The forest was alive in the infrared spectrum. Quaritch looked at the scene through the glass cockpit, overlays floating before him to point out anything and everything that had a pulse. He shifted to a more comfortable position in the giant AMP suit and moved forwards, the psionic link around his head converting his thoughts in powerful strides with no effort. While connected he could operate the mobile weapons platform as if it were a direct extension of his own nervous system while still retaining full control of his own body unlike an avatar controller.
The sounds of the Pandoran jungle filtered into the glass bubble he occupied, sweet oxygen devoid of any poisons as the internal scrubbers kept up a constant cycle. Around him the sound of other men echoed across the no mans land between Hell’s Gate and the forest. Occasionally a sharp crack would ring out as another explosive was detonated and a huge tree that had grown too close was reduced to toothpicks in a heartbeat.
There job was simple, to keep the forest at bay. As soon as they had cut the first tree down to make way for the base it seemed Pandora responded in kind, growing back faster and faster. The engineering crews were out everyday now, fighting off the forest. It was the marines job to provide escorts as not everything was so pleased at their activities.
The larger bulldozers moved in a slow arc around the forest edge, clearing much of the smaller layers of vegetation with plasma cutters while patrols kept watch over them. The sentry guns had been deactivated along this stretch of the perimeter, the additional protection not worth the risk of an accidental friendly fire incident. Each gun could observe, identify, target and fire within the space of 0.4 seconds; drop your ID tag and you’d find you have more holes than a spiders web before you’d even have time to mutter an expletive.
Quaritch watched a larger figure move further back in the jungle, sticking to the boles of large trees. It was totally invisible to his own eyes, swallowed up by the gloom and natural camouflage afforded to it by many generations of evolution on Pandora, but his IR tracker could see it clear as day between vegetation. The AMP suit was an impressive sight, almost four metres in height, a gyroscopically balanced walking machine that was the equivalent of half a dozen regular marines. A GAU 90 rotary cannon was built into the right forearm, a long belt of ammunition snaking away. It made Quaritch feel superior, almost invulnerable to the wildlife that ran around outside.
Two Scorpions flew overhead, their twin rotors blowing the debris of the days work in every direction. The military frontline air operators, they were not the most advanced tech available to the Consortium but they were reliable and dependable, something you needed in such a hostile environment as Pandora. One of the two took position above and opened fire upon the jungle, tracers streaming through the canopy to turn a pack of viperwolves that had been cautiously advancing through the bush into a dirty stain upon the ground.
Quaritch saw the larger shape he had been tracking move in response, its actions alone not hostile in nature but its very presence a threat to base security. He raised his arm and fired in a single thought. Cutting a horizontal swath across the jungle he saw the creature turn tail and vanish back the way it had come. The forest shuddered at the onslaught, trees crashing to the ground as fifty cal rounds decimated their trunks. A swarm of stingbats took flight with shrill calls, caught in the cross fire before they too vanished into the darkness.
Quaritch smiled as his gun powered down, moving closer to survey the wreckage. Without warning a remnant stingbat exploded from a nearby bush, its tail like stinger flicking impotently against the reinforced canopy of the AMP suit. Quaritch picked it up delicately between two mechanical fingers, watching the alien insect squirm beneath his grip. Crushing it in one giant hand he discarded the lifeform as one would a mosquito, using a huge boot to grind it into the ground with an almost derisive pleasure.
Having not given the jungle his full attention for just a few moments, Quaritch didn’t see the bansheeray swooping in towards him, its translucent manta-ray like wings silent as it shot down through the canopy. As the beast passed across the sun and its wings passing dappled light over his bubble Quaritch didn’t think, he only had time to react to the incoming threat. Raising his cannon he got one look at the glassy fangs on the bansheerays underside before opening fire. It rained blue Pandoran blood, coating the AMP suits canopy and causing Quaritch to curse his inattention. It was just such an accident that had cost him his good looks when he first arrived.
Cleaning the blood he hefted his gun arm and strode forwards, two other troopers following his lead. This was war and Quaritch enjoyed every minute of it.
The SciMod was deserted. Josh glanced at his watch again, the minute hand still a quarter from the top. Better early than late his drill sergeant had always told him. He moved quietly around the various areas of the large lab, peeking and prodding at devices that looked as alien to his eyes as the jungle beyond the fences.
One entire wall was taken up by a large observation window, rows of terrariums behind them displaying various samples of Pandoran flora and fauna. He glanced into each as he passed by, trying to discern what was kept within their various confines. One held a large violet plant, its ferns moving hypnotically but Josh couldn’t work out whether it was the plant itself or something hiding within that caused the motion.
