"I can't believe that they think they can just get away with it! It really… I can't… Do they not realise that we make plans around this?! We organise everything, hire out the security and the cars… How can they just decide to tell us to go somewhere else?!"
My tail was quivering somewhere behind me, numbed as my brain tried to untangle the words that my tongue was desperate to speak. Humans buzzed around me, preparing the area for what was to come. Clarissa stepped before me, adding some final touches to my head blades. Completely unnecessary.
"It must be something to do with the shootings! Do they think I'm angry? They think I'll take a wild swing?! Do they really think I'm so incapable of self-control?! They don't respect me, I'm sure. Why would they? Clearly they don't respect me enough to give me any notice of whatever the fuck is going on!"
There was a big metallic bang. A big camera was being moved into place, the crew in a panic over the rushed new schedule. There was a call for four minutes until we began. That voice echoed upwards into the small unused room, walls blank and dark. A back room. No studio.
"This was the biggest one! Peak time, biggest show on the network! After the worst tragedy we've had in years! It's disgusting! It's disgraceful! It's te-ughm!"
The water bottle jammed into my snout was enough to stop my ranting. Embarrassed, I looked into Clarissa's eyes. She was clearly annoyed, hands on hips. "Calm down, Taku. Drink some water."
Half the water had already fallen down my neck, but the rest I gulped deliberately. I removed the bottle and let my shoulders drop and relax. I was working myself up and perhaps it wasn't the best time. "Sorry."
"And your voice is slipping."
I cleared my throat and straightened my posture. Straining my vocal chords, I spoke in my clear tone once more, "Sorry."
"I get that you're angry," She sighed, inspecting my face with increasingly familiar scrutiny. "And you're not the only one, you know. We didn't ask to do it from here."
I had calmed enough to make my point in a much more dignified fashion. "I was meant to be on the panel. In the studio, sat with the host. I just don't understand why they changed it. Today. Six hours before I was meant to be on…"
She shrugged, a meagre signal that she was listening while the majority of concentration was on cleaning my face. "I think you're ready now. Not much else I can do to your eyes."
"You say that like there's something wrong with them."
She tapped under my arm, my cue to stand. "You look tired."
"I am," I grumbled, stretching as I got up from the rickety wooden stool. "Do you think anybody will notice? Or care?"
"They should understand why," She considered, giving me one last look-over. "You know, the ones that know what a tired Hork-Bajir looks like."
I sighed, then reached my hands up to rub my eyes before Clarissa stopped me forcefully. Rubbing my eyes would ruin her work.
She looked up at me pitifully. "You know, it's not too late to, like, say fuck this and go home."
It was mightily tempted, but that was something I was eager to resist. "No. I need to."
"You sure? Is it the best thing to do right now with what just happened?"
I reached forward and held her hand, letting her know that I was giving her a promise. "If it turns out to be a bad idea, you'll be the first person I'll say sorry to."
I set my sight to my interview position, another stool (that was hopefully less rickety) before a brightly-lit sky blue background. Not the overly-indulged mess of swirling computer-generated flags that I was expecting.
"You'll be fine."
I pulled up my shoulder and rubbed a tightening hand down my neck where the vocal chords lay. With a quiet hum, I tested my Human voice and found it suitably prepared. Tragedies and responsibilities were slid aside, replaced by facts and stats rehearsed the night before, sleepless hours that would have been sleepless regardless.
Thirteen had died. Thirteen Hork-Bajir going about their daily routines, completely ignorant of the man with the gun. Young Hork-Bajir who had no clue what a gun was or what was happening, who saw the gunman shoot down their peers and jogged over to help. It continued until a war veteran, a male named Ferk who was very close to Toby, noticed what was going on and ambushed and restrained the Human.
Eighteen were injured. One or two shots gunshots were rarely enough to take a Hork-Bajir down.
