TUNE - Chapter 15

Null

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CHAPTER 15

         Mo paid Andy and Yumi another visit later that evening, a couple of hours after the zoo had closed. They had agreed to reconvene after the shape-shifter had done a little investigating around the zoo as a fly. He buzzed in through the vent and morphed into his disgustingly dashing form inside Andy’s bedroom. Then he followed Andy and Yumi’s voices downstairs. Thinking it would fun to surprised them, he silently padded down the stairs. Hearing Andy and Yumi’s voices trailing from the kitchen, he sidled up to the livingroom wall like a shadow and crept closer. All he had was their voices to guide him as neither party could see each other until Mo jumped past the archway of the kitchen to surprise them. But he halted and perked up when he made out Andy and Yumi’s conversation. He clapped a hand over his mouth and stifled a laugh, his eyes bulging with puckish disbelief.

         "Oh God, Andy. You suck at this," he heard Yumi moan.

         "Will you be quiet?" he heard Andy respond with impatient, labored breathing. "I can do this!"

         "You have to go faster...!"

         "Yumi, could you please stop telling me what to do?” He gave a frustrated grunt. “Damn, why is it so tight?"

         "If you just wiggle it right, it'll be fine."

         "Look, I have my own technique, okay? Just let me do it the way I want!"

         "God, you're such a freak, Andy. Come on! Pull it out!"

         Andy grunted tempestuously through his teeth. "I'll pull it out when I'm ready!"

         "Ah! Ah! Be careful!"

         Mo tip-toed up to the kitchen entrance at that moment and took a peek around the archway. Andy and Yumi were huddled over a tall, recklessly stacked tower of Jenga. Andy’s forehead was beaded with sweat as he pulled on a half-protruding piece in the middle of the stack. With two trembling fingers, he coaxed it out ever so gently, like he was defusing a bomb.

         "It's gonna fall! It's gonna fall!" Yumi giggled.

         The tower swayed perilously as Andy worked the piece further out. There was no turning back -- pushing it back in now would certainly spell a collapse. So Andy carried on with bated breath, successfully freeing three quarters of it. It looked as if he was going to pull it off after all.

         "Ha! It's not going to fall," he boasted. "Here it--"

         "What the hell is this?" Mo demanded, striding up between them. He was sorely disappointed to discover Andy and Yumi were simply playing some dumb game. From the corner of Andy’s eye, he spotted the ruddy helmet of Mo’s penis, glistening with a fine sheen. Andy yelped and jerked away, tipping the half-extracted piece in the process. That sent the tower crashing onto the table with a raucous clatter.

         Yumi pumped her fist. "Yes!"

         "My eyes!” Andy shrieked, clapping his hands over his eyes like acid had been hurled into them. “Mo, would it kill you to throw on a Snuggie once in a while?"

         "Jenga! Jenga! Jenga!" Yumi chanted tauntingly.

         "Hey, that doesn't count!" Andy wailed.

 

 

         They retired to the living room with mugs of coffee and tea after Mo had been provided with some clothes and a thorough explanation of Jenga.

         "So! What did you find out?" Andy asked eagerly as they settled around the coffee table.

         Mo sipped from his mug. "Not much. I didn't catch anyone talking about whatever happened this morning.” Then he looked up, a curious look clouding his face. “I did see something odd though..."

         "What?" Yumi asked impatiently.

         "Well, I noticed all the zookeepers are armed now. And they seemed to have beefed up the security force as well. Something is going on..."

         Yumi bobbed her tea bag up and down in her mug. "Do you think one of the captives tried to escape?"

         "Could be, I guess," Mo shrugged. "Seems like all the heat they're packing is overkill for something like that though. The Praxians could easily overpower most of the captives of this zoo just with their bare hands."

         Mo tried to look cool as usual, but Andy could tell the Kyderon's shoulders were tense. He was nervous. Andy was about to say something when he was cut off by a loud ringing from the PA system. This one was over in a couple of seconds.

         Yumi looked around wildly. "What was that? Is it happening again?"

