“Wait,” she muttered. “Wait for me—I’m coming.”
She could see her goal glowing faintly through the trees, so tantalizingly close it hurt. She quickened her pace, biting her lip nervously in anticipation. She reached out to brush aside a phosphorescent fern and suddenly found herself tangled in vines, unable to move forward. Growling softly in frustration, she squirmed and pushed forward, trying to break free. Her tail lashed behind her, reflecting her agitation as the vines around her repeated impatient protests. The vines were protesting…the female frowned in confusion.
“Come on, lady—you can’t go outside without an exopack,” the man in uniform insisted. “You can’t go outside at all; it’s past curfew. Just go back to your room. I'll come with you if you want. How about it, babe?”
“Wah,” the young woman replied, stumbling backwards.
The marine quickly steadied her and peered at her curiously. “You alright?”
“I—yeah, I’m fine,” she said shakily. “I’m so sorry…I—I must have been sleepwalking.”
“Yeah,” the marine agreed. “They say you shouldn’t wake sleepwalkers; I was trying to get you to go back to your quarters.”
“Going and gone,” the young woman said with a slightly strained smile. “Sorry to bother you.”
“Hey, no problem,” the marine said, grinning. “Beats counting the tiles in the ceiling to stay awake.”
“Private Benson,” the marine supplied. He smirked and looked her up and down without bothering to be subtle about it. “You got a name, babe, or should I just call you Sleeping Beauty?”
“Shawn Cooper,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest—suddenly the shorts and tank top she had worn to bed seemed woefully inadequate.
“That’s a dude’s name,” Private Benson informed her, as if she might not be aware of the fact. “You look more like a Veronica to me. Or Tiffany, maybe.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Shawn said, her nose wrinkling with distaste. Those were awful names.
“Goodnight, Private Benson—thanks again.”
“Hey—maybe I’ll see you around tomorrow night,” he called after her.
“God, I hope not,” Shawn muttered with a flash of unease—it was entirely possible.
Shawn made it back to her tiny broom closet of a room and sat on her bed with her knees drawn up her chest. Pressing her forehead to her knees, she took several deep, calming breaths. They were supposed to be calming, anyway. She didn’t feel particularly calm. In fact, she could feel a panic attack hovering menacingly in the back of her mind.
“What’s happening to me?” she whispered.
It could be post traumatic stress of some kind, she mused, but really it hadn’t been all that traumatic. When shit had hit the fan with the Na’vi three weeks previously, she and the other Avatar drivers were taken into custody and put in holding cells. It was upsetting, sure, and more than a little uncomfortable, but it was more of an inconvenience than anything else. They were released as soon as the Corporal Sully and the Na’vi gained control of the station and, unlike the majority of humans at Hell’s Gate, were invited to remain on Pandora.
Shawn hadn't needed to think twice—or at all, really—about staying. There was no way she could have left Pandora, even before the dreams. Now it was quite impossible. Less than a week after the humans left, she began to be plagued by the same dream every night. Shawn called it the Glowing Dream. Her nights were spent tossing restlessly in bed (or, lately, wandering the halls of Hell’s Gate), trying desperately to reach the soft white light through the trees. Her waking hours were filled with an intense, indefinable longing that was eased only slightly by spending time in her avatar body.
Perhaps it was only the new restrictions placed on the inhabitants of Hell’s Gate, Shawn concluded. It was just a strange manifestation of cabin fever. Before the Hallelujah Battle, as it had come to be called, she had spent nearly every day out in the forest, studying the wildlife of Pandora for her doctoral research.
At twenty one, she had been by far the youngest member of the scientific community at Hell’s Gate when she arrived. Pandora was all she had ever wanted, and the combination of fabulously rich—and deceased—parents and work ethic born of borderline obsession had allowed her to attend college at the age of fifteen and get her master’s degree in xenozoology by twenty. It had taken near perfect grades, glowing recommendations from the heads of three departments, and a hefty donation to get her into the avatar program for her doctorate.
