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In the center of a black, featureless void, the Praxians saw a middle-aged human male in a nicely pressed powder blue button-up shirt tucked into a pair of well-worn jeans. His face was framed by a magnificent brown afro that formed a perfect puffy sphere around his head. The afro dovetailed into a neatly trimmed beard surrounding a smile of perfect sanguinity. He stood before a canvas and easel with a brush in one hand and a wooden palette dabbed with vibrant colors in the other. He spoke in a soft, deer-like voice which immediately lulled any viewer into a trance of hypnotic serenity.
"Now just dab some of that ol' Titanium White onto your brush and very lightly lay in some snow," he purred, barely above a whisper.
He pushed the brush repeatedly into the canvas, and like magic, a snowy mountain begin to take form, much to the astonishment of the Praxians experiencing this all over the planet. "Maybe in our world a big ol' pile of snow lives right here," he continued in his dulcet tone. "You've got to make a decision... Whatever you want... Whatever... Look at that son of a gun... And don't worry about making mistakes... We don't make mistakes, we have happy accidents..."
He smiled lovingly and continued painting, and soon, the mountain stretched into a majestic range which would eventually watch over a lake hugged by happy pine trees. An entire world was materializing from this human's hands, not from a computer program or a terraformer. Simply from a brush and some colored paste.
Right at that moment, twenty miles across the metropolis, the Praxian boy whom Andy had befriended sat motionless at the kitchen table, staring awestruck into the Feed. Then he gazed down at the plate of food before him, and his hands seemed to move on their own. He scooped up a handful of white gel in the carbohydrates compartment and smeared it across the kitchen table. He pushed the gel around, mimicking the Afro-ed human. Slowly a snowy mountain begin to take shape right before his eyes.
"Wow," he breathed. A tremendous smile bloomed across his blissful cheeks.
D86's face was twisted in horror. He muttered through a shallow breath. "No..."
While D86 was distracted, Andy caught a glimpse of Mo winking at him. The shape-shifter was fully awake now. Andy nodded.
Meanwhile D86 staggered back in anguish as the globe-spanning chaos Andy had wreaked upon Praxis really began to sink in. He unleashed a furious howl and snapped away from the Feed. Without another word, he hoisted his blaster in Andy's direction and flipped a switch, setting it to kill. He was foaming at the mouth, eyes bloodshot with rage.
"Now!" Andy hollered.
Mo erupted from his seat, took the form of a lion in mid-air and clobbered D86 to the floor. But not before D86 had pulled the trigger. Fortunately his gun was knocked aside by Mo, causing the shot to miss Andy. Unfortunately the stray blaster fire hit the control console instead. The struck panel exploded into flames, sending sparks and debris flying into the air. Yumi, Dash, and Andy threw themselves out of their chairs to avoid the explosion.
Back up in the tuner room, flames of a very different nature was being unleashed. At Kiara's command, the dragon filled its mighty lungs with oxygen and blasted a gale of fire upon the Tuner hatch. Kiara's troops staggered back from the heat. When the gust of fire subsided, they scurried back to the tuner hatch only to find it woefully untarnished.
Kiara cursed through clenched teeth. "Damn it! Again!"
The rider hissed another strange guttural command at the dragon. The monstrous serpentine pulled his head back and sucked in an even greater breath of air for another fiery assault.
Back down in the tuner, the fire on the console was choking the room with plumes of smoke. Coughing wildly, Yumi pulled off her hoodie and frantically flapped it against the flames. The fire was quickly spreading to the rest of the controls. Dash scrambled to a panel in the wall, punched it open, and grabbed the fire extinguisher inside.
