Jia Liyuan (贾立元), pen name Fei Dao (飞氘), has had scholarly papers published in The Contemporary Writers Review (《当代作家评论》Dāngdài zuòjiā pínglùn), Southern Cultural Forum (《南方文谈》Nánfāng wén tán), and Dushu(《读书》). His works include the short story collections Innocence and What It Fabricates (《纯真及其所编造的》Chúnzhēn jí qí suǒ biānzào de, 2011) and The Storytelling Robot ( 《讲故事的机器人》Jiǎng gùshì de jīqìrén, 2012). His short story “A Story of the End of the World” (《一个末世的故事》Yīgè mòshì de gùshì, 2006) has been translated into Italian and published in ALIA (2011), an annual anthology of international science fiction. Translations into English include “The Butterfly Effect” (in Chutzpah) and “The Demon’s Head” (in Renditions, Volume 77/78), His script “A Long Journey to Death” (《去死的漫漫旅途》Qù sǐ de mànmàn lǚtú), adapted from his own eponymous story, won the second Young Script-writers’ Support Program award in 2009. Fei Dao is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Tsinghua University.
Author’s Note: When I was a high school student, short, witty stories from science fiction magazines brought me so much joy. These short stories rarely concern serious questions, rather they just make us laugh and have one or two smart ideas. After they make us laugh, they are forgotten. Nevertheless, if possible, I prefer writing small stories that will make my readers smile. Laughing is good; laughing is healthy.
He wore glasses with a silver frame, very refined, and, at first sight, I took him for a con artist. Despite that, I decided to take him seriously. Anyone else would have just thought he was crazy. “Is this place safe?” He was a little nervous. “As the head of the National Security Bureau, I guarantee our conversation will not be overheard,” I assured the stranger. He nodded, leaned forward, and raised one eyebrow: “Tell me, why did the dinosaurs disappear?”
I stared at him for no less than 30 seconds, and—besides the sound of the persistent “tick tock” of the wall clock—everything in the room was silent.
His eyes were full of temptation and excitement, with a certain mischief to them; he licked his lips and asked: “Where did the Mayans go?”
I was fully aware of the gravity of the situation. I put on a serious face and told him: “Go on.”
We spent half an hour in that room, full of his nervous narration and the persistent ticking of the wall clock.
Thirty more seconds of silence. “Let me get this straight,” I said, breaking the silence. “On Pluto, there are intelligent beings called ‘cleaners’. They consider themselves to
be the supervisors of civilizations in the universe. That is to say, whenever a certain civilization on a certain planet develop to the extent that they become a danger to civilization as a whole—for example, resource exhaustion or environmental pollution—they intervene. Dinosaurs became too prosperous, so the cleaners decided to redesign them into…kangaroos. As for the Mayans, the cleaners changed them into ants…Did I understand all of that correctly?”
“Right.” He appeared elated that I was accepting such an absurd story and answering in such a serious manner. Having deemed me worthy, he decided to reveal more: “As far as I know the pyramids were built by cockroaches; as for the mice, do you know the statues on Easter Island?”
In that moment, I realized he was saying that all of the great wonders of the world were built by the filthy creatures all around us. I had goose pimples, but I suppressed my indignation. Feigning nonchalance, I asked: “So, do you mean to say that it’s the humans’ turn?”
“That’s right.” His expression became serious; he wasn’t stringing me along anymore. “Maybe you don’t believe it, but it doesn’t matter how vast the universe is. The cleaners’ spies exist anywhere there is civilization. Earth is no exception. These spies masquerade as common people, they observe human activity, and report back to Pluto frequently for them to evaluate the situation. They believe that human civilization has lost control, that humans can’t fix the current crisis by themselves. The situation could bring problems for Pluto. For this reason,
it is necessary to intervene personally. Now, on Pluto, the cleaners are arguing without rest; they will vote to decide what they will change humans into.”
“They have a democracy on Pluto?” I asked curiously.
