Sorry for the delay.


        Old Territory


    While walking through the forest behind Norm, I thought we were going to walk back to base, even though I knew it was too far to make it there by morning. So when we made it into a small clearing where a Samson was waiting for us, I have to admit I was a little surprised. I knew a lot of the aircraft from when the base had been full had been left behind, but I couldn't remember any pilots being left behind – no one other than Trudy. And she was dead.

    I guess Norm saw my face, and he spoke softly. "I started flying her about three years ago," he explained. "And let me tell you, it was not easy." His eyes widened dramatically.

    "Where'd you learn to fly?" I asked.

    He looked at me with sad eyes, and I bowed my head. It didn't take too much guess work to know who'd taught him how to fly.

    "It actually took a little while for me to figure out how to fit into the cockpit, but after I got in, it was easy. Climb in the back and tie in," he instructed, pointing to a few ropes. "We'll be on our way in a minute."

    I watched him squeeze into the cockpit, and I couldn't help but smile. I helped Thomas into a seat next to the open area of the back, securing him before I lifted Ava into the center and climbed in with her. It only took a few minutes for us to get strapped in, and Norm looked back at us after a little while to make sure we were ready. I gave him a thumbs-up, and he smiled, starting the engines and turning on the turbines that would lift us from the ground.

    I looked at Ava as we lifted off the ground, but she wasn't scared. She held onto my hand tighter than anyone ever had, but she wasn't afraid. It only made me more curious about her and where she'd come from. If Norm's looks had been any indication, he was just as curious about her as I was, and I knew he wanted to know as much as I did. With any hope, he could figure it out without any damage being done to her already fragile state of being.

    Our new Home was consequently a lot farther from base than Hometree had been, and so it took a little longer to get to base than I remembered. I hadn't been back there in ten years, but the minute I saw the lights illuminating half of it, I was suddenly thinking about the day I'd arrived there. When those suits had come to tell me about Tommy and how I could take his place, starting a new life on a new world, they probably didn't know exactly how literal their words had become.

    I spotted three small figures on the grass of the compound moments before Norm landed, and they all made their way to us slowly. Max was in front, flanked by two other scientists I vaguely remembered from my first day in my Avatar.

    Norm cut the engine just as I helped Thomas off the helicopter, and I helped Ava to the ground as Max stepped closer.

    "Jake," he exclaimed, extending his hand, and I took it graciously, remembering it vaguely as a Human greeting. "Can't believe you're really here! It's good to see you!"

    "It's good to see you too," I agreed.

    "Let's get inside!"

    With that, he led the way with the two people with him, and I followed with Thomas and Ava while Norm trailed us slowly.

    I looked around while we walked, seeing the obstacle course I'd never used and the plants I'd only ever eaten once. The long-house was silent, and I saw Norm make his way over so he could put away the equipment he'd carried from the chopper. I figured he'd be inside as soon as we were. Max watched him too, arriving at the outer door and then opening it for me, Thomas and Ava.

    I had to hunch over as I stepped inside, nudging Thomas and Ava in front of me to the Ambient room where I'd woke up in my Avatar the first time. I never once thought I'd ever be back in this place, for any reason, but now that I was here, it all felt strangely familiar.

    "Just have a seat," Max said moving around the room to the airlock that would allow him back into the link room. "Norm'll be here in a few minutes."

    I motioned for Thomas to sit on the gurney in the far corner, and once he was settled, I sat on the second gurney with Ava. It was awkward to say the least. I could still remember waking up here and scaring everyone with my, uh, progress. No one had expected me to adapt as quickly as I had, but just thinking about it made me laugh.

    "There aren't too many bad memories with this place," the man who'd come in with Max said. I couldn't remember his name anymore.

    But I couldn't argue with him. "No," I said looking around. "Not too many. A lot of good ones, actually."

    I watched them set out small instruments, and after a few minutes, the airlock opened again, allowing Norm into the room unceremoniously. The first thing I noticed was that he wasn't wearing a mask. He must have seen my face and my ears because he smiled.

    "Norm," I said. "How?"

    "It's a long story," he said. "And a very complicated one. Hopefully, you'll stick around long enough to hear it. Right now, let's take a look at your friend. What's her name?" he asked stepping front of her.

    I looked at her. "Ava," I said, adding, "Avamelia."

    "Well, hello, Ava," he said. "My name's Norm."

