“Come on,” Grace said, guiding him out of the longhouse and into the Pandoran sun.
Josh followed after her unsteadily, the motion not quite as fluid as his past memories but still a world away from using a wheelchair. They walked through a small vegetable garden, larger equipment spread out across the small compound. As Josh thought back to his chair he looked towards the Scimod, imagining his comatose form resting on the link chair devoid of conscience.
“Here,” Grace said as she tossed something towards him, pulling him back from his musings. Josh raised his hands automatically, catching the small object deftly before it could fall to the ground and smiling at the improvements in his hand eye co-ordination that were already becoming apparent. Turning the blue lump over he ran nubile fingers against the ridged surface, obviously unsure of what exactly to do with it.
“Well go on, eat it,” Grace urged, watching him with amusement. As Josh bit into the skin the juicy pulp leaked out, leaving dark green stains around his mouth but he had been lost in a moment of pure ecstasy. He devoured the small fruit in seconds, the taste exploding in his mouth before looking up at Grace and feeling sheepish with bits of seed stuck in his teeth. It was like nothing he had tasted before, better than any meal in any restaurant in any city could possibly be.
“Beats protein rations any day,” Grace said, taking one of the small fruits for herself and eating it with a bit more reserve.
They walked around the compound slowly, Shipley pointing out the various areas; small garden, exercise equipment, recreational quad, sleeping areas back in the longhouse he had woken in. Josh watched a group of other avatars, obviously much more experienced with their bodies play a game of basketball, the hoop easily fifteen feet above the ground.
“Go say hi,” she said, watching his gaze and seeing his eagerness. “I’ve got to do something else anyway. Get Langley to run you through firing drills afterwards as well, stupid rule that was Quaritch,” she muttered as she walked away.
Josh was left alone all too soon, watching the group of six avatars play their game but unsure as to how best introduce himself. They moved with a catlike grace, much faster than any players he’d seen back on Earth. Even their tails were in use, occasionally guiding the ball as they ran, the prehensile appendage oddly suited for the purpose. One of the group, a young woman, missed the hoop, the ball bouncing across the ground towards Josh.
He bent clumsily to pick it up, the sphere feeling oddly shrunken in his grasp. The woman noticed him, standing impatiently as the others behind her cracked jokes as they waited for the game to resume.
“So you’re one of the new guys, the ex-marine?” she asked, motioning for the ball.
“Yeah,” Josh answered automatically, making a quick pass. Or at least attempting to, the ball bounced past her side, caught by another avatar.
“Well come on,” she said, “You’re never going to get used to your body playing like that.”
They went easy on him at first, passing the ball between the group to see who would drop it first. Soon they were joined by another new group member, Norm Cheeseman. Josh barely recognised the man, his avatar body much more muscular in comparison to his human form. Norm himself also seemed to take great delight in the new body, relishing in the glow. The game itself soon turned into a regular match, each team taking on one of the newcomers to even things out. Half way through Josh tripped on his own tail to the amusement of all those present but quickly picked himself up and carried on.
The rest of the day was spent following similar activities. The veteran drivers showed them the climbing frame, how their bodies could be depended on to naturally make jumps and aerial feats they wouldn’t even have attempted back on Earth. They made it look easy, cartwheeling and jumping between monkey bars. Josh knew it was a matter of practice, like field stripping a rifle until he could trust his hands to do the right thing without thought.
Finally Doctor Anson Langley led Norm and Josh towards the firing range, handing each a new issue SN-9 Wasp revolver. Norm held the gun sheepishly, uncomfortable with the weapon whereas Josh felt the weight in his new hands, testing the balance and grip. He sighted down the barrel and, when cleared to do so, let off the entire six rounds. The paper target showed a nice cluster of shots, the increased Na’vi strength mitigating much of the recoil from such a powerful handgun.
If Norm had compunctions about firing a gun it was even worse when he strapped on the hip holster, the constant weight reminding him of what he was carrying. Josh felt much more at ease with the comforting weight of a reliable sidearm, the familiar presence reminding him of older times. A different life now.
All too soon the day had come to a close, the light of Polythemus casting a pale glow across the land. Josh followed the other avatars back to the longhouse, lying down upon a free futon and resting his head on his hands. Some of the others had already drifted off to sleep, their minds flitting away in the process. The pin pricks of bioluminescent spots that adorned their skin glowed in the darkness, sweeping patterns moving across the surface as if playing music for the eyes.
Josh looked up through the open roof, watching the alien sky high above. His eyes were still wide with the magnificent sights and wonders he had seen, a truly brave new world. The forest was never quiet, the symphony of a thousand nocturnal creatures punctuated by the clap of automated sentry guns that rang out every now and again. He closed his eyes and wondered what it would be like, out there in the jungle. He’d find out soon enough.
As sleep took his avatar form, Josh felt his mind return to his human body and all the aches and pains that entailed. He pulled his wheelchair closer and stiffly eased himself across, rubbing out kinks in muscles that hadn’t moved for the entire duration of his trip. Every limb felt like a paperweight, fatigue already beginning to set in despite the lower gravity.
