After climbing out and allowing the door to close, Lieder inspected his reflection in the tint of the driver’s side window. This was the first opportunity he’d been given to confirm what his classmates had been gawking at.
An oblong bruise ran from the front of his upper cheek all the way to his ear.
He smiled, amused and nostalgic; it bore a striking resemblance to the bruise that Richard gave Tommy in the movie Tommy Boy. Lieder loved that movie.
He sighed, his mood taking a melancholy turn. He missed Chris Farley.
His attention returned to the reason he’d come home, and it hastened his approach to the entrance. Upon placing his index finger against the pad next to the door, a message appeared at eye level.
Welcome home, Lord Lieder!
One Cyril Anthropist has requested your attendance at a meeting, and he has designated a location. If you would like to accept, please consult your expander for directions in the corresponding message!
Lieder clenched his jaw. He had expected to find Cyril waiting here, but according to this message, he’d already come and gone. Why would he have changed the location without telling him?
There was bound to be a reason for it, and Lieder hated the fact that he didn’t have any guesses as to what it might be. It meant that Cyril didn’t want him to foresee this.
Until now, Lieder didn’t imagine this meeting would be any different from a typical therapy session. With the discovery of this suspicious development, Lieder realized he’d overlooked another cause for alarm: how had Cyril known where he lived?
Lieder pulled his expander from his pocket, boggling over what kind of ‘preparations’ Cyril had been making.
Cyril Anthropist has requested your presence.
Would you like to accept this request?
(Standby option enabled by host for 24 minutes and 38 seconds)
Lieder grimaced. Cyril was studying to be a psychologist, and was considered a prodigy by Justus. Lieder’s first impression of the boy matched that perception. However, this behavior was more indicative of a criminal rendezvous than it was a house call.
Lieder tapped the ‘accept’ prompt and inspected the image that followed. The expander was displaying its perspective of the scenery behind it, but had a large, green, three-dimensional rendering of an arrow pointing behind and to his left. As an experiment, Lieder turned in the indicated direction; the arrow moved in tandem, and once he’d turned far enough, it disappeared.
A green line ran along the sidewalk, an effect that reminded Lieder of the lines that American Football broadcasters transposed over their footage to help television viewers understand which yard line would reward the offense with a ‘first down’.
“Show me the ultimate destination,” Lieder ordered.
He’d been uncertain if his command would register, but his expander now displayed some simple digital blueprints of the platform that this neighborhood was built upon. A highlighted path seemed to lead below the surface.
“Give me a list of local emergency services.”
Lieder didn’t know whether he should fight his caution or not. He didn’t much care to preserve this new life, and it was hard to imagine that Cyril would covet such a thing anyway. Still, if this ‘treatment’ was more extreme than he’d been expecting, Lieder wasn’t certain that everyone would leave this meeting unharmed.
As proven by Sphinx, his ability to accept his own death depended on the circumstances that would lead to it.
“Contact Triage, the priority of my call is moderate.”
Despite his willingness to wait, his call met immediate answer.
“Yes, Lord Lieder, how may I help you?”
A young man in the familiar black uniform appeared on the screen. His expression was carefully-crafted to convey attention and respect.
“I’m bad with these things, forgive me. I find myself suspicious of a meeting a Peer has requested of me, and I’d like a triage unit standing by in case something goes wrong. Am I able to send you the coordinates of the meeting’s location?”
“Yes, Lord, I can even request the export myself. If you so wish, all you need to do is confirm it.”
As the young man had described, a prompt appeared on Lieder’s screen. He quickly confirmed the export.
“Ah, this is a maintenance area for one of the anchor sockets. Would you like us to be on the site, or would you prefer we wait here?”
“Just outside the indicated room, please. If there’s multiple entrances, please be sure to have sufficient staff waiting outside each.”
“Your desire, my imperative. We’ll deploy immediately. It’s an honor to serve you.”
“Appreciations.” Lieder was so anxious to see this situation to conclusion that he closed the communication before he’d finished thanking the boy.
