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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.

Carol turned up at the Greyhound station at 2 a.m., hauling a couple of grips, dressed in dark glasses, a coat, gloves, and a knee-length dress. She didn't like the way the off-duty cop who served as paid guard there was eyeing her. She figured it had to be the shades. She also didn't give a damn.

It felt strange on the way there, being crammed in that wheeled sardine can with around 50 other people. All of them working class or unworking class, some of them talking, most of them locked into their private worlds. That was all right by Carol. She sat beside an old black gentleman who, after they exchanged info about where they were headed, didn't talk much to her. That was all right by Carol. She didn't much want to talk to anyone.

She didn't feel like flying, either under her own power or on a plane. She didn't trust her driving right then. So the best thing was take the damn bus and leave the driving to them.

The night was chilly with stars out in full force. She looked up at them with some nostalgia as she opened the glass and metal door near the taxi stand. She wondered if all this incredible crap would have come down around her shoulders if, way back when, she had been satisfied with just being Earthbound.

"But that was yesterday, and yesterday's gone." A slash of an old Chad and Jeremy song, from back when pop music sounded like music. She glanced back in the direction of the bus station and saw the people sitting there with their possessions clasped between their feet, staring at everything and nothing, listening for the taped announcement of the list of destinations for the departing box on wheels.

Carol sniffed the air. It was cold and good.

In a few minutes, a yellow cab which, like its driver, had seen better days, stopped by. Carol told him where to take her. "That's a far piece out there," he said.

"I've got money," she told him.

The cabbie helped her stash the grips in the trunk, then spoke his destination into his hand-held mike after Carol got in. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. After a few attempts at conversation, the driver figured she just wanted to sleep, and let her alone.

Once or twice, he glanced at his mirror and saw her hands twitch or tremble. He asked if she was all right. She told him she was just fine.

They pulled in front of the house in the Boston suburb about an hour later. Carol paid him the fee in cash, and politely refused his offer to help her carry the bags up to the front porch. Nonetheless, he watched her from the cab until she had carried the suitcases up to the door, opened it with her key, and taken them and herself inside.

Nobody was up at that hour, and she was very glad. Carol navigated through the front room to the hall and thence to her own room in semi-darkness, trying not to bump the walls too hard. She only turned on her room light after she had closed her door. She disrobed down to her underwear and hung her clothes over the back of a chair.

Then she briefly unsnapped the locks on one of the grips.

Carol peeked inside. The Chivas Regal bottle hadn't broken. It still nestled safely in her pile of clothes and shoes and other stuff. Good. Her security blanket was still safe.

She closed the suitcase again. It'd keep till later.

She turned out the light, went to bed, and crashed.

Joe and Marie cracked the door in the morning, saw her, and let her sleep through till 10 a.m.

By the time Carol finished her toast, bacon, and egg, Marie was ready to talk to her. Joe was already at work.

"What's going on, Carol?"

Carol looked at her mother suspiciously. "What do you mean, ‘What's going on', Mom? I just came back from Avengers duty. My last time with ‘em, too."

Marie, in a floral-patterned housedress with her hair up in a kerchief, looked her straight in the eye. "I heard it on the news. You left the team. Captain America didn't say much about the reasons why."

"Captain America is one of the reasons why."

"So? What are your reasons?"

Carol ran her fingers through her hair, pushing it away from her face. "Don't want to talk about it, Mom."

"That usually means you do want to talk about it, honey, but you want to have it dragged out of you. Okay. What happened?"

Carol stared back at Marie in anger. "They wouldn't keep faith with me, Mom. After all the things I've done, risking my life, saving the sun, they wouldn't keep faith with me."

Marie gave her back an even gaze. "So tell me about it."

"Ah, jeez."

"Look, Carol, I'm the one who knows you're really this Warbird character. I wish you'd tell Joe, but that's your decision. Whatever it is, whether you're in that little black bathing suit and the boots or in your regular clothes, you can talk to me." She paused. "Can't you?"

"Ah, I--I don't know what the hell they expect from me, Mom," said Carol. "They betrayed me after that Immortus thing. They betrayed me--"

"Hold on a minute, honey," said Marie. "Did they know they were betraying you?"

"Mom, they had to! I mean, they should have. Anybody with the brains of a retarded newt would have known I was being manipulated by that--that--"

Marie tented her fingers. "How were they supposed to have known? When that happened, didn't you go along with that Marcus guy?"

She stared at Marie in disbelief. "Mom, don't tell me you're siding with them. Not on that."

