Gamora knew the place: a rock floor, layered with dust ground from the rock itself by cosmic winds. A ceiling of stars, space dust, debris. Instead of walls, a ring of stones, jagged and leaning, like teeth.
She took a breath and felt contrary relief that the oxygen was there to be breathed. Sometimes there wasn’t any, in this place. Sometimes Thanos brought people here only to watch their eyes bulge as they asphyxiated.
She tried to shift onto her feet, but her body was too heavy. Sometimes that happened here, too; the laws of physics did not apply in this place, and even time did not run smooth. Also, her leg was broken.
“Ahhh, Gamora,” Thanos said. He drifted into view on his throne. “You have disappointed me.”
If Peter were here, he’d say something idiotic now. Gamora knew why he did it; it was because it made him brave. It reminded him of himself. She imagined him here, now, gravity pinning him to this rock like a Zilarian beetle, and she said, “That’s really unfortunate. Man,” she added, though it sounded wrong after she’d said it.
“Very unfortunate. You were my favorite, you know.”
She knew. Oh, she knew.
“You slaughtered my enemies so efficiently, Gamora. You were so precise. But it seems other qualities are more important. Loyalty, for example.” Thanos lifted a hand. Below his throne, Nebula stepped into view.
Her hand was restored, Gamora noted. She looked at Gamora with fathomless eyes. Gamora had known how to read those eyes once, to see the expression in them.
“Nebula,” Thanos said. “Kill her.”
Nebula took one step forward. Two. Into the gravity field and unhindered – it must have been only underneath Gamora herself that the gravity was so high. Nebula stood over Gamora, a spear brandished in one hand and a knife in the other. “Like this?”
“Just like that,” Thanos said.
Gamora couldn’t move. The spear struck her throat. Her blood poured onto the ground.
“Gamora,” Thanos said, above her head. She looked up, and he was there, looking down. Since her parents had died, he’d always been looking down. “What am I going to do with you?”
Gamora rolled onto her butt, broken leg lying in front of her and the other bent at the knee. If it weren’t for the leg, she could at least stand. If she hadn’t betrayed Ronan, she’d have gotten Nebula’s upgrade – the ability to bend and reform and become whole again.
If Peter were here, he would say something. Something stupid, sheer bravado. “You could let me go,” Gamora said.
Thanos laughed, a single bark that chilled the dusty air in Gamora’s lungs. “I could kill you, but a quick death would be… unsatisfying. Nebula, break her.”
Nebula swaggered into view. She flicked her fingers in the air, and suddenly the ground rushed to meet Gamora. Gravity pressed her to the stone like a rolling pin over a crust – Peter had made one for the Milano one time, an Earth treat, he said, although Gamora doubted whether the chickruk filling was truly authentic. Her shoulder pressed to the ground hard enough to bruise. So did her cheekbone.
“Sister,” Gamora said. Or mumbled.
“Sister,” Nebula said, mocking. She reached into a bag at her waist and pulled out a handful of glop. She tossed it Gamora’s wrist, and the stuff solidified on impact, binding her to the rock. Three more handfuls – one on the ankle, just below the break, and Gamora could not help but moan. Then Nebula flicked the gravity up to normal and knelt close. In the dull ever-dusk of Sanctuary, the scalpel in her hand almost gleamed. In the other hand was a sparker turned up to high. “You can scream,” she said, smiling. “It’s okay.”
In a single motion, she sliced Gamora open – her hand, between the second and third fingers, the electrical filament exposed. She pressed the tip of the sparker to the filament, and she squeezed the trigger the button.
As though Gamora hadn’t been awake when that filament had been laid. As if she hadn’t pissed herself the first time the technician had tested it. As though Nebula, brat kid sister, was any kind of expert in pain.
Gamora twitched and writhed under the current, but she did not scream. She lifted her chin – her neck muscles nearly locking, almost immobile – and she dared Nebula to look her in the eye.
She did scream, eventually. She didn’t know how long it took. Hours. After she did, Nebula put the scalpel to Gamora’s throat, and she pressed.
“Get on with it,” Thanos said from somewhere above her head. While she was still registering that, Nebula stepped between jagged stone teeth and onto the training ground. Sometimes the air was thin here, nearly impossible to fight in. Sometimes the gravity was turned up to that of small gas giant, same result. But not today.