I tried to keep it from affecting me. I thought of what Toby would do and tried to copy her calm, calculated demeanour. It wasn't easy. I distracted myself with cold research and rehearsing, but when the skies turned dark and I ran out of script, it started to get to me. I had my own hotel room and I had gotten used to sleeping alone since I began venturing away from home, but Clarissa, in the next room over, must have heard my sobbing as I tried to get some rest. She allowed me into her room, where the close proximity to another being was enough to grant me at least a couple hours of sleep. Though, she did find me asleep in the morning, stood leaning against her wardrobe. Moving during sleep is entirely unnatural to my race.
That was why I was tired. Not too tired to perform my duties in front of the cameras, but tired enough to make me anxious of little slip-ups.
I was urged to the lit zone, offered a cup of water and given some final words of advice from the camera crew as I went by. Eventually, I was given my custom earpiece and I was sat on my stool, shifting my backside until I was comfortable, or as close to comfortable as I could get.
Just one more, Taku, and then we can go home, back to our favourite branch and a big bowl of sap.
The screen flashed in front of me, the newsroom that I was meant to be appearing on becoming visible, along with the host, Joey Orson. A young male, sharp, dark-haired and with the brightest, whitest teeth I had ever witnessed. Clarissa described him with a simple series of entranced hums. I thought that was incredibly helpful.
Maybe that was why my appearance on the panel was abruptly cancelled. My alien visage was perhaps too much of a contrast to his perceived perfection. Humans didn't find Hork-Bajir particularly attractive, for whatever bizarre reason. I always saw us as a very appealing race visually, but probably every race has such biases in their own favour…
(We're right though, of course.)
Wait… I was distracting myself with the images in my mind of some females that I had seen recently. Now was not a good time for that.
Orson introduced the show, went through the usual stuff as I braced myself for my name to be called. But first, he introduced his other guest. Apparently, his panel appearance wasn't cancelled.
He looked eerily familiar and that immediately yanked my attention. He had very short hair, a begrudged look. His jaw was large, strong. He was the perfect stereotype of an aging war veteran. Where had I seen him before?
"I'm proud to introduce war veteran and bestselling author," Orson spoke. "Lieutenant Benjamin Matthews."
My mind scrambled. I had to be certain that I heard the name correctly, but when his grinning face reappeared on the screen, I knew that my ears were not lying. I jerked in the spot, turned my eyes away from the camera and into the small crowd behind them. I saw Clarissa, one hand pressed against the top of her head, a confused look in her eyes. She urged me with hand signals to remain focused.
I tried, but I found it incredibly hard to do given the new circumstances. My research on the man had been limited since Toby first spoke of him to me, but nothing that I had read had improved my opinion of him.
Then I felt physically ill when I remembered the tragedy that had just occurred in Yellowstone. Of all the Humans on the entirety of Earth, why was this one chosen to appear on the show with me? The man who ordered the slaughter of numerous Hork-Bajir prisoners in the latter days of the war?
That was why my appearance had been cancelled. I was utterly disgusted.
"And joining us as well is Taku Kelmut!"
My face turned up on the screen, mouth agape and eyes wide in disbelief. Seeing that, I pulled back the emotion, retreated it to the back of my mind and corrected my appearance. Orson and Matthews looked on curiously, but neither seemed entirely surprised by my initial reaction.
"I, oh… Hello." I squeaked. Far from the confident, powerful tone I had rehearsed.
In fact, everything rehearsed was out of the window. Long gone.
"Taku, firstly, I'd like to share my condolences for what happened yesterday in Yellowstone. It was an appalling act of terrorism and the nation is grieving for the thirteen killed and their families. It must be a tough time for you."
I grew aware enough to realise that Orson was the one speaking. My eyes were still glued on the despicable Human sat to his left. "It's… yes, tough. I suppose. The…"
Words were tumbling without meaning. It was almost as if I had no control as my brain stuttered and stalled. I had to fix it. I couldn't fail here.
