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B101 reappeared through the same square hole -- which opened up like a camera aperture -- in the back of Andy's room. She held forth another tray heavy with food.
"Give me a second," Andy mumbled. "Let me just finish this one little..."
He had been bent over some drawings for the past couple of hours. After scribbling a finishing touch, he dropped the pencil in the gutter of the sketchbook and snapped it shut. "Okay, done!" he declared.
He hurried over to B101 and took the tray from her. The rich, aromatic scent of Andy's ultimate comfort food hit his nostrils. He couldn't believe it, it was phó -- Vietnamese noodle soup. Somehow the Praxians knew all his favorite dishes. He rushed back to his desk and dove into the soup like a cat into a vat of catnip. Just like the breakfast earlier, it was perfect.
B101 leaned in curiously on her elbows. "What were you doing before I interrupted you, Andy Go?"
"Hm? Oh, I was just sketching." Andy mumbled through cheeks stuffed with noodles. "I have to tell you... I haven't drawn for pleasure in months." He drew a long, savory slurp from his spoon. "This might come as a shock but acting like a monkey in this cage wasn't my dream job. I was trying to land an art gig before I met you guys. But getting rejected at every turn had killed all the joy out of drawing for me. But you know what? This whole experience has rejuvenated me. It's really inspired me to document all this... madness... through my art. Wanna see?"
He opened his sketchbook to a drawing of the Praxian boy and handed it to B101. She held it up in front of her face and blinked at it without comment. Andy winced. He assumed she was thinking of something polite to say about a dismal drawing. He felt really sheepish for putting her in that position.
"I know it's pretty crappy," he stammered, "but I'm still learning..."
B101 buried her face in the sketchbook and closely examined the drawing. Then slowly, a look of comprehension spread across her face. Like a monkey figuring out a mirror. She slowly lifted her head and stared at Andy. "This... this is the most amazing thing I've ever seen," she uttered.
Andy blushed. "Really? Well, thanks! Shucks... I don't know what to say... I mean, I don't know if I'd call it amazing... But you can if you want to." He chuckled awkwardly, fidgeting in his seat. He never knew what to do with effusive praise. "My figure drawing teacher from my last semester certainly didn't think I was amazing, let me tell you. Hey, would you mind calling him and telling him what you just said?" he guffawed.
B101 flipped a page and saw herself rendered in charcoal staring back at her. Her eyes lit up like twin suns.
"Is this...? This... this is me!"
"Yeah," Andy muttered nervously. "I hope I did you justice..."
"This is me! This is me!" she squealed. B101 was literally hopping up and down, pointing at her portrait.
"Uh, yeah," Andy said uncertainly. "Glad you like it." He wasn't sure how to take her over-the-top reaction. Was she patronizing him?
But if he was grasping for words, B101 was downright flabbergasted. She didn't seem to know where to start. "What...? How did you... How did you do this?"
"All right," Andy muttered in a bruised voice. "Now you're just fucking with me. Come on."
"Is this... What did you call it? Art?" she asked.
Andy searched the depths of her helmet for a wink or a wry smile. But as always, utter sincerity was the only expression on B101 face. At this point, he should have known B101 was incapable of sarcasm or mockery. But the question was so insipid, he couldn't help but react with disbelief. Then it dawned on him -- a prospect too outrageous and eerie to even contemplate. He wiped his mouth and carefully put his spoon down on the tray.
"Wait a minute," he said slowly. "Are you telling me... you don't know what art is? There's no such thing as art in your world?"
"No," she said, staring down at his sketchbook. "I've never seen anything like this. I mean, not from a person..."
To say Andy was stunned was a laughable understatement. A limp noodle dangled from his mouth.
B101 pulled the pencil out of the sketchbook and examined it like a mystical artifact. She went cross-eyed staring so closely. "Wait, did you use a special gadget from your dimension?" she asked. "Is this tool some kind of imaging processor?"
"No, it's just a pencil. I did that drawing freehand."
B101 gawked at Andy. "That's incredible," she declared breathlessly.
Andy sagged in his chair and started babbling uncontrollably. More to himself, really, than to B101. "This is unbelievable... How could a world not have art? Is that even possible?"
"Are you telling me you can copy anything you see onto paper with nothing but your hands and a stick of graphite?" The astonished Praxian flipped through Andy's sketchbook like it was the lost Dead Sea Scrolls as she fired off her questions.
"Yeah, it's called drawing," Andy said flatly. "It's really not that special. Anyone can do it with practice."
B101 turned silent. Then she looked up at Andy and spoke in a hushed, reverent voice. "You mean... I could do this too?"
Andy shrugged. "Sure!"
B101 raised a hand to her mouth and whispered. "Gosh..."
Suddenly the sketchbook was torn from her hands. She spun around to find D86 standing behind her like a stone sentry. He was gripping the sketchbook, his face as grim and ominous as a gathering storm.
"Go to your office, B101," he growled in a low rumble.
