Assault on Hell's Gate
"What the hell is going on?" demanded Parker Selfridge. The multitude of displays ringing the Hell's Gate command center flowed with information, but none of it made any sense to him.
"Hard to say, sir," said Captain Harriet Kim. The woman was the ranking security officer left at Hell's Gate after Colonel Quaritch departed a few hours earlier with the bulk of the base security forces. Forty minutes ago that small armada of gunships, transports and the priceless orbital shuttle had entered what was called the Flux Vortex. The enormously powerful magnetic field of the planet Pandora was strongest there and not only did that make unobtainium-laced mountains float, it played absolute hell with electronics. Telemetry had failed completely and even voice communications between Hell's Gate and the troops quickly became spotty. Thirty minutes ago they had picked up messages that indicated the natives were attacking. Ever since then there had been nothing but an impossible jumble of fragmented messages, most of them in that nearly-unintelligible combat-speak used by the military. Kim and her com-techs seemed to be able to make some sense of it at first and translated for Selfridge's benefit, but in the last few minutes less and less was coming through and the faces around the command center were becoming grimmer and grimmer. A chill went down Selfridge's spine.
"Hard to say?" he snapped. "You must be able to tell something! What about the satellite imagery?" He gestured to one of the displays where swarms of computer-colored dots swirled around a real-time photo of the target area.
"We can't tell much from that, sir. There's high cloud cover and… a lot of smoke. Without telemetry to link to the infrared contacts on the image, we can't really tell who is who. The enemy banshees are nearly as large as our choppers and picking them out is difficult." The woman's eyes never left the displays and her voice sounded as uneasy as Selfridge felt.
"What about the shuttle? Surely you can pick out something that size! And Quaritch's command ship is far larger than any banshee! Hell, I can see two big blobs on the image myself! Those must be them!"
"Uh…" Kim's voice faltered. "Yes sir, they seem to be. We were tracking their movements until a few minutes ago. But… neither one seems to be moving now."
"Hovering? Why would they do that? That stupid holy tree thing is only half a klick away—right there!—why would they pull up short of the target?"
"I'm not sure they are hovering, sir," said Kim, her voice almost a whisper. "Their IR signatures are… much too large now."
"Temperatures on both contacts are reading over a thousand centigrade now, ma'am," said a tech. "Flamers for sure."
"Flamers…!" choked Selfridge.
"It looks like they've gone down," nodded Kim.
"Down! But the shuttle!" Selfridge clutched the back of one of the chairs to steady himself. The shuttle! The enormous surface-to-space vehicle cost nearly a hundred billion dollars! He hadn't wanted to let Quaritch use it, but the Colonel had guaranteed him it wouldn't get a scratch! Panic coursed through him. How was he going to explain this to the home office? It could ruin him. Hell! If this was half as bad as it was looking he was ruined already! What was he going to do…?
"Ma'am!" called another com tech. "Echo One-Niner is moving clear of the Flux, We've got a clear audio signal."
"Patch it through!" commanded Kim. Immediately a voice came from one of the speakers. It was anything but clear in Selfridge's opinion, but it was barely intelligible.
"Hell's Gate, this is Echo One-Niner, come in, Godammmit!" Despite the lousy signal, even Selfridge could detect the near-hysteria in the voice.
"Echo One-Niner this is Hell's Gate Control. Report your status." said Captain Kim.
"My status? My status stinks! That's my status! Those freaking things ate my door gunners! They just… they just reached in and grabbed them!" the voice was half-sobbing now.
"Who's piloting Echo One-Niner?" asked Kim to one of the techs.
"Sergeant Raoul Weiss, ma'am"
"Settle down Sergeant Weiss, this is Captain Kim. Get hold of yourself and give me your report."
An amazing string of profanity poured from the speaker, which became suddenly much clearer as the chopper pulled out of the flux, but eventually Weiss calmed down enough to obey Kim's order. "We… we were in among the floating rocks when they attacked. Hundreds and hundreds of blueskins on banshees. They took out eight or ten of the choppers right off, but then we started chewing them up. It looked like we had 'em beat, but then hundreds—thousands—more banshees attacked. I don't think they even had any of the blueskins riding them, it was just the animals! We tried… we tried, but there were just too damn many of them! I used up all my ordnance and they still kept coming! When I lost Kedge and Jones I got the hell out. There was nothing else I could do!"
"Did you see what happened to the shuttle?" called out Selfridge. Kim shot him an annoyed look, but repeated the question to Weiss.
"Wasn't looking that way when it happened—I had other problems! Just a hell of a bang, Damn near tumbled my gyros!"
"What about the Dragon and Colonel Quaritch?"
"I saw it spiraling in, on fire. Don't know about the Colonel. The guys on the ground were screaming for help about then, too. Said they were being swarmed over by big animals. That's' when I got out."
"Ma'am?" said another tech. "We've got four more choppers coming out of the Flux."
"Very well. Sergeant Weiss, return to base," said Kim.
"Damn right!" snarled Weiss.
"F-five?" stuttered Selfridge. "There are only five gunships left? Out of forty-six?"
"There are bound to be more," said Kim automatically.
There were. Three more to be exact.
"So what do we do now?" asked Selfridge in a daze. "Captain Kim, you're in command now, aren't you? What do we do now?"
"Yes, I'm in command," said the woman grimly. "As for what we do, we prepare to defend this base!"
* * *
"So what do we do now?" asked Norm Spellman. The exhausted avatar driver—former avatar driver he amended bitterly—slumped to the ground beside Jake Sully and the Na'vi woman Neytiri. He was as spent as he had ever been. He was drenched in sweat, every muscle ached, and the phantom pain in his chest from the wound his avatar had taken still throbbed. He shuddered at the memory of that. A sudden impact, a searing pain and then blackness. A blackness that slowly gave way to a dimly lit coffin. He wasn't sure he could ever go back into a link capsule again even if he did still have an avatar.
Neither of his companions answered and he didn't have the energy to ask them again. He just sat and stared at the remains of Colonel Quaritch and his AMP suit, sprawled on the ground a dozen meters away. The rage he had felt earlier as he left the shack, gun in hand, looking for someone to kill, briefly returned. This was all that bastard's fault! He was responsible for Grace's death. He was responsible for all the death and destruction of this awful day. Norm had never been more relieved to see anyone dead. And he'd seen more dead people in the last few hours than most people did in a lifetime. He hoped he never saw another one. He unslung the assault rifle on his shoulder and tossed it away. "I don't much like this soldiering business, Jake. I think I'll leave it to professionals like you from now on."
That seemed to get through to Jake and he stirred in Neytiri's arms. "Rest, Jake," said the Na'vi woman, gently restraining her lover with a hand the size of a dinner plate. "You must rest."
"Crap, this body hasn't been doing anything," said Jake. "That's the one that's beat to hell." He pointed to where his avatar lay. "But I gotta get it operational and find out what's going on. The shooting's died down, but have we won or lost?"
"Well, Quaritch is dead and so are most all of his troops," said Norm. "There's burning gunships all over the place and I walked back toward the battleground as far as I dared. A lot of dead mercs on the ground and none alive that I found. I was afraid to go any farther: I wasn't sure if all the animals could tell that I was one of the good guys. Uh, just how exactly did you arrange that, Jake?"
"Not sure. Apparently Eywa does answer prayers sometimes."
"Eywa? You mean you…? My God, Jake! Do you realize what that means?"
"It means Eywa is one badass goddess."
"No! Well, yes, but that's not what I'm talking about! You asked her for help and she understood! And somehow she could communicate directly with all the animals! This is incredible! Damn! I wish Grace were here."
"She is here." answered Jake and Neytiri in unison.
Norm's eyes blurred with tears. "Yeah… yeah…" Grace had been… special. He took a breath. "So what do we do now?"
"We need to get the shack patched up enough that I can link to my avatar. The Toruk Makto still has work to do."
Norm sighed. "Right. I'll break out the emergency sealing kit. I need a shower anyway."
* * *
Captain Harriet Kim looked around the briefing room and tried to figure out what the hell she was going to say. There wasn't much that she could say that would make any difference. The simple fact was they were screwed.
"No survivors from the ground forces?" squeaked Parker Selfridge. "None at all?" Kim had always thought the Company boss looked like an oversized mouse. Now he was starting to sound like one, too.
"None have turned up so far," said Lieutenant Anderson. Ivan Anderson was now the acting operations officer just as Kim was now the acting commander. In fact, everyone on the staff except for the logistics officer was acting in place of someone killed in the battle. "We've had recon drones skirting the edges of the Flux Vortex for the last two days looking for our troopers. Any that haven't shown up by now aren't going to be showing up at all."
Kim shook her head. From what they had been able to piece together by debriefing the surviving gunship crews and downloading sensor readings it seemed likely that none of the ground forces had survived very long once the enemy had unleashed the animals against them. Damn Quaritch! She had advised against deploying ground forces at all. Just drop the bombs on the damn tree, shoot hell out of anything that moved, and then come home and evaluate the results. But Quaritch was a maniac. She'd suspected that from her first day on Pandora. The man was just itching for a reason—any reason—to go into action. So when the reason had finally arrived, he wasn't about to hold anything back. She suspected that her opposition to his plan is what had caused her to be left behind. And left alive.
"So what do we have left?" asked Selfridge. "And what are we going to do?"
"We have two hundred and forty-three of the security detachment remaining. Six of those are seriously wounded. Twelve armed helicopters, about thirty operational AMP suits and some other miscellaneous equipment. Plus the permanent perimeter defenses," said the acting personnel officer. "However, the majority of the remaining personnel are support and service people, not front line combat troops—although all have had the training. And, we have over a thousand civilian personnel at the base, most of them could use a weapon if it becomes necessary. We have a substantial reserve of small arms which could be distributed."
"Which means we can defend Hell's Gate for the time being," said Kim, breaking her silence.
"Just Hell's Gate?" asked Selfridge. "What about the mining operations? And what do you mean 'for the time being'?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but until we know exactly what the hostiles plan and what forces they can bring to bear, we cannot disperse our own forces. I've already ordered the evacuation of all personnel from Site Two. I think we will need to shut down Site One as well and bring everyone back within the perimeter here."
"What about all the equipment?" protested Selfridge. "We've been shipping thousands of tons of start-up equipment to Site Two. We can't just abandon it!"
"I'm afraid we'll have to," replied Kim firmly. "The remotely controlled mobile equipment at Site Two can be piloted back here, although that will take weeks and will be subject to attack. The mobile equipment from Site One can be moved inside the main perimeter at once. We simply don't have the resources to defend everything. The ability of the hostiles to call upon the native wildlife in combat is something we never made any allowance for…"
"We never knew they could do it!" spluttered Selfridge.
"If you'd listened to Dr. Augustine you might have realized it!" cried a man in a lab coat. Kim thought his name was Max Somethingorother. Apparently he was the senior science geek left at Hell's Gate. Kim wasn't sure why Selfridge had included him in this meeting. Technical advice she supposed.
"Augustine never said anything about the whole damn planet attacking us!" snarled Selfridge.
"Gentlemen, please," said Kim. "God knows there will be enough blame from this fiasco to go around—two or three times, I imagine. But for right now, our primary concern is the defense of this base and the people in it. All other concerns—including mining equipment and ore quotas—are secondary. As the ranking security officer, I have the authority to implement such orders, but I'd prefer to have your cooperation."
The men subsided and Kim continued. "I think that the forces we have left to us, along with the perimeter defenses, will be sufficient to fend off any likely attack. Outside of the Flux Vortex our weapons will be vastly more effective. Our seeker missiles have a 98% kill ratio and we still have several thousand of those. Automatic weapons turrets along the walls should be able to handle ground attackers. With our remaining mobile forces to back up the perimeter we should be in good shape." There, that put about as bright a face on things as possible. And it might all be crap. Pandora was teeming with life and if the enemy could command every large animal in the area to attack, well, their defenses wouldn't even be a speed bump.
"But for how long?" asked Selfridge. Damn the man. He was probably asking how long until his miners could get back to work, but inadvertently he had touched the heart of the matter: how long could they hold out?
Kim sighed. "That really is the big question. And I'm afraid there isn't any military answer to it."
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean is: if the natives have the manpower—or animal power—and the will to pursue the war in the long term, then we can't win." The look on Selfridge's face almost made this whole mess worthwhile. Kim had little use for bureaucrats and Selfridge seemed to epitomize the breed. "We simply do not have the troops, equipment or supplies for a sustained conflict. Ammunition, in particular, will be a critical factor."
"I thought you had that huge dump of ammo!" protested Selfridge.
"Over half of that was expended in the last two weeks," said Kim. "Repelling a major attack could easily use up another ten or fifteen percent. Two or three such attacks and we're done. Isn't that right, Lieutenant Asoka?" She looked to the logistics officer.
"I'm afraid so, ma'am. The original stocks were based on the expenditures reported by the first troops stationed here, which were fairly low. We were only engaged in limited patrolling and safeguarding the mine at that point. Despite the large build-up of forces during Colonel Quaritch's tenure, ammunition supplies were only increased in the same proportion. No plans were made for an extended high-intensity conflict." Kim nodded grimly and thought about the old, old saying: when it comes to making war, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. And right now their logistical situation stank.
"But we'll be resupplied," said Selfridge desperately. "The next starship is due in only three months."
"I've seen the manifests, sir," said Asoka. "As you are aware, shipments of mining equipment to develop Site 2 have top priority. Ammunition is being shipped only in quantities based on 'normal' expenditures. I should also add that the next ship will not be bringing any additional gunships, no AMP suits, and only one hundred new security personnel. Assuming there were no changes to the schedule, it's the same with all of the other inbound ships. And I don't need to remind you that any request for substantial reinforcements will involve a ten year wait to be filled."
"And forty of our surviving troopers are scheduled to rotate home on that next ship," added the personnel officer. "We have no legal right to force them to stay."
