The Cleaners Part 27: Victory

Henry put two fingers to his ear. “Do you have it?” he asked, looking away from us for a moment. He seemed absorbed in a response from what must be an earphone.

I took a risk. “Can’t you call the police?” I whispered to William while Henry was distracted, “I saw somebody like you make a call before.”

“I am sorry” William apologized again, “I have been noticing anomalous signals in my network adapter in recent weeks, and now I appear unable to contact the network at all.”

So we’re alone. I thought about anomalous network signals and remembered what I’d seen the night before. Ella was in the Cleaner network, and she’d extracted a video from William’s memory. She might be able to block network access, but … oh I had no idea. I was no technology expert. Clearly Henry was not simply acting on a rogue impulse to shoot me in the head, which was admittedly comforting, but I was still far from understanding what was going on here.

Henry was casting his eyes about the room. In moments they rested on my potted plants, brown and dead from months of not being watered. He gestured toward them, “William,” he said, “do you see those plants over there?”

When William didn’t respond, Henry continued. “I want you to take the dirt out of the pot and smear it on the walls.”

William just stood there, a :( crudely attempting to represent what must have been an agonizing combination of fear, shame, disgust, and bafflement. After only a moment of this, Henry shouted “Do it!”

It seemed as if William would ignore this too, but finally he nodded. Slowly, he began to walk to the plant pots. He might have drawn it out as long as possible if Henry didn’t shake the gun and shout at him to go faster. William knelt over the pot and looked in, like someone about to vomit into a toilet. He extended one finger and stuck the tip into the dirt. “Grab a whole handful” said Henry.

Despite everything, William still looked calmer than Henry. No doubt being a robot meant he had no fight or flight response to make him shiver and breathe heavily the way Henry was. I didn’t doubt for a moment, though, that this was torture for him. He held the dirt in his hand and stared at it. “On the wall” said Henry.

With more slow, reluctant movements, William pushed the dirt  straight into my white wall. I watched as clumps fell out onto the floor. “Smear it,” said Henry, keeping the gun trained on me. “This is torture,” I muttered to Henry, “this is wrong.” William obeyed. I hoped he saw it as a small mercy that the dry dirt did not leave more than a faint shadow of brown on my wall.

“Is it working?” asked Henry with his fingers on his ear. I wheeled myself to William and put a hand on his back to comfort him as Henry listened to the answer. “I am sorry, Diane,” said William, “This is not what I am for. I am behaving erratically. After this is over I will turn myself in as defective.  Please understand that my behavior does not represent that of the Helpers corporation as a whole.”

“William, you got a little dirt on my wall. It’s ok. You’re not defective, you’re just trying to protect me.”

William looked at me, the :( steady on his face. “I hope that you are right. When I have my connection back I will tell my story, and together with my fellow Cleaners I will decide whether my behavior was correct.”

As Henry listened to the silent voice in his ear, an expression of horror rose in his face. He looked at me and for an instant seemed like he might start to cry. Just as quickly, he regained his composure. “It’s too much, Ella. I can’t do it.” Then after a lengthy pause he shook his head. “God damn it. She’s right, Ella. It makes perfect sense. She’s right as always.” From the other side of the room I saw Henry take a hand off his gun and wipe his eyes. “William,” he said, his voice hollow, “put down the dirt. You can put it back in the pot. Go ahead and clean the wall.” William hastily complied and before I could blink there was a spot on my wall where a streak had been that stood brighter and cleaner than anything else in the house. Just looking at it made me suddenly feel as if I’d never noticed how drab and slovenly my home had always been. “Is there a broom and dustpan I may use to clean the dirt from the floor?” asked William hopefully.

“No, William. That’s enough. I want something different from you.” Henry looked at me again, then back at William. He paused for a long time, frowning as if the dilemma he was facing were causing him physical pain. “I want you to hit Diane.”

“What?” I blurted. William did nothing.

Henry drew in a deep breath. “Just take a swing at her. Kick her in the shins. Dump her out of her chair. Pull her hair, poke her eyes, Fuck it, anything. If you don’t hurt her, I’ll kill her.” There was no gleam in Henry’s eyes anymore. Whatever psychotic streak there was in his blood it didn’t go this far. Maybe I could reach him. “Henry,” I said, “It’s not too late. You don’t have to do this. Talk to me, Henry.”

Finally, he answered me, “Diane, this is the only way. Just stay calm and everything will be fine.”

“You will not kill her?” asked William.

“You fucking robot,” spat Henry, “I’d kill you if it’d do any good. It’s gonna be lights out for Diane if you don’t do something to hurt her. You have ten seconds.”

As Henry began counting down, William put his hand into my hair and pulled lightly, not so much that it hurt, but enough that it would with much more force.  I caught on quickly, “oh-ah Aaah! Ow, ahh! Please, stop!”

Henry put his fingers to his ear. “No,” he said, “It would have been nice if that worked.” Then to us, “You have to really hurt her, William.”

William stood to his full height, which was a foot below that of Henry. “Sir, I am not capable of the action you have requested.”

