By Scott Washburn
Note: This is NOT part of my Aftermath series, although it makes use of some of the characters I created for it. My story "From the Jaws of Victory" could be considered a prequel to this story.
"Seze is dead. They are very close, they are many."
Neytiri pressed her back against a tree and tried to catch the thoughts whirling through her brain. The battle, the battle was going badly. The people all around her were retreating, running away from the terrible Sky People weapons. She had heard Trudychacon tell Jake that her machine was going down. Normspellmon and Tsu'tey were not answering Jake's calls. And a line of Sky People warriors were only a few spans away, moving right toward her.
"Do not attack!" cried Jake over the communicator. "Do you read me, Neytiri?" She could hear the worry in his voice. He wanted her to run, too. Save herself. And she very much wanted to run. She wanted to get back to Jake, feel his strong arms around her, cry on his shoulder after this awful day.
But she couldn't. Wouldn't.
The battle had to be won. Somehow. Everything depended on victory. Everything would be lost with defeat. She pulled out an arrow and knocked it to the bowstring. Her breath was coming in short gasps and she'd never been so afraid. She wanted to live. Oh, how she wanted to live! With Jake! The love she felt for him was like the love she felt for her people, for Eywa!
"Do not attack! Fall back now! Get out of there! That's an order!" Jake's voice was becoming desperate, did he know what she was going to do? She stood up and drew back her bow. She would strike one last blow. For her people. For her world.
With a scream of rage she leapt from behind the tree as the humans came abreast of it. Her arrow took the warrior with the fire-spitter in the chest. His eyes wide with shock, he twisted away, his weapon's flames engulfing the human next to him. She dove, rolled, and came up in the midst of the enemy. She lashed out with her bow and knife. One, two, three of her foes fell before her. Then the horrible noise of their weapons filled the air and blasts of fire slashed past her. A fourth enemy staggered away clutching the ruin her knife had made of his throat when something slammed into her. Her legs gave way and she fell to the ground stunned, unable to move. A Sky Person loomed over her with his weapon ready. "Good-bye, Ma Jake," she whispered. "Eywa watch over you."
But then an arrow appeared from nowhere, impaling the human and he tumbled away, out of her sight. Cries and shouts and the roar of the human guns erupted all around her. She tried to push herself up to see what was happening, but the whole world was growing dim and there was no strength in her arms. The blackness engulfed her and she knew no more.
"Time to target two minutes," said Tech Sergeant Jimenez.
Colonel Miles Quaritch nodded in satisfaction. He touched his com. "Valkyrie One-Six, you are cleared and hot."
"Copy, Dragon, we are starting our bomb run," came the reply. It was about time! The fight had gone on far longer than he'd expected. Far longer than it should have. He glanced down at the Master Force Display and grimaced. Twenty-two of the helicopters lost! Five more damaged and returning to base. He hadn't expected to lose more than five during the entire operation! Selfridge was going to shit himself when he learned how much money the Corporation had just spent today securing his new mine for him. Quaritch didn't give a damn about the money, but losing that many ships and irreplaceable crews was not good. If this war went on, he couldn't sustain these sorts of casualties for long. But the war won't go on! I'm going to end it in about ninety seconds!
Jake shouted into the com: "Neytiri! Answer me!"
But there was no answer. He clenched his fists and bowed his head. She was gone. The woman he'd loved so much was gone. Dead. Just like everyone else. Grace, Trudy, Norm, Tsu'Tey. All gone. Everyone in the universe that he cared about was gone. A red despair filled him.
Well, Norm's human body was still alive, but no one was going to be alive if he didn't stop that shuttle! The huge white vehicle was just below him now. It had veered off during the first Na'vi attack as its escorts had to deal with the diving banshees, but now it was lined up again and heading straight for the Tree of Souls. There weren't enough warriors left to stop it.
It was up to him.
He looked again and saw that the remaining enemy helicopters were gathering around the shuttle, hugging it close to make sure nothing could bother it. Quaritch's big command ship was only a hundred meters off to the side.
"Come on!" he shouted to Toruk. His own rage was passing through the tsahaylu and the huge beast roared in response and folded back his wings. A handful of other warriors closed in around him as he began his dive. Good, maybe they could draw some fire. The speed increased rapidly and he rushed toward the shuttle. Some fire started coming in and a few bullets tore through Toruk's wings, but the helicopters were all designed to shoot straight ahead or down or to the sides, not up. A serious design flaw that was going to cost them!
