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Humans don't have much of a grasp on what infinity and eternity truly mean. It's not a failing on their part, merely that by and large a brain originally evolved for figuring out better ways to bring the next mammoth down isn't really hardwired to think in those terms. For most, far is over the horizon and a long time starts at a few years ago. While this is generally the case, there are a rare few who can grasp unfathomable scales. Ones who can think in terms of galactic clusters. Ones whose thoughts can encompass cosmological time spans.
It took such a mind to look upon a blank, featureless glowing white sky, coupled with some surreal hints by others who had been through the realm to instantly grasp where and what of this place. The Willworld. The Guardian's home away from home beyond the Oan Central Power Battery. A self-contained pocket universe within a space that was barely larger than a small apartment building.
A universe that was obedient to sentient will.
Lex understood parts of it. Enough to grasp some basic principles immediately. Despite having begun at a specific time when seen from outside, within the Battery, the place was truly infinite and eternal. It would have had to have been. In an infinite universe a line extending out in any direction from any point would inevitably intersect a star. Light coming from that star would radiate in all directions, including the theoretical line. In an eternal universe, that light would have kept going forever at any point in its life.
The sky here was white with the light of infinite stars and always had been. All within a compacted space. Its dimensions all neatly curled up into a tiny infinity in the interstices between the Battery's own molecules. All obedient to imagination and thought. Planck's length here was huge. The limit at which observation affected result was on the scale of meters, an undecillion times larger than it would be in Lex's home reality. What should have been quantum scale functions, the ebb and flow of quantum froth occurred at the macro level. The observable level. Observation, intersecting desire, creating... strange worlds.
Those worlds floated serenely in golden glowing globes about ten feet in diameter, surrounding the area just beyond the auditorium-like structure. Within each globe was a representation of their creators. Each creator a Green Lantern who had passed the Guardians' final ritual of mastering a Green Lantern ring called M'eelam Na'aquall. There were thousands, one for every being who had ever served as a Green Lantern Corps Officer. Each Lantern had been forced to leave a world... a metaphorical piece of themselves behind in Guardian hands.
The willworlds, organized as they were into a strange snowflake like structure, loosely connected by spider web strands of calcified thought. Circuits of control and power woven into a three dimensional lattice that surrounded the auditorium. Holding such pieces in their grasp, routing their power through the threads of thought, it was no wonder that Guardians had so much control over their Lanterns, save for a few rare exceptions.
This was the Guardian's home. Where they could be comfortable. Where their ordered and rational thoughts were not constantly assailed by the illogic and inherent... messiness... of the universe beyond its white glowing sky. They stood in a tiered auditorium, beneath their feet a world of green things churned under the influence of stray thoughts.
Lex understood all this and did not care. Those were merely the thoughts of a moment's passing for so mighty an intellect. Its focus remained pure; Lex had every intention of murdering this universe and everything that lived within it.
The once pure and orderly sky was blotted out by a blood red stain spreading out from what the Guardians had believed was a quiescent victim.
Lex floated, awake now and aware. He had been encased in a golden bubble that would've encompassed a willworld of his own. Perhaps the Grand and Glorious Terran Empire. Those were not real. Even in this place where thought met being and reality was a stray impulse away. Lex's form, naked within the sphere, was burning crimson as the gold sphere surrounding him. The entire bubble world flared orange before it cracked entirely and red flames burst through, popping the bubble entirely.
Lex was in a universe the operated on the will and imagination of a sentient within it. He'd just spent a subjective sixteen years within a dream that had ended with his emotions torn to raw, bloody rags. That will imposed itself upon an unprepared reality... and even more unprepared telepaths. The flared red light of fury lashed out, catching Guardians in its wake and burning them.
Screams echoed in the serenity beneath the white sky. The flame of Lex's guilt, rage, despair and self-loathing spread wide, seeking to touch every Guardian. Those closest kindled to flame almost instantly. The fire was not so much physical, but a simultaneous assault on their emotions. Those who had been linked to Lex's psyche when he had broken free were now caught in the recursive loop of his self-destructive hatred. They hated themselves as Lex hated himself and hated themselves as Guardians for Lex hated the Guardians. These hatreds fed each other, like face-to-face mirrors creating an infinite hall of mirrors; an infinity of pain that could only be escaped by snuffing themselves in a gout of cleansing fire.
Suicidal thoughts and impulses turned into a wildfire. As the raw emotions burst through a Guardian from the infinite recurse, he or she would feed the flame, becoming more kindling for Lex's uncontrolled rage. Since he'd had previous success in weaponizing telepathic midgets, an absurd darkly humorous thought came to him. Why not continue with a winning strategy?
Such thoughts happened beneath the conscious level, for Lex himself wasn't any more in control of his actions than the Guardians were. He lashed out blindly, his throat raw from the pain-wracked screams. The blood red flames that Lex's emotional weaponry had taken as their form were leaping from Guardian to Guardian; acting like normal flames would when confronted with combustible little blue men. Suicidal impulses and murder thoughts turned viral within massive blue heads and the inferno began spreading exponentially faster throughout the Auditorium.
The more distant Guardians pulled even further back, floating themselves out of their seats, too shocked at the brutality and speed of the attack to deal with the sight confronting them and unwilling to allow themselves to be caught in the unexpected churning crimson maelstrom of flame that surrounded Luthor.
The flames speared out beyond the auditorium. The floating Guardians were managing to avoid the fires themselves, but the static mobile of dangling willworlds were not so fortunate. Lex knew instinctively that those would not only be sources of power, but they could be used to control their original owners.
His subconcious desires took flame. The threads connecting the englobed worlds caught crimson flame, destroying the structure and isolating them.
As more worlds fell away from the structure and disassociated from the now burning circuits of thought and power, the Guardians cried out in alarm. Their tools, their soldiers, were regaining their full freedom of thought once more. Their suppressed independence and ability to question the Guardians would surge back in full force now that the parts of themselves they had left behind were no longer in Guardian hands. Lex knew none of this consciously. Lex had claimed the spheres for his own, knowing only that the Guardians had wanted them. Not that he was in any state of mind to truly appreciate what he'd usurped. They were all simply more kindling for the flame. More to tear asunder and set ablaze. The empathic blood-red flames caressed the golden bubbles and set them to a seething boil. The bubbles began to shoot away from the burning threads, their color being lost in the pure white of the sky.
