—and landed, hard, on a great heap of torn rubber, scrap metal, and ripped canvas sheeting. He could have done without it, all things considered.
The whole place was industrial trash and salt-white hardpan, as if nothing grew there now and nothing ever had.
She had broken Mjolnir in her fist like a child crunching a piece of candy, with just the same smile at the sweetness when it shattered. They were not prepared for her.
He childishly resisted the urge to call out for Loki, who was nowhere in sight. At this exact moment, he was exhausted with family: with his father’s secrecy, with his brother’s selfish crimes, with his newly found sister’s apparently limitless capacity for destruction. No more. If any cousins ever surfaced, he would kill them on sight for the greater good.
Looking for him without meaning to. He always seemed to wind up doing that.
He found a path through the piles that seemed to tend towards a city that erupted from the ground in endless metal spires and sprawls. It looked as if it festered there. Aside from its height, he couldn’t find much difference between where he was and where he was going. It was that kind of snobbery, his father had once told him, that would make him a poor emissary to any other kingdom.
“Will I not have emissaries of my own?” he’d asked, laughing. “May I not send Loki?”
Fandral had slammed his hands against the table, thundering away as if he were cheering someone on in a melee. “Silvertongue! Silvertongue!”
“You are a child,” his father had said, shaking his head, but his mother had smiled, hiding the expression—though not entirely—behind her hand.
What had Loki said? He couldn’t remember, nor could he remember the look on his face.
He was somewhat grateful to have this memory broken into by what almost looked like a raiding party: a cluster of men and women in uncured leather and heavy gloves, with axes and machetes at their hips. Their eyes widened when they saw him.
“What are you, competition?” one of them said. He had a long, forked tongue that tasted the air after he spoke, as if poking at Thor to see what he thought of him.
“I’m not after anything you have a claim on,” Thor said. “I’m a stranger here.”
The snake-tongued man laughed. “There are no strangers here.”
“Well, you don’t know me.”
“He didn’t say he knew you,” a woman with pink skin said. “Just that you can’t be a stranger.”
He may have been in need of emissaries after all, because he understood none of this. He rallied. “Do any of these ships still fly?”
“You’re in the market?”
“I need to go off-world.”
This resulted in still more incredulous laughter. “Oh,” the pink-skinned woman said, wiping her eyes, “that’s the best joke I’ve heard in a long time. There’s your answer, Delcey. Addlebrained. Sunstroke, concussion, brain tumor, high on something I’d like a gram or two of myself. But look at those muscles. He’s a prime cut, isn’t he? He could flex his arms and split his sleeves.”
“If he had sleeves,” Delcey said.
“It’s a constant problem, really,” Thor said. “That’s why I avoid them.”
“We’ll get a nice little payout from him, anyway,” Delcey said, ignoring this, and then he raised a short, thick baton and shot Thor in the shoulder with a bolt of blue lightning.
He fell to the ground, his heels scraping up small clouds of dust as his feet jittered unstoppably. If he’d had Mjolnir, he could have flung this shock right back at them and then broken their heads against it if he’d wanted, but without, all he could do was try to remember that he could live through this, that his muscles were not really coming unknit from his bones. At last it stopped. He felt a slick of drool against his chin.
A ship, so battered it looked like it had only ever flown through asteroid fields, settled down almost on top of them.
“Oh, here we go,” the pink-skinned woman said, rolling her eyes.
“That’s right.” A woman swaggered—no, staggered—down the ship’s ramp, her gait drunkenly loose-jointed and as lazy as if she had all the time she could ever need. “Here you go. Or, you know, there you go.” She gestured to the empty part of the horizon. “Whatever works for you.”
Delcey put another jolt into Thor’s arm and then stood in front of him, his thumb still down against the rubber button, ready to press it again. “He’s ours.”
“And then I came, and I took him, and now he’s mine. See how that works?” She slapped at the heavy bracelets she was wearing and when one of them started glowing with a dull blue light, she lifted her arms. Behind her, the ship’s guns moved with her. A neat armorer’s trick. If Thor had to be captured by someone, he would prefer it be her. Even glaze-eyed with liquor, she held her arms steady and straight.
