Denver—the year 2319
Jacob strode into the Denver Science Institute’s lobby, dripping dirty snow all over the polished granite floor as he approached the desk. His new boots—courtesy of a government-funded shopping trip—rang on the stone. The receptionist behind her shiny wooden desk looked at him with some alarm. He probably didn’t resemble the usual visitors they got here. He reached the desk, slid the backpack he carried on one shoulder to the floor, and pulled his wool cap off his head. His hair crackled with static when he scrubbed a hand through it to fluff it back out.
“Garcia,” he said. “Here for a Dr. Mistry.”
She stared at him. A look he’d seen many times. Yes, I’m him. Close your mouth.
“Of course, sir,” she said, recovering. “Please take a seat, and I’ll inform Dr. Mistry you’ve arrived. Here’s your visitor ID.” She handed him over a pass already printed with his name and picture. When he touched it, the word ACTIVATED appeared on its surface as it matched his biodata to their records.
He took one of the leather chairs near the desk, tossing his bag down beside it. He stripped off his bulky new coat and threw it, and his hat, gloves, and scarf, onto the chair next to him. There was a low table in front of him, and he considered putting his feet up on it, but that would be overacting. Instead he crossed one leg over the other, ankle balanced on his knee, and assessed the lobby.
He was all too familiar with the lobbies of scientific institutes. On a scale of one to ten, he’d put this at an eight. He’d been in better. He’d been in a lot worse. A lavish lobby usually boded well for the equipment inside. This place would have good equipment, if not quite cutting edge, he guessed.
A few people came and went as he waited, some giving him curious glances. He waited for at least ten minutes, which he didn’t like. This Mistry guy was supposed to be desperate to get hold of him and then kept him waiting like this? Jacob’s time was not infinite. It was a lot more finite than almost everyone else’s.
Purely to freak out the receptionist and anyone else passing, he leaned back in the seat, arms folded loosely across his stomach, and closed his eyes. Let them think he was taking a nap. He didn’t open them when he heard low voices, then the sound of footsteps.
Jacob opened his eyes to see a man standing over him. A young guy, a couple of years younger than himself, maybe twenty-six. Dark-skinned and handsome, Indian or something, with glossy black hair cascading in waves around his forehead. He smiled nervously as Jacob rose. He was skinnier than Jacob, but as tall as him. Rangy, with broad shoulders.
He wore a short lab jacket over his clothes. Was he a research assistant for Mistry? If so, this study might be more fun than Jacob had anticipated. At least visually. He couldn’t help a grin and hoped it wasn’t too hungry looking.
The young man offered a hand. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” Accent wasn’t foreign, so he wasn’t some grad student on an exchange. Sounded West Coast. “I’m Dr. Akshay Mistry. Welcome to the institute, Mr. Garcia.”
Jacob shook the hand, staring in shock. This was Mistry? He hadn’t expected anyone so young to be leading a high-priority and well-funded study. With Jacob such a rare resource, usually only senior scientists with a lot of clout managed to secure his time. How had this stripling pulled it off? Maybe he had friends in high places.
“If you’d like to follow me,” Mistry said, the greetings over. “Oh, can I carry something for you?”
“It’s fine,” Jacob said as he gathered his things. He stuffed his hat and gloves and scarf into his backpack, making sure Mistry saw the picture painted on the clip-down flap. He slung the bag on his shoulder. He didn’t protest when Mistry took his coat. The guy looked happy to have something to do with his hands. They went through the security gates, the receptionist’s gaze on Jacob again as they passed her.
“Have you come far?” Mistry asked as they waited for an elevator.
“Oh, ah, yes, I know you’ve had to move temporarily. I hope it’s not too inconvenient for you.”
“Pretty inconvenient, yeah.”
“Sorry.” He looked genuinely regretful, a bit embarrassed. “I meant today, though. From where you’re staying in the city.”
“I caught a bus.” The elevator arrived, and they boarded. It headed down. “Took about an hour.”
“Oh dear. They should have arranged for you to live somewhere closer.”
“Back when I was a kid I used to live at whatever institute was studying me at the time.”
“I’m sorry. That can’t have been easy.”
Jacob shrugged. He hadn’t known any different. He’d assumed it was normal. He’d learned later that no part of his life from the day he’d been born could be called normal. He wasn’t normal. Part of him hated coming to a place like this, and part of him felt like he was coming home.
He didn’t invite further conversation. Mistry might be cute, but he was just another scientist who was more interested in Jacob’s brainwaves than in anything he said. When the elevator arrived five floors down, he clumped along at Mistry’s side, walking heavier than usual, trying to be as unwelcoming as possible. Mistry fell into an awkward silence.