As the last golden sphere disappeared from view, Lex rage was momentarily stilled. He looked around him and all he could find in his immediate vicinity were the charred bones of the Guardian. The field he stood in and even the auditorium had caught fire.
He looked upon the devastation he had wrought and saw that it was good. He breathed deep, there was no smoke smell, or burning scents... merely the heady copper of blood. His show of temper had been... cathartic. Externalizing his emotions. Letting them burn wild, had been cleansing.
He knew it was ultimately useless, given the nature of the universe they were in, but he had enjoyed it nevertheless. He closed a fist, savoring the rich feel of reality bending to his will. In that moment, he had finally calmed down enough to take conscious stock of his situation. His mind was finally clear. His hate was still pure and clean and bright, but now his intellect had remastered it. Honed it to be subservient to his will.
He was naked, but that was easily fixed. A single whimsical thought had him dressed in a double-breasted power suit of midnight black, with a bright, Kryptonite-green tie. He was there to meet his destiny after all. It wouldn't do to be improperly dressed. He wondered belatedly what had happened to his armor, but he realized that its presence or absence could be readily remedied.
In this battlefield, it would not be as useful.
Surrounding the wreck of the auditorium floated the surviving Guardians. They were within pale blue globes, taking positions to enclose Lex. Hundreds of little blue men and women in their red robes and oversized heads. Wispy white hair crowning those heads. Their faces were grim, but not angry, Lex noted. If anything one or two seemed subtly amused by him. Lex wondered how amused they would be once everything came to a head. The fields surrounding them held back the flames which still burned.
Lex made a show of brushing imaginary lint off of one immaculate cuff. The flames had surrounded him were now smothered under the weight of the blue fields all about. They had him hemmed in. Surrounded. He had them where he wanted them.
One floated forward a bit closer to Lex. "Lex Luthor of Earth." It intoned. Lex was surprised at how deep the little man's voice was. It seemed to echo in his bones, but that was another trick. For all their alleged inability to comprehend alien minds, they were subtle manipulators. "You have sought to bring ruin to Oa and to the Guardians. We brought you here to understand why you hate us so and to try you for your actions."
Lex shrugged, "I do not recognize your authority. My reasons... I would think they would be obvious." He leaned in a bit closer to the edge of the floating Guardian's blue field, "You know what you did."
The Guardian affected a look of baffled innocence. "We do not understand what you are talking about."
Lex chuckled. "Of course you don't." He remarked sarcastically.
"You are speaking in riddles."
"You are manipulating little connivers who have gotten away for far too long." Lex snapped. "So long that you probably cannot even imagine that you would have to pay for your crimes."
"We know of no crimes, Lex Luthor. Again, you make no sense. We suspected your mind was broke-"
"Do not tell me I'm broken!" Lex roared. "Your servants did this to me! You could not possibly imagine how broken I am."
"The Lanterns have not dealt with you extensively in the past, Lex Luthor. You continue to-"
"Not the Lanterns, the Manhunters."
"You are mistaken. The Manhunters broke free of our control long ago."
"Filthy Guardian lies." Lex spat.
The Guardian stared at Lex for a long moment and then finally said, "Who told you this, Lex Luthor?"
Lex frowned at the question.
"Was it perhaps a Manhunter who gave you the information?" The Guardian continued in a voice that Lex thought had a certain sly undertone to it. "The information that led you to more 'corroborating evidence'?"
Lex stood stunned. He twisted the question over in his mind. Had he been duped by the Manhunters? An elaborate scheme pointed at his paranoia with the intent of turning him into their weapon against the Guardians?
"The Manhunters are everywhere. They could easily manufacture and plant such so-called 'evidence' and no one would be the wiser." The Guardian continued, seeing the effect on Lex of the statements.
Yet... yet the facts all fit together far too neatly. Everything made too much sense. Both the evidence pointing to Guardian culpability as well as the possibility of it all having been a Manhunter plot. Even Sinestro knew... unless he'd been duped as well with the same readily available information. Lex put a hand to his forehead as thoughts raced through his head.
What was lie?
What was truth?
Who did he need to kill?
Lex looked up, and saw... sympathy in the eyes of the Guardian that had been speaking to him. That sparked his anger once more. Pity from the superior being. He cast his glance about. The rest of the Guardians seemed expressionless, but he could tell something in their attitude. A certain... smug certainty to their bearing.
"The Manhunters couldn't rebel. You'd created them creative, but with no will." Lex argued. "I saw how they were designed. They didn't have the capacity for it! They were completely under Guardian control!"
"You are trying to force the facts you do not have to fit your own interpretation." The Guardian spoke over him, not quite raising his voice, but with a tone of condescending superiority that raised Lex's ire further. "You could not possibly understand our science, much less how a Manhunter is programmed."
Lex pulled back for a moment, wondering to himself if they might not have had a point. As elegantly as the whole thing hung together, it was contingent on the reliability of the Manhunters. As he mulled this over, felt a familiar tickle behind his eyes. Of course. It was the same story, every time.
Direct confrontations were for lesser races.
The Guardians went for mind games.
Lex smirked, the expression only barely hiding the white hot anger bursting back to life. He'd given away billions for what he wanted. He'd made allies of mortal enemies for what he needed done. He'd killed his daughter for his convictions. He didn't care that she was not 'real' in a technical sense. She'd been real to him. Real enough to armor him from their manipulations. Real enough that whatever else, he was committed to his course.
"Well played. Well played, indeed. You truly are masters at your craft." Lex said with mock joviality. The lead Guardian frowned and Lex allowed the flame within him to blossom once more in his mind as he continued to speak. "I would have been a lot more inclined to believe you-"
The Guardian in front of him screamed suddenly and sharply.
