“The end of history will be a very sad time.” – Francis Fukuyama
He is back in the diner with Laurie. She is still wearing her costume, snow-bedraggled, teardrops frozen on her eyelashes, trying to get her lighter to work. It sparks, but her cigarette won’t catch. Revellers outside wish each other a happy New Year, hug and sob on one another’s shoulders in the bitter cold.
“You can still leave this behind, you know,” she says. Out of the corner of his vision, she is someone different, her hair blond and blunt-cut below her ears, recognizable only by the birthmark below her eye.
“But I wouldn’t.” He tents his hands over his coffee cup, feeling the warmth rise into his palms. It isn’t enough. “How are you, Laurie?”
“Lonely. I never realized how small we were before. How big the universe is.” She smiles wearily and manages to draw out an ember, finally, takes a deep, relieved drag. Smoke billows from her mouth, whirls and eddies around her face. “You’ve been traveling too.”
“A long time, it seems like.”
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Not yet. Soon, I hope.” He carves spirals into the side of the Styrofoam with his thumbnail. “I miss you,” he offers.
“Time is not linear. It’s always 1985 here. Always New York City, always Mars, always everywhere I’ll ever be. But it isn’t the same, not when…” He stares at those large, sad eyes. “Would you like to know what happens?”
He almost says yes, but the skin sloughs from her face, revealing glowing blue beneath, and maybe she does really know. “Laurie—what? No. Who would want to know that?”
Her eyes are lit from behind with white heat, and the smoke from her cigarette erupts into an all-consuming flame. The world is on fire. He sees blood running down the face of a clock, a woman covering her face with her hands as she stands amid the devastation, red oozing between her fingers, and he cries out as he opens his eyes.
“Scarier without face.” He can’t tell how long Rorschach has been awake, watching him, but judging from the dying light of the sun streaming in through the Venetian blinds, it’s probably been awhile. “So I’m told.”
“Mmm.” Dan flicks a stray curl from his partner’s forehead, and tries not to imagine waking up beside shifting inkblots, ignores the little thrill he gets from picturing that. “Definitely. You’re much more dangerous this way.” The shakes subside quickly, as if Rorschach’s presence frightens the very nightmares themselves.
“Could still back out,” Rorschach says. “Would be understandable.”
“Uh huh.” As difficult it is to extract himself from the warm bed, he squats on the floor and rifles through his bag until he finds his goggles. The rest of the costume is too conspicuous, and he wouldn’t feel right wearing it, not when Rorschach is without his own mask, but having night vision is just practical, really.
He looks up—Nite Owl again, maybe for the last time—and says, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
His muscles retain the memory of the steps to their old rooftop dance, the stops and starts, the tense pause before the leap, the exhale that follows it. They cross several blocks like this, a wild midnight run, and he missed it, he did. It’s another cold night, and the wind batters through their coats, threatens to hurl them off the buildings and into the deserted streets.
What compels us to do these things? To step outside of the boundaries that govern other men’s lives, to stand above the city where there is only one rule—
Never look down.
Rorschach turns to face him as he lands, ankles complaining, on the roof of the warehouse. He moves his mouth a few times as if to speak, and then settles for stretching his hand out. Dan clasps it in his own, holds it for a moment too long.
“Whatever happens…” he might have begun, but thinks better of it. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
Rorschach slips out of his grasp, and, hanging off the side of the roof, swings into a window in a cacophony of broken glass to land, crouched, on a ceiling beam. Dan follows, the ancient wood straining beneath his weight. He climbs down the scaffolding, the metal freezing through his gloves, and stumbles onto a catwalk. Rorschach grunts behind him and turns on his flashlight.
Dan leans into the railing and peers down. The floor is nearly empty; just a few shipping containers lined up behind pillars. There’s a trail where the dust is disturbed next to a forklift. The thin beam of the flashlight crosses the floor in a drunken arc, then swerves ahead of them to light the rows of offices along the catwalk. Somewhere below them, a metallic clang rings out, echoing in the vast, open space. Flecks of peeled paint crackle beneath their boots.
