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Third Promise Update, V2

This is, yes, the same thing. But it has two more chapters. I only give you the preceeding things so you don't have to search out the old ones. It's also easier on my end. This is especially for FreakyTy.


They say reality is in the eye of the beholder, just like beauty. You can dream, but whether or not that dream comes true is up to you. That "String Theory", or something. I'm not much for science. I'm a marine.

I had just gotten out of a big fight in Venezuela. Then this concept of reality's meaning started hauntin' me. When I was lying in the V.A. hospital, with a hole blown right through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. But, sooner or later, you eventually have to wake up.

My brother, Tommy, was supposed to be going on this big long trip to another planet. He "represented a very large investment." Lyin' in the alley behind a bar, after being in a fight, two guys in suits came up to me. "Are you Jake Sully?" Now what? "Step off. You’re ruinin’ my good mood." But they wouldn't. "It's about your brother, Tommy."

So they hoisted me back into my wheelchair and loaded me onto a big van. Took me somewhere I don't know I ever wanted to be. The strong prey on the weak. A week before Tommy's going to ship out, a guy with a knife took all he'd ever be, for the paper in his wallet. So he got his cremation.

Now I'm waking up on a cryo ship. It doesn't feel like six years in a freezing coffin. More like half a tequila and and ass-kicking. Up ahead was Pandora. The place Tommy was going. Would have, anyways. I grew up hearing about it, but never thought I'd be going there. I liked it in null gravity. I could forget about being paraplegic. Tommy was the one who wanted to get shot light-years into space, not me. He's the scientist. Me, I'm just another jarhead goin' to some place he's goin' to regret.

Chapter I

"Exopacks on, let's go! Exopacks on!" On the shuttle to the next place I'll regret. Pandora. Apparently, the atmosphere's different. Humans can't breathe it. Yeh, like anyone would be so dumb as to not notice, when they handed out the rebreathers. The guys around me were just sittin' there. Then before we landed, they put on the masks. I already had. "Remember, you lose that mask, your unconscious in twenty seconds, you're dead in four minutes! Let's nobody be dead today, that's very bad on my report. "On my mark, go inside, go straight into the building! Do not wait for my order!" Masks donned, the guys lined up.

The shuttle lurched, landing harshly on three wheels. The back ramp opened, the outside air hissing in and distorting light, like it was propane or something. All the marines brought up a trot, jogging out of the shuttle and into the main building of the complex. When there was room, I threw out and unfolded my wheelchair. Flung my backpack on. I started wheeling my way out. "Come on, corporal, don't make me wait for you!" Down the ramp. I put on the brakes as a big man-shaped suit came towards me. Narrowly missing me. I put on the brakes. Turning towards me the pilot quipped, "Hey watch it, hotrod!" Then I had to stop again for some big truck. There were six-foot-long arrows portruding from the huge tires. I was done in this mess. So I wheeled into the building. There were two guys commenting on all the new arrivals. "Look at all this fresh meat!" Then the look on their face changed from welcome to mock. "Aw man that just ain't right. Meals on wheels." They were staring.

All these guys were just here for the money and the killin'. Just hired guns. I might be retired, might not carry a gun anymore, but I'm still a marine. A marine, retired or not, never loses the attitude. "What're you two limpdicks staring at?" That got them. The were signs up directing the newbies to the briefing room. A big muscular guy was walking back and forth on the aisle. Big muscles, and hard eyes. But he had a souvenir. Along the right side of his face, coming alarmingly close to his eye, were three scars. Claw marks. "You are not in Kansas are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen." He emphasised the word "Pandora". " Respect that fact. Every second of every day." Just another hellhole, I thought to myself. He pointed out the window, beyond the pentagonal fence that surrounded the complex. "Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubees. We have an indigenous population of humanoids here called the Na’vi. They’re fond of arrows dipped in a neurotoxin which can stop your heart in one minute. We operate-we live-at a constant threat condition yellow." As head of security, it’s my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed...not with all of you." Yeah, real scary. This head of security guy needed to step it up if he was to scare us. "If you wish to survive, you need to cultivate strong mental attitude. You've got to follow the rules... Pandora rules." Nothing like a good ol' security briefing to put your mind at ease. This was getting boring. I wasn't going to be out in the field as my human self- as one of those blue aliens.

Wheeling out into the hallway, some commotion started behind me. "'Scuse me-sorry." Some tall long-neck was trying to get somewhere. His eyes locked onto me. "J-Jake sully? Tom's brother? Heh, you look just like him." Oh. Great. I gave him my wary face. "Sorry, I'm Norm Spellman. Went through avatar training with him. Great guy-funny, too. It was a big shock to all of us." Talking about him getting killed. "And duh! Obviously, if you didn't look just like him, you wouldn't be genetically identical, therefore not taking over his avatar. Not even be here in the first place." I gave a simple, "That's why I'm here." "So you wanna go check it out?" "Sure, why not." We walked, or wheeled, in my case, along in silence. Then after a few minutes he tapped my shoulder and pointed to a sign reading Avatar program headquarters. We entered, and he started babbling again. "The biolab. We're going to be spending a lot of time in here. Ah- here's the link room, where we're actually going to be..."

I lost his voice. I was staring curiously and dumbly as a couple of tanks with scientists milling about around them. They had nine foot long things in them- the Avatars, Norm's and mine. "Jake?" Then norm was staring at them. "They're..they're beautiful!" The figures had lemur-like tails. Long black hair that flowed in the amnio tanks as gracefully as seaweed. I was staring in awe. "Damn. They got big!" A black haired scientist, his name tag saying "Max Patel", came over and shook hands with us. "Yeah. They fully mature on the flight out." Then norm got scientist-tongue going. "So the proprioceptive sims worked pretty well, I see." "Yeah, they've got great muscle tone. It'll take us a few hours to get them decanted, but you guys can take 'em out tomorrow." They went over to his. I wheeled up to mine, staring, head cocked sideways. Norm came over." It looks just like him," I quipped. "No, Jake. Looks like you." I watched it for a little while longer. Though no consciousness inhabited it, it seemed to be dreaming. Twitching, as if it were getting hit by something. "This is your avatar, now, Jake." I looked at the blue alien for a little while longer. Norm tapped me again and pulled me over to a table with a camera. turned iton, then told me to start my log of videos. He went over to a computer with Max, looking at flashing numbers and letters and complex stuff on a computer screen.

