Chapter 6: The Task Force
From somewhere outside the realm of her slumber there came a flat buzzing. In response, a groan—faint and mostly subconscious—escaped her lips, and one of her ears flopped into an upright position, angled in the direction of…approaching footsteps? She began to wake. A raspy exhale and the scrawl of stirring claws from the other side of the glass barrier suggested she wasn't the only one rousing.
The footsteps came to an abrupt halt, and the silence that she had fallen asleep to—the dank and muffled quiet of the subterranean complex—reclaimed the floor.
Then, a scoff.
"You've got to be shitting me."
The footsteps started up again, marching right up to where she lay. A surprisingly firm paw gripped Judy's upper arm.
"Come on. Get up."
Against her will and still half-asleep, she was hoisted to her feet so suddenly that it sent her scrambling for support. When she opened her eyes, she found herself clinging to the lab coat of badger with a particularly annoyed scowl on her lips.
"Oh, er, I'm sorry," Judy scrambled to say, pushing herself off Honey.
The badger sighed and straightened her coat. "Let's not make dozing off in top-secret research facilities a habit, officer." She turned from Judy and began for an empty cell neighboring Gideon's. "It's already a miracle Fulgens let you in here. Don't push your luck."
"Yeah, yeah, got it," Judy nodded, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "I just haven't caught much sleep recently. It won't happen again."
"It won't," Honey agreed. With one paw she began to work with the empty cell's operations panel, and with the other revealed what looked like a radio from her belt.
"Found Hopps, sir….Where, you ask?" She huffed and shot Judy a sneer over her shoulder. "Sleeping on the floor in front of Wilde's cell….Yeah, you heard me right….I know….You're the boss, not me. Do what you want….Of course, already on it….Booting up the systems now….Alright, I'll have it done."
She returned the radio to her belt and shook her head, no doubt smirking with her back turned. "You've got an angry panda waiting for you in the corridor."
"Oh joy," Judy muttered, leaning against Nick's cell for support. She was completely and utterly exhausted, even with however long she had been asleep. How long had I slept? Hours, she was sure, though they only felt like a number of minutes in sleep's cruel and distorted version of time.
"Best of luck to you, bunny. He's a scary little thing when he's worked up." Honey entered a series of buttons on the panel in a fashion so fluid Judy was mesmerized. Whatever sequence she had entered raised the lights of an empty cell to a dim orange glow. The hum of what Judy imagined to be a heater emanated from within.
Honey turned. "Come to think of it, you don't even know what happened." She snorted a sharp bark of laughter. "You slept right through the whole damn thing."
"…What?" Then the gears in her head—rusted over with fatigue—finally began to turn. Why is she prepping a new cell? What happened? Jeez, how long was I asleep?
"While you were drooling on the floor, someone else went savage. Somewhere in between Sahara Square and downtown. A coyote, or so I've heard. The response team was rushing out the door so quickly I didn't get the whole picture. Melody was too preoccupied to acknowledge my existence, much less my questions. She gets that way when stuff like this happens, all strict and bitchy."
Judy groaned and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "And I slept through all of it?"
"Well, most of it, but the response team's at the scene now."
"When did they leave?" she asked, checking her pockets to ensure her belongings were still on her person. Phone. Wallet. Badge—not that she would need it while off-duty, or even the uniform she was still wearing from her interview with Bogo.
"What, are you planning to tag along?"
"What else is there for me to do?"
"Stay out of everyone's way," Honey suggested with a shrug. "If you were needed surely you would've been called to the scene by now."
Judy ignored this. She asked again, "When did the response team leave?"
"While you were fast asleep on the floor, there."
The rabbit groaned. "What help you are." She was nearly out the door when she paused.
"…What time is it?"
"What you should be asking," Judy could hear the grin in Honey's tone, "is what year is it."
Judy sighed and fished her phone out of her pocket. At least it wasn't capable of sarcasm.
Relieved to know she hadn't slept through the day (as appealing as that did sound), she hurried out the door, past Potts, who was still enveloped in his Sudoku puzzles.
When she emerged from the hallway and into Savage Containment's cavernous corridor, Fulgens was already marching towards her, his beady eyes turned icy. Judy did not stop walking and instead turned for the elevator, dismayed when the slightly taller red panda fell into step beside her.
"Snoozing on the floor of the most dangerous government facility in Zootopia..." Fulgen's voice was the same slow-paced yet orchestrated tone that she remembered from earlier. "Well done, officer. You've surprised me."
She could feel his bitter gaze burning into the side of her head, so she kept her eyes on the approaching elevator. For someone so quiet and seemingly introverted, the intimidation that radiated off him nearly rivaled that of Chief Bogo.
"I can assure you it won't happen again, sir."
He was silent for a moment, and at that moment Judy hadn't the faintest idea as to what was going on inside his head. Any hint at his thoughts was tightly caged inside his mind—the mammal had no body language at all.
"I'm already allowing you a great deal of leniency. If not for your record, you wouldn't know this place existed. The majority of Zootopians don't."
She could only nod.
"If you wish to be allowed down here in the future, you must keep an attitude of utmost professionalism. This is a place of rehabilitation and nothing else, especially not sleep."
As she reached the elevator his pace slowed to a stop. Judy pressed the upward facing arrow several times for good measure, almost as a plea for help, then unwillingly turning to meet Fulgens' eyes.
"Don't surprise me, Miss Hopps," Fulgens sighed, his eyes now locked on hers. She found that she could not look away. "I don't like surprises."
He stepped towards her. She naturally flinched away, only for him to reach over her shoulder.
"And this lift needs a key card."
Fulgens swiped the card in a slot Judy had missed, and the doors automatically drew back.
Feeling impossibly small, Judy muttered a brief "Thank you." She stepped inside, then asked hesitantly, "Are you not coming?"
"I have my own operations to attend to," Fulgens said with a nod of his head towards the bustling crowd of workers in the corridor. "Do I look like the type who could subdue a savage predator?"
Judy assumed the question was rhetorical, though Fulgens remained quiet with his eyes locked on hers, as if weighing her with his mind.
"No," she finally said.
"No is right. There's a reason we have a savage response team." The doors began to close, though Fulgens stepped into the doorway causing the doors to retreat. He observed her for a short moment, a moment which, to Judy, felt like a small eternity.
"You need sleep," he finally concluded. "Tell me you'll get some. Just not here."
"Yes sir, I will."
"The attack occurred at a small fast food restaurant named "Samson's Burgers and Fries" just off Interstate Twenty-Three in northwest Sahara Square. Don't get in the way of the response team."
"Right, then. Ta ta," Fulgens spun on his heels, making down the aisle and back towards his office. The doors closed hesitantly, as if waiting to ensure that he had nothing else to say.
It being nearly nine o'clock on a Monday night, the subway was eerily abandoned, especially when en route to a place such as west Sahara Square. Judy arrived in roughly ten minutes—record time when traveling trans-district—and wasn't surprised to find that the station on Dry River RD was abandoned all except for a security guard near the turnstiles.
As one of the officers with the highest marks at ZPD precinct one, she had held herself to quite the standard when it came to her job. One such standard was getting a feel for the city she would be protecting, which included knowing which areas could be deemed as 'slums'. West Sahara Square was one such area. The price of living in the district was significantly cheaper than any of the neighboring districts, save for the luxurious blocks surroundings the Palm Hotel, but that was far east of where the train had left her. Heat, another factor, didn't sit well with most mammals, especially when the majority had fur of one kind or another. The low-rate residential that constituted the majority of the district was a result of this. Those who preferred it cold resided in Tundratown, moist in the Rainforest, dark in the Nocturnal District. Most everyone else fell into the category in between, meaning they would take up residence somewhere in Savanna Central or maybe the Meadowlands for the moderate climate there. That left those who had no choice but to live in the places with the cheapest accommodations, regardless of the heat. Places like northwest Sahara Square.
