Chapter 37

I managed to book a meeting with the owner of a local news station. My hopes were high, set adrift on a floatation built from my assuredness that I still had enough of a reputation to bring a message from my people to theirs. I was the only Hork-Bajir able to bridge the gap between our species', and that gave me a strong belief that I still mattered.

It was nice to wake up that morning in such a mood. I actually smiled as I buried my snout in a bowl of water and chomped down a few slices of bark. My upturn in mood quickly spread to Pluk, who was desperately eager to do some more exploring. However, not even our combined efforts could change our supervisor's mood. Most likely, nothing could.

We journeyed down through the most notable parts of Cheyenne (which, to be fair, aren't nearly as numerous as those in places such as New York), visiting a park or two and some of the busier destinations. I let Pluk take the spotlight, knowing that it was fair but also that I could easily aggravate any Human who had strong opinions of me. The last thing I wanted was for an argument to dampen the spirits.

I used Pluk as a means to get people's attention. I gave him a few lines before he was unleashed to the public, so that whenever people showed interest, he would bring up Yellowstone and how the governor was trying to build a highway through our home. He did very well, and I was most impressed. Most Humans showed varying degrees of sympathy. Of course, there were scoffers, but not enough to get me down.

We went back to a local park where we had been given permission to feed, and then, when Pluk was starting to look weary, I decided to make a move. The meeting was in an hour and by the time we got there we would have a short time to compose. Me for a no-doubt stressful encounter and Pluk for his stand-by duties in case everything went wrong.

We were allowed into the building with only a few security issues. When safely inside, our group was transported up to the fourth floor where the head offices were. With roughly half an hour before my meeting was scheduled, Pluk, Sandy and I waited patiently in a small lounging area with a water dispenser and excessively cool air conditioning. As per usual, the ceiling was low down, and Pluk struggled to move around without scraping against the tiles. Though he was steadily getting used to hunching down, the occasional accident wasn't amiss. Sandy would berate him, and I would thusly berate her. With a few minutes to go, we found ourselves in pretty unpleasant moods.

"If you just sat down," Sandy boomed to my tall friend, "You wouldn't keep banging your head!"

"But Pluk legs hurt!" He argued, rubbing at his thighs that took a lot of the strain as he crawled through the Human buildings.

I had let them debate the issue for a while, preferring instead to plan my opening lines for the meeting with Mr Armstrong, the "main man" for the broadcasting station. After a while, however, their needless bickering was infiltrating my headspace. "Please, both of you be quiet. Pluk, I know you are restless, but we won't be here too long."

He shrunk. He held much more respect for my words than he did hers. She had rattled him a few times too often. "Pluk sorry." He sulked.

Before Sandy could consider herself victorious, I spoke to her as well. "Sandy, he is not used to these buildings. With his size, we must accept his need to stretch out. Please show him a little more leniency."

She glared ferociously. "He needs to stop damaging property!"

"The damage is minimal," I grunted. "Now could you both please stop and let me concentrate?"

Pluk turned to me, bowing his head so that it was level with mine. "Mefi haka Sandy watnif."

"Huf lashi taran unik haka ramafa." I responded.

Roughly translated, Pluk was informing me that he thought Sandy didn't like him. I replied to say that she didn't like anyone. Pluk had no trouble understanding that. Sandy didn't grasp a word, but she knew we were talking about her. Not that she cared at all.

More minutes passed, thankfully in a more comfortable silence. Two minutes before the hour, progress was finally made. A blonde haired man in a suit appeared from the nearest corridor and gave me a subtle nod as a sign that Mr Armstrong was ready for me. I took in a deep breath and raised myself from my seat. I began to walk towards the blonde Human, but before I could take one full step, I felt the clutch of Pluk on my arm. He bowed his head towards me, and I reciprocated to connect our head blades. It was a very welcome comfort, and some nerves were dissipated.

"I won't be too long," I told him. "Don't go falling out with Sandy again. I'll hear her voice no matter what room I'm in."

I left with the blonde-haired Human male who guided me down the short yellow corridor. He said nothing to me, and I said nothing back. I saved my words for Armstrong, making sure that nothing said before our meeting could pollute the conversations that floated in my head.

