Down & Out

“What the hell were you thinking?!”

They stood alone in the vegetable patch behind the school house, all the other avatars having retired to their beds for the night. Grace shoved an angry finger against Tom’s chest, her blue features livid. He held up his hands defensively.

“Nobody got hurt, and if I remember correctly that was because of me,” Tom replied hastily.

Grace took a step forwards, her flat face almost touching Toms own.

“It could have been a lot worse, the only reason Neytiri even aimed her bow at Norm was because I wasn’t with him because of you. Christ, I told you to stay with me for one trek, one! And you couldn’t even do that. I should pull your link and just leave you with Selfridge.”

She turned away quickly, running a hand through her braids. Tom felt crestfallen, he knew it was a stupid move but he never meant to cause this much trouble for the doctor.

“Tomorrow you can go and do whatever you want, but if you’re not back when we leave… well, you’ll get to see another side of Pandora after nightfall.”

He’d gotten what he wanted, but at what price? Grace stalked off, angrily pushing plants out of her way. Lying down on his bunk, his mind was racing with thoughts of what he should do tomorrow. Closing his eyes he waited for the inevitable roller coaster ride back to reality.

“That was quite a stunt you pulled today.”

Tom looked up from his plate, the mess hall nearly deserted at this time of night. Colonel Quaritch stood behind him, a pad in his hands. It was the link recording from his earlier mission, playing over and over again.

“Oh shit,” he murmured.

“Oh shit indeed,” Quaritch said, sitting down beside him. “That was some grade-A stealth you pulled off boy. I can see your brother wasn’t the only decent soldier in the family.”

“I’m not a soldier,” Tom said, more forcefully than he meant to.

“No, you’re the brother who went to school and studied hard so he could take pretty pictures of animals. Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush with you, we both know how this is going to end. The Company wants what’s under those savages tree and one way or another we’re going to get it.”

“Not if Augustine has anything to do with it,” Tom said, turning to face the man.

“Please, the only reason she’s here is so the Company can say they ‘tried’ to find a peaceful solution. I could think of a very different use for an avatar body given the right mind and skillset.”

“Good thing Augustine would never let you put a marine in one then,” Tom said.

“Listen, my men just don’t have the experience to run stealth-ops through this kind of terrain. Special Forces are equipped for tracking people, not these damn aliens. And as much as you and Augustine claim these savages are just like us they still hunt and track like animals. But you, you my boy managed to get beside one on your first day in the bush. What’s the betting you could make it all the way to their treehouse without a single one of those monkeys laying eyes on you?”

“You want me to spy on them?!” Tom exclaimed incredulously. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“Look, either way we’re going to be getting all the intel your little yellow eyes see. If you agree to point them in the direction I want, I can authorise any solo mission you want. No more hiding behind the good doctor. Think about it, you get to go off and do what you want to do, and help everyone out at the same time.”

“And if I refuse?” Tom asked, already knowing the answer. Quaritch patted the pad resting beneath his fingers.

“I’m sure Selfridge would enjoy watching this. Doubt he’d risk letting you out of the compound ever again if he sees how you treat a multi-million dollar investment.”

“How do I stop Grace finding out?” Tom asked, resigned to his fate. He looked with disdain at the rest of the food lying on his plate, suddenly having lost his appetite.

“We have a mobile link station up at Site 26, it hasn’t been used in months. We’ll ship you out there, no need for anyone else to know.”

“Great.” The thought of being alone for god-knows how long didn’t appeal to Tom but it was either that or never see the forest again. All because he’d been so eager to get out there in the first place. “When?”

“A transport will take you and your avatar at 0600 tomorrow morning.” Quaritch stood smugly, straightening his uniform. “And Tom, don’t try and screw with me or I’ll make sure no-one comes and picks you up when we’re done.”

“Where are you off to?”

Tom felt himself caught like a deer in headlights, one hand carefully stuffing equipment into his bag, the other holding the tiny penlight between blue fingertips. Norm had obviously got up to go to the bathroom but instead stumbled upon Tom packing his bag ready for the early morning flight.

“Nowhere, I just always pack early, make sure I have everything I need. Old habit,” he lied quickly.

Norm yawned widely and scratched at his scalp. “Kay,” he said, moving on. Sighing quickly, Tom finished packing and left the long house before he could return. The landing deck was already abuzz at this hour, personnel rushing between the assorted aircraft.

