CHAPTER THREE

Somewhere in the western region of the North Atlantic Ocean, a furious rainstorm beat down on the remains of a decimated oil tanker. The ship had been declared missing years ago and had never been recovered, another unexplained victim of the mysterious and mythical area known as the Bermuda Triangle.

A lone figure in a suit of green and purple armor soared through the sky, propelled by jet-thrusters in his boots. He clutched a large metal case to his chest, streaking through the storm as best he could as rain blasted him in the face and blurred his vision. He finally arrived at the oil tanker, cut the power to his rocket boots, and skidded to a rough landing on the main deck of the ship. Lex Luthor took a few moments to catch his breath.

The front half of the ship's hull was underwater. Lex was very careful to maintain his balance on the uneven surface. He set the metal case down for a moment, leaving it behind as he warily made his way down the steep decline toward the submerged front of the ship.

When he got as close to the waterline as he dared to go, he saw it. There, just below the surface of the water, was a red, glowing jewel. It radiated an intense light that cast an ethereal glow through the water all around it, making it look ominously like blood. The water swirled around the jewel like a vortex, creating a whirlpool effect. The wind was even stronger here, and the rain seemed to be blowing in from all sides rather than down from the sky.

Lex just stood there for a few moments, transfixed. It was so beautiful. Hypnotic. It was a force that defied nature.

Then, almost as if he was dreaming, he began to experience very vague, hazy images forming in front of him in the mist, as if rising up from the amber light of the jewel in the water.

He saw a man, ripping a wig off of his own head, bombastically proclaiming himself "The greatest criminal mind of our time!"

That image gave way to another man, with a full head of hair this time, wearing an expensive suit and puffing on a cigar as he stood on the balcony of a tower overlooking the nighttime city skyline.

Then, a third man, once again bald, this time wearing a white suit, traipsing his way down a set of jagged steps on an unnatural mass of kryptonite land.

Finally, a fourth man, much younger than the others, with long scraggly hair, wildly declaring "The red capes are coming! The red capes are coming!"

In a way that Lex could not explain, he knew that all four of those men were versions of himself. Variants from other worlds, other universes. Lex was so caught up in these visions that he didn't notice the low hum of a jet engine in the distance, gradually becoming louder as it approached him.

He was finally snapped out of his fascination with the mirages emanating from the jewel when the Javelin roared by overhead. The airship, one of seven used by the JLA to travel between their Watchtower satellite and Earth, did a 180 degree turn, then stopped and hovered in midair above the oil tanker.

A hatch in the bottom of the Javelin slid open. Spider-Man dropped out of the hatch and landed in a crouched position on the deck of the tanker, splashing water up around him as he touched down. "Lex Luthor!" he yelled, slowly rising up, fists clenched. "You're under arrest!"

A second figure descended from the hatch, slowly floating down towards the deck. At first, Lex thought it was Iron Man, sporting a new suit of red and blue armor. However, he quickly realized who it must be when he spotted the "S" insignia on the chest and the cape billowing in the wind.

"Hello, Clark," Lex said, smugly. "When did you start taking your fashion cues from Tony Stark?"

Superman finally touched down next to Spider-Man. The faceplate of his helmet flipped open, revealing the face of Lex's longtime friend turned arch nemesis, Clark Kent.

"I couldn't take the chance that you'd have kryptonite with you," Superman replied calmly.

"I don't carry a piece of your home planet around with me anymore," Lex said with a shrug. He held up his right hand. Servos and circuitry peeled back a layer of the armor that he wore, exposing him from fingertips to elbow. His hand underneath the armor was mechanical, a cybernetic construct that replaced the hand he'd had amputated years ago. He slowly opened and closed his artificial hand. "Or did you forget that kryptonite cancer cost me my hand?"

"If you're looking for sympathy, you're not going to get it," Spider-Man said. He took several steps toward Lex. "You're under arrest for the murder of Chloe Sullivan. For the murders of the Fantastic Four. For the murders of the nearly 2,000 people who were killed in the destruction of the Baxter Building. And for high treason committed while holding the office of President of the United States. You have the right to remain-"

Lex held up a finger as if to interject. "I'm sorry to interrupt you," he said. "But, we really don't have time for this." His armor re-formed itself around his right arm and hand.

