Avox in Arcadia (perpetual) wrote,
Avox in Arcadia
perpetual

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Brace for Impact - Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Title: Six Degrees of Separation
Author: Kairos
Fandom: Guardians of the Galaxy
Wordcount: This part, 2700
Rating: General/Teen
Notes: Realistically, I'm not going to update again before I see Vol. 2, so goodbye to that goal. I think I'm getting closer to the end, though, just need to organize my thoughts. It will probably clock in a little shorter than "Detonation Imminent."


Rocket felt strangely cold about seeing his past on video. He felt strangely excited about finding a connection between Halfworld and the mission. He felt strangely sympathetic toward Peter and Gamora, both of whom still seemed unable to move or to say anything relevant. Peter had at least managed to stop staring at the screen, now that there was nothing on it but that dumb plaque and its dumb word, but now he was staring at Rocket himself, eyes huge and full of horror.

“Get a grip, Quill,” Rocket growled. “Later we can look at your embarrassin’ baby pictures, settle the score. Right now we got work to do.”

Gamora nodded her agreement. “Do you have any idea what this could mean?”

“Not yet, but I know who to ask.” He scrambled up to the couch, holding his blanket over his shoulders with one hand, and pulled up the nearest console in front of him. After opening the ship’s master controls he set it to display every other spacecraft within a certain range, then zeroed in on the encoded signal he had been tracking since Paragon Eleven-Zero Astral Station. It was still nearby; the mystery ship must have landed on the medical satellite when the Guardians did, and then followed them off of it while staying safely out of the way the entire time.

Peter was starting to look more confused than distressed, which was a relief. Rocket was used to Peter being confused. “Our stalkers,” he explained impatiently. “I showed you this, ‘member?”

“You’re contacting them? Are we ready for that?”

Rocket’s lips pulled back. Even he couldn’t tell if he was grinning or baring his teeth. His hands kept dancing over the controls, finding all of the enemy ship’s secrets. “Star-Dude, I am ready to chew holes in their freakin’ engines, but hell with makin’ contact.” It was the work of a moment to hack their system; there were barely any decent protections on it. “They wanna follow us home? Fine. They can do it on a leash.”

Gamora looked over his shoulder and instantly understood what Peter hadn’t. A smile ghosted across her face. “You reprogrammed their navigation,” she said. “They won’t be able to get any farther away from us than they are now.”

“Yep.” Rocket gave a fierce laugh. “And the leash gets tighter as we go. If they ain’t ready to land when we do, they better get prepped for a crash.”

“What if they decide to attack when they come into the range for it?” asked Peter.

Rocket shook his head dismissively. “Closer the ship is, more I can screw with it. I’ll disable any weapons they got before we’re near Blossomor.” He waved at the larger screen, which was still framing the word “Phiggre” from the Halfworld lab. “I’m gonna start goin’ through this, see if there’s any other mentions that help. Can prob’ly design a program to search it so’s we don’t need to bother with the whole...” He glanced at the video’s length. “Two hundred hours? Sheesh.”

“Wait,” said Gamora. She was standing close to the screen and looking hard at the still image. “We’re not done with this one yet. Why is that word on the wall? It’s not a decoration.”

“Label or something, right?” said Peter. “There’s a code underneath, are you guys getting anything out of that?”

Instead of inspecting the string of numbers more closely, Gamora zoomed back out, just enough to show a rectangular seam around the plaque. “It looks like this part of the wall opens up. Rocket, do you remember if there were compartments like that in this room?”

He blinked. “Yeah, a lot of the robotics n’ that kinda junk came outta the walls. Never really looked up while I was in there, though.”

Gamora’s speech got faster. “I think this is a brand name. There are entire industries out there that nobody has ever heard of because Thanos won’t allow them to do business with anyone but him. If the robotics in Halfworld came from a distributor that he controls...”

“That means he controls Halfworld,” Peter finished, sounding stunned.

Rocket felt what was left of his fur stand on end. He had spent a good part of his early life trying to understand why the makers were doing what they were doing. Eventually, he had given it up in disgust and thereafter assumed that it was all to satisfy their own curiosity. But if Thanos was behind it...Thanos wasn’t curious. Thanos had reasons.

“Or did,” Gamora noted. “Rocket put Halfworld out of commission when he escaped. Didn’t you?”

“I blew up one lab, not the whole planet,” he answered tersely. He had often wondered if there were other labs there. And if they shared information with each other. And if there was somebody left who was interested in the recapture of one of their experiments...

