"Joining us in studio, all the way from Yellowstone National Park, is Taku Kelmut, volunteer at the Yellowstone Centre."
Cal Hudson, the straight-black-haired host, smiled to me, teeth as white as the cotton shirt that sat neatly behind a black suit and blue tie. He read from his mental script and so I had to read from mine. Wearing no clothes (having refused a black cloth that was offered), I could not match his attire, but I could equal his political smile and eye contact with the cameras that faced me.
"Good evening, Cal. I hope you are well!"
New York. A leathery stool surrounded by lights, cameras and big TV personalities. Red, white and blue studios with busy backrooms, Humans in suit-and-tie. I had never been in a building with so many floors and so drowned in miles and miles of city landscape. At least, nothing to this degree. It was the centre of everything and I was now a part of it. Main stage, an audience of millions. My hearts had perhaps covered as many beats since the second the cameras were switched on.
"I'm great, I'm great. You know, it's quite a momentous occasion for me. Well, for the whole news station in a way!" He chuckled, lifting both hands into the air to signify the entire studio. "I mean, we've had Andalites here before a couple times, though they never came to my show. But you're the first Hork-Bajir to appear on the network and the first, uh, extra-terrestrial on my show. It's daunting!"
It was hard to force a smile for that, but I did anyway. "I'm very glad to be making history in some way."
I had been doing my research on this host since the day I knew I would be on his panel. He seemed agreeable for the most part, though he was prone to talk over guests that he disagreed with. I didn't know his position with regard to extra-terrestrials, so with a segment titled "Martian Matters" I really didn't know what side he would be on. What a strange title for the day's segment, too… None of the extra-terrestrials in the news at the time were from Mars. I suppose the alliteration was what mattered.
The other Human male, however, I could not research. I didn't know he'd be joining us until earlier in the day. That was very confusing to me and equally frustrating. He was a short man with black, thinning hair atop his head. His smile was inviting, his clothes almost as perfect as Cal's.
So it was two neat, slick Humans and me, the big space lizard. No wonder Toby avoided panel shows.
Cal Hudson turned to the new Human. "And also joining us is Danny Davies, columnist for the New York Times and Author of the book Our Big Alien Family: Setting Household Rules."
"Good to be back." Danny replied. Given his name, I started to recall instances where he had popped up to me. I had never read his book, nor paid attention to his past statements, assuming he had any of note. The title of his book, however, offered some indication of what position he would take.
"Now that's an interesting book and we'll be discussing issues that you cover in there," Cal said, bringing us towards an opening discussion with a much more casual tone, as per usual in his show format. It was something that I particularly liked about it, "But first, I gotta ask you, Taku…"
We both swivelled in our seats to face each other. I had quickly mastered my stool. It was a lot easier to turn than anything I'd sat on previously. I almost had to grab the desk to stop myself spinning full circle. Thankfully, the two Humans were safe from spinning, tumbling blades. I noticed in my research that the two guests would normally sit beside each other on the left side of the inverted V-shape desk. This time, I was on a side of my own, while the Humans sat together. I presumed it to be a safety precaution. A stool accident could turn out very costly, otherwise.
Cal continued, even as my mind drifted to yet another useless tangent. He had stopped mid-sentence to look amused and cough a single snigger. "That can't be your real voice, can it?"
I laughed, albeit my Human laugh (or my best attempt.) "My voice? Yes, this is my voice."
"Well I wasn't suggesting that we were overdubbing," Cal chuckled. "It's just that you sound a lot more Human than I anticipated."
"I go through a lot of vocal training," I explained. "The Hork-Bajir mouth and throat apparatus was built for speech, but it doesn't make a sound as clear as a Human's does. My supervisor thought that it would be best if I sounded as clear as possible, especially if I'm on TV, so she has helped me train my voice. Does it sound okay?"
He nodded. "I think it sounds great! It was just a shock to me because I'd seen your previous interviews and you sound totally different now."
Of course he had seen my previous interviews. Everybody had. I tried to hide my pain with a continued smile. "I have changed a lot since then."
"And you've been busy, too." Cal said. "I heard you on my car radio last week. You're here in New York to get your message across. It must be quite a culture shock!"
"It is," I nodded. "New York is so big! I've been to a few cities before. Cheyenne mostly, the capitol of Wyoming because it's close to home. New York is… something so different," I explained, lifting my arms in a depiction of size. "But I love it. I hope to see more, but my chances are limited because I can't freely walk the streets. Bladed arms and legs can be debilitating in that sense."
"Well it hasn't stopped you coming here tonight."
