Sleep for Sale


I could not begin to imagine where he had been, but he was coming back. 

The briefest flicker of an eyelid.  A painful attempt to swallow. I dimmed the light, and passed a moistened cloth over his lips. He drew in a breath, then gave a faint cough. His eyes opened. 

‘Dave ... is that you?’ His voice was hoarse, barely audible over the hum of ventilation fans. 

‘Yes, Max.’ 

‘How – how long have I been ...’ His voice started to fade under the effort of speaking. 

‘You have been asleep for sixty three days. Today is the second of February.’ 

The faintest smile. Then: ‘I did it! I missed Christmas!’ 

‘You did. Scrooge would have been proud of you!’ 

*  *  * 

The implications of what my brother, Doctor Max Stilman, had achieved were astounding. This was Nobel class science. Not that he would have been much bothered by that. Besides, with his reputation – notoriety even – he wouldn’t be allowed within a hundred miles of a Nobel Prize committee. No – Max’s interest was purely commercial. He used his genius for material gain and to wield power over others, as I had found to my cost. 

            It was in the previous autumn that he had taken me into his confidence. We were together in the small studio that he had built in a patch of woodland, half a mile from the house where he lived alone with his dog. It was a squat building, solid, with grilles over the windows and triple locks on the steel-reinforced door. Security mattered a lot to Max: he had plenty to hide. 

            ‘It was a chance discovery the detail of which I won’t go in to. Believe me, though, this is something that people are going to want. And they will pay handsomely for it.’ 

            ‘But Max, how the hell will you get this past an ethics committee? I mean, you’ll have to submit it to clinical trials ...’ 

            ‘Ethics committees be damned. They’re hide bound by regulations. I’m surprised any useful research on drugs gets anywhere these days. And the people who will want this stuff aren’t going to wait around for years while a crowd of idiots does this test and that on it. A good many of the punters won’t have that sort of time anyway.’ 

            ‘Max – your last attempt to short circuit the protocols got you struck off the medical register. And damned nearly got you a spell in prison. They’ll throw the book at you if fall foul of them again.’ 

            ‘Which is exactly why I have no intention of letting any of them get wind of this. This is my baby – I should say, ours. We’re in this together – you can consider yourself my accomplice. And I think that you know better than to renege on the understanding we have together.’ 

            I knew well what Max was referring to. He had always been the dominant one. The memory of my involvement in the genetic research he’d pioneered made me wince. Even years later, if he chose to make this public my own career would be in tatters. I might even attract a criminal charge. 

            I said nothing. 

            ‘I’m not asking much of you. Just that you keep an eye on things – on me – while I’m … away.’ 

            ‘You really mean to try this stuff on yourself?’ 

            ‘Uh-huh. In the best traditions of medical science. And it didn’t kill Bella, so it very probably won’t kill me.’ He nudged an elderly yellow Labrador, stretched out on the floor with his foot. The dog gave a perfunctory wag of its tail. 

            ‘You’ve given it to your dog?’ 

            ‘Sure I did. She slept like a baby for sixteen days. And was none the worse for it.’ 

            A scrabbling noise in the roof distracted us. ‘Bloody squirrels!’ He jumped up, grabbed a heavy book from the desk and hurled it up to the ceiling. There was a loud thud as the book struck, followed by a frantic scuttling. ‘I’ll need to get those trees cut back from the house. That’s how the buggers get in.’ 

*  *  * 

That evening, back at the main house, he showed me what he called his ‘hibernation chamber’. He had built it in the basement. There was nothing particularly high tech about it. He had rigged up a framework on to which he had fixed plasterboard, and had wrapped what looked very much like loft insulation around it. A small refrigeration unit sat squat upon the floor next to the chamber, connected to it by flexible ducting. This, he told me, was designed to keep the temperature in the chamber between 8 and 10 degrees Celsius. 

            ‘And this is where you come in to it. The initial stages are quite critical. The subject, in this case, me, will need to be watched carefully. Respiration, cardiograph and encephalograph monitored meticulously. But when stable hibernation is established, you can bugger off to the sun for all I care.’ 

            ‘Max, are you serious?’ I stared wide eyed at him. ‘If this goes wrong – if you … if you don’t wake up, don’t you see that I could be on a murder charge?’ 

            ‘Quite right, little brother. And that is why I have every confidence that you will follow my instructions to the letter.’ 

