An Unexpected Message

by Benjamin J. McCracken

The transport came to a quiet stop and hovered in the air as two men got out of it and in unison adjusted their suits. Both wore government issued black suits with white shirts with almost black ties that were fitted to such perfection that comfort could not be possible. Yet if there was any discomfort for them it was covered by their dark sunglasses and masks.

Wilson watched them from his window on the ninth floor. His building, poured concrete, was as nondescript as the rest in his neighborhood. The only distinguishing feature was the number in aluminum prominently displayed at the front entrance. North Tower Retirement Center Building 22, home sweet home.

It was still hard to believe the G-men had shown up. The message, sent by actual mail with return receipt, had seemed so fantastic that he was sure it had to be a scam. He’d been forced into retirement over twenty years ago, and it just didn’t add up that his skills could be useful now. They’d come up, take one look at him, snicker and walk away. G-men had to get their jollies somehow.

A knock at the front door perfectly matched Wilson’s estimate of the amount of time it would take someone to get to his apartment from the street below. He swallowed and then walked across his spartan apartment with its built-in furniture and off-white walls. He was of course a temporary visitor here. They’d run the vacuum, maybe set off a bug bomb, and move in the next retiree when he passed. It wasn’t a place for living, only for passing time. The little rest for a job well done and no longer needed before the long one that followed.

He opened the door without looking through the peephole. He’d never had any other visitors and there was little doubt about who was waiting on the other side. The door opened without a sound swinging open on its well-oiled hinges.

The two men stood a head taller than Wilson and looked down at him, though their height had nothing to do with it.

“You’re Wilson Clark?” asked the man on the left. He looked almost the same as the man on the right and the only way Wilson had known which one spoke was because the man’s mouth had moved ever so slightly under his mask. The same voice would have come out from either person, as it was the stock English translator preferred by those in the government. It had the same nasal midwest accent most found to be both pleasant and authoritative. Their earpiece would translate whatever he said back. Given the nature of the UN they could be from anyplace on the planet.

Wilson held up his government ID, giving each one the time to inspect it. “I’m still not sure I understand what you want from me.”

“All will be explained in due course.” Wilson nodded and grabbed his translator from the table near the door before he followed the two men down the sterile off-white hallway to the even more sterile stainless steel elevator. Drones, now out of sight made certain that the atmosphere in the common areas stayed a tepid 72 degrees sterile.

People stared from a patchwork of windows, a potted plant here and a ceramic cat there offering the only distinction. Wilson could feel their eyes and their desperation. Most retired people didn’t get positive visits from the government and certainly didn’t get an escort out to a waiting hovercar. At most, people like him, retired because their skills were no longer of value, looked forward to a day filled with TV or a neural jack into the social system. They would have considered him an eccentric if they about his small but valuable collection of books. Who needed to read when the contents of the story could be directly imprinted on the brain – in living color.

The car hovered along silently like the two G-men. They stared blankly ahead never removing their sunglasses while the onboard navigation system coordinated with the network to get them to their destination by the most efficient route possible. Around them, other vehicles, most, but not all hover cars like their own zipped in and out moving with hair-tight precision at speeds that made Wilson want to reach out for something to hold onto. It was all safe. Safe and efficient like all things. Probably sterile too.   

They arrived at a nondescript building, that looked oddly even plainer than the other steel and concrete towers they’d passed after cruising by quaint residential neighborhoods filled with quaint houses, filled with quaint families. That might have been his life had he stuck around and found a typical corporate job, but that hadn’t been his style.

The change had come gradually so much so that he’d never really given too much thought to what was happening or what impact that would have on his life and his future. Did those people mowing their lawns and tending to their pools with their one allotted child exist in the same malaise that he had before technology and human nature had caused the government to retire him? In a way it would be better if they did, enjoy the moment while the moment lasted, untainted by the bitter tears that would fall when it was over.

It took a moment to realize the car had stopped. They were underground in a parking garage with rows of matching hover cars. Not a speck of dust marred their black finishes or the floor. The drones were at work here too. Of course, they were, if they spared such an expense on retried people, they would certainly spend at least as much on this facility. He twisted his shoe as he walked leaving a bit of rubber behind.