They find a computer in one of the offices, sitting on a desk covered with shipping invoices, as still and cold as everything else in the warehouse. Dan wipes dust from the screen with his sleeve, tries the power button while Rorschach leans in the doorframe, holding a metal pipe in one hand. Dan is about to give up on the machine when he sees the plug lying beside the wall, curses the encroaching sense of dread that makes it so goddamned difficult to think clearly, and brings the computer back to life.
It asks him immediately for a password, and of course the password isn’t RAMESES II because Veidt, whatever else he may have become, isn’t a complete idiot. He swears at it, which doesn’t work either, tries BUBASTIS and KARNAK and the names of every dead friend and enemy he can think of. He’s about to try, out of desperation, the name of Rorschach’s long-lost father when he hears the sizzle of electricity—thunder before lightning—and pain like a thousand barbed fishhooks tears through his seizing body and brings him, trembling, to his knees.
For a blistering instant, there is nothing in the world but pain.
His nerves are on fire, vision exploding like a firecracker into sparks of white, so all-encompassing that his crash against the edge of the desk doesn’t even register. Each gasping breath tears at his burning lungs, and he fights it, fights like he’s never fought for anything before, tells himself that if he gives in to the waves of rolling black that threaten to swallow him, he’ll never get up again. He staggers a little off the ground and the second shock comes and he knows now to stay right where he is or he’ll die.
He can’t see where they came from, the black-clad man wielding a stun gun above his neck, or his companion who has Rorschach in a chokehold against the opposite wall. Maybe they were always here, lying in wait. A third man, identically dressed and armed, brushes past them to pick up the wall-mounted phone and bark, “Code White—it’s them.” There’s a sound like a foghorn, and one by one, the fluorescent lights in the ceiling turn on.
Rorschach manages to grab a hold of the pipe again and tries to strike his attacker with it, but the man is expecting it and Dan feels the repeated flash of the stun gun into his partner’ body more than he hears it, and he winces in sympathy. It takes three shocks to subdue Rorschach, and even twitching on the floor, he’s still trying to get back up.
The man by the phone hits a button and a familiar voice, melodious despite the phone’s tinny reception, fills the office.
“And we were doing such a good job of staying out of each other’s way until now,” Adrian Veidt says, sounding genuinely disappointed in both of them.
“Show yourself.” Rorschach might be sprawled on a filthy floor with a stun gun pointed at his head, but he still manages to make his words threatening. Dan’s not even sure that he’d be able to speak now if he tried. His tongue feels thick and swollen in his mouth.
Veidt laughs. “That might be a little hard. I’m not exactly in your neighborhood. Don’t worry, I can see you perfectly well.”
Dan imagines him back in Karnak, in front of his wall of television screens, waves of color playing across his perfect face. He looks up at the security camera and tries to scowl, though he doubts he’s very menacing. The guard above him presses the toe of a boot into the back of his head.
“Coward,” Rorschach snarls. “Flee to safety, leave New York to burn. Leave us to clean up your mess.”
There’s a huff through a buzz of static. “I raised $80 million for reconstruction efforts in the space of a few days,” Veidt says. “What have you done lately?”
Days of ash, of the weight of a human body, of cold nights in cockroach-infested apartments, flash through Dan’s mind. It does no good to invoke those hours; they come accompanied by the stranger and more welcome memories that sleep curled inside his chest.
“When will you admit that I was right?” the telephone’s speaker asks. “For the first time, all major global hostilities have ceased. Former enemies have laid down their arms and joined forces to fight for humanity. This is the end of history and the beginning of something much greater. This is man, purged of original sin, freed from the burden of the past.”
“Take walk in city sometime,” Rorschach replies. “Then talk about sin.”
“If it weren’t for me,” Veidt’s voice turns acidic, “you wouldn’t have a city in the world left to beat up purse-snatchers in.”
