Looking Glass Country
Lex opened his eyes and was looking up at a curving wall of industrial metal, held by bare rivets. There was a low argument going on at his bedside between a woman with purple hair and—a gorilla. He paused. Granted, the gorilla was speaking perfectly intelligible English, but it still wasn't what he was expecting.
Lex let his eyes drift shut again and kept breathing evenly while he listened to them talk; he'd learned how to fake sleep as a thirteen-year-old, when it became one of the few ways to escape the lectures Lionel liked to deliver every night after coming home from work. His mind ticked away. No restraints, no blindfold, and the bed wasn't what he'd call comfortable, but it wasn't a prison cot either; strikes against this being a kidnapping.
"Tala, you do recall what happened the last time Luthor set off a mysterious explosion?" the gorilla said.
"Lex will be fine," the woman—Tala, since apparently they were on a first name basis, though hers didn't mean a thing to Lex—said, folding her arms.
"I'm not suggesting that we kill him," the gorilla said, which would have been comforting except for the tinge of regret in his tone. "But we could avoid a lot of unnecessary damage if we just confine him for a while. Until we can be sure he's in his right mind. Test his memories and all that."
"I can take care of that myself, Grodd," Tala said.
That name did ring a bell, somewhere deep. By the age of seventeen, resenting that he was just short of having a photographic memory, Lex had built an elaborate memory palace modeled on scale maps of the Vatican. By nineteen he'd discarded the whole structure as silly and pretentious, and taught himself how to fish through his own unconscious, reeling in a line of tenuously connected memories. The trick was finding the right place to cast from, and in this case it was easy: Clark, or rather his primary-colored alter ego.
From there it was a quick step to a gallery full of the rainbow cast of supporting characters Clark had collected. Lex's mental eye slid over them, slow but steady, and waited for the faint tug. It came when he was looking at the Flash. The color leached out of the mental image, the other figures fading away, and Lex was looking at a newspaper, held in his own hands over the breakfast table: the Flash standing by a massive cage holding a gorilla, with the caption The Flash captures Gorilla Grodd and an article about a telepathic, ultra-intelligent gorilla. He remembered dismissing the whole thing as exaggeration, or another bizarre example of the effects of meteor rock exposure.
Tala was continuing, meanwhile: "Don't think for a moment that you're fooling me. You're just hoping to use this opportunity to take back control of the Legion of Doom."
"Well, my dear, Luthor isn't in any condition to run it at the moment," Grodd said.
Lex didn't have quite as much information as he would have liked, but he knew not to waste the power of a dramatic moment. "Is this where I say I'm not dead yet? Sorry to disappoint you, Grodd." He rolled up onto his side to face them, propping himself easily on an elbow. Now that he had a better look, he could see the woman was spectacularly beautiful, if a little odd-looking. He was willing to take a bet on just how committed she was to his side. "Tala, do me a favor and get rid of the ape. I do have a headache."
"Of course, darling," Tala said; score one for the visiting team, Lex thought.
He was pretty sure he'd figured out the situation: either he'd lost a chunk of memory, or he'd just gone through a Star Trek-swap and any minute now Clark would fly by wearing a goatee. The latter was the option Lex was gunning for: he really couldn't envision a chain of events in his own universe that would end up with him hiding out with a bunch of costumed freaks—specifically, hiding out with a bunch of costumed freaks in the sewers, judging by the whiff of air coming in from the vents.
He watched Tala point a hand at the door, which slid open in a whoosh of purple sparkles. Magic, apparently, so at least his counterpart wasn't a complete idiot; Lex had been giving serious thought to acquiring a wizard himself. Grodd threw him an unfriendly look before loping out into the hallway, but he did leave, which improved the surroundings.
Tala came to the bedside after he'd gone. "Are you really all right, darling?" she said, reaching down to touch his face. "Do you remember—"
Hiding out with a bunch of costumed freaks in the sewers was still an improvement over being their prisoner. He needed to avoid questions until he could gather information; that was the first priority. So Lex smiled at her and caught her hand. "I'm fine," he said. "And I also don't actually have a headache." He dropped a kiss on her wrist.
"Oh," she said, looking pleasantly surprised. "Lex, are you sure you're—"
"It's interesting, the side effects of a near-death experience," Lex said blandly. "All that adrenaline," and when her mouth curved, he pulled her down; she tumbled into the bed with him in a coltish tangle of slender limbs, her violet-black hair spilling over her shoulders, eyes sparkling: beautiful. Sometimes, Lex reflected as he rolled her onto her back, work was its own reward.
It was a good view, Luthor had to admit, but it didn't make up for the pathetic inspidity of his counterpart's life. A businessman, for God's sake, marching along to the rat race like everyone else on earth. "I told you to get out," he snapped without looking up from the laptop when he heard footsteps behind him; that damn bodyguard would keep coming back, acting like a kicked puppy every time he sent her away again. "I don't care how many meetings you have to cancel."
There was a sort of astonished quality to the silence behind him, and then a voice he recognized down to his bones said, "Uh, it's me."
Luthor whirled the chair around: Superman was standing in the doorway to the office, blinking at him. There was no smashed glass, no alarms going off. "How did you get in here?"
"I came down from the roof," Superman said, as if it was an ordinary occurrence. "Is something wrong?"
Of the top ten things he'd never imagined he'd hear Superman say, that one ranked fairly high. Luthor took a couple of deep breaths and tried to calm down. He couldn't put it past this milquetoast version of himself to be one of the alien's bootlickers, and right now he couldn't afford to blow that cover. "You startled me, that's all," he said, controlling himself. "I'm in the middle of something."
"Oh, sorry," Superman said, rubbing the back of his neck in an embarrassed gesture, oddly ordinary. "I can go—"
"I'm already interrupted," Luthor said; curiosity was starting to get the better of him, and now he was wondering exactly what Superman would come to his counterpart for, anyway.
Superman produced a small flash memory card out of a pocket and came over to give it to him. Luthor plugged it into the laptop and set the data to start copying over. "What is this?"
"There's a problem at S.T.A.R. Labs with the new Orion particle accelerator," Superman said. "They turned it on yesterday—" Aha, Luthor thought; he'd been wracking his brains to figure out what might have tugged him to this particular dimension. "—and something went wrong."
"Imagine that," Luthor said, already scanning through the CAD files. "They didn't even put iridium plating on the coupling contacts. It's a miracle they didn't electrocute everyone in the room."
"They did set off a major electrical surge," Superman said, eyeing him oddly. "They were wearing insulated boots—"
"Pity," Luthor said.
Superman, astonishingly, laughed. He probably thought it was a joke, dammit. Luthor had to remind himself that he was playing along here. "So what do you want from me?" he said, trying to sound sincere and helpful; it didn't sit very well.
"Five of the scientists disappeared, and they can't figure out what's happened to them," Superman said.
"Where were they standing in the room?" he said impatiently; Superman pointed out a separate file with the positions marked. "The two at positions A and B were disintegrated. The one standing at C was translocated approximately six-point-two million miles into empty space and presumably asphyxiated within two minutes; the ones at D and E have been partly knocked out of phase with our dimension and are slowly dying of thirst as we speak. If they recalibrate the accelerator to these frequencies—"
He went to open the design diagram, and slammed his fist down on the table as the program failed to open instantly, a sluggish loading screen appearing instead. "What the hell kind of pathetic equipment is this?" He noticed, belatedly, that Superman was staring at him. "What?" he barked.
"Nothing," Superman said. Then he said, "Are you—" He stopped. "Never mind," he finished, lamely.
Luthor stared at him. Uncertainty wasn't what he would have called one of Superman's characteristic traits. The laptop pinged, faintly; the diagram had finally loaded. Luthor adjusted the frequencies and made a handful of other small and obvious changes that a trained monkey ought to have been able to see, and then put the altered file back on the card and handed it to Superman again. "There. If they make those adjustments and run the accelerator again, they'll reverse the phasing effects. As long as the two scientists have remained in the general vicinity, they should just reappear."
Superman took the flash card slowly and stared at it some more. "Um, L—Luthor," he said, "don't take this the wrong way, but—are you sure about—"
"Why are you asking for my help, exactly?" Luthor snapped.
Superman raised his hands. "Okay, relax! I figured you could put some of your people on it, that's all," he said.
Oh, you moron, Luthor silently castigated himself and his counterpart at the same time. Of course. Probably the Lex Luthor of this dimension could barely operate his own inadequate commercial laptop, much less understand higher-order physics. "I've been doing some research in this area lately," he said lamely, but that was probably inadequate; he had to do something more to reassure Superman. "I apologize," he added, swallowing the bile that wanted to come up with the words. "You've caught me in a bad mood."
Superman looked surprised, and then oddly abashed. "You don't have to apologize. I should get out of your way." He stood up and headed for the door. Luthor watched him go, uneasy and confused; then Superman paused in the doorway and said softly, almost sadly, "I know you don't—I know you don't want my help. But if there was anything—" He stopped, his head bent a moment, and when Luthor, feeling vaguely poleaxed, didn't say anything, he said, "Thanks again," and vanished down the hall.
They weren't actually in the sewers. They were in a deserted, mosquito-ridden swamp, however, so Lex wasn't awarding any extra points for style. He leaned back in his chair, staring out at the vast expanse of muck and reeds visible through the narrow almond-shaped window, and considered the situation.
As a collaborative organization bent on world domination, this "Legion of Doom" was an extremely successful experiment on the behavior of psychotics in groups. He'd reviewed some of the scattered and badly-kept mission logs; he had to wonder if his counterpart was deranged enough to believe any of the ludicrously complicated plans for conquest had ever had any chance of working. Certainly none of them had even the ghost of a plan for maintaining control; if any ever had succeeded, the world would have been thrown into complete and utter anarchy within a week.
Actually, his counterpart probably wasn't that deranged; he just wasn't taking it seriously. No one who actually wanted to rule the world would have had so few plans for what to do with it afterwards. Lex had invested a great deal of time in analyzing his own psychology; he knew that his primary motivator was a finely developed intolerance for being under anyone else's domination. Obviously, his counterpart had channeled that same intolerance into developing mastery over the physical fabric of the universe, but he'd failed to develop the skills to rule over other human beings. The schemes all looked more like excuses to fuck around with his latest scientific toys and beat the world over the head with demonstrations of his power.
But the Legion was a reasonably good power base in potential. If Lex got about a quarter of the less-stable members to remove themselves, ideally by using them up on valuable missions that indirectly got them imprisoned or killed, and he built something more of a hierarchy into the organization, he could accomplish a great deal. It would take a significant amount of PR work to repair their reputation—not to mention a name change; what kind of idiot tried to take over the world with the Legion of Doom—but the raw power represented by this team probably equalled the capabilities of the Justice League. They didn't have to be a disorganized mess. The members of the Legion were selfish, and selfish people were easy to control: you just had to make sure they understood that as long as they cooperated, their desires would be met.
Better still, of course, would be getting home, where he already had a very nice power base that wasn't going to take another five years to get into shape, not to mention an even nicer lack of twenty-three outstanding warrants for his arrest. The problem was that he couldn't do anything to achieve that goal. He'd understood enough of his counterpart's dimension-hopping device to know that he didn't have a hope of finding a way to reverse the trip, and most likely neither did anyone else on the planet. Either his counterpart was going to swap them back, or he was stuck here.
