Time is at the essence
part I

Make no mistakes, I know what I am and what I'm capable off, a cyber-genetic uplift with senses enhanced even beyond my base species, and if I can't sense the presence of my crewmates inside a ship as small as this -then they aren't here. Normally I'd be freaking out because that would mean the ship to be drifting aimlessly in space. But this time it's a different foreboding that I feel as I make my way up to the cockpit to check from the consoles and gauges where we are and where we're heading to. I note in passing that someone has tried to fit the heater unit back in but apparently that person forgot it has no fluid inside, so it's about as useful as an ass-in at my elbow would be until its topped. Everything seems to be in order at the cockpit. Unlike most people flying a space ship like this, I've never placed as much stock to what's standing in-front of me beyond the cockpit canopy as I have on what the instruments are telling me. Right now the event logs tell me that we were having some kind of space weather-thingy earlier which the sensor couldn't make heads or tails out off, no messages left to me in any of the view screens or log entries and a pretty frigging huge spaceship is looming outside-or more proper phrasing would be; extends across and over the whole view since we've apparently landed inside its ship hangar bay. That would certainly explain the odd feeling gravity and with a bit of arbitrary assuming, the most possible current whereabouts of my companions.

Looking at the readings again, it seems that the ship/station/man-made-object or whatever it is, is if not fully habitable then at least nominally survivable without the need for EVA-suit. That is a plus, so is the fact that its atmospheric temp is closer to thawing than freezing, another bad one besides the fact that this thing's not supposed to be here, is the noticeably increased cosmic background radiation. I'm guessing its shields are no longer functioning properly. By everything I know from looting various derelict wrecks and abandoned space stations, is that this thing should have been about as cold as the vacuum surrounding it and have no atmosphere to speak of left. Yet the damn thing has even some of the lights still on.

No wonder Quill must have thought it, I paraphrase -'the coolest shit ever' to, I paraphrase again 'go check it out' and the rest of those 'idjets' followed, leaving me to sleep it off. Looking at the displays again, a quick sensory sweep confirms my worry. In exactly 12 hours from now this ship bay and everything else in it, including the Milano despite her intact shields, would be baked by cosmic radiation from the nearby neutron star that's locked in binary system with a red giant-class star. Like all ship capable of warp and particle drive, the Milano is equipped with sturdy radiation shielding. Unfortunately like most smaller ships, it can't take a direct neutron pulse and once that massive pulse hits, its game over and everything biological dies puking their guts out and inorganic will become so irradiated that they'll glow in the dark well into the next millennium.

I'm contemplating on what to do. Their communicators are either out of range or the background radiation interferes with them. I've no idea if they're already heading back, gotten into trouble or even aware of the coming flare. Only a few months ago I'd have felt no guilt or even hesitation towards leaving this team to die... What do I really owe them? Nothing, if I'm dishonest to myself. Nothing except the fact that Peter and Groot are the only beings who've never called me anything derogatory. Pete's also fun to drink with -nah, who am I kidding? No he isn't but it's not like I have that many options when it comes to company at pub crawls... Drax helped me to regrow Groot and kept me going when I thought I'd lost him. Gamora -she's my peer support cyborg, someone to keep me sane and to relate with, I guess? I realize I'm dithering in hopes of not having to leave the safety of the Milano- 1h gone and they haven't come back yet and the comms are staying silent.

'Flark my life. Why am I doing this shit...?' I mutter aloud while dressing up properly for leaving the ship and stuffing all kinds of stuff into my daypack. Stuff like small tools, a couple of different analyzers, First aid kit, a few rations, color spray to find laser and infrared lines in case of intrusion prevention systems still being active... That sort of stuff plus my photon pistols and a few bombs. People call me paranoid behind my back but that's what's kept me live all these years. Expect the worst but hope for the best. I'm not in a good mood when I'm leaving the ship. I decide its best to leave the ship unlocked incase one of the others come back while I'm gone. I even left a note that literally spells it out -it's a voice mail, as I don't often write on surfaces with freehand, my handwriting looks too clumsy.