Josh watched the more veteran drivers rise and file out, and could understand how they let their bodies go so quickly. It was addictive, the ability to switch to a body that didn’t come with all the flaws and past history of a human upbringing. It was why Shipley smoked more than the refinery, her constant argument being that while she had to put up with her human body she might as well enjoy something about it.
Thinking of the good Doctor, Josh turned to his side and saw her rising from her own link chair, rubbing at her temples to remove the feeling of exhaustion that had set in. Though their bodies hadn’t moved, their minds were tired after a full day of activity.
“At midnight I always turn back into a pumpkin,” Grace said groggily, placing a cigarette to her lips and lighting it. “Come on, let me buy you a drink,” she said to Josh, grabbing the hands of his wheelchair as much to support herself as move him.
Before he could even protest she had rolled him out of the Scimod and they were heading towards the nearest “bar”, obviously thirsty for a drink herself. Josh wasn’t one to reject an offer to drink after all.
“God dammit Selfridge, I need the extra men!”
Quaritch stood angrily in Parker’s office, hands firmly clamped to his sides as he let off another explosive tirade.
“We’ve had five perimeter breaches this year alone. I’m spreading my people across the base, mine, construction sites and these ridiculous science sorties. We’re cut too thin and it’s starting to take its toll. Wainwrights body is in the morgue, a big chunk still digesting in some animals stomach, and two others are still in the infirmary after getting stung or bitten by god knows what out there.”
Parker idly moved a stack of papers on his desk, more reports about diminishing returns from the primary open cast mine. He looked up at Quaritch and sighed, listening to the same old arguments time and again. He had to balance a lot on the base, not least of which was the constant struggle for funds for each department. The Consortium just cared about the amount of Unobtanium sent back, it was his job to work out whether more should be spent on refinery upgrades, military hardware or more link chambers for the Avatar program.
“I understand, but we’ve got another 2 years until the next shuttle arrives so until then you’ll just have to make do.”
“With what? I’ve lost six men, double the amount from last year. By the time any fresh meat arrives they’ll be replacements not reinforcements.”
“I can reduce the science sorties to one escort, that’ll free up more more men for the perimeter watches. Give me a list of the equipment you want and I can add it to the schedule for the departing ships as well, we’ll cut back on Geise’s budget to make room.”
“Better,” Quaritch said, already leaving and yanking the door open. “But you’re gonna have to deal with his pitbull.”
“Don’t worry about Grace,” Selfridge said, already regretting making such promises and the consequences they would entail. “Another few years and there won’t even be an Avatar program to waste money on.”
Josh rose groggily from his bunk, the incessant knocking on the door making his head pound. The RDA had a strict ban on transporting alcoholic materials onboard the ISVs, more due to the extra weight than any health or operations reasons, which ultimately meant the scientists and marines alike resorted to brewing their own. In the years Hell’s Gate had been operating several own-brands had sprung up, each more potent than the last. Josh rubbed his temples, nearly falling as he hoisted himself into his wheelchair.
He looked at the small chronometer mounted beside the door, 0625. He was planning to meet the other drivers in the commissary at seven, who would want to disturb him this early? Buzzing open the door he saw the Freemedia Agent standing there, a much-too-happy expression on her face at this time in the morning.
“Hi,” she said breathlessly, obviously realising she had woken him from a rather groggy sleep. “We haven’t met yet, I’m Marcia de Los Santos. I was wondering if you’d like to do an interview?”
“Seriously?” Josh said incredulously, rolling back into the room and leaving her looking disheartened. She caught the closing door and walked in anyway, instacam hanging over her shoulder ready and waiting.
“Look, if I don’t get an interview from you within the first few days you’ll turn into another one of the regular drivers, always either linked up or sleeping. I just need a few minutes, tell me what it’s like, for the people back home.”
Josh sighed, and Marcia pounced at the opportunity. She sat on the corner of his bed and brought the camera to bear, training it on Josh’s face. Josh rubbed at his face, trying to remove the last vestiges of sleep from the corner of his eyes before speaking.
“You really know how to pick a morning,” he remarked, getting himself comfortable.
“Sorry,” Santos muttered, before flipping record on the camera. “So, what’s it like to be an avatar driver?” she began simply.
“Amazing,” Josh said simply, much to Santos’s chagrin as she urged him on off camera. “I can walk and run now, it’s like being free. The other drivers, they’ve all had hundreds of hours of practise so I’ve kind of been playing catch up but we should be ready to go out on the first expedition soon and meet the local wildlife.”
“Great, great,” Marcia said, moving the camera for a different shot. “So, something I ask all the newcomers, what’s it like waking up in another body?”
Josh thought deeply, obviously unsure how to answer.
