Lieder winced as he opened the door; the sunlight that poured into this area was harsh when compared to the soft lighting of the testing room.
“Ah, all finished?” The two Peers that had served as Lieder’s guides sat in the same chairs as when he’d left them over two hours ago. “That’s quicker than most are comfortable with, are you sure you don’t want to reevaluate your answers?”
“Positive,” Lieder nodded, confident. “It may sound odd, but to a certain extent, a low score would serve me better than a high one.”
“Yes, that sounds very odd, please explain,” the quieter, less friendly of the pair requested.
“No thanks,” Lieder replied, nonchalant. This man had treated him coldly from the moment Lieder had sullied the atmosphere with his pedestrian SympaThreadic clothing, so Lieder wasn’t inclined to humor him.
“Indeed, at least wait until I’m on the opposite side of a closed door!” The first man pleaded. “He’s presented me with a riddle, and I don’t want to hear the solution until I make my guess!”
“You’re going to be disappointed one way or another, Justus,” the offish man predicted. “This secret of his is going to prove as mundane as they come.”
“It is pretty much a transparent plea for attention, I’ve got to admit,” Lieder lied. The ‘riddle’ in question was an experiment, one that Lieder was reluctant to test because of the conclusions people might make about him. Still, hesitating over appearances was uncharacteristic for Lieder; if it was important, he’d do what needed to be done.
He hopped onto a vacant chair, allowing it to conform in support of the leisurely position he desired.
This furniture had been plentiful throughout the enormous Academy, and every bit as confounding as the chairs that he’d seen in his temporary lodgings. After seeing how they were used, however, their shape and size had made much more sense.
Part of him was embarrassed that he hadn’t imagined the possibilities after seeing how the shower walls and the cloth of his bedspread had reacted to his manipulation. It should have been easy to imagine how the technology could be used to make a chair that could transform to accommodate different postures: as of now, it resembled a recliner, but much of the head support had shifted away to allow him to rest his head against his interlocked hands. The excess material made a sound like swishing sand as it formed into a mold that supported his arms and shoulders, and it did so in a manner that wouldn’t cause the weight of his head to restrict circulation to his hands.
Lieder pretended he didn’t notice the spiteful glare being directed at him, closing his eyes and smiling blissfully as he let his muscles go limp.
“Oh please, this has all the signs of unique circumstance,” Justus dismissed their comments. “That’s an essential component to any good riddle!”
“He’s implied that the hints are in the test,” his associate pressed. “Doesn’t that scream warning about an unpleasant prospect?”
“No, if it were what you were suggesting, he’d hide it and hope we wouldn’t notice. Relax, David, it’s not like you’re the one who’d have to deal with it!”
“Thankfully,” David added.
“I’m going to go over these results and assess the essay questions in the testing room, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Enjoy,” Lieder called as Justus turned away. He chuckled and offered a distracted wave as he walked.
Lieder sighed contently, ignoring the hatred he imagined to be permeating around David.
“It’s not often I see S-T clothing here at Interpretive Precepts,” David observed, breaking the silence that followed Justus’s departure. “Might I guess that you were separated from your clothing in transit from wherever it was you came?”
“Yeah, that’s accurate,” Lieder confirmed. “I doubt there’s any chance I’ll ever see that stuff again.”
“What misfortune. I can’t imagine what it might be like to have my options so limited that SympaThreadic could be the best one.”
“Nah, far worse things have happened. I’ve always liked S-T.”
“Oh, me too. I make certain that all my Sapients wear it, since it’s so useful for exposing insubordination.”
David’s sly tone suggested that he was trying to offend Lieder by comparing him to his Sapients, but the only problem Lieder had with this comparison was the implication of Sapient inferiority.
“Oh, is that a prominent problem in your home? I’m sorry to hear that, perhaps you should try being more reasonable about what you ask of them. I find that it takes a very unbalanced person to deny a request from a respectable source.”
Lieder disguised his tone as casual, resisting the urge to sound mocking. The long pause that followed suggested that David was irritated by the idea that a teenager was impudent enough to give him advice, or perhaps he’d noticed that Lieder was implying that his Sapients’ insubordination was due to their lack of respect for their master.
