I was coated in make-up. At least, I thought that it was make-up. Whatever Clarissa was applying to my face didn't seem to be making much of a difference, no matter where or how she put it.
"Stop moving, Taku." She ordered, her strange brush sweeping over my lower left eyelid.
"I can't help it," I responded, doing my very best to be frozen in place. "You're too close to my eye."
"This is where it's supposed to go!" She explained, grabbing hold of one of my head blades to keep me steady.
I grunted irritably at the situation as the tips of the brush coated my scales. "I don't want make-up."
"Tough. You're getting it," She refused. "You need to look good for this segment. You can't go up there looking like you just crawled out of a tree."
"But I did."
Clarissa sighed, and lowered herself directly into my line of vision to grasp my full attention. "Would you stop moaning and let me do what I do best?" She giggled with her usual feminine grace. "There's not much more to do, so just stay still, you big wimp."
So I put up with it for the next minute or so as she applied the final touches to my head and my neck. Anywhere that would show up on the camera.
We were sat at the edge of a temporary studio, put up specifically for this interview in the private hall of our Washington hotel. Much of the room, usually a crowd of tables and chairs stood atop a deep red carpet with luxurious decorations lining the walls, was overhauled and replaced with all the necessary equipment of a travelling professional camera crew. A whole side of the room was awash with lighting of all difference shades and focus, each lending to a great set piece – a stool – sat in front of a glaring blue backdrop. The choice of colour confused me.
Cassie was there, talking to one of the cameramen who seemed a little star struck. Lots of people acted like that around her, which was always a curiosity. She was well known, and not just in Yellowstone.
Of course, Clarissa was there, too. It wasn't often that she was absent, and I was thankful for it. Stubborn, sure, when she wanted to keep me at a certain standard, but she was a constant source of encouragement. Needless to say, I was extraordinarily nervous about the interview and I didn't know quite what to expect. I knew of the topic of the discussion, but that was as far as my knowledge went.
And then there was Toby, not quite ever-present but always influencing. She appeared from behind the nearest camera and caught a glimpse of me kneeling down to receive Clarissa's treatment. A huff escaped her snout, and I wasn't sure if it was laughter or disapproval. It was always hard to tell with her.
"I see Clarissa got her way." She stated brusquely.
Clarissa deliberately ignored her and continued, saying to me, "There we go, just a little more here, and… Oh, wait, hold on…"
"Hello Toby." I said casually to my fellow Hork-Bajir.
She smiled lightly and came to stand beside me. Then she thought to mention, "You seem to be shaking."
I blinked first, trying to see some hidden meaning in the comment, but then I looked downwards and indeed my right foot was vibrating, stomping briskly on the cold flooring. I didn't realise it until then.
"I'm a little nervous." I told her, a complete understatement.
She showed no sympathy. Her expression remained unchanged, and her only motion was a cocking of the head. "Understandable." She mumbled.
It was very strange. Usually for those nerve-wracking moments, Toby would put aside her political suit and attempt to show some comforting ability. To see her uncaring at this time, when I was at my most tense level, caused me to swirl a new concoction of mystery in my mind.
Even Clarissa noticed, and she looked up to her between checking my head blades for dirt. "Toby, show him a little support?"
With no time for rethinking, Toby replied with a cold stare, "No. This is his mess."
She wasn't going to help, it seemed. I didn't respond, not quite knowing how to in that situation. Clarissa had a few choice words, but even she knew that her attempts to change Toby's mind were pointless. Then, she tried to double her efforts to pacify me, almost seeming to impersonate Toby's style as if to be a stand-in for my fellow seer. It didn't have the same effect, though maybe I was just too shocked to feel it.
Toby resigned herself to the back of the room, alone. I watched her from a distance as Clarissa finished polishing me up and the director announced to me that our segment was about to commence.
Clarissa hugged me, something that she hadn't done since my blades had started to grow. I wholeheartedly welcomed it, before I was urged into the spotlight by the pushy director. There I sat on the single cold stool, and looked up into the numerous lights that illuminated me.
There were a couple of screens to my right, just out of camera shot, and on them I could make out two clear images. One was of a brightly lit, blue and red studio, with two males and a female sat around a kidney-shaped desk. It was the newsroom according to a laminated label just below the screen, and I could distinguish the host of the upcoming show ruffling through some papers while her two guests quietly chatted amongst themselves.
Then the second screen was the face of a Hork-Bajir. My face, to be precise, coated in green make-up that, in all honesty, really brought out my eyes. I raised a hand slowly into the air, and the image on the screen copied. The only difference I could see was that the horrid blue background that rose up behind me had actually been replaced by a very realistic image of live D.C.
