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. They could fix a spinal, if you had the money. But not on vet benefits, not in this dying world's economy.

I became a marine for the hardship. For something to do. Told myself I could pass any test a man could possibly pass. I always just wanted something worth fighting for. Freedom, life. Apparently I hadn't been there for Tommy. A failure. 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!" the officer yelled. On the shuttle to the next place I'll regret. Pandora. Apparently, the atmosphere's different. Humans can't breathe it. Yeah, like anyone would be so dumb as to not notice, when they handed out the re-breathers. The guys around me were just sittin' there. Then before we landed, they finally thought, "Oh, I should put this on," and put on the masks. I already had. That was one thing you learned from being a marine. "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. Once that ramp goes down, go straight 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, special case, don't make me wait for you!" Down the ramp. There were two guys commenting on all the new arrivals. "Look at all this fresh meat!" I put on the brakes as a big man-shaped suit came towards me, narrowly missing me. Turning towards me, the pilot quipped, "Hey watch it, hotrod!" It was not exactly your usualy compound. A fence, in this case, by the looks of it, pentagonal. Here, unmanned turrets lined the points of the five sided fence. Every 50 yards or so there was a watch tower. This was a very high security place. All around were machines and aircraft. Some men stood over closer to the building where all the others had run into. One of them said, "Hey, check this out. Meals on wheels." Another man standing close to the first turned and looked at me, chuckled, then replied, "Aww, man, that is just wrong." Then I had to stop again for some huge dump truck. There were six-foot-long arrows protruding from the huge tires. The men mocking me were next. They stood and stared.

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. They shared a nervous glance. "Move along." I pumped the wheels and moved on. Next target, the destination building. There 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. He spoke with an aged, experienced voice. "You are not in Kansas are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen." He emphasized 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 called the Na’vi. They’re fond of arrows dipped in a neurotoxin which can stop your heart in one minute. And they have bones reinforced with naturally occurring carbon fibers. They are very hard to kill. We operate-we live-at a constant threat condition yellow." He paused for emphasis, looking over the crowd of mercs. "As head of security, it is 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- but 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?" He paused. "Wow, 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. "And here we are, the biolab. We're going to be spending a lot of time in here." He said hi to the other people in the room, told them he was an avatar driver. "Ah- here's the link room, where we're actually going to be..."

I lost his voice. I was staring, curious and dumbstruck, at a couple of tanks with scientists milling about around them. They had nine foot long bodies 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 tanks as gracefully as seaweed. The skin was cyan with darker stripes, sporting an intricate pattern of bioluminescent spots. The faces resembled cats, with maneuverable ears on the side of the head, a flat, cat-like nose. Beautiful, when you go to thinking; 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. He had almost an afro, a white labcoat on, and glasses. A little on the overweight side, but only barely. "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 tilted sideways. I could faintly hear a heartbeat. It was what I wanted. Peace. Norm came over, also marveling. The two of us had avatars with differences that according to what I had read were not usual. The face of mine more resembled a cat, the nose was flat, the eyes large, the eyebrows missing. Norm's, and apparently the rest of the Avatars in existence, had human noses, smaller eyes than the natives', and eyebrows. Frak thing of nature's power, I suppose. "It looks like him," I quipped. He scoffed. "No. Looks like you." I watched it for a little while longer. Though no consciousness inhabited it, it seemed to be dreaming. Here and there it twitched, 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 it on, 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 scoffed, and added, "Which is insanely expensive." Abruptly, I spun to glare at Norm and Max. "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." "Yeah and good science starts with good observation." Norm replied with, "Plus, it'll help keep you sane for the next.. 6 years." "Alright! Whatever," I interrupted, then 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. They had what looked like CAT Scanners at the head, and the coffins slid inside those. Norm spoke with barely suppressed 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 quipped over his shoulder, "That's because she likes plants better than people." One of those beds slid out of its CAT Scanner, then popped open like a clamshell. As this happened, the small asian lady pressing buttons on the unit's control panel ran off to the control center in the middle of the room. A red-haired woman of about fifty sat up, head swaying after a long time in electromagnetic fields. At least, that's what the manual mentioned. She grunted. "Who's got my god-damn cigarette?" She practically screamed. "Come on, people! What's wrong with this picture?" The little Asian woman with fluster in her face came up with a lit Marlboro cigarette, handing it to the grump-assed woman, along with a labcoat. Both were appropriately equipped within seconds.

"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 hesitated, then 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 Sully." He pointed to me. I offered my hand to shake. "Ma'am." "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. "How much lab training have you had?" So I gave her a sarcastically exited look and retorted, "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-" As he was finishing "idea," Grace started talking "No, Max, this is such bullshit! I'm gonna kick his corporate butt. He's no business sticking his nose in my department." She stormed out the door. 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, tomorrow, oh eight hundred. Try to use big words."

Chapter II Oh-eight-hundred the next 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 chamber in which the air was Pandora's. 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. As she walked us to our links, "How much link time have you logged?" she asked Norm. "Uh, about...five hundred-twenty hours." "That's good." She led him to his link and came with me over to mine. "And you?"

"Zip. But I read a manual." She turned around, stopped pushing buttons on the glass screen. Gave me another hard look. "Tell me you're joking." I shook my head.\, poked a finger into the gel of the bed., which felt like air. "This is cool." I started hauling myself from the chair to the bed. She started to help, but I didn't let her. I could handle it. "Don't- I got this." She raised her arms in an "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? What was going through your head?" 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 covered 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." She pulled on the clamshell lid and it began to close. I began a retort. "Kiss the darkest part of my lily white-" but the lid was already down. The coffin moved, seemingly up, but I was laying down. When it stopped, I heard the high pitched whirring of the spinning magnet. I could barely make out Max saying, "Initiate link." Then my head started tingling. Random spots in it went numb and then the numbness vanished, instantly all the way through. I made clear, cloudless sky my goal. Why fuck this thing up? The unit seemed to be probing my brain. Searching it for something. Some area inside it suddenly 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, momentarily followed by, "Alright, I'm going in." Max responded, "K."

Max came over to my link, patting it and saying, "That's it. Find your way home." Then I heard increasingly muffled footsteps going away from me. The 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 of all dimensions from my mind to the Avatar's. Then cat's eyes opened. I heard a female doctor. "Jake? Jake, can you hear me? Jake?" I was seeing an over exposed image of two doctors hovering over me, shining a light in my eyes to test dilation. "Pupilary reflex looks good," the other doctor, male, added. Gradually, the image became clear. I was now the alien. The female doctor snapped in my ears to make them twitch, then said, "Pinna response normal." I heard max saying, "He's in," over a radio. "Hey guys!" I laughed to the doctors. The laughed back. "Welcome to your new body, Jake," said the male. What was making me so happy? I felt

something more. Now a breeze on my l- my leg? I sat up on the gurney. "Well, if you wanna set up, that's fine," said the lady doctor. I sat there, staring at the feet. Moved them. It felt so good. I gave an extremely satisfied, "Ohh, ho-hoh." "Oh, are you wiggling your toes?" The lady said. Cute, lady, but it does feel 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 chuckled. I moved my new feet around and around, reveling in it. It felt good. Really good. I barely noticed the doctors asking if i felt any numbness, pain, weakness, or the like. Then I eased my new legs off the gurney, touching ground. I hadn't done this in years. 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 new 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. Narrowly missing Into a run. Oh, the joy. RUNNING! Past an AMP suit. Into a garden of alien wildlife. I skidded to a halt. Took in deep breaths. Dug my feet into the warm soil. This was where I belonged. Ears twitched towards sound before I perceived it. "Hey, marine!" Grace. Taller, bluer, and now sexy. 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, with a life. 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. The clamshell lid rose. 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'm wheeling through a 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 loaded with missiles 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. Got only Lyle Wainfleet,

need you." 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 neurotoxin-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." This was more than heart. "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 the scars, jerking his hand. "First day. They could fix it if I rotated back. Make me pretty again." He looked inside the hip of a souped up AMP suit, then stuck his arm in, grabbed something, and shook back and forth. "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 to it you get your legs back when you rotate home." 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 tattoos." 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 nonthreatening. 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." She shut the 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, she 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. "Whooooo!" I bellowed, enjoying it. 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." She said it calmly, as if it were meant to be. Norm gulped. I looked around, feeling unseen eyes watching us.

We entered the shack. The ruins of Grace's school. A school, alright, with a chalkboard, bookshelves, and Grace showed sadness. I noticed blood on the wall. "What? Who got shot?" "I don't have a damn clue. Come here!" Why keep secrets, Grace? Or was it an emotional mater?"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?"

"Are you going to help with this gear?" She griped. I was looking at bullet holes in the wall. 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, guessing I'd scout ahead 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. I turned to see what to shoot. A deadly face hover not three feetfrom me. When I laid eyes on it, the mouth of that face stretched wide open and let fly an earsplitting roar, then 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 roared again, seemingly in dismay, then turned to me.

"What about this one, Grace? Run? Don't run? What?" "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. We went theough a patch of oversized bamboo. It had no trouble. I skipped over a weird tree, with two trunks like a bonsai. I managed to stay just out of its reach. Crash here, splinter there. It was three tons of killing, and I was the target. This thing could devour a T-Rex for dinner and have me for dessert. We came to a clearing with a tree. The roots of this tree were exposed. I dived under. The roots of this tree were also 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. Also hitting it, but with little effect. 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. I got out, running, but it got hold of my pack. I was shaken to and fro, here and there, up in the air. I was done already. But then I heard a waterfall. My only chance of escape. "Ditch the damn pack!" Trudy was on the radio. I ditched it. AS I tried to slip out, however, my hand got caught in the strap, messing up my fall. I dropped to the ground, rolling onto my back. 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, finally found it, then turned upright and pushed up. The air came to my lungs. I broke surface. The beast was still scratching 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 IV 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 I cracked down on the first, then struck true in another, which had leaped at my side. One jumped at my front, but found the flame impaling its face. But 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 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 wolf 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. I noticed that after having completely forgetting I'd seen the same thing on the Avatars in the tanks.

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. Then 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. This was an awe-struck softie. 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. Something seemed to seed itself inside me, aanother spirit, another entity, mind. 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, a bola scoring true. I heard primal 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 V

It was a demon passing his boundaries, and 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 something stopped me. An Atokirina drifted to the arrow tip, dancing gently on it. "You must not fire, Neytiri," it seemed to whisper.

I slackened the bow. Then I became anxious, got up and dashed to the next tree. Following him, trying to see where he was going. I found myself in a place I could see the sky. One of their vessels, which had probably carried this trespasser here, was circling, searching for him. I could faintly hear the passengers conversing. Grace Augustine, a teacher of their ways, their language, who had allowed me to speak as they do, was among them. But now I had no use for their language.

"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 this man. 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 in the trees. A good 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 dusk 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 would have to momentarily halt in following. One of the wolves had crept up behind me, making me another target. It was a rogue. A particularly strong rogue. It pounced, taking me by surprise. We fought silently. These viperwolves, as Grace called them, were smart beasts. They wouldn't alert prey to any 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 jumped at him, but I was in range. I nocked an arrow, pulled taught, and fired. Then jumped up over him, sailing, and in one fluid motion, nocked an arrow and fired, landed, and hit the third squarely in the head. Then another one jumped up, pouncing on me and taking me down. I rolled over on top of it, burying Seze's claw to the hilt in its chest. It only could give up, now giving pitiful cries. Then the last two found me jumping up and cracking the whistling bow into their shoulders. They ran, calling the rest into retreat. I lashed my tail, swiveled my head, searching for leftovers. When none came, I turned, briefly considered the newcomer, then took the spear and threw it into the river, the bearer protesting. I followed the sound of one whimpering. "Forgive me, Brother." I slid the knife into its throat and withdrew. The cries ceased. I wiped the blade on the moss below, then crossed to another one and withdrew the arrow. "Forgive me, my Brother. Go now, with Eywa."

The newcomer started speaking. "Look, um, I know you probably don’t understand this. But-thanks. Thank you. I owe you." I ignored him, trying to remain calm. This was not something to thank me for. "I would have been screwed if you hadn’t come along-" I rose and stalked off without looking at him. He crashed through the brush after me. "Slow down a second, will ya? I just want to thank you for killing those-" He grabbed my shoulder, trying to slow me. That was a mistake. I wheeled, cracking the bow against the side of his head, laying him out flat. "Ow-god! Damn!" I bent over him, furious. "Don't Thank! You don't thank for this! This is sad. Very sad! Only!" I pointed towards the dead beasts. "All this is your fault. they did not need to die."

"My fault? They attacked me, how is that-" I jabbed his shoulder with the bow. "Your fault! You're like a baby, making noise, don't know what to do." He pushed the bow to the side, then rose. A serious look in his eyes. He pointed to the dead beasts, now. "Look. If you love your little forest friends, tell me this. Why not just let them kill my- what's the thinking?" He had a point. Why did I save him? "Why save you?" "Yeah! Why save me?" I considered again.

Then spoke with meaning. "Because you have a strong heart, no fear," I said, meeting his eyes. I had to strike sense into him. "But stupid! Ignorant, like a child!" I spat. Then I turned and stalked off again, after spitting, "Why did I even save you?!" In the native tongue. He followed. "If I'm so ignorant, then maybe you should teach me." I couldn't, wouldn't.

"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 by jumping into. He had just caught up to me when he lost balance, saying, "Hey wait... shit!" I spun, let his spear careen down, and caught him by the arm, gave a disgruntled huff. He turned to me with submitting eyes, once he had his footing back.