    She looked at me, and I nodded. She looked at him, touching his face. "Norm."

    He smiled, even blushed.

    I was astonished that she was so calm, especially when Norm reached for her arm and revealed a needle in his hand. I expected her to coil away from him, but I sat there and watched her let him take a sample of her blood. I couldn't hide any of my shock, but I said nothing, even when Norm looked at me and then silently made his way to the airlock to go back into the lab.

    It got quiet, and I continued to look around, still thinking of how little time I'd actually spent here. Thomas spoke after a minute or two, still perched on his gurney.

    "How long did you stay here?" he asked me.

    "Not long," I said looking around. "Now I'm wishing I'd been here a little longer, for my part anyway."

    "How long are we going to be here now?"

    I glanced at him to see him looking around too. "Not long," I said again. "I hope."

    Suddenly, Norm's voice filtered into the room. "Hey, Jake, you still good in there?" he asked.

    I found the window, seeing Norm there with Max. "Yeah," I replied.

    "We're gonna run her blood through the machine, but it might take a while."

    "I can wait," I assured him.

    He nodded. "Okay."

    He disappeared, and I looked at Ava. I figured it didn't matter how long it took, but I also knew we would be here for a little while.

    Several minutes passed, and I remained sat next to Ava. I tried to think of the short time I'd been here, and all I could remember was how stupid most of the people here had been. There had only been a few of the people here who had understood what was really going on. Most of those people were here now. A few of them had been imprisoned and killed. I hated thinking their sacrifice had been just as great as any of the others who'd also died that day.

    Without a way to see exactly when it was, I had no way of knowing how much time passed before I heard Norm's voice again. "Oh, my God," he exclaimed softly.

    "What's wrong?" I asked, even though I wasn't sure he heard me.

    "I read journals on this," Norm said, his voice full of awe as he stared at the screens in front of him. I couldn't see them, but I could only wonder what he was seeing.

    "What is it?" I asked, but he still wasn't looking at me.

    "It was supposed to be an experiment," Norm marveled, the smile on his face undeniable even though it faded slightly when he finally looked at me. I felt strange sitting in the tiny room, and I'm pretty sure I looked strange with my clan markings. "When they made our Avatars," he began, "there were some scientists who tried to combine the DNA of a Human with DNA of a Na'vi."

    I glanced at Ava, wondering if she understood any of what he said. "I thought they did that with the Avatars," I said, still remembering most of what I'd learned when I'd found out I was coming here.

    "No, the Avatars were different," Norm told me. "Only enough DNA from the Human donor was combined to make it work." He smiled again. "No, these scientists were trying to make a real Hybrid. Half-Human and Half-Na'vi."

    I couldn't process what he was telling me, shaking my head as I spoke. "I thought that wasn't possible," I countered.

    Still staring at the screen in front of him, he chuckled softly. "It's not supposed to be," he confirmed.

    He didn't say anything for another few minutes, and I stood up from the gurney to step in front of the window. "Norm," I said. "What does that mean?"

    He looked at me from across the lab, moving what he was looking at onto a pad and walking over to me. "It means someone was able to take the work they were doing on the Avatars and make an actual Hybrid. Where did you find her?"

    I told him how I'd found her and where I'd been, and that seemed to pique his interest even more. I know how I'd felt finding her so far into the forest, but Norm looked absolutely enthralled.

    "I can't believe it," he exclaimed softly. "I mean, it makes complete sense, but I can't believe she survived."

    "But I don't know how long she's been out there," I told him seriously, hoping to bring him back down to my level. "Do you think she was made here?"

    "I think it's a distinct possibility," he said as Max called his name from the other side of the lab.

    "Norm, you might want to look at this," Max said, and Norm looked at me. He stepped away again, hurrying to Max's side.

    I couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was obvious neither of them had been expecting it. I didn't know how to anticipate what they'd discovered, and when Norm began pointing to the airlock, I became confused.

    Then Norm hurried back. "Jake, we're gonna move you back outside," he said urgently. "You're gonna be here for a little while."

    "Well, I knew that, but why?" I asked as the airlock opened allowing Max and the other two back into the room.

    "We found some video logs," Norm revealed. "About her."

    "Who did they belong to?"

    "They were Grace's, Jake," he said, his eyes serious but sad. "I think she knew about Ava."




