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Sandcastles

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ZPD officer Nicholas P. Wilde felt sorry for himself. It wasn’t because the fox’s cubicle and desk at the far end of the row were smaller than the rest, or that he had to share it with another officer. It was because that officer’s chair next to him was as empty as the majority of the room, and his desk was piled with papers--it was day four of bureaucratic purgatory.

It was totally his own fault, as the periodic sarcasm from the rest of the department reminded him. Their newest rookie had failed to protect the good citizens of Zootopia from a juvenile vandal by partially tearing a muscle in his leg—one step into the chase. One step down onto a rain-slicked storm drain grating right where they’d stopped the cruiser. His hastily earned injury would sideline him for the rest of the week, followed by another of physical therapy. His shame was compounded by the effusive, within his earshot praise that everyone gave for his petite rabbit partner’s solo collar of the perp.

She was out there in the field right now, living the life he wanted to rejoin as soon as possible. Judy Hopps, optimistically eager to make her rosy view of the world even better, had chosen him as her first project. They had shared some tense heroic adventures and overcome a major threat to society. It had earned him some real trust and acceptance from legitimate professionals that previously would only scorn a street fox like himself. That--and an impossibly captivating country bunny--had propelled him through six months of police academy, and now almost two on the force, and he still hadn’t come to terms with it.

Earlier this morning he’d had some unexpected illumination thrown on that. Nick took a last tepid sip from his Snarlbuck’s cup and flicked it into the trash. It had first passed into his paw from a new barista; one a normal fox would have chatted up without regard to the line behind him. “Hi, I’m Leni,” said the tag on the uniform containing a frankly gorgeous gray furred vixen. Judy’s shade of gray. She had flirtatiously approved of the handsome officer before her. Of course, he did rock the look. He’d have to rock it down the other side of the street from now on, at the place that didn’t have baristas.

Why? Nobody would expect him to owe anything beyond friendship and being a reliable partner to his...partner. Except him. Opto-bunny had seen through his con-mammal, and given him a life he would have never considered or achieved without her. He didn’t know how to pay her back enough for that. At least he’d helped to save her job back near the beginning of all this. She’d accepted him as he was...and asked him to be her partner; then crushed him, got to him in a way he thought he’d never allow again. Then she came back....

Nick closed his eyes and gently pinched his muzzle. Admit it, you’ve got it bad for that bun. Unbelievable, he thought, she ran a long hustle on me and likely doesn’t even know that she did it—still, my heart is in her paws. There’s no other explanation for why you gently brushed off a hot vixen with the cowardly justification that she came onto you for the uniform rather than the reprobate inside it.

They’d grown so...comfortable around each other. If it went any further he was afraid he’d be unable to contain himself and would only frighten and lose her. He’d squandered his last chance to easily keep his distance with that stupid snarky comment six weeks ago—her matter-of-fact reply; “Do I know that? Yes, yes I do,” had kindled a smolder within him that now raged. He could never let her, or anyone else, know how he really felt. However, it was likely too late to stop the rumor mill. Clawhauser already had his suspicions based on the spotted donut repository’s recent probing comments. Nick’s only defensive weapons would be subtle deflections and rigid public conduct when around Judy. Any more overt denial—he might as well throw a bucket of gasoline on himself.

All those descriptions he’d casually accepted for decades as his persona, slick, suave, an operator...always in control. Now he had another that excited and horrified him in equal measure, naive in the ways of the h...

“Hey Wilde! Chief says he wants you to get rid of this one too. That pile?”

“Aaaaoh!” Nick’s first reaction after his startle was to grab at his leg. He turned around to find Packard holding a buff colored file that the wolf waved teasingly. “Not helping me heal here! Yeah, that one, why do you think they’re color coded.”  

Packard delicately stretched over the fox’s crouched grab at the file and added it to Nick’s shortest stack. “Thought you guys were supposed to have good hearing.” At least three Nick’s worth of imposing wolf turned and left with an exaggerated tiptoe across the carpet. “Hope for your sake you can at least hear the Chief coming. Or get your bunny back.”

 That was worth another muzzle rub. Nick didn’t know the wolf all that well yet, but he’d already become a formidable opponent as an office tease. He’d have to up his game with that one. He slipped Bogo’s low-priority file under his “easy” pile and took the ones above, all things in order—of annoyance potential. The first he disposed of with a phone call, and the next two got rerouted to the Public Works department, where they should have gone in the first place. Nick picked up the last submission again and was caught by the date on the tab. Buffalo butt had sat on this for over a month?

