“There’s a woman looking for you,” the bartender says as he sets two tall brown bottles down in front of Valkyrie. Valkyrie should probably know his name, considering how he seems to recall her usual order, but she doesn’t have the faintest idea. Too familiar, and not worth the trouble besides. He’ll be gone before long, anyhow; very few people last as long on Sakaar as she has, and they’re probably all that much better off for it.
“What about?” says Valkyrie, popping the top off one bottle with a practiced motion and extinguishing the resulting flame. She taps her vambrace against the pay terminal to transfer the units. It’s been an unsuccessful day, nothing to show for her trek out to the south-west portal cluster except sore muscles and wasted fuel, so she figures she deserves a drink. Sure, she’d probably think the same after a more fruitful day as well, but who’s counting?
“Wasn’t a woman,” says the Xandarian sitting beside her. Valkyrie has seen her around this bar before, too; at least, she’s pretty sure she has. “That was definitely some kind of robot.”
“Hey,” says the bartender. “Robots can be women. My aunt was married to a robot for a while, before they both died in that building collapse last year, the building on stilts out by the racetrack. And that robot was definitely a woman.”
“What did the robot woman want me for?” says Valkyrie. It’s never a good sign when someone goes around asking after you in bars. Valkyrie tries to remember if she’s fucked any sentient robots lately. Sold any? Borrowed from any? But she’s drawing a blank.
“Guess you can ask her yourself,” says the bartender, gesturing towards the entrance to his establishment.
Valkyrie turns to look, and there is a woman standing in the crooked doorway—not a robot, but definitely some kind of cyborg, her body a patchwork of blue flesh and various shades of metal plating. It’s a look that fits in well on Sakaar, and if Valkyrie were passing her on the street, she’d hardly spare her a second glance—unless, perhaps, she was admiring the way her vest hugged the outlines of her curves.
Here and now, though, Valkyrie can hardly ignore the woman, not with the way her big black eyes are boring into her, full of an intent that Valkyrie does not like at all.
Valkyrie grabs her drink and takes a long sip, widening the spread of her legs on her stool and leaning back against the bar. She knows how to deal with people like this cyborg woman—never look nervous, first off all, relax your posture, take up space. Second—keep your head down, and get the fuck away from them as soon as you can. People with eyes like that, intent and determined, are tangled up in things it’s best to avoid if you want to stay in units and out of trouble.
Valkyrie sets the bottle down on the counter behind her and nods, unhurried, at the woman. She can feel the eyes of the other patrons on her. Probably hoping for a fight. And that’s what she’ll give them, if it comes down to it, but shit, that sure wasn’t part of her plan for the evening.
The woman strides towards her—and stride is the only way to describe her purposeful steps, the way her eyes never leave Valkyrie’s face. It’s another one of the things about her that could be hot in other circumstances, like, say, one of the boss’s parties. Here it’s just unnerving. The woman only stops her progress when she is standing right in front of Valkyrie, close enough that Valkyrie could slap her, or kiss her.
Valkyrie raises her eyebrows.
“Let’s talk in private,” says the woman. She has a way of standing, so still that the slightest movement feels like it means more than it possibly could.
Valkyrie shrugs. “Here seems fine to me,” she says. She gestures at the roomful of strangers sitting around her. “These are all friends of mine.”
Whatever’s about to go down, she wants witnesses.
“That’s really not a good idea,” says the woman.
Valkyrie crosses her arms and shrugs.
“Fine,” says the woman. “I have a proposition for you. You have something I want, and I’d like to buy it off you.”
“What’s that?” says Valkyrie. She takes a gulping sip of her drink, sets it down noisily.
“It’s a book.”
“I don’t own a lot of books,” says Valkyrie. “You might have me confused with someone who spends their evenings somewhere besides here.”
“It’s a book with a cover made of purple skin,” says the woman. “It’s got a picture of a face on the cover, with eyes that look like they’re following you anywhere,” and something inside Valkyrie’s chest plummets, free-fall, before her brain can even catch up and realize the cause of the feeling.
“Hey,” says the bartender, “I remember that book! You brought that book in a month ago, didn’t you, 142? I remember you showed us all the freaky eyes. What a trip!”
Valkyrie doesn’t like this. She drains the rest of her drink, picks up the next one. “I might’ve,” she says, “but if I did I sold it. Don’t remember who to, so don’t bother asking.” She remembers exactly, of course. No, she doesn’t like this at all.
“Are you sure?” says the woman. “I could make it worth your while.”
“I’m sure,” says Valkyrie. She turns back towards the bar. “Best of luck.”
“Suit yourself,” says the woman, and walks out the door.
Valkyrie awakes to a kind of whir-click sound she can’t place. It’s only when she sees the play of shadows against the walls that she realizes someone’s broken in to her apartment.
This isn’t the first time in her life that she’s woken up to an uninvited guest in her room. It isn’t even the first time since she’s lived in this particular building, although the last time it was just the Shi’ar guy from down the hall stumbling into her place instead of his own by accident after what she assumes was a very good night right up until the moment she’d slammed him into the wall and kicked him in the balls.
The point is, this is the kind of thing that happens on Sakaar, and Valkyrie is prepared. She reaches under her pillow for her knife, and when she doesn’t find it there she reaches under her mattress for her second knife. When she doesn’t find that she blinks awake fully, lurching out of bed—and right into the face of that cyborg woman from the bar standing silently above her, expression cold and face faintly glinting in the light trickling in from the small window over the dresser.
Valkyrie has the brief, hopeful thought that this all might be a dream, before the woman spins her around and presses her up against the same wall Valkyrie once used to deal with her last intruder. She’s got to admit, she preferred it that way around.
Valkyrie head-butts her, but she barely reacts, and by the time Valkyrie’s head has stopped spinning—is the woman’s skull covered in metal? is the woman’s skull made of metal?—the woman has a knife held against Valkyrie’s throat.
This isn’t Valkyrie’s best night.
“Why the fuck are you here?” says Valkyrie. She takes in the room around her. There are some bottles on the kitchen table that she could smash over the woman’s hopefully-not-entirely-metal head, but they’re out of her immediate reach. Same goes for the lamp by the door, and her guns, her knives—fuck.
“The Codex,” says the woman, her voice metallic mockery, her eyes intense in a way Valkyrie associates with the wild preachers who roam Sakaar’s markets, vainly and endlessly warning the populace against all their favourite kinds of debauchery. “Where is it?”
“The what?” says Valkyrie. She’s not sure if she should feel relief or not. Relief, because maybe this cyborg terror truly has mistaken her for someone else, or not, because that would mean she’s about to get the shit kicked out of her for nothing.
“The book,” says the woman, rolling her eyes. “The one you found a couple weeks ago. I know it was you who found it. Several people have vouched for the fact that you showed them the freaky eyes on the cover.”
This is why it’s not good to get familiar with anyone. It leads to things like this—people remembering her, people knowing her name and description and taste in fucking drinks; people connecting her to weird goods she brought in months ago.
“I don’t have it,” says Valkyrie.
“But you know who does.”
“I don’t remember all my buyers,” says Valkyrie. “I sold the book at a market, very cheap. No idea who bought it.”
The woman brings her knife up so the blade digs into Valkyrie’s throat. “My sources say you don’t usually sell at the markets.”
Time for a different tactic. “Fine,” says Valkyrie. “I know who bought it. But he’s not generally a fan of giving things up once he’s got them.”
“Maybe he can be persuaded,” says the woman, glancing meaningfully down at the knife she still holds steady against Valkyrie’s pulse point.
Valkyrie laughs, a short, harsh exhalation. “I don’t think so. Sorry, whoever you are, but you’re not getting that book. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Is that right?” says the woman. “Then I guess if you’re no use to me alive, I might as well make this quick.”
Fuck. “Wait.” This is Valkyrie’s problem—or one of them, anyway, there’s quite the list—she always feels like she’s got a proper death wish right up until death starts to feel real, and then something crawls up out of the depths of her buried heart, clawing and scrambling its way into her consciousness: the fierce, overpowering desire for a life she barely deserves.
