Excuse the long delay in writing this chapter... I've been rather busy of late, but haven't dropped the story. This chapter is a bit shorter than some of the other ones, but I wanted to push it out anyway so you all had something to read :). More are on the way.
Chapter 15: Incoming
3 Years Later
Pandora was as she had always been to mankind, an unfathomable mystery, a locked box of secrets impossibly faraway from the smoldering cinders of Terra. Her forests glimmered in the darkness, leaves alight with glowing radiance, a multitude of colors, of scents and sounds. She was a planet, alive with the sensations of a living world, conscious of itself.
A soft breeze fluttered through the shimmering leaves, echoing into the vibrant jungles. For Jake, this was home, this was natural, it was life as it should be. If someone had told him before he left for Pandora that he would find purpose in the sweating jungles of an alien world, he would have burst out with laughter. Yet that was exactly what had happened. Spending time at Hell's Gate had made him appreciate the forest anew, rekindling his love for this world.
His ears twitched, picking up the familiar sounds of animals scurrying about the jungle. Familiar scents graced his nostrils as they flared slightly, gathering in the clean, pure air of this place. Yet despite everything he desired about this world, there was one thing that stood out above all. Calloused feet gripped the dirt slightly as he smiled, letting loose with a furious run, dodging tree branches as he flew through the trails with practiced ease. For a moment all concerns about the impending war were lost to him, the great burden lifting from his shoulders as he glided through the forest.
It was Neytiri who finally put a stop to it, dropping from the forest canopy almost silently, facing him with that inquisitive look he so loved. His feet ground in the dirt as he slowed to meet her, skidding to a stop, still enjoying that sensation of motion every day. His days as a cripple had taught him to appreciate every moment of life, even the small things.
"We must hunt today. Bring back meat for the clan." She chastised. Yet she couldn't resist a smile as she continued. "Sometimes, you are still like a baby."
"Yeah, a real sxkwang, right?" Jake teased. "So.. what's it to be, yerik?" It was always yerik, though. Sure, there were many other beasts out there, but none so numerous or possessing so much meat. And there were only so many ways you could season the same thing, day after day. If there was anything Jake missed from his life on Earth it was just that, the food. Memories of tastes he could no longer experience lingered in the back of his mind. At this point, he might actually prefer Marine chow over yerik meat. And Marines were certainly not renowned for their gourmet cooking abilities.
Before his mate could compose a reply, his radio beeped pointedly. Only one word emanated from the device, and it shattered the dream that was this world, wiping away any concerns over food, running or even the attentions of his mate. All the blood drained from his face.
Somehow, Enrico Gomez always managed to draw the least desirable duty possible. There wasn't exactly much opportunity for promotion on a single ship stranded at the ass-end of the universe. Here he was, stuck with watch duty on the tactical station. Watching sensor feeds and radar returns in the vast emptiness of space ranked rather high among ways to die of eternal boredom. Yet it wasn't a total loss, Jane Meyers was present, and if her mannerisms were at all indicative of her mood, he just might be able to worm his way in there.
Certainly, Jane's attraction to the Captain had been a problem, but it was just another hurdle to jump over. He'd already merged with his new Avatar body and there really wasn't anything preventing him from putting on his game face and making a move. Deciding the tactical console had little entertainment to offer him, he turned towards her, smiling broadly.
"So, we got the bridge to ourselves tonight." He offered.
"Seems that way." Jane replied rather coldly.
"Bored?" Enrico inquired, his eyes narrowing slightly. Jane's exasperated look told him she got the hint.
"What is it with you guys? Just because you got bigger equipment now doesn't mean I give a fuck." Jane replied angrily.
"I wasn't asking you to give a fuck. I'm saying, let's fuck. Unless you got something better to do." Enrico pointed to the communications panel which looked even less interesting than his own.
"You remember the lesson that smartass Norm was giving everyone? You can't have sex without issues here." She answered, but something in her eyes spoke of the temptation that was lingering in her mind. Enrico had been steadily working on her these last few months since becoming permanently bonded to this body. While Jane was right, he did have better equipment now, that wasn't all of it. Certainly, sex had a lot more complications on this ball of dirt than on Earth, but at some level it didn't matter. Norm had told him that if a bond succeeded, it was a done deal. That was good enough for him.
"Yeah, I remember. Plug in your stuff, if it works, you're in it for life. If it's going to go bad, then the bond will fail. Actually baby that sounds a lot better than dinner and movie." Enrico offered, ducking underneath a support girder as he walked towards her. Her gaze didn't waver, but there was some kind of excitement there. This had happened among several of the crew after bonding and somehow the relationships all worked out well in the end. There was something to be said about Na'vi physiology, after all. It certainly made mating much more simplistic even if far more permanent.
His eyes lingered on her breasts, somewhat larger than Na'vi norm, his hand brushing over it gently, sliding over the fabric of her uniform. Jane's gaze never wavered as he leaned forward, his lips parted slightly. The kiss rapidly became more primal, for neither had satisfied their biological need for quite some time. Enrico felt himself falling into her, furiously undoing her top, pushing her against the hatchway.
