He bowed slightly upon arriving, a gesture that exposed the black hair that had been slicked back and cemented to his head.
"Thank you for calling. Your desire, my imperative."
Again: Your wish is my command. Lieder rolled his eyes, wondering if everyone that ever talked to him was obligated to do their best Star Trek genie impersonations.
"Yeah, hi," Lieder replied sardonically. "I just have a couple of questions… I'm probably going to sound kind of ridiculous, so just bear with me."
"Anything, lordship," the waiter replied, still bowed.
"I'm in a… unique situation at the moment, one that makes me unable to pay you," Lieder managed awkwardly.
"I'm afraid not, sir, I would have to contact an authorized member of the Culinary family if you wished to make a donation."
"Donation?" Lieder repeated, confused. "Maybe one day, but right now, I can't even afford to pay for a meal."
"Oh, my sincerest apologies for misunderstanding you! You're inquiring about compensation? We appreciate the offer, but the Culinary family humbly declines any offer of compensation from members of the Peerage. Please forgive me for assuming you knew, I forget that there are still communities where that is not the tradition."
Lieder was puzzled. He had hoped that his title might earn him some trust, but it seemed unthinkable that it forever excused him from paying for his food. How could an economy work this way? What was money used for, if not food?
Perhaps he was simply too used to the idea that, in order to have any meaningful status, money was required. Given enough time, anything could change, and many things clearly had.
Lieder had a cavalcade of questions prepared when he had pressed the button to call this man, but looking at him now, his mind had gone blank. His correspondent stood rigid in his stance, head still bowed and eyes closed. Lieder couldn't be sure, but the waiter seemed to be trembling.
Lieder sighed, "That was my main issue, thanks very much for your help. Sorry if I interrupted something."
"No no, it was a privilege to assist you," the waiter asserted worriedly. "Thank you for that opportunity. Shall I excuse myself?"
"Feel free." Lieder shrugged.
He took one last glance at the employee as he briskly walked away. Lieder was having a progressively harder time believing that the Peerage was met with this kind of care wherever they went. There had been a time in human history when the different social classes would receive such differing levels of treatment, but as society progressed, the upper class had become proportionately more vulnerable to the scrutiny and ridicule of the lower classes.
The Peerage's immunity to common opinion seemed like a huge step backward to Lieder.
Ideologically, a person could earn this kind of reverence, but when the exaltation of an entire class of people is awarded to another class, intolerable levels of corruption, injustice, and tyranny are bound to be in place.
Lieder couldn't comprehend a way for this amount of technological progress to occur if such civics had persisted during its development. It seemed inevitable that too many great minds would have been repressed into uselessness. Still, it was possible that human behavior had evolved in a way that antiquated his understanding of it.
Through the inexplicable sense that only develops from old age, Lieder suddenly detected that he was being talked about. He turned his head slightly to the left, just enough to enable him to ascertain exactly what was lingering in his peripheral.
The servant he'd summoned was standing at the top of the stairs leading to the terrace, locked in his shallow bow as an unfamiliar man spoke to him. The expression on his face was hard to classify;
Lieder couldn't decide whether he was frightened, confused, amazed, or skeptical.
He glanced back and forth from the waiter to Lieder, his lip and jaw movement slowing or stopping every time his gaze left his correspondent.
Lieder could extract two possibilities about the nature of the conversation they were having: the newcomer either knew Lieder's identity and was specifically looking for him, or was under the impression that Lieder fit the profile of some targeted demographic.
After a few moments, the newcomer shooed the waiter as though he were an invasive fly. As the employee complied, the stranger's posture and facial expression underwent a subtle transformation.
His back straightened to convey confidence and his jaw slackened into a casual smile.
Lieder quickly deduced that this man wasn't here to find Carl Orionne Lieder, missing person; he was here to meet Lord Lieder, prospective client.
Lieder groaned softly as the man approached. He hated salesmen.
"It would be an honor if I may make your acquaintance, Lord Lieder," the stranger greeted when his approach brought him within speaking range. "May I join you?"
