A Prize For Three Empires
On the way to the place of combat, Warbird found out that the Supreme Intelligence honored his agreements.
The guards hustled her into a room with a 3-D vidscreen and stood a few feet behind her, weapons drawn. She looked back at them. "What's showing? The next Star Wars sequel?"
"You will learn," said one of the Kreemen.
A few seconds later, the screen was activated. A hologram of Iva Kann was projected from it, in life-size. Carol had been expecting something like this, so it was fairly easy to hide her surprise. She hoped she was doing just as good a job with her unease.
"Hola, Earthwoman," said Iva, simply, with a cold expression on her face.
"Hi, Iva," said Carol. "Ready for the big bout?"
"For over a year," Iva answered, setting her hands on her hips. She was wearing a red and blue-black suit that bared the stomach and legs, not unlike the one Carol had worn as Ms. Marvel. "What did you have to say that could interest me?"
"Why do you want to do it?"
For a moment, Carol was certain she saw Iva flinch.
"Because it is my duty," she said. "And because you are another challenger to be destroyed."
"How many have you already destroyed, Iva?"
She shrugged. "You can get the count from Ronan. I stopped worrying about such things after my 25th."
"You did this all out of duty?"
"Yes," said Iva. "I was required to. Just as I will be required to kill you."
"Don't you also have a duty to yourself, Iva?"
The Kreewoman looked aggravated. "Of course, Ca-Rol Danvers. I fulfill it by obeying the orders of Ronan, which has raised me to my present station in life."
"Spy and gladiator," said Carol.
"If you wish."
"Don't you have any feelings about life, or love?" asked Carol. "Have you ever been in love, Iva?"
"I have mated, Ca-Rol Danvers. Probably more times than you."
"I didn't ask about having sex. I asked about being in love."
"I said, I have mated!"
"I heard you, I heard you," Carol sighed. "But I don't think you heard me."
Iva shook her head. "You Earthers. Your emotions as corrupted as that of Captain Mar-Vell. You think by a heart-bonding with another individual, you can make them stay. How idiotic. Best to have one's way with them, and let them go."
"We don't think that, Iva," said Carol. "Sure, our loved ones are going to go. Everybody goes, you know that. But the love-bond is so important to us that we risk the pain to forge it. Like the pain you have to go through in a battle to win it. It's like that, Iva. Very much like that."
Iva was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "And this is supposed to influence my thinking?"
"I wouldn't mind if it just made you think," said Carol. "Have you ever questioned Ronan, or his superiors? Have you ever asked yourself if they had your best interests in mind?"
"I have asked questions of Lord Ronan when things were unclear to me," she said. "As for having my best interests in mind, I repeat: I enjoy my present status in society because of obeying his orders."
"So far," said Carol. "But what happens when they feel you're just another piece of meat to throw to the dogs?"
Iva now definitely looked confused, and somewhat angry. "Explain yourself."
"Look at it this way. They've probably thrown a lot of sparring partners at you, just to see how fast and how well you could kill them. Correct?"
"Substantially, yes," said Iva.
"Now they're matching you against me, just for the pleasure of the big boys," Carol continued. "Just for the pleasure of seeing me killed. Isn't that right?"
"The basic idea of it is correct," Iva agreed.
"This has all been done to make you into the perfect fighting machine. Would you agree with that?"
Iva looked as though she were being drawn into a trap, but couldn't bring herself to avoid it. "Not in those precise words, but the gist of it is valid."
"So what happens when they want an even more perfect fighting machine, and throw you to her as a sacrifice?"
Iva's jaw was open. No sound came out.
"The Kree are very functionalistic," said Carol. "You're only good to them until they can get somebody better. Once they do, or they think they do, they'll see you as nothing but meat for the grinder. And somebody else will be using you as a hamburger."
She doubted that Iva knew exactly what a hamburger was. But she got the meaning of it. Iva was furious. For some reason, that heartened Carol.
"In the arena, you will beg me for your destruction," hissed the blue woman. "That is when your agonies will only have started."
"Okay, all right," said Carol, waving one hand in disdain. "But are you honorable?"
"If you win, could I trust you to do something for me?"
"If you see Gladiator afterwards, you know, the head of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, would you tell him I loved him?"
Iva was silent.
"I will do so," she said. "You have my word."
"Thanks. Then I guess we do it?"
"We do," said Iva Kann.
"Then there's nothing left to say."
"No," said Iva. "But very much left to do."
Joe Danvers sat across the table from Marie and wondered whether he could take his seventh mug of coffee.
It was a lot to load. His wife had finally told him what both she and Carol had been hiding for years: that Carol was a super-heroine, going under three names, one of which he'd never even heard of (Binary? Sounded like a computer code, for cripes' sake), risking her life for people she'd never even heard of. On a regular basis.
Putting herself in a lot more danger than she'd ever been, even when with the CIA.
That one little girl, his little girl, had the physical strength to bend steel. She could fly and shoot crazy ray-bursts from her hands. She had been to outer space multiple times, even lived there when he thought she was just out of pocket, and now she was back there, in danger.
