Surely there is no way to turn it
Back to the old days
Of bliss and cheerful laughter
Mirror, mirror - Blind Guardian
It comes as no surprise to Thor that Heimdall has managed to save the records of the history of Asgard.
He discovers them almost by accident during the first hectic days of their trip when their priorities are counting their dead, treating their wounded and keeping the living fed and safe. They lie in a reinforced iron chest tucked away in a small storage room he had walked past hundreds of times before noticing its existence. The lock on the heavy lid seems daunting enough to discourage the most determined of thieves but when he tries it, it lifts as easily as an empty glass. It is only when his remaining eye adjusts to the murky gray light that he notices a wax seal cast over the sides of the iron chest with the Asgardian insignia broken neatly in half.
He wonders if Heimdall did it on purpose, like a child who leaves an unassuming strip of paper wedged in the doorframe to check if someone has been in their room. He wonders if he ever came back to discover the seal broken. If he had, his all-seeing eyes never revealed anything and in the following days, Thor’s thoughts quickly shift to more pressing matters.
A nasty fever hits the ship not long after they leave the ruins of Asgard behind and it preys on the children and the elderly. Their healers do the best they can but there’re not enough of them and the supplies they have are stretched paper thin. Miraculously, it passes without claiming anyone but even so, their makeshift infirmary is never empty. He sees gaunt, pale faces walk past him every day, wondering how long will it take for the place to become a floating graveyard when food and water run out. He keeps a lookout for inhabited planets and other ships but for weeks on end, their only companions are the distant stars that never get any closer. Asgard lies wrapped in cold metal, all alone in the night and all he wants is for its people to see the light of day again.
You’re a destroyer, Odinson. See where your power leads.
Heimdall’s words from the vision conjured up by Wanda Maximoff come back to haunt him often in those weeks. He still cannot tell whether they were just a product of his troubled mind or a grim warning that he failed to heed. Clairvoyance has never been one of his gifts, but he has already seen Asgard burn in his dreams and visions of a large golden gauntlet and six glowing stones still dance in his mind when he closes his eyes. He had spent too long chasing after them, only for every trail to grow cold and now that his home lies in ruins by his own hand, an ominous thought creeps up on him every now and then.
If he can really see the future, it is only a future he cannot change.
That thought weighs on his mind heavier than the crown. He has no way of knowing whether he is right and that very uncertainty chases sleep away from his eyes, so he spends their rough equivalent of nights on the main deck, going through the hundreds of logs and listening to the low hum of electricity flowing through the ship like blood under metal skin. He does not know where his power leads yet, but it is not into the cold, silent darkness of space. He’s the God of Thunder; his very purpose is to bring light, however brief it may be.
And so, on the third week of their trip, he walks down some rusted stairs into the underbelly of the ship, to have a chat with its most unruly passenger.
Having the Hulk on the ship is a whole problem of its own, considering that he was never that fond of flying. Thor treats him like a sloppily constructed firework at the back of a rickety cart, which every sinkhole in the road can set off. Having him around his people can only bring trouble but he knows that he cannot keep him locked up in the storage sector forever. He is not a criminal, in fact, there are people upstairs what would not be alive if it was not for him. He is a vehicle of rage and confusion that is very useful when pointed straight at the enemy but a dangerous liability when cooped up in a steel can surrounded by nothing but vacuum.
So he walks up to the cell separated from the rest of the storage area by a row of thick red energy beams and sits cross-legged on the cold metal floor.
“Good morning, big guy. How is life treating you?”
The Hulk does not answer. Instead, he sits with his back pressed against the wall and stares straight at him. The murky green eyes are giving him a death glare but not a muscle moves on his body and Thor wonders whether it is because he is showing remarkable restraint or because he has learned that the red beams projecting symmetrical reflections across his face will throw him back every time. There are a couple of dents in the steel plates that confirm his theory and for a moment, his stomach sinks. He did what he had to do, to protect everyone on the ship but knowing that does not make him feel any better. If they make it to Earth in one piece, maybe they should have a spar in some isolated canyon, far from the eyes of the world. The guy probably deserves to land more than a couple punches on him.
