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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.

Earlier parts of this story can be found on the Domain at
Synopsis: Captured at first by the Aakon, Carol Danvers escaped during a battle between them, the Kree, and the Skrulls, only to fall into the hands of the Imperial Guard.

A Prize For Three Empires

Part 21

Carol was thankful for small favors. The Guardsmen had allowed her to take a bath, had laundered her costume, and were now eating with her in the ship's mess. Nobody was training a gun on her right now, or beating on her. That could change, but she would enjoy it while she could.

The Imperial cruiser was not as big as the Aakon starship she had escaped from, but it was comfortable. There were five members of the Imperial Guard on board. Guardian was the man in charge, the leader of the group. His strength and speed surpassed all but the most powerful of Earth heroes, and he had the power to fly as well, plus some TK abilities. He sat across from her in his red, yellow, and blue costume, skin a dull purple in hue and wearing a mohawk haircut that crested eight inches above the top of his head. But for all of that, Carol had to admit she found him a bit attractive.

Not that she wanted to fall prey to the Stockholm Syndrome and identify too much with her captors. She was a prisoner, and had to remind herself of that.

The second, Fang, was most akin to Wolverine in temperament. He wore an orange and brown outfit not unlike one Wolvie had once affected (Wolverine had once stolen Fang's outfit and tried to pass as him). His face was overgrown with hair, like Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man. Fang had a wild man's mien in battle like a Viking berserker and his strength and speed were greater than the human norm. He was also a very able acrobat and had a set of teeth which could rip through anything this side of solid steel.

Oracle was the third. She was a precog, able to see some distance into the near future or possible futures. Her skin and hair was white, her uniform was pink, and she was very beautiful. But she looked at Warbird with glances that did little to conceal her hostility. Carol wondered if the woman had been close to Zenith, then decided there was nothing she could do about it if she had been.

The next was Titan, a man closest in appearance to a normal Earthman. He had the power to grow to great height, like Giant-Man. His costume was blue and orange, and of all her captors, he seemed the most friendly towards her. Hopefully, it wasn't lechery. But even that, she reminded herself, could be exploited.

The final Guardsman was Starbolt, and he was hardest to read of them all. He seemed to be composed or at least infused with solar energy, and his head and upper arms were always ablaze, though he controlled it sufficiently at the dinner table. He wore a red tunic, shorts, boots, and gloves. The rest of him was exposed, golden, and apparently afire. But he didn't melt the chair beneath him or the table before him. He also didn't have any problem eating what was set before him.

Carol took another bite of her sandwich. After chewing and swallowing, she said, "I appreciate you providing Earth food. It's considerate of you."

Gladiator said, noncomittally, "We've had enough dealings with Earth people in our time to set our food synthers properly for them. There's a wide range of Terran food you can choose from. I take it this is sufficient."

"Um, yes," said Carol. "Very sufficient." She ate more of the bread, mustard, and beef. There might have been a hint of foreign flavoring, but at this point you could have doused the thing in tabasco sauce and she'd have still eaten it. "So. You still want to bring me back to Lilandra?"

"Such is our burden," said Fang, who sounded like he'd just as soon throw her out the airlock.

"Gladiator, I must warn you of my vision," said Oracle.

Carol looked at her. "Are you myopic?"

She ignored the Earthwoman. "I have a sight that she will try to escape before we make planet. Be on your guard."

Gladiator turned dryly to her teammate. "That I needed you to tell me? Thank you, Oracle."

"Why," said Carol, trying a new tack, "are you taking me to your homeworld? You know what Deathbird wants to do to me. You're carrying me to my death."

"I am sorry," said Gladiator. "We have our orders. We are servants of the Imperium."

"Can you justify that to yourself, even if you are? Remember the Nega-Bomb? It killed over 95 percent of the Kree race. That was done by servants of another Imperium. How many people who survived would be able to live with that knowledge?"

She seemed to have scored a hit with that one. All concerned looked at her with grimmer faces. "We did not trigger that bomb," said Starbolt.