“Well, youth tends to exacerbate the problem,” David finally replied through gritted teeth. “Something about the approach to adulthood seems to embolden children.”
“Ah, don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it.” Lieder intentionally misinterpreted David’s veiled retaliation. “Everyone does eventually.”
He forced himself to think of nothing but the comfort of his chair, intent on not letting his SympaThreadics show David anything but whatever animation it played to depict comfort. Provided he wasn’t too enraged to be rational, David would be hopelessly conflicted over how to react.
Lieder was certain that David was aware of his Lordship; combined with the probability that people would have a hard time believing he was any older than seventeen, David would detest Lieder’s lack of respect for his age and status, but still find it very hard to confront a Lord about his behavior. Lieder liked the idea of this conundrum, and was eager to test the limits of David’s patience.
He hadn’t been the one to suggest playing this game, but he also wouldn’t back down from the challenge.
“These S-T’s really are a wonder though, aren’t they?” Lieder broke the long pause that followed, a silence that signaled a possibility for peace. “They’re just as comfortable as any other t-shirt, but they take such accurate readings of the wearer’s condition. Quite a novel invention!”
“They’re hardly a marvel,” David scoffed. “The principles are so basic that they’re universally covered by any curriculum path, and early on at that. How could you be unfamiliar with it?”
“I didn’t have an education that you would consider orthodox,” Lieder replied patiently. “And besides, you’re selling their pioneers short! It may seem simple now, but there was a time when it was thought to be impossible. If they came out with a line of clothes that could also perform an opposite function, you’d praise them for the geniuses they are, at least for a while.”
The upper class rarely responded well to nicknames. Lieder decided it was time to assign one to David, hopeful that he’d perceive it as an insult. Would Hasselhoff work? It wouldn’t be particularly insulting to associate someone with the late celebrity, though his life and career involved an unenviable amount of scrutiny.
Whether it was an insulting comparison or not, David would likely perceive the nickname as an unwelcome familiarity.
“Perform an opposite function? Why would you want that?” David’s tone was mocking. “Their entire appeal comes from the fact that you can’t tell what another person is feeling without them, so what would be the point of clothing that supposedly hides something that’s already hidden? Small minds shouldn’t feign insightfulness, young Lieder. Even the Peerage has a use for modesty.”
“Oh, I agree, modesty is tremendously useful! It would keep vainglories from jumping to conclusions about what other people are saying in casual conversation. Thereby, modesty would mean that the vainglory wouldn’t be so vainglorious!”
“Vainglories, you don’t say,” David repeated the word slowly, as though relishing it. It seemed David was feeling contentious; a mood that Lieder found infectious. “I’ll defer to your expertise, professionals know their contemporaries better than the rest of us.”
Takes a vainglory to know a vainglory. Lieder snorted a laugh; he’d never heard the playground comeback spoken so eloquently.
“Not always, our world isn’t quite so simple. The scientist that studies lions comes to know the hyena better than said scavenger ever would.”
“Such irony!” David’s laugh was slow and deliberate, a sign that he relished the moment. “This from a boy who flagrantly discards such simple etiquette as to refrain from inflammatories like ‘vainglory,’ or comparing Peers to lesser beasts? Child, we have no precepts so rudimentary that we could hope to remedy your lack of class.”
“Is that what you have that I don’t: class? Thanks for the enlightenment, I’ll be sure to avoid acquiring this ‘class’ you speak of. It’s starting to seem backward to think so, but I hope this institution employs you despite of the developments you prioritize. If they value the same things you do, I’m wasting my time here.”
“That last part seems accurate.” David was snide. “The time that’s wasted belonged to us, however, as I’m sure Justus will reaffirm when he returns with your test results.”
“See, that test is my only glimmer of hope for this establishment.” Lieder rebutted. “It implied an intellectualism behind it, seemed indicative of a gifted mind. That’s how I have reason to believe that you’re not a good representative of this enterprise.”
“Qualified to judge, are you? I will remind you that you thought clothing that attempted to mask a user’s attitude would be a novel idea. There are already S-T parody products that detect emotion and intentionally display a mismatched animation to convey a false disposition. The product is recognized as the joke it was intended to be, yet you pretend that it should be treated as a breakthrough.”
