Fandom: Guardians of the Galaxy
Wordcount: This part, 2401
Notes: *mutters* Grant me strength to avoid spoilers. Grant me strength to not read early reviews. Grant me strength to stop rewatching trailers...
Free at last, the Milano blasted off the moment that Gamora was back on board. Peter reviewed Dr. Shanthig’s visit for her, briefly, and then they outlined a plan for their next steps. There had been no sign of hostile vessels sharing their sky, but it was safe to assume that they were still being tracked, so there was probably a battle coming once they picked a spot to stop and prepare for it. Since they were headed to Blossomor next, it could be assumed that was where the action would happen, although Peter didn’t like the idea of bringing their usual trail of destruction to the idyllic planet that had been nursing Groot back to health. They would have to fight carefully, that was all.
After that, the only clear goal was to follow the route that Keelah had uploaded into the ship’s computer. Hopefully they would have learned more by then, but they would go into it blind if they had to. Peter was committed to seeing this through, and he knew the team was with him. After all, the worst that could happen would be certain death at the hands of Thanos’s henchmen.
What would really help would be some kind of information about Phiggre. Peter and Gamora had both immersed themselves so deeply into researching the word that they had taken to muttering it repeatedly or using it as an exclamation. So far it had still come to nothing, but Peter got some satisfaction out of yelling, “Phiggre!” when he stubbed his toe. If anyone got anything out of that lead at this point, he had to admit, it would be Rocket, or possibly Cosmo.
As soon as the agenda was settled, they called up Drax to give him the good news, and he had some to give them in return: Groot was looking healthier every day and almost mobile again. They could see him in the background, leafy top waving gently in the breeze, casting a long shadow over a little hut that hadn’t been there when they left.
“Did you build that?” asked Gamora with a touch of incredulity. Peter didn’t quite believe his eyes either. They had only been gone for about a week, and he knew Drax hadn’t brought any tools with him.
Drax turned to look over his shoulder as if he had forgotten what was there. “Yes,” he stated. “I sleep there.”
“Well, I hope you can bear to part with it,” said Peter. “We’re out of there as soon as Rocket says Groot’s ready.”
“Where is Rocket?” Drax frowned. “You said his operation was declared a success.”
Gamora gave him a stern look. “He still needs rest, and I’d better not see any of you disturbing him when we’re back together. It will be hard enough as it is to keep him on the road to recovery. You know how badly he wants to work this job.”
“Phiggre,” Peter sighed. He hadn’t been tempted to interrupt Rocket’s much-needed sleep so far, but he was anxious to get his friend back, especially since only time would tell if the operation had any long-term side effects. Part of him wondered if Gamora was wrong -- maybe Rocket’s tendency to drive himself into the ground had been replaced by apathy, or his ferocity had been permanently dampened.
He remembered the data pocket that Dr. Shanthig had given him, and wrapped up the conversation with Drax as soon as possible so he could talk to Gamora alone again. Things were looking up, but they couldn’t keep celebrating forever.
They checked on Rocket and found nothing changed, but Peter was careful to turn off any two-way intercoms after they closed his door and returned to the common room. Even then, he couldn’t seem to speak at a normal volume as he relayed Dr. Shanthig’s explanation and handed Gamora the device. He still didn’t know what was on it, and it still scared him.
She turned it over in her fingers, concentrating, though it was unmarked externally. Finally she shook her head and plugged it into the computer, and they both sat back on the couch with identically taut posture.
The monitor lit up, and Gamora looked at its corresponding handheld console. “Video footage,” she said. “Almost two hundred hours of it, but no way to search through the content.”
“Probably stolen before it ever saw an editor. Well, should we start at the beginning?”
She hit play. Peter’s nervous anticipation reached its height as the words HALFWORLD GENETIC RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT appeared on the screen, but before long it dissipated into frustration. The first ten minutes of the video was nothing but diagrams of various animals’ anatomy, with a voiceover describing them in jargon so obscure that Peter understood barely a quarter of what he heard.
Finally he let out a long sigh and looked at Gamora, who shrugged and said, “Let’s try somewhere in the middle. Two hundred hours, it can’t be just this all the way through.”
He agreed, and they skipped forward at random and saw an entirely different kind of scene: two small monkeys in an outdoor enclosure, pulling levers on a machine that dispensed food when they had solved its puzzle. At first it seemed much more relevant, but then Peter noticed a timestamp in the corner of the screen: this might be Halfworld, but it had been filmed over thirty years ago.
He pointed that out to Gamora, and she skipped ahead again. Now there was a laboratory, full of ineffable machinery and people in lab coats. Cages lined the walls, but the angle of the camera didn’t show what -- or whom -- was in them.
“I think we’re getting closer,” Gamora murmured, but then the view zoomed in on the table where the staff was gathered, and centered on the small, furry, frightened face peeking out from between their mechanical tools.
Peter reeled. “Rocket.”
“Are you sure? It might be another--”
“It’s him. Look at his eyes. Jesus, it’s him.”
Neither of them spoke again for a long time. The video was apparently intended for the researchers themselves to study and reference later, for they often looked at the camera, adjusted it, and described what they were doing out loud. While three of them were sealing up an incision in Rocket’s neck, the fourth one in the room explained that the translator was now implanted, and if they were lucky they would hear the subject speak today for the first time.
After that they all backed off a little to leave the focus on Rocket. He was pinned down by wide metal bands, but from what Peter could see of his body, it seemed closer to a natural raccoon than it was now. He couldn’t show much expression, either, although his eyes never stopped moving. One of the researchers stood in front of him holding a bowl and a bottle and asked several times if he wanted food or water, but Rocket just kept blinking and staring.
