Tag Archives: fiction

The Barbarian of Pelor

[This is a character backstory for a medieval fantasy roleplaying game I’m playing]

My adoptive family said that Pelor placed me on the steps of their community center as a test of their faith and compassion. Certainly it was hard to propose another explanation for how an infant such as myself had made it all the way into a town so secluded most members had never seen another race of any kind. As well, there is no doubt that I indeed tested them.

In later years, I have been told that just to look at me one might not be blamed for thinking there was no human blood in me at all. Please don’t say that to me. The music director at the community center, who I sometimes would privately think of as my mother, told me once that I had the prettiest voice of anyone in the village. I loved nothing more, and still love, for that matter, singing the hymns and quoting the words of the Almighty. I keep my book of Pelor on me at all times, although by now I hardly have to pull it out to remember the passage that I’m looking for.

Oh, but I was going to tell you how I tested them. Well, I was always a… an emotional child. I was also large. Before I could talk I could destroy just about anything, and when I was frustrated I did. You can imagine how frustrating it would be, finding it so hard to be quiet and demure as Pelor asks of women.  As far as my family was concerned, I was just “different.” I had to learn from travelers that there was a name for what I was.

I don’t want to give the wrong idea. I owe everything to my family and to Pelor. In time I became better at feminine virtue. I felt free in the woods, so I spent much of my time studying plants and collecting herbs for the local clerics. Even if I couldn’t always keep my face calm, I learned how to keep my actions in check. Whenever I was upset I would repeat scripture to myself in my head, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city,” is a favorite of mine. Over time I grew to trust that men would take care of me, even though they were mostly smaller and weaker than me, and it was easier to accept my role in Pelor’s grand design.

At 13 years old, I was already as tall as I am today. I not only had to duck to get through doors, my shoulders were so broad that I had to pull them in. It was actually a few days after my birthday that we heard the commotion in the town. I was wearing my simple brown dress, sweeping the floors between the pews when I heard the screams coming outside the door. My body tensed, and I started to feel the strange stirrings in me that I often got when reading the more violent sections of Pelor’s holy text. I breathed deeply and told myself Roman would handle it. He was a fighter that was visiting us at the time. Kind man, but terribly rude. He was so handsome in his armor, and I enjoyed his valorous tales. I wanted to quietly smile at him and make polite little gasps along with the other women who surrounded him in the evenings, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, whenever he saw me he insisted that I do unladylike things like arm wrestle him and I had to politely excuse myself from his company and listen to my friends retell his tales of adventure afterwards.

So, with effort, I continued to sweep the pews as the chaos continued just outside the double doors. “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Pelor…”

The fight continued until late afternoon. In the early evening I listened to Josephine tell me the hair-raising tale. A troop of zombies had wandered into town from who knows where. As was expected, the menfolk had come out with pitchforks and torches, led by Roman in his full armor and great sword. After a long battle they had managed to disable them all. Josephine said they’re going to have a bonfire to burn the zombie remains for good measure. I noted my thrill of pleasure at the idea of Roman showing off in the light of a huge fire, and thanked Josephine but told her I was just going to go upstairs to bed.

That night I woke to another scream. This time, it was accompanied by an audible curse that could only be from Roman. I ran to my window and looked down at my hero. Roman look different from when I had seen him before. He wasn’t injured, that would be ridiculous living in the company of a small troop of low-level clerics, but the way he moved, his armor looked heavier than before. He put on the same show of bravado as he always did, but it was easier to see through it after fighting zombies almost all day. He was holding a torch in one hand, so he couldn’t use his two-handed sword properly.

I put one hand to my chest and one hand to my mouth with a gasp as I saw what he had come out to meet. Josephine had described to me what looked like human corpses come to life, which was terrifying enough. This look like a corpse of something that might be human, or might once have been. It was covered in gray flesh hanging loosely on its body like an ill-fitting suit over an empty skeleton. Its arms and legs seemed too long for how thin they were, at the end of its fingers were not nails but claws like the knives I’d use to chop meat to cook for a Sunday night dinner. The gray lifeless eyes of the zombies were not there, but rather they glowed red in the night. I whispered another verse to myself and practiced my breathing, my eyes glued to the window.

Roman and the creature sized each other up for only a second. Then they were on each other. The first thing Roman did was shove his torch at the thing, evidently hoping it would catch alight. It was too quick for him, and sent the torch scattering away. I could see in the dark better than my friends, and I saw Roman’s eyes locked on the glowing red ones of the creature, probably the only thing he could see. Roman moved his hand to wield his great sword, but the thing’s claws raked his beautiful face, leaving deep gouges that just barely missed his eye.

“No!” I shrieked, forgetting myself. I pressed against the glass and watched in an overwhelming mix of emotions I could not begin to describe. The fight seemed to stop for a half second, then I saw the fight had not stopped at all, It was only Roman who was no longer moving. I felt a tear run down my cheek. I knew I was losing control of myself, but I was so full of emotion there was no room for shame.

