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It was dark by the time Andy arrived at the address given to him over email. As the bus roared away behind him, a gust of wind crept down the back of his neck. A dusty breeze like stale breath, typical of the Tenderloin. He tugged on the collar of his jacket and weaved around a homeless heap smoking crack to reach the non-descript business building before him.
Andy always got lost in the labyrinthine corridors of an office building. Did every hallway on every floor have to look exactly the same in every one of these building? All of the businesses being closed at this late hour didn't help matters either. The entire building was hauntingly empty. But the interview had been scheduled for 8pm, over email. What were these zoo recruiters doing working so late anyway? Andy certainly hoped he wasn't expected to work these hours.
He wandered through the halls like a frustrated rat in a maze experiment. Finally, after what seemed like half an hour, Andy finally located the correct suite on the eighth floor. He straightened his flimsy black tie and knocked timidly on the door.
A robust voice answered. "It's open. Come in."
Andy took a big breath and pushed inside.
"Hi, I'm here for the--"
A flash bulb went off as soon as he poked his head into the office. Andy stumbled backward, temporarily blinded. Once the stars faded from his eyes, he saw a small desk on the other side of the office behind which sat a man and a woman in brown khaki shirts. The woman was holding a camera with a large flash mounted to the top.
"Sorry about that," she said merrily. "But we have to make sure you're photogenic."
She took a gander at the screen on the back of the camera with adequate satisfaction. Andy wandered up to the chair in front of their desk while shuffling through his satchel for a copy of his resume.
"Uh... May I ask why?" he asked.
"Why? Because people are going to be taking a lot of pictures of you, of course."
She looked at Andy as if he had asked what the sun was. Andy was bewildered. But he simply nodded along, not wanting to seem stupid. "Oh. Okay."
Like the last two random socks left in a drawer, this woman and her partner were comically mismatched. She was tall and lanky, and didn't seem much older than Andy. She exuded an innocent, almost childlike peppiness which immediately put Andy at ease. Her partner, on the other hand, was much older, perhaps the age of Andy's father, and couldn't have been much taller than five feet. But he was built like a tank. Barrel-chested with limbs like pillars, he looked dense enough to repel an arrow. He was also the first person Andy had ever seen wearing an eye patch outside of a movie. A lone eye as cold as a razor blade peered at the young artist under a heavy brow. His menacing countenance was completed by a five o'clock shadow which reached across a vast chin seemingly chiseled from granite.
"So, uh... Well," Andy stammered. "My name is Andy Go..." He slid his resume across their desk.
"Andy Go, are you married?" The male recruiter asked before Andy had finished uttering his name, without so much as a glance at the resume. His voice rumbled out of his lipless mouth like a bulldozer.
"Are you close to your parents?"
"Um... Not at the moment," Andy chuckled wearily.
The two recruiters looked at each other and grinned.
"Perfect," they said simultaneously.
Andy was muddled in a dense fog of confusion.
"Excuse me, but what does any of that have to do with anything?" He looked back and forth between them. Besides their bizarre line of questioning, there was something else... off... about them. But Andy couldn't put a finger on what it was, he could only feel it. Like a dream at the edge of consciousness. Perhaps it was the way they moved... Their movements seemed those of much heavier people... Like their arms were propelled by a force not wholly of themselves. They also seemed slightly stiff, especially around the neck, like an invisible brace was supporting their heads. And Andy didn't know if the fluorescent lights were playing tricks on his eyes, but something about the hue of their skin didn't quite sit right with him. Honestly, it would have escaped his notice if he hadn't been staring at them, but their skin was the tiniest bit unnatural. Like color on a TV when the tint control is just a hair off center.
"Aren't you guys going to ask me what my major was or something?" Andy continued.
"Is that a common interview question?" asked the woman.
Andy chuckled politely but when she stared back blankly, he realized, much to his befuddlement, that she was asking in complete sincerity.
"Yeah, of course," he answered, scratching his head.
"Okay then," said the man, "what's your major?"
"Fabulous. When can you start?"
"What? Really? Just like that? Wait, you haven't even told me what my job is yet!"
Andy began to wonder if he was indeed dreaming.
"Oh, fer crying out loud," the man grumbled. "What else? We need exhibits for our zoo."
Andy blinked repeatedly. "So... What? You want me to round up animals for you or something? I don't understand."
"No, we want you to be an exhibit."
"Oh, I see!" Then a moment later, Andy finally processed the recruiter's words. His head was swimming. "Say what?"
"It's a cushy job really." The man was as stoic as his female partner was emotive. "Three square meals a day, no responsibilities, and how you pass the time in your cage is totally up to you. Just do whatever it is you 'humans' normally do. All you have to do is look cute for the cameras."
