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Hungry Hearts

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The van jostled about as Judy swerved between abandoned cars on the road. The shocks would squeak and the engine groaned––it felt like the van might not last another hundred miles at best. That was fine, as they were almost home. Judy drove as if the fate of the world was in the car with them, because it was.

She stole a glance at N in the front seat. “Still got the case?”

He groaned and rolled his eyes. “No, I tossed it out the window for funzies.”

“N, don’t joke. This is serious.”

“Yes, commander Carrots,” he said with another groan and held up the beige hardshell case in his paws. “You keep asking every couple of miles. Relax, Judy. We’ve got this.”

She sighed and eyed the open road again. “I know, I’m sorry. But you probably don’t realize how much this means to me. To everyone. The key to fixing this broken world has been sitting in a research office for years waiting for us to come and find it, and all that time we were scavenging for food and meds, thinking you were just monsters.”

She felt his paw gently touch her shoulder, and the gesture made her smile. “We have it now, Carrots. We’ll get this to the doc and he can start to fix everything. I think we can handle one more road trip.”

Looking back on it, kissing him was probably ill-advised. After all, he was infected with a parasite that would drive her into a crazed brain-eating monster. Had any of her family or ––heaven forbid–– Kris heard about it, she’d never hear the end of it. But Judy knew deep down that they could all bite the rocket because she just did not care. He was alive! He was alive and a jerk and funny and sweet and witty and so much more. As long as he didn’t bite her she’d be fine. All she had to do now was get him cured.

“I know. Thank you,” she said and gave his paw a squeeze. “I’m loving these fluid conversations, by the way. You’ve got a smooth voice.”

He turned to look forwards and grimaced. “Let’s hope it’s sm–smooth enough for y… for your pops.”

“He’ll come around,” she reassured him. “He just needs to see everything you’ve done for us.”

Truth be told, she was still unsure about all that. They didn’t exactly leave on the best terms with her father, and he was definitely one to hold a grudge since the deadrising. But N did currently hold the cure for the apocalypse, so maybe he’d at least hear him out before he starts shooting.

Judy heard a muffled voice scrambled by static. Her radio on her hip blipped and fuzzed before the voice cut out all together. Pulling it from her waist, she dialed the volume up and held it between them.

The voice cut back, broken by static. “...–units to the east gate! Repeat all...–to the east gate…” She didn’t recognize the voice, but it sounded urgent. Judy’s heart started to race.

N leaned in closer. “W-what do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” Judy said solemnly. “The last time they called for ‘all units’ was when a savage squirrel climbed up the wall and caused an outbreak. That was years ago.”

They both listened as the urgent voice broke over the static once more. “... Any and all long-guns to the wall.”

The signal started to clear up, so Judy decided to break her silence and find out more. She mashed her finger on the radio and called out. “This is Judy Hopps to Burrow command. Do you copy?” A moment of static… another try. “Judy Hopps to Burrow Command, come in.”

“Rodger Hopps,” a voice called out. “Sit-rep.”

Judy hit the button again. “En-route to east gate with precious cargo in civilian van. Are we cleared for entry?”

“Negative!” the voice sounded panicked. “There’s a hoard of Walkers between you and the gate.”

N and Judy shot each other a nervous glance. If there were Walkers collecting near the wall, the guards would surely shoot them down, killing more infected without realizing they could be saved.

Judy raised the radio back to her mouth frantically. “Hold fire! Repeat, hold your fire!”

There was a brief sound of shuffling and some inaudible bumbling before another voice came over the radio. “Commanding Officer Fangmeyer to Hopps. You are in no position to be calling orders. The hoard is currently gathered just outside of range for our current defenses anyway, so we won’t waste ammunition.”

Judy looked over to N with a cocked eyebrow. “How many Walkers did you say there were? Ones like you that left the city?”

He shrugged. “Dozens?”

She pulled the radio up again. “Hopps to Fangmeyer: How large is the hoard in front of us?”

The gruff female voice responded angrily. “Hundreds. Far too many for you to drive through. Make your way up the turnpike to the north gate and turn yourself in. You’ll be escorted to the station for processing.”

Judy groaned and rubbed her fingers at the crook of her nose. “Looks like my father would rather have me in a cell than out and about with you.”

N placed a paw to his chin, pondering something. “They still think Walkers are mindless. If we prove them w–wrong, maybe we could get… them to listen–en.”

“How do we do that?” Judy asked.

He shrugged. Commander Fangmeyer was a bit of a brute, and did not take kindly to broken orders. But she had a family in the burrows too. If she saw what she assumed to be impossible, maybe that’d be enough for them to let them in without gunfire.

Judy hit the radio again. “Hopps to Fangmeyer. Prepare the east gate. We’re low on gas and almost there. We’ll make our way to you on foot.”

“What!?” the officer’s voice cried out. “Hopps, this hoard is massive. You’ll be torn to pieces before you ever make it to the gate.”

“They won’t harm us,” Judy responded.

“Negative, Hopps. Drive north and keep away from the hoard….. Hold on, ‘us’? How big is your party?”

Judy’s brow furrowed. “Repeat, we’re en-route from the east highway in a civilian van. We are a party of two and we carry precious cargo.”

“No cargo is so precious to make it worth this risk, Hopps.”

Judy lost her patience. “We have a cure, Nora. Repeat, we found a cure.”

Silence followed. For the longest time, the only sound they could hear was the rattling of equipment in the van and the rumble of the engine. N sat perched at the edge of the passenger seat staring wide-eyed at the radio. Judy’s paw trembled, so she took a deep breath through her nose and out her mouth to remain calm, waiting for her to reply.

“.... We need another repeat, Hopps. We heard you say ‘cure’.”

Judy calmly breathed and spoke as clearly as possible. “Affirmative, officer. We have a cure and are inbound with it in tow. We’re only asking you to hold your fire.”

The silence that followed was the worst part. She just knew that the officer was bickering with other members of the force about what to do. The fact that her father had not joined the conversation yet was good, but she had to make sure they wouldn’t start firing before they could secure the cure at Ramic’s compound.

Fangmeyer called back in. “Lieutenant Clawhauser tells me you aren’t crazy. Hopps, remain in your vehicle and approach the east gate slowly.”

Judy smiled and clapped her paw on the steering wheel. “Rodger that, Fangmeyer. ETA 30 minutes.”

“Affirmative. I have orders to hold our forces at the gate. Good luck, Hopps.”

N nudged her shoulder. She turned and saw her holding out his paw, gesturing to the walky talky. “May I?”

Judy skeptically eyed the radio. She wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but she had a gut feeling that told her to trust him, so she did. She handed the radio to him and returned her gaze to the road ahead. She heard N clear his throat before pushing down on the button and speaking in the lowest, slyest voice she had ever heard from him.

