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"A Prize for Three Empires"

A Prize for Three Empires

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28

This story is in progress.

"I don't even want to go there," said Carol, hugging her knees as she sat on the bed. "Don't even want to go there at all."

"So don't," said Marie, vacuuming the hardwood floor of her room. "From what you've told me, they've got enough people for a political party. What are they going to do that's so interesting? Run a bingo game?"

"I can do the vacuuming, Mom."

"So can I, and I've got the machine right now. Carol, answer me this. You're a grown woman, you've been through stuff I can't even imagine going through, over and over again. You know these people. What are you so afraid of?"

Carol lay back on the bed, her hands covering her eyes. "I'm losing my powers. Ever since we did that trick with the white holes in space, they've been tapering off. They'll be expecting Binary, super-wonder girl who punches out plasma. They're getting something closer to Ms. Marvel."

Marie Danvers shut off the vacuum. "And that's so bad? Would it be so bad if you lost all your power, and was just plain Carol Jane again, like you were when I had you?"

"No, Mama," she said. "You just don't get it. The Avengers is a power organization."

"And you've got powers, for crying out loud! You told me yourself. They recruited you, as I recall, when you were Ms. Marvel, not this Binary character. If you don't want to go, don't. If you do go, just act nice to everyone, say 'It's good to see you again,' and don't commit to anything. You've got your writing to do, anyway. Don't you?"

Carol nodded. "Yeah. But there are still folks I want to see up there. Wanda. Cap. The Beast. Also, a lot of 'em just came back after we thought they were dead for some time. It'd look like a real insult if I didn't show up."

"You act like this was some high school party. What do you want? Make a decision, and stick with it. Carol, with all the problems you've had with these super-types, I should think you'd let 'em alone. They only get you into trouble. Don't they?"

"They do," she admitted. "But they're also friends. I'm going." She jackknifed off the bed, on the side away from her mother. Then she pulled a drawer out of her chest of drawers, emptied the underwear inside it onto the bed, pulled out the fake bottom, and took what was lying there.

It was the suit, sash, and gloves portion of her Ms. Marvel costume. The mask and boots were elsewhere.

"Better wash that before you put it on," said Marie. "It's been in there awhile."

"It has," Carol said, and traipsed off to the laundry room.

As it was, just about everyone who had ever been in the Avengers and who wasn't dead made the scene. She wasn't sure, after looking at the Swordsman, if the latter condition hadn't been waived. But he was a Swordsman from a parallel world, or so they said.

There were new faces, new superhero names to memorize, and Wanda hadn't gotten there when Carol arrived. She was wearing the Ms. Marvel suit, but she powered up sufficiently to give them the old red-skin-and-fiery-head effect. She was greeted by Jarvis, and introduced by him to the crew in the big den as "Binary."

God, please don't let them know how much I'm faking it, she prayed.

Natasha, the Black Widow, was one of the first to step up and shake her hand. "It's great seeing you again, Carol. The Big Five are in a closed meeting right now, but they'll be joining us soon."

"The Big Five?" asked Carol. "I thought there were just Cap, Iron Man, Hank, and Jan. Did the Hulk rejoin or something?"

"Bojemoi!" The Widow laughed. "No, Thor made it back, too. But just about everyone here has been under attack recently by trolls and gnomes and fairies, like something out of Tolkien. And only old and new Avengers members have gotten it. Have you?"

"No," she had to admit. "Maybe I'm not enough of an Avenger for them to bother with?"

The Black Widow studied her for a second. "Well, neither did Reed or Sue Richards, and they were with the team for awhile. Something wrong, Carol?"

"Oh, nothing," said Carol. "'Scuse me, Tasha. I'm going to talk to McCoy. It's nice talking to you."