"But please refrain from flinging your fecal matter at the visitors," the woman added quickly. "The children love it, but it's a promotional nightmare."
Then it finally dawned on Andy. This was a job interview, after all. He chuckled. "Oh, I get it. This is a test, right? To see how I would handle some crazy customer or something?"
"One condition though," continued the woman. "Our zoo is a bit far from here. You'd have to relocate."
"How far are we talking about? Out of the city?"
"You could say that."
"What? It's not in another state, is it?"
"Whew. For a minute there, I--"
"It's in a parallel universe."
The tall female recruiter opened a drawer and pulled out some papers and a pen. She slid them across the desk at Andy, smiling from ear to ear. "Now if you'll just sign this contract, we can get the ball rolling."
Andy had been through his share of tricky questions at job interviews, but this was getting ridiculous. Either this was the most elaborate test ever or these recruiters were simply toying with him. Then his indignity led him to think he had perhaps solved the point of this test -- to see if he had a backbone.
"Okay, look," he said, "you guys are just being rude now. If you don't want to hire me, just spit it out and I'll be on my way."
Andy immediately regretted his capricious move when they stared vacantly back at him. It seemed he had blown it. He had come on way too strong, way too impudent. There goes another job, he thought.
The woman turned to her stocky partner. "These humans are quite slow, aren't they?"
"Well, what do you expect?" he grunted. "These primates don't even have light speed propulsion yet."
She rubbed her chin. "Maybe it would make things easier if we disabled our hologuises."
He shrugged. "Worth a shot."
They stood up and pressed something on their belts. Instantaneously, they were transformed, like a page had been flipped in the book of reality. Their proportions remained intact, but their khaki shirts and cargo pants were replaced with matching body suits. The suits, which covered them from head to toe, were stunning to behold. They were composed of a black, uncanny material unlike anything Andy had seen before. The material was at once rubbery and metallic, coiled together in a series of dense cables which ran along the entire length of the suits. These cables seemed to act like artificial muscles, flexing and stretching with the recruiters' movements. White, articulating metallic plates encased their shoulders, chest, and the lower half of their limbs. But despite the marvelous engineering of the suits, they seemed purely utilitarian otherwise. They were devoid of logos or accessories other than a belt heavy with pouches and various little gadgets you might expect to see in an Apple store a hundred years from now. The pragmatic appearance of the suits was cemented by the absence of color. Other than a few splashes of gray here and there, the suits were essentially black and white.
A white, open-faced helmet was attached seamlessly at the collar. As a matter of fact, their faces were the only part of their bodies left uncovered. Sort of. They didn't have faces. That is, Andy could see their orange eyes blinking at him, but there was nothing surrounding them. No skin, no other features, nothing. At first Andy thought their skin was jet black, but staring harder, he realized their eyes were floating in a hollow space and it was the lining on the inside of the helmet which was black. Imagine if an invisible person pasted stickers of eyes onto his face and wore a helmet.
The eye patch on the male recruiter was replaced with a plate of metal embedded directly onto the right side of his blank face. A glassy polygon the diameter of a golf ball gleamed with a pale blue light in the center of this metal housing. Segmented like the eyes of an insect, it swiveled and rotated in sync with his normal eye.
Andy's brain short circuited. He hadn't been this shell-shocked since Tony forced him to watch 2 Girls 1 Cup. He tried to say something but his mouth had gone completely dry.
"Okay, Andy Go, let's try this again," the male recruiter growled. "My name is 481(4)-0427.05.03.D86." Then he jerked a thumb toward his partner. "This is 503(4)-0717.04.23.B101."
"Yup, that's me," chirped 503(4)-0717.04.23.B101 with a cheerful grin. She waved vigorously at Andy as if they were meeting for the first time. 481(4)-0427.05.03.D86 glanced at her wearily and rolled his eyes.
When they opened their lips to speak, the inside of their mouths appeared in the void of their helmets, just like their eyes. If their eyes and mouths were shut at the same time, they appeared to be empty suits standing and moving around on their own. It was the freakiest shit Andy had ever seen.
The stocky male turned wearily to his partner. "Do you want to give him the spiel, B101?"
"Sure, D86!" B101 was tickled with excitement. She inhaled a big gulp of air and unleashed a well-rehearsed avalanche of words from her floating mouth. "We come from Praxis, another version of this planet in a parallel dimension. You humans call it Earth here in your reality. Anyway, we work for the C.I.S.: Corporation of Interdimensional Science. Recently we've opened a zoo to showcase our amazing discoveries. Instead of merely displaying photographic holograms and simple artifacts from other dimensions in some stuffy museum -- booorriiiing! -- we decided it would be much more exciting to open a zoo with actual living specimens from across the multiverse!
