'The Adrian Situation' is still unresolved as far as Laurie's concerned, even as the sun threatens to rise on her first full day of freedom in three years. Loose ends bother her on a deep level, make the simple pleasures harder to enjoy.
It's not that Donnelly had been unwilling to hear her out, or even that he'd been dismissive, she considers as she walks through the pre-dawn grey. He'd honestly seemed convinced that allowing that... that monster of a human being free run of their home was to everyone's benefit. She'd been a hair away from asking if he'd been hit in the head a few too many times while she'd been away.
So, while the morning is lovely in that way that quiet desolation can be, she isn't seeing it, stalking through the maze of huts and support beams like a predator on preyscent. It's too early for the showers – they start up after breakfast, from what she remembers – and her hair is dirty and pulled back into a sloppy ponytail, shapeless sweater and slacks comfortable in the way they don't impede her forward motion.
Always forward. Always.
She passes by the kitchen hut, an open-air monstrosity of cobbled together heating ranges and grills and metal surfaces, and hears a thunk from inside the coldcase that tells her at least the cook's up on schedule; his helpers should be along any minute. Everyone else seems to be sleeping in, exhausted from yesterday. It's just her, the lonely cook, and the rats and pigeons and strays, and that seems right somehow.
"Juspeczyk!" the man exclaims, backing out of the case with a crate of powdered eggs. She wrinkles her nose, after years and years she's never gotten used to them, but they're at least not expired. "Long time no see, how've you been keeping?"
She grins and hitches herself up to sit on the corner of one of his tables. "Better this morning than yesterday, at least. I missed your breakfasts."
"You hate my breakfasts, don't bullshit me," but he's grinning, hauling a huge bowl out from under the table. In go the eggs, prepackaged unit by prepackaged unit. The massive griddle's already heating up; she can see the way the air bends over it, heat distortion. "I ain't got much more capacity for bullshit these days, let me tell you."
"Tony," she says, propping her chin in both hands. "Do you have any idea what they fed us in there?"
"Agh, don't tell me. Don't think my heart could take it."
"So, yeah. I missed your horrible powdered eggs, trust me."
He beats his hands together, shedding the remnants of six dozen freeze-dried would-be chickens. There'll be another seventeen batches this size, and that won't cover the whole group anymore, but peeking into the open door of the coldcase, that's all there is.
"What are we going to do for food, now?" she asks, all seriousness suddenly. She can see a lot of belt-tightening in the future.
Tony shrugs, siphoning water into the bowl with one hand and beating the rehydrating eggs stupid with the other. "Search me, kid," he says, and he's only four years older than her. "Was hoping you higher-ups had a plan for that."
She laughs, a little desperate. "I've only been back about nineteen hours here, I don't think I could as a higher-up again yet."
"Still," he says, raising an eyebrow, the first wave hitting the griddle with a sizzling pop. "I just cook the eggs, I don't lay 'em. Acquisition ain't on my resume."
Laurie nods, and doesn't reply, and there's some guilt there – all those nineteen hours she'd been worrying about Adrian, about tactics and conspiracy and revenge. She wonders when exactly she'd become so single-minded.
By the time he's scraping the first griddlefull of eggs into a wide serving bin, metal-on-metal like fingernails up her spine, she's had enough meaningful silence and quietly takes her leave.
Deep in the residential zone, she sees the cat – the horrible thing that was here before she was locked up, almost a camp mascot in reverse – stalking around behind one of the huts. She never used to look this bad, though, and at least had all her feet back then.
She hunches, and pounces, and comes up with a rat the size of Laurie's hand, disappears through the curtained door of one of the huts. Laurie laughs, beyond stifling, because someone is going to get a surprise this morning, and she can only hope it's someone who deserves it.
Cats and rats and the cook and me, she singsongs in her head, like some old nursery rhyme though she knows she’s got it wrong. So just cats and rats and we’re all–
Adrian probably got a hut all to himself, she realizes with no little bitterness. For his own protection. There's not a soul in camp that wouldn't put a knife in him if they got the chance, and that apparently includes Rorschach, from what Dan's told her of exactly how they broke Veidt's programming. Knife hits marble with enough force to shatter, that's no warning strike or pulled blow.