“Sister,” Nebula said, word sliding from between her teeth like a serpent. “Guess what? I’m Dad’s favorite now.”
“You can have him,” Gamora said, lifting her chin.
Nebula considered this a beat. “Okay,” she said with a shrug, and then she wound up and buried a throwing star in Gamora shoulder. “You gonna just whimper? You gonna fight?”
Gamora staggered to her feet and yanked the star out, tearing muscle and sinew, nerves buzzing to numbness from the broken filament. “I’m going to fight,” she said.
She fought. She fought on her broken leg until Nebula landed a kick to and then ground her heel into the fracture. Then she fought from knees, sweeping Nebula’s feet from under her, finding the many-bladed star and slicing Nebula’s skull with it. Her breath heaved, and she thought, I wish the Milano were here.
Then Nebula caught Gamora’s jugular with the throwing star.
She didn’t know the machine that Nebula wheeled into place above her, a glass nozzle lined up just even her forehead. “I got this one from some idiot named Loki,” Nebula said. She twisted a crank, and a single drop of fluid dropped to Gamora’s forehead and set her skin on fire.
She didn’t scream. She didn’t scream.
Gamora knew the place. Galaxies spun overhead, and when she breathed, her lungs were coated with the wakes of comets. The ground was very hard, and as she sat up, there was a grinding of bone on bone that sent up spikes of pain like solar flares up her leg.
Thanos hovered at the edge of the training ground. Nebula stood at it. “You have ten minutes. Prove to me you’ve made some progress.”
“Ten minutes,” Nebula muttered, stalking closer. She had a hammer in each hand, enormous, heavy enough that inertia alone could send her flying off this planetoid with one wrong swing if she were any but a daughter of Thanos. “How’s your leg?”
Gamora met her gaze, steady, unflinching. She had no weapons. She couldn’t stand; she hadn’t enough time to concentrate, speak the mantra, block off the pain.
Nebula aimed for Gamora’s wounded leg, she swung, and she didn’t miss. With one blow she crushed Gamora’s knee against the stone. If the other hurt had been solar flares, this was a nova. Tears sprung from Gamora’s eyes, liquid agony, but she didn’t scream.
She didn’t scream when Nebula crushed the other, unwounded knee. When she shattered each individual bone in Gamora’s hand, pinned flat to the ground under Nebula’s boot, the force of the blow gouging a furrow in the stone. She cried, and she gasped, but she didn’t scream.
“Enough,” Thanos said. “You have failed, Nebula.”
Outraged, Nebula spun to face him. “You didn’t give me enough time!”
“You’ve had twenty minutes already, and she hasn’t made a sound. I don’t think you’re the right person for this job after all.”
“That’s not fair!” Nebula’s voice rose, high, desperate.
“Fair—” Thanos began.
“You leave her alone,” Gamora rasped into the noise. Suddenly, there was silence. “She’s the best one you have. She’ll do anything you want. You—” Gamora pushed up onto her elbow, the one major external joint still whole. “You don’t appreciate her.”
Nebula stared down at her, lip curled in familiar contempt.
“This?” Thanos demanded, like a thunderclap. “This is you breaking her? End her, Nebula, and try again”.
The hammer rushed towards Gamora’s face.
“You’re screwing it up,” Nebula said, conversationally.
“Screwing up what?” Gamora asked, too distracted by pain – leg, broken - to pretend she knew what Nebula meant. To pretend she didn’t know what it meant that she was here in Sanctuary again. Thanos’s, again.
“You say that crap about me, like anyone asked you. What do you think I’m doing here?” Nebula demanded, as if Gamora knew. “And you always take so freaking long. Every time!”
“Every time?” Gamora repeated curiously. She wondered if the Milano had missed her yet. She’d been alone when Nebula had plucked her from the marketplace of the planet Peter had wanted to thieve.
Nebula rolled onto the balls of her feet, crouched, looking Gamora in the eye. Nebula’s eyes had had color in them, once. Gamora didn’t remember what the color was.
“Fuck you,” Nebula said. She shoved onto her knees, grabbed Gamora’s head in her hands, and kissed her.
She kissed like she always had, vicious, with teeth. Gamora’s lip was bleeding inside of ten seconds. Nebula’s fingers bit bruises into Gamora’s neck.
