Time is at the essence part II

Farther bound

The compass needle starts to turn and the casing vibrates slowly but increases in pitch as I walk and I'm pretty sure it's idiot proof enough that even a Terran could use it. There are but a few simple keys for settings and as I test them, I can see that its using The Milano as 'the compass north'. Apparently it also somehow tracks my missing team mates. This should make my job SO much easier though I wouldn't bet on it in this place. I stuff the compass under the vest against my skin to keep it absolutely safe. The thing feels a bit tight in there digging on my chest but it's manageable especially since I can feel the vibration against my skin when the needle turns.

I watch the door to hangar area disappear after walking through it into yet another white corridor. I could probably reopen the door if given the right tools and enough time. As far I can tell it's based on relatively simplistic matter rearrangement of meta-materials. None of which is really important to me right now.

I don't think I've taken more than fifty paces when I feel it and turn around ears perked and guns flying in to my outstretched hands but there's nothing there, and yet... I shake my head irritably and holster the guns. 'Too much coffee and stims.' But I can't shake the feeling of foreboding. The feeling that something is there, just beyond the corner of my eyes.

There's a flicker of movement again and I turn whipping my guns out to shoot. To shoot at my own reflection from a wall and I let my guns drop, scolding myself for being so jumpy and while my wonderfully infallible memory insists that there really wasn't something there my instincts are making my hackles rise. This constant dichotomy between my gut-feel and other senses is slowly making my brain hurt.

Something's not right. I face another turn, noticing how this section seems to have fewer rooms when I hear yelling and running. A human yelling. -'Quill! I'm frickin' coming!' I yell back brandishing a gun in both hands as I dart behind the corner to meet him halfway. Only there's nobody there. The god darned hallway is completely deserted. Interestingly the noise I heard has pulled me into exact opposite direction to where the compass was pointing. I don't like this, I don't like this a one bit. It's one thing to be misled because that's what a maze was supposed to do, but to be misled on purpose. I growl loudly from anger as I turn back and decide to cut through one of the rooms. Someone was going to... Pay... For... This!

I am completely disorientated momentarily when the whole scenery shifts to something else as I walk into a room which seems to be giving into a some kind of... Habitat? I fall forward on my knees amidst soft mosses and the door closes and fades behind me... Real trees? I frown in consternation, what was I supposed to do? I can't recall. 'It's probably not that important anyway' I shrug it off feeling strangely carefree as I adjust my green sleeveless tunic before following the sound of rushing water wafting through the trees. Lylla would be waiting -probably, she loved swimming almost as much as she'd admitted loving me but something about this was itching me the wrong way.

She's just as I've recalled her to be -wanted her to be. Standing coyly by the small camp fire before wading into the pond under the small waterfall. She entices me to join her by splashing the water and dropping her green & golden Sari-gown half-way down. She doesn't have implants visible on her supple brown-haired body the way I do. Unlike me she's perfect in every way. Unscathed and unsullied. "Come Rocky wouldn't you like to swim with me? The water is lovely and warm today. We can warm align fire when we're done if you're worrying about your implants getting wet." She beckons and I ache to join her company but something's still not like it should be even though this is what I've always wanted. I feel a sharp tug of pain in my head and look back and past at her trying to figure it out. "Give me a minute my head's hurting right now". I say as I sit down on the bank. "Oh Rocky I know just the thing... and I know you're going to enjoy it." She replies enticingly and that's when I really stare at her. Enticing, her? Lylla had been a lot of things aside from being my first and only real 'crush' but she'd never been enticing in this manner, demure and romantic for sure but openly suggestive about taking it to next level? never that. I scramble backwards when she wades across the shallow shoal and reaches out for me. I feel something cold resting against my chest under the tunic and rebut her with a shove when it feel as If my mind is suddenly making a somersault from a sudden eidetic flashback of what really happened to a certain otter named Lylla and it isn't anything idyllic or romantic.

"No, no, nooo! this is not RIIGHHT!" I scream. The illusion breaks and I'm wreathed in mental agony as the waves of psychic backlash roll over me. The impossible scene is now melting like wax and I fear I'm losing myself, losing my mind into this dream within a dream. I grasp at straws -straws that melt from my touch, then I start pulling hairs in my head, anything to ground myself among the shreds of tattering reality. It's over and I'm left to stare at the empty white room. I feel like I'm going to be sick and roll aside, finally giving in for the urge of puking my guts out. I'm not sure how long have I spent there, kneeling and shivering, before I'm able to continue on again.