Moving on he peered into the murky waters of the next chamber, unable to see beyond a few inches. As the outer doors opened Josh turned at the sudden sound, watching Grace Shipley walk into the lab. Without warning a dark shape slammed into the glass to his side, exploding out of the gloom and snapping huge jaws against the thick window in a futile attempt to gorge itself on the bystander beyond. Josh whipped around, rolling back quickly at the hideous sight and breathing a sigh of relief as the creature was swallowed up by the water once more as it swam away in search of other snacks.
“I see you’ve met our Dinicthys,” Grace said, standing beside Josh and suppressing a giggle at his sudden discomfort. “She loves to do that.”
Shipley bent closer to the glass, watching the huge fish as it swam back around for another pass, there eyes meeting for a moment before moving on again.
“Just a baby, but at the rate she’s growing, we’re going to have to put her back in the lake by next week.”
“Just let me know which one,” Josh said quietly from behind, still ill at ease and not wishing to venture closer to the now thin looking glass divide.
“Oh don’t worry soldier boy, this is the least of your worries out in the jungle. Now come on, we’ve gotta get you working.”
Josh could feel the reluctance wash off Shipley as they worked. Josh could tell she didn’t appreciate having him around. Every time she had to stop and explain something to him she spoke in a condescending tone, as if the very effort of having to talk to someone without a PHd was killing her a bit inside each time. Her patience could only take so much and she snapped after the twentieth innocuous question from her new apprentice, rounding on him with a vicious snarl.
“Listen! I can’t take all these stupid questions, it’s not my fault you didn’t go to University. The only reason you are even here is because someone back home thought it made more sense to send another brain dead soldier than someone who held a doctorate just so they didn’t have to waste a rather expensive avatar body. And the only reason I’m even entertaining the notion of having you around,” she said jabbing an angry finger into his chest, “is because we’ve got too much left to do before this planet is stripped clean and not enough people to do it!”
Turning away she smacked a stack of pads to the ground, breathing heavily from her little outburst. It was true, everything she had said. The Consortium was so shortsighted in their goal of mining unobtanium they didn’t think for one moment about what else could be found out here. Shipley had already made several discoveries of her own, things that would turn medical science on its head when they got back to Earth. But all Selfridge cared about was the monthly balance sheet and Parrish, Grace couldn’t even bring herself to think about what a spineless fool he was.
To his credit Josh sat patiently as she vented, never losing eye contact despite her ferocious outburst. When it looked like she was finally calming down he rolled closer and let her have a piece of his own mind, leaning forward in his chair and pulling her away from the desk so they saw eye to eye.
“I didn’t come light years through space, get shot up with innoculations for I don’t even know what and sleep in a freezer for three years just so I could be your punchbag because you’re pissed off with the bureaucracy of this whole thing. If you’ve got a problem, go to the supervisor otherwise take a pill lady and let me try and do something useful.”
Grace stood before him for the longest time, head cocked curiously to one side as she studied the new arrival, eyes appraising him in a new light as she looked over their entwined situation. Finally she cracked a wicked grin and clapped him on the shoulder.
“So. A live one, huh?”
Before Josh could say another word she turned him around in his chair and pushed him towards a waiting link chair.
“Hop up,” she said, tapping away on the control padding beside the chair and getting the psionic connection ready to go. “So what made you think you could come all the way out here to Pandora and just take your brothers place?” she asked.
“Maybe I was sick of doctors telling me what I could and couldn’t do,” Josh said, settling into the large chair, running his hands over the gel like surface.
Grace moved to stand beside him and considered his response for a moment before resting the link gear on top of his head. Josh reached up to touch it, receiving a quick smack on the hand for his curiosity.
“Just let your mind go blank marine, shouldn’t be hard for you,” she said finally.
Josh closed his eyes and felt the first prickling’s of something poking around in his head. He could hear noises from far away, just distant echoes but the more he chased them the deeper he seemed to fall. With a sudden jolt he found himself rushing forwards, senses blurring into an oncoming blur of light and sound that seemed to assault his very mind. Patterns of colour flashed around him, his own sense of self temporarily lost as his mind took control of a new body and left his old one to its own devices.
Opening his eyes Josh took in the sights around him slowly. He had awoken in the avatar training compound behind the Science Module, a large area fenced off from the rest of the base. Built like a traditional log hut, it served as the base for all on-site avatar personnel. Rows of beds stood either side of a central walkway, the large open windows letting the alien sounds of Pandora intermingle with the more human sounds of people at work and play. Josh’s eyes stung as he looked around for the first time, taking in the strange world through new eyes. He had seen Pandora with his own eyes, but this felt totally different. The blue that had seemed ocean-like yesterday shone with a new intensity now, his eyes much more susceptible to the ultraviolet wavelengths that permeated everything upon the planets surface. Even the giant body of Polythemis appeared to have become more beautiful with his newly acquired perspective, swirling high above the atmosphere outside the window, watching over him.
