Lost & Found

Giese stood his ground in the plush office of Carter Selfridge. Around him all the perks of upper management stood out, executive leather chair, real wood desk; the assorted items in this room probably cost more to ship out than an AMP suit cost to build. And Parker loved being able to laud it over the head of the Science team at every available opportunity.

Beyond the glass partition of the office the Control Centre buzzed with activity, constantly monitoring all communications, flight schedules and mining operations in and around Hell’s Gate. It acted as the nerve centre for the entire operation and Selfridge liked being close enough to shout if anything went awry. But now the blinds were drawn and it was just him and Giese alone in the room, facing off against each other in what had become a common game.

“You know the Avatar program is already on shaky enough ground,” Parker said, dropping a written report of the incident from the other day on the desk between them. “And yet you still pull stunts like this?”

“The Consortium gives your people ten-foot tall aliens to help make relations with the natives and not only do you fail miserably at that, now you’re attacking your own kind? Christ Brantley, what the hell do you expect me to do now?”

“You know that’s missing the whole point Carter,” Giese said, taking a seat on the opposite side of the desk.

“Quaritch is out for blood, he wants to confine all the avatars to base and limit scientific sorties to one a day. Max!”

“That’s outrageous,” Giese said, smacking a hand on the table and feeling the conversation slipping away from him.

“He gets final say on all matters of security,” Carter said, “but I can overrule him if there is sufficient cause to warrant it. But at the moment all your people are doing is causing trouble and costing us money.”

“Just think of everything we’ve found because of the avatars,” Giese said, trying to keep the pleading tone out of his voice but failing. “How much money did you make last quarter on top of the raw Unobtanium profits from the drugs and biochemical compounds we found, only because of the Na’vi’s help?

“Just think about what it would mean if we could get the Na’vi back to the table, trusting us again like they did when we first arrived here, when they weren’t filled with bitter hate towards us. And you definitely can’t put that on the Avatar program, it’s Quaritch’s own dumb-as-shit marines opening fire on everything that walks out there that got us in this mess to begin with.”

“Look, we tried negotiating with the monkeys, we offered them schools, roads, even guns for christ’s sake. And what did they say, thanks but no thanks, we prefer to live in a tree and use a bow and arrow. What kind of a life is that?”

“A simpler one. Look, they don’t see using a gun as a fair fight. In their eyes sometimes you’re the hunter and sometimes you’re the prey and only Eywa can decide which is which.”

“You’ve spent too much time around Shipley,” Carter said derisively, idly flicking at a floating chunk of Unobtanium that hovered on his desk, suspended above a magnet so that it freely rotated at the slightest touch or breeze. It was worthless back on Earth, the ore content too low to be viable to extract. It made a nice paperweight though.

“That’s because she knows these people better than anyone,” Giese said. “They don’t want our guns or tools or help Parker, they don’t want to change their ways just to help us turn a profit.”

“If that’s true Giese,” Parker said, leaning in close, “then the Na’vi will never help us build factories to strip-mine their own planet. They’re useless to us and that makes your whole Avatar program a giant waste of my time and money.”

The words hung in the air and Giese realised he had been caught in his own argument, the statement of truth more damaging to the future of the Avatar program and the Na’vi people themselves than any weapon Quaritch could command.

“I… I didn’t mean it like that,” Giese said quickly, wiping at his brow. “We might not be able to give them new tools, but we can negotiate with them, get them to leave the mining sites alone. We just need more time, if Quaritch had his way it’d be an all out war and despite what you think, these people can defend themselves when the moment calls for it.”

“I’ll hold him off,” Parker said finally, stacking up the papers and putting them to one side as if pushing them out of sight, out of mind. “But you had better start making progress. We need to start mining in the mountains and if these attacks continue Quaritch is going to go above my head and start levelling trees if you catch my drift. You’ve got three months until the diggers arrive, you’d better how a solution for my by then.”

“I’ll let my people know,” Giese said, rising and heading for the door.

“And tell that hot-headed marine of yours he should know better.”

—-

“You absolute idiot!” Giese shouted, the med lab becoming deathly silent at his outburst. Josh and Grace stood before him, back in their human forms and taking the verbal rebuke. Other members of the SciMod team moved awkwardly around them, trying to get on with their day jobs without appearing to be too interested. Giese paced angrily in a tight circle, gripping one of the central rails so hard his knuckles turned white at each apex.

“Brant, it’s all right, Parker isn’t going to cut off our funding, not when we’re still finding new plants for him to make a quick buck off,” Grace said, pulling him out of his reverie and forcing him to confront her idealistic vision.

She was too busy looking after her little plants to see the big picture, the limited funds he had to run the entire operation. One day she’d wake up and realise just how lucky she was to not have to think about it.

“Really?” he asked sardonically. “He was a hairs breath away from letting Quaritch shut us down for damn good. Unless you want to go on a sortie with an exopack anytime soon I suggest you both play nice with the jarheads from now on. And that’s goes doubly for you,” he said, jabbing a finger down at Josh.

“Hey, I had to do something,” he said angrily. “He was going to shoot her avatar in the back of the head, what was I supposed to do? Let him commit murder?!”

Giese let his head flop into his hands, shaking it at the stupidity of the statement he’d heard. “Do you think any court, anywhere, would charge that idiot for shooting a genetic construct, a living artifact created in a lab? The only human value those avatars have is dollar.”

He turned away from them, looking through the large glass window into the avatar holding room and let out a long breath. “I know what it’s like,” he finally said, “I’ve spent enough time out there in the bush, in my avatar. It’s intoxicating, it’s the greatest experience imaginable. But you both have to remember why it is we’re here.”

“And what is that?” Grace yelled, challenging him to be honest with them about his intentions. “To get the Na’vi to trust us? So we can use them? So we can harness them to the yoke? So we can make them slaves, and teach them to participate in the rape of their own home planet? You’re an anthropologist, Brantley! How did it turn into this? You’re no better than Selfridge and his goon squad. Are you getting a nice fat payoff like Parrish?”

Giese was furious, his already strained exterior hitting flash point in an instant. He grabbed two emergency exopacks from the wall and flung them at Grace and Josh.

