The avatars in their womb-like environment are at their normal metabolic rate and grow rapidly. Their muscles are constantly electrostimulated, so that they develop normally.

The hands are graceful, with three very long fingers, and one opposed thumb. The fingers curve smoothly, bending without joints. This sounds off-putting, but it is really quite beautiful.

The faces are exquisite... with cheekbones high as any Pharoah's and large wise eyes, maybe twice the size of ours. When open they dominate the face, like those of a cat, or a lemur. The mouth is also large, but essentially human, with a faint cat-like bifurcation of the upper lip, and a coloration like permanent deep purple lipstick. The teeth are white, with pronounced canines, upper and lower. These guys are clearly carnivores, or at least omnivores.

Did I mention the tail? They have a tail. Long and slightly prehensile, but more like the tail of a panther than a monkey.

A complex pattern of iridescent dots and lines, perfectly symmetrical, runs over the body, almost following the lines of the nervous or circulatory system. These are bioluminescent chromatophores, and they glow in the dark like fireflies. The alien can communicate with these, and in fact they usually are shifting and changing color to indicate mood and emotion, without conscious control.

The body has no hair whatsoever, though there is what looks like a black pony tail, or queue, originating in the back of the head and hanging down almost to the waist. This is not hair, but actually an external part of the nervous system, and more on this later.

ON THE FLIGHT DECK the haggard pilots start the shutdown of the fusion/antimatter engines.

OUTSIDE, the arc-light ceases abruptly. The entire drive module glows cherry red with radiant heat, and the exhaust nozzles are almost white. The ship creaks and groans as it begins to cool.

Prometheus drifts against the stars, nearing the surprisingly Earth-like Pandora.

INSIDE, in weightlessness, the passengers begin to emerge from their hibernacula. They look like handmade shit... hungover badly from the hibernation drugs.

Josh sits up groggily and looks around. His hair has been cropped back to a brush-cut, and he is cleanshaven.

An announcement is telling them what to do and where to go, and that they will soon be entering orbit around Pandora. Josh pulls himself out of his capsule, maneuvering nearly as well as the other passengers in zero-g, even with his inert legs.

Moving hand over hand, Josh floats over to the tank containing his alter ego, the avatar body. He is amazed to see the growth in the three years which have elapsed on the ship.

The avatar stretches, catlike, extending to its full height, dwarfing Josh. And as it turns in the amniotic fluid, Josh sees the face of his avatar... and it looks like him. Despite the alien proportions, the features are definitely reminiscent of his.

A tech tells him he has time to get some breakfast and still make it back to "see himself born".

THE BIRTH. Technicians in plastic suits and breathing equipment enter a bright sterile chamber through an airlock. Josh, similarly attired, follows them in. They seal the door. One of them tells him that the air is a match for Pandora's... a poisonous brew of ammonia, methane, CO2, oxygen and nitrogen. Even a little hydrogen cyanide. In the center of the chamber is the tank housing Josh's avatar. Josh is nervous and unsure what to do, but they tell him it's always best for the controller to be present at the birth.

Using a flexible collar, like a synthetic sphincter, to retain the amniotic fluid in zero gravity, they ease the body out of the tank into the birthing room. It looks exactly like a giant baby being born from a glass and rubber womb.

The avatar kicks feebly, and everybody is grappling with the slimy newborn body. The technicians ask Josh to help hold it. Like an overwhelmed father, he looks like he is about to faint. The pure raw shock of life, struggling into existence, effects him far more than he would have thought.

Josh struggles to help give birth to himself.

They suction its mouth and it coughs, taking its first breath. Josh looks on in wonder as the avatar starts to wail, clenching its fists, its face contorting at the terror and pain of the outer world. It grabs Josh's arm and he winces in pain at the strength of the thing. It opens its eyes and looks right at him. He stares into its eyes, which are his own eyes. Its terror passes. It stares blankly at him, taking in shuddering breaths of the poisonous air.

Josh pulls his arm free.

TECH: Congratulations. It's a boy.

Josh glances down along the avatar's body, his expression growing even more amazed.

ISV PROMETHEUS goes into a low orbit around Pandora. We get our first good look at the new world. It is magnificent. Almost another Earth, at first glance, with white cloud whorls over a blue and brown surface. But the continents are all wrong, and the proportion of land to sea is much greater. The blue is a little different too, with a cyan tinge to it, suggesting the different air. But you can just tell, even from orbit... this is a planet that has life. It's got the look.