Peter nudged Rocket’s console toward himself and keyed something in, pulling up a short list of data. “This is all the other ‘Phiggre’ references we found,” he said. “Gamora, does it still make sense if Thanos is connected to all this other stuff?”

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s connected. People who have never heard of him might have an encounter with one of his machines, just like we did. Yes, it still makes sense. The question is, what was he doing with Halfworld?”

Rocket pinned back his ears at her, hit the button to make the video start playing again, and said loudly, “This!” Then he threw the remote control at her for good measure. “Stupid.”

She caught it, of course, but both she and Peter were immediately silenced by seeing Rocket on the screen, still struggling to walk. He heaved a sigh and put it back on pause. “I’m just sayin’. No big mystery here. Manufacturin’ pet monsters is a Thanos kind of trade.”

Gamora sank down on the couch next to him, eyes wide and unfocused. “You’re right,” she said, as if it were a sudden revelation. In another second she was back on her feet and taking over the console, closing out the footage of Halfworld. “You’re right! Genetic experimentation must have been one of his irons in the fire.” As she spoke, she set up a display on the larger holographic screen to illustrate: a small purple image of Thanos, in his chair, with a shape like a halved orange floating below him.

“When he lost the progress his researchers had made on Halfworld, he had his underlings begin collecting more subjects.” The display showed the half-sphere disintegrating, replaced by a handful of unidentified planets with arrows pointing to each one from a common source. “On Knowhere we heard that Ronan had been operating a slave ring. I don’t think that was right, exactly. He employed kidnappers, but the victims...weren’t meant to be sold into servitude.”

Peter swore under his breath. Rocket kept quiet, listening.

“Thanos knows about us.” A little image of the Guardians appeared on the screen. “If not because of Ronan, then because of me. I doubt he wants to bother himself about us yet, but he may have found this a good opportunity to round us up and take us alive before we became any more powerful. Or, for all we know, it was entirely the initiative of whoever he has running this part of his operation.”

“We held the Infinity Stone,” said Peter. “Nobody loves an Infinity Stone like Thanos does. Bet he’s dying to chop us up and look inside to see how it affected us.”

Gamora inclined her head at him, then tapped a few controls again, and a yellow-hued humanoid shape joined them on her display. “But the point is, he wouldn’t have explained any of this to whoever was sent to get us for him. In fact, I’d guess there are at least four more degrees of separation between the enemies we’ve already seen and Thanos himself, and at least three of them don’t even know who they really work for.” She made it visual by putting four outlines in front of the yellow figure.

“So they would think we were just another score,” Peter ruminated. “The order gets passed down until it reaches the ones we actually met, those Astrans on Knowhere. They use their clean backgrounds to trick us into thinking they’ve got a real job for us--”

“--And your skanky rep to set up Keelah’s kiss-kill-run routine,” Rocket added.

Peter pouted. “I’m not that gullible about women.”

Gamora gave him a flat look. “I seduced you within thirty seconds of meeting you.”

“Okay, but ‘Mora, be fair-- you’re really hot.”

She rolled her eyes and turned back to her presentation, removing all images from the screen and replacing them with the Milano. “Keelah’s team is told to kill some of us, disable the others, and steal our ship with us in it. She puts the map and access codes into our system to prepare it for them, and their job is to get us to the next checkpoint, hand us off, and collect their reward.”

“But they failed,” said Peter, “so they sent someone to trail us until they can give it a second go.”

Gamora nodded. “Thanos doesn’t accept failure. Anyone who works for someone who works for someone who works for Thanos doesn’t accept failure. Whoever is in that ship behind us is going to be desperate to get this done before their superiors find out.”

“I like desperate,” Rocket growled. He tried cracking his knuckles, but his right hand was still a little stiff from the surgery, and instead of making a satisfying crunch it just made the blanket slip off of his shoulders.

“Long as they don’t make us kill them before we can talk,” Peter replied, his voice stony.

The little image of the Milano on the screen shrank to a pinpoint, as if vanishing into the distance. Rocket strummed his claws against the console, thinking. “I gotta see what else we got in this video,” he said. “Quit hoggin’ the remote, Gamora.”

She arched an eyebrow at him and tossed him the control in the same way he had done to her a few minutes ago, and he pulled up the data from the lab again, still paused at the bipedal walking lessons where they had left it. For a moment he hesitated. He could just hit play, see what was up next in the story of his life. If his memory had it right, there had been a treat when he first managed to make it across the room on two legs, and then the lessons had stopped, but he was never allowed to go back to all fours again. Maybe he could just watch for a few minutes and find out if he had said anything at that point, or if they had said anything to him.