"- if you weren't in my mind trying to make me buy what you were selling." Lex ground out in quiet fury. Within his mind he let his hatred and self-loathing burn bright once more. Forcing the Guardian peeking into his thoughts to share in the purity of his self-destructive thoughts. He could feel his adversary attempting to pull out, but he also felt the phantom sensation of Version two, weak and dying though he might have been, helping trap the other mind within his, exposing it to the self-hatred that Lex had been building up since all this had begun.
The Guardian who had been speaking suddenly fell, eyes flaring with crimson flame and foam exploding out of his suddenly slack mouth. The blue field around him winked out and the flames leapt to joyous life burning from the eyes outwards.
"Again you attempt murder." Another Guardian floated forward, speaking in a smug tone. There were nods from the others. He could tell they were telepathically conferenced together, but not as deeply as before. Dealing with someone who could hate them to death and make it pass through their telepathic links made them leery.
"'Attempt', is it?" Lex asked wryly as he casually took a step and kicked the burning skull away so that the heat wouldn't bother him.
The Guardian ignored the casual disregard Lex had for the body of one of their dead before her gave a nod, which was an impressive feat on such a skinny neck. "You could not have known that your killing spree would be useless. Death cannot touch us here."
As though on cue, the flesh began to unburn on the bones that surrounded them. Smoke and ash swirled around them and the tiny, wasted muscles began to knit themselves back into play. Lex hadn't quite gotten a good idea of how many exactly he had gotten, but now that it truly had been called into his attention, he guessed he'd caught more of them in the flames than had gotten away.
There was a strange keening noise as skin began to form on the small figures, covering their bare muscle back up, but other than the rampant growth they had yet to move. Lex had known this. This universe... this parasite attached to the real universe had no entropy. Time had no directionality here and the second law of thermodynamics held no sway. Within this strange place, death truly had no meaning because everything could be undone. Here, you really could unbeat an egg.
The tone in the Guardian's voice had become sneering as their fallen compatriots began to stir. The haughty arrogance they had hidden earlier was now out in full force. "You are a marginally clever example of your species. You hid your attempt to steal away a tiny fraction of our power under the guise of a blockade... but you have made a grave mistake coming into our place of power."
Lex smiled as he realized they really hadn't seen through him yet. His laugh was nasty and just a touch spiteful. "Is that what you think? That I came to Oa to 'steal your power'? If you mean the newly minted Gold Lanterns that was just some inspired improvisation on my part." He shrugged. "They're as much of a distraction as the blockade was."
The Guardians who'd been speaking kept his gaze locked with Lex's, but a few of the Guardians began to trade mildly worried looks. The Guardians who had burned were now whole and clothed in red robes as they floated into the air, still in a daze, but trying to put as much distance between themselves and Luthor as they could. Just because they couldn't be killed permanently didn't mean they were keen to repeat the experience.
The little blue man glanced over its shoulders to the others, "This has gone on long enough. We have tried to be reasonable, but this creature is insolent and clearly irredeemable. All in favor of suitable chastisement before it is removed?"
The others nodded. The ones who'd been burned nodded with far more zeal than their fellows.
The one who'd spoken gave a casual, almost negligent wave of his hand.
Lex didn't even have time to scream as pinprick bursts of energy touched off every single nerve on his body. There was no time to even draw a breath to cry out as those same touches of energy pulled and stretched. Lex could feel every second of agony as they flayed the nerves out of his skin and stretched them into a living tapestry all around him. Lex's mind raced. Adrenaline pumped through him, but he was helpless. They had done... something. He wasn't certain if they'd done it to him or to the space surrounding him, but he could no longer move. He couldn't even blink or breathe without being allowed. Before he knew anything more, he was on his back, on a slab-like table as the Guardians began drifting away from him, seemingly uninterested in what was to come. Exactly as Jordan had described it. Exactly as the record from Abin Sur had shown.
The two who had been speaking still lingered close by. Lex tried to strain, but even the thought of moving triggered a rolling wave of blinding agony that seemed to flare randomly all across his body.
"He is stubborn, isn't he?" The second Guardian asked the first who had just gotten back to his feet. Lex could just barely hear them, too caught up in his private miseries.
"Indeed. It does not matter. He was born of the broken Universe. All things there are finite, even his resistance." Was the reply.
"Should we not interrogate him as to what his actual strategy was? I admit to some curiosity." The second asked.
The first shook its head. There was a vicious gleam in its eye. Lex knew that look. Perhaps they may have regarded him as an insect, but it was an insect that had stung them hard enough to merit swatting. "It is not necessary. We shall tear it from his broken and pliant mind once his chastisement is completed. It will be faster than trying to sort through his lies."
Lex would have smiled if he could, but everything had become agony, even the strain to try to move, whatever else the Guardians might have said was no longer an issue for he couldn't even focus enough for it to matter. They were controlling his breathing. Holding it just a little too long for comfort before allowing him a shallow breath... then holding that... then a staccato rush of hyperventilation... then an out of sequence deep inhale that hurt him to take. The whole while his exposed nerves sang of pain. Nothing he had experienced before could compare.
His consciousness shattered under the assault of agony, but they had done something to his brain chemistry as well. They would not let him pass out. He could not consciously measure the passage of time, only that it passed in pain, deep, terrible and fiery.
If he could have formed coherent thoughts, one of them would likely have been, "Why did I think this was a good idea?"
Time had lost meaning. He had no clue how long it was before he could focus once more, but when he could, he found himself facing a Guardian. He couldn't tell for certain which one it was. Perhaps it had been one of the ones who had spoken to him before... perhaps another. He felt the control of his breathing being returned to him and his frayed and twisted nerves began to unknot.
"What did you do?" This Guardian was a new one. He was certain of it. Its voice was not so deep as the others and had a feminine quality to it. He realized belatedly that it was female. He simply couldn't tell from his view being blocked by the enormous cranium. The smugness was gone. Replaced by... panic? Desperation? Yes. That sounded right. Lex allowed himself a smile, but it came out more as a hideous grimace.
"Let me up and I will tell you." Lex replied calmly.
