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Continued from >Noise of Thunder

 

Only here, before creation can the future be changed!

-The Anti-Monitor Crisis on Infinite Earths

Mark felt first a whiteness, pure and all-embracing, then terrible, all-encompassing blackness, as if a quiet non-existence had been replaced with the certain knowledge of absolute destruction. And then he was waking up, his face pressed to an unfamiliar wooden surface that it took him a bizarre second to recognize: he was pressed against not the floor, but the far wall of his mother's art studio, surrounded by the furniture, art supplies, and his mother's scattered colored pencils that had all evidently taken a hard spin to the left at some point when the local gravity had taken a hard turn in the wrong direction. Pulling himself to his feet, he gazed around a room cast sideways and lit with an eerie red glow from outside. He counted off with his eyes: Wander, Midnight, Cobalt Templar, Sage, Trevor's grandfather, even his mother, all of them cast askew by the warped gravity just as the room's contents had been. Ignoring the shuttered window for a moment, not to mention of seeing the whole world swept away into nothingness, Mark focused right on Martha.

"Mom? Are you all right? What happened?" He couldn't quite keep the judgement out of his voice; he'd had good reason to be angry with his parents for a long time now!

For her part, Martha was dusting herself off. "Oh, Mark..." She embraced him. "I'm so sorry it happened like this, and that I left the way I did...but I saw you'd be all right and I had to spend what time I could with your father. I don't know if you can forgive me...but because we're all here, it was for a good cause." She let out a breath. "Your father is waiting for us in the study. For all of us. He'll explain everything."

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Erin pushed herself up to a sitting position, then to a crouch, trying to gauge where they were. Her face was dead pale, but her eyes glittered with a barely-focused rage. "Goddamn it!" she screamed at Martha, putting a fist effortlessly through the wall that was now the floor. "He knew! You knew! Both of you saw this coming, and it was more important to go cuddle than to save the goddamn universe? What the hell is wrong with you? You're nothing but monsters!" There was a sob in her voice, but for the moment she could bury it under the anger.

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Trevor helped Travis slowly to his feet, giving Erin enough space to put a hole in the floor before stepping over to placed a gloved hand on her shoulder, fingers tightening to reassure her of his presence as much as to confirm that she was there and, for the moment, safe. It was difficult to tell with the ruby lenses of his mask concealing his expression, but the bunching of the fabric near his nose suggested that he had his eyes squeezed tightly shut, while faint wisps of midnight mist seeped from the ends of his jacket's sleeves and the cuffs on his pants.

The elder Hunter for his part took stock of the room with a grimace honed by years of use, putting the weight of both hands on his cane. "Hrmph. Thank God Jimmy never lived to see this," he noted coolly in the grating voice that had put the fear of something worse than death into criminals for decades.

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On the far wall, Cobalt Templar started to stir. His fingers flexed slightly, his feet twitched, and his eyelids fluttered. He uttered a low, pained groan. Suddenly, he "sat up", which propelled him into a jumble of arms and legs on the floor. He managed to position himself on his hands and knees as he began to utter...choked sobs?

Slowly, CT lifted his gaze to take in the others. Instead of normal tears, drops of blue liquid fire ran down his face, sizzling into nothingness before they could hit the floor. His expression was one of utter loss.

"She's gone! She was right there, I felt her, and then nothing! Oh god, Quo-Dis!"

He slammed his left hand against the floor, cracking the wood as he continued to sob.

"They're all gone, aren't they...Gone! Just like that!"

Blue flame rolled over his body in tiny spurts, flaring up and down with his sobs. It was clear that an event of this magnitude was nearly too much for the young ring-wielder.

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Sage had curled up on the ground in a fetal position, pale and silent, her green eyes clamped shut as the sudden absense of so many minds hit her like a sledgehammer. The telepath struggled to process what happened, struggled to accept that the billions of minds she always sensed were suddenly gone. Gradually she managed to build a wall around this sense of loss and drew strength from the minds of those that she could sense around her.

"Yes, Corbin. They're all gone." the telepath murmured as she sat up. She could feel the sense of loss and anger being felt by her friends though the psychic link she had established, battering at her psyche.

