The Art of Cliffhanging

Chapter 1: The Run


I own absolutely nothing—I have no more claim to the Guardians of the Galaxy universe than a bird has claim to the sky. I can't even claim the accompanying thumbnail: credit for that goes to Kurunya, from deviantart.

So, this started off as a drabble about a mission gone wrong. But, like drabbles sometimes do, it insisted on growing from a hundred words, to two hundred, to... well, you get the idea. Enjoy!

Gamora was going to kill him.

Well, assuming he managed to beam them off of this godforsaken rock in time. Then she was going to kill him.

Gritting her teeth against the growing ache in her side, she pushes herself to keep running. Rocks shift and slide underfoot, and the terrain grows steeper, making it more and more difficult to press on.

"Peter!" she shouts, putting her hand to her ear. "Peter, we're in trouble, do you copy?"

The comm-unit crackles to life. "Gamora, I copy. What's wrong?"

"Your intel was wrong," she bites out. "You said this was an abandoned planet. You said this was a simple job, and I believed you, or I would've never agreed to divide up the team for separate missions!"

"Whoa, back up," Peter says. "What do you mean, it's not an abandoned planet... Is someone else after the relic? Who is it, some junker? Aw hell, tell me it's not Yondu." Gamora hears a scrabbling noise in the background—probably Rocket, climbing up on the co-pilot chair beside Peter.

"Actually, I would settle for Yondu right about now," she says wryly. "But no such luck. Instead, we're up against mindless insectoids of death." She throws a glance over her shoulder, half-expecting to see giant mandibles snapping at her heels. "This place is a Brood colony," she snaps. "And that so-called 'relic'? That was the egg of their next Queen."

"Well, shit." Rocket's voice.

"My sentiments exactly."

"Oh, God." Peter again, sounding shaken. "I didn't know. Are you okay? I don't hear Drax... Is he with you?"

"I'm fine. So is he." She glances at her teammate, who is keeping pace beside her. "His comm-link is broken: we had a run-in with a few sentries." Well, more like a few dozen sentries, but really, who was keeping count?

"I would not describe our predicament as a run-in," Drax puts in, climbing over a boulder. "More accurately, it was a run out. Out of the egg chamber, as quickly as possible."

Gamora rolls her eyes to the side. In the background, Rocket tries to stifle a laugh, and fails.

"Okay, well, keep running," Peter says. She can practically hear him glaring at Rocket.

"Quill's right for once," the mechanic butts in, sounding unfazed. "The Brood may be a bunch of scary mofos, but most of 'em are slow-moving: just steer clear of the winged ones, and book it to the Micelli, and you should be okay."

"'Book it'?" Drax mutters. "I don't see how educational tomes will help."

Gamora sighs. "He means 'run like hell to the ship'. Only we can't. We tried, but she was already overrun with the Brood. You'll have to come and pick us up in the Milano."

"Shit," Peter says. In the background, Rocket's reaction is even more colorful. "We're changing course now, but we literally just left Yormot," Peter explains. "It'll be twenty, thirty minutes at least... Can you hold out that long?"

Gamora looks to Drax.

He nods. "We can if we have to."

"We will keep running," she relays to her teammates. "If we can make it to higher ground, maybe we can find a defensible point."

"We'll get you out of this," Peter says firmly. "I promise."

"I am Groot."

"Yeah, what he said. Hang in there, you two." A pause. "You know, now that the Micelli is probably getting dismantled by the Brood as we speak, I'm guessing she's probably the first and last spacecraft that Nova will ever loan out to us, huh?"

"Not important right now!"

Gamora shakes her head, about to comment, when—

"Get down!"

Drax slams into her, sending them both to the ground. Winded and disoriented from the impact, she looks up in time to see a Brood-scout rush overhead, barely missing them. The scout is full-grown and winged, with its mandibles fully extended: one second later, and it would have impaled her.

Having missed its target, the scout turns sharply about, limbs skimming the ground. Wings whirring, jaws clicking, the creature circles back toward them. They scramble to their feet, trying to dodge out of its path.

They underestimate its speed.