The most amazing thing about Pandora is that it doesn't actually orbit its sun directly, but is actually in orbit around an enormous planet, a gas giant almost twice the size of Jupiter, which in turn orbits the yellow sun of Alpha Centauri B. This monster planet has been named POLYPHEMIS, for the great cyclops of Greek myth. This is because, like Jupiter with its Great Red Spot, Polyphemis has a vest cyclonic storm like a great dark pupil in its vast disk.

The eye of an angry god looking down on Pandora. Pandora, despite being almost as big as Earth, is technically a moon of the giant planet.

Polyphemis has thirteen other moons, some closer in, some farther out. Depending on what's where in its orbit, Pandora can have two or even three moons in its sky at once. Pandora and the other moons cast large black shadow dots on the parent planet, like beauty marks.

DESCENT. Tiny relative to Prometheus, one of the trans-atmospheric shuttles separates and drops down toward the planet. The LOCKHEED-SAAB TAV-37 "VALKYRIE" CLASS SHUTTLE is actually a heavy lifter, a workhorse several times larger and many times more powerful than today's space shuttle.

As the shuttle plunges through high-altitude cloud formations, Josh presses his face against the tiny viewport, eager for a look at the new world. Below he can see mist-shrouded mountains, growing as they descend. The pilot tells them they are over the so-called "Horn" of Australis, the great southern continent, which juts up into the Equatorial Sea.

Josh can see volcanic buttes and mesas towering above a lower cloud blanket, like the Tepuis of Peru. Streamers and whorls of shredded cloud swirl around the mesa tops. Then the pilot tells them that they may get a glimpse of the MONTES VOLANS, the famous "flying mountains", which planetologists say are the rarest phenomena in known space.

Also called the HALLELUJAH MOUNTAINS, they are like floating islands among the clouds.

Literally floating. Mountainous chucks of rock, some over ten miles across, hovering thousands of feet above the ground.

Here's how it works: Polyphemis (the massive planet around which Pandora revolves) has a mother of magnetosphere... a naturally occurring magnetic field a million times more powerful than Earth's. As Pandora rotates and revolves through this field, its molten iron core generates its own field, with "cells" or vortices which are small regions of intensely powerful magnetic force at the surface.

Added to this unique phenomenon is another... Pandora is blessed with a naturally occurring substance a million times more precious than gold. Its joke name of "unobtanium" has stuck, over the years. Unobtanium is a rare-earth mineral, formed volcanically, which is a room-temperature superconductor.

The room temperature superconductor has been the "snark" of modern materials science... a substance which transmits electricity with zero resistance, but at normal temperatures, rather than the liquid-helium cooled superconductors of human science.

Unobtanium does not exist in our solar system. It is unique to Pandora. And it is the reason to go there... the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow bridge.

Another interesting property of superconducting materials is that they will levitate in a powerful magnetic field. This magnetic levitation, or maglev, effect has been used to lift trains and run them without wheels since the late 1980's. On Pandora the effect causes huge outcroppings of unobtanium to rip loose from the surface and float in the magnetic vortices. These floating islands circulate slowly in the magnetic currents, like icebergs at sea, scraping against each other and the towering mesa-like mountains of the region. The Pandorans call them the Thundering Rocks, and the entire area is sacred to them.

Which could be a problem, since the humans have come to mine these mountains and get rich. Which is why they are called the Hallelujah Mountains.

Josh stares in awe as they pass over a few of the floating mountains, less than ten miles away on his side of the ship. They float like clouds made of rock, amongst the fixed mountains and swirling cloud structures. Where they are in clear sunlight, they cast hard shadows on the land below.

They are overgrown with foliage at the top, and a straggly beard of vines hangs down beneath them like the roots of an air-fern. The sides are shear cliffs. Waterfalls, originating on the mesa-like tops, stream down the sides and dissolve into spray at the bottoms like upside-down geysers. The local peaks and mesas actually project above the level of the craggy underside of the few floating mountains Josh can see, so it's obvious that collisions are inevitable.

Twinkling like tiny flecks of ash on the wind are what look like birds... manta-like flying creatures of various sizes. Josh doesn't get too close a look at these.

Standing like a wall behind some of the smaller islands is MONS PROMETHEUS, the largest of the floating mountains. Known colloquially as THE BIG ROCK-CANDY MOUNTAIN, it alone is worth hundreds of billions in revenue to the Consortium. Its flanks and top are wreathed in streamers of clouds... cloaked in mystery.

