TUNE - Chapter 25


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         If you've ever wondered what it would feel like to have all your senses simultaneously ravaged, Andy would suggest taking a whirl in the tuner. If you want to simulate the experience, look directly into the sun, press your ears to a jet engine, then spin until your organs try to escape your body through your back from the centrifugal force. Oh, and that metallic taste on your tongue? That's the taste of terror and hysteria from the most primal depths of your lizard brain as all your bearings abandon you. You don't know whether to scream, cry, laugh, vomit or shit your pants. If the human body was capable of doing all those things at once, it probably would.

         Andy made a mental note to himself: If you survive this, email a sternly worded complaint to the tuner designer.

         Strangely, tuning felt even worse the second time around. Of course, this time, there was a good chance Andy and his companions were tuning to their deaths.

         Andy squinted at the culprit who had set them on this untenable path. Mo's face was furrowed into a grimace of teeth-gnashing fear. Somehow that relaxed Andy... To know Mo was scared too, that he was human... or Kyderon, so to speak. Mo wasn't completely fearless after all, despite the cavalier image he projected. Shockingly, it seemed the risk of death in the tuner was preferable to the life he was fleeing. Of course, on the other hand, there wasn't much choice unless they wanted to spend the rest of their lives in a cell. Who knows, perhaps a swift death was preferable to the fate which awaited them had they surrendered to the Praxians.

         Andy hated to admit it, but as abrasive and infuriatingly arrogant as Mo was sometimes, the Kyderon really was his first friend in Praxis. Mo may not share his sentiments of friendship, but the shape-shifter definitely kept him from going insane in that cell, and that was friend enough. And let's face it, their escape would have been impossible without Mo's amazing powers, composure... and compassion. Andy knew Mo would never admit it, but there had to be more to his actions than self-preservation as he liked to claim. He had saved everyone far too many times to make that seem plausible. So despite possibly sending them all spinning to their deaths, Andy knew for sure he would miss Mo if the runaway prince didn't make it out of this with the rest of them. Mo was the abusive older brother Andy never had.

         Dash couldn't have been more different from the first time she and Andy had tuned together. Back then, she had treated the dimensional jump like a roller coaster. Now she sat limp in her seat, gazing blankly at the whirling room with hooded eyes. Her initial terror triggered by Mo's rash action had passed. It seemed she had accepted whatever fate awaited them. But despite her detached outward appearance, Andy knew a chaotic storm of emotions was raging inside her. A fight between her loyalty to her father and what was right for herself. Andy was filled with pity... and guilt. It was all because of him that Dash was in this predicament. She had been mindlessly happy before he came along. Like someone who was clueless to the concept of sadness until it was shown to her. Andy showed her art and it opened up her world. But was that right? Ignorance can definitely be bliss sometimes. Andy tried to catch her eyes to convey his feelings. Even if it was only through a look, he had to try. It could be their final fragment of communication. But her invisible eyelids lowered and her eyes disappeared. Then she closed her lips and her helmet became a hollow void.

         With a heavy heart, Andy shifted his gaze over to Yumi and realized she had been watching him the entire time. He could feel it. Squinting through the light, she mouthed something to him. But of course, it was impossible to make out the words over the noise. From the movement of her lips, it may have been, "I'm sorry," but Andy would never know for sure. Despite whatever friction they had between them, she was the last human being he had shared his life with. This time, her glasses didn't fade away in his mind's eye and he only saw the Yumi in front of him, the Yumi facing possible death with him. Andy tried to speak, fruitless as it may have been, but overwhelming vertigo and nausea made it impossible. So, like with Dash, Andy tried speaking with his eyes, and this time he got his chance. But he found he didn't have to. It was clear she understood everything he was feeling. And he her. They locked eyes as if they were connected by an invisible tether, keeping the last two humans either would ever know anchored to a world spinning impossibly around them.

