Pandora, But Not As You Know It

The Prometheus had settled into a low orbit above the surface of Pandora, the vast lands streaming by far below. At first glance the large moon could have been considered a second Earth by any casual observer, the ribbons of blue and brown snaking across its crust hidden beneath the swirling clouds.

But the proportions were wrong, the land dominated the oceans, and above all the colours were off. The great swathes of forest were tinged blue, almost cyan, as if the light cast off the nearby gas giant had stained the very land. Polythemis, its swirling clouds enveloped around an angry blue spot, dominated the inky starscape. Pandora was in actuality just one of fourteen moons that orbited the great giant, the others occasionally passing between itself and their parent, leaving dark marks like beauty spots upon its surface.

It took most newcomers a while to get accustomed to seeing a living habitat. Mars, Lunar, even Earth were all barren except for where crops were carefully grown under protected canopies. None of the other moons contained life, Pandora seemed to be the exception rather than the rule unfortunately.

Josh rested quietly, staring out the small porthole window and catching a glimpse of his home for the next six years. He had been watching for the better part of thirty minutes, hand affixing him in position against a bulkhead as other passengers drifted by towards the airlock for the dropship. His mind still raced at everything he had been through since waking; cryosleep had done its best to repay him for catching three years worth of sleep in one go, the last remnants of hangover more reminiscent of a fifth of tequila and an ass kicking the night before than any medically accepted procedure it felt. Running a hand over his scalp Josh scratched idly at the stubble that had grown in the interim years.

He had watched them clean his newly born avatar in the birthing chamber, its eyes never leaving his own as it groped for him feebly in its infantile mental state, before they loaded it up ready for the descent to the planet’s surface. It began to wail as soon as it lost sight of him, the alien noises subdued by a combination of distance and tranquillisers. The sound still echoed in Josh’s ears.

“All passengers report to starboard docking bays,” a monotonous voice played out over the intercom. “Shuttle departs in fifteen minutes.”

“Better get a move on,” a floating crewman said to Josh as he followed the last group, collecting stragglers and helping those less accustomed to zero gee.

Gripping his pack and chair tightly Josh pushed off, following them towards the awaiting dropship ungainly. Like all ISV class ships, the Prometheus was not designed for atmospheric flight. Instead it held two Lockheed-Saab TAV-37s, more commonly known as Valkyries, on umbilical arms. The shuttles were heavy lifters, designed to transport materials to and from the planet’s surface, each with a phenomenal power to weight ratio as a result.

Josh took his place along the row of seats, strapping pack and chair in beside him before anyone else could sit down and take the neighbouring seat. Turning in his seat Josh looked out the tiny viewport beside him, catching the terminator passing over Polythemis’s surface. As the final checks were made and the engines cycled up Josh felt the ship pull away from the Prometheus, the sudden presence in gravity causing any loose objects to fall in the opposite direction and rattle noisily.

The ride became more unstable as they hit atmo, the ship bucking wildly until the turbulence passed and they entered smoother air, levelling out and beginnning a gradual descent. Through the porthole Josh watched mist-shrouded mountains in the distance, growing in size with each passing moment as they plummeted from the heavens.

“Folks this is your captain speaking, we are passing over the Horn of Australis at the moment, the largest of the southern continents.”

The running commentary from the pilot continued as they descended, the pilot’s obviously having run this particular trip enough times to appreciate having someone to listen to their stories rather than a cargo hold full of minerals and a bunch of marines who’d rather play cards than admire the alien beauty.

The ship tore through the upper layer of clouds, the first glimpses of land coming into plain view beneath them. A collective gasp rose from all those who had managed to secure a viewport. Huge chunks of rocks, most easily bigger than the Valkyrie itself, hung in the air, as if suspended by invisible wires miles long. Water streamed from the rocky tops, cascading into a fine mist that created a second cloud layer beneath them, partially obscuring the forests further below. The mountains moved slowly in the winds, occasionally rubbing against each other and sending a shower of loose rock cascading below.

“Montes Volans,” the pilot announced over the intercom after a few minutes of awe-struck silence had passed, answering their unasked question. “The floating mountains of Pandora, or the Hallalujah mountains as us regular folk call them. This is what it’s all for people. These mountains are chock full of Unobtanium, mix in Polyphemis’ magnetosphere and you have one heck of a superconductor. This whole region is a giant flux vortex, keeping these honking great stones in the air kind of like the mag trains back home. Or something like that,” the pilot chuckled.

