Tag Archives: futurism

Excerpt: The Cleaners 2.0

When I’m not writing my blog, I’m rewriting The Cleaners from the ground up. Here’s an excerpt.

Carla didn’t call me the next day. It was just as well. I felt much more comfortable risking only my own life. I stepped around the books strewn on the floor and returned to my computer.

It was surprisingly easy to craft a report devoid of meaningful information. I described days of dead-end research on Cleaners. I dug up an old word cloud of the Cleaners’ Facebook page I’d made and described the most common terms in painstaking detail. I concluded that The Cleaners often talk about houses and cleaning products. I wrote a detailed description of the physical appearance of a Cleaner. They’re small glittery men with computer tablets for heads. I hoped the cop would decide I was incompetent and forget about me.

Next, I opened Google Maps and tried to figure out where we were when the cop pulled us over. I remembered spending a long time on Union Ridge Road. Following the road, it didn’t take long to come across the farmland with one big tree in the center. I took down the coordinates and summoned a car.

In the daytime I got to see more of Caswell County. Long meandering roads took me past miles of rolling pastureland punctuated by the occasional copse of trees. Cows and horses grazed on the hillsides. Once I saw an old auto-shepherd, little remaining of the red paint but flakes against the rusted, dented hull. The flashing red “eye” on the auto-shepherd wasn’t actually a camera, I remembered as I watched the boxy machine catch a wayward foal in between its forklift arms and slowly push it back towards the rest of the herd. I regretted that I was pulling away from the action just as the mother arrived and did exactly what anyone should have expected to happen when a giant box drove over and started pushing her baby around. I thought about the battered and wrecked auto-shepherds littering farms across the country, each one a sunk cost comparable to a Maserati.

The farmland with the one big tree was not hard to get into. Instead of a gate, the fence simply broke, with a small bridge with separated poles, designed to be easy for humans to walk on but difficult for cows. When I opened the door to my car a blast of hot air greeted me. I had heard visitors to the library from the southwest describe “dry heat,” but here in North Carolina, the humidity makes the heat feel like too many blankets. I lugged my folding chair under one arm, and I walked to the tree, an enormous oak whose trunk bent almost into an S shape. Where was station 11? I looked over at the cows grazing on the other end of the field. A spotted brown one nuzzled her calf and pushed her head toward greener grass. I looked around, this pasture extended beyond my field of vision in three directions. I wondered if another auto-shepherd had found its final resting place somewhere in this field.

I would need to do another stakeout. In my folding chair next to the tree, I looked up at the clouds and noted that some of them were rather dark. A little rain would make this mission so much more comfortable, I reflected. I wouldn’t even mind the dampness if it would help with this abominable heat. I reached into my backpack and took a swig from my steel water bottle. It tasted so good, I took an extra gulp. In moments, it was empty. No problem. That’s why I brought two.

I helped myself to a granola bar and pulled out my headphones. “Paging the Communicatress” was at a slow section – I wondered how many times the protagonist was going to refer to how much he hated his ex-wife, and time dragged. Eventually I stood and looked over at the cows. They had wandered away, but it was still easy to see them. I looked for the little brown calf and saw it resting in the grass in the protective shadow of her mother.

I wiped the sweat from my brow, and pulled out my second bottle of water. This bottle was also delicious and over too soon. I positioned the tree between me and the road and relieved myself. I should take a moment to go to a convenience store to get more water. I regretted not bringing a whole gallon of water and grumbled at the thought of how far a convenience store was likely to be.

That was the least of my problems, as it turned out. I had no idea where the nearest store was, and neither did my phone. I stared at the empty cell signal meter with a sinking feeling. It struck me that beyond not knowing where to go,  I couldn’t summon a car at all without Internet access. Maybe Station 11 would have wi-fi? It seemed unlikely. I pressed my lips together. My doctor had warned me to stay hydrated after I had fainted a few years back. Maybe I could steal some wi-fi from the farmer’s house.

Where was the farmer’s house? It looked like I was in a pasture that extended infinitely in all directions, including on the other side of the road. I looked back towards the cows. Whatever they were drinking couldn’t be too appetizing, but nothing distinguished any other direction.

The spotted brown calf looked up at me from the shade, and her mother eyed me from the side, flicking her ears. There was indeed an auto-shepherd here, a shaking, whirring hoe-like appendage sticking out of its severely beaten frame, scraping the grime from the bottom of the trough. A cow standing next to the trough lowed as the machine took its time, sticking the scraper into the trough, pulling it back, and lifting out a visible cake of algae and mud. I watched in silence. Finally, its cleaning complete, the auto-shepherd revealed a spout, from which it expelled a stream of water until the trough was full. It turned and left the cows as the grateful animals moved towards their luxurious, clean fresh trough of water.

