Chapter 2: Rocket Away
Rocket drifted out of a deep, unnatural sleep fully expecting to find his arms and legs chained to the operating table of some sinister alien mastermind intent on gleaning marvellous scientific insight by dissecting diminutive fur-based genetic experiments. Seriously, why could he never catch a break? He kept his eyes clenched tightly shut and instinctively curled in on himself. He lay still for a couple hundred of his racing heartbeats.
When nothing sharp and pointy disturbed him, his thoughts began to wander.
Everything that happened after the trap and the cage was foggy. Must have been that foul-tasting stuff they doused him with. He had a vague impression of… drowning? No, that couldn't be right. He was sure he remembered lots of water, though – panic and water and the taste of blood. He'd managed to bite one of the suckers before they put him back under with that gunk they kept spraying in his face. He fervently hoped the jackass got an infection.
The next perplexing matter was the downy feel of the mattress under his curled up form. And did he smell flowers? Testing the sheets in his hands, he found them so luxuriously soft, he wondered if they had already killed him and he'd gone off to heaven. But no, the pain in his ankle was there to remind him that he was still very much alive and needed to start doing some more kicking real soon.
He wanted to open his eyes, but found them crusted shut. Rocket wiped at his eyelids, wondering if he was having an allergic reaction to their knock-out spray. It did burn something awful whenever it made contact with his eyes.
The next few seconds went into meticulously clearing away any trace of what they'd done to him.
As soon as his eyes were clean, he cracked open a lid and peered around warily. At first the opening near the top made him think he was inside a crate or a box, but the plush interior was more akin to a nest than a cage. Rocket frowned in confusion. Since when was a cushy bed part of the lab rat package?
Sitting up slowly, he tried testing the air for danger, but the floral scent was all but overpowering and a sneeze escaped him before he could stop it.
In growing horror, he looked down to find that his fur had a newly washed sheen, his clothes were gone and he was wearing nothing but a collar with a small golden bell attached to it.
Jing-jing-jing-jingle! the little bell chimed frantically as Rocket tried in vain to tear the collar from around his neck. His fingers could not seem to locate a clasp, and the flarking thing was much too durable to snap.
His ears flicked rapidly with indignity at the realization that his nice, soft bed was, in fact, a glorified cat basket. He ground his teeth. Those bastards had given him a bath! They took his clothes and they put a frickin' bell around his neck like some pet! Right then, Rocket could almost have wished for the sinister alien mastermind.
Feeling miserable and violated beyond the telling of it, Rocket Raccoon set to plotting his escape, as well as various forms of payback.
"Waitaminute, slow down, big guy!" Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, panted as he endeavoured to keep up with the gentle giant known as Groot. "Did he say anything about what the hell he was up to when you last saw him?"
"I am Groot!"
Of course, that was not very helpful at all.
Speaking of helpful, if Rocket went running off by himself, he could at least try to let a guy know where he was going and round about what time he would be back, especially shortly after some creepy dude apparently decided it was talking-raccoon season. It would spare poor Groot a lot of distress. In fact, they were all quite protective of the badass little fur ball, even Gamora.
Peter and Groot halted in the square, where the rest of his team waited for them by the fountain – the rest of his team, minus one very talkative, very missing raccoon.
Drax was pacing back and forth like a caged lion. Gamora stood so still that she nearly blended into the scenery, vivid green skin and all.
The deadliest woman in the galaxy was worried. It was evident, not in her facial expression, but in the way she constantly checked her weaponry. Gamora was not emotionless, but she kept her feelings so well in check that they hardly ever showed on her face.
The green-skinned assassin let you know in no uncertain terms when she was officially pissed at you, however. There was very little room for doubt when she let her sword do the talking. Peter suppressed a shiver at the unbidden memory of her cold, bared blade pebbling the soft flesh at his throat, sweet love songs bleeding from his headphones over her ears and doing nothing to soften her killer's edge by even a hair. After that little mishap at the bar, Peter mostly remembered not to push his luck with Gamora. Drax was really the one who was famous for it, but they'd all pulled their fair share of nonsense on Knowhere.
"I managed to track Rocket to the Munitions District," Gamora reported as Peter came closer. "His trail ends abruptly halfway between stores."
"And no one's seen a smart ass raccoon carrying around a gigantic gun?" he asked incredulously, eyebrows climbing.
"Not a soul…" Gamora sighed as she shook her head.
"They have not seen. Or they have been paid not to see," Drax observed gravely.
Gamora started at Drax's unexpected insight.
"You think they grabbed Rocket and then… I dunno, bribed half the district just to keep us from finding out?" Peter retorted doubtfully.
If you so much as nudged Rocket's tail without permission, the touchy little guy was likely to curse up a storm and be heard the next street over. To say he was not fond of being handled was an understatement. Rocket would not have gone down easily or quietly.
"I am Groot," their oversized tree supplied.
One of these days, Peter was going to have to learn to understand Groot-speak.
"Septimus Brandt did try to offer us nine million units for Rocket," Gamora pointed out, "which means we're up against someone with a lot of resources at their disposal…"
Peter ran a hand through his hair despondently. He felt like kicking something. The guiltless grass around the fountain came to mind.
