The link pods were just as Tom had remembered them back on Earth, only now they were linked to a real Avatar body, not just some computer simulator. Lying back on the elastic foam Tom felt himself slip into avatar-mode, closing his eyes and and trying to clear his mind ready for the connection. The first time was always the worst, kind of like taking a roller coaster backwards through a tunnel of light that would be familiar to an LSD addict.
As the computer sought to match his brainwaves up with those of his Avatar, Tom couldn’t help but feel the adrenaline build within him. Eight years of training, well two years training, six years sleeping, and he was finally about to see if it would all work or come crumbling down around him. The technology was still new, the chambers themselves susceptible to “glitches” that would leave a body without a mind or even worse only half. But it was a risk all researchers were willing to take to be able to study Pandora first hand.
The light green glow began to fade in the pod as Tom felt his mind tickle, the first sign he was about to lose his grip on this reality. As the pod achieved the last congruencies Tom felt his world fall away, opening his eyes in another body. The simulator couldn’t even begin to compare to the sensations that rippled through Toms new body. Every touch, smell and sound kicked his brain into overdrive. He tried to rise and felt the world sway, disembodied blue legs stretching out before him. A doctor walked up to his bed, looking ridiculously small next to the Na’vi.
“I need you to take it easy Tom, you’re going to feel disorientated as your brain adapts to the avatar.”
Toms mouth felt dry, the words couldn’t quite form correctly. He knew what he wanted to say, but not how to form the words anymore. Beside him Norm was already sitting up at the end of the bed, following the long list of neurological tests they had to perform to show body and mind were working as one cohesive unit.
“Okay Tom, just swing your legs to the side when you’re ready and try and sit-up, take all the time you need,” the doctor said, tentatively placing his hand against Toms arm to steady him.
This time Tom managed to sit a bit straighter, swinging his massive legs around and nearly decapitating the poor doctor.
“Sorry,” he finally mumbled, the word coming out naturally now he wasn’t consciously trying to figure out how to move the alien jaws.
“Don’t worry about it, at least you didn’t damage the avatar. I need to run through the tests now okay, just follow my instructions and we’ll get you out of here. Touch a finger to your nose please.”
Tom giggled like a child as he felt his nose, the flat surface feeling more like a cats than a typical human bulge. Ignoring the doctor for a moment he ran his hands over his upper body, feeling the braided hair, protruding ears and oval eyes. This would definitely take some getting used to he mused.
The rest of the tests flew by, with both Norm and Tom declared to be in perfect working order. Standing around idly Tom had taken to flicking his tail back and forth, seeing what kind of motion he could achieve with it. Like his voice it seemed to have a mind of its own, more suited to follow his will than his command.
The large airlock door opened suddenly and another Na’vi body walked through, possessing the grace of someone who had spent a lot of time hooked up. The face was instantly recognisable, even in the persona of a blue form.
“Well look at you two,” Augustine said, hands resting idly on her hips. “If I didn’t know better I’d say someone was itching to get out of here. They good to go Max?”
Through the glass viewport Max looked up, double checking the scans on his pads before giving the thumbs up and nodding his consent.
“This way then gentlemen,” Grace said, leading them outside into the Pandoran sun. The large blue globe of Polythemus dominated the sky, its swirling clouds an ever changing pattern that seemed to mirror the Na’vi skin itself.
“We have recreation facilities, a small vegetable patch across for growing local fruits and such for study and then the old school house which is where you’ll park your avatar butts for the night when you’re in the compound.”
Tom couldn’t help but stare at what Augustine had managed to create here, it was like a small community within the walls of Hells Gate itself. Some of the other avatars were playing basketball on a court, others lounged in the sun taking in the sight of the newcomers. The school house as Grace described it was a huge shack, each bed seemingly endless in length but then Tom realised he was now walking around in a ten foot tall blue body.
“Shotgun,” Norm called out, jumping on the nearest free bunk which groaned ominously under his weight. Grace just carried on walking down the aisle, stopping to talk with a few scientists who sat idly on their beds.
Tom found a bunk near the end and sat down comfortably, letting his new hands run over the coarse material. His finger found the long queue of hair from his head and he picked it up curiously. As the fibres at the end fell away he found himself mesmerised by the delicate fluctuations of the nerve bundles contained within.
“Don’t play with it, you’ll go blind,” Grace said, sitting down next to him.
“What is it?” he asked curiously, not able to take his eyes off the thin strands.
“As best we can tell it’s an external nervous hookup. The Na’vi use it for ‘tsahaylu’, The Bond, it allows them to connect directly to the neural pathways of other systems. We still haven’t had much luck with understanding it though, short of just plugging in to random systems its too risky. The Na’vi never went into much detail, probably didn’t trust us to not plug in to the wrong thing.”
“Wow,” Tom whispered, letting the braid fall across his lap.
“Trust me, there’s a lot more to see,” Grace said, leaving him to rest. “We leave tomorrow so I suggest you get used to your avatar while you don’t have anything chasing you.”
“Doctor, there was something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
Grace just cocked her head at him as if she knew what he was going to ask.
