Lieder was outfitted in dark indigo jeans and a black t-shirt decorated with the same animated man as his discarded gown. The caricature appeared to be lost in deep contemplation, a state that matched Lieder’s well. The nurse was now escorting him to the lobby, where he would rendezvous with Percius Tombs.
“Are you sure you don’t want to look at our premium collection?” The nurse asked for the third time. “We have a store of some of the finest fabrics, both synthetic and natural.”
“I’ll pass, but thanks,” Lieder repeated. “That tailor-bot did a fine job.”
The object he referred to was an automated sewing machine. Through its console, the user had access to a vast database of garments in most every style and design imaginable.
The components and resources were obscured by the machine’s seamless integration into the room’s wall. The process by which the console’s image of the clothing came to fall out its dispenser chute was left to his imagination.
He had been amused to incorporate the same emotional-relay display of his hospital gown into the t-shirt. The nurse had assured him that these articles were not uncommon among the populace, though they were not often seen on a Peer.
“I should warn you that other Peers will have a hard time recognizing you as one of them.” She was oblivious to the possibility that Lieder might want it that way. “You could avoid some future misunderstandings if you advertised your status a little.”
“Misunderstandings are something I can handle,” Lieder dismissed her caution. “Call me an eccentric if you want, but this is what I’m comfortable in.”
He had multiple reasons for the casual dress, but no reason to share them with the nurse. The knowledge would hardly benefit her. Lieder was in dire need of information, and information was easier to glean when the informer wasn’t intimidated by his status. He understood how an authoritarian could gather data, but it was much easier for Lieder to ask favors than to give orders.
Besides, he hated formal dress. Clothing was invented for a purpose, and that purpose had nothing to do with vanity.
“It’s not that I don’t think any less of you for dressing this way.” The nurse was reluctant to let the issue be. “I’m just worried about whether or not you realize how different things might be for you now.”
“Is my life in danger?” Lieder asked, his casual tone unnerving his escort.
“No, no. I mean, I don’t think so…”
“Was your life in danger when you were treating me like I wasn’t a Peer?” Lieder sounded much more concerned about her safety than he had his own.
“That doesn’t matter,” she replied with a shrug.
Lieder wasn’t fooled; that answer was a definite ‘yes.’ Something was very wrong with this Peerage, and it had been that way for a very long time.
They emerged from the hallway into the lobby. A semi-circular desk separated the only other occupants of the room: a man dressed in clothes identical to the nurse’s sat behind it, and a man in a sleek, mostly-red garment leaned on the opposite side.
The man in red was undoubtedly a Peer. Though the attitude defied his interests, Lieder was feeling vindictive over his nurse’s fear of these people.
“’Sup, Percy?” Lieder greeted, exaggerating the familiarity in his tone.
The man turned to glare at Lieder for a moment, then snapped his gaze back to the receptionist.
“Is this how your institution instructs Winkles on corresponding with Peers?” Percius Tombs demanded of the startled worker, confirming his identity by reacting to the taunt.
“They’d given me the impression that they weren’t in a position to teach Peers anything.” Lieder responded before the panicked man behind the desk could. “Was I mistaken?”
Again, Percius gave Lieder a spiteful glance, then snatched the tablet device that the seated worker had been holding. His eyes scrolled through the data, and his expression softened when they found the information he was looking for.
“Ah, I suppose not, Carl.” Percius emphasized his name, suggesting that it was inappropriate for them to refer to one other by their first names. ”Forgive me for assuming, it’s not often a Winkle is granted membership to the Peerage.”
This was the first person Lieder had ever heard referring to someone else as a Winkle, but he still understood that it must be a term for people that had been digitized. It fit too well to be a coincidence; the term was a reference to Rip Van Winkle, a folk story set in the colonial United States.
The story’s protagonist, Rip Van Winkle, fell asleep under a tree on a mountainside. He woke up to find that twenty years had passed; what seemed like moments to him had been decades for the rest of the world.
He wondered if the fable had survived through the generations and into this age of humanity, or if they simply used the term without knowing its origins.
“I’m guessing you don’t know why I was given this status, then.”
“No, but it does happen. There could be any among a multitude of reasons.”
Percius hadn’t known Lieder’s name before confirming his Peerage status. Since he knew so little, it seemed that Percius was acting on behalf of a third party, and that this interaction would be brief.
“So what now?” Lieder asked, feeling a sudden surge of impatience.
“That is a very, very good question,” Percius responded, distracted by his perusal of the receptionist’s tablet. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to do this, I forget how to… there we go.”
Percius frowned while he read the screen, but his lips curled into a mischievous smirk as he finished. In an abrupt motion, he placed his finger in a specific on-screen box, which enlarged on contact. He began writing with his fingertip, lines tracing his movements over the screen, but Lieder couldn’t make out what it said before Percius returned the tablet to its owner.
“You can consider him released. We’ll be leaving now.”
“Appreciations, Baron Tombs.” The receptionist bowed his head. “It was an honor to serve you again.”
Percius looked at Lieder and pointing to the door with his right thumb. Lieder nodded, giving the nurse a gentle pat on the shoulder before taking a step in that direction.
“Thanks for taking care of me. See you later.”
“Appreciations, Lord Lieder.” She bowed her head. “It was an honor to serve you.”