He guided Toruk toward a spot just behind the shuttle and then, only about fifty meters above it, he gave the command and the huge flier spread his wings fully and curved his flight around the rear overhang of the shuttle—and right through the open cargo ramp! Jake could clearly see the shock on the faces of the gunners as the huge red shape appeared out of nowhere and hurtled straight toward them. Even so, they all opened fire and Toruk screamed as the bullets punched holes along his neck and down his sides. But the small-caliber weapons couldn't stop something that size and an instant later Toruk plowed right through the rear gunners, snapping off the weapons and crushing the men manning them. His jaws caught another man and sliced him in two.
Jake leapt off Toruk's back and began spraying the cargo hold with fire from his gun. Men screamed and fell. Toruk dragged himself forward and killed another shrieking human. Jake emptied his weapon and tossed it aside. There were others scattered all over but his hands were too big to use them. He drew his knife and advanced on the first pallet of mine explosives. A control box of some sort with a red light hung from one side. It wasn't like any standard military detonator he'd ever seen. A time fuse? Impact? Altitude? He couldn't tell. How to set the damn thing off and not be here when it happened?
Blam! Something punched him in the side and he cried out. Again. A man had come around from behind the pallet of explosives and was firing his pistol. Jake lashed out with his knife and nearly took the man's head off. But there was more firing and bullets whipped around him, another struck him in the leg. He retreated behind the pallet. Enemy reinforcements were coming in from the forward compartment of the shuttle.
A roar made him look back. Toruk was being hit again and again, but the huge beast was wedged into the cargo hold and couldn't get any further forward to attack his tormentors. Blood poured down his side and he flailed his wings uselessly. As Jake looked, a Sampson maneuvered in close behind the shuttle and the door gunner began pouring fire into Toruk's body.
One way trip. Well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.
He was out of time. There was nothing left to do. Jake grabbed one of his pairs of grenades, pulled the pins, released the safety catches, and shoved the grenades into the pallet of explosives. He briefly toyed with the idea of throwing himself out the rear of the shuttle, but his injured leg buckled under him. Five second delay on the grenades. I'd never get…
The world exploded around him.
"Sir, Valkyrie One-Six is reporting trouble in the cargo bay," said Sergeant Veluska from Dragon's communication post. Quaritch turned.
"Well, tell them to get it cleared up," he snapped. "We drop in thirty seconds." Damn! He didn't want to have to come back and do another run. He walked over to look out the left-hand windows…
A blinding flash of light was immediately followed by a massive blow that slammed him against a bulkhead. He fell to the deck, blood in his mouth and stars sparkling in front of his eyes. The Dragon's control crew were all shouting at the top of their lungs. There was a roaring in his ears and wind tugged at him. The burning stink of Pandora's atmosphere was in his eyes and his nose. The deck tilted under him and he sprawled and slid until he came up against the support for a control chair. Coughing, he pulled himself up and clawed an exo-pack out of a case on the bulkhead. He fit it over his face and breathed deeply. "Status!" he gasped.
"The… the shuttle blew up!" said Jimenez, pulling a mask over his face.
"Evans is dead!" said Lieutenant Pinchot, the pilot. Quaritch looked into the gunner's compartment and saw Evans slumped in his seat, the canopy next to him was completely blown in and fragments were everywhere. Damn, he'd been fond of Evans. "Engine Three is overheating, sir, not sure what our other damage is."
"Communications are out, sir!" cried Veluska. "The back-up, too!"
Cursing Quaritch staggered over to the portside windows. All the plastic was gone and only the frames remained. What he saw brought more curses. An enormous cloud of smoke hung in the air, flaming bits of debris rained down to the forest below. The explosives in the shuttle had gone off prematurely. How? Why? As he watched, he saw one of his gunships, trailing smoke, suddenly spin out of control and plummet after all the other junk. He twisted around to look at the Master Display and snarled when he saw that it had more red than green on it.
The deck shifted under him and he clutched a handhold as the Dragon banked to the right and began to turn. "What are you doing, Lieutenant? Why are we turning?"
"I'm aborting, sir. I'm losing power on Number Three and we need to get back to base ASAP. No choice."
"I didn't authorize that! Resume our former course and take us down. We'll have to finish the job ourselves."
"We're going down, sir! And if I don't get us back to base we won't be coming back up again! Sorry, sir, but this crate will not fly on three engines!"
"Damn it! I gave you an order Pinchot!"