The region was a neighbor of downtown and all the activity accruing there (including underground markets and the overlords of such ordeals). Combine this with the cheap housing and you get a hot spot of criminal activity filled with bottom-of-the-bucket mammals.
It seemed to make sense, in Judy's mind, that something as unfortunate and terrifying as a savage attack would befall a place like this. Good things rarely came of places like this.
She had looked up the burger stop Fulgens had mentioned on Zoogle Maps and had taken the train to Dry River Road, still several blocks from the location in question, but it was the best she could do. This left her to walk the distance between, which was comprised of mostly bleak tenements and their many windows, looking all too much like hundreds of scheming eyes staring down at her, observing the discrepancy that was a rabbit, alone, in a broken neighborhood.
Still three blocks away, she could see the scene. A flair of flashing red and blue, reflecting off the interstate overpass. All the authoritative colors flashing about gave her the answer as to why the streets appeared so empty.
The burger joint was a small in question was a small, bland building with grimy cinder block walls and yellow neons running the perimeter of the roof, attracting moths and the like. A neon sign, also yellow, rotated atop a pole and read 'Samson's Burgers and Fries - Delicious Eats for Predator and Prey Alike.' Beside the name was a cartoon bear wearing the cliche chef hat and bearing a toothy grin. It was the kind of place that served greasy fried okra and onion rings in plastic red dishes lined with wax paper, normally run by the same mammal for several decades.
Nick would like it here, Judy thought. The fox knew all of the city's hidden jewels when it came to cuisine, and most of the placed he would drag her to on lunch breaks were either unassuming or dilapidates. And he would insist that he knew the chef from high school and would go on and on about how incredible the burgers were. Too bad she wasn't a predator and couldn't try the burgers for herself.
Too bad Nick was imprisoned in a cell underground, out of his mind.
Too bad he was savage.
A line of ZPD cruisers formed a barricade around the scene, along with a black van which must belong to Savage Containment's Response Team. A perimeter of police tape circled the small plaza in front of the restaurant, around which gathered a decent crowd of bystanders.
Unable to see through the legs of interested onlookers, Judy approached one of the larger cruisers and had no difficulty walking right underneath it.
Beyond the tape were several familiar faces. Francine Pennington was the nearest to Judy and was somehow managing to share one of the stone benches in front of the establishment with a stunned ewe, despite the incredible difference in size. The elephant was trying her hardest to interview the ewe—who looked to be an employee judging by the company apron bound around her neck—though it didn't seem the sheep was doing much talking. Her stare was that of a soldier having shortly returned from the front lines. Judy could practically see her replaying in her head whatever horror had occurred here.
Judy picked up on their conversation with ears too sensitive not to eavesdrop.
"Would it help if I got you something to drink? A glass of water?" Francine's tone was sympathetic, almost maternal.
The ewe shook her head, clearly still in some foreign recess of her mind. "I'm not thirsty."
Judy had been experiencing a similar shock recently. Every night since the accident at Bunnyburrow, there had been a reoccurring nightmare where Nick had not restrained himself to a streetlight. The pain, when he tore into her throat, felt so real.
The rabbit rubbed her neck with an absentminded paw and wished she could comfort the ewe. For one thing, they could share the bench far easier.
Beyond them, Officer Bob Johnson, a lion who Judy didn't know particularly well, was standing near the restaurant's service bar with a legal pad in his paws. His interviewee—a hefty brown bear—was sitting on the ground with his back to the building, as if protecting it. It didn't take Judy long to make the connection: this must be the Samson portrayed on the revolving neon sign. He wore the same apron the ewe was wearing, only several sizes larger and sprinkled with blood.
A member of the response team—a nameless deer Judy had seen at Savage Containment—was kneeling beside Samson and tending to several nasty cuts on his arm. One could only assume when standing at Judy's distance, but they appeared to be the result of sharp claws. Or teeth. Considering the context, probably a combination of both.
Notwithstanding the circumstances or the blood rusting on his apron, Samson spoke amicably with Johnson, not even wincing as the doctor dabbed at his cuts. "Long time customers, those two. Never saw them individually, they always came together." His voice somehow managed to be both gruff and polite at the same time. "Two peas in an unlikely pod, but my place attracts a strange lot. The sight of a sheep and a grizzly working in the same kitchen keeps most the public away, thank God."
Johnson consulted his legal pad, speaking without looking up. "As for the savage in question, you don't know of a history of violence, substance abuse, affiliation with any gangs or radical groups? Anything out of the ordinary?"
"Her mate's a deer, but with that out of the equation, I doubt it. Has a rather feisty personality but stays on the right side of the law's my guess. It's no chef's business to know the customers' personal lives. If you want answers, that's your mammal over yonder. The name's Arvi." Samson points to a scene nearby where Wolfard shared a bench with a hysterical deer.
Seeing as Judy herself was on a quest for answers, she crept closer, hoping Wolfard couldn't catch her scent.
Wolfard spoke, "So I assume you came here to calm your nerves?"
The deer, Arvi, exhaled and winced like it stung to do so. "Something like that. It was her idea and we like this place…Samson's a nice guy, doesn't ask any questions…" He went on mumbling to himself things so quiet even Judy and her leporine ears couldn't make them out. "…I thought it was safe here…" Every other second he would glance over Wolfard's shoulder. Judy followed his eyes to where the response team's ambulance was parked. Inside, the victim, or the perpetrator? Neither—the savage. Strapped to a stretcher, already sedated. One of the response team, a female kangaroo, was attaching wires and tubes to the savage like a telephone operator.
"You said her name was Coyoson?" Wolfard asked.
"Yes, that's right. Myra Coyoson."
"Coyoson as in Coyote? She's not a vixen?"
"She's not a fox!" Arvi snarled—the best snarl any prey can muster, that is. "Everyone calls her that like it's some fucking disease! I'm not even a predator and I can tell the difference!"
Wolfard kept his expression placid, allowing the situation to settle. It took almost half a minute until the shouting had diminished to soft sobbing, which faded to incomprehensible muttering, and finally him rubbing his hooves against each other without a word. "I…" he began, and swallowed, blinked away lingering tears, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap." He is head falls into his hooves like a bowling ball. When he speaks, he's weeping again. "I'm just…still processing all this shit."
I could help with that, maybe, Judy thought. The impact of Nick's savagery had developed deep roots in her wellbeing, and like a broken finger or stubbed toe—the injury was numb, though easily inflamed. She guessed it would be the same for this poor deer. If he could talk to someone who was undergoing a similar streak of bad luck, someone like herself, maybe that would ease the pain for both of them. Not end it—no, that would take an act of God, or more likely a night of shots at the tavern across the street from Judy's apartment—but talking just might lessen it so they can focus on the important matters. Matters that had no sympathy for poor fellows in times like these. Matters like eating, sleeping, surviving one more day.
She's thinking about going to speak with him, because Wolfard doesn't seem to be getting anything out of the deer and probably won't until he's taken to the station and interrogated there, but before she could approach…
"Figures I would find you here, Hopps."