            As the weeks passed he fine-tuned the process. I assumed the role of his assistant. He told me no more than I needed to know, which was remarkably little. His discovery was not something that could be given a patent in the short term and he was taking no chances. Then one day, late in the year, when all the preliminaries had been attended to, I stood by him as he slipped into unconsciousness. I sat through the night, watching the tracings on the display units become ever more feeble until it seemed the body lying there before me was all but lifeless. I could detect no sign of breathing; his heart rate had dropped to less than five beats a minute. 

For the next twenty four hours I scarcely ate nor slept. I did not leave the room where the chamber stood. The only sound was the faint murmur of the pump of the refrigeration unit. Then stabilisation occurred exactly as Max had predicted. His ethics might leave much to be desired, I mused, but his science could not be faulted. He was indeed on the threshold of pulling off one of the greatest advances in the history of biological science. And perhaps one of the most terrifying. 

            I had little to occupy me for the bulk of the time he lay in suspended animation. I made more than one attempt to deduce the secret he had managed to unlock, but got nowhere. There was no question of looking through papers and records relating to his research, for the simple reason that there weren’t any. All the data relating to his work was stored electronically, and even if I had dared to attempt to locate it there was little doubt that his elaborate security would have been impenetrable. But not, as it turned out, immune to the consequences of events that he hadn’t predicted. 

*  *  * 

His recovery was swift, which may have been a reflection of his level of fitness before he submitted himself to his experiment. He had no recollection of anything that had happened during his sleep - scarcely surprising since his electroencephalogram had shown no activity. Neither had he had any sensation of the passage of time. 

            I wondered how best to choose the moment to tell him about the fire. 

            Three days after he woke, I found him sitting up in an armchair in his bedroom. He had been left considerably weakened, as he had predicted. But a high calorie intake and graded exercise were showing results. It would not be long before he could leave the house. And I guessed the first place he would make for would make for the studio where he had housed his complex array of computing equipment.  

            I sensed that something was troubling him. Later that day he told me what it was. ‘There seems to be a residual effect that I hadn’t predicted.’ 

            ‘What is it?’ 

            ‘My memory. My short term memory’s buggered up. I think it is starting to improve. But I’m not entirely sure. No matter. I’ll spend a few days going through my files. Everything I need to know is there.’ 

            ‘Max,’ I interrupted, ‘there is something I have to tell you. Something that happened while you were asleep …’ 

            He sensed the unease in my voice. ‘Something happened? What, exactly?’ 

            ‘There was a fire. The studio … it burned down just over a week ago.’ 

            Burned down? What do you mean? How …’ 

            ‘I was away from the house at the time – I had to collect something from the town. When I got back I saw the blaze. I called the fire brigade immediately, of course. But it was too late. The place is gutted, and everything in it was destroyed.’ 

            He sat in stunned silence as the news sunk in, and then exploded. ‘Bloody Hell! That is where I kept my data. All of it! How in God’s name did it happen?’ 

            ‘The fire service say it was most likely an electrical fire. Seems to have started in the loft space. Then I remember you told me that squirrels had been getting in. That seems to be what caused it – chewing through the insulation …’ 

            ‘Squirrels? What squirrels?’ 

            Max appeared to have no recollection of our discussion the previous autumn when he had reveal his discovery to me, and how he had hurled a book up at the ceiling to scare off the intruders. ‘Help me out of this …‘ He struggled as he tried to lift himself out of the chair, ‘we’re going over there, now. There might just be something …’ 

            But there was nothing. I joined him in probing the charred remnants of the studio, he with a garden hoe and I with a long stake. Something bearing a resemblance to what might have been a computer terminal lay in a shallow depression among the ashes, but it was clear that it could hold not a shred of retrievable data. 

*  *  * 

Three days later he was quite recovered. I found him with a large scale map spread out on the table in front of him. On a computer monitor at one end of the table a section of what appeared to be the same map was displayed. He was concentrating and didn’t appear to notice that I’d come in the room. 

            ‘Looking for something?’ 

            He jumped, and turned sharply. ‘You could say so.’ He returned his attention to the map, pouring over it and making occasional marks with a pencil. 

            ‘So will you tell me what you’re trying to find?’ 

            He hesitated, as if uncertain whether or not to let me in to his confidence. Then he said, ‘I must have made a backup and kept it somewhere away from the main computer. It’s something I know I always did. But my memory is more or less a complete blank concerning the details. And nothing’s returning in a hurry.’ 

            ‘Nothing on the hard drives here in this house?’ 