“Back on Earth I always worked alone, it’s the only way to get the shots I do.”
“You want me to let you go off on your own, into an ecosystem you’ve never even seen before?”
“You requested me because I’m the best at what I do. But only because of how I do it.”
“If Selfridge found out he’d have the entire program scrapped,” she said exasperatedly.
“Who says he has to find out? This mission is scheduled to be what… eight hours in the field. I split up, snap a few pictures and get back to the rendezvous point with plenty of time to spare.”
Grace turned slightly, placing her hands on her hips in what had become a common gesture. It was obvious she wanted to let him run free, but if anything were to happen to Tom it could cause serious problems further on.
“You do one trek with me and Norm tomorrow, then you can go off on your own. At least get a feel for the land before heading out on your own. Deal?”
“Deal,” Tom said happily, flopping down on the bed, his tail flicking idly over the edge.
The Samson moved like a bat out of hell across the river, the pilot obviously delighting in pushing it and its occupants to their very limits. Below them the cool water flowed with life, while small bat like creatures flew alongside their craft.
“Stingbats,” Grace said, leaning beside him to look out the open door.
“Five minutes out,” the pilot shouted over the din of the rotors, her female voice a surprise to Tom who’d been expecting another butch marine up front. As they set down Tom could see the various forms of wildlife scatter and felt his heart fall, such a wasted opportunity, blasting around in the loudest machines known to man. Had these people learnt nothing from the mistakes of Earth?
Tom grabbed his pack and clambered out of the Samson, feeling the long grass tickle his alien thigs. Grace was still helping Norm collect his own pack, which had split open spilling specimen jars across the deck. Looking around he spotted a suitable path into the forest and thumbed on his throat mike.
“See you in eight hours Grace,” he said before making a quick departure, long legs propelling him forwards at a phenomenal rate.
“You come back here right now!” she shouted, but Tom had already disappeared into the brush. Pulling Norm roughly from the craft Grace turned to the pilot, her diminutive form dwarfed by the avatar. “Shut it down here, we’ll meet back in eight hours then go looking for our missing explorer. And Trudy, don’t radio this in.”
“Gotcha Doc, happy hunting.”
“Come on Norm,” Grace said, heading off in the general direction Tom had vanished towards Hopefully she’d find him, in one piece or many was only a matter of how good he truly was. After just a few hundred metres though it was obvious he was gone and so was Norm who had someone managed to get lost following just a few metres behind her. Sighing in defeat Grace began searching for the less-experienced of the two, cursing her luck.
Neytiri moved like a panther through the high branches, following the intruder below. He moved quickly through the low brush, his alien smell and inexperience making him an easy target to spot. Raising her bow she sighted down the shaft of a poison-tipped arrow and thanked Eywa for making this such an easy kill.
“I would really rather you didn’t shoot him,” a voice spoke from her side in the human tongue English. She turned, startled, pointing her bow at a dreamwalker who crouched just a few paces away from her on another branch. How had he got so close? she screamed at herself.
“Or me,” the hybrid whispered, gently placing a finger against the point of her arrow. She watched the way his odd hands, with their extra finger, seemed to move without fear of her.
“Norm!” a voice exploded below and both looked down to see Grace chase after the lost doctor. Neytiri felt her ears perk up at the familiar voice, it had been so long since she had gone to the sky people’s school.
“Go,” she finally said to the human beside her, loosening her bow and moving away. “Be free and do not come back.”
“Can I have a picture?”
The words were alien to her, too many unknown sounds to understand but she sensed it was a question and turned back to face her… adversary? Without warning a light emitted from a small rock-like device the dreamwalker held, beeping softly. She hissed loudly, turning and running towards the next tree. As she landed she felt a jolt behind her and turned to see the hybrid following her.
“Go!” she said more forcefully, taking off again. But the strange creature continued to follow her, until she finally lost him amongst the giant fern leafs, the dreamwalker watching from high above as she ran off.
Tom stood and chuckled to himself, heading back to Grace and Norm. He looked at the three dimensional image of the Na’vi and smiled. First contact or what? he mused. Grace didn’t seem impressed as he walked up to the pair but her face perked up considerably when he showed her their would-be assailant.
“Neytiri,” she whispered, studying the photograph.
“Ney-who?” Tom asked.
“Neytiri, princess of the Omaticaya Clan. She used to attend my school, before Selfridge shut it down. I can’t believe she was here. Or that you got so close.”
Tom shrugged, taking back the camera and tagging the image with the subjects name and where it was taken. “Neytiri,” he whispered.
“Come on you two,” Grace said, collecting her pack. “Now I have you both here I don’t intend to lose you again.”
The rest of the day consisted of collecting samples and photographic records. The abundance and variation of life here was astonishing and Tom felt extremely grateful to be able to explore it so freely. As the Sun began to set beyond the horizon Grace lead them back to the Samson, stowing away their bags before climbing onboard.
As Tom strapped himself in, legs splayed out before him due to the low height of the ceiling, he looked out the open side doors and watched the forest disappear below them. Was she watching again? Neytiri. Like all expeditions he had found his muse and, with Grace’s permission after his little stunt today, would hopefully find her again.