Chapter 34

I brought Pluk to the office on my first day back. As expected, the piles of paperwork had built up to mountainous proportions and the media curiosity about my activity had not entirely vanished. The Human population had even started to piece a puzzle together that wasn't there to begin with, linking Toby's and Cassie's disappearances with my televisual escapades. I knew that it wasn't about that. I was almost certain.

Pluk was excited about his new job and he followed me dutifully to the Yellowstone Centre, all the while asking what kind of things he had to do, where he had to go and whether his new role would lead to tasty new bark. The answers to the questions never changed, yet he continued to ask those same questions in a variety of ways. I didn't mind his inquisitive company, as it kept me occupied.

He went a little bit quieter as we finally arrived at the building. He remembered the place, but it still looked utterly bizarre to him. The grandeur of the building had long since lost its effect on me, but he was still enthralled, at least enough for him to stop asking me questions.

Nobody knew he was coming. I hadn't arranged with staff that Pluk would be present, nor did I care. He was a friend coming along to visit. Why should I require their permission, especially since Toby had passed on her work to me. I was effectively taking over her position. No longer was I merely a novice office worker. I was in one of the top positions. The position of Hork-Bajir governor, however, was still one that I was reluctant to take on. It was unlikely that I would be offered it anyway.

Not only was Toby's disappearance an inconvenience for me, it was an inconvenience to everyone else in the building, too. That was evident as we crossed the boundary through the automatic doors. Already I could sense a nervous atmosphere, the noises of busy Humans trying to catch up with the uncatchable. I saw several staff jogging between offices with sheets of paper and Apple products, their eyes glued to email addresses and digital keyboards. What I always thought to be a relaxed setting had, within a week, been consumed in panic and confusion. Perhaps nobody would notice the 9-foot Hork-Bajir who had just entered, especially when he was hushed in silence.

"Come on, Pluk," I said to break our momentary silence. "Let's go up to my office. I think I have a lot of work to do."

I decided that we would take the elevator in order to avoid too much attention. Pluk grumbled as he squeezed into the small space, dipping his neck and head down and pouting at me uncomfortably. "Small." He observed.

I wanted to reassure him that my office had more headroom for him, but that would have been a lie. "A bodyguard doesn't always have to stand." I offered helpfully.

Not that he knew what a real bodyguard did. My explanations so far had been simplistic and coated in sugar.

When we re-emerged from the elevator and onto my office floor, Pluk smiled as he was freed from the low elevator ceiling. As he enjoyed the scenery, I inspected the area and shuddered when I noticed all the activity. The staff on my floor were buzzing around like disturbed ants. They immediately noticed my presence. Some gave me unnerving stares, others avoided that altogether.

The air was filled with the sounds of unsatisfied grumbling, sheets of paper flying, and telephones ringing with nobody able to answer. It was frantic, and crossing the open floor to my office would require that I announced my presence.

Though I didn't need to, because the manager, Grant Higham, did that bit for me. He was brown-haired man of average Human height and a bright orange tie hung over his sky blue shirt. Apart from that, he had few distinguishing features that I could decipher with Hork-Bajir eyes. Sometimes a little stubble wrapped around his chin, but not then.

"Taku!" He called from the other end of the staff frenzy, bringing a premature end to a conversation that he was having with Jonathan. I could tell he was in a bad mood. "Who is that?!"

He was asking about Pluk, of course. By now, everybody had noticed our presence and cleared a path. We both marched towards Grant. "A friend," I replied. "He's here with me."

Grant lowered his head, eyes closed as if restraining himself. Without looking to me, he asked monotonously, "Does he have any specific reason to be here?"

"Yes," I responded. "He will be with me in my office. There is no issue."

As Grant contemplated, my senses caught onto the fact that the entire floor had slowed, almost stopped as Pluk's monstrous size became apparent up close. Everyone backed away just a little bit further and they gawked up at him like some revered statue.

When Grant finally decided to look up again, he jumped. Pluk seemed much larger up close and we were standing right before him. I could see his predicted lines of argument fade away into the cowering mess that befell him.

Everybody in the building had been up close to a Hork-Bajir before, even those who dwelled solely in the offices and not in the actual park itself. Most working at the Centre had done voluntary work where they actually spent time with my people in the park. They were all used to us and had no hesitation in being around us. But Pluk was different. Sheer size made even the more Hork-Bajir-friendly in the building think twice. I had definitely made the right decision to hire him.

Nevertheless, the moments of hesitance passed. Grant cleared his throat. "Well whatever he's here for, don't let it get in the way of your work, Mr Kelmut! We're up to our necks and you've been missing for a week! Explain that to me!"

"Toby told me to take the week off."

He turned his head angrily. "You realise that Toby is missing, right?"