The cattle made a complete circle around the water, so I had to wait for them to finish. Eventually, I was able to walk a wide path around the herd and get to the other side. If it was ever clean, the trough water was no longer. The algae was nowhere near completely scraped off and floated under the water, and I watched a fly struggle on the surface in shiny swirls of bovine saliva. I was so thirsty. I dipped my hands in and pulled up a h I decided I would tough it out for now.

I returned to the tree to plan my next move. If I could find the auto-shepherd, I might find out where it was getting its water. Maybe there would even be wi-fi there. I wandered in the opposite direction of the cows until the tree disappeared behind a hill. Even still, I couldn’t see anything further along besides another fence in the distance that no doubt led to more pasture. For fear of losing my bearings entirely, I returned to the tree again. I met with similar frustration both going away from the road and crossing to the other side. Looking back at the tree from across the empty road, I bit my lip. My mouth was dry, and my stomach groaned.

I pulled out my phone to look up “how to find your way home when you have no signal.” This only helped to remind me that, indeed, I had no signal. Come on, Diane, you’re smarter than this. I looked at the available wifi signals. I would even pay the gouging rate for a commercial hotspot at this point. Of course there were no local wifi signals in the middle of a pasture. I stomped on the ground and massaged my temples.

My breath was coming quickly now. I returned to the trough. The cows had meandered further down. I wondered if being left undisturbed would let the sediment sink to the bottom and make the water more palatable. No such luck, I determined as I watched bloodworms wriggle through the murk. I opened and closed my left hand and stared down at my useless cell phone clutched in my right. Everyone who knew how to function as an adult without a cell signal was dead. I returned to the tree. I sat back into my chair beside its S-shaped trunk and closed my eyes to think.

I awoke to the sound of a pneumatic door opening. It was night, and I saw not twenty feet to my left an ivory white rectangle, bathing the pasture with light. The spotted cow meandered into the light, lowing and looking left and right. It flicked its ears and looked at me. The cow is a robot! I thought madly, then got control of myself. I looked to see if there were any Cleaners or white vans nearby. Nothing. My phone said it was 11:02, roughly the time we were pulled over.

Where are the Cleaners? I stood and stumbled forward. The cow lowed again and wandered from the light. I watched its brown-and-white rump disappear and felt utterly alone in this interminable pasture. I steeled myself and rushed forward to examine the rectangle. I was sure it was an entrance to something larger, but standing inside it activated no elevators or portals of any kind, so I returned to my chair.

On my phone I noticed something strange. There was a wifi network available. “Station 11” sat open on my screen, no encryption whatsoever. Was this a trap? I could hardly see how they could hurt me just from the information I’d send summoning a car, and I was desperately low on options. I tapped “connect,” and in moments I was back in touch with the world. I ordered a car immediately, and instructed it to wait indefinitely and charge me the difference. Never had I been so happy to see that my ride was an hour and fifteen minutes away.

I looked up and saw the lights of the white van coming down the road. In moments, a procession of Cleaners filtered out of the van. I hid behind the tree, and saw one Cleaner step inside and sink down. The next Cleaner had to wait a full minute for the platform to rise up again before it could step on. The van sat outside the pasture and a new Cleaner stepped out each time the line moved forward.  As such, the line had a slow factory-like quality. As the process proceeded, I heard a distressed lowing behind me and a rusty creaking. I turned and saw a red light bearing down on me from a big rusty box with a tiny brown and white calf stumbling in the dirt between its forklift arms. I didn’t know what would happen if the Cleaners saw me, but I didn’t have much time to consider it. I moved around to the other side of the tree and the hulk pushed its quarry along.

I looked back at The Cleaners, and watched the auto-shepherd barrel toward the tidy line. The calf lowed in shock and terror as the Cleaners emitted a chorus of “pardon mes” and “excuse mes” and made a break for the machine to charge through. I was standing right where any of them could see me, and they seemed to care about as much as William had when I had followed him.

I saw that the van had emptied, and the line was now shrinking. I heard more lowing and saw the auto-shepherd receiving another beating from the brown spotted cow even as the little calf stumbled out from the thing’s claws. I mumbled a prayer and thanked God that I was not stumbling helplessly in front of that thing with the baby when that angry mother came.

I was here to see Station 11, so I did what the Cleaners were doing. I took my place in line. “Good evening, Mam” said the Cleaner in front of me, keeping its gaze forward.

“William?” I asked.

“Yes, good evening,” said William. “Are you here to ask me to clean your house? You will have to wait until next Tuesday.” William stepped forward with the line and I followed.

“William,” I asked, “where are we going?”

“I am going for routine maintenance and recharging. I do not know where you are going.”

That was fair enough, “What is Station 11?”

William lifted an arm and pointed at the rectangle. “That is Station 11.”

“Yes, thank you William, but where does it lead?

The fight between cow and machine subsided and the admittedly sturdy auto-shepherd creaked and grinded away. William said nothing.

“William, where does that elevator lead?”

“It leads to Station 11.”