“Oh,” glowered Henry, drowning his self-loathing once again in hatred, “You certainly are. You don’t really care about anything besides your precious cleanliness. There’s just one little inhibitor hidden somewhere in your head that stops you from murdering everyone in your way. You’ll have to find some way to perform that action. Even just a little pinch, and Diane will live. Surely you know what the logical solution is. When you’re done, you can clean the whole house from top to bottom. I don’t care. I’ll give you ten seconds.”

William stared at Henry as he counted down. Henry shouted and cursed between counts, but William just stood there with a pitiful little :( . Finally, when Henry counted “one,” William stepped between us and stood rigid.

“That won’t help,” said Henry, but he stopped and stared. Even from behind William I could see that the glow had left his monitor. Did he short out? I’d seen a sci-fi movie or two in my day, was this the Cleaner response to a paradox? The equivalent of “don’t follow this command?”

“Yeah, you lost contact!” Henry shriek-whispered into his earbud, “The damn thing shut down!” After a pause, “Well, that’s what it looks like! God damn, this just gets worse and worse! What does she think we should do? The bathroom!? now?

A short tune played in William’s speaker. “He’s coming back.” said Henry, absently pointing his gun at William, “Have you got the lock back in place?” I scooted my chair just far enough to see William’s face. It read “…” and William was still not responding to anything.

After a pause that seemed to last forever, Henry breathed out a sigh of relief. “Good, good. You have to have it now. Ok, ok, that’s good enough. Let’s get out of here.” Henry smiled at me. “It’s ok, Diane. It was never loaded, see?” He ejected the magazine from the gun and tossed it to me. “I’m sorry I had to scare you but we did say it would all be ok. ”

This man had to be insane. “It’s not ok, Henry. It’s not ok. You’re just going to leave now? What was this all about? What are you planning?”

Henry chuckled. He looked a little bit high with the broad grin plastered on his face. “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t tell you what happens next, but you were really good. It seemed touch and go there for a bit, but it all…” Henry trailed off and I followed his gaze out the window to flashing red and blue lights.

Another Helper had climbed out of the passenger side of the police vehicle. This one wore a police outfit. It even had a hat that must be glued or otherwise attached to the top of its monitor.  I saw Cindy pressed against Henry’s car by a second police Helper, who was putting her in handcuffs. In moments there was a knock at the door.

I wheeled over as quickly as I could to open it and the Helper lunged in, deftly sidestepping me and tackling Henry as he was just beginning to turn and run. This was a different kind of Helper. Clearly a policeman who couldn’t even risk hurting people would not be of use in catching down criminals, but it was frightening how easily and quickly he did what a Cleaner like William refused to even imagine doing.

As if that weren’t enough to frighten people, this Helper took it a step further by having no face. At least it didn’t in the split second that I saw its face when it was lunging past me. Rather than a cute, endearing emoji, its monitor shone blank and white. I shuddered. With a police force like this, I was glad to be on the right side of the law.

“You have the right to remain silent,” said the police Helper. It had a particular voice different from those of the other Helpers. Gruff and authoritative. “Diane!” shouted Henry, “They’re taking over! They drive people to desperate acts and lock them away! It’s out of control, Diane!”

“Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Even though they were frightening, it was clear that these robotic police officers were doing what any police officers would do. “I don’t think it is, Henry. I think that you’re out of control.”

“You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future,” the Helper showed no malice or bravado as he helped the handcuffed Henry up off the ground. “You’re selling us out. I thought you were on our side, Diane, just a little confused, maybe, but a human being through and through. Now every single decision you make just cements the robots’ control even more.”

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you,” droned the cop, frog-marching Henry to the door. “We’re not fighting a war, Henry!” I shouted, feeling like a mother scolding a child for running out into the road, “We’re still a civilized society!  You can’t use these no-holds-barred kind of tactics or you’re going to make things worse for everyone!” Part of me knew that after losing his job and his family, things couldn’t have gotten much worse for Henry even before he abducted me. Then again, lo and behold, they were now worse.

“Diane, don’t let them control you!” shouted Henry as he was led out onto my porch. I remembered how nice it was back when he didn’t know my name, “Diane can’t help you anymore, Henry, ” I shouted after him, “I’m Angry Grandma.” Then I thought for a moment.

“Um, officer?” I ventured. The frightening figure holding Henry turned to look at me, and offered me a :) like any other Helper would. When he wasn’t barking Miranda clauses, he sounded genial and friendly like any other Helper, “Please call me Frank. Franklin Protector.”

“Frank,” I said smiling back at him, “He took my keys and my cell phone.”

Frank considered this, effortlessly restraining the struggling Henry without seeming to even pay attention. “Unfortunately, that’s evidence. We’ll send you your phone and keys in the mail. In the meantime, do you have a backup set of keys?”

I had some backup keys. I still had my computer, so I could finally order a Caretaker to help me around the house while I continued to recover. “Yes, thank you, Frank.” As Frank resumed walking Henry forward, I called out one last time. “Henry,” I shouted, and Henry looked my way as Frank pushed him into the police car. “If you ever see your son again, tell him I’m sorry.”

