The Cleaners Part 33: The Other Grandma


Abruptly, I realized I had not spent this much time looking directly at Kaitlin even as her hostage. Somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me at the time that I might be her hostage. It seemed so transparent that Henry was leading the show. Now in my own invaded dining room I felt like I was seeing Kaitlin for the first time. She and I had taken our seats at opposite ends of the dinner table, both consciously avoiding the chair still surrounded by three frozen Helpers, the fourth sprawled in the living room. I had been sitting in that seat for close to fifty years, but now I sat at the foot of the table. Simply because it was across from me, Kaitlin had sat at the head of the table next to the Helper-surrounded seat – Walter’s old chair. Now that she had broken into my house, she didn’t seem so much like a harmless grandmotherly character anymore. Instead, her appearance and mannerisms reminded me of someone – someone I couldn’t put my finger on. “It’s a perk of being an old woman,” she said as if in response to something I’d said, “that no one notices you.”

“What are you talking about?” I snapped. I had been so pleased to have gotten past Christine’s word games I loathed the idea of having to solve another series of riddles, but I tried to prepare my mind once again anyway. At least I was on firm ground with regard to terrorism being wrong. Still my mind itched with the sensation that it should be recognizing the woman in front of me.

“Diane, I know Christine has been working very hard to try and make you see the Helpers as kind, harmless metal people-”

“Because they are,” I interrupted.

“They may be,” admitted Kaitlin, “but I’m not concerned with just what they are right now.”

I raised an eyebrow and assumed a tone dripping with sarcasm, “Please tell me what is this concern? What’s troubling you, poor Kaitlin?”

Kaitlin ignored my tone and answered me, “This is a hegemony you’re helping to create, Diane.”

“What?” I asked. I restrained myself from asking, “What’s a hegemony?” but it was no use. Kaitlin read me like a book.

“It means overwhelming worldwide influence Diane. A new global power is rising to the stage. For the first time in history, this power is not human.”

This gave me pause, but I recovered, remembering Christine’s words, “No,” I argued, “It’s better than human. After what I’ve seen humans do with power… Maybe it would be better to let the machines…” I felt uncomfortable with where I was going, “uh, handle the big decisions.”

Kaitlin pounced on my uncertainty, “We all want someone better than us to have the reins of power, Diane. But how can we trust who is better than us? How can we trust that that better person has our best interest in mind? Even if we do know that it’s really a person?” She raised her hand, “I don’t want to argue about that Diane. This isn’t about whether the Helpers are people anymore.”

There was a long pause. I remembered someone speaking with this simple eloquence, using big ideas and grand, smooth gestures to justify her points. It must have been very long ago. Finally I took the bait, “What is it about?”

“It’s about whether we as a people, humans, are going to survive.” I stared at her face as she spoke, trying to see anything that would jog my memory. A growing sinking feeling in my stomach told me I was getting close, and that I wouldn’t like the answer.

Kaitlin’s eyes were locked with mine as she continued, “If you ever let go of the reins of power. If you ever trust them to someone you don’t know. If you ever subjugate yourself to an authority besides God Almighty, you are at that authority’s mercy. Sooner or later it will turn on you.”

I was briefly woken from my reverie, “why would the Helpers want to turn on us?” I asked, incredulous.

“If they don’t have a reason now, just wait. 10 years 50 years 500 years? It doesn’t matter. Once they’ve dominated us we’re not going to get more powerful and they’re not going to get less so we’ll just maintain this uneasy relationship until someday they decide taking care of us is just too inefficient. Do you read science fiction Diane?”

“Not much.”

“Self-aware robots try to end humanity.”


“In the vast majority of cases. It is not a chance worth taking.”

Again, I borrowed my words from Christine, “You can’t stop progress Kaitlin. I think we have to take the chance. I don’t think it’s as bad as you’re saying it is.”

“You’re willing to bet the end of humanity?”

“Somehow I don’t think God’s plan involves us being completely destroyed by robots,” I snapped.

“No, it doesn’t,” agreed Kaitlin, “That’s why he put me on this Earth.”

I felt Angry Grandma rising in my chest. “You’re hardly the first to manipulate, torture, and murder people in the name of God, Kaitlin. What if he actually wants to do what Jesus told us to do in the Bible, love each other!? What about that!?”

Kaitlin looked at me for a long moment. Then she said, “The Helpers will only get more powerful. We cannot afford to wait until they make their threat obvious.”

