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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.

Ms. Marvel / Binary / Warbird:
A Prize For Three Empires
Part 26

by DarkMark

In the afternoon, Raza Longknife arrived by aircar. After it made touchdown, he was greeted at the landing lot by Warbird. She wondered how he would conduct himself, how he would greet her, how she would act herself.

For a moment, they stood before each other, and the driver of the car wondered if they were old friends or enemies.

Then Raza said, “Blessings be upon your house.”

Carol responded, “And on yours, Raza Longknife.”

Then she went to him and hugged him and Raza, though unused to such displays of affection, allowed it and watched her back. If a Kree was gunning for them, somebody needed to.

“I’m sorry, Raza,” she whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“The debt was repaid,” said Raza. “Let us not bring it up again.”

Wondering how the debt of a brother’s loss could ever be repaid, Carol broke the hug and said, “Come on. Let’s get you back to the inn.”

“I wish to sing and do a fleshdance for your customers,” said Iva Kann. “Is that permissable?”

The inn manager looked at her and then at the Identicard she had given him. Everything checked out on it, so far. Apparently, this woman was Mysta Tren, an entertainer from the Beta Cygni system, and the references she had given were checkable.

“Depends,” said the manager. “I haven’t yet seen your act, mistress. The Traveler’s Haven chain only takes talent we’re sure of.”

“You wish to see a demonstration?” Iva leaned forward, making sure her breasts strained against the robe’s material.

The manager caught his composure and said, “Um. Transgender and samegender harassment are strictly forbidden by Arlakian law and statute, of which I have a copy in my office.”

Iva smiled and touched his chin lightly. “It’s only harassment if a gift is, shall we say, not freely given and not freely taken. But I wish to work here, Master Ch’ktheh, and all I would do for you is my act. In your office.”

“Well,” said Ch’ktheh. “Well, I suppose that can be, um, arranged.”

The desk clerk shot him a look that said, Are you sure of this, boss? The manager gave him a slight nod, a sign which meant the same in his culture, Earth’s, and the Kree’s. “Follow me,” said Ch’ktheh, and led her to his office nearby. The door was shut and sealed.

The performance was taped by a recording beam, to save the management from legal suit. When reviewed, it disclosed a quite revealing act from Mysta Trenn, whose services would be swiftly enquired about from the on-world makers of videos based on female display. Yet, Mysta did not so much as touch the manager in an inappropriate way. True, she came close to it more than once, and left very little to the imagination. (A casual study of Ch’ktheh’s reactions indicated he had a quite vivid imagination, indeed.)

She turned out to have a pretty decent singing voice, too.

When the two of them finally emerged from the office, the manager stood under an airspray to cool his brow, with Mysta standing behind him, arranging her robes and giving the clerk a sly smile. “Uh, boss?” the clerk ventured.

Without opening his eyes, Ch’ktheh said, “Her name is Mysta Trenn. Book her as entertainment in the mid-evening block.”

Raza was polishing his blade as Carol talked to him in her room. Somehow, this seemed reassuring to her, but she still felt a twinge of fear as the overhead light glinted off of it.

“The important thing is that Mysta Tren and her buddies are rogue Kree,” she was saying. “They can’t operate in the open for long. Already, if we’re lucky, Queen Lil should have some warships coming our way. She’s said she can have them here within three days, which ought to be a bit less than that right now. So, if we can stay alive till then, we should be home free.”

“Nothing is ever free, Ca-Rol,” said Raza. “Everything must be paid for. But I understand your meaning. What do you know of this Tren?”

“Not a whole helluva lot. Just what I picked up in the mind-meld. She’s a spy and an assassin. Ronan subjected her to the same kind of process that hyped Captain Mar-Vell’s powers. That places her easily on a par with me. Maybe better, I don’t know. I do know that she wants vengeance for what I made her do on board the Kree ship. So I’m betting we’ll catch sight of her before we get offworld again.”

“I sincerely hope so,” said Raza, examining his blade’s edge with an expert’s eye. “This has not tasted Kree blood in many a cycle.”

“All the same, Raza, don’t underestimate this wench,” warned Carol. “You’re good. But so is she. The fact that she’s a woman doesn’t have anything to do with her efficiency.”