"I'm thankful for that," I grinned. "And there is hope that I can see more."
"I'm sure you will," Cal finalised, turning in his rotating chair to bring Danny Davies into the fold. "Danny, what do you think Taku would like most of all in New York, as part of our big alien family?"
Danny grinned jovially. "As part of our big alien family, Cal, I think he'll find that New Yorkers themselves are the best thing about this place. I think it's great to have him here I think it shows the amazing progress we're making."
Still unsure about Danny's intentions, I listened closely. That repeated mentions of his book title and his appraisal of the citizens of such a large number of people gave me a good idea.
He followed, "It's been just over a decade now since we discovered alien life. Nobody really knew what the first encounter would be like. We always fantasised about it, whether we would have the whole "we come in peace" thing or if it would be more like Independence Day. Turns out we got something in the middle of those extremes. We've never really known what is going to happen with our relationships between all the different races, Hork-Bajir and Andalites in particular."
Cal butted in to herd Danny towards the crux of the speech. "To see Taku here shows us that our people are becoming closer."
"Precisely!" Danny cheered. "We can sit down as an alien family to discuss issues close to us. I think, for too long, everyone has kept their distance, you know? Yeah, Toby Hamee was an important connection, but she stayed away from people most of the time. She did what she could for her race, which I can't fault her for, but there was always a division. Taku," He addressed directly. I leaned forward. "I think it's great that you're here tonight because it's something Toby never really did."
I didn't know whether to defend Toby or not. Right or wrong, I had little choice but to agree that our races' connection was essential. "I think we should embrace closeness," I agreed. "Maybe it's that lack of closeness that is causing tension between Humans and Andalites," I stopped myself for the briefest of moments. I couldn't be seen hypothesising on the relationships of races outside of my own. "Maybe. I don't really have a position to comment on that."
Cal picked up on that. Curious, perhaps, on my sudden retraction. "In ways, it is relevant though. If the Andalites were to cut ties with Earth, that might leave the Hork-Bajir stranded. It's them who are trying to fix your homeworld and they have the transportation."
Well, there was little escaping from the little hole I had dug now. I leaned my head slightly to the side and stared to the ceiling as if hoping to find the best answer written on the set railings. "It's a very complicated situation. In the end, I hope that we can all come together and form an agreement that works for everyone. We would very much like our home back, and we have a lot to be thankful for. The Humans have lent us a wonderful temporary home, and the Andalites spent three years freeing our planet from Yeerks after the war was over and are still in the process of returning it to a more hospitable state."
That was okay, I guess. I smiled a little to myself.
"It would be a shame to see you leave," Danny chimed in. "I've been to Yellowstone a few times since the Hork-Bajir arrived to research for my book and I've never felt more welcomed!"
"It would be a sad leave," I nodded. "But we can't live on an overdue volcano forever…"
Cal laughed. "I'm sure that's not the reason you were put there!"
I shrugged and smiled facetiously. What else could I do?
Now was time to move onto the main focus of the segment, since the niceties were out of the way. Cal moved us along, bringing back his sober expression. "Okay, so Taku, as we all know, there has been a lot of talk about removing the national park status of Yellowstone. At first it was kinda laughed off but now it appears that it's a serious proposition. What would this mean to your people, if Yellowstone was no longer a national park?"
I cleared my throat, eager to give my basic answer. "It would mean a lot of things, mostly bad for us, but also bad for Humans. As you know, without a reserve status, the park will no longer be protected from Human intervention. The whole point of a reservation is that it stays as natural as possible. Without that status, highways can be built there, or convenience stores. Towns, cities. People will have free reign to do what they like there, within federal or state law. That presents a number of problems. Firstly and I think most obvious, it will bring our peoples into direct contact. We already have that, but Humans come in as tourists, and after Toby's proposal in 2007, those tourists also go through big security checks before they can enter. I have nothing against our peoples meetings as friends and acquaintances, but there are many Humans out there who want to hurt us who will then get easy access to us if they no longer had to go through those checks.
"Secondly, there is a reason that Yellowstone is kept as a reserve: it's a place of natural beauty. There are endangered species', wonderful natural landscapes. There aren't too many places like this in the world on such a scale. To mark that over such a temporary dispute would be, I think, a disaster!
"And then there is the issue of where my people will live. If these plans go ahead, our home will shrink and shrink over time. The economic incentives to the state could mean that there is big demand to build on this land and that will push us away. No matter what anybody says, no matter how much our peoples love and care for and respect each other, we cannot integrate. The challenges and changes that would arise from that would be impossible to overcome. We would have a mass emigration. I don't know where, but all we would do is spread the problem to another part of the world. It would solve nothing and my people would be put in danger."