As they passed barely ten miles from suspended mountains Josh caught sight of one lump of rock that seemed to dwarf the others, its immense size seemingly impossible even if it weren’t suspended in the sky. Nicknamed Big Rock-Candy Mountain it was worth billions of dollars alone, its flanks and top wreathed in streamers of clouds that left much of it cloaked in mystery. As they moved on a thunderhead closed in, obscuring any further views of the floating wonders and forcing the passengers to hunt for the next wonder to pass by their field of view.

They were much lower now, skimming over the vast forests that covered much of this continent. Only now was Josh realising just how alien this world truly was; it seemed the blue glow seen from orbit was not just a relic of the reflected light from the local gas giant, the very plants themselves were all tinged with a cyan hue instead of the more earth-like green. The local equivalent of chlorophyl worked in much the same way as its terrestrial partner, just with a very slight change in chemistry that rendered it more suitable for the wavelength of the local binary stars.

As they neared Hell’s Gate and passed closer to the treetops Josh could make out the various patterns, as many shades of blue as there had once been on Earth. It was remarkable just how similar they ultimately were, trunks and branches and leaves. Only the colours and sizes were wrong.

A group of bird like creatures, bigger than a minivan, took flight from the upper canopy upon hearing their approach. The great beasts beat a hasty escape with a double set of wings, the clawed front pair more reminiscent of ancient pterodactyls than any modern cousin. Smaller winged creatures swarmed in formations further below, tracing the path a majestic river cut through the dense forests.

As the shuttle descended further trees gave way to grasslands, vast fields of rippling magenta and lavender unlike anything seen on Earth. The powerful engines sent six legged creatures scattering in all directions, the very ground seeming to come to life as they approached. Without warning the ground gave way though, the sides of a huge open cast mine plunging into the abyss. Josh felt his breath catch as he took in the scale of the operation. The pilot explained it was a deuterium mine, the helium isotope that powered the entire human colony in this little corner of the Universe but that did nothing to soften the blow of seeing such a huge scar torn into the side of the virginal planet. It seemed Josh wasn’t the only one who was shocked by the destruction, others onboard murmured comments about never seeing these pictures back home on the broadcasts.

As quickly as it had come the ground returned, the forest soon returning as if nothing had happened, only a wide road winding beneath the canopy to show the humans path. But it was nothing compared to the sight of Hell’s Gate, the primary human base upon Pandora. Rising against the horizon, it was as if a giant cookie cutter had been taken to the rainforest, a disc of ground two miles across razed and the earth scraped bare to leave nothing in its wake.

A cluster of squat structures, all concrete and steel in their economical construction, sat nestled within the confines of two fences that ran the entire length of the perimeter. The double chain-link fences, both topped with concertina razor wire and coursing with hundreds of thousands of volts, ran between five guard towers at each corner, automated sentry guns continually sweeping across the no-mans land between the human base and the Pandoran forest. The forest was continually cut back to ensure a wide strip of open ground, it seemed the forest grew faster the more they cut.

As they circled on final approach Josh watched the hustle and bustle beneath them. The searchlights from the towers picking out the tiny dots that were men and women scurrying below them, taking cover from the wash of their engines. The great craft descended carefully, with more grace than its vast bulk would imply, and came to rest upon one of the two landing pads. The engines powered down quickly before the pilots announced it was safe to unbuckle.

“Two minutes till we pop,” a gunnery sergeant announced, walking down the centre aisle and checking each person as they strapped on their exo-packs. “I don’t wanna see anyone die today, it looks very bad on my report. You take a breath of this air and you’re unconscious in twenty seconds, dead in four minutes. Let’s hustle people.”

The ramp at the rear of the Valkyrie opened with a mechanical hiss, the native atmosphere rushing inside, bringing it’s warmth and humidity instantly to bear. Josh waited for those around him to leave before releasing his wheelchair and folding it open. Slipping his pack on he moved down the open ramp, wheels catching in the deep rivulets normally used for shifting cargo pallets and nearly causing him to trip. Pushing on he hurried to catch up with the others who were making their way towards the main buildings.

Josh’s facemask had fogged with the sudden exertion after spending so long in the absence of gravity, yet he felt the slight trickle of fear knowing what would happen were he to remove it. Invisible and deadly gas, just like they’d had to worry about back in Venezuela. Two technicians descended from the shuttle behind him, pushing a large gurney between them on which lay one of the newly born avatars. The sleeping creatures suddenly looked at home, surrounded by the alien forests and Josh felt relief knowing it wasn’t his own body he’d be risking out in the bush.

