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Yumi shot Andy an impatient glance over her shoulder and waved him forward.
"Come on! Hurry up, Andy!" she hissed. "D86 won't forget us for long. He'll probably be racing back to hunt us down any minute now!"
"Okay, okay!" Andy whispered back. "I just want to make sure no one else is following us!"
After taking one last look behind him, Andy scuttled forward and caught up to Yumi at the intersection. The corridor they were currently scurrying through came to a halt against a larger, perpendicular hallway. They could hear noises of a scuffle somewhere close by, and they guessed it was around this corner. They had been sneaking around in the corridors for a few minutes and thus far gone undetected. But although Andy was finally out of his cage, he didn't feel any sense of freedom. They could still run into a Praxian at any moment and be tossed right back into their habitat. Luckily for them, all the Praxians seemed to have been diverted to the Kyderons wrecking havoc inside the zoo at the moment. The hallways were deserted, and so were the various rooms and offices they had crept by. Andy assumed Mo was still running free from the sounds of all the pandemonium around them. The intruder alarm continued to blare.
Andy and Yumi breathlessly crept along the right side of the corridor and peered around the corner. Lo and behold, the battle between the Praxians and Kiderons was raging in a parallel hallway a few dozen yards away. First Kiara and her soldiers rumbled past in the distance, whipping bolts of energy from their shooting stars behind them. Then swiftly on their heels came the Praxians, filling the hallway with blaster fire. Curiously, Mo wasn't anywhere in the mix. Once the whole chaotic procession had passed, Yumi bolted up from her crouching position.
"Okay, the coast is clear. Let's go!"
But before she could take a step forward, Andy pulled her back by her yellow backpack.
"Wait a minute," he hissed. "Wait! Where exactly are we running to? We don't have any place to go!" He couldn't believe this hadn't occurred to him before. Having been so consumed with the idea of escape, he hadn't considered where they were escaping to.
Yumi shot him a crooked smile.
"Yes, we do," she said gleefully. "Back home! We just have to find the room with that tuner thing."
Andy coughed up a dry laugh. Then he realized she wasn't joking.
"Are you being serious?" he asked. "Even if we do manage to find it and not bump into any Praxians on the way, what makes you think we can operate something like that? First of all, you need one of those tuner key things to--"
Yumi produced a tuner key from her bag. The same round device Andy had seen Dash remove from her belt and insert into the tuner when she brought him to Praxis. Yumi held it up in front of Andy's face and grinned.
"Remember my little secret?" she asked ruefully. "My 'ruby slippers?' Ta da!"
Andy's jaw fell open. "How the hell did you--"
"I stole it from Dash when she and D86 first brought me here." She tucked the key back into her bag. "After the jump, I regained consciousness for a brief moment while Dash was carrying me to our habitat. She had me tossed over her shoulder, and when I opened my eyes, I was face to face with the key on the back of her belt. So very carefully, I took it off her belt and pulled it up in my sleeve. It was really tough, but I forced myself to stay awake until I had been laid down in your bed. Once they were gone, I finally let myself pass out. Yeah, you can say it. I'm pretty awesome," she grinned. Then her face crumpled with irritation. "It's too bad Mo had been buzzing around at the time and saw me do it. It drove me nuts that he had the upper hand on me like that."
Andy was struck speechless by Yumi's cunning and good fortune. Then reality set in again.
"Okay, that's great and all, but we still need to know how to operate the tuner," he declared. "It's not like the tuner is automatically going to whiz us back home just because we stick the key into it."
Yumi shrugged. "Eh, how hard could it be? I made sure to pay real close attention when they were operating it. All they did was insert the key, punch in some coordinates, and push that giant glowing button."
Andy dropped his head into his hands and moaned. "Oh my god. You're going to tune us straight into hell."
"Andy, what choice do we have?" she asked soberly. "Do you just want to sit in that cell rotting away in self-pity or do you actually want to live? It's a slim chance, but it's still a chance! We have to take it!" She put a hand on Andy's shoulder and locked eyes with him. "Just like everything else worth doing in life."
But as Yumi spoke, Andy was struck with a grave realization. "Wait a minute. So Dash didn't lose the key... You stole it! You're responsible for her being fired. Which means you're just as responsible for her predicament as I am!"