She crossed the room, being greeted by a number of the others and greeting them in turn. So many, many people in crazy costumes. She-Hulk. Sersi. Hercules. Machine Man. Falcon. Rick Jones, whose legs had been injured, in a floating chair like Professor X's. Crystal. Starfox. Sandman, a former criminal. A woman with a staff, whose name, she learned, was Magdalene. The new Swordsman. Moondragon. D-Man. The Black Panther. Sub-Mariner. The second Spider-Woman. Tigra. Justice. Rage. Firestar. Spider-Man. Captain Marvel II, who was now Photon, thankfully. Black Knight. Stingray. Quasar. The Vision. Espirita. Living Lightning. Darkhawk. And just now, Jarvis announced the arrival of three more: Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver.

Good Lord, it was a colony.

The Beast was showing off, balancing on his toes on the mantelpiece in front of a painting of the five original Avengers. Or maybe it was just an attempt to find a place to stand. "Hank," she called.

He glanced around and saw her. "Carol," he said, and jumped down, landing gracefully on the floor in front of her. "How've you been? Run into any rough Shi'ar lately?"

She shrugged.

The Beast tried a new tack. "Nice threads, Carol. So, is it back to the divine Ms. M, or are you still going by 'Binary'?"

"Oh, what difference does it make, Beast?", she said, tiredly. "What I want to know is, why are we standing around wasting time? We were called by Captain America and the others. So where are they?"

He spread his hands. "Doing something Avengerish. Sitting around playing Original Five games again. How should I know?"

Darkhawk, the armored guy who was newer than both of them, broke in. "I think they're trying to see if they can contact the last remaining members, Hank. Like the Hulk, Mr. and Mrs. Richards, and the Thing. Whatever this phenomenon is, it's targeted almost all of the team."

"What happened to that new Thor guy?" asked Carol.

"Dead," said Hank.

"Oh," she said.

She wondered if she should find Jarvis and ask him for a drink. She clasped both hands behind her and held onto them to keep them from trembling. "We haven't been introduced," she said to the guy in the armor. "I'm Carol Danvers."

"Darkhawk," he said. "Pleased to meet you." He stuck out his hand and, somewhat nervously, she shook it. "I was with the West Coast branch. Didn't you serve as Ms. Marvel?"

Before she could answer, Jarvis's voice rang out through the room.

"Ladies and gentlemen, excuse me," he said. "Captain America and the others have requested your presence in the briefing room. Please follow me."

All of them had filed into the big auditorium and occupied the seats while Captain America, Giant-Man, the Wasp, Iron Man, and Thor gave them a briefing. The mythological weirdies that had attacked the various members that week were possibly connected to something called the Twilight Sword, which was lost, and five "norn stones", on which they had a make. So they divided the team into five parts, mounted Quinjets, and were off.

They found the sword, and quite a bit more than that.

They found themselves in the power of Morgan Le Fey and Mordred, two ancient sorcerors from the time of Camelot.

Somehow, Morgan's magic, boosted by the captive Scarlet Witch, was used to either turn Earth into a world styled after medaeval Britain, or they were shunted into a parallel world, or something. Whatever the case, for a time they served her, as her Imperial Guard, under her mental domination. They all got names more suited to the time of knights and dragons. Hers was Lady Marvel.

The good guys had won, with a little help from Wonder Man, who was effectively brought back from the "dead" by having his energy reassembled. She had done her part, even though she found being under someone else's mental control gave her harrowing flashbacks to the Immortus incident. She was still able to fly, to fight, to use super-strength, and to throw off a few plasma bolts.

But she was slackening off, power-wise, and hoped it wasn't too obvious to the others.

With the breaking of Morgan's spell, the world had come back to its normal state. The Beast had summed up the adventure with one question, which he put before them all: "What are we gonna do with 39 Avengers?"

Everybody knew the real answer: Throw some people out.

For a week or two, the bulk of the team was on call, with a large mass of them answering calls, crushing whatever luckless super-baddie happened to be in operation right then, and, largely, getting in each other's way. Eight of them, including the Black Widow, left fairly early. Five others followed shortly after. The five Founding Members, who had charter power over the entire team, took a meeting to sort out the rest.