And even if Lex wanted to sit around and hope for that outcome, he couldn't; pretending to be his double wasn't going to be tenable for any length of time. He could figure out how to use most of the devices his counterpart had left behind; it helped that the interfaces had effectively been designed to his suit his own intuition. But as soon as it came to inventing something new, or fixing something broken, he'd be exposed; sooner if one of the malcontents pushed.
Which meant it was time to do a little housecleaning. He took out the slim, deadly laser pistol he'd found buried in the bottom of a box of equipment. He'd tested it several times on metal plates; better than anything his people had come up with. It would do the job just fine.
Lex hit the comm channel in the arm of his chair. "Grodd, if you're not in the middle of anything, drop by," he said. "We should talk."
"Sir, you have to at least eat something!" Mercy said.
The desperate request penetrated; Luthor lifted his head, blinking, and realized his eyes were dry, his mouth was drier, and he needed to take a leak. His stomach was rumbling. "Yes, fine," he snapped, and went to the bathroom—a sybarite's dream, virtually better equipped than his lab in the Legion of Doom's headquarters: toilet and separate bidet, giant tub, walk-in shower, sauna, massage table, four separate windows with views. He snorted as he washed his hands.
Fortunately, his counterpart believed in keeping things under one roof; there were extensive R&D operations in this very building, complete with excellent lab facilities. Luthor had just meant to poke through the lab manifests until he found the equipment he needed to rebuild the dimensional portal, then have it reallocated to some empty space where he could get to work without causing too much comment.
But then he'd gotten distracted. He did have to give some credit to his other self; the man might be a scientifically illiterate pencil-pusher, but he could recognize ability in other people. There were maybe a hundred different teams going in the building, all of their research topics reasonably interesting, and a dozen of them were working on projects he wouldn't have disdained himself. The aerospace division in particular was making real progress on an interstellar drive, even if in a half-assed, two-steps-forward, one-step-back way.
Luthor had cobbled together the hyperdrive for the Legion's hall out of components left over from Brainiac's ship. That wasn't anything nearly as exciting or challenging as fully engineering a drive from scratch, but he'd never had the time or resources to devote to a massive theoretical and design problem like that. When he'd stumbled over the project reports, he hadn't been able to resist. The records were incredibly meticulous; he'd blown through the six years of reports, actually learning things from their work, and then he'd started working on the handful of major hurdles they had left to resolve. He was making good progress, too, even if he was leaving behind heaps of boring details that would have to be worked out later.
He paused, coming out of the bathroom. In the five minutes he'd been inside, a small table had been set up and laid; an array of covered dishes stood on the table, and a man in a black suit was decanting a dusty bottle of red wine in some sort of complicated process that involved heating the decanter with a candle as he went. "Would you like company, sir?" Mercy asked; he had the feeling if he said yes, she'd whip out a portfolio of photographs, probably of some gaggle of supermodels without a thought in their heads.
"No, and get rid of the wine, too," Luthor said cuttingly, then, "Wait. The lead scientists on the hyperdrive project—"
"I'll have them here in five minutes," she said, sounding relieved, and vanished.
"I don't see what good this is going to do us," Killer Frost muttered, even as she laid down another sheet of dirty yellow ice down on the slopes of the mountain. Lex ignored her entirely; he'd found that was the best way to deal with the kvetching. Very few of the supervillains had the motivation to actually disobey the orders they questioned; as long as he kept things moving, letting them blow off steam didn't hurt.
He raised his binoculars and scanned the lower slopes. The bottom edges of the ice sheets were already starting to melt, trickling down to the waiting empty channels that the rest of the Legion had been carving out below. The irrigation system was simple, but simple was good; the locals would be able to maintain it themselves. Most of them were watching from the sidelines, warily, behind the Communist Party officials Lex had invited, and the Legion's newest member, Red Ribbon, who was keeping them company.
The Legion wasn't much for ethnic diversity, unless you counted aliens, so Lex had recruited one of the most popular video bloggers from Shanghai and put her in a shiny red costume with a strategic tummy cutout of the sickle-and-hammer. She didn't actually have any metahuman ability, but she had charisma in spades, which made her more valuable than a good sixty percent of the Legion members, and she'd done a lot of the fast talking it required to get the local officials to stay off their backs for the demonstration.
Trapping the pollutants in the sheets of ice would cause issues with the water supply, admittedly, but then again, the locals would be getting the pollution in the air if they weren't getting it in the water, and at least this way it would be getting filtered through the ground. It wasn't a permanent solution to either the problem of pollution or lack of water resources, of course, but then again, the government wasn't really looking for permanent solutions. They had a year left to get ready for the Olympics, and Beijing was still in an almost eternal cloud of yellow dust and soot from the Gobi Desert and the massive industrial factories to the west of the city.
By the end of the week, Lex was drinking tea with members of the Standing Committee, and two days after that meeting, the Legion headquarters was parked outside Shanghai, with a multi-million-dollar contract to deal with the pollutants. Killer Frost, who had to do most of the work, grumbled some more, until Lex showed her to her new apartment in the heart of the city, complete with maid service, masseur, and driver, and personally took her out for a night on the town. The city was mostly how he knew it: missing the LexCorp skyscraper in the Lujiazui district, of course, but still close enough he knew how to find good restaurants and nightclubs.
"Okay, wow," Frost said, knocking back another cocktail at Zhen Ài, still panting from their last round on the dance floor. "You know, Lex, you're a lot more fun than I realized."
"I like to think I have unexpected depths," Lex said, and ordered her a refill.
Tala was sitting on the bed, scowling, when he got back to their own penthouse hotel room early in the morning. Lex gave her one look and started to laugh. She stood up, eyes flashing—literally—and he cut her off before she even got started. "If you had any idea how stupefyingly bored I've been all evening, you'd be sympathetic, not jealous," he said, in amused tones.
"I was not jealous," she declared, tossing her hair.
"Really?" Lex murmured, sliding his hands onto her waist. "Not even a little?"
Twice in one night was more than he really wanted, but it wasn't really a hardship, after all, and they were both worth keeping happy.
He was standing on the balcony late the next evening, sipping coffee and overlooking the lights of the city, when abruptly he was airborne. It was a hell of a feeling, wind rushing past his face, the coffee cup tumbling out of his hands and vanishing into the cloud of blurring city lights below. The next thing he knew, he was being dumped onto the roof of the Bund, roughly enough that he went sprawling and rolled several feet along the roof before coming up against an air-conditioning unit. He lay on his back, panting; it was reminding him of some of Clark's worst fits under the influence of red kryptonite, not in a good way. He put his hand on his ribs and slowly picked himself up. Then he winced. Clark wasn't wearing a goatee; he was wearing a mullet.
"I don't know how you talked the Chinese government into giving you asylum, Luthor," Clark said, "but don't think that I'm not watching."
Lex sat down gingerly on one of the metal outcroppings scattered across the roof and looked Clark over. He was almost exactly the same, barring a few minor differences in the costume and the horrible mullet, but he was a stranger in all the more subtle ways—his body language, the set of his shoulders, the tone of his voice; it was bizarre.
"You're welcome to watch," Lex said. "As a matter of fact, I was hoping you'd stop by, if not quite this dramatically. I'd like to negotiate a truce with the Justice League."
Clark snorted. "You must be farther out of your mind than usual if you think any of us are going to fall for that."
"It's not actually a scheme," Lex said. "I'm taking the Legion legitimate."
"Right," Clark said. "And you're going to do good deeds to show us how sincere you are in reforming, how much you want to be our friends—"
"Flamboyant acts of charity are useful for PR, so we'll probably throw in a few," Lex said, "but we don't want to be your pals, and we aren't reforming. We're just going into business."
Lex shrugged. "Only a handful of the Legion's members were actually so psychotic that they couldn't function in society at all," he said. "They're no longer a problem. The rest will be quiet enough as long as they're kept in luxury. Which isn't all that hard to arrange when you've got the abilities of three dozen massively powerful metahumans to exploit."
"So your newest plan is to make yourselves rich?" Clark said, sneering.
Lex sighed, internally. The Kansas-farmboy disdain for money was one constant, at least. "Does that strike you as a less worthy goal than beating the entire world into submission with a stick?"
"Less likely," Clark said.
"Granted," Lex said, because given his counterpart's track record, that was a legitimate point. "If I can give you a good reason why our behavior would change this radically, will you get the League to back off?"
Clark folded his arms and leaned against a tall pipe that was spewing hot steam out the other side. "This should be good."
Lex paused, startled again by the differences. He never got to see Clark comfortable, confident, relaxed; mostly by his own doing, of course, with the help of that useful guilt that Clark was so good at loading onto his own shoulders. It made it more and more clear that this wasn't his Clark, and it was throwing off his own instinctive reactions.
He kept the story of the dimension-hopping shorter than he might otherwise have, just a quick summary. "Uh huh," Clark said, afterwards. "And let me guess. Back there, you're a fine, upstanding citizen."
"Back there," Lex said, "LexCorp is the largest corporation in the world, and I'm twice as rich as the second runner-up in the Forbes list. I give away a billion dollars in charity a year. And no, I've never been convicted of a crime."
"And we're good pals, too, right?" Clark said.
Lex looked at him. "Oh, the best," he said softly.
"Look, Luthor," Clark said, missing his tone of voice, "just save it. It's a good story, but if you really were a good guy, you'd have gotten away from the Legion the first thing you could."
"Who said I was a good guy?" Lex said. "I've never made a secret of the fact that I want to rule the world. Anything less would be a waste of my time."
Clark said, "Well, that's almost believable."
Lex was beginning to be a little impatient. "Why would I be making this up?"
"I've given up on trying to second-guess your plans," Clark said. "Not trusting a word you say is a more reliable policy."
"If the League won't agree not to interfere with our work, it'll increase the risk that members of the Legion will blow their cool and start a fight, and it constrains the projects we can take on," Lex said. "You'll actually undermine the potential for converting the Legion into a non-violent organization."
"I'll live with myself," Clark said, cheerfully.
Lex compressed his lips. He hadn't expected Clark to be this resistant. Oddly, though, it didn't bother him—possibly because it wasn't unfair. The Lex Luthor of this world had earned mistrust; he'd never been anything to this Clark but an enemy, not the way it had been—
—when Superman had first appeared in his own Metropolis. Lex had known immediately, of course, that it was Clark in the red-and-blue; but he'd said nothing. They had still been—not quite friends, not anymore, but somehow they hadn't yet given up on each other. Clark still called once in a while; half the time to lecture him, half the time to ask for help. Lex still answered the calls.
Clark couldn't be as reproachful as he obviously wanted to be, not without revealing that he had unusual ways of getting information. Lionel had still been clinging on to power like an old, encrusted barnacle, refusing to be scraped away, and Lex had been forced to resort to relatively crude means to keep bashing away at him. But Lex wasn't going to confide his reasons to Clark, who confided nothing to him; instead he silently took the lectures, and gave Clark the help he asked for.
After Clark's debut as Superman, a couple of grandstanding members on the city council decided to try and play on the initial anxiety about Superman's appearance, his capabilities and intentions, and proposed a bill that would make public vigilantism illegal. Lex invited them to a party on his yacht, complete with press—including Clark, naturally—and let the planned terrorist attack that his security team had uncovered go right ahead.