He sees it for only a few seconds before a thunderhead blocks the view, and the shuttle plunges into gray murk.

Now the shuttle is passing lower and lower over the highland rainforest. Just as the plants on Earth are green with chlorophyl, the plants of Pandora, based on a different biochemistry, are mostly purple. The tones range from purple-blue, through violet to magenta.

Josh catches glimpses of the rainforest through the clouds as they skim over the endless purple carpet. Other than the color the trees look like trees. They have trunks and branches and leaves... though some of the shapes are strange, and the proportions are wrong. There are waterfalls feeding highland rivers, and Josh sees more flocks of the bird-like things.

They pass a few small patches of open grassland. The magenta grass ripples in the wind like wheat. Josh sees some moving shapes... large herd-beasts running. Then clouds again.

Josh, coming from his gray concrete urban sprawl, is amazed by the sheer scale of this lush, virgin world.

Finally he starts to see the hand of man. They fly over what looks like a small refinery. This is the DEUTERIUM PLANT, an automated facility for extracting the heavy isotope of hydrogen from the local water supply. The deuterium is used to fuel the fusion engines of the starships for their homeward flight, as well as to run the base generators and the shuttles.

The shuttle makes its turn on final approach. We get our first look at the human colony, called HELL'S GATE. It looks like a giant cookie cutter took a chunk out of the rainforest... a disk of naked ground two miles across where the trees were razed and the earth scraped bare. Nearby, connected by a broad gravel road, is a gaping wound in the earth, a strip mine where metal ores for construction are extracted.

At the center of the cleared circle of Hell's Gate is a cluster of squat concrete and steel structures. Surrounding the central complex are two high fences of thick chainlink, one within the other, with concertina wire at the top. The whole thing is electrified. At the corners of the complex are concrete towers, their tops bristling with searchlights, scanning gear, and automated SENTRY GUNS. The reason for the no-man's land between the fences and the dark wall of forest is clear... it is a killing ground.

The shuttle lands and Josh dons his full-face exomask and rebreather pack. There is a hiss and a popping sensation in his ears as the pressure equalizes to the outside, and then the doors open.

Josh struggles with his wheelchair on the steep loading ramp of the shuttle. When he gets to the ground, he moves with the others toward the nearest building. His mask fogs with his exertion, and he feels a tickle of fear knowing how deadly the atmosphere is. If he took his exomask off he would be unconscious after the first few breaths, with irreversible lung damage in less than a minute.

Josh sees the new avatars being unloaded. They are brought down the ramp on gurneys, unconscious, getting their first lungfuls of real Pandoran air. They are taken to a holding compound outside the Science Module (SCIMOD).

Around him is the roar of equipment as huge tractor-like machines thunder past. There is loading equipment, and massive earth movers, mining equipment, and bulldozers almost two stories high. He sees construction workers in heavy environment suits. A tractor, its wheels as big as a house, rumbles past, dwarfing the new arrivals. Beyond it, two VTOL vehicles take off. Armored and heavily armed, they are KAWASAKI AH-19 SCORPION gunships.

Nearby Josh sees several TROOPERS of SECFOR, the RDA security force, a kind of private army operated by the Consortium. The troopers wear full helmets, rebreathers, and body armor, and carry heavy AUTOMATIC WEAPONS. They look constantly outward, toward the perimeter. They are a hardened bunch of men and women, who live by the philosophy that sharp eyes, fast hands and a warm gun are the keys to survival on Pandora, the most badass bush in history.

Among the arriving passengers are twenty new troopers. They double time down the ramp, carrying their huge packs and kit bags. They smartly salute the hardened SECFOR troopers, who eye the new meat with smirking disdain.

Josh sees more of the troopers, and realizes they are forming a loosely deployed guard around the new arrivals. There is a sudden ROAR as the sentry gun in the nearest tower opens fire. A stream of bright tracers arc out to the no-man's land of bare earth beyond the fences, and there is an ungodly shriek. Josh cranes to see, but his view is blocked by the shuttle.

There is a sense that the place is under siege. The dark line of the forest is suddenly more ominous. Above the functional concrete bunker of the nearest building, the crescent shape of Polyphemis looms like a malevolent eye, seeming to cover half the sky. Another sentry gun thunders briefly as Josh goes into the complex. Josh's expression says it all. My God, what have I gotten myself into?