“I don’t want to see either of you around the base for a while, until things cool down at least. Go to Site 26, spend a couple of weeks in the boonies collecting your samples in the Hallelujah mountains while I try and patch things up here.”

Both remained silent while he spoke, the path of least resistance much more appealing than further provocation. As they moved towards the exit Giese grabbed Shipley by the arm, pulling her in closer.

“You had better not be going native Grace, dragging your new assistant down with you. You know what happens when you go down that road, just take a good hard look at Hegner.”

“I know what I’m doing Brant,” she said, pulling her arm away and pushing Josh out of the SciMod at a quick step.

—-

Josh missed the feeling of wind rushing against his skin, sat up front in the sealed cockpit of the Samson. Grace sat between him and the pilot, a female marine called Trudy Chacon who loved to pull acrobatic stunts that pushed the small craft to its limits in the heavy atmosphere. N’deh rode in the rear compartment along with the two unconscious avatar bodies, their drivers sitting up front. A single trooper, Corporal Bill Onozuki, kept on glancing from the side gun to the Na’vi warrior as if wondering if he could react in time should the alien decide to attack him.

With nothing to occupy his attention Josh turned to Grace, opening up a private comm channel to talk to her.

“So what happened to Hegner?” he asked simply.

Grace turned from the view outside to look into Josh’s eyes before finally telling him the whole story.

“Hegner wasn’t just killed by a slinth. He let the slinth kill him. Suicide.”

Josh felt himself recoil at the revelation, finding it hard to think of a more painful way to go. But then again, maybe that was the point.

“He was already dying,” she continued. “Dying of a broken heart no less, and being in the avatar body without his loved one was just too painful.

“He was one of the earliest avatars, spent a lot of time with the Tsumongwi tribe and got to know some of them very well. He managed to fall in love with a Na’vi girl, some say they even got married before she was murdered. She was one of the five killed when the SecFor troopers opened fire at the school house and caused this entire rift to begin. Hegner went crazy after that, started fights with every marine he saw accusing them of killing her. Her name was Li Na,” Grace said, thinking back to happier times.

“You have to understand Josh, there are many dangers on Pandora but one of the subtlest is that you may come to love it too much.”

Josh snorted, looking at the ground rushing by below them and not wishing it upon anyone. “Not so far,” he said.

“That’s what everyone says when they’re still young,” Grace said without activating her mike.

—-

“This is Site 26?” Josh asked as the Samson banked in on final approach.

It was a tiny shack, barley larger than a Winnebago, perched on the flank of a mountain. In the near distance the great peak of Montes Volans could be seen through the clouds, nestled amongst other flying mountains. The sparse vegetation was stunted in growth compared to the gigantism shown elsewhere, gnarled roots clinging to the rock face like arthritic hands.

In the cleared area around the shack, packing cases and instrument packages had been left asunder by the previous research group, the site itself currently uninhabited by anything but local wildlife. Grace and the pilot exited the Samson as it set down softly on the thin grass, faces masked behind their exopacks.

Grace poked her head into the rear compartment, pulling out Josh’s chair. N’deh had not moved, keeping his watchful eye on the two bodies that rested beside him. The marine had evidently walked off to take a leak, trying to work out which way the wind happened to be blowing while idly scanning the horizon for threats with his rifle in one hand.

The female pair helped Josh out of the cockpit and into his chair, a task for which he was unfortunately grateful for the help due to the cockpit design of the Samson. The wheels of his chair dug in to the soft ground until they reached the rock foundations on which the shack rested. From the outside it looked like a simple steel box with a narrow strip of windows and anchoring points from where it had been air-lifted into position.

Inside was not much better, the dark and musty atmosphere permeating everything within. Grace wormed her way between shelves and started the small generator, the lights and equipment whirring to life as they received their much beloved power source.

The space was utilitarian, every square inch occupied for a functional purpose. A set of bunk beds nestled at what was obviously the living quarters end of the shack, a small table facing them on the opposite wall. A small fridge hummed to life, photos of Grace and some Na’vi children smiling at Josh as he entered. They all looked so happy.

The larger portion of the room was taken up by scientific equipment, chief amongst which were two link chairs, covered in a drape to keep the dust off the delicate apparatus when not in use.

Trudy looked around the cramped space and thought back to her academy days.

“Gonna be fun,” she said, chucking her duffel bag on top of the nearest bunk bed. “Stuck up here with two men and nothing much to do for a couple of weeks.”

“The only danger I’m gonna’ present is body odour,” Josh said indicating his useless lower body, before claiming the lower bunk for himself.

Grace had already set about checking all of the equipment, testing to make sure the link chairs were stable or at least as much as operational limits necessitated. She punched in the IDs for their avatars and set the countdowns running.

“Come on soldier boy, time to move your blue butt,” Grace said, settling down in her chair.

Outside N’deh moved quickly as the two avatars woke, blinking and sitting up to orientate themselves. They stood beside the true Na’vi outside the Samson, breathing the cold mountain air without it being filtered through an exopack.

“Home, sweet home,” Grace said.

—-

It was the next day before they were ready to head out, packing the Samson with the various pieces of survey equipment they’d need. Grace had mentioned the need for a secondary site, explaining that the magnetic flux around the Montes Volans interfered with the link signal from Hell’s Gate. The bright spark who suggested moving the transmitter closer to where it was needed regretted opening his mouth after spending the first month out here testing it.

With their human bodies safely tucked away, the Samson took flight, passing between the huge floating slabs of rock that hung in the sky. Around them other creatures could be seen, idly gliding through the air. Trooper Onozuki sat in the doorway, leaning against the sling of the door-gun watching everything that passed them by.

This close to the mountains Josh was startled by their size. From the Valkyrie he could tell they were big but now, passing by waterfalls that plunged thousands of feet below them, he felt his breath catch.

Trudy piloted the nimble craft under one of the mountains, relying on only visual flight rules as the flux affected the more sophisticated computer imaging controls rendering them blind. A tangle of vines descended from the rock, as if a forest were growing upside down.