         "Is that another alarm?" Andy asked anxiously.

         Mo breathed a sigh of relief. He took long sip of his coffee and explained.

         "Relax. That's just the signal for our little maid service. Every month we're cleared out of our habitats so the Praxians can do some cleaning and maintenance. In a few minutes, a full-sized door will open up in the back wall of your cell. Just go through it and continue down the hall." He tossed back the last of his coffee and got up. "Well, I better get back into my cell." Then he smoothed the skirt of his dress and turned to Yumi. "Thanks for the dress," he muttered through a sour smile.

         Yumi shot him a crooked grin. "No problem.”

         Without further ado, Mo morphed into a fly and buzzed off toward the vent in Andy's bedroom. The dress fell to the floor into a heap.

         Yumi crossed her arms and grumbled once Mo was gone. "Bastard looks better in my dress than I do.”

         In a few minutes, a door opened up in the back wall of the living room just as Mo had foretold. It appeared in the same way Dash’s feeding window did, only it stretched all the way to the floor. Yumi and Andy looked at each other nervously.

         "Ladies first," Andy said, bowing and sweeping his hand out toward the doorway.

         "Who says chivalry is dead?" Yumi muttered.

         Then she shoved Andy aside and stepped timidly toward the doorway.

         "Hello?" she called into the corridor leading away from their cell. No response. "Hello? Anybody?"

         She turned back to Andy, looking unsure. Andy shrugged helplessly in response. After a hesitant moment, Yumi finally took a deep breath and marched boldly through the doorway. Andy scooted after her, trailing closely. They walked a short distance down the passageway before it veered left. After rounding the corner, they could see an exit a few feet in front of them. Their breaths caught in their throats as they stepped out into a jaw-dropping scene.

         They had poked their way into a giant, circular holding cell, about fifty yards in diameter. Carved into the wall every few feet was a doorway just like the one from which Yumi and Andy had emerged. They spied over three dozen doors altogether and from them spilled out just as many different kinds of humanoids. Many were already milling around in the center of this enormous pen. They were all different colors, shapes and sizes, some almost passably human, like Mo, and others astonishingly alien. A tiny sampling of the incalculable variances the limitless number of alternate Earths provided.

         Yumi gasped breathlessly. "Oh My God... These must be all the other captives of the zoo!"

         Andy was speechless. His jaw hung open like he was gathering flies.

         "I've got to get my camera!" Yumi proclaimed excitedly. But when she spun around to head back into their cell, a metal slate dropped into the doorway. Andy noticed all the other doorways sealing shut behind the other captives as well.

         "Okay, forget the camera," Yumi drawled. Then she hastily patted her pockets. "Damn, no cell phone either. It doesn't matter, this is still an amazing opportunity! I have to interview as many of these beings as possible before we get shuffled back into our habitat." With that, she dove fearlessly into the crowd. "This will add a whole 'nother dimension to the book! Pun intended," she snickered.

         Andy scuttled nervously after Yumi -- it was his turn to use her like a human shield. As they advanced into the throng of aliens, Andy almost gave himself whiplash gawking spastically in every direction. Something new and astonishing caught his attention with every step. Men with arms ending in monstrous crab claws, six-armed women gazing around with their three eyes, colossal purple hulks lumbering to and fro, a couple merely the size of toddlers, another couple brandishing long, thorny tails slithering behind them, on and on… Andy and Yumi's noses were bombarded as much as their eyes. They pushed though a kaleidoscope of smells with each passing coupling, some pleasant and aromatic, some blisteringly foul, and others altogether alien and, like colors, beyond Andy's ability to describe.

         Yumi was trying to talk to someone without much luck at first. Most of the other captives were already engaged in conversations with aliens with whom they were already friendly from previous encounters in the holding cell. Yumi and Andy were the new kids in the school yard no one wanted to talk to.