“This is N to Commanding Officer Fangmeyer. Hopps and I ap..preciate the cooperation. Would you also be so kind as to pull the good doctor out of his ho––holding cell? The cure for death requires a licensed medical prac––titioner, after all.”

Judy’s eyes widened and she stole a glance at N who sat in the passenger seat with his leg crossed over his knee and a paw behind his head. He was relaxed and confident. He was even smiling, as if he knew for a fact that his request wasn’t pushing their luck. It was bombastic and bold. He made her feel both frustrated and––if she was completely honest with herself––like she wanted to kiss him again.

“... That’s Commander Hopp’s call, whoever you are. But I’ll pass the message along.”

Judy saw N’s smug smile turn towards her as he gloated some kind of victory. “Getting smoother.”

“And it’s going to your head,” she said and rolled her eyes. “If they see me walk through a hoard untouched, that might show them that you mean no harm.”

“Or,” he interjected. “It might get us both shot.”

“It won’t.”

“Are you sure?” N’s face was uncertain and concerned.

She turned to face him. “Do you trust me?” He smiled and nodded. “Then play some music, Slick. We need to stimulate that frontal cortex of yours as much as we can.”

“Yes!” he celebrated and dug through some cassette littered about the floor. Judy smirked when she saw his tail wag a little while he searched about the van for a decent track. After tossing a few aside, he found one that suited his fancy. He smashed it into the cassette player, cranked the volume up and drummed his fingers on the dashboard. A quick drum strike followed by chiming piano and rolling guitar lit up the van’s cabin. Seeing N nod his head along with the music and genuinely enjoy himself made her happy. She longed to see him enjoying himself free from disease and from persecution. Maybe he’d like a tour of the Burrows properly? Maybe she could find a place for him to stay.

With that image in her head and the roaring music in her ears, she stomped on the gas and sped forward.

 


 

Stu Hopps donned his military fatigues, a hat that bore his rank, and his personal shotgun slung over his shoulder. He walked with purpose towards the east gate followed closely by Commanding Officer Fangmeyer. He only had a few shells in his pocket, and while he always hated firing it, he knew exactly which walker they’d be useful for.

“You’re positive he said ‘N’, right? Like the letter?” He clarified without breaking his stride.

“Affirmative,” the large tiger said, following closely along with a captive Ramic in tow. The kangaroo’s cuffs clinked as he followed along behind the two soldiers.

“He’s a Walker,” Stu huffed.

Fangmeyer’s brow furrowed. “How is that possible?”

Stu pulled his weapon higher on his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. So long as he’s one of them, he doesn’t get past the gate.”

“Doesn’t matter?” Ramic implored. “Mr. Hopps, I told you that this could be the most important discovery since the deadrising.”

Fangmeyer eyed the doctor for a moment but continued to follow the marching rabbit. “Your daughter did say she has a cure with her, sir.”

Stu huffed. “My daughter thinks she has a cure, and she thinks a lot of things. She’s already endangered this community once, and we’re not letting her do it again.”

The three of them made it to the wall and began climbing up the steps towards the gate. There was a flurry of rushing mammals in military outfits armed to the teeth. Some were barking orders, others were rushing to stack magazines of reserve ammunition by the wall.

“Doc?” Stu continued. “Your job is to inspect what Judy has to see if it has any value. Anything else, and I’ll throw you right back in the brig. Understood?”

“Come on, Stu. This is bigger than––”

“––Understood?!” he barked.

“Yessir,” Ramic said and zipped his mouth shut.

They reached the top of the wall. Stu stood on a smaller platform near the edge and looked out over the green fields and empty road ahead. In the distance, he saw the horde of zombies that made their way all the way from Zootopia to eat his family, his friends, his community. He swore a promise they’d never see another walker in the Burrows whilst he drew breath, and he intended to keep it. He smelled the air––the faintest scent of foul death.

He raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes. Through them, he saw the faintest glimmer of a van’s windshield approaching the crowd of monsters from behind.

“Fangmeyer,” he said in a low tone.

She dutifully stepped forward. “Sir.”

“You’re our best shot on the wall, that right?” His eyes glanced at the long weapon slung over her shoulder.

She nodded. “Second perhaps to Judy, sir. But yes.”

“Good,” he said and turned back to look through his binoculars at the van fast approaching. “If and when you have a shot on the Walker––without endangering Judy––I want you to wait for my signal.”

Commander Fangmeyer stood tall and let her gaze follow his. “Yes sir.”

 


 

“Woah,” Judy murmured as the van came to a halt. The brakes squeaked and the engine rattled. Before them stood a mass of Walkers standing calmly in a crowd in the middle of the road. There really were hundreds of them, and so many different species. She saw a giraffe, a group of deer, several rodents of every shape and size, and even a few rabbits she didn’t recognize.

Beyond them stood the steel walls of her home. She could feel the sun beating down and the wind blowing dirt into the air. She could also see the sun reflecting off of several long-range scopes flashing like firecrackers. The highest-powered weaponry the burrows had was currently trained on them.

She felt a paw on her shoulder again. “You ready?”

Judy’s pistol remained in her belt, as did a throwing knife and the grenade. But strangely, she knew she wouldn’t need them. The entire crowd of Walkers ahead of her stood and regarded them with the same curious expression of longing and loneliness that felt so familiar now. Through the windshield, they watched as the two of them readied themselves.

Judy turned and pulled on N’s arm, ushering him closer. She leaned into him and placed a soft kiss on his lips. She felt his hand move to her cheek, caressing it lightly.

Stimulate their emotions, Dr. Defleur had said. The stronger the better.

She stood in her seat and kissed him harder, pulling on some of his fur near his cheek. Finally they pulled away and stared at each other tenderly. His eyes were so dilated she couldn’t even see that they were slitted at all any more. A giggle bubbled up from deep within her and she ran a paw idly across his nose.

“Ready,” she said and pulled the keys from the van.

They both stepped out and closed the doors behind them. The wall of eyes watching them looked taller now from the ground, but she noticed they were more dilated than before as well. The crowd had clearly seen their gratuitous PDA, and it seemed to work to make them more docile too. Perhaps seeing her kiss a Walker was all they needed to keep from murdering people. They met at the front of the van and joined paws again, letting their fingers interlace.

“Get a….a room!” a low voice called out from inside the crowd. Judy saw a shuffle of paws as the Walkers moved aside to make way for a familiar fennec fox walker. The little cream-colored ball of dirty fur stepped towards them and folded his paws in front of himself. “Pref–..preferably not mm–my van.”

“Hey bud,” N greeted with a smile. “Thanks for the wheels, small-fry.”