"Unknown Contact." The computer blared across the nearly-empty bridge. Enrico cursed wildly, the steady stream of invective surprising even him. What a perfect time for some piece of space junk to come floating into sensor range, he thought angrily.
Returning to the tactical console, the smile on his face rapidly vanished, fear traveling down his spine like electric current. The computer had already done the legwork and his eyes lingered on the flashing dots on the screen. A formation of vessels approached Pandora along the approach vector from Earth. A Montana-class battleship led the deadly armada of warships and ISVs streaming towards them with deadly inevitabilty.
"What is it?" Jane asked curiously.
"They're here, ma'am." He replied, military training kicking in immediately. She was his superior officer, and regardless of anything else which may have happened, this was no time for games. "I read one Montana-class battleship, two Eastwind-class battlecruisers and three Capital Star-class ISVs, inbound, in loose formation."
For a moment, Jane simply stared at him, her mouth agape in shock. Everyone had suspected this day would come, yet all had hoped it wouldn't. The reality of it weighed heavily upon her and for a moment she couldn't say or do anything other than stand in mute horror. Not only had the enemy arrived, they had arrived in impossible force. Duty nagged at her, breaking the spell of silence which had taken hold of her. Her fingers danced over the comm panel, and a single word echoed across the world below Montana.
Dr. Grace Augustine, Phd. no longer felt time in the literal sense, she no longer felt anything, and yet she felt the entire living pulse of Pandora. Existence was a dream from which she knew she would never awaken, a vision of everything she choose to see. For a moment she soared in the clouds, one with the mighty toruk, then she was a leaf, blowing softly in the afternoon breeze. There were voices of Na'vi long passed, so ancient the language was incomprehensible to her. Yet the meaning was plain, the tenor of sing-song tones changing from one of shock to one of alarm and finally to one of stark horror.
She was whole again, standing in the darkness of Eywa's own mind, that world-spanning consciousness which felt all. Her lab coat billowed around her, familiar smoke carrying along the breeze from the cancer-stick stuck between her fingers. Pandora materialized around her, a representation of what lay beyond drawn out before her. She was in the forests now, sifting through the trails, passing by the great trees stretching as far as the eye could see. And beyond, were the unnatural walls of Hell's Gate itself, the mighty fortress of mankind, so far from home.
Wistful memories coalesced around her conscious mind, pieces of her awareness coming back to her gradually. She was a wide-eyed student, gaping in wonder at the footage sent back from the RDA company probes. A smile came to her at the thought of the pleasant memory, an almost unnatural thing after so long wallowing in bitterness. How had that happened? Where did that curious little girl go wrong? More memories came to her, the floodgates opening in her mind, threatening to wash away that pure innocence. RDA had come, and she with them, not to study, not to learn, but to take and destroy. Scenes of destruction played out again and again, beautiful forests leveled, the ground cut clean open, scarring the land and finally so many innocent Na'vi slaughtered over nothing but rock.
And they had returned, those who had destroyed their own home, without any moral compass other than what happened to suit them at the moment. Eywa had awakened her mind for a purpose, that great mind would need her help, her unique insight, in the battle to come. That such a thing loomed on the horizon was no longer in doubt, Eywa felt their presence, the immense destructive power floating over Pandora. By extension, Grace felt it too, and it became clear to her what had to be done, for no matter the wisdom of that powerful mind, there was nothing Eywa could do to defend herself and her world.
Grace knew she didn't exist in any literal sense, but it felt like she did. Did that make her a ghost, a figment of the imagination of a world? She felt the answer as soon as the question burned through her mind. Her non-existent body simply passed through everything, the massive steel barriers of Hell's Gate, the concrete of the habitation module, into the familiar surroundings of her old laboratory. A wave of maudlin passed over her, a longing for the comforting presence of her studies, her burning desire to learn and experiment. Yet those days were long past her now, in truth there was no further need to study Pandora, she was Pandora. Max was there, in his new body, hard at work growing Avatars for the survivors of Earth. Behind him, Norm worked diligently to assist, trying not to bump his head in the now low-hanging ceiling above him. It was now or never.
"Hello Kitties." The statement was only two words, but it couldn't have startled them more, projected as it was directly into their conscious minds. It was a power Eywa used very infrequently, for the need was certainly rare enough, but now was not the time to wait for someone to get around to talking to her. She had to reach out to the humans who had taken up residence here. Amusement coursed through her as Norm bumped his head against the ceiling, cursing loudly in shock. For his part, Max was rather less surprised, blinking once to ensure he wasn't hallucinating.
"What in the name of Eywa?" Norm managed to choke out.
"Funny, Norm, that you should mention her..." Grace smiled, which was almost as shocking as her sudden appearance.
Silence pervaded the bridge of the battleship Kongo, smothering Parker Selfridge with its omnipresent weight. Only the soft sensor sweeps and muted whispers emanating from the various comm stations interrupted the deadly quiet, reminding him that he was, indeed, on a very different type of vessel than the ISV he had departed on all those years ago. Crew shuffled around him, ignoring the presence of the civilian interloper like some kind of disease. Deep down, everyone blamed him for the state of affairs that had led to the apocalyptic war over Earth, and it registered in those hostile gazes, those whispers directed at him when they thought he couldn't hear.