“I would not expect it to. But to get to you, she must first get to me. Let us show ourselves, and thus draw her into the open.”

“We’ll try,” she said. “But I’d rather avoid fate than tempt it, after all I’ve been through recently. I want to go home, Raza, and show my parents I’m not dead.”

“Do they not already know it?”

“Yes, but they won’t be certain I’m safe until I show myself to them again. I won’t be, either.”

“Then let her beware our power,” said Raza. “I will fear no being until I have met him, or her, in combat. Neither you nor I have met her in the flesh.”

“We could do lunch,” said Carol, standing up and smoothing back her hair. “But I want to find out about Gladiator as soon as we can.”

Raza’s eyebrow lifted.

“Yes, we did,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Queen Lil will be putting on an all-points search for him, but I want to know where he is, and if he’s all right or not.”

“Oracle should be able to track him.”

“Not if he’s out of telepathic range. But Kalarrk’s got speed enough to reach a starbase, I think, if he knows where he is. What about lunch, Raza?”

“As long as I do not have to check my steel at the door,” said the orange-skinned man. “Lead on, Ca-Rol.”

Gladiator saw the Skrull ship a bit later than it saw him. It was only fitting, since, despite his power, the ship could move faster than he could. But he was still within reaching distance.

That was okay by him. He’d try to make this peaceful, if they’d let him. But any way they played it, he was getting in that ship.

He had no idea whether or not they’d regard him as hostile. Flying towards the ship, he held his hands out, palms open. That might be interpreted as a sign of peaceful intentions. An instant later, they fired a plasma salvo that struck him amidships. He was knocked backwards by the equal and opposite reaction, but swung himself around in a parabola to bring him near the ship again.

Okay. He wasn’t particularly welcome. Fine.

Gladiator flew towards the vessel at peak power, using his psi-abilities to form a wedge of force. This contacted and penetrated the Skrulls’ force-field and split a second plasma-bolt, which went to either side of him. Before the ship could get out of range, Kalarrk was upon it, and smashing through the hull.

The few Skrulls on duty in the chamber into which he’d penetrated were hurled towards the opening in the hull by an outrush. Gladiator reformed his psi-wedge into a flat shield that covered the opening, holding the mass of reinforced metal in one hand and catching Skrulls in the other. The outrush stopped. He cautiously raised up the shield and, before much more atmosphere could leak out, smoothed and fused the metal debris to cover the hole once again. He tapped it gently, twice. It held.

Then he turned towards the five fallen Skrulls, one of whom was talking on his wrist communicator. He smiled. “I’ve gotten lost. Can I catch a ride with you?”

Snarling, one of the green-faced men drew a blaster and triggered it at his chest. The energies bounced harmlessly off his personal shield. Kalarrk sighed. “You’d think, by now,” he said, reaching out for the weapon. “You’d think you would have learned.”

He crushed the barrel of the blaster with his hand. The Skrull soldier shrank back. Gladiator made no move against him.

“Do we have to make this difficult?” said Gladiator. “All I want is a ride back within range of the Shi’ar Empire, or Arlak. I’m not on assignment.”

One of the Skrulls said, “Understood. But they expect duty from us.”

“That’s all right,” said Gladiator, and stood with hands on hips. “Come at me.”

They did, shooting at him, battering him, doing whatever they could to bring him down. He threw his arms wide and sent the quintet of Skrulls flying.

Then he walked to one of the group that was still conscious. “Now can we talk?”

“Assuredly,” groaned the Skrull, and offered his communicator. Gladiator took it. After identifying himself, he said, “I need conveyance to a Shi’ar outpost or Arlak, and I want to contact the Guard. We can pay you for this service.”

“If it gets your Shi’ar hide off this ship a moment sooner,” said the ship’s captain, “the whole thing is free of charge.”

Over lunch, Carol was told she had a call waiting. She took it from a hand communicator. When she saw the identity line of the caller, her eyes widened in her mask. Raza, sitting across from her, said, “Trouble?”

“Anything but,” she said. Opening the connection, Carol said, “Hello, Kalarrk!”

“Hola, Ca-Rol,” came Gladiator’s voice. “You are well?”

