Chapter 40

Clarissa joined me in my office back in the Yellowstone Centre a couple days later. She brought along her usual entourage of grooming kits and mirrors, but I had planned a busy day ahead. She wouldn't be able to do her full coating with what I had in mind.

I arrived extra early, popping my head into the main entrance at 5AM to see the cleaners beginning their work. With them present, I had to make sure that my feet were exceptionally free of dirt before strolling around the building and ruining their hard work. I filled my water bottles from the canteen, checked in and sped to my office to begin the rigorous work that I was desperate to do.

It had been a few days since I last entered the stuffy room. Papers had begun to pile up high on my desk, folders collapsing to the floor in unattractive heaps. A used mug had been left on the desk by the computer monitor where one of my Human peers had come in to do something unknown to me. I sighed deeply, but didn't dwell on the mess too long. I had come in specifically early to compensate for such occurrences. Another task to perform before the rest of the team arrived, and I quickly got into it.

Thin layers of dust had settled on the few picture frames and the windows. The plants had started to wither after days without proper care. I fed them from my own water bottle and cleared away dead leaves, losing them occasionally between the piles of paper destined to join them in the recycling bins. Once the outskirts of my room were clear, addressing my desk became a much easier task.

"You're in early." Clarissa's distinct feminine voice rang.

I turned my neck to glance at her. "I have a lot to do here today. I came in early to make sure that I could get things clean and still have time to do the important things."

She smiled before swooping over to place her handbag in the visitor seat that sat blandly at the right-hand side of my desk. "There's, like, so much here! When did you last come in here?"

"I can't remember too well. The last few months have been a blur, and to be honest I would rather pretend that they never happened."

"Fresh start?"

"Fresh start," I agreed. "Could you help me throw these papers, please?"

I gave my request as she was reaching into her bag, most likely for a comb. She hesitated and, hiding her disappointment, joined me in the big clean-up.

We chatted for a while, mutually establishing how we would move forward after everything had happened. I could tell that Clarissa was concerned about my well-being, though she wouldn't say it to my face. She would look at me in a suspicious fashion following some remarks that I personally considered innocent and meaningless. Perhaps she was fishing for something that wasn't there.

Some things used to be, but I could feel that they had left. The tension that arose from my inner contradictions and confusions had subsided, assured in new answers, satiated in my new view of the world. My mind was free of it and I could now see the path I needed to take. I told her all of that, but she was yet to be convinced.

The other staff of the building had begun to arrive and the activity outside of my door was increasing. When people began to notice my return they couldn't resist knocking on the door to see what on Earth was going on. Grant Higham had some choice words, especially. Having told me that my unexplained absence was the last straw and that I would not be welcome back to the Centre, I reminded him that Toby had been gone unexplained for much longer and that I was still the only Hork-Bajir capable of doing the jobs. He didn't like it, but he had to deal with me.

Jonathan and Jason stayed longer than most others. They were my closest friends at the Centre and I personally wanted to give them my sincerest apologies.

"I have been very on-edge," I explained, stood before my desk with the pair of them and Clarissa sat before me like nervous students in a lecture hall. "And I haven't been myself. I was rude, probably very obnoxious and a lot of my work was handed to you when it was meant to be done specifically by myself. I set myself a standard and I did not meet it. I'm surprised that you are sitting here now, listening to me as if I deserved it. I don't. I can't thank you enough for being here for me as I try to turn this whole mess back around."

The three of them accepted my apologies, but I couldn't help but notice how they fidgeted awkwardly at the suggestion that I could fix what had been broken. I looked to them pleadingly for their concerns, waiting for somebody to finally make the point that they felt was so relevant.

Clarissa, of course, was first to speak back. "Taku, you tried your best with the whole freeway thing."

"Clarissa's right," Jason added. "We've tried, as well. We combatted it for months, but everyone outside the park wants it built. I think we've got to take the positives out of it. We'll have increased tourism in the park, better exposure. The tourism is what drives the donations that keep us going."

It was disheartening, but I could understand why they would be so demotivated. "It's not as if we need increased tourism. The park already gets enough to run this centre and maintain the facilities anyway. It gets so much money that we don't know what to do with it!"

"We could use the money for education programmes." Jonathan suggested meekly, hand scratching his cheek.

"Education for who? Tourists or Hork-Bajir?" I asked.

"Uh… Both, I guess."

I tapped my foot ponderously and considered. "We already have so many programmes. Every Hork-Bajir colony has easy access to a Human teacher at least once a week, and the park has education centres for tourists everywhere. I don't think we need anymore."

Jason started to look a little further forward. "We may need the extra money with the park cut in half. A freeway and a town will mean that we need to spend more money for new centres, new fences."

"The State should pay for all that stuff." Jonathan explained.

By that point, I had my snout in my hands. I shook my head and brought their attention back before they could go any further. "Why are we talking about this as if the decision to build the freeway is final?"

A dreadful pause broke the momentum before Jason spoke up again, leaning his lean Human frame forward in his chair. "The freeway is going to happen, Taku. Sorry, but there's not much we can do about it now."