This was impossible to believe. It simply didn't happen to people like the Danverses. Maybe to the likes of Reed Richards and his bunch, yeah. But not to his family.
But he had to believe it. Marie simply wouldn't lie. Not about a thing like this.
The damnedest thing was, it fit. All too perfectly. With this information, he was able to make sense of Carol's long abscences, of her association with those crazies in Westchester, of the attack Wolverine had made on her, even of what happened recently to him and Marie.
His daughter Carol was dressed up in a mask, bathing suit, gloves and boots, and was fighting aliens somewhere in the galactic equivalent of Jebru.
"Marie," he said, at last. "You're really sure of this?"
She nodded. "I've seen her, Joe. Seen her change to Ms. Marvel, Binary, and Warbird. It wasn't like she was trying to confide in me, just that I figured it out."
"Well, why didn't I?"
"Maybe because you're not a woman."
"Oh, thank you."
"Well, what the hell do you want me to tell you, Joe? She's my daughter as much as yours. I carried her in my body for nine months. Did you? I've worried about her every time I heard a news report about Ms. Marvel this, or Warbird that. We kept the secret from you so that you wouldn't worry. Is that such a bad thing?"
"Yes, Marie. In a way it is. Because I wouldn't have known about her being this, this super-hero character, until she died, the way you two were playing it."
"Don't say that, Joe. She isn't dead yet. I know it."
"Oh, you do, huh? Well, tell me this, Marie. Did you know how much of a stake I've got in Carol's life, too? Do you think you made her all by yourself, Marie?"
"I know I didn't, Joe. You know it, too."
"Uh huh. Do you think I didn't have to cry when our son got killed in 'Nam? Do you think that, Marie?"
"I've never thought that, Joe," said Marie, quietly. "I know you had to cry."
"Good. Sometimes, I think women think that emotions are just marked 'For Ladies Only'. They're not. We're just trained to hide 'em more, is all."
"You think you are. But we can pick them up."
"Okay. Did you ever pick up on this? That I might have been very proud of Carol serving her country, even if I was worried for her?"
"I knew that, Joe. You wanted her out of harm's way, but at least I knew you appreciated her guts."
"And maybe I don't understand this super-hero thing. I know I don't like it. I don't like the idea of her risking her life every time she puts on that costume. Even if I can't hardly believe it. But to think of her being good enough to do that...to think of her being held as an equal by Captain America, my God, Marie, you have no idea what that man meant to us G.I.'s back then...it's something, Marie. It's really something."
Marie sat quietly, waiting.
"I hope she decides to quit, when she comes back," said Joe. "But I'll tell you this: if she's a super-hero, I'm still damned proud of her."
"Thank you, Joe," Marie said. "I'm proud of her, too."
"Would it do any good for me to call the Avengers?"
"They've said they'll get back to us when they have something definite."
"How's about the Fantastic Four?"
"They're not involved with her in any way that I know of."
"Thought they were all in the same club."
"She's never been a member of the Fantastic Four, Joe."
"So. All we can do is wait?"
"Like we did for news from Viet Nam?"
"Yes, Joe. Exactly like that."
"Q-Jet to Blackbird. Captain speaking. Over."
"Blackbird to Q-Jet. This is Cyclops, Cap. Any more news? Over."
"We've wrapped things up, Cyke, and we're about to head after Carol. The Shi'ar have provided us with a tentative reading on her whereabouts. We're feeding you the coordinates right now."
"Getting 'em, Cap. We're pretty maxed out. How about you?"
"Pretty much the same. But we need to get this settled. Provided we can get there in time. You?"
"I'll be taking volunteers once I get back to base. Don't think I'll have too many shirkers, though. Want us to hook up with you, if we can?"
"Affirmative, Cyke. We won't be the only players. The Starjammers are on her trail, and the Empress has lent the Imperial Guard. The Avengers had their differences with the Guard during Galactic Storm, but I'm hoping we can work together this time."
"I estimate we can, Cap. Keep us posted. One more thing."
"If we get there too late, I definitely want to take down Ronan and his crew."
"Affirmative, Cyclops. In spades."
Carol was actually glad the preliminaries were over.
She had been taken from the contact room down another corridor which seemed to have a pair of guards every twelve feet. It reminded her of the corrida in a bullfighting arena through which a matador would proceed, though she had to admit to herself that in this context, she was probably the bull. There was subdued lighting in the ceiling, which seemed appropriate.
"Tell me where I am," she said to one of the two men accompanying her.
"On your way to the arena," said the guard.
"I know that," she said, testily. "I mean, what planet?"
"This is Keepworld," said the Kreeman. "It had another name before the Legion conquered it. That was of no consequence."
"Where is it?"
"That is also of no consequence."
"I would like to know where it is exactly that somebody wants to kill me, thank you very much."
Irritably, the other guard said, "It orbits the star Kree Designate CF-4601.6. Is that satisfactory?"
