It is a dead planet, like many she has known. There are no sounds now that the battle is done, except for the moan of the wind, the occasional ping or hiss of hot metal and dying machinery. Sometimes there is a crash as something falls. She knows these sounds intimately, along with the way her ears still ring in the aftermath of the battle's din, as if she still had flesh and blood ears to hear with. Perhaps it's a mental thing, that ringing sound.
The wind has scoured away the dust of those who were, until moments ago, friends of her sister's, mixing their mortal remains with the sand and ash of the battlefield.
Her lone fellow survivor sits unmoving, staring at the ground. Nebula knows that look. It's the shell-shocked expression of a person who has just watched their life fall in ruins around them. Usually, in the past, she was the one to put it there, and usually she saw it on the faces of her victims, seconds before putting a blade through their chest, their throat, their eyes.
This time, she merely stands, unmoving.
They lost. Thanos won.
All because of the damned wizard and his thrice-damned mercy. If she had him here, if he were still alive, she would cheerfully sink a knife into his throat ...
But there are mistakes aplenty to go around. Her sister delivered the Soul Stone into Thanos's grasping fist (for you, the back of her mind whispers; for you). Her sister's simpering fool of a boyfriend thwarted his useless allies' attempt to kill Thanos. And she herself failed to kill him with her own hands, even with Thanos right there in her reach ...
She looks down at her hands, spreads the fingers and tests the joints for damage.
You still have hands, do you not? You still have legs and eyes; you still have this entire abomination of a body that your "father" gave you. So Thanos has the Infinity Stones now. Your task has not changed. As long as you can walk, as long as you can crawl, you will follow him and find him and try kill him, until he kills you in the attempt.
Her sister was always the better of the two of them, and her sister died at Thanos's hands. She can not quite fool herself into believing she has a hope of winning where Gamora failed -- not on this day, at this moment, in the dust of this dead world. But she will keep moving forward because there is no other choice, and nothing else to do with her life except killing Thanos, nothing at all.
There must be an intact ship somewhere in all of this mess. She turns sharply and has taken a few brisk steps away from this place of defeat and death when there is a sound, a living sound, a whisper of clothing and a creak of bones. It makes her turn back, flinching with over-active reflexes, a knife sliding into her palm.
It is only her fellow survivor, whose name she never troubled to learn, clambering slowly and painfully to his feet with his hand pressed to his side.
"So," he says, and his voice is raw as if he'd been screaming, though he hasn't made a sound since the boy died. "Gotta be some spare parts around here that we can build a working spaceship out of, right? I mean, we've got the pieces of at least two and probably more, judging from the clutter, so if we want to get off this rock --"
She breaks in, her voice a whipcrack across his. "What do you mean, 'we'?"
He tilts his head to the side and gives her a look that packs in more sarcasm than she's ever seen on one human being's face in her life.
"I mean, Blue's Clues, that unless you want to spend the rest of your life on Arrakis here, we need to put something together to get us back into space, and unless you happen to have an engineering degree tucked into your back pocket --"
"This planet is not called Arrakis. It is Titan."
"I know that. It's from a movie."
"Oh. I know about those." She turns away in disgust. That's right, he's a Terran, like Gamora's useless, dead boyfriend. Are they all like that? She has no patience for it. The morons' ship might have survived intact, and if not, on this entire planet of broken machines, she can hack together something without his help. She's gotten herself out of worse situations than this before.
But this time, it's a soft, pained grunt that makes her look back. The Terran is leaning on a jutting chunk of debris, his knees half buckling under him.
When her shadow falls across him, he looks up, face tight and set with pain. "Just catching my breath. Give me a minute. Not as young as I used to be, you know, much as I hate to admit it ..."
"Do you never stop blithering?" She grips him roughly around the rib cage, under the arms; his gasp is half pain, half surprise.
After a breathless moment: "Not really, no. It's a personality flaw. One of many." He laughs harshly, a huff of breath against her ear. "Or really it's more of a coping mechanism, at least that's what Bruce would call it. Friend of mine. You haven't met him. Friend from back on Earth. Probably dead now, if Thanos --"
And he catches his breath and is silent, then, as she hauls him unceremoniously along with her, wondering distantly what she's doing; she can move faster without him, but, but --
But he can fix things. He said so, and she believes him. Her own skills in that area are not inconsiderable, honed on her own body, but she's not going to pass up a potential asset under the circumstances, here in this place of dead and broken things.
By the time she finds the fools' ship, he's stopped talking and is stumbling along numbly, one arm over her shoulders and the other hand clenched on her arm in what would probably be a painful grip if she was made of flesh. The ship has taken some damage from the fight, but it looks mostly intact. Annoyingly so, in fact, since she's not precisely sure how to unsecure the door. Nebula dumps her unwanted traveling companion on the ground, where he lands with a faintly distressed noise, and tries some different codes on the door, then tries punching it.
Nebula looks down. Gamora's Terran boyfriend used to call her names, too. Are they all like that? What a wretched planet.
"What?" she says impatiently, as he holds up a hand and flops it at her as if she's supposed to know what it means.
"Help me up. I can get that door open."
"Fine," she says wearily, and props him against the Milano's scarred hull, supporting him while he does some things with wires, muttering to himself, and in a moment the door slides creakily open.
She is not expecting to feel as if she's been kicked in the gut as she steps inside Gamora's ship. The only time she's ever been here, she was a prisoner. In the intervening years, while she has had limited interaction with Gamora and her band of losers, it's always been in neutral locations: in bars and on space stations and on Contraxia's main concourse.
This is the first time she's been inside the Milano since Berhert.
And apparently this ship always looks like it's been through a crash landing on an uninhabited forest planet. She distastefully kicks someone's underwear out of the way and drops her handy Terran mechanic on a couch in the main lounge.
"Nice place," he remarks hoarsely, leaning against the wall with one arm wrapped around his side. "Reminds me of a few frat houses I've known."
"Be silent," Nebula says absently, prowling through the lounge. She casts her eye across dirty dishes, discarded clothing, an odd bit of leaf or branch.
A quick search of the ship finds no sign of anyone, but no piles of dust, either. Nebula wonders if Gamora's fox and tree were killed in some other way since she last saw them, or if they're off somewhere else in the galaxy, in which case they may or may not be alive now. There is, she thinks grimly, a 50-50 chance.
She tries powering up the bridge. Nothing happens. Wonderful. Good thing she has an annoying Terran mechanic on board.
Without too much difficulty, she finds food and water and first-aid supplies. Despite the ship's veneer of moldy disaster, all the necessities are well stocked and well organized, even neatly labeled. Nebula recognizes Gamora's meticulous Galactic Standard Method handwriting on the labels, and turns her eyes away with a brief shiver.
She is not entirely unsurprised to find that her mechanic is not where she left him. Eventually she locates him sitting in front of an access panel next to the engines, one leg tucked up and one arm still curled around his side while he pokes around in the guts of the conduit.
"Oh, hi," he says absently when she crouches down next to him. He's pale and sweaty, which she expects is not the healthiest look for his species. However, he seems buoyed by a manic sort of fascination. "Do you have any idea how incredible this is? All of this? I mean, this is hundreds of years, at least, ahead of anything we have on Earth. Including anything built by me."
"How nice," she says in a tone of sarcasm that normally only Gamora can wring out of her -- but she shies away from that thought in a hurry. Instead she lays down the first-aid things she's found for him, and presses a rehydration packet into his clammy, dirty palm.
"What's this?" he asks, studying it.
"Hydration and electrolytes," she says, tapping it with a fingertip, and touches the other items. "Painkiller, should work on Terran physiology since they had it in a box labeled Quill. Humanoid skin-seal. Anti-microbial patch. Meal bar. Can you use all of this without help?"
"Uh ..." He's still turning the rehydration pack over in his slightly trembling hands. Nebula snatches it away from him, pulls the strip and pops out the tube, and hands it back. "Ah. Thanks."
Nebula grunts acknowledgement. She straightens up, and stands looking down at him while he takes a pull on the rehydration pack's tube and makes a face. He looks up at her with hard-to-read dark eyes. "You sure this isn't going to poison me?"
"No," she says.
"Fair enough." He sucks on it again, then looks up at her and waves the pack in her direction, making her jerk back. "You need some of this? Are you okay?"
"I need to fix the ship," she tells him shortly. "I am going to try to power up the bridge."
"Don't do anything yet. Looks like a power surge fried some stuff. If this system has a fuse box, it might just be a matter of replacing a few fuses as long as we can manage not to short anything else out in the meantime." He takes another swallow from the tube and grimaces. "You see anything like a tool kit around here anywhere?"
"Er ... I'll go look."
For awhile, she is quietly occupied, searching the ship for tools and bringing them for her mechanic to look at. He doctors his own side -- shirt lifted, hissing softly in pain -- while she crouches nearby and sorts through different sizes of laser cutters and repro-wrenches, looking for appropriately sized tools to seal up her own minor power leaks. The air is close and hot in the Milano, reminding her that they need to get life support working soon. It does not bother her, but she thinks the heavy, still air -- relatively low in oxygen, her sensors tell her -- is probably contributing to the mechanic's unhealthy-looking complexion and the way that tools keep slipping from his hands.
"You mind music?"
Nebula looks up, at the mechanic's dark, pain-filled eyes turned her way. She thinks, for a moment, of Gamora's boyfriend's music, which Gamora had learned to love.
"I don't care," she says. "Do as you like."
He reaches a hand to the hollow of his neck. There are still remnants of his armor around him, here and there, patches half-hidden under his clothes.
An instant later, she jerks in surprise and nearly scores the delicate workings of her arm with a laser cutter as a sharp cacophony of noise rings in the hallway. After she has a moment to get used to it, there is something about it that's vaguely like the music that Gamora's Terran used to enjoy, a similarity to the beat of its repetitive sounds.
"It's Pantera. You like it?"
"I don't care for music," she says, turning her attention back to her repairs.
"Want me to turn it down?"
She responds with a grunt, deeply weary of the small talk.
He doesn't. She doesn't particularly mind. The music is jagged-edged and angry, like her.
Several song changes later, Nebula looks up from working on her forearm at a clonking sound which turns out to be her mechanic's head slipping forward to bang into the wall. He reels back with a sharp gasp, catches himself with one hand on the deck and the other pressed to his side.
Nebula sighs. She gets up and goes to hunt through the ship again, coming back eventually with some more first-aid supplies and a breather mask.
"Hey, whoa, knock it off," he protests when she kneels down and starts to apply the mask.
"The air is bad in here. Shut up."
He desists and watches her, eyes on her face, as she seals the strips around his mouth with quick presses of her fingertips. Trying to read his expressions is tiring, so she doesn't bother. Instead she seals the mask on his face and then holds up a patch. "Sedative."
He jerks back. "No."
It exasperates her to have to explain his own flesh-body weakness to him. "Sleep for a couple of hours. You'll be better able to --"
"No." There's a brief shiver, an all-over flinch. "No."
"Fine," she mutters. "It's on your head if you set fire to the ship and kill us both ..."
She goes back to her own repairs, very deliberately not asking herself why she is sitting a few feet away from him to do this, on a ship with plenty of room for both of them. A ship full of ghosts, on a dead world filled with the ashes of Thanos's people and this man's people and Gamora's adopted people, who Nebula supposes are, in some sense, her own people at one remove.
"What's your name, anyway?" the mechanic asks as he works with a delicate tool on the circuitry inside the panel. His hand shakes when he reaches to brush sweat off his forehead, but it's rock solid on the tool.
"Why?" she says warily.
"Why? Because I feel stupid yelling 'hey, you' down the corridors, that's why."
Oh. Sensible. "Nebula," she says.
He gestures to his chest, where the power module glows. "Tony. Stark. Iron Man."
Trust this chattering Terran to make a simple thing complicated. "Which?"
"Depends on how I'm feeling."
Nebula picks up her tools and stalks off to find a less exasperating part of the ship to finish her repairs in.
But she is back soon, leaning against the wall, watching her mechanic -- Tony -- finish fixing the ship. His hands are deft and sure. He claimed that he didn't know this technology. She wonders idly if he was lying, but she thinks not. She can see him stop, puzzle things out, and keep going. It is interesting to watch him, the way she's always found it interesting to watch someone do something they're good at, even if she has to kill them afterwards.
That single-minded focus -- she recognizes it, knows it because she's seen it on Gamora's face when they both worked side by side as Thanos's killers. When you don't want to think about anything, you set yourself to a task and let it swallow you whole.
She closes her eyes for a long moment, and touches her face. It is dry, of course. There is no reason why Thanos would have given her the ability to weep.
She opens her eyes to see Tony leaning his forehead against the wall above the access panel, gazing blankly at it with his own dry, wide eyes.
"Can I do anything to hurry this process along?" she asks, although that's not quite the right question, just an easier paraphrase.
"No." His voice is slightly muffled through the mask. He rubs his eyes. "Earth ... I ... God ..."
Nebula gets up again. He watches her go, and is still watching when she comes back and throws a heap of blankets on top of him.
"You are hurt," she tells him. "You need to heal. Living creatures heal better when they sleep. I do not want to crash and and die if you fix this ship badly."
With that, she lies down on the floor in the corridor. Her eyes crack open a moment later to see him watching her, half buried under the blankets she dropped on him.
"You want a blanket over there?"
"I do not use them," she says flatly.
Nebula raises her head indignantly. "Do I look like a creature that wants blankets?"
Tony simply looks blank. "Like -- what -- you're too badass to need a blanket, or something? Because I've known a few soldiers and mercenaries and Asgardian gods and that sort of thing, not to namedrop or anything, and it's pretty much a universal that most people sleep better if they --"
"I am not people," she says coldly. She flexes a hand, letting the electronics pop and crack.
She's puzzled by the way his face shuts down, until he says quietly, "One of my best friends was a machine. Still is, actually ... FRIDAY, sweetheart? You there?" He waits, head tilted as if for something only he can hear. Nebula, her head propped on her fist, notes the sudden look of desolation on his face, followed by resolution. He pushes a blanket her way, wincing as the movement makes him twist and bend.
It is more effort to continue arguing than it's worth, especially trying to explain what she really is. She take the blanket and uses it to prop up her head, since she does not generally get cold. This turns out to be a mistake, because the blanket smells softly floral, and she has the uncomfortable feeling that she might have gotten it out of Gamora's quarters. She hadn't looked; she'd just grabbed.
Once, long ago, on a different planet in a different part of the galaxy, she and Gamora used to lie together like this in their barren quarters. When they did well in their training -- when one of them killed one of their sisters on the practice ground -- the winner was given better accommodations, with a bed and a shower and various pretty things. Nebula wonders sometimes if she was the only one, of the two of them, who preferred lying on a dirt floor with her fingers laced through her sister's, to having a soft, cold, lonely bed to sleep in. Perhaps that was part of her weakness; perhaps if she had liked the cold, soft bed better, she would have won more matches, and competed better with her sister.
She opens her eyes and looks down a short stretch of hallway at the huddled heap of mechanic, wrapped in a blanket, hunched against the wall and still working on the Milano. At least this way he might sleep; he's leaning against the wall in a way that indicates, given time, he might fall asleep there.
And she is not sure what makes her say the rote words she once would say to her sister, blue and green fingers laced together, all those years ago:
"Safe night," she whispers, a child's voice from the past.
She closes her eyes so she can see nothing, holds a hand to her chest and clutches a hidden blade, and she pretends not to notice the whisper of someone moving in the corridor -- what it must have cost him in pain, she does not know, does not care -- and does not move nor stab when a hand pats her shoulder.
"Good night, terrifying killer lady assassin," the Terran murmurs.
She falls asleep to the low beat of Earth music.
Nebula wakes from disjointed dreams -- of Gamora, of Thanos, of heat and sand and Gamora's face melting into dust. She lies awake, eyes open, gazing down the corridor at a huddled heap of blankets, before she sits up and crawls over to ensure that Mechanic Tony is, in fact, breathing.
And he is. Just asleep.
They have lived through one night. One of, perhaps, more to come.
Nebula gets up, and goes to find the galley and fix both of them breakfast.