“About as well as can be expected,” she said. “I’m safe on Arlak for the moment. Raza Longknife is with me. Where are you?”

“Aboard a Skrull ship,” he said.

“You’d better fill me in.”

The two of them exchanged stories, Raza listening while he watched for threats about them. Gladiator said, “I have already contacted the Majestrix and the Imperial Guard. At present, I am still too far away from Arlak to reach you under my own power before you leave.”

“If we get to,” said Carol. “All right, Kalarrk, but I’m glad as blazes you’re unhurt. Hell, I’m glad you’re still alive. What’s the word about Deathbird?”

“Caly’see has been reprimanded by her sister. At present, that is about all that can be done.”

“Uh huh.” Carol made a wry face.

“I am gratified you and the Starjammers made it to safety,” said Gladiator. “Some of the Guard will be aboard the escort ships when they get there. Are you indeed safe from the Kree ship?”

“So far,” said Carol. “But we still haven’t encountered this Iva Kann. I’m hoping to keep it that way.”

“Ca-Rol,” said Kalarrk, in a more sober tone. “If you are not there when my company arrives, I will tear the Kree ship asunder with my bare hands. And Creator help the ones who are left aboard.”

“That’s sweet, Glad,” she said. “But don’t sell me short. I’m pretty tough, too. Anyway, it’s great to hear from you. Call me soon, okay?”

“I shall,” he said. “May the stars cast soft light on you, Ca-Rol.”

She paused. “Wish I had an exit line that would do justice to that, Kalarrk. How’s about: I hope to see you again. Real soon. Okay?”

“Okay is affirmative?”

“It is.”


“So long, Glad. Take care of yourself.”

“And you,” he said. The connection was broken.

“Glad they don’t know about reversing charges,” remarked Carol. “That’s a joke, Raza.”

“I have no need of jokes,” he remarked. “Something occurs to me, Ca-Rol.”

“And that is?”

He leaned forward, sword hilt still in hand. “If Iva Kann has made landfall, she may be registered at this inn, under another name. Provided she has discovered where you are. That is a possibility we must investigate.”

She ran her tongue around her lips. “I’m a bad spy not to have thought about that. Let’s check the register.”

After their meal, Warbird and Raza found themselves before a strangely reserved manager, who was persuaded finally to show them a holoscreen readout of all who had checked in during the past few days. The Inn was a fairly large affair, and no less than twenty females were listed. 15 of them were humanoid. None were blue-skinned.

“Which proves nothing,” said Carol. “I’m sure the Kree have disguise technology that could make her purple with yellow spots, if they wanted.” She turned to the manager again. “Have any fairly tall, black-haired humanoid females registered in the last two days?”

“Several of them,” said the manager. “But their references all are impeccable, Captain Blaise.”

Carol smiled wryly. She was glad she’d given enough identifiers for Gladiator to figure out who she was, when he placed the call. But they might be enough for the Kree to track her down, too. “Show me,” she said.

“Well, there is, er, this one,” he said, pointing to a name. “And then, of course, this one. And this one right here, she’s another, I believe, though I’m not quite sure. And possibly this one.” He indicated the name Mysta Tren. Carol glanced at him, then at the list, then at him again. The body language he was giving her indicated that this Mysta Tren meant something to him more than the usual paying tenant.

“How do I contact these people?” said Carol.

Ch’ktheh blinked. “Well, you don’t, except in case of emergency. We have a strict privacy policy here at the Inn. One simply cannot...”

Raza took out a cloth and began to polish his sword, meaningfully.

“Of course, one could place a call to their rooms and see if they’d be willing to meet with you,” he said.

Carol nodded. “That’d work.”

As it was, one of the four was out, two others consented to let Carol see them by a viewscreen display and were eliminated as not being the right body type or features, even with a disguise. Mysta Tren refused all communication. Ch’ktheh couldn’t even testify that she was in her room, or on the premises.

Warbird looked at the blank screen meaningfully. “This Mysta Tren,” she said. “Any information you can give us?”

The manager looked a bit more at ease. “She’s an entertainer,” he said. “She’s booked to do a song-and-fleshdance act for us at dinner tonight.”

