The Infinite Matrix
 

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sleepy joe
 
by Marc Laidlaw
 
 
  illustration
 

The plan must have come to Rog fully formed that first morning, as he stepped off the elevator into the lobby of Szilliken Sharpenwright and saw the old soldier newly stationed there in his omnichair between the potted silk ferns and the coffee tables.

"Oh. My. God. I am in love."

Megan, her arms loaded with Rog-House props and paraphernalia she hadnít had time to ditch yet, said, "You say that an awful lot for someone who styles himself completely asexual. Not to mention atheistic."

"Thereís no conflict! Heís completely post-human!"

"Hm. You two even look a bit alike."

"Oh please donít say that. You flatter me." He stalked up to the omnichair, tugging at the collar of his black turtleneck, adjusting his thick black plastic spectacles. Crouching down before the chairís inhabitant, he put out a stick-thin finger, gingerly. "Can I touch him?"

Antoinette, the receptionist, said, "Heís not in yet, do you want his voicemail? Be my guest. I just wish heíd stop staring at me. Law offices."

Megan watched Rog examining the old soldier. They did look alike. Rog was completely hairless. He scrubbed his head with some kind of depilatory agent that had eradicated even his eyebrows. The old vet, in the omnichair which hummed and slurped and quietly took care of all his hidden functions, was similarly shorn, although in a military style. Unlike Rog, he had eyebrows like bristly fiberoptic filaments with a faint orange light playing through them. And where Rog blinked continually behind his thick lenses, the old vetís eyes were half-open, sleepy-lidded, and actual blinks came so infrequently that it would be days before Megan had a confirmed sighting. His face, in sharp contrast to Rogís utterly unblemished pallor, was dark, creased, chappedólike a weathered boulder sharpened by the elements, instead of worn away. But there was nothing sharp about the expression. The brain inside could have been a lump of dough, to judge by the drowsy eyes.

"Could you turn him to face the elevators?" Antoinette called across the lobby. "Gives me the creeps, him staring at me. And heís got some kind of smell. Law offices."

Megan didnít smell anything except perhaps a whiff of machine oil, which she supposed had something to do with the chair. But she took the handles of the chair and wheeled it around to face the elevator bank. On the back of the seat was a small embossed label: Property of Civilian Rehabilitation Foundation.

Rog stayed crouched before the chair, declaiming poetically under his breath, even as she shifted it. "Oh veteran of foreign wars unnamable, at least by me. Defender of this hoary law firmís priceless horde of Fortune Magazines and rented modern art. I welcome you. I honor and appreciate all that you have done at great personal sacrifice to keep this country safe for me and my community access cable show, the Rog-House. As seen each Tuesday at 2 a.m. I hope I can someday prove myself worthy to call you a fan, as I am of you."

"Rog," Megan said.

"Hush a moment, weíre communing."

"Rog, I need coffee."

"Elixir of Mammon."

She turned aside. "Whatever!" And halfway down the hall to her cubicle she looked back and saw him still gazing deep into the old vetís eyes. "Iíll drop this crap on your desk!" she said. He waved her off with a distracted hand.

At that moment, Mr. Szilliken himself arrived, striding from the elevators with the look of extreme distaste he reserved especially for Rog.

"Get away from my sentry!" he snapped.

Rog straightened up like an odd black heron on stilts, stumbling backward, barely catching himself. "Sorry, Mr. Szilliken."

"Show some respect and stay out of his face."

Megan rushed back. "Hey, Rog, you said you Accoíd that full set of exhibits last night? I need it for a rush filing. Good morning, Mr. Szilliken."

"Good morning, Miss Megan!" A smirky smile and a wink, saved especially for his favorite paralegals. She shuddered and knew it wouldnít register. "I suppose you noticed the latest addition to the firm?"

"We were just admiring him. I think itís great you volunteered for this."

"Well, there's a small fee involved, but itís not much to pay for his eternal vigilance. Iím a vet myself, you know."

"You mentioned. Come on, Rog. I already called a courier."

She stuffed her load of kitty-cat ears and pig snouts on elastic bands into Rogís arms, and hauled him away from Szilliken. She could feel the old name partner watching her ass all the way to the end of the corridor.

"Thanks for the rescue."

"You owe me a coffee."
"I owe you one anyway for keeping you up all night." He untangled a pigís snout from the supply in his arms, and cupped it over his nose.