“I don’t know, you can’t really define it you know? It’s like, one moment you’re sitting back in a chair with all the rubbish that gets pulled along with your normal life and next thing you know you wake up in this ten foot tall blue body that can do anything you want it to. It’s addictive, you get to see the world with new eyes, literally.
“I think the only thing I can say is that it’s a wonder, or a gift in my case,” he said, patting his legs. “Everything is better, all the sights and sounds. Oh, and the air, it smells like cinnamon,” he finished to Marcia’s approval.
“Thank you,” she said, packing away the camera. “Told you it would be quick. It will be good for the people back home to see someone talk about being an avatar without resorting to scientific observations.”
Josh looked at the clock on the wall, realising he would be late to the morning meal. Saying a final good bye he moved quickly down the Utilidor, weaving in and out of the early traffic. The commissary was easily one of the largest rooms in the entire base, rows of tables stretched out before large windows that faced the ominous jungle. It had been designed that way, to always remind the personnel of why they were here and what dangers were lying in wait beyond the perimeter fence and it’s bristling guns.
Definite territories had been staked out by the various groups, each content to stay within the company of their own kind. The most obvious, and most raucous, were the Security Force personnel, easily consuming half of the large space as they lounged about in between duty shifts.
Within the scientists section the avatar drivers had their own smaller area, as if they were the elite or pariahs of the group. They were a scruffy lot, often given a wide berth due to the pungent odour that was a natural consequence of spending such little time in human company. Bad skin, poor appetites and unkempt hair all became the norm after a few months of work for an avatar driver. Each worked the maximum sixteen hours daily link time allowed, often using the remainder purely for sleep or the inevitable paperwork that was a necessary part of any scientists time.
Josh took a place at the end of the table, the other respective members welcoming him. Grace sat in the middle of the group, Norm and the others chatting amicably over what passed for eggs around her. An older man slowly moved up to the table, refilling drinks and taking away empty plates. His eyes were dead and hollow, as if he didn’t see anything beyond his own existence. He motioned between Josh and a plate of eggs, obviously intending to ask if he’d like some. Nodding his head the man moved away slowly between tables towards the kitchen before returning with a large plate of the synth-like eggs. His presence had made the group decidedly more quiet.
“Is that guy all right?” Norm asked slowly once he was out of ear shot, saving Josh from having to find out himself.
Grace sighed, setting down her fork and looking at the newcomers and veterans alike. It seemed they’d heard the story before and it always struck a nerve within the group.
“His name is Hegner,” she began quietly. “He used to be head of Xenobiology and an avatar driver, one of the best scientists on Pandora, a brilliant mind. You all know what a Slinth is?” she asked almost redundantly.
Everyone assembled nodded except for Josh, eager to here the story continue.
“Yeah, well then you know how they attack. It doesn’t kill you out right, instead it lances you with venom, a neurotoxin that causes full body paralysis. It stings its prey and waits for it to collapse, then it can feed at its leisure, ripping into the abdominal cavity. Hegner met one out in the jungle, watched it through the link as it stung him and ate away at his insides while he was still concious. I don’t think anyone would be the same if they felt them self die like that. Not to mention losing his other life, the one his avatar body let him live.”
The table was silent as Shipley finished. Many of the veteran drivers considered their avatars to be their real lives, with moments of humanity just a boring dream in between sessions in the link chair. Hegner was stuck on Pandora now until his rotation finished and he could go home, likely to a life of anti-depressant drugs and therapy.
As they ate and conversation slowly returned, Grace leant over to Josh.
“Hope you’re ready soldier, we’re going offsite tomorrow, got to pack all of the equipment today so we can set out at first light.”
“About time,” Josh said, eager to stretch his new found legs on something other than a basketball court.
“You’ll be meeting a local guide today, he’s called N’deh. He’s the one who’s shown us so much of Pandora.”
“And we’re lucky to still have him after what those jarheads did,” Geise said from the other side of the table. “No offence,” he added motioning towards Josh.
“N’deh knows that,” Grace said defensively.
“Why, what happened?” Josh asked innocently, watching the interplay between the two head scientists.
“About a year ago there was an incident between the aboriginal people and a SecFor patrol who were tasked with clearing a construction site for the new deuterium plant. Anyway, the site was sacred to the Tsumongwi tribe and they didn’t take too kindly to us bulldozing their land,” Grace explained.
“Wait, I thought you said the aliens were called Na’vi,” Josh interrupted, confusion evident as he digested all the new information. He was already struggling with the few names he knew, it seemed like every time he spoke to one of the scientists they managed to drop a new one into the conversation.
“They are,” Giese said, “the race as a whole are called Na’vi. It comes from the word Na’at which is what they call Pandora in their own tongue. All the Na’vi speak the same language, hence why we think of them as one single race. The local clan however, call themselves the Tsumongwi which means The Blue Flute Clan. There are dozens of different clans, spread out across the planet but there are no tribal wars or anything to suggest they are hostile to each other that we can find.