"Feel free." Lieder shrugged. Though this person had likely been too far away to hear Lieder's conversation with the waiter, part of him hoped that using this phrase would serve to agitate the man. If he was perceptive enough, this man would notice the suggestion that Lieder wouldn't treat a member of the Peerage any differently than he'd treat a non-member.
"Appreciations." His tone carried the distinct impression that he would have been surprised if Lieder had denied him. He slid onto the bench on the opposite side of Lieder's table. "I was browsing in TerrAble and heard the introduction for a surname I didn't recognize. Forgive my curiosity, but you piqued my interest, and because of that I followed you here. That servant believed you're either new to the area or visiting, was he correct?"
"Yeah," Lieder replied nonchalantly. "For the most part, I think he's right. Brand new."
"Well then, let me, Viscount Ronald Broker, be the first to welcome you to Reverence. Just to be clear, how is your surname spelled? Is it L-E-A-D or L-I-E-D?"
"L-I-E-D," Lieder responded, genuinely impressed. Nobody had ever guessed that his name was spelled that way just by hearing it before. Truly, since it sounded identical to the word 'leader,' he'd never expected anyone to guess correctly.
Since the topic of their discussion had been Lieder's familiarity with the city, he knew that Ronald was welcoming him to Reverence, the name of a city, not reverence, a word for the state of receiving worship. Still, Lieder observed irony in the statement; it sounded like Ronald was congratulating
Lieder on the amount of undue respect that people had been directing at him.
With his first exposure to the city's name, Lieder realized that this might actually prove to be a valuable opportunity. So long as this man suspected Lieder had something he wanted, Lieder could use him as a continuing source of information.
"I'm curious: if you've never been here," Ronald continued. "May I ask what brings you here now? And are you here to stay?"
Lieder felt the sudden need for caution. While his first impulse had been to annoy Ronald enough to make him go away, Lieder now needed him to stay long enough to answer some of his countless questions. Ronald was a Peer, and Lieder feared that this meant he that he was supposed to act snobbish around him. This would make for a very painful conversation. Lieder hated snobs.
"A simple question, but the answer's fairly complicated. Are you familiar with the term 'Winkle?'"
Ronald paused for a moment, frowning in contemplation. "It sounds familiar, but I can't recall where I might have heard it."
"Yeah, I suspected as much," Lieder sympathized. "To put it simply, it's a reference to people who underwent a certain procedure, a very long time ago. Basically, this process converted the person's consciousness into electronic data, which was stored for a time when…"
"Oh!" Ronald's eyes lit up in epiphany. "I remember now, it's been so long since I'd last heard of it! Yes, the people from the past, that's what they called them."
Lieder was gleaning information from tiny bits of data implied by Ronald's questions. It was an ability he'd honed long before his revival from the electronic grave, and while it was a delicate process with a massive potential for error, Lieder was practiced enough to rely on it.
He smiled slightly. His guess about the word 'Winkle' had been accurate, but more importantly, he was now certain that the Winkle phenomenon was no secret to the public. Further, it seemed that innumerable others had been revived before him.
"Ah, good, you do know something of the situation. That helps things. Yes, the reason you're unfamiliar with the name 'Lieder' is that I am, myself, a Winkle. One that was awakened a little earlier today, in fact."
"Is that right?" Ronald's eyes widened, his tone thick with an aloof sort of surprise. "That is fascinating! It had been so long since Winkles were the moment's focus, I think I'd just assumed I'd never meet one, but here I am talking to a Winkle that was brought back just today."
"Really, I'm the first you've ever met? That's too bad. I'm curious about other Winkles, and was hoping you could share some info about them."
"Well, I can certainly tell you what I've been told. I have good reason to believe it's accurate."
"That's very kind of you," Lieder tried to repress the urge to be blunt. "Do you happen to know why most Winkles are revived? There's a lot that's changed since my time, but from what I understand, the company that handled the digitization process hasn't been around for a very long time, so I can't imagine there's anyone legally obliged to reverse the procedure."
"Yes, you understand that part quite well. I doubt that even the lord of the Tombs family could tell you how long it's been since you underwent that stasis. Indeed, to wake a Winkle, it must be ordered by a Peer, and it usually has little to do with any pretenses the Winkle might have agreed to before the operation."