I stuttered and mumbled clumsily for a brief period, only to notice Cassie and Clarissa stood not too far to my left. They watched on with anxious eyes. Toby was still off in the distance, but her gaze was no less harsh.
"When do I start?" I weakly requested of the director, now firmly sat in his seat behind the main camera.
Nobody answered. Instead, a pair of the camera team approached me from behind a wall of equipment, carrying with them a collection of small objects. They came right up to me, and in disinterested, muffled voices they instructed me on how to wear the tiny pieces of plastic. There was a microphone, a tiny black object that would usually be attached to a piece of Human clothing. Since I wore no clothing, they hung it around my neck with a very thin piece of string. They seemed satisfied.
The remaining objects were a pair of headphones. Tiny, in-ear headphones. Now, I was no expert in this, but having seen Toby in several interviews, it always seemed as if she brought her own headphones, because they fit so perfectly and never appeared to cause her much discomfort. I had no headphones of my own, and as I was told to place them in my ears, I quickly found that they simply weren't designed for anything other than the bizarre, out-sticking pieces of anatomy that were Human ears.
"I don't think these fit…" I complained to the Humans as I tried to force the awkward pieces of plastic into the sides of my head.
One shrugged. "We don't have any more. Well, we do, but they're all the same."
"Just push them in," The other grumbled, obviously having a little less patience than the other. "You have seconds."
"Seconds?!" I gulped. "That soon?"
I was answered abruptly, as the director shouted, "Ready to air!"
That resulted in a copious amount of fumbling, scrambling at the headphones and babbling utter nonsense in a desperate attempt to prepare, but then something suddenly blasted into my ears.
It was a voice, loud and clear through both headphones and befriended with a dramatic newsroom jingle. The voice was feminine, and as I looked up at the pair of screens before me, I noticed that her words match the lip movements of the television host. The segment was beginning.
"Good afternoon," She introduced with professional smile. "And welcome back to News America!"
She continued with a fortunately lengthy introduction, as I finally managed to fit the headphones into my ears. It probably looked terrible (judging from the expression I saw on Clarissa's face in the corner of my eye), but they felt secure enough that they wouldn't drop out mid-interview.
Then again, I was beginning to shake so heavily that not even glue would hold them in place. I was quickly realising how terrified I really was.
The host continued. I didn't even know her name. "As we all know, the spending cuts now being proposed by the administration have the potential to affect millions of Americans across the nation, with some areas being hit harder than others. Under pressure from high levels of crime and low education ratings, people are wondering: "Can we really afford to cut funds to our schools and hospitals again?""
I fidgeted in my seat, waiting for my introduction to be heard as I intently watched the left television screen. The introduction felt like a life time.
"But there are areas that will not be affected by the spending cuts. Funding for extra-terrestrials, for example, has again been left untouched, and some are beginning to ask why. For example, the Yellowstone Fund, which runs a number of hospitals and education programmes in the area, has again been unaffected, while local schools and fire stations are affected deeply by the cuts. Here to discuss why are a couple of fresh faces and one not-so-familiar."
That meant me. I was the not-so-familiar. I braced myself, ready for my face to flash up on the screen as soon as my name was mentioned.
"Harry Enckelman of the New York Times," The host introduced. "Author of the book Social Musings: Where's the Money Going? It's good to have you here, Harry!"
He appeared on the screen. A balding Human in his late forties, complete with a grey suit and red tie. "Thanks, Joanna. It's great to be here again."
The host grinned and turned her head back to face the camera. "And joining us live from Washington D.C…"
That was me. I straightened up in my seat, cleared my throat, and tried with desperation to stop my tail from shuddering.
"Is Taku Kelmut, a volunteer at the Yellowstone Centre."
And I appeared on the right-hand side of the screen, the image of Washington in the background looking far more convincing than myself. I readjusted my pose in a brave attempt to look just a little more professional.
"Hello to you, Taku."
I twitched and realised that the greeting came from the host. Eventually, I responded, "Hello."
That was, thankfully, enough to appease her, and she took it from there.
"And, of course," She continued. "Kevin Morris is still here."
Kevin Morris, the overweight but smiley Human sat in the centre, laughed. "Well why would I ever leave, Joanna? These seats are so comfy!"
I got the impression that Morris was a regular. Not that it made much difference, but it caused me to feel a little better knowing that the Humans were in a good mood.
The host had finished the brief introductions, and the real meat of the discussion began. She spoke to Harry first, throwing a question for him to tackle. "Mr Enckelman, you've obviously spent a lot of time studying the patterns and effects of cuts on public funding. I mean, I've read your books, at least three of them. They're very good, by the way!"
"Oh, thank you, Joanna," He said politely. "It's always good to receive compliments, especially since it's such a volatile subject. Basically, one of the key points that I stress in my latest, um… pieces… columns, whatever, is that every time you have spending cuts, there is some political agenda behind it. Something other than simply trying to reduce the deficit."
