Josh sees eyes, low to the ground, moving just behind the treeline. Several pairs. And then an unearthly wailing cry. Viperwolves. Christ, what am I doing here?
IN THE SAMSON, the next day, they thunder over the treetops with a roar of turbofans. Below them the purple rainforest unrolls. The human pilot and the trooper escort sit in a sealed front cabin, while Josh/Avatar, Grace/Avatar and N'deh ride in the back compartment with the side doors open.
They land at Grace's direction, in a grassy meadow. They get out as the pilot shuts down the turbines. Their escort, CORPORAL LYLE WAINFLEET, steps out wearing mask, helmet, armor and rebreather. He is carrying an almighty big automatic rifle. Josh is wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Grace insists that he go barefoot, so his baby-blue feeties will toughen up with thick callouses like hers.
Josh stares at the wall of trees surrounding them. Up close, the trees are enormous, as big as sequoias at the base, and even taller because the gravity on Pandora is less than Earth. Lesser trees, the size of mature oaks, are like underbrush in between the colossi.
Lyle is like a birddog on point, hyperalert, scanning the gloom beyond the meadow. A flock of stingbats crosses far above them. He tracks them with the rifle, but they ignore the strangers.
GRACE: Lyle, stay with the ship.
LYLE: I'm supposed to escort you.
GRACE: Lyle, you're supposed to escort my party. The ship is part of my party. And we need it to get back, so if you don't want to walk thirty klicks through the bush...
LYLE: I'll stay with the ship.
Grace hates the troopers clomping through the woods with her. They disrupt the animals, and smash the plants, and make too much noise. And they tend to attract the larger predators, to whom they appear to be injured or defective animals.
They grab the cases of equipment and N'deh leads them into the trees. Josh stares all around like a tourist in hell... rubbernecking and fascinated, but scared shitless. Josh expects every dappled shadow to hide a razor-fanged predator, but their entry into the forest is uneventful.
Josh is jumpy and on guard. Swatting at insects. Soon he has gathered quite a cloud of buzzing attackers.
Grace uses a machete to hack open the bole of a low, cycad-like plant. She takes the viscous sap from the inside and starts briskly rubbing it all over her exposed skin. She recommends that he do the same, unless he wants his bones picked clean by every insect in the forest. He quickly complies.
The insects move off, like magic. Grace explains that the Na'vi use plant extracts for all sorts of things... to relieve pain, purify water, reduce fever, limit or improve fertility, promote wound healing, counteract stings and poisons, attract useful insects, kill external and internal parasites, prevent sunburn, and repel or attract larger animals. As a xenobotanist, her work has been vastly accelerated with their guidance as they help her see the greater relationship between things in the forest.
Josh gazes around him in wonder as they move deeper into the primeval gloom.
The bark of the giant trees is alien, like big hexagonal fishscales. Moss covers the lower parts of the trunks, and lainas and other vine-like structures lace around them, and hang between them like fallen power lines.
The roots of the greater trees are like mangroves, and they form clusters of pillars, each thick as a normal tree trunk, which join far above their heads into a single massive trunk. These root-trunks actually wind around each other, forming a kind of braided cylinder, which then rises a hundred feet above the ground before it forms branches.
They move on. Grace starts giving him survival pointers. How to avoid the things that bite and sting and suck.
Phalanxia, the deadly projectile plant, shows up bright as a neon sign in the ultraviolet-sensitive avatar vision. No problem. Give it a wide berth. She shows him the nests of Hellfire Wasps... the wasps don't like the sap they have rubbed on, but don't push your luck by coming near the nest.
She sees a SNAKETREE and brings him as close as she can. It is a hydra-like, ambulatory plant twice Josh's height. It moves into place, then freezes so that it resembles a gnarled, dead tree. When prey moves within range, it comes suddenly alive and strikes with one of six fanged heads. The animal is digested in a pitcher-like bole, and the half-stripped bones ejected to lure more prey.
Josh sees the bones lying around the base of the tree. Some of them are from animals at least as large as a man... or an avatar. Grace, the xenobotanist, is very excited to share the snake tree with him.
They move on. Josh has never been in a forest before, since they are mostly gone on Earth. He is scared, but dealing. It's kind of interesting.
She continues to give Josh pointers... touch this, don't touch that. They startle a small creature which crashes away into the underbrush.
