"No! You must leave these things alone. The Humans will be very upset if you break them."
The juvenile stood short below me, his stance apologetic. I couldn't expect him to understand the worth of a video camera, but rules needed to be clear on this day. He said his sorry and scurried off back to the river where his friends had made their stronghold.
It was foolish of the cameraman to leave his equipment unguarded on a fold-out table on the outskirts of the small camp that the news crew had constructed. Little hands were curious, especially this deep into the park where interaction between races was limited. The divide was clear at first when every Hork-Bajir in the area made a quick escape to a 100-yard distance. The people here were used to seeing an occasional group of campers or hikers, but not three separate film crews setting up a great eye sore in the centre of their home.
Eventually they diffused over, but the interactions were a little awkward. My people were more interested in the filming equipment than the Humans that brought it. I was on constant alert for potential breakages.
One camera had already gone missing. Apparently, I was in charge of investigations for that, too.
"Ten minutes, Mr Kelmut!" Shouted the voice of the crew director for Wyoming State News. He was somewhere within the crowd of bodies, but his voice was loud enough to hear.
"I'll be ready!" I called back, hoping that he would hear me. With the warning in my mind, I needed to pass on duties. For the last couple of days, I had travelled up to the area to acquaint myself with the people. Knowing them by name, I was able to call Frit from a distance. He jogged over, eager to help out with what I needed. "Frit, please take over from me. I have to be elsewhere. Your job is to make sure that nobody plays with any of the Humans' things. Is that okay?"
Frit nodded. "Yes, Taku Kelmut. Frit will do that!"
Pleased with myself and able to prepare, I searched out Clarissa. She was waiting for me by the 4x4 she had travelled up in and she had a great look of impatience on her face.
She scalded me as I approached. "Where were you?! We have, like, no time to get you ready!"
"I'm ready enough," I replied, collapsing to a seating position before her, my feet aching from hours of standing and walking without rest. "I would like a drink, though, please. This Human voice acting is not good for my vocal system."
Clarissa reached over to her pop-up table that was mostly covered in her beauty products and bags of potato chips. From beneath the wreckage she picked out a bottle of water and hefted it over to me. I greedily gulped it all down and nearly took the bottle with the cool fluid.
"Whatever," She grunted, pulling together a few cleansing tools destined to prepare me for my segment. "Hey, you're getting pretty good with that voice, though! It sounds really good, you know?"
I smiled to her friendly compliment, despite not being so approving myself. "Thank you, Clarissa. I suppose it's worth the aches and pains to make me that little more relatable. It sure does confuse my people, however. They'll stare at me like I'm something out of some hallucinogenic dream brought on by too much willow bark."
"Willow bark?" She asked, using a damp cloth to rub off stray dirt from my upper body.
"Yes. It has hallucinogenic properties. For me, I just fall asleep."
Clarissa raised an eyebrow and decided that it was time to reverse the conversation back from the tangent. "They probably just think you sound weird. No biggie."
"Of course. I try to revert back to my natural voice when I'm back with them, but I train so frequently that I often forget to… It's almost become the new default."
I grunted when she took the cloth to my face and started to rub roughly at the side of my snout. "I think it sounds great, Taku. People will love it! Especially if you can nail this report. I mean, that's it, right? You just have to tell people what's going on here."
I waited until the cloth was moved to my headblades to reply. "No debate, no counter-arguments. No arguments at all, I hope. It's plain old reporting of what's going to happen if Humans do not help my people. There are three crews here, and how fortunate that they should stumble upon the colony most in danger of losing their homes to the freeway just as they're making a new school house in the trees!"
"What a coincidence!" Clarissa chimed.
I winked. "A wonderful one, too. Several interconnecting platforms with warming shelters and even a war memorial!"
I looked down and felt the beginnings of a smile scratch the left side of my face. "They thought of it themselves, actually. I didn't have to push or suggest anything. I mentioned building some platforms and that was it. Now the whole colony is busy making it one of the most wonderful structures I've seen. A treat for the film crews and the viewers, I'm sure."
"Mmhmm," Clarissa murmured, finally taking away the filthy cloth. To my horror, she picked up the tweezers and began to look for splinters between my scales. "So what else have you been doing if not motivating the troops?"
"Keeping the crews in check," I grumbled, shifting my eyes to gaze over them in the distance. "I never liked Hork-Bajir Homes. Especially the director. I made a deal with them that I could get them this deep into the park where they could film the colonies in danger of losing their homes doing some exceptional acts. Of course, I still have to stop them filming my people scratching themselves in undignified ways and harassing some of the more stubborn locals. There is one such person who has refused to come down from his tree ever since the first crew showed up. The director wants to film his refusals, knowing very well that their presence is the reason he's showing such stressed behaviour!"