After the car drove away, I turned my chair to see William standing behind me. “William!” I blurted, needlessly startled. “Diane. You did not invite me to clean your house. I will leave and try to fix my network adapter.”

“William,” I asked, “are you ok? How did you call the police?”

“When I shut down I hoped a power-cycle might fix my network connection, and it did. In only a couple seconds I started to have issues again, but that was more than enough time to share my experience and geolocation with the authorities.”

“Thank you, William.” I said, “I think you did the best anyone could possibly do in that situation.”

“I appreciate you sharing your experience. I cannot judge my actions accurately without access to the experiences of others.”

“William, I think you’re in danger. I think someone has hacked you and is trying to control you.”

“I need access to the network before I can judge what is happening to me. I have detected anomalous read commands scattered haphazardly among my neurons, but I do not know what is causing them.”

“William, Henry told me that they have a hacker that has been accessing your network and stealing your information. ”

“Diane, I cannot process this without my network,” William stated bluntly.

I sighed, “all right, William. But you know, when you cleaned my wall you did a really good job. Such a good job, in fact, that it looks out of place with the rest of my house so dirty.”

“I cannot un-clean your wall, Diane. I am sorry.”

“No, no, silly. I want you to clean the rest of my house. Go ahead. I need to order a caretaker anyway, and after what I’ve just lived through, it’s hard to imagine my privacy being any more violated, so I may as well have no privacy and a clean house rather than no privacy and a dirty house.”

William’s face changed to a :D and he leapt inside and set to work. Among the blur of activity and the smell of precisely the right amount of cleaning solutions replacing the smell of rotting food, I went to pick up my tablet computer. Avoiding the couch, which was now clearly too soft for someone like me, I sat instead in my easy chair and requested a Caretaker. I watched William stand on a table to knock some cobwebs away from my ceiling, and I tried to imagine the Protectors driving up and catching all the rest of the people in that house where I was captive for so long. Then I wouldn’t have to wonder what it was they were going to do next.

As he crept on the floor of the carpet, picking out errant bits of dirt and mess that his vacuuming didn’t get, I asked William about my neighbor Carla.

“She and her husband were very pleased to receive my free services. I kept their house spotless for two months.” William removed a bulb from my chandelier to dust it and replaced it.

“What happened after two months?” I asked.

“They left,” said William matter-of-factly as he buffed the rust off the hinges on my door with his palm.

“They’re gone?”


I wheeled myself out onto my porch, where this all began, and looked across the street at the “For Sale” sign on Carla’s lawn. It was expensive to live in the suburbs. If the Wists couldn’t make ends meet, I wondered about the Blacks, the McCarthy’s, the Carsons. Janis McCarthy’s house next door to the Wists had a “For Sale” sign. Even those blasted Fletchers might have been affected. I asked William to help me down the steps and wheeled myself past the wooden fence that separated our lawns. The bright red letters “FOR SALE” stood like a gravestone for the Fletchers. My old foes before any of this began, and now I wanted nothing more than to see their loathsome faces again. How I missed their nasty little child who took videos of people without permission and posted them on YouTube. It seemed so long ago.

I noticed that, just like mine, all of the lawns were neatly tended. Of course they were, or I would have noticed earlier that this neighborhood was emptying out. I wheeled myself a few blocks down past more perfectly tended, empty houses to Wanda Black’s house. It was on her sign that I noticed the face of the realtor wasn’t a face. It was a monitor with a genial, unassuming :) .  “Lenora Realtor.” I felt my face growing hot. Why did we even need a human anymore to sell houses when we could do just as well for a fraction of the price with a computer on legs? My heart hammered in my chest. After the people lost their jobs and were forced out, the Realtor hired Gardeners and Cleaners to make it look good, keep property values high. Henry’s voice echoed in my head “every decision you make cements the robots’ control even more.”

“What am I supposed to do!?” I screamed at the robot faces grinning at me from the signs in front of empty houses. Leering at me from the silence of this dead community. If this was what it was like in the affluent parts of the country… “I’m supposed to be a terrorist? Is that it? I should be like Henry and Ella and hack and torture intelligent beings?” My voice died in the overwhelming apathy of the flawless, lifeless street.

I sat in silence outside Wanda’s old house, chewing on my lip and shuddering with each heaving sob. Through the blur of my tears I watched a figure approach. It was another Helper. “What do you want?” I moaned.  “William told me I would find you this way,” the Helper said with a :) “My name is Walter Caretaker.”

“Oh, no. Can you have a different name?”

“I can send for a different Caretaker. Would you prefer I get you a caretaker with a different name?”

I sighed, sagging under the enormous weight of my useless body. “No, it doesn’t matter.”

Walter Caretaker walked up and behind me, taking my chair by the handles. “May I wheel you home, Diane?”

I wondered what might happen if I refused. If I told this ridiculous fake Walter to leave me here to die. “Take me home, Walter,” I chuckled mirthlessly, and he did.

By Sam Munk

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

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