Morris looked doubtful, and leaned in Enckelman's direction with his hands clasped. "How can it be a good political move to cut funding to schools and hospitals?"
"It's not about what they cut," Came the response. "It's about what they don't cut. That brings us to the discussion I believe we were supposed to have. I think." He laughed. "That's why we have Taku here."
I had vanished from the screen a while ago. Though I wasn't talking, my jaw was chattering, and I twitched at the mention of my name. However, my face remained absent from the screen.
Joanna nodded and explained with a chuckle. "That's what is planned. Could you explain a little more, perhaps for those in the audience who haven't heard your arguments before, why you see this as a political move?"
He paused to gather his thoughts. "Well, it's always about the individual case. In this case, we find that, once again, the funding for extra-terrestrials hasn't been cut. Yeah, maybe sometimes they need the money, but you have to look in detail! The schools and hospitals and… and fire services in Wyoming are all facing these massive cuts to their funding, and yet the funding for Yellowstone is virtually untouched. You ask why, and I'll explain why. Any time we decide to fairly cut funds to the Hork-Bajir services and the Andalite services, we are just bombarded with criticism. We get accusations thrown around that we're trying to suppress rights, you know. And once the Andalites start to make a fuss, the left just bows its head and surrenders to whatever they want!"
Morris, having remained quiet during the rant, actually seemed to agree. "I think you're right. Maybe," He laughed. "Though maybe it's not quite as exaggerated as you make it out to be. The Andalites do have a certain influence on the left, but also the right. This isn't a one-sided issue. With the technology they provide us, of course they're going to have influence. On everybody!"
"Oh, no doubt," Enckelman added. "But doesn't that make you wonder how the Hork-Bajir manage the same? Or, I should say, Toby Hamee manages the same? The thing with them is that they don't provide us with the technology and the scientific data. They don't put money back into the economy unless it's through tourism. Indirectly. Why, then, do they carry the same political influence? I'll tell you why! Toby Hamee has got the political leaders in her claws. She has this tactic where she either gets things her way, or she claims discrimination or persecution! Do you remember two years ago? That whole thing about film crews in Yellowstone? Hamee would not let those discussions happen, because every time it was brought up she put her fingers in her ears and yelled persecution."
Joanna stopped him, and I felt a cold dread as I realised that my turn was about to come. Enckelman had made his argument, and judging by Morris' reaction, I was the only one there to refute. If only I had known half of what he was talking about…
"Okay, so obviously we won't let you go unchallenged today," Joanna uttered. "We have Taku Kelmut here as well, currently working alongside Toby Hamee over in the capitol. We've heard a lot about you Taku, but this is your first time on a major cable news station, correct?"
Then I appeared on the screen, my camera on the right and hers on the left. I clamped my jaw shut to hide my nerves and coughed out a "Yes."
"I'll try to go easy on you." Enckelman offered with a cruel grin. How genuine he was, I wasn't sure.
"What do you think of Harry's comments, Taku?" The host asked, giving me a supposedly easy route into the conversation. Almost a soft-ball.
It didn't feel so easy, however. Already, my mind was a mess, and it began to stall as I tried to process all the points that Mr Enckelman had brought up. Should I go ahead with some pre-arranged speech that meant nothing in the context of the situation? Should I try to rebut his points that all seemed a little over my head? Should I defend Toby?
I looked to her for an answer. She was still at the far side of the room, her face like a rock even despite Enckelman's criticism. Not even a twitch to point me in the right direction. She was certainly not joking when she left me with the responsibility.
Then I realised that the Humans in New York were growing curious. With my mind scrambling, I must have been sat there dribbling for a good few seconds with no answer.
Joanna blinked, and with concern asked, "Can you hear us, Taku?"
Already, I felt like a complete embarrassment. "Yes. Sorry."
"What are your thoughts on Harry's comments?" Came the question again.
I had to say something, so I blurted out the first lines that came to my head. Perhaps that was not the wisest thing to do. "Yellowstone needs money. We need to educate our people, and we need to treat them when they are sick. And Toby isn't trying to trick the politicians into voting her way, she just… well… she does her best for our people, and fights back whenever our rights are infringed upon."
It seemed like a pretty solid answer to me at the time, but as I watched Enckelman's head appear on the television screen beside my own, he was gazing down at me with a confident smile and a slight shaking of the head. It was a bad sign, and his reply almost cut through the end of my own.
"She isn't trying to trick them. She's bullying them into making the decisions that she wants," He stated matter-of-factly. "And I think what you said first was very telling, Taku. You need to educate your people, treat them, whatever. That's fine! But so do we, Taku. That's the whole point! Our schools and hospitals are being cut, whereas the ones that Toby needs are not!"
