Chapter 35

The meeting was taking place in Cheyenne, a gathering between state government officials to discuss plans that would strip the park of its reserve status. I received no formal invitation to the event at first, but I took Toby's from her office pigeonhole and informed the hosts that I would take her place. They weren't too happy, and neither was Grant Higham, but both succumbed when I offered for Ket Halpak to take Toby's place instead. With the plans destined to affect my people heavily, the presence of at least one Hork-Bajir was required according to the Alien Rights Act, 2004. I was not the ideal choice, but at least I would have some grasp of what was going on. Ket may have been an iconic war hero, but she certainly was no politician.

I didn't want to go. To be stuck in a soulless grey building, surrounded by Humans in suit willing to catch me at any wrong turn, staring at me like I was an active volcano ready to blow, was not how I wanted to spend my time. Nevertheless, I refused not to. I had to go, not for them but for myself.

"Door so small…" Pluk whined as we stood on the outside in the cool Cheyenne winter air. We stared at the entrance to the building where the meeting took place, having just arrived with our team of security.

If I thought getting myself there was tough, getting Pluk there was even harder. Despite his liabilities, I did not regret the decision.

The doorways, halls and offices in the Yellowstone centre were built with an average-sized Hork-Bajir in mind. Mostly. Pluk struggled for space there, but the new building would be terrible for his posture. Not only that, but transporting him was enough of a chore. We took a small bus with several seats removed so that he had adequate room.

His presence worked, however. As we stood outside that Human-sized entrance, every Human in the vicinity retreated by at least twenty feet, only willing to stare from a distance. How funny it was, seeing them hesitate and anxiously retreat while Pluk would smile and wave to them like they were his close friends. It was poetically illustrative of our species' relationship. Funny, yet desperately distressing.

"The door is small, yes," I spoke to him. "And the corridors will provide little relief. Once this is all done, we will head to the hotel. They have trees where it will be much more comfortable."

"Human tree not have Hork-Bajir tree?" He asked.

"No. There are no trees in there."

We waited by the entrance while our escorts made sure everything was okay for us to proceed. The staff of the building also had to make sure that our passage through was clear. They wanted to clear away valuables before we dragged our blades through their precious halls.

We were also waiting for our new supervisor. New was an appropriate description.

She struggled to our side with a heavy backpack on her shoulder, groaning like she had so many better things to do. Her hair was light blonde, almost white that fell to her shoulders, and she bore an expression of constant gaumlessness. Her voice grated, and she liked to use it as her main weapon. It sliced the air and scraped my ear drums like nails on a chalkboard. She may have only been two-thirds that height of Pluk (though admittedly a third wider than him), but even he would cower in her presence. I noticed him flinching when she unleashed her voice once again.

"What are you waiting for?!" She screeched, staring viciously wide-eyed up at us.

"You," I responded, avoiding those soulless eyes. "Everything was ready apart from you."

She opened her mouth and her eyes even further. I closed mine, expecting her attempt to win the pointless battle. "Do you want me to hold your hand or something? I'm sure you can walk perfectly fine without me. You're late! Get in!"

"Sandy," I sighed, holding back the rant that I so wished to battle with. "You are our supervisor. Your job is to supervise us in these-"

"My job," She growled with a voice that almost brought the city to a standstill. "Does not mean that I have to hold your hand everywhere you go. Get in before I whack you!"

Arguing with her in a pubic area would do nothing for my reputation. I would only let her ruin her own. Turning away from her, I aided Pluk in getting through the automatic doors. He dipped his body under, keeping his arm blades to his side and his tail to the ground as I had instructed. We emerged into the reception which had a high ceiling, but that still forced Pluk to hunch forward.

The receptionist had been informed of our arrival, but upon seeing us her face turned a little whiter under her coats of make-up. I asked Pluk to stand nearby while I spoke to her.

The brown-haired receptionist gave her required smile. "Mr Kelmut?"

"Yes, this is Mr Kelmut," Sandy answered for me, her aged red face appearing to my right. "Sorry he's late, my dear. He's too much of a wimp to come in himself."

I grunted but held my anger deep inside. "Sandy, now that we're here, I suppose you could find something to do. Somewhere else, perhaps."

She didn't listen, instead making polite conversation with the receptionist and doing all the talking for me. I took the opportunity to give Pluk some final instructions. He was sat in the centre of the room, inspecting his elbow blades.

He looked disheartened as I approached. "Why Taku make Pluk blades small?"