Spider-Man laughed. "You're joking, right? You think you can talk your way out of this?" He got right up in Lex's face. "You killed Chloe, in cold blood. You've escaped justice enough times, Lex. It's over."

"Lex," Superman chimed in, looking around at their bizarre surroundings. "What are you doing out here?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Clark," Lex responded. "But I'm actually glad you're here. I could use your help."

"YOU could use OUR help?" Spider-Man scoffed. "Are you desperate, or just insane?"

"I'm not going to dignify that with an answer, Mister Parker," Lex said. "But I will make a deal with you. I'll come along quietly, and let you take me into custody without a fight, on one simple condition." He turned and pointed at the gem, still glowing beneath the swirling water below. "That comes with us."

Superman and Spider-Man very cautiously approached the submerged front of the ship. They stared down into the churning water and its eerie red luminescence.

"What… IS that?" Superman asked.

"It's an infinity gem," Lex replied. "Specifically, the reality gem. And we're going to need it for what's coming next."

Spider-Man held his JLA armband up in the direction of the glowing gem. "Stark," Spider-Man said towards his communicator. "You getting this?"

"Yeah," came Tony Stark's reply via the earpiece. "Hold on a sec. I'm having Stephen Strange verify this."

There was a very long pause.

"Guys," Stark piped back in after a long moment. "Get that gem. Bring it back here. And do not, under any circumstances, let Lex get his hands on it."

"Understood," Spider-Man replied.

"I didn't hear what he said, but I'm sure I get the gist of it," Lex said with a wry grin.

Superman looked back and forth between Lex and the gem beneath the water. He shook his head. Then, he knelt down and slowly reached his hand toward the red glow.

"Wait!" Lex called out.

Superman pulled his hand back.

"Don't touch it," Lex advised. "You might accidentally wind up in a parallel universe, or even subconsciously alter our own."

"Oookay…" Superman said, slowly. "So how am I supposed to get it?"

"Use that," Lex said, nodding toward the metal case he'd left in the middle of the ship's deck.

Superman stood up, looked at the case, and tried to peek inside with his x-ray vision. He found that he could not.

"It's lined with lead," Superman said through gritted teeth.

"Old habits," Lex shrugged again.

Superman walked over to the case. He stood next to it for a long time before opening it.

"It could be a trap," Spider-Man said.

"I appreciate that you think so highly of me," Lex said sarcastically. "But I had no idea you two were going to show up here. Why would I have brought a trap for you?"

"I seem to remember you taking pride in being two steps ahead of everyone at all times," Spider-Man replied.

Lex frowned. "That's true," he said. "But these days I fear I'm running out of steps."

Superman knelt down beside the case. After a few more moments of hesitation, he flipped open the clasps on either side of it, and opened the lid.

Inside was a large gauntlet, with six recesses on it. Each recess looked like it was meant to hold an oval-shaped object.

"Go ahead," Lex said. "Put it on." His tone seemed to leave an implied "I dare you" hanging unspoken in the air.

Slowly, reluctantly, Superman lifted the gauntlet from the case, and put it onto his left hand. Then he stood and began walking toward the whirlpool at the front of the ship, his rain-soaked cape still flapping behind him in the wind. The faceplate of his armor flipped shut again, and the eyes of his Iron-Man-inspired helmet glowed.

Superman stood just before the point where the ship submerged beneath the water. He reached his hand out once more toward the glowing gem at the whirlpool's epicenter. The water bubbled violently. Suddenly, the red gem shot up out of the water, carrying a jet of water like a geyser with it. The gem was pulled to the gauntlet like a magnet, snapping itself perfectly into place inside one of the six recesses.

The mist grew thicker for a moment. Two figures appeared within the mist, both dressed all in white. One of the figures reached out a hand, as if pointing or gesturing to Superman, Spider-Man, and Lex Luthor. The second figure put a hand over its mouth as if in shock or surprise. Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared.