            He shook his head. ‘No. I’ve checked, but I would have wanted to keep data copies well away from here in any event. Not least because I’ve long known that there are … others … who have a particular interest in what they think I may have been up to, may have discovered.’ 

            ‘You mean, the police?’ 

            ‘No. Other … researchers. And people who knew from my earlier work and my subsequent abandonment of mainstream research. It is quite possible that they have tried to put two and two together. Any conclusions they might have come to would have been likely to be wildly wrong, but that’s not what matters. It is the fact that they are interested in what I do that matters.’ 

            I began to understand what he was talking about. He had come into contact with some pretty ruthless people in his time – major players in the field of scientific and industrial espionage. 

            He scrolled down the map image displayed on the monitor, and then zoomed in on a particular section. He thumped his fist into his left palm. ‘I think I’ve got it!’ 

            I peered over his shoulder. I could see that the map was one of a sparsely inhabited high ground and moorland. At the intersection of two rough tracks was a symbol of a chest, under which was the inscription “????”. I was pretty sure that the script was Greek, but had no idea what it meant. Judging by Max’s excitement, it was no mystery to him. He jotted down some numbers from the top of the screen, and then quickly exited the programme and shut down the computer. 

            ‘So, will you tell me what this is all about?’ 

            He gave me a penetrating stare, as if debating whether or not I could be trusted. ‘You know what a geocache is?’ 

            I’d certainly heard the word before, but had to admit that it didn’t mean a lot to me. I shook my head. 

            ‘Something hidden – on or below the ground, and its location recorded on a map. Either for others to find or, as in this instance, only known to the person who placed it.’ 

            ‘The symbol – the chest – there was an inscription under it. Is that significant?’ 

            ‘But of course. And that is what indicates – to me – that it is what I am looking for. It is quite certain that I placed the cache myself, although I’ve no memory of it. Those characters are Greek – ancient Greek.’ 

            ‘And it means?’ 

            ‘”Lethe” – one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. The river of forgetfulness. It also means “oblivion”. Apt, don’t you think?’ 

            ‘So what are you proposing to do?’ 

            ‘Find it, of course. It’s a good distance from here and I may be gone a couple of days. But once I have it, then we can more or less continue from where we left off. And one thing you may as well know – prepare for, if you like – it’s your turn next!’ 

            For a moment the implication of what Max had just said to me did not sink in. Then I found myself wondering if he could possibly be serious. But he was not given to flippancy. 

            ‘Max – just what are you saying?’ 

            ‘Oh, come on Dave – don’t act so surprised. I’d the confidence to use myself as a guinea pig and survived. Now I need to observe a subject – a human subject – for myself. And far better that he should be someone who is in on the act – and you are the only person who is. What did you think I was to do – advertise in the local paper?’ 

            ‘And someone who you’ve got … exactly where you want him. I know you – you’re hardly going to make it easy for me to refuse.’ 

            He gave me a penetrating stare. There was a coldness in his voice. ‘How very perceptive you are.’ 

            ‘Max – you’ve got to let me think about this. I never thought for a moment …’ 

            ‘Well, think all you like now. I know that you will need time to make … arrangements. You will need to take a month … no, six weeks … away from your practice. Better tell them you’re having a sabbatical, out of the country. Don’t worry – they will be compensated for your absence. They can employ someone to cover for you, and more. I know your lot – they won’t object when they sniff hard cash.’ 

            Left to ponder over what Max had proposed, I found myself becoming more horror struck than apprehensive. I began to wonder whether he was entirely sane, whether more than just memory had been affected by his long sleep. And if the same were to happen to me, the effect upon my ability to continue with my own work safely, or even at all, might be profound. I felt that I had to resist him at any cost – even saboutage his plans by some means if there was no alternative. 

*  *  * 

Even now I wonder what it was that came over me to act as I did a few days after Max had told me his plan. I suppose I felt cornered, and in my gathering panic acted impulsively, even irrationally. I was becoming obsessed with the thought that he might decide that I was superfluous to his further plans. Or even that I might pose a potential security thread, that I might be bribed by a rival in the field. As an insurance against this he might let me remain in hibernation for months … perhaps for years. 

            Max had left the house on his mission to retrieve his backed up data. He had given me no indication of where he was going to, although he did tell me that he would be staying at a small hotel in Telford, Shropshire for the two nights he was going to be away. 

            It seemed a reasonable assumption that on the second night, on his return journey, he would have what he was setting out to find in his possession. It should be possible for him to be intercepted there. 