The woman’s hand does not ease its hold on the knife, but her expression changes, grows warier, more concentrated. Valkyrie looks around her once again, eyes landing on the small bag dangling from a coat hook a little to her left—and remembering what’s inside. A particularly nasty solution, but it’s not as though her intruder has left her much of a choice. If she could just reach it…
“I’m waiting,” says the woman. Her blade glistens.
“Get off me and I’ll tell you the buyer,” says Valkyrie. Her heart is pounding, fear finally catching up to her brain like a shot of something strong.
The woman considers for a moment, tilting her head to one side. Then she nods and moves back slightly, still holding her knife much too close to Valkyrie’s neck for comfort. But it’s something. It’s enough; it has to be.
Valkyrie stays still for a moment, waiting to catch the woman off guard. “How much do you know about this planet?” she says, stalling for time.
“It’s the galaxy’s garbage dump, full of sad and unwanted people,” says the woman, a nasty gleam in her eyes as though she’s pressing her knife into Valkyrie right now, pressing and twisting and smiling about it. Valkyrie uses that moment to reach into the outside pocket of the bag.
She pulls out the small silver disk and lunges, slapping it onto the woman’s neck. The woman brings down her knife, and Valkyrie dodges, avoiding a deadly stroke but not escaping the gash the woman slices along her upper arm.
Valkyrie barely feels it, adrenaline coursing through her. She grabs the bag off the wall and reaches inside. The woman lunges again, and Valkyrie ducks, crouching down on the floor. She grabs the controller and turns it up to the maximum voltage setting, because if anyone deserves that it’s whoever this asshole is, and lets out a sigh of relief as she waits for the woman’s body to drop to the floor in agony.
Instead, the woman reaches out and touches her, and Valkyrie’s world explodes.
When Valkyrie can think again, when she’s aware of something other than white-hot pain shooting through her, the first thing she notices is the coppery taste of blood in her mouth. Then her vision clears, and she realizes she’s lying down, slumped on her side on the sticky floor, staring at a pair of boots. Before she can react, the woman sticks out her toe and forces Valkyrie’s limp body onto her back, pressing her foot into Valkyrie’s chest. Valkyrie splutters, almost choking on the blood in her mouth, but then turns her head and spits, aiming for the woman’s other boot but missing spectacularly.
The woman grabs the obedience disk controller from where Valkyrie has dropped it on the ground, making it dance in her fingers as she shoots Valkyrie a grin. “Seems I’m more conductive than your usual victims,” she says.
Valkyrie grimaces. What the actual fuck. “You got me there,” she says. “Should’ve known the juice would just flow right off you and hurt whoever you touch instead.”
The woman’s grin widens. “Oh, no, it hurt me too.” She raises the controller, and Valkyrie almost flinches, a guilty sense-memory of all the people she’s captured this way. But the woman simply presses the button to release the disk from her neck, and then slips both disk and controller into her pocket. Valkyrie breathes, and tries to come up with a Plan B, or maybe it’s D—whatever letter she’s onto now.
“Tell me who you sold the Jkasth Codex to,” says the woman, increasing the pressure of her boot against Valkyrie’s chest.
Valkyrie’s mind spins, considering strategies. She hasn’t felt this vulnerable since she almost lost her scrapping ship over a bet almost twenty years ago. She’s been doing well for herself lately—barely owes money to anyone, found a champion who lasted over a year in the arena which meant a nice fat bonus, hardly ever wakes up screaming anymore. The best anyone can hope for on Sakaar, really.
And now this woman has to come and make everything go to shit.
There’s an obvious Plan D, Valkyrie realizes, the backup plan of any well-established scrapper with ties to the boss. It’s a more complicated plan than she’s usually go for, and not exactly a nice one, but you know what they say about desperate times, and it’s not like anyone’s called her nice anytime lately. She’s willing to bet that’s true for the woman in front of her, too.
“I’ll tell you,” she says. “I’ll help you, even. But what’s in it for me?”
The woman laughs, a gasp of shocked amusement. “What’s in it for you is your continued existence.”
Valkyrie shakes her head. “Nah. You came to me. You need me. Kill me now, your mission will be suicide.”
The woman pats the pocket where she stashed the controller. “I can make you talk another way, if you insist.”
“Wow, this book is really important to you, huh? Family heirloom?” Valkyrie can feel her cold sweat congealing under her armpits, at the backs of her knees. She forces her face to look unimpressed, mocking.
The woman’s expression does not change. “More like a gift. For my father. He’d enjoy the gift of your broken body too, if you don’t start cooperating.”
“So sweet. But think about it—what would you rather have: some unwilling confessions that may or may not be true, or a partner in crime?”
“What do you want? Money?”
Valkyrie nods. “Jackpot. 5000 units.”
The woman laughs, that same short, sharp mockery. “That’s a joke, right? Too bad you’re not that funny. 1000 units.”
“You’re not exactly a laugh riot yourself. 4000 is the lowest I can go.”
“2500. Or I decide you don’t need both your eyes.”
Valkyrie gets the sense that she’s not going to do much better than that. No matter. This was mostly for show, anyway: if her plan works out, she’ll be making a lot more units than that. And if it doesn’t, she’ll be dead before she could spend a single one of them. “Fine. Anyone ever told you you’re intense?”
The woman raises her boot from Valkyrie’s chest, and she scrambles to her feet before she has time to change her mind.
“All the time. My name is Nebula. Start talking.”
“He’s called the Grandmaster,” says Valkyrie. They’ve relocated to the kitchen table at Valkyrie’s suggestion, pushing away the mess until the surface is somewhat clear. While Nebula has refused Valkyrie’s very generous offer of beer, she has nonetheless begun to munch on the bag of dried Sakaaran fire-centipedes Valkyrie pulled out from the back of her cupboard. “He kind of owns the planet. He’s an immortal Elder of the universe, with guards, weapons, powers—once he’s got something he wants, he doesn’t just give it up. So can I just say, one more time, that I think this is a really bad idea?”
Just the thought of antagonizing the Grandmaster, even in the ersatz way she’s about to, makes Valkyrie shiver. She’s built a comfortable little life for herself, playing nice with him, and a big factor there is that she never underestimates what he’s capable of. Most people look at him and only see the eccentricity, the hedonism—and those people wind up very dead, very quickly. Or slowly, depending on his mood.
“How do you know him?” Nebula runs her finger along her knife, but now that both of them are sitting calmly at the table, it doesn’t look quite as menacing at it did before. Valkyrie wonders if it’s a nervous gesture, and finds herself almost endeared.
She swallows. This is the tricky part. “He’s my top buyer. Takes a lot of my big-ticket items.” Speaking of, she probably could have got a lot more for that book, seeing as someone’s coming after it now. Instead, she’d ended up almost throwing it in for free when she’d sold him that snake man.
Nebula narrows her eyes. “So you work for him.”
“I’m more of an independent contractor.” Valkyrie meets her gaze. “If that’s a question about my loyalty, I’m only loyal to myself and my unit account. So as long as I get paid you’ve got nothing to worry about.” She leaves the implicit threat hanging to better carry the falsehoods in her words.
“You’ll start getting paid once you tell me something worth paying you for,” says Nebula.
Valkyrie grabs one of the fire-centipedes and crunches it loudly. “He’ll be storing it near the base of his tower,” she lies. She tries to keep her voice calm, nonchalant. She isn’t good at deception, hence why this kind of thing is never her Plan A, although now that’s she’s started she has to admit there’s a bit of a thrill to it. Still. Better to watch on a hologram channel than live out for real.
“And how do we get there?” says Nebula. She’s walked over to the small window of the apartment, and is staring out at the city, as alive at night as it is during the day, no doubt identifying the tower which rises above every other building in the whole of Sakaar.
“To the tower? Easy. It’s a short walk. Usually about half an hour, although you can’t make too many assumptions about time here.”
“And then we just walk right in?” Nebula’s voice drips sarcasm.
“And then we sneak in. I know a guy who owes me a favour. A simple in and out.” In and out for me, anyway.
“You make it sounds pretty smooth for someone who just tried to convince me this was a really bad idea.”
Hmm. Maybe she’s even worse at lying than she thought. “If we get caught, we’re dead,” says Valkyrie, quickly but hopefully not too quickly. “That’s why it’s a bad idea. But I’ll take that risk for a fat stack of units.”