The nameless Human took me to a windowless brown door. The name of Mr Armstrong was decorated on a gold tab near the top. It was opened for me, and as the Human stayed behind to open the door, I was permitted to walk on through.

The room was large, but it followed the main theme of every other room and corridor in the building: greys, yellows and blue-tinted glass. Certificates and photographs hung on the walls, and a few potted plants patrolled the sideboards. In the centre of it all, before a large window overseeing the city, was a great mahogany desk, complete with a computer, several stacks of files and a golden, triangular bar with Mr Armstrong's name engraved.

It would have reminded me so much of Toby's office, if it weren't for the overweight, balding Human seated as the centrepiece in an elaborate leather chair.

"Good afternoon, Mr Kelmut," He croaked. "Please, come on in!"

Mr Armstrong clumsily stood from his desk chair and unfurled a hand forward with a curious grin beneath his bulbous nose. His violet tie dropped over the desk like a lazy waterfall crashing to mahogany rock.

Relieved that he even acknowledge me with a stare, I returned a grin and walked over to his desk. I took his tiny hand and shook lightly. Judging by the way he performed the handshake, I could tell he wasn't unfamiliar with doing it with a Hork-Bajir.

"Good afternoon, Mr Armstrong," I greeted in my least guttural tone, an attempt to sound as Humanly possible just like I did in all important meetings or gatherings. "It is good to meet you."

"Yeah, great to meet you, too, Mr Kelmut," He replied in that distinct croaking voice, maintaining the formal grin. "Take a seat. I know you've been sat out there for thirty minutes so thirty more can't hurt."

"Sitting is not an issue," I reassured him. "Though perhaps thirty minutes is a bit of an underestimate?"

He sat himself back down just as I was doing the same, but it took me considerably more effort. I turned the chair to the side so that my thick tail could lie freely over the edge. Mr Armstrong waited patiently. He'd seen it all before.

"I like to do my business quickly, Mr Kelmut. I don't waste time. I sincerely hope that you don't, either." He said, pulling a hot mug of coffee to his impatient lips.

"I wouldn't want to waste either of our time, Mr Armstrong."

He was smiling as he replaced the coffee on his desk and sighed. "You know, I've only ever had two extra-terrestrials in my office. You and Governor Hamee. I'd love to see one of those Andalites in here, but they don't seem to bother with local news broadcasts. They don't have time for my business."

I cast my eyes aside. "I can't judge. I've never met one."

"I met one before. Forgot his name, not that I care. Stuck-up, arrogant. He liked himself a little too much. Governor Hamee, on the other hand… Stubborn, a real headache. Won't budge an inch, and I was surprised. She ain't like those other Hork-Badger's."

I restrained my disagreements with regard to my mentor, but I wouldn't let the more blatant mistake slip. "Hork-Bajir, Mr Armstrong."

"Whatever," He coughed. "She came to me twice before, sat in that very seat that you're in now. I liked her. I still do. The world loves her, and that means I love her, too! I couldn't refuse her when she asked to appear on my network. That must have been about eight years ago. The aliens came to live in Yellowstone and she needed to speak to the people. You know, convince everyone that they weren't going to get slaughtered in the night!"

I couldn't help but feel greatly assured by his eagerness to speak. The smile on his face was hard to read, but telling me about Toby made me think that the job would be easier than first thought. My only worry was that I had hardly spoken. I'd barely had the chance!

"So she comes to me, sits in that chair and asks for a ten minutes slot during peak tune-in. Of course, me being soppy as an old sock, I let her, because I'm a good guy, Mr Kelmut. Sure, I was shaking up an earthquake in fear, but I didn't let that get in the way! You still scare me a little now!"

I pulled my arms closer to my torso and turned my blades further backwards. "I apologise. You must know that I would do you no harm whatever the outcome of this meeting."

"Good! That's a relief!"

That wasn't the most assuring response. I was hoping that he would dismiss a negative outcome. In my paranoia, the shivers once again tickled at my shoulders and my upper back.

He sipped from his coffee again and continued. "She came back to me a few months later. Something about three of them aliens getting killed by hunters. Once again, how could I refuse? Didn't affect me! She wants to tell people to stop killing aliens, that's fine by me!"

I nodded politely to fill the brief silence that followed, willing him to make his point. I could tell it was coming.