Actual curiosity managed to flip it open and look before it died. Really, someone at the natural history museum had a citizen concern about some partial remains? If this were a police matter, it would already be in the paws of forensics. There wasn’t much more information, just a request for an interview. He understood; Bogo himself preferred a good harsh interrogation, and wouldn’t want to pull another useful officer away from their duties for this. The crippled and expendable rookie called the contact number and was invited right over by an obviously surprised feminine voice.

Nick crutched his way across Savanna Central plaza, accompanied by some overt stares at the sight of a lame cop. He stayed to the right of the fountains and pond—Gazelle’s stage had been over there—which put us about here. Thankfully, most folks had been having too much fun at the concert to care; but a few had noticed the peculiar sight of a rabbit hip bumping a fox a couple of times to keep him dancing with her.

 He limped on to the classical, domed bulk of the museum. Up the stairs and inside, his badge bypassed the admission booth—which would never get old—and he paused by a familiar pit in the center of the entrance hall. It had both a new railing and new mammals in the diorama. His acting chops had certainly necessitated that; he reminisced with a canine exposing smirk. This was the first time he’d been here since a long past day of depositions and crime scene walkthroughs with Judy, Bogo, and members of the prosecutor’s office.

The lady’s voice had directed him to the gallery on the right—door at the far end. It opened well before he got there, and a skunk—apparently a double-striper who wore a generic white lab coat--watched silently until he hitched closer.

“I thought you’d probably lost my report by now. Didn’t realize they just wanted to use it to cull the stragglers from the ranks. Right in here officer Vulpes Vulnerabilis, I’m Dr. Soren.” She turned with the wave of a magnificent sable plume that rippled enticingly as she led him down a corridor lined with specimen drawers.

Nick’s habitual evaluation of the newly encountered kicked in. She was direct and somewhat peeved, but it was tempered with some crude humor; so likely smart enough to be a difficult mark. She seemed younger than him and not intimidated by the uniform, thus confident. Remarkably, there wasn’t a hint of odor about her; it showed she was personally fastidious, possibly helped by some very expensive musk mask. She had some attractive qualities—similar to those of a cute gray furred obsession...

“Do you wish to take a statement from my tail officer?” She paused with turned head, and flicked the tip of it. “Or are you hoping to confiscate it? You do have one of your own.”

So busted. Nick managed to suppress his third muzzle grab of the day. Kudos to Dr. Skunk, he thought; she’d achieved a perfect sarcasm to annoyance ratio. Very uncool, be professional and fix this before you earn a complaint you’ll have to explain to the chief.

“My apologies, Doctor. We foxes have always assumed that we’ve got the best tails in the business--particularly our vixens. I wasn’t expecting to see such an awesome...rebuttal to that assertion.” This time, his facepalm was immediate and heartfelt; he’d actually said that. It was one thing to verbally dance along the ragged edge of tolerable at the precinct, others indulged too, and the only risk was possible assignment to drudgery duty. Here, he’d let himself ask for it from a blameless civilian. Not so slick today, are you Nicky.

She let him dangle for a few uncomfortable seconds before she broke into a subtle smile that at least cracked the ice. They made their way through a dim forest of storage racks to a small and better-lit lab that resembled part of the forensics department.  Dr. Soren took a seat before a low bench and motioned him to another stool. A fancy stereo microscope occupied pride of place before her; next to it was a monitor, several neatly arranged tiny tools, and stacks of labeled specimen trays. She swiveled to face him.

“Officer Wilde, were you just assigned my police report? Good. I really don’t blame anyone for not following up right away...its just conjecture at this... It might not even be your concern; but you should know if it’s one and who to contact...its going to take some time to put this into context...can you answer some questions so I know where to start?” Dr Soren ran down, folded her paws onto her lap and sagged forward on her stool.

She’d just dropped her own professional demeanor. Her tail cascaded limply to the floor, and she stared blankly at his badge, not his face. Whatever had prompted her to initially contact the ZPD had festered for awhile—the skunk’s body language was pure resignation.

“Dr. Soren, let me start with my own question, your report mentioned remains; is this a possible criminal matter, with a recent...victim?” Nick kept his voice calm and carefully produced his notepad. It had been uncomfortable to watch her defensive facade crumble and reveal a civilian likely unglued by the seamier realities of life.