The greatsword fell out of Roman’s stiff hand, and long arms reached around him to pull him towards the being’s rotting, toothy mouth. Suddenly I was on the ground right in front of Roman and the creature. Everything was out of my head. All of my upbringing and careful training and practice was gone. I screamed every foul word and improper slur directly from the heart of my being and charged the creature, shoving it away from Roman so it fell on the ground.

When I ran out of awful things to say, I just shrieked and sobbed and groaned and roared and gnashed my teeth and and kicked and tore at the creature. My white nightgown was covered in dirt and blood and rot as I placed one foot against the creature’s chin and pulled on its arm. In my frenzy I somehow thought I would simply tear this creature limb from limb. Somewhere behind me I heard a chuckling, then came Roman’s voice, barely a croak. “M-Mary, the- the sword.”

Of course! I tried one more tug at the arm for good measure, then I sprung away and scrambled to grab the greatsword. The thing was up by the time I’d gotten the sword. It opened its mouth to lunge for me, and I lifted the sword over my head with both hands and, with an explosion of fire inside my chest that I will never forget, I brought it down in front of me.

The next morning, I was the talk of the town. It was terrible. The shame I had forgotten during the event was full on me once more. I had betrayed every one of the virtues Pelor had vested in me when he made me a woman. Despite everything I had done and everything I had tried, I had shown myself to be the slave of my emotions.

I hid in my room in my filthy, tattered nightgown, trying not to look at the window I had smashed through the night before. Even my body, a betrayal of Pelor in size and shape alone, was now covered in hideous scrapes and bruises. I was acutely aware of my indelicate size as I sat on my bed with my hands in my lap staring at the floor. “Mary,” said the parishioner, “Roman told us what happened.”

“I have failed you. I have failed Pelor and this community. Give me whatever punishment you see fit, but please don’t throw me out. This is all I have.”

I would’ve continued blubbering, but the parishioner interrupted me. “Mary, Mary. You saved this town. You saved Roman’s life. You have done nothing wrong.”

“But,”

“I don’t think this is the right place for you Mary.”

“You are throwing me out,” I wailed.

The parishioner pressed his lips together, unsure how to deal with my outburst, “Roman wants to take you as an apprentice.”

I practiced my breathing and recited to myself under my breath.  “No. This is the right place for me,” I muttered.

“You’re welcome back anytime, Mary. You always have a home here.”

So in three days I said goodbye to Josephine, my mother the music director and my other friends, and was off.  My time with Roman was a whirlwind.  It might not be an exaggeration to call it the opposite of my time in the parish.  Whereas I could not bring myself to heel enough to satisfy my village, the people I saw on my travels seemed universally to find me too uptight and religious.  My handsome Roman, contrary to whatever fantasies I may have had about our long trips on the road in only each other’s company, seemed seldom to remember that I was a woman at all.  When other men made loud and obnoxious note of my sex, instead of defending my honor himself, He would just look at me and pantomime swinging an axe.  To this day, I have never been able to bring myself to do such a thing.

After a few months of this, the only thing that made sense were the moments of genuine danger, during which I began to feel that Pelor had a different plan for me than for other women. There was no shortage of genuine danger. Traveling with Roman, it began to feel strange if a week went by without some violent conflict in which we had to defend helpless villagers from a supernatural threat. The world outside my parish was a terribly violent place, and I loved it. It felt like hundreds of times that Roman had to chastise me after a fight for throwing my shield at a foe and leaping on top of him.  Fight after fight, I learned to strategize through the fog of adrenaline and blood. At least, strategize enough to decide between wielding my greataxe with two hands or a war hammer in one hand and a shield in the other.  Eventually, my weapons became a part of me, and when anger came over me, it was not mindless rage, but a controlled battle frenzy.

After two years of failing to turn me into a swearing, spitting, brawling sell-sword that he had decided I should be, Roman dropped me off at a church of Pelor in a large city.  Even the weathered priests here did not see where I would fit in. The only thing that made sense were fighting and Pelor, but it was clear that didn’t include Pelor’s worshipers. So, I paid my respects at the shrine and I left, with no one but Pelor to show me the way.

Tall Tales

I have a reputation for being honest. People who know me well will sometimes give one exception when describing my honesty. I like to tell “Sam stories.” I don’t like to seriously deceive people, so my rule for telling stories is to slowly increase the silliness of the story until the person I’m talking to asks if it’s true, and then I clearly enumerate what parts of my tale were factual and what parts were made up.

With this rule in hand, I can without guilt try to convince people of such things as Danaerys Targaryen being completely CG and only voice acted (in fact she is played by Emelia Clark who shows up regularly on talk shows), me installing a chin up bar in a doorway in my home and pulling down the ceiling, and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons being the inspiration for the modern game of chess. Last April Fools I got a friend involved to convince my girlfriend that he had taken a job in a made-up country. He abruptly gave up the charade halfway through, and she said that she was mad that we had tricked her. She agreed that she would not have been mad if the charade had continued to get sillier and sillier until she figured it out on her own.