Meanwhile, Mo and D86 were locked in a fearsome struggle. Mo had D86 pinned to the floor, pulling on every ounce of his strength to close his massive jaws around the Praxian's face. D86 was flat on his back, pushing back against Mo's muzzle, the muscle cables around the arms of his suit near bursting from the strain. Mo's breath was hot on the D86's face. The Praxian squinted away from the saliva dripping from the rows of razor-sharp, spearhead-sized teeth bearing down on him. It was a war of pure strength, and neither titan was giving an inch. Hoping to turn the tide in Mo's favor, Andy snapped up the shooting star from the floor and rushed toward the fight. He whirled the formidable Kyderon weapon in his hand until it crackled with green energy.
He called to Dash behind him as he ran. "Dash, open the hatch! I'm going to knock his ass out of this tuner!"
But Dash was busy blasting the console with the fire extinguisher. Yumi did her best to smother the flames with her hoodie. Sparks continued to fly.
"Okay! Hold on," Dash shouted back. "We've got to contain this before the damage spreads!"
On the floor, D86 was finally beginning to cave. His arms trembled as they slowly gave way to the pressure. Mo roared ferociously, his teeth steadily inching closer to D86's face. But just as Mo's jaws were closing around his opponent's head, the seasoned Praxian warrior gathered one last surge of strength and wrangled Mo's head to the left. At the same time, he twisted himself to the opposite side, and released his grip. Suddenly sans resistance, Mo's head came hurtling down into the floor like a meteor into the side of a mountain. A thunderous smash reverberated through the room. Then D86 drove his knee squarely into Mo's stomach and tossed the Kyderon back toward the console. Mo roared with pain, clawing at the floor.
However, the second D86 was up on one knee, Andy was right in front of him, swinging the shooting star with all his strength. The business end came flying on its chain like a green comet toward D86's head. Andy shut his eyes, bracing for the impact.
He didn't hear a thunderous collision or a howl of pain, just a halting thud. He opened his eyes and saw D86 grasping the studded, iron ball in front of his face.
"Oh shit," Andy whimpered.
The Praxian's face was twisted with fury. While holding onto the shooting star with one hand, he backhanded Andy with the other, sending the young artist flying backward toward the control console, a good ten feet away.
Meanwhile, above, the dragon's chest was glowing like a furnace as he prepared to unleash a hurricane of fire.
Simultaneously, back down in the tuner, Yumi and Dash were smothering the last lick of flame on the console. At their feet, Mo and Andy were writhing on the floor, trying to catch their breath.
"Okay, the fire's out," Yumi cried. With a trembling hand, she picked up the morning star Andy had dropped and prepared to make her own charge at D86. "Dash, open the hatch!"
D86 rose up like a mountain emerging from the floor. "That's it," he panted. "I'm going to rip you animals apart..."
Dash pounded a button on the console. "Got it!"
The tuner hatch, directly above D86, flipped open.
At that precise moment, the dragon blasted a tsunami of fire straight from hell. It roared unimpeded into the tuner and D86 was instantly engulfed in an inferno. A powerful blast of heat and light came flooding into the control room following the fire.
The others inside the tuner were thunderstruck. Mo and Andy threw their hands up over their faces while Yumi staggered backward and ducked behind the console. Dash tumbled back off her chair.
A ghastly scream ruptured from D86 as he was roasted alive.
Dash reached for her father and shrieked. "Dad!"
Finally, the dragon ran out of breath. When the torrent of fire subsided, a smoking, charred heap dropped to his knees and fell flat on his face.
A morbid silence fell over the room. Everyone was rendered speechless.
"Whoa," Mo breathed at last. "I guess there is a god."
Then a cutting, familiar voice pierced the control room from above. "Mogens!"
Mo and the others looked up and saw Kiara's fuming face poking into the tuner through the open hatch. Much to their dismay, they could also see the terrifying crimson dragon looming over her, black smoke trailing from his nostrils. Mo unleashed a loud groan and threw his hands into the air.
"Goddamn it! I should've guessed. It's not God, it's the Devil!" As he cursed, he bolted toward D86, transforming into his gorilla form on the way.