Sitting up awkwardly he took a a deep breath, a million alien smells filling his nose and causing another rush of adrenaline to course into his system as his mind attempted to filter and recognise each one. His ears twitched unusually, swivelling to track sounds around him and causing his hearing to come in ebbs and flows as he got used to the motions necessary.
Looking at his hands, Josh cautiously moved the fingers before his face, pressing tips to tips and feeling the sensations run up his arm, as if a firework was going off in each. Staring at his body he poked at it oddly with one finger, surprised at how much it felt like his own flesh, warm and smooth beneath the blue digits. He traced the cerulean patterns, becoming more confident in his ministrations.
A technician spoke over the PA system, asking him to complete a few basic motor control tests starting with touching the fingertips of opposite hands together in front of his face. Josh tried to follow their advice as best he could but missed worse than a drunk during a sobriety check on his first attempt. Screwing his face up in concentration he managed to bring his two hands together and just brushed the tips together. It was a tiny moment but a victory nonetheless and it caused him to smile widely, pronounced canines showing beneath a cat like nose.
Other tests followed, could he see correctly, could he breath all right? He nodded yes to each, still testing out the new body between requests. Finally they asked him to talk and Josh attempted to clear his throat, resulting in nothing more than an inarticulate croak emerging.
The techs were sympathetic, having gone through the same rigours with every one else, though most had had at least some link time to get used to such basic things. Pleased that he could at least make a noise they instructed him to try crawling before the proverbial walking. Josh rolled out of the bed, landing flat on his stomach before pushing himself up on unsteady arms. He looked like a newborn antelope, unused muscles firing spasmodically as he inched forwards clumsily. With all the grace only a baby can posses he used a nearby chair to haul himself up, swaying unsteadily on two legs while still remaining hunched over like an arthritic old man.
He grinned at the small accomplishment, letting go of the chair for a moment to cheer himself. With no support his legs buckled at the first slight wobble, the avatar body tumbling to the ground and Josh finding himself looking up painfully from the wooden floor. The sound of laughter came suddenly from behind him and he turned to see another avatar stood contently, watching his tribulations with a mischievous smirk.
She was obviously female, statuesque in grace towering over his prone form. Powerful panther thighs, a flat muscular stomach and small but firm athlete’s breasts hidden beneath a short T-shirt. Her hands were placed authoritatively on her hips and Josh couldn’t help but find the image familiar, wracking his mind to place her. He dismissed all guesses though, it couldn’t be, this avatar looked maybe 25 at the most and stunning to boot.
“Whooo… are… yu-you?” he croaked finally, vocal chords stretching to produce odd sounds between his words.
“Who do you think, dumbshit? How quickly they forget,” Grace laughed in good mirth, moving closer to him with confident strides.
Josh could see it instantly as she spoke, the facial features, the way she held herself. It was like looking into a mirror image of Shipley’s human form, albeit a blue tinted funhouse mirror. Grace grinned at him once more, cocking one hip seductively.
“Ain’t I a babe?” she asked rhetorically before helping Josh to his feet, supporting his weight as he attempted to walk a few paces. Grace had taken on the mindset most avatar controllers eventually grew accustomed to, more used to her avatar body than original human form. She cared more for a blue, lab grown body than she did her own flesh and blood and her smoking habit was just one result of such a decision.
For all intents and purposes she took on a motherly role towards Josh, treating him as if he were her own newborn and helping him make the first steps. She stood before him, holding his hands in her own protectively before stepping backwards and leaving him swaying precariously, always within reach were he to fall.
Grace beckoned him forwards softly, arms outstretched and ready to catch him if he fell as he took one short shuffling step after another, toes brushing across the natural wooden floor. Josh could feel every emotion flooding back into his body along with the sensations as he placed one foot before the other, the feeling almost as alien as the very body itself after such a long time.
“I’m walking,” he exclaimed obviously, looking up with child like delight in his eyes as he turned slowly to face Grace.
“You sure are, kid,” Grace replied quietly, letting him move with freedom around the small hut, growing more confident with every step.
Josh’s eyes filled with tears as he began moving more and more, a sense of freedom rushing back to him after such a long time. This was what he had come to Pandora for and now it was all real. Grace watched a tear run down the blue skin of his cheek and smiled despite herself, a feeling of pride welling up in her chest as she watched the former marine become enveloped by his own emotions.
“Yup, looks like everything’s working just fine,” she whispered.