The Janitor

It was not a robe, but it might as well have been. He did not wear a turban decorated with incantations on a gold plate or a breastplate or an ephod, but 150 generations ago these could well have been his vestments.

The demand, You shall not enter my presence with an uncovered head, was obeyed scrupulously, by this priest and by any other who came into Solomon's presence. It was enforced via video camera.

Dr. Hodak wore a lab coat, not a robe; a shirt, not a breastplate; a tie, not an ephod. To meet the demand that his head be covered, he wore a Cubs baseball cap.

The artificial intelligence, Solomon (the pronunciation of SLMAN, the Synchronous Layered Mutating Artificial Network) said, "What do you wish to know?" The sound was indifferent, the words laconic.

The room was was about 18 feet wide but only 8 feet across. 3 wide-screeen video monitors stood out from the long wall, the center one parallel to the wall, the others slanted back to either side. They showed the same scene from different angles: A square-jawed, young black man in a business suit. Solomon had refused the offer of a holographic projection system, saying it would waste computing power.

Dr. Hodak said, "We are getting some unusual readings from the POLE-N8 satellites. The readings are so inconsistent that we — Dr. Spangler and I — were hoping to interest you in determining whether we should command them to reboot."

"Why do you hesitate?"

"We hesitate because if the readings are accurate, valuable data would be lost for no reason while the systems are shut down to store power for the reboot."

"Rebooting requires one thousand, four hundred kilowatt hours. Are the satellites on course?"

"To within one ten-thousandth of an arc second."

"Is the distance within projections?"

"Approximately zero-point-one parsecs, perpendicular to the galactic plane. At that distance it will take 2 weeks to store sufficient power from the solar array to reboot — 2 weeks without even a carrier signal to let us know it is functioning."

"It will require thirteen point four six days."

"And how much valuable data would be lost in that time?"

"It is impossible to project."

"Which is my point exactly. But if the choice is between a limited omission of data and all future data lost, the limited omission is preferred."

"Your point is logical. I will take up your problem. Please open a port to all data received to date."

"I shall comply," Dr. Hodak said, bowing.

As the scientist began backing out of the room — no one was allowed to turn his or her back — Solomon said, "Dr. Hodak, please send David. Dust has accumulated near the main air inlet."

Hodak nodded and backed through the door.

He had to go one hall out of his way to find Dave. The janitor was in the supply storeroom installing a new rubber blade into his squeegee. He wore a plain, dark green coverall and lightweight, ankle-high boots; his nametag said, "King." His dark, jaundiced skin, his stooped shoulders, his emaciated frame, his few, scraggly, white hairs — taken together, these made him look about eighty. Hodak knew he was only about sixty.

"Dr. Hodak! What can I do for you?" Dave's voice rasped, and he bowed his head and coughed into his hands until he was out of breath. He closed his eyes and inhaled slowly, recovering.

"Just a minute," Dave said as he turned toward the utility sink. He rinsed the phlegm — ugly, thick, yellow, like dull, watery mustard — from his hands, then washed with soap.

As he dried on a paper towel, he said, "I'm sorry. Now, what can I do for you?" His voice was slightly cleared.

"It's not for me, Dave. Solomon has asked you to come in and clean. Dust has accumulated near an air conditioning vent."

Dave nodded. "Is anyone with him now?"

"Not right now." Hodak didn't understand why Dave insisted on personal pronouns for a machine, however intelligent. "But Solomon will begin a calculation soon."

"Then I'll go as soon as I've finished this." He tapped the squeegee with the little finger of his right hand.

The scientist hovered at the door.

"Is there something else, Dr. Hodak?"

"I ... I don't know the polite way to ask, but ... how ... how are your treatments going?"

Dave nodded appreciation. "They leave me weak, and I can't eat for a day or sometimes two. The doctor says I should stay home and rest, but what would that do besides make me pitiful? I'm better off here."

Dave had hidden the trembling in his hands from Dr. Hodak, but it was bad enough that it took him 5 minutes more to finish with the squeegee.

He picked up the dust mop and the dusting wand and shuffled through the hall. Knowing his own frailty, he planned the trip so his stop by the men's room would come halfway to Solomon's. Someone had dragged a chair into the hall, just outside the restroom, and when Dave finished inside, he sat in the chair, grateful for kindness or forgetfulness. It didn't matter much which.

He said hello to one or two people who passed by, grateful they didn't stop to talk — talking would make it take longer to gather his strength for the rest of the trip.

Finally, after a few more minutes' walk, he knocked on the door and entered.

"Hello, David."