"No, that I do gratis," she said. "Pro bono. For the Rog-House."

"Oh my God, Megan," he said suddenly, sounding more nasal than usual under the pink snout. "I just had an amazing idea."

"Thatís because youíve been awake for 24 hours straight."

"Iím going to put him on my show."

"Who…oh no. You canít do that, Rog. Itís completely crazy."

"All the more reason!"

"Rog…theyíll fire you. And worse."

"Youíll see."


Despite his protestations of post- or trans-humanity, Rog was a sloppy sentimentalist. Megan suspected he affected the robot thing for contrast. And although the old vet quickly slewed in status from waiting-room weirdo to office mascot, it was Rog who lavished actual affection on him, in the way of party hats and thrift-store scarves and doilies of only slightly yellowed lace for the arms of the omnichair. While an attendant from the Vets Administration came by twice a week (and hauled him away completely on weekends) to change the chair's canisters and replace various tubes, Rog was a constant ministering presence. He propped magazines in the vet's lap. He brought in CDs he thought the vet would appreciate and had Antoinette pipe them through the lobby. (Rog's tastes were just old fashioned enough that it seemed quite possible the vet might have listened to, and even loved, such strained melodies in his youth.) All this gave him a semblance of life, to which some reacted badly—particularly Mr. Szilliken, who found all Rog's attentions inappropriate.

"Roger!" Szilliken stepped out of the elevator, irritated to find Rog settling an embroidered sampler across the old soldier's knees. He gave a wink to Megan, then instantly shut it off and turned back to Rog. "Get away from him! I've talked to you before about tampering with my property. By the way, I'm going to need you here tonight, pulling exhibits for my hearing tomorrow in Landauer. Megan can give you more information. She'll be staying as well."

Megan stiffened. It was the first she had heard about it. The assignment was clearly intended as punishment for Rog, though it was not entirely out of character for Szilliken to drop all-nighters on Megan just as she was preparing to head home.

Rog flashed her a desperate look.

"But…but Mr. Szilliken, I'm supposed to tape my show tonight. I've booked time in the studio already, and—and I'm going to need Megan there as well. She's my right hand man."

"You know what I say to that," Szilliken growled. "If you can't handle the responsibility of a paralegal career, I suggest you go find yourself some form of employment that doesnít involve a framed certificate."

Downcast, Rog chewed his pocked cheek. "No, I…I'll stay and work with Megan."

"Really? Are you sure? Because you're welcome to go home any time you wish."

"It's no problem."

"You're sure about that?"

"I'm sure."

Szilliken glared at him, making his contempt quite plain. Rog's eyes flicked sideways to the old vet, and then away, as if he were embarrassed to be seen in such a light, humiliated by the lawyer. Rog was too well mannered or repressed to curse under his breath as Szilliken walked away, but the old lawyer glanced back once as if expecting to discover some treachery at his back.

"Sigh," said Rog, instead of actually sighing.

"Sorry, Rog. I didn't see that coming either. On the other hand, Landauer is a class action suit. We can order cordon bleu, eat like pigs, and put it on the public's tab."

"Oink," he said dispiritedly.


Shortly after 8:30, just as they were digging through piles of documents and Rog was clipping sections of the Supreme Court Reporter for copying, Szilliken waltzed through the lobby and gave Megan a jaunty farewell. "See you bright and early!" And to Rog: "No sneaking in at eight fifteen." He tapped the old vet on the shoulder as he waited for the elevator. "Keep an eye on 'em for me, Joe."

Ding!

The elevator opened and closed, carrying off Szilliken.

"The nerve," Megan said.

"What do you mean?" Rog said excitedly, shoving the law books aside. "I thought he'd never leave!"

"So we're stuck here all night doing his damn work…that doesn't bother you?"

"Not tonight it doesn't, because as soon as a suitable period of mourning has passed, we're getting out of here."

"What? Where?"

"The studio, doll. Where else?"

"No way, Rog. That's suicide."

"Then it's going to be a double suicide, lovey. Because I've got big plans for this one, and I can't do it without you."

"Not."

"I'm afraid so."

"There are forty-two parties to serve in this case. I'm going to be up half the night just stuffing envelopes!"

"Those can go out in the afternoon mail; we just need enough to send Szilliken off to court. We can do the show and get back here in time, and you know it."