"And I'm in command of this ship, sir! You might command the force, but it's my ship and I make the decisions here."
Quaritch swore. Technically Pinchot was correct: he was just a passenger and the pilot had final say on anything concerning the safety of his ship. But damn it! That friggin' tree was right there! They might never have a better chance to destroy it. It wouldn't be as dramatic as the bomb from the shuttle, but the Dragon could still wipe the thing off the face of the planet. Quaritch drew his pistol. "I'm giving you an order Lieutenant. Turn us around. Now."
"You gonna shoot me, sir?" said Pinchot, glancing back for an instant. "Evans was the only other one on board who can fly this thing. I damn well know you can't!" The tone in the pilot's voice told him that he'd called his bluff and going any further would gain him nothing. Never give an order you know won't be obeyed. It was one of the first things they taught you at the Academy. Quaritch put his pistol away. He turned to the Communications tech. "Signal Squadron Two to attack the primary target with whatever weapons they have left."
"Sir!" squawked Sergeant Jimanez. "Like I said before: all our communications are out! We can't talk to anyone!"
"God damn it!" He looked out the shattered canopy and as he'd feared the entire surviving force of helicopters was turning to follow the Dragon.
Major Sam Halstead stiffened when an enormous concussion shook the forest. Everyone in the ground force halted as well. There was only one thing that could make a boom like that. The shuttle must have dropped its payload. But the direction of the noise… didn't seem quite right. "Ground forces, hold your position," he ordered. It was one of the few orders he'd given since the operation started, preferring to let the platoon leaders do their jobs rather than constantly look over their shoulders. "But keep your eyes open, the enemy appears to be rallying." He clicked to the command circuit. "Halstead to Papa Dragon, has primary target been destroyed? Please confirm." There was no answer. "Halstead to Captain Mitchell, please respond." Still nothing. Mitchell was in command of all the Sampsons—the choppers that would be retrieving most of the ground force. He was starting to get worried. He switched to the general circuit. "This is Major Halstead, any helicopter commander, please respond, over."
"This is Lieutenant Waldron, Squadron Three, Section One," came a response at last. "I read you Major."
"What's going on up there, Lieutenant?"
"Uh… it's a hell of a mess, sir. The bomb went off while it was still in the shuttle. Blew the whole thing to smithereens and took out half of the choppers escorting it."
"Where's Colonel Quaritch? I can't raise him." Good God, what if he was in command now?
"I have a visual on Papa Dragon," said Waldron "It's all smashed up and trailing smoke, but it's still airborne. I can't raise them either, sir. Their communications must be out. But they are heading back toward the base and we're all following."
Damnation. "Lieutenant, we're depending on you folks for extraction down here. Is Captain Mitchell a casualty?"
"Dunno, sir, but I can't raise him. It's a complete FUBAR up here right now."
"All right, then you relay this to every Sampson still in action: we'll rendezvous at the original LZ. The overhead is too thick where we are for you to get in. The original LZ. Understand?"
"Uh, yessir, I'll pass the word. But, sir, we can't lift out those AMP suits. Only the Shuttle and the Dragon can do that!"
"I know, I know. Just be waiting when we get there. Halstead out." He switched back to the circuit to the ground forces. "All right listen up! We are falling back for extraction. Back to our original LZ. We will fall back by squad, alternate squads on overwatch. You know the drill, people! Help the medics with the wounded and we are bringing out our dead, too. No one gets left behind! Let's move!"
They started retracing their steps, half the force keeping a close watch with their weapons ready while the other half moved. Fall back thirty meters and then the movers became the watchers and vice-versa. There was a brief pause when they came back to where six of the troopers had been killed by that one Na'vi madwoman. Thank God there weren't any more like her! He glanced over where her body lay crumpled. He jerked in surprise when he saw it move slightly. Still alive? With a 30mm round right through her? Damn, these people were tough! He was tempted to pump a few more shots into her, but decided against it. Halstead valued courage above all other things and she certainly had courage! She might live or die, but he wasn't about to slaughter her lying there. Instead, he loaded up his own dead and the retreat continued.
It wasn't long before the enemy realized they weren't being pursued anymore.
