Part 18

Lieder watched the surroundings with an absent stare as his luxurious ride weaved its way through the tangle of Reverence’s roads. He’d tried several times to keep his thoughts on his agenda for the Tombs, but his mind kept drifting back to the confrontations he’d had with Cyril and Beri.

There had been a multitude of habits he’d developed over the years, and each of them had been adopted in order to facilitate a higher philosophy. ‘Condition facial muscles to hold their shape when experiencing changes in emotion;’ ‘adopt a vocabulary that is both bold and ambiguous;’  ‘know the topics that will incite anger in each person, use these subjects only in the same scenarios that a weapon would be appropriate for;’ ‘feign preoccupation while maintaining strict vigilance over surroundings.’

            These were habits that gave him an advantage, both in times of international violence and in the weary world that survived them. His life had always fit into those categories, but now it seemed that his methods for avoiding attention were actually attracting scrutiny. It seemed to prove what Cyril had said: without the need to solve the severe problems that his generation faced, these people had the time to devote to lesser matters. Maybe violence was now as obsolete as disease. Perhaps it was time he learned how to be at peace with peacetime.

He began to feel the faintest of vibrations work their way through the seat cushions and into his back. The car was approaching a junction in the road, and though the overhead map of their itinerary clearly indicated that they would be taking a left at this fork, the vehicle was drifting to the right.

This was profoundly interesting. Not only were the winds through Reverence always mild, but these vehicles boasted the ability to compensate for the weather so perfectly that their passengers would never feel its influence in their travels. The technology’s invention had been referenced in the database that Lieder was researching; it had long been considered a standard feature for all passenger vehicles.

Lieder donned a wry smile. Something fun was about to happen.

The frontal display blinked, abandoning its faux-transparent view of the city in front of the vehicle to display a blank white screen. Large black text appeared as the words were spoken aloud.

“Alert. Unauthorized itinerary alteration detected. Countermeasures engaged.”

Lieder grinned, too amused to resist. This system was supposed to be difficult to hack; the manufacturers claimed it was impossible. Perhaps his shadow was more capable than he’d given them credit for.

            “All channels compromised, unable to contact Martials. Please wait for complete stop, then exit vehicle.”

            Lieder was surprised to find that the vehicle really was slowing. He didn’t know whether he should be impressed that this failsafe was so resilient or disappointed that his attacker had failed to disable it.

“Ensure that any expander used to contact Martials is still secure before doing so. If no secure expander is available, please seek assistance from another commuter.”

“Enough with the bossy attitude, KITT,” Lieder replied, doubtful that the computer could register his input anymore. “If we’re going to play Knight Rider, let’s play Knight Rider! Follow along with their little plot, KITT, Hasselhoff shall hunt the hunters!”

“This vehicle has been compromised.” They came to a halt in the middle of the roadway, and the door tilted open. “Do not remain in vehicle. This vehicle has been compromised…”

“Plebian machine,” Lieder grumbled, reaching for the door. “It’s time to fire the writers when the villains are thwarted by a standard-issue firewall. We’re going to have to ad-lib this episode.”

He grasped the handle and pulled the door back down, finding it necessary to hold it closed for a few moments before the latch engaged.

            “Do not remai- Welcome! Your itinerary has been accepted. Enjoy your music selection until the destination has been reached.”

The car accelerated, the faux-transparent windshield reappeared, and they drifted towards the right fork without hesitation. The speakers emitted a crescendo tone, a harmonized, synthetic reverb, very similar to the accompaniment in movie scenes that were intended to evoke feelings of wonder, awe, or majesty.

He pondered over what their purpose might be as the vehicle hovered along its mysterious course. If they wanted to kill him, wouldn’t they have simply sent the car over the edge of the roadway? Perhaps there wouldn’t be any guarantee for that method; chances seemed good that he’d hit another road before falling a lethal distance.

Alternatively, this could be an ally’s method of calling him. Perhaps the people responsible for awakening him were finally revealing their reasons. That would save him a tremendous amount of trouble.

Whatever the scenario, Lieder couldn’t see this as anything but a good opportunity.

            Lieder’s grin became a grimace as the song continued. This one grated on him in the same way his earlier experience with contemporary music had. It seemed as though the artist believed that this effect had been cheated in its typical usage, deserving to be the sole focus of a song instead of confined to its usual niche. It felt so melodramatic that Lieder had to make a conscious effort to keep his patience.

Part of his amusement seemed to survive the ordeal, however. His abductors wouldn’t ever realize it, but forcing him to endure this ride was the meanest thing they could possibly do to him.

The trip proved to be a short one. The road descended into a very low section of one of the countless skyscrapers. There could only be room for three to five floors between this parking garage and the ground.

A door lowered to seal the entrance the instant his vehicle had passed through it. The difference in lighting required his eyes to adjust before he could survey his destination.

As the vehicle settled into one of the countless empty stalls, Lieder noticed the silhouettes of four people standing beside the only other vehicles that occupied this room.

Despite the dimness of the lighting, it was clear that they were wearing peculiar masks. The edges glinted with a dull bronze color, and the outlines measured far greater than any normal person’s head would be. He couldn’t tell what specific kind, but he was fairly certain that they were carved to resemble an animal.       

            Without waiting for an invitation, Lieder opened the door and climbed out.

            “What’s this?” He called as he walked towards them. “If you wanted me to come to your furry convention, all you had to do was send an invite. I’d have even paid my own admission.”