So I just played along. "From what I've been able to gather, after being rather suddenly immersed in all this science-I'm a marine for Pete's sake!- the idea is hat every driver is matched to his own avatar." Sheesh, Jake, this is boring already. Where's the war? "S-so their nervous systems are in tune...or..something. Which is.. why the gave me the gig, 'cus.. I can link with Tommy's avatar." I turned around, abruptly, looking hard at the two scientists. "Is this right? I just say whatever into the videolog?" Norm's turn to look at me hard. "Yeah. You just need to get in the habit of documenting everything-what you see, what you feel-it’s all part of the science. Good science starts with good observation." I turned back to the camera. "So here I am, doing science..." I looked around, obviously perplexed."...never been in a lab before."

Max came over and logged me off. "Time to meet your new boss for the next five years." He wheeled me into a circular room with coffin-like structures. The had what looked like CAT Scanners at the head, and the things slid inside those. Norm spoke with barely supressed joy,"Grace Augustine is a legend. She's the head of the Avatar Program, and she wrote the book-I mean literally wrote the book-on Pandoran botany." Max whispered to me over his shoulder, "That's because she likes plants better than people."

One of the beds slid out of its CAT Scanner, then popped open like a clamshell. A red-haired woman of about fifty sat up, head swaying after a long time in electromagnetic fields. "Who's god my god-damn cigarette?" She practically screamed. "Come on, people! What's wrong with this picture?" A little asian woman with fluster in her face came up with a lit Marlboro cigarette, handing it to the grump-assed woman. "And here she is, Cinderella back from the ball. Grace, I’d like you to meet Norm Spellman and Ja-" She rudely cut Max off. "Norm. I hear good things about you. How's your Na'vi?" Norm said something that seemed indian, then she gave a nod and took a drag on her cigarette. Then she said something back. And he replied. Then Max cut in. "Uh, Grace, this is Jake S-" She seemed to hate my name. "Yeah, yeah, I know who you are, and I don’t need you. I need your brother." She turned to Max. "You know, the PhD who trained for three years for this mission?" My turn to cut in. " He's dead. I know its a big inconvenience to everyone but I'm the only thing between you and a wasted million dollars." She gave me a hard look. "And how much lab training have you had?" So I gave her a sarcastcally exited look and retorted, "Oh, I dissected a frog once." She wheeled on Max. "You see? You see? They’re just pissing on us without even the courtesy of calling it rain." She wheeled and turned towards the door to the room. "I'm going to Selfridge." Max started desperately after her. "Grace, that’s not a good i-" "No, Max, this is such bullshit!" I liked her already. A woman with an attitude was ok by me. For now. Not to mention the fact that I agreed with her. Such bullshit.

Max bent down and whispered in my ear, " Here, tommorrow, oh eight hundred. Try to use big words."

Chapter II

Oh-eight-hundred in the morning. I'm wheeling through the hallways toward the link room. When I get there, Norm's Avatar and mine are on gurneys in a depresurized chamber. Minus the blue fluid, minus the tanks. Aliens in comas. Amusing. Doctors in masks milled about, pressing a button here, sicking a needle there, getting ready for the first time for Norm and I to go in. Grace was waiting. "How much link time have you logged?" she asked Norm. "Uh, about...five hundred-twenty hours." "That's good." She let im to his link and came with me over to mine. "And you?" "Zip, zero, zilch." She turned around, stopped pushing buttons on the glass screen. Gave me another hard look. "Tell me you're joking." I shook my head. I poked a finger into the gel of the bed. Felt like air. I started hauling myself from he chair to the bed. She started to help, but I could handle it. "Don't- I got this." She raised her arms in a "I give up" gesture. Once I was in the bed, she resumed pressing virtual buttons. "So you just figured you’d come out here to the most hostile environment known to man, with no training of any kind, and see how it went? Really?" Yeah, really. A marine never loses the attitude. "Maybe I was just tired of doctors telling me what I couldn’t do." "Sure, jarhead. One day out there and you'll know what I mean" OK, whatever you say, Grace.

She messed around with a metal frame cover in optic fibers. "Just relax and let your mind go blank," She said as she lowered that around me. "Shouldn't be hard for you." I began a retort, "Kiss the darkest part of my lily white-" but the lid was already down. The thing moved. IT stopped, and I heard the high pitched whirring on the spinning magnet. I could barely make out Max saying, "Initiate link." Then my head started tingling. Clear, cloudless sky was made my goal. Why fuck this thing up? Grace,"Alright, I'm going in." The unit seemed to be probing my brain. Searching it for something. Then some area inside it went blank. Nothing was there. Only a buzzing vacuum. Then another part. A tech was saying, "Phase-lock at forty percent. He's in transition." From somewhere to my left, Max was commenting. "God, he's got a gorgeous brain. Nice activity." "Go figure," Grace retorted.

Max came over to my link, saying,"That's it. Find our way home." Then I heard increasingly muffled footsteps going away from me. he tech again, "Phase-lock at ninety percent an...." Now all I was doing was seeing the interior of the link unit. I heard voices around me, muffled ones. Felt a prod in my neck. Then my eyes closed. I was in a swirling tunnel of all colors, all sounds, all of it. An overwhelmingly bright tunnel from my mind to the Avatar's. Then they opened. I was seeing an over exposed image of two doctors overing over me, snapping in my ears to make them twitch, shining a light in my eyes to test dilation. Gradually, the image became clear. I was now the alien. I heard max saying, "He's in." Over a radio.

