Pursuers in the dark.
It was pitch-dark in the room, even as Mhumhi blinked and struggled to get his eyes to adjust to something, anything, any sliver of light. Without his vision his hearing was uncomfortably sharpened, and he could hear every note in Kutta’s panting, the soft sounds of the sheets moving, his own throat sliding as he swallowed.
The building was humming around them still, a persistent low buzz, but it had stopped groaning and grinding. Outside the room he could hear something starting to move in the hall.
“What’s that?” whispered Kutta.
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi, feeling carefully with his forepaws until one swung out into the empty space beside the bed. Tareq’s little toes were still pushing against his ribs under the sheets. He moved hesitantly, not sure he wanted to wake him- unless he was already awake. But he had not moved.
He could hear the sounds of Kutta licking something.
“Tareq,” she murmured. “Tareq…”
For a brief moment Mhumhi teetered on the edge of the bed, and then Tareq made a sleepy sound.
“Shh,” breathed Kutta. “Do you want to get up?”
Tareq made another sound and rolled over noisily, pulling the sheets and scraping his feet along Mhumhi’s side. Mhumhi took the opportunity to jump down onto the floor.
Whatever was moving in the hall was shuffling closer, in an unsteady, dragging pace. Two legs, not four. He could smell the breath of it now.
“It’s Henli,” he murmured.
Kutta did not say anything. He figured her silence mirrored his confusion about what they should do.
He moved slowly, in a low crouch, until his nose touched something. It moved, and it had a corner to it, so it had to be the door. He could feel the cooler air of the hall just outside. He crept out further, his elbows nearly touching the rug.
Henli was making slow progress- she sounded as if she were about twenty feet away from them, and limping. There was a soft thump, and her scraping footsteps stopped. She coughed, the sharp noise ringing loudly.
Mhumhi blinked, and then crept out of the room, down the hall. The calluses on his paws were catching and scraping softly on the carpet fibers, but he did not think that it was at a level the hulker ear could fathom.
Henli’s breathing was ragged, her heartbeat erratic as he approached. He could hear her scratching at her scalp, the crunch of dried blood. Mhumhi stopped beside her left leg, nearly close enough to touch.
“Henli,” he whispered.
She gave a sharp cry and staggered backwards, thumping against the wall.
“It’s all right,” said Mhumhi, wagging his tail invisibly in the darkness. “It’s me. We met before.”
“Ah- oh,” said Henli, gasping a little. “Dog… what was your name?”
“It’s Mhumhi,” he said. “Do you know what’s happening?”
He heard her swallow.
“Where’s- where’s the other dog? And the boy, and the hyena?”
“They’re all right,” said Mhumhi. “Did the noise happen because someone’s approaching the building?”
“Hm,” said Henli. She was scratching at the wall, perhaps trying to get her bearings. “O left the motion sensors on… I think there was a malfunction. I’ve got to find the fuse box.”
“It’s down at the end of this hall… a metal door in the wall.”
She stepped forward again, and her grasping hand brushed the tip of Mhumhi’s ear. He backed up quickly.
“Is someone coming, Henli?”
She gave a strained little laugh. “I don’t know. Probably.”
Mhumhi put his ears back. “Who…?”
“If I could get the cameras on,” Henli said, “I could tell you.”
“Right,” said Mhumhi. “You need to find that little door, then?”
Henli did not respond. Mhumhi heard the shifting sound of her slumping against the wall.
“Someone hit me in the head,” she murmured. “It hurts.”
“It wasn’t me,” said Mhumhi, backing up step. Henli laughed again.
“No… I don’t think that would be your style, would it? I know who it was.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, then realized he had inadvertently given her the answer. “Well- I don’t think she’ll do it again. She fell asleep…”
“I don’t doubt she did,” muttered Henli. “I suppose that’s why I’m still alive.”
“Well, not just that,” said Mhumhi. “She changed her mind. About, er, her plans.”
“Mm, did she,” said Henli. Her breath rasped slightly. “She doesn’t do that.”
“Her mind,” said Henli. “It’s- we call it ‘gone dark.’ She’s slept for too long. Too much restriction. We’re losing her.”
“Losing her? But she-”
“She’s lost it,” said Henli. “The- the- I suppose you’d call it self-preservation. Life urge. The difference between being awake and sleeping…”
She took a pause, while Mhumhi turned his ears forward and back.
He jumped as a starburst of white split his vision- the lights had suddenly flickered back to life. From the room he heard Tareq give a loud, sleepy whine.
He had to blink and squint before he could make out the blurry shape of Henli in front of him. She was covering her eyes with one hand. In her other hand dangled the metal thing- the metal thing that had cracked the ceiling before.
Henli uncovered her eyes, blinking, and looked hazily at him, then down to where he was staring. Her fingers tightened around the object, and then she raised her shirt slightly to tuck it under her waistband.