“Display directions to the meeting with Cyril Anthropist.”
The expander once again displayed its perspective of the surrounding environment. Lieder adopted a brisk pace along the highlighted path.
He thought about the pistol that he’d tucked into the back of his jeans. Should he drop it off at his room first? Cyril’s behavior was suspicious, but Lieder was having trouble weighing his life against the one he might need to take in order to defend himself. He was fairly certain that he would never kill Cyril in particular, if all it meant was preserving his own life, but how much room for doubt might there be? Could there be a factor that would tip the scale?
Lieder considered why he had the gun in the first place. How would Cyril react if Lieder had discarded it in the meager time that had passed since they’d last met? Perhaps he should bring it as evidence against his alleged self-sabotage?
His route brought him to a covered stairwell, a structure he expected most Winkles would mistake for a subway entrance. Strips of lighting ran along the floor, disappearing behind the first corner of the angular spiral.
He had almost half an hour to prepare, but his anxiety was overriding his caution. Coupled with the dread that he might have overcompensated by requesting help from Triage, his need for relief was eclipsing his apprehension.
The trail brought him down the first flight of stairs and into a short hallway, and though the stairs went much deeper, his expander indicated that his destination was on this level. The solitary door at the end of the hall was solid metal; he wouldn’t be able to see into the room before entering, but it also meant that Cyril wouldn’t know of his arrival until he entered.
Lieder inhaled to his lungs’ capacity, then let the air leak its way out. It would be torturous, but he would summon just enough patience to let Triage arrive before he committed. Fortunately, the sound of hastened footsteps from the stairwell came within the same minute.
“Are there any other entrances?” Lieder asked as the first member came into view.
“One, my Lord. It was closer to headquarters, so I assume that its team has already arrived.”
“Excellent.” Lieder raised his expander. “I have no idea what’s waiting for me in there, but the circumstances have made me very suspicious. Can you help me set up my expander so that I can call you into the room with one tap?”
“It would be my honor.”
The young man guided Lieder through the process. Once he was certain that these preparations would be waiting for him when he next opened it, Lieder retracted the expander and put it back in his pocket.
“My deepest thanks.” Even without the testimony of his Sympathreadics, Lieder’s gratitude was conspicuous. “Please make sure that the other team knows to rush in the moment that the call goes out. Also, to those of you here, please make an effort to obscure yourselves so that you won’t be seen by anyone inside the room as I go in.”
Without heeding the chance that Triage could fail to hide before he opened it, Lieder turned and walked hastily toward the door. His anxiety was spilling through the dam of his patience. With a quick flick of his finger, the passage opened and allowed him to rush into the room.
It took him a few moments to connect his surroundings to the vague description his Triage correspondent had given: “maintenance area for one of the anchor sockets.” An enormous corridor divided the room in half, the deep, symmetrical recesses in both the floor and ceiling indicating that the octagonal hallway extended far beyond the scope of this room.
Traces of the evening light filtered through the tunnel from the left, indicating a connection to the outside.
Remembering the enormous pillar that he witnessed in the early morning of his second day, he concluded that this must be inside one of the many sockets that anchored the structure to this platform. Knowing this, it seemed peculiar that the acoustics were so intimate; he’d have expected the airflow to drown out the echo of his footsteps.
Cyril and Beri stood on the other side of the chasm that divided the room, watching his approach in silence. Lieder was curious as to why his matron was here, but Cyril spoke before he could ask.
“Welcome!” Cyril’s disposition was warm. “What convenient punctuality.”
“I’d have been here sooner, but I was expecting this – whatever this is – to happen up at the house. I thought I’d figured out why you had the car follow me home the other day, but now I’m confused again.”
“Oh, so you were aware of that. I couldn’t tell if the message you left was a cause for concern or not, because I couldn’t tell if you had me in mind when you recorded it.”