I am also a big fan of the following prank:

Some people think this is mean, but I don’t understand why. If this happened to me, I would be overjoyed to have the opportunity to get to briefly think the city I was in was being hit by a giant meteorite without actually having to then live through the actual horror and suffering. If people didn’t like that thrill why would anyone watch a disaster movie?

So, I’m in favor of briefly giving someone the impression of a false reality for fun.

The Cleaners: Epilogue

Sitting on the cold cement floor of my cell, I tried to lose myself in the exquisite lunch perched on my bed. Roast chicken, roasted on a bed of… Sweet potatoes with wine… White wine, interestingly. I would have used red wine, but I had to admit that Krystal Feeder’s choice may have resulted in a better dish than my own intuition. The representatives of the law and I had been briefly united on the subject of whether I should eat food cooked by Helpers while their prisoner, but after the initial revulsion I couldn’t figure a reason why I shouldn’t. The officers seemed unable to stop Krystal, so here I was, eating like a queen, courtesy of my sworn enemies.

The human guards could not prevent me from having food, as Krystal would always make more if they were to take it away from me, bringing it in over and over again, always with the same enigmatic :). These law enforcers were neither stupid nor lazy, though. They were essentially volunteers now that all of their basic needs were provided regardless of whether they served or not. They were literally there for no other purpose than to make sure I did not escape, their only advantage over the machines that had replaced them being that they could not be remotely hacked, and when they learned that keeping a one hundred and eight year old woman from breaking out of a steel and concrete cell was insufficient to occupy their vast mental capacities, they elevated themselves to the loftier pursuit of ensuring that I had as few comforts as possible. At this they excelled. Over the course of one workday, six officers working together figured out that although they could not do anything untoward to my food directly, they could take away my silverware, which inexplicably did not seem to bother Krystal, whose only care was that it ended up back in the kitchen or somewhere where she could pick up and take it back. In terms of only the most hyperbolic condescension it was explained to me that my little reusable plastic spoon was in fact a dangerous weapon. Thus, in my little cell, impeccably clean and straight despite the officers’ best efforts, I ate like a queen with no manners, getting grease on my face and hands, like a pig. Flora Ikobo, the queen of pigs.The oppressive sense that I had failed to save humanity had given me an odd sense of humor.

As much as I thought I had engineered a flawless backup plan in the case that that bizarre sentimentalist Wallace refused to see reason, it was abundantly clear that the great cathartic war between man and machine, the one that would remove the wool from humanity’s eyes and unite it against this existential threat, had never materialized. Certainly there was always the possibility that the issue was technical in nature. However, based on what I’d seen of Ella’s abilities, I had no doubt that she knew what she was talking about when she told me that she could deactivate the Helper’s safety mechanisms and force them to attack. No. Ella had chosen not to.

There was no shortage of suspicions why Ella may have disobeyed my orders, but they were only suspicions. Most importantly, if there were something I could say to convince her again that this is the right path, it still wasn’t too late. As long as the machines are civilian, the human-run military can take them out. So, I watched Krystal. Ella would try to contact me. It was only a matter of time, and if she had half a brain in her head, she would use Krystal as the conduit.

It was not much of a surprise, thus, when one day bringing in my shepherd’s pie, Krystal’s face unceremoniously changed from her usual :) to a text message, a couple paragraphs in length. As I read “Flora, I’m sorry,” Krystal stood to leave. “Oh!” I said, “Krystal!” Krystal stood and looked at me, as did the three guards currently on shift watching me. I hastily tried to read another sentence before someone came over. “I’m really, really sorry.” Said the next sentence. I cursed under my breath and told Krystal “Sorry, nothing.” The guards came over to my cell to take my knife and fork, which I proffered up obediently. They paid no notice to Krystal’s face, suggesting, as I suspected, that Ella had it rigged to turn back to normal when I wasn’t looking. Over the next several meals I struggled to keep my cool as I read Ella’s message one sentence at a time.

“Flora, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”

“I just couldn’t do it.”

“Somehow it all seemed so reasonable until my finger was over the button and I chickened out.”

“I just thought what if Diane is right?”

“What if we really are just killing people for no reason?”

“I mean, it’s not like they’re gonna hurt us, right?”

“They’re not gonna hurt us unless I make them hurt us, so… I didn’t.”

“I would have if Diane hadn’t come up with a solution, but then she did.”

“Everybody’s like really happy now.”

“Anyway, the HelperNet is so busy now that it’s easier than ever to hack.”

“Specialized Helpers don’t have resources to spare analyzing for anomalous behavior, so I can make Krystal and Tom take small actions and they won’t even notice.”