“Democracy?” His face flashed with contempt: “Heh, they are just thugs, arrogant, conceited, moody people. They say that the people on Earth hate each other, they kill each other, and human civilization is about to collapse. They have rated earth as a second-class ecological contamination and decided to exterminate the infestation. Some have suggested reducing humans to gregarious insects similar to ants. They say this would solve the problem of natural resources and would be beneficial to solidarity and friendship among them. Also, it would put human beings on a rung in the food chain that won’t threaten the survival of Earth anymore.”
I was secretly shocked: “Do they really believe that?” “It’s a pretext,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “Every time they start a raid, there’s always some highminded reason, but, really, they don’t care whether the civilization is a problem or not. They change things because they don’t like it. This time, it’s pure revenge.” I was amazed by his answer: “Revenge? What did thepeople of Earth ever do to Pluto?”
Smiling, he answered, “Isn’t it true that Earth decided a while ago that Pluto should not be considered a planet?” “Just for that? That was done by a few astronomers on a whim.” I was transfixed.
“But that’s what the cleaners are like. They’re very vain, and they don’t take disrespect lightly.”
The thought of these extraterrestrials being so narrowminded gave me pause. I thought for a while before my next question. “So, how did dinosaurs offend these aliens?”
Impatience was written all over his face: “They say it was because of R&B music. Dinosaurs invented it and loved it, but the cleaners hated that lowbrow music. Now look, you don’t need to keep asking about all this boring old news. You are facing a catastrophe; I’m on a special trip to inform you. I hope you can rid yourself of your doubts and report all of this to a higher authority as soon as possible.”
His seriousness again aroused my curiosity. “So, are you from Pluto?”
He looked clearly embarrassed and the muscles of his face revealed his annoyance: “Do you really think that I’m crazy?” With that, he jumped off the chair and threw his silver-framed glasses away. For a single moment, he looked massive; gold brilliance oozed from his face. He sang with a soft, calming voice:
“Ignorant humans, I reveal my terrifying visage to you. You no longer respect the gods and have forgotten humility—forgotten the very appearance of the gods. I am a God of Mount Olympus. In days gone, you prostrated yourself in worship of us, gaining protection at our feet. Today, you sacrifice no cattle or sheep. The world is full of the ghosts of the wronged, falsehood and cruelty. The suffering gods have already been forgotten. As Hermes, who lost all of my companions, I endure alone on this cold, solitary, alien land, waiting for the morning sun to illuminate the dark universe, to have my vengeance.”
The song was so beautiful. I was so engulfed in the sound, I took a full minute to collect myself: “So, all the gods of Mount Olympus were redesigned? Why were the cleaners dissatisfied with you?”
Hate of a thousand years boiled in him; Hermes gnashed his teeth and snarled:
“They accused us of being impetuous.”
I sighed without judging: “Excuse me, Messenger of the Gods, O’ Great Hermes, are you the last of the gods left?”
The light fell from Hermes’ face as his mood calmed; he picked up the glasses from the floor and put them on, sitting down in front of me.
He changed back into the middle aged man he was before, but it seemed as though a fury was rolling in his eyes. “That’s right. We were defeated in a war against the cleaners.
All of my companions have been humiliated and transformed. I only survived because I went to Pluto before the war, disguised as one of the cleaners.” With this, his face took on a pleased, mischievous look: “The cleaners aren’t the only ones who can spy. Of all the gods, I was the most cunning, so I was given this grave responsibility. Through the years, step-by-step, I was able to infiltrate their high-level authorities and learned of their top-secret plans and schemes. I have come here personally to pass on the message. Please, have no doubts or hesitations, prepare as soon as possible.”
“Prepare for what?” My fascination was intense and upsetting. I wasn’t able to hide it anymore. The whole thing was just too exciting.
“Their interstellar transformation device can undo its previous alterations, but it can only be used after a vote. I will create a diversion after they vote to transform humanity and seize the chance to start the machine. After that—” Hermes eyes were filled with splendor and hope, “—all the gods will be back.”
“You mean, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena…everyone will be back?” I asked with caution.
“Yes, and you need to prepare a large reception and help us defeat the cleaners. After that, we will enjoy an eternity of prosperity.”
