumhi and Kutta shared a look.
“You’d better explain it, Mini…”
“It’s not much to explain,” said Mini, shutting her eyes again against the wind. “The domestics all know about it… We’ve passed it along, but the idea, not the location, you see. We’re forbidden to go there. It’s not a place for dogs.”
“In what sense? Is it dangerous, or-”
“I don’t think so,” said Mini. “No, it’s the stupid- it’s the domestic way of doing things. We’re all bad dogs, right, because we let the humans come to such an awful state. We don’t deserve it… is the way it’s told.”
“It sounds like something Biscuit would say,” said Kutta. Mini laughed, turning her head up.
“Yes! The idiot. He must’ve tracked us hard… I shouldn’t have let it slip when we were escaping the cages. Wanted to throw dirt in their smug faces, I guess.”
She seemed to notice the look Mhumhi was giving her and sighed through her nose.
“The forbidden place is supposed to be where the rest of the humans live. The ones that left the city.”
“What!” exclaimed Kutta. “How many-?”
Mhumhi glanced at her, and she stopped talking, something dawning in her eyes. He turned back to Mini.
“Mini,” he said. “The hulkers- the humans- they didn’t make it out of the city. Not really…”
“You refer to the meat?” Mini opened her eyes a little and snorted. “Yes, I’ve heard that, too. Not that the domestics are allowed to believe it- it’s always tricky, with us, knowing what thoughts you are and aren’t allowed to have-”
“The humans can’t be in the forbidden place if their bodies are still in the city,” said Mhumhi. “That’s impossible.”
“Hm,” said Mini. “Part of me has always known something was odd about the whole thing… there are a few million humans missing from that city, and unless the forbidden place is terribly large… Which it could be. But the computers told me it was more of a building.”
“It was a bit ambiguous about it, to be honest,” Mini admitted. “The way I see it, there isn’t a whole population of humans living there, just a small group. But they’ve got to have the knowledge still. All the knowledge that let them make everything in the first place, us and the bouda and the meat…”
“If they’ve got the knowledge- if they had the knowledge,” said Kutta, “then why did they ever leave the city? Because of the dogs?”
“No,” said Mini, “they left long before the dogs started breeding and setting up their own systems… There was something they were all trying to run from, aside from starvation. The bouda, too… They’ve got big, strong hyena bodies to protect them for a little while. I think that’s why so many of them were able to still live here.”
“What were they running from?” Mhumhi asked. “I don’t understand- why would being a hyena help?”
“The only way I can make sense of it is that it was something that only attacked humans,” said Mini. “Like a disease, or… And you know, it is odd.” She licked her lips. “I said once how we couldn’t get them to breed very easily… well, when I was a tiny puppy, there was a great deal of excitement in the domestics. Because a whole slew of human babies were suddenly born, and they lived… They lived to become children.”
She looked up at Tareq. He had a distracted expression on his face, looking out at the sand, as one who has entirely tuned out the surrounding conversation.
“It was good for a little bit, but then of course they were children,” Mini continued. A bitter edge entered her voice. “Easy prey. And most of their parents were too old to keep trying for more. It was too late, I think. The wild dogs will ensure that the rest of them are wiped out before any child from this generation ever grows up.”
“Not Tareq,” said Kutta. “Tareq will grow up- won’t you?” she added, as Tareq had swung around to look at her at the use of his name, in an uncanny imitation of Vimbo.
“I hope so,” said Mini, though Mhumhi saw little change in her flat expression. “Perhaps everything will be all right when we reach the forbidden place.”
“Mini,” said Kutta, “you said you told Vimbo that we were going to this place, right? I don’t understand where the lie was.”
“Ah, I lied about everything, really,” said Mini. “I told him he could take his bouda family there. I told him there’d be a place for him. I told him he could get a voice. And Biscuit said…”
“Biscuit?” asked Mhumhi, then suddenly remembered that Biscuit had said something to Vimbo, in hulker, before he’d run away.