         But within the next few seconds, they were forced to shut their eyes as the pylon of energy flared into a blinding light. The tuner was nearing "hyper-terminus", the moment after it had spun through the interspace between dimensions and reached the correct "frequency" to blast into a parallel universe.

         As everything turned white, an unexpected calm settled over Andy. If this was the end -- if they tuned into a black hole or the center of a star and suffered instant destruction, he suddenly realized with bracing lucidity that his life finally had some meaning. Some meaning! He could've never imagined feeling that way before he came to Praxis. He started to laugh. Laughter he couldn't hear. Back home, Andy had nothing but the future to look forward to. Nothing but dreams of making his mark on the world with his art. And in an insane twist of fate, it seemed he had. In a far more profound way than he could've ever achieved back home. How could he have predicted the resulting chain reaction when he showed his drawings to Dash? For good or for bad, he had brought art into Praxis. That was the last thing he could have imagined happening when he signed up to be a zoo animal!

         The artistic path is different for each person and the way ahead is impossible to predict. So don't worry about the road, simply focus on making the best footprint you can with each step. That's what Andy would say now to a young artist, having gone through this experience.

         If he died in the next second, at least Andy took with him the memory of Dash's face when she discovered art for the first time. He couldn't help but smile imagining the same expression on the little Praxian boy's face as he taps into the Feed and sees Bob Ross creating a world from scratch. Suddenly, that made Andy remember something Yumi back home had said to him on the bus that fateful day. And he felt at peace.

         Before Andy was knocked out by the hyper-terminus, the last conscious corner of his brain drifted to a memory. That night at the Thirsty Boar when he had announced his early retirement from college to his closest friends...


         "Look, the point is, I can draw! I can paint!" Andy blurted, inhaling a burp. "I don't see why I have to go through another year of watercolor blends and contrapostos just to get a piece of paper that says I can." He took one last dramatic swig of his beer and slammed the mug down onto the table. "I've already submitted my portfolio to a bunch of publishers. It's only a matter of days before the offers start pouring in."

         Tony rolled his bulgy eyes. "My, aren't we confident."

         Roger exchanged a worried glance with Yumi. "Are you sure about this, dude?" he asked Andy.

         "Relax! I got this." Andy waved him off and mindlessly took another dry swig from his empty mug. "Shit," he chuckled. A noticeable slur was creeping into his voice. "Be right back. I need another drink."

         Yumi slid her empty beer bottle aside and hopped off her stool. "I'll join you, Norman Rockwell."

         Roger and Tony watched them weave their way to the bar.

         "I sure hope he knows what he's doing," Roger muttered.

         Tony sipped his rum and coke through a sleepy grin. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure Yumi likes me."

         Roger glanced wearily at Tony. "I was talking about him dropping out of school, you dweeb."

         Tony shook his head with pity. "Oh, that. Yeah. That poor delusional fool," he grunted. In Klingon.

         Yumi and Andy pushed through a dense bog of writhing hipsters to reach the bar. The Thirsty Boar was packed that Friday night, bustling with students from the College of Visual Arts across the street. Everyone was drinking away whatever meager scrap of knowledge they had accidentally absorbed that school year. And considering they were all art students, "meager" was a generous adjective. It would be a miracle if the combined knowledge of Math in the bar reached rudimentary division. And although Andy wasn't much of a drinker, he had to take part in the wake of a particularly grueling year. The end of his third year in the Illustration program.

         Yumi and Andy ordered a couple more beers and gazed at a blustery band setting up on stage.


         "I know, I know," Andy cut in. "I know what you're going to say, Yumi. You think I'm making a big mistake, right? I've heard it all from my parents."

         He blew a lock of greasy hair off his forehead. Yumi leaned back on the bar and chuckled.

         "Actually, I just had a question," she smiled. "If you're not around at school anymore, who am I suppose to laugh with the next time Neo reaches for the sky?"