         Andy had always felt uncomfortable and socially awkward at parties or any large gathering where he was surrounded by strangers. A dude with a rat tail haircut was enough to deter him from social interaction, let alone a dude with an actual rat tail sprouting from the back of his head. So naturally, this was an overwhelming situation for Andy, suddenly being tossed into a giant salad of strange alien creatures. Frazzled and distracted by all the alien bustle churning around him, he started trailing progressively further behind Yumi.

         "Wait!" he called after her. But not wanting to seem like a total wuss, he forced himself to walk casually when his brain was screaming at him to run like a kid chasing after his mom at a crowded mall. "I mean… maybe we should stick together... We don't really know anyone here yet... Maybe--"

         A deep wail of pain pierced the air beside him. Andy whipped around to find a mammoth seven-foot tall mass grimacing ferociously at him. The goliath's shoulders spread across the top of his torso like a mountain range, and carved into the middle of it was a grotesque assemblage of knots and crags passing as a face. Two icy spears for tusks jutted into the air from his bottom lip. From the chin down, he was essentially a walking mountain of muscle tightly wrapped in gray, ashy skin gnarled like ancient wood. He was a vision straight out of a Guillermo Del Toro nightmare. And Andy had just stepped on his tail.

         "Watch where yer walkin’, asshole!" The behemoth roared.

         Andy was flung backward from the lightest shove. He sailed through the air and collapsed onto the concrete floor like a deflated football. And before he had a chance to catch his breath again, the fearsome alien engulfed Andy's head in one of his massive hands and plastered his cheek against the concrete wall.

         "You did dat on purpose, didn't ya?" the gruesome brute growled. His breath was hot and heavy on Andy's face, like an open furnace broiling dog shit.

         Andy managed to pry open one eye to see a crowd of rubberneckers gathering around them. A wave of excited chatter coursed through the holding pen. Yumi sprinted into view, rattling her fists in excitement.

         "Oh my god, Andy!" she gushed. "You're having a first hand encounter with another alien! This is fantastic! And of course, me without a camera or a notebook. Damn!"

         Andy hissed a muffled scream through the alien's pillar-like digits. "Helph me!"

         Yumi tilted her ears toward him. "What's that? I'm sorry, Andy, but you're going to have to enunciate. I can't understand a word you're saying."

         She leaned in closer and cupped a hand behind her ear. But before Andy could expel a muffled obscenity, the monstrous alien grabbed him by the collar and lifted him straight up into the air with one hand.

         "Don't forget the texture of his hand, okay?" Yumi called up to Andy, hopping up and down. "The texture! Oh, and the smell! Try to remember as many details as possible!"

         The alien knitted his other hand into a tremendous fist and cocked it. Andy flailed, clawing fruitlessly at the massive fingers beneath his chin. He might as well have been trying to split granite with his bare hands.

         "Wait," he squealed. "It was just an accident! I didn't--"

         "You heard him, Curly. Put him down."

         Andy peered below and found Mo calmly standing behind the giant alien. He saw Mo for the first time in the Kyderon's native clothing, and even in his dire situation, he couldn’t help but stare in awe. Mo was striking, fitted perfectly into a regal silver ensemble worthy of a prince -- complete with a silky cape flowing behind him like a waterfall. He was surrounded by a throng of women, and even a few men, who were absolutely captivated by him. They gazed upon him with dewy eyes overflowing with longing and adoration.

         Andy's fearsome assailant halted at the sound of Mo's voice and peered behind him. Mo reached up and put a hand on Curly's vast shoulder.

         "He's with me," Mo said.

         "You know dis clown?" Curly rumbled.

         Mo smirked. "Yeah. He's… he's like my pet monkey."

         Curly turned his menacing gaze back to Andy and glared. Andy did his best impression of a monkey and flashed all his teeth through an imploring grin.

         Mo jerked a thumb skyward. "Do it quick, before you get stun-zapped again for fighting in the holding cell."

         Andy craned his head back and saw two metal mesh walkways, about the width of a sidewalk, stretching perpendicularly across the entire length of the pen. They were about thirty feet above him and intersected like an ‘X’ in the exact center of the holding cell. The outer reaches of the walkways were joined to another mesh walkway which hugged the wall and encircled the entire room. Several corridors bored into the wall lead onto this circular platform at even intervals. And up and down the walkways paced half a dozen armed Praxian zoo-keepers, surveying the captives below. Their heavy boots clanged against the metal mesh with each step. One guard directly above the fray fixed his rifle at Curly.