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"We...we need to get in there," said Mark, pushing past his mother and down the slanted corridor. "I'll talk to you later!" he said, sounding madder at his mom than he'd ever felt. But what could he do, yell at her? Hit her? There was work to be done, and grief and betrayal and terrible loss were work for later. How petty his own emotions seemed, when confronted with all this horror. Wander's punch to the wall-turned-floor had indeed gone right through, and peering through the gap revealed a thinly-scattered starscape dotting a field of wavering, eerie red. He led the way down the slanted corridor in what had once been his family home, carefully up the slanted flight of stairs, until they reached his father's upstairs study.

Rick Lucas was in the middle of pulling up an old-fashioned green chalkboard when his son climbed his way into the room through the now-wall-mounted doorway, followed by some of his friends. His hair greying and clothes like a 50s father at the barbecue, Rick looked almost comically normal despite the cantilevered furniture, the remains of his superhero career scattered around his feet like the ruins of his reputation. The chalkboard was already written on, dotted by four perfect circles with names and places on them. "You're here. Oh, thank God, you're all here. We can do this."

Mark walked over and grabbed his dad by the collar, his face contorted with anger and absurd shame all at once. "Where are we? What did you do!? WHAT DID YOU DO?!"

Rick didn't pull away, instead he faced Mark, and the other kids behind him. "I know how this looks. You look at me and you see a selfish old man who lured your mother away, who let the multiverse burn to get a few more minutes alone. But that's not it. I...we're in the Terminus. Omega has destroyed four of the key universes that supported Earth-Prime, causing a domino effect that crushed all the universes that lay below. And so now..." He looked away for a moment, as if not wanting to dwell on that. "...But it's not too late!" he grabbed his son's hands, his eyes wide. "My friends and I, we saw this coming, but we couldn't stop it. Our power against Omega's doesn't work that way, and warning you would only have come too late. But we can send you, all of you, back to stop all this before it started! The multiverse can be saved!"

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"We know you're a liar," Erin told Rick harshly, "and we know you're willing to destroy things for your own benefit. We've lived through your games before. I thought that your one saving grace was that you loved your son, and that's why you did what you did. But then you abandoned him too, and I have a hard time seeing anything good in you. Why the hell should we believe you now?" she demanded.

She knew it wasn't a good idea, but couldn't stop herself from taking a few steps forward, her hand on her bat. "You threw away the world, you gave up your trust as a hero, you abandoned your own child. And you're standing here in your stupid copy of the house you left to rot and telling us it was your plan all along? Why don' t you try selling it to someone else."

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Rick looked away. "I didn't have a plan. Not at first. I told you, I thought I could find a way to reconcile living on Earth with all this power, if I could just figure something out. And then I thought I could find some way to build a life outside the Earth altogether, but that didn't work..." Mark released him at that. He looked back at the chalkboard. "And then, my friend and I, we figured out what Omega was doing. We couldn't warn you without betraying you to the Terminus when you were already its target, much less come there and be powerless to do anything to stop what was coming." He focused on Mark. "Please don't blame your mother for this, Mark. I persuaded her that we needed to leave, I told her that...she didn't realize how long it would be. Or that coming back couldn't happen until the end. Even if she's covered for me with you, believe me! I'm to blame."

"I knew you'd be able to stop them. My son and his friends have saved a universe already, why not all the universes. I've always believed that." He looked away again, tugging at his ear. "So my friend and I, we made plans, and made more friends, on all the worlds Omega has been threatening, so you won't have to go in alone." He eyed them all, urgency in his voice. "You have to go there, and find them, and the devices Omega planted to pull down the walls of reality, before the disaster strikes! You can stop this! All this! This is no copy of my house, Wander; this IS my house! One of the last decaying fragments of Earth-Prime, pulled away even as everything else plunged into the Doom Coil. But we don't have much time. Even now, Omegadrones are popping the last of these soap bubbles, and when they do, the death of the multiverse will be complete." He looked Mark in the eye. "It's too late for me. It's too late to save the man I used to be, the father you used to see me as. But it's not too late for you, or for everything else."

Mark eyed his father, his usually open face almost impossible to read. "Where are the devices? What worlds do we need to visit?"

His voice shaky, Rick looked away, back to the chalkboard. "They're scattered through four worlds adjoining Earth-Prime. One in the past, one in the future, two in the present. Erde-J-Nazi-1 in 1953; Earth-M-Lucas-1 today, Earth-C-Future-2 in 2035...and the last in Earth-Z-Omega-1 tomorrow."