"So why might a Peer want to wake a Winkle? What would you say are the most common reasons?"
"There's a multitude, as you might imagine. Oh, the only thing that outweighed the outrage that the Tombs had kept this stuff in obscurity was the demand for access to it! Families wanted to implement the genes for some recessive or otherwise lost traits. Understand, some of this stuff could easily be solved by a quick visit to a cosmetician, but there's a certain flavor to being able to say your child was naturally born with red hair and green eyes. Red hair! Can you imagine? I mean, of course you can, it wasn't uncommon in your time, but until Winkles were introduced, it was unthinkable that people were ever simply born that way."
Lieder offered a polite laugh to appease and encourage his new acquaintance, eager for him to continue his excited rambling.
"Beyond that, some families were able to determine that some of their ancestors were Winkles, and I think everyone is curious to know what their ancestors were like, so it's only natural that they'd want to wake them up, right? Then there are the families that are always in need of labor, and Winkles were an obvious source of Sapients, so…"
"Ah, forgive me for interrupting," Lieder raised his arm and opened his palm to stop the man.
"Sapients? That's not a term I've heard before."
"Of course, I'm sorry, I should have guessed! There are two sentient species on the Earth, and the lesser are known as Sapients. Genetically, they're virtually identical to us Peers; that's what makes them such a valuable resource, after all. Still, it's well-known that it's impossible for a Sapient to masquerade as a Peer, so that difference is not only very real, but very obvious to modern science. That discovery truly was a breakthrough, but I'm losing sight of the subject here…"
Lieder was having an extremely hard time hiding his outrage over what he was hearing. He had assumed that the Peerage and lower class were simply that: different classes. But this man was insinuating that they were actually different species, and one was measurably superior to the other.
Could this really be the common perspective?
"So this difference between Peers and Sapients is evident even in people from our time? Is that why I was revived with a title in the Peerage?"
"I would imagine. Are you surprised?"
"Not particularly," Lieder lied reluctantly. The number of unanswered questions was growing with each answer he received, and if that trend continued, he'd need to keep Ronald interested. For that, he would have to pretend to be someone he wasn't. "If I am surprised, it's because I'm a Peer due to some genetic difference, not the accomplishments of my past. Then again, maybe being born with advantageous DNA is what led to my success…"
"Certainly! It's no coincidence!" As Lieder expected, his new acquaintance was delighted by the theory. He'd perceived it as validation of the Peerage's superiority. "Your accomplishments and lineage are intrinsically connected; although, while it would be your genetic code that awarded you Peerage status, I've never heard of a Winkle becoming a lord. I'm sure that's exceedingly rare, so if you desire an acknowledgement of your deeds, I believe that's what your lordship is. You have every right to be proud."
Lieder resisted the urge to scowl. He wasn't certain, but it seemed that there was a hierarchy of ranks within the Peerage. It was beginning to seem that 'lord' was towards the top of this ladder, and while Lieder could put that to very good use, he was utterly clueless over why he'd be awarded that title.
"Forgive me if I indulge in that right, then," Lieder responded dubiously.
"Speaking of your lordship, might I ask what the Lieder family's specialty is?" Ronald asked, his demeanor crafted to suggest that the question was far more casual than it really was.
"Specialty?" Lieder repeated the word as a confused reflex.
"I mean, 'lieder' registers with the Lexicon as the plural form of a word for 'art song,' but I didn't want to just assume from that. Do you deal in some form of entertainment industry? Perhaps you're a collection of musicians?"
Ronald's reference to the word 'lieder' registering in a 'Lexicon' insinuated that he wasn't simply using it as another word for 'vocabulary;' it had to be the name for some kind of device or implant that deciphered unfamiliar words for him. The fact that Ronald hadn't been doing anything with his hands and had been looking directly at Lieder the whole time strongly suggested that it was a brain implant. Lieder couldn't be sure, as it hadn't translated 'Winkle' for him, but that could easily mean that Ronald just had an outdated database.
More importantly, Ronald was making a strong implication about how the economy worked in this era. By trying to tie his last name to his occupation, he was assuming that they had to be related; to Lieder, this meant that Peerage families doubled as businesses, with their surname describing the goods or services they provided.