"True," Warbird responded. "But it was triggered. No telling how many trillions of people went up in that blast. It made Hiroshima and Nagasaki on my world look like a stump being dynamited. All of that blood shed because of the Supreme Intelligence's imperial wish."

"Hey, now," Fang said angrily, "you ain't gonna compare our submajestrix to a Kree! You do, and you may get delivered in less than optimum condition!"

"Oh, please," said Carol, wearily.

"Fang, behave," said Gladiator, with a look that said, I'll cuff you if you don't. The hairy one subsided a bit.

"That's just like you damn Earthers," said Oracle, glaring at Carol. "Arrogant as all hell, just because you've beaten Galactus. Personally, I could never see what he saw in your planet."

"We're very tasty," offered Warbird.

Starbolt spoke. "Give Fang a chance, and he may test that hypothesis," he said. "He's done it before."

"Starbolt, that will be enough," said Gladiator, with emphasis. "Our job is to deliver this woman intact to our soverign. Anyone who disobeys that order will answer to me."

"Understood," said the crackling energy-man. "I only made a suggestion."

Carol considered some suggestions of her own she could make, but decided to sit on them in the name of diplomacy. Titan, who had shied off conversation so far, finally spoke. "How did it feel when you did it?" he said.

"What?" Carol looked at him.

"You know what," Titan said.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand what you're talking about," Warbird replied, with as much courtesy as she could. Of all the troop, she wanted to retain Titan's good will. Plus Gladiator's, if she could manage it.

Titan put down the roll of bread he had been eating and stared at her. "How did it feel when you killed Zenith? Our brother Guardsman?"

All eyes were on her and nobody spoke. Carol weighed her words before she responded, and made a long pause.

"Well, it wasn't something I enjoyed," she said. "If there was a different way to go back and do it, I would. But we were in battle. It's the age-old soldier's question. 'Who's it gonna be, me or him?' I didn't have anything against him. But I imagine every one of you knows about war."

"We do," said Gladiator, gravely. "It means the deaths of your enemies and friends."

"Tell me, what would the Avengers have done if we had killed one of their own?" asked Titan. "What do you think they would have done?"

"They would have come after you," said Carol, "and demanded justice."

"As do we," said Starbolt, with a crackle.

She turned to him, defiant. "There's a difference between killing hot, and killing cold. There's a difference between killing someone in battle and killing them in cold blood. The first can be seen as duty. The second can only be seen as murder."

"And yet, the victim is still just as dead, is he not?" answered Starbolt.

"Unfortunately so," said Carol. "But the Avengers wouldn't kill the killer. They'd see him brought to trial and punished for it. We act as policemen, not judge and jury. That is ... they act in that way. I'm not an Avenger anymore."

"We are so pleased to know that," noted Oracle.

Warbird sighed. "Looks like I'm screwed anyway you turn it, then. I've been taken away from people that wanted to sell me to someone for dissection. I'm in the hands of people that hate me for killing one of their own. I'm going to be delivered to somebody who'll probably string me up, cut me open, and use my intestines for bra straps. Yes, it's a wonderful life."

"Not for Zenith, it isn't," snapped Titan.

"All RIGHT!" Carol slammed the table with her fist, almost breaking it. "What do you want me to say? I am sorry that I killed him. It did not give me any pleasure. I'm sorry that it caused you sorrow, and I can understand that. I lost my own brother in a war, did you know that?"

"Raza Longknife lost his own brother, too," said Oracle, quietly. "He lost him when you killed him."

Carol sat there with her mouth open, her eyes staring, and her lungs quite unknowing how to breathe.

"He didn't tell you, did he, Earther?" said Fang, giving her a look of loathing. "That must have been a burden as great as a galaxy. Yet he never told you."


Images ran through her mind of Raza, just after the battle with the Guardsmen so long ago. Images of him refusing to look at her, refusing to talk to her, except when directly addressed. Images of his gratitude to her when she lied to save him from the Avengers' vengeance, and of his speech to her when the Starjammers left Earth.

Now it all fell into place.

And she prayed God that it might fit together in some different way, but there was none.

