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Andy was in the deepest sleep of his life. Like the sleep of the unborn. He could barely open his eyes when he finally waded to the murky shores of consciousness. It was as if they were being opened for the first time. When he finally managed to wrench his eyelids apart, a blinding light forced them shut again. Slowly he adjusted to the light, and ventured another peek through a blurry haze. He was squinting at a familiar ceiling light above him. He looked down and found himself in bed, laying on top of a blanket.
He turned his head and took in the room. A faded poster of Darth Vader, which Andy had received as a birthday gift in third grade, returned his stare from the far side of the room. His acoustic guitar, missing the B string, leaned against one corner under a heavy layer of dust. His neglected drawing table sat in the opposite corner of the room, competing with his guitar for the thickest dust blanket. Every piece of furniture in the small bedroom was neatly arranged, and numerous art books were crammed alphabetically into a tall, IKEA bookshelf.
Andy was home.
He closed his eyes and laughed. It had been a dream. Of course. He chided himself for thinking his alien encounter had been really happening, even inside a dream. Beyond the absurdity of it all, his life could never be that interesting. Since he dropped out of school and started playing hermit in his parents' home, getting a call from a telemarketer was about as riveting as a day got for him. Heck, talking to anyone other than his parents on a given day was a novelty. It was like Mardi Gras if he opened the door to a couple of attractive Jehovah's Witnesses.
Andy gingerly pulled himself up and sat on the edge of the bed. He was extremely groggy, his eyes still heavy with sleep. But he was cognizant enough to realize he had fallen asleep with his clothes on. He was still wearing the same outfit he had put on for his interviews. Including his shoes. For a neat freak and an OCD slave to routine like Andy, this was extremely odd. He could count on one hand the number of times he had fallen asleep with the light on. And with his shoes still on? That only happened once before in his life when he was horrendously drunk after a cousin's bachelor party. But he couldn't remember drinking after his job hunt. In fact, he couldn't even remember how or when he got home. But a much more pressing matter demanded his immediate attention -- he had to pee so bad he could taste it.
But when Andy pulled himself up, a crushing headache split his skull. He moaned painfully and slumped back down onto the bed. He dropped his head into his hands, hoping to contain the throbbing pain. He was confounded. It wasn't like him to have a casual bender outside of a party.
Shortly however, Andy had to force himself back up if he didn't want to piss his pants. Gritting his teeth, he pushed through the pain which struck him again as soon as he stood up. Unable to open his eyes, he slowly felt his way to the bathroom directly across the hall from his bedroom.
As he wobbled through the hallway, a tiny warning beacon twinkled somewhere in the dim recess of his semi-conscious lizard brain. Something was amiss. But he was so dizzy and disoriented, it evaded him at the time.
Once Andy finally made it into the bathroom, he threw open the lid of the toilet and let fly a stream of piss powerful enough to blast away plaque. Every hair on his body stood on end in orgasmic relief which eased his headache somewhat. But as his head cleared, he began to pick up on some very faint irregularities. Every home has a distinctive scent, like a household's fingerprint. This didn't smell like home. The air wasn't spicy with life, it was sterile and inert, like the smell of a new car. Andy could also detect a low hum, barely audible, like the airflow of a commercial building. Then, what he couldn't put his finger on in the hallway struck him, at last. There was no creaking in the floorboards. Like the voice of the house, it had been a constant presence since he and his parents made this modest two-bedroom dwelling their home sixteen years ago.
Finally, Andy felt a burning on the left side of his face. The kind of burn you only "feel" from a collection of intense stares. Rigid with unshakeable dread, he slowly turned his head and forced his eyes open.
He should have seen a small window framed by the outer wall of the bathroom which stood beside the toilet. But there was no wall. No plaster, no wood, no window. Just empty space, from floor to ceiling; a gaping cavity in the house. He peered beyond the edge of the floor, and spotted the side yard below, patchy as always, running beside the first floor of the house. His dumbstruck eyes followed the length of the yard until it met a gray, concrete slope. That's where familiarity ended and horror began.
