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AVATAR: PAGE 10






They go out the next day to place instrument packages among the floating mountains. Josh and Grace go under the link in the shack at Site 26, while N'deh and the avatars ride out in the Samson. The reason a mobile controller station was set up in the first place is that the magnetic flux around the Montes Volans interferes with the link signal from Hell's Gate. They need to be closer. The Samson is tiny moving among the vast floating islands of rock. Bansheerays and other smaller flying species circle next to the cliffs in the sunlit shafting between the clouds. Waterfalls plunge thousands of feet down the sheer walls, then dissolve into nothingness below the bottoms of the mountains.

Trudy pilots the Samson under one of the floating mountains, and we see the upside down forest of vines dangling from the underside. They pass between falling streams of water. It is dreamlike and surreal. Josh, sitting in the wind in the open door of the Samson, sees a bansheeray cruising near them. It studies them a moment, beating its huge wing membranes to keep up. It lets out a piercing shriek (hence the name) and then banks away, diving like a jet fighter. Trooper Onozuki, wearing mask and armor, sits in the other doorway, leaning on the sling of the door-gun.

Grace names the floating mountains as they pass. Mons Veritatis... Truth Mountain. Mons Tiburon. Mons Damocles. Icarus. Daedalus. And finally, the biggest of the superconductor mountains, Mons Prometheus... The Big Rock-Candy Mountain. A hundred billion dollars worth of pure unobtanium. They land on the mesa-top of the Big Rock-Candy Mountain. Trooper Onozuki deploys rapidly, scanning, his rifle ready. The others get out and go to work. The mountaintop is shrouded in a blowing cloud bank. Occasional shafts of sunlight play across it, but it is mostly gray mist.

Josh carries his instrument package away from the ship. He sets it up at the edge of a cliff, per Grace's instructions. Below, through gaps in the clouds, he can see purple forested slopes, half a mile down. Josh sees more bansheerays circling below. A couple pass nearby, giving him the eye. Like reef sharks they will size you up, but seldom attack something their own size unless it is in distress. Mist closes around Josh as he walks back to the Samson. Visibility is only a few meters. Without warning, a curtain of what looks like slimy ropes emerges out of the mist. They are hanging down from above, their source unseen, and are dragging over the ground with a faint swish. Josh whirls in time to see them, but he is enveloped.

They are translucent tentacles, only a couple of inches in diameter. But they react instantly on contact with him, curling around his limbs and body, and zapping the hell out of him with electric shocks. Josh is entangled and dragged, struggling, across the mountaintop. He shouts, and the others run toward him. The trooper aims his gun up into the mist above Josh, hoping to hit the source of the tentacles, but Grace stops him from firing. We don't know why yet. N'deh sprints toward him, drawing his machete. Josh sees the cliff edge approaching, beyond it nothing. N'deh won't reach Josh in time.

Josh is swept off the edge, his feet dangling over space. N'deh throws him the machete, and Josh catches it by the handle. N'deh almost falls, but Grace grabs him, pulling him back from the edge. They watch helplessly as Josh is carried away. Then Grace runs like hell toward the Samson, yelling to Trudy to fire it up.

Josh, still getting zapped by electric shocks, tries to get a look at what is holding him. The cloud bank falls away, and he sees an enormous transparent canopy above him, glistening in the sunlight. It looks like an impossibly huge jellyfish, like a cross between a Portuguese man o' war and a blimp. Its clear membranous sac, or bell, is filled with hydrogen, produced by an internal biochemical process. The bell is 15 meters across, and the tentacles over 30 meters long.

The bell pulses to give some directional control, but mostly they drift with the wind. It expels gas to descend, and expels water from trim bladders to rise. Josh sees a whole school of these things, like a fleet of ships, emerging from the clouds on both sides of him. Apparently they sweep the tops of the mountains for prey, stunning it with their electric shocks. Josh looks up and sees that the contracting tentacles are bringing him much closer to the pulpy mouth.