“Have they been feeding you enough?” he asks and gets the exact same reaction. “I made sure your rations were adjusted to your size. And you haven’t lost weight, exactly.”
That does it. The murky eyes narrow as a low growl escapes his throat. He shoots up from his resting place, his face contorted in fury and Thor suppresses the instinct to back away. Baiting the Hulk is very far from the smartest thing he can do, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
“Sorry, that was a bad choice of words”, he flashes an apologetic smile which only gets him another angry roar. He reaches behind his back and rolls his eyes as he sees the large green hands curl into fists. “Calm down, I’m not here to make your life harder. I even brought you something. Consider if a peace offering it you like.”
The prospect seems to intrigue his unwilling prisoner as the giant fists slowly loosen, though his face is still locked in a surly mask. Thor waits for him to settle down, then slides a small wooden bowl brimming with pale green grapes in his direction. It stops just before the lowest energy beam, still in reach for both of them. Under their faint red light, they look almost translucent, like eggs of an odd alien species.
The Hulk hesitates as he takes one of the delicate orbs and turns it over in his hands. When he carefully sniffs it, Thor is ready to slam a hand over his face in frustration.
“Come on, they are not poisoned!” He reaches over to the bowl, snatches a couple of grapes and pops one in his mouth with a crunching sound. “See, I’m not dead! Not even close! Now you try them.”
He doesn’t need to ask twice. With one swift motion, a massive green hand scoops the bowl from under the energy beam and pours all of its contents in the Hulk’s mouth. Pale juice pours over his chin while he chews noisily and as he does, Thor sees the mad anger melt away from his face, replaced by an eerie expression that almost resembles actual joy.
He looks at the last, sad, wrinkled berry in his hand and sighs. “So you do not like sharing. Fair enough.” He stands up and brushes a thin layer of gray dust from his clothes. “I really hope you enjoyed them because there aren’t any more left.”
The swamp-colored eyes just stare blankly at him, before switching to a glare of pure disdain. Thor waits for him to say something but all he gets is a grunt as the Hulk kicks the wooden bowl so hard it flies all the way across the room, crashes against the rusty stairs and cracks in the middle.
“Thor leave Hulk alone!”
Thor sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as his fingers run over the metal eyepatch. He can’t remember the last time he felt truly rested. It has been another long night and the day after is turning out to be even longer. A persistent and unhelpful voice at the back of his head keeps repeating that he has no idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t have the power of Natasha’s lullaby and talking his way out of a problem has never been his forte. It didn’t seem like much of an issue until a crown was placed on his head and with it, the responsibility for the lives of nearly eight thousand people. And with time and supplies running out, he better learn as he goes and do so quickly.
He shakes his head, chasing the piercing headache away and steps closer to the glowing red grid. “I can’t, I need your help.”
He’s expecting another angry outburst but the Hulk just lets out a short, barking laugh and goes back to leaning against the dented wall. Before he can find anything else to throw at him, Thor quickly fishes out a small, flat cylinder out of a leather bag clipped to his belt and presses one of its sides. A pale, blue outline of a three-dimensional map slowly blinks into existence and flickers as he gently places the device on the floor.
“Last week I got to the earliest records of this ship and I came across this.” He points to a small insignia tucked away at the bottom of the phantom layout that shows a whip and chain entwined over an alien skull. “Turns out, before it was abandoned on Sakaar, it used to be a slave ship. The kind that was created to roam the galaxy, kidnap unlucky souls from other planets and imprison them until they could be sold. You have to give it to the Grandmaster, he does have an eye for the gruesome and unpleasant.”
