“This is probably the victim, but two of you stay with him. The rest, secure all exits, search the cars, and scan for chameleons.”
Lieder didn’t need to observe the speaker long to conclude that he was the highest authority present.
“They went out that way,” Lieder said calmly, pointing at the elevator that the Sphinxes had taken. “Couldn’t tell whether they went up or down, though.”
“Oh, how refreshing, you’re offering cooperation,” he replied, smiling in relief. “Techs, focus on that elevator. See if we can crack it before they escape. Chances are low, but we might determine which floor they went to before they clear the building.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll get anything out of those two.” Lieder motioned at the pair of vehicles that had been there before his arrival. He was certain that these people could satisfy a lot of his curiosity, but resisted the urge to place that above their investigation.
“These are Sapient craft, there are sunflower seeds that are harder to crack.” The officer frowned in when he deduced which vehicle Lieder had arrived in. “You came in that?”
“Yeah.” Lieder felt something like shame over the admission that the luxury vehicle was his.
“Victim’s a Peer, lads, let’s mind our etiquette. Can I ask how long you’ve been awake, sir?”
“Is this day four or five?” Lieder wondered aloud. He was impressed that they knew he was a Winkle, but guessed that they had probably encountered this pattern before. “I think it was five.”
“Didn’t take you long to risk their attention,” his interviewer observed. “What was your offense?”
“Offense,” Lieder scoffed at the term. “To be fair, they didn’t consider them ‘offenses’ by the time our conversation was done, but I’m straying from the topic here. I quoted several individuals involved in ‘restricted’ history, and also queried my lodging attendant about musical genres they don’t appreciate like they should.”
“I can’t express how grateful I am that you’re cooperating,” the officer’s voice was heavy with relief. “Did they identify themselves in any way? Were there any features about them that might help us pick them out of a crowd?”
“They called themselves Sphinxes, but I’d bet anything that they were actually Tombs.”
“Sphinxes?” The officer suddenly seemed eager. “Could you spell that for me?”
“I’d caution you against sharing that Tombs suspicion without having any proof,” one of Lieder’s guards warned.
“There were five of them,” Lieder ignored the interruption. “Three men, a woman, and a huge guy with the shoulder-balloon things goin’ on. I think the big one was male, but I’m far from certain. Also, while I’d wager that they took them off in the elevator, they had big lion helmets on, ones that might be hard to conceal without a large bag to carry them around in.”
“Be advised.” As the stranger spoke, Lieder couldn’t help but feel awkward. He was addressing all of his men, but only the duo that watched over Lieder were in earshot. “We’re looking for five perpetrators. One has pneumatics, put a temporary restriction on any athlete who requires such an apparatus. Be especially wary of groups of five, but account for the probability that they separated.”
Lieder was certain he was transmitting these orders to all Martials in the building, but because he wasn’t using any visible device, and because he maintained eye contact with Lieder the entire time, it was difficult to imagine him talking to anyone else.
“I’d say there’s a good chance they’ll stick together, their leader’s not the best at what he’s trying to do. Without the efforts of one of them in particular, you’d have probably caught them by now.”
Lieder silently chided himself, amused by the fact that he’d almost said Michael’s name aloud. He couldn’t imagine a more careless mistake after promising Michael that he wouldn’t use his identity against him. It seemed almost hypocritical to have mocked the Sphinx leader for that exact mistake.
It also felt unfair to give Michael sole credit. Their female member was even more capable than him.
“What makes you say that?”
“The guy giving orders was making one mistake after another. He organized this ambush on the false assumption that I was a Sapient, which was made worse by virtue of the fact that the Tombs sent a lower-ranking Peer to release me from the hospital. I never agreed to the terms they claimed I violated; they had to explain what those terms were, and the time they spent doing that could easily be the only reason I’m still alive right now.”
“Are you saying that you refused their offer?”
“Yep,” Lieder replied without hesitation, despite the possibility that this admission might make him a criminal. “I’m not enabled to accept such terms under my present circumstances.”
“Bold,” the officer smirked his approval, implying that he held little respect for the Tombs’ quest to suppress history. “They’ll come after you again, you know.”
“Why is it the Tombs needs to hide behind these Sphinx masks? Was it a bluff when their leader told me that the Tombs have a legal right to undo the revival of uncooperative Winkles?”
“Again,” the earlier protester replied. “I really must emphasize the severity of your claim. In a more public setting, there would undoubtedly be dire ramifications for accusing them without proof.”
