The Infinite Matrix
 

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sleepy joe
 
by Marc Laidlaw
 

part 2

  illustration
 

Inside, they passed through yet another locked door and into a cavernous room where quilted pads, and in some cases simple white sheets, hung from the walls. There was a row of rickety aluminum bleachers for any audience that might have been in attendance. Rog had been known to rope in a few other paralegals when his a capella group gave a performance, but usually it was just Rog and Megan and whatever guest they had managed to snare.

The first time Rog brought her to "the studio," Megan had expected banks of monitors, busy technicians, a full-time staff. The reality was quite different. It was a shoestring operation, designed to be run single-handedly if necessary. Plenty of cable access programs were solitary endeavors, one person reading poetry or ranting about conspiracies before a fixed camera. There was a single camera, a computer with some basic editing software installed, and several monitors which Rog had to position so that he could see himself at all times. The edges of the room were piled with boxes full of crummy styrofoam props.

Rog switched on the few spotlights, then pulled a fat sofa chair into the brightest spot. Meganís somewhat smaller chair, more patched with duct tape, went to Rogís left. The old vet was granted the place of honor at Rogís right hand.

While Rog set up the camera, and pulled his silvery Warhol wig into place, Megan paced nervously in front of the chairs.

"What are we going to do with him, Rog?"

"I was planning a Veteranís Day special. Itíd be good to have that in the bank."

"But…what if someone recognizes him? I know itís unlikely anyone will ever see this, but…just in case…"

"Never fear." Rog produced several of the essential props he always carried with him. Cat ears and pig snouts, on elastic bands.

To the vet he said, "Weíd be honored, honestly, if you would join us. I hope you donít mind."

He slipped the snout onto the vetís knife-sharp nose and stood back to admire his handwork. "Magnifique!" he said, pronouncing the "g."

Megan laughed behind her hand. Somehow it broke her sense of growing anxiety. They were doing the show; they were really doing it. This was going to be cool.

She took her own pig nose from Rog and put it on; and then the cat ears which she alone wore.

"Solidairnosh!" Rog proclaimed.

"God, Rog…just imagine what Szilliken would say!"

"Of all the people we donít have to worry about watching the show. Places, everyone!"

Giddy, Megan took her seat. Rog made his last adjustments to camera, computer and wig, then came over and dropped into his overstuffed chair. Megan looked up to see the three of them on the monitor. They were well framed. It would have been nice to have an operator tonight, but these last minute programs never allowed for frills, apart from whatever Rog would add in the editor after the basic show was shot.

"Hello," Rog said, primly folding his hands in his lap, addressing the camera. "And welcome once again to the Rog-House. Iím Rog, and this is my inseparable co-host, Miss Megan, and we would like to welcome a very special guest…direct from Civilian Rehabilitation…please extend a hearty howdy-do to our very own Sleepy Joe! Um…Miss Megan? Is that your cell-phone?"

Megan heard the muted chirping coming from out beyond the lights. She jumped out of her seat and grabbed her purse where sheíd set it on a bleacher.

Still within the cameraís eye, Rog continued with his duties: "I canít imagine who would be calling Miss Megan at this critical juncture, but letís listen in, shall we? Miss Megan, be sure to speak up so we can all enjoy your conversation!"

Megan waved him to silence. "Hello?"

A grim voice squawked at her. "Megan? Where the hell are you? I tried reception and the conference room phone."

"Oh, Mr.—Mr. Szillikin! Uh, we had to go downstairs for some folders…" She turned and faced Rog and made desperate, eye-bulging, throat-cutting, fish-out-of-water gestures at him. Rog went white. Whiter. "…wh-where are you?"

"Iím at home, but Iím heading back to the office. I just realized I left a whole load of horseshit on my desk that I need to get ready for tomorrow. I want you to get it organized for me before I get there…make a copy of everything. Are you taking this down?"

"Just a sec…I need to get a pen…"

Szilliken started unreeling instructions she could barely pretend to follow.

Rog was moaning. "Oh god oh god…"

"Give me…give me an hour and Iíll have everything ready," she promised.

"Make sure Rog helps you. Iíll get there as soon as I can."