"Yes, thanks," said Carol. "Are there any rules to the combat?"
"You fight till one of you dies," said the first guard. "Those are the only rules."
"As long as I don't have to say, 'Hail, Supremor, we who are about to die salute you.'"
The guard looked puzzled. "Is that a new ceremony?"
"No. Skip it."
"You will be expected to furnish good battle," said the second guard. "The Legion desires entertainment. Fight well, and you will be given an honorable death."
"As for the first two, you can expect the best," said Carol, firmly. "As for the third, I doubt it. I hope you bastards remember this fight. I hope you remember it to your dying day."
"In there," said the first guard, and gestured with his weapon. The metal door began to rise.
Carol saw another door beyond it and guessed it was like an airlock. She considered taking down both guards out of spite. But she decided against it, since there were a lot more where they had come from and since she needed to save her strength for the fight.
She gave the two a look of complete contempt and stepped under the rising door. As soon as a ceiling sensor registered her presence, the door behind her halted and came down again. It contacted a floor socket, signaling the second door to rise.
The noise beyond was audible at its rising. The muttering of a small crowd, shifting to a cheer of sorts as they recognized her boots becoming visible at the door's rising. So this was how it ended. Entertainment at a gladiatorial arena for the blue Kree.
And there they were: Fer-Porr, Sro-Himm, Zarek, Ronan, the rest of the ruling council of the Lunatic Legion, and a coterie of lesser soldiers who obviously ranked and had been invited to the bloodsport. They were sitting in a raised tier of seats above the floor of an arena, which was covered in some sort of plastic. She saw the Legion as the door retracted into the slot above. There was another door facing her, still closed as of yet. It didn't take any guesswork to tell who would come out of that one.
If there was any way out of this gauntlet, she couldn't see it.
The noise of the crowd became more subdued. Carol stepped into the arena and stared around at the Kree, most of them men, a few women here and there, and gave them an impassive glare. She let it rest on Ronan. He was sitting there like a futuristic Caesar, his staff-weapon clutched in his hand.
"The Lunatic Legion declares this Trial By Combat open," he announced. "The contestant is one Ca-Rol Danvers, charged with opposition of the Empire. The opposition is one Iva Kann. How does the contestant plead?"
She snorted. "If the charge is opposing your dead Empire, Ronan, I'm guilty as hell. Skip the preliminaries and let's get down to it."
"So be it," Ronan said. "I invoke the presence of the Supremor."
At that, in an empty seat there materialized the three-dimensional holo-image of the Supreme Intelligence's mobile self. It consisted of a humanoid shape in a warsuit, with tentacled green head like something out of H. P. Lovecraft. It bore no horror for Carol. She had seen this identity of the Intelligence before.
Leastways, nobody could say she didn't rank, if he was here.
The Supremor's voice echoed through the minds of the Legion and of Warbird: "Let the trial begin."
She didn't need her sixth sense to notice the opposite door opening. The boots and legs of a blue Kreewoman were soon visible, followed by the body and finally the head of a crack female assassin.
Iva Kann stared across at her, her face immobile with hatred.
"Is your mind made up, Iva?" asked Carol. "Are you sure you want to go through with this, at last?"
"Prepare for hell, you hybrid bitch," snapped Iva, and came at her on a run.
Carol leapt into the air to fly at the Legion as a surprise tactic. But when she got near the perimeter of the dais on which they sat, a crackling burst of energy met her, frizzed her hair, and made her cry out with pain. She felt a hand gripping her hair from behind.
"Imbecile," Iva hissed. "Did you think the Legion would leave themselves undefended?"
The Kreewoman whipped her about by the hair and slammed her to the floor. It hurt. Carol managed to whirl over on the plastic surface, but Iva had anticipated such a tactic and came down with both feet on Carol's body, just where she came to rest. Warbird put her arms over her ribs just in time to save them from a fracture, but the pain was piercing.
"Put up more of a fight than this, Ca-Rol Danvers, or the entertainment will be short indeed," said Iva. Her hands were reaching for Warbird's eyes.
"Okay," muttered Carol.
She put up her own hands, loosed a double plasma burst, and slammed Iva hard against the wall of the arena. A shout of dismay came up from the stands. Carol jetted forward with her flight power and smashed her body against Iva's. The blue-skinned woman bared her teeth, brought her hands up, and shoved Warbird away. She punctuated her move with a kick to the head. Carol sprawled on the flooring, clutching her left temple where Iva had kicked her. She sensed no internal damage, but it hurt like hell.
Iva was on the attack again. Carol knew it and brought up a kicking leg to block the downward stroke of her foe's arm. If it had contacted, it might have caught her in the throat. That would have been the end of the fight in one. As it was, her leg felt a bit numb where Iva's arm had landed.
It was time to bring the battle to the opposition.
With a sudden movement, Carol scissored Iva's arm with both her legs and trapped it, using enough pressure to make Iva yelp and smash her on the outside of her thigh. Carol gritted her teeth, held on, jackknifed her upper body, and smashed both fists into the blue woman's face.