“Anyway, we were finally making progress with a group from the local clan, teaching them English, how to use some of our power tools and such. Their own tech is neolithic to say the least. They can craft bows, spears, pots but they don’t have any written language hence why they aren’t as technologically developed as we’d expect.
“We were doing great,” Geise said, remorse showing through his words as he continued. “They were even helping us build a school out in jungle, near to their home village. Then SecFor had to come along and piss in the soup.
“I made Selfridge stop expanding the safety zone, he was just heading for the horizon in every direction, cutting down every tree in the way to make room for more mines. The Na’vi, they mourned every tree we cut down, it’s really a touching sight. So, when the tractors turned up at this sacred clearing in the woods the clan patriarch decided enough was enough and decided to make a stand. A bunch of their warriors took up arms and started firing arrows at the tractors. The tractors for gods sake, not even the men around them. The worst they did was set one of the things tyres on fire.
“Well that was all the provocation Quaritch needed. He ordered his men to open fire. Those GAU 90 cannons are designed to level a forest, the Na’vi didn’t even have a hope in hell. Five were gunned down straight away.”
He let the words hang in the air, glancing over his shoulder towards the large group of marines with a stare that would make a Stinger turn tail and run.
“Since then we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them around Hell’s Gate. One or two like N’deh will meet with us, but the rest would just as soon put an arrow in your back if they saw you in the jungle. N’deh didn’t even choose to help us,” Geise almost laughed. “It’s as if they drew straws to see which one from the clan would have to keep an eye on us and he drew short.”
“What’s he like?” Josh asked, not sure whether to be wary or not of someone helping them only because he had been told to do so.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Grace said, picking up her empty plate and heading towards the Scimod.
The twin suns of Alpha Centauri A and B shone like fat red disks in the sky, descending towards the tree line. The silhouettes of stingbats, bansheerays and other creatures that had taken flight in the twilight hours danced across the shimmering surface, their calls echoing across the human compound.
The slow procession of tractors, laden with raw Unobtanium, passed through the central gate while troopers kept a loose guard cordon between the perimeter and the jungle edge. A few powersuits strode amongst the men, dwarfing their military counterparts and civilian construction workers in the process.
As with the clearing operations the perimeter defences had to be temporarily deactivated, meaning the marines were on high alert for approaching threats.
Josh wiped a hand across his brow, marvelling at the strength granted to him as he helped load supplies into the Samson rotorcraft. About the size of a twentieth century Huey helicopter, the Samson was the primary transport for science personnel looking to go off base. A reliable machine it had a large mounted door gun, one Josh was intimately familiar with. Not that he thought it would do much against some of the creatures he had seen in the travel guides.
Leaving the craft Josh walked toward the inner perimeter fence, watching the long chain of machines roll in to the base. Looking up he scanned the horizon, eyes suddenly fixated on a wholly unexpected sight. An alien, a real honest-to-god Na’vi squatted on a nearby cargo container, well within the perimeter defences. It appeared no one else had noticed him yet as he remained motionless, observing the comings and goings of the humans below.
Josh could tell it wasn’t one of the avatars fooling about. The beaded loincloth was the only piece of clothing he wore, obviously made of some sort of animal skin. A leather tube was slung across his back, as well as a tall spear at his side. As Josh watched the Na’vi turned its head nearly 180 degrees so that it looked straight at him in the dusk light.
“N’deh?” Josh questioned quietly, unsure whether this was their friendly guide or not.
The Na’vi rose, jumping from the container and landing on the ground like a liquid shadow, barely making a sound as his bare feet padded across the dusty concrete. He moved closer to Josh, curiosity evident in the intelligent eyes as he regarded the new avatar. Josh stood still as the alien circled him, sniffing in the new scent. Up close it turned out his spear was actually a quiver of arrows, the bow itself hung across his back.
Grace saw the pair from the Samson and quickly hurried over to make the first introductions before Josh made a fool of himself. The Na’vi turned at her approach, obviously familiar with this particular avatar and showing a kindly greeting.
“N’deh, Josh. Josh, meet N’deh Hermequeftewa,” she said, using N’deh’s complete name as a sign of respect in turn.
N’deh made a curious gesture with his hand, touching one finger to his forehead before flicking it gracefully towards Josh. Josh nodded in response, unsure of how he was expected to return the greeting. As the two stood side by side it became apparent just how young the avatars were in terms of Na’vi biology; Josh looked like a young boy of barely seventeen compared to N’deh who appeared to be in his mid thirties.
As Grace began talking to N’deh in the Na’vi tongue Josh couldn’t help but appreciate how beautiful their language was. It felt as if they were in song, a musical and lilting sound that he could scarcely begin to comprehend. He was also surprised by just how adept at it Grace appeared to be, conversing freely with N’deh.
Grace welcomed N’deh, motioning towards the awaiting Samson and asking for his help in finishing loading it before the suns descended fully. He closed his eyes for a half second, a sign that meant much the same as a nod in human cultures before following her towards the craft.
