Rating: PG, go figure.
Pairing: Um. Ozymandias/Manservants. So very sorry.
Disclaimer: They all belong to Alan Moore.
Summary: Five times Adrian Veidt showed mercy, and one time he didn’t.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
—Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
01. add rider?
He didn’t need to make the password to his computer so easy to guess. He’s the smartest man in the world; the complicated and seemingly random string of numbers and letters is stored in his phenomenal brain and he changes it twice a day. He remembers every convoluted secret code that he ever created.
He knows that they will figure out his plan. He knows they’re coming for him. They’re clever; that’s why, throughout the years, he’s tolerated Dreiberg’s waffling insecurity and Rorschach’s thuggish fascism. He just worries that they won’t figure it out quickly enough.
They are only mortal, after all.
He can kill millions. He killed Blake and Moloch. And he will probably kill his old friends too, in time. But first, he thinks, he will try to bring them around to his way of thinking, and failing that, at least they will not die anonymous deaths.
He tells himself that he wants his surviving colleagues to bear witness to his masterstroke, the culmination of everything he has worked for, the shining instant where the new world rises from the decaying shell of the old. He tells himself that he likes Dreiberg and, unlike everyone else who has stood in front of the steamroller that will erase history, the guy has really done nothing to deserve death. He tells himself this, and he ignores the whisper he hears beneath the surface of these reassurances sometimes, the voices that tells him that if they can die along with half a city, perhaps he will meet his own end as ignobly.
Like all great men, he doesn’t fear death, not when he’s certain that his legacy will live on after him.
Like all great men, he doesn’t fear.
He leads them right up to the door of Karnak and spares them from Armageddon, and he tells himself that he’s doing them a favor.
It is the summer of 1970, and the heat makes everyone a little crazy. Adrian’s costume clings to him like a second skin and sweat wells around his headband. He’s out of place here, glittering gold and amethyst amid the squalor and rot.
He’s taken to patrolling alone these days, though he’s unsure of whether it’s because of circumstance or intention. Sometimes, he just likes to walk. The city is never silent, and he converses with it, a collage of conversation and slamming doors and squealing tires worthy of a Burroughs’ cut-up.
There’s a boy soliciting a man on a street corner. The man turns away as he sees Adrian coming, and the boy hightails it in the other direction, Adrian in pursuit. He’s fast and scrawny, and he fights hard when Adrian grabs him by the wrists and shoves him up against a wall.
“Wasn’t doing nothin’,” he spits.
“Yes, I’m sure you weren’t.” Adrian restrains him, his elbow jabbing into the boy’s back, as he reaches for a cord to tie him up. “You can take it up with the police.”
“And what do you think they’ll do?” His voice loses its edge all of a sudden, and Adrian gets a good look at his face—maybe 16 or 17, hungry and desperate and trying to act tough but clearly scared shitless. His body, wrapped in tight jeans and wife-beater stained with sweat, is lean and hard, but his face is still a child’s. “Come on, man. Just let me go. I’ll suck your dick if you want.”
Appalled, Adrian releases him as violently as he caught him in the first place. “I don’t want—” Or if he does, he wouldn’t. Heroes don’t accept blowjobs from street urchins in alleyways. “Go,” he says. “Don’t let me see you here again.”
The boy starts to flee, and then doesn’t. “You do,” he says, “want it.” He runs a hand through his hair and tries a sneer that on his youthful face, reminds Adrian of a Rottweiler puppy that hasn’t grown into its paws yet.
Adrian reaches for his wallet and retrieves a $20 bill. It’s all he has on him; usually when he’s on patrol he doesn’t carry a wallet at all. The boy edges forward, nervous, and starts to drop to his knees when Adrian grabs his forearm, forces him to stay standing, and presses the money into his palm.
“Just get yourself something to eat, all right?”
The boy presses up against him, and Adrian feels the soft touch of his lips, breath that tastes like chewing gum. He’s hard as a rock, and through the spandex he’s sure the kid can feel it, but he’s good, damn it, and he shoves the boy away and watches him scamper back down the alleyway, and he slumps against the wall and curses a world where the desperate turn to crime.
Years later, he will tell a reporter a story about a mother who shoplifts to feed her children, and the reporter will believe, as everyone does, that Adrian is a good and moral man.
He’s been to India, twice, and there’s nothing glamorous about famine. That’s why no one in the West cares. You see flies sticking to the eyelids of children, the smell of diarrhea, sores on skin that barely clings to bone, and even if you’re a good person, you flinch and you turn away. He did.
And then he forced himself to turn back.
The audience is exquisitely dressed; it’s a $200-a-plate dinner, and he is a god before them. He swings through the air, as effortlessly as if he had wings, and he remembers a skeletal woman weeping into his shoulder, blood from a boil on her cheek streaking across his expensive suit. She clutches a baby to her sagging breast, an infant that will not survive the night.
“Please, Mister Veidt,” she whispers, in her broken English though he speaks fluent Hindi. “You must help us.”
He is lighter than air, and he laughs as he executes a stunning backflip high above the crowd, the stars embedded in the Astrodome’s roof gleaming in the spotlights. They applaud, and somewhere a child, driven mad with thirst, kneels in the dust, cupping sewer water in his hands.