"Dammit, we don't even know where to start looking!" he groaned. "Finding a needle in a haystack would be—" He stopped himself. He needed to focus on coming up with a plan to find Rocket, not waste time explaining some dumb metaphor to Drax. "I mean, it's not like they're gonna put up a sign—"
"I am Groot!"
"You got something, big guy?" Peter looked up expectantly.
Groot hummed the affirmative. His arm branched out in the direction of a tall building just on the other side of the square, where an eyesore of a poster proclaimed Brandt Industries in dazzlingly pink capital letters.
"Well, I'll be…" Peter muttered.
Septimus Gerhardus Brandt was thoroughly frustrated.
Any business man worth his salt kept to a firm, yet practical schedule, but he was so hilariously far behind on the timetable that he turned cerise at very thought. This was, however, due to unforeseen opposition on countless levels and not at all Brandt's own fault. Someone down in Risk Analysis was going to say goodbye to their job soon enough in order to compensate for this embarrassment.
In Brandt's experience, there were two things that invariably ruined a perfectly sound schedule: children and animals. Today his problems were of the latter variety.
For one thing, the puny creature seemed to have an innate resistance to anaesthetic substances. They were certainly using more than the calculated quota of doze chemicals. Just one squirt was usually enough to knock out a large canine or a relatively small bovine for a good twenty four hours. This strange little monster had already taken three doses in one day! It had unexpectedly roused from manageable unconsciousness to sudden alert and feral panic in the middle of its decontamination.
Brandt had been forced to send Sam #1 to the hospital to be treated for infection after it sunk its teeth into his hand. He thought most animals enjoyed a good bath.
Now, he watched through the surveillance screen as a whiskery head popped up out of the basket and the thankless critter tugged wildly at the accessory installed around its neck. Good luck removing that without the proper key, Brandt thought with a self-satisfied smile.
The small, furry creature performed a circuit of the room, limping slightly because of the regrettably barbaric methods Brandt had been forced to resort to in acquiring it. He was about to concede that the fuzzy little thing was at least moderately adorable when it let out a disconcertingly human-like curse and attacked the bowl of pellets it discovered in one corner of the room. The automatic water dispenser was gripped in the little claws and hurled across the floor, smashing into bits.
Brandt raised an eyebrow. He would have to research more into this species and its eating habits. The creature seemed for all of him to feel insulted at being offered cat food. Sam #2 was all but convinced the creature was some form of cat. Brandt was beginning to have his doubts about this particular theory.
He watched as the animal continued its painstaking inspection of its surroundings. After picking up the pieces of the water dispenser, it avoided the corner with the overturned bowl and scattered dry food. It went over the rest of the room and the solid glass window twice. Then it scampered up onto the book case and the radio sitting on top was ripped apart even faster than the water unit. Next, it tore the lava lamp from the wall socket and slung that over its shoulder. Every other form of technology received the same treatment. Not even the remote for the air conditioning was spared.
The destructive animal looked up from the wrecked remote in its paws and frowned at the air-conditioning mechanism, too high on the wall for it to reach. Its ear twitched, and for a moment, it seemed to be staring straight into the security camera. Thinking of the utter disregard for the property of others that the rest of the equipment in the room had been subjected to, Brandt silently thanked the gods of commerce that his expensive cameras were cloaked in Invisi-Drape technology.
The creature clambered furtively back into the pet bed, dragging the mangled remains of the ruined electronics in after it. There it stayed, obscured from the surveillance cameras. Brandt thought he could hear snatches of humming coming from the basket.
His mouth tightened in distaste. Either this type of creature had very unusual nesting preferences… or somehow, this talking rodent was up to something.
So far, it was Sam #2 who had had the most experience – and also the most success – with the unruly mammal. Brandt pushed a pink finger to the communication console and gave his instructions.
Rocket considered his collection of salvaged gears, screws, wires, dials, switches and various other useful components. He could feel a savage grin growing on his face. After all, he had escaped from maximum security prisons with less.
Of course, this particular situation was trickier because, here, he seemed to be the sole captive. What's more, from looking out the unfortunately unyielding window, Rocket could see the colonnades and sculpted bushes of a rich man's garden. The estate would not only be crawling with guards, it would be a maze. Rich people did love their meandering hallways and winding staircases. That meant more places to hide, but also more ways to get lost.
And these people were sneaky, watching him with their invisible cameras. He had been about to start working out in the open, in the middle of the room, when he heard the telltale click and whir of a surveillance camera up next to the air con unit. They may have impaired his sense of smell with that perfumed shampoo of theirs, but few things could escape his keen hearing.
With a self-deprecating smile, he thought about how unbelievably grateful he was for the cat basket. As demeaning as it was, the thing provided cover from the cameras, buying him the precious few minutes he needed to assemble his getaway gadgets.
Rocket did not waste any more time on thinking about how easy or hard this was going to be. He was getting the hell out of here. He went to work.