"Not this again," Yumi exhaled, shaking her head. "Look, it's not that I don't feel bad for her, but--"
"That's it," Andy said firmly. "There's no two ways about this. We both owe it to Dash to save her."
Yumi groaned. "Andy, why do you always have to complicate everything?"
Andy's face lit up as a crazy idea sprang into his mind. "Hey! We should take her back with us!"
Yumi's head snapped up. "What? Have you completely lost your mind?"
Andy placed a gentle hand on her arm. "Yumi... She doesn't belong in this world. You can’t deny that. I think she'd want to go back with us. Then she could draw to her heart's content." He squeezed Yumi's arm and looked deeply in her dark chestnut eyes. "Doesn't Dash have a right to pursue her dreams too? What if you were forbidden to be a journalist? Forbidden to write this book you’ve been typing all this time?"
Yumi sat quietly for a moment, frowning, tracing the lines on the floor with her eyes. Then she lifted her head as a smile slowly spread across her face.
"Wait a minute," she murmured. "I know why you want to save her. So she can operate the tuner!"
"What? That's not--"
"Andy, you sly devil! That’s brilliant! I underestimated you."
"Okay, that did just occur to me," he admitted. "But it doesn't change the facts -- it's our fault Dash is in the predicament she is in now and we need to help her! And okay, yeah, we need her just as much as she needs us. She needs us to save her from this godforsaken world, and we need her to get us back to ours!"
Yumi chewed her bottom lip. "Okay, I admit it, you do have a point there. She can certainly guarantee us a trip back home." Then a second later, she threw her hands up into the air. "Wait! Why are we even talking about this? Even if we wanted to save her, we don't have the means, Andy! First of all, we don't know the location of this station where Dash works. And even if we did, how the hell would we get there?"
"Uber?" Andy drolled.
"And we don't exactly 'blend in' with the environment, you know," Yumi continued. "The minute a Praxian even glimpsed us, we'd be captured and--"
Andy clapped a hand over Yumi's mouth and listened closely. Sure enough, a rumble of footsteps was approaching from around the corner. Their eyes expanded to the size of dinner plates as the footsteps drew closer with every second.
"Quick, back the other way!" Yumi hissed through Andy's fingers.
They spun on their heels and scurried back the way they had come. But as the other end of the corridor drew near, they heard another flurry of footstep approach from around that corner too! Then their knees buckled as the unmistakable voice of D86 reached their ears.
"This way! We can cut 'em off at the pass!"
From the proximity of his voice and their footsteps, it would only be a matter of seconds before they charged around the corner and saw the human fugitives standing there. Andy and Yumi screeched to a halt and scrambled back. But the footsteps from the other end of the corridor sounded even closer. They were trapped. They cowered in the middle of the corridor, looking back and forth to either end, not knowing what to do.
"Shit!" Yumi cried.
"Where do we go?" Andy gasped. "Where do we go?"
Yumi suddenly turned to Andy and gripped him by the arms, her face flush with emotion.
"Listen, Andy," she said. "In case we don't get out of this alive, I just wanted to say--"
"Psst! Up here!" a voice hissed above them.
Yumi and Andy snapped their eyes upward and found Mo hiding inside the ceiling. He was in his humanoid form holding up a ceiling tile and peering down through the gap. Without another word, he morphed into a large sloth-looking creature and lowered one long arm down to Andy and Yumi.
"Quickly!" he whispered.
He didn't have to tell them twice. Whatever Yumi was about to say was lost to the ether as they leapt into action. Yumi scrambled up Mo's arm and Andy quickly followed. Mo hauled them up with immense strength and set them down on the metal rafter he was crouched upon. Down below, the footsteps approaching from both ends were just about to turn into the corridor.
"Stay on the rafters," Mo said.
As Yumi and Andy secured themselves on their hands and knees -- the rafter was a metal beam only a couple of feet wide -- Mo quickly dropped the ceiling tile back into place.
A split second later, they heard the two parties round their respective corners and charge into the corridor below. Suddenly there erupted a burst of blaster and shooting star fire, and the screams of both the Praxians and Kiderons reverberated through the zoo. And even through this cacophony, the fugitives could still hear D86 and Kiara barking orders from either end. Andy's limbs went wobbly thinking how he and Yumi almost ended up in the crossfire.