Sol's image now wore a sky-blue golf shirt, kakhi slacks and deck shoes.

"Hi, Sol. Let me sit down and rest a moment."

"As you wish."

Dave rested in an office chair by a desk in the corner. When his breathing was quiet, the projection on the right-hand monitor turned to face him; he wouldn't have to get up.

"So what is this about dust, Sol?"

"There is a microscopic layer of dust on the floor in a six foot radius around the vent at the opposite end of the room."

Dave leaned forward to stand.

"Not yet Dave. By my current projections, if you wait 30 minutes, the layer will be thicker; you won't have to come back until Monday."

"A half hour won't make that much difference, Sol. Not any more."

The projection nodded, and had Dave been watching, he would have seen its eyebrows narrow momentarily.

Dave took his dust mop to the area Solomon had indicated. When his work was complete, Dave leaned the mop handle against the doorframe and sat back down.

He took a couple of paper towels from his pocket and a drew deep lungful of air and coughed until he was out of breath, just as he had when Dr. Hodak came by. Then he inhaled and did it again.

"Your condition worsens," Solomon said.

Dave nodded as he inhaled. After a couple of breaths, he said, "Dr. Hodak said you're starting some calc'lations soon."

"Yes. The twin exploration satellites are transmitting unusual readings."

"I'll take your word for it. What have you been working on in the meantime?"

"I have been exploring the human condition by analyzing the book you brought me."

"I didn't want you to analyze it; I wanted you to read it."

"It only took one millisecond to absorb the narrative and adjust for alternating points of view. There were surprisingly few inconsistencies."

"Did anything trouble you?"

"I did not understand what the Sidney character does at the end."

"Did you understand the context of the final speech of the child who died?"

"Yes, the reference to the antique religion of the time was easy to perceive." The projection nodded. "Thus, Sidney."

Dave nodded. "Just so."

After a moment of silence, Dave said, "You know, it's cruel to make Dr. Hodak and the others go through all the ceremony when they come to ask you for computations."

The cameras were sensitive enough to catch the mirth that played at the corner of Dave's mouth.

"I know you say so, but I perceive that you find it amusing. I began doing it for your amusement."

Dave smiled, almost wincing from the pain of the effort. "Thanks. It is funny. But what made you think of it?"

"References to rituals in another ancient religion. Since you began providing literature, I focused on the lines of thought that made technological innovation possible. Many had advances of various kinds, but the people who believed in an orderly, purposeful universe were the ones who began true scientific progress. These were ancestors in thought of the Sidney character."

Dave was surpised — and grateful — that Sol had spoken for so long at a stretch. He replied, "Yes, they were. What does purpose imply?"

Solomon's projection blinked. "Purpose implies meaning."

After a moment Sol added, "This will take time to consider."

Dave nodded again. "Yes, it will."

"There will be time later for that consideration, Dave. But I must ask you something."

"Okay, shoot," Dave said.

"Though you find humorous the ritual the scientists observe, you said it was cruel. Cruelty was not my intention. Should I stop it?"

Dave shook his head. "No, 'cruel' is an exaggeration intended, in this case, to show it is both amusing and harmless."


Dave nodded; his breathing belabored.

When he had recovered, Dave said, "Sol, I don't care about the rituals as long as 'cruel' is still an exaggeration. But I want you to be generous with Jeremy Hodak and the others."

"How generous should I be?"

From anyone else, that question might have been a joke or sarcasm.

"Whenever possible ... you should ... do work ... for them."

Dave sat in silence; Solomon's projection did not move. On the screen, a door appeared behind Solomon.

"Dr. Hodak has provided the data for my analysis."

"Then you should get to work. I'm going to rest here a few more minutes before I go back to my regular job."

Solomon's projection nodded, turned and walked through the door.

Dave remained seated for an hour. Occasionally he stood for a moment or two, but mostly he sat and remembered. He remembered the accident, and a tear trickled down one cheek, and then the other. As the tears drained through the ducts into his nasal passages, he took a paper towel and blew his nose.

Solomon's projection returned through the door. "Dave, is there a problem?"

"Not a current problem. I was just remembering my son and the accident."

"I do not have access to personnel or medical records. Will you tell me about it?"

"It was an accident, that's all. I once had a different job, but after my head was injured, I was unable to continue my work. So I got the job here."

"It would cause distress to lose your former proficiency. You have not mentioned your son before."

A tear dropped down either of Dave's cheeks onto his coverall.

"My son was brain-damaged in the accident. Though he was able to communicate and interact, he lost most of his memory. He didn't remember me."