         "Hey, what's going on down there?" he called below.

         Curly took a moment to think, then dropped Andy with a grunt of frustration. Mo swooped in and caught the young artist before he hit the ground. Mo’s fans clapped and cheered like a gaggle of teenage girls at a K-pop concert. The guard continued on his way once he saw the ruckus had been stifled.

         Curly snarled at Andy. "All right, I'm gonna let ya go dis time. But only 'cause yer a friend a Mo's. Next time watch where yer walkin', twerp!"

         "Thanks, Curly," Mo said.

         "Whatever," growled Curly. They pounded fists with brotherly affection, then Curly lumbered away, cradling his tail. The crowd gradually dispersed, and Mo finally set Andy down on the ground. Besides a couple of skinned elbows and a tender cheek, Andy had escaped unscathed.

         "That's not the best way to make a first impression on a suman," Mo smirked. "The tail is the most sensitive part of their body. You basically just stepped on his penis."

         "That walking house… is named 'Curly'?" Andy asked, rubbing his sore neck.

         Sensing a free moment, one of Mo's female admirers stepped forth from the pack. She was a gorgeous young woman who looked very much human except for a pair of pointy elf ears.

         "Excuse me, Mo?" she asked bashfully. "I'm sorry to bother you but... Do you think... I mean, I was just wondering..." Reverently, she held up a comb with both hands. "Could I comb your hair for you?"

         "Knock yourself out," Mo said nonchalantly.

         "Thank you, Mo," she squealed. And with that, she ran the comb rapturously through Mo shimmering locks, her face splitting with pure glee.

         "Do you always walk around with your fan club in tow?" Yumi asked, eyes rolling, as she stepped toward Mo and Andy.

         "Just the west coast chapter," Mo chirped, not missing a beat. Then without taking his eyes off of Yumi, he turned his head slightly toward his pack of groupies and said, "Grape." A girl with a bowl of fruit emerged from the throng and popped a juicy grape into Mo's open mouth. Mo grinned like a cat with a canary in its mouth. He gazed mischievously at Yumi as he munched on the grape. "We're having a membership drive if you want to join."

         "Can I throw up in your mouth?" Yumi sneered. "Because I don't think mine can hold all the vomit."

         Behind Mo, a small fight had broken out between several girls wanting to take a turn at combing his hair. The young woman who had originally started the whole operation was desperately trying to fend off the other girls who were grabbing at her comb. Always one to help women in need, Andy stepped up to the plate and pointed up to his frizzy black nest of hair.

         "Hey ladies, anyone want to tackle this mess?" he hyucked.

         The girls froze and stared blankly back at him. Then a second later they proceeded to fight over the comb as if Andy had never existed. He stepped back bitterly, nursing a single tear.

         "Well, I'll say one thing," Yumi scoffed at Mo, "it's good to see you dressed for a change."

         Mo held out his arms like a Las Vegas magician, brandishing the exquisite craftsmanship of his silver garments. They were reminiscent of fine Elizabethan attire, busy and elegant at the same time. The long-sleeved tunic rode high in the collar and billowed around the shoulders, while slimming pants ran snugly around his muscular legs. Intricate embroidered patterns, echoing the markings of his skin, weaved in and out like ivy through a cascade of satin, silk, and velvet.

         Mo cocked his head proudly. "Not bad, huh? Tailor-made. Not as comfortable as your dress, but it does the job.”

         Yumi pushed up her glasses and studied the beautiful clothing. "Ok, I’ll give this one to you. Nice threads," she admitted painfully.

         "You should see me out of them," Mo grinned. "Oh wait, that's right. You have."

         Suddenly all the girls buzzing around Mo stopped bickering and glared venomously at Yumi.

         "Relax, girls,” Yumi scoffed. “This walking boner is all yours.”