It appeared that Judy had emerged too far from under the cruiser, because Bogo's wrath had left his radio and had approached her, his arms folded tightly across his middle. "What's your business here, Lieutenant? Last I checked you were supposed to be on break."
Judy was quick to defend herself. "I got word there was another attack. I had to come."
Bogo snorted. "You very well could have not come. You should be sleeping, recovering, as I've allowed you a gracious sabbatical to do."
Judy laughed, feeling belittled, almost insulted. "I'm not so wracked with grief that I can't leave my apartment. Yeah, it sucks what happened in Bunnyburrow, but do you expect me to stand idly by while another predator goes savage?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I expect you to do! Only a matter of days ago you were nearly mauled by a savage fox, not to mention watching your partner go off the fucking rails. Things like these require coping, and coming back here is not in any way coping."
His rage reminded her of her first day on the force, a day of patronization and parking duty. Even after all she had done to prove her worth, to prove she wasn't the fragile little bunny rabbit everyone took her for, did he still think she needed TLC when things went south? What next, a therapist? A stress blanket?!
"My coping isn't going to prevent this," she gestured to the scene with outstretched arms. "Three times now, a predator has gone savage. It's been only two days! How long before a forth?"
"It doesn't matter how long—" Bogo began, only for his radio to speak first.
"Chief, I'm already receiving word that ZNN has its buzzards on the way. It's only a matter of time before others catch on. Would you like me to send your reserves?" The voice was Clawhauser's, who sounded cheery as ever.
The buffalo exhaled out his nostrils. "Bloodthirsty pricks," he muttered and brought the radio to his snout. His eyes never left Judy. "Hold that thought," he said into the radio. Then to the rabbit, "Listen here, I don't have time to quarrel with you about this, and if we did have time, believe me, I'd go all twelve rounds. What you do on your free time is out of my hands, so by all means, deprive yourself of sleep and sneak your way into crime scenes to your little heart's content, but do not get in the way, or we'll have issues." He began to turn away, then glanced back and grimaced. "And change out of that bloody uniform. You're off-duty." The ground shook with his retreat, his booming voice demanding the radio tell him which officers were in his reserves and who in the seven circles of hell had the audacity snitched to ZNN.
With the chief gone, Judy could breathe again and turned to see that Melody was closing the back of the ambulance while the rest of the response team piled in. Around the ambulance, though, was a gathering crowd, who was blocking the exit route. Despite the flashing lights and blaring horn, the crowd swarmed, banging fists on the sides of the ambulance.
"Why is this happening? We want answers!"
"Who even are you guys? Clearly not the police!"
"We have the right to know what's going on!"
Swimming in all the delirium, Arvi's voice was the one Judy heard the loudest. He was on his feet now, and the only thing keeping him from tailing the ambulance down the road was Wolfard, holding him back.
"Let go of me! Where are they going? Tell me where you're taking her! Please! You can't just—let GO OF ME!" He squirmed against Wolfard's grip, his screams as close to a growl as a deer could manage. "This isn't fucking legal! Where is she going? I have the right to know! I should be with her! I should—"
"Easy, buddy." Wolfard's voice remained calm. He had wrapped Arvi in a restraining embrace. "She's safe. There's no reason to—"
In a swift instant, Arvi thrashed his head back. He bit Wolfard on the arm. The wolf only hissed, but it proved to be enough of a distraction for Arvi to break free of the officer's hold. The deer was now high-tailing it after the ambulance, ducking under the police tape and slicing through the crowd of bystanders. No one tried to stop him. The ambulance was now well down the frontage road and making it for the interstate, flashers and sirens all the way.
"You good, Ryan? Did he bite you?" Johnson asked, jogging over with a bemused look more than a concerned one.
The wolf half-grimaced, half-smiled. "Yeah, the little bastard did."
Johnson sneered. "Oh, he's gonna regret that one—"
But Wolfard held up his paw. "No harm done. See? Teeth too flat to draw blood." He chuckled and rubbed his arm. "Bitten by a prey…that's a first."
"Should I go after him? He's not far, I could catch up. Bite him back for ya. Give him one he'll remember."
Wolfard waved him off. "Unless he can run sixty, which I don't believe deer can, he'll slow."
"Jesus, Ryan, the guy bit you. Even with no blood that's still assault."
"I don't blame him. His friend just lost her sanity, and now she's being toted off to who knows where. If that were my mate I very well might bite someone. I'm not shot. Bruised maybe, but nothing more. Give him some leeway."
"I can catch up to him." It was Judy speaking now, making her way under the police tape without having to duck. "He probably just needs to sit down and talk away from all of the commotion."
Both officers looked down in surprise. Wolfard tilted his head to the side in a very canine fashion. "Hopps? I thought you were off duty?"
"What, your extended vacation get too dull?" Johnson mused.
Wolfard shot the lion a disapproving look.
"I get it. I shouldn't be here," Judy admitted. "Bogo's already barked my ears off. Should be resting, he says, but…"
"But you can't," Wolfard finished for her. "Not when these things happen."
"Yeah." Judy nodded. At that moment, a mutual respect passed between them. If there was any officer Judy favored second to Nick, it would definitely be Ryan Wolfard. Something about his silent understanding of other's thoughts….
"I should catch up with him before he gets too far," Judy said, jabbing a thumb in the direction the deer fled.
"Sure. Just say you'll take some melatonin tomorrow. Even you need your sleep."
"Everyone keeps telling me that."
Johnson smirked. "Maybe because you look like you could pass out on the floor right here."
"Easy, wise ass," Wolfard muttered.
Judy only laughed. Wouldn't be the first time today… "No, you're right, I wouldn't put it past me."
"You better get going if you want to catch him before he makes it to the harbor," Johnson said. "But just know, I'd down a vial of night howler here and now if it meant I'd get paid vacation. Do us on-duties a favor and spend your sabbatical away from work."
Arvi hadn't made it more than a block. When Judy caught up, he was sitting on the shoulder beneath a single orange streetlight with his head in his paws, muttering again. Something about lawyers in his pocket and "suing their asses til' they can't sit down."
Before she could reach him he heard her approach. Eyes red from rage and wide with fear assessed her. All it took was the uniform to get him on his feet, backing away and pointing an accusing finger. "I'm not talking! Not with you or any of your friends, so don't get any closer!"
Judy stopped and raised her paws to her defense. "I'm not trying to make you angry."
"Yeah, then what? Trying to take me in for assaulting an officer—hey! I said don't come closer!"
"I'm not taking you in. That's not why I'm here," Judy said, expecting him to give her another earful. He didn't, so she changed the subject. "Your name's Arvi?"
He stared for a long time, like confirming or denying this would get him killed. Finally, a nod. "And who the hell are you?" His voice had eased, though was still on edge. "I didn't know the cops took in rabbits."
This was a relief to Judy, who had grown sick of her recent publicity. First for that disasters press conference (which still gave her nightmares, sometimes), then for the arrest of the former Madam Mayor, Dawn Bellwether, and finally her partnership with the ZPD's first fox, Nicholas Wilde. She was surprised that no one in the crowd had yet to pick her out as "that rabbit from the news"; if it were a predator, they'd be accusing her of her words at the press conference, if prey then praises for the same thing. But in the eyes of this mammal, if only this one, she was still a blank profile. It gave her hope.
"I'm Judy Hopps, first rabbit on the ZPD." She took a cautious step forward—he gave no objection this time—and offered her paw.
Arvi hesitated, considering something behind his eyes. For a moment, Judy thought he was going to connect the dots and recognize that she was the rabbit from the news, the one who had brought down the Bellwether scandal, the one partnered with the fox. But he only swallowed and gently shook her paw. His own was trembling. It was cold, after all, but Judy didn't think that was the main reason.
