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2107: Parker Selfridge and Loretta

Parker was exploring Pandora. His shuttle had already crash-landed, killing everyone else on board, and he had to make his way to the exploration camp with just his dæmon and his wits. His dæmon was special because she had never, ever settled, and so she could fly above him and then run along beside him and she was the key to his success as the most famous explorer in history. At the moment, Loretta was in the form of a cat as the pair wriggled their way under the jungle canopy. They had to keep very, very silent because they had to hide from the giant blue two-legged aliens who were hunting them to cook Parker in a pot.

But then, disaster struck! The canopy came collapsing down, leaving Parker and Loretta not on Pandora, but on their bedroom floor, covered by a green sheet.

“Parker, where- Oh, baby, what are you doing?” Parker's mother said, laughing.

“...'sploring,” he muttered, and started to crawl out from under the sheet. Even this last challenge was taken from him as his mother lifted the sheet up and dumped it on the bed. Loretta turned into spaniel and sulked with her tail between her legs.

“And where were you exploring?” Benedetta asked, keeping her expression mostly solemn as she straightened her young son's collar. Her own dæmon, a goldfinch, twittered with laughter before restraining himself.

“Pandora. The aliens were going to cook me. In a pot.”

“Well, I'm glad they didn't,” his mother said, kissing his forehead. “And you really shouldn't be reading the reports in Daddy's study. Now, Nonna and Nonno are here, and-”

“Mama?”

“Yes?”

“Do the aliens have dæmons?”

Benedetta paused as her dæmon suddenly shifted on her shoulder. “Well,” she said, slowly, “we don't know yet. I suppose it would depend on if they were people, wouldn't it? Because only people have dæmons.”

“But in the pictures, they have clothes. Or, bits of clothes,” Parker corrected himself. “And they had spears and wouldn't....wouldn't that make them people? But-” He stopped, his mind now actually thinking about the idea of not having a dæmon. About the idea of not having Loretta, and the idea made him feel sick and scared. Loretta made a whimpering sound as she launched herself at him, turning herself into a lemur so she could cling to him, because the idea was equally as horrifying to the young dæmon as it was to her human.

“Parker!” Benedetta crouched down and cupped his face in her hand. “Listen to me, baby, okay? If they are people, then they will have dæmons. If they don't have dæmons, then they aren't people. They are just animals.”

“But wouldn't they be lonely?” Loretta's eyes were huge in her tiny face.

“Do you think the guard dogs get lonely?”

“No,” Parker and Loretta said in unison, both sounding as hesitant as the other.

“Then I don't think the, uh, Pandorans get lonely. You can't miss what you don't have. Don't worry about it, okay?”

“'Kay.”

Benedetta smiled and kissed Parker's forehead. “Good boy. Now, where did you put Nonna's present?”

2109: Miles Quaritch and Solange

Miles had reached the point of study that if he saw another textbook or another highlighter or another annotation, he was going to start using his study material as target practice. With a grenade launcher. This was, after all, the United States Naval Academy; there had to be a grenade launcher around the place somewhere.

“Well, you look about how I feel,” Madra Wu said, falling onto the couch next to him. Her dæmon chittered a greeting to Sol, who just thumped her tail against the floor in reply.

“I keep telling myself, only a year to go, and I never have to take another damn exam again,” Miles said, not even opening his eyes.

“Yeah,” Wu said. “Does that help?”

“...comes and goes.”

“So, you two won't mind if I change the channel?”

Miles opened his eyes and peered up at Farabi. “Uh, nah, you go ahead.”

“Whatever,” Wu added when Farabi glanced at her. “As long as it's got nothing to do with spheres of influence, or platoon manoeuvres, or-”

-can you tell us exactly what the team has found on Pandora?

“-yeah, exoplanet words,” she finished as Farabi took the mute off the TV. Farabi himself found a seat on the floor, despite the fact that Wu was taking up two of the couch's three spots. Then again, she did have a wolverine for a dæmon.