Lieder hadn’t known Cyril was responsible for that incident until he realized how strange it was that Cyril knew where he lived, but it was in Lieder’s best interest to withhold that detail.
“The Mobile Sanctuary alerts its occupants to such a situation. It didn’t specify who owned the vehicle, but I still had our last conversation in mind when that happened. There was no other explanation.”
Recalling how amateur the tactic had seemed, Lieder felt angry with himself. He wished his lie had been reality, and that Cyril had been a suspect. It was easy to see how he would make such a civilian mistake; he was neither warrior nor criminal.
“They really have such a feature?” Cyril began. “I guess I’ve never been followed before, I was oblivious. That would have been good information to have. I suppose it makes little difference now. Back to the subject, your assumption about the meeting wasn’t all that postmodern. Normally, we’d either meet at your home or on my floor of the Anthropist building, but sometimes we need to be creative in our selection of the environment.”
“Are suspected self-saboteurs really extreme enough to warrant such a special approach?”
“My Lord, we’re beyond suspecting things.” Cyril wore a gentle expression, but his tone was firm. “Back when I was unable to tell that you were a Lord, you could call it suspicion. Indeed, there was as much chance that you were an exceptional Lord as there was that you were a burdened one. I was fortunate that your exertion disabled your defenses, and I was able to get you to speak candidly about opinions you’d normally guard. Understanding of an individual is directly proportionate to the amount of duress you’ve witnessed them under.”
You never truly know a person until you’ve seen them at their worst. The variation on the familiar phrase wasn’t the only topic upon which Lieder found himself in surprised agreement.
As he tried to summon a counter to Cyril’s argument, Lieder realized something he should have acknowledged much sooner: he really was a self-saboteur. He’d tried to have himself euthanized, and after waking up from that attempt, his every action had been taken in order to make sure there was no reason to keep him from trying again.
This issue deserved more attention than he’d been giving it. He was still inclined to believe his self-sabotage was justified, but until now, Lieder had somehow come to believe that justified self-sabotage could not be called self-sabotage.
It had been easier to believe that euthanizing himself was a moral action when conventional wisdom stated that every person would die eventually. Now that old age was no longer a death sentence, he’d need a stronger argument.
It wasn’t just to appease Cyril now. He needed it too.
“Beri, if you’d please.”
Lieder glanced from Cyril to Beri, who kneeled and placed her hands on the back of her head in a show of submission.
“Beri, what are you even doing here?” Lieder asked. “What’s she got to do with this, Cyril? And what did she do to deserve… whatever it is you’re doing?”
“What did she do?” Cyril repeated. “Oh, she didn’t do anything. We’re just worried about you, Carl.”
“Worried about me?” Lieder recoiled in confusion. “Cyril, that makes absolutely no sense. I knew you were worried, but yet again, what the hell does that have to do with Beri?”
“Of course it wouldn’t make sense to you, that’s the nature of my concern,” Cyril said. “Beri here is the only Sapient I could find that would suffice.”
“Cyril, you’re a good kid, but you’re still just a kid. Remember, I’m a very old man. I think it’s fair to claim that you aren’t in a position to judge what I need to learn, nor how I should go about learning it.”
“Yes, you are my elder many times over, but the times have changed, my Lord! They’ve changed so. Much. There’s no arguing that the eldest, wisest caveman would need to be educated by a contemporary in order to have any hope of succeeding in your time, even if that contemporary was someone as young as me.”
“Alright, I can concede to that a bit. Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, could you explain to me what you’re about to do? Maybe I’ll understand the lesson before you have to demonstrate it.”
“Yes, yes, I was planning to! You’re a prodigious man, Lord Lieder, I think you understand that this will go much more quickly if you simply observe until prompted.”
Lieder again glanced around the area. The anchor socket cut into both the floor and ceiling at a steep angle, conforming in shape to six of the absent anchor’s eight sides. Along the scope of this room, the vertical sides were exposed; while he could get inside the socket, he wasn’t sure that he could climb back out. Even if it was possible, it would take too time cross the chasm if he needed to.