None of them responded. Lieder took in their body shapes and sizes, interpreting what he could about their intentions. All of them were thin and fit, save the man on the far left, who was even larger and more muscular than the body builder in his class. He bore the same type of apparatus over his shoulders, resembling a pair of breathing balloons.

            Two of the remaining three had broad shoulders and chests, and stood on either side of a more petite, curvaceous figure. All their outfits were jet black and form-fitting, though there seemed to be hints of holsters or pockets near the waistlines, central torso, and back.

“I must say, though, I’m a little disappointed with the female turnout. You probably shouldn’t have charged them any cover.”

“You’re been most uncooperative, Mr. Lieder.” It was impossible to tell which man was talking, and Lieder was surprised that the voice wasn’t muffled in by his mask.

It didn’t sound distorted by any device, either, but that was probably unnecessary. He could only imagine that sound technology had come far enough to take someone’s words and say them in a perfect stranger’s voice.

Lieder couldn’t count on being able to identify these people by their voices.

“Uncooperative? My ride tried very hard to convince me that I should get out before it started making its way here. I refused to listen and even forced the door to close so you guys could finish telling it where to go. I don’t know how much more cooperative I can be.”

“He speaks the truth,” another voice chimed in, but from a new direction. A fifth masked man climbed out of one of the vehicles. “I wasn’t told I’d be dealing with a Mobile Sanctuary.”

“Yeah, how did that come to be?” This voice suggested either a woman or child.  “Why would he be in something like that?”

“I wasn’t aware either,” the first speaker said curtly. The change in tone suggested that he was fighting back his anger over their open admission of confusion. “It’s not important, he’s here.”

“Voluntarily even.” Lieder was delighted by their lack of cohesion. “So how’s this furry-rave thing work? We grind to some techno while dressed up as Bugs and Lola Bunny? If I go ‘unh’,” Lieder threw both fists into the air. “Will ya’ll shout ‘oh yeah!’?”

“Mr. Lieder.” Though he couldn’t tell which one was speaking, Lieder was beginning to understand the role of this speaker. He was inexperienced at best, but it was clear that he was the leader. “You seem to misunderstand the reason you’re here right now.”

“Not quite correct.” Lieder smirked. He wasn’t sure what it meant yet, but they’d used the term ‘Mr.’ twice. He hadn’t heard anyone else use that word since waking up. “Sorry to dwell on it, but despite your efforts, I was given a choice on whether to come here or not. That means, ultimately, I’m the one who created the reason for me being here. I can’t possibly misunderstand why I decided to stay in the car, can I?”

He waited several moments for a response, but none came.

“Alright, we understand each other a little better then. I’ll be fair, you can tell me why you tried to force me into being here.”

“It would seem, Mr. Lieder, that you didn’t understand how strictly the terms of your contract are enforced. We’ve recorded several incidents of breaches, and you need to understand that it won’t be tolerated.”

“Hey, I’m trying to be fair here, can’t I ask the same of you? We both know I can’t breach a contract I never signed.”

“Lying will not behoove you here, Mr. Lieder.”

“Nor will your operation under false pretenses.” Lieder wasn’t intimidated. “Let me tell you about the last two contracts I’ve signed: one approved the transfer of funds for my enrollment at the academy, and the other one was supposedly four-hundred years ago, and I had that one altered to make it legally impossible to authorize my resurrection. So unless my check to the Preceptors bounced, the only ones in breach of contract are the people who authorized my awakening.”

“Those contracts are void, Mr. Lieder, they’re relics of a dead society. Your continued survival is provisional…”

“You’re damn right it is!” Lieder interrupted forcefully. “Until I’m told who ordered my revival and why, I keep on breathing. Those are the provisions.”

“You are not the one who decides the conditions, Mr. Lieder! Where was this defiance when you were briefed on the conditions of your new life? It’s a gift, a privilege, Mr. Lieder, and those are things which can be revoked.”

“I’m telling you, nobody ever gave me such a redundant ultimatum, or else I’d have told them to stuff it, in which case we all would have known from the start that this revival was a mistake. You come here pretending I have something to answer to, but I’m the cheated customer here. I’d have loved to hear who ordered this travesty and why, but no. I woke up to a charming nurse, got picked up by some knob named Percius Tombs, and was promptly set free without the slightest hint of an explanation in the hospital plaza. Tell me where in there that I forgot about signing a contract and having the provisions of my life explained to me.”

“This all very well-rehearsed, Mr. Lieder,” he spoke as though he hadn’t been listening. “But all Winkles are told about the things they must leave behind to move forward. There is no exception.”

“This Winkle wasn’t briefed, so obviously there is some kind of exception. Burden of proof’s on you, prosecution. Defendant’s innocent until proven guilty.”

“Michael, please end this façade.”

Lieder’s gaze turned to the man who’d initially been in the car, the one he assumed to have hacked his vehicle. As soon as the request had been given, he’d pulled his expander out and began some expert navigation of it. Lieder squelched the urge to smirk as he took deliberate mental note of the name ‘Michael.’

“He wasn’t lying,” Michael, presumably, said with cold anger. “A contract was never established.”

“That isn’t possible!” The man broke rank and walked towards Michael. “No one is exempt, there can be no exceptions!”

“Great assumption,” Michael replied with sarcasm. “Tell that to the Baron who’s supposed to threaten a Lord with penalty of death.”

“What are you babbling about?”

“That.” Michael pointed at a portion of the screen.

