In the palace of the Overlord, there is only war.
Surrounding a blood-red sun, the Dyson sphere stretched over two hundred million miles in diameter. A wall around a star, the surface area on the interior of the sphere contained enough ground to cover the surfaces of over 600 million Earth-sized planets.
And on each and every square mile of the interior, there was only war. Massive armories and foundries and matter-duplicator plants, breeding vats and laboratories, testing grounds and storehouses, and infinite rank upon rank of barracks. Killing fields where hosts of men and machines and other creatures fought and bled and died to further master the craft of battle. Oceans of blood and mountains of bones were raised every day so that the survivors might be stronger and fitter, fit to serve the Overlord as his warriors and wizards, his spies and savants, his agents and assassins. Only the few survivors of the best of the best could become Iron Guardsmen, the special-operations soldiers of the Dominion. And only the few survivors of the very best of the Iron Guard could hope to aspire to true power, and appointments as Imperial Commanders.
And at the very apex of this sphere of War lay the Imperial Palace itself, the crowning peak of this solar-system wide temple of bloodshed and death. Larger than a city, more impervious than a billion mountains, a structure so awesome and fearsome that it made all prior such fortresses even unto the legendary Barad-Dur itself look like mere children's drawings in the mud by comparision, the Overlord's seat of rule cast its long shadow over all.
In the main throne room of the palace, so large and lofty that only the Overlord's technology kept clouds from forming within the roof, the Overlord held court from the Final Throne. With his Grand Vizier at his side and his Lieutenants witnessing from their places of honor, the Overlord gazed out over his throne room and was pleased. The usual crowd of courtiers and commanders was cleared away for a very special private audience, with only his Vizier and Lieutenants, as well as a small circle of the most loyal and highest-ranking Imperial Commanders, in attendance.
The epitome of conscious, calm respose and relaxed, confident power, Overlord Chuckg raised his right hand and spoke.
"Bring forth the prisoner."
The floor opened in front of the throne, and an elevated platform hissed into position. Ten machines, a god and a man stood upon the platform as it clicked into position at the foot of the Final Throne. The machines were Legion troopers, a fullly armed-and-armored tensquad, currently detailed to prisoner-handling duties and armed with appropriate restraint gear. The god was Desaad, the Overlord's Chief Torturer, last survivor of Apokolips, who as was his normal cowardly wont turned his coat in the face of superior power and bowed his neck to the Overlord. And the man... .. was just a man.
If the phrase "just a man" ever applied to such a living legend.
Beaten, bloodied, the tale of years of effort by Desaad written into his skin with scars, Steve Rogers... at one time the hero known as Captain America... still stood with his neck unbent and defied the Overlord with his gaze. Although his body was wrapped helplessly within adamantine chains, his soul remained his own.
"You were given years, my torturer. Years with which to break the spirit of one mortal man. And yet he remains unbowed."
"Forgive me, my Lord" Desaad whined. "But his uniquely strong belief structure renders him highly resistant to..."
"I do not recall asking for an explanation, Desaad." the Overlord said flatly, cutting off the sycophantic sadist in mid-word. "You were set a task. You were given the authority and resources to carry it out. And yet the deadline is reached, and the task unfinished."
"My lord, but..."
"Let all know the price of failure."
The hulking figure of MunchKING smiled. This was the part he always enjoyed best. Desaad turned and stared his executioner in the eye, blubbering in fear. He raised his hands to ward off..
... and the blow was struck, the power loosed before the torturer could even see him move. Desaad's body fell to the platform, in a thousand separate pieces. The blood splattered to the very edges of the prisoner platform. The Legion tensquad, emotionless machines that they were, never blinked at the rain of blood. Captain America, battle-hardened warrior that he was, remained stolidly standing as well.
"You're all alike, Chuckg. Every single one of you strutting tyrants. All worshipping your own desires as your own personal gods, uncaring of everything else around you."
"The line between genius and madness is measured in success, good Captain. And none have ever been as successful as I."
"Then why am I still here? I've led rebellions against you on a thousand planets, turned your Empire against itself across half the galaxy."