The little fox’s eyes widened a little. He was probably not used to how eloquently N could speak now, and it clearly made him long for the same. Truth be told, she already owed her life to this little fox, and whatever she could do to bring him back to the living would be well deserved.

Judy stepped forward and knelt down, looking at the Walker dead in the eye. He looked at her more suspiciously than the others did, but she felt like that was part of his natural self, not the disease. She was close now enough that if he lunged at her, she’d be an easy meal. “Do you have a name?”

Again, the little fox’s eyes widened and his expression softened. “..Uhhh.”

“Try to remember,” she encouraged him. “You had a name once.”

He looked at the ground, his eyes focused and hardened. “... Ffffff…ungh…. Fff.”

“Starts with an ‘F’?”

He nodded, and tried again. “Ffff…. –ffuugh… fuck,” he cursed and his ears fell.

“You’re a fennec fox,” she pondered, “So how bout ‘Fennec’, for now?”

His expression softened and he looked at her fondly, nodding his head. “Y––yeah.”

“Okay, Fennec.” She smiled, and offered him the keys to the van with her palm open. “Thank you for your help.”

Fennec the fox suspiciously looked her up and down, but she remained still with her paw splayed open for him. He slowly stepped forward and, in the view of all the Walkers around them, took the keys from her paws. She felt his fur graze hers. His paw was shaky and cold, but it did not threaten her.

“Ann–… anytime.”

N helped her back onto her feet and took her paw again. “Can you help us through?”

“Ha,” Fennec murmured. “Just start walking.” N and Judy looked at each other one more time. She saw the case in his other paw and held onto him firmly. Slowly, they walked forward.

The crowd parted and enveloped them in like tall blades of grass welcoming a strong breeze. The sounds of shuffling paws, hoofs, and claws on the tarmac filled her ears. There were a few murmurs, and one or two words she could make out from the crowd––hushed voices whispering ‘look’, ‘bunny’, and ‘fox’––but the air was otherwise quiet. Judy kept her gaze forward towards the burrows for fear of breaking the magic. She was glad to receive a few reassuring squeezes from N’s paw along the way.

Slowly but surely, they made their way past the entire crowd until they emerged from the other side. They were closer to the wall now. Still too far for anyone but a sharpshooter to land a decent shot, but close enough for everyone on the wall to see what just happened. Keeping her grip on N with one paw, Judy fished out her radio with the other.

“Hopps to Fangmeyer, over.”

A moment of static, then “We-uhh––We read you, Hopps.”

Judy blipped the button again. “Can I get a confirmation you have a visual on us?”

“Confirmed… but…”

Judy smiled. She had them on the ropes. “Something the matter, Nora?”

Another moment of static passed, but there was no response from the tiger. Instead, the voice of Corporal Clawhauser chimed in. “Clawhauser to Hopps, we can all see you holding paws with a Walker after emerging from a massive horde totally unscathed.”

Judy laughed and blipped the radio again. “Thank you, Benny. Permission for us to approach the gate?”

Just then, Judy heard her father’s voice crackle into the radio. “Negative.”

Her ears stood stiff. “Dad?”

“Please step away from the Walkers and approach the wall with your paws splayed. You’ll be checked and processed from there.” Her father sounded dark and formal, as if addressing an unknown officer or miscreant. “Once you’ve been cleared, you will be brought up via rope ladder. We won’t risk opening the gate with so many Walkers close by.”

“Mmm,” N murmured. “Sounds like your p––pops is pissed.”

“No kidding.” Judy groaned and rose the radio to her mouth again. “Hopps to Hopps, I’m not going anywhere without my friend.”

N made a slight whine sound and looked at her a little dejectedly. “We’re just fr–friends now?”

Judy covered the radio against her chest and spoke in hushed whispers. “Baby steps, N. I don’t think he’d react calmly to the word ‘boyfriend’ right now.”

“Oh.” His face fell back to a calm intrigue. “That’s okay. ‘Boyfriend’ is a little strong right now anyway.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Why? What would you call us?”

He shrugged. “I would have gone with ‘Undead long-term booty call’.” At that moment, Judy feared that Kris was beginning to rub off on him.

“Negative, Hopps,” her father chimed back in through the radio. “I will say this one more time. Step away from the Walkers and approach the wall with your paws empty and in the air.”

Judy’s patience was starting to wear out. “Dad, look at me. I am in no danger here. Neither is anyone else.”

His voice rose. “I know a trick when I see one, now step away!”

“What trick?!” she shouted. “Dad, we have the cure! We found the answer to everything and we have it right here! Even if the Walkers were capable of a trick like that, do you really think I am?”

“Last chance, Judy!” he barked.

“Argh!” she grunted and stomped her foot on the broken concrete. She turned to N and splayed her arms in defeat. “He won’t listen to reason!” There might be a few mammals on the wall who might listen, but while Stu Hopps held command, no one would budge. All of her other confidants were likely in the brig––say for Clawhauser, who was better off keeping quiet at the moment.

“Can I try?” N had his paw open with a patient but hopeful expression on his face. She was surprised by his suggestion––seeing as the last time he tried to speak with her father, he nearly blew off his head. But she saw his pupils were so round and open. Perhaps N could speak a little more confidently when not facing a gun at point blank range.

She nodded and handed the radio over. He cleared his throat and held it up to his face. “Sir, w–with all due respect, you should have more ff–faith in Judy.”

Judy gasped. “N!” While N’s voice was confident, and he wasn’t wrong, now was not the time to be questioning her father’s resolve. He wouldn’t take kindly to it.

Stu’s voice was softer and broken by static. “Who the hell…”

“I mean, I get it!” N continued. “Us Walkers def...definitely deserve the bad wrap we get.”

“Give the radio back to my daughter right now, monster!” Stu shouted. Judy could faintly hear through the radio that there were gasps and audible chatter from the other guards on the wall. It was clear beyond a doubt that they were hearing a Walker speak––And with a little sass, much to Judy’s chagrin.

“–But!” N interjected, “To think Judy Hopps is anything less than the most devoted and determined bunny in the b–Burrows is frankly insulting. I mean, she risks life and l–limb to collect medicine from the mmmost dangerous place in the world… succeeds at it, and then goes out to search for a cure. Why…?” Judy’s lips parted in surprise. N spoke so clearly and with such confidence now, and in the moment she needed him most. She gazed at him, watching as he glared towards the wall with determination. “Because she wants to make the world a better place.”

Stu’s voice crackled into the radio. “Don’t you tell me about my own daughter!”

“You’re the one with the guns pointed at us, chief,” N reminded him. She saw him raise a finger in the air as if to stop the next interruption from hundreds of yards away. “Here’s the thing. She’s been nothing but the best of the living her whole life. Do you really think she’d stab you in the back after a we––weekend in Zootopia? Her family? Her whole home?... Do you realize how crazy that sounds?”