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Corbin had taken a couple of extra moments to gather his wits, the tears of flame slowing, then stopping. Ponderously, he stood to his feet, taking a few deep, calming breaths. He crafted his expression into something that mostly resembled calm. He looked at Eve, but couldn't think of anything to really do or say. He sent what feeble vibes of friendship he could over the quivering mental link she'd formed with the group.

As he followed the others into the twisted study, he was taking in the increasingly-bizarre surroundings. He stood there as Rick Lucas explained what was going on, Wander erupted in (in his might, righteous) anger, and as Rick explained further. Finally, he spoke, his voice a pale shadow of his typical booming self.

"Right, so I'm a bit newer to the group, don't know a whole lot about you beyond what little I've heard; none of it was very flattering. I mean...I guess I'm glad you saved us. Especially since it means we have a chance. But...was this the only way? There was truly no other way to prevent everything from crumbling away? Now we have to pin our hopes on what sounds like time and dimension hopping?

I mean, how do we get there? Then? Whatever. What do we do when we get there? How do we know this works?

And...I don't even know what those world-labels mean. I'm just really confused at this point. Well, mostly in barely controlled anguish at the loss of nearly everything I ever cared about at all. But confusion's sort of at the front of my mind right now."

The tall boy's rambling was a clear sign he was fighting to stay in control; he simply had no real experience with events of this magnitude. Not until today, at least.

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"Fehn," Travis grunted dismissively, giving Rick a withering glare. "At least when your father wouldn't stop talking, it was never excuses." Lifting his cane with one hand, the aging detective tilted it toward the reality manipulator. "Even without the genie, Jimmy Lucas would have fought this with his bare hands. What a disappointment." At no point did he raise his voice, but each syllable rang out like a cutting blow.

Practically quivering from the effort to remain composed, the young Hunter addressed Mark's father with a carefully clipped tone. "Distaste for you is... incommunicable. You've hurt people I care about." Something in the young man's contained body language promised that that thought would be resumed at a later time. "But..." he continued, the word tasting toxic in his mouth, "options are limited. Have to clean up your mess." Folding his arms, Midnight narrowed his eyes. "Now who is this 'friend'?"

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An orange shape, half-invisible in the room's dim light, jumped onto Rick's overturned desk and gave a firm mroar. It was immediately recognizable as Erin's cat. As everyone stared at Rick and the cat, even Mark thinking for a moment that his father had actually gone insane, Rick said, "I knew you would have trouble believing me. I don't blame you, after everything I've done. That's why my friend wanted to talk to you too."

And then Oliver's voice sounded in their heads. --Good morning. Please excuse my companion's demeanor. While his great power has been essential here, his erratic behavior has been nearly as threatening to our mutual enterprise.-- His tail lashing, the cat gave Rick a searing look before addressing the others again. --The devices in question are cosmic bombs, placed in four separate dimensions by the Lord of the Terminus in order to bring about the destruction of the multiverse. They destroy not matter or energy, but the stuff of the universe itself. Indeed, they are made of the same stuff as Omega's own flesh.-- He began to lick his paw. --Disabling them will be within your power, I believe, since they had to be made within the reach of bipeds in order that Omega's own agents could place them.-- He gave a slight harrumph, eying the others for questions.

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"Oh, Oliver, I am so glad you survived." whispered the Martel heiress, half-running, half-walking to the orange cat and giving him a tentative pet though what she really wanted to do was pick him up and hug him.. Unlike the others she wasn't surprised in the slightest at Oliver's intelligence, having spent a good portion of her birthday in telepathic communication with him.

"How will we get there?" Sage asked of the cat, while sending a thought to her friends and teammates across the mental network. --Bite your tongues, yell at the bastard later. We have work to do.--

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Erin stared at the cat, her mouth hanging slightly open as she listened to her beloved pet lay out a strategy for saving the multiverse. She didn't even know how she felt. She'd known Oliver was smart, but... not like this. Not anything close to this. She felt confused, almost betrayed. She'd told Oliver secrets that she hadn't even told Dr. Marquez, hadn't even told Trevor, and all this time, he hadn't really been a cat at all. "W-what is this?" she demanded shakily, forgetting about Rick for the moment."What are you?"