Iva actually reeled back. That was encouraging. Carol followed up with a left and a right, tagging her enemy hard before Iva responded with a palm uppercut to the jaw. It threw Carol off, breaking her leg-grip on Iva's arm, and sent her back to the flooring. She shook her head to clear it, and, as she did so, felt an arm bending about her neck.
It was pressuring her with enough force to crush her windpipe.
"With death do we cleanse our dishonor," said Iva, and squeezed hard enough to make Carol's lips turn blue.
The Earthwoman pointed both hands at Iva's face and plasma-blasted her. She kept it coming, making it an endurance test of her strength against Iva's. The Kreewoman might be immunized against its destructive power, but not against its pressure.
Just as the black sparks in her vision were dancing with the white ones, Warbird felt Iva's grip loosen and give. She drew a breath, bit down hard on Iva's forearm, and elbowed her hard in the gut. The assassin cried out and separated, but not before slugging Carol in the back of the neck.
The women stood apart from each other in the arena. Well, Carol reflected, she herself wasn't quite standing. She was bent over a bit, one hand on the back of her neck and the other on her knee.
"Just remember, Iva," Carol panted. "One of these, days, it's going to be, you where I'm at."
"Lies!" Iva activated her own flight-power and made for Carol, her hands flat-edged and crossed at the wrists to form a double-chop to the neck. Warbird brought her own arm up, interposed it between Iva's wrists, and felt the pressure as Iva tried to get past her guard. With a grunt of effort, Carol nabbed Iva's left arm with her other hand and threw her enemy up and overhead. Iva couldn't stop her motion and banged face-down into the floor.
Before Iva could arise, Carol flew towards the ceiling of the chamber. She loosened the sash of her uniform and, taking an end in one hand, whipped it upward. When it reached a certain height, the sash set off an energy burst. So the field was in existence above them, as well. She had anticipated that, but it was best to check.
Her seventh sense kicked in and warned her to move out of the way just before an enraged Iva went through the space she had occupied an instant before. Iva's momentum carried her right into the energy field. It sparked about her face and arms, making her shriek with pain. Carol grabbed her legs and tried to shove her further in. Iva's hair was sticking out like that of an electrocution victim.
In desperation, she kicked down hard against Carol, striking her in the face and shoulder. The Earth heroine reeled, falling twenty feet downward. Iva put her flight power in reverse and pulled herself free of the field, feeling as though she had been holding a live power cable bare-handed.
Carol fell butt-first to the floor and tried to recover. She felt of one cheek and could tell she was bleeding. No big surprise. She'd count herself lucky if she could come out of this with just nothing vital busted. But she didn't count on that too firmly.
(Seventh sense: She's coming after you...)
Iva struck, with a blow Carol barely parried. The Kreewoman followed up with strike after strike, in a deadly martial arts style taken from the priests of the Cotati. Warbird was driven back, but managed to parry the blows. Her back contacted the wall. Iva Kann struck with a kick, aimed for Carol's midsection. The Terran woman managed to dodge, but the impact cracked the wall.
Warbird let off a double plasma-burst that caught Iva and spun her down the circular wall a bit. It drained her energy as physical effort would, but she'd bought herself a couple of seconds. She had to admit she was tired. The Kree council was making a din of noise, but she paid it little heed. All had to be concentrated on her enemy.
Iva recovered and lunged for her. Carol thought about trying to dodge, then said the hell with it and met her head-on. Both women hit home with powerful blows. They spun away, hit the floor, grabbed their heads and sought strength to get back in the fight.
The voice of Ronan was heard.
"Finish it, Iva Kann. Or would you be counted...unsuitable?"
Oh, great, thought Carol. Fightin' words.
Iva's eyes blazed with hatred as poisonous as plutonium. She had her hands on Carol's throat before Warbird could credit her speed. This time, she wasn't trying to prolong the match. The death grip was in place and she was forcing it on, her legs wrapped about her enemy's waist. Carol flexed the muscles of her neck, grabbed Iva's wrists and tried to pull them away, even tried to bite her opponent's hands.
Nothing much was working.
She focused plasma energy through her hands, crackling whiteness spurting out from where she grasped Iva's wrists, burning her foe's gloves. But the grip still tightened. Her vision was beginning to dim. Stepping up the plasma burst seemed to have an effect...she was blasted if she didn't think she smelled something other than gloves burning...but it didn't make Iva ease up. She was smiling though it all, fulfilling her destiny as an executioner for the Empire.
There had to be something more Carol could use. But what?
Supposedly, Iva had taken psycho-treatments to shield her from Warbird's seventh-sense attacks. But she'd also been treated to withstand the plasma bursts, and they were still having an effect. It was worth a try. At this point, anything she could muster within the next few seconds was.
Carol put herself in as much of a meditative stance as she could, given the circumstances. She reached within her, impressed upon her subconscious the dire necessity of the task, found the place in her psyche where the special power was stored, and gathered it.