The two Humans that I could only see on a flat screen could sense my puzzlement. Orson tried to settle out the awkwardness.
"It's great to have you on, Taku. With Toby Hamee missing I think it's important for the Hork-Bajir to have representation, especially when a tragedy like this comes around. Obviously though, it might be a little overwhelming and we understand that."
I was already losing. They were patronising me, pitying me and I'd barely gotten a sentence in. It was heading for failure.
I reached a hand down to my knees and squeezed, the claws digging in under the skin. It pulled me up. "It's disgusting what happened to my people," I spoke, raising my voice back to what was expected. "And unfortunately it's something that happens far too often. There are certain people out there who want to hurt us or to get rid of us entirely. They have used the Horvallack Document farce as an excuse to murder my brothers and sisters and what do we do about it? Wyoming State Government wants to remove the reserve status of Yellowstone and allow any thug with a weapon into our home. And, by the way, I don't want yesterday's massacre to take over what was meant to be a discussion on the Yellowstone debate. I won't let that sink under the radar."
That was much better. Maybe now they wouldn't talk down to me like a pitiful child. It certainly ripped the smile from Matthews' face.
However, he was quick to respond in a calm, strong voice. "Don't worry, Mr Kelmut, it won't slip under the radar and I'll make sure of that. And before I start I'd like to first make it clear that, though I disagree with you on Yellowstone, I'm absolutely sickened by what happened to the Hork-Bajir yesterday, despite what my detractors might say. I think they're wonderful people and the only ones that would hurt them are those with sick, twisted minds."
I wasn't sure I could believe him. Maybe that was my bias or lack of proper research on him. Either way, nothing would dissolve the disgust I had towards him. Of all the people to condemn the murder of Hork-Bajir…
I noticed my face on the camera again. I looked incredibly angry, so I relaxed my facial muscles to bring it back to normal. Tried to.
"But," Matthews continued. "It does bring up a big problem. It's a problem that's always been there. The Hork-Bajir don't belong in Yellowstone and they never have. It's a reserve! The whole point of a reserve is not to put new species in! Especially a species that we know nothing about, dropped on our homes by invaders that were unleashed upon us by pokerface nutjobs! I mean, my god, you should have seen the news stories the day after the race was revealed to the public! Conspiracy nuts went crazy about how they were right all along about the New World Order and the reptilians from outer space! You think that mind-set just goes away after some guided tour? No! Why should we put Yellowstone at risk to house a race that is going to be constantly threatened with bombs by these nuts?!"
I found some space to chime in before he continued his impassioned rant. "Believe me, I have seen these people myself, both in online interactions and on occasion when I'm out on trips. I can only imagine what things were like when the war ended but I'm happy that at least some progress has been made. We haven't seen Yellowstone torn to shreds, we have-"
"Yes we have!"
"… Haven't see-"
"Have you seen the data that just came out?" He interrupted.
I felt another wave of frustration, but decided to let him play his game. "Which data?"
"The data released just last week by the EPF that shows the amount of damage that Hork-Bajir have caused in Yellowstone since they arrived," He lifted up a pad of A4 paper, presumably with the data within. "How they damage the trees, destabilise the ecosystem, interef-"
"Mr Matthews," I grumbled, shaking my head, "Mr Matthews, The EPF is not a group that has ever put out any credible studies and they've always had an anti-extra-terrestrial bias."
He glared into the camera. "Are you saying that all this data is just wrong?"
I had noticed the host was letting us continue for a while, but he had to pull the reigns in at some point, and he did so as Matthews was about to continue his list. "Gentlemen, please. Deep breaths."
I did just that, closing my eyes briefly for some respite.
"Taku," Orson began. "Do yesterday's events go some way to proving your point, that the Hork-Bajir need the protection of a national park?"