The slope crawled up to a gigantic window, twenty yards across and fifteen yards high. On the other side mingled a throng of Praxians, their floating eyes fixated ardently on Andy's junk.
Andy's brain collapsed, unable to process what he was seeing. He let loose a hysterical scream and tore through the hallway back into his bedroom. As he burst through the bathroom door, he stuffed himself back into his pants and yanked on the zipper. He was lucky not to have circumcised himself.
He slammed shut the bedroom door behind him and threw his back against it. He gulped for air, gripped in a cold sweat. When he tried to think, the pain in his head struck back with a vengeance. He had to be dreaming. He had to be! Andy screamed at himself to wake up. Wake up!
No such luck. His shock only multiplied when he turned his head and realized the outer wall was missing in his bedroom as well. It wasn't just the bathroom which was open for viewing, this entire side of the house was missing, as if it had never been built.
The Praxians outside the giant window continued gawking at Andy, their eyes brimming with fascination and delight. They were pointing at him and chatting merrily... like he was an animal... in a zoo. The events of the previous night came flooding back to Andy. He crumpled to the floor like his skeleton had left him with the side of the house. He gazed around like a zombie, dumbfounded by the accuracy with which his parents' home had been duplicated.
"Good morning, Andy Go," greeted a chipper voice behind him.
Andy spun around on his knees and found B101 waving from a square opening which had suddenly appeared in the back wall of his bedroom.
"You!" Andy blurted. He had so many questions and frantic thoughts desperate to escape his mouth at the same time, the words jammed in his throat. B101's appearance erased any lingering doubts about the reality of his situation.
"How are you feeling, Andy Go?" she asked, grinning.
The lanky Praxian leaned into Andy's bedroom, elbows resting on the sill of the square hole. The opening was roughly the size and height of a service window in a restaurant kitchen.
"What do you think?" Andy sputtered. "I just had a couple dozen of you guys staring at my Dirk Diggler like it was a fireworks display. You didn't tell me people would be watching me while I went to the bathroom!"
B101 spread her hands. "It's in the contract. Besides, the zoos in your dimension aren't any different, are they?"
Before Andy could fire off another retort, his breath was stolen from him by another fearsome pounding in his head. He slumped on the carpet and moaned in agony. "Wait... My head feels like it's in a vice..."
"Oh, that's from the dimensional jump," B101 explained. "Don't worry, it'll wear off soon."
A shiver ran down the back of Andy's neck as he recalled the terrifying journey through the tuner. "Worst. Rollercoaster. Ever. You could've warn me, you know."
"We did warn you."
"Oh, yeah," Andy grumbled. "How did I do?"
"You passed out like everyone else on their first tune. You've been out for twelve hours."
"Goddamn. Did I throw up?"
"Nope," she smiled.
"Thank God. I'm glad I maintained some semblance of dignity."
"You did piss yourself though. Breakfast!"
B101 produced a serving tray overloaded with food and held it out in Andy's direction. The aroma made him realize the depths of his hunger. The shock of his new environment had overshadowed his empty stomach. Andy eagerly seized the tray and plopped down on his desk chair. Much to his pleasant surprise, all the dishes turned out to be among his favorites for breakfast. Bean sprout soup, seaweed soup, rice with barley, bacon, eggs over easy, and coffee. He was flabbergasted. How...?
B101 gazed around the room. "So what do you think of your habitat?"
"Well, besides the missing wall, it's... well, it's flawless actually. At first I thought I was back home." He dove into the steaming bowl of bean sprout soup.
"It's a perfect replica of your domicile back home," she said proudly. "We spared no details."
Andy dropped the tray onto his desk. He rushed over to the bed and lifted the mattress. A couple of Playboys and an issue of Wonder Woman stared back at him. His emergency analog supply in case the Internet went down.
"Dang," he muttered. "You're not kidding."