“I’d accuse you of having a short memory, but that’s an insult to the memory-impaired. The ignorance you’re showcasing is much more detestable.”
“Inflammatories mean little without pressure to them.” David smirked.
“Oh, the contents are under pressure. I’ll explain it to ya: you chose to ignore the opportunity to find out what I meant by ‘opposite’ before you opened your spew-hole to mock it. You assumed that I meant ‘clothes that mask what the wearer is feeling’ are opposite to ‘clothes that reveal what the wearer is feeling,’ when in reality I was suggesting that the opposite of ‘clothes that are influenced by the emotions of the wearer’ were ‘clothes that influence the emotions of the wearer.’ In other words, I was saying that clothes which could control the emotions of the person that wore them would be a remarkable invention.”
“Impossible,” David scoffed.
“Again with the ignorance!” Lieder could hardly believe that David had trapped himself like this. “My entire point was that the inventors of S-T’s should still be praised because, for the bulk of human history, the idea seemed impossible. After distracting yourself with some irrelevant product of your own imagination, one that you were content to pretend was my idea, you imply that I should forget what the topic was in the first place? My entire argument was about this idea seeming impossible and, thereby, should someone ever create such a product, they would deserve praise for it.”
There was a long pause as David audited the analysis.
Lieder hated David’s version of the game; their argument was long-winded and haughty. However, there was little Lieder loved more than beating people at their own games.
He suspected that he should be ashamed of the indulgence, but he wasn’t.
“I haven’t been choosing random words here, Hasselhoff.” Lieder spoke the nickname for the first time. “There’s substance behind my usage of ‘ignorant’ and ‘hyena;’ it’s because a lion hunts its prey, while a hyena just scavenges whatever leftovers are convenient. You’re scavenging what the intellectuals of this institute worked so hard to acquire, and somehow you still have the nerve to laugh so condescendingly. We’ll see if you’re still laughing when your family finally becomes so disgusted with you, that furry mongrel that’s been sloppily devouring the scraps they’ve been throwing to the floor, that they decide to share the real you with the world.”
Lieder’s argument wasn’t airtight; anyone who knew anything about the Savannah knew that the relationship between lion and hyena wasn’t as he described it.
That, and he didn’t think so poorly of the real Hasselhoff. He didn’t know anyone that wouldn’t think it cool to have been the Knight Rider.
The door to the testing room slid open
“What blatant audacity…” David snarled as he leaned forward, trembling with rage.
“’Every great scientific advancement was born from an audacious imagination,’ was it?“ Justus quoted, beaming as he strode towards them. An open expander was poised where he could easily review whatever information it displayed. “Ah, I’m sure that was misquoted, but all the same, I feel daring enough to guess at the solution to your riddle.”
“I’m anxious to hear it,” Lieder responded.
“Are you a Winkle, Lord Lieder?”
“Yes, I most certainly am,” Lieder exhaled his relief. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you could tell. I’m sorry if it wasn’t much of a puzzle, though.”
“Oh, don’t be, the only reason it came so quickly is because I’ve been hoping against hope that we might enroll a Winkle someday. I’d even considered requesting an awakening, if you can believe that!”
“What is a Winkle?” David asked, annoyed by Justus’s excitement.
“How could you not know?” Justus seemed appalled, and his tone shifted towards disappointment. “You’re an educator, David; an educator at Interpretive Precepts. Someone looking to join the Tombs would need that information, and you’d be expected to facilitate their acquisition.”
“We don’t get Tombs aspirants all that often, Justus.”
“Their vocation fits our institution better than any of the other locals, David! They value interpretive minds as much or more than any of our other familiars.”
“I can certainly see why, but it’s still pretty far outside my realm,” David argued.
“Yes, I suppose it’s pretentious if I expect you’d ever step out of that realm,” Justus sighed. “Regardless, Lord Lieder…”
“Please, call me Carl. I have no love for formality.”
“It’s apparent,” David mocked.
“Carl, your results were joyfully unique, but I must share my apprehension. I don’t want to portray a false image of ourselves. We represent the highest echelon of Preceptor family institutions, but your results would suggest that you’ve already graduated from our program. You are fully capable of integrating into the Peerage, and as I’m unfamiliar with the Lieder family enterprise, I have no idea whether or not we could provide you with any further advantage.”
