The Cleaners Part 9: Mother Cleaner

“Diane Wallace.” said Christine Gently. It wasn’t a question.

“That’s not my name.”

“So you tell the Cleaners. They’re very trusting, you know. Their logs say they were sure you were Diane Wallace until you corrected them. Now they think your name is either ‘Madam’ or ‘Grandma,’ first name ‘Angry’.”

I snorted at the bizarre idea. “It is funny,” confirmed Dr. Gently, her sharp features showing no trace of humor, as if ‘funny’ were an objective quality of what she had said that she recognized but that held no interest to her.

“Are you familiar with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, Diane?”

A noise startled me. Jim was on the floor, his monitor-head facing flat down. “Who is that?” snapped Dr. Gently.

“Uh” I started, but Jim answered the question for me. “Uh, Mark.” Mark? Did he mean Mark Whicker? Why was the robot saying he was Henry Whicker’s son?

Dr. Gently looked at me and, uncomprehending, I said the only think I could think of, “Mark is with me.”

Dr. Gently nodded and looked over her desk at Jim, who was now writhing on the floor, struggling to get up. “Mark,” she said, “If you’re going to be Jim, please do it somewhere else.”

“Sorry … Professor,” mumbled Jim. Then with extreme effort he propped himself up with his hands and got his legs under him. Carefully, he walked the two steps to the door and, after a few failed tries at turning the handle, fell down again. In moments, Rob Smith was there with his hands under Jim’s limp body. “Sorry, Chris, I wouldn’t have let him use the Remote Jim Controller if I knew that Jim was in the room with you.”

“Get him out of here.” snapped Dr. Gently, and Rob dragged Jim out of the room.

Dr. Gently was apparently satisfied that I didn’t know about Ayn Rand because she then asked, “Are you a Christian, Diane?”

“Yes,” I nodded, “Of course.”

Dr. Gently leaned forward, “Would you agree with Jesus Christ when he says ‘inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me?'”

I was lost, “What are we talking about?” I pulled out Henry’s notes to me, only to realize I couldn’t read them. Even putting my reading glasses on, his hasty scrawl was too small for me to make out.

“Is that your script?” Dr. Gently asked me.

“My what?”

“The script they give you to read from.”

“It’s not a script,” I said, “It’s notes. It’s very helpful.”

Dr. Gently did not react. After a moment, she repeated her question, “Would you agree with Jesus, Diane?”

“Yes, Christine,” I said, putting a little edge in when I said her name, “Yes, I would agree with Jesus Christ.”

Chris’s face was impassive. Before she could continue taking the conversation wherever in the world she was trying to, I asked the first question that I could think of. “Who is Jake Silver?”

At this question, Chris relaxed a bit. The stony expressionless look left her face in favor of a detached carelessness.

“He’s my ex-husband.”

“And the co-founder of the Cleaners.”

“Yes. He very much wanted to found a major company, and I couldn’t bring myself to deny him the opportunity to list himself on the articles. I understand the Cleaners are now using him as a customer service representative.”

“He says he’s CEO.”

“Does he now? That’s cute. Maybe they did make him CEO, not that it would matter.”

“Who is they?”

“The Cleaners”

“Who are the Cleaners?”

“You know who they are. You pushed one and hired a mob to beat another to death.”

This surprised me. “I – I didn’t do that.”

Christine’s face became empathetic. She abruptly looked more feminine than she had since I’d first walked in. “The Cleaners are the least of us, Diane. They care nothing for themselves. All they want is to make sure we can live in clean houses. Why would anyone want to hurt a poor, innocent Cleaner?”

I huffed at this statement, “Christine, surely you cannot truly believe that these Cleaners are innocent. They come to my house every two weeks and insist I let them enter. That is harassment. If a human did that I would think he was trying to make sexual advances.”

“Have you ever thought about what it must be like to be a Cleaner, Diane?”

I was picking up some momentum.  I felt Walter with me again. Frightened Diane was fading away. I was Angry Grandma.”Cleaners don’t have souls, Christine. You might as well ask if I’ve thought about what it’s like to be a toaster.”

“Well, that’s a cruel thing to say,” exclaimed Chris, “The most horrific acts in history have been justified by an arbitrary distinction between what does and doesn’t have a soul. Isn’t it clear enough that they can feel and think more than a toaster?”

