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Fiction

Sleeper

Sleeper by Matthew Hughes (illustration by Hillary Pearlman)

Erm Kaslo always found that a strong drink or two helped clear his head of the after-effects of the sedative that cushioned the fragile human psyche from the irreality of passage through a whimsy. He was sipping from a glass of red abandon in the second-class lounge of the second-rate liner, Armitou, when harsh bells clanged throughout the ship. Immediately, the ever-present underhum of the vessel’s normal-space drive lowered its pitch then began to fade. In a few moments, Kaslo couldn’t hear the sound at all.

“What’s going on?” he said to the steward behind the bar.

The man shrugged. “We’re slowing.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Another shrug. Kaslo addressed the air: “Ship’s integrator, why are we stopping?”

A cool voice spoke in his ear. “The captain has decided to pick up a sleeper. We have matched velocities and are about to take the container aboard.”

“A what?”

The device delivered a brief explanation. Sleepers were a form of space travel for those whose finances could not stretch even to the cost of a third-class ticket on a tub like the Armitou. A sleeper was a utilitarian container scarcely larger than its occupant; its systems suppressed life processes to a hair above sustainability. For a small fee, the cylinder would be ejected into space by an outward-bound ship, then it would slowly make its way across the immensity until it entered a whimsy and was transposed to somewhere else. It then oriented itself toward its destination and began a painfully slow progress toward it, continuously broadcasting a plea to any passing vessel to pick it up in return for the small fee enclosed with its passenger.

“Sounds like a risky way to travel between worlds,” Kaslo said.

“Agreed,” said the integrator, “and that is why very few try it. If launched from a ship with insufficient velocity, the sleeper might lack the fuel to reach the targeted whimsy. As well, such a craft’s integrator is never of a high order. Some are superannuated devices that have been given only the barest refit. They lose their way, or . . . misalign their priorities.”

Kaslo was familiar with the latter expression. It was how integrators referred to the rare but not entirely negligible instances when self-aware devices exposed their human charges to danger or death.

“What happens if no vessel responds to the request to be picked up?”

“Eventually, the sleeper’s energy stores will become depleted. The occupant will have lost his gamble.”

“It’s good of your captain to stop for such a mendicant,” Kaslo said. “Indeed, I am surprised that a vessel of even this class—”

The integrator’s voice became even cooler. “The captain,” it said, “was asked by a passenger to keep an ear out for a sleeper signal and to stop if one was encountered.”

“That seems unusually compassionate.”

“Yes,” said the ship, “doesn’t it?”

The bells rang a second time. The steward looked up and said, “And we’re on our way again.”

***

Kaslo was returning to his home world, Novo Bantry, after completing an assignment that had taken him down The Spray. He had delivered a sealed package to a man who conducted sightseeing tours over and through the canyons of Wavertree on the desert world Toolie. The nature of the package’s contents was not made known to Kaslo, only that the item must arrive safely and intact. He had been made aware that someone might try to take the item from him en route, and that he was to use any means necessary to frustrate such an attempt.

While he was changing ships at an orbital above Holycow, two men had followed him into a toilet. But Kaslo, long experienced as a confidential operative, had already noted their interest and was waiting for them when they made their move. He had left them propped unconscious against the dividers in two cubicles while he hurried to board his outbound vessel just before it departed. There had been no further incidents.

His job done and the fee paid into his account at the fiduciary pool on Novo Bantry, the op had nothing on his agenda until he returned to his office and examined any proposals that had come in during his absence. The Armitou would take another three days to cross normal space to the next whimsy, which would deposit it within a half-day’s journey from his home world. He had intended to spend the time reading and playing thrash in the ship’s casino. But the other passengers who came to the table lacked skill, except for one smooth-headed operator who possessed far too much. Kaslo found the flow of the game too one-directional and ceased attending the all-day, all-night sessions.

