Tag Archives: science fiction

Carrot

Why did I think it would work? I mean I guess the flaw in my reasoning seems obvious now, but at the time I didn’t even consider that it might not work.

When I found those two little carrot seeds hidden in a discarded packet on this godforsaken junk planet, what can I tell you, I just thought who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity, you know? I mean, you can’t call the synthesized stuff you get from the Feedos real food, can you?

Those seeds were my babies. I could barely interpret the cheap paper packaging, but I followed every instruction to the letter. I collected all the food scraps I found and put them in a pile to rot and make nutritious soil. I planted the carrot seeds three inches apart. I even hoarded my water ration in an old plastic bottle to pour on them every couple days.

This was where I expected failure. Growing vegetables from seeds wasn’t easy even when I did it with schoolkids back on my home planet. One of those little seeds survived, though. Day after day I watched it grow, terrified another inmate would spot it and dig it up or carelessly step on it. For three months, that’s all I thought about. That carrot kept me going when the heat seemed unbearable and the rising stink of the garbage pile threatened to drive me mad.

It was one day that I heard a washing machine had tumbled off a pile a couple miles away and nearly killed somebody that I couldn’t wait any longer. The future wasn’t something you could count on here. It was still weeks too early, but I dug up the carrot.

It was a sight to behold – small and skinny, bent and with two ends, but vivid orange and sturdy. I couldn’t remember the last time I had something crunchy that wasn’t fried. A real carrot. It reminded me so much of home I wanted to cry.  This would be the first carrot Chucky had ever seen.

He was eleven now. Born on the ship, Chucky knew nothing of home. He fidgeted on his chair, black with the yellow foam showing in a tear on the side. “Mom said you had extra rations for me.”

“Yeah,” I said, “check out what I grew.”

He looked at me like I was going to lift my shirt to show him a tumor on my chest. I carefully unwrapped my carrot, and he squinted at it. “What is that?”

“It’s a carrot, buddy. It’s for you. Try it, it’s good.”

I held the carrot out to him, and he stared at it for some time before snatching it from my hand and putting it in his mouth.

“blech!” he shouted, throwing the carrot away into a nearby pile of old socks and takeout cups. He stared at me for a moment, then he said “that’s not carrot! What are you trying to pull?” He scowled, looking paradoxically like one betrayed, and fled. I retrieved the carrot, of course.

At supper time, I went to the vegetable Feedo and swiped through the options until I found the “carrot” option. The cartoon character representing “carrot” was smiling and bespectacled. “I’m good for your eyes!” it chirped in an overwrought falsetto. I pushed the VEND button and received a little orange box with green trim.

“Carrot” was shaped in the platonic ideal of a carrot – an oblong cone with a spiky green cap on top. The coloring was somewhat askew, with the orange of the carrot extending well into what presumably was supposed to be the green stem.

“Carrot” yielded immediately to my plastic spoon, and I scooped it up and into my mouth in the way that one ate most Feedo vegetables. As I expected, it was a sweet mush whose flavor represented only the most distant memory of that of a real carrot.

That evening, I carefully washed the dirty sock smell and ingrate saliva off of my precious carrot and consumed it bite by bite. It took most of an hour to savor that meal. It was the best I’d had in years.

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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.

This program is brought to you by mind control

Let’s take a moment to think about what an advertisement is. The goal of an advertisement is to encourage consumers to behave in a certain way, predominantly to encourage purchase of a particular product or service. Decades ago, they did this by appealing to a logical customer acting in his or her own narrow self interest. Commercials focused on the new features of each product and how it would make life easier.

Does that commercial look strange to you? Slow and needlessly technical? Well, chances are good that you are more used to commercials like this:

Or this:

First, they’re more engaging. You probably didn’t make it through the first commercial, but did the second two tell you anything about the product? Anything at all? Excepting the unlikely scenario that you didn’t know that Kia was a company that made cars or that Coca-Cola was a product that you could drink, these commercials are devoid of information that would interest homo-economicus. Well, I suppose she’d learn that Coca-Cola contains added flavors and no fruit, but that’s hardly likely to encourage her to make the purchase.

These commercials appeal to parts of our brains outside our rational decision-making. That is, they want to circumvent the parts of our brains responsible for what most of us would think of as free will. What’s that called? Is it a free exchange of ideas? Or is it  something else?

If you were offered the opportunity to see an episode of your favorite show in exchange for seven shots of a laser that beams associations such as “COCA-COLA :: FRIENDSHIP” and “COCA-COLA :: HAPPY LIFE” into your head, would you take it?

What if the laser was the entertainment? What if it told you “PHYSICAL THREATS :: EVERYWHERE,” and gave you a little chill of excitement to enliven a dull evening? Do you think it would be wise to take that laser? It’s free.

How about a laser that repeats opinions to you you already hold? You feel good for the validation, but there are other people whose lasers artificially validate their own opposing opinions. Good luck with the free exchange of ideas when mind lasers are making everyone utterly confident that their own opinion merits no examination.

What does it mean for democracy that so much money and talent is invested in controlling the minds of purchasing and voting Americans? Even if you personally avoid commercials and apply careful criticism to the other media you consume, what can you do about people who don’t? Buy your own mind laser and try to shoot them until they are ready to see reason? How has that worked for you in the past?

In a nation founded on trust in the individual’s ability to make the best rational decisions for himself and for the collective, the fact that private industry founds its strategies on the absence or weakness of public rationality should be deeply concerning.

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.