"So what do we do?" moaned Selfridge. "I never wanted a war!"
"Unfortunately, we have one, sir. So, in the short-term we prepare to defend ourselves," answered Kim. "But as I said, Mr. Selfridge, we cannot win in the long-term. As I see it, we have two options. One option would be to evacuate…"
"Evacuate!" exclaimed Selfridge. "You can't be serious!"
"If the choice was between evacuation and annihilation, which would you choose?" she demanded sharply.
"What's the other option?" asked Selfridge meekly.
Kim stared right at him. "Find some way to make peace."
* * *
Norm Spellman opened his eyes and groaned. The entire left side of his body was in agony. God it hurt!
"You are awake! Do not move!" said a voice close at hand. A blue face with bright gold eyes came into his field of view. A Na'vi woman. He didn't recognize her. He turned his head slightly and saw that he was lying in the makeshift hospital that had been set up after the battle. A hundred or more Na'vi were being treated here, some were horribly burned or mangled. Cries of pain filled the air.
"Where… where's Jake?" he mumbled. But no, that was stupid, Jake was off-line back at the shack. Thanks to Quaritch, they only had one functioning link capsule. Norm had been relieved when his avatar body had been found alive. But it was badly injured, a hole blown completely through the upper chest, piercing one of the lungs. Only the extremely tough Na'vi physiology had kept it alive long enough to be found. There was an elaborate medical kit in the shack for treating the avatars. They were so expensive it only made sense to have such a thing. So his avatar had been patched up and medicated, but it was going to be a long haul for recovery. Unfortunately, Norm was going to have to occupy it periodically to eat and check on progress. This was his first attempt. He was happy that the neural link still worked, but he had not counted on the pain.
"The Toruk Makto is sleeping," said the woman. "As you should be."
"Hungry… need to eat." The woman got up and moved away. A few moments later she returned with another woman and Norm was relieved to see that it was Neytiri.
"Normspelmon," she said. "Welcome back. I rejoice that you are able to walk among the People again."
"Thank you, though I doubt I will be doing much walking for a while."
"No, you were badly hurt in the battle. I have heard you acted with great bravery for someone who is not a warrior. This is Lanuma," she indicated the other woman. "She will be taking care of you." Norm looked from one woman to the other. Why had Neytiri said that about him fighting? She, Jake and he had already exchanged stories about their experiences. Was it for Lanuma's benefit? The other woman's expression did soften a bit.
"I see you, Lanuma," he said formally. "And thank you for your help."
"I see you, Normspelmon," she replied. "It will be an honor to tend to you. I bring food for you." She held out a wooden bowl.
Norm tried to raise his head and then gasped as a bolt of pain seared through him. Damn!
"Normspelmon," said Neytiri, bending close. "I have the medicine from the shack that Jake gave to me. He said it can ease your pain. Do you wish it now?" She held up a vial of capsules.
He did. Very much. He almost said yes, but the moans and gasps from all around him silenced his request. The drugs would work equally well on the other Na'vi. He'd seen them being brought in and some were in far worse shape than him. "N-no. I only have to be here a few hours a day and this body will sleep when I'm away no matter how much pain it's in. The others don't have that luxury. No, give the medicine to your people, Neytiri. Help them."
She nodded and touched her hand to her chest. "As you wish. Tend him well, Lanuma." She got up and moved away.
The other woman came closer and began to put food in his mouth with her fingers. "Neytiri said you are brave, Normspelmon. I can see she spoke the truth."
Two hours later Norm emerged from the link capsule. He groaned and rubbed his shoulder as he sat up. Jake was sitting there in his wheel chair. "How'd it go?" he asked.
"Oh, I'll live. We'll live, I mean," said Norm.
"Did Neytiri find you?"
"Yeah, she's waiting for you. I guess you're itching to get back, right?"
"Yeah, lots to do. There are more warriors from the other clans still pouring in. Thousands of them. A lot of them are pissed that they missed out on the battle. They want to attack Hell's Gate and I have to figure out some way of holding them back. Not gonna be easy considering how hard we were trying to get them riled up earlier."
"Are you sure you want to hold them back? I mean this might be our only chance to use them. If they get bored and go home what do we do then?"
"I don't know," said Jake shaking his head. "But an attack outside the Flux Vortex won't be anything like this last fight, Norm. I dated a gunship pilot for a while back when I was a Marine. She showed me what her ship could do. Instead of firing at one target at a time like last time, they can engage as many as they've got weapons. A hundred bogies show up on their screens they just hit the 'engage all' button and press the trigger. About ninety-five of those bogies are gonna go down."
"Yeah. They might not have much left now, but each one is gonna be a lot more effective. I mean, with the forces that are coming in we might just be able to swamp them, but, God the cost! And even if we win, there'll be no holding back the Na'vi once they're inside the base. They'll be so angry they'll probably kill everyone, including Max and the other science geeks."
"Damn," said Norm.
"You said the other day you didn't like this soldiering thing. We'll, I'll tell you: I'm coming to hate this generaling thing."
Norm looked closely at Jake. He seemed wrung out. The physical strain on his wrecked human body and the mental strain of being responsible for everything was taking its toll. In spite of his initial feelings he had come to like the man.
"I saw plenty of dead when I was in Recon, but somehow it's different this time. Being in command… being responsible. Collecting all the wounded and the bodies…"
"Jake, it's not your fault. You didn't want this. None of us did."
"Maybe not, but we've got it now. And everyone's expecting me to know what to do. Hell! I was only a goddamn corporal!"
"What about… what about Eywa? Can she lend any more help?"
"How should I know?" Jake's frustration was spilling out now. "It's not like I can call her up on the com and order an air strike! Besides…" He faltered. "Besides, losing the animals hurts Eywa as much as losing the people hurts us."
Norm smiled. "Listen to you. Some of Grace rubbed off on you after all."
"Yeah. But come on: get out of there so I can use it."
Norm pushed himself out of the capsule and watched Jake drag himself in. He knew not to offer to help. "Speaking of Max, have you heard anything from him?"
"No, nothing. That worries me."
* * *
Dr. Max Patel looked nervously at the severe woman on the other side of the desk. He hadn't known what to think when the two mercs had politely but firmly escorted him out of his lab to this office. He was alone with her now and the door was shut. A full minute went by without her saying anything. The little sign sitting on her desk read: Capt. H. Kim.
"Uh… you wanted to see me…?" ventured Max.
"Not really. I'd much prefer to chuck you in the brig—or put you in front of a firing squad."
"What?" Max's blood went cold.
"Just so there's no doubt about where we stand, Dr. Patel…" The woman touched a key on her desktop and a video display sprang to life. Max found himself staring at his own face. He was talking:
"Jake, things are crazy here. Quaritch is rolling and there's no stopping him…" Captain Kim cut the display.
"I also have the video log from the detention area. It clearly shows you helping the rebels escape. If the former G-2 hadn't been so busy assembling information for Colonel Quaritch's attack, this would have been discovered days ago. Doctor, you are a traitor. You helped the hostiles in an attack that resulted in the deaths of nearly three hundred of your fellow human beings. Some of them were my friends. I should have you shot."
"You… you don't have the authority to do that! I… I looked it up! You aren't a real soldier and I'm a civilian! You can't…!" he looked in horror as the woman drew her pistol.
"Do you really think that means anything here and now? There's no one here to report me to, Doctor. I'm in charge, and I have the gun. However…" she put the gun away and Max's heart started beating again. "As much as it makes me sick to say it: I need your help."
"You have means of communicating with the rebels? How?"
"Uh, there are a series of repeaters planted in the Flux Vortex. They boost the signal enough for us to get through to the research shack."
"Yes, that's what my techs thought. In fact there's plain records of the link in the communications logs but they don't seem to be working now."
"We changed the frequency when Dr. Augustine and the others left."
"I see. Well, we can find them or you can save us the trouble. But that's neither here nor there. I don't just need the link, I need you to talk to them."
"We want to negotiate a truce."
* * *
"Jake, get back to the shack quick," said Norm into the com-link. It was nearly a minute before Jake replied.
"I'm kind of busy right now. Why? What's up?"
"Max is calling us. He… he's got the new security commander with him. She wants to talk to you."
"Holy shit. Okay, I'll be right there. About ten minutes."
"Uh, why don't you just break the link? I mean you're already right here." He glanced at the link capsule at the other end of the shack.
"Not a good time or place for me to drop unconscious Norm. Besides, I'd rather talk to them looking like this. Can you bring a computer outside?"
"Okay, will do. See you soon." Norm clicked off and went back to the computer. Max's face was still framed in the display. "He's on his way. How are things going there, Max?"
Max looked nervously to the side. Obviously he wasn't alone. "Pretty tense here, Norm. How are things there? Where's Grace?"
A chill passed through him. Damn, he still didn't know! Shit, shit, shit! After they fled the base they had limited their communications to short updates from Max, but they had never told him what they were doing in case someone was tapping their communications. What to say? Max had worked with Grace for years before Norm even got to Pandora. But he had to tell him. Before it came out anyway. "Max… Max, I'm sorry. Grace is dead." The shock and pain on Max's face were so great he had to turn away for a moment.
"Dead? But… but how?"
"There was some shooting during our getaway. Grace was hit. We tried… the Na'vi tried to save her, but it didn't work. I'm so sorry."
"Damn it! It was Quaritch! Everyone was talking about how he went outside without a mask and was blasting away at Trudy's copter! That bastard! She was a genius! Worth a hundred of him!" Norm had never imagined gentle Max so angry. Tears streaked his face and he clenched his fists. He decided he was going to wait to tell him that Trudy was dead, too.
"Well, if it's any consolation Quaritch paid with interest. Neytiri put two arrows right through him. From the look on his face he couldn't believe he'd actually lost to a bunch of savages."
"Good! Good! I wish I had seen it! That miserable son-of-a-…"
"Doctor Patel, that's enough," came a female voice from off-camera.
"Max," said Norm, "Grace… Grace isn't really gone, either. I know it sounds crazy but… but we uploaded her! Jake says she's with Eywa now!"
"What? What are you talking about?" Max looked completely dazed.
Norm was still trying to explain things to Max when Jake and Neytiri arrived. He put on a mask and grabbed the computer and hurried outside. He cringed back when the enormous Toruk spread its wings and screeched. In spite of what it had done for them the ferocious creature scared the crap out of him. Jake soothed it for a moment and then came over to where Norm had the computer set up on a rock. He sat on the ground next to Neytiri. "So, what's happening?" he asked.
"Max is there—I told him about Grace—and apparently the new security commander, a woman named Kim, wants to talk to you."
"Seems they want a truce."
"I bet they do!" snorted Jake.
"What are you going to do?" asked Norm.
"I don't know. They're trying to buy time. I don't know if we ought to give it to them."
"Should we not hear what they have to say, my Jake?" asked Neytiri.
"Yeah, you don't have to agree to anything right now," nodded Norm.
"Right. Okay, turn on the camera." Norm did so and Max re-appeared on the display. "Hi Max, it's me, Jake."
"Hello, Jake. Good to see you," replied Max. "I got someone here who wants to talk to you. Hold on." Max's image reached toward the display and then the view shifted and a woman in uniform with short-cropped blond hair and a stern expression appeared. Norm vaguely remembered seeing her at that initial safety briefing when they first got to Pandora. She and Jake stared at each other for a moment.
"Captain Kim? I'm Jake Sully. What can I do for you?" Jake's voice had gone very flat.
"Mr. Sully, I'm the new commander of the Hell's Gate security forces," replied Kim. "I've contacted you to ask you what your intentions are."
"My intentions? You attacked us! You destroyed Hometree and you tried to kill the lot of us! And you want to know what my intentions are?"
"Mr. Sully," said Kim and her voice sank. "There's been a lot of blood spilled on both sides. I regret that, I really do. Later there might be time for accusations. Right now I'm hoping to avoid more bloodshed. Can we talk, or is my attempt pointless?"
Jake didn't answer for a long time, but finally his ears twitched and he sighed. "All right. Talk. Max says you want a truce. Why should we agree to one? We kicked your asses the other day and we can do it again if we have to."
Now Kim was slow to reply. "Yes, you probably could," she said finally. "But at how high a cost? You were a marine once, Sully. You know what modern weapons can do. How high a butcher's bill are you willing to pay?"
"What if I say: 'As high as necessary'? What would you say to that?"
"What could I say? Except come and get us and I'll see you in hell." Kim stared straight out of the monitor and she didn't blink. "But what would you gain, Sully? We'd be gone for the moment, but how do you think a massacre like that is going to play back on Earth? Right now there are a lot of people who like the Na'vi, who want to help the Na'vi, who look on the Na'vi as 'noble savages'. But if you slaughter 2,000 humans they are going to drop the 'noble' and only see savages. How do you think they'll respond?"
"Hopefully smarter than Quaritch did."
"Quaritch was… a mistake," said Kim. "I'm not like him, Sully. And if you'll accept my offer of a truce I'm willing to send you all of the Na'vi-compatible medical supplies that are still in storage here. You must have a lot of wounded. This could help."
"Jake, that's right!" exclaimed Norm. "I'd forgotten about that. Years ago Grace tried to set up a little clinic. Right now those supplies would be a godsend." The hours Norm had spent in his avatar in the hospital had taught him all about real suffering. Jake looked at him and then at Neytiri.
"You are the Toruk Makto," said Neytiri. "We will obey your decision."
Jake shook his head. "I can't make a decision like that on my own. " He looked back at the monitor. "Captain, I'll agree to a three-day cease-fire while we consider your offer. I'll get back to you."
Kim didn't look happy, but she nodded. "All right, I will keep all of my forces confined to the immediate vicinity of Hell's Gate if you will keep yours at least ten klicks away from the perimeter. Oh, my duty requires me to ask: Did any of our people survive the battle? Are you holding any prisoners?"