For lack of diversion, he decided he would satisfy his mild curiosity regarding the sleeper and asked the ship’s integrator where the rescued man could be found.

“In the infirmary,” was the answer. “His container’s systems were not well maintained. He suffers from the effects of prolonged dehydration, as well as from a pre-existing chronic illness.”

“Can he receive visitors?”

“It’s not likely he would be aware of them.”

“Direct me there.”

The integrator caused a shining mote to appear in the air in front of the op. It moved and he followed until it led him to the infirmary where the sleeper lay on a pallet.

The man’s age was difficult to establish. A lengthy somnolence in a less than optimal environment had left him pale and papery-skinned. He was breathing without assistance, but his sunken cheeks and slack-jawed mouth suggested that he might not be capable of continuing to do so much longer. His breath rasped in and out through desiccated tissues, and his bony fingers reflexively scratched like the legs of dying crabs at the cloth that covered his gaunt chest.

“Is he expected to recover?” Kaslo asked the integrator.

“The odds are long against it. He was not well when he began his voyage, and the long, dry sleep has not improved his condition.”

“What is wrong with him?”

“Schmetter’s chorea, a rare genetic disorder.”

“Curable?”

“If treatment begins in youth,” the integrator said, “but even then, it is expensive.”

Kaslo watched the sleeper’s hands move against the covers. “Odd that such a sick man should emigrate,” he said. “Especially by such a desperate method.”

“Indeed,” said the ship.

“What is his name and place of residence?”

“Osvert Chittipath, of the County of Soudan on Novo Bantry.”

As the name meant nothing to him, and there was nothing more to be seen in the infirmary, Kaslo made his way back toward the casino. But along the way, another thought intervened. “Integrator,” he said, “I would like to see the container the sleeper traveled in.”

It was in the hold, near the airlock through which it had been admitted. Another shining mote led the op to where the cylinder lay on the deck, its top hinged back. The canister was barely longer and wider than its former occupant. At its base was a rudimentary drive that would operate in normal space, at its top an automatic communicator. Along the sides were the systems that kept the comatose passenger hovering just above the threshold of death. The inner skin was lined with a thin layer of gray metal, which Kaslo assumed offered protection against cosmic radiation.

He poked around inside the container, found nothing of note, and said, “I believe I have exhausted all the diversion I’m likely to get from—”

“What are you doing there?”

The voice was harsh, the kind of voice that is used to receiving answers to its questions. Kaslo straightened and turned to find himself looking at a strongly built man of middle years striding across the hold toward him.

“Exercising my curiosity,” he said. “How does it concern you?”

“The sleeper is mine,” said the man.

“And you are . . . ?”

“Slovan Ballameer.” The name was spoken in a manner that suggested it ought to command recognition. Kaslo had a faint sense of having heard it before, but nothing more came when he tried to place it. He identified himself.

Ballameer did not stop his approach until he was closer than was considered polite on most worlds. He was tall enough to be able to look down on Kaslo. “What were you doing?” he said.

“I told you: exercising my curiosity. I had never seen one of these,” —he gestured toward the cylinder— “and I thought I’d take a look.”

“It is my property.”

“You bought it off Osvert Chittipath?”

Ballameer’s eyes widened then narrowed. “How do you know that name?”

“The ship told me.”

Ballameer moved even closer. “Time you were leaving.”

Kaslo did not budge. “I’ve answered your questions. You have not answered mine.”

There was a moment of expectation. Kaslo kept his eyes on the big man’s and prepared himself to do whatever would be required as the situation developed. But Ballameer eased back a slight distance, a tinge of uncertainty in his gaze.

“The sleeper is not expected to live,” he said. “Since I have paid for his passage, the captain has declared his container to be salvage and transferred its title to me.”

“I see,” said Kaslo. “That was an act of kindness on your part.”

“I will also see that his remains are disposed of with dignity.”

“Even more gracious,” said the op. “Do you often indulge in acts of charity?”