Ronald's last name, Broker, would certainly fit this hypothesis; it suggested that he could be anything from a salesman to a lawyer to an agent.
If the surname matched the family business, Lieder wondered if the Tombs family were morticians. This prospect didn't seem quite right, though, if they were in charge of Winkle awakening.
"I'm afraid a purpose is on the long list of things I don't have right now," Lieder finally replied. "Lieder was my surname before my digitization; as far as I know, I'm the Lord of a family of one person. I guess I need to come up with some sort of enterprise, or perhaps it's chosen for me?"
"Astonishing." Ronald said, quiet and slow in his awe. "Not only was a Winkle granted a place in the Peerage, and not only is he a Lord, he's allowed to charter a new family. Lordship, I believe this is a historic first! I don't see how this could have happened before without it being huge news. You must have accomplished some incredible things in your life, to be given this sort of honor!"
"Can't say I'm too surprised." Lieder lied. Truthfully, he had no idea how anyone could justify giving him awards of this magnitude.
There had been achievements in his life, but in his mind, they were achievements because future generations would never know about them. They weren't supposed to have discovered them, at least. He didn't know how they could, but he supposed that the unlikelihood would help explain his revival.
"Forgive me, but this is an opportunity I can't resist," Ronald began. "If it's a welcome gesture, I'd like to offer my services to your budding family. I understand that you might not feel equipped to accept or decline right away, but know that the Broker family always has the capacity to further any agenda…"
Lieder couldn't suppress his disdain for Ronald as he rambled on about his offerings; he could only try to hide it. He knew it wasn't exactly fair of him, but Lieder had a history behind his hatred for salesmen. To him, it was intrinsically connected to the conflict that defined his generation.
The concept of money fulfilled a very important purpose, but like most concepts, it was one that could become obsolete. Money's corrupting influence had needlessly ruined many lives, and the proportion of the population that it affected this way had risen to a volatile high in Lieder's youth.
There had been some resolution, but as long as there was a need for currency, there would be misguided people whose entire lives revolved around the illusion it created. Perhaps it wasn't fair of him to believe so, but Lieder thought that 'salesman,' 'investor,' and most trades that could fit the 'broker' description were toxic to the people that worked them.
Perhaps they still filled a necessary niche, but Lieder had no obligation to like these people. As long as he bore in mind that there were exceptions to every rule, he felt no guilt over this bias.
Ronald seemed to personify the negative stereotypes. As he continued to advertise himself as a product for sale, Lieder had a continually harder time withholding his opinions.
Ronald stopped abruptly, a belligerent frown overtaking his face. "Have I said something to offend you? Forgive me, I was under the impression we were having an amicable conversation."
Lieder was genuinely surprised by the statement. Had he failed to keep his expression neutral?
"I understand the appeal of the SympaThred line, but you should understand the risk you take before wearing it."
Lieder looked down to find the cartoon on his shirt staring straight forward with wide eyes, his hands on his cheeks and his mouth rounded in a startled expression.
Lieder had forgotten all about it. He didn't know what kind of animation it had been playing while Ronald had been pitching his services, but apparently, Lieder's negative opinions had come through. A surge of annoyance towards the fictional man on his shirt began to well up in Lieder.
The character changed its posture to look up at Lieder, cowering and shivering as though fearful of his wrath.
Lieder's animosity melted instantly, and he actually smiled. He liked this shirt.
"Oh! Please, forgive me, I forgot all about this thing," Lieder started, a plan to salvage the situation already formulating. "Try not to be offended, those feelings weren't directed at you. I was just frustrated by how I'm in no situation to know whether or not I can accept your offer. I really see no reason why I had to be shoved out into the world without knowing why I was awakened or what was expected of me. I'm feeling some anger towards those who deprived me of information after I was awakened, that's all."
Ronald immediately looked regretful, and Lieder was sure that he had believed his lie.
"Ah, I jumped to conclusions! See, I'm the one who should know the risks of the S-T line, and I still fell into the trap! I shouldn't have assumed anything, I apologize."
"It seems there's no harm done," Lieder observed, making a point to have his emotions match his agenda. "I'm famished, you mind if I order something?"