They reached the underground lab, which lay behind a security door. It was a suite of rooms. A changing room with a shower, which looked newly installed. A bathroom, an office, a break room stocked with snacks and drinks and a table to eat at. They weren’t expected to leave often. Beyond all of them, the lab itself. A large, shadowy, low-ceilinged room full of monitoring equipment and a desk with a bank of screens. An exam-style bed stood over to one side. A familiar setup to Jacob.
“I’ll hang up your coat,” Mistry said, taking him into the changing room. “And if you want to get out of your boots, there are some slippers in the wardrobe.”
Jacob gave him a look. “Do I look like a man who wears bedroom slippers?”
He’d take off the boots, though. They were making his legs tired. Damn things weighed a ton. He had to admit he’d picked out the biggest, toughest-looking fuck-off boots he could find in the store. He hadn’t wanted to come to Denver in the first place, and he was damned if his feet were going to be cold.
“Come on through to the lab when you’re ready,” Mistry told him. “Today I’m going to examine you and get baseline readings. I’ll have lots of questions, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, you people always do.” He sat on a chair and started to take his boots off. Mistry hesitated a moment, then went on through to the lab, leaving Jacob alone.
Jacob took off the boots and his socks, stuffed them in the tops of the boots, and shoved those under the chair. He stood up and stripped off the chunky sweater he wore and the flannel shirt under it—layers were the key to staying warm—leaving him wearing a close-fitting long-sleeved shirt. Shame he couldn’t take his heavy denim pants off too, but that would have to wait until next time. He quite looked forward to seeing Mistry’s reaction to him in his underwear. The man seemed easily discombobulated. Jacob was intrigued to know if that was purely due to Jacob’s attitude. Or did the sight of Jacob fluster Mistry for the same reason the sight of him had mildly flustered Jacob?
He stood in front of the mirror and tried to tame his hair. Too coarse to lie flat or to shine like Mistry’s glossy waves and curls, but at least it was good and thick, not receding, and had only a couple of grays showing in the dark brown. He grinned to check his teeth and adjusted his belt, letting his pants hang lower on his hips. Okay, let’s do this thing, Lab Rat.
He walked into the lab, Mistry looking up from the monitoring desk when he heard the door open. His eyes widened, and Jacob restrained a smirk. Oh yeah. The boy wanted him bad and not for his study. Jacob could have a little fun playing with him. He prowled over on his bare feet, toward Mistry initially, but then heading past him to the bed in the middle of the room.
A bed for the only man in the country who needed one—barring sick people in hospitals. There were currently fewer than a hundred known sleepers in the world. It had been that way for almost two hundred years, since what had become known as the “Mutation Event” happened in the early twenty-second century. Suddenly, with no warning, almost every baby born on the planet didn’t sleep. A hundred investigations had not determined the cause of this mutation. Theories abounded. Radiation. Contamination of the air. Terrorism. Government conspiracy. Supernatural causes. Nobody knew for certain. They only knew the result—soon almost all of humanity no longer slept. Society had adapted. Had, in the end, embraced it. The world worked and played for twenty-four hours a day. Economic productivity rocketed. The world could work hard enough and long enough to support its ever-growing population.
Only a tiny number of people on the planet still slept, some the latest generation of families of sleepers. Others born with two copies of a recessive gene. They were considered freaks and genetic throwbacks. One of them, the only surviving member of a family line of sleepers, was Jacob Garcia. The last known sleeper in America.
Jacob dropped onto the king-size bed, and the springs pushed him back up pretty hard. Hotel-room bed. Firm and able to withstand what everyone else hired a hotel room with a bed for. The springs didn’t squeak when he bounced a couple of times experimentally. A man could have a lot of fun on a bed like this. Sadly, it was only here for Jacob to sleep on. But Mistry was looking at him as if he’d like to join him on it and test those springs. Jacob grinned at him, sitting up, supporting himself on his arms, hands flat on the bed.
“Checking it’s comfortable.”
“Is it? I mean, is it okay for you?”
“A bit firm, but it will do.” He rolled off and came to his feet, getting rid of the grin. This was not supposed to be fun, dammit. He came over and stood beside Mistry at the desk. A little too close, which must have made Mistry feel intimidated, as he pushed his chair back to give himself some space.
“Let’s get on with this,” Jacob said. “I’d like to get out of here as soon as I can. I’ve got things to do.” A lie—he’d barely arrived in Denver. He still had to unpack. Though he might go and check out the bars later. Or anywhere warm, because his apartment was damn cold. This whole place was. He’d like to go find someone to generate some heat with. Friction generated lots of heat.