Clark had saved the day, as expected, and then hauled Lex to jail for criminal negligence, unexpectedly, after his partner Lois brought out the security report they'd coincidentally found in Lex's coincidentally ripped-open safe.
Superman got the city council's endorsement and made a nice little public statement of his incorruptibility at the same time. Clark and Lois got a front-page byline. Meanwhile, Lionel nearly seized control of LexCorp, thanks to the ensuing stock-price plummet, and the tabloids made hay out of Lex's wild past for a solid month.
The rapid outpouring of love for Superman, after that, was like ash and dust in Lex's mouth. If Clark had still been his friend, Lex would have been simply and purely glad for him; instead he felt like he'd been trodden into the dirt by those sleek red boots as they launched themselves into the air, and he choked on it. Disloyalty to a friend was the one crime he'd never committed himself; it was the only one he couldn't forgive. He changed his phone numbers and pretended not to recognize Clark when they met in public; he called him Superman the handful of times he met his alter ego.
Three years after that, Doomsday had landed and gone smashing and tearing towards Metropolis. While the Justice League and the US Army struggled to throw roadblocks in his way, Lex and his science team had analyzed the creature's structure and worked out a way to stop him. He'd gone to the front with the teams of LexCorp troopers and broadcast the plan to everyone there.
Then they'd all tag-teamed the creature, in short turns; a few hard blows, weaker metahumans and the troopers hitting him from all sides at once; the stronger metahumans taking him right on. Each team swapped off rapidly, going for a rest and a drink. In ten minutes they'd slowed him down to a crawl. In an hour, Clark had delivered the coup de grace, and Doomsday had toppled to the ground unconscious. There were no fatal casualties among the defenders, if a lot of injuries and property damage.
Lex had been walking through the makeshift field hospital, talking to all his wounded personnel, when Superman had caught up with him. "Can we talk?" he'd said, and they'd walked a little way outside, through the torn-up fields.
"You saved a lot of people's lives today," Clark said quietly. "Thank you."
"I don't need your thanks," Lex said. "I didn't do it for you."
"I know, I didn't mean—" Clark stopped and sighed. "Look, all I wanted to say is, I can't help thinking it would be a lot better for the world if we worked together more often instead of constantly fighting."
"I don't recall asking you to destroy LexCorp property on a regular basis," Lex said.
"Luthor, you bait me," Clark said. "You know I can see that you're violating regulations."
"Yes, what was that last one—section 31 of article 94 about the handling of recycled paper? A critical piece of protection for the citizenry of Metropolis."
"I can't stop most of what you're doing, because the judges won't give me warrants based only on my x-ray vision or super-hearing, so don't be surprised if I shut down everything that I can prove." Clark shook his head. "I don't know if you do it just to taunt me or something, you've got the ability to do everything you want without breaking the law."
"But what fun would that be?" Lex said. Cutting corners and streamlining processes did speed things up a bit, but Clark was right; the point really was to taunt him. Every time Superman destroyed a significant piece of LexCorp property for some minor technicality, he added to the civil case Lex was quietly building against him, the one which he eventually intended to use to get a restraining order that would bar Superman from any activity within 100 feet of LexCorp installations or property. Which would effectively keep him from doing anything anywhere in Metropolis, Smallville, and most of Kansas.
"I'm offering a truce," Clark said. "Just stop the serious violations, and I'll leave your facilities alone. And for that matter, there are a lot of projects your charitable foundation works on that I'd be happy to help with—"
"I'm not interested in your help," Lex said flatly, but something must have been holding on; something still lingered, a ghost of the love and trust he'd once felt, like an ex-smoker's nicotine craving, because without meaning to, he was going on, saying, "But you can have your truce."
He'd walked away, furious with himself, but he'd kept his word anyway.
With the comfort of the truce, Clark had gradually slipped back into his old habits of asking him for help. It started with a major crisis at the Justice League, when an alien managed to take control of Batman's mind and hypnotized him into thinking the other members of the League had all been possessed instead. He started taking down all the other members, one at a time. Clark had staggered into the penthouse, speckled with kryptonite micro-dots that attached themselves to the skin, and collapsed.
There hadn't been much choice but to help him; the alien was going to knock out the entire Justice League and take over the world, which conflicted with Lex's plans for doing pretty much the same thing. But after that, Clark started to come around more often to ask for help. Lex always meant to say no; somehow he always said yes. There was always a reason; Clark never asked trivially, and it made great press when Clark gave him public credit. But Lex had enough projects of his own, and he could have great press any time he wanted; that wasn't why he gave in.
He didn't know why for several years more, until he'd nearly died from radiation poisoning, helping Clark save the city from yet another alien menace, and when he was finally back on his feet, Clark had come over, landing on the penthouse terrace.
"Are you—I'm glad you're all right," Clark had said. His hands had been clenched tight.
"Was there something you needed, or is this a social call?" Lex said.
Clark had swallowed, throat jumping visibly. "Lex, there's something I need to tell you."
Clark had always called him "Luthor" before that, in costume. Lex said sharply, "Don't."
Clark stopped and stared at him.
"I'm not interested in accepting the obligation of being in your confidence," Lex said. "Not anymore. Anything I know, I learned for myself, and that information's mine to do with as I choose."
Clark had stood very still. "I didn't—" he said, unsteadily, "I thought—"
"Yes," Lex said. "Tell me what you thought."
"Luthor has been working fine for you the last seven years," Lex said. "Why don't you stick with it."
He understood, then, belatedly, that this was why he had agreed, all along; this was why he'd helped—so he could have this moment. So he could see that look on Clark's face. It was the same look that had been on his face, the day Clark had broken—had betrayed him, had pushed him face down into the dirt and put the boot heel on the back of his neck.
His unconscious mind was evidently a better strategist than he gave it credit for. He hadn't even known that he was working for this, for the pure sweet satisfaction of this moment of revenge. Only the effects of the radiation poisoning spoiled it; nausea and chest pain constricting his breathing, making his hands tremble as he forced himself to stand and walk away into the apartment, leaving Clark behind him.
"—What?" Superman said, and Lex blinked at him, coming abruptly back to himself, digging out from under the weight of memory and bitterness. This wasn't Clark. This wasn't Clark.
"Let me tell you a story," Lex said.
Superman sighed and looked over his shoulder at the giant clock tower a few buildings away.
"A long time ago in a solar system far, far away," Lex said, "just before the destruction of his world, a Kryptonian scientist put his only child in a spaceship and sent it to Earth."
"Can I stop you if I've heard this one?" Superman said.
"Here's where it gets interesting," Lex said. "The spaceship landed in Smallville, Kansas, where it was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent."
Superman's face went pale and still.
"This isn't a veiled threat," Lex said, because for the first time in years, he was looking at Clark's face and not wanting to see it tight with fear. "No one's ever heard this from me but you. No one ever will."
Superman swallowed and said, tightly, "As long as I help you with this one little thing?"
"No conditions," Lex said. "I'm just trying to make it clear to you that this is a real opportunity to change the status quo."
Luthor had finally reconstructed the dimensional portal, three months in, but that was the extent of his progress—he'd had no luck figuring out how to retune it to get him back to his own universe. The failure would have been more galling, though, if it wasn't mostly that it was so damned difficult to find time to work on it.
He'd managed to get it through to Mercy that he didn't want to deal with any of the nonsense of running the business or the—greater idiocy—philanthropic foundation, and she'd done something to shut down the incessant demands for pointless meetings. He wasn't sure what, and didn't care.
But he had never dreamed what it would be like to have a stable of the best minds in the world, all operating under his command. The worst frustrations of his youth had involved having to work with lesser minds who picked and quibbled and failed to comprehend his work. One of the reasons he'd finally thrown up his hands and turned to crime, before his sixteenth birthday, was to avoid ever having to submit to the judgment of inferiors again.
It was an entirely different experience when he was in total, unquestioned control. The money was limitless, with no ridiculous grant applications; the facilities were incomparably superior to anything he'd ever worked with, even before he started upgrading them to his own designs; and the scientists, despite their confusion at his sudden assertion of scientific expertise, all began with deference and rapidly progressed to reverence.
He'd made such a point of disdaining the respect and admiration of the scientific community that he was a little embarrassed how satisfying it was to suddenly have it handed to him, like a gift. And now they were constantly bringing him the cream of the work—the most difficult, challenging problems, the ones that stymied all of the top people who were working for him; things actually worthy of his attention. And all right, he had to grudgingly admit, all the luxuries did improve his productivity; he'd never noticed how annoying that permanent crick in his neck was until it vanished under the pounding of his personal masseuse.
The one and only baffling irritation was Superman. He would keep coming by, usually with some do-gooder project, obviously without question that Luthor would help him. None of them were very difficult to accomplish, even if they weren't interesting—all right, goddamn it, they were interesting—but just his presence was infuriating. He didn't act like he was supposed to. The last time, Luthor had found himself just talking to the alien for three hours straight about some other planet he had just been to as part of some Justice League mission of mercy. It had been fascinating at the time; Luthor had only realized afterwards that he'd just been enjoying a chat with his worst enemy, the creature who represented everything that was wrong with the world, where a muscle-bound alien showoff got the public adulation that by rights should have gone to a scientific genius.
Of course, at the moment he could stand on his balcony overlooking the city and see his own name on half the buildings on the skyline. But he only had to look at the contemptible laptop, now pushed to one small corner of his desk by his new nanotech-based supercomputer, and see the price that society had demanded and that his counterpart had paid. Making money, of all the small and petty goals for a life. Luthor might die without seeing his own Superman brought down, but at least he would be able to say that he had spent his life contending with gods.
Except he wasn't doing much contending now, was he? If he didn't get back home soon, he would probably go as soft and pathetic as his counterpart, settle himself into this hedonistic existence like a well-fed cat on a silk pillow and purr every time Superman patted him on the head.
He was still stewing over his failure to stay angry when Superman came back a few days later, looking strangely miserable. "What now?" Luthor said, determined to force it.
"My—my mom is sick," Superman said. His voice cracked on it, and he stopped and stared at the ground, hard.
Luthor stared at him, utterly confused. His mother? Superman's entire homeworld had been blown up shortly after his birth, as far as Luthor knew—
"It's late stage ovarian cancer," Superman went on after a minute, hoarsely. "The doctors are saying nothing—there's nothing they can—"
"Most doctors are incompetent idiots," Luthor said, automatically; his head was still whirling. Superman obviously expected him to know about this—"Where is she?"
"Metropolis General, room 783," Superman said.
A couple of hours later, Luthor was standing at the door to Martha Kent's hospital room, trying to get his bearings in the universe again. Superman—Clark Kent—was sitting at the bedside, and now that Luthor knew, he couldn't understand how he'd never seen it. He knew Clark Kent vaguely in his own universe; he'd even kidnapped Kent once, to use as a hostage. No wonder Green Lantern had showed up that time instead of Superman.
What the hell was Superman doing pretending to be an ordinary person? Luthor was bewildered. Did he actually go to work every day? Pay rent, do his taxes? It certainly didn't increase his glory; in fact, his own Clark Kent had spearheaded an investigative series detailing the mistakes and legal violations that Superman committed in the course of his hero-work, and written an editorial criticizing the excessive hero worship directed at Superman and the other members of the Justice League. Lex had enjoyed it tremendously at the time; now it looked a little schizophrenic.