The creature launches itself at Drax. Man and beast fly backward in a tangle of limbs, and Drax cries out in pain as the creature clamps down on his wrist, hard. He struggles to free himself, but the mandibles refuse to give.

"No!" Gamora shouts, running toward them. "Get off of him!" She can see the needle-like probe in its mouth, slick with venom, flicking toward the skin at his wrist.

With an enraged cry, Gamora draws her blade and launches herself into the air. She vaguely registers the frightened shouts of her teammates over the comm-link, but she purposefully tunes them out. The world around her retreats, disappearing past the edges of her awareness, until there is only the blade in her hand, the struggling form of her teammate, and the venomous needle... hovering, searching, flicking...

Gamora lands on top of the creature. Using her full weight, she drives the blade into its compound eye.

The creature screams: a thick, high-pitched sound, like shards of metal scraping together. The beast shudders and stamps, and most importantly, its needle retreats. Hoping desperately to hit something vital, Gamora twists the blade in deeper... The creature screams again.

Then, instinctively and without warning, it takes to the air, unwilling passengers in tow.

After the initial shock of finding herself airborne, Gamora quickly finds her balance. "Hang on!" she shouts to Drax as the wind whips past them. Straddling the neck of the scout, she reaches for him with her free hand. He clutches her forearm gratefully.

"Any brilliant plans?" he shouts. His voice is as dry as ever, but Gamora can tell that he is in pain.

"Generally speaking, yes," she shouts, straining to be heard over the rushing air. Her stomach drops as the creature swoops haphazardly up and down. "We have to kill this thing."

Drax stares up at her incredulously. "That is the entirety of your plan? I think that might be even worse than the 'twelve percent' atrocity that Quill came up with on Xandar."

"Not... helping..." Gamora grinds out.

"Will you assholes just listen to me?" Rocket's voice, angry and deliberate, over the comm-link. "I've been trying to tell you how to kill that sucker. For the past. Two. Minutes."

"Ah," Gamora grimaces.

"Oh," Drax says.

"Gah," Rocket sighs. "If you'd been listening, you'd know that the best way to kill a Brood-scout is to skewer its brain. To do that, you either have to go through the mouth, or through the back of the head, right where the horn plate meets the rest of the exoskeleton. Even Drax's pathetic little excuses for daggers should be long enough to reach. Ya got that?"

"I think I preferred it when you weren't helping," Drax huffs.

Gamora rolls her eyes. "I am on it," she tells Rocket. She grips the handle of her blade, which is still firmly buried in the creature's eye. Fortunately, with the added weight of its passengers, the scout is flying fairly low to the ground: if she were to kill it now, the fall would be twenty or thirty feet at most—easily survivable. Taking a deep breath, Gamora rips the blade free.

Meanwhile, Rocket is still talking. "Just be careful," he advises. "The Brood thrives in mountain terrain. Lots of sheer drops, pointy rocks at the bottom."

The creature screams once more, swerving in its flight path. Gamora rights herself and readies her blade.

"So you definitely wanna watch where you put 'er down," Rocket is saying.

Gamora drives the blade home, sinking it deep into the vulnerable point at the back of the insectoid's head.

"It would suck if you cut the power, and you happened to be flying over a—"

"Cliff!" Drax shouts, gripping her hand.

"Yeah, that," Rocket says casually.

"No, cliff!"

"Oh, God." Gamora looks down, following his gaze, and sure enough, they are headed right for the edge of a chasm. Her heart all but stops. The creature is sputtering, dying, practically in free fall, but its forward momentum continues: for a horrible, terrifying moment, Gamora isn't sure whether they will make the landing... Her first instinct is to leap clear and let the creature fall where it may, but Drax is still caught in its jaws... She can't leave him... She has to leave him... She can't.

The scout hits the ground, just a few yards before the edge of the precipice. Man, woman, and creature slide forward together, sending up clouds of dust and gravel.