“Right. Please, we don’t have to be so formal.” He smiled nervously. “You can call me Shay. May I call you Jacob?”
Shay? The guy’s name full name was Akshay, so he wasn’t only granting Jacob permission to use his given name, but his nickname. Did Jacob want to be so informal? He hadn’t come here to make friends. In fact he should avoid becoming too friendly with the guy, because of what he’d have to do later. Jacob already felt bad about that. Not point in making it worse by becoming fond of Mistry. On the other hand, he didn’t want to piss him off entirely. They had to work together for eight weeks.
“Yeah, call me Jacob.”
“Let me show you around the lab,” Shay said, rising. He frowned down at Jacob’s bare toes. “Are you sure your feet aren’t too cold?”
“They’re fine.” They were pretty chilly, but he wouldn’t admit it and go put on the damn slippers.
Shay took him around the lab, showing him the various bits of equipment, explaining their functions. He was clearly proud of the setup. Jacob almost hated to puncture his balloon. The equipment was fine, but, as he’d expected, not cutting edge. Adequate to the task. No more.
“They’ve got the five-hundred-ten model at CalBio,” Jacob said about a brainwave scanner. “Only six months old.”
“Ah, yes,” Shay said. “I read. They’re doing some good work there.”
Jacob shrugged. “Nothing innovative for a while, though. Not on sleep anyway.”
“It’s a niche subject,” Shay said.
Jacob flashed him a scowl. “Yeah, for those who want to study a freak of nature.”
“I…” The snap in the words silenced Shay for a second. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”
Jacob shrugged. “Whatever you meant, it’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Look, I’m familiar with all this crap.” He waved his hand at the lab equipment. “Have been since I was three years old. Let’s get on with the examination you talked about.”
It was a slight disappointment for Jacob that Shay didn’t do the examination himself. A woman doctor showed up and did a thorough medical scan of Jacob. All the usual tests, including a blood sample—which was as much fun as ever. Shay hovered as she worked. When she left, Jacob sat up on the exam table and pulled his shirt back on.
“You’re not a medical doctor, then?” Jacob asked.
“I’ve got a PhD in neurophysiology,” Shay said. “I did the research-focused med school course, not the medical practice-based one.”
Fast-tracked into research, Jacob thought. Picked out early on. Yet his main interest lay in something as obscure as sleep. Maybe that was why he didn’t seem to have a team working on this with him. Most of the scientists Jacob had been studied by measured their importance by the size of their entourage of research assistants and grad students all waiting to do their bidding.
“Is it going to be just you and me?” Jacob asked.
“Most of the time,” Shay said. “There’s not a lot to do beyond monitoring the data and setting up the experiments.”
“What kind of experiments?”
“Various triggers to induce or delay sleep. It’s that instant the brain can be said to enter the sleep state I’m most interested in. Have you read the proposal? If there’s anything you don’t understand about it, I can explain.”
“I’ve been at the center of these studies since you were balancing building blocks on top of each other, Doc,” Jacob said. “I’ve picked up the jargon, okay?”
“Of course, sorry.”
Then Jacob felt like an idiot for acting like he had twenty years on Shay instead of two.
“Are we done?” Jacob asked. His feet were freezing. He wanted to get his boots back on.
“Yes. That’s all I need today. Can you please be back here tomorrow at 18:00?”
Jacob grimaced. “That’s a little early for my bedtime.”
“I know. It’s only for the first night. So I can calibrate the instruments and you can get used to sleeping in the lab.”
Jacob had been sleeping in labs on and off since he was three. It was often easier than going to sleep in a normal room for him.
“Since I’m asking you to be here early, the institute will provide a meal for you.”
A free dinner, huh? He was all over that. He wondered if Shay knew how hard up he was, living mostly on government disability benefits. He played it cool.
“Okay, that’s fine,” he said. “Do I get breakfast too?”
“Yes. I’ve arranged it.”
“Then can I go?”
He left, catching the bus from outside the institute. As he squeezed among the crowds, he already missed the quiet of Shay’s lab. It might be underground and have a ceiling he could stretch up and touch, but it had a lot of floor space and felt so empty with only him and Shay in it. He almost began to look forward to the chance to retreat to it every night, away from the crowded city and his cramped apartment.
He didn’t go check out the bars. He went home, put on his white-noise generator to cut out the sounds of life around him, stripped naked, lay on his big bed alone, and closed his eyes. In his dreams, he stroked glossy black hair and watched dark hands on his skin, felt a soft mouth on his.
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