"Again, I'm not here to upset you, or accuse you of biting a fellow officer." She chuckled, hoping he would do the same, but he didn't. Instead, a look of growing horror materialized on his face.
"Oh shit. Oh shit! Just perfect!That's assault, it's gotta be!"
"I think you'll be fine," Judy said. "Wolfard, the officer you…attacked, he laughed it off. No one's blaming you, Arvi."
"Oh, don't say that. Don't lie to me, you're just trying to take me in."
"Arvi, stop putting words in my mouth. I'm not accusing you of anything, an I've already told you I'm not taking you in."
"Of course I promise!" She raised her right paw. "You have my word as an officer."
"Like that means anything."
"To me, it means a lot. So take it or leave it."
He studied her, saying nothing.
"Look, I know you've been through hell. Your reaction, though…admittedly dramatic, was justified." She laughed. "So relax, dude! I'm not taking you in, not accusing you of assault or anything else."
Still, silence on his behalf. His eyes weren't so angry now as they were curious.
"I promise you, Arvi. I'm here for you."
Finally, he sighed. His breath vaporized in the air. "Well, I guess you seem nice enough." He chuckled in spite of himself.
"I'd like to believe I'm morally in line, yes," Judy smirked. "So, I'll take it you trust me?"
"Trust you? I just met you!"
"And yet you aren't backing away anymore."
He considered this and shook his head, defeated. "Fine. I trust you."
The rabbit smiled. "Here," she sat down on the shoulder where he had been sitting before and patted the asphalt beside her, "sit with me. I wanna talk with you." The deer hesitated and she clarified, "Not 'police talk' with you. Friend-to-friend talk with you. I'm actually off duty right now."
"Then why the…you know…the blue?" He pointed to her vest.
"I had business the station this morning. Forgot to take it off." It was the truth, despite how clumsy it sounded, and yet the deer seemed to take comfort in it.
"Right," he nodded. "Right, okay." He sat down, still uneasy, but certainly better than before.
After a moment of shared silence—during which Judy glanced down the road to see Wolfard, watching on with interest though far out of earshot—she began. "So you and Myra were pretty close, I take it."
"Yes, we are." No hesitation in his reply.
"Huh," Judy grinned to herself. It wasn't every day—or week, for that matter—that she came across another interspecies couple. This, though, was the first she had seen between predator and prey outside of her own relationship—scratch that—friendship with Nick.
"Please, don't try and lecture me on how unorthodox it is—a deer and a coyote. Oh, and don't tell me you think she's a fox."
"I don't." Though she had only seen the feet of the mammal on the stretcher, they had been large enough to prove that they didn't belong to a fox. Coyotes rivaled wolves in size. Foxes rivaled raccoons.
"I've already heard it all, from parents, friends, my boss—no, my old boss. Yeah, did I mention I got fired today? We both did, me and Myra. That is…before she…you know…."
"I know," Judy nodded. And she did. Savage was such an ugly word, and relating it with someone close was like swallowing a bolder.
"By now I get it. I've been told it so many times I can't help but believe them. Predator and prey aren't meant to be in a relationship. It's nasty and unnatural, and I don't need anyone else to tell me that."
"No, no, that's not at all what I'm saying," Judy hurried to say, seeming to take Arvi by surprise. "Just because it's unorthodox doesn't mean it's nasty."
Arvi looked down. "You don't have to lie. I know the way most mammals think of me."
"Well I'll have you know, I'm not most mammals."
Silence again, and Judy didn't mind it. Further down the darkened street, two more squad cars pulled up next to the three already present. Bogo's reserves had arrived.
"In a way," Judy finally spoke, looking at Arvi (though he refused to return the favor), "I might know how you feel."
For a while, he didn't say anything. Then, he scoffed. "Did your only friend lose their mind, too? Get carted away in some unmarked ambulance, probably to some government bunker for testing or some shit?" He scoffed again, and whatever warmth had been growing between them died in a chilly gust of wind.
Then, Judy started to giggle.
Arvi turned to look at her for the first time since they had sat down, and there was some concoction of anger and confusion on his face. "It's not funny."
"I didn't say it was."
"Then why are you laughing. It's rude."
Judy's mirth ended with a sigh and she nodded in agreement. "Yeah, you're right. Sorry. But really, I can relate."
"Really, can you?" Arvi said, thick with skepticism.
"My partner, on the force, he's a fox."
He blinked. The sarcastic frustration drained from his face, and a Judy knew he was feeling the same intrigue she had felt upon hearing that he and Myra were a couple. A relief that there was someone else out there besides themselves. That they weren't the only ones walking against the current.
"If you don't think I know the hell interspecies relationships have to endure every day, then just imagine a red fox and a cottontail rabbit on patrol together. Or even worse, on lunch breaks at the local cafe."
Arvi considered this, then asked, "Are you two just friends, or…"
"Friends," Judy said. "But we were close."
The deer's expression turned empathetic. "…'Were'?"
"Oh, no, Nick's alive," Judy said, and the brief thought of a world where he wasn't sent an icy spear through her beating heart. "But, you see, Myra wasn't the first predator to go savage since Bellwether's arrest."
To the surprise of the officers and bystanders who had witnessed Arvi flee the scene in pursuit of an ambulance he would never catch, Judy and the recently hysterical deer returned to Samson's at each other's side. When Wolfard asked how she had done it, she had responded, "I just didn't let him bite me."
Arvi had cooled down several degrees and had even agreed to ride with Wolfard back to the station for an interview. There was no objection on the deer's part. No one was bitten. Arvi gave Judy a thankful glance, now that the two understood each other's unfortunate and similar circumstances, and climbed into the back of Wolfard and Johnson's cruiser.
It wasn't long after they departed for the station when Bogo approached Judy, who had been listening in on Francine and the ewe cook (it seems the elephant had finally managed to get her to speak, and she was reciting her point of view on the matter in every detail). He was about to speak, but on a more striking note, a bystander had just come to the realization that she looked exactly like that rabbit from the news. And just when she'd believed she'd go unnoticed, too.
"That's right, you are that bunny cop from ZNN! Ha! Fuzzy bunny working with the fuzz!" It was an overweight badger, though his remarks weren't without malice. "Was it fun, dragging us preds through the mud and shit on live TV?"
"Why, I'll be dammed to hell and treated to a popsicle!" This one, standing near enough to the badger to hear what he was going on about, was a red fox. "I've always wanted to have a chance to give you a piece of my mind. Oh, I could write you manuscripts, honey!"
Judy recalled a certain day of her training when Ursula, the bullhorn of a polar bear, had instructed them on dealing with verbal abuse. "As an upholder of justice," she had said in the gym one day, "in a city full of just the opposite, you will have to deal with some shitfaced locals who want to start up a verbal sparring match. And to that, I say feel free to indulge! But know that it is ALWAYS best, even if this shitfaced local REALLY has a bone to pick, to keep your voice level and, even better, ignore the loudmouth in general! I'm hoping that after a select few of you graduate this place I call academy and you call hell on earth, you'll have had your share of verbal abuse already from yours truly!" And Judy had, especially when her ears were twice as sensitive as the rest in her squad.
Keeping Mama Ursula's advice in mind—it had been the polar bear's favorite sobriquet—Judy allowed the rowdy crowd no more than an uninterested glance. The memory of her brief but monumental one minute on the air still haunted her, and she knew the repercussions affected these predators personally. They had a right to hate her, and though it stung her insides, she knew she deserved it.