Nebula seems satisfied with that answer, or at least she drops the subject. “Once we get inside, then what?” she asks, and Valkyrie relaxes just slightly, the conversation back on track.
“If we go tomorrow, there shouldn’t be too many guards around,” says Valkyrie. “Or—” she looks out the window at the slowly-lightening sky “—today, I guess. There’s a festival all day, Contest of Champions in the evening. They’ll send extra guards to the streets and the arena.” For a moment, Valkyrie almost forgets her real plan, laying out all this strategy.
“Contest of Champions?” says Nebula. She pours the last dregs of the fire-centipedes from the packet into her hand, and eats the broken pieces surprisingly daintily, picking up small amounts between her fingers and then licking her fingertips clean of the flavour powder. Well. Maybe not that daintily. But more so than Valkyrie has ever been.
“Big fights. Often to the death. It’s the main source of entertainment here. Senseless violence—sounds like your kind of thing, hey?”
Nebula shoots Valkyrie an unamused look. “I prefer violence for a purpose.”
“Yeah? Could’ve fooled me.”
“If you’d like some senseless violence right now, I could arrange it.”
“I’ll pass,” says Valkyrie, smiling despite herself. “So once we’re in, I know where the Grandmaster would have put something like this book of yours.”
“Yeah. We grab it, you give me the second half of my fee—”
“Implying you get the first half now?” says Nebula.
“You got it. You give me something now, I help you out, you give me a bit more later, and then you never bother me again.” Valkyrie drains her drink, willing it to calm her down. She can do this. A bit of deception, a bit of fast-talking, and she’s got herself a big enough payday for some well-earned time off.
Nebula nods. “That is acceptable.”
“You haven’t asked me why I want the Codex,” says Nebula. The two of them are picking their way through the streets in the early-morning light, stepping over trash and passed-out figures alike.
“Oh, no,” says Valkyrie, grimacing at several very large cockroaches crawling in and out of someone’s abandoned bag. “I don’t want to get involved. You told me you’re getting it for your father, great, that’s all I need to know.”
“He sent me because I’m the only one he trusts for a job like this,” says Nebula. “He taught me everything.”
“Right, then,” says Valkyrie. She’s not sure why Nebula’s telling her any of this, but she does not want to get involved. If shit really hits the fan, the less she knows about this woman and her no-doubt-sinister purpose, the better.
“You don’t believe me?” says Nebula.
“What?” Valkyrie is distracted by a series of posters pasted haphazardly to the wall of a teetering apartment building. Join the Revolution! they say, and then after that there’s more text, too small to make out. Valkyrie makes a mental note to look into the posters’ origin; whoever’s putting them up must have a nice tidy price on their head, just waiting for someone like Valkyrie to collect them and bring them to the boss.
“You looked like you didn’t believe me,” says Nebula. “That I’m my father’s best shot for getting the Codex.”
“Well, not when you say it like that,” says Valkyrie, frowning. This conversation is too tangled up for something this early in the morning.
Nebula whirls around, glaring. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Valkyrie rubs her temple, holding her breath as they pass an especially filthy alley. “I don’t know! I’m too tired for this shit. I’m usually not out of bed for another several hours.”
Nebula shakes her head. “So undisciplined.”
“I bet you’re popular back home,” says Valkyrie.
“If you were my father’s child—”
“I’d what? Be waking up at ass-crack o’clock to steal books from immortals? Pass.”
“Never mind,” says Nebula.
It’s a pity that they met in the circumstances they did, Valkyrie thinks as they keep walking. There’s something about Nebula—her prickliness, her determination—that Valkyrie likes. She’s not saying they could have been friends, exactly, but if their first meeting had involved a bit less violence, a few fewer threats—if Valkyrie wasn’t planning to (call it what it is, you coward) betray her in quite the way she’s about to—she almost thinks she’d like it, the way Nebula can match her in casual viciousness. It’s like a perverse echo of long-lost camaraderie, but twisted enough for it not to hurt, not in any way she’s likely to dwell on for long.
Well. That’s not how they met, and that’s not what’s about to happen. Soon this will all be over.
There’s no use feeling guilty about it now.
They reach the Grandmaster’s tower as the sun fully crests the skyline, the morning light painting the various faces staring down at them in even gaudier colours than usual. Nebula’s lip curls into some kind of half-formed snide comment, and Valkyrie almost wants to laugh at the idea that she’d be offended by someone mocking this planet’s aesthetic sensibilities. Maybe Nebula remembers Valkyrie’s lack of reaction earlier (the galaxy’s garbage dump, full of sad and unwanted people, as though that’s anything Valkyrie doesn’t think herself on the daily), but she keeps her thoughts to herself as she squints up at the menacingly ridiculous structure.
“You said you know a side entrance,” says Nebula.
“Yeah,” Valkyrie says, and she won’t feel guilty, she won’t—it won’t change anything, and it’ll just be more shit to drown later.
Nebula insists on going right up with her while she talks to the guard on duty, which makes the conversation a bit less straightforward. Still, Valkyrie really does know him, enough that when she tells him she’s on her way to the basement he steps aside with a knowing nod.
Inside, the hallway is deserted, a clashing jumble of purple and red angularities without a single living thing in sight.
“I’m impressed,” says Nebula. “You really did get us in.”
“Glad you kept me alive?” says Valkyrie.
Nebula raises her eyebrows. “You haven’t got us to the Codex yet.”
The hallway is lit by panels of soft light set into the tiled floor, and decorated at regular intervals with portraits of the Grandmaster smiling against various staged backdrops. Valkyrie points to their left, where the floor slopes down gently, and allows herself to imagine, for a moment, that that’s they’re really headed for the Codex. “Follow me.”
It’s got to be her imagination, the way the eyes in the portraits seem to follow them as they set off.
“This is it?” says Nebula, when they reach the door at the end of the second hallway. “Looks a little plain for a treasure room.”
“It’s the service entrance,” says Valkyrie quickly, trying to keep her voice nonchalant.
Nebula nods. “How long do you think we have before someone comes?”
She still believes it all, then. That’s good, Valkyrie reminds herself.
Valkyrie shrugs. “Couple minutes for sure. I’ll stand watch.”
“Alright,” says Nebula. She smiles, all teeth. “I won’t thank you until this is over, though.”
She reaches out her finger until it hovers above the sensor button. “How big is it?” she asks Valkyrie, turning back to look at her. “And are things organized in any way? Would you say it’s more of a library, or a museum, or a parlor lined with trophies...?”
Valkyrie feels her old, familiar urge to run; less a desire for physical escape and more a sense of dice cast errantly, an impending disaster all the worst for being anticipated. She doesn’t want—but why can’t she just—
“I’m not sure,” she manages. “I think it’s maybe more of a…a...” and all her lies are leaving her, her heart rebelling against the road she has set for it, which is ridiculous. Guilt adds no value to the world when you’ve already fucked over as many people as she has. She’s just trying to stay alive—that’s all this is, in the end. Business, and survival, and their self-serving interlinkages. What she’s about to do isn’t any worse than any other way she makes her living.
“Are you alright?” says Nebula, her voice tinged with something that sounds suspiciously like worry. Then she glares in self-correction. “I don’t want you fainting on me or anything while you’re keeping watch, not when you’re my escape plan.”
“I’m fine,” says Valkyrie. Being the object of that glare should not feel familiar. It should not be making her want to smile. It should not make her consider—no. She has to go through with this. Sakaar will not reward any other choice.
She swallows, mind scrambling for an answer. “Sorry. It’s, um. It’s more of a warehouse, is what I was trying to say. Might be a bit dark. Just walk in and look around, it’s not too big, and all the books will be together.” Nebula only has to walk inside, just set both her feet on the floor past the doorframe, and Valkyrie’s plan will essentially be over and done with.
Nebula makes some kind of adjustment to her left arm, and her palm begins to emit a sharp, blue-tinged light. She reaches for the sensor button once again, about to make the door slide open, and—
“Wait!” says Valkyrie.
Nebula turns to look at her. “Wait?”