Then she unleashed it at Iva in as tight a beam as she could.
Iva flinched. She definitely saw her flinch.
Carol continued to pour on the psi-energy. Her face was tomato-red, about to shade into blue, but she still clenched her teeth and blasted at Iva's forebrain with a drill of mental power. At the same time, she kept the plasma-bursts coming. If she had to die, this bitch would know that she'd been in a fight.
"No," gasped Iva. "No..."
The mental awl kept biting, biting deeper. Carol could sense that she was penetrating what shield Iva had in her mind. It was taxing to Warbird, but she didn't dare stop. Her plasma bursts were failing. Her strength was slacking. All that she had left was her mind.
That would have to be enough.
Iva was snarling, but it was hard to tell if it was in anger or fear. Probably both. This was a power no Kree could give her, from which no Kree could entirely shield her. She could have lifted one of her hands, made a strike at Carol's eyes, but the Terran would break free as soon as one hand's pressure was gone. All she could do is keep trying to choke, keep trying to break the neck, keep trying to withstand the pain of a hot poker somebody was forcing into her mind.
She threw back her head and screamed.
The pressure lessened just a bit, only for a moment. Carol drew in what breath she could and freed one hand to smash at Iva's chest. But she never slackened her seventh-sense assault. She was bursting into Iva's mind now, and didn't like what she saw. No matter. The barrage had to be kept up.
There was a sound of something falling to the side of them. It was visible from Carol's perspective. On the floor, within a leg's reach, was Ronan's ultimate weapon.
Iva saw it, too. It was within reach of her foot, if she extended her leg to its fullest extent. Once in her hands, the weapon would finish the fight immediately. Carol struggled to keep Iva where she was. But, being within her mind, she picked up an overwhelming thought from her:
I will not use it.
That didn't give Carol much slack, even so. She knew she had to be more blue than red by now. The only thing keeping her conscious was her own determination and cussedness.
But she would have been surprised to learn that, at that moment, she was smiling.
I will destroy you, thought Iva Kann. I will redeem our honor. I WILL DESTROY YOU.
Nothing, sent Carol.
And with that, a final thrust of everything she had within her brain. For a long second, Carol Danvers was more within Iva Kann's mind than her own. She thrust her energies outward, pushing from the center, compressing the contents of Iva's mind against the things which restricted it. Sweat ran down Carol's brow in torrents. She didn't notice that the burned hands on her throat had slackened.
For an instant, the eyes of Iva Kann were filled with a desperate fear.
Then, internally, something popped.
The Kree warrior's eyes rolled up. Her grip loosened entirely. Her body was as slack as a sack of grain. Carol sucked in sweet breaths of air, her lungs processing it as fast as she could. Idly, she pushed Iva. The woman's leg scissors about her waist came open and her red-and-blue-suited form fell away.
There was a trickle of blood from one nostril.
When Carol was able to, she dragged herself over Iva's body, felt for a pulse, listened for a heartbeat.
This was not the way she would have played it, given her own parameters. Even within Iva's mind, she sought to disable, not to destroy. But regulating a mental assault of that sort takes great practice and education, and Carol had cut loose with a full-force burst of power.
She had seen enough corpses to know the truth at once.
Iva Kann was dead.
Now what?, she asked herself. Now what?
She finally marshalled effort to sent two croaking words through her throat: "Now what?"
The voice of Ronan was heard again.
"Now you die, Ca-Rol Danvers."
She turned her head and saw the Accuser of the Kree preparing to leap down and retrieve his weapon.
She didn't stand a chance...
...until the heard the noise of the ceiling material cracking and debris from it falling onto the floor.
Simultaneous with it came the falling of a substantially heavier body. One with grayish skin, a red-and-yellow uniform, and a Mohawk haircut. One whose foot landed directly on the weapon of Ronan, and whose gaze froze the Accuser where he was. He stood beside Carol, and surveyed the Lunatic Legion with contempt.
After a second, Gladiator said, "In the name of the Shi'ar Imperium, you are under arrest."
"You overstep your bounds, Guardsman," snapped one of the Kreemen. "The Supremor has powers that dwarf even your own."
"Do not worry," said another voice. "He did not come here alone."
A green-and-yellow-costumed, red-skinned form phased through the ceiling, descending gracefully, and aiming two well-chosen heat-blasts from his eyes at a guard who had drawn a weapon. The Kree fell on the spot. The Vision didn't solidify until his feet were on the floor.
A Legion member decided to try his luck with a slightly bigger blaster. A ruby-red bolt of power turned it into shrapnel and injured his hand. Carol looked up, and saw the head of Cyclops leaning over the edge of the hole in the ceiling.
"We made it, too, Carol," said the X-Men leader.
There was another cracking sound, and more of the ceiling was peeled back. When enough of the hole had been enlarged, a green, scaly form with a furry white ally on his shoulder dropped into the arena. Ch'od smiled and cracked his knuckles. "The other Starjammers are with me," he said, facing one section of Lunatic Legionnaires.