She would die still regretting the things she said that day. Others would die still hating her for it.
The badger was shouting now. "I know you can hear me, rabbit! Your ears are taller than your whole fucking body!"
Don 't look at them. Just let them hate you, that shouldn't be so hard.
"You've got a partner, haven't ya?! A fox, yeah, that's right!"
This caught Judy's attention, and she turned. It was the fox, and Judy was thankful he didn't look like Nick, else she might start to cry, or lose her mind. He wore a hooded sweatshirt that read POWER TRIP on the front, along with a green baseball cap, the bill sticking out from under the hood. If that wasn't enough to convince Judy that this was not the fox she had befriended, his far-darker shade of fur did the trick.
"Oh, struck a nerve, have I?" the fox grinned toothily.
"Hopps?" came a voice from her side of the police tape.
She turned to see Wolfard, whose eyes said everything she needed to know. 'Don't be afraid to ask for help, for once in your life.'
"I'm fine," she said.
"Is he your doggy toy?" sneered a tiger wearing a maroon beanie. "I thought your ride-of-the-week was that fox you work with, huh?"
"No, she's vacant ever since he went off the rails in Bunnyburrow!" the badger laughed.
A hot fury swelled somewhere in Judy's chest, but she swallowed it back, managing to take control of her temper before she lost it. She, however, didn't manage to control her outward expression, which was one of shock and hurt.
"Don't be so surprised, cottontail! Some of us preds watch the news, too!"
"Bet she didn't think we could afford cable!"
"You want a real ride, you come to me! We clear?" said the maroon beanie.
"Sir, I'm going to ask you to keep your voice down."
"Hey now, get your ears in a knot! I'll be gentle!"
"Sir, we are in a public place. I'm asking you to please—"
"Take this someplace private? S'that what you're saying?" Following this, a series of hoots, hollers, howls, even some sarcastic slow-clapping.
The badger cupped his paws to his muzzle and shouted, "She's a pred-chaser!" to which followed even more laughing and cat-calls.
Hot anger was pooling in her stomach like, and her scale of authority began to lean less towards 'officer etiquette' and more towards 'kick ass and take names.' Though before she could say any more, something far more furious and terrifying than whatever she could muster came storming up behind her, and she watched as the badger's grin fall.
"You sorry bastards, you watch your fucking mouth around her, else I'm taking you all in for verbal abuse on an officer! Now get your asses out of here! Now!"
It was Bogo. She was off duty, and that such things as verbal abuse could not be charged in defense of an off-duty officer, but the chief neglected to mention this.
The members of the bickering crowd reluctantly turned away. The fox stared at Judy for a while with a glimmer in his eyes and a toothy sneer before falling back with the rest.
Bogo only tuned to face Judy when they were a good distance away.
"Next time you should defend yourself."
"It would only—"
"Strike that, next time you should be at home. Asleep."
"I know, Chief."
The voice of the hooded fox, now a distance away from them, cried out, "Howzabout you keep your dirty cunt away from my kind, ya hear rabbit?"
Bogo turned, an immaculate rage in his eyes.
"Chief, don't." The buffalo shot her a questioning glance but could read her mind when he saw the guilt in her eyes. Guilt where there should be anger, no doubt. "In a sense, I deserve it. After what I said at that conference—"
"No." His answer was swift and ultimate, like a judge declaring a guilty party innocent, no further questions asked or allowed. Amen. "Any mammal who has ever lived and died has screwed up somewhere in between. Not everyone makes up for their mistakes but I'll be damned if you haven't. You've done so much for this city, uprooting the injustice that only you could see. You even altered my moral compass, but you didn't hear that from me. If anyone still holds a grudge against you, they're the ones in the wrong. And that's final."
Judy knew it would be final, so she didn't try and object.
"In any case, I meant to tell you—before we were," he glances in the direction of the retreating harassers, "so rudely interrupted—that while you were talking with that deer who bit Wolfard, I got in touch with Fulgens and we've agreed to assemble a meeting tonight back at the precinct. I'm taking my elites and Fulgens is bringing his response team, who he said had just finished locking up the savage. Seeing as you're here, and would be considered one of my elites if you were on duty, if you'd like to attend you can ride with us back to the station. We're simply addressing what we know so far on the three savage attacks, and you certainly know a great deal about two of them. Though I understand that you're off-duty, so I won't pressure you."
A small grin made its way across Judy's face. "You know what? I'd be honored to come."
"Honored?" Bogo grunted something, either a scoff or a chuckle, Judy couldn't tell which. "I only ask because you're here, and you're a first-hand witness on two savage accounts. There's no honor in it." And so it seems, Chief Bogo was back to his normal self.
"It's not that, just that you'd even consider inviting me. Thank you, Chief."
"Don't think I'm inviting you back on duty—"
"—Never said you were—"
"Believe me, I'm enforcing your sabbatical as heavily as I would the day-to-day work of any other officer. But you'd be a useful asset to…well…we're considering calling it the 'Savage Task Force.'"
Judy considered this. "Has a nice ring to it."
Bogo rolled his eyes. "You were right in what you said earlier. There's no reason it won't happen again, and it's about time somebody takes action. In most cases, we're that somebody."
"And…I would be a part of this task force? After the sabbatical ends, that is?"
"Of course. You and Wilde both, when he wakes up."
Though he probably didn't think twice of it, Bogo's use of 'when' instead of 'if' revealed in Judy a fragment of remaining hope, one she didn't know was there. The ifs had gotten to her as of late, and they were about as comforting as jagged rocks. If Nick ever wakes up. If he doesn't die in the "rocky terrain of savage rehabilitation," to quote Melody Spott. If she would ever breathe a breath of air not tainted by bitter regret and grief again.
In times like this, when the utterly mammoth shit hit the utterly massive fan, she had to remind herself that she was a natural optimist. Always has been, or so claimed her parents. Clinging on to this optimism might be the only thing that could get her to the end.
"Alright, Chief." She captured a breath of brisk November air and released it, having found a new sense of determination. "I'll go. I'm in."
"Splendid, but on one condition." Bogo stuck an accusatory finger in her direction, and she crossed her eyes to look at it. "A little birdie who bore a striking resemblance to a certain red panda told me you were found sleeping outside Nick's cell." He folded his arms over each other and let the shame pile up until it nearly smothered her. Then he continued. "After this meeting concludes, you're going straight home and to bed. So you claim you don't need your coping, well I'll be dammed if you don't need your sleep. I don't care if you're off duty—it's an order from your superior. Are we clear."
Judy made no hesitation. "Crystal."
"Brilliant. Then we're off. I've instructed Higgins and Delgato remain here until the investigators show up."
The meeting was held in one of the precinct's many rooms built for just such a purpose, all members of Bogo's elites and the response team accounted for. Despite the many familiar faces of her fellow officers (most of which greeted her with the same pity she was growing sick of), she couldn't help but feel out of place. Perhaps because she had to sit on the table to be seen by everyone else. Perhaps because she hasn't slept in well over twenty-four hours.
Judy surmised that it was a little of both.
The room was long, and so was the table. Several swivel chairs lined the table on each side, as well as the one at the head and foot. An entire wall of the room was a floor-to-ceiling window, though a series of automatic blinds had secluded the room upon Bogo's pressing of a button.