“Fine.” Lieder rolled his eyes. “Pretending I don’t know they’re not really the same organization, why would a Sphinx come after my life if the Tombs were legally privileged to take it? Was he lying about that privilege?”
“No,” the officer replied. “That wasn’t necessarily a lie. However, were they to act on that right, the dispute would be mediated. Depending on the severity of the infraction, most attempts have been acquitted in trial. The clients who resurrected the Winkles tend to defend their investments. So long as their employers care about the Winkle, or assuming the Winkle was granted status in the Peerage, it’s pretty safe to assume the Winkle will be defended. A person could easily imagine how the Tombs might be behind these people’s actions, but as my subordinate said, without proof , a formal accusation would only damage the accuser.”
“I can’t imagine how a public accusation would benefit me anyway. I still won’t pretend that the Sphinxes’ charade is working, though.”
“I’d be really appreciative if you could spell that for me.”
“S-P-H-I-N-X. Plural adds an E-S.”
“Thank you. Having the name will be of great convenience to me.”
“Why is it that nobody has shared that name with you before?” Lieder asked. “All your questions have suggested you’ve investigated these types of incidents before, and you mentioned that other Winkles were uncooperative. Why would that be?”
Lieder noticed his guards direct a nervous glance at each other.
“Isn’t it obvious?” The officer seemed somewhat surprised. “They’re frightened. Civilians are scared of anonymous people that threaten violence. I mean no offense, but understand, from our perspective, Winkles are especially susceptible to scare tactics.”
“Really?” Lieder hadn’t expected this. “I’d have thought people who lived through times of war would be a little harder to scare than those who have always known peace.”
“Oh, that’s a valid opinion, and please understand that we don’t believe that everyone in your generation scared easily. You see, the majority of your people are dead; the number of Winkles that underwent digitization are best measured in millions, while the population of the planet at that time was in the billions. If we’re using the term ‘Winkle’ correctly, we’re only referring to the ones that digitized, and the fact of the matter is, most Winkles became Winkles because death was in sight and it scared them.”
Lieder considered this. It had always been clear that the digitization procedure appealed only to the old and terminally ill. Like most of the others, he was a senior, but that’s the only similarity they shared. While he’d used the procedure as a loophole to bypass the anti-euthanasia laws, his contemporaries had hoped it would extend their lifespans.
This Martial had avoided this term, which hinted that there might be a common stereotype for Winkles. Lieder believed it was probably accurate: if someone was a Winkle, chances were good that they were some kind of coward.
“I see why you’re so relieved that I’m cooperating now,” Lieder said. “I hadn’t ever thought of it that way. Most people in my situation are alive today because they did everything they could to run from death, so when the Sphinxes threatened them to be silent or die, their choice is obvious. They didn’t come this far just to die now.”
“I confess,” the officer replied. “I’m surprised you’d be willing to defy them after taking such care to preserve yourself. The fact that you survived your encounter with them makes me wonder if they were bluffing about the death threats they’ve made. Did you realize they were bluffing beforehand?”
“I don’t think they were bluffing.” Lieder shrugged. “They all had pistols, and two of them were intending to use them. The only reason they never fired is because they didn’t seem to think they could afford to miss, and I wasn’t giving them any easy shots. Had you come much later, I probably would have died.”
“Well, If they shot and missed, we’d have heard it, and thereby been able to provide testimony of ballistic usage. They must have agreed beforehand to only shoot if they were sure they could kill. That way, if the worst happened and they failed to kill but were still caught, their crime would be much lesser.”
“I honestly hadn’t thought of that,” Lieder considered this theory. “That does make more sense, especially if there are quicker ways to dispose of a body than there were in my day.”
“There certainly are,” the officer confirmed. “Several methods, actually, and we suspect they’ve employed them before. They only need a few seconds to erase the evidence.”
“Frightening,” Lieder observed. “Does this happen often?”
“No. It’s been more than a decade, in fact. For a time, there was a rise in the sharing of Winkle culture, and that was likewise becoming more acceptable until these Sphinxes appeared. After the first incident and with each time it happened again, the Winkle community became more aware and began to quiet back down. It was almost refreshing to receive this alarm today; I’d begun to think I’d never have another chance to pursue these people.”
“Oh, excellent.” Lieder was relieved. “I’ll be glad if your coming to my rescue wasn’t an annoyance for you. I would have preferred to be able to handle it myself, but I like this outcome much more than the alternative.”
