The place that was forbidden.
Mini had called the building a forbidden place, so Mhumhi had been expecting- something. Something stranger or more dangerous than the empty atrium they stepped into.
It was pretty, in a muted way, because of how the sunlight fell through the colored glass onto the white marble floor, making meaningless patterns. Their claws clicked on it, stirring up a little dust, which swirled in the beams of silent light. Mhumhi was reminded of the tiny insects drifting over the puddle.
There was a counter near the front, upon which sat an ancient-looking computer monitor, its screen black and silent. There were a lot of chairs, and then a kind of altar with a podium, and then at the far end of the round room a pair of large black doors.
Mhumhi licked his lips, and even those tiny noises seemed too loud for the stillness of the place.
Tareq was the first one to move, toddling forward with his hands outstretched. He stopped in the colored light and stared at his palms, stained red and blue, and then turned his hands over, watching the light race to the other sides.
Kutta slowly lowered Mini to the floor, letting her take her weight onto her front legs. The little domestic still had her eyes tightly shut.
“You can look, you know,” said Mhumhi, lowering his head to nudge her with his snout. “There’s not much to see, though.”
Mini quivered a little, but kept her eyes shut.
“Look up at that,” said Kutta, who had craned her head back. “Why is the ceiling so high?”
Mhumhi looked up too, and found that she was right; the ceiling was extraordinarily high, painted smooth and white, with the inside of the curving dome at the very top. It made him feel small, or that he ought to stay very quiet, somehow.
He looked back over at Tareq, who was still absorbed with playing with the colored light coming through the glass, unaware that his own face was covered over in colors, from his round cheeks to his delicate eyelashes.
Mini whined, and they all looked over at her. She had opened her eyes.
“I’m frightened of this place,” she said. “I think- I think I know…”
She looked all around, at the high ceiling, at the chairs, at the altar, and then at the black doors.
“Let’s not go through there,” she whined.
“Why not?” asked Kutta. “It’s so quiet here, and I can’t even smell anything. It’s sort of a peaceful place, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Mini, “yes, it’s supposed to be… before they walked through those doors.”
She had started to shiver. Mhumhi went back around and lay next to her, nosing her.
“Don’t be so frightened,” he said, and licked the top of her head. “No one’s been in this place for a long time. There aren’t even any pawprints in the dust.”
“So maybe there aren’t any hulkers here after all,” said Kutta. She seemed a little distracted, looking up at the high ceiling again, tilting her head.
Mini had shut her eyes again. Mhumhi rose to his feet, raising his tail a little.
“We can’t go back, anyway,” he said. “And we’ve got to find water. This is a building, so there’s got to be a bathroom or a faucet somewhere.”
“I’m thirsty!” Tareq piped up, finally looking away from the colored light, and ran back over beside them.
“Mini, do you want to wait here?” Kutta asked, dipping her head to try and catch Mini’s eye. “We can look ahead, make sure it’s safe…”
“There’s nothing dangerous here,” muttered Mini. “Not anymore. That’s why I’m frightened.”
Kutta raised her head and caught Mhumhi’s eye in a worried way.
“I don’t know about that,” said Mhumhi. “There is something alive in there. I saw something moving in one of the windows before we came in.”
“Really? What was it? Why didn’t you say anything before?” exclaimed Kutta, eyes widening. Mhumhi bristled a little.
“I don’t know, it was only a glimpse of a thing,” he said. “I didn’t see what it was. Just that it went away from the window. Maybe it saw us.”
“Well, that isn’t encouraging,” muttered Kutta. “D’you think it hasn’t come out here because we frightened it- or because it’s preparing something?”
“I don’t know! Maybe it didn’t really see us. Anyway, we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t move forward.”
Kutta gave a short huff through her nose, but said, “You’re right. Well, the two of us are walking ahead this time. Tareq, you must carry Mini again, understand?”
Tareq’s brow wrinkled, and Mhumhi almost thought he was weighing the benefits of getting fussy over the request. In the end he stayed quiet and picked up Mini again, hugging her to his chest.
The black doors looked rather ominous, yet when they approached they slid open easily enough, like the entrance doors had. The area beyond was dimmer and had a sort of grimy feel to it, white walls grayed a bit, ceilings lower, grainy brown carpet covering the floors. It was still silent, but in a stuffier way.