“Justus, you aren’t possibly suggesting he could rate as well as an alumnus?” David balked.
“Could? I’m saying he did.” Justus made a waving motion with his expander. “He’s displayed a higher-than-average aptitude in an impressive majority of fields and a specialist’s mastery in several. He’s a Lord, David.”
“Forgive my continued skepticism concerning that. Still, you’ve said it yourself, Justus; after all, it is our selling point. Even Lords have much to gain from our program.”
“I think Hasselhoff here speaks the truth on this one, Justus.” Lieder motioned at David as he spoke.
“What did you just call me?” David seemed conflicted over whether he was confused or offended.
“I believe this young man has scored better than the average Lord would, David,” Justus asserted. “I’ve been realistic with my words, not generous. Depending on his choice of curriculum, he may be beyond our ability to enhance.”
“Beyond our ability to enhance? He’s clueless about how something as simple as those ridiculous SympaThreadics work.”
“As we’ve established, David, he’s a Winkle, they didn’t have SympaThreadics.”
“As we’ve also established, I don’t know what a Winkle is, Justus.”
“Oh, right, how negligent of me,” Justus rolled his eyes unapologetically. “Winkle is the term used for the people that underwent digital stasis four-hundred years ago.”
“Four-hundred?!” Lieder’s eyes widened and he shot out of his leisurely pose. “Is that approximate or exact?”
“Approximate, very approximate,” Justus answered, startled. “Likely a bit longer, that estimate is simply the one most accepted for when the Exodus occurred.”
“What is the Exodus?”
“Wouldn’t we all like to know?” David laughed.
“David, please,” Justus smiled patiently. “That is a matter of speculation; even the name itself is speculation. It’s just what we call a phenomenon we don’t understand. To avoid misunderstanding, it would be best to take the time to study it rather than have us try to explain…”
“…which is why I’m not beyond your institution’s help, I’m hoping,” Lieder interrupted. “We both know that the reason you could guess I was a Winkle was because the only scores that were lower than average dealt with my lack of knowledge for the events transpiring between the Exodus and my awakening, correct? I’d like to enroll for the purpose of eliminating that distinction.”
“Oh, how exciting.” Justus clasped his hands together. “If that’s your focus and you improve your score, you’ll be above average in all fields. A true prodigy! You see that, David, we may have a Tombs aspirant right here!”
“Aspire all he wants, they’d never take him,” David smirked.
“Well, and on the other hand,” Lieder spoke to dismiss Justus’s compliment rather than address David’s challenge. “You know what they say: ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none.’”
“A jack, you don’t say,” David laughed derisively. “How appropriate.”
“Is that another quote from some lost paragon?” Justus asked excitedly. “Like those ones you put on questions you obviously couldn’t know the answer to? What was it, ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it?’”
“Close, that’s not quite how George put it, but yes,” Lieder confirmed. “You got the essence of it.”
David scoffed. “I’m sure the Tombs would love that one.”
Lieder caught David’s sarcasm, and the implied but mysterious reason behind why the Tombs might dislike such wisdom intrigued him. “Is that why a disclaimer cautioned me about quoting ‘sensitive’ material when I submitted answers like that one?”
“Yes, I’ll have to meet with the Tombs about that later, I’m afraid,” Justus confirmed.
“It actually alerted them when I referenced those quotes?” Lieder laughed heartily, much to David’s irritation. “Why? That must have been a troublesome system to implement, so the reason can’t be frivolous.”
“Of course it isn’t. It’s the same reason it almost came to be that we didn’t have to deal with your kind at all, and the same reason they would never accept you as a member of their family,” David replied.
“Oh, really? Which reason would that be?”
“The Tombs family has taken it upon themselves to study the past and protect society from letting the Exodus – whatever it was- happen again,” David explained. He seemed vindictive now, as though he needed to prove himself. “As such, they’ve made it clear that your oldest traditions and philosophies culminated in that catastrophe. True to their surname, they serve as a vault; a sarcophagus, a mausoleum, a tomb for a dead civilization. They filter the history they deem acceptable for the public’s understanding while retaining that which is dangerous or not yet proven; as such, the fact that they possessed a billion sleeping Winkles was kept secret for a long time. Even when the truth came out, it was only after a mammoth push from the public and a mandate from the Assembly that they allowed the Peerage access to you. In short, your people’s way of thinking is considered dangerous.”