"Of course not, I'll probably do the same."
Lieder smiled and began to peruse the menu. Intending to sound distracted and casual, he finally initiated the conversation he'd been wanting to have all along.
"So, the Peerage and the Sapients… tell me, Ronald exactly what kind of privileges do the Peerage have over the lower class?"
Ronald sighed in contemplation. "Where do I start? I'm no expert on how things worked in your time, so it's hard to highlight the big changes. Let's see; a Sapient is to a Peer sort of like a pet animal is to a Sapient. The analogy fails in some areas, of course, but functionally speaking, it's close enough."
"Are they considered property?" Lieder asked.
"In a sense. Actually, for most of them, that's essentially the situation. The thing that keeps a Sapient in the employ of any particular family is the knowledge that they have almost no chance of finding work with another family. When a Sapient is dismissed or tries to quit, you almost never hear of another family adopting it if the old family doesn't endorse it. Sapients are technically free to leave a family, but if they ever want to work again, they can't afford to."
Lieder avoided dwelling on how Ronald talked in a tone that suggested that this practice was considered acceptable. "So Sapients make up the bulk of the work force? In terms of manual labor and customer service and the more menial jobs, I mean."
"Yes, naturally, you catch on quick. I imagine a lot of what you refer to as 'manual labor' is handled my machinery now, but there are still innumerable tasks that require Sapient employ. Anything that's not automated and doesn't require a Peer's intellect is handled by Sapient workers."
"And the tasks that require Peer intellect are things like research, delegation, marketing, artistry, things like that?"
"Indeed, it's all very intuitive."
Lieder resisted the urge to assert that it shouldn't be.
"So it seems. If there's not much movement of workers between positions, though, I wonder if it might be hard for me to recruit when I do have a proper agenda."
"Oh, don't worry too much about that. There's still a surplus of unemployed workers. The average Sapient employee is able to support many of its relatives, and often enough a Family will hire an entire Sapient household to fill a single position. The Sapients simply send someone that's available whenever a task needs attention. To my understanding, those that are entirely unemployed are typically content, but it's considered such an honor to be employed by the Peerage that you'll rarely find a Sapient that would turn down any offer you make."
Unable to discern any dish he truly recognized on the table's touch screen, Lieder selected an item named 'Cheesaucer,' paired it with a glass of water, and confirmed his order.
The screen melded seamlessly back into the illusion of decaying tree that disguised their booth.
"So in regards to those outside a Peer's personal employ, what kind of relationship do Sapients share with us?" Lieder was still concerned about the idea that his nurse's life was in potential danger over the way she had treated him before discovering he was a Lord. "Ever since I awoke, everyone has been remarkably polite towards me. Does the pet analogy still fit, like a Sapient's pet animal toward a Sapient that isn't its master?"
"Yes and no. This is one of the areas where that analogy can breed confusion. Like a Sapient's pet towards another Sapient, they're expected to treat us with the same respect they would treat their master. However, should a Sapient's pet misbehave toward a Sapient that isn't its master, it's impermissible for that Sapient to punish the pet. They must report it to a proper mediator, who will then investigate and administer any appropriate judgments on the Sapient or its pet."
"So a Sapient that misbehaves towards a Peer that isn't its master can be punished freely by the afflicted Peer?" Lieder asked, certain that the nurse's fear towards him had been justified.
"Mostly. It's considered impolite, but when it happens, it's usually considered appropriate. You actually hear more arguments over a Peer rewarding another Peer's Sapient than you do over a punishment. That's considered just as rude as punishment. In either case, though, that's usually all it amounts to: an argument."
"I think I see," Lieder subconsciously cupped his chin in his hand as he contemplated the situation.
"That's why the waiter said that he's not authorized to accept compensation. This must be a restaurant that's focused on Sapient customers. If a Sapient restaurant accepted payment from a Peer, it could cause confusion over whether they're rewarding another family's Sapient, which is considered rude."
"That's a factor. Honestly, the only time a Peer pays for a meal is if it's an exotic dish." Ronald smiled whimsically. "I must say, we don't shy from our exotic dishes though. Peerage cuisine is still a big business."
