There are two kinds of sleep.
The first brother was in a high-profile slumber, watched by millions as he muttered through the ages. He had an army of attendants who washed and dressed him, but they never took a razor to the old man. By his instructions they bound his hair and beard, one thick brass hoop every few feet, a great white rope that tangled across the floor and lay in great coils.
His many visitors trod over the hair with great reverence, sitting around him on stools and pillows with transcriptors running, others writing down every mumbled word. There was a far-glass here, attended by ibis-faced Thothites and transmitting the sleeper’s utterances across the Two Kingdoms, to slave and priest alike. This dreamer was one of the most revered, and those who could afford it preferred to visit in the flesh.
Every now and then he would sit bolt upright in his cot, not truly awake. He would speak, eyes rolled back in his head and drawling with a graveyard tone, offering ambiguous vagaries to all the little questions. He never had the true answers, but gave something close enough, whatever he could glean from the greater unconscious mind.
Fortunes were made, to be spent in some future world when the sleeper awoke. That was the true cause of the first brother.
The second kind of sleep was less glamorous. Those who did not plan to profit from it wanted to drift in a never-ending dream, interrupted only by the world’s end. One such was a brother to the first, and he viewed the celebrity dreamer with disdain, refusing all recent communications.
You are a dilettante, he’d whispered along the shivering ghost of a line that connected them. A dream of two centuries is but one toe into the deepest pond. Do you really want to be dust like the rest of them?
The theory was that nothing could wake the sleepers. He could turn his back on the world, shuck the greedy niggle of the day-to-day. He would consume nothing, drain no resource, require nothing but the peace of endless sleep.
There were others in there, in the greater shared dream-space. The people of his time, adrift in a fleshless collective, philosophising and adapting their circumstances as they saw fit.They shared that space with things beyond reckoning, lurking shapes that did nothing but watch the trapped minds sputter and oh-so-slowly die. These watchers might have been the gods, or perhaps they were something far worse. Other hidden things crawled across the almost invisible strings connecting the dreamers to life, plucking at them in an almost playful manner, slowly worrying at the cords when no-one was paying attention.
Few were game to raid the house-tombs but there was great interest in the culture, in antiques and curios that could be lifted and fenced for a small fortune. Worth risking the jaws of the Anubites, worth waking the unwakeable.
Their handlights flickered through the rotten wooden door, prying open the panel, made a bit more noise than they should. After a long moment they relaxed. The Anubites hadn’t heard them.
Everywhere they looked, they saw treasure and loot. A rotting settee, worth more than a year’s honest labour. A collection of music discs, shelves full of mouldering books.
They lined the hallway with chairs, to slow any pursuit from the bedrooms, unlikely as this seemed. The looting began in earnest, and only ended when they heard the bumping of chairs and a low moan in the corridor, the shuffle of ancient feet.
The second brother was woken by a clamour, wrenched from the world of dream and returned to his frame of withered meat and bone. Someone was in his house. Atrophied muscles disobeyed him, but he managed to throw back the rotten, sour sheets. Great webs wreathed his fragile body, and the movement disturbed an entire family of spiders, which ran over the sides of the bed and across the floor.
He got to his feet, covered in two hundred years of filth, matted hair covering his body like a shroud. Took one painful step, then another.
He heard the intruders running, swearing, tipping things over to slow him down. This vandalism made him very angry. Pushing past the chairs and wreckage the second brother followed the thieves out into the streets, wandered confused under the marvellous dome that blocked out the sun. When the men with dog-faces gently collected him and moved him back into the house and to his bedroom, he protested weakly.
None of them had ever woken up before. The dog-men quickly debated the ethics in their silent manner, but their instructions were quite clear. The Anubites brought out a needle, and guiding it into his withered veins they gave the woken man a third kind of sleep, the permanent kind.
All of the sleepers knew when the dreamer fell back into the dream-space, spirit line severed and flapping around him like a torn umbilical cord. He fell through their drifting ranks, tangling up on the lines of others, flailing helplessly.
Then they came for him, those pluckers of strings, a howling horde of twisted monstrosities. Beast shapes from the Book of the Dead, leaping to claim one who’d dangled over the underworld for far too long, dragging him down into the deepest parts of that silent place.
There had never been a land of dream, nothing but death itself, and threads of cotton to keep them from falling into the kingdom of Anubis.
The first brother woke up, screaming, as did all of the sleepers, far too many for the Anubites to confront. A crowd of walking corpses left the district of house-tombs, thousands upon thousands of the woken. They took their wailing confusion out of the enormous dome, came out into the sunlight.
Jason Fischer attended the Clarion South writers workshop in 2007, and has been shortlisted in the Ditmar Awards and the Australian Shadows Awards. He won the 2009 AHWA Short Story and the 2010 AHWA Flash Fiction Competitions, and is a recent Winner of the Writers of the Future contest. Jason has stories in Dreaming Again, Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Aurealis Magazine. His zombie-apocalypse novella “After The World: Gravesend” is available from Black House Comics.