“The cameras should work now,” she informed Mhumhi, and he snapped his gaze back to her face.
“Back in the computer room?”
Kutta came trotting towards them, bushy tail waving stiffly.
“Tareq won’t get up,” she told Mhumhi. “It’s strange- he’s so tired- he can barely open his eyes. I think O did something to him, when they were alone together!”
“No,” said Henli. “I did. I gave him something that would make him sleep.”
“What?” Kutta tensed, showing her teeth. “You?”
“It was only a mild sedative,” said Henli. Though her voice was calm, one of her hands was resting lightly against her hip, where her shirt bulged. “He was distressed and feverish. He needed the rest. It will wear off quickly.”
Kutta gave a soft growl, then looked at Mhumhi.
“Do you think it was Vimbo that set it off? Did he leave the building…?”
“No,” said Henli, at once. “He wouldn’t be able to leave the building.”
She cut Mhumhi off. “Come with me, and we can look at the cameras. We’ll know who it was once and for all.”
Mhumhi looked at Kutta. “Do you want to stay here with-?”
“No,” said Kutta, tersely. “I want to see.”
“But what if-”
“The sensors O turned on activate at a perimeter half a mile from this building,” said Henli. “Even if they are coming at top speed, we have a little time. And I’m going to block off the upper floors. No one will be able to get to us.”
“All right?” Kutta looked at Mhumhi. “I’m coming to see.”
Mhumhi pulled one side of his lips back. He was more concerned with the way Henli seemed so eager for them to accompany her than anything else- but then again, perhaps he could understand her motive. A bit of fear still seemed to linger around her. Perhaps two strange dogs by her side were better than nothing.
They left Tareq sleeping in his bed and followed her out into the adjacent hallway and into the computer room. Many of the monitors were flickering and blue, and the one Vimbo had attacked was still shattered on the floor.
Henli stopped and stared at the wreckage of it, wide-eyed.
“What- what happened here?”
Mhumhi looked at it, realizing how impressive Vimbo’s toothmarks in the hard plastic shell of it actually looked.
“A bit of a- er- malfunction,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“We don’t have many computers left, you know,” said Henli, in a faintly anxious way. She shook her head and went to crouch over another monitor, clicking and tapping away on the keyboard. The projector screen began sliding down from the ceiling as before, tonguelike.
“Oh,” said Henli, drawing away from her little screen suddenly. Mhumhi ran around to the front of the projector screen so he could look straight on.
He was viewing what was clearly a fixed ariel view of the moonlit desert, with its rolling sand dunes. Below him was a large knot of dogs, meandering and sniffing about. They were mostly jackals of different sorts.
“Mhumhi, look,” said Kutta, running up to point at a place on the screen with her nose. “It’s Telipa!”
Mhumhi tilted his head- Kutta’s shadow was blocking some of the screen, so that the figures crawled over her side and head instead. One emerged from underneath her, and it was hard to say, looking from the top, who exactly it was. But it was certainly a coyote.
“I wonder,” said Kutta, staring intently at the screen, her eyes nearly crossing. “I wonder if they’re tracking us? Following us, I mean?”
Mhumhi’s heart sank. Her words sounded very probable, especially with the way many of the jackals were cris-crossing the sand with their noses down. The sand might have been too shifty to hold on to much of the scent of their paws, but the careless toilet-marks they had left behind would be hard to miss.
“Why would they follow us, though?” he asked, staring at one side-striped jackal, which was standing up against the pole the camera was fixed to and peering up at it.
“Oh, lots of reasons,” Kutta said, with a kind of sigh. Another coyote crawled across her cheek. “The fire… the fact that we looked like we knew where we were going… the fact that we weren’t police…”
“You know these dogs?” Henli interrupted.
“Sort of,” said Mhumhi. “We met some of them, briefly… they’re not a bad group…” He glanced at Kutta for confirmation, but she flicked her eyes away.
“They’ll be hungry when they get here,” she said.
“There’s- there’s some food,” said Mhumhi, and swallowed.
“I’m going to lock the outer doors,” Henli said.
“They’ll smell where we went in,” said Kutta. “They’ll be searching for a way… This isn’t good. If they came all this way, they won’t want to give up.”
“We could just speak to them,” Mhumhi said. “They’re not going to come in here and- start a bloodbath, or something. Telipa didn’t even like the idea of killing a rat.”
“How hungry has Telipa ever been?” said Kutta. But she lowered her head slightly. “All right… but I don’t like it. Letting so many more in here… the food will run out quick, won’t it?”
“So we can tell them there’s not enough. Let them eat, send them back.”
“Mhumhi, you idiot. What d’you think will happen if they go back to the city? They’ll talk about this place, won’t they? Our next visitors won’t be so-”
She broke off suddenly, and looked at Henli, who was listening to them with her chin in one hand.
