“I’d like to go see it,” I said one Saturday morning, when we were lying in bed.
“See what, Mark?” Surya, my wife stretched herself lazily.
“The most famous painting in the world… you know.”
“You must mean the famousest painting in the world. Please use real words,” she said and smiled.
„Why did I marry a Pleiadian?” I said with a heavy sigh. Before 2030, famousest wasn't even a word. Surya giggled and rolled over in the sheets. She kissed me on the neck. Yes, why? I thought to myself. They’re pompous, boring and are always correcting people. Famousest, most famous. What the heck does it matter? Of course, I knew why I married her. I fell in love, head over heels. She was more beautiful than any Terran woman I’ve ever seen. Deep, gray-blue eyes, silky hair, not quite white but almost. Depending on the weather they seemed gray or a shimmering beige.
The Pleiadians brought with them a new culture. They were peaceful, honest and agreeable. Something Terrans had never experienced in written history. With their culture they introduced new words and rules of literary purity. Everything had to make sense. It wasn’t “the most beautiful” anymore. It was: the beautifulest, the grotesquest or the incrediblest. Surya had told me that the Pleiadians couldn’t come into contact until we reached their level of emotional evolution. Otherwise, we’d kill them right away. There weren’t many of them on Earth. About eight hundred thousand extraterrestial Terra fans. The most dedicated. They knew everything about us. We knew nothing about them. Surya studied Terran anthropology in school and she took a course on Terran politics. She knew everything about our social customs. Sometimes I felt she pitied me. Our ways were different but our biology didn’t differ at all. We were technically the same species. Earth was once a Pleiadian colony, thousands of years ago. Then it gained independence and became controlled by another species of humanoids. Surya said she couldn’t tell me anything more about that part of history.
When they landed on Earth it wasn’t an invasion. It was tourism. And then they stayed and offered real civilization. Really humane like. They brought with them their Pleiadian technology. Massive construction robots and modified mushrooms capable of producing any organic matter from penicillin to Parmigiano cheese. And the sweepers.
We went to see the painting the following afternoon. The art center was located near the river. The building was a pristine rectangular block made of smooth concrete. Sweepers were busy day and night cleaning its surface, like every surface in the city. There was a loose crowd, we didn’t have to push through. We went in and there it was, a twenty foot canvas, all lit up in an otherwise dark, black room. The painting was ridiculously huge, painted with tiny strokes in a hyper-realistic style. It depicted something I didn’t expect to see at all. A dirty snow path between piles of old snow. On the path - two feet in slippers. The skin had a pinkish-gray color. Above the ankles, several layered skirts. Rough, wrinkled linen fabric. Nothing matched, the layers had been put together out of necessity not fashion or aesthetics. The slippers – a rubber undersole and dusty, light mauve, quilt stitched velvet. Granny feet, I thought. Everything covered with a layer of black dust and dirt, so common to Earth. That's all? I didn’t understand.
“What does it mean?” I whispered, shaking my head.
“It’s so beautiful.” Surya said, teary eyed.
“What’s so beautiful about it?” I asked, squinting, trying to analyze the painter’s technique.
“It’s the essence of Terra,” she whispered. I looked at her and my mouth dropped. Now I understood. The artist tried to appeal to the Pleiadian aesthetic. And this painting was exactly just that. That’s why I didn’t find it compelling. I was a Terran. I’d never understand.
“You mean old Terra. When there was still dirt and snow,” I said.
“Yes. I think that dirt is very poetic,” she said.
“You can have all of your poetic dirt back. Just turn off the sweepers,” I said.
“You can’t turn them off,” she said and smiled, “besides, that would be unwise.”
Yes, the Pleiadians - always the wise. We left the gloomy art center. The painting made me think. There had been no snow since 2055. And dirt? Well, it technically existed. In the fields outside the city. I could go there one day and maybe touch it. Get really dirty. And snow? Ice cream was now the closest thing to snow now. We got some on the way back. It melted quickly in the heat. A milky drop landed on my shoe. The gray blur of the sweepers immediately cleaned it. The cleaned everything in our home too, but usually at night. It happened everywhere, all the time, in every household. Abstract paintings were a problem though. The sweepers perceived random specks of paint as accidental spills. And many of them were probably exactly just that. Humanity lost some art pieces, but no one really cared. The sweepers stayed away from human skin but cleaned the animals while they slept. They were tiny, smaller than a fruit fly. Too fast to see them. All you ever saw was a blur.
“We too have ice cream on Qiacubba. It simply doesn’t taste anything like Terran ice cream,” Surya sighed and licked the bottom of the cone. “Oh look, a tree rat!” she said, pointing at a squirrel. The animal climbed down the tree, watching her with its two shiny eyes. She fed it some peanut crumbs and laughed. It’s been ten years since she came here and she still acted like a tourist, marveling at Earth’s nature, animals and local food. She wore khaki pants, a white, linen shirt and brown loafers. She dressed like this on purpose. She wanted to look Terran. The clothes contrasted with her alien beauty, making her look even more stunning. Of course, she looked nothing like a Terran. She shone with an inner light. She was peaceful and calm. Their evolved emotionality made them age slower, they lived up to two hundred years. No stress hormones. And her hair. Silky smooth, greyish white, not like an old woman’s hair, but like the hair of a kitten.