“Hmph,” Stu grumbled. “You expect me to believe that the savage beasts that tore my family to pieces have suddenly turned friendly?”

“I expect you… to trust your daughter, sir.” After that last word, the radio was quiet. N lowered the radio away from his face, and smiled at Judy. She had about one thousand more words for the fox, but they’d have to come later.

She pulled the radio from N’s grip and hit the button again. Her voice broke a little as she pleaded with her father. “Dad, please. We just want to give this box to Ramic. We think there’s a way to cure them.”

Stu responded quickly this time. “I’m not allowing those things any closer.”

Judy groaned. “Then send him out to meet us. He already knows the only danger here is on the walls.”

Silence followed, and it filled her with a glimmer of hope. Perhaps what N had said was getting to him? She gripped the radio a little tighter in one paw, and N’s fingers in the other. The warmth from his fur reminded her of everything she and N had been through, and the progress he had made thus far. She clung to his paw, hoping to feel him even warmer and alive soon. He squeezed her paw back, silently sharing her desperate longing.

Judy’s ears perked up tighter when she saw a rope ladder drop from the tip of the wall and a figure begin to scuttle downwards. “I think it worked!”

“Whew,” N sighed. “Thought I had pissed him off.”

“Wait until he hears you kissed me.”

N’s eyes shot open and looked at her fearfully. “D–don’t tell him now…. C–carrots! Y––you kiss–sed me first anyw.. Anyway!” His stutter returned whenever he was nervous, she noticed.

“Relax, I was just kidding.” Judy watched him approach from the wall slowly with a hopeful smile on her face.

Her smile faded when she saw two long ears and a long-barreled shotgun pointed forward. Her father had climbed down instead of Ramic! He had brought his gun with him as well.

“N, get behind me.” The fox did as instructed and hunkered down behind her ears. She stood tall with her shoulders as wide as possible. The crowd of Walkers behind them scuttled backwards but she held her ground. As her father walked closer, she could see the dark expression on his face. He gripped his gun tightly, and his eyes were wide and shifted attention from her to the walkers behind her sporadically. Finally, when he was close enough to see the pink on his nose, he stopped and held his gun low. The safety was off.

“Where’s Ramic?” she asked him.

Her father shook his head. “I’m not sending any more mammals to their deaths.”

“Is that what you think is gonna happen?” She frowned at him. “That any moment now, N will turn on us and eat us both?”

His frown deepened. “You don’t realize what they’ve done to us, Judy.”

“Don’t I?” She took a step forward, and felt N shuffle forward with her, keeping his face hidden behind hers. “I helped you bury them, Dad. I was there.”

“Then how can you trust them!?” he shouted and pointed accusingly at the horde behind her. His voice caused a few of the Walkers in the crowd to twitch and shuffle further away. “How can you stand there and defend them?”

“Because they saved me, Dad. The least I can do is return the favor.” Judy’s expression softened. “N was the first to change, but it’s spreading to the rest of them too. I thought it was crazy at first, but he’s kept me safe. He’s the reason I made it out of Zootopia alive. Don’t you think that’s worth at least hearing him out?”

“It’s not possible,” he said firmly. “They don’t feel anything. Not pain, regret, or mercy. They’re more dead inside than they are on the outside.”

Judy spoke softly. “They’re not dead, Dad.”

“Yes they are!” he barked. “Look at them!”

She shook her head. “They’re alive and I can prove it.”

Stu’s gun faltered a little lower. “What?”

“They’re not dead.” The truth of her words grew a slight smile on her face. “They’re just sick.”

Stu’s nose twitched. “Sick…”

“We found the answer, Dad. It’s a parasite,” she explained. “The place we went to, the doctor there found the answer. It’s a parasite that keeps them alive and takes control of their bodies.” His expression began to change. His eyes narrowed and focused on her.

“If that’s true…” he said slowly, “Then what’s changing now? What’s stopping them from tearing us apart right now?”

N perked up from behind her shoulder. “Would y–you believe ‘the magic of love’?”

Stu scowled. “No,” he said flatly.

Judy shrugged. “It’s more or less true, Dad. If you stimulate one specific part of the brain, the parasite’s control starts to slip. If we can kill the parasite in their blood, their body’s should recover and they can gain control again. They can be saved, Dad.” Judy opened up her palms and spread her arms out wide, gesturing to the crowd behind her. “Look at them! Look how many lives we can still save––”

“––Enough, Judy!” The anger in his voice made her body jump, and the pain in it made her heart sink. “I saw my children die. I saw their corpses rise up and eat their brothers and sisters. And I…. I put those children in the ground….”

“Dad,” Judy took a step forward, her arms splayed. “It’s okay.”

“There’s no love in them…” he continued, his voice starting to break.

Judy continued to approach her father. “It wasn’t your fault.”

The gun wavered lower further, and his voice continued to falter. “...They didn’t even recognize me…”

“I know, Dad. I’m so sorry.” Judy was so close she could see his nose twitching and his eyes quivering.

“...Judy... your mother…”

Slowly, Judy wrapped her father into a tight embrace, shushing him and running a paw over his ears in slow soothing sweeps. “I know, Dad. I miss her too. Every day.” She squeezed him and rubbed her cheek against his. She felt one of his paws loosen grip over his shotgun and grip her jacket on her back. He pulled her closer and tighter.

Her father had always been more of a sap before the deadrising, reluctantly proclaiming ‘here come the waterworks’ right before bursting into sobs at every graduation and wedding. After the world went south, he had hardened and closed the world off from seeing him like any longer, including his kids. But now, with only herself and a host of Walkers in earshot, he let a real sob go as he clutched her jacket.

“Judy!” N’s frantic voice caused her heart to jump. She let her father go and wheeled around, finding N pointing towards something on a dusty hill behind them. She took a moment to find where he was pointing at, but it was clear the moment she saw them.

“Savages.”

On a desolate mound beyond the line of Walkers stood an actual monster. A Savage giant––a rhinoceros by the looks of it––leered at the crowd of Walkers. Its sickly white skin sagged on its jagged bones. It lurched and screeched, sounding like broken glass grinding on steel.

Judy’s stomach dropped and her ears fell behind her. There were more savages falling in behind the rhino now. Almost all were larger mammals––they would have to be to make it all the way out to the burrows–– including a bear, several large cats, and at least one hippo. She saw seven or eight … then a dozen … then a dozen more. They snarled and clawed at the dirt as if the earth were made of flesh.

Her father leapt back away from her and raised his gun. His eyes widened back open and his nose twitched. “It was a trap!”

She raised her arms and splayed her paws. “No! Dad, it’s not––”

“They’re here to knock the gate down!” he claimed. He cocked his shotgun. Judy heard the horde of Walkers shuffle and yip in fright.