This was must have been crucial to the setup. Lieder could see and talk to the people on the other side of the room, but he couldn’t reach them if Cyril didn’t allow him to.
“Well, I say that, but I doubt you can manage that even if you promise to. You see, your age complicates things. Understand, my Lord, that in order to excavate the root of your woes, we need to apply sufficient trauma to the concrete it’s buried under.”
“What do you mean by ‘trauma,’ Cyril?” Lieder was becoming agitated. “I’m hoping that’s just a metaphor.”
“You are used to being more capable than others at most anything you do, aren’t you Lord?” Cyril ignored Lieder’s question. “I understand that Winkle culture was coy in this regard. Superior individuals gave credit to lesser ones by claiming talent in one field was offset by weakness in another, and that this implied a virtual equality for each member of society. ‘All men are created equal,’ as you put it. Which reminds me, I apologize for creating a false impression that your level of self-sabotage isn’t life-threatening. I now believe that it is.”
“Cyril, I don’t tout that quotation as the truth I base my life off of. I simply think it’s possible to respect each other as though the assumption were true. I don’t hold myself down for fear of making another person feel inadequate by comparison.”
“Not consciously, you don’t. It’s admirable, in a way, but it lacks ambition. You need to be able to delegate to maximize your efficacy, Lord, and that means assessing a lesser person’s value and allowing them to handle the tasks closest to their potential. This must be done without hesitation and without wasted concern for how it might affect the delegate’s ego. The purpose of hierarchy is to allow each person to operate as close to their potential as they possibly can, and this means that Lords cannot be wasting time on tasks unworthy of their station. Everyone under their command depends on their ability to assess people’s individual value, and thus, they must accept the Lord’s judgment.”
Lieder considered this position. It wasn’t correct, and it wasn’t incorrect. It was an ideology, a philosophy with facets which would fail in practice but, overall, the system would still function.
“All of this has occurred to me, and if you recall, I have stated that I haven’t reached a final judgment regarding the Peerage’s superiority. I merely said that there’s room for doubt.”
“The time you spend deliberating is time wasted on a task unworthy of your station, Lord. There exists a class of person perfectly suited to solidifying your judgment. I will now delegate that task to them.”
“By your logic, how can Beri reach a conclusion that I struggle with?”
“Oh, how appropriate, I can counter with a charming bit of Winkle wisdom: canaries were strictly inferior to your miners, yet the miners often delegated their survival to the birds.”
“Beri is no canary.” Lieder declared.
“Ha! Well-played.” Cyril acknowledged the rhyme, causing Lieder to resent the accident. “Still, this is the core of our conflict, and now that we’ve come here, it’s time to confront it. I’m going ask you to compare two hypothetical scenarios. If I were to die, my death would be mourned by the entire city; the media would spend weeks on the topic, investigations would be thorough, and should another party be at fault, retribution would be extreme. Now if Beri here was to die, would the world be afflicted similarly?”
“No, the only thing her death would do is make her friends and I sad, and prompt her employers to replace her. That difference is unjust …”
“It’s not unjust. It’s not a question of justice, that idea of justice is an illusion. The differences between our deaths are simply a measurement of reality. Even if it pretended, the collective can’t help but feel the way it does. Our natural reaction is the honest truth! Why deny it? To value two deaths identically is to limit superior potential with an inferior standard. I know you think so, and it’s time I proved it.”
“I’m not going to shoot her to stop you from killing yourself.” Lieder made a prediction from the hints that Cyril had been making. If Lieder truly did believe the things Cyril was saying, Lieder killing Beri to save him would certainly prove it.
“Of course not, that scenario wouldn’t work at all.”
Cyril placed one end of the cylinder against Beri’s neck. When contact was made, the end of the cylinder facing Cyril began to glow red.
“What is that?” Lieder demanded.