Before they could even make it half way a shout went out from one of the perimeter guards. Josh span around, looking at the commotion in the midst of no mans land. Near the tractors, an enormous animal burst forth from the tree line and began charging towards the fence. The perimeter guns, online but rendered impotent, could only track the target through the swirling dust raised by the large rumbling trucks. The men on the ground struggled to get a shot, the beast moving too quickly through the haze for them to follow.
As it emerged from the dust Josh got his first good look at it and felt his stomach clench into an iron knot at the sight. It was easily twice as big as the largest terrestrial elephant, the powerful muscles rippling under a thick hide. The head jutted out towards each side so that it resembled a hammerhead shark and as such received its name, the Hammerhead Titanothere.
Rifle rounds harmlessly deflected of its armoured hide, only serving to further enrage the beast. Like the elephant or hippopotamus of earth it was a herbivore but could be driven into an aggressive and highly lethal rage under drastic circumstances. A trooper in a powersuit strode into the fray, tracking the beast through the dust clouds with his GAU cannon. The titanothere exploded out of the dust at a full charge right in front of him, its six legs propelling it into the powersuit and knocking it to the ground with a vicious blow from which the servos couldn’t recover. As it continued onwards it crushed the protective canopy beneath its feet, pulping the unfortunate trooper within and ending his anguished screams.
The titanothere smashed through the outer fence, tearing through the chain link wire with a horrendous screech. High voltage current arced with a blinding flash, crackling ominously as the beast was caught in the net like fence and tumbled to the ground with an almighty crash. It pulled angrily at the metal, wrenching itself free before returning to its full charge despite the damage.
Josh could feel the ground shake in time to each of the six footfalls, the animal seemingly bearing down on his exact position. He drew his revolver, sighting down the barrel and squeezing the trigger. His rounds ricocheted uselessly off the dense skin and bone of its head, a futile effort that only served to give the animal the push it needed to tear through the inner fence with one last crash.
As the titanothere entered the compound the remaining soldiers could get a good sight and locked on, emptying their magazines into its less well armoured flanks. It roared in pain as the rounds tore into its belly before pitching forwards and ploughing into the ground with a thud that sent crates tumbling to the ground nearby. As the dust cloud began to settle Josh didn’t even have a moment to catch his breath before a second animal lunged from behind the titanothere’s wake.
It was a slinth, with a bulk as big as a tiger’s and immensely more dangerous. It landed smoothly, the cat like body flowing over the fallen charger before cocking back its head ready to fire a venemous spear like dart. Josh raised his pistol, exhaling as he zeroed in on the hideous sight before pulling the trigger.
His blood ran cold, starting into the face of his death. Suddenly the air behind Josh whistled as N’deh loosed an arrow, powerful arms releasing the strength of the bow string in one fluid motion. The two meter long arrow buried itself deeply into the slinth’s throat, the animal coiling over itself in agony in its death throes. N’deh let fly another arrow and put the creature out of its misery, watching the last spasms of life leave its body.
Walking forward he stepped on the needle like head, carefully removing his arrows and wiping the blood from their shafts while avoiding the still twitching dart.
“N’deh, thank you,” Josh said quickly, standing beside the older alien and looking down at his first near death experience.
“Luck,” N’deh merely replied, holding out an arrow for Josh to see. “Fishing points not good for killing slinth.”
Others had begun to gather around them, looking at their high-tech rifles and then the stone-age arrow buried in the slinth’s neck. N’deh looked between the two fallen creatures, his expression enigmatic as he considered their entwined fates. He had never seen such co-operation between two species so far removed from each other, Eywa had obviously called upon each to play their part in the daring attack.
Taking the blood of the slinth on his finger, N’deh drew a line under each of his eyes honoring the creature and its purpose for existence. He gripped the animal by his legs and began dragging it towards the Samson, intending to bury it away from the humans in the purity of the Forest.
From the battered corpse of the titanothere dozens of hideous insects, almost a foot across, began leaping away, hunting for another place to rest. They were parasitic wolf ticks, hungry for a new meal. Some of the soldiers, obviously still pumped up, began trying to shoot the animals but only served to further confuse the situation. Josh followed N’deh away from the commotion hurriedly, feeling sorry for whoever became the next fast food ticket.
As he stood against the side of the Samson, watching N’deh carefully wrap the slinth’s body in a thin tarpaulin he couldn’t help but watch the world go by. A heavy guard kept watch as workers attempted a hasty repair to the fence, never letting their muzzles leave sight of the forest. Further away the forest glowed with a faint light, as if the trees themselves were luminous. In the shadows beneath the mighty canopy eyes could be seen flittering in and out of sight, watching and waiting. Turning back Josh found N’deh watching him, the Na’vi’s curious gaze unnerving him more than the wild calls from the forest.
“Tomorrow you will be amongst all this,” he said, waving a hand at the scene of carnage before them.
“I know,” Josh said quietly, the idea terrifying him more than he thought it would have done only a week ago.
“Eywa will protect you,” N’deh said, “If she judges you worthy.”