Martha opened her eyes and smiled at him a little, a thin faded attempt. "Hello, Lex," she said, gently, as though she knew him. "Thank you for coming."
He came slowly into the room, the ground uncertain under his feet, feeling like he'd rather have been facing Superman in his most towering righteous passion. "How are you feeling?" he said abruptly.
Her mouth quirked. "I've been better." She patted Clark's hand. "Sweetheart, would you get me some tea?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "I'll be back in a minute."
"Sit down, honey," she said, and it took Luthor a moment to realize she meant him.
He staggered back out of the hospital a few hours later and collapsed into the limo with his hands full of medical files. As soon as he was back in the apartment, he threw the files aside and dug out the old laptop he'd shoved into a drawer and started pounding away at it, trying to find every scrap of information—on the Kents, Smallville, and a door that had never opened in his own life. There were files buried deep under an advanced encryption scheme; he broke it with brutal speed and tore through them. Years of Superman's activity in Smallville, before he'd ever put on a costume: one rescue after another, one cover up after another, and when Superman came back to the penthouse, later that evening, to ask for his verdict, Luthor blurted out, "Do you like wearing that costume?"
"What?" Superman looked down at himself.
"Being Superman!" Luthor snapped. "Do you like it? The public adulation, the statues, the action figures—"
Superman stared at him as though he was insane, which was at least a familiar expression, if for a new cause. "You know I only wear the costume so people won't know who I am," he said. "Lex, you know all I ever wanted was to have a normal life. You know that's why I never—" He stopped.
Luthor was reeling, dazed. He'd seen enough of what people called a normal life, growing up—nothing more than conforming to the pressure of the narrow, small minds around him. He'd fought that pressure all his life, with pure ferocity. It had never occurred to him that Superman, of all people, who could claim a place in the galaxy as his birthright, would crave normality. "I never wanted a normal life," he said blankly.
"I don't know how you can stand being so alone," Superman said.
"Anyone who refuses to settle for mediocrity is alone by necessity," Luthor said.
Superman said, "That's your father talking."
Luthor didn't remember his father saying anything of the sort, but then—
—his father had been a pathetic loser, wrecked by liquor and failure, still talking bitterly of the glory days of wealth and power that had ended in Lex's early childhood, never to be recaptured. After his wife had died of cancer, he'd only gone deeper into the bottle, with only an occasional bit of hostile attention to spare for Lex and his young sister Lena.
The two of them had their own plans. Lex was already quietly making money by repairing broken electronics he scrounged from the trash and selling them at school or on e-bay. Other kids brought him their stuff to fix for a fee; as his reputation got around, local gang members started to bring him bags full of them for a cut of the resale value. As soon as he got tall enough to pass as an adult, he would take his stash, get fake papers from guys he knew, and run away with Lena.
Instead, Lex came home late from school one afternoon, having lingered after class as long as he could, as usual, and found the neighbors clustered in front of the building. The police were inside the apartment, asking his father questions. The tiny body bag was already sealed.
Lex knelt down and opened the bag. Lena's face was open-eyed, more startled than afraid, very still. A police officer squatted down next to him and said gently, "Son, I need you to tell me, is there trouble at home?"
Lex, thirteen years old, staring down at the corpse of the only person he'd ever loved, said, dry-eyed, "No, none." The police left, dissatisfied but unable to prove that Lena's tumble down the stairs had been anything other than accidental.
Lex waited one year. Then one night when his father got drunk early in the day, he went around to all the hidden bottles and poured out most of the liquor, leaving no more than a quarter of an inch in any of them. His father eventually woke up and went rummaging through the apartment, and then came down for the car keys, grumbling and cuffing Lex across the head. Lex sat at at the kitchen table and did his homework until the police officer came to tell him about the car crash: the failed brakes, the unexpected explosion afterwards, the blood alcohol content.
He was put in with a foster family, the parents absently kind but preoccupied with seven other kids in the house. The guidance counselor at his new high school, however, was young and enthusiastic; she gave Lex a battery of tests to help place him in the right classes and realized, as no one else had, thanks to his total disinterest in school subjects, that Lex was a prodigy.
She got him into a Metropolis University gifted and talented program, a gangly fourteen-year-old left hollow by revenge, desperately thirsty for anything to fill the void. In a month, he was an official graduate student in physics. The adult students were at first indulgently amused, which infuriated him, then gradually and increasingly resentful, which satisfied him. He didn't care about any of them and saw no need to pretend he did so long as the professors were impressed, which they were. Lex imagined a life for himself like theirs; to a boy raised in Suicide Slum and sharing a bedroom with two, their neat brownstones looked like untold riches. He began dreaming of Nobel prizes and changing the world.
And then he opened one of the top physics journal in the library and found his own work in a paper with five authors at the top: the professor who'd taken him into his lab, and three of the older graduate students he most despised; his own name was last. He burst into Professor Richard Kinsale's office, stammering, and Kinsale frowned at him. "This is how academic publishing works, Lex," Kinsale said sternly. "No one would have looked at an article from an unaccredited teenager. Stop behaving like a child and don't throw around accusations like that, or I'll have to dismiss you from the lab and you'll probably lose your grant." He paused. "Do we have a problem?"
Lex said, "No. We don't."
Eight months later, Kinsale gave a talk in the Physics Center based on another paper with multiple authors; Lex's name was last again. He'd timed it carefully; Dr. Yuki Kotsubai was visiting from MIT for a couple of weeks as a guest lecturer and attending talks, and her expression grew thoughtful and then eventually perplexed as Kinsale went along; she was flipping through the back of the paper.
Afterwards she raised a hand. "Professor Kinsale, can you go over the section on m-dimensional space-time geography again, please?"
"Of course," Kinsale said, and started to repeat himself.
"I'm sorry, one moment," she said, breaking in. "Can you go into more detail on how you derived the equation representing the point of singularity?"
"Yes, one moment, that's in the appendix," Kinsale said, starting to go through the stack of transparencies.
Lex leaned forward from his chair—the last chair on the stage, sitting in a row with four others—and said smoothly, "Sir, if you don't mind, could I answer the question?"
Kinsale glanced up and gave a quick laugh, turning to smile at the audience. "Of course, Lex, it's not a bad idea for you to get some experience with a presentation."
Lex stepped up to the projector, taking the transparency from Kinsale. He waited until everyone had finished murmuring at his age, and then he said, "The equation is incorrect. If you follow the derivation in the appendix, you'll see that it makes half a dozen critical errors. The problem is, Dr. Kinsale and my esteemed co-authors don't actually know how to do m-dimensional mathematics, so they couldn't check the work they were stealing from me."
The room was utterly silent. Lex put down another transparency, one he'd been holding rolled up in his hand during the talk. "This shows the correct equation and the correct derivation. The conclusions of the paper are totally flawed, which anyone with a real grasp of m-dimensional topography would have realized immediately."
Lex had expected Kinsale to be thrown out. Instead, he was. He wrote and called to several other university departments, mailed his test scores, sent sample work; he got no response. Finally, one graduate student at Berkley who answered his phone call said to him, "Look, man, I heard the story, and the way you cut that prick off at the knees was awesome. But no advisor's going to publish something you contribute to after that, not right now. Give it a year or something and apply again then, tell people you were just being a dumb kid, and somebody'll take a shot on you."
"Thanks for the advice," Lex said, and hung up.
The next day, he left his foster home with the stash he'd never touched. He hitchhiked until he hit a town with the right mix of open stores and closed ones, a couple of seedy bars and a wrong side of the tracks, cheap enough to live in, busy enough to find a job, and just big enough to hide in: perversely, it was called Smallville.
He'd only meant to stay a few weeks and then move on; that was before he stumbled across a cache of the local meteor rocks, and more importantly, the traces of alloys on them—alloys that could never have been created in nature. People laughed off his attempts to show them the evidence of alien technology; infuriated, he settled down to extract the alloys and prove his theory, with makeshift equipment scrounged mostly from the junkyard.
The explosion destroyed his hair, injured two passers-by, and put him in jail for reckless endangerment. He could have given the police his real age and gotten off with probation, most likely, but he was done cooperating with authority. It took him nine weeks to break out of prison, the longest time he would ever spend inside, and he vanished into the criminal underworld, writing off the rest of the human race.
He was twenty-eight when he first met Superman, and already an independent power in the Metropolis underworld. The local mafias in all their ethnic flavors paid him a hefty chunk off the top for any jobs they wanted his technical help on and kept out of his way otherwise. The handful of people who stupidly stayed in his way ended up fried in freakish and clearly unnatural accidents that the police were never able to trace anywhere.
He watched Superman save the space plane, sneering; he'd anonymously sent critical comments on the design to NASA, which had of course been ignored, and he was mostly disgusted to see them saved from the natural consquences of their own stupidity. The hysterical cheering for the alien savior had disgusted him even more. Two weeks later, when Superman smashed into his laboratory and hauled him to prison for the first time in ten years, disgusted wasn't the right word.
He stood quietly, eyes glittering, while Superman gave the booking officer details about the location of his lab, the evidence tying him to a dozen unsolved murders of criminal figures. A bored patrolman read him his Miranda rights and put him in an interrogation room with a telephone for his one call. Luthor ignored the phone and contemplated the molecular structure cells would have to have to resist damage the way Superman's did, and what kind of radiation would cause it to break down.
Officers came into the room to question him and left again after a while; he didn't pay much attention to them, or to the increasing temperature of the room, or to the hot lights shining on his bare head; in his mind he was carefully constructing a vast and complicated protein.
A few days later, he still hadn't talked; when they brought him to the interrogation room that morning, Superman stepped inside. He stood—loomed—over Luthor, an iconic and inhumanly beautiful statue, untouchable. "I've been bringing in some of the things in your laboratory," Superman said. "You're obviously a genius. I don't know why you've resorted to crime when you could be doing so much good for humanity."
The patronizing crap pulled him out where all the threats and shouting wouldn't have touched him. "Humanity decided it could get along without me, and the feeling's mutual," Luthor said. "I can do without aliens, too."
Superman sighed. "You're going to be in jail for a long time, but I'd be happy to speak to the authorities about finding some program that would allow you to apply your talents there."
Luthor said, "No thanks."
Superman shook his head and turned to go.
Luthor said to Superman's back, "Tell me, have you ever been to a town called Smallville?"
Superman paused, shoulders stiffening, and looked around.
"Interesting meteorites they have there," Luthor said, and savored the brief, momentary flicker in Superman's eyes, the power of putting fear into the heart of a god.
Except now he couldn't imagine anyone less godlike than the man in front of him: still beautiful but exhausted, his face utterly naked with despair and hope, worried not for the faceless hordes of humanity but for someone he loved. Luthor had always imagined that Superman loved Lois Lane or his other human hangers-on more like pets than anything else, or just enjoyed their worship. Destroying him—hurting him—had been a noble goal, revenge on behalf of the human race that was humiliating itself by groveling at his feet.
Luthor cleared his throat. "There's a chance the cancer can be cured," he said abruptly.
Superman—Clark—sat down hard on the sofa, like his knees had just given way.
Luthor took one step towards him, then another. He slowly reached out and put his hand on Clark's shoulder. It was warm and living under his fingers. Clark looked up at him and said, quietly, "Thank you." His eyes were green, Luthor noted, clinically. The newspapers always said they were blue. He'd never looked close enough to notice.