In the Samson, Grace and the others search the clouds for Josh. They see the fleet of gas-bags, and move toward them. Grace says they are AEROCOELENTERATES, genus MEDUSA. These are X. Medusa gigans, not too common this far east. She tells Onozuki not to fire because they are full of hydrogen and will explode like the Hindenburg. Josh is hacking at the tentacles with the machete. They are tough and rubbery, hard to cut. His distress encourages some circling bansheerays to attack.

As they dive toward him, we see the distensible jaws unfold, revealing glassy dagger-like teeth several inches long. Josh hacks at the first one, slashing it right across the face. With a shriek it veers off. The jaws of another snap inches from his leg, and he chops into it with the machete. It flutters off in a descending spiral, the shoulder of one wing hacked open. Some of the others follow it down, ripping it apart. Trudy maneuvers the Samson closer.

WHAM!!!

They are slammed by something from above. The ship drops and she fights for control. Onozuki is almost pitched out. They pull him back in. A huge shadow... then they see it. Like a bansheeray, only several times larger. It is the king predator of the air... the GREAT LEONOPTERYX. Striped scarlet, yellow and black, with a midnight blue head... it is iridescent and beautiful. It feeds on bansheerays, munching them like salted peanuts, and the occasional medusa when it's really hungry... but this fight isn't about hunger, it's about territory. It sees the Samson as a competing predator, and it's pissed.

The great leonopteryx swoops away, climbing with unbelievable speed, disappearing up into the sun. Trudy loses sight of it. Grace tells her to take evasive action. Fast! Trudy banks and dives. And we see the leonopteryx plummeting right behind her in a full delta tuck, like a hawk stooping. They build up airspeed and Trudy jinks left, then right, trying to throw it off. Josh sees them go out of sight behind the flank of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, and knows he's screwed. He chops harder at the tentacles, hacking through another one in a spray of violet blood.

As he gets nearer to the pulsing sphincter of a mouth, he starts to hack at the gas bag overhead. He chops through the membrane, and hydrogen whooshes out, spraying him with a mist of blood. Josh hacks again, widening the tear. With a thin scream, like a tea-kettle whistle, the medusa starts to descend. The great leonopteryx outmaneuvers the Samson, slamming into it with a bone-jarring crash. It flaps away with a piece of the engine cowl, and the Samson plunges, smoking, toward the ground.

Amid alarms and flashing lights Trudy fights for control. The cabin is full of smoke. The ship hits the treetops with a series of splintering crashes, and sails out over a clearing, crossed up and spinning. It plops down into a huge gray mud-spot. It has come to rest in the middle of an area of volcanic springs, where terraced pools of mud plop with steam from below, and geysers shoot up nearby. Visualize Yellowstone with purple trees, and a few floating mountains in the background.

Everyone inside is okay, though shaken. Bloody noses, bashed knees. Onozuki jumps out into the mud, in a rage, and slogs his way to rocky ground. He runs up a rise, screaming at the leonopteryx, which is a crimson kite banking away. He opens fire with his rifle. Grace has come out, shouting something to him, which he can't hear over the thundercrack of his weapon. FROM A HIGH ANGLE we see the trooper as a tiny dot on the rocks below. The POV rushes downward. A huge shadow can be seen, rippling over the ground, rushing toward Onozuki, who is firing in the other direction, his backed turned. We rush right down to him, meeting our shadow... the shadow of wings 15 meters across.

WHAM!!

Angle on Onozuki as he is jerked up out of frame. His gun and helmet plop into the mud near Grace, and a terrifying shriek echoes across the landscape.

GRACE: I tried to tell him they always hunt in pairs.

SEVERAL MILES AWAY, Josh is plummeting toward the rainforest, still wrapped in the tentacles of the deflating medusa. The trees claw up toward him, and he enters a snapping, slashing hell of purple foliage. He is jerked to a stop, the wind knocked out of him, and his machete clatters down into the forest below him. He finds himself hanging ten meters above the ground. The tentacles go limp as it dies, and he slips down, trying to hold onto them now. But they are too slick. He slides down this greased rope, falling the last two meters to the ground, where he lands on his butt.



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