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mustinvestigate: Fallout and Rorschach, together at last (cyborg rorschach)
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Title: All Quiet on the Liminal Fringe (5/?)
Author: MustInvestigate
Disclaimer: I only own action figures
Rating: PG – eventual NC17
Character(s)/Pairing: OT3
Warning(s): Pretentiousness; abuse of noir tropes
Summary: Because [livejournal.com profile] tuff_ghost sez it can’t be done…an endless Watchmen / William Gibson-verse crossover, existing via the kink meme. Dreiberg, Kovacs, and Laurie Isham are vigilante cowboys dedicated to making life difficult for the cybercriminals and megacorps that keep a stranglehold on a dystopian world’s 11 billion lives. (It’s better than that sounds. I hope.) Compiled here because I lost my drafts in a computer frak-up and had a bugger of a time finding the various parts on the meme – now cleaned up and slightly expanded.




Two security techs hovered uncertainly behind Dreiberg, projecting the bland V-A logo. They flashed anxious binary strings – obviously very junior techs, lacking even vocalising software, and exactly the type to be too frantic with worry for their distantly beloved boss to follow his orders to disengage. This was their unit, their responsibility, their world’s most famous philanthropist tycoon about to get squished like a blood-gorged mosquito in it, and Dreiberg had better not let that happen or else…

Dreiberg spared a millisecond of smug sympathy for the poor neutered bastards and kicked them out of harm’s immediate way. Veidt was already on the attack. The thing should have screamed in dumb pain or at least rage, but in the eerie silence the only sign of the two titans joining was decryption ripples cutting through the beast as it deflected them toward less essential programming. It began to expand back out of quarantine, perhaps finally sensing the trap.

“Oh no you don’t,” Dreiberg growled, slicing into one of the moving fault lines. He ripped the carapace open and peeked inside, sussing out what he could of the breathtakingly complicated structure, leaping back as it expanded to engulf him. It had nothing like human eyes, just a multifaceted surface that reflected fragments of him – a wasp’s ommatidia, thoughtlessly malicious. Nothing looked back at him from inside it.

He dodged the first attack, strategising on the fly. He needed to drive it far enough in to snap it shut without risking any fraction’s escape. Some of these things were designed to be literal viruses, exploding into miniscule seeds that infected servers, transforming them into disease factories. No, this had to be clean.

He launched looping attacks that impacted on the thing’s nominal midsection, inside the quarantine, forcing it to inch back over the vulnerable spots like a caterpillar. (Veidt’s surprised curse told him he’d aimed well.) It was nearly clear of the threshold, as Dreiberg couldn’t help but wish that his partners were here to see him beat back this monster, when it switched back to offence. It attacked, faster than human thought, and just one lick of the spiked tentacle caught on and ripped away the layers of protections he’d spent years tinkering to perfection.

His nerves howled, insisting every hair on his body had been ripped out by the root at once. He dove backward, away from the second swipe that fell just short of him as Veidt launched a particularly vicious barrage on the other side.

That didn’t actually hurt, he told himself. Just your overactive imagination playing tricks. His distant body believed differently, writhing in Veidt’s supremely comfortable office chair. It listened only to the other voice, the one chanting damn damn damn, Adrian, I’m sorry…

But! a third voice chimed in, the analytical part of his brain that wouldn’t notice if the world around a fascinating puzzle turned to honeycombs and winged cows, let alone a little thing like imminent death. Look!

He looked, even though he had only a few moments of life remaining – and, to be fair, no other pressing plans – and saw the monster’s innards, reclassified. It was impossibly complex, yes, but most of the segments were just appropriated razzle-dazzle, intended solely to confound an ignorant tech. The only important nodes were here – here – here – and here and if Adrian knew where to focus his efforts, they had a chance to really take down this thing…

Hell, without a scrap of armor to hold him back, he’d only be faster.

Ridiculously, he imagined he heard Laurie calling his name. Perfect, he thought, why not, a beautiful lady to witness my heroic sacrifice and weep attractively over my grave. She looks so damn good in black, too…

No time. Veidt was faltering, would be a smoking corpse back in the meat world any second now. Dreiberg threw himself into the morass of triumphantly whipping tentacles, diving and weaving, expecting with every millisecond to be caught and ripped in two. It spurred him on, determined to get as close as possible before it got him – he’d be the legendary cowboy after this, not Veidt – and suddenly found himself at the break he’d made in its carapace. Disbelieving his luck – his skill, his goddamn skill! – he activated and flung ID shards into the vulnerable nodes and closed his eyes, finished.

“Dreiberg, you idiot, get out of there!”