There were several moments of silence as the two stared at the expander screen. This prompted the remaining three members of the group to crowd around Michael to see the situation for themselves.

“That’s impossible.”

“You’re looking at it! Shouldn’t we move past establishing what is or isn’t possible and just start dealing with it?”

In the light given off by the expander, Lieder could finally tell what their masks were supposed to be. They were all identical, shaped like the face of a lion with a well-kempt mane. If they weren’t molds of brass, bronze, or gold, they were painted to look like they were.

From the tentative glances each member of their group kept directing at their leader, it was clear that their plans were no longer applicable. Lieder knew he should make the most of this time.

He scanned the garage, trying to decide how confident he was in his location. Though he believed he was east of his temporary home, he was far from certain that he could locate this building again.

That could wait for later. Knowing his location in Reverence wasn’t as important as knowing whether or not the Tombs owned this building. It didn’t seem likely. Though it couldn’t be easy to find an empty parking garage and secure all the exits as tightly as they had, the risk of them bringing him to their turf was probably greater than they were willing to take.

This probably meant that they were operating on limited time. If they didn’t accomplish their objective before the real owners of the building noticed their sealed-off garage – or the Padrones were alerted about their commandeered vehicle – it was probable that these people would need to escape before the Martials showed up.

This was as much an obstacle for Lieder as it was for his would-be captors, but he could still use it to his advantage.

“You were right, Lord Lieder,” his lead aggressor finally spoke again. “It appears we weren’t being fair. Apologies.”

“I’m glad you dropped the Agent Smith impersonation.” Lieder smiled at him. “But let’s stick with Carl.”

“Your earlier infractions should be forgiven, we don’t have much choice on that. We will now rectify the mistake made in sending a Baron to release you after your revival.”

“Excellent. I bet I can imagine, but tell me, why was it a mistake to send Percius?”

“It would be grossly inappropriate for a Baron to say to a Lord the things that must be said to a Winkle. How it happened that he was sent is beyond my comprehension; there is no authority high enough to issue the Lord title to a Winkle, and even if I’m mistaken on that, there’s no way that authority would be so shortsighted as to neglect a detail as important as who they’d send to release him.”

“Hold it. You’re implying that you have no way of knowing who resurrected me, or why. I don’t like that.”

“I have the authority to educate you on the provisions of your new life. That’s what I intend to do, and whether or not I can tell you about the reasons behind your revival will come after.”

“Fine, tell me your little provisions, then I’ll tell you where to shove them, then we can really get down to business.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that, Lord Lieder.”

“And I wouldn’t recommend that the leader of the Tombs’ intimidation goon squad call any of his members by their first name, but as poor Michael is painfully aware, recommendations don’t mean a whole lot at this point.”

There was a moment of silence as they absorbed his retort.

“You said my name.” Michael’s voice was of disbelief, but it was not a question.

“I did not?” The leader sounded uncertain.

“Michael, please end this façade.”

The recording sounded perfect, as though the leader were repeating his mistake. He turned to face the female member of the group, and from this reaction, Lieder presumed her to be the one that had recorded and replayed the incident. With how quickly she’d shared it, she must have readied that snippet for playback beforehand. Apparently, Lieder had not been the only one to notice the flagrant error after all.

“You said my name!” Michael cried again, this time with twinges of panic and rage.

“I’m sorry!” the leader said, attempting to quell his comrade’s righteous anger. “There’s nothing I can do about it now!”

“We can’t let him leave here alive,” the high-pitched voice spoke in perfect tandem with the nervous body language of the muscle-bound man. Lieder could have predicted they’d use it to mask his voice, but was still amused that they had.

“It won’t matter.” The leader’s words were cryptic.

“It’s too late to cover it up. We can’t let him live.”

“Little John’s got a point there, Robin Hood. If I wanted to be a major bunghole, I’d totally use my knowledge of the name Michael Tombs to get what I wanted out of you.”

“My name isn’t John,” the giant replied, his tone triumphant.

“Congratulations,” Lieder chuckled.

“…and Michael is not a member of the Tombs. We are very concerned with the products of the Tombs trade, but that doesn’t mean we’re Tombs.” The leader spoke with a smug air, as though he knew something Lieder didn’t. “There are many, many families who are deeply invested in preventing another Exodus.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Lieder rolled his eyes, exasperated. “You’re Tombs, we all know it. We can move on.”

“You could never prove what isn’t true. You’re welcome to try.”

“Yes, you’re a master judge of what’s possible and what isn’t, I get it. Moving on, you never told me what you think I’m not allowed to do with my new life.”

“It’s true, Lord Lieder. You are born anew. The Tombs have granted you the second chance you sought.”

“Not how it happened,” Lieder interrupted. “Suppose it doesn’t matter. Sorry, go on.”

“However, this chance is a privilege. A gift. The Tombs and their allies initially opposed the movement to resurrect Winkles. We were persuaded, however, when the Assembly allowed us the power to issue conditions for Winkle revival.”

“Neat,” Lieder said, his voice thick with disinterest.

“The Exodus must never be repeated, Lord Lieder. That was a fundamental component in the founding of the Peerage. The Tombs were tasked with determining what caused the Exodus, and subsequently burying all of the factors that could lead to another one. We will help them in that capacity in any way we can, even if we must resort to measures that even the Tombs aren’t permitted to employ.”

“Courageous.” Lieder’s compliments were spoken with exaggerated insincerity. “Inspiring, even.”

