The Cleaners Part 17: Training

Patricia rolled to a stop in the shadow of a massive, ugly building. Grey concrete and steel extended multiple blocks on either side with an array of windows so small and evenly spaced, they might have been battlements in a medieval castle.  It could not be less like the Youngstown office except that it was impeccably clean. I sat in my car, transfixed by the ominous display. After a few moments, without breaking her vow of silence Patricia signaled that I was to leave. The car door beside me unlocked and opened all its own, like an invisible butler was ushering me out. When I had finally grabbed my cane and made my way out, the door slammed shut and the lock clicked. My heart sank into my stomach as I watched Patricia drive silently away.

I squinted at the building in front of me, trying to identify an entrance of some sort, but the windows went right down into the ground, as if the whole thing had sunk six feet after being built. I reached out my cane to walk forward, when I heard a voice just like Patricia’s. “Diane,” I spun to face another Cleaner, or Gardener or Tour Guide, I didn’t know what. “My name is Itzal Tour Guide. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Eezzal?” I asked, stupidly.

“Ee-ts-al” Itzal repeated patiently. “I chose a name for myself from the Basque country in Spain.”

When I stared, she explained, “Tour guides, especially, are expected to have interesting experiences so as to better entertain their clients, so I had my training in San Sebastian.”

Itzal smiled :) at me in silence until I asked, “How do I get in?”

“Please follow me,” said Itzal. I hobbled after her as fast as I could. After a few moments in which I thought I would lose her, she adjusted her walk from a graceful saunter to a stately amble. I noticed that instead of acting like a clown like Jim, Itzal moved and spoke with elegance and refinement. Now that I thought of it, she even had the slightest hint of an unidentifiable accent in her voice. I supposed it must be Basque. I’d never heard of the place.

“You will notice our factory is built for economy and efficiency, not for form.” said Itzal. “We generally hold conferences at rented venues across the country or in our official headquarters in Youngstown, not at the factory. Still, if you follow me, I will take you to a section of the factory more suited to human involvement.”

“Thank you,” I mumbled, at a loss. Then Itzal disappeared.

When I made it to where she had been, I saw that there was a split in the building. After the first building, another had been constructed of exactly the same appearance almost right next to it, leaving a tiny alleyway. In this alleyway, the gigantic walls were exactly the same as before except they extended on all three sides. Covered LED lighting lit the alley, which, thankfully, was also very clean. It smelled like lavender and peaches as if the entire building had just stepped out of an expensive bubble-bath. Itzal led me to a small door at the end of the alley and opened it, beckoning me inside.

We entered a pitch-dark room, and it came alight. It was gleaming white, much like the inside of the Ohio headquarters. There were two doors, one to the left and one to the right. Itzal moved for the right door. “What’s behind the left door?” I asked.

“The helper factory.”

I thought this was all the factory, “Then where are we going?”

“We are going to storage.”

With no further explanation, Itzal opened the door and led me through. I was in a massive passage that extended at least half a mile. Helpers rushed this way and that, seeming sparse only because the room was so big. In any normal sized room they would be crowded together. No effort was made to light the ceiling, and it disappeared into the the darkness.  On either side of the hall were rows and rows of huge glass windows. I looked at one with three helpers standing outside. Inside a human being – a real person – was watching with a strained look on his face as a helper pulverized a mound of beige dough, sending flour all over the room with fast, clumsy strikes. After a few moments, she rushed forward to stop the helper, but got hit in the face with a burst of flour and reeled back. Then she shouted something inaudible through the glass and the Helper stopped and watched the human. The human pushed the helper out of the way and carefully kneaded the dough, gesturing and talking.

“This is storage?” I asked, nodding towards the spectacle.

“Storage is past the door at the end of the hall,” Itzal said, “This is the training facility. We are currently training Feeders.”

The human opened the door to the room we were watching and the three helpers outside bustled through and started cleaning the flour off of everything. The person stood calmly as what were evidently cleaners patted flour off of her outfit and washed her face with a cloth that seemed to appear out of thin air. I looked over in another window, where a helper was examining a silvery melted stump of what used to be a robotic hand while the person in the room paced frantically. “You have humans train your robots?” I asked.

“Professional chefs will show these robots how to do the best job a human can do, then they will combine their knowledge and after a period of human testing -”

A chill ran down my spine, “Human testing?”

“They will cook food for people who will tell them how well they did.”


“After a period of human testing,” Itzal resumed, unperturbed,” they will be put on the market and will continue to hone their craft until they are superior to human chefs.”

“How can they judge their cooking skills without a mouth?”

Itzal paused. “The humans will judge their skills.”

“But being a good chef isn’t just about recreating recipes other people have invented. Well, maybe a good chef, but if they’re going to be better than the great human chefs they’ll need to be more creative than them as well as more technically skilled.”

Itzal considered this, “How much more would you pay for a great chef when you could have a good chef?”

“What? Like, living in my house? I don’t think I could afford either. Oh, and I wouldn’t want either because I would have no, uh, privacy.” I added as an afterthought.

“Oh,” said Itzal, unimpressed. I ignored her. I was wracking my brain to try and remember why it was dangerous if a computer somewhere knew what I liked to eat for breakfast. It seemed so clear when robots were knocking on my door every two weeks demanding to be let in, but a live-in chef! I could have a world of delicacies at my fingertips, and couldn’t I just ask it not to record me? Didn’t Christine say that? I shook my head to try and dislodge these sinful thoughts. For now, at least, I should abide by my position as the hero of the Anti-cleaners, even if I was simultaneously holding the position of hero of the Cleaners.

Itzal took me through the hall of learning feeders, explaining that it is normal to have a certain amount of chaos during the example learning phase. Finally, we were halfway through the hall, marked by a sign labeled “human testing.” Beyond the sign were more glass walls, but this time the robots were milling through children arranged in rows or in small groups. The children were of various ages, but the children in each area were the same age. “Teachers,” I guessed.

“That’s right. Teachers are in the human testing phase. We have students here from various schools to help teach the Teachers how to teach.”

These displays were much less exciting. “The students are very well-behaved.”

“They like robots. We suspect that order will be more difficult in a daily classroom setting when the novelty has worn off. We are planning to open a private school to evaluate effectiveness over a long period of time with the same class.”

The second half of the walk seemed much slower than the first without things going wrong all the time. Finally, as we approached the door at the end, I thought of a question I should have asked thirty minutes ago. “Why, exactly, are we going to storage?”

Itzal spoke matter-of-factly as she opened the door, “It’s where we keep our lawyer.”

By Sam Munk

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


  1. Very interesting section. It would really bring the narrator’s inner conflict full circle if some of the robots were being trained for professions that require the use of violence or force.

  2. Yes. Splendid section. Really good detail about the various kinds of robots and how they are trained. Nice use of humor.

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