As N’deh walked away Josh could feel his fears rise. He had fought in the barren concrete jungles of Earth before, but nothing like this.
“Christ, what am I doing here?” he whispered to himself.
The Samson thundered over the treetops, the early morning sunlight washing the forest below in a sea of purples and blues. It was a breathtaking sight, the mist rising from amongst the canopies hundreds of metres above the ground. The morning chorus of birds echoed out across the land, lost in the rotorwash of the turbofans.
The pilot and trooper escort sat up front in the sealed cabin, their communications filtered back through headsets to keep their passengers updated. Josh, Grace and N’deh all sat in the back, their alien forms too bulky to attempt sitting on the flimsy human chairs. The wind rushed in from the open side doors, causing Josh to smile with delight as he held on during the tight banks and curves the pilot seemed to love pulling at every opportunity.
Grace leant out of the door, watching the ground pass by beneath them before spotting a suitably clear meadow. Thumbing her throat mike she told the pilot to set down, feeling the craft lurch in the air as it swung in towards the clearing.
As soon as the turbines had spun down the trio clambered out of the back, glad to be able to stretch cramped muscles after the flight. Josh pulled on his back pack over a simple T-shirt and shorts, the standard attire for most avatars it seemed. Grace had forced him to leave his sandals back at Hell’s Gate, insisting he go barefoot to toughen up his little blue feet with thick callouses like her own. As he stepped from the Samson and pricked his foot on a nettle like leaf he was already regretting agreeing to her decree.
Their human escort, Corporal Lyle Wainfleet, hopped out of the cockpit, face covered by the obligatory exopack as he moved between the tall avatars. He hefted his modified CARB rifle and began scanning the perimeter, ever a faithful marine. As a flock of stingbats took flight at the edge of the clearing he tracked them with his rifle, hyper alert in such a hostile environment.
Grace quickly walked up to him and gripped the muzzle of his rifle, pointing it towards the ground.
“Lyle, stay with the ship,” she said idly, not even looking at the jarhead.
“I’m supposed to escort you,” he whined, pulling his precious gun back.
“Lyle, you’re supposed to escort my party. The ship is part of my party. And we need it to get back, so if you don’t want to walk thirty klicks through the bush…”
“I’ll stay with the ship,” he finally said, returning to stand by the open cockpit door.
Grace walked over to where Josh stood, staring in wonder at the trees that rose around them, seemingly reaching the sky itself. The last organic tree had been felled before he was even born, replaced with CO2 scrubbers that performed the same function only more efficiently.
“I hate marines,” Grace said exasperatedly, cinching the straps of her back pack tighter. “Present company undecided,” she added.
“It’s amazing,” Josh said, completely ignoring her comments.
As he swatted at the swarm of insects that seemed to have descended on him in mere moments she chuckled and led him towards a smaller cycad-like plant. Using a machette she hacked open the bole and starting rubbing the oozing sap over her skin.
“Come on,” she said, smearing a bit on Josh’s nose. “Got to protect that beautiful new skin of yours.”
Like magic the insects dispersed, the sweet scent of the sap repelling them in seconds.
“You see,” she exclaimed, watching Josh’s face light up, “this is why we’re on Pandora. The Na’vi have found plants to do everything; relieve pain, purify water, reduce fevers, improve fertility, promote healing, counteract stings and poisons, attract useful insects or repel others, kill parasites and a hundred others we can’t even begin to comprehend.
“The wealth of Pandora isn’t in the rocks, but in the plants and knowledge. The only reason we know half as much as we do is because of the Na’vi and the help they offered us before.”
Josh felt his respect for the environment grow as the three of them ventured further into the forest. The knowledge that you were no longer the apex predator helped put everything into perspective it seemed, keeping you on constant alert. He felt as if he were back at Camp Pendleton, learning how to do everything all over again and placing his trust in his instructors, only this time they were a Xenobotanist and an alien guide.
They moved quietly through the forest, Josh trailing behind the other two who kept up a steady stream of talk in hushed Na’vi. Josh couldn’t tell whether it was because Grace preferred speaking in the alien tongue or if they didn’t want him listening in. Even as he watched he could see the way they playfully nudged each other, N’deh’s hands helping Grace and lingering for an extra moment.
The bark of the trees looked more like fish scales and Josh resisted the temptation to run his fingers over their surface. Moss consumed the lower buttress roots while vines hung between the higher branches, forming a constant grid of ropes for swinging creatures to utilise. Some of the larger roots rose more than a hundred feet before joining their central trees, large groups forming a new growth in their own right. It was like walking through a magical wonderland, never quite sure if it was real or all imagined.
Grace saw Josh’s amazement and slow pace and hung back to help him out of his stupor.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said, pulling his hand away from an oddly shaped plant that had followed his movements. “Not unless you want to spend the next few days lying on your back. Phalaxia,” she explained, pointing to the plant that glowed bright neon in their ultraviolet sensitive vision. “It tracks moving infrared sources and spits venomous darts if they get within range, best if you give it a wide berth.”