"It's been a long time since then, Mr Kelmut, but it feels like only yesterday. Forgive me, I can't tell aliens apart very well, so it's almost like she's sat in my office again. Only, it's not…"

"In what way is it not, Mr Armstrong?" I queried.

"You ain't like her, Mr Kelmut," He replied, the smile suddenly vanishing from his face and the croaky voice of a long-time smoker now more of a sinister grumble. "I ain't seen much of you, but I've seen both of those interviews. One minute you're like a shy little mouse, and then you're screaming about how much you hate the Human race. Unreliable, unpredictable, liable to confuse a viewer. I assume you didn't come for a friendly visit. Why do you come to me today, Mr Kelmut?"

I had cringed with every blow, shrinking into my seat. My hand was clutched around the end of my tail, twiddling my thumb with the blades, my mind telling myself to keep calm, keep in control. "Mr Armstrong… I… I come here to ask for a segment on your station to broadcast a message to the people of Wyoming, much like Governor Hamee has done in the past. The state government has plans to revoke the reserve status of Yellowstone park in order to build a highway through the centre, as well as a small town to accommodate the tourism industry more effectively. I oppose these plans because it will put my people in danger. It will destroy homes, separate families. I know Toby Hamee would be asking the same thing of you today."

Armstrong nodded slowly. "Yeah, I heard about all that, and Toby would be doing the same, you're right about that. However, Governor Hamee isn't here. She's vanished!" He illustrated with a flash of his fingers and a whooshing noise. "Gone. Now, nobody knows where she's got to, not even those who knew her well. Nobody's asked you, but nobody wants to go near you! Tell me, Mr Kelmut, do you have any idea where the Governor went?"

I shook my head weakly, still fiddling with the tip of my tail. "No."

"I thought so," He huffed. "Now I have my theories, and I bet you do, too. Something to do with the war going on with these Kelbits."

"The Kelbrids." I corrected again.

"Whatever. She and the last remaining animal transformer disappear at exactly the same time, just when the other ones are located. Coincidental? I think not."

I was surprised at Mr Armstrong's predictions. It was not a hard one to arrive at, and indeed it was the guess that I and many Humans held most strongly. Perhaps I shouldn't have judged him on his general person. "Where is this leading?" I asked of him, genuinely curious as to how it related to my request.

He smiled again, and I was beginning to understand that it wasn't much of a friendly one. It was one of condescension and superiority. "It makes me wonder, Mr Kelmut, why the Governor would rather go off to meet a gang of criminals than fight for such a cause as yours. Why she, so reputable and influential, leaves this job to the wannabe governor who can't even get through a simple interview without cursing the entire planet. Doesn't it make you wonder, too, Mr Kelmut?"

I began to stutter, my breath awkward and obnoxiously loud. The twinges made their way all over my body and I began to gasp for water. I had to restrain, had to hold the anger in, even if it meant letting it go later. "Perhaps…"

"It's not a battle you're going to win, Kelmut," He sneered, glugging down the last of his coffee. "Governor Hamee would have seen this coming months ago, but she knows it's not a battle she's going to win. She expects you to fall on your scaly ass once again, and so do I. Why should I waste my time on a lost cause like this, huh?"

I had to fight back. The urge was there, but I felt the tightrope beneath my feet, and the imbalance that would likely cause me to fall irreversibly downwards. I could fall one side and sink into tameness. Weakness. I could go the other way and let the rage overcome me. I had to stay balanced, and oh how I tried.

"Because, Mr Armstrong," I forced. "I am not a lost cause. I will not fall on my scaly ass this time. Toby is not here because she trusts me to stand in her place while she fights for both the freedom of my people and for yours, because I have no doubt in my stupid little Hork-Bajir head that that is what she is doing! I am the governor now, no matter what you or anybody else says and until she returns to take back her position, and as the governor, I must insist that you give me this tiny slot on this tiny, pathetic broadcasting station so that I may represent my people like any other representative should!"

"You're not the governor!" He accused. "You were never signed in, Mr Kelmut. You were never appointed! Nobody was around to see Governor Hamee hand her position to you! And why would she?! You've shown to everyone that you're nothing but a deranged waste of time!"

I had fallen. "I am the governor! I don't need paperwork or sign-ins or speeches! Toby gave me this position and there is nothing you worthless Humans can say about it! You'll play your little games and try to bully me from my rightful pulpit but I will not let you stand in the way of my people's livelihoods!"