Solitary confinement. She smiles, a little smug. Hatch snores like a dying buzzsaw and smells like something the buzzsaw ran through and left to sit in the sun for a week, but he's pretty and he's good for a nice hard fuck now and then and he doesn't ask questions, ever. She could be housed with worse.
So she wanders, and forgets about the poor lonely bastard, all alone in his ivory tower one day and all alone in the gutter the next. Maybe revenge really is automatic, sometimes.
Another twenty minutes and there's a familiar pair of boots toppled onto their sides outside the curtain of a quiet, quiet hut. They're from the Nite Owl costume, dropped here in haste, some strange politeness staying Dan from dragging dirt in onto the dirt-covered floor. And hero or not, she knows he isn't in there alone; housing's too tight.
The curtain waves just slightly in the morning breeze, billowing out invitingly.
Fuck it. Breakfast's soon, she can blame that if they catch her. Laurie puts a hand out, catches it on one of its outward sways, noiseless. Keeps it from swinging back again, and pulls it far enough away to look in.
Her fist curls, tense with something that's maybe a little frustration, a little anger, a little jealousy, but not jealousy like she's used to, not what she would have felt ten years ago. Different. And a lot sadness.
She couldn't explain the sadness with a gun to her head.
Inside, Kovacs – if she calls him that, it's easier to process this, easier to realize that Dan's just sharing a blanket and breathing space with a man and not some monochromatic shifting alien creature – moves under the blanket, the outline of his arm seeking more to hold onto. Laurie feels a sharp pang, and the sadness resolves itself into something more distinct.
Lonely, she thinks, you're fucking lonely. Like a stupid, green recruit, like these two idiots here. She needs to go find Hatch, or quiet, dead-eyed Randolph, get herself laid before this gets out of hand.
Then Kovacs is awake, still unmoving, eyes tracking her from their edges. He's flushing bright red under the edge of the blanket, and she can tell he's fighting the urge to duck completely under it. Acting like that much of a child would be even more embarrassing, she figures.
In the end, indecision is met with violence; Dan jolts bodily, and Rorschach must have punched him under the covers hard, jesus. His eyes blink and try to find focus, but she's probably not more than an indistinct silhouette in the doorway, so he eventually gives up and scrabbles for his glasses. Rorschach's ducked under the covers, fussing with something and oh god, he's probably putting his pants back on. That's not a mental image she needed.
An owlish blink through the frames, and then Dan has precisely nothing to say.
"So you were joking too, huh?" she asks, fingering the curtain suggestively.
"Uh." Dan heaves himself into a sitting position, and he's bare at least to the waist, but the pooling blankets don't let her see any further. Looks down at himself, confused, half-hard with the morning, and she can sympathize. "I, um."
Rorschach – Kovacs – finally rolls out from under the blanket, snapping suspenders up over his shoulders and proceeding to pick through the pile of clothes on the floor, pulling each piece on with a calm practicality that she can tell goes only skin deep. Underneath, something shakes, violent.
Dan watches him for a second, looking completely baffled, then looks back to Laurie.
"Just take the fifth," she says, smile softening a little. "It'll save your sanity. Breakfast's in a few minutes, didn't think you'd want to sleep through it."
"Could have knocked," comes the quiet growl from the far wall.
"Yeah, little hard to knock on a curtain," she says, already walking away. "Meals only last half an hour, so don't take too long getting out the door."
"So," she says, plopping down next to them uninvited. They'd been late like she expected, all the fresh fruit they had left long since gone, but still in enough time to grab a few plates of eggs and toast and butter. She picks Rorschach's side this time, and he stops eating, going stock still. "You never struck me as the type."
He ignores her, goes back to eating, stilted and perfunctory.
"All that talking you always did," she says. "Calling people whores and etcetera etcetera."
