Chapter 26

In 1969, Humans took their first tentative steps onto the Earth moon. Neil Armstrong was the first to step foot on the surface of an entirely new world.

Michael Jackson was a famous singer. He had 13 number one's in the US charts. And then, somehow, his skin changed colour. The reason, I did not know.

That was enough reading. Besides, I was near the end of the encyclopaedia, and it was beginning to delve into modern times. I would read the rest later, but at that moment I wanted to relax. Maybe I would sit in my small hut of numerous random Human contraptions and gaze out into nothingness.

It had expanded over the last months. What was just a small hut where I kept my books and miscellaneous items was now at least twice the size, and held about three times as much stuff. Most of it was from Clarissa, of course, but half of it had never really been explained to me. I was curious enough to play around with everything, but I found that time was too short to delve too deeply into my ponderings.

My most prized possession of them all was the photograph of myself with Mother and Father, now brightly placed within a golden frame and hung on the southernmost wall of the building. So strange how something so simple could stick in my mind, even knowing that both my parents were nearby, probably bickering over the lack of edible food again.

There was a reason for that. Winter was upon us again, and the temperature in the park was rapidly decreasing. Father was doing his best to find good bark to store, but some pesky animal had knocked it all to the ground where it was left overnight in a puddle. Now, it was beginning to snow quite heavily, which made harvesting much more difficult. Lenk was making a head start, but Father was dawdling.

It wasn't important, though. Father didn't offer to take me out harvesting anymore. More often than not, he thought I was away doing paperwork or reading one of my books. It was unfortunately true most of the time. I spent more time with his inky counterpart on my back wall than I did with him, and it saddened me.

I didn't have a picture of Toby yet, but I didn't really need one. I still saw her regularly at the Yellowstone Centre, but she seemed so much more distant since that terrible live interview. Things had gotten worse since then, and I put it down to her having to pick up the pieces that I had smashed onto the ground before her.

I still had not heard the last of it. It was a total embarrassment, and seeing the replays only made it worse. My interview was now being used by our opponents to discredit both myself and Toby to devastating effect. If that wasn't bad enough, I had become a rather unflattering internet meme. My visits to the worldwide web were infrequent before, but now I did my very best to avoid getting anywhere near it.

My work at the centre was plodding along as usual, but it had long since lost its intrigue. The walls were shallow now, and its inhabitants intimidating. I dreaded being there when responsibility, even if minimal, was weighing on my shoulders. I was in a serious morale low, and from somewhere I could sense that it wouldn't get better soon. It was as if the trees all around were advertising doom to me through silent groans.

At least I had my family and friends. Cassie and Clarissa were around often, and they had never changed their tone around me. My Hork-Bajir friends the same, but my actions on television and at work meant nothing to them anyway. My family understood my pain, but even they couldn't quite grasp why I had gotten so upset. That was totally understandable, however, because nationwide ridicule and disappointment was a foreign concept to them.

I placed my dog-eared encyclopaedia back on its shelf and stood up to stretch and yawn away my drowsiness. I scratched myself just at the perfect time when somebody familiar poked their head through the doorway.

"Relk find!" She barked ecstatically. "Find Taku, find Taku!"

For anybody else, I would have sighed and made an excuse to evade their attention. For Relk, it was a little different.

"Hello, Relk," I replied, curious as to what game she was indulging in. I strolled over to stand in the hut opening beside her. "It's good to see you today."

She nodded and swung on the hut's supporting branches to my other side. I felt her warm breath on my shoulder. "See Taku good. Relk bored."

"Oh," I smiled. "You're bored? Maybe we should find something to do."

"Something. Find new tree." Relk suggested, flinging herself to the next tree over with expectation that I would follow.

I made sure to switch off my battery-powered lamp before leaving my hut, but this time I could not be bothered to clean up any mess as I normally would. This was my free time, of which I had very little, and to spend it with Relk felt like the most joyous thing that I could do with it.

"So Relk," I panted as I followed her through the snow-covered trees around my home. "Which way are we going?"

She ceased her unrestrained bouncing and came to rest on a stable branch to consider. "To springs."

"The springs? But that's the other way." I explained, pointing a finger in the direction we had just come from.

Relk huffed as if I was being foolish. "Yes. Springs that way."

I blinked and tried to sense her reasoning. "So… why are we going this way?"

"Pluk and Ruga this way." She told.

I knew that my mood shouldn't have taken a downturn, and I hope that I didn't seem that way, but it did. "Pluk and Ruga? I thought it was just us."

She laughed and began to move through the trees again. I followed. "Pluk and Ruga come. Ask for Taku. Relk get."