Once she got to Pandora, however, Shawn promptly lost all interest in academic research. The moment she set foot in the jungle, she felt as if she had sold her soul...though to whom, and for what, she had no idea. Luckily, her adviser, Dr. Chanley, was so absorbed by his own research that he hardly ever seemed to remember not only that he was responsible for her academically but that she even existed. Thus Shawn was free to simply immerse herself in the forest. She could spend hours lying on her stomach watching the hexapedes graze or up a tree imitating the cries of the avians and lemurs. It was vital observation, she defended herself mentally. She just hadn’t come up with a thesis yet.
She had been excited and intrigued when she found out about Tom Sully, who already had his doctorate at twenty two, and Norm Spellman, who didn’t have any outstanding characteristics in Shawn’s eyes beyond the fact that he was closer to twenty than thirty and--potentially--not an asshole. After Shawn, the next youngest member of the avatar team before the arrival of the new avatar drivers was Chase Blakely. Chase was twenty eight—old enough to feel superior but young enough to feel threatened by being on the same academic level as a girl barely out of her teens. He seized every possible opportunity to make her feel small and ignorant and took great pains to distance himself socially, often ignoring her presence completely as grownups ignore children while talking amongst themselves. Shawn found this attitude wildly irritating at best and downright demeaning at worst, but she tried to shake it off. When she heard that Tom and Norm were coming, she found herself hoping a little desperately that her loneliness might finally be alleviated.
But Tom died and his twin brother came instead and then he somehow got himself tangled up with the Omaticaya and went off to the mountains with Dr. Augustine and Norm to avoid Selfridge and Quaritch and
then—of all the rotten luck—got hitched to the chief’s daughter and led the people in glorious rebellion, leaving Shawn with only creeps like Private Benson in her age bracket while he became a legendary hero and clan leader. A clan leader who, incidentally, put the entire population of Hell’s Gate under house arrest until the clans felt more comfortable with a human presence on Pandora. Shawn understood the situation and grudgingly acknowledged that they needed to earn the right to venture back into Na’vi’s home. Though she didn’t like it, she truly did understand and even agreed with Corporal Sully’s actions.
It was as if there was another presence sharing Shawn’s mind and spirit. It was like a little gremlin in her head, clamoring for release into the forest. There was something out there that she needed as surely as she needed food and water—more so, even. More than one of her fellow avatar drivers had gone out of their way to comment on her lack of appetite and warn her that she needed to care for her human body as well as her avatar.
To that end, Shawn curled up under the thin blanket and tried to relax, but sleep eluded her. Now that she was awake, the Gremlin refused to let her rest. She imagined a prolemuris swinging through the branches of her mind, screeching and chattering. The tiny quarters, which she could usually convince herself to think of as cozy, suddenly seemed suffocating. Her breath came short and sweat broke out on her forehead and upper lip.
Before she realized what she was doing, Shawn found herself stumbling down the hallway toward the nearest exit. After passing through the labyrinthine corridors of the facility with feverish single-mindedness, she reached the portal only to be turned back by another soldier. Where was Private Benson, she wondered. How long had it been since she woke from her dream? Before turning reluctantly away from the portal, Shawn looked over the soldier’s shoulder to see the sun just beginning to rise over the trees. Something inside her quailed. She wouldn’t be able to link with her avatar for another three hours at least. How was she ever going to make it?
“You might try the Terra Dome,” the soldier called after her as she walked unsteadily back down the hallway. “You know, if you’re getting cabin fever. It helps a little.”
She turned back and stared at him.
“You can see the sky,” the soldier said a little defensively. “And the plants smell good. Fresh.”
“Thank you,” Shawn said fervently and hurried away, muttering.
“Weirdo,” the soldier muttered behind her.
Shawn didn’t care. He could call her whatever he wanted. She could have kissed him for the glimmer of hope that fluttered weakly in her chest. Perhaps he was right and it would provide enough relief the get her through the next few hours. After that—what would she do? What could she do? Something was obviously not right, but how could she possibly explain to a doctor? She hardly understood herself what she felt.
Shawn all but ran the last few steps to the Terra Dome that contained several gardens and greenhouses which provided the base with a limited amount of fresh produce. The sun’s first rays slanted through the glass, illuminating the miniature orchards with a soft, purplish light. It was lovely, tranquil, magical…it was horrible. Far from providing relief, the Gremlin only shrieked furiously at the teasing glimpse of freedom. Shawn fell to her knees with a muffled whimper, hugging herself tightly.