Josh sat in the open door, wind causing his long queue to flutter. A bansheeray came closer to cruise beside them. Its intelligent eyes studied the alien craft, beating its huge wing membranes to keep pace. It let out a sudden, piercing shriek before diving away like a jet fighter, lost in the cloud.

“Mons Veritatis,” Grace said, pointing to one of the larger rocks a few miles away as they passed by. “Truth Mountain.”

“Mons Tiburon, Mons Damocles,” she continued, obviously familiar with the area. “Icarus. Daedalus.”

As they rounded the nearest mountain she made a grand sweeping gesture, “Mons Prometheus. Or as most call it, The Big Rock-Candy Mountain. A hundred billion dollars worth of pure unobtanium, just floating in the air.”

The mountain was the same one the Valkyrie pilot had pointed out on their approach so many weeks ago. It dwarfed all those around it, the mountaintop shrouded in a blowing cloud bank. Occasional shafts of sunlight played across its surface, revealing a few trees and shrubs but mostly the flat grey surface, the dull glint of money hidden just beneath its weather beaten exterior.

They landed with less grace than usual as Trudy fought against the buffeting crosswind, eventually kissing the ground with her skids and powering down the rotors. Onozuki deployed rapidly, rifle scanning and at the ready. Grace paid him little attention, collecting her kit and leading Josh and N’deh towards the cliff edge.

“Over there,” Grace said, directing Josh in how to set up the small kit. Looking over the edge of the cliff he could see the purple forested slopes, half a mile below them with bansheerays circling over the treetops. He quickly retreated.

Completing the rudimentary task Grace had set him, Josh walked back towards the Samson, mist closing in around them on the narrow out cropping. As the visibility reduced to just a few metres Josh suddenly found himself alone, only the shadow of the Samson visible in the gloom. Without warning a wall of slimy ropes emerged from the mist, suspended from an unseen source above. The thin tendrils dragged across the ground with a faint swish, their translucent shafts all but invisible. Josh tried to moved but it was too late. As the first tendril made contact he felt an electric charge surge through his body. The tentacle instantly wrapped around his arm, pulling him in closer as others latched on, curling to envelop his entire body.

Josh shouted between breaths, his body writing from the continual shocks. Onozukhi raised his rifle, firing into the mist above Josh’s head before Grace hastily slapped the gun away with an angry cry.

N’deh burst forth from the mist, pulling a richly decorated machete from his waist. As the tentacles pulled Josh further and further from help he looked at the approaching cliff edge and felt his stomach clench. There was no way N’deh would reach him in time, despite his best effort.

As his feet left the safety of solid ground Josh found himself suspended only by the tentacles, still pulsing rhythmically with electricity. N’deh slid to a halt at the cliff edge, throwing his machete towards Josh. He nearly followed himself before Grace grabbed his outstretched hand, pulling him back towards safety as they watched Josh float away into the clouds.

“Trudy, get us in the air now!” Grace shouted, rushing towards the waiting Samson.

As he drifted further away from the mountain the clouds parted and Josh could finally see what it was that had ensnared him. A huge canopy floated above him, glistening in the sunlight like a jellyfish. A giant bell easily 15 metres across supported the body of the creature, its transparent flesh containing a naturally produced reservoir of hydrogen gas that provided the things lift.

A chain of tendrils descended from around a central mouth, each reaching 30 metres in length but now slowly retracting towards the inevitable opening to the digestive system. Even as Josh watched more of the things appeared from the mist on all sides, their bells pulsing to guide them in towards the kill.

The creatures idea of hunting was very simple; they simply drifted in the wind, sweeping their tentacles across the mountain plateaus in the hope of ensnaring prey, paralysing it with a vicious zap before brining it close enough to eat.

In the Samson, Grace and the others searched frantically for their missing man. They saw the fleet of gas-bags ahead, a solitary figure moving awkwardly below as if hanging by invisible thread. Onozuki cocked the door gun, training it on the bulbous sacs before Grace was once again forced to tell him to stop.

“They’re X. Medusa gigans,” she warned. “The sac is full of hydrogen, if you shoot it they’ll go up like the Hindeburg and take Josh with them.”

“Well what are we supposed to do then?” he asked irritably.

Grace didn’t have an answer, only able to watch the hapless marine jerk and convulse in the air.

Josh hacked wildly at the tentacles with the machete, their rubbery surface tough and hard to cut despite his frantic efforts. A group of circling bansheerays, drawn by his distress swooped in and began to attack, diving beneath the tentacles to snap at him with distensible jaws full of dagger like teeth.

Josh swung at the first one, slashing it across the face and forcing it to alter course. The jaws of another snapped inches from his leg before receiving a solid chop across its shoulder. It fluttered off in a descending spiral, one wing hacked open and unworkable. Even as he watched some of the other bansheerays followed it down, ripping into the still living creature with no mercy.

Trudy guided the Samson closer to the swarm of floating creatures to help ward off other predators before suddenly the small craft bucked wildly against her controls, dropping like a stone in the air before she could wrestle it back. A great shadow passed over the cockpit, the huge sweeping creature casting it following a moment later.

“Oh shit,” Grace said, looking at N’deh who could only stare in horror as the beast turned back towards them, silhouetted against the sky.

“What the hell was that?!” Onozuki shouted, holding on for dear life as the Samson pitched and turned to avoid the attacker.

“A Great Leonopteryx,” Grace said, “the apex air predator. It must think we’re encroaching on its territory, it’s going to knock us out of the sky to prove its dominance.”

“Not if I can help it,” Trudy said, taking evasive action.

As they watched the huge beast soared into the sky with unbelievable speed, before being lost in the bright sun. It’s scarlet body was striped with yellow and black, with a brilliant midnight blue head filled with pointy teeth. It normally fed on bansheerays, munching on them like salted peanuts. It was feared by every creature that flew in the sky, even the medusa appeared on its menu when food was in short supply. The large head featured two sets of eyes, one designed specifically to track in the IR spectrum to help it hunt all the better.

Everyone in the Samson looked out as far as they could, trying to work out where it had gone.

“Dive!” Grace shouted, watching it vanish from view and already knowing what was coming next.

