Deep within the shadowy vaults of the old civil defense tunnels, a lone fox labored over a bench of scientific equipment. He was dressed in faded and patched clothing, with a stained and torn lab coat two sizes too large. His eyes held an insane gleam, and he let out a hacking giggle every few seconds as he moved about the bench. Working cautiously, the fox poured three vials of fluorescent colored liquid into a maze of glass tubes and copper fittings, drawing close to examine them as they flowed through the complex apparatus. All three tubes eventually drained into a steel vessel suspended in a tank of liquid nitrogen, as they drained into it the cryo-tank started to furiously boil, venting white vapor in great clouds, eventually slowing and stopping as the fierce reaction within slowed to a halt.
"They said that it couldn't be done, but I've prove them wrong, the FOOLS!" the fox cackled, rubbing his paws together pulling on a pair of insulated gloves and removing the steel cylinder from its cooling vat. "The purified extract of Midnicampum holicithias, a distillation of my Omega Toxin, and the ZSA's own Mind Wipe Formula. Combined through my own ingenious scientific methods, to create the ultimate super-soldier serum! I call it, Star Howler!" His tail lashed back and forth madly, as he unscrewed the top of the steel vessel, revealing a crystalline shard of deep violet. "When I use this to turn the President of Zootopia into a mindless killing machine, then everyone will recognize the genius of--"
His next words were drowned out by a deafening explosion, with a flash of light and a pall of smoke the heavy metal door to the makeshift laboratory blasted inwards. Two figures dove through the recently created portal, covering their entry with twin bursts of machine gun fire. They were dressed head to toe in gleaming blue combat armor, belts of ammo and grenades crossed their torsos, and each carried a huge M41A Pulse Rifle, the pride of the Space Marine arsenal.
The taller marine rolled to a stop behind a blinking computer cabinet and shouted "Give it up, Doctor Grimm! You and your genetic monsters are no match for the ZSA Space Marines! Surrender now and we'll promise you a fair trial back on Luna!" The shorter of the two followed it up with another burst of gunfire and shouted "Alive or dead, you're coming with us!"
The mad scientist scrambled for cover behind the biggest control panel in the room, flipping switches on it as he retorted "Surrender? To the likes of Dash Daring, and his Odd Jobs? I think not! You may have defeated my earlier experiments, but you won't get past my greatest creation!" With that, he pulled down on a big red lever on the side of the console, and giggled as a large incubation tank rose from the floor. The two marines pointed their weapons at the chamber, then shielded their eyes as twin bolts of lightning arced downwards, striking it and revealing a huge figure suspended within.
Alarms began to sound, and a ghostly blue glow filled the tank as the figure in the chamber stirred once, twice, then came to life in a flurry of motion. Its huge fist punched through the chamber wall, the viscous liquid inside pouring out in a sticky torrent. It flailed with its huge clawed hands, knocking away more of the glass, until there was enough room for it to step through into the room. It was at least two and a half meters tall, with leathery green skin and a pair of huge horns wrapping around its skull. Glowing red eyes burned in its bestial face, as it turned to face the Marines.
"Yes, yes, kill them!" the fox screamed, "Bonegrinder, kill them for your master!" The beast stepped forward and flexed its claws, ripping the respirator mask away from its muzzle and exposing rows of gleaming fangs. It roared its challenge towards the Marines; loud enough to make dust and cobwebs rain down from the ceiling. The smaller one cried out in a quavering voice "Watch out Dash! He's full of the Omega Toxin! One touch from his claws and it's all over!"
The larger marine just grinned down at her and said. "Well I guess I'll just have to make sure he doesn't touch me, won't I? You keep an eye on Doctor Grimm; I'm going to put his per monster down." He pulled the visor of his helmet down, racked the slide on his rifle, and leapt out of cover to face the roaring beast head-on.
"AND CUT!" a grating voice called out, and all four figures relaxed. From hidden recesses behind the equipment panels, a team of young mammals dressed in blue jeans and black t-shirts scrambled out to put the set to rights again. A raccoon lugged a CO2 fire extinguisher behind her; she discharged a roaring gust of cold vapor over the lately exploded door frame before it could start to burn for real. A ram and an ocelot grabbed hidden brooms, they worked together to sweep the puddle of incubation goo and broken Plexiglas towards a recessed drain along the wall. The last one, an Orkified antelope with tiny tusks on her bottom jaw, ran to the monster, who was busy being sick into a concealed trash can.