The table beneath him vanished and without being entirely certain how, Lex found himself upright. He felt weak. Drained. But he would be damned if he showed weakness before the enemy. He glanced around, finally able to focus on the other Guardians. The one before him was one of the last ones still standing.
The rest had fallen. While their bodies had been undersized before, now they were emaciated. What muscle there had been had withered away to nothing. Their fine, red robes were in tatters and rags, allowing the prominent bones swimming beneath loose skin to show. Their cheeks had hollowed. On heads so large, those were painfully obvious. Even the female Guardian before him bore the same signs. Her undersized breasts were sunken dugs now, barely visible in the robe that was shredding into threads and tatters as Lex watched.
"How have you done this?" The Guardian's voice had grown creaky. The undertone of panic growing stronger as she fell to one knee, then slowly toppled onto her side, no longer strong enough to support her head.
"A captive audience, how thoughtful." Lex said mildly, the suit, which had vanished when they'd put him on the rack was back. "Although, I'm not absolutely sure if this is my body or you've projected me back into a delusional world."
After a moment, he shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Either this is some trick to make me talk, or you're too scared to peek into my mind again and this is real, but either way, it's probably too late for all of you."
"Explain!" The fallen Guardian groaned weakly. Urgently. Lex knew it could sense its own end coming close... perhaps satisfying its curiosity? Or just wondering how the insect had put one over on them?
Lex leaned in close and grinned. This reality being what it was Lex knew it could no longer sustain them. The parameter had hit one hundred percent... minutes ago? Hours? Days? He had no way of knowing how long he had been in here, or even if time flowed the same as it did on the other side. However long it had been, it was long enough for things to reach critical levels.
The formerly abundant free energy was suddenly scarce within the universe of the Battery. The flat white sky was already beginning to look distinctly patchy as entire areas began to dim, rendering it a mottled gray. Despite that, he could see the sketchy snowflake arrangement of willworlds half-built above them. They must have started rebuilding, but ran out of juice, he mused.
Lex concentrated, allowing thought to become truth and drew the lingering strength from the environment into a trickle of energy to feed into the Guardian. Not enough to heal her, by any means, but enough to keep her alive and aware. He was bolstering her own efforts, but he had few delusions about how effective any changes he attempted on them would have been had they been at the height of their power.
But that had passed. He patted her on her massive brow. "I will tell you a story, Guardian of Oa. In return you must answer my questions. I will be honest with you and you will be honest with me. Is this acceptable?"
"Yes." She croaked.
"Once upon a time, on a little world in an unimportant part of the universe, a man found out that his life, his mind and all his decisions had been tampered with. That every thought he had ever had was a lie. That every act he had ever performed might not have been of his own choice. Then he found out that it wasn't just him this was done to. This made the man very angry. So he sought out the ones who had done this to him."
"The story you tell is an old one, Lex Luthor," She wheezed. "It has played out many times before and always ends the same way."
"Perhaps not this time." Lex reassured her smugly. "First he found the puppets who had done these things. He destroyed them to ensure that the puppet masters would have no warning of what was to come." Lex paused significantly.
"We had no idea you were coming." The Guardian said finally.
"Just so," Lex said before adding to himself, that he really had no idea I would be coming today. That was Lobo and Vril Dox's fault.
The Guardian prompted him testily, "Can we please drop the metaphor, Lex Luthor? It is obvious who you are speaking of. What did you do next?"
Lex frowned slightly, but he shrugged. Play to the audience after all. "Isn't it obvious? I had to plan out how to kill the unkillable. I developed a fairly simple plan. Your greatest asset, aside from the ability to manipulate cosmic forces was that you were immortal."
The Guardian tried to struggle into a more comfortable sitting position, but couldn't manage. Lex continued, ignoring her clumsy movements. "It was child's play to deduce that your immortality was tied to the Battery and its position on Oa, and it didn't take a genius to realize that all of you are tied to this place. As long as it existed you could be brought back no matter what was done to you." Lex gestured broadly, taking in the fallen Guardians who were most decidedly not rising up. "So the only way to kill you all... was to kill this universe."
"You cannot kill a universe!" The Guardian seemed offended at Lex's statement.
"I probably couldn't kill a universe like the one I'm from." Lex replied tartly. "This one's different, though, isn't it? This is a parasite universe. The lack of entropy within it isn't being sustained at its largest scale. If it weren't receiving a massive and constant influx of energy, this entire place would collapse."
The Guardian's eyes widened. "You... you could not have." She groaned, but managed to make the statement come out as a flat statement of fact. "It would be impossible. It would be impossible to divert that power away from Oa without us noticing!"
Lex shook his head. "Just because you only managed to do it a single way, doesn't mean it couldn't be done by some other means. Oa was the only place where you could keep this place running. The 'Center of the Universe' always struck me as nonsensical appellation for a place until I really looked into it." He gestured and an image showing Oa and its place in the universe coalesced in the air.
"In a constantly expanding universe, every point can be thought of as the center, but Oa's uniqueness comes from its position. If the universe is thought of as the surface of an expanding balloon," The image shifted and Oa was prominently displayed on the surface of a universe which had suddenly looked like a fifty foot wide helium balloon.
The balloon shifted once more and the image of Oa resembled the tied off section with string emerging from it. "Oa is at the opening where the air is blown into it. That makes this the ideal spot to siphon off the energy that should be powering the universe's expansion and using it for your own ends." Lex smiled softly, seemingly in awe at the thought of such power.
"Simply knowing this should not give you the power to end us, Lex Luthor," she wheezed.
"Oh? The so-called center of the universe is metaphysically determined through the arrangement of elements within it." Lex gestured broadly and various sections of the balloon lit up and began to move. "Planets, stars, nebulae. All the little elements that make it up. Rearrange the elements..."
The dangling string that had marked Oa began to slide away from it.
The Guardian's eyes widened in incredulity, and a sudden rush of strength allowed her to rise back to her feet. "But the universe is self-correcting. You would have had to simultaneously manipulate a fifty-two hundred variable self-referential mathematical construct to succeed! There would have been quadrillions of possible results that would do nothing."
"And quintillions more that would have had... unfortunate results." Lex agreed.