If any of his words are making sense to the Hulk, Thor cannot tell. His green prisoner just limits himself to another short grunt but his demeanor seems much calmer so he goes on. “My point is, they would spend years in space, so they needed a way to feed all those slaves and themselves during that time. It took three nights to decipher their engineers’ gibberish but in the end, we found out how they did it. Look!”
He reaches into the blue layout floating before him, pulls out a tiny section and throws the image onto a wall where it blows up to reveal a large dome under which clusters of long, thin towers rise almost as high as to touch the curved ceiling. The Hulk looks on, utterly unimpressed.
“See these things?” He points to the thin columns covered from top to bottom in neat circular orifices. “They are all over the upper deck. At first we thought there were just decoration, but they are not.” He pauses for what he honestly hopes is dramatic effect and zooms in to a small symbol on one of the columns that closely resembles a blade of grass. “They are aeroponic towers!” He waits for a reaction that never comes, then adds helpfully. “It’s a giant greenhouse in space!”
Hulk just stares at him like he has suddenly switched to a foreign language. Thor sighs again and banishes the image from the wall with a wave of his hand.
“Listen, to be completely honest, I don’t know anything about these things.” he admits and watches his prisoner sneer. “It seems like no one has used them in years and the entire structure seems a little fragile. I wouldn’t dare fiddling with it to bring it back to life. Your more agreeable half on the other hand…”
He doesn’t get to finish the sentence before the Hulk snarls and lunges at him, coming dangerously close to touching the glowing beams. Thor pulls back and raises his hands in a pacifying gesture but his eyes remain fixed on the murky green ones, still looking for any sort of recognizable human emotion behind them besides murderous rage.
“Yes, yes I know, don’t mention puny Banner, got it.” He catches another fleeting glimpse of the dents in the wall and his treacherous memory flashes an image of similar dents in Loki’s cell back in Asgard. “Look, don’t get the wrong idea. You risked your life to save my people, I haven’t forgotten that. We are all forever in your debt and I’m sure you’ll get your own statue next to Loki’s at some point. Believe me, there is nothing I would like more than to open this door but I cannot trust your temper more than I can trust a river to flow backwards.” He sees the look of utter contempt on the green face and scrambles for something more familiar to him. “It’s like in that space movie we all watched together back on Earth. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of…”
This time the roar is loud enough to make his ears ring. “Thor go to Hell!”
The green fist stops mere inches before the deadly red light and Thor feels the air crackle around him as anger threatens to spill over. He does not have time for this. There’s eight thousand souls above them, clinging to life and out in space, life is more fragile than he ever thought possible. They all trust him to know what to do, to get them out of this cursed ship and to a place where they can build a new future. And here he is, trying to reason with an avatar of pure destruction that could tear them all apart in a matter of seconds. Under other circumstances, in another life, he would have just sworn and walked away.
But his other life has come to an end. And in this new one, he has never been more tired.
He lets out a long, controlled breath as the electricity swarming in the air settles down. “Fine, suit yourself! I guess you will have to rely on everyone else to pull your weight.” He slips the flat cylinder in his pocket and turns towards the rusty stairs leading up.
He stands still for a few seconds, then turns around again. “A word of advice, I don’t know how long it will take us to get to Earth but I promise you, it’s a very long trip to spend only on dried meat and stale bread. So if you want another one of these…”, he pops the last grape in his mouth and looks straight into the mad, green eyes, “...you better let me talk to Banner.”
He is not sure what button he pushed but it has to be the right one because the Hulk’s dilated irises suddenly lose their crazed look and shrink to regular size. Eventually, his eyes close and he stumbles towards the back of the cell, a strange amalgamation of thick green hide and pale human skin. Thor watches him fall to his knees as his body mass decreases dramatically and wonders if his human form will retain the punishment of the containment grid. When he finally staggers to his feet, however, he looks dazed and confused but well and very much like Bruce Banner.
He grins and taps the wall next to the cell deactivating the red beams. “Welcome back, strongest Avenger.”