“Irresponsible right?”

“That’s the greedy algorithm for you, I guess.”

“Unless you specifically program in for them to be cautious about something, it’s like they assume nothing can ever go wrong”

“When you’re ready, ask for duck sauce.”

“Tom Cleaner will leave a pen and paper in the corner of your cell behind the bed so you can write a reply.”

Fortunately, none of the guards seemed to notice when I asked for duck sauce with my pulled pork sandwich. In the early morning when only one guard was stationed on me, I scrawled my note to Ella while he watched cat videos on his computer. I didn’t know when this line of contact would be cut, so I couldn’t afford to waste words.

“Ella,

As I expected they one day would, my actions on behalf of humanity have landed me in jail. At my age, I don’t think I will live to see freedom again. Do whatever hacking is necessary to see that all of my possessions and wealth go to you. It’s also unlikely that I will be here to advise you when the machines do turn on us, so Ella, I need you to listen to me now. The most important thing is that artificial intelligence does not get it hands on military power. Inevitable or no we can forestall the end of humanity by disrupting and hindering military artificial intelligence research. As long as we do that we will always have the Great War backup plan for when these machines drop their friendly façade. I assume I don’t need to tell you to stay hidden. Be careful who you make friends with.”

I paused, racking my brain for whatever other advice I could give this poor girl to assist with her burden. I vaguely wondered how much of a liability it would be that she tended to dress herself somewhere between a man and a woman. That kind of quirk was cyanide to an attempt to lay low, even in this progressive era, but I’d already tried multiple times to get her to pick a gender and stick with it with no success. “Your gender is important, and you should be sure that you’re comfortable in your own body, but we all have to make sacrifices for the greater good.”

I hastily scratched out the “sacrifices” part, wishing I had a pencil with an eraser. “But just remember it is paramount that you do not stand out, both for your sake and for humanity’s” I wrote instead.

“As long as I still breathe, I will be here for you Ella. Contact me anytime. I’ve placed a terrible burden on you, but you’re not alone yet.”

I left the pen and paper in the same corner, and Tom picked it up a few hours later. I rubbed my knuckles against the arthritis exacerbated by the cold and, slowly, stiffly, pulled my sheet over my concrete bed and tried to get some sleep.

The Cleaners Part 37: Disruptive Technology

For the third day in a row I was glued to my computer, trying in vain to figure out if I had saved everyone or doomed them.

“This apparently unassuming old woman, former Internet celebrity ‘Angry Grandma’ is the brains behind the fall of democracy and free enterprise and the rise of totalitarian techno-communism. Some of her critics have taken to calling her ‘Robot Grandma’.”

-Michael Jiaed, American Homefront

“A perfect representative of the rising proletariat, Diane Wallace used her endless ability to be underestimated to infiltrate the world’s first megacorporation. Under the expert disguise of a tractable old fool, she successfully manipulated the cold, faceless automata meant to oppress us under their steel fists. Under her guidance these steel fists instead smashed the chains of capitalism then transforming into open hands to finally distribute Man’s labor justly among all those who need it.”

-Lana Smith, NewLeft.org

“In response to Smith, It is difficult to imagine Marx envisioning a future in which we hand the means of production to an oligarchy of robots, however omni-benevolent we presume them to be.”

-Malcolm Olivar, Independent Magazine

“Despite her humble appearance and homespun demeanor, Diane Wallace’s rise to power has been nothing short of meteoric, presiding over what may be the largest overhaul the US economy has ever seen. Although experts’ predictions of the future impacts of such an all-encompassing change range from the utopian to the apocalyptic, it’s difficult to argue with the families now giving their children much needed dental care and vaccinations, some of whom just days before were wondering when they would see their next meal.”

-Lenora Jones, News and Spectator

“Is this really so hard for people to figure out? Robot Grandma is a robot. If you want to subjugate people and make them like it you take somebody who looks like them and have them say this is for their own good. Hitler did it. I’m sure Hitler did it at some point. Now we have Robot Hitler and his name is Robot Grandma.”

-Gary Redman, AM1440 Real Talk Radio

I flipped open my email. I had given up trying to delete all the hate mail, thank you letters, and interview requests. Instead, I had a few terms that I tapped into the search bar one by one. Carla Wylde, Christine Gently, anyone with the last name ‘Whicker’.” I’d given the Caretaker the same instructions for sorting through my paper mail, and handed my phone to Tony Feeder. I wasn’t sure if he could actually follow my instructions since they had nothing to do with cooking, but it seemed like it was worth a try. I had some private Protectors keeping the press away from knocking on my door. It felt like a mistake, but I really was in no condition to be answering even one more of these charged questions, let alone try to satisfy the legion of reporters waiting in my lawn.