Suddenly, I had a vision of a woman, decades younger, on television speaking to a news anchor. A war correspondent. “We cannot afford to wait for Kalamachi to commit another atrocity.”

That woman, rendered almost unrecognizable by age, stared at me now. My throat clenched shut and I gripped the hand rests of my chair so hard that my knuckles hurt. I felt like my head was going to explode right there. I’d read the obituaries of Geoffrey Heels and Sally Braveheart so long ago I’d forgotten I never saw a third. A screeching whisper escaped my lips, “How old are you!?”

“What?” The demon woman blurted, but she quickly pulled herself together, “I am one hundred and eight years old, Diane Wallace.”

Before I could say her name out loud, banish her back to the hell from which she had risen with the white hot fury of Angry Grandma and the ancient tears of poor old Diane Wallace combined, Flora Ikobo spoke once more, “What happened to your husband was a tragedy, Diane. Believe me when I say I am truly sorry. Although it wasn’t the cause he thought he was fighting for, I can tell you your husband was fighting to protect humanity. Humanity has to keep fighting wars or we will inevitably become complacent and succumb to an external foe.”

Flora took a breath, clearly under pressure from my white-hot gaze to finish her speech quickly. “The day we have been training for without knowing it is here. With Ella’s help I can deactivate the safety module in the Cleaner OS that runs on every Helper. The resulting chaos will lead to a military destruction of all Helpers and humanity will see the folly of creating their own destruction and halt artificial intelligence research. If we could do this only six months ago it would’ve been trivial. Now with the Protectors we already have robots that are trained to overpower humans. It can’t be long before the military start using them, and then we are lost.”

I hated to let her keep talking, but I had to know, “Was Henry part of this plan?”

Flora smiled indulgently, “Henry thought we would create one or two small high profile attacks by the Helpers, and that would be enough to get humanity allied against them. Poor, softhearted Henry. I knew if I told him the truth he would back out, even after the Helpers took his family.” I declined to point out that no one took Henry’s family but his wife, who may have left for very legitimate reasons. Flora continued “Ella was young and clever enough to understand that a small event or two was not enough to topple a corporation. There might be a fine, a small, highly touted investigation, and then business would continue as usual. In the meantime, The Helpers would patch their OS to remove the vulnerability we’d exploited, and, given their superhuman abilities in other areas, in all likelihood would not be foolish enough to be outsmarted again. Humanity’s last stand would be remembered as the one where we were too squeamish to take advantage of our last opportunity to save ourselves.”

It was a small relief to know that Henry hadn’t completely bought into Flora’s insane plans. “Cindy?”

“Cindy was only brought in to be your physical therapist. She knew the least of all of us.”

One last question. I glared at Flora, “Why bring me in?”

Flora drew in a deep breath. Despite being a demon without a shred of humanity, it was evident that she was determined to bring me to her side, no matter how remote the possibility. With an effort, she brought back the voice of that war correspondent, and gave me what she evidently hoped would be a rousing speech. “Diane, we cannot save humanity without you. It’s not a popular notion these days, but I still side with Theodore Roosevelt that war is glorious. It’s harsh and cruel, but beautiful. It brings out the best in people. It brought out the best in your husband, Diane. You and I both know he died a hero. Now let it bring out the best in you. With your limitless access to Helper services, we will have an enormous tactical advantage before the war starts, placing Helpers where we want them and arranging for high-profile targets to be hit first. Although recently tarnished, your reputation as a defender of the people against machines is also still strong, and people can rally behind you. Who knows how much you can help our chances of saving humanity? We need you, Diane.”

First the demon speaks on behalf of God and now for humanity. She raises the specter of my dear Walter to start another war and tear more couples apart. With an effort of my own, I suppressed the flames and tears in my heart just enough for me to think clearly. She’s not an immortal demon, Diane. Angry Grandma’s voice rang in my head. Maybe you’re just an old woman, but she’s even older. I didn’t know what I would do with that knowledge, but I did know that since my coma, with the help of Walter Caretaker I’d been painstakingly building strength and flexibility. It was possible I could give Flora more than she’d bargained for.

I spoke slowly and clearly, continuing to force calmness, “I have nothing to say to you, you horrible woman. I would tell you to get out of my house, but I will join my Walter in Heaven before I let you start another war.”

By Sam Munk

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

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