For a few moments his former green companion just stands there in mute astonishment. He is still wearing Tony Stark’s jeans which are now torn almost to his knees. His eyes dart across the cell, as if trying to conjure up the memory of some forgotten dream before he looks at Thor and mutters. “How long…?”
The dread in his voice is such that Thor is quick to reassure him. “A few weeks, not even a full month. Nothing close to two years, l promise.”
He gives him a small, weak nod and slowly walks out of the cell, bare feet leaving faint footprints on the dusty floor. “Did we save it? Asgard?”
On especially long nights, Thor often asks himself the same question but for now, he can do nothing else but return the nod.
“We did.” he replies and turns over the flat, steel cylinder in his hands. “You are about to save it again.”
The half-naked scientist in front of him just rolls his eyes and shivers in the cold air of the storage room. “Don’t sweet-talk me, just tell me what to fix. And please tell me you brought some normal clothes along this time.”
Thor dutifully unclips the leather bag from his belt and throws it to him. “Finest cloth in Asgard. Or at the very least, the finest that survived.”
“Thank God for small favors.” The scientist’s voice cracks a bit as the ship suddenly moans around them like a wounded metal whale. “Does that happen often?”
“Only when we get too close to a star’s magnetic field.” Thor does his best to ignore the light fixtures flickering erratically but can’t help wincing when one of them explodes in the background. “After a while you just stop noticing it.”
“Yeah well, I’m a real white-knuckle flyer.” Bruce finishes buttoning up his shirt and grabs the disc from Thor’s hand. “I’ll find my way around. Wherever we are, it can’t be worse than Sakaar.”
Thor’s words of gratitude never leave his mouth as he walks away. For a moment he considers following him and apologizing for the cell and the containment grid but the words his mind conjures sound hollow even to him. He did what he had to do and he would do it again. He can only hope that time will smooth out the rough edges between them though he gets the uneasy feeling that time might not be on his side.
His thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a boot against a metal plate. Brunnhilde kicks the heavy back door ajar and drags a cart of power cells into the room. When she sees the empty cell, she frowns but as she catches sight of Bruce walking up the stairs, she breathes out a sigh of relief.
“Well, what do you know? It worked!” She leaves the cart behind and walks up to him brushing away traces of machine oil from her face. “As much as I love the guy’s moves, I will definitely sleep easier knowing we no longer have a mine in the basement.”
Thor shrugs and raises his eyes to the metal ceiling where another light fixture begins to flicker. “Don’t let your guard down. The way this trip is going, anything can blow up at any moment. He was just the easiest thing to deal with.”
“And here I thought you were an eternal optimist.” She slams a fist over a power panel on the wall and the light stabilizes. “Do you really think he can make the towers work?”
Thor nods as he fights to suppress a long, exhausted yawn. “He has seven PhD’s. One of them is bound to be in something green.”
“I would avoid those exact words.” She takes a tentative swig out of a stained, metal flask and scrunches her face in disgust as the liquid makes its way down her throat. “We seriously need to improve the quality of booze on this ship. This tastes like expired paint thinner.”
“If we ever get that biodome working, be my guest.”
“You are benevolent king, indeed.” She punches him lightly in the arm and snickers as he flinches. “Get some rest, you look like you’re ready to drop where you stand. My team can help our brainy boy out and Korg has been itching for something to do besides teaching the kids the songs of his people.”
Thor lets out a short laugh at the memory of a loud, deep voice that could not carry a tune to save its life booming over the ship at the oddest hours. “I thought that was the water recycler malfunctioning. I was even about to go hit it with a crowbar to make it stop.”
She grins but her dark eyes give him a long, meaningful look. “I’m serious. You’re no use to anyone dead on your feet and you don’t have to be everywhere at once. Your father understood that.”