"URK-K-K! I told you 'dat mask leaked, who didn't fix it?!? I think I swallowed 'bout a liter of 'da stuff!" He hoarked and spit into the container, then reached out and plucked a proffered bottle of water from the antelope’s hoof. As he swished and spit, she kneeled down and started making small repairs to his costume, adjusting and patching the silicone rubber skin-suit with blobs of material she carried on an artist’s palette.
The fox in the lab coat wandered over, nibbling on a piece of stale pizza that he had stashed in one of its oversized pockets. "You OK, Finn?" he asked, "It looked like you were really struggling to get out of the tube this time."
Finn grunted, then handed the water back with a nod of thanks to the antelope girl. "Yeah 'dat stuff make it a lot harder to swing a punch, we should have practiced with it full."
She snorted as she worked to reattach a section of green skin around his wrist. "You're lucky that you didn't tear the silicone back there, we're already behind schedule." She tugged the thick leathery skin back into place, and concealed the seam with a dab of quick-setting putty. Inspecting her work and nodding in satisfaction, she turned to Nikko and started to comb his fur back into its deranged-looking poof. "You wanna try to keep that pizza sauce out of your whiskers there Doc? You're supposed to be a mad scientist, not a vampire."
Nikko licked his lips, mopping up most of the tomato sauce with a quick smack of his lips. "Anything for you, Wendy." he replied with a grin. She snorted again, wiped away the bit that he had missed before touching up the fur again.
The two space marines trudged up, helmets pulled free to reveal Judy's long ears and Money's short ones. She was haranguing him as they approached, he had his ears folded back against his skull and was walking in silence with a hangdog expression. "Look," she ranted at him, "I'm not going to say it again. You cover me with the muzzle of your weapon one more time, and I'm gonna take it away from you. See if I don't!"
"Hey now, is that any way to speak to your platoon sergeant, Private Bailey?" Nikko smirked over at Judy, enjoying the look of frustration that she shot back at him. She plucked the water bottle out of Finn's paws and took a deep drink from it, spitting the last mouthful out onto the sticky floor.
"I swear, Chrissy did this on purpose." she grunted in reply. "He's always had it out for me, since we were kits! Making me play the bumbling recruit, while Money's the seasoned veteran? Sexism and speciesism, that's what it is." She grumbled, submitting to Wendy's quick rearrangement and touchup of her plastic armor suit.
"I mean, really," she continued with an irritated gesture towards him, "Could you imaging HIM in charge of a marine squad?"
"I can hear everything that you're saying, you know?" Money muttered, setting his rifle down on a piece of set furniture and fishing through his pockets for a granola snack bar. "I didn't want to do it either, but your cousin--"
"Alright people, listen up!" the obnoxious sounding voice from before cut him off, and all the cast and crew turned to see Cristoforo Giacone coming out from behind his rack of monitors at the rear of the stage. He was another rabbit, the same grey color as Judy but in a broken pattern rather than her solid coat. "That was good, not great but good." he continued, before running down a list of things that he wanted to be done differently for the next take.
"And another thing," he added, as he returned to his director's chair. "No more goofing around between takes! We're on the clock here, I want to see you acting like it. Judy and Marky back out into the hallway, Troll back into the tank, and Nikko? Don't ad lib any more dialog or I'll break one of your fingers. Ok, enough chitchat, I want us ready to shoot it again in five!"
A week and a half earlier, all four had been sitting in a back corner booth at The Watering Hole, splitting a few pitchers of maregaritas to celebrate a successful heist. It hadn't been a big score, a few thousand Nuyen and a case of Grand Cru Gnu champagne, but this job hadn't been about the money. Nikko and Finn had long shared a grudge against Mme. Cellier, proprietress of Savanna Central's snootiest wine bar, and what better way to settle it than to break in and steal her entire stock of the exotic beverage? It would be YEARS before her name came up on the waiting list again, and Nikko already had a few tentative leads on oenophiles with deep pockets and tight lips...
"And then Finn just came up the back staircase and kicked the door off its hinges! BOOM!!!" Nikko chortled, waving his paws and nearly spilling his drink over Judy. "They go flying across the storeroom, knock over a shelf or two, and there's the Grand Cru sitting in its hiding spot under the floor. One in a million shot Finn, I gotta say..." He made a sloppy salute with his glass in Finn's direction, then took another slurping drink.