"All right, Luthor, your plan stops now." Clark was standing with his feet planted shoulder-width apart, arms crossed over his chest just under the blazoned S, shoulders back and chest thrust forward, as though he was posing for one of the overly dramatic Superman statues people liked to scatter around.
Lex tilted his head curiously and tossed aside his morning edition of the Hochi Shimbun. "I suppose it's possible that actually works on people who haven't seen you mooning over Lana Lang while eating an entire triple-pepperoni pizza with extra cheese."
Clark's eyes narrowed, annoyed. "You haven't seen me do that."
"I might not have been there to see it in this universe," Lex agreed, raising an eyebrow, "but I'll bet it still happened."
Clark turned red, which was answer enough, and his shoulders came down a little, unconsciously. "If you don't want me making assumptions about you based on your counterpart, you shouldn't be doing the reverse."
"Some things are universal constants," Lex said. "Now, if you're over the fit of posturing, have a seat. Can I offer you some coffee?"
"I—what? No," Clark said.
"It's good coffee," Lex said. "I had it flown in from Venezuela."
"I don't want coffee!" Clark said.
"Lex, darling—" Tala came out onto the balcony and stopped, eyes widening. Clark looked at her and his eyes widened; she was wearing nothing but the $30,000 silk robe Lex had bought her in the Ginza district yesterday. The price was even more impressive when you considered it as dollars per square inch of fabric.
"Tala, you know Superman, I'm sure," Lex said. "Would you do me a favor and ring room service to bring us some more coffee? Black for me, cream for him."
Tala backed away into the hotel room, never taking her eyes off Superman, who in turn looked like he couldn't decide whether to watch her just as closely or to avert his eyes. "Sit," Lex said, waving at the chaise next to his. "I promise I'll give you at least two seconds' warning before stupidly assaulting you in public less than six hours after getting the pardon I've spent a month acquiring from the Japanese government. Congratulations on the RFK award for the Suicide Slum series, by the way."
"Thank you," Clark said, automatically, and then looked flustered. It was entertaining; he didn't seem to be used to anyone throwing him off-balance.
"So what is it that you want me to stop?" Lex said. "Arigato," he added to the waitress, as she set down their coffees.
"This earthquake prevention scheme—"
Lex raised his eyebrows. "You object to the prevention of earthquakes."
"I object to you planting untested giant pylons all over the ocean floor," Clark said.
"They aren't untested," Lex said. "The Earthquake Research Institute has been running a small-scale test locally for four years now. It's proven to reduce the impact of earthquakes in the 5 to 6 Richter scale by nearly 40%."
"What?" Clark stared at him. "Wait, you didn't make these?"
"Make them?" Lex said. "You think I'd trust this collection of costumed lunatics to produce a coherent design and manufacture to spec? The Japanese government is building them, we're just providing installation services."
"Oh," Clark said. After a moment he sat down and drank some of the coffee, obviously to have something to do with himself.
"It's just as well you dropped by," Lex said. "You know Aquaman, don't you?"
"Yes," Clark said, warily.
"The Institute has also developed an effective tsunami predictor that will provide an extra two hours' warning with only a 1% false positive rate," Lex said. "It has to be installed in deep-sea locations out in the Pacific, territory that Atlantis controls. I'm reasonably sure that if he'd agree to do the installations and maintain the equipment, I can broker a full moritorium on whaling in exchange."
"And what do you get out of it?" Clark said.
"More whales and decreased tsunami damage?" Lex said.
Clark's eyes narrowed. "Exactly how does that benefit you?"
Lex shrugged. "They're both problems I'm going to have to solve eventually. Might as well do it now." Of course, the main advantage was establishing himself as a power broker, someone who could bring these people to the table, but no need to go into the details with Superman. "Besides, I've had a good working relationship with Arthur in my universe. I wouldn't mind re-establishing contact."
"Are you kidding me?" Clark said. "I don't have a good working relationship with—did you just call him Arthur?"
"Is his name different here?" Lex asked, and sipped his coffee.
Luthor fiddled with the dimensional portal half-heartedly. He wondered whether his counterpart had gotten himself killed by Grodd or some other disgruntled Legion member; certainly the man couldn't have pretended to be him for any length of time. It was entirely possible there would be no way to swap back, in that case. His equations were all suggesting he might never find out.
Even worse, he wasn't sure if he wanted to go back. It wasn't that he'd gotten seduced by the luxury so much as that he wasn't sure what he would do with himself anymore. He'd never particularly attached a great deal of value to human life, but he didn't go around slaughtering innocents, either; he wasn't a psychotic like the Joker, and the clumsiness of doing it by accident was beneath him. Once he'd even quietly gone to prison rather than kill a pair of police officers who'd gotten lucky—by some definition of the word—and stumbled on his latest hideout. Partly he'd done it because he felt he deserved it for screwing up and letting them find it, but partly because they'd just been doing their job. Admittedly, he'd broken out twenty-three minutes after they'd brought him in, a new personal best, but he'd had to sacrifice two interesting devices he'd been tinkering with, leaving them behind unfinished.
The point was, he didn't aspire to be either a monster or an asshole, and it had become clear to him that only a monster or an asshole would really want Clark dead. He had the creeping, unpleasant sensation that if he had to look his own Superman in the face now, he would feel, not precisely guilt, because the man was still a self-important jackass in tights, and—Luthor stopped and gave up; fine, he would feel guilty; he even felt vaguely mean for insulting him mentally. Clark was too goddamned nice; it was like kicking a puppy.
But if Lex Luthor wasn't Superman's mortal enemy, he wasn't entirely sure what he would be—what he would do. He had thirty binders full of patentable inventions; he could license them under false identities and spend the rest of his life on a beach, never doing another ounce of work. Of course, the rest of his life would be short, since he'd commit suicide from boredom; but what else would there be to do? He couldn't start a company or get into any decent university with a 200-page criminal record and however many international warrants for his arrest, and aside from that, half the interesting projects he was doing here came from being Superman's unofficial scientific consultant. That wasn't going to happen back home. It was too late to mend fences with his own Superman; what would he say, sorry for trying to murder you and your friends all those times?
But staying—choosing to stay—felt like an admission of failure. Wanting another man's life more than his own—wanting this life, the life of an unambitious weakling—no. He gritted his teeth and tried another variation. The portal refused to lock on.
He was grateful for Superman's interruption, an hour later, even though his latest request was even more bizarre. "We've tried everything," Superman said, exhausted and muddy, just back from some disaster somewhere, "but we can't be everywhere at once, and the atrocities just keep mounting, and neither side's willing to talk. It's close to breaking out into a civil war."
Luthor swallowed his initial reaction, which was, "And you're asking me to help with this because...?" He'd learned better by now. Instead he said, "I'll see what I can do," sent him away, and called Mercy in. "Put someone on it," he said.
She stared at him. "But—but—"
"What?" he snapped.
"But isn't this what you've been waiting for?" she said, helplessly. "The Justice League and the United Nations failing to mediate a third-world dispute—isn't this the key event that starts the takeover?"
"I didn't mean have someone take care of it," he said, curtly, even while his mind was whirling; he'd gotten good at recovering from small missteps. "I meant have someone collect research on the situation for me."
"Oh," she said, abashed. As soon as she'd gone, he dived back into his files, except there wasn't anything about this at all, not under the strongest encryption, not in the most obscure folder.
He called Mercy back in and said, "All right. I want to review everything before we get the ball rolling. Talk."
"Sir?" she said.
He rolled his eyes with a show of impatience. "Describe the plan," he said. "I want to hear it outside my own head."
"The whole thirty-year plan?" she said, dubiously.
Thirty years? Lex stared at her and said, "Yes."
He stopped her after the first ten and sent her away so he could think. Reeling, he got up and went to the office and stared at the framed Time magazine on the wall, at the stranger wearing his face; clear, cold grey eyes and a Mona Lisa touch of a smile, the beautiful grey suit cut just a little more elegant than conservative, and the cover letters in bold red type: The New Alexander.
Of all the people in the world to underestimate, he'd picked himself. His counterpart wasn't a businessman. He was an emperor.
To destroy Superman, to make all the nations of the world bow before him, that had always been Luthor's own crowning ambition—or so he'd thought. But the truth was, if he'd imagined the consequences at all, his vague and hazy vision might have been a great deal like his life now—living in luxury, minions at his beck and call, the time and freedom to do whatever research he desired, an infinite series of truly fascinating projects, the fear and respect if not the love of all humanity; all of it seen through a vaseline-smeared lens.
Except of course that was patently ridiculous, now that he was being forced to actually think about it; the world wouldn't quietly run itself for his benefit. The thirty-year plan Mercy had been describing wasn't simply desirable, but necessary, or he'd wind up living in a reenactment of the Dark Ages, which wasn't his idea of a good time no matter how little he cared about humanity. But people irritated him at best, infuriated him at worst. A thousand delicate negotiations, endless power plays, wielding influence and power like scalpels; overseeing projects without ever enough time to really dive into any one of them; he couldn't imagine anything more hideous. He didn't want to rule the world, not if it meant living like that.
And then Luthor realized—with a rising tide of alarm—that he wasn't sure it was avoidable. He lunged for his computer and started checking the secret records. Payments had been made all over the world, spaced neatly over months and even years; there were records of favors, dossiers full of blackmail and bribery, bought-and-paid-for politicians who would take his orders and no one else's; private armies and rebels and revolutionary governments waiting to seize power on signals that would be sent automatically. Now that he knew, he could see the outline of the plans: dominos, placed with delicate care, ready to start tumbling down, down, down, drawing all the lines of power in the world securely into his hands.
And if he simply dropped them—
He staggered out of the office and went to the balcony, white with panic. If—if he somehow fed the information to the Justice League, maybe they would figure out some way of stopping him—
"Superman!" he yelled, and in an instant Clark was there, red and blue, cape flapping. Luthor took a deep breath; he felt obscurely like a traitor, even if he was just betraying himself. "I don't think you realize what's going to happen if I get involved in this civil war."
Clark didn't say anything for a moment, and then, horrifyingly, appallingly—"I'm not an idiot, Lex."
Luthor stared at him, blank. He knew.
Superman stopped by again in Rio. Lex wasn't actually in the city, since the government would have been all too happy to deport him at the moment; instead he was on a yacht twelve miles out from the bay, in international waters. He didn't mind; he actually had a better view of the harbor from here.
Clark was learning from experience, at least; this time he didn't make any attempts at threats or shouting, just landed in front of Lex and said, "What are you doing?"
"Hm," Lex said. "I could ask for specifics, but I imagine you're referring to the work I'm doing with Sem Terra."
"Do you actually think I'm going to let you overthrow the Brazilian government?" Clark snapped.
"We're not looking to overthrow the government," Lex said. "Just speed along the land reform process." He handed Clark a pamphlet, and waved over the waiter.
Clark tossed the pamphlet aside. "The citizens of Brazil will have to work things out without your help."
"I'll make you a deal," Lex said. "Stay to dinner. If I can't convince you by the end of the night that my involvement will be a positive, I'll call it off."
Clark just glared at him. Lex spread his hands. "If you'd rather have a major battle probably costing several innocent bystanders their lives—"
"Fine," Clark said. "But don't think you're going to talk me into this."