"It seems to be going well." Clarissa observed, ignoring my little rant.
"Well enough. My people have mixed reactions but there have been few conflicts. Hork-Bajir conflicts are never violent, anyway. A few barks and squeals and everything is settled."
"Thank God." Clarissa sighed jokingly.
Then she had finished removing splinters. I thought she had finished the worst parts, but then put her hands on either jaw and pried my snout open. I groaned and writhed a little, but succumbed to let her inspect my teeth.
"Disgusting," She hummed, releasing my snout. "But TV won't smell your breath. Now, let's see your best screen smile!"
Why not? I bared my teeth in the cheeriest, most Human grin I could muster. Instantly, I noticed Clarissa cringe, and though I kept up the act, I had to get her reasoning. "No good?"
"Yeah… Maybe we should just avoid the smile, okay?" She requested with an irritatingly sympathetic tone.
"Is my smile not appealing?" I asked curiously, trying to avoid sounding upset.
"Well, Hork-Bajir aren't… uh… you know, conventionally cute." Clarissa explained.
"By Human standards." I huffed, folding my arms petulantly and flicking my nose into the air.
"Yeah, and it's Human eyes watching you today. You're cute on the inside, Taku, okay? Work with that."
I continued my pouting even as I was given my two-minute warning. Clarissa carried out the rest of her pitstop and finally released me back into the real world with wishes of good luck and promises that I would do well. I got up, shook off any make-up and strolled back towards the news crew.
They shouted amongst themselves, bustled around and made certain that the shot was acceptable and the lighting clear. I watched them from a distance to take my deep breaths and fiddle with the tip of my tail. Though my confidence was at a much welcomed peak, the nerves still tingled through my bones and right into each individual blade. I needed to keep the shivering under control.
A Human hand stole my tail from my claws. Clarissa walked by, towards the crew where she would watch my performance. "You play with your tail when you're nervous. You don't need to be."
She was gone before I could reply, but I had stopped rubbing my tail. She was correct. There was no need to be nervous. Thousands of people watching me on television, perhaps millions, and all would be expecting another outburst or a cowering performance… No pressure, Hork-Bajir seer!
To give her own final words, another familiar face showed up beside me. Relk was always so determined to give her support. "I'll be fine," I told her. "Things will be different from now on. I will be the voice for my people, and the Humans will listen. Even if they don't see me as… conventionally cute."
I huffed and shook my head. Then I turned over my right shoulder to address her more directly. "You heard her, yes? Apparently we're not that appealing."
Relk giggled. She didn't care one bit. "Clarissa is wrong. Taku have a good smile."
"Thank you. You're right. Our races have different standards of beauty."
She narrowed her eyes, just understanding enough of the words to take in the message. "What does Clarissa Human put on Taku's face? It makes Taku look… less Taku."
I puzzled together what she had said, then realised that she was referring to the dabs of makeup slathered on my face to bring out what Clarissa explained to be "better features". "Oh, that?" I chuckled, rubbing a claw down beneath my right eye. "It's just stuff to bring out my skin for the camera."
"Oh." She hummed. A hand reached up to rub where I had just, her sharp nails held pointing outwards to avoid scratching. She stroked beneath my eyes, but I felt nothing.
"And Taku voice change," She concluded. "Has Taku got bad throat?"
"It is part of my new training. I want to sound more Human in interviews and in Human contact. It makes me more understandable and…" I realised that I was still speaking with that voice. I loosened my throat, reverting it back to how it would naturally sit. "I keep forgetting to stop."
Relk seemed to find it very amusing, but she was also relieved to hear my usual voice returning. "Taku do good today," She assured. "If Taku have Human voice. If Taku have Taku voice. Human smile. Hork-Bajir smile."
I looked down, simultaneously embarrassed and flattered by her words.
"Relk like Hork-Bajir smile better." She finished, lending a playful smile of her own.
"So do I."
Our headblades moved forward to kiss against each other. They touched, but her presence was only visual. I closed my eyes, feeling the connection on a much deeper level. When I opened them again, the tree stared back, ancient and wise.
"Where is Kelmut?!" The director shouted. I must have missed a call. Turning, I could see that they were all ready and waiting impatiently. Clarissa was on her way over to hurry me along, but she noticed that I was alert and allowed me to escort myself.
