From the author: Cathy and Mark teach English as a Second Language, and they have two major problems. First, they are finding it difficult to help their students make progress. Second, their students are aliens bent on conquering the world. And one more issue is that they would like to keep their jobs in a political environment that undervalues education.
"It's an invasion, I keep telling you," Mark said from his desk. He pulled another essay off the stack and sighed.
Cathy, sitting at the central worktable, ignored the comment. "Have you ever used Concentration in your classes?" she asked him, blinking rapidly behind her thick glasses.
Mark hardly glanced up, though he raised his head slightly as if he meant to. "No," he said. "Who's got time for games, with the passive voice and past perfect to get through, and with the world coming to an end? Anyway, it's not really a higher level activity." His red pen hovered above the paper as he read the essay, poised like a hawk catching an updraft, searching for prey below. His beaklike nose contributed to the image.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Cathy said, writing a large "16" on the back of a stiff 5 by 8 card with a blue magic marker. She brushed a stray stand of yellow-brown hair back from her face. "Although one of my old classmates told me she uses it in her AEP class over at the U. It's hard to find activities that both the human immigrants and alien students will all enjoy, so I use this one all the time, and the students seem to really like it. I use it for reviews a lot."
"They're making plans," Mark said. "The only reason this initial group is here, why they're learning our language, is to make it easier to administer us after they take over. They told me as much! One time their leader, Lit, just out and said-- oh, man, look at this! How often can one student confuse 'fun' and 'funny'? We've gone over it and over it!"
Cathy turned the card over. "This time we're doing opposites," she said, writing "Heavy" on the card. "Here's 'Heavy,' they have to find 'Light.' And I've got 'Dark', too, so there's two 'Light's. I think it'll be fun for them when they remember the word 'Light' has two meanings."
"Ummm," said Mark, crossing something out. "The point is, we're the only ones who seem to suspect anything!" He wiped sweat from his forehead. "I mean, except for the xenophobe nutjobs who want to seal the borders, and, I don't know, bleach the nonwhite population. But who would listen to them? And why should they?"
"It's fun for the students who need the vocab review, and it's also challenging enough for the top students, who don't really need to review it, but who can have fun just because they get to play and guess, and it's suspenseful." She carefully wrote "17" on the card and turned it over. "I give M and M's to the winning team, or licorice. Those red licorice twists. Red Vines. I get them in bulk at Costco. They keep forever." She wrote "Interesting" on the card.
"But soon it may be too late. The thing is, we've got to let people know the danger." Mark started to put an essay down, then looked at it again. "She can't have a 47%. I better look that over again."
"I wasn't really sure for a long time if the Brall liked M & M's or not, because they just accepted the prizes and didn't eat them." Cathy inspected the card, put it in the stack, and took up another. Card 18.
"That could be cultural," said Mark.
"But then I heard they couldn't eat chocolate. Mut, one of my students, told me that. And so we hit on licorice as a substitute." Cathy looked at the list at her elbow, and then wrote "Short" on the card.
"Maybe that's their Achilles heel," said Mark. "Chocolate. Maybe that's how we'll defeat them in the end. We could coat ourselves in it, save ourselves that way. Man, wouldn't that be ironic. Or I guess not. Not ironic."
The door to the office opened, and an older woman entered, curled black hair streaked with some gray, carrying a canvas bag with "TESOL '19: San Diego -- Lighting the Torch!" printed on it in green lettering, above some artwork: a quill pen drawing shapes which gradually assumed the forms of Escher-like birds which flew off the side of the bag. "Cambridge University Press: English as a Second Language" was written under the drawing. She set the bag down on an empty chair at the central table.
"Hi, Cathy," the woman said, smiling.
"Just making a Concentration game here. For my Level One class."
"Ah. Good." Arlene took two small notebooks out of her bag and stacked them neatly on the table. "By the way, I can't guarantee anything yet, I probably can't until the week before next quarter actually begins, but so far enrollment looks pretty good. Our numbers are fairly steady. So we should be able to give you a class again next quarter. One hour, and maybe even two."
"Oh, that's great to hear," said Cathy. "I was wondering about that, but I knew that you didn't know for sure yet, so I didn't want to ask."
"Yes, well, I know how it is. Of course we can't know for sure, even now, but it looks OK so far."
"That's great. 'Cause you know, up at Edmonds they said that their enrollment was down a bit, so they weren't sure if they could throw anything at all my way next quarter. At least if I have one class, that'll see me through for a little while. And two would even get me benefits."