While that was happening, Carol finally went to Hank McCoy in the lab section of the mansion. "Hank," she said. "I've got to tell you something. When I do, I want you to keep it to yourself until I announce it. I'm trusting you. Okay?"

The blue-furred acrobat peered over his granny glasses at her. "Carol, look. We've been friends ever since you did your original tour of duty with this team. I've worked with you here, and with the X-Men. It behooves me to say, if you can't trust me after all that, what must I do to earn it?"

She said, "I just need you to run some tests on me. We need to keep the tests, and the results, confidential for right now. Yes, Hank, I do trust you. Can you trust me?"

He swiveled his chair around, reached out, and took her hand. "It's about your powers, isn't it?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"I don't think everyone noticed," he said. "Not all of them have seen you as Binary. But I've seen you punching out Rogue and trying to tame a white hole star. I could tell, after I got out from under Morgan's control, that you weren't using all the power that you used to have. The Shi'ar incident caused that, am I right?"

"Probably so," she admitted.

"Let's see what I can do."

Over the next week, her power waned more. She was still left with what abilities she had as Ms. Marvel. The Binary force seemed to have reenergized her Kree / human genetic matrix. She was grateful for that, at least.

But she could barely even change form, now. It was getting more difficult for her to even do the flare-up transformation. Usually, it took several tries before she got going, like a difficult cigarette lighter. She also found her flame-projecting abilities fading. She could still use the blasts, still punch through metal with them. But they were nowhere near what they had been in the past. Nowhere near enough to tame a star.

Her hands clamped in power-gauging devices, Carol said to the Beast, "I need a new name."

He looked at her. "Won't that be a giveaway, Carol? That's admitting you don't have the star-power anymore."

She said, "I've changed names before. They'll just think it's another title change for awhile, until I tell them."

"And you are going to tell them?" Hank looked at her, waiting for her answer.

"Yes," she admitted. "But not now. I haven't even thought of a new name yet."

"What about Ms. Marvel?"

"I think that lady Thing is still using it, and I don't want to go backwards. Even if I am." She sighed. "What name isn't taken these days?"

"Good question," said Hank, who knew that super-heroes were still a growth market. "How's about something mythological? Athena? Pallas?  Nike?"

"Oh, come on, do I look Greek to you?" While she spoke, she exerted her concentration once more.

She was rewarded with a flareup of transformation. The nimbus of Binary power surrounded her, transforming her head to flame and her skin to a reddish color. But it only lasted five seconds.

"Not at the moment, no," said the Beast. "Corona? Flare? Blaze?"

"Taken, I don't think so," she said, returning to her human appearance. "And I don't think so. So what's the score? Give it to me straight."

She had to admit, the last transformation had tired her. Not good.

"Straight you want, my dear Ms. Danvers, straight you get. It appears that your powers have definitely decreased. From these readings, I doubt you'll even be able to shift into your Binary form again." He paused. "I'm sorry."

There it was. The pronouncement. Like a small lead coffin in her stomach.

No more soaring through space with the power of thousands of white holes broadcasting to her. No more saving the sun. No more blasting spaceships to bits.

No more Binary.

She took a deep breath. "Don't be," she said. "It's not your fault. Besides, you're only confirming what I already knew. I've been feeling it for weeks." She began unhooking the power-measuring gauntlets. "Just do me a favor, Beast, and don't tell anyone. Hey, would a fighter plane work? One of the old Warbirds, maybe?"

The Beast looked up from his computer screen, and gently smiled. "For an ex-USAF cutie who flies? How outre can you get? But hey, you go from being phenomenally powerful to merely incredibly powerful. Where's the harm in telling--"

"No, Beast," she said, firmly. "You've got the X-Men. I want on this team, and I'm not going to risk jeopardizing it. Now what've you got?"

"Uh, before you look..."

She looked at the list of names he had typed up. "Warrior Woman? Regalia? Stuka? Blitzkrieg?"

"Hey, I'm called the Beast," grinned McCoy. "What do I know from names?"

They both laughed, and were glad of the chance.

"Promise me you won't tell," she said.