"Okay…see you…"

She stuffed the phone in her purse. "We have to get back. Now. Get ready, Iím calling a cab."

Rog hurried about shutting off lights and powering down the computer. Megan waited on hold at the cab dispatch number, and finally got a human on the other end.

"We can have someone to you in forty five minutes," she heard.

"Forty five? But we were just dropped off here ten minutes ago! Canít we get the same guy back?"

Rog was already pushing the vet out the door. "Weíll flag someone down," he called. "Hurry, Megan!"

"Yeah, hurry," she said, stuffing the phone back into her purse. "As if I need you to tell me that."

Outside, Rog was rushing over the sidewalk like a kid racing a shopping cart down the aisle of a grocery store. "Wait up!" He idled unhappily until she caught up. "Where are you going?" she asked.

She had thought the main street was dark. Rog pointed down an even darker one. "Thereís a busy street about three blocks from here…plenty of traffic. Weíll have to cut through here to save time."

"Iím not going in there."

"You want to lose your job?" And he started off without waiting any longer.

She caught her breath and plunged after him. I shouldnít be afraid, she told herself. Thereís no one here. Who would haunt such a derelict district? Bums? Youíd have to wait forever for a handout. Even muggers would find victims hard to come by.

Halfway down the block, she slammed into Rog, knocking his scintillant wig right off his head into the dark. He had come to a hard stop. Just ahead, as she strained her eyes trying to penetrate the gloom, she saw a few…shapes. Seated and waiting. Something about them was familiar. Seated figures, men in the dark. They were sitting very still. Then they started to rise.

The chairs. She knew those chairs. Omnichairs.

She couldnít tell who was making the sound that came next. It seemed to be coming from the figures in front of them and from the old vet, at the same time. It was a low horrible growl that slowly grew louder and more shrill.

"Help!" Rog screamed. "Help us, somebody!"

Theyíd been ambushed. There would be no rescue. The whining, wailing sound suddenly exploded as Megan and Rog both screamed.

The old vet, at that instant, burst out of his omnichair. He was a blur in the shadows, but a blur of motion. The snarling was his. The others converged on him, drawn together into a solid clot of darkness. Meganís stomach turned at the sounds of rending, the muffled shrieks and animal noises.

"Rog, come on!" She grabbed him by the hand, already running, past the commotion, down the dark street, toward the promise of traffic noises somewhere ahead. Seconds later, as they reached the first functional streetlight, Rog actually passed her. He was still pushing the chair.

"Get in!" he said.

"No way."

"Megan, itíll look weird if Iím pushing an empty chair, people will remember. We need to get back without…without drawing attention. Forget about the cab."

"Whatís happening back there, Rog?"

"I donít know and I donít want to know. Now get in the chair."

He didnít slow down for her. She had to drop into the seat while he was running. The chair sloshed as she sank into it, but there were hard things in the gelatinous pads, things that shifted as she moved and then reasserted themselves. She didnít want to think about what the chair must do to take care of the old vet, day in, day out. They turned a corner and she saw a steady stream of cars, a block ahead. But Rog didnít go that way. He kept on the parallel street, which was darker and depopulated and would eventually get them back to the offices of Szilliken Sharpenwright.

Megan closed her eyes, trying to decide if there was anything else she ought to be doing to save her own neck. But her thoughts were scattered all over. Those omnichairs back in the alley. More old soldiers? Sleepers? Did they wait there, drowsing in the cold and dark, like dormant ticks waiting for blood-warmth to draw near?

Something groped her from beneath.

"Jesus!" she cried.

"Stop moving!" He pushed down on her shoulder as tubes pressed up between her legs like intelligent, insistent catheters, trying to find their way in.

"No! Itís this chair! Itís…doing something to me…"

"Megan, sit still."

"God damn it, no!" She gave up trying to fight off the chairís advances, and jumped out completely.

Rog came to a stop. "What?" he said.

"You sit in it. Let me push."

Sigh. "Donít complain when youíre the one with sore feet."

Rog dropped into the chair. His eyes widened. Then he shrieked and leapt back to his feet.

"You see? I'd rather have sore feet than…"

"Never mind! I'll push."