"Has it been built yet?" I pressed.

Jason raised an eyebrow. "Well, no…"

"Then there is plenty we can do about it."

Clarissa was equally baffled. "What, though? You tried talking to the Governor and you said he wouldn't change his mind!"

"That's because I didn't know how to," I replied with my most confident smile in a long while. "But now I do. I've been doing it wrong this whole time."

They were silent, waiting for me to get on with it and tell them. Clarissa dropped her chin onto her palm in growing frustration.

"He's a politician," I summarised. "Of course I can't convince him face-to-face. I have to hit him where it hurts."

"Voters?" Jonathan quickly concluded.

"Precisely."

They took that in reluctantly. Having a hard time seeing how it could be done, they pushed further.

Clarissa lifted her head from her hands just slightly. "You aren't the voters' favourite space alien right now."

"But I am not pushing for my own sole benefit. I'm not running for any election. It's for my people. The majority of Humans love my people, going by what I've experienced. Yes, perhaps it is largely a novelty factor, but I cannot, for one second, believe that the population will turn a blind eye when the Hork-Bajir make a plea. We are allies."

They understood that point and all three looked a little more reassured. Jason, cool as ever, laid back in his seat with his arms over his chest, eyebrows furrowed as he calculated my ideas. "That's true," He said. "But everybody already knows that this is happening."

"He's right, Taku," Jonathan added, turning in his seat. "It's been on all the news stations, local and national!"

"Then we should try harder," I retorted staunchly. "We haven't been doing it right. All I've seen is bland explanations, irrelevant commentaries from people who know nothing about what this will do to my people. I am not favourable, I know, but I am the only one to effectively connect my people and yours. Isn't that what Toby did? Everything good for us came because she was the translator. Without a mouthpiece, my people are without a voice. They are too polite to go around asking Humans to fulfil their needs, so Toby did it for them. The same was true even when the war was going on. Sometimes it made her seem cold, maybe even unwelcoming. She was more Human than Hork-Bajir. She was playing the Human game, something that I haven't done all this time. I've seen her at her home tree in the park where she drops the Human side. She becomes Hork-Bajir in all but language. But it remains there and she turns Human as soon as she steps onto artificial flooring."

"You want to be the Hork-Bajir voice," Clarissa helpfully summarised. "That's great, you know, but nobody wants to see you break down again."

They looked among themselves sympathetically and I got the terrible feeling that an intervention was beginning.

Jason was the first to look back. "There was a meeting last week, Taku. We needed to assess you."

"Assess me how? Why was I not invited?"

"You can't deny that you haven't handled the media very well. Same goes for the meeting with the state governor. We heard about what happened there very quickly and we arranged the emergency meeting to discuss your role at the Centre."

My arms dropped limply to my side and my head bowed. It was definitely not what I wanted to hear and part of me wanted to hush him and just ignore that it had ever been brought up.

Jason shrugged and avoided eye contact. "Sorry, Taku, but we don't think you should do this kind of stuff. You work fine here in the Centre, but we can't risk you losing your cool out of the park again."

I couldn't respond, no matter how much I wanted to. I could see that Clarissa was equally stunned, her eyes darting between me and the others. I didn't want to look at them, so I turned and rested my hands on the desk, my breathing rate increasing.

"We're really sorry, Taku," Jason repeated. "We're worried about your health more than anything else."

I was angry, but I permitted it. I didn't let it take me into the terrible lands it had taken me to before, but it didn't stop me from sharing my frustration. "Worried that I'll slice the head off the next obnoxious news anchor? Maybe the Governor himself?" I huffed, turning back to them. "I know the real reason you don't want me out there. I get it. I really do. After the last few months I wouldn't allow myself out there either. I would chain myself to the nearest tree and have Mother spoon-feed me sap. But it's different now. I have changed. I know what to do."

Thankfully, Clarissa had my back. "I think Taku deserves another chance. I'll be there with him, so I'll make sure he stays calm and relaxed.

Jonathan nodded lightly. "We could hold another meeting. It doesn't seem fair that Taku didn't come to the last one to defend himself."

I smiled, the brief anger subsiding as fastidiously as it had arrived. "I would like that. At least to make my case and put my ideas forward. I know that I can avoid another outburst and I can prove it."

"We'll get it arranged," Jason assured me with his confident grin. "Leave it to us."

Clarissa spoke up, "You do as I say though, okay?"

I rolled my eyes and grumbled out, "Yes, okay."

Things fell silent as the room became open to any other business. When it became clear that our brief gathering had come to a close, Jonathan cleared his throat and picked up several pads of paper that he had placed under his seat. He adjusted and then did the same with his glasses. "Taku, I brought these over from the main office."

I leaned back against my desk, letting my tail tap the floor between my feet. "What are they?"

"These are the papers that have come in this last week. Addressed to Toby." He clarified, stepping up and handing the papers into my open hands.

"Addressed to Toby, huh?" I muttered, gazing down at them blankly. "Well, I think you should leave them on her desk, then."