The G-men led the way through a maze of cars to an elevator that also silently whisked them up from the basement up. All important things still happened up. Up where those who made decisions could look out onto the world and see their thoughts take shape into action.

Wilson caught his reflection in the shiny metal interior of the elevator. It had been a long time since he’d left his apartment for more than a walk around the neighborhood. Next to the G-men in their perfectly fitting suits, he looked like a stray cat that had somehow managed to sneak its way into a family home. He’d cleaned up. The letter hadn’t said he needed to, it had just felt right. It had been ages since he’d had anything like an interview, if this is what that was. Even before he hadn’t been one to wear suits. If this person who resided in the up didn’t like his chinos and polo shirt, it would just be too bad for them.

The doors opened out to a security checkpoint. The G-men had a short exchange with the man on duty, who also not coincidently looked like their long-lost third brother, triplets to be sure. Brother number three waved him through after a cursory scan. They knew all about him anyway. Retired English teacher. Not a threat to society to be sure.

The floor reflected them as they walked making it look like they were some kind of apostles walking on water to meet their savior. the G-men of course were the guardian angels with him being the hopeful sinner trying not to lose his faith. He had a sudden urge to turn around. Maybe North Retirement Center Tower Building 22 wasn’t so bad.

They stopped in front of a door that looked like the rest they’d passed. Wilson had forgotten his trans-visor, so he couldn’t read the name on the door. It was some dialect of Chinese, or maybe Japanese. If he’d been wearing his trans-visor it would have changed to English without him even knowing it was different. The G-men wore theirs in their sunglasses like a knight wore the visor on his helmet. Probably never took them off. He giggled imagining them in the bath still wearing them while they looked at an adult magazine.

He hated the visors and the masks. He hated a world where all he heard was English. He was sentimental in that way and to most people he’d be some kind of excentric. Where everyone else saw an easier way to live he saw a world without color or variation, as sterile and boring as the concrete and glass forest they lived in.

The door slid open revealing a tidy office. It had bookshelves, empty of books, with a few pictures of the occupant’s family and the famous politicians, technocrats, and bureaucrats he’d met. The photos of his family were on the lower shelves, their smiling faces staring at his crotch. There were still two empty rows just waiting open and expectant. His books, especially the Henry Miller ones he’d read to the point of disintegration would have looked grand there.

The man at the desk sat so still that Wilson jumped when he spoke. He wore a clear mask, expensive, that allowed everyone to see his large grin. His teeth were straight and perfectly sized. A sesame seed was stuck between two of them, a survivor from breakfast, lunch or maybe even dinner. It was the first thing that had been out of place since Wilson had left his apartment and it made him laugh.

The G-men backed out as they bowed deeply. The man motioned for Wilson to have a seat in one of two chairs in front of his large wooden desk. This man was important. The desk, the office, The smile, with or without the sesame seed, spoke the truth of it.

Wilson made an effort to put his mask on, but the man put up a hand to stop him.

“English will be fine Mr. Clark.” It was the same voice as the G-men. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, yet, it cheapened all the finery on display. “My name is Takeshi Kubota. I am the Chief Minister for Special Projects, on loan, as it is from the Japanese Government to the UN. It is my task to determine if you are the right candidate for the position we have open.”

Wilson opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again when Mr. Kubota started talking again. The smile never wavered, nor did the sesame seed.

“We review all potential candidates, both currently working and those, such as yourself, who have been retired. It seems those with your particular skill set are, shall we say, rare.”

That shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Even before most students switched over to AI, teachers were a dying breed. Low pay, long hours, and fierce competition had all taken their toll on those willing to pick up the torch. The technocrats had finally killed it all though when they introduced technology like the trans-visor and trans-masks that made language learning all but unnecessary. That more than anything else had been what retired Wilson.

“Can you believe you are the only person left on this part of the continent with a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages?” The smile showed that it was entirely believable to both Mr. Kubota and anyone with a brain.