"Hey guys!" I laughed to the doctors. What was making me so happy? I felt something more. Now a breeze on my leg- my leg? I sat up on the gurney. Staring at the feet. Moved them. It felt so good. I was free again. I could walk. I could run! I could dance, I could do it all again! A grin spread over my face, nearly ear-to-ear. I moved my new feet around and around, reveling in it. It felt good. Really good. Then I eased my legs off the gurney, touching ground. I hadn't done this in years. "Ok, hold up. Don't get ahead of yourself, Jake." I barely heard him. I started to stand up. I wobbled, sure. Then something wrapped around my arm. When I turned to see what it was, it flicked the other way. Crash! The supply table next to me erupted in mischief. My tail. "Oh, yeah!" Max was about to bash through the glass. "Jake, your not used to your avatar body! This is dangerous!" No, I could walk. I was free again. No longer just a sack of bones. "This is great!" I retorted. My new blue hand slamming into the glass. "Sedate him!"

Like hell that was going to happen. I glanced left, saw a door. Ripped the leads off my chest. I lost the sounds around me to this new paradise. I had better ears. Better eyes. I was in my new happy place. The door opened before me. Because of me. I had taken back my own destiny. Out the outer door. I blinked in the morning light. Then I started walking. Broke into a jog. Past a couple of avatars playing Basketball. Into a run. Oh, the joy. RUNNING! Past an AMP suit. Into a garden of alien wildlife. Then I skidded to a halt. Took in deep breaths. Dug my feet into the soil. This was where I belonged. Ears twitched towards sound before I perceived it. "Hey, marine!" Grace. Taller, bluer, and sexier. Yet the same voice in a different body. She had panther thighs, a flat muscular stomach, and firm athlete’s breasts. She was gorgeous. "Grace?" She smiled. This wasn't the grump-ass I knew. "Well who'd you expect, numbnuts? Think fast." She picked a fruit from the plant next to her and tossed it to me. Almost completely by reflex, I caught it. "Motor control's looking good." Then I dug in. It looked like a giant, purple strawberry. Tasted like the finest wine I'd ever had. Then Norm's voice behind me. "Check it out!" He was flexing. Doing the bodybuilder's pose. "I am a living god."

Grace took me around, showing me around, actually, getting me better clothes than a hospital gown. For the rest of the day, she put me through tests. For the first time, she was nice. A likable woman. I'd have married her, provided I could walk and provided she wasn't a grump when not in her avatar. But that was a dream I'd have to wait a long time, if at all, to make true.

Night fell faster than I expected it. She took me to a shack with avatars and masked people milling about, doing this, that, and the other. She gave me a bed. I sat down and almost smashed a part of my anatomy. A braid on my head, waist length. I didn't dismiss it, though. When the hair on the end parted, little pink, hairy tentacles writhed and waved. I stared. It was fascinating. What was it? "Don't play with that, you'll go blind." She startled me. "That's....kinda....freaky." It was. "Lights out, everyone!" The humans started filing towards the screen door. "Scat." Grace flicked off the lights. I closed my eyes, taking the hint to sleep. The whirring of the link unit entered my ears again. The empty spaces in my mind reappeared, then started filling back up. The whirring seemed to move above me, then wind down. I went to sit up. I couldn't. Paralyzed. Again. The slasher of many a hope.

Grace's unit popped open next to me. She sat up, staring down. A grimace spread over her face. "Damn. Same old sack a' bones." She felt like me. The Avatar bodies were where the fun really was.

Chapter III

I pulled back the brush. Viewed the camp of the demons. They had brought more in. More Sky People to aid in the destruction of all I knew. The vessel passed over me, huge jets of putrid air in its wake. "Neytiri, come. No good will come of attack." Not yet, no. But soon. What? Why should I feel that way? I thought on that. From that vessel, I did feel a strong presence of good. The first out of any of the same vessels. I followed Tsu'Tey back to Kelutrel. The feeling of that pure spirit haunting me. Why, among them, of all people? Then my sister's words came back to me. "There is good in everything, Neytiri. Even amongst the Sky People, there is good." Could she be right?

It was late. Normally, none should be as close to the Sky People camp as Tsu'Tey and I had gone. Once we returned, instead of normal greetings, we went straight to our hammocks. Yet sleep was not easy to come by. Eywa seemed to be speaking to me. Nothing prevented me from it, so I rose and descended. Thinking as I made my way to the Tree of Voices. I needed to commune with the spirits of our ancestors. Why, of all places, would I feel such a presence of good amongst so much evil? And even more pressing, why did it seem to be tied to me, to be a deeper feeling than simply knowledge of presence, as if it were the spirit of my mate?

Tsu'Tey was my betrothed. I would be Tsahik, he would be Olo'Eyktan. It was simple. But this occurrence had disturbed all I knew. When I reached the tree, it seemed to know something was amiss. The voices I heard hinted of me encountering this spirit in a Dreamwalker's body. When I connected, I was taken aback. I was not under the Tree anymore. But why? A voice, one made up of those of all animals, spoke to me. "Do not stress, Neytiri. The spirit will be revealed in due time. But you must be warned. These Sky People are becoming more and more courageous with each passing day. Soon, they may begin attacking. They have the means to destroy Hometree, and they very well may. But before that happens, the clan may take in another. The words of your sister have come true." I woke. Tsu'Tey was kneeling over me. IT was lae in the morning. "Are you alright?" He took hold of my Eltu, allowing me to disconnect from the Tree. "Disturbed. But I will be fine." For now. I spoke the truth of being disturbed. But something kept me from giving him my reason for coming here.

He went back to Hometree. I simply wandered. Not out to hunt, not out for...well, I didn't know why I was even outside of Kelutrel. Then I stopped. Something whizzed by me. Landed next to me. Pulling myself back into the world, I looked around. Something in a tower was pointed at me. A tower on the perimeter of the camp. The camp of the Sky People. I backed up, narrowly avoiding getting hit, again. This time I was on the other side. The part of the place that had a garden and false Na'vi in it. I felt that presence again. It was sudden. One of them burst out from the building, in garments unlike the others. Another emerged and began chasing it. The first was where my senses oriented. That was where my feeling of this spirit came from. It shed light on all the Na'vi in this orchard. They were not the same evil, if it could be called evil, that was the Sky People.

