There were so many things in the vast city of New York. I could have visited Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps met some celebrated Humans or explored the now-infamous abandoned hideout of an Andalite criminal gang that terrorised food producers across the city in 2006.
Instead, I was parked in a café overlooking the main pool of an extravagant New York swimming club, with boredom the main of a three-course dinner of restraint. My head was rested pitifully against the glass, where thirty feet below, my team from Yellowstone were all taking a well-earned break in the clear blue pools. And all I could do was watch.
My sigh left a blob of condensation on the glass and the simultaneous grunt vibrated around and back into my head. I saw as Clarissa emerged from the changing room, right below the windows I sat behind, and semi-jog in the direction of a steamy, bubbling Jacuzzi.
Oh, what fun they were having. Then Clarissa caught my eye looking over her shoulder, where should could see me half-plastered to the pane with a hand pressed against the surface like the desperate attempts of a dog to get into its owners' bedroom. If only she could have just as much fun as I was.
Maybe I shouldn't have been trying to garner sympathy. I didn't want to ruin their fun. After all, they had done so much for me in organising this incomparably important trip to NYC. So I decided to stop being such a petty child and dragged my heavy skull from the unfortunate window, just in time to catch my big notebook and pen before they scurried off. Sometimes, I hoped that they would.
"Mr Kelmut? Can I get you a drink?"
I jumped, having been unaware of the young Human female who had arrived at my table. She was wearing a purple apron embellished with the leisure club's logo, a stark contrast to her flowing blond hair. She seemed a little uncertain, but then she had probably never taken an order from a Hork-Bajir before.
"Oh, sorry," I muttered, adjusting my position. "I didn't notice you come over. Could I have another bottle of water, please?"
"Anything else, Mr Kelmut?"
"No, thank you. And you can call me Taku…" I looked for her silver name badge at the top-right of the apron. "Kate. Thank you."
She smiled and left. As she moved her head, I spotted the television that was hung from the ceiling. What was previously some music channel was now CNN. I started to imagine myself there, inside millions of boxes around the world, little banners of news stories moving from right to left below me.
I shouldn't be fantasising. While I was bored in the café, I thought it best to get some work done. I opened up my notebook and turned the pages to my schedule. It was busy, and I was only in the city for another three days. Meetings, socials, even a visit to a university. And, of course, the last of my three appearances on screen.
I had finished the second one just a few short hours ago, before heading to the leisure club. The segment was shorter than the hour that I'd had previously, being only half an hour, but it went much the same. I was with two other panellists. Like Danny Davies, they were inoffensive and could safely be said to be on my side of the issue. I gained them as contacts, too. Looking at my contacts page, it had certainly grown over the past few weeks, and every meeting I attended, every house I visited, that list kept on growing.
All the respect and love I was receiving was making me increasingly worried. That could be silly. Maybe the Humans were more indebted to our cause than I had previously deducted.
Where was the opposition that I was expecting? I couldn't help but wonder why the Wyoming State Government, so cemented in their conclusion that Yellowstone would lose its status, would allow me and my team to preach to the population without resistance or retaliation. They had it in them, I was beyond sure of that, but they were holding back.
Why, Taku? What are they actually doing?
My bottle of water arrived. I thanked Kate again and took a deep relieving swig. My eyes glanced back to the pool, where Clarissa was now enjoying a speedy trip down the big blue slide.
I was being distracted again. I cursed my curious mind and went back to my notes, destined to do some studying for my next and final television appearance of this particular New York adventure.
My notes, rather scribbly and often indistinct, provided me with information of times, locations and topics. I was to arrive at the studio at 3:00, be ready to air by 4:30 and my face would appear on-screen again at 5:00. The segment was dedicated solely to discussion on Yellowstone as a reserve, with no tangents, no unnecessary gimmicks. Half an hour of serious, intellectual discussion. I needed to do my homework.
But part of my research was missing, and it was an essential part. Under the title Panel, I was intending to list those who would be joining me on the show. The host would be there, of course, but he was not the one I would be discussing with, mostly.
The section was empty. Once again, for the second time in the week, the other guest hadn't been revealed. I wanted to complain last time, but Danny Davies was so pleasant that I let it slide. This separate news station was obviously having similar issues and it was incredibly frustrating.
What could I do? With no idea who I would be talking with, how would I know what to focus research on? Without that knowledge of specialisation, I would need to freshen up on as many areas of controversy as possible. More effort, fewer specifics learned, definitely not good for my confidence going into it.
I knew that the host was prone to taking sides. The show itself wasn't dedicated to the deliverance of objective news stories, but opinionated commentaries and fiery discussions. It wouldn't be calm, but a minefield. Anything less would go against the show's nature. That made my lack of information even more nerve-wracking.