“Why?” she whispered. “Why is this happening?”
Shawn curled up under an apple tree with her arms around her knees and sobbed in fear and frustration. Eventually she fell into a fitful half-doze from which she was awoken by a gentle hand shaking her shoulder. With a garbled cry, Shawn scrambled to her feet and scrubbed a hand over her face.
“Shawny, what on earth are you doing out here?”
“Dr. Patel!” Shawn exclaimed. “I—um—“
“Are you okay?” Dr. Patel asked, peering at her worriedly behind his glasses.
“I-I—“ Shawn’s lip trembled dangerously.
“You’re obviously not okay,” Dr. Patel said firmly. He reached up and plucked an apple from a lower branch. “Here. Now, why don’t we sit down and you can tell me what’s on your mind. We’re worried about you, Shawny. You’ve been acting strangely ever since they took us out of confinement. Is that what this is about? You seemed to handle it well at the time—but sometimes these things can hit after the fact, you know?”
“It’s not that,” Shawn mumbled, turning the apple over in her hands as she sat beside him.
“Then what?” Max insisted gently. “I know I’m not your father or your brother or anything like that but I am your friend. Let me try to help.”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” Shawn said miserably. “Hell, I think I’m crazy.”
“Maybe,” Max said with a shrug. “But go ahead and try me. I promise not to put you in a straight jacket, even if you are crazy. You strike me as a docile, non-combative sort.”
Shawn tried to produce a smile of appreciation for his attempt to cheer her up, but she had a feeling it wasn’t very successful.
“Come on, squirt, talk to me,” Max said, bumping her shoulder gently with his.
She tried, stumbling as she tried to find the right words to describe what she had been experiencing for the past few weeks. It would have been hard enough to explain without sleep deprivation. In her current condition, it took her quite some time to frame a coherent explanation for Max. When she was done, she peered worriedly at Max’s face, afraid of what his reaction might be.
“I don’t mean to trivialize what you’re going through,” Max said carefully. “But it sounds like maybe the stress is just catching up to you and messing with your head.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Shawn said a little grumpily. “What do I do about it?”
“Well, what we can do right now is get you into your avatar so you can go outside and get some fresh air and exercise,” Max said practically. “Later tonight we can set up an appointment with Dr. Mitchell.”
“You do think I’m crazy,” Shawn said sadly.
“I do not think you’re crazy,” Max said firmly.
“You want me to see the shrink,” Shawn pointed out.
“I want you to see a therapist to help you deal with an obviously stressful situation,” Max corrected her. “That’s why Dr. Mitchell is here—to help people handle situations like yours. The RDA, whatever it’s failings, doesn’t hire crazy people. Living on an alien planet lightyears from home is a lot for anyone to handle even without having been in a hostage situation.”
“It wasn’t exactly a hostage situation,” Shawn said, ever a stickler for detail. “They just wanted us out of the way. It’s not like the Na’vi would have paid ransom for the likes of us.”
“Shawny, you’re missing the point,” Max sighed.
“No, I get it,” Shawn assured him. “And maybe Dr. Mitchell will help. It’s a better idea than any I’ve come up with, anyway.”
“Alright then, we have a plan,” Max said briskly. “Let’s head to the lab, shall we?”
“Please,” Shawn said fervently.
Shawn barely restrained herself to a walk as they made their way to the Avatar lab and all but leaped into her console. The need to link was so strong that she had some trouble attaining the calm, blank mental state which was vital to the linking process. A tear of relief trickled out of the corner of her eye when she finally opened them on the familiar wooden rafters of the Avatar bunker. None of the others were awake yet due to the early hour; they were probably just now sitting down to breakfast.
Shawn swung eagerly out of her bed and padded down the aisle, past the rows of empty avatars. She shivered a bit; it had always struck her as more than a little creepy how they were clearly empty, not merely sleeping. Shawn shook it off and grinned in anticipation as she hauled the doors open and stepped out into the light. She took a deep breath, reveling in the sweet freshness of the breeze, so different from the stale, recycled air inside the base.