“Can you switch to the cameras in the city?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Henli, not seeming terribly surprised by the request. “Which part?”
“The water treatment plant,” said Kutta. “Near where the fire was.”
Henli turned back to the computer and tap-tapped away. The screen flicked to an image of the long pools, still and dark in the night, reflecting golden streetlight. The silhouette of a dog was moving slowly alongside one, but otherwise the area seemed deserted.
“Can’t you get any closer?” asked Kutta. The fur on her back was up.
Henli hesitated, then pressed a key. The view changed. Now they were looking from lower down, at a different angle- the opposite corner of the compound. Here they could see the figure of the dog, leaning to lap from the pool- the stout outline of a diminutive bush dog.
“That’s a cute one,” commented Henli. “I haven’t seen many of that kind for a while.”
“Go further out, Henli,” said Kutta. “Towards the edge of the city from here.”
Henli obliged, flicking through different camera views of silent streets, dim streetlights, the dull gleam of the metal on car hoods. There was little activity.
“Stop!” cried Kutta.
Henli froze, her hand hovering over the keyboard. They were viewing a street lined with houses on either side, with square dirt patches Mini had called ‘yards.’ Squatting on one of the dirt patches was a painted dog.
“I knew it,” said Kutta. “I knew it…”
“She could be just patrolling,” said Mhumhi, as the dog finished relieving herself and scratched at the dirt with her rear paws. Another painted dog came around the side of the house, sniffed at her mark, and lifted his leg to add his own.
“There’s more,” said Kutta, turning her nose and stepping back. Where she had been standing Mhumhi could see the gleam of eyes coming from the gap between two houses.
“Why would they follow the jackals?” he asked, more weakly.
“Because they’re looking for us,” said Kutta, voice low. “They finished their operation underground…”
“Why waste time looking for us?” said Mhumhi, and then he tucked his tail.
The male and female dog had stepped together into the street, side-by-side, into the golden pool of light under a streetlight. The male gave a bone-cracking yawn, shuddering from the force of it. The female flicked her ears at him. One of her ears had a notch in it.
The male flicked his own notched ear back at her.
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, swallowing a whine.
“What is it? You recognize them?” Kutta gave him kind of an appraising look.
“Yes,” Mhumhi said, backing a little further away from the screen as the female’s head turned slightly towards the camera. “Yes… it’s him and her. From the glass garden. The madame and her brother.”
“What!” Kutta went stiff. “The- but why them? Why would they come out here? They’re too important!”
“Maybe they think this is really important,” said Mhumhi, his rump sinking lower. “Dogs leaving the city… going somewhere… maybe there’s more food….”
“That’s selfish! They’ve already got all the bouda for themselves!” snapped Kutta. “Why are they going looking for more now? Unless-”
“The jackals will get there first,” said Mhumhi. “Of course they don’t want that. They probably don’t want anybody else to know about it, if there is food here… can you imagine? All the starving dogs from Oldtown would come…”
“But…” Kutta hesitated. “Then, the jackals…”
Mhumhi flattened his ears and swallowed. More painted dogs were filtering through between the houses.
“They’re not going to want anybody to talk,” he said.
“Oh, piss and scat,” said Kutta. “That includes us! What are we going to do?”
“Henli, you should lock the doors,” said Mhumhi.
“That leaves the jackals outside,” said Kutta. “Oh… they’ll be massacred, won’t they?”
“Do you want the painted dogs in here?” asked Mhumhi, whose tail was tucked as far up against his belly as it would go. “Maybe they’ll be able to… to run away. I don’t know. If the painted dogs get to Tareq-”
“If they get in here- oh, they’ll tear every one of the hulkers to pieces,” moaned Kutta, looking at Henli.
Mhumhi looked at her too, and was surprised to see that her face was quite calm-looking- interested, even.
“The painted dogs will definitely win over the little ones?” she said. “You think they’ll kill them all right away?”
“You’re the one who’s been watching over the monitors all this time,” Mhumhi snapped. “You tell me.”
Henli shrugged, chin still in her hand.
“I’ve seen a lot of dogs kill a lot of other dogs,” she said. “It isn’t always by size. But these big painted dogs… It sounds like they are the leaders of the ones in the city. Is that right?”
“Something like that,” said Mhumhi. “They want all the hulkers dead- Henli, if they get in here, you’ll all be killed. They know stuff about how hulker technology works…”
Henli gave him a small smile.
“They can’t know terribly much,” she said. “If they are the leaders- the source of your problems in the city, maybe?- I think that this is a wonderful opportunity.”
“An… an opportunity? What are you talking about?”
Henli touched her hip, and smiled broader.
“We can lay a little trap for them.”