Lieder sighed wearily as he finally emerged into the setting sunlight. Even keeping his eyes open seemed daunting as he began trudging across the plaza towards the street.
He had managed to stay productive for the bulk of these three days, but it had been too long since he’d had to perform a vigil of this scale. He supposed it required more than willpower to stay awake for the hours he’d managed before; he wasn’t sure what he’d done to elicit that endurance from his old body, but he hoped to find a way to condition this new one in the same way.
For now, there was no denying that his progress had halted. He’d been having trouble analyzing what it meant, even as long as twenty-four hours ago, but until that last few minutes he’d at least been confident that he was still absorbing the information that his eyes passed over. After three attempts to complete a single page and remember what the first paragraph had told him, he knew that it was time to give up.
About halfway through his trek to the road, he noticed the three boys standing in his path.
Lieder smirked and closed his eyes. He’d forgotten all about the price of his new life: he was to live it as a sitcom character. To learn about his reawakening, he’d have to participate in some awkward comedy and sappy drama.
He considered the possibility that he was actually dead and now resided in his own special purgatory.
“Ah, hi Waldo,” Lieder greeted. “What are you still doing here, shouldn’t you be gorging yourself on oysters about now?”
Waldemar glanced between his companions, obviously not understanding the reference. Lieder rolled his eyes. Other Winkles apparently hadn’t gone out of their way to popularize the poem the Walrus and the Carpenter. How did they expect him to provide his studio audience with the witty banter they’d paid for without popularizing the proper culture?
“Finally worked up the courage to come out, did you?” Waldemar soon chose to ignore Lieder’s esoteric taunt. “You’re too late to prevent your image as a coward, but I suppose I should acknowledge that you’re not as pitiful as you could have been.”
“Courage?” Lieder scrunched his face into faked confusion. “Is there something out here I should be afraid of? If there is, don’t talk so cryptically, Waldo. I’ve been studying for a long time now, I’m in no mood for your riddles. Is that why you’re here, to warn me? Like, seriously, why are you here?”
Waldemar was trembling, his fists clenched in rage. “So you didn’t know I was waiting out here?”
“Waiting for what?” Lieder asked, smirking. “And how long? You’re not making any sense, Waldo. Quit making weird references that nobody else could possibly understand.”
With the combination of Lieder’s hypocritical request and his SympaThreadics pointing and laughing at Waldemar, the boy’s patience was pushed past its limits.
“It seems you’ll only understand certain precepts after they’ve been beaten into you!” Waldemar shouted, raising his right arm behind him and sprinting at Lieder.
Lieder rolled his eyes again. If Waldemar was going to be a bully, did he have to be such an amateur about it?
Lieder ambled forward to meet the charge, stepping to his left as Waldemar came within striking range. The boy thrust his fist towards Lieder’s face, but Lieder shifted his weight and pivoted to avoid the blow. Waldemar stumbled past him, struggling not to fall from the momentum of his attack.
Lieder strolledd onward, directing his course between Waldemar’s wingmen. The boys made frantic glances between Waldemar and Lieder, uncertain over whether they were supposed to intervene.
They seemed to find their answer as Lieder reached them; they stepped away from Lieder’s path as the sound of pounding feet grew closer.
Lieder sighed and about-faced as Waldemar hunched over, preparing to dive at him. Slipping his hands into his pockets, Lieder pitched forward, careful to keep his feet behind him as he leaned in.
Waldemar threaded his arms under Lieder’s and around his back as he flew into an attempted tackle. Lieder walked backward in time as he took Waldemar’s momentum, their center of gravity balanced enough to prevent him from falling on his back.
After a few steps, Waldemar fell to one knee and took a heavy, surprised breath. His second attack had failed as pathetically as his first.
“I said no to the kiss,” Lieder teased. “What makes you think you can have a hug?”
Lieder took his right hand out of his pocket. With a loose fist, he tapped his knuckles gently against Waldemar’s skull. Startled, he withdrew from the grapple and jumped backward.
He stood back up to full height, looking at Lieder with a bewildered expression. His friends returned to their place on either side of him.
“So you refuse to fight me?”
“Sure, you win by default,” Lieder answered. “I have no interest in beating toddlers up.”