Ballameer bridled at the question and it seemed to Kaslo that he was about to snap out an answer, but then the same air of incertitude showed in his heavy features. He said, “Are you, by any chance, a peace officer?”

Kaslo signaled a negative. “A confidential operative,” he said, “returning from an assignment.”

He saw relief cross the other man’s face, then saw that an idea had formed in Ballameer’s mind.

“Are you available at the moment?” the man said.

“I could be.”

“And, once engaged, any information that comes your way in the course of an assignment you must hold in strictest confidence?”

“Within certain limits.” He saw Ballameer come to a decision.

“Accompany me to my cabin,” the man said. “I wish to discuss something privately.”

***

Ballameer’s ample quarters were on the first-class deck and even commanded a view of space through a small porthole. When they had entered and the door was closed, the man said, “Ship’s integrator, I do not wish for this conversation to be overheard.”

“It will be overheard, but not recorded, within the limits stipulated on your ticket,” the device said. Kaslo knew that that meant the device would hear all that was said, just as it heard and observed everything within range of its ship-wide array of percepts, but anything that posed no danger to itself, its crew, or the passengers would be forgotten as soon as it was heard.

Ballameer went to a cabinet and poured himself a glass of liquor, leavening it with a splash of improved water, then asked Kaslo if he wished anything.

“Not,” said the op, seating himself in an upholstered chair, “when there is business to discuss.”

Ballameer nodded in approval and took a seat opposite. “What do you know,” he said, “of noubles?”

Not much, was Kaslo’s first thought, but when he applied his neatly ordered mind to the matter he discovered that he knew they were rare and precious gems that came in varying colors and sizes. They originated somewhere down The Spray but precisely where was shrouded in mystery. He told Ballameer this and added, “I have never seen one.”

“Few have,” said the other man, “and fewer still possess one. I, however, am about to come into ownership of three prime specimens.”

“Congratulations.”

The op’s dry response won him another assessing look from Ballameer, then the big man drank half of what was in his glass and leaned forward with the air of someone who is feeling his way forward. “Fresh noubles can be bought only on a secondary world called New Gargano—”

“Why need they be fresh?” Kaslo said.

“They fade with time, especially if they are not kept warm. The place where they come from . . . well, it has different . . . climatic conditions.”

Kaslo’s profession had taken him to many worlds. He had experienced arid deserts, sultry jungles, temperate savannas, and continental ice sheets. “Every world has its own climes,” he said. “I do not know what you mean by ‘different.’”

Ballameer drained his glass and leaned forward again, and the op saw that he was about to unburden himself of a secret.

“They don’t originate,” the man said, “on this plane.”

“Oh,” said Kaslo, “is that so?”

The big man’s brow clouded with confusion. “That is news,” he said, “that most people find difficult to accept on first hearing.”

Kaslo made a dismissive gesture. “I am not most people,” he said. “And, as it happens, I had a case recently that caused me to reorder my views on the subject of interplanar transference.”

Now Ballameer was suddenly eager. “Tell me about it.”

“I cannot say much,” said Kaslo. “Confidentiality is the core of my profession.”

“Then tell me what you can.”

The op thought for a moment, then said, “I had a client who was interested in transferring objects from a higher plane to this one.”

“Which higher plane?”

“He said it was the sixth.”

Ballameer sucked in his breath. “And did he succeed?”

Kaslo nodded. “He managed to retrieve a small scoop of what constitutes soil in that place. He had to send it back because it immediately ignited the table on which he deposited it.”

“Fool,” Ballameer said, as if to himself. “Then what?”

“Then two persons who wished to interfere in my client’s affairs entered and made difficulties. After I had dealt with them, my assignment was completed. I severed our relationship.”

The big man stared at Kaslo. He raised one thumb unconsciously to his mouth and bit its nail. “You do not know what happened after?”