"Now," he snapped.
B101 dropped her eyes to the floor. "Yes, sir," she muttered, and dragged herself down the corridor.
When she was out of sight, D86 turned to Andy with a scowl so icy the young man's pee froze in his bladder. Not an easy feat considering the Praxian's stocky stature. Only his head and the top of his shoulders peeked above the window. This would have rendered most men comical, but the cutting menace of D86 knew no context. A hard glint flickered in his robotic eye.
"Now you listen to me, monkey boy," he rasped. "Keep your world's filth away from my daughter."
With that, he flung the sketchbook back into Andy's room like he was spitting.
"Filth?" Andy sputtered. What are you talking about? I was just--"
D86 talked over him banefully. "If I ever see you exposing her to that crap again, I'll incinerate that book and every scrap of paper in that cell."
He struck Andy with one last chilling glare and spun on his heels. Andy scrambled to the window as D86 marched away down the narrow corridor.
"W-wait a minute!" Andy wailed. "Listen! I really need to make a couple of phone calls! Can I just make a couple of calls before you--"
"Phone calls?" D86 scoffed. "What do you think this is? A hotel?" He raised a finger over the switch at the end of the corridor. "Get back to work."
Andy leaned into the square opening. "What? Seriously? What about my fifteen minute breaks?"
D86 snorted. "Breaks? There are no breaks."
Andy stared incredulously. "No breaks? What kind of fascist bullshit is this?"
D86 crossed his massive arms and curled his lips in disgust. "Yes, I'm afraid there are no breaks between your TV shows, naps, and meals. What a torturous life you lead."
Andy sighed. "Okay, fine. Whatever. But when the zoo closes tonight and I'm off the clock, that phone better be ready for me." He spoke with as much austerity as he could muster under D86's withering stare.
D86 rolled his eyes and flipped the switch. The service window shrank until it disappeared. Andy was alone once again, sealed inside his habitat. He picked up his sketchbook and tried to smooth out the ruffled pages.
"Man, what is that guy's problem?" he grumbled sourly.
"He's a douchebag, that's his problem."
The voice had come from nowhere. Andy jumped and dropped his sketchbook. He whirled in every direction, looking wildly around his cell.
"Of course he can't help himself, he is a Praxian after all," the voice continued. It was low and distant, swaddled in an echo.
"Wh-who said that?" Andy gasped. He looked around frantically but found no trace of anyone besides a few Praxian visitors peering through the observation window.
"Look down. At your air vent," answered the voice.
Andy turned and cautiously crept over to the vent on the floor beside the outer wall of his room. It sat between a well-worn beanbag he had owned since sixth grade and his dresser. Back home, he had spent many a winter huddled up next to this vent when his parents could afford to turn on the heater.
He took one last confounded look around the room before getting on his hands and knees. He peered into the vent but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
"H-hello?" he said directly into the grating, feeling very dumb. His small, jittery voice echoed down the air duct.
"Yo," the mysterious voice echoed back. It was definitely male, a robust baritone. If voices were drinks, this one would be whiskey.
"Who is this?"
"This is God."
Andy was so bewildered, he actually believed the voice for a split second. Then he came to his senses and laughed sarcastically. "Yeah, and I'm the Devil."
"Are you doubting my existence?"
"I'm doubting that God would call someone a 'douchebag.' I'm also starting to doubt my sanity," Andy mumbled.
"How the hell do you know God wouldn't call someone a 'douchebag?'"
Whoever it was, he was starting to irritate Andy. "Because 1) you don't exist, and 2) you don't exist," Andy retorted flatly.
There was a long moment of silence.
"God?" Andy asked.
Raucous laughter sprang out of the vent. "All right, all right! You got me, kid. I'm just fucking with you. The name's Mo."
Andy replied uncertainly, scratching his face. "Um, Andy here."
"Yeah, I overheard. Nice to meet you."
"You too. Why are you living in my air vent?"
Mo chuckled. "We're neighbors. I’m is in the cell next to yours, on the other side of this wall." Andy smacked himself in the forehead. Of course! "The previous tenants of your cell and I found out that our air vents were connected. We could talk to each other if we spoke directly into them. Pretty cool, huh?"
Although Mo was a complete stranger, faceless and alien, Andy felt a surprising amount of comfort upon hearing his voice. It was strangely reassuring to connect with someone who was stuck in the same woeful situation. The way two Star Trek fans might clump together at a Star Wars convention, despite whatever differences they may have outside of their fandom.
"What happened to the people who were in here before me?" Andy asked.
"They killed themselves."
Andy sat up. "W-what?"
"It was awful," Mo moaned.
"They were stinking up the whole damn joint!" he barked. "I could smell their rotting carcasses right through the vent. Goddamn, I'll never forget it... Do me a favor, kid. If you're going to kill yourself, do it bright and early during a work day so they find you right away, all right? None of this killing yourself right before the weekend business. Have some consideration for your neighbors."