I couldn't play into Matthews' hands. He was sat back now, waiting for me to make the next mistake, ready to pounce. "There are many reasons that we need to maintain the park's status, Joey, not only for our sake but for the park itself. Mr Matthews can come on here with his discredited data and-"
"Discredited?!" Matthews burst, waving the file in the air. "This was released last week! Nobody has discredited it!"
Joey tried to bring order back. "Ben, I'll let you respond when Taku's finished."
Matthews looked angered, but agreed to remain quiet. I continued, "Mr Matthews can bring up any fabricated statistics he wants, but all credible studies on the park have come back saying that our impact is minimal. In fact, our presence there has only helped by bringing the park more money to better handle tourism and raise awareness for national parks around the world."
"Your response?" Joey Orson asked of Matthews.
"Yeah," He perked up in his seat. "I can't believe, really cannot believe that you would just off-hand claim that this study has no basis in reality, Taku. Have you actually read this paper?"
"No, I haven't, but I know enough abo-"
"And you, sir, have the gall to dismiss it! You see, Joey, this is what really riles me up. These guys go on these big tirades on radio and television about how persecuted they are and how everybody should feel sorry for them, but they never want to hear an opposing view, they don't want to hear the actual facts."
"When did I ever go on a tirade about how persecuted I was?!" I forced.
"Have you even heard your own interviews?! I remember hearing your interview on WABC where you spent no less than twenty minutes rambling about how everybody is out to get you and take you from your homes. That sounds like a pretty big persecution complex to me!"
"I don't set out to be persecuted," I huffed. "I do what's best for my people and that sometimes means telling hard truths! I can't mention that people are out to hurt us? The man who killed thirteen yesterday was a member of the APHR, a group formed solely to put Human rights above ours."
I cringed at my own stupidity. I had slipped into a trap.
And he really pounced. "I knew it! I knew it! This has been your tactic all along. Oh, everybody is out to hurt us. Listen, Taku, this guy was what is generally known as a nutjob. The thing about nutjobs is that you can't use them to generalise groups of people, such as the APHR. I've supported the APHR on many occasions. Why? Because they make good points! Why should we bend over backwards at every step to accommodate you and accept blame when anything goes wrong? I knew you would milk this tragedy to put forward your own agenda, and your agenda is to convince everybody else that they owe you something! Listen up, Taku: It's. Not. Your. Land!"
All the while I was cursing myself for falling into the trap that I had deliberately attempted to avoid. Now, I was on the defensive. "It's not our land, but it's our home. We don't expect you to take all the blame and bend over backwards. What I ask is that we don't make it easier for evil people to go on murder sprees!"
"Hey, Taku," He spoke. It came across as a sarcastic whispering as he leaned forward towards the camera. "You know who's to blame for what happened yesterday? If anybody, it's the Andalites! The Andalites who tried to pull us into some new space war, hoping nobody would notice! Now they threaten to break the allegiance. Instead of blaming a group of passionate people who want their opinions to matter just a little, why don't you blame the Andalites for constantly screwing us over all these years?!"
He wasn't letting up. I couldn't let him steamroll me like he was, nor could I risk antagonising the Andalites.
"I don't want to blame anyone!" I replied, coming closer to shouting than I would have appreciated. I'm not here to discuss that! I'm here to discuss Yellowstone. Why can't we remain on the topic that was agreed when I was asked to come on?"
Matthews raised his hands, palms up in frustration. "Yeah, okay. Don't want to answer that one, huh?"
Joey Orson chimed in again with a golden chuckle - Golden entertainment for the viewers. "I can see it's not going to get any less heated in here, but I want to keep it under some control, gentlemen. Taku, I understand that you want to discuss Yellowstone, but you must understand the magnitude of yesterday's events. You don't want to discuss it?"
My claw dug deeper into my knee. Was the host part of this, too? "Well every time I bring it up, Mr Matthews here will accuse me of a victim complex. I'd rather stick to the subject that I've been focused on for these last few months."
"Fine by me." Matthews shrugged with smug smile. Clearly, he was feeling victorious.