“Nebula,” Gamora breathed. She curled a hand over Nebula’s hip – careful to stay below Nebula’s waistline, because Nebula had broken more than one of Gamora’s bones over finding her ticklish spot. They’d hissed promises to each other, sharp as threats. We’ll kill him. We’ll cut his head off. We’ll leave. Just you and me. We’ll get away.
“Fuck you,” Nebula said, pushing Gamora suddenly backwards. Nebula slid a slender knife from her belt. Gamora scrambled back, falling as her broken leg gave way in juddering waves of pain. In an instant Nebula was in, slicing laterally across Gamora’s wrists and severing the tendons. “Try to touch me now.”
There was something wrong, Gamora thought. She shouldn’t fall so easily, captured just hours ago. She shouldn’t let Nebula move to her ankles, cutting those tendons, too, without more of a fight. Where had all her fight gone?
Nebula kept slicing for hours, cuts all up and down Gamora’s thighs, her belly, her ribs. The shallow ones dribbled. The deep ones gushed. “Break, damn you,” Nebula whispered, and then she put the blade into Gamora’s heart.
“Sister,” Nebula said. Her other hand held a stunner that Gamora somehow hadn’t seen. She aimed it at Gamora and blasted her with it. Gamora fell backward, forgetting the pain in her leg because of the ripping, sizzling pain everywhere else. Her muscles convulsed, uncontrollable.
Nebula bent over her. Gamora couldn’t read the expression in her eyes. She hadn’t been able to in a long, long time. “Die, sister,” Nebula said quietly. Gently, almost. She lifted the knife high, and she drove it into Gamora’s skull.
If Peter were here, he would say something stupid to make himself feel better. It’d make Gamora feel better. Instead she looked up, held her arms, and said nothing.
“Nebula, too. A disappointment. Ronan, that pathetic milk stain, a disappointment. I’ve been very disappointed, Gamora.”
“A pity,” Gamora said. That wasn’t something Peter would have said. That was only her.
“You betrayed me,” Thanos said. “Ronan betrayed me. But Nebula – Nebula is weak.”
Gamora stared back, saying nothing, showing nothing. Every child and minion of Thanos knew the punishment for weakness. She held his gaze, and held it, and held it.
“Enough,” Thanos said. “I have seen enough.” He gestured. Immediately, gravity crushed Gamora to the ground like a weight. She gasped air into her lungs, but every shallow breath was so thin.
Into her ears from far away, the words drifted: Very disappointing.
Sometimes, people died on the training ground like this. Their bones caved in. Their lungs collapsed. The first moments were frantic, but the last were… peaceful. Gamora knew. She’d flicked that switch, once or twice. Her vision grayed.
As suddenly as it dropped, the weight lifted. She choked in a breath and then choked on it, hard, dying of it.
“You are such an idiot.” Hands pulled her up, sitting. “You do everything for Dad, you do everything he wants because what else is there, and he still throws you out. Why don’t you freaking learn?” Gamora gasped at the knife-spike of pain up her shin, and then she choked on that, too. “Fuck it,” said the voice. A voice she knew.
“Nebula?” she tried to say. She couldn’t get any more out, because suddenly she was lifted up and thrown over Nebula’s shoulder. Her hair hung past her eyes, and her blood rushed to her head, and she blacked out.
“Nebula?” she said.
“Shut up,” Nebula said from the pilot’s seat.
“I thought—” Gamora said. She paused, collected her scattered thoughts. She remembered some of those last minutes, after Thanos had given her up for dead, but some were lost to the mists. “How did you get free?”
“Just because I’m not you, I can’t run away from home when I feel like it?”
Gamora had never dreamed of fleeing from Sanctuary. She could not imagine. Nebula was resourceful; Thanos had never appreciated what he had. “Where are we going?” she said instead.
“Does it matter?”
Gamora let her head fall to her arm – asleep, from having been lain on all this time. Her leg still hurt, but less if she didn’t move it. No, she didn’t suppose it mattered.
Still, she couldn’t help one more question: “Why?”
“You wouldn’t remember.” A pause. “Anyway, shut up.”
But Gamora remembered, as her eyes fell shut and she withdrew from the pain of her leg, her drought-sore throat. She remembered harsh whispers a decade old: We’ll get away, we’ll do it. Just you and me.