Her voice was firm for a moment as she spoke, "What you are claiming to do is not impossible."
Lex laughed. "Not alone. Not with my world's limited technology and processing power. On the other hand, I had an entire universe of angry worlds that your people had done horrible, horrible things to. Worlds with much more sophisticated computers than I had readily available. I wasn't lying when I said that everything you've seen were distractions."
"The messages to the Guardian-hating worlds were just a way to cover up a poly-adaptive computer virus designed to link every computer I could reach into the largest distributed computing network ever devised." He smirked then added as an aside, "You have no clue how difficult it was to hand code something that had to be compatible with almost every system out there."
He was silent for a moment, allowing what he had actually done sink in, but he realized that the Guardian had no appreciation for it and he finally he gave an elaborate shrug, as though giving the achievement no further thought. "The blockade on Oa that arose from their responses to the message was a useful distraction while I changed the universe."
The image shifted once more, putting Oa in the forefront and surrounding it with ships as it had been before Lex's arrival. The Guardian didn't have strength left to hide her shock and disbelief. A few of the closer Guardians also seemed to be stirring, but none had gotten to their feet.
"I had everyone else's unused processing cycles to calculate which elements would need to be moved to shift the omni-omphalos locus that determines the center of the universe away from Oa to Earth." Lex grinned, "All it took were a few dozen worlds and five largish stars. Barely any work at all with the right mules."
"Jordan... and Rayner..." She wheezed.
"Yes, yes indeed." Lex acknowledged, buffing his nails on the lapel of his immaculate suit. He fished a cigar that hadn't been there moments ago from his breast pocket and took a moment to savor its aroma. He carefully tore the end off as he continued to speak. "The former Green Lanterns of Earth, both of whom have reason to hate the Guardians. Parallax and Ion happen to have the power to juggle planets and stars with relative ease. Once they moved everything into place, I simply had to keep all of you preoccupied and expending energy which you no longer had. The blockade wasn't keeping your attention anymore. You needed a mastermind to keep you preoccupied, so I had to give you me." He gestured to the fallen Guardians, "And it worked. Once this place collapses entirely, taking you all with it, that will be the end. No more universal refuge. No more Guardians. You are now about to become extinct."
With that, he snapped his fingers, lighting the cigar and allowing him to take a deep, satisfying drag.
"Foolish whelp." She snapped, the strength returning to her voice and forcing Lex out of his smug self-congratulation. "You have doomed the universe you would seek to free."
He frowned, not yet concerned, but annoyed at the interruption. "And what's the supposed to mean?"
"You are a child at play in a room filled with knives. You deduced a few details and decided it would be enough to use to destroy us. We have played with the underlying structures of your universe for billions of your years. The method you chose to do away with us was tried before." The Guardian rose up floating until her face was level with Lex's, "It failed then, as it will now."
"Bluffing. How cute." Lex smirked, exhaling the cigar smoke into her face in a well-practiced insult.
"Malthus... this parasite universe as you call it, is linked to the fundamental sub-structure of your home universe," she said, returning her features to their customary arrogance. "The implosion that you have so eagerly initiated will result in the uneven collapse of key sections of the metaphysical scaffolding of reality. Space-time in your universe will tear itself apart before the tattered remnants are swallowed by the bleeding rifts in its substance.
Her smile turned ghoulish. The image of Oa that still hung between them was replaced by an image of Earth. "You have made Earth the new center of the universe. You are a provincial enough ape to have an unhealthy attachment to your homeworld. Allow me to guide Malthus to your planet and you may yet save everything."
"Never." Lex scoffed, but he couldn't keep one hand from closing into a fist.
"Then the universe as you know it dies. The energy pouring back into Malthus from that destruction will be enough to revive all of us long enough to find another universe to draw power from." She sneered, "It does not matter. In the end, no matter what you choose, we will survive and your actions will remain irrelevant."
"Within Malthus your senses may be as ours. Stretch them forth. Know that I am telling you the exact truth." She continued. "You were almost clever enough to hurt us, so this should be no great feat."
Lex did not trust her. He didn't trust any of them, but the possibility that he had caused what she had described was not outside the realm of possibility. He took another drag on the cigar as he allowed his will to cast out. Trying to feel the strangely attuned space-time of the parasite universe respond to him like an eager puppy. He didn't so much extend his own senses as he thought of it as forcing reality close to him to supply him with the knowledge he needed. It came as easily as the cigar did. As the images he'd been throwing up.
Malthus was breaking down as he'd expected, but not evenly. Sections of it, spanning entire galactic clusters worth of area, were somehow pinned to the outside universe. The collapse was pulling at what lay beyond. Lex tried to slow it down somehow, but immediately realized that the Guardian was not lying. The only way to keep the impending destruction of his universe at bay would be to pour energy back into this one. Far more energy than a single human could generate all by his lonesome.
Except... except this was a universe of will and consciousness.
She was the only one who even seemed coherent. So in all likelihood their focus. He gave her a studied glance, which was answered by a confused frown. Knowing that she could not move easily, he kept his face impassive as he took several hard draws on his cigar until the tip glowed cherry red.
Blank as he'd kept his face, she caught a hint of what he was intending in his expression. She attempted to fly out of reach, but her movement was slow and barely controlled. He blew the smoke into her face once more and drew the cigar out of his mouth, still keeping his senses extended to watch the reaction to his next move.
Lex would have grabbed her by the throat. Unfortunately, between the size of her head and the relative puniness of her neck, the only other place available for easy reach was the front of her fraying robe. With great care and deliberation, Lex stubbed the cigar out upon her broad forehead, grinding the burning ember into her blue skin.
She screamed. Loud, long and with a great deal of emotion, tearing her throat raw for a moment, unable to escape from Lex's grasp. He finally pulled the now dead cigar away after a minute, leaving a raw burn and ash ground into her blue skin.
He'd hoped that the fabric of Malthus' space-time would stagger under the assault. If it had, then he could point to the Guardians as the source of the problem, but there hadn't been a quiver. Meaning they were irrelevant to the new problem at hand. He still felt he'd gone far too easy on them, but he just wanted them gone.