“Sully?” someone asked, running up to him. The soldier must have been more than six foot but was dwarfed as he approached, gas masked face looking up to meet Toms own.

“Yeah.”

“This way,” he said matter-of-factly, leading Tom towards an awaiting Samson, rotors slowly spinning up. Lying down in the back Tom made sure his avatar was securely fastened before unlinking. It was a lot easier for him to move his avatar himself and then join it later than having to cart it out of the compound and raise suspicions.

“See you in five,” he said, closing his eyes and waiting for the link to finish.

Max was waiting for him in the lab, checking the link had broken cleanly. He looked shattered, having been woken early to perform the necessary operations.

“What’s going on Tom?” he asked quickly as he helped him out of the pod.

“You know these military types, they’d probably shoot me if I said anything,” he said, trying to make light of the matter. “I’ve just got to move base for a while, make some observations and then come home.”

“But what do I tell Grace? When she finds out you and your avatar have gone she’s going to go straight to Selfridge.”

“Look, just tell her I’ll be in touch. I’m trying to help the best way I can. The only way I can now.”

“Fine,” Max said, obviously annoyed. “Just make sure you take good care of that avatar. And yourself. Don’t forget to exercise and eat when not in your avatar, otherwise you’re going to find very quickly your human body will start falling apart.”

“Thanks for the cheery advice,” Tom said, grabbing his last remaining items. “See you in a few weeks hopefully.”

“Good luck,” Max said as the doors to the lab closed.

Sitting next to his avatar Tom couldn’t help but marvel at the difference in size. He barely came up to its shoulder, even less in terms of leg length. Through the open sides he could see the vast plains give way to the steep mountains ahead. Holding his camera he snapped off a series of quick shots.

“Entering the vortex,” the pilot announced, his voice crackling over the intercom.

“Vortex?” Tom asked the door gunner sitting next to him.

“Yeah, this whole area is like one giant magnet or something, screws with all of our electronics,” he explained, then pointed out the side. “But it does make for some awesome views.”

In the distance the first of the Hallelujah mountains came into view, suspended thousands of feet above the ground. Each seemed to hang in the air, waterfalls casting glittering clouds that turned the air to a fine mist. Tom felt his breath catch as he took in their majesty.

“I’d only heard about them, thought it was all hyperbole,” he said, snapping off photos at the same time.

“Well you better get used to them, Site 26 is nestled away here. One little outpost amongst a thousand chunks of rock.”

“And you’re sure you can find your way back?” Tom asked, half jokingly.

“Don’t worry Doc, we won’t forget ya’,” the gunner said, with what was supposed to be a reassuring grin on his face.

“Found it,” the pilot called out and Tom could just make out the tiny shack nestled atop a small rock in the distance. The only way on or off was a small rope bridge that looked barely strong enough to take a man, much less a Na’vi. As the skids touched down Tom hopped off, grabbing all of his equipment. He helped the gunner place his avatar on the ground beside the chopper before shaking his hand and bidding him goodbye.

“See you in six weeks,” he said before the rotor wash was too much and Tom took refuge in the squat building. It took barely a few minutes for him to have covered every square inch of the cramped space. A living quarter pod with bunk and cooking equipment, then a short connection to the lab pod that was dominated by the link chambers sitting against the wall.

“Home sweet home,” Tom said to himself, stepping forwards and picking the most comfortable looking pod. He figured it would be best to get his Avatar up and ready before settling in himself, no point staying here if something was broken or he couldn’t get to the mainland. Pulling up a survey map of the area he noted the location of Site 26 and the Na’vi home before lying down in the pod.

“Here goes nothing.”

Setting the link countdown for thirty seconds he pulled the lid shut and let his mind go blank. The disorientation lasted only a few seconds now before Tom had found his feet, standing up outside the hut. Looking in through the window he watched the cocoon, encased in its spinning field before turning towards the rope bridge. The idea of not looking down was doubly reinforced as there really was no ground beneath him, only clouds in every direction. Finally reaching the other side Tom pulled out a compass and watched the needle spin in a hundred different directions. Looking up at Polyphemus he designated it North and proceeded to advance on a relative heading.

Setting out he hoped to find something to take his mind off his current predicament. He’d make a report tonight and embed a message for Grace’s eyes only. Hopefully she’d understand why he’d had to do what he did. His wondering thoughts eventually returned to Neytiri and he wondered if it were possible he could find her in this entire forest.

“Only one way to find out,” he said, pressing on.

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