The buffalo himself now sat at the head of the table, Fulgens at the foot, and all their best officers in between. Bogo's 'elites', as he liked to call them, were an unofficial group of the highest-performing officers in the precinct. It consisted of Ryan Wolfard, Bob Johnson, Phillip Rhinowitz, Kiara Fangmeyer, Francine Pennington—and Judy Hopps and Nicholas Wilde, when the former wasn't off-duty and the latter not savage. The rest of the seats were occupied by the response team, out of which Judy knew only knew Melody. There as also a gentle-eyed female kangaroo, a meerkat with a smug grin, a quiet black bear who sat with his paws folded on the table, and an equally quiet white-tailed deer.
Shortly after ten PM, Bogo began the meeting.
"Thank you all for arriving on such short notice. I realize that it's late and you're all exhausted," he gave the members of the table a thoughtful glance, "though I don't care. We meet tonight to discuss pressing matters, and if you have any complaints, I don't want to hear them. I believe Doctor Fulgens feels the same way?"
"Of course," Fulgens said from the opposite end of the table. "If you're tired, you should have bought yourself a coffee downstairs."
The ZPD officers shared a glance, a series of grins. It was an unspoken rule not to drink the precinct's coffee, else befall a terrible series of symptoms, believed to end in death. Or, at least, a migraine that left you wishing for it.
"On that note," Bogo looked around the room, "this isn't much more than a briefing session, though you are allowed to comment and bounce some ideas. Nothing too formal. Any opening remarks?"
"I'll begin," said Fulgens, raising his paw. "The attack tonight was the third of its nature since Saturday, November 26, when Officer Nicholas Wilde of the ZPD and local baker and resident of Bunnyburrow, Gideon Grey, both went savage within three hours of each other. This was at the annual Bunnyburrow Harvest Festival, which—I believe Miss. Hopps here can back me up—is comprised predominantly of prey mammals?"
"Yes, that's true," Judy agreed. "If Nick and I hadn't been in town, Gideon might have been the only predator, and definitely the only fox in attendance."
"And therein lies my theory." Fulgens revealed a stack of manila folders (seemingly from out of nowhere) and placed them squarely before himself. "Taking into account the most recent attack involving one Myra Coyoson, it is reasonable to believe that this trio of savagery is all connected."
"Connected how?" Fangmeyer spoke up, then noticed the attention of all the unfamiliar faces of SC Response, and cleared her throat. "Officer Kiara Fangmeyer, requesting permission to speak."
"No need to request," Fulgen said, folding his paws atop the stack of folders. "Go on, Miss Fangmeyer."
"When it comes to the mammals behind all this, are we talking a couple of bastards with their hands on some night howlers? Or a full-on criminal organization, similar to that of Bellwether and her minions?"
"The latter, if I were to guess. It is obvious that there is a great deal of orchestration behind these attacks. No suspects as of yet, no traces of any mind-altering substances found at any of the scenes, and worst of all no understanding as to how the victims were exposed. The perpetrators in question are covering their tracks astonishingly well, so it is likely to believe that this isn't the work of 'a couple bastards with their hands on night howlers,' no." A pause, perhaps for the sake of suspense. "The most plausible culprit, I would assume, would be an underground prey-supremacy organization. A 'syndicate,' if you will. Bellwether did a fine job inspiring the prejudiced among us, and I'm sure this syndicate is attempting to follow in her footsteps and further pin the blame on predators, using savagery as their main resource."
It was Johnson who spoke up this time. "And how do we know it's night howlers we're dealing with? I mean, hell, wasn't that stuff banned in widespread, alongside Heroin and PCP?"
"Officer, we're fairly confident this is savagery we're dealing with, not the common cold," Fulgens responded in a patronizing tone of voice.
"Oh yeah, certainly, for sure," Johnson said. "I'll be dammed if it isn't savagery, but how do we know it's really being caused by night howlers if there are no traces of it in the savage?"
It was Melody, this time, who answered. "No offense, officer, but that would be like assuming someone who had gone swimming in Tundratown snow melt doesn't actually have hypothermia, it's just that their fur is naturally blue."
Pennington, sitting left of Johnson, guffawed and nudged the lion with her trunk. "Big smart, pussycat."
"Shut it, Francine," the lion sneered.
The leopardess ignored this. "Because there are no entry points visible on any of the victims, it is assumed that the serum was administered orally without the user's knowledge. And it is fairly obvious that these mammals are savage—if you don't believe me just come and visit Containment sometime."
"Er, that won't be happening," Fulgens added.
"My point is, these mammals shit where they eat, and they eat anything that moves. I don't need my doctorate to know that's savagery. Besides, the real symptoms are found in the savages' minds." Melody turned to the silent deer at her side and elbowed him. He flinched. "Antlersen here's our neuroscientist, he can tell you all about it."
Antlersen was seeming quite like a deer in the headlights.
"C'mon, Cole," the meerkat on the other side of Antlersen sneered. "You could lecture this shit in your sleep. Drop some knowledge."
Cole's eyes flitted up towards the room of spectating officers and scientists, and quickly averted his gaze back down at his hooves. "Uh…Cole Antlersen…of…savage rehabilitation." He gave a short wave, no smile, his eyes still trained on his hooves. "Like Doctor Spott stated, when comparing the…the physical effects of the most recent patients to that of…well…the several dozen who went savage during the Night Howler Crisis, everything aligns perfectly. It is Midnicampum holicithias we are dealing with here, in one form or the other. You see…the…" He took a moment, outstretching his arms as if literally grasping for words, "…the evidence of the presence of these 'night howlers' is found in the mind more than anywhere else. It increases stress hormones, like cortisol for example, which in turn increases blood pressure and can lead to many other negative responses, but I won't get into that now….The frontal lobe is commandeered almost entirely, causing the victim to lapse into a dream-like state where one's sense of reality, of personality, of common sense et cetera, is completely overridden by other, stronger urges. Instinctual urges, released mostly by an excessive demand for cortisol…adrenaline, in other words. You can see all of this in the brain activity any savage, anyone at all! Rapid neuron firing like nothing we've ever seen before. Like some kind of…neurological firework show!"
The ZPD side of the table looked as lost as kindergartners in a calculus class, in which this deer was the overly-passionate prof. Cole seemed to realize this, how his enthusiasm had crescendoed throughout the entirety of his lecture, and he seized up.
"A-Anyways, I digress…i-it's obvious when someone is under the influence of the serum, especially when looking at brain activity. This is the work of night howlers…no doubt."
"We just haven't any explanation as to how it entered the mammals afflicted," Fulgens finished, taking control of the room. Cole gladly passed off the baton, and now sunk back in his chair, seeming embarrassed. "You can read more on this in these synopses I created, covering the extent of what we know and my theory as to how it is all connected."
He passed the folders down the table until everyone in the room had one. Judy thumbed hers open—they were all the same size, and far too large for any rabbit to hold comfortably—and found a few sheets containing blocks of text, as well as a few images. One of them, she recognized, was from the scene in the Bunnyburrow Square. A savage, but sedated Gideon, being loaded onto a stretcher by the Melody and the bear across the table from her.
"So now that you have the material," Fulgens said, "I'd like to present my theory, which is that these attacks are connected, as I proposed earlier. Though we know little about the mammals behind it all, we can surmise their goal by looking at the locations of the savagery. The first was the Bunnyburrow Harvest Festival, which, as Miss Hopps confirmed, is primarily attended by rabbits, if not prey in general. If there was any place to publicly exploit predators, it would be at a largely-prey festival with few predators in attendance, so few I could count them on one paw. Now we look at tonight's attack, which occurred at the small restaurant "Samson's Burgers and Fries: Delicious Eats for Predators and Prey Alike," emphasis on the motto. The only two customers present at the time were an interspecies couple: a deer and a coyote. Is anyone seeing any connections?"