Oliver gave Eve a friendly boof on the hand, but turned most of his attention to Erin, hopping down from the desk to twine himself around her ankles. --I am your friend,-- he assured her, purring. --I have always been your friend, and you mine. I had no intention to deceive you, but it was necessary at the time. I had not meant for matters to come to a head so quickly, but we miscalculated the difference in the passage of time between worlds. You have long known what you must do. Now is the time."-- He rubbed his cheek against her leg in a proprietary fashion, then leapt back to the table.

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Midnight waited a beat after Oliver had finished speaking telepathically, observing Sage's reaction before practically sighing behind his feature mask. "Talking cat." His grandfather made a flat grunting sound that wasn't so much surprised as commiserating. Really, taking direction from an hyper intelligent tabby was better than that one incident with Medea back in his day. Rubbing the back of his neck with a gloved hand, Trevor moved to stand a little closer to Erin, just in case she needed him after this fresh shock.

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--My colleague has the ability to transport you from world to world, tunneling through what your science calls the Zero Zone each time. Only that way can you avoid the attention of the Lord of the Terminus. You will have only hours, perhaps days, on each world to find the devices and disable them before you will be moved to another world. Be warned. There are no second chances and few respites: for all worlds to survive, you must spare the worlds you find, however...unpleasant they may be for you. Richard, are you prepared?--

Rick had fallen silent after the cat had begun to speak, and particularly after Travis had so firmly put him in his place. He seemed to start a little before he said, "Yeah, yeah I can do it. I just need a second with Mark."

He took Mark aside, the blue and gold-clad teen looking more embarrassed than anything else, as the cat asked, --Are there any further questions? Time is short, but we dare not send you any more unprepared than you already are.--

Out in the corridor, the exchange between the two Lucases was burning with a quietly intense emotion alien to both men. "Mark. Mark, please, look at me." Mark and Rick looked at each other, Mark becoming conscious of Martha in the corridor behind him watching them both. "There are no apologies. There are no words. I'm...I know you'll do this." He put his hand on Mark's shoulder, Mark reluctantly looking finally at the man who'd done so much to make him the man he was today. "I've never stopped loving you, or being proud of you. I know you'll save everything. Just...be the man I used to believe I was."

Mark looked his dad in the eye and embraced him tightly. "Just...just don't say or do anything else," Mark almost pleaded in his reply. "Just help us fix this, and after that, we'll...I don't know," he admitted, pulling back. "Things can't be like they used to be, not ever. Not even if we save the world, all your power goes away, and we all pop back up in the living room on Earth-Prime after this. We can't turn back the clock after everything..." His jaw tightened. "After everything you did."

"I know," Rick agreed. "This is the end of what used to be, Mark. Good luck." Mark got a hug from his mom, of course, and a few words with her where she told him how proud she was after everything that had happened, and then headed back in to join the others.

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"How will we know what the bombs are, or how to find them?" Erin asked Oliver. "We don't even know what we're looking for, and the world is a really big place. Are you coming with us?" Despite her shock at the change in her cat, the sudden realization that this might be the end of Oliver's time with her was enough to provoke renewed anxiety. If he'd had a plan for her all along, then win or lose, it could all be over after this. Almost unconsciously she took a half-step backward, closer into Trevor's orbit.

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--The cosmic bombs will be radiating significant quantities of Terminus energies: hence why they are placed in worlds that do not know how to look, do not know to look, or have stopped looking for signs of Omega altogether. With the right tools,-- said the cat, giving Trevor a significant look as he arched his back, --you should be able to track them across the city. The allies of whom Richard spoke will know to be looking for you, we have managed to convey that much. I will not be able to come with you,-- he added, suddenly giving Erin the same look he'd given her that one time he'd dropped a dead bird behind her desk. --I must stay here and assist you in my own way. When the deed is done, and your mutual destinies complete, we shall all see each other again.--

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When Oliver had first revealed himself to the group, Corbin's eyes had gone wide.

'A psychic talking cat super-genius who's been planning to save all of reality with Rick Lucas for a while. Sure, why not.'

The astonishment slowly bled away, left only with cold resolve. When they were asked if they had questions, he waited until Erin's question had been answered, then spoke up.

"Two things I wanted to make sure I was clear on. First, should we expect any direct intervention from Terminus forces on our mission? And second...could somebody explain what Erde-J-Nazi-1, Earth-M-Lucas-1, Earth-C-Future-2, and Earth-Z-Omega-1 are? I mean, I guess the first one, shockingly, involves Nazis somehow, and that Earth-C involves "the future", but..."

