They had help. One of the Marines went native, rallied all of the tribes that he could find. I he had a few others on his side as well—all the other members of the AVATAR program, and a Samson pilot. There were also reports of animals that-
We had Scorpions, god damn it! Gas, missiles, high-explosive rounds! A.M.P suits! And we get outmaneuvered by one Marine leading an army of the indigenous?
How much did we lose?
One of the landing shuttles, nine tenths of the Scorpions, and all of the combat-outfitted A.M.P suits. Hell's Gate is currently being decommissioned, and all of its hardware dismantled. Most of the mining vehicles are already destroyed or inoperable, and most of the weapons are either in the hands of the indigenous or also destroyed. All living personnel are being shipped back to Earth aboard the ISV Venture Star.
And our investors? What do the stocks look like?
Jesus. So I'm guessing this got to the Net on Earth and the Colonies already.
So we're down to half our monetary resources, with three more interstellar vehicles nearly finished and almost fully fueled. And eleven more on standby.
I need to know what kind of ordinance we still have on Earth. Anything non-nuclear, any vehicle that doesn't drive or fly by itself, list it. I also need to know how many are willing to fly another mission back-pilots, soldiers, whatever. I'll work out the specifics later. We're going to send the three ISVs we've got.
Sir, after this, there aren't going to-
Just find me the hardware and find me the men.
General Alexi Hayes studied the map with the air of a priest reading the Bible.
The projected scan showed a mass of forces at least two thousand strong, heat signatures so close together that they morphed from yellow to red. The forest concealed the source of those signatures, but he knew—Na'vi. Two thousand Na'vi, plus Banshees, plus Direhorses. The two thousand Na'vi that had managed to rout his mentor's gunships, along with the assault ship and shuttle that they had been supporting.
The map flickered with distortion. The ISV Venture Star had been scanning from orbit, and the planet's magnetic field had still been strong enough to affect it.
Hayes opened his mouth, cleared his throat, and spoke.
The scanned image flickered into motion. Quaritch's assault ship and the shuttle rolled into the picture from off on the right side, Scorpion gunships surrounding it in a classic support pattern. A quarter forward high and low, the other three quarters well spaced in back.
He scanned down to forest level, bringing up a video log of one of the A.M.P suit operators in the rear of the formation. Good spacing, all gaps filled in by support troops.
He waved a hand over the scan table and the advancing forces skipped forward, then froze. A bookmark showed itself in ghostly capitals at the bottom of the table: 'FIRST ENEMY CONTACT.' And slightly below, the time to engagement: 00:00
Voice recordings floated from the scan table's speakers—Quaritch, A.M.P teams, the wing coordinator. Hayes pulled up the TACMAP, and a massed wave of enemy contacts was flooding toward the floor teams. Direhorses.
The wave was far wider than the floor team, but from the moment of initial contact the outcome was clear. He pulled the A.M.P video again and watched as rounds broke the wave in a matter of seconds. The few arrows that managed to fly hit their targets, but none penetrated the A.M.P suits, and the unsuited teams were quickly reinforced.
Back in the sky, a wave of Banshees rained down from the cliffs and ripped through the Scorpion gunships. Arrows penetrated cockpit canopies, Banshees gripped gunships and threw them into cliffs, and for a solid minute the pilots stayed nearly motionless. Hayes grimaced. He remembered a cautionary report on the Scorpion's capabilities. More than capable in ground engagements, air-to-air combat was not its ideal deployment. The guns were mounted wrong; they didn't have an angle that covered the top, and the tilt-rotors could only bring the gunship's nose up a few degrees. Coming out of the sun, the Banshee riders faced no resistance.
Quaritch should have known they would come from above. Coming from below was suicide, as was from in front. Back was out too, since the gunships could turn on a dime in no time at all. Benefits of tilt rotors.
But when the Banshees dived, Quaritch exploited the advantage. His strategy was fractured, but he had the high ground, the high technology. Ground teams pressed in, and from above the Scorpions pursued those that ran. Hundreds dead in less than a minute, and the assault force still had dozens of vehicles and thousands of rounds.
This was the sixth time he'd watched the scan. Many mistakes had been made. But with more than half the gunships and all of the A.M.P suits left, he couldn't figure out how the Na'vi had won. The scans available to the public showed no further than the last of the Direhorses fleeing from the advancing ground teams.
The wall speaker buzzed a short tone, and his secretary's voice came through, clipped and professional.
"Someone here to see you, general. A representative of RDA."
Hayes almost responded before the lights came up to half and the door hissed open. He set a hand on the grip of the pistol at his side and waited. He'd sealed the room, and only he could open it. Even his secretary didn't have the lock code.
A man stepped into view, crisply suited, blank-faced, a hint of Asian origins in his composure. Hayes' fingers slipped down further on the pistol's grip, and he visualized the motion he would use if it came to guns. Draw straight, extend arms, lock. Fire.
