“What the hell have you done with one of my avatars?” Grace asked, storming across the Ops Centre. Selfridge carefully lined up another shot with his golf club, only glancing at her from the corner of his eye.
“He’s been reassigned,” he said, making a gentle stroke with the putter.
“Oops,” Grace said, knocking the cup out of the way at the end of the artificial green. “What do you mean reassigned Parker? He was my researcher, I’m in charge of what happens with the Avatar program.”
“The Colonel came to me with some disturbing news about one of your latest members and I decided to let him act upon it, don’t worry,” he said, standing to face her, “Your blue monkey is safe.”
Neytiri lay flat against the warm bark of the tree. She had heard the sky people’s loud bird pass by earlier and followed it to the Thundering Rocks. Soon after she had found the dreamwalker she had been thinking about, cautiously making his way through the forest. Her bow lay flat against her back, untouched so far.
This new dreamwalker was different from any she had ever seen before; he moved with a grace through the trees she had not seen from any other. And he seemed to hold a deep respect for the life around him, never disturbing the things around him unless necessary. Even as she watched him she found it difficult to pick up any sounds, his scent the only trait belying his position. He had obviously spent much time as hunter amongst his own peoples.
She watched his cautious passage and felt her breath catch as she saw his intended destination. A Palulukan, barely visible against the foliage lay curled upon the ground, its huge bulk breathing shallowly. Surely he did not intend to attack the creature?
The dreamwalker pulled out a gleaming knife, carefully holding it in his hands. Neytiri felt her anger rise, carefully selecting an arrow from her quill. This dreamwalker would attack a sleeping beast, even one as terrible as the Palulukan? He had just lost Eywa’s favour.
Tom carefully unsheathed his knife, trying to be as quiet as possible. The huge Thanator slept only a few metres away, its bulk impressive even in this docile state. Wedging the knife between roots, Tom used it as a makeshift monopod for his camera, planning to make a full spectrum analysis of the creature, something that could only be achieved with a stationary camera.
Without warning he felt a pair of eyes upon his back, a sense that had served him well and one he had come to trust. The forest was continually moving but he couldn’t discern anything that would have caused such a reaction. New world, new sensations he finally thought to himself. Returning to his camera he made the final selections and set it running.
Having followed some of the last tribes on Earth, Tom knew a thing or two about arrows, the most important of which being the distinctive whistling sound they made as they flew through the air. He also knew that reaction was key, and dropped to the ground before his mind had even realised what was happening. A solid thunk echoed above him as a feather-tipped arrow embedded itself deeply into the wood, narrowly missing his chest. The Thanator, no longer sleeping, raised itself up, sensory quills scanning the air for the source of the disturbance. It emitted a low growl and slowly turned to face the tree Tom crouched behind.
As Neytiri saw the hybrid take cover behind the great tree she felt her breath catch. His small flashing rock sat atop the knife, pointing towards the Palulukan. He had never meant to hurt it, only watch and study with his alien device. She smacked her head in stupidity and selected another arrow. He had moved quicker than she had ever seen a man move, narrowly avoiding her arrow and certain death.
The great beast had now being rumbled, already turning towards the dreamwalker. If the alien was killed it would be her fault, upsetting the delicate balance of life that existed through the forest. She watched the hybrid look back over the bowl of the tree, retrieving his knife and rock in the process, only to come face to face with the Palulukan.
Tom stayed completely motionless, hoping the beast would ignore him. The delicate quills crowning its head quivered as they swept back and forth, hunting for him via some unknown mechanism. It’s great mouth moved slowly, each tooth easily as big as his arm.
The list of available options was running out with every second. In its blind hunt it was edging ever closer to Tom, and would inevitably find him through sheer dumb luck, but he couldn’t move lest he make even the tiniest sound. Slowly wrapping his hand around the camera’s strap Tom closed his eyes and made one last desperate attempt to escape.
Swinging the camera using only his arm he let it fly, landing maybe twenty metres away against a tree, noisily breaking as it tumbled to the ground. The Thanator turned instantly, advancing with ant like motions towards the source of the sound.
Tom didn’t wait, he moved as quickly as he could while keeping reasonably quiet. Grabbing the first vines on the tree he took cover behind he began a slow ascent, pulling himself up off the jungle floor. Further away the Thanator had ceased its search, unable to find anything of edible origins and instead began prowling back to where Tom had been.
With the huge creature just a few feet below him Tom held fast to the vines, willing them to support his weight for just a few more moments. Suddenly the first of the thin tendrils began to slip, his position shifting ever so slightly downwards. He could feel the tree trembling to support him, but not as hard as his own heart hammered. As he felt the last strength in the fibres give way a hand shot down to grip his forearm. He looked up into the face of the Na’vi he had seen yesterday, her large oval eyes focused on the beast below.
Carefully pulling she lifted him up to the branch she lay against, the pair of them staying flush and resting for a few moments. Eventually Neytiri stood slowly, pulling Tom up beside her. He watched her as she watched the Thanator below, taking in every detail he could. She turned to him suddenly, causing him to lower his eyes.
Placing a finger to her lips she led him along the branch, deftly jumping to a neighbouring tree without so much as causing a leaf to shake. Tom knew he was good, but he doubted he could match that kind of grace. They travelled in silence for several minutes, the Na’vi woman leading him a safe distance from the beast below.
“Thank you,” he finally said in the Na’vi tongue when she stopped moving. Over the course of his career Tom had found it very handy to learn the native languages of wherever he found himself, and while the Na’vi was easily the hardest he had ever studied it was still worth the effort.
“I ask forgiveness,” Neytiri finally said, turning her face away from his own.
Tom realised very quickly where that first arrow had come from and felt a smile grow on his face. So she had found him first, looks like he wasn’t the only one left curious by their last encounter.