Lex stuck to small talk to begin with, Roman literature and the Punic Wars, what if Carthage had won, that sort of thing; but after the hors d'oeuvres were cleared away, he sat back and sipped his wine and asked, "So, anyone special for you here? I'm assuming things with Lana didn't—"
"Lana?" Clark said. He'd been flailing a little during the conversation: he'd forget himself and get interested, start talking. Then he'd visibly remember that he was having dinner with his mortal enemy, and his expression would get helpless and confused; now it turned wary. "No—no, we broke up after high school." He stopped there; Lex maintained a polite, inquisitive silence until Clark's good manners trumped his caution and he went on to admit, "I'm sort of seeing Lois. Lois Lane—"
"Lois?" Lex said, raising an eyebrow, as if surprised. "Oh, hm."
Clark frowned. "You know her? I mean, in your—"
Lex shrugged, casually. "Ex-wife number five."
"What?" Clark stared at him. "You—you and—"
"For six spectacular weeks," Lex said, in reminiscent tones. "The first three were spectacularly good, the last three were spectacularly awful. Still," he added, "I remember her fondly; she's the only one of my wives who didn't try to murder me. Just manslaughter."
"...she tried to kill you?" Clark said faintly.
"She threw a fifth-century BC bronze urn at my head," Lex said.
"On her way out the door?"
"On our way to the bed," Lex said. "That was one of the good weeks."
Clark looked appalled. Lex privately smiled, and then said gently, "It's not your Lois, of course. I'm sure she's a completely different person," just as the chef laid down a plate in front of Clark, beef medium-rare, plantains extra-crispy, and a heap of lightly sauteed greens, with no garlic, just the way he liked them.
Clark stared at it.
"So, about the Sem Terra movement," Lex said.
After dinner, Lex stretched out in a deck chair and lit a cigar, contentedly. Clark was looking like he'd swallowed something too big and it was sticking halfway down. Lex had forgotten how much fun this could be, playing with Clark. It had been even more fun, of course, when Clark had been playing with him back, the two of them like lion cubs mauling each other in a friendly way. At least until the claws had come out.
Absently, Lex rubbed his wrist, smoke curling around his fingers, the small tender place where Clark had crushed the ulna to powder. It had regenerated with a faint, occasional ache; doctors had never found a reason for the pain. That had been—after Chloe, Clark burning with rage and tears even in that ridiculous costume, demanding the Intergang thugs who'd killed her.
Lex had stayed still and silent while his bones ground against each other slowly and the tendons stretched to agony. He couldn't hand them over; they had all been dead already and buried, not in that order, in coffins full of driver ants. Not because he'd loved Chloe; if anything, he'd wanted her dead himself by then. But Clark would have killed them if he hadn't.
Clark's eyes had been glowing like fired coals: death looking Lex in the face, death laying an implacable hand on his flesh. Lex let nothing show, nothing, until the bone popped under Clark's fingers with a soft wet sound, probably loud to Clark's ears. Lex's jaw had tightened a little, involuntarily, and Clark's hand had fallen away, blood on his fingers where jagged edges of bone had come splintering through the skin. He'd stared at it, his face lost and miserable, and then was gone, abruptly, air rushing in noisily to fill the vacancy.
Maybe his Clark was doing better with Lex Luthor mark two, mad scientist. It would simplify his life, being able to shove Lex neatly into the box marked evil; Clark had always wanted to do that, anyway. No more awkward, uncomfortable guilt, no more shades of grey. He wondered what Clark would think when the other Luthor stopped helping him, attacked him. There was a gun loaded with kryptonite bullets in the safe and a simple, effective plan on the computer, but then, Clark wouldn't be surprised. He'd spent nearly all his adult life anticipating the moment when Lex would turn on him. There wasn't any real danger.
Lex forced himself to let go of his wrist and took another drag on the cigar. "Brandy?" he said, pouring himself a glass.
Clark said, "Thanks," surprising Lex. Clark picked up the snifter after Lex had poured and held it cupped, turning it around in his hands. Lex leaned back and watched the city lights across the water, the tiny blue flicker atop Corcovado where the immense figure of Christ the Redeemer was lit up for the night. Clark was looking up at the stars, somewhere beyond the Southern Cross, in the direction of Krypton. The silence was warm and comfortable, even with Clark faintly radiating uncertainty, and Lex felt something tight closing around his throat.
After a while, the brandy glasses were empty. "I should probably go," Clark said, but he didn't get up, and Lex poured them both another. "Have you ever been to the Amazon?" he asked. They talked about the river, the jungle, and Clark haltingly, slowly, told him about a forest on Krypton, images he'd seen, of flowers that glowed with phosphorescence and vines that looked like fishing nets. It'd been fifteen years since Lex's analytical chemistry degree had gotten unceremoniously cut off by his dad's summons to Smallville, but he'd picked up enough comparative alien biology overseeing Kryptonite experimentation to ask the right questions, about cell growth patterns and energy processing—and Clark answered them.
"I was always sorry," Clark said, halfway through the third glass of brandy. "The first time I met him, the stuff in his lab—I took it to S.T.A.R. Labs and the way they acted, it was like I'd opened King Solomon's Mines for them. He started booby-trapping it all, after that, so it's not safe anymore, but every once in a while he'll still leave something out for me to take to them, with a note—it's usually medical equipment, a formula for a drug—"
He paused. "It wasn't personal, though. Not that I wouldn't have been happy not to have him trying to kill me, it just never occurred to me that we could've been—that we could be friends."
"I'm not all that good at friendship," Lex said; the brief flicker of a smile he forced felt unnatural on his face.
"Neither am I," Clark said, unexpectedly, looking down at his hands. "I've never known how to tell people. So instead I lie to them all the time, one way or another, and it—it makes me sick. I'm not a real person with any of them." He swallowed. "I'm pretty sure Lois would dump me for Superman, if she had the choice."
"If Lois doesn't know already, you're doing something wrong," Lex said.
"I am doing something wrong," Clark said. "God. Sometimes—" He laughed, shortly. "I used to imagine you finding out."
Lex's hand tightened on the glass.
"I figured if anyone was going to work it out, it would be you," Clark went on. "And sometimes, I wanted that to happen, I wanted you to tell the world, just so I wouldn't have to keep lying, to everyone—" His voice was cracking, and Lex reached for him and said, "Clark," as the brandy glass slipped from his hands and shattered on the deck.
There were voices outside, on the deck. Lex stirred and looked out the window: there was a giant glossy yellow eye peering back in at him, the size of a dinner plate. Next to him in the bed, Clark mumbled, "Another five minutes, Ma," then jerked up wide awake staring at Lex, sheets puddling around his waist, just as the door banged open.
Arthur stalked into the room, straight past the security guards. Lex probably wouldn't fire them; Arthur's bearded-crazy look here would've been intimidating enough even without the three-foot barbed hook-hand. "We have a problem," Arthur said, without preamble, and then he paused and stared Clark up and down, one eyebrow rising. Clark turned truly amazingly red. "Or you might have more than one."
"Stick to the one you came to tell me about," Lex said, getting out and picking up his robe.
"There are methane hydrates all over the ocean floor—"
"Yes," Lex said. "Let me guess; no one's ever tried mining them here, so no one's done a survey and stabilized the ones that could produce an underwater landslide. Where's the tsunami going to hit?"
"Tsunami?" Arthur snorted. "That's the least of your worries. They're all melting. In a month five hundred million tons of methane will be in the atmosphere."
Lex held still and reached into his memory. He vaguely remembered his team giving him a global-warming doomsday scenario in the pitch for the hydrogen mining, about nine years ago, but it had been practically a joke; the temperature of the earth would have had to rise—"What happened to Kyoto here?" Lex said.
"The Kyoto Protocol?" Clark said. He'd already blurred himself back into costume, all business. "The US never ratified that."
"Wonderful," Lex said. "So we need to reduce the average temperature of the earth three degrees minimum, re-freeze half a billion tons of methane, and stop probably two dozen tsunami while we're at it. Who do we need?"
There was a pause; Arthur eyed him strangely. "You."
Under other circumstances, Lex would probably have felt a certain degree of proprietary pride in his counterpart over the way everyone had started out looking at him for answers. When they were some two months away from the death of approximately fifty percent of the world's population and the beginning of a wave of mass extinction, the experience had less charm. Especially once they understood he wasn't going to be able to pull a magical solution out of his ass for them, and they switched to brainstorming for themselves. Which went about as well as Lex would have expected, given the presence of two teenagers and a monkey.
"I've put word out to the Corps," said the local Green Lantern, Kyle something or other, who didn't look like he was all that far past his teens himself. "This isn't something that our rings will do, but maybe we can find someone who knows—"
"Don't be ridiculous," Lex said, without lifting his head from where he had it propped on his hand: it was twelve hours in with not a single suggestion more intelligent than the monkey's gibbering. "I don't need to understand the science to reject the idea of inviting an alien team without even rudimentary understanding of the local planetary processes to muck around with our environment. I don't know what you'd get when they were done, but it wouldn't be Earth."
He stepped out of the room after hour thirteen, because they'd ignored his suggestions to break for the night, even though it was patently obvious that they weren't going to get any smarter from adding mental fatigue and sleep deprivation. He was too irritated to sleep right away himself; instead he walked down to the observation center of the League satellite and stood looking out at the Earth: blue-green and white, gleaming.
"Uh, hey," Clark said, behind him. Lex turned; Clark looked a little red in the cheeks, and he cleared his throat, but he didn't drop his eyes. "Sorry about that. I explained, they just—"
"Theoretically we're the same person. It's natural for them to expect my brain to be able to produce the same results," Lex said dryly. "It's an interesting case of nurture versus nature, when you think about it."
"You're not him," Clark said. He paused, and then he abruptly asked, "Am I all that close?"
Lex didn't say anything for a moment. "You were—" he said finally, slowly, the words tasting strange in his mouth, "You were fifteen when we met." He paused. "You were fifteen." He'd never really thought of Clark as fifteen. Clark had already been over six feet, big and powerful, a grown man to look at him; and Clark had saved him. Saying it out loud, now, Lex remembered himself at fifteen: angry and lustful and half out of his mind; he didn't know how he would have dealt with his own twenty-one-year-old self, playing with his father's rulebook: turning every shade of grey into a trap baited with good intentions, all the while Clark was trying to navigate the minefield of adolescence.
"I probably scared the hell out of you," he added, more honest than he'd meant to be.
"You scare the hell out of me now," Clark said, and was kissing him, his hands cupping Lex's face, tilting him up for it, nothing tentative or cautious or wary, and Lex was fisting bunches of the cape, trying to drag Clark closer.
Clark broke it and stood there holding on to him, panting. "We should get back," he said, wobbly. "I know you don't think much of the League, but our best chance—"
"No offense to your remarkably stupid friends," Lex said, "but if we have to rely on them coming up with an answer tonight, the world's going to end in two months. Let's go find a bed. I think better when I'm postcoital."
"Oh, in that case," Clark said, rolling his eyes, and Lex didn't really expect him to say yes, but the world went blurry and then Lex was getting pulled down into a narrow padded cot in the small bedroom they'd given him. It was more a cell than a room, the walls bare metal, a single chair and table, a metal sink and a mirror on the wall, and Clark kissing him, big broad hands sliding up Lex's shirt, sliding the buttons open.