I stop at the foot of the ships stairs to look at my wrist computer and note that I have near exact 10h to find those four dumbasses and get the flark out this 'space hulk' before we all fry. I make a sudden start at the metallic clang near me. I take the large wing nut into my palms from the floor and look around curiously. It's not a nut fallen from the Milano. I shrug and pocket it without a second glance seeing as there's no one but me here even though I'm almost sure I could've heard someone calling at my name. 'Weird, better not let this place get under yer skin'. I tell myself and move on.

The air feels stale and while its cold it's not too frigid. The hangar bay is even bigger that I thought. Though its fully lit I can't even see the ceiling. I estimate the hangar to be at least several hundred gretches wide in every direction. If I'm not wholly mistaken this bay was once operated by some kind of robotic-system to stack incoming and outgoing ships. I think it's safe to assume that its now defunct even though I'm pretty sure I'm faintly detecting the hum of machinery working and gears grinding within the structure itself. The Milano is currently landed on the hangar 'floor' and I'm fine with that. The last thing we'd need would be some malfunctioning robot valet fucking around with the ship when we are trying to leave in a hurry.

Something about the meticulously even placement of the many similar looking doors leading out of the hangar bay area, fully functioning automated slide away blast doors by the way, is familiar to me but I can't quite place why. I'm probably thinking about some old military installation I've visited at some point. As I've expected, there's no dust anywhere and the walls are smooth 'n pale titan white but oxidized enough from age to no longer quite shine like new and I'm starting to wonder if I'm going to find my team before becoming hopelessly lost myself. Trying to scratch or mark the walls with a pen or paint proves useless and I'm almost hundred percent sure that they're also laser proof. I realize I'm going to have to start counting my steps and dropping down things on the floor to mark my passage and that's when I know what this place is and why this layout feels so familiar... I turn around to go back and realize there's no door to go back anymore.

I'm panting from exertion and feel happy, even a touch proud of my achievement. It's got to be the best time I've managed so far. Especially when it's a level five maze. The handler barely looks at me, apparently finding his smart watch more interesting than me. "Do it again you little gargoyle." He grunts pointing at the maze entrance with his shock stick. "Well, chop-chop!" He grumbles when I'm hesitating. I sigh knowing there's nothing else to it but to do as he says. This handler looks new. I'm not sure if he knows that I know I'm not supposed to repeat the tests too many times in a row to eliminate the possibility of me memorizing the mazes and thus skewing the resulting data over time. Of course they probably don't know that I could do these stupid mazes much faster now if I'd wanted to but I've already learned that they become suspicious If I'm 'progressing' too fast with a repeated test or regressing for that matter. Moderation is the thing, not too slow but not too fast and they won't have a reason to take you back there, back where the pain is... to poke you, to question you and to... readjust something inside you and then make you do it all over again but this time you're raw and bloody, fresh from the tune-up. They don't care if you're miserable, tired and in pain. They only care about the results, that their 'fix' works and you... You do everything you can to prove how well their latest 'fix' works because if you don't... Its back to the table.

Hundred and twenty-one steps from the first to second door and I drop a spanner down. The door slides open and I peer into the room. 'pressure plates, prr-leease. ' I notice almost amused and brandish my trusty screwdriver. Though I have to wonder why anyone would bother with creating a huge maze to float in space and then fill it with traps.

Fifth 'room of death' cleared and I'm no longer amused nor can I really turn back, it's likely no use and I'm running out of things to drop or rather things I think I can live without. I'm slowly getting pretty sure that the layout of this place isn't 'right' nor does it follow the conventions of standard physics. I have what laypeople tend to call as eidetic memory and with a bit of memory recall, know from the size of the rooms I've passed and the orientation of hallways between and the number of steps I've taken, that there SHOULD have been a wall behind this bend. There is no wall. Just another hallway which abruptly stops after another 'impossible' bend. At the end is a kind of a window which according to laws of physics should be viewing to another room I've already gone through but it doesn't. I look at my wrist computer and realize that I've only eight hours left. Three hours wasted and no sign of my friends. I'm about to step closer to this 'window' , which is more like a piece of wall missing than a window, but stop on my tracks when I start paying notice to what is behind the window. The window is giving a view to the hangar bay from high above the floor area but there's no way I'm that high. I should have felt the sloping of the floors. Something's not right with my view, I notice. There's the Milano just as I left her and... I can see a furry creature walking out -It's me. A chill goes down along my half-artificial spine. I yell at myself to stay at the ship and not go wandering about but somehow anything I yell becomes distorted and muffled by the strange acoustics of this place. I realize I could yell myself hoarse and I still wouldn't be heard by the people below. I'm not sure why I did what I'll do next. I take the large wing nut, I had found earlier, from my pocket and throw it towards myself at down below. It barely misses me, landing with a loud clang. He startles and picks it up, looking around curiously before moving on and dooming me to wander these halls forever. 'Great job numbskull, next time write a note to go with it' I scold myself sarcastically when the thought hits me after the deed.