She looked down at her lap and took her head in both her hands.

"What do you feel about that, Earther?" said Oracle.

Warbird looked up, her eyes closed and tearing, her fists clenched, and shouted one great word that filled the cabin.


Then she put both her hands to her head again and sobbed.

Gladiator turned to Oracle. "Does that give you your answer, woman?"

"I cannot say that I sympathize with her," said the precog woman. "But I am gratified to know that she can still feel pain."

"I hope she feels a lot," said Fang.

"Fang, cut it," said Titan. "Just ... leave her alone."

Gladiator moved his chair away from the table and stood. "The lot of you, clear out. I will speak with our prisoner."

The four of them did so, leaving Gladiator alone with Carol. She was still crying. He waited.

She finally wiped her nose on her glove and managed a gasping sentence.

"I wish I'd never gotten these powers, or any others," she said. "I wish I'd never put on this costume, or any other kind."

Gladiator waited.

"Every time I go out, someone else gets hurt," she said. "Most often me. Sometimes somebody else. What the hell good is it, anyway? What good am I?"

Gladiator said, "What good do you perceive yourself to be?"

"I don't know. I used to ... used to think that being a super-heroine would be the greatest thing in the universe. But all I do is let people down, or hurt them, or let them get killed. Or make people want to kill me." She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "That's the way it's always been. That's how it was, even before I got the powers. I just hurt people. I just kill people!"

"Tell me about your brother," said Gladiator. "Tell me about how he died."

"He was a good man," she said. "He was a good brother. I loved him very much. He was an all-star tackle on our school's football team. He was going to work for Dad after he did his hitch in Vietnam."


"Tour of duty. Vietnam was a, a land on my world in which there was a war. A terrible war. And ... he was a flyer in it. He flew an airplane. They got him with a surface-to-air missle. He died. He died."

"I will grieve with you, if you wish."

"Thank you, that's ... not necessary. But thank you, all the same." She snivelled, then sighed. "I am sorry that I ... killed your Guardsman."

"I believe you."

She hugged one knee to her chest. "Do you know," she said. "Do you know, thanks to a thing that happened on Earth, I couldn't grieve for him the way I wanted? My memories were disconnected from me. It took many sessions with Professor Xavier to get part of them back. And I've not gotten them all."

"Such a thing must be disturbing," he said. "I sympathize with you."

"Thank you."

"Were either of these things your fault?"

"No," she said. "Not per se. It was just ... he was in a war, I was in a fight. Both things were done to us. I don't mean to compare them, but they were."

"Then why do you act as if they were?"

She said nothing.

He continued, "Will you grieve with us for the loss of our Guardian brother Zenith?"

"I will," she said. "If it'll help."

"It will," he said. "I will tell my cohorts. They will not love you. But they will feel less hatred towards you, perhaps."

"And ... you?"

Gladiator looked at her a long time. Then he said, "You seem hard where you have to be. But you cry at the appropriate places."

"I suppose I do," she said.

"Warriors do that," said Gladiator. "What has happened to you has happened because you are a warrior."

"Sometimes," she said. "Sometimes it has."

"There have been good things as well, have there not?"

"I don't need therapy, Gladiator," she said. "I've had a bellyful of that, back home."

"Do not presume on my good nature," said Gladiator. "Remember your position."

"Sorry. But if you want an answer: yes. There have been. I've saved people's lives, sometimes. I fought bad guys. Sometimes I won. Once, I saved the sun."

"Your own sun?"

"Yes. That was back when I had the power to do so."

Gladiator nodded. "I can see why the Skrulls and Aakon wanted you. The Kree, as well."

"And you know why Deathbird wants me."

He was silent.

"How can you do this to me?" she said. "How can you give me to her, knowing she wants to kill me?"

"Because she is my commander," he answered. He began to turn away.

Warbird grabbed him by the arm. "Wait, Gladiator. Can you tell me ... can you tell yourself ... that answer will ever be sufficient? Can you rest easy, knowing that you're delivering me to a murderer? Can just following orders ever make that right?"