“You weren’t a burden at all. In fact, with your information, we’re more empowered than ever. Beyond the fact that we know they’re still active, you’ve provided us with the name of their group. Further, we can now be certain that, not only do they have a technician capable of commandeering control of other families’ buildings and equipment, they can actually neutralize the security of a Mobile Sanctuary. Finally, we know that they can monitor the usage of Winkle terms as effectively as the Tombs can, which likely means that they are simply using the Tombs’ systems. This, my friend, was the opposite of ‘annoying’; it was an opportunity.”
“Good, good,” Lieder sighed in relief. “Because they promised they’d be coming after me again.”
“Did they?” The officer smirked, an expression of anticipation and confidence. “Is it my imagination, or have I been honored with yet another opportunity by your virtue… come to think of it, I haven’t asked your name yet.”
“Carl,” Lieder replied, offering his right palm for a handshake.
“Lord of the Lieder family.” The quieter of Lieder’s guards had been navigating his expander throughout the conversation.
“Lord?!” The lead Martial was shocked. “I’ve never heard of a Winkle Lord before.”
“I’m told it’s uncommon,” Lieder replied with a casual shrug.
“That’s quite an understatement.” The officer’s confidence was fading. “I’d call it rare enough to be miraculous. Did you take over an existing family?”
“No, I don’t think so. His roster is blank.”
“They gave you your own family?” He found each revelation more appalling.
“I guess?” Lieder shrugged. “I don’t even know who resurrected me, or why, much less what ‘Lordship’ even means in this day and age. Help me out here, my good Martial, who could authorize the giving of these gifts to me?”
“I don’t even know if any single person could do such a thing. It’s possible that the idea originated from an individual, but it must have had to pass through the Assembly of Lords in order to become a reality. There is no higher authority than that, my friend, and I hear that they can’t agree on anything lately.”
Lieder took mental note of the name ‘Assembly of Lords.’
“Do you guys have access to the Tombs’ records?” Lieder turned to the guard that had discovered his status. “Might it have any relevant information on whatever form you discovered my Lordship on?”
“This is just the typical basic profile that’s available to the public.” He made a waving motion with his expander as he spoke. “It’s the same source that the attendants draw from when they welcome you into buildings and whatnot.”
“We could make a request of the Tombs,” his superior interjected. “But we can’t access it without permission or without a mandate from the Assembly.”
“Would you make a request for me?” Lieder asked. “Pretend you’re suspicious of me, and that it’s relevant to your investigation?”
“Sure, I could do that.” The officer seemed savvy to Lieder’s strategy. “Make a reminder for me, Baron?”
Lieder smiled. This was turning out well.
“So may I have the honor of knowing my saviors’ names?” Lieder asked.
“I’m Earl Akecheta Martial, and this is Baron Kristof and Baron Rashid.”
“My deepest appreciations, good Martials.”
“It is our duty to serve you in this capacity. Could I bother you for your testimony, if you don’t need some time to recover first?”
Lieder recounted what had happened to him after leaving his Padrone lodgings and before the Martials had arrived. His audience listened without interrupting, their opinions of the events inferable by the changes in their body language. Rashid recorded the debriefing on his expander.
“This was truly an unreasonable attack,” Akecheta observed, once Lieder had indicated he was finished. “And one that sets quite a precedent. Even for all his incompetence, I doubt their leader overlooked that a Winkle who was given Lord status would not be confined by the usual restrictions. The likelihood that your status was granted by the Assembly probably means that you were never meant to have those stipulations. The will of the Assembly would override the Tombs’ objections. By hunting you, they can no longer claim to be taking lives that the Tombs should have legal claim to; they’d be opposing the Assembly.”
“I’m sure they’re aware of all that, too,” Lieder agreed. “They were browsing the Tombs’ records – you’ll remember that they were able to confirm that I had not committed to a contract. If they’re undermining the Assembly’s efforts, they are doing so voluntarily.”
“Impudent,” Kristof sneered. “Especially considering their leader’s ineptitude. We’ll bring him down long before he gets anywhere near you, Lord.”
“That will be appreciated.” Lieder smiled. “Might I recommend you take him alive? Unlike the other members of their group, we would want the public to know of his affiliations with any of the proper families.”
“Why wouldn’t we want to do that for the other criminals?” Rashid asked.
“Well,” Lieder paused to consider his words. “I think that only the captain of the Failboat should have to go down with his ship. Besides, you never know where the other members might have come from. For instance, I’m pretty sure the woman was originally a Martial. I’d imagine we’d want to keep that fact away from the public’s scrutiny.”