"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 then I felt a new presence. One that calmed me, made me soften instantly, look up, from one of the wisps to the next, to the next. It was a swarm of Atokirina, of the Sacred Tree's seeds. He followed my gaze. "What?"

Upon sight of them, I was bathed in this being's presence, saw a glimpse of potential in him. Shown the invisible hand making me save this person. "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, with slowly 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. Why were they here? This was a sign. It had to be- of course! I was to take him to Mother. She would know what to do. The seeds were here for something else, as well. This was a Dreamwalker, another being inhabiting a stolen body. I had the Spirit of Eywa within me, as did all other life. But he did not. They wanted me to take him in, and in that they took him a step closer than he had been to being a true Na'vi. As I straightened out, they all flew away, all dispersed. I was mumbling indistinctly to myself. This sign of a pure spirit had to be assessed 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.

Chapter VI

"Aw, damn it, you've got to be kidding me." These guys were ready for the kill. Bows were on the brink of firing, spears were practically digging into me. After all this, I had to wonder; what were they doing around my link back at the coffin room? Milling about restlessly, panicking? I'd have grinned at the thought, but I had more pressing matters at the moment.

Back to reality. I swear, one of the guys on horses was moments away before

his eyes went to a place other than me. Silently, the girl had landed next to me. The party slackened a little. She grouched at the lead in native tongue, and he dismounted, pulling a braid of hair similar to the one I was curiously staring at before Grace had quipped, back in the longhouse, away from an antennae on the horse. The end of that antennae gave a defiant pulse of light. The horse whinnied. He said something back. She raised her voice.

Then the guy made to shoot me. She jumped in front of him, yelled at him. Whatever she said, it fazed him. He jumped back on his horse, putting the braid back where it was. Then he barked a command to the hunters. They grabbed me and took me towards a big tree, which we weren't far from. On spear point and knife blade, I was taken captive. It was massive. And hollow.

It made the perfect shelter. The lead and the girl scouted ahead. Then we came into the tree. It was filled with curious eyes. Curious ranging to angry, actually. The crowd made way, but still touched me like I was a hot iron. I heard whoops and what seemed like jeers. The guy that got yelled at went up to a nicely dressed one in the middle of the area, up on some sort of altar or something, a raised dais forming the base of a spiral core structure in the tree.

They were conversing. The big guy looked warily at me. The girl went up to him, gave a touch to her head, and said something. He replied in a strong voice, giving me another look. He spread his hands in a "why?" gesture. She pointed at me with her bow and said something as if he were retarded. He glowered at her, then stared at me, whilst saying something back. "What's he saying?" I asked her.

She looked back, but didn't. "My father is deciding whether to kill you."

"You father?" The princess! No wonder she was so nubile in appearance. Gosh, nubile... a word that doesn't sound like its meaning. But oh well. I made a mistake. Apparently, these people didn't shake hands, because when I offered mine, walking towards him, she shouted, "Kehe!" and pushed me back. But the warriors around me froze mid-attack to a voice ringing out across the chamber.

A woman in scarlet robes was pointing at me with both hands, then one, shouting something in the native tongue. Her bearing was haughty, her expression friendly as a hanging-judge. She was descending the spiral core structure of the big-ass tree. "That is mother. She is Tsahik-the one who interprets the will of Eywa." The girl, looking back but not again.

"Who's Eywa?" No answer. The crowd came into an expectant hush as the woman, in her 50's by the looks, circled me. She took hold of my braid-How to undo it?- released it, then examined my tail. She came in front of me, speaking English. "What are you called?" Didn't know the girl was the only one who knew-well, Grace proved that.

"Jake Sully." She took what looked like a dagger, but was a spike, from a sheathe attached to a headband she wore. In a fluid, swift motion, she pricked me deep in the chest with it, then drew it across her tongue. Her face changed from neutral wonder to dreadful curiosity. She hardened her eyes. "Why have you come to us?" Her voice had risen. "I-I came to learn."What else to say? Wasn't that Grace's mission in the first place?

"We have tried to teach other Sky People. It is hard to fill a cup which is already full." A cup which was-scientists. They thought they were know-it-alls, literally. "Well-my cup is empty, trust me. Just ask Doctor Augustine. I’m no scientist."

"Then what are you?" A warrior, a marine. A jarhead. "I was a marine. A-a warrior." Oh, they might wonder which clan. I had one, indeed. "Of the...Jarhead Clan." The lead hunter said something in native tongue, advancing with his knife drawn.

But mister big guy stopped him, saying something back. He had a considerate tone. Then the shaman turned to the girl and said something, going back into native tongue. She gave a shocked look, then started to say something back as if she were trying to sweet-talk her mom. But when Mom interrupted, giving her a "stop" hand, she gave an angry growl, stomping her foot.

Mom turned back to me, reverting to English. "My daughter will teach you our ways. Learn well... Jake Sully. Then we will see if your insanity... can be cured." She said something in native tongue to the girl, and she took my arm and almost dragged me towards a little clearing outside the tree. "So it's all good, right? You and me-""Do not speak!" Ok?

Damn, she had a fiery attitude, a fiery spirit. She let me go and went over to a rack of hides, cut into the shape of loincloths. Then things got interesting. Without even pausing, she took off the uniform I had on, got me naked. Didn't even consider the nether bits. Even though she got perfect views. She threw those clothes aside. Then she got some rope and made me a loincloth. Then she got the clothes, and piled them on top of some kindling. And that was that.

Then she took me back into the tree, up the spiral structure in the middle, to a second level. The whole clan was gathered around in a huge circle, eating. The stopped their music, singing, and all other activities to gaze warily at me. It struck up diplomacy in me. "Hi, guys." Huh. I wonder what they heard.

"Plea-hease don't get up." I was nervous, duh. One of them hissed at me; I'd stepped on their tail. "Sorry."

We neared a space in the ring, and she pushed me down to a sitting position, taking her place in the remaing space, between me and the other hunter.. "You never told me your name," I goaded her. "Neytiri te Ckaha Mo'at’ite,"she replied primly. "Neyt-... What? "Ok, again, but slower." She grinned, getting a smart-alack tone. "Nay-Tee-ree. Neytiri." Neytiri. I liked the name. 'Course, it also fit. Devastatingly beautiful-for a girl with a tail.

Chapter VII

"Aw, ... it, you've got to be ... me!" Tsu'tey and his pride did not mix. Getting there just before he released his bow, I landed silently next to my prisoner, startling him. "Tsu'tey! What are you doing?! This is my captive," I shot. He dismounted, breaking his bond to the Pa'li. "These demons are forbidden here! I'll kill him as a lesson to the others!" He drew his bow. I leapt in front of him. "Stop! There has been a sign. This is a matter for the Tsahik." He clenched his jaw, released his bow, then stowed it. "Bring him," he barked to the party.

They put knife and spearpoint to him, hauling him towards Hometree. We were not far from it. Tsu'tsy went ahead, giving the Pa'li to another hunter. When we arrived, he was conversing with my father, the Olo'eyktan, leader of the Omiticaya. He gave a hard glance towards this new being. The people around us were touching him as if he were some new, some mysterious new life form. Yet he wasn't by much. "Why do you bring this creature here?"

"I was going to kill him, but there was a sign from Eywa." He glowered at me

as I responded, pointing at the prisoner. "I have said no Dreamwalker will come here, to offend our home! His alien stench fills my nostrils." I took a respectful but not submissive tone, holding my ground. "Father, many Atokirina cam to this alien."

"What's going on? What's he saying?" The Dreamwalker. I turned my head towards him, but kept my eyes on my father. "My father is deciding whether to kill you."

"Your father?" He moved towards Eytukan, hands extended, hunters jumped, restraining him. I shouted at him. But mid-attack we froze. "Stand back!"

Mother. The hunters released him and backed off. "I will have a look at this alien." She descended to the ground level of the Tree. She circled him, examining his Eltu, then his tail, a light, brief grasp on each. "What are you called?" She looked expectantly into his eyes, which returned fear and curiosity, both at the same time.

"J-Jake Sully." An odd name. Was Sully his mother's name? Nevermind that, the Sky People were odd in themselves. I'd just keep to calling him Jake. She produced her route of interpretation; the sharp bone needle with which she pricked, deeply, Jake's chest, then drew it across her tongue.

Her expression changed from neutral wonder to dreadful curiosity. "Why have you come to us?" Her voice had risen. "I-I came to learn." But he could not. "We have tried to teach other Sky People. It is hard to fill a cup which is already full." He gave a confused and certain look. "Well-my cup is empty. Just ask ... Augustine. I'm no ..."

"Then what are you?" He took on an air of apprehension. "I was a ... A-a warrior." Tsu'Tey stirred. I didn't hear what Jake said next. "A warrior?" He moved toward Jake, knife unsheathed. "I could kill him easily!" But Father stopped him. "No! This is the first warrior dreamwalker we have seen. We need to learn more about him." Thwarted again.

Tsu'Tey reluctantly sheathed the knife. "What's going on? What are they saying?" Did Jake ever let up? Mother turned to me. "It is decided, Daughter. You will teach him our ways, to speak and walk as we do." My hand moved to my chest in a "why?" gesture. "Why me? That's not fair! I onl-"

"It is decided!" I gave a snarl and a stomp of foot. Fine! I did not bring him here to become his mentor, for Eywa's sake! Only to gain Mo'at's knowledge and interpretations.

She turned back to him. "My daughter will teach you our ways. Learn well... Jake Sully. Then we will see if your insanity... can be cured." Insanity? Maybe, or maybe not. Only time would tell. The clan began ascending for the day's last meal. We were having Teylu tonight. I liked that. A little comfort for a troubled soul.

I almost had to drag Jake to the tanning racks. Most of the hides, already suitably cut, were not ready, but one was, which I used for Jake's. He'd start out with just a loincloth, but gain more garments like a sheath, a harness, and the like. Assuming he made it to each stage. But now the garments he wore were to be burned. Whatever made them up to be released back to its starting place.

I either had to cut or rip them off. He seemed to get nervous, to think he was

losing privacy. He'd have to learn that one starts with very little and gains more as he becomes more trusted. There was a disc of kindling nearby, which I laid those on. I got some rope and made him his loincloth. He felt better. But as I took him up for last meal, he scratched at it. I giggled inside.

He followed me without peace to the ring around the fire. "You never told me your name," he goaded when we sat down. Well, an apprentice needed to be able to address their mentor. "Neytiri te Ckaha Mo'at'ite." He squinted. "Ok, again, but ... slower." Oh, so that's how he was going to be? "Nay-Tee-re," I pronounced my everyday name to him. "Neytiri." He seemed to like it. I crossed the circle to the cook pot and procured our dinner.

Chapter VIII

She crossed the circle to the fire, doing something with what looked like a cook pot. So this was what primitiveness was like? Not nearly as bad as I thought, to be honest. Wait, what? I'd had modern pleasantries-well, those I could afford on vet benefits.- back on Earth. Now I scared myself. But something in me said this was alright. So it was alright.

She returned with leaves piled high with food. And leaves not. Then placed one almost defiantly in front of me, pushing some onto my leaf, then taking the rest for herself. She munched happily on a little white shrimp-like thing. I tried one myself. Tasted awesome. Like a combo of shrimp and chicken, but a little sweeter. "I like that. What is it?"

"Teylu. You call it beetle larvae." Oh. Well if it's good and they serve it, I can eat it. Tasted good, so I didn't disgrace them and puke it up or anything. I munched happily. It was a good supper. "That’s some damn fine teylu. That’s

like grandma’s teylu." Her smile laughed for her. The circle began to break up. I noticed the biggins chatting. They kept giving me glances. Neytiri seemed to notice, too.

We walked along in silence. She took me up the helical core structure, where it began to branch out, and those branches had hammocks the size of trampolines woven into them, joining the branches with the tree's outer wall. Neytiri said something like, "Eywa k'sey nivi'bri'sta", then climbed into one, pointing at me, then the one next to her. I climbed into it, unsure of myself.

She stared at me staring at her for a moment, then rolled over and tugged a bit at the hammock, making it come alive and close up. I tried the same, and to the same avail. I did the same as her, closed my eyes, and yawned. I fell asleep, but didn't. Avatars slept, alright, but the consciousness wasn't there. Something like that. I heard familiar voices fade in, then the whirring of the magnet. Then I felt downward motion, and a jarring halt. Cold air.

A slap on my face, and groggy eyes focusing to see Grace. "Jaaaaakkkke! Jaaaake! Jake! Come on kid, that's it. Wake up." Everything was different. Grace was nicer than usual, and everyone was milling about. "Whoa...Wha-? Damn!" I still couldn't talk straight. Grace laughed. "Damn, Jake. You were dug in like a tick."

"Yeah?" She took hold of my shoulders. "Is the Avatar safe?"

"Yea, doc. And you are not going to believe where I am." She saved that for later. "You should get some rack." I went to get out of the link. Couldn't. I was back under the dead weight of useless legs. "Can I make this link my home, Grace?"

"For tonight." So I slept in the link. She shut it but had power off to all but the soft green lights under the air-gel.

The next morning, I woke to find her outside the link, waiting. I had a story to tell, and now could. I had sleep to run on. Little did I know that even when you're not really doing anything, being in the link, you're actually doing everything you make the avatar do. "Quaritch wants to see you."