The doors slid shut behind them, and Mini gave a sudden little howl, startling them all. Tareq nearly dropped her.
“Hush, Mini!” cried Kutta.
“I don’t want to be here,” Mini moaned. “This was a bad idea… very bad… what was I thinking?”
“We’re here now,” said Mhumhi. “So be quiet.”
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta, but did no more than give him a stern look. “This place is a little bit familiar, isn’t it…?”
Mhumhi looked around, at the long dreary hallway with all the doors. Some were open, and through one he could see a glint of metal.
“It’s like the hotel, you mean?”
“I was going to say it reminded me of that place Biscuit took us to on Silent Street,” said Kutta.
Mhumhi could sort of see what she meant. It had the same kind of feel.
“And do you smell that?” Kutta added, more softly.
Mhumhi inhaled slowly.
“Hulkers,” he said.
“It’s old,” Kutta murmured, “but not that old.”
They moved forward more quietly, keeping Tareq behind them. Mhumhi kept sniffing, nosing the spots on the carpet where the fibers had been crushed by footsteps. The scent certainly had the same pale, watery qualities that hulker scent had, but there was something else…
“I think there are dogs in here, too,” he said. “D’you smell it?”
Kutta joined him at the spot he was nosing, sniffing furiously, and then withdrew.
“Maybe,” she said. “It’s awfully faint.”
“Water!” Tareq piped up from behind them.
“He’s got a point,” said Kutta, swiping her tongue over Mhumhi’s ear. “Water first, exploring later.”
She trotted forward, with Mhumhi trailing behind more slowly, still muddled over that peculiar scent.
They looked in many of the doors, for most of them were not locked or secured. In room or room they found desks and chairs, or metal countertops, or strange instruments, or wire cages. They saw some hanging racks like those of the dispensary, but they were all clean and empty.
They came to a room with many cardboard boxes, all piled over one another. Mhumhi’s slowly wagging tail raised a cloud of dust off the top of one as he passed.
“No water here,” he said, and then sneezed.
“Hm,” said Kutta. She was staring at one of the boxes. Mhumhi went beside her and looked as well.
The corner of the box was torn- shredded, really, and bits of white paper had been pulled through the hole and scattered around the side. There were more scratches and holes in some of the other boxes, too.
“It looks like something a puppy would do,” said Mhumhi.
“Maybe there really are other dogs in this place,” said Kutta. She sounded unhappy about the idea; Mhumhi didn’t blame her. Still, he suspected that she did not really grasp that any hulkers they might meet could be just as dangerous or more than the dogs.
They went on, examining room after room, but there did not seem to be a bathroom anywhere. Finally they came to a door at the end of the hallway with some stairs behind it. Mhumhi reared and used his weight to push it open.
The stairs led two ways, up and down. Mhumhi sniffed in both direction. Cold air seemed to be flowing upwards from the downstairs.
“Shall we try down first?” Kutta suggested.
Mhumhi thought that it felt more foreboding, but down also felt like a better direction for water to be in than up, so he did not protest.
They went down the stairs. Wire-covered lights over the stairwell flickered on as they approached, until they reached another door at the bottom of the flight. Again Mhumhi pushed it open.
It led into a very large room, and there were many chairs, like there had been in the atrium. Here it seemed much more businesslike, though, with the low white ceiling and the metal counters covered in things- Mhumhi saw what he recognized as cups, a great many of them, some stacked on the counters, some overflowing in the trash cans. There were also metal trays of objects he had never seen before, like little tiny plastic tubes with thin metal ends.
At the other side of the room was yet another door, and when Mhumhi reared up to look through the little window on top, he saw a strange room- painted all in black, with rows and rows of little cots and sheets laid out. On the far end was something that gleamed with dull red light.
He nosed at the door a little, and it started to yield.
“I’ve found a faucet!” called Kutta, who had been nosing behind one of the metal counters.
Mini’s eyes flew open, bulging.
“Don’t drink from it!” she cried. “Don’t drink anything in this room! We’ve got to leave, now!”
Kutta gave her an openmouthed look, and Mhumhi stumbled a little from surprise, for the little dog’s voice was echoing harshly all around the room. His shoulder pushed the door the rest of the way open.
A sound came forth that he had never heard before, a kind of soft, melodic noise, from inside the black room. He looked around wildly, but was unable to pinpoint where it was coming from.