The mist, the wind, and the rain all stopped. The whirlpool in the water vanished, and the ocean was instantly calm. In fact, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the sun shone down on them from above.

They all looked at each other in disbelief.

"Lex…" Superman said. "You have a LOT of explaining to do."

Meanwhile, back in Metropolis. In the back of a SHIELD prisoner transport van sat Winslow P. Schott, Flint Marko, Selina Kyle, Garfield Lynns, and Seth Nelson. Each of them had their hands in front of them in large restraints. In a separate containment unit at the back of the van, Carl Creel was still immobilized in a huge block of ice, being kept at a sub-zero temperature with technology usually reserved for Mr. Freeze.

"Where do you think they'll send us?" Seth asked.

"Belle Reeve for you and me, most likely," Schott replied. "Arkham for Selina and Lynns. I'm not sure about Marko or Creel."

"I heard Stark had Hank Pym create a miniature prison for super-powered criminals," Selina said. "They shrink them down so small that they can keep the whole thing in a desk drawer."

"I heard they built a prison called The Raft," Marko said. "It's in the middle of the freaking ocean."

"I heard about one in the middle of the Nevada desert called The Cube," Lynns said.

"God, they're setting up franchises," Selina scoffed.

The van screeched to a stop. Then, they heard what sounded like a large garage door opening up. Then the van slowly proceeded forward. The criminals all looked at each other.

Finally, the van came to a stop, and the driver shut off the engine.

The doors at the back of the van opened.

They didn't see anyone.

They all looked at each other again, confused. Eventually, Schott stood up, and very cautiously made his way to the doors. The other four quickly stood up and followed him. They stepped out of the van, leaving only the frozen Creel still inside.

They were inside a large, dark warehouse with high ceilings. The van had pulled in through a set of garage doors that looked like they had once been some kind of loading dock. The place had obviously been long-since abandoned from whatever its original purpose was.

Two men in suits rushed around from the sides of the van. One grabbed Marko and shoved a needle-gun into his neck, the other did the same to Lynns. Selina screamed and tried to run, but one of the suited men grabbed her next and jabbed a needle into her throat as well, stopping her scream suddenly. Seth tried with all his might to use his magnetic powers to bust out of his restraints or hurl the needles away, but it was no use – something in the restraints was dampening his powers. The next needle went right into the side of his neck. Lastly, Schott, already on his knees, whimpering and cowering, received a needle jabbed into the side of his neck as well.

"I apologize for the theatrics," a baritone voice said, as a third man stepped out of the shadows. The tall, African-American gentleman wore a long black trench coat and sported an eyepatch. "The nanites that were just implanted in your necks are just a precaution. And, despite your rather grim surroundings, I want to assure you that today is, in fact, your lucky day. You have each been granted a new lease on life, and a very exciting opportunity."

The five villains looked up in a state of dazed disbelief, at former SHIELD director Nick Fury.

"I don't suppose," Fury said, "that any of you have ever heard of the Suicide Squad?"

Later, in outer space. About 12,500 miles above the Earth. The Justice League Avengers Watchtower. The Javelin docked with the space station, taking its place in a large hangar that held several other identical airships. The hangar airlock closed behind the ship and sealed itself tight before its crew of Superman, Spider-Man, and Lex Luthor disembarked. Superman was still wearing most of the red and blue armor, although he had completely removed the helmet at this point. Spider-Man had also removed his mask, seeing little point in wearing it since Lex had uncovered his true identity during the cloning project he had carried out while he was president. Superman had a firm grip on Lex's left arm, Spider-Man on his right, as they led him off the Javelin.

Tony Stark, wearing an expensive navy-blue blazer over an AC/DC t-shirt and a pair of jeans, met them in the hangar.

"It's good to see you, Tony," Lex said with a smile.

"Does anyone else find it extremely creepy how he always seems genuinely happy to see his worst enemies?" Stark said.

"You have no idea," Superman said.