They had only covered about half the distance to the LZ when contacts started showing up on the IR and motion detectors all around them. The Na'vi had regained their nerve and unfortunately they had also learned their lesson: no mad charges into waiting guns this time. Now they were sneaking up close in ones and twos, firing their arrows and then slipping away before return fire could do anything except reduce the human's dwindling supply of ammo. Most of the arrows missed, but every now and then one would find its target and another man would go down. The medics had the antidote for the neurotoxin on the arrows, but there was no such thing as a minor wound from one of those huge projectiles. More and more people had to be detailed to carry the wounded and the dead. The AMP suits became their primary weapon and they were getting seriously short of rounds for their 30mm autocannons. AMP suit drivers were notoriously trigger-happy and whoever had designed the suits hadn't provided nearly enough ammo storage.
Halstead puffed along with his men, wishing that he'd learned to drive one of the AMP suits. I'm too old for this sort of thing! He'd been on Pandora for eleven years after a full career in the Canadian Army. One more year and he'd be heading back to Earth and retire for good. If I can make it back at all!
"Sir?" said Lieutenant Gibson, the AMP suit commander. "I'm getting contacts from above. The blueskins are up in the trees."
Yeah, that had been inevitable. He was just thankful they hadn't done that from the start. "Three men in each squad keep a lookout above," he ordered. "Use suppressive fire where you have to, but don't waste ammo. Short, controlled bursts, people." Damn, he wished he still had those three Scorpions up top, but they had used up all their ordnance repelling the initial Na'vi assault and were off God knew where now.
They kept moving, passing through the grisly mounds of Na'vi dead from the first firefight. More arrows were coming in now. From all sides and from above, too. His troopers kept blasting away and would occasionally bring down one of the enemy that had dared to get too close. But more often the casualties were among the humans. He'd started out with twenty-five AMP suits and a hundred and fifty infantry. All the suits were still in action, but a third of the infantry was down.
"Major?" He looked and saw that Captain Johnson, his second in command, had come up beside him. "Sir, can… can we leave the dead? Almost all my men are tied up carrying wounded and dead. I've hardly got any guns still in action." Halstead grimaced, but nodded his head. Damn! He hated to do that, but Johnson was right. Trying to carry out the dead would only ensure that there were even more dead. The AMP suits could carry more, but they were their best defense right now. "All right, go ahead." Johnson started to turn but suddenly an arrow, coming from above, went right through him. The head burrowed into the ground and propped Johnson up so he didn't even fall. He just stood there, a glazed expression on his young face. His eyes went to Halstead and his hand came up as if reaching for help. But then the life flickered out of him and his arm fell and his eyes closed. The troops all around blazed away at something, but Halstead didn't look. He couldn't take his eyes off Johnson.
"Major! We gotta get the hell outta here!" shouted someone in his ear.
Shaking off his shock, Halstead commanded: "Leave the dead here. Pick up the pace! Another 800 meters and we're there. Move, people!" They moved, scrambling through brush, around trees and over fallen logs. Halstead was dripping with sweat and gasping for breath when he finally heard the welcome thrum of helicopter rotors from up ahead. A half-dozen troopers suddenly ran forward, despite the shouts of their NCOs to stay with the group. A minute later two of them came stumbling back. A minute after that they found the other four…
At last they broke out of the thicker forest into the cleared area where they'd made the initial landing. He breathed a huge sigh of relief when he saw a dozen Sampsons on the ground and four Scorpions hovering overhead. Bless Lieutenant Waldron! "Get aboard!" he shouted. "Careful with those wounded!"
"What about the suits?" demanded Lieutenant Gibson. The look on the man's face showed that he knew the answer before he'd asked the question and he wasn't happy about it.
"No choice, son. We can't take 'em and I don't want to leave them intact. The enemy might figure out how to use the 30s and we wouldn't want that, would we, eh? Get your pilots on the choppers and I'll have the flamethrowers light these up."
"We could fight our way through to the new mine site, sir! Maybe you could get another shuttle to extract us from there."
"It's forty klicks away, you'd never make it. How much ammo you have left, Lieutenant?"
"About a hundred rounds," he admitted grumpily.
"And I bet most of your boys have less than that. Once you were out, the Na'vi would just swarm you over. I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but your men are worth more than the suits."
Gibson swore but nodded and gave the order. There was a lot of grumbling from the drivers, but they obeyed. The AMP suits were all parked in a clump and their drivers scrambled into the helicopters, leaving the suit canopies open.
Halstead directed two of the flamethrower operators to set the suits on fire. They quickly did so and then backed away. Most of the Sampsons had already lifted off and he headed for one of the ones still waiting. The ammo in the suits was starting to cook off as he pulled himself aboard.
He turned for one last look…
…and an arrow went right through him.