         They cracked up at their shared memory of "Neo," an eccentric, dreadlocked nude model who was a regular in one of their figure drawing classes. One day during a laying pose, he fell asleep and had a... stimulating dream, if Andy had to wager a guess. It seemed no soldiers had been harmed that day because he was definitely at full mast. Yumi's lager-flushed cheeks glistened like red apples as she laughed.

         Andy snorted. "Hey, if I can't find an art position soon, I might be fighting Neo for his job. Who knows, maybe you'll be laughing at me next semester."

         "Hm, I guess I'll have to buy a pair of binoculars then," Yumi smirked.

         "Oh, come on! It's not true what they say about Asian dudes!"

         "I'm just kidding. I laugh at you for lots of other reasons."

         The bartender handed them their beers as they chortled like a couple of drunks. On the stage, the band was nearly ready to go. The lead singer strapped on a battered guitar and tapped on his mic. Andy snuck a peek at Yumi as she gazed mindlessly at the stage with a perfectly content, sleepy smile laying across her face. A backlight from the stage caught her from the opposite side and casted a brilliant blue rimlight on her profile. That glowing outline was etched into Andy's retina. He had never felt so close and relaxed with Yumi before. He didn't know if it was the alcohol talking, but he felt like he could tell her anything at that moment.

         Her hand was just inches away from his. So close he could almost feel the heat from her fingers. With his heart pounding, he slowly lifted his hand... and nudged her on the shoulder. Like the gutless chicken shit he was.

         "Hey, can I be honest with you?" he said.

         Andy almost took a step back when Yumi turned around and locked eyes with him. She had never looked at him like this before -- expectantly, almost pleadingly, flushed with vulnerability.

         "Of course," she answered in a soft voice. Andy noticed she was chipping away at the label on her beer bottle with her thumbnail. She didn't seem to realize it though.

         "I, uh... I'm actually pretty scared," Andy stammered. "If I don't get a job right away, my parents are never going to let me live it down. You know how it is with traditional Korean parents... I want to prove them wrong so badly. I want to show them that it wasn't a mistake defying their expectations and going to art school. That I can 'make it.' That's why I can't do the school thing anymore. I'm ready to take on the world. Now! I feel like a... like a horse in a race who's just standing in his carrel when the starting gun has already gone off. And don't get me started on not wanting to owe another year of student loans..."

         Yumi was nodding along but Andy wasn't sure if she was really listening. The reflection of lights in her eyes quavered in a way which made his heart race. Did she want him to say something else? Could that be possible? But Andy's deplorable self-esteem wouldn't allow him to believe that. When it was apparent that he wasn't going to say anything else, Yumi's cheeks seem to lose some of their luster.

         She started to say something then closed her mouth again. Finally she murmured, "Andy, listen..."

         She paused again.

         "Yeah?" Andy urged.

         "I'm going to--"

         The band exploded into a furious punk song. Suddenly their little world where only their two voices existed was torn asunder by gnashing guitars and pounding drums. Banging heads erupted all around them. Yumi's lips continued to move but Andy couldn't hear a word she was saying.

         "--miss seeing you every day in class," she said.

         Andy moved in close and yelled into her ear. "What?"

         "I-I'm going to miss you!" she shouted back.

         "What? I can't hear you!"

         Yumi sighed. She put a hand on his shoulder and spoke directly into his ear. "You'll be fine. Don't worry! You're crazy talented. You're going to make Bob Ross proud!"

         They shared a hearty laugh. Then a soothing calm settled into Andy as she squeezed his shoulder and smiled. Her words of encouragement meant the world to him. She made him feel like everything was going to be okay. For once, Andy wasn't thinking about kissing her or pining after something beyond their friendship, he was simply overwhelmed with appreciation that she was in his life in any form.

         "Thanks, Yumi," he said into her ear. A stupid, sappy smile unfurled across his face.

         They turned back to the band. The trio was attacking the bar with savage songs of love and youth and not giving a shit. Yumi chugged the last of her beer and pulled Andy into the crush of moshing kids.

         They danced until they puked.


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