“You know,” Miles said at last, watching the screen as Benedetta Merlino talked about alien trees and just plain aliens, “you got to hand it to old Selfridge, his wife is damn good looking.”

“He can afford it,” Wu pointed out. “Isn't that the whole point of being rich, you can afford a trophy spouse?”

“- hang on, what did she just say?” Miles said sharply, leaning forward. By the couch, his wolfhound-dæmon lifted her head and cocked it. “Zahir, turn the volume up.”

“Already done,” Farabi said, staring at the screen.

Ms Merlino, could you clarify that statement?

Certainly. One of the alien species on Pandora appears to be sapient. They are also bipedal, although they seem to range in height from-

“Now that's more interesting than those European squid,” Wu said, slowly studying the screen intently. “Wow. Sapient-”

“Shush,” Farabi said, turning the volume up further as another journalist stood up.

Ms Merlino, what do you mean by 'appears to be sapient'?

The reports from Pandora suggest that the Pandoran bipeds have woven clothes, weapons such as spears and bows and arrows, and even language. These are clearly signs of a sapient intelligence. What they don't have, though, are dæmons.

What?” JJ Huntington gasped from the other side of the otherwise silent common-room, and her dæmon, an elegant Finnish hound, whined and tried to press himself into her. Most of the other dæmons had similar reactions; even Wu's Boqin had moved to crouch on her lap, not exactly in her arms but close. Miles, for his part, had let his hand fall so he could grab Solange's scruff. The dæmon herself sat up, and his hand smoothed out, stroking down her neck.

“No dæmons?” Sol asked quietly as the rest of the room broke up in excited, horrified, too-loud arguing.

“Aliens...will be aliens,” he answered, swallowing. She whuffed, the sound sceptical.

“Yeah, but...they're only supposed to be dæmonless if they are like animals, or it's supposed to give us all the creeps. They're not actually supposed not to have 'em-”

“C'mon,” he said, giving her a tight smile, “you heard what the woman said. Spears and bows. They can't be that complicated if they haven't even worked out how to blow up invaders yet.”

“Scientists.”

“Invaders. Look, the only reason the RDA are on Pandora is because Euryale went and had a supervolcano on them – Euryale's where most of the unobtanium is. Pandora was just gonna be for sightseeing. You really think that the existence of talking aliens is going to make the RDA back off?”

“The animal rights lot are gonna have a field-day with this,” Sol said mournfully, her ears drooping as Miles laughed. “And the UN. God, can you imagine trying to negotiate with people in another solar system?

“If they are people,” Miles muttered, watching the media conference on the TV. “I mean, if they are people, then...where the hell are their souls?”

2120: Trudy Chacon and Dexter

Trudy was spinning. Round and round and round with her arms outstretched as Dexter flew above her, round and round and round.

“You're gonna make yourself sick,” Gene said as he watched from a bench.

“No I ain't.”

“Yeah you are.”

“Says who?”

Physics,” pronounced her brother, who had recently discovered science, if not exactly the differences between the disciplines.

“Lies,” she said serenely as she spun and spun and spun. But then her big toe caught on a crooked tile and she yelped in pain, stumbling before collapsing in a heap. The world continued to spin, however, just to spite her. And to spite Dexter, who had likewise collapsed and shifted into a mongoose, clinging to the pavement with his eyes firmly shut.

“You okay?” Gene asked, who would hotly deny that his first reaction was to spring to his feet and start to run over to her with his dæmon at his heels.

“Fine.” Actually, she wanted to cry because her toe hurt and because she felt like she was going to be sick, but she wasn't going to tell that to Gene. Gene's dæmon Ianthe also shifted to a mongoose out of solidarity, and she looped over to Dexter to flop over him. It was a kind of solidarity, anyway.

“Liar,” Gene said, but it was said with affection so all Trudy did was stick her tongue out at him before lying back on the tiles. “Hey, what was Dexter before?”