His smile had long gone, and now his eyes had widened, but it bothered me little. Now it was his turn to stutter his breath, his turn to feel the shivers up his spine! I looked down and discovered that I was stood directly over his desk, glaring down to the beady Human eyes. Armstrong was silenced, but not by my words.

"Well?!" I yelped. "What do you say, Mr Armstrong? Will you put aside ten minutes of your show's time, or do you want to make an enemy? You mentioned how influential Toby was, didn't you?"

Through the blur of my distorting vision, I saw him gulp, and bead of sweat meandering down his bald forehead. Reluctantly, and with bravery, he said in a broken, panting voice, "I deny your request."

I growled, but it was only a showing of my disgust in his decision. He may have seen it differently, but he definitely looked relieved when I backed away from his desk. "Well, Mr Armstrong," I huffed. "Toby will not see you here again, I can assure you. We don't need your station and we don't need you."

"Well get lost then!" He called back, some of the condescending tone returning as I turned my back towards him and made for the door. "Don't expect any help from us! You won't find it anywhere else, either!"

Everything was changing around me. The rage had bubbled roughly but now simmered. My skin pulsed, my head span, my limbs felt like alien beings that ran my every moment and dragged my thinking brain behind like a crying child. I slammed open the door, sending something soft flying against the corridor door - A blonde-haired something that yelled an angered response back to me.

The figure of a huge Hork-Bajir stood worriedly at the end of the corridor that curled around me, but I did not look at his face or the waiting hands that wanted to comfort me. I had no time for that. All I wanted was to get out. I needed fresh air and trees. I needed water.

"Get away!" I screamed, pushing roughly past him. I emerged into the waiting area but had no intention of staying around any longer. Not even Sandy's yelling would stop me.

I felt the hand of Pluk take my arm as I neared the exit. He was trying to stop me, pull me aside and lend me his pointless comfort, but I was in no mood for it. I swiped my arm forward and away from him. "Pluk, not now! Leave me alone this time!"

He tried to protest, whimpering back, "Taku stay with Pluk. Pluk-"

"I don't want your help! I'm going back to the hotel!"

I did not see their reactions. By the time I heard Pluk's footsteps following me I was already bounding into the nearest elevator and slamming my hand aimlessly against the buttons for the lowest floors. The doors closed shut behind me, and Pluk was not quick enough to join me in the already claustrophobic space.

My hands clutched around my head and I bowed forward with a deep, enraged cry of distress. The anger had to leave, and screaming in the isolated shelter with nobody around to witness was perfect for that.

At least, I thought I was alone. My eyes, aching and waving with liquid, peered through the shapes of my fingers to settle upon the disturbing image of the individual stood before me. Dark green skin, three large horns atop his head. An intense stare that tore me open to reveal my fragile insides, pupils like sharp arrows in the bright, overpowering lights of the surroundings.

I fell back against the door, calling with distress, unfurling my body to release my blades from the cocoon I had created. The intruder continued to stare, relentless in its mocking.

He did not belong anymore. My body thrust forward, colliding against the glass surface with blades exposed. There was a huge smash as the taunting individual shattered into a thousand pieces, crumbling harshly around my arms that would partly buried in the metal shell of the elevator.

With that, he was gone. I was alone in the elevator with only shards of the mirror keeping my poor feet company. They clawed at my feet terribly, almost managing to break through the tough skin of my toes when I pulled my arm blades from the elevator wall and stumbled backwards with the momentum.

I started to feel immensely claustrophobic, stuck with only myself in the tiny, cramped space of the elevator. Standing up straight, I banged my head blades on the ceiling and retaliated by cursing its presence. The moment that the doors creeped open came as a huge relief, and I spun from my position to haul myself into the main reception area, the entrance to the building in sight.

"Mr Kelmut?! Where are you going?" I heard one of my security team shout. They emerged from my right, the numerous Humans in official black suits that were meant to escort me in public areas. They tried in vain to talk me down and turn me back around, but I made my intentions very clear and not one of them dared to stand in my way as I made my exit.

Pluk's voice could be heard. He had probably rushed down the stairs, and he was taking as much notice of the security team as I was judging by the continuing noise they made even as I had escaped them.