Their eyes meet from across the floor, a quick and silent consultation, and then Rorschach kicks up at the guard and shoves him through the door, out onto the catwalk. Dan tries the same but his captor is faster, and a series of paralyzing shocks rips through him. He sees Rorschach twist the guard’s arms behind him and wrench the stun gun out of his hand. The man by the phone comes running, but his companion is already a human shield. Dan has seen his partner go out of his mind countless times, but now there’s nothing he can do but lie on the floor and watch.
It doesn’t go on for very long, blast after blast until Dan swears he can smell cooked meat. The second man lunges, and Rorschach pitches his captor-turned-victim at him, takes advantage of the moment of surprise and flings himself on them both, punching and biting at them like a rabid dog. Kicks one man down the stairs and as the other starts to rise, fires the stun gun into his chest and knocks him off the edge of the catwalk.
Rorschach pauses to look over the railing and, apparently satisfied, walks back into the office, blood smeared around his mouth, the tip of his pilfered stun gun crackling with electricity. He makes it inside the door before Dan catches another jolt of pain.
“Don’t move,” the guard holding him shouts. “One more step and I’ll fry your buddy.” He fires the gun again, just to drive the point home, and this time Dan can’t stifle his scream.
Rorschach freezes. His eyes go to Dan, and the telephone, and then back to Dan, and he doesn’t take another step.
“Well, now,” Veidt’s disembodied voice crows. “This is certainly interesting.”
“It seems that we both have each other’s attention,” Veidt continues. “What is it, exactly, that you’re after? I’ve got facilities all over the country—why didn’t you break into one a little closer to home?”
There’s a pause as Rorschach contemplates exactly how much to tell the man he’s vowed to hunt down and destroy. “Father worked here. Where is he, Veidt?”
Dan is fairly certain that he can hear Veidt rolling his eyes. “Would it kill you to use a possessive pronoun now and then?”
“My father. Worked for you. Dimensional Developments.” He looks like he’s ready to throttle the telephone, but the guard taps his stun gun against the side of Dan’s head, and he forces himself to be still.
Veidt is silent, and that’s when it occurs to Dan that he actually is confused, and while he might have been tracking them, lying in wait for them to show up, it’s only now that he’s learning the reason why. Were Dan not facing the floor, aftershocks of pain still scraping across his brittle nerves, he would have found their situation comically absurd. He feels like a woman who frets about the secrets her lover keeps from her, only to find that he’s been plotting all along to surprise her with an engagement ring.
“Daniel,” Veidt says slowly. “Is it just me, or is he sounding crazier than usual?”
It takes some effort to speak; his throat is raw and he realizes, belatedly, that it’s because he’s been screaming. “His name was Charlie Dewitt,” Dan says. “The last known address we found for him was a place of work. This warehouse. Your company.”
“Where is he?” Rorschach asks again, and he can’t quite keep the tremor out of his voice. “What did you do to him? How far back does this go?”
Veidt laughs. “You’re serious. You came all this way to…” A beat, then, “You came all this way for nothing. Tens of thousands of people have worked for me. I didn’t know most of them, and I didn’t know any of them well enough to let them in on what I had planned. It’s just a coincidence, I’m afraid.”
“Can’t be,” Rorschach says. “No coincidences. Not with you.” And Dan aches for him, because they both know Veidt well enough to hear in his voice when he’s lying. He isn’t, and if Dewitt was part of some great and terrible mechanism, it was only by happenstance. There is no meaning, not in any of this, just the pathetically mundane story of a man who got a woman pregnant and left, and whose life briefly intersected with the life of another man who saved the world by burning it down.
“Sorry,” and Dan thinks he hears something that’s half amusement, half pity. “Your father—if that man was your father—was a courier. A delivery boy. A cog in the machine—much like you are, in fact. Much like all of us are, myself included. But then, how many men truly know the effect their lives have on the world?”