He took her hand from his arm, held it gently for a moment, and let it go.

"I will show you to your quarters," he said. "And by the way, don't count too much on Titan's help. He's one of us, after all."

The second day out, she made a break for it.

The strange bit about it was that she didn't have that much of a hassle with it. She expected more security on her-after all, it was a rather small ship, and with six people aboard, they should practically be tripping over each other's feet most of the time. The only one guarding her was Titan. That seemed an apt choice, since, with Gladiator, he seemed to have the least against her and she stood a greater chance of being prejudiced in his favor.

Well, she was. But it didn't stop her from waiting till his back was turned while he was inside her room for inspection, and then zapping him with a plasma burst. It knocked him clear across the room. He was expanding by the time he hit the wall, and filled about half of the chamber by the time he conked out.

Carol pressed a note into his huge palm, and hoped he could read English or Kreevian. She'd written it in both languages. It read:

I'm sorry I had to do this. Nothing personal, and I do like you. Best of luck.

She found the key-disc on his person, applied it to the correct place on the door, and watched the thing retract into the metallic slot in the wall. Warbird streaked out, feeling deja vu to the max.

Lord, this ship isn't that big, she thought. Just let me get to the bay deck, and I'll try and be a good Christian when I get home. I'll try.

She ran past the library, the commissary, the prep room, the completely and totally locked weapons room, and avoided the bridge area as if it were an abattoir. Of course, she couldn't expect a silent alarm not to be thrown. The only question was whether or not she could make the bay before anybody came to grab her.

Nobody in the halls. So they all had to be on the bridge. Carol stopped before the door to the bay, used the disc she'd taken from Titan, and saw it begin to open.


She whipped her head around, instinctively went to all fours near the floor, and saw a figure not ten feet away from her in the hall. It was crackling with energy.


His hand was aimed in her direction, but he hadn't loosed a bolt yet.

"Go back to your quarters, War-Bird," said the Guardsman, "and this will be overlooked."

"I didn't injure Titan," she said. "I only knocked him out."

A blast of low-grade solar fire exploded near her feet, searing the flooring and the metal beneath it as she jumped above it.

"We can't fight like this here!" she shouted, blasting him backward with a pinpoined plasma burst in the chest. "It'll wreck the ship!"

Starbolt zapped another burst, uncomfortably close to her head. "Oh? You care?"

"Yes!" she snapped, as she rolled, snapped up, and kicked him hard on the protective suit material covering his chest. "You can't think I want you all to die in an outrush, do you?"

The Guardsman grabbed her booted ankle. Surprisingly, he controlled his heat enough that she was not burned, but she could feel some warmth even through her boot. "The force-field maintenance would close off the area," Starbolt explained. "But you will not get that far."

Her other foot came up and caught him in the jaw. It should have singed the heel off her boot, but it didn't. As much as a living star-man can do, he looked dazed.

"I'm very sorry about this, Starbolt," she apologized, as she unloaded a haymaker to his jaw. He caromed off the wall. When he lay still, Warbird checked him out. He didn't appear injured, but there was no way she could check a living mass of solar plasma for a pulse.

It just wasn't kosher. The whole pantomime was too easy.

Still, the doors to the bay were both open, and Carol ran through them, expecting all the while to be zapped by a stasis ray. Three craft lie within the compact berth: the shuttle she'd used to escape the Aakon, and two small escape craft of the Guardsmen's own. She decided to dance with the one that brung her, and entered the Aakon shuttlecraft.

The damned thing wouldn't run. It was as dead as her car when she'd forgotten to turn off the dome lights.

Without bothering even to curse, Carol threw open the hatch of the craft and hustled to one of the Guardsmen's shuttles. Easy entry. Enough of a standard design that she knew how to activate it. Except... wouldn't activate.

"Is this some kind of blasted Goldilocks syndome?" she snapped to herself. Opening the hatch and exiting, she went to the third and last shuttle, got in just as easily, and did a double-take.

Oracle was leaning back in the copilot's chair, her hands fastened behind her head. "Take it out for a shakedown run, Earther?"