“This is a canister with a lethal amount of Pentobarbital” Cyril replied nonchalantly. “It will be irreversible almost immediately. As soon as I find the vein, here…”
Cyril slowly moved the cylinder over the skin on Beri’s neck until the red end glowed green.
“…there we go. Now, think carefully Lieder. I intend to kill Beri, and the only way to stop that occurrence is to fatally wound me. Again, think carefully. What would happen to you, to my family, and to the world if I were to die? Compare that to what would happen to you, to me, and to the world if Beri dies…”
Lieder gritted his teeth. This made much more sense than his original guess had. He shouldn’t have spoken until he’d thought about it.
“Don’t,” Lieder ordered. He pulled his pistol from his waistband and leveled it at Cyril. “Don’t even joke about that. This is far beyond appropriate. I can forgive comparing your deaths when it’s only hypothetical, but I won’t let you turn it into an actual experiment.”
“I’m insulted that you’d posit that I’m joking.” Cyril’s was absent of emotion. “Society needs every Peer at its best, Lord. Society needs you. You need to acknowledge your potential to achieve it, and to acknowledge it, you must admit your superiority.”
“How does that require her death?”
“It would take me years to accomplish the same thing without it, Lieder. Countless Sapients have devoted their lives to their Lords’ agendas, and if their death meant saving you years of work, dying would be the same as devoting their life to your agenda. You aren’t even her Lord, yet Beri has volunteered for that exact role.”
“This hardly looks voluntary to me!” Lieder shouted.
“Beri?” Cyril cued.
“It is voluntary, Lord Lieder.” Beri spoke with conviction and without fear. “Even I can recognize the difference between the two of us. I’ve also seen the danger that he warns you of.”
Lieder’s left eyelid twitched several times. She was referring to his request to relax the security systems in his room the night before. It was yet another mistake he couldn’t afford to make.
“She’s told me of your reckless self-endangerment, Lord.” Cyril seemed solemn. “I’ve been diplomatic about understating the benefits of this treatment. We both know that this is actually about saving your life from a suicidal affliction.”
“I won’t let her die,” Lieder insisted. It was a half-empty statement; Lieder was gambling with Beri’s life by not having pulled the trigger. He knew that Cyril had Beri’s life in his hand; he could have taken it by now, and still Lieder hadn’t fired. “And if you force me to make the choice, I will kill you before I let you kill her.”
Still, Lieder couldn’t shoot until he was sure that Cyril was serious.
“Of course you’d say that.” Cyril seemed unaffected by Lieder’s declaration. “You’ll only be capable of accepting reality when Beri is gone and I’m still standing. That’s right, we’ll need a limit to be sure you know when you’d have to act by. I’ll count to ten, then I will put Beri down.”
“Then you’re only giving yourself until the count of seven to live,” Lieder asserted. “Don’t die so needlessly, Cyril. There’s absolutely no reason for this.”
“Beri, you don’t really believe this sickness, do you?”
Beri glanced between Lieder and Cyril, curiously more nervous about the question than her imminent execution. “I’m not really qualified to question either of you.”
“You’re plenty-qualified, Beri,” Lieder reasoned. “Besides, if it’s status we’re worried about, I’m a Lord, he’s still unranked. In terms of authority, I hold more weight. Stand up, go back home.”
“That’s true, but…” Beri gave Lieder a sad look. “But I know you’d never punish me for insubordination. That means I was never doing this because of someone else’s authority. Like he said, I volunteered, I’m not here out of obedience. I’m here because a professional believes it’s in your best interest.”
“Your death is not in my best interest, Beri, The standard I set for myself has never had an effect on how I treat other people. How would you dying accomplish anything?”
“That could be true, but I’m not equipped to know. All I do know is that if there’s any proof that members of the Peerage are better than Sapients, you are that proof. I’d sooner die than let his predictions of your suicide come true.”
“This isn’t as simple as it seems, Cyril! I’ve lived a long and complex life, you can’t confine the circumstances that led me to my convictions to a simple label! It’s true, my problems are buried under layers upon layers of concrete, but applying the trauma required to excavate them in one blow would destroy me!”