“I don’t think it’s here, actually,” Valkyrie hears herself say. Her voice sounds far away, as though someone is speaking to her while she’s underwater.
Nebula crosses her arms, turning fully to stare at Valkyrie. “Then why did you take us here?” she says, cool, quiet, and all the more dangerous-sounding for it.
Valkyrie feels that sensation of wanting to run again, but she’s starting to think that what she’s running from in this case is herself. What’s wrong with her? This kind of thing doesn’t usually bother her, or rather, when it does bother her she’s got some tried-and-true methods to forget.That’s what she should do—let this whole thing play out as she’s planned, hopefully get some cash and anyway get this whole situation off her back, and then take a few days off for some R and R.
What she shouldn’t do is say: “I just remembered. This isn’t actually the right door.”
Nebula’s eyes narrow further. “You just remembered,” she repeats, her voice dripping sarcasm.
Valkyrie shrugs and nods. “It’s a couple floors up. It’s a confusing building. The Grandmaster, he does a lot of redecorating.” She’s talking too fast, she knows it.
Nebula walks towards her until their faces are inches apart. Valkyrie stands her ground. “You know what I think?” says Nebula.
Valkyrie meets her gaze. “No, what’s that?”
“I think you never planned to take me to the Codex. You had some other plan, a plan to double-cross me, and now it comes down to it you can’t even go through with that. Pathetic!” Nebula steps back, staring at Valkyrie with a disgusted expression on her face. “If you were my father’s child, he would have killed you ten times over for your cowardice.”
Valkyrie raises her arms, conciliatory. No good deed goes unpunished, huh? “Whether that’s true or not, I’m helping you now, aren’t I? I can take you to the Codex right now, make it up to you, no harm done.”
Nebula shakes her head. “Not good enough. What was the plan? What’s behind that door?”
“We don’t have time for this right now,” tries Valkyrie. “Let’s just get—”
Nebula lunges, and Valkyrie parries the attack with her arm, sending Nebula stumbling backwards. Nebula unsheathes a knife from her belt and makes to attack again. Valkyrie dodges, ducking underneath the blade and sending an elbow into Nebula’s solar plexus. Both step back, circling each other, eyes glued to each other’s faces.
“Maybe I’ll scream,” says Nebula. “Call some guards down here. I could probably escape. But you—” here she sneers the word—“you’ve got a reputation to uphold here, don’t you, Scrapper 142?”
“Alright, look,” says Valkyrie, lowering her hands in surrender, but keeping her muscles tense, ready, in case Nebula chooses this moment to pounce. “Right, so I haven’t been totally honest with you. But I’m being honest now. The book is three floors up. I know which room, because I put it there, and I don’t think he’s done anything with it since. I’ll take you there now, but you have to be quiet.”
“Tell me what’s behind this door,” says Nebula, eyes fierce with anger.
They’re going to get caught if they stay here. Valkyrie sets her jaw, feels her face grow hot. “It’s a holding pen,” she says. Dangerous, to drop her gaze, but she can’t bring herself to meet Nebula’s eyes.
“A what?” says Nebula. “For who?”
“Contenders. For the fights.”
Nebula’s smile is sharp as her knife. “I see. So when that shock coin of yours didn’t work on me, you started planning for another way to enslave me? Lure me here, push me into this...holding pen of yours, and go and collect your units?”
Valkyrie raises her arms, shrugs: what did you expect from a washed-up drunken slaver?
Nebula’s lip curls up. “But you couldn’t even finish what you started. Did no one ever teach you how to follow through on something?”
“Fuck you,” says Valkyrie. “I’m offering to help you now, what more do you want?”
“You’re lucky I care more about getting the Codex than about getting my revenge on you,” says Nebula. “And since the only thing you care about is money, I’ll even let you keep the half of your fee I already gave you if you take me to the Codex now and then get us out of here. But if you fail, I will cut your body into so many pieces it will just blow away like dust.”
Valkyrie finds she wants to smile. “Charming.” And it almost is; Nebula’s terrifyingly-specific threats are beginning to grow on her.
“Just take me to the Codex,” says Nebula.
“The Codex?” says an all-too-familiar voice from behind them. “The Jkasth Codex? With those freaky eyes on the cover? Now what are you looking for that for?”
Valkyrie and Nebula turn—and there in front of them is the Grandmaster.
“Hey,” says Valkyrie, working to keep her voice steady. “I was just looking for you.”
The Grandmaster raises his eyebrows. He adjusts the collar of his robe with a hand that is unmistakably holding a melt stick. “Were you? And why’s that?”
Valkyrie nods at Nebula. “I’ve brought you a contender. She’s resistant to my usual methods, so I was just about to contain her here when you arrived.”
“Oh yeah?” says the Grandmaster. “That sounds great, 142, it really does, but—it sure didn’t look like you were containing her when I came in here.” The Grandmaster grimaces as though at a social faux pas.
“You’re right,” says Nebula, stepping forward. “We’re looking for the Jkasth Codex. Your lapdog here was planning to enslave me, but in the end she didn’t have the guts.”
“Speaking of guts,” says the Grandmaster, “Have you ever considered stepping into the arena yourself, 142?” He gestures at Nebula. “Perhaps facing off against this lovely little firecracker of a...not really sure what you are, but that adds to the mystery. Mmm, I can really see it, can’t you? I mean, the...whatever is going on between the two of you even now, the, dare I say it, sexual tension...it would make for quite the show, don’t you think?”
“I’m willing to pay for the Codex,” says Nebula. “Simply name your price.”
Good to know they’re both just ignoring that “sexual tension” thing, then.
“Ooh, this is getting interesting,” says the Grandmaster. “How about you, 142—what price would you pay to get both of you out of here alive?”
“What do you mean, both of us?” says Valkyrie. Her heart is pounding, but she manages a smirk. “I brought her to you, boss.” She’s about to say more—you can do whatever you want with her, I don’t care—but the words stick in her throat.
“So you say, so you say,” says the Grandmaster. He eyes them both the way Valkyrie has seen him eye chess boards and people alike, and Valkyrie feels cold terror at the way Nebula meets his gaze. Either Nebula is too foolhardy to realize the danger—or she’s got a greater danger waiting for her if she fails to retrieve this book.
“I have a thought,” says the Grandmaster. “Call it a proposition. A game, a test—don’t look at me like that, it’ll be fun! And you can even forfeit at any time. What do you say?”
Valkyrie has been in the Grandmaster’s company long enough to know that he doesn’t ask this kind of question in search of a true answer. And yet still, there are nuances to consider—the difference between agreeing on the one hand and staying silent on the other, the goodwill to be earned versus the trap of complicity. She’s never been good at these kinds of games—looks away when she knows the Grandmaster is playing them against someone’s naked mind, and sometimes naked flesh, as though that can wash her clean of the knowledge of them.
“Tell us more,” says Nebula, before Valkyrie can formulate a reply. Valkyrie winces internally—this is not a correct response.
“Of course,” says the Grandmaster. “Let’s make sure you go into this with your eyes wide open, hmm?” He claps his hands, and Valkyrie’s world begins to spin.
“Rules, rules, let’s go over the rules. Can’t have a game without rules, isn’t that right?”
The Grandmaster’s voice comes back to Valkyrie slowly, an underwater-feeling that dissipates into cold awareness: the Grandmaster’s throne room, mid-morning sunlight streaming in from angular windows, the Grandmaster’s current hangers-on drinking and whispering around them.
Oh, and the little matter of the restraints binding both her and Nebula to their chairs.
Valkyrie knows better than to struggle, but Nebula pulls and twists herself in her seat, trying desperately to get free. Valkyrie grits her teeth.
“Hey, come on,” says the Grandmaster. “You haven’t even heard the rules yet. I think you’ll find I’m being eminently fair. Truly I do.”
Nebula stops struggling and instead begins glaring silently at the Grandmaster.
The Grandmaster ignores the anger in Nebula’s eyes, or the careful indifference Valkyrie is trying to project in hers. “The first rule,” he says, sitting back on a chair similar to the ones Valkyrie and Nebula are bound to, minus the restraints, of course. “The first rule is the prize: if you both make it through the whole game, I’ll let you both go—along with any freaky-eyed books I have in my possession. And—” he nods at Valkyrie, “—my continued patronage.”