With a whoop of joy, Shawn took off and dashed twice around the Avatar compound just for the joy of running, then began her daily training on the obstacle course and free-weights. After a while, though, the elation of being outside in her avatar body wore off and the Gremlin started grumbling again. She found herself staring intently into the forest as if looking for something, but she had no idea what that something might be.
She was glad when the other avatar drivers joined her. Some did their physical training while others worked in the gardens or prepared lunch for the day—normally people alternated training days and crafts days, but Shawn was too restless to limit herself to PT. Shawn joined those working in the gardens, hauling at the stubborn Pandoran weeds with gusto. After everyone finished their morning duties, they gathered together to share a mid-day meal of fruits and nuts harvested from the gardens.
Shawn usually quite enjoyed these meals—they were all physically more or less the same age in their avatar bodies, which made Shawn feel much more comfortable with the other scientists. Today, however, the mysterious Something in the forest distracted her from the food and conversation. She tried to pay attention to what Joanne, an ecologist, was saying about the possibilities for making the base more eco-friendly and integrated into the Pandoran system, but couldn’t seem to manage it.
“And then we can all put on sombreros and dance naked under the Tree of Souls,” Joanne finished.
“Mm,” Shawn agreed. “That’s really—what?”
“That’s what I thought,” Joanne said with a slightly exasperated smile. “Shawny, have you actually taken in a word of what I’ve been saying?”
“Yeah, you were talking about, you know, the ecological ramifications of…um…” Shawn trailed off and sighed, rubbing her face vigorously with her hands. “I’m sorry I’m kind of spacey today—I didn’t sleep too well last night.”
“It’s not just kind of and it’s not just today,” Joanne said with a frown. “What’s up, squirt? You’ve been acting like a zombie for weeks now.”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Shawn sighed. “I talked with Dr. Patel about it this morning and he thinks it’s probably just stress. I’m going to make an appointment with Dr. Mitchell tonight.”
“Well, as long as you’re taking care of it,” Joanne said dubiously. “You know you can talk to any of us if you need to.”
“I know that,” Shawn assured her.
“Good,” Joanne said briskly. “Now, let’s get a game going. How about basketball? That will take your mind off it, whatever it is.”
Shawn grimaced. Basketball was definitely not her favorite activity. She hated the shuffling, cramped style of movement required and the tight quarters. She preferred soccer or flag football or even baseball, where she could stretch her legs and really run (when she actually managed to hit the ball, of course). The fact that she was always the smallest player on the court didn’t improve matters, of course. Or the fact that she was an absolutely hopeless shot. She wasn’t much of a dribbler, either. Or a defender. In fact, the most Shawn could be trusted to do in a basketball game was to get rid of the ball like a hot potato on the off-chance it came to her. Most of the time it went back to her own team…well, perhaps half of the time, Shawn amended in her head. With a sigh, Shawn resigned herself to at least an hour of tense, anxious misery. Joanne was right, however—it would certainly distract her at least for a while.
Shawn followed Joanne and a group of other avatars far more enthusiastic than she to the basketball courts. Joanne took pity on her and assigned her to mark Dr. Goodwin, a geologist and the only one in the avatar program—probably on the entire base—with less aptitude for basketball than Shawn. Shawn suspected that the only reason Patricia played was because she had an intense, somewhat desperate crush on Dr. Sanders, who was also being pursued by a xenolinguist. The discovery of this awkward little love triangle had been something of a shock to Shawn, who had long held the mistaken belief that girl drama didn't exist in the adult world.
Shawn tried her best not to be too much of a burden to her team, but she was distracted, ironically, not by the Gremlin but by the soulful and somewhat disturbing cow-eyes Dr. Goodwin kept making at Dr. Sanders...until, however, she caught sight of the guard tower and the Gremlin brought all other thought processes to a screeching halt. It suddenly occurred to her that it would be a fairly simple matter to rappel down the outside of the tower—there was rappelling equipment more or less readily available on the base. It would be a bit of a drop once one hit the electric fencing, but it wasn’t anything Na’vi bones couldn’t take. The fences were built to keep Pandora out rather than to keep people in, after all.
Shawn shook her head briskly, wondering why she was thinking such things. The thought of running away from the base was absurd—and pointless. What would that accomplish? It wasn’t as if she could continue on with her research, even if she wasn’t immediately hauled back and thrown in a containment cell. It was just a stray thought, Shawn assured herself. It didn’t mean anything. Really.