One of the others, a tall fair-haired man, said, “Let’s try a different kind of stimulus. I was hoping for a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but it might be easier for it to vocalize an involuntary response.” He picked up a narrow sharp tool like a precision knife and began to prick Rocket with the tip, choosing random spots on his back wherever the bands didn’t cover him. Rocket reacted with a squeal of pain each time, and Peter felt Gamora’s hand slide into his. He squeezed it gratefully. He wanted to see if she was taking this any better than he was, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from it for even a second.
Rocket’s next cry came out sounding different, and the humanoids in the lab fell into a hush to listen to him. The audience in the Milano was just as quiet, and Peter heard the next words clearly. “Why...you...do this?”
There was a beat of shocked silence, and then the researchers did something Peter never would have expected: they cheered. All of them. They put their hands in the air, they laughed in delight. Two of them hugged. From their babbling it could be gathered that they were so excited because “the subject” had “formed a complex interrogative phrase” on his first try, but nobody discussed what he had meant or why he had chosen that question.
“They look like me,” said Peter numbly. Any one of the five researchers now on screen could have passed as a Terran. Had Rocket noted the similarity the first time he and Peter had met? Did he still subconsciously associate them sometimes?
Gamora didn’t answer except for another reassuring touch on his arm. He tried to suggest turning off the video, at least for now, but the words wouldn’t come, and it cut to a new scene.
Rocket was perched on a steel table, unrestrained aside from the web of studs and wires protruding from his back. One of the humans from the last shot, the only woman among them, was standing in front of him with a stack of flashcards. Searching for clues on how much time had passed, Peter noticed for the first time that there was a time stamp in the corner again. Rocket’s guess about his age had been fairly accurate.
This clip wasn’t as painful to watch, but it forced Peter to think about the experiments in a way that made everything even worse. Rocket was focused on the cards, naming the picture on each one with no hesitation, even though he had surely never seen their real-world counterparts. The woman kept flipping through the seemingly endless stack, looking bored. There was no positive or negative reinforcement involved; Rocket just did what was expected of him as if he didn’t know there was any other option.
Peter already knew enough about what had happened in the Halfworld lab to hope that this was the last of the footage that they had on Rocket, or at least that the rest of it was buried somewhere else within the lengthy video so that the spell would be broken and they could turn it off. When the part with the flashcards blacked out, he held his breath, but instead of a respite it was Rocket in a suspended harness with half of his skin peeled back.
That wasn’t the last one either. They saw Rocket being fed by hand while his own hands were encased in blocks of gel. Rocket working frantically to beat his time on a puzzle that would have taken Peter hours to solve. Rocket unconscious and drooling while an otter on the other table anxiously tried to pull toward him.
“Lylla,” said Peter. Gamora asked how he could tell, and he recalled that Rocket hadn’t had a word for Lylla’s species any more than he had for his own. Peter had understood just based on his description. “It’s weird,” he said slowly, “two kinds of Terran animals, plus all these humans. I mean, I know there’s, what do you call it, parallel evolution? And sometimes species get scattered from their native planet. But still. Is this really a coincidence?”
Thinking about it made him look down, rubbing his temples, for the first time since they’d started watching. When he looked back at the screen, he saw why Gamora hadn’t taken up the discussion. Rocket was standing upright, alone in an unfurnished room. Aside from his lack of clothing and the fresher look of the scars on his back, he had the same appearance that he did now, but he was unsteady, taking his first wobbling steps on two legs. To keep him from dropping to all fours, his handlers had tied his hands behind his neck, so every time he stumbled, he went down face first without being able to break his fall.
Gamora had a hand over her mouth, eyes wide, as a hook descended from the ceiling like an arcade claw crane and hoisted Rocket back to his feet by the chain linking his hands. He couldn’t even give up and lie still.
“How long did they make him do this?” she murmured.
An answer came from another voice, making Peter feel like he had just been stabbed in the heart with an icicle: “A couple hours a day, ‘til I got the hang of it.”
Peter and Gamora both jumped to their feet, Gamora fumbling with the remote control, Peter trying to organize the stream of apologies coming out of his lips. Rocket was standing close enough to the couch, blanket over his shoulders, that they would have seen him easily if they hadn’t been so fixated on the footage of his past. His own view of the screen was unobstructed; it was impossible to know how long he had been there. His voice had sounded calmly flat, and there was no sign of rage or even fear in his eyes and ears.
“Shut up,” he said, effectively silencing Peter. “‘Mora, put that down, I’m watchin’.”
Seconds ticked by as all three of them saw the Rocket of the video finally making his way across the room and slumping to his knees. The robotic arm lowered and released him from his cuffs, and a dish of water came through a slot in the wall.
Peter turned to leave. He couldn’t stop Rocket from watching if he wanted to, but he didn’t need to be there gawking at his friend’s suffering. This had been agonizing enough without knowing that Rocket was seeing it too.
Rocket didn’t say anything, but Gamora caught Peter’s elbow and held him back. “Rocket,” she said gently, “Please understand. We didn’t mean any disrespect. Dr. Shanthig gave the data stick to Peter, and--”
“Shh.” Rocket was still staring at the screen, bathed in its bluish gleam. “Wait! Pause it.”
Gamora hesitated, clearly as confused by the request as Peter was, and Rocket bared his teeth at her. “C’mon! Now you have to go back. Yeah. Little more. There! A’right, now zoom in...higher...and stop.”
He pointed with the arm that had so recently been useless, revealing his code tattoo where the skin peeked out from the blanket. Peter followed with his eyes, and saw the panel high on the wall that Gamora had enlarged and stilled under Rocket’s directives.
The text on it read plainly: PHIGGRE.