Andy dropped the mattress back down onto the bed frame. Back home, the side of the bed was pushed up against the outer wall of his room. But here, with that wall missing, the bed sat along the edge of the floor, perilously close to a one-story drop. Had Andy rolled off the bed toward the outer side of the house in his sleep, he would have fallen to the yard below.
Andy scowled. "You know, taking out the wall right next to my bed might not have been the brightest idea. I could've ended up in the yard with a broken neck."
"Try jumping out then," B101 replied.
"Go ahead, try stepping off the edge."
Andy inched toward the edge of the room and reached out with an open hand. It stopped in midair, bumping up against an unseen surface.
"Don't worry, Andy Go. You're perfectly safe," B101 said soothingly. "There's a force field which repels organic matter in place of the wall."
It was slightly cool to the touch, like a glass filled with water. Andy raised both hands and ran them across the invisible wall, confounded by its existence. There was a slight give at first touch, then it turned absolutely rigid upon further pressure, like a slab of steel lacquered with a thin layer of gel. There seemed to be no end to the Praxians' scientific advancements.
"Welcome to Praxis," B101 said brightly, like a chiming bell.
Andy's stomach responded with a furious growl. He brought the breakfast tray into bed and shoveled the food into his pie hole. He couldn't believe it, it was absolutely delicious. As if everything was seasoned and prepared specifically to his tastes.
"Boy, you guys sure can cook," he marveled through stuffed cheeks. "Is my mom back there?"
"Oh, it was the replicator," B101 explained.
"Well, whoever this Replicator is, send him my compliments."
B101 beamed. "Meal times are 10am, 2pm, and 6pm daily. There will always be plenty of snacks stocked in the refrigerator in the kitchen of your habitat as well. You can dip into that anytime you like."
Andy scarfed the last bit of rice and dropped onto his back. A loud, satisfied burp followed while he patted his stomach. For a brief moment, he gazed up at the ceiling completely relaxed and content. Even his headache had faded to a dull throb. Meanwhile, B101 just stood there grinning behind her service window, her orange irises sparkling as she observed the human. Occasionally, she would hold up a computer tablet and type something. It was creeping Andy out. He felt like the gorilla in the mist to her Jane Goodall. Then he looked over at the giant viewing window of his "habitat" and, of course, found another cluster of Praxian eyes fixed on him. It was unnerving, to say the least. This was going to take some getting used to...
Andy sat up on the bed. "So... what now?"
B101 perked up. "What do you mean?"
"This is it? This is all I do? I just sit around in here eating and pissing?"
"Yup, pretty much. We just want to observe your everyday behavior in your natural environment."
"Really? There's nothing else to the job? No goals? No problems to solve? Nothing to keep me motivated? Nothing to challenge my skills in any way?"
"Yes!" Andy crowed, throwing his arms up in victory.
Then another query popped into his head as he noticed the TV on his dresser.
"Hey, does this thing have cable?" he asked.
"Five hundred channels worth," B101 answered. "Same as the big TV downstairs in the livingroom. Just like back home."
"This is sounding better and better," Andy murmured with quiet glee.
The Praxian shrugged her shoulders. "Like we said, it's a cushy job."
"Okay, so just to summarize -- I get great food, all the comforts of home, no responsibilities what-so-ever, and I get paid $250,000 a year?"
Andy reeled. "Great Galactus... Not bad. Not bad at all."
"It's a pretty sweet deal," B101 stated.
"But you know, even with all these benefits, you won't find many people willing to be caged up for most of the week," Andy mused. "You're really lucky I signed up for this gig."
Andy was probably one of the rare people whose disposition allowed for this kind of "work." Because he stayed indoors drawing and painting most of the time anyway, he really didn't mind. In fact, he always thought going to prison would be a huge boost to his work. It should liberate him creatively since the need for his work to make money would be eliminated. He could focus solely on following his muse. With the free room and board, he wouldn't have to worry about taking on some crappy illustration job just because he needed the money. This zoo gig fit the bill just as well, minus the anal rape and tossed salads.