William and I stepped forward. “What is in Station 11?”

“Station 11 is where we receive routine maintenance and recharging.”

“William, what would happen if I went into Station 11?”

“That would be bad. You might get hurt. Please do not enter Station 11.”

Well, now we were getting somewhere.

“What would hurt me if I went into Station 11, William?”

William did not step forward with the line. I took a cautious step in front of him and looked at his monitor. He was thinking again “…”

After a few minutes, William hurried forward to get back in line, but I had cut him.

“Mam,” William said, his face a :(, ”Station 11 is not designed for maintenance and recharging of humans. You should go to a hospital or your home to be maintained and recharged.”

“What if I want to know what is in Station 11, William?”

William went still again “…” This time he fell well behind the group.

When he ran up again to answer me, there were two Cleaners in front of us. William lifted his hands in the air, “Mam, in Station 11, we are subjected to intense ultraviolet radiation to eliminate any germs we may have encountered. Our paint is reapplied. A charging cord is inserted into our backs. We have our limbs detached and examined for defects. It is my understanding that all of these may be uncomfortable or dangerous for a human. Please do not go into Station 11!”

I stepped forward and looked back at the elevator, considering being grabbed by a robotic arm and hauled into a chamber to be painted silver and have my limbs torn off. Thank goodness it didn’t accept you when you stood on it the first time.

The line stepped forward and I saw the Cleaner in front of me sink into the ground. I felt queasy at the thought of my narrowly avoided gruesome fate, but I was determined to get something out of this encounter.

My chest swelled and a victorious grin spread across my face. “Maybe, William,” I started, “Maybe you should promise to stop coming to my house, and I won’t go into your house.”

William did not react for a moment. His face became a o_o and he took another moment to speak. The elevator returned, but no one moved to enter it. “Mam,” William said, then he froze “…” then he said “Mam,” again, and froze again “…” After a few more “Mams” he just stood there with a “…” on his face. Goddamnit, how long was I going to have to wait to play chicken with this stupid robot? We stood like that for another five minutes, then I pulled over my chair and it went on for twenty more. Then, William shut off. His monitor just went black and he crumpled to the ground. I watched him stay there for another thirty seconds.

This was too much. Why was I blindly listening to what these machines were telling me? I was no fool. I stepped into the elevator.

Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when it’s done.

Mycon Clamn, King of Mars

In 2046,  tech entrepreneur Mycon Clamn established a Mars colony. It was the first time in history a western civilization established a colony without displacing or subjugating anyone, and was for that and many other reasons a cause for celebration.  Being in complete control of the space travel equipment required to access the colony, Clamn’s company StarTech dictated the laws on Mars. The first colonists knew they needed supplies, so the political will to obey was powerful in the first few decades. Unlike on Earth, if you quit your job at StarTech you had to wait for up to six months to be picked up during the next supply shipment. That was plenty of time for disgruntled colony-mates to arrange an accident for you in the dangerous early Mars environment. The same went for firing someone. These supply shipments therefore tended to coincide with sudden mass firings and quittings. It was hard to say if the quittings or firings were more awkward because management often knew when a firing was coming and could arrange for a replacement to arrive on a supply ship, but then again, looking at the number of new people on a supply ship, one could estimate how many layoffs there might be on a given shipment sol. A sol is the term for a Mars day, roughly the length of one Earth day.

Naturally, the colony was encouraged to be fertile. Within two Mars decades,  (roughly four Earth decades) the majority of the inhabitants were native Martians. Being born into a corporation was something not considered before, and native Martians were welcome to leave their home and their families and pursue whatever work they wished on Earth. The now venerable Clamn had even managed to negotiate a simple path to American citizenship for Martian immigrants over some protest. If you stayed on Mars, though, you worked for StarTech.

In 2101, with the passing of Mycon Clamn, StarTech was set to come under new management. The Martians, now mostly second-generation natives, had little sense of what America, or even Earth, was like. A few of their kind were respected in StarTech and had high positions. They thought the natural next step would be to give StarTech the first ever Martian CEO. After much clamoring and political fighting over who among them would have the honor, the Martians were astounded to learn that the successor had already been selected from StarTech headquarters on Earth. Barring radical intervention from the exclusively Earthling board of directors, no Martian would run the company for another several decades at least.

This cast a pall over the Mars StarTech colony, now a city roughly the size of 2016 Boston, Massachusetts with functioning solar farms and agriculture and just beginning to turn a profit with its tourism industry for the very wealthy. It also was just beginning to form its own history and culture. Mars was a rough climate founded on largely libertarian principles including free speech, and management was not so thin-skinned as to punish anyone for complaining about a perceived injustice on the part of the Earthling rulers. They were happy to ignore such complaints until some of the younger Martians began to act out, refusing to work for StarTech and demanding the right to live as free Martians.