The Samson pitched nose down, rotors tilting to give it a boost of speed. Behind them the Leonopteryx reached the peak of its flight before angling downwards and giving chase, wings folded flat against its body as it hit terminal velocity in seconds. Trudy twitched the craft left, then right, trying to shake the pursuing predator with no luck.

Josh saw the Samson vanish behind the flank of Candy mountain, watching his only hope disapearing with it. He began attacking the tentacles enshrouding him like a man possessed, the pulsing sphincter of a mouse getting closer with each passing moment. The tentacles finally began to sever under his brutal assault, violet blood spraying across his face as he only swung harder with the machete.

As the gas bag overhead entered his range he began slicing at it, the gas within streaming out like a released balloon along with a fine mist of blood. The creature made a high pitched scream as if a kettle were boiling before it began to descend, slowly at first but quickly picking up speed. Below him the forest grew larger and larger.

“Oh shit.”

—-

The great leonopteryx outmanoeuvred the Samson with graceful ease, slamming into it with a bone jarring crash that sent it spinning wildly before Trudy could regain the horizon just above the treetops. The giant bird took flight, clutching a piece of the engine cowl between its talons before discarding the odd tasting meal.

Smoke began to fill the cockpit as Trudy fought against the yoke, straining to keep them from hitting the larger tree trunks as they crashed through the canopy. They burst through into a clearing, shearing off an engine before sailing into the ground with a giant squelch. They’d landed in the midst of an area of volcanic springs, the terraced pools of mud bubbling with steam from below in places. The limp craft came to rest in the shallow depression, everyone within shaken but physically okay beyond a few bloody noses and bashed knees.

Onozuki jumped out into the mud, his face a mask of rage as he slogged towards the rocky higher ground. Running up a rise he screamed at the retreating leonopteryx, a crimson kite banking away from the downed vessel. He opened fire wildly with his rifle, rounds tearing through the sky but falling far short of the aerial attacker. Grace called out to him as he left the Samson, her voice lost amidst the thunder crack of his weapon.

A shadow passed over her, growing to an enormous size as it rushed towards the lone trooper, still firing obliviously in the other direction. As he saw the rippling shadow fall around him, Onozuki turned to stare death in the face. A second leonopteryx snatched him bodily from the rise, helmet and gun falling to plop into the mud near Grace as he was whisked away. His terrified shriek echoed across the landscape until that too become too faint to make out.

“I tried to tell him they always hunt in pairs,” Grace said solemnly.

Trudy kicked open the door to her battered baby, angrily pulling off her throat mike before hopping down into the mud below.

“Hell’s Gate say they can’t send an evac crew for a couple of hours as everything’s already committed. And Quaritch won’t send a gunship to pick up civilians.”

“Prick,” Grace murmured, knowing the Colonel was hoping they’d all be dead before help arrived.

Picking up Onozuki’s rifle Grace checked the magazine before turning to face Trudy and N’deh who had stood silently during the entire incident.

“Stay in the ship,” Grace said, speaking to Trudy. “They’ll pick you up before it’s dark.”

“And what about you Doc?” the pilot asked, listening to the calls from the forest and wishing she could be flying over all of this instead of stuck in the middle.

“Josh is out there, I’m going to find him.” Before something else does Grace neglected to mention.

—-

Josh could feel the familiar wind whipping against his face but this time he didn’t have the safety of a Samson around him. The medusa still held him in its bleeding tentacles, the bag of gas nearly empty now as they began to crash through the purple branches of the upper canopy.

He jerked to a stop as suddenly as he had been attacked, the wind knocked out of him at the jolt. His machete slipped out of his grasp, clattering down into the forest below. He was still at least ten meters above the ground, with only the dying tentacles supporting his weight.

Even as he thought to his good fortune the medusa finally gave up its fight, the last puff of gas escaping from its punctured sac. Josh felt the tentacles go limp about his body, their slimy surface too slick for him to keep hold of. He clutched at a bunch of tendrils, using the greasy rope to at least control his descent. They ran out two meters above the ground, causing him to crash the final few feet and land unceremoniously on his butt.

Josh wasted no time, combat training kicking into overdrive as he found himself alone in enemy territory. Rolling out from under the medusa he looked up at it, impaled upon the branches of a particularly thick tree. It hung like a tattered parachute, lifeless form unmoving. Josh guessed it wouldn’t be long before something came looking for an easy, if unappetising meal and he didn’t want to be desert.

Grabbing the fallen machete, Josh stood and surveyed the gloomy forest around him. He was completely alone, miles from nowhere with no idea which way was home. He turned quickly, deciding to walk towards the setting sun as if he knew where was going.

The air before his face suddenly vanished, the striking jaws of a snake-tree snapping shut before him. Josh jumped back quickly as several of the other heads followed suit, lunging forwards. He stood panting, just out of range of the hydra heads before smirking despite himself.

“This place is like a goddamned Roadrunner cartoon,” he said to the forest, watching the snake-tree return to its docile state and blend in perfectly with the surrounding trees.

Josh tried to move quietly through the bush, as Grace had shown him but the constant insect bites and his ensuing slaps weren’t helping. Eventually spotting one of the plants whose sap kept the blighters away he chopped at it carefully, smearing the goo on his skin and feeling the cool rush of relief.

His actions had drawn the attention of one forest dweller however. A young Na’vi watched the avatar from behind a curtain of leaves, her piercing gaze studying the curious creature. Without so much as disturbing a leaf she moved on.

Josh knew he was entering a state of panic, that he had to calm down but he couldn’t bring himself to relax his grip on the machete. Every shriek, chirp or grunt caused him to whirl, holding his breath as if the beasts couldn’t just smell the fear pouring from the skin.

He felt as if he were walking for miles, only catching glimpses of the sun every now and then as it descended as the day wore on. Emerging into a clearing Josh took a moment to rest on a log, pulling thorny leaves from his bare feet. Without warning the jungle to his side seemed to explode in a burst of splintered wood and flying leaves. A bull hammerhead titanothere emerged into the clearing ahead of Josh, its baleful eyes locking on to him in an instant. Josh stood frozen, wondering how this day could get any worse.

As if reading his mind the titanothere bellowed, lowering its ten foot wide sledgehammer of a head and charging towards him. Josh felt the ground shake, the futility of the situation rising up within him until he could take no more.