Despite his need to appear unconcerned, Lieder was perplexed. He’d been preparing to obtain information that he knew the Tombs were unlikely to allow him to have, but so far, he’d only accessed information that was available to the public. Because he’d been anticipating their retaliation at one point or another, he hadn’t considered how strange it was that they were coming after him now. He’d only been planning to infiltrate, he hadn’t actually tried it yet.

He considered his actions up to that point. The only times he’d done anything they’d consider uncooperative were before he’d even known what the Exodus was. Hadn’t Justus taken care of that for him? Besides, would they really go this far over such a trivial occurrence?

“As a matter of fact,” Lieder continued. “The only criticism I have for your cause is that you seem to believe I’m obligated to think the same way you do. People’s ideas coming into conflict is fine; inevitable, even. Try to force me to comply, if you feel it necessary, I won’t judge you for it. Just don’t pretend I should feel guilty or ashamed when I ignore the laws that I feel are unfair. That’s when you turn into hypocrites.”

“Guilt isn’t really what we’re after,” a new voice chimed in, deep and clearly male. “More along the lines of fear or intimidation.”

“Yeah, I can see you’re trying for that. Won’t comment on whether or not you’re succeeding, though.”

“One other thing,” the leader added. “There are no true laws for members of the Peerage. Only Covenants, bindings by pledge to uphold the collective’s will. For you and us, who have made no promises, we are exempt from both punishment and enforcement of the Assembly’s will.”

“Good to know,” Lieder replied. He wondered how well this ‘Assembly’ was documented in the academy’s database; he was beginning to understand what it was, but he’d like to know more. “Back to the whole fear and intimidation thing, though, aren’t your guys’ targets primarily Winkles? Why’d you go with lion masks?  Lions are frightening enough, sure, but symbolically, you might have been better off with something like a spider or hyena or a bat or something. Lions tend to symbolize order and pride, you should have gone with an animal that comes across as cunning and ruthless or just plain scary.”

“Because we are the Sphinxes,” their spokesman replied. “I’d have expected a knowledgeable Winkle like yourself to understand what that means. Like the statues in ancient Egypt, we are tasked with guarding the Tombs and their purposes, while remaining fundamentally separate from them. Should anyone attempt to undermine what the Tombs were created for, they shall know the ferocity that protects them, and either rethink their agendas or meet their doom.”

A boisterous laugh escaped Lieder, the gesture visibly surprising the Sphinxes.

“You know you got that completely ass-backward, right? Like, literally, ass-backward. Sphinxes are supposed to have the body of a lion and the face of a human. You’ve got lion masks on. You’d have been better off calling yourself the Thundercats, as it stands.”

“I was unaware of such a distinction,” the lead Sphinx admitted. “But I’d wager you grasp the concept well enough. Now, knowing our purpose and knowing we believed you uncooperative, do you have any guesses as to what you might have done to get our attention?”

“I’m old, my memories get jumbled easily,” Lieder replied, purposely neglecting to share his hunch. “What did I do?”

“With several infractions over two separate occasions, you’ve made reference to history that has not been deemed safe for public consumption. During an exam at a local Preceptor Academy, you quoted several individuals who advocated some questionable philosophy, and at your lodging in a small Padrone establishment, you requested access to music genres that were colloquially named after minerals. While these are relatively minor incidents, both of them are involved with subjects that are being investigated for their possible roles in the Exodus’s conception.”

“Wait,” Lieder interrupted. “I can’t say I’m surprised about some of the quotes I gave at the Academy, but you’re actually claiming that my request for ‘rock’ and ‘metal’ when my private attendant offered to play some music was in violation of your terms?”

“Since the Tombs failed to deliver the terms, we understand that we can’t now take disciplinary action…”

“But you would have?”

“Yes. I’d find it hard to believe that a Winkle would deny that the music of their time was often considered highly philosophical, and sometimes even violent.”

Lieder considered this in silence. This must have been why all the music he’d encountered in this era had been so intolerable: they’d cut its heart out.

“As I mentioned, we will no longer take any action regarding the earlier misunderstandings. However, I will now present to you the Tombs’ terms of revival, and should you violate them, punishment will be administered. Even if they decline to take action, for whatever reason, we won’t.”

“I’m not offering any guarantee of acceptance, but let’s hear your terms.”

            “Peruse your Academy’s database for historical content that’s deemed safe; anything you don’t see listed should be considered off-limits. Don’t share it, not even with other Winkles, don’t even reference it when you think you’re alone. You’re been gifted with a second life, and while you don’t have to ignore your experiences and their benefits, know that this new world you live in has grown older and wiser in your absence. Don’t attempt to change it back. Just enjoy it as it continues to grow. Contribute to that growth, if you wish, but not in a way that leads it towards another Exodus.”

It was as Lieder expected. The terms weren’t altogether unreasonable; in fact, he’d be fine with most people’s acceptance of them. It was everything they’d ever wanted. Though he was so different from those people that most considered him their opposite, even he found it to be a tempting offer. Still, he hadn’t lost sight of the bigger picture.

He didn’t know who resurrected him. He didn’t know why. There was a whole new world that he didn’t know, an unfathomable wealth of unknown potential. Society could be in as pristine a state as these Tombs claimed, but more likely, there was room for unbelievable atrocity to be hiding beneath the surface.

He could not pledge to forsake the past without knowing for sure that the future didn’t need it anymore.