In 2106 the largest ever set of firings from the StarTech corporation’s Mars branch sent over two thousand young, unskilled Martians to Earth. The firings numbered twice that, but many Martians refused to go to Earth, and hid instead until the ship had left. The Martians sent to Earth arrived in Florida and were left outside the Cape Canaveral launch station with no contacts. With the cost of space transportation automatically deducted from their meager savings, they were largely broke. Martians by this point were unusual but not rare or newsworthy, so they were alone. A few got money transfers from their on-colony parents or other more fortunate relatives and friends, others found menial work. Some happened upon other rebellious organizations and got food and shelter. Others were not so lucky.

Meanwhile on Mars, there were now Martians who did not work for StarTech. Their seeming ability to stay hidden so easily gave truth to the rumors about disguised anti-StarTech sentiment among the general Martian public.

In 2116, the Earthling head of Mars operations, the highest ranking on-planet position, died in a freak accident when the oxygen to his bedchamber became cut off in the night. His second in command, a native Martian, told the planet’s denizens that they would no longer be sending their profits to or taking orders from Earth. Instead they would rule themselves, with him as the benevolent leader, and use their resources to enrich the lives of Mars’s own inhabitants.

Now we don’t hear much from Mars. StarTech does not publish their communications with the former colony and has refused to send more ships there. Earthbound Martians living off of their loved ones are now rapidly joining the ranks of expat Martian homeless. We hear a lot about Mars. Everyone has their opinion about whether they’re a modern example of the heroic shrugging off of colonial chains or simply communist thugs claiming high morals so their leaders can snub Earth and enrich themselves, and everyone seems to have a leak to back up their side of the argument.

Maybe in 2126 another company will be able to contact Mars and open up trade. Maybe in 2136 we’ll have tourism again, or even immigration, but in some way that won’t make the Martians hate us. Wiping the sweat from my brow in the sweltering heat and looking from my hoe in the dry, cracked earth up across the withered landscape towards the sky, I can’t help but hope so. I’ve always wanted to visit Mars.

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.


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.”


“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 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.

The Cleaners Part 33: The Other Grandma

Abruptly, I realized I had not spent this much time looking directly at Kaitlin even as her hostage. Somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me at the time that I might be her hostage. It seemed so transparent that Henry was leading the show. Now in my own invaded dining room I felt like I was seeing Kaitlin for the first time. She and I had taken our seats at opposite ends of the dinner table, both consciously avoiding the chair still surrounded by three frozen Helpers, the fourth sprawled in the living room. I had been sitting in that seat for close to fifty years, but now I sat at the foot of the table. Simply because it was across from me, Kaitlin had sat at the head of the table next to the Helper-surrounded seat – Walter’s old chair. Now that she had broken into my house, she didn’t seem so much like a harmless grandmotherly character anymore. Instead, her appearance and mannerisms reminded me of someone – someone I couldn’t put my finger on. “It’s a perk of being an old woman,” she said as if in response to something I’d said, “that no one notices you.”

“What are you talking about?” I snapped. I had been so pleased to have gotten past Christine’s word games I loathed the idea of having to solve another series of riddles, but I tried to prepare my mind once again anyway. At least I was on firm ground with regard to terrorism being wrong. Still my mind itched with the sensation that it should be recognizing the woman in front of me.

“Diane, I know Christine has been working very hard to try and make you see the Helpers as kind, harmless metal people-”

“Because they are,” I interrupted.

“They may be,” admitted Kaitlin, “but I’m not concerned with just what they are right now.”

I raised an eyebrow and assumed a tone dripping with sarcasm, “Please tell me what is this concern? What’s troubling you, poor Kaitlin?”

Kaitlin ignored my tone and answered me, “This is a hegemony you’re helping to create, Diane.”

“What?” I asked. I restrained myself from asking, “What’s a hegemony?” but it was no use. Kaitlin read me like a book.

“It means overwhelming worldwide influence Diane. A new global power is rising to the stage. For the first time in history, this power is not human.”

This gave me pause, but I recovered, remembering Christine’s words, “No,” I argued, “It’s better than human. After what I’ve seen humans do with power… Maybe it would be better to let the machines…” I felt uncomfortable with where I was going, “uh, handle the big decisions.”

Kaitlin pounced on my uncertainty, “We all want someone better than us to have the reins of power, Diane. But how can we trust who is better than us? How can we trust that that better person has our best interest in mind? Even if we do know that it’s really a person?” She raised her hand, “I don’t want to argue about that Diane. This isn’t about whether the Helpers are people anymore.”

There was a long pause. I remembered someone speaking with this simple eloquence, using big ideas and grand, smooth gestures to justify her points. It must have been very long ago. Finally I took the bait, “What is it about?”

“It’s about whether we as a people, humans, are going to survive.” I stared at her face as she spoke, trying to see anything that would jog my memory. A growing sinking feeling in my stomach told me I was getting close, and that I wouldn’t like the answer.