The non-scuffle had put Lieder between his attackers and the street. He made a casual turn to walk away from them.
“So you’re saying I’m no threat to you? Maybe you think it would be better if I took this up with Max?”
Lieder immediately swiveled around and walked back towards them, his pace much quicker.
“That’s more like it!” Waldemar donned a wicked grinned and pulled his right arm back to strike.
Before Waldemar could thrust, Lieder’s palm was planted in Waldemar’s sternum. Waldemar flinched from the light impact, but didn’t feel immediate pain from the blow. He tried to mock the hit with a laugh, but all that came out was a pained sighing.
Both Waldemar’s henchmen glanced at him in surprise before turning their sights on Lieder. They began to assume aggressive postures, but Lieder’s passive stance and wagging finger halted them. He met both of their eyes in turn, then shook his head slowly.
With Waldemar doubling over from his sudden respiratory difficulties, too distracted to offer them any guidance, they seemed uncertain over what to do.
Lieder squatted down to bring his head level with Waldemar’s, who was now on his knees and cradling his chest.
“Listen, Waldo,” Lieder said, attempting to sound persuasive. “I know that this is supposed to be a show about growing up and coming to terms about not being voted prom queen or whatever, but some coked-up producer thought it would be a genius hook to cast Bruce Campbell as ‘the Beaver.’ Bruce Campbell does many things well, but acting like Fred Savage on The Wonder Years ain’t one of them. He’ll try as hard as he can to do otherwise, but if you cast him in a sitcom, you’re casting him as Ash Williams. He just doesn’t match the sitcom archetype.”
Lieder had no idea whether or not sitcoms had survived to this day. Waldemar’s concentrated efforts to breath showed no indication, but Lieder was still certain that these children couldn’t understand what he was talking about. It was even possible that other Winkles might not understand the pop culture references he was making, but this all worked in Lieder’s favor.
If Waldemar believed Lieder to be crazy, he’d probably behave as long as Lieder needed him to.
“So see, they’re going to try this for a while and figure out that it’s just not working. There’s no way I’m going to be in this role for long, so just go on your merry stuffing-the-nerd-in-the-locker way and let me self destruct, ok? I’ll be gone before you know it.”
Lieder took a purposeful breath, as much a gesture as it was a need for more air.
“In the meantime, however, remember that little Max is not a means by which you can bring me down. As I just demonstrated, any vainglory can hit somebody where they know it will hurt. So remember how hard it is to breathe right now the next time you think about bullying Max. It’s true, hurting him will make me mad; but I did this to you just for threatening Max. Can you imagine what I might do if you were to actually act on that threat?”
Waldemar continued his labored breathing, his eyes locked on the ground.
“Look at me, Waldo,” Lieder ordered. “I need to know you understand me. You’re not agreeing to anything, you’re not promising anything, you’re just telling me that you understand what I’m saying.”
Waldemar slowly raised his head and looked into Lieder’s eyes. There was pain in his expression, but also lucidity. He understood.
“Excellent,’ Lieder stood up, and smiled at each of Waldemar’s friends in turn before turning away. “Catch ya later, Waldo.’
Lieder was several paces away when Waldemar managed to catch enough of his breath to speak.
“Fancy yourself the alpha walrus, do you Carl?”
“That’s right, Waldo,” Lieder called back, chuckling. “I am the walrus. Goo goo g’joob.”
Lieder could hear grumbling behind him, but he was certain that none of it was anything intended for his ears.
Lieder sighed as he approached the curb. He hoped he hadn’t missed any buses passing while he’d been dealing with Waldemar. He hadn’t needed to wait very long for previous trips, but he’d only taken them a couple of times. There was no telling how long the interval was between stops on any specific route.
Pondering for a moment, he realized that this assumption might not be true. Lieder pulled his expander from his pocket and clicked it open. If even the primitive ‘smart phones’ of his youth could do so, it stood to reason that this device could give him access to bus schedules.
Lieder’s brow furrowed at the window that greeted him on the expanded screen.
Ready to embark?
Don’t forget that your ride, compliments of the Padrones, is still waiting for you!
Beri had mentioned that the Padrones were the proprietors of his quarters. Had she sent a vehicle to pick him up, and had it been waiting all this time?