Perhaps he would create his most memorable works under imprisonment, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Marquis De Sade before him. His spirit soared as Andy dreamed of all the work he was going to accomplish. By the time his contract ran out a year from now, he should have built up a new, much improved portfolio to shop around. Not to mention a big fat nest egg!
"I can't wait to tell my parents," he thought aloud. "I think they'll finally be happy." That's when it occurred to him to call his parents. Worried sick, they had probably called the police by now.
"That's great," B101 said reflectively. "It's certainly important to make your parents happy."
As if on cue, D86's grave, unmistakable voice echoed from the hallway behind her. "503(4)-0717.04.23.B101! Where the hell are you? We're seven minutes and fourteen seconds late for our next tune! This zoo isn't going to fill itself!"
"Coming!" B101 answered and turned to go.
Andy scrambled off his bed. "Wait! I need to make a phone call!"
But by the time he reached the service window, B101 was halfway down the narrow corridor which led away from the square opening to a larger, intersecting hallway. There at the end of the corridor stood D86, his one eye smoldering like ember. He held something up at his daughter.
"And look what I just found." he growled.
B101 jumped when she saw the round item in his hand. She frantically searched around on her belt for something obviously missing.
D86 continued, trembling with anger. "Why was your tuner key just laying around under your desk? Do you have any idea how much one of these things costs the C.I.S.? How many times do I have to tell you? Never take it off your belt while you're at work!"
B101's shoulders fell. "Sorry, Dad," she whimpered.
"Hey," Andy interrupted, leaning into the window. "503...(4)...7...dash...whatever! I really need to make a phone call! It's really important!"
"We'll be back soon," D86 replied in a icy voice. "Welcome to the C.I.S. Zoo."
With that, he flipped a switch on the side of the corridor, and the service window rapidly shrank. Andy yanked his hands away just before it sealed shut. There was no trace of the window left on the wall. No seam, not even a crack.
Andy pounded the wall. "Hey, come on! I need to make a phone call! This isn't prison, you know."
Hell, even in prison you get one phone call, he thought. Andy continued pleading against the wall for a little while longer, but soon it became apparent the two Praxians were gone. He gave it a rest and threw himself back on the bed. He would ask again when B101 came back to feed him lunch. It looked as though his parents just had to wait. He hoped they didn't do anything too drastic in the meantime.
As he lay there frustrated, little flashes of light caught his attention in the corner of his eyes. He looked over at the huge observation window on the other side of the cell and spotted a Praxian child holding up a camera-looking device in front of his face. It flashed a blue light every time he pointed it at Andy and pushed a button. Andy's adoring public had grown larger since his first encounter with them. The entire length of the enormous window was lined with wide-eyed Praxians, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of him. Andy was a hit, it seemed. He was the shiny new bobble.
Andy was generally a private person, never feeling that comfortable in the spotlight. He usually sat in the back of the class, never raising his hand to ask questions or contribute to a discussion. It made him feel naked to have everyone's eyes on him. He hardly even posted on his facebook page. So needless to say, it was incredibly jarring for him to suddenly have his every move scrutinized. He was overwhelmed with self-consciousness now that B101 wasn't around to distract him anymore. When he signed up for the job, the idea of being a zoo animal had been an abstract idea. It wasn't until he was actually sitting there in his cell that he fully understood what he had to endure and how it would make him feel. For an entire year...
Of course, it was only during the weekdays, he reminded himself. He still had the weekends to keep him sane. He gripped the blanket and steeled himself. He could do it. In the bigger picture, enduring this ridiculous job for a year would be a small price to pay for what it could mean for the rest of his life. All the silly fantasies which had lured him into signing the contract flashed in his mind once more.