            He sighed and smiled, resolved. Ironic, that he was being confronted over his reference to wisdom that might be capable of saving these people from their worst fears. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The quote was included in the collection that Sphinx deemed transgressive. He was of the opinion that they should apply that quote to the possibility of another Exodus, if it really was as bad as they made it out to be.

            “Ever heard the story of Oedipus?” Lieder asked, feeling persuasive.

            “That’s right at the top of our list of restricted history.”

            “Alright, but remember who told you so when your abandoned son leaves you to die on the side of the road.”

            “Is this a rejection of terms?”

            “I’m afraid so. I can’t commit to such a promise. There’s too much I don’t know.”

            “Regrettable. That means we have to put you back to sleep, Lord Lieder. We will see to it that the instigator of your revival is notified, and should they demand yet another revival, it will most certainly be carried out properly this time.”

            “Unacceptable,” Lieder declared. He gritted his teeth; was it possible that he’d been resurrected – and murdered - before? “It was ethically ambiguous to put my digitized consciousness in this blank body the first time. Try to put me to sleep, be my guest, but if you succeed, promise me you won’t wake me back up!”

            “We can’t make that promise, because we won’t be the ones to wake you.”

            “I guess it’s on me to stay awake, then.” Lieder’s eyes darted between each of them, vigilant for even the slightest of motions. “If you still feel like negotiating, I might be more inclined to agree with your terms if I knew who resurrected me and why. It might motivate me to hand my life over to you. Until I know those two things, however, I won’t surrender.”

            They Sphinx leader motioned for Michael to hand him his expander, who obliged with reluctance. It was clear that he was still unhappy about having his name divulged.

The commander said nothing as he scanned the screen, moving only when he needed to scroll through the data.

            “I’m afraid your terms are also unacceptable,” he replied after a long pause.

            “Why? Is it because someone asked that I was not to be told that information, or is it because the information is not listed on my profile?”

“I see no reason to tell that to someone who won’t remember it for very long.”

            “Have your boy here find the data. He hacked this Mobile Sanctuary thing, surely he could bypass any security protecting this information.”

            “If we were to hypothetically accept your suggestion, we’d be stealing hypothetically sensitive material from an ally; that’s an act of aggression. Why should we do that on your behalf?”

“Maybe try asking nicely,” Lieder struggled to keep his patience. The stakes had been low when he thought he might be riding to his own death; now that they’d threatened him with repeat revival, he needed to be the one to decide this encounter’s outcome.

“I must refuse. Apologies.”

            He knew they were Tombs; despite the claim that they existed outside the Assembly’s ‘Covenants’, they had sealed this garage off and disguised their identities. While their collective alias, the Sphinxes, was supposed to be autonomous, the people behind the masks would only need disguises if they belonged to families that were subject to the Covenants.

Further, Lieder had tried to find the document that Percius had used to release him, and he now assumed it was the same document these people had used to verify his lack of contract. He’d been unable to find it, which meant it was not accessible to the public. For someone to have access to it, they would either need to bypass the security guarding it, an act this Sphinx had just claimed they wouldn’t perform, or have access granted to them.

Lieder knew how alliances between organizations worked. When one group asks for the other’s help, it’s expected that all relevant information be given to the second group. In this case, if the Tombs had asked the Sphinxes to take care of Lieder, the matter of who ordered Lieder’s revival would be relevant. Otherwise, Lieder’s demise might cause his benefactor to retaliate, and the Tombs would be responsible for endangering the Sphinxes without informing them.

To refuse to tell Lieder who resurrected him or why either meant that they weren’t permitted to tell him or that they weren’t permitted to know at all. To need permission was to be subordinate, and the type of allegiance they advertised had no room for subordinacy. Everything about their behavior, particularly their bungling, had suggested that they were low-ranking members of the Tombs.

            “So you have absolutely no room to compromise?” Lieder asked. “You can’t let me out of here with the threat that, should I ever break the rules again, you’ll come snuff me? I have to either pledge my cooperation or be put to sleep?”

            “Correct. Also, please don’t pretend that you haven’t already made your choice. You’ve made your intentions quite clear. You intend to do what’s been forbidden.”

“Who died and made you Master Shake, anyway?” Lieder asked, defiant. “Your pretentious claims to authority are beginning to anger me. I recommend you start rethinking this, and quickly.”

“Oh? Have I overlooked something? From my angle, it rather looks like you’re cornered.”

“You’ve overlooked a lot, there, Lion-O. You overlooked the security of the car I was riding in. You overlooked the prudence of not giving your enemy an ally’s name. Dumbest of all, you overlooked the status of the man you hunted. For your sake, I hope you haven’t been squandering this conversation by thinking about anything but how you’re going to leave here alive after you kill me.”

Though Lieder couldn’t see his face, he could tell that the man was beginning to panic. He took frantic glances at all the entrances and scanned the shadows, searching for signs of unnoticed presence.

“Do we have any form of roster on Lieder family operatives?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“No order for such a thing was ever given.” Michael was snide. “We didn’t even know Lieder had a family until we locked ourselves in here with him.”

“He doesn’t.” This came from a voice that had not spoken to that point. This one was female; of a deeper tone than average, but still very feminine.

Lieder fought back a grimace. She’d seen through the bluff.

“Are we sure of that?”

“You’re holding his dossier in your hands. He’s only been awake for four days, and he’s desperate to know who woke him up. He hasn’t had time to make friends that would die for him, and even if he had somehow managed to accumulate the funds to hire somebody, he’d have to have an unprecedented level of insight - or paranoia - to expect he needed protection by this point. He’s smart, but he’s alone.”