He was in the ops center. "Corporal, I hear you have news for me." I told him about my ordeal. "Jarhead clan?" He cackled hysterically. " And they bought it?!"

"Yep. They wanna study me. See if I can learn to be one of them." He clapped my shoulder. "That's called taking the initiative, son. Wish I had ten more like you." Selfridge, the big boss, came in. "Look, Sully.

"I need you to figure out what the blue monkeys want. I've tried offering them medicine, we built them a school, even try to make them roads! But nothey like mud. And that wouldn't bother me, save for the fact that-" he started punching buttons on the hologram machine. He yelled at a tech to take him to sector 12. "-their damn village happens to be resting on the richest deposit of Unobtanium within a hundred kliks, and they need to relocate. I mean, look at all that cheddar!" The hologram went over the landscape, then escalated, showing what was underground. He laughed an evil laugh. I took this in with a hint of concern. But what struck that into me? "Does Augustine know about this?"

"Yeah, and she next on the flight back next time she tries to cock-block me on it." Hell no. I kind of needed her. "So who gets 'em to move?" Quaritch stepped back in. "Guess." I scoffed. "And what if they won't go?" Quaritch

clapped me again. "Oooooh, I'm bettin' that they will," he said icily. Selfridge came over to me. "Look, killing the indigenous looks bad, but there’s one thing shareholders hate more than bad press- and that’s a bad quarterly statement. So just- find me a carrot that'll get them to move, 'else it’s going to have to be all stick."

Quaritch, "You've got three months. That's when the 'dozers get there." Why did all this seem to strike concern, fear into me? "Well then we're wasting time." Now Selfridge clapped me on the back. "I like this guy!" "Well I need him, now." Grace had come in. "Take him- he's got his orders." "Uh-huh." She wheeled me into the cafeteria for some breakfast. "I hate them. They think they can micromanage everything, that everything is theirs. So...

"Start when we saw your ass flying through the brush-" She did her hands in the air like one was chasing the other. "-with the angry Big Bertha after you."

"He was pissed, of course," I began. "I ran and ran. It was three tons of kill with me as its target. It splintered everything, every tree, all of it." I noticed it wasn't light yet. She must have woke me up. "So I found one with exposed roots, getting under that. Guess where you can find some kindling." She laughed. "So about then you heard gunshots, and I saw a gun fly over the horizon.

"Roots weren't enough, so he got my pack, started shaking-" "And Trudy found you. 'Ditch the damn pack!' I heard it." "-yeah, I ditched it. Next thing I know I'm jumping out over a waterfall..." I finished to tell her that, "Now I'm practically family." She looked out the window.

"Shit! They're going to wake up soon. Come on, let's not be late for your first

day." She hurriedly wheeled me back to my link, flashing a screen with pictures of the people I'd met on it, me repeating their names. "Oh and Jake, " she began as the link turned over and span up,"...try not to do anything incredibly stupid for me, ok?" "Yeah. But who's this Eywa?" Norm was at the foot of my link. "Who's Eywa? Only their deity; their goddess, made up of everything they know. You'd know this, if you had any training," He mocked.

I had the perfect reply. "Well look who's got a date with the chief's daughter, smart-ass." Grace shut us up with a "Alright you two, that's enough! God, it's like kindergarten around here!"

Then she started normal talk again. "Neytiri was my best student. She and her sister Sylwanin were my best students."

"I never met the sister." Grace quieted down, as if she were revealing the location of all her money reluctantly to a thief. "'s dead." It resumed normal strength. "Come on. Village life starts early."

The more I was in the link, it seemed, the less time it took to transfer. It moved, the head tingled, then no senses, then the Avatar's. I opened cat's eyes. Neytiri was still asleep, but slightly stirring, about to wake. The hammock had opened when I woke. I got up unsteadily, and scrambled to the limb above. The inside of the tree was like a big gothic cathedral.

I went to ground level, just as Neytiri was blinking awake, so she'd follow me. In the commons below, everyone was tending to everyday tasks; two young girls, weaving and singing. They only briefly looked up at me as I passed. Two men cleaning fish. A woman pounding seeds into meal while nursing an infant. Children chasing each other and climbing like monkeys. One bold little girl ran up to me, stopped-staring-then shrieked with laughter as she ran

back to her playmates. A grin came to me.

I turned, hearing something behind me. Neytiri on one of those horses. Grace had said they were called Direhorses. She led an older looking one. My grin dropped. She took me to a stream, where there were more of the horses grazing and drinking. It was a are that she had brought along. For me. But I found that out the hard way. "Easy, boy." The horse gave a snort. Neytiri subtly giggled. "A'leh is female."

"Oh. Easy, girl." Neytiri cooed in her native tongue to the beast. It let me clumsily mount. Then I saw the same pink, hairy tentacles like those on the end of my long, non-unbraidable braid of hair.. I got it and compared. They started moving towards each other.

Neytiri gave me a "go on" look, so I moved them closer. When they touched, they practically pulled together and locked. The horse reeled. Then I was A'leh. I could feel ground again. I was myself and the horse at the same time. "That is Tsahaylu. The bond." She patted me-the horse as she spoke. "Feel her. Feel her heartbeat, her breath. Feel her strong legs." I could. It was a union of senses. I closed my eyes, nodding. We became one mind. But she submitted to me. I was in control. Huh, what if I didn't want to be?

My vision stretched, including the horse's. I almost saw everything. It made me slightly dizzy. But I found, by completely random chance, how to see out of only my eyes or only the horse's eyes. Speaking of eyes, Neytiri's eyes showed a hint of amusement. Why? "You may tell her what to do-" She taped her forehead. "-inside." Ok, so we'll try it out, I thought. "Forward." The horse didn't trot. She full out broke into a gallop, promptly throwing me offsurprisingly, without damage to the Tshaylu thingy. Whatever it was called. Neytiri smooth cracked up. But she stopped. And some minority of a feeling towards her rose, barely noticeable, from within. I had landed painfully in the mud, and the guy with bravado came riding in with a buddy. He was laughing. He stopped his horse by me, looking down in disdain. "You should

leave." I knew it. "No. You'd miss me." I pointed. "I knew you could speak English."

He said something in native to Neytiri. She smiled, said, "Ka." and smacked the guy's horse on the butt. He was off. Connect, think "Forward.", fall face first in the mud, "Again." All day, save for meals at the "Hometree." Sleep was definitely easy to come by. She let me go straight to what was now my hammock, after dinner. My mind seemed to be getting used to the link. Eyes close on the avatar for sleep, and eyes open in the link unit. Except I shrink, and I get paralyzed again. Not a pleasant experience.

I gave my report of the structure of the tree to Quaritch, Selfridge, and the other techs and engineers around the hologram machine. Then I had to hit the rack. What a day.

Chapter IX

I was starving. I crossed the circle, taking some food from the cook pot. Jake sat there, not knowing what to do. I took some leaves, one piled high with teylu. One of my favorite foods. I placed one leaf in front of him, putting some of the food on it, then took the rest for myself, and munched happily. He took a bite, then devoured the last of the piece. "I like that. What is it?" I could already tell, it would be a long time before he tamed his Ikran, if he even made it there.

"Teylu. You call beetle larvae." He took on an air of contemplation. Then happily ate the rest. "That’s some ... fine teylu. That’s like my ... teylu." So he

liked it, too. One of some traits we shared. But- why should I notice such things?

The circle began to break up. I noticed mother, father, and Tsu'Tey conversing about him. "He seems dim to me. And his eyes are too small."

"I say she will kill him." Me? Kill unjustly? Tsu'Tey had me all wrong. I took Jake up to the next level, where the sleeping areas were. There was an unused hammock next to mine."Eywa cradles all." I had said it in the Na'vi language, as proper. Settling into mine, I pointed at him, then at the free one. He nervously eased himself in, staring at me staring at him. I closed the hammock, rolled over, and slept soundly, dreamlessly.

I woke to catch a glimpse of him descending into the commons. Silently, I followed him, breaking off to fetch my Pa'li and one for him to ride. I returned to find him grinning, a child running back to her playmates, shrieking with laughter. He turned, hearing me, immediately losing the grin. I laughed inside. Today, he would learn one use of Tsahaylu.

I took him to the grove with a stream, where others were sipping nectar from flowers or drinking from the stream. I dismounted, indicating his while holding the harness. I would have to wait to see if he'd use it. Teaching did not have to always be straightforward. "Easy, boy." The animal responded unhappily. "A'leh is female," I corrected him. "Oh. Easy, girl."

He clumsily scrambled onto her back. She did what she was trained to do, and motioned her Tsahaylisk towards him, letting the tendrils show. He slowly took his, and joined them. The horse reeled, his eyes went wide. His first time. "That is Tsahaylu." He looked confused."-The Bond. Feel her. Feel her heartbeat, her breath. Feel her strong legs." He losed his eyes, nodding.

"You may tell her where to go-" I touched my forehead. "-inside." He raised his arm, pointing. He had not even noticed the handhold. "Forward," he said shakily. The horse broke into a gallop, promptly throwing him off. I broke out laughing. First-time learners of riding always did this. Subtly, something stopped me, a revelation that came just as Tsu'tey and another hunter rode in, the slightest of feelings for Jake. "You should leave," he quipped to Jake, who had landed painfully in the mud. Then he turned to me.

"This alien will learn nothing. A rock see more." I sighed in agreement, but did not send Jake back. Instead, I had pulled the horse over to Jake, next to Tsu'tey. "Go." And I slapped his mount's rump, making it charge away. "Again," I said to Jake. All day, save for meals, he slowly progressed on learning, managing just a little longer, each time, to stay on. He was completely exhausted when we finished the day's last meal, which he called, "dinner". He almost dropped into his hammock, to prove it. I slept easily, too.

The next day he slept in. It took me until about mid-day to find him awake. He blinked open his eyes, revealing cautious regret in them. Seeing as I could not reverse time, and give the full day of training, I decided I'd show him something to motivate him; Seze, my Ikran. I figured that if he saw what he could have, what he'd become if he was successful in training, he's have better chances of doing just that; being successful. My father had said that if we were to drive out the Sky People, teaching Jake might lead to a better understanding of them. We needed that.

I ascended with him to the highest reaches of the tree, where the Ikrans roosted. I made the call that would bring Seze. Jake was looking around the branches with nervous eyes, then looked out over the landscape. He backed up, cringing as Seze burst from the leaves, shrieking a greeting call. "Holy-!"

"Do not look in her eye," I warned. She'd take it as a challenge if he did. Then she would attack before I could connect to her. "Seze," I said. I held up a treat for her, one of her favorite. She gulped it down, letting out a happy call to the others, which answered. She slowly bent her Tsahaylisk towards me, and I met it. She was my favorite to bond with. Also the most amusing.

As the tendrils writhed together and intertwined, I began to feel bits of her, then they locked, and I could see myself, if I so pleased. She shivered and stretched her wings. I liked how that felt. I gently eased the end of my Tsahaylet into the pocket around hers, protecting it, then I went to her side, adjusting the harness. She uneasily flapped her wings defiantly and shrieked once more, as I slid on.

"Ikran is not horse. Once Tsahaylu is made the first time, Ikran will fly only one hunter in their hole life. To become T'aronu, hunter, you must choose your own Ikran and he must choose you," I said, easing my feet into the stirrups on the harness. "When?" he asked. "When you are ready,"I replied. If he made it, he would be ready- eventually.

"Hoooah!" I called, and Seze launched into the air. I could simply command her mentally, but it felt better to have trained her certain calls and matched them to commands. I circled the tree, catching sight of Jake looking at me with longing eyes. "Soon, Jake. You'll have your own in due time," I thought. Something inside me had made certain that fact.

I came close to the branch he was on, preparing to make a sweep over him. An example that you could have fun in the air, as well. Ikrans did not only serve as hunting mounts, but sometimes could comfort an uneasy hunter or bring a smile to his face. Jake ducked nimbly as I swept over him. "Ayai!" and Seze slowed, making one last circle around the tree before landing.

Jake had a slyly amused look in his eyes. I took him back into the tree, ascending higher, to a quieter place. I began to teach him the language. The first and most important tool he'd need for learning the ways of the Omiticaya.

Chapter X

I woke to find Grace nearby again. She seemed to take me for a son she never had, ever since I got in with the clan. She walked with me as I wheeled to the link room. "Max saw you in the ops center giving a report on Homtree's structure. Jake, don't take me for giving you crap, but I really don't want you that close to him."

Norm was packing some gear into a bag when we got there. "Why did you have me pack this, again?"

"I'm not about to let Quaritch and Selfridge micromanage this thing, the jerks-" She looked pointedly at me, "- think everything is theirs. I have news for them, it's not."

"That doesn't really answer my question. I'll add another. Why did you have me disengage the link while laying in Trudy's copter? And why's yours right next to it?"

"We're moving. There's a mobile linkup at Site 26, waay up in the

mountains." Norm's eyes went wide. "Th-the Hallelujah Mountains?"

"That's right." He did a victory air-punch. "Chyess!!!" Then he looked at me looking at him with confusion. "The legendary floating mountains of Pandora. Ever heard of them?" Grace laughed. "Apparently not. Come on, Trudy's waiting."

We wheeled or walked down hallways, like a maze, until we came to an airlock. Out the window, I saw Trudy's Samson spinning up. We got masks on, then went out to the ship. Trudy spun up just a little more. Grace and Norm's Avatars were motionless, mouths open, in the back. The climbed in, then laid me down, got the wheelchair folded and strapped in, then helped me into a seat in the front.