Dan gives her a warning look, which she doesn't even acknowledge. "I'm not saying there's anything, you know, wrong with it. A little stupid, maybe, with the way things are, but you always seemed, you know. Averse to this kind of thing."
A beat of silence, punctuated by the scrape of metal on ceramic.
"Almost, scared, maybe," she says, and the fork hits the plate, hard.
Wow, she thinks, detached. Dan's right, she really has changed, because there's no way in hell she ever would have said that before. You don't fuck with crazy people, that's one of the first rules the street teaches you.
But he just sits still for a moment, unnaturally still, expression frozen and eerie. Then he turns, hands his mostly-empty plate to Dan, and looks at her sharply.
"Why 'stupid'?" he asks.
Laurie blinks, a little thrown. "Because... because people die here, they disappear. In case you hadn't noticed." She raises an eyebrow, and it's obvious really, she shouldn't have to explain it. "Someone you care about goes down in a fight, you can't keep your shit together, you go down too. Better not to care in the first place."
"Averse to losing people."
"Most human beings are, yeah. I know this whole 'being human' thing is new to you, but–"
"Afraid of it, maybe?"
Now the metal sound is her own fork, scraping and tapping restlessly. Something taps in her head, matching time.
"Own your fear," Kovacs says, pushing to his feet, moving to leave. "Or it owns you."
A few seconds pass, before Dan quietly sets the extra plate down into the vacated bench space. He looks at Laurie, eyebrows raised. "Did he just..."
"I think he did, yeah. Feel like I've stepped into the Twilight Zone, here."
Dan laughs, short and sharp. "This whole place is the Twilight Zone," he says, half to himself.
Laurie frowns, and pushes the eggs around on her plate like the child she hasn't been in decades. She's not in the mood to eat anymore, but with this many hungry people and Tony's generous hands in it, there's nothing to do but choke it down.
"Okay," she says, after they've settled back on the bench to contentedly digest. The pace this place seems to move at, it may be their last chance for a while, and he has a feeling Rorschach won't wander off quite so elusively again today. "Now that we're squarely out of the realm of plausible deniability, here. What's the deal?"
"Would you be asking that if it was anyone else?"
"No, I'm pretty sure the question hinges on you sleeping with the scary creepy guy."
He doesn't answer right away, propping one foot on top of the other. He lets his attention wander; it's still early by normal standards, and despite months of it, he's already aching for the more nocturnal schedule they used to maintain, back when–
[He hears the shattering pop of a shotglass and screaming and begging, smells blood; feels murder in his own hands. One night, and they'd been so much the same.]
"A lot of what everyone thinks is creepy is just... intensity," he says finally, trying to keep the apologist defensiveness out of his voice. "I've known him a lot longer than you have."
"And you wanted him the whole time, didn't you?" she asks, suddenly serious.
Dan shrugs. "Off and on. In one way or another."
They go quiet. The honesty's a little shocking, even to him, and she could probably find something to say about it – he could easily snipe back that one of them has to be honest, after all – but it's all so pointless, and divisiveness serves no purpose.
"Would you have fought me harder, the other night?" she asks after a while, and the tone is casual, indifferent curiosity but after years of dealing with Rorschach's bullshit, he knows a mask when he sees one. "When I said I wasn't interested. If you weren't..."
"Yeah, probably. I mean, a month's nothing next to ten years, but it can still change a lot. Circumstance-wise, I mean."
"Took less than that for me to walk away from Jon."
"That's not–" Dan sighs, and he's had years' worth of these circular arguments. They're never quite the ones he wants to have. "That's not what this was."
A few long moments of silence, awkward as they ever get.
"Actually, I know," Laurie finally says, sitting forward to rest her arms across her knees. "Strangers in a strange place and by the sound of how badly you fucked up, you probably needed each other. I'm just being..." She waves her hand, cutting through the air in vague circles.