Jonathan blinked, stumped. "Um… I thought you wanted Toby's files. You… You said that you would take care of them while she wasn't here."

"I did, but I've changed my mind," I told him, gently pushing the files back in his direction. "Toby decided to leave. I'm not here to pick up her pieces. That's her job. When she gets back, she can go through all the papers that have built up herself. Then I'll strip her of her governmental position. Not even she is able to abandon her duties for so long without repercussion. I'm sure she can write a couple of bestsellers when she's retired."

Clarissa shone her gleaming white teeth and folded her arms, impressed. "You're ruthless, Governor Kelmut. I like that."

"Constitution."

"Con-sti-tu-tion," I copied, dragging the words out in its individual syllables to perfect each sound, pushing the source of sound up to my throat to increase the pitch. "There. I think that sounds better."

"A little," Clarissa judged, moving the file to my right elbow blade which I dutifully lifted to ease her movement. "You just have to keep doing it, you know."

"I understand, but it's very difficult not to revert back to my usual voice. Talking like a Human is hard."

"You wanted to do it!" She asserted, tugging my arm to a steeper angle as she began to file it down.

I sighed, accepting my liability. Clarissa had always offered to help my voice sound more Human, but I had forever refused it. In light of my new plans, however, I deemed it more necessary than ever, The Hork-Bajir tone is a couple semitones down from the average Human and comes hand-in-hand with an oft-grating unsubtle roughness as if talking with an eternal sore throat. It didn't make our speech inaudible, but it was distinctly not Human. If I was to communicate better with them, I needed to sound like them.

So, several hard-working hours after the meeting with my three peers, I decided that my lunch break would be spent perfecting my Human voice.

I cleared my throat and tried it out once more. "I think I can get this to a good standard within a week," I said, my throat beginning to strain with the unusual circumstances I was putting it through. "Just in time to start getting in touch with some old contacts."

Clarissa hummed her approval. "Which contacts?"

"I'm not too sure yet," I mused. "To be honest, I don't know who is an enemy and who isn't anymore. Maybe I have to make new contacts. It can't be that hard to get involved with the media again."

She moved her head forward so that she could look into my eyes. The file continued to groom my blade. "What? You can't be serious!"

"I assumed you knew that my new ideas would put me back on television. I want news stations, adverts, public speeches. Anything that will help me spread the message to the people of this country and the whole world."

She looked pensive, but then she retreated behind me and continued her blade-blunting duty. "Why don't you talk to talk to the TV guys in the park? Aren't there loads around here?"

"As always. I do plan to take full advantage of their presence," I deliberated out load. "Those damn reality shows that exploit my naïve people… I wanted to get rid of them before. Now I think I'll try something different. Hork-Bajir Homes wants to talk about my people, then I shall let them, but I shall talk to the people in charge and make them go to the proposed highway zone. They will do their filming with those Hork-Bajir. We'll make them work to our benefit if we can't get rid of them."

"You think they'll do that if you asked?"

"If I demand? Yes. They will do it or they will leave." I bluntly explained.

"If you say so," Clarissa said. "Sounds like a good idea if it works. What else are you going to do?"

"Anything that will get the Humans on my side of this," I said. "And I believe that I have a good way of achieving that."

"Go ahead."

"Well…" I began before feeling a little uneasy about what I was going to explain. "I have mentioned my friend before, the one who was hit in Cheyenne."

Clarissa sounded intrigued. "Go on."

"I can use him as an example. They want to build a road over our home. I'll show them a Hork-Bajir who's been in a road accident. Humans may only have one heart, but that's definitely enough to care for a fellow sentient being. I'll say that that is what will happen to more of my people."

She was shocked, almost as much as I was with my own suggestion. "You're going to use your friend's accident to get sympathy?! That doesn't feel right, you know…"

"Yes, I know, but I think it will work. Besides, Pluk will probably enjoy the attention."

Clarissa had stopped filing by this point. "Yeah, but…" She couldn't find the words that she wanted to say. She gave up, throwing her hands up and going back to her duty. "Whatever. I'm not the seer, I guess."

"You don't approve."

"Just feels weird."

That didn't make me feel any better about the next thing I was going to say. "And there was Relk, too. She was killed by people who came into the park. More Human activity directly through the park means more chance of such killers getting in."

Clarissa was silent. Her opinions did not really need to be expressed.

"Yes, I will be exploiting what happened to them," I defended. "But it will be a great benefit to my people, I believe. I will do my best to ensure that Pluk is not disadvantaged in any way and that Relk's family is not disturbed."

"Could you promise that?"

"I'm not sure."

I felt the tool move away from my blade. Clarissa took herself from behind my seat and came to stand before me. She wanted both eye and physical contact, and she took one of my hands in both of hers, staring at me with her heavily-made-up eyes. "If you think that's what you need to do, Taku, you should do it. Just… don't do anything stupid, yeah?"

I smiled. "I've already done all the stupid stuff. I'm bored of that now. I want to do something right this time. Maybe I'll do some stupid things, maybe some wrong things, but it will all add up to something right in the end."