“Flashdance?” said Carol, unbelieving that an American movie would have made it out this far.

“No, fleshdance,” Ch’ktheh explained. “A dance of display.”

“Oh,” said Carol. “That kind of dance.”

“Thank you for your cooperation, sir,” said Raza, and sheathed his sword. The manager breathed a sigh of relief. Then Raza and Warbird left the room.

On their way back, Raza said, “We intend to see her dance tonight?”

Grimly, Carol said, “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“So you’re just going to be sitting ducks for that Kree murderess?” asked Corsair in disbelief.

Carol’s voice came back to him on the communicator. “It’s risky, I know, Major. But she’s calling us out. It’s just too obvious. Tren is the only one she could be.”

“If so,” said Ch’od, standing behind Corsair, “why not avoid her? All you would have to do, apparently, is go somewhere else for evening meal.”

Raza’s was the next voice heard. “If we do not appear, Ch’od, we are cowards. But more than that, if she does not see us there, her wrath might be visited on the other patrons. Just to demonstrate what she would do if we tried to avoid her.”

Hepzibah said, “Know this, how do you?”

“It is what I would do,” said Raza. “In her position, that is.”

Carol said, “I don’t know that we can play keepaway this time, gang. But Raza and I aren’t exactly lightweights. I’d feel a lot better with you beside me, but you won’t be able to get here before tomorrow. I can take care of myself.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right about this, Carol,” said Corsair. “I don’t like taking unnecessary risks with my friends’ lives.”

“We’ve risked them enough already,” Carol replied.

“Too true.”

“Chris, she may not even be Iva Kann. If she isn’t, we’re okay. If she is, I’ll have to face her sooner or later. I may as well do it now, and find out what she’s got. Show her what I’ve got, as well.”

“She was apparently chosen and trained to destroy you, Carol. Maybe even gengineered.”

“Maybe so,” said Carol. “If I don’t make it through...send my dog tags home to Mom, okay?”

“Dog tags?” sniffed Hepzibah. “These dog tags, what are?”

“I’ll tell you later, Hep,” said Corsair. “Carol...Godspeed. We’re going to catch a transport within the hour, and we’ll be there ASAP. But I’ll have the comm with me. I want to hear from you before, after, and maybe during that meal. Agreed?”

“Agreed, Chris. And thank you. You’ve all been among my best friends. My brothers in arms. Anything else?”

“Just live,” said Corsair. “That’s all we want.”

“Ten-four,” she said. “See you later.”

The link was broken. After a moment of staring at the comm unit in his hand, Corsair turned to the other two Starjammers. “Get packed again,” he said. “I’ll settle the bill.”

The Travelers’ Haven dining room was spacious, equipped with whatever various species needed to rest on while they ate...chairs, couch-type affairs, racks on which to hang tentacles, even bowls for more amorphous forms of life. Waiters and waitresses both humanoid and not flitted about the various patrons, some in a balcony seating arrangement, bearing foodstuff both familiar to Carol and some even the Kree didn’t seem to know about. A lot of starfaring races were represented, but none of them seemed to be Kree.

Carol and Raza had balcony seats. The stage for performers was clearly visible below and before them, and floating holoscreens brought the images of the artistes to their view in close-up. It reminded her of the big video screen at a rock concert cameramen would use to show images of, say, the Who performing for those too far back to get a good look at them.

An Astran metal-bender did his act for them, followed by a Rigellian comedic duo who performed some mind-over-matter and did topical jokes Carol couldn’t get the gist of. An Aakon singer came on, did a few numbers that had a lot to do with money, and left to some applause. She clapped politely. Raza was silent.

“You didn’t like it?”

“None of it has anything to do with us,” he said.

After that, the lights were lowered somewhat, and music began to play from hidden sources. Carol drew in a breath and held it. All her instincts were set on high. She didn’t know if she was getting input from her Seventh Sense, but she knew who would step into sight.

“Steady,” advised Raza. She remained silent.

Somehow, it was impossible to see when the woman had entered. A dim light picked her out, revealing a very female figure clad in a sort of ribbon-robe and eye-mask. An identifying line on the holoscreens named her: MYSTA TREN.