In sheer desperation Josh rushed towards the stampeding beast, screaming at the tops of his lungs with arms spread wide. The titanothere halted its charge abruptly, an oversized bleat escaping it as it regarded the odd display.

Josh felt his spirits soar as he watched the titanothere begin to back away from him. His gambit had worked. Pulling a face at the retreating animal he was too giddy to notice the shadow rising from the bowl of a tree behind him. Josh shouted boo! after the titanothere, laughing as it wheeled around, trumpeting in fear before thundering off down the trail.

With an earsplitting snarl Josh found his hopes dashed. Turning around slowly he came face to face with the apex land predator of Pandora, referred to by the humans as a manticore while the Na’vi’s word seemed to fit much better; Palulukan, Dry Mouth Bringer of Fear.

The manticore was easily the size of a tractor trailer, a jet black six-limbed panther from Hell that had no natural predator on Pandora before humans had come along. Looking like a beast from tales of ancient monsters, it could eat a T-rex for breakfast and still be hungry enough for desert.

The skin glinted in the sunlight like obsidian polished leather, with thin stripes of yellow and scarlet running across to highlight the powerful muscles rippling beneath. Its head was all mouth, razor sharp teeth visible beneath snarling lips. An array of sensory quills stood up prominently from behind the head, quivering this close to its prey.

As Josh watched, the manticore leaped into the air, seven tonnes of majestic beast landing between him and the titanothere. From behind it looked even more terrifying, a great barbed tail arching over its back to end in a scythe-like venomous stinger that swayed with its motion, the foot long barb caught in the shafts of light from above. The four powerful legs allowed it to move agilely in the thick undergrowth while a second smaller set of forearms itched to be used, folded against the chest that rose from the body like a praying mantis.

The titanothere had turned at the sound of its landing, already running at a full gallop but putting on an extra burst of speed to escape the predator. Josh realised stupidly he had never stopped the hammerheads’ charge before, it had caught wind of the manticore’s scent and taken flight rather than stay and fight. And with good reason.

In half a dozen powerful strides the manticore had run down the hammerhead, leaping atop its shoulders and seizing the larger animal with its powerful front limbs. The titanothere bucked wildly, trying in vain to dislodge its rider.

Josh watched in horrified rapture as the great stinger of the manticore shot down, burying into the thinner hide between the beast’s armoured neck plates before contracting to disgorge the neurotoxin it carried into the hammerhead’s bloodstream in a single burst. The titanothere shuddered almost instantly, toppling to the ground with an almighty crash. The manticore wasted no time, ripping into its fresh prey with massive jaws, nine inch fangs distending from its mouth to aid in the process.

Josh backed away slowly, hoping beyond hope that he remained invisible or that the manticore had had its fill. Slipping behind a tall bush he turned and ran like a bat out of hell, trying to put as much distance as possible between him and whatever else was hunting out here.

—-

Josh hacked at the sapling he had cut down, one eye constantly scanning around him as the last light of day faded. Fashioning a rudimentary spear he hefted the crude weapon, testing its weight and balance. His heart still beat from the earlier encounter, the sounds of the forest pushing him towards panic with every passing breath.

Sticking the machete through his belt he stood, holding the spear two-handed in a death grip. This entire place is a minefield, Josh thought to himself, trying his best to remain silent but cringing at every sound his bare feet made.

As he moved onwards a solitary figure watched him from beside a great tree, golden irises like a cats caught in a slash of sunlight. As Josh approached she sniffed at his scent, only her eyes moving to track him. The feral blue face retreated into the vines that encompassed the trees bole, the avatar passing by oblivious to the the danger.

The young Na’vi moved silently as Josh walked on, lithe as cat she climbed towards the upper branches, slender body moving with feline grace. Her long, slender neck rose from powerful shoulders to reveal an elegant face, with high cheekbones dominated by large eyes. Traditional tribal jewellery hung upon a thin yet muscular form to cover nubile breasts. To a male of either species she appeared as a statuesque vision of womanhood.

Watching the dreamwalker walk away she knew he could not survive the night, Eywa would see to it.

—-

Trudy climbed into the waiting Samson, glad to be off the ground even if another pilot was at the helm. Thumbing her throat mike she got through to Grace, no doubt several miles into the jungle by now.

“Pickup’s here Doc, you might want to head back.”

“I’ll find my own way back,” Grace’s voice echoed through the comm.

“It’s getting dark, the Colonel doesn’t like anyone out after dusk, you know that.”

“And that includes Josh. N’deh is going to find us lodgings for the night Trudy, I’ll be fine.”

“I hear ya’ Doc. Good luck.”

As the Samson rose swiftly from the muddy ground and banked towards Hell’s Gate Grace watched them through gaps in the high canopy.

“How much further?” she asked N’deh.

“We are near.”

“Come on then,” Grace said, brushing a hand over his shoulder as they set off deeper into the jungle.

—-

Josh could feel his pulse rise, the hyena like calls echoing off the trees all around him. This was what it felt like to be hunted, to be stalked like an animal. Black shapes moved through the bushes all around him, a liquid grace amongst the shadows meaning he caught only flashes of pearly white teeth or reflective eyes staring back at him.

Josh saw one of the viperwolves climb a tree running parallel to his course, realised with dread that they were flanking him. Before he could even think about heading it off the creature vanished amongst the shadows, only the alien calls following it. More moved around him now, pairs of eyes flickering flitting in and out of sight.

Josh found what looked to be a game trail, the narrow path opening up to let him run along, the wolves keeping pace easily amongst the bushes and trees. He didn’t care that his increased speed was emboldening his pursuers, he just kept on running, sense of fear increasing with each footfall.

One of the creatures came close to his left shoulder, jaws snapping at him before he veered away to where another waited on his opposite side. Around him the forest had come alive with the bioluminescence of the night. Spots and patterns, ghosts and galaxies of blue-green light danced before his eyes but were lost in his blind panic.

The psychotic laughing barks of the viperwolves became more intense as they called to each other, preparing for the final attack to stop their preys flight. As they all moved across the ground patches of light flashed beneath their feet so that the bushes to his side seemed to produce a tidal wave of light keeping pace beside him.