“What’s the game?” says Nebula.
“Nightmares,” says the Grandmaster, “are such an interesting concept, don’t you think? I never get them, myself, but I’ve been told they can be quite immersive.”
The people hanging around the throne room have pressed closer now, their eyes darting between each other and the scene before them as though unsure if they’re supposed to look. The Grandmaster gestures at a tall A'askvarian woman standing to his right, wearing a dress of glittering mirror fragments. Gracefully, she moves to kneel at the Grandmaster’s feet, and he smiles down at her indulgently. Valkyrie’s seen her once before, and she gives her two more weeks, tops, now that she’s caught the Grandmaster’s attention before he gets bored of her and she goes the usual way of his used-up former favourites—but that’s still more time than it’s looking like Valkyrie and Nebula have.
“They’re not real, and yet the emotions they evoke—hoo boy, people seem to get such a kick out of them. Catch!” The Grandmaster throws a six-sided die at Valkyrie’s bound hand. She feels a certain sense of pride as she manages to catch it, although she almost drops it twice once it’s in her hand. “Read that out to me, will you, 142?”
Valkyrie turns the die around in her hand. Each side has a single word stamped into it in stylized Sakaaran script. “Despair,” she reads. “Loneliness. Helplessness. Guilt. Fear. Pain.”
“The stuff of nightmares, right?” says the Grandmaster. “Literally. Your turn.” He throws another one of the dice at Nebula, who also manages to catch it, more gracefully, Valkyrie has to admit, than she did. “Same things, right?” says the Grandmaster. Nebula turns the die around in her hand, and nods.
“So here’s the game,” the Grandmaster continues, beaming at them both. “Each of you rolls one die per round. We keep going until both dice land on the same word—and then you both win. That’s it! Oh, and every time you roll the dice, you each get a, uh—well, I wouldn’t call it a nightmare per se, because they’ll be awake. A...vision, a very compelling vision, based around whatever word is on your die. Makes sense?”
Valkyrie suppresses a shudder. She has barely ever slept sober for over a thousand years because of her tendency to wake from her bed in a cold sweat, smelling the phantom blood of the battlefield, feeling the icy kiss of the Goddess of Death coming for her companions. But at least this game—if the Grandmaster truly keeps his promise—will not kill her, only give her more things to work hard at forgetting. It’s...better than she expected, actually.
“Now,” says the Grandmaster, “if that sounds like too much for you, one of you can forfeit. Tell me you’re done and you’ll walk away with your life and everything else I’ve promised you. The only thing is, your companion won’t be quite so lucky. I stand by what I said earlier—I think both of you would make for truly unique specimens in my arena. And hey, maybe you think so too! Maybe one of you would like to watch the other fight, hmm? Place some bets, see what she’s, what she’s like when it really come down to it? Any takers?”
Valkyrie holds her breath, waiting for Nebula to betray her. It’s only after a moment that she realizes she hasn’t considered betraying Nebula.
“No?” the Grandmaster sounds surprised. “Wow, 142, you’re really feeling generous today, huh? She must be pretty special.” Turning to Nebula, he says, “I’ve seen her sell people out for a single drink. Whatever you’re doing, you, uh, you must be pretty good at it.” Nebula glares back at them, but still says nothing. Valkyrie tries to make eye contact with her, to confirm some kind of strategy, but Nebula’s eyes are locked onto the Grandmaster, burning with determined hatred.
“OK!” says the Grandmaster. “Seems like we’re doing this. Throw those dice, let’s see what we get.”
Valkyrie lets her die fall from her grasp to roll onto the floor. Beside her, she sees Nebula do the same. The Grandmaster leans towards them, reading the words that have landed on top.
“‘Fear,’” he reads off Valkyrie’s die, then, turning to Nebula’s, “and helplessness. Oof,” he purses his lips and shakes his head. “I don’t know—those sound like some pretty intense nightmare scenarios to have. Are both of you sure you don’t want to forfeit?”
Valkyrie imagines saying the words—the restraints on her body melting away, her favour with the Grandmaster restored.
Nebula led away screaming to the fighters’ quarters. Valkyrie sitting in the Grandmaster’s private box, watching her being ripped to pieces.
It’s nothing she hasn’t seen happen to people countless times before, many of whom are in the ring because of her.
But she doesn’t nod, or raise her hand, or say anything at all.
The Grandmaster shrugs. “OK, then, let’s get this show on the road!” He claps his hands, and Valkyrie—
is lying in the bed in the dark of her room. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees movement. Someone is inside her apartment. Oh, yes, she knows this one—Nebula, out to rope her into another ill-conceived heist.
“You think you can pull this shit again?” she says, reaching under the pillow for her knife. Her hand grasps something, and she pulls it out, only to see it’s a bottle. Ah, well. Should be enough for her to take the now-familiar woman still lurking in the shadows of her room.
“Just come out of there, I know you’re here,” she says. “You got me once, but you won’t—” And then she stops, her breath knocked out of her chest.
In front of her stands Hela.
Blood drips from Hela’s horns to the floor around her. She meets Valkyrie’s eyes and smiles. “Found you,” she says, and Valkyrie screams, and around her there is laughter, rich and deep and light and airy all at once.
This is not Hela’s laughter.
Valkyrie opens her eyes.
The members of the Grandmaster’s retinue stare openly at her, emboldened by the Grandmaster’s good mood as he watches the scene. Beside her, Nebula is silent and scowling, no longer moving in her seat. Valkyrie watches people she vaguely recognizes from the last few parties she’s been to pointing at her, smiling, clapping. She feels a vague, creeping sense of exposure, like waking up naked in an unfamiliar bed. What did the vision she’d just experienced look like to them? How much did they see?
“Woah, there,” says the Grandmaster, beaming at them both. “Wipe those frowns off your faces! That was pretty cool, right?” He snaps his fingers expectantly, and a man covered in gold paint steps out from behind him to hand him a drink. Slurping it noisily, he continues, “But hey, if you’re not feeling it, one of you could just forfeit now. No need to keep going if you’re not having a good time.”
“You think this is torture?” says Nebula, sitting up as straight as she is able in the chair. Valkyrie feels her gut twist in anticipatory fear. Why can’t she just shut up? If they’re going to both get through this—if they’re really both protecting each other—why does she have to keep rocking the boat? “This is nothing. I have—”
“Torture?” says the Grandmaster, raising his eyebrows. “Who do you think I am? Honey, if I were torturing you, you’d know it. This is just, just a game. Right?” He turns to the people around him, who are pulling chairs and recliners forward or joining the woman at his feet, ready to watch. They nod, lips curled into cruel smiles, only some of which match the expressions in their eyes.
Norns, Valkyrie hates this planet.
“Well,” says the Grandmaster. “I guess if no one has any, uh, objections, looks like we’re ready for round two.” He nods at the person nearest to the fallen dice, a woman with gills running up and down her neck. She picks the dice up gingerly, careful not to shake them or let them fall, and throws them significantly more haphazardly than the Grandmaster did. Valkyrie’s hits her in the face, rolling onto her lap where she is just able to twist her restrained arm enough to grab it.
Nebula throws her dice as soon as she catches it, so Valkyrie follows suit, leaning down to watch the two small cubes roll and settle on the floor. She hopes against hope for a pair, but—“Guilt,” the Grandmaster reads, unnecessarily, off Valkyrie’s die, “and pain,” he reads off Nebula’s.
And Valkyrie is watching as one by one her sisters fall around her. The battlefield stretches out further than she thinks is possible, and she finds herself running across it, air tight in her lungs. If she stops, she knows something terrible will happen, but she is not sure why she continues. Terrible things happen all the time.
Run faster, her sisters whisper, ghosts running alongside her. All around her, more are falling. Faster, they say, You are failing us.
Ahead of her, she sees a shape, white as death, raise its sword above the head of one of her compatriots. The woman, so young, so new, is busy fighting off another foe. Valkyrie opens her mouth to warn her fellow warrior, but her shouts are carried away by the wind. Why won’t you tell her? her dead sisters wail. Warn her, warn her before it’s too late.