Again Wilson opened his mouth but Mr. Kubota started talking again before he could manage a sound. “In any event, it has been how long? Twenty-two years since you taught the English Language?”

Wilson paused expecting Mr. Kubota to cut him off again. This time though the man stared at him and fought with his smile, not letting it droop one bit even though the edges had started to tremble slightly with agitation.

“I did some teaching after the government retired me.”

“I didn’t see any permission to teach in your file.” The lips twitched a little more.

“It was volunteer work really, just some people around the retirement complex.”

There were still a few people who wanted to learn a language not just speak it through a computer. They wanted to know the words and the thoughts that went with them. To think and dream in another language. They were, like Wilson, eccentrics, mostly from the time before the smartphone had become a necessity of life. From the time when people knew that it took more than words to communicate.

“I see,” Mr. Kubota said in a way that showed that he did not see anything at all. “It would have been better for you to register this volunteer work with the central government and the UN so that we could have monitored and updated your usefulness coefficient.”

“Anyway,” he said trying not to look perturbed but failing at it. The sesame seed had become dislodged and disappeared, just like his smile. “I see that you lived in several countries including South Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, and Germany.”

“Yes, that was one of the things I loved about teaching English. I could see the world and meet new people.”

“Let me clarify. You lived in several different countries. Do you think this makes you qualified to conduct yourself with people from other cultures?”

Wilson nodded as he remembered a very embarrassing incident when he’d first moved to Vietnam and ordered a beer. He’d thought the wait staff was playing a trick on him with the ice they’d put in it. There was also that time in South Korea when his metal chopsticks had gotten a little too close to the bbq and he’d burned his lip.

“Yes, you could say that, but it’s been as you said more than twenty years since I was retired, and unfortunately my retirement plan doesn’t include enough money for me to travel.” He didn’t add that it was the best possible one he could have gotten through the government program he’d been forced to participate in. Mr. Kubota, he was sure, wouldn’t have a similar problem.

“Let me cut to the chase. Do you feel like you could teach a group of students English despite the gap in years?”

“Yes, but this is what I didn’t understand from the original message I received. Why do you need someone to teach English?” for emphasis he held up his trans-mask.

“If you would be so kind as to join me I will show you why.”

They left the room and the two G-men who’d picked him up assumed formation behind him as he followed Mr. Kubota to a set of elevators. They rode in silence going down for what seemed like ten minutes. No one spoke of course, so Wilson sang the theme to He-man in hind to stem his building anxiety.

The doors opened to a floor that looked almost the same as the one they’d just left. The only difference was that there was actual armed military personnel. They eyed Mr. Kubota and the two G-men but didn’t do anything to stop them from leading Wilson into the bowels of whatever beast they’d descended into.

They came to a door guarded by two UN marines. They checked Mr. Kubota and the guards’ IDs before admitting all of them. No one seemed to care who Wilson was or why he was with them. His status, former-English teacher must have been written all over him to the point that no one questioned who he was or what he was doing there.

Inside the room sat three people, or at least that was what he’d thought, but when his brain caught up with what his eyes were seeing he backed up and bumped into one of the G-men who’d come in behind him.

They were bipedal like humans. Had heads and hands like humans, and might have even passed for humans if it wasn’t for the strange orange color of their skin and the way their hair moved as if it was a nest of snakes. They all looked at him with large yellow eyes and expressions that could have been great interest or indifference. It was impossible to tell.

“Now do you understand Mr. Clark? We need you to teach these visitors how to speak English.”

“Teach them English?” he muttered as he grappled with the idea that there were extraterrestrials in the same room. Part of him was pushing him towards the door while the other, the curious part of his nature, urged him forward.

“Yes, That is your specialty isn’t it?”

“But why? The trans-mask.” He was babbling. The aliens watched the exchange and then chirped to each other.

“It doesn’t work. Not for them and not for us. Their language is more like bird song than words.”

“Yes,” said one of the aliens in a sing-song voice. It was the one in the middle who appeared to be slightly taller than the others. His strange skin and hair looked even more bizzare in his human clothing. A government-issued suit that looked to be the same quality as Mr. Kubota’s. At least they were treating these visitors well.