All three pairs of eyes narrowed. Lieder swallowed; perhaps he shouldn’t have shared his theory? He hadn’t even noticed the probability until after the Sphinxes had fled. Still, she had shown a proficiency for combat, and had the insight to see through his bluff about having bodyguards. Every time a topic relating to combat or law enforcement had come up, people associated it with the Martials. Were there any other families that specialized in such things?
Despite his second-guessing, Lieder knew he shouldn’t regret sharing this. His reasoning was sound. Besides, their reaction was proving to be quite amusing.
“That’s a bold and most unwelcome implication, Lord Lieder,” Kristof said coldly. “If a Martial became a criminal, the public would perceive it as a betrayal of their trust. The ramifications would be severe.”
“I agree.” Lieder understood that he was being threatened, but reacted as if he was unaware. “We need to keep this possibility a secret. I’ve only been awake for four days, my knowledge of society is limited. We don’t need to invest too much into my opinion.”
“Oh, you’re saying I’m a threat. I see. I suppose even insight can be regrettable at times.” Lieder closed his eyes, opened his palms, and elevated his arms to in an obvious posture of submission. “I offer you my assurances that I would not use this against the Martials, but I understand if you can’t trust my word. Do what you will with me.”
His words were genuine. He hated blackmail, even as a last resort. He’d only consider it if his ‘victim’ had done something wrong enough to justify taking a cheap shot at them. The only way he could convince them that he harbored such a policy was to surrender without condition.
“Soften up, Barons, we can’t fault him for observing the obvious. He’s been forthcoming with his testimony, and he’s a very high-value member of the Peerage. The menial risk of having this exposed to the public isn’t enough to turn such a valuable friend into our victim.”
“Earl, are you saying he’s right?” Kristof was appalled.
“Absolutely,” Akecheta answered without hesitation. “I recently had a colleague accept a career opportunity with the Tombs family. There’s bound to be several similar stories within the Martials. If the Tombs family truly is harboring Sphinx, it’s likely that they’ve been recruiting Martials to reduce the possibility of Sphinx operatives being captured, and thereby having their secret exposed. This has been a fear of mine for some time now.”
“I understand all that…” Rashid paused and glanced at Kristof, who seemed dazed. “… and while I acknowledge that the loss of a Lord is a heavy one, this could be a scandal that would cripple the Martials for years to come.”
“I understand your concern, Baron, but know that I’m convinced there is no risk in placing our trust in his silence.”
“Forgive me if I’m being insubordinate, but is there a basis for this trust?”
“You know that rank in our family is restricted by age, correct? One of the main reasons for this is that, as you get older, you obtain the ability to recognize the situations that you cannot afford to lie about.”
“Isn’t it also true that the older you get, the less capable you are of knowing who is trustworthy and who isn’t?”
“That is a trend seen in many people, yes, but mostly from Sapients and those who haven’t had to exercise their ability to analyze people in that way. We Martials are analyzing in this manner all the time, so I can tell. At Lord Lieder’s age, he’d qualify for a higher rank than me, and this is certainly a situation that he can’t afford to be dishonest in.”
“…someone can rise above your rank by the time they’re a teenager?”
“He’s a Winkle, Baron, he’s probably more than a century old.”
“Then why’d they make him look like he’s ten?”
“Pretend someone’s given you a brain and told you to grow a body to put it in. Do you wait fifteen years to let it grow just big enough to fit the brain in, or do you have it crap the bed until it’s thirty, just because?”
“Bam!” Lieder chuckled, impressed with the Earl’s response. “Akecheta wins. Fatality!”
“I showed more restraint than that, didn’t I?” Akecheta squirmed somewhat. Lieder was amused that a law enforcement official would be so squeamish.
“Don’t they have some way to accelerate the growth?” Rashid asked, hopeful that he could validate his lack of insight.
“Doesn’t the same analogy work if you replace ‘years’ with ‘days?’” Kristof offered. “The earlier you put the brain in, the sooner your sheets stay clean.”
“Fine. I must have missed the lecture on nocturnal incontinence that you all seemed to go to.”
“I bet you did miss it, and I bet that the Sapient does your laundry has also managed to come to that conclusion,” Kristof quipped.
Akecheta, Lieder, and Kristof shared a laugh at Rashid’s expense. Rashid smiled tolerantly and rolled his eyes.