They seemed to be the closest to their environment than any of the others. The first began running. Some smaller beings were milling about around the second. Even though Na'vi hearing was excellent, and Grace's school had taught me some of their-they called themselves humans- I couldn't understand them. The first, which the second kept calling out to, "Jake!" , reached the garden of assorted fruits. He slid to a halt. He was breathing hard when Grace in her "Avatar" came up to him. She called to him something I didn't understand. He looked up, ears twitching. He seemed to be a consciousness in a new body, not used to it. Not completely in control. "Grace?" She grinned. "Well who'd you expect, ...? Think fast!" She tossed a fruit to him. Of course, he caught it. No Na'vi should not have been able to, no matter how false. " ...control's looking good." The second caught up to the first. He posed, as if he were showing himself off.

Grace led who I now gathered to be called Jake around the area. She gave him garments like the other "Avatars" had. What I had witnessed only disturbed me further. A presence of good among all of the evil? But then there was the revealing of the good among the Avatars. I was confused by it all. Night had begun to fall when I returned to Hometree. But again I did not enter. I still had my bow, so I went hunting. More time to think. Yet as I brought down prey and performed the ritual, nothing more came to me. Carrying the beast home, my mind still wandered aimlessly. When I finally managed to come by sleep, I saw myself stalking something. A glimpse came of one of the false Na'vi. My bow. An arrow nocked, ready to fire. Then an Atokirina landed on it. The bow slackened. Then I was the Na'vi huntress, stalking a Dreamwalker. This was the presence I felt. A pure spirit, unbeknownst to itself. The harbinger of salvation. But for which side? Na'vi or Human?

Chapter IV

I'm wheeling through the giant hangar. Rows upon rows of AMP suits, dual rotor heli's, and other vehicles dominated it. Trudy Chacon, Samson pilot, strode next to me, chatting. A cart nearly hit me. "Watch it!" She said with a grumpy voice. "You guys are packin' some heavy gear," I said. "That's 'cus we're not the only thing flying around out there. Or the biggest. I need you on a door gun. I'm a man short." Well that was easy enough. "Yeah, no prob." She tapped my shoulder, then pointed to the security guy who wanted the security brief-ee's scared of the nuerotoxin-dipped arrows. He was doing massive reps. "There's your man. See ya on the flight line. Zero-nine." She bumped fists with me. I wheeled in, then said "You wanted to see me, sir?" "This low gravity will make you soft. You get soft..." He racked the bar with a grunt and a loud clang. "... Pandora will shit you out dead with zero warning. I pulled your record, Corporal. Venezuela-that was some mean bush. Nothing like that here, though. You got heart kid, coming out here." "I figured- it's just another hellhole."

A tech came up and said, "That servo's in, colonel, if you wanna try it out." He got up, sweating but not winded. Turned around, walked backwards, and babbled on. "I was in First Recon a few years ahead of you. More than a few. Two tours in Nigeria, not a scratch. I come out here and-" He pointed to his scars, jerking his hand. "First day. They could fix this if I rotated back. Make me pretty again. But you know what? I kinda like it. Reminds me every day what’s out there. Besides, I can’t leave. This is my war, here." He climbed up to the cockpit of his 'suit, throwing some switches. It whined to life. Strapping himself in, he continued, "The avatar program is a joke -- buncha limpdick scientists. But we have a unique opportunity here, you and I. A recon marine in an avatar body. That's a potent mix! Such a marine could get me the intel I need, on the ground, right in the hostiles’ camp." He nodded to the tech. "Looks good." He turned to me again. "Listen, corporal. I need you to learn these savages, from the inside. I need you to gain their trust. Find out how I can force their cooperation, or hit ‘em hard if they won’t. Maybe you can keep some of my boys from going home like you."

"That sounds real good, Colonel. So am I still with Augustine?" I kinda had to be. The only thing I was useful for around here was to be a sack of bones in a coffin controlling a body that's not even mine. "On paper. You walk like one of her science pukes, you quack like one, but you report to me. Can you do that for me?" I nodded. He brought the 'suit to life. He stepped forward, doing some air punches, when balancing the two-ton machine on one foot and swinging his arms in wide arcs. A Wu-Shoo Kata. A flawless display of strength and control. The kind of guy I respected. "Look, son, I take care of my own. You get me what I need, I’ll see you get your legs back when you rotate home. Your real legs." He pointed at me as he said, "You real legs." I considered. A fair deal.

"Hell-yeay, sir." He slammed to lid down on his suit and walked off. Trudy came over and started me wheeling to the link room. "Fifteen minutes 'till we're on the flight line. When I got there, Grace was handing a clipboard to max. "Start calibrating. We're on the flight line in ten minutes." She turned to me. "What did Atilla want?" She would kill me for hearing the truth. "Just marines comparing tatoos." She didn't buy it. "Yeah. Well, listen to me, Marine-" She drilled me with her serious look. "-you’re driving an avatar, now. That means you’re in my world, got it?" Whatever you say, grump. She pointed all around. That son of a bitch has screwed up this program enough. All this exists so we can go out there and build a bridge of trust to these people, who could teach us so much. But thanks to Quaritch and his thugs the Na’vi won’t even talk to us anymore." Woah? What? If that was true, why was I here? "Then how’s this supposed to work? "We have a new face." She turned to Norm. "You’re fluent, you’ve studied the culture. You’re non-threatening. The ones we know best-the Omaticaya clan-may give you a chance. Maybe you can get them back to the table before things go tits-up for good." Norm wasn't convinced. "This is failing as a pep-talk."

This seemed all good and likely, but "How do we contact them?" Grace turned back to me. "We don’t. They contact us. If they see us taking our samples, treating the forest with respect, not trampling everything in sight, Jake, they may reach out to us." Sure. "Or they may skin us and make a drum." I crawled into my link. Lowered the sensor array over me. Grace came over, saying, "Just let norm do the talking. And try not to do something incredibly stupid." She shut toe upper clamshell hard. The bed slid into place. I was ready for the slow takeover again. But this time that didn't happen. My whole body seemed to cease existing. I felt nothing. Then saw nothing, then heard nothing. Then I was back in my avatar. Able to walk. I got up, meeting Grace and Norm at the shack door. We walked down the path to the airstrip. Trudy was in her Samson, in the pressurized cockpit. When she saw us, tshe did a little motion and Lyle Wainfleet came up and got on his doorgun. I assumed my place, Grace and Norm getting in like passengers. I could feel Norm's excitement. I could feel mine. For Grace, this was just another of many runs out. Wainfleet was just another hired gun.