"A joint task force of Imperial Guardsmen, Avengers, X-Men, and Starjammers is present," announced Gladiator. "But that is hardly all. A war armada of the Shi'ar is in place around this planet. The weaponry of any one ship is accurate enough to target every Kree in this hall, and leave our people unharmed. Your choice. Surrender, or death."
Almost all the eyes of the Legion turned to the Supremor. Except those of Ronan the Accuser, which were focused on Warbird with undisguised malice.
The manifestation of the Supreme Intelligence paused only a moment before saying, "There will be other battles."
Then he faded from sight.
The Vision faced Ronan. Both knew the other, from the great Kree-Skrull War on. The android's voice seemed even more than usually cold as he said, "The authority descends upon you, Ronan. What is your decision?"
The Accuser waited as long as he dared before saying two words:
Gladiator knelt down to support Carol in one arm, Ronan's weapon in his other hand. "Can you speak, Ca-Rol? Are you conscious?"
Warbird managed to get out, "I'm fi–" before the black and white sparks danced and she slumped against the Guardsman's chest.
Peering over the edge of the ceiling were Captain America and Corsair, who had seen her collapse. And despite Cap's talent for quick command, it was Corsair who beat him to the punch: "Get her to sickbay and get these idiots rounded up! NOW!"
A host of heroes descended to do just that.
When Carol Danvers awoke, she felt the presence of a large restraining collar about her neck. She felt the pressure of a mattress of sorts against her back, and, opening her eyes, saw her surroundings as that of a Shi'ar sickbay. Gladiator was holding her hand. Sitting about her bed were Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man, Corsair, Hepzibah, and the Scarlet Witch. There were others in the room, as well.
"She awakens," announced Gladiator. "Can you speak, Ca-Rol?"
Her throat felt numb, as she might have expected. Her body was dressed in hospital garments and covered with a sheet that regulated its own temperature. Carol wondered if it would hurt to try to form words. When she did, she found herself speaking in a synthesized voice.
"I think so. What is this? What happened to my voice?"
Cap stepped up. "It's just a voice synthesizer to make sure you don't strain yourself, Carol. Your larynx will be in good shape in a few days. For right now, just take it easy."
"It's great to see you back, Carol," beamed Wanda. "We're on a Shi'ar ship bound for Earth. We've got an armada escort. This time, you're going home for sure."
"Thank...you, Wanda," said Carol. "Thank you...all...for making it here."
Hepzibah said, "Thanks to Jean Grey and Oracle, due are. Your transmission, picked up they did."
"What she means is that psi-thing you did to your enemy there sent up a psychic beacon," said Corsair. "Oracle was able to pick up on it, and she contacted Jean through a mind-link. They triangulated your position immediately. From there, the Shi'ar were able to teleport us in. We were lucky to be within reach."
"One more...last desperate chance," said Carol, making an effort to smile. "We seem to...get a lot of them."
"And we'll keep getting them, I hope, for as long as we need," said Iron Man, taking her free hand gently. "Just sorry we weren't faster on the draw this time."
"My sorrow is that I was unable to save you, or to be present for your battle," said another familiar voice. "Your pardon I beg."
Carol looked in the direction the voice had come from. Raza Longknife was there, his own neck surrounded by a contraption not much different from hers. "Raza," she said. "Oh, Raza. You're...safe. You're safe."
"He's still ailing a bit, but the collar treatment is healing him much like you," said Corsair. "We managed to have a Shi'ar ship pick him up and bring him along. Blazes, Carol, we haven't had a reunion like this since Galactic Storm."
"Indeed," said Gladiator, coldly. During that conflict, the Earthers and the Guardsmen had been on opposite sides. Nobody pressed the point.
"Our ships are in the bay of this one, Carol," said Jean Grey. "We're all riding back with you. Hope it won't get boring along the way." She smiled.
"Anything but...boring, Jean," said Carol. "Anything...but. What about...the Legion?"
"They are in the hands of the Empress Majestrix," said Gladiator. "They will be tried for sedition and then, of course, imprisoned. Even Ronan. We may have broken the back of Kree resistance with this operation."
"Doubt that," said Carol. "But probably...set it back a bunch. What about...the others who wanted me?"
"Oh, that?" said Jean. "Well, it took a bit of doing. But we mentally influenced the Kree who analyzed your genetic sampling to convince him that, as far as reproducing Binary powers, your genes were dead. The Warbird powers aren't that special to them. No offense."
"None taken," said Carol.
"The results of that study were transmitted, by ourselves, I might add, to the other empires," said Gladiator. "I doubt that they'll be coming for you again. At least not with that in mind."
"But the Aakon have genetic samplings," Carol said. "What about them?"
"We have spies," said Gladiator. "And they no longer have the samplings."
Warbird sighed. "Thank you. Thank you all so very much. I...have something to say."
"Don't strain your voice, punkin," said Wolverine. "Just take it easy for the next few days."