He’s been so lucky, he thinks, and he will be luckier still soon enough. His fans see him as the face of a worthy cause, and he looks back at their faces and sees only disease and death. He spins and leaps and whirls and he wills their cheers to drown out the sound of weeping that follows him wherever he goes.
04. a paper blanket is better than no blanket
Even after the war is over, Nguyen Van Duc still believes.
His comrades know that they will die here, in this high and lonely place, but Duc reminisces about fat raindrops sliding down banana tree leaves as he lies in his benefactor’s bed. Adrian murmurs acknowledgement but isn’t really listening as Duc’s hands—practiced, after so many years—caress his sculpted muscles. Duc talks about freedom, as if the war had never ended, as if one day, he’ll rejoin the friends that Dr. Manhattan has blown to pieces, that Ho Chi Minh himself will rise from the dead and lead them to victory.
He may be safe in a fortress on a continent that belongs to no one, but he’s far from peaceful. It’s that fire that burns in him, the stubborn refusal to quit even in the face of history’s most conclusive defeat, that makes Adrian summon him to his bedroom night after night, long after Duc has shed his youth and beauty. Like Adrian’s vivarium, sheltered from the vicious wind, like the Egyptian statuary believed lost to history, Duc doesn’t truly belong here, would never survive without Adrian’s love and protection. He takes a certain pleasure in preserving this life, like a rare and delicate blossom.
This is the last night they will spend together, and if Duc notices that something is different about Adrian, he doesn’t mention it. Adrian has asked for each of the men in turn. Duc is last, and Adrian tells him to take his time. He throws his head back as Duc takes him into his mouth, and Duc studies the line of his neck, the cords of muscle moving beneath golden skin. Duc could kill him now, quickly and silently, and perhaps he has thought of it, but despite his restlessness, he believes that Adrian means it when he speaks of a better world.
Duc isn’t naïve; he knows that Adrian is planning something terrible, an act that will slaughter millions of the same people who don’t lose a moment’s sleep over millions of dead Vietnamese peasants. Adrian doesn’t share much with him, but there’s reason to hope, nevertheless, and when they talk of utopias, Karnak seems less a prison than a cocoon from which some bright and strange butterfly will one day emerge.
Adrian almost brings Duc with him into the future. But utopia is beyond politics and ideology. In the world to come, there will be no America, but nor will there be a Russia or a Democratic Republic of Vietnam. There will be no idealists and no warriors. Like Moses, those who once fought for justice will die in the wilderness so that others may reach the Promised Land untainted. To liberate them, swiftly and painlessly, is an act of kindness.
The poison in Duc’s wine is sweet, and as he drifts off listening to Adrian’s voice, he is flying home.
He loves New York. There isn’t a place in the world he hasn’t been, but she is a forgiving mistress, and she always welcomes him home.
In the days that follow the Comedian’s death, he can feel his destiny approaching. He takes a walk down familiar sidewalks, beneath neon lights reflected in pools of rain. In civilian clothes, beneath a black umbrella, no one recognizes him. This is not a part of town where one makes eye contact with strangers.
His wallet is full of bills of various denominations, and every time a panhandler asks him for spare change, he pauses to give the unfortunate soul whichever one he grabs first. He gives half a million dollars away in one night. It’s funny, he thinks, but they usually don’t notice right away. The ones that do run their fingers over the paper, once, twice, frowning in confusion. No one truly believes that generosity exists, not anymore.
The redheaded homeless man by the newsstand never asks for money, though presumably people give it to him anyway. He’s standing by a dumpster with a sign proclaiming the end of the world, and for a moment, as Adrian stops before him, there’s a glint of recognition in his dull eyes.
How much, Adrian wonders, is this poor sod’s story worth? He settles on a $50 and doesn’t, for some reason, expect the guy to take it. But he stuffs it into the pocket of his tattered coat, grunts something that might have been a thank you, and picks up his sign again, weighing heavily on his shoulder like a cross.
He’ll be dead soon, like every recipient of Adrian’s burst of conscience tonight. But then, everyone dies, and that shouldn’t prevent one from treating people decently in the meantime.
06. and then
Every death he’s ever planned has been almost instantaneous: Blake, thrown from a window, his secretary, felled by a single bullet, the hired assassin by cyanide, the bombs on the ship. The world will not be so fortunate. He imagines a future of toxic air, radiation sickness, cancer. There are tanks in Pakistan, in East Berlin, and the clock ticks closer to midnight.
When the world is sick, you don’t prolong its suffering.
He had thought that there would be a moment that he knew was right, but as he sees the images on his television screen, he knows he can’t wait for it. Even his lynx won’t approach; it’s as though she’s frightened of him, as if she somehow instinctively senses the import of what he is about to do.
The stray thoughts that gather in one’s mind at times like these. He remembers a party in Manhattan, a joke someone was telling, and it should worry him that he can’t recall what they were celebrating, but he thinks he was happy, then.
He expects to feel something—elation, grief, despair—when he pushes the button. His entire life has led to this moment.
He tells himself that the emptiness will pass, in time.
And for an added bonus, have a poem by Ho Chi Minh.
A COMRADE'S PAPER BLANKET
New books, old books,
the leaves all piled together.
A paper blanket
is better than no blanket.
You who sleep like princes,
sheltered from the cold,
Do you know how many men in prison
cannot sleep all night?
Written while in prison. Translated by Kenneth Rexroth, whose poetry you should also read.