He was in the middle of removing the batteries from the remote with his one hand when an unexpected tremor ran through his entire frame. A wet cough wracked him from head to tail and he was hard-pressed not to drop the half-assembled bomb in his other hand.
"D'ast allergy…" he grumbled, wiping his watering eyes with the back of his bomb hand.
He was nearly done when another idea came to him. Thoughtfully, he rolled parts from the remote around on his palm and picked up what was left of the radio. It was a long shot…
By the time the goon, predictably sent to investigate, finally arrived, Rocket had run all the possible scenarios through his head. He'd thought of making a grab for the guy's weapon, if he carried one, but that would bring him dangerously close to those grasping hands. If they managed to corner him, or spray that fluid in his face again, it was game over. No, Rocket would have to depend on the element of surprise. Having no pockets to conceal his inventions in meant lying in wait inside the basket.
His ears picked up the noises of the door unlocking. He waited. There was an uncomfortable prickle at the back of his throat, but he stubbornly refused to give himself away with a cough. The footsteps hesitated by the door and Rocket seized the moment. Keeping his head down, he tossed his improvised flash grenade and was greeted with a very satisfying bellow of shock.
Clutching the rest of his tools to his chest, Rocket scrambled out of the basket and made a mad dash out the open door while the dim-witted bald-body behind him was still seeing stars.
"Well, that was a complete waste of time!" Peter Quill fumed as he stomped across the parking lot with the rest of his team.
After barging into Brandt's office tower and making a brave show of ignoring the security guards, they had demanded to see the man in charge. The remarkably voluptuous yellow-skinned secretary had informed them haughtily that her employer was unavailable at present and that they did not have an appointment.
So Peter had smoothly declared that the legendary Star-Lord did not need to make an appointment. The woman had blinked at him and replied with a blank-stared: "Who?"
They were promptly put out of the building.
"I still think we should go back inside and put our fingers to their throats," Drax asserted.
"I am Groot!"
Gamora rolled her eyes in a way that Peter could translate as nothing but a disparaging: "Men!"
"It wasn't a waste of time," she said slowly. She waved the dreadfully pink business pamphlet she was carrying at him as she continued: "We learned that Septimus G Brandt is the founder of a conglomerate that operates halfway around this planet and deals in everything from weapons to dairy products. The local businesses are all owned by him. That's how he managed to take Rocket without rousing any suspicion."
"Of course," Peter seethed, throwing up his hands. "That's just a great help! Because at least now we know we only have half a planet to search!"
The slender green beauty drew herself up to her full height, and she somehow seemed to loom over Peter, for all that he was at least a head taller than her. Her eyes glinted dangerously.
"Taking your anger out on me isn't helping the situation any more than your complaining is, Star-Lord," was all she said, but Peter instantly felt sorry. He should be saving his ire for the bastards who kidnapped Rocket.
"You're right…" he sighed, deflating. "You're right… It's just that… I kinda wish we knew all that before we let Rocket roam the city by himself… And I'm worried. I mean, what's he going to do to Rocket? What does he want with him? What if the dude sells him or— or something even worse?"
She nodded, indicating that he was forgiven, and gave him a sympathetic half-smile.
"We'll find him. Besides, Rocket is more resourceful than you give him credit," Gamora said, touching his arm lightly. She looked up at him with those dark eyes of hers. "It's not your job to protect us, you know."
Oh, man, it was times like these that Peter wished he could have kissed her without getting his face bashed in. For a woman who could snap a guy in two, she was really pretty. Just the thought of her soft, green lips—
Peter's inappropriate daydream vanished when a burst of static assaulted his ear drums.
"Quill! Quill, are you there!? Oh, please don't tell me ya left yer helmet on the frickin' ship!" a familiar voice squeaked through the earpiece of his trademark space mask.
"Rocket!?" Peter gasped, clutching the earpiece and hurriedly activating the mask so he could hear the frantic little voice more clearly.
"It's Rocket?" Gamora breathed.
Groot and Drax shared a wide-eyed look and rushed closer. Peter turned on the helmet's loudspeaker.
"Quill," Rocket's voice crackled from the other end, the sound tinged with more than a little relief, "it worked!"
Groot's eyes went big and round with emotion. He reached out a leafy tendril as if to touch the speaker.
"Are you all right?" Peter asked, worried. Rocket sounded so small and far away. "Where are you, buddy?"
"Yeah, fine," the raccoon replied hastily. "This freak, he— I think I lost 'em, but… I'm inside his mansion, looks like."
"Hang in there, Rocket, we're coming!" Peter promised. "We're gonna come get you, okay?"
"Look, Pete, ya gotta hurry!" Rocket's voice took on a frightened edge Peter was not used to hearing in his normally gutsy team mate. "Coz I ain't stayin' here anoth—"
And with one last burst of static, Rocket was gone.
"Rocket! Rocket, answer me!" Peter called. "Rocket!"
It was no use. The signal had stopped.
Peter let the mask slide back away from his face and looked at the others gathered around him solemnly. Each face reflected the same grim determination he felt.
"I am Groot," Groot rumbled.
And for once, Peter understood perfectly what the tree man meant.