"Mogens!" Kiara shouted. "Stop right there! You--"
Mo scooped up D86 by the neck and flung him through the open hatch. Kiara jumped aside just in time, but the roasted Praxian flew past her and slammed into the dragon's snout. The dragon snarled and reeled back from the sting. When he flung his head back, he smashed into the ceiling, just a few feet above him. His head cracked against the concrete and he unleashed a deafening roar stricken with pain. D86 fell to the floor in a trail of black smoke.
Kiara's men scattered like roaches as the dragon thrashed around in agony. Computers toppled over and machinery tumbled off shelves as the titanic beast wreaked havoc inside the chamber. All his stomping around also created a minor earthquake, causing the soldiers to buckle and tumble to the floor. Chains and industrial equipment rattled and rained from the ceiling.
"Pull yourselves together, you fools!" Kiara shouted to her flailing troops while the dragon rider tried to steady her monstrous steed. The frustrated princess pointed down to the open hatch. "Get in there and pull Mogens out! I don't pay you to roll around on the floor like a bunch of babies!"
Meanwhile in the tuner, Yumi threw aside the morning star and scrambled to the blaster rifle D86 had dropped when he was attacked by Mo. She scooped it up and unloaded it at the first soldier who put his foot through the open hatch. The Kyderons sprang back and leaped for cover as a torrent of blaster fire erupted from the manhole. Yumi continued to fire ceaselessly to keep them at bay.
"Dash!" she shouted behind her. "What are you waiting for? Get on those controls and tune us out of here!"
Dash was in shock, staring up at the open hatch with her hands clasped over her mouth. Then she whipped around and grabbed Andy by the shoulders.
"Andy Go, my dad's okay, right? Right?"
"I- I didn't know things were going to turn out like this!"
She spun back around and stared desperately up at the tuner entrance again. She looked ready to spring up the ladder.
"Oh, I'm sure he'll be fine," Mo said flippantly. "You know how tough he is! That was probably a suntan for him."
Dash quivered. "I should've never left the Feed station. I--"
"Listen, Dash," Andy said. "We can always tune back here later to check up on your wonderful father who wanted to have you executed. But right now, we need to get out of here!" He gently squeezed her shoulders. "We're depending on you, Dash."
Finally, Dash forced her gaze away from the hatch and looked down at Andy. Her eyes were large watery pools reflecting the inner conflict raging inside her. Andy moved in for a tight hug.
"Dash," he said into her shoulder. "I want to go home."
"Hey, any day now!" Yumi shouted. "This gun isn't going to shoot forever!"
At first, Dash stood limp in Andy's arms, unmoving. Then slowly, she raised her arms and hugged Andy back. After one last worried glance at the open hatch, she slumped into a seat at the console. Then she hit a button, and the hatch slammed shut.
Kiara cursed furiously, glowering once again at the manhole cover barring her from her elusive betrothed. She was so close! She whipped around to the dragon rider. The dragon was under control once again.
"Open it, goddamn it!" Kiara commanded.
The dragon expelled another terrifying burst of fire upon the tuner.
Yumi tossed the blaster aside and rushed to join the others taking their seats around the console.
"Strap yourselves in, everybody!" Dash said. Her hands flew over the dizzying array of buttons and levers. Yumi turned to Andy while buckling her seat straps.
"Hey, you want tell me what the hell is going on? What did you do to get D86 so riled up?"
Andy grinned uncontrollably. "Playing inside every Praxian brain right now is the 'Joy of Painting' by Bob Ross. And it will continue to play, on and on -- every episode of every season in an unending loop."
Yumi cocked her head to one side. "What...?"
"And Dash locked out the Feed's programming computer with several layers of encryption, so who knows how long it will take them to fix it. Bob Ross is going to show these people the joy of art, whether they like it or not."
A matching shit-eating grin slowly crept over Yumi's face until she burst into blusterous laughter. "Noice!"