The doors closed behind us, and breathable air hissed in. "Masks off, I don't want sweaty faces- or smells," Trudy joked. She took off, heading towards the Hometree. She went high over it, leaving it in peace. She was like us, she was curious to learn about the land, about the people.

She climbed, entering the clouds. Norm was up front with Trudy, Grace in back with me. I could see sparks between them as she was talking him through the flight controls. "It only takes tiny inputs. Here- put your hand in the cyclic." He hesitantly moved his hand towards the joystick between her knees.

"Feel how small the moves are? You barely have to think it, and the aircraft reacts." We went under arches of rock that dwarfed the craft. "See these magnetic formations? We're entering the flux vortex." Norm got increasingly anxious. "Yea, look at my instruments," said Trudy. They were flickering, fritzing out. "Didn't know they were holograms in glass plates with magnetic

fields," I joked.

"Yup, were in the flux," Grace said. "It's all VFR from here," Trudy said. "VFR?" Oh no, Norm had learning to do, still.

"It means you gotta see where you're going."

"I can't see anything." Trudy giggled. "Ye-ha. A-hain't that a bi-hitch." We sat in silence for a while, looking at the inside of clouds. Then, after about two minutes, the clouds suddenly broke, revealing massive islands literally floating in the air. My jaw dropped. "," Norm drawled.

Trudy looked back at me, then turned back, struggling not to laugh. "You should see your faces." The mountains were floating about half a mile up off the ground, with scraggly beards of vines in the bottoms, and the tops overgrown with rainforest, like the ground. These further dwarfed the Samson. "What does hold them up?" I wondered. Grace had said something about a maglev effect because Unobtanium is a superconductor. I didn't get anything she said, though.

Trudy headed towards one of the floating rocks, climbing towards the tops. A winged creature fluttered away. "Look, a banshee! We must be close to Mons Veritas!" Norm said. "What's Mons Veritas?" He gave me the same look as he did when I gave him my perfect reply. "Only the Banshee rookery. The Na'vi call it Ura."

We got masks on just as she landed. "Thank you for flying Air Pandora," Trudy joked. The air hissed in again, doing to light what propane did. Norm and Grace helped me into my wheelchair, then we slowly made way to the

shack. Norm looked to the unconscious, lifeless forms in the back of the ship. "You lucky bastard," He said to me.

"Well, kids, welcome to camp," Grace said as we entered the shack. It was actually two shacks connected by airlocks. I lost her voice to nothing as I was looking intently on some pictures on the fridge. There was one of Grace posing at the school with various grinning children. Another one of her with two lanky girls, a younger looking Neytiri and an older girl who looked much like her.

I jumped, Grace tapping my shoulder. "Come on. You're late for lessons." She wheeled me into a short corridor with open airlock doors on the side. "Norm, you get the one all the way on the right. Jake, the left. Bueler. She's the least glitchy. I'll take the middle. Sorry, Norm." He gave me a disdainful look. "Hey. You got a problem?" I asked. He did.

He turned to Grace, frustration boiling over. "I trained three years for this mission. I speak the language fluently." He pointed a shaking finger at me. "He falls off the frickin’ turnip truck and all of a sudden he’s cultural ambassador!?" Grace remained calm. "It's not our choice, Norm."

He glowered at me. "Yeah, well I didn’t come out here to wash the dishes while you’re on some interspecies booty call." He stalked off. "He can't go far," Grace said. She pointed to my new link. "Let's get you in." She went to a switch panel on the wall, turning on the lights, then flipping covered switches. Norm's link popped open, then Grace's.

The lights in the spinning ring on Norm's flickered on, then the glass-panel screens. Then Grace's. Mine proceeded to do all three in one motion. Norm

pushed some virtual buttons, and the ring on his whined into spinning life. Grace made mine do the same. Then I hauled myself in. She adjusted the "sensor array", then lowered that and the lid over me. "Have fun out there."

The slow takeover came again. It was either the less powerful link or the thing adjusting to my preset. Anyway, it happened like the first time again. Only this time, I saw the backs of blue eyelids first. Then I heard a faint heartbeat above me. I slowly opened numb eyes, seeing Neytiri looking down at me from above with-curious?- eyes. She was looking at me like I was the most peculiar thing she'd ever seen. Then I was fully in the link.

She went towards the helical ramp. She took me to the highest reaches of the tree before going out towards a break in the outer shell of the tree. She had what looked like a worm in her hand. She made a series of chirps and clicks, increasing the rustling in the foliage of the branch we were on. Then a banshee, a winged reptile with the jaws of a fish, green-blue skin, and little feet came out, shrieking.

It had a harness on. I ducked, reflexes taking over. "Holy shit!" Neytiri glanced back at me. "Do not look in her eye." I looked down, about to have done just that. But why did my eyes lock on to what I could see of her breast? I dismissed it, forcing myself to look at the beast's wing. "Seze," she said, offering it the worm in her hand. It happily gobbled it down.

I had asked Grace earlier what they were called. Neural whips. But in the Na'vi's case they were more properly neural queues. The Na'vi called them Tsahaylet and the whips were Tsahaylisk. Interesting names. The banshee moved its whip towards Neytiri, who touched hers to the beast's. They writhed with each other for a while, then locked, making the thing shiver and stretch its wings. Neytiri went to its side, messing around with the saddle, giving an amused and contented sigh.

She proceeded to almost swing on, the thing shrieking again and uneasily fidgeting, wings weakly flapping. "Ikran is not horse. Once Tsahaylu is made for the first time, Ikran will fly with only one hunter in the whole life. To become T'aronu, hunter, you must choose your own Ikran and he must also choose you."

She gave the beast's head a pat, then looked back at me, with eyes that housed subtle affection. But just the other night she had walloped me upside the head with her bow, then she showed clear anger at being tasked with teaching me. So why was affection in her every look towards me? "When?" I asked her. "When you are ready," she said back. Then she lowered the headdress over her eyes, gave a cry almost at the top of her lungs. She had hold of something tied between the beast's antennae. Duh! The horse had had the same thing.

The creature launched off the branch, wings exploding open. I followed her with longing eyes. She was flying on it. With it. I made that my goal. That was my ticket into Quaritch's liking. That was my ticket in with- I choked on the thought. My way in with her? Where did such thoughts come from?

She circled the tree, coming up to a fly-by. She gave another call, the beast eagerly sweeping towards me. I ducked just in time for it to pass harmlessly over me. She circled again, then landed. She dismounted, gently taking her queue from its whip. She gave a coo to it and it fluttered back into the foliage. "Time to learn the first, most essential thing you'll need." She took me higher into the tree.

She sat me down, then sat down facing me. For the next week, I learned a

language. One that, when you thought about it, was actually rather beautiful. Just like Neytiri. But that nagging thought arose again. Why did thoughts targeting her beauty enter my mind so often?

Chapter XI

Learning a language was a pain. But in a day, I made some progress. Lips were seyri, eyes were nari, the word I had the most fuck-ups with, nose was ontu, and ears were mikyun. I liked the way mikyun sounded.

The next three months, she taught me that as we went. How to draw a bow, almost slapping me into correct posture. She calls me "skxawng". It means "moron".

I emerged from a link in that first week to catch Norm and Trudy in the act. Nothing to me, I had shit to learn. I barely even took note. His attitude has actually improved, lately. That morning I sat at the breakfast table with him, as always going over the language. "Thank you?" He prompted.

"Ireyo." He comically exaggerated the pronunciation back to me, "Irrrreiyo. Irrrreiyo. You’ve gotta roll the R, r-r-r-oll it." He did a twirling motion with his hands as he said it. It's good he's back on board, but he thought a was a skxawng, too.

She took me over rocks, pacing me. Getting me to be able to silently, nimbly, easily move through the treetops. My feet are getting tougher, I can run farther every day.

I followed her gracefully slinking through the trees like a spider-monkey. I occasionally had to find her clenching my arm, just like that first night I met her, almost plummeting into the river far below. I have to trust my body to know what to do. With Neytiri, it's learn fast or die.

She came to a dead end, slinging her bow back, stowing it, and jumped out over the landscape 40 meters below. She caught huge leaves, slowing her fall, and eventually landed unscathed in a little clearing below, gazing at me with curious eyes. But why curious? She had to be certain this would kill me.

I did with my bow what she did, and jumped out with a "You gotta be kiddin' me." I bombed it. She had fallen gracefully, without as much as a twitch. I was all over the place, barely managing to make it there without scratches. My bow had plopped down next to her. I found it in her hands in front of me.

She seemed surprised. That I followed, and even survived it. I gave her a sly eye, getting a slightly affectionate one back. The more I was near her, the more I felt like she was starting the sparks. But even Grace had said she was to marry Tsu'tey, her brother. The guy who'd been torturing me, figuratively speaking. Neytiri came damn close to real torture.

That night I met Mo'at, Neytiri's mother, and managed to sweet-talk her into giving Norm and Grace a hall pass. Now Grace even makes me coffee before link every morning. The next morning, I woke to find her looking up as Neytiri approached, the look of a child meeting its long-lost mother in her eyes. They

spoke for a while, indistinctly.

* o + # *

I was on the game trail with her. She pointed a track in the trail out to me, sniffed the air, touched the edges of the plants around her. I’m learning to read the trails, the tracks at the water-hole, the tiniest scents and sounds.

She pulled back the brush, revealing a Sturmbeest herd, stampeding through the shallows of a lake. One trumpeted, startling a flock of Tetrapterons. I stared at the tableau.

I was gaining gear as we went, now I had a loincloth and a bow, and some arrows I had mastered the fletching of. Now she stood utterly still, eyes closed, ears being the only thing moving, with a life of their own. "When you hear nothing, you will hear everything. When you see nothing, you will See everything." Sometime, I have no idea what she's talking about.

We were stalking prey. I drew the bow, bearing on a hexepede, Na'vi name Yerik, but I had to relax it. It’s been a month and I’m still not allowed to make a kill. She says the forest hasn’t given permission.

We stalked through the underbrush for a while longer. She pointed at some leaves and I parted them to find a mother viperwolf bringing meat to her cubs, which frisked around her legs. She licked their faces. Neytiri’s always going on about the flow of energy-the spirits of the animals and what not-

I was staring at a video camera, playing it all back in my head as I said, smirking, "I just hope this tree-hugger crap isn't the final." Grace was behind me, hunched over samples. "This isn’t just about eye-hand coordination out there. You need to listen to what she says. Try to see the forest through their eyes." She glared at me. I retorted,"Excuse me-this is my videolog here, okay?" She rolled her eyes, then went back to her samples.

The next day, she taught me the killing ritual, and then that night we went bow-fishing. The bottom of the lake shimmered with bioluminescent seaweed, contrasting the boat we were in. A large fish swam silhouetted against the pastel glow. ZAP! I drilled it, catching the arrow before it sank too far. Held up the fish, triumphantly.

She smiled, a smile that showed yet more of her spark-starting attempts. As the days wore on, she softened. Tried to make it obvious a relationship was growing. Oddly, that didn't strike me as bad. Something in me liked it. It took shape as some craving for something. Some desire that had yet to be fulfilled, and would burn into me until that was done. But what was it for?

The days seem to run together. I'm drawing a longbow expertly. She barely even touches me in correction, very gentle when she has to. Aware of her touch, my eyes locked with hers, and she abruptly pulled away, nodding for me to shoot the target she'd set up.

That night, we entered a clearing with chest high ferns. She indicated for me to hush, so I did, then she pointed as what looked like a lizard with a huge half-meter-long stick on its back. I slowly approached it, Neytiri taking on an air of childish amusement. Snap! The thing flew into the air, a yellow glowing disk replacing the stick on its back.

Neytiri dove into a nearby bush with a shriek, causing the same thing to happen dozens of times over. Grinning widely, she hoped around like a little girl, until they were all flying. For the first time, she was unguarded and joyful, totally herself with me. Alone. What was she playing at?

I open eyes in the link. I don't know where I am, weakly pushing the clamshell lid open. Everything is backwards, now. Like out there is the real world and in here is the dream.

Chapter XII

He took unwell to learning the language. Lips, nose, ears, eyes. Those he were solid on, except eyes. I'd have to teach him the language as I taught him other things.

We went to the clearing where he had just learned to ride a Pa'li. I gave him an initiate's longbow, made from rather weak wood. Not as strong as that of Hometree. I motioned for him to draw. I had to almost slap his clumsy position correct. He'd never learn!

The afternoon of that day, I was taking him through branches, over rocks. If he was to ever be one of us, he'd have to have agility, and tougher feet. Had to trust his body to know what to do. I reached a dead ended branch, stowing my bow and leaping out confidently over the ground far below.

The enormous leaves of trees broke my fall, allowing me to plop down on the ground unharmed. Surprise came to me. I hadn't expected him to follow me, or even make it, albeit bow making it first, to the ground in one piece. He gave me a sly look, and I returned one. As I did, a flicker of affection affected that sly glance. But why was this happening? Vaguely, something seemed to be trying to make me feel love towards him. But I was his mentor, and not even able to bond with him. To do so would ruin all my life's work.

That night, he spoke with my mother. She agreed to allow the other two Dreamwalkers I'd seen Jake with to settle in Hometree. The next morning, Grace had arrived. My teacher. The only reason I could teach Jake. I felt like a child meeting its long-lost mother. She looked up, an affectionate look spreading over her. "I see you, Neytiri Mo'at'ite," she said warmly. "I see you, Doctor Grace Augudtine," I replied. She looked back to the children around her, one playing with Grace's hair.