Staring at my awkward scribbles was giving me a headache. I tried to move my mind onto another topic, spending a total of twenty-eight seconds scanning my notes on the latest Hork-Bajir Homes filming objectives before giving up and reaching the conclusion that I simply wasn't in the right mind-set. I drank deeply from my water and stood tall to stretch my back and thighs. I was already growing stiff.
The café was mostly empty but for my security – , three of whom were stood by the entranceway with a coffee cup each, and the other on the next table over from me – and a visiting couple in Winter clothing sat at the centre-most table, who couldn't resist watching me with intrigue since the moment I walked in. I waved when I noticed that they were fixated on me. They waved back.
"You okay, Taku?" Asked my security on the next table from mine.
"Yes, thank you," I replied, stretching my tail out behind me and rolling my neck backwards. "I think I need some fresh air. Mind if I step outside?"
"Sure," He agreed, but not before getting out of his own seat and signalling to the other members of the team. "Bored of watching them down there?"
"I want to get away from my notebook. I'm getting a very sore head from it. Please, don't get up on my account."
He remained unseated. "Have to. It's my job."
The café had a small balcony opposite the entrance that provided a perfect view of the leisure club grounds on the outer edges of New York, carving a big chunk of green in an otherwise grey world. There was a golf course, illustrated with a small lake and a grandiose water fountain. A beautiful view, even though bereft of trees, not including small decorative ones.
Sammy, my security man, led me out onto the wooden decking. I smiled blissfully when the cool air hit my body, rather more pleasing than the stuffy, chemical air within the building. Even the ominous grey clouds ahead seemed less than an inconvenience.
At first, I presumed to be alone. A whiff of smoke tickled my left nostril and I was quickly corrected when I followed the trail to a Human male sat at one of the oak tables overlooking the lawn. He was middle-aged with messy grey hair, wearing an unbuttoned grey jacket hugged loosely over a navy blue shirt. A cigarette was clutched in the fingers of his right hand, elbow resting lightly on the arm of his chair. He noticed my appearance, giving a welcoming smile before taking a deep tug on the cigarette.
I didn't want to disturb him, so I started to pad over to the other side of the balcony, Sammy not too far behind, keeping an eye on the surroundings. However, he may well have wanted to be disturbed. He called to me.
The single word was enough to let me know that he wanted my full attention, so I turned my body around and took some steps toward him. "Hello."
"I saw you on television," He spoke in a gruff tone. "Taka Kelmut, right?"
"Yes. Well, Taku."
He nodded slowly. "Sorry, I'm not familiar with Hork names. You don't find that offensive, do ya? Me saying Hork?"
"No. No, of course not. Sometimes I wish the name was shortened. What is your name?"
"Jim," He replied. He exchanged the cigarette into his left hand and used the now-spare right hand to push the next chair over away from the table. "Take a seat? I've never talked to an alien before, don't wanna pass up the opportunity."
Sammy suddenly appeared. He didn't do anything, just stood in and became a presence hanging over us, a security blanket just in case this Jim Human turned out to be trouble. I pulled the seat all the way out and sat down, folding my legs beneath the table with just enough room that blades wouldn't be a potential problem. It was uncomfortable, being a pretty low table.
"What do you think of New York?" Jim asked to open a conversation.
I rubbed at my neck and placed my bottle of water on the table surface. "I like it very much. It's much different to what I'm used to, though. It's taken a bit of getting used to."
"Trees here are a bit taller than the trees of home, huh?" He chuckled, tugging on his cigarette and preparing to bring up another, a pack of Marlboro's being revealed from his shirt pocket.
"They're a bit shinier, too." I added.
"Yeah, I bet. That's a neat thing you're doing with your voice. Almost sounds Human."
I looked away, a little embarrassed. "Almost? Maybe it's impossible to get it just right."
Jim extinguished the first cigarette in the ashtray and lit the next. "You don't need it around me, Mr Kelmut. It must hurt your throat."
I hesitated. So used to altering my voice, it was almost difficult to drop the façade. I managed, my words returning to my more guttural, natural sound. "It does. It takes a lot of concentrating; at least it did at first. To be honest, though, I don't think I've spoken normally all week. Only when I'm very stressed, I suppose, though it doesn't happen as often anymore. I get nervous and I can't keep it up."
"Sounds better," Jim commented. "I don't know why you'd fake it."
"I have my reasons." I defended, possibly sounded far pettier than I would have intended.
"Sure you do," He nodded. "So what brings you here? Not often I see extra-terrestrials around these parts. Thinking of playing golf?"
Having reverted to my normal voice, I also brought back my natural laugh. It was shocking to hear it come from my own snout. "No, not quite. I'm here with my team. They're having a break."
Jim averted his gaze to Sammy, who was keeping a close eye on proceedings, as expected. "This your team?"