“Dad, wait! Don’t shoot!” She pleaded, trying to keep herself between her father and N as best she could, though the look on his face told her she was just scaring him further.

Orange fur appeared to her side. “Here!” N begged. Judy turned to find N standing right before her father, offering the case to him openly and urgently. “Take it and get back to the wall!”

Stu looked confused, but kept his gun pointed straight at him. “What?”

N knelt lower and thrusted the box handle-forward towards him. “We’ll hold them off. Just take the case!”

Stu timidly reached out, his paw shaking madly, and gripped the case in his paw. N stepped away with his paws up, and her father whipped around at Judy. “We’re leaving.”

She balked. “And leave them out here to die?”

“I’m not asking, Judy.” Stu’s voice was dark. He raised his gun again towards N and aimed square at his face. “Come with me right now or I’ll shoot him.”

“Dad!” Judy screamed in panic.

“Right now!” he barked.

Judy’s heart was racing. She looked over to N who still had his paws splayed in surrender. He caught her eye, and his expression softened. His paws lowered and he stood a little taller. “Go.”

She shook her head. “N, no.”

“I’ll be fine,” he reassured her with a smile. “Go. Get the case home.”

Her eyes darted back to the case in her father’s grasp. She wanted to scream at her father, or to scream at N, or neither. The sounds of distant howling told her more savages were moving in behind them. If the case wasn’t behind the wall soon, all of this could have been for nothing. She glanced back to N one more time.

“You’re alive,” she said softly. She took one step towards her father and steeled her expression. “Stay that way.”

“Let’s go, Jude,” her father beckoned, and she fell in behind her.

The two of them darted away from the horde of Walkers and back towards the metal wall separating her home from seemingly endless violence. Her father slung his gun back over his shoulder as he ran and pulled out a walky talky. “Hopps to the gate, prepare the ladder!” he said. Judy did not dare look behind her out of fear of whatever expression was on N’s face. It would likely break her heart.

They kept running, her father showing that even older bunnies were some of the fastest mammals alive. His shotgun practically fluttered on his back like a flag in the wind. He kept one ear pointed backwards, making sure her footsteps were right behind him as they got closer to the wall. A rope ladder fluttered down the wall by the gate as they approached and he hailed on his radio again. “As soon as we’re on, pull us up as fast as you can!” He got to the ladder first and turned around, gesturing for her to start climbing. “You first.”

“Alright,” she agreed and gripped the rope in her paws. She climbed a few rungs up and peered downward at her father situating himself on the first two rungs of the ladder himself. He gripped the rope tightly, the case sitting on his wrist while his other arm dug for his radio again. The case wasn’t going anywhere unless he fell.

Poor dad, she thought for a moment, seeing the continuous panic in his eyes as he nervously peered over his shoulder towards the approaching Savages. I hope he remembers me for more than this.

“Now!” He shouted into the radio. “Pull us up!”

The ladder jerked upwards, and Judy let go. She flipped backwards as she fell –– the ladder yanking her feet up higher causing her to tumble in the air quickly. In the moment her father passed by her, she snagged the shotgun off of his shoulder, catching his paw and flinging the radio from his grasp. She landed on her feet only having left the ground about a meter.

“JUDY!” he cried out as he ascended with impressive speed. “Judy no!” His face contorted in anger and despair as he sailed up the wall. But the case was still in his paw, and that’s all that mattered.

Judy watched, making absolutely sure she saw her father and the case in his paw disappear over the top of the wall safely. She could hear the faint sounds of shouting once he crested the top, and confused soldiers wondering where she was. One day soon they’d understand why she couldn’t leave N –– all of the Walkers really –– to die.

She turned on her heel and slung her father’s gun over her shoulder, breaking out into a sprint towards the horde of Walkers. They had shifted into a thinner line of mammals, stretching out further apart, facing the oncoming savages. She called out for N, but she couldn’t see him amongst the crowd. She darted into the mass of legs and matted fur. Several of the Walkers looked much more agitated than they had previously, moaning and occasionally snarling like the monsters she grew up fearing.

An ocelot among them spotted Judy and lazily grabbed at her jacket. She tugged herself free easily, but others started giving her similar attention. Their eyes were glazed. “N?” she called out. “N!”

“Carrots!” his voice appeared from a few walkers ahead. He shoved a couple Walkers aside and stepped forward, causing the others to back off slowly.

Judy eyed them apprehensively. “What’s going on with them?”

“They’re scared,” he explained. Upon closer inspection, she didn’t see hunger in their eyes, but rather confusion, like a group of lost children.

She turned to N. “Are you scared?”

He smiled and took her paw. “Not anymore.”

“The Savages,” she said coldly.

N nodded and guided her towards the front. The line of growling beasts stood on a dirty hill a few dozen meters away. Some of them continued to wander around, aimlessly scratching at the earth. Their blank lifeless eyes were white and hungry. Judy checked her pockets for her equipment one more time before pulling the shotgun from her shoulder and checking the magazine. 6 shells … Might bring down one or two of those beasts.

“Why are they just standing there?” she wondered quietly.

“They can’t ss–see all that well,” N reminded her.

She furrowed her brow. “How’d they make it all the way out here so quickly?”

“The smell,” N replied easily.

She reeled at him with wide eyes. “My scent?”

“Not just you. The Burrows … when I was inside…”

“You could smell the living?” she finished for him.

“Like a discount buffet,” he said flatly. “They probably followed our scent out of the city, then caught the Burrows from miles away.”

Judy’s mouth fell open. I did this. She swore where she stood that not a single beast would make it to the wall, let alone through it. “We can’t let those big ones reach the wall. The gate is strong, but a rhino or bison moving fast enough might crack it open. A single Savage inside the walls will cause an outbreak.”

“That’s not happening,” N said confidently.

“I’ve got enough rounds for that big guy up front. I can act as bait, since I’m the one they can smell.”

N huffed and shook his head. “Your plan is to matador them to death?”

“I’m working on a plan,” Judy said, though she had to admit the details of said plan were not coming as easily as she’d hoped.

A stiff cool breeze picked up from behind them, wisping playfully at the dirt and wild shrubs. It was the only sound in the air for a few solemn moments before Fennec spoke up from beside her. His small eyes were also trained on the terror before them. “Better ww–work on that plannn quick...quickly. You smell delicious.”

The Savages all stopped, pointing their noses up high as they gathered the scent in the air. It must have been particularly powerful because as soon as they did, their muscles thickened and their growls grew louder. For the first time, they all looked towards the Burrow wall at the same time with envious maws and dripping fangs.