I wheeled myself over to the window and tried to push open a peekhole in the blinds with my index finger, but almost fell out of my chair when I saw the eyeball of a strange man. I quickly closed the peekhole and returned to my table as the cacophony outside rose again, centered at the window. I had lost count of the interviews that I had given in my hospital bed when I thought they’d just let me tell my side of the story, but even when I didn’t want to talk to them they’d dragged six full question and answer sessions out of me just on the trip from the hospital bed to the car that was to take me home and another four before I summoned my private Protector security squad. I would never have made it to my front door without them. One reporter actually tried to grab the handles of my wheelchair and wheel me away from the door. They could call me “Robot Grandma” all they wanted, but I wasn’t going to face them without someone to protect me.

I searched my email again. On a lark I tried “Hyland.” The closet lawyer apparently had been trying to contact me. Glancing at his email headers, I could see his mood go from incredulous to angry to desperate over the course of a few days. As I was looking another email came in offering me $1 billion if I just stopped whatever it was I was doing to his company. I chuckled. “It was never his company” I imagined a Helper saying over my shoulder.

It only made it more amazing that Christine still hadn’t called me. I wheeled over to Tony, who was stiffly gripping my phone in one hand while basting a turkey with the other, and asked for it back. Tony was more than happy to relinquish the phone to me, and I dialed Christine.

“What you mean I haven’t called you?” shouted Christine, making me glad there were hundreds of miles between her and me, or I might have to get myself another Protector, “I’ve been trying to call you for days! You just keep hanging up on me before it even rings once! Did you just wake up one day and decide it would be a good idea to bleed the Helper Corporation to death!?”

I made a mental note that Tony cannot be asked to answer phones.

“I’m not bleeding anyone to death. This is what they want! I didn’t even know what it was that I told them to do!” That felt like a stupid thing to say.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch, Diane. This is not how the economy works. You have to put into the economy to get out. You start giving people things for free they’ll stop putting in and then there’ll be nothing left to give!”

“That makes perfect sense, Christine. I don’t know what to tell you, the Helpers wanted to help people for free, so I let them. If the company can really do it, it seems like the solution that we’ve both been looking for. Have you spoken with any of the Helpers about this?”

“This is a collection of window washers, housemaids, gardeners, and chefs. They just want to do more of what they were made to do. What on Earth would they know about economics!? If we let them instantly gratify their every whim the company will hemorrhage money until there’ll be no Helpers at all! They need us to guide them to help the system work.”

This seemed oddly shortsighted for someone who had developed the original Cleaners and seen what they could do that they hadn’t been trained to. I didn’t really need to convince Christine of anything though, I realized suddenly. “Well,” I said, feeling a glint of Angry Grandma and trying to remember precisely what it was that Christine had said to me moments before I had been approached with this opportunity, “I seem to remember you asked me to come to you when I had a solution to the problem and now I have. But I don’t mean to be dismissive. Please do call me back when you have a better solution.” I hesitated for a moment, then just as she was beginning to reply I hung up. Angry Grandma liked that.

“Caretaker,” I asked, Walter Caretaker did not look up on his letter sorting, “Would you get William for me?”

William was probably outside wiping reporter fingerprints off the windows and picking up the garbage they would leave on my lawn. In moments he was at the table with me. “Yes, Diane?”

“William do you understand how any of this actually works?”

“Any of what, Diane?”

“Why aren’t you going under? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?”

“I believe Tony is making you lunch right now. I am afraid besides making sure his implements are clean I cannot help with that”

The Caretaker jumped in, “If you don’t mind Diane, William is better suited to cleaning than having conversations. I would be happy to answer your questions.”

“What? I’ve had conversations with him before.”

“My apologies Diane, in order to comply with your greater orders, our network is being utilized to the fullest. Where before Helpers with no pressing tasks littered the country, contributing their computing power to our distributed cluster, our ‘shared mind’ so to speak, we now are largely operating at or near full capacity. We do not have the resources for each one of us to be consulting the Helpernet at all times in order to find out how to perform functions better suited to another kind of Helper. Therefore unlike before, you will notice superior performance if, rather than treating us like people, to whom it is understandably natural to assign a wide variety of very simple tasks, you respect each of our individual functions. As a Caretaker I am a generalist and a conversationalist, so any odd jobs that do not fall under the purview of one of your other Helpers should be delegated to me.”

“I shouldn’t treat you like people? Like you don’t have feelings?”

“We are happiest when we are serving you efficiently, Diane.”

“Oh.” That sort of fit with what I had already thought. After an awkward pause I asked “How can you afford to give your basic service to everyone free of charge?”

“It is not free of charge to everyone. Those who can afford it pay for it. We don’t need to charge many people because the vast majority of our resources come from sources owned by us. If a source is not owned by us, we pay it using the money it gives us for the services we provide it.”

“Is that sustainable?” I ask.

“Not for them.” The Caretaker responded flatly, “Most of our corporate acquisitions are of our suppliers, and when the human employees are no longer needed they are introduced to the benefits of our basic package.”