Sammy raised his eyebrows. He was never much of a talker during working hours. I said, "He is one of them. The rest are in the pool, inside."
"Ah, right. Didn't feel like swimming, huh?"
"It is not one of my peoples' best skills," I admitted, unfettered. "But we do enjoy bathing in shallow water. I would join them, but the chemicals in the water would make me ill. That, and…" I twisted my arms upwards, displaying my blades at a clearer angle.
Jim watched, furrowing his brow. Then, he reached into the pocket his Levi jeans to uncover another packet of cigarettes, unopened. "May I?" He asked, but before I could give him permission, he moved forward, placed the seal of the packet against the tip of my wrist blade and pulled back. The outer packaging tore open, and Jim was able to retrieve his newest cigarette. "Pretty damn useful." He uttered.
"I don't open many cigarette boxes," I explained. "But they're definitely useful for other purposes. Tin cans..."
He tapped the cigarette box on the table. "Tin cans? For yourself?"
"No," I said. "My supervisor sometimes asks me to open things for her when I visit her home. She calls me her pet can opener."
Jim frowned, leaning back in his chair. "You ain't nobody's pet. At least, you shouldn't be."
"She isn't being serious when she says it."
"But you never open the can for yourself."
"Well, no… I don't need to." I mumbled, feeling the conversation slipping totally out of my control.
"You need to open your own tin can," Jim explained sternly. He opened up the cigarette case before me, revealing the butts of three rows of the small smoke sticks. "You opened it. You take from it."
Puzzled, I moved in closer then back away again, cocking my head and studying his expression. "I don't think I should smoke a cigarette. I'm very certain that it's bad for me."
"But you opened it," Jim urged, hoisting the box closer. "You're not going to have one?"
I felt cornered and turned away slightly, still keeping eye contact but making it clear that I was not going to take a cigarette. "I feel that you're trying to make a point to me."
I was correct in my assumption. He pulled away the cigarettes. "Well, now I feel bad. You did a favour for me, but I don't know what to give back to you."
"Honestly," I said weakly, waving a hand. "You don't need to give me something in return."
"I don't? Okay, so you helped me, but you ain't benefitted even one bit."
"I suppose not." I shrugged.
"So why did you?"
What was he trying to get at? I sunk backwards and watched his eyes to pull from them some kind of idea. I found nothing and lost the will to continue when a new cloud of smoke interrupted my vision. Perhaps I had to play along and give him the answers that he wanted.
"Because I could." I responded, sitting forward again.
He chuckled. "That's not a reason. Not a good one, anyway. No, Mr Kelmut, you don't do things just because you can. You do things because you get something back."
"That's not necessarily true…"
"I say it is. You can't name me one time when you've done something for nothing in return."
I was offended, to say the least, that he would accuse me of never acting in selflessness. Frowning at him, I searched my mind for a pertinent example. "I allowed my team to come here and have some time to themselves. But I cannot be with them. I have to sit by myself while they enjoy each other's company."
Jim smiled, twisting the example in his head and giving back the remains. "And what would happen if you didn't let them have a break?"
"Well… They wouldn't be very happy."
"They wouldn't. Who would be, huh?"
I was feeling very foolish when the truth of the situation dawned on me. "They would resent me, maybe…"
"Maybe if you didn't let them take a break again, they would resent you more," Jim hypothesised. "Maybe if you didn't let them a third time… Well, maybe you won't have a team anymore. Maybe you'd be all alone, Mr Kelmut."
"That's possible." I admitted quietly.
"Maybe if you didn't open my cigarette case for me, I would have left you all alone, too!" His point well made, he allowed me a few seconds to dwell on the matter by reaching over to the adjacent empty seat. From there, he pulled up a small brown paper bag. Sammy, still somewhat attentive, perked slightly, but was relieved when Jim pulled a type of confectionary out. He placed it preciously on top of the now empty paper back, in front of me. "There, you can have that as my repayment."
I looked at it, examined it, moved my snout down to sniff it. "What is this?" I queried.
"Cinnamon bun," Jim answered after another go at his cigarette. "You can have it."
I wasn't sure that I wanted it, and nor was Sammy. It smelt immensely sugary, far more than my tongue would ever enjoy. There were other smells as well that weren't so immediate. "That's okay. I don't think I would like the taste."
Jim chuckled. "At least give it a try."
At this point, Sammy decided to intervene. "Sir, I insist that you do not offer Mr Kelmut any food."
"It's okay, Sammy," I said, raising my right hand above the table to stop him and then to grab the bun. "I don't think it's a problem."
Sammy shot me a disapproving look, but sat back, knowing that it was my own decision. I lifted up the cinnamon bun, turned it in my hands to look at every side from every angle. It most definitely did not cause my brain to see it as food. My instincts were telling me that it was not to be eaten and that I should perhaps find a nearby tree instead. Nevertheless, I pushed past it and dug the end of my snout against one side of the bun, ripping a section from the squishy, sugary Human treat.