The previous night, before travelling to Cheyenne, I made sure that his blades were filed down, blunted as mine were whenever I travelled. The reason still evaded him. "I told you yesterday, Pluk. We don't want to cause anything – or anybody – damage."

Pluk accepted it, but still gazed mournfully to his blunted blades. "Rug laugh at Pluk when see."

I laughed. "Your blades are still much more impressive than his. And besides, they will still cut bark well."

"Yes. Pluk hungry."

"You will eat soon enough," I assured, looking over to the clock that sat atop the reception desk. "As soon as this meeting is over, assuming Sandy allows it. Hopefully she will do her own thing, and she will not be around to bother you while you're doing your duty."

Pluk nodded enthusiastically and let his arms drop to his sides. "Pluk is good bodyguard. What should Pluk do?"

"While we are here, I will be in the meeting room, which is beside the main hall. I'd like you to stay there. There is much more head room, so you won't have to duck to avoid scraping the ceiling."

He smiled, then slowly turned his head up to gaze at the low ceiling. "Why Human trees so small?"

"They are small people." I replied.

There was a half-hour wait before I was asked to move to the meeting room. In that time, several elected officials arrived, including the state treasurer and the governor. I chose them as my primary objectives, two who would have a major say in the outcome of the decision on the park. They didn't greet me as they entered the building, rather glancing to me briefly and then avoiding eye contact. My reputation in my own state was not holding well, and I understood their reluctance to greet me like a good friend in a public space. I was slowly growing into the political world.

We left Sandy to yell at some ill-fortuned staff who had given her the wrong kind of tonic water and made for the main hall. We had escorts patrol us through the small corridor that separated the rooms, with Pluk taking up most of the space. He whined initially, but he was quickly learning that it was simply a downside to the job.

The main hall was closed off to the public for the duration of the meeting, and only a small security team and a couple staff members were to be seen. Every word spoken echoed around the room, even whispers. They carried like words spoken on a calm sea, and I could hear the mumbles of amazement and anxiety as Pluk lifted his head out of the corridor. I smiled, and gladly introduced him to his temporary setting.

"This is where you will stay while I'm in the meeting, Pluk," I spoke loud enough for all to hear. "I'm sure they're all very nice people who will make you feel welcome."

If all heads weren't raised before, they were at that point. I doubted my words carried much weight in any Human society, but I could at least subtly tell them to be respectful to my friend, despite his size. Loudly, but subtly.

"Humans nice," Pluk grinned, genuinely convinced. "Pluk like to make Human friends."

I placed a hand on his shoulder. "Good. Now, I won't be too long, maybe just a couple hours. Your job is just to wait here. If there's… If I leave early, then things haven't gone too well. Your presence will be very good for me. If you need anything, Terry will be around to help."

He nodded. "Pluk ask Terry."

With Pluk given his orders, I collected my notes and files from Terry (one of our security escorts), took a deep breath, and headed for the double-doors at the other end of the hall. Two suited females stood either side.

"Mr Kelmut?" The blonde on the right with the red tie presumed. "Good morning!"

"Good morning to you, too." I replied, putting my anxiety aside for politeness.

The other female, a brunette with shorter hair, took over as the blonde checked my forms of identification. They had been checked at reception, but such a high-profile meeting meant numerous checks and forms. "Welcome to the WSGC," Spoke the brunette. "The meeting is just about to start. You are in seat 12. If you need water, there is a dispenser in the far right-hand corner."

"Thank you," I said to them both, taking back my identification. "Do you know if I will be able to leave the room at any time?"

The question took them by surprise, so much so that they stopped grinning. Just for a second. "Usually, yes," The blonde started. "But you would need to arrange your departure beforehand. We need to know when you'll be moving around the building to avoid accidents."

I wasn't expecting any different. "Of course. Thank you."

I inhaled and loosened my stance that had quickly begun to tense up. The anxiety was setting in, the deep discomfort that shortened my breathing and caused me to shuffle awkwardly. It always felt so natural in these situations, but I pulled it back within myself and put on the oft-used mask of confidence before pushing open the big violet double-doors.

It was a typical meeting room. Directly before me was a long, narrow table with seats on either side. The largest of the seats was by itself at the head of the table, its occupant sat facing in my direction. Beyond the table was a huge projection screen with some kind of slide show introductory page shining upon it.

Everything else about the room was irrelevant. There were paintings and plants scattered here and there, but the only things that mattered were in the centre of the blue-ambience cage. Twelve pairs of small Human eyes turned to face me, already sat down in a political silence. Notebooks open, hands clasped, suited up.