         Andy thought it might be a good time to change the subject. "So how long do they normally keep us in here?" he asked Mo.

         "They're usually done in an hour or so," he said while high-fiving a passing alien.

         "Mo, mah man!" the alien greeted him cheerfully.

         "What up, Larry," Mo greeted back. Yumi and Andy began to realize, with mounting horror, what Mo was to this zoo. He was the Prom King, star quarterback, and the Fonz, all rolled into one. He turned back to his human neighbors and continued. "Everyone really enjoys these monthly gatherings though. Hell, it's the highlight of everyone's dreary-ass existence here. It gives all us inmates a chance to get to know each other." He winked and grinned lasciviously at one of the girls beside him which sent her swooning.

         Yumi was looking around, rubbing her chin. "Hey, I can't help but notice that everyone's pretty similar here… I mean, we're all kind of humanoid, right? What's up with that? I find it hard to believe all the intelligent beings throughout the multiverse look vaguely like us only with pointy ears or different skin color."

         "Yeah… Now that you mention it, it’s pretty Star Trek here..." Andy muttered.

         Mo chortled. "Wait, you think this is the entire zoo?"

         "You mean there's more?" Yumi asked, wide-eyed.

         "Ha, this is just one wing. There are over thirty wings in this zoo. We're all similar here because we're part of the 'humanoid' wing. See, the exhibits are grouped by dimensional similarities."

         "Is that also why so many of us here speak English?" Andy asked.

         "You wouldn't believe the random similarities between alternate realities," Mo said. "For instance, the Praxians, me, you guys -- we all speak what you call 'English', but it's written with a completely different alphabet in each dimension. Don't ask me how that happened."

         Before Yumi or Andy could respond, a reptilian humanoid slithered into their conversation. His proportions were those of an average human man, but he was covered head to toes in scales, and his face tapered into a flat, lizard-like snout. And just like a lizard, he flicked his long, sinewy tongue in and out of his mouth, much to everyone's disgust. He wedged himself in front of Yumi and propped an arm against the wall over her shoulder. Glistening with sleaze, his amber eyes traveled around her body as he swished a drink in one hand.

         "Hey, baby," he slurred. "I'm an assstronaut and my misssion isss to exxxplore Uranussss." He flicked his tongue at Yumi and shot her a wink.

         A couple seconds later, the snaky alien was limping away with his drink dunked over his head and his nuts wedged up into his bowels. Just like the Yumi from Andy's world, this Yumi had also been taking Taekwondo lessons since she was ten years old, and never shied away from giving a demonstration.

         "I see some things never change no matter which dimension you’re in," Yumi grumbled, dusting off her hands. "Okay, I'm going to go conduct some interviews. If I can find anyone here who has evolved past the Neanderthal stage, that is..." She took turns glaring in disgust at Mo and the reptilian stumbling away.

         Suddenly a small stack of papers struck Andy in the back of his head. Sheets of paper fluttered in every direction. He spun around, reeling in surprise. The doorway leading to his cell was open again and framed inside it like a grim Frazetta painting was D86. He stood like a column straining against the weight of the entire building, clenched fists trembling at his sides. His real eye was slitted under the weight of a ferocious scowl. It smouldered with such intense anger and hatred, Andy thought a fireball would erupt from it and engulf him in flames. Even the robotic eye seemed to glint with emotion somehow.

         Withering from the Praxian's fearsome glare, Andy knelt and ruffled through the sheets of paper. They were Dash's drawings. He felt the blood drain out of his face.

         The metal slate dropped into the doorway once again after D86 stepped into the holding cell like an angry bull. Andy's knees buckled under him and his mouth went dry. Just at that moment, he also caught a glimpse of Curly from the corner of his eyes. The monstrous suman forced his way through the crush of onlookers gathering around Andy and D86.

         Andy overheard him snarl to another alien. "Hey, is that...? It is! It's D86!"

         "What the hell is he doing in the holding cell?" the other alien whispered back, astonished.