Her lessons continued as they marched on; she showed him a nest of Hellfire wasps, saying that the sap smeared on their skin would keep them at bay unless they drew too near. N’deh kept his distance ahead, chuckling occasionally at Josh’s remarks. He made an odd clicking noise to get Grace’s attention and pointed to a tree in the distance, causing both of them to grin.
“Come on,” she said, approaching the plant as close as she dared before holding her arm out to stop Josh. He watched the odd form move, it’s hydra like heads swaying side to side until it picked up their scent. The creature froze immediately, instantly blending in amongst the surrounding trees.
“A Snaketree,” Grace said, pointing to the bones of small animals that lay around its base. “It stays perfectly still until an animal wanders too close and then bam, one of the six heads bites down and its night night for mr woodland critter. There’s a pitcher-like bole within that digests the catches, but it leaves the half stripped bones to lure in more prey.”
“Outstanding,” Josh remarked, definitely adding this to his list of flora to avoid. As they moved on the very forest seemed to react to their presence, bioluminescent markers coming to life in the gloom beneath the canopy. A small creature bolted at their approach, its odd head dressings catching the light as it took off.
Ahead N’deh signalled them to stop again, pointing into a clearing. Josh crept forwards cautiously and saw the animal that had took off earlier moving slowly through the undergrowth, chewing on the moss from a fallen tree. “A Hexapede,” Grace said.
N’deh clucked his tongue at her, an oddly human gesture and one he must have picked up from Grace herself. He pointed more intently into the bush, to just beyond where the hexapede grazed. A smaller animal was also watching, with more primal urges about to be fulfilled. Grace grinned and tried to help Josh spot it amongst the natural camouflage.
“Look. A Slinger,” she said. “It’s stalking the hexapede.”
It was a small thing, barely making a sound as it advanced on the oblivious hexapede. It raised its body slowly, rearing up and pulling its head back at the same time.
“Watch this,” Grace said, anticipation evident in her voice.
The slinger’s neck shot forward in a sudden burst of energy, the entire head detaching from the body and flying through the woods towards the hexapede. The head kept its eyes open, using thin folds of skin to guide itself towards the animal as if it were an organic heat-seeking missile. The hexapede bolted at the first sound, zigzagging in evasive patterns to escape the venomous glider which banked to match its motions.
As the dart reached the hexapede it burrowed into the hind flesh, sharp teeth digging in to deliver the lethal payload. The hexapede staggered as the toxin took effect, collapsing to the ground and spasming as it died. Josh clapped his hands over his ears as the head began emitting a high pitched squeal, guiding the blind body toward its kill.
As the body bent down next to the head and the pair were reunited Josh caught a glimpse of hair-like tendrils extending from the neck, entwining with similar strands from the head. Before he could begin to comprehend the alien action, the newly conjoined animal began tearing into the downed hexapede causing him to look away.
“It’s an amazing animal,” Grace said as they walked away from the grisly scene quietly. “Actually, it’s two animals. The body and dart are really mother and child. When the head grows too big it drops off and metamorphosises into a a complete slinger, with its own offspring already in place forming the new dart. Each new generation becomes the brain for the previous one. It sounds backwards I know, but it works.”
Josh could only wonder at how such a relationship had evolved and doubted even Shipley herself knew why they did what they did. He was just glad it had gone for the hexapede and not him.
“Welcome to the food chain,” Grace said, clapping him on the back before catching up to N’deh.
They soon entered a clearing with a partially built wooden hut in its middle. Josh could tell even without Shipley’s explanation that this was the school they were trying to build with the Na’vi. The heavy timbers had been cut from the local trees, their purple bark extending through to tinge the core an odd lilac. Now it lay abandoned, vines and moss already encroaching upon the alien structure and reclaiming it for the forest. A small family of stingbats had come to roost beneath one of the eaves, the only permanent occupants now.
N’deh made a high pitched clicking sound between his tongue and teeth, calling several of the creatures down towards him. He held out a handful of fruits picked along the trail and watched as they happily munched on the proffered offering, their stinging tails hanging harmlessly against his own flesh. Josh didn’t trust his own body enough to risk it yet, instead following Shipley in unpacking some of their equipment.
The outpost was now used to collect seismic data, rainfall measurements; all things that meant they had to keep on coming back to collect the results and change the power cells. Taking a break Shipley unsheathed her machete before chopping through a thick liana, catching the dripping water in her mouth. Taking her fill she offered it to Josh who sheepishly held his tongue underneath, letting a few drops fall on to the very edge. It was clear and had a sweet taste to it, encouraging him to take a deeper gulp.
In the middle of this dangerous forest, he’d found that not everything was out to kill you, regardless of whether it had fangs or barbs.
Lyle idly watched a bansheeray soaring high above in the sky, tracking it with his rifle scope as he stood in the clearing with the Samson and its pilot.