Trudy went out past the fence. We were now on our own. She found and followed a river. "Sturmbeest herd, one'o'clock." Norm pointed excitedly at a herd of massive, six-legged beasts reminiscent of buffalo. They were thundering across the river. "Looks like a bull, six cows and some juveniles," Grace commented. "The bull has the red on the dorsal armor, right?" Norm asked. Grace nodded. We neared a waterfall on that river. Trudy banked into it like it was a gun run. "Whoooooooooooo!" Escaped me. Wainfleet was having fun, too. "Yo Chacon! Git some!" I grinned into the airsream. We came up on a meadow, with a perfect landing clearing in it. So Trudy landed. No mystery in that. I hefted the door gun off its mount and jumped out before we landed. Grace gave a scoff. She jumped out with norm forgetting his pack, when the heli landed. "Norm, your pack." "What?" "Your pack!" "Oh, right. Pack, pack, where's my pack." She did a cut-off motion across her neck towards Trudy, then hit her throat mic. "Cut out, we're going to stay awhile." The Samson died down. We grouped up and moved out. Grace gave Wainfleet a push. "Stay with the Samson. One idiot with a gun is enough." I gave a grin. "Whatever you say, doc." He got back in the copter. "Y'all have fun out there." The forest engulfed us. Plants reached toward me. This forest was more alive than any on Earth, back when we had forests. It was Coruscant, nowadays. I white-knuckled the gun. There was something out there. I'd have to shoot. "Relax, marine. You're making me nervous." Grace gave the gun a downward push. She moved nimbly on the path, seemingly unconcerned.

We came up on another shack. It was overgrown with vines, the jungle reclaiming it. This must be Grace's school that she was talking about at lunch. Norm took on an air of nervousness. "How will they know we’re here?" Grace. "I’m sure they’re watching us right now." Norm gulped. I looked around, feeling unseen eyes watching us.

We entered the shack. The ruins of Grace's school. Grace showed sadness. I noticed blood on the wall. "What? Who got shot?" "Wainfleet did it. They were chasing a Na'vi party, and before I could intervene, he shot Sylwanin, the older sister of Neytiri. Neytiri is now the future Tsahik, or shaman, of the Omiticaya. The clan we want into. He's the reason I had to shut down the school. The Na'vi children got scared. Wouldn't come back." Her face showed pain. Pain of playing it back so she could explain the scene to me. "The kids were so bright, so eager to learn... they picked up English faster than I could teach it to them. Hell, I'd kill to have them back." She turned to norm and the equipment. "Bring the soil probe-right there, yellow case." I looked up to rustling among the rafters. What looked like bats were roosted there. "Stingbats. They like to knock the books down." She picked up "The Lorax" by Dr. Suess. "I guess I always wish they'd come back to read them." Norm finished packing. "Why don't they come back?" I don't have a damn clue." "Are you going to help with this gear?" She was griping at me. I was looking at bullet holes in the wall. Wainfleet, eh? No wonder she pushed him back. She'd rather look as close the Na'vi as possible and not have the murder of a Na'vi with her. I watched Grace as i jammed equipment into my pack. "Let's roll." We moved out. They found some bare roots not far from the encampment and brushed away soil. Grace got out her needle and poked into the root. Norm's eyes went wide. He had a scanner and was looking at readings of electric signals-or something. I was already bored. I wandered off, stumbling into a patch of plants that looked like spiral flowers. I touched one. It collapsed into the ground, shrinking until I saw nothing more of it. They were like Venus Flytraps. I touched another. Then another. Then they seemed to react to something other than me. The whole patch shrunk down. What looked like a massive elephant crossed with a hammerhead shark was obviously pissed off. Pissed at me. Grace came running over with Norm on her tail. "Don't shoot, you'll piss him off!" "He's already pissed off!" "Jake, that armor's too thick. Trust me." I started to back off. The beast bellowed and pawed the ground. "It's a territorial threat display. J-just... hold your ground." The beast ran at me. I ran at it. Just before it clobbered me with its big hammer head, I gave a "Yhaaaa!" and its legs stopped. Its head dropped. It turned around, fleeing. From me? A measly little monkey? "Oh yeah! Who’s bad?! That’s right." I was having fun. Then something loomed over my back. It jumped over me. A six legged tiger with barracuda jaws. It landed in front of the rhino and the rhino ran like hell. More rhinos popped their heads up and fled. Then the beast turned to me. "What about this one, Grace? Run? Don't run? What? "A Thanator... RUN, DEFINITELY RUN!" And that was the last I heard of her. I took off through the brush. The beast clawed at underbrush, trees, and everything. I managed to stay just out of its reach. Crash here, splinter there. It was three tons of killing, and I was the target. I dived under a tree with exposed roots. Not enough to stop the Thanator. Kindling rained down around me. I started shooting. Screaming at the top of my lungs, I fired point blank, round after round missing the thing. Enough to further piss it off. The gun was snatched out of my hand. The creature tossed it over the horizon. I got on hands and knees, scrambling to stay out of this thing's stomach. It got hold of my pack. I was shaken to and fro, here and there.I heard a waterfall. My only chance of escape. "Ditch the damn pack!" Trudy was on the radio. I ditched it. I dropped to the ground. The beast shook the bag around for a little longer.

Then I had my head start. It threw the bag away, knowing I no longer had it. Smart tiger! Trudy lost me, and I lost my radio. I ran toward the sound of the waterfall. The Thanator was right on my ass. It made a swipe at me just as I jumped out over the waterfall. It let out a furious roar. The most fearsome land predator know to man had just failed to catch prey. Splash! Into the thundering, rolling waterfall. I grappled for the floor, then turned upright and pushed up. The air came to my lungs. I broke surface. The beast was still scrathing at the land, looking for a way to reach me. Roaring furiously. I swam right, clung to an exposed root, and gasped for air. What a chase.