"I've got to say it, Logan," she said, reaching out a hand to him. The X-Man grasped it in friendship. Then Carol continued.
"At one time or another, I was on the outs with a bunch of you. Sometimes the Avengers, sometimes the X-Men. Sometimes I had reason to be, sometimes...it was just my own stupid fault. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was really, really wrong. But the thing...the thing I was most wrong about..." She coughed.
"Easy, Carol," said Cap. "Don't do the Gettysburg Address."
"...was thinking that you, and you, and you, and all the rest of you, were anything but friends. You were there for me. I wasn't always there for you. I messed up. Big-time. With the drinking. I hope I've...put all that behind me now. Can you...forgive me? And can we all...still be friends?"
The Scarlet Witch bent over and hugged her. "Forgive you for what, dear?"
Wolverine said, "And as far as bein' friends, toots...I never knew we stopped."
Carol Danvers smiled. Then she said, "Excuse me," closed her eyes, and went back to sleep.
When she woke up again, Carol saw Gladiator sitting by her side. He was the only other one in her room.
"Hi, Kalarrk," she said, in a voice that seemed a bit stronger.
"Greetings, Ca-Rol," he said. "You sound healthier this time."
"A bit," she admitted.
"Undoubtedly you will be returning to Earth," he said.
"For a while," she said.
He stared at her for a few moments.
"I still haven't decided, Kalarrk," she said. "About us. I loved being with you. Maybe I love you, too, but I'm not sure. And I've got a decision to make on Earth. Can you wait for me? Just for a while, at least?"
"For awhile," said Gladiator.
"Yes. I don't know for how long. But I will decide."
"I understand," he said.
She tried to shake her head, but the collar got in the way. "I'm not sure you do. Because I'm not sure that I do. But I will decide whether to keep on with you or...well...stay on Earth. I miss my parents, Kalarrk. I miss my friends. I have work I have to get back to."
"As do I," said Gladiator.
From the look in his eyes, she knew the decision had just been made.
"Goodbye, Kalarrk," she said, taking his hand.
"Goodbye, Ca-Rol," he said, lettign hers go.
He left the chamber. For a long time, she kept her eyes on the door.
Then she tried to get some more sleep.
A few Earth days later, the Shi'ar ship released its cargo of ships bearing the X-Men, the Starjammers, and the Avengers just outside of Earth's orbital range. Corsair bade farewell to the other two groups on his communicator, and especially to Carol Danvers. Then he sent their craft on a course that soon took it out of Sol's system. The other two ships headed in planetward.
Communications were exchanged between the Avengers craft and the staff on duty at Avengers Mansion, who quickly made a report via telephone to Joe and Marie Danvers. Marie shrieked with joy. Joe had to take the phone away from her and ask, "When will we get to see her?"
"I have no idea, sir," said Peggy Carter. "But she is aboard, and she's coming home."
Once the ship was docked and all aboard made their way to Avengers Mansion, Dr. Don Blake made his own examination of Carol and judged that she'd be out of the collar within three days. "I need to see my parents," she said, in an only slightly synthesized voice.
"Do you want them to see you like that?", asked Dr. Blake.
"No," she had to admit.
So she settled on having Peggy read Joe and Marie a written message, which she also faxed to them, along with a photo of her waving. The collar had been airbrushed out. In the note, she said that she'd see them within a few days. The Danverses faxed back a message saying if she didn't, they'd come up there and get her. Among other things.
And thus it was that, one evening, a car with two passengers pulled up before the Danvers house. One of them was dressed in a hat and a high-collared coat. He hoped that his red gloves wouldn't show very much. "Sure you'll be all right, Carol?"
"I'm sure, Cap," she said. "But I want you to come to the door with me. Okay?"
He shrugged. "If you want."
So both of them went up the walk and steps and Carol rang the doorbell. It opened so quickly, she guessed that her folks had been standing right behind it. Immediately, two pairs of arms were around her.
"Mom. Dad! I'm back!"
Captain America stood there for a moment, then started to turn away. Joe Danvers looked up. "Hold on, sir. Wait! We want to thank you for helping bring her back. Don't walk off just yet."
Carol turned her head. "Cap, don't you have any better manners than that? Come on up and say hi."
"Cap?" Joe Danvers's jaw dropped again. "Did you say Cap?"
The Sentinel of Liberty turned back, stepped up, and made his masked face visible to Joe Danvers.
"Holy cow," said Joe, doubting the transmission of his eyes. "It's Captain America!"
For a moment he fumbled with his hands, torn between embracing Carol and trying to shake hands with Cap. The Avenger smiled and solved things by moving in close enough to shake his hand while Joe still held onto his daughter. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Danvers. That's quite a daughter you have there."
"Don't I know it," said Joe, hugging her tighter. "Cap. I gotta tell you. Back in the War, you meant everything to us. I was too young to serve then, but we used to see you in the newsreels, in the magazines, and...well..."
"It's all right, Mr. Danvers," said Cap, smiling. "Did you see action, later on?"