I took Jake out to the game trail, pointed out tracks in it, touching the plants around me, smelling the air. A hunter silently honing in on its prey. Jake had mastered the skill of fletching quite easily. He had a bow and his own arrows, now. It's been a month, almost, and he can't yet make a kill. He drew his bow, almost getting it right, but had to release it. The forest had not yet showed him permission.

We stalked through the underbrush a while longer. I scented a Nantang mother and her pups ahead, then parted leaves to reveal them. She had brought meat to the pups, which frisked around her legs. She licked their faces clean.

He was ready to learn how to take a life, properly. But he never would truly be taking a life, merely a body. I took down a Yerik, performing the ritual with increased attention, and explained it to Jake. He took on quickly. That night, I took him on a boat, bow fishing. He struck true in one, catching the arrow and holding it up triumphantly.

I smiled, one that sparked a feeling of affection in me. Yet who or what was it for? I seemed to develop some craving for something, a desire that burned at me and would until I fulfilled it. But what for?

The next day, he finally mastered drawing a bow. I had set up a target for him to shoot at. He drew, inhaling and remaining relaxed as he did so, I gently touched, checking his aim and posture. His eyes locked onto, and then with mine. It made me catch myself before I started to melt against him. I pulled back, nodding for him to fire. He struck true, in the dead center of the target.

I took him to where the te'reyisk were. He called them Fan Lizards. I signaled for him to be quiet, then pointed at one inching along a branch. He silently approached, hand outstretched. Snap! It unfurled its wing, lighting the branch and making it float across the clearing. Something inside me took over. The child within me released. With a shriek, I dove into a nearby bush, sending dozens of them afloat.

Grinning widely, I hopped around like a little girl, until they were all flying. I was alone with him, and it had taken me. The desire building, trying and failing to restrain itself. I was unguarded and joyful. Completely myself, with him. The child within revealed.

Chapter XIII

I barely could open the link bed. But I laid there, a pale, thin, lifeless sack of bones. Literally. Grace looked concerned. "You're still losing weight. Here." She proffered a microwaved burrito. I looked at it without enthusiasm. "I made my first kill today. Neytiri and I ate it. Better than the best steak I've ever tasted, Grace. I know where that meal came from." I now bit into the burrito without enthusiasm. "But this now tastes like shit, literally."

She grimaced. "Other body. You need to take care of this body, too."

"Yeah yeah," I retorted. "I'm being serious, Jake. You look like crap, you've been burning too hard." I snatched the cigarette from her mouth and stubbed it out. "Get rid of this shit and then you can lecture me," I spat. "I’m telling you, as your boss and someone who might even consider being a friend someday, to take some down time." She needed to program her link to put her in my first person. "Not now. Tomorrow we leave for Iknimaya."

She walked past me, going to make herself some coffee. "Yeah- you're going to go ride a banshee. Or die trying."

"That’s right, Grace. This is what I’ve been working for."

"And this is your check up from the neck up, Marine. You’re getting in way too deep." She turned away. "Trust me, I learned the hard way."

I scanned the pictures tacked up around her workstation. "What did happen at the school, Grace?" She looked up form the coffee, eyes tracking across the pictures of children laughing.

Finally, "Neytiri’s sister-Sylwanin-stopped coming to school. She was angry about the clear-cutting." She sipped at the coffee, grimacing at the taste. "One day, she and a couple of other young hunters came running in, all painted up. They’d set a bulldozer on fire. I guess they thought I could protect them." Her voice stayed oddly calm as she told the sad story, getting milk out of the refrigerator. "The troopers pursued them to the schoolhouse." Her hand shakily poured too much milk into the coffee. "Wainfleet killed Sylwanin in the doorway. Right in front of Neytiri. Then his buddies shot the others. I got most of the ids out before they shot me, too." Maybe Neytiri found some comfort in me, about this. "Jesus," I said, trying to comfort her. She was on the brink of tears.

"A scientist stays objective-we can not be ruled by emotion. But I poured ten years of my life into that school. They called me sa’atenuk, Jake. They called me Mother." She turned back to me. "That kind of pain reaches back through the link. She sat down at the table, looking intently at me. "It’s a job. Learn what you can, but don’t get attached. It’s not our world, Jake. And we can’t stop what’s coming."

* o + # *

I pursed my lips, concentrating. Today was like my big final test. I pulled the bow, silently taking in a strong breath, aiming. I was locked onto a Yerik. It saw me, flipped is fan, and bleated at me. The arrow flew. Neytiri grinned expectantly. I slinked over to the twitching body of it, removing the arrow and drawing a knife which lay in a sheathe which lay across my chest. Neytiri had fashioned it for me just that morning. Another addition to my gear.

I had learned a good deal of the Na'vi language, by now. Norm almost could chat with me in the mornings using it. I spoke haltingly, but with feeling. "I See you ,Brother, and thank you. Your spirit goes with Eywa, your body stays behind to become part of the People." I dispatched it with the knife, slowly sheathing the dagger after wiping it on the moss below.

Neytiri was looking at me like a son of hers who'd just made national at the science fair. But it was a side-long look. "You didn't kill," she mumbled. "You are ready." Ready for what? She took me back to Hometree, and up to the dinner area. Deserted. She got to being a little childish again. Like in the fan lizard grove. She got some kindling, then swiftly hit a couple of rocks together, sending sparks all over the stuff. It lit like dry grass.

She set up a little makeshift skillet, placing meat from the Hexapede on that. It sizzled, letting juices and an enticing aroma out. She went back down, finding Tsu'tey and saying a few words to him. He frowned.

I could just make out him saying, "Ready? For what?" She frowned back. "To become Ikran rider. His first clean kill was just this morning. Can you not smell it?" He sniffed. "Yerik?" She nodded. "I have two others who are also ready. He'll come with me." She nodded, then came back to me, flipping the

meat to find it already done. She split it in half. Gave me one and her the other, obviously enjoying it as if it were a dinner on a honeymoon.

"In a few hours, you go with Tsu'Tey." She handed me a half sticky bolo, rolled up. "I will show you what to do." She finished lunch with me, then took me out to the clearing again. "When you have been chosen, you will feel it. The Ikran will lunge. You must move quickly, or die. If you dodge, sling the bolo around closed jaws. Then you must make the bond." She acted this out, then Tsu'tey came along with two initiates on horses, both having a red chevron, wide and pointing down the nose, painted on their foreheads. Neytiri produced a finger with wet paint and gave me the same mark.

I mounted, and we rode. Throught forest, up cliffs, over the river and all that, till we came up on what looked like a stairwell, made from rock. It was boulders of pure Unobtanium, overgrown with vines that were as thick around as my wrist. We left the horses behind. "We doin' this?" I asked. The initiates and Tsu'tey began climbing like spider monkeys. I followed, pieces of the rocks chipping away and not dropping, but floating.

It was a good three minutes up, the landscape widening under me as more cam into view. Eventually, and the trees as big as Hometree were like rabbits in the mass of green life. We finally reached the top, Mons Veritas looming above and blocking out the sun. Some vines floated nearby, good enough to climb. Tsu'tey shouted something, and the initiates jumped out with him straddling the vines and climbing. I did the same after a hesitation, waiting for the next. They led up into a cavern, a grotto. Our footsteps echoed in it.

Iknimaya roughly reanslates to "path to the heavens". It's a test every young hunter has to pass. Hard to believe this body's only about 8 years old.

I saw light ahead, and then I found myself looking out over what seemed like the entire dayside of Pandora. Then I saw a teal banshee coming from one of the trees. It fluttered up, backing us back into the grotto, to reveal Neytiri dismounting it. She lifted her headpiece, smiling at me. This was my big moment.

"Jakesully will go first," Tsu'tey said. He had an ambitious tone, like he was betting on the thing chomping my head off. He clenched his jaw when Neytiri led me up the path leading to the rookery. "Now you choose your Ikran. This you must feel inside. You will have one chance, Jake. You must move quickly, liked I showed."

"How will I know if he chooses me?"

"He will try to kill you," she said nonchalantly.

Then she made an unexpected move. She took my hand, moved it out of Tsu'tey's line of sight, and squeezed it. Then she acted like it never happened. It calmed me. Made me feel like my ever attempt from now on would succeed. I eased out, seeing banshees ranging from golden to blue in color. They began shrieking or hissing at me, then flying away. I was a predator, stone cold before them, and they were the prey. In their eyes.

Then one, which was preening, glanced at me and turned around, hissing at me and tensing up. I looked directly into its eyes. "You look tasty. But worthy to ride? We shall see." It was thinking at me. "Let's dance," I said, never breaking eye contact. I unwrapped the bolo and got it going around like a lasso.

"This moron is going to die," Tsu'tey quipped. Neytiri edged away from him. I thought of names for this guy, the one staring into my eyes. We went about an eighth of a circle around each other, then he leaped at me, jaws snapping shut inches above me. I dodged right, smacking the bolo around that muzzle. Whip, whip smack. It locked in place, and I jumped onto the creatures long neck and wrestled with it, barely managing to touch its nerve whip before-

Wham! And I find myself flying, seeing stars, catching a vine at the very edge of the rock face. Neytiri gasped. Tsu'tey and the hunters began laughing. "I knew it!" But I flipped back up and ran at the thing, getting back into the fray. He was good. He was tough. Passed my test. "Tsahaylu, Jake!" Neytiri called. I was trying, damn it. "Make the bond!"

I got the thing pinned under me, struggling helplessly. I grabbed his and mine, and all but jammed mine into the pocket that housed nerve tendrils directly connected to the creature's brain. They locked, and it was final. Now I deserved the leather vambraces and chestpiece I wore.

Chapter XIV

It was like my life's purpose had been fulfilled. A feeling of exuberance, exhilaration. He'd actually done it! The creature, pinned under Jake, gave one last defiant thrash of wing before being subdued. He looked into Jake's eyes, who now hunched over it. "That's right. You're mine," he said, releasing the creature from the binding. Tsu'tey clenched his jaw, to the point I thought he'd grind away a tooth.

Jake stood the powerful beast upright, eyes wide from taking in all the power his new companion housed. I ran over, turning him out towards the sky. "First flight seals the bond. You cannot wait. Think, fly!" "Fly?" And he all but fell off, careening with a thrashing Ikran. This was his final test, if he could overcome the Ikran itself.

He careened towards a waterfall, then the beast tried futily to anchor its claws in the rock face. It fell away, flapping one wing, then the other. Jake hung by its Tsahaylisk. But then my spirits soared. A smile spread across my face. Tsu'tey clenched his jaw yet harder in frustration. He had bet on me killing Jake on Day 1. Now Jake shouted at the beast and then was, albeit wobbly, in level, controlled flight. He had become Ikran Makto.

All the sudden, I jumped up, running to Seze and jumping on, catching my Tsahaylet in her Tsahaylisk with little effort, and flying after Jake. With him. I felt like a child again, playful and happy, frisking about. I caught up to him, gliding wherever, but falling in with me on sight. We flew diving, trailing waterfalls, having a genuine good time.

I took him back to the grotto. The other two hunters had been successful, as well. One, however, sustained a lost bow. That afternoon I was explaining priciples of flight to him, how to stay even, not wobbly, and helped him make his hunter's headdress; he was Ikran Makto. We flew over the Tree of Souls. Our most sacred place. I pointed down, arm making circles, and then moved my hand over my heart.

He looked down, then back at me. Our eyes locked, unable to hide longing. Affection. But why was this only when I was near Jake? I decided to teach him hunting from the sky.

But an unexpected surprise came of Ikran hunting lessons. He was about to strike, when a shadow fell across us. "Dive!" He yelled. Above us loomed Toruk. The most fearsome air predator I knew. We all but flew downwards like arrows just let fly. The beast followed us down into the canopy, splintering everything that blocked him from us, until Jake called, "Follow me!" and flew vertical through a wall of tough vines.

The beast roared and gave up. No way to follow us through that. We anchored nervous claws into a tree nearby, eyes wide with terror. Then it reversed. We both broke out laughing. It only further dug me into the mystery of this deep longing, this deep craving I had for something. Someone.

That night, I found myself with him b the honorary totem of my great grandfather's mount. He had been Toruk Makto. Rider of last shadow. Jake was running his fingers along the powerful jaws. I took his hand. But it felt comforting, like I was meant to. "My grandfather's grandfather was Toruk Makto," I began. "Rider of last shadow." Jake looked at me with wide eyes. "He rode this?!" I nodded. "Toruk chose him. It has only happened five time since the time of the first songs." He ran his hand along the crest of the magnificent creature's skull.

"That's a long time." I squeezed his hand again. I felt, oddly, like I was tied to him, deeper than simply being his mentor. Ever since I had first laughed at his Pa'li lessons, this desire, this craving, this affection had built up within me. "Toruk Macto was mighty-he brought the clans together in a time of great sorrow. All Na’vi people know this story."

I didn't know why, but I felt like kissing his hand. I resisted, actually letting his hand go, because Tsu'tey had come along. He'd put an arrow through my neck if he saw me. I was overwhelmed with the need to take Jake to the Tree of Voices, to show him what it was. But he would have to go the final step before I would be able to. Uniltaron.

