Lieder winced slightly after opening the door; the sun that poured into this area was intensely harsh when compared to the soft lighting of the testing room.
"Ah, all finished?" The two Peers that had served as Lieder's guides sat in the same chairs as when he'd left them over two hours ago. "That's quicker than most are comfortable with, are you sure you don't want to reevaluate any answers?"
"Positive," Lieder nodded confidently. "It may sound odd, but to a certain extent, sabotaging my score is the best investment I could make."
"Yes, that sounds very odd, please explain," the quieter, less friendly of the pair requested stonily.
"No thanks," Lieder replied nonchalantly, knowing how his lack of emotion – particularly nervousness- would upset his correspondent. This Peer had immediately revealed himself as an open elitist, and Lieder took great pleasure in aggravating this type of person; the handicap provided by his freshly-sewn SympaThreadic shirt enhanced the pleasure of success.
"Indeed, at least wait until I'm on the opposite side of a closed door!" The first man pleaded. "He's presented me with a riddle, and I don't want to hear the solution until I make my guess!"
"You're going to be disappointed one way or another, Justus," the offish man predicted. "This secret of his is going to turn out as mundane as they come."
"Sure, what he said," Lieder replied, his tone suggesting he hadn't cared to listen. He hopped onto a vacant chair, allowing it to conform to support the leisurely position he desired.
This furniture had been plentiful throughout the enormous Academy, and every bit as confounding as the chairs that he'd seen in his temporary lodgings. After seeing how they were used, however, their shape and size had made much more sense.
Part of him was embarrassed that he hadn't imagined the possibilities after seeing how the shower walls and the cloth of his bedspread had reacted to his manipulation. It should have been easy to imagine how the technology could be used to make a chair that could transform to accommodate different postures: as of now, it mostly resembled a recliner, but much of the head support had shifted away to allow him to rest his head against his interlocked hands. The excess material made a sound like swishing sand as it formed into a mold that supported his arms and shoulders, and it did so in a manner that wouldn't cause the weight of his head to restrict circulation to his hands.
Lieder pretended he didn't notice the spiteful glare being directed at him, closing his eyes and smiling blissfully as he let his muscles go limp.
"Oh please, this has all the signs of unique circumstance," Justus said dismissively. "That's an essential component of any good riddle!"
"He's implied that the hints are in the test," his associate pressed. "Doesn't that scream warning about an obvious and unpleasant prospect?"
"No, if it were what you were suggesting, he'd hide it and hope we wouldn't notice. Relax, David, it's not like you're the one who'd have to deal with it!"
"Thankfully." David added.
"I'm going to go over these results and assess the essay questions in the testing room, I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Enjoy," Lieder called as Justus turned away. He chuckled and offered a distracted wave as he walked.
Lieder sighed contently, ignoring the hatred he imagined permeating around David. It would please him if David perceived him as an enemy, but with the chance that he'd misinterpreted David's disposition, he shouldn't indulge too much in the satisfaction that scenario would provide.
It wouldn't hurt to indulge in the inventorying of other 'Davids' he'd known of in his past. If the situation panned out as he expected, it would be fun to label David Preceptor with a nickname matching another David. Any David would work, since it was profoundly unlikely that this one would recognize him.
"It's not often I see S-T clothing here at Interpretive Precepts," David observed casually, breaking the silence following Justus's departure. "Might I guess you were separated from your clothing in transit from wherever it was you came?"
"Yeah, that's accurate," Lieder confirmed. "I doubt there's any chance I'll ever see that stuff again."
"What misfortune. I can't imagine what it might be like to have my options so limited that SympaThreadic could be the best one."
"Nah, far worse things have happened. I've always liked S-T."
"Oh, me too. I make certain that all my Sapients wear it, since it's so useful for exposing insubordination."
David's sly tone suggested that he was trying to offend Lieder by comparing him to his Sapients, but the only problem Lieder had with this comparison was the implication of Sapient inferiority.
"Oh, is that a prominent problem in your home? I'm sorry to hear that, perhaps you should try being more reasonable about what you ask of them. I find that it takes a very unbalanced person to deny a reasonable request from a respectable source."
Lieder disguised his tone as casual, resisting the urge to sound mocking. The long pause that followed suggested that David was irritated by the idea that a teenager was impudent enough to give him advice, or perhaps he'd noticed that Lieder was implying that his Sapients' insubordination was due to their master's lack of respectability.