"So when a Sapient is punishment by someone other than its master, there's never any intervention from a separate authority?"
"No, it's well-understood that the Assembly won't mediate any Peerage quarrels without a majority vote, and it's hard enough to bring any issue to vote as it is. The easiest way out is to accept the other Peer's treatment of your Sapient."
"I'd wager Sapients are very careful to stay in their place." Lieder was curious about what the mentioned 'Assembly' was, but didn't want to change the conversation's course.
"Yes, they're very good about knowing where they rank. Especially those without masters; having a master that's satisfied with their performance will earn them some protection, but without a master, there's nothing to save a Sapient from an angry Peer."
"I see. This is pretty intuitive." Lieder's words expressed the opposite of his opinion. From what he was hearing, the civics of this generation were several steps behind those of his time. He wondered if people would ever learn enough from the mistakes of their ancestors to prevent themselves from making those same mistakes.
Lieder tried to summon another of the countless questions he'd had for a denizen of this era, but found that they'd been tangled in a messy knot of answers and inferences. He couldn't think of anything that wouldn't sound like a request for an answer he'd already been given.
With a deep breath, he cleared his head and tried to view his situation with a fresh perspective. He had been approaching this world like he was at war with it, extracting information as though he were a spy in enemy territory. Though Ronald was not a person he trusted, Lieder was too new to this world to have enemies in it. There was no danger in taking his time to learn and process.
"So as long as it's pedestrian, the food's free, right?" Lieder was beginning to settle on his next objective.
"Yes, that's an excellent way to say it."
"I come from a time when even a seemingly-simple service like that came at some kind of price," Lieder explained. "Until I get my family's presence established, can I rely on the idea that I have access to other such amenities?"
"Oh, easily," Ronald confirmed. "Public Transportation is reliable, but know it's crowded. Any business that specializes in Sapients will almost always offer their goods to a Peer without asking for compensation. If it came down to it, you even have the right to quarter in a Sapient household."
This last statement was all Lieder needed to know to formulate an acceptable agenda. Ronald was telling him that he had the ability to force a Sapient to provide him with shelter. He wouldn't oppress someone by demanding they house him, but he was almost certain that he could use that privilege to acquire a comfortable place to sleep and think without hassling anyone.
Suddenly, the screens that once housed their menus reappeared in the table, displaying a list of unfamiliar words and a timer counting down from thirty.
"Oh, time to vote. Persuircion, come on Persuircion!" Ronald tapped the screen excitedly.
Lieder wasn't sure what they were voting on, but he had a good guess and, if he was correct, wouldn't care about the outcome. He found Ronald's selection on the list and tapped it. A smaller window appeared asking him to confirm his choice, which he quickly did.
Instantly, the scenery shifted from the dense jungle that had been projected since Lieder's arrival.
They now appeared to be on a long stretch of beach, the ocean lapping at the disguised terrace edge opposite the entrance, and everything from the stairs and beyond was shrouded by a dense collection of palm trees and other tropical plant life.
"Ah, wonderful! Appreciations, Lord Lieder, this one's my favorite."
"Think nothing of it." Lieder shrugged. Peculiarly relieved, he no longer felt a strong dislike for Ronald.
"If that first one was any indication, I'm sure all of these selections are quite beautiful."
"Oh yes, they all have their charm. After all, they're modeled after places that only a few people ever see. Perhaps more of us would go there if we didn't have this kind of outlet, but then who's to say whether the scenery could survive our crowds?"
Lieder smiled, finally a genuine one. At least society showed signs of progressing in some ways. If his concept of jungles and beaches really still existed in such a pristine state, then large strides had been made in buffering the rate at which humanity had been consuming the planet.
Content with the progress he'd made since awakening, Lieder felt it was appropriate that he concentrate on enjoying this experience.
"So tell me, Ronald, what do Peers do to pass the time? Recreationally, I mean."
"Ah, come now, there's no universal answer to that question. There's countless indulgences! Although, it is Ricosphere season, which might be as close as you can get to global obsession…"
He bowed slightly upon arriving, a gesture that exposed the black hair that had been slicked back and cemented to his head.