Chapter XV

Today was the beginning of the Hunt Festival. I loved it on the banshee. I may not be much of a horse person, but I was born to do this. Me, Neytiri, and some other hunters swooped low over a herd of Sturmbeest. A rider came in on direhorse, hurling a spear 3 meters long into one, the beast crashing to the ground and flipping twice from the momentum. I drew and fired, making another do the same. Neytiri was grinning wolfishly, arms up and cheering at me. I glanced up Tsu'Tey saluting me. But he had grudging admiration, not pure admiration in his eyes.

I dismounted after directing him towards Hometree. I'd have to carry this back on foot. Sturmbeest were to heavy for Ikran. Neytiri was just mumbling to herself on the way. I couldn't make out what she was saying, but she seemed to be pondering something. We reached Hometree to find the Festival in full swing. Dancers in costumes of any beast you could find on Pandora. But I looked around to not find one of a Thanator. Na'vi name Palulukan, the Dry Mouth Bringer of Fear. The most fearsome predator known. Fearsome, yet he was not failproof.People sat around a fire gnawing on sturmbeest ribs and other meats.

A bowl of some kava-like drink was being passed around. Neytiri was frolicking, dancing, letting herself free in a beautiful, flowing costume of the banshee spirit. It was hard to look anywhere other than her chest. Some of the young hunters surrounded me, begging for the story of the Leonopteryx attack. I acted it out with my hands, telling them every bit. Some laughed,

some cringed, the rest enjoyed-well, all of them enjoyed it.

Tsu'tey sat next to me in the ring of people, taking a sip of the kava, and passing the bowl back to me. A challenge? Or an olive branch? Grace stepped up behind me, tapping my shoulder. "Watch that stuff, it'll knock you into next week." But it was good.

After a minute, Tsu'tey won, having taken more in. "I thought-enough drinkyou would not be so ugly." "Sorry." He looked deep into the enormous bonfire in the middle of the commons. "Your warriors-hide inside machines- fight from far away." He locked eyes with me. "I never thought a sky person could be brave, like you." Before I could answer, Neytiri's lithe shape came running through the circle of silhouetted dancers, pulling me towards it. "You must dance! It is the way!" I could tell, in her voice, I was the target. She was making a move on me.

Hunters whooped and cheered as I joined the vibrant colors of costumes and the graceful dancing that made up the ring. Neytiri kept me in front of her, eyes locked with mine. I lost the sounds of cheering and singing around me as she danced with me, grace and power at the same time taking appearance, the epitome of beauty right in front of me, dancing with me. I lost ever getting my legs back, Tommy, all of it to those bottomless eyes of Neytiri.

I pulled grace up, regaining the drums and singing, adding to primal energy. She protested, but I made her dance. I let myself free. Channeling primal energy, dancing from the inside. I forced Grace out, too. Unlocked the cage of the child within her. She rocked out, grinning. Norm danced seductively- with his own tail. Poor guy had a right to be angry with me. Neytiri and I flowed amongst the dancers, looking only at each other. Dancing from the inside, being ourselves. No restrictions, no regret, just pure happiness.

I danced abandon of the primal beat of drums, the enticing voices ringing out. Lost everything to Neytiri. We were more than mentor and student. She liked me. Alot. I could tell by the way she looked at me. But something was missing. A mystery I would solve later. We danced ourselves to death. Barely managed to make it to the hammocks. She lay there staring at me, me the same. It seemed like she had become the only thing in my world other than me. But you have to wake up, sooner or later.

The inside of the link unit was getting old. Ugly. I belonged out there, in the forest. Not cooped up in a shack, the only place I can breathe. It's like in here's the dream, and out there's the real world. It was dull and monotone in here. Out there, I had the fun. I had a life. In here, it was the same thing every day. Nothing special. I was almost blind,almost nothing in my human body. I ware pale, thin, and only getting worse. I fumbled around with the coffee. I was a Na'vi at heart, had to be. I could see perfectly out there. In here, everything was the same. No contrast. Hard to believe it's only been three months.

* o + # *

I sat on a branch above her, watching her bend a pitcher-like flower towards her, sipping nectar as sweet and thick as honey. A sensuous sight. It's hard to put into words the deep connection the People have to the forest. They see a network of energy that flows through all living beings. They know that energy is only borrowed, and someday you end up having to give it all back. I can barely remember my old life. I don't know who I am anymore.

Avatar Jake, with life, had to sleep for a while. Trudy had orders to fly us back to the main compound. We met Parker Selfridge again. The greedy boss here. "Good of you to stop by. How's it going out there? Our blue friends all packed up yet?" Grace wasn't happy. She'd changed over the three months. I was like a son she'd never had. I had-no, I was the way back in with the Omiticaya. She liked me now. "See, I keep hooking it. It's the damn pack," he spat as he swung the driver with good form. He was teed up over a golf ball, trying to make good shots. It sailed out and landed just past a marker that read 220. A trooper ran over to retrieve it. "The low gravity and high air density cancel out so-" Grace god mad. "You called us back to report. You wnt to hear it or not?" "Go ahead." "Jake's making incredible progress. Years worth in only a few months. But we need more time." Selfridge looked up, finally. "Not what I wanted to hear." Grace got even angrier. As if by her will, it began to rain. "Parker, it’s their ancestral home. They’ve lived there since before human history began. You can spare them a few more weeks." He looked back to the tee. "This thing is inevitable. What does it matter when it happens? I’m sorry, Dr. Augustine. You’re out of time." He walked into the building, leaving Grace and I to get drenched.

I wheeled in, after Grace, stomping out, to give my report to Quaritch. He'd also had us called back. "Your last report was over two weeks ago." Two weeks ago, I lost definitions. Lost what it was like to be human. Everything was right when I was in the Avatar. But I was betraying them. "Haven't gotten lost in the woods, have ya?" I couldn't meet his eyes. "I'm starting to doubt your resolve." He pulled up a chair, sitting backwards in it, facing me. "Well, I see its time to terminate the mission." A voice in me screamed no. "No sir. I can do this." He smiled. "You already have-you give me good, usable intel. Like this Tree of Souls place, yeah, I got them by the balls with that when this turns into a shit-fight, which it will." I recalled all the videologs I'd made. The memory chip with the pictures of Tree I'd had to send him. I was torn by all I was doing. He clapped me on the shoulder. "You always know when it's time to come in. Oh by the way, you're gonna get your legs back."

I looked at him, falsely surprised. Something in me was controlling me. I

could never be one of the Na'vi for real. But I felt like I could. Like I belonged here. "Yeah! I got your corporate approval. Gonna have you on a shuttle tonight." "That's real nice- not," I thought. "I’ve gotta finish this thing. There’s one more test. It’s the final stage of becoming a man. Then I’m one of them. They’ll trust what I say-" It was hard for me to form the words. I was not used to being in a human body anymore, and worse, I couldn't believe this was real. "-and I can negotiate the terms of their relocation." His smile changed to a frown. I had just rejected what I was doing all this for. Getting my legs back. "Well then you better get it done, corporal." And Grace came in, wheeling me to the airlock and putting a mask on me. Trudy flew us back to the shack. But Grace wasn't happy. "Uniltaron?!" She was smoking furiously when we got there. " Jake, you can't."

I got some rack before she finished. The next morning I would go the final step. My Avatar would become one of them. I wish I could. They have so much more quality in life, so much they can brag about that mankind can't. This world is true. Earth is gray and false, filled with evil. But what brought such thoughts to me?

* o + # *

I drank black coffee like a tequila shot. Grace still smoked furiously. "Jake, I can't allow this. You're just not strong enough." She tried to keep me from going through the link corridor. "It's the final door, Grace. I'm going through it. You can help me or stay out of the way." I pushed past her towards the door. She grabbed me. "Will you listen to me? Sometimes the Na’vi themselves die in these vision quests. The venom takes you to the edge of death. And the psychoactive alkaloid in the worm-we have no idea what that’ll do in an avatar brain."

I broke away and wheeled down the corridor. A will not mine inside me, taking over. Motioned Norm to start the link. "Calibrating. Thirty seconds." She put her hands on my shoulders. "No matter what you prove out there, you're still in here."She shook me. "Right here." "No, that's not true," the voice inside piped up. "I have to go all the way. Become one of them-" She shook me again, and started yelling. "God damn it, Jake, you can never be one of them!"

Norm looked up, startled at the vehemence in her voice. "Our life out there takes millions of dollars of machinery to sustain. You visit and you leave!" I pulled myself into the link weakly. All my strength in the avatar, now. She softened. "You can never truly be with her." She pinioned me with the truth. But how did she-? "You know why I'm here?" I asked her. "Because Quaritch sent me." Norm looked shocked. "What?" Yeah, that's right, be shocked, I was, too. "That’s right, to embed with the Omaticaya. To find out how to screw them out of their home. By deceit or by force, he didn’t care. And if it turned out to be force, then how best to do it." Norm was in shock. But Grace was eerily calm. "And how about now, Jake?" I was finished with him. Forget my legs! I'd rather be put on life support and the link sealed up. I'd rather sleep as the Avatar, damn it!

"I'm not that guy anymore." Grace nodded. She'd been on my journey almost every step of the way. "I know." She was back, almost, to her normal self. Life was so unfair at times! "But if I tell Quaritch the truth, he yanks me out I never see her again. And if I tell her the truth, the clan throws me out that’s if they don’t cut my heart out and show it to me." I looked hopelessly at them. In my own perfect Hell. Norm spoke up. "They won't understand what you've done." Quite the understatement. "They don’t even have a word for “lie”-they had to learn it from us." I was on the verge of tears, lost and alone between two worlds. I didn't know which side I was on. "I know." She softened even more. "I taught it to them. Along with the meanings of trust and hate." The link span up. "Grace, I have to go. They're waiting." Norm, "Link is ready."

She stopped me closing the lid. "Jake. You can’t carry this burden much longer." She was right. "It’s okay. Mo’at says an alien mind probably can’t survive the Dream Hunt anyway," I said, smiling wanly. She closed the lid.

Closed my coffin. Watched my psionic patterns alinging to the avatar, somewhere in the dawn. "Prep my link. I'm going-" But I lost her.

* o + # *

I sat there while Neytiri and some other hunters painted my face and body in preparation for Uniltaron. The Dream Hunt. "When your Spirit Animal comes, you will know," she said. Our eyes locked, showing emotion neither of us could hide. Grace stood at the ramp to Hometree's lowest level. She tried to follow me and Neytiri and the others down, but was barred by a hunter. Neytiri led me to the center of a tight ring of elders and senior hunters. One slowly rapped on a large water drum.

Mo'at lit a leaf with herbs on it, chanting in a low monotone. Neytiri had told me what to do. I used my palms to wash the smoke over me, breathing deeply. She took a package wrapped in another leaf, unwrapped it to reveal a piece of wood riddled with holes. Her fingers ran over it, catching the end of a glowing purple worm. She drew it out, saying, "Oh wise worm, eater of the Sacred Tree-bless this worthy Hunter with a true vision." I stretched my tongue out, and she placed the worm on it, indicating for me to chew. I did, the worm tasted like nothing. I closed my eyes, heard Eytukan, the Olo'Eyktan of the Omiticaya, their leader, patriarch, open an earthen jar behind me, drawing out the Arachnoid. The Pandoran equivalent of a scorpion.

The elders began a synchronized chant. Eytukan placed the insect against the back of my neck and pressed. It pushed its stinger into me eagerly. A grimace spread over my face. Pain, yes. But twisted with it was ecstasy.

Mo'at and Eytukan stepped back, leaving me in the circle, alone. My eyes opened, pain blazing in them. Neytiri was watching intently. The faces around me transformed, becoming threatening. Instantly, the ring of elders receded. Like space itself was distorted. Sound, too. The chant and rapping of drum became echoing, thunderous.

Then I was in a ring of miles high trees, everything having a spectral radiance. I looked down to see my body and hands transforming-fingers stretching into tendrils, legs becoming roots which spread outward across the ground, a thousand glowing dendrites which connect to the roots of the trees. Then I was on a mountain cliff. A shadow drifted across me. The unmistakable X of the Great Leonopteryx. The last shadow. But- it couldn't be. If what Neytiri had said was true- but it couldn't be!

Time itself seemed to accelerate-clouds screamed around the mountain tops, mist boiled through the forest. I felt the wind of time blowing through me. I merged with the beast. I became the beast, flying over the landscape. But it was all wrong. The forest below was blasted. Fires flickered among trees that were burned black and lifeless in a smoky twilight. A great winged shadowmy shadow- rippled over the devastated landscape. Then everything faded, and the elders appeared. Except they were above me. I was laying on the ground, gasping. Weakly, I rolled up onto one elbow and looked around the room. A pile of puke was on the other side of the ring. "It is finished," Moat said calmly. What really happened to me in reality? Neytiri was looking down at me, face flooded with relief.

"Did your Spirit Animal come?" Eytukan prompted. I collapsed onto my back, the pain coming back. I looked from him to Mo'at to Neytiri. How could I tell them what I had seen? But Mo'at came to my rescue. She put splayed fingers to my forehead, seeming to peer into a troubled soul. To me, "Something has come." Neytiri's jaws parted. To the others, "It will take time for the meaning to become clear." Eytukan motioned for me to stand. I got up, weakly.

He took me out of the "basement". I could tell Neytiri wanted to squeeze my hand, but was too far away. Her mother blocked her way. What was Mo'at playing at? We emerged. Grace's jaw dropped, as if to say, "He did it?!" She was amazed. Relieved. Proud. Eyes brimming. Neytiri took hold of my arm. Eytukan put his hands on my chest and held them there, saying, "You are now a son of the Omaticaya. You are part of the People." All the members of the clan pressed forward, crowding around and putting their hands on my shoulders, back, chest-hands upon hands, until I was connected to everyone. Neytiri looked into my eyes with an unavoidable longing. But what did she long for? Me? I was surprised I'd made it through the Hunt.