"Well, youth tends to exacerbate the problem," David finally replied through gritted teeth. "Something about the approach to adulthood seems to embolden children."
"Ah, don't worry, you'll grow out of it." Lieder intentionally misinterpreted David's veiled retaliation. "I doubt it's as painful as you imagine."
He forced himself to think of nothing but the comfort of his chair, intent on not letting his SympaThreadics show David anything but whatever animation it played to depict comfort. Provided he wasn't too enraged to be rational, David would be hopelessly conflicted over how to react.
Lieder was certain that David was aware that he was a Lord; knowing this while also knowing that people would have a hard time believing he was any older than seventeen, David would understandably detest Lieder's lack of respect for his age and status, but still find it very hard to confront a Lord about his behavior. Lieder liked the idea of this conundrum, and was eager to test the limits of David's patience.
"These S-T's really are a wonder, aren't they?" Lieder had waited to see if David would respond to his last taunt, but resumed the conversation when the silence had suggested that David hoped it was over. "They're just as comfortable as any other t-shirt, but they take such accurate readings of the wearer's condition…"
"They're hardly a marvel," David scoffed. "The principles are so basic that they're universally covered by any curriculum path, and early on at that. How could you be unfamiliar with it?"
"I didn't have an education that you would consider orthodox," Lieder replied patiently. "And besides, you're selling their pioneers short! It may seem simple now, but there was a time when it was thought to be impossible. If they came out with a line of clothes that could also perform an opposite function, you'd praise them for the geniuses they are, at least for a while."
David was close to the point where Lieder would feel justified in having fun at his expense, even if he hadn't been completely amiable himself. He'd even come up with a David that would be fun to compare this one to.
Hasselhoff would be perfect. It wouldn't be particularly insulting to associate someone with him, but his life and career involved an unenviable amount of scrutiny.
"Perform an opposite function? Why would you want that?" David scoffed condescendingly. "Their entire appeal comes from the fact that you can't tell what another person is feeling without them, so what would be the point of clothing that supposedly hides something that's already hidden? Small minds shouldn't feign insightfulness, young Lieder. Even the Peerage has a use for modesty."
"Oh, I agree, modesty is tremendously useful! It would keep vainglories from jumping to conclusions about what other people are saying in casual conversation. Like when you assumed you knew what I meant when I referred to an opposite function! See, what I really meant is that these clothes could actually interact with its wearer to suppress or even eliminate certain emotions within the wearer. So, not only could the clothes expose Sapient insubordination, but they could directly fight it. Ah, good old modesty; if you had a scrap of it, you wouldn't have to feel so stupid right now. Feel free to vocalize my idea for an upgrade to the SympaThreadic line, though; if it catches on, maybe you could convince the rest of the Peerage to wear pity-suppressant clothing when you embarrass yourself next. Maybe when your daughter releases recorded footage of you half-naked on a hotel floor, too drunk to properly eat the food she brought you? I dunno, I'm just guessing at what you vainglories do with your free time, and that your children aren't so vainglory that they know they should resent you for it."
The door to the testing room slid open as Lieder finished. He hoped that the term 'vainglory' was as offensive as he'd assumed.
"What blatant audacity…" David snarled as he leaned forward slowly, trembling with rage.
"'Every great scientific advancement was born from an audacious imagination,' was it?" Justus quoted, beaming as he strode towards them. An open Expander was poised where he could easily review whatever information it displayed. "Ah, I'm sure that was misquoted, but all the same, I feel daring enough to guess at the solution to your riddle."
"I'm anxious to hear it," Lieder responded. "So please: let's have your guess."
"Are you a Winkle, Lord Lieder?"
"Yes, I most certainly am," Lieder asserted excitedly. "I can't tell you how glad I am that you could tell; it's a huge relief. I'm sorry if it wasn't much of a puzzle, though."
"Oh, don't be, the only reason it came so quickly is because I've been hoping against hope that we might enroll a Winkle someday. I'd even considered requesting an awakening, if you can believe that!"
"What is a Winkle?" David asked, annoyed by Justus's seeming excitement over the results.
"How could you not know?" Justus seemed appalled, and his tone shifted towards disappointment. "You're an educator, David; an educator at Interpretive Precepts. Someone looking to join the Tombs would need that information, and you'd be expected to facilitate their acquisition."
"We don't get Tombs aspirants all that often, Justus."
"Their vocation fits our institution better than any of the other locals, David! They value interpretive minds as much or more than any of our other familiars."