"We have no prisoners, Captain. We found one man in the wreckage of a gunship who was still alive, but he did not survive the night."
"I see. Very well, I will expect to hear from you in three days. Kim, out." The picture vanished. Jake sagged and hung his head. Neytiri reached out and put an arm around him.
"What will you do now, my love?"
"This concerns everyone. Send a message to all the war leaders. We will meet tomorrow night and decide."
* * *
Parker Selfridge flicked at the chunk of unobtainium floating in its magnetic field on his desk. It spun around for a moment and then resumed its previous orientation. The room-temperature superconductor was revolutionizing technology back on Earth. Computers, transport, power production, there were a thousand places where the material could lead to a quantum improvement.
But only if it was available in bulk.
Thousands of tons had been sent home already, but millions more were needed. RDF Corporation had promised that those millions would be arriving. Whole new industries were gearing up in anticipation. The ore had to flow.
But right now, no ore was flowing. None at all. The excavators were silent, the earthmovers parked. The people who ran them were getting refresher training on using small arms instead of digging ore.
And Parker Selfridge was the man who would be held responsible. He had been sent to Pandora—twenty-six trillion miles from home—to maintain and expand ore production. That was his mission and no excuses would be accepted for failure. But it wasn't his fault! That idiot Quaritch was to blame! The muscle-bound moron had wanted a war! Selfridge could see that now. Quaritch was supposed to be acting in the interest of the Corporation, but he had only been acting for himself: one last chance for military glory. The fool! All his talk about minimal casualties and intimidating the Na'vi and getting them to move without fuss had just been to lull him into giving him the green light. Selfridge had been against the use of force! He had! But now it had all gone to pieces. Quaritch was dead—and may he burn in hell!—and there was no one left to blame but Selfridge. Losing the shuttle and failing to open Site 2 alone were enough to ruin him. But having to shut down Site 1, too… That would be the end. He might as well just go out for a stroll—without his breath mask.
With a snarl he grabbed the piece of unobtainium and hurled it against the wall. It made a shockingly loud noise and several people in the control room looked at him in surprise through the glass. He glared at them and they quickly turned away and pretended to be busy. And surely they must be pretending since with everything shut down, what did they have to do?
Slowly he got up and collected the pieces of the shattered unobtainium. In its unrefined state it was remarkably brittle. But this handful of shards was worth over a million dollars. He scooped up what he could and dumped them back into the magnetic field and watched them swirl around until they found a new equilibrium. The strange thought struck him that his whole world had been shattered in just such a fashion. Could a new equilibrium be found?
He was still musing when Captain Kim entered his office. She didn't look too happy and somehow his heart was able to sink another notch. "Well? Did you talk with them?" he asked.
Kim walked across the room, her boots crunching on $100,000 of unobtainium fragments, and sank into a chair without being invited—she was showing less and less deference towards him and it rankled. "Yes," she said. "I talked with Sully and he's agreed to a three-day cease fire."
"That's all? What happens after the three days?"
"I don't know. He said he needs to confer with the other Na'vi before he can make any permanent agreement."
"But he said there could be an agreement? Peace between us? What about the mine?"
"Don't get your hopes up, sir. He only said he had to confer. Three days from now he might tell us that the Na'vi had agreed to just wipe us out." Kim paused and pulled a computer chip from her tunic pocket and laid it on his desk. "Therefore, I've had my staff draw up these evacuation plans. As a courtesy to you, I'm inviting any comments or suggestions you might have."
"Evacuation! How can we possibly evacuate? There's only one starship in orbit right now! It can't hold everyone!"
"Well, actually, it very nearly can. As you know, ever since the first base was constructed here there have been more people arriving than leaving. They come in their cryo-capsules and since the unobtainium is vastly more valuable on a kilo-for-kilo basis than the cryo capsules, we generally strip out any capsules not needed for returning personnel to make room for more ore. Those extra capsules have just been piling up at the orbital station. My people estimate that if we pull every non-essential item out of the ship we could fit nearly a thousand capsules aboard. The rest could be set up at the orbital station until the next ship arrives."
Selfridge stared at the chip. Evacuation! Abandon everything to the enemy? Twenty-five years of effort lost. Disaster. But if the Na'vi attacked and overran them, everything would be lost anyway—including their lives.
"Isn't there any other choice?"
"That will depend on Jake Sully and the Na'vi. And on you, Mr. Selfridge. What are you willing to offer them to let us to stay?"
"What can I offer them?" exploded Selfridge. "Shiny beads? Pretty bits of cloth? Sully said it himself: we don't have anything they want!"
"Except the land," said Kim. "They want their land back."
"Well that's sort of a problem, isn't it?" he sneered sarcastically. "How can we get the ore without digging through their precious land?"
"Your problem, sir. Under the emergency sections of the base regulations, my only problem is to keep everyone alive. If the only way, in my judgment, to do that is to evacuate, then that is what I'm going to order."
Selfridge stared at the woman and realized that there was nothing he could do or say that would influence her. In her own way, she was just as much a fanatic as Quaritch had been. Soldiers!
"On another matter, sir," continued Kim, "I've been in touch with the head of Communications and she told me that my report on the current situation had not been transmitted to Earth—on your order. May I ask why?"
"Uh… well, because the situation is still in flux. I didn't see any reason to start a panic with a lot of bad news when there's still a chance to salvage the situation. And since it takes over four years for the message to get home, what difference will it make if we delay it a few days?"
"In a few days we might all be dead. But no matter. Under my emergency authority I countermanded your orders. The report is now on its way."
"God! Do you realize the sort of economic chaos that might cause?" gasped Selfridge.
"The report is in code, sir and for the eyes of the head of Corporate Security only. I seriously doubt he'll be passing it on to the news services or the stockholders. But I consider it vital that an accurate report of what happened here be sent. We might be wiped out, but people will be coming back here someday. They need to know what they are facing."
"What do you mean?"
"Based on what Dr. Patel was able to explain to me of Dr. Augustine's research, it seems that we are facing something totally unprecedented here on Pandora. I don't claim to understand the details, but put simply, the entire planet is like a single, enormous organism…"
"Oh for God's sake!" spat Selfridge. "Don't tell me you are swallowing this 'Eywa the life goddess' crap that Augustine was gushing!"
"I'm not a scientist, sir, but what Dr. Patel says is consistent with what we have seen. The life on the planet is linked together somehow. Like an organism. An organism with a consciousness. Or at the very least, an organism with a powerful immune system. Our recent activities have triggered that immune system and it is treating us like an infection. We aren't just fighting the Na'vi, we are fighting every living thing on the planet."
"My God," hissed Selfridge. "What do we do?"
"For the moment, we survive. I'm taking every possible step to ensure that. In the long run, I don't know. Not my department, thank God. Maybe the Na'vi will be willing to negotiate and maybe not. Hell, if this immune system theory is correct it might not even be possible to turn it off again. But whatever the future holds, it is going to be different from what has come before." Kim leaned back and sighed.
"But for the next three days, all we can do is wait."
* * *
Norm emerged from the shower and quickly dried and dressed himself. The great meeting would be starting soon and Jake wanted him to attend. As a Na'vi. He glanced out the window at the incredible view of the Halleluiah Mountains. He wasn't in the half of the shack they had moved, he was in the half they had left behind at Site 26. It had two undamaged link capsules and—thank God—a working shower and kitchen. Jake had dropped him off here after a terrifying—and exhilarating—ride on the back of the Toruk.
He wolfed down some food while he checked everything on the link capsule he'd be using. He was a little leery of being completely alone up here, but there wasn't much choice. He sure hoped that Jake would be back to get him later. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed in, shut the top and closed his eyes.
"Normspelmon, you are awake?"
He opened his eyes and saw Lanuma hovering over him. He smiled. "I see you, Lanuma."
"And I see you. How do you feel?"
"Ow, still pretty sore, I'm afraid. But better, I think."
Lanuma held out her hand and a tiny white capsule sat in the palm. "The Toruk Makto commands that you take this. He says that you must attend the meeting and give him counsel and your mind must be free of pain." Norm only hesitated a moment before taking the capsule and swallowing it. While he waited for it to take effect, he ate and drank the food and drink Lanuma offered him.
"Where is the meeting going to be held?" he asked.
"In the glen beyond the Well of Souls. But it will not start for some time yet. You need not hurry."
"Good. This body is still very weak."
"I will help you when we go."
They were silent for a bit as he ate, but Lanuma's eyes never left him. Finally, she spoke again. "May I ask some questions of you, Normspelmon?"
"Of course. Ask anything you like."
"You are really a Dreamwalker? You have another body, a Skypeople body, hidden away somewhere?"
"Yes… yes, that's true."
Lanuma's ears twitched and her tail jerked about. "Neytiri has tried to explain that to me, but it seems very strange. She says that it is the same even for the Toruk Makto. Why do you do this?"
"Many reasons, I suppose," answered Norm. "One is that the air on the world we come from is different. We cannot breathe the air here. We would die if we tried. Coming in this form, we can breathe the air and drink the water and talk to you as people do. Another reason is so that you will not fear our strangeness."
"But if you come to talk, only, why are you—the other Skypeople, I mean—why are they so cruel? They kill and destroy and bring much sorrow. You do not seem evil to me, Normspelmon, but you are of the Skypeople. I do not understand."
Norm looked away and felt ashamed. How to explain? How could he explain what was happening in a way that made sense to this woman? He wasn't sure it even made any sense to him. "We… we come from far away, Lanuma. Very far away. So far away that if you ran as fast as you could, or rode an Ikran as fast as it could fly for a whole lifetime you would not reach my world. Not in a hundred lifetimes."
"It is hard to believe such a thing."
"Yes, but it is true. You have seen the Sky People machines. You have mostly seen our machines for killing and destroying, but some of the machines are very wonderful. They can do good things and make the lives of our people easier. You know that the Sky People dig in the ground for the gray rocks?"
"Yes, though none know why. The gray rocks are too weak and crumbly to make good tools."
"The Sky People can do many wondrous things with the gray rocks. We also have machines that can see things very far away. We could see this world from as far away as our home. Other machines could even see that the gray rocks were here. So some of us decided that we would come here to get the gray rocks, for we had none on our home world. This was a very hard thing to do, even for the Sky People. Many, many people had to work very hard for many years to build the machines to carry us here. We never would have come except for the gray rocks. But Lanuma, as clever as our machines were, they did not see the Na'vi. When we arrived and found you here it was a great surprise. We expected to find the rocks, but not you."
The Na'vi woman nodded and her eyes were very wide.
"At first we were not sure what to do. Some said that you should be left alone. That this world belonged to you and we had no right to take any of it. But others wanted the gray rocks. They wanted them very badly. They said that they had worked so hard to come here and get the rocks that we should not stop just for the sake of the Na'vi. Still others were happy to find you here. For you are not so unlike us and we rejoiced to find that we were not alone. There was much argument over what to do. Finally, those who wanted the gray rocks had their way and they came down to your world. Some of those who wanted to meet the Na'vi as brothers and sisters were allowed to come, too. I am one of them. So… so is the Toruk Makto." Norm mentally grimaced at this bending of the truth on Jake's behalf. He knew full well that at first Jake didn't give a damn about the Na'vi. That he could change so completely still amazed him. Lanuma was still staring at him.
"I hear your words, Normspelmon, but their meaning is hard to grasp. But Neytiri told me that you fought against the Skypeople in the great battle. You fought against your own kind to help us. Why?"
"I fought against the ones who would do so much harm just for the gray rocks. Not all my kind are evil, Lanuma! Some are greedy and stupid and cruel, but not all. Tell me: are there not times when Na'vi make mistakes or do foolish things?"
Lanuma laughed. It was the first time he had heard her laugh and her voice had a nicely musical ring to it. "Oh yes! Many times! I could tell you stories of my brother!"
Norm smiled. "You see? We are not so different then after all."
"I'm glad I asked you to be here, Norm," said a voice from behind him. He tried to twist around, but he just couldn't bend that way with his wound and bandages. A moment later Jake stepped in front of him.
"How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough. You explained things better than I ever could. I want you to explain them again for the war chiefs. And I want your help in deciding what to do."
"I'll do whatever I can, Jake, but I'm not one of the People. They aren't likely to believe my words."
"Well, you will be speaking as the counselor to the Toruk Makto, that ought to give them some weight."
"We can hope." Norm glanced back at Lanuma who was staring with a puzzled look on her face. He and Jake had been talking in English, and apparently the Na'vi woman didn't understand. "Lanuma has been taking good care of me."
"I know. She… she lost her mate in the fighting, Norm."
"Oh hell… I didn't know." He looked at the Na'vi woman in awe. "She has every reason to hate me and yet she took care of me. Damn, they're good people, Jake! We have to help them!"
"Yeah. I even miss Tsu'tey. There's got to be some way to keep a lot more of them from getting killed."
"I wish I knew what it was. Is it time for the meeting?"
"Yeah, time to go. Here let me help you up." Jake moved in and gently grasped Norm's avatar. Lanuma came to his other side and together they slowly raised Norm to his feet. The painkiller was working by now, but the avatar's legs were weak and wobbly. Step by step they made their way through the hospital where dozens of Na'vi were still being treated. Norm winced at the sight of some the burn victims. The human weapons could be devastating. And if they launched an all-out attack on Hell's Gate, there could be ten times as many wounded here soon.
The sun was setting and Pandora's enormous primary, Polyphemus, filled half the sky as they slowly walked past the Well of Souls. Hundreds, thousands of Na'vi were gathered all about. "Cripes, you weren't kidding about them pouring in, Jake. How many?"
"I don't know. Ten thousand, maybe. Still more coming. Just feeding everyone is going to be a problem before long. Most of the latest have come riding Ikrans and feeding them is going to be an even bigger problem! Whatever we decide to do, we'll have to do it soon."