Josh felt his senses honed in war call to him, whirling in time to see one of the creatures lunge for his feet. He spun his makeshift spear, whopping it across the head and sending it tumbling against a tree. Another moved in instantly to take its place, receiving the business end of the spear. Yipping in pain it darted past, retreating with fangs bared amongst its brothers.

Josh stopped running, turning slowly in a circle to take stock of his situation. He knew this would be his final stand. He might be able to take out one or two of the viperwolves but they’d overwhelm him in sheer numbers, taking it in turns to nip at him until he couldn’t fight back any more.

As he stood his ground the creatures came out of the shadows, circling him like sharks. Hairless, their skin looked almost glossy in the nocturnal light, overlapping plates of leather armour moving effortlessly to cover vulnerable areas. Bands of vermilion and thin lines of iridescent blue helped them blend into the foliage, breaking up their alien outlines so that you couldn’t tell where one ended and another began when they ran beside each other.

Bright, intelligent eyes looked out from the earless heads, chitinous neck shields aiding their manic calls that reached a crescendo in the small clearing they now occupied. Josh wasn’t as much disturbed by the glass like teeth as he was by their paws that more resembled leathery hands than any pad footed creature on Earth. The viperwolves had thumbs which meant they could easily traverse the higher branches, hunting in three dimensions to thoroughly disorientate their prey.

Josh could count half a dozen that he could see, but they moved too swiftly between shadows for him to be sure. A dozen more could be just out of sight, watching from the darkness.

Josh felt a rush of adrenaline, or whatever the Pandoran equivalent was, course through his veins. His senses sharpened as if a lightning bolt had shot through his nerves in an instant. Fear was replaced with years of military training. He twirled the spear in his hands, adjusting his grip, spreading his feet to lower his centre of gravity.

“You want me? Come on! Come and get some!”

With sharp snarls and a blur of motion the viperwolves answered his challenge, attacking with gusto. Josh struck at the first viperwolf, planting the spear in its chest but the speed of its attack wrenched the weapon from his hands, the injured animal dragging it away bodily.

Without pausing Josh drew his machete, chopping at another viperwolf while a third sunk deep fangs into his wrist. He yelled in pain and fury, slashing it across the face with his machete. The sharp blade cut deeply into its throat, causing it to release its grip on his arm.

Sprinting Josh tried to escape the centre of the circle he had found himself in, attacks coming at him from all sides so that he could never hope to defend himself. A viperwolf, moving close to the ground, jumped out and grabbed his ankle with its powerful fore-hand sending Josh sprawling to the ground. Only honed reflexes caused him to keep hold of the machete, rolling as he landed to see four of the frenzied animals lunging towards him. The alpha male was closest, lips pulled back in an evil grimace to expose the teeth that would be the end of his short avatar life.

With a sudden thunk an arrow burst forth from the lead creatures chest, its anguished howl cut short when it landed with a sodden thud on top of him, its life extinguished. Josh pushed it off hastily, crimson blood mixing with his own to stain the luminous grass. From the mists of the jungle Josh watched a native Na’vi emerge, bow string drawn tight as she loosed another arrow and struck true against another of the pack of viperwolves.

Sliding her grip, the Na’vi swung the bow like a pole, cracking it across the skull of a viperwolf that had attempted to flank her. She grabbed the neck of another, hurling it bodily against a tree. The last viperwolf leaped at her, the blue alien dropping under its weight and rolling with the momentum to emerge on top, a knife in her hand. The blade flashed down, buried to the hilt against the viperwolf’s chest, its last whimpers echoing out in the suddenly still forest.

The remaining two viperwolves, stunned by the sudden change in circumstances, retreated into the black woods to lick at their wounds.

Josh stood quickly, amazed to be alive after such a close call. He watched the Na’vi woman move quickly between the bodies, recovering her arrows from the fallen creatures. She wiped the blood from each with a small leaf before slipping them through a small quiver held against the bow.

“I’m Josh,” he said, hoping she was one of the Tsumongwi clan, the ones taught by Giese’s people how to speak English.

“I know you probably don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Josh continued, crouching beside her as she whispered words in solemn Na’vi, hands resting atop one of the dead viperwolves. “But thank you.”

She turned to look at him suddenly, anger flashing behind her eyes, an emotion that transcended a million miles and countless cultural barriers.

“You do not thank you for this,” she said, the halting English words unnatural on her tongue. “This is sad, very sad only. All this is your fault, they did not need to die.”

“I’m sorry,” Josh said, holding out his hands defensively. “They attacked me, what was I supposed to do, let them kill my ass?”

The Na’vi shook her head, the arrogance of the Sky Person further enraging her.

“You are like a baby, making noise, don’t know what to do.”

She touched the teeth of the viperwolf respectfully, using its blood to daub a line beneath each of her eyes as N’deh had done. She asked for forgiveness for taking the creatures life, asked it to forgive the stupid alien man.

Josh stood impatiently, angry at being told he was at fault for being attacked. As the woman rose he picked up his own machete, returning the weapon to his belt.

“So what should I have done?” he asked, watching her.

Without speaking the woman walked towards one of the smaller bushes, breaking off a small tubular structure that grew amidst the leaves. Snapping it in half she offered him the sap that oozed from within.

“This smell, it is like Lenay’ga. Rub it on your face and it scares them away. They think you are dart. They do not attack.”

Josh took the small tube, hastily daubing the paste on his face as instructed.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “So, what’s your name?”

The woman looked at him, seeing this strange alien so unlike any of the other dreamwalkers and wondering if she could trust him as her people had once done before.

“I am Zuleika Te Kaha Polenoma. Zuleika,” she added with a small smile, seeing Josh’s face struggle to comprehend the name, like many of his kind.

Without waiting she turned and strode into the forest, leaving Josh standing alone for a heartbeat before he decided she was his best hope if he wanted to survive the night in this hell hole. Sprinting to catch up he found himself enraptured by the beauty of the forest at night now he didn’t have to look over his shoulder every five seconds. Every plant and bush seemed to react to his presence to present an ever changing pattern of light and sound.