“Not cog,” Rorschach snarls, and his tone is enough to make the guard jumpy. Dan steels himself, muscles tensed as he anticipates another machine-gun burst of torture. “Made decision of free will to lie, to kill millions, to betray what masks stood for. Did you kill father, too? Never came back.” Dan wills him silently to shut up, and not just because he fears the pain of the guard’s stun gun, but because it’s breaking his heart to see the last of his partner’s illusions smashed to pieces at Adrian Veidt’s feet.
And then Veidt says, with a furious passion that Dan remembers but that nevertheless shakes him to the core: “You think you understand.” His voice fills the room, and neither of them want to, but they’re both looking up, like it’s the voice of God speaking through the static. “You believe you’ve suffered because you had a bad childhood, because you have a little blood on your hands? That isn’t suffering, not by a long shot.”
Rorschach, unimpressed, replies: “Know real suffering, I presume.”
“Do you know why it was New York? I could have dropped the monster on Moscow just as easily. The Aztecs understood; that’s why they sacrificed the strongest and most beautiful youths they could find. Not out of hate, you see, not out of jealousy, but out of love. Abraham knew it, as he prepared to slaughter his son. That’s suffering—taking the thing you love most, and destroying it.” He takes a deep breath. “If, of course, there’s anything at all that you actually love.”
Rorschach doesn’t answer, and, Dan thinks, it isn’t as though either of them is expecting him to anyway.
“Are we done?” Veidt asks lightly. To the guard, as if they’re having a private chat, he says, “Kill them.”
The man—unaware in his last moments that he is one of three people in the world to know Veidt’s secret, that this knowledge doomed him from the beginning—fires wildly in a shower of sparks before he’s overcome by his own weapon, his companion’s weapon, and the white-hot vengeance of a maddened vigilante. Dan manages to crawl a few feet away before he collapses, nausea roiling over him, beestings prickling across his skin.
He’s barely aware that he’s being pulled up, of the leather gloves, warm and slick with fresh blood, batting against his face, trying to keep him from passing out—and, he thinks, sadly, trying to comfort him. “Daniel,” Rorschach keeps whispering. “Daniel. Please.”
Dan closes his eyes and rests his throbbing head against his partner’s shoulder, folds his arms around him, and he isn’t sure which one of them is leaning on the other. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’m still here.”
They stay like that for a long time.
This is the life that Walter Kovacs didn’t have.
An old woman opens the door to a small house on a hill outside of the city limits. A cat weaves between her ankles, eyeing her visitors with suspicion. Rain leeches from their coats, and she tells them not to bother taking their shoes off as they come inside; she’s cleaning this afternoon anyway, and what’s a little more dirt?
Dan is surprised that in the end, all it took was a flip through the phone book and two stilted conversations with unrelated and baffled Dewitts before they found her. She is happy to see them, even when he tells her what it’s about. She doesn’t, she says, get out much these days, and her children are both in college and live on the other side of the country. And Charlie, well, Charlie…
Rorschach braces his hands on the mantelpiece, staring at the framed photograph: a man with a wandering eye, his wife, their two smiling, redheaded children who didn’t grow up in a Bronx tenement, cowering from their mother’s johns and from her bouts of hysterical rage. A small and ordinary life, squeezed between needlepoint and porcelain figurines, and dusted lovingly every Sunday afternoon.
“He was never very open about his past,” the woman is saying. “I knew he had a history, but—after the war, there were so many things that no one wanted to speak about. And men weren’t expected to share their feelings.” She puts a hand on Rorschach’s arm, pretending not to be revolted by his shabby, bloodstained clothes, at the nightmare apparition in her living room, and he lets her, pretending that he’s not disgusted by a woman’s touch. “You look like him.”
He swallows. “Have been told that.”
“I’m not sure what it is that you want to know. He never talked about your mother, or you. He might not have even known.”