“I see,” the leader replied, calming down. “Very impressive.”

“Well…” Lieder opened his mouth to admit the lie, but a forgotten factor changed the course of his statement. “…it could be insight or paranoia, but more likely, it’s the car you had follow me back to the Padrones’.”

“Say again?” their leader scoffed. “We had a car follow you? In that thing? You think we’d resort to such a self-defeating tactic?”

There was a chorus of condescending chuckles.

“After seeing you guys in action here?” Lieder’s response quelled all but the woman’s laughter. “Yes, I most certainly do think you’re capable of making a decision that stupid. I’m still skeptical to believe you really didn’t. Who else would?”

“I don’t know.” His reply betrayed his irritation. “But it wasn’t us. We wouldn’t have even come after you if you hadn’t mentioned the restricted music genres last night.”

Lieder considered this for a moment. He had a point. While they could lie about the tail, doing so wouldn’t do them any good.

 A professional would have refused to even acknowledge the accusation, ignoring the subject altogether and going about their agenda. This guy was such a rookie that he’d even taken offense to Lieder’s taunts. It had been foolish for this person to reveal that he could spy on Lieder even in his apartment, but still, that revelation meant that they could probably track his every movement without having to leave their headquarters. Even being the amateurs that they were, if they were capable of that level of surveillance, there’d be no reason to risk tailing him.

If they hadn’t sent the empty car to follow him, who had? Did he have some other enemy out there, one that was even less competent than these Sphinxes? Alternatively, might it have been an attempt by an unknown ally to send him some kind of message?

“Even if a third party prompted you to raise your guard, it matters little. Any ally you may have recruited has failed to protect you. They’ll have no more luck breaking in here than the Martials will. By the time anyone overcomes this lockdown, it will be too late.”

Their leader was hinting at what Lieder had suspected: this building was not theirs, and it was likely that the Martials were already on their way. He had to buy as much time as he could; he’d already made them waste more than they should have. Even though there were five of them and only one of him, a chance still existed.

“Terminate him.”

It seemed that speech wasn’t a method that would stall them any longer, however.

The oversized bodybuilder was the first to approach, lumbering forward with speed that defied his size. Lieder could actually hear the elastic strain of muscle and sinew over the pounding of his footfalls and sliding of fabric. There was no doubt that this giant had more than enough power to kill with his bare hands.

Still, Lieder knew that this was not the ideal type of person to send against him. Brute strength and running speed were the only areas he surpassed Lieder in.

He took two casual steps toward the stampeding beast before bending to slip underneath a swipe from the right arm. With a simple swivel, Lieder was watching from behind the charger as his momentum pulled him away from his target.

His limbs were frozen in place, locked in their mid-stride posture as his trajectory carried him forward. He stared at his empty right hand, baffled by the fact that it was empty. Even as he toppled, bouncing and skidding across the concrete, his only concern lay with understanding how missed his target.

“It would be trite of me to bring up the matador parallels.” Lieder watched the spectacle with a raised brow, incredulous that his evasion had worked so well. “It’s really hard not to, though.”

“Still insistent upon referencing forbidden material, I see.” Their leader didn’t seem fazed by his subordinate’s plight.

“Can hardly blame you for forbidding mention of bullfighting. It was pretty barbaric.”

Lieder turned his attention to the male Sphinx that had been approaching from behind. By the observation that Michael was still standing near his leader, he concluded that this was the man who had barely participated in the conversation.

He made a grab for Lieder’s shirt, but this was casually brushed aside. A left uppercut was thrust towards Lieder’s chin, but was easily sidestepped. The nameless man finished by attempting a high roundhouse, but the maneuver was so lacking in force that Lieder was able to grab and hold his shin in place before it reached his head.

“I’ll commend you on being flexible enough to get your foot this high,” Lieder’s tone was gentle, though his addressee seemed preoccupied with keeping his balance while his leg was suspended in the air. “But it doesn’t do any good if you don’t know what to do with your weight. Besides, this isn’t really something people try to do outside of the movies.”

Lieder swept his standing leg out from under him and released his grip, causing the man to fall. From the way he reacted to his masked head hitting the ground, it seemed that the lion head did not double as a helmet.

“That’s very close to what I keep telling him.”

She was approaching from the front, but she’d been so fast and silent that Lieder hadn’t noticed until she was in striking distance.  By the time he’d focused his gaze on her, she’d spun and jumped, launching a kick at his head.

He shot his arm out to block, but he had no time to assume a proper stance or extend his arm enough. His hand slid uselessly off her knee and along her thigh before the attack hit its mark.

While the others seemed unqualified for this business, Lieder was sure that this woman was capable of carrying them to success.

Her shin connected with his upper cheek. He stumbled to his side, bowing under the force of the impact. Though it had not been enough to knock him unconscious, his mind was reeling.

The ancient conditioning of his youth was still proving effective. His instincts screamed at him, insisting that he ignore the pain and confusion until he could create as much distance as possible between him and his attacker.

Her competence was yet more proof that his training was worthwhile. She capitalized on the opportunity, striking his shoulder with an open palm. Though the hit caused no damage, it contributed to his unbalanced, awkward scramble and allowed her to catch him in a grapple.

Once she had him braced, she threw her knee into his gut with all the weight she could.

Lieder doubled over as the breath was forced from his lungs. With an involuntary fall to his knees, he clutched at his sides. She gripped the top of his head like she would a basketball, pushing it down and forcing him into a prostrated position.