“Great Leonopteryx. Not to scale, but.”

“-oh, a Pandora thing,” Gene said dismissively, lying down next to his younger sister.

“Hey, Pandora is cool,” Trudy protested.

“It's boring. Blah, blah, blah, tree, blah, blah, blah, aliens don't have dæmons, blah, blah-”

“They do too have dæmons!”

“Then how come we ain't seen 'em?”

“'Cause they're invisible, dummy.”

Gene poked her. “Then how do you know they are there?” In retaliation for the poke, Dexter rolled over and tried to shove Ianthe off him. She yelped and the two dæmons started to scuffle, shifting from form to form.

“The Pandorans are people,” Trudy said, ignoring the daemons and not ignoring them, too. It was play and it was a fight for dominance, but her and Gene weren't fighting, so she pretended that it wasn't happening. “They have language and clothes and weapons, so they are people. All people have souls, otherwise they wouldn't be people. So, obviously, the Pandoran souls are just invisible.”

“So why's everyone arguin'?”

“Because they are academics,” Trudy said with all the scorn that only the child of an academic could muster. Gene made a face, agreeing with her even if he didn't actually admit it. The children's dæmons broke off their play-fight and came back to their humans; Ianthe turning into large, scruffy dog as she flopped over Gene's arm and licked his hand, and Dexter turning into a robin, flying up to balance on Trudy's toes.

“I'm gonna go there,” Trudy said at last.

“Where?”

“Pandora. I'm gonna study everythin' there.”

“You can't study everything, you have to choose.”

“Who said?” Trudy looked up at the sky, but she wasn't seeing the orangey-coloured smog above her. She was seeing a land filled with trees and leaves and dragons, a land where the sky was blue. “I'm gonna learn everything, even 'bout the dæmons. You just watch me.”

2128: Max Patel and Jaimini

He allowed himself one minute to spin around on his chair in glee. Only one, because he was an intern at the lab, which meant he was on his way to becoming a real scientist, and real scientists didn't spin around on chairs in glee. Obviously.

“Not so sure about that,” Jaimini said, reaching out to grab his shirt with her beak as he spun around.

“I'm entitled to my delusions.”

“...scientist! Not entitled to any delusions. Although,” the goose-dæmon mused, “you are but an intern, a mere student. You are possibly allowed some delusions as befits your youth. And then you go and fill the coffee.”

“Hush up, Jai.” She was, however, correct; one of his main jobs was bringing coffee to the scientists. One of his main jobs, because he was there to do the grunt work, the slow, boring, monotonous work. He didn't mind, at least not too much. It was a rite of passage, and anyway, look at where he was going to be interning: the RDA's xenobiology lab, on the neuroscience floor. The RDA's xenoneuroscience lab. Mere aliens, as far as Max was concerned, were common. You had the squid-type things in Europa's oceans, the strange fish and creeping lizards on Titan, but Pandora was where, finally, you had actual sapient beings. Humanoid but not human, and all the more fascinating for it.

“...you know, I really want to know what that third lobe is for,” Max mused. “Everyone else seems to be all about the tail or the ears of the Pandorans, but I really want to know what the third lobe of their brain is for.”

“I know, Max,” Jaimini said, her voice long-suffering. “I'm just not sure that the theory about sensing signals is correct. A three-lobed brain takes far more energy to run than a two-lobed one, there has to be a good enough pay-off to justify the expense.”

“And wouldn't the ability to sense the signals given off by other living creatures, or even just your fellow group-members, constitute such a justification?”

“I guess,” she said, slowly. “But then why would the Pandorans only have one neural whip, while everything else has two? Wouldn't you think that the more intelligent species have more neural whips in order to facilitate that more sophisticated communication?”

“I don't know,” Max said, and grinned at his dæmon. “Isn't that awesome? We all have no idea what is going on.”

