I could not begin to imagine where he
had been, but he was coming back.
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.
... is that you? His voice was hoarse, barely audible over the hum of ventilation
how long have I been ... His voice started to fade under the effort of
have been asleep for sixty three days. Today is the second of February.
faintest smile. Then: I did it! I missed Christmas!
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 wouldnt be allowed within a hundred miles of a Nobel Prize committee.
No Maxs 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
It was a
chance discovery the detail of which I wont go in to. Believe me, though, this is
something that people are going to want. And
they will pay handsomely for it.
how the hell will you get this past an ethics committee? I mean, youll have to
submit it to clinical trials ...
committees be damned. Theyre hide bound by regulations. Im surprised any
useful research on drugs gets anywhere these days. And the people who will want this stuff
arent going to wait around for years while a crowd of idiots does this test and that
on it. A good many of the punters wont have that sort of time anyway.
your last attempt to short circuit the protocols got you struck off the medical register.
And damned nearly got you a spell in prison. Theyll throw the book at you if fall
foul of them again.
exactly why I have no intention of letting any of them get wind of this. This is my baby I should say, ours. Were 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 hed 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.
not asking much of you. Just that you keep an eye on things on me while Im
mean to try this stuff on yourself?
the best traditions of medical science. And it didnt kill Bella, so it very probably
wont kill me. He nudged an elderly
given it to your dog?
did. She slept like a baby for sixteen days. And was none the worse for it.
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. Ill need to get those trees cut
back from the house. Thats 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.
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.
you serious? I stared wide eyed at him. If this goes wrong if you
if you dont wake up, dont you see that I could be on a murder charge?
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.
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 werent 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 hadnt 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 hadnt predicted.
My short term memorys buggered up. I think it is starting to improve. But Im
not entirely sure. No matter. Ill spend a few days going through my files.
Everything I need to know is there.
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?
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 Gods name did it happen?
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
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, were 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 didnt appear to notice that Id come in
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.
you tell me what youre 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. Its something
I know I always did. But my memory is more or less a complete blank concerning the
details. And nothings returning in a hurry.
the hard drives here in this house?
He shook his
head. No. Ive checked, but I would have wanted to keep data copies well away
from here in any event. Not least because Ive long known that there are
who have a particular interest in what they think I may have been up to, may
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 thats 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
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 Ive 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 Maxs
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.
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
certainly heard the word before, but had to admit that it didnt mean a lot to me. I
shook my head.
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 chest there was an inscription under it. Is that significant?
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 Ive no memory of it.
Those characters are Greek ancient Greek.
one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. The river of forgetfulness. It also
means oblivion. Apt, dont you think?
are you proposing to do?
of course. Its 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 its 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.
just what are you saying?
on Dave dont act so surprised. Id 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
someone who youve got
exactly where you want him. I know you youre
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.
youve got to let me think about this. I never thought for a moment
think all you like now. I know that you will need time to make
will need to take a month
no, six weeks
away from your practice. Better tell
them youre having a sabbatical, out of the country. Dont worry they
will be compensated for your absence. They can employ someone to cover for you, and more.
I know your lot they wont 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.
* * *
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
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
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 doesnt matter. What I have to say does.
So what is it you have to
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.
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 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 brothers death.
know who it was? Have you found the man who
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 theres 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.
better get over there
appreciate that. As next of kin, Doctor Stilman, wed like you to confirm the
I nodded. No
I know its necessary. Ill set off as soon as I get a few overnight
* * *
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, Id 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.
say how sorry we are at the hotel that this tragedy happened. Well 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 mornings events had caused them.
He hesitated a
moment. Theres 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
I might as well. Empty, you say?
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
* * *
that afternoon I sat alone in front of the blazing fire in the hotel lounge. Anticipating
that I wasnt 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
implications of Maxs 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.
Click Here to return to Fiction Index