"You think I'm going to make apologies for Marcus? A man who virtually rapes my own daughter?" She looked cold, hard, and not at all like the mother Carol Danvers was used to. "Hell, no. If he wasn't dead, I'd find out where he was, no matter how long it took me, and shoot him down dead with your father's .38. But the Avengers...they may have been dumb, all right. But weren't they just going on what information they had available to them?"

"I'm about ready to throw up on this table after hearing that."

"You do and you'll clean it up. Now, just sit there and listen. Okay?"

Carol didn't give her mother anything but a sullen look.

"I wasn't there. I just heard about it from you. All right, you turned up pregnant, had the baby that turned out to be, God help us, the guy who impregnated you. I still don't understand that. But when you went back with him, to all intents and purposes, didn't it look like you were doing it of your own free will?"

"My God, mother," breathed Carol. "They should have known. A woman is mind-controlled, raped, made amnesiac, forced to bear a child without knowing who the father is, and then goes with that child, now a grown man, to live with him--and they didn't know something was going on? They should have known!"

"Should have," said Marie. "But did they? Carol, if they'd really known you were going with Marcus unwillingly, don't you think they would have busted him up into little pieces to get you back? They're the Avengers, for crying out loud. Don't you think they liked you? Don't you think they considered you part of their team?"

"Mother," she said. "I can't believe you are doing this to me."

"Carol. Listen. It's time you pulled yourself out of that pity-pool and got on with your damned life. And part of it is realizing where you may have been wrong, and trying to do something about it. And part of it may be trying to see something from beyond your own perspective. Okay?"

"Sure. Like we have to consider the perspective of the rapist, don't we? After all, I must have been just teasing him from another dimension. I must just have wanted it!" Carol was almost in tears.

"Will you listen to me?" Marie was up, standing beside Carol, about to shake her by the arms if it was necessary. "Marcus was evil. The Avengers were just dumb. They let you down. You were hurt, all right. But did they really mean to hurt you?"

"Mom, I--"

"Did they really mean to hurt you?"

Carol was flatly crying. "They may not have meant it, but they did! They hurt me so much!"

"All right, they hurt you. You think I don't feel that, too? When my daughter goes through what you've gone through, you think I don't feel some of that, too? Do you think you're an island, Carol? Don't you know that what hurts you, hurts me?"

Carol didn't stop crying. But Marie knew she was listening, too, so she plowed on.

"You may not know this, but I am very proud of you. I was proud when you went into the Air Force, when you served your country as a secret agent, when you worked for NASA, when you edited that magazine and wrote that book, and, yes, when you put on those costumes and fought idiots in their fancy underwear. I think I'm even more proud of you than Joe is, because I know some of the things about you that he doesn't. How many mothers have a daughter who can achieve any one of those things? Not very many. And I've got a daughter that has done them all."

Carol reached out for her mother. Marie pushed her hands away. "No, you don't. You're not hugging me until I'm finished. And I've got a lot more to say yet.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the Avengers are made up of the dumbest, most cowardly people on the face of the Earth. Am I right? I think I am. They maybe should have known what was going on with you and Marcus. But they didn't. Maybe they couldn't. All they saw was you, acting like you wanted to go with him, and you did. That's the information they had to go on. Honestly, Carol, do you think they would knowingly have let you go off with a rapist?"

"No," said Carol, snuffling.

"Well, then," she said. "We have established that they were dumb, yes, or maybe just deceived. But not malicious. Can we agree on that?"

"I didn't say they did it deliberately," Carol said. "I just said they should have known."

"Maybe they couldn't have, Carol," said Marie. "If they didn't know you were being controlled, how could they have known?"


"So, now, you're out of the Avengers," Marie went on. "What went wrong this time?"

Carol stared down into her breakfast plate. "Long story."

"Wait till I go to the bathroom," said Marie. "Then don't leave anything out."

After the tale was told, Marie shook her head. "So now you've got a drinking problem, on top of all that. It's a wonder that I don't."

"Mom, I'm tapering off," said Carol. "I haven't even touched that bottle I brought home with me." She caught herself, and cursed. Marie was staring at her.

"What bottle? You brought some booze home with you?"

Carol slapped the table, remembering to pull her impact. "I need a drink every once in awhile. It calms me down. That's all."

"No, it isn't," said Marie. "You really need me to tell you that?"

"I don't need a lecture, Mom," said Carol.

"You need Al-Anon. I just hope you don't need Betty Ford."

"Look, I admit there was some problem in the past," said Carol. "Okay. I admit that. But they should have known I was having problems--" She caught herself again. "Oh, hell."