"Well, we get more of the refugees and immigrants in our program. At Edmonds they're more focused on the international students, so we have a little more of a cushion to fall back on, when the economy overseas turns sour."
"Well, that's great to hear." Cathy returned her attention to her game.
"Refugees, immigrants, and world conquerors, you mean," said Mark. "At least they remain confused by English grammar and spelling. If they can't ever master it, they can't use it to master us. Simple logic."
"Subjugated by the subjunctive," said Arlene.
"Yeah, Arlene! You know what I--" Mark suddenly realized that Arlene wasn't being serious, and went back to his stack of quizzes. "Last week they dissected a dog, you know," he said. "I read about it on the internet. An undergrad saw them out by the football field. They're figuring out Earth biology. So when their fleet comes, they'll be ready."
Arlene walked over to Mark and stood behind his chair. "A mess, huh?" she said.
Mark smirked. "Yeah. This one is from Arratello.. uh.." he turned to the first page, and looked at the name again. "Arratellodobbullubob. I just call him Art. Do you know him? Or her, or it, or whatever is politically correct this week?"
"Most people think of them as male, because of their deep voices and their -- I don't know -- outspokenness in class," said Cathy, "but I heard in fact all of them are female. They only become male for reproduction, and then only for short periods."
Arlene said, "Yeah, I had him a few quarters ago, when he was in Level Two. I think I used to call him Bob. He sure did quite a job on that essay."
"I thought I'd run out of red ink. Look. 'I think erth it sould be lke Brall mroe. Example is transportion sytem and so on. Aftir invation we are to cheange. Brains harvested to be efishenter.' I hardly know where to start with a sentence like that."
Arlene just shook her head. "Well, the Brall do have their troubles with writing skills. Georgina's Basic Writing Skills class is just full of them. It used to be the Arabs filling that class, remember?"
"We didn't have to keep the room at 82 degrees Fahrenheit for the aliens, back then," said Mark. "They're the ones who want to stall any action on global warming, you know. They're just delighted with the work we're saving them from. After the takeover. Nice and comfy."
"Oh, Arlene? One of my old classmates is going to be working in Japan starting next month," said Cathy. "In Osaka, at a technical college there. You were in Japan, right?"
"Yes, back in the early nineties. I was at a university in Tokyo, though."
"Yeah, my friend, she's been learning all the Japanese she can, in the time she has before she leaves. She says it's been really fascinating. I guess Osaka has its own dialect. Did you learn much Japanese when you were there?"
"Oh, you know, not really. Ah, do you guys have your attendance data for this month?"
"Uh, yeah." Cathy was pawing through the papers, books, stray rubber bands, loose paper clips and dry-erase markers in her oversized cloth bag. "I know it's in here somewhere," she said, looking doubtfully at a piece of paper before stuffing it back into the bag. She pulled another one out. "Yeah, here it is." She passed the paper, somewhat crumpled, to Arlene.
"Sure." Mark handed her the form. "Arlene, does the college have a contingency plan for during the takeover? I mean, like we have for earthquakes and mad gunmen?"
"I'm not really sure, Mark."
"'Cause we should." Mark went back to his work. "Better safe than some alien's lunch, spread-eagled and naked on some extraterrestrial version of pizza. Or rolled up like sushi, if you want to get Japanese about it."
Arlene smoothed the attendance forms out on the table and began copying the numbers into a notebook with a green cover.
"I can't believe we're still worried about taking attendance," said Mark. "Once the aliens make their move, we'll all be nothing but slaves under their whips." Suddenly he threw his red pen down. "I just don't get why no one seems to care! We've got to do something."
"I see Lit has been missing some classes," said Arlene to Cathy.
"Yeah. Always does the homework, though."
"The government guidelines say he's got to be in class. Otherwise, no funding for education."
"He's still under the limit. He knows about the rule. He has another course he's been taking," Cathy said. "It's been giving him a lot of homework."
"What class is that?" asked Arlene.
"Martial arts, probably," said Mark.
"A GED prep class. He got permission somehow from the instructor to just sit in. He's really motivated."
"Well, duh!" said Mark. "He's their leader! He'll be the one issuing commands, once he gets the subjunctive down!"
"I think he eventually wants to take the TOEFL test, get into a university. Take some Human Resources classes."
Arlene sighed. "That's not funded," she reminded Cathy.
"The only reason they got funded even for us is that someone thought they were refugees," Mark said. "Can't go home right away? Check. Not communist? Check. Funded!"