"I promise," he replied. "Promise me you will tell."

She said, "When the time comes, Hank. When it comes."

The only reason she knew that she had for wanting to stay on the team was because some of the people on it, such as Jan and Cap, were good friends. And because it was a place to go. And maybe because the writing wasn't taking off again like she wanted it to.

Maybe it was because being a super-hero was something she knew how to do. Or maybe it was because she wanted to know if she still could do it.

Whatever the case, she told her parents that she was staying in New York for awhile, and would be back whenever time permitted. After finishing a call to her mother, she hung up, walked out of her room, and headed for the den.

Nobody was there at the moment.

She was still shaky. She didn't know how long she could keep faking it, or what the rest would think of her--especially Wanda and Jan--when she had to tell them.

There was a wet bar against the wall. As far as she knew, most of the team were neither lushes nor teetotallers. She'd never seen Iron Man drink, but she'd never seen him eat, either. He would have had to lift his faceplate for that.

She picked her way through the various bottles, hefted one which contained Scotch, and looked at it.

Her hands didn't seem to be shaking.

Maybe this was the ticket. Just a quick one, to clean out the old pipes. Like she used to have before she went up in the fighter birds. Those had always made her feel a bit steadier.

Couldn't hurt.

She heard someone clearing his throat.

She looked up and saw Iron Man, standing in the doorway. "Oh, ah--hi, Iron Man," she fumbled, putting on a smile. "What's up?"

He looked at her hands and what was in them.

"We're ready for you in the meeting room. If you're ready, that is."

"Of course," said Carol. She set the Scotch bottle on the bar and shoved the cork in a bit more firmly. "I was just, uh, making sure we were well stocked. There'll be a press conference later, after all. And I used to be a magazine editor. I know how reporters can drink."

"Um," Iron Man said, in his mechanically filtered voice. "Right."

Carol smoothed the mask back onto her face. "So let's go, okay?" She turned and went through the door he had opened, not waiting for him to follow.

Iron Man looked at her retreating back. For him, just being this close to booze was an experience he could do without. He had had his Lost Weekend some years back. It had cost him his reputation, his company, his career as a super-hero, and damn near his life. He'd gotten that all back, piecemeal, after he quit the stuff.

He didn't see any used glasses around. But he knew the signs of covering up.

He'd done that many times before, himself.

Perhaps Carol wasn't into the stuff. Perhaps, if she was, she could handle it. Many could.

But the ones who couldn't always covered up.

As it was, the Original Five came out of the meeting, gave the news to the remaining members, and announced the team lineup. Captain America said, "Hank and Jan are leaving active membership for the moment. So now, the current team consists of myself, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Justice, Firebird, and Binary."

"Warbird," she said.

Cap looked up. "Excuse me?"

"I'm calling myself Warbird now, Cap," she said. "After an old fighter plane. Hope you don't mind."

He said, "Is this a formal change, Carol? As in, permanent? The press is going to be confused enough about some of these names as it is."

"Permanent for the moment, Cap," Carol said, with a smile. "I feel more comfortable with my new name. Not too many folks outside of our community know about Binary. Just tell 'em I used to be Ms. Marvel."

"Okay," said Cap. "If you're sure about it."

"I'm sure about it," she said.

Iron Man had given her a look, but hadn't said anything. Which was fine by her.

So they called the press conference, and presented the new team, and Carol smiled and posed with the others and got a charge out of Cap raising his fist and yelling, "Avengers assemble!" The flashbulbs had popped and the newsies ran their videocameras and everyone from CNN was happy.

After the ceremony, she went back to her room, locked the door, and pulled a bottle of Scotch out of the back of a drawer. This was one she had bought, so they wouldn't miss it from the bar.

She poured one in a water glass and sipped it and felt it burn down.

Carol had flashbacks of throwing one down with the boys just before they went up in a jet. That made her feel better. Nostalgiac. In control.

So she threw another one down in honor of the memory. She kept throwing them down till half the bottle was gone and the memories weren't clear anymore, but she really didn't give a damn.