N turned to face the line of Walkers and held his paws up to his mouth. “If you feel something! If you feel anything! You’re alive!” Judy turned and saw the crowd focus on him. Their ghostly eyes and pale skin did not betray the lively expressions on their faces. “We can help you live again! But first we gotta keep these losers from fucking shit up!”

Judy heard Fennec chuckle beside her. N continued to shout to his captive crowd. “If you’re with us, let me hear you say it: Two legs good! Four legs bad!”

A loud roar rang in her ears, and she could hear the echo bouncing off of the wall behind her. The Savages were charging now, slowly building up speed like distant thunder. The heaviest mammals –– the rhino and the bisons –– kicked up clouds of dirt as their breath steamed in the air like they were breathing smoke.

But a moment later, Judy heard a strange murmuring from behind her. It started slow and inconsistent, but grew louder and more confident. The crowd of Walkers were chanting. “Two legs good…. Four legs bad… Two legs good …. Four legs bad….” They started advancing towards the charging monsters.

Fennec started walking with them. “Go for the ll–legs.”

N nodded, as he fell into a march beside Judy. When had she started marching too? “He’s right,” he said. “Their bones are brittle, and they can’t break the wall if they can’t run.” He started to lightly jog.

Judy gripped the gun in her paws and began running. The thundering hooves around her rang equally loud as the snarls coming for them. Now there was snarling and howling coming from beside her too, along with continued chanting. The Walkers were keeping pace, running beside her. Years of fearing these creatures conditioned her to keep her distance, yet she felt glad that those fangs were not barred in her direction this time.

Judy looked over to N with a fiery gaze. “Do you trust me?” she cried out over the thumping, chanting, and snarling.

“Yes!” he said loudly.

“Then stay right behind me!”

Judy was at a full sprint now, and only a few meters from the first of the charging Savages. A cape buffalo huffed at her and roared with vitriol. She felt N so close to her that her ears grazed his whiskers behind her. The Savages and the Walkers collided.

“Dive!” she shouted and started sliding feet first. The dirt beneath her kicked upwards as the massive maw of the buffalo passed right over her. N was fast behind and followed her under the massive beast. Judy raised her shotgun and fired a round at the buffalo’s knee at point blank range.

The blast from the gun gave her shoulder a massive kick, and it actually slowed her down enough to have N push her clear of the beast before it tumbled to the ground.

“Ha!” N cheered. “Two legs good, four legs bad, three legs just okay.”

“Please none of your––WATCH OUT!” she cried and gripped his shirt and yanked him towards her. A set of fangs barely missed his ears as a Savage trampled forward and collided with a Giraffe behind them. N landed face down on top of Judy with a thump, her weapon lodged between them. He shook his head and, noticing her below him, flushed slightly.

“That a shotgun in your pocket?” he quipped.

She fidgeted beneath him for a moment to get a better grip on her gun and cocked it before smiling at him. “Yeah it is. You?”

He flushed further. “I uhhh..––wooOOAHH!” N’s eyes shot open as he was lifted off of her and into the air by a Savage bison. Without the wooly fur, it looked more like a sickly cow, though its weight and heft was still menacing. It held N by the shirt and swung him about madly. He cried out as he was tossed aside like a fly on a meal, landing in the dirt a few meters away.

Judy was ready. As soon as the massive monster looked back towards her, she opened fire and cast a shower of lead into its face. The bison, however, did not fall. It stumbled back and roared for a moment before turning back towards her with a blood-soaked face. It growled menacingly and loomed over her. Blood dripped onto the ground around her as the beast stared her right in her eyes.

She heard another growl as she fumbled to re-cock her shotgun, but the growling wasn’t coming from the bison. A moment later, she heard a honk and turned to see headlights barreling towards her. She tucked her feet upwards and backrolled away just as the bison took the mean end of a radiator grill to the side and tumbled over. Judy continued to dash away from the carnage as the Savage went down, struggling for only a moment before becoming motionless.

The rusty van that Judy had driven in on now had a massive dent in the bumper and was oozing some liquid out the bottom that looked important. She looked up to the driver’s window and saw Fennec peering out the window to confirm his kill. Satisfied, he looked over to Judy and cocked his eyebrow.

“I’m good,” she grunted, rising to her feet. “Thanks.”

“Thanks again,” Fennec corrected her. It wasn’t the first time he had mowed down a Savage with that van of his.

N appeared by her side and placed his paws on her shoulders, looking at her with concern. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “We need to find that rhino.”

“Rhino?” he bellowed. The sounds of struggling mammals on all sides were forcing them to shout at each other.

She counted off the threats on her fingers. “I counted three cape buffalos, one bison, a hippo and a rhino. None of the rest would make it through the wall, so the Rhino’s our priority.”

N nodded and looked around for a moment amongst the fighting. He peered up at Fennec and pointed at the van. “Give us a ride?” The smaller fox didn’t bother answering. He simply put the car in gear and revved the engine. He disappeared in the cabin for a moment before re-emerging with a baseball bat in his paw.

He tossed it to N. “Mm––make yourself use..ful.”

“Let’s go!” Judy said and bounded up the van’s hood and onto the roof. N stumbled upwards behind her and the van started to move. The higher vantage point allowed her to see more of the field, but the uneven ground made them both stumble a little as the van rolled beneath them. The engine growled and groaned in protest, clearly running odd after the collision with that bison.

“See the Rhino?” Judy said, keeping her weapon drawn and pointed down range.

“No,” he replied. “But I ss–saw another cape buffalo on the g… the ground. Think the Walkers got it.”

“Nice! That just leaves one more of those, the rhino, and the hippo,” she exclaimed.

N shrugged. “Don’t forget about the––cats! Judy duck!”

She didn’t bother to turn, she just dropped her weight down onto the roof of the van with a metallic thunk as claws swiped through the air. She rolled on the roof and pulled her gun up higher as a massive white cat of some kind snarled and swiped at her, climbing up to the roof as it did so. She squeezed off a round, but the cat batted the tip of her gun away causing her to hit nothing but air.

Just as it reeled and prepared for another swipe, N lunged forward swinging with his bat. The metallic sound of the bat waving through the air ended with a pang as he connected with the monster’s cheek bone. It stumbled and groaned before another shake of the van caused it to tumble to the dirt below.

“Nice one,” Judy commended him.

He looked back at her with concern. “There are more coming.”

Sure enough, more felines and a few canine-type Savages started tailing the van like a pack. With them at a full sprint and the van slowed by the uneven ground, there’s no way they could outrun them. If only I had Gretta, she thought.

“There!” N pointed behind the pack of Savages towards a group of Walkers who were giving chase as well. They were trailing the Savages closely in a full out sprint. One of the Walkers, a lion, tackled a larger feline Savage and bit down on its neck. Other walkers followed suit, but the other Savages seemed not to notice.