Finn grinned a lopsided grin back at him and raised his own jumbo-sized mug, before stifling a belch with his free hand. The two foxes were already a bit foxed, having split a bottle of the precious champagne as they ran from the burgled shop with the goods. "Dat's right," he muttered, "Serves her right. 'S not right what she did to us, you know? Gotta show her 'dat we got a good memory for double crosses, ain't 'dat right Nikko?"
"Damn right, Finn!" Nikko responded, as he filled his own drink up again. Across the table, Money Badger rolled his eyes, and turned to Judy for a bit more sober conversation. She was still hunched over her commlink, pressing it to one ear with her shoulder while she scribbled notes down on a bar napkin. Looking up, she caught Money's gaze and rolled her eyes, then growled into the handset. "Fine. Fine, I get it, no need to repeat yourself. We'll be there, but you had better not try anything like this in the future, Cristoforo--" She paused, listening to the speaker on the other line, then snarled "I SAID WE'D DO IT. I'm hanging up now!"
She stabbed at the commlink with one claw to terminate the call, then slapped it face-down on the tabletop. "Money, give me a drink..." she grunted, and he moved hastily to comply with her demand.
"That your cousin Christopher?" he asked, once she had taken a big swallow of the maregarita that he had poured out for her. She grimaced, and then took another pull.
"Cristoforo, now that he's running with the Ruggiero crew. Little asshole gets one foot on the Mafia ladder and he thinks that he can start to throw his weight around." She took a deep breath, let it out slowly between her teeth, and turned to Nikko and Finn. "Guys, got a bit of bad news. Listen up, would ya? Come on you drunken fucks, pay attention!"
Finn, who had been reenacting a bit of high school mischief to Nikko's great amusement, took a few seconds to break off what he was saying and pay attention to the smoldering gunbunny across the table. Nikko, paralyzed with laughter on his stool, took even longer, but eventually he caught his breath and caught sight of Judy where she sat glowering at him. "Oh God," he wheezed, "if you're going to tell us that we're being too loud, then I've got news for you Carrots. I don't give a fuuuuuuckkk!" he drawled, before taking another sip.
"Well, that's great for you Nikko, it really is." Judy mused, crossing her arms and looking down at him where he slouched. "Because I just got off the phone with our next employer, and our new job is one where your loud mouth is going to make or break us."
"Ooohh, Judy lined up a job? I like the sound of this." he chortled. "Spill all the details Fluff, I can't wait to hear it." So she did, making sure to emphasize the more esoteric points of the blackmail that her cousin had decided to bring into play against them. Nikko went from drunkenly slouched in his chair to sitting up and staring in almost-sober attention, to slumping forward in his chair again with his head cradled in his paws.
"So let me get this straight..." he groaned, his words muffled by the table and his arms, pulled up over his head by this point. "Your cousin needs actors for this awful little direct-to-Trideo movie that he's directing? He looks at his options, and decides that a team of four shadowrunners is best suited to the job? And spends what must have been twenty large to buy up enough favors and secrets to threaten us with total exposure to ZPD and the Corps if we don't play along?"
Judy nodded, staring into the bottom of her glass as if there was an answer to the question of 'why me?' at the bottom. "That's about the long and short of it. He's promised that we'll get union scale wages for our performances, for what that's worth, but there's not much of a choice in the matter. The Mafia won't say a damn thing about him blackmailing us to do it, this is a money laundering operation for them anyways."
She looked up at the rest of them, Finn slouched in his chair and scratching a rune of some sort into the tabletop, Money fiddling with his commlink while he listened to her go through the details, and Nikko slouched into a tiny ball of post-drunken misery. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about this." she said in a quiet voice. "Cristoforo's always been a controlling asshole, but this is a new low for him. The worst part about it is that I think he'll really go through with it if we don't participate, burn us to the cops and whoever else he can get to listen." She looked around the table, and then asked "What do you guys think?"
No one spoke for a long moment. Then Money looked up from his phone and asked "All we have to do is act in it? We're not responsible for production work or promotion or anything?"
"I dunno," Judy admitted, "I didn't get all the details from him. But he didn't mention anything other than acting. Why do you ask?"
