The Cleaners Part 8: Visitor Protocol

“Hey, everybody!” announced Jim Tour Guide to the lab. It wasn’t underground at all, as it turned out. After accepting the tour from Jim we were promptly led up two flights of stairs to a large room full of people. Unlike the dank, dimly-lit basement, this lab was with naturally lit by wall-to-wall windows on all sides. It was also full of people stationed at various shared worktables. The tables were small but sat six people each, separated only by fixed plastic dividers.

“Hey Jim.” said a small black-haired woman sitting at one of the worktables. She waved without looking up from her three gigantic monitors.

“Morning, Jim” said a heavyset man in a plain t-shirt and tan shorts, glancing back and doing a double-take when he saw us. “Hey, is today visitor protocol?”

The tan fellow next to him turned around to look at the new visitors as well. He wore khakis and a green polo shirt. He looked at me for a few moments then turned to Jim.

“Surprise visitors!” sang Jim, flinging his hands in the air as if leaping out from behind a chair. Then he shook his monitor-head. “Don’t worry about anything fancy. Your normal presentations will do!” Spinning around to us, “come right this way!”

The first stop was an asian man next to green-shirt. He was wearing headphones and evidently hadn’t heard us. He jumped when Jim tapped him on the shoulder. He stood a foot higher than Henry and he was bone thin. “Hello,” he told us in slightly accented English, “I’m Will Park. I’m a second-year graduate student working on pedagogical applications of autonomous meta-humanoids.” He reached for my hand and I shook it, “Nice to meet you.” His eyes rested on me for only a split-second longer than was comfortable, but I noticed. I glanced around the room, and everyone was giving me this treatment.

Will sat down again and Jim was already moving on to the man in the green shirt. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Greg Marshall. I’m a fourth-year PhD student working on automatic navigation of bureaucracy.” Henry laughed at this, “Ok, we do need that,” he admitted.

Greg smiled, “I know, right? I swear, I could live forever and never figure out how the system works. I’m hoping my software will mean that I’ll never have to.” Jim laughed and donned his :D face, and shuffled us off to the next student.

The man in the tan shirt, Rob Smith, gave a “woe is me” grin and told us he’d been working on improvements over the human-based multi-purpose appendage for seven years. “I’m not sure it’s publishable if I just say that our hands simply can’t be improved upon.” Jim seemed to be doing some kind of mime routine while Rob talked, pretending he was seeing his hands for the first time. Then when he was done talking, Jim led us to Vera Jones.

Vera’s black hair hung down to her ears and she made no attempt to hide that she was very interested in me. When she spoke she seemed to address only me, “I’m working on human goal recognition. To pick a completely random example, how can we help a machine to know if someone is going to try and push it over?”

Vera stared at me while I processed what she had said. After an awkward silence, Jim started to speak, but Rob interrupted him, “oh, for God’s sake, are you Angry Grandma or not?”

I must have stood dumb much longer than I thought I had, because Henry spoke for me, “This is Angry Grandma,” he said to everyone, “we are here to discuss the Cleaners with Chris Gently. Is he in?”

Rob chuckled to himself, and Jim said with his usual grin, “Dr. Gently is not available now.”

“Chris is short for Christine,” said a young woman on the other side of the office. She also had black hair although hers was much longer, held in a loose braid that went down her back. “Jim,” she continued, “I’m sure that Chris has time to see the Angry Grandma.”

Jim frowned thoughtfully, and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” Then he put his hand up to his monitor like it was a telephone and, after waiting a moment, presumably for it to ring, he said, “Dr. Gently, the Angry Grandma is here to see you.” He put his hand on his other hand like he was blocking the receiver and asked, “Is this a joke?”

“No, Jim.” said Rob.

“It’s not a joke” said Jim into his fake receiver.

Observing how utterly perplexed I had become, Greg assured me, “He interfaces directly with VoIP. The hand thing is just for our benefit.” Then, “VoIP is like phone over the Internet”

Jim continued to talk to his hand. “There are three visitors. No? All right.” He looked at us, beaming with pleasure. “Dr. Gently has agreed to see you, Angry Grandma! Please follow me.”

Ignoring the looks on our faces, Jim turned to Rob, “Would you mind giving these two gentleman the rest of the tour?”

I looked at Henry, who was scrawling notes as fast as he could on a crumpled receipt he must have found in his pocket. Before I could ask “what on Earth is going on?” He pressed it into my hand and gestured for me to follow Jim.

I looked around me at all the students. They were now all openly staring at me. I stopped leaning on my cane and stood straight. “Call me Ma’am.” I ordered Jim. He rewarded me with a :D as if nothing would make him happier, and said “Right this way, Ma’am!”

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.


  1. I like that you are able to draw on your knowledge of software terminology and work environments in your writing.

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