He pulled himself off the bed and made his way to the stairs, dying to see how the rest of the house had been duplicated. Just like back home, the stairs lead to the livingroom downstairs. He was caught breathless once again when he reached the bottom of the stairs. B101 had not been exaggerating. Every detail had been reconstructed with eerie accuracy, from the chips in the wallpaper to the beer stains on his dad's recliner to the LG logo on the refrigerator. Of course, none of the doors were functional. The front door and the door which normally lead to the garage were mere facades, tacked onto the walls in one corner of the living room.
The lower floor had no force field in place of the missing wall, so Andy could walk freely between the living room and the side yard. He stepped onto the grass and staggered backward until he was far enough away to survey the entire cell. He was basically inside an enormous, square chamber, composed of concrete walls, with a cross section of his parents' house set into the back half. He felt like a little doll standing before an open dollhouse.
The upper floor was divided into thirds, the bathroom on the left side, Andy’s bedroom on the right, and a narrow hallway which connected the two rooms. Along his bedroom wall, the hallway turned toward the back of the house and ran to the stairs. Andy’s parents' room was behind his room, but any space within the mock house which wasn't assessable to viewing for the Praxian visitors were non-functional. The doors to those rooms were sealed shut and merely decorative, just like the fake doors on the first floor. There was nowhere Andy could tuck himself away from the prying eyes of the Praxians.
The lower floor was divided between the living room and the kitchen. A flat photographic backdrop of the street Andy had grown up on was framed by the large living room window on the left side of the house. And behind the sliding glass doors of the kitchen on the right side of the house, a flat backdrop depicting their backyard.
Andy didn't noticed the approach of the concrete slope behind him as he stumbled backward in astonishment. His heels hit the base of the slope and he fell like a tree, landing flat on his back against the concrete. He looked up and saw a crowded row of Praxians pointing at him and cackling through the viewing window. Andy sighed and pushed himself up. After rubbing out the pang in the back of his head, he scrabbled up the slope to a narrow ledge which ran along the front of the window. Everyone on the other side swarmed toward him like metal shavings to a magnet.
Andy and the Praxians were separated by the sill of the enormous window, a foot thick and just a couple of feet from the ground. But Andy couldn't detect any glass within it. He held a hand up to the window. Just as he thought, another force field.
As found in the zoos back on Earth, the most eager onlookers here were the children. A great swath of wide-eyed Praxian boys and girls lined the window sill, gawking at Andy's every move with fingers hanging from their mouths. The older Praxians stood a little further back, more varied in their reaction. Some gazed at the primitive "human" with mild curiosity while others studied him intensely. Andy also caught many distasteful glares and more than a few condescending smirks.
Further back behind the window, many Praxians were strolling to and fro, either not finding much interest in Andy or wanting to see something else. What Andy could observe through the window was merely a small section of a great hallway. There must have been many other "exhibits" nearby as Andy saw plenty of visitors gawking and pointing to things further along the hallway. But it seemed he and his fellow inmates were all lined up along same side so they couldn't see each other. There was nothing on the opposite side of the hallway for Andy to observe besides some light fixtures.
One of the most notable things about the Praxians was their singular sense of fashion. Everyone was encased in the same colorless body suits worn by D86 and B101. Men, women, boys, girls -- it didn't matter. Andy wondered if they got the memo from Gene Roddenberry requiring all advanced civilizations to stick to one uniform.
A blue light flashed directly in front of Andy, below his eyeline. He looked down and saw a little boy holding one of those camera-like devices he had seen before. Every time the light flashed, a hologram of Andy was projected above the camera for a couple of seconds. A preview of the three-dimensional image it had just captured, no doubt. Andy realized something else -- this was the same Praxian boy whom he had noticed earlier. Unlike the other observers who had come and gone, this boy had been a fixture at Andy's cell since he first regained consciousness. The boy gazed up at Andy with a galaxy of fascination spinning in his large, doe-like eyes. It seemed Andy had his first fan.
He bent down and greeted the boy with a little wave. "Hey there, buddy."