Some deep part of my mind was very much disappointed that my two lifelong friends would be joining us. Their company was always welcomed, but this time seemed just a little different. Relk was different. For the last few months, I had been attempting to put it into perspective and had soon come to the conclusion that it was a little something called a "crush". It was a common plot-piece in many television shows, and was also prevalent in Human music. It seemed small to me at the time, like it was a side story that needn't worry me, but its implications were huge. If I were Human, it would be of little issue. Humans are generally polygamous, at least judging by Clarissa's peers. Hork-Bajir, on the other hand, are strictly monogamous. My little crush on Relk, if returned, could well decide a huge chunk of my life.

I put the thought aside, and instead considered how to greet my other friends, even if I wasn't in the correct mood. I knew exactly how it would begin…

"Snow cold!" said Pluk, nothing out of the usual.

"Pluk always say snow cold," Ruga grumbled. "Ruga know. Snow cold. Ruga feet cold."

Pluk whined and pulled his left foot out of the snow to give it a moment's peace from the bitter cold. I watched in amazement from my warm perch in a tree.

"Pluk," I sighed. "If your feet are cold, why are you standing in the snow?"

He gawked at me, dumbfounded. Then he laughed. He and Ruga joined me in the tree, and we continued our greetings.

"Taku take long time," Ruga commented. "Fat toes slow Taku down."

Pluk laughed again, finding great amusement in the oft-told joke. "Taku slow. And Taku not here much."

"Excuse me?" I said, not quite understanding his point.

Ruga clarified for him. "Taku always gone."

Another little stab of guilt. Not intentional, but surely crippling. "I'm sorry. I'm not around much. I have work to do with the Humans."

I expected a response, some form questioning or furthering of the conversation, but they instantly dropped it. It was fine, apparently. I then realised, once again, that my friends weren't Humans, and last-wordism was not necessary. My friends accepted it as much as I would accept it from them, and that actually made me feel a little warmer, even in the cold winter air.

Our little journey began. It wasn't much of a journey, to be honest. It was just getting lost in snowy woodland with no real purpose and no real destination. A casual, unguided exploration, which was fine by me. I was able to spend time with my friends after so long, able to hear about all their little misadventures since I last interacted with them. Pluk told us all about the time he climbed onto the roof of the park's tourism centre and had to be ushered down by security, and I laughed at how benign it was. We must have ended up a few miles from home, heading southward towards the nearest Human town, deciding on the way to visit the springs but continue even further into new territory.

Eventually, as the sun began to set once again toward the horizon, we found a new colony already preparing for the cold night ahead. We said hello and continued onwards until we could see the distant lights of the Human settlement over a hill. Here, we agreed to rest before making our way back home.

It began with a snowball to my face and Ruga laughing in a victorious tone. I grumbled and started to form one of my own, picking up a pile of snow and squeezing it into a rough ball shape. My throw was partly accurate, catching him on the shoulder.

"Taku bad throw." Ruga commented, slashing a chunk of bark from the nearest tree.

"I know," I huffed. "Throwing is not something I do that much. Besides, you aren't any better!"

"Taku and Ruga both bad." Pluk interrupted. Before we could object, he launched a snowball straight into Ruga's mouth from distance, just as the bark chunk was heading for the very same destination.

Ruga barked and spat out the snow, shaking his head. "Agh! Not funny, Pluk! Now Ruga mouth cold!"

His complaint didn't stop Pluk's laughter, nor mine or Relk's. His sulking only made it funnier.

"Relk see Humans," We heard her mention. I looked in the direction where she pointed and spotted them myself. "By trees. Have things!"

"Things" was vague. I could see that the two Humans had their camping gear. A tent was set up, as was a sheet on the ground so that they didn't have to sit in the cold snow. In the freezing weather they were suitably clothed, their figures made only distinct by thick black coats, probably with several layers beneath.

It was definitely unusual to see Humans camping around at that time of year, but not unheard of. They didn't seem to have noticed us so far, and they probably couldn't hear us from where they sat. The falling snow made our presence difficult to spot.

"They must be very cold." I said, rubbing at my neck.

"Give blankets!" Ruga suggested with a mouth full of food. "Blankets warm."

I smiled. "I'm sure they have their own. Let's not bother them. I'm hungry."

I truly was. My stomach was starting to complain, and I knew that my friends were the same way. We headed for the trees, and though my friends were happy with plain old pine, I felt the need to search for something a little special.

In foreign lands, it was obviously difficult to search for more sought-after bark. Not impossible, though. I pounced through the fields of mediocre trees, using my sense of smell to guide me in the direction of something a little more appetising. It would have been pretty simple if the temperature was higher. The cold was slowing me down.

But I found something that caught my nose. The stunning scent of living bark hooked my left nostril, and I found myself drawn to a very thick tree on the side of a small clearing. The bark was pungent but unavoidably appealing, and within seconds I was stuck to it like a magnet, any dignity I had dashed to the ground. I didn't care.