"Take him to Banner's old cell," Stark said. "It's a bit extreme, but it will do until we figure out what to do with him. I want to run a full diagnostic on his armor. Where's the gem?"

Superman nodded toward the Javelin. "Metal case, in the cockpit."

As Superman and Spider-Man escorted Lex to his cell, Tony hopped on board the Javelin. He walked into the cockpit and found the metal case, laying on the co-pilot's seat. He flipped the clasps open and lifted the lid of the case. Inside was the gauntlet, with the reality gem firmly affixed in one of the recesses. Tony stared at it for a long time. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Well, shit," he muttered, and slammed the case shut.

An hour later, in the holding cell aboard the Watchtower. Lex sat on the floor of the empty cell, behind six-inch-thick glass. Tony Stark approached the cell, holding a very small, ultra-thin tablet in his hand. Lex looked up.

"Tony," Lex said in greeting.

"Lex," Stark replied, with a nod, tapping a few buttons on the tablet.

"You have any scotch or brandy on board this thing?" Lex asked.

"Of course not," Stark answered, a little too quickly. Then, after a pause, he added, "Well, yes, I do, but that's my own personal stash, it's not for public consumption."

Lex raised his hands in mock-surrender, indicating he was dropping the subject.

"Look, I'll get to the point," Stark said. "I've analyzed the armor that you're wearing. It's a very different model from the one you had built at Lex-Stark International. That one had an array of offensive capabilities. This one has a few, but you've slimmed it down quite a bit. Streamlined it. Repurposed it."

Lex just stared, and didn't reply.

"Lex," Stark said. "This armor is the only thing keeping you alive, isn't it?"

Lex looked away.

"Hey, I built my first armor in a cave," Stark continued. "I made a miniaturized arc reactor from a box of scraps because I needed something to keep the shrapnel out of my heart. I get how this works, and I know it when I see it. You're dying. Radiation poisoning, am I right? And this armor is emitting low-level vita-rays that keep it at bay? Almost like you're giving yourself constant chemo."

"Something like that," Lex finally admitted.

"It's clever. Crude, a little rough around the edges maybe, but clever." Tony held up the tiny tablet he was carrying around. "I've disabled everything in your armor except for the life support. Your rocket boots are offline, your force-field is shut down, your energy blasts are kaput… but the stuff that's keeping you alive is still fully functional."

"So you came over here just to tell me you're not going to pull my plug?" Lex said, cocking his head to one side. "How thoughtful of you."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Spare me the sarcasm. I found one other thing in your armor's array, smartass. A homing signal. Your armor was sending out a beacon with your location, to someone. Who was tracking you, Luthor?"

Lex smiled. "I don't know what you're talking about, Tony," he said, coyly.

"Okay. Play dumb, if you want to. It's not a good color on you, but I guess you only have so many cards left to play," Stark said. "I shut down the homing signal, too. So whoever was looking for you? Don't count on them coming to your rescue any time soon." Stark stuck the tablet in the inside pocket of his blazer.

He turned and started to walk away.

"Tony," Lex called after him.

Stark stopped. "Yeah?" he asked, without turning around.

"What did you do with the gem?"

"We've got some people looking at it," Stark replied.

Meanwhile. A hidden sanctuary hidden deep within the Abu Kubais mountain in Saudi Arabia. A huge bank of high-tech computer equipment which appeared in direct contrast to the ancient and ornate decorations of the sacred temple flashed a series of warnings and alerts on various monitor screens.

The man known as Ra's Al Ghul stepped out from behind a curtain that divided this monitor station from the rest of the temple.

"What is the problem, gentlemen?" Ra's asked.

The men who were operating the computer station got quickly to their feet, then bowed.

"Sir, you wished to be told if Lex Luthor's tracking device went offline," one of the men said, nervously. "It has just done so."

"Excellent," Ra's replied, with a smile. "Then all is going according to plan. You may now engage the secondary tracking device."

"Yes, sir," the men replied in unison. They quickly returned to their computer station and flipped a switch.

The warnings on the screens ceased.

A constant, steady blip returned to the screen.