The impact threw him backwards into the other troops in the chopper. There were shouts and gunfire, but all he could do was stare at the thick shaft protruding from his belly. Not much pain yet…
His gaze wandered out the doorway and he watched as the green forest turned to blue sky.
Jake opened his eyes to the familiar and hated confines of his link capsule. Well, I'll never have to do this again, he thought bitterly. He pushed the capsule open, but just lay there for quite a while.
His avatar was dead, literally blown to atoms. The Toruk was dead. Neytiri was dead. He'd lost everything. The ache in his heart was so intense he wanted to just open the airlock doors and be done with it. But he wasn't suicidal by nature. If he had been he would have ended it back in the VA hospital and never made it to Pandora. Damn, he missed her. They'd had so little time together. It wasn't fair! Life's not fair, haven't you figured that out yet, you skxawng? He hadn't cried since… since… he couldn't remember. But now he cried. A little. But then he suddenly remembered that Norm was probably here and he stopped and scrubbed away the tears and sat up. He leaned out and looked down the length of the shack, but Norm's link capsule was open and there was no one there. Where's he gotten to?
He dragged himself into his wheelchair and found a communicator. "Norm? Norm, come in." He had to try three times before he finally got a response.
"Jake? Is that you, Jake? Where are you?"
"At the shack."
"What are you doing… oh."
"Yeah. Where are you?"
"Uh, a few hundred meters south of you."
"Uh… looking for someone to kill, I guess."
"Not so far."
"Well, get your ass back here before some Na'vi decides you look like a human being."
"Okay. I'll be there shortly." Norm clicked off leaving Jake staring at the mass of junk cluttering the shack. They'd pulled everything of use out of the other module that they'd left at Site 26 and it was piled everywhere. He could hardly move around in his wheelchair. He rolled over to a window and looked out, but he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. He was certain that he'd managed to destroy the shuttle, but how much damage had it done to the other helicopters? Had he taken out Quaritch? The fact that there were no gunships buzzing around and strafing the shack was a hopeful sign, but what was going on? There was no one left among the Na'vi who had a communicator. He was immobilized and cut off. Crippled.
He heard the airlock cycling and he turned as Norm came through the door, his exo-pack mask in one hand and an assault rifle in the other. "So, got your avatar killed, did you?" said Jake. "Well, me, too. Where's the slot to put a dollar in so we can play again?" There was no humor in his voice and Norm didn't even smile.
"Mine took a shot in the chest. It might still be alive. If we can get it back here we might be able to save it. What about yours?"
Jake shook his head. "Vaporized along with Toruk. I ran out of options and made a suicide attack on the shuttle. Worked, though."
"So that's what that was! Shook the whole damn forest!" Norm paused and glanced at Jake's wheelchair and then back at his face. "I'm sorry, Jake."
"Neytiri's dead, Trudy, Tsu'tey, I'd give up both my arms, too, if it would bring them back."
"Damn," muttered Norm. He slumped down against a pile of duffle backs and rubbed his hand across his eyes.
"I'm sorry about Trudy, Norm. She was a hell of girl."
"Yeah… Yeah…" Norm hung his head for a while and tears dripped down his cheeks, but then he cleared his throat and looked up.
"So what the hell do we do now?"
"I wish I knew. I guess I'm not Toruk Macto anymore so I have no idea who's in charge of things now. Hell, only Mo'at and a few of the other Omaticaya even know we're on their side! Sure hope she's still alive…" And who's gonna tell her that her daughter is dead? I wouldn't go wandering around outside, Norm, until we can make contact with someone who won't shoot on sight."
"I sense a certain lack of planning on our part…"
"Yeah, never really thought about something like this happening. Hell, I didn't expect any of us to survive."
"Well, I was kinda hoping… but, no. So what do we do?"
"I guess we wait. Is there any food in this dump?"
Captain Harriet Kim was in the control room at Hell's Gate trying to make some sense of the reports that were coming in. She'd been left in command while Colonel Quaritch and nearly the entire RDA security force had gone off to try and pre-empt the massing Na'vi forces. The satellite images had shown the Na'vi—more and more and more or them as the word spread—heading for the stronghold up in the mountains. Unchecked, in a few weeks there could have been tens of thousands of them ready to attack Hell's Gate. Quaritch had been convinced that a lighting strike against the natives' holy tree would break their spirit and send them packing.
Kim was starting to suspect that Quaritch had been wrong.