"Of course I realise that," I grumbled. "That doesn't mean that I would lie about such a thing."

Though he was angry - not necessarily at me but at everything going on around him – he considered what I said and bit his lips curiously. "Taku, where did she go?"

"I wouldn't know." I said truthfully.

His hopes crushed, his stern expression made its grand return. "Well, whatever. Get back to your office. Some of Toby's workload has been added to yours. We all need to ration it out so that we can get over this mess."

I felt a sudden jab. This was an injustice that my instinct found alone. "No! You will not ration it out! Toby gave that work to me and only me!"

He was bewildered, and he responded in a baffled tone. "What?! Taku, are you a fucking moron?! I don't know what's gotten into you, but it isn't normal! Now, you aren't in charge here! It was Toby's decision to bring you in here and now that she's gone, I will have no hesitation in throwing you out by the tail! You've already caused us enough trouble with that train-wreck of an interview! From now on, Mr Kelmut, you don't have a say in the matter! You will sit down, shut up and do exactly as you're told!"

The entire building seemed to freeze in time as our voices raised and the pointless argument began. I let that go away and forced myself into the little bubble between us. We didn't need the opinions of anybody else. "I repeat: Toby gave that work to me! The Governor herself! I will take the governor's orders over yours whatever the circumstance, and just because she's not here to defend her decision does not mean that you can overrule it! She doesn't want filthy Human hands meddling in our affairs and that's why she gave it to me!"

"Fine!" He yelped, throwing his arms up in frustration. He broke the bubble that I had just formed and addressed the whole floor, stomping away from me and Pluk. "Everyone! Toby's files to Taku's office! He's doing it all! Just remind him that his ass is out of here the moment he makes a spelling mistake!"

Nobody came up to offer anything to me, which wasn't a surprise. The atmosphere was far too awkward. In the end, I got what I wanted, so I was happy.

I led Pluk back to my office and put up with his whining when he realised how low my ceiling was. Considering that my headblades almost scraped the ceiling, Pluk would either have to walk around hunched over or sit down for the duration of his duty. Aside from the ceiling, he was also increasingly nervous about the environment, especially after witnessing the little scuffle with the manager.

"Why Human yell?" He questioned meekly as he observed his new, claustrophobic surroundings. I could see that he was clearly shaken up by the experience.

"It's nothing, Pluk," I reassured. My first glimpse around the familiar office brought my attention to five large folders and three piles of paper that took up most, if not all of the room on my desk. Having not being sat at for quite a while, it had been used as a bin for every piece of work that they expected me to complete, not including Toby's work that was to be passed on. I flicked a finger through one of the paper piles, and found that some of it was indeed Toby's work. There were the signatures of big important companies and famously influential individuals. Names that would have no business with me. "Looks like I have plenty to keep me busy."

I would be there for the rest of the day. It was a delicate balancing act, on one side getting as much work done as possible, the other trying to keep Pluk amused. My first point of call was to check emails. Little did I realise how full the inbox would be after weeks of going unchecked. Most of the day was to be spent sorting those alone.

It was not pleasant viewing, either. The majority of the emails were concerning Cassie and Toby, either asking me politely if I had any idea where they were, or demanding that I gave answers. I replied to about fifteen with the simple words "I don't know." I gave up and discarded the others. My words would be of no help.

Other emails were more suited to my normal working day. Unfortunately, a lot of those were the predicted moanings of CrescentCreations, who were both angered by my television interview and amused at how it had potentially worked in their favour.

That reminded me. At the lower left side of my laptop screen was the button that would bring up the internet, a huge web of essentially everything that the Human race has done, at least over the last few years.

How had the Humans really reacted to the interview? It can't have been a good reaction. That was impossible…

Would they link me to Toby's disappearance? I had to know.

I clicked the button. My clogged computer took a few seconds to react but eventually brought up the internet browser directly onto a search engine. I guided the mouse and tapped onto the web address bar, bringing up my most searched results…

Hair care, nail polish, Johnny Depp… Clarissa's presence still lurked.

But hidden somewhere among the pointless link was the main news website that I frequented. I clicked and braced myself for the worst. Of course, the first pictures to burst from my computer screen were of Cassie and Toby. Side-by-side, the images sat atop the headline that read "New Theories of New York Disappearances."

So the Humans had long been questioning, which matched my expectations. I clicked on the link curiously and began to read the whole story. Typically, it was rather sensationalist, written to guide the reader one way or the other. Seeing through that, I skipped over the garbage and took only the plan facts from the article.

The Humans had narrowed in on several pieces of evidences to be key: They were always close, both as friends and as allies; they were both war heroes, instrumental in the defeat of the Yeerks on Earth and the ending of the empire; they were both controversial figures in many regards, with great political influence. All valid points, but they all implied something that simply hadn't happened. The articles looked back and didn't think to take a broader approach.