Further up the trail, N'deh signals them to stop. Grace motions, and they crouch down, watching through the leaves as something moves through the woods parallel to them. It is a small six-legged herbivore called a HEXAPEDE, about the size of a tapir.
N'deh points at something else, and Grace whispers to Josh.
GRACE: Look. A slinger. It's stalking the hexapede.
Josh doesn't see anything at first... then he spots it. A camouflaged shape moving through the sun-dappled shadows. The predator moving into the glade, is splashed by hard slashes of sunlight, which combine with its cammo pattern making it hard to see.
The SLINGER is smaller than a slinth, but just as deadly. It moves silently, like liquid, through the ferns. It pauses, rearing up, and like the slinth its muscular neck cocks back into a striking position...
GRACE: Watch this.
The slinger's neck snaps forward, and its long, pointed head detaches, flying through the woods as a self-guiding venomous glider... a smart-dart. The hexapede senses the dart and bolts, bounding in evasive zigzags. The dart tracks it unerringly through the trees and buries itself in its flank. The hexapede staggers. It stands, its muscles spasming, then falls over. The dart starts emitting a series of high-pitched squeals, which allow the body to home in on it blindly. The neck bends down, and is rejoined to the dart. Josh catches a glimpse of hair-like tendrils lacing together... some kind of neural interface. Then the slinger starts to rip the hexapede apart.
Grace explains that the slinth, with its striking head, is the evolutionary precursor of the slinger. The slinger's primary brain is in the dart, so if the body and the dart are ever permanently separated, they both die. The dart cannot feed itself.
The body and dart are actually mother and child... the dart is an immature form. When it grows too big to fly, it will mate, then drop off and metamorphose into a small complete slinger, with its offspring already in place, forming the new dart. Each new generation is the brain for the previous one. Sounds backward, but it works.
Josh watches the feeding slinger in awe. He has never seen anything like this... so raw and primal.
GRACE: Welcome to the food chain.
N'deh leads them past the feeding slinger, which is preoccupied with its kill. Josh's heart is pounding. He's still scared shitless, but this stuff is amazing. He feels more alive than he has ever felt.
They enter a clearing with a partially built structure in the middle. It is made of heavy timbers, cut from the local wood. This is the school and meeting center that Grace and Dr. Giese were trying to build. They had gotten the Na'vi to build this much, working alongside them, before they had retreated from human contact. Now the vines and moss are reclaiming it. Stingbats roost under the eaves.
N'deh makes a high-pitched clicking sound between tongue and teeth, and several of the stingbats flutter down toward him. He holds out some small fruits he has picked on the trail, and the stingbats perch on his arm and shoulders, munching noisily.
Josh knows that the stinging tail spines are lethal. He gives the stingbats a wide berth as he helps Grace with her sampling equipment. Grace goes to work on some equipment that has been left here for remote sensing. She changes power cells, collects data disks, and does other housekeeping chores.
Grace chops through a thick liana with her machete and drinks from the dangling vine. Josh tastes it. Water... clear and slightly sweet. Like drinking from the teat of the rainforest.
Back at the Samson Lyle is idly tracking a bansheeray circling far above him with the scope of his rifle. The bored pilot is betting him ten bucks he can't hit it.
He is about to fire when he catches sight of some movement out of the corner of his eye. He motions to the pilot to keep still, and they watch as three DIREHORSES emerge from the trees to munch grass in the meadow.
DIREHORSE are herbivores, vaguely horse-like in design, with very long necks and tiny heads. They have long, moth-like antennae with feathery tips, which are constantly moving, touching the tips of other direhorses' antennae as they move near each other. They stand about three meters at the shoulders, or about half as big again as the largest Clydesdale. They have bold striped patterns on their bodies, and glinting, chitinous armor over shoulders and along the back of the neck and head.
Lyle moves forward in a predatory crouch and rests his rifle across the fuselage of the Samson. The direhorse munch unconcerned. Fifty bucks says I nail all three, Lyle says. You're on, says the pilot.
POOM! The lead horse, the male, drops like it was pole-axed. The other two spook, rearing... POOM! One of the females drops, kicking its legs in the air as it writhes on the ground. The third one bolts. Lyle tracks with it... POOM! It crashes forward, it neck bending back double as it goes end over end.
