A universal problem of locomotion
“We have arrived”, the space alien said.
Seeing there was a mile-wide saucer hanging over my head, whining softly, I did not feel I could disagree.
“Do you come in peace?” I asked.
The alien swirled, like a bright red velvet dress in a transparent dryer full of Jell-O, and despite being the President of Finland, I kind of took a step back.
Then I installed, super fast, some steel in my spine with the thought that though this was an unforeseen circumstance — not only aliens landing, but landing in Helsinki and not on the White House lawn — I had a nation to represent, and a planet too; and I'd be damned if I let the opposition, the Americans, or anyone else say I wasn't doing my job.
This might be a supermarket parking lot and not the powerhouse lawn, but this was Finland, I was the President, and I was going to give Finland's best to this thing.
At one elbow, I could see the foreign minister, not taking any steps back; that was the paralysis of terror, or so I hoped.
At the other elbow, the speaker of the Parliament stood, nonchalant and calm in a manner which spoke of medication. He had been having a very nasty bout of flu; given that the alien was swirling in a space suit with the size and the appearance of a washing machine of crystal, I did not see a danger.
“We have come in a space ship”, the alien said. It had a synthetized voice which sounded like a nasal Stephen Hawking.
And it spoke English, of course. Rare the occasions when Finnish foreign policy can be conducted in our own sweet language, perkele.
“Yes”, I said. “But what are your intentions?”
There was a moment of silence; then the alien droned: “What is ‘intentions’?” — the last word a perfect echo of mine.
I heard a ghost of a snigger from behind me; I resolved to get rid of the parliament speaker as soon as I could, no matter the cost, cabinet harmony be damned. I had an accent, but it was out of order for everyone to complain about it all the time.
I fished out a pen and a piece of paper, wrote ‘INTENTIONS’ with big capital letters, and showed it to the alien, fighting a sudden urge to squash it against the glass washer suit, possibly screaming something.
“What is that thing?” the alien said.
Now I definitely heard a snicker.
“That's how you spell the word.”
“What is ‘spell’?”
“It's how you write it.”
A bit of silence; used by me to think I had not entered politics for this; used by the alien to swirl, a mass of manta rays and jellyfish in one sheetful lump, red in the faintly yellow Jell-O.
“What is ‘write’?”
With something like terror, or indigestion, I noticed the alien's glassen suit had no squiggly alien letters on it; nothing but three pictograms incised into the transparent front of it; though ‘picture’ might be less flattering and more accurate than ‘pictogram’. The middle one was a picture of the saucer; the one to the left of it a swirl of curves that resembled the swirling thing inside the suit (though I didn't know how all such things could not look alike); the one to the right looked like a muffin with horns.
The alien had not used a shuttle, but just floated down, with no beam of light or glow of power; just floated down in defiance to gravity like the ship had floated down into the Finnish airspace, quiet and bereft of any visible propulsion or other means of support. And it struck me that though the ship had plenty of spiky stalactites and stalagmites and sweeping jaw-like crenellated edge decorations (and was a mile wide) none of the cameras pointed at it had, as far as I knew, seen any writing on it. Or any markings at all.
Not that I was going to order any jets to buzz it to look closer; fighter jets and alien saucers are not a combination built for peaceful coexistence.
“Writing is…” I looked around, caught the eye of an astronomer that had been just rushed to the meeting, hairy like a hobo, and as excited as a hamster on speed.
Or the other way round; works that way too.
I hadn't had time to speak to him, and maybe that was showing; I motioned him forward and hissed, in Finnish: “What the perkele is this clown all about, Esko?”
The astronomer shrugged, or rather concentrated all his jitters into one up-down movement of his shoulders, and addressed the alien in eager English; better than mine I must admit, but not by much. At least my intonation had been grave, ready for history. He sounded more zesty than anyone ought to be in a historic situation like this.
“Writing is”, he said, pointed at the paper I still held, “a way of recording words, sentences, ideas and thoughts. Each symbol represents a particular sound, and these symbols all together represent the word ‘intentions’, which means goals, desires, determinations, resolve, aims, ambitions, purposes, targets —”
Why did he have to say ‘targets’? I did not want this alien to have any targets on this Earth of mine.
“— plans, objectives... which we would like to know, what you have.” He blinked, and waited, as eager as a kid gone to see John Carter of Mars.
I was eager too, though with more gravitas.
After a while the alien swirled itself closer, the suit immobile on the tarmac, but the swirly thing inside flattening itself against it, as if to get a better look at the paper and the word.
“This ‘writing’” — the scientist's word, echoed perfectly — “is new and exciting. How did you discover this ‘writing’?”
I recalled with rising disgust that I had ordered the National Library to come up with some sufficiently big set of encyclopedias we could give as a gift of goodwill — I recalled that, and wished I had thought to ask for a damn ABC book.