Valkyrie opens her mouth again, but something smooth sits on her tongue. She pulls it out and throws it without thinking, the motion as automatic as her footsteps. The obedience disk sails through the air and lands on the neck of her fellow warrior, who falls, her body convulsing.
The death-pale shape turns to look at her. Its eyes are full of a terrible infinity. “How much are you charging for them all?” it says, and suddenly Valkyrie knows why all the warrior women around her are falling to the ground, their cries of pain filling the air…
It takes Valkyrie a moment to realize she is back in the Grandmaster’s throne room. It takes her a moment longer to realize why it was not immediately clear: beside her, there is screaming still, just like she just heard on the battlefield. The only difference is that now the screaming comes from Nebula.
“I’ll do better!” Nebula says, her words trailing off into yet another scream. “Please, not my eye, it doesn’t—I don’t need—”
If this is how much she can see of Nebula’s latest artificial nightmare, how much have the gathered audience been able to glean about hers?
The thought—and the fact that this was the first thought she had as she witnessed Nebula’s agony—makes the lingering guilt of the dream settle into her limbs like lead. She longs to chase it away with whatever is in the Grandmaster’s thin-stemmed cocktail glass. Her tongue feels dry, swollen with desperate need, but that might be simply her imagination.
When Nebula comes back to herself, she turns her head immediately, glaring at Valkyrie before she can avert her eyes, and the weight settles deeper into her, threatening to cling tight, calling out more insistently to be drowned.
“Ooh,” the Grandmaster says. “That looked kind of intense! Are you sure you both want to keep going? You know there’s no shame in giving up, right? No? OK, let’s go again, then—maybe this time will, mmm, maybe this time will be your lucky shot, huh?”
But with each of the next four rounds, her and Nebula’s dice rolls continue to yield disperate results, and Valkyrie finds her hope fading. Maybe there is no way to win, no way for both dice to land on the same word at once. Maybe the Grandmaster has trapped them here in a never-ending loop of torments, made them into his latest attraction for his current most treasured companions.
Well, her brain supplies, there is always the other way for her to win. But she remains silent each time the Grandmaster asks if she’d like to forfeit, and beside her, Nebula does the same.
She feels herself spread out and tied down in the arena, ready to be torn apart by a five-headed cat-like creature she recalls from a fight nearly a century before—pain. She finds, suddenly, that she cannot fight, her movements slow as if through water, her endless opponents pummelling her with strikes she should be easily able to avoid, her throat raw with an unquenchable thirst—helplessness. She wanders each of the Nine Realms in turn, trying with increasing desperation to find someone who will talk to her instead of turning away—loneliness, which is ridiculous, because Valkyrie doesn’t need anyone anyway. She’s done fine on her own for thousands of years, thank you very much. She emerges from that last one wanting to scream in frustration.
She does not observe any more of Nebula’s nightmare-outbursts, which unnerves her—have Nebula’s visions been shorter than hers each time? Has she seen Valkyrie reacting somehow—screams, or gramaces, or hopeless pleading? Valkyrie should forfeit—end this for herself, restore the status quo, watch Nebula suffer for everything she brought into Valkyrie’s life.
But she doesn’t say anything. Someone throws them the dice, and she rolls hers once again.
“Despair,” she and Nebula both read out from each of their dice.
“Wow,” says the Grandmaster. “So close to the finish line! Just one more vision—but this last one is always a doozy. Are you both sure you want to take the chance? Remember, whoever says stop first, just stop, that’s all you gotta do—whoever says it first wins. Automatically! No? Really, I thought one of you would have taken you up by now, so hey, thanks for, uh, keeping us all on our toes!”
Valkyrie knows what to expect by now, the lurching descent into this final vision—or she thinks she does, until she finds herself face to face with Nebula. They are on a barren, desolate planet, nothing but rocky ground for as far as her eye can see.
Nebula reaches down and begins undoing the laces on her boots. Valkyrie watches her. She wonders if the boots would fetch more on this kind of planet than they would on a planet that is one big junk yard, new scraps falling constantly. She wonders who to sell them to, and, before that, how best to get them.
Nebula pulls one of the boots off, and her foot comes with it. She rises, standing on one leg, handing the boot, with her own foot still inside, out to Valkyrie. “I’m doing this before anyone else can,” says Nebula. “No one else can take me apart if I do it first.”
Valkyrie takes the boot, but the moment it touches her hand, it turns into liquid, falling through her fingers to the rocky ground. “Now what am I going to do?” she says to Nebula. “You know I can’t do anything else!”
Nebula stares at Valkyrie’s hands, at the residue that remains. “I can’t stop either,” she says. “It will be so much worse if I don’t take myself apart My sister—” And she stops. Something bubbles out of her throat.
“It will be so much worse if I stop falling,” says Valkyrie. Her surety surprises her. “I need to stay lost.”
“But there’s nowhere to go,” says Nebula. She is unscrewing her arm from the elbow. “He’ll find us anywhere.”
A market is popping up around them, stall after stall shooting out of the desert in showers of sand and rocks. A young girl is playing a vaguely-familiar song on a theremin, waving her hands like she weaves the threads of fate. A man approaches the two of them. “Do you have the limbs you owe me?” he asks.
Valkyrie recognizes the song. It is a song about Valhalla, a song about glory. It is not a song for her, and she does not want to hear it.
Nebula passes Valkyrie a handful of her fingers, but once again they liquefy in Valkyrie’s hands. They drip onto the man’s boots and he shakes his head. “I’ll have to take your own arms, then,” he says, and pulls out a pair of pruning shears, and Valkyrie is so, so tired.
“OK,” says the Grandmaster. He crosses his legs one over the other, leaning back in his seat, looking the absolute picture of relaxation. Valkyrie struggles to catch her breath, blinking in the light of the room. The restraints are gone, but Valkyrie is loathe to make any sudden movements. “Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?”
Valkyrie wishes this were happening to someone else, and she were merely watching. Actually, scratch that—she wishes it were happening to someone else far away and she didn’t have to think about it at all. Why the fuck did she go through all that for someone she barely knows—and why did Nebula go through it for her?
“The bad news,” says Nebula cautiously.
“Ooh,” says the Grandmaster, scrunching up his face and shaking his head. “Good guess! But I’m going to start with the good news, I think. The good news is…” and he pauses just long enough that Valkyrie wants to move somehow, release the pent-up energy coiled in her bones, before he finishes with, “I’m letting both of you live! Congrats!”
“Much appreciated,” says Valkyrie.
“Yes,” says Nebula, as though the words are being dragged out of her and she is intimately familiar with the process, “Thank you.”
“I like you, Scrapper 142.” The Grandmaster wiggles his fingers at Valkyrie, and she nods. “You’re just so great that I’m giving you special treatment. OK? That’s what this is, special treatment. But if I were you, I wouldn’t, you know, test this kind of thing out again. Might be a one time offer, might not, mmm. This might play out a bit differently next time.”
“Understood,” says Valkyrie.
“Good, good,” says the Grandmaster. He runs his fingers through the hair of a young man, also an A'askvarian, sitting propped against his leg. A'askvarians must be the Grandmaster’s thing right now. The man leans into the gesture like a cat, and the knowledge that he’s doomed bothers Valkyrie more than it usually would.
The Grandmaster sighs. “I’d just really hate to—well. Let’s not get into that. Let’s just move on, get you back out there so you can find me another champion, mmm? That last one, she really lasted a while! Which is great, I just—love that drama. That tension! Alright, go on, you’re both free to go.”
“What’s the bad news?” says Nebula.
The Grandmaster frowns. “Such a downer! But OK. The bad news is, I don’t actually have this freaky-eyed book you’re looking for.”
Beside her, Valkyrie can see Nebula tense up. “You deceived us,” she says, before Valkyrie can stop her, figure out some way to get out of here before the Grandmaster changes his mind about their stay of execution.
But the Grandmaster just laughs. “Hey, no I didn’t, not at all! I told you I’d give it to you if I had it. And you know, I did. Have it. Past tense. I gave it away, I, uh, gave it to my brother. Birthday present. Maybe you’ve heard of him, calls himself the Collector?” The Grandmaster laughs as though this is the most ridiculous name he’s ever heard. “So there you go. If you want it, I guess you’ll have to take it up with him!”