And Dan doesn't really know that's intended to mean, but the whole thing has the shape of an apology, and he feels a little ill because she's the one who's had to age with this world and she shouldn't be-
"Don't worry about it," he says, careful.
She shrugs, playing it off as nothing. "Wasn't planning on it. So, you wanna go find him?"
"I'd rather he didn't disappear for a whole day again, we've got plans to make."
"All right," she says, pushing heavily to her feet. It strikes Dan suddenly that she's older than him now, older even than Rorschach. The wear's a little appealing, if he's honest with himself. "I've got a good guess as to where he'll end up."
He nods, scoops up the abandoned plates. "Lead on."
It's still amazing to him how many people are here, what a force to be reckoned with they'd be if only they could be properly harnessed. Rorschach treads between the lines of the crowd like he always has, disappearing into its anonymity without being subsumed, a skill long-honed on hostile streets where being sucked up and carried along by the wrong swirling eddy of life could be fatal.
He arrives at an area that's been cordoned off, a makeshift open-air meeting room, and people are starting to gather; mostly faces he's seen before. Some of the committee from the pre-jailbreak meeting, the team leads he and Daniel had selected for the raid, Donnelly's second-in-command, Donnelly himself.
Rorschach crosses the space with purpose; something has just occurred to him, something he meant to ask days ago but his focus has not been as solid as it once was.
Halfway across the camp, a boy – ten years old maybe, and that's old enough to remember life before all this – stumbles across Dan's shins. He steadies himself, looks up between the two of them. "Mr. Dreiberg?" he asks, perfunctory.
Dan nods, tilting his head curiously. The kid has no goggles, and his clothes are threadbare, and he has a sort of Dickensian street urchin air. "Why, has someone been looking for me?"
"Frank said to get you," he kid says, thrusting hands into pockets. "Meeting starting soon, in the–"
"We know," Laurie interrupts, not unkindly, and stoops to the kid's level. "We're already headed there. How've you been, kiddo?"
"Eh," the boy says, suddenly shy. One foot traces in the dirt. "Okay, I guess. Been rough since..."
Laurie ruffles his hair, smiles the most genuine smile Dan's seen on her in a decade. "Yeah, I know. Hey look, I'm all out of candy right now, but I'll get you something later, okay?"
"Sure, Miss Juspeczyk," and the kid's pronunciation is perfect. He tosses a grin before he disappears back into the crowd, but it's false, and Dan doesn't have to ask what the 'since' was; too many damn children growing up without parents, here.
"So we're going to a meeting?" he asks, after a while of walking.
Laurie shrugs. "Thought it'd be a good place to start. You have any other plans? You know, doctors' appointments, have to go pay overdue library fees–"
"God," Dan says, almost laughing. "I stole so much from the library. I forgot about that completely."
"Better be careful," and when they round the next corner, the crowd's thinned to distinct knots of people. Across the space, he catches Rorschach's distinct outline, speaking to Donnelly – about something serious and important, judging by his posture and gesturing. "They might send the book police after you."
"I hope you're screwing with me."
"Yep," Laurie says, hands sliding into pockets. "We may have earned ourselves an honest-to-god dystopia here – sci-fi writer's wet dream – but it's not Fahrenheit 451 yet."
Dan waves to where Rorschach's disengaging, catches his attention. The man treads over, cautious. "Yeah, it never turns out like the books, I guess."
"What," Rorschach asks, curtness serving in place of an actual question mark.
"Just discussing the future's failure to live up to literary promises."
"Hrn." Rorschach surveys their surroundings, lets his eyes lose focus in a way Dan associates with the mask, the way it'd sometimes seemed to look past things and impossibly far into the distance.
"Give it time," he finally says, rolling his shoulders.
Laurie takes a second to process, and Dan's already smiling. "That... that was a joke," she says, incredulous.
Rorschach shrugs, neither confirming nor denying.
"Okay," Dan says, still grinning stupidly, he can feel it on his face. "What was going on over there?"
"Was inquiring about the burglar in the warehouse. Whether it was one of theirs. Apparently not."
"That's what he said?"