She commended Andy with an enthusiastic high five. And for the first time since they had met, she gazed unflinchingly into his eyes with unabashed affection and admiration. Her glasses faded away, and Andy saw his Yumi smiling back at him. A soothing warmth spread through him like hot tea.
"I underestimated you," she said. Then her brow furrowed and the bespectacled Yumi was back. "Wait a minute. So to bring 'art' into this world, you went with Bob Ross? Really?"
"Hey, Bob Ross is a pimp," Andy said proudly. "Don't even start, dude!"
Yumi rolled her eyes. "Oh, brother..."
"Look, it's not about whether he does 'good' art or not. Good art is different for everyone. I just want to show the Praxians how much art can enhance your life. I mean, come on, is there anyone else on an eternal natural high more than Bob Ross?"
"Oh, it's natural, all right. I'm sure he was stashing the finest crop PBS money could buy in that afro of his."
"Hey, I don't know who this Bob Ross is," Mo cut in, "but I know exactly what he would say if he was here right now: Shaddap!"
Then he sank into his seat and groaned, holding his head. Not only was Mo absolutely exhausted from all the morphing and fighting, but the multiple knockouts had exacted a drastic toll on his system. Although not lethal, "just" getting stunned by a blaster wasn't without its own hazardous effects. Much like a concussion. Being stunned and knocked unconscious that many times in such short succession probably would have killed a normal man.
They could hear the roar of dragon fire being unleashed upon the tuner hatch once more. But thankfully, the force field was holding thus far. And it looked as though Dash was finishing up her preparations. The tuner hummed to life like the first time Andy was in here, shortly before tuning into this godforsaken dimension. Also just like before, the large button which Dash had pushed to activate the tuning process turned red and began to blink. Despite the damage to the console, it seemed the core functions of the tuner were still operational.
The full impact of their imminent escape hit Andy at the sight of that blinking red button. His eyes were starting to sting with tears.
"I can't believe this," he muttered in a ragged voice. He was so exhausted. They had been to hell and back for this moment. "I can't believe we actually pulled this off. Holy shit, we did it, guys! We're going home!"
"We're not out of the woods yet, kid," Mo grumbled. "Dash, is everything working okay?"
He waved away some faint smoke still trailing from the crater of charred circuitry where the console had been hit. The console was a mess. Clumps of foam from the extinguisher was slathered all over the controls, sliding down the screens and dropping into their laps.
"Dash, come on!" Yumi urged impatiently. "Punch it!"
Suddenly Dash threw up her hands and clasped her helmet. Her eyes, consumed with panic, darted back and forth between various monitors and holographic projections. "No no no no...!" The words tumbled out of her mouth between gasps. The blood drained from her companions' faces. Andy was afraid to ask. "That blast damaged the frequency calibrator!" she wailed.
"English, Dash!" Yumi cried.
"I-I can't see the dimensional coordinates! The readout is completely jumbled!"
"Stupid English, Dash!" Andy cried.
"We can't control what dimension we tune into anymore!"
A heavy hush fell over the room. Yumi and Andy stared at each other, stunned.
Andy whimpered. "Oh shit..."
"So that means..." Yumi trailed off.
"...we can't go home," Andy finished for her in a quavering voice.
Dash swallowed. "There's more bad news. Without running a full diagnostic, I can't tell whether or not the tuning guard is operational either."
As usual, Mo was the first one to collect himself. "Who cares! Just get us out of here, Dash. We can figure out the rest later once we're in another dimension! You know, a dimension where a friggin' dragon isn't trying to split us open?"
Andy spiraled into despair. Yumi, his Yumi, started to fade from his mind's eye.
Dash turned to Mo. "You don't understand, Mogens Mishu III. The tuning guard is the tuner's safety net. It makes sure the tuner shies away from dimensions which would spell instant annihilation! Without it, we could tune into a dimension of pure magma. Or a reality where a black hole exists in this very spot instead of a habitable planet! There are infinite variations to this world, many of which would be fatal for us to tune into." Then she mumbled quietly to herself. "And... even if we do tune into a safe dimension... without the frequency calibrator, I can never come back home..."