"I can certainly see why, but it's still pretty far outside my realm," David argued.
"Yes, I suppose it's pretentious if I expect you'd ever step out of that realm," Justus sighed. "Regardless, Lord Lieder…"
"Please, call me Carl. I have no love for formality."
"It's apparent," David commented mockingly.
"Carl, your results were joyfully unique, but I must share my apprehension. I don't want to portray a false image of ourselves. We represent the highest echelon of Preceptor family institutions, but your results would suggest that you've already graduated from our program. You are fully capable of integrating into the Peerage, and as I'm unfamiliar with the Lieder family enterprise, I have no idea whether or not we could provide you with any further advantage."
"Justus, you aren't possibly suggesting he could rate as well as an alumnus?" David balked.
"Could? I'm saying he did." Justus made a waving motion with his expander. "He's displayed a higher-than-average aptitude in an impressive majority of fields and a specialist's mastery in several. He's a Lord, David."
"Yes, but you've said it yourself, Justus; after all, it is our selling point. Even Lords have much to gain from our program."
"I think Hasselhoff here speaks the truth on this one, Justus." Lieder motioned at David as he spoke, knowing he couldn't possibly know who David Hasselhoff was.
"What did you just call me?" David seemed conflicted over whether he was confused or offended.
"I believe this young man has scored better than the average Lord would, David," Justus asserted. "I've been authentic and realistic with my words, not generous. Depending on his choice of curriculum, he may be beyond our ability to enhance."
"Beyond our ability to enhance? He's clueless about how something as simple as those ridiculous SympaThreadics work."
"As we've established, David, he's a Winkle, they didn't have SympaThreadics."
"As we've also established, I don't know what a Winkle is, Justus."
"Oh, right, how negligent of me," Justus rolled his eyes unapologetically. "Winkle is the term used for the people that voluntarily underwent digital stasis one-thousand, six-hundred years ago."
"Sixteen-hundred?!" Lieder's eyes widened and he shot out of his leisurely pose. "Is that approximate or exact?"
"Approximate, very approximate," Justus answered, startled. "Likely a bit longer, that estimate is simply the one most accepted for when the Exodus occurred."
"What is the Exodus?"
"Wouldn't we all like to know?" David laughed.
"David, please," Justus smiled patiently. "That is a matter of speculation; even the name itself is speculation. It's just what we call a phenomenon we don't understand. To avoid misunderstanding, it would be best to take the time to study it rather than have us try to explain…"
"…which is why I'm not beyond your institution's help, I'm hoping," Lieder interrupted. "We both know that the reason you could guess I was a Winkle was because the only scores that were lower than average dealt with my lack of knowledge for the events transpiring between the Exodus and my awakening, correct? I'd like to enroll for the purpose of eliminating that distinction."
"Oh, how exciting," Justus clasped his hands in excitement. "If that's your focus and you improve your score, you'll be above average in all fields. A true prodigy! You see that, David, we may have a Tombs aspirant right here!"
"Aspire all he wants, they'd never take him," David smirked.
"Well, and on the other hand," Lieder spoke to dismiss Justus's compliment rather than address David's challenge. "You know what they say: 'A jack of all trades is a master of none.'"
"A jack, you don't say," David laughed derisively. "How appropriate."
"Is that another quote from some lost paragon?" Justus asked excitedly. "Like those ones you put on questions you obviously couldn't know the answer to? What was it, 'those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it?'"
"Close, that's not quite how Santayana put it, but yes," Lieder confirmed. "You got the essence of it."
David scoffed. "I'm sure the Tombs would love that one."
Lieder caught David's sarcasm, and the implied but mysterious reason behind why the Tombs might dislike such wisdom intrigued him. "Is that why a disclaimer cautioned me about quoting 'sensitive' material when I submitted answers like that one?"
"Yes, I'll have to meet with the Tombs about that later, I'm afraid," Justus confirmed.
"It actually alerted them when I referenced those quotes?" Lieder laughed heartily, much to David's irritation. "Why? That must have been a troublesome system to implement, so the reason can't be frivolous."
"Of course it isn't. It's the same reason it almost came to be that we didn't have to deal with your kind at all, and the same reason they would never accept you as a member of their family," David replied.
"Oh, really? Which reason would that be?"