Marie looked at her. "Right. Should have, should have. That's a really useful phrase, isn't it, Carol? Bound to be a million uses for it. I should have gone to college. I should have been a working wife. I should have this, I should have that. I should have won ten million dollars in the lottery. But you know what, Carol? I didn't."

"Really cool, Mom. Non-sequitur city. I won the super-power lottery twice, maybe three times. Now I almost wish I hadn't."

"Really? You've been blessed with powers that maybe one out of a million people on Earth has, and you think that's such a bad thing? If it is, why don't you go to Reed Richards or somebody and have ‘em taken away?"

"Because they're mine! I may have lost a lot, I may not be Binary anymore, but I'm still Warbird, and I'm going to stay Warbird."

"Good," said Marie. "I'm all for that. But don't you think that a Warbird who's drunk on her kiester is just about as dangerous as a super-villain?"

"I am not drunk on my kiester! I can handle the stuff."

"Is that why they were about to vote you out? Because you could handle the stuff?"

"They were hypocrites. Hawkeye and Thor drink. Iron Man had a drinking problem."

"Iron Man?" said Marie. "So that's why he came here that morning. My God, honey, why didn't you tell me back then you had a problem?"

"Didn't think I had one," said Carol. "Just blowing off tension's a defense mechanism, not a problem."

"It is if you blow it off in a problematic way," said Marie. "Don't kid yourself. And this Hawkeye and Thor, do they go out drunk into battle?"

Carol shook her head. "I don't know. I don't think so. Doesn't really matter."

"Yes, it does. With as much power as that Thor guy has, he could knock down the World Trade Center if he tied one on. Honey, you've admitted you lied about your powers fading out when you rejoined."

"I didn't lie about it, I just didn't tell them." Carol bristled.

"And that's your excuse? You withheld important information from them? What if you'd been up-front about it from the beginning? Would they have kicked you out then?"

"They might have," said Carol. "I don't know."

"You've got as much power as you did when you were Ms. Marvel, and they let you in then," said Marie. "Carol, when in the hell are you going to do some thinking for yourself? Why do I always have to be Mary Worth? You're over 30, you'll be 40 in a few years, but if you don't start getting your stuff together the way you used to have it, you probably won't make it." Marie shook her head. "Maybe you shouldn't have gotten any powers. Maybe you just can't handle them."

Carol stared back at her. "I can handle them. I'm going to show every damned one of them that I can be twice the hero they are. I'll hold down a regular job, too. I can do it. I saved the sun, I can sure do that much."

Marie said, "Could you have saved the sun when you were drunk?"

Without a word, Carol got up from the table and started walking away.

Marie called after her, "You've got some mail. One of the letters looks pretty important."

"Thanks, Mom," said Carol, over her shoulder. She went to the coffee table in the front room, where Mom usually put the mail, and saw a small stack of letters addressed to her. She shuffled through them and found the one Mom had probably been talking about.

The return address had a Tech Support logo on it, the name of an aerospace trade magazine, and under that, the name of Tracy Burke, the editor. Tracy had been her successor at Woman magazine, years ago.

She walked to her room, careful not to go near the kitchen where Marie was now taking care of the breakfast dishes, and flopped down on her bed below the Air Force recruiting poster.

A few seconds after reading the letter, Carol had punched up Tracy's work number on her phone. The secretary put her through. "Burke, can I help you?" said a familiar voice.

"Tracy, it's Carol," she said. "Do you really mean what you just wrote me?"

"Sure did, kid, or I wouldn't have written it," affirmed Tracy. "If you want to come up here, and you can stand the rain, there's a place for you. I haven't read all of that novel you sent me yet, but your articles look damned great."

"Will you help me get a place in Seattle?"

"Can I take that as a yes?"

"Sure can."

"Then my answer is: you bet."


After a few more minutes, Carol hung up, trotted into the kitchen, and grabbed her dishwashing mother from behind. "Mom, believe it, you'll never believe it!" she shouted.

"Believe what? And don't crunch my poor old ribs, honey."

"Sorry. Mom, I just finished talking to Tracy Burke. She's got a writing job waiting for me in Seattle, on Tech Support magazine."

Marie turned her head, giving Carol a sad smile. "Do you think you're really ready for it, dear? Remember, if you blow assignments down a bottle, they're not going to like it any more than the Avengers did."

"Mom, would you not rain on my parade for once? My drunken days are behind me. Just like the Avengers. I'm ready to rattle in Seattle. Let me get my plane reservations."

"Do something first for me, honey."

"What's that?"