“He figured it all out very quickly. I must give him credit for that. He told Vimbo that the forbidden place was not made for him, and that there would be no help there, and that behind us the gutters under the city were running red with bouda blood. And that it was our own fault.”
“Blood-? Oh!” Kutta stopped in her tracks. “You mean- the attack?”
“I would think that’s what he was talking about,” said Mini, head bobbing as Tareq continued to walk forward. “We’ve no way of knowing how honest he was being about it, of course.”
“We knew it was bound to be a massacre,” Mhumhi said, feeling sour. It had all been Kutta’s plan in the first place; what right did she have now to look so frightened?
“I thought the bouda would be able to fight back,” said Kutta, trotting the few steps to catch up with them. “I thought it would be a retreat from both sides…”
“I thought the other buildings wouldn’t burn,” said Mini. “It is funny how things work out.” She sighed again. “That hyena was our best shot, and I wasted him. If we meet any other mad domestics out here…”
“I doubt we will,” said Kutta, anxiety still in her tone.
“Well, it all depends on whether the big brute told anyone else,” said Mini. At their alarmed looks, she added, “I don’t think it was his way, but there’s a small chance. It doesn’t matter. Whoever else has a long way to track us through the desert.”
Mhumhi, padding slowly beside Tareq, thought that at least now he and Kutta were not tethered to something. And this time he would not stop to talk first.
Tareq made a small noise, looking outward.
“What is it, Tareq?” Kutta asked, hastening to trot closer to him and look up.
“That,” said Tareq, shifting Mini to one arm to point.
They all stopped for a moment. They had just come to the top of the curving crest of a dune, and now down below them was a steep slope leading in to a kind of valley. Far in the distance were the dark shapes of mountains.
Directly below them the ground was flattish, and Mhumhi could see numerous little shapes.
“What are those?” asked Kutta, straining forward to peer at them. “Are they alive?”
“They’re not moving,” said Mhumhi, which wasn’t strictly true, because the wind was making the long shadows of the objects sway slightly. “Ah, I know what they are. They’re small little trees.”
“Trees?” Kutta looked at him quizzically, and he recalled that her only experience with them was seeing the tall metal ones from the train.
“Let’s go down; they’re not dangerous,” he said. “It looks like there’s less sand, too.”
They went down, Kutta still sniffing warily despite his reassurances. “They smell strange,” she said.
They did indeed smell strange, but not unpleasant, at least in Mhumhi’s opinion. It was a very light scent, soft and fragrant. Mini opened her eyes slightly.
“If it rained,” she said, “maybe they would get flowers.”
“What’s a flower?” asked Kutta.
“I don’t know,” said Mini, and closed her eyes again.
Mhumhi went and sniffed at one of the stubby trees, pawing at it a little. It crackled dryly and released more of the scent.
“Ah, look!” exclaimed Kutta, and she suddenly dashed forward. Mhumhi went after her by instinct, leaving Tareq a little ways behind.
Kutta was heading toward a large dark object- a stone outcropping jutting out of the earth. Above it Mhumhi saw a flicker of movement- a cloud of tiny insects, all whirling around and around one another.
Kutta was backing up now, blinking hard as some had started landing on her eyelids. “How can they live out here?” she asked.
Mhumhi looked closer, wary of the swarming insects, and sniffed.
“There’s a little water,” he said, “underneath that rock, where it’s shaded.”
“Really?” Kutta came forward again, sniffing loudly.
In the shadow under the rock there was indeed a little pool, a tiny thing, barely big enough for them to dip their noses into. The insects were swirling over it, catching the light sometimes like motes of dry dust.
Something slimy and life-smelling was also growing on the underside of the rock, just over the pool.
“It must be from the dew,” said Mhumhi. “It must drip under here and get caught.”
They stared for a moment at the silent whirling cloud, the shadowed puddle, and the moist greenness. Behind them they heard Tareq trudging quickly over the soil to catch up.
“Bugs,” he said.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi. “If we were Bii, we could eat them.”
“They might be too small even for- oh!”