She takes another gulp from the flask and for a brief moment, Thor is tempted to join her in her never-ending quest to imbibe every type of alcohol on the ship, just to stop his mind from reeling. He has spent most of this trip agonizing over what his father would do and each time takes him dangerously close to the conclusion that if it weren’t for his father’s actions, they would not be in this mess. He wonders how close those actions take Odin himself to treason against Asgard and how he can ever reconcile those thoughts with the crown he never wears. Loki would scoff at that and welcome him to the cynical side of the family with open arms, one of which would probably be holding a dagger.
But those are questions for another time. Right now, there’s still work to do.
He shrugs off the tiredness and replies, “My father had time on his side. I’ll sleep when we get to Earth.”
The aeroponic towers manage to bear their fruits in the nick of time, when their supplies are almost gone and whispers of a possible famine begin to spread among the refugees of Asgard City. They grow lush and dense, so much that they have to expand the biodome, a job that Korg and his new team are happy to accept. Brunnhilde jokingly suggests they start making wine from the grapes and Bruce is adamant in dedicating at least one of the towers to his favorite variety of coffee. He sees life flow back into the anxious faces around him; they begin to smile again, laugh at each other’s jokes and even talk about the future. They are no longer pale shadows huddled under a metal sky, wondering if they will make it through another week. A few of them even organize to form a theatre troupe and as he huddles among the rest of the citizens to watch them perform, he feels a giant weight being lifted off his shoulders. They will survive this; what’s more, they will live again. He can ask for nothing else than that.
On the third month of their trip, Loki puts together a play recreating the battle for Asgard in which a teenage girl in a wig made out of discarded branches chews the scenery playing Hela as Loki leads them all to glorious victory. Thor stands in the back of the giant room dedicated to the event, chuckling softly as the audience roars with laughter. It is only after the second act when he notices Heimdall standing next to him, holding a bunch of pale yellow grapes and watching the show with a half-hearted smile.
“He’s a poet at heart, isn’t he?” he says as he tears away a stem and hands it to Thor.
Thor accepts the offer with a grin as another fake explosion conjured entirely out of red paper ribbons envelopes the stage. “A very creative one, too. I don’t remember it happening like that at all.”
Heimdall doesn’t reply right away, his golden eyes fixed on the girl falling dramatically to the floor after a fake dagger buries itself in her back. “History is written by the victors, Odinson.” he says after a while. “They usually pick only the parts they like.”
He walks away as silently as he came, walking through the crowd like a ship parting the waves, leaving Thor standing there with a heavy heart and the faint memory of a reinforced iron chest waiting for him in a secluded storage room.
It takes him a whole week to go back to it. There’s always something to do on the ship, someone needs help, something breaks, there’s some dispute or crisis and he keeps telling himself that the past can wait. He tells himself that the future they are building is more important but in the end, what keeps him from opening that door is not his duties but the dread of knowledge. When he finally breaks and drags the chest into his personal quarters, he locks the crown away in a safe box and out of sight.
The archives start out telling a familiar story, that both he and Loki had drilled into their heads way back when they were children. It conjures up fond memories of studying together, trying to cram the most amount of information into their heads after spending the previous week goofing off and how this gambit always paid off better with Loki than himself. He can’t help smiling at the good old days but as he turns more and more pages, his smile gradually fades and when he picks up an old, cracked volume, that is almost falling apart, he knows that there is no turning back.
He recognizes the faded symbol of a horned helmet pressed into the black leather in flaking gold paint. They are Heimdall’s personal records, probably the only copy that remains after the purge.
He reads about the subjugation of the Nine Realms, of genocide, bloodshed and destruction and every word makes his blood run cold. How many of the citizens of Asgard are old enough to remember? How many would believe it, if he chose to make this hidden history known? Would it even be right, particularly now when their fond memories of home are the only thing that remains?
He has no answers to the questions swirling through his mind so he reads on. He reads night after night, until the words swim before his eyes and the pages he turns become so worn that only ancient spells are holding them together. He reads until the runes turn archaic and he has to summon his deepest memories of Asgardian codexes to understand their meaning. And the more he understands, the colder the world grows and the more sleep seems to elude him altogether.