"Wh- why did you do that, Lex Luthor?" The Guardian asked shakily. Her hauteur was beginning to return, but Lex could still savor the fear in her eyes. The rest of the Guardians who were conscious seemed vaguely sympathetic, but there was a definite undertone in their expressions hoping that Lex did not take notice of them.
"I was hoping that you were the ones causing the problem. In which case I could kill you and the problem would be solved," Lex spared a glance for them and there was a vicious promise in his eyes. "Except it appears that I will need to deal with it and you. Frankly, I can't be bothered to even be creative about it anymore."
She gave him a flat, level look. "Then kill us all Lex Luthor. You have seen us rise up. You know that we shall not remain dead here."
"You will be dead before too long. Frankly, you ceased being relevant five minutes ago." He reached into his coat and allowed his fingers to close in on a gun's handle that had not been there a moment ago.
It was comfortable and familiar. A human thing. His oversized magnum from the assault on Cadmus. It was an appropriate weapon, even more so than the fire of his rage and self-hate. This was still it, but given a form that he knew well. The entire thing was a psychic projection. Physical hatred. He leveled the barrel of the weapon at the Guardian, "I'm guessing you have linked yourselves telepathically to support one another. There are drawbacks to that, of course."
He took careful aim at the burn. Even though she tried to flee, there was simply not enough strength in her to do more than a slow, uncontrolled drift. He began to pull the trigger, doing so slowly. "This is me killing you all. With mind bullets."
The single blast was terrible and loud. Stillness followed and the moment stretched into awkwardness until finally the Guardians began to vanish, their wasted bodies bursting into clouds of choking dust in a spreading pattern away from him. He stretched forth his mind and knew with a certainty that he was finally alone.
He had expected his triumph to be more... something. Just more. He took another drag on his rumpled cigar, and then turned his attention back to the universe at large... or less large now. The patchy sections of the sky were growing larger.
He dropped the gun, allowing it to vanish back to wherever it was it had come from.
They were trusting to whatever systems they had created to bring them back. He could tell that much. He realized after a moment's study that even with them gone, there still remained sections linking the original universe to this deflating parasite.
It wasn't quite that though. The closer analogy would be to think of Malthus as a cancer that had metastised throughout his home universe. Invading and tying itself to every piece. He had to find the common thread of the connections, otherwise both systems would collapse together.
He cast his mind and worried that perhaps they were more clever than he'd expected and simply hid from him, but no... It was strange. What was holding them together seemed to be coming from the other side. Something from the universe was holding fast to Malthus.
He really had no reason to stay. In fact the longer he stayed, the greater the risk that he might inadvertently bring them back. In fact... if the universe ruptured from Malthus' destruction... if he were the only mind within it at that time... then wouldn't that give him all the power within this place? The power of a god?
Lex looked up at the half-finished structure of golden spheres strung together that the Guardians had not been able to complete the repairs for. He'd accomplished what he'd set out to do. The Guardians were gone. Their universe was now spoils of war. With it, he could gain power beyond his wildest dreams... all he had to do was allow it to destroy everything he had ever known.
No one would know. Well, he could create an audience. He might miss Mercy and Eve for a time, but he could recreate them, couldn't he? They need never even know that he'd allowed the originals to die. No one would know.
He could still do it.
But he'd have to answer to his own conscience.
He laughed. He didn't think he even still had one. He knew he could do it.
He could remake everything. Better than before.
Out of nowhere, his own whispery voice drawled in his head, "Better than this?" As a vaguely remembered image of Lena smiling up at him. Perfect innocence. Perfect trust. In him. Daddy's little girl, who believed with absolute faith that her father would always do the right thing. The voice whispered once more, "Recreate that, jackass."
Lex winced. He hadn't then. Wasn't this whole exercise about being better than he had been?
He was not the same Lex who had destroyed lives for the hell of it.
He wasn't the same obsessive madman who had wrecked his life for jealousy and spite.
He was not going to destroy the universe to attain godhood.
No matter how tempting that was.
Time was running out. The sky was almost black. The infinite reaches collapsing in on themselves and rifts linking Malthus to the real universe had already begun to open.
There was no longer any time to waste. Even time itself was draining out of Malthus, Lex realized, watching echoed after-images of himself appear as he moved.
He let his mind stretch out once more and felt out what still remained to hold the Malthus to his home universe. The more he extended his senses the more he realized that almost all the links were back to Oan space. He would have expected that the Guardians would've tried to keep them better spread out, yet there was something odd as he felt more and more links gathering in the one spot.
He wondered if it were some sort of failsafe to ensure as many links as possible in a single spot, but that didn't feel right. After all they would tear the universe apart better if they were spread... apart.
He looked up again at the shining spheres of the Willworlds.
Like perhaps one or two to each sector.
The Guardians had initiated a general recall at the start of the battle. All the rings were near Oa. All the rings of active Green Lantern Officers were still linked to the Willworlds.
He couldn't help but gape at the versatility of the will-worlds. They were a power source, a means of controlling their creators and even now a way to metaphysically link two universes to one another, yet the more he thought on it, the more he realized that they had more in common with the older servers he'd had in the warehouse. Unused things just sitting around that he'd load new functions onto rather than set up something new because they were there and they were handy. The Guardians had had these handy for literally billions of years. No longer.
He stretched forth his mighty hand and will... then pushed. Hard. One moment, the golden spheres still lingered above him and in the space beyond. The next, they were all gone. He wasn't absolutely certain how he had done it, but he'd pushed them into their respective rings. Banished from Malthus and no longer tying it to the universe beyond.
The sudden metaphysical 'snap' as those anchors dissipated resulted in the collapse accelerating. Lex still had a few minutes left to him. He floated in the gray and darkening space. The 'ground' beneath him and the auditorium had been part of an exceptionally large Willworld. Lex briefly wondered what could have created something that size, but it, along with whatever influence the Guardians might have had on what titanic creature had created it was now gone.
It was almost too easy, but there still remained one last link. It was in the Oan sector was well and Lex knew immediately what the last point of contact was. The Central Power Battery. The last point of contact where it could tear the universe apart.