“All we need to do is fight them off!” Judy realized. “The Walkers will take care of the rest.” She swapped out her shotgun for her pistol and undid the safety. N gripped his bat a little tighter and nodded back at her.

Another Savage scampered up the rear of the van, but N was fast upon him. He swung with his bat, breaking a few teeth, but the Savage held its claws into the van’s roof. N swung again and missed. The Savage ducked and swiped at his feet. He tumbled over, giving Judy a clear shot. She let two slugs fly, both of which connected and the Savage fell limp off the rear of the van.

The vehicle jostled, and two more Savages crawled up either side, snarling wickedly. N swung with his bat as Judy dodged a few snaps from angry jaws. She fired a few more rounds, but it was harder to nail a headshot with the van bumping around beneath them. The van’s horn honked twice. Judy reeled and looked forward. They approached a massive dip in the ground. Judy gasped and leapt towards N.

“Hold on!” She grasped the van’s roof mount as tightly as she could as the Savages approached. They lunged forward, simultaneously leaping towards them with fangs drawn.

The van fell down the ledge and pulled both Judy and N down with it. The leaping monsters tumbled forward and lost their balance. The van bounced off the dirt and both Savages slammed into the roof hard. One slipped off the side and tumbled into the Walkers giving chase. The other held on with one paw and struggled to regain footing. N quickly stood and swung with his bat. A clang, and the Savage lost its grip and tumbled downwards. The van bounced as it rolled over the unlucky feline.

“Whew,” Judy said, letting go of the roof mount. “Never thought I’d actually like being chased by Walkers.” The rest of the Savages in the pack chasing them had either dispersed or been claimed by the charging Walkers.

Just then, the van slowed and groaned beneath them. Steam started rising from the engine bay, and Judy saw a trail of black fluid on the dirt behind them. That fall must have really done a number on the poor van. She could feel them coasting now, towards the gate. Fennec gave it more throttle, but the engine just spun and smoked further before sputtering to silence soon after.

“Uhhh, Carrots?” N said nervously. He was pointing to something off the vans starboard side. Turning, Judy saw a massive horrid hippo charging the van at impressive speed. This Savage likely turned recently as it still had most of its body mass, and all of it was a moment away from slamming into the van.

“JUMP!” she said and took N’s paw. She leapt from the roof just as the hippo crashed into the van. The rear windows shattered and the metal frame buckled before toppling over. The van capsized and fell onto the ground as N and Judy tumbled into the dirt.

She rolled and was on her feet a split second later. Holstering her pistol and whipping out her shotgun, she trained it at the side of the fallen van, ready for the creature to circle around and claim its prize. The air grew hot, and Judy turned to see the van’s engine bay had caught fire. Fennec was trapped inside, pounding on the windshield.

“Get him out of there!” She said to N.

He reeled and lowered his bat. “What about the hippo?”

The massive beast appeared from the rear of the van. “I’m faster, I can keep it busy!”

N looked panicked. “But Judy…”

The beast roared and rumbled towards her. “Just go!”

She kicked off and began sprinting away from the van, where the flames began to build. The shaking ground told her that the hippo was fast behind her. Her scent must have been why it attacked the van in the first place. She guided it away from the blaze and kept peering over her shoulder to find it salivating behind her. Her father’s gun remained in her paws as she guided it in a long circle. A cloud of dirt followed its thunderous charge. She looked back towards the van, and the flames were even higher now.

If I could just take out its leg, it wouldn’t be able to chase me…

Judy stopped and faced the creature that continued to ramble towards her. She counted two more rounds, so she had to make them count. Dashing forward, she charged the oncoming hippo with the same plan she used on the cape buffalo earlier. As she approached, the Savage opened its colossal mouth and lunged at her. A mammal her size would likely be a one-bite meal. Its maw opened so wide that its lower jaw grazed the ground.

Dammit, she cursed. She had no room to dive underneath it to catch the legs. At the last moment, she opted for the safer option and leapt upwards, bounding on her powerful legs and tucking over the beast. Its jaws raised higher, trying to catch her. She grazed off of its upper lip, and she felt the slimy necrotic skin for just a moment in the air before falling back down and rolling back into the dirt.

It’s too short and stubby! I can’t get to its feet. And its mouth never opens unless it is lunging at me.

The monster reeled around and gave chase again. Judy could see more Walkers wrestling and biting with Savages all around her. She thought for a moment that she might get one of them to distract it while she goes for the legs again, but nothing was more distracting than the living, and she was the only uninfected one around.

Judy looked back to the van, and saw N pulling Fennec from the cabin as the blaze grew higher. She ran again to guide the hippo away from them, but she admitted she needed help. She whistled loudly and waved a free paw over to N, who was making sure his friend was safe. He grabbed his bat and took off towards her. He ran alongside her arc until they were running side by side only a split second in front of the hippo.

“This thing doesn’t get tired, does it?” N pondered.

“I can’t get to the legs when its mouth is open,” she said with a huff. “We need to keep it busy long enough for me to get a shot off.”

“Any ideas?” he said, struggling to keep up. He wasn’t as naturally fast as she was.

“We need to give it something to chew on!”

“We don’t have any stuffed rabbits this time, Carrots,” N said in disapproval. “I’m not feeding it me.”

“Your bat!” she said and gestured to the slugger in his hands.

“Oh. right.”

She looked back to gauge the distance. They had about two seconds from stopping to getting chomped. “When I turn around, stay right behind me. I’m gonna jump out of the way. When it opens its mouth, toss the bat inside!”

“Got it!” he said with a nod and pushed forward, running in front of her. He saw his tail wavering in front of her as he ran, and the distant view of the wall in front of them. She waited till they were on a clear stretch of ground before slamming her legs down and turning.

“Now!” N was behind her as they faced the oncoming charge. Once again, the monster opened its mouth and lunged at her. There were horrid brown teeth and rotting flesh coming towards them now. As soon as it lunged, she leapt out of the way. This time, as she turned in the air, N tossed his bat forward before leaping out of the way himself. The aluminum bat flew through the air before lodging itself into the beasts jaws, propping them open.

“Yes!” she cheered as she landed. She turned again and dove forward, her weapon drawn. The beast was already turning, but was too slow this time with the bat keeping its mouth open. She flanked the hippo and found its front leg before pointing the gun and pulling the trigger.

The gun kicked her shoulder again and caused her to fly backwards. The shot connected with its leg and it roared out angrily. But the hippos' leg was to thick to split apart as the cape buffalo’s had. Instead, the lead spattered its skin, maiming it but not tearing it up enough to stop it.