They climbed up a low hill and then down into a grove of small trees. In the center was a fire and seated around it were a few dozen Na'vi. They wore the elaborate braids and ornaments of war chiefs. Hundred more ringed the grove at a respectful distance. They bowed and touched their chests as the Toruk Makto passed through them. The war chiefs rose as they neared and they all greeted Jake respectfully. Neytiri was waiting there with her mother. She indicated a spot for Norm and Lanuma helped lower him down. He felt lightheaded, the avatar was still terribly weak.
Jake said formal words of greeting to the others and then got down to business. Neytiri was close by his side, translating when he didn't have the right words. "Brothers and sisters of the Na'vi, we have won a great victory and sent a strong message to the Sky People. But the war has not ended and we must now decide what to do next. The Sky People hide in their fortress and ask that we make peace with them. They do this only because they are weak and they know we are strong." This brought a high-pitched trilling sound, not only from the war chiefs but from many others around the glen.
"But even in their weakness, they still have much strength. We defeated them in the battle because we fought them here, on our own ground. Even then we lost many brave men and women to the Sky People's terrible weapons. You need to believe me when I tell you that defending their fortress their weapons will be even more terrible. Many, many of us will die if we attack them. You have agreed to follow me into battle and I am honored by your confidence and courage. But I will not willingly lead so many to their deaths unless it is the will of all the Na'vi people. I have asked you here tonight to seek your counsel. The Sky People beg for peace. What shall our answer be?"
This brought shouted answers from nearly everyone seated around the circle. Norm had trouble following what was said, but the number of knives and bows being waved about gave him a pretty good idea of the general feelings. Eventually things settled down and the war chiefs began to speak in turn.
"My own son was slain in the battle by the cowardly weapons of the Skypeople!" said one angrily. "I would have my vengeance upon them!"
"I and my warriors did not arrive in time for the first fight," said another. "We demand a chance to gain honor in battle against the Skypeople."
"When a nantang is raiding your herds you cannot be satisfied just to wound the beast," said the chief of the Horse clans. "He will come back, more dangerous than ever! You must hunt him down and finish him!" Many agreed with this. Norm's spirits fell. The overwhelming opinion seemed to be in favor of attacking Hell's Gate. But then another chief spoke. He was older than many of the war chiefs, but he was still strong and fit.
"My heart is divided," he said quietly and everyone had to hush themselves in order to hear. "I have seen the terrible power of the Skypeople's weapons. I have been to the hospital and sat beside my sister's son who lies there even now, much of his body burned black. Any here who speak lightly of war should go there and look! I have no wish to see more of our people killed or maimed in such a fashion. But I have also been to where the Omaticaya people's home tree once stood. It is a pile of cinders! The earth for many bowshots around is blackened and covered with ash. The Skypeople's machines stand idle now, but I have seen how they had started to rend the ground and tear huge holes. It is a crime against Eywa! I have no wish for more bloodshed, but the Skypeople must be stopped! If battle is the only way to do that, then so be it." The man's words dampened the ardor of the others and they fell silent. At this point Jake stood up.
"Before we speak more I want to have my friend and counselor, Normspelmon, tell you about the Sky People. Most of you are from far off and have had no contact with them. It would be easy to see them as simply evil demons, but it is much more complex than that. He was badly wounded in the battle, so forgive him if he remains seated. Norm?"
Startled, it took Norm a few moments to gather his wits and try to remember what he had said to Lanuma that had seemed to impress Jake so much. He stumbled through it as best he could and he had every persons' rapt attention. "And another thing you need to understand," he continued, "is that the Sky People, strange as they might seem, are more like the Na'vi than different. Not just in the shape of their bodies, but in the content of their hearts. Their hearts hold the same love and hate, anger and compassion, as your own. The Sky People in their fortress have mates and children and parents who wait for them on their home world. If you should attack and kill them all, it would create much sorrow—and even more anger—on the world of the Sky People. You wish to see them gone from your world and that is surely just. But if you spill so much blood, it will mean that there can never be peace. More Sky People will come. More and more and they will bring even more terrible weapons. And this time they will not come for the gray rocks: they will come to avenge their dead!" Even as he said the words, Norm realized their awful truth. The RDA could spin such a massacre into a green light to use whatever force they needed on Pandora. They could come down here and just blast the Na'vi out. Hell, they might even use nukes! The unobtainium would still be there after the dust settled. With no Na'vi left it would be so much simpler. The thought made him sick to his stomach and he swayed against Lanuma.
"Norm, are you okay?" asked Jake.
"He should rest, Toruk Makto,' said Lanuma. "You ask too much of him."
"No, it's all right," said Norm, swallowing bile. "I can stay. I have to stay. Jake, Jake we have to find a way to stop the killing. We have to!"
"Yeah, we do. And you've given me an idea. But, Norm, I don't know a damn thing about science or about this star system. Tell me: is the unobtainium only found here on Pandora? What about those other moons we see up there?" He gestured to where a small globe hung against the backdrop of the huge gas giant.
"No…," said Norm, slowly. He was a bio-chemist, not a geologist, but he knew a good bit about the Alpha Centauri A system. "It's not just here. It can be found on all of the planetary bodies and even in some of the asteroid belts and ring systems. Why?"
"Maybe it's a carrot I can offer Selfridge. But if it's already up there, why did they insist on coming down here for it?"
"I don't know, I guess it must have been easier than trying to mine in vacuum or zero-G. I mean we might not be able to breathe Pandora's air, but at least humans don't need space suits to survive. I'm no expert on mining, but it seems to me that it would be a lot cheaper to do it the way they did."
"But they don't absolutely have to come here to get the unobtainium. Good. Thanks, Norm." He turned away and looked at Neytiri and took her hand. "Your words come to my heart more than any other, my love. You have said nothing so far. Tell me what you think."
The Na'vi woman looked down at the ground for a long time. The war chiefs were quietly whispering among themselves. Finally, Neytiri looked up at Jake. "The Skypeople have done us much harm and have much to answer for. They slew my father and many of my friends. But Norm has opened my eyes. They are different and many of them are wicked fools, but they are still people as we are. We should offer them mercy if they will take it. That is what I think, my Jake."
Jake nodded and faced the chiefs again. "My friends," he said, shifting from English back to Na'vi, "I hear your words and I share your anger toward the Sky People. But our actions must be for the best of the Na'vi. Not just ourselves, but our children's children and generations yet to be born. We fight now in a just war. But war is never to be sought gladly. We must try to end this war. And as Normspelmon has told us, to kill all the Sky People will not end the war, but instead make it grow worse." Jake paused for a moment and his tail twitched. He took a deep breath.
"So, this is what I propose we should do: We will tell the Sky People to leave our world. We will tell them to board their great ships, take whatever of their machines they wish, and leave. Perhaps in some future time we will welcome them back as friends, but for now they must leave. We shall give them this offer to leave with their lives. But if they refuse, then we shall have no choice but to force them at the point of our knives!"
A great cheer erupted and the war chiefs sprang to their feet. But Jake just slumped down next to Norm.
"And may Eywa forgive us if we have to."
* * *
Parker Selfridge twitched when his office communicator pinged. He moved to answer it but then he caught sight of Captain Kim waving to him through the glass. She'd been prowling the command center all morning waiting for the Na'vi reply. Apparently it had finally come. He got to his feet and moved through the door to stand next to the Captain.
"Is it Sully?"
"Yes. Okay, open the channel." A second later the screen came to life and he was looking at Jake Sully's avatar. Selfridge clamped his jaw. This was all Sully's fault! The traitor!
"Captain Kim," said Sully.
"Mr. Sully," replied Kim. "Do you have a reply to our proposal?"
"You never really made a proposal, Captain. You offered us medical supplies in return for an apparently open-ended truce. You didn't say a word about what the future relations between humans and Na'vi would be."
"Well, no, that's true," said Kim. "At the time, my primary concern was to halt the fighting. But Mr. Selfridge is here and if you are willing to begin negotiations I'm sure that we can come to some sort of…"
"It doesn't matter," interrupted Sully. "There aren't gonna be any negotiations."
"What?" cried Selfridge, his heart sinking. "Why not?"
"Because there is nothing to discuss. We want you to leave. Leave our world and go home. This is our world, not yours. You have no right to be here and we want you out of here. I'm told there is unobtanium on the other moons or out in space. Go mine that. We don't care if you do. But leave this world and leave us alone."
"It would cost ten times as much to mine it that way!" squawked Selfridge.
"Then you can charge ten times as much for it," replied Sully, and he actually smiled, exposing some rather nasty-looking fangs.
"So, you are giving us an ultimatum," said Kim. Her voice was toneless and her face unreadable.
"Yeah. We realize that you can't pack up and leave overnight, but you must leave. There's a starship in orbit right now. We want to see you start sending people up to it in no more than three days. We will send some of our people to observe."
"That's it?" snarled Selfridge. "That's your offer? Well you can take your offer and…"
"Mr. Selfridge," said Captain Kim sharply. "Control yourself. All right Mr. Sully, you've told us what you want. We need to consider it just as you needed to consider my offer. We will get back in touch with you in three days…"
"Two days," said Sully. "You have fewer people to talk to and a much simpler decision. In three days you start leaving or we will attack. In the meantime we will keep the cease fire. Sully out." The screen went blank.
"Why that miserable son-of-a-bitch!" cried Selfridge. "Just who the hell does he think he is?"
"He thinks," said Kim with a sigh, "that he's the man in charge of over ten thousand Na'vi warriors. And he's right: he is. Well, we've come to the final hand and he's called our bluff. Time to cut our losses and get out."
"You mean evacuate? No! We can't do that!" Selfridge felt the panic rising in him. For all the bad news and gloom of the last few days he never really thought it would come to this. Something would happen to make it all right.
"There's no choice, sir. Our military situation is untenable. If we stay and fight and the enemy presses his attack we risk being wiped out to the last man. That would certainly be a disaster and under the emergency regulations I have full authority to act to prevent a disaster. I'm sorry, but we will put the evacuation plans into effect immediately, there's no sense in waiting. Now if you'll excuse me, sir, I have a lot to do."
Selfridge opened his mouth to protest, but Kim had already turned away. He stared for a few moments and then stumbled back to his office, locked the door and collapsed into his chair. He opaqued the glass and put his head in his hands.
He wasn't sure how long he had been sitting there when he heard the door slide open. He looked up in surprise as a man walked in. The door had been locked… "Who are you? How did you get in here." he demanded. The man didn't answer, but shut the door behind him.
Now he knew the man: he was one of the communications technicians. He couldn't remember his name, but he saw him in the control room every day. "What are you doing here?"
The man reached into a pocket and flipped a computer disk at him. One side of it was embossed with a symbol he recognized immediately. "Read it," said the man who plopped into a chair and folded his arms. Numbly, Selfridge did as he was told, setting the chip on the read pad. The monitor filled with information and he quickly scanned through it, growing more excited and nervous by the second. He got to the end and looked up.
"So… so you are taking charge?"
"It seems I have to," said the man. "Any objections?"
"No! No, of course not. What the hell took you so long?"
* * *
Captain Harriet Kim was issuing orders when the summons came from Selfridge. She sighed. What the hell did that twit want now? Probably to try and talk her out of the evacuation again. For a moment she was tempted to ignore him, but she really wanted his cooperation. This was going to be difficult enough as it was. And his office was only a few steps away. She stepped over to the door and was mildly surprised that he had opaqued the glass. Normally, he always liked to keep an eye on things. The door opened and she went through. She was even more surprised to see that Selfridge wasn't alone. Com-tech Hartranf was with him. "You wanted to see me, sir?
"Not me," said Selfridge and she'd swear he was smiling. "Him." He indicated Hartranf. She frowned and then raised an eyebrow.
"Technician…?" He took a step forward and slowly took a small object from a pocket. It was an ID card. It had his picture and info-strip but the name on it said: Lomax.
"Captain Kim, I am RDA special security agent Fred Lomax. "I've just informed Administrator Selfridge that I'm taking command of this base and all personnel on Pandora."
"Really? On whose authority?"
"RDA Chief of Security Jeremiah Suvarov. Our boss."
"Ah," said Kim nodding slowly. "You are our much speculated-on watchdog. You won't mind if I ask to see your orders?"
"They're fully valid," said Selfridge. "But see for yourself." he swung a monitor around to face her. She quickly glanced over it, not sure if she was angry or relieved. By the time she got to the end she decided she was relieved. Someone to pass the buck to! She straightened up and faced Lomax.
"Very well, sir, I turn command over to you. May I ask what my duties are now? Or am I under arrest?"
"Not at all, Captain," said Lomax, who seemed quite relaxed now. She supposed he probably had a concealed gun to shoot her with if she'd tried to resist. That was his job after all: to make sure that the tremendous power in the hands of people like Selfridge or Quaritch—or now herself—didn't go too much to their heads. Considering the incredible value of this operation—and how impossibly remote it was—it was inevitable that the Corporation would have secret watchers to make sure nothing happened. Kim bitterly wondered where Lomax had been while Quaritch was running things into the crapper?
"No," continued Lomax, "you've done as good a job as could be expected considering the very difficult circumstances. But I've come to the conclusion that the current crisis is beyond your experience to handle. Nothing dishonorable, Captain. Still, I have to believe that you are giving up much too easily considering the stakes."
"The stakes are all of our lives, sir."
"More than that, Captain, far more than that. First and foremost is the unobtainium, of course. A long-term disruption of the flow of ore to Earth would be an economic catastrophe, not only to RDA, but to the entire planet. The resulting chaos would lead to a loss of life a thousand times worse than what we might suffer here."
"As Sully pointed out, sir, we can still get unobtainium from this star system," said Kim.
"No, Captain. Considering the time delays in communication and transport of new mining equipment it might be two decades before deliveries to Earth could resume. That's unacceptable. No, the mine right here must continue production. I agree with your decision to abandon Site Two. Under the circumstances trying to defend that as well as Hell's Gate and Site One would stretch our resources far too thin. But I believe we can successfully defend here and Site One and that is what we will do. Later, when we receive reinforcements we can recover Site Two."