            That was when I took the mobile telephone – bought specifically for the purpose of this call – and keyed in a number. 

‘Who is this?’ The answering voice had a coldness about it. 

‘Who I am doesn’t matter. What I have to say does.’

‘So – what is it you have to say?’ 

‘I believe you have an interest in the work of the scientist, Max Stilman.’

‘Stilman? You know where he is?’ 

‘I know where he will be – on the night of the 12th of April. And I believe that he will have something in his possession that would be of great interest to you.’ 

‘Why are you telling me this? What do you want?’ 

‘That can come later. Note down what I am about to say to you.’ 

I gave him the address of the hotel and a vehicle registration number. I ended the call, walked over to the hearth where I had set a fire half an hour before, and dropped the handset into the blaze. 

*   *  * 

On the morning of the 13th April Max was hit by a car being driven at speed out of the car park of the hotel where he had stayed. He was killed instantly. 

            ‘It seems it was his own car,’ the police officer had informed me, his voice grave. ‘We believe that someone had stolen it and he was trying to prevent it leaving the car park.’ 

            I was stunned by the news. I realised at once that I had, by alerting a rival whom I knew to be totally ruthless, contributed to my brother’s death. 

            ‘Do you know who it was? Have you found the man who …?’ 

            The officer shook his head. ‘We were on his tail within minutes, and followed him on to the motorway. He put on speed. Then it seems he lost control. The car flipped over and caught fire. The tank must have been full. Seems there’s pretty well nothing left. The man driving was dead - burned beyond recognition.’ 

            I was at the house when the police car had driven up shortly before midday. I had felt a sense of rising panic as the young policeman, accompanied by a woman officer, approached the door. Shocked though I was at the news, I felt almost relieved when I realised that they had not come to the house to make any enquiry about me. 

            ‘I … I’d better get over there …’ 

            ‘We’d appreciate that. As next of kin, Doctor Stilman, we’d like you to confirm the identity … I’m sorry.’ 

            I nodded. ‘No … I know it’s necessary. I’ll set off as soon as I get a few overnight things ready.’ 

*  *  * 

I would have preferred not to have had to book in to the same hotel where my brother had stayed at on the previous night. But wanting to be away from the town centre, I’d no choice. The receptionist had looked askance at me when I checked in, but relaxed when I explained who I was, and murmured that she was sorry to hear of my loss. When I returned to the lounge to make arrangements for an evening meal, the hotel manager came over and introduced himself to me. 

            ‘I can’t say how sorry we are at the hotel that this tragedy happened. We’ll do everything we can to ensure that you are comfortable during your stay here, Dr Stilman.’ 

            I thanked him. I expressed my regret that he and his staff should have had to cope with the distress and disruption that the morning’s events had caused them. 

            He hesitated a moment. ‘There’s one thing … your brother left a bag, a small back pack on the reception desk when he rushed out … when he saw someone breaking in to his car. I was going to pass it on to the police, but it seems to be empty. Would you like to take it, doctor?’ 

            ‘Well, yes … I might as well. Empty, you say?’ 

            ‘Uh-huh. Just a gadget in one of the pockets. Looks like a rather stubby mobile phone. Bright yellow. I wondered if it was some sort of walkie-talkie. Apart from that, just an empty film case.’ 

*  *  *            

Later that afternoon I sat alone in front of the blazing fire in the hotel lounge. Anticipating that I wasn’t likely to be disturbed, I opened the back pack. 

            I recognised the yellow “walkie talkie” as the hand held GPS navigation unit that Max had used on his occasional forays over the moors. No doubt it was this that he had used to guide him to the location of his cached data backup. 

            I took the film case and shook it. It was light, and as the manager said, apparently empty. But I flipped off the plastic lid. Some tissue paper had been wedged into it. Pulling it out, I found what I had been looking for: a computer data key, not much larger than my thumbnail. On the label stating its capacity – which was certainly substantial – had been written in pencil a single word: ????. 

            I knew then that I was holding in my hand a thing of such significance that it had the potential to change the course of history. I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of power and … terror. The implications of Max’s discovery – the ways in which might be put to use for good or bad – were almost beyond imagining. The scale of the wealth that it might bring to whoever might wield it were mind-numbing. And its potential to corrupt, even destroy its owner, only too real. 

            I got up and crossed over to the fire. I held the tiny object between my thumb and forefinger directly over the flames. I closed my eyes. 


Henry Tegner

September 2011

3874 words


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