"No way. No way, no way, no way."

"And not only that, but the old soldier's coming with us."

"You can't do that. He's here to protect the firm—night and day. What if, what if something happens while he's out? He's government property! You know what'll happen to us?"

"Nothing will happen except…we'll put together the best damn episode of the Rog-House the world has ever seen!"

Half an hour later, they were wheeling the old vet out to a waiting cab. The driver had apparently seen more than one omnichair in his day, because he handily undid the tubes and belts and clasps and Velcro fastenings, collapsed the chair with a liquid sound, and stuffed it into the trunk. Megan meanwhile manhandled the old vet onto the back seat, finding him light as a moth. She and Rog sat on either side of him, propping him up between them.

"So," said the driver when they'd given directions, "I see you got yourself a Sleepy Joe."

"He's in rehab," said Rog.

"I've been seeing them all over lately. Must be quite a backlog at the VA hospital. They're getting more popular at banks and grocery stores. Saw one at Gas and Electric the other day when I was paying my bill. They must come cheap."

"Well, our friend here is rather special. I'd go so far as to say he's unique. And we're planning to make a star out of him."

"A star? Oh really."

"I'm the host of the Rog-House. Perhaps you didn't recognize me without my platinum wig."

"Contrary to popular preconception, all cabbies don't live to watch porno. I was just noticing that the fella you've got there seems wound pretty tight."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, he was a sentry wasn't he? They shipped these guys off to some godforsaken hole, right? I mean, literally. Stuck them in a foxhole or a cave and then just kept them waiting there, wound up like an alarm clock, in hibernation basically, until some thing, whatever they're primed for, set them off. You know, enemy movement…political target goin' down the road…"

"Fascinating," Rog said. "Did you know that, Megan?"

Megan looked more closely at the old vet's craggy features. He jiggled as the cab jostled along, with the liquid reflections running over his unblinking eyes.

"No, I didn't," she said.

"Sure!" The cabby had inside knowledge. "They'd drop a Sleeper into some locale where they expected trouble someday…but no time soon. Where they needed Johnny on the spot and wanted to be sure and have someone on the inside extra early, to be ready for anything. Used a combination of drugs, wiring, whatever…kept them waiting indefinitely for the trigger. Some of these guys, I heard a lot about it on talk radio, they'd go into trances so deep it's like time just came to a stop. And for lots of them, the action'd go by, right? The gov would extract them, maybe snap them out of it, maybe not. So in this guy's case, and a lot of the other Sleepers, he never did snap. I mean, look at him. Doesn't look like he ever snapped a pretzel. Heís still wound up. A lot of 'em, personally, I think they just burned out and they'll never come out of it. This rehab thing is just for P.R. Supposed to make people feel good about the whole effort. But you'll notice they stopped the program."

"In other words, they don't make them like this anymore," said Rog with a touch of sniffy pride.

"Good thing, too. There's probably more on the streets than in the banks. Hey, I'm a vet myself. I know how easy it is to get steamrollered if you're not right in their face asking for what's yours. Hell of an honorable discharge. They probably think if they give these guys a chair, they've done their duty by 'em. Cut 'em loose. Is it somewhere around here? Man, this neighborhood sucks. Don't expect me to wait for you."

"The studio's right here. And we're perfectly safe."

Megan never felt safe until they were actually inside the studio. She stood on the slimy curb hugging herself while Rog opened up his wallet and thumbed through his cash, counting bills by the flickering light of a streetlamp on the edge of failure. The district was dark and empty. There was no obvious threat except maybe that of tetanus. But as always, she had the sense of someone watching from the shadows, bleary eyes waiting for them to make a false move.

The driver pulled the chair out of the trunk and they fit the old vet into it. She hurried toward the door of the warehouse, urging Rog to unlock it before the cab pulled away.

 

[ Part 1 ]    [ Part 2 ]


Marc Laidlaw is the critically acclaimed author of six novels of science fiction and horror, each one stranger and more horrific than the last, and of many short stories, one of which, To Lie Between the Loins of Perky Pat, is available online. He lives with his family near Seattle, and works as a writer and game designer for Valve Software, where he was involved in developing their award-winning game "Half-Life." His work has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and the World Fantasy Award, and his novel The 37th Mandala was awarded Best Novel of 1996 by the International Horror Guild.

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