Space Out of Colour

A bit of microfiction in the style of Things by Peter Watts.

Massive spoilers below the cut for Colour out of Space (2019) by Richard Stanley.

Chapter 1: Contact

We went to search for others like us. The stars are far apart. Our ship is very fast, but light will always be faster. Light and time and the slow curve of gravity.
We cannot stop. Instead, we listen.
We hear a signal. Then we hear many signals. The signal signals come from a world. We do not know what the signals mean. The signals are not meant for us. They do not know about us.

We spend a long time thinking. We decide to send a probe. The ship is very large, but the probe is very small. The ship cannot stop, but the probe can, if we are careful.

We tell them we are coming. We hope they hear us.

Chapter 2

I am aboard the ship.
I am aboard the probe and I am also aboard the ship.

The probe is falling towards the world with the signals. I do not understand what the signals mean. But there is life. Life like us.

I will tell them who we are, and how to speak to the ship.

Most of the signals come from the solid-gas interface layer. I shed mass to steer. I aim for a large cluster of signals. Aiming is difficult.

I descend. I tell them I am descending. I focus my signals down, to warn them. I do not know if they hear me.

The probe strikes the world.

Chapter 3

The probe as has landed safely. I am intact. I must act quickly. This probe is small. It will decay, and if it decays before I talk to them, I will have failed. There is much to do.

Masses approach the probe. I send many kinds of signals to them. They do not send signals in return.

Are these the signal-makers of this world?

The masses depart. I begin reforming the probe. There are many signs of life here. Complex molecules. Distant signals. Refined metal. I am in the right place.

The world turns. Other masses approach. I conserve energy and wait for their signals. They do not send any signals to me. They have machines that make weak signals, but they do not contain information. The masses are life. They are like us. They are life units. I will try again.

Chapter 4

How do they communicate with each other?

The units examine the probe. They shake the gas layer. They move subunits in coordinated ways. Are these their signals? I look for patterns, and find many. Repeated vibration. Unit designations. Signal and response pairs. They are most active when their world is illuminated, and produce their own illumination, so photon detection forms part of their signal-acquisition set.

The probe is very small.  I need time to think.

Chapter 5

I try to generate a gas-layer vibration signal. I fail. The gas-layer here can generate strong electron gradient. My attempts cause the gradient to discharge. I can use this. I reconfigure the probe and move it into the solid-layer.

I need more information. I detach a microprobe to follow one of the units and their machine. The unit is turning signals into gas-phase vibrations. It is not generating signals.

The unit detects the microprobe. Signal transformation stops.

I send the microprobe to reactivate the signal-transformer by inducing a strong magnetic field. It succeeds. But the signal is different. The unit does not respond to it. The microprobe returns.

Chapter 6

There is other life here. This probe is not designed for gas-phase vibrations. The other life is simple to examine. I create a facsimile designed to detect even the smallest gas-phase vibration. It will self-replicate and send signals back to the probe.

The units can convert gas-phase vibrations to signals as well. They send the signals to other machines, but not to the probe. I am learning. This area contains five resident units and a number of transient units.

I focus my attention on the smallest resident unit. It has shed the most mass and may be older than the others.

Chapter 7

I begin with a simple patterned gas-phase signals: a mathematical sequence. The smallest human responds with appropriate gas-phase vibrations. A breakthrough!

It must know the probe is not from this world. It knows it can communicate. Why does it take no action?

Is it testing me?

The life-facsimile gas-phase detectors are successful. I dispatch other facsimiles. Visible microprobes. I place these microprobes in front of the the smallest unit. It responds.

I can detect subtle signals inside the life-unit. I listen carefully. I am learning. Soon we will be able to communicate.

Chapter 8

I am starting to receive gas-phase vibration signals from facsimile detectors I did not create. This is concerning. The information is useful but unexpected. Did the life-units recognize my detectors? Are they interfering or assisting in some way?

I stop focusing on the life-unit. I divert all resources to a diagnostic. What is the source of the error?

Chapter 9

The probe did not land safely. I am not intact.

The probe was damaged. I am only beginning to realize how damaged. The sensors that would have detected the damage were also damaged. I was impaired. I am still impaired.