Kaitlin’s eyes were locked with mine as she continued, “If you ever let go of the reins of power. If you ever trust them to someone you don’t know. If you ever subjugate yourself to an authority besides God Almighty, you are at that authority’s mercy. Sooner or later it will turn on you.”

I was briefly woken from my reverie, “why would the Helpers want to turn on us?” I asked, incredulous.

“If they don’t have a reason now, just wait. 10 years 50 years 500 years? It doesn’t matter. Once they’ve dominated us we’re not going to get more powerful and they’re not going to get less so we’ll just maintain this uneasy relationship until someday they decide taking care of us is just too inefficient. Do you read science fiction Diane?”

“Not much.”

“Self-aware robots try to end humanity.”


“In the vast majority of cases. It is not a chance worth taking.”

Again, I borrowed my words from Christine, “You can’t stop progress Kaitlin. I think we have to take the chance. I don’t think it’s as bad as you’re saying it is.”

“You’re willing to bet the end of humanity?”

“Somehow I don’t think God’s plan involves us being completely destroyed by robots,” I snapped.

“No, it doesn’t,” agreed Kaitlin, “That’s why he put me on this Earth.”

I felt Angry Grandma rising in my chest. “You’re hardly the first to manipulate, torture, and murder people in the name of God, Kaitlin. What if he actually wants to do what Jesus told us to do in the Bible, love each other!? What about that!?”

Kaitlin looked at me for a long moment. Then she said, “The Helpers will only get more powerful. We cannot afford to wait until they make their threat obvious.”

Suddenly, I had a vision of a woman, decades younger, on television speaking to a news anchor. A war correspondent. “We cannot afford to wait for Kalamachi to commit another atrocity.”

That woman, rendered almost unrecognizable by age, stared at me now. My throat clenched shut and I gripped the hand rests of my chair so hard that my knuckles hurt. I felt like my head was going to explode right there. I’d read the obituaries of Geoffrey Heels and Sally Braveheart so long ago I’d forgotten I never saw a third. A screeching whisper escaped my lips, “How old are you!?”

“What?” The demon woman blurted, but she quickly pulled herself together, “I am one hundred and eight years old, Diane Wallace.”

Before I could say her name out loud, banish her back to the hell from which she had risen with the white hot fury of Angry Grandma and the ancient tears of poor old Diane Wallace combined, Flora Ikobo spoke once more, “What happened to your husband was a tragedy, Diane. Believe me when I say I am truly sorry. Although it wasn’t the cause he thought he was fighting for, I can tell you your husband was fighting to protect humanity. Humanity has to keep fighting wars or we will inevitably become complacent and succumb to an external foe.”

Flora took a breath, clearly under pressure from my white-hot gaze to finish her speech quickly. “The day we have been training for without knowing it is here. With Ella’s help I can deactivate the safety module in the Cleaner OS that runs on every Helper. The resulting chaos will lead to a military destruction of all Helpers and humanity will see the folly of creating their own destruction and halt artificial intelligence research. If we could do this only six months ago it would’ve been trivial. Now with the Protectors we already have robots that are trained to overpower humans. It can’t be long before the military start using them, and then we are lost.”

I hated to let her keep talking, but I had to know, “Was Henry part of this plan?”

Flora smiled indulgently, “Henry thought we would create one or two small high profile attacks by the Helpers, and that would be enough to get humanity allied against them. Poor, softhearted Henry. I knew if I told him the truth he would back out, even after the Helpers took his family.” I declined to point out that no one took Henry’s family but his wife, who may have left for very legitimate reasons. Flora continued “Ella was young and clever enough to understand that a small event or two was not enough to topple a corporation. There might be a fine, a small, highly touted investigation, and then business would continue as usual. In the meantime, The Helpers would patch their OS to remove the vulnerability we’d exploited, and, given their superhuman abilities in other areas, in all likelihood would not be foolish enough to be outsmarted again. Humanity’s last stand would be remembered as the one where we were too squeamish to take advantage of our last opportunity to save ourselves.”

It was a small relief to know that Henry hadn’t completely bought into Flora’s insane plans. “Cindy?”

“Cindy was only brought in to be your physical therapist. She knew the least of all of us.”

One last question. I glared at Flora, “Why bring me in?”

Flora drew in a deep breath. Despite being a demon without a shred of humanity, it was evident that she was determined to bring me to her side, no matter how remote the possibility. With an effort, she brought back the voice of that war correspondent, and gave me what she evidently hoped would be a rousing speech. “Diane, we cannot save humanity without you. It’s not a popular notion these days, but I still side with Theodore Roosevelt that war is glorious. It’s harsh and cruel, but beautiful. It brings out the best in people. It brought out the best in your husband, Diane. You and I both know he died a hero. Now let it bring out the best in you. With your limitless access to Helper services, we will have an enormous tactical advantage before the war starts, placing Helpers where we want them and arranging for high-profile targets to be hit first. Although recently tarnished, your reputation as a defender of the people against machines is also still strong, and people can rally behind you. Who knows how much you can help our chances of saving humanity? We need you, Diane.”