That was Laurie’s voice – how – why – who cared – the offensive tentacles were inverting, converging on his noisy beacons, and finally – finally! – pulled itself entirely inside the unit. He slammed the entrance shut and triple-sealed every edge.

Laurie hovered behind the techies. She batted one out of the way and sprinted to Dreiberg’s side. “Oh, Dan – if you could only see what it’s done to you…”

“I have an idea,” he sighed.

She squinted. “Missed your hinder entirely, though. Weird. What was that thing?”

He touched the side of the containment unit, looking for weaknesses. He found nothing obvious – classic V-A construction. But it was vanishingly rare to find something truly impermeable…

“Strike virus,” he told Laurie. “Nastiest I’ve ever encountered, and keyed to Veidt. You – ” he pointed to the techs, “is there a backdoor to this thing?”

They hesitated before blipping out nervous affirmatives.

“Typical,” Dreiberg snorted. “You two, watch this. Don’t – don’t – try to open it. Laurie – what are you even doing here?”

She grinned sheepishly. “We came to rescue you.”

“We?”

She gestured toward the emptiness at her feet. “Well, I came, and since we’re bound together, Kovacs had to come, too…and, you know, there’s no way I can explain this quickly without it sounding like fetish porn, so what can I do to help?”

Dreiberg willed away that mental image – carefully filing it away for later, he admitted to himself – and told her, “Watch these yahoos. They’ll try to rip open the damn thing as soon as my back is turned. Don’t let them. Kick them, or something.”

Laurie’s projection was suddenly less pretty and much more muscular. She grinned and superfluously cracked pixelated knuckles. “Oh, gentlemen…”

The front secured, Dreiberg made his way to the backdoor no secure system should have and nearly all did. There wasn’t a programmer breathing that didn’t have a little cowboy in him. A nanosecond’s hack revealed that the access code was “Password.” He upgraded it to a 3648-character string and protected that with Level 16 encryption. It was the principle of the thing, and it killed almost half of the tense 15 seconds it took Veidt to finish off the beast.

The containment unit beeped – contamination exterminated! Dreiberg popped open the roughly hacked hatch.

Veidt eased himself out, projection a little fuzzy around the edges but otherwise visibly no worse for wear. “This should not be here! What bright boy put a backdoor on a quarantine unit?”

Dreiberg grinned, relieved to see the other man in one piece. “Fine, jump back in. I’ll seal this up and you can try your luck with the proper exit. I only had time to throw on three firewalls, and past those are two extremely hair-triggered security techs dying to be the ones who ice Veidt’s assassin-bot.”

Veidt winced theatrically. “I think I’ve had enough exercise for one morning. Dreiberg – Daniel, I need you to do something for me.”

“Saving your sorry hide wasn’t enough?” Dreiberg joshed, but his yay-we’re-alive giddiness dissolved as fine lines appeared on Veidt’s perfect image.

“This may be far more important. Daniel, please. I need someone I can trust.” He thrust a smaller version of the containment unit in his hands. “Take this. Analyse it for me. It’s what’s left of that thing – as soon as I cracked it, it self-terminated. I could barely move quickly enough to retain this much.”

The tiny box felt heavier than an anvil. As heavy as an anvil could be, in weightless pixels. “You’ve got an army of techs, the best in the world – ”

Veidt cut him off with a curt gesture, pulling himself upright. “No, Daniel – we both know that would be you. When you’re willing to exert yourself to your full potential, at least. And – ”

Dreiberg’s automatic argument dried on his lips at the raw fear that drifted across Veidt’s expression. “And this thing came from inside my organisation. The Pyramid Transport documentation codes – I saw just a flash, before it dissolved, but it was there. It originated from at least one of my own people.”

“You own Pyramid? Hell, they deliver my mail. And my take-out. And that time I needed a test subject for – ”

“Obviously, I can’t leave this to my own security force – may as well stab myself in the throat. Then, at least, I could add ‘streamlined assassination process’ to my quarterly self-assessment.”

The world’s richest man smiled mirthlessly at his friend, who could only nod his agreement. “I’ll take a look at it. Wait, you actually have to assess yourself every three months? You can’t get out of that, as the man in charge of the known universe?”

“For the stockholders. No one escapes death, taxes, or quarterly self-assessments.”

“Except me. Hell, I’m two for three today, so far, and since I’ve got no income to speak of…”

“You’re a bastard, Dreiberg.”

“I’ll have Kovacs administer an assessment to me later, if it makes you feel better. He’s a demon for standardised testing.”