"Says they haven't...'lost' anyone in the last few weeks. Many resistants are free agents, apparently. Choose to live on the fringes, by criminal means the world no longer suspects or protects against."
Dan thinks of the man in the top of the reprogramming facility, of a house's nighttime-lit windows. "And some hide in plain sight," he says, everything coming together. "Pretending."
"It's like dodging a military draft," Laurie says. "I could've told you that. They don't want to fight with us."
"Their choice, I guess," Dan says, trying to be conciliatory.
Laurie's obviously not in a conciliatory mood. "Like hell it is. Not if they want anyone to have free choice about anything, ever again. They're just cowardly bastards, is what they are. Not worth the air they're breathing."
Rorschach cocks his head to one side, is silent, but the gears are obvious where they turn.
"Well," Dan says, cutting their communion short. "I know of at least one that'll be useful to us, so let's not pull out the firing squad yet, okay?"
They settle into the meeting, contribute what they need to, share their plan in more detail and flesh it out as more pieces of the puzzle come to light. It's surprisingly casual, for a plot that could well cause the suicide deaths of millions if they don't execute it precisely right.
Dan tries not to think too hard about it.
Six hours later, a weaselly man in grey is filing paperwork in his top floor office, grumbling at how slow business has been of late in the exact pitch and flatness of tone that the cameras and radio bugs expect to hear.
Then two things happen at once. The camera bud facing the door overloads with a quiet pop, sending a thin ribbon of smoke to drift up from its casing, and a piece of paper is slipped under the doorframe, just loud enough against the grain of the carpet to draw attention.
Not loud enough for the bugs to pick up. He hopes.
Curiosity is a human trait, basic like the itch to wander and the need for stability all at once, part of that contradictory bundle. He doesn't show it on his face but it's what drives him to cross the room, pick up the paper and examine it here in this momentary blind spot.
KNOW YOUR SECRET, it says in bold block script, but there's no question as to who it's from. WOULD PREFER YOU HELPED VOLUNTARILY, BUT WILL RESORT TO THREATS IF NECESSARY. NEED ACCESS TO INSTRUCTION MAINFRAME AND ASSISTANCE IN ITS USE IN THE NEXT THREE HOURS.
This is all very confusing, he thinks. He knows they have Veidt – everyone knows that now, at least those self-aware enough to know anything – so what need do they have for him?
PLACE RESPONSE IN TRASHCAN ON 40TH and SEVENTH, the bottom says, and he sits down heavily in his chair.
It was only a matter of time, he supposes; the world ended for a lot of people a long time ago, and now it's ending for him.
They get their response exactly as Dan predicted they would, though he really needs to talk to Rorschach about writing these notes so that they look a little less like bank robbery instructions. As it stands, the intimidation did what it was supposed to, this time; scared a man with an illegal brain composition out of hiding, to a part of the city he has no reason to visit, and into their metaphorical grip. It won’t take much to undelete the video evidence of his divergence from routine, and he surely knows that.
1 PM SHARP, the note reads, TENTH FLOOR LOBBY. DRESS LIKE TECHNICIANS. It’s rumpled and ruined from folding and unfolding and the constant worrying of hands around its edges, but it’s legible, and it’s amazing sometimes what knowing someone’s secrets can do.
“Could be a trap,” Rorschach says, predictably, but he’s been on the bad end of that kind of gambit far more recently than Dan has, and it gives him pause.
“Do you think he’s got those sort of resources? It’d be hard to enlist the people in charge without giving himself away.”
“And even if it is… I mean, we need that access, so if he’s not going to give it to us we’re kind of screwed anyway.”
Rorschach leans against the nearest light pole, stretches his neck; something audibly pops. He drags the hat a little lower. “Not necessarily the kind of… ‘screwed’… that justifies walking into a trap undefended.”
“Yeah,” Dan mumbles, sarcasm resting flat in his tone. “Because you’ve certainly never done that before.”
