Henry wasn’t going to be able to go to Montana right away, he explained to me on my cell phone. I regretted giving him my number by calling him earlier, but he seemed nice, so it was probably all right. First his wife wouldn’t let him go on another big trip so soon after the last one, next he told me he had promised to take his daughter Ezra to see Jimmy Xeon, a hypervocalist. He readily admitted he didn’t understand what a hypervocalist was any better than I did. Finally, on the third week he bought me some plane tickets, what a gentleman!, and we, he, Mark and I, were off to Montana!
On the ride from the Billings Logan airport in our tiny rental Camry, I tried to start a conversation with Mark. “Mark,” I said, “do you have any idea what a ‘hypervocalist’ is?”
“Oh yeah,” said Mark not looking up from his phone. Looking at him through the rearview mirror, his acne had cleared up and he looked much better than he had the other day, although I could see the wispy beginnings of a moustache that he would want to start shaving as soon as possible. “Jimmy Xeon, right? The ‘la la la la loooove’ guy? So annoying. He uses live autotuning to make his voice sound like seven or eight voices at once. It requires no talent. He’s basically a pretty face in front of a singing computer. I’d like to see Ezra and her friends beg to marry the computer that’s really stealing their hearts.” Mark followed this statement with a single snorted laugh. A chill ran down my spine when I imagined William Cleaner carrying away someone’s daughter. I figured there would be some quips for that on the Anti-Cleaner forum, but I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head. “At least he’s clean.” I thought. Even I didn’t think it was very funny.
When we finally arrived at the address, it turned out to be a university. A lovely yellow and black sign welcomed us to the Montana Institute of Technology. “The other MIT,” it dubbed itself. The campus was largely empty. Not surprising during the summer, but it gave the eerie impression of a ghost town. Mark asked his phone to help us find the Cleaners headquarters and threw it in the air. From ten feet above us it informed us that Cleaners Headquarters was in Youngstown, Ohio. “Well, that wasn’t very helpful,” admitted Mark as the phone fell down into his waiting hands.
Eventually, we ran into a student who must have been taking summer classes. She was small with a long braided ponytail and a bright orange jacket. She looked up at us through huge round glasses and pointed us to what she said we were looking for, the robotics department. The department was underground as it turned out, and fortunately for us, someone had put a garbage can in the way of the door so it couldn’t close and lock us out. “Thank goodness for irresponsible students,” chuckled Henry.
The door led to a staircase that took us underground. We wandered the windowless passages for a while, occasionally spooking ourselves by bumping into one another or worrying we may be lost. One turn took us into a passage with rows and rows of dead animals preserved in brine. We had to drag Mark away from an enormous frog that was almost too big for the jar. “It’s so big! I didn’t know they could get that big!” he protested. After more wandering we were lucky enough to start seeing more robot-related odds and ends.
This section was a bit of a museum, bragging about the accomplishments of the Montana Institute of Technology’s robotics program. An arm sat in a glass case. It looked like a human arm if you took of the skin and replaced all the veins with wires and all the bones with metal bars. The muscles themselves looked like big grey rubber bands. “Full mobility high-strength multi-purpose appendage” read Henry. The next case was a waist and legs, still constructed from rubber bands, wires, and metal bars. “Multi-terrain bipedial locomotion system with gyroscopic stabilization.” The next case had a monitor cycling through what must be all of the faces a Cleaner could make, :) :( :| O_o o_O 80 T_T :D XD :P ;P ;) :,( and on and on. After seeing it alive, or close to alive, on a real Cleaner, it almost struck me like seeing a disembodied head rapidly changing its expression of its own volition. I turned away in sudden revulsion and saw Henry and Mark continuing to stare.
Rather than stand idly while Mark and Henry came to their senses, I continued forward. Next up was a full cleaner. This display had no ornamentation whatsoever. The cleaner was shut off and stood standing straight staring forward like a glittery silver statue. I stepped forward hesitantly to get a better look. Then Henry read “User-friendly emotive display,” and I turned to look at him. He was still looking at the display when Mark shouted, “Watch out!”
As Mark shouted I registered a light on my back that hadn’t been there before. As fast as I could without falling over I moved first my cane and then my body forward and spun around. The Cleaner behind me was not deactivated. It had stepped forward from where it was standing and was looking at me with a huge :) on its face. “Hello, Ma’am,” it said, “I’m Jim Tour Guide! May I give you a tour of the Montana Institute of Technology Robotics Department?”