"The Tombs family has taken it upon themselves to study the past and protect society from letting the Exodus – whatever it was- happen again," Justus explained. "As such, they've made it clear that they believe your oldest traditions and philosophies culminated in that catastrophe. True to their surname, they serve as a vault; a sarcophagus, a mausoleum, a tomb for a dead civilization. They filter the history they deem acceptable for the public's understanding while retaining that which is dangerous or not yet proven; as such, the fact that they possessed a billion sleeping Winkles was kept secret for a long time. Even when the truth came out, it was only after a mammoth push from the public and a mandate from the Assembly that they allowed the Peerage access to you."
"In short," David added. "Your people's very way of thinking is considered dangerous and savage."
"Fair enough," Lieder shrugged, his aloofness over the insult seemingly shocking to David. "I'll help you avoid the hard way to the truth, though, and assure you that it's not just my people. Humanity is dangerous and savage, Peerage and Sapient alike; always has been and probably always will be."
"Know enough to judge us, do you Winkle?!" David nearly spat the word.
"Judge?" Lieder repeated, amused. "Nope, that implies sentencing, and I'll take no part in such a thing. It's just a prediction, but be warned: I've got a knack for that."
"Five minutes ago you didn't know what a Winkle was, David, and now you say the word like it's an insult?" Justus scolded. "Why are you so predisposed to dislike this man?"
"Man? Look at him. He's a boy masquerading as some kind of sage…"
Lieder laughed uncontrollably, further agitating David.
"Oh, man, that's great. The reality's quite to the contrary there, Hasselhoff."
"Quit calling me that!" David demanded.
"He's right though, David," Justus said. "The vast majority of Winkles were elderly, with a notable demographic of terminally ill patients also undergoing stasis."
David scowled, "His face matches his naiveté. He can't possibly fathom the modern world, no matter how old he was."
"'Kay," Lieder said dismissively. "How might I go about futilely trying to fathom it, then? Can we discuss the possibility of enrollment?"
"Most certainly!" Justus was giddy. "This is a chance rivaling access to the Tombs archives!"
"Wait, are you putting him in your class?" David asked, his voice sounding curiously hopeful.
"Well, yes, his aptitude clearly puts him at the highest tier we have, and that would be independent study. I only have thirteen students at the moment, so why not?"
"I can't think of any objection, and didn't intend to imply such a thing," David replied, clearly relieved.
Lieder glanced at David, assuming he was happy that Lieder wasn't going to pass through his tutelage. The feeling was mutual.
"So, as for payment…"
"Well, I think we should most certainly make some kind of exception, your enrollment will only last a fraction of the average student's …"
"He was instantly approved, the deal just awaits his authorization. It's not like he needs a discount." David interrupted.
Lieder flinched slightly. He'd been approved? Had he even asked for approval? And wasn't he completely broke? He furrowed his brow, considering the possibilities; was there a way he might actually have some money? Even though he'd liquidated anything remotely close to an asset before being digitized?
"Let's authorize it, how do I do that?" Lieder looked between the two.
"Come now, there's no need to finalize this robbery…"
"I can bring it up right here." David clicked his expander open and navigated quickly through the interface. He rotated his arm out to allow Lieder to reach it. "Just need you to hold your thumb against this box and state your approval verbally."
Before David could even finish the instructions, Lieder's thumb was pressed gently against the Expander's screen.
"I, Carl Orionne Lieder, hereby promise to pay the full amount described in this bargain." It was an improvised line, but he was sure it would suffice.
The word hung alone in the center of the screen for several seconds as David pulled it slowly away and rotated it back in front of him.
"Funds are… transferred. The deal's done."
"Honestly, that was unnecessary," Justus lamented. "Why'd you go along with him, after all his rudeness?"
"Nah, had nothin' to do with him, it's just what I wanted to do. C'mon, introduce the new kid to your class."
"Oh, but you're not a 'kid,' you're a distinguished lord and I daresay my elder…"
"I'm Carl Orionne Lieder, and that's all they need to know. Anything more than that just brings unwanted attention, and that'll interfere with my studies."
"Oh. Well, I suppose that is a very valid concern. Yes, I think I approve, we'll leave it at that."
"Excellent, let's be on our way." Lieder climbed to his feet and turned to face David. "Catch ya later, Hasselhoff!"
David narrowed his eyes at Lieder in irritation, but nodded in polite farewell. He gave Lieder and Justus several seconds' head start before he got up and followed them out of the alcove and into the hall.
Lieder winced slightly after opening the door; the sun that poured into this area was intensely harsh when compared to the soft lighting of the testing room.