“You wouldn’t,” Delcey said.
“I would. I’m not so much part of the new world.” She spread her fingers and the guns behind her began to power up, generators spinning slowly.
Thor’s captors didn’t give up all at once but rather slunk away gradually, until only the pink-skinned woman was left. She gave him one last hard shock as a parting gift.
In the aftermath of it, he tried to struggle upright as the braceleted woman approached him. Silver-white chains were tattooed above and below her eyes and gave them their only bit of brightness. She was scrubbed cleaner than the other scavengers, her teeth were whiter, her muscles lean and hard from good training. But her face was just as dead as theirs. Where had he landed? What sort of people would choose to live in the midst of refuse?
She smacked his neck with the flat of her hand, planting some sort of metal circle there.
“He’s a fighter,” she called back into the ship. “I don’t know about his brain, but he’s pure brawn, and he’s brave enough. Didn’t even piss himself from the shocks. He’ll be a nice present.”
“What’s the occasion?” A dry remark in a dry voice.
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll find one. Come out and take a look. You can refine the toys later.”
The woman took hold of his hair and pulled it hard enough to tilt his head back, making the pulse throb against the circlet on his neck. She did it dispassionately, as if the idea of hurting him or not hurting him hadn’t yet come into her head, and all she was thinking of was giving her companion a better look at the goods. It put the bleached-white sun in his eyes until he closed them. He heard footsteps rattle the metal ramp.
“I intended no trespass, my lady,” Thor said, and since she didn’t answer with another shock, he went on. “I’m only trying to make my way into the city.”
“You’re in luck, then, because that’s where we’re going,” the man said. “Where else? What the hell did you do, have a rough night at a bachelor party? How’d you end up all the way out here?”
He still couldn’t see, but he knew that voice. He knew it, though it belonged nowhere near this place. He tried to look down, to rid himself of the glare, but the woman held him still with an iron strength.
Then the man said, “Thor?”
“Banner? That can’t be you, can it? It’s good to see you again--if I could actually see you, anyway.”
The hand in his hair suddenly loosened and Thor was able to look.
The wind whistled through the trash heaps like it was coming through a canyon, making the twisted metal and melted glass sing out in strange tongues. It was unearthly, but no more so than the Banner who knelt down in front of him. He was little but sinew and darkly tanned skin; his hands were black with oil or grime. He wore loose white linen and, above that, some kind of charcoal-colored flexible armor. His hair had grown shaggily unkempt and was grayer than Thor remembered. That was the only change he could understand.
“How did you get here?” Banner said. His voice was hoarse. “Where the hell did you come from?”
The woman said, “He’s just somebody’s stray, probably.”
“Where did I come from?” Thor said to Banner. “Where did you come from? How did you find your way all the way out here? Who accompanied you?”
Banner answered none of this. “How did you get here?” It was a monotone repetition, but he had grabbed Thor’s knee and was holding onto it tightly.
“Fine, me first. I fell, they grabbed me, it’s a very short story, now it’s your turn.”
Banner’s lips parted. “You fell?” He stood up rapidly and stepped back, almost in recoil. He’d gone white-faced beneath his tan and looked waxy, sallow. He shook his head once or twice. Then he said, “He comes with us. Right now, forget everything else.”
“He can’t be,” she said. This felt like the first time she really looked at Thor.
“I’m telling you either he is or he’s something we need to start getting scared about right away.”
“Why are you acting like this?” Thor said. “You know me.” He looked at the woman earnestly. “He knows me, we’re friends.”
Banner looked away at that, biting so hard into his lower lip that Thor saw blood spring to the surface, and the woman shocked him through the circlet on his neck as if that were his punishment for seeing Banner bleed at all.
“You want me to muzzle him?”
“No, and don’t give him another jolt, either. I have to--I have to think.” He pushed his fingers through his hair and then pulled something out of his pocket that looked almost like a stylus. He pushed it into the circlet and somehow dragged it around to the back of Thor’s neck and pulled him up with it. “Don’t say a word unless we ask you to. Or I really will let her put the muzzle on, and I’ve heard those hurt like a son of a bitch.”