It was vaguely familiar in my mind, perhaps something that I had eaten before as a child, and indeed the texture was not entirely new. I slammed my elbow blade into the surface and tore down with the other, forming enough tears in the surface to remove a significant chunk of the delicious tree skin.

I held the excessively large block in my snout for a while, lapping at the surface with my tongue and gazing aimlessly into the distant horizon of white. After those moments of having a completely blank, contented mind, the over-contemplative part of my brain reared its head. Usually, it would think of nothing other than work and the opinions that others had of me in those occupations, and I hated those thoughts, but today it was much different. I was thinking of Relk again, and suddenly, I didn't want to greedily devour the entire chunk by myself. I wanted to share it with her. I wanted to share everything.

And then I saw a flower. A batch of them. That may not seem unusual in the outdoors, but in the midst of winter with the ground a thick blanket of snow, seeing some poking upwards was very strange. It was mind-blowingly coincidental and equally fortunate that the flowers were visually appealing, too. Perhaps the Human Luck gods were smiling down upon me.

The flowers were perfect. A little frosty, but that was to be expected. I made my way down and gently picked them from the ground, making certain not to damage them in any way. I inspected them closely, and found them to be a very attractive, deep purple colour, its petals fully intact despite the terrible conditions. How I could find them in this state in the dead of winter confused me. Nevertheless, I knew just how to use them.

I sat down in the cold snow, placing the flowers on the underside of the bark chunk and letting that sleep on my lap. The images of how it would happen ran through my head on repeat, lulling me into a semi-slumber where my eyes closed, and I could almost touch the scenarios played out in my imagination.

Relk would accept my gifts. A large piece of gorgeous bark and picking of perfectly conditioned flowers, who wouldn't? Then we would gaze into each other's eyes, leave the other two to their games, and head back home to discuss a future together. We would be one from that moment on.

Such a big moment, and I didn't even feel the slightest tingle of nerves. Maybe it was because I knew that she had the same feelings. I saw it in her, in the way that she looked at me and the way she always came to me first when our group would go on our adventures. The only thing missing was the first move, and I was about to provide it.

But there was something that nagged me in my little daydreams, and it pulled me just about back to reality. I recalled our childhood, back when we both attended the local school tree, and how I used to tease her, mostly about the size of her snout. I remember upsetting her a few times and excluding her from some of our games. Kid stuff, but I had never apologised for my behaviour. I needed to.

She probably would have forgotten. It isn't in a Hork-Bajir's nature to hold a grudge, and she had probably forgotten about it all long ago. My mind, however, worked differently, and I remembered every deplorable word that I spoke to her in those days.

Maybe, I thought, my two gifts would act both as an apology and to show her my intent to become one with her. It seemed perfectly reasonable, and I knew that she would not refuse.

I then wondered why I was still making decisions. They were already made. I got up and jumped back into the trees to head back the way I came, holding the bark and the flowers in my left hand. Jumping back to the others with one hand was slow, but I was thankful to see that they hadn't strayed far. Pluk hadn't, anyway, and he sat crouched at his pine tree, munching hungrily at several small bark slabs. He blanked at me when I pounced up beside him.

"Taku back." He noticed.

"Yes, I went a little further than you, I think."

Pluk smiled and then looked down to inspect my findings. His eyes widened with interest, and he suddenly seemed much less occupied with his own collection. "What Taku have?"

"Oh, nothing," I grinned. "Just some bark and some grass."

Pluk didn't take that as a satisfactory answer and took a closer look at what I held. "Taku find bark. Smell good. Where?"

"That way," I said, pointing the way I came from. "There's plenty there."

"Taku show." Pluk suggested, a big pleading grin over his face. He moved, ready to speed off in the direction I would lead him.

"No!" I said, stopping him in his tracks. "I'll show you soon. Right now, I was going to give these to Relk."

Pluk cocked his head, the wheels sluggishly churning within. "Give for gift?"

"Yes," I compromised. "A gift. Just a gift."

My tall friend didn't seem overly enthused in any way, and sat back down to nibble on his own food. "Taku show later."

I felt a little awkward, but did not let it deter me. "Pluk, do you know where Relk went?"

He smiled and chomped down the last of his bark chunk with a loud gulp. "Relk not here. Pluk show."

He quickly jumped up to his feet, stretched his legs and said, "Taku follow." With that, he leapt from his high branch to one about twenty feet below, before rocketing northward in a straight line path. I struggled to keep up, having never been quite as athletic as he, but his direct path made it easy to follow.

We arrived right back where we started, emerging into the snowy opening that looked over the Human settlement in the far distance. Clearly, Relk had not wandered far according to Pluk's knowledge. Though I didn't see her at first, I noticed Ruga nearby making a start on a crude snowman, putting a pair of eyes on even before the main structure was built.

"Ruga," I said, announcing our presence. "You're building a snow-Hork without us?"

His looked up to me, his eyes betraying a sense of guilt. "Ruga not know Taku want to."