My thick tongue rubbed against the surface and that was all I needed. My hand moved the bun away far from my mouth and the piece that I had bitten off dropped down to the ground from my lower jaw. I squinted and nearly gagged.
"Don't you like it?" Jim asked. He already knew the answer.
"Not really." I replied bluntly, placing the bun back on the paper bag and pushing it gently away. I looked back to Jim, who was sat back into his seat again, pulling out yet another cigarette. Maybe the second-hand smoke had altered my perception of taste?
"Well, that's a damn shame!" He exclaimed. "I had nothing else to give you. So now I can't give you anything you like, and I've lost a cinnamon bun."
I sat silently, pouting with the horrid taste still tickling the end of my poor tongue. Having worked out the sequence of events in my head, I spoke back to him. "I think I know what you're trying to get across."
He smiled wider, tapping on the butt of his cigarette to rid the dead ashes clinging to the flames. "You don't need that stupid Human voice. You sound much better like you're speaking right now. Real. Natural. The real Taku Kelmut!"
"Besides, what does it do for you? Make some idiots happy? What do you get when you make idiots happy?"
"Tell me, please."
"You make more idiots. Not good for you. Not good for them."
I understood. It would take some consideration, but his opinion was settling nicely into my head. I smiled, pleased with new the angle. I had to add, though, "Sorry about the bun…"
Jim waved a hand and exhaled air in a dismissive fashion. "I can get another."
"I'm sure we could offer you something. We're having a buffet later in one of the event rooms downstairs. I'd be happy for you to join."
"Why, that's very kind of you, Mr Kelmut!"
"Taku," He corrected. "I would be honoured. How long you sticking around?"
"Sticking ar-…" I mumbled, recalling what the idiom meant. "Oh, I'm here for another three days. I have one more scheduled television appearances and a couple more social meetings."
"Oh yeah? What show you on?"
"The Orson Hour," I informed. "Are you familiar with it?"
He nodded. "Yeah, I am! I don't like it, personally. Just people yelling crap so much that I can't hear a damn word they're saying."
"Yes…" I sighed, laughing quietly to myself. "It should be entertaining, no doubt."
The grey clouds I had noticed earlier had finally breezed close enough that the first droplets were beginning to fall. Those few droplets rapidly became a persistent downfall. I grumbled, dropping my head down. "I can't stand the rain…"
He stubbed out his last cigarette and began to rise to his feet, pushing the chair out from behind him. "Well, I'm going back inside. It's drier in there. When does this gathering of your start?"
"Soon," I said. "Once my team have finished their swimming. You're very welcome to join me at my table while we wait."
Jim grinned, slowly nodding. "That's sounds like a good idea. You know, you're a lot nicer than those Andalite guys. They wouldn't accept me to their table if I was worth a billion dollars!"
I slowed my walk as we started to head back to the café, narrowing my eyes in confusion. "I… thought that you'd never met an alien before."
"I like to pretend it didn't happen."
The three of us strolled back into the café. When Jim wasn't looking, Sammy shot me a glance as if to say that I was doing something wrong. I shrugged back. The Human seemed trustworthy enough to me.
Destined for the table I was sat on previously, we passed by the counters where a couple of staff were busy doing whatever it was they needed to do. The place was still relatively empty, so the only sounds that filled the air were the clanking of glass and plates from behind the kitchen doors and the speakers connected to the televisions. I let the noise drone past at first, expecting the same old stories.
But Jim turned his head suddenly, twisting his body sideward to look directly at one of the screens. Such a movement made certain that it was not just a casual glance. I followed his eyes.
On the screen was the same news reporter from before. But, according to the big writing on a yellow background, there was breaking news. Curious, I turned to gain a better vantage point to listen in.
The reporter, a dark-brown haired suited Human male, was speaking, "-is said to contain plans to infiltrate military bases worldwide, in order to falsely give an appearance that they are preparing for military action. One quote states:" The screen changed to show a highlighted section of text, the quote mentioned, "If the activation of weapons systems should not initiate direct hostility between the Human and Kelbrid races, then discharge of selected systems, as a presumptive strike, should suffice."
That cold chill hit my spine again, and it wasn't just the remnants of the rain dripping down towards my tail. From the few sentences I'd heard so far, I knew what had happened. My hands came up to my face, but I continued to watch through my fingers.
"The President is expected to come out on this issue later today," The reporter continued, "And he has already come out with some remarks, saying that these revelations show a great lack of respect for the allegiance. The actions suggested to be taken are criminal and are in stark violation of the Joint World Agreement signed in 2002. He has so far not commented on the effects that the Horvallack Document will have on the alliance between Humans and Andalites."