Waking up in the space of a second, Nebula leapt from her prone position into a crouch, eyes flashing open and lips curling into a snarl. Quickly she checked her surroundings. She was outdoors, on a planet with breathable atmosphere, on the edges of a small clearing in a dense forest. Faint sunlight streaked across the dusky sky, and a low, constant breeze bit at her face. Also, she wasn’t alone.
On the other side of the clearing, a brown man with white facial tattoos slowly raised his hands.
“I mean you no harm,” he said calmly. As Nebula stood, he glanced at her arm. When she looked down herself-
“What did you do to me?!” she demanded. Her voice wheezed. Panicked, Nebula ran a quick systems diagnostic. Her visual computer readout told her that her lungs were impacted with fluid, and a fever raged through her. It was only then that she realized how hard it was to breathe. “Where is my hand?!” She stared at the emptiness at the end of her wrist, wires sticking out raggedly.
“I did not take it,” the man said. He didn’t move from his cross-legged position on the ground. “The group that kidnapped us from the Academy grounds- I believe they are known as Advanced Idea Mechanics- they were… interested in your physiology. We escaped, and ran into the wilderness.”
Nebula growled- or tried to. Instead, she coughed, and coughed, until she had to grip a tree to steady herself. Scanning the area around her and finding nothing, she turned her glare back on the man.
“You’re an Avenger?”
“I am a Master of the Mystical Arts,” he replied with a hint of offense. “But I am a student at Avengers Academy. You can call me Doctor Voodoo.”
“How long did they have us? Why don’t I remember? What happened?” Nebula demanded. She wasn’t taking it for granted that this ‘Doctor’ was telling her the truth. She’d never seen him before, not that she’d been on this mudball for long.
Doctor Voodoo looked down at a pile of twigs and leaves in front of him. “We were held at their facility for three weeks. Our cells were adjacent, so I was able to see them experimenting on you, though to what end I did not understand. I know only that they wished to use the secrets of your abilities to aid them in their quest for world domination.”
Nebula thought about ‘Advanced Idea Mechanics’, her missing hand, and the damp, curdling weight in her chest whenever she drew breath. A long list of tortures began forming in her mind. “Where are we?” she rasped.
“Because of the plants in the area, I believe we are high in the Rocky Mountain range of the western United States. We came from that direction, the south-” he pointed, “and I believe our best chance of safety lies to the east,” he nodded in another direction.
Nebula glared. “Earth?”
Doctor Voodoo clenched his jaw, the first sign that her hostility was having any effect. “Indeed.”
“How do we kill these Mechanics?” Nebula pushed off the tree. The heat of her rage kept her upright and allowed her to pace the clearing even though each breath was heavier than the last.
Nebula spun to face him, her legs wobbling. Unacceptable. “What are you talking about? They dared attack me, they dared remove my hand. I will rip them limb from limb! Their screams will shake these mountains!”
“You slaughtered many as we made our escape,” Doctor Voodoo informed her. “As for the rest, they will be trapped in their own minds for another day. I gained us time to recuperate, and make contact with the Academy for assistance.”
“I don’t need anyone’s help!” Nebula croaked. Her knees gave way as lights flickered in front of her eyes, and when she hit the ground she started coughing uncontrollably. “I will- never-”
Doctor Voodoo stood and approached her. Nebula curled the fingers of her one remaining hand, promising him no end of pain if he tried to attack her. But he appeared in no shape to attack.
Every step was slow and faltering, a heavy limp on his left side. Nebula saw a deep wound above his knee joint, bandaged carefully with a dark rag that was still wet with blood. Doctor Voodoo gingerly leaned against a tree near where Nebula knelt, cradling the bundle of twigs and leaves in his hands.
“If you try to return to the AIM headquarters, you will not make it very far,” he said seriously. His eyes were clear, and Nebula appraised him more carefully. She had not even noticed that he was damaged. He must be a warrior, to carry such a wound without cringing.
“There is a chance, that with my magic I can heal the infection in your lungs.” He raised the pile of detritus slightly. “But if I do, you must escape the mountains and find help.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because I will not survive long, without medical attention,” Doctor Voodoo said seriously.
Nebula snorted, then coughed again. It took some of the bite out of it when she spat, “Why should I care about you?”
Doctor Voodoo watched her for a long moment. “Other than basic decency toward a fellow being?” At Nebula’s expression, he changed tack. “If you desire, you can treat my healing as a bargain. I will save your life, and you will save mine. Do you consider yourself honorable?”
“I consider myself whatever I need to be to survive, and to win.”
“Then I will have to take a risk. My conscience will accept no less.”
His back scraped against the tree as he slid down it to sit on the forest floor. His breath came shorter; he was clearly feeling the pain of his injury.
Nebula looked around them. The sky had darkened further, until the sun was merely a glowing bloodstain behind the mountains that ringed them. Luckily, this planet’s moon was waxed enough to provide some light.
Doctor Voodoo was muttering at the bundle of flora in his hands. Nebula huffed. “What are you going to do with that? I’m not eating it,” she said firmly.
“It is a voodoo doll. I will use the magic of my native land to link it with your body, and then apply other spells I have learned to heal it of its illness.”
“Ridiculous,” scoffed the assassin. She closed her eyes to remain upright as a wave of dizziness and heat passed through her.
Doctor Voodoo glared up at her from his vulnerable position. “Not long ago, many would have said aliens were a ridiculous concept.”
“Out of ignorance,” Nebula sneered. “Using a bundle of twigs to heal someone? A child would know better!”
“Perhaps you need to open your mind to new experiences.”
“I have seen things you could not begin to imagine, Terran!” declared Nebula.
“But I suspect you have seen nothing which I would not believe.” The witch spoke with frustrating poise, and Nebula let out a sound of rage.
“When will your doll be complete?” she demanded.
“I have been waiting for you to awaken,” Doctor Voodoo replied. “I need something of your body- hair, nails, blood- and consensually given the magic will be stronger-”
Nebula spat, with great precision. A bloody gob of saliva splattered the doll.
Doctor Voodoo sat in silence for a long moment. He took three long breaths. “I will begin.”
Nebula walked, shakily, to a tree a few steps away, and sat against its roots. She watched Doctor Voodoo as he spoke over the makeshift doll, and as her vision faded out, she could have sworn it began to glow.
~ ~ * ~ ~
Nebula snapped back to consciousness an unknown time later. She was on her back, and far above her, stars glittered dimly in the lightness of atmospheric night. The sun had disappeared completely. Her internal computer informed her that her lungs were clear and her temperature had stabilized.
A few steps away, Doctor Voodoo was lying on his side. His breathing was labored. Nebula crept closer, silently, and saw that he was unconscious, his breath hitching, and when she reached out cautiously, she could feel heat radiating from his skin despite the biting cold of the night.
Either his magic had worked in a way he had not explained, and Doctor Voodoo had taken her illness upon himself, or his own injury was killing him.
Nebula took stock of herself. She was healthy again. Down one hand and without any weapons other than herself, but at full strength- and she could survive weeks in these conditions. Doctor Voodoo had perhaps a few days.
To the south, lay the beings who had seen fit to capture a daughter of Thanos. The beings to whom she owed weeks of suffering.
To the east, she ascertained, lay lowland, the chance at a town, and communication with Avengers Academy.
Nebula took off her leather corset, leaving herself in a one-sleeved long shirt. She draped the corset over Voodoo’s bare arms, gave a long, measured look filled with bloody promise toward the south, and set off east without any ceremony.
She had an entire lifespan to hunt down Advanced Idea Mechanics. In the meantime, it would not do to squander the life of an acceptable ally.