He took the chair handles again and didnít say another word about anyone riding.

They ran through the night, toward the office towers. Megan tried not to think about the fact that Mr. Szilliken was bent on the same destination.

After awhile she realized that Rog was muttering something under his breath.

"Whatís that?"

"He…he saved me, Megan. He gave his life for me."

"He doesnít even know you exist, Rog."

"Yes he does. He knows me. He…he wouldnít have done that otherwise. Sacrificed himself like that."

"He just snapped because heís programmed for it…it was something he knew. You heard the cabbie. He was all wound up."

"It was more than that, Megan. He did it for me. Maybe for us. Iím sure of it. Sleepy Joe cares for us."

"Youíre slowing down," she said.


As they approached the building, reality snapped into sharper focus, and she began to worry about their immediate situation. On the outside chance that they might beat Szilliken to the office, they had to get their story straight.

"We…we have the chair," Rog said. "Weíll just put it back by the elevators and say, say, we were working away, we—"

"—we went downstairs, thatís what I told him," Megan finished. "We went downstairs for some exhibit folders, and when we came up he was gone."

"Thatís good, thatís fine. Exhibit folders. And we didnít call because…"

"Well, we freaked. Weíve been looking for him."

"Freaked! Thatís good. We can definitely pull that off."

They rushed through the deserted street-level plaza beneath the building, boarded the elevator, and tried to catch their breath as the car rose 40 floors. Meganís ears popped repeatedly.

Ding!

The doors opened.

She had prepared herself to find Mr. Szilliken waiting for them with a look of certain doom on his battleship grey face. But he wasnít there, and for a moment she felt herself overcome by relief. The conference room was empty, the tables still piled with their unfinished tasks.

Then relief was replaced by shock.

There was someone in the waiting room, seated on the couch.

The old soldier had beat them to the office. Heíd come home by some shorter route and resumed his sentry post at the elevator bank. He sat there with the same sleepy-lidded face he always wore. Eyes like raisins, face a lump of dough. Just as before. Except…

Now he was naked. A few tatters of his old clothes clung to his collarbone, fastened around his throat by the one remaining button. His pale, mole-ridden body was covered with colorless hair, streaked with grimy welts, blood smears and dark scabs. A huge gash ran like a gaping skull suture across his shaved scalp. Worst of all, his arms were glistening red all the way up past the elbows, and a butcher shop reek rose from the gore-clotted sofa cushion.

"Oh my god," Rog said quietly. "I…I donít believe it. Weíre saved!"

He pushed the omnichair forward, and Megan, still speechless, joined him at the couch. Rog started to pull the vet up from the cushions.

"Give me a hand, letís get him back in his chair."

"Are you crazy? We have to get him cleaned up…and dressed! Where the hell are we going to find clothes for him? And look at these cushions! What are we going to do about…"

Ding!

"We are so…dead," Megan whispered. That was the only sound for a moment.

She turned around slowly.

Mr. Szilliken stood there with his briefcase dangling. It slid to the floor after a moment, but the lawyer didnít move; his finger remained crooked on nothing. His eyes went to the conference room table, taking in pile upon pile of unfinished work. Then they fixed on the old soldier. Ignoring the blood, ignoring the scarred naked frame, he seized upon the most outrageous detail: The rubber pig snout still clinging to the dreamy face. It must have been the simplest part of the scene to comprehend.

Szilliken crossed the lobby in three strides and snatched the snout from the sentryís cheeks. The band snapped with a twang.

The lawyer spun toward Rog, waving the snout in his face.

"You!" he screamed. "How dare you abuse my property!"

"He's not property," Rog said quietly.

"Shut up! You'll be lucky if I don't kill you!"

"Please donít say that," Megan said.

"Do you hear me, Roger?"

But Roger didnít answer. He couldnít.

Behind Szilliken, the old vet was rising, straightening from the couch, shuffling forward slowly with a look of devotion in his warming eyes. When he spoke, his voice was creaky with disuse, like an ancient engine turning over, shedding flakes of rust.

"Donít worry, kids," he fondly croaked. "Let me take care of this."

 

[ 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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