They say cryo-sleep is like falling asleep one minute and waking up a moment later a million lightyears away from where you started. Most would agree however it felt more like a restless nights sleep followed by the mother of all hangovers. The pods, known for their cramped dimensions, gave the sensation of waking up in a coffin. Muscles that hadn’t being used in such a long time felt stiff and lifeless, giving the owner a sense of immediate helplessness and claustrophobia. The loud hiss of escaping gases signalled the release of the pod, sliding smoothly out of its enclosure. A member of the flight crew drifted overhead lazily, gripping the rail at the end of the bed before unclasping the restraints around Toms chest.
“Morning sleepy head,” he said, helping Tom sit up and brace himself against the frame. “Lockers over there, barf bags just above if you think you’re going to need one. Just make sure you don’t miss.”
Tom wasn’t sure whether he was referring to the lockers or the bags but it didn’t matter either way. He felt so nauseous with no sense of up or down that he missed the lockers and ended up tumbling towards the far side of the room before someone caught him and gently set him back on track. Grabbing hold he told himself he’d never leave bemoan gravity again, even if Pandora’s gravity was only eight tenths of Earths. Changing quickly he manoeuvred towards the loading bay, buckling into one of the uncomfortable seats along the edge of the shuttle that would take them all down to the surface.
Doctor Norman Spellman buckled in next to his lab partner, pulling the straps tight against his chest.
“Hey Norm, have a good nap?”
“No, but I don’t think anyone here feels different apart from the flight crew who’ve been awake the whole trip.”
“True, just want to get in our Avatars now, be done with all this flying. How many hours did you manage to clock up?”
“Five hundred and something.”
Tom turned incredulously, “I was only gone for two weeks, how did you manage to get another two hundred in? You must have been hooked up every day!”
“Well the techs said when we’re there the only chance we’ll get to actually sleep is when we’re back in body and after we’ve done all our reports. So I figured I might as well push the simulator and see how far I could go.”
“Do you think it’ll be the same? Using the simulator I mean,” Tom asked, watching the stars disappear behind the first streaks of atmosphere outside the porthole windows.
“I hope so,” Norm answered back, “Otherwise we’re going to have a very steep learning curve.”
Outside the windows the clouds parted and the assembled party got their first look at the surface of Pandora. This was a planet filled with life of every variety, not like Earth with its stale concrete and “protected” reserves. The towering trees stood out above the ever present vegetation, glistening rivers bisected huge swaths of land and above it all the air shimmered with the flight of a thousand different species. This was heaven.
“Welcome to Hell ladies and gentlemen. My name is Colonel Quaritch and it is my duty to keep you alive. I will not succeed. Not with all of you, when you are on Pandora you have to follow the rules if you want to stay alive for every creature that walks, crawls or lives in the mud wants to use your eyes for juju-juice.”
Beside him Norm swallowed a lump in his throat but Tom just smirked. Growing up he had been given the same advice when entering the bush, that he would never make it out alive, that everything in there could kill him in an instant, that it was kill or be killed. But then he’d found his niche, entering a habitat, observing it and leaving without a trace. You didn’t have to be the strongest or the fastest if you could be the smartest and stay hidden. And it had served him well so far.
After the meeting was over everyone left to find their respective dormitories, but Tom found himself blocked by the hulking form of Quaritch.
“You’re Tom Sully,” he said matter-of-factly.
“That’s right,” Tom said, extending his hand. Quaritch gripped it in a vice like grip, pulling him in closer.
“You got a brother? In First Recon,” he asked.
“Jake Sully,” Tom nodded.
“A fine man, I transferred out in his first year but he was one of the best marines I saw there.”
“Thank you Sir,” Tom said, not sure what else to really say in his brothers absence.
“And I would have given anything to get him here instead of another lilly-footed science quack like you.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, guess the military is just going to have to make do without one less grunt.”
“Oh mark my words boy, I’m just going to let Pandora deal with you for me. A week and you’ll be a turd heap sitting outside the gates.”
“At least I’ll be a pretty turd,” Tom said, brushing past the Colonel before he could respond.
“What did he want?” Norm asked as Tom emerged into the corridor.
“Talked about my brother, how marines are so much more useful than us geeks.”
“Typical, Augustine has had to fight tooth and nail every quarter to keep the Avatar program going. These jarheads want nothing more than to go in and wipe out every living thing just because it’s a threat.”
“Well that’s why we’re here norm,” Tom said, slapping him on the back as they entered the bio labs. The two latest avatars dominated the room, the containment panels being removed from the great glass cylinders before the synthetic embryonic fluid could be drained away.
“You must be Tom and Norm,” an asian man dressed in the typical lab coat fashion said, walking up to both with hand outstretched. “Doctor Max Patel, head of the Avatar Link systems. I’ll be the one keeping an eye on your bodies while your minds are off roaming the forests.”
“Tom Sully, nice to meet you,” Tom said, clasping the mans hand. As Norm took his place Tom moved towards the vats, watching the sleeping form of his Avatar inside. Its hand ticked slightly in its sleep, the peaceful face rolling to face Toms own.
“Wow, they got big,” Norm said, placing a hand against his own avatar’s vat.
“They mature fully on the trip out, we should have them ready to go out by tomorrow morning,” Max said, moving to stand beside Tom.
“It’s incredible,” he whispered, studying every contour of the majestic creatures skin. “The resemblance I mean, you wouldn’t think it could work but…”
“So this is the great Doctor Sully,” a new voice said, walking up behind the trio.
“Doctor Augustine, meet our new drivers,” Max said, moving out of the way for the introductions.
Grace Augustine looked as if she’d just woken up, hair askew, a fresh cigarette clamped firmly between her lips. She looked at Norm and Tom as if studying a bug, firing rapid questions at them about link time, language dialects, skill sets and field experience.
“You’ve come at a critical time gentlemen, the Company is doing everything it can do evict the natives and we are the only thing standing in the way. We need to find the best solution as quickly as possible and we need to keep the military at bay while we’re at it.”
“Not much pressure then,” Tom said, grinning at the group. His smile was not returned and he quickly dropped his gaze.
“The flora and fauna on this planet live in balance with the local environment to a level we’ve never seen before, it is our duty to preserve as much as possible and learn what we can while there’s still time. If you can only make jokes maybe I would have been better off with another marine to tow around.”
Grace turned sharply and strode from the room.
“0800 tomorrow morning, don’t be late,” Max said, hurrying after her.
Tom left quickly, found his bunk and settled down for his first night on an alien planet. Tomorrow his whole world would change and every lesson he’d learnt about surviving in the bush would be put to the test. Out here, he truly was out of his element.