Dash only came to this stark realization as she was speaking. Her gaze turned hollow and slowly dropped to the floor.
Up above, the dragon fire was having no effect on the tuner. Kiara signaled to the dragon rider with a raised hand and the fire was ceased.
She was fuming with frustration. "Damn the Unnamed Gods! We're just wasting time. Somehow this portal seems impervious to fire... There must be a powerful protection spell surrounding it... Well, if we can't use the front door, we'll just have to go through the wall. Sinitar, smash through the floor!"
Sinitar, the ghoulish dragon rider, nodded inside her crimson helmet. Then she rasped a command in her strange tongue and her scaly steed raised one of its titanic front feet. He brought it down beside the hatch with an ear-splitting boom. The concrete floor caved like cardboard against a battering ram. Kiara and her troops rushed into the dust and debris toward the crater's edge expectantly. But much to their confusion, all they found beneath the floor were busted pipes running through a bedrock foundation. Dumbfounded, Kiara stared back and forth between the crater and the tuner hatch just a few feet away. It made no sense! The underground bunker she had just seen through the hatch should have been smashed into!
From somewhere behind her, a barely audible rasp reached Kiara's ears. "That...won't...work..."
Kiara spun around and saw D86 slowly lifting his smoking head from the floor on the opposite side of the room. He was still sizzling, charred remains of his armor crumbling from him as he moved.
"That room you saw them in... It isn't even here... in this dimension..." His voice was as ragged as he looked.
"What?" Kiara asked incredulously.
"The tuner uses a dimensional pocket to house itself... The only way you can get into that control room... is through its hatch..."
D86 collapsed back onto the floor and coughed up a splatter of blood. "Hurry," he gurgled. "The tuner is a dimensional transporter... They're going to disappear from this world any second now..."
Kiara cursed and whipped back around to the tuner. "Forget the fire! Just rip into it!"
The dragon roared and hurled all of his weight down upon the tuner with both of his monstrous front feet. Cruel, black claws, big enough to carve a cow in two, struck sparks from the surface of the manhole cover with each terrifying onslaught.
Andy and his companions jumped at the sudden, thunderous pounding. A primal panic engulfed them as the room trembled.
"Oh no," Mo muttered breathlessly. "That's got to be Tutu..."
Andy's eyebrows twisted with confusion. "What?"
"The dragon. His name is Tutu. Hey, don't look at me, Kiara named him."
They jumped again at the boom of another frightening blow. The walls shook and an alarming creaking was heard around them.
Yumi closed her eyes and forced herself to take a long, deep breath. She tried her best to steady her voice. "Okay, let's think for a second. Maybe--"
Mo slammed his fist down on the blinking button.
"Tune!" he shouted.
Then, just like on Andy's first trip in the tuner, the center of the spherical chamber was pierced with a tremendous column of energy which erupted from the top and bottom of the console.
Tutu halted his assault as piercing needles of light shot up through the little pick holes in the manhole cover. Kiara cautiously stepped closer to examine the light.
"Damn it," D86 uttered. "It's too late..."
Down below, the tuner marched into its tuning procedures. The floating chairs flew backward and latched onto the sides of the room. The clear, plexi-glass floor followed shortly, retracting away from the console in the center of the room and disappearing into the walls. Spokes of energy crackled from the main column of light and the spherical room began to spin. Faster and faster, jerking into different directions with every gyration. From the opposite side of the control room, Andy watched Dash gripping the armrests of her chair, her huge eyes consumed with fear.
"You asshole!" Yumi screamed hysterically at Mo.
"Relax," Mo shouted back. "We'll be fine. Trust me!"
"If we live through this, I'm going to kill you!"
Yumi's last words were drowned out by the deafening whir of the tuner. There was no turning back now... Or tuning back...