“The quickest solution isn’t always the best one!” Lieder shouted, desperate. “If your theory has logic behind it, you’ll eventually be able to make me understand with simple reasoning. Don’t be in such a hurry; the faster your heart beats, the shorter your lifespan.”
“You have the brains, think this through!” Lieder pleaded. He had analyzed the room: the distance and flow of air would allow him to hit even a small target with precision, but the result would still be profoundly unpleasant. “You’re one count away from your ignorance killing you, Cyril.”
“Thank you, Carl Flappycheeks,” Beri bid her farewell with sadness. “That nickname dies with me, but it was still an honor to serve him.”
Lieder pulled the trigger, prompting the almost-simultaneous claps of a miniature sonic boom and the projectile’s impact against the wall behind Cyril.
Lieder stared in wide-eyed horror; he had hit his target, but he had also made a grave miscalculation. On instinct, he’d estimated the power of this weapon by its size and weight. That estimation was very wrong.
The forearm and hand on Cyril’s left side were no longer connected. The wrist had been disintegrated by the bullet, allowing the hand and syringe to fall to the ground near Beri’s knees.
The three of them were silent for several moments. Cyril stared in astonished horror at his shortened arm.
“You actually shot…” he mumbled.
Lieder gritted his teeth and reached for his expander. This was very bad. Cyril could still be saved, but even though Triage was close, there was no telling how long he could withstand the psychological and circulatory shock.
“A freak accident,” Cyril said softly, his whole body quivering. “It was a bluff, you didn’t even want to hit me. Just scare me. It would be wrong to stop just because of this.”
He stepped towards the fallen syringe and stooped down to pick it up.
“Stop, you moron, you’re hypovolemic!” Lieder cried, simultaneously opening his expander and retraining his gun on Cyril. “The more you move around, the quicker you’ll bleed out.”
“Don’t change the subject, Lieder!” Cyril’s voice was rife with anguish. “Nothing has changed, this needs to happen!”
“I’ll shoot to kill this time!” Lieder warned. He initiated the call he’d programmed beforehand. “Drop the syringe and let Triage save you.”
“You’re calling them, right? I won’t move much more, just enough to deliver the injection…”
He was right, before, but not in the regard he wanted to be.
Cyril had placed the syringe back against Beri’s neck. Even in his traumatized state, it would take only fractions of a second to find the vein and inject the lethal fluid.
Still, he believes his own words. He’ll accept this judgment.
Without heed to where he was aiming, Lieder pulled the trigger.
Cyril fell backward, the force of the blow enough to lift him off his feet. Again, the distinct sound of distant impact could be heard against the far wall. The bullet had barely slowed in its passage through Cyril’s chest.
The door into Beri and Cyril’s half of the room slid open and the Triage unit flooded in, rushing towards Cyril without a hint of hesitation.
Lieder lowered his gun hand to rest at his side. His entire body trembled, and tears streamed from his eyes.
He’d seen the ballooning tendency of the faux pas countless times. He’d realized that four centuries would create more opportunity for such blunders than the gaps between cultures of his time.
He’d known that all the adapting he’d done to his old environment had followed him into this new one. He’d acknowledged that his borderline-paranoia would be antiquated in peacetime. He’d recognized the specific quirks of his personality that would clash with the new world order.
He’d conditioned himself to never hesitate when he felt the adrenaline pinching. He’d reminded himself that any human that has killed once is prone to killing again. He’d predicted the danger of the old man’s ghost bloodying the hands of this child that he’d possessed.
The cartoon character on Lieder’s shirt had disappeared; in its place were two lines of text.
My vital signs indicate a dangerous condition.
Contact Triage immediately, I need help!
Lieder fell to his knees. His body went limp and slumped backward, contorting into a shape that stretched his tissues in ways that would have been unbearable, if he was capable of feeling pain.
You have always known that this is your duty.
Lieder hated being right.