Almost no idea,” Jaimini corrected. “The Avatar Program should start yielding some results, if it hasn't already.”

“Probably already has, it's just all confidential.”

“Yeah, I meant publishable results.” She fidgeted for a moment, and then twisted her neck around to preen at her wing feathers.

“What's wrong?” Max asked her, frowning in concern.

“I was just...Max, what happens to their dæmons? The, um, drivers of the Avatar bodies. If their consciousness is placed in the Avatar, where does their dæmon go? With their mind or with their human body?”

He was silent for a long moment, watching as his beautiful dæmon fidgeted and shifted with uneasiness. “I don't know, Jai,” he said at last. “I really don't.”

2129: Grace Augustine and Isidore

Grace was dying.

It didn't matter that her genome matched the type that could align with an Avatar and survive being separated from her dæmon, it didn't matter now that the fatality rate was whatever barely anything percent it was now, although it did, it did matter, because Dr Lovecraft had lied to her about that, the bastard, the bastard who had fucked up and she'd made a mistake and believed him and now the technicians were killing her and Isidore, and they had to stop, now, weren't they listening, stop it, stop it, STOP!

Grace beat her hands against the glass and screamed with frustration, heard her dæmon scream in reply. Her heart was breaking, being ripped out of her as the bond between her and Isidore was stretched or cut or whatever the fuck they were doing, she couldn't remember because it hurt, it hurt, it hurt, she couldn't breathe-

And then the walls of the cages were lifted and she could breathe, she could breathe, and she stumbled over to Isidore's cage even as the hawk-dæmon flew into her arms. He was here, he was here, they weren't dead, they weren't separated, they were together and would be together forever and ever.

“Sound like a child,” Isidore rasped in her ear, and Grace sobbed a laugh.

“Fuck you,” she said, running her hand down his back and teasing his feathers. Isidore replied by taking one of her curls and tugging at it with his curved beak. It hurt, but it was a good hurt.

They weren't dead.

“How are you feeling?” Dr Quinn Zetweiger asked, her butterfly-dæmon calmly flapping his wings even in the face of Grace and Isidore's glaring.

“Like crap,” Grace managed finally, voice hoarse from screaming. Dr Zetweiger smiled faintly, probably aiming for understanding and missing it by a mile, instead landing firmly in the realms of condescending.

“Everyone does, but you have to be awake for the procedure, so,” the woman shrugged. Grace supposed she should be feeling grateful that Dr Zetweiger had dropped the attempt at being understanding, but all she was feeling was emotionally battered and....yes, violated. As if someone had reached in and tried to rip her soul out, which was roughly what had actually happened. It made Grace feel vulnerable, which in turn...well, she had a red-tailed hawk for a dæmon for more than one reason.

“Think you can stand? We just need to go out into the hallway to run a test.” In the face of Grace's incredulous expression, the other scientist smiled faintly again. “We need to see if it worked, Dr Augustine.”

“It had better have worked,” Grace snapped before hauling herself up to her feet while keeping one hand on Isidore. Dr Zetweiger didn't say anything, just walked out into the hallway before Grace could say anything further. Swallowing the angry, defensive, snarling words, Grace followed her.

“Okay, this is very simple,” Dr Zetweiger said. “I want to see if Isidore can fly to the other end of the hallway.”

Both human and dæmon blinked. The end of the hallway was easily a hundred metres away, and the limit of the human-dæmon bond was just a few- But then that's why Grace had just put herself and Isidore through that whole procedure. To properly operate her Avatar, she had to be able to be separate from her dæmon, like the witches in times of old.

“Isi?” she asked, and hated how weak she sounded.

“I can do it,” he said, tugging on one of her curls. Grace nodded; he jumped down onto her hands and she threw him into the air. Isidore swooped above her, and then flew off towards the end of the hallway. Despite her conscious efforts, Grace tensed up as Isidore started to reach the standard limit, and even he hesitated. They had tested that limit before, as all children do, and although the pain had been so much weaker than what they just experienced, the memory of it was still enough that she wanted to call him back.