The base was a hive of activity even at this late an hour. Huge tractor-like earth movers rolled through the main gates, cutting a path towards the garages. A group of workers followed them in, engineers in heavy environment suits whilst marines wore simpler armaments beneath the ever ubiquitous exo-packs. Within the boundaries of Hell’s Gate they felt slightly more at ease but still kept a wary eye on the local environment. The perimeter defences continually swept across the no-mans land, targeting and eliminating anything that didn’t possess an ID badge around its neck.

Even as Josh watched a turret swivelled and opened fire upon the darkness at the edge of the forest, an inhuman shriek echoing out over the sound of landing gunships. Josh felt his pulse spike, scanning the tree line with his own eyes but unable to discern anything in the shadows.

He couldn’t help but wonder what the hell he had gotten himself into.

—-

Hell’s Gate had been built like many other human outposts, quickly and hastily was the motto. Six primary modules, connected by a central trunk known as the utilidor, comprised the vast bulk of the human installation. The utilidor was a double level corridor, one level of which ran below ground and housed all the maintenance utilities and service lines whilst the other was used mainly for foot passage.

Branching off at very colour designated intervals were each of the distinct areas; Conmod, the command module where all communication, administration, flight control, dispatch and Security Forces were contained; Habmod was the habitable quarters for all base personnel as well laundry, gym and recreation areas. Genmod and Stormod were as their namesakes suggested but Scimod was where Josh would be spending most of his time, the multi-storey building nearly as big as Conmod.

All the new arrivals had been shepherded into the main mess hall, taking seats where available and looking out the expansive windows at the forest as the last rays of light settled over the treetops to cast an ocean like blue glow across the night sky. A short man walked quickly to the front, obviously important by the way the regular grunts moved out of his way as he took a position in front of them all.

“Welcome to Pandora. I’m Carter Selfridge, Station Supervisor and the guy who owns your asses for the next six years. I’m going to keep this brief because time is money and I’m only interested in the latter.”

The room was hushed, no one certain if such a remark was meant to illicit a chuckle or not. Selfridge continued regardless, sitting on the corner of one table and looking across the new faces as he spoke.

“Now you’re here you’re in a whole different world, I mean that literally and figuratively. Out there,” he gestured, pointing through the thick glass, “is a minefield of toxic plants, lethal stinging insects, and large venomous carnivores that will turn you into swiss cheese in seconds, not to mention the atmosphere and general risks of working off world. All base personnel must carry a firearm which you will be required to use in drills to make sure you can actually shoot at something should the need arise. And please, if you even think about leaving the base on a sortie or otherwise, take at least one SecForce marine.

“That’s not to say it’s all grim news here though. As of today you will never get another cold or flu, one of Pandora’s unexpected rewards. The ecosystem here creates a natural counter-virus to anything we bring with us that stops it dead in its tracks. In fact, the Consortium is already applying for patents and FDA approval on a few of the samples we’ve managed to isolate. Keep an eye out people, no telling what we can turn a buck on here. Okay, that’s me done, Rob, you want to say your part?”

Another man stepped forwards quickly, the obvious environmentalist type with beard and birkenstocks. Working for the modern day equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency in the ICA, Rob Parrish was responsible for maintaing bioethics, or more succinctly, stopping any permanent damage to flora or fauna as a result of human activity. Not that it mattered, like almost everyone in his profession he made more from kickbacks and bribes than he did from his company wage. Selfridge paid him to keep his mouth shut and in return got to do whatever the hell he wanted to this virginal moon.

Parrish spoke quickly, bestowing the virtues of this new world and all it had to offer whilst stressing the role they had to play in protecting it from exploitation. A regular hypocrite Josh thought, leaning on his pack and trying to look like he was the least bit interested. Turning his attention elsewhere Josh watched a young woman filming the assembled group with a stereocam, recording the newcomers on their first day. Josh recognised her instantly from the broadcasts back home, Marcia De Los Santos, the resident Freemedia Officer. Every bit of footage shot, edited and captioned was her handiwork, watched by billions back on Earth.

Parrish looked relieved to finally finish his little speech, conceding the limelight to the last senior member of staff. Colonel Miles Quaritch stood before the packed room, hands clasped firmly against his waist, hand always near his pistol. He looked just like every other Colonel Josh had seen, thick necked and barrel-chested but with an additional set of scars that ran across one side of his face. Whether they had been earned on Pandora or elsewhere weren’t clear.

He spoke simply, in clipped words. Marines would need to adapt or die on this planet, and scientists, he nearly sneered as he spoke the word, they’d need to grow some balls and make some good jarhead friends if they expected to last out their time. Adjourning the meeting abruptly he caused one member of staff to push forwards hurriedly from the sides, waving for the attention of the departing attendees.