"Sir," said Kim, anxiety building in her gut, "If the hostiles attack in full force I don't think we can hold…"
"You overestimate their strength, Captain. The data from the battle clearly show that when faced with overwhelming firepower the Na'vi will break and run. All their new arrivals have never even seen our weapons in action. An all-out attack will be met with an all-out response that will kill thousands of them. That will break their will, Captain. They'll run and they won't come back. They're savages, not disciplined soldiers. And that's the second reason we have to stay: we will not let them see us run!"
Kim stared at Lomax in horror. He was actually insisting they risk annihilation over a point of honor? "Sir, what about the native wildlife? They were a decisive factor in the battle. We know so little about their capabilities. And the records show that they didn't run, even in the face of all our firepower."
"Not a fair test, Captain," said Lomax with a dismissive gesture. "They attacked by surprise while our forces were disorganized. The situation deteriorated so quickly it's impossible to tell if the animals would have broken or not. And have there been any incidents of the wildlife attacking us since then?"
"Not in any organized fashion, no sir."
"So, it's entirely possible the whole thing was a fluke. Perhaps the area Quaritch was trying to attack was some sort of animal mating ground or nesting area and they simply responded instinctively by defending their turf. There's nothing to prove that the wildlife is in any way controlled by the Na'vi or that it could be directed against us here."
Kim was taken back. She didn't agree with Lomax's analysis, but she couldn't really refute it, either. Without the animals, they did have a chance. A slim one, but still a chance. "Very well, sir. What are you orders?"
"Cancel the evacuation and continue to prepare our defenses. Site One will remain shut down for the time being until we see how the hostiles react, but I want you to prepare plans for resuming the defense of the mine once things settle down. Oh, there is one other thing: This Dr. Patel: you have clear evidence that he helped Sully and the others against us. Why isn't he locked up?"
"I've ensured that he cannot cause any more mischief, sir. He has no communications with Sully."
"Even so, I'd rather see him in detention."
"If you insist, sir. But I have put him to work collecting and organizing all of Dr. Augustine's records. He is the one most familiar with them and his devotion to Dr. Augustine will ensure he does a thorough job. I felt that it was critical that everything known about this supposed 'planetary network' be sent back to Earth. In the event that we are… that we do fail here, that information could be vital for any future expedition returning to Pandora."
Lomax was silent for a moment but then he nodded. "All right, I concur with your assessment. And if we don't have to guard him, that's one more man on the line. But keep an eye on him! In fact, I think you've named your own job: in addition to your other duties you are now in charge of internal security for the base. Frankly, all the scientists are under suspicion. I want no disruptions, Captain, understand?"
"Good. Carry on, Captain."
* * *
"So what's going on?" asked Max Patel. "First we're told that we are evacuating then half an hour later the order is cancelled!" His co-workers in the lab looked as puzzled as he felt. Most were staring at half-filled storage containers, apparently trying to decide whether to unpack them or not.
"Dunno, Max," said Cynthia Sundstrom. "There's rumors of some sort of shake-up at the top, but I don't know if it's true."
"Max, we have to get an answer about the avatars!" exclaimed Pablo Desante, walking up to him. "If we pull out we can't just leave them, they'll die!"
"Did you ask the transport officer?"
"Yes! But he just said that unless they'll fit in a cryo-capsule—which they won't—then he doesn't have any orders for them!" Pablo was nearly frantic. Max had been having similar conversations with the other avatar-drivers all week. The avatars were grown in special tanks on the trip out from Earth. No one had ever given any thought about sending them back. He knew how… attached the drivers became to their alternate selves. Telling them to just leave them would be like telling a parent to leave their child behind. But even if they could somehow get them back to Earth what would they do with them? Max had no clue what to say.
"Well, just stay calm. If we're not evacuating there's nothing to worry about, okay?" Pablo did not look the least bit consoled, but he went away with a frown on his face. Max looked around, trying to figure out what he ought to be doing. Before he could decide, the loudspeaker came to life:
"Attention. Attention, all personnel. Please go to a communications panel. There will be an important announcement from the base commander in two minutes." The message repeated about six times. Cynthia turned on the big wall panel and everyone turned to face it. After a few seconds the screen lit up and he saw a man who he scarcely recognized flanked by Parker Selfridge and Captain Kim.
"Who's that?" demanded a half-dozen people.
"Good afternoon, everyone," said the man. "I'm Fred Lomax. I work for Corporate Security and under the authority of my special orders, I have taken command of this base and all personnel on or in orbit about Pandora. Administrator Selfridge and Captain Kim have acknowledged my authority to do so." He paused and nodded to the pair. Selfridge actually smiled and nodded back. Captain Kim was like a statue.
"He's a goddam spook!" cried Cynthia.
"Yeah, I sat next to him at lunch yesterday!" exclaimed Karl Meyerson.
"You were probably all a bit confused about the recent orders and counter-orders," continued Lomax, "but that's to be expected during an unprecedented situation like the one in which we find ourselves. But, I want to assure you that everything is completely under control now. I also want to assure you that there will be no evacuation of Pandora. We are here to stay. The enemy may have won a victory, but we will surely win the war. Our position here is very strong and we can hold it as long as necessary. Help is on the way. But in any event, we will not let these savages see us run! We will stand here and fight like humans! We will fight to the last round of ammunition! And we will be victorious! Thank you very much." The screen went blank.
A loud babble of voices swept through the lab, everyone voicing their opinion at once. But Max said nothing and a feeling of dread and gloom filled him. More fighting. This Lomax guy sounded nearly as fanatic as Quaritch. And Jake wasn't going to back down, either. What a mess! But there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
We will fight to the last round of ammunition… Max recalled that first briefing with Captain Kim before they had caught on to him.
His eyes turned toward the windows overlooking the base.
* * *
Norm looked at the man on the computer screen and tried to remember where he had seen him before. Where was Captain Kim?
"Who are you?" demanded Jake, who was sitting cross-legged in front of the computer.
"Ah, Sully," said the man. "I'm Fred Lomax and I'm now in command here. I'm just calling to say that we've reviewed your demands and find them completely unreasonable. We're staying and there's nothing more to discuss on that matter."
"Oh really?" replied Jake. The expression on his face didn't change much, but his tail was thrashing around in agitation. Fortunately, the camera wasn't going to pick that up. "You are not leaving me much choice, Mr. Lomax."
"Come now! You still have several choices. The best one would be to tell your blue friends to all go home and leave us alone here. If you do, we'll give you those medical supplies that were discussed earlier and I promise you we will not venture beyond an area twenty kilometers in radius from Hell's Gate. We do realize now that the demolition of the natives' tree house was a mistake. We will withdraw all of our equipment from that area."
"The damage is done, Lomax! The tree is destroyed along with a lot of lives! You expect us to forgive you for that?"
"What you need to ask, Sully, is whether you'll be able to forgive yourself if you get about ten thousand of your precious blueskins killed trying to shove us out? Come on, man, a lot of people on both sides got killed during the last few weeks. Let's just bury the hatchet and move on."
Jake stared in silence for a long time. A small smile grew on Lomax's face. Norm watched and thought that if Lomax could see Jake's tail, he wouldn't be smiling. "Well?" said Lomax after the silence had dragged on. "Shall I pack up those medical supplies for you? What do you say, Sully?"
"I say that you've made the decision a lot easier for me…" said Jake finally.
"Well good!" said Lomax. "I'm glad to see that you have the good sense to…" He was abruptly cut off when Jake flattened back his ears, bared his fangs, and hissed. Lomax actually flinched back, away from the camera.
"You don't care any more for the lives of your own people than you care about the Na'vi, do you, Lomax?" snarled Jake. "All you care about is your corporate profits. Thanks for reminding me of that! Pack up your bags and get out, Lomax! We're coming to retake what's ours and you damn well better get of the way!" Lomax's astonished face showed for one more second before Jake savagely hit the disconnect button, tumbling the computer to the ground.
The Toruk Makto just stared straight ahead, breathing hard with his fists clenched. Neytiri came to his side and put her arm across his shoulders. "What have I done?" he whispered.
"Exactly what you had to do, Jake," said Norm. "The only thing you could do. If we let them stay it will be the end. They'll bring in more people and more weapons until there will be no chance of facing them. Twenty kilometer radius! Bullshit! As soon as they have the strength they'll go wherever they damn please! This is the only chance we are going to get. You did the right thing."
Jake's breathing slowly went back to normal and he nodded. "Right. Well, it looks like we have a battle to plan. I really think I'd like to do a better job than I did last time. I lie awake at night thinking of all the things I could have done differently."
"Water under the bridge, Jake," said Norm. "No doubt this is going to be a tough fight, but we still have a few tricks up our sleeves. How much ordnance have we salvaged from the battle?"
Jake perked up a bit at that. "Quite a lot. A couple hundred grenades, a bunch of small arms. We're gonna have to cut off the trigger guards to allow a Na'vi finger to fit, but we can do that. Not a lot of ammo for the small arms, unfortunately. We pulled a couple dozen missiles out of the wrecked gunships. We have no way to target or launch them, but I think that by strapping a grenade to each one we could use them as bombs. We've also got eight of the big 30mm autocannons the AMP suits use and a few thousand rounds of ammo. They're too big and heavy for even a Na'vi to carry, but maybe we can rig up some sort of sled to pull them along. Not sure how we're gonna aim them, but they could do some real damage if they hit anything. Best of all we've got four of the shoulder-launched Scorpion missiles. They are simple to use and could bring down a gunship. I gotta figure out the best way to use those. We've got about a hundred com-links, too, so that will help with communications."
"Are the Na'vi willing to use this stuff?"
"The younger ones seem pretty keen to give it a try. Of course we don't have the ammo to give them much training, but it will certainly help."
"Sounds like we've got a lot bigger punch than that Lomax is expecting, "said Norm.
"Yeah, and maybe one other surprise, too. We salvaged one other thing." Jake stopped and looked straight at Norm. "You learned to ride a horse amazingly fast. Think you could do as well with an AMP suit?"
* * *
The General Alarm brought Harriet Kim running to the control room. Other officers and technicians were scrambling to their posts as she arrived. Lomax was already there and Selfridge was hovering off to one side. "Is this it?" she asked Lomax while simultaneously scanning the tactical displays. It had been two weeks since Sully had rejected Lomax's proposal. They had been expecting an attack ever since.
"Looks like it. No way to tell for sure until they commit, but there are certainly a shitload of banshees gathering out there. You got an estimate on numbers yet, sergeant?"
A harried sensor technician jabbed a few buttons and then looked up. "We're estimated in excess of seven thousand, sir. Hard to get an exact count because they are staying low and keep dipping down into the treetops. Range averages out to about thirty-five klicks. Closing very slowly."
"Yeah, Sully's being clever," growled Lomax. "He's trying to goad us into firing at long range. I'm sure he's got observers in close with a com-link. As soon as we cut loose they'll dive into the trees and ninety percent of our missiles will detonate in the foliage. Well, we're not going to fall for that! We'll hold our fire until they get close. Close enough to see the gold of their eyes, eh, Captain?"
"Yes, sir. Is there any indication of a ground assault forming? I see a number of contacts on the ground at under three clicks."
"Nothing big," replied Lomax. "The contacts are all scattered without any concentration big enough to be worth a missile. They've learned not to clump up. I'm guessing they're mostly scouts and maybe a few small parties hoping to rush the perimeter while we're busy with the banshees. If we had the ammo to spare I'd send out a few gunships to drive them off, but we need to hold them back until we can commit them decisively."
Kim nodded and then moved around the control room checking on situation reports. Her position was a bit vague in the chain of command. Lomax seemed to want her involved in everything without actually delegating any real authority. She didn't know anything about Lomax's background, but she suspected it was with some sort of special forces or covert ops group in one of Earth's real militaries. His experience commanding standard combat troops in a stand-up fire fight seemed limited and he often sought her advice. She'd given it to him as best she could. She went back over to him.
"All posts are manned, sir. Automated weapons are at standby, all gunships and AMPs are hot and the armed civilians are at their emergency stations. We're ready, sir."
"Very good," said Lomax. "Okay, Sully, your move."
* * *
"They're not going for it, Jake," said Norm into his com-link. "They have to have you on their screens, but the choppers are staying put and there have been no missile launches." Norm studied the Hell's Gate base through binoculars. He was about three klicks away, peering between the foliage.
"Okay," came back Jake's reply. "It was worth a try. I guess we have to go in and do this the hard way."
"It will be okay, Jake," said Norm trying to sound confident.
"Yeah, from where I'm sitting it looks like it will be a piece of cake," said Jake with a sour laugh. "You ought to see this, Norm. The whole damn sky is filled with banshees. Even more than during the first battle. And every one has a Na'vi on its back. I can almost sympathize with Quaritch: this sort of thing could get damned addictive real easy. Having this sort of power at your command… hell, no wonder humans fight so many wars." There was a pause and then Jake spoke again. "I doubt I'm going to feel this way in another hour. What's your status?"
"We're about all in position. We spent the last two nights inching the autocannons into concealed locations where they can fire at the guns along the perimeter wall. The AMP suit's hidden, too. I think we're ready."
"All right, do not, I repeat: do NOT break cover until they open up on us. Their eyes are going to be glued to their scopes and their trigger fingers itchy. If they see any significant movement close to the fence before they're fully occupied with us, they'll blow you away before you can fire a shot."
"I hear you," said Norm. "We'll just keep our heads down until the show starts." Norm hesitated. "Jake… any sign Eywa's going to help out?"
"Well, I 'talked' to her last night. She knows what's going down. I can't say I've noticed anything unusual happening with the animals, but I've been kind of busy."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. We encountered quite a few hammerheads getting here, but I don't know enough to say if that's unusual. I guess we're on our own this time. But it will be okay. Uh, Jake… be careful."