He kept flying and, psychically speaking, she felt nothing wrong. Isidore flew to the end of the hallway and the bond was still there between them, strong as ever and unable to break. Isidore wheeled in the air and called out in triumph, and Grace grinned back, just as fiercely.

It worked. They were going to Pandora to study an actual living eco-system, and now nothing could stop them.

2132: Norm Spellman and Elsbeth

It was certain that Norm was breaking a couple of laws, a fact that his dæmon insisted on reminding him. She was also reminding him that if his mother caught him, he'd be grounded for...for...for a very long time.

“If Mom didn't want me to use her account, she should have chosen a tougher password,” he replied, changing the search parameters on the University of Washington's library's article search.

“...that is such a ridiculous excuse,” Elsbeth said after a long, long pause of thinking it through, covering her eyes with one of her paws. The otter-dæmon was on her customary perch on his shoulder, and she had been peering at the screen with eyes level with her human's. “And what if she tries to sign on, huh?”

“Els, it's three in the morning where she is. I highly doubt she's checking her email at three in the morning while at a conference. Particularly not when she's giving the opening talk the following morning,” he added.

Elsbeth muttered something highly uncomplimentary about sneaks and hackers, which Norm elected to ignore in favour of browsing through journal articles. The trick was not finding articles on the Pandorans, but rather, finding useful articles.

“But that's always going to be the trick,” Elsbeth said, getting herself an amused glance from the boy.

“Oh, deciding to pay attention now, are you?”

She swatted at his head, but lightly; if nothing else, she'd feel it, too. “I am interested in the Pandorans as well. I just find your ways of getting information highly suspect.”

“More likely to actually end up with an informed opinion this way, aren't I?”

“Maybe,” she conceded. “Maybe not. Academics and scientists are as capable as anyone else of being idiotic. Particularly when it comes to aliens and cultures.”

“I know, they don't seem to argue so much about the meaning of Mom's European squid, do they?”

“We don't expect the squid to walk, talk and have no dæmons, though.”

“No dæmons,” Norm said, pausing in his search for a moment. “You know, that has to be the weirdest thing.”

“Which in particular?” she asked, cocking her head. “Not having dæmons or the implications?”

“More the implications – I mean, if they never had any, they wouldn't...miss them. You.” Still, the idea was strange enough that he lifted his hand to lightly scritch under Elsbeth's chin. “I meant more....I mean, you settling as an otter means something.”

“It means lots of things,” Elsbeth said, a little tartly.

“As I'm going to work out,” he said, wryly. “But that's what I mean – I'm an otter-person. Mom is a raccoon, Tash is a pit viper, Dad is a hummingbird. And you can look at them and see their dæmon and see straight away what kind of person they are. But the Pandorans don't have that. It just...it strikes me as being really weird.”

“They probably think humans are weird, having part of their soul out and wandering about,” Elsbeth pointed out.

“If they have a concept of the soul,” Norm countered. “It'd have to be a matter of faith, if you couldn't see it.”

“Souls might go with a theory of mind,” she said, jumping down onto Norm's lap and then settling her front paws on the desk in front of them. “There is a 'me' in this body, 'I' think, and so on.”

Norm suddenly grinned. “Or maybe they use their queues to hook up to each other so much they have more of a hive-mind. That would be really cool.” Elsbeth lifted her head back enough to try and look at him without twisting around, and he laughed. “They have to use that neural whip for something.”

“...true,” she admitted. “Okay, fine, you win. Now go and add that to your search so I can see if anyone else has had the same idea.”

2138: Lyle Wainfleet and Vera

Lyle was waiting for dawn. Admittedly, he wasn't waiting very hard, because when the sky started to lighten then it was time for work, and scavenging in the ruins of Old New Orleans was hard and sometimes dangerous, often frustrating.