"Jesus," he swallowed. "Imagine if we'd been caught in that…"
Mo morphed back into his humanoid form in the stuffy darkness. Yumi tried to catch his eyes, her glasses fogging up with gratitude. But before either Andy or Yumi could thank him, he put a finger to his lips and shushed them. Then he grabbed the belt slung over his shoulder and tossed it at Andy. From the belt hung a heavy sword tucked into a lavish silver scabbard. "Here," he whispered. "I took it from one of Kiara's guards."
"What about me?" Yumi asked.
"I think he needs it more than you do."
"Good point," she said solemnly.
Andy rolled his eyes and strapped on the belt. The sword's ominous weight filled him with an unexpected sense of security.
"Follow me!" Mo whispered. He morphed into a mouse and scurried down the rafter. Yumi and Andy followed as best as they could on their hands and knees. While Mo darted away comfortably in his tiny form, Yumi and Andy had to duck around a jungle of rafters, ducts, and pipes filling up the crawlspace. Standing up was not an option.
"I thought you didn't help anyone," Yumi whispered wryly at Mo.
"Shush," he squeaked back.
Mo led them on a long, winding trek, from rafter to rafter. And the only illumination they had to guide them were the slivers of light escaping through the cracks between the ceiling tiles below. God only knew what insects or rodents were creeping in the darkness around them. The clamor of battle faded into the distance as they crept further and further away. Every few minutes or so, they would breathlessly pass over another group of Praxian voices buzzing below them. But even while sneaking past successfully, they would frequently crawl face first into a tangle of cobwebs and nearly give away their position with a surprised yelp. The dust they were kicking up wasn't helping matters either. Many a time, Andy had to stifle a violent cough. He was getting the brunt of the dust too since he was bringing up the rear. And speaking of rear, since they were crawling on their hands and knees, he couldn't help but stare squarely into Yumi's, just inches in front of his face, much of the way. At one juncture, as if reading his thoughts, Yumi whipped her head around and hissed, "Eyes on the rafter, buster!" Flushing beat red, Andy dropped his head and stared intensely at the metal beam below.
They crept along like this for what seemed like ages. Mo led them on a dizzying series of twists and turns until Andy's knees turned numb. Breathing grew laborious – stale air trapped above the ceiling seemed to grow thinner and hotter with each passing minute. The heat lay on Andy's tongue like a dusty coat. Sweat pulled his clothes tightly around him. His mind was swirling. Just a few weeks ago, Andy's toughest ordeal was trying to decide which Coen Brothers movie to watch first in his Netflix queue. Now he was crawling around for his life like he was starring in a sci-fi remake of Die Hard.
Suddenly, Yumi let out a yelp and screeched to a halt. She had been crawling along when she came face to face with a giant spider crouched on its web stretched across their path. Mo had crawled right under it and hadn't even noticed. Lost in thought, Andy didn't have enough time to stop himself before his face plunged squarely between Yumi's pillowy cheeks.
Shocked from the sudden invasion into her butt crack, Yumi lost all self-control and let out a full-blown scream. Mo screeched to a halt and looked back in alarm.
"Oh, god! Sorry! Sorry!" Andy apologized hysterically, snapping his head away by jumping up onto his knees. As he pulled up, his head banged resoundingly into an air duct just above him. Jolted by the shock and pain, he lost his balance, fell off the rafter and plunged like a sack of grain through the ceiling tiles.
Andy came crashing into the room below. He landed on his side, smacking his head on the inside of his arm, but luckily, the foamy ceiling tiles provided some cushion for his fall. Dust was everywhere and for a delirious second, he was gutted of all his senses. A white fog flooded his eyes and a high pitched ringing filled his ears. Then as the dust settled, everything came rushing back to him in a wave of pain. Coughing hysterically, he pushed his upper body off the floor and squinted around the room.
He was in an armory of some kind. Countless Praxian blasters hung from rows upon rows of racks mounted along all four walls. The only break in the weaponry was a door on one side of the room, and a single window on the opposite side through which the night sky could be glimpsed. Andy didn't have time to appreciate the glorious sight of stars for the time in a month, however. He was a tad bit distracted by the half dozen Praxian guards standing in the center of the room a few feet away from him. They stood frozen, staring agape at Andy's sudden, explosive appearance.
Andy flashed a feeble grin. "Uh... Sorry about the ceiling. You can take it out of my next paycheck."