“Alright,” says Valkyrie, grabbing Nebula’s hand. “I guess we’ll be going now.” Under her breath, she says, “Come on,” tugging at Nebula’s arm when she still won’t budge.
Finally, Nebula acquiesces, turning on her heel and walking out of the room. “Thank you,” says Valkyrie to the Grandmaster, because some more gratitude probably wouldn’t go amiss in this situation.
The Grandmaster beams back at her, still lounging in his chair. “My pleasure, 142,” he says, and waves with wiggling fingers as she makes her retreat.
“Right then,” says Valkyrie. “Don’t know about you, but I need a drink.”
“And I need to find the Collector,” says Nebula.
“Really? Well, then, you’re a fucking idiot,” says Valkyrie. She pats her side pocket, pulls out a hip flask, and downs the entire contents in one go. Self-restraint is for days when you haven’t just been introduced to Nightmares: The Party Game. “We just barely made it out of there with our heads still attached to our bodies.”
“Don’t make me regret it,” says Nebula. “I should have given you up, watched you being torn apart in the arena. Heard the sounds you made as you fought, and lost, and suffered for it.”
Valkyrie can’t help but smile; Nebula’s threat is more like a pause-word, punctuation, now that they’re outside in the light, intact.
“Are you always this angry?” says Valkyrie. How do you do it? I’m only angry until it tires me out and I go looking for ways to forget.
Nebula bares her teeth, and there is beauty in the ugliness of it. “Yes,” she says.
There is something electric in how Valkyrie’s heart is still beating, a volatile happiness that threatens to build her up and then dash her against remembered bones. She needs, suddenly, to lose herself on her own terms before her mood chooses for her. She wants to drag Nebula along with her, Nebula who doesn’t seem to ever stop.
She steps towards Nebula, searching. Nebula cocks her eyebrow, standing still, holding Valkyrie’s gaze. Valkyrie leans closer. Nebula parts her lips, ever-so-slightly: plausible deniability.
Either Valkyrie is about to get punched in the face, or she’s about to find a way to lose herself that really, really works for her.
She presses their lips together.
Nebula responds as though Valkyrie’s touch is a challenge, and Valkyrie is only too happy to match her intensity. Nebula’s lips are firm against hers, pressing Valkyrie’s mouth open with all the same bravado-rage she does everything else. It is a tearing-down, a demolition of something at once intangible and solid. It is a calling-towards of broken pieces.
Valkyrie pushes Nebula against the wall of the nearest building, pressing her into salvaged scraps of structure. She digs her fingers into Nebula’s hip bones, one side meeting softness, the other meeting something less yielding.
Nebula grips Valkyrie’s tunic in her fist, pulling them closer together, and Valkyrie gasps against Nebula’s mouth. She feels beyond morality, beyond self-hatred, pulled taut and sprung forward against the cool of Nebula’s body.
“Come back to my place,” she says, pulling back and walking away, high on the confidence that Nebula will follow her.
“Isn’t it so much better when you don’t break in?” Valkyrie can’t help saying as she lets Nebula into her apartment. It’s just as they left it early this morning. Valkyrie would like to blame the general state of disorder on her and Nebula’s fight the previous night, but her body has put her in too much of an honest mood to try.
“That has yet to be proven,” says Nebula, and Valkyrie is buoyed by the endlessness of the fight in them both.
Valkyrie pulls Nebula over to the bed and allows her to settle on top of her long enough for Nebula to fully unlace Valkyrie’s tunic. Then, under the guise of pulling it off, Valkyrie flips the two of them over, pinning Nebula’s shoulders to the bed with steady palms and a racing pulse. Nebula reaches up, muscles straining under Valkyrie’s grip, to tear Valkyrie’s underwear off her body in one solid tug.
“Yes,” breathes Valkyrie. Nebula’s fingers dance up Valkyrie’s thighs, the touch suddenly feather-light. A scratching along Valkyrie’s skin, and then back to the barely-there tap of fingertips. A pinch, a tug at the full nest of curls between Valkyrie’s legs, and then nothing.
Valkyrie groans. “Fuck you.”
Nebula parts Valkyrie’s cunt lips and runs a finger from her opening to her clit. Shivering at the touch, Valkyrie moves to rub against it—and Nebula pushes her backwards until she lands on her ass on the bed.
If Nebula wants to take charge, fine. Valkyrie is too eager to care. And there will be time later to turn the tables once again. Valkyrie parts her legs, staring up at Nebula, meeting her eyes in challenge.
Nebula presses one hand to Valkyrie’s hip, and uses the other to repeat her previous motion, stroking Valkyrie exactly where she most wants to be touched, spreading her wetness over her throbbing clit.
Then she presses one finger inside. It slides in easily, and Valkyrie rises up to meet the thrust as best she can with Nebula’s other hand still resting, solid, on her hip. She rubs her clit against Nebula’s thumb, and Nebula takes the hint, beginning to move her thumb in quick, steady circles, matching the rhythm of the finger inside her.
Valkyrie looks up at Nebula’s face, biting her lip. Nebula is looking down between Valkyrie’s parted thighs, an expression of concentration on her face as she continues her even motions.
“Fuck,” says Valkyrie, half exclamation, half moan. “I’m so close, that’s—fuck, yes, there, yes—” Her orgasm hits her, heavy and warm. She can feel herself clenching around Nebula’s finger as Nebula works her through it, feel her clit pulsing, her legs shaking. Nebula looks up and meets her gaze, and Valkyrie smiles in unthinking bliss.
Looking at her with a strange curiosity, Nebula brings her hand to her mouth and licks her fingers. Valkyrie flops down, running her fingers through her hair as the aftershocks run through her.
Nebula moves to get up. Valkyrie grabs her hand. She looks her up and down, feeling the certainty of pleasure-glow still suffusing her. “You’re looking overdressed,” she says.
Nebula shrugs, a shrinking into herself that makes Valkyrie wince. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, shaking her head.
“Why not?” says Valkyrie, frowning.
“I can’t always do that. And I’m not as quick as you.”
It’s Valkyrie’s turn to shrug. “OK,” she says. “Fine by me. I’ve got nowhere to be.”
As soon as she says it, she worries it’s the wrong move, bringing up real-life responsibilities even as tangentially as that. She half expects Nebula to bolt from the bed, off to chase down this accursed book of hers. But instead, Nebula bites her lip and nods.
“I need it a lot harder than you did, too,” she says.
“Noted,” says Valkyrie, and she reaches up to undo Nebula’s pants.
Nebula helps her, working the fastenings of her vest, and soon her clothing has joined Valkyrie’s on the floor. She sits stiffly once disrobed, her arms falling awkwardly to her sides.
Valkyrie lets her eyes take in the interlocking metal and flesh of Nebula’s body; the plates running down her legs, the sleek silver panel resting between her collarbones, the jagged scars peppered over her ribcage. The metallic joints of Nebula’s left hand twitch under Valkyrie’s gaze. OK, so there’s some baggage here, clearly.
But Valkyrie knows baggage, in all its slippery edges. There may not be a right move to make, but Valkyrie resolves to do what she likes others to do, when they see the ghosts she carries around: she reaches for Nebula with the cool touch of a stranger.
“Tell me what you like,” says Valkyrie, her hands cupping Nebula’s breasts. She rubs Nebula’s nipples between her fingers, feeling them harden under her touch. Nebula still sits rigid, but Valkyrie sees Nebula’s eyes move to focus on her movements.
Nebula grabs one of Valkyrie’s hands in a grip just bordering on too tight, and guides it down between her legs. Valkyrie reaches out, her hand meeting wetness, not as much as Valkyrie knows pools between her own legs, but enough that her way is smoothed when Nebula guides Valkyrie’s hand forward, practically shoving her two outstretched fingers into Nebula’s cunt.