"Damn right," laughed his friend. "You, too. Okay, here we go." Norm heard Jake switch to the general circuit so he could speak to all the group leaders who had com-links: "Bothers! Sisters! This is the Toruk Makto! The time is at hand! Attack!"
Norm half-expected to hear a cheer erupt all around him, but there was nothing except the normal forest noises. The ground parties were all experienced hunters and there was no way they would break silence while stalking their quarry. He was quite sure that thousands of Na'vi were cheering, but they were the ones riding the banshees. They would be the first to fight—and the first to die.
He looked around. There were a dozen Na'vi acting as his bodyguard. For Norm was in his human form. No adult Na'vi could fit into an AMP suit so Norm's avatar was back at the shack and he was here as himself to drive the AMP suit. The bodyguard was to ensure that no one killed him by mistake.
It had taken over a week to drag the massive suit through the jungle, using horses. They didn't dare have it move under its own power for that would have revealed it immediately to the enemy's sensors. No, it was just an inert lump of metals and plastics and would stay that way until the right moment. Norm hoped he could make good use of it. He'd trained on it and it was easier to use than he's expected. He'd have no chance against a real expert, but he could walk without falling down (mostly) and he could aim and fire the autocannon. He hoped he could do some real damage before they killed him.
And Norm was fully expecting to be killed. The enemy would target everything they could bring to bear as soon as they were aware of him. He could scarcely believe he was doing this. He was no warrior! But how could he stay behind? Jake was every bit as much a dead man as himself. The Toruk would stand out like a beacon, even among the swarms of banshees. The enemy would be looking for him and there was no way Jake was going to last long. And Jake knew it. He wasn't even carrying any of the modern weapons. He knew he'd never get close enough to use them. He'd use himself as a decoy to let others get close. His only hope was that the Toruk would be killed and that he might survive the fall. And perhaps Norm would survive, too: If the AMP suit was crippled, he could abandon it and run. Nice dream.
He'd said goodbye to Lanuma back in camp. She promised to take good care of his sleeping avatar, but both of them realized it would probably never wake up again. She didn't seem too repulsed to see him in human form, which pleased him for some reason he couldn't define. He thought she was weeping as he left. He wished she was here with him now. Neytiri was right there at Jake's side. Jake had tried to keep her out of this fight, but she'd gone up into the mountains and gotten herself a new ikran in record time. Norm pitied and envied him.
He checked the time. About fifteen minutes left…
* * *
Max Patel stared out the window at the beehive of activity. Hell's Gate was at full alert, but was this the real thing, or just another drill? He needed to be sure. He had been under virtual house arrest since Kim had caught him. He could putter around the lab and go from there to his quarters, but that was about it. His computer access was severely limited and no one outside his immediate circle of friends would even talk to him. On the other hand, his isolation was also for his own good. There were about a thousand mercs and miners who would gladly kill him if they got the chance. In their eyes he was a traitor and he supposed he couldn't really blame them. From his perspective this was all a simple case of right-vs-wrong, but few people could ever bring themselves to admit that they were on the wrong side.
When he'd helped Grace and Jake and Norm escape and when he'd informed them of Quaritch's activities he'd never imagined it would lead to so much killing. But what else could he have done? Max was a scientist and he knew that Pandora was a priceless treasure. The unobtainium was trivial by comparison. To allow the RDA to devastate the planet was simply wrong. A hundred years from now technology would have moved on and the unobtainium would become nothing more than a curiosity as better things were discovered. But Pandora would still be ruined. No, it had to be stopped. Max had already struck one blow in that cause.
He was ready to strike another.
He jumped when Cynthia burst into the lab. Everyone else was at an emergency station. "Max!" she exclaimed. "The Na'vi are coming!"
"They're attacking? You're sure?"
"That's the word! They're massing out over the forest. They ought to be here in ten or fifteen minutes."
Max looked back out the window. There was no sign of any fighting yet, but he could see several gunships circling and a half-dozen more parked on the runway with their rotors turning. Mercs and the armed workers were in sandbagged positions. AMP suits trundled along here and there. A large cluster of earth movers and bulldozers from the mine were parked at the far end of the runway. He could see two of the five tall weapons towers that were the primary fixed defenses of Hell's Gate. But his eyes were drawn to a small, inconspicuous concrete structure near one corner of the base.
The Ordnance Bunker.
During that briefing Captain Kim had clearly revealed the humans' single greatest weakness: lack of ammunition. Every man and machine was carrying a full load right now and there was nothing Max could do about that. But all the rest, everything that remained would be in that bunker.
Max could do something about that—or so he hoped.
"All right," he said to Cynthia. "If we're going to do it, now's the time. You still want to go through with this? There's no way we'll be able to cover up your involvement."
"I'm sure, Max. It has to be done and if it works, we'll save God knows how many lives."
He took a deep breath. "Okay, let's do it."
* * *
"The enemy is continuing to close," said the sensor tech. "Range is now twelve kilometers." Captain Kim watched the sensor displays and nervously tapped her fingers against her side. Not long now.
"Captain," said Lomax. "At what range can we fire the seeker missiles where the flight time to target will be ten seconds or less?"
Kim did some quick mental arithmetic. "About six kilometers, sir."
"Very well, we'll open fire at five. The enemy will have no time to duck into the trees."
"Yes, sir." Kim continued to watch. In another minute or two absolute hell was going to break loose. The missiles would start going out and Na'vi would start dying. The enemy had been advancing slowly, no doubt conserving the strength of their mounts. But once the firing started they would increase speed and close the distance as rapidly as they could. Once they were within a kilometer the mini-guns along the perimeter fence would open up and so would the AMP suits. The gun ships would hold back at first to see where the greatest threats were and then salvo off their missiles to try and deal with them. With any luck they could kill three or four thousand of the attackers before the first of them reached the perimeter. What would happen then was anybody's guess. If Lomax was right, the Na'vi would break, morale shattered by their terrible losses, before they even reached the fence. But if he was wrong. If the remaining four thousand Na'vi kept coming and got in among the defenders…
"Ma'am? Captain Kim?" She turned with a jerk. One of the technicians was calling her.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Uh, I'm not sure, ma'am. One of the big remote control 'dozers is moving. I show no orders to that effect. Did you authorize that?"
"I certainly did not. Where?"
"Right there," He pointed to his monitor that was hooked to one of the many remote cameras around the base. Sure enough, one of the huge yellow machines was slowly moving across the concrete. What the hell…?
"Is anyone controlling that 'dozer?" shouted Kim very loudly. Every head turned in her direction. There was a moment of confusion and then everyone emphatically said no.
"What's going on, Captain?" demanded Lomax. "We've got more important things to worry about right now, in case you haven't noticed." Kim ignored him and had the tech zoom in on the 'dozer until they could pick out its ID number.
"You, Schmidt, take control of Unit 241D. Shut it down," commanded Kim.
"Yes, ma'am!" The tech's fingers danced over his board but then he stopped, a surprised expression on his face. "It's under remote control, ma'am, but it's locked me out. The overrides aren't working. I can't stop it from here!"
"Shit!" snarled Kim. She pulled out her binoculars and stepped to the window. The dozer was across the runway and heading for the far corner of the base. In fact it was heading right for the…
"The ordnance dump!"
"What?" exclaimed Lomax, twisting around.
"The dozer is heading right for the ammo dump! Flight ops! Have the gunships take out that dozer! Hurry!"
After a moment of stunned silence everyone was shouting at once. Kim turned her binoculars back on the 'dozer. The damn thing could only move at about 5 kilometers an hour, but it was only a few hundred meters from the dump! There was a babble of voices behind her.
"Yes! I said shoot it!" screamed the flight controller. "Shoot!"
The two closest gunships spun around and began firing missiles. Explosions started blossoming on the sides of the 'dozer and a moment later the blasts could be heard in the control room. But the gunships were carrying fragmentation missiles, perfect for shredding banshees, but the' dozer was built like a tank. It kept moving. It was less than a hundred meters from the dump. Its huge dozer blade came down. More explosions and for an instant the machine was obscured by smoke, but when it cleared, it was still moving. "Get it! Get it!" cried Kim.
Fifty meters, thirty, ten…
The blade struck the side of the bunker and the 'dozer lurched, faltered, and then lurched forward again. For an instant Kim could see the side of the bunker cave in and then the image in her binoculars vanished in a blast of flame. She jerked the binoculars away from her eyes and looked out the window of the control room. At the far end of the base a huge column of flame and smoke rose skyward. A powerful concussion slammed against the windows but they were strong enough not to break. The immense dozer was lifted up and flipped on its back. But the dozer blade went spinning lazily through the air to crash down squarely on Defense Tower 4. A second, and by comparison puny, explosion blew the tower apart. As Kim watched mesmerized, chunks of concrete from the bunker came raining down. One piece caught a gunship's rotors and the machine went out of control and crashed, skidding to a halt on the concrete and miraculously not exploding, too. Out on the ground men were running in all direction.
"My God…" whispered Kim.
* * *
Even four kilometers away, Norm was nearly knocked off his feet by the explosion. Stunned, he looked around in confusion. What was that? Then his Na'vi bodyguard were crying out and pointing. Norm looked in that direction and was astonished to see an enormous cloud of black smoke rising over the base.
"Norm? Norm? What the hell was that?" Jake's voice came through the com-link.
"Uh… not sure, Jake, stand by." He raised his binoculars and studied the base. The whole Northeast corner was shrouded in smoke. "Jake? Jake, there's been a huge explosion at the base!"
"Yeah, I know," answered Jake. "I could feel it from here. What was it?"
"I can't really see anything, there's so much smoke. But it's in the northeast corner and the only thing in that area is…."
"The Ordnance Bunker," finished Jake. "Looks like Eywa—or somebody—is still looking out for us."
"Yeah. But Jake, what should we do? Do we continue the attack? They're probably all disorganized by this. It might be our best chance."
"What about the rest of the base?"
"It seems pretty much intact," reported Norm. I can see at least three of the defense towers and the gunships are buzzing around like angry wasps."
There was a long pause and then Norm heard Jake on the general circuit. "Brothers! Sisters! This is the Toruk Makto! Land in the trees and wait! Something has happened in the enemy fortress and we must find out what it is before we strike. Land and wait!"
Norm found that he was holding his breath. Would the Na'vi obey? Some of them were very eager to fight. Would they hold back? "Well?" he gasped after a bit. "Are they doing it? Jake! Are they holding back?"
"Yes. Thank Eywa, they are," said Jake. "Well, this is sure interesting! Do you think Lomax might be a little more willing to negotiate about now?"
Norm smiled. "He just might be. Certainly worth a shot."
* * *
"I want a status report—now!" snarled Lomax. Harriet Kim did her best to hold her temper.
"Sir, Defense Tower 4 is gone. Three of the gunships have taken crippling damage and are out of action. There are two large gaps torn in the perimeter fence and five of the mini-gun turrets are knocked out. We've got about forty men with various injuries, but—and I'm still not sure I believe it—no one reported killed."
"Everyone near the bunker just ran when they saw the 'dozer coming," said Lieutenant Asoka.
"Damn cowards!" snapped Lomax. "Any one of them could have climbed aboard and shut it down manually!"
Yeah, right. I suppose you would have been willing to do that! "And, of course, our entire reserve stock of ammunition has been destroyed," said Kim aloud.
"We still have enough on hand to fight!" said Lomax. "Sensors! What is the status of the enemy?"
"There are a few hundred banshees circling around at about seven kilometers, sir. The rest have gone into the trees."
"They obviously saw the explosion and waiting to find out what it means," said Kim.
"Sir!' said one of the communications techs, "I've got an incoming message, it's from Sully!"
Lomax's face was quite red by this time, but he squared his shoulders and said: "All right, put him through."
"It's a voice message only sir, switching to speaker."
"Mr. Lomax? This is Jake Sully, come in please."
"This is Lomax. What do you want?"
"It seems like you've had a bit of an accident there. Someone sneeze in the ammo dump?" Sully's voice was lighthearted, almost jovial.
"That's none of your damn business!"
"Oh I think it is! Without your ammo reserve you're screwed, Lomax, and we both know it. I'm still willing to let you evacuate. Same terms as before."
"Go to hell!"
"You sure about that? Maybe I ought to give you a few minutes to think about it. I'll call you back shortly. Sully out."
"Sir," said Kim, "We really do need to consider this. We've lost about twenty percent of our effective firepower and with no resupply of ammunition… in my opinion we are risking annihilation if we continue to resist."
"You view is noted, Captain. Sensors! Were you able to get a fix on Sully's location from that last transmission?"
"Yes sir," replied the tech. "I've put it up on the display. Range about eight klicks. But sir, it's probably just a…"
"Good! Missile Control, target a one hundred missile salvo around those coordinates. We'll see how Mr. Sully likes this!"
Kim stared aghast. Was he really serious? "Sir! We're in the midst of a parlay! If you kill Sully now there'll be no controlling the Na'vi. They'll go berserk! There'll be no stopping them!"
"No, Captain, without their leader, they will give up. Missile Control, fire when ready."
"Belay that order!" cried Kim. "Missile Control, stand down!"
Lomax turned to face her. His face, instead of being filled with rage was strangely calm. And in that moment she knew. "Captain Kim, you are relieved of duty. You will confine yourself to quarters. Missile Control, carry out my last order." The man at the missile control station, Sergeant Jenkins, looked around helplessly, unsure what to do.
"As you were, Mr. Jenkins," said Kim. "Mr. Lomax, I'm relieving you of command."
"Oh really," sneered Lomax. "You want to just give up, do you? Abandon this base to a bunch of savages? Coward! I tell you the enemy will break! We can hold this base!"