“As you can see, they can make English sounds and form words. So far we’ve managed to teach them yes and no, and a few phrases. They can repeat the words, but there doesn’t appear to be any recognition about what they mean.”

“Yes,” repeated the other two aliens. They’d even managed to pick up nodding their heads, and bobbed them happily to Mr. Kubota and each other. The gesture made their hair react to avoid tangling as each finger thick strand moved to its own beat.

Wilson stood for a long moment taking it all in before he turned to Mr. Kubota. “I’m going to need a whiteboard. Paper. And some aspirin.”

It took months before the three aliens, Choro, Locho, and Fernh could learn enough vocabulary and grammar to form sentences. As with previous students, their breakthrough had come just when it looked like they weren’t getting it. It felt good to be back in a classroom with students interested in learning English for actual communication and not for some eccentric link to the bygone era. Wilson thought of the years he’d wasted in his retirement community sitting around or walking the streets looking at all the similar buildings and wondering when he would cash in and check out. These people, these aliens, had given him back something he hadn’t even known was missing.

One day after a three-hour class where they’d worked on phonics Fernh said something to the other aliens and let them leave ahead of him. The Marines, who’d become used to the aliens and their interaction with Wilson didn’t give it a second thought.

“Teacher, would it be ok to ask you a question?”   

Wilson put down the whiteboard eraser and motioned for Fernh to sit. He did the same across from him at the stainless steel table they used for their classes.

“Why don’t you teach us the other languages your kind speak?”

“I don’t speak another language well enough to teach you. I know a little Spanish, Korean, and some Thai I picked up in Vietnam oddly enough.” There was a story to the Thai words that he would take to his grave.

“Where we come from.” He paused. “I don’t want to be rude.” Wilson encouraged him on. “We have the technology you have. The trans-mask. Or perhaps I should say that we had the trans-mask.”

Wilson leaned forward. Fernh had picked up more English than he’d expected. The intensive reading program he’d started them on was working then.

“I could use it now. We debated that point. To use it or not to use it. We are allowed as explorers.” He paused collecting his thoughts. The aliens preferred to close their eyes and wiggle their ears when they did it. Wilson still wasn’t entirely used to that or the smell of what passed for their food. They’d brought enough in their ship that they’d felt comfortable offering some to him. He’d respectfully declined. “But we decided against it.”

“But why? It would make your exploration of the Earth and discussion with our leaders much easier.”

Fernh collected his thoughts again making his ears twitch extra long. “We didn’t do it because we wanted to learn deeply what it meant to be an Earthling and language is the window to the soul. Words have meaning to the speaker and the listener. The way a person talks and the words they use are a key to understanding them. The device, though useful doesn’t allow the listener to connect. It is only a fabrication of the original, a fake, no matter the quality.”

Perhaps that had been what bothered Wilson every time he used his trans-mask. It was a cheap way to communicate, and even though the words translated his intention or meaning to the other person they also made a wall between them. He remembered then how happy Korean people had been the first time he ordered in their language. The same thing had happened whenever he’d learned enough words to communicate with people from another culture.

“Is this why you don’t use it on your home planet?”

Fernh’s ear wiggled and he pursed his lips, the alien way to smile. “Yes, exactly that. We grew apart as a species even though we could now communicate more freely with those around our world who made different sounds, I mean, words, than us, but it was not good. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it well.”

Wilson nodded his understanding. Everything he’d felt since his retirement now made sense. It was funny that it took a person from another planet to explain it to him.

“I should also tell you that your teaching has saved your planet.” The alien’s ears didn’t wiggle and he no longer pursed his lips. He was serious in a way that Wilson had never seen.

“Technology is not knowledge or a sign of intelligence. Your ants can construct complicated tunnels and some of your primates use tools, but you would not call them intelligent, would you? It is like that for our species. You proved to us that humans can be intelligent, and even more important, compassionate and patient. These are virtues to our species and the others we share the universe with.”

With that Fernh stood up and walked out of the classroom while he gave Wilson an awkward wave. Wilson awkwardly waved back and then closed his eyes and wiggled his ears.