Chapter V

I woke to higher spirits. I had something to stalk. Something to do this day. I could hear the faint roaring of a Tawtute vessel. And from its direction, I felt the spirit again. I could feel which direction it was from me. That was what I must follow. So I went hunting once more. But I started at Grace's school. The very place I had started to learn their language before my sister was murdered. After a while of waiting, I decided to head down the path that led to the school. "...sure they're watching us right now." I dashed left , into the brush. I managed my way into a nearby tree. I found him. I watched curiously. I wouldn't kill in Grace's presence. The second of the two I had observed, called Norm, was trivial. I followed them to the school. They chattered indistinctly along the way. When they reached the school, entering, I waited outside. Where was Grace's usual escort? The murderer of Sylwanin? He was the reason I had come following her. Long have I been waiting to avenge her death. But he was no longer the one with the weapon, but Jake. He was not even there.

The party emerged with bags of equipment slung across their backs. The wandered through the woods, then found an exposed root. Grace poked something into the root. Subtly the tree reacted. It was calling out in pain to others. Yet she showed respect, she showed curiosity. Made it clear her purpose was to learn. Therefore the forest did not attack. The part of Eywa within me did not take control and defend the tree. She was allowed to learn. Not to torture.

The armed one of the party moved on. The armed one was who my feeling of some presence, some pure spirit came from. I followed that, not thinking to. He wandered into a Loreyu patch. He brushed one with his weapon and it contracted. Then he got curious; he touched another. Then another. An amused grin spread across my face. Then an Angtsìk rumbled up and caused he remaining ones to contract, stripping the Dreamwalker of his cover. Grace and the other Dreamwalker ran up, roused by the noise of the Angtsìk. "Don't shoot, you'll....him off!" Grace was warning him. Jake raised the weapon. "He's already.... off!" "Jake, that armor's too thick. Trust me." He started to back off. The Angtsìk bellowed and pawed the ground. Bad idea, Jake. Grace got desperate. "It's a ...threat display. J-just...hold your ground." The beast ran at Jake. Jake ran at it. He gave a scream at the top of his lungs. The Angtsìk Backed away. Then my heart pounded. A Palulukan, the most feared predator known, stalked up behind him. It emitted a guttural growl, then lauched over him, landing between him and the Angtsìk. The larger beast cowered and fled. The rest of its herd turned tail as well. The predator gave an earsplitting wail and turned to Jake. "What about this one? Run? Don't run? What?"

Grace's eyes had stretched wide in terror. "A ... RUN! ... RUN! Jake took off. The Palulukan took off after him. There was no reason to follow, but I did. I followed the directional sense gained from feeling Jake's presence. But the going was not as easy as on ground, for I was in the treetops. There was not always a path in the branches leading to my goal. I caught up, briefly, the catch sight of the beast tearing at the exposed roots of a tree. I saw a figure inside them. Jake. He was crawling out in a different place than the beast. I considered shooting it, but that would do no good. I was helpless. He emerged from the roots and took off again. The beast was right behind him. It brought him down with a powerful swipe, muscles rippling. Then it took hold of the bag on his back, shaking him this way and that. Jake got rid of the bag, landing hard. The beast threw the bag beyond seeing. Jake was running again. Towards the river. Why? I kept ahead of him. Once, I swear he noticed me. But he made no mention. He was running for his life at the moment.

Jake jumped out over the river just as the beast made its last swipe at him. It let out a furious roar as it missed its mark. He put his arms to his chest in a hurry. Splash! Into the rolling river. Had he survived? I scanned the surface for a head. It was unlikely. Then he popped up near the bank. He swam towards it, catching hold of an exposed root. The beast was giving earsplitting roars of fury. It had failed. Such a predator never failed....

Chapter VI

Late afternoon. The only thing of use that I still had on me was my knife. I was still wet, and bruised more than I'd ever been. Bruises on blue skin were...weird. I found a sapling of suitable height and hacked it off at the base. Then I stood it up next to me and hacked off the end, making it as long as one of the arrows I'd seen protruding from the Hell Truck. Then I sat down on a rock and went white knuckled on the knife and the sapling. I sheared off the branches and started hacking maniacly at the end, starting to form a makeshift, but sharp tip. My first spear. I'd been taught about it in basic military training. A spear was better than nothing. More effective than a knife. Then I started through the forest. I stalked through it like it was a minefield, hyper-alert and freaked.

Only pencil thin beams of light came through the canopy. The trees around me were about 100 meters tall. Big damn forest. A monkey swung by. A bug bit me. I was seeing it all. So freaked I noticed everything. I replayed the chase in my mind. Three tons of power.... what I'd give to be that big ass tiger. Then I was pulled back into the real world. I caught a glimpse of a human shape among the treetops. But that was all. Wait, did I see a tail? It put me on higher guard. If I was being watched....I was about to be shot. The thought creeped me out. Which way was the better to die? Being shot and slowly dying, or becoming blue sushi? Thoughts had their toll; night had fallen. I started catching glimpses of lithe shapes moving around, predators in the night. Now I had a new problem. So I was about to become sushi. A pack of wolves. I spotted a tree matching the description of what Grace told me had flammable goop in its little mushroom-like outcroppings. I ripped off my coat and tied it around the butt-end of the spear. It found itself smothered in the oily stuff. I dug out my water-proof matches. Strike one, fizzle. Two, three, fizzle. Then the fourth made it to the slimy mass. It burst into flames. Now I had a torch.

It created a pool of light around me, with dancing shadows all around. One of the six-legged beasts crossed a limb overhead. Another on my opposite flank. A whole pack for damn sure! I heard one give a hyena's psychotic laugh behind me. They were closing in for the kill. These things could run like a dog and climb like a monkey. They were everywhere! I came upon a stream with a natural bridge across it. A bridge I crossed without thinking. But the torchlight reflected in green eyes in front of me. The damn things had me encircled. How many were there?! The psychotic barks got more and more intense- they were signaling each other, getting excited. One emerged from the shadows. It made a run for my legs, from behind. It found my torch in its face, yipped, and ran off. Another met the business end of the spear, bared its teeth, and retreated, trailing blood. I found six of them encircling me in the open. Now I saw exactly what I was up against: Six-limbed dogs with shiny chitinous skin, paws like leathery black hands, intelligent eyes. Glistening black teeth in dead white gums.

