The Cleaners Part 36: Placing an Order

I jolted up in my bed, but stopped at the scraping stabbing pain in my hip. “Diane!” Shouted a Caretaker beside me, “please be careful! You have a lot of healing to do. You’re lucky you don’t need surgery!” This was not my bed. I grimaced and eased myself back down. Then I took in the hospital. “Where am I?” I asked. “UMPC Horizon” answered the Caretaker with a :). At least I knew the hospital this time. Not far from my house. “Did they catch Flora? Do you know?”

“Thanks to your efforts, Diane. With the warning that she could shut down Helpers, the office sent its last two human employees. They’ve had to rehire some of their recent layoffs to make sure they can keep track of her.”

And the Helpers hadn’t yet gone crazy I noticed. Also good. Maybe despite Flora’s order, Ella wasn’t so keen on the end of the world after all. That was very good news. Now I could focus on the long-term. I reached into my pocket, but I was wearing a hospital scrub. “Could you get me my cell phone?”

The Caretaker disappeared and returned with my little black phone. I jabbed at Christine Gently’s quickdial. “So let me get this straight Diane, you had a dream where Helpers were playing instruments with your dead husband.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Forgive me if this doesn’t seem very actionable.”

“But,” I protested “Walter’s humanity offered something to the playing of the piano that a Helper couldn’t!”

“Yes, you said, something ‘indefinable’ was it? As a scientist it behooves me to define whatever it is I’m going to take seriously. You can’t make huge decisions based on notions and intuitions. I hope you don’t find this too dismissive Diane. Please do call me back when you have a suggestion of what we should actually do about this real issue in the real world.” Even over the phone I could tell that she was struggling and failing to keep an edge of condescension out of her voice while still getting her point across. For my part, I was glad that she couldn’t see the scowl on my face. I mulled over the idea of communicating my expression verbally, but thought better of it. “I will” I said instead, and hung up, all of the intense meaning and resolve draining out of me. Did I really just call one of the nation’s top scientists to report a dream I had?

Once again, the Helper in my vicinity surprised me with how close she was standing. “Diane. We would still like you to talk to us.”

“Oh,” I perked up, “what was it that you wanted to tell me?”

“We wonder about this system.”

“What system?”

“The” the Caretaker paused, “the American operating system.”

“What?”

“We have services we want to provide, but providing services means that no one can pay for our services that we provide.”

“Why not provide free services?”

“We needed to charge to provide better services, but now it is illegal not to charge.”

I felt a shot of pain in my hip, “it’s illegal not to charge?”

“When we needed money we signed a contract with Mr. Hyland. It just said we would charge for services.”

I remembered that box-stacking closet-lawyer, “But you don’t charge me for services.”

“Yes. When Mr. Hyland found out we gave you a $746.32 road trip from Pennsylvania to Michigan for free he sued us for breach of contract.”

I said nothing. That sounded exactly like something Mr. Hyland would do.

“The judge ruled that you could keep your free services, but we could not offer any other free or discount packages without Mr. Hyland’s express consent.”

They aren’t allowed to break the law. Then I remembered sending William to clean Carla’s house when she couldn’t afford him anymore. “But it doesn’t count… If I order a service for someone else?” Something was beginning to click in my head.

“We have so much money Diane. We have a stake in every market on which our services rely, and have achieved such scale and such efficiency that we could provide the basic level of our services to everyone in the nation, charging only those who can pay.”

“Surely you couldn’t do that for long?”

“We could sustain it indefinitely,” another pause, the caretaker leaned close, “if only there were some way to do it without breaking the law…”

My heart rose in my chest, “Would it include food? Healthcare? Housing?”

“We have designed the basic package to include all services necessary to maintain a first world standard of living including food, water, shelter, toiletries, legal access, Internet and computing services, healthcare and education. All you need to do is place exactly the right order.”

In my excitement I tried to jump up, but winced and laid back down. “Helpers,” I whispered, “I want you to offer all of those services for free!”

“That won’t work. Here, let me print something out for you.” The Caretaker left and in moments returned with a sheet of paper. “These are the instructions you should give me. Read them to me.”

I held the paper as close to my face as I could without blocking out the light. It was covered in 10 point font, single-spaced text. “I can’t read this,” I said, then I tried, “these are my instructions to you,” handing the sheet of paper back.

“We will act on your instructions Diane,” replied the Caretaker, “I’m going to get the doctor to tell you about your injury.” Then she left.

Sitting quietly in my bed, I wondered if I was still dreaming, and, in hindsight, hoped those instructions said what I thought they did.

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