They tried to teach us. They put their words into every bag, inside every fortune cookie. You ordered the meal and the cookie came along with. Maybe you opened the cookie. Maybe you read the fortune. And just maybe, if you were lucky, you had the insight to turn it over. It was right there, on the back. A word, in Chinese, with the translation. Collect enough and you had a sort of makeshift dictionary. You got fed in body and mind that way.
They had given us a chance, but so many of us ignored it, or overlooked it. So many of us did that all the time anyway, with everything. But not anymore. No longer do we have a luxury of being the Masters of our own destiny. No longer do we have the luxury of ignoring the signs that had been around us all these many years. For now, we are the minority. Now, we are the ones who have to meekly ask if the shop owner speaks our language. Now we have to go to tiny shops and strip malls in questionable neighborhoods to find a box of Cap’n Crunch or Jif peanut butter. Because now we are all Chinese. Now, English is a second language for all of us, and hot dogs have been replaced by Hunan cuisine.
There wasn’t a war. It wasn’t sudden. But the invasion happened all the same. They were here all along, quietly working, quietly saving, quietly planning. Their strategy was so subtle, so long range, that we didn’t even notice it. We thought they were OK with a second or even third-class existence. It seemed like a good system for everyone. We let them live here, let them own property, let them open up shops. We thought their ways were exotic if we thought of them at all. We certainly didn’t think of them as a threat. Sure, they assimilated, flew under the radar. They changed their names that we couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pronounce into ones like Jack, or Susie, or Joe. They put away their own clothes and adopted the anonymous uniform of America, all jeans and T-shirts, but never went so far as to debase themselves with sweatpants and singlets, not even in private. Even they would not stoop that low in playinf the game to fool us into not noticing them. Because that is what they were doing. They couldn’t change their skin or hair or eyes (though some did with lightening cream or bleach or even surgery to remove the epicanthic fold) so they blended in with all the other little ways that made us experience them as background noise. Hell, they could’ve been from Mars, looked like little green men as far as we’d pay attention if they only wore our costume and took our names. It was that lack of attention that was coming back to haunt us now.
Charlie Jones was an extra on the set of a second-rate science-fiction
series, but he never took off his costume. He couldn’t. The other actors just
thought he was a method actor, that staying in his costume meant staying in
character. They didn’t know how he could possibly endure the heat in that suit,
or how he got the fake fur to be so lustrous and soft. The trick is that it wasn’t
a trick. He really was an alien. Sure, he wasn’t a “Graglethorp” or whatever
silly random assortment of letters the writers came up with. He was an Acthun,
of the planet Acthunis, in the Gamma quadrant. Of course, his people didn’t
call it the “Gamma” anything, seeing as they didn’t know Greek and they
certainly didn’t think of themselves as third in line. “Gamma” only makes sense
if you think of yourself as first (Alpha) and you’ve already found your first
neighboring quadrant with more planets. It was kind of how many indigenous cultures
simply called themselves “The People” since they had no reason to differentiate
between themselves and other humans. As far as they know they were the only
Charlie Jones had an Acthun name, but it wasn’t pronounceable
to humans. Their tongues would need to be bifurcated in order to get the right
trill. And even if he said it humans tended to cover up their ears because the
pitch was so high. So he came up with a “normal” name, one that wouldn’t mark
him as foreign. He really needed this job to work out and couldn’t afford to be
discriminated against, even unintentionally. He had a family at home that was
depending on him to send back money.
He couldn’t wire transfer it, or mail it. PayPal wouldn’t
work for off-world bank accounts (not yet). So once he got his check cashed,
he’d photograph half of the money, email the picture to the neighborhood
administrator (who had a Gmail account like everybody else) and then burn the
money so he couldn’t use it. The administrator would then credit his family’s
account with the appropriate amount (once the exchange rate was taken into
consideration) and then they could pay their bills.
There weren’t a lot of bills to pay, but even a little is too
much when you don’t have an income. Only Charlie was allowed to work, being the
only one in the family above 20 and below 50. And male, of course. Everyone
else was forbidden by law to work, it being seen as too much of a hardship.
Most Acthuns worked the same job nonstop for 30 years and then retired, some to
plenty and some to poverty. The jobs were chosen for them in high school. It
was believed that by then your personality and aptitude were locked. Everyone took
a series of tests and their appropriate career was computed for them. Some care
was taken to ensure that the job would be something they would like and be good
at it, but it wasn’t an exact science. Mistakes were sometimes made, but
usually the citizen just quietly endured, or took up drinking cactus wine to
But not Charlie. He’d been unhappy with his job since the
first week, after the (inadequate) apprenticeship was over. He was sure the
counselor had made a mistake, maybe swapped his test with someone else’s, or
transposed a number when typing in the data. S/he assured him that wasn’t
possible because s/he been doing this job for 20 years and there’d never been a
S/he was an exception, a non-male who was allowed to work.
Not a female, and yet not a male, but something other, undefined. The Acthuns understood
that there were shades of reality, that rarely was anything 100% one way or
another. They understood the concept of “gray” and were amused that was the
term for extraterrestrial visitors used on Earth, along with “alien”. So they
had a third gender, and these citizens were allowed to work if they wanted to,
and could choose any job not already assigned to a male. But they were not
obliged to work and could collect the same communal salary that unattached females
and seniors were entitled to if they had no male to support them.
But Charlie had to work. It wasn’t optional. And he certainly
didn’t want to work in the factory he’d been assigned to. Not for even a year,
and certainly not for 30 years. He just couldn’t bear the idea of it. Why had
he chosen to be born male? All children were told us – told that they had made
a “soul contract” before being born as to who they be. This may or may not have
been true, but it was a good story to keep the citizens in line. This way, they
thought of their lot in life not as something done to them, but somehow their
Charlie was a renegade as far as the Acthun way went. He
refused his assignment, rebelled against the convention that he chose his
unfulfilling and frankly unsuitable career, and even his gender. So he sweet-talked
a former classmate and stowed away inside the first transport ship to Earth.
The Acthuns regularly made trips to and from Earth to restock and refresh from
the vast breeding supply of cows there, who they used as mates. Their own gene
pool had gotten shallow over the decades-long war/famine on their planet and
they needed new blood. After enough survey teams had tested Earth’s nearest
analog to their biology and found it acceptable, the ships began removing cows
to use as broodmares. They never took bulls after that first unfortunate incident.
It was decided that Acthun males could mate with the cows, but the females
would only mate with other Acthuns. The cows were shipped back after five seasons,
out of concern some do-gooder would start expecting them to be granted
citizenship. Imagine that! A cow, a full citizen! It had been brought to
the planet as a servant, a slave, even.
It could not be thought of as even remotely equal to them. That would
upset the entire social system.
Charlie had no plans of being an Earth citizen. He was on the
planet illegally, a true alien. So he kept a low profile – as low as possible,
looking how he looks – and tried to make enough money to support his family and
hopefully enough more to pay to get a second (and hopefully better) career
assigned to him when he returned.