"Okay," Joey said. "In that case, I want to ask you, Ben: If we were to remove the reserve status of Yellowstone Park, what do you predict will happen in the following years?"
Yes, the host was in on it. This was two-on-one, effectively.
Matthews smiled, brimming with confidence. "Well, not much, probably. Obviously there are plans to build a new town in the northern region of Yellowstone, should it lose its reserve licence, and improved roadways will be built. You see, Joey, Taku will have you believe that, as soon as this proposal goes through, they'll be kicked out. It's that persecution thing again! But, Taku," He continued directly to me through the screen. "Have you seen TV? How 'bout the internet?"
I narrowed my eyes, tracing in on the point he was going to make while withholding my building agitation.
"People love you guys! Kids have cereals with Horks on the package! They've appeared in basically every TV show! The main charity for you guys is one of the biggest around! What, do you think that as soon as this passes we'll throw you in concentration camps? Gimme a break…"
"Of course I don't think that," I snapped. "My biggest fear is that our home is shrunk so much that my people are forced to move into Human habitat."
He scoffed. "Just because we're building one town means that we're going to build another New York next door?!"
"Don't be ridiculous," I snorted in return. "More roadways, gas stations, hotels. Buildings that will replace a patch of trees here and there… The homes of my people, the pl-"
"Homes!" He slammed, cutting me off abruptly. "You keep saying homes like it's some right we just gave to you the moment you fell off the spaceship! Listen to me: This is America. We don't just give homes away. You earn a place to live! You work hard, do your part for our great nation and then you get a home."
I tried to push my way back into the pulpit, but each time my attempts were bulldozed.
"You see, this is another problem!" He raved, growing ever more intense. "Why should we just give you our land?! And not just any land, but Yellowstone?! One of the best houses in town! What did you do to earn it, to eat from our trees and take our land hostage?! You don't work, you don't pay taxes! You do nothing, and you expect us, the hard-working Americans who struggle every day to pay their bills, to feel any sympathy when we try to take something back!"
I couldn't be meek in my reply. He was showing genuine passion and I needed to counter that with just as much bravado. "And what do you suggest?! Do you want my people to go to work and pay taxes? Is that the only way you'll accept us living on American soil?"
He was momentarily flustered, lifting up his arms and shoulders as if searching for a cogent reply. "Well… maybe it's something we could look into! Why should we be so averse t-"
"You're honestly saying that my people could be put to work?!" I blasted, trying to force my way into the attack position for the first time. "You're saying they should be made to manual labour?! What jobs?! Hedge trimmers for local towns? Are they going to organise shopping carts at Wal-marts? Benjamin, do you truly believe that that's a reasonable solution?!"
"Why not?! Why is that such a bad thing for the Hork-Bajir to work, to give something back to the communities they've been living off for a decade?!"
"What kind of salaries would they expect?" I instantly threw back.
He had to ponder that one, too. "They would receive reasonable payment if th-"
"What's reasonable payment?"
"Can I finish a sentence?!" He shrieked. The smug grin had long disappeared. Now it was my turn. "They would receive reasonable payment if they help out in local communities and show us all that they're not just taking us for a ride!"
Orson was sensing the emotions rising to another peak. "Ben, I'd just like to clarify: You think that it would be a good idea to allow Hork-Bajir the option to work?"
"I don't see a problem with that," Matthews replied, clearly less confident than before. "It would show that they're at least willing to repay some of the debt they've garnered."
"What's reasonable payment?" I demanded again. I was happy for him not to answer again. A non-answer would grant me the little victory.
"Can we shut this guy up? I can't say anything without him butting in!" Matthews requested.
I smiled. He clearly didn't want to answer.
Orson spoke to me. "Taku, let's hear from Ben, then we can have your response."