"Here we're just funded for workplace ESL, survival skills, Adult Basic Education," Arlene continued. "Even if he gets accepted to the U, how would he pay for it? You know, most of our students are perfectly happy just to get a job."
"Lit has plans," Cathy said. "I think he really wants to make something of himself here."
"He'll make something of all of us, he gets the chance," Mark muttered. "Pit slaves, maybe. Doorstops."
"I'd be happy if he made himself into an employee," said Arlene. "He was offered a job two weeks or so ago, wasn't he? But then he refused it. Meanwhile he's taking up space and those on the waiting list are trying to get in."
"It was a custodial job. Not exactly in his field. He was apparently in some kind of managerial position on his home planet. One minute he's got responsibility for thousands, and the next he's competing for a job flipping patties at a Burger King?" Cathy stopped writing on the card in front of her. "Some of the aliens, and humans too, well, they'd be paying an awful lot more in taxes if they just got the English they need to allow them to take higher positions. I mean, I've got a Ukrainian doctor in my class and he's sweeping out a football stadium. It's crazy."
"See if one of your aliens wants the job. So if an alien Seahawks fan gets sick eating an Earth hotdog, they're in luck, right?" said Mark. "And then if it was a human choking to death, they'd just chalk it up to 'one down, six billion left to go.' Oh, yeah. They'd love it if we all choked to death on hotdogs. That's their dream."
"Anyway, it seems to me," Arlene said, finishing up with her paperwork, "that he'd be better off directing his energies to just getting a job."
"Hey, I hear that Kaoru got a job yesterday," said Cathy.
"Is that Kaoru Yoshida? The housewife?" said Arlene.
"Yeah. She's at the Safeway, on Aurora just out here. She's just bagging groceries now, but she's really excited. It's the first job she's ever had here. And I guess she can move up later, when she's ready."
"She didn't notify our department," said Arlene. "They're supposed to let us know, so we can move them off the roll, and take in other students. We have quite a number on the waiting list."
"She probably will soon," said Cathy. "I can call her at home. I have her number."
"I hope so," Arlene said. "Otherwise we'll just count her as absent, and the slot won't open up for anyone else until her limit is reached." She folded her arms on the table, watching Cathy working. Mark finished another essay and tilted back in his chair, sighing and stretching. Then he sat at his desk, his arms behind his head, scowling into space.
Cathy put down the cards she'd been writing on. "Arlene, I really would like to find some way to help the Brall get some extra help. They've been having a lot of difficulty, and even though they work really hard they make almost no progress. I was wondering if we could find them some tutors or something."
"Well, I'm sorry, Cathy, but that's just not funded. I don't see what we can do."
"Aren't there any scholarships available that could help defray the costs, something?"
"The government scholarships have really dried up these last few years," said Arlene. "There are private ones, though. I always put the notices in your mailbox. The ones from Panasonic, and Nestle, they were announced last week. You got the notices, didn't you? And we should be getting the notice from Philip Morris soon. Of course, those are based on work-study, not tutoring."
"Cigarettes? Making cigarettes for Philip Morris?" said Cathy. "Oh, my doctors would just love that!"
"Give us all cancer," said Mark. "That's another dream the aliens have."
"Not just cigarettes," said Arlene. "They own a lot of companies."
"Oh, please," Cathy said. "Those are just designed for training entry-level workers. And they require you to stay with the company for six years or whatever after graduation. Lit and his group are managers and scientists and what not. They just need the papers, the diplomas, for them to get the same type of work here."
Arlene shook her head. "Tell him to find work," she said. "Save some money. Eventually he'll be able to afford to pay for his own education, whatever he wants. There's nothing we can do. Somehow, our human students make lives for themselves. And a lot of them have seen horrific things that we can hardly imagine. These new ones will just have to go through the same process."
Mark said, "Once they're overlords of Earth, believe me, we'll be the ones trying to make lives for ourselves."
"Shut up, Mark."
Mark gave Cathy a surprised look, then glanced at Arlene, seeking confirmation that Cathy's kind of language was uncalled for, but no one met his gaze.
There was a knock at the door.
Arlene was closest. She opened it.
In the open doorway stood a creature about five feet tall, with a rubbery, conical body atop four elephantine legs. Two stubby arms sprouted near the base of the cone, while two others, more slender, were joined to the body about halfway up. The apex featured a pair of long prehensile lips and three stalked eyes. The entire being was covered with short blue fur, sticky with slime.