"Yeah. In Korea. You wouldn't believe how many times we made believe we were Captain America, just to get through it all. It was you, and then John Wayne. Believe it."
"Well, that's all right, Joe," Cap said. "Because you know what I was thinking when I was in action? That I was just a regular American G.I., like you. Except I had a different uniform."
"I've got to go now," he said. "Take good care of Carol."
With that, Captain America turned and left for the car.
"It's okay, Joe," Marie said. "We've got her back now. That's all that matters."
The three of them went inside.
Marie had already told the Avengers that her husband knew Carol's secret, which news had been passed along to Carol. At least she had that off her mind. She was glad Dad was in on the secret.
"But why didn't you tell me, Carol?" said Joe, holding her shoulders lightly. "Why didn't you ever let me know?"
"Because I didn't want to worry you any worse than you already were, Dad," said Carol, grasping him about the waist. "Because the more people who know your secret identity, the more dangerous it is. For you, and for them. But I can trust you."
"Remember, Joe, she didn't tell me she was Ms. Marvel," said Marie. "I figured it out on my own."
"Oh," said Joe. "A comment on female versus male intelligence, huh?"
"Don't look at me," said Marie. "You brought it up."
"So, baby, tell us about what happened," said Joe, sitting her down in a Lazy Boy. "To you, and maybe to us."
"Oh, Dad, it's such a long story," she said. "I got bounced around a lot of places by people who thought I had something I didn't. Got in a few fights, managed to win with a little help from my friends, and finally got back home. There's more, but it's too complicated to tell right now."
"But you will tell us, won't you?" asked Joe.
"Yeah," she said. "Later." She paused. "I met somebody, Dad."
Marie said, "Carol, you mean, you met somebody?"
"Yeah. Somebody who may be special. But I don't know. He's from...out there." She waved her hand towards the ceiling. "A relationship would be difficult. We've put it on hold for right now."
"I hope so," said Joe. "There have to be enough guys you can meet down here without going into space."
"What's he like, Carol?", asked Marie, hopefully.
"Oh, he's tall, strong, handsome, got a good job with his government, and he's...uh, I like him. But he can't leave where he is right now." She gave them a look. "And I don't want to leave where I'm at. At least right now."
"Sorry, Carol," said Joe.
"That's all right, Dad, not your fault," she said. "But there was a matter that was pending when I left."
"Yeah," Joe answered. "I guess there was."
"You mean...your decision?" asked Marie.
Carol nodded. "You wanted to know whether or not I'd continue as a super-heroine. I wasn't sure. I've been through a lot of hell, and I don't know if it'll stop. Ever. Even if I took off the costume. A lot of those guys out there," she said, waving her hand skyward again, "know who I am. So it might not make any difference."
"I'm not sure I want to hear this," said Joe.
"But you knowing helps me, Dad," said Carol. "Before, it was such a weight trying to cover up from you. Now, you're in a position to understand more. So maybe you'll both understand when I tell you what I've decided.
"I want to stay on Earth for the near future. I want to keep writing books, keep having a career, keep seeing you. But I can't just put my powers aside. That's like asking me to forget I have a talent, an ability. They're as much a part of me now as my hair or eyes. They've helped save my life. Sometimes, they've helped save the Earth.
"So this is my decision. For the time being–"
She powered up, and, for the first time, Joe Danvers saw his daughter turn into a masked and costumed super-heroine. His jaw dropped.
"—I'm staying as Warbird," she finished.
When he managed to say something, it was, "Does that suit have to be that small?"
She smiled. "All the fashion these days, Dad." She took him in both arms, hugged him and kissed him. "I hope you understand."
"I'm not sure," he said. "But I guess we'll have to live with it."
Marie nodded, grimly. "It's your decision, Carol, and you've made it. But I hope you know what you'll be putting us through."
"I can imagine, Mom," said Carol. "Or maybe I can't. But when my brother died...he was serving his country. It was an honorable death. Wasn't it?"
"The most honorable death any man could hope for," said Joe, with emphasis.
"So what I have to do, it's on behalf of the human race. And I hope you'll understand that I intend to perform these deeds with honor. If I can...well, maybe that'll be a credit to my brother's memory. And if I can't, I'll stop being Warbird. Fair enough?"
Joe hesitated. "Okay. If that's your decision."
"It is, Dad. It really is." She powered down and became Carol Danvers again. Joe flinched.
"Welcome home, Carol," said Marie, pressing her daughter's hand. "Welcome back to your family."
"Thanks, Mom," she said, putting her arm around her mother. "The thought of seeing both of you again...that sustained me. And sometimes, I needed a lot of sustaining."
There was more talk, and dinner, and more talk, and eventually bedtime for all concerned. But Carol made sure to wait until both her parents seemed to be asleep before opening the window to her bedroom. Then she stole out into the backyard, then the alley, before expending a burst of transformative energy.
Warbird launched herself into the night sky. The stars and constellations looked so much more peaceful from this perspective.
She chased them for over an hour before coming home.
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