Mini was shaking and drooling on Tareq’s arms.
“No,” she whimpered. “Let’s go, let’s get out of here, please-”
Mhumhi turned his ears towards the strange melody, bewildered. It was mysterious, but certainly not threatening- it seemed very gentle.
“Come on, Mhumhi,” said Kutta, who had trotted back around the counter, her ears back. “I think we should listen to her. There will be other faucets, probably, since we haven’t found the bathroom.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, feeling a tad annoyed. “But if we don’t find anything else…”
Kutta and Tareq were already moving back towards the stairs. Mhumhi took one last look inside the black room, with all the silent beds laid out and the gentle music playing.
The red light in the back of it seemed to be glowing a little brighter. Mhumhi perceived that it was coming through a half-open door. He could just make out something metal near the top of it- like a round track near the ceiling- and below it something gleamed where it hung. A sort of long hook.
Mhumhi tucked his tail at once and ran to follow his sister up the stairs.
Up the stairs they all went, even Tareq affected by the desire to move away quickly, so that he stumped after Mhumhi and Kutta as quickly as his little legs would carry him. They passed the door of the first floor hallway and finally came to the second. The stairs went upwards a long way after this.
They went through the second floor door. At once Mhumhi could tell that something was very different here. The hall was littered with debris- ripped up paper, cardboard, little metal objects- the carpet was tattered and stank of urine. The whole area was saturated with hulker scent. Recent hulker scent.
The fur on Mhumhi’s back was rising a little, and he saw that Kutta was in a similar state, tense, looking all around. They saw no movement, though, from any of the open doors or all down the hall, and heard nothing either, except the very faint strains of music still drifting up through the stairwell.
“They’re here somewhere,” Kutta said.
Mhumhi was surveying the ruined hallway. There were dark smears and stains even on the walls.
“This is strange,” he said. “Hulkers aren’t messy like this, are they, Mini?”
Mini did not respond, and he looked back at her. Her eyes were open wide, and her little nose was twitching.
“I don’t know,” she said, finally.
“Maybe it was a dog,” said Kutta. “It still smells a little bit like dog, too.”
Mhumhi eyed the stains on the wall, some of which looked very much like handprints, and made no comment.
They went down the hall, stepping warily over the mess, until Kutta gave a sudden eager yip. They had come to a door which had a metal plate nailed to the bottom and a familiar symbol etched beside it- unmistakably a bathroom door.
Kutta pushed inside first, shoving at the door, and then cringed back. A terrible smell wafted out of the bathroom, a strong stench of concentrated urine and feces and uncleanliness.
Kutta stood away from the door and hacked a little bit, while Mhumhi felt his own stomach roiling.
“Someone’s definitely been using it,” she said.
“I don’t think that could all be made just by one,” said Mhumhi.
“Well,” said Kutta, in a brave way, “the water that comes out of the faucets should still be clean, so we should go in and let Tareq have some.”
“If he can keep it down,” muttered Mhumhi. Even the water from the dreadful black room might be better than this.
“Put me down before you go in there,” said Mini, squirming in Tareq’s grip. “I can be thirsty a little longer.”
“You’ll have to drink eventually,” said Kutta. In her voice Mhumhi detected something uneasy, something he had not really thought about yet: they would be staying here a long time. There was nowhere outside to go back to, after all.
He could only hope that whoever else lived here would be amenable to that.
“I’ll stay with Mini,” he said, “You two go in and enjoy yourselves.”
Kutta gave him one of her yellow stares, but pushed the door open again with her shoulder to let Tareq through. At least he seemed barely affected- Mhumhi figured he was much too focused on the idea that he’d finally get to drink something.
The door swung shut after them. Mini wheezed a little from where Tareq had put her down on the carpet.
“Are you all right?” Mhumhi asked.
“Not hardly,” she grunted. “This place is awful.”
“Not up to your expectations?” Mhumhi couldn’t help the little bite that came out in his tone.
“It’s the forbidden place I deserve, certainly,” said Mini, in a low way, and he felt a little bit bad.
“It could be worse,” he said.
“Hm,” said Mini. Her eyes tracked over the walls. “These hulkers… we’ve got to find them. I’m afraid of what will happen when we do, but we’ve just got to. They’ll be able to answer our questions.”
