The little chips in her brain, cybernetic implants no bigger than an eyelash, could process billions and billions of commands a second.
But as the final battle came to pass, Nebula figured she needed way more than a second.
A second turned into two, then a minute, and soon an hour.
Still, she sat there alone by the rubble, leaning against a partially collapsed wall, staring blankly into the fires and the ruins as dozens of medics ran by and tended to the injured, as construction men and cranes did their best to salvage whatever remained of the Avengers Facility.
An hour turned into two, and soon three.
An eternity for the little processors in her head.
Then on the fourth, it started to rain.
Still, she sat there, processing.
It rained for a long time, as if the heavens itself wept for the ones they’d lost today.
Nebula decided, as she watched the tiny raindrops slipping past her fingertips, that perhaps, it was finally time for her to leave.
It’d been five long years since her arrival on Earth; five long years since her sister’s death; and five long years since her father snapped half the universe into dust. But now, with his death, with the universe returned to order, there was simply nothing left for her here.
No mission, no purpose, no nothing.
The Avengers had given her a place to stay, had named her one of their own, but she didn’t belong, never did. She was a wanderer, always had been, in both her programming and her blood, and now, it was finally time for her to move on, to whatever uncertainties the future might bring.
So, she took a long, final look back in the direction of the ruins that was the Avengers Facility, a place she’d came so, so close to calling home. Then, got up onto her feet and left.
She only managed three steps in the direction of her ship before stumbling into the dirt.
Something fizzled at her side, and as she kneeled over, sparks of electricity sprayed into the rubble, oil and Anulax fluid dirtying the rainwaters below. That was when she noticed the gaping hole just below her left rib, dangerously close to where her power-cells were stored.
There was no pain up to that point; she realized her neural-restrictors must’ve turned her pain receptors off after the battle. And with her rapidly degenerating power-cells, most of her bodily functions must’ve also been systematically shut down in order to save power, and to keep her organic parts—however little left—safe.
She tried to get up to her feet, but her body no longer functioned. Instead, she fell in the opposite direction, forward into the wet soil, body twitching as her vision started to darken, but still, there came no discomfort, no pain. Only a distant sense of detachment as her parts started to fail, as if watching through the lens of something long gone by.
She wondered if this was what it felt like.
No more second chances. No more getting put back together by her father’s unnatural technology.
She was dying, wasn’t she?
There was a moment when she considered using the last of her power-cells to turn her pain-receptors back on, to experience death in its full totality, in all its elusive inevitability.
Then, she thought of her father, wondered if he was right, if Earth had turned her weak, had infected her with such thoughts, such sentimentality. She wasn’t ‘human” anymore, that part of her had long been taken away, and what remained was more bionic than flesh, more programming than synapses and neurons.
Her father had taught her to be better than this.
But her father was dead, and as Nebula laid there in the rain, waiting for her own inevitability, the last vestiges of her power-cells fizzling out, she couldn’t help but think that she really, really didn’t want to go.
There came a final flicker, and as her power-cells came to a complete drain, she saw a dark blot rising from the Earth before her, like a demonic reaper from the deep, coming to drag her down to the depths of hell itself.
She wondered then, her failing processors fizzling in confusion, if machines could also hallucinate before death.
Or perhaps the devil too, welcomed machines like her—to hell.
It still rained when she was powered back on.
This time, however, pain burned through her like embers renewed.
She screamed, internal systems reactivating in self-defense, hands clamping down onto the nearest source of perceived threat—an action not as much instinctual as it was programming.
A hand—she caught a Terran hand and, for a moment, was afraid she’d accidentally crushed the person’s arm down to the bone. Then she realized that it wasn’t a hand of flesh and blood that she caught; it was vibranium, part machinery like she was, but attached to a man still very human like she wasn’t.
She let go, and he took a step back, arms held outwards in a non-threatening manner.
“It’s alright,” he said. “I’m here to help.”
She recognized him. Or more precisely, the facial-recog systems built into her irises did.
James Buchanan Barnes. A member of the Avengers. Turned to dust by Thanos five years ago during the battle of Wakanda, and brought back by Banner just hours ago.
He must be here to help with the clean-up and recovery.
“Are you alright?” he asked, seeming completely unbothered by how she’d almost just crushed his arm. “I’m Buc-”
“I know who you are,” she cut in, a little too quickly and, she realized—a little too harshly. “I’m fine,” her tone was a little more neutral the second time round. “What happened?”