“You should let me hold him,” the woman said quietly.
“I should,” Banner said. He gave Thor a nudge forward in the direction of the ship. “I can’t, though.”
But on the ship, at least, he hooked the other end of Thor’s tether into a bolt in the wall. He was the one who took the pilot’s chair and, as far as Thor could see from how little he could turn his head, he lifted off smoothly. Thor was left alone with the woman, who had sat down on the padded bench opposite him and was leaning forward, her legs apart, her hands on her knees. Her stare was no longer indifferent.
She said, “You either nod or shake your head. You know nodding, shaking your head?”
“You know him. Banner.”
“You know me?”
“Scrapper 142,” she said, touching her chest. “Sound familiar?”
“Sakaar. You know Sakaar?”
She pressed her lips together tightly. “Did you come from the city? Did you escape from somebody, somebody who mistreated you? We know you didn’t fall. You know what they do in the city to people who ‘fall from the sky’?” She dug her fingers through the air in clawed quotes, her grin vicious. “Out of all those questions, why don’t you answer that one.”
No. Although he could start taking guesses, if she would let him talk.
She didn’t. She stopped even asking him anything, she only leaned back and crossed her arms across her chest. She watched him the way someone would watch a fly they hoped to trap in their fist.
He had to look away from her to think. He hadn’t seen Banner for two years: he didn’t know how Banner could have found his way to some scorched, refuse dump of a world, but he had been there not even two hours and he already believed two years of it could have put that gray in Banner’s hair and that strangeness in his eyes. But the rest of it--the way Banner seemed to not entirely believe he was there, the way the woman was so suspicious of him, the way the scavengers had laughed off the idea of strangers--he could not parse even a little. It was like they were speaking two languages separated just enough that though the sounds were familiar, none of the words fit together into sense. And who did he know who delighted in that kind of disorientation?
All he could think of was that somehow Loki had come through earlier than he had, not just by a minute but, thanks to the vagaries of their fall from the Bifrost, perhaps by as much as a day or even a week; that Loki had once again found something like his scepter, the one that had poisoned Selvig’s and Barton’s minds.
But why like this? Asgard under Loki’s rule had been instantly recognizable as his fantasy. This was not.
“What are you thinking about?” 142. She shoved at him with her foot. “You can answer that.”
“My brother,” he said.
A muscle in her cheek jumped and she turned away from him.
They touched down on an open landing pad and, despite the chaos around them, neither Banner nor 142 seemed to mind leaving the ship unguarded and unsecured; as if in recompense for their trust, no one in the throng of people seemed to mind them hauling Thor through the crowd on a metal tether a little less than a foot long. Of course, 142 had called him a gift and the scavengers had called him a payout. This was a world that dealt in bodies.
They walked almost as he did on Asgard, though it took him a while to figure out why he kept thinking that. It wasn’t just the purposefulness of their steps. It was the way everyone around them fell back slightly to let them pass. He tried to see if something about either Banner or 142 marked them out as special, but aside from their battered clothes, which everyone seemed to have in common, they had no similarities.
There are no strangers here.
Suddenly they were no longer in a street but in a plaza and then no longer in a plaza but in a palace: all the spaces stayed the same bewildering, wrong-to-the-eye blend of jagged structure and open space, but the furnishings grew richer and the people grew fewer. Those that were left still gave the three of them a wide and immediate berth.
At least until they came to a huge painted door guarded by a wide-shouldered woman with tattoos the color and style of 142’s, but far more extensive, running down the center of her face and beneath her eyes until it looked like she was wearing a mask of them. She not only did not move, she seemed entirely unimpressed by them, as if people on leashes were hauled up to this door every day. Maybe they were.
“I need a private audience with the Liesmith,” Banner said. As short as Thor’s tether was, he now wrapped it around his wrist. Thor still could have ripped it from him, but he no longer could have done it without breaking Banner’s wrist in the process, and he didn’t like that. “Right now.”
What he liked still less: Liesmith.
(“Let me get this straight,” Stark had said to him once. “Your brother gave himself both his nicknames, and one of them was literally guy-who-comes-up-with-lies? And the other one was fancy-mouth? And you couldn’t tell just from that that he was a budding Unsolved Mysteries?”