"Can we—" Clark said against his skin.
"Yes," Lex said, and reached over into the pocket of his pants, already crumpled on the floor. He believed in being prepared for all occasions.
Clark fell asleep after, sprawled on his stomach with the broad golden expanse of his back gleaming with sweat in the fluorescent light, one arm trailing off down to the floor relaxed and limp, and Lex got up to splash some cold water on his face.
Dripping, he braced his hands against the sink and looked up. In the mirror his reflection looked far away and underwater-murky in the dim greenish light. There was that faint scar over his lip where Lionel's ring had cut him; that had been after he'd gotten kicked out of his third expensive high school in a row. The practiced smile lines around his mouth, fine network of wrinkles beginning at the corner of his eyes, kept in check with massage and skin care. In the handful of photos Lex had seen, the other Luthor had the beginnings of grooves in his forehead and a perpetual scowl pulling down the corners of his mouth, the faintest hint of a paunch at the gut. Right now he probably looked like Lex having a bad day; five years from now, no one would mistake them for each other, the costs of an unhealthy lifestyle piling up rapidly now that the blank check of the twenties had been spent.
"On the other hand, apparently you should have paid more attention in geology class," Lex told himself, and turned back to his laptop, sitting on the one small table. He'd long since had all Luthor's notebooks and their contents scanned into a database and indexed for searching, but it was mostly full of blueprints for things like space-guns capable of destroying planets, assuming they were mounted on a spaceship no less than a third of the size of the planet in question; or robots designed to collect atmospheric samples on a gas giant five times bigger than Jupiter, obviously of great relevance in Earth's solar system. It made Lex want to throttle the man.
There was nothing more applicable to the current situation than a genetic recipe for a bizarre corn-cactus hybrid that could tolerate desert conditions, which would at least help keep the survivors from starving. Control of the food supply would certainly mean control of the world, or what would be left of it; he'd have to immediately start the planting of the first crops. Lex sent an e-mail to one of his project managers with the attached file to get it going.
He looked over at Clark. They were going to have to lie to people, tell them it was all right, tell them they were safe, when they weren't going to be all right at all, because there was no way to move everyone to safety, and that home truth would start a panic that would kill even more. He would have said his Clark couldn't have handled those shades of gray. Now Lex was starting to suspect that this Clark could, but that didn't mean it wouldn't break his heart.
Lex closed his hands into fists on the palmrests, staring at the screen with its illuminated patterns of red and yellow and cyan superimposed on the gently turning globe. He couldn't fix this. With more time, he could have put together a team of the world's most brilliant scientists and engineers, turn them loose on all of the radical theoretical advances in the notebooks, and find ways to push them. That was still going to be the best shot, but in this timeframe, the chances of finding a reasonably good solution, even one that would cut their losses by half, was small. And it was too late to play catch-up with himself—
"What is it?" Clark raised his head up.
"I'm an idiot," Lex said. "Where is there a phone in this place? I need to talk to the prime minister of India."
"I refuse to stand here and try to explain interdimensional folding to an audience distingushed from the average layman by the amount of spandex in their clothing," Luthor snapped. "You'll have to take my word for it. You've already granted that I have the power to take over the world at this point, so if I was your Luthor, I wouldn't be here. Stop behaving like morons."
Not that that was good enough to shut the costumed clowns up. Luthor glared at Clark while they all started talking at once again. "I don't believe I let you talk me into this useless waste of time."
"You're the one who said you couldn't find a way to stop it alone," Clark said.
"Enough." Everyone stopped talking and looked at Batman. Luthor eyed him uneasily. He'd always had a certain grudging admiration for the man ever since he'd done a genetic scan to figure out exactly what Batman's metahuman powers were and discovered there weren't any, but there was something vaguely disturbing about this version, something about the hardness of the costume; it was all adding up to a certain psychotic effect. Robin didn't seem to be around, either.
"If there were an option available to stop the global takeover with Luthor's individual cooperation, I would have said so," Batman said. "There were at least three different available methods with high probability of success for exerting personal pressure on Luthor to force him to cooperate in the short-term. It makes no difference. Our choices are takeover or collapse."
"So what do we do?" the Flash said. "How about if he turns power over to a council—"
"He can't," Batman said. "The structure he's designed requires him at the center of it."
"Yeah, well, I hate to break it to you," Luthor said, "but I don't know how to work the structure."
"Can you change places with your alternate again?" Batman said.
Next to him, Clark stirred. "No," Luthor said.
"Then learn fast," Batman said, implacably.
"And I thought Legion meetings were intolerably stupid," Luthor said, as Clark let him down onto the balcony. He stalked into the penthouse and grabbed a bottle of water out of the chilled bar; he was glad he'd made them clear out the liquor, because for once in his life he was tempted. "What?" he snapped.
Clark was just standing there watching him, strange expression on his face. "You're not a lot like—Lex."
"Thanks, so I've gathered," Luthor said bitterly. "You didn't seem to notice before."
"I didn't want to," Clark said. "I wanted to think—" He stopped. "In your universe, are you and me—"
"I thought you were an alien invader," Luthor said. "I've tried to kill you thirty-six times."
Clark blinked at him. "Why didn't you just shoot me?"
"With what?" Luthor said. "You've tended to notice sometime before I actually managed to launch the necessary satellites into orbit."
"Lex has a gun with kryptonite bullets in the safe," Clark said. "He told Mercy how to use it once—set off an explosion on one of the supports at the I-35 overpass, enough to buckle one of the supports, get under cover, shoot me while I was holding it up."
"You, he, what?" Luthor said, and shut his mouth hard, because if there was anything he couldn't bear it was feeling like an idiot. How pathetically obvious. Clark laughed suddenly, in a kind of odd surprised way. "Oh, shut the hell up," Luthor snarled. "I'm sorry I'm not your goddamn Julius Caesar—"
Clark laughed harder and gasped out, "It's just, you're so mad. Lex wouldn't even be—he wouldn't even be rude to me—" and then he sat down on the couch and leaned his head into his hand.
"Well, I'm glad I'm an improvement in at least one dimension," Luthor said, sarcastically, but it didn't have a lot of weight, because Clark wasn't mocking him; he sounded almost helpless.
Clark didn't look up. He said softly, "Do you think he's okay?"
"Sure," Luthor said. "He's probably conquered the planet and set up a utopia full of kittens and bunnies. Do you think we could focus on the problem at hand for thirty seconds?"
"I'm sorry," Clark said. "I guess I'm having a hard time—you really don't want to rule the world?"
Luthor gritted his teeth. He was about done with the comparisons. "All right, that's it. Tell me something, you think your pal could build one of these?"
He whirled around and threw open the workshop doors to the reconstructed portal. Clark stood up and came to stand by him. Luthor couldn't help a small smug thrill of pride at the stunned note in Clark's voice when he said, "You built this?"
"Well," Luthor said, "admittedly, it doesn't work."
"This looks like something out of the Fortress simulations," Clark said, walking around it slowly. "I can't believe—you just came up with this?"
Luthor waved a hand. "It's influenced by some designs out of the Riiekian Confederacy, but I've expanded significantly on their work." He dropped his hand. "The problem is that as soon as the window's allowed to close, it becomes impossible for either dimension to to identify the other again." He paused. "In fact, it's entirely possible that the originating dimension only exists long enough to transmit and then collapses. I might have destroyed my original universe."
"What?" Clark said.
"Of course," Luthor said, "if I did, I created this entire one in its place. I suppose that would make me God."
Clark stared at him. "You're kidding?" he said, warily.
"Yes," Luthor said. "Probably." Clark kept staring at him horrified, and Luthor shrugged impatiently. "Look, forget about it. We're never going to find out. It would violate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle."
The air inside the portal ring shivered, heat-ripples forming, and a dot of white light formed there, hovering. In an eyeblink, Clark had moved; he was in front of Luthor now, standing between him and the portal, protectively.
A voice spoke tinnily from the faint dot of light, full of crackly static. "May I ask if I have reached a Lex Luthor or a Superman?"
"No fucking kidding you've reached a Lex Luthor," Luthor said, staring. "Who the hell is this?"
"This is Dinesh Kamath with RT Outsourcing," the voice said. "Please hold while I transfer you."
"What?" Luthor said, and then the dot of light expanded abruptly out into a full circle and went clear and hard as a pane of glass, and he was on the other side, sitting in a big plush executive chair with a view of Tokyo behind him, a glass of scotch on the desk in front of him.
"Hello, Clark," Lex said. He looked at Luthor. "Please tell me that means you're the one of us who invented this thing."
"Of course I'm the one who invented it," Luthor said, struggling with outrage. No goddamn way had this bureaucrat figured out how to trace the dimension back—"How the hell did you get it to tune back in to this specific universe?"
"I didn't," Lex said. "This is universe—" he looked down at his handheld—"four hundred thirty-seven thousand, six hundred seventy-two. I've already spoken to thirteen versions of us. And I have to tell you," he added, dryly, "it's putting a damper on my illusions of being a unique snowflake."
It was unpleasantly bizarre. The man on the other side of the glass was similar enough to be a mirror, different enough to be a doppelganger. The basics were the same, but everything about him was controlled, rigidly: the angles of his shoulders, the tilt of his head, the cool, calm expression; everything shuttered. Except his eyes kept going to Clark.
"How did you get the power to make that many—" Luthor said, and then stopped. "You're just cutting the power flow as soon as the connection is formed?" he said incredulously. "Do you have any idea how ridiculously inefficient that is? "
"It worked, which at this point is all I'm concerned about," Lex said. "We have a situation here."
"There's one here too," Luthor said. "You're about to take over the world."
"Really?" Lex said. "That's a year ahead of schedule. Your world, on the other hand, is about to end."
Lex stood by the window sipping his champagne, while the party went on behind him. The Dom Perignon wasn't as good as the sparkling wine a LexCorp subsidiary made in South Africa, but there was something to be said for tradition. The satellite system Luthor had put together was really something; you could see the smog vanishing out of the sky along a visible line, like someone slowly wiping a chalkboard clean. Out the window, Mount Fuji had gone from a fuzzy lump to a crisp white-topped cone against a sky almost painfully blue.
Of course, the sudden extraction from the atmosphere of about sixty years of industrial pollution and trapped heat was about to create a completely brand-new set of problems; they'd just be slower in coming. But Lex knew the morale value of a party: let people celebrate now, and it would carry them through the next two or three disasters.
Luthor walked up to the open ring of the portal, from the other side. "It's working fine," Lex told him.
"Don't be an idiot," Luthor said. "Of course it's working fine."
Lex raised an eyebrow. "I have read that file about the dirigible-mounted plasma cannon."
Luthor scowled and changed the subject. "These two warlords from some place called Jowhar keep calling and screaming at the staff. What am I supposed to tell them? Where the hell is Jowhar?"
"Somalia," Lex said. "Don't take their calls. They're upset because you're cutting off their ammunition supply. In a week they'll have spent what they've got left against each other and Yalahow in Mogadishu will request LexCorp troop support so he can take them both down."
"Who in where—wait, hang on a second," Luthor said, interrupting himself. "Let me get this straight, your brilliant plan is to stand by and just wait as they slaughter each other until they've used up the ammunition that you sold them?"