“Salvage operations,” Mala corrected him, almost absently. “We ain't scavengin', we're salvaging.

“For money,” Lyle said.

“Damn straight we're doin' it for money. I ain't gettin' paid enough to be doin' this for free.”

He snorted with laughter at that, but it was a mocking kind of laughter. The kind of people who could scavenge without having to sell what they found were the kind of people to call it an archaeological dig, and were the same kind of people who jumped up and down and screamed that people like him and Mala were nothing but looters. Then again, they were also the kind of people who could afford to finish school and only miss a meal because they forgot, so what the fuck did they know?

Vera nipped him then. Hard. “Hey!” he snapped, twisting his head around to glare at her. The coyote-dæmon merely grinned at him with a flash of sharp teeth.

“Stop feelin' sorry for yourself, and I'll stop bitin' you,” she said.

“Not feelin' sorry for myself.”

“Course not,” Mala said, poking him once in the arm. “This is my boat, there'll be no feelin' sorry for ourselves on Kali's Dance.”

“Or else you're gonna walk the plank,” her own dæmon, a muskrat, said with a kind of gleeful cackle.

“We got a plank now?” Lyle asked, raising his eyebrows at the pair of them. Mala giggled and Jamnu rubbed his paws over his whiskers. The fact that he could see the dæmon's action meant that dawn was approaching, and he turned his face to the east. There, the sky was lightening from night-time maroon to pale grey. Soon, it would be filled with oranges and reds from the sunrise, and then just a kind of washed out orangey-yellow, but for now, it was as clear as it was going to get, and the world was oddly still.

“I was thinkin',” Lyle said, unwilling to let this moment of peace go right this second, “if we manage to clear up before two, I might head up to the plaza.”

“Why- oh. The Pandoran Report, coming to you live. If by live they mean from like six months ago.”

“Close enough,” he said, a briefly cynical smile curving his mouth. “Talk was they might be doin' somethin' 'bout the Banshees and I-”

“Dork.”

“-what?” he asked, thrown off both by the word and by the fondness in her voice. Mala leaned over and kissed him, which was even more surprising.

“You're a giant dork. Admit it, you only care because the things remind you of the flyin' dinosaurs.”

“Pterosaurs,” he said, a trifle wide-eyed.

“Yeah,” she said, sounding amused. “Them things.”

“Not...only because of that,” and that got another laugh from the girl, this time echoed by her dæmon.

“Sure. Well, whatever, I might even go with you. Providin' we don't get pulled over by a patrol, which we are if we don't get goin'. And trust me, if Dad's got to pay 'em off again this month, he ain't gonna be happy about it.”

And with that, the teenager put all thoughts of dinosaurs and aliens out of his mind. Pandora was all very well, but right now, he had to concentrate on the real world.

2141: Jake Sully and Bridget, Tom Sully and Sinead

Jake was starting to get bored. He was standing outside the National Library of Australia, watching as the multicoloured lights played over its exterior. The library wasn't exactly his scene, but it was Tom's, and that's why he was here, waiting for his brother to stop talking to the cute chick with the dreadlocks at the entrance.

“He's not even chatting her up,” Jake said to his dæmon. “He just....you know, it's a waste.”

Bridget whuffed a laugh. “You're just jealous she's not talking to you.”

“It's a waste,” he repeated, and she laughed again. The dæmon, a striking red border collie, jumped up, putting her front paws on the stone banister that circled the library's terrace. Even though their first tour of duty had only been six weeks (and a UN mission at that), the pair had already settled into the habit of looking in opposite directions, trying to keep as large a view of their surroundings as possible.

“Wow, you two look bored,” Tom said once he and the young woman had parted ways, he walking over to his twin while she went back inside.

“Not bored,” Jake said, shoving his hands into his front pockets. “Contemplative.”

“Contemplative.”

“Of life.”