Instead he skipped back through it to the beginning, long before his own time. There was a lot to go through, but searching for instances of the robotics brand would be a good way to narrow it down, for starters.

In careful movements, Peter sat back down by his side. “Um, Rocket, Gamora and me can go through the footage. You don’t have to do it yourself.”

“Nah, I got this. You can...” He scratched his head, then had to readjust the blanket again when it moved. “Oh, you can call the dog. Bet he’s got some stuff on the Thanos chain of command that maybe backs up what we worked out so far.”

“You still need rest.”

Rocket was already typing out a series of commands that would make the media player collect any image containing the word “Phiggre”, and thinking about how to implement it verbally. “I been awake for twenty minutes. You just spent the last six hours in front of the Halfworld Show. Anyone needs sleep, it’s the two o’ you.”

In a subdued voice, Gamora said to Peter, “Have we really been watching this for that long?”

Peter rolled his head back on the couch and faced Rocket with imploring eyes. “I don’t want you to bottle this up,” he blurted out. “I wasn’t even prepared to see that shit with my own eyes, and it’s giving me the creeps how you’re acting like it...bores you.”

“Hey, maybe I’m the most interestin’ thing in that room, but I ain’t the most important. Stay focused, clueless leader.”

“Okay, yeah, so I’m clueless, but I am the leader, and I’m not trying to buck the job. I’ve got a responsibility for you guys.”

Rocket sighed heavily and stopped typing. “I don’t wanna talk about it. I know where to find you, a’right?”

“Have some faith,” added Gamora softly. She leaned down and took Peter by the elbow, then guided him out of the room with a firm hand against his back.

“We’ll get ‘em, Rock,” he said over his shoulder.

“Uh huh,” Rocket replied absently, but the lack of response made him pause and notice that he was already alone. His eyes shot up to the screen again. Hearing Peter talk about how this looked from his own perspective had been unsettling, and Rocket’s dispassionate feelings about the video were beginning to mutate into nervous anticipation.

He knew it wouldn’t stop there if he nurtured it. Phiggre, he told himself. Thanos. Mission. Got to solve this. Got to get back to Groot.

The urge passed, and he finished assembling his program. There was no time to worry about his own past.

//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\


Peter hadn’t known he was asleep until the sudden commotion in his bunk jarred him out of it. He remembered his bunk door opening and the familiar soft footfall approaching his bed, and reaching down to help pull Rocket up, thinking, finally. It seemed like it had been ages since he had come into his bunk at all. Rocket’s standard routine was to curl up on the pillow that Peter wasn’t using, or somewhere near the foot of the bed, but this time he had burrowed right under the covers and settled close to Peter’s chest.

He had been breathing a little too heavily, and Peter had stroked his head with his knuckles until he calmed down and they both nodded off. But now the raccoon was thrashing, making wild noises that almost had words in them, clawing at the bedding. Peter’s drowsiness left him completely, and so did any sense of self-preservation.

Operating on instinct and the experience from a few prior incidents, he threw an arm and half of his body over Rocket, pinning him down. The words he murmured were less about comfort and more about reminders of who he was, where he was, and who was with him, but they came out in a gentle tone, a voice that would do more for Rocket’s state of mind than any list of factual evidence.

Some combination of factors must have worked, anyway. Rocket had stopped struggling, and seemed to be crying quietly into the mattress. Peter felt a guilty rush of relief that he had made it through this one without getting scratched too badly, and then it was cut short as Rocket caught his hand between his jaws.

Peter tried not to react. It wasn’t like he would blame Rocket for an impulse that hit him as he was coming out of a nightmare, but he really didn’t want to have to deal with an injured hand right now. Not to mention that Rocket would be ashamed about it the next morning, which would mean a lot of yelling and blaming everyone else, because the only way Rocket ever dealt with shame was finding innovative ways to compound it.

Grimly Peter prepared to tough it out, but the pain didn’t come. Rocket still had his hand in his teeth; he just didn’t bite down. After a few seconds, he released it, licked it, and lay still.

It was a gesture of such natural purity that it didn’t seem necessary to acknowledge it or to say anything. Peter relaxed, found a comfortable way to arrange his arm around Rocket, and went back to sleep, feeling grateful that his friend was a raccoon.


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