    I didn't have time to process what Norm said, following Max and getting Ava and Thomas as the outer door was opened into the courtyard. Norm followed after a minute, carrying his pad and an exopack. He wasn't wearing it, and when he didn't pass out, I immediately wanted to know how he was able to accomplish breathing in air that was supposed to be toxic to him.

    The long-house was at the opposite end of the courtyard, and we all moved kind of fast, hurrying from the doors to the house until we were all inside. Max and the two with him began making up beds, and Norm checked the door locks before he moved to where I'd settled with Thomas and Ava.

    "We have to take a lot of precautions when it gets dark," Norm said. "We can only turn the fence on after 1900 hours. We're still trying to conserve, and most animals won't attack during the day."

    "Norm," I said staring at him. "How are you still walking around? Tell me what's going on."

    Norm looked at Max, watching as the beds were finished and then nodding for them to go back inside. As soon as they were gone, Norm locked the doors and returned to my side. "I didn't want to say anything until I knew for sure. Since we've had the time to test it and not have any of those corporate jerks to stop us, I volunteered to start the tests. I figured I didn't have anything to lose but my life."

    "What kinds of tests?" I asked.

    "Well, the air on Pandora has more carbon dioxide than the Human body can withstand. There's also other chemicals that make it worse, but we've been able to keep samples of it in the lab. I don't know how much of it you'll understand, but we were able to make the air condense to process it into an injection. And I injected myself with it."

    He was right when he said he didn't know if I would understand, but it sounded to me like Norm had been running experiments on himself. But the more I looked at him, the more I realized what he was saying wasn't supposed to be possible. Like Ava. And she was sitting next to me. He was standing in front of me. They were practically walking miracles, or at least they would be if I'd believed in those sort of things.

    "How long have you been doing this?" I asked him.

    He began working over the pad, sorting through information as he spoke. "The last year or so. I can stay outside longer every day. Max thinks if I keep doing it, I'll be able to sleep out here eventually."

    "But won't it eventually kill you?" I pressed, thinking selfishly that I didn't want to lose anyone else in my life than I already had.

    "Max is keeping an eye on me," Norm said shaking his head. "My tolerance levels get higher every day, and my lungs are processing the air I'm breathing easier than they were a few months ago. Don't worry about me, Jake. I know when to go inside. And I've got a few hours, so let's see what we can find out about your friend."

    When Norm pulled up the first log, and I saw Grace's face, I instantly remembered the last time I'd seen her. Her hair was longer, and she didn't have as many wrinkles. And when I heard her voice, I couldn't believe it had been ten years since she'd died.

    "This is video log 11217, and I'm currently sitting alone in one of the empty habitat rooms to keep this from most of my staff. I just received a message from the lab back home, and I have to document this before she gets here. I'm going to go on record and say that I completely disagree with this, and just because people can do something doesn't necessarily mean they should. What we're doing with the Avatar program is completely different from this, and creating a living, breathing creature from incomplete data and dangerous methods is not what I signed on for. Unfortunately, she's already on her way here. So I can't stop her. The only alternative I can see is to do everything in my power to make sure this goes as smoothly as possible.

    I also want to make very clear that very few people on this base know about this, and it has to stay that way. So I'm encrypting all my logs on this subject. Neither Selfridge nor Quaritch can know about this. If they did, it would undermine my entire program. And when she gets here, I'll have to keep her away from the rest of the team. Of course, I'll have to explain all of this to the geneticist on base, but that's about it. I've also put in for two new recruits, and they've told me they'll begin selection within the year back home. I'll have to get her a room set up and access codes so she could log all her progress without her files being accessed by anyone else. I can only hope no one asks me why I need special facilities."

    Grace went on to talk about specifics of her newest task, including a lot of scientific terms I didn't really understand and a timetable that looked like it had started over 20 years earlier. I noticed the log was date-stamped April 15, 2141, and I realized that Grace had known about this from the very beginning. She'd never said anything to me or Norm or anyone about it, and I knew then that it was probably one of the most important things I was ever gonna know about. I was also curious about who she was. Was this Ava's mother or Ava herself? Ava didn't look 20 years old. She looked more like she was fifteen or sixteen.

    Norm had to leave after his few hours were up, even though it looked like he could stay out there a lot longer. He promised to be back in the morning with an exopack since he only wanted to test his tolerance at night when it wasn't as hot or humid. He left the pad with me so I could look at Grace's video logs, but as soon as he was gone, I put it away, deciding to help Thomas get settled in for the night. He was used to sleeping near me and his mother, but I was able convince him how much better it was.