This was also his last chance to go home. He could save the universe. He could be the hero for a change, but he'd have to sacrifice his way home. He didn't have the power to close the portal from the other side. He could only root the cancer out from within and he couldn't trust pulling enough people together to sever the link from outside.
He could do it from here. In a heartbeat. At the cost of leaving him behind in a dying universe. On the other hand, throwing his life away to save others... strangers. That was a bit more complex than not choosing godhood at the expense of the universe. This was verging into heroic sacrifice territory. Too much on the sacrifice for his liking.
He didn't know if he was prepared to lay his life down for a universe of strangers. No, he admonished himself. Narrow it down.
Bruce? He'd take a flesh-wound. Maybe. But Bruce was all about redemption, Lex mused. This was exactly the sort of thing he had to do to try and make up for his life.
Amanda Waller? He might be willing to pull a muscle for. And he probably would if he ever tried to pick her up. He chuckled.
Would he do it for the mankind? Still too abstract.
It still felt too distant. Too far removed. A thought experiment.
Mercy? Eve? In a heartbeat.
There was his answer.
He found the portal and gauged the rate of contraction Malthus was experiencing. He still had a few minutes before things because truly critical. The final disconnection would not be as gentle as the Willworlds would have been. He fully expected a massive tear in the space-time continuum to develop at the locus. A shockwave brought on by a phase-change in the local reality large enough to swallow the entire system of Sto-Oa whole. Without the connection to Malthus, it would collapse under the pressure of surrounding space-time and limit itself, but the moment of disconnection would still destroy everything within range of Oa.
He chuckled to himself. If he was going to be saving the universe anyway, he may as well go all the way.
He reached into a pocket and pulled out something that resembled a cell phone. Like the gun, this was little more than a prop, but it was helpful. It helped him focus.
He tapped a button which began his broadcast, sending his signal through the Central Battery.
"This is Lex Luthor. I am broadcasting this on every method I can conceive of to the immediate vicinity of Oa. You must all clear the area within the next five minutes."
He considered for a moment what else he could tell them, and then decided that perhaps an explanation would help. "The Guardians are dead. As their final gesture of contempt for us, they have chosen to take the universe with them in death. Their home, Malthus, a parasite universe hiding within the Central Battery is collapsing and in doing so will take our universe with it. Space-time itself has begun to rupture and crack as Malthus comes crashing down. I should be able to limit the damage to just Oa, but I will need to stay within this parasite universe as it collapses. Everyone must clear out of Oa's gravity well and make for a minimum safe distance of at least half an astronomical unit. Some of you may still be fighting at this point. Stop now. As you value your lives, leave this area or you will die. You all have five minutes to clear the area."
This was it. The final moment. He hadn't expected it to be quite so... cleansing. He'd said what he really needed to and found that his eloquence had deserted him. He groped blindly trying to find something else to say, but there really wasn't much else. He spoke at last. "I just... I hope... Remember that I chose to do this. Remember that freedom is your inviolate right. Be free."
He tapped a few more buttons, and then shut the cell phone simulation off. It would continue to broadcast his countdown to them. Anyone stupid enough to stay close with that playing on all channels deserved what they were going to get.
The area around him darkened further.
He had five minutes now.
With a gesture, a gigantic stop watch manifested in front of him, tied to the now floating cell phone and matching the countdown for the last five minutes.
The last five minutes of his life.
He decided on a direction for 'down' and allowed an overstuffed recliner to pop into existence behind him. He took a seat, leaning back into the plush material and putting his feet up.
He could feel this universe closing in on him. From an infinity, it was down to the size of the solar system. It was dark now, the only light being shed by his own conscious will.
He took a long drag of his cigar, then manifested a full snifter of brandy in his other hand. About him, the dying universe began to play Flight of the Valkyries.
Malthus was down to the size of the sun now, as Lex took a sip from his snifter and observed another minute pass.
Lex smiled to himself as he felt the size of the space around him shrinking down to Jupiter-sized. For a manifested drink, it was as good as he could imagine it.
He'd had a good life. A well-filled one, certainly. Granted there had been regrets, but what life was free of those?
He really did wish he didn't have to die, but it was too late. Even if he tried to leave through the portal, the subsequent space-time shockwave from its collapse in his wake would catch up to him and blast him into unreality.
Better to die cleanly. Enjoying his creature comforts one last time. He doubted he'd even be conscious for the final moments. He was just so tired.
It really was finally done. He hummed along to the music, holding his cigar like a conductor's baton, allowing the smoke to swirl into patterns in the air before him.
It really had been a good life.
Malthus was the size of the Earth now and centered on Lex as the last few seconds approached. Lex would merely need to reach out with his will and snap the portal shut, trapping himself within a dying universe.
He closed his eyes and whispered aloud, "Goodbye."
In the universe beyond, the reactions to Lex's transmission had varied, but no one had been willing to risk staying close to Oa after such an empathic declaration. Everyone who could, attempted to clear out as quickly as possible.
Former foes helped one another. Vessels and individuals who moments ago had been firing on one another now fled as one. The fleet, Green Lanterns, Gold Lanterns... it hadn't mattered. They vacated the environs of Oa en masse. A mixed taskforce of Gold and Green Lanterns had wordlessly lifted the underground shelters beneath the Guardian Citadel to ensure the safety of the civilians. Miraculously, almost everyone had managed to evacuate, save for a single, unidentified ship that had flown directly into the danger zone.
The final second passed with a pregnant pause. Had Lex lied? The thought had passed through everyone's minds before Lex's soft, tired voice whispered to each of them personally, "Goodbye." His voice echoed throughout the universe, infinitely sad and weary, but seemingly without regret.
The frozen moment shattered in the sudden, spectacular shockwave that rippled through space. It exploded out from Oa. They could see the distorted image of the stars through the spherical wavefront, acting like a massive lens. Where the wave spread out from the spot on the planet where the Central Battery had been, the planet was pulverized, first breaking apart as though from a hammer blow, then the individual pieces shattering and dissolving into dust.