He realized he hadn’t been very considerate of her; it wasn’t her business to do so, but he’d understand if she worried about him. Perhaps he should have checked in, and perhaps that lack of checking prompted her to send the car.
He had seen Percius Tombs ride away in a car with no driver; all the buses he’d ridden had been absent of pilot, too. Considering the idea that vehicles could navigate the city’s roadways by themselves, it was plausible that an empty vehicle had been waiting this long for him to leave.
He wondered if it would be in one of the many parking garages of this tower, or if it would be curbside. They were only a quarter-way up the building, and everything above them was reserved for private Preceptor use. Still, there was a considerable amount of building that this vehicle could be hiding in.
He had reached the curb during his contemplation. Looking up from his expander, there were only three vehicles in the ample shoulder provided for student pickup and drop-off. If one of these was intended to bring him home, how would he know which?
After several glances between his expander and the cars, he decided to test just how sophisticated these vehicles could be.
Lieder thought back to when he’d left the hospital as he approached the closest car. Percius had opened his car with a light touch on the chassis.
He casually walked along the side of the front vehicle, dragging his fingertips across the side as he went. There was no noticeable transition between door and frame, and nothing reacted after reaching the back end.
Lieder glanced back towards Waldemar; the three boys were standing where he’d left them, and seemed to be focused on their conversation. It was safe to assume that at least one of these cars would be theirs.
Grazing against the second car seemed to wake it up. Before he could even realize he’d made contact with it, a slight swoosh of releasing pressure cued the appearance of a seam in the solid metal frame.
The door tilted upward to open in ‘scissor door’ fashion, much like an old Lamborghini’s. The innards resembled a normal two-seat automobile of his time, though the dashboard and windshield behind the steering wheel were replaced by a single, blank display.
“Welcome, Lord Lieder.”
It appeared that his location was so well-documented that people could send him a ride, delivery, or messenger without any knowledge of where he was or what he was doing. This car had even parked at the entrance closest to his classroom. This was truly a disturbing prospect.
He smirked at himself. Perhaps it shouldn’t disturb him; he couldn’t recall ever putting any stock into this new life. Having it taken from him wasn’t something he should fear.
He hunched over and climbed into the passenger seat. Once he was seated, the door swiveled shut, and the dashboard display lit up.
“Destination?” The word appeared on-screen as the male voice spoke it.
“Home,” Lieder answered, his voice sounding somehow vulnerable in his fatigue.
“Acknowledged. However, there is an issue you should be aware of.”
“An issue?” Lieder furrowed his brow, then smiled at himself over how natural it felt talking to a car. Now he was the one that got to play David Hasselhoff; most of the dialogue in Knight Rider took place between Hasselhoff and his talking car. “What would that be?”
“Another vehicle has been ordered to follow our route. In such a situation, it is recommended that you contact the nearest Martial station. Would you like to do so now?”
“No,” Lieder replied without hesitation. He could see how this would alarm someone, and if it were anyone else, he’d recommend the same action. Still, as long as he was the one being followed, Lieder could find it nothing more than curious. “Can you contact the occupants?”
“The vehicle is vacant.”
This was even more peculiar. If someone wanted to know where he was staying, couldn’t they look it up in whatever database that was tracking his location? Perhaps it wasn’t as accessible as he’d imagined, though this hardly made it less dangerous. Whoever maintained the database would be able to access it, and that exclusivity would make them very powerful.
He considered one final time. If he was being tracked, his tracker knew that he hadn’t left the Academy in almost three full days. His exhaustion was obvious, and unless they couldn’t afford to have Waldemar witness it, they would have attacked him in the plaza. That’s when he’d been most vulnerable.
On the thought of Waldemar, Lieder considered the possibility that it was his car that was following him. Was he stupid enough to think this would help him somehow? Would he be stranded here if Lieder left before him?
As much as he felt he should, Lieder still couldn’t bring himself to care about either possibility. Neither fate was something he felt like exerting himself against.
“Let’s head home, KITT.” Lieder requested, wondering if the barely-assigned nickname would prevent the program from understanding.
The car lifted off the ground and pitched onto the main roadway.