"You!" fumed Carol. "You knew I'd do this!"

"If I didn't, I wouldn't be worthy of my precog ability," allowed the white-haired woman. "Go ahead, I won't stop you."

Warbird took her at her word and started the launch procedure. Not a thing. Even the indicators failed to light up. She banged a fist against the control surface in frustration, then looked at Oracle. The woman was smiling.

"Either this is an Edsel spacecraft," she said, "or you deactivated it beforehand."

There was a banging noise on the side of the shuttle. Resignedly, Carol opened the hatch and looked out. Gladiator was standing there with a slight smile on his face. Fang was right beside him.

"Neither one of these will work for an unauthorized person," said Gladiator. "And we took the power element out of your ship."

Carol sighed. "Then it's back to the brig for me, I guess."

"Yes, but don't feel so bad about it," said Gladiator. "After all, Oracle did foresee you doing such a thing. What we were concerned about was how you would behave once you were free."

"Oh?" said Carol, curious despite her desperation. "Well ... how did I?"

"Remarkably well," Gladiator said. "We would have stepped in to prevent Titan being injured if you had tried to do more than stun him. But you didn't, and you showed concern. When Starbolt challenged you, you expressed further concern that your conflict might breach the security of the ship, and endanger us. You also were careful only to strike at him, not at the walls or hull, and checked him for injury when your fight was done. More points in your favor."

"So he was pulling his punches," she said. "I kinda figured so. Even though I don't think he would have damaged a valuable prisoner."

"He could've made it a lot hotter for you," Fang assured her.

"But he didn't," said Gladiator. "Finally, when you saw Oracle within this craft, you made no move to harm her, not even to strike her unconscious. All added to the tally on the credit side."

She paused. "But I did knock out two of your guys. And I did try to make an escape."

"We expected no less from you," said Oracle, who had emerged from the craft behind her. "You are a warrior."

"Well, okay," said Carol. "Sorry about this. But you're still going to turn me over to that witch?"

Gladiator nodded, sadly. "We must."

"All right," she said. "All right. But if I don't get out of this ... some of my blood will be on your hands. Which may be payment for Zenith, at least." She paused. "And I am sorry about him."

"We do believe you on that," said Fang.

"If it will help," said Oracle, "I will see to it personally that the Starjammers are notified of your fate. We will send our regrets."

"Yeah," said Warbird. "That'll be a lot ... a whole lot of help. Okay. Who takes me back?"

"I will," said Titan.

Carol looked in the direction of the door. Titan, now normal-sized, was standing in the doorway of the bay chamber and rubbing one side of his jaw with his right hand, but grinning sheepishly. "You've got a great punch for an Earther, Te' Warbird," he said. "Even rolling with it, it put me out."

Despite herself, she smiled wanly at the big farmboy-type. "My apologies, Titan."

"Accepted, and no offense taken," said Titan. "It's what I'd have done, in your boots."

They took her back to her quarters and secured the door firmly. Both it and the walls were proof against her strength and plasma bursts. She took her meals through a food synthesizer and no one came to visit her for two days.

Then, on the third day after her escape attempt, Fang opened the door. "Come with me," he said. "In these." He held out a pair of electronic restraint cuffs.

"Without those," she said.

"Not make it difficult," said Fang, and moved to put the cuffs on her.

She whipped behind him, levered his head back with one arm, and grabbed his wrist with the other.

Before she could put much effort into it, a stunning blow struck the back of her neck. She saw white lights amidst the blackness for a moment, and slumped to her knees.

"My regrets, Te' Warbird," said Gladiator, and helped Fang secure the cuffs on her.

Carol was half-carried, half-walked to the bridge area. She shook her head to try and clear it, saw the other three Guardsmen round about, and thought she detected a look of hidden regret in their faces. But she only had an instant to register that.

In the center of the bridge area, flanked by three armed Shi'ar guards, stood a familiar figure.

"Greetings to you, honored enemy," said Deathbird, with a smile. "It has been too long."


Continued in Chapter 22 >>


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