Back upstairs, Kiara and her men stared in astonishment as the tuner hatch began to turn translucent before their eyes. Even Tutu lumbered back a step in confusion.
"It's fading away!" the captain gasped.
Within a few seconds the manhole cover had disappeared altogether. The circular platform was suddenly deserted. It was smooth and flat as any other part of the floor. No one would ever guess there had been anything embedded there a moment ago.
Kiara scrambled over to D86 and wrenched his head off the floor.
"You!" she cried. "Where did they go?"
She was answered by a round of blaster fire nearly clipping her shoulder. She looked up and saw a horde of Praxian police piling into room, unloading their blasters. Behind them in the hallway, Kiara spotted her troops who were put on guard laying defeated on the floor. Her remaining troops inside the hangar scrambled for cover but not before many were picked off. Alas, Tutu was much too big to take any sort of cover and the Praxian cavalry mercilessly riddled him with continuous blaster fire. Kiara threw D86 to the floor and ducked behind some machinery with her troops. One of the Praxians split off from the main pack and sprinted to D86's side. It was A23. There was a bandage taped over the middle of his invisible face where Mo had dug in with his fangs.
"Sir, the police back-up has arrived!" he cried triumphantly. Then he took a good look D86's condition and lost his breath. "Great Maker, what the hell happen to you?"
A haggard cough was all D86 could muster in response.
Meanwhile, the dragon roared with pain and cowered into the back of the hangar as the Praxian onslaught continued. This time they came armed with heavy artillery -- shoulder-mounted blaster cannons, and a unit of M.A.R.s (Military Assault Robots) riveted with countless heavy-duty, military grade weapons. They gave the dragon no chance to retaliate. Scales and blood burst from the dragon's hide like confetti as dozens of rounds blasted into him without repose. Kiara's troops fired back with their shooting stars but it was futile. They were outnumbered ten to one. It would only be a matter of time before the Praxians overwhelmed them.
Kiara was foaming at the mouth. "Damn you," she rasped. "Damn you to hell, Mogens Mishu..."
She felt tears welling up in her eyes. Stinging tears of blinding rage. Mo had escaped her. Again. There was no reason to prolong her stay in Praxis any longer. Especially with her precious Tutu being torn apart. First she ordered her remaining troops to concentrate all their fire onto the ceiling between them and the Praxians. Huge chunks of concrete and machinery collapsed onto the floor, providing the Kyderons with a momentary barrier. Hands trembling with anger and frustration, Kiara grasped her medallion and summoned another dimensional portal. She ordered a hasty retreat once the portal was fully enlarged. Tutu was the first to be ushered through, a river of blood trailing behind him. Sinitar was barely able to urge him forward. Then right on his giant heels, the remaining Kyderons piled into the portal just as the Praxians blasted through the rubble.
A defiant toss of her purple cloak was the last thing D86 glimpsed of Kiara as the portal sealed shut and disappeared. The Praxians ceased firing at last. The last rounds echoed in the abrupt hush of the ravaged hangar.
Gingerly, A23 helped D86 sit up. "Sir, are you okay?" he asked fearfully.
D86 didn't respond. His heavy gaze lingered on the empty platform where the tuner had been sitting. A23 detected an uneasy clash of anger and woe in D86’s eye. The contours of his face, where the skin had been roasted off, was now visible. His face was a black, grizzled mask of charred skin and blood. Like a dead star, his robotic eye sat inert and dim in its socket. Then the veteran soldier's remaining eye went blank as his sight turned inward at the Feed.
D86 saw a pine tree magically appearing at the end of a little fan brush. The soothing voice of Bob Ross fluttered over the video.
"Look at that son of a gun... In our world, there are only happy little trees..."
A fury far hotter than the dragon fire which had scorched him blazed through D86's heart.
"Prepare the second tuner." His voice escaped his throat like the scraping of sand paper across an open wound. "I'm going to hunt them down if I have to tune through every dimension in the multiverse..."
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