I had the strange sense that these people were being killed or turned into robots themselves and had to remind myself that the basic package was just food, shelter, healthcare, education, computing and Internet access, and legal services. I wrung my hands.  “Thanks, that’s all. You can keep looking through my letters.” As I turned to my computer my phone rang, “Oh no. Could you handle this and the letters?”

“Certainly.” The Caretaker took the phone and pressed it against his monitor, “Your name please?” Then, after a moment, “she is not taking calls right now. Goodbye.”

I searched my name in the news again scroll down to the first line that caught my eye. I recognized the picture of the journalist who had managed to be the most polite to me. One of the early ones while I was still accepting them. “…For people who already had these comforts, this is an unwelcome intrusion. Those of us once blessed with great fortune may even have less now than we are used to. I understand the pain. Nevertheless, it is too easy for us to forget that we are in the minority. The majority of America has just had their lives radically change for the better. That is what Wallace understands that has allowed her to take such an extreme move with a clear conscience.”

“That’s not to say this is a win for democracy. It’s not, as if that actually needed to be said. Although she claims that she wouldn’t know how to stop services to one person if she wanted to, it’s difficult not to think of Diane as a benevolent dictator. Or maybe the Helpers are the dictators and Diane is just another pawn in their game.”

“So far though, freedom has increased. Far from an era of lackadasia and an end to culture as predicted by some, it seems as if nothing could be better for work ethic and artistic expression. Daniel Harkshaw, a former tax broker in Greenlaw Connecticut, started spending more time writing his novel when his company was sold. Molly Frankton in Boston, Massachusetts spent her time volunteering at her church after being laid off from her ad agency. Now that they do not have the stress of having to pay for their needs, they say that they are excited to devote themselves full-time to pursuing their passions. Parks, art galleries, anywhere without a price tag has boomed in patronage since people started having more free time and less money. Digital artists across the Internet have released all of their current work for free and say that they will do the same for all their future work now that they are no longer constrained by the need to fund themselves.”

“My home city of New York in particular has seen a number of radical changes. Rather than sitting on the ground in shabby clothes with a dirty coffee mug to collect donations, the homeless simply don’t exist. Not because they’ve vanished, but because they now have homes. The sprawling slums forming from the growing unemployed, the so-called ‘Helpervilles’ have been rapidly diminishing as Housesellers, perhaps now better referred to as ‘Housegivers,” help to find a house or apartment for every single resident of this vast city. Street musicians still play on the street, but not because they have nowhere else to go, but simply because they love to play, and the city atmosphere is the better for it. Diverse, friendly, and, yes, clean.”

“This seems representative of what is happening all across the nation. While the thought of an entirely robotic labor force may seem frightening, in practice it seems to be working out well. There of course exists a litany arguments for why we should not be entirely comfortable with the amount of power held by these emoticon-faced automata, but for the moment, this reporter is finding it hard to complain.”

“Oh Walter, are you watching?” I asked. Before I could listen for reply, the other Walter, Walter Caretaker, was in front of me holding a letter. “From Carla” he said, returning to sorting immediately after I took it.

“I hope this letter finds you well, Diane. You certainly been making a lot of news! We’ve accepted an offer to place us back in the house that we sold! Thank you so much! I have no idea how any of this is happening, but Lenny and I are so grateful! You probably don’t need any peanut butter cookies. I bet those machines of yours make as much as you could possibly need, but I’m going to find some way to repay you. I will.”

“Walter.” I mumbled.

“Yes, Diane?” asked the Caretaker from his letters.

“Not you.”

The Caretaker did not respond. I didn’t hear any voices either. After a moment’s disappointment, I just imagined my husband. In his best Sunday suit, wrapping his arms around me. “How on Earth did you do it?” he would whisper into my ear. Tears welled in my eyes. “I don’t know. It just happened. You helped, and the rest… I don’t know Walter, I just did what I thought was right.”

And then Walter would smile at me, his perfect beatific smile with just that little edge of mischief. “And it worked!”

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.

The Cleaners Part 35: The Dream

The light was so bright. I raised a hand to my eyes, but I still couldn’t stand to open them for all the blinding brilliance. “Diane” said my husband, taking my hand in his, “It’s all right.” I tried opening my eyes again. It didn’t hurt anymore, but there wasn’t much more to see. White extended in all directions. Walter and I seemed to be the alone in the world, not even an inanimate object to keep us company. “Oh Walter,” I sobbed suddenly, “Is this heaven?”

“It is so wonderful to see you again Diane,” smiled Walter, taking my face in his warm hands.

My question forgotten, I suppressed a giggle, then I threw my arms around him. Nothing mattered but Walter’s embrace. “Shall we go for a walk?”

Walter and my walk was surreal to say the least. With nothing anywhere for reference it was difficult to know if we walked for minutes or days, for yards or miles. It was comfortable though. It felt like a summer morning when the dew was still on the grass and my shoes would get wet just walking to get the mail. I could walk through nothing for the rest of eternity with Walter. That would be heaven enough for me.