"And I've crushed every single one, ensuring lasting peace in those domains for generations to come. You were a beacon, Captain. Your shining light gave hope to those who had the desire to struggle against me buried in their hearts, but not the will to stand up on their own. And as they stood up... I saw them and cut them down. Now how should I reward such useful service?"
"You won't break me with your lies..."
At a discreet hand-signal, one of the Legion troopers behind the Captain shocked him into temporary paralysis with a neuro-prod.
"How to reward you? How to break you? How to do both at once?"
Suddenly, the Overlord smiled.
"Of course. I will give you your dream. And I will break you with the truth of what your dream truly requires."
The Court drew back in a hush as the Overlord rose, coming down the steps to stand face-to-face with his prisoner. His chains fell from him as the tensquad drew back, leaving Captain America empty-handed in front of the Overlord.
Chuckg held out two of his cupped hands and concentrated briefly, summoning something to him out of his own personal null-space pocket. The Court, his Lieutenants, and even Captain America gasped incredulously as the Orb of Power itself, never seen save in ultimate extremis, materialized in the Overlord's palms. Only the Grand Vizier remained unmoved.
All present gaped in open-mouthed shock. Lieutenant MunchKING almost did the unthinkable and started forward to stay the Overlord's hand, only to be waved back to his position by the Grand Vizier. Captain America was the most surprised of all.
"Take it. Use it to undo all that I have done. Strike me down with all of your righteous anger. Grasp the Absolute Power in your hands, and use it to fulfill your greatest dream... to free the Multiverse of the threat of me."
The Overlord calmly reached over and placed the glowing Orb into the Captain's hand.
"Of course, absolute power... corrupts absolutely, does it not? You have based everything you believed in in your entire life on that one basic postulate. Your entire belief-structure regarding 'freedom', 'liberty', and most especially 'democracy' all derives from the one prime assumption... that absolute power should never, not for any reason, be placed in the hands of any single man."
Captain America narrowed his eyes grimly as he saw the Overlord's ploy.
"So use the Orb, Captain. Be the Hero. Stop me from crushing all that I survey."
The Overlord smiled wider.
"All it will cost you is everything you believe in. Such a small price to pay, no?"
Captain America stared at the nigh-omnipotent globe in his hands, almost mesmerized. Finally, he raised his gaze.
"I knew you would not have the will. None of you ever... WHAT?!?"
The Orb flashed once in Captain America's hands and was gone, teleported away through trackless time and space. Steve Rogers smiled at the overconfident Overlord and braced himself for death.
"My hero's hands cannot wield the Orb without destroying me, and all that I hope to save. You've put too many scars of pain on my soul... no wish I could concentrate on would come true without hidden loss at its core. But I am not the only hero. And other hands than mine can wield the Orb to destroy you."
The Overlord's Lieutenants stood stock-still as the incredible realization dawned upon them... the Orb was lost. Their liege lord was potentially vulnerable.
"You speak the truth as far as your limited mind can see it, Captain. The Orb is indeed lost to my grasp, teleporting itself randomly through and about the few dozen remaining free universes laying between myself and the home of the final gathering of heroes. You have taken a steady progression towards power and made it a race, a mad scramble to see who can conquer those domains first so that they may be duly searched and Our property restored to Us."
"But they have a chance, now. And that's all I'd ever hoped to give anyone."
"True. We respect you, Captain. Your performance today was swift, decisive, and as brilliant as you could ever possibly be. And as a token of that respect..."
Without even a single flare of energy to mark his passing, Steve Rogers was gone, burnt to ashes and scattered upon the wind.
"... we grant you a swift, honorable death. You died without pain or shame and flush with triumph, Steven Rogers... and in the ultimate extreme, neither man nor god can ask for more."
For a timeless, measureless moment, no one in the court moved. Finally, Grand Vizier Locke spoke.
"Your will, my Lord?"
The Overlord turned to face his loyal Inner Circle.
"Mobilize the fleets and gather the forces. The Orb is teleporting randomly between points in the last, disputed cluster of universes. We must conquer all of that space, so that no matter where it returns to realspace, that point shall be within Our territory. No matter what the opposition or how dreadful the battle, we must not shrink from this last extreme.
Conquer every cubic inch of space in those domains. Crush all who oppose you. And above all else, no matter what the consequence...
... let there be only war."
And the Overlord smiled.