"So glad you could join us, Mr Kelmut," Spoke the man that sat at the head of the table. I didn't recognise him. "Please, take a seat."

My eyes scanned the table. I had been designated seat 12, the only seat that would be available. I spotted it right below me, the furthest seat from the head of the table. Quietly, I placed my things and pulled out the seat, moving it towards the door just slightly, so that the person in seat 10 had enough space beside my arm blades. Knowing that they would all still be watching, I kept my gaze towards the table and silently prepared my equipment before the meeting began. I wasn't going to make the mistake of going in gung-ho again.

"I believe we're all here." I heard. It was the governor's voice, a white-haired male in his fifties that I had spoken to only briefly before. "So I'd like to say welcome to the WSGC, thank you for taking the time to be here. The reason we've brought you here today is to discuss the plans to build a new freeway through Yellowstone and new homes south of Yellowstone Lake."

I thought I was hearing it wrong. I looked upwards, thankful that all eyes had averted and paid closer attention to what the governor was saying. He was stood from seat one, just to the right of the man at the head of the table.

"Now, both I and Mr Garrett organised this meeting because we know that you all have a vested interest in the proceedings and your opinions do matter. I will now pass on to Mr Garrett who will run you through a detail of the plans."

Confused, I opened one of my files and removed from it the invitation letter that I had received when I had made my intention of attending known. I scanned it, and found myself three paragraphs down.

The meeting shall comprise of two segments: The first shall be an overview of the national park status of Yellowstone National Park and the proposed plans of an 8-lane highway from Idaho Falls to a yet-undetermined location on the Eastern border of the park by Mr Brock Garrett, head of the operation. The second segment will be a freeform discussion on those plans…

Perhaps I had misread it previously, or the discussion on Yellowstone's reserve status would come in Mr Garrett's presentation. I set my things aside, adjusted my tremendously uncomfortable tail and listened.

The hour estimate for the length of the presentation was half an hour short, though it felt much longer. I stopped feeling desperately nervous halfway through, instead gaining a complete and total boredom. I paid full attention and took down notes on everything I thought necessary, but my mind wanted to wander and I tried so hard to resist. Mr Garrett himself was quite monotonous and the presentation itself was bland, colourless and based entirely on economics and funding. It was the sort of talk that Toby had warned that I would have to sit through.

Summarised, it was the base plans. An eight lane highway that would cut right through the centre of the park, separated in the middle by a small town with 2,000 proposed houses. All other details were irrelevant to me.

There was not a single mention of the proposal to remove the park's current status as a reserve. That took me completely by surprise.

"Are there any immediate questions before we take a five minute break?" Garrett asked, looking to all across the table.

There were many. I sat myself up straight, cleared my head and opened my mouth.

And the feminine voice of the state treasurer, Mrs Mitchell, jumped ahead of mine. "You mentioned incentives for potential residents, Mr Garrett. Aside from location, why will people move there if they have the impression that the homes will be as costly as you say they'll be?"

I slumped back. I would have felt at least some relief if she had brought up the park's status and how it wasn't addressed, but she clearly had other matters to worry about.

The anger started to bubble within my chest. My teeth clenched and I felt familiar tingles run down my face and neck. My left hand grabbed at the table leg and squeezed. I felt my claw crumpling the thick metal.

But I reigned it in. I pictured myself elsewhere, in a small field surrounded by trees, coated in tall grass and wild flowers. My people were there, falling asleep as the darkness of night held close the warmth of the camp fire.

The man in the blue tie in seat 10 was staring at me, one eyebrow raised. My visions left, but took my rage with it. I had calmed down.

However, I still needed to raise my point. I knew that the anger could potentially return. I didn't want that to happen. I never did. It seemed so unnatural and uncomfortable to my normal Hork-Bajir self.

I wanted water. I had for a while, but I couldn't find the courage to get up, walk to the corner and pour some into the tiny plastic cups that contained barely a drop. But now I was worried about dehydration increasing my stress. I stood up slowly, as quietly as I could, and made my way over to the dispenser.

People turned to look, but most of them took little notice and went back to paying attention. A couple stared, but I had come to expect that. I was a big bladed naked alien in a room filled with suited Human beings, after all.

I filled the small cup almost to the brim, keeping my eyes away from the table but listening as Garrett answered the treasurer's question in effortless detail. Another Human chimed in, an indiscriminate male who wanted to know more about some profit margins. A third then asked where all the money was coming from, but Garrett reassured him that it had all been taken into consideration and the right funds were available.