The Praxians finally snapped out of it and sprang into action.
"Get him!" one of them barked.
Four others, still unarmed, leaped at Andy simultaneously. Andy gasped and scrambled back like a terrified crab. But he was in luck – the broken ceiling tiles slid and slipped under the Praxians’ feet causing them to tumble into one another and crash onto the floor.
The commanding Praxian turned to the remaining guard who was already armed. "Set your blaster to stun and fire!"
The armed guard twisted a knob on his rifle and swung it in Andy's direction.
"Wait a minute!" Andy cried, desperately waving his hands out in front of him. "Wait a minute, goddamn it!"
The commanding Praxian tapped the side of his helmet and shouted into his communicator. "Specimen is loose in the arms room! I repeat--"
Suddenly a monstrous, five hundred pound gorilla swung down like a wrecking ball from the hole in the ceiling and smashed into the Praxian. The guard flew across the room, crashed into the far wall and collapsed onto the floor unconscious. The armed Praxian gasped and swung his gun around, but he couldn't get a shot off before Mo rammed a colossal fist into his jaw. By this time, the four Praxians on ground were getting to their feet, scrambling to grab a weapon. Morphing into a lion in mid-air, Mo lunged into them, tearing and clawing ferociously. He was making mince meat out of them, but one of the Praxians managed to slip away. He grabbed a blaster from the racks behind Mo and took aim. Luckily Andy spotted him as he was adjusting the gun settings. Andy whipped out his sword and swung it back over his head, aiming to bring it down on the rifle. But like a total noob, he stuck the blade flush into the wall behind him. Andy cursed himself for an idiot. He quickly spun around and yanked on the sword with all of his strength, but it would not budge from the wall. He whipped back around as the Praxian was pulling the trigger.
Before Andy could finish shouting his warning, Yumi swooped down from the ceiling and kicked the Praxian right across the face, splattering the nearby wall with blood and teeth. His shot went haywire, ripping into the floor, just inches away from Mo. Yumi landed like a cat, twisted the gun out of the Praxian's hands with a deft move and sent him flying against the wall with a sweeping roundhouse kick. Before he could regain his bearings, she slammed the barrel of the blaster against his chest and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for him, the gun was set to stun. As the Praxian crumpled to the floor in an unconscious heap, Yumi strutted over his body and crowed, pumped up with adrenaline.
"Yeah, in yo' face! Whatchoo got, huh? Whatchoo got, bitch?"
After several rounds of this, she finally noticed Mo standing behind her, back in his humanoid form. He was watching her with a bemused smirk on his face.
"Good job," he chortled.
Yumi inhaled and forced herself to stop shaking. Then she straightened up and pulled on her shirt with a dignified air.
"Thanks. You did okay yourself," she said. Mo stood before the pile of unconscious Praxians he had taken out and flashed a wry smile. "Now I regret ever complaining to my dad about my Taekwondo lessons when I was a kid," she added.
Meanwhile, Andy finally managed to pry the sword from the wall. And not to be outdone by Yumi and Mo, he smacked an already unconscious Praxian across the head with the broad side of his sword and shouted, "And stay down!"
Mo and Yumi turned and shot him a weary look.
"Whew," Andy said, wiping his brow. "That was a close one. You should've seen it. He pulled out a gun and almost got both of you guys! Good thing I…" He trailed off when he realized Yumi and Mo weren't buying it. He sheathed the sword. "Uh, anyway, let's get the hell out of here! I think that Praxian alerted the rest of the guards to this room."
But Andy had to take a breather as a powerful ache ran down his left side. He leaned against the wall holding his shoulder. The impact of the fall was hitting him now that the excitement was over. However he could still move everything, so there didn't seem to be any major damage.
After making sure Andy was okay, Yumi marched over to a rack of blasters. "First we should grab some of these guns!"
Andy looked at her apologetically. "Hey, I'm really sorry for, uh, bumping into you back there. I--"
"No, that was my bad," Yumi said quickly. "I almost got you killed! I shouldn't have panicked like that." She tossed a pistol at Andy. "But let's save the apologies until we've gotten the hell out of this godforsaken zoo. We've got to hurry!"
"I don't think the sneaky method is going to work with you two lumbering behind me," Mo exhaled.