“Excuse me,” he called out over the rising din, “can all new members of the Avatar Program please go straight to the Science Mod and report to Doctor Brantley Giese.”

Josh heard the call and set about following the green lines that led to the SciMod but found his way blocked by the imposing figure of Quaritch.

“Heard you were marines,” he stated matter-of-factly, one hand idly tracing the scars on his face whilst the other hovered ever ready over his holster.

“That’s right Sir,” Josh confirmed, watching others cut a wide berth around them both. He could see why already.

“Damn shame ’bout your legs,” Quaritch continued, idly glancing over the frame of the wheelchair and clucking his tongue. “Horrible to thing to see a marine who can’t fight for his county anymore. You lose ‘em in combat son?”

“No,” Josh said simply, not taking kindly to the Colonel and deciding to push his luck. “Had a bit too much to drink during a party on base. Fell through a plate glass window. The ain’t moved since.”

Quaritch leaned in closer, gripping the armrests of the chair firmly and putting his face only inches away from Josh’s own. When he spoke his voice was thick with authority and impatience.

“You listen to me boy. When you’re done playing explorer with these quack scientists, come report to me. I can always use a good marine, legs or no legs, in SecFor.”

“I’ll think about it,” Josh said, pushing his chair forwards as Quaritch stood erect once more.

“You do that,” the big man said, watching the ex-marine roll out into the main utilidor.

Josh had barely gone more than a dozen metres before a new voice rang out, calling his name above the general hubbub of crowds moving between modules. Turning back he saw a spindly young guy rushing to catch up with him, buffeted by the masses. He recognised the face, Norm Cheeseman, another avatar controller from onboard the Prometheus. His own avatar had been birthed just after Josh’s. Catching up he wasted no time, taking hold of the wheelchairs handles and pushing Josh towards the SciMod.

“Wow,” Norm said as they entered the first floor of the science module, naming each of the various pieces of equipment they passed as if Josh could understand their function from a name that might as well have been written in Martian. They caught up with the main group of new avatar controllers quickly, the man from the meeting room leading them around. He introduced himself as Dr Giese himself and obviously didn’t take too much pleasure from Quaritch’s little stunt earlier. No love lost between those two Josh thought.

As they entered the Link Room Josh got his first glance at where he would be spending much of his time, inert and unaware of anything around him. A long row of chairs stood next to banks of monitors, each reminiscent of a high-tech dentists chair. Psionic links rested gently over the heads of each occupant, faces seemingly in a trance like state as if they were all asleep and dreaming. Each chair was accompanied by a technician, constantly watching readouts and checking GPS positions to ensure nothing went wrong.

Giese was listing off facts, moving between pieces of equipment as the rest of the group crowded in wherever there was room. Each avatar body was implanted with a chip that provided a direct neural link he explained, along with their realtime position upon the planets surface. From the base they could cover a pretty large area of terrain but there were also additional outposts should they need to explore beyond those areas.

“You’ll each be accompanying a veteran controller for your first few trips, until you’ve gotten used to your avatars and Pandora,” Parrish explained, directing newcomers to a member of staff, be they waiting or currently linked.

As they worked one of the controllers lifted the gear from over her head, stretching to relieve the kinks of having stayed still for so long. Under official rules each controller was allowed a maximum of sixteen hours link time in a 24 hour period. Most felt they could go longer but it would be to the detriment of their true bodies.

Giese called for Josh, leading him towards the woman and introducing her as Doctor Grace Shipley. She ignored his proffered hand, instead angrily calling for a cigarette from one of the technicians who had gone scurrying looking for one as soon as she had risen. Shipley looked haggard and dumpy, voice like gravel from chain smoking and hair messy and unkempt. She was the epitome of a typical controller, more caring for her avatar body than the one she used for the other eight hours of the day.

“So you’re the marine who’s going to be following me?” she said, scowling as she took the first drag on her cigarette.

“Yep,” Josh replied, perhaps a little too overly-jovial.

“Brilliant,” Grace said derisively, “I ask for a PHD and they send me another jarhead. This is bullshit Giese, you know it is. They’re pissing on us without the decency of even calling it rain!”

“I know Grace but we have to work with what we have.”

“With him?!” she almost laughed, waving a hand in Josh’s vicinity. “How much lab experience do you have kid?” she asked quickly.

“I dissected a frog once,” Josh answered truthfully.

“You see,” she said expasperatedly, walking away and leaving Josh a bit lost. Giese put a hand on his shoulder, obviously displeased himself but resigned to their respective fates and willing to make the most of it.

“Be here tomorrow morning, 0800,” he said, “and try and use big words.”

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