But the theme ran through the internet. From that article I browsed, following a path of related articles and alternate theories. They all looked for somebody else to blame. Toby and Cassie are icons of stability and responsibility.

Then there were those who blamed me. I found that some articles suggested that my "unhinged" interview was a big factor in their disappearance. Some even placed it as the sole factor, though those particular articles were found on the so-called fringe websites. More specifically, anti-alien sites, though a couple had less offensive agendas.

I dared to delve into the analyses. It took a little more digging, the interview being over-shadowed by the justifiably more newsworthy stories around Toby and Cassie, but there was plenty to chew on. I sniffed around the big news sites first, stumbling initially onto an article titled "Hork-Bajir Seer's Human Rant: More Bark Than Bite."

It described me in distinctly unpleasant terms. I was apparently rabid, schizophrenic and judgmental. My performance shook the media that had previously taken me as a shy, naïve outsider trying its hand at media. That opinion had most definitely changed and according to the article, the newsrooms all over the nation were having a field day, picking at my bones and digging my political grave.

It reported of death threats, with the major example being from a man in Missouri, tweeting to the company:

If that anti-American lizard comes to my town, I'll be making myself some fancy new boots! #America #APHR

Many followed, but that was their favourite. The theme of comparing me to an animal flowed in and out of the article like the fabric of a close-knit sweater. It was too easy, I thought, but perfect material for stirring the uneasy masses. I wanted to click on the APHR hashtag, but decided against it. I didn't need to see that.

Understandably, my comments against the Human race were derided. I received unanimous criticism and unapologetically deemed unworthy of Toby's position, should it ever come available.

Much to their discomfort, that seemed increasingly more likely by the day. Toby's absence was raising questions about the leadership of the Hork-Bajir and the only other seer, barring a massive oversight, was me. They couldn't trust me, but who else was there to take the position? Some suggested Ket Halpak, but those were few and far between.

There were other opinions that rose above the confusion, however. For a long time the Humans had noticed that Toby had been tutoring me. They knew that I had been learning from her, observing her speeches and her work. Then suddenly, I find myself on television, slamming the Human race and exclaiming how much I hated them. The Humans had fit the pieces of the puzzle together and come to the disastrously false conclusion that my opinions came from her, the only difference being that I hadn't learned to keep my snout shut.

They began to think that Toby had implanted the ideas into my head. She was to blame, and suddenly her position as governor was coming under fire.

That is why she would run, they thought. She's been found out. Anti-Human.

It was wrong. Totally wrong. It was something that I would need to clear up. I wasn't going to take Toby down on my sinking ship.

With the governor's position in question, several articles began to speculate what would happen if Toby disappeared for good. Surprisingly, I was tipped as the favourite to succeed her, on the grounds that the position was designated to Hork-Bajir alone and I was the only viable candidate. The other options were, of course, Humans. Nobody from the park. Just a few up-and-coming politicians and one or two rich people willing to throw money at an exciting new project.

Even the media knew it was dangerous. Toby Hamee was long trusted in her position due to her lack of need for money and the fact that she cared solely for her people. A corrupt politician could be a detriment to Hork-Bajir lives. At least the media were correct in that case.

Toby was alive. I knew that, but I could tell no one. She would be back to retake her position, but I didn't know when. She had given me her paperwork, but did she intend to give her position for a temporary time. I only wished that I could go back in time to ask her.

I didn't have to wait long to make my decision. I wallowed in the figurative pits of the internet for a good while longer to establish the wholly negative Human opinion of me, viewed a number of unflattering memes and browsed the insulting tweets. Once I'd had enough, I closed my laptop, only to see Pluk's head rested on the desk behind the screen.

"Hello again." I said, re-emerging from my computer stupor to remember that I had brought him along.

He lifted his head from the table. I had no idea how long he had been sat there. "What Taku do?"

"Oh, just catching up on what I've missed," I replied casually. "Nothing important."

He clearly didn't think that the computer was unimportant. "What?" He asked curiously, indicating the machine with a long stare.

"That's my laptop," I explained. "It's what I use to do a lot of my work on. It's Human technology."

"Make bright light like Sun." He observed with a wondrous sigh.

"You're bored, aren't you?" I chuckled. It wasn't hard to tell.

Pluk shrugged, but straightened his form to sit upright before my desk. "Taku sit long. Pluk sit long. Pluk not have taplop."

I smiled to myself. Such a trivial problem was actually a pleasure to be stuck with. Pluk may have grown up, but any Hork-Bajir, young or old, needs to have their mind occupied with something. In my office, however, there wasn't as much apart from paper that he could use and I wasn't keen on him using that.

"Next time," I said, "We'll remember to bring something with us. There isn't much in this building for you."