Money shrugged, then replied "Way I see it, there's just a few ways that it ends up." He started to count on his fingers as he talked, "Option one, it's a complete disaster. Something happens and they never finish filming, it doesn't get released. Then we're out our time and effort, but as long as we're not directly responsible then he has to let us go. Even if his bosses decide to try the scheme again, he's not going to be in charge of it." Judy nodded, conceding his point.
"Option two, it does get made, but it's a flop. Maybe it makes its budget back, but it's not going to get a sequel. That's probably fine, he might try again with another script but is he going to want the same crew of actors for it? Doubtful." He ticked off the next finger, and continued. "Option three, and this is what I like to call the Comedy Option, it turns into a huge hit, and we're all overnight celebrities. Now we're all over the newscasts, our faces are instantly recognizable, that's it for the covert lifestyle." He paused and took a sip of his drink before continuing. "That's kind of a big deal for our careers in the shadows, but on the other hand, now we're famous movie actors. Not necessarily a bad tradeoff…"
The six weeks that had been allotted for the filming seemed to fly by for Nikko and the others. Early morning arrivals at the studio for makeup and costumes, a few hours of shooting, then a quick lunch break followed by more filming or time spent in the audio booth to re-record lines. They were lucky on days that production wrapped by midnight, Finn was able to make up some time by parking his van in the back of the studio warehouse, Nikko and Judy more often than not crashed at Money's house rather than take the late-night trains back home.
The night of the premiere finally arrived, and Cristoforo had taken the last of the production budget to rent out the Hill Street Cinema for the event. Spotlight trucks, valet parking, even an open bar, he had really pulled out all the stops for this.
Nikko and Judy arrived together, Nikko in his mad scientist costume from the set, Judy in a black turtleneck and slacks with her least clunky pair of boots. "Big night tonight, Carrots!" Nikko chuckled as he presented his VIP ticket to the rhino doorman. "You ready to see Zootopia's next acting sensations make their debut?"
"Just let this be over and done with..." she grumbled, as she thrust her ticket at the attendant and slunk through the door. Inside the theater lobby, small groups of mammals mingled and chatted excitedly. Judy recognized a few from the filming, either as workers on the set or as random hangers-on attached to Cristoforo.
The few Mafiosi types that he had managed to cajole into attending looked bored, they clumped together by the fire exit and could be seen occasionally holding whispered conversations in the darkened corner. The cast and crew, on the other hand, were excited to see the product of their back-breaking work. They mostly clustered around the bar, their scanty pay for the last few months having not allowed anything fancier than cheap domestic beer.
Most of the mammals there, however, were members of the press or other city style makers. Nikko started working the room, wearing his mad scientist costume like a business suit, signing autographs and making promises to give exclusive interviews to six different reporters. Judy trudged over to the bar, got a double carrotini, and spent the next few minutes trying to avoid conversation. She heard her name being called, and looked up to see Money approaching, a peccary girl in a black cocktail dress on his arm.
"Hey Judy, I want you to meet Priscilla. Priscilla, this is my co-star Judy!" He frowned for a second, then offered "Well the 'star' part might be premature, how's co-hero?"
Judy chuckled, then shook Priscilla's offered hoof. "I'd take co-hero, I think. Buy you two a drink?" She waved the bartender over; Priscilla took a gin fizz, while Money went for a bottle of Tusksplitter. Priscilla begged a sip of his beer, and he traded her for a taste of her cocktail. It was disgusting, Judy thought, how in love these two were...
"Where you get 'dat Tusksplitta? Da barman say they out when I ask him before!" Finn stomped up to them, he was in the monster suit one more time, and didn't look happy to be wearing in public. He leaned over the bar and glowered at the nervous-looking server, before reaching into the ice chest and hoisting three bottles out again. Cracking one open with his teeth, he neatly spit the bottle cap out into a potted plant, then took a long pull.
"Careful there Bonegrinder, don't want to load up on fluids, you know how hard it is to take that suit off for a bathroom break." Nikko strolled up, giving Finn an affectionate bump with his elbow as he passed. He made his greetings to the other three, and was soon trading gossip with Priscilla about the other guests at the party. It was amazing, Judy reflected, how he was able to keep her so busy talking about everyone else at the party. The conversation never ventured close to anything to do with how the four of them knew each other. Guess that's why he's the Face, she thought as she took another sip of her bright orange concoction.