“Loki made many mistakes,” Thor had said. His voice tight. “He died with honor.”
Stark’s hand landing on his shoulder, there and then gone, a butterfly’s touch.
What he had not said was that Loki had not named his own talents but had instead let Thor do it for him; had asked him for that favor even though their father had offered. He had been the one to look at Loki and see the heart of him and put a name to it. No one on Asgard had then thought it wrong, no: mischief and deceit and flattery were weapons as much as thunder and lightning. Loki’s skills were not loved, but they had never been hated.
Later, he had regretted it. Maybe if he himself had lied about what he had seen, the lies at the center of his brother would not have sickened there, would not have seemed like his best way forward.)
“Now,” Banner said again.
The guard shook her head. “He’s not to be disturbed. The Grandmaster won’t like it, not on date night.”
“I thought last night was date night,” 142 said.
“Last night and now this night. They’re in love, what do you expect?”
“I don’t know, a break for Gatorade?” Now Banner’s hand was on his bare neck, as tight as a vise. “I can’t emphasize this enough. No matter what’s happening in there, go and tell the Liesmith that he wants to see me.”
“I don’t work for the Liesmith,” the guard said. She now looked not only unimpressed but also bored. “I work for the Grandmaster.”
142 turned her feet out, planting them in a fighter’s stance. She lifted her chin. “Then tell your boss that right now his precious happy home life depends upon him finishing nice and quick. He’s not going to thank you for getting his sweet prince in a petty temper, is he?”
“And that’s if Loki ever unbends enough to turn you human again,” Banner said. “You know how he gets.”
From the skeptical yet wary look on her face, Thor was prepared to guess she knew well. Well, there was the last bit of confirmation, if he’d needed it.
He didn’t know how his disappointment had outlasted his surprise. Maybe one day even that would go.
Finally the guard said, “Any of you so much as put a foot inside this doorway, I’ll see that it gets cut off and eaten for dinner.”
“Bony,” 142 said as the guard left them. “No good meat there.” There was sweat all along her hairline and the muscle in her cheek was pulled tight again and twitched at erratic intervals. She fidgeted constantly with her bracelets.
Banner, his mouth close to Thor’s ear, said softly, “If you’re lying to us, I’m telling you right now, I won’t have a second thought about turning you over to him, and he will rip you apart and take days doing it.”
They waited in that doorway for what felt like a century, and then Thor saw his brother striding down the hall. He was tying his robe closed at the same time, his attention on knotting its green silk belt, and he didn’t look up until the last moment, though he talked continuously the whole way: “I hope interrupting our evening gave you immense satisfaction, because if it turns out that this—”
He saw them.
Thor waited for panic, smugness, wheedling, excuses, lies; Loki gave him none of any. He had never seen Loki look before as he did then.
“Is it magic?” Banner said. His voice was ragged. “You could tell, couldn’t you?”
Loki still said nothing, but he at last moved, at last arrived at their position. He was staring at Thor as if he were—
As if he were Frigga come again.
“You’re alive,” Loki said. “Thor.”
Banner’s hold on the leash slackened and then let up entirely. “You’re sure? It’s him?”
Loki said, “I know.” All the blood had gone from his face.
“Loki.” He spoke so desperately because he knew even then: because Loki had always been able to lie with words so much more deftly than he could with his eyes, because Loki had thought him dead, not delayed, not lost, not elsewhere. But if he spoke quickly enough, he could somehow outpace it. He could make up, he thought, for lost time. “Whatever you’ve done here, it doesn’t matter. We can deal with it later.” As if this world were some playmate’s room they had made a mess of, the way the two of them together--thunder and mischief--so often had. “We have to hurry.”
“No,” Banner said, and that too was how he knew: because it was not Loki who said it. Banner’s smile was awful; a tear-track ran through the dust on his face and cut a line to his mouth, to the rigidity of it. His lower lip was still bleeding. “You don’t have to hurry. You actually don’t. Hela, Asgard, Earth. None of it matters anymore. She won, Thor. It's all gone.”