The intense magnetic fields in the vicinity of the target, the so-called "Flux Vortex", made communications difficult so Kim had only been able to watch the flow of the battle through satellite imagery and the scattering of messages that managed to make it through. At first things seemed to be going well and the force pressed steadily toward the target. But then damaged helicopters began emerging from the Flux and reported that the Na'vi had attacked and managed to knock down a shocking number of the choppers. Still, the shuttle and the Dragon—easily recognizable on the satellite pics due to their huge size—had continued onward. They made it to just a kilometer away from the target. But then, a few minutes ago something had gone terribly wrong. The satellite has spotted an enormous Infra-red source and photos showed the whole area covered by an expanding cloud of smoke. Now the images were only showing the Dragon and a scattering of helicopters headed back towards Hell's Gate…
"But… but… where's the shuttle?" exclaimed Administrator Parker Selfridge. He was standing a few meters away trying to make sense of things just like everyone else.
"We should know in a few moments, sir," said Kim. Then she touched a control on the communications console. "Hell's Gate Tower to Papa Dragon, come in please. Hell's Gate Tower to Papa Dragon, come in please." No answer. Kim frowned, the ships were pulling clear of the flux and they ought to be able to…
"Hell's Gate Tower, this is Lieutenant Waldron, over." A voice crackled from the speaker.
"Lieutenant Waldron, this is Captain Kim, report your status, over."
"Our status isn't too good, Captain," replied Waldron. "The bomb on the shuttle went off prematurely—blew the whole thing to hell and took out a lot of the other ships. The Dragon is all beat up and smoking. Their communications must be out because we can't raise them. But they've turned back toward base and everyone who's left is following."
My God… "What about the ground forces, Lieutenant?"
"They seem to be in good shape. I just talked to Major Halstead and he is falling back to the LZ for extraction. I'm collecting the Sampsons to pick him up. Gonna have to abandon the AMP suits, I'm afraid."
Kim breathed a sigh of relief. Halstead was her immediate superior and a man she greatly admired. She'd been very worried about him—and the platoon of her own company that was with the ground forces. "Very good, Lieutenant," she said. "Carry on with the extraction. Report in when it's complete."
"Roger, Hell's Gate. And you might want to alert your emergency crews: Papa Dragon ain't looking too good."
"Roger. And thank you, Hell's Gate Tower out." She clicked off and turned to alert the emergency personnel. As she did so a hand grabbed her arm. Selfridge. The administrator's face was white as a sheet of paper and his eyes were bulging.
"The shuttle! The shuttle is… gone?" he gasped.
"Apparently so, sir—along with about forty of our men who were aboard it. And a lot more on the other helicopters."
Selfridge's hands came up to the sides of his head and clutched his hair. Kim looked on in curiosity to see if he was actually going to rip handfuls out. "But… but… do you realize how much the shuttle cost?" His tone of voice and beseeching look on his face made it seem like he expected that Kim could make it all better if he just explained how important it was. "Billions! How am I going to explain this?"
"I don't know, sir," replied Kim honestly. She didn't know and she didn't care.
"But Quaritch promised that it wouldn't get a scratch! I never would have given him permission to use it if I'd know this was going to happen!"
Kim's eyebrows rose. As she recalled, the Colonel hadn't really asked for permission to use the shuttle. He'd given reassurances to Selfridge but it was quite clear that Quaritch was going to take whatever he needed and Selfridge hadn't objected.
"You can take that up with Colonel Quaritch when he gets back, sir. Now if you'll excuse me I have work to do." She turned away and made sure that the fire-fighting equipment and rescue crews were all out on the runway and that medical teams were standing by. Selfridge drifted away, ranting to some of his staff which was fine by Kim as long as it kept him out of her hair.
About twenty minutes later some of the smaller helicopters began to arrive. Some were damaged and some had casualties aboard, but everyone's attention was on the big blip that represented the Dragon, Quaritch's huge command ship. "It's still losing altitude, ma'am," said the flight controller. "I don't know if it's gonna make it over the ridge." Messages from some of the Dragon's escorts were saying the same thing. Kim looked out the window at the forest-covered hills that nearly surrounded the Hell's Gate base. She gave orders for rescue teams to be ready to go out in helicopters if need be.
"It looks like they are swinging around to the west to come through that gap in the ridge," said the controller. "ETA about four minutes." Kim redirected her attention to the low spot in the hills. It seemed like a lot longer than four minutes, but then she spotted one large black shape surrounded by a bunch of smaller ones coming through the gap. They got larger rapidly and she could see that the Dragon was spewing out a thick cloud of black smoke. It was also dangerously close to the tree-tops.