The alien held a paper in one of the upper arms.
Behind the alien stood others, filling the hallway, crowding against one another.
"Well, hello, Lit," said Arlene. "Is there something--"
Lit pushed slowly but inexorably past her into the room. The others remained in the hallway.
"Oh, God. It's going down. It's happening now!" said Mark, his face white. He stood up, but his knees buckled and he sank to the floor.
"I have the announcing," Lit said. Her eyes waved about.
"OK," said Arlene. "Is there someone in particular you want to talk to, or--"
"I have announcing," repeated Lit. "I and we have, had, will have, have had --" Lit broke off, and brought the paper up to an eye. She began to read.
"This is us statement.
"We had a planning invade into your world. Our high tech is easy is doing that. You will to be the good food, the tender brains. Problems is a supervision of local personages. Problems is needed the English for a task. An syntax, a pronunciation, a irregular forms, a tenses, an spelling. Human classmates students we no know how they learning this messy. Nothing is be sense, consequence us leave.
Lit paused for a moment in the middle of the room, then swiveled herself about and moved to the door. She joined her fellow invaders in a march down the hallway.
"The invasion -- called off?" Mark whimpered from the floor. "Is that right? Is that what I heard?"
"Yeah. But, my God. Did you hear him?" said Arlene. "'Nothing is sense, consequence us leave.' OK, so it's a tough language. But our human students manage it, after a fashion. And without the motivation of a planned invasion, to boot, and top-level jobs awaiting them on completion. These aliens never really tried! Go out of your way to help them, and they just whine." Arlene snapped the attendance book shut. "Typical."
"It just takes some people longer," said Cathy.
"It'd take these guys forever," said Arlene.
"No invasion," said Mark. "No invasion! Hey, English is like that flu bug that got the Martians in War of the Worlds!"
"We'll have to put that in our next brochure," said Cathy. "We're always so obsessed with recruiting."
"Yes..." Arlene murmured.
Mark looked up. "Something bothering you, Arlene?"
Cathy scowled. "We just lost a whole bunch of students. And my teaching hours for next quarter, I bet. Goodbye, benefits. And I was planning to see a dentist for a check up."
Arlene said. "Mark, the aliens are here under a government grant, right? The federal government pays their tuition."
"So most of our students have all sorts of hoops to jump through. Visas, time limits, attendance policies. But the government wanted to show how welcoming Earth was to these aliens, and didn't include all those restrictions."
Arlene whirled on Mark, smiling. "The aliens will take years and years to learn the language – it's just too foreign, they can't wrap their minds around it. But if we can convince them that they're making progress, they'll stay in our program, we'll continue to get funding --"
"And work? Benefits?" said Cathy.
"A cash cow, forever!" said Mark. "Right! But --"
"I got to get those guys back!" said Arlene. She rushed out the door.
Cathy looked at Mark. "This is a good thing, right?" she said. "I mean, they'll be back in class. And they really do need English, for their, um, work."
"Maybe," said Mark. "But these aren't our typical students. Our human students come here to make a good life--"
"To add to our tapestry of--"
"Right. But these guys want to eat our brains."
"You have a point. But if Arlene succeeds in sweet-talking them, they'll be back in our class. What can we do?"
"It occurs to me that we should suggest to Arlene that the aliens really need a specialized course, just for themselves. And in addition to the usual stuff, in that class we can introduce, oh, I don't know. All the weird stuff buried in the language."
"Make it even harder?" said Cathy.
"Harder, hell. We'll make it completely impossible. We'll give them all the outdated usages, the irregular forms, the uncommon grammatical structures, the bizarre vocabulary items… Nouns like 'hobbledehoy,' verbs like 'absquatulate.' And we'll do a whole week comparing 'flammable' and 'inflammable.' And pronunciation and spelling -- oh, so much good stuff there! Rough and though and bough and cough… yeah, I like this. The brain eaters, the predators, become the prey! Well, not exactly the prey, but--"
"We can spend a long time on idioms," said Cathy. "There is no sense there. Slang, too; it's always changing, so they'll never catch up. And articles, 'a' and 'the.' I don't think anyone understands all the rules for those."
"Right," said Mark "And weird tenses like 'by the time John will be coming home from school, his mother will have been eating the cake for two hours.' Yeah."
Cathy said, "And then we'll tell them to put it into passive voice!"
"Right!" Mark said. "If they thought the language was hard before -- hah!"
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.