    "You're all grown up now anyway," I told him. "So it's time for you to start sleeping by yourself. And I'll be just over there," I pointed where I'd set down the pad. "This will be yours while we're here, okay?"

    He didn't understand the concept of a blanket, so I didn't make him use it, but I could see he was uncomfortable. I tried to reassure him it was okay but that it would get better. With that, he relaxed, and I watched him fall asleep before I returned to where Ava had settled across from the bed where I'd laid the pad. I didn't have to say anything to her. She just laid down on the bed and relaxed, watching me until her eyes closed, and I made sure she was okay before I settled back on the bed I'd chosen.

    I had to get reacquainted with the bed, since I'd been sleeping with Neytiri and Thomas for the last nine years. Even before Thomas had been born, I'd slept in a hammock in Hometree, and sleeping in a bed again was strange. Since I didn't really want to go back to sleep after what had happened earlier, I decided to look at more of Grace's logs. It was gonna be important for me to know everything when I got back to Mo'at, and I'd figure out what to do when we all went back Home.

    Grace's logs jumped forward nearly six years, the same amount of time I remembered being in cryo from Earth on the trip here, and I knew that's where this girl had come from. It seemed like Grace hadn't given it anymore thought or time in between times necessary to document what was going on. I wondered if it was important to her, or if she'd been insulted by the idea of what she was being told to do. From what I remembered about Grace, she wasn't the type of person to take orders well, so this must have been like a slap in the face.

    "Video Log 12257. Pilot from the shuttle just called to tell me she was on her way down. I've spent the last eleven months getting everything finished for this, and I'm the only person who will be documenting the process. I'm not really sure why I'm bothering, but what can I say, it's a habit. The lab back home has been sending me specs on the experiment, and they're sending samples along with her for us to trial before we do anything major. I've been told that she's aware of the risks, and I don't plan on going over them with her again. When I first started this program, it was about research and interaction. Even Selfridge wanted this to be easy so he could get his money and go home. Now there are scientists on Earth under the impression they can play God with someone's life.

    I also got word from Recruitment that they'd found my two new guys. They both appear to be capable researchers in their individual specs. They're both going through training right now. Dr. Norman Spellman and Dr. Thomas Sully should be on their way here within the next year and a half, and their Avatars will be coming with them. I was able to attach a few specs for them to go over in the transmission packet. Dr. Sully showed a lot of interest in this new project. I'll look forward to seeing his point of view where the experiment is concerned. I've also heard good things about Dr. Spellman. They'll be good additions to the team. I'll probably have to acclimate them when they get here so she'll be on her own for a few days. Surely she can handle that."

    It was the first time in ten years I'd heard Tommy's name from anyone other than Norm or those suits back on Earth who'd come to tell me he was dead. But of course Grace had known about Tommy. She'd been expecting him. Not me. Whether she'd known I was coming instead of him, I still didn't know. The way she'd acted the day she'd met me, it made me think she knew there had been a little hiccup in the plans. And when I'd showed up, all the plans she'd had of letting Tommy in on this had probably been put to bed. I was a Marine, after all, whether I'd been on her team or not. I knew she hadn't trusted me at first.

    But Tommy had known about this, no matter how little of it had been common knowledge or not. I couldn't think of the last time I'd actually seen him before they'd burned his body, but this was huge. The UN would have ripped this apart if they'd found out. And the fact that he hadn't told anybody meant he'd known how serious it was. I couldn't believe how far out of the loop I felt. And he'd taken it to his death.

    I looked at Ava as she slept in the bed next to mine. My mind was already going over the small amount of time I'd spent here before I'd started my life with Neytiri. Now that I knew this, I was starting to think about what would have happened if Tommy had actually made it here. Would any of what had happened because of me even happened in the first place? The obvious answer was no, but now I didn't think it was so simple anymore. If Tommy had been here, I wondered if he would've known about Ava or her mother. I'd probably be dead in a ditch somewhere, and I hated thinking that I'd benefitted from him getting shot down for a stupid reason.

    I didn't regret coming here. But this changed everything. Didn't it? Was it even right for me to be here now asking Norm to run tests and find out Ava's past? I didn't want to relive my past. How could I make her relive hers? Normally I'd need as much information as I could absorb. But this was anything but normal.