"Predators are going savage at events and establishments where predators and prey are expected to coexist," said Wolfard, earning an approving gaze from Fulgens.
"Precisely. Or so we believe. It would be easiest to pin the blame on predators when there are few present—like at the Harvest Festival in Bunnyburrow—or at locations which invite predators and prey to mingle—like Samson's. And that is the abridged version of my theory. I've written out its extent in the folders I gave to you, as well as all the current disposable facts concerning the three attacks."
Fulgens looked across the table and met eyes with the Chief. "Now I turn over the floor to the Chief of Police, who I'm sure needs no introduction. He will be introducing the other side of the 'coin', which is how exactly we are to take action against—"
"The point of turning over the floor, doctor, is to allow the other party a chance to speak," Bogo cut him off. "You said it yourself, no need for introduction."
The red panda went silent, giving the Chief of police a blank stare. Judy found that she couldn't tell rather the stare was expressionless or icy—all emotion seemed to become unclear with those beady eyes of his.
Bogo didn't wait for any more from the doctor. "You are here tonight because all of you are entitled to be public servants. Police officers, EMT's, medics—it is your job to clean up whatever shit this syndicate decides to dump on us. And so, the doctor and I have agreed to create and assemble the Savage Task Force. This will be made up of both Savage Containment and the ZPD's Precinct One, and the real reason I called you in tonight is because you are the chosen few who qualify for such a position on the team."
The room was silent, but the sideways glances exchanged were very loud.
Rhinowitz finally spoke, "Chief, is this mandatory?"
"No, it isn't. Speaking of which, I have a few papers of my own to hand out." Bogo revealed a small stack of pages. "These are contracts confirming your consent to join the task force. I'll try and make this brief. Signing means you are temporarily leaving your normal duties to focus on this specific venture. As for the officers in the room, notice that your partners are present as well. This was intended, and partnerships will continue after signing, though if you don't wish to join you both will be reassigned a new partner until the task force is disbanded. Again, this is only temporary. The force will only be disbanded when the culprit is caught or when the investigation becomes fruitless, though I intend to see the former through.
"As for the members of Savage Containment," his gaze fell upon the other side of the table, "you will still be under Fulgens' command, just as my officers will be under mine. We are simply forming an alliance to bring down a potential threat to this city. If you are interested, which I hope you all are, I'll pass out the papers and pens. If not, don't sign, and you'll return to your normal duties tomorrow."
"And will Savage Containment be required to meet here, at the ZPD?" Melody asked.
"So far as I see it, we won't need a combined center of operations. Savage Containment will operate from wherever the hell you guys are located now, and the ZPD from right here in the precinct."
"What about when there's another attack?" Judy asked.
"I believe you mean if there's another attack," Bogo flatly responded, "in which case, the task force will be called to respond immediately, no matter the time of day. There will be investigations, too, but that is only assuming that the attacks continue.
"And Hopps, I don't believe you'll need to know any of this now, considering your sabbatical has only just begun."
"Understood." Judy nodded briefly.
"Good. Now, the papers…"
The forms were passed out, signatures were scrawled, and pens returned.
In the end, everyone signed.
Bogo collected the papers with a self-satisfactory smile. "I am pleased with your decisions. As of now the Savage Task Force is live and will be the first responders and investigators of any further incidents. Doctor, anything else?"
All eyes turned to the opposite end of the room. Fulgens composed himself, taking a deep breath. "Please, take time to know your enemy. Know his eye color. Fight for a greater peace in Zootopia. Do whatever it takes, with whoever it takes. After all, peace is the foundation of all lasting civilizations." He stood up, straightened his jacket, and looked back at his audience.
"Let's try and make this one last."
A dreary morning in early September, approximately three months before Nick 's savagery…
He watched the steam dance above his tea, and let himself smile, just this once.
Alone. In his element.
The building was several decades old and had seen many failed attempts at business in its time, the most recent of which being a public chess club. Schedule matches with friends, or just sit, in his case, and wait to see if an opponent would arrive. So he sat in the quiet studio, sharing the small room only with an empty chair and a table between them, on which was a game waiting to begin.
Outside the window and two stories down, Zootopia was waking up to a downpour. Appropriately, it was Monday. Why in living hell, the average mammal might ask, would anyone be here of all places, especially at this ungodly hour? Well, call it his comfort place, per se. To each their own, and to this specific mammal, the chair by the second-story window of the chess club, a cup of piping tea in hand.
The likelihood of anyone else arriving in the place was seemingly nonexistent, considering the hour, the weather, and the fact that chess as a whole was dying thanks to the online revolution of entertainment.
So, it was a great surprise when the door clicked open to reveal an opponent, wearing an unassuming smile. Such a surprise, in fact, that the cup of tea trembled in his paws, nearly spilling in his lap. He set it down on the table.
Without so much as an introduction, the opponent sat in the opposite chair.
They locked eyes, and the opponent smiled. "Hello there." His voice was silky. "Can I join you."
He placed his cup down on the table between them. "These are public tables."
"This is true," the opponent hummed, grinning. "Should we play a quick round, then?"
"Quick?" One corner of his mouth twisted up into a smile. "That is assuming you'll win so easily?"
"Oh, no, no, of course not," the opponent laughed with a confident mirth. "I expect you to win."
His grin drew back into a placid expression, a mask to hide the blooming confusion. Who is he? Do I know him? No, I've never seen this mammal. Yet, he talks like we've known each other since childhood. He tried to keep his composure, to keep eye contact, but something about the opponent's smile…it was dripping with an assertive nature, like he plans to push an agenda. Like all of this was scheduled. "I don't believe we've met."
"No, I don't believe we have, but regardless, Algernon, I know exactly who you are," the opponent spoke, his gregarious attitude well maintained despite the change of subject.
He was very glad the tea was not in his paws at that moment, for surely it would have spilled all over him. He strained to keep the staid mask over his face as he tried to comprehend all of this. There's something he doesn't know that his opponent does, and he just can't connect the dots. It's infuriating. "…Al…Algernon…. Why, it's been years."
"That name," now straining to meet his eyes, "I thought I buried it."
"Nothing in this age is buried too deep to unearth, I would expect a mammal of your position to understand that. Everything about everyone, especially someone of your status, can be found online. Rather easily, if we're being honest." The opponent said all of this as if it were politics over breakfast. The smile—a blinding, toothy white—never faded.
"Are you implying that you're stalking me?"
"No, Al," the opponent laughed. "I'm telling you that I did."
Outside, a police siren resounded from somewhere within the concrete forest.
"Let's begin, shall we?" the opponent said, gesturing to the checkered board between them, all the pieces already laid out in proper order on either side like two armies before a battle, studying each other, sharpening the last blades and gathering all the arrows in their quivers. "I'll let you have the first move."
Al stared at his opponent for a long while. If he knew the game well, he would know that by rule, the white pieces make the first move. Regardless, he reached over and moved a black pawn forward.
"I've been meaning," the opponent said, advancing a knight, "to get back into this game. It was a favorite of my father's, and he'd make me play on the daily, insisting that it would raise my intellect." He chuckled to himself, shaking his head. "Though I simply enjoyed watching how the different pieces moved. Especially," he placed his finger atop the queen, "this one right here."
"Is that so?" Al said, not knowing what else there was to say.