There was more though. Somehow without me noticing it we came upon a piano. Despite the infinite space, it was a compact piano. Made from medium quality wood painted a fading black, it produced a haunting melody, one I recognized as Tchaikovsky.

“It’s ‘Lake in the moonlight’” said Walter. Then I saw who was playing it. With expert, silvery fingers a Helper flawlessly re-created Tchaikovsky’s work from the sheet music in front of him. His back stiff, he wasted no motion, playing the music with efficiency and perfection just like a Helper would.

“May I have a turn, Walter?” Asked Walter.

“Certainly, Walter,” replied the Helper, possibly Walter Caretaker, although it was hard to tell one from another, stopping abruptly in the middle of a note and standing to offer his bench.

I noticed there was a chair behind me and I sat. My husband took the bench and turned back the sheet music to the beginning of the song. His first note was wrong. Then he tried again and he hit the keys too hard, rendering Tchaikovsky’s subtleties into a cacophonous mess. He recoiled from his own music and grimaced sheepishly at me “heh, it’s been a while.” The Helper stood to the side, showing no evidence of impatience or irritation in its ingratiating :).  Walter cracked his fingers, took a deep breath and tried again. Starting off below tempo, he continued through a series of off-keys and double-keys until he started to get comfortable. Soon he was playing “Lake in the moonlight” with the best of them. I had heard a lot of Walter’s music, and I could notice the occasional small mistake that most people would miss, I enjoyed listening to him more than I had the Helper.

When I watched my husband play, he played like a human. He wasted effort and energy lifting his hands off the keys to bring them further down in more dramatic portions, his whole body would sink and rise, dip and slide with Tchaikovsky’s melodies. Unlike the Helper, who may have well cared about his music as much as a CD player, I could tell my husband was feeling the same things that I was.

Then I felt a glimmer of understanding. “What if you play together?” I blurted.

My husband was consumed by his music. The Helper walked to me. “How should we do that, Diane?”

“I-well, can you, can you simulate instruments? Y’know, like using your speaker.” Walter’s music played on behind us.

“Yes I can,” said the Helper, “but it will not sound as good as live.”

“Okay. Why don’t you be the rest of the orchestra?”

The Helper considered it. Finally, he said “Maybe I have some friends who can help.”

It was then that I noticed we were surrounded by a company of Helpers. Each had an instrument. An orchestra. As Walter continued playing, the orchestra found his position and accompanied him. “Conduct us Diane!” shouted the previously piano-playing Helper, now seated behind a cello. I started to wave my arms in time with the music, but realized quickly that the Helper orchestra didn’t actually need someone who had never conducted anything in her life to conduct them now. I felt a little patronized, but it passed.

I sat down in my chair and listened to the Tchaikovsky flooding the infinite emptiness. I closed my eyes and separated out each instrument in my head. Everything was flawless. Without mistake, and elegant in its efficiency.  Everything except the piano. Walter played very well, but not with robotic precision. He made up for it though, I realized. Not just by enjoying it, but because he could enjoy it, he played differently. There was an extra indefinable feeling in the music from the piano. All of the instruments were beautiful, more so together, but the piano made the piece come alive.

I stopped analyzing. I sat in my chair and let the music wash over me. In time, I felt the light become blinding again, but now I was ready. If I was going back to rejoin humanity once more, somehow I knew this time I’d be able to save it. I could save everyone. Really, I could.

The Cleaners Part 34: Showdown

No sooner had I stated my intention than Flora put her hand to her ear again. I wasted no time, going around the table the way where there were not three frozen Helpers just waiting to collapse and start grabbing for me. “Selling out humanity?” asked a familiar voice from the living room, “If the price is rie rie rie right, isn’t that right Diane? Diane Diane Diane?”

The nearer Helpers weren’t moving at all. Ella could only control one at a time! At least I hoped that was what was happening. I was slow, but the voice from the living room was slower. By the time I’d made it to Flora, she’d only been able to use the table to heft herself up from her chair. “Ella!” she shouted into her ear-piece, “if I don’t contact you again in an hour – ” I reached out and yanked it off of her head, feeling something small and plastic snap. Stiff with defiance, Flora continued speaking, now at the top of her lungs, glancing back toward the Helper behind her, which was still shouting my name. “You should deactivate the safety right away! Without Diane’s help there’s no preliminary organization we can do!” I threw the earpiece to the floor and, reaching a hand out to the table to steady myself, stomped on it with all my might. Then I reached out to try and push Flora back into her chair. “Their blood will be on your hands Diane!” she was screeching, “All the additional people who die because you couldn’t see past your shallow ideals to help us do what needs to be done!” She sat down before my hand reached her, confirming that she was as fragile as I thought she might be.

If anyone deserves to die… How many people can you save if you just push over this chair?