The woman moved like water on steel. She began to sing, a song in equal parts Kree, Shi’ar, and Galactic Standard about love, lust, and betrayal. As she moved, the ribbons would reveal various parts of her form below. She appeared to Carol to be naked under the robe. Warbird tightened her grip on her chair’s handrests so hard that they broke with an audible crack.

“Ca-Rol,” warned Raza.

“I’m all right,” she said, not turning to look at him.

Abruptly, Mysta Tren threw off the robe on the left side of her, leaving her right covered, and gained an appreciative yawp from the audience. She danced to the other side of the stage and exposed her right side, covering her left. Even Carol had to admit that the dame looked like she had a body to kill for. Or kill with.

She also didn’t have a bad voice.

Finally the light came up a bit more definitely, and the robes were thrown off altogether. Except for the eyemask and a jewel which covered only what part of her anatomy it had to, the dancer was naked. And she made the most of it.

It was her. Great Pama, it was her.

Iva Kann.

Warbird drew in great breaths, sure as hell that the woman was looking at her on every pass, only at her. What should she do? Leap down and start a brawl? That might put the others in the audience at danger, unless she could finesse it. Leave? No telling what she’d do then. She looked at Raza.

The orange-skinned man had his steel in hand. “Wait,” he advised.

“I hope we can,” she said, tensely.

Iva spun, leaped, split, landed, threw her torso and hair back, performed like the greatest of gymnasts. The audience was signaling its approval in various ways, some of it conventional applause. The non-humanoids appeared to appreciate her grace, the rest were just turned on by her body. Her skin was normal Earth flesh-tone. Not blue. But there was no mistaking the face or body of the woman whose mind Carol had once been in.

Maybe she was just taunting Carol, after all. Maybe she was only doing this to advertise her presence to her enemy, not to attack. Not just yet. But Carol decided she couldn’t count on that.

The dance had gone on for a good fifteen minutes now, and Iva was still whirling like a dervish, in full voice despite her efforts. Raza was gathering himself for a leap. “What are you doing?” asked Carol.

“I will strike,” he said, “before she can.”

Carol didn’t think there was any way Iva could have heard his words from the stage, and over the sound of her music. But he had barely finished the sentence before Iva plucked the jewel from her body, swung her powerful arm around, and let it fly.

The gem arced in ruby splendor over the heads of the patrons on the ground floor, up to the balcony level, straight at the target Iva aimed for.

It hit Raza Longknife on the neck, with enough velocity and impact to produce an audible crack.

His eyes widened some, more in surprise and annoyance, Carol thought, than in pain. His mouth was open. No sound came out. Only a trickle of blood. The jewel was embedded in the side of his neck.

Raza fell backwards, overturning the chair behind him. Warbird was there to grab him before he hit the floor.


The lights came up almost as soon as the scream left her mouth. The patrons of the restaurant reacted with surprise, even terror, as they looked towards its source and began to register what had happened. Carol was already in flight, Raza in her arms, the sword still gripped in his hand but hanging down from it.

She felt a pulse in him. God help her, Raza Longknife was still alive.

Warbird shot a glance down at the stage. A guard was rushing it, trying to grab a fleeing Iva Kann. She turned, seemingly without concern, and planed a flat-handed blow at his neck.

It separated his head from his body.

“Oh, god,” gasped Carol. “Oh, my God...”

Involuntarily, she flew towards the stage, past the fallen body. Iva Kann had already fled. She could catch her, conceivably. She could do that, and confront her, and see if vengeance could be had.

But by that time, Raza would inevitably be dead.

With a sorrowful curse, Warbird sped in the other direction, bearing Raza towards the entranceway, knocking down a couple of attendants in her path. The Inn had an infirmary, and the medical science of this world, she knew, would be able to prolong his life, provided she could get him there in time. She knew that she could do that. Her speed was sufficient.

Corsair was right. They had been idiots, trusting in their own prowess, checkmated by the woman before they started.

But now, Carol vowed as she flew near the ceiling of the passageway, Iva Kann had made it personal for her. She wanted a fight? All right, Warbird would damned well give it to her. And only one would survive.

Even though a twinge of fear made her admit that she wasn’t at all certain it would be Warbird who did.


Continued in Chapter 27 >>


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