He left Veidt snickering as he marshalled his troops and began directing them to scope out the massive damage wrecked on his company in the last two minutes. He found Laurie metaphorically kicking the hell out of one of the techs.

“Oh, more lipstick? And higher heels? Sure, I can arrange that!”

Dreiberg refused to laugh at the poor idiot, his neat uniform V-A transformed into a rough humanoid, an alphabetic trannie prostitute. He couldn’t help noticing that the design looked more than a little like Sally Isham’s famous white-hat costume.

“Laurie, er, are you sure it wasn’t female to begin with?”

She shook her head, and the logo acquired even longer cascading tresses. “No, she is,” she said, pointing to the other tech drone, which seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. “This one…no, not from what he was flashing, Mr-Thinks-Binary-Is-His-Own-Secret-Code. Have fun unpicking the upgrades, asshole!”

She took Dreiberg’s hand and dragged them back to the disused server he and Kovacs often used as a message drop.

“How did you know about this place?” he asked.

She grinned. “Oh, I know about all of your little no-girls-allowed clubhouses. Hell, I even know where Kovacs really lives. I’m here right now, and it’s far more terrifying than you could possibly imagine.”

She was in no hurry to change her muscle-bound projection, he noticed, watching her happily stretch and flex. “Veidt’s safe?” she asked.

“For now,” he nodded.

“What’s he know about Blake?”

“Funny, I’ve been too distracted with one petty thing and another to ask him,” he snapped back, then sighed. “Sorry. I’ll ask him in a minute. But it’s not looking good – the two attacks may be entirely unrelated, although Hollis thinks this was connected to Blake somehow. There’s no reason to suspect anyone’s gunning for white hats, after only two incidents, both individuals with many enemies – ”

“Kovacs and I were targeted by at least four goons outside the Mystic’s. That’s why we had to go underground. Well, metaphorically underground. Related to that, we have a standing invitation to stay in the Luddite Heights with the tribals, should you feel like an exciting day trip any time soon.”

“You two were busy,” he observed. He didn’t exactly like the thought of his partners getting along. What was she doing at Kovacs’ place, anyway?

“We’re hiding,” she continued. “It might not be safe to go home for a while. But – we might need to, soon. Or I might, at least. Where, uh, you know that K still keeps stims hidden in your place?”

Dreiberg sighed. “Third floorboard from the right in the guest room, in the ginger pot in the kitchen, and duct-taped under the back stairs. There’s probably a few more I haven’t stumbled across.”

“You know? He said you flushed them.”

“I used to. But he’d just keep pushing himself, the stubborn bastard, drag along on pixie sticks and adrenaline, instead of giving in and taking a nap or two like a normal human being. He’d get careless, dangerously so, and…grumpy. He’d go out to buy more stims like that, just begging to be rolled for his components and left for dead in some filthy alley. So now…I just pretend I don’t know where they are, since I still certainly don’t approve. It’s best that way.”

“Oh, god,” Laurie laughed. “You two are so cute. So goddamn precious, it hurts. I could dress up in a schoolgirl uniform and bunny slippers and hop around singing about my love for Pikachu, and you two would still take the kawaii blue ribbon.”

Dreiberg paused for several seconds to absorb that image. “…thank you?”

“I’ll have to go back for them, unless you’ve got cash to buy more?”

He shook his head. “You’ve got it all. Why are you so concerned about feeding Kovacs’ drug habit?”

“Let’s just say I fully support him dodging dreamland for the rest of his life. Perpetually conscious Kovacs is a very good thing. He’s out cold now and, Dan – ” she flexed her fingers, projecting a cigarette into them and toying with it, “do you know anything about him? From before you partnered up?”

“Just that he grew up in the Charlton Maximum Security Orphanarium…so…I’d assume he was an orphan?” Dreiberg shifted uncomfortably. There was a little more, in his medical records, but Laurie could run that hack herself if she really wanted to know. He’d kept a close eye on Kovacs and never seen any lingering effects, so there was no reason to worry Laurie with the possibility he might end up the way those other poor orphans had.

“Hmm…” she projected thoughtfully. “Does he, did he have dark hair like mine under all that metal, by any chance?”

“I have no idea,” Dreiberg replied, baffled. “Look, I have to catch up to Vedit – ”

“And K isn’t going to return to the land of the living any time soon. If you promise to not run open-armed into any death traps and stay under Veidt’s sheltering wing in the meantime – ”

“Hey!”

“ – we can meet up in the diner and compare notes after sunset.”

“Daniel?” Just a whisper of projection, seeming to come from behind Laurie’s shoulder.