The unidentified ship had been too small to make out, but everyone's sensors registered its sudden and spectacularly abrupt disappearance seconds before. It had pounded a planet to dust, the ship had had no chance to survive.
Almost as quickly as it spread, defying the speed of light, it snapped back collapsing in on itself and drawing into the tiny unmanageable rift in space which swallowed everything in its immediate vicinity before it snapped shut as silently as it had opened.
The sudden snap came as an awakening to every sentient mind. A nameless pressure on them that seemed to suddenly lift with Oa's destruction. The threat had vanished, and even those who'd had no way of knowing just... knew. The Guardians were gone. The psychic weight of billions of years of draconian control and hidden oppression had lifted. Everyone was free. Lex had given a final goodbye and a final gift.
It was twelve hours later as Superman swept the scene. He stood at the prow of a damaged Thanagarian vessel that had given permission to be used as a base of operations for the Earthlings who had returned in the wake of Oa's destruction. Its crew had evacuated to another ship and the life support was at a low ebb, but it was enough for their purposes.
The bombardment of Earth had stopped abruptly. One moment, they were being hammered by an asteroid every few minutes, then suddenly... nothing. When they'd managed to make their way to the linear accelerator where the attacks had come from, there had been... nothing. The weapon was there, but no personnel and no evidence of where they had gone.
Despite the League's desire to investigate what had actually happened, Lex's goodbye had touched off demands from several governments that the League find out what had happened to him. The general feeling of good will towards Lex was not merely a global phenomenon, but a universal one.
If Lex's slide beacon had survived, they might have managed to return sooner, but with his loss, the secrets of intergalactic teleportation that didn't involve a Boom tube were lost once more. It was only through a wormhole opened by Hal Jordan, Parallax once more, that they had been able to make it back to Oan space that same day at all.
Superman's senses scoured the space that had once been occupied by Oa, but he could find... nothing. Not even dust, nor debris from its destruction. In fact the area seemed... smoothed over. As though there had never been anything there.
"Anything?" A deep voice asked from beside him.
"No." He replied, turning towards J'onn. "You?"
"Nothing." The Martian replied. "One would think with a world as old and as long occupied as Oa was would have left far more of a psychic footprint, but there is nothing. I cannot discern if there had ever been a world here, much less what happened to a single individual on it."
Superman crossed his arms across his chest and shook his head. "I still can't believe Lex did this. I keep expecting him to step out from around the corner and tell me this was all part of a plan to kill me. Or rule the world. Or something."
"While it is true that he was a criminal mastermind, he truly and sincerely did wish to turn his life around." J'onn replied thoughtfully. "Perhaps those dark urges never truly went away, but I would like to think that he had found some measure of peace in his last moments."
The Kryptonian allowed a ghost of a smile to flit across his features. "I don't know if I could be so forgiving."
"To be fair, I was also not the one he was bedeviling on a regular basis." J'onn pointed out.
Superman smiled ruefully and looked back out the window. Given how blank the area of space had become, something was bothering him. He swept his gaze across the system, idly noting the former Green Lantern, now Gold Lantern planet, Mogo was in the process of moving into position to take over Oa's place in the system. It was a temporary measure to help gravitationally balance things out until everything had settled down. Superman really didn't want to think too much on Mogo's new moon. His size and power had apparently impressed Brimstone so much that it had decided to make itself into a satellite for the sentient planet. Strange as that was, it wasn't what was bothering him.
Life went on. Albeit life without the shadow of the Guardians hanging over it, he mused. For that, they had Lex to thank.
He glanced out the window once more and realized what had been bothering him. "Do you know why Lobo's parked at the edge of the system?"
J'onn replied, "He says that Lex owes him for something. He does not intend to leave until he can collect."
Batman slipped into view next to them. "Did you try explaining to him that Lex is gone? If not dead, then so far removed from this universe that he may as well be?"
J'onn nodded, "I did, but he has chosen to remain there."
Superman nodded. "Well... maybe he has his own way of mourning. Even a bloodthirsty thug like Lobo can have a sentimental streak."
"I doubt Lobo liked Luthor all that much," Batman replied with obvious distaste.
"Did you find anything?" J'onn asked, eager to move the topic away from the Czarnian.
"I've checked with everyone he had contact with and they confirm the timeline. The last few people he spoke with were Raker Qarrigat, the teddy bear, Sinestro, Oracle and John Stewart. He flew down to Oa. Set up the Rings with Sinestro and Stewart, then flew towards the Central Battery, where he vanished. An hour later, he sent out his last message. There aren't any further sightings of him after that point. All sensor readings indicate that his transmissions were coming from the Central Battery before it was destroyed."
"He's a betraitor!" A small sing-song voice declared from under Batman's cape.
At the frowns of the other two men, Batman produced the somewhat burnt teddy bear in the Manhunter outfit from under his arm. "It still has some useful intel. It claims that Lex's goodbye freed the Manhunters of their programming to obey the Guardians. I'm going to have Oracle dump its memory for analysis to be sure."
"Luthor said I ratted him out! I didn't!" It sing-songed, before Batman flicked a switch on its back, seeming to mute it, before he tucked it back under his cape.
Superman nodded, mildly bemused at the strangeness of the image of Batman holding a teddy bear. "So... we have peace now. If only for a while." He spoke, as much to distract himself to keep from laughing as much as for anything else.
Batman pulled his mask off, contemplating the blank space where Oa had been. "For a little while." His voice oddly hollow. "The Guardians are gone and things seem brighter now, but there's always greed. Always selfishness. Always cruelty. It's easy to blame everything on the Guardians, but the darkness was there to begin with. They just made it easier to come out."
J'onn murmured philosophically, "Even now others rush in to fill the void that the Guardians left behind. Eager to claim power for themselves, but for now, he has succeeded in making the universe a better place. This is a worthy thing."
"Even if it all goes back to business as usual tomorrow." Batman said grimly, tugging his mask back into place.
Superman shook his head and smiled sadly. "Even then. Lex managed to prove something. If even Lex Luthor could manage to redeem himself... to be a better man than he's been all his life, then there really is hope for everyone."