“No, not yet. I hope by all that is decent, that it never is.”  She didn’t lift her gaze. “It’s actually several sets of decayed remains, and I’m not the only one that’s recently noticed evidence for a much uglier history than what’s taught to most mammals in school.”

“Dr. Soren, you seem frightened by this and I’d like to know why. You’ve got all afternoon to tell me.” Nick set his crutch more securely against the wall and settled in. He clicked his pen to prompt her.

“I’m scared for everybody Officer Wilde. I think we’ve found something that could disrupt society as badly as the savage predator crisis did. I need someone—you might be just the right one given your involvement in that--who will take this seriously, and discreetly pass it up to the proper authorities. Our department head suggested I file the ZPD report, although there was considerable disagreement from some of us.” She started to visibly fidget. “Almost nobody reads our research papers, but I’m not sure how public police reports are. Interspecies feelings are still raw; this will be a disaster if it shows up on ZNN.”

 “Don’t worry doctor, there are several legal reasons why they are kept confidential for ongoing investigations. They can be more severely restricted given the right reasons; here’s your chance to give me one.”

“Alright, you’ll have to help me here officer. Do you know how many different mammalian species live right here in Zootopia?”

Nick didn’t. At the academy, they’d discussed issues and interactions regarding the major species, and had broken the rest into convenient groups. He knew that pretty much all those that mattered had their own commemorative day on the calendar—those trivial political proclamations had long ago filled out most of the year. November twelfth for foxes—all the foxes lumped together of course. So...add a fudge factor.

“Four hundred doctor? I honestly never really considered it.” But he wanted to know; it bothered him that this young skunk’s first question had caught him out like a kit in class.

“Not bad officer, for administrative purposes Zootopia recognizes three hundred and forty-one species. To put things in context for you, the federal district is next in diversity with close to three hundred. Smaller cities and most of the rest of the world are much more species-segregated. That’s what makes this place so special, and also makes it a...bellwether for sorting out societal problems between species.”

“Dr Soren, you’ve managed to trigger my sense of dread without stating what the actual issue is. You have my undivided attention.”  

“I’m sorry, but I need to make you feel that way Officer Wilde. You’ll have to make someone else feel that too. Please realize that I wish I could forget this and go back to my research, or even indulge in some inconsequential tail flirting with the novelty of a cop around my own size. This, this is...I’m...we’re having enough trouble accepting this, let alone explain...convincing a...laymammal!” Her voice steadily rose until she cut herself off, breathing harder.

“Your research might be a good place to start doc. What do you do here and how did it lead you to this...threat to social order.” Nick tried to project calm and damp any potential emotional boilover from the self-trapped mammal facing him.

“I research the parallel development of grasping digits across multiple species.” Dr. Soren raised a paw and wiggled her fingers enough to show she’d regained some self-control. “There are numerous questions about how these adaptations began, and why they did in so many species! We have to find the different divergence points and measure rates of development, determine what the evolutionary drivers were, and if it preceded or was contemporaneous with the shift to bipedalism for each species. You and I for example have been able to do this,” she picked up a small tool and deftly pawed it, “for a long time. Equines, by comparison, started their ongoing manipulative development more recently. It’s also related to intelligence; did it enable it, or was it...”

“Woah, woah, doc! I get it; it’s complicated. But didn’t this happen like a million years ago or something?” Nick said. The skunk seemed to be back in her burrow--voice steadier, tail now clear of the floor. “Can you relate this to the now?”

“The now exists because of what was. Just like you, we’re detectives; we have to base our conclusions on evidence, usually very scanty evidence. Ideally, we study populations over time. That way we can determine what’s typical and what’s an outlier. We can see how small changes add up to the appearance of a new species. One fossil can be an aberration, or misidentified as to which closely related species it’s from. We need as many as we can find. Many of the specimens in this museum and others were found decades ago, but we’re only learning now what they are and how they relate to each other. The statistics we need for a good view of mammalian evolution builds up at a frustratingly slow rate. There’s now enough to force us to ask some painful questions about ourselves.

I’ve one, Dr. Soren.” Nick leaned forward a bit and propped his chin with a paw. “You’re trying to solve a mystery, right? In the ones I’ve read; you find out what the crime is at the beginning; and who the criminal is at the end. I can’t recall one where someone digs up fossils in the middle and immediately calls the cops. Please! I’m not trying to be flippant.” He held his paws up in supplication. “I just need to know which way you’re going with this so I can convince either a detective or Chief Bogo that this is worth their attention when there are plenty of...contemporary crimes for us to solve.”  