Looking down at the place where their bodies meet, Valkyrie’s breath catches. Nebula’s inner thighs are both made up entirely of metal, the seams joining the panels to one another softly glowing in the muted light of Valkyrie’s apartment. Between them, the proud blue of Nebula’s skin, the smooth mounds and valleys of her parted cunt lips, the darker purpling of her inner folds—it reminds Valkyrie of Sakaar’s hardiest plants, the ones she sees growing in the most unlikely places. The defiance of tangled vines, the steady progression of mushrooms.
Valkyrie curves her fingers inside Nebula, and Nebula releases her hold on Valkyrie’s wrist to grip her thigh instead, digging in her fingers until Valkyrie hisses in pain.
“Harder,” says Nebula, and Valkyrie obliges, repeating the motion with more force. Nebula’s hips twitch ever-so-slightly, grinding against the motion, but subtly enough that Valkyrie can’t tell how much she’s feeling it. Valkyrie bends down between Nebula’s legs, pushing Nebula until she’s lying on her back on the bed, and presses her tongue against Nebula’s folds. She doubts she’ll be able to get Nebula off with her mouth, but she still wants to taste her.
Nebula tastes like something growing in spite of itself, too: metallic as copper rusting in waters from which strange fish are spawned, sharp as broken glass in the nests of birds, deadly sweet as the glint of spilled oil painting the back of some portal-tossed creature emerging from a puddle. Valkyrie does not mean this unkindly, although even she has enough to tact to realize she probably shouldn’t say it.
Above her, Nebula remains silent, but her hips continue to cant towards Valkyrie’s fingers, and now, against her tongue. Valkyrie breathes her in, letting her free hand wander up Nebula’s scar-dusted chest to cup one of her tits. She looks up, face buried in Nebula’s apex, and sucks on Nebula’s clit, timing the suction to coincide with each stroke of her fingers.
Nebula presses a hand to the back of Valkyrie’s head, pushing her face more firmly into her folds, and Valkyrie returns Nebula’s roughness in kind, pinching Nebula’s nipple, twisting the hardened point between her fingers.
Nebula growls, and Valkyrie can’t tell if it’s desire or frustration, but she suspects at least a bit of the latter. She allows herself another minute or so of working her over with her lips and tongue, and then pulls away, replacing her mouth with the hand that was playing with Nebula’s breasts. She begins with her thumb, rubbing firm circles against Nebula’s clit as she continues to work her other fingers inside her.
But Nebula growls again, her hips rising to press more firmly against Valkyrie’s touch. Her hands clench at her sides.
“Show me,” says Valkyrie, keeping her own frustration off her face. She asked for this, told Nebula she was willing to do what it would take to get her off. She’s not going to back out now.
Nebula brings one hand down, brushing away Valkyrie’s own. She presses two fingers to her clit, and rubs them rapidly back and forth, so roughly Valkyrie almost winces despite her penchant for sexual intensity. Valkyrie observes the motion for a moment, then pushes Nebula’s hand away once again, replacing Nebula’s fingers with her own.
“Like this?” she asks, trying to copy the motion.
Nebula’s legs jerk under the touch. “Yes,” she breathes, sounding different all of a sudden, a radio tuned to a new frequency. Valkyrie feels Nebula clench against her fingers as she continues the motion.
She pulls out, keeping her motion on Nebula’s clit steady. Nebula whines, bucking up against the disappearing touch. Valkyrie holds up her hand, two fingers slick with Nebula’s wetness. “More?” she asks, and Nebula nods.
So Valkyrie pushes three fingers into her, then adds a fourth when Nebula seems more than happy to take them all. Nebula’s movements are wilder, now, her thighs parted further, her body twitching as Valkyrie keeps both her hands trained to their rough, unrelenting rhythms.
Valkyrie’s hands are beginning to cramp, but she isn’t about to let Nebula know that. Never let it be said that Valkyrie won’t put in the effort to get someone off—she’s selfish, sure, rarely pretends otherwise, but not in this. Besides, Nebula must be close now, judging by her shallow breath, the way her head is thrown back against Valkyrie’s rumpled sheets. The gritted teeth, the deep surrender to pleasure.
When Nebula does finally come, her cunt bucking and pulsing against Valkyrie’s fingers, Valkyrie guides her through it with the same hard strokes until Nebula’s breathing has returned to normal. Then she pulls out slowly, and, meeting Nebula’s gaze, mirrors Nebula’s earlier gesture, bringing her pleasure-slicked hand to her mouth and licking her fingers clean.
Nebula’s smile is lazy, although no less sharp for it, like a cat stretched out in the sun after a kill. Valkyrie smiles, flopping down beside her on the bed, and lets the silence spread out between them, languid as the afternoon heat.
“OK, I gotta know,” says Valkyrie, breaking their almost-comfortable peace. They are still sprawled on the bed, legs intertwined, and it’s beginning to make Valkyrie itch for motion. “What is this freaky-eyed book all about? Why do you want it so bad?”
Nebula shrugs, and their shoulders brush together, metal pressing against Valkyrie’s sweat-sheened flesh. “The Codex has important information in it that factors into my father’s plans.”.
“Yeah, but what’s it actually about?”
“Nothing that would be of interest to you.”
Valkyrie laughs, and rises up on one arm, turning to look down at Nebula. “You don’t know, do you? You were playing it off like you knew before, but you have no clue what’s actually in the book!”
Nebula sits up in one jerking motion, pushing Valkyrie aside. OK, so maybe it’s not all that funny, this woman risking her life on the orders of someone who doesn’t seem to trust in her abilities half as much as she wants him to. Doesn’t trust her enough, or care enough, to tell her what she’s risking her life for.
“Sorry,” says Valkyrie, but she’s never been good at apologies, and this one is no exception, landing flat and cold to her ears in the squirming stillness of the room.
“I know as much as I need to,” says Nebula. Her voice is back to its usual bravado, no longer as naked as her body.
“You could stay, you know,” says Valkyrie. “On Sakaar, I mean, not, like—just, you seem like you could do with being lost for a while, and this is the place to do it.”
Nebula gets up, collecting her clothes where they have been dropped on different spots on the floor. “I have to go,” she says.
She dresses in a practiced sequence, clothes, knives, more clothes. It’s yet another dark-mirror reminder of long-ago days of regimented warrior life—Nebula is brisk and disciplined, as though someone has watched her dress like this and then made her do it again, but faster.
“Yeah, I guess you do,” says Valkyrie. She can’t help noticing that Nebula doesn’t suggest Valkyrie leave Sakaar; whether Nebula doesn’t think she could or doesn’t think she’d want to, Valkyrie is almost glad she can’t tell. She sits up too, but makes no move to get dressed, settling herself cross-legged and daring Nebula to look. Nebula does. Then she looks away.
“You’re lucky I haven’t killed you,” says Nebula when she is done sheathing her weapon of a body. Her transformation is complete; if Valkyrie couldn’t still taste Nebula against her tongue, she wouldn’t quite be able to imagine the possibility.
We both know you would’ve killed me already if you were going to, Valkyrie thinks but doesn’t say, which probably means her survival instinct is kicking back in to its usual gear. She’s exhausted, she realizes all of a sudden. She wants to sleep for days—but first, she wants another drink. Or five.
“Well,” says Valkyrie, “on that note, can’t say it was nice to meet you, but hey. This last part was pretty nice, at least.”
And Nebula rolls her eyes at her, and then she smiles, actually smiles and sticks out her tongue. It’s not until she does that Valkyrie realizes she hasn’t seen her smile like that before. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, the satisfaction Valkyrie gets from eliciting such a smile, a whole different kind of rare commodity than the ones she usually deals in.
“Maybe that’s why I’m not killing you,” says Nebula.
“Your flirting needs some practice,” says Valkyrie, smiling back. “Maybe when you’re done this next mission of yours you should give relaxing a try.”
But just like that, Nebula’s smile is gone. Both of them are shaped by scarcities, Valkyrie thinks, narrow futures ground down into shapes that are not like that flash of a wide-open grin, and now it is time to return to them.
“One more thing,” says Nebula. She reaches into one of her pockets and pulls out the obedience disk controller. She tosses it towards Valkyrie and Valkyrie catches it, feels the awful, inevitable familiarity of it against the palm of her hand. Nebula inclines her head. “You’ll be needing that.”
And with that, she’s gone.