All mazes had their own inner logic and adding time was just another layer. First I'd need to test how this particular maze was operating... 'It's not much but it's a theory'. I tell myself as I retreat several paces, close my eyes and turn around walking behind the bend and count to ten before turning back around to return to the 'window'.

I'm not sure what to think of the results of my little experiment. No change at all though I have a tentative feeling of weight to my consciousness as if I'm pushing against something with my mind. It's not hard or obvious in anyway and I doubt I'd had even noticed without my unusual 'upbringing' as a lab rat in a place where tests of perception alteration were just part of the weekly routine. Still, I can't help but wonder what else does this place mess with besides time and mind? I'm starting to have certain suspicion about the importance of the view to hangar bay and if I'm right the hangar is both the end and the beginning of this maze. It seems to operate in four dimensions instead of the more traditional three. The problem with time as part of a maze is that you can't really tell which direction it's going from your POV until after fact and you can't really tell against whose time yours is measuring and comparing to.

The 'window' is the same but the view isn't, or rather it's still the same but the Milano looks 'dead' for the lack of better words to describe it. Faded, like it hadn't been used for a very long time. I sit down at the edge of the drop, I put my feet dangling down as a deep sigh escapes from my lips. I'm not sure how long I've been sitting there when I notice a familiar figure down below. Groot!

I'm still in the process of sorting out what to throw at him to get his attention since yelling is no use when I notice that there's no need, his already somehow realized I'm up here and is busily growing vine to reach up to me.

I stand there frozen and uncertain until the vines reach the window. Numbly I take the opportunity to use them to climb down. Groot retracts his vines when I'm safely down. He greets me warmly but sounds oddly reserved and I notice that he looks slightly larger than the last time I've seen him fully grown -Which was at Xandar before we'd had our fight with Gamora & Peter. "You look good big guy, so where's the rest of those idiots?" He looks at me then as if contemplating on how to put it into words. "I'm sorry but I can't talk about it Rocket and I'm not really your Groot, if that makes any sense to you but I believe it does in the context." I glower up towards him momentarily. Groot could get really annoying when he gets to this state but I guess I should listen to what he has to say. "Well go on, We've got about eight hours before everything dies from cosmic radiation." He shrugs to this in his tree-like fashion. "Yes, but not I and not you. We too will become trapped here, unless I give you this... It's your own design. Keep it with you to guide your path and free yourself from this." He says and offers a small pendant, like a sea compass in a string, to me. I stare at him and take a quick step back.

"No, no, no! Don't give it to me you dumbass! It'll create a time-loop paradox if my future-self gives me the doohickey which I can't make without having received it from my future-self which will then erase him."

"But it's the only way you can find the other guardians without becoming entrapped yourself, you said so yourself, in the far future of course."

"And since we're discussing about it now, the loop has already formed. Flark my life, just gimme the thing and I dunno..? Let's hope I'm not seeing you here in 20 years or something equally as lame, I guess."

He looks at me as if to say something but instead he extends a vine to gently touch my cheek, growing a small flower at its tip to place behind my ear before nodding. "I would hope not. For your sake as well as mine."

I take the flower from my earlobe and turn it around in my paws, its green stalked with a mass of tiny white petals surrounding the button-like sun yellow center. There's no discernible odor but somehow it reminds me of summery fields. I put the flower back on my brow to rest against my ear and search for Groot with my gaze but his gone. Left while I'd been engrossed with the flower. I take a closer look at the tubular 'compass' and turn it around carefully. It looks simple and elegant but looks can deceive and if it's something I've made for myself, then there's a good chance that it's much more complex on the inside than what it looks like on the outside and under no circumstances I really, really shouldn't open and prod it with analyzers to see how it works...