That was as basic as I could put it, and those were only the three key points. I sat quiet, letting them realise that my detailing was done. Danny was nodding, but his jolly smile from earlier had been lost.
"It really is a big problem," He concurred. "And I know where a lot of it comes from. There are people out there, in our society and everywhere on this planet who don't accept aliens in their lives. Well… Not… Not even in their lives! They don't even wanna hear about them! I think that's why the Andalites always keep some distance. And it's why extra security was put in at Yellowstone! It's a sad, sad fact that some people are so xenophobic! Taku, how old are you?!
It was a question I didn't expect, and maybe that was obvious from my double-take on camera. "Oh, my age? I'm two years old, three this Summer."
"Wow." Cal Hudson interjected.
Danny shook his head, laughing with amused disbelief. "Two?! My granddaughter can barely say dada and you're talking politics on national TV! I think that's amazing!"
Hork-Bajir don't blush in the same way that Humans do, so maybe the viewing audience didn't notice it on my face.
He continued. "But, Taku, even at such a young age, have you ever witnessed any of these hooligans? Those guys who stand outside Yellowstone boundaries chanting how much they hate the Zeebs and the Pokers?"
Zeebs and Pokers, derogatory titles for Hork-Bajir and Andalites, respectively. Humans often made derogatory slang for other, disfavoured groups as I had learnt. Zeebs was short, I believe, for Beelzebub, after a prominent anti-Hork-Bajir hate group claimed we were born of the devil. The Andalite one was said to work in two ways: They would often "poke" the Human establishments with big promises and military might to sway political decisions, but more often it described how they kept good poker faces when it came to keeping secrets from the Human population. I suspected that the lack of a mouth played a big part in that.
"Of course I have," I replied. "But I have also seen the violence they can bring. I have seen injured people, visited the families of those killed in terrorist attacks."
Danny nodded. "I think we've all seen it. There are more people like that than some people might think! I think one of the best ways to tackle this problem is the same way that we treat other fears, because, let's face it; it's probably the fear of the unknown factor that's causing a lot of this! We need to educate people. Just like how we teach about different religions in schools and how we should be tolerant, I think we should do the same for alien life."
"So you're suggesting that a lot of these issues that we have today are down to a lack of education?" Cal pushed in. Then, he chuckled incredulously. "What with all these documentaries on the television? All these movies that everybody watches these days based on stories from the new and exciting cultures? If you look at the data on web traffic, the most popular news articles are always the ones related to Andalite technology or information on new races in faraway galaxies being revealed to us! You're saying that people don't know enough when it's a huge part of what most people want to talk about?!"
"Documentaries and movies never show the full story, Cal," Danny pointed out. "They show us what's exciting and suspenseful. We need to show people the mundane side, the side that we can relate to, not those things that make us different!"
"So what is your solution?" Cal pressed.
Danny shrugged and made a raspberry noise with his lips. "It's a very complicated issue! What I do know is that it would be a mistake to take away the parks current status right now. We shouldn't do it when xenophobia is back to the levels of 2001 when we first found out about all these new races. Give it a couple years, wait till it calms down again, then consider those options. Even then, I would places restrictions on the amount of space the government can build on!"
I was beginning to like this person. It was clear that we had similar goals, but I couldn't help but disagree with his on-the-spot solution. "I get your reasoning, Danny, but I really don't think that building on Yellowstone will ever be a solution, no matter the levels of xenophobia at the time. It sets a precedent that our rights are in some way lesser than the rights of Humans. As long as Hork-Bajir live on that land, I think that right should be fully upheld until our own home is fixed and we are able to take it back."
"I wasn't saying that Hork-Bajir rights are trumped by Human rights," Danny countered. "That's definitely not what I'm saying. But – and this is a big but – we can't ignore the other perspective. One of the big reasons that some people are angry is that the Hork-Bajir were given this land. We cannot forget the definition of a reservation; that it is a piece of land left untampered. Whichever way we look at it, it's been tampered with with the introduction. Maybe that was a mistake! Maybe the Hork-Bajir should have been placed somewhere else. It was a crazy time with lots of crazy ideas after a big war that nobody really knew about. Not many places would accept the Hork-Bajir because nobody knew about them. Even today, nobody knows why you ended up in Yellowstone, of all places. That said, I, and many other people, think that your rights are just as important as any Human's, and that the best time and the best circumstances should be allowed before relocation can happen."