“Fair enough.” Lieder shrugged, his aloofness over the insult shocking David. “I’ll help you avoid the hard way to the truth, though, and assure you that it’s not just my people. Humanity is dangerous, Peerage and Sapient alike; always has been and probably always will be.”
“Know enough to judge us, do you Winkle?!” David nearly spat the word.
“Judge?” Lieder repeated, amused. “Nope, that implies sentencing, and I’ll take no part in such a thing. It’s just a prediction, but be warned: I’ve got a knack for that.”
“Five minutes ago you didn’t know what a Winkle was, David, and now you say the word like it’s an insult?” Justus scolded. “Why are you so predisposed to dislike this man?”
“Man? Look at him. He’s a boy masquerading as some kind of sage…”
Lieder laughed uncontrollably, further agitating David.
“Oh, man, that’s great. The reality’s quite to the contrary there, Hasselhoff.”
“Quit calling me that!” David demanded.
“He’s right though, David,” Justus said. “The vast majority of Winkles were elderly, with a notable demographic of terminally ill patients also undergoing stasis.”
David scowled. “His face matches his naiveté. He can’t possibly fathom the modern world, no matter how old he was.”
“’Kay,” Lieder said dismissively. “How might I go about futilely trying to fathom it, then? Can we discuss the possibility of enrollment?”
“Most certainly!” Justus was giddy. “This is a chance rivaling access to the Tombs’ archives!”
“Wait, are you putting him in your class?” David asked, his voice curiously hopeful.
“Well, yes, his aptitude clearly puts him at the highest tier we have, and that would be independent study. I only have thirteen students at the moment, so why not?”
“I can’t think of any objection, and didn’t intend to imply such a thing,” David replied, relieved.
Lieder glanced at David, assuming he was happy that Lieder wasn’t going to pass through his tutelage. The feeling was mutual.
“So, as for payment…”
“Well, I think we should make some kind of exception, your enrollment will only last a fraction of the average student’s …”
“He was instantly approved, the deal just awaits his authorization. It’s not like he needs a discount.” David interrupted.
Lieder flinched. He’d been approved? Had he even asked for approval? And wasn’t he broke? He furrowed his brow, considering the possibilities; was there a way he might actually have some money? Even though he’d liquidated all of his assets before being digitized?
“Let’s authorize it, how do I do that?” Lieder looked between the two.
“Come now, there’s no need to finalize this robbery…”
“I can bring it up right here.” David clicked his expander open and navigated quickly through the interface. He rotated his arm out to allow Lieder to reach it. “Just need you to hold your thumb against this box and state your approval verbally.”
Before David could even finish the instructions, Lieder’s thumb was pressed against the expander’s screen.
“I, Carl Orionne Lieder, hereby promise to pay the full amount described in this bargain.” It was an improvised line, but he was sure it would suffice.
The word hung alone in the center of the screen for several seconds as David pulled it back in front of him.
“Funds are… transferred. The deal’s done.”
“Honestly, that was unnecessary,” Justus lamented. “Why’d you go along with him, after all his rudeness?”
“Nah, had nothin’ to do with him, it’s just what I wanted to do.” Lieder catalogued the moment. David had confirmed that funds had been transferred; this wasn’t done on credit. Lieder had money in some account he was oblivious to. “C’mon, introduce the new kid to your class.”
“Oh, but you’re not a ‘kid,’ you’re a distinguished Lord and I daresay my elder…”
“I’m Carl Orionne Lieder, and that’s all they need to know. Anything more than that just brings unwanted attention, and that’ll interfere with my studies.”
“Oh. Well, I suppose that is a very valid concern. Yes, I think I approve, we’ll leave it at that.”
“Excellent, let’s be on our way.” Lieder climbed to his feet and turned to face David. “Catch ya later, Hasselhoff!”
David narrowed his eyes at Lieder, but nodded in polite farewell. He gave Lieder and Justus several seconds’ head start before he got up and followed them out of the alcove and into the hall.