Gamora takes a deep breath, keeping an iron grip on Drax's hand. With her other hand, she grips her blade: gravity pulls it free as she slides down the creature's side. Angling the blade toward the ground, Gamora stabs downward as hard as she can, trying desperately to slow their forward momentum. But the blade finds only loose earth and gravel... nothing that catches, nothing that can slow them down... The creature clicks and keens, weakly scrabbling for purchase at the edge... Drax is still caught...

Finally, her blade catches on something firm. She jerks to an abrupt halt.

Something stretches and tears in her sword arm, and she screams: even with her bio-mods, the strain on her body is too much. Still, she refuses to let go of Drax.

Fortunately for them, the insectoid is on its last leg of life. As they jerk to a halt, the scout finally falls free, too weak to support its own weight. Drax cries out in pain, and Gamora grimaces sympathetically, knowing that his wrist has probably snapped.

She listens breathlessly to the Brood-scout as it falls. The harsh clicking and screaming quiets to a whine, then dies out entirely.

Then there is only the sound of the wind through the gorge, and the heavy breathing of her and her teammate.

Trying to collect herself, she lets her head fall back against the ground. She is lying flat on her back, parallel to the cliff edge. Her right arm and shoulder hang off the edge, straining to hold Drax in place, while her sword arm is still gripping her blade, keeping them from falling. She digs her heels into the ground, searching for additional purchase, but comes up empty. So she lies still.

"That was incredibly stupid," Drax finally points out from below, adjusting his grip on her forearm. "You could have died."

Gamora laughs, because of course that would be the first thing he would say. "You are welcome. And I am fine, thank you for asking." She rolls her eyes to the side. "What about you, princess?"

"Still not a princess," comes the obligatory grumble. Then, after a pause—"I would pull myself up, but my wrist is broken."

"I was afraid of that," she says. "I don't suppose there are any convenient ledges down there, that you could jump to."

She feels his weight shift as he takes stock of their surroundings.

"It would seem our luck stops here," he says. "We are on an outcropping."

Her heart starts to sink.

"I cannot see any ledges or hand-grips," he continues. "Only a straight fall."

"All right," she grits her teeth and adjusts her grip. "Then I'll have to try to pull you up."

"You are going to try what?"

"Stop talking, I have to concentrate."

"I do not understand how concentration will change anything." He sounds incredulous. "I am nearly four thousand grets, and you weigh half that—maybe not even half that. Bio-mods or no bio-mods, it's not possible."

"Stop talking," she grinds out. "And don't tell me what's... possible." On the word 'possible', she rolls towards her dagger arm, flexing her bicep and engaging her core muscles...

And she accomplishes nothing, other than straining her already taxed shoulder. She gasps, rolling back into place. "Huh," she says. "I honestly thought that would work."

He snorts. "And you claim that I have an over-inflated view of my physical capabilities."

"Stop talking," she says again, aware that she is starting to sound like a broken record. "I'm trying again." She tunes out his protests as she tries again to pull him to safety. And again. And again.

Finally, she admits defeat. Exhausted, she lies back against the dust, doing her best to keep her fists clenched as her arms start to cramp.

"Well, team," she says, "any time you would like to contribute an idea, I would love to hear it."

Only silence.

"Peter? Rocket? Groot?"

Still nothing.

"This is Gamora to the Milano, can anybody copy?"

Drax shifts his weight. "Your earpiece is gone, isn't it?"

She realizes that he is right. Turning her head to scan the area, she sees the fallen earpiece—a silver, pea-sized device, glinting in the sun. It's only a few feet away. Then again, it might as well be a hundred parsecs away, for all the good it's doing them.

Because now, not only are they stuck at the edge of a cliff, on a planet swarming with murderous insectoids, but all communications with their team have been cut off.

She releases a shaky breath. "It's gone. We're on our own."

Author's note:

Dun dun dun!

So. I should really, really write another chapter of my Rocket origin story. And I will! (Eventually.) I don't even have writer's block: on the contrary, I know exactly what to write. It's more like a 'distraction block', whereby my brain refuses to work on 'I Didn't Ask to Get Made' until all the other plot bunnies running around in my head have been sated. Please bear with me!

And as always, thanks for reading and reviewing!