"Hey, why do I get the small one?" Andy protested, turning the small rifle over in his hand.
"I think a more... flamboyant approach is in order," Mo muttered to himself.
"Because," Yumi said to Andy, "you're comfortable with the size of your penis so you don't need to overcompen..."
Her breath left her as she stared dumbfounded at the unicorn filling the room. A unicorn as majestic and magical as seen on any velvet painting at a Renaissance Fair. Yumi's eyes lovingly traced the length of his long, graceful horn to his pure white hide glittering like fresh snow in the moonlight. His eyelashes fluttered like luminescent butterfly wings over huge obsidian eyes which seem to sparkle with all the stars of a spiral galaxy.
"Hop on!" Mo ordered.
"You... You can turn into a unicorn?" Yumi breathed.
"What? You don't have unicorns in your world?"
"Oh, we do," Andy said wryly. "On girls' binder covers everywhere."
"Well, don't just stand there!" Mo snapped, kneeling down. "Get your asses on me! They'll be here any minute!"
He didn't have to tell them again. Yumi and Andy jumped onto his back without another moment's hesitation. Yumi grabbed the strap of the rifle she had taken from the Praxian and tossed it over her shoulder. Andy tucked his pistol into his belt.
As Mo was rising back to his full height, the door burst open with a thunderous crash. It was kicked in by D86 who was flanked by a pack of Praxian guards armed to the teeth with blasters.
"Don't move!" D86 barked. A triumphant look swept over his face as he eyed all three fugitives. He had remembered Andy and Yumi shortly after departing their cell. But by the time he had charged back to look for them, the cell had been deserted. Now luck was turning in his favor at last; he was poised to capture all three escaped animals in one fell swoop.
"Go go go!" Andy shouted, wrapping his arms around Yumi who was seated in front of him.
"Stun 'em!" D86 commanded.
But just as they began to fire, Kiara and her men burst through the Praxian ranks, sending their blaster fire flying in every direction.
"Get out of the way!" Kiara shouted.
The stray rounds tore up the walls and ceiling around the unicorn.
"Hold on!" Mo cried as he made a mad gallop for the window. Gasping, Yumi threw herself around Mo's neck.
"There he is!" Kiara howled, pointing madly at Mo. "Get him!"
With bolos and nets in hand, Kiara's men spilled into the room like a crazed horde and scrambled after the unicorn. The Praxians continued to fire, but they couldn't aim, getting trampled by the Kyderons. Luckily for Andy, Yumi, and Mo, the Kyderons were also inadvertently taking many of the Praxians' wayward shots.
Mo burst through the window with blaster fire and flying nets narrowly missing him on every side. Yumi and Andy shut their eyes and buried their heads as shards of glass flew all around them. They sailed through the air for an exhilarating moment before landing with a gallop on the zoo grounds outside. Andy opened his eyes to a starry sky and the biting night air whipping into his face. Air had never smelled so sweet.
They were free!
Mo didn't pause for a second. He continued bolting away from the building at lightning speed. Blaster fire continued to hound them from the window, and several shots came unnervingly close to their mark. But Mo expertly zigzagged across the compound, darting well away from most of their shots. Andy looked over his shoulder and caught his first glimpse of the deplorable zoo in which he had been incarcerated for the last month. It was a monstrous, circular structure half the size of a football stadium.
He looked down and saw a rainbow streak trailing behind Mo. Multi-colored sparks erupted from his hooves every time they clipped the ground. And the unnatural speed at which he was racing -- at least twice as fast as your average horse -- made it clear Mo wasn't simply a horse with a horn. He really had taken the form of a unicorn.
Yumi was in rapture, tightly clinging to Mo's neck with her face nestled into his silky mane. Her eyes were closed, and she had a dreamy grin stretched across her rosy cheeks.
"He smells like magic," she murmured.
Andy rolled his eyes and peered over his shoulder. The Praxians and Kyderons were clawing out of the window like a swarm of insects flooding out from a ruptured hive. Then a blaster shot zipped past Andy's head, nearly clipping off a lock of his hair. He whipped back around and cringed into Yumi's back. He poked his head up again just in time to see Mo hurtling straight toward the outer wall of the zoo directly ahead.
"Wall," he said. But Mo didn't veer or slow down. "Wall!" he shrieked, shutting his eyes.
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