Peter. Man he looks like shit. His hair is all a mess, shirt's sweat soaked and torn and his jacket had been left some place else along with his mind, Judging from the way he stares in front of him without registering me despite me standing right in front of his kneeling form. It's fairly safe to assume that he's been gripped by that same malevolent presence that's been clawing at the back of my mind. Scratching and hissing but unable to gain a purchase.

"Peter? Hello, Terra to Peter...?" I shout waving my hand in front of his kneeling form. No reply. Well, okay he did say something but I don't call those stupid bawls about Mom and not wanting to leave her as a reply to me. I ball my palm into a fist and smack him on the cheek.

That does the trick. The shock of sudden pain breaks the mesmerizing. He takes a hasty step back, shivering and hitting the wall with a thud and stares around him as if seeing his surroundings for the first time. "Rocket... how, where's, what? Did I really-!" He blurts trying to figure out what's happening, mouth running before his brains can catch up as per frickin' usual.

"We're still in that flarking thing you idgets felt necessary to dock in and investigate." Comes my acerbic reply.

"The fuck is going on in here Rocket? First we were just checking and sizing up the place to see if we could salvage anything valuable and I suggested us to split up to save time. Next thing I know...-" He says shaking his head a little to clear 'the cobwebs'.

"Some kind of hyper-advanced brain-dance shit and weird time-warp effects but that's not the important part. What's important is that we've got about 5 hours to get the frakk out of here or become fried by cosmic radiation." I interject sternly.

"Brain dance! The fuck? I mean I've no idea what the fuck that is but it sounds nasty?" He asks and I'm yet again to wonder how the man's brains function. Of all our current problems he stick to that?

"Stim-Sim A.K.A Stimulant-simulation. It's like a full body holo-vid session at the arcades but feels more real, more immersive and infinitely more dangerous 'cause it stimulates the brain parts directly."

"Now wait a minute, that's impossible! No way they could do that without anyone of us knowing."

"They, Whose they? And no, it's very possible and the experience is quite the real deal when you're being Stim-simmed Quill." I say turning to face him with my gun raised.

"They, -the people who made all this shit." He clarifies quickly and I lower my gun before he continues. "You said dangers. What kind of dangers, Rocky?"

"Roy! Oh shit, Roy..!" I can't seem to stop shaking after seeing his empty still open eyes. I heard it, heard him blowing up on a mine. All that's left of the one-time fox dog-face is his head. It had arced down from the sky and dropped right into my lap. Still wearing the helmet and fur smoking little tendrils from the bloody neck stub's edges. I was lucky, laying down in the ditch and covering for his advance. Even in death he'd retained that stupid smirk that always crept on it when anyone mentioned this forsaken group of G.I's called the 'Toy unit'. Toy unit in a Toy war. How fuck-de-doodle-doo apt. I'm woken up from the stupor by my Group leader. Sarge Wally's voice is ringing in my head-set, asking about the explosion. I'm still shaking but my voice is steady. "R0-y8's KIA, Sarge. He stepped on a mine. Requesting pioneer assistance to advance further into sector Gamma-eight-six." And that's that. Another one bites the dust but you don't think about it, because you'll fall apart if you do. That shit never happens to you, it happens to someone else, some poor Chuck, anyone but you and the day you stop thinking like that is the day you invite shellshock. They say's that only three kind of guys return from a war, the dead, the wounded and the crazy. I wasn't going to be anyone of the holy trinity but I'm starting to doubt my conviction. Night is falling fast at this planet, I observe with a small relief. At night the Walkers wouldn't operate and we'd get a moments respite. I slowly climb out of the ditch and return to HQ-site when the relief forces arrive. I feel tired and miserable. We've been at this war for Maker knows how long and it doesn't seem to end any time soon. I try not to think about it as I lay my pallet down under a leafless tree next to some ruined wall amid the three other beddings already laid there. I'm beyond care, all I want is to fall asleep and probably never to wake...