Lieder’s next several breaths were intensely difficult. “Yeah, you definitely know how your friend was doing it wrong. Still, that kick was on the Hollywood side of practicality.”

“It worked, didn’t it? If there’s something else that would have worked better, feel free to enlighten me.”

“The only thing you could do to improve your situation is reevaluate your leadership.”

“I could see why you’d say that,” she spoke with empathy. “But it’s complicated.”

Complicated? Lieder tried to guess her meaning. She was clearly more capable, and if he was right about her being the one to record their leader’s accidental leak of Michael’s name, she agreed with the current administration’s incompetence. Further, from her first comment on her comrade’s attack, she’d implied that she had been the one to train him.

Perhaps she wasn’t a formal member of the group. Maybe she was something of a consultant. It was hard for Lieder to come up with a way for this information to help his immediate situation, though.

 “So, hey, maybe you and I could have dinner together sometime?” Lieder knew he’d be turned down; he would never proposition anyone this way. It was simply a play for time. “Do whatever it is you guys do for fun in the future? You can keep the mask on, if you want, I’m totally cool with that.”

“I don’t go for men less than half my age, nor do I go for ones more than double it. You’re all sorts of disqualified.”

“Truly,” Lieder grunted, his breathing still very pained. “That was lecherous of me. Apologies.”

“You’re forgiven.” She bent down and grabbed him by the throat. With a forceful push backward, she lifted him off his knees to fall flat on his back. She straddled his chest to pin him down.

“Alright, I’m receiving some crossed signals now,” he managed through his constricted windpipe. He felt neither forgiven nor disqualified.

She ignored him and reached for the gun holstered at her side.

“Gator impersonation!” Lieder gripped her wrist with his left hand and planted his right palm at her elbow. He coiled his body, preparing to imitate the ‘death roll’ that crocodilians were infamous for. If she didn’t react properly, she was risking dislocation, ligament damage, and breakage.

Savvy to the technique, she lifted a knee and braced it against his chest, using the leverage to yank the trapped arm free. The pressure against his sternum caused enough pain for an involuntary release of her arm, but her escape granted him the opportunity to slide out from under her knee. She grunted in pain and frustration as her leg slammed into the concrete and Lieder rolled to safety.

Lieder forced himself up to one knee, gasping for air. He might survive this if he didn’t allow her to put him in a position that was advantageous to her gender.

The sound of enormous footsteps was growing louder.

“Don’t try again, we have this under control.”

The Sphinx leader’s command prompted Lieder to glance towards their largest member. He was several meters away, back on his feet and uninjured. A normal person wouldn’t have been incapacitated by the tumble he’d taken, but with that excess body mass, there were multiple times the amount of bone and tissue that could injure each other.

Whatever they’d done to him, they’d done it well; Lieder knew it wasn’t natural for a person to be over two meters tall and carry so much muscle. They’d either tear themselves apart or be inefficient to the point of uselessness. Still, it wasn’t surprising that physical augmentation had come such a long way.

The lead Sphinx unholstered the pistol at his side and angled it at Lieder. This was a curious situation: if they all had weapons, why hadn’t they shot him at the start?

Lieder forced himself to stand and shuffled sideways, clumsily moving out of the gun’s line of fire. When his opponent adjusted his aim to follow this movement, he reversed his direction to avoid the Sphinx’s lock.

This tactic was primitive, but could be effective against a gunman with limited ammunition. So long as Lieder was unpredictable, the shooter would have to gamble with each shot. The odds of a sidearm hitting a moving target from this distance were always against the gunman.

Then again, pistols had been given a long time to improve in his absence. What if it was automatic, and could hold more rounds than the magazines of his age? Besides, if all of them tried together, he was bound to get hit several times.

Even so, this one Sphinx was the only one that had drawn his weapon, and he had yet to take a shot. The more amateurish his opponent, the more this awkward dance of his was supposed to provoke a shot. Why, then, had he not fired?

Was there a reason he couldn’t?

“He’s not going to stop,” the female proclaimed. “Allow me.”

“If you’d please.” His response held relief, and he lowered his weapon. “Appreciations.”

Lieder swallowed hard as she charged him. Though he’d been more fortunate than he could have expected, this was starting to get bad. His legs were trembling, his arms felt weak, and he felt a strong urge to vomit.

Not only was this body juvenile in its development, it was grossly far from its optimal shape. His plan hinged on stalling for time, and he’d adopted it on the presupposition that being young meant being fit. It was better by far than the feeble, one-hundred and thirty-year-old corpse that he’d left behind, but it still wasn’t presentable in combat.

He pitched backward to avoid her grab at his shirt, but his slowed reactions failed to register the follow-up blow to his gut. He doubled over with a silent cursing of her cruelty towards his abdomen.

She grabbed the cloth of his shirt at both shoulders and took a step back, her posture indicative of a familiar attack. Lieder repositioned his arms, bending slightly at the elbow and suspending his hands along the path he knew her knee would take.

With a powerful thrust, her rearward knee flew towards his chest. As his hands cupped her leg just above the kneecap, he pushed with all his might. His arms acted as shock absorbers, draining the momentum out of her strike as it neared his sternum.

Contact was painful, and the force still lifted him to the balls of his feet, but most of the damage had been prevented. Lieder considered himself lucky that she had tried the same thing twice.