Dr. Soren relaxed further and attempted a small smile. “It comes with the profession,” she sighed; “it’s hard to present conclusions based on limited evidence. To avoid criticism, we must be meticulous with our analysis and presentation. When you write a paper on some obscure topic in this field, only four or five others might ever read it, but they will argue to the death about every tiny claim or conclusion! I was trying to give you the necessary background so you would...accept what no rational mammal would want to. I’m sorry!”

“I’m sorry too Dr. Soren. Take your time to educate the dumb fox officer. Just not so much that he foxsilizes in his seat and you have to add him to your collection.” Nick offered the skunk paleontologist one of the comforting smiles he usually bestowed on Judy after a rough day. He was gratified to immediately get one in return, now confident he’d repaired some of the earlier awkwardness between them.

“Where were we? Let’s go back to species.” She patted her midnight-furred paws together. “The number of extant sentient mammalian species wasn’t too far from your earlier guess. Four hundred and thirty one as I mentioned. A little over half are the smaller species, shrews, weasels, pikas, bats and most other rodents. A different half are the uncommon to rare species. Here’s a thought experiment for you Officer Wilde. How many different species might you find or notice if you walked around Savanna Central for a couple of hours?” Dr. Soren briefly twirled a paw.

“That’s a kit’s game,” Nick told her. “Couple of hours--maybe sixty? I don’t ever remember getting more than that myself.”

“And that’s in the middle of the biggest city on the continent, one designed to promote interspecies interactions! Anyplace else, you’ll find a lot less diversity, particularly in rural areas,” she noted with an expansive paw wave. “Now go back in time, how many sentient species were there before the last ice age as compared to now? How many types of mammals have lived and then gone extinct since the dinosaurs did? We have very few definitive answers since many species don’t leave a useful fossil record. Extrapolation from those that do seem to indicate that there were far more mammalian species alive as recently as three to six million years ago, than there are today.”

Dr. Soren put some emphasis on the last word, then paused to allow Nick a brief reprieve to catch up with his scribbled notes.

“Here’s more; when did the first mammals develop sentience? We didn’t all develop it at the same time. It’s almost certain that several predatory species were the first to do so. That forced the rest of mammalkind to run an evolutionary race to survive. That race hasn’t finished. The most adaptable species have managed to maintain the pace of the leaders, while others lag behind. A far greater number—perhaps seven out of every eight--have had their last already fall into extinction. We don’t know how many non-sentients still remain on the course, struggling along towards their end far out of sight behind us.”

Nick managed to close his mouth and swallow. “You mean mammal animals, alive now? That’s just rumors or scare stories from thousands of years ago...right?”  

“That’s where our...popular history had safely buried them. Beyond individual memory, almost beyond cultural memory, hidden under ignorance and superstition. No real evidence.” She stopped with mouth slightly agape; eyes locked onto him, waiting.

“So...you dug up something...very recent?”

“There have been several problematic finds that have started to make it into the literature. We here possess evidence—we dare not publish yet--that likely shows the present existence of perhaps two less advanced, likely non-sentient mammalian species. Other finds elsewhere indicate possible recent extinctions of similar species.”  Dr. Soren shifted on her stool and looked uncomfortable. She held up a paw to keep Nick silent.

 “Let me get through this. To a paleontologist, “recent” is a relative term. Looking at evolution, at a minimum it’s tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Anything more...well recent...is the purview of archaeologists or historians. You’re here because I’m afraid the past we study has collided with our present. Even if we had enough evidence, we can’t publicly release any of it! Society would jump to the worst conclusions and tear apart what we’ve all built up over generations! Knowledge can’t be kept hidden; it will come out. We just have to learn more about this and you have to take care of the problems before it does—hopefully in a controlled fashion.”

“You said this would be as dangerous as the savage predator crisis; is this another pred-prey issue?” The skunk before him seemed to shrink slightly as she nodded, and Nick’s stomach abruptly decided it would pass on lunch today.

“Yes, I’ve been talking about prey species. At best officer, we’re unearthing evidence of the final extinction of outcompeted, remnant species, far more recently than we ever realized. Worse, this could possibly be deliberate genocide perpetrated by some of our forebearers against competitors. And we cannot exclude the ongoing exploitation of unrecognized, long hidden prey species for food!”