“I don’t blame you,” he finally said, gently reaching out for her hand. “You did what you thought was right.“
“You are not like the others,” she said simply, stepping out of his grasp. “Always stomping around and making noise, like babies. But you, you are peaceful with forest dreamwalker.”
“Tom,” he said quickly, patting his chest. “My name is Tom.”
“Thom,” Neytiri repeated, adding an extra constant to the sound. He knew better than to correct the pronunciation, he doubted he could say half the Na’vi words in his vocabulary correctly himself.
“And you are Neytiri,” Tom said. “Doctor Augustine mentioned your name,” he added quickly.
The female Na’vi blushed as if such a thing were possible, turning her cheek slightly.
She watched the dreamwalker before her, emotions conflicting. Her tribe had taught them all early on that the Sky People were not to be trusted, that only bad things would come of them. Then the dreamwalkers arrived, hybrids at first that confused and scared the native population. These abominations were an affront to Eywa Neytiri’s mother had cried, come to infiltrate them and destroy the very essence of the Na’vi.
But over time Neytiri and others had come to know the dreamwalkers, finding them to be kind and compassionate compared to their human counterparts. Grace, the obvious leader, had become close to many of the children before the Humans school had had to be closed. Neytiri still had fond memories of her time there and missed the Doctor dearly.
So now, as she watched this new dreamwalker before her, all those old memories resurfaced. The conflicting responsibilities between her people and her passions tying up her emotions. This dreamwalker was different, and it seemed Eywa knew as much. A lone seed from the Tree of Souls fluttered gently downwards in the dying sunlight, coming to rest atop Tom’s shoulder. He picked it up deftly, letting the Atokirina’ rest on his palm.
“What is it?” he asked in the human tongue.
“A spirit, very pure,” Neytiri replied, watching as more descended from the skies around them. She took a step backwards as they began to settle on Tom, enveloping his entire upper body. It took only a moment for Neytiri to make up her mind.
“Come,” she said, turning and heading towards the Hometree as quickly as possible.
The dreamwalker turned to her, the last remaining seeds taking flight and leaving him as quickly as they had arrived. He looked stunned at this change in her demeanour, but followed soon enough, racing to catch up. Neytiri took great fun in pushing him through difficult manoeuvres but he followed her amply until his feet were suddenly robbed from under him.
Tom felt more alive than at any time in his life, chasing after the Na’vi woman when he suddenly saw the world fall upside down, his legs bound by some kind of slick rope. Crashing to the ground he didn’t even have time to raise his arms before smacking against the tree branch and rolling a good dozen metres to the ground to land messily on the soft ground.
He moved quickly, senses driven into overdrive by the unexpected ambush. Reaching for his knife Tom slit through the thin material with ease, standing to face his attackers. He didn’t have to wait long as half a dozen Direhorses charged into the small clearing he had landed in. Accompanying them, more Na’vi on foot took up positions around the perimeter, their poison tipped arrows pointing straight at his heart. Tom knew he didn’t stand a chance, not with these odds, so he let his knife fall out of his hand, taking a more defensive posture of submission.
The leader of the party came forward, fluidly dismounting the giant horse like creature, his ornate body decorations clearly signifying him as someone of importance. He snarled viciously at Tom, pointed canines prominently showing.
“I will not fight,” Tom spoke clearly, facing the leader. He kept his hands open, the better to show his intentions. The leader stalked around him, drawing a vicious looking bone knife from a chest sheath and placing it against Toms neck.
“I am not your enemy,” he whispered quietly, locking eyes.
“Calm people, calm!” Neytiri shouted, landing nimbly next to Tom before placing herself between Tom and his attacker. “He is with me Tsu’Tey, the great spirit of Eywa has shown me a sign, he must see Eytukan.“
Tom watched the interplay between these two with interest, wondering who held the higher rank. It was obvious both held respect and that Neytiri was now risking her own standing to protect him but to what end Tom did not know. The newcomer however took every available option to bare his teeth at him, obviously displeased to even be in the same presence as Tom. They spoke far too quickly for him to even begin to catch what they were saying, but he guessed it related to wherever Neytiri wished to take him.
Eventually the aggressive male nodded his head and Tom felt himself gripped tightly between two of the warriors behind him. The riders mounted their direhorses and left quickly, leaving Tom, Neytiri and those on foot to follow belong at a fast clip.
As they moved Tom caught a glimpse of a giant tree in the distance, instantly recognising it as the Na’vi’s Hometree from the geologic surveys. As they neared its base, he craned his head back to even begin to comprehend how tall it must be, surely as tall as any skyscraper back on Earth. As the main Sun began to set behind the great gas giant Tom found himself plunged into a darker and more inhospitable environment.
As they passed between the giant roots Tom found himself the subject of attention for a great many assembled Na’vi. They wore only the most simple of garments, basic cloth to cover themselves modestly but little else. Small children ran around freely until they caught sight of the hybrid and took cover behind their parents. Tom couldn’t help but smile at the familiarity of such human traits found so far away from home.
“How many live here?” Tom asked Neytiri as they moved hurriedly towards the inner chambers.
“Our numbers are small, a thousand perhaps. We are only as many as is needed by Eywa.” A sharp jolt from one of the chaperones discouraged further talk.
As they entered the inner most sanctum Tom felt his jaw drop, staring up at the intertwining roots that seemed to rise to the very top of the tree itself. They spiralled about each other like a double helix of DNA, the amazing growth just another facet that he had yet to learn about Pandora.
From the spiral an elderly Na’vi descended, the regal-looking feathers and bones adorning his chest symbolising he was the Clan leader. He looked with disdain at the party and Tom felt his spirits fall; this wouldn’t go down well.