“He’s fine, K, see? Safe under a billion layers of V-A security. Don’t try to wake up.” She made an odd gesture, like stroking an invisible waist-high cat, and it left Dreiberg’s chest tight with uncertain resentment.

“I have to go,” he projected abruptly. “See you in 12 hours.”

Back in the real world, men in crisp catering whites placidly arranged a small feast on the broad desk. The smell of warm spices hit Dreiberg’s empty stomach like a freighter. It seemed mad that any V-A employee could be so calm, only two minutes into the most devastating corporate blitzkrieg in a generation.

Veidt absently crumbled a poppadom, staring into his wall of monitors as he took in the data from his headset. A cascade of “…and this just in”s bubbled from the mouths of uniformly stunning newsreaders as they abandoned the pre-set news cycle of celebrity press releases for an actual event. Dreiberg left him to absorb the simultaneous reports, helping himself to the korma frittata. Even Veidt’s world falling down around their ears couldn’t distract him from the luxury of real eggs and meat, and he ate until his belt buckle threatened to pop. Kovacs would be in heaven, he thought wistfully.

Veidt picked at the crumbs of his poppadom. “It could been have worse,” he judged, finally, muting the volume as the newscasters moved on gratefully to an update on Jon Osterman’s recovery from “exhaustion.” (Currently: still tired.) His eyes flicked from side to side as he scanned incoming damage control reports. “It could have been much worse.”

“Yes, I could be having breakfast with a cinder across the table,” Dreiberg snarked, expecting the impatient look Veidt shot him. “It would have put me right off my feed.”

“I can likely replenish the charity funds that thing destroyed from the marketing budget, but the stockholders are going to scream bloody murder,” Veidt told him, ice rimming the words. “Unless you believe the benevolent czars of industry will step up to rescue the victims of their environmental tampering themselves?”

“What’s the real story with Blake?” Dreiberg asked quietly, refusing to be drawn into their usual debate.

“I suppose I should feign surprise you’re aware of his death? No?” Veidt sighed. “The official word, to those few with the security clearance to be notified, is suicide. The official rumor we’ve leaked is that he was the victim of a simple burglary gone wrong, far more embarrassing for a man of his reputation. The truth?” He shrugged. “We’re investigating, but…he had many enemies, Dreiberg.”

“As many as you?”

Veidt raised a perfect eyebrow. It wasn’t plucked into a neat arch; it simply had the good taste to grow that way. “Is this an interrogation?”

“A very polite one.”

A reluctant smile quirked his lips. “You always manage to make me laugh. Visit more often. But, no, Blake and I didn’t get on, as you well know. I never approved of his methods, pioneer or not. But…he did much good, usually inadvertently. In any case, I hope you know I’d never harm a former comrade in arms, no matter what the provocation.”

“Provocation like – ”

Veidt’s lips thinned. “That was a misunderstanding. We mended fences soon after.”

“A misunderstanding? You were under the myelin reconstructor for days!”

“Little more than a bloody nose from a playground scuffle. He mistook me for a black hat and reacted instinctively, no more, no less, and very long ago.”

Veidt sipped his chai and looked right through him. Sterner men than Dreiberg would have changed the subject.

“Two attacks on us in two days…” He didn’t know why he left out the attempted attack on his partners. Possibly because he had no more information than that they’d been chased and escaped without discovering who’d pursued them, or why.

“Correlation is not causation, Dreiberg. My security forces are already on the matter of Blake’s death; kindly focus your energies on my beast.”

Dreiberg bit his tongue. If he let the words on it escape, Veidt would calmly apologise and pester him with how he felt the available brainpower would be best used until Dreiberg felt the only escape was to jam his underwear over his head and leap out the window.

“There’s a cot in my private study,” Veidt offered with the same despotic kindness. Dreiberg fell asleep with his shoes on, resentment smothered in the softness of genuine goosedown.

He woke violently, throwing himself out of nightmares, the horizon eaten by a ball of flame and ripping his head off to see the same vicious tentacles ripping their way through the Sprawl. Veidt had been by his side, not the cool corporate magnate but the fiery idealist he’d been a decade before. Ivory teeth shone red with reflected fire, exposed in the devilish grin Dreiberg hadn’t seen since the man stepped forward, revealing that the brilliant hacker ironically calling himself “Veidt” was in fact the new titular leader of everything that mattered.

He was the first truly public face of a very secretive dynasty, tripling profits in the first year by sheer good looks (or so the legend was passed down from accountant to clerk each hiring cycle). His parents, siblings, and ill-defined lesser relatives waited in suspended animation for their turn to reclaim chairmanship, the schedule of which was one of many subjects a lesser mortal dared not broach. Even Kovacs had been unable to dig up anything but a series of bloodless maintenance memos between the sleepers’ notoriously bellicose lawyers.