We stayed there for about ten seconds, my eyes locking with Neytiri's, then with Eytukan's. He was proud. Everyone was. I blinked a long blink, sighed a long sigh. Everyone let go unwillingly. Grace led me up to my hammock. "I... I never thought..." She was so dumbstruck she couldn't finish. She was tired too. She stressed all the energy from herself. I caught a glimpse of Neytiri offering Grace her hammock for a while. It was obvious she was about to collapse. Then I closed my eyes. Norm was who I met, outside my link. "What happened?" I smiled with my eyes. "Norm, I just gave you yet more reason to be jealous. Sorry, pal." He scoffed.

Chapter XVII

Night had fallen. Grace hadn't said a word, let alone come out of her link. She must have been asleep. But I wheeled back to my link. If I knew Neytiri, she was waiting for me to go back in. There was something I had to do in her presence, something inside me said. Norm had taught me how to prep my link. I just barely could reach the top buttons. I started Grace's for her, too. Norm was asleep. Neytiri was doing just what I'd thought she would be. I woke in the Avatar to find her staring down at me with a child's curious eyes. But this time she locked eyes with me and didn't hide it.

I rose up, flipped onto the branch next to her. "Come. I have something I want to show you," she said. Her voice was silken. I was drawn towards its source, irresistibly, could do nothing but only follow her. She took on an air of her inner child's release again. She had seemed to dress for some occasion. Instead of her usual feather "bra", she had barely opaque beads there instead. Her hair wasn't braided, but flowed more gracefully than ever in the breeze.

She was now even more beautiful than she'd ever been. She even had feathers in her hair. A laugh escaped her as we neared a lake separating us from an island that had a tree with enormous roots under it, most reaching down into the lake, but one formed a natural bridge between its island and some land farther in the distance. Neytiri dove from a rock, slicing into a mirror of water. Something inside me took control.

I dove in after her. Underwater, we swam over glowing anemones. She looked at me, I looked at her, our eyes locking. She let herself free, coming close to me and flitting around me in the water. We swam in a cosmic dance above glowing, swaying life. Purple fish swirled around us. She took my hand, intertwining her fingers with mine. We popped up on the surface, breaking the momentary connection. It was oddly bolstering. It only made me feel more and more like this was where I belonged. Another mind was taking me over.

She ran, giggling, over the enormous tree root. It was a natural bridge, alright. I tried to snatch her waving tail as we reached the land. She wheeled, thrashing it, giggling some more. All the fan lizards around us stirred, putting on a pretty, additive light show. She came to me, twisting her tail around mine, saying, "Come." A giggle, then she said it again, infusing it with that giggle. She pulled me by the arm towards a giant willow. The trunk was gnarled as Bonsai. The weeping parts were soft, faintly glowing tendrils. Moss glowed underfoot, reacting to footsteps. An exquisitely beautiful spot.

She walked through those tendrils, an enticing forest of rosy glow, arms out, letting them caress her. I did the same. Voices whispered to me, mumbling indistinctly. She put love in the air. But why love? "This is a place for prayers to be heard," she said softly, with that silken voice. She reached a little grove in the middle of this field of rosy glow. She took a few of the silken tendrils and put them into a group, then her ear to them. "And sometimes answered," she said with a smile, and while stroking the tendrils. Then she surprised me. She took the end of her Tsahaylet and raised it to the group of tendrils, those becoming bound by the extension of her own mind. She let out a content sigh.

"I call this tree Su'traya Amok'ria," she said, voice diminishing to say, "The Tree of Voices." I absentmindedly took a few of the Tree's tendrils and put mine to them. The touch of those tendrils had whispered in my ear, but when the tendrils of my own mind wrapped around them, my mind was filled with voices. "I-I can hear them!" They were speaking of nothing and everything at the same time. A young child's voice, a hunter making a birdcall, a dancer chanting, an elder telling a story. She broke away from hers and came over to me.

She put her hands over mine, stroking the tendrils- of both my mind and the Tree. It felt unusually pleasant. Sensual. What was going on? She looked at me, eyes formerly on the bond, now in mine with a burning passion. "They live, Jake!" She glanced all around. "Within Eywa." She moved her hands to my chest, breaking me away from the Tree. "You are Omiticaya, now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree..." her eyes were glossy, burning with emotion. But then they frosted over with shyness, with guilt. She turned away, locking onto a woodsprite. An Atokirina. A Seed of the Great Tree. She let it alight on her now outstretched hands.

"...and you may choose a woman," she finished with a sad voice. Was she

thinking what I thought she was? But.. I could have any woman? Any single woman. And then the mysterious feeling inside me, the invisible hand controlling both of us, revealed itself. To me, at least. It was true love. Ever since she'd saved me from the viperwolves. Then, it was love at first sight. Now, it was love that struck into me just as the feeling of my banshee's choice had. "She is who you must choose," a voice whispered in my ear. My mind said it was Eywa. The living being made up of all Pandoran life. My heart said it was Neytiri herself. However that worked. "We have many fine women," she began, shakily. The Amazon warrior trying so hard to sound casual. I suppressed a smile. "Ninat is the best singer," she finished. If what she taught me was true, wouldn't she be able to see that the woman I wanted was right in front of me? "Well, I don't want Ninat," I rasped. She almost turned back to me, but turned her head again back to the Atokirina and blew gently at it, sending it up into the air. Her arms fell to her sides with remorse. She half-turned back to me, then continued naming possibilities. "Beyral is... a good hun-" A finger appeared on her lips. It was mine. Now she turned all the way back to me, eyes coming free and bursting with longing.

"Yeah, she is a good hunter," I said. Then her very being took on the same feeling of being taken over by the same means I had. "I've already chosen," I rasped. She looked into my eyes, hers wide enough, to become bottomless black wells. Wells filled with burning passion and longing. We longed for each other. Eywa had had plans for me from the start. This was the real reason I had come here. I lost it again; lost Tommy, ever getting my human legs back, and the world, to her deep, luminous, gorgeous amber eyes. Then I lost a little spirit. What if I wasn't the one she longed for?

"But this woman must also choose me." I was looking at her with passionate desire laced with remorse. A deadly combination. Her head swayed. She was caught dumbstruck by my words. But she remained in control-somewhat. She took a delicate, feminine breath, only drawing me further into mischief. "She already has," she sighed. It was done. We had chosen each other. Just like Ikran and rider choose each other, we became mates. I put my face close to hers. I didn't know if the Omiticaya kissed, but I was about to find out. She wasn't fully immersed in the inner desire's control-until she rubbed her cheek against mine.

She was a warrior. She would have been thought to have leathery skin, for that skin to be toughened from daily life. But instead it was soft, warm, inviting. It felt like the softest silk. Then she was completely taken over, too. We lightly kissed. Her lips were softer than the rest of her. A passionate sigh emerged from her. Then she came back to me. A much more meaningful kiss, both of us receiving true love's first kiss. We explored each other, her body seeming to melt against me. It, too was soft as silk. It was a most erotic, sensual experience. But she pulled back, preventing a third smack of lips; I could tell this was only the beginning.

A smile spread across her face. She mumbled a few words to herself, indistinctly, then spoke with a voice flooding of romance, beauty, affection, a voice soft and enticing. She had allowed me to start it, and now she had to finish it. She smiled, fangs like daggers that led her to my heart, and put her arms around my neck, looking up to me with deep, beautiful eyes that sparkled in the rosy glow of the Tree. One arm reached down and grasped her queue. The other she pulled me down to my knees with. She looked at it like a child would something it wanted. I took hold of my own, head rocking to swing it into grasping range. I put on my unsure face.

She seemed to ponder, to reassert her own will for a brief moment. But then she joined me under the otherworldly influence once more. She locked eyes with me, then we locked eyes on the tendrils of our own minds. The were so close to touching.

The tendrils strained to be joined, like the plants had strained to feel me, to find out what I was. My eyes closed, as the tendrils finally did touch. They intertwined, forming as if two wires being twisted and readied for soldeirng. Nothing happened. Then they locked, and became a bright light in the night. A V shaped bond that made my vision blur momentarily, my head drop, and rise again, looking at neytiri with a dumbstruck face.

It was pure sensual bliss. Euphoria, sensual gratification, pleasure, in many meanings of all three words. I felt my eyes pull as wide as they could get. My lungs filled with air in what was almost a gasp. Not quite, but almost. She raised her head, the Na'vi equivalent of "Oh my god" on her face. Her lungs copied mine. She looked at me with intense emotion, got a few different angles. Both hands came to my cheeks, and then we came together in the beginnings of an embrace. Neytiri had plans other than that. Her lips met mine again. They were inviting, soft, silken doors into her. I'd always known she had a fiery spirit. I never dreamed it could turn into this. She was no longer the tough warrior that I knew, but a soft, delicate child. She was running her hands along the back of my head, touching me all over. All she could do was plant a kiss wherever she could. Irresistably, insatiably. With every touch, the spot tingled and then granted more of the bliss that was the Bond. Then, without thinking, I leaned into the kiss, turning it into a passionate French kiss. My arms wrapped around her, then I leaned back. She came up, thighs rising away from her heels. It made her expel all the air from her lungs with a passionate sigh that drove her into purely erotic breathing all together. It was fast, loud, feminine, extremely enticing.

She wrapped her tail around me, making mine return the favor, bent down and met my lips again. It seemed to be her favorite thing to do. I met it eagerly. Then she found her way into me. Every moment she found another way to reinforce the bond. I felt her poking around in my happy memories, feeling what I did for her. Inviting me to do the same, so I did. It was bliss, just such undescribable bliss, such sensual gratification. I felt every bit of it, including hers. Just like any time, the Bond made her like an extension of my body, the same in her eyes. We were now simply one life made from two that had just merged. She had been under restraint for so long. It tore her to pieces bearing the weight of knowing but not knowing that, deep inside, she loved me, not her betrothed. The moment those tendrils locked, that weight was shattered. I settled into her and had comforted her, brought her to realize just why she had survived for those long 18 years before nearly shooting me, and then being pulled into this after but three months.

She gave another trembling sigh and seemed to lose balance, to collapse, taking me to the ground with her. We sank down on the bed of glowing moss. Ripples of the rosy glow spread over her, heightening the romance, the beauty of the moment. I lifted her with ease, but of course her back arched,

because of my touch. It made her stretch every muscle in her body, I got underneath her. She collapsed across my chest. Spent. I stroked her face tenderly, wondering if my memories were really there for her to snuggle up in. Then I got a little dislodged from the otherworldly control, feeling that I was sure of myself in this, that this was my purpose in life. "Neytiri, you know my real body is far away, sleeping." She rose up, arm over me, hand on the ground to my immediate right. The other hand rested fingertips upon my chest. Her eyes said I was wrong.

"This body is real." She rested her palm on my cheek. "This spirit is real." Her eyes were luminous, honest, infinitely deep and revealing. She laid her head down over my heart, listening to it, struck and idea in me. I listened, too. And she knew- no, she felt it. Through Tsahaylu; the Bond. It could not be surpassed, it was total. The minds linked and became truly one. In my present case, and Neytiri's, minds that linked, fused, caressed. And frankly, I'd kill to have it forever. "When I was first your teacher, I hated all Sky People, Jake. But you also taught me." Her voice diminished into a whisper. She turned her eyes up, looking into me, literally. "Spirit is all that matters."

She melted over me again, reveling in my presence. "I am with you now, Jake. We are mated for life." She said it with such emotion. For life? "We are?" I asked. She looked down, seemingly scolding herself for something. "Yes. It is our way." She got an innocent tone going. "Oh. I forgot to tell?" I roused up, making her look at me with curious eyes. "No really, we are?" I was shocked and soothed at the same time. "We are," she confirmed. I considered. Enjoy it while it lasts? Well,something in me made me sure that however events passed, I'd get the full return of her companionship. Every moment we shared minds, I got that more and more sure-fit inside myself. More and more with the everheightening knowledge of her. She was a warrior with a much more beautiful side. And I only had to do one thing to provoke it.

"It's cool. I'm there," I said, laying my head back down, her arms enfolding me, sheltering me as I returned the favor while we fell into a deep,

passionate sleep. One that I was pulled abruptly from. I laid there, thinking. No longer inhabited by another mind. Eywa had had plans for me from the moment those woodsprites swarmed over me-the only reason I was taken under that otherworldly mind's control. My being taken in by her, receiving my share of her spirit.

Neytiri's words chased me back to the link bed. "We are mated for life..." What the hell are you doing, Jake?

Chapter XVIII

A splintering of wood awoke me. Another sent me jumping up. My tail lashed at the sight. The air stank of Sky People. They were destroying the Tree of Voices! I bent down over Jake and shook him. But he wouldn't wake. It was like there was no longer any consciousness in him. Was he still in the dream that came of the mating? "Jake! Jake, wake up!" I screamed in futile desperation at him. The monstrous shape of one of the machines they used was approaching. "Jake, please!"