"How did you override the door seal?"
The man bowed slightly at the waist, his expression unchanged.
"CEO wants to see you, sir."
The shuttle was the latest in its line, a slimmed-down version of the Valkyrie meant for colony-to-colony flight. A moon shot was now a journey of hours rather than days, and Hayes spent all of it wondering what CEO wanted with him.
The Resources Development Administration had been a legend almost since its startup. Its pilot product—a new computer operating system—had dominated the field within a year. Even Microsoft and Apple had been helpless to compare. Over the next half-century it had branched into other areas: first computer manufacture, then transportation, then weapons. Ultimately, RDA had become so massive that its influence surpassed major governments. By law, it wasn't anything other than a corporation. But in its influence, it might as well rule the world.
He had thought only for a moment about refusing to go, dismissing the interruption and returning to his study. But after his career, he had developed an instinct for the politically advantageous. If CEO, the leader of the most powerful organization anywhere, wanted to see him in particular, that was something worth pursuing.
CEO. The acronym was a word in its own right now, applied to whoever happened to be leading RDA into its latest profitable venture. Most didn't even use their real name any more, preferring the prestige and power that came with the title. CEOs of the past had brought down multi-billion dollar corporations overnight, toppled major governments, and razed entire rainforests. All in the name of profit. And if success was measured in money, then CEO was richer than God.
"Attention passengers. The shuttle is now approaching the landing zone. Please fasten your seatbelts and wait for landing."
Besides him and the blank, suited man, the shuttle was empty. That meant urgency. Chartering a shuttle for a trip to the moon was simpler than it used to be, but it was still expensive. And without passengers to offset the cost, the implications were that time was of extreme importance.
What kind of meeting, Hayes wondered, was so important that it had to be in person?
There was no noise outside as the shuttle lowered onto its landing pad, although there was a jolt as the landing struts were received by docking clamps. Walls arced up to create a dome around the ship, and then there was a great hissing all around as air flowed in to equalize pressure.
"Thank you for flying with us today. You may now exit the shuttle."
The suited man beckoned, and Hayes followed without question.
The path was surprisingly short; out of the shuttle, then directly into the pressurized complex that was RDA's headquarters. The company practically owned the moon; they had developed the tech to fly there and to colonize it, and it was their shuttles that everyone used to travel. It seemed fitting that this should be their base of operations.
He was ushered into a foyer that looked like it was stolen from a mansion on Earth. Hand-woven carpets, black-vein marble, and cabinets and desks made of hardwoods that had been extinct for years. Above, a reinforced dome showed a view of the stars. A secretary was tapping away at a projected keyboard, and looked up for only a second to nod at him and his equally blank companion.
"CEO is in here."
The man gestured to a door set in the center of the far wall. Hayes thanked him and walked to it, blowing out a breath before opening the door and walking in.
"Hayes. It's an honor to meet you."
He hadn't said 'sir'. Only a few people could get away with that, these days. His eyes scanned CEO with interest; he was younger than Hayes would have expected, probably early thirties, with close-cropped brown hair that was leaning toward black. His eyes were sharp, intensely focused, and vividly blue. Ice blue.
"I've been reading your service record with interest for some time now, and I must say I'm quite impressed. You are either extremely lucky or extremely intelligent, and I look forward to finding out which."
Hayes tried and failed to hide a scowl. "May I ask why I've been brought here?"
CEO shifted behind his desk and then stood, holding a thin remote, barely more than a stylus. Hayes couldn't see what he did with it, but all of a sudden the room was dark and a scan projector was whirring from the ceiling. The scan of the Battle of Pandora came up in the center of the room, and CEO walked to the edge, folding his arms.
"Could you have won this battle?"
No pause. CEO smiled. "How much of this battle have you seen?"
Hayes looked at him quizzically. "All of it, sir."
The view skipped and blurred with speed.
Banshees. Hundreds of them. Maybe even a thousand. Poised high above the weakened gunships and already-engaged assault ship, there was no way Quaritch could muster a defense. The newcomers tore a hole in the remnants of the force from which there was no recovering.
A button clicked in the dark and the view shifted to ground level, where massive beasts—Hammerhead Titanotheres Hayes knew—were smashing through A.M.P suits to pieces. Between scan contact and engagement range there were only a couple of horrified moments, and he watched in awe as the A.M.P camera he'd watched himself was tilted to the sky and then crushed under a huge mass of bone.
The view pulled back again, focusing on the shuttle. Quaritch's voice echoed from ceiling speakers: "Valkyrie 1-6, this is Dragon. Press to target!"
A massive red-and-yellow winged creature soared down from nowhere, and Hayes' mind went quiet with the impression of scale. It was bigger than a Samson, something meant for legend instead of reality. A Na'vi was riding it.