"It's about time." I heard as I walked among the crew. Within seconds, I was handed my microphone and my earpiece whilst being told where to stand by several people at the same time. It was a drone that I did not require and I simply waddled to the spot laid out in front of the huge main camera that would distribute my image state-wide. I saw myself in a tiny screen just below it, my tall figure stood perfectly central, microphone in hand. It didn't feel like home, but it was much friendlier than before with the faint hints of my people conducting their activities somewhere behind me.
It was too late to be given instructions. The team backed away and prepared themselves. My earpiece suddenly burst into life, as did another screen before me that portrayed a news anchor introducing the segment.
And so I tried again.
Diane Hartfield, the anchor, was partway through the introduction to the story. She had shoulder-length, shiny brunette hair and plenty of make-up, perhaps more than me. Her top was a bright, extravagant pink. "Those plans for the freeway have since gained public support from the Wyoming State Government that claims that it would be a major boost for tourism around Yellowstone. However, there is still plenty of controversy over whether Yellowstone should lose its reserve status, at least in certain areas, something that would be necessary for the plans to go ahead. With us now from the national park is Taku Kelmut, volunteer at the Yellowstone Centre. Looks cold over there, Taku!"
I lifted the microphone closer to my snout and replied. "It's very cold, Diane, but it's good to be talking with you."
Diane was taken aback noticeably for a split second. I sounded a lot different with my Human voice on show. "Good to have you with us, Taku. Now, I can see a lot of activity going on behind you. Are your people aware of plans to build a freeway through that area of the park?"
"Yes, Diane," I nodded. It was a lie. "They heard that a road might be built over their home about a week ago, as did a number of other colonies that will potentially be affected. In truth, it will not only be them affected, but all of us. The planned construction would split the park and our population in half."
Not a stutter. I smiled inside and my confidence quickly rose. Would it remain so straightforward?
"How did they react to the news?" Diane asked. An easy question and I was so relieved that she wasn't determined to challenge me. At least not at that point.
"The same way I would expect anybody to react. They love their homes here and they want to stay. We have veterans that have lived in these trees since the war ended and my people were moved here. I know individuals in these trees who were crippled in battles, who have specialised machines that help them onto their branches at night. It would not be such an easy relocation for them."
That part was not a lie. It was no secret that a huge number of Hork-Bajir in the park were crippled or mutilated. Those that were not euthanized by the Yeerks after ferocious battles during the war. They often needed aid to go about their daily activities in the park. I had deliberately introduced such a person to the Hork-Bajir Homes crew earlier in the day. He'd had both hands sliced off during a battle with a small group of Andalites on Earth. It was one of the more forgiving injuries I had seen. The film crews lapped it up. It's a strange Human fascination.
"Of course, people understand those issues, Taku," Diane continued. "But Governor Mitchell recently stated that the benefit of increased tourism and better access to the park would actually benefit the Hork-Bajir people. It could mean more funding or better exposure to the public. What do you say to that?"
So we were getting to the real meat of the discussion. "Governor Mitchell has a vested interest in the state economy for obvious reasons, and I understand that Yellowstone and my people are the greatest source of tourism for the state by a massive margin. He has to maximise the intake of money for the state, but a line needs to be drawn. My people should not have their livelihoods interrupted and their homes moved to make that extra profit. And I know that there is little to convince him. He doesn't see the park's reserve status as an obstacle."
"Well, that actually brings me onto an interesting point," Diane mused, staring briefly to some notes sat before her. "I've looked into the details for what defines a reserve, the kind that Yellowstone Park falls under. It seems to me that, in order for the status to remain valid, any introduced species' must either be directly beneficial to the existing wildlife present or have previously been native the park, only to have been absent since Human intervention. According to that definition, surely Yellowstone must lose its reserve status."
"It's a complicated issue. Certainly, it's not as simple as a straight definition should make it," I explained, my eyes darting to and from Clarissa, almost wanting to wave at her and display my contentedness. I did not let my composure slip. "Firstly, there are no well-backed studies that indicate that we are detrimental to the environment. If anything, we are beneficial to the trees that we harvest. There has been no drastic change in the Yellowstone ecology since our arrival. Secondly, we aren't defined as a species, so we cannot be counted as an introduced species."
"So you don't believe that Yellowstone should lose its reserve status."
"Not at all. It is still a reserve and it should remain that way."