"Is that why you've had the auxiliary shuttle prepped for launch, sir?" asked Kim. "It can hold what? Ten people? Yourself, Mr. Selfridge and who else? If you're so confident of victory, why do you have your escape route all ready? It's because you don't care if we hold out or not, do you? A victory would be fine, but a massacre would suit the Corporation almost as well! The gloves would be off then! You could come back and use whatever force you wanted to wipe out the Na'vi and rape this world. All the rest of us would be dead, but that wouldn't bother you a bit, would it?" Lomax's face went pale and there was a murmur around the control room.
"Bitch!" snarled Lomax and there was a gun in his hand. Kim had a pistol on her belt, but she could never reach it in time. A deafening concussion filled the room and something slammed into her stomach and she fell to the floor. There were shouts and another shot. Something heavy fell across her legs. The pain in her belly grew and grew and her vision seemed to be tinged with a red fog.
"Asoka's dead," said a shaken voice, "but Captain Kim is still alive, sir!"
"Take her to the infirmary," said Lomax. His voice sounded like it was coming from a long way off. The pain was closing over her. "Missile Control, fire those damn missiles!"
* * *
Norm was just getting his hopes up that they might avoid a fight when a distant roar came to his ears. He jerked his head around and was horrified to see a series of bright specks flashing away from one of the remaining defense towers, each one trailing smoke.
"Jake! Jake!" he screamed into his com. "They're firing! Missiles inbound! Repeat: missiles inbound!" The missiles passed overhead and disappeared from sight. There was only the one salvo and they were clearly targeted against the main body of ikran riders. Probably against Jake, himself! Long seconds ticked by and then a low rumbling gently shook the forest. His Na'vi bodyguard were whispering among themselves and gesticulating wildly. "Mawye, mawye!" he hissed at them. No rash moves! Not now!
But what had happened? Was Jake okay? Had his plan with the communications worked? Jake had spent an entire day hammering into everyone the need for communications security. Apparently, his time as a Marine recon scout had taught him that lesson until it was second nature. Modern sensors could spot an unguarded transmission and pinpoint the location within seconds. They had been safe in the Flux, but out here, they would be naked to enemy detection unless they were careful.
Fortunately, they had the means to be careful. The standard countermeasure was to put the transmitters on their com-links at extreme low power so they would only carry a klick or two and then sow a number of repeaters around them. These would pick up the low-power transmissions and then rebroadcast them at a much higher power. The enemy would only detect the repeaters. They were standard issue and they had managed to salvage dozens of them from Quaritch's force. Norm was praying that the enemy missiles had only blasted a repeater and not Jake. Several minutes passed and then he breathed a sigh of relief when he heard Jake on the com again.
"Brothers and Sisters! Warriors of the Na'vi! The enemy has rejected our last offer of peace. We have no choice now: attack!"
* * *
Parker Selfridge's heart sank when he heard Sully's voice over the speaker again. How had he escaped the missiles?
"Sorry, sir," said the man at missile control to Lomax. "They must have been using a repeater."
"Damnation," said Lomax. "I wonder how much more of our gear they've managed to salvage?"
"Sir, the enemy banshees are airborne again," said the sensor operator. "Gaining altitude but not closing yet. Range still eight to ten klicks."
"Very well, stand by to open fire. Lieutenant Jacobs, send ten of the AMP suits to cover those holes in the perimeter fence. And Sergeant Pavlov, take a detail and find Doctor Patel, he must have been behind that 'dozer attack. Find him and… shoot him."
"Shoot him, sir?" asked the sergeant.
"You heard me!"
"Yes, sir!" The man grabbed two others and left.
Selfridge almost shouted a protest, but he was still trembling from the earlier violence. There were two bloody stains on the floor where Lomax's victims had fallen. Kim would probably survive—if any of us do!—but Asoka was dead. He'd known that Lomax was a dangerous man, but he'd never really thought it would come to this. But what other option had there been? Kim was ready to surrender and that just wasn't acceptable.
But how many here could they count on if things got rough? He could see that several of the other officers and men were furious at what had happened. Kim and Asoka were their comrades, while Lomax was a virtual stranger. Selfridge noticed that Lomax had not put away his pistol… If he lodged any sort of protest it was entirely possible Lomax would shoot him, too. Damn, and I thought Quaritch was a fanatic! Selfridge was seriously thinking about heading for the auxiliary shuttle which was standing by just as Kim had said.
"Sir, the enemy banshees are now closing rapidly," said the sensor operator. "Distance to the leading elements is at six… five kilometers…"
"Open fire," said Lomax. "All missile batteries, commence firing." The missile controller repeated the order and a moment later the roar of the missiles shook the control room.
* * *
Max Patel heard the missiles going out and he bowed his head. It hadn't worked. He had hoped and prayed that by destroying the ammunition bunker the soldiers would realize they couldn't win and give up. Obviously, they weren't going to.
"What do we do now, Max?" asked Cynthia.
"I don't know. But you better get out of here. They're gonna be pissed about the 'dozer and probably come looking for me soon."
"But what will you do?"
* * *
Norm clenched his fists as wave after wave of missiles streaked overhead. The four defense towers at the base were spewing them out as fast as they could. Hundreds and hundreds. The scientist in him was rationally calculating that with each one fired, the enemy was that much weaker, but the person inside him was counting how many of his friends were dying. Enough of this! He had a job to do!
"Ground hunters, stand ready!" he said into his com in Na'vi. All along the perimeter of the base the Na'vi warriors were coming out of their hiding places. To avoid the human satellite sensors they had trickled into the area over the last few days, singly and in small groups. They had then concealed themselves and waited patiently. There were nearly four thousand of them. The Na'vi manning the salvaged autocannons would be making last minute adjustments to their aim. Four of them had been sighted on the mini-guns along the perimeter fence and the others had been set in pairs to fire at two of the closest defense towers. One of the targeted mini-guns had been knocked out by the ammo explosion, so Norm didn't know what the gunners assigned to that one would aim at, but there was no time to find out now. He headed toward his AMP suit was laying…
… and froze.
A dozen fist-sized objects suddenly swarmed around him. Holy shit! Hellfire wasps! Norm held himself completely motionless as the hideous things hovered less than a meter away. One sting was enough to incapacitate a human. A dozen stings could kill in minutes. He heard his bodyguard cry out, but what could they do? His heart was pounding as one of them flew even closer, floating just in front of his face. His mask was starting to fog up…
As suddenly as they had appeared the wasps flew off—toward the base. Norm gasped in relief, but his bodyguard was shouting and pointing. More wasps, hundreds, thousands of them, were boiling out of the forest and heading towards Hell's Gate.
"Eywa! Eywa is sending help!" they cried.
I guess small help is better than no help!
Coming to his senses Norm sprinted over to his AMP suit. As he reached it, the horrid rip-saw sound of the mini-guns along the fence began. All right, the enemy was fully engaged! He clicked on his com:
"Ground hunters: Strike! Strike! Strike!"
* * *
"Get them, get them!" Parker Selfridge was muttering to himself. The targeting monitors were a shifting kaleidoscope of colored specks. A vast cloud of red dots was approaching the base. Hundreds of blue dots streaked out to meet them and every time they met, another red dot vanished. They were killing the enemy. Killing and killing and killing, but it didn't seem to diminish the cloud at all. They were getting too damn close!
"New contacts on the ground!" shouted the sensor operator. "Range less than three klicks! Several thousand new contacts, sir!"
"Maintain fire on the banshees!" snapped Lomax. "They'll get here the soonest."
"Incoming fire! We are being fired on from the edge of the forest. Heavy weapons fire!"
"Mini-gun turrets twelve and fourteen out of action! Defense Tower Two is…"
A massive explosion rocked the control room and Selfridge stared in horror as one of the main defense towers blew itself apart in smoke and flame.
"Damn!" snarled Lomax. "Flight Control! Send the gunships against those ground targets! Missile Control, continue firing at the banshees!"
"Defense Tower Three is reporting heavy damage, sir, they can't…"
"Just keep shooting!" screamed Lomax.
Selfridge clutched his knees with his hands. The red dots were getting awfully close. Through the windows he could see a swarm of black objects emerging from the wall of smoke over the forest.
* * *
Norm Spellman closed the canopy on the AMP suit and hit the main power switch. The huge machine came to life around him. He reached down and picked up the autocannon. He stepped out from behind a tree trunk and looked toward the base. A new column of smoke was rising from where one of the defense towers had been. Good! Another twenty-five percent of the enemy missile launchers out of action. The ikran-riders might make it through yet. All around him Na'vi warriors were streaming toward the base. Gratifyingly little fire was coming their way yet.
But that was about to change.
As Norm watched, he saw half-a-dozen gunships rise up and head toward them. Good! Just what they'd hoped for! He clicked on his com: "Fire archers: there are your prey! Make ready!" He hoped like hell that the 'fire archers', the Na'vi with the Scorpion missile launchers were still out there. He activated his own targeting display and selected one of the fast-approaching gunships. "Now!"
Four missiles flashed upwards in a ragged volley. Three of the gunships exploded in balls of fire. The fourth target did an incredible back-flip and the missile flashed past it without detonating. But Norm's autocannon was hammering out a stream of fire and his target was suddenly spewing smoke.
* * *
"Get them out of there!" screamed the flight controller. "Get them back!"
Parker Selfridge looked in dismay as the two surviving gunships fled back inside the Hell's Gate perimeter. The other four were blazing wrecks on the ground. Damn Sully! Only he could have trained the Na'vi to use these captured weapons!
"Still taking fire from the forest!" shouted someone. "All mini-gun turrets on the north and east walls out of action! What do we do now, sir?"
"Missile control!" said Lomax. "Divert fire from Tower One. Take out those guns!"
"But, sir! The banshees…!"
Selfridge got up from his chair and started to back away. The banshees were clearly visible now, streaking toward him at a frightening speed. Missiles continued to blast them from the sky, but there were just too damn many of them and they weren't stopping!
* * *
Missiles started exploding along the edge of the forest and Norm winced. He imagined that all the autocannons were gone now. And he would be next if he didn't get moving. He began trotting forward. He activated the suit's ECM system and hoped for the best. Maybe they wouldn't be able to spot him right away.
Or maybe they'd have something else to worry about.
Banshees, swarms of them, swooped past him. More and more and more. A missile exploded right overhead and moments later a shattered ikran crashed to earth not twenty meters away. A dozen more fell before the first of them were passed the perimeter fence, but the rest didn't stop. Ikran shrieks and Na'vi battle cries mingled with the roar of guns and the exploding missiles. Where was Jake? Was he still alive in all this? He broke into a run and started to overtake the Na'vi foot warriors.
"Come on! Follow me!"
* * *
"The enemy are inside the perimeter, sir!"
"All ground positions fire at will!" commanded Lomax.
Selfridge forced himself to stay and watch. It was all going to hell, but he couldn't tear himself away. Despite Lomax's predictions, the Na'vi had not broken and fled. They had taken their losses and kept coming. Hundreds were past the fences and thousands more were still on their way. The missile launchers in the towers were soon going to be useless: with the enemy so close, they'd risk blasting their own men if they fired. Nearly all the gunships were out of action. The only thing left were the AMP suits and a few dozen heavily sandbagged firing positions scattered around the base…
"Sir!" shouted one of the technicians. "The troops in the bunkers say they are under attack. By… by bugs!"
The technician just shrugged helplessly, but just then something banged off the control room window. Then something else. Then more. Selfridge stared in shock as a bug the size of his hand flung itself against the window. It was one of the ugliest things he'd ever seen. A cloud of the things was swirling around outside. He looked out and saw troops stumbling out of their bunkers and fleeing towards the main buildings. Some of them fell and writhed on the ground.
"My God…" Eywa? Again?
A banshee flashed past and Selfridge instinctively ducked as bullets splattered off the heavy glass. "They… They've got guns!" he cried. As he watched, another banshee stooped on an AMP suit out on the runway. The man in the suit blasted the banshee out of the sky, but not before a long white object tumbled down to land at it its feet. It exploded an instant later and when the smoke cleared the suit was just a pile of wreckage.
Damn, damn, damn!
* * *
Max Patel looked around the lab for a good place to hide. He'd been looking for ten minutes. He wasn't sure who he was hiding from now. He'd been expecting base security to come looking for him at any moment, but now there were explosions shaking the building. Would he be hiding from enraged Na'vi warriors instead? But if the explosions were this close then the Na'vi must have made it inside the base perimeter. Max felt some satisfaction in that. He had never seen himself as a martyr, but if the Na'vi could win it would give his own death some meaning.
He spun around when he heard someone at the main door. For lack of a better spot he dove under one of the desks. He sat there, holding his breath, and waited. A minute or so went by and he risked a peek.
He found himself looking at a pair of combat boots. A hand grabbed the back of his collar and hauled him out of his hiding place. A second later he was eye-to-eye with a gruff-looking soldier. Two others stood behind him.
"I'm guessing you are Dr. Patel?" Max could only nod.
"Sorry, Doc, but I got orders to shoot you."
"What?" Max squawked.
The man shoved him against the wall and drew his pistol.
"Hey, Sarge," said one of the others. "You sure about this? I mean is this legal? Don't there have to be a trial or something?"
"The boss said to shoot 'im. We're just following orders."
"Okay, if you say so."
"Waste of a bullet," said the third one. "And from the sound of things, we're going to be needing every one we have real soon." The building shook again as if in confirmation.
But the man with the pistol pointed it right at Max's head and thumbed back the hammer.
Suddenly, something large and blue loomed up behind the other two solders. They heard the noise and started to turn, but two huge hands caught them by their necks and slammed their heads together. They fell like two sacks of bricks. The sergeant spun around, but his arm was seized before he could fire and with a sickening crunch it snapped like a twig. He howled in pain, but only for a moment because he was then hurled against the wall and fell unconscious like his two comrades.
Max stood there gasping as Pablo Desante's avatar winked at him. "Looks like we got here in the nick of time, Max." Three other avatars were coming into the room, each bent nearly double with the low head room. Cynthia was with them.