A Na'vi with a machine gun, Hayes noted with surprise. It sliced through the remaining machine gun nest and tossed something into one of the shuttle's VTOL engines. A second after the Na'vi had reunited with his flying creature, the shuttle's engine flared red with fire and the entire craft banked, clipped a cliff, and then spiraled into the ground. The explosion sent a visible shockwave through the forest.
The scan paused, and the lights came back up. Hayes kept staring at the swath of red the explosion cut in the forest, the play of flames. CEO eyed him.
"Quaritch's assault ship suffered the same. This is the full recording of the Battle of Pandora. I ask you again: could you have won this battle?"
Hayes's mouth was open a crack. He closed it, swallowed, paused. Then he spoke.
"It never needed to become a battle."
CEO raised an eyebrow. "Clarify."
"The shuttle. They didn't need to rely on the VTOL engines to get it to the target. They didn't even need to send the Scorpions out. All they had to do was secure the explosives in the shuttle, fly it to a higher altitude, and then put it on a trajectory that took it directly over the target. Then level it. No loss of life, Human or indigenous, and objective accomplished. Area's clear."
CEO's mouth quirked in a smile. "Then you see how I do. Now—" he clapped his hands together. "—business."
Hayes opened his mouth to speak, but before he could even let out a breath the scan in front of him changed. Now there were three ISVs hovering in the air, just large enough for him to pick out the name emblazoned on the foremost one's side—ISV Terra.
"I have three ships with space for 1500, plus cargo of 1000 tons. This is taking into account the space already allotted for mining crew and stereolithography plants."
"3D printing. Large-scale." He waved a hand dismissively. "My point is that we have a space for several times the force that you saw engaged in the previous scan. And we have the potential to place each and every one of them inside their own gunship, A.M.P suit, or even assault ship."
Hayes's mouth was still open. "Sir...?"
"I'm offering you command, General. Command of the Second Expeditionary Force."
The scan projector whirred serenely in the silence, and motes of dust drifted in the blue-tinged light. Hayes tried to say something, but the words caught in his throat. Too many realizations, too fast.
CEO paced around the back of the scan, arms folded.
"We need the unobtanium. Without that, without the resources to power and connect our planet, Earth and every one of her colonies is going to die. Earth is already dead. The only green left is in hydroponic towers. But if we can get at that unobtanium, the capital will let us start construction on a real fleet of ISVs—massive ones. Colony ships. It will let us take the pressure off of Earth and give her some breathing room where we can plant trees and let grass grow again. So we can start over."
He pressed another button on his remote and the scan faded, lights coming up again.
"Quaritch was one of the better military men in the world, that's why I chose him for security. Security, you understand. But he'd never had a real command; even in Nigeria, he was only managing small forces. But you're not a grunt. I followed your recent action down in Venezuela, down with the last of the green. That was outstanding work."
Even Hayes hadn't seen the after-action reports for Venezuela. As far as he'd known, they hadn't even been written yet. Strangely enough, that was what made the hugeness of the moment sink in. His mind hadn't yet adapted to the idea of other planets, other sentient species. But this, this common thing—this he could understand.
CEO turned to face Hayes, looking him squarely in the eyes. Their gaze locked.
"My terms are these. Win back what we lost, and I will give you anything."
The word hung in the air between them, frozen in the line of their eyes.
Hayes blinked first.
Were it anyone else, he would have laughed. But this was a man whose control over events was greater than anyone else in history, whose ambitions spanned worlds and generations. A man who controlled a company that could, feasibly, rule the galaxy entire.
CEO broke the stare and continued. He looked entirely unfazed.
"When you reach Pandora, you'll have full control over personnel and equipment, and absolute authority over all of it. You report to me, but I will not do anything more than suggest. Command is yours."
Silence descended again. Hayes laced his hands behind his back and squeezed, brow furrowed. CEO waited patiently. Eventually Hayes looked up.
"The Na'vi that brought down that Valkyrie, sir, who was it?"
CEO's expression darkened.
Hayes started. "The one who made it into the Omaticaya tribe? I read the Times release on that—"
"He went rogue. Defected. Warned the indigenous of the impending attack, and successfully organized his own. He also somehow managed to herd the Banshees and Titanotheres into Quaritch's formations; if you paid attention, you noticed that both were riderless. We don't have much information, but it is presumed that he is still alive and still residing with the indigenous. It's him we'll be fighting."
The silence felt oppressive. In his head, possibilities arranged themselves with mathematical precision. But they paled next to the image in his eyes, a blue-green gem of a world set with clouds of pearl. He had grown up hearing stories about the place, could still remember his parents showing him the first Offworld issue of National Geographic on their aging tablet computer. The vividness of foliage was unfamiliar even then, over a quarter of a century ago.
He closed his eyes and sought the memory and it came to him: the sense memory of his laugh of awe, the yearning for something more than his cramped apartment. The ache. It pulled at him still, passed down the years and only strengthened by the things he'd seen.
Only a couple moments had passed. He breathed in deeply, breathed out.
Opened his eyes.