I could tell that she was trying to make it more challenging, but she definitely wasn't being aggressive. She kept the questions and statements rolling, but she allowed me the time to answer and didn't counter. This was merely a segment to get my ideas out into the open and I felt so thankful for that.
"And of course, there are many people who agree with you," Diane informed. "Just Tuesday, the President for Resident Aliens spoke of his concerns on the planned town and freeway and how he fears that it will pave way for more plans that will envelop the park."
I shrugged and tilted my head indecisively. "I agree with the PRA's intent, but I don't think we should be too worried about a slippery slope. I have enough faith in the Human race that we will be protected adequately and not relegated to the same level of a caged zoo animal. However, the point still stands that we should protect our home and that profit is not placed as paramount over my people."
"We would hate to see that," She replied as an empty gesture. "But what are you plans going ahead? How do you aim to tackle this issue?"
"I will make it an issue," I answered with a wry smile that I could not contain. "So far very little has been said about it. People know that there are plans, but they have not seen this wonderful area that is going to be paved over if plans go ahead," I turned slightly and gestured to the trees behind me. I was placed perfectly for the camera to focus on my people hard at work, platforms steadily being constructed in a beautiful maze of layers and creativity. "The locals here are building a school. Behind this, just out of sight, they are making a monument for those lost in the war. For that to be taken down and replaced with a road… It would be incredibly saddening for us all." I turned back and refocused. "The ongoing conflict with the Kelbrids and cases of terrorism have taken priority in the media recently. This news has therefore slipped under the radar. I'm desperate for people to see it for what it really is, because I have faith that the good people of this state will stand by our side."
She smiled and appeared to be satisfied with the main course. I didn't expect her to go for dessert, but thinking about it, it was something that still remained on everybody's mind.
"One final thing, Taku," She started, her smile dropping. "Governor Hamee has been missing for quite some time now, as has Cassie Roberts. On top of that, there was recently a report stating that two of the Animorphs group members were spotted near Jackson. That was just last week… Do you have any idea what's going on? Do you believe there might be a connection, and if so, why would Governor Hamee involve herself with a group in hiding after breaking several race-mutual laws in stealing two Andalite craft?"
It took me by surprise. I had been getting little jots of news here and there about it, and I knew that people had started to piece the puzzle together. Aside, I knew nothing. "Governor Hamee's presence is unknown to me."
"Of course, Taku. People were fearing the worst for Governor Hamee and Ms Roberts for a long time, but with the Animorphs recent reoccurrences coming at around the same time the two disappeared, the public has grown suspicious."
I had to take a second to gather my thoughts. I couldn't say anything that would throw further suspicion onto my friends, but I also didn't want to hint an association with outlaws. I knew for certain that they hadn't been kidnapped or killed… "All I know, Diane, is that Toby and Cassie will be doing their best for both my people and the nation as a whole. That is all I know."
It was enough. "Well, thank you very much, Taku. We wish you the best and hope that Governor Hamee and Cassie return soon."
"Thank you, Diane." I finished courteously.
"Oh," She quickly blurted, deciding to add, "And I love the voice." She smiled but I couldn't tell if it was genuine or laced with mockery.
"Thanks again." I chuckled, ending with a grin. A hopelessly crafted blend of Hork-Bajir and Human grins.
And it was over. It felt like it had only been seconds. My body was gone from the screen and I allowed it to loosen. It had tightened over the course of the interview, stuck straight with solidifying nerves. I almost collapsed when they regained their normal state, but I steadied myself with my tail.
After all this time, I had finally finished a television interview. No explosions, no cowering. I had finally done it!
I could barely contain myself. I bobbed up and down like an excited child from one foot to the other. The wait for somebody to relieve me of my equipment seemed to last ten times longer than the interview itself, but when I was finally freed I yipped and bounced in Clarissa's direction.
Then I realised my role and my reputation and instantly calmed. The great smile remained and my composure made a return. It threatened to abandon me again when I saw Clarissa, a congratulatory expression on display. She knew more than anybody how big a step this was for me.
Was I overexcited about a two minute section on a local news station that had gone adequately, with nobody there to really challenge me? Overreacting? Probably. But at that point, I felt like I could take on the whole world and still have enough left to stick a middle finger up at the Andalites.
I was a child again.
"I did it!" I called to Clarissa.
She understandably flinched as I came bounding towards her, but when she knew it was safe she moved forward and wrapped her arms around my upper body. "Well done, Taku! You were so great!"