Overhead, a soft bell was ringing, the signal that seating had been prepared for tonight's guests. The crowd of mammals slowly moved towards the doors, larger species taking the bigger side doors while the smaller ones entered through the smaller central ones. Inside the theater, the staff had arranged the chairs to maximum use of the floor space, larger or taller folk were seated at the back and around the sides, while smaller chairs and even upholstered couches were arranged in the middle of the space for the smaller and less claustrophobic. High above the floor, Judy noted the special chandeliers that accommodated the smallest species, safely out from underfoot in case of an emergency.
Judy, Nikko, Money and Priscilla all had seats in the VIP section, as she sat down Judy felt something poke into her side. She pulled it out and examined it, finding it to be a paper box of theater candy. Around her, she could hear other guests stirring in their seats, muttering as they discovered similar boxes on their seats. She pulled it open and took a sniff, a rich chocolate aroma wafted out, and she was just about to take a handful when Nikko leaned over and whispered "Wouldn't do that, Fluff. They're a little something I cooked up to make this premiere a bit more memorable..."
She frowned over at him in the dimming lights, but he just grinned back at her and settled back in his chair, gazing up at the big screen as the opening credits began to roll.
Judy turned her attention to the movie, watching as the picture ran through what seemed to her to be a weird disjointed series of vignettes. It was strange to see everything in completely different order than they had filmed it in, and to have lost big chunks of what she remembered happening to the editor's stylus.
The rest of the audience, on the other paw, was starting to get restless. Judy heard muttered demands to explain the plot, drawled exclamations of "Oh wowwww!" and "Do it again!" at the action scenes, and increasingly loud demands for more snacks. By the halfway point in the movie, the entire crowd was raucous, getting up and moving around the theater to chat with friends or lying down in the aisles to "Just take a nap..." By the final scene in the movie, a few comedians in the audience had pulled their chairs to the front of the theater, and were delivering a full on 'Mammalian Science Theater 4000' treatment, to everyone else's delight.
As the ending credits began to roll, and the restless crowd began to demand another screening, Nikko stood up and offered his paw to Judy. "As much fun as this has been, I think it's time for us to depart the scene. There's a Zoober waiting out back for us." With Money, Priscilla and Finn in tow, they made their exit through the fire door and were soon walking down a utility corridor towards the rear of the building.
Judy waited until Money and Priscilla were safely out of earshot before rounding on Nikko, pinning him up against the wall and demanding "What just happened in there? I just saw two hundred civilians go from polite disinterest to thinking this was the second coming of Chinchilla and Chong!"
"Owww, Judy, let me explain!" Nikko whined, struggling to loosen her grasp on his arm. She fractionally loosened her grip, and he admitted "Yes, there was something in the candy. It's a cannabinoid analog, shown to have an extremely low half-life and retention in the body. Gives you about a two hour high, but the next day you can't find it anywhere in a drug screening." He shrugged with his one free arm and asked "I had them made up last week by the guys who did those special smoke rounds for your grenade launcher, the ones that had the colloidal silver vapor? Turns out that they’re better gunsmiths than candy makers, but after a bit of fine tuning we got it right.”
Judy struggled to put the pieces together. “So you made edibles for the whole theater, somehow got someone to put them on everyone’s seats like an official thing. What’s the angle here, Nikko?
“You know the way we were discussing the three potential outcomes of the movie?” he asked, “That it folds in production, it flops, or it becomes a breakout hit?"
She nodded, and he continued "Well I came up with an idea for a fourth option. Get the audience high AF, as the kits say, and make it become an instant cult classic!" As her grip slackened in confusion, he gently pried himself free from Judy's grip, and took her by the elbow, gently leading her down the hallway towards the waiting car.
"It's simple, really. We turn this franchise into something even lower budget than it already is. Cristoforo might try to get another one made, but it's now officially a stoner comedy, who's going to give him a special effect budget worthy of the name? No effects budget, no big action scenes, and no need for a group of veteran shadowrunners to be your cast! It's brilliant!"
"Nikko, no matter what else happens, just remind me of one thing.” Judy muttered as they walked out the rear door into the warm Zootopia night. "Don't ever let me put you in charge of the catering for a wedding or something. Everyone will be pissing hot for a week afterwards..."