I was making my final stand, whirling the torch in a wide circle around me, keeping the things at bay. Then I got the adrenaline rush every marine gets in battle. No more fear. "I don't have all goddamn night!" I screamed. "Come on! Come on!" The rest came out. There were nine left. Grace may have wasted a million bucks, after all. They attacked. The spear cracked down on the first. Then I struck true in another, which had leaped at my side. I drew my knife in time, for another came up, narrowly avoiding the flaming mass and snatching it with a powerful twist from my hand. It ran off with the thing, cackling maniacally. I found teeth in my arm. "Aaaauughh!" The knife, in turn, found itself in the mongrel's shoulder. It yelped and jumped off me with such momentum as to knock me down. I was by my spear again, which had been dropped. The snatcher was the biter. Three of them lunged at once, but-

Thwack! An arrow appeared in one's chest. It landed on me, already dead weight. I pushed it off me in time to see a blue aborigine jump up from behind me, nock another arrow, and fire, all in one single, fluid motion. An unearthly yowl erupted from the mob. The last turned to the new one on my side. It found the newcomer's bow right in its skull. Dead on impact. Then one jumped and landed. The two went down, claws and teeth flashing. But then the indian rolled over, a knife flashing, and buried it to the hilt in the beast's chest. The figure leaped up to meet the next two. "Rrreeyaaah! Hyaaaah!!" The remaining two wolves fled, the bow whistling into their shoulders. The blue indian gave a hiss, and the fight was over. A million dollar investment saved again. Now I could consider this newcomer. It was a woman. She was lithe as a cat, with a long neck, muscular shoulders, and nubile breasts. She was devastatingly beautiful- for a girl with a tail. Her tail was lashing, her head swiveling, scanning for more. Then she turned to me. For a brief moment, she considered me coldly. That was the last of it. Then she squinted at the blazing spear, picked it up, and made toward the stream. Uh, no. "Wait, don't-" But it died. Then I had replacement light. I looked around in awe. This wasn't the Amazon rain forest I was used to by now. Every single plant glowed-even this girl had patterns of dots on her that glowed.

She kneeled beside a dying wolf, brandishing her knife again. She said something in that same indian-sounding language Norm and Grace had used on day 1. Then the dagger dug into the wolf's throat, and withdrew. Its pitiful whines ceased. She wiped the knife and returned it to the sheath at her waist. Then she crossed another slain wolf and kneeled, pulling the arrow from its heart. Well, here went nothing. "Look, um, I know you probably don’t understand this. But-thanks. Thank you. I owe you." She ignored me, assuming a prayer pose over the dead thing, said something else in native tongue. Why such a tree-hugger? "I would have been screwed if you hadn’t come along-" she rose and stalked off without looking at me. I crashed through the brush after her. "Slow down a second, will ya? I just want to thank you for killing those-" I was trying to slow her down, and grabbed her shoulder. That was a mistake. Her bow now met the side of my head. Hard, laying me out flat. "Ow-god! Damn!" A fury of nomads stood over me. A fury who speaks English-accented, halting, angry English.

"Don’t thank! You don’t thank for this!" She bent down, bow pointing towards the dead wolves. "This is sad. Very sad, only. All this is your fault; they did not need to die." "My fault? They attacked me, how is that-" She jabbed my shoulder with her bow. "Your fault! You're like a baby, making noise, don't know what to do." I pushed the bow to the side. It was stilling pointing at me. The I slowly rose. "Look. If you love your little forest friends, tell me this. Why not just let them kill my ass- what's the thinking?" For the first time, her gaze met mine. A riveting gaze with those big gold orbs. "Why save you?" "Yeah. Why save me?" She looked away again. Then back to me. She softened, leaned in close. "You have a strong heart.... no fear." She gave her head a gentle shake, then it began to jerk around angrily. "But stupid! Ignorant! Like a child." She gave a disconcerted sigh. Then spat something in the native tongue again. Then she turned and stalked off again, me following, again. "If I’m so ignorant, maybe you should teach me." "Sky People cannot learn, they do not See." "Then teach me to see!" "No one can teach you to see."

She ran confidently out onto an enormous branch. I was still following. I had just caught up to her when I lost my balance. "Hey wait... shit!" She caught me by the biceps, suddenly facing me again. My spear clacked on the wood and careened out of sight. "You're like a baby." She righted me and gave another disgruntled huff. I took a chance. "I need your help." She met my gaze again. Her hand came up, all- four?- fingers extended. "You should not be here." The hand made a fist, then fell back to her side. "So take me with you." "No. Go back." She walked off across the trunk again. I still followed. Some invisible hand was being revealed. The one controlling me. "Hey-" she wheeled, giving me a hard shove back. "Go back!" Then she reversed; from angry to awe-struck. She looked up. One angle, the next. Off her looks, "What?" and I looked up. A swarm of what looked like jellyfish were headed straight for me. She was reacting with a mixture of wonder and dread. "What are they?" I asked. She didn't answer. One got up to me and alighted on my shoulder. I swatted at it. She got wide-eyed and snatched the hand. I used the other. "Kehe! Atokirina!" She got a soft voice, like she was trying to comfort something. "Atokirina..." This wasn't the hardcore warrior I had met. The swarm was all over me now. Now she was like a baby staring in awe at the most interesting thing it'd ever seen.

"What are they?" I asked again. "Atokirina’. Seeds of the Great Tree..." She moved her head around." ...very pure spirits." She bent down, jaws parting in an awe-struck sigh. Then the swarm spread and dispersed as she straightened out, mumbling to herself. She gazed at me side-long. "Come." Then she took hold of my arm and pulled me after her, getting serious. "Come!"