“But- They’re machines, Chris!”

“Their brains are made of silicon, ours of carbon. Why does that preclude them having a soul?”

“God didn’t make them, and besides, this doesn’t matter. If they did have a soul, it still wouldn’t be right for them to insist on being let into my house.”

“Why don’t you trust them, Diane?”

“They record information on me.”

“They don’t have to do that. You can ask them not to record your data.”

This surprised me, “What?”

“Has no one tried asking them not to record? I’m surprised your Anti-Cleaner friends didn’t even consider that as an option. They only record your preferences and your house layout so they can clean faster and avoid asking you the same questions over and over again.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I blurted, “We have the right to refuse service, and it’s wrong to force it on us.”

“That’s the Anti-Cleaner motto, right? It’s all about rights. It’s so nice to be a human with rights, isn’t it?”

I felt the conversation sliding away from me again, but Christine didn’t let me grab it back this time. Instead she spun her laptop around to face me and moved her desk chair around from behind her desk. For a second I was afraid she was attacking me, but if she was, my reaction time was much too slow to have done anything about it anyway. “I want to show you something, Diane,” she said, suddenly right next to me.

The video started slowly. It was a first-person perspective. Someone was just walking down the sidewalk. My sidewalk. My heart dropped into my stomach. I saw the Fletcher’s high brown fence with the triangle points on top and the beginning of my hedge, when a man stepped out a few yards ahead. I didn’t recognize him. He was maybe in his mid-twenties and he was wearing a suit. “Don’t visit this house,” he said.

“But this house is on my list.” said a familiar voice.  There were five people standing in front of my house now. “Take it off your list,” said another of the men. They looked massive on the screen, glowering down at the camera. I knew whose camera it was.

There was no way to tell if Robert Cleaner was frightened by these men. Was that an emotion he could feel? In any case, he simply told them, “I want to clean that house. If you don’t mind, I must get past you.” An older man, but no less burly or threatening, stepped forward until he was standing right in front of Rob. Rob tried to step back, but the old man was on top of him, throwing punches left and right, the camera shook with each impact, but Rob didn’t moan or cry in pain. Instead he simply shouted, “Please! Please get off of me! I will not be able to perform my duties if you damage me!”

Henry was there, the tallest of all of them. He was carrying the baseball bat. He was Henry, but he looked different from the Henry I knew. He stood over Rob’s pummeled body like a hungry animal. He carefully lined up his baseball bat as Rob continued to plead for his life. When the bat came down, Rob’s feed cut out.

I swallowed hard. “It’s just a machine.” I mumbled to myself. I tried to imagine the scene in a movie from my youth where a group of men kicked and beat a printer until it fell apart. Nobody felt bad for the printer then, I certainly didn’t. Now I had to shut the image from my mind. I turned to Christine and immediately forgot what I was going to say. For the first time, all of her detachment and cold logical certainty was gone. She wasn’t crying, but it was all that she could do. Christine Gently looked me in the eye, and, her voice breaking, she said “They’re my children, Diane.”

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2 thoughts on “The Cleaners Part 9: Mother Cleaner”

  1. I just read episodes 8 & 9. again, a great cliffhanger ending. Fascinating that Chris starts with Ayn Rand and then moves — very effectively — to Christianity. is she a master manipulator, like many of our Republican politicians who sell themselves as Christians but in reality are ultra capitalists.again, I’m dying for the next episode.one thought.in episode 8 you do a nice job of providing brief characterizations of the students. Green shirt short black hair etc. And then, Asian with slight accent. This would work in conversation with me. I would do the same. But as a writer, are you playing to our racism? is everyone assumed to be a white male unless otherwise mentioned? Just some thoughts. Love, dad

  2. I had a very long, rambly comment to respond to this that I had to delete. The short answer is that you’re right. It is how people like you, me, and Diane would describe them in conversation and it’s also not completely clear if it’s ok. I really need to pay attention to how the races of people are specified in Kindred by Octavia Butler. I figure I can consider myself not propagating racism if I don’t do more white-assumption than the famous first black science fiction author who’s books are often shelved under African American Literature.

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