"This board is flat, wouldn't you agree?"
The question took Al by complete surprise, but added to his growing curiosity."…Yes, it is."
"And none of the pieces are fixed, now are they?"
"No, they're not."
"Then why, despite the board being flat and the pieces being free of it, can't the bishop move one meager step forward?"
Al sighed. "Well, I suppose it could." His self-confidence was returning. dChess eased his nerves, it always had, even in situations as bizarre as this. "But that would be rendering the board to that of a dollhouse, and all the pieces dolls. It wouldn't be chess. The pieces have their respective roles and methods. That's just the order of the game."
"Yes!" the opponent's grin grew wider, broader, sharper. "That's what I want to hear. This whole game is dictated by its own universal rules. What keeps the pawns from moving right or left are the established rules that the pawn can only move ahead, or at a diagonal when attacking."
Or two spaces off the starting square.
"Al, may I ask you, what would you consider to be the strongest piece of them all?" the opponent asked.
"The Queen, and it's a fact, no my opinion."
"Of course!" the opponent cheered, elated. "My favorite piece. So much potential, this one." He ran a finger down the side of his queen, tracing the grooves in the wood. "Answer me one last thing. Which piece is the most abundant?"
"The pawns, and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Your point being?" All this tease from a complete stranger was beginning to feel patronizing. He hid his impatience, his confusion behind his tea.
"I'm getting there, don't jump ahead," the opponent laughed. "Right, so you see, isn't it strange that the queen is kept locked behind all these pawns? Isn't it strange that she doesn't make the first move? Instead, normally the pawns begin the game, or maybe the knights, or the bishops." The opponent was staring at the queen now, his voice slowing, but growing potent. His words, they've sharpened. "The Expendables. The weak."
"I wouldn't call them weak," Al said. "Each piece is unique and therefore has its own advantage."
"You could say that, sure, but it only applies to a certain extent. You see, as diverse the abilities of these lowly pieces may be, the queen is ultimately dominant. There is no rival for her. She is the true power. And yet, the majority of the game is focused around these other pieces, like this one here, the castle, who can only—"
"The rook," Al said. "It's called the rook."
The opponent laughed, nodding. "Yes, yes, do pardon my inexperience. Did I not say I expected you to win? Anyhow, there are, what…?" he counted the pieces quickly on his fingers, "thirty-two pieces on the board, and yet only two have true potential. That's an 8:1 ratio." He moved another pawn forward. "The powerful are withheld, they are contained while the weak advance." He looked up, his eyes examining all that they could. "Would you say that's fair, Al?"
"It's…it's only a game. With no rules, there is no game. The rules are all that enable the pieces to move in the way they do. It's not that it isn't fair, it's just—"
"Just the way that it is?" the opponent suggested.
Al hesitated. "Well…yes. Just the way that it is."
"Yes, that's good. Very good." The opponent adjusts his chair so that he is closer to Al.
Al only stares up at him, finally addressing the most pressing question. "Who are you? Why would—"
"But what if the rules were rearranged," the opponent interrupts, "such that those who possess the power are the center focus. Because wouldn't you say that they deserve to be?"
"Can you answer my question?"
"If the, how did you say it, 'order of the game' was altered so that those with potential weren't hidden away, wouldn't that be fair? If those who have power were allowed to move first, to play according to their ability, to shine! And as for those who are weaker, despite their numbers, they would live as inferiors because that's all they are in the end. Inferior."
Al's tea has gone cold. "…But then it wouldn't be chess."
"Let's exceed chess, if only for a moment."
Al watched as his opponent rearranged the board. Now, the pawns were lined up behind what used to be the back row.
"What if we made a new game?" He advanced his queen one space forward. "Here. Doesn't that seem fair?"
"But…now you've exposed your queen."
"Yes, exposed to its equal—the rivaling queen. They deserve to reign on top, above the pawns, the bishops, the rooks, even the king. If anyone is to fight, it should be them. Fair, no?" The opponent looked at Al, who found himself speechless. "I digress, do you remember research projects from grade school?"
"…Yes, I do."
"When assigned to an important mammal, take Abraham Lincolt as an example, did you ever have to consult a library for research material?"
Al scoffs. "You think I'm that old? We're probably about the same age."
"Regardless of age, I believe you're far wiser than me. And if we are about the same age, we can surely both recall a time before all the research material one could ever need was available on the Internet." The opponent smirked. "A time before some random stranger could look you up and easily learn your real name, despite however hard you tried to have it erased."
Al tried to say something, anything, but only an exhale escaped. He was somewhere between frustrated and concerned and awestruck. But at what? "Sure, there was a time when calculators took up entire rooms."
"Yes, that's what I am referring to. And do you remember scavenging the library for that perfect book, the book that would have all the knowledge on the topic you need for your essay?"
"Well, I assume so, sure."
The opponent grinned wider than he had ever before. "Al, this is why I am here," he said, drawing out each syllable. "You are my perfect book. My research material. You know more about the subject I desire to know than any other mammal in this city, maybe even because you've studied it firsthand."
"Studied what? What is it you're talking about?" Losing his composure, mask slipping off….
"They got you wrong. Just like everyone else in your childhood, they misunderstood you. All your life you've been ridiculed for standing out. They thought you were a queen when really you were only a pawn."
"Enough of this! I demand you tell me who you are!"
His opponent smirked. "Easy, Al. I didn't come to anger you."
"Then clearly, you've failed."
"Are you familiar with Botany?"
"Botany, the study of—"
"Yes, yes, I know what it is," Al scowled. "I'm familiar. Vaguely."
"Somewhat…As in botanical nomenclature?"
"Yes, exactly," he draws the words out and leans over the board. "So, tell me if this rings any bells in that brilliant mind of yours."
He placed a clawed palm in the center of the board, knocking over a duo of pawns in the process, and leaned forward, whispering into Al's ear the two words that made everything from his nonsensical speech become clear. Two words that would shape, scar, perhaps even break the city.
Before I say anything else, I would like to apologize for the fact that it has been half a year since my last update. Many of you probably thought I gave up on this story, and to be honest, I almost thought I did too, but in the end, here I am, trying to continue on with it. Over the summer I did a whole lot of outlining (and I mean an UNHOLY AMOUNT OF OUTLINING) which resulted in an outline longer than the current word count itself. All of it really exhausted me on the storyline. I won 't list out a million excuses for my unannounced hiatus, but I will say that life got hella busy, and it's only getting busier, so I'll do my best to stay on top of this story, but I can never promise anything.
On another note, in the last chapter, I made a grave mistake. I tragically mis-wrote Judy as a character in a scene, undermining her character-arc from the movie entirely, but don 't fret, I quickly changed it after a few comments pointing it out. Thank you for that, by the way. I won't go into too much detail about it because it's fixed now, but for those of you who did notice the mistake, I'd like to apologize for making such an obvious and ugly screw up. I can assure you that it won't happen again.
Anyways, this chapter was originally 21,000 words, but sweet cheese and crackers, that 's too long for a chapter. So I cut it in half, and now half of my next chapter is already written, and thus should be released sooner than I planned. Yay to overwriting, but not really, because it's a massive pain in the ass.
Before I go I 'm going to try and share a youtube playlist with you guys (I say try because links on this website rarely work). It's my writing playlist, which I listen to constantly while constructing this story and while writing other things on the side. If you're interested, I think it's some great music, but I'll let you be the judge of that.
Until next update, you lovely people.
P.S. - The character Cole Antlersen is my author surrogate. The anxiety is real.