“I did not care to,” Kaslo said. “The client had a theory that from time to time, the operating principle of the universe shifts between rationalism and magic—he called the latter ‘sympathetic association.’ I found the concept . . . shall we say, disconcerting.”

Ballameer blinked, then blinked again. “Disconcerting?” he said.

“I am a practical man, engaged in a practical profession,” Kaslo said. “The troubles of this plane are plenty for me.”

Ballameer studied him silently for a long pause, then discovered that his glass was empty. He went and refilled it, drank half of it while standing, then came and sat again.

“Here are the facts,” he said. “Some time ago, I went to New Gargano, where I acquired three prime noubles from a vendor who operated outside the cartel that controls the supply. Getting them off-world, however, posed problems. The cartel, which is indistinguishable from the government of that world, has detectors at all the spaceports’ loading ramps.”

Kaslo said, “Your resources must run to a private space yacht. It could land anywhere.”

“The cartel also has orbiting weapons platforms.”

“Ah. Please proceed.”

“I bought Osvert Chittipath a passage to New Gargano as well as a used sleeper. A sleeper’s inner surface is usually coated in a substance the detectors cannot penetrate.”

“And then?”

Ballameer took a breath then said in a rush of words, “Chittipath swallowed the noubles before we left the hotel for the New Gargano spaceport. There he was searched, as was the cylinder, but he was sealed within before the sleeper passed through the detector and up the ramp onto a tramp freighter.

“He was set loose in space, headed for the whimsy that we just came through. His craft survived the interplanar transit and began to make its way slowly toward Novo Bantry. I booked passage on this vessel so that I could intercept it. The rest you know.”

Kaslo stroked the line of his jaw. “Osvert Chittipath did you a considerable kindness,” he said. “Did you offer to pay for a cure?”

“There is no cure,” the other man said, “at least not once past the disease’s onset.”

“I think to hear a ‘but,’” the op said.

“But two of Chittipath’s children were on course to develop the syndrome. I intervened to save them.”

“Ah,” said Kaslo. “So now he lies dying, the noubles nestled warmly in his innards, with this ship two days from the whimsy that will throw us within a few hours of Novo Bantry.”

“Where I will deliver Chittipath to a hospice and await an opportunity to recover my noubles.”

“You don’t propose to hurry the process?”

“I am not a monster.”

“That is good to know. What need have you of my services?”

Ballameer said that the man who sold him the noubles had sent a coded message to the effect that agents of the cartel might be waiting on Novo Bantry.

Kaslo said, “They have no jurisdiction on our world. Alert the constabulary.”

“Word would leak out. My reputation might suffer.”

The op heard a false note in the explanation. He remembered that the client who had opened a portal to the sixth plane had rivals who were making similar experiments. Apparently they were part of a subculture that, like the criminal halfworld, considered themselves unbound by legal or moral stricture.

“I do not work for those who are not frank with me,” he said. “Is it really the cartel’s agents you fear?”

Ballameer poised on an edge of decision before his shoulders slumped and he said, “No.”

“That was a contrived story,” the op said. “Here is what I think is the truth: Like my previous client, you are a student of sympathetic association, and the noubles have some role to play in that regard.”

“Yes.”

Not long before, Kaslo would have thought the man deluded. Experience had since taught him a sharp lesson. “When we land,” he said, “what opposition will we be facing? Hired thugs with conventional weapons? Or will some budding thaumaturge try to change me into a mouse?”

Ballameer’s face darkened. “These are scarcely matters for levity.”

“Nor are hard men with energy pistols. I will not work for you unless there is mutual trust. This is your last opportunity.”

The rest of the story came out. Ballameer had had a partner in his experiments, a man named Asrat Gozon. There had been a falling out.

“Before or after the business with Chittipath was in train?” Kaslo said.

“Before.”

“What was your plan upon arrival?”

“I am to arrange for a vehicle and an attendant to take Chittipath to a hospice that has a crematorium. He will not live long.”