Zuleika scowled as he caught her up, quickening her pace to keep him trailing behind.

“You should not be here,” she said finally, stopping amid a wide branch suspended high above the forest and turning to face Josh. “You alien people do not understand the forest, you do not see. You only cause problems.”

“Then why did you help my ass? Why didn’t you let your little wolves have a nice meal, if you love them so much more than me? What’s the deal?”

Zuleika finally turned to meet his stare, her eyes meeting his own for the first time. She saw the defiance in them that every Sky Person had, the arrogance to think they knew everything about the forest. But something new, a curiosity that she had not seen before.

“Why save you you,” she said.

Josh nodded, stepping closer to her, trying to get her to meet his gaze.

“Because you are brave,” she finally said, placing a hand against his chest.

Josh grinned at the complement causing her to scowl and turn away again.

“But you are ignorant as a child,” she spat angrily.

“Teach me, then,” Josh said, his words sincere.

Zuleika returned her gaze to him once more, looking at his odd features. Josh let her watch him as he took in every detail of her own body, the intricate braiding of her hair, the glittering beads that adorned her skin. Even the luminous spots on her skin that seemed to shift as she spoke to him.

“You don’t want to leave me out here alone to harm more animals,” he continued honestly. “I’m a menace. I need to be taught what to do.”

“You aliens do not see. Never see,” Zuleika said, frustrated at his persistence.

“Teach me to see.”

“No one can teach to see.”

Josh rubbed idly at his arm, the bite marks letting blood drip freely. Zuleika grabbed at his wrist, hissing angrily at such a fools mistake.

“You will attract more if you do not stop the bleeding,” she said impatiently, binding the wound with a simple dressing made from a wide leaf and simple twine. The natural concoction served to stem the blood loss and also provide small relief from the pain. Josh never stopped asking her questions as she worked, testing her patience.

As they walked on, she taught him only one lesson. Silence. He tried to mimic how she moved, light footsteps that caused the grass to flash for only an instant before fading compared to his heavy footfalls that lit up a circle a meter wide. She giggled good naturedly as she watched him struggle, soft feet unused to such long-lasting abuse.

The two moons visible against the backdrop of Polythemus provided more than enough light for their cat-like eyes, the natural bioluminescence of the night making up the rest. Josh watched a ghostbird sail through the trees above them, its glowing transparent membrane looking as delicate as a blown-glass figurine. Its quiet song was eerie, seeming to flow from the sky itself in a melodic symphony with the other calls.

Around them points of light drifted through the trees, like fireflies back on Earth when such things could still survive in the natural environment. A couple of them drifted closer to him, revealing themselves to be more like glowing dandelion seeds, about the size of a large butterfly. Waving their silky cilia around they moved gracefully through the night air, seeming to be both random and sentient in their direction.

Crossing a large bed of moss Josh saw a shape move in the trees ahead, the form of a bansheeray quickly approaching them from the gloom. He didn’t hesitate, pushing past Zuleika and chapping at the form with his machete. As the dark shadow erupted into a swarm of thousands of small insects that took flight at his attack Zuleika gently lowered his raised arm, stifling a laugh.

“You do not see. Moonwraiths take on shape of bigger animals to protect themselves,” she explained, watching the swarm disperse and reform further away from her and the naive alien. “You never see.”

They soon emerged into a grove of willow like trees, a fountain of long gossamer tendrils spreading from each central stalk to produce a magical scene. The long tendrils hung like hair, casting a soft light in the darkness. They swung hypnotically in the still night air, moving towards the pair as they passed between the branches.

Zuleika ran the tendrils over her outstretched fingers, murmuring words in her language to them as they touched. Josh could only watch as she talked to the trees, wondering what it was he wasn’t “seeing” now.

Turning slightly to look at him, Zuleika smiled before breaking into a loping run. Josh burst forth to follow her, and soon they were running silently through the dappled moonlight together. He could feel the power in his body, the effortlessness with which he could propel himself forwards. It felt as if he were flying.

Looking down he saw the ripples of light exploding from where his feet landed, could feel the cool night air in his air and could smell the rich scent of the Na’vi woman leading him down the rabbit hole.

They passed before a great waterfall, the thundering water running over a riverbed that seemed to glow from a million different sources beneath its surface. Josh and Zuleika were silhouettes against a garden of blue, cyan and salmon coloured living starbursts. They entered a clearing filled with chest high ferns, and Josh came to a graceful stop beside Zuleika, his body feeling sensations he had never imagined before. He could smell the forest, hear the sounds and at some deep cellular level he knew what they were, how they were all tied together.

Zuleika pointed towards a creature perched on one of the nearby ferns, motioning for him to approach it. Josh did so cautiously, unsure of what trick she could be playing with his ignorance now. As the small lizard saw him approach it reacted with its own defensive mechanism; a long spine that had lain across its back snapped into a circular disc, a bioluminescent fan almost a meter across. The motion lifted the small creature, the body spinning beneath the brightly illuminated wing, carrying it off to safety. As suddenly as it had appeared the wing vanished, the small creature once more an uninteresting lizard happily sitting on a new branch.

Zuleika ran forward with a sharp cry, plunging into a large patch of ferns and sending two dozen of the fan lizards soaring into the air with an explosion of colour. Josh laughed in amazement as he was surrounded by luminous floating disks that span away between the trees. His face was filled with childlike wonder at the scene, seeing such ugly little creatures turn into a magical delight so quickly. It seemed as if the whole planet was that way.

He looked towards Zuleika and saw her smiling too, reflecting his own delight. As his gaze passed over her body he saw the pattern of chromatophores on her skin brighten, their colour changing perceptibly. Looking down he realised his own body was having much the same reaction, but for why he could not fathom. If she knew she held her tongue, enjoying the moment.

As they stood together, laughing in the night, several of the dandelion-seeds seemed to drift towards Josh, idly at first but then with more vigour. They acted with an almost animal determinism soon, encircling the avatar, some briefly alighting on his skin before moving off to be replaced by another. Josh laughed as he watched them, feeling no danger and strengthened by Zuleika’s face of wonderment.