“Ah, hey, my previous request doesn’t expire, sweetheart…”
“See you later, Carl.” This farewell was hushed. She flashed Lieder a tolerant smile.
He sent a wide grin back at her, an expression that seemed so unlike him that she couldn’t help giggling as he turned to intercept Percius at the entrance.
As Lieder followed Percius outside, even the first glimpse of scenery through the opening doorway was enough to take his breath away. A person’s sense of wonderment is often dulled by age, but long lives make people accustomed to certain conventions. When a marvel defies such conventions, the awe it inspires is amplified.
The majority of sky was obscured by structure, with no natural horizon in any direction. These buildings dwarfed the skyscrapers of Lieder’s time, the smallest of them at least doubling the tallest he’d seen. Their perimeters were proportionately massive, encompassing many city blocks worth of land at their base.
Threaded around and between them were countless roadways, the majority of which were suspended in the air. They weaved into the buildings and each other, merging and diverging to accommodate any possible route from one location to another.
The collection looked like a wire sculpture, tangled by an abstract artist to represent some arbitrary concept, but the distant dots of vehicles traversing them divulged their true purpose.
Lieder was far too busy gawking at his surroundings to notice, but the face of the cartoon residing in his T-shirt had donned an identical expression.
“I confess, I’m glad that you’re a Peer,” Percius said, breaking Lieder from his daze. “That saves me a considerable amount of time.”
Lieder realized that, in his awestruck stupor, he’d followed Percius outside and down a small flight of stairs. An ample section of concrete sidewalk separated them from the curb of an earthbound roadway.
Lieder’s expression dissolved to neutral as he looked to his escort, a ballooned question mark appearing above the head of his clothing’s emoticon.
“I wish you luck in your new life,” Percius continued, disregarding any possibility that Lieder might desire information from him. “Welcome back to the real world.”
With a smile that oozed mischief, Percius turned away and walked briskly towards a luxurious car parked parallel to the curb. Lieder watched him in silence, struggling to come to a conclusion before his time ran out.
Until that moment, Lieder had assumed that the person who discharged him from the hospital would lead him to the reason for his revival. He was very unsettled by the implication that Percius was about to leave him without doing so.
Why would his Peer status save Percius time? Was Lieder being brought back into this world only to be abandoned? Had Percius really not received any special instructions for this situation?
He fought the urge to ask these questions aloud; he believed that Percius had engineered this moment out of spite for his earlier lack of respect. Begging for answers would only serve to amuse Percius, and at the moment, Lieder couldn’t imagine a more irritating scenario.
He hated being toyed with.
It was possible that letting Percius go would mean passing up a good opportunity, but Lieder was convinced that he had made that choice when he chose his greeting. That had probably been a mistake, but nothing could be done to change it now. He could either keep his dignity by accepting the stranger’s vengeance or abandon it with futile pleading.
Percius arrived at his vehicle, but before climbing in, he directed a sly glance toward Lieder. With sudden resolution, Lieder smiled and offered a casual wave. His T-shirt obliged his desire to seem unaffected by Percius’s behavior, the cartoon shaking its arm wildly above its head in an enthusiastic farewell.
Percius laughed and brushed his fingers against the car door. The entire vehicle came to life in response to his touch, lifting off the ground as its headlights flickered on. It maintained its height as though the air it levitated on were solid, refusing to rock even as the door slid open and Percius climbed in.
There were no wheels, nor did any component come into contact with the ground. There was a steering wheel, but it was apparent that manual control was optional; Percius engrossed himself in his tablet device as the vehicle pulled away from the curb.
Lieder was amazed. The technique of using electromagnets and superconductors for transportation had been experimented with before he’d even been born, but this mode of transportation was far beyond the Maglev trains he was familiar with. It had been unthinkable to apply the concept to personal vehicles.
The infrastructural requirements of these vehicles couldn’t have been retrofitted into a city that predated them. The community would have to be designed and built from scratch with these streets in mind in order for them to be integrated.
Seeing as there were no traditional roads within his sight, that’s exactly how Lieder assumed this city had been founded. Had this transportation become the standard for this country, or even the whole world?
If so, something unthinkable had happened in his absence. He couldn’t fathom the amount of time it would take for a metropolis to abandon their city long enough to remodel it. How many centuries would it take for the proper migrations to occur?
To Lieder, this city’s existence could only mean that the civilization he belonged to had been subjected to a veritable apocalypse. That, or he wasn’t on Earth anymore.
Surrounded by all this monolithic concrete, Lieder was overcome with a feeling of vulnerability. He had long-since assumed he’d outgrown this emotion; he’d survived for so long that he believed he could surmount any potential obstacle. Now that his understanding of technology had been outdated, he began to wonder if all of his conditioning was obsolete. How was he to survive in a world without any of his possessions, experience, or most importantly, friends?
It wasn’t long before Lieder’s anxiety gave way to amusement. What did a man who’d woken up from death have to fear? Maybe insecurity wasn’t a state of mind that could be cured by wisdom; maybe it was caused by some hormone that the body stops excreting at a certain age. If he stopped feeling it when he grew old, should it be any surprise that it would resurface with his second youth?
Dismissing his insecurity as a symptom of his teenage body, he donned a contemplative frown and took a step towards the road. He wondered how hard it would be to find a mirror in this century.