"Tired of the same old jobs? Maybe you've got a bit of a wiiild streak. Then come join the exciting C.I.S. team! 'The C.I.S. Zoo -- where the animals are out of this world!'"
She spread her arms and gazed dramatically up into the air.
D86 lowered his head and rubbed his eyes. "The weekend," he groaned quietly to himself. "Just think about the weekend..."
Suddenly Andy felt intensely claustrophobic in the cramped office. His head was spinning. The whole world was spinning. He held up his hands and found them shaking and cold with sweat. Were these... beings... even in front of him? He couldn't trust his senses anymore. He lowered his hands and gripped the edge of his seat to steady himself. He had to be dreaming!
A spell of dizziness hit him as he slowly pulled himself up from his chair. The faint murmur of traffic outside the window, eight stories below, was the one gracious bit of reality which kept him anchored to his sanity.
After a few stuttering false starts, Andy finally announced... "I have to take a shit."
With that brilliance excuse, he tumbled over his chair and bolted for the door. Maybe he was making a complete fool of himself. Maybe this was an elaborate prank for a YouTube channel. Fine, he wasn't going to take any chances. Their haunting faces, the instant transformation... None of that was possible! If they weren't interdimensional aliens, they were magicians at the very least. And since both groups were equally likely to saw him in half, Andy got the hell out of there. D86 and B101 scrambled after him.
"You want medical coverage, you got it!" D86 hollered.
"To cover the anal probe? No thanks!" Andy shouted over his shoulder, bursting into the hallway.
"Dental coverage: in the contract!" the Praxian shouted back.
Andy bolted like a fleeing gazelle toward the elevator, but of course, found himself utterly lost in the corridors of the office building once again. He was desperately sliding and ducking around corners, but every window-less hallway looked like the last. Like a damned hall of mirrors. Plus Andy couldn't shake the supposed aliens no matter how hard he sprinted. They were nipping at his heels like a pair of starving wolves. D86 kept shouting out benefits at him, and for a second, the job was starting to sound pretty good. Andy shook his head and came to his senses. What was he thinking!
He tried calling out for help, but the building was still deserted, all the doors locked. His shrill screeches for aid bounced around in the hollow, dimly-lit hallways like a lost spirit. He should have been immediately suspicious when these "recruiters" wanted to interview him so late.
"Don't come any closer, man," Andy huffed over his shoulder. "I know how to protect myself! I've seen every Bruce Lee movie ever made!"
The tall female, B101, was trailing somewhere out of sight, but D86 was still stomping after Andy half a corridor away.
"We'll even throw in a retirement package," he tossed back. "We're talking fat pension! You won't have to work another day in your life after this job!"
Andy screeched to a halt despite himself. He spun on his heels. "What? Really?" he asked breathlessly.
D86 casually slowed to a stop a few steps behind Andy.
"Yup," he answered, shoving his hands in his pockets. "After you've finished out your contract, you'll receive fifty percent of your salary every month for the rest of your life."
"Holy... Seriously?" Andy was trying to catch his breath, but this time, it wasn't just from running. This was a seriously enticing offer.
Right at that moment, B101 rounded a corner behind D86 and came into view. She was hefting a futuristic rifle the size of a small Buick.
"Hey, Dad," she said, trotting up to D86. "How do you set this to stun again?"
Andy screamed like a little girl and bolted to the adjoining hallway. D86 whipped around and snatched the rifle from B101.
"Give me that," he snapped. "Damn it, 503(4)-0717.04.23.B101! Now look what you did! I had him!"
"Sorry," B101 whimpered.
"And I told you never to call me 'Dad' at work!"
Andy was hysterical. The sight of that ludicrous gun had filled him with rampant panic, raw and primal. Sweating like mad, he skidded around every corner and lunged at every doorknob for a way out. But when he hustled past the same water fountain for the third time, he came to a dreadful realization. He was running in circles. Before long, the two Praxians were back on his tail. Thankfully, without the monstrous gun this time.
"Wait!" D86 continued hollering after Andy. "We can talk holiday bonuses!"
Using the water fountain as a landmark, Andy darted in the opposite direction from his previous circuit once he hit the next intersecting hallway. Ha! Things were starting to look familiar. It seemed he was finally on the right track! If he took a left at the next corridor, it should lead him directly to...
A dead end. Andy felt the blood drain out of his face. He spun around to double back, but it was too late. D86 and B101 were standing there, blocking him in.
D86 raised his hands in a calming manner. "How does three weeks paid vacation sound?"
"We'll even throw in child support!" B101 chimed in.
Andy could feel himself sweating through his shirt as they slowly edged toward him.
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