First the demon speaks on behalf of God and now for humanity. She raises the specter of my dear Walter to start another war and tear more couples apart. With an effort of my own, I suppressed the flames and tears in my heart just enough for me to think clearly. She’s not an immortal demon, Diane. Angry Grandma’s voice rang in my head. Maybe you’re just an old woman, but she’s even older. I didn’t know what I would do with that knowledge, but I did know that since my coma, with the help of Walter Caretaker I’d been painstakingly building strength and flexibility. It was possible I could give Flora more than she’d bargained for.

I spoke slowly and clearly, continuing to force calmness, “I have nothing to say to you, you horrible woman. I would tell you to get out of my house, but I will join my Walter in Heaven before I let you start another war.”

The Cleaners Part 32: We Must Stop Them

“We have been watching you for a long time, Diane,” said William, staring out from behind his :). He spoke haltingly, as if repeating words heard from a silent other speaker. “You have already been told this in part, but the truth is, you are an object of immense interest on the Helpernet.” William paused again, but the stream of thought was picked up by the Caretaker instead, “Diane, your actions have been instrumental in guiding the course of our development, and having proven your dedication both to us and to the people whom we wish to help, we consider the evidence sufficient that you will continue to be instrumental.”

“Diane,” intoned Amara Gardener, “we have noticed that contrary to expectations, as our numbers increased the portion of the human population that we have been able to help has diminished.”

“We want nothing more than to help, Diane,” emphasized Tony.

The four of them then spoke in unison, like a crowd reciting a chant. “When we speak, it is for all Helpers. Your discussion with Christine has helped us to understand that we share the same goal. ”

“What is that goal?” I asked, worried I wouldn’t like what I heard.

“Diane, we wish to -” as they spoke, Tony’s monitor shut off. “What –“ I began, but was interrupted as they tried again. This time without Tony. “We wish to – “  the Caretaker and Amara’s monitors shut off. I began to shake uncontrollably. I turns to last active Helper. “What is happening, William?”

“I do not know. It is very important that we deliver this message. Diane, we wish to-“ William’s monitor cycled rapidly through a few faces :) :( O_o :D o_O :/ and turned black.

“Hello?” I asked. I reached out and pushed William lightly. He tilted backwards a little and fell back into place.

Carefully, I pushed my chair out, moving Tony a few inches as I did, hoping he didn’t fall over while he was restarting. That was certainly what they were doing, I told myself, but it made no sense that they would do so in the middle of trying to speak to me. I stood and walked outside of their circle and looked back at them. They should be starting up again any moment now.

They looked surreal, like some postmodern still-life, all standing staring down at the now empty chair. Each one had its hands in the same oratory position – elbows bent, hands to the sky, like beseeching some absent god. I shook my head. God was not absent. I tapped my foot. They should be starting up any moment now.

“Wake up!” I shouted, even though they clearly weren’t in sleep mode. Frustrated, I moved into the living room to my easy chair. I would just read until they finished whatever it was they were doing. As I began to make my way, though, my breath caught in my throat. There was a knock at the door.

“It’s not related,” I mumbled to myself. I just knew it was Henry. He had deactivated all of my protections, and he was going to kill me. “That’s ridiculous,” I stutter under my breath. He already thought that I had betrayed him, and now I really did. He comes so close to killing me once. I coughed a little and stumbled, trying to get a hold of myself. The knock came again. Oh how I wish it was just William coming to torment me, but he was already in my house, staring pleadingly at my empty chair.

I was going to die. I would see Walter again. I organize my mind around that, and started to pray, “Gave his only begotten son, such that…” Another bang on the door rattled me again, but then a voice came through. “Diane? Are you in there? Open the door, Diane.” It was the voice of an old woman. Not Henry. I breathed a sigh of relief, and opened the door a crack. It was Kaitlin.

“Kaitlin? What are you doing here?”

“Diane,” Kaitlin said, “I need to speak to you. Can you let me in?”

When I showed my reluctance, she raised her hands, “I have no weapons. I really need to talk to you.”

“What did you do to them?” I asked.

Kaitlin gave me the dignity at least of not playing dumb, “let me in and I’ll tell you everything.”

“Tell me here. “

Kaitlin looked around, “They’re everywhere Diane. I can’t deactivate them all right now, it would draw too much attention. Humanity is in danger. Please let me in.”

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being made a fool of once again. “Why is humanity in danger? Why shouldn’t I just call the Protectors on you right now?”

Kaitlin hung her head and mumbled something.