The details of the painting haunted me. The texture of the layered skirt, the bright snow, the stubbornness of the two feet. Why? Damn it, I thought. I won’t be spending my time thinking about some painting. Maybe that’s why it was the most famous, oh excuse me, the famousest painting in the world. People couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was all in there, poverty, pain, entropy, decay, the lost winter, the poetic dirt, so cherished by the Pleiadians and… the human stubbornness, our unapologetic will to live. No matter where life would throw us, we’d persist, against all odds. Naked feet in slippers, in minus temperatures, a slap in the face of brutal reality. Frail old feet, deprived of the things, that could protect them from the cold. They carried a message. Here I am, out in the snow, wearing slippers and some old clothes, not dressed for the weather at all. And I will persist.
I needed to find out more about the sweepers. My good friend Jake did some conservation work on the servers in the sweeper processing facility. We met for a beer in the park one afternoon.
“What’s it like in there?” I asked and nodded at the grim, oval shape on the horizon.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
“What? It can’t be that bad,” I shrugged.
“The sound is unbearable. And the smell!”
I decided I’d go with him, to see it for myself. The grey buzz filled the hangar. It was the size of a small stadium. They dumped all of their load on the floor and left it there to dry. Every tiny bug ejected the dust, scraps and grime. They piled the tiny lumps layer by layer, building a rug of a dark sludge. Bits of animal droppings, vomit, food waste, dirt, oil and paint. All the worst smells in the world combined. It was difficult to bear. Even with a mask on.
“I thought they ate it,” I said, as we stood on a high balcony overlooking the plant.
“Nah, they’re bio-bots. They run on solar,” said Jake.
“I can’t take it, let’s go.”
“You know, birds eat them sometimes.”
“They go through unharmed. These suckers are indestructible.”
“What do you love most about Earth?” I asked Surya one night, after making love.
“You?” She said and threw her arms around my neck.
“But seriously,” I insisted.
“The animals. We don’t have many animals on Qiacubba.”
It had crossed my mind, that I also was a type of an exotic animal to her. I had always wondered what she saw in me. Surya was beyond beautiful. Her grace was unearthly. Literally. And when we made love, it felt like traveling to another dimension. Next to Pleiadians, we were cave men. As for me, I was never particularly handsome. A hopeless nerd with a blobby face. No distinct features. Almond shaped, brown eyes, a button nose and thin lips. But she loved me. On some days, when we were out together, I’d just watch her, frozen, mesmerized by her beauty and absolutely confident she’ll dump me any minute. But she never did. She loved everything Terra.
That summer, I became obsessed. It started with the painting. It haunted me. It was a window to a lost reality, a dirty world. It made me think about the invisible sweepers. But they weren’t really invisible. They were just too small and too fast for human eyes.
“Have you ever seen one?” I asked Surya, as we stood in the kitchen preparing our lunch one morning.
“No. It’s impossible to see them,” she said.
“I want to see what they look like,” I said. Surya looked displeased. Her blue eyes turned stormy gray.
“Why would you want to do that?” she asked with a worried face.
“They’re in our home. All the time,” I replied.
“All of those years, you didn’t mind.”
“I know but… It just bothers me,” I said. We packed our lunch and went to work, and I kept thinking of a way to trap one of the sweepers. Fly traps didn’t work. They’d just eat their way through the glue. They steered clear of the electronic traps too. They were programmed to avoid danger. But I didn’t need to trap one to see one. All I needed was a microscope and a high-speed camera. I had to hide my plan from Surya though. I went straight from the store to the park. I called her and said I needed to work late, cringing at the cliché phrase as I lied. Like a traitor, cheating on her with my own, sick curiosity. It was a sunny afternoon with a bit of cloud. The park wasn’t too crowded. I saw some couples walking by. I bought an ice cream cone, sat down on the fake grass. I set up the microscope and the camera, and pressed record. I dripped a tiny speck of ice cream on the glass. It only took six seconds and the sweepers came in a blur. I repeated the process a couple of times to make sure I get a good shot. I took the camera and played it. The third sweeper was slow enough to get a clear picture. For the first time, I saw what a sweeper looked like. It didn’t look alien, even though it was the product of Pleiadian biotechnology. Its entire body was transparent, like one of those deep-sea creatures. The abdomen was irregular and whitish, like a fat larva. I took a closer look at its wings and head. It resembled…
“Oh God, it’s a cockroach,” I whispered to myself, staring at the screen. The sweepers were genetically modified, tiny cockroaches. I felt sick to my stomach and put the camera down. I looked at the blur of the sweepers on the benches and the paved alleyways. All of a sudden it all looked completely different. It wasn’t just a nameless blur. It had a face. The face of a cockroach. I shivered in the sun. I had to tell someone. I called Jake and told him everything, about the painting, about my obsession, my little escapade to the park and finally my discovery. He wasn’t shocked at all.
“Well, it makes sense. That’s what cockroaches do. They feed on dirt,” he said.
“Do you not realize what this means? We have a cockroach infestation. Everywhere!” I gasped into the phone, “they’re on our clothes! In our homes!”
“Well, they clean things,” he said.
“They look like cockroaches. Aren’t you at least a little bit alarmed?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I mean, I can’t see them,” Jake was unmoved. And then it hit me. Surya knew. She had to know. That’s why she didn’t want me to go looking for answers. I packed up the gear and wandered aimlessly, not wanting to go home. The clouds of the sweepers, I saw them everywhere now. On the pristine sidewalks, hanging above the cars, on the walls of the buildings, the walls scraped clean and beautiful.
“They’re cockroaches,” I said in the door. Wow, I thought I would play it a little more subtly than that, I thought to myself.
“Mark… You shouldn’t have looked,” Surya said, her eyes gleaming with the promise of tears, “your human mind is too prejudiced. That’s why I didn’t want you to know.” She hugged me and cried.
The next two years, I now remember as “the transition years”. I moved out of our apartment and rented a cheap, rundown cottage outside the city. There were less sweepers in the countryside. I sealed all the windows and rarely left the house. Whenever I did, I’d put on a hazmat suit. Some of the sweepers went through anyway. I kept spraying them with metallic paint. It was the only thing that worked. Surya visited me sometimes, each time a little sadder, but eventually she stopped. I kept busy. The picture I took went viral. Soon everyone was photo-hunting sweepers, trying to get the best shot. I remember the posters when the Pleiadians first introduced them. A white cartoon man in dungarees with a broom. They lied to us. Not the Pleiadians. Our government did. Three months later I started an anti-sweeper campaign. It was vile, I admit. I used every manipulation I could come up with. I made flyers, stickers, wrote articles. Everything. I worked day and night. I built groups, sites and reached out to likeminded people. And scientists. I was looking for a way to get rid of all the sweepers on Earth. And I found it.
“We can only affect one area. But it will work,” said Cal. He studied bioengineering and had it all figured out.
“Very simple. The sweepers are bio-robots. They have an AI neural network, sensitive to electromagnetic bursts, just like any other electrical device,” he said.
“But won’t an EMP destroy the infrastructure?” I asked.
“Not if we design it to target the sweeper frequency. We need to be very careful,”
We deployed the EMP through cellphone towers. One day, the sweepers started falling out of the sky. In our underground the news spread fast. Everyone wanted our tech. And then the day came when all the sweepers had gone. Grey piles of sweepers filled the streets along with other garbage that had piled up during the days of their demise. Three weeks later I went back to the city breathing in the dirty air. For the first time, the air smelled like something. I needed to see Surya. Now I could move back in with her. Without feeling stalked by cockroaches, I felt free for the first time in years. I got to our apartment building and walked in. There was litter everywhere in the hallways. They didn’t have time to hire cleaners. The job hadn’t existed for the past twenty years. It would take time, I thought, but it will go back to normal again. In time. I knocked on the door. Surya opened. At first, I didn’t recognize her. Matted hair, wrinkles and… she seemed to have a skin rash. Her skin had aged visibly. Her eyes were red. She saw my expression.
“I’m allergic to dust,” she explained.
“Oh… Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out,” I said and hugged her. The apartment was a pigsty, just like my cottage for the past two years. But that was understandable. No one in the city owned a vacuum cleaner. She tried her best using cut up clothes and shower gel, but she was a Pleiadian. They had no cleaning skills.
“I love you Mark,” she said.
“I love you too,” I replied.
“But I’m leaving. I’m going back to Qiacubba,” she said and sobbed like a little girl, “I can’t live like this!”
“Surya… Don’t go,” I said, holding her fingers in my hands. I kissed her fingertips and noticed her fingernails were dirty. I fought the desire to wipe my mouth.
“We have lived with the sweepers in a perfect symbiosis for hundreds of years. We aren’t used to this,” she said.
“But... but… You said that dirt was poetic!” I protested and looked into her eyes.
“Yes, poetic! Meaning it belongs in art galleries and tiny books that never earn the cost of the paper they’re printed on,” she yelled and pushed me away. She hid her face in her hands.
“Surya,” I pleaded, but less heartily, „It’s not fair.”
“Go away. I don’t want you to see me like this,” she said quietly. And I didn’t too. She had lost her unearthly beauty. Her Pleiadian loftiness had gone. No more playful or happy but downtrodden with the toil of everyday labour. The endless job of fighting the earthly grime, the dust that somehow gets everywhere. She finally became something she had been longing for all of those years. And the dirt made it possible. She was now a Terran.