“Shawny, watch out!”
Shawn yelped as the basketball smacked the side of her head hard enough to make her eyes water. Face burning with embarrassment, she retrieved the basket ball and held it awkwardly, unsure of what to do. The others were all staring at her, some with concern and others with barely concealed amusement.
“Sorry,” Shawn muttered. “I guess I don’t feel much like playing today.”
She thought Joanne might protest, but the older woman merely frowned as Shawn beat a hasty retreat. She returned to the gardens, taking comfort from the smell of fresh earth and plant life. After she had ousted all the weeds she could find, Shawn simply stretched out on her stomach and laid her cheek on the soft, cool soil. She was still lying there, letting the soil run through her fingers, when she heard quiet footsteps behind her. Her ear twitched toward the sound and she frowned. The steps were much too light to be an avatar’s.
“It’s Shawn, right? Shawn Cooper?”
“Right,” Shawn said, turning over and sitting up. “You can call me Shawny--everyone does. It sounds more like a girl’s name, I guess.”
“Shawny, then,” the newcomer said, smiling behind his exopack. “I’m—“
“Norm Spellman,” Shawn said with a slight smile. “We’ve met.”
“Oh,” Norm said, looking flustered. “I’m sorry, I—“
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “You weren’t around that long before you left with Dr. Augustine.”
“Still, you’d think we’d have met—er, met again—since I’ve been back,” Norm pointed out.
“I don’t get out much when I’m in the other—when I’m not linked,” Shawn said awkwardly, and hesitated. “I…I heard about your avatar. I’m sorry.”
“Don't be,” Norm said earnestly. “It could have been so much worse. There was some pretty substantial damage but Max says it could be ready in another month if its condition keeps progressing the way it has been.”
“It can heal by itself?” Shawn asked curiously. “I mean, without you in it?”
“Sure,” Norm said with a shrug. “It's the same as any body—the conscious mind has almost nothing to do with it. I'll have to go through some pretty intense physical therapy once I'm back in the driver's seat, though.”
“You must be relieved,” Shawn commented, shuddering at the thought of never breathing Pandoran air again.
Norm grinned. “You bet—but I actually wanted to talk about you.”
“About me?” Shawn blinked in surprise. “Why?”
“Max told me about the, ah…the problems you’ve been having,” Norm said. “Don’t be mad—he’s just worried about you. He told me about it because he thought talking to someone closer to your own age might help.” Norm grinned. “Or he might be trying to set us up. I haven’t exactly been sunshine and smiles lately, either.”
“I don’t think talking is going to help,” Shawn said helplessly. “I’m going to make an appointment with Dr. Mitchell, but it’s really only so Dr. Patel will stop worrying.”
“I understand,” Norm said. “I don’t think talking will help, either. But let me ask you something…if you were free to do anything at all, what would you do?”
“Don’t think about it,” Norm urged. “Just spit it out—no matter how crazy it sounds.”
Several moments passed while Shawn nervously chewed on her bottom lip and Norm watched her expectantly
“I'd leave,” Shawn finally blurted, taking his advice. “And find...something.”
“I don’t know!” Shawn cried in frustration. “It’s like there’s something I need to do, but I don’t know what. Or like something—someone’s…I don’t know, calling me. I don’t—all I know is that I need to be out there—not here.”
“Maybe someone is calling you,” Norm said seriously.
“Who? Eywa?” Shawn said with a snort. When Norm only looked at her, she frowned. “You’re serious.”
“What do you know about the Hallelujah Battle?” Norm asked.
Shawn shrugged, not sure where he was going with his line of questioning. “I was in a holding cell during the battle and afterward—the dream started. I wasn’t really thinking about anything else. Anyway, we won. What does the battle have to do with anything?”
“We were losing,” Norm said. “I mean, we were doing well, considering, but I’m not sure even Jake really believed we could pull it off. He didn’t seem all that surprised that we were getting our asses handed to us, anyway. But then—everything changed. Neytiri says that Jake asked Eywa for help…and Eywa answered. I believe her. It sounds crazy, I know. But there were herds of titanotheres stampeding in from all directions—viperwolves and banshees and even thanators attacking SecOps and completely ignoring everything else—including me, after my avatar was killed. Explaining away that kind of a concerted effort as coincidence is even more ridiculous than attributing it to a sentient biosphere. Shawny… this planet is—different. Alive. If it’s trying to tell you something, you should listen.”