"Max! Are you all right?"
"Barely," he choked. "But what's happening?"
"I don't really know, but it sounds like the Na'vi are winning. What should we do?"
Max hesitated. The idea of some avatar-led assault on the command post flashed through his head, but he instantly discarded it. The narrow doors and corridors would hopelessly hamper the avatars, despite their strength. No, the Na'vi were going to have to win this without any further help. They only thing they could do was…
"We need to keep as many people alive as we can."
* * *
Norm reached the perimeter fence. He glanced up at the armada of banshees flashing past and he hoped that the blue war paint on his AMP suit was going to work. He'd hate to get killed by a friend.
Actually, he wasn't too keen on the idea of getting killed by the enemy either.
But there was no point in standing here; Na'vi warriors were starting to gather around him. He hefted the autocannon and used the nasty blade on the front to slice through the metal fencing. A half dozen slashes and a few kicks and there was hole a dozen meters wide. He led the way through.
Hundreds, thousands of banshees were already swirling around. Smoke rose up from a dozen places. He could see clusters of banshees tearing at the remaining defense towers or on the roofs of some of the buildings. There were human bodies and Na'vi bodies and dead banshees scattered all over the place. As he started forward he was shocked to see a human thrashing on the ground, nearly covered in Hellfire Wasps. Eywa cleared out the infantry for us. One of the Na'vi with him stooped and slashed the man's throat. Revenge or mercy, Norm wasn't sure.
Suddenly, a shape loomed out of a cloud of smoke right ahead of him. AMP suit! Norm tried to bring his gun to bear, but yellow flame spurted from the enemy and shells slammed into him. The windshield shattered and his gun flew out of his grasp, the suit's right leg collapsed and he fell over sideways and smashed into the hard ground.
Stars were swirling around him and blood was dripping in his eyes. Norm could see a shattered Na'vi warrior lying a few meters away. He tried to move, but the suit didn't respond. The instrument panel was a solid mass of blinking red lights. He didn't think he was hurt badly, but he had to get loose before…!
The enemy AMP suit finished spraying the Na'vi around him with 30mm shells and then swung its gun back toward him. There was nowhere to go. Good bye Lanuma…
Something huge and red dropped out of the sky.
Norm gaped in astonishment as the Toruk seized the enemy AMP suit. One of its wings had a large hole punched through it and blood streaked its neck, but it grabbed the enemy by the shoulders and with a scream hauled it skyward. A tiny figure rode on its back. Twenty, thirty, fifty meters in the air it went. Then with a savage twist, it flung the enemy away. The AMP suit spun end over and crashed to the concrete. Pieces flew off it as it bounced three times and then screeched to a halt. It didn't move.
The Toruk screamed again in triumph and then flew off. Norm stared after it for one moment longer and then passed out.
* * *
"All missile batteries are inoperable…"
"No gunships responding…"
"Enemy troops are inside the hanger area…"
Parker Selfridge stood there frozen as the litany of disaster flowed over him. We're beaten. Kim was right…
Something grabbed him and shook. Lomax was there next to him. "Time to go," he said as if passing the time of day.
They turned toward the door and then pulled up short. Lieutenant Jacobs was standing in their way. His pistol was out and the muzzle was only a few centimeters from Lomax's forehead. An expression of raw hatred twisted Jacob's face.
"Leaving so soon… sir?"
Lomax hardly even seemed phased. "Stand aside, Lieutenant. In fact, why don't you come along?"
Jacobs took a step forward and pressed the gun against Lomax's head. "I don't think so, sir! You, Selfridge, run if you want. But Mr. Lomax and I will be staying here with all the other dead men!"
Through the door and down the corridor. He didn't even look back when a single shot rang out. Down a flight of stairs and then on toward the small hanger at the rear of the administration building. The shuttle would be there! As he ran, his ears suddenly popped and an alarm began shrieking. They had lost their seal. He snatched the breathing mask off his belt and fitted it in place without stopping. There! One more door and…
A large blue figure blocked his path. Na'vi! Inside already! Oh no! Selfridge skidded to a stop. He didn't even have a weapon. But then he gasped in relief when he saw the figure was wearing a shirt and shorts. An avatar! "Let me by, I have to…"
"Have to what, Mr. Selfridge?" He groaned in dismay. Behind the avatar was Max Patel.
* * *
Harriet Kim was drifting out of consciousness on the operating table. People were moving around her and there was a lot of shouting in the background. Shot. She'd been shot. By Lomax. No pain now which was a blessing. But what the hell was going on? The table seemed to shake from time to time and it was accompanied by a deep-seated rumble that was all-too familiar. Explosions. Not too close, but not nearly far enough, either. Oh yes, Lomax had launched missiles. The Na'vi must be attacking…
"All right, we're closed," said a voice very close by. "Get her to recovery, we're going to have a lot more coming in soon."
Someone lifted and moved her and that did hurt a bit. But then she was somewhere else and another person was saying: "Just rest easy, Captain, you're going to be fine." Damn bedside manner. They'd have said that if the world was coming to an end. Well, it was, wasn't it? The explosions were definitely closer now. She forced herself to stay awake and tried to clear her head. Yes, closer, no doubt about it. From somewhere in the compound. The Na'vi had broken through the defenses just as she'd feared. She'd never been sorrier to be proven right about something.
They were bringing more people in now and the doctors and medics all seemed to be talking at once. The soldier in her demanded to know what was going on, demanded that she take charge. But her body refused to respond. It took all her strength just to keep her eyes open.
A gurney was parked right in front of her with a trooper on it. The man was twitching and foam was coming out of his mouth. His tunic was torn open and there were horrible red lumps all over his skin. "I need the anti-toxin now!" screamed a medic.
In spite of her efforts, she dozed fitfully. When she woke again it was because all the noise had stopped. She forced her eyes open. There were people all around her, but they were all standing still as statues. Off to her left there was movement and she gasped when she saw several tall blue figures towering over the humans.
"Please!" cried a female human voice. "Please don't do anything stupid! Don't resist and no one will get hurt! Is Captain Kim here?"
Kim tried to say that she was here, but it only came out as a gurgle. But someone must have pointed her out because the Na'vi headed in her direction. They had to stoop over to keep from hitting their heads on the ceiling. They arrived by her bed, led by a human woman Kim recognized as one of the scientists. The Na'vi that loomed over her was wearing some elaborate beadwork. He was also wounded in several places. Red streaks of blood were on his arms and chest and the side of his face. Kim was always surprised that Na'vi blood wasn't blue…
"Captain Kim?" said the Na'vi in English. "I'm Jake Sully."
She blinked and looked again. Yes, it was him. No doubt about it. "Hi. Guess we lost, huh?"
"She's still pretty doped up right now," whispered someone from the background. Yeah, tell me about it!
"Captain, we've occupied most of the base and nearly all the fighting has stopped," said Sully. "But there are a few groups holding out here and there. They won't give up without orders from an officer. And… you're the only one we've found alive so far."
Damn. It looked like Lomax got his massacre. "Whaddabout Lomax? Got away?"
"No, we found his body in the control room. I don't think we were the ones who killed him. Captain, an awful lot of people on both sides got killed today. I don't want to see any more dead. Will you order your people to surrender?"
"Guarantee our safety?"
"Yes. You have my word. Anyone who surrenders will be allowed to leave."
"Good enough for me. Get me a communicator."
* * *
Norm Spellman watched the long line of humans heading toward the shuttle. Some of them were on crutches or sporting other injuries, but they could all move under their own power. All the seriously injured had been sent up with the first load. This was the last. About eight hundred humans had survived the battle. Almost a thousand had not. Ironically, most of the dead had been killed by the Hellfire Wasps rather than the Na'vi. Caught outside in their windowless bunkers they had been unable to reach shelter before being fatally stung. Eywa doesn't fool around when you piss her off. I hope they remember that.
Losses among the Na'vi had been just about the same. Around a thousand killed and maybe an equal number wounded. Heavy losses among the ikrans, too. Norm kept telling himself that it could have been a whole lot worse, but it was still pretty awful. The heartbreaking Na'vi funeral dirges had been going on almost non-stop ever since the battle, over a week ago. Norm was amazed that they had spared as many humans as they had.
He turned as Jake came up beside him. He was even more amazed that Jake had survived. Eywa had clearly been looking out for him. But no, it wasn't divine intervention, it had just been the law of averages. Most of the Na'vi losses had been from long-range missile fire. The enemy hadn't been able to pick out the Toruk from all the other targets. And when Max and the salvaged autocannons had managed to take out three of the five defense towers early on, it had reduced the number of missiles going out enough to let the bulk of the ikran riders—including Jake—to make it through. Not that Jake or the Toruk had escaped unscathed—he was still carrying some shrapnel. Nor Neytiri: she had managed to lose her new Ikran exactly like she'd lost the last one and a hard fall had left her with a broken arm. She was back at the hospital even now—much to her annoyance.
"So what's going to happen now?" asked Max. "Will they give up on Pandora or do you think they'll try to come back?"
"I don't know," said Jake. "I hope we've taught them a lesson."
"Human history is just a progression of people who wouldn't learn from their mistakes," said Norm. "Maybe they'll do what we say and start mining the other moons, but I'm not holding my breath on it."
"Well, at the very least we've got ten years before they can try anything," said Max.
"You're still determined to stay?" asked Jake.
"If I went back to Earth I'd be thrown in jail. Anyway, this is home now, Jake." He looked over to where Cynthia Sundstrom was watching him and smiled.
"But for how long? How long can you keep the base life support running? You're taking a hell of a chance."
"Yeah, but there's enough equipment and supplies for two thousand people here. That ought to be enough to keep a few dozen of us alive for quite a while. And if your offer of limited trade with Earth is accepted we ought to be able to get whatever we want. Hell, there's twenty tons of unobtainium in storage here. That ought to buy quite a few redi-meals." Max looked thoughtful. "I wonder if we could buy avatar bodies for ourselves…?"
"By the way, Max," said Jake, "I never had the chance to thank you for taking out the ammo dump. That was you, wasn't it?"
"I'm in enough trouble with the RDA as it is Jake," said Max with a smile. "Let's just say that computer security for mining equipment is much less tight than for military computers. And with a friend's username and password, well… glad to be of service."
Their conversation was interrupted when they spotted Administrator Parker Selfridge walking past. He looked at Jake and then Norm and Max but didn't say a word. Jake just jerked his head toward the shuttle.
The end of the column approached and Norm saw that Captain Kim was the last one. She was still in a wheelchair and he could see the impression that had on Jake. She stopped when she came abreast of them. "Mr. Sully, this is the last of us," she said. "Once this shuttle leaves the only humans on Pandora will be the ones you've allowed to stay. This meets the terms of our agreement. I just wish we could have accepted your original terms."
"You tried, Captain," said Jake. "None of this was your fault."
"But who's fault was it?" she asked bitterly. "We were betrayed. All of us. You, me, the Na'vi, all my troops. And I'm not expecting the betrayal to end even after we reach Earth." She looked around and then back at Jake. "You are allowing some of the humans to stay. I was wondering if I could ask for asylum here?"
"What?" cried Jake in surprise. "You want to stay? Are you sure?"
"I only came because of the money and because there's no one waiting for me back on Earth," said Kim. "I suspect I'll never see a cent of that money after this fiasco. And there's still no one waiting for me. And while I'm not implying that you did a bad job, Corporal, perhaps you could use someone with a bit more military experience." She smiled up at him.
Jake laughed. "Yes, we probably could at that!" He bent over and offered her his hand. "Welcome to Pandora, Captain."
* * *
Ten days later they had a great celebratory feast. All the clans who had come to help would be leaving soon and the Omaticaya wanted to formally thank them all for their aid. Despite their tragic losses, the Na'vi were in good spirits. Norm supposed that their ironclad faith in Eywa taking care of the departed had a good deal to do with that. The departed were never far away. The feast was held at the great tree that would become the Omaticaya's new home. It was smaller than their old home and needed much work but all agreed that it would serve. Many of the people from the other clans were leaving tools and other gifts to help the Omaticaya in their time of need.
Jake spent much of his time conferring with the other clan leaders. They agreed that the word must be spread to every corner of Pandora, even across the great seas. All must be warned of what had happened. Every eye must watch for a return of the Skypeople. Pandora was a big planet and the Na'vi were thinly scattered. If they were not vigilant the Skypeople might return in secret to some remote area and not be discovered until it was too late.
Norm left the politics to Jake and spent much of the evening dancing with Lanuma. He had long since decided that shew as really very pretty HHH
He had long-since decided that she was really very pretty. And a few quiet questions to Neytiri had confirmed that while Na'vi mated for life, if one of the pair was killed, the other was free to find another mate. He resolved to have a long talk with Lanuma.
Later in the evening Jake finally broke free of the politics and joined Norm and Lanuma and Max and Cynthia near one of the fires. Max had been hailed as a great hero for destroying the ammo dump and it had gone a long way to convince the Na'vi that not all the Skypeople were evil. Jake had his arm around Neytiri, but he seemed depressed. "What is wrong, my Jake? The war is over and all is well."
Jake leaned against Neytiri and sighed. "Oh, just some selfish thoughts, Love."
"What?" prompted Norm.
"I… I was thinking about the link capsules. Max, you told me about how finicky they are. How long are we gonna be able to keep them working?" He looked at Neytiri. "I love this world and I love these people and I love this woman. I'd hate to lose it all now that we've won."
Norm was silent. He's been having the same worries. The thought of being cooped up in a crumbling outpost for the rest of his life was not very appealing. For Jake, being trapped in a wheelchair in a crumbling outpost would be even worse. But then Max spoke up:
"Well, you know, Jake, my specialty has been the neural link for the avatars. I've been thinking a lot about what you told me about Grace and the Tree of Souls."
"Yeah?" said Norm and Jake in unison.
"I've had this idea…" said Max.