The Cleaners Part 34: Showdown

No sooner had I stated my intention than Flora put her hand to her ear again. I wasted no time, going around the table the way where there were not three frozen Helpers just waiting to collapse and start grabbing for me. “Selling out humanity?” asked a familiar voice from the living room, “If the price is rie rie rie right, isn’t that right Diane? Diane Diane Diane?”

The nearer Helpers weren’t moving at all. Ella could only control one at a time! At least I hoped that was what was happening. I was slow, but the voice from the living room was slower. By the time I’d made it to Flora, she’d only been able to use the table to heft herself up from her chair. “Ella!” she shouted into her ear-piece, “if I don’t contact you again in an hour – ” I reached out and yanked it off of her head, feeling something small and plastic snap. Stiff with defiance, Flora continued speaking, now at the top of her lungs, glancing back toward the Helper behind her, which was still shouting my name. “You should deactivate the safety right away! Without Diane’s help there’s no preliminary organization we can do!” I threw the earpiece to the floor and, reaching a hand out to the table to steady myself, stomped on it with all my might. Then I reached out to try and push Flora back into her chair. “Their blood will be on your hands Diane!” she was screeching, “All the additional people who die because you couldn’t see past your shallow ideals to help us do what needs to be done!” She sat down before my hand reached her, confirming that she was as fragile as I thought she might be.

If anyone deserves to die… How many people can you save if you just push over this chair?

I saw the zombie helper, its flashing screen showing stock footage of animals led to slaughter and dripping blood. It couldn’t be more than a minute away. “What will you say to their families Diane!?” taunted Flora over the din of clanking and screeching metal and my name shouted endlessly. “I’m sorry you lost your son Mrs. Smith, but it was between him and some robots!” Her argument was absurd, but effective. If I failed more people would die than if I hadn’t tried.

Push the chair onto the Helper. A helper can be repaired after we’ve rid the world of murderous old women.

“What will I be then!?” I shouted at the suddenly terrifying voice in my head.

Flora, who thought I was responding to her, didn’t know what to make of my words. The Helper was at her chair, trying and failing to reach me through the legs with noisy, scraping grasps and increasingly shrill shouts of “DIANE! DIANE!” After a few attempts, it started making its way around the chair.

You’re out of time. You have to – “No!” I screamed, clutching my hands to my head. In desperation, I whipped out my phone and pulled up the Helper App. Backing up from the chair as cold, glittering hands swiped at me, I scrolled through the list of services. “Where are the Protectors!?” I shouted. Backing into the kitchen, I resorted to the old-fashioned approach. I summoned the little keypad on my phone and punched in “9 – 1 – 1.”

I retreated further to the door to the back porch as a familiar voice, this time in a comforting way, greeted me. “Yes,” I said, opening the porch door and slipping through, closing it after me, “they can shut down Helpers, so send as many protectors as you can, maybe they can’t – what? Oh yes, that’s splendid!”

With my back against the door, I listened to the thump of the Helper trying to break the glass and tried to ignore the muffled screams of “Diane Diane.” I pulled out my keys and locked the door, forgetting again that that was useless. The Helper pulled the latch and opened the door behind me as I made my way down the steps and back around to the front of the house. My legs burned and ached from the stress and the sudden exertion, but as long as I kept hobbling forward, I was still faster than someone dragging himself by his hands. By time I got back to my front porch, I saw Flora hanging onto the railing trying to keep herself steady as she made her escape. I walked up onto the steps and stood in front of her.

“It’s not too late,” she told me. “You can still save humanity. You don’t have to lose any sleep. We’ll do it all. Just let me past and tell yourself whatever you want at night. You’re a good person Diane. I can be the bad guy and when things are back to normal you can just tell yourself-”

“Shut up, Flora,” I whispered, exasperated. “Just shut up. When have things ever been normal?”

Flora spat. She literally spat into the garden beside my front porch. “How can you write off the end of humanity-“

“I’m not writing anything off, Flora. I would’ve thought you’d know better than I did. Yammering about the end of the world – that’s a young person’s game. I can’t speak for you, but once I got to 86, I’d seen so many ends of the world, I realized that’s just how it happens. Things change. I think that really that’s okay. As long as we don’t start any wars” I said “wars” pointedly, “things will generally change for the better over the long run.”

Flora glared at me. “Is it better to have humans completely replaced by robots?” She started trying to push past me, but I stood strong. I heard the “Diane Diane” of the Helper dragging itself to the front of the house. I could only stall so much longer.

“I won’t let that happen. They don’t even want it to happen.” I called out to the approaching Helper, “Ella! You can clearly see through your stolen eyes, but can you hear me?”

The Helper kept shouting my name. As I looked away, Flora pushed herself off of the banister and toward the other side. I took two steps and remained in her way. “I know you’re in pain Ella. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the people who hurt you. You’re right to be angry.” I tried to think of what my point was or even if I had correctly surmised Ella’s motives as I saw the Helper, now covered in mud and grass, coming into view.

“What are you going to do Diane? How are you going to save humanity?” Asked Flora, apparently giving up getting past me. I looked back at the poor Helper compelled to drag itself through the mud and thought about all the pain and suffering that made people lash out at each other. That made these terrible wars possible. The Helpers don’t feel that. None of it. They won’t start a stupid war for selfish reasons, right? They also don’t feel love, I countered. No compassion, no empathy beyond what’s required to perform their duty. Is that enough? How will people be able to get what they need when no one needs them? I furrowed my brow in consternation at the magnitude of the problem. Then I felt a push.

It was a light push, probably the most Flora could manage. Nothing even a woman of my age couldn’t handle. I reached out a foot to steady myself, only to realize in horror that there was nothing there. Time seemed to slow down as I fell backward, the walkway pavement rushing up towards me, the roof of my porch giving way to clear blue sky. Flora grappling with the banister to keep herself from falling along with me, the look of surprise and hope in her face as she realized her desperate gambit had worked. The perfectly maintained empty lots across the street, sold by desperate occupants to literal faceless machines. The wild, violent face of a hacked Helper, mud-smeared and showing video of a man bug-eyed, mouth gaping in a silent scream, rounding the last bend before it would reach out and grab me. A bright light flashing, and the wail of a siren.

By Sam Munk

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

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: