An End of Days Story, by Fei Dao
Originally a student of environmental engineering at Beijing Normal University, Fei Dao's love of science fiction led him to switch to the literature department's science fiction major—the only such major in the country. Since then he's published a large quantity of short stories and novellas, often alternating between fantasy and science fiction.
I first met Fei Dao at Paper Republic’s Christmas party in 2012. He was a scrawny, male geek Tsinghua student in specs who wrote science fiction – a recognisable type. I’m a closet sci fi fan myself, and we became friends. When he sent me a couple of his stories I was immediately taken by his style, more fairy-tale than techno-nerd. I could picture his childhood in a coal town in Inner Mongolia, nose buried in a copy of “Science Fiction World” magazine while everyone else played basketball. Now he has four books of collected stories, and is writing in a golden age of Chinese sci fi. This fable was a delightful challenge to translate, infused with both quiet humour and a deep melancholia. The vanishing population reminded me of political disappearances in China, but Fei Dao insists it’s a story about death. Trust the tale, not the teller (or translator).
This translation first appeared on the Anthill, a writers’ colony of stories from China. Also check out Alec Ash’s Q&A with Fei Dao on the LARB China blog here.
When mother was little, she told father she wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man on Earth. This wounded father deeply. Driven by grief and indignation, working with a bleak resolve, he became a resident space station maintenance worker. From tens of thousands of feet up in space he kept a solitary watch over the planet, distancing himself from humanity, from Earth, and from mother.
Later, when father was the last man on Earth, mother did marry him.
In that dark, stifling space station with only the stars for company, he used all the energy his job left him to nurture his resentment for mother, finally vowing that he would never love again. But when he came back down to Earth she was the only woman left.
They had no other choice.
Shortly before, humanity had no idea that it would soon die out. Blindly optimistic, we were completely unprepared when disaster struck.
People started to disappear. They were gentlemen and rascals, heroes and hoodlums, beauties and cripples, millionaires and beggars – in short, wherever there were people, people disappeared. It was the great equalizer, embodying a principal of statistic fairness that went beyond good and evil.
The population problem that had plagued humanity for so many years was solved at last.
The mankind problem that had plagued God for so many years was solved at last.
The ensuing panic is barely worth mentioning, just a short period of confusion while the world ended.
The most popular topic of conversation was who had been “made not” that day. The phrase was simple and clear, just right. Some said it was God clearing up after himself. Others thought aliens were abducting us to use as a labour force. Those writers with active imaginations speculated that an advanced civilization had taken the child-like earthlings away to live a nobler life on a higher plane of space and time. It was all rubbish, of course, and no one paid it any mind.
The planet was finally at peace. All conflicts ended, and mankind unified for the first and last time against a common enemy. Determined to stop the disappearings, the whole world pooled its resources and rallied together.
Around the globe, prolific writers produced thousands of volumes inspired by these end of days. Most of the writers were soon made not, leaving behind their unfinished masterpieces. Philosophers and theologians raced against the clock – not knowing when they too would disappear – to establish fresh theoretical frameworks. They stopped pondering the question of why we exist, and instead addressed the question of why we don’t.
Naturally, the most pragmatic response was from the scientists, but there were just a few thousand left of them. With astonishing speed they build a machine, the Global Self-Service Survival System (GSSS), to ensure that those lucky enough to still be around could survive, and keep alight the flame of humanity in the hope that civilisation could return again.
The day they finished, the fifty scientists who remained looked on their work with a deep and rueful sigh. It was in that moment that they realised what unity truly means, and what the united few can achieve against insurmountable odds. It’s a pity that this touching spirit of international cooperation came a tad too late, or life might have been better for us all.
That night, the scientists decided to stay up until dawn to see which of their group might disappear before their eyes.
The next morning, all fifty of them were gone.
Humanity grieved, resenting the contempt with which it was being treated. After much discussion, we made our last stand. The remaining ten thousand or so offered up their privacy to the GSSS cameras, allowing the system to record their every movement and breath. Were one of them to disappear, another would be around to watch the recording.
Mankind simply had to see how it was going missing!
“If I must die,” people figured, “at least others will know how.”
Then, in some unknowable instant, the ten thousand or so who remained were all made not. At the last, in a world so cruel, the human race gave up.
When on the whole planet there was only one man and one woman left, the apocalypse stopped. Or at least, they were left to die naturally, rather than disappearing.
Despite being the only couple left on earth, they faced an easier lot than Adam and Eve once did. The remarkable GSSS system fed and clothed them, and it looked as if, so long as this last vestige of human civilization was alive, repropagating the species wasn’t entirely out of the question.
The random nature of the disappearances had caused endless trouble, especially in the field of Human Resources. It was more or less hopeless for a command to see it through to proper implementation. One upshot of such chaotic management was that father had almost been left behind on his space station.
If it hadn’t been for a certain decision maker at a certain instant on a certain occasion for a certain reason unexpectedly thinking of a certain affair, and so issuing a certain order that was carried out to a certain degree of success, father would undoubtedly have been abandoned far above in freezing space, on the eve of humanity’s extinction. Then again, who’s to say that wasn’t what he wanted?
As it was, he did come back to earth.
Exiting the return spacecraft, father saw the machinery of the GSSS – pilotless surveillance drones, driverless transports, automated mining drills, harvesters, heating units, massage units, burger makers and all kind of other novelty flying around him, going about their jobs as if nothing had happened.
There were no flowers, no applause, nobody left to greet him.
Across all the land and the four seas, it was a golden age of peace and harmony. The world was faultless but for its lack of people, in which regard it was desolate.
Arriving at the supercomputer that controlled the GSSS, with trembling lips father asked, “Tell me, am I the last?”
The computer scanned the planet, then answered in a low tone. No, there was one partner left for him.
Father found mother, and married her.
Although they had once hurt each other with the most spiteful language, now that they were the only humans left they realised that they could no longer remain apart. Pairing up was their duty, their responsibility, and a need from the depths of their souls.
They talked very little, and only needed to look at each other to reach an agreement about anything. It seemed as if for them to be together was God’s plan.
They found a rundown chapel in the countryside, and dressed up in their Sunday best. With no one to preside over the ceremony, they stared at the crucifix opposite them as if in a trace, and said together, “I do”.
With the help and protection of the GSSS, they travelled the globe from the Niagara Falls to the deserts of Africa, the Pyramids to the Great Wall, the Louvre to the Empire State Building. They rode in pilotless aircraft, traversing high mountains and vast oceans, facing radiant heights and soaring among the clouds in utter isolation.
They had all the time in the world to sightsee the empty planet.
Their honeymoon was endless, and unbearably sorrowful. During the day they held each other’s hand, and as they fell asleep they hugged each other, unwilling to part for a single moment lest in the blink of an eye they would lose each other forever. They were determined to be together to the end, terrified to see the other disappear and face infinite loneliness.
They had no one else to rely on, only each other.
After I was born, mother suffered from postnatal depression. One day, when she felt she no longer needed father, while he was sleeping she loosened the hand that had held hers for so many years, got up and left. She walked far away, cut her wrists, and quietly lay down.
Father found mother, and buried her.
From then on, father was a joyless man. He raised me to adulthood, never smiling, never cruel. As soon as I was big enough to take care of myself, as if overnight he became an old man. When he died, he gripped my hand in his and told me he had never really hated my mother, but had always loved her.
Now they are both resting in peace, and I am bitterly alone. Sometimes I wonder if God simply couldn’t bear to see them apart, and got everyone else out of the way, leaving behind only father and mother until they could learn to get along.