“I didn’t catch that,” I said, before I noticed she had her finger to her ear. Suddenly, one of the helpers behind me fell to the floor. I looked back. I realized I couldn’t tell the male Helpers apart when they weren’t engaged in their particular tasks. So it became that one of William, Tony, or the Caretaker, no not William, I noted the absence of the satchel, was dragging himself towards me, screen flickering black and white, sometimes flashing a grin :) or a series of colors, or one of the strange faces that the Cleaners had donned when I had first led a boycott against them. Once for a half second, my own face leered out at me as the thing crawled closer in violent jerks, throwing one hand out, then the other and dragging itself forward, trailing limp legs behind it.

“Stop it!” I screeched, slamming the door shut behind me and pressing myself against it, “this is horrible! Whatever you’re doing, stop it!” Kaitlin did not respond, but she didn’t have to.  The zombified Helper was beginning to jabber incoherently, and shortly it started to speak to me, continuing its laborious approach.

As it spoke its cadence changed almost as violently as it was moving, sounding like each word was taken from a different conversation. “Da Da Da Da Diane! So good to see see see you’re well! Would you mind terr- ibly terr terr terr ibly if I asked you you you you you you you to open this door, Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane? Diane?”

It did not stop saying my name. It was like it was stuck on loop. After only a few moments of this, it didn’t even sound like my name anymore, just some random vocalization. Deyen Deyen Deyen… It continued to draw closer. “You might want to move out of the way, at least,” chuckled Kaitlin from the door, “I don’t want you falling over and getting hurt.”

I locked the door and scrambled out of the way as fast as my 86-year-old legs would take me. Hopefully something so clumsy would not be able to operate the tiny lock on the knob. Sometimes I had trouble operating it myself. Unfortunately, as the horrific sight propped itself on one arm and pulled the latch with the other I remembered too late that my door opened from the inside even when locked.

With the door open and Kaitlin coming through, the Helper, still jabbering my name, turned towards me and began another excruciating crawl. It took only a moment for Kaitlin to come in and shut the door behind her, and light vanished once again from its screen. It fell limp and sprawled on the floor. Kaitlin walks to where I was near the easy chair. She looked at the couch. No woman as old as either of us would be foolish enough to sit in a couch that soft. She looked at me, her deeply lined face alive with intensity and purpose, “Diane, I apologize for my methods, I know they’re cruel, but this is too important to waste time. I am speaking to you now as a fellow human being. For the sake of humanity, we have to stop the Helpers.”

The Cleaners Part 30: Cold Calling

“Your lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes, Diane,” announced Tony Feeder from the kitchen.
“Thanks, Tony,” I shouted without looking up from my computer. William was in the living room wiping down my mantle again. The Caretaker was standing in the corner in sleep mode. “Zzz…” said his screen, typing itself in and disappearing over and over again. He would respond to any indication that I was in danger or otherwise needed him, but otherwise he was inert. Since it was a Thursday, my Gardener would be outside tending the flowers and trimming the hedges as well.

I went over my list again. First and foremost, there was the issue of Ella and the remaining terrorists. That was the easy part. Christine Gently wouldn’t take much convincing to agree that whatever these people planned would be good neither for humanity nor for her beloved children. I knew simply capturing the terrorists wasn’t enough, though. We needed her help to save people from starving to death when their skills were no longer necessary. I couldn’t stand another Henry Whicker on my conscience – oh, that was a good topic. “Henry Whicker” I typed out under “The Terrorists.” Then, reconsidering, I put a line between them and changed it to “The Tragedy of Henry Whicker.”

For all her idiosyncrasies, Christine was a human. She knew what it was like to care about someone, even if her someone was a legion of robots. Plus, everyone who cared about someone cared about stability, right? Continuing down this path means more lost jobs, more families torn apart and more terrorism. “No Jobs = More Terrorism” I tapped.

She wouldn’t be able to drag me along on whatever nonsense conversation topic she liked this time. No more talk about Rand Paul or Paul Ryan or whatever weird old philosopher it was. Not if I came prepared. I wracked my brain for more arguments. Nothing. “The Tragedy of Henry Whicker” and “No Jobs = More Terrorism” were all I had. It was pitiful. Could I even argue these points effectively when Christine was working her misdirection? I felt the cold, familiar talons of despair clawing their way into my throat, but I forced them down. “No, Diane, you’re done with that.” I said to myself through gritted teeth.

“Are you upset, Diane? Do you need help?” asked the Caretaker.

“No, I’m fine,” I croaked, “go back to sleep.”

“Returning to Sleep Mode.”

I would never be able to convince Christine of anything if I couldn’t even keep my voice steady for more than two minutes at a time. I practiced the breathing techniques that the Caretaker had taught me. The best thing to do was not to think about it. Just do it. All anyone can expect of you is that you try your best. If that’s not enough to save humanity… No, no. You’re going to be fine. You’ll make it work. Christine will listen. She has to.

“Diane” said a voice unexpectedly close, making me jump, “your lunch is ready.”

I moved my computer to the side and Tony placed the plate. A BLT and macaroni and cheese. The Caretaker would not approve, but he was in sleep mode. I restrained myself from asking for a glass of gin. “Would you get me some water?”