"Well… I don't really," I shrugged, lifting my left foot from the snow to grant it brief freedom from the freezing snow. "Where is Relk?"

"Relk see Humans," He explained. "Ruga make snow-Hork eyes."

I sighed. The Humans would more than likely get in the way, as would my friends' interest in making snowmen. Nevertheless I looked to the horizon where the Humans were sat, the silhouette of Relk strolling towards them. The Humans still had their backs turned.

I was going to turn away and help Ruga with the snow-Hork, but in the corner of my eye I saw sudden movement. The Humans had moved.

In the falling snow it was difficult to see, but I lunged forward to gain a better view when I noticed a lot of rapid movement and Human shouting. Something very bad was happening, and after the smallest of hesitations, I started to run, leaving Pluk and Ruga utterly perplexed behind.

As I moved to within twenty feet of the scene, Relk collapsed. I felt my chest clutching and my breathing quicken as the panic rushed over me. I increased my pace and bounded to her side.

There was a lot of blood, and I saw that her eyes were distant, unseeing.

Then my ears picked up the sound of rustling. Thinking on my toes, I looked to my right to see the Humans beside their tents. One was reaching inside, and something told me that whatever it was, I didn't want it anywhere near my fallen friend.

I forced myself to do something that nothing in my instinctual brain wanted to do. I pounced at the Human reaching into the tent, intending to push him away and disarm him. Just as I vaguely suspected, I saw the barrel of a gun revealed from the tent.

The second Human shouted a warning to his companion, but I was already flying at him, flinging my arm forward to knock his. He tried to raise it at me, but I was already far too close, and my hand flicked at his, sending the dangerous weapon through the air.

Unarmed, the Human yelped out, clutching at the hand that I had whipped at. Now that he had no effective weaponry, he began to back away. His friend was holding a knife up in the air to my right, but he remained motionless. I cringed as I saw Hork-Bajir blood dripping down the entirety of the metallic blade.

One small knife against a Hork-Bajir was not a fight for the wise. The two Humans exchanged glances and started to run.

I let them go, my attention unhesitant in turning back to Relk. She remained sprawled on the floor, snow slowly laying a white sheet over her body. The blood flow was slowing in the cold air, what was already spilt forming a gruesome painting around her head. I crawled to her side and began to make my preliminary observations, my mind struggling with the panic still circulating in my bloodstream.

Even before checking for life signs, I could tell that she was gone. Her eyes remained open, staring emptily up to the sky, and looking down I could see her wounds. Several slices ravaged her neck, deep openings where a knife had entered and pulled to the side. Her throat had been torn out, and evidence of at least three separate wounds came to my attention as I wiped away some excess blood. I doubted that the effort was in self-defence for many reasons, and then I felt utterly stupid for not giving chase to the Humans as they ran.

There was still a chance to catch them, though. I could use Pluk and Ruga, and we could capture them, question their motives and hand them over to the Human police. Justice would be served, and my fellow Hork-Bajir would have her killers punished for their crime.

But all hope died. In the distance, barely visible under the falling snow, I saw the bright red of a car's rear lights, and with it came the roar of an engine. The Humans had transportation, and any chance of a chase was over.

Effectively. I wanted so much to chase anyway, to see if I could beat them in my own environment. But then I looked down to Relk's corpse and I felt far too weak to move an inch.

I was thinking too hard. Everything was an attempt at an excuse and a reason. As soon as I realised it, I stopped and put all my focus into my grief and started to weep over her, my hand holding her chest.

"What happen?"

Ruga's voice reverberated through my head. The question confused me, baffled me. It even enraged me to a degree. I turned my head up and saw that my two friends were standing over me, concern on their faces. I found myself growing extremely angry.

"She's dead!" I yelled back to Ruga. "Can you not see that?!"

"Pluk know what dead means," Pluk said solemnly. "Relk go to Mother Sky. Relk sleep."

His sincerity, and Ruga's following expression of grief, did nothing to tame my anger. "Why didn't you two help? Why were you just standing there?!"

They pouted and lowered their heads. Ruga spoke up, saying, "Ruga not know. See Relk fall over. See Taku hit Human. Humans run away."

The excuse was unintelligent and unhelpful, but my rage started to fall away. They didn't understand it. Anything of it. They didn't even know that the Humans had attacked her.

"I didn't hit him for no reason, Ruga," I explained before any false messages were received. "The Human killed Relk. He was going to kill me, too."

Pluk sobbed. "Why Human do?"

My answer arrived at my throat. I thought it was the correct answer. However, as it tried to force its way out, my throat clenched when the grief I had been holding back took over once again. I bowed my head and laid my blades on Relk's own.

Together, the three of us took our time to grieve over our beloved friend. The journey back was long and painful, and we carried her on our shoulders. Her family would want to see her one last time.