And I open my eyes to reality instead. That's how the Stims are operated there. To fall asleep or die is to drop out of Stim, it's a safety procedure of sorts. They may not care that much if one of their products 'dies' during the Stim-simulation because while you don't actually die that often, even thought it can happen, they do care if we start dropping from over-exposure to Stimming. A harsher reality where I'm strapped from my appendixes to a vetruvian ring with a bunch of wires 'n tubes running to and from my body and it's orifices into various medical machines and computer units. I'd growl if I could trough the combined breather mask-muzzle. If I could turn my head freely I'd see many more fur bodies similarly jacked-in. I hate these training simulation. Sure, you might not really die even if you fuck up but what difference does it make if the mental scars are even more severe? One of these days I'm going to break free and strap those assholes in their shiny lab coats into this torture ring to suffer and die over and over and over in some shitty random-ass, no-win battle scenario only to watch their bodies to finally give out...Yeah, especially that one dimple-faced pinkly-skinned asshole over there, always working in double-time to get us right back in to our personalized simulated hell, should any of us drop out early.

"-Rocket?!" I'm returned from my thoughts with a jolt from Peter. "WhAAT!" I yelp feeling disoriented.

"You okay buddy?" He asks with slight concern and it annoys me.

"I'm fine why wouldn't I be?" I grunt fetching Peter his gun from the floor as a distraction.

"Don't know man, you tell me? I asked you about the dangers of 'stimming' and you just stood there staring ahead." He says putting his gun back into belt loop.

"You don't eat and you don't drink while Stimmed and eventually your body starves and/or your kidneys fail if you're not periodically woken up or the stimm session ends so you can do those bodily needs. It's why the Megacorps have never dared to release this shit to home consumer markets. Some governments and clandestine organizations still use them for quick & dirty training and even imprisoning by putting the thing on endless loop, though not the Nova or Kree." I reply matter of fact-like because that what it is, just a fact.

"So this whole god damn place is just a -a one huge 3D-arcade hall?" Peter exclaims wide eyed.

"I dunno what a 3D-arcade is Petey but If I'd had to guess, I'd hazard to nope, but this may have been a training facility once." I shrug nonchalantly. It wasn't really important to me what this place had been in comparison to what it was now. "For whom? It's a god damn maze, that's what it is." Quill exclaims unhappily.

"How the frakk should I know? Come on, let's go find the others before we all cook. Might even find that shabby, ugly ass maroon jacket of yours on the way back." I grunt in reply, already at the door. "It's not ugly maroon, it's blood red and just a little worn-down." He pouts quietly and hastens his steps to keep up with me.

There are great many things I could name to not expect and one of them is the interesting fact that Groot and Drax were mostly unaffected by the strange mind altering properties of this place. In hindsight it was fairly obvious why; Goot is a plant-like alien and Drax... Well Drax's species probably don't have the sort of imagination needed for this place to tap in fully, his species being as literal as they are. As it is, I nearly shoot Drax's head off from surprise when we bump into him and Groot at the hallway.

"Okay what the flark's up with the mean and green?" I grumble lowering my guns to look at Drax's crumpled form in askance.

Peter being Peter he practically pushes me aside to have a closer look at Drax. "What happened Groot?" He asks though it's pointless in the sense that I'm the only one who has any true understanding of what Groot is saying.

"He says that at first he started to mutter and sweat for no reason and then he suddenly started running in panic and Groot had to catch and hold him in place with his vines until he calmed down enough to stop running. He was going to stay put and wait for you guys to come back then they saw those others and Groot realized they should keep moving." I helpfully translate Groots lengthy, many parted but only three-worded explanation without needing a prompt.

"Okay, so whose those others you run away from?" Star-lord comments and quickly checks his guns settings. "Yeah- Wait a minute we got other people here?" I ask face crunching. "I am Groot!"

"What do you mean 'of course there are' " I reply, mind already working on the assumption that his right.

His 'I am Groot' is accompanied with a Tree-like shrug to which I have to nod. "Makes sense in a way... and all the more reasons for us to scram from this death trap."

"Wait, yohoo, lost in translation over here! What did he just say?" Quill demands impatiently.

"Groot thinks that the celestial body, that's about to fry us, isn't merely a source of radiation but is in fact distorting space-time together with its neighboring celestials gravity wells. To put this in Trade language, we might start seeing echoes and doubles of other people who were trapped here before us and even of ourselves and maybe even those who'll come here after us." I explain while trying to keep a neutral face for everyone's sake despite feeling about to freak out.

"So, like ghosts?"

"Ghosts aren't real Quill but those apparitions or what ever... They're far from ephemeral, mostly. I think so anyway. Never seen a time dilation-shadow before."

"Mostly? You don't know!" He inquires forcefully and I notice that I'm not the only one frowning at his tone. Groot coolly hums his three word reply to him stating the fact. "Ain't helping here man!" The man snaps back at him. Yep Quill's probably about to panic soon. I have a feeling that it's going to be a cyclic thing.