"You're the last person I'd expect naïvete from," Lex said. "If LexCorp hadn't been selling them the ammunition cheap over the last few years, they'd each have a dozen different suppliers right now and there'd be no opportunity to cut them both off fast, at the same time."
"They're using high-caliber laser-stamped cartridges," Luthor said. "Why don't I just disintegrate them all with a high-frequency targeted subsonic pulse!"
Lex paused. "That could work," he allowed, grudgingly.
"Fine," Luthor said. "So once that's done, then what next? How do I stop the rest of this?"
Lex looked at him. "You don't."
Luthor was silent a moment, and then he said flatly, "So you are planning to come back through."
They hadn't actually discussed the question in so many words, but they'd both been carefully avoiding the surface of the portal. Lex wasn't sure what would happen if only one of them touched it; he'd had to get a halfway grasp on the principles to get the portal working again, even as much as he had, but it seemed possible that either one of them could force the issue.
"No," Lex said. "But don't worry. All you need to do is manage an orderly transition to an elected world government."
"What?" Luthor said, eyes narrowing. "How long is that going to take?"
"Three, four years," Lex said. "Five years, tops." He waved a hand airily. "You'll pick it up. I've sent you all the plans."
"In case it escaped your attention, I don't want to rule the world!" Luthor said. "Just because you prefer pushing chess pieces around to rigorous scientific work doesn't mean that I haven't got better things to do."
Lex raised an eyebrow. "Would you rather come back here? There are only nineteen warrants left." Luthor muttered something under his breath; Lex chose not to hear it. "I've made sure you won't get too bored. Just keep your mind on the retirement plan."
"So what are you going to be doing?" Luthor said.
"Well, my name's been cleared, and I've got three billion lined up in venture capital based on the patents," Lex said. "I'll manage."
"Those are my patents," Luthor said belligerently.
"Need I remind you that I woke up in a swamp?"
Luthor folded his arms and scowled. It wasn't actually all that alarming an expression; Lex made a note to stick to the eyebrow.
"Lex—" a voice said, on the other side of the portal, and both of them looked over Luthor's shoulder: Clark was stepping into view. He paused, seeing Lex, and then he swallowed and came in closer. "Is the cleanup going all right?"
"Yes," Lex said.
"Obviously," Luthor added, pointedly. He eyed Lex and Clark, and said to Lex, "Fine, I'm going to go look over your plans, if they deserve to be glorified with the term. I swear to God if it's more than five years, I'm finding another universe." He turned and vanished into the fuzzy white haze around the limits of the portal view, leaving them alone.
Lex put down his glass and stepped in closer. Clark half raised his hand, as if he could touch the surface of the portal shimmer, and then dropped it. He cleared his throat. "You're not coming back."
"No," Lex said, and put his hands in his pockets. "I can't, can I?"
"If you did—"
"I'm not really the George Washington type, even if it looks good in the history books," Lex said. "I couldn't walk away from a throne. And you couldn't let me have it."
Clark looked away and nodded, briefly.
"You'll have to keep an eye on him," Lex said. "Especially in Japan. He'll piss everyone off the second he opens his mouth."
"I will," Clark said. After a moment, he looked up again and met Lex's eyes. "I always wanted—"
"I know," Lex said. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"Lex," Clark said softly, his eyes bright, the wash of the portal's light glittering in them wetly.
Lex turned; Mercy was standing by the edge of the portal, casting a cold eye at it. It had taken some fast talking and Kryptonian speed to keep her from killing Luthor, until Lex had tracked down her counterpart and arranged the switch, which hadn't been easy. Chair of Women's Studies at Bryn Mawr, who would have thought. "The team from the Republic of Kiribati just called. They report the leading edge of the reaction hit the International Date Line and stopped, and now scans show the satellites have powered down. It's done."
Lex nodded. "Anything unexpected?"
"No, although the metereology team reports that we have Beaufort category 12 storms forming in three of the predicted danger zones. The disaster relief team is already working on it," she added.
"Good. Make sure they transmit the locations to the United Nations Environment Program, too," Lex said.
"Yes, sir." She threw another glance full of loathing at the portal, and Clark standing on the other side. "Should we proceed with the shutdown sequence as planned?"
"Yes," Lex said. "That'll be all." She nodded and backed off, and he turned back to Clark.
"So I guess this is goodbye," Clark said; his eyes were still wet, but he was smiling, more wry than sad.
"Oh, you could call once in a while," Lex said. "Catch up, see how things are going."
"Sure," Clark said, his mouth quirking. "Maybe in five years or so."
Lex managed a smile back. "I'll put it in my calendar." Then he stepped closer, putting his hand on the ring of the portal; Clark stepped in from his side, and the haze of light softened his features, took away the years. For a moment, Lex was standing in a Kansas field, under a glittering sun, smiling at the one person he could trust. "Be well," Lex said, softly.
"You too," Clark said, and he was smiling as the portal flickered, twice, and blinked out with a handful of sparks.
Lex stood there a few minutes longer, not really seeing the dazzle of the Tokyo skyline beyond, and then he smiled a little at himself and straightened his shoulders back; there were three hundred politicians and diplomats and businessmen in the room, and he was going to need some of them.
He turned away and stopped. "Ah," he said.
"You might have mentioned at some point that you weren't my lover," Tala said. Her eyes were glowing dangerously.
"There just never seemed to be a good moment," Lex said, wondering whether the force field device in his emergency ring was going to work against magic.
He didn't get a chance to find out; she slapped him across the face, hard enough to stagger him back and turn the heads of the nearest two dozen people, and then she burst into a pillar of violet smoke and vanished. Lex touched his bruised cheekbone gingerly, wincing, and put on a faint, apologetic smile for the staring guests until he could escape out onto the balcony.
"I'm pretty sure you deserved that," Superman said with a cheerful lack of sympathy, landing next to him; there was a burble of noise among the guests.
"I don't think I deserved it that hard," Lex said, unobtrusively signaling to his security to keep back the more starry-eyed observers. It occurred to him that without his third-hand prodding, Clark probably hadn't ever set up the foundation here, the one which scheduled him for occasional charity events and sent autographs to kids, broke the mystique a little. "She loosened some teeth."
They leaned against the railing, looking over at the city, their shoulders pressed together. The air smelled strange without the faint tang of ozone and exhaust. "So apparently all these countries are voting emergency powers to the United Nations," Clark said.
"Interesting," Lex said.
"And they've turned the Secretary-General into a democratically elected position," Clark added.
"Really?" Lex said. Clark gave him a look. "No, seriously. I hadn't expected that to go through for at least two more weeks."
"Funny, Lex," Clark said, rolling his eyes. "When are you starting your campaign?"
"It'll launch tomorrow," Lex said. "Are you planning to stop me?"
"No," Clark said. "We need you right now, and I'm pretty sure no matter how good a job you do, you won't get re-elected after we get married."
The last time Lex had startled was the day Mercy had told him his father was dead: killed, on the way to the airport in Belgium, in an ordinary car accident—unplanned and unorchestrated, as far as Lex had ever been able to determine. The sensation was remarkably similar, too intense to be recognizably pleasure or pain, and all he could do was grip tight on the railing and breathe until it settled enough to let him speak again. "That's taking things for granted, isn't it?"
"You shut the portal down," Clark said.
"I didn't think you wanted a chance to say goodbye," Lex said.
Clark snorted. "Yeah, no. But I figured, once you'd passed on ruling the world for me, a proposal was a little beside the point."
"I hadn't completely passed on ruling the world," Lex pointed out, absently; he was preoccupied with the realization, coming on by degrees, that he was intensely happy. "But I suppose one term will do."
"You could always join the Justice League, after," Clark said.
"I'm not joining any organization with a monkey as a member," Lex said. "I'll find a way to keep busy." He added thoughtfully, "Those files Mercy brought over on the hyperdrive looked interesting."
Clark grinned and pressed a little closer, unobtrusively. Lex leaned back against him and looked out over the spires of Tokyo, in all their blue reflected glory. "Maybe I'll start the campaign next week," he said. "Have you ever been to Gero Onsen? The hot springs are amazing."
"Well?" Clark said.
"Idiotic waste of time," Luthor muttered, shoving the laptop away across the table. All of Lex's plans had been written in an oddly familiar tone; it had taken him a few hours to recognize it as the same condescending simplification he'd used himself, writing the specifications for the atmospheric particulate extractor. He didn't enjoy being on the receiving end, even if Lex had—to give him credit—made sure to build in a scattering of month-long breaks, each one filled with something interesting like [ design inexpensive short-range spaceship to encourage lunar settlement ] and [ secretly develop longevity treatment to use as leverage against uncooperative First World national leaders ].
Clark was still looking at him, anxiously. "Yes, goddamn it, fine," Luthor snapped. "I can do it. I will do it. I don't have to like it."
Clark laughed a little, softly, and looked away.
"What?" Luthor said.
"It's all he ever wanted, and I've never known how to stop him," Clark said. His mouth quirked. "I guess all it took was destroying the universe."
"Ha," Luthor said, unwillingly amused, and then decided what the hell, and made it willing. "Except for all you know, I'll get a taste for it myself over the next few years."
"I think Batman's got something in mind about that," Clark said. "I didn't ask for the details."
"Wonderful," Luthor said. "I'll get working on the personal neutron shielding technology now." He eyed the penthouse walls. The installed security technology really was pathetic.
"So how soon do you need to start?" Clark asked.
"If that psychotic is gunning for me? Three months ago," Lex said.
Clark laughed. "No, I meant, the ruling the world thing."
Luthor made a face. "A few days. It can't be put off that much longer, and that bastard stole Mercy," he added, morosely. He hadn't actually realized how much of his weight she had been pulling until she'd disappeared. Along with copies of all his research, goddammit. He'd tried to hire her counterpart, but the woman had given him one look, snorted, and held out her hand for the fifty million dollar check—coming out of what was now his bank account—that Lex had used to bribe her.
"Mercy tried to kill you, Lex," Clark said.
"I'm used to that in a working relationship," Luthor said. Annoyed, he added, "That wasn't meant to be funny."
"Uh, yeah," Clark said, still grinning.
"So I don't need a babysitter until then, if that's what you're asking," Luthor said, coolly. "Or after, for that matter. I may not be your Luthor, but I can still do this better than anybody else could."
"That's not what I'm asking," Clark said. "I was wondering if you'd come out to the farm with me."
"The 'farm'?" Luthor said, questioningly, wondering if that was some kind of secret code for—
"The farm," Clark said. "In Smallville. I'd like you to actually meet Mom for real."
"What?" Luthor said.
"You know, Lex, for the smartest guy alive, you're being a little bit slow," Clark said, his grin widening again, and Luthor was building up exactly the right amount of steam to respond to that as it deserved when Clark caught his hand and pulled him up to his feet and kissed him.
Clark let go after an uncomfortable minute. "Um."
Hands braced against Clark's chest, Luthor stared at him.
Clark shifted his shoulders. "Sorry?"
"You kissed me," Luthor said, blankly.
"Well," Clark said.
"Xenophilia, not homosexuality," Luthor added, to himself. "Right. Although arguably both, since Kryptonians also have sexual dimorphism."
"Maybe I should—" Clark said.
"Fine, yes, I'll go to the farm with you," Luthor said irritably. "Shut up and do it again."
= End =
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