They are standing in the house where Rorschach’s father died—in bed, according to his widow—quietly and unremarkably the same year that his son went searching for a little girl and found two German Shepherds gnawing on her bones. There’s nothing they can ask this woman, and so for some time they all stand there in awkward silence until she offers them coffee or tea or maybe, if they want, they should go visit the cemetery where he’s buried. She can give them directions.
“Yeah,” Dan looks over at his partner, quietly focused on the photograph that Dan wants to smash except it isn’t this woman’s fault, it isn’t the fault of those kids, and so it’s wrong to hate them a little on Rorschach’s behalf. “I think he’d like that.”
“We had a good life,” she says abruptly. “It wasn’t perfect by any means. There were affairs; we almost got divorced, but you stayed together in those days. You forgave. Not like now. He cared for his family. You—you should know that he was a good man.”
Rorschach nods, and still avoiding her eyes, says: “Already knew.”
“Do you have a family, Walter?” The words are out of her mouth before her face turns contrite as she remembers that it’s one of those questions that you’re not supposed to ask New Yorkers.
This morning, in yet another motel room, drained and damaged and still sleepless, rain thumping against the window, he feels the warm body next to him shift to hold him closer, the faltering touch of fingers tracing the burns on his skin as if to banish them…
A mouth claiming his in a kiss that is unsure and inexperienced, eyes wide open as if he doesn’t quite believe that he’s doing this...
And his own realization that comes just as haltingly, that he can still be caught off guard by someone he has known for two decades, that his heart, battered as it is, can still sing…
“Yes,” Rorschach says. “Have family. Would be lost, otherwise.”
“Good,” she says brightly, writing down an address on a piece of notepaper, utterly unaware of the furtive looks that pass between the two men. “There’s nothing in the world more important.”
Outside, Rorschach stands by the car, looking out at the late afternoon gleam of the skyline through the rain that drips off the rim of his fedora. Dan watches him for a moment before he slips into the driver’s seat and reaches over to unlock the door on the other side.
“You all right?” he asks.
“Veidt still out there. Knows he can’t trust you. Probably planning…” Rorschach stops, places his hand over Dan’s where it sits on the clutch. “Yes. Am fine, now.”
This is the life that Walter Kovacs has instead.
This story, like so many others, ends in a vast, windswept cemetery.
The identical rows of gravestones and rain soaked flags stretch up and down the hills, blurring together into rippling patterns between palm trees. The black letters etched into white stone say nothing about the man or his legacy, but Dan, keeping a respectful distance away, looks for meaning in them nevertheless.
Rorschach stands before his father’s grave with his head bowed, then bends down and plucks a flower from a wreath that someone has placed there. He contemplates it in silence before placing it in the lapel of his trenchcoat and rejoining Dan.
They walk together for some time through a city of ghosts, to where the car waits at the bottom of the hill. “Was it better to not know?” Dan asks finally.
“Always better to know truth,” and Dan envies him a little for still being able to believe that. “Daniel?”
He admits that he hasn’t thought of it. They were prepared to die, after all, and so he hasn’t thought about their dwindling cash supply or the very real possibility that his car won’t make it all the way back to New York. Nor has he let it sink in that things are different in Veidt’s strange and molten new world. That they are different, somehow, stripped of their armor, their skin, their certainties, their secrets raw and exposed.
“We go on,” he says quietly. “We endure, like ordinary people endure. We try to repair the world. Even without masks, if we have to.”
“Hurm,” Rorschach says. “Don’t know how.”
Dan shrugs, trying to find his keys. “Neither do I. But we’ll figure it out.” He’s relieved at the jingle in the bottom of his pocket; the inside of the car, at least, is warm and dry, even if he has no idea where they’re supposed to go from here. Maybe he’ll just keep driving, down the coast where the highway hugs the curve of the continent, between the mountains and the ocean, all the way to Tijuana, where they can find new faces and new names and another world that needs saving.
One always finds one’s burden again. But for now, he can imagine for a moment that they are free, and the dead lie sleeping in their wake.