Bridget let her front paws fall back to the ground and trotted over to sniff Sinead, the two dogs wagging their tails slightly. Both were laughing as only dogs (and dog-dæmons) can, silently and with a mad, gleeful look in their eyes. “And,” Tom said, keeping a straight face, “where has this contemplation left you?”

“Well, briefly it was, 'wow, I really need to get the number off that chick that Tommy is talking to', and then I thought, 'wait, all his friends are gay'.”

Tom suddenly snorted with laughter. “Rosheen's not exactly a friend, she's just in one of my tutorials. And I have no idea which way she swings.”

“Typical. But also good! Because my contemplation was firmly heading towards the idea of dragging you to a club.”

“A club.”

“Yes. You know, those places with music and dancing and hot chicks.”

“You know my opinion on hot chicks.”

“Yep. Just leaves more for me,” and with that, Jake grinned. It was a remarkably similar expression to his dæmon, mad glee included. “And that leaves more of the hot guys for you, so I don't see a flaw here.”

“Your attempts to get me laid are admirable, if bloody bizarre.” Tom grinned back. “That sounds fun, I just gotta stop by the uni before-”

“Wait, why? Tommy, it's a Friday.”

“Yeah, but-”

“Friday. As in, end of the week. As in, no classes.”

“Well, actually-”

“You've got a class on Saturday?

“Not so much a class as an optional lecture. It's on Pandoran biology,” he added quickly as Jake's smile faded.

“Right. Yeah. Pandora explains it.”

“...meaning?” Tom asked as Sinead tilted her head.

“It's all you've talked about since I got back to Australia.” He got it, he really did. Pandora was cool, Pandora was interesting, Pandora had humanoids with no dæmons and all kinds of wacky plants, Pandora was an independent origin of life four-point-whatever light years from the solar system, he got it. He just...missed his brother, too.

Tom's eyes flicked from Jake to his dæmon. Bridget had her ears down against her skull, feathery tail hanging down with no movement to it at all. He raised his eyes again, and smiled. The expression was oddly sad and wry. “Okay,” he said then.

“Okay?” Jake was keeping his own voice carefully neutral.

“Okay. Let's hit the clubs.” Then Tom grinned, and so did his kelpie-dæmon. “'Course, we gotta get to the other side of Commonwealth Bridge first....Last one's paying for the first drink,” and with that, he took off down the stairs.

Jake had a moment to grin himself and then with a whoop, he and Bridget chased after their twins.

2152: Neytiri, Trudy Chacon and Dexter

Trudychacon was the first Skyperson the Na'vi children had seen up close. Not that Neytiri thought of herself as a child any longer, for she had finished growing and was soon going to be ready to take Iknimaya, but the Skypeople and their creatures had arrived when her own mother had been a girl. By now, the children of the Omaticaya knew that they were to leave the Skypeople alone unless it was one of the Dreamwalkers. And even then, it had to be one introduced by another. Trudychacon was not a Dreamwalker, but she had been vouched for by Graceaugustine. She was able to be trusted.

Mostly, Trudychacon had shown this by keeping her weapons within hand, not in hand, and by letting the children tug at her strange, vine-like hair. But when Tirri'Ong had reached out to touch the large creature that accompanied her, Trudychacon had snapped a no as sharply as any warrior. The creature had echoed this with a snarl of its own, and the pair had excused themselves to go sit by the flying metal beast.

Neytiri, after giving them long enough to cool their anger (and to hear Graceaugustine's explanation), followed. The strange, four-legged creature was crouching on the ground, head on its paws. It had a coat with stripes like her own skin, but where her skin was shades of blue, the creature's stripes were black on a coat the shades of a sunset, reds and yellows and oranges mixed together. The creature was similar in size to a nantang (although more strongly built), and far bigger in length than Trudychacon was in height. At that moment, both Trudychacon and the creature looked up at her, and the look in their eyes was oddly similar. Or perhaps not oddly at all, Neytiri told herself.