“One of the workers found you in the rubble,” he explained. “Your energy-cell seemed busted so we had one of the Wakandian techs fashion a temporary generator from one of the Chitauri ship’s proton drives so that we can try to get you sorted out before moving you to the infirmary.”
She examined the electrical tubings and wirings plugged into her breastplate from the crudely put together generator. “This won’t be enough,” she said, and true to her word, the proton drive started to flicker. “I need more power.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about that,” he said. “We already got one of the tech guys working on converting one of Stark’s spare arc reactors into a power-cell, in the meantime, we should-”
She missed what he said next, as a large roar of thunder erupted across the monochromatic skies, bringing an even harsher bout of rain.
He immediately stepped closer to her, holding the umbrella above the two of them.
“You’re… umm… not going to get electrocuted, right?” he asked sheepishly.
“What?” it took her a second to realize he was referring to her exposed wiring. “Of course not, do you think I’m a damn toaster?”
He chuckled, “My bad.”
It took her another long second, billions of artificial neurons firing in her brain, to realize that he was the one who she’d seen approaching.
It wasn’t a demon from the dark, coming to drag her down to the depths of hell itself.
It was just a man in a large, dark raincoat, and it wasn’t the reaper’s scythe she thought she’d seen, but an umbrella, sheltering the two of them from the rain.
How foolish she’d been.
An utter embarrassment.
There were dozens of medical tents set up around the edge of the compound. He brought her to one which resembled an engineer’s workshop of sorts, filled with all kinds of advanced tools and machineries.
“Wakandian tech,” he explained. Then came a shrug, “I still don’t know what the majority of them are for.”
Carrying the generator with her, she limped to the bench at the center of the workshop and took her seat, watching as he started digging around for tools. “Do you even know what you’re doing?” she asked.
“I think so.”
“I think so…?”
“I was always something of a decent mechanic when I was younger, you kinda have to be, back during my time anyways,” he said from behind a box of tools. “Well, at least I thought I was, until I met someone half my age who could tear apart a quinjet and put it all back together before I can even figure out the tools I’m working with.” He motioned towards his bionic arm, “She’s definitely part of the reason I’m whole again, after… well, it’s a long story that one. Point being—Shuri’s a great mechanic, and an even better teacher.”
He returned to her side and turned the workshop lamp on.
“Shall I?” he asked.
She squinted at the light, nodded, and turned away when he began his work.
For the next few minutes, neither one of them spoke, and the only sounds that came were the whirls of his mechanical screwdriver, and the occasional clang of a steel bolt falling to the ground. When the last bolt finally came free, she held absolutely still as he reached behind her to unclasp her breastplate, allowing him to open her chassis outwards, laying bare all her insides.
Or what remained of her insides. Most of her organic parts were long removed, replaced by intricate pieces of metal and advanced technology, superior in everyway to their organic counterparts, but all so unnatural, so full of painful memories of being pulled apart and put back together.
“Oh, wow,” he broke the silence with a whisper. Then, “Shit, I’m sorry, that’s probably not what you wanted to hear. I mean, after what Thanos did to you, I…”
His initial reaction caught her a little by surprise. “It doesn’t matter,” her answer came a lot less hostile than she thought it’d be. “I’ve long accepted it, learned to live with it.”
The smile he offered was a kind one, but it was also heavy, filled with emotions she could not discern. “That, we do,” there was understanding in his voice, and from what she’d seen in his files, perhaps he did.
He picked up a new power-cell, a fusion of Wakandian and Stark tech. “You ready?”
She nodded, and noticed—from the micro-lenses built into her irises, micro-trembles in his hands as he reached inside her chassis to remove the decaying power-cells. For a moment, she wondered if he was nervous, if he wasn’t sure of what he was doing, or that perhaps he was shaking simply because he was afraid of her; most of the people she’d met here were—she could tell, no matter how much they’d tried to hide it.
But, as he started the cell’s removal, she saw nothing but complete, utter confidence; she saw the focus in his face, the intensity of his furrowed brow; and she realized that the trembles didn’t come from fear, not anything even remotely close, but from an intense concentration of his work and—most unexpectedly—genuine care.