"Look, humie. I'm just a wicked smart cyber-genetic uplift cursed with an eidetic memory and way too many issues, and contrary to popular belief I don't know everything about every damn mechanical or scientific thing in the Galaxy or for that matter...Even what's going on in this place!" I raise my voice to cry out in frustration and rake my face with my paws for emphasis. Damn this stupid place... The angsty mood is catching on like a damn Jovian flu. Peter and Groot both blink for a moment before deciding it best to not comment on my outburst and Drax, Drax is still in his personal la-la land and completely unperturbed by us.

"Let's just get a move on, okay?"Star-lord finally suggests, breaking the awkward silence between us.

"Firsts sensible suggestion you've given in days." I grumble sarcastically and take the lead since I'm the one with the gizmo to keep us from getting lost while Groot carries the catatonic Drax and Peter looks and points his guns at every which direction while we're walking along the hallways as if it would do any good in protecting us...

"My father! Thanos, where are you? By my father's bones!" She shrieks trashing wildly and then hugs herself tightly as if shielding herself from unseen blows.

"Hey guys, found her!" I yell as loud as I dare. She isn't catatonic the way Drax is. Even slapping or pinching hadn't done much on the big guy and I'm hesitant about touching or hitting her when she's trashing and cursing like that. You don't just slap the most dangerous woman in the Galaxy on the cheek and expect to survive. Piling in after me Groot sets Drax down on the floor as Star-lord carefully circles the pair of us, assessing something.

I jump and almost shriek like an animal when a shot suddenly whizzes by me and zaps her squarely between breasts. She stops her incoherent trashing and muttering and collapses on the ground like a puppet without strings when the shot dissipates.

"The hell was that for Quill!" I ask angrily turning to face him. "You're welcome Rocky." He grins cockily enough that I'd like to punch him. I glare at him for a bit longer before wordlessly admitting that stunning her was probably the safest option given her current condition. I'll still need to ask her about her mental shielding once we're safe. This place shouldn't be able to get past them and affect her like this if Thanos had been as thorough with his 'work' on his 'children' as he'd been described by her or... or this place is way more advanced than what I've assumed. My musing is halted by Gamora groaning softly. She lifts her head and opens her eyes to stare at us and rises to her elbows from the floor.

"I'm not sure what you two just did but it hurt like a bitch so don't do it again but thanks, I needed that jolt to snap out of it." She thanks sounding a little rattled by her experience.

"Quill shot you with a stun bolt. You were trapped in a stim-sim." I fill in. She looks to be okay all things considered and I can't smell any fresh blood so she isn't injured either. Probably just tired, I conclude to myself.

"That explains it." She comments with a curt nod and slaps away Peter's knightly attempts at helping her to stand up.

"Might wanna zap Drax too, while you're at it Quill." I suggest with a carefully cultivated nonchalance. He looks at me for a moment before shrugging and shoots Drax with the stun bolt. I'm hiding my slight disappointment when the bolt actually has the effect Peter assumed and not the more amusing one of Drax losing his bladder control and twitching like dead frog in an electric current that I had predicted.

It takes but a moment for Drax to realize where he is. Literal mind did have certain advantages over more flighty ones after all. He listens aptly as Quill explains what's going on. Interject Quill when his about to declare to Drax that we can just leave. "I didn't say that Peter. I only said that we need to get out like now."

"Why not? you said you can use that thing to guide us back to our ship." He asks almost petulantly.

"The bay doors are down and I couldn't find a mechanism to override them anywhere in the hangar itself."

"Well then we'll just shoot our way out!"

"In a laser fire proofed hold? Not gonna happen." I remind him.

"Well make a bomb then. You can do that can't you?"

"Nope, not gonna happen either. I mean I could make one big enough but there's no guarantees that it'll work instead of just killing us."

"Then what can we do aside from forcing the doors to open with our might?" Drax suggests in his certified candid fashion.

"Find the control room and override the whole installation?" I suggest half-jokingly since I'm not sure if Drax was really serious or not. Forcing open anything that weights in excess of 160 000 tons is too ridiculous to even suggest.

"Great, that's exactly what we're going to do next and kick some butts while at it." Star-lord announces looking exited. Gamora represses a sigh, I roll my eyes and Drax shrugs his shoulders enough to make them go 'pop' while Groot has more pressing concerns such as pruning excess leaves from his shoulder.