"Thank you!" Matthews groaned. "Now, as I was about to say, Yellowstone has been damaged massively over the last decade since the Hork-Bajir arrived. They've stripped trees, restricted animal ranges and cordoned off massive areas that nobody else is allowed into, under the orders of Toby Hamee. Why? Who knows? Whatever! These are the best options, I think: One, we give them the option to work and give something back to the areas they've destroyed; Two, take away the protected status of the area, like the State Government wants so that they can build on it; Or three, get the Hork-Bajir out of Yellowstone! Put them somewhere else where they won't cause massive damage like they have in Wyoming! Taku is being just like Toby was: stubborn. Stubborn and blind to the facts!"
"Your response, Taku?" Orson offered.
"A couple points, Joey," I calmly began. "Mr Matthews says that we would receive reasonable payment. It's very telling that he won't explain what said reasonable payment is, but his words imply that earning somewhere to live is alone an adequate payment. He cle-"
"That's not what I said!" He injected.
"I let you finish. Please grant me the same courtesy."
He laughed at that derisively. I let him.
I continued, "He probably knows that giving my people a salary is ultimately pointless because they have no concept of money. Nor do they understand taxes or savings, or anything like that. Nor would I want them to understand. Because money has no value to Hork-Bajir, they would effectively be working for nothing. It wouldn't work."
"You don't want them to understand money," Matthews spat. "Tell you what, Taku, Mr Seer, why don't we introduce these ideas to them so that they could actively contribute to the economy like every other American? I mean, that's what you want to be, right? You're living on our soil, after all!"
"What would my people do with money?!"
"What would they do?!" He laughed. "You know how much stuff we give to you every year?! Education, first aid kits, tools. We have charities donating thousands of blankets every year! Why don't we start charging for these things?!"
"Because the people who give those things to us do it voluntarily!" I responded. "We can't force people to sell things. They want to help my people thrive in a world that is unfamiliar and we are forever grateful for their kindness."
He huffed. "Well, you're certainly thriving. They estimate that the Hork-Bajir population has risen by about fifty percent since 2003 alone! If this keeps going, Yellowstone will be full in less than thirty years! You don't need charity! The war was a decade ago, Taku! You need to stop scrounging off of peoples' sympathy!"
I could have chastised him from repeating the sympathy accusation, but the stat he raised needed to be immediately clarified. "The population has risen by fifty percent since 2003, but that's not down to reproduction. The study that suggested that figure did not factor out refugees delivered by the Andalites. Many Hork-Bajir were still being rescued and brought to the park from remaining Yeerk ships and strongholds up until 2009. If you look solely at reproduction, it is well known by through Hork-Bajir knowledge and Human study that we have a reproductive limit of about two children per couple. When the Arn designed us, they designed us on a planet where we had no predators and so we had to be self-sustaining. Not only did they create us with a reproductive limit, but they also created us to sustain the planet's trees and ecosystems. We were designed to maintain and improve the environment, another reason that your idea of us destroying Yellowstone is utter nonsense."
"Look," He sighed. "You can disagree all you want, but at the end of the day, the studies say otherwise." He lifted up the paper. He was pushing in the last words and avoiding more discussion.
"Agree to disagree," Orson chuckled, looking down at his notes. "Taku, you've been quoted as saying that the biggest danger, were these towns to be built or expanded, would be the roads and traffic. Now Governor Mitchell has responded to such concerns, saying that roads will be distinguishable and guarded against the surrounding environment. Do you think that there will still be an issue even if that goes ahead?"
As I watched the screen, the three of us lined up on the screen in square windows, I noticed Matthews' posture change. A smile even threatened to emerge. I ignored it and answered, "Of course! Most of my people have no experience with roads, let alone giant multi-lane freeways. If roads were built through Yellowstone, my people will be around it. Maybe an education programme will be put in place, but I fear that accidents will occur and might even be fatal. What we need to remember, as well, is that Governor Mitchell - with his wife, the state treasurer – has been pushing for these changes since he took over from Governor Lakeston last January. Trying to convince people that these roads will be made safer is nothing but an attempt to dampen the counter-reaction."