“Look”, I grunted. “What do you mean, coming here in a spaceship and not knowing about writing? How can you have a huge fucking spaceship and not know how to read? What stupid shithole of the galaxy did you come from anyway? Ah—”
That last was my gasp, caused by the scientist, the foreign minister and the blasted speaker all gently touching an appendage of mine, presumably in the case I was about to fling myself at the alien's cube, screaming and clawing.
I resented that implication. There is a difference between a momentary lapse of words, and actual assault and battery. For one thing, the latter rarely works constructively, even in a tough negotiation like this. Rudeness, on the other hand, tends to speed things up.
The alien, all slow and unconcerned-like, drew back inside its crystal box, and said: “I do not come from the center of the galaxy.”
That much seemed obvious to me.
I shook the hands off me, adjusted my tie, and gave a charming and, as far as anyone could tell, a totally ineffectual smile. “Could we maybe speak to your parents?”
Oh, now the others took a step back. But at least there was no more snickering or grabbing.
After a bit of silence, the scientist took a step forward to stand next to me, and whispered: “You're not qualified for this!”
I answered, also in Finnish: “Fucking hell I am qualified. I've spoken to retard heads of state the world over. This one is the worst, but also oblivious to courtesy. Do not disturb me.”
The alien spoke, in that creepy nasal monotone: “We is I. There is no other. That is the reason aim target I am come to here.”
“Huh?” was the best I could get out; a picture flooded into my mind, through cynicism and not telepathy, a picture of clusters, lines, stacks, looming immense cubes of those alien washer suits up-piled, each with a clueless swirly red thing inside... and I had a sudden dreadful certainty this was going to become one of those embarrassing immigration catfights once again.
I swear if the speaker had sniggered that moment, I would have throttled him to death, giggling and crying.
Happily — well, not really — the alien continued. “My ship, you will repair it.”
I was not representing humanity all that well, I knew. Your stereotypical Finn, maybe, but not the best and brightest of humanity.
“There is...” It hesitated, as much as a machine voice can, and then continued in a mish-mash of voice clips, male and female, young and old, nasal and deep and hesitant and perkily forward: very disturbing and also quite puzzling. “Hi. My. Ship. Has been. having a problem. For a few. Thousands of year! Now. Immediately. red light. Steam. Out of the vents. Do I need. do not want. New parts. All is. Melting. Am I. Hurting the engine. Don't drive like my brother. We have time for your questions.”
“Huh?” — it was the third time, but if history was going to quote me, it could quote my innermost fucking thoughts.
The astronomer made a small choking sound and muttered, “Was that from Car Talk?”
I had no idea what he was talking about; all I knew was talk of red lights and melting was usually very bad. Like, Chernobyl Fukushima bad, and that badness was hanging over my head, a mile wide.
“Do you, uh”, the scientist said, “have problems with your ship?”
“Yes!” the alien said, in a perky female voice, a sound bite of someone with not the slightest idea of a forthcoming quotation by a red thing in a transparent dishwasher-sized cube.
“You should take it to the dealer...” the scientist began, but then stopped, and continued with a maniac grin that made me take a step back and get ready for a run to the hills.
“Why don't you just park it here, and we'll take a look. Come back in a thousand years and we'll tell if we've found anything. It could be a real risk to drive that thing around, you know.” A titter, not entirely stable, escaped him. “A wheel might fall off on the highway or something.”
“Good.” The alien was back to its monotone. “I will go out and be back in one thousand years planetary rotations around the central stellar object or thereabouts. Thank you very much.”
And then, with no flash, no sound, it disappeared.
The space ship shuddered, and slid downwards at an angle, slow and unhurried and quite unstoppable, until it touched down massively and flattened a mile of the best woodsland outside Helsinki, taking many a squirrel and fox and the like into a sudden pulpy grave.
The ship's whine died; I exhaled; and by the sound of it, the speaker fainted and knapped his empty greasy head against the tarmac.
I felt a small surge of relief, of joy actually; and then turned to the scientist.
“What did we just do?”
“I think...”, he said, “I think Finland just got into the interstellar garage repair business. I'd better call the university at Otaniemi and get a few engineers on this.”
“Do you mean”, I said, “there're jobs in this?”
“Millions and millions”, he said with a small smile.
“Hot diggity!” I cried.
1) Perkele is a swear on the level of “fucking hell!”, and though originally a Finnic god means the Devil these days.
2) Otaniemi is a place next to Helsinki, the location of a modern cluster of organizational abominations that formerly were the Helsinki University of Technology (TKK, Teknillinen korkeakoulu). That's where, I assume, one would find highly educated and smart engineers. (It's a nice place but, applied sciences? Ewww. But enough mathematician's scorn; no more of that.)
4) Though the bearded astronomer is called Esko, he is not exactly Esko Valtaoja because (a) I have no idea if he has even heard of Car Talk, and (b) that would be shabby of me, calling him “hairy like a hobo” (or a hamster). I'm hairy like a hobo; he is a God of Beard.
5) No, the three political figures are not expies of anyone, though by the President's dread of immigration wrangles I'd guess he's not a True Finn, and the Parliament speaker is.