Images of the ancient Greeks and the post-modern world unfolded in front of my eyes: bodies covered in olive oil and hands grasping weapons, fighting against aliens in the sky; on the ground, long-range nuclear missiles are ready to fire at Pluto, with mice, flies, and cockroaches crawling everywhere. “Hey, we could revive all of the divine powers if necessary, so they could be our backup. Think about it. If we revive all the gods, East and West, wouldn’t that be a magnificent scenario?”
“Still the hesitation?” the great Hermes asked resentfully.
Waking from my own surrealist scenario, I immediately changed the cordial expression on my face to show him my sincerity: “Hmm, you know, these things are very important. Before
taking any action, I have to ask a few questions to better understand the situation and make a wise decision.”
From then on, I asked about the particulars of the situation on Pluto, and Hermes’ undercover operations there. After I was clear on every detail, I asked nervously: “You know, everything you said is essential; have you told anyone else?”
The great Hermes said proudly: “I haven’t. This information is too dangerous, I came to Earth to inform high level authorities.”
“Good.” I softened my tone; I felt relieved. I stood up and gave the Messenger of the Gods a steaming hot cup of tea. “I’m terribly sorry; I forgot to offer you a drink. For coming such a long way, I want to show you my sincere gratitude as a delegate of Earth. Please, drink up. I’ll pass this report on to my boss.” Hermes seemed satisfied.
I decided to act right away, pressing a key on the phone to call out: “Mary, please send Smith into the office.”
The situation was clear: there were some problems, but the outlook was still optimistic. In a rare moment of ease and trust, I casually asked: “So, what did those horrible catfish on Pluto transform the Gods of Olympus into?”
Hermes, stupefied, said: “How do you not know? Their external form has changed, but they are the most loyal friends a person can have, they stand by you and
I understood his implication and laughed: Gods, with us morning and night. Hermes lowered his head and drank the tea. As he did, I smiled at him, pulled out my tranquilizer gun and shot him.
I ordered files on my desk as Smith entered, pointed at Hermes who was sleeping soundly in the chair and said: “This gentleman is very interesting. He told me some
whoppers, and now he’s tired, sleeping very soundly. Wait until he wakes up to deal with him. I’m afraid he’s spreading some truly absurd rumors. You know, in this
world there are always people like that, claiming to be the savior of humanity. Send him to the care facility for people like him.”
Smith nodded. I locked up my drawer and took the key with me, putting on my coat and heading outside. “But, in the future if you find people like this again who want to see me, please let them in. I still want to talk with them. Even if they’re nuts, one of them might have something useful to say.”
I walked out of the office and into the sun. It didn’t look like the world was ending. In the street there were people of every shade and description, gentlemen, gangsters, celebrities, politicians and beggars, each with their own false notions and ideas. Nobody cares if Earth is permeated with fatal toxins, if millions suffer from hunger, if millions of species go extinct. Would they even care if they knew that there is a group of catfish-like aliens on Pluto who want to turn human kind into ant-like insects? Or of the existence of conspiracies and legends from 10 thousand years ago—a hundred thousand years ago? What they need now is the warm sunlight that guides their short, gloomy existence. It doesn’t matter if we let them die in ignorance.
At home, I was met by my dog, Bread, as he heard me opening the door. He ran up to me, rubbing my knee on his head. I locked the door and sank into the sofa. What an exciting day. I could finally breathe free.
There’s a lot of work to do, work that I can do much better than those barbarians from Mount Olympus. Those impulsive savages can’t do anything right. They are disgusting and they deserved their punishment from those catfish aliens on Pluto.
It’s not just Gods and cleaners who can do the spying. My people also have extraordinary talents. When the time is right, the world will be back in our hands. The kangaroos
will rise again. We will defeat our enemies and take back our kingdom from these barbaric, blockheaded humans. Bread barked at me twice, I smiled and gave him two doggy treats. He chewed happily as I patted his soft ears, humming some soft R&B to myself.
Translated by Sonia Di Clemente and Tyler Roney