I shook my head, regrettably so. "Even now, who would accept us? Even if our reputation precluded us, would nobody show concern about possible impacts? Would moving us to an unprotected land simply allow murderers to come in and kill us? Yellowstone has been our home for almost a decade, and so far my people have thrived."
Danny pulled up his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. I couldn't agree more. "We can only hope that the Hork-Bajir homeworld gets fixed in time."
"I hope for that, too."
The Martian Matters segment lasted an hour. After that most serious discussion, we took it in turns to comments on various smaller issues regarding alien life, took a few ad breaks and even indulged in some rather off-the-wall activities, one of which involved me showing, using a false replica of a tree trunk, how each of the different Hork-Bajir blades worked.
It was trivial. It was benign. It could well have made me look like a fool, an entertainment piece devoid of the obstinate, factual and serious nature of the iconic Toby Hamee. But it was a success.
Bar a few misspoken statements and the odd minor contradiction, I emerged unscathed from a whole hour of national broadcasting. My previous attempts were put behind, my reputation finding new building blocks in the regenerated me. Childlike and immature, perhaps, but I had to take into consideration one vital aspect to that: I was still a child, and immaturity was part of that temporary package.
Well, adolescent, perhaps… I found myself agonisingly intrigued by the image of a female used as a backdrop somewhere in the middle of the one-hour segment. Did my stammering and eager twitch give me away?
Regardless, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. My oft-nibbled tail found some rest once my confidence had a foothold and the nerves seemed to melt away. Perhaps I had the courteous host and the agreeable guest to thank, or maybe I really had uncovered the secret behind the crazy Human game.
And so the segment came to a close, but not without a subtle warning of some of the difficulties I would have to face in the future. Cal Hudson began to wrap things up. "So, I'd like to thank our guests here today! Gentlemen, it's been an honour, and you're very welcome to come back to the studio, so long as you don't make such a mess again." He jested, staring at me whilst waving a hand to the floor coated in Styrofoam bark.
"It's a messy business!" I replied cheerfully. "I'm just thankful that there wasn't any fake sap. That stuff is sticky."
"I'm glad, too. My guys get so annoyed when I make a mess in here that they make me clean it up!" He chuckled, looking down to his desk, then bringing up the difficult question that I hoped and expected that he wouldn't ask. "Hey, Taku, one last question: Do you think you'll be a governor like Toby Hamee? In the future?"
It threw me off entirely, and the squeaky noise my throat decided to make made that more obvious than I would have wanted. "Governor?"
Cal nodded, raising his eyebrows and turning his head slightly in a silent demand for an answer. "Yes."
I scratched at the base of my neck and hummed. "Well… I… I would rather not discuss that right now. Not with Toby still missing."
It could have been my best response all night, because it threw Cal into a bad territory of discussing Toby's position when, as far as he and the general public knew, she was still missing and searches were still underway. I had avoided that line of questioning, and I was incredibly relieved.
As he went over his final words and said his goodbyes, I lost myself inside my head to answer the questions that I posed myself. I was just self-aware enough to say my goodbye line and smile when prompted, but I just had to spend a couple minutes going over why I felt so conflicted about the issues the question brought.
I wasn't Toby Hamee. I never would be.
When I lifted my head, apparently lost in my daze, I found Danny staring down at me from over the desk with a concerned look.
"Hey, Taku. You okay?"
I shook the stiffness from my body and lifted myself up to my feet, giving to him a genuine smile. "I'm very well, thank you."
I offered a hand for him to shake. He quizzed it over and compromised to shake two fingers. (His hands were too small to be a three-finger-shaker.)
"I enjoyed that, Taku," He chirped. "Very much! You were great."
"I can say the same for you," I replied. "And I must say thank you. I really must. Some of my previous appearances haven't been quite so… so welcoming."
"Yes," He mumbled, looking away momentarily and rubbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his right arm. I thought it was a strategic manoeuvre. "I saw those. They, uh, weren't pleasant to watch, I admit. You seem different now, though."
I smiled proudly. "I feel different now."
His eyes returned, and with it a friendly grin. "Say, Taku, I was planning on going to meeting down in Brooklyn tomorrow evening. Just a get-together of me and some close friends in the business. I think they'd really enjoy meeting you. Maybe we could rustle up some bark."
"Ooh, what kind of bark?"
"I don't know… Spruce? Beech? Larch?"
"That sounds wonderful." I replied.
Danny laughed and gave me his details on a small piece of yellow paper. Yet another meeting for Taku. It was turning into a busy week, but a very enriching one.