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 hadn’t had time to ditch yet, said, “You say that an awful lot for someone who styles himself completely asexual. Not to mention atheistic.”
“There’s no conflict! He’s completely post-human!”
“Hm. You two even look a bit alike.”
“Oh please don’t 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 chair’s inhabitant, he put out a stick-thin finger, gingerly. “Can I touch him?”
Antoinette, the receptionist, said, “He’s not in yet, do you want his voicemail? Be my guest. I just wish he’d 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 vet’s 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 Rog’s utterly unblemished pallor, was dark, creased, chapped—like 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 he’s got some kind of smell. Law offices.”
Megan didn’t 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 unnameable, at least by me. Defender of this hoary law firm’s 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, we’re 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 vet’s eyes. “I’ll 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 Acco’d 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 wouldn’t register. “I suppose you noticed the latest addition to the firm?”
“We were just admiring him. I think it’s great you volunteered for this.”
“Well, there’s a small fee involved, but it’s not much to pay for his eternal vigilance. I’m 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 Rog’s 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 pig’s 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.”
“That’s because you’ve been awake for 24 hours straight.”
“I’m going to put him on my show.”
“Who…oh no. You can’t do that, Rog. It’s completely crazy.”
“All the more reason!”
“Rog…they’ll fire you. And worse.”
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 doesn’t 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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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. He’s 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.
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. Megan’s somewhat smaller chair, more patched with duct tape, went to Rog’s left. The old vet was granted the place of honor at Rog’s 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 Veteran’s Day special. It’d be good to have that in the bank.”
“But…what if someone recognizes him? I know it’s 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, “We’d be honored, honestly, if you would join us. I hope you don’t mind.”
He slipped the snout onto the vet’s 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 don’t 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. I’m 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 she’d set it on a bleacher.
Still within the camera’s eye, Rog continued with his duties: “I can’t imagine who would be calling Miss Megan at this critical juncture, but let’s 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?”
“I’m at home, but I’m 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 I’ll have everything ready,” she promised.
“Make sure Rog helps you. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
She stuffed the phone in her purse. “We have to get back. Now. Get ready, I’m 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! Can’t we get the same guy back?”
Rog was already pushing the vet out the door. “We’ll 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. “There’s a busy street about three blocks from here…plenty of traffic. We’ll have to cut through here to save time.”
“I’m 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 shouldn’t be afraid, she told herself. There’s no one here. Who would haunt such a derelict district? Bums? You’d 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 couldn’t 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!”
They’d 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. Megan’s 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.
“Megan, it’ll look weird if I’m pushing an empty chair, people will remember. We need to get back without…without drawing attention. Forget about the cab.”
“What’s happening back there, Rog?”
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Now get in the chair.”
He didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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! It’s this chair! It’s…doing something to me…”
“Megan, sit still.”
“God damn it, no!” She gave up trying to fight off the chair’s advances, and jumped out completely.
Rog came to a stop. “What?” he said.
“You sit in it. Let me push.”
Sigh. “Don’t complain when you’re 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 didn’t 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.
“He…he saved me, Megan. He gave his life for me.”
“He doesn’t even know you exist, Rog.”
“Yes he does. He knows me. He…he wouldn’t have done that otherwise. Sacrificed himself like that.”
“He just snapped because he’s 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. I’m sure of it. Sleepy Joe cares for us.”
“You’re 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. “We’ll just put it back by the elevators and say, say, we were working away, we—”
“—we went downstairs, that’s what I told him,” Megan finished. “We went downstairs for some exhibit folders, and when we came up he was gone.”
“That’s good, that’s fine. Exhibit folders. And we didn’t call because…”
“Well, we freaked. We’ve been looking for him.”
“Freaked! That’s 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. Megan’s ears popped repeatedly.
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 wasn’t 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. He’d 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 don’t believe it. We’re 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, let’s 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…”
“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 didn’t 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 sentry’s 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 don’t say that,” Megan said.
“Do you hear me, Roger?”
But Roger didn’t answer. He couldn’t.
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.
“Don’t worry, kids,” he fondly croaked. “Let me take care of this.”
“Sleepy Joe” copyright 2001 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Infinite Matrix, edited by Eileen Gunn.
Here is a link to its original appearance, as long as it lasts, with artwork by Paul Mavrides and Jay Kinney.
This was my first post-911 story, and still probably my only one.