The second direhorse struggles to regain its footing. It pathetically tries to drag itself toward the sheltering forest with a severed spine, its back legs useless. POOM! A blast of dirt, next to it. It hobbles further, honking like a Canadian goose, its signal for distress. Lyle fires again, rushing the shot. Misses.
PILOT: (laughing) Doesn't count if it makes it to the treeline.
LYLE: Start reachin' for your wallet.
He flips the weapon to full auto. P-P-P-P-POOM!!
The crippled direhorse disappears in a cloud of dust as gouts of earth explode all around it. Treetrunks are blasted, foliage and underbrush ripped into confetti. When the dust clears, the direhorse is an inert carcass.
ON LYLE, turning toward camera, grinning... the three dead animals BG.
A blue hand slams into frame, grabbing his rifle. Grace rips the gun out of his hand and flings it cartwheeling over the Samson, then twists his arm behind his back. She viciously torques it almost to the breaking point, doubling him over. She forces him to his knees, jamming his facemask into the mud.
GRACE: Little boys shouldn't play with guns.
Lyle is cursing a blue streak. Grace kneels on his back and grabs his breathing mask.
GRACE: I oughta rip this thing right off. Give you some fresh air.
Lyle squawks and pleads with her not to. She disgustedly gets off him. She is already walking away, toward the felled creatures, as Lyle gets up.
Josh sees him going for his sidearm. Lyle has it aimed at Grace's back and is about to pull the trigger when Josh hits him like a freight train. He slams the trooper against the cowl of the ship, twists the pistol out of his hand in one lightning move, and then picks him up bodily.
Josh is amazed at how easy it is to hurl the human twenty feet away, even weighted down by his full battle dress. Lyle crashes in a heap, breaking his arm, and lies there moaning. Josh picks him up with one hand and leans close to his mask.
JOSH: Lyle, look at me. Lyle! You looking? You do that again, I'll bite your throat out.
Josh bares his pointy teeth in a vicious snarl. Lyle's eyes go wide with primal fear.
Lyle nods, and Josh shoves him into the Samson. Grace is staring at her new assistant. He is a fighter. There's hope for him yet.
Meanwhile, N'deh has gone to the bodies of the direhorses. A foal, only a few days old, has been hiding in the ferns nearby. It emerges and honks for its mother to get up. It licks her face and honks again, pitifully.
N'deh pulls something from the tube across his back. It is a piece of gut-twine with something on the end... a carved wooden cylinder. He starts to whirl it round and round, above his head and as it builds speed, it emits a powerful ululating wail, like a siren. It works like the "bullroarer" of the Australian aborigines, though the pitch is different and N'deh is somehow able to modulate it into a more complex sound.
The sound of the bullroarer echoes off through the trees for miles.
CUT TO THE SAMSON lifting, banking away above the treeline. Its turbofan roar fades. Then there is only the sound of the forest. We see shapes among the trees... figures which blend with the foliage. The banded patterns on their bodies make them hard to see in the dappled light.
Close on one of the dead direhorses. A blue hand enters frame, stroking its face. The foal is lifted, still honking feebly, and carried away on strong blue shoulders.
BACK AT HELL'S GATE Brantley Giese is on the carpet in Selfridge's office. The incident with trooper Wainfleet couldn't have come at a worse time. The Avatar Program is on shaky enough ground, without this sort of thing. Now Quaritch is out for blood, and Carter Selfridge is considering restricting the number of scientific sorties he approves, and confining the avatars to base. Giese is barely able to get him to loosen up, reminding him of all the things they've learned about Pandora from the Na'vi, and how much money there is to be made from the drugs and biochemical compounds as yet undiscovered in the forest. He reminds him of the money the Consortium has made from the countervirus.
Think how great it would be if they could get the Na'vi back to the table, trusting us again. And how it's the troopers running around blasting everything in sight that caused the rift with them in the first place.
Selfridge and Quaritch don't understand a primitive culture which lives close to the soil, close to the daily cycle of birth and death. They don't understand, and they don't want to. Quaritch thinks the natives are lazy and stupid. You give them a gun so they can hunt better, and they give it back. How smart is that?
Giese tried to explain that the Na'vi consider it unfair and obscene to hunt with a gun... a dishonor to the spirit of the animal and its purpose for existence. They believe that everything has a purpose, and sometimes the animal's purpose is to feed the Na'vi, and sometimes the Na'vi's purpose is to feed the animal, and determining which is which is what makes them both strong, fast and perfect. They don't want to change.