My cup was full and I thought of returning to my seat. Then I reconsidered and began to fill a second cup before finally making my way back. I drank the first cup in one gulp as soon as my backside touched the seat fabric. Several deep breaths later, I felt ready to raise the issue. As the latest conversation slowed to a close, I forced my question over the table.

"Mr Garrett, maybe I missed something or I was informed wrong, but I thought one of the aims of this meeting was to have a discussion on Yellowstone's status as a reserve. Why are we discussing these plans as if the park's status being changed was a certainty?"

There were sniggers, not only from several of those seated but also from Garrett himself. I took a sip from my cup and let my eyes drop their stare to the neutral table.

"Mr Kelmut," Garrett finally addressed. "There is no point of discussing it, because it's happening."

"It's what?!" I blurted, no longer caring for my anxiety and staring him in the face. "What do you mean by that? I thought we'd be discussing that here, today!"

The female in bushy blonde hair in seat seven responded, "We already discussed it."

I felt my grip tightening on the plastic cup. It crumpled beneath my fingers. "And the conclusion you came to…"

"Parts of Yellowstone will remain protected," The governor spoke up. "Specific areas of natural interest and tourist destinations, for example. Other areas will lose that status. This will allow us to both build the new housing and the highway, whilst keeping the most treasured areas of the park as natural reserves."

"Which parts will my people fall into?" I asked, having already predicted his answer.

He hesitated and looked to his notes as if there was something meaningful upon them. "You see, Mr Kelmut, the issue is the Hork-Bajir. A natural reserve cannot be so if we let the Hork-Bajir live in it.

The anger was building. My water had long since escaped the destroyed cup. "So my people will no longer live under the park's protection?"

"Your people will be allowed to keep their homes if those homes aren't in protected areas."

"And the rest will be moved," I summarised. "Crammed into whatever space we have remaining, divided in half by eight lanes of traffic."

The room was no longer darkened with sniggering. It was silent. I could see them looking to each other for assurance, like I was an annoyance that they needed to team up against. My breathing rate was increasing, and I felt shivers running up and down my body.

"Your people will still have the same protections as before," The governor finally said. "We are not removing your basic rights."

I ignored his pitiful compromises. "Why was I not present during that discussion?" I demanded. "The Alien Rights Act states that Hork-Bajir representation should be present when discussing these matters!"

"Governor Hamee was sent invitations," The governor argued. "As long as we invited representation, we are not doing anything illegal."

I shook my head and then held it in my water-soaked hand. "And when did you send her the invites? When did you decide to host this second meeting? The day she disappeared?! Of course, I understand it so clearly now! The opposition is gone so you rush to your desired decision."

"That's simply not true…" The treasurer replied with little conviction.

"I believe it is," I asserted. "Why did you not send me an invite? I have taken on Toby's responsibilities during her absence. I want that discussion to take place again, and this time I want to be there. I am the representative of my people now!"

"I pity them." The blonde-haired female mocked.

A male spoke up after her from seat nine, further rubbing salt into the wounds. "Mr Kelmut, you've proven in front of the whole world that you aren't fit to represent your people. The only reason you were brought here today is because of Toby's absence and your constant nagging to be involved. I'll be honest, Toby isn't much different, but at least she keeps her hatred of Humans to herself."

I was thrown off by how quickly the room had turned on me. Realising that I was in a dangerous place, I closed my eyes and desperately tried to reign in my temper. I could sense that it was almost overflowing.

"Calm down, Mr Kelmut," I heard the governor say. "We aren't trying to make you angry."

"You politicians are good at lying," I managed to breath out. "Maybe that's why I'm not very good at it. But being bad at my job does not mean that you can exclude me from discussions that I should rightfully attend. In Toby's absence, I am the acting Hork-Bajir governor, and as the Hork-Bajir governor I demand that we rearrange the discussions and that I am in attendance."

"It's too late."

It wasn't too late. He was lying. I couldn't stand it anymore, as I heard them mumbling to themselves before slowly moving onto the next topic. They left me sat there, my head now in my hands, completely deflated by what had happened.

I didn't ask for permission to leave. Interrupting their next discussion, I noisily pushed away my seat, grabbed my things and shot them a betrayed glare. They looked back, and then continued.

Pushing open the doors, I could barely find the strength the lift my head. It drooped forward, forcing my eyes to take in the cold marbled flooring.

And then I felt hands on my shoulders. Far too big for Human hands. Following that, I felt head blades contact mine and I smiled.

At least I had made one good decision.