He gives a helpless shrug.

"Maybe it's a stupid question, but I haven't had any classes that cover inter-dimensional travel yet. I would really, really like to have a quick Cliff's notes on what each of these places is like, so I'm not going in blind. That way we all have at least the basics down."

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"Freedom League Standard Notation for designating parallel worlds," Midnight supplied as Corbin expressed his confusion. The young man placed one arm around Erin's shoulders as she stepped toward him, pressing lightly against her back.

"Not as poetic as the way we did it," Travis commented dryly, "but a sight more scientific. Erde-J-Nazi-1 is one where we lost the war; you'll be behind enemy lines. Earth-C-Future-2 will be ahead of Prime chronologically, a possible future."

"Earth-M-Lucas-1... hrn, shouldn't still exist," the younger Hunter continued, glaring at Rick Lucas. "Earth-Z-Omega-1... is an extinct world," he managed flatly, "Fallen to the Terminus and considered quarantined by the League." His arm tightened around Erin in an involuntary gesture that was a combination of comforting and protective.

Travis drummed his fingers atop his cane and frowned. "Thirty years ago I'd have gone with you, but an old man will slow you down," he noted matter-of-factly. "Keep your wits about you, no room for mistakes here," he told the youths as a whole before addressing his grandson specifically. "We'll see you afterward." There was no question in the elderly heroes mind that they would succeed; they had to, after all, and he'd trained Trevor too well not to. The pair exchanged a nod, and that was all that needed to be said.

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"I was followed on ML1," replied Rick in response to Cobalt Templar's question, not looking in anyone's particular direction. "I wasn't able to see by who. But there's no significant Terminus activity there, and even less on CF2. As for Erde, this is the first Terminus activity anyone's ever detected there. Your Nazi overlords will be the toughest fight there. EZ1 is right on the edge of Terminus space these days." He spoke tiredly, and without much emotion. "My guess is, it would have been destroyed entirely by now if Omega wasn't using it for all this. That's where you'll have the most trouble with his people."

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"I've been to all but the future timeline before," Erin said softly, mostly in response to Corbin's question. "M-Lucas-1 is the world where Mr. Lucas decided the world would be better according to his own vision, even if some of us didn't get to live there anymore. It's like the little cubes of rat poison they dip in sugar to make them appealing on the outside. Erde is like Mr. Hunter says, the Axis won World War II and took over everything. It's a nasty place, but they have a strong resistance working for freedom. Z-Omega-1..." She hesitated. "That's where I'm from. Everyone there died in 2007 from a combination of a deadly virus engineered by the Terminus and a vaccine that turned out to be worse than the disease. We won't need to worry about civilian casualties if we have to fight there." Her voice was perfectly even, matter-of-fact, but her shoulders trembled just a little under Trevor's arm. "Sounds like we'd better get started."

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Cobalt Templar nodded as Trevor, Rick, and Erin filled him in.

"Thank you for the information. So. We've got four worlds. One set in the future. One run by freaking Nazis. One that's nice on the outside, but pretty bad underneath. And one that's a dead world. But no real heavy-duty Terminus activity. Probably."

Suddenly, a somewhat manic grin spreads across his face.

"High-risk mission. All of existence riding on the line. Well. What are we waiting for?"

His ring hand clenches a bit, fire flaring from the seemingly-simple magical device on his hand. Cobalt Templar was ready.

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With questions answered, and the situation explained, talking cat and cosmic reality warper seemed satisfied with the quality of the team they were sending off to save all of reality from the Terminus. Mark hated to leave like so, so fast, but it wasn't as if they were going on a pleasure cruise: the multiverse itself needed saving. They weren't just preventing a possible destruction, they were making an actual destruction never take place. "We've been to Erde before," Mark commented, shooting a glance at Erin. "And I've talked to Hope about it a lot. I don't know what 1953 was like there, just that the early 50s were...a rough patch. We'll do all we can."

--Then it's settled. Richard?-- With a final look from Rick, a smile that was only for Mark, the sidekick-turned-reality-warper waved his hand and suddenly the world around Young Freedom vanished beneath a black tide of inky dots, the last they saw Travis turning his back on his friend's fallen son to keep his eye on Trevor as they all vanished.

END OF PART TWO

Continued in >The End Of The Beginning

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