Matthews shook his head. "I suppose you would know a lot about this issue, Kelmut."
"I've been looking into this proposal ever since it became apparent to me last year," I replied incredulously. "Of course I would know a lot about it."
"Yeah," He hummed, the smile on his face growing worryingly into a big grin. "I've heard some of your interviews. You talk about the problem of Hork-Bajir road safety a lot and you usually bring up the same example. That is, an individual named Pluk Mett who was injured in a road accident not too long ago."
"Okay... Is there an issue?"
"Could you tell us how and where Pluk came about this accident, Taku?"
I looked to the side, stalling for a second while I attempted to figure out what was going on. I caught a glimpse of Clarissa looking on from behind the big camera. She was as confused as I was. However, her confusion was based on my hesitation.
I had to say something. "He was hit by a van while crossing the road."
Things had changed dramatically quickly. Chills coursed up my back. Something was wrong. "Why does it matter? He was hit by a va-"
"Why won't you answer the question!"
"Because it's irrelevant!" I argued! "He was hit by a van because he was crossing a road without adequate knowledge of basic road safety!"
Matthews laughed and it made things so much worse. "You aren't going to answer, I know."
"Taku," Orson said. "Are you going to answer?"
My annoyance at our host was growing. He hadn't pressed Matthews to answer my earlier questions.
"I…" The correct words weren't there.
"Here, let me make it easier for you," Matthews boasted. "We recently found some footage from Cheyenne. It may look familiar. Do you have the clip, Joey?"
My jaw dropped. Surely, he didn't have footage!
But there it was. Our faces and windows disappeared, replaced by a single larger window filled by black-and-white security camera footage. A Cheyenne street, the lowest floor of a couple office buildings visible.
Matthews narrated the clip in a studied fashion. "This is downtown Cheyenne. You can just see Taku Kelmut leaving the building. Seems in a bit of a rush…"
And there I was. I could just make out my distinctive frame stomping angrily past Humans dotted here and there, crossing the road.
"He's over the road. And… there! Coming up behind now is the Hork-Bajir named Pluk Mett. The one Taku always mentions."
Surely enough, he appeared from the doors of the same building I emerged from, his huge body unmistakeable.
"And now we see that Taku has crossed the road. Pluk starts to follow. He's on a patch of grass now. He turns to look back at Pluk…"
The white van shot in from the left of the footage. Pluk was gruesomely slammed and thrown to the sidewalk.
The clip stopped. When my face reappeared on the screen, all I wanted to do was hide. My tail had found its way to my hand.
"What we saw there," Matthews started to explain. "Was Taku Kelmut leading another Hork-Bajir onto a busy road in the state capitol. The same Hork-Bajir that he's now using to garner sympathy for his cause and convince people that we shouldn't build roads in Yellowstone."
What could I do? I couldn't deny that it ever happened. I couldn't prove that it wasn't a deliberate attempt to create a martyr for the cause.
It could have been the end. Everything gone in a six-second flash.
"Anything to say, Taku?"
I turned to Clarissa for reassurance. She had her mouth covered by both hands. She had nothing to give.
"I… It's… I wasn't trying to, ugh…"
My throat strained, tightened and then, with a horrible pulsing sensation, loosened. As I coughed out the words, I found that my Human voice simply wasn't working. I couldn't keep it up! My throat went back to producing the more guttural, rough Hork-Bajir voice. I tried to correct it.
"I didn't do it on… purpose," I stuttered. "Pluk was vifmaf… following me when I was ighut… walking."
They looked on, amused and confused as I lost my train of thought and blurted out words from my native language.
"Can't understand you." Orson replied nonchalantly.
Matthews, on the other hand, was having a great time. "I knew that voice was fake. I've never heard a Hork-Bajir sound like that before."