I gave that up and began dragging him away. Out of the path of the monstrosity, screaming at him still more. "Jake, please, wherever you are, come back to me!" It took about a minute, and then he woke up. I had dragged him clear. But he took one look at the thing and jumped up, running at it, then got in front of it, jumping up and down screaming at it. It stopped, as if it had a mind. But these things did not have minds. They were machines. Jake swept a rock up from next to him. He ran to the side of and then jumped up on top of the monster, it only having paused to consider him. He reached something on top, what looked like eyes, and hit it time and again with the rock. He just smashed at it until all of them were in ruins. Then one of the people on the ground shot at him. Their weapons were not bows. They looked like sticks with handles, the shots ringing out into the distance instead of flying in silence.

His face in demonic, primal rage, he dodged the shots and leaped off the monster, as I was calling his name again. He reached his hand in my direction as he was landing and called, "Come on!" He took me by the arm and ran with me out of harm's way. We found a sheltered spot where I could see what was left. It brought tears streaming down my cheeks, wailing to my cries of loss. My face contorted in agony. Smoke filled the air, flames lapped at the remains of the Tree. There was nothing left. Nothing.

He slammed his fist into the sapling behind me repeatedly. Enraged. The Sky People were intruding into everything I knew. Jake had called it my "happy place". But there was nothing left. Everything was bare earth. The monster Jake had crushed the eyes of blindly pressed on, leaving total destruction in its wake. I couldn't stand anymore of the nightmare. I screamed at myself to wake up. I was already awake. Nothing would come of it. He ran through the woods with me, aimlessly looking for Hometree. Were they attacking it, too?

We found it and entered, me holding Jake's hand tightly. Tsu'tey and a few other hunters were reporting what they'd seen to Eytukan. They were hunting when they came upon the lifeless path forged by the monsters. He and many others were crowded around my father. I heard him saying, "Tsu'tey will lead the war party!" Tsu'tey steped forward, raising his bow and shouting a war cry. His face full of rage. Grace stepped forward, her voice ringing out. "Please! Please stop!" Some of the noise died down. "This will only make things worse!" Tsu'tey came forward, angry. "You do not speak here!" he reprimanded.

"Tsu'tey, she's right! Listen to her!" Jake called. His eyes locked onto Jake. Erupted with burning hate. "You!" He yelled. Grace wheeled, catching a glimpse of our held hands before I released it. "You mated with this woman?!" he yelled even louder, toppling Jake onto the ground with an unexpected, rage-filled push. "Oooh shit!" Grace wailed. Tsu'tey had all but forgotten he

was about to lead retaliation on the Sky People. Even I knew that would be futile. But Jake jumped up, subtly motioning for me to come to him. I did, clutching his hand. I had to show Tsu'tey who I wanted. He would have to learn to be less selfish.

Mo'at came into the fray. She looked straight at me with hard eyes. Eyes that showed heartbreak and anger. "Is this true?" She asked with gritted teeth. I only moved a little from Jake. I had chosen. "We are mated before Eywa." I half rolled my eyes, looking around at wary faces. "It is done." Tsu'tey turned to me, Eytukan and Mo'at. His face filled with anguish. Mo'at was eerily calm. "Neytiri, if you choose this path, you will never be Tsahik. Your life will be ruined!" I remained as calm as she. "I have chosen."

Tsu'tey drew his knife, anguish reversing into rage. He pointed a finger at Jake. "These aliens destroy everything! Neytiri was promised to me! Everything is changing. Everything is being destroyed!" Then he lunged at Jake, knife at the ready. "NO!" I screamed. Jake was ready this time. He sidestepped the blade, meeting the attack with an elbow in Tsu'tey's face, who reeled, nose bleeding, preparing a second attack. "Brother, please!" "You are not my brother!" He lunged, Jake dodging again and drawing his knife. "And I am not your enemy!" Now Jake threw the knife into the ground. It stuck, blade penetrating the soil and holding the knife upright. "The enemy is out there! And they are very powerful!

"Listen to me! I can talk to th-" "No more talk!" Tsu'tey lunged once more, but Jake now met it with more than an elbow to the face. Tsu'tey nearly fell to the ground. Grace backed up next to me. Mo'at and Eytukan were behind me, staring in horror. Tsu'tey had not properly challenged Jake. But he had, and now he backed off a little. Where to strike now? Suddenly, Grace keeled over, eyes rolling back into her head. I barely caught her before the hit the ground. "Grace!" But she was either dead or had fainted. Jake turned. "Oh no," he said with desperate dread. Then he turned to me and Mo'at. "Listen. There's something I have to tell you. I was sent here to-" But then the same thing that happened to him that happened to Grace. Tsu'tey leaped on his back, knife at Jake's neck, holding his head up by his Eltu. "You see? This is a

demon in a false body. It should not live." He went to slice Jake's throat. But primal fury erupted in me. I wouldn't have it. Nor would Eywa. I ran at him, dropping Grace. I hooked my hands under his arms and landed on his back with my feet, making him drop the knife and sending him sprawling into the crowd. He scrambled up as I drew my knife and snarled at him, knife at the ready, teeth bared, ears flattened. I'd kill if it meant Jake would live. He grunted at me angrily, then called his hunters and pushed away through the crowd.

Chapter IXX

I wheeled at her name. "Grace!" I'd pretty much beaten Tsu'tey, but not in the traditional way. She had fainted. But not fainted. something was wrong. Was the shack being destroyed? Shit. "Oh no," I said, the dread in my voice all too clear. But then I lost everything. In a world of nothing. No color, sound, smell, texture, or taste. Then I was staring at the link interior. Voices were shouting outside the link. "What the hell is going on here?!" Grace. Then the link popped open. Quaritch was standing right above me. I pushed myself up, getting as much in his face as I could get. "Are you out of your god damned mind?!" I yelled. He raised one eyebrow and calmly said, "You crossed the line," like I was a convict. Then he hit me with a two ton punch on the side of the head, dazing me. "Wheel this meet outa here," he barked. I felt zip tie handcuffs being put on me, then nothing. I blacked out.

Next thing I know, I'm waking up being wheeled down a hallway, arriving at the ops center. They flew me back home. It was all over. I'd truly ruined Neytiri. I was so sure of myself that night-for nothing. Eywa'd had plans for me. But Quaritch ruined anyone's plans. Neytiri would be lost forever. Unable to take her rightful mate. Nice going, Jake. Now I saw Quaritch playing through the video footage on the camera mast I'd smashed. I had a reason, damn it. These people had no right to just stomp through another peoples' territory and destroy everything. I was set right in front of it.

He stopped it just before the main camera went dead. My demonic, enraged blue face on the glass panel monitor. "You let me down, son." He bent over me. "So what, you find yourself some local tail, and completely forget what team you're playing for? Forget getting your legs back. Forget anything I promised. You just undid all your work." I met his burning gaze with a defiant glare. "Parker, listen, there may still be time to-" Grace piped up, but Quaritch got in her face. "Will you shut your pie hole?!" She returned just the right thing, giving him that face. "Or what, Ranger Rick? You gonna shoot me?" "I can do that," He said eagerly, hand patting his holstered pistol.

She turned back to Selfridge. "You need to muzzle your dog," she said, pointing shaky fingers at Quaritch. Selfridge came over, looking into Quaritch with nervous eyes. "Yeah, can we just take this down a couple notches, please?" I broke in, staring at Parker. "You say you want to keep your people alive? You start by listening to her," I said seriously.

She continued. "This is bad, Parker. Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in a way you can’t imagine-" He broke in with an angry, bored tone. "Awww you know what, you throw a stick in the air, around here, and it'll land on some sacred- fern for Christ's sake!" She got in his face. People were doing that alot, suddenly. "I'm not talking about some Pegan voodoo here, I'm talking about something real. Something measurable, in the biology of the forest." He did his hands in the air like he was waiting for something. "Which is what, exactly?" She had her hands going, too. Quaritch was looking on with amused eyes. But she turned to me. "I can’t do this. How am I supposed to reduce years of work to a sound bite for the illiterate?"

"Just tell him," I said simply. She turned back to him. "What we think we know, is that there's some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora-" Selfridge broke in. "Whi-which is alot, I'm guessing?" She got even harder a voice. "It's more connections than the

human brain. Get it? It's a network. A global network and the Na'vi can access it-they can download and upload data, memories. And all that at sites-" She raised her voice to emphasize- "Like the one you just destroyed." Selfridge nodded in fake understanding, then laughed out, "What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They're just god damn trees!" Grace was on the verge of knocking him out. "You need to wake up, Parker-" No, Grace, you need to wake up-"Parker! The wealth of this world isn’t in the damn ground! It’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they’re fighting to defend it. If you want to share this world with them, you need to understand them." Quaritch touched the panel, going to my videologs. " Oh I'd say we understand them just fine," he said, selecting one of them.

"Thanks to Jake, here. Take a look." She came over, sharing a nevrous glance with me. What had I done now? Quaritch went to about the end of the log. My haggard, bearded, and borderline deranged head swayed a bit. Just talking. "They’re not going to give up their home, they’re not gonna make a deal. For what? Lite beer and shopping channel? There’s nothing we have that they want. We’re a horror to them. We’re the monsters from space." I watched in growing dread as my words condemned the people I had come to love. The woman I had made mine. For life. "They're never going to leave Hometree." It faded out. "Since a deal can't be made, I think things get real simple. Jake, thanks. I'm gettin' all emotional. Might just give you a big wet kiss," Quaritch said with contempt. Grace got desperate. "Parker, we can still salvage the situation. There's still time-" "No grace, there isn't You're on the next shuttle out of here. I'm shutting down the Avatar program. Effective immediately." Quaritch smiled the biggest smile I'd ever seen him smile. He was clearly enjoying this.

We were crowded into sleeping areas. Grace was speechless. So was norm and myself. We slept until late morning. I heard Waynefleet's voice and wheeled towards it for no reason. I was lost. In my own perfect Hell. He was on the screen, talking. He panned the camera across the wreckage of dozers, an AMP suit, and dead marines with arrows left unretrieved in them. Everything on fire. The war party Tsu'tey led had struck. "They hit with banshees first. Set the suit on fire. Driver’s toast." Quaritch and Selfridge looked on grimly. "And the rest of the squad?" Quaritch prompted. "Six bodies- that’s all of ‘em. And the equipment is totalled." "Christ," Selfridge sighed. I wheeled to the link room. Grace was there. Everyone was busy

packing up for the trip out. My life and Neytiri's were now damned. Ruined. All torn into a million pieces. Grace sat, palms covering her face, gulping down a beer. "They bulldozed a sacred site on purpose, to trigger a response. They’re fabricating this war to get what they want. The bastards," Grace spat. "I can't believe it," Norm said. My turn. I saw her book and dug it out of the pile of papers, setting it upright in front of her. "That’s how it’s done. When people are sitting on shit you want, you make them your enemy. Then you’re justified in taking it." Trudy ran into the biolab, breathless. She was wearing full gear and carrying her helmet. "Quaritch is rolling the gunships. He's gonna hit Hometree!"

Chapter XX

I pumped furiously into the ops center, after a furiously stomping Grace. "Parker!" She screamed. An officer tried to herd her out. "Doctor Augustine, you cannot-" She whipped around and gave him a slap that, surprisingly, sent him sprawling. "I have every god damned right to be up here!" She stomped still towards the window, the guard holding his temple and going, "Damn!" over and over. "Parker, wait! Stop! These are people you're about to-" He resumed the trend of getting into peoples' faces. "No, Grace! They're flybitten savages. That live in a tree! Alright, look around! I don't know about you, but I see a lot of god damn trees. They can move!" She was about to slap the crap out of him, this time with her ring turned the wrong way.

"Parker, there are families in there. Children! Are you going to kill children?" I broke in. "Look Selfridge, you don’t want this kind of blood on your hands. Let me try to talk them out. They trust me." He stood there, considering. Went over to a radio. Picked it up, held it to his mouth, and pressed a button. "Quaritch, I need to delay you for a bit. Our cock-blockers may turn out productive after all." A moment passed, then, "Aight, I'll slow up, but this abomination of a tree's coming down today and if not, well, you won't like me." Selfridge dropped the mic and pointed towards the link room. "You're on a timer." I was pushed to the room, Grace still stomped. When we finally arrived, she barked at the techs getting just ready to pull the plug, "Prep them! We're going in!" And after the tech gave her a confused look, "Yep,

right now! "

"Calibrating three and four." Those links popped open. The ones Grace and I had used before we moved to the mobile site. So no one had to mess with that frame of optical fibers. Grace got into hers, slammed the lid shut, and waited. I hauled myself in, but was stopped from closing the clamshell. Parker kept it open, pointing a jerking finger in my face. "You've got one hour. Unless you want your girlfriend in there when the axe comes down, you get them to evacuate. One hour." And he slammed it for me. It gave me purpose, rage, knowing that he knew what had gone down two nights ago. But how?

My link slid into place, then Grace's. For some reason, I caught a glance of hers not running. No matter, I had a time limit. I waited, twidling my thumbs, while the slow machine took me over.It took five minutes before I opened the avatar's eyes to find Neytiri crouched over me fidgeting, worry flooding in her expression. "Jake! What is happening?" She asked. I had to wait. "I have to speak to the clan. Now." I got up, made for the secondary ramp down into the commons from the dining area, where Neytiri had dragged me. I was surprised Tsu'Tey hadn't taken advantage of Quaritch pulling me out.

But Neytiri took a tight hold on my hand, just as Grace's avatar came to life. She glanced at our hands, then looked to me. "Go, damn it. You're wasting time." So I took Neytiri into the commons with me, albeit a little unwillingly. I'd rather not have her there for what I had to say.

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