She led me onto the land at the other end of the branch. But as it was settling into the ground, my feet locked together. I heard whoops from all around me. More of the blue people came in on horses, by foot and other means, surrounding me on the ground. I ripped the bola off and got up. They edged in closer. Would the trouble ever end?

Chapter VII

I had lost the spirit's place in the action. Now all I had was tracking. I took my shortcut across the river, following where Jake had gone. Down the bank, to the tree he had clung to. Then I followed his tracks until finding him by nightfall. He was right underneath me, when I was in the tree. But this could not be Jake. I did not feel the calming presence. It was a demon passing his boundaries. I was a killer draped across a branch. The trespasser was a mere two tail-lengths below me. All that moved were my eyes. Death from above. The Dream-walker was oblivious. Rising to my feet without a sound, I nocked an arrow and pulled taught. Utterly silent. I aimed for the throat, found my mark, and prepared to release it. But again something stopped me. An Atokirina drifted to the arrow tip, dancing gently on it. On sight of it I regained orientation on the spirit.

It was he who I was about to kill. Jake. I slackened the bow. Then anxiety rose from within. I got up and dashed to the next tree. Following him, tryingto see where he was going. I found myself in a place I could see the sky. The vessel which had carried Jake here was circling, searching for him. I could faintly hear the passengers conversing. "I'm going to have to call it, ... I'm not allowed to run night ...orders." Grace wasn't amused. "Shit." I had heard her say that enough to know it was a curse among her people. It was also used to show distress. "Sorry, Grace. He's going to have to hang on 'till morning." "He won't make it 'till morning." The vessel banked and turned toward the setting sun. Night was about to fall; many predators here were nocturnal. I knew I should return to Hometree, but something kept me with Jake. An invisible hand, almost completely in control of my feelings and thoughts. So I continued to follow him. He stalked through the woods, aimlessly looking for something. Something he himself was not sure existed, not sure what it was. Dusk had fallen , and I ran out of good hiding places. A goos hunter is silent, so I decided to test myself, and follow him on the ground. The plant life began its usual cycle of faintly glowing in the duck light. Night was about to fall. In the distance, I heard the maniacal, laughing call of the leader of a pack of Nantang. They were following him, too. But I lost Jake again. One of the wolves had crept up behind me, making me another target. It was a rogue. But a particularly strong rogue. It pounced, taking me by surprise. We fought silently. These viperwolves, as Grace called them, were smart beasts. They wouldnt' alert Jake to an presence but theirs-when they were about to close in for the kill. The jaws of the beast narrowly avoided my shoulder. I tried to call out, but it was clenched in my throat; the beast decided to smother me.

Yet I had the more useful weapon, Seze's claw made a fine knife, razor sharp. I cut the beast's throat, then buried the knife to the hilt in its chest. The beast died a silent death. I had no time for prayer. The invisible hand was now virtually pulling me away. Night fell. The plants were in full light. But so was something ahead. Barely visible was a figure waving a flaming spear around. Around it were more, but these were lithe, muscular and deadly. The Nantang pack. One crossed a limb above him, another on his flank. Yet another emerged from the shadows to attack him. At the same time, another came upon me, throwing me down. This one was weaker. I rolled over on top of it. Seze's claw ended it. The torch bearer had crossed a stream when I got back on my feet. His attacker was dead on the opposite side of him. He struck true in one, then took the flaming end to the head of another. Then brandished a small knife as a fifth Nantang snatched the spear, wrenched it free, and ran with it. Then it dropped it and secured its teeth in the person's shoulder. He secured his knife in its shoulder. I was almost to him. It yelped and jumped off, knocking him down next to the still flaming spear.

Three of the predators came at him. One pounced on him, snapping at his head, him battling, but unable to knife it. But I was in range. I nocked an arrow, pu "Sky People cannot learn, they do not See." "Then teach me to see!" "No one can teach you to see." The Sky People were like cups that were full. They opposed everything you tried to teach them, they had no room for your knowledge. He followed me onto the fallen tree that I used as my shortcut across the same river he had escaped the Palulukan in. He had just caught up to me when he lost balance. "Hey wait... shit!" I spun, let his spear careen down, and caught him by the arm. I gave a disgruntled huff. He turned to me with submitting eyes. "I need your help." I met his eyes with hard ones. My hand came up, fully outstretched in a "stop" gesture. "You should not be here." "So take me with you." My hand fell back to my side, making a fist. "No. Go back." I turned and walked again. He followed, again. Did these people ever give up? I spun and gave him a hard backward shove. "Kehe!" Kehe meant no."Go back!" But I felt another presence. One that calmed me more than Jake's. It was a swarm of Atokirina. My eyes went upward, my fury completely reversing. He followed my gaze. "What?" Again, upon sight of the sacred Tree's seeds, I was bathed in Jake's presence. Shown the invisible hand making me save this person. This was Jake. This was the one who I was reluctant to confront, but eager to follow. "What are they?" I barely heard him, but found no words to answer with. One alighted on him, and he swatted at it. Without thinking, I snatched the hand. Another alighted, and he swatted with his other hand. "Kehe!" He got the message, spreading arms. "Atokirina!" I backed away, eyes going as wide as possible with a mix of curiosity, awe, and wonder. My voice had gone soft, like a child awe-struck and speaking at the same time. "Atokirina..."

"What are they?" he asked again. "Atokirina. Seeds of the Sacred Tree... very pure spirits." I glanced around nervously, found myself bending down, slowly, letting out and awe-struck sigh. Then as I straightened out, they all flew away, all dispersed. I was mumbling indistinctly to myself. This pure spirit, this "Jake", had to be asessd by Mo'at; my mother. She was Tsahik.

"Come," I said. I glanced at him side-long, then fully met him with serious eyes. I took hold of his arm again, pulling him in my direction. "Come!" And he came. But he crossed not uninterrupted. Whoosh-whoosh. A bola. It wrapped around his feet, sending him toppling into the foliage below the end of the bridge. "Shit!" I heard the familiar whoops of a hunting party- Tsu'tey's. I spun with alarmed eyes, seeing him rip it off and jump up. The hunting party edged in closer. Riders with nocked arrows came to one side- and Jake was met on the other side with spears. He was surrounded.

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