A couple of suited workers were quick to jump aside as I pushed my way through the double-doors, arriving into the bright cloudless atmosphere of the outdoors. The air was cold but polluted, ruined by the Human town's presence. I could not stay. Without any idea where the nearest tree was, I began my search without consideration of what was ahead.

Pedestrians gawked curiously from a distance. They yelled and called with a detestable marvelling, the noise coming hand-in-hand with camera flashes and lasting, patronising stares. I heard each and every voice as they were called.

"Look! Hork-Bajir! What's it doing here?"

"Sweety, look, it's a Hork-Bajir! Quick, I'll get a picture!"

"Why is it in the middle of town?! Should I call the cops?!"

Such an irritating noise. This was no place for me. How could I be so foolish to think that it was? I was no governor, no leader of my people, no bridge between two infinitely different species. I was a Hork-Bajir in a world a million miles over his head.

I crossed the main road without hesitation, without care if something came from either side to knock me down. I just had to escape myself, to run away and just be what I was always meant to be.

"Taku! Come back! Taku not go!"

He clearly was not getting the hint. I sighed gruffly and turned on the spot to finally give him his dismissal eye-to eye.

But I did not get to say anything. Pluk was crossing the road that I had just traversed, his focus solely on me and nothing else, eyes attached pleadingly to mine. He was my friend, and he had never let me down. He never would.

Before he could step six feet onto the road, a speeding white van ploughed into him, the crunch blasting over the flat land of the block. Pluk's huge figure was slammed, crumpled and flung back onto the sidewalk as the van skidded to a dangerous halt. It had received considerable damage, but the driver emerged, stunned but safe.

My friend was motionless. Now I had escaped my own head.

"Pluk…"

Suddenly, the rage vanished and I felt Taku Kelmut return. I started with a jog, but it gradually became a sprint as I came back to my horrified senses. I zigzagged through the gathering crowds of people with a little more care and approached the scene of the accident.

Nobody was paying attention to me now. The Humans had stopped taking pictures and staring like visitors in a museum. Like me, they were concerned for the fallen Pluk. He was lying flat, half of his body still reaching out into the road, but his head end on the sidewalk.

It was clear to everybody who had gathered that his legs were broken in several places, shattered like glass. Only those close enough to his body could see that there was still something…

They let me through, and for that I was eternally grateful. They didn't try to impede me or question me. I simply slipped through, and they stood aside. A couple of Humans were investigating my friend, checking over his body and checking for signs of life.

One of them looked up to me. "This is… I'm a doctor. I don't know about Hork-Bajir, but I'll do what I can. Somebody! I need some water, and somebody else needs to call an ambulance. Now!"

Several Humans were already on their phones. Two bottles of water were offered. My security team and Sandy arrived quickly and came to the front of the crowd, themselves barking orders and trying to keep things organised. Sandy was the loudest by some distance.

Meanwhile, I stood motionless, eyes fixed on the Hork-Bajir who had followed me out onto the road. All he wanted was to help me, to protect me. I had broken one of the most important rules that Toby had ever taught me, and Pluk had paid the price.

Don't cross the barrier.

I began to weep freely, and I went down to my knees beside the doctor. I placed my hands on Pluk's arm and held him close and told him how sorry I was. How stupid I was. How it was all my fault.

He regained consciousness. Having paid no attention to time, I didn't know how long he was out cold for. All I knew is that he opened his eyes as I sat above him.

"Pluk want," He rumbled. "Pluk water. Want water."

The doctor, still present and paying close attention, took a bottle of water and helped Pluk take one long gulp. He panted, but he was slowly becoming more alert.

"I'm so sorry, Pluk." I sobbed, repeating the line for what felt like the millionth time.

"Pluk fall over," He said, following with his signature giggle. "But Taku stay. Taku not go."

The blare of sirens fast approaching caused a series of yells as Sandy and the security team cleared the way for the paramedics to come through. They wouldn't find a stretcher large enough, but I would do my best to help. I could hold Pluk's weight. Most of it, anyway.

I accompanied him on the ambulance. There were no Hork-Bajir hospitals in Cheyenne, so the nearest Human one would suffice initially. It wasn't far, but every available moment on that bumpy, confined journey I repeated my apology till I ran out of breath.