         "I don't know," Curly growled in a low, spiteful rumble. "But it's payback time." He pounded his massive mitts together and popped his knuckles.

         But D86 didn't pay any heed to Curly or the waves of confused, nervous chatter rippling through the gathering crowd. Like a horse with blinders, the only thing in his sights was Andy.

         He pointed at the drawings in Andy's hands. "That better not be what I think it is," he growled.

         Andy gulped. "Y-yeah, I know, my handle on perspective sucks. But, come on, you’ve got to give me a little props for the figure work."

         "What the hell is Dash's signature doing on them?" D86 roared, feverish with rage.

         Before Andy could muster up a response, Curly hurled himself at D86, his giant fist leading the charge like the head of a flying mallet. Without even pulling his eyes away from Andy, D86 raised a hand and caught Curly's fist. Then using Curly’s arm like a handle, he pummeled the savage behemoth into the floor repeatedly and tossed him aside. Curly crashed into the concrete wall, and slid down to the ground in an unconscious heap. A Curly-shaped indentation was left crumbling on the wall. The holding cell went deathly silent. Everyone was shell-shocked. Andy heard Yumi swallowing frightfully on one side of him and Mo’s groupies mewing and cowering behind him like frightened lambs on the other.

         With the pesky suman out of the way, D86 stormed toward Andy. Andy staggered back in a panic, but found himself barricaded by the wall of onlookers behind him. D86 snatched the drawings out of Andy's hands and crushed them into his anvil of a fist. He waved the thrashed sheets of paper in front of Andy's terrified face.

         "I'm only going ask you one more time. Did Dash really do these?" He shoved his ghostly, hollow face all up in Andy's grill. Andy squinted against the cold, blue glow of D86's robotic eye.

         "N-no!" he sputtered. "I was just--"

         Without warning, D86 whipped out a brain drive and jammed it against Andy's forehead. After a second, he tore it off and clipped it back onto his belt. A cold, familiar numbness lingered on Andy's forehead, just like the last time his brain had been scanned.

         "I'll just see for myself," D86 snarled.

         Then the fearsome Praxian spun on his heels and marched to the center of the pen. The crowd of aliens parted like the Red Sea to get out of his way. Once he was directly below the intersection of the two walkways, a zookeeper above pressed a few buttons on a hand-held device. Then a circular man-sized hole opened up in the intersection, through which a column of light shot down from the ceiling. The light lifted D86 into the air, and the hole sealed itself once he had been pulled above it. The Praxian guard pressed another button and the tractor beam faded, dropping D86 gently onto the walkway. D86 marched toward a doorway with his heavy footsteps clanging against the metallic mesh.

         "Boot up the brain drive reader," he ordered, marching past the tractor beam operator. "I need to see something immediately."

         Suddenly the room was rocked by the same boom everyone had heard in the morning. And just as before, a screeching alarm followed shortly thereafter. Everyone in the holding cell stopped in their tracks and perked up in a panic. T21, the field commander of the zoo guards, burst through a doorway onto the circular walkway, hollering after D86.

         “Sir, we're getting reports of another dimensional breach!"

         "What?" D86 bellowed.

         "This time it's in wing 16, sector 4!"

         All the Praxians turned to D86.

         "Well, what're you all waiting for?" he barked. "Grab your blasters and get your asses over there! Now!"

         The entire cadre of zookeepers dispersed like a pack of fleeing roaches, leaving the platform of walkways deserted. The "animals" below were abandoned in the holding cell to wonder and chatter nervously amongst themselves. The alarm continued to wail.

         Yumi, Mo and Andy huddled together, obtusely scanning the deserted walkways above.

         "Dimensional breach?" Yumi asked quizzically. She turned to Mo for some possible answers, but found him uncharacteristically pale and anxious.

         "Damn it," he uttered through his teeth. "I wish I could get out there right now and find out what's happening..."

         Andy's mind was far away however. He knelt down and woefully gathered the crumpled remains of Dash's art.

         "Dash," he muttered to himself. "What have I done...?"

CHAPTER 16 >>


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