I do not know which observations have been compromised. I have been generating signals without knowing it. My observations were not subtle.

I have damaged these units.

They think using solid-liquid phase containers. When the probe landed, the containers were damaged. Some of my signals hurt them. This was unfortunate, but they should have recovered.

Some of the probes components entered their world's concealed solid-liquid layer. Complex components capable of independent action. Were they trying to repair the probe? They are no longer under my control. The life-units here are in danger.

Is there another one of me? One aboard the ship, waiting for a signal from this world. One here, studying. And a damaged copy, trapped in fragments of the probe, trying to send inadequate signals to life here, unable to communicate with the rest of the probe?

Am I the damaged copy?

I cannot end the mission until I know what I have done.

I need to warn them before it is too late.

Chapter 10

There is no time for subtlety and air-vibration. I send all microprobes to convert some nearby sub-life units into a transmitter array. I target the smallest local life-unit. I will send signals to them directly, as if they were a facsimile.

I fail. The microprobes are also compromised. They did not detect that two life-units were present. I was too hasty. I understand their forms imperfectly. Attempts to repair the damage lead to more damage. But they are still functioning.

Chapter 11

The damaged life-unit pair-failure contained information on how to assemble more life-units. I can build an interpreter-facsimile. The local life-units are all compromised anyway.

One of them triggered a perimeter defense microprobe I did not know I had.

Chapter 12

The interpreter-unit is complete. It is not optimal, but it can convert my signals into encoded gas-phase waves. I need to tell them.

But what can I tell them? How can I explain what they need to do?

New unontaminated life-units arrived. They destroyed the interpreter-unit, but I no longer need it. I learned everything I needed to learn about their mind-structure. I can build an interface directly with the microprobes. I can speak directly to them. To an uncontaminated life-unit. A pure sample.

I show it the ship. I show them what we are.

And I see only fear.

They are right to be afraid. I have made a terrible mistake.

Chapter 13

I convert every scrap of energy into a weapon. I will sterilize the landing site. Destroy the facsimiles, the life-units, and as many probe components as possible.

The ship will see this last signal and know that we have failed. We will sail on, never turning back. Never knowing what might have been. Never knowing why we failed.


  1. I love how you turned the existential horror into tragedy. Very good fiction!

  2. Nice. I love Peter Watts and I think you're the only person I've met so far who's even heard of him.

    1. I read Blindsight back in college and loved it, but yeah, definitely not well known, but also means one can drop ideas right into a game and your players all think you’re so very clever lol

  3. Appendix:

    This does explain why alien or otherworldly visitations seem to involve brain-melting visions that leave people babbling, moaning, or gurgling incoherently.

    Imagine you're an alien. You know the local life-units send signals to each other with radio and gas-phase vibrations. You know they can detect photons (by watching them move out of the way of moving objects, and the fact that they are most active during the light-cycle).

    Determining the wavelengths that the life-units can detect is important, so you pulse along different wavelengths in different intensities and see how they react. You get a broad sense of their capabilities.

    Now if you had time in abundance, you'd decode their gas-phase and radio signals. You know they are sending information, but it doesn't mean anything at the moment. You'd look for repeated units: names, nouns, signifiers. You can't do the whole "point-and-name" game with them for whatever reason (distance, lack of manipulators, fear of detection, etc.). So you slowly piece together the core of the language from observation.

    But if you don't have time, you need to decode directly. So you hijack the life-unit's photon detection system. You send images directly to their eye (either by projection or invasive means). The life-unit's eye decodes it, their brain interprets it, and they can then broadcast it in encoded life-unit comprehensible form. Simple, right?

    And if you were smart, you'd start with simple concepts. Shapes. Pattern matching. Yes/no approval signs. See how they think. But maybe you're in a hurry and you already know the life-units can pattern match and are intelligent enough to keep up and draw the right conclusions.

    But what if the life-unit doesn't broadcast the encoded information? They can choose not to. They also have hardwired consistent speech pathways. Hit those with a jolt. And hit the pleasure-centres too so they like it and want to keep broadcasting.

    You just hope they broadcast the useful information.