“But that’s just…” Shawn groped for words. “Okay, let’s pretend for a minute you’re right and I’m
being called by Eywa. What then? No one—our people or Na’vi—is going to let me just waltz into the forest. Even if they did, I wouldn’t know what to do once I left.”
“Maybe the Na’vi would know what to do,” Norm suggested.
“Do you really think the Na’vi would believe that one of us is being called by Eywa?” Shawn asked. She meant to sound skeptical, but even she could detect a faint note of wistfulness in the question.
“Jake was,” Norm reminded her. “They acknowledge that.”
“They also left him tied to a tree and only took him back when he showed up on a Great Leonopterix,” Shawn pointed out dryly. “Somehow I don’t think I can top that.”
“Look, I know it seems like a long shot, but you’ll never know if you don’t try,” Norm argued. “I can get in touch with Jake and have him ask Mo’at—the Tsahik. Even if they don’t give you a free pass into the forest, Mo’at might at least be able to provide some insight.”
Although the Gremlin squealed and yammered with glee at the idea, the rest of Shawn shrank back at the thought of treating Eywa as an actual being rather than a quaint native concept.
“I—Norm, thanks for your concern, but I just can’t…I mean, come on. Eywa?” Shawn ran a hand through her hair in agitation. “I’m going to see Dr. Mitchell tonight. I’m sure it’s just stress—he’ll be able to give me a sedative or antidepressant or…something.”
“Something that doesn’t have anything to do with mystic native mumbo-jumbo?” Norm asked with a smile. When Shawn blushed and started to protest, he laughed. “I get it, Shawny—really. I know it’s a lot to swallow. Go to Dr. Mitchell and see what he can do for you. If it works out, great. If not…well, just think about what I said, okay?”
“Okay,” Shawn replied, relieved that he was willing to let it go.
“And I’ll be around if you do want to talk—not necessarily about this. I wouldn’t mind hanging out with someone my own age for once,” he said with a warm smile.
“Chase Blakely is closer to your age than I am,” Shawn pointed out.
Norm snorted. “Blakely is also a pompous asshole with delusions of intellectual grandeur. I can’t stand that guy.”
“I know! Sometimes I fantasize about ‘accidentally’ nailing him in the head when we play ball. I could totally get away with it—everyone knows I suck at baseball.”
“So why don’t you?” Norm inquired.
“I suck at baseball,” Shawn replied ruefully.
Norm threw his head back and laughed, drawing an answering giggle from Shawn.
“Well, maybe you’ll get lucky and actually hit him by accident,” Norm said, still chuckling.
“Dum spiro, spero,” Shawny replied drily.
“Latin, huh? A lady of many talents,” Norm commented.
“Only bits and pieces,” Shawn said with a shrug. “I took a couple of classics courses for some undergrad distribution requirements.”
“Gotta love those distribution requirements,” Norm said, rolling his eyes. “I had to take this Women’s Studies course once…”
Norm settled himself next to her on the ground and the two talked for a long while on a variety of subjects, occasionally returning to their cheerful abuse of Chase Blakely’s character and intelligence. When the avatars were called back to the bunker for the night, Shawn was astounded at how much time had passed and how easily Norm kept her attention away from the Gremlin. Maybe she did just need someone her own age to talk to, she reflected hopefully as she blushingly agreed to meet up with Norm again in her human body. He gave her a slightly goofy smile that lit up his long face and made his plain features suddenly charming. But as she made her way to the bunker, her eyes dragged themselves seemingly of their own accord back to the forest.
“Leave me alone,” Shawn whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “Just leave me alone.”
There was no answer but the wind blowing gently through the trees. Shawn shivered, suddenly feeling as if her plea had indeed been answered… and it didn’t feel like acquiescence. Shawn turned her back on the
forest and hurried away with her shoulders hunched defensively. Behind her, the trees continued to sway patiently in the breeze.