“If they want to talk to us at all,” Mhumhi pointed out. “They may just want to kill us and eat us.”
“I’m sure they have food here,” said Mini, “so that’s not a concern. Otherwise that bathroom wouldn’t be so, er, robust.”
“They may not like dogs, still,” said Mhumhi.
“Maybe,” said Mini, her tongue lolling a bit as she tilted her head. “But I wonder if they remember dogs at all. It’s been a long time since any came here…”
“But it smells like dogs,” Mhumhi pointed out.
“Hm,” grunted Mini.
She didn’t seem inclined to say anything else, so Mhumhi looked away, back towards the other end of the hall, where the door to the stairwell was.
He stared at it a moment before the realization struck him: someone was staring back at him, with a pair of dark eyes.
He rose up at once and the eyes snapped off, a quick shadow moving away from the glass. Mhumhi gave a chattering whine, tensing.
“What is it?” cried Mini, twisting her head around, digging the nails on her forepaws into the carpet to pull her useless hind legs back around. “Did you see one?”
“I think so,” said Mhumhi, though he felt nervous, because there had been something off about the eyes. He needn’t have said anything anyway- banging footsteps were now loudly audible from up the stairs. He began to trot forward.
“Where are you going?” yapped Mini. “Wait for the red dog!”
“Tell her to stay with Tareq,” said Mhumhi, stopping to look over his shoulder, “and if I don’t come back she’s to hide him.”
“Don’t be an idiot!” snarled Mini, trying to drag herself forward after him. “You don’t even speak hulker!”
“I’m not losing another one,” said Mhumhi. “I’m going to see if it’s safe. And if they attack me, I’ll kill them.”
“No!” Mini’s eyes bulged more than ever before. “Don’t harm them! They’re the ones that know! They know all the answers to the questions we have!”
“If they want to hurt us, they can die with their answers,” snapped Mhumhi. He shut his ears to her continuing protests as she struggled to move forward and ran to the door to the stairs.
He shoved the door open with his shoulder, felt the cool metal under his paws. His heart was beating rapidly again. The lingering echoes of the one that had been watching him were still there, the scent, the warmth. His hunger was sharpening.
This is not a hunt, he told himself. But he was hungry all the same, that strange hunger. A part of him wanted the hulkers to be aggressive, so he could tear into them. Perhaps it was the part of him that wanted Biscuit to come back to life, so he could bite him again, and again, and again…
He went up the stairs more slowly, almost slinking, his profile flattened to his shifting shoulder blades, ears tucked. There was movement coming from the upper floor.
He eased through the next door very slowly. This hallway was as messy as the last one, and the stench of hulker was even stronger here. There was that flicker of movement again at the door at the very end of the hall.
A brush of trepidation crossed Mhumhi’s mind, and he shook himself, and then prowled slowly down the hallway. His heart was hammering, pounding in his ears.
He reached the open door and looked through it.
The room beyond was very dim, but there were shapes in it- moving shapes, all clustered near the back wall. There were a lot of them. A lot more than he had anticipated. Now that brush became a full-on twinge; he had been a little bit of a reckless fool, rushing up like this.
But they all seemed intent on moving away from him, pressing back towards the far wall, just a huddle of long limbs. They were certainly hulkers and nothing else, though there was still something off- something just a little odd about them.
He looked on the ground and saw that there were piles of blankets here, arranged in dense nests, in a way that put him in mind of the little room in the sewers he had once spent so much time in. But most of the hulkers here seemed to be adults, not children, though there were one or two shorter forms among the huddle that he could see.
He only caught glimpses of their eyes, for many of them were covering them, or pressing their faces into the shoulders of their companions, cowering. He could smell their fear. He felt his heartbeat slowing.
“I’m- I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, hoping that there would be at least one that could understand him. Some of them put their hands over their ears, but none of them spoke, or even looked at him with any kind of recognition.
Mhumhi stepped forward, then hesitated. That was what was so strange about them. Not one of them was wearing the coverings he was so accustomed to seeing on hulkers- they were all completely bare, like the caged hulkers that the police kept for hunting.
He stepped forward again, and they seemed to cringe en masse.
“Please,” he called. “Will you speak to me?”
There came a couple of utterances from the crowd, like moans, but nothing more. Mhumhi swallowed.
It did not seem like they would be getting any answers from these hulkers, alive or not.