"Entering Orbit, ma'am." The helmsman reported with absolute precision. For her part, Admiral Matheson didn't even flinch. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her command chair, knuckles white with tension and perhaps a twinge of fear. Parker knew better than most that the fight ahead would be neither easy nor lack for a price in blood, and he had enough blood on his hands for many lifetimes. Another war loomed ahead for Pandora, the second for no better reason than the first.
"Give me a visual." Matheson ordered crisply, betraying none of that anxiety Parker suspected lurked just underneath the surface. He knew Matheson lack for sanity, but apparently few others were truly aware of that fact. Either that, or they simply ignored it out of the fear that she might start spacing people again. A breath he didn't realize he had been holding came out as a long, forlorn sigh, as the familiar orb of Pandora appeared, looming ahead, orbiting the great gas giant. It was a sight he never thought he'd see again, except in his darkest nightmares. The image burned into his retinas, convincing him of its reality.
Gravity began to fade away as the mighty warship ended her deceleration maneuvers, slipping into high orbit with silent ease. Fortunately, Parker remembered to wear his mag-boots, a harsh lesson picked up from his self-imposed exile mining asteroids. If he failed this time, there would be worse consequences than a grimy job at the ass end of the universe.
"Last time you saw this place, your tail was tucked firmly between your legs." Matheson observed wryly, that dangerous, twisted smile wrinkling her skin, giving her an appearance of someone far older than she truly was. What drove the demented Admiral, Parker couldn't say, but at some level he just didn't care anymore. He kept living more out of habit than any real desire to continue on to witness this coming disaster.
"Something like that." Parker had nothing else to say, he hadn't wanted to come back. Pandora was a most unwelcome sight indeed, full of guilt and haunting memories of failure, something he still had difficulty truly accepting. Jake had thoroughly beaten him, kicked him out from his position of power. The shock still reverberated in the back of his mind, like being jarred awake from a pleasant dream by a bucket full of icy water.
"It's time to make that phone call..." Matheson pointed out unnecessarily. Parker prayed to whatever God might actually exist in this fucked up universe that it wouldn't be Jake on the end of that comm line. He wasn't sure he could survive looking on Jake's face again, like that fateful day so long ago, watching him as he trudged into the shuttle, knowing that hell awaited him back on Earth. Only that hell had proven to be far worse than anything he could have imagined.
The Sky Clan village had taken shape over the last couple of years, gradually becoming a functioning unit, a sort of bridge between the simplistic, but effective ways of the Na'vi and the advanced knowledge humanity had garnered over the centuries. Captain Ryan Larson was pleased with the progress, though at some level, this would never quite be home for him the way it was for Jake and the others. A part of him remained firmly attached the vessel in orbit, to the mysteries of space. Like this village, he felt like a bridge between the old and the new, the high tech and the simple.
Carefully adjusting the water wheel that kept the village generator spinning, he cursed as the power flickered for a moment and died. Trudy was behind him, reworking the small transformer, which was probably a lot more dangerous than fixing the broken paddle on a wooden wheel.
"Almost there... you can push that bitch back into place." Trudy stated matter-of-factly.
"Yeah, well don't fry the radio. We need that." Ryan answered distractedly, pushing the wooden wheel back into it's spinning axle, letting the water flow over the top again. Mercifully, the LEDs on the panel lit up again, letting power trickle into the radio shack.
"So it's back to the 19th century for us, eh?" Ryan pointed out unnecessarily. For her part, Trudy did not seem amused. Well that figures, Ryan thought, she's all about the Omaticaya, me, I'd rather have some hot water and a light switch once in awhile. It might be awhile before someone figured out how to have a hot shower around here, but at least they had some basic lighting and a radio that wasn't dependent on parts from Hell's Gate.
"...incoming warships, entering high orbit, trailing ISVs breaking off for Persephone..." The radio blared as power was restored. Chatter echoed everywhere as a crescendo of overlapping voices tried to make sense of the situation. Horror filled the pit of Ryan's stomach, a lurking pain, an anxiety that was forced down only with extreme effort. Soon, the village was forgotten, the job at hand a distant memory as he reached for the microphone, as if in a dream.
"Say again, Hell's Gate."
"Repeat, Assault force in high orbit, closing fast on Montana's position. Transport ISVs have broken off and are making for Persephone. No communication from the inbound fleet. Assumed hostile." Ryan had no idea who was in charge over there, but the situation was obviously degrading fast. Behind him, Trudy had gone as pale as any Na'vi body could, standing motionless, dropping the soldering iron.
"Get a shuttle out here now to pick us up, patch me through to Montana immediately. And someone find Jake. Keep it together over there."
"Yes, sir." Came the more coherent reply. Trudy looked on with gradually growing anger, laced with a dangerous sort of determination. Ryan knew it too, a fear that everything he had worked and built for so long would simply vanish, as Earth had. There could be no failure, this time. The fates of two peoples depended on it, intertwined together. Yet it was Trudy who truly captured the situation with her abrasive wit.
"Fucking bullshit!" She exclaimed angrily.