“Shit,” she said. She cocked her shotgun and tried to fire again, but the beast had turned now and stomped at her with its feet. She retreated, regrouping with N and they both watched as the Savage turned towards them. The bat continued to prop its mouth open, and it seemed to struggle to balance. Probably out of sheer frustration, the Savage bit down on the bat with powerful jaws. The metal began to strain and bend under the massive force before buckling and folding like a paperclip in its mouth.

“Other ideas?” N asked nervously.

Judy was about to speak, but she heard a growl from their side. Another Savage, a capybara, lunged at N from their flank. “Watch out!” she cried and raised her weapon. N ducked and covered his head as Judy fired. A mammal so small was easy work for her father’s shotgun, and the Savage rolled over and died a moment later. But now she was out of rounds. All she had left was her pistol, a throwing knife and … the grenade.

N’s frightened voice called out. “Judy!”

She turned, and the Hippo was upon her. Its jaws were closing already, and she could feel cold breath on her nose. At the last second she lifted her father’s shotgun a little higher, and the monsters jaws slammed down on it. Its mouth propped open now with the gun the same way as before.

“N, run!” she cried as she dug into her pocket. The gun was half-wood, so it wouldn’t last as long under the pressure the aluminum bat had. She would not get another chance at this. She pulled out the small green ball and yanked the pin out, then backed away as the Savage roared again, biting down on the weapon which already began to buckle. Judy tossed the explosive forward, the trigger firing as it flew forwards. The gun shattered and splinters of wood and metal flew everywhere. The grenade made it into the monster’s mouth just a moment before its jaws closed.

She turned to run and tackled N to the ground, covering him with her body. “Get down!”

The blast picked them both up and flung them away from the Savage hippo. The force knocked the wind out of her and set her ears ringing. She felt numb and her vision got a little blurry as dust smoke built up around them.

In a daze, Judy rolled onto her back and coughed. She felt her fingers and toes wiggle, making sure her limbs were all still there. The deafening ringing continued in her head as she shakily rose to her feet. She couldn’t find N anywhere, but the hippo was now unrecognizable. Its front half was missing, and its back half was mangled and misshapen.

“N?” she groaned and looked around for her partner. “N?”

She could faintly hear the muffled sound of his voice in one direction. “Judy!” He was calling out her name, but the throbbing in her head made him hard to pinpoint. She turned around and found him sprinting towards her. The fear in his face was the only thing that wasn’t blurry. “Judy look out!”

He seemed to be pointing to something behind her. Her head kept throbbing with some odd thumping sound. She turned to see what he was pointing to, and when she did she realized her head wasn’t the source of the thumping. The Savage rhino must have heard the blast and came charging because it was only a few feet from where Judy was standing and barreling down at her at full speed. Its massive front horn was dripping with the blood of Walkers it had charged through earlier.

N’s paws gave her a hard shove at her shoulders and she toppled over. She tumbled to the ground as the thumping sound whizzed by her. N was there for a moment, but then he wasn’t.

“N!” she shouted as her senses returned to her in full force. She cried out for him as she watched his body sail into the air. The rhino had taken him clean off his feet and sent him several meters into the air. He fell to the ground hard with a tumble before laying motionless. “No!”

She pulled out her side arm and fired at the rhino who had turned to face her. The bullets were too small for such a large mammal, but she didn’t care. She kept firing hoping that it would at least get the monster away from N. The pistol clicked empty. The rhino stepped towards her. She angrily tossed the pistol at the beast. Maybe her rage would amplify her throwing somehow…. No. It grazed its horn and fell to the ground. The vile brute stepped towards her menacingly, its blank eyes bearing no semblance of life any longer.

Judy pulled out her throwing knife and gripped it tightly. She leered at the rhino and beckoned it closer. “Come on….” she blinked back tears and waved the monster towards her. “Come on!”

Bullets rang out. She heard them strike the rhino with furious cracks before she heard the muzzles flaring, then the humming of engines. She followed the sounds of gunfire to find two military humvees rolling into view. Mounted atop one of them was a large .50 caliber cannon that was unloading onto the Savage rhino. It began to charge at the new challengers before falling to the ground and tumbling over.

Armed soldiers followed the cavalry on foot, spewing off rounds at Savages as they approached. Radios blared with orders and sit-reps from the battlefield as the soldiers moved with precision, only advancing forward when the Savages seemed to back down.

Looking closer, Judy saw that they weren’t firing on Walkers. They seemed to maintain safe distances, but none of them engaged with each other. The focus instead was on clearing the grounds of all Savages anywhere they could be found. Judy wanted to be relieved, but N still hadn’t risen from the ground yet. She ran to him as the shots continued to flare behind her and knelt beside him.

“Oh N.” Her voice was weak and her vision remained blurry through the tears. N had taken the charge directly to the chest. His jacket was torn and his face was bloodied, but his expression was calm and quiet. She reached for his nose hoping to feel breath. Her paw felt cool air escape his nose, but it was faint and withering quickly. She pulled his head into her lap and pressed her ear down onto his chest. There was no beating at all. Her paws gripped the fur on his cheeks as she felt tears now flowing down their own.

One of the humvees skidded to a stop a few meters away, kicking up fresh dirt around her. She squinted and waved the dust away, watching as her father emerged from the vehicle along with a few foot soldiers with their rifles drawn. There was continued shouting through their radios and gunfire in the air, but both became more and more distant over time. Her father eyed the two of them on the ground closely.

“Dad,” she said softly. Her eyes and cheeks remained wet, but she dared to hope now that Stu was here. “Help him. Please.”

His brow furrowed and he stepped closer, giving N a thorough inspection. After a moment of thoughtful focus, his gaze shifted to her. He sighed, turned, and addressed his soldiers. “Corporal Clawhauser.”

Judy hadn’t even noticed it was Benny standing beside him. He responded sharply with a step forward. “Sir!”

“Get me a stretcher.”

Judy felt a twinge of relief in her chest. Benny saluted and dove back into the truck to pull out the stretcher. The other soldier stood guard as her father pulled up his radio and started hailing orders. “How we doin’ with that case, Doc?”

Ramic’s gritted voice responded back quickly. “I’m still trying to make sense of it. I think we might have something here but I need more time.”

“It’ll have to wait,” Stu instructed. “We’ve got wounded coming your way.”

The radio blipped with static before Ramic replied. “Okay. Bring them to the ward.”

“Roger that. ETA, eight minutes.” Stu turned to face her again and gave a subtle but reassuring smile.

She found herself smiling back at him, wiping away a tear on her eye. “Thank you.”

Stu smiled wider for a moment before fading into a somber look, nodding towards N. “He’s in rough shape.” She nodded and gazed down at N’s body. He continued to lay so still, and his breathing was even lighter than before. Her father placed a paw on her shoulder and gave her a light squeeze. “If he can be saved, we’ll do what we can to make it happen.”