The Cleaners Part 25: The Wrong Answer

Henry and Cindy studied me from the couch. Despite their age difference they looked everything like a couple with some bad news to tell their child. I supposed that made me the child. Cindy looked older now that she had cut off the blue and white part of her hair, leaving a dark brown ear-length cut. She’d gotten a professional human hairdresser to do it for a price that she would have been bragging about if she didn’t know where such prices came from. Henry still outpaced her, though, looking even more haggard and worn down than before. His hair was no longer flecked with gray, but flecked with black among the gray. Ella was on the side of the couch, immersed in a laptop computer. She had straightened her wavy brown hair and it hung down past her shoulders. She held herself so stiffly it was plain she wanted no part of this interaction, whatever it was. Kaitlin was rocking and knitting in the corner of the room, looking no different from before and indifferent to us.

“Diane,” started Henry, and Cindy interrupted him. “Grandma,” she said, then paused, making it uncomfortably obvious that she had more wanted to stop Henry from talking than say anything in particular herself. Finally, she said, “We think we can stop the Cleaners.”

I stared blankly at them.

“We can put things back to normal,” said Cindy, “Henry and I will have jobs again and you can go home.”

I kept my face expressionless. Henry gave Cindy a clear “what did I tell you?” look and she scrunched her face together in frustration. “Isn’t that good, Grandma? Don’t you want people to have jobs again?”

“You’re going to do something violent, aren’t you?” I asked, looking at Henry. He smiled broadly. “We will not hurt even a single Cleaner.” His satisfaction at surprising me on this matter was plain on his face.

Ella was not typing on her computer, I noticed. Just staring at it for lack of anything else she wanted to see. Kaitlin continued her knitting in the corner. Cindy was biting her lip and Henry was beaming at me as if he’d just beaten me in chess.  “So…” I began, “what’s the plan?”

Cindy looked like she might say something, but this time Henry interrupted. “Diane, before we tell you the plan, we need to make sure you understand what the Cleaners, all the Helpers, really are.”

Now I interrupted, “Actually, Henry, maybe you need to understand what the Helpers really are. They’ve treated me with kindness and even when we disagree, they’re nothing but sincere. That’s more than I can say for some people I know.”

This hurt Cindy more than it hurt Henry. Even Ella flinched a little bit. Henry just said “That’s right. It’s time we helped you to see through their act. Ella?”

“Um-” stammered Ella, “I- I have some videos I got access to on the Helper network.”

“You hacked them.” I said.

Ella began to stammer again, but Henry saved her, “Ella has been the technological expert behind this entire operation. She hacked the medical records to find out where they were keeping you and to say I was your son, and now she gives us intel on our enemies.”

Ella had pulled her hair to her flat chest and was cradling it like a teddy bear. Cindy had put a hand on her back to steady her. She opened up when Henry mentioned “intel.” “It was actually a very challenging problem,” she blurted, “the Cleaner network has no security to speak of, but it doesn’t have any human interface whatsoever either. I spent months trying to find a pattern matching the communications I was intercepting with their English counterparts on the Cleaner message board and then I had to build my own custom codec to convert their full-sense broadcasts into  human-watchable video. Half of the time was just learning how to program a video codec in the first place and then -”

When Henry gave her a look, she halted, then in a much quieter voice, she said “This – this is the first video I was supposed to show.” She spun the laptop around to face me. The video was hectic, it almost made me nauseous. Someone holding a camera hurtling through a hallway at breakneck speed. Probably a Helper video, but I’d never seen a Helper move with such little control.  Young people with backpacks, some holding books or binders – students, jumped out of the way as the Helper rushed past them. Each time the camera turned to look them up and down. Then the camera caught a girl with glasses. This seemed familiar all of a sudden. “Please hold still” a Helper voice said, although it was more garbled, like Jim Tour Guide, an early iteration of the voice synthesis.

Before the girl could say “What?” the Cleaner grabbed her by the arm and lifted a spray bottle into her face. The liquid may have just been water, but in any case the girl screamed and lifted her hands to her eyes. The Cleaner grabbed the girl’s hands and tried to pull them away, saying “Please let me clean your glasses. They are very dirty, don’t you understand?”

The girl tried to pull away, shouting “No, get away from me!” In moments, some more arms came from outside the shot and were pulling the Cleaner away. “Let me go!” he shouted, struggling against them, “I must clean! Let me clean!” The video ended.

This was nothing new. “That’s why they taught them to respect human life,” I said. “One incident while they work the bugs out doesn’t mean anything.”

Henry continued to smile. He was enjoying this little show of his. “I see, so they respect human life. They have a whole philosophy, right? Something where they think of cleanliness as goodness and hurting people and other bad things as dirty?”

I didn’t know where he was going with this. “Yes. They told me.” Cindy was looking at me now with pity in her eyes. I wasn’t losing! She shouldn’t be pitying me! She reached a hand out to put on my knee. I backed my wheelchair away in response. “Do you have another video to show me or something?” I snapped.

“Ella?” said Henry.