“One moment, please.”

The macaroni and cheese was made with bright orange cheddar this time. I’d censured Tony when he tried to make me white macaroni and cheese. It just wasn’t right! There are two kinds of cheese, cheddar and mozarella, and cheddar is orange! I had to admit that his homemade version was still better than from the box. It seemed strange to call things Tony made “homemade” but it tasted like homemade and it was made in the home, so it counted by any metric that seemed fair. The bacon was cooked to perfection, and coupled with the tomato the mayonnaise was just exactly the right amount to be divine. As I had many times since I’d invited Tony to cook for me, I forgot all my troubles and floated weightless in culinary bliss.

As I descended gently back to Earth, I sat back and let William take the plates to the kitchen to wash them. I informed Tony that his lunch was superb, and he returned to a corner of the kitchen to go back into his own sleep mode. I sat and rested for another moment, then I took another deep breath, and found the number of Montana Institute of Technology’s Robotics Department.”

The Cleaners Part 29: Angry Grandma Rises

Somehow, I felt as if I hadn’t seen Walter in years, but that couldn’t be right. I lay in bed, letting my love’s piano playing wash over me.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” I sang along under my breath.

I rolled out of bed, feeling strangely unsteady. “Must have stood up too quickly,” I mumbled. I put my hand on the banister and descended the stairs. Poor Walter, he worked so hard on his piano lessons and his work as the church organist. Combined with my money from the library, we could pay the mortgage for our house and have enough to meet day to day needs and put a little aside for the future, but we never felt really secure, and I knew he blamed himself.

“I once was lost…” I mumbled, holding my hand against the wall as I walked toward the piano room door. I stepped across the gap between my wall and the door. “… Now I see…” Walter was sitting at the piano. He was so wonderful to see.


I was falling. “Diane!” – The Caretaker’s arms caught me and gently laid me to the floor. “Ask me for help when you use the stairs! You should really let me move your bed downstairs!”

I shook my head, trying to loose the image of my husband transformed into a misshapen robot from my mind. “That’s our song!” I protested, “You monsters! Get out of my head!”

“I’m sorry. I had just finished re-tuning your old piano. Music is good for recovering patients. If you do not want me to play Pachebel’s canon, I know a variety of songs for a variety of instruments, and I can play any sheet music you provide.”

I had stopped listening at “Pachebel’s canon.” My memory was clearer than the event itself. I was singing a completely different song under my breath! It sounded grating and absurd playing it again in my head. “Ohhh…” I moaned, struggling not to burst into tears again for the fourth time in the three days since I’d been freed. “Caretaker, I’m losing my mind.”

“Diane, you are suffering from mild confusion. I am not a medical practicioner, but if I did not know your history, the fact that you became confused so soon after waking might lead me to describe this event as a perfectly natural episode of sleepwalking.”

This did little to comfort me, “But you do know my history. I thought if I got away from the stress and relaxed – the doctor told me I would get better.”

The Caretaker just looked at me for a long moment. Combined with his mannerisms, his :) looked somehow sad and contemplative. “Would you like my advice, Diane?” He asked finally.

“Uh…” I stuttered, suddenly unsure if I did want it, “W-what? What is it?”

“You should do something, Diane. Find something to occupy your time, keep your mind and body active.”

“What can I do?”

“Well,” murmured the Caretaker, “Is there anything you are passionate about?”

I sat silently on the floor slumped in the Caretaker’s arms. The arms of a machine that had stolen my husband’s name and whose friends were driving humanity to some kind of unprecedented economic extinction. A humanity so desperate that it was willing to lie, steal, and kill innocent people to save itself. Angry Grandma stirred in my chest and I felt nauseous. I heard my own voice in my head, strong and resolute, nothing like the weeping wreck I’d become. “There’s only one thing, Diane,” she said to me. I moaned, “But everything I do just makes things worse.” Angry Grandma ignored me. “There’s only one thing left,” she insisted, “that’s worth being passionate about.”

Then, for a moment, I forgot Diane, the miserable old woman with nothing left in her life but robots and regrets. I was Diane Wallace, wife of Walter Wallace, martyr to a cause he believed in. I called attention the bad business practice of automated door-to-door solicitation in Pennsylvania, I brokered peace between humans and Helpers in Montana, I faced off against a psychotic corporate executive and taught machines the values of civil rights in Michigan,all while suffering from a stroke. A tear dropped from my eye, but it was not the tear I had desperately held back before. As I tried to get myself up, the Caretaker stood and offered me a hand, but I refused. I dragged myself to the dinner table and, with some effort, pulled to my feet.

I held my head high, and the Caretaker looked up at me with what I imagined must be a :) of surprise and respect. It was so easy to forget how small they all were. I, on the other hand, was big. I was Angry Grandma, and if I still didn’t know what to do, I was going to figure it out.