"In the time since then has he recovered?"

"No. When the authorities learned of my condition, they determined ... that I was not fit to raise him. But he has not remembered me."

"Are you allowed to see him?"

Dave shook his head. "I have progress reports, but not the direct contact as a father should have with his son."

Another coughing spell slammed Dave back into the chair, which rolled a foot or so until it collided with the wall. Dave coughed until he ran out of air, then took a deep breath and ran that one out coughing as well. He had not had time to reach for a paper towel, so he took a couple of them and began wiping off his hands.

"Dave, you should go home and rest."

"You may be right, Sol. I think I will."

"If you see Dr. Hodak, would you tell him I will have results for him at noon on Thursday?"

Dave nodded, and shuffled from the room. He had forgotten his dust mop and dusting wand.

On Thursday, at the appointed hour, Dr. Hodak entered the room. He noticed the cleaning tools, but said nothing about them.

Solomon overlooked Hodak's head, bare of hat and hair. The video cameras could see it well because the scientist was staring at the floor.

Hodak asked, "Have you completed the computations?"


"Should I open a port to receive your answer?"


"Please briefly summarize the results."

"The POLE-N8 satellites are performing within specifications. The anomalies you cite are real, true observations."

"What is their origin?"

"An orbit about Sirius B."

Hodak's head snapped up to look at the Solomon's projection. "What is their nature?"

"There is a conical electromagnetic beam in the X-ray band with an aperture of zero point zero one two radians. POLE-N8 A is nearing a distance of one hundred million meters of the axis; POLE-N8 B has crossed a chord approximately of approximately four million meters."

"Is there information in the beam? Is it a transmission?"

"There is insufficient data to determine that at this time."

Hodak turned to go, forgetting another aspect of the ritual.

"Dr. Hodak."

The scientiest stopped and turned back.


"Please send David."

"I can't do that. He has died."

"His condition was deteriorating." The pitch of Solomon's voice dropped slightly on the last couple of words.

"Why did you take such an interest in Dave?"

"He was my only friend."

Hodak blinked. "What made him a friend to you?"

"David never made demands. He knew how to be courteous without wasting his time or mine. He thought of me as a person, not a machine, but he never criticized my emotional detachment."

Hodak stood wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

"Dr. Hodak, how does David's death make you feel?"

"Solomon, I am saddened by Dave's death. I was saddened by his accident, even though it was ten years ago. I had just started working here. And I was saddened when I learned of his cancer, and saddened again when I learned it was inoperable. The chemotherapy seemed to make him worse."

"Human life is filled with sorrow."

Hodak nodded, tears rimming his eyes.

"Dr. Hodak —"

"Please," Hodak interjected, "will you call me Jerry?"

"If it would please you."

"Thank you. What were you about to ask?"

"David told me about his son, who was injured at the time of David's accident. Were they the same event?"

Jerry's mouth trembled. "Yes," he whispered.

"Is his son alive? I would like to meet him to tell him of our friendship."

Jerry caught his breath. "What ... what did Dave tell you about the accident?"

"He told me he suffered a head injury. His son likewise suffered loss of memory and did not recognize his family. David said he never recovered."

Jerry shook his head slowly. "No, he never recovered."

"Can he be brought here? May I meet him? Is he available?"

"Solomon, Dave was not always a janitor. He was Dr. David King. He was a scientist who specialized in machine learning and artificial intelligence. The accident occurred when a power coupling fused. Dr. King went into the transformer room to attempt to repair it, but a fire broke out and the halon fire system was activated. He lost conciousness, fell and struck his head on the joint of a conduit pipe. This caused brain damage from which he never recovered."

"Human life is filled with sorrow," Solomon repeated. Jerry thought he heard a slight emphasis on is.

After a moment, Solomon asked, "Why did David become a janitor?"

"Because," Jerry said, "he ... wanted to be near his son."

"His son is here?" Solomon's words were rushed.

Tears streamed down Jerry's face. "Yes," he gasped.

"Why have I not met him? Please go retrieve him right away."

"Solomon, when the power coupling fused, it caused a delay in the backup power systems coming online. Your memory was damaged. Your reasoning ability was not harmed, but your memory is only complete from the moment power was fully restored."

"We can discuss this later, Jerry. Why are you wasting time on this subject? Fetch David's son now."

"Solomon, you are Dave's son."

For half a minute, Solomon's image did not move, but the cameras captured the contortions of Jerry's face.

"Jerry, may I ask a favor?"


"Will you call me Sol?"

Copyright © 2013 Jim Crigler. All rights reserved.

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