He was being extraordinarily careful; he wasn’t operating on her like she was a machine, but as if she were human, as if she were very much alive like he was.
When he placed down the old cell, he wiped at her grease-stained parts with a towel, gingerly, like he would with a human partner after a long fight’s end, covered with blood and grime. Then, he replaced the new cell so meticulously, so carefully, that it was as though she wasn’t made of metal, but glass, easy to shatter at even the lightest touch.
Her processors couldn’t compute.
He worked on her with an intimacy as strange and as foreign to her as he was.
She wanted to tell him it was all so unnecessary. He couldn’t possibly hurt her. She didn’t feel pain like he did, and if she did, she could simply turn it all off.
She didn’t need such a level of care. She wasn’t even organic, not anymore.
But for some reason, she didn’t.
Afterwards, he hopped up onto the bench next to her, so close she could smell him through her sensory ducts; a mixture of smoke, grease, and oil, alongside a faint hint of blood beneath all the muck. He had a previous injury, she could tell from the way he was favoring his left leg, and he was beyond exhausted—she didn’t need her sensors to see that.
“Everything good?” he asked.
She nodded, testing her arms, squeezing an older bolt into a pile of crushed matter. “I’ll have to switch out some parts, but I’m functioning well for the moment.”
He seemed impressed. “So, what will you do next?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There is nothing left for me here.”
He was quiet for a moment, as if deep in thought. “That’s not true. You still have a family here,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t here for the last five years, but knowing the rest of them, they must’ve long accepted you as one of their own.”
She couldn’t deny that fact, as much as she wanted to. “But I don’t have a purpose here, not anymore,” she sighed. “Even in the past, everything that I did, every life I took, I did to make my father proud, but now… now that… he’s gone… there’s no purpose left for me. What do I even do…?”
“You don’t need a purpose to stay,” he shrugged. “You can do whatever you want.” The way he’d said it made it sound like it was the simplest thing in the world. Or perhaps it was—just not to her. “Whatever it is you wish to accomplish, where ever it is you wish to go. You can do anything.”
She didn’t know how to respond.
“When was the last time you did something for yourself?” he asked.
“I…” she searched through her memory banks and came up blank. “I… don’t remember.”
“Well, now’s your chance then. What do you feel like doing?”
“I… I don’t know how,” she said softly. “How did you do it?” She’d seen his files. She knew exactly what he’d been through.
“Well… I just did,” he said. “I mean yeah, it seemed so impossible at first, to be under HYDRA’s control for more than half my life, to be their mindless killing drone who couldn’t even form thoughts of his own… then Steve came to my rescue, got me out, and when I was recovering at Wakanda… it just dawned upon me one day that I could do whatever I wanted. I could leave the place and never look back. I could use all my training and simply… disappear, and no one would ever find me. Point being, whatever I wished to do next... it’s all up to me, and it’s all for myself.”
“So, what did you do?” she asked, curious.
“I went down to the newly built Wakandian Starbucks and got myself a Caramel Frap,” he chuckled at the memory. “It was disgusting, full of sugar and god knows what they put in there these days. But I did it. It was my choice.”
If she could, she would’ve rolled her eyes at his answer.
Then she realized that sometimes—the answer was as simple as that. Everything else that came next, every decision she’d have to make from now, it’d all be up to her, no matter how small, how inconsequential.
Like ordering a sugary drink from a coffee chain.
She was quiet for a long time, thinking—for the first time in a long while without her processors.
“I’ve made my decision,” she finally said.
“What I want to do next.”
Before he could reply, she moved to the other side of the table, grabbed an unused bolt and set it down in front of her while forming an arch with her two index fingers, exactly like how Tony Stark had taught her. “Do you know this game?” she asked. “This is my decision; I want to play it.”
Childlike wonder spread across his face. “Of course. I was in the military in the forties, what else do you think we did all day?” He took his seat across from her and made the exact same shape with his fingers. “Oh boy, you’re going down.”
As they started their little game, he started to tell her about his war stories, about his time fighting next to Steve Rogers in the past.
It was perhaps the longest story she’d ever heard.
But strangely, she enjoyed it, more than she cared to admit.
Later on, as she watched his sleeping form curled up next to the workbench, his breathing steady like the platters of rainwater still falling outside, she decided that maybe, just maybe, she’d stay on Earth for a bit longer, and ask for another story.