"Okay," I mumbled, breathe heavy. I paused for a few seconds and brought back some composure. However, I decided that the Human voice was a lost cause. "Pluk Mett was injured in Cheyenne and I was there. I had just had a meeting that hadn't gone smoothly and I was not in a good state of mind. I left the building, and my friend followed. It was not a deliberate attempt to have him injured, but a mistake on my part."
"Why was he even there?!" Matthews demanded.
At this stage, I couldn't win. Everything before was irrelevant now. All I could do was hope to leave with just some reputation to hold on to.
"I wanted Pluk there for extra security and help when things didn't go right. He is a good friend of mine and I never wished to see him hurt!"
But Matthews was done with me. There was no need for him to press me personally any further. The damage was done. However, he did address the viewers with a stinging rant to finish. "This is Toby Hamee's replacement! Ha, what a joke! You, sir, are not only a liar and a total nutjob, but you are also a manipulative, deplorable failure! To the people of America, everybody watching, this is who we have in Toby Hamee's place. Pseudo-representative Taku Kelmut, a disgrace who has lied to the American people in order to push for an agenda that hurts the great citizens of Wyoming! Just think of that clip the next time you hear him begging for sympathy on your local radio network. If any will have him. If this is the next representative of the Hork-Bajir, then my god, I feel sorry for them."
My tail oozed purple blood over my claws. The bubbling was ferocious within me.
((Don't let him have that last word.))
My head jerked as a voice – a real voice – popped into my head. It was familiar.
Whatever it was, it calmed the bubbling and healed the wound. I sat up and put up one final defence.
"I can assure the people watching that I am not a liar. I did not walk my friend into that road. I am not playing you for sympathy, and I implore you not to listen to this man, who escaped justice after he slaughtered numerous Hork-Bajir at the end of the war and repeatedly lied about it! He was stripped of his titles, his ranks - which this network seems to have forgotten – and was disgraced by the US military for multiple accounts of disobeying orders!"
He tried to protest, but with my natural Hork-Bajir tone, I was easily able to wash over him and eliminate him from the conversation.
"I have been far from perfect in my position, I admit. Maybe I'm too young, but when Toby left there was nobody else to take her position as representative of my race. I will do whatever I can for my people, and sure I'll make mistakes along the way. I have done, and I sincerely apologise for that. But let this be certain: I will not let liars like you get in my way. Despite what people might have heard, I am hugely appreciative for what Humans have done for me and my people and I would love nothing more than to be that knot that ties us together as allies and friends."
Matthews was shaking his head, but it was of some comfort that his cocky smile had faded somewhat. "I did nothing of the sort, friend. The courts showed that."
"Well, they were wrong."
Our segment came to an end, and probably at just the right time. It was fortunate that we weren't in the same room…
Not that my pacifist Hork-Bajir nature would compel me to violence. It wouldn't stop me intimidating him a whole lot more than I could over a screen.
"Okay, okay," Joey Orson said, exhaling with relief that our time was up. "That's time. Thanks both of you for what turned out to be a… heated conversation."
Matthews gave a reluctant laugh. I didn't bother.
Orson ended the conversation and we said our angry goodbye's. When the camera switched off, the first thing I did was gaze around the room. Even as Clarissa approached with great concern, I continued to visually investigate the area around me.
She held me first, as if I needed immediate comfort. Then she tended to my knee and the tip of my tail, both shredded with claw marks but quickly healing.
"Taku, hey! Are you even listening?"
I heard that and gave up searching. "Yes. Sorry."
"What… Why are you looking around like you lost something."
I scratched at my chin with a bloody claw. "Oh, nothing."
Clarissa put both hands on my cheeks and moved my face into line with hers. "Are you okay, Taku?"
I nodded and breathed in, sitting high in my seat, unwavering. "I'm fine."
Then I recalled what I had said to her earlier. Once she had let go of my face, I maintained the gaze with her.
"I'm not sorry."
She must not have known what to say of it at the time. She looked away but with a comforted smile. "You hungry?"