Images of what Mo might look like flashed through Andy's mind. Mo didn't sound that much older than himself. Andy would shoot for early to mid thirties if he had to guess. Considering Mo's flippant remarks dripping with confidence, Andy pictured someone like Jack Black. But he quickly recognized the banality of his thinking considering Mo hailed from an entirely different universe. Mo could have been a talking Jell-O mold for all Andy knew.
"There was an upside to the whole incident though," Mo continued nonchalantly. "It pissed off D86 to no end. He had to clean up that mess. Serves him right!" His gleeful cackle reverberated around in the air duct.
"Okay, so what is the deal with that guy?" Andy grumbled. "Why is he such an asshole all the time?"
He wondered what the Praxians watching him through the viewing window were thinking. They must have thought he had lost his mind, rambling to himself on the floor. It was a good thing the cell was soundproofed.
"Well, like I said, he is a Praxian," Mo answered. "What else can you expect? They're all the same."
Andy picked up his sketchbook again and dropped into the beanbag next to the vent. "Hey, is it true they don't have any kind of art in this world?"
"Are you kidding me?" Mo scoffed. "Most Praxians don't even know what it is. They have no concept of art. Just like a mouse has no concept of algebra."
"I have no concept of algebra," Andy chuckled. He grabbed the pencil which had fallen nearby and began to sketch again.
"Apparently, all the arts -- painting, music, dance, theater, fiction, you name it -- were outlawed centuries ago on this world. Consequently, most Praxians have lost all concept of art over the centuries. In fact, creativity itself is virtually unknown here." He sniffed disdainfully. "Look at their names! You know 503(4)-0717.04.23.B101? 503(4) -- or 4,503 -- is the year of her birth, 0717 is the month and date of her birth, 04 is the hour of her birth, 23 the minute, and B101 is the order in which she was born during that minute. The Praxians decided that coming up with actual names was an inefficient use of their time and banned it!"
"You're kidding me," Andy muttered in disbelief.
"Why do you think they all stick to one uniform? The only thing that matters to them is functionality. Any design that you do see around here -- whether it be architectural, industrial, or fashion -- it's all laid out by computers, extrapolated from designs which were around before the ban on art. These days, they consider it a waste of time to apply their intelligence to something so frivolous.
"Praxians believe that art is the main drag on a civilization's development. And the discovery of alternate dimensions like yours and mine is the ultimate proof to them. They're zipping through the galaxy at light speed, while we can barely crawl across our art-infested planets. To them, we're as sophisticated as dogs are to us."
Andy finally understood why D86 had been so furious and protective of B101 when he had exposed her to his art. At least from a Praxian perspective. It still seemed insane to an artist such as himself, of course. His drawing hand wandered across a page in his sketchbook, dragging the pencil along, as his mind reeled at these preposterous revelations of Praxian society.
"How do you know so much about this place anyway?" Andy asked.
"I have my ways," Mo answered cryptically. "Plus I've been in this shit hole for an entire year now. In fact, I was one of the first 'living exhibits' here. I've had plenty of time to explore these freaks. And I've spent a lot of time chatting with Dash."
"Yeah, that's what I call 503(4)-0717.04.23.B101. For the dash in her name. I felt ridiculous calling her by a bunch of numbers. She likes it." Andy imagined him grinning.
"She also seemed to like my art," Andy mused. "Which seems odd considering what you just told me about these people."
"Yeah," he replied slowly. "Dash is different somehow. She seems to be on another wavelength..."
Andy suddenly remembered something. "Hey, what time does the zoo close?"
"8pm. Man, you're really eager to make those phone calls, aren't you?"
"Yeah, but I'm also really eager to take a dump. I've been holding it in since breakfast!"
Mo snorted. "Huh? Don't you have a toilet in your habitat?"
"What? Are you nuts? I can't just drop trou and pinch a loaf in front of everyone! I'll just wait until visiting hours are over and there's no one around to 'observe' me, thank you very much. It's bad enough I have to pee in front of these people..."
"You're planning to hold your crap until 8pm every day for the rest of your life?" Mo chortled. "That can't be healthy."
"Rest of my life? Hey, I don't know about you, but I only signed up for this madness for a year."
There was a moment of silence before Mo responded.
"Ah. Gotcha," he replied curtly. Then a slow chuckle rolled out of the vent.
"What are you laughing about?" Andy asked.
"Crap! A tour guide is passing by my window. If the zookeepers catch us talking to one another, they'll seal off this air vent for sure. I'll talk to you later, kid." His last words faded away as he retreated from his vent.
"Mo? Wait, come back!"
But Andy's plea was only answered by hollow silence. Shortly, the tour guide stopped in front of his cell as well, regaling a group of visitors with patronizing factoids about the human, no doubt. Andy was starting to understand why monkeys threw their poop at people in the zoos back home. He looked down at his sketchbook and studied the results of his mindless doodling while Mo had prattled on. D86 glared back at him, equally cold and menacing in graphite as he was in real life.
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