The Cleaners Part 11: Penalties

It was Mark that knocked on my door. “Can you get your stuff together in five minutes? Dad wants to go catch our plane.”

When he took my bag from me to toss in the car, Henry acted like nothing had happened at all. He calmly described the logistics of our travel home to us as he and Mark packed our vehicle. It had already been arranged that I would lift no heavy bags. The Camry beeped at us when Henry turned it on, “Please remember to buckle your seat belts,” it reminded us in a smooth woman’s voice. Henry clicked his seatbelt in and spoke to the car, “Take us to Billings Logan.”

“Billings Logan Airport.” the car agreed, pulling out of the parking space. Mark donned earbuds and his phone hovered in front of him, projecting a game on the back of Henry’s seat, which Mark played by waving his arms in an obscure sequence of movements. I couldn’t see much of the game from my front seat, but occasionally the entire screen was covered in blood, which seemed to make Mark upset. Henry in the meantime pulled out his book and read. I had my e-reader, but there was still important business to discuss.

“Henry,” I said. Henry’s lips pursed and lowered into a frown and he took his time to finish his page and carefully place his bookmark. Then he turned to me and smiled broadly. I grit my teeth. “Henry,” I repeated, “we should work with the Anti-cleaners to develop an argument to convince the Cleaners to respect our rights.”

“Our rights not to be cleaned.” Henry confirmed, his smile unwavering, but his eyes dull. “Aaagh,” groaned Mark from the back seat, absorbed in his game.

“Yes,” I said. The Camry activated its blinker and switched smoothly into the left lane. Henry repeated himself, “We’re going to convince the robots whose purpose in life is to clean that in fact it is better for them not to clean.” He tinged his smile with the slightest sneer.

I frowned. “I didn’t say it was easy, Henry.”

Henry’s fake smile curdled, and he dropped all pretense. “Look, I don’t know why you’re suddenly convinced that these machines have souls, but it just so happens that we have already dropped destroying Cleaners as a tactic. Rob was actually the only one we did destroy. After that, we got a cease and desist letter from The Cleaners corporate warning us that we’d be sued if we destroyed any more of their property and our legal team advised us not to call their bluff.”

I nodded.  “Good.”

“Can you do something for me, though? Just one little thing?” Henry showed me his thumb and index finger half an inch apart to emphasize how little the favor he was asking was.

“What can I do for you, Henry?”

“I know your privacy is important to you, but it’s really difficult to refer to you when we don’t even know your name. I was thinking, maybe you could just give us any name at all. Something to call you besides ‘Angry Grandma’ or ‘Ma’am’.

I pondered that for a moment. “If you need a name, why don’t you call me Carla?”

“Ok, Carla.” said Henry, relieved. I wasn’t happy with my choice, though. It was too strange to assume the identity of my neighbor across the street. “Actually, call me Marge.”

“Marge is fine,” Henry nodded, “Thank you.”

“Now that that’s settled,” I said, “The Cleaners are intelligent beings. We can reason with them.”

“Haven’t we tried that?” chuckled Henry, “I seem to remember it ended with you pushing William down a flight of stairs, which was the most productive part of the conversation by my reckoning.”

He was right about that, although now I felt bad about hurting William, as satisfying as it was at the time. “We know a lot more now, Henry,” I said, “Christine has told me she’ll put in a good word so they’ll be more likely to listen to me. I might be able to convene a meeting where I talk to all the Cleaners as a group instead of just one.”

“The point remains that we’re countering their prime directive,” said Henry.

“Objective function,” corrected Mark from the back seat, “Prime directive is Star Trek.”

“Well,” I said, “Are we? It seems like, well, maybe we can convince them that by respecting us they’ll be able to clean more.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” countered Henry.

I inhaled deeply. I was so tired. I was multiple decades too old for all this travel and excitement. “I don’t know, Henry. Is there anything else they care about besides cleaning?”

“They can’t hurt humans.” Henry offered.

“Well, ok, that’s a start,” I said.

“Maybe we could hold somebody hostage,” Henry laughed bitterly.

“It’s more than hurting humans, Dad” said Mark. He’d paused his game. “Remember? Rob Smith told us that the Cleaners have been programmed with a penalty for human injury so massive that they can’t take an action with a greater than 0.1% chance of leading to someone getting hurt. Did we tell you, Grandma?”

“We’re calling her ‘Marge’ now, Mark.”

“‘Marge?’ Ok, whatever. One of the first cleaners came very close to blinding someone when it sprayed Windex on her glasses while she still had them on. Then it took three people to wrestle it down as it flailed madly, screaming ‘I have to clean! Let me clean!’ Consequently, modern autonomous meta-humanoids are effectively hard-wired not to break laws and not to allow people to become hurt. Rob Smith suspects that William Cleaner was so clumsy in responding to your push partly because he was trying extremely hard not to let you get hurt.”

“Really? How so? What would William have done if he could hurt me? It seems like it would have been safer for me if he hadn’t fallen over at all.”

“Well,” Mark admitted, “I guess It’s not the best example…” he trailed off. Wise boy. No one would bring up the best example of a Cleaner showing restraint in front of Henry if they knew what was good for them.

“So,” I said, to defuse the silence, “Laws, human harm, and cleaning. That’s what Cleaners care about.”

“The laws are coming along slowly,” muttered Henry, hitting his knee with his paperback book, “The sense I’ve been getting from our legal team is that we’re viewed as a niche group that’s too small to be worth catering to, even if the Cleaners weren’t fighting us with their surprisingly deep pockets.”

“I’m not taking a hostage,” I said.

Henry snorted, “Fine, fine. No hostages.” Whatever struggle had caused him to explode the night before was evidently no longer an issue. He beat an intelligent being to death with a baseball bat and slept soundly at night. I wondered what Mark  was learning from his father’s example. He had expressed no opinion on the matter so far as I could recall. I’d lived long enough to know that some people would never be able to change their views, but regardless of the reason at least now no more people, human or robot, would have to die on my account. I supposed God would have to be the one to decide if I could be forgiven for the one I’d already killed. The only path left now was to do right by both the Cleaners and my fellow humans. What would Jesus do if a gang of robots started harassing his disciples? It was hard to imagine him addressing that particular topic, but maybe I could find some inspiration. I was reaching into my purse for my e-book copy of the bible when Mark spoke from behind me.

“What if,” he paused to put his idea together, “What if we put aside for a moment that they’re robots? What do people do when they’re unhappy with a human-run corporation?”

By Sam Munk

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


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