I saw the zombie helper, its flashing screen showing stock footage of animals led to slaughter and dripping blood. It couldn’t be more than a minute away. “What will you say to their families Diane!?” taunted Flora over the din of clanking and screeching metal and my name shouted endlessly. “I’m sorry you lost your son Mrs. Smith, but it was between him and some robots!” Her argument was absurd, but effective. If I failed more people would die than if I hadn’t tried.

Push the chair onto the Helper. A helper can be repaired after we’ve rid the world of murderous old women.

“What will I be then!?” I shouted at the suddenly terrifying voice in my head.

Flora, who thought I was responding to her, didn’t know what to make of my words. The Helper was at her chair, trying and failing to reach me through the legs with noisy, scraping grasps and increasingly shrill shouts of “DIANE! DIANE!” After a few attempts, it started making its way around the chair.

You’re out of time. You have to – “No!” I screamed, clutching my hands to my head. In desperation, I whipped out my phone and pulled up the Helper App. Backing up from the chair as cold, glittering hands swiped at me, I scrolled through the list of services. “Where are the Protectors!?” I shouted. Backing into the kitchen, I resorted to the old-fashioned approach. I summoned the little keypad on my phone and punched in “9 – 1 – 1.”

I retreated further to the door to the back porch as a familiar voice, this time in a comforting way, greeted me. “Yes,” I said, opening the porch door and slipping through, closing it after me, “they can shut down Helpers, so send as many protectors as you can, maybe they can’t – what? Oh yes, that’s splendid!”

With my back against the door, I listened to the thump of the Helper trying to break the glass and tried to ignore the muffled screams of “Diane Diane.” I pulled out my keys and locked the door, forgetting again that that was useless. The Helper pulled the latch and opened the door behind me as I made my way down the steps and back around to the front of the house. My legs burned and ached from the stress and the sudden exertion, but as long as I kept hobbling forward, I was still faster than someone dragging himself by his hands. By time I got back to my front porch, I saw Flora hanging onto the railing trying to keep herself steady as she made her escape. I walked up onto the steps and stood in front of her.

“It’s not too late,” she told me. “You can still save humanity. You don’t have to lose any sleep. We’ll do it all. Just let me past and tell yourself whatever you want at night. You’re a good person Diane. I can be the bad guy and when things are back to normal you can just tell yourself-”

“Shut up, Flora,” I whispered, exasperated. “Just shut up. When have things ever been normal?”

Flora spat. She literally spat into the garden beside my front porch. “How can you write off the end of humanity-“

“I’m not writing anything off, Flora. I would’ve thought you’d know better than I did. Yammering about the end of the world – that’s a young person’s game. I can’t speak for you, but once I got to 86, I’d seen so many ends of the world, I realized that’s just how it happens. Things change. I think that really that’s okay. As long as we don’t start any wars” I said “wars” pointedly, “things will generally change for the better over the long run.”

Flora glared at me. “Is it better to have humans completely replaced by robots?” She started trying to push past me, but I stood strong. I heard the “Diane Diane” of the Helper dragging itself to the front of the house. I could only stall so much longer.

“I won’t let that happen. They don’t even want it to happen.” I called out to the approaching Helper, “Ella! You can clearly see through your stolen eyes, but can you hear me?”

The Helper kept shouting my name. As I looked away, Flora pushed herself off of the banister and toward the other side. I took two steps and remained in her way. “I know you’re in pain Ella. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the people who hurt you. You’re right to be angry.” I tried to think of what my point was or even if I had correctly surmised Ella’s motives as I saw the Helper, now covered in mud and grass, coming into view.

“What are you going to do Diane? How are you going to save humanity?” Asked Flora, apparently giving up getting past me. I looked back at the poor Helper compelled to drag itself through the mud and thought about all the pain and suffering that made people lash out at each other. That made these terrible wars possible. The Helpers don’t feel that. None of it. They won’t start a stupid war for selfish reasons, right? They also don’t feel love, I countered. No compassion, no empathy beyond what’s required to perform their duty. Is that enough? How will people be able to get what they need when no one needs them? I furrowed my brow in consternation at the magnitude of the problem. Then I felt a push.

It was a light push, probably the most Flora could manage. Nothing even a woman of my age couldn’t handle. I reached out a foot to steady myself, only to realize in horror that there was nothing there. Time seemed to slow down as I fell backward, the walkway pavement rushing up towards me, the roof of my porch giving way to clear blue sky. Flora grappling with the banister to keep herself from falling along with me, the look of surprise and hope in her face as she realized her desperate gambit had worked. The perfectly maintained empty lots across the street, sold by desperate occupants to literal faceless machines. The wild, violent face of a hacked Helper, mud-smeared and showing video of a man bug-eyed, mouth gaping in a silent scream, rounding the last bend before it would reach out and grab me. A bright light flashing, and the wail of a siren.