"Take that bottle of booze out of your suitcase and pour it down the sink, with me watching. Or don't go."

Carol sighed. "Will you feel better about me if I do?"

"I'll always love you, Carol. But this is about you feeling better about you."

"Okay, okay." She marched back to her room and came back with the Chivas Regal. The seal was still unbroken, and she made sure Marie saw that. Marie dumped the water out of the plastic rinse tub in the sink and took the tub away.

Carol stepped up, cracked the seal, unstoppered the bottle, and upended it.

The expensive stuff gurgled and glooped its way out of the glass neck and spattered against the aluminum of the sink. Carol watched it go down the drain.

She watched very intently.

Two days later, Warbird was flying over the Seattle skyline.

She was smiling, even though she had told her father of her alky problem a day before. He had almost insisted that she stay there and start going to Alcoholics Anonymous. She had stood up to him again, said she was going to the King City, that her problems with the sauce were down the drain with the Chivas, and that was that.

It was fun to see the locals point up at her from street level and watch the window-washers wave at her. The norms did that everywhere. The universal super-hero salute. She waved back. Then she found a suitable alley to land in, powered down, and exited as Carol Danvers. It was close enough to a designated meeting spot for her to walk.

Tracy was sitting at said spot, on a bench underneath a tree, near Ivar's big clam restaurant. "Carol," she called, waving to draw the blonde's attention.

Carol called out Tracy's name, and stepped up to her. The gray-haired editor was dressed in gray coat, black blouse, and maroon skirt, and looked attractive despite her 50-plus years. A helluva lot better than when they both had worked in the New York pressure cooker. Carol extended her hand and Marie shook it.

"You're looking good, Trace," said Carol. "The magazine scene out here in aerospace country must agree with you."

"Well, it sure beats working for Jonah Jameson," said Tracy. "C'mon, kid, I'm starved. You like clams?"

"I'll learn."

After a first course, during which Carol learned to endure clams, if not like them, Tracy gave her the verdict. "Your samples are terrific. And as editor of Tech Support magazine, I can promise you as many freelance writing assignments as you want. As for that other matter--"

"The book?" said Carol. "You don't have to spare my feelings, Tracy. If it's awful, just--"

"Don't sell yourself short, kid. What I was going to say was that, due to that other matter, I don't think you'll be writing for me long." Tracy grinned. Carol waited.

"Your novel's wonderful, Carol," Tracy continued, "and utterly publishable." She went on to praise the manuscript, the one Carol had written about the American agent who gets involved with the Kree. "You write about outer space like you've lived there, Carol. I know editors in New York who'll snap it up in a second, and who'd kill to have you under a three-book contract."

"You're serious. You're not just pulling my leg."

Tracy shook her head. "Nope. You could be the next Michael Crichton, if you can put this stuff out consistently. That's the truth, Carol."

Carol beamed. "Well, this calls for a celebration." She hailed a passing waiter. "I'll have another seven and seven. And my friend here'll have another of whatever she's..."

She glanced at Tracy, who had an almost terrified look on her face. Carol turned to the waiter. "Just a seven and seven for me," she said, and he left.

"I forgot, Tracy--you don't drink anymore," said Carol. "Does it bother you, me having a drink?"

Tracy's expression had faded to sadness. "It's not a problem. I'm nine years sober, and I'm staying that way. It's just, I never knew you to drink in the day before."

Carol forced a smile. "Don't worry about it, Trace. I'd been drinking a little much recently, but I'm rationing myself now. Got it all under control. I'll tell the waiter to skip the--"

She stopped.

She was facing the window, and had seen three people go by outside. One of them was in a wheelchair, wore shades, and, though bruised, looked quite familiar.

A familiar reaction went off within her like a meltdown.

"Excuse me, Tracy, but I just saw someone outside. I'll be back in a minute." She counted out money from her purse and nudged it underneath her plate.

"Carol, what is it?" said Tracy. "Are you all right?"

"I'm just peachy, don't worry," she said. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

Carol walked as quickly as possible out of the restaurant and was very thankful that there were few people on the sidewalk at this odd afternoon hour. Stepping into an alley again, she powered up enough to use flight ability, but did not alter her clothes to her Warbird attire. She sprang into the air, and came down on the sidewalk right in front of the guy in the wheelchair, the big bruiser behind him, and the freckle-faced redheaded woman beside the bruiser.

Carol stood there, hands on hips, feet spread apart to give her a solid stance, and forced the three of them to halt in front of her. She focused her angry glare on the man in the chair.

"Well, well, well," she said, with much acid. "Tony Stark."


Continued in Chapter 14.


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