Not giving a damn was very nice.

When Jarvis buzzed her about dinner, she said that she wouldn't be down, that the others should go on without her, and she'd have something later herself.

She hoped she sounded sober. But really, at the moment, she didn't give a damn.

Carol was careful enough to keep it sober around the others, during the daytime. She performed in the training exercises like a trouper, using her starbolt powers to trash exercise-robots, setting a record for performance which impressed Cap thoroughly. But he asked her why she hadn't just powered up to her Binary status and blasted through all the robots and obstacles like a laser through tissue paper.

She switched the subject.

Shortly afterward, they had to rescue the passengers of an airliner which crashed just off the Maine coast, and ran into the Squadron Supreme. They ended up fighting, and Carol acquitted herself fairly well. But Cap had ordered her to switch to her Binary form while fighting Hyperion, and she pretended she couldn't hear him. She also ran into one of Hype's super-powerful punches, and got knocked practically into the next county.

During that gig, she had been careless enough to leave her door unlocked. Wanda had walked in on her, wanting to talk to her about some problems of her own.

She had seen Carol taking a bottle of whiskey and a glass from the cabinet in her room.

For a second, Carol had frozen. Then, she told herself, What the hell, nobody exactly expected me to be Carrie Nation anyway. "C'mon in, Wanda. Make yourself at home. This whole impostor thing's getting to me, and I thought a little nip or two might settle my nerves. Care to join me?"

She didn't, but she did take some Bavarian Chocolate Pecan ice cream from Carol's fridge and helped herself to a bowlful. During the conversation, Wanda had said, "Are you sure you should be drinking that much? It's only--"

"Back off, hon," said Carol, and hoped she wasn't doing it too forcefully. "I know my limit. Besides, once you get to be my age, you'll realize that stuff goes to your hips a lot faster than this."

And she knocked one back, and felt it burn down, and didn't give much of a damn what Wanda thought at the moment.

After all, Wanda was a friend. And friends covered for you.

At least, they were supposed to.

Captain America had bluntly questioned her about her powers, a while later. She had put him off, and flatly said, "Look, Cap. They're my powers, and I'll be the judge of how best to use them. You just butt out, and I'll do my job--without interference. Got that?"

Cap didn't look at all please. "Now, see here," he started. But Iron Man had put a metal-gloved hand on his shoulder, whispered something to him, and Cap had subsided. "All right," he said. "For now."

She had performed up to expectations, and beyond. Warbird had cracked the case, exposing one of the enemy as the Corruptor, an old foe of theirs. The Squadron and the Avengers captured him and patched up difficulties. Afterward, she had handed Cap the scanner with which she detected the villain's imposture. "Here. Thought you might like to have this. Maybe it'll remind you next time that us peons can think for ourselves."

Cap took the hand-held instrument from her. "I've got nothing against initiative, Warbird, or independent thought. What I don't like is not knowing my team's capabilities. If there's something wrong with your powers that I should know about--"

She blazed at that.

This was Captain America. Her old friend. The one with whom, at first, she thought she had had the best rapport. The one who had been one of the idiots who betrayed her to Marcus Immortus, and had begged her forgiveness, and gotten it. The one who had congratulated her for saving the sun. The one who had helped welcome her back into the team.

The one who thought he had the right, now, to judge her.

"So that's it, eh?" she said. "You've been looking for any excuse you can find to get me off this team--and now you think you've found it. Well, I'm wise to you, Captain, and it's not going to work. You hear? It's not going to work!"

She had flown off, then, leaving a nonplussed Cap and the rest of the team below her.

In a while, she'd be back. But she was going back to Boston for a short bit. Avengers Mansion would hold too much of a stench for her to be there, right now.

On the way, she was going to see if her Avengers I.D. could get her credit at a liquor store. If it could, there was always the chance that the group could trace the purchases. And if they had their eye on her right now, they might do just that.

But right now, there was one thing she had to admit.

She didn't really give a damn.


Continued in Chapter 12.


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