A giant grin filled the boy's empty helmet. He mouthed something back to Andy but his voice couldn't be heard. Apparently, this particular force field also worked as a sound barrier. Andy couldn't hear so much as a pin drop from the other side.
Unable to communicate, Andy just stood there, awkwardly looking back at the Praxians. He didn't know what else to do. Soon, his viewers grew restless and started drifting away from his cell, onto the next thing. The boy lingered and took a few more holograms of Andy, but even he seemed to be nearing the end of his interest. He started glancing around, wondering what else the zoo had to offer. Andy couldn't explain it, but that struck a primal, perhaps evolutionary, chord in him. He felt like the boy wasn't just losing interest in him, but in the entire human race. Andy was damned if some other species was going to outshine the human!
He waved frantically at the little boy. "Hey, over here!"
The Praxian boy caught Andy in his peripheral vision and turned back. Andy gestured for the Praxian boy to stay put as he made his way back to the livingroom where he could take advantage of the slick hardwood floor.
Before all his other hobbies were consumed by drawing, Andy went through a fairly heavy breakdancing period as a kid. He used to pay a talented friend in his neighborhood a quarter per lesson. He looked at the Praxian boy and urged him to clap along with him. The boy looked utterly baffled, like he had never clapped to a beat before. Frustrated and confused himself, Andy finally gave up on getting the boy to clap, and just started dancing. He was a little rusty, but he popped and locked into some decent moves once he got warmed up. It worked. The Praxians began drifting back to his cell. But not in the way Andy had expected. After an epic caterpillar across the living room floor to top off his routine, Andy looked over at his audience, eager for their reaction. A sea of bewildered faces stared blankly back at him. There was no applause, not even a smile cracked amongst them. They turned to ask each other what the hell Andy was doing. Even without sound, it was obvious from their expressions. Okay, Andy thought, it was time to bring out the big guns...
He threw himself into a much more advanced routine, topping it off with the most difficult move he knew -- a spinning handstand. But not having practiced it in years, he immediately lost his balance and collapsed onto floor, straight on his head. A loud crack rang through the cell. At last, the Praxians erupted into applause. They wiped tears from their eyes, cackling and pointing at the bumbling human. Their ridicule intensified the pain in Andy's head. But the boy was different. He was applauding with awe and appreciation, a big smile bridging the sides of his helmet. Andy smiled back, rubbing his head.
The boy's mother appeared and tried to usher him away. But he stood his ground and seemed to be pleading for something. With a weary smile, she sighed and nodded. The boy spun around and gleefully waved Andy over to him. He handed the holographic camera to his mom once Andy had rejoined him at the force field. He gestured at Andy to smile at the camera. The mom took a hologram which the boy and Andy examined with great delight. It was a great snapshot. Despite the many odd differences between the two species, they had one thing in common -- their smiles.
As the boy was being lead away by his mom, he flashed Andy one last grin. He waved until Andy was out of his sight. "Bye, little buddy," Andy said, returning the wave.
Andy strolled back to his room with a lift in his steps. The joy in the boy's face lingered in his mind. He was caught off guard. He certainly wasn't expecting to feel uplifted during this dehumanizing job. By the time he got back into his room, he was consumed with a need to draw the Praxian boy. He hadn't felt the need to draw anything in months. He felt alive, like a missing limb had returned.
Andy looked around and found his satchel bag at the foot of his bed. He snatched it up and moved to his desk, trying his best to ignore the prying eyes at the viewing window. When he opened his bag for his sketchbook, he was struck with a rush of emotion. During all the insanity, he had completely forgotten about Yumi's purse. He still had her phone and sketchbook.
He pulled out the little bag, a shock of yellow canvas amongst the drab items in his satchel. He was stricken with guilt. He should have returned it before leaving with D86 and B101. He felt a pang of empathy imagining Yumi looking all over for it. The last thing he wanted to be was a source of stress for Yumi. Now he had two calls he definitely had to make when B101 came back to feed him.
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