“Anyway,” Lieder managed after several seconds of laughter. “You have my gratitude, Earl. I won’t betray your faith.”
“If I may retrace some of the conversation,” Akecheta replied. “You seemed certain that they would come after you again, was that correct?”
“Yes, I’m sure they will. They swore it, and to be honest, I’m going to provoke that attack by referencing forbidden history at every opportunity. The Tombs and Sphinx have information I need, and if I can’t get the Tombs to relinquish that information voluntarily, I’m prepared to force it out of Sphinx.”
“Bold.” Akecheta approved. “If you’ll allow me, I’m interested in helping you achieve that goal. Of course, assuming I get approval to assign you escorts, their official goal will simply be protection, but they’ll have the freedom to facilitate your agenda.”
“I’d appreciate that assistance,” Lieder thanked. “I don’t know where the money came from, but I have some. I’d like to pay for the service, if I may.”
“Under these circumstances, it would be inappropriate to accept reimbursement. It’s our duty and the purpose for which we exist. If you insist on expressing any gratitude, I’d recommend you disguise it as an arbitrary donation.”
“Fair enough.” Lieder shrugged. He opened his mouth as though to continue, but his train of thought derailed as he watched Akecheta’s gaze shift to something behind Lieder.
The expression of the soldier that Lieder discovered upon turning around seemed to radiate frustration.
“I’m guessing I’m not going to enjoy your report,” Akecheta prompted.
“No, Earl. Everything’s compromised. The doors, the lifts, the attendant’s senses; the culprit eradicated the existing system and replaced it with their own. There’s even a proprietary UI in place, and all the text is in code. We can’t even read the prompts without manually deciphering the script. If any record exists, the only copies are either encrypted in this impossible mess or in their hands.”
“Let’s not attempt the impossible, then,” Akecheta sighed. “Even if we managed extraction, I bet they were wearing self-contained suits. We’d just have a visual confirmation of the story our good Lord here just told us. I give my approval to purge the system and request the tenants to restore from their last checkpoint.”
Lieder resisted a spontaneous urge to correct the Earl. Whether or not their suits were self-contained, Michael had taken his mask off. If they did manage to decrypt the information, Lieder was certain they would have something to gain. He was amused that his desire to cooperate with these Martials had again tempted him to violate his promise to protect Michael.
There was no way Sphinx would keep him on their roster anymore. Thereby, there was nothing that anyone would gain by seeking justice against the man. Half the possible benefits were already in effect: the Tombs would ensure that Michael was never involved in anything related to Winkle enforcement. All that was left for Lieder was to save the man from the pains of pointless retribution.
If Michael wanted to show his gratitude, then Lieder’s forgiveness had created a bonus opportunity. If Lieder never encountered Michael again, he still hadn’t lost anything. With all his apprehensions of this abominable second life, the worst use he could make of it would be the kind that ruined another person’s livelihood.
“Is the car going to be as much of a problem as the rest of this?” Lieder asked, motioning at the vehicle as he spoke. “It’s actually Padrone property, and I would hate to be responsible for its demise.”
“It would be unreasonable to call you responsible,” Akecheta assured. “Regardless, that’s an easy fix. Even though the manufacturers protested its inclusion because they marketed it under the premise that it couldn’t be commandeered, there’s a failsafe that corrects all alterations that may have been made. Kristof, go reset it, would you?”
“I trust you have an expander by now, Lord Lieder?”
“I’ll contact you as soon as I have an update on what kind of escort I can assign to you. You may do as you will, but as of now, we have neither reason nor right to compel you to remain. Again, you have my gratitude for your cooperation.”
“And you have mine for saving my life.” Lieder suppressed his irritation over the fact that he felt such a great need to prolong his existence. “If I can do anything else to help, know that I’m available.”
“Rest assured of that. It was an honor to make your acquaintance, Lord Lieder.”
“The pleasure’s all mine, Akecheta Martial. Take care.”
“You too,” Akecheta chuckled, prompting Lieder to wonder what he found funny.
Ignoring his curiosity, he turned and walked towards the Mobile Sanctuary. Kristof was already returning from his errand.
“He’s back under control?” Lieder asked.
“Affirmative. Additionally, we now know to keep a close eye on this particular vehicle. It’s safe to take it home.”
“Appreciations.” Lieder smiled and nodded as they passed each other.
‘Home’ wouldn’t be where he was taking it, but he was eager to be on his way again. Despite how much he’d exerted himself, the task of preparing for the next encounter seemed to energize him.