Immediately after death, the remains would be disposed of, with Ballameer overseeing the process. The man who operated the immolator would recover the noubles and hand them over.

“The noubles will be unaffected by the fire?” Kaslo asked.

“Yes.”

“Is your former partner a reckless man?”

The big man’s hand made a negative gesture. “He considers himself a subtle sort, and prides himself on his intelligence. But I cannot vouch for any new associations he may have formed.”

“But he did not find partnership easy? Is that why yours dissolved?”

“Yes.”

The op was silent for a long moment, thinking it through. Then he named his fee and his terms. Ballameer accepted them and told the integrator to send a message telling the fiduciary pool on Novo Bantry to transfer half the amount to Kaslo’s account.

“Now what?” the client said.

“I will play a few hands of thrash.”

***

Osvert Chittipath, his flickering life sustained only by the devices to which he was connected, was gently unloaded from one of the Armitou’s cargo portals. The stretcher’s gravity obviators hummed softly as Ballameer steered it toward the waiting vehicle. A calm-faced attendant wearing the uniform of the hospice waited to receive him.

Kaslo also stood nearby, looking up and down the dock and occasionally consulting his chronometer, the very image of a recently arrived traveler who had expected to be met at the foot of the gangplank but hasn’t been. He observed the movement of the stretcher with mild interest before checking the time again and tapping his foot three times in a show of impatience.

But the chronometer was more than a timepiece. It told the op that the hospice’s vehicle and attendant were just what they appeared to be. And the triple foot-tap told Ballameer that it was safe to proceed. The big man squeezed in next to the attendant and patient, and the carrier closed itself up and departed.

Kaslo immediately beckoned to the hired air-car that he had kept waiting, climbed aboard, and followed. He had learned the route from the port to the hospice, and once it was clear that the carrier was heading where it was supposed to, he bid his own vehicle rise up into the faster stream.

When Ballameer and Chittipath arrived, to be greeted by the dying man’s distraught family and friends, the op had already scanned the small crowd and found them to be no threat.

The dying man was brought into the departure chamber. The attendant applied a stimulant to revive Chittipath long enough for his loved ones to make their final obsequies. It was a touching scene, even with Ballameer hovering in the background, but Kaslo kept his attention on his instrument. All was clear.

The stimulant faded, as did the main participant in the ceremonies. The attendant pronounced him departed and the mourners left for the next phase of the rites.

Ballameer and the op remained. The attendant disconnected the corpse and removed the covers, then said, “You may deliver him to the immolator, if you wish. The operator should be waiting.” He gestured to a narrow door that had been invisible until it opened.

“We will,” said the big man. The attendant left.

Kaslo went to the opening and scanned the downward-sloping passageway that lay beyond it. “Clear,” he said. Then, “Wait.”

In a cupboard against one wall, he found a garment like that which the attendant had worn and slipped it over his daysuit. Into its outer pocket he placed a small object.

Ballameer reactivated the stretcher’s obviators and steered it through the doorway, which closed behind them. They descended the ramp and came to a small open space. In the wall directly opposite the passageway was set a door of some ceramic material, just large enough to admit a body.

Kaslo looked around. “Where is the immolator’s operator?” As he spoke he palmed the object in his pocket, withdrew it, and held it by his thigh.

A door opened at one end of the small room, and a man, stooped by advanced age and clad in a utilitarian smock, came through. “I am sorry,” he said. “My midday meal was delayed, and I thought the ceremonies would take longer.”

As the old man bustled toward the stretcher, Kaslo consulted his chronometer and saw that he carried no weapons, although tucked into his waistband was a stick of dense wood. The op judged it too short, thin, and blunt to make a useful weapon.

The man in the smock positioned the stretcher end-on to the ceramic door, then went to touch some controls beside the portal. It swung wide. “If you wish to say or do anything,” he told Ballameer, “now would be the time.”