Ella turned the computer back around to face me again. This time, Christine Gently was on the screen studying a blank wood burning piece.

“It’s very nice, William,” she said, in the tone that one might give to a beloved toddler’s crayon scribble, “I’ll put it right here on my desk.”

The camera bobbed with William’s nod.

“William,” Christine said, “Diane has done us all a great service.”

“Christine, we have all been mistaken, but she has kindly corrected us. Her name is Grandma, first name Angry.”

Christine pressed her lips together. “I think you should call her Diane Wallace or just Diane, even if she says it’s not her name.”

“I do not understand.”

“Call her Diane.”

“Ok. I will call her Diane.”

“Good. We should thank Diane.”

“What did she do?” asked William.

“She taught the Anti-Cleaners that your lives have value.”

“I do not understand,” said William, “Did people not understand that we are valuable? Are we not doing a good job?”

“No, no,” said Christine, “You are all wonderful. You do such a good job. This is different.”

William waited patiently while Christine thought about how to explain the sacredness of Cleaner life. “How do you feel when you hurt a person?”

“I have never hurt a person.” replied William.

Christine struggled with this for a moment. “Can you- can you try to imagine what it might be like? How you might feel? I know you don’t want to hurt anyone, and that is wonderful, but just for me, I need to know what you feel about hurting someone.”

“I would rather not,” insisted William.

Christine sighed. “How did you feel when Rob died, William?”

“A small setback, but I was able to temporarily cover his duties. We will make another Rob at little additional cost.”

Christine didn’t outwardly show how appalling I imagined this answer must have been to her, but she shifted in her seat and didn’t speak for a long time.

“Christine?” asked William eventually, “Have I offended?”

“No! No, dear.” Christine softened her voice, “You have done admirably. I always appreciate your frank honesty. It’s very important that we maintain it between us. I also think, though, that Diane deserves to be thanked for her brave gesture.”

“We can offer her free services for life,” said William without missing a beat.

“Oh! Well, she might not, she doesn’t want…” after a few moments though, Christine smiled with pride at her clever little boy, “yes, I think that’s a terrific idea. Remember that it was your idea. Diane is a hero to the Cleaners. It is just as wrong to kill one of you as it is to kill one of them.” Then in a moment of inspiration, Christine said, “Tell her her conscience is wiped clean.”

“A conscience cannot be dirty.”

“It’s a metaphor. When she killed Rob it was on her conscience like, um, grease, and then she couldn’t take it anymore, so she cleaned it with an act of altruism.”

“Altruism.” William pondered. “It is like dish soap?”

“Yes, but don’t say that her conscience is greasy. That will confuse her. The point is, she stopped the violence. She is a hero to the Cleaners.”

“A hero to the Cleaners.” William repeated. Was he thinking out loud? Accepting orders?

“Think about it for the next couple days,” She said,”maybe Diane would like some of your art, too.”

The video closed. There was a number at the bottom: 31,446. “What’s that number?” I asked as Ella took the computer back. “Um- oh,” she said “this number.” There’s a running indicator of what Helpers have tuned in to what broadcasts at what time. I automatically note all the Helpers that have viewed a broadcast and return the number.

“Is 31,446 high?” It seemed high to me, but I knew that on YouTube 100,000 views was average.

“Very high. Probably about a hundred times the average for a clip of that length.”

I was floored. 100 times the average? This was so much to take in at once, I didn’t know what to think. Henry tried to help me.

“They lied to you,” he said, “They made up that stuff because they knew it would bring you to their side.”

I tried to think back to when William told me about Cleaner philosophy. I couldn’t believe it was just rote regurgitation. It sounded like he had expanded a bit on what Christine had told him. She didn’t have the wiping motion when talking about how I had wiped my conscience clean. William added that, and he invented the term “Cleaner of Wrong” all on his own, too. Maybe there was another meeting with more coaching, though.

I felt like a dupe. No matter what I chose, I was playing into someone’s hands. Cindy and Henry were staring at me, Ella’s eyes would leave me and she would look down at her computer whenever I looked her way. Kaitlin was still holding her knitting, but she was not knitting.

“I need time to process this,” I said. Without a word, Henry stood and left the room. Cindy shouted after him, “Come on, Henry, what’s a day, really? We can give her that can’t we?” When he disappeared silently up the stairs, she gave a quiet wail and turned back to me with her patented earnest look.

“Diane, everything is going to be just fine,” she assured me, glaring into my eyes as if she could hypnotize me into calm happiness. “You are perfectly safe. No one is going to hurt you.”

“What? Hurt me? What are you going to do?” Cindy stared at me and I repeated myself as strongly as I could, “What are you going to do, Cindy?

Cindy’s mouth quavered. She blinked and said, “We’re going to take you home, Grandma.” She nodded to herself absently. “You’re going home.”


By Sam Munk

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

1 comment

  1. I would like to explore Angry Grandma’s beliefs around the sanctity of intelligent life. I’m not quite identifying with her being upset about the videos and I’d like to understand her better.

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