Soon he was lit up like a christmas tree, the pulsing mass of willathewisps fluttering across his entire upper torso. Zuleika moved closer to him as they finally took flight, drifting away to be reclaimed by the upper canopy. She placed a hand against his chest, feeling the powerful heart beating beneath.

“The forest has blessed you,” she said quietly, grabbing his hand and leading him eagerly onwards.

Josh followed, unsure of where his guide was heading with such ferocity until he saw their destination rise from above the canopy. The Tsumongwi clan lived inside the bases of three of the enormous mangrove-like trees. Cook fires were visible between the pillars of roots as they approached, tall silhouettes moving about them as they drew near.

The clan patriarch and matriarch stood waiting for Zuleika, their ornamental dressings signifying them easily as the clan leaders. Josh stood quietly as Zuleika stepped forwards, making the greeting he’d seen N’deh use before. She spoke quickly, the alien words lost against Josh’s ears as he tried to gauge their reaction. He’d never seen a Na’vi talk to another Na’vi, it seemed as if they sung more than spoke, with lots of hand gestures to accentuate the important points of their words.

Josh could only watch the eloquence with which Zuleika spoke. Her jointless fingers were hypnotic as she explained herself quickly. Finally she finished and turned back to face Josh.

“This is Olo’eyktan and Tsahik,” she explained, “my father and mother.”

Josh felt a lump rise in his throat. Her parents were the clan leaders? The matriarch, Mo’at Pohatsua, examined Josh closely, running a hand through his queue and tail before inspecting the viperwolf bite on his arm and the wrappings around it. She turned quickly and conversed briefly with her mate, Mato’a Te Kaha Nahgoitewa.

The older Na’vi stepped forwards, gripping Josh tightly on the shoulder. He spoke quickly, looking into the dreamwalkers eyes as he did so. Zuleika translated quickly for him by his side, relief evident in her words.

“They invite you for evening meal. It is great honour.”

“Erm, thanks?” Josh replied weekly, Zuleika relaying his words.

Mato’a clapped Josh on the back, nearly sending him crashing to his feet before hastily ushering him into the shadow of the great tree.

“They’re your parents?” Josh asked Zuleika quietly as they walked, leaning close to her ear.

She grinned shyly, not meeting his gaze.

“Yes, I am to be Tsahik one day. That is why they allow you to come, Sky People are not allowed here normally but I told them of Eywa’s blessing.”

As they entered the centre of the tree Josh stared in amazement at its vaulted ceiling, lost amidst the dancing shadows from the fires below. It felt like a living cathedral, flying buttresses of living wood ascending towards the heavens and everywhere he looked people enjoying their peaceful lives in this quiet evening. And it seemed they all took an interest in him in turn.

Mothers cradled their young babies against their chest, old ladies sat cross legged weaving intricate patterns in fabric. And the young hunters, bows slung across their backs, stood with their arms crossed watching the newcomer.

“Olo’eyktan is clan leader, he leads the Talioang hunts in the wet season and also the making of new cloth, pottery. Tsahik is life mate and equal to Olo’eyktan and all Tsumongwi, she interprets the will of Eywa and guides our people,” Zuleika explained as they walked.

“Together they keep Tsumongwi in balance with Na’at. They say when we must move so forest can heal from our dwelling, and where we must move to for the best hunts.”

As the group passed through a large gap into the central eating area a young male pushed past, knocking shoulders with Josh in the process and flashing sharp canines at him. Zuleika pushed the young male away with an exasperated sigh, breaking up the brief interruption.

“That is Tsu Te Rongloa,” she said. “It mean Eats the Heart. He is to be Olo’eyktan.”

“He doesn’t seem to like me,” Josh said.

“Tsu Te does not like any Sky Person.”

As they entered the warmth of the central fire pit Josh found his gaze suddenly pulled towards an altogether unexpected sight. Grace sat next to N’deh on the ground, happily eating whatever it was she held in a crude bowl. She waved jauntily as he approached, grinning and licking her fingers clean.

“It’s nice to among old friends again,” Grace said, enjoying the company that had grown around the pair of avatars.

“What? How?” Josh stammered as he sat down by her, his clothes a bedraggled mess compared to Grace who looked like she’d been for little more than a stroll in the woods.

“They came to us in the forest while we were looking for you, Zuleika said she had found you,” Grace said between bites.

Josh accepted his own bowl of food, a mix of cooked fish and hexapede meat. Taking a small bite he found the taste much better than anything served in the commissary back at Hell’s Gate. He dug in voraciously, savouring every bite.

“But how?” he asked Grace while waiting for a second helping. “It’s not like Zuleika had a phone to radio it in.”

Grace flashed her usual knowing grin, leaving his question unanswered. Zuleika reached over and offered him a steamed grub from a small plate she held, the bulbous form threatening to make Josh retch at the sight. He didn’t want to be rude and tried waving her off but she simply picked one up and placed it in his mouth before he could protest.

Grace laughed as he screwed up his face and bit down. Chewing slowly he found it to be much sweeter than anticipated, the consistency more like shrimp than whatever he’d imagined a bug to taste like. He motioned for another one and Zuleika smiled.

Teylu,” she said, offering him another on the plate.

Teylu,” Josh said, making a show of remembering the word as he chewed.

Grace grinned at the display, leaning closer to N’deh to whisper something in his ear. The older Na’vi closed his eyes in agreement, placing a long arm around her shoulders.

They sat in peaceful contentment for many more hours, the fires burning low before those assembled decided to bed down for the night. Zuleika led Josh towards a vacant hammock near to her own, slung about inside the mighty tree. He watched Grace and N’deh head towards another section of the tree, watched how Grace seemed to know which direction to head towards without N’deh’s guidance, and wondered how many times she’d been out here before.

As he carefully lowered himself into the hammock, staring up at the starry night sky high above, the warmth of the fire curling up from beneath, Josh found himself at peace. It felt… right… here his mind tried to rationalise, as if his body knew it had found its natural habitat.

As he closed his eyes and the dream world fell away, Josh couldn’t help but think to all that he had seen in the day. And that he wouldn’t give it up for anything now.

“The greatest danger is that you may come to love it too much.” The words echoed in his ears.

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