Ballameer said nothing and the old man gently pushed the stretcher toward the opening. A long tray slid out, passing between the stretcher frame and its pad, on which the body lay. When it withdrew back into the immolator, it took the remains of Osvert Chittipath with it. The old man closed the door and touched another control. A discreet humming sounded for a few seconds, then a tell-tale on the door began to blink. “It is done,” he said.

“Let me see,” said Ballameer.

Another touch of a control and the door opened. The tray slid out. Where the body had lain was a long, thin layer of gray ash, in the middle of which lay a trio of small spheres. Two were bright with shifting colors, as if auroras fluxed beneath their smooth surfaces; the other, a lustrous black, looked like a hole in the universe.

Ballameer let out a wordless sound of satisfaction and reached for the three orbs. Kaslo looked to the old man and saw, not surprise, but intense covetousness. Indeed, the fellow suddenly did not seem so elderly now. It was as if his age reversed itself and in a few moments the op found himself looking at a straight-backed man in his prime, with wings of black hair swept back from a face like that of a predatory bird.

“Gozon!” said Ballameer. His hand closed on the noubles.

“The same,” said the other man, drawing a black stick from beneath his smock and pointing it at Kaslo’s client.

“Ha!” said Ballameer. “I expected one of you would try your tricks. I am protected by Itzmeer’s Impenetrable Mesh.”

“No,” said Gozon, “you are not. If you’d studied more, you would have known that contact with a stygian nouble negates most green and blue spells, including the Itzmeer.”

Shocked, Ballameer opened his hand and the three spheres fell to the grit-covered tray. Now Gozon spoke some syllables that were foreign to Kaslo. A dark bubble appeared at the end of the black stick, expanded, then burst. As it disappeared, so did Slovan Ballameer.

The hawk-faced man turned to Kaslo, the wand still extended. “It would be best for you, attendant, if you mentioned this to no one. Besides, who would believe you?”

“I find it hard to believe, myself,” said Kaslo. Then he squeezed the object in his palm so that it emitted a high-speed projectile that, guided by his seeming chronometer, penetrated Gozon’s skull with immediate and devastating consequences for his neural tissues.

Kaslo stepped forward and caught the man as he fell. Then he lifted him and placed him on the tray, deftly scooping up the three noubles before lowering the body onto the ash. He retrieved the black wand from the floor then quickly looked through the dead man’s pockets. He found an identity disc and an empty pouch of old but supple leather that was just the right size for the three spheres.

He pushed the tray back into the immolator, closed the door, and touched the controls as he had seen Gozon do. The hum sounded briefly, then the light blinked to tell him that the process was completed.

Kaslo went back up the ramp and left the building by a side door. He summoned an air-car and had it take him to Ballameer’s townhouse, where his skills soon gained him entry. Behind a locked door, he found a room full of curious objects, including several ancient books. He boxed them all up and put them in the vehicle’s cargo compartment.

Then he went to the address on Asrat Gozon’s identity disc and found more items, some of them even stranger. He took them back to his lodgings and arranged them on his work table.

To his integrator he said, “Cancel all my appointments, accept no communications. We will be engaged full-time in research until further notice.”

“Very well,” the device said.

The op leafed through one of the crumbling old books. The script was unreadable, but the illustrations were compelling. “And then,” he said, “I just might undertake a change of profession.”

© 2013 by Matthew Hughes.

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Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes writes science-fantasy. His SF novels are: Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, Majestrum, The Commons, The Spiral Labyrinth, TemplateHespira, The Damned Busters, The Other, Costume Not Included, and Hell to Pay. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Postscripts, Storyteller, Interzone and a number of “Year’s Best” anthologies. Night Shade Books published his short story collection, The Gist Hunter and Other Stories. Formerly a journalist, he spent more than twenty-five years as a freelance speechwriter for Canadian corporate executives and political leaders. His works have been short-listed for the Aurora, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. His website is at matthewhughes.org.