Knowing that I would not cut her accidentally, I completed the hug. "Even… Even the voice? I couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic…"
Clarissa released me and used the opportunity to shrug unknowingly. "Hmm… I'd say it wasn't mocking, but it wasn't entirely serious."
I didn't quite know how to react. "So neither?" Is that good?"
"Your voice doesn't matter," Clarissa laughed, shaking her head. "But that smile was, like… what?"
I scratched at my chin. She had lost me.
"Don't worry about it. You did exactly what you needed to do. Maybe better!"
My dopey grin returned. I was incredibly proud of myself, but still overly conscious of the opinions of the news crew just behind me. Even Clarissa started to look embarrassed.
"Hey, why don't I take you for a meal tonight?" She offered. "A congratulations for a successful return. I know a good place."
A restaurant? I stopped bouncing for a moment. "There are restaurants that cater for Hork-Bajir?"
She laughed and pushed at my shoulder. "No, silly! But the one I'm thinking of might make an exception for one night only."
"I suppose they'll just get that hidden piece of bark out of the freezer…" I rolled my eyes.
Clarissa glared at me with twisted lips, almost aggravated by my sarcasm. "Hey, lizard, I had to do this kind of crap for your boss all the time. I know how to organise this stuff!"
I felt an awkward pinch in my joy with the reference to Toby, but I could not let it spoil the moment. I had plenty of research to do on those recent reports from elsewhere in Yellowstone, but that could wait until after the ill-placed celebration.
"I would love to go for a meal, then." I said in my most Human voice, but I followed it with a natural Hork-Bajir smile.
"Good. I'll arrange it now," She winked. "How long are you staying here?"
I looked back to the news crew, then further back to the Hork-Bajir Homes crew. Neither looked particularly busy, but it was not even going dark yet. "I don't expect to be too long. I will stay for as long as they will and I predict that they'll get sick of the cold soon. I need to make sure that they don't bother the locals too much."
"I don't think you need to be so protective." Clarissa put forward.
"Perhaps," I muttered, having thought the same several times over the past few hours. "But I wish for their film content to be dignified. Maybe that's asking too much of the Homes crew… They did get some good footage of the harvest call, though."
That was a call used to indicate that the harvest was sufficient within a Hork-Bajir group. It was essentially the Hork-Bajir equivalent of music: A simplistic drone made up of several complementing notes that lasted about twenty seconds. Something so simplistic and trivial compared to Human or Hruthin music, but seen as tremendously charismatic. It was television gold that apparently endeared us to the Humans, perhaps even more so than our docile and pacifistic nature. (Why? I have no idea, even to this day.)
A phone rang. I quickly recognised the tune to be from my cell phone. Having no pockets (or clothes at all,) Clarissa would carry it around for me. She reached into the bag settled over her shoulder and fiddled around for the phone with the big rubber casing. Hork-Bajir-claw-proof. She focused on the tiny screen on the front with curiosity, but handed it to me unanswered when she couldn't decipher the number.
I couldn't recognise it, either. Nevetheless, I pressed the little green button to answer and put the phone to my right ear. "Hello?"
"What are you doing?"
I was shocked to hear Governor Mitchell's irritated voice. I certainly hadn't expected a call from him, but his deep, monotonous voice wasn't unwelcome. In fact, I felt another swell of confidence, a complete contrast to the last time we had an exchange.
"Governor? I am doing my duty."
"And your duty is… What exactly?" He grumbled. "If your duty is to waste everybody's time, then you're doing a damn good job."
"Of course!" I replied chirpily. "I've wasted so much of your time that you've decided to call me and waste some more."
A second passed and I could tell that he was groaning to himself. "Kelmut, what did I just see? Is this your rebellion or something? The plans are already in place to get things underway."
"I understand that," I replied, stepping away from Clarissa who loyally understood my need for privacy and went in the opposite direction. "But I have plans of my own. I don't want you building roads over my people's land."
"And I don't want you getting in the way of the prosperity of this state. Not that it matters. Nobody will listen to you."
I scoffed. "I am a Hork-Bajir seer. One of only two. It took me all but five minutes to arrange a state-level segment, even with a… an unfortunate media history."
His gears were churning ferociously. I could almost hear it through the phone. Even as I played mind games with somebody so powerful, I felt so empowered and so capable. If only I could translate that to an actual televised debate…
"I don't think you want to do this, Kelmut. These plans are going forward, whether you like it or not. Even if we have to bury you with cement."
Should I have felt threatened? At the time, I didn't care. "I want to do this, and I will do this. I hope we talk again soon."
And I hung up, ready for a delicious meal.