I was flustered, and I knew that his response was much better than my own. My only chance was to push aside my Hork-Bajir brain and let the problem-solving seer mind take full control. I needed to lose my emotional clutter and be more like Toby, a stone house of logic and clarity.
But I broke. My eyes flashed open and my head stopped working. Suddenly, all I could see were the bright lights of the makeshift studio and the expectant faces of Harry and Joanna gazing suspiciously into the soulless screens. I stared into space, the reality of the situation simultaneously vanishing and slamming me mercilessly in the face.
Millions of eyes watched as I fell silent. The discussion was over before it had even begun.
"Is everything okay, Taku?" I heard Joanna press. "Can you hear us?"
"Yes," I grunted. "I can hear you. I'm just… I need to think."
They must have grown impatient, because I was seemingly cut from the conversation. The host moved the subject on and, apparently taking my place, challenged Mr Enckelman's points.
"In all fairness," She began. "Governor Hamee's position gives her no real place to challenge on issues that don't concern the Hork-Bajir or Yellowstone National Park. Perhaps, in a different position, she would be a vocal opponent of the spending cuts in general. Surely that should be something to consider."
Enckelman took it in and placed his hand pensively against his chin. "She has been given so many chances to speak out against the spending cuts, and yet she never has done! She approaches the senate and the house and demands that her money isn't cut. Demands! And she gets it her way every time, Joanna."
I knew that I needed to speak up. Every second spent in silence was another seed of embarrassment implanted in my psyche. And once he had finished that particular rant, I came up with a sentence or two that would bring me over the threshold.
"Our people need the funding," I blurted, my face suddenly blinking back onto the screen. "We have just come out of a war that has left many injured, physically and mentally. Without our funds, how would we care for them?"
"Are you serious?!" Was his disbelieving reply. "That was a decade ago, Taku. Yeah, some may have been injured during that war, but have you forgotten entirely that America is currently involved in two wars of our own right now, with hundreds of our soldiers coming home with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress?! Do your people have some priority over those brave soldiers, because that is certainly what Governor Hamee believes!"
"Well, no… Humans have just as much right as we do." I clarified.
"So then please explain why Yellowstone funds should not also be cut."
I clearly wasn't as prepared as I should have been. His refutation was undeniable, and I had no intent of simply pushing it aside. It was true, and that was quickly dawning on me. Suddenly, I found myself trying to defend something that even I knew made little sense.
Once more, I looked to Toby. It infuriated me, baffled me that she still displayed nothing. Not even a little concern for my predicament. I was sure that deep down, she had her reasons for her position on the matter, because she wasn't so sly as to force a decision among (admittedly) weak Human politicians. I didn't think she was.
This was not my platform, but hers. I was an impersonator, and a poor one at that.
I couldn't pretend anymore. "I can't."
It drew an awkward pause from the Humans, the host having no real idea of what to do for a good few seconds.
Even Enckelman looked concerned for me, but though I knew that he was not a bad person, the reality of television kicked in, and he was forced to keep on top of the discussion. He brought back his cocky expression, and boasted. "Well that was even easier than I thought!"
From then on, I was little more than a prop. I was largely left out of the rest of the discussion, and I never raised my voice unless I was directly spoken to. I was too embarrassed, too ashamed of my own naivety.
But I listened in on their discussions with great intrigue. Maybe I had been ignoring the news for too long, because the topics brought up were new to me. It wasn't much to be happy about.
"Aside from that," The host said, moving on from her previous point. "You mention a recent move by several prominent figures who are trying to change the rules about what establishes a national park. Specifically, you pointed out that the introduction of foreign species renders the idea meaningless, and that some would use this as an excuse to use the land for business."
"Precisely," He concurred. "I mean, it's been argued for years, but only now is it really starting to gain ground. The whole idea of a national park, as far as they're concerned, is to preserve the land, and for it to be as natural as possible. Let's be honest, Hork-Bajir aren't native to Yellowstone! The issue that Governor Hamee faces now is that all these people are rallying to take away the status of national park from affected areas, which will allow businesses to come in and start whatever projects they have in mind."
I wanted to hear more. I almost spoke up, even, but likely all I would have said would be little more than a disbelieving gasp. Instead, I kept my silence, but allowed the clogs to churn it through my mind. It was a worrying piece of news, for sure, and I was surprised that Toby or Cassie hadn't brought it up earlier. Another piece of information withheld, obviously.
Annoyingly, that was the end of the segment, and the host brought it to a close. "On that note, I'll thank you for coming on today. I'm sure you'll be back to keep us updated."
She probably wasn't talking to both of us.