He continued to stare, unconvinced. Then we were both distracted by a weak knocking at the office door. I instinctually grabbed a form and a pen, posing as if in the middle of a signature. "Pluk," I hissed. "Pretend to be a bodyguard. Stand up."

"Yes, Taku." He said with an ignorant grin. This time, he made sure not to bang his headblades on the ceiling. Still not used to his role, he stood facing me.

"Turn around," I uttered. Obediently, he turned to the door, finally in a good position. Ready for whoever came in, I called, "Come in."

The door opened slowly, and from around the corner came a familiar face, the ceiling lights reflecting strongly off his thick spectacles. I dropped the pen from my hand as Jonathan tip-toed tentatively into the office.

When he spotted Pluk around the door, his already cautious state was amplified and he almost dropped the small collection of papers that he held. Pluk was almost twice his height and that was intimidating enough. Jonathan, however, was not one that needed intimidating. He was one of the few Humans I felt a modicum of trust towards.

"I don't believe you've met," I said from behind my desk. "Jonathan, this is Pluk Mett. Pluk Jonathan. "

They shook hands and exchanged nervous smiles. With them introduced, we could get on with business.

"Taku…" Jonathan started, looking sheepishly towards the papers he held. "I've got these for you."

I took note of his nervous avoidance. "What are they? Toby's files?"

"Yeah. You wanted them?"

"Of course I do. Why are you more edgy than usual today?"

Jonathan flinched like I had hit him. Then, for the first time, he made eye contact. I did my best to look patient and caring and it seemed to work. He kept eye contact and approached with the papers. "I wanted to know if we were cool, you know…"

I could have feigned ignorance and gone on about the weather, but there wasn't much point in avoiding what he was implying. "I got a little carried away," I sighed. "I don't hate all Humans. You are an exception, Jonathan. You haven't wronged me."

Part of me expected a smile, an acknowledgement that all was fine with me and the staff and him specifically, but all I got was an accepting nod. He spoke nothing more of it. "This just came through Toby's files," He mumbled, passing the papers into my waiting hand. "It's pretty big."

I didn't need his explanations. I held the first page and read it silently to myself, leaving Pluk and Jonathan to stand awkwardly before me.

The message was plain and cleared, summarised perfectly in the opening paragraph. It brought me back to a news story I had heard before my second interview. The plans to build a new freeway through the centre of the park had been bouncing around for quite some time, the only obstacle being the park's status as a protected site of natural interest. That, now, was being challenged. Not only that, but plans to build a town in Yellowstone were also proposed, should the park's reservation status be changed.

Toby's letter had come from the Wyoming State officials. Negotiations were going to commence next week.

Negotiations meant compromise. It meant sacrifice.

There was silence from my two friends. Pluk was in a world of his own, gazing at the ceiling panels, and Jonathan was staring in the opposite direction, hands behind his back like he was ready to accept my shouts of dissatisfaction. He truly was a man who put too much on his own shoulders.

"Jonathan," I said, spooking him just slightly. "Don't look so petrified. You aren't the one building this damn freeway."

He gained some level of confidence. "Should I pass it onto Eric? He usually goes in Toby's place when she's unavailable."

I cocked my head at him, baffled by the suggestion. "Why would you bring it to me if you meant to give it to Eric? No. This is my responsibility. I want all of Toby's work here, where it belongs."

"Okay, Taku," He stuttered. "Does this mean that you're going to the negotiations?"

I snorted, raising myself from my seat and allowing my tail to get some space. "Negotiations? I'll make sure that no such thing takes place. I will not allow them to build their roads over my people's homes. I don't care what they think of me."

As I leaned against the desk, he likewise rested himself against the nearest wall. At least by that point he had realised that I was not going to snap at him. "I don't think Grant will let you."

"And why not?" I asked, suspecting the answer.

Jonathan shrugged. "Toby was invited. Invited as the governor."

"But she isn't here," I pointed out. "And as the only viable replacement, it is my duty to take her place. I don't care what Grant thinks. He can threaten me all he wants, but without me in this building, he has no connection with my people for as long as Toby is absent. We strip all ties to this damn centre and we allow nobody into the park. He wouldn't dare risk that happening."

"I don't think he would fire you," Jonathan replied. "Lot of stress here lately."

"Because of my interview." I guessed.

Jonathan shrugged once again, looking to the door. "Partly, you know… But… But mostly Toby and Cassie. They did a lot here."

I managed to smile, though I doubted that he noticed. "It's perfectly understandable. Only a week ago, the place was represented by two famed war heroes, both respected worldwide, their faces on posters and books in every store, every library. Brilliant minds and even better leaders who played their parts in rescuing an entire race and bringing them to a hostile new world, only to see the population thrive with near total acceptance from a violent and territorial species. A week later, and they have me."