Kutta’s cry reflected Mhumhi’s surprise, for something had just come crawling from around the other side of the rock. Mhumhi’s only point of reference to compare it to was a rat, for it was roughly the same size, though skinnier, and without fur. It had interlocking scales instead, and yellow eyes. It turned its head to look at them with only one.
“Lizard!” cried Tareq, and he dropped Mini and ran towards it, hands outstretched. The lizard darted back around the rock.
“Oh, Tareq,” said Kutta, and Mhumhi gave a soft snort. They had both started when the lizard had run- the quick movement of it was very hunger-inducing.
“Ouch,” said Mini plaintively, from the ground. She paddled forward for a second on her front paws, her rear legs sliding on the sandy soil.
“Tareq, pick her up,” Mhumhi said, and Tareq came back to her, sticking out his lower lip.
“We’ll play with lizard another time,” Kutta said, moving to wag her tail against him.
Mhumhi noticed that the lizard had come back around the rock once Tareq’s back was turned. It raised itself slightly and snapped at the little insects.
“Mini,” said Mhumhi, “d’you think that this is nature?”
Mini, tucked securely back in Tareq’s arms and slightly worse for wear, gave another little sigh.
“It’d be a little disappointing if it was.”
Mhumhi made no response, but he thought to himself that the tiny little pool was lovely in its own way.
“Wait a minute,” said Kutta, looking all around. “Something’s- something’s not right.”
Mhumhi realized what she meant. The vibrating hum underneath their paws had vanished at some point while they were coming down into the valley. “How’re we supposed to find the place now?”
It very nearly felt like an answer when the nearby little trees shivered, and suddenly there was a pulsing buzz in the earth. Kutta whined.
The buzz came again, and they saw all the trees in front of them shiver as it passed.
“It’s that way,” said Mini, unnecessarily.
They went forward, all a bit spooked, towards the distant mountains.
The terrain changed as they moved forward. Now the little trees became more frequent, and denser, and there started to be a sort of thick sharp grass growing at their feet that was a struggle to walk through, especially for poor Tareq, who had to hold Mini in his arms instead of balancing himself. Eventually Kutta took pity on him and took Mini by the scruff. Her rear legs dragged on the ground and her tongue was sticking out again.
The buzzing waves became more frequent as they went forward, until Mhumhi had the distinct feeling that someone really was trying to communicate with them, leading them onwards.
It was not long before they saw the building.
Mhumhi thought that it would not have looked wholly out of place in the city. It was somewhat tall, with rows and rows of windows, putting him somewhat in mind of the hotel. The front part of it was a little odd, though- it had a shorter area with domes on its roof, and tall windows with colored glass.
“That’s it,” Mini whined, turning her head painfully from within Kutta’s grasp. “That’s it… the forbidden place. Oh…” She squirmed suddenly, making Kutta drop her. “Oh, I shouldn’t go in. I’m a bad dog.”
“Stop it,” said Mhumhi. “It’s only forbidden because some domestic said it was. And they didn’t even know what was in it.”
“Neither do we,” Kutta pointed out, but softly.
Tareq said, “I’m thirsty,” and looked meaningfully at the building.
“All right, we’ll go,” said Kutta, reaching for Mini again. The little dog had gone limp, and allowed herself to be picked up again, shutting her eyes.
“I was supposed to come here with my man,” she said. “I’m a bad dog.”
“It’s his fault he’s not here, not yours,” said Mhumhi. Mini merely swung in Kutta’s grip, saying nothing, eyes squeezed shut.
As they approached the large glass doors in the front of the building, they slid open noiselessly. A trickle of cool air came from within, washing over them.
“Let’s go! I’m thirsty!” cried Tareq, eyes wide and invigorated. He ran ahead of them. Kutta made a garbled noise around Mini’s scruff and dragged her quickly after him and through the doors.
Mhumhi ran a few steps after them, and then hesitated. He turned his nose up, looking at the high windows.
There was a flicker of movement in one, and then it was gone.