“Ten bucks you can’t hit it,” the pilot said, her voice full of bored amusement.
As he exhaled slowly a new sight caught his attention, a slight movement at the edge of the clearing. Motioning to the pilot to keep still he moved stealthily around the Samson, propping up his gun on the fuselage and looking out towards the opposite side of the meadow. Three direhorses emerged from the jungle, their horse like bodies grazing idly in the tranquil sun. Three metres tall, they were at least half again as big as the largest horses back on Earth. Easy targets.
“Fifty bucks says I nail all three,” Lyle spoke softly to the pilot, flicking off the safety on his rifle and setting his shoulders in anticipation.
“You’re on,” the pilot replied, eager to see some action at last.
The first shot echoed out across the jungle, sending all manner of winged creatures flying. The lead horse dropped dead in its tracks, a perfect hole bored through its skull. The other two reared, spooked at the sudden sound and bolting for the safety of the forest. Lyle’s second shot took out the next animal in a less than perfect manner, a huge wound exploding through its chest as it collapsed in agony. A followup shot took care of any suffering it might have had felt. The third direhorse had bolted wildly, terrified at the loss of its companions and obviously panicked at what to do.
Lyle tracked the runner, firing a single shot that missed the head but severed the spine. The direhorse collapsed to the ground and began clawing uselessly at the ground, attempting to drag itself forwards with legs that no longer responded. It whinnied loudly, the alien sound of mourning haunting in the small clearing. Lyle aimed again too quickly, a burst of dirt exploding next to its head.
“Shit!” he exclaimed, sighting more carefully as the creature neared the taller grass.
“Doesn’t count if it makes it to the treeline,” the pilot laughed, taking delight in Lyle’s sudden inability to make a clean shot.
“Start reachin’ for your wallet,” he said simply, stepping from behind the fuselage and flipping the weapon to full auto. WIth a cacophonous roar he unloaded towards the beast, turning the animal into confetti by the time his magazine ran dry. The carcass lay on the ground, blood and guts strewn around in an undignified heap.
Turning back towards the Samson Lyle grinned, ready to collect his winnings. The pilot wasn’t smiling though, her gaze staring about two feet above and behind him. Turning around he felt the gun ripped from his hands before an almighty blue hand shoved him against the Samson, arm bent behind his back almost to breaking point. Grace held her mouth very close to his ear, venomous rage dripping from her words.
“Little boys shouldn’t play with guns.”
Lyle cursed as he sank to his knees, arm throbbing as she placed a knee into the small of his spine and began to press hard. Grabbing the mask of his exopack in one hand she tugged on it lightly, threateningly.
“I oughta rip this thing right off. Give you some fresh air,” she said with a slow malice.
Lyle began pleading, tears coursing down his face at the combination of pain and fear. Grace rose quickly and let go of him, heading towards the felled creatures, disgusted to consider this man a member of her own species.
Josh saw Lyle rise quickly, watched him go for his sidearm and felt himself spurred into action. As Lyle levelled the gun at Grace’s back he grabbed the marine and slammed him into the cowl of the ship, twisting the gun out of his hands in one lightning move. Tossing the handgun to the side, Josh lifted him up bodily before hurling the marine twenty feet through the air. Amazed by his own strength he followed the marine, stalking towards him on the ground. Lyle cradled his broken arm, trying to squirm away from the advancing avatar as fast as he could.
Josh picked him up and held him to his face, legs dangling uselessly beneath as his eyes darted around looking for any way out.
“Lyle, look at me. Lyle! You looking? You do that again, I’ll bite your throat out,” Josh said in a vicious snarl, his pointy teeth only helping to heighten Lyle’s primal fear. “Understand?”
Lyle nodded vigorously and Josh shoved him roughly into the Samson, not wanting to see the man again on their flight home, a sentiment that was shared by both parties. Grace watched the interplay with pride, pleased to see her new assistant defending her and the forest so readily. A real fighter she thought to herself.
N’deh had paid no attention to the human frivolities, instead tending to the bodies of the direhorses. A foal, barely a few days old, had been hiding in the ferns nearby. It emerged, nuzzling its mother and started making noises pleading for her to get up. It licked the cooling face of the one that had brought it to life and honked again, a pitiful sound.
N’deh pulled a piece of gut-twine from a pouch, a carved wooden cylinder tied to one end. Whirling it about his head it made a powerful undulating wail, like a siren calling to those in the forests around them. The sound would echo for miles, quickly attracting those who would know what to do.
Finishing up, he prayed to Eywa for the fallen animals before following Josh and Grace into the back of the Samson, its engines already spinning up. As they took flight from the meadow and banked away Josh caught sight of several Na’vi emerging from the woods, carefully lifting the bodies of the fallen direhorses before leading the infant away. Looking up N’deh caught his eye, a solitary tear falling down his face.
Josh realised just how much every living thing meant to the Na’vi at that moment and he promised to never let another bone-headed marine commit another crime on this beautiful planet while he was around.