Dreiberg took a quick shower before searching for his host, using every product he found there; he emerged over-moisturised and smelling like an extremely tasteful cathouse. He found Veidt still at his desk, a pale shadow of stubble marring his jawline.

Veidt shook his head as Dreiberg approached, a quick side-to-side jerk. “I’ll walk you out,” he commanded, tucking his rig into an inside jacket pocket. “By the way, could you pass on to Miss Isham both my admiration for her…creative…attack and a polite request she not do so again? I’d rather my techs were currently focused on their work at this time, not de-splicing Manolos from their projections.”

Dreiberg shrugged. “She said he was rude to her.”

“According to the recording, he only offered a somewhat risqué compliment about the honor of meeting Sally Isham’s daughter.”

Dreiberg tried to catch his eye, to pick up whatever flickering message the other man couldn’t get across verbally, but Veidt stayed a half-step ahead of him. Employees stared in wonder as he stepped through the common areas of his building. Several snapped furtive pictures as they passed. Dreiberg tried to keep his face turned aside, but they came from too many angles. Kovacs was going to be pissed when those popped up on dozens of cyberlogs in the next few minutes, making Dreiberg an accidental celebrity for a few hours. Kovacs avoided Veidt himself for exactly that reason. Among many others, including the restraining order.

Veidt smiled benignly into the middle distance, seeming to pinpoint each employee with a single nod. The pair moved in a buzz of whispers, an irritating smother of white noise.

“I woke up remembering,” Dreiberg broke it with a defiant murmur. “The old days, you know? Before you were a living god.”

Veidt snorted quietly, his expression tightening slightly.

“You always had such big plans, so frustrated you couldn’t cut the world into orderly pieces and put them back together the way you thought was right. Now you could, and you only seem…content.”

He was being more than discourteous, challenging Veidt under the heavy hush of so many ears, but Dreiberg only felt grubby satisfaction when the other man drew closer and replied under his breath. He was spending too much time with Kovacs, for this to feel like a victory.

“The silly fantasies of an impotent youth – I’ve learned that real power takes a steady hand, if one would not be wielded by it instead.”

“Level is the head that wears the crown, hmm?”

Veidt stopped and gestured at the silenced monitors lining the walls. “Look at the world, Daniel,” he said, his voice now ringing out and silencing rows of worshipful employees.

Oh God, a speech, Dreiberg thought. I shouldn’t have roused the sleeping dragon…

“You bury yourself in the minutia of data, fighting from spreadsheet to server, while the 11 billion living, breathing human beings on this plant are one blue screen of death away from the abyss. Only madmen could truly want to live that way. Most of the world’s population lives in conditions that would make a Dark Age peasant blanch while we frolic in our pristine virtual Eden.”

Dreiberg moved to head him off. “You’ve been talking to Byron again, haven’t you?”

Veidt stiffened and moved past him, stepping into the relative privacy of a glass-walled elevator. “There are worse influences. He’s one of the very few to fully recover from 5-SB addiction without developing the characteristic obsessions, and that alone attests to a strength of character one would do well to emulate.”

“Kovacs recovered, and he was a child. An unwitting test subject, not a dabbler in every substance du jour.”

“You seriously consider that a recovery?” Veidt’s expression was pleasant, as if they spoke of particularly nice weather. “The man is a sociopath, more robot than person. You’d be safer working with Hal 9000.”

Productivity halted as they travelled down countless stories, entire teams pausing to gawp at the embodiment of Veidt-Ashpool might, making time with a nonentity.

“You were happy to work with us when you didn’t have an army of professionals to do the heavy lifting,” Dreiberg hissed. “Hell, the Gatesware crack that went south – you’d have rotted in quarantine if Kovacs hasn’t been crazy enough to peel in after you and break you both out.”

The elevator doors opened on the ground level. Dreiberg wondered how long it had been since Veidt’s feet were this close to the street. He smiled professionally and offered Dreiberg his hand. He took it automatically, surprised to feel calluses on the otherwise manicured fingertips. A different sort of vanity, he supposed. Trophy scars.

“I hope,” Veidt began.

Dreiberg dropped his hand and started toward the first security checkpoint where, personal friend or not, he’d go through one of several invasive anti-espionage inspections that would eat up the rest of the day. “I’ll let you know what I find.”

A soft “And so we part,” drifted after him, but Veidt was already shuttling up and out of sight when Dreiberg looked back.

* * *
Parts: one - two - three - four - five - six

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