Can I help you, kid?” Trudychacon asked in English, and her voice was back to being low and rough as bark, not sharp in defence.

Graceaugustine said that the... that your friend was your soul,” Neytiri said, answering in the same language. The Skywoman smiled. Up close, she wasn't as young as Neytiri had first thought. She wasn't old, but she had faint, old scars over her hands, and a certain look in her oddly dark eyes that no one could get while young.

Yeah he is. Most of it, anyway,” Trudychacon said easily.

And we are not to touch...him?

Him, yes. And no, you are never to touch him. It is,” here the Skywoman hesitated, and her silence was a hunting-for silence as if she, too, had to choose her words with care. “It is forbidden,” she said at last.

“...why?” Graceaugustine had said the same thing, but hadn't explained further. Sometimes, Neytiri thought it very odd that her teacher so rarely wanted to talk about her own kind.

Trudychacon canted her head a little to the side, while the creature – her soul – remained perfectly still and poised. It was a poise made up of the intention and preparation to spring forward, and that made her wary. At the same time, though, the creature was also giving off waves of 'it's entirely up to you if I should attack. I don't care. I'd prefer not to, because I am comfortable, but I will if I have to'. It was exactly the same sense Neytiri got from Trudychacon, both the willingness to spring forward and the disinclination unless it was for a good reason.

Dexter is my soul. He is not a pet, but he is a part of me. If you touched him, it....it'd be wrong. It'd …feel wrong. Feel sick.

Like...touching in here?” Neytiri asked, touching her temple. Trudychacon nodded.

Yes. There and here,” she added, touching her chest over her heart. She moved her hand away, and let it rest on Dexter's shoulders.

But...why he outside?

“It would be boring to be inside her,” came a male voice that sounded like Trudychacon, and Neytiri blinked.

You can talk!

“'Course I can talk,” Dexter said as Trudychacon snickered.

Yeah,” Trudychacon said. “The trick is gettin' him to shut up.

But...souls only talk when dead,” Neytiri protested, and then stopped as the pair stared at her.

What?” Trudychacon said, very carefully.

“...I should not say,” she said at last. Indeed, she knew she should go back inside. But the Skypeople didn't look like they were leaving, and if Tsu'tey refused to really ask about them, then it was up to her to. “I...Can you answer question?

I might do. Depends on the question,” Trudychacon said. That was fair, so Neytiri just nodded.

You are...bright. I can see the light from you to Dexter. It is different from light that Na'vi have, but kind of the same. But the Dreamwalkers are, um. Dull? Not bright. Why?

Trudychacon frowned, leaned forward slightly. “You can see the bond? Between me and Dexter?

Yes.” And then, because Trudychacon's tone was so odd, Neytiri added, “You can't?

...nope. Uh. Wow, okay,” Trudychacon said, rubbing the back of her hair. “I'm...guessin' because the Avatars – the Dreamwalkers – they have to leave their dæmons, their souls, with their human bodies.

That explained the faint wrongness about the Dreamwalker bodies, then, and something in Trudychacon's voice made Neytiri say, “That's odd.

Trudychacon grinned at her, the expression sharp and fierce and Neytiri found herself smiling back. “You're telling me,” the Skywoman said, and despite her lack of tail and lack of moveable ears, Neytiri could look at Dexter and listen to Trudychacon's voice, and know that she was being entirely honest.

It is...like a Na'vi without their tswin, their,” Neytiri tugged at her queue, unsure of what the Skypeople called it. Trudychacon sobered, and nodded.

Exactly like that.

People say, you are a people without a tswin.

Well, kiddo,” Trudychacon said, her smile lopsided and somewhat odd, “my people say that you are a people without dæmons. So where does that leave us?

Neytiri hadn't really thought of it like that before – the Skypeople thought the Na'vi had no souls? – so she just shook her head. “I don't know.

Trudychacon met her eyes. “Neither do I.