In the end they decide to do as the note requests and simply keep very, very on guard. The first ten floors are accessible by one elevator, the last six by another; Dan remembers that from his first trek, mind too consumed in fear and doubt at the time to have wondered why security allowed him through. Now they’ll need an escort, and there he is, the same miserable grey sewer-crawling bureaucrat as always.
His eyes widen momentarily when they fall on Rorschach, then just about leave his skull when Adrian steps out from behind them. Next to him, Dan can feel how close Rorschach is to violence, and for once there is more than one target.
“Here to work on the mainframe,” Dan improvises with a grin, and they’re all dressed to the part, and so the charade begins.
“Are you thinking about it?” Adrian asks him a half an hour in. He’s got the entire database of commands pulled up in front of them, and they’re going through them a handful at a time, eliminating anything that will conflict with the directive they need to give.
Two chairs down, their reluctant accomplice is working out a targeting algorithm, and Rorschach is keeping unobtrusive watch by the door.
“What we’re about to do, I mean.”
Dan grunts, doesn’t reply, taking a page from Rorschach’s book.
On the screen, an instruction to make sure one’s children are always well cared for is deleted; it might present the chance for second thoughts. “Before I… well. I thought about it a great deal. There’s a difference between eliminating conscience and simply ignoring it.”
Feed the dog at seven o’clock, deleted.
“It’s very important to understand the scope of what you’re about to do, I think. If I had, I might have done it differently.”
“Not a confessional, Veidt,” growled from the door.
Pick children up from school at three o’clock.
Don’t walk too close to the guard rails or in front of cars.
Red means stop.
“No,” Adrian says, as they send the last instruction into the dark. “I suppose it isn’t.”
The targeting procedure takes longer– it’s not enough to aim for an age range, so they have to dig deeper, search for the awareness and understanding of death as something terrifying and forever, the instinctual drive to avoid it at all costs that comes to people direct from thousands and thousands of years ago, undiluted by the spiritual comforting that’s happened in between. It is, according to the man in grey, rather like looking for the flavor of strawberries in the western sky using only binoculars, blindfolded.
It’s more poetic than any of them would have given him credit for.
In the end though, it’s done. Rorschach looms over the man, makes sure he understands what he’ll be doing if he’s gotten it wrong – murdering the entire city’s population of children – and it’s only then that the man finds his fortitude, leans right back and points to his code and says that if it doesn’t work, he’ll happily throw himself off the top floor and join them.
“Why are you so willing to help us?” Dan asks, once Rorschach’s stormed back off to his sentry position. “You seemed perfectly happy with the status quo, before.”
“Happiness isn’t defined by being too afraid to fight back,” and he’s pretty much incapable of passion but it at least sounds sincere. “Anyway, you had more information on me than I could afford to ignore.”
“So, this is just blackmail.”
“That’s all I’ll admit to.”
“Ah,” Dan says, and his fingers are skating over the keys of the main console. It’d been Adrian’s codes that got them in and this man – Thomas, he’d called himself when Adrian had insisted on civil introductions – who got their plan to dance around the young and innocent, but he’s always been the one expected to push the button. “Plausible deniability. I’ve heard that a lot lately.”
One finger rests on the enter key, execution command already typed in and ready. It’s well past the usual time – Donnelly will have instructed his people, distributed all over the city to manage the citizenry like rioting mobs, to wear their goggles and gear all day today, not knowing just when it would be coming – but new instruction sets always override old.
A millimeter of pressure, and the city will explode.
“I still have nightmares, sometimes,” Adrian says, next to his ear, and from the door, a low growl.
On the next console over, another command is queued, to restore order immediately if things start going south. There will still be casualties, always; always more bodies, and lives torn apart, no matter how quickly they react. They will be saviors or murderers today, and the thin line between the two makes him think of black-eyed birds, balanced on the arc of power lines.
“Have you?” Adrian asks.
A quiet breath, his or someone else’s.
“…just blood and... snow, somewhere,” Dan whispers, maybe too quiet for anyone to catch.
He presses the button.