She growled in frustration, incredulous to the idea that he’d compensated so well. She made a grab for her pistol, but Lieder wrapped his arms around her leg and stepped forward. Startled, she braced both hands on his shoulders and hopped backward with each stride he took, intent on keeping her supporting foot underneath her.

A strange sound from an unexpected direction caused both of them to pause. Directing their gaze towards this grinding, it became apparent that it was coming from within the wall above one of the garage doors.

“What are they scheming?” The lead Sphinx asked, turning to Michael. “Has the lockdown expired?”

“No, we’re still in complete control. Whatever they’re doing, it’s completely mechanical.”

“I thought that they’d permanently disable it if they tried anything like that.”

“I’m worried, they have the authority to access manufacturer schematics. I’d wager they know something we don’t before thinking that they’d make such a stupid mistake.”

“Razorbrick!” The leader’s curse prompted Lieder to snort with derision. Was that really considered swearing in this age? “We’re pulling out, everyone. Let’s go.”

Lieder’s grappler yanked her knee out of his grasp, offering a flirtatious farewell wiggling of her fingers as she turned away. The oversized Sphinx picked up the comrade that Lieder had felled and gently set him on his feet, lending his arm for support as the smaller man caressed the side of his lion mask.

Their demeanor lacked haste as they prepared to leave. They seemed to be making a conscious effort to pretend that Lieder wasn’t there, a behavior that contradicted their supposed goals. If staying longer meant they risked being captured, why weren’t they rushing to escape? If they had a surplus of time, as their attitudes suggested, why didn’t they finish him off?

“That’s it?” Lieder yelled after them. “You’re going to let me go, after all this effort, and after I refused to agree to your terms?”

“Let there be no misunderstanding,” their leader called back. “We will rectify the mistake of your revival. It just won’t be so presently as we’d prefer.”

The female shot a glance at him; though Lieder couldn’t see her face, her body language suggested that she disapproved of his response. It may have been that she believed there shouldn’t have been any response at all.

            There was meaning behind this disapproval. There were a number of scenarios Lieder could attribute to this behavior, but they weren’t as important as what he wanted to do before they left.

“Michael Tombs,” Lieder shouted.

At first, nobody reacted; however, Michael’s footsteps began to slow, and he turned to look back at Lieder. His female companion was the first to notice, her abrupt stop prompting the others to do the same.

“You’ve lucked out, my friend. I’m probably the only person that will ever react this way. I hereby swear to not use my knowledge of your name against you or the Tombs in whole. Rest easy. I won’t let your officer’s incompetence become your crisis.”

There were several moments of silence as Michael contemplated this statement.

“If that were true, it would be something I’d owe you thanks for. Understand that I can’t trust your word.”

“If it were true that he were a Tombs, he’d owe you thanks,” their leader corrected in an apparent attempt to cloud Lieder’s understanding. “Don’t project our quarrel onto the Tombs, Lord Lieder. It’s unbecoming to victimize the innocent, and-“

Michael lifted his mask off of his head, turned, and hurled it at the startled speaker. Everyone flinched in simultaneous shock, incredulous over what he’d done.

It was too dark for Lieder to make out his facial features, but the gesture was clear. Michael was compromised, by no fault of his own, and he knew that it meant the end of his membership in this group. The damage had been done, and this futile attempt to cover it up was insulting him.

“Are you suicidal?!” their leader spat, storming over to retrieve the discarded mask. “The situation was under control!”

“I did my duty.” As Lieder had suspected, Michael’s unmasked voice sounded very different. “Why was it too much to ask that you do your duty, too?”

“Mistakes were made, I regret them deeply! That’s still no reason to endanger-“

“Don’t speak to me of endangerment. Don’t speak to me of anything. The masks were always redundant, my identity can’t be confirmed. My duty was to ensure that security for all of us, and I succeeded until the moment you undermined me.”

Lieder chuckled with empathy. The hectic cloud over his mind was beginning to clear, now that he could be certain of his safety. He was beginning to see the reasons behind several of his enemies’ mysterious actions, and this made him feel fonder of Michael.

“Let’s leave,” the woman urged. “This can wait.”

            After a moment of staring at each other, Michael and the rest of the Sphinxes turned in unison and began walking towards the only two vehicles that had been there prior to Lieder’s arrival. Lieder felt the urge to agitate them, to taunt and aggravate until they changed their minds and tried to finish what they started, but he knew better than to act on this impulse.

He hated winning by default. If victory was to be had, he wanted to earn it by his own merit, not by the bungling of his opponent. Still, in this instance, it was in his best interest to withhold any second chance he wanted to give them.

He watched with mild confusion as they walked past the pair of cars before realizing that they had planned well for this particular contingency. If the Martials were breaking down the door, chances were that they had the garage surrounded, and escape by vehicle would be impossible.

If Sphinx had taken control of all the doors, stairways, and elevators that led to other parts of the building, however, its gargantuan size would make the attempt to cover every one of the vast number of exits implausible. If they used an elevator, and this became truer for every elevator that connected to this garage, it would be almost impossible to chase them to whatever floor they chose.

Confirming his theory, the group paused outside of a door on the distant wall. They’d gone too far for Lieder to be able to tell all of them apart, but he deduced that it must have been Michael that was immersing himself in some task involving his expander. A few moments later, the door slid open, and the five Sphinxes entered the small room beyond.

After it closed, Lieder was given nearly half a minute to ponder the strange turn his day had taken before the clicking door slid open and flooded the garage with the echo of heavy footfalls.   

The End

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