"Pull up, dammit," growled the flight controller even though he had to know it would do no good. Repeated attempts to contact the Dragon had been unsuccessful.
Closer and closer, but lower and lower, too. Kim sucked in her breath when the huge four-engined vehicle clipped the last of the trees. The rear of the machine sagged down and she could hear the scream of the rotors trying to hold it up even from where she stood.
"They're coming in too hot!" cried the controller. "Slow down!"
But clearly the pilot was desperately trying to reach home before he ran out of altitude. The Dragon roared across the cleared area around the base, the rear of the fuselage only a dozen meters above the ground. Then the tail dipped even lower and collided with the perimeter fence, which it simply tore away in a chunk. They made it over the concrete runway but the tail slammed down with an impact Kim could feel. The Dragon swept forward and tilted to the left, its rear rotor dragging and twisting the machine's direction towards…
"Oh, crap!" hissed Kim.
They had cleared out a big space on the runway for the crippled Dragon, but now it wasn't heading that way! It skidded into three parked Scorpions, crushing them under it, and then spun around sideways and slammed to a halt against the base of Defense Tower Four. Immediately flames erupted from the rear engines.
"Fire crews go!" cried Kim, even though they were already in motion. Emergency teams converged on the Dragon and after a few tense moments she saw them leading or carrying away the ship's crew. The fire-fighters were spraying foam, but the fire was getting bigger rather than dying. "Evacuate Tower Four!" she commanded.
Several minutes went by, but it was a losing battle. When ammunition in the Dragon started to cook off, Kim ordered everyone back. They barely had a chance to obey before an explosion engulfed the machine and a moment later the stored missiles and ammunition in the tower went up, too, tearing it apart with a concussion that cracked some of the windows in the control tower. A huge column of smoke rose up into the sky. Eventually, the fire died down and she could see that both the tower and the Dragon were total losses.
"Captain Kim?" She tore her eyes away from the spectacle and saw that one of the non-coms at the communications station was looking at her.
"They've got Colonel Quaritch in the infirmary, ma'am. He's got a bad concussion and the doctor won't release him. He's… uh… he's mad as a hornet and wants to see you right away."
Kim sighed and nodded. "I'll be right there." But as she turned to go the speaker came alive again.
"Lieutenant Waldron to Hell's Gate, come in." Kim stopped and responded.
"Go ahead, Lieutenant, what's your situation?"
"Extraction complete and we're headed home. ETA fifteen minutes. We've got a lot of wounded aboard and request that the medics stand ready."
"Will do. Good job, Lieutenant. Is… is Major Halstead with you?"
"We've got him, Captain but…"
A chill went through her. "But what?"
"He's hurt real bad, Captain. They're not sure he's gonna make it."
Norm Spellman looked around the cluttered module and suddenly hated every cubic centimeter of it. He'd been stuck in here or its twin back at Site 26 for months on and off and he was sick of it. You weren't sick of it when you were in bed with Trudy. No, there had been some very delightful moments. On the days when both Jake and Grace had been driving their avatars they'd had all the privacy they could ask for. They'd even made love outside that one time, with the floating mountains watching them. Crazy, but Trudy was the adventurous sort. Damn she'd been fun and he missed her terribly. But now she was gone and the shack, filled as it was with junk, seemed so empty. He looked at Jake, sitting silently in his wheelchair by the window.
"Why'd we ever come here?"
Jake was silent for so long Norm wasn't sure he'd even heard him. But finally he said: "I don't know. It's sure not what I expected."
"What were you expecting?"
"Not sure. The RDA guys offered me a pile of money to take Tom's place and anything seemed better than staying in Detroit and getting drunk every night."
"Did you have any family other than Tom?" Norm had gotten to know Tom Sully pretty well during training, but he'd never said anything about his family. For some reason the topic had never come up with either Tom or Jake.
"My mother's been dead since we were twelve. A great aunt took us after that, but she's gone now, too. There's really no one else."
"What… what about your father?"
"He left right after we were born. Don't know where he is now."
"So the Omaticaya are your family now." Norm had meant that to sound encouraging, but he realized it was a mistake as soon as he'd said it.
"Yeah. Well, they were. Doubt that any of them are going to accept me looking like this." Jake turned his wheelchair to face him. "What about you? Any family back home?"
"Oh yeah, lots. My father's an engineer and my mother's a teacher. A younger brother and a sister. Lots of aunts uncles and cousins. Big family."
"So what the hell are you doing here?"
Norm shrugged. "Well, the money, of course. You know how tough things are back home and my salary mostly goes to my parents. But it was a huge opportunity to do some meaningful science and… well, it seemed like it would be a real adventure. Damn few adventures left on Earth these days."
"Well, you got your adventure, Norm. Like it?" He gave a lopsided grin.
"Some of it has been pretty cool… but like you said: this isn't quite what I was expecting. I didn't sign up to lead a native uprising!"
"So why did you?"
"I don't know… Trudy, I guess."
"Yeah," said Jake shaking his head. "The Na'vi all thought I was leading this thing, but Trudy was the one who struck the first blow. I couldn't believe it when she busted us out of detention. I mean I was mad as hell over what was going down, but she… she lead the way, gun out and ready to use it! Why? You were closer to her than anyone, Norm, why'd she do it?"
"I don't know. Most of the time she was… well, you know what she was like. She was just Trudy. But there were a few times when something… dark showed through. Something dark and angry down inside her. I don't know what it was, but she was really pissed about what was being done to Pandora and the Na'vi. I guess we'll never know now," he ended sadly. They were both silent for a long time. Finally Norm stirred. "Anything going on out there?"
"I thought I saw a few Na'vi at the edge of the clearing about an hour ago," replied Jake. "But they went away again. Haven't seen anything since."
"I guess the fact that we're still alive is a good sign."
"Yeah, if Quaritch had won, he would have swept this whole area to find us. Maybe I did take him out and the rest gave up and went back to Hell's Gate."
"It's been what? Three hours? Four? Where is everyone?"
"Trying to pick up the pieces, I guess. I mean a lot of them would have been scattered to hell and gone during the fighting. Might be a while before anyone thinks to check on… okay, wait a second, someone's coming now." Norm went over next to Jake and peered out the window. Sure enough, some tall blue figures were emerging from the forest.
"Say, is that…?"
"Mo'at!" exclaimed Jake. "Thank God! Come on, let's get out there!" They grabbed their exo-packs and crowded into the air lock. By the time they emerged on the little outside porch there was a small crowd of Na'vi gathered. Mo'at was in front but there were several people pulling two wicker contraptions that had figures lying in them. Norm caught his breath when he recognized his avatar in one. But the other… the other…
"Neytiri!" cried Jake. He started pushing himself forward and Norm had to grab him or he would have tumbled right off the porch. His wheelchair did tumble off and Norm found himself sitting on his ass with Jake in his lap. "Neytiri!" Jake grabbed the handrail on the steps and dragged himself out of Norms grasp and down onto the ground. By this time Neytiri had been pulled right up to Jake and he lunged forward to grab onto the wicker carrier.
Norm stood up and watched silently. He'd seen Jake in a lot of different moods: happy, sad, angry, frustrated, despondent, but he'd never seen him come apart like this before. He bent over the Na'vi woman and wept. Then he realized why…
My God! She's still alive!
"I'll get the medkit!" he shouted and dashed back into the airlock. It seemed to take forever to cycle and then he had to toss away a pile of other items to get at the big case he wanted. He dragged it out and back into the lock. The medkit was a very sophisticated device, far, far more capable than the trauma kit they'd been forced to use on poor Grace. It was designed for use on the incredibly expensive and irreplaceable avatars, but would work just as well on a native Na'vi. It had a built-in robotic surgical unit and a wide range of drugs and sensors. If Neytiri was still alive there was a good chance this could keep her that way!
By the time he had the kit back through the airlock Jake had regained a measure of control, but his earlier sorrow had been replaced by a frantic worry. "Come on! Come on!" he shouted.
Norm set the kit down next to her and started to open it up. He had been given some rudimentary training with it, but fortunately, it was very nearly automatic. Once it had scanned Neytiri it could actually tell them what to do. He hit the activation switch and then for the first time really took a close look at Neytiri. There was a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around her torso just above her hips. She had some other cuts and scrapes, but nothing that looked that serious. As he watched, her eyes flickered open.
"Neytiri!' cried Jake, grabbing her hand.